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Neal only sat still for the paramedics long enough for them to declare him conscious and not in imminent danger of expiring. Any other time, Peter would've insisted on due diligence, probably a ride to the ER, if for no other reason than to catalog Neal's injuries for evidence to add to Keller's prison time. Any other time, Neal wouldn't have bothered arguing because his head hurt, and the dawning aches in his body let him know that by the next morning he'd be grateful for some muscle relaxants.

But this time, this time Peter was vibrating with his need to get in the car, to get on the road, to see Elizabeth. Neal needed to see her, too. He didn't know if she'd blame him for what Keller did to her, but he wanted to see her face and see her safe in Peter's arms. The reality of what he needed to do was already clear in his aching head, but he needed that visceral reminder of what was at stake.

Neal had maybe 18 hours of freedom left, and he didn't intend to waste them.

~~~

Neal was unspeakably relieved when he saw no trace of blame in Elizabeth's eyes. He would have accepted the blame, but he didn't want to go off to a tiny cell in AdSeg with the knowledge of her hatred haunting him. She wrapped her arms around Neal and held him tight, and Neal held her back despite the pain. It hurt in his abused muscles, and it hurt in his heart that he wouldn't have this kind of friendship again for a long, long time.

Neal begged off as early as he could and took a cab back to June's, his head full of all the things he should do before making his confession in the morning: see Sara, go out for a good meal, drink an expensive bottle of wine, walk the city streets until daylight. By the time he climbed out of the cab, the combination of exhaustion and pain was dragging him down, and he changed his mind; the best way to spend his time was in bed. A big, comfortable bed in a beautiful, airy room where he could burrow under a mound of Egyptian cotton and pretend he'd always be so safe.

He took one of the vicodins he'd barely touched after bruising his ribs months ago and stripped out of his clothes. He tried not to think how long he'd be wearing orange this time. He tried not to think about anything at all, and eventually that conscious nothingness turned into sleep.

~~~

Neal woke in the dim gray of early morning. He felt numb at first, like his mind had decided that what he had to do wouldn't be so bad if only he could walk through it in a detached haze, but as soon as he moved his body came to life with pain. The ache in his head was present but at least it was the kind of dull thudding he could ignore. The worst pain was in his lower back, but he tested it tentatively, bending forward and back, side to side, and everything seemed to work so he decided it had to be muscular. The idea of calling in sick, staying in bed with a few ice packs and putting off his fate for another day was terribly tempting, but Neal didn't think he'd be able to face what he needed to do if he waited another 24 hours.

He climbed out of bed and shuffled to the bathroom, braced himself with one hand on the glass of the shower enclosure while he stood over the toilet, then felt his stomach twist when he bent down to flush and saw the pink tinge of blood in the water. It had been a long time, a really long time, since he'd last been beaten hard enough to piss blood, but he refused to think about any of that during his last few hours of freedom. If he ended up spending his first few days back in prison under observation in the infirmary, well, maybe that would be better than going straight into solitary. The staff there would probably speak to him like he was a human being. Probably.

Between the aches in his body and the ever-present knowledge of what was to come, he was hyper-aware of everything he did, no matter how mundane. As he showered, soaping himself up gently, he reminded himself that, for the foreseeable future, it was the last time he'd shower with no time limit, nobody observing him, the last time in a bathroom with fixtures beyond industrial piping, the last time with soap that smelled good and shampoo and conditioner that would help tame his hair. He dressed, slowly covering his body in his favorite of Byron's suits, the one he'd imagine himself wearing when the time came that he needed that mental image.

He made coffee with his best Italian roast beans and sat on the terrace feeling the weak morning sunshine on his face as he drank. He savored it with all five of his senses. Because it was the last time.

~~~

The White Collar office wavered around the edges as Neal walked through the doors, the agents staring at him seeming to be half a step off from his reality, and he didn't know whether to blame his nerves or the number of priceless works of art Keller had slammed into his head. The ache in his back was a constant reminder of sprawling face down on the asphalt waiting for unconsciousness when suddenly Peter had been there--saving him, again. That memory stiffened his resolve to do what was necessary to protect everything that was important to Peter, and he walked up the stairs with his back straight, refusing to let himself rub at the pain that was growing as he moved, wrapping around from his back to his left side.

Neal was ready to say what he needed to say, ready to make the cut as quickly as possible, even if it had to be deep, but Peter wouldn't let him talk. Neal watched Keller's confession, trying to read through the lines to figure out what moves Keller was setting up with this newest chess move. The pain was distracting him, making it difficult to focus, but as he struggled to adjust his expectations he realized that he'd have time to figure it out. He wasn't headed to lock-up, he wasn't standing in Peter's office for the last time. He would see his apartment again and his shower and his bed, and the relief shaking through his body left him craving that bed and the ice packs he'd imagined earlier more than anything else.

He was about to ask Peter for permission to go back to June's when Diana came up the stairs. Neal pressed a hand against the nagging pain in his side and braced himself for the possibility of the situation turning around again. Focusing through the ache in his head was starting to make Neal feel vaguely nauseous, and when he heard the word, that word, commutation, he couldn't quite make the connection.

"What does that mean?" he asked, searching Peter's face to see if this was good news or bad.

"It means no anklet, no nothing," Peter said, his eyes wide in his bruised face. "In three months you could be a free man."

Neal felt his heart racing and he bent forward to try to catch his breath. The pain in his side spiked at the change in position, his head spun and he swallowed hard as his knees folded. He was kneeling on the floor, his hand pressed to his side, and over the pounding in his head he heard Peter saying his name. At the touch of a hand on his arm, Neal opened his eyes to see Peter crouched in front of him.

"Neal? What's going on?"

"Boss?" Diana's voice came from behind Peter.

"Neal?" Peter sounded patient but insistent, and Neal cleared his throat.

"I've got a stitch in my side, twisted my back or something."

Peter put a hand on the side of Neal's face then touched the cut on Neal's forehead. Neal winced and jerked away, regretting it when his head spun again.

"You look like hell." Peter sighed. "I should have had you checked out better yesterday. I was just so focused on seeing El--"

"I was, too. I didn't--"

"I know you were." Peter stood up and looked away. "Okay. Di?"

"Do you want an ambulance or a car, boss?"

"Car," Neal and Peter answered simultaneously.

~~~

Neal didn't know what to say to Peter, and his only comfort was that Peter didn't seem to know what to say either. The car ride to the hospital was quiet but Neal was relieved to not have to talk because the start-and-stop motion of the car through traffic was making him queasy, and he wasn't ready to humiliate himself by getting sick in front of Peter and the probie in the driver's seat.

The emergency room was busy, full of crying kids and people coughing their way through the latest bug that was going around, and the woman at the admissions desk was more than a match for Peter, even in one of his more officious moods. Neal yearned for his bed at June's but he just took a seat and closed his eyes. The pain in his back and side was getting worse, like it was spreading deep inside him, and Neal had to focus on keeping himself still.

Peter sat next to him filling out paperwork, and he didn't exactly seem to be angry anymore but things weren't right between them and Neal didn't know if they ever would be again. He shifted in his seat then stood up, touching his hand to the wall for a moment when the room shifted slightly around him.

"Where are you going" Peter asked.

"Just the men's room." Neal tried to smile reassuringly.

"I'll go along." Peter stood to follow.

"I'm not going to make a break for it or anything."

"I'm more concerned about you falling over and breaking your head."

"Great." Neal did feel a little unsteady but he fought to keep his stride even and his back straight as he walked through the waiting room to the men's room. He didn't wait while Peter dropped the clipboard of forms off at the front desk, but Peter caught up by the time Neal was pushing through the door to the restroom.

Neal tried to just ignore Peter and go about his business. His side burned while he relieved himself and when he looked down he was startled to see bright red in the bottom of the urinal. This wasn't the faint pink of earlier; this was blood. Neal's stomach lurched and he wrapped one hand around the side of the urinal and braced himself as he clumsily closed up his pants.

"Neal, are you okay?"

Neal heard footsteps on tile then felt Peter's hand flat on his back.

"That's not good," Peter said, and Neal realized with a dull pang of embarrassment that he hadn't flushed yet. "Come on, you need to sit down and then they're going to check you out, even if I have to call in backup to make it happen."

Neal felt too weak to argue, so he let Peter lead him out of the restroom and push him into a chair nearby in the hallway. After that, things started to happen more quickly--movement and people and machines. He fell asleep somewhere in the middle of it all and woke to the sound of a woman speaking.

"Mr. Caffrey? Are you waking up now, Mr. Caffrey?"

He opened his eyes to see a doctor in a lab coat. She looked about 25, short and slightly pudgy. "Mmm, yeah, he said, looking down then at the IVs going into his arm--one clear, the other black with blood.

"I'm Dr. Rao and I'll be managing your care. How are you feeling now, Mr. Caffrey?"

Neal felt more hazy than anything else and he wasn't sure what kind of answer the doctor was looking for. "I don't know, why don't you tell me?"

"Well, you have a mild concussion, but we're more concerned about your kidneys. You have some rather vivid contusions on your lower back, and your left kidney is bruised as well as lacerated."

Neal swallowed hard. "That doesn't sound good."

The doctor smiled kindly. "Fortunately, the laceration appeared very small in the CT exam, so it should heal on its own without surgical intervention. I expect you to have a full recovery, assuming there are no complications."

"So I can go home?"

"Well, no. You need complete bed rest for a few days to allow the laceration to start healing and we need to monitor you because you will continue to experience some blood loss until then. After that, we'll release you to rest at home, and you'll need to follow up with a specialist to be cleared to return to work."

"I'm sure I could rest just fine at home." Neal tried to flash her his winningest smile, but he felt groggy enough that he suspected it fell a little short of the mark.

"I'm sure you will." The doctor nodded and closed the chart in her hands. "After we release you, that is. Now, there's an FBI agent occupying our hallway. Would you like for me to let him into your room?"

"Yes." Neal felt a wave of gratitude that Peter had stayed, that he still cared enough to stay. "Please."

"Okay. Well, Mr. Caffrey, what you need to do is just rest, and I'll see you again tomorrow morning."

The doctor gave Neal a small smile then turned and left. When the door opened again a moment later, Neal opened his mouth to greet Peter then froze when Agent Jones walked through the door instead. He knew it didn't necessarily mean anything, that it wasn't a big deal, but between the lingering ache in his head and the effects of whatever drugs were in his system he had to struggle to bite back his disappointment.

"Hey, Caffrey. How're you feeling?"

"I'm okay." Neal felt tears burn behind his eyes, and he looked away, biting down on the inside of his mouth and cursing the drugs for leaving his emotions so raw. He stared at the wall and listened to Jones move the chair and sit down.

"Listen, Neal, I know I'm not the person you were hoping to see. Peter asked me to explain--"

"You don't need explain anything. It's okay."

Jones sighed. "Elizabeth was called in to give a statement, and Peter met her at the Federal building for that and then took her home."

With a stab of guilt, Neal felt like an idiot for worrying about Peter hanging around the hospital waiting for him to wake up when Elizabeth needed him, and Peter needed to see her safe. He turned to look at Jones. "Is she okay?"

"She's a little shaken up, but Mrs. Burke is tougher than I would've given her credit for."

Neal didn't know what to say, so he just nodded and looked away again. The room was quiet for a few minutes, then Neal heard the chair scrape the floor again as Jones stood up.

"I'm going to head out. Do you need anything?"

Neal cleared his throat and turned to look up at Jones again. "No, I'm okay."

"Whatever you say. Peter should be here in the morning, so just stay put. Nobody wants to come out and track your anklet to find you passed out somewhere."

It sounded like Jones's way of saying rest up and feel better, so Neal just nodded. "Understood."

Jones reached out and patted Neal's shoulder then squeezed it lightly before turning to leave. A nurse came in before the door had swung shut, and a renewed flood of drugs washed Neal away into sleep.

~~~

Neal woke a few times during the evening and night, random hands touching him, random voices checking to make sure he wasn't unconscious. When he woke again to morning sunlight shining through his eyelids he heard the distinct sound of a newspaper being shaken and folded. Considering that the nurses hadn't woken him up yet, it was almost certainly too early for visiting hours, but he was sure the newspaper reader had to be Peter.

Elizabeth had bought Peter a Kindle for his birthday so that he could read the papers without getting his hands dirty and accumulating all of that paper, but he confessed to Neal that he prefered the real thing. Neal couldn't blame him; after all, the classics never went out of style. Steeling himself for what Peter might have to say, Neal pushed his eyes open and blinked against the light as Peter came into focus in front of him.

"Hi," Neal said, then winced at the scrape of his dry throat.

Peter lowered his paper to look back at Neal then folded it up and stood. "Good morning, Neal. How are you feeling?"

Neal checked in with his body, feeling the minor ache in his head and the stronger throb that continued in his back and side, the undercurrent of nausea that persisted even though he was pretty sure the drugs were currently wearing off. Still, nothing hurt as bad as it had the day before. "I've been better, but I'll live."

"You will, and I'm glad about that. You scared me a little bit yesterday."

Peter looked earnest and uncomfortable, and Neal wanted to tell him he should just go home, but he wasn't ready for the rest of the day of being alone that stretched out in front of him. The hospital room was considerably larger than what he would've had in prison, but the level of actual human interaction wasn't a lot higher. "Sorry. I'm sure you'd be up to your ears in paperwork if I bled out somewhere after the Bureau went ahead and made their deal with Keller."

Peter wrapped his hands around the bar on the side of Neal's bed and let out a long, controlled sigh. "Right. Paperwork is absolutely my top concern when it comes to your life. I hope you don't really think that."

Neal looked into Peter's eyes and saw exhaustion and frustration, but he also saw honest concern. "No. I wouldn't blame you though."

Peter shook his head. "Let's make a deal here. When you're released to come back to work, we're going to have a long talk about what went wrong here and what I expect for however long we're going to be working together. You're going to listen, and you're going to try very hard to never again put me in the position of having to work with somebody like Matthew Keller. Okay?"

"Okay." Neal didn't know what the other half of Peter's deal would be, but he could hardly say no.

"And until then we're going to be friends. I'll come visit you, but we won't talk about work. You'll do what you need to do to take care of yourself and get back on your feet." Peter wrapped one hand around Neal's forearm and squeezed, not enough to hurt, just enough to convey the same frustration and concern Neal had seen in his eyes. "Do we have a deal?"

"Yeah. It sounds like a good deal to me."

"Good." Peter nodded and squeezed Neal's arm again, and Neal thought that if he weren't stuck on his back on strict bed rest that they'd be hugging, the kind of hug that Neal hadn't had in a long time.

"What about Elizabeth?"

"El kicked me out for the morning at least, told me I was making her feel claustrophobic."

"Ouch."

"And Hughes told me not to come into the office today, so I guess I can either sit in here with you or go occupy a table at Starbucks."

A nurse came in then, and Peter had to step aside while she took his temperature and blood pressure and checked the output from the catheter he didn't want to think about before injecting a new dose of pain medicine into his IV. When she left, Peter stepped up to the side of the bed again. Neal blamed the increased level of drugs in his bloodstream when he felt that traitorous burning behind his eyes again.

"If it's here or Starbucks," Neal said, fighting to keep his voice even, "I guess I wouldn't mind if you stayed."

Peter smiled, then sat down and shook out his newspaper again. Neal drifted off to sleep, listening to the sound of turning pages.