Author's notes: So, this is it, folks. It's been a great ride, and I've enjoyed every minute of it. Now for the Oscar speech.

There are some people I need to thank. First and foremost my wonderful Beta, Susan. She is the perfect editor, finding minute things that are literally invisible to me, but she also knows exactly when to challenge a phrase I've been too lazy to change or when to leave a Britishism I don't want to change. She is also my cheering section through the long process before this sees the light of day. Thank you, my friend.

Great thanks also due to my family (who all love White Collar) - my long suffering husband (who usually goes by the name 'my doting fan' but occasionally forgets and signs in under my name!) and my sons who can anticipate the direction my stories will take better than anyone.

To the Three Musketeers - NDKidsMom, Wondo and Last1Stnding - for their wonderful feedback, support and friendship. To old friends, Florence and Sharon. To new friends, Sholio and Devoregirl. I've had so much fun talking to you all. Please keep writing to me!

To those stalwart readers who have given me feedback throughout posting - Govgal, Pechika, Aleeban, Kanarek13, SimplyOut, AstroKat, Fletty, Hannahsmetana84, Elle92, LadyNiko. This story took me over a year to write so comments are greatly appreciated.

Lastly, thanks to Jeff Eastin and to Tim DeKay and Matt Bomer who have give us such wonderful characters.

I am already on Chapter 3 of my next White Collar story. It won't be as long as this one, so maybe you'll see me again in less than a year!

Sidelined Chapter 11

It was three days after Peter's terrifying and dramatic collapse that Neal arrived at the Burke residence. He hadn't spoken to his partner in all that time, although he'd seen him once, 24 hours later, but Peter still lay unconscious at that point.

Neal himself had been kept in hospital for observation overnight, the doctor citing concerns about hypothermia and low blood sugar coupled with multiple contusions. It was a useful diagnosis to have to back up his claims of abuse and coercion at the hands of his captors.

Hughes appeared to feel some responsibility for Peter's condition, and Neal benefitted from the transferal of that guilt. The senior agent handed him over to Jones who, despite reuniting him with his anklet, had been considerate, allowing him to peek in on Peter the next morning before taking him to the White Collar unit for debriefing. Neal had anticipated another prolonged stay in jail, so he would have been delighted by the preferable treatment if it weren't for the feeling that everyone was honoring Peter's final wishes.

While waiting in interrogation, he received a strange phone call from Mozzie, which Jones arranged to be put through to him. Neal was used to his friend's eccentric and often slightly manic ways, but Mozzie seemed more agitated than usual, enquiring after Peter's health, to which Neal could only offer the reply he'd received to the same question –- that Peter had apparently had a comfortable night. It seemed to offer a similar lack of reassurance to Mozzie.

As an afterthought, Mozzie asked if Neal were in need of his legal services. Neal considered the offer, but found himself afflicted by the same desire to respect Peter's wishes as his colleagues, so he declined regretfully and provisionally. He would offer only the truth as his defense.

Hughes himself conducted the briefing, with a mostly subdued Diana assisting, and Neal had never appreciated the senior agent's professionalism more. The process was exhaustive and thorough, but Hughes kept it impartial with even a touch of compassion.

There were two main strands to the enquiry. The first concerned events surrounding Neal's capture and how Peter was left near-death, locked in a freezing container. Hughes led him through every detail of every decision and action. These were not memories Neal wanted to revisit. He tried to keep his answers matter-of-fact, but the stiffness in his spine belied the nonchalance in his tone. He wasn't used to analyzing his past actions, and this felt like an autopsy.

He steeled himself against the emotions that threatened his composure, teeth clenched hard enough to make his jaw muscles quiver. "Leaving Peter was the hardest thing I've ever done," he concluded. He made no effort to convince them of his sincerity, and his words were all the more credible for that. "I wouldn't, couldn't have done that unless I believed that there was a very real possibility he would die without the help I could summon. I had to return for the same reason. He was in danger of dying from bloodloss and hypothermia, and I couldn't just leave him alone. I would make the same decision again."

Hughes nodded and turned off the recorder. "That's enough for now. Agent Barrigan, please get him some hot food and a cot to sleep in for tonight. We'll pick this up tomorrow."

"Neal." It was unusual for the senior agent to use his first name, and the CI raised weary, blue eyes to meet Hughes'. "This process may seem brutal, but for your own protection, we need this on the record. On this issue, Peter's own testimony verifies the most important points, so I think we can let this matter drop."

Neal nodded his acceptance. "Have we heard anything about Peter?"

Hughes recognized the desperation behind his need to know and his right as Peter's partner to have access to that information. "I think we'd all like an update. I'll give them a call."

It was clear that Hughes was talking to Elizabeth, but no matter how he strained his ears, Neal couldn't hear her voice, and Hughes lacked something as a conversational partner, his role consisting mainly of encouraging noises and grunts. However, his one exclamation of, "That's extremely good to hear," bolstered Neal's patience.

After he finished the call, a smile softened his dour face as he turned to Neal. "Good news. Peter's doing fine. In fact they're planning to release him tomorrow."

Neal's face lit up with relief. "That's great, but isn't it a little premature?"

"Apparently, there's nothing much they can do for him in the hospital. He just needs to rest. It'll be a couple of weeks before he's back on duty and a couple of months before he's off desk work."

"Oh joy. Mortgage fraud," but Neal's delighted expression belied the sour words.

Hughes regarded him thoughtfully. "Good night, Neal. Get some good sleep."

Neal's eyes burned with exhaustion, and worry for his partner had seeped deeply into his bones, leeching away the last vestiges of his energy, so he slept as soon as his head hit the pillow.

The next morning's interrogation was not as emotionally draining, but it contained the possibility of more serious charges. The Tarasov brothers had been captured by the team in the sewers, and they had apparently decided that their resident forger was the perfect scapegoat for the art crimes. These were serious allegations. Hughes might not believe them, but they had to be investigated. However, in the end, Neal's injuries, coupled with his deliberate sabotage of the paintings, were enough to exculpate him.

By the late afternoon, Hughes declared himself completely satisfied. He announced that his report would read that Neal had acted with uncommon bravery and intelligence in protecting the life of his partner and helping to bring a gang of criminals to justice. He insisted that Neal take the rest of the week off and offered departmental counseling if it would help him cope with his ordeal. Neal thanked him politely and refrained from airing his opinion that hell would freeze over before he availed himself of those services.

As he left the FBI building, he called Mozzie to update him on Peter's condition. "Oh thank St. Nicholas and St. Michael," the older man exclaimed fervently.

"The patron saint of thieves and the patron saint of policemen. Mozzie, is there something you want to share?"

"No, nothing at all, I don't know what you're talking about. I have to go." Mozzie's voice was higher than usual, a sure tell that he was lying, but he disconnected before Neal could pursue his line of inquiry, leaving the CI staring at his phone in uncertainty in lieu of staring at Mozzie's face. A dark suspicion was forming in the back of his mind, but he put it aside in favor of calling Elizabeth, in the hopes it would be a good time to visit his partner.

She informed him that Peter was sleeping, exhausted after his relocation from the hospital, but suggested he come round the next day. She had spent the last two days at the hospital, resulting in the neglect of her business, and she would appreciate the opportunity to check up on her employees. Neal was only too happy to spend time with his partner, or 'partnersit' as he suggested to El, a phrase he devoutly hoped hadn't made its way to Peter.

That was what brought him to their house the next morning. He was greeted warmly by Elizabeth, who was already smartly dressed with her bag slung over her shoulder. "Bye, Hon," she shouted. "Behave with Neal."

She hauled the young man to one side. "Don't let him get excited or do anything active. There's a list of his drug schedule in the kitchen. There's still a very real possibility of pneumonia, and the doctors are insistent that he must take care of himself or the consequences could be… really bad."

Peter was lying propped up by pillows on the sofa. His normally tanned face was gray and drawn with shadowy bruises of fatigue marring the thin skin under his eyes, but those eyes were bright. He greeted Neal warmly and waved him into the seat that had clearly just been vacated by Elizabeth.

"It's good to see you, Neal."

"I would have been to see you in the hospital, but…"

Peter waved off his apology. "I know you had the inquiry. Hughes called to say that it had gone well. He said you conducted yourself with propriety and courage, and he was impressed. You did good."

Neal tried to keep his smile smug, but, without his permission, it morphed through pride and ending up at bashful. For so many years, the opinions of others had been unimportant beyond their acceptance of the superficial impression he was trying to convey. But praise from this man meant something. Afraid he might burst out with an, 'Aw, shucks,' he excused himself to make coffee for them both.

"Are you sure this isn't on the prohibited list," he asked, returning with two steaming mugs. He placed them temporarily on the coffee table as he helped Peter to a more stable and upright position.

"Neal Caffrey afraid to break a few rules?" Peter teased.

"I've been rehabilitated," Neal solemnly asserted, hand to his heart. Every line of his body projected profound innocence, which would have made Peter suspicious under any circumstances.

"Well, you can assuage your conscience. It's on the permissible list – in the mornings at least."

Neal eyed his friend surreptitiously as he sipped his coffee, noting the indications that breathing was still causing Peter pain. He also noticed that the agent was regarding him intently, with no attempt at concealment, a small crease of worry between his brows. Their eyes caught, and this time Peter broke the silence. "So," he said awkwardly, but with endearing sincerity. "How are you doing?"

"Me? How am I doing? I'm not the one who…" Neal reined in his frustration and stated with studied patience, "I am fine."

Peter still looked skeptical. "You'd say exactly the same thing if you were bleeding from multiple stab wounds and your intestines were hanging out."

"Thanks for the imagery."

Peter's mouth quirked a bit, but he continued doggedly. "You were put in a position you should never have been in. Sometimes, I forget you're not…"

Neal perked up. "An agent?"

Peter shot him a quelling glance. "No…well, yes. Look, you're my partner and part of my team, and somehow the line between agent and CI gets blurred."

"I'm not complaining."

"Mozzie reminded me, quite astringently, that you didn't sign up for this. Neither are you trained for it."

"How did Mozzie come into this?"

Exasperated by the change of subject, Peter slammed down his mug, ignoring the liquid that spilled over onto the coffee table. "Are you listening to me? You expressed reservations about this job, and I overrode them."

"No, you didn't. I volunteered. Peter, I'm fine and if I wasn't, Hughes has already offered counseling through the department."

"Which you will take when hell freezes over."

Neal smiled at that identical reflection of his own thoughts. His partner did know him well.

Peter continued, painfully earnest. "Look, I'm just saying that I know something about being held against your will, and if you ever wanted to talk to someone who has some idea of what you've been through, my door's always open."

Neal was more than touched. Despite Elizabeth's softening influence, Peter wasn't a man who talked easily about feelings. The fact that he was offering to do so spoke volumes on the depth of his concern. The CI wanted to dispel his worry.

"If I feel the need to talk to someone, I promise I'll come and talk to you, but really nothing much happened. They roughed me up a bit at the beginning, but mostly they left me alone to get on with the artwork. It was nothing I couldn't handle. It's not my first ride on this rodeo, you know."

Peter wished with a useless ferocity that he'd been there at that pivotal moment when unknown forces had sent Neal's life out of control and pushed him onto the slippery slope to criminal activity. He wanted to protect that young man, guide him back to a safer path and allow his brilliant and overactive mind to find a constructive career. He said nothing though, content to listen as Neal started to open up about his experience, judging only whether Neal was trying to make it more palatable for an audience.

Neal was surprised by how much he ended up talking. His exploits usually required discretion, but Peter was an excellent audience. He didn't say much, but his focus was total.

At the end, Neal shrugged deprecatingly. "So, you see, it wasn't that bad. The worse thing was, well, thinking you were dead. I've got used to the idea of you riding in on your white steed to rescue me."

Now, it was Peter's turn to look pleased and slightly abashed. "I wouldn't need to strap on my spurs quite as often if you didn't positively pole-vault into trouble with both feet."

This was so typically Peter, berating him on the one hand while expressing concern on the other. It was familiar enough for Neal to protest, knowing the argument that he was launching. "Oh, don't tell me that you want to go toe-to-toe with me on who is most out of touch with that trivial Maslow need for self-preservation."

Peter straightened slightly, tacitly accepting the challenge. "I told you not to come back, and apparently Hughes ordered you to stay where you were, yet you returned from a safe position to get captured by a gang of murderous thieves."

Neal was briefly tempted to justify his actions, but he knew Peter already understood why he'd returned and would have done the same thing himself if their positions had been reversed. So he counterattacked. "Says the man who decided it was a good idea to lock himself in a freezing container and choose between dying of hypothermia or bloodloss." It came out sharper than he'd intended. Jones had filled him in on just how close Neal's nightmare had come to reality.

Peter narrowed his eyes in recognition of the fact that what had started as a friendly competition had quickly degenerated into something grittier that affected them both deeply. "Instead of getting the hell out of there as soon as you could, you stayed with the gang that had every intention of disposing of you as soon as your usefulness was over."

"Instead of staying in hospital and obeying doctor's orders to rest, you went on an unauthorized rescue mission, scaring Elizabeth half to death."

It was dirty pool bringing El into it. Peter's lips pursed and his face squared off, eyebrows lowered in a glare. "You walked out into the middle of the yard, with three sets of hostile weapons pointed at you, as if you were going for a stroll on the beach."

Neal huffed at the injustice of that accusation. "If I hadn't, they would have shot me anyway. I had no choice. You, however, volunteered to saunter in front of the gang that wanted you dead. Not only that, but you pretended to shoot me, leaving yourself open to retaliation and…"

Peter's mouth was pursed as if he'd just lost a profound argument with a lemon, and he interrupted before Neal could proceed. "If you hadn't…" An incautiously drawn breath interrupted his tirade, catching in his throat and starting a paroxysm of clearly agonizing coughing. He drew his knees up to his chest in an attempt to ease the strain on his lungs.

"Peter!" Neal slipped out of his chair and stood helplessly, unsure what he could do to help. In the end, he settled for slipping his arm around his friend's shoulders and holding tight. It felt as if he were holding his friend together as he was trying to fly apart, but maybe he was merely offering the comfort of his presence. His grip changed to smoothing circles as the spasm started to ease off.

When at last Peter uncurled, lying back against the pillows, his face gray with exhaustion, Neal gave him a final pat and, without speaking, went into the kitchen. He poured a glass of filtered water from the tap, so it wasn't too cold, then, after checking the instructions El had left, he shook out a couple of pills into his hand.

Peter accepted both with a hoarse murmur of thanks and swallowed down the pills without complaint. Neal tried to keep the concern off his face. "Why don't I go and make some lunch," he suggested. He wanted to give Peter a chance to rest and the medicine a chance to kick in. He could see the refusal starting to form on his friend's face, his appetite probably depressed by both pain and medication, so Neal pushed on. "Something light and simple. How about an omelet?"

There was a moment's hesitation as Peter tested that idea against his taste buds, and that pause was enough for Neal to step in and override any objections. "All right then."

He had cooked before in the Burke's kitchen and knew where everything was, but he took his time, partly to give Peter time to recover, but also for himself. Seeing Peter doubled up in pain was too reminiscent of the ambulance ride they had shared after the shoot-out.

Neal had been supporting Peter when he collapsed, but had lost his grip when the larger man's full weight had suddenly pulled against him. Fast reflexes allowed him to cushion his partner's fall, and the snow provided a relatively soft landing.

As he'd sat supporting Peter on the cold ground, his friend's whole body convulsed in a coughing fit. A bright splatter of colour caught Neal's eye, vivid red against the white of the snow, and he realized with horror that Peter was coughing up blood. Hughes must have had the presence of mind to call the paramedics, because it seemed like they were there within seconds. Citing his own injuries, Neal managed to share his partner's ambulance, which offered him the dubious benefit of making him a private audience to Peter's intubation.

After x-rays, cat scans and blood work, the diagnosis was not as dire as had been feared. The main culprit was a pulmonary contusion, or in layman's terms, a bruised lung, with the complication of three cracked ribs and other bruising. Once Peter's breathing had been stabilized, his condition wasn't dangerous, but the recovery process would be long and painful.

Peter had regained some colour in his face when Neal returned with his fluffy, savory offering. "That smells good." Peace offering accepted.

Peter ate slowly but with enjoyment. "This is really good, Neal. Being a chef is another career you could fall back on."

"I like good food, and deviled ham, by the way, does not fall into that category. Sometimes the only way to get it is to make it yourself."

"Like the times when the Bordeaux bottle was filled with five-dollar plonk?" Peter was interested, not making fun. "You remember the time with fondness," he deduced from Neal's nostalgic expression. He was tempted to point out that adversity had fostered a useful skill, but he wasn't in a preaching mood. Besides, Neal was smart; he could make the connection himself. From the rueful smirk on the CI's face, he was also smart enough to read Peter's mind.

"Getting shot mellows you," he said approvingly, then sobered immediately. "I didn't mean that."

Peter shook his head, taking the comment in the spirit it was meant. Neal returned the plates to the kitchen, bypassing washing up in favor of the dishwasher.

Peter watched him intently as he reentered the room, recognizing the signs of a preoccupied Caffrey. "You want to talk about it?" he offered as Neal sat down again.

Neal rolled a shoulder in an indifferent shrug. He knew how adept Peter was at reading him, so idly flicked through the newspaper rather than meeting his friend's eyes. "It's nothing, really. I was just wondering if they knew who shot you?"

"Don't you?" Peter's tone was light with a touch of amusement, but also curiosity and perhaps caution.

Avoidance wasn't working, so Neal met his friend's gaze, hoping Peter's mind reading skills weren't working at full throttle. "It's just that the shot didn't seem to come from the warehouse. I was curious."

Although there was still laughter in his eyes, Peter leaned forward intently, leveling his most penetrating gaze.

"Oh, take a day off, Peter." Neal grunted irritably, but it was too late. The agent wasn't to be deflected.

"You think…" his finger waved lazily at Neal. "…that Mozzie shot me."

Neal forced a skeptical smile. "Mozzie's not the violent type. Why would I think that?"

"Yes, why would you think that?" Neal was reminded just how relentless Peter could be in pursuit of the truth. The conman's loyalties were completely torn, so he resorted to troubled silence. Peter deserved an answer, but he had to talk to Mozzie first.

Peter kindly put him out of his misery. "You have my word that Mozzie is not on the hook for this."

Neal almost collapsed with the release of that strain. "Oh, thank goodness. It's not that I really thought he would, but it was something he said. He seemed…"

"Uncharacteristically concerned for my welfare," Peter supplied dryly.

"Something like that," Neal admitted.

"You really think that he's capable of murder?"

"Under normal circumstances, no. However, if he saw you shoot me and thought it was for real, he might have reacted without thinking. I discovered for myself that people can do very uncharacteristic things when people they care about are killed or hurt."

It was clear he was referring to his near-shooting of Fowler, and Peter could only sympathize. After all, it was a chain reaction. It was the original murder of Fowler's wife that had set the OPR agent on a dark path, and God knows what Peter would do if anything happened to Elizabeth.

Peter took a deep breath, which stabbed his chest and started him coughing once more. Neal was by his side again. "Maybe talking isn't the best plan. Is there a game on?"

Hating the weakness he was feeling, Peter shook his head, determined not to avoid the conversation any more. "Neal, there is something I need to tell you. I thought you already knew. Just hear me out before you react."

Neal retreated to his seat. "Those words never preface anything good," he stated wryly.

Peter pursued his mouth in rueful agreement. "Okay, well, Mozzie did shoot me."

"What? You said…"

"Not like that. I told him to."

"You told Mozzie to shoot you?" Each word was spaced to make it an individual statement.

"Neal," Peter growled, the name clearly meaning 'shut the hell up.' "The shot couldn't come from the FBI line. It would have been too obvious, and Mozzie was the only person I knew in position. He assured me he was a crack shot and I believed him. I've seen your marksmanship, and Mozzie seems to have similar skill sets to you. Also, I was wearing a vest. Look, this was the only thing that would work. If SWAT launched an attack, you were the first person going down. I wasn't about to let that happen. If we held off and gave them a chance to escape, then as soon as they had no further need for you, they'd shoot you. Either way, you'd be dead."

"So that's the best plan you could come up with?"

"I was thinking that the best way to protect you in your negotiations was to insult you, so maybe the best way to save your life was to kill you. You have to admit there's a certain poetry to it."

Neal maintained a stony silence, but the grim glare he was directing at Peter promised choice words to come. Peter wearily waved a hand as permission to speak.

"I'm with you so far. Great plan, creative and outside the box. However, you fired a blank at me, why couldn't you ask Mozzie to fire a blank at you?"

"Oh, come on, we couldn't both…" Peter mimicked clasping his hand to his chest, with a loud, 'ow' and slumping in death.

"My death scene was totally superior to that," Neal pointed out. "It was utterly convincing."

"Well, maybe I'm not such a good actor," Peter pointed out with asperity. "And you can't fake the propulsion you get when a bullet hits a jacket."

Anger and frustration were not emotions Neal dealt with often, and he didn't deal with them well. He wanted to tear out of the house and relieve his feelings, but he couldn't bring himself to leave Peter, so he took a short, unsatisfying turn around the room before rounding on his friend. "How could you do something so stupid?"

Despite the emotional intensity of the moment, Peter almost laughed at the reversal of the situation. He'd lost count of the number of times he'd dressed Neal down for reckless behavior as he sat on that very sofa. However, Neal was too angry or upset to share the humor of the situation, so he kept a straight face. "I was wearing a bullet-proof vest," he repeated meekly.

"And a bang-up job it did. You nearly died, Peter! You just collapsed, and I was holding you, and you started coughing up blood. They had to intubate you!"

Peter felt no urge to laugh now. He understood completely. He'd felt the same fear when Neal had disappeared and when he'd walked out in front of scores of hostile guns. He wouldn't apologise because he'd do the same thing again if it were necessary to save his partner's life, but maybe a bit more explanation was in order.

"I miscalculated. I didn't factor in the damage already done to my back by the fall down the stairs." Clearly that explanation fell on unmollified ears.

"You know, Peter, you've always been a 'do as I do, not as I say' kind of guy, a man who sets an example many people, including me, are proud to try and follow."

Peter huffed out a silent sigh, anticipating Neal's next argument, realizing that if he'd led anywhere, it was onto thin ice. He made no attempt to stem the force that was Neal in full indignation.

"So what I'm supposed to learn from this is that it's okay to take potentially fatal gambles, if there's a good reason."

This time Peter's sigh was more audible, and he managed to suppress the cough that tried to escape with it. "Neal, it's different," he tried to explain, already knowing the futility of his words. "I'm an agent, and I'm trained and paid to take these risks. It wasn't a gamble; it was a calculated plan made with the full back up of my team and SWAT and," he added triumphantly, suddenly remembering the kicker, "made with the full approval and consent of my superior."

"Hughes approved Mozzie shooting you in the back?" Skepticism dripped thickly off every word.

Damn it. "Okay, I told him I had a sharpshooter ready. I may not have mentioned it was Mozzie, but the theory stands."

"You mean you evaded, obfuscated, equivocated..."

"Can the dictionary, Neal." Peter was aware that his argument had run out of steam. These were just its last feeble kicks before it stopped fighting and gave up the ghost. "It's different." He could feel the truth of that in his bones even if he couldn't find the words to justify it. "You're my responsibility, legally and morally."

"If you've taught me anything, it's that partners take care of each other," Neal said implacably.

Checkmate. Peter was left with no defence, so he fell back on humor. "Do you have any idea of the paperwork I'd have to fill out if you got yourself killed?"

"And if you died, they'd put me back in jail, so I guess we've both got a vested interest in keeping each other alive."

Neal was 2 and 0. "So, now I'm just a meal ticket?" Peter knew that wasn't true, but couldn't help a modicum of hurt from seeping through.

Neal softened immediately. "That's not the case. It never was, not even in the beginning."

Another coughing fit interrupted Peter's response. As he sank back, he caught Neal's eye, and they exchanged a smile, an acknowledgment of another turbulent exchange in an eventful relationship.

"You're right," Peter admitted quietly. "On a scale of 1 to stupid, that ranks beyond idiotic, and if you'd pulled something like that, I'd be reaming you out."

Neal had the grace not to look smug. "And if the situation were reversed, I'd be pointing out that through a stroke of unorthodox genius, lives had been saved." Understanding and forgiveness mutually extended.

Peter suppressed a cough, swallowing a gulp of water to chase the urge back down. He pensively watched a drop of water wind its way down the glass before transferring his gaze back to his friend. "This may seem hypocritical, but as your partner and your friend, I'm going to ask you not to take any unnecessary risks, especially not for my sake. I…don't want anything to happen to you."

He half expected Neal to start another argument, but instead his friend shot him a happy grin and all-too-agreeably said, "Okay."

Peter frowned in suspicion at Neal's carefully innocent expression. "That was just too easy. No arguments, no provisions, no caveats? Just okay?"

"That's right."

"So, you're agreeing with me because I'm right?"

"No, I'm agreeing with you because I'm terrified of what Elizabeth will do if I allow you to get agitated again."

"Now, you're telling me that the thought of my wife angry with you scares you into submission, but courting my ire leaves you unmoved."

Neal shrugged apologetically. "I'm sorry, but you do realize that, at the moment, you're about as threatening as a Care Bear."

"Well, my dignity just packed its bags and headed for the hills."

Neal mimed contrition at Peter's mock glare.

There was a definition correlation in direct proportion between the amount Peter was talking and the number of times he coughed, so Neal decided that a little monopolization of the conversation was in order. Peter could converse on a number of eclectic subjects, but there was one that Neal knew would keep him quiet and attentive for long periods of time.

Peter might be the world's expert on Neal Caffrey, but he was missing A through G in his encyclopedia set, and he loved to fill those gaps. Neal wasn't sure if it was an agent's desire for complete information, a detective's need to solve a mystery, or merely a friend's wish to know as much as possible about another friend. Probably it was a complex amalgam of all three. Either way, for once, Neal was happy to pander to that curiosity.

Not wanting to create a conflict of interest, he kept his stories focused on his less-illegal activities, or at least on areas where Peter held no jurisdiction. Lips quirked in a faint smile, Peter listened intently, and whether it was the disuse of his vocal chords or merely the distraction, his coughing eased. It was a surprisingly pleasant way of passing the time. Neal enjoyed the reminiscing and the attentive audience, but even a born raconteur grows hoarse after a time, and eventually he subsided in favor of a baseball game on the TV.

This wasn't usually his entertainment of choice, but it was enjoyable watching with Peter who was well-informed not only about the players and their idiosyncrasies of style, but also about the strategy and skills of the sport. They played their own game of anticipating the signals of the catcher for the next pitch. However, Neal wasn't surprised when Peter grew quieter as the game proceeded and eventually fell asleep. Such rest was crucial to his friend's recovery.

It was a restless sleep, but Neal was happy to see the pain lines smooth under its influence. He quietly rose from his chair and padded over to the sideboard where Peter allowed him to keep a sketchpad. He was seized by an urge to capture the moment. The movement of pencil on paper was almost meditative; the soft sweeping of lead soothing his jumbled emotions. When he finished, he looked down on his creation with a critical eye and then across at the vignette of Peter he'd been trying to capture, and frowned slightly.

Carefully, he tore the sheet out and laid it aside. Biting his lip gently between his teeth, he started another sketch. There was a scene indelibly etched in his mind's eye that he wanted to commit to paper – the moment when he realized that Peter was alive as he limped toward him, appallingly vulnerable, yet absolutely indefatigable – an oxymoron on crutches. This time, his pencil moved furiously, almost without thought, as if the memory were downloading itself wholesale. Violent memories softened with the melodic scratching of the instrument.

Peter was still asleep when he finished, for which Neal was profoundly grateful. In fact, as he spread the two drawings out side by side to peruse them, he was fairly sure he'd never show them to anyone else. They were just too personal. He was certain that Mozzie would mercilessly mock him for the rest of his life if the little man caught sight of them. Everything he felt for Peter was laid bare for even the uninitiated in art to see, and it bore no resemblance to Mozzie's 'pure evil, born of a blackened soul."

It clarified Neal's own feelings. He thought he'd lost this sense of family, of belonging, of purpose, but when he'd seen Peter, it had been like being offered a second chance – or a third, he'd lost count at this point. He had no intention of squandering that.

He'd have to find a way in the next few days to break it to Mozzie that he wasn't leaving. New York was his home, and not even the most beautiful tropical island could approach it in its flawed perfection. The treasure might prove an obstacle, but he'd have to convince Mozzie that they should donate it to a museum. He'd like the chance to research the provenances and return what he could to the former owners, but it was too likely to leave a trail that would lead to him.

In retrospect, he'd made this decision a long while ago and only now was admitting it to himself. All this time, he'd been trying to have his cake and eat it, and that had just made him sick and threatened to poison his relationships with all the people who meant the most to him.

Neal placed both pictures carefully in the folder section at the back of his pad, with a mental note to hide them somewhere safe, then he curled more comfortably in the chair and allowed the ideas of home and permanency to percolate deeper inside.

This was home, and no one was going to force him to leave.