FBI: 7:45 THE FOLLOWING MORNING
"You're actually beating a decomposing horse, now, Peter."
"As disgusting as that was, I do get the point. I'm just trying to make sure you understand the consequences, here…"
"Better than anyone, except maybe you. When I signed that agreement, I gave them my loyalty and control of what I do and where I go, but I don't remember a clause that says they get my soul. It's the last piece of me that I still own. I'm not surrendering it to… to that infuriating, aggravating little head-shrinker."
Peter suppressed a grin and lobbed the conversational ball back over the net.
"Sounds like he at least got a siege ladder up against the castle wall."
"He tried. I shoved it off. Wish I could've knocked him on his ass at the same time." Neal snorted, anger and bitterness clearly displayed, much to Peter's surprise. The younger man's emotions were usually buried much farther under the surface.
"Not so easy, hmmm?"
"The smug SOB is tougher than I was hoping."
Peter sighed quietly.
"So you want me to tell him no."
"I won't complain if you decide to throw in a nasty word or two in front of that negative."
"You mean like 'hell'?"
"Worse would be fine."
"We'll see. Wait for me, okay? Hopefully this won't take long."
As Peter rose and took a step toward the office door, Neal looked up and added one last comment.
"I'm really sorry, Peter. The storm that's about to drop on your head… I'd stop it if I could. There are just things I can't afford to dredge up. I've submerged a lot of memories that are best left untouched."
"Hey, I understand, buddy. No matter what happens, there'll be no finger pointing and no blame. Not from me."
Neal nodded and his handler exited, moving swiftly down the stairs.
"That's okay," the other mumbled when Peter was out of earshot. "I'll do enough of that for both of us. Only self-flagellation, though, I promise…"
TEN MINUTES LATER:
Peter waited by the elevators and greeted the smaller man when he emerged. He understood immediately just what had made Neal so furious the previous day, but, at first, Huang's attitude didn't affect Peter the same way at all. When the other spoke, the FBI agent laughed.
"Shield and sword. Nice to meet you."
"Yeah. Sometimes I am that. Also father confessor and retriever of Neal's ass from the fiery furnace. This time… none of those apply. I'm here to warn you and ask for a little mercy."
"I see. He's that upset?"
"He authorized me to curse at you on his behalf."
"As in 'Hell no, I won't go?' "
"I appreciate the advice, Agent Burke, but neither of you can afford for me to give up on this assignment."
"He's not an assignment, he's a human being who's lived through some damned harrowing moments. He's afraid you'll trick or force some of that out of him and leave him in no condition to get out of his apartment, never mind perform the work he's here to do."
Huang studied Peter carefully for several seconds before he calmly, quietly responded and left Peter no longer in any mood to chuckle.
"If the memories are that frightening and difficult to face… he'd be better off if he *did* talk about them."
"Really. You ever spent any time in prison, doctor? I mean months… years."
"You can't know that's what he's hiding from."
"It's a pretty damn good guess. The first four times I visited him after his conviction, his face and arms were covered with bruises. I didn't see any real healing until two months in."
"Gentle souls who live in their heads stand out in that environment. They're automatic targets for men who've learned how to camouflage their attacks… and there's only so much the guards can do."
"And you want him to re-live that?"
"No. This exam isn't supposed to go that deep. It doesn't change the truth, though."
"What truth is that?"
"You can bury toxic waste as deeply as you want to. It's still toxic, still dangerous and still capable of leaking, doing harm to everyone in range."
Peter drew a quick breath and took half a step back as Huang's point sank in.
"He doesn't want it. I can't just let... I can't."
"If you genuinely care about him, if you genuinely desire to protect him… you can't do anything else."
After a long, tense stretch of minutes, Peter nodded slowly and pointed.
"In my office. Top of the stairs."