Disclaimer: I do not own White Collar. (I dont think I did this for Part 1. Oh well. It's here now.)
Peter can't tell if he's awake or dreaming, lucid or in a feverish haze, or even if he's dead or alive. Fragments of events drift all around him, but he can't hold on to anything. It's like he's back in that terrible room again. There is nothing to see, no sounds to hear. His consciousness feels sluggish and unresponsive. One of the wisps of memories glides by, and as it gets closer, he can hear voices, and they're getting louder and louder and then he's falling, falling, falling…
"It looks like your friends won't be paying after all," Izquierdo says, the sound of his voice floating down to where Peter's lying on the floor. He realizes that he's facedown, staring at the cold cement floor while around him, his fate is being decided. He tries to move, to sit up, or at least roll over so that he can see what's going on. Even attempting to lift his head feels like a lifetime of agony and he wants to scream, but his throat feels rough and dry like sandpaper, and his jaw feels like it's glued shut. He decides to just lie there and listen for now, while he gets his body back under control.
"—paid enough. We will send your body back to them," Izquierdo is saying. Send body…what? There's something missing, something he should know, something he should understand, but he can't quite grasp it.
"Get him on his knees," he hears, and suddenly a pair of hands grabs him by the shoulders and hauls him up, and Peter nearly loses his grip on reality when he's wracked by pain. But then the world slowly goes back to normal, and he finds himself staring at Izquierdo through unfocused, fever-hot eyes.
He watches the smuggler leader pull a small pistol out of its holster by his side. A single bullet is placed into it, and still, there's something missing. Through the haze, Peter's world is compressed into that single little cylinder. It comes closer and closer, until it bumps gently against his forehead. It feels cold and cool on his head, and he feels a wave of relief. There's still something wrong though, terribly wrong, though for the life of him, he can't tell what it is.
He struggles to remember, to know just why it's so important. And there…he almost has it; he's so close now, he just needs a little bit more time. A little bit more time. Where has he heard that before? And then at last, realization slams into Peter so hard that he almost jerks his head back in sheer panic. There's no way he's going to let Izquierdo have that satisfaction though. If this is the end, then he's going to face it calmly and look him straight in the eye when he pulls the trigger. It's getting harder and harder to do so though, what with his head spinning and his whole body hurting.
Izquierdo and his men have faded to mere gray shapes in a sea of fog, and distorted voices echo strangely around him. He kneels there, trying wildly to get his bearings back, and wonders why, with just a touch of bitterness, his senses and self-control have chosen this particular moment to abandon him, until suddenly, he hears a new voice speaking. This one is crisper, clearer, and the sound effortlessly cuts through the fog to Peter, though he can't make out any words. It sounds familiar, achingly familiar, but before he can place it, the finger on the trigger twitches, and darkness swallows him again, and he is back to floating in nothingness, with, for some reason, the image of blue eyes in his head and a welcome feeling of calmness.
Time passes annoyingly slow when he's alone in this place. His body still feels like it's burning up, but not as badly as before, but he remembers with a sick feeling of revulsion in his stomach at how good the cold muzzle of the gun had felt pressed into his hot forehead. Peter recalls the twitch of the finger, and he wonders if he is dead then. Is this what death is?
As if in answer, he feels a sharp burst of pain and he wants to curl up, to cry out, to weep, but he has no body, no voice, no eyes in this nothingness. This can't be death; it would be too cruel. He wonders at the anger at the thought, wonders when he became so resentful.
He doesn't know how he long he spends existing in this impossible, torturous place, but it's becoming unbearable to be so alone, and when another wisp of memory comes by, he lunges for it, and experiences that odd, falling sensation again before he wakes up just as a sack is roughly pulled off his head.
"We have received the money," Izquierdo says to him conversationally, seeming unconcerned that the half-dead Peter is so disoriented and feverish from infection that he can barely understand what he's saying. The smuggler leader begins to walk away, leaving Peter kneeling in the dirt.
Before he can stop himself, Peter gasps out, "Why?" the single word slurred and almost impossible to say.
Izquierdo stops and turns around to study him. "Why let you go?" Peter's too busy trying to focus his eyes and reprimanding himself for catching his attention to say anything. "For one thing, $7 million would be nice. But as I told your friends before, I am an honorable man. They have paid your ransom. I now return you to them…relatively unharmed."
Peter knows that he must have looked disbelieving, because Izquierdo humors him with another response. "I am a criminal, yes, but that does not mean that I do not have honor. In any case, a deal is a deal, and I hold up my end of bargains. To do otherwise…is bad for business. You still do not believe me?" And Peter tries very hard to get rid of the disbelief on his face. He really doesn't care if Izquierdo has honor or not. What he does want is to avoid being shot for annoying him.
"I do not blame you. But I thought you of all the law enforcement I have met would. I talked to Neal Caffrey," he says, "I had heard that he had turned and was working for the FBI. When his voice came over the transmitter, I must admit that I was tempted for a moment to shoot you, despite the deal, just to spite him."
"Why didn't you?" Peter asks, curious despite himself.
"It was only a moment," he answers, amused. "And his affection and loyalty to you were obvious, and I was hardly going to turn down the money, was I? I know that you are not as quick to judge people by what the law says they are as others. You and I both know that Caffrey is an honorable man."
Izquierdo touches two fingers to his forehead in a half-mocking, half-serious salute. "May our paths never cross again," he says, and Peter watches him go, as the world dissolves to gray smoke and blackness once again.
He doesn't want to stay here in this dark place where he is completely helpless, though. He wants to walk, to move, to do something, instead of just floating. This time, however, he doesn't float in limbo for long. There's a whole series of wisps that falls into in quick succession, so fast he can barely tell what's going on.
Diana and Jones are in the first one. He remembers the relief on their exhausted faces, joy at his safe return, and concern for his physical state. There's an EMT who keeps ordering him to lie down and rest when he lifts his head up to look for something. Or was it someone?
Now he sees the inside of an ambulance. He's lying on the stretcher and, unbidden, a thought comes to him that he's in the wrong place, that he should be sitting at the side of someone else, that someone else who is constantly injured, someone who constantly throws himself into dangerous situations even when told not to, but for good reasons, the right reasons, not just to play the hero, and he feels a wave of fond exasperation. But all this is confusing and just makes his head ache. He wants the world to make sense again. In the next blurry scene he lands in, he's lying in a bed that feels luxuriously soft. There's a jacket on the back of the chair next to him. He stares at it blankly for a moment, and then realizes that it's El's. It sends an unexpected wave of contentment and calm through him, and it's the best feeling he's had for days.
So when he hears El's voice, gentle and like rain after an age of drought, he gratefully latches onto it and allows himself to be dragged along, for it's a sound he knows he can always—no matter what—trust. There's not too many people like that left in the world. When he's with her, he doesn't have to be anyone but himself. He doesn't have to be the stern, unruffled man in a uniform who "has everything under control" to civilians, doesn't have to be the experienced, respected FBI agent to his fellow agents. With El, he can just be Peter.
When he opens his eyes, El's outside talking to a nurse. For a second, he wonders what they're talking about, but then decides that it doesn't matter. If it's his condition, he'll hear about it soon enough, and he doesn't exactly want to think about the state he's in right now. And if it's just friendly conversation, he should let her relax, because she's probably been worried out of her mind.
He props himself up onto his elbows and gingerly flips himself over so that he can sit up and take a look around. Everything seems to be back to normal again. Nothing is distorted, there's no gray fog, and voices don't echo as if spoken through a tunnel. And as a bonus, his head is a lot clearer than before. Already the experience of existing in nothing is fading away from his mind. He lets it slip away; he doesn't want to remember that place. He does try to retain what happened in the little wisps of memories, but as he comes more fully into wakefulness, he finds suddenly that he can't remember anymore, other than vague impressions that leave him distinctly unsatisfied. It's almost as if he's simply waking up from a nightmare, the last cobwebs of dream brushed away by the gentle stream of sunlight into his room.
His back twinges just then, and though it's not exactly painful, but rather a dull throb, it's accompanied by itching. He twists around to try and feel his back. His hands feel stiff and heavy when he moves them, and he notes the fresh bandages on his wrists. Most of torso seems to be bandaged too, and as he touches them tentatively, events come at him in a roaring rush. He cringes from them; he doesn't want to think about anything, and especially not memories that reek of darkness and pain, blood and fear.
With an effort, he deflects the tide and builds a mental barrier against it. When he opens his eyes, the nurse and El are watching him in concern.
"How are you feeling?" El says softly.
Peter grimaces in response. She lets out a watery laugh and he notices, aghast, that her eyes are wet. "I'm sorry, El," he whispers, reaching over to wrap his arms around her, ignoring the way the movement makes his back burn. "I'm so, so sorry for putting you through this." The nurse unobtrusively leaves the room after a last check over the machines. He continues to murmur nonsensical words, hugging her close, and despite her tears she was shedding because of him, enjoying the warm, tangible feeling of her, and he suspects that she feels the same way.
It's a long time they spend simply reveling in being together again, as the fear and worry of the past week slowly ebb away. Finally, they break apart, and El plants a kiss on his face. "It's not your fault, Peter. We both knew the risks of your job," she says gently, knowing the guilt he feels and trying to relieve him of it.
His head understands and accepts that fact, but it'll be a long time before his heart will, before he can remember how she clung to him and wept without feeling like it was his fault.
"How long was I out for?" he asks instead, his voice more rough with emotion than he had intended.
"A few days," she replies. "Though you were in and out of consciousness. Your fever broke just yesterday."
"…my fever?" he repeats.
"Yeah. You were burning up because the wounds had become infected."
The mental barrier he had hastily constructed crumbles and Peter closes his eyes abruptly as random scenes flashed through his head: a pitch-black room where he couldn't move, couldn't see, couldn't hear, a tall man and his thugs around him, the light illuminating the horsewhip, a crack of pain, over and over and over and over…
A mechanical beeping shakes him out of that nightmare and he opens his eyes to find El comforting him as he trembles and gasps. The nurse who had been there before runs into the room and injects him with something. Almost instantly, he feels calmer, and someone's turning him so that he's lying on his stomach again. As he drifts off to unconsciousness again, he hears someone say, "—stress him out too much." El nods and smiles at him, but before he can give her one in return, he's slipping into a blissfully dreamless sleep.
The next time he wakes up, the curtains are drawn across the windows and the hospital seems quiet. El's jacket isn't there anymore, and he thinks that she probably went home to sleep. He's glad that she's getting some rest, but after a few minutes of lying there, he wants to stretch his legs. After looking around for a nurse or doctor, Peter decides to just get up. He's been tied down and stuck in bed, and he wants the freedom of movement that he's been denied for so long.
For now though, there is nothing he can do but wait, nothing to do but sit through doctors and nurses talking soothingly to him and El, agents from the office coming to stand by his bedside and offer awkward expressions of relief that he is safe, his team telling him of their ongoing cases, and grueling physical therapy. Then there's counseling sessions he'll be forced to take even after he's physically fit before he can return to active duty. He tries to remind himself when he's attacked by thoughts like these that he's been lucky, that at least he will be able to return to duty, unlike so many others in his line of work, friends, co-workers, and unnamed, faceless people who Peter will never know, and will never get to know. He knows the statistics. Hostage situations are always dangerously tricky, and it hadn't simply been luck that had gotten him out of that mess.
And now those same people were still out there risking their lives, and he's stuck, not merely in this room, but restricted to the bed. He now has some empathy for what Neal felt in prison. If all those years spent tracking him, and all the time he's been his handler and his friend had taught him anything, it's that the conman has a great love of independence and freedom, even if it caused him to clash with the societal norm. And with Peter. He doesn't mind too much though, because he knows that whatever Neal's done, his heart's in the right place, and that's a lot more than can be said for people supposedly on the right side of the law.
He glances up then at the sound of feet, and is surprised at the man he sees standing there.
"Ed? Ed Mannings?" he says in surprise, squinting at the figure in the doorway, "What are you doing here?"
Ed smiles and says, "I was assigned to work on this case along with my partner. Sorry I couldn't be by to see you earlier."
Peter likes Ed. He's a good agent, and Peter had taken him under his wing when he had first joined the FBI. He hasn't seen or spoken to him in awhile though, after he was transferred to the Organized Crime unit, other than the occasional email or phone call.
"Did you negotiate my release?" Peter asks, curious. Diana, Jones, Hughes, and couple of other agents had stopped by to see him, but no one wanted to tell him anything, dodging his questions by saying that they weren't supposed to be giving him too much stress. Exactly how much hadn't they told him?
"No, your C.I. did," Ed says easily. Peter's delighted that he's finally got some information—at least until what Ed had just said hit him.
"What?" he exclaims. The day seems to be full of surprises. Neal most certainly was not trained for hostage negotiations.
"Yeah…They didn't tell you?"
"No, they didn't," Peter growls, annoyed. Neal was his responsibility. He should have been told of this at least.
"Neal's not a bad person," Ed hastens to assure him, possibly taking his tone as anger at Neal. Peter frowns as he continues earnestly, "He really cares about you Peter. He was really worried. Anyway, he asked me to give you his well wishes."
Peter grins to himself. It seemed as if Neal had won Ed over. He never thought that he'd ever hear him talking about a criminal in such a positive light, as he'd always been pretty straightforward about who was the "bad guy" and who was the "good guy". As Peter himself had been before he'd met Neal. As the FBI still is.
"Well tell him thanks when you see him," Peter says, "I guess they wouldn't let him out of his radius even to see me?" That meant he was probably under house arrest most of the time, which was odd if he had indeed managed to negotiate his release. Even the most experienced agents had to be very, very careful during those things. There was no way Neal had simply brazened his way through with luck and charm. Though another thing he had learned from working with him was that for Neal, nothing was impossible. "Since when were you on a first name basis with him anyway?" he asks lightly.
"Um…" Ed says. Had other agents been giving him a hard time for it? Peter was too respected to be judged by his friendship with Neal, but even so, many believed he was too close to the criminal he was supposed to be watching.
"Relax…I was just teasing," Peter says lightly, "Neal can be pretty charming when he wants to be. Is he under house arrest? Have you been to see him?"
There is no answer forthcoming from Ed. He seems to be at a loss for words.
Peter narrows his eyes. "Ed?"
"I didn't visit his house Peter," he replies.
"Then he's still working at the office? How come Hughes hasn't let you or someone on my team take him to see me? Or, why hasn't he annoyed Hughes until he agreed?"
Ed doesn't reply, just glances around frantically for a distraction and then finally says, "Uh we're not supposed to give you—"
"Please don't finish that sentence with 'too much stress,'" Peter snaps, his temper fraying. "Every single person that comes in here says that. I am not going to get worse if you just tell me what the hell's going on. And I know that there has to be something going on, otherwise you'd just tell me. And quite frankly, I'm giving myself a ridiculous amount of stress worrying about what people are keeping me from knowing!"
Ed's saved from replying by a nurse walking through the door. She takes one look at Peter's readings and begins to admonish Ed about keeping Peter's heart rate down and not giving him things to worry about. Ed actually seems relieved to be standing there being lectured at by a nurse a head shorter than him than to continue his conversation with Peter.
He waits impatiently for her to finish so that he can finally force someone to tell him what's happened. He hates lying around doing nothing and not knowing anything. It reminds him too much of his recent…ordeal. Finally the nurse runs out of steam and, after getting several promises from Collin to keep Peter calm and checking over him once more, leaves.
"Hey, honey," El says, coming into the room, smiling widely at him. "Glad to see that you're looking better."
Noticing his visitor, she looks him over once and says, "Hello, Agent Mannings." Her voice contains just the slightest hint of frost. Ed looks away guiltily.
Now Peter's glaring at them both in annoyance. Since when had El disliked Ed? They'd only even met a couple of times over the years that Peter'd known him.
"Alright, what's going on?" he asks, trying not to let his exasperation leak through. Maybe if he acts very reasonably, and sanely, everyone else will realize how unreasonable and insane they all are. "I'm not an invalid, and I don't just look better, I feel better too. I'm not about to collapse on you just for knowing something."
Ed and his wife exchange looks. "Well," Ed finally begins, "We're really technically not supposed to—"
"It's Neal isn't it?" Peter interrupts with a sigh. "Of course it's him. It's always him. What's he done this time?"
"He saved your life, Peter," El says quietly. Ed doesn't say anything, just looks at his feet.
Peter narrows his eyes. "Then where is he? Don't tell me that they put him under house arrest after he managed to do that."
When it becomes apparent that she isn't going to answer, Ed squares his shoulders and looks Peter directly in the eyes. He says, "I didn't see him last at his house because he's not under house arrest. I last saw him at his trial." He pauses to let the implications set in.
There is dead silence in the room.
Peter feels as if something has just hit his stomach very hard, enough to knock the breath out of him and leave him feeling winded. Immediately, almost unconsciously, his mind begins to figure out ways to fix this mess, thinking of ideas and then discarding them almost immediately. What he needs though, are more facts. He can't create a workable plan knowing next to nothing. He doesn't even know why Neal's been arrested. Then, something clicks.
"You were the one who arrested him, weren't you?" No wonder El had been so cold to him.
Ed seems even more dejected, "Yeah, I was."
"What was the sentence?"
"He pleaded guilty, Peter," El tells him, voice tight. "There was overwhelming evidence against him. The judge sentenced him for life."
I lie on the narrow cot in the narrow room staring blankly at the narrow ceiling. Everything feels enclosed and cramped in here. Narrow. No room for people's lives, no room for their dreams and goals. Just four grayish walls.
There's no window in my cell. Apparently, I'm a high-risk prisoner. There's no way they're going to let me escape again. At least, not easily. A window wouldn't have done me much good anyway, in terms of escape at least. There were guards posted on the building outside, and a huge swath of blank, open land before you could even get to the fence.
For my state of mind, though, a window would do me a world of good. It could let me feel in touch with the world, that wide unlimited world full of possibilities and wonder—those things that I'm now cut off from. There's none of that here.
I close my eyes, because when I do, I can pretend the darkness is everlasting, and that there are no bars and walls around me.
The worst part of this is that I brought this on myself. My current situation is completely and utterly my own fault. It's ironic how my plans never go according to them once executed, but the one time I set a plan that leaves me inescapably, undeniably, trapped, it all goes perfectly. But then, this time, there had been no margin for error.
There had been a moment though, when I thought that the plan was going to fail, that I should never have argued to handle the negotiations. I wasn't trained. I had no experience. And Peter's life was on the line. Strange though, how I never, not even for an instant, thought that if Peter died, then I would have given myself up for nothing. I think it's because I would have done it anyway, even had I known that was the outcome. And that frightens me. It frightens me that someone could have so much power over me.
And this person is currently in the hospital. Alive and well, or so I hear. They hadn't let me go visit him, and he was obviously in no condition to come see me. For a long time I hadn't even known if the exchange had gone smoothly, as Agent Mannings and his partner had been ordered to arrest me right after the conclusion of the negotiations. I suppose that I should have felt lucky that they had even allowed me to do that.
I hadn't though. I was too sick with worry and dread and fear for Peter to feel anything else.
Now though, there's nothing to do except think. There's nothing interesting in here. There's no challenges, no intellectual stimulation, no goals to strive for. Nothing except mere existence.
So, I've let myself think about my current situation. No shirking of the truth, no covering it up with lies and useless self-assurances. Just the cold, stark facts. There's two paths I can see laid out for me. In one, I end up with a shiv in my back and a whole lot of blood pumping out of me. In the other, I spend the rest of my life, every single day, every single hour, every single minute, in this prison, in this cell that reeks of narrowness.
Both seem equally likely.
Con men like me usually don't have that many enemies; if you're good at your job, and keep a low enough profile, no one would know who stole what from you. Unfortunately for me, though I've done both well enough before Peter caught me, helping the FBI catch criminals didn't exactly make me a whole lot of friends in the criminal underworld. I'd avoided dealing with violent murderers and the like when I was my own man, but for the FBI, I'd risked my life over and over again in the pursuit of hardened criminals that wouldn't waste a thought for the death of another person. It's ironic how our most successful cases are now the source of a big problem for me. The criminals I'd help caught are in jail. I am now in jail. It only takes one lucky blow, or a riot, or a bribed guard for me to end up stone-cold dead.
On the other hand, I don't think that I'll be able to last in this place. Even if I avoided my possible enemies, I simply have nothing to live for. Last time, I could look forward into the future and see a time when Kate and I could be together again, could be happy. I could count the days, and cling to that dream. That's always been one of my strengths, to look forward and hope.
But even I can't build a castle on thin air. Now I have nothing. Now, when I look forward, I see the same blank grey tunnel that I see behind me, on and on in an endless loop.
I don't even know which I'd prefer. A probably messy, bloody death that wouldn't exactly be drawn out, but would still not be considered "quick and painless," or a slow, long breaking of a person through the simple act of forcing them to gaze at the same gray walls day after day.
Of course, I could escape, as I had last time. Although I had already observed the impossibility of that, it's something for me to do, or at least think about. Working on the solution to an impossible situation. I can think of worse ways to spend the rest of my life.
But then again, I no longer have a choice in the matter.
A/N: Yay I finally uploaded! Part 2's been sitting in my flashdrive while I attempted to write the end and debated whether I should just publish this first so that you guys wouldn't be kept waiting. Just one more part left!
Thanks to the people who pointed out the errors in Part 1. Sorry that I haven't gotten around to fixing them.
As always, I appreciate all the reviews. And special thanks to last1stnding for their helpful comments :)