Disclaimer: White Collar is the property of Jeff Eastin and USA television, and is merely being borrowed here for recreational, non-profit purposes. No copyright infringement is intended.
Summary: An undercover operation goes badly wrong, leaving both Peter and Neal in precarious positions.
Author's notes: The story is completely written, but not yet betaed. I will post every few days as fast as I, or my wonderful beta, Susan, can insert all the missing commas.
Since this has taken me more than a year to write, this is something of an early Season 3 fic. That said, there are only fairly vague spoilers to Season 3.
Sidelined Chapter 1
Neal hated to say, 'I told you so.' Actually, on second thoughts, that wasn't even remotely true. The self-styled omniscient FBI brass were wrong, and even on a bad day, he'd have innocently rubbed a few noses in that fact. It wasn't the fact that this was the suckiest day that ever sucked swamp water that held him back now. He simply had no breath left for such diversions as verbal one-up-manship. Of course, that didn't stop him from mentally devising some Mozzie-assisted retaliatory scenarios. His first instinct was to empty their bank accounts, but Peter might have to arrest him for that. Instead, Hughes might turn blue in the shower like an overgrown, lugubrious smurf and Bancroft might find a lacy bra under his pillow that he would have a hard time explaining to his wife. Peter would only frown at that. This plotting was, however, predicated on the assumption that Neal would be around to perpetrate such pranks, and that Peter would survive to frown on them. Both assumptions looked highly dubious at the moment, so maybe he'd have to rely on Mozzie to take the initiative by himself.
Next to him, Peter stumbled, dragging Neal down with him, so he smacked his knee hard against the freezing pavement. The sharp crack temporarily stole what little breath he had left, as a nauseating jolt of pain slammed into him a split-second after impact. Fear was as paralysing as the pain. They couldn't afford this frantic three-legged race of theirs to become a two-legged race, with one limb apiece, nor could they afford a delay. Their pursuers were already too close for comfort. Neal ached with the need to check his partner's injuries but, for now, he had to concentrate on keeping them both alive, so he ignored the harsh gasps beside him in favor of listening for indications of pursuit. The sound of nearby angry shouting provoked an urgent flight response.
"Come on, we have to go." Puffs of vapor billowed out into the cold air in accompaniment to his words. He looped Peter's arm more firmly around his shoulder and heaved upright, but Peter's contributing effort was lukewarm at best. Neal failed to compensate for his partner's greater weight, and smacked back down against the concrete - gravity 2 Neal's knee 0. "Peter, they're coming, we have to move, now!" he hissed.
Peter lifted his head enough for the younger man to see that his face was twisted in agony, his pallor enhanced by the sheen of sweat that covered his skin. At some point, he'd bitten through his lip and the blood smeared on his face completed a ghoulish appearance.
"Neal...just get out of here," Peter gritted out flatly.
"No." Neal's voice was completely steady and uncompromising.
"Neal, you need to..."
"Save your breath," Neal interrupted harshly. "You're going to need it for running...or hobbling...or hopping. I'll carry you if I have to. One, two, three!"
This time, he successfully got them both to their feet, a generous quantity of adrenaline countering the argument that Peter was just too damn big to lug around like a sack of potatoes.
He peered around a corner of a rusty red shipping container to try to calculate a path through the multi-colored adjacent containers that would afford their pursuers the least line of sight from a distance. In places, the shipping containers were stacked four high, affording good coverage from the security cameras that must be around.
This container terminal was a great place for a game of hide and seek, but it was not without its hazards. At times, the metal boxes were placed too close together for Neal to squeeze his lithe body between them, never mind drag Peter through the gap as well. There were also vast wastelands with no shelter whatsoever - not an appealing prospect when their opponents were armed with submachine guns, and Neal doubted if he could even summon a spit ball to throw at them.
Under other circumstances, the sheer size of the storage facility would favor them. There was plenty of acreage to shake off pursuers, but since every single step was an agonising ordeal for Peter, a protracted chase was not only impractical, it was cruel.
Neal neatly avoided a patch of black ice and continued round another corner, passing into the shadow of a container tower. With each step, Neal felt panic claw its way up from inside. Peter's condition was clearly deteriorating rapidly. The little hitches in his breath had turned to hoarse gasps, and Neal was taking more of his weight with each yard of territory covered. What had started as an occasional tremor had intensified to continuous full-body shivering that seemed to reverberate through the agent into Neal, making him feel as if he were about to fly apart at any moment. He could feel his friend's pain through each flex of his ribcage against his own and it sent a wave of ice-cold fear washing through him, coalescing into a rigid, jagged lump somewhere in his gut.
He needed to find a place for them to go to ground, a safe place where Peter could rest and Neal could properly assess his partner's injuries. Luckily, there were thousands of potential bolt holes. This wasn't Port Authority; it was a storage facility, and most of the containers were empty, therefore unlocked. He just needed to find one that met his specifications. A large majority of the boxes were close to airtight with no light reaching inside. He required one with ventilation shafts allowing not only air but some light into the inner recesses.
Sweat and adrenaline spiked as he started to round another corner just in time to spot the back of one of their trackers as he stalked past on a parallel course, disappearing behind a container while Neal froze, Peter swaying drunkenly beside him. He immediately chose a different vector and staggered on, his own lungs now beginning to burn. The freezing air hit his throat with each breath, making his eyes water and creating the urge to cough. He continued for a few more yards before spotting a gray Maersk box with no lock and the gill-like vents near the top corners.
He propped Peter up against its metal side. "You think you can stay vertical for thirty seconds without me?" he asked urgently.
He received the sparest nod of assent, Peter reserving all his energy for the task just set him. Neal still hesitated before removing his hands, hovering within catching range, since he still half-expected the injured man to crumple in a heap as soon as his support was withdrawn. It was only when he saw taut skin on white knuckles holding onto a bar and the grim determination in his friend's eyes that he felt confident enough to let go and concentrate on getting the container open.
He slid the bolts back as smoothly and silently as it was possible to scrape one piece of metal past another, then pulled open one door, relieved to find the hinges well oiled. Peter was still standing where he left him, balanced shakily on one foot, clearly relying on his handholds to keep him upright. Cold fingers of dread scratched down Neal's back as he took in his partner's appearance. The blood on his chin and upper lip was a stark contrast to his pale complexion. In fact, Peter had moved past pallor to a translucent gray that Neal hadn't seen since...since Peter had died after drinking the poisoned Armagnac. That comparison did nothing to ease Neal's emotional turmoil.
Peter was still alert enough to greet Neal with an expression of desperate relief. Once more, the conman slung Peter's arm over his shoulders and braced himself to take the weight. He had started to move when he noticed that Peter hadn't released his death grip on the bar, so he tugged at that hand gently. "I've got you; you need to let go now," he murmured encouragingly.
He could feel the agony of the renewed movement in every step Peter took, every line of the agent's body taut with suppressed pain as they made their way into the metal box.
Neal was disappointed to find that the container was completely empty. It would have been nice to have at least something in there to offer further concealment even if the safety offered was more illusion than reality. It would have been nicer still to find one that offered blankets, a first-aid kit, and maybe a few units of blood, but evidently this wasn't his lucky day.
They'd have to accept what they had, because there would be no opportunity to search for a better shelter. Peter's legs were already beginning to buckle under the strain, and once they were inside the metal box, they gave out, and he folded up like a house of cards constructed by uncertain and wavering hands. Despite expecting the collapse, Neal barely had time to adjust his grip to lower Peter to the floor in a controlled descent instead of allowing him to drop.
Neal wanted to collapse down beside his friend; his legs were aching and burning like he'd been running for miles. Instead, he patted Peter awkwardly on the shoulder and returned to the door. He couldn't bolt it from the inside, but he carefully pulled it shut so that, at first glance, it would pass for locked.
The air vents didn't let in too much light, so, for now, Peter was just a shadow in the darkness, but his pained gasps for breath sounded loud in the enclosed space. Neal dropped on his good knee beside his partner, the metal cold beneath him. Outside the chill of the air was offset slightly by the weak, but persevering, sun and by the exertion the men were expending. Now, he had no idea if the tremors that were vibrating through Peter were the result of shock, bloodloss, exhaustion or just plain cold - probably a combination of all four.
He wanted to ask how Peter was doing, but it was a stupid question, and he wasn't even sure he wanted to know the answer. "I need to take this off," he warned the other man.
There had been no time for proper first aid when Peter was shot. Neal had whipped off his tie to use as a tourniquet, but he knew how dangerous that was for more than a short-term treatment, so now they needed to use direct pressure to try to control the bleeding.
Before he could start loosening the tie, Peter caught hold of his arm, fastening on with a firm grip. "Neal, you can't keep dodging this issue. You know you've got to leave me here and go for help." The strong speech was spoiled by being interspersed with short intakes of breath, harsh and reedy.
Neal tried to free his arm, but he didn't want to jostle Peter's leg in his efforts, so he desisted. "You're just being lazy. Trying to make me do all the work," he accused lightly.
Peter allowed his head to loll back and rest against the frigid metal. "I have a hole in my leg, for crying out loud. I think that should disqualify me from any such criticisms."
"That's no excuse for slacking off." Peter's grip finally relaxed enough for Neal to extract his wrist. "Look, I'm not going to leave you. I've told you, I'll carry you if I have to. Now shut up, I'm trying to concentrate."
"You don't get to tell me to shut up." The bite behind the words was caused by pain, not affront, and Neal recognised that.
"Could you pretty please be quiet. I'm trying to concentrate on saving your life." Neal amended his request.
It wasn't any form of obedience that kept Peter from responding. The vicious bite of returning blood to his wounded limb meant that the only sound that came out of his mouth was a strangled groan. Neal tried to keep his hands from shaking and inflicting more pain as he examined the injury as well as he could in the dim light.
The bullet had gone straight through Peter's thigh, and he hoped it had missed the bone altogether. However, it had ripped through a lot of muscle on its destructive path, and Neal knew it would take several months and a lot of physical therapy before Peter recovered full use of his limb.
"So, you know you've bought yourself a whole heap of desk time," he said lightly, taking off his jacket since it was the only thing they had to use as bandages. He thought June would forgive its destruction.
This time, the groan was unrestrained. "Paperwork." After a pause, Peter added, "I probably don't have to worry about that. El is going to kill me."
Neal ignored that as the exaggeration it was. He bunched up the jacket, and after meeting his friend's eyes and receiving a nod of permission, he pushed down steadily on the wound. Peter's hands came up involuntarily to push him away, but at the last minute, he gripped his own leg just above the bullet wound, squeezing tightly. He screwed his eyes shut and willed the pain to recede before he started screaming.
The only sound that escaped was a choked groan, but it still ripped through Neal's nerves like a jolt from a cattle prod, and he had to fight the instinct to draw his hands away, hating the fact the he was causing his friend more pain.
Neal's throat constricted painfully, but he kept working even as Peter's face turned impossibly paler. "Hold this and press it down as firmly as you can." Neal worked to keep his tone businesslike, its terseness covering his concern. As he tied the sleeve round the improvised pressure pad, he added, "Maybe you'll think twice next time before stepping between me and a bullet."
There was an appreciable pause before Peter answered, his mind clearly not working as fast as it normally did. "Don't confuse my ability not to run as fast as you with altruism. I was only behind you because I'm that much slower."
"Don't confuse deprecation with truth," Neal retorted drily.
Peter huffed a short laugh, tension preventing it from sounding at all humourous. "If that was a thank you, it got lost in translation."
"Peter!" Neal had to say something, anything to let Peter know what he was feeling, but the words wouldn't squeeze past the lump in his throat. No one he was used to associating with would do such a thing. Contrary to popular belief, there was no honour among thieves. At best, it was every man for himself; at worst, there was betrayal and treachery. Nobody would step between him and a bullet. Yet his immediate reaction was 'don't ever do that again.' It seemed a little ungrateful, but the thought of Peter dying for him drove a splinter of ice into his heart. "Let me dodge my own bullets," he said thickly. "Not only am I faster, but I'm more agile than you, old man."
"You're welcome." But Peter didn't sound displeased with his response.
There was quiet for a while, and Neal might have thought his friend had lost consciousness if it wasn't for the tension in the muscles under his hands. To his relief, the blood flow had almost stopped, no doubt assisted by the cold. It was the only reason to be thankful for the freezing conditions in which they found themselves.
He tried to use the time to find a way out of their predicament, but there was nothing in his brain except a stubborn pinball of thought that ricocheted around, hitting blinking lights as it passed and announcing, "I'm not leaving Peter." His original idea had been simple - make it to the perimeter, get over the wire fence and run. But even if they got to the fence at their current slow pace, it would almost certainly be guarded now. Trying to get over would be tantamount to offering themselves up as target practice.
He was Neal Caffrey, the master of improvisation, but he couldn't come up with a workable plan, not with an injured man in tow. They'd been brought into the facility in a locked van, and he had no prior knowledge of the site, so it was hard to strategise with so little information. He'd never wished so much that he was wearing his tracking anklet. He'd got used to having backup, to having Peter stride, strong and confident, to his rescue. But this time, it was up to him to save his partner, and he was terrified he wasn't going to manage it.
"I can smell the smoke from here." Peter's voice was as pale as his face, but Neal's eyes had adjusted to the light, so he could see his friend's strained expression of amusement. "Your mind is going round and round like a hamster on a wheel. It's causing a lot of friction, but ultimately you're going nowhere. Sooner or later you're going to have to face the fact that you're going to have to go for help."
"No, I'm not leaving you."
Peter grabbed his shirt front and yanked him in close. "Listen to me for once in your life. You. Have. No. Choice."
I...no...Peter, I can't," Neal finished desperately. But his voice cracked, and he had to clench his jaw for control.
"I know." The kindness in Peter's voice shut Neal up more completely than a sharp rebuke, the compassion nearly breaking him.
Peter sighed, releasing his hold. "Neal, I've always trusted you with my life. My silver...no, but my life, yes."
"You have silver?" It was a weak effort.
Peter leaned forward again, intense and forceful. "Neal you've got to listen to me. Even if I could walk, I can feel blood squishing in my shoes. I'd leave big bloody footprints that it wouldn't take Daniel Boone to follow."
"I could..." Peter cut him off.
"Yes, I know you'd carry me if you could. I know that, Neal." Peter knew that Neal would indeed carry him till his heart burst. "But it would be slow, and we wouldn't stand a chance. What would we do at the fence? I can't get over it like this."
He was echoing Neal's own thoughts, but Neal didn't want to listen. There had to be another way.
Peter continued talking, his voice quiet and reasonable, but Neal could tell how much effort it was taking to keep it that way. He could see the pain and exhaustion lurking in the shadowed recesses of that insistent gaze. "Neal, the only things we've got to work with here are your speed and your agility. I chased you for a long time - I know how hard it is to catch you. I feel bad asking, because you're the one who's going to be in danger; you're the one who's going to be out there facing guns. I need help, and I know you can do this."
Neal shook his head, but his denial was weakening. "It's too dangerous to leave you here. They'll find you."
"They won't," Peter insisted. "When you leave, you lock the container behind you. It'll be just one of a thousand locked boxes. They can't search them all. You get out, get to a telephone and lead the squad back here. Just don't forget the box number. I might not be awake for a game of Marco Polo." His voice was becoming even more tight and strained, as if it were costing him his very life to keep it steady.
Neal said nothing, still trying to come up with an alternate plan, but the logic was inescapable. "Okay," he said abruptly, almost choking on his agreement.
Peter relaxed slightly, his breathing evening out, although he couldn't control the slight tremble that continually shook his limbs. "Let me guess. It was the prospect of locking me up in here that convinced you."
"I have to admit, it will make a nice role reversal." Neal tried to match Peter's levity, but the older man could practically feel his friend's struggle to control his emotions, like a tangible wave roiling just beneath that cool exterior.
Now the decision had been made, there was no point postponing the inevitable. He had no way to make Peter more comfortable or safer. Neal took one step before his momentum seemed to run out. It was as if an invisible tether still connected him to Peter. It felt too much like desertion. Moreover, this could be the last time they saw each other, and if it was, Neal wanted to say something to express how much Peter had come to mean to him, but in the end, he kept silent, trusting his mentor and friend already knew.
It was Peter who broke the tension-filled silence. "Neal, in case this goes bad, promise me one thing."
Wariness was too ingrained in Neal for him to utter the 'anything' that wanted to escape, but he nodded.
"If this goes south, make sure that El is okay."
Neal wanted to point out the obvious - that without Peter, Elizabeth would not be okay, but instead, he gave the reassurance his friend needed. "I'll take care of her, make sure she's okay. You have my word on that."
Peter also wanted to make Neal promise he'd not revert to a life of crime, but he couldn't do it - it felt strangely like a betrayal, and besides, Neal was Neal. He might not be law-abiding, but Peter felt no inclination to change him at that moment. He would trust to Neal's sense of justice.
It was as good a goodbye as they were going to get, and Neal had the good sense to recognise that. He listened at the door for a minute, then pushed it open stealthily.
Neal Caffrey was a man who didn't look back. It was the cardinal rule of the con artist. Yet somehow, 'don't look back' morphed into 'sneak a peek'. Peter offered him an encouraging smile, but the effort it took could be seen in the white-knuckled grip on his good knee. His eyes were heavy with unspoken concern.
"Be careful, partner."
Neal's customary smirk was sadly awry, but with an oddly formal nod, he slipped out the door. The bolts slid shut with a grate and a final click that sent an icy chill down Peter's spine, emphasising the fact that he was essentially stuck in what could become his coffin. He shook off that unaccustomed morbidity. Under other circumstances, Neal would probably have enjoyed the symbolism of the act, but Peter doubted his young friend had derived any satisfaction from it now. The container felt even emptier, the energy and excitement Neal brought to a room was gone. It was also colder.
Peter slid his hands under his armpits, hugging himself tightly, trying to preserve some heat. His lungs ached with each drawn breath, and his teeth were chattering violently either from the cold or the shock, but when he clenched them together to stop the irritating noise, it seemed to increase the shudders that tore through the rest of his body. However, he persisted, needing to focus his hearing on the sounds outside, hoping for proof that Neal had got away safely, or at least the absence of proof that he hadn't.
A sick burn of helpless frustration rose in his throat, nearly choking him. Sending his young friend out into danger, to face a manhunt from ruthless criminals, grated against every protective instinct he had, but ultimately, he believed in Neal. His partner was unbelievably fast, combining this fleetness of foot with tremendous agility and an almost ghostlike ability at concealment. Unencumbered by Peter, Neal would be in his element, slippery and elusive. At least, so Peter tried to convince himself while his ears strained for news of his friend's progress. Sound had quickly become paramount, the anchor to communication with the outside world.
At first, all he could hear was his own heartbeat, each sluggish pulse echoed by a surging thump of pain in his leg, but after around fifteen minutes, he was startled out of an almost semiconscious state by the noise of indistinct shouting. He froze in place, even breathing suspended, straining to interpret the indistinct sounds outside.
The metal that enclosed him did nothing to disguise the distant popping sound that next broke the silence, and Peter was too familiar with gunfire to mistake it for anything else. He scrabbled at the walls, hauling himself upright, heart kicking violently against his ribs. The pain in his leg faded to insignificance compared to the agony of alarm he suddenly felt for Neal's safety.
He had taken one faltering, torturous step toward the door when the full horror of the situation slammed into him, a tazer jolt that ripped through every system, blasting every cell from within, coiled sparking and spitting around his heart. How could he have been so stupid! Neal had only been thinking of ensuring Peter's safety when he locked the box, and Peter had only been thinking of breaking the stalemate, knowing they would die if they stayed there, and they were equally doomed if they tried to escape together. It had seemed like the only reasonable way out of the dilemma, the only way to convince Neal to leave.
Neither of them had seriously considered the consequences of Neal failing. Peter's goal had been primarily to get Neal out of the danger zone, for his friend to use his amazing skills to get to safety. Then, from that safe position, to bring back help. If Neal were dead, no help would be coming. The bad guys might not find him, but neither would the FBI.
Peter staggered back a step and lost his balance as his weight fell on his injured leg. His back slammed against a wall, and he lost every last scrap of breath in his lungs as he slid downward, his mouth wide open, but no air actually reaching his respiratory system.
His heartbeat was heavy, like the repetitive thud of a judge's gavel before condemning a man to death. He had stopped shivering, and he knew that was a bad sign. The chill had invaded too deep, sending tendrils down even the smallest capillary, but it was the poison of grief that infiltrated deeper and burned more acidly. Peter had accepted the probability that he would die, but he hadn't expected to spend his last hours blaming himself for his best friend's death.