A/N: Ok, this is my first published piece of fiction, so I would love any reviews or criticism people are willing to offer, but please, no trolling. I realize that season 1 of White Collar was a while ago, but I only started watching recently, and Vital Signs is one of my favourite episodes so far, so I decided to write on this one. Having said that, read and enjoy!
Once they had cleared the impressive security (way too much security for a charitable organization, in his opinion), Peter finally relaxed. He half-carried, half dragged Neal to the car, the drugged ex (allegedly) conman still mumbling inaudibly and randomly breaking into song. Now that they were out of danger, Peter felt his lips twitch. A drugged Neal Caffrey was a sight to behold.
He maneuvered Neal into the passenger seat of the car, reaching across him to tie the seatbelt. "What?"
"Peter, Peter, Peter…Peter, Peter pumpkin-eater…"
He shook his head in amusement, walking around to his own side of the car. He hopped in and took a cautious look around to make sure he hadn't been followed before pulling out into traffic. He cursed as he looked at all the cars around him. At this rate it would take them at least thirty minutes to get home.
He ignored Neal as he carefully negotiated the next junction.
He felt his lips twitch into a smile of their own volition. "What, Neal?"
"You ever been to prison?"
Surprised, he glanced over to meet an unexpectedly lucid gaze. "What, for a crime?"
Neal nodded, and he looked away with a slightly uncomfortable chuckle. "No, I've never been inside. Closest I ever got was swiping a sweet when I was a kid and my Dad made sure that never happened again."
"He hit you?"
"God no!" The impassioned denial was out of Peter's mouth before he had time to think. "Just grounded me for a month. That's forever when you're six."
Peter focused firmly on the road, hoping Neal was done. He had forgotten in his amusement that a drugged Neal was also a very open Neal, not something he was used to, or comfortable with. He looked at his watch. Only twenty five minutes left to survive.
There was silence for about thirty seconds, then… "I didn't like prison."
Peter groaned inwardly. Outwardly, he simply shrugged. "That's kinda the point."
Neal shot him what was clearly meant to be a meaningful look. "No, I really, really didn't like prison. Air smelled funny there."
Peter stayed silent. Between his own unrelenting three-year pursuit of Neal, and the con's subsequent communication from prison, he hadn't forgotten the young man he had put away for fraud. Neal had been only 23 when Peter had finally caught up with him: nothing more than a kid in Peter's eyes, and he had always felt bad somehow. No doubt that Neal deserved it, he had definitely forged the bonds, and doubtless pulled off numerous other scams, but there was a sense of life about Neal, almost a naiveté: in his aversion to guns, his thrill in their game of cat and mouse, his unrelenting love for Kate. It had almost taken the thrill of winning their game away from Peter to lock Neal up.
Neal clearly took his silence as leave to continue. "I didn't like the people in there either."
Peter couldn't help a snort at that. Neal took affront.
"Seriously, man, they were nasty! No appreciation for art."
Peter shot him a look. "I'm sure that's why they were incarcerated Neal: they lacked a proper awareness of fine art."
Neal stayed quiet, and Peter thanked his lucky stars. Of course, that lasted all of two minutes.
"Hey, did I ever show you my scar?"
Peter sighed. Accepting that silence would get him nowhere, he dutifully replied, "No Neal. You have never shown me your scar." He looked at his watch again. Twenty minutes.
"Really? Here, two secs…"
There was a rustling sound and Peter looked around to see Neal struggling to pull up the left sleeve of his shirt. He rolled his eyes. "I'm sure your scar's very impressive Neal, you can show me some…other…time…"
His voice trailed off as he glanced over to see the eight inch scar running the length of Neal's left bicep. "Where the hell did you get that?"
Neal looked at it impassively, all emotion – drugged or otherwise – gone from his face. "Got it in prison."
Normally, Neal wouldn't have even shown him the scar, let alone tell him where it came from. Of course, drugged Neal was far more forthcoming.
"I'd only been inside, like, two months? Anyway, this guy wanted something from me…I dunno, can't even remember now…" He trailed off, searching his memory for the long-ago sought after item.
Then he shook himself, returning to the tale at hand. "Anyway, I said 'No, you can go fu-uh…" He broke off at the glare Peter gave him and continued. "Yeah. Next thing I know, guy's got a shiv and he's trying to drive it straight in here…"
Peter's heart leaped in his chest as he glanced over to see Neal vaguely indicating the left side of his chest. "…but I dodged and he got my arm. There was a lot of blood…"
Neal poked his arm suspiciously as though suspecting that it would start spewing red liquid again. Peter felt sick to his stomach. He couldn't explain it. Maybe it was Neal's recent confession of trust, maybe it was his own paternal (yes, he could just about admit it in the privacy of his mind) feelings towards the ex-con, but the thought of Neal taking a shiv and bleeding out…he briefly commanded his stomach not to rebel, then focused again as he realized that Neal was still talking.
"…but yeah, 21 stitches later and I was good as new!" He beamed at Peter, seeming to forget the serious nature of his anecdote as he started humming under his breath again.
"I never heard about that." Peter was surprised to hear the words coming out of his mouth. Neal turned to face him.
"Your fight, in prison. I never heard about it. I would've…I dunno, checked up on you or something." He stared out the front window, embarrassed.
Neal said nothing, and Peter looked over to find his eyes swimming with tears. This time he couldn't hold in the groan. "Oh God, not crying."
Neal clapped a hand on his shoulder, apparently too overcome to say anything. Peter shook his head, and kept concentrating on the car in front of him. Neal dropped his hand, and started staring out the window, silent for once.
Peter thanked whatever God was granting his prayers, and glanced at his SatNav. He hesitated. The exit for Neal's apartment was coming up. He chewed his lip for a minute, considering. Neal was still dopey as hell, and Elizabeth was still pissed as hell. Maybe if he took Neal home, he'd act as a buffer…decision made, he drove straight past the exit, heading for home. It wouldn't kill Neal to sleep on a couch for a night.
He sighed, content, and then…"Hey, Peter?"
He glanced at his watch and groaned. It was going to be a long ten minutes.