(Chapter 13)

Lunch was a nice green salad with all the extras, crescent rolls with butter and the main entree was Elizabeth's own special recipe for beef stew. Neal seemed happy enough Peter thought so they left the conversation from before alone. He could discuss it with him later and El was happily asking his partner about something in the salad. Peter paid attention to as much of the catering talk as he understood before throwing in a few conversation tidbits that Neal and El both nodded about.

It became obvious though just before dessert that Neal wasn't feeling very good. El suggest he go upstairs to the guestroom which he did without trying to act like he felt poorly but Peter knew he did. Once he was gone El whispered to him:

"Are you sure he's ok? Maybe the food... The doctor told him to stay on those pills."

She sounded worried but Peter shrugged uncertainly.

"I don't know. I think he still feels alot of blame for what happened. I told him about Satchmo and you."

Elizabeth blinked then sighed as if realizing what that meant.

"So he knows they almost took me? Maybe that's part of it. He was looking at me curiously but I just figured he was glad to see me. Have you talked to Hughes about things?"

Peter shook his head as he took a sip of water.

"He knows Neal needs time. It's still too soon after the incident for either of us to go back to work. We're supposed to go in and give our statements next week and I have an appointment with the office psychiatrist soon. I'm supposed to get the schedule for Neal."

El nodded as she moved around the table and sat beside him. She wrapped him in her arms and kissed him lightly on the lips.

"It will be ok Peter. We'll all get through this. How's Jones' doing?"

Again, Peter shrugged.

"I haven't talked to him since that first day. He was pretty broken up about what happened. Clinton and Neal will have to talk this through at some point. Neal looked upset when I found out what happened. I don't know how he figured to work it through. I don't think he had."

()()()

Neal sat on the edge of the bed in the Burke's home. He was feeling kind of out of it but mostly he was feeling guilty again. Seeing Elizabeth and knowing she had almost been taken by Yosef's men upset him. Peter was doing his best to help him change since he'd left prison but even that was causing problems for the agent and his wife. It was causing problems for everyone who came in contact with Neal. It was like Mozzie said: Picket fences weren't for people like them. A leopard couldn't change it's spots if it wanted to.

He leaned back on the bed, feet hanging over the edge and sighed. He looked at his arm in the sling and sighed heavier. He had pushed Yosef out of the way and gotten shot. The man who was going to kill him. He wondered if Yosef even cared what happened but he wouldn't know till he got to see him if that was even allowed. Neal sat up after a few and pulled the covers aside as he crawled under the blankets and curled up on his good side.

It's ok, Nicki. Everything's going to be ok. Trust me.

Neal heard Jacob's voice again, his eyes opening to see his friend sitting in a chair across from him.

"I guess you're playing the role of my conscience this week? I thought Peter had that part taken."

His voice was slightly bemused, the ghost of his friend smiling back.

Well, I know you're fighting with your thoughts. I'm just here to help you decide what to do and maybe feel better about that decision.

Neal nodded at the ghost as he closed his eyes again and started to drift off.

Sleep, Nicki. Trust me, things will be good.

()()()

Peter snuck upstairs when Neal still hadn't waken up after a few hours. He quietly knocked on the door then opened it when he didn't hear a reply. He peeked inside to find Neal curled up on his left side, eyes shut with the blanket pulled mostly over his head a bit of his face poking out. He smiled softly at the sight turning to leave as quietly as he entered when he heard an audible yawn from the con and the soft creaking of the mattress frame.

"Peter? Sorry... How long did I sleep?"

Neal sounded tired if anything as he sat up and pulled the blanket aside with a slight stretch of his good arm and legs. His hair was somewhat rumpled as were his clothes but he was wearing something comfortable for once. Atleast it wasn't his usual suit and tie combo the young man having settled on a dark blue turtleneck and black jeans. Peter smiled.

"Just a couple of hours. Figured you needed the sleep if you hadn't gotten up by now. Guess Mozzie kept you up last night or you'd have been feeling more rested."

Neal nodded at him then shook his head a bit.

"I was restless and I wouldn't have slept much anyhow. He just helped clear my head a bit. What time is it?"

Peter glanced at his watch.

"Just after 2 pm. You have an appointment?"

He said it in a teasing manner, Neal smirking back.

"Just wondered. Maybe... well I could go give my statement to Hughes or Jones if they're in."

Peter blinked at his friend but nodded knowing he probably wanted to see if Jones was there. He should probably give his statement too if they had the time. Wouldn't hurt to visit the office now that he thought about it.

"Well... get ready and I'll let El know. Maybe we can get something to eat on the way back."

Neal nodded as he combed at his hair with his fingers and started to rise, feet pushing into his dark suede loafers as he stood up.

"I'll meet you downstairs."

()()()

At the office, Peter and Neal stepped off the elevator to the 21st floor and headed through the glass doors on their left. Inside were still a few agents working hard including their colleagues Agent Jones and Barrigan. Both looked up to see the two walking in and stopped what they were doing to greet them.

"Boss! What are you doing here so soon?" Diana smiled at them both as she approached the pair. Peter shrugged as Neal stuck behind him somewhat fiddling with the corner of his shirt. Jones greeting the both of them, slapping Peter on the arm first as they talked and Diana greeted Neal who seemed a bit off of his game despite trying to hide his discomfort behind his usual veneer.

"How's the arm?"

Neal turned to see Jones standing there as Diana moved to offer them both a seat. He blinked as if uncertain what to do.

"Ok."

He paused without saying anything else but wanted to as did Jones as he looked at him a moment, both men seemingly uncomfortable. The agent moved a bit closer and whispered.

"I just wanted you to know I'm sorry. I was aiming for the other guy."

He sounded sincere enough as Neal smiled slightly and nodded.

"I know. It was my fault for slipping against him. Lost my balance."

Peter was listening as he watched the agent turn and look at him but acted as if he wasn't as he returned to his conversation with Diana. Jones nodded at him.

"That's what I thought happened. If you need anything... let me know." Jones slapped him gently on his good shoulder as Neal nodded with a somewhat more obvious smile. Jones moved away to get some coffee, asking if anyone else wanted any as Peter turned and looked at him.

"Slipped? Well he looks happier if anything. You'll have to tell the truth in your statement though but slipping isn't so bad for now."

Peter mussed his hair a bit before they saw Hughes look down and see them. The older agent did the two finger wave up for them as Peter and Neal excused themselves and headed up to Reese's office. Hughes asked them to close the door as Peter let Neal in first, shutting the door as they both sat down and gave him their attention.

"I didn't think either of you would be back till next week. How are you feeling Caffrey?"

Neal smiled his best smile at the older agent.

"Like I was hit by a train but otherwise ok. I'm just glad to be back."

He turned to look at Peter with a grateful glance that Hughes seemed to notice and the agent blinked but smiled in response to.

"I think we're all glad to be back. I know we're both still off but maybe we could give our statements now. Get it out of the way while it's fresh in our minds?"

Peter saw Hughes nod at his suggestion as he pulled a recorder out of his drawer and placed it on top of his desk.

"If you insist, Burke. Which ever one of you wants to start, go ahead."

Reese pushed the button on the recorder and Peter started to tell what happened. Once he came to the end of his version, Neal having been quiet throughout, Hughes turned to Neal and he started his version. When Neal had finished, his part about Jacob included, Hughes leaned across the desk and looked at him.

"So you pushed him aside because he was your friend's brother?"

The older agent looked quite confused by the statement but the more he thought about it he looked as if he understood.

"Guess it was much like me and Harden. He was the one who confessed and told us who had you and where. I offered him some immunity in the way of a shorter sentence. Not much difference than your pushing your captor from Jones' bullet over a past acquaintance. Water under the bridge. So... I guess that concludes the statements. I'll turn them in and get the transcripts written up for the case file. Thank you both for coming in."

Reese smiled at them both as they all sat around and chatted a moment. Peter's cell went off after a moment and he excused himself as he answered it.

"El? Yes... I can do that. Sure. Not a problem. Bye."

He looked up at them both apologetically.

"Wants me to bring something home for dinner. Are you ready Neal?"

Hughes stood to walk out with them when Neal stopped, pausing by the door with his eyes on the older agent.

"Sir, I wanted to request something if I could."

His eyes moved to Peter's as the agent glanced at him curiously. Hughes nodded with a look of curiosity in his own eyes.

"What is it Caffrey?"

Neal swallowed hard, licked his lips and finally spit it out.

"Yosef... I wanted to speak to him. I'll understand if you won..."

He saw Hughes hold up a hand and nod.

"I figured you might after what happened. Peter had already asked me about it. I'll make sure you get an audience with him next week. Now go rest, both of you and I don't want to see a hint of you in these offices till Monday morning. Is that clear?"

Both men nodded as he smiled at them and they left the bureau after some good-byes to Diana and Jones.

"How does Chinese sound? El said she wanted us to pick that up for dinner. You ok with that?"

Neal nodded as they left the building and headed for the car.

()()()

It was another week till Neal got his meeting with Yosef. He had been spending quite alot of time with Peter who seemed worried about him although Neal couldn't see why. Jacob had stopped coming to him in his dreams but he knew the idea of his friend was still there in the back of his mind waiting to pop out. He thought about everything that had happened and how toxic he felt towards others. Peter and Elizabeth had almost been killed because they were his friends. Jones was going to the bureau shrink because of the shooting. None of this had to happen. He felt like some kind of blood sucking vampire or leech that was taking and not giving anything in return.

The room was a typical prison meeting room like the ones he had been in when Peter came to visit him. He kept feeling he should be in orange on the other end with Yosef but pushed the thought aside as the man was brought in handcuffed.

"Halden... or is it Caffrey? Which name do you prefer?"

Yosef's voice was lacking much expression but who could blame him. He was in prison for the rest of his life. Guilt flooded Neal's psyche as he fought to keep control over his feelings. It was hard to know that this angry man had been the same boy he and Jacob had tried to protect from this kind of life.

Tell him what you feel... the truth will free you, Niki.

Neal looked around a moment as the voice filled his head. He was hearing Jacob's voice. He noticed Yosef eying him curiously.

"Something the matter Mr. Caffrey? You look like you've seen a ghost. I have things to do if you aren't going to talk to me."

The young man sounded annoyed if not tired and angry. Neal nodded as he ignored what he heard and started to speak. He told him about the grift and what happened when Gribaldi's men found out what was wrong. They had run to the top of the yacht and jumped in a rain of fire into the water. It had been choppy that night but the moon had been bright so it was hard to hide. Neal had turned to see Jacob some yards behind him swimming hard for the shoreline. Neal started to do the same when some bullets hit near him. He dove under the surface and stayed under as he headed towards the shore and the wharf they were to meet at. An hour passed and Jacob had not showed up which Neal took as a sign it wasn't safe. He still had the money with him so he quickly left the scene and found a safe spot to split the money and pack it up for mailing. He dropped it into the mailbox with the note and went into hiding.

He saw the younger man's face looking at him with cold disregard a moment before a stray tear streaked down Yosef's cheek. He continued to look at him with a cold exterior but something in his next words let him know he had been forgiven.

"Thank you, Mr. Caffrey. Guard, I'm ready to go back to my cell."

Neal looked at the ghost of the boy he had known and felt a pang of regret at all that had happened as the guard took him away. When they had reached the door, Yosef turned and looked at him.

"Jacob always said you were like a brother to him. I felt the same way. Tell your Fed friend, I'm sorry. Good-bye Niki."

()()()

Peter was waiting outside when Neal left the facility. He noticed his partner looked somewhat unhappy if not depressed. Neal hadn't noticed him watching till his eyes suddenly looked up towards the vehicle and blinked a moment before that wall came up and his usual veneer of charm replaced the true feelings he had been expressing.

They didn't speak for the first hour of the trip back as Neal leaned against the passenger door and stared out the window quietly. Finally Peter couldn't stand the silence as he coughed for obvious reasons. Neal turned to look at him, blue eyes flashing curiously at him.

"Anything on your mind?"

Neal turned away a moment then back and shook his head.

"Not really. Just thinking about things. About our agreement. Maybe I should finish my time in prison."

Peter nearly rear ended someone as the statement hit him. He found an opening and pulled over to the side and parked, anger filling him as he tried to figure out what was going on with his friend and partner.

"Spit it out, Neal. I know something's been bothering you. If it's these events, it wasn't your fault. How many times do I need to tell you that?"

He was feeling anger for certain now but not at his partner. Neal had led a very hard life and did what he could to survive it with what he knew. It was coming back to bite him but this pity play... This wasn't Neal. He knew the young man was stronger than this.

"You were almost killed Peter because of me. El was almost kidnapped and Jones and Morales... You should have let me rot in prison, Peter. I don't deserve a second chance."

He said it without much emotion but Peter knew better as he watched his friend wiping at his eyes. This case had taken a toll on everyone but Neal had been in the middle of it all, the catalyst of the flame that started it. He had found out a friend had died because of the life he led and blamed himself as Yosef had.

"Neal... look at me."

The younger man didn't turn at first but finally he sniffled a bit and looked at Peter with pink rimmed eyes filled with unshed tears. He looked like a little boy if anything, his nose a light pinkish color as were his cheeks as they flushed ever so slightly.

"I'm not sending you back to prison. You don't belong there and this wasn't your fault. You have to understand that or you'll beat yourself up with what ifs. I know. I've had to shoot... before and you deal with the consequences as they come. You can't let it get to you but you can't completely disregard it. Do you understand?"

He hoped he was getting through to the con but Neal's tragic look continued till he finally sniffled again and nodded his head at him. He reached across and pulled the young man close in a fatherly hug.

"I'll take you back to June's ok?"

Peter let go when he felt the younger man relax some, pulling the car back out into traffic. They were half way to June's when he heard a cough from the passenger's side and turned to see Neal looking at him.

"Maybe... we could go get a drink? I heard there's a new place near your house. Sports bar but has a nice wine list."

Peter blinked with a smile at his friend who had started to smiled ever so slightly back. He gave a nod of his head and moved over to the left lane to head towards his home and the bar.

"Sure. I wonder if they have the game on. I haven't had a chance to hear what the score was since I picked you up. The prison had bad reception in that area."

He saw Neal roll his eyes at him but smile as he pretended not to see.

"It's good to have you back, partner."

Peter said it quickly, quietly as he kept his eyes on the road but could see the surprised look on Neal's face.

"It's good to be back, Partner."

(THE END!)

oOoOoOo

Author's Note: Can't believe I suddenly remembered I forgot about Agent Morales. Poor agent sitting in the wings of the story thinking "Damn! She forgot about me and my injuries." I don't want to write more about him because this story is already nearly 80k in words so let's just say he healed up and got out of the hospital but everyone was so busy they forgot to really say anything but it was there and people knew he was ok. Mostly he just got drugged and a bump on the head. Nothing too major. Not sure about my next story. I still have 3 or 4 drabbles that are ideas I may work off of. Decisions decisions!