Title: Just Can't Breathe
Author: TeeJay
Written for: saphirablue as a response to the LiveJournal collarcorner Prompt Fest #2
Prompt/Request: Handcuffs
Would Like: Neal being cuffed to a bed/radiator/chair/whatever in a burning room/building. Peter (or whoever you want to write from the team) gets him out there in the nick of time and has to deal with/treat a Neal that has inhaled (a lot of) smoke, is shocky and maybe has some light burns until the firefighters/EMTs arrive.
Don't Want: Death!fic; Neal being rescued and immediately handed over into the care of the EMT/firefighters; the H without the C
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Gen
Characters/Pairings: Neal, Peter
Summary: A freak explosion hits the museum Neal happens to be visiting, and it's up to Peter find him.
Author's Note:This prompt really got my mind spinning, and I wanted to write my own story for it. Since the prompt has already been filled (and I've read and loved it), I have a feeling my story is not going to be able to live up to what silver_falcon24 posted. (Because, seriously, I am not that eloquent in English.) Still, I couldn't resist to do my own thing. In order to make this different, I've made an attempt to write in first person Peter point-of-view. Not sure if that'll work. And if it doesn't, I won't try it again, promise. So consider this kind of an experiment.
Statua di Vulcano-sized kudos goes out to rabidchild67 for the beta-read.
PS: Anyone remembering Third Watch will hopefully recognize this one guy that happened to be there...
Disclaimer: White Collar, its characters and its settings belong to Jeff Eastin and USA Network. And, guys? Your characters are not only welcome, they're wonderful. I'm just borrowing, I promise.

I could feel the explosion rocking the Taurus first, the muffled noise of it following a second later. My eyes instinctively went to the rearview mirror, and my feet hit the brakes at the same time. Tires screeched, the car came to a halt.

I couldn't unbuckle the seat belt fast enough to get out, standing in the open door to look back down the street at whatever had been hit. A couple of blocks down, I could see orange balls of flame and smoke billowing from windows, and realization hit.

It was the museum, and my heart leapt into my throat. Neal! Shit!

I jumped back in the car and turned it around, driving to where I had only just dropped him off fifteen minutes ago. The remains of the latte to-go from the quick lunch I'd grabbed tumbled over in the cupholder when I tried to jam the transmission into reverse, but spilled beverages were the least of my worries now.

My fingers fumbled for the right buttons to call the Bureau. My voice was surprisingly all-business as I called it in and asked for fire and emergency medical services.

The short drive felt like forever, and people were already gathering in front of the building. I left the car where I'd stopped and ran. I pushed aside helpless souls with shocked faces. Mild pandemonium and voices shouting in disarray greeted me as my brain tried to bring order to the chaos. My eyes darted around the crowd, tying to make out the familiar face I was hoping to see. I came up empty.

I realized I was a first responder, and without thinking, I kicked into emergency control mode. It wasn't the first time I was doing this. I tried to rationally discern who needed help first, people were starting to stumble from the building.

My eyes caught on a man ushering people to safety, and it looked professional. I needed someone to do this for me. There was no time for me to be securing the scene, because, dammit, Neal was in there!

I ran up to the guy. "Peter Burke, FBI. I've got a man in there. You look like you've done this before."

"Lieutenant Davis, 55th Precinct. I'm off duty, just happened to be here."

"I already called it in. Listen, I need to find my partner."

Davis looked at me like he knew exactly what I was asking. "Just go, man. I've got this."

I was panting by the time I got to the main entrance, and I grabbed the upper arm of a man covered in dust, exiting the building. "How many people are still in there?"

The man looked at me, surprisingly sober. "I don't know. I just ran."


I knew I had to go in, even though my brain screamed, screamed, screamed what I'd learned in fire control training. Don't run in there. Wait for the fire department.

But... Neal!

No one stopped me as I entered the building. People were running, stumbling toward me, and I pressed on. The unmistakable smell of smoke and burning interior assaulted my nose. My gaze quickly went upwards towards the open staircase, and I was hopelessly lost. I had no idea where to find him, and I momentarily panicked. But then something tickled at the back of my mind, and Neal's voice was in my head. "The 'Ancient Rome' Exhibit on the first floor is supposed to be amazing, are you sure you don't wanna come?"

I ran up the stairs, and the acrid smell was getting worse. This was not good. In a vain attempt, I shouted, "Neal?"

I listened for a moment. Nothing.

I realized I must be getting closer to where the explosion had occurred, because I could feel the heat. The smoke was doing things to my lungs I didn't want to think about, so I threw my elbow in front of my mouth and plowed on.

A man came out of nowhere, his face covered in soot. "Can you help me, I've got a man trapped in there!"

Without thinking, I followed. I could hardly see anything for the dense, gray smoke that seemed to be coming from nowhere and everywhere. Blindly following the man to a small utility closet, I still had my elbow in front of my mouth and nose. I couldn't suppress the reflex and started coughing as the acrid smell kept assaulting my senses.

I could make out a vague form hunched in the corner of the small room and my stomach fluttered when I realized why he looked familiar. "Neal?" I asked.

"He's handcuffed to the ventilation pipe. I need to find something to pry the cuffs open."

My forehead creased in a slight frown (How did that happen?), but I didn't have time to dwell on it.

"Wait. I have keys." The man looked at me questioningly, and I added by way of explanation. "I'm an FBI agent."

I was by Neal's side in two quick steps. "Neal," I said again, crouching down next to him.

"Peter," he croaked in surprise, the effort of speaking bringing on a barrage of coughs.

I took in his hunched form, the soot on his face, the discomfort and panic-turned-relief in his eyes. It was hard to tell in the murky light, but his skin looked a little too bluish. I quickly fumbled for the key in my jacket pocket, my fingers jittery with urgency and adrenaline. "Hang in there, Neal."

It took what felt like an eternity to insert the key into the tiny hole and slide open the metal trap. A groan escaped his lips as his arms were released from the awkward position behind his back, eliciting another coughing fit that racked his body.

Smoke inhalation, my brain warned me.

"Come on," I slid my arms underneath his armpits and hefted him up. His body was surprisingly heavy for his lean figure.

Neal's savior was by our side, taking one of Neal's arms while I took the other. His body was too limp, and I knew we had to get him outside. "Neal," I urged, "Come on, you gotta help us here, buddy."

That seemed to have gotten through, because I could feel him straightening up a little, making an effort to gather his strength. "There we go," I tried to encourage him.

Maneuvering down the steps proved difficult, but sirens approaching in the distance added additional incentive.

The fresh, frigid air outside was a welcome relief, and I took gulps of it as we emerged from the building. Helping hands reached out and guided us away from the building to a spot that seemed safe, farther away, a set of stone steps. We set Neal down with his back against a sandstone pillar.

"Neal," I said his name again. "Are you hurt? Neal? Look at me."

His eyes darted upward, seeking out my face. They were red and streaming with tears from the smoke, and it struck me that there was unguarded, unprotected Neal Caffrey behind them. He was breathing rapidly, trying to suck air into his lungs in panting breaths. "Just... can't... breathe," he choked out.

I frantically tried to remember what I'd learned in the mandatory FBI first aid refresher course last year, wishing I had paid attention and not mentally drifted off to greener pastures. Did they even cover smoke inhalation? Where the hell was EMS?

More coughing from Neal followed, and I instinctively put my hand between his shoulder blades as he leaned forward.

As if it had taken his last strength, he sagged against the pillar, his head back with eyes closed, his breathing labored. My hand slid to his shoulder, and I could feel him trembling. There was something frightening about the idea of the imperturbable Neal Caffrey being shaken up enough to let all the masks drop. The tiny tremors rippling through him continued, and I remembered something. Shock. Keep the patient warm. I took off my jacket and draped it around his shoulders.

My futile attempt to find something halfway comforting to say failed miserably. What would El say? So I just softly patted his shoulder. "Just hang in there, buddy."

Straightening up, I realized the man who had ultimately saved Neal was still standing close. "Are you okay?" he asked.

I nodded, but Neal clearly wasn't. Looking around, I suddenly realized the degree of chaos all around. Fire trucks and ambulances had arrived, and I wondered how I could not have noticed. "Find me an EMT," I told the man.

Not two minutes later, a young man dressed in black approached with hurried steps, an emergency med kit in his hands. Before he could ask, I told him, "I'm fine. Just take care of him." I motioned towards Neal. "He's inhaled a lot of smoke."

The EMT crouched down next to Neal, examining his nose and mouth with a penlight, asking questions about injuries and symptoms. He pulled out a green tag on a rubber band from his med kit and placed it around Neal's neck. Turning to me, he said, "I'll be right back."

He returned quickly with a portable oxygen tank, fastening the mask to Neal's head, adjusting the valve on the tank so that pure oxygen streamed out through the plastic tube for Neal to breathe. He told me, "Make sure he keeps that on. If his breathing gets worse or he develops other symptoms, notify us. We'll take him to the hospital, once the critical cases have been treated."

I nodded, warily watching Neal. His skin color seemed to be returning to something more resembling his normal complexion and I breathed a silent sigh of relief. For lack of something else to do, I sat down on the steps nearby, not tearing my eyes away from the man I considered both partner and friend.

It finally occurred to me that I should be calling someone—Jones, Diana, Hughes, anyone. My first choice was Diana. The call didn't last long, and I appreciated that. Just a swift exchange of what had happened, concerned questions about Neal's and my welfare, quick reassurances that everything was under control and an inquiry from her whether FBI help was needed. I knew why I had called Diana.

I briefly pondered calling El, but I didn't think I could face her reaction just yet. There'd be worry and questions and emotions. I knew on some level that it was wrong, but there would be opportunity to call from the hospital.

I turned my attention back to Neal, who was looking better by the minute. His breathing was becoming easier, the bluish tint to his skin had vanished. I watched how his hand came up to the oxygen mask, and I noticed the abrasions and reddened skin on his wrist as his slipping sleeve revealed more arm. A sudden rush of images washed over me—Neal struggling against the handcuffs as he realized what was happening. And the question of how he had ended up handcuffed in the utility room formed once again.

When he pulled the mask away from his face, I shot him a look. "Oh no. You heard the man. The mask stays on."

I thought I could detect the slightest hint of the old Neal Caffrey returning as he insisted, "Peter, I'm fine."

"You weren't fine ten minutes ago. You're not fine now." I went for the mask that was now loosely hanging around his neck and gently put it back in place. "The mask stays on."

He looked at me like a petulant child about to rebel and just out of spite do the exact opposite. A warning, "Neal..." escaped my lips and stopped him in mid-thought.

He stayed silent, but I could see him pouting underneath the mask. Ambulances were leaving, new ones arriving, and it didn't take long for another pair of EMTs to approach. These were new guys, so the penlight routine was repeated, more questions asked. This time Neal managed to answer them verbally instead of just through nods or shakes of his head.

"Sir, we would like to take you to the hospital," one of the EMTs said.

"Is that really necessary?" Neal asked.

"It's for your own safety."

"He's going," I interjected.


"Neal," I reactivated the warning tone. "No arguing. There's all kinds of liability reasons. You need medical clearance. Hughes is gonna shred me nine ways to Sunday if I don't bring paperwork. And you know well enough—"

"Please don't play the back-to-prison card," Neal interrupted. "It's getting really old."

I couldn't help but crack a small smile. "I wasn't going to."


"Now go. I'll be behind you with the Taurus. And don't do anything stupid."

"Would I ever?" he grinned weakly.

I didn't bother with an answer and asked the EMTs where they were going to take him.

I couldn't stand the hospital waiting room, but I didn't see how I had much of a choice than to wait here. Elizabeth's reaction to the news had been surprisingly unhysterical. She had wanted to come to the hospital, but I told her it wasn't necessary. I wasn't sure how long we were going to be here anyway. She just told me she loved me and to call again if I had news. I loved her too—in so many ways I had never told her. I made a mental note to remedy that at the first opportunity.

Time was starting to stretch into dimensions made of rubbery goo. The kind that could go to infinity and back. I wished I could retract my statement and ask El to keep me company after all. Just when I was about to change my mind and call her again, a nurse approached. "Peter Burke?"

I stood up to greet her. She smiled at me. "Mr. Caffrey has been asking for you."

Has he now? I thought but didn't speak it out loud.

She guided me to an exam room where Neal was sitting on the edge of a bed, dressed only in a hospital gown. One of his wrists was lightly bandaged, ugly red skin irritation on the other standing out against the pale gown he had on. His hair was a mess, traces of soot still clung to his face. The smell of smoke lingered in the air from the ruined clothes that lay in an open plastic bag on the floor.

"You okay?" I asked.

"Peachy," he sing-songed. "I don't know how often they had to look up my nostrils to finally conclude I wasn't close enough to the fire to sustain any internal burns." He flashed a smile that didn't reach his eyes.

I didn't buy his cheerfulness for a minute. Good old Caffrey misdirection. I knew he had been shaken badly today, but for his sake, I was going to play along.

"Are they releasing you?"

"They said I need to stay overnight for observation. Something about smoke inhalation and the risk of delayed pulmonary edema."

"That explains the swanky outfit."

He suddenly looked self-conscious. "Yeah. I asked for something a little more dignified, but Lisa said that they only have this or the one with polka dots. And polka dots make me look pale."

"On first name basis with the nurses already?"

He shrugged apologetically. "She offered. Was I going to say no?"

He held out a clipboard with papers fastened to it. "I think you need to co-sign this. I'd do it in your name, but I wasn't sure about some of these tick boxes. 'Patient's Occupation' is a tricky one. It just feels wrong to put 'Ex-con' in there."

I took the papers from him, making a face. I hated paperwork. Neal knew this, but he had a point. "Yeah, I'll take care of these. Do you need anything? I can send Diana or Jones to pick something up at your house."

He looked down at the gown that ended just above his knees. "Something decent to sleep in would be great. Send Diana. She has way better taste in style."

I was already on the way out of the door, when he called my name. "Peter?"

He gestured at his left ankle, his leg dangling lazily. "I think this needs to come off. You know, electronic interference and all."

"Did they say that it does?"

"You're not allowed to use cell phones in here. This transmits electronic data."

"Yeah, don't count on it," I responded, making a mental note to talk to the hospital staff. "May I remind you, you're a convicted felon serving the remainder of a sentence. It's either the anklet or standard prisoner treatment. That means wrists and ankles strapped to the bed. Your choice."

"The anklet it is."

I smiled. "There you go." There was an awkward pause, and I looked at him again. "So you're good?"

He flashed another quick, reassuring smile. "Yeah, I'm good."

"Call me if you need anything. Someone can pick you up tomorrow."

"Chauffeur service, nice!"

"Yeah, yeah," I dismissed with a wave. "Okay. I'm gonna go."

I turned to leave, but then I remembered something. I turned back around and squinted my eyes at him. "Tell me again, how did you end up handcuffed to a ventilation pipe in a burning museum?"

"You know, that's kind of a long story."

"Which I would very much like to hear."

He drew in a quick breath that caused him to launch into a cough that didn't quite feel like a distraction tactic.

I softened just a little. "Okay, maybe we can table that conversation."

His gaze on me conveyed true gratitude, and I was reminded of the ordeal he'd been through. If you didn't know Neal Caffrey, you'd never notice that he'd had a run-in with mortal danger today. If you did, however, you could see the cracks in the veneer. They would take a few days, if not longer, to spackle.

I decided to go easy on him but was interrupted by a nurse entering the room with a wheelchair.

"Neal, let's take you upstairs now."

I gave him a last look. "You still need me?"

"Nope, looks like I'm all taken care of."

As I walked down the hallway towards the exit, I noticed that people were giving me strange stares. I suddenly realized how I must look, my face and clothes were probably as grimy as Neal's. I quickly looked for a visitor's bathroom to do some damage control.

When I arrived at the hospital the next day, Neal was standing by the bed in the room he'd been admitted to, buttoning a light purple shirt that went perfectly with the dark gray slacks he had on. Diana had indeed chosen well.

"Peter," he greeted me cheerfully. "So nice of you to drop by."

"I take it they're letting you out of here."

"Yep. No swelling, blood oxygen levels are perfect. They did an x-ray and everything. Blood tests, the works. Hughes is gonna be real happy when you show him the hospital bill. And here's the bonus," he held out a piece of paper. "Prescription meds."

He thrust the prescription into my hands, amicably patting his palm against my collarbone. "All the good stuff, courtesy of the FBI. Don't you love spending taxpayers' money?"

"Are they putting you on sick leave?"

"Oh yeah," he produced another sheet of paper. "Almost forgot. Three weeks."

"Three weeks?" I said incredulously.

He grinned sheepishly. "I'm just kidding. Two days. Aaaaand..." he dragged out the vowel, "Best thing is, I still need to be watched for the next 24 hours."

I could see where this was going. He was thinking of ways to extort Mozzie into spending a night of swapping conman trade secrets at his place over expensive wine. It was only logical he'd choose the Little Guy, because there would be no uncomfortable questions about exploding buildings and handcuffs and his state of mind. But I wasn't going to make it this easy for him.

"Our guest room has an excellent view."

"You know... I think they said the watching was optional. Kinda more like a recommendation."

"Yeah, nice try. Come on, Dino. We can stop at your place if you need to pick up anything. And you still owe me an explanation about the handcuffs."

"Would you stop asking if I said it's still kind of a long story?"

My mouth curved into a grin. "You'd be surprised how much story one can squeeze into twenty-four hours." Truth was, I was already looking forward to hearing all about it. "You got everything?"

He picked up the plastic bag with his ruined clothes. "Yep. Ready to roll."