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It was fifteen days and eleven hours since he went into the room -- fifteen days and eleven hours before Peter pulled him out. Neal knew exactly how long because they'd let him keep his watch, after examining it carefully for hidden lock picks or transmitters. He wasn't sure if that was meant to be a mercy or another way of tormenting him.

He'd tried to escape. He felt that was important, and he kept trying to tell Peter, but Peter kept hushing him and trying to make him sit down.

He'd tried to escape, but they had caught him every time -- caught him and hit him and hurt him. He'd disabled the cameras but they set guards; he tried to charm the guards, but they weren't prone to being charmed.

Well, now they were facedown and cuffed on the pavement (roughed up a little too, from the look of it), and Neal was outside ... outside, in the sunshine with Peter holding onto the back of his shirt with one fist tangled up in it like he was trying to stop Neal from escaping. Except Neal wasn't trying to go anywhere. Not anymore.

"Neal, sit, please." Peter sounded almost desperate. Neal sat, thrusting his hurt leg out in front of him. His head was swimming. Peter sat next to him. "Does someone have a bottle of water? Jones, thanks ... Where's my ambulance?"

Peter pressed the water bottle into Neal's hand, and he drank greedily, almost choking himself. Peter's hand, big and warm, closed over Neal's and guided the bottle, pulling it back a little, making him take small sips.

"Didn't they give you water? Or feed you?" Peter's voice shook a little, and his jaw was set with tightly controlled fury.

"Not in a couple of days." Neal drew deep breaths; the water was sitting like a lump in his empty stomach. "It was punishment. For trying to escape. Peter, I did try --"

"I know you did. You tried hard. You did good." Peter pulled Neal a little closer, tipping Neal against him. Neal didn't really mind -- Peter was very solid and very present, holding him down to the ground. The sun was warm on his head. "I wish we'd been sooner, Neal, God -- we looked, I swear we did. We had no leads, none at all, until --"

"You found my clues," Neal guessed. "I knew you'd find my clues."

Peter half-laughed. "Hiding coded directions in forged Impressionist paintings. Only you, Neal."

"But you found them," Neal said, and suddenly he was choking on something that was dangerously close to a sob. All his emotions were on the ragged edge, and he couldn't even say why, except that he'd spent two weeks with no one to talk to except people who clearly hated him and viewed him as a disposable tool. After his third escape attempt, when he regained consciousness back in that windowless, white-walled room, he'd started to believe that he was never going to get out -- that he was just going to be there forever.

The lights never went off. They'd pushed him as hard as they could, making him paint until his hands shook with exhaustion and hypoglycemia. He'd been obstinate at first, but they'd made sure he knew they meant business, and there had been threats -- he'd finally stopped trying to escape after they broke his kneecap and told him they'd cut off his foot if he tried again.

(But not his hands. They never threatened his hands or his eyes. Because those were what mattered to them. Those were the only thing that mattered to them.)

"Hey, hey," Peter was saying. His hand rested against the back of Neal's head, warm fingers spread across the base of Neal's skull, tipping his head back so that Neal could look up and see Peter and the FBI agents behind him. The tops of the buildings. The blue August sky. "Neal, you're out, you're okay. You get that, right? We've got you."

"I know," Neal whispered. "I know you do." And then paramedics descended on them, and Neal found himself getting swimmy again. Moving really hurt, but it was better once they got him to lie down on a gurney. Then he just started feeling sleepy. He hadn't really slept more than catnaps in ... he didn't even remember when. But now Peter was holding his hand, and it was going to be all right.

He closed his eyes.

 

***

 

He came awake again in the ER, because there were strangers around him and they were doing things to him that hurt, and he woke up fighting. Gradually pieces began to fall back into place: he was in a hospital, and there was no need to be trying to take a swing at people who were just helping him.

"You can stop holding my arms now," he said meekly. "I'm sorry. I'm really, really sorry." He couldn't stop apologizing once he saw that he'd hit a nurse in the face and given her a nosebleed.

"It's all right," she said as one of her colleagues examined her nose. "I know you've been through some trauma. I startled you."

Someone else asked if he'd like to have a friend with him, and Neal murmured a meek, "Yes, please." He was still feeling terribly guilty, but also irrationally terrified -- just uncurling enough to let them examine his ribs and other injuries took all the willpower that he had.

Peter came in with an intern leading him. "Neal?" he said, and took a seat beside the bed. "Neal, hey." He took Neal's hand, although he had to pry it gently loose from the sheet, which was the first time Neal realized that he'd taken two fistfuls of sheet and had been holding on so hard that his fingers hurt. Peter got Neal's hand between both of his, wrapping it up and keeping it warm.

"Mozzie says he has a few things to take care of and then he'll be right down," Peter said. "I thought it was better not to ask, all things considered. And El's coming in from DC -- that'll be a few hours yet, but she'll be here, don't worry."

Neal nodded. He didn't quite trust his voice yet. All the thrashing around had left his knee throbbing excruciatingly, and it was starting to sink in that there might be permanent damage. He wasn't sure how he'd deal with that.

"Do you mind me being here?" Peter asked. "Just tell me to leave if you want privacy."

"Don't leave," Neal said, and Peter's hands tightened on his.

After getting some information from him about allergies and medical conditions, they gave him painkillers and things were pretty nice from there on out. The nurses were very nice, and very gentle, and Neal kept telling them so. This made Peter grin, and that was nice too; Neal liked making Peter happy.

"I'm sorry I ran away," he said, and Peter squeezed his hand and looked for a moment like he might cry.

"You didn't run away, Neal. People took you away."

Neal wanted to say that wasn't entirely true, he'd meant to go anyway, but then there was a doctor who wanted to talk to him about his knee. Neal spaced some of the details, but he came out of the conversation with the impression that his leg should be fine, eventually, with surgery and therapy; it would just take awhile to get there.

And then a nurse came to tell him that a room was ready. While the staff transfered him, Peter vanished and came back with an insulated mug of cold water and a large bottle of orange juice.

The nurse gave Neal a sheet of paper with the evening menu printed on it, to make his dinner choices, and then left him alone with Peter. Neal slouched bonelessly under the blanket. His head was starting to clear a bit. He was still aware of pain, deep down, but it didn't bother him much. The juice tasted heavenly but he was no longer thirsty enough that he wanted to drink everything in the world. The IV in his arm probably had something to do with that.

Beside the bed, Peter had taken up residence in a chair and looked like he planned to stay awhile. He stole the menu -- Neal hadn't done more than doodle a mountain range along the edge with the pencil that had come with it.

"Hmm, spaghetti bolognese or minestrone," Peter said. "Looks like an Italian selection tonight."

"The orange juice is pretty good," Neal murmured. He was getting drowsy again.

"I thought you'd run, Neal," Peter said quietly.

Neal roused himself enough to see that Peter was looking away, guilt and shame evident in every line of his body.

"It was a good guess," Neal said after a moment. He set the empty orange juice bottle on the bedside table and retreated under the blanket again; he was inexplicably cold. "I meant to. It's just that they got to me first."

"Yeah, Mozzie said so. But still ... for the first day -- the critical period, the time when we could have been following up witnesses and leads while the trail was still fresh ... I just --" Peter took a deep, shaky breath. "I stalled. I meant to give you a head start."

Neal's throat felt oddly tight. "You didn't have to do that."

"Well, now I'm wishing I hadn't. But ... when I got the call from the Marshals, that your anklet had been cut, you know what my first thought was?"

Neal shook his head.

"I thought, Good for him." Peter's smile was a twisted, unhappy thing. "I didn't blame you at all. What happened wasn't fair, Neal, and you having to run wasn't justice either, but if I had to buy time for you to get away, I was going to do it. Then Mozzie came to find me, told me that he hadn't heard from you and thought something might be wrong ..."

Peter looked desperately guilty -- and now that Neal was no longer distracted by his own discomfort, he noticed that Peter also looked terribly worn down: gray and exhausted to the point of collapse.

"Not your fault," Neal murmured. Sleep was catching up with him, now that he was horizontal and more or less comfortable. "I hope looking for me didn't mess up your new job too much."

Peter glanced away again. "Yeah, about that. I turned the job down."

Neal started to sit up. His ribs and his knee reminded him why that wasn't a good idea, and he settled back against the pillows. "What? But -- Peter, you earned that promotion."

"We earned it," Peter reminded him. "But after I got the call from Bruce about the decision on your sentence ... I don't know, Neal. It didn't feel right." He smiled crookedly. "I'm not cut out to be a bureaucrat. Rubbing elbows with Senators, making decisions like that one, never getting to go out on the street again -- I'd hate it. I took this job to help people. To protect people. Riding a desk in DC would be nothing like that."

"But --" He still couldn't quite wrap his mind around it. "You already packed up the townhouse. And El had her job in DC ..."

"She went ahead and took it," Peter said. "And I think she should. I support her in that. She's been commuting home on weekends."

"Peter," Neal said helplessly. He wasn't supposed to come back and find everything different. Different ... and yet the same, because -- this meant Peter was still at White Collar, didn't it? It meant getting the anklet back, and working with Peter again -- and the unfairness of having his freedom so close and then having it snatched away still hit him like a fist, but the idea of working with Peter, for the remaining year of his sentence ...

It wouldn't be so bad.

"You didn't have to do this for me," Neal said.

"I didn't," Peter insisted. "I did it for me. I have to be able to look myself in the mirror, Neal. At the end of the day, that's what it comes down to."

Going back to White Collar. Working with Peter again. Well, if he ever made it out of the hospital ... "Guess I'm not going to be running anywhere in the near future," Neal said, glancing at his knee under the sheet.

"You heard the doc," Peter said. "You'll bounce back." His phone buzzed and he glanced down at it. "Ah, that's Mozzie. 'Fitting punishments arranged. On my way now.' -- I am not going to ask. No good can come of asking."

Neal found himself grinning. Mozzie would be there every step of his recovery, he knew. And Peter ... and Elizabeth, and Diana and Jones, and June.

During the time he was trapped in that room, he'd had a lot of time to think -- well, when he hadn't been too tired and in too much pain to think. And mostly what he'd thought about was ... this. Dinner at Peter and Elizabeth's ... arguing with Diana in the White Collar office ... playing penny-ante poker with June and Mozzie. He hadn't daydreamed about escaping to Paris or Bangkok. He'd just wanted to escape back to June's apartment, to the Burkes' living room.

"I was ready to run, Peter," he whispered. "You were right."

"That's in the past," Peter said quietly. "And I plan to fight for your release, Neal. I still have a lot of connections inside and outside the Bureau."

Neal turned his head on the pillow and looked at Peter, really looked at him -- Peter, tired and rumpled and slouched in his chair. Peter, who could have been wearing a nicely tailored suit and sitting behind a desk in a tastefully decorated office in DC.

As close as they'd gotten over the years, Neal had always felt an awareness of the boundary dividing them, with Peter on one side and himself on the other. Their loyalties lay in different directions. But right now -- and maybe it was just the drugs talking -- it seemed that the barrier had become permeable. They'd both been jerked around, Neal thought; they'd both lost. Peter had been given an opportunity to step into the upper echelons of the Bureau, and had turned it down. Neal had seen the door of freedom open in front of him, and then had it slammed and locked.

And here they both were again. Back at White Collar. It always seemed to keep circling around to this.

"Peter ..." Neal murmured, fading toward sleep. "You ever think about quitting the Bureau completely?"

"I don't know," Peter said. He sounded tired and sad. "I never used to. These days ... I don't know."

"Because if you ever did ..." Neal's eyes were closed now; he wasn't entirely sure if he was actually saying any of this, or only dreaming it. "I think we could do a lot together. Caffrey and Burke, consultants and investigators. Helping the hopeless ... or whatever. I'd go straight if that's what was on the other side, Peter. I really would."

"I think you mean Burke and Caffrey," Peter said, but his voice was soft, and one of his hands settled over Neal's. "I don't think I'm ready to give up on the Bureau yet. But I'll keep it in mind as a backup plan."

"I think the letterhead should use an old-fashioned typeface," Neal mumbled. "Something art deco, maybe."

"I think you're getting ahead of yourself." Peter didn't laugh -- not quite. But Neal could hear the laugh in his voice, a hint of deep warmth.

Neal turned his hand over to lace his fingers through Peter's. The drugs made things kind of loose and slippery around the edges, and he needed that groundedness, needed to know he wasn't going to slip back into that room as he drifted.

But Peter was here. Peter wouldn't let that happen.

Sleep came unbidden, and carried him away.