Remember and be Sad

Better by far you should forget and smile, than you should remember and be sad . . .

Christina Rossetti 1830-1894

Part Fifteen

A ghost in the bed… he remembered the words – and that he'd thought they were a tad over-dramatic, but now looking closely at Peter, he thought perhaps he'd underplayed them instead. Peter was… Peter was horribly frail. It was the only candid way of describing him. So pale he seemed to merge with the white cotton sheets and disappear into thin air.

Neal stood there a while and watched as he slept and the lingering dregs of anger drained out of him. In its place came a mixture of concern and unease and the all-pervasive guilt once again. The bruises had faded a shade or two and the facial swelling wasn't quite so shocking, but the IV still dripped with silent monotony into the back of Peter's uncasted hand.

He was supposed to be doing better, starting out on the road to recovery, but he was delicate and almost transparent, as though he was gradually vanishing. No wonder El had been so freaked out. At that moment, Neal heartily forgave her. He was filled with a sudden pang of relief. Thank god, he'd decided to stay.

It was a little like watching a pastiche of some kind – as though the man in the bed was a caricature. Never, not in all his worse nightmares, had he ever envisaged Peter like this. Peter was… Peter was sure and strong; he was self-assured and always confident. He was security and all things affirmative and safe… he was never broken like this.

But he was… Anton Schiller had hurt him. In ways Neal could hardly imagine. He knew enough to be certain the bastard had taken pride in his work. Peter was meant to die in the church with no escape and no real hope of rescue, and Schiller had been quite open about it, had made him aware of the fact. Neal shuddered and his chest constricted, the sense of horror was nearly suffocating. For a second, he was down in that cellar and surrounded by despair and darkness, left alone to lie in the stench of his own blood and the constant threat of more pain.

Most men would have given up and died, closed their eyes and succumbed to the inevitable, but Peter Burke had used his wits and intelligence and stubbornly refused to tow the line.

Even so, it had been close.

Almost too close to call. The outcome could have been so very different. Too much had rested on luck, on the flick of a switch, or the activation of Schiller's cell phone. Too much… Peter's life… the words stuck in his throat as he realised how much 'too much' meant to him. Another minute, if El hadn't called him. Another minute and he would have been gone.

As epiphanies went it felt hollow but the sudden insight struck him like lightning. He was here because he had wanted to stay and that was because he cared. He cared. He rolled the words on his tongue. At long last it felt good to admit it. He really had built up a life here, he had prospects, a home, and he had friends.

Peter stirred, muttering restlessly, and his free hand clutched convulsively at the bedclothes. There were beads of sweat on his forehead as his muscles clenched in distress. Neal watched and realised he was needed here. Some things were just too important. There would be time enough for facing his problems once he knew Peter would recover.

Neal sighed and wondered when the man in the bed had become so very important, but it always came back to Peter and the way they had danced around each other. Even back in the very beginning when the whole world still seemed like his oyster. Maybe he'd sensed the wind of change in the air when he'd first heard a glimmer of the name. Peter Burke, the Bureau's new hot-shot, and from that moment, his life was fuelled on high octane. Burke was often only one-step behind him and the whole thing became a dangerous kind of sport. It was funny and then really annoying – after a while, it became fascinating. A strange bond was growing between them. It was the link between predator and prey.

Peter Burke became his new project and Neal studied the man like a painting, all the facets and grooves and brushstrokes which defined him and made him unique. He was smart with a head for numbers but so were a million other guys. Burke had something – an intelligent awareness which gave him a keener edge. He could have gone on and made a fortune. Become corporate and climbed the business ladder. However Burke had an innate sense of justice which had compelled him to join the FBI. It was this which piqued Neal's attention – his pursuer was an anomaly.

In another life, Burke could have been a player and made an easy fortune on Wall Street. He could have owned a penthouse loft in Manhattan and had the world at his wealthy fingertips. Instead, he was a man with a mortgage and a dog, a company car and a middle-income town-house. He wore two-for-one suits and unimaginative ties… but he was married to one hell of a wife.

The beautiful sparkling Elizabeth Burke was a real shock to the system. An indication there was so much more to Mister Burke then a stubborn jaw and pair of sharp brown eyes.

He had known all along – had sensed it.

Peter was different, was special. There was an air of solidarity about him and more than that, a very real integrity. He was an anchor holding fast to a drifting boat or a safe port after turbulent seas. Nonetheless, he was disturbingly human as the whole mess with Schiller had just proven. He was as capable of stumbling and needing a friend, of falling down flat on his face. He could be taken… Neal leaned back against the doorframe, taken away in the blink of an eye.

"Don't touch me - "

Peter's voice was anguished and ragged and he beat his head against the pillow. He was clearly in the throes of a nightmare – in the grip of a horrific dream.

This was not good, Neal took a final glance at the door, but it was less than a half-hearted gesture. He had no intention of running this time but old habits were hard to break.

"It's okay," he braced his shoulders and moved across to the bedside, taking hold of Peter's casted hand. "It's over, you're safe now, buddy. Just rest easy, everything's okay."

To his surprise, Peter responded and the restless twitching ceased almost immediately. His breath shuddered out in a long staccato sigh and he curled his fingers into Neal's palm. The simplicity of the gesture was poignant and overwhelmingly trusting. For the first time since that ill-fated day in the park Neal broke and felt suddenly weak. The pressure in his chest had been building until a point where it was almost suffocating – from the day he'd first woken in the hospital and slipped the mask back over his face.

Be strong… cowboy up and save Peter… the hits continued piling up on each other. And then his meeting with the monstrous Schiller and re-living his grief over Kate.

He'd been lost, sucked into a vacuum, and the gunshot wound had merely compounded things. No wonder he'd agreed to Zahavi's deal. It had seemed the only means of escape.

He dipped his head low and held onto Peter's fingertips. Right now they seemed like a lifeline. The bruised skin was warm and paper dry as he held them up to his face. Angling in, he leaned his cheek against the wrist, at the point where a pulse should be beating. He imagined the slow rhythm through the fibreglass cast. Peter was right here… he was alive. He took a breath as his own heart-rate settled and the thought of ever leaving seemed incredible. It was time for some major decisions. However shaky, his future was here.

"Neal?" Peter's voice was unsteady and he sounded confused, a faint shadow of his former self. "Better not let El catch you, she might get the wrong idea."

Neal replaced Peter's hand very carefully on the sheet. His voice was almost composed when he answered. "There's no need to worry, she's cool with it. She's the one who press-ganged me here."

"Press-ganged, huh?"

Had he imagined it or had there been a hint of wistfulness in Peter's tone. Trouble was, they were so used to skating around the real issues and hiding the truth behind sarcasm – just lately it was hard to be sincere. Neal straightened his shoulders wearily and leaned back at an angle in the chair.

"She's worried, I guess we all are. She called me and I came back immediately. That little fall you took earlier, you gave us all quite a scare."

Peter grimaced and looked a little guilty. "I didn't mean to upset her. She's been through enough as it is."

"We all have, but you bore the brunt of it, and that's why she's been so shaken. Her husband was held and tortured; it's going to take her a while to deal."

"She's going to need support - "

"She's got it. Your team have all been rallying around and her mother's arriving tomorrow. Satchmo's been well taken care of and I… well, that's why I'm here."

"It's good you're here for Elizabeth."

"No," Neal interrupted him fiercely. "I'm not just here for Elizabeth. I'm here for you too, because I want to be, and besides, we need to talk about Schiller."

Peter closed his eyes and turned his head away on the pillow. "We really don't need to do that. The matter's closed, I have nothing to say."

"Peter - "

"No. Schiller's dead, end of subject."

"Clearly not," Neal was well and truly concerned, he'd never seen Peter like this. "You more than anyone know how this goes. We both have to make peace with it."

"There's no such thing as 'peace with it," Peter spat out the statement. "The day I stop remembering what that man did to me…" he took a ragged breath, "let's just say I don't want to forget."

Neal understood, "I get what you're saying, I really do, you need to hold onto the anger. But you have to learn how to control it - to get the bastard out of your head."

"What makes you think he's still in there?"

"Oh, I don't know," Neal closed his eyes briefly and tapped the side of his own head. "Maybe because I know exactly how you're feeling. Schiller was a master torturer – both physically and psychologically. He was adept at scenting blood in the water and homing in on his prey. He was smart like that – the worse kind of cruel, both creative and carefully considered. Like a chess player, cold and calculating. Always one step ahead of the game."

"It was El, he told me he'd hurt her. That he wouldn't hesitate to kill her. Once he had the cargo, he'd leave her alone. He would finish me and then she'd be safe."

Neal had a sudden image of Schiller with El and the subsequent impression wasn't pleasant. The man had been the devil incarnate and the twisted vision made him feel sick. It must have been pure agony for Peter and far worse than the physical torture.

He swallowed, "The guy could read people, sense their weak-spots and pick at them like a scab."

Peter looked up at him slowly and his expression seemed abstracted, almost lost. "Schiller once told me the definition of torture; 'the art of killing a man without his dying.' Sometimes it feels as though he was right. As though a part of me is actually dead."

Neal shivered and the room went suddenly cold as Peter's words struck home with a chilling resonance. Schiller might not have hurt him physically, but the man's words still rang in his head. 'A man like you wouldn't give up a fortune in art just to save Peter Burke's life.'

A man like you… a man like you… the words still twisted inside him. Like a flaming arrow fired straight at his heart… oh, yeah, Schiller had been good at his job.

Neal pressed his eyelids tightly together. Could it be he was really that obvious? Somehow Schiller had seen through him easily. The man had disassembled him effortlessly. All his fears and defences stripped bare. He took a deep breath – this was not about him, and Peter was still achingly vulnerable. He centred himself and reopened his eyes and looked down at the man in the bed.

"Schiller chose you as leverage for a reason. Guess he knew it would be hard to break you. But it was never about you as a person. You were simply a means to an end."

"Not helping if you're trying to be comforting."

"This isn't about trying to comfort you. It's more about being pragmatic. If you're not, then he'll haunt you forever. You can't let the bastard win. Fight back like you did in that cellar. By the way, neat trick with the light-switch. We beat him, Peter, we kicked his Nazi ass. He's the one who ended up dead."

"It was a pure fluke the wiring was suspect and the light switch was over fifty years old."

"Fluke or not, you took it out of his hands. He no longer held all the aces. Not exactly the actions of a broken man. When fate gave you the chance, you fought back."

"Whatever happened, I was never getting out of there. Schiller told me that quite openly. I had a choice – lie back and die quietly, or take a crazy risk and try and escape."

"Always with the crazy risks, huh?"

Neal smiled but his heart was breaking as he envisaged the nightmare prospect in the cellar. The knowledge of certain and unpleasant death or a slender hope of escape. Peter had made no mention of his injuries, but they must have been excruciating. He'd pinned his faith on an ancient light-switch when the outlook had been bleak to say the least.

"You know me," Peter kept his voice nonchalant as he tried to reply in kind. "I like to live on the edge." He paused for a second when the words fell flat and then cleared his throat conversationally. "Did you know I thought you were dead?"

"What?" Neal was stunned into exclamation.

"Schiller told me they'd gunned you down in the park. Shot you and left you for dead. Except his goons didn't know it was you, of course, just some unfortunate agent I was with."

"So the whole time he was trying to broker a deal - as far as you were concerned, I was dead?"

"He thought you'd made a run for it, taken the cargo, and abandoned me to deal with the consequences. He was positive we were in it together – that I'd been tempted by the lure of all that loot."

"But you put him straight?"

"He wouldn't have it. Then he told me he'd arranged to meet you. By that stage I wasn't sure if he was bluffing. If he was playing games with my head."

"Peter…" Neal's voice was husky. "Peter… I…"

"It's all right," Peter held his gaze steadily. "I realised pretty soon, you must be okay. Like the proverbial cat with nine lives."

"A leopard," Neal murmured under his breath, "not just any cat, but a leopard." He met Peter's eyes intently. "If you'd told Schiller, it would have been over."

"But I didn't… and therefore, it wasn't. We both made it out and turned the tables. It's what partners usually do for one another. Stick together through thick and thin."

"Thick and thin, huh?"

"That's what they say in theory – and I'm too tired to talk about the cargo. Both of us know it's still out there - " he paused and looked up at Neal slowly and deliberately. "Who actually stole it is purely semantics, so I'm only going to say this one more time. This isn't the way you should be living your life. You need to man up and do the right thing."

Peter broke off abruptly and held onto his chest as a series of racking coughs overwhelmed him. They stretched into a nasty paroxysm and the colour seemed to fade from his face. He struggled to sit forward in obvious pain as the wretched spasms shuddered through his body. Neal watched anxiously as the bout stretched on and was in two minds to ring for the nurse.

"No," Peter gasped and took a deep breath, "Leave it, there's no need to bother them." His chest heaved as he fought and strove for air. "It's all right, I will be okay."

"You're not okay."

"But I will be. Neal, I can understand why you and El worry…"

"Then why can't you just let us help you?"

"Because I need to get through this myself."

Neal paused, he understood in a way, in-spite of his latent anxiety. It was hard to start relying on others when you were used to taking care of yourself. It must be doubly tough if you were Peter, so accustomed to being in charge. It was funny how one took things for granted, and Peter's strength was something he depended on. To see him here so wounded and vulnerable had pulled the rug from under his feet.

He grew up a little, right then and there. It was time for some role reversal. He would stay here for as long as Peter needed him. The cargo would have to wait.

He spoke levelly, "You don't always have to be the strong one."

Peter looked grateful, "Believe me, I know that, I'm not trying to be some kind of hero. I need to process – to come to terms with things – reach a conclusion and then file it away. I have good people, good friends in my corner. Just don't… don't force me to take it to committee, I can't handle any pseudo touchy-feely crap. It isn't the way I do things. I have to deal in my own way."

He concentrated hard, and his breathing slowed down. The whole process was a painful effort. Neal sat back and said nothing but the look on his face spoke reams.

Peter sighed, and gave him a watered down glare. "Neal, stop it, there's no need to look like that. I'm not crazy, this didn't break me. Well, maybe it broke me a little bit, but it's nothing that can't be fixed." He hesitated and the glare didn't waver. If anything, it sharpened and grew stronger. "So long as I know that you'll be here for El. Right now, she needs good friends around her."

"And Schiller?"

"I won't let him beat me. Losing to scum like that isn't an option. All I'm asking for, all I need right now, is some time and space to think."

Peter wavered, and flopped back against the pillow, looking drained and suddenly exhausted. Neal studied him and realised something had changed. Peter might still be unnervingly weak but for the first time he seemed more at peace.

Just for a second, Neal had an image of the leopard, and he could swear it was smiling with approval. It blinked at him with oddly familiar eyes as it shifted position in the tree. Not real, but the cat had a life of its own, running wild through his shifting consciousness. It was a fantasy – no, better make that a metaphor – conjured up by his overwrought mind. He knew that, of course, he knew that… it was a figment of his imagination, but kind of strange that after everything he'd been through, it seemed real and uncannily precise.

The leopard regarded him with total disdain and sharpened his claws on the tree trunk. With a sinuous contraction of muscle and fur it leapt indolently down from the branches. The spots on its back seemed to ripple and change right before Neal's very eyes.

He gave a mock-frown and hooked an arm around his knee. He sensed it was time to change the subject. "Did you know recent studies have shown that contrary to previous thinking, the strong silent types tend to suffer far less from PTSD than all the touch-feely, therapy junkies?"

"So what's the punch-line?" Peter asked sleepily and a little warily.

"Depends on your definition of strong and silent."

Peter awoke with a small jump and opened his eyes as a siren wailed past in the distance. Other than Satchmo he was alone in the courtyard. The evening sun was warm on his face and he basked in the mellow light. Looking down at his watch, he grimaced slightly. It was yet another afternoon wasted. His intention had been to catch-up with some work but he'd nodded off once again. He looked at the stack of unopened files and shook his head in rueful acceptance. Despite all his best intentions, it seemed his body had other ideas.

He couldn't recall ever being this tired. Every day he was permanently sleepy. Perfectly natural, according to the doctors, and nature's way of helping him to heal.

He'd been recovering at home for two weeks now, after four long weeks stuck in the hospital, but his progress remained slow and painful and he still felt appallingly weak. Not surprising… they were careful to inform him. He'd taken one hell of a battering. His injuries had been life-threatening and broken bones took a while to repair.

There was a slight noise behind him and his head whipped around, but nobody was standing in the doorway. It took a while for his rigid muscles to relax and his heart rate to get back to normal. It was simply the effects of heat upon wood and the weathered deck contracting in the sun.

Peter took a deep breath and sat back in his chair.

No-one was there and Satchmo would have warned him. He was alone in the leafy courtyard. No-one other than his own watchful outline stretched out on the wooden deck. It was finished, Schiller really was dead. He was home and his injuries were healing. El was safe… they were both recovering, and everything was going to be okay. He'd never actually believed in ghosts but it seemed as though the Nazi loot was haunting him. The damned case had wormed into his psyche and worked its way under his skin. All those deaths at the hands of such evil… and in his own way he was yet another victim. The curse of the loot tainted everyone like a dark shadow staining their souls.

He shivered again as the moment passed. It wasn't like him to be so fanciful, but those few days as Schiller's prisoner had made him re-evaluate his future. Everything was brighter and keener than before. He was so grateful for all of his blessings. Life seemed fragile, more infinitely valuable, like the first sparkling light of dawn.

Life and all the people he cared for.

Anton Schiller had been right about him. The bastard had aimed straight at the core of him and summed him up in a sentence or two. "A man like you, Peter, I can tell you're not too afraid for yourself but you are scared of letting others down. What frightens you most is the thought of this happening to someone you care about. Neal Caffrey's a possibility, but not as much as your lovely wife."

Spot on, goddam him, in so many ways, and the reason he'd been so effective, he had a warped and uncanny instinct for reading his victims minds.

Elizabeth, it was all about El, and every precious thing she'd ever meant to him. It was still tender and reaffirming between them and he was filled with a deep sense of gratitude. In the face of some huge and almost overwhelming odds, she was here beside him, safe and alive. He wasn't stupid and by no means insensitive. He caught glimpses in unguarded moments. It was there sometimes when she watched him, a brief flicker of fear in her eyes.

If El had been taken by Schiller, he'd have been the one going crazy. He could only imagine her anguish and pain. She'd been through her own private hell.

Not just him.

Schiller had hurt her too. Had caused her distress - made her suffer. In many ways, those ghosts were harder to deal with and refused to be chased from his head. Even today she'd been reluctant to meet with a client despite the chance of a lucrative contract. It had taken a lot of persuasion to convince her to leave him alone. Peter rubbed his forehead tiredly. It was all horribly ironic. When she'd left he'd felt a surge of anxiety and automatically reached out for the phone.

For a minute he'd been tempted to call her. Just for a minute, his hand had been suspended. He'd waited for his nerves to stop rattling and then placed the cell down on the table.

It was over.

They had to get on with their lives. To pick up their old routines again. Then the memories and shadows would lessen and fade. Things would get back to normal in the end.

Normal, Peter smiled a little wistfully. Lately the concept seemed pretty elusive. He'd rather forgotten what 'normal' entailed when applied to his own chequered life.

Since that difficult day in the hospital, Neal had been quietly attentive. He'd done their shopping, walked Satchmo, played babysitter, and been wonderfully supportive of El. Things between him and Neal were easier now but neither one of them ever mentioned the U-boat. Although off limits, it was a barrier between them, like a sword hanging over their heads.

Every day he grew more aware of it and it made him feel very uneasy. In reality nothing was mended. It had merely been put on hold. Schiller had turned out to be a wild card or a temporary stay of execution, and if Neal had really been preparing to run then Odessa had called a halt to the proceedings. Any bid for freedom or plan to escape had been deferred or simply postponed.

He realised with a sudden jolt of sadness, there was no happy ending to this story. Nothing was complete or concluded and Neal's fate still hung in the balance. He mused again on that day in the hospital when they'd come to a kind of understanding. For some reason he'd found it hard to admit that for a while, he'd thought Neal was dead. Gunned down… even now the image hurt him, somehow it was seared on his memory, and if Neal was still bound and determined to run, Peter knew he'd be losing a friend.

If only they weren't so damned cagey.

It would be good to talk things through openly and reach some kind of resolution. If Neal was prepared to meet him half way, a little honesty would be kind of nice.

A little honesty… Peter shook his head despondently. The words didn't seem to figure in Neal's universe. A little honesty would mean betraying Moz and confessing they knew the manifest existed. There were little hints he'd managed to pick up on. Nothing concrete, but his sharp eyes hadn't missed them. He was certain Neal had regained his memory despite being a tad off his game.

It was the way he talked about Schiller. It was like looking into a mirror. Peter knew that same sense of disquiet and fear. As though the man's words had branded his brain.

If he remembered Anton Schiller, he remembered it all. Right down to the tiniest detail. Nothing would have skipped by unnoticed by a man as intelligent as Neal. The fact he'd neglected to mention it simply compounded Peter's suspicions. A cat with nine lives… the analogy was correct. Neal had certainly bounced back from this one. His head was well and truly back in the game and Peter knew he shouldn't harbour any illusions. The U-boat was still an invisible line over which neither one of them could cross.

A cat…

What was it Neal had said?

Peter racked his brains for an instant. A domestic pet didn't quite cut it. Neal had gone for the exotic alternative and opted for a leopard instead.

"A leopard," he said the words softly, and thought about it, a small smile lilting his lips. "Of course, I should have guessed it was a leopard. 'Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots?' I know for sure it comes from the Bible, from Jeremiah 13." Satchmo opened his eyes and whined in response as Peter reached down and scratched his ear. "What do you reckon, think he can do it, Satch? Think Neal really can change his spots?"

If Satch knew, he wasn't telling, perhaps he was a part of the conspiracy. He snuffled his nose into Peter's hand and gave him a hang-dog look.

"Not that I'd expect you to spill," Peter chided him with mock-severity. "You've always been his compadre and I suspect you're just a little on his side."

His chain of thoughts was suddenly broken as his cell buzzed beside him on the table-top. He picked it up feeling frustrated the abrupt noise could still make him jump. Staring down at the screen, he hesitated. The number was not one he recognised. He waited another couple of rings and then held the cell up to his ear.

"Who is this?"

"Shalom, Agent Burke, you sound a lot better. I was relieved to hear you were recovering."

"What do you want, Zahavi?"

"I thought you deserved an update. My sources have received some intelligence I was sure you might like to hear."

Peter paused for a beat and then took a deep breath. Whatever it was, he knew he should listen. "Go on."

"There's a lot of interest in Moscow right now at the possibility of a particular restitution. A lot of the art on that U-boat was looted from Russian museums. Sadly, rumours have a nasty way of spreading, and not all the attention is official. A lot of bribery and even more vodka… and the Russian Mob have very big ears."

His heart sank, "Are the Mob looking here in New York?"

"Not yet, but it won't take long. They're already asking questions. My sources say they're seeking to recruit a middleman to procure the cargo on their behalf."

A nightmare, it was a never-ending nightmare, with no escape and no resolution. Just when he'd felt the first glimmers of hope, the damned loot raised its ugly head again. He was consumed with a blaze of anger – so white-hot it was blinding in intensity – but in a way, also strangely cathartic as it cleared the last ghosts from his brain.

Neal – Neal had done this – whether intentionally or by some twisted loyalty. It didn't matter the hell if he'd stolen the loot, he was guilty by association. First Odessa and now the Russians, it seemed that everyone was after the cargo. The Nazi plunder was soaked red with blood and someone would end up dead. In a macabre kind of way it was funny. It felt like he was spinning in circles, being dragged back to the very beginning so the whole thing could play out again.

"There's something else you should know about," Zahavi was uncannily compassionate. As though he sensed what Peter was feeling and sought to help alleviate his pain. "All the time you were Schiller's prisoner I was very impressed with Caffrey. Despite his injuries and obvious split-loyalties, he seemed focused on saving your life."

"Zahavi - "

"Please, Agent Burke, you need to hear this. Once you were safely in the hospital, I realised Caffrey was unsure of his future. I say this with zero repentance. I offered him a means of escape."

"A means of escape?"

"A way out of the country and a place on my team. No questions and very few repercussions until my people could strike a deal with your government. Until then, I would make good use of his skills, and eventually, he would be free."

"Or dead?"

Zahavi laughed in grim acknowledgment, "Our type of work is not without risks."

"So what stopped him from taking you up on this once in a lifetime offer?

Peter was intentionally sarcastic, but the words stuck a little in his throat. Zahavi's revelation had thrown him off kilter and their conversation seemed highly surreal. Neal had been offered a get-out-of-jail card so why the hell hadn't he taken it?

"Don't you know, Agent Burke?" The question was loaded and Zahavi's tone was genuinely quizzical. "It was the day you had a set-back in the hospital. Your wife called with an urgent message. Caffrey stayed behind because of you."

Because of him.

That day when he'd fallen in the bathroom, when Schiller's ghost had returned to torment him. Neal had been on the threshold of freedom, but El had called, and he'd chosen them instead.

It felt huge; no… better make that enormous. Because of him, Neal had burned all his bridges. No escape, no diplomatic assistance, he had elected to help out a friend. Peter passed a hand over his eyes and discovered he was shaking a little. The aftershock of that day was still powerful and something he would never forget.

"Why are you telling me this?"

"So you can see things clearly, and understand why you should help him. He needs to learn from someone smart and compassionate, and then perhaps he can begin to help himself."

"Helping himself has never been a problem," Peter responded dryly.

Zahavi laughed heartily, "Touché."

Peter sobered, "You really think he wants my kind of help?"

"He's lost, trapped in some kind of limbo. Doesn't know who the hell he's supposed to be, but no longer the man he was."

"I'm an agent, the guy who arrested him. I won't compromise that position."

"He knows, and that's partly why he trusts you. You set parameters, and yet, you still look out for him. If you doubt it, remember the forgery and the meeting he had with Schiller. He risked his life and sacrificed his freedom. One only takes those steps for a true friend."

Whether by design or accident their connection was suddenly severed. Peter sat frozen for a minute or two and stared down at his silent cell. To say Zahavi's words had come as a shock was something of an understatement. Well, okay, he added a caveat; maybe shock was a slight exaggeration, but he still couldn't quite get his head around the thought of Neal staying for him.

There was hope.

At the close of the day, there was hope, in the middle of all the anguish and trauma. A little light at the end of the tunnel that it hadn't been for nothing in the end.

He sat back, and the evening sun warmed his face. It felt like a benediction. He wasn't dumb enough to see this as a breakthrough, but by heaven, it felt like a start. Whether or not Neal realised the fact, he was forging ties and building relationships. When given the choice of friendship or freedom, then the former had won through in spades.

There was still the little matter of the cargo, but he felt better than he had done in quite a while. It didn't feel like a lost cause any longer and a sense of peace stole through his veins.

In another hour, El would be home. He had a lot that he wanted to tell her. Of course, being El, she would give him that smile and inform him she'd known all along.


Lisa Paris - 2012