A/N: As requested I reuploaded this fic. I haven't actually rewritten anything, but I don't have the heart to keep it offline for those who actually like it, so here you go. :) Thank you for all the support. It's only 10k so I put it all here as one whole.
It feels a lot like flying, but only for a few seconds. As soon as his body hits the ground the sensation changes drastically. It feels as if an extremely heavy weight has just settled itself on Neal's chest. He can't move or get up, so instead of trying either he focuses on taking deep breaths, as deep as his body allows. In. Out.
He's lying in a basement at the bottom of the stairs. It takes an enormous effort to keep his eyelids open, but his eyes manage to follow the stairs up. When he sees the man who has pushed him down the stairs, he knows he needs to stay awake. Derek Pierce is a 42-year-old Caucasian art forger, who knows his way around the art world. Unfortunately forging art isn't the only thing the man does for a living (because to Neal, this looks a lot like a kidnapping). Pierce simply closes the metal basement door and leaves Neal alone with his thoughts.
Neal can feel he's alive, especially the pain in his arm tells him as much. Something's seriously wrong with the limb and the more he thinks about it, the more it aches. Turning his head to the left, he finds his arm in bad shape. If the odd angle isn't an indication then the bone sticking out, right through his skin, certainly is. For a moment he considers moving, but decides against it. Instead, he tries to relax a little and rests his head on the cold tiles underneath him. It's not overly comfortable, but he's not getting out of this basement any time soon. He realizes that if help doesn't show up soon, he won't get out of this mess at all. Once more he focuses on inhaling and exhaling, before closing his eyes and allowing unconsciousness to take over.
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Three days earlier…
"No anklet, no tracker, these guys are experts on tracking devices. We'll be watching, but it won't be entirely safe," Peter announces.
Leaning on Peter's desk with his elbows, Neal stares at his partner in reply. "So nothing new?"
The FBI agent ignores the comment. Deep down he knows Neal cares about his own safety, but the seemingly irresponsible, or better carefree behavior irks him nevertheless.
"Are you sure you want to go through with this?" He will try everything to get through, even if he needs to sound like a preacher.
"I'm aware of the risks, if that's what you're asking."
"It's not. You can still say no and then we'll find someone else for the job."
Neal knows what his partner isn't saying. You could die, but the truth is that we don't have anyone with the same overall knowledge. Or at least not right away.
"I'm in, Peter."
Neal doesn't know why he's awake all of a sudden. Maybe it's the pain, or the cold shaking his body core. The basement he finds himself in is small and he can barely see his surroundings, let alone a way out. A sigh escapes Neal's mouth when he sees the incredibly small window near the ceiling. Not even a freaking Chihuahua can fit through it.
He's grateful for the tiny ray of light showing itself, because a little light is always better than no light at all. No one can say Neal's not an optimist. He may not be in any shape to make (or even plan) an escape, but he doesn't drop the thought right away. After all, he's the Neal Caffrey, he can pick any lock. He only needs to find some remaining strength, enough to think of something, and carry it out.
Trying to move is probably not one of his brightest ideas, but the young ex-con figures he doesn't have much of a choice if he wants to get out of this situation alive.
Peter, if you wanna save my ass, now's a good time.
When the door opens again, Neal recognizes both Pierce and one of his loyal goons, a man named Carl.
Two days earlier…
Gordon Howard, one of Pierce's men, strikes Neal as young, but definitely experienced. The man looks ready on his feet and downright dangerous. Somehow Howard's appearance doesn't scare him as much as other thieves and killers do, but there's no doubt this man is just as capable of murdering a human being. Neal vows that he will never go there, because as cliché as it sounds, violence is never a solution. It only makes things more complicated.
"I want in," Neal says. He studied Pierce and his men long enough to know that the only way in is using a direct approach. It will either kill him or get him inside.
"And you are?"
"Rick Phillips," Neal introduces himself, "I'm the man you're looking for, but I suggest we continue this conversation elsewhere."
Howard leads Neal through the nightclub, conveniently owned by Pierce. They reach a door signed 'personnel only'. Howard allows Neal to enter first.
"Carl," he orders, "search him."
Neal has a feeling that if he fails this job interview he won't be applying for a new one.
Carl is thorough, just as expected, probably looking for trackers and the like. Using what looks a lot like a scanner, he searches Neal's body for a second time.
"He's clean," Carl announces.
"Okay, follow me."
Neal once again follows Gordon Howard until they reach a new room. This time the room looks like a doctor's waiting room.
"Wait here, I'm going to introduce you to the boss."
Neal figures they are going to run a background check as well while they're at it. Why wouldn't they? You can't just trust someone who waltzes into your nightclub unannounced and tells you he's going to be an integral part of your future art heist no one is supposed to know about.
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"Sit down," Pierce says, indicating one of the chairs near his desk. "Why are you here?"
"You're planning a heist and I've heard you're looking for someone to deal with the security. I'm the man you need."
Pierce leans forward. "I don't know what kind of game you're playing or who you are, but if, hypothetically speaking, I was planning a heist, why would I pick you? What makes you think I'm an idiot, Mr Phillips?"
"I don't think you're an idiot, but I do think at least two of your men are."
"You have balls, I'll give you that much. My men know better than to talk about my business endeavors outside these walls."
There's a smile on Neal's face before the ex-con can stop it.
"No, but they are stupid enough to write about it," Neal explains, showing the older man a small piece of paper with one of his men's handwriting on.
"Where did you get this?" Pierce's tone stays neutral much to Neal's surprise.
"I'm a thief and I'm looking for a job. Even the cops know there's more to this nightclub than they can actually prove. I just know how to take advantage of obvious stupidity."
"Carl!" Pierce yells and Neal can't help flinching. The ex-con just hopes Pierce didn't notice his reaction.
Carl enters the room with a smug smile on his face.
"Want me to take care of him, boss?"
Pierce ignores his goon's words. "Where's Dieter?"
Dieter Laker's the owner of the handwriting on the piece of paper he just handed Pierce. What Pierce obviously doesn't know is that they arrested Dieter and that Neal himself forged the note Pierce is holding and inspecting.
"I don't know, haven't seen him in two days."
This is the answer Neal was hoping for, the answer he and Peter were planning even. Even to Pierce it has to look like Dieter ran as soon as he found out he'd lost the note.
"And you didn't tell me about this, why?"
"I'm not Dieter's babysitter."
Pierce doesn't look impressed with Carl's answer. "Get out." He doesn't have to say the words twice.
As soon as Carl leaves, Pierce picks up their conversation. "Gordon told me you've done some time."
Neal nods, remembering his new background. "Five years."
"Prove you're not a liability then. You got caught once…"
"Won't happen again," Neal finishes. "In fact I've learned a few things in jail. I'm good at what I do."
Pierce doesn't look entirely convinced and continues his line of questioning.
Neal tries his best not to look uncomfortable, but it is hard not to.
I just need to get in, brief the important information and let Peter catch you in the act.
Maybe the direct approach wasn't a good idea after all. This guy is going to kill him if he doesn't seem convincing.
Pierce eyes him critically before writing something down on a small piece of paper.
"Don't go thanking me yet, Gordon vouched for you. It seems you have a good reputation. Come to this location two days from now," the older man says before shoving the small piece of paper over his desk towards Neal. "Don't be late."
The note contains the information he will need in two days, an hour and an address.
"I'll be there."
Neal has been in a few tight spots before, but for some reason he doesn't remember the part where he's tied to a chair in a cold and damp basement, tortured for information. He can't tell them that he is a consultant working for the FBI, currently undercover. He doesn't want them to use him as leverage against the bureau, against Peter. Peter. If anyone can save his ass right now, it's Peter.
Carl hits him again and Neal's sure he can hear a rib break when the man's fist connects with his chest. Pierce stops his goon.
"Not the chest. Don't want a rib to puncture one of his lunges before we have our information."
Neal doesn't know if he's supposed to be grateful now. He wants to say something sarcastic, but doesn't think he can manage it, given the lack of oxygen he's currently experiencing.
"Who sent you?" Pierce asks again.
Neal keeps quiet and braces himself for what's to come.
Three days earlier…
The moment Neal enters the Burke house his eyes spot the unfamiliar couch in the living room.
"Hey, you bought a new couch," he states the obvious.
Peter glances at the ex-con and smiles, a glint of pride and satisfaction in his eyes. It looks a lot like the FBI agent's taste is at stake here, but instead of asking Neal if he likes the new piece of furniture he changes the subject. "Yes, but that's not why we're here."
"I know, focus on the case." It takes an enormous effort, but Neal manages to sit down on the couch without rolling his eyes.
"It sleeps better than our bed," El pipes up from the kitchen, then shows herself. "Hey, Neal."
"Hey El. It sleeps better than your bed?" the young man repeats the statement in the form of a question.
"He snores," she fills in, before kissing her husband on the mouth.
"Are you blushing, Peter?" Neal can't help teasing his partner, even if it's just a little.
"I… No, of course not. Are you teaming up on me now?" Peter manages to sound completely innocent before giving the ex-con a look which means business.
"Focus. I know," Neal repeats his earlier words. He shrugs before leaning back and testing the new couch by moving up and down a little.
In reply, Peter throws one of his hands in the air, before sitting down as well. "Great, now he's bouncing."
"Just testing, I like your new couch."
"Even better, El. Neal approved."
Elizabeth chuckles. In her eyes Neal Caffrey is a lot like the kid they don't have.
Peter taps the dossier in front of him with his right index finger. "Back to the heist they're planning."
The pain is unbearable and Neal (in all honesty) thinks about giving up. He doesn't want to stay strong and hang in there. He wants to tell them everything he knows and if necessary he will invent new information. If only the pain would stop, because the truth is that in his entire life as a thief and forger he's never been in this much pain. Unfortunately, it's not in Neal's nature to just give up important information that could endanger Peter. He can't just give in, so he clings to the knowledge that he's doing the right thing.
They will kill him if tells them the truth and these men will enjoy killing an FBI consultant. The pain would stop, but he hates himself for even considering that particular path.
Carl grabs Neal's arm again. He can't help crying out and he finds himself begging for oblivion to take him. He knows he's on the verge of passing out and, frankly, he welcomes it. He won't tell them anything. Not now, not ever.
One day earlier…
"We'll be right here," Peter says, indicating the FBI's position on the map in front of them. He eyes Neal for a long moment, the worry obvious.
"I'm sure, Peter. The plan should work." Neal doesn't know if he is trying to convince Peter or himself.
Catching the doubt on Neal's face, Peter decides to sit down on his desk next to the younger man.
"How long have we been doing this? This strange partnership?" he asks.
"Three years, eleven months and twenty-one days."
"But it's not like you're counting."
After a moment of comfortable silence, the FBI agent continues, "Look, I have a bad feeling about this."
"I know, I don't have to do this. I appreciate what you're saying, but I do."
What started as a strange partnership had turned into something unique.
Peter Burke has to admit it. Neal is completely different, but exactly the same. They are complete opposites and identical twins at the same time and it works.
"You've got my back right?"
Peter nods before patting Neal's thigh. "I've got your back." With his entire heart he hopes he's telling the truth.
One hour earlier…
"Ready as I'll ever be."
Grabbing Neal's arm, Peter stops him before he can get out of the van.
"Nothing, just… be careful."
Neal gives Peter his best cocky smile. "Always."
"That's what scares me," Peter calls after him. And then he's gone, out of the van and on his way to join a heist.
The meeting spot is an abandoned building. Neal can tell that it used to be inhabited, and not too long ago. He doesn't have to ring the bell, the door opens before he even reaches it. The man who opens the door is someone he hasn't seen before.
Neal nods and follows the man inside.
Neal had misjudged Howard, the man isn't just another loyal goon. He wants to ask questions, find out why he's helping, but he can barely breathe. Moving up the stairs, proves to be unbelievably difficult.
"Almost there," Howard encourages him. Supporting most of Neal's weight, he is happy the kid isn't any heavier.
"For someone so skinny, you sure weigh enough."
Neal can only appreciate the man's attempt at humor. For the first time in over a day he finally feels like he stands a chance.
"Thanks," he manages to get out.
"Don't thank me yet."
Everything else passes in a haze.
Twenty minutes earlier…
Before he knows it Neal is staring at the barrel of a gun. Automatically raising his hands, Neal throws Pierce a questioning look.
"What's going on?" he manages to ask.
"You know, I could ask you the exact same thing."
Neal keeps his cool and plays along. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"I own this neighborhood." When Neal doesn't answer he continues, "Who are your friends outside?"
They hadn't even parked the van anywhere near the building. Had they underestimated Pierce's resources?
"My brother," the younger man immediately answers without flinching, "He wants in. I told him you aren't hiring, but he insisted on tagging along."
It's a lousy answer and Neal hates himself for not coming up with something better. He is supposed to be good at this kind of thing. He hates guns, they mean extra pressure. It isn't a great excuse, but it's true.
"It's very unfortunate, but I don't believe you."
A few moments later, Neal finds himself at the bottom of a dirty basement.
Peter is getting worried and he doesn't mind admitting it. What's taking so long? He can't shake the bad feeling.
"Nothing yet." It isn't the answer Peter is looking for, but he convinces himself that no news is still good news.
It's dark and Peter can barely see the two figures in the distance. He isn't entirely sure, but one of them looks a lot like Neal. A chill runs down Peter's spine. He quickly crosses the distance between the van and the two men, gun firmly in his hand.
Neal remembers falling. When Howard's support vanishes all of a sudden he finds himself hitting the ground, knees first. He tries hard to avoid a glamorous faceplant. Guns fire in the distance and not long after, someone near him fires back. Neal covers his head with his right arm, or at least he tries to shield himself. Only when the noise of the gunfight dies, he feels someone squeeze his right shoulder.
"An ambulance is on its way. You're safe."
Even in his weakened condition, Neal can hear doubt in his partner's voice. He wants to say something, do something, move. His ribs and arm are killing him and he just wants to find a more comfortable position, preferably on his back.
"Shhh, don't try to talk. We're going to try to turn you onto your back."
Peter's a mind reader it seems. Only seconds later he feels two sets of hands on his body, trying to make him more comfortable.
Peter tries to ignore Neal's moans, not because he doesn't care, but because he can't take seeing his friend so vulnerable. He is sure he hears sirens in the distance.
"Boss," Jones pulls him out of his ponderings.
Neal's gasping for breath.
"Neal, stay with me," Peter orders. He kneels down and grabs Neal's right arm in support.
"Ambulance's here," a voice announces. Neal can't be sure, but he thinks it's Diana's.
The ride to the hospital isn't something Peter wants to remember for a long time. In fact he wants to forget it as fast as possible. He stays close to Neal and follows the gurney as long as he can, until a nurse stops him in front of the OR.
"I'm sorry, sir. You'll have to wait in the waiting room," she explains quickly.
Peter is left alone, lost in the middle of the corridor.
"Please tell me we caught these bastards."
"Not yet, back-up came too late."
"They got away, the bastards got away," Peter mumbles, more to himself.
"I'm sure Neal will appreciate you staying with him."
"If he pulls through, did you see him?"
"I was there."
Peter runs his right hand through his hair in frustration. He's angry, at the men who hurt Neal and at himself for not stopping them.
"Sorry." It isn't Diana's fault. She wants them behind bars just as much.
"It's okay, I understand."
"Anything new on the man who was helping Neal?"
Diana shakes her head in reply. "Not yet." She takes his arm and guides him to the waiting room.
"I'm staying here," Peter says, not taking no for an answer.
Peter is staring at his hands when Elizabeth enters the waiting room. He doesn't look up, nearly oblivious to his surroundings.
"Peter, honey?" she tries getting his attention. When he still doesn't look up, she decides to sit down next to him. Placing her hand on his leg, she squeezes his thigh.
He can barely speak, but he manages to say her name. "El."
Peter locks eyes with her before shaking his head. "No, they won't tell me anything. He's still in surgery. He was barely breathing."
Peter can only agree. "He's the most stubborn fool I've ever met."
"How are you holding up." She doesn't know if it's a good idea to ask or not, but she needs to know how the love of her life is doing.
"I'm… worried. He's going to pull through, right?"
"We have to believe that he will, we have to trust that he will."
"I shouldn't have let him go."
"Honey, you couldn't have known. He's not going to blame you, you saved him."
Peter shakes his head. "I didn't. The man who saved his life died doing it."
Elizabeth wants to know more, but she can see Peter's too tired and under enough pressure already. Instead of asking more questions, she wraps her left arm around him and rests her head on his shoulder. They wait in silence.
A month earlier…
Peter looks up from his case folder. "Neal, get me the Hayes file, will you?"
Neal looks at his partner suspiciously, before throwing looks at both Diana and Jones as well. The what file?
"Why me?" he asks, almost innocent and childlike.
Peter throws back a look of his own and shrugs. "You're closest to the door."
The three FBI agents wait patiently for their colleague to leave.
"He knows we're up to something," Diana says matter-of-factly.
"He's allowed to be a bit suspicious. As long as we don't tell him anything, he's not going to find out," Peter reasons. He turns to Jones, "Do you have the tickets?"
"Of course, and safely hidden too."
Peter leans forward on the conference table. "Okay back to work now, Neal's coming back."
Peter jumps when his phone starts ringing. Seeing Diana's name on the small screen, he sighs in relief.
"Diana, please tell me you have some good news."
"The man who saved Neal, Howard Gordon, his real name is Kevin Weber."
"Why does that name sound familiar?"
"He used to be an FBI agent. He quit a couple of years ago after his parents were murdered."
"Let me guess. Pierce killed them?"
"Yes. How's Neal?" She doesn't beat around the bush.
"No news yet."
"We're going to find these bastards," she adds, "I'll call you as soon as I know more."
Peter can't get the thought of Neal collapsing and Howard getting shot out of his head. He tries hard to suppress the images that come with that thought, the bullet hitting Howard's skull and the blood coloring Neal's face.
He looks up and finds himself looking into the eyes of a young male doctor.
The doctor's office is small, but welcoming. Peter figures its goal is to contradict the sad atmosphere on this floor.
"I'm doctor Hollis," the man introduces himself, shaking first Elizabeth's and then Peter's hand. "Have a seat."
"How is Neal, doctor?" Elizabeth beats her husband to the punch.
Hollis folds his hands. "He's doing okay all things considered, but he's by no means out of the woods."
"He has four broken ribs and one of them punctured his right lung. We had to insert a chest tube. The good news is that the lung should re-expand itself within a few days."
"What about his arm?" Peter remembers the gruesome sight.
"ORIF. It stands for Open Reduction, internal Fixation. We set the bone during surgery. Internal fixation refers to the fixation of screws or metal plates. His arm should heal with time and therapy."
"What aren't you telling us?" Elizabeth pushes Hollis to continue.
"What worries us right now is infection. He's running a fever as we speak. It's common with an open fracture like this and we're treating him with antibiotics, but the real question is if his body can handle all of this."
"Neal can handle this." Peter sounds convinced.
"Can we see him?" El asks.
"Yes, but only one of you at a time and not for long, I'm afraid."
Neal is like a son to Peter, like a rebel he'd given a cause in life. Yes, a conman, but he'd never been close to the stereotype of one. One of a kind, maybe. Definitely. Neal Caffrey is a surprise.
Seeing the oxygen mask, Peter can't help the worry threatening to overwhelm him.
"Neal, you have to fight this. You're not alone."
He remembers that night clearly, Neal trying to breathe, an action most people take for granted.
Peter sits down in the chair closest to the bed. Carefully avoiding the IV, he reaches for the younger man's right hand. It feels a lot warmer than his own hand. The chest tube bothers him the most, but he knows it's absolutely necessary. It isn't Neal lying in that hospital bed, so vulnerable and barely recognizable under the mask. It can't be Neal.
"In order to make you better, they have to torture you some more," Peter mutters. It's unfair.
"This is my fault," the FBI agent continues, "I hope you can forgive me one day. Even if I don't deserve it."
Neal doesn't reply, so Peter settles for watching his partner breathe and squeezing Neal's hand in support.
"That's it, keep breathing. Elizabeth's here too, she's waiting outside. We need you to get better."
He remembers his wife's earlier words.
"I trust you, Neal. I trust you to wake up."
Elizabeth shoots up from her chair when she sees her husband come back from Neal's room. "And?" she presses him for information.
Before replying, Peter embraces Elizabeth. He doesn't want to let go.
"It's strange seeing him so… vulnerable." The word tastes wrong in his mouth.
She caresses his cheek before leaning her head on his strong shoulder. They both need each other's support. In four years Neal has become more than a friend, he's become family.
Peter lets go of his wife and turns around to face the owner of the voice.
"Agents Cooper and Stackhouse," Peter interrupts the two men, he clearly recognizes them.
"We're Neal Caffrey's protection detail," Cooper, the tallest of the two men, informs.
"Good. I'm glad you're here."
"Is Neal still in danger?" Elizabeth asks, trying hard not to consider the possibility.
"I don't think so." Peter shakes his head. "But in this case I'd rather be safe than sorry."
On his way to the hospital elevator, Hughes almost bumps into his agent.
"Sir?" Peter asks.
"Heading back to the office?"
Peter nods in reply. "I feel pretty useless. It's been three days, I need to do something. Elizabeth promised she'd stay."
"I take it Neal still hasn't woken up?"
Hughes picks up an enormous vibe of hope and he can only agree.
The first thing Neal becomes aware of is the pain. It's everywhere, even places he didn't know existed. Trough the pain he can hear a monitor beep, probably his. Too fast, he thinks. He can feel his heart racing.
The voice sounds vaguely familiar, but he can't bring himself to open his eyes.
"Try to relax, I'm going to find someone."
At the door, Hughes stops in his tracks and turns around again. The ex-con's delirious, the fever raging through his body. That is the bad news, but Hughes smiles anyway, the younger man is awake and talking even if both terms are overstatements. This is the best news they've had in almost three days.
When she sees Hughes rushing out of Neal's room, Elizabeth's first thought is a grim one. She's carrying two cups of coffee, one for herself and one for Hughes, but now she feels like dropping them.
"What's happening?" She stops Hughes with her voice.
"He woke up," he fills her in but at the same time he continues his search for a nurse or doctor.
Elizabeth leaves her cups on a small table in the corridor and races to Neal's room. Making her way to the young man's bedside she can't help feeling worried. Neal's eyes are squeezed shut in pain and with his right hand he's clutching the blanket.
"Neal?" she speaks softly, trying hard not to surprise him.
In an attempt to support him, she places her left hand on top of Neal's right and with her right hand she caresses his cheek.
"It's okay. Breathe, Neal. You can do this."
Jessie Adams is a tall 32-year-old woman with blond hair, but today she looks much older. There's evidence of dried tears on her face and her hair is a mess. She doesn't care, not today. The FBI office scares her a little, it has always scared her. She knows she won't be able to feel comfortable, everyone seems to be staring at her. While concentrating on taking deep breaths, she follows agent Jones to his superior's office. The man's name is Peter Burke and he welcomes her into his office and offers her a seat.
"Would you like some water, or coffee maybe?"
"I'm not thirsty," she admits.
"Thank you for coming here, I know it's-"
She shakes her head before Peter can continue. "I want… need to be here. I need to know what happened to Kevin. He told me he was looking for the people who killed his parents. I feared this day would come."
"We don't know much at this point. Your husband was working for a man named Pierce. Does that name sound familiar?"
Jessie takes her time to think about it.
"No, but he never told me anything about his plans. Every time I asked he would get mad or tell me that it meant nothing." She subconsciously runs her left hand through her hair.
"I-" She is at a loss for words and she can feel tears welling up.
"It's okay," Peter tries to comfort her as much as he can.
"But I know that he's a good man."
"Your husband died saving my partner's life." Peter doesn't know if his words will do any good, but he figures that they can't hurt.
She looks Peter straight in the eye. "Your partner was with Kevin when… when he died?"
The FBI agent confirms her words with a simple nod.
"Can I…" She's having trouble keeping the tears at bay. "Can I talk to him?"
"Not right now, he's still recovering." For a moment Peter wants everything to be different.
"Could you ask him to meet me when he feels better?"
It is the least he can offer her. "I will do that."
Her voice breaks when she asks, but she needs to know. "Did he suffer?"
"I don't think so."
Jessie is grateful and really wants to believe his words. "Thank you."
Peter has barely slept in four days, but he can still feel the adrenaline surging through his body, keeping him going. He's been dividing his time between the office and the hospital.
Subconsciously rubbing his tired eyes, Peter makes his way to the agents at Neal's room. There has been a change of guards.
"Good evening, sir."
"Good evening," he returns the greeting on automatic pilot.
Every time he enters Neal's room, he can't help feeling a bit nervous.
He crosses the distance between the door and the ex-con's bed and seats himself in the uncomfortable chair.
"Hey buddy. You're always asleep when I get here," he whispers. He doesn't want the young man to wake up. Elizabeth has told him about the pain and he doesn't want Neal to go through that because he wants to have a conversation with his partner and friend. That would be selfish.
"Just concentrate on getting better, Neal."
Peter tries to make himself as comfortable as possible. Before he knows it, he finds himself drifting off.
When Peter wakes up again he curses himself for falling asleep in the first place. His neck hurts, and his back doesn't agree with its current position.
"Welcome back, agent Burke," a voice greets him.
He gives the nurse, who's busy taking Neal's temperature, a polite smile. "Thanks."
His eyes travel down to the figure in the bed and much to his surprise he finds himself looking into a pair of blue eyes.
"I'll leave the two of you alone now. I'm Hanna, don't hesitate to call me if you need anything. Oh and I don't suppose I need to tell you that Mr. Caffrey needs his rest?" It doesn't sound like a question, more like an order.
Neal waits for Hanna to leave. "You look tired, Peter."
The FBI agent smiles in return. "Pot, kettle?"
"Am not the one who hasn't been sleeping," Neal mumbles.
"Point taken. How are you feeling?"
"And that's Neal language for like crap, but slightly better than before?"
Neal doesn't reply, but instead he gives Peter a small smile.
"No, seriously, how are you doing?"
The ex-con's smile vanishes. "I'm okay, Peter. You can stop worrying. They're removing the chest tube first thing tomorrow morning." Truth is that he isn't looking forward to that. Of course he's happy to get rid of it, but he knows it will hurt.
"That's good news, but I didn't mean physically."
They both avoid the word torture.
"I think I'm okay," Neal replies honestly, "happy to be alive."
"You're still going to have to talk to the psychologist," Peter points out.
"Well, you are an FBI consultant."
"Is that why you consider me a flight risk?"
Peter's genuinely shocked, it sounds like an accusation.
"A flight risk?" he repeats the words.
"I know there are agents outside, guarding me. You should know by now that I'm not going to run."
"That's not why they're here."
Realization hits Neal hard and he wants to blame the meds for not catching on earlier.
"I'm a loose end?"
The question is barely audible and this time there is no oxygen mask bothering him, only an innocent nasal cannula.
Peter eyes him apologetically. "You might be."
"Do you have evidence to support that?"
"Some grudges can be irrational, you know these people don't need a reason to kill someone."
"They're smart, I doubt they'd risk coming here." Neal yawned.
"Because we're keeping an eye on you. You know they have a reputation of killing anyone who gets or got in their way."
"I'm no longer an obstacle."
"But you were, and by now they must've figured out that you work for the FBI."
Neal frowns. "What are you saying, that they might come after me for the thrill of killing an FBI consultant?"
"Or for more information."
"They won't," Neal tries to convince both Peter and himself, "it's too risky."
"Then we're going to track them down. We'll catch them."
"Let them come to me," Neal suddenly proposes.
Peter just stares at him in reply. "I hope you're kidding."
"It's a good plan, it might work."
"It might but the answer's still no."
"You said it yourself, we have to catch them."
"And we will, but not like this. We're not using you as bait, Neal. Good old fashioned police work will have to do."
Neal realizes that there is no way of changing Peter's mind. In an attempt to get more comfortable, he tries to shift a little in bed. He ignores the pain, but he's sure that by now Peter has noticed the pain lines on his face.
Peter wonders if it's time to get a nurse, but Neal stops him from getting up. "Not yet, I don't want to sleep."
"You need the rest," the older man replied.
"Who's the kettle now? I need to feel normal."
"Is it your arm?" Peter asks, looking at the sling hiding Neal's arm.
"More like everything at the moment. Remind me not to move again."
When Peter doesn't say anything else, Neal continues, "And I probably shouldn't try airports any time soon."
The FBI agent appreciates Neal's attempt at lightening the mood, but when he sees Neal squeeze his eyes shut for a long moment, he knows enough. "Sorry buddy," he says before pushing the call button.
Peter welcomes Hanna with a polite smile. "Mr. Caffrey's in pain," he says. The nurse just shakes her head at Neal and injects something into his IV. "This should help."
Peter is pretty sure he hears Neal whisper the word "Traitor."
"Are you alone?"
Cooper feels a chill run down his spine.
"Give me a second," he replies. Looking at his partner, he tries to hide his worries. "I really need to take this call."
Stackhouse simply nods and warns his partner, "Boss will be here soon."
The other agent doesn't reply and leaves in search for a private spot to take the call.
"Yes," he replies. He's standing in the public bathroom now, trying to deny this bizarre phone call.
"I've killed your wife and I have your precious little girl. I will kill her as well if you don't do what I say," Pierce says.
Cooper stays quiet, he just can't bring out any words. This has to be a horrible dream.
"Good, silence. You understand."
He still doesn't reply.
"I want you to kill Neal Caffrey and Peter Burke."
"I'm an FBI agent I can't-"
"Then your daughter will suffer the consequences. My men are watching you, don't try anything stupid. I expect results soon." Pierce ends their phone conversation.
Peter has seen the hospital corridor leading to Neal's room way too many times. The walls are still as cold and white as ever and Peter isn't particularly fond of the smell, which seems overly characteristic for a hospital.
"Welcome back, sir," agent Stackhouse welcomes him. The faces of Neal's protection detail have become so familiar that he practically accepts these men as part of his team.
"Where's agent Cooper?" Peter asks the blond man. It has to be something innocent, he figures, but he needs to know anyway.
"His wife just called, and apparently it's important. I'm sure he'll be back soon."
Peter nods and knocks on Neal's door.
"Come in, Peter."
The agent follows his partner's words into the room and stops near the bed, only to place his hands on the rail.
Neal's expression reminds him of Satchmo, overly excited. Peter's glad to see him so… alive.
"Just want to get out of here," the younger man admits.
"I can believe that. One more thing."
"I know." Neal is sitting on the edge of the bed now, ready to leave. "June explained everything and I appreciate what you want to do, but I don't want to be a burden."
"You're not a burden, Neal."
It's obvious that Neal wants to interrupt. Raising his hand, the FBI agent stops him.
"Burden, or no burden. You're coming to our home and that's final."
Neal can't help grinning. "Elizabeth keeping you on a short leash?"
"It may surprise you, but I had a say in the matter."
The look on the ex-con's face turns sober. "I know and I really appreciate it."
"Now let's see if I can find you a wheelchair."
Before Neal has the chance to slide off the bed, Peter shakes his head. "Just stay put, I'll be right back."
Neal's eyes fall on a small box which Peter had left in the wheelchair for him to find.
"What's that?" he asks, not able to hide his curiosity.
"You'll have to open it to find out."
The younger man rolls his eyes in reply and reaches for the box with his right hand. Sliding off the bed turns out to be less painful than he thought it would be. With the box in his hand he lowers himself down in the chair and looks up at Peter before focusing on the gift wrapping. Despite only having one hand available to unwrap the gift, he manages to get it off in record time. He's surprised to find his anklet, or what looks like a replica, inside the box.
"You know what day it is?" Peter asks.
"It has been four years."
It sounds a lot like a question to the FBI agent's ears.
"And two days. You're free, Neal."
It feels really strange, unreal even.
"So you decided to give me a souvenir?" Neal asks, holding the replica.
"I would've given you the real deal, but someone else is going to be enjoying that one in the future."
The ex-con smiles at Peter, genuinely touched by the gesture.
"Ready to go?" Peter doesn't wait for a reply and grabs the wheelchair's handles.
Neal feels comfortable on Peter and El's new couch, as comfortable as his ribs and arm allow him to get. He just wants to stay there without moving for the next couple of weeks. El's preparing dinner in the kitchen while Peter's talking to the agents in front of the house. He finds himself relaxing and closing his eyes.
He opens his eyes again and finds Elizabeth giving him a worried look.
"I'm okay," he says, "just tired."
She nods. "Mozzie's here."
"Do you want to stay over for dinner, Mozzie?"
"No, I'm leaving in a couple of minutes, I don't want to catch any hospital germs here," he provides, nodding his head towards Neal. Mozzie is as paranoid as ever.
She gives the two men a smile before returning to the kitchen.
"Look, you know I hate hospitals. Not only does a hospital have more germs than shopping cart handles and public drinking fountains combined, it also has the nicest nurses. And let's not forget the wailing children and coughing sick people."
Mozzie gives a short nod in return before taking part of the couch near Neal's legs hostage.
"It's good to see you," Mozzie admits. It's not like Mozzie to express his emotions like that, but this is different.
"You do realize that you've been in a hospital before."
"That was different, I didn't have to go to the centre of the germ pool then."
Neal nods before yawning. His friend's logic isn't very sound, but he can accept the explanation.
"That's my cue," Mozzie says, getting up.
"I'll be back."
Mozzie sounds a lot like Arnold Schwarzenneger for some reason, but Neal guesses it's not on purpose. Or maybe it's his hearing, influenced by the pills. All of a sudden he feels like smiling and closing his eyes.
When Neal opens his eyes the following morning, he sees Peter working at the dining room table.
"You're up early."
"So are you," Peter throws the statement back.
Neal doesn't want to admit that it's pain that has woken him up. He gets up slowly, earning a glare from Peter. Moving at the speed of a slug, he carefully makes his way over to the table and seats himself in the chair next to Peter.
"Jessie Adams called."
"Kevin Weber's wife?" Neal asks, vaguely remembering the conversation he had with Peter.
"She wants to talk to you."
"I'm ready, Peter." Neal reads Peter's mind yet again. The FBI agent is still as worried as ever. After four years of fighting crime together he's become quite attached to the ex-criminal.
"Today?" the older man asks again. He just wants to be sure.
"You can call her back." Neal nods.
Peter doesn't hesitate and grabs his phone. He wants this whole situation to be over. The sooner they can catch the bad guys, the better. He doesn't know what this new meeting between Jessie and Neal will uncover, but he hopes to find something useful.
She arrives less than an hour later. She wants to know more and needs to see the animals that have killed her husband behind bars. Some people may call her desperate, but not Peter or Neal.
She sits down on the couch next to Neal and tries hard not to let her emotions take over.
"I'm not sure I know what you're looking for," Neal starts.
"I just need to know… what happened." She knows what has transpired but she needs to hear it from the one person who witnessed her husband's last moments.
"I… he woke me up and practically carried me out of that basement. I thought he was playing some kind of sick game. It was unreal."
"He was working for Pierce," she adds matter-of-factly, "he killed Kevin's parents. Kevin wanted revenge."
"In hindsight I think he was looking for some form of justice. He could've killed Pierce on their first meeting. He wanted him to pay, but not like that."
"My husband was against the death penalty. He's always told me that he believes criminals behind bars for life suffer more than those who get the easy way out, but I don't know if he really believed it or just told me to assure me he wouldn't do anything stupid."
"It sounds like him. He didn't even know me but he still saved my life."
"He did know you," Jessie corrects him.
Neal gives her a questioning look in return.
"He was an FBI agent, back when I was still chasing you," Peter informs.
"That's how he knew my name," Neal remembers out loud.
Jessie knows her eyes are getting slightly watery.
"I'd like to…"
"The bathroom's upstairs, first door on the right." Peter gives her a small smile.
Neal thinks Peter is great at showing sympathy (no matter what El leads him to believe), better than he is perhaps. He doesn't like emotional situations, he likes avoiding them. He's good at wearing masks and hiding his true feelings.
"Use me as bait," Neal repeats his earlier words.
The FBI agent sits down on the table in front of the couch and shakes his head. "We're not having this discussion again, Neal."
"I want… I need this to be over." The ex-con tells himself that he isn't begging.
Peter sighs and rubs his forehead. "I agree, but we're still not having this conversation."
Two short knocks on the door interrupt their conversation. Saved by the bell.
"That's either Stackhouse or Cooper."
Neal leans back and closes his eyes.
"Agent Cooper, come in."
He can hear the door close again. The second sound, a clicking sound, doesn't seem as familiar. He recognizes it, but not right away. It's only when he opens his eyes that he can see what's going on.
"Peter?" he asks, worried.
"Stay there, Neal."
Seeing Peter's hand telling him to stop in his tracks, he remains seated.
"This isn't you, Cooper. What are you doing?" Peter asks, the shock in his voice obvious.
The man wielding the gun looks desperate. "I don't have a choice."
"There's always a choice. You don't have to do this."
"They killed Lisa and they're going to kill my little girl."
The desperate look on the younger man's face bothers Peter. What scares him the most is the realization that Cooper isn't going to change his mind.
A shot's fired not much later.
Time stands still and Neal hates it when time decides to do that. It makes it impossible for him to move.
Neal hates dead bodies, especially the ones which end up right in front of him. Peter is the one who moves first and it's only logical in a way. The man's used to seeing the dark alternative of life and knows how to handle it.
"Jessie, give me the gun." The FBI agent moves forward, not expecting any resistance. He's right, the young woman complies without a word.
Keeping a firm grip on the weapon, Peter kneels down beside Cooper's body and feels for a pulse. He knows it's hopeless, but he finds himself wishing for a sign of life.
Neal isn't surprised when his partner shakes his head.
"Call Diana," the FBI agent says, "tell her what happened."
Watching Peter lead Jessie outside, he starts dialing.
"Diana? I think you need to come over."
Neal moves to the office, not just for his own safety, but also for Elizabeth's. It's a miracle she wasn't home when Cooper decided to enter the house. Jones and Diana form his new protection detail. The problem is that Neal doesn't believe this plan is going places. He doesn't do stationary. A young girl's life is at stake, if she isn't dead by now. Peter doesn't want to listen.
His plan is far from brilliant, but it doesn't have to be the world's greatest plan. Either way, he will be free after this, and that's all that matters. He plans on taking advantage of the few minutes they have left him alone in Peter's office. Leaving Peter a note is the least he can do.
His first stop is Pierce's night club. The man himself won't be there, but it is still the best possible start of his investigation. The club's empty and technically this is called breaking and entering, but Neal is pretty sure Pierce won't be pressing charges. He easily finds his way to the back. Much to his surprise he doesn't discover much. Most of the rooms are empty now.
Neal was wrong, the FBI agents hadn't missed anything. There's nothing left to find.
He'd ditched the sling at the office in exchange for a long sleeve jacket to hide his current vulnerability. Just in case. Neal doesn't want to run into anyone, but he considers it a possibility.
Neal walks outside again, into the afternoon rain. There's no way he's ready to go back to the office. It would defeat the purpose of his little escape attempt. The only problem is the lack of intel he's dealing with.
Neal's torn between smiling and worrying when he sees a suspicious looking van on the other side of the street. It hadn't been there before. Something inside him wants to go over there and knock on the window, but he doesn't get the time to move. It isn't Pierce who gets out of the van carrying what looks like a 9 mm Beretta. He isn't an expert, but he knows enough about weapons to fool people. Neal hates guns, especially the ones aimed at his head. It's Carl, a man he'd hoped to never see again in his life.
"Get in the van," the older man orders. Neal doesn't know the man's age, but he looks old enough to be his father.
This is starting to look a lot like a kidnapping. Neal isn't worried that much. After all, Peter would be able to track his anklet. Realization hits Neal hard. His anklet is gone, for good. Peter wouldn't be tracking him at all.
I know you'll be disappointed when you read this, but I don't have a choice. This is the only way. I'm sorry.
Peter can't help slamming his fist on the desk in front of him.
The agent locks eyes with his colleague. "Neal's gone, Diana. He decided to search for these bastards on his own. I knew this would happen."
She places her hand on Peter's shoulder. "We'll find him. We found him last time, we'll find him again."
"Oh I'm sure we'll find him, but I'm going to kill him when we do." Peter looks at his watch before adding: "Follow me, Diana."
"Have you searched him?" is the first thing Pierce says when he sees his little minion return with their prisoner.
"No tracker, just an old watch and a handkerchief," Carl fills in, showing the two items.
"Tie him to that chair over there."
Neal finds himself being manhandled further into the room and finally pushed in what feels like a wooden chair. They remove his blindfold and tie his hands, which are still trapped in a pair of handcuffs behind his back, to the seat. His arm aches, but he's happy as long as they don't decide to remove the cast protecting the limb.
Neal blinks slowly and tries to think. He's in what looks like an abandoned loft. There's absolutely no sign of Cooper's daughter. A couple of Pierce's men are drinking beer at a table a little further while the man himself and Carl are standing right next to him, the latter holding a baseball bat. The table and some chairs form the only pieces of furniture that decorate the place.
"Private party and I'm invited?" Neal asks. He tries to sound carefree, but he's pretty sure they can hear him swallow.
"Oh you're not just invited, you're our little guest of honor, Mr. Caffrey. That is your name, right?"
Neal doesn't reply.
"Care to answer some questions this time?" Pierce circles around him (like a vulture) in an attempt to make him even more nervous, if that's at all possible.
"You weren't very talkative last time. My friend Carl here doesn't like that."
He is sure he sees the man in question grin before swinging the bat. Neal closes his eyes quickly, he doesn't want to see the impact, let alone feel it. It's sad that he doesn't have a say in the matter. He isn't surprised when the chair falls sideward. The pain in his left shoulder reminds him of his time in Pierce's basement and all he wants is to pass out. This isn't happening again. It can't be happening again. Neal tries hard not to make a sound, but he can't help it.
"I broke the chair," Carl says, "If that's not a homerun I don't know what is."
"We should've invested in better equipment for these kind of sessions. It's unfortunate really, we'll just have to work with what we've got here."
"You haven't… asked a question yet," Neal manages to say after a few seconds.
"Don't worry he's just warming up." Pierce gives him his best smile. "Okay a start question. What does your FBI friend have on us?"
"How about kidnapping?" Neal throws back.
"Enough to put you away for a long time."
Pierce laughs in reply, the sound surprisingly not as disturbing as one would think. "Do you consider that an answer, Carl?"
Carl doesn't reply, instead he hits Neal again, and again, and again.
By the time the man stops hitting him, Neal's convinced he's going to die. Something inside him wants it to happen sooner rather than later. Peter. The FBI agent won't be able to rescue him this time. Neal closes his eyes again.
A loud bang interrupts his thoughts and before he can release another breath, people start shouting.
"FBI, drop your weapons!"
Peter. He doesn't know how, but Peter has found him after all.
"Don't even think about it. I will shoot you," Peter warns when he sees Pierce look at the gun in his hand.
"I'm not going to jail," the kidnapper replies, raising his gun.
The agent doesn't hesitate and fires.
Neal allows everything else to pass in a haze, but he's sure the others are surrendering. Maybe all of this is finally over.
The ex-con opens his eyes again.
"Try not to move. You're going to be okay."
Neal is alone. A monitor keeps beeping not far from where he's lying. It annoys the hell out of him, he just wants to sleep some more. He doesn't feel much, it's as if his body isn't even there.
The second time he wakes up he feels a hand on his right shoulder. Neal blinks slowly and tries to focus on the presence to his right.
"Pet'r?" he slurs. He wonders why it's so difficult to speak. It isn't completely illogical given the fact that his entire body feels numb.
Neal tries to move his right hand, but that's just as successful as using his voice. He closes his eyes in frustration. It's late and he's sure Peter can use the rest, but there's something he needs to know. His frustration only grows, along with the beeping of the heart monitor. The sound gets Peter moving.
Neal manages to turn his head to the right and finds himself staring at Peter, who is finally awake.
"Neal? You're awake." The older man gives him a smile.
Neal would say something about his observational skills, but he doesn't feel like he can.
"Shh, I'll get the nurse. Try to stay calm."
The FBI agent stops in his tracks and stares at his partner, question marks in his eyes.
"The… girl." It's an enormous effort but Neal manages to say the words.
Peter pats Neal's right arm. "We found her, she's going to be okay." Okay is a relative term given the fact that both of her parents are dead.
"I'll be right back," Peter assures.
Neal doesn't reply and closes his eyes again. Sleep wants to claim him again and he's a willing victim.
The next three days pass quickly for Neal. There is always someone there the few times he opens his eyes. He doesn't get the chance to say much, the drugs he's on make sure of that. He doesn't mind that much, especially when the doctor decides to prod and poke. Dr. Hollis is nice enough, but Neal still wants to accuse him of torture.
He doesn't want to know what his body looks like, but he becomes more and more aware of what's going on around him. Peter's there again, reading a magazine. The title and part of the cover are hidden by the agent's left hand.
The older man almost drops his magazine before sitting up straighter.
"Do you want some water? Doctor said I could give you some."
Neal barely manages a nod. He wants to take the cup from Peter, but he isn't able to lift his arm that high.
"It's okay. They've got you on some pretty strong pain meds. They even got you a button too. Don't hesitate to push it when you're in pain, Neal," Peter explains, bringing a small cup of water with a straw to the younger man's lips.
His bed is raised a little and Neal figures it's to help him breathe. He gratefully takes a few sips.
Peter sits down again and keeps his eyes on his partner. "Pierce died, the others surrendered. Turns out some of them were working for Pierce against their will."
"He's going away for a long time. He was one of the few not cooperating." Peter can't help giving his partner a satisfied smile.
"What's… the damage?"
"You don't remember?"
"The doctor already told me?" Neal responds with a question of his own.
"Yes, but you were a little out of it."
"Dislocated shoulder, bruised kidney and your ribs are an ever bigger mess, but at least they didn't puncture one of your lungs this time."
Neal squeezes his eyes shut and sighs.
"You should get some more rest, Neal."
The ex-con keeps his eyes shut. "So…should you."
"I'm still going to be here when you wake up, get used to it."
Neal falls quiet for a long moment. When he finally opens his eyes again he smiles at Peter. "Thanks."
"Don't thank me yet, I might still kill you for doing something so stupid."
The FBI agent doesn't need any bureau skills to see the pain lines on his partner's face.
"Don't hesitate to push that button, didn't I just tell you that?"
"I'm fine, Peter."
"No, you're not," Peter replies, reaching forward to push the button himself. He waits for Neal to relax before getting up and leaving in search for some bad coffee.
"This is the best pumpkin soup I've ever tasted," Neal compliments Elizabeth's cooking skills.
The FBI agent sitting on the other side of the table just rolls his eyes in reply.
"What? I'm serious."
"I bet you are. In fact I'm sure El's soup beats prison food. You're just trying to get on her good side."
"I'm not, but what if I am?"
"He's already on my good side, honey." Elizabeth gives her husband a small smile, before placing her hand on his thigh. Her boys are back to friendly sniping, El can only approve.
Both Peter and Neal still visit the FBI's psychologist and while Neal has more appointments to look forward to than Peter, the FBI agent needs the help almost just as much.
"So Neal, what are you going to do now that you're free?" Elizabeth wonders out loud.
"Art theft, a bit of counterfeiting on the side. I'm not sure yet."
"I'm not sure if you're joking or not."
"I thought you knew me better, Peter."
"Exactly my point."
Elizabeth pats her husband's leg before getting up and gathering the soup bowls.
"Don't get up, I've got it." She wants to give them some space to talk. It just feels like the natural thing to do. Besides, she needs to get some more food on the table.
"Hughes wants me to stay as a consultant."
Peter nods his head. "He asked me to convince you. Don't worry, I won't."
The two of them hear the unspoken words. Not after what happened.
"What if I want to stay?"
"I'd advise against it." It's an honest reply and Neal deserves his honesty. He doesn't want to see Neal in danger. Peter's sick of seeing the younger man in danger. Changing the subject seems like a good idea.
"You haven't asked how I found you." The statement sounds like a playful accusation.
"I know how you found me."
"You have a theory, you mean."
"That prehistoric watch they found in my coat pocket definitely wasn't mine."
On the other hand, Peter's going to miss seeing Neal at the office, working together, this whole crazy partnership he's a part of.
"I'd like to stay, Peter," Neal admits.
Instead of replying Peter gets up and starts searching one of his drawers. "Not here," he mumbles. Neal wonders what he's up to.
"Oh here, I found it."
Peter takes his time and sits down again before dropping the envelope right in front of Neal on the table. Neal's left arm's still supported by a sling, mostly for his shoulder, but he is getting quite good at opening things with only one hand available. The young man doesn't know what to say when he sees the tickets in his hand.
"Did I just make the Neal Caffrey speechless?"
"When did you get these?"
"Jones got them. You told me once you wanted to go to London, so we thought it would be a good gift, a team vacation."
"Dinner's ready," Elizabeth interrupts their conversation.
"I'm coming," Peter's about to get up when Neal stops him.
"Thank you, Peter. This means a lot to me."
"You're family, Neal. Don't you ever forget that."