Sigh...despite having written drafts of it. I am still sorry this is the last chapter. Weird.
Thank you all for sticking around for my first White Collar Big Bang and sharing with me your reactions. Hopefully, I'll try my hand on more fic soon. Hugs to all.
A hand gripped him by the shoulder and shook.
Before Neal could respond, even before his limbs could tense, he heard a low voice rumbling like distant thunder by his ear.
"Easy. Don't take a swing at me again, Rocky."
After rubbing his eyes, Neal opened them wider. The darkness that greeted him quickened his breath, but a light clicked on near his feet, scattering the black into the shapes and angles of Peter's living area.
"You know the drill," Peter said. He could at least look apologetic. He lowered the volume further on whatever he was watching and moved the stack of files from his lap to the floor since the coffee table had been deemed a lost cause and tossed out.
Neal groaned but didn't try to sit up. The ice pack Elizabeth had given him after dinner was now a warm, limp weight on his left wrist. Neal had guessed wrong; luckily, it wasn't broken, but now his entire hand throbbed even when he moved his elbow.
"You're enjoying this," Neal half-heartedly accused Peter. "Rook is monopolizing Dunbar's questioning so you settled for me. It's like interrogation but without the polygraph."
"Yes," Peter deadpanned, "because I enjoy waking you up every four hours to ask you questions." He reached over and pulled the spent ice pack off Neal's hand.
"I could have gone back to my place." Neal tentatively felt around the bristly stitches buried into his temple. "The doctors said it wasn't serious. It only took three stitches." Although he was going to have to be creative while combing his hair the next week or so. Wonderful.
Peter sounded as impressed as he did in the ER. "June's not back yet and you with a concussion in the top floor of a mansion just screams trouble." He rose from his seat and headed into the kitchen. Still talking as he went.
"That was the deal, Neal. You didn't want to stay in the hospital and June's was out." Peter returned with a new icepack.
Neal gratefully took it. For a second, he wasn't sure where he wanted to put it more: his wrist or his head.
"I'm fine," Neal mumbled. The icepack stung first on contact but then mellowed into a numbing sensation on his wrist. He kept his eyes on his hand and not Peter. Envy tugged inside; he wished the icepack could numb everything.
"You shouldn't be alone."
Neal looked up at the words and caught Peter's very serious expression. His eyes dropped back down to his hand.
"So what's the first question again?" Neal asked, lightly. "I think it's my name? Or do you want an alias this time?"
"No, I think that's my answer, or did you want it in the form of a question?"
Peter sighed. But, unlike the first time he woke Neal up, he didn't play along. He turned off the television. Not a good sign. He stood by the foot of the couch, studying Neal.
"Mind not standing over me like that?" Neal muttered, not looking at Peter. He fidgeted and struggled to sit up.
There was a quiet curse and Peter sat on the armrest by Neal's feet immediately. "Sorry."
Neal shrugged. "It's fine. Just right now, you know, I…"
"It didn't happen," Neal stressed. "This…" He gestured towards Peter, towards the space over him, towards himself. "It'll go away." He wished Peter would stop nodding and agreeing with him. It wasn't Peter; it just wasn't normal. Neal wanted normal.
"Peter, nothing happened. It only looked like something did."
"Doesn't make what you feel any less important," Peter told him in the same low, understanding voice.
"I shouldn't feel anything," Neal muttered. "Nothing happened." He sat up even though his body was pleading for him to stay down. He blinked furiously at his legs.
Peter sighed, nodded again and said nothing. For some reason, that was worse.
"Shouldn't you be asking me questions right now?" Neal inwardly winced at the desperation he could hear in his own voice.
A searching gaze slid his way. "Fine…why were you at the gallery the first time?"
Closing his eyes, Neal forced out a chuckle. "I don't think that one was on the list, Peter."
"I don't care."
"I don't think my doctor would be happy to hear that—"
"What do you want me to say?" Neal shot back harshly before he could stop himself. At Peter's stunned silence, Neal swallowed.
"I saw the painting, Neal. Lady by the Window?"
There was a brief moment that Neal wanted to joke it wasn't one of his alleged forgeries. It was at the tip of his tongue, but he lifted his eyes and caught Peter staring at him, solemn, openly concerned, worry lining his brow.
Something snapped inside him, so abruptly, so loudly in his ears, Neal was startled no one else could hear it.
"Kate's dead." Neal's eyes burned.
Peter didn't seem as surprised as he was when the words escaped. He sighed, long and tired, as he nodded to himself.
"I would say sorry, Neal." Peter lowered himself to the couch. He gave Neal's ankles a gentle shove to make room. "But we've been telling you all this time." He dropped a hand on Neal's shoulder. "You didn't look like you wanted to hear it yet."
Mute, Neal focused at the stack of folders Peter left on the floor. He wondered how thick of a folder Kate's life amounted to.
Ash coated the back of his throat. Neal squeezed his eyes shut.
"I went there," Neal croaked, "because I wanted to remember her."
"I didn't think you would ever forget her."
Shaking his head, Neal couldn't speak.
Peter sat closer, close enough Neal could sense Peter's shoulder just shy of his. Keeping his distance yet not too far, like a reassuring voice on a cell phone, telling him it was okay to hide for now because he'll be found.
"I keep seeing her on that plane."
Next to him, Peter stilled.
"All I can see now is her getting on that plane."
"But that wasn't the Kate you knew," Peter guessed.
The understanding in Peter's voice this time eased the lump lodged in Neal's throat. "We were never the white picket fence sort, but there were times, when I look at her, I thought we could be." He slouched forward, his hands cradling his face. "I wanted to remember that."
"I wish you had told me," Peter said quietly. "That day, I really wish that invite was for real. I would have gone with you. I would have."
And Peter would have. The thought of it loosened the knot in Neal's stomach and infused a warmth he wasn't accustomed to.
Neal smiled disparagingly. He shrugged. "Maybe you're right. If you had, maybe I wouldn't have gotten mixed up with Docks." The hand on his shoulder gave him a brief tightening clasp. Neal looked up at Peter's pinched expression.
"Don't ever blame yourself for that. It wasn't your fault." Peter's hard face smoothed out. "What you're feeling right now either. Okay, it didn't happen, but they made you think it could have and that's just as bad."
Speechless, Neal nodded.
An eyebrow rose in response. "Really? Are you listening?"
"Trying." Neal smiled shakily.
Peter nodded, looking satisfied.
This time, Neal's smile felt more natural. "I do listen, you know."
"How you interpret it is the problem," Peter scoffed.
Neal offered a broad grin this time. "But at least I listen."
Peter made a swipe at Neal's head, pretending he missed, but Neal suspected they both knew better.
"Go back to sleep." Peter rose to his feet and stepped back as Neal slid down to reclaim the entire couch.
"Thought you have to ask me questions," Neal yawned.
"Okay. What did you do with the Landmoch Scrolls?"
Neal smirked sleepily as his eyelids grew heavy. He wagged a finger in Peter's general direction. "Now that would be telling."
"So you did take them," Peter murmured triumphantly.
"No." Neal's next yawn stretched his reply to one long syllable. He glowered at Peter when he chuckled. Neal retaliated by adding, "I said it would be telling you I took the Landmoch Scrolls, like telling you about the Regency Bibles." He wiggled deeper into the cushions of the couch.
"Wait, you took those?" Peter demanded.
"Sleeping here," Neal murmured, his eyes sliding closed.
The afghan that had been bunched by his feet was snapped out to drape over him. Neal opened his eyes again in time to see Peter settling back into the armchair. Neal wanted to tell him it was fine; go upstairs to Elizabeth and Satchmo. But he knew Peter would only grumble something about his backlog of mortgage frauds again, maybe threaten Neal with coming in on a Saturday to hunch over his dining table with a stack of his own. And for the first time in months, Neal found himself not minding.
Peter was still watching Neal from his chair. The folders laid balanced on his lap, ignored, the television remote on top untouched.
"It'll be fine, Neal," Peter said quietly. "You can go to sleep."
Neal let his eyes drift shut again. He could hear Peter turning on the television; whatever he was watching buzzed low in the background. Neal smiled to himself, letting his limbs relax further. The couch was thick under his back, the icepack cool around his wrist, the blanket soft and warm on top.
And for the first time in a long while, Neal knew he was safe.
Author's Note: Dear brate7, the fact you haven't zatted me yet for betaing a fic that went from 21K to 38K is a mighty feat. You made incoherency into a fic! Thank you for ninjaing through tenses, plot holes, repetitive words with your red pen!
And to the mods of whitecollar-bb, much gratitude for your patience through my Internet woes, my draft woes and for this wonderful community.
Pssst: Feedback is like cookies. I like cookies. -lol-