Last chapter. This got a bit - a lot - expositiony - sorry! Ultracape said it best I think. They're not the show's Neal and Peter (because I don't have the skill to reproduce their unique voices) but they're my overlay of the characters and I've had terrific fun writing them and reading all those lovely people who took the time to review. Thanks again.
As I groped my way forward, there was a click and the emergency lighting came on; feeble, but enough to let me see Peter huddled in a corner of the elevator, a hand to his head and blood streaming through his fingers. He was conscious, at least, opening his eyes as I got to him and letting me examine him. There was a triangular flap of skin hanging down from a long scalp wound, but I felt a surge of relief as I saw that, although it was deep, no bone was exposed. I had nothing to clean it with, but my jacket had a handkerchief , to use as the basis of a pad; and, in one pocket, a cutting device, which Peter would probably rather not know about. I shrugged out of jacket, waistcoat and shirt and used strips of shirt on top of the pad and then as a bandage. Under pressure, the bleeding slowed and then seemed to stop. Immediate problem solved. I gave what I hoped was a reassuring grin as I examined my handiwork, saying "Properly piratical" which brought a faint smile in response, as he asked "What about you? And don't say you're fine. You're always fine but are you hurt?" "Bruised but nothing more" and added "Truly, Peter" as I saw the doubt in his eyes.
As I went to check his pulse my cell rang; Jones, thank God. I put him on speaker so that Peter could hear and without preliminary he said, "Neal, I've been trying Peter's phone but there's no signal. Help is on its way; engineers, police and an ambulance. Are you two OK?" I updated him quickly, rang off and got on with checking Peter out. It was a matter of time now and making sure he was comfortable. His pulse and heart rate were both elevated but not enough to cause immediate worry. He admitted to tenderness on his right side, and winced when I put any pressure on his ribcage but I couldn't feel any separation and his breathing, though slightly shallow, wasn't causing him any difficulty. Which left his head injury. There were no immediate signs of concussion; I checked his pupils with the torch attachment on my cell; equal and reactive; he was talking normally, didn't seem sleepy and swore that the pain was localised to the flesh wound, but what he needed was a hospital and an MRI and I couldn't do anything about that. All I could do was monitor him and pray that they got us out as quickly as possible.
Under my hand I could feel him shivering. At least the lift was wood panelled, which meant it wasn't too cold. Very carefully I eased him forward and got my jacket round him. As he tried to protest I said "Bodyheat. We'll keep each other warm" and drew him back till he was leaning against my chest and I could drape my waistcoat and the remains of my shirt over him. It took a few minutes but gradually the tremors stopped and his muscles, held rigid against the pain and shock began to relax as I held him close.
He gave me a considering glance and said "You're good at this." I could hear the question in it and nodded "I've had to be. When you live outside the law there are times when a doctor isn't your first option."
"When you live outside the law." He repeated it quietly and then said "We were going to talk. This seems like as good an opportunity as any. Talk to me, Neal. Tell me what you want from me." I quelled my instinctive "No." Less than ideal circumstances didn't count when I needed Peter to stay awake and communicative; and if it distracted him from our situation that could only be a good thing. I tried for lightness and smiled at him. "For starters I'd really really like to have a conversation with someone where I don't have to say the words "I'm sorry"." As he raised a quizzical brow I shrugged and said "And yes I'm aware of the fact that all I have to do is stop doing things I have to apologise for." He smiled back but I knew he wasn't going to let me off the hook, so I braced myself and said "I want you to forgive me."
He tilted his head a little to hold my gaze and said at once "Of course I forgive you, Neal. Friends fight; they make mistakes. God knows I've made enough of my own, including too many in how I've treated you. " And raised a hand as I said involuntarily "No". "Yes. Listen, Neal; I don't for a moment make excuses for what you did. You're not a child I have to make allowances for. But I could have handled things better. You saw Kate murdered in front of you and found yourself back in prison, having to deal with all that entails, instead of having time to grieve in private. And then you were back in the office and expected to get on with the job. I should have tried harder to help. Instead of which I lied to you about the music box and went on lying even though I knew it was driving a wedge between us. If I'd trusted you more and tried to work with you, maybe we could have avoided this whole mess. I'm sorry, Neal."
Which was more generous than I deserved. I said "You helped, Peter; more than you can know" and rushed on "And you lied to me because you were afraid of what I'd do, to protect me. When I said I'd never told you a direct lie I thought it was something to be proud of, that in one small way it made me better than you, when we both knew you weren't telling me the truth. But it was just another way of conning you. I was thinking of myself and you were thinking of me. That's a pretty big difference."
He moved his head a little, carefully, to see me better and said "We both went wrong, Neal, and we're both sorry. I wish that was enough to move on but it's not. Can you see that what happened with Fowler isn't the stumbling block between us? I understand why you went after him, why you wanted to kill him." "You stopped me" I said involuntarily, and he smiled a little and said "No; you stopped yourself. You're not a killer, Neal. And that's a huge thing to learn." He didn't know how close I'd come, how his belief that I wouldn't pull the trigger had made the difference, but he was right, Fowler wasn't the problem we had to discuss. I took a breath and said "The file" and he looked away from me for a moment and then sighed. "It seems such a small thing compared to all the melodrama, but do you understand why it felt like being kicked in the teeth?"
"Because I made it personal" I said. And swallowed all the other words of explanation and regret. In the end they didn't matter. And as he said "yes" softly, I forced myself to add "That's why you have to stop caring about me." There was a line between his brows that deepened as he asked "Why should I stop caring, Neal?"
"Because I hurt you. Because I'm capable of hurting you like that." I wanted to shout it at him. "You weren't supposed to be hurt. I thought you'd be angry. We've been angry at each other before and got over it. But this was different. I made it personal and I didn't even think about it."
"So it's an unselfish wish" he said thoughtfully. "Except of course that it's not. If I don't care about you, I can't be hurt by you, that's true, but it also means there are no expectations on you; no need for you to think of anybody else. You can go back to doing whatever you want without worrying about the consequences."
He knew me. Sometimes I hated that about him. But I owed him an explanation so I made myself continue. "That's the point, Peter. I don't worry. All my life I've seen what I wanted and got it any way I could. And I only thought about the people involved as problems I have to solve. You were right when you said I walk away and never look back. In my world that's always been a good thing; maybe the one necessary thing. In yours it seems that thoughtlessness can be worse than making a conscious decision to do wrong. Because if you're making a choice that implies that you can choose otherwise. Whereas if you simply don't think, don't care, you don't realise there even is a choice. I never had boundaries before you. Mozzie and Kate and I, we lived by the same standards, believed in the same things. Until I met you there was no one in my life who ever said no to me on moral grounds. No one who's made me at least think about trying to change. But I don't know if I can."
"Or if you really want to" he said flatly and I looked back at him and said "No" because he deserved all of the truth; and then "It would be easier not to."
He thought about that, then said "Has it been easy these past weeks? It hasn't been for me." Damn him, why did he have to be so honest? He saw my answer in my face and his voice was serious. "You understand it's your decision then, Neal? I have to accept it, whatever it is, but I need to know how we go on from here."
But that wasn't fair. I'd wanted only to let him know how sorry I was and then Peter was supposed to say what happened next, to lay down the law. That was his job, literally and figuratively. Irrationally I felt a flare of anger towards him and heard the snap in my tone as I said "You mean you want to know where you stand with your pet project: "altruism unlimited : the redemption, or not, of Neal Caffrey"." He said "Ouch", ruefully, but before I could panic "I'm OK. Metaphorical ouch. It sounds like a bad Victorian novel, with me in the role of Lady Bountiful and you as the undeserving poor. If I've made you feel like that, Neal, then I'm truly sorry. It was never my intention. But I don't apologise for wanting you to want another way of living. If you see someone on the top of a cliff, preparing to take a path you know ends in disaster, you tell them and direct them to the safer path. You'd do it for a stranger; how much more for a friend."
"And if I want the dangerous path? Need the adrenalin rush?" And saw him sigh. "I can't give you reasons to change, Neal. They have to come from you. Like any addict. An alcoholic has to want something he can only have if he stays sober, just a little bit more than he wants that first drink."
I didn't want to think about that; not then, anyway. So I asked instead "Why do I ma…" and changed it quickly "why does it matter, if I change, so long as the job gets done?" I knew why it mattered to me, but, for all my thinking, I still couldn't understand why he gave a damn.
He said, with just a trace of exasperation, "You're a valuable asset, Neal, You have a unique set of skills and our conviction rate's gone up since you joined, which means more bad guys put away and justice for more innocents. And, yes, we can get the job done, even without trust between us, but that's not the point. I told someone once that you weren't just my entrée into the criminal word; you were the person I went to when I needed help. And I meant personally as well as professionally. I'm not giving that up without a fight. Besides," and his voice lightened suddenly, "do you have any idea how much I enjoy you?" I gaped at him and heard him chuckle as he said "I know. Making people like you is your stock in trade and maybe it doesn't mean anything. But I like smart, Neal, and you're smarter than almost anyone I've met; I like that I don't have to explain things to you; I like the challenge of keeping one step ahead of you. And more than that I've seen your capacity for kindness, for love. I know how good you can be. Why wouldn't I be afraid of watching you throw that away. And you would, believe me. Eventually a life outside the law eats away at what makes you human. I've seen it too often. Don't make me watch it happen to you."
The phone rang. Throughout our conversation I'd been aware of the sounds filtering through from outside; sirens and the whirr and grind of machinery. Since there was nothing we could do neither of us had mentioned it. But now I desperately wanted the interruption . Jones said "Neal, we're almost ready to get you. Give us 5 minutes. The ambulance is here and Diana's on her way to get Elizabeth. She'll take her straight to the hospital. Tell Peter we'll look after her."
When I hung up, we looked at each other. I tried to think of words to say to reassure him, slippery words that wouldn't commit me to anything, but it seemed I still had just enough integrity to refrain from such an ultimate betrayal. Instead I drew him a little closer and said only "Rest now." I heard him sigh and then, very carefully, he turned his head into the hollow between my neck and shoulder. I could feel his breath against my skin, reassuringly steady. And, very gently, I laid my cheek against his hair and considered the inevitable. Something I wanted more than I wanted my old life, my old ways.
Peter wanted me to make a moral decision; choose good over evil, honour over dishonour; he'd say that you couldn't live your life for someone else. And he was right. I was doing this for myself. In the end what it came down to was this man in my arms, who was as vulnerable to me as I was to him. Losing him wasn't an option. I said softly "Peter" and, as he opened his eyes and smiled at me, "I'll try. I promise." That was all, but it was everything and we both knew it. I felt his hand reach up and tighten over mine, where it rested above his heart. "Me too" he said and we were silent together.
The elevator doors were pried open a minute or two later and they came to take him from me. Jones was there, draping his jacket round my shoulders, and a medic, with a blanket, left the group around Peter , and told me to sit down so that he could do some tests. I tried to tell him I was fine but he insisted "Your partner told me to check you out and make sure you were examined at the hospital." I let him do what he wanted while I thought about that.
My partner. How simple it was. I was Neil Caffrey. I was Peter's partner. I was Peter's friend. And I'd do whatever it took to deserve that honour.
Outside, as I walked to the ambulance, feeling the weight I'd lived with for so long lifted from my soul, I looked up and saw in the darkness one shining star of hope.