Title: Off Target
Summary: Peter fired one more shot and another perp went down, then— His name. Hold on. Why would the perps call his name? No no no! This couldn't be. He'd told Neal to wait in the van!
Characters: Peter, Neal (plus some Elizabeth, Mozzie, Diana and Jones)
Written for: kanarek13 for the LiveJournal collarcorner Prompt Fest #3
Prompt/Request: What could possibly go wrong? (during a stakeout)
During a stakeout all hell breaks loose and Peter is forced to leave the van and help other agents. He tells Neal to stay put and not leave the van under any circumstances, but Neal is really worried about his partner and goes after Peter eventually. There's chaos outside, shots are being fired and Peter mistakes Neal for one of the bad guys and accidentally shoots him.
Would Like: Major angst trip, Peter being scared out of his mind, holding bleeding Neal in his arms while waiting for the EMTs to arrive, apologizing, trying to keep him awake. Bonus cookies for Neal eventually losing consciousness.
Don't Want: Neal dying. Peter's guilt trip to be long-lasting, as soon as Neal is awake, they should talk it out and realize that it was just a freak accident and it wasn't just Peter's fault.
Warnings: There will be angst, whump and blood. 'Nuff said.
Author's Note: Everyone's invited to the angst fest! Bring champagne, but only the good stuff!
Joking aside, you know, I always feel these Neal-gets-shot-and-almost-dies stories are so cliché, but it's really hard to write this and not be cliché.
And that's not the only reason I have mixed feelings about this story. I struggled with it for too long a time to be comfortable with. See, I have a love/hate relationship with major whumpage stories. The kind that lands one of the characters in the hospital with a need for surgery. Writing hospital conversations is so tricky, especially the kind shortly after surgery. Patients are usually either still dazed from the anesthesia or are pretty out of it due to painkillers and sedatives. It's hard to get across as a writer what you want these characters to talk about when one of them is not supposed to be at full mental capacity. And you don't want to gloss over that part either because you're a h/c slash aftermath junkie. And you also don't want to write something that's too far removed from reality. It's hard and I struggled with that for the longest time. It was then that I went to the LJ whumpers_guide community and asked for help. And I got it. So a huge thank you goes out to everyone who commented and helped out. (Greatly so!) You're to thank for this story seeing the light of day. You know, eventually. Sorry it's taken so long, kanarek13.
Also, thank you, rabidchild67, for the beta. You rock.
Disclaimer: Bla bla Jeff Eastin, bla bla USA Network. Bla bla not mine, not making any money from this. Bla bla characters strikeshould be totally mine, especially Neal/strike welcome.
"You stay here!" Peter told Neal in no uncertain terms, already turning towards the Municipal Utilities van's back door.
"Okay," Neal just said.
"Neal, I mean it. You are not to leave the van, no matter what happens. Do you understand?"
"Yes," Neal simply said.
Peter was out the door with no time to give Neal another warning remark or cautionary look, his gun already drawn.
Neal turned his attention to the live video feed on the computer screen, an uneasy feeling settling in his stomach. There were too many criminals and too few law enforcement. Guns were being wielded, soundless threats shouted, only audible through the headphones now lying unmanned next to the computer screens.
Neal tried to make out Peter, Jones and Diana. They had been there for simple surveillance, but communications had been crossed (or absent), and suddenly they were in the middle of an NYPD raid that none of them had been aware of.
Suddenly—Neal didn't know what had caused it—all hell broke loose. Gunshots rang out, repeated fire from automatic weapons filtered through the van's walls. Outside, it was mayhem, and Neal couldn't stop watching, eyes wide with worry.
His eyes found Peter in the corner of the screen, hunched behind a car. What Peter couldn't see was that a group of thugs had edged around one of the buildings and was approaching from behind where Peter and two NYPD officers were positioned. Neal watched in horror as the black-clad men drew closer, soon to be within firing range. Peter would be an easy target.
'No!' it shot through Neal's head. Peter's order forgotten, he might just make it if he started running now.
He bolted through the door without a clear plan or strategy. All that counted now was Peter's safety.
Peter's eyes and ears were nowhere and everywhere. Adrenaline tended to make him hyperaware of his surroundings, yet at the same time his senses were blinded by the commotion. Movement focused his attention to a group of SUVs in front of him. He tried to adjust his position slightly to gain a better line of vision.
He didn't know what made him look over his shoulder, but whatever it was, it was a good thing that he did. Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw figures dressed in black approaching, the gleam of weapons pointed at him, the strong sense of immediate danger making the hairs at the back of his neck stand on end. The first shot in his direction rang out—and missed.
Without thinking, he whirled around and fired. There were three, maybe four of the thugs, moving fast. He fired three shots before someone shouting his name filtered through to his ears over the loud noise. He fired one more shot and another perp went down, then— His name. Hold on. Why would they call his name?
Holy God, no! Peter ran before he knew he was moving, shouting, "Hold your fire!" to the NYPD officers who still had their guns drawn.
The few seconds it took for him to reach the scene felt like an eternity, and his eyes searched for... Neal. Shit! No, no, no! This couldn't be. He'd told Neal to wait in the van!
He fell to his knees next to the young man—unmistakable now that it was Neal—panic washing over him. A crimson stain was forming on Neal's light purple shirt, spreading too quickly.
"Neal," Peter whispered in shock. "Shit."
He pressed his palm against the source of the blood just below his right ribcage and it made Neal moan in pain.
"Neal," Peter repeated his name. "Neal!"
Neal's eyes were wide, panic-stricken and confused. "Peter," he groaned, struggling to lift his head.
"Shh, don't move. It's going to be okay."
Peter looked around wildly, hollering, "I need EMS! Officer down!" It didn't really matter that Neal technically wasn't an officer. He was still one of their own.
"Peter," Neal tried again, more strained. "You're... alive."
"Yeah, I'm alive. I told you to stay in the van. Geez, what were you thinking?"
"They were... going to... shoot you," the words came out in gasps. "Had to... make sure..."
"It's okay," Peter interrupted. "Neal, it's okay. Don't talk."
The blood stain beneath Peter's hands kept spreading. Too much blood. Peter tried to focus. The right side of the abdomen, what vital organs could the bullet have hit? The liver? There were arteries there too. Damn! He needed paramedics!
Neal's eyelids closed, then fluttered open again. "You... shot me."
The instinctive answer in Peter's head was, 'No!' He couldn't have. Could he? He'd fired in that direction. He'd fired at the thugs. Not at Neal. But had he...?
Dammit. He'd shot Neal.
"Neal, I..." he stammered. "It all went so fast. I shot at the bad guys. Not you... I... I didn't know you were... You were supposed to be in the van!"
"'S okay. You're alive," Neal whispered.
"No. No, it's not okay. God, Neal, I shot you. Jesus, I'm sorry. I should have... I..."
Neal's eyelids were drooping, Peter could see it. "Neal, stay with me."
"I'm cold," he croaked.
Peter would have given him his jacket, but he was afraid to release the pressure on the bullet wound. "I know. The ambulance will be here soon. You gotta hang in there, okay?"
Neal nodded almost imperceptibly and Peter realized he had to do something to keep Neal conscious. He must have pressed his palm harder against the wound, because Neal let out another low moan.
"I'm sorry," Peter said through clenched teeth, then, "Neal, I need you to pay attention, can you do that?"
"I'm tired," he mumbled.
"I know, buddy, I know. But I need you to... I need you to listen. Can you do that for me?"
There was a few seconds' silence, then a strained, "Okay."
Peter tried to think hard, desperately searched for something that would capture Neal's attention. He could feel the life oozing out of his partner and it scared the hell out of him. "You remember the day we first met?"
A tiny smile crossed Neal's face. "Yes. The bank."
"In Midtown. You walked up to me, told me some bogus story, gave me a green sucker. Why?"
"Never met... a Fed before."
Peter almost had to smile. "And you knew I was after you right there and then, didn't you?"
"Geez, I gotta hand it to you, you had some guts. Did you know I kept the sucker? Right until the day I arrested you."
He looked at Neal, but his eyes were closed. "Neal," he called. "Neal!"
There was no answer, no movement, and the blood was still seeping out through Peter's fingers. "Goddammit, Neal, don't do this! Don't you die on me!"
Anger and desperation flooded through Peter, but then, wondrously, miraculously, he heard sirens approaching. He just prayed it wouldn't be too late.
The ride to the hospital was a blur. All Peter remembered was medical jargon he couldn't follow, plastic tubes, IVs, syringes and blood. So much blood that the coppery odor stung in his nostrils.
It wasn't until the hospital waiting room that he realized it was all over him. Neal's blood—on his shirt, his pants, his hands. He frantically tried to scrub it off in the restroom, but there was too much of it, in too many tiny crevices and pores.
Diana called his cell soon after, and he immediately felt guilty that he hadn't called her first. She and Jones had been right there, in the middle of the shoot-out; he'd never considered until now that they might have gotten hurt too.
Thankfully, they weren't. Diana recounted the status for Peter. Four perpetrators dead, plus two wounded. Three injured NYPD officers, none life-threatening. She asked Peter where he was and told him she and Jones would be there soon.
Not ten minutes later, they made good on that promise.
Both Diana and Jones hovered close to Peter, who had gotten up from the plastic chair. Diana asked, "How is he?"
Peter shook his head. "I don't know. They took him into surgery. I... I don't know."
She briefly touched his arm, squeezed it a little but didn't say anything. Peter was thankful she didn't bother with empty platitudes.
He noticed a moment later that Jones was staring at him, uncomfortable. He met his gaze. "Jones?"
"Peter, I—" he began. "I know this isn't a good time, but..."
Peter frowned, then it dawned on him. "I shot at the perps. You need my gun."
Jones nodded. "Peter, I'm sorry."
"No, it's all right." He reached for his gun, handed it to his fellow agent.
Jones had a pained look on his face as he accepted it before he excused himself. Diana stayed.
The waiting room went quiet after that except for the occasional creak of the plastic chairs when one of them shifted position. After what felt like an eternity, the fog cleared somewhat from Peter's brain. El! He needed to call Elizabeth. And Mozzie.
He knew El could hear it in his voice that something was wrong.
"Honey, what happened?"
"It's Neal. He's... been shot. He's in surgery right now."
"Oh my God. Is he going to be okay?"
That was the big question, and Peter wished he had an answer. "I don't know," he whispered.
"Where are you?"
"I'll be there as soon as I can."
"Can you bring me a change of clothes?"
The relief he felt after hanging up was only short-lived. He took consolation in the fact that Elizabeth would be there soon, but he dreaded calling Mozzie. What would he tell him? Would he even want to come?
Mozzie didn't bother with greetings. "This better be important, Suit, I'm busy."
Peter swallowed, and the silence was pregnant with meaning. Even Mozzie got that. "Oh my God, something happened."
"Neal's been shot," Peter just said.
"Shot? You mean, like..."
"In the abdomen. He's in surgery. Moz, it's... it's serious."
"Where are you, I'm coming."
Bless the man. You could count on him when it mattered.
Peter felt all his strength leave him when he saw Elizabeth coming down the hallway twenty minutes later. She whispered, "Oh honey," and drew him into a tight embrace. He was ready to crumble right there and then. Tears he would never have expected prickled behind his eyelids. He composed himself at the last moment, straightening up a little.
There had been no updates, no news. The uncertainty hung in the air like a sweet, heavy scent. Of course Elizabeth had questions, which Peter dutifully answered.
Peter went back to the restroom where he changed into the clothes that Elizabeth had brought. As he stuffed the blood-smeared clothing into a plastic bag, he realized that he'd be wearing the same suit he'd worn the day he arrested Neal. Twice. He used to think good things happened when he was wearing that suit. Not anymore.
He grabbed the edges of the sink and leaned forward, taking in the reflection staring back at him from the mirror. What if Neal didn't make it? What if he did but was left with permanent damage? It'd all be on him. Because he'd shot Neal. It made his stomach clench so hard that he winced.
No. Neal was a fighter. He was smart and strong and healthy. Peter didn't think he'd ever seen anyone as healthy as the FBI consultant. If anyone could make it through this, it'd be Neal.
What was it that he was always telling Neal? 'Cowboy up.' Peter Burke should be cowboying up too, he realized. What good was it doing anyone, dwelling on what-if worst case scenarios? He shook his head and walked out of the restroom.
Back in the waiting room, Peter saw that Mozzie had arrived, looking shaken and fidgety, more so than usual. Having undoubtedly been briefed by Diana and Elizabeth, his eyes darted around, landing accusingly on Peter as if he was trying to say, "This is all your fault, Suit." And it was, but Mozzie didn't even know how much so.
Peter didn't think he could face Mozzie right now, so he sat down next to Elizabeth. She took his hand and intertwined her fingers with his. Silence settled again.
He leaned his head back, closing his eyes. With sudden force, images pushed themselves into his mind—images of him firing his gun, the bullet tearing through Neal's flesh in slow motion, little spurts of blood emanating from the entry wound. Neal went down, a look of pure and utter surprise on his face. Peter didn't even remember having witnessed all these details. Or was his mind playing tricks on him?
He'd conveniently left out this part when he had told Elizabeth what happened, but he suddenly realized he needed to stop dancing around the truth.
"I shot him," he said, out of the blue, into the silence.
"What?" Elizabeth asked, confused.
He withdrew his hand from hers. "Neal. I shot him."
"Honey, you're not making sense. Why would you say that?"
"It's true. There was... it all went so fast. These guys were dressed in black, and so was Neal. He... I think he saw from the van what was going on. He probably... he wanted to warn me and I—I shot him."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, I... shot in that direction. I fired, and Neal went down, and... Shit. I shot Neal. How could I shoot Neal?"
It was Mozzie's voice that piped up now. "Yeah, how could you? Don't you Feds have training for that kind of thing? What was Neal doing there in the first place? He's just an unarmed consultant, why would you even take him there, into the middle of a shoot-out?"
Peter shot up from his seat in a sudden burst of anger. "It wasn't like that!"
Moz got up from the chair too, taking a step closer to Peter. "Oh no, and what was it like?"
Diana stepped in, positioning herself between the two men, looking at Mozzie. "Moz. Please. Peter's right. We didn't know there was going to be a raid. We weren't prepared for it. Peter told Neal to stay in the van. But you know Neal. He doesn't always listen."
"So you're saying it's his fault now."
"No," she replied. "It's no one's fault. It was a freak accident."
"One that Neal might pay for with his life," Mozzie muttered, and Peter closed his eyes, letting the despair wash over him.
He couldn't do this. They were right. If Neal didn't make it... Peter turned on his heel and walked away. They all knew better—even Elizabeth, or maybe especially Elizabeth—than to follow right away.
He hadn't gone far, just to the end of the hall where a vending machine stood by the windows. Minutes passed, minutes filled with the quiet hum of the machine's cooling unit and agonizing thoughts filled with guilt and gruesome mental images.
He recognized Elizabeth's soft footsteps without even looking.
"Hon," she said gently. Their code word for 'I love you.' He swallowed, not turning around, his gaze still fixed outside the window.
She stepped closer and they stood in silence for a few, long moments. It was Elizabeth who spoke first.
"You know he didn't mean it. We're all scared."
"Oh, I think he meant it. At least part of him did."
"That may be, but he's a good man. You know, even if it doesn't always show."
Peter sighed. "El..."
"Please don't say it. Neal will be okay. He's gonna come out of this all right."
"And how do you know?"
She gave him a small smile. "I just know."
"My wife, the psychic. Got any more predictions for me?"
She slung her arm around his midriff, leaning into him. "Not right now."
He breathed out a long breath. "You know I'm not good at this."
"You're good enough. Come on, let's go back to the others."
It took a long time before they received any news, no matter how often Peter went up to the nurse's station to ask. Countless cups of bad hospital coffee were consumed, endless stretches of silence broken by vain and short-lived efforts at conversation.
Finally, a doctor, dressed in blue scrubs, came out through the sliding door. There were explanations of damage to the liver, a grazed artery, blood loss and vague but hopeful reassurances that Mr. Caffrey was going to make a full recovery, barring any unforeseen complications. Multiple loads were taken off minds.
Peter wanted to stay, but he was urged to go home. Neal wouldn't be responsive for at least a few hours, and it was hospital policy that only family members were allowed to see patients in Recovery, no matter how many FBI badges they carried. Peter didn't like it, but he acquiesced after several reassurances that the hospital would call him if there were any unexpected changes.
El insisted she'd drive, and it was only when Peter climbed onto the passenger seat that he realized how exhausted he was. Still, he doubted he'd sleep very well that night.
Peter was awake by 5:30 and pacing the living room by 6 AM. Unable to get down any food, he got the leash, left a note for El and took a tail-wagging Satchmo for a walk through the Brooklyn streets in the dawning morning light.
When he returned home 30 minutes later, El had already set the table.
She greeted him with a smile. "Guess what. I called the hospital, and Neal's awake. They wouldn't let me talk to him, but he was moved from Recovery to the trauma ward. They said visiting hours for non family are daily between 9 and 11 AM and 4 and 6 PM."
Peter's mouth was set in a determined line. "I'm going anyway."
El gave him a quick peck on the lips. "I knew you would."
"You want to come with me?"
She hesitated a moment. "I think it'd be better if I went there in the afternoon."
Peter was already turning to leave, but Elizabeth called him back. "You haven't had any breakfast. You need to eat something."
"I'm not hungry."
"Honey, you haven't eaten since, when? Lunch yesterday? You need to eat."
He sighed, knowing she was right. "Okay, fine. Will you at least let me have sugar with my oatmeal?"
Her chuckle was sweet and soothing. "Yes, this one time I will."
Peter hated hospitals, maybe more than the Little Guy. He'd spent too long by his father's bedside when he'd succumbed to the cancer. Even though it was now almost ten years later, the memory of the smell of disinfectant and stale air made him shudder.
Downtown Hospital was like any other, intimidating, gray and sterile with an air about as welcoming as a halfway house. They had given him the number of Neal's room, but Peter had taken a wrong turn somewhere and had to ask for directions at one of the nurse's stations. A male nurse told him he was actually in the right place and guided him to Neal's room.
They stopped in front of room 312 and the nurse told him, "Mr. Caffrey was a little restless this morning, so we had to give him a sedative. He's also on a hefty dose of morphine. Just be aware he might not be fully alert."
Peter nodded and looked at the closed door, trying to prepare himself. It wasn't like it was his first time in a hospital, but that didn't mean he would ever get used to it.
Stepping into the room, the first thing he noticed was that the bed next to Neal's was empty. Then his gaze fell on Neal, and the intimidation and queasiness in his stomach increased. He looked like he was asleep, his eyes closed, his face pale. An IV bag was feeding fluids through a needle in his arm, a pulse ox clip fastened to his index finger. Several perfusors were hooked up to plastic tubes next to Neal's bed, a cuff round his arm was monitoring his blood pressure.
Peter stepped closer—clearly out of his element. Neal didn't move, and Peter wasn't sure what to do. His hand hovered over Neal's arm for a few seconds, but then he retracted it again. He softly spoke Neal's name.
Neal stirred very slightly, opening his eyes. It took a second for him to focus. "Peter?" he said and it came out in somewhat of a croak.
Sudden relief flooded through Peter. Even though they had already told Elizabeth on the phone that Neal seemed to be doing okay under the circumstances, he couldn't deny the alleviation of seeing Neal alert and on the way to recovery.
"Yeah," Peter forced a smile. "Hey there."
"You're here," Neal said.
"Of course I'm here. How are you feeling? You in any pain?"
"They told me I was shot, that I had to go into surgery."
"You don't remember?"
"No, I... I don't know. My memory's a little hazy."
"It's probably the medication."
"Can you... tell me what happened?"
Peter wasn't sure he wanted to. "We were doing surveillance and we kinda ended up in the middle of an NYPD raid we didn't expect. I told you to stay in the van, but you didn't and... somehow ended up in the crossfire." Peter paused for a moment, then asked, "You don't remember any of that?"
Neal frowned, confusion in his eyes. "Not really. I mean, I think I remember some of it."
"It's okay, Neal," Peter tried to reassure him. "I'm sure it'll come back to you."
Peter studied Neal's face. The exhaustion of the ordeal his body had been through was clearly visible. "I should let you get some rest. I'll be back later, okay?"
Neal nodded slowly. "Okay."
He had already closed his eyes and drifted off when Peter turned to go.
Outside in the hallway, Peter breathed out a long sigh. Neal was awake and alert, or as alert as could be expected. That was a good thing, though the lapse in memory was a little disconcerting.
For the moment he attributed it to the pain meds and sedatives, and the fact that he had only just woken from major surgery with considerable blood loss. It would have been a little too optimistic to expect a jocular, lighthearted Neal who would be shrugging this off with a wave of the hand. It'd take a while for the old Neal Caffrey to be back.
Peter couldn't quite remember how he made it through the day. Diana, Hughes, Jones, Yu, O'Connor—they all asked how Neal was doing. Peter was glad he had something encouraging to report.
And then there had been the questions. He had to recount the events from the day before to Hughes first. Ballistics was backed up, so they didn't have confirmation yet whether the bullet Neal had taken was indeed from Peter's gun. It didn't matter to Peter, though. He was sure it had been his weapon that fired the shot. He'd aimed straight at Neal, without realizing it was him—he was sure of that.
There would be an inquiry, questions for Peter. He'd shot one of the perps. If it turned out he also shot Neal, OPR would have to get involved. However, Hughes postponed that until they had proof. Peter was infinitely grateful. He didn't think he could have handled sitting in a room with tight-lipped OPR agents, answering unpleasant question after question for hours on end about how and why he had shot one of their own, all the while reliving the nightmare. It was hard enough as it was without constantly being reminded.
By 3 PM, lack of sleep and frayed nerves caught up with him and he sank down in his desk chair, burying his head in his hands. Tears of exhaustion, stress, guilt and worry threatened to fall, but he pushed them back. He sucked in a long, unsteady breath and held it, rubbing his face with both hands.
He wasn't sure what was going to happen if ballistics came back confirming he'd shot Neal. He wasn't even worried so much about his career or consequences to his role as an FBI agent. He was more worried about what it would do to the relationship between him and Neal—what it possibly had already done to it.
He knew that Neal would eventually remember. Peter wished he could predict how Neal might react when he did. But every time that Peter thought he had figured Neal out, the man would surprise him once again. A tiny piece of his heart seemed to want to crack as soon as he imagined Neal's eyes filled with contempt, staring up at him with a ghostly pale expression, telling him to his face that he never in a million years would have expected or even thought his partner would shoot him.
Peter closed his eyes in a vain attempt to push the image from his mind. This was a living nightmare. One he very desperately wanted to wake up from—but couldn't.
Peter was late. He knew visiting hours were only until 6 PM, but a last minute meeting Hughes had called had detained him much longer than anticipated. He'd tried to call Elizabeth, but only got her mailbox. He figured she must have switched off her phone or maybe had bad reception.
On the way up to the third floor, he ran into his wife who was just about to get on the elevator. "Hey El," he greeted her.
"Honey, I was wondering where you were."
He sighed. "Yeah, the meeting from hell just wouldn't end."
She gave him a soft kiss on the lips. "Poor you. Hopefully they'll still let you see him."
"How is he?"
"I don't know. It's hard to say. He's pretty out of it. The nurses say it's the morphine. They warned me he might hallucinate too. Apparently, it's not uncommon."
Peter released a long breath. "Did you talk to him?"
"Yeah. But he dozed off about halfway through our conversation. I sat with him for a while after that."
"Are you on your way out?"
"Yeah, I got here about an hour ago."
"You wanna come back with me?"
She shook her head. "Nah, you go ahead. Plus, I doubt they'd let the two of us back in there."
"Okay," he nodded. "See you at home?"
"Yeah. I'm making fillet of pork."
She leaned in conspiratorially. "Don't tell Neal. I don't think he's allowed solid foods yet."
"Oh, I won't."
Elizabeth pushed the button for the elevator and Peter made his way to the nurse's station. He explained why he was late, and he was in luck that the nurse he spoke to was sympathetic to his plight. She told him to go ahead and see Neal, but only for 10 minutes.
His hand hovering over the door handle of room 312, he had a strange feeling of déjà vu. He quickly pushed the notion aside and entered quietly.
The top end of the bed was slightly raised, and, not surprisingly, Neal was asleep, pale against the stark white pillows. A part of Peter was glad because it meant that maybe they didn't need to talk. That they didn't need to broach the one subject that Peter would give anything to avoid right now.
Peter stepped closer, looking around. There was a padded chair next to the bed and he sat down in it. It made a screeching sound against the linoleum floor as he dragged it into the right position. It must have been the noise that awoke Neal. He started to stir in his bed, his eyes fluttering open.
"Uhhh," he emitted groggily.
"Neal?" Peter asked.
"Yeah," he croaked. "Is that my name?"
Peter frowned, but then he remembered El's warning about the hallucinations and drowsiness. "Neal, it's me, Peter."
He opened his eyes, studying Peter for a long moment. "Peter," he finally said, recognition dawning.
"Yeah. How are you feeling?"
"I... don't know. Kinda strange."
"You in any pain?"
"A little. More when I move."
"Yeah," Peter said, "Which is why moving isn't such a good idea right now."
"Okay," Neal just said. He leaned his head back against the pillows, closing his eyes. "I'm thirsty. Can I have a Coke?"
"You want me to get you one?"
"Yes, please," he mumbled.
"Regular or diet?"
"Okay, I'll check if you can have some. I'll be right back."
He left the room and looked around for a nurse. He found someone in one of the supply rooms down the hall and asked if Neal was allowed to have a Coke. When he confirmed Neal was the "GSW in 312", he was informed that caffeine wouldn't be good for Neal right now. So Peter got a can of lemonade and Seven Up from the vending machine outside the ward, not sure what Neal would want in lieu of Coke.
When he got back to Neal's room, Neal had dozed off again, his head lolling to one side. Peter smiled a small smile and put both cans on the nightstand within easy reach. He lingered for another minute next to the bed, then left. Tomorrow would be another day.
"Peter, my office," the bassy voice of Reese Hughes boomed from Peter's door.
Peter looked up, a hollow knot suddenly in his stomach. The moment of truth.
Hughes gestured to the seat opposite his desk and Peter sat down. Hughes spoke without preamble.
"We got the report from ballistics today, and it's corroborating what you've been reporting. The bullet that was extracted from Neal Caffrey came from your gun."
Peter closed his eyes for a short moment, drawing in a breath. It wasn't entirely unexpected, but it still hit home. He'd shot Neal, there was no more doubt about it.
"You understand that I have to get OPR involved now. There will be a full investigation, interviews, the works. But please know that we are all aware it was an accident, and that this is going to be our official response. FBI agents are trained for situations where a few seconds can decide between life or death. As far as I can tell, you did everything by the book. And OPR will have a very hard time proving otherwise."
"Thank you, Reese," he said. His words had reassured Peter, but it was still a very bitter pill to swallow.
"I'll have to restrict you to desk duty until further notice. And we'll also have to hold your gun until finalization of the formal inquiry."
Peter nodded. "I understand."
Hughes met his eyes. "How is Caffrey?"
"As well as can be expected. The doctors say there's no reason he won't make a full recovery."
"Good. That's good," Hughes muttered. "He has become a valuable asset for the Bureau. I don't think we can afford to lose him."
Peter's heart swelled just a little with pride. And Hughes was right. They definitely couldn't afford to lose him. And Peter was sure they were going to sorely miss him during the weeks of recovery.
Peter and Elizabeth made time to visit Neal every day. These visits were usually short-lived, because Neal was still on morphine and either sleeping or too sleepy to hold any kind of extended conversation. Which Peter was secretly grateful for, because it meant they didn't have to talk about the 'incident'.
There had been attempts at mentioning the shooting, but Peter always tried very hard not to broach the subject of who had fired the shot that had incapacitated Neal. However, he knew he couldn't hold it off indefinitely. The time would come, and Peter still dreaded it.
It was the fourth day after the surgery that Peter thought he saw the real Neal Caffrey return. They had taken him off the morphine, switching to oral painkillers. Since Neal was now drinking enough, the cannula delivering IV fluids had been removed. The perfusors delivering antibiotics and other medications where still there but had been reduced in number.
Peter's timing that day hadn't been great. Even though he was pretty much bound to his desk, things were still busy. And the errand he'd run had taken longer than expected, but it was an important errand, the fruits of which he now held in his hand.
When he got to Neal's room, he was met with an unusual picture. Elizabeth and Mozzie were grouped around Neal's bed, and there were soft laughs all around. Neal looked much better, if you could say that about a man who had been lying in a hospital bed without ingesting any solid foods to speak of for almost a week.
"Look at you, having a party without me," Peter said cheerfully.
"Those who are late will be punished by life itself," Mozzie volunteered.
Peter lifted a finger. "Michail Gorbatschow."
"Gennadi Iwanowitsch Gerassimow, actually. It's a common misconception that the saying originated from Gorbatschow."
"Thank you," Peter said mockingly. He looked at Neal. "And how is our patient today?"
Neal gave him an attempt of a brave smile. "Our patient is feeling much better, thank you very much, now that he is coming off the morphine."
"Glad to hear it," Peter said. "And perfect timing too, because..." He produced a rectangular, gift-wrapped package from behind his back, "We have a get-well gift for you. And we want you alert enough to appreciate it."
Neal raised his eyebrows. "And 'we' would be...?"
"Diana, Jones, Hughes, and pretty much the rest of the White Collar unit." Peter stepped closer and handed Neal the package. "You didn't strike us as the flower type, so we got you this instead."
Neal winced as he reached out, stretching his sore body just a little too far.
Peter drew up the last chair in the room and everyone watched as Neal clumsily opened the package. A genuine smile spread across his face as he realized what it was.
"A first edition Vonnegut? Peter, these are impossible to get."
Peter smiled a wistful smile. "Not if you know which second hand bookshops to frequent that might have a treasure hidden away somewhere."
"No," he held the book out to Peter. "I can't accept this."
"Relax, Neal. I have people who owe me favors too, you know?"
"So this didn't cost you a fortune?"
"No, it didn't cost me a fortune."
"And I don't need to feel guilty?"
"When would you ever feel guilty?"
Neal smirked. "Point taken."
Mozzie piped in, getting up from his chair, "Now that the pleasantries are over with, I will bid you my fond farewell."
Elizabeth looked at him. "You don't have to go, Moz."
"There are decidedly too many people in the room. Besides, the longer I stay, the more chances I'll catch MRSA. Nasty things, those. Very hard to combat."
Peter had one of his incredulous looks on his face. "No one here has MRSA, otherwise they'd have us gowned and gloved up to the gills."
"That's what they want you to think. So, uhm, Neal?" Mozzie turned to face his friend. "Remember not to—" He pointed a finger at him, then retracted it. "Never mind."
Neal smiled in his direction. "See you tomorrow, Moz."
"Yeah, maybe. Maybe not." And with that, he left the room.
Elizabeth looked at Peter and said, "Actually, I should be going too. There're a few proposals for work I wanted to go over."
Peter's gaze on her was almost panicky. "You're leaving?"
She looked almost mischievously innocent. "Yeah, those proposals need to be reviewed before tomorrow."
She got up from her chair and squeezed Neal's hand. "I'll be back tomorrow, okay?"
Neal just nodded, muttering thanks.
She gave him one last, concerned look and went over to her husband. "Honey, I'll see you at home." She gave Peter a quick peck on the lips before she left.
Peter turned to Neal and quickly said, "I'll be right back."
Outside of Neal's room, he caught up with Elizabeth. "You can't leave me alone with Neal," he said, a certain desperation to his voice.
"Why, are you afraid he will suddenly break into tears?"
"No, it's not that."
"Then what is it?" Then it dawned on her. "You haven't talked about what happened."
"I don't even know if he remembers."
"And you're afraid that if he doesn't and you tell him what happened, he'll hate you?"
Peter's heart sank. "Yeah, something like that."
"Honey, he'll understand that it was an accident, that you didn't mean to shoot him."
"How can you be so sure?"
"He's a reasonable and smart man. And he trusts you, maybe more than anyone else. I just can't see him blaming you for reacting the way that you were trained to react."
Peter's voice was just shy of a whisper. "El, he almost died."
She cupped his face in both her hands. "Honey, I know. But you're gonna have to discuss that with him, not me. I can't help you with that."
He drew in a long, heavy breath. Rationally, he knew she was right. But that didn't make it any easier. "Okay," he finally yielded.
When Peter re-entered the room, Neal looked at him curiously, unusually attentive. Peter knew that was a good thing. He sat back down in the chair he had previously occupied. There was a brief silence before he asked, "So, uhm, you feeling better?"
Neal shifted in his bed, wincing slightly. "Truthfully? I never knew such a tiny piece of metal could inflict this much discomfort. Just one more reason why I don't like guns."
"Yeah, about that..."
"Peter, I hope you're not suggesting that I start carrying one. Because I don't think—"
"No, the FBI doesn't give guns to consultants."
"Good." Neal smiled again. "So I hear they actually had to remove the bullet from where it was lodged in my liver. Any chance I can keep it?"
"I don't think so. It's with forensics."
"Right," Neal said. "To determine whose gun it came from."
"Neal..." Peter started.
Neal closed his eyes, then opened them again. "It's okay, Peter. I forgive you."
"What do you mean?"
"You shot me. I forgive you."
"What do you mean, no? You didn't shoot me?"
"Yes, I shot you. But, I mean, it was—" He sighed a heavy sigh. "Look, it's not that simple."
"It can be."
"No, it can't." He looked straight at Neal, his voice hoarse. "I almost killed you."
"Almost being the operative word here."
"This shouldn't have happened. You don't shoot your own people. Dammit, Neal, why didn't you stay in the van?"
"I... don't know."
"Yes, you do. That day, after I... when we waited for the ambulance, you told me you needed to make sure they didn't shoot me. What exactly did you mean?"
Neal swallowed, looking down at his hands in his lap. "They were advancing on you from behind. You were right in their line of fire. I saw all of it. And I had to warn you, so I ran."
There was a brief pause, then it hit Peter. And that made it even worse. Just above a whisper, he said, "You saved my life. And I... I shot you. Shit, Neal—" His voice broke, then he added barely audible. "You saved my life."
"Peter, it wasn't—"
"No," Peter got up from the chair, raising his voice. He started pacing in front of Neal's bed. "How the hell did this happen? You don't shoot a man—a friend—for saving your life."
"Peter, it's okay," Neal tried to placate him.
"It's not okay. None of this is even remotely okay. I mean, we shouldn't even have been there in the first place! If NYPD had just— Dammit! This shouldn't have happened. I shouldn't—"
"Peter," Neal tried again. "Peter, look at me."
He finally stopped pacing and met Neal's gaze. His voice was laden with quiet, desperate regret. "Neal, I'm so sorry."
"I know," Neal said in a low voice. "And you need to know that I don't blame you. It was an accident, nothing more."
Peter just nodded, rooted to the spot near the foot of Neal's bed. He stood there for a long, silent minute before Neal broke the silence.
"I take it you're not suspended."
"No. Desk duty."
"Ouch, that's gotta hurt. OPR involved?"
"Yeah. They grilled me and the rest of the team for a whole day. I have a feeling they might want to speak to you too at some point. You want me to keep them at bay for a while?"
Neal contemplated this for a moment. "No, it's okay. It's not like I can't answer some questions."
"I'll make sure that someone is with them to keep them in check."
"Thanks," he said. "You know what the best part about this is?" A grin slowly spread over his face. "You totally owe me."
"So can I ask for a favor?"
"The anklet's not coming off."
"Not even for a day?"
"What, right now? What good would that do?"
"No, not right now. You know, just... some time down the road. When I need it."
Peter considered this for a moment. "Neal, you know I can't make any promises."
"But you'll consider it?"
"I'll consider it," he confirmed.
"Then that's good enough for me."
At that moment, one of the nurses entered the room. Upon seeing Peter, she said jokingly, "Ah, Mr. Caffrey, I see your FBI agent friend is back."
Peter looked sheepish and Neal couldn't hide a smile. "Wow, you've already made a name for yourself, Peter."
"I, uhm, may have waved my badge once or twice when they wouldn't let me see you."
"Subtle," Neal commented.
The nurse adjusted something with the perfusors, then turned to Neal. "Mr. Caffrey, you need to drink more. Your kidney output is borderline. Otherwise we'll have to get you hooked back up to an IV."
"I'll drink. No IV please," Neal quickly responded.
"You also need to eat." The nurse then turned to Peter. "He needs to get his strength up. Can you make him eat?"
"He's not eating?"
"Not as well as he should be. Antibiotics can sometimes mess with your appetite. And Mr. Caffrey here seems to be a little stubborn."
"Oh yeah," Peter confirmed. "You wouldn't know the first thing about it."
"Hello, guys, I'm right here," Neal interjected.
Peter gave him a stern look. "Is she right?"
Neal looked first at the nurse, then at Peter. "Well, the food isn't exactly enticing."
The nurse looked at him sympathetically. "I know. But you need to start to slowly get used to solid foods again. Once you're back to a regular diet, it'll get better. I promise."
"Okay, I'll make you a deal," Peter told Neal. "If you eat what they give you, I'll get you whatever you want when you're allowed normal food. A burger, pizza, El's cooking. You name it."
The nurse smiled at Peter, then at Neal. "There you go."
"Do we have a deal?"
Neal nodded slowly. "Yeah, I think I can agree to that."
"You better. I'll be checking."
"Lombardi's 18-inch pie," Neal said.
"Sorry?" Peter asked.
"Lombardi's 18-inch pie. That what I want you to get me."
Peter chuckled. "Okay. All in good time."
"I'll be waiting for it."
The nurse bent down next to Neal's bed, then said, "Looks like we need a change of catheter. Mr. Burke, I'm going to have to ask you to leave the room for a few minutes."
Peter nodded. "It's okay. I should be going anyway." To Neal he said, "Is there anything I can get you? Books, magazines, newspaper?"
"No, I'm good for now, thanks. El and Moz already took care of that."
"Okay, I'll see you tomorrow." Just before he opened the door, he turned back around. "And remember to eat, all right?"
"Yes, Dad," Neal said mockingly.
Peter decided to let the comment go.
It was a week later that Peter woke up from the nightmare. The first one that took him back to that day—the day he felt Neal's life draining through his fingers in streaks of crimson red. He realized he must have thrashed about, or maybe muttered something in his sleep, because Elizabeth, groggy-voiced and bleary-eyed, mumbled a question to see if he was okay.
"Yeah," he whispered hoarsely, trying to get his breathing in check. "I just need a glass of water. Go back to sleep, Honey."
She obeyed and turned around so that her back was facing him.
He swung his legs over the side of the bed and quietly padded downstairs. Satchmo greeted him with carefully subdued tail-wagging. He usually didn't have human visitors downstairs in the middle of the night.
In the kitchen, Peter filled a glass with tap water and gulped it down. Sitting down on one of the barstools at the counter, he rubbed his face in his hands.
He wasn't sure what had brought on the dream. Neal was doing okay. Better than expected, actually. Ever since they'd told him that he'd need to be able to walk without assistance before they could release him, he'd gritted his teeth and given it another try. The first attempts had been pitiful, somewhat humiliating and yet a big step to starting a recovery period that would take a while.
Peter had watched him walk up and down the hallway outside his room, his arm linked with Elizabeth's, not two days later. Neal's grin afterwards had been proud, determined, almost smug.
Three days after that, they'd released Neal into the care of Peter and Elizabeth. Peter had taken a week with Hughes' permission. Neal had, of course, protested, but it was one of the conditions of his discharge from the hospital that he'd be well looked after, especially in the first few days. In the end, Neal understood that it was either the Burkes' home or an extended stay in a hospital room he was sharing with a snoring retiree. It wasn't hard to figure out what the lesser of the two evils was.
In the quiet house, it was hard not to hear the creaking floorboard of the third step from the top that Peter had wanted to fix for ages. Half a minute later, he could make out Neal's quiet voice.
Peter hesitantly ventured into the hall, seeing Neal sitting at the bottom of the stairs, petting the sandy-furred lab. Peter knew Neal wasn't so much sitting there because he liked the spot, it was more that tackling the stairs in any direction was a pretty big deal for him; the loss of blood had left him tired and weak.
Peter took another few steps closer to announce his presence and softly asked, "Can't sleep?"
Neal shifted his attention from Satchmo to Peter. "I could ask you the same question."
"There is something to be said for watching robins in your garden at 4 AM. What's your excuse?"
"Do I need one?"
Peter walked over to the couch, sitting on the edge of the armrest so he could face Neal. "Do you need more pain meds?"
Neal waved a dismissive hand. "No, I'm okay."
One look at him told Peter he was lying through his teeth. "There's a time to play hero, Neal, and it's not now."
"Already took some. I was going to wait for them to kick in," he finally admitted.
A rare moment of honesty. "I take it it's not the first time you're doing this."
"What, taking painkillers?"
"Waking up in the middle of the night because you need painkillers." Worry was now etched into Peter's voice. Had they discharged Neal too early? Was he just putting on a good show when really he wasn't ready?
"Well, there is that, and sleeping pretty much at all hours during the day kind of messes with your sleep cycle."
Fair enough, Peter thought. "Do you want me to get you anything? A glass of water?"
Even in the dim light, he saw pride flashing across Neal's features. "Thanks, but I'm perfectly capable of walking."
Peter briefly squinted his eyes at Neal's attempt to get up from the stairs while trying to hide his discomfort—and failing at the latter—but decided not to intervene. Neal's ego had been bruised enough lately.
He tentatively followed Neal and sat down at the dining table, where Neal joined him a minute later, a glass of water in hand.
"So, uhm," Neal said, "I was thinking that maybe it was time to move back to June's place."
"Are you sure that's a good idea? There's an awful lot of stairs to navigate in that place."
"Peter..." Neal said, exasperation creeping into his voice.
"Come on, Neal, I've seen you crawl up and down ours, and that's just one flight."
"You make it sound like I can't move around on my own. I'm not an invalid."
"I know that," Peter softened. "I hope this is not because you think you're being a burden."
"I hope this is not because you think you owe me something," Neal countered.
Peter sighed, then looked Neal in the eye. "You need to know that we like having you here."
Neal chuckled dismissively. There was unbridled sarcasm in his voice. "Yeah. Because I know just how much you enjoy having to tend to your incapacitated CI in your own home."
"Remember, this was part of the deal so they'd release you from the hospital."
"Which you only agreed to because—"
"No," Peter sharply interjected. "We're not having this conversation. You're not going back to June's until... I don't know. Not yet anyway."
"Okay," Neal said, his tone suggesting it was anything but.
Peter realized he may have overstepped. "I'm sorry," he offered. "That may have come across a bit patronizing."
"A bit," Neal echoed.
"I still think it's too early for you to go back to your place."
"Why, Peter? Because you still feel guilty for having put me in this position in the first place? Thanks, that makes me feel a whole lot more welcome."
Peter rubbed his face in one hand. His eyes were scratchy from lack of sleep, and at 4 AM he had no patience and too little restraint. "Fine," he said, annoyed now. "If you're so intent on pinning this on my guilty conscience, then be my guest."
"Look me in the eye and tell me that's not part of why you're doing this."
Peter met Neal's eyes, not sure what he read there. "Fine. I'd have to be lying if that wasn't part of it, but I would still be doing this if you'd gotten injured any other way."
"Why, Peter?" Neal repeated. "I'm not your responsibility."
"Yes, you are. For as long as you're wearing that anklet, you sure are."
Neal's back went up. "Oh, so it's the anklet. The FBI deal. The job. I get it."
"No, dammit!" Peter hissed, then released a long, impatient breath. "You're a friend. That's why. And who else do you have? Moz? No offense, but he..." Peter trailed off, for fear of saying something he might regret later.
"Nice. Throw some pity into the mix, why don't you?"
"Jesus, Neal, do I have to spell it out for you? You're like... You're family."
Neal's eyes flashed briefly to Peter's, then they darted away, ashamed almost.
Peter sat back, watching the struggle on Neal's face. The silence was awkward until Neal pushed back his chair. He muttered something Peter couldn't make out. His getaway was less than graceful and accompanied by a groan.
Peter watched him walk away. "Neal," he called after him.
Neal didn't stop, so Peter went after him. He caught up with him at the bottom of the stairs. The grip on Neal's arm was harsher than he intended, but it had the desired effect.
"No," Neal said as he wrenched his arm free of Peter's hold, and it came out choked.
Peter had to take one look at him to know that Neal was on the verge of... something. Release? Breaking down? Giving in?
"Hey," Peter shushed. "Hey, hey, hey."
It was enough for Neal to crumble. Tears filled his eyes, spilling over, and Neal wiped them away with a quick swipe of his hand. "Shit," he muttered. "This wasn't supposed to happen."
"It's okay," Peter said, his voice soothing. He placed his hand gently on Neal's shoulder, pushing downwards just a little. "Sit down for a moment."
Neal obeyed and was back on the stairs, in almost the same spot he'd been when he first came down here this night. Peter sat down next to him, never taking his hand off Neal's shoulder. When he squeezed a little, he felt Neal leaning into it.
They sat like that for a long time, not saying a word. Neal finally propped his elbows up on his knees, letting his face sink into his hands, and Peter lifted his hand from where it had lain.
"Come on," he said softly. "Let's get you back to bed. I bet those painkillers have kicked in by now."
Neal nodded almost imperceptibly.
In the doorframe to the guest room, Neal turned around to Peter who was still lingering in the hallway. "Thank you," Neal said, his voice solemn, honest.
And Peter knew it covered much more than their interlude on the stairs.
He was surprised to find Elizabeth awake when he reentered their bedroom. He crawled back underneath the covers, kissing his wife. "I love you," he whispered.
"I love you too," she whispered back. "Is Neal okay?"
He nodded. "He will be."
"Why, did something happen?"
"No. I mean, we... We talked."
"Is that good or bad?" she asked.
"Good. It's all good."
She reached over and planted a soft kiss on his lips. "I'm proud of you."
He smiled. "Why?"
"Because you're doing this. He's here, we're taking care of him, and you're not being weird about it."
Peter contemplated for a moment what she was saying, but there was only one answer for it, one explanation.