Neal had never put much thought into what the FBI Academy at Quantico would be like; if he thought about it at all, he assumed it would be a lot of drab government buildings filled with overly serious, overly lawful people learning how to be FBI agents. An army of little Peter Burke clones without Peter's sense of humor or flexible moral compass. And now he was going to see it in person, because what every con man wanted was to be surrounded by proto-FBI agents just waiting to prove themselves.
It wasn't like he wasn't excited, on the other hand. Quantico was two hundred miles outside of his radius, and an interesting new place he'd never been. As much as he'd enjoyed his fight training with Peter, he was eager to see what an actual professional would have to teach him while Peter was recovering from his stab wound.
There was something oddly satisfying about unarmed combat, which was an opinion he never thought he'd hold. Neal wasn't violent by nature, but it felt good to land a punch, to know that running away wasn't the only option, even if it was the best.
Besides, he and Jones were driving down to Virginia, and they had very similar tastes in music.
"You sure about this?" Jones asked him, about an hour into the five-hour drive. "Quantico's pretty intense."
"So's prison," Neal answered cheerfully. "I'll cope. Besides, it's only a few hours a day. The rest of the time I'm a free man."
"A free man who's on a campus-boundary radius," Jones reminded him.
"Aw, it's sweet you think I can't entertain myself in a building full of baby feds."
Jones laughed. "Good point. No fleecing the probies."
"Peter tell you to say that?"
"He might have asked me to keep an eye on you."
"Okay, ordered," Jones admitted. "Remind him if he puts one foot out of line I'm still bigger and meaner than he is," he added, in a pretty good imitation of Peter.
"Promise I'll behave," Neal said. "I know it's your ass on the line."
"Appreciate that," Jones replied, and they drove on in comfortable quiet, the miles ticking past and the radio playing.
When they reached Quantico, just past lunchtime, they were greeted in the administration offices by possibly the largest human being Neal had ever seen.
"Hey, Prez," the man said, grinning and shaking Jones' offered hand, clapping him on the back. "Welcome back to hell."
"Prez?" Neal asked gleefully.
"My nickname at the Academy, use it and I'll shoot you," Jones answered. "Caffrey, this is Agent Callahan," he added, turning to introduce them. "He's one of the fight instructors."
"I gathered," Neal said, bracing for Callahan's crushing handshake. He didn't disappoint. Neal covertly flexed his fingers after, making sure they were all still functional.
"So, you're the kid Hughes sent down, huh?" Callahan asked. "You any good?"
"Guess you'll find out," Neal replied.
"Yup, that's the idea," Callahan said, handing each of them a large white envelope. "Dorm keys, schedules, orientation info's all in there. And badges," he added, offering them a pair of laminate badges with clips at the top. Jones's read SPECIAL AGENT CLINTON JONES. Neal's read CIVILIAN CONTRACTOR NEAL CAFFREY. "Keep them fully visible at all times, especially you," he said to Neal, then turned back to Jones while Neal clipped his, sighing, to his lapel. "You need any help?"
"Nah, I'll show Caffrey where to go," Jones said, enduring another hearty shoulder-slap. "Good seeing you again."
"Sure, you too. Seeya tomorrow, kid," Callahan told Neal, ambling away. Neal turned to watch him go.
"He's going to crush me like a bug," he said.
"Probably," Jones agreed. "Come on, I'll show you where we're sleeping."
The Academy campus was actually pretty nice. It looked like most of the college campuses Neal had been to, with well-kept lawns and interesting architecture. The few people they saw as they walked were all trainees, in the standard khaki-pants-navy-shirt uniform, and most of them gave him and Jones odd looks before continuing on their way.
The dormitory was about what he expected, low-ceilinged, cheap and spartan, but the room he'd been assigned was pleasant enough. He explored every corner of it, listening to Jones unpack in the room next to his. This would be home for the next three weeks; a crash course, when actual FBI agents got twenty weeks, but enough to satisfy Hughes that he was being trained by professionals, and just enough time to stay out of Peter's hair while he healed. Neal suspected both Hughes and Elizabeth had opinions about what Neal did to Peter's blood pressure.
This was where Jones and Diana had learned to be FBI agents. Lauren Cruz had written a thesis about him and Peter in one of these rooms. Peter had come here and learned all those sneaky tricks he used to keep Neal in line. Or -- Peter was kind of sneaky by nature, so he'd probably just refined his natural talent, but still. It felt oddly wrapped in history, in tradition. Neal wondered if this was what college felt like. He'd had the sense before, copying a painting or standing in places where history had been made...hell, standing in Vincent Adler's office, one could feel it...but he'd never felt like he was an active part of it before.
"Hey," Jones said, knocking on the half-open door. "I'm starving. Show you to the dining hall?"
"I'm good," Neal said, sinking down onto one of the two beds in the room, the mattress thin and creaky under him. "I'll catch up."
Jones shrugged. "Suit yourself. Buzz me if you get lost," he added, closing the door behind him as he left. Neal kicked his legs up onto the bed, scooted up against the headboard, and pulled out the orientation paperwork Callahan had provided. Map of the grounds (handy; he memorized it), dining hall schedule, what looked like a standard handout with facts about the Academy, and a schedule with his name in bold print at the top. Neal was, admittedly, not the greatest when it came to schedules, but it seemed easy enough. Morning PT, beginner's combat, "session review", whatever that meant, lunch, intermediate combat, and he was done by three.
He set the paperwork aside and drew his legs up, resting his arms on his knees, staring out the window. It was a strange place to end up; strange road to get here, from crook to fugitive to felon to consultant. He sat and thought about it for a long time, until the sky started to darken and he realized if he didn't try and get some dinner now, he'd probably be out of luck for food until the following morning.
When he walked into the dining hall, Jones was sitting at one of the many round six-person tables, surrounded by trainees, obviously holding court. He waved at Neal when he saw him and Neal waved back, drifting into the slightly mazelike area where little islands offered fresh fruit, hot food, sandwich fixings. It was full of khaki-clad trainees, some of whom gave him wary looks, but a con artist never lets himself feel less than at home. Neal helped himself to some food, grabbed a bottle of water, and suddenly had a powerful flashback to high school as he looked around at the tables now facing him.
"Time to make friends," he murmured, and deliberately avoided the table where Jones was entertaining the trainees. He found an empty chair and smiled down at the man sitting next to it.
"Excuse me," he said. "Is anyone sitting here?"
"No..." the man answered, scooting over to make room.
"You're fine," Neal said reassuringly, and with those two words had command over the entire table.
Subject: Day One
I know the boss is reading this over your shoulder or you're reading it out to him, so I won't bother pretending otherwise. Hope you're healing up, Peter.
The drive down went fine. I know Caffrey has his moments, but I think he knows when we get back he's still going to have to answer to you. He seemed a little intimidated by the Academy (I know, Neal Caffrey intimidated, wish I'd taken a picture) but he showed up at dinner and charmed the hell out of a couple of trainees a few tables over from me. I don't know what he told them but he had them eating out of the palm of his hand. I think he'll do fine. He's in the other room now, banging around, probably forging himself a student badge or something. He's not crazy about having his name on his chest at all times. It's very Scarlet Letter.
I have two lectures tomorrow and a pick-up course in the afternoon, but I'll check him if I see him, make sure he's settling in. It's weird being back here, let me tell you.
When Neal turned up for PT the next morning, he found a crowd of trainees waiting for the instructor; they took in his track pants and t-shirt, while he studied their identical Quantico-branded sweats. Word would have traveled about his presence on the campus, and most of them seemed to do a discreet check of the ID badge he'd clipped to the sleeve of his shirt.
Their instructor was a middle-aged woman who introduced herself briefly to him as Special Agent Saunders, welcomed him to Quantico, and then turned and held up her hands for attention.
"Three mile run," she said. A couple of students groaned. Neal usually did five back in New York, skirting the northern half of his radius; he grinned and fell into the crowd at an easy pace, following Saunders.
Their route took them out into some kind of parkland track -- Neal listened carefully to make sure his anklet didn't beep -- and then down a wide road past a signpost that read HOGAN'S ALLEY. He didn't think much of it, until they entered a ghostly-empty town and he realized they were in the FBI's mockup training facility. It was pretty realistic, except for the eerie lack of people...
About halfway through the town there was the sound of a gunshot.
Neal, immediately, dropped to the street; there were three more shots in quick succession. Someone, in the ensuing chaos, yelled "COVER THE CIV!" and Neal found himself not only dragged behind a car but shielded from fire by a broad-shouldered trainee. He kept very still -- more shots, the sound of feet scrambling and racing, and then a high, piercing whistle.
The man covering him immediately let him go and stood up, offering Neal a hand. Neal started to dust down his arms and then discovered he was leaving streaks -- his palms were bloody, dirt and grit embedded in them.
The trainees were regrouping, slowly. None of them looked frightened; a few looked annoyed. It was a drill, he realized. They'd run through the FBI's most famous drill grounds and they'd been given a surprise drill.
"How'd we do?" he asked one trainee, out of the corner of his mouth.
"Not so well," she replied ruefully.
Saunders was standing at the center of a circle of trainees, with two men who had hoods pushed up off their faces and cap guns shoved in their belts.
"Okay," she called out. "Where's Mr. Caffrey?"
"Uh, here," Neal said, edging through the crowd.
"Mr. Caffrey, you're a consultant for the New York office, right?" she asked. Neal, feeling like he was probably about to be given a detention, nodded. "What is your job in a firefight?"
"Stay out of the way and don't get killed?" he ventured.
"Very good. How did you know that?"
"I have a lot of experience not getting killed," Neal said. Laughter rippled among the trainees.
"When you're working with contractors or witnesses, they're not necessarily going to have Mr. Caffrey's instincts," Saunders told the group. "Pendleton, instruct Mr. Caffrey on protocol."
A nervous-looking woman stepped forward and put a hand on Neal's shoulder, roleplaying. Neal gave her an encouraging smile.
"Mr. Caffrey, we don't think you're in any danger," she said. "But if you hear or see anything suspicious, you tell one of our agents. If you hear gunshots, or even if you just think you hear gunshots, drop to the ground and let our agents handle it. Even if it's a false alarm, we want you to be aware of your surroundings."
"Very good, Pendleton. Now, who covered him?"
"The big..." Neal turned to point over his shoulder, but the man who'd covered him had followed him. "Hi."
"Griffin, good work," Saunders said.
"Thank you, ma'am," Griffin answered.
"Who yelled to cover him?"
A trainee put up her hand.
"All right. That was quick thinking, but it also lets anyone attacking you know that there's a vulnerable civilian in the area. You may have occasion to use code names, especially when protecting witnesses. Mr. Caffrey, do you have a code name with your handler?"
Neal grinned. "He used to call me James Bonds," he said. Another laugh; it was evident a few of them had studied his case. Saunders looked disapproving. "Uh, no, I have no code name."
"Well, now you do. When you address Mr. Caffrey you will call him by name," she said, raising her voice so everyone could hear her. "In any other discussion, Mr. Caffrey will be referred to as Blue Eyes. Repeat back to me?"
"Blue Eyes," the trainees chorused. Neal doffed an imaginary hat.
"Good. I'll expect reports on the mock-assault in my email by tomorrow morning. Dobbs, Smith, Henderson, Caffrey, have the medical office take a look at those bumps and bruises when we get back. Don't think I don't see you limping, Dobbs. And on we go," she said, the trainees falling into pace again as she took off running.
When they returned to the main Academy building, the rest of the trainees went in for breakfast; Neal followed his fellow walking-wounded to the medical office. None of the scrapes were deep, but they wrapped his hands anyway, bandages across the bottom half of his palms, then gave him a granola bar and efficiently discharged him. He made it to Beginning Combat with about five minutes to spare.
"Session Review" turned out to be private fight lessons. With Callahan the Giant.
Subject: Day Two
It's been a busy day here. Tell Peter thanks for the advice, but I'm past picturing the lecture attendees in their underwear. I did forensic debate at Harvard, you know.
The lectures went okay, and the Intelligence course is pretty interesting. Our mutual friend, the little guy? He's about six months ahead of FBI training technique, if today's any indication. They're just now getting their hands on some of that Surplus he had when he helped out with your bug problem.
Neal says, and I'm quoting here, "Even my hair hurts." He's a little banged up but no worse than any other new trainee. He's monopolizing the bathtub and the hot water at the moment. I'm waiting a few days to take pity on him and let him know he can get heat packs from medical. It's good for him. Builds character.
Hope all's quiet in New York. Diana says White Collar's pretty lonely without the Burke and Caffrey show. Apparently their fan club is morose.
Once everything stopped hurting, Neal started to enjoy training with the feds. The routine was almost like prison, which was less than comforting, but the trainees were nicer than his fellow inmates and Neal was an adaptable man. Admittedly he spent several hours a day getting the hell kicked out of him, but when he wasn't trying to avoid being punched in the head he had a pretty good time.
"So, here's how it works, watch the cards," he said, over lunch one day, playing three-card-monty with Pendleton, Griffin, and a shy young trainee who hadn't volunteered his name when Neal sat down at their table. Two instructors were watching him closely from nearby, but they hadn't tried to stop him or anything. "Now while you're doing this you have a patter going. You're not trying to distract them, you're just trying to make them think later that they could have been distracted. And..." he let the cards fall. "Where's the queen?"
All three pointed at the left card.
"But you already swapped her out," Pendleton said.
"Did you see it or do you just know it?" Neal asked.
"Didn't see it," she admitted, smiling.
"So if you know the queen's not on the board, what do you do?" Neal said. "How do you win?"
They gave him blank looks.
"Put your hand on the left card," Neal said. Griffin did so. "Now flip over the other two."
Griffin tried to do a suave one-handed double-flip Neal had done earlier; he almost succeeded, and Neal caught the card that skittered away, flipping it over.
"Then you say, guess I found the queen," Neal said.
"So?" Pendleton shrugged.
"So there's always a way to beat a con, if you know where to look," Neal told her. "Cons depend on the guy running it knowing more than you do. He's not necessarily smarter than you, he just has more facts. Every con has a weakness. Find the weakness, you're golden."
"Is that how Agent Burke caught you?"
Neal glanced at the third trainee, who'd been mostly silent. He gave him a light smile. "Something like that. You do research on me or something?"
"No, on him," he said. "We studied some of his casefiles in our fraud unit."
"Yeah?" Neal cleared the cards away, shuffling them into a deck and tucking it in his pocket. "Model agent, huh?"
"He has a pretty high clearance rate," Pendleton said.
Neal nodded. "He's proud of that. You study a lot of agents' casefiles?"
She shrugged. "Just the important ones. So you work with him all the time?"
"What's he like?" Griffin asked.
"Smart," Neal said. "Tough. He's fair."
"He put you in prison," Pendleton pointed out.
"Yeah, but he got me out again," Neal said.
"Does he ever take probies?"
Neal came to the sudden and startling realization that he was being pumped for details about the FBI equivalent of a movie star. Except it was Peter.
"You know, I really should check in with Agent Jones," he said, getting up. "You're all going to his lecture this afternoon, right?"
Their heads nodded. Neal gave them a farewell smile and walked away, taking out his phone.
"Are you having fun yet?" Peter answered.
"Masses," Neal replied. "You didn't tell me you were famous."
"I'm not," Peter said.
"I just had a bunch of trainees pounce on me and ask me what you were like," Neal told him.
"Relax, I told them you were tough but fair."
"Faint praise. Thanks." Peter sighed. "Yeah, okay, they use some of my casefiles, but that's just because they're good examples."
"Uh huh," Neal replied. "Can I have your autograph?"
"You'd only use it to make it look like I've signed off on your half-assed paperwork. How's training?"
Neal smirked. "Don't tell me you haven't been getting reports from Jones."
"I haven't," Peter answered, but there was an evasive note in his voice.
"Using your wife as a mail drop? Peter, I'm impressed."
"I hear you're getting a good workout," Peter said, without directly addressing the accusation. A little victory, but oddly satisfying.
"Yeah, I was stiff for a few days. I'm going to have some awesome bruises. Did he tell you they gave me a code name? A couple of the instructors think I'm a good object lesson in witness handling. I get to roleplay."
"I hated roleplay," Peter sighed.
"I can only imagine Cowboy Up didn't earn you high grades." Neal laughed. "No, it's fun. Every couple of days someone makes an attempt on my life and whoever's in the area gets to be part of a surprise drill. Yesterday I pretended to be traumatized. Good times."
"Fine, I know you're dying for me to ask, what's your code name?" Peter said.
"Blue Eyes," Neal informed him happily.
"God save me," Peter said. "Okay, run along to get your ass kicked. I have a very important crossword puzzle to do."
"Elizabeth strap you to a chair?" Neal asked sympathetically.
"She won't even let me walk the dog," Peter complained.
"It's a hard life," Neal said. "Heal up, Peter."
"Doing my best," Peter told him, and Neal ended the call.
Subject: Day Thirteen
I'm glad you liked the pictures. The food in the cafeteria is better than it looks, don't worry. We're eating well. Tell Peter they still make that ham thing on Thursdays, because I know he'll ask. It's like a legend in the FBI. A terrible, terrible legend.
Caffrey walked into a classroom today after his combat training was over and found himself in a lecture on fraud detection. I guess one of the teaching slides was the bond he forged. He got a real kick out of it, so tomorrow he's leading an informal evening workshop on advanced forgery.
I'm pretty sure you shouldn't tell Peter that.
We're coming home a week from tomorrow. I won't lie, it's going to be nice to be back in New York. I think Neal's looking forward to it too. He's starting to construct elaborate fantasies about espresso and spending whole days at a time not getting punched. I think he even misses mortgage fraud.
No letter tomorrow -- I'm going off-base and probably won't be back until late. FBI culture gets a little monotonous when you live it 24/7.
Friday's intermediate combat class was grueling. It was like the instructors knew the trainees were looking forward to the weekend, so they drilled them especially hard. Neal was getting used to the weird masochistic culture of pain the classes engendered; there was a sign leading into Hogan's Alley that read HURT - AGONY - PAIN - LOVE IT which was more understandable now than it had been in the beginning.
"Caffrey!" Callahan barked. "Stop guarding your hands, princess, they're not going to break."
"I like my hands," Neal grunted. He'd figured out early on that the purpose of most of Callahan's moves was apparently to teach students how to defend against Iron Man, should he go rogue and attack the FBI. There was a lot of ducking involved.
"If it's a choice between your hands and your life, what do you choose?" Callahan asked, catching Neal's left wrist and twisting. Neal turned with the motion and dug an elbow into Callahan's gut. He found himself released and pushed back.
"Stay as far from your attacker as you can," Callahan said. "Try that again, I want to show you something."
"Great," Neal groaned, but he held out his left arm so Callahan could grab it. He twisted a second time, went to elbow him, and found Callahan's other arm around his throat. He writhed a little and gagged, struggling for air.
"This is why you keep your distance," Callahan said in his ear. He released him and Neal tumbled to the floor, gasping for breath. That was another thing about the FBI: they'd figured out that humiliation was a huge motivator, and applied it whenever possible. On the one hand, it was ugly and, well, humiliating. On the other, Neal couldn't deny that it worked. A lot of Peter's behavior made a lot more sense after two weeks in the hands of the training program.
"So what are your options?" Callahan asked the assembled students. "When someone grabs you like that, and like Blue Eyes you're protecting your wrists, what do you do? Caffrey?"
"Get in one good hit before you get close," Neal said, giving him a determined look. He held out his arm for a third time, let Callahan grab it, then turned with the motion and brought his other elbow up higher, aiming for the face and jabbing instead of waiting to be pulled in. He didn't land the hit, but Callahan reacted like he had, releasing his wrist and turning his head sharply.
"Better," Callahan said. High praise from him. "You're hitting a very small, very thin bone with a very big, heavy one. But you're leaving your ribcage open. Last time," he said, and grabbed Neal's wrist. Neal turned, jabbed --
And lost his balance, stumbling a little right as Callahan clubbed him in the ribcage from behind.
It should have been, at most, a glancing blow off his side, enough to knock him free but not enough to really hurt. Instead, with both of them off balance, Callahan's fist connected to his ribs with unexpected force. Neal felt the breath go out of him and collapsed on his side, arms around his ribs, knees pulling up. It was blindingly painful, and it felt for a second like something gave inside his chest.
To his credit, the other man was down with him immediately. "Caffrey? Jesus, kid, I meant to pull the punch."
"M'okay," Neal gasped, curling further in on himself. He was not in any sense okay, but he didn't want to freak Callahan out. Besides, the rest of the class was watching. He waited for the slow burn of pain to pass, but it was taking a long time.
"Call Medical," Callahan barked, and Neal gritted his teeth and uncurled through the pain, rolling over onto his other side to push himself up.
"No, I'm all right," he managed, as Callahan carefully pulled him to his feet. The motion made his side burn in agony, but once he got upright it was a little better. "Okay. I guess that's why you don't jab," he said, rubbing his ribs. He pulled up a smile from somewhere and lurched to one of the benches at the edge of the room. "Punching bag's out, kids," he said, and the trainees around him laughed nervously. "Somebody else's turn."
Callahan let him nurse his aching ribs through the last half-hour of the class, using one of the other trainees to demonstrate balance exercises (a little humiliation, because Neal had stumbled). At the end of class, Neal slid off the bench and groaned.
"Get Medical to check you out," Callahan advised him. "Don't think this is getting you out of private sessions next week without a note."
"Wouldn't dream of it," Neal muttered. The pain was fading; he didn't need Medical, just an ice pack and some anti-inflammatories. He was supposed to be meeting Griffin and some of his pals in the library to talk forgery.
He showered quickly, eased a shirt up his left arm and then pulled it over his head, wincing. Something cold and wet hit him in the shoulder; he caught the ice pack as it slithered down his arm. He tossed a quick thanks to the trainee who'd thrown it and tucked it up under his shirt. Blissful ice pack. Much beloved ice pack.
After the first few days, he'd wrangled a first-aid kit out of Medical, with a goofy smile and an offer to pay for it, producing a dollar from behind the nurse's ear. He managed to get back to his room without incident, shook out a couple of painkillers from their packet, downed them dry, and then sat for a few minutes, measuring just how deep he could breathe without stabbing pain.
He'd taken rib hits before -- never quite this strong, but close -- and been fine. He had the whole weekend to recover, and he wasn't about to ass out of his last week of training over a little bruise.
Neal got up, tucked his arm against his side casually to hold the ice in place, and started to make his way slowly to the library, where he had students waiting for him.
Saturday was agony.
He'd been able to ignore the pain for most of Friday afternoon, between the ice pack and the company he was in. Neal was always up for trading stories about crime, and it was flattering to have the attention of a dozen students on him while he recounted various ("Purely theoretical and alleged, of course") forgeries he'd been involved in. He'd made it through dinner on determination alone, and then collapsed in bed and fell asleep by nine o'clock.
He woke unable to bend his left shoulder at all, the melted ice pack somewhere under his back, his left side throbbing. Jones had come in late -- he'd heard him through a haze of sleep and aspirin -- which meant he had the bathroom to himself, probably. He all but fell out of bed, swearing under his breath, and crawled into the bathtub before he'd even turned the water on. The heat felt amazing, when it finally reached his ribs, and Neal hissed and hunched forward, trying to relieve the cramps in his muscles.
He spent most of Saturday in bed, a book on behavioral profiling propped next to his head to keep him occupied, a series of ice packs melting wetly on his ribcage. When a combination of hunger and sheer boredom drove him upright around dinner time, he found he was more stiff than anything, and spent most of dinner teasing Jones about his hangover to deflect from the fact that he himself was walking like an old man.
He really didn't remember much of Sunday. He suspected he'd taken more than the recommended dosage of the anti-inflammatories in the medical kit.
Still, on Monday he got up early and rummaged around in the kit, coming up with a roll of sports bandage. He strapped the most painful part of his chest, just below his left pectoral, and then sighed with relief when the strapping prevented the worst of the pain. They were doing another three-miler, but at least luck was on his side; no drills today.
"How're the ribs?" Callahan asked him, when he showed up for combat limping slightly.
"Sore, but I'm good," Neal answered, patting the strapping.
"Okay. Let's focus on guarding, then," Callahan said. It was a small mercy, Neal recognized, and possibly an act of contrition for hitting him hard on Friday. He spent almost the whole day learning to protect his ribs, which meant he didn't have to get hit in them, which was a relief. By the end of Intermediate, he was having trouble catching his breath.
Tuesday morning he still couldn't take a deep breath; he fell behind in PT, which got him the sharp edge of Saunders' tongue. He bit down on a smartass reply and ignored the pain, pushing through combat classes on pure adrenaline.
"You okay?" Jones asked over dinner, Tuesday night.
"Looking forward to heading home," Neal said. "The novelty has officially worn off."
"That short attention span's gonna get you in trouble," Jones told him.
"Yeah, I might end up in jail," Neal joked weakly. Jones watched him for the rest of dinner, but Neal kept his movements slow and didn't let the ache in his ribs show on his face; he sipped water every time he thought he might cough (the cough was worrying, but he was probably just dry-throated from the day's workout).
He could do three more days of this, and then go back to New York and spend a weekend quietly dying in the comfort of June's loft, and on Monday he'd be fine for the endless stacks of paperwork Diana no doubt had waiting for him.
Subject: Day Eighteen
I could have told you Peter would try to go back to work before his break was up. Hughes probably knew too. Wish I'd been there to see him marching Peter back out of the office. I bet Diana thought it was pretty funny too.
It's mostly quiet here. Caffrey has this gang of trainees who follow him around like ducklings, so he's kept busy. He seems a little tired, but my guess is he's missing New York. I think he's going to try and wrangle the department into taking a couple of his favorites as probies. He's got his eye on this guy Griffin, seems bright, near the top of his class. Griffin's working on behavioral profiling of nonviolent white-collar offenders. It's a neat idea. We pretty much do it already, but there's nothing formal in place.
Anyway, thanks for the dinner invite. We'll definitely see you Friday night. Eight if the traffic's decent.
Wednesday morning, Neal woke to a pathetic, wracking cough that was almost enough for him to consider missing PT. Every time he tried to inhale, he hacked; every time he hacked, his side ached. He downed an entire bottle of water, took a few more pills from the fast-depleting stash in the medical kit, checked his strapping (a huge, ugly bruise was working its way around the edges of the bandage) and forced himself out the door.
The morning was warm, uncomfortably so, but running wasn't exactly elegant; everyone sweated sooner or later, and anyway he was at the back of the pack, like he had been since Monday. They were doing a five-mile, around the edges of the Academy property, and every step seemed to shake something loose inside his chest. At one point he stopped, coughed, spat, and then ran hard to catch up; the second time he had to stop, he was in the middle of the crowd and couldn't easily just halt. He slowed his pace, dropping further back, coughing as he ran, and then stopped altogether.
He bent, only meaning to rest his hands on his knees for a minute, but it felt like all his blood rushed to his head; when he tried to straighten, he staggered forwards instead, and then fell.
There was a yell from up ahead, someone calling "Caffrey, keep up!" and he scrambled to push himself up, but there was a weird crackling feeling in his chest, and the it just hurt too much. So much.
A second yell, and he tried again, but this time the shout was less encouraging -- and then there were footsteps coming back his way, and someone turning him over. The world spun.
"Shit," Pendleton said, really loudly in his ear, or maybe he was just imagining that. "Somebody call Medical, Blue Eyes is down!"
"I'm fine," Neal mumbled. "Help me up."
"Are you kidding me?" she asked, holding him down on the ground with one hand. Neal coughed and choked, and she helped him at least to roll on his side.
His left side, which screamed, right before Neal blacked out.
Elizabeth and Peter had looked after each others' various hurts and illnesses for ten years. Mostly, on Peter's side, it had been job-related injuries. Elizabeth had grown accustomed to the cycle of her husband's recoveries: fractious and restless, then resigned, then usually sneaky, where he tried to pretend he was okay before he was, and then a second period of restlessness before he was allowed back at work. This time there had also been a brief phase of annoyed swearing about Neal.
Peter was in full on Restlessness II, but at least he wasn't bothering her too much with it. It was manifesting mainly in constant channel-surfing and grumbling about the lack of decent daytime television, so she ignored him and got on with her work.
They'd only just finished breakfast and she was setting up for the day when the phone rang, and Peter rummaged around on the couch for it. She could tell by the way he answered he was perplexed. "This is Agent Burke."
She listened with one ear, most of her mind on something else, as Peter said, "No, I'm sure that's a mistake...where? Well, how would he possibly -- "
"Hang on, his temporary custodial agent's calling," Peter said, and then Elizabeth did turn around. Peter was punching buttons on the phone, looking annoyed. He held it up to his ear. "Jones?"
She watched as Peter's face darkened. "Yeah, I have them on call waiting, what's going on? Did he -- "
Suddenly he sat up straight, the blood draining from his face. "Do you know why? No, stay on it. I'll handle the Marshals. Call me when you know anything." Peter hung up and then put the phone back to his ear. "Caffrey's had a medical emergency. Take him off restricted-transit until further notice, his custodial agent's with him. Okay. Agent Jones or myself will call with updates."
"What happened to Neal?" she asked, as Peter tucked the phone in his pocket and stood up, looking around for something.
"He's on his way to the emergency room on the USMC base at Quantico," Peter said distractedly. "He collapsed during PT. Where are my shoes?"
"Is he okay?" Elizabeth asked, rising out of her chair.
"I don't know, Jones doesn't -- they don't know yet," Peter's voice was agonized. "I said this was a bad idea, I told him -- "
"Sweetie, calm down," Elizabeth said, putting both hands on his chest. "Deep breaths. He's probably just dehydrated, you said yourself trainees used to pass out on runs when you were there."
"I'm going," Peter said.
"Yes, I know," she replied, holding up the car keys. "I'm driving."
Three hours into the drive, Jones called with an update; Neal had two broken ribs and pneumonia.
When they arrived, Jones was at the entry gate to the Marine Corps base at Quantico, arguing with the guards. Peter leaned across Elizabeth and showed them his badge. As soon as they ran his badge number, the Marines snapped to attention.
"Sorry, sir," one of them said.
"She's with me," Peter said, pointing to Elizabeth. "Problem?"
"Good." Peter leaned back and grunted as his wound made itself known. Elizabeth pecked him on the cheek as Jones climbed into the back of the car.
"You came in with the ambulance?" Peter asked.
"Yeah, but they weren't going to let you in without clearance. Man, who do you know to make them do that dance?" Jones asked.
"Did some analysis work for Homeland Security, I have a pretty high security clearance. I'd tell you about it but I'd have to kill you," Peter answered. "How's Neal?"
Jones chewed on his lip. "He's on a ventilator."
"What the hell did he do to himself?" Peter demanded.
"They can't figure that out."
"You're telling me a crew of trainees and instructors for the Federal Bureau of Investigation don't know how my CI ended up on a ventilator in a Marine Corps hospital?" Peter asked.
"He seemed fine yesterday. Quiet, but you know. Look, if I thought something was wrong -- "
"I know, I know," Peter rubbed his face. "I'm not pissed at you, Jones. Neal probably stabbed himself climbing onto a roof or something. You know where they're keeping him?"
Jones nodded as Elizabeth pulled up to the entrance.
"I'll park the car. You go find Neal," she said. Peter kissed her and climbed out of the car.
Neal was in a bed in intensive care; Peter waited until Elizabeth caught up with them and then demanded to see him. The doctor in charge of Neal's case talked as they walked -- said he was stable, not out of the woods yet but not in any immediate danger.
"Best we can figure out is, he bruised his ribs, possibly cracked them mildly, about a week ago," the man said. "I haven't seen pneumonia set in this fast before, but when the lungs aren't fully expanding because of inflammation or pain, it fosters bacterial infection like we're seeing here. There are at least a few fresh breaks in his ribs, possibly from the fall he took."
"When did he fall?" Peter asked sharply.
"I'm given to understand he collapsed on the track at the FBI Academy," the doctor said. "The fall could have cracked the ribs. If he gets over the pneumonia, he should be fine after some bed rest."
The doctor stopped at a door, hand on the knob.
"Agent Burke, Mr. Caffrey's lungs are full of fluid. He's fighting a very strong infection. He's a healthy young man, so I don't anticipate problems, but pneumonia is a nasty disease and his body's also trying to heal a fairly serious injury. He's not going to be able to speak, and he may not be very cognizant of where he is. Please be patient with him."
Peter nodded. "I just want to see him."
The doctor opened the door and let them through; he studied a readout on a computer screen while Peter approached the bed, Elizabeth standing at the foot. Neal was pale and still, chest moving slightly to the rhythm of the ventilator -- a mask, not a tube, probably a good sign. The doctor left, eventually, and Elizabeth came over to grasp Peter's hand lightly.
"I told him it was a bad idea," Peter said. "Right at the start, I told him, stick to running away."
"I know, sweetie," Elizabeth said. "He'll be fine. The man jumps out of fourth-floor windows, pneumonia hasn't got a chance."
Peter snorted. "It'd be like him to die just to piss me off."
"Shh, don't say that." She kissed his cheek. "You heard the doctor, he could be out for a while. Might as well sit down."
"Yeah," Peter said vaguely, letting her pull him to a chair nearby. Neal's chest rose and fell, lightly, the only sign of life outside of the heart monitor's steady pulse.
He'd sat twelve-hour stakeouts on Neal, chased him for three years, and put up with him for eight, sometimes fifteen hours a day at the office. Peter was good at watching Neal Caffrey. So he sat, and felt Elizabeth tuck herself up under his arm, and he watched.
Neal woke sometime in the afternoon; time passed differently in hospitals, Peter was sure of it. Elizabeth was getting something to eat, and he had the sense he was supposed to go when she got back. The first indication he had that Neal was awake was one hand raising, curious, to touch the mask on his face.
Peter leaned forward, about to tell him not to mess with it, but Neal's fingers just delicately explored the shape of it, the line where plastic met skin, and then he let his hand fall. He opened his eyes, hazy and unfocused.
"Neal," Peter said quietly, and it took Neal a while to turn his head, for his drug-dilated pupils to find Peter. "Hey. You know where you are?"
Neal's head shook, slightly, eyes drifting away before returning to Peter's face.
"You're at the hospital on the Marine Corps Quantico base," Peter said. "You know what day it is?"
He expected Neal to nod or shake his head; instead his hand rose hesitantly, four fingers extended, thumb tucked against his palm.
"The fourth, that's right," Peter told him. "And you know who I am?"
Neal's eyes rolled expressively; his head lolled for a second, with the motion, until he turned it back. His fingers flexed, a seemingly random twitch, three curling against his palm and the index outstretched. After a second, they uncurled again, pulled close together. Peter realized he was signing. P - B.
"Yeah, that's me," he said. "PB."
Neal wagged his index finger. Peter frowned. He wagged it again, making an almost complete circle -- a question mark. What happened?
"You remember this morning's run?" Peter asked. Neal nodded. "You passed out."
Question mark again.
"You have a couple of broken ribs," Peter told him. "And bacterial pneumonia."
Neal visibly cringed, letting his hand fall.
"Look, I'll save the shouting for when you're better, okay?" Peter said. Neal blinked at him, eyes still vague. "You hurting?"
Neal shook his head. Then, hesitantly, raised his hand again and started to rub his knuckles in a circle against his chest, stopping with a little tense arch when he knocked them against his ribs. Peter put a hand out, stilling it.
"No apologizing right now," he said. Neal made a tiny circle with his knuckles. "Okay, I get it, you're -- "
Neal shook his head and lifted his hand free of Peter's, pressing the ball of his thumb to his own chin. He turned his hand over and pulled it towards him. No and want.
"What don't you want?" Peter asked. Neal's brow furrowed with concentration; finally he rested the back of his hand on Peter's palm, two fingers outstretched, and slid it off. He pushed Peter's hand away and curled his fingers over his chest, as if he were cupping a badge pinned there.
I didn't want to disappoint you.
Peter smiled and rested his hand on Neal's head, thumb rubbing away the little line of concentration above his eyebrows. "You didn't want to wash out."
Neal nodded against his hand.
"Okay. That's..." Peter sighed. "That's really stupid, but I remember Quantico. I get it."
He was almost positive he saw Neal smile under the mask, a loopy grin. He spelled Peter's initials again, PB, and then cupped his hand against his chest, forming a badge -- cop. Then, carefully, NC and cop again.
"Yes, you're the big bad FBI man," Peter told him. "Get some rest. We'll be here."
Neal flattened his hand on his chest, eyes drifting up to the ceiling; he made some kind of abortive move with his fingers, but he was already half-unconscious again. Peter watched his hand relax against the hospital blanket, joint by joint.
They stayed that night in FBI dorm housing -- the Marine Corps might let Peter on-base and let him vouch for his spouse, but they were dicey about letting them sleep there. Elizabeth, who could be a little more objective than her husband, had thrown some clothes in a bag; proof that she wasn't much more objective was that she'd packed underwear, two pairs of pants, only one pair of pajamas (hers) and a tie but no shirt. She laughed a little over the tie as she sat down on one of the beds in the bare little room.
"It's like being back in college," she said, patting the mattress. Peter was standing in front of the other one, looking down at it with his arms crossed.
"Mm. I'm remembering how challenging it was to get laid on a twin bed," Peter said. Elizabeth gave him a smile.
"I keep picturing you wandering around, taking classes," she said, standing and kissing him as she passed. "We should see about getting something to -- oh," she interrupted herself as she opened the door to the hall outside. A talll young man in the Quantico trainee uniform was standing there. He looked startled.
"Uh, Mrs. Burke?" he said, carefully.
"Yes, that's me," she answered.
"I'm, um, I'm New Agent Trainee Griffin, this is Pendleton," he said, indicating a woman standing a little behind him. "We were looking for Special Agent Burke."
"And that's me," Peter said, joining her in the doorway. "Help you with something?"
Pendleton gave Griffin a pointed look.
"We just wanted to say we were sorry about Mr. Caffrey," Griffin said awkwardly.
"You had classes with Neal?" Peter asked.
"Yeah -- PT and some of the combat," Griffin said. "He's, you know, he seems like a nice guy, we were sorry to hear..."
"We should have noticed," Pendleton blurted. "I sparred with him on Monday, I knew he was watching his ribs. We're sorry, sir."
Peter regarded them both -- the picture of misery, eyes downcast.
"You know Neal's a con artist, right?" he said gently. Pendleton nodded.
"He did a workshop on forgery," Griffin said.
Peter rubbed his face. "Not surprised," he sighed. "If Neal wants something to stay hidden, it stays hidden. Don't beat yourselves up." He paused. "Do you know what happened?"
They exchanged a look.
"Callahan socked him one on Friday," Pendleton said. "Unlucky punch, he didn't mean to do it."
"He seemed fine Friday night," Griffin put in. "He had an ice pack."
He'd probably spent all weekend curled up with an ice pack, Peter thought; prime breeding time for pneumonia, with a cold damp chest and lungs that wouldn't expand fully.
"Have you two eaten yet?" he asked. Griffin shook his head. "Listen, why don't you show us to the dining hall, I'd like to hear more about your training."
"Yessir," Griffin said hastily, standing aside, both of them regarding him with a flattering amount of awe. They followed Peter and Elizabeth down the hall; about halfway to the dining hall, Pendleton cleared her throat.
"Is it true you broke up the Flyby diamond smuggling conglomerate by climbing into a cargo container to get tape on them?" she asked hesitantly.
"Yeah," Peter sighed. "That was a combination of youth and stupidity."
"Can you tell us about it?" Griffin asked.
"See, honey?" Elizabeth said, grinning. "Neal was right, you're famous."
Neal came off the ventilator the next day, but his fever clung stubbornly. He spent the rest of the week drifting serenely in and out of sleep, and he wasn't really aware of his surroundings again for a while. He woke, with a finally-clear head, to find Elizabeth reading the newspaper in a chair next to his bed.
"Better not touch Peter's crossword," he rasped.
"Hey, you," she said, setting the paper aside. "I'm allowed to, we're married. How do you feel?"
"Like I've been kicked in the ribs," Neal said. Then he added, thoughtfully, "and the head. What day is it?"
"Saturday," she said. "You remember much?"
Neal shook his head, wincing. "Did someone tell me I had pneumonia?"
"Peter did, and you do," Elizabeth said, patting his arm. "You know, I really can't let this continue."
Neal looked at her, alarmed, because he wasn't sure what that meant but it didn't sound good. "What?" he asked, voice rough and high.
"Only one of you is allowed to be seriously injured at a time," she told him gravely. Neal gave her a relieved smile. "If Peter's going to get stabbed you just can't go around breaking your ribs, Neal. It's not sportsmanlike."
"I'll keep that in mind," he said. "What's the damage?"
"Well, a few weeks of bed rest for the pneumonia, and no fieldwork for three months until your ribs knit," she said. "And no fighting either."
"Huh." Neal tried to stifle his disappointment. "What's Peter think about it?"
"He thinks you should have stuck with running away," Peter said from the doorway. Neal gave him a sunny smile. "You're looking better."
"Jeez, how bad did I look before?" Neal asked. Peter leaned against the door frame, crossing his arms.
"Bad," he said quietly.
"Uh oh, is it lecture time?" Neal asked, glancing back and forth between them.
"No, that's gonna wait until you're home," Peter said. "Which is today, if you're up to it."
Neal looked down at his hands. "Washed out after all, huh?" he asked.
"We'll talk," Peter said. "Think you can make it five hours in the car?"
"Do I get a sucker if I'm good?" Neal asked.
"Yeah, lime-flavored," Peter told him.
"Oh, harsh," Neal answered, but he smiled. "Okay. When do we leave?"
Neal spent most of the ride home curled up on the back seat of the Taurus, under a heap of pilfered hospital blankets, asleep. It wasn't easy; even with good shocks, the car jolted him occasionally, making his taped-up ribs protest, and every hour or so Peter woke him to do a quick check and make sure he was still lucid.
To his surprise -- at least, what surprise he could muster through the painkillers -- they took him to their place, not June's. Peter pointed out, when Neal made an interrogative noise, that his apartment was four floors up, and their guest bed was only one. Neal suspected they were making excuses, but he was too tired to argue. He was still coughing and runny-nosed and reasonably miserable, and it didn't really matter where he ended up as long as it wasn't moving.
Sunday morning he woke to the smell of breakfast cooking, and staggered downstairs wrapped in one of the blankets from the guest bed. Elizabeth looked up and laughed at him, reaching out to pat down his bed-head while Peter got him a plate of food. Peter looked torn between affection and annoyance; Elizabeth must have seen it too, because she kissed Peter's cheek and announced she was taking Satchmo for a walk.
"So," Peter said, as Neal scooped scrambled eggs onto his toast and ate without his usual attention to table manners, "we gotta talk about this rib thing, Neal."
Neal froze, the food in his mouth going tasteless, but he swallowed eventually and nodded.
"I know what it's like at Quantico," Peter said. "It's easy to buy into the idea that you should suck it up and push through, so you don't wash out."
"They're really into shame," Neal murmured.
"Yeah, I know," Peter said. Neal glanced at him and saw a smile playing around his lips. "They're also into pride. We're the best, Neal, we stake our reputation on that, and that means you get pushed a little harder. But these are people who know their limits. Your limits -- well, they're a little blurry. You're not used to that kind of discipline. And I know that you're not exactly in tune with the idea of seeing a doctor unless you have to."
Neal nodded, acknowledging it.
"So it's like this big..." Peter gestured with his hands, fingers fitted together, "intertwined...mess of stuff, you know?"
"Wow," Neal said. "You really are bad at this. We could call Elizabeth, you want an interpreter?"
Peter gave him a stern look, and Neal busied himself with breakfast again.
"Look, my point is, not all of this is your fault," he said. "But yeah, some of it is. You should have seen a doctor. When you started feeling sick, you should have stepped back and asked yourself if finishing out your three weeks was really worth your health. Because it's not, Neal, it's really not. Any trainee would tell you that. Getting hurt doesn't mean washing out. And what worries me..." he paused. Neal watched him covertly, head lowered. "What happens if you do that on a case? You're going to endanger yourself and everyone around you."
"Sorry," Neal muttered.
"Don't be sorry, just -- understand," Peter said. "Your best is all anyone's got a right to ask of you. Your best is damn good, and I'll make you give it every time, but you're allowed to hit a wall once in a while."
Neal flinched for a second when Peter's fingers touched his temple, but Peter just smoothed his hair back, ruffling the cowlick at the crown of his head.
"I'm proud you went to Quantico," Peter said. "You impressed the hell out of them. I know you, and I know when you're at your best. We care about you -- you don't have to kill yourself proving your worth, not to me, not to El. You get me?"
Neal looked up at him, and a sudden grin split his face.
"Peter, that was almost touching," he said, and Peter rolled his eyes. "Seriously, I think we had a moment. That was a moment, right?"
"Don't get used to it," Peter said, withdrawing and digging a spoon into his cereal. "You wait till you're back at the office, Diana's saving up all her shouting for you."
"Can't wait," Neal said, sipping his orange juice. "So, until then, I'm going back upstairs to die, is that okay?"
"Just do it quietly," Peter told him, taking his plate.
"All heart, Agent Burke," Neal said. Peter clapped him on the shoulder and gave him a gentle shove towards the stairs. Neal gathered the blanket tighter around his shoulders and was about to climb the stairs when Peter's voice stopped him.
"Almost forgot," Peter said, ducking around the kitchen doorway. "In case you get bored."
He tossed something thin and rectangular through the air. Neal caught it, perplexed; it was a DVD case. He studied the title on the front.
Escape from Alcatraz
Starring Clint Eastwood
He laughed so hard Peter eventually had to help him up the stairs.