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The Ties That Bind

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Fall was Sara's very favorite time of year. The heat and humidity of summer in New York gave way to a few weeks of crisp air before the relentless cold and damp of winter. Rather than taking a cab to work in the morning, she walked through Central Park, where each day the colors of the leaves deepened just a little more. The park was quiet before eight, with just a few joggers out, and Sara enjoyed strolling along, sipping her latte and considering how to balance the paperwork from the cases she’d closed last week with the legwork required for her new ones.

She was passing the zoo when her cell phone rang. She fished it out her coat pocket, glanced at the screen and smiled as she answered it. "Hi, Neal."

"Hey, Sara," Neal said. It sounded as though he were on his way to the office himself, traffic noises in the background. "How are you this fine morning?"

"Very well, thanks. Yourself?"

"I’ll be much better when Peter and I wrap this case, so we can stop working fourteen hour days, and Peter can stop wearing his lucky tie. I've had to look at that thing across the conference table every day this week."

Sara laughed. "Poor baby. No one suffers like you suffer."

"That tie is a sartorial crime," Neal said, aggrieved.

"I believe you," Sara said, smiling. "But the takedown's today, isn't it?"

"Yeah, this afternoon. By five o'clock, there should be nothing left but the paperwork."

"Does that mean I'll get to see you? I'm starting to forget what you look like." By Sara’s calculations, it had been over two weeks since she'd last seen Neal, certainly the longest they'd gone without seeing each other since getting back together. Sara wasn't one to whine about such things - God knew there were times when her own work schedule got in the way - but she was looking forward to it being over.

"Can't have that," Neal said. "And yeah, actually, that's why I was calling. What are you doing tonight?"

"Oh, I don't know. I was thinking about washing my hair. Maybe alphabetizing my bookshelf. Unless you have something better in mind?”

Neal laughed. "Well, actually, when we wrap a big case like this, the team usually goes out for dinner afterward. Peter brings El, Diana brings Christie. And I thought it'd be great if you came with me. Afterward, you and I could head back to my place. I have some champagne I've been saving for just such an occasion. How does that sound?"

"It sounds nice," Sara said. She paused at a crosswalk and waited for the light to change. "Though I'm not sure I wouldn't rather have you to myself after two weeks of enforced abstinence."

"Rest assured, I intend to more than make up for the neglect. But I need to go to dinner with Peter and everyone else. It's a team thing. And it's fun."

Sara was quiet as she finished crossing the street with a horde of other morning commuters. She turned down the block toward her office building. "You really want me to come, don't you?"

"Well, yeah," Neal said. "It didn't occur to me that you wouldn't want to."

"It's not that I don't want to," Sara said hastily. "It's just . . ."


"Nothing. Never mind. Of course I'll be there. Just let me know where and when."

"Will do," Neal said. "It'll probably be about seven, but I'm not sure where yet. Peter always pushes for Donatella's, but I think it's Diana's turn to pick. I'll text you. And I promise," he added, "by ten o'clock we'll be back at my place."

"I'm going to hold you to that, Caffrey." She stopped in front of Sterling-Bosch's building. "Well, I'd better go. Good luck on the takedown. Be careful."

"I'm always careful."

Sara laughed. "I mean it, Neal. Take care of yourself."

"I will. See you tonight."

"See you tonight," Sara echoed. She hung up and slipped her phone into her pocket, then tossed her coffee cup in a nearby trashcan before mounting the stairs. Why had she been so reluctant to agree to dinner with Peter and everyone else? She knew the whole team. They were nice people, and this was a harmless ritual. It was flattering that Neal would want her there at all.

She put it aside once she entered the building. She'd learned to set her personal life aside completely at work while she'd been dating Bryan (and especially once she hadn't been dating Bryan), and it was still useful. Whatever that weird little mental hiccup on the phone had been, this wasn't the place to think about it.

She spent the morning alternating between some files that had been delivered and mind-numbing paperwork leftover from the case she’d closed the week before. Neal texted twice; the first time, it was to report that Peter was, indeed, wearing his lucky tie (I wonder if I could arrange some sort of "accident" for it. Everyone but Peter would thank me.), and the second time, it was to tell her that Diana had vetoed Peter's predictable suggestion of Donatella's and they were going to meet at a Japanese restaurant near NYU instead. Sara spent half a minute wrestling with her residual reluctance before finally texting back to confirm that she would be there.

At noon, she straightened her desk and left Sterling-Bosch. She caught a cab uptown and had it drop her in front of nondescript building that housed a suite of offices, one of which belonged to Dr. Kirsten Nichols, Ph.D. Sara had been a bit skeptical when, upon her retirement, her previous therapist had referred her to Kirsten, but she'd slowly warmed to her over the last six months. She had a casual style that belied an extremely sharp mind; Sara hadn't realized how much deflection her previous therapist had allowed her to get away with in their sessions until Kirsten had started calling her on it.

Case in point: fifteen minutes into their session, Kirsten stopped her cold and said, "Okay, Sara. What's really on your mind?"

Sara frowned. "What do you mean?"

"I mean that you've spent the last fifteen minutes talking to me about absolutely nothing. What's going on?"

Sara shrugged. "Nothing, really."

Kirsten raised an eyebrow at her, leaned back, and re-crossed her legs in the opposite direction. "How's Neal?"

Sara managed a laugh. "Fine, I think. I haven't seen him in a couple of weeks. He and Peter are really busy at work."

"Does it bother you that you haven't seen him in so long?"

Sara shook her head. "Not really. I mean, I'm looking forward to it being over, but it's not like we're out of touch. Why should I be upset if he has to work a lot? I'd rather be with someone who liked his job, since I like mine."

"You shouldn't be upset if it doesn't upset you," Kirsten replied. "But if it does upset you, you should allow yourself to be upset. You certainly don't need to whine about it, but you also shouldn't suppress it. Do you see what I'm saying?"

"I suppose," Sara said dubiously, "but it doesn't upset me, so it's a moot point. Anyway, they're supposed to close their case today. I'm actually going to dinner tonight with his whole team."

Kirsten raised both eyebrows at that. "Meeting the family, so to speak?"

"No," Sara said firmly - perhaps rather too firmly. Kirsten looked enlightened. "I've already met the entire family," she added, a bit awkwardly. "I've been to dinner at Peter and Elizabeth's house, and I've worked cases with Peter’s team. It's not a big deal." Kirsten nodded but stayed quiet, something Sara had long since learned was one of her favorite tactics. After a few seconds, Sara caved. "All right, so maybe it's a bit of a big deal. Peter brings Elizabeth, and Diana brings her partner, Christie."

Kirsten nodded. "So it's not something just anyone is invited to. It's spouses and partners."

"Yeah. He’s never asked me to anything like this before." Sara shook her head. "I don't know - things have been different since we got back together. Good different," she added, before Kirsten could ask. "A lot fewer secrets on both our sides, I think. Which is good."

Kirsten smiled. "So you said. I sense a 'but' in there somewhere."

"But before, I knew what this was. We were just having a good time. When I found out he was lying to me, it stung, but I'd been half-expecting it the whole time. When he left . . .” She looked away. Kirsten had been around for that part, and Sara didn’t think she needed to say any more about it. She’d been shocked by the depth of her own reaction to Neal’s disappearance. She wasn’t sure how she’d have handled it, if not for her sessions with Kirsten. For the first month after Neal had left, Sara had come to see her twice a week.

Kirsten nodded. "Has he said anything to you about his - to use a very old fashioned phrase - intentions?"

Sara shook her head. "No, not really. I mean, he's in the anklet for another year and a half. After that, who knows?"

"Well, perhaps you should talk to him about that," Kirsten said. "Since you're both turning over a more open and honest leaf."

Sara nodded. "Yeah, maybe." The thought made her squirm. The truth was that she didn't know what he thought about when he thought about the future. She liked to travel, but New York was home, and she had no intention of leaving Sterling-Bosch any time soon. If Neal got the anklet off and decided that Paris was calling . . .

She wondered how Peter handled it. He and Neal were close, despite everything. Very close. Sara suspected that Peter knew far more about Neal than she did. She wondered how he dealt with it, knowing that Neal might vanish without a trace someday, especially since he’d done it once already. She wondered if Peter just accepted it as part and parcel of caring about Neal Caffrey, or if he'd somehow convinced himself that Neal had changed.

She and Kirsten moved on to other topics for the remainder of their fifty-minute hour. Sara caught a cab back to the office and ate lunch at her desk while prepping for her three o'clock meeting. She kept her phone out, but Neal must've been head-down in the op he and Peter were running. There were no new messages by the time she went upstairs.

She was a little early, and no one else was there yet. She set her laptop up in her preferred spot: back to the windows, three seats down from where Winston Bosch always sat. Close enough to get his attention, far enough for him not to notice if she answered an email during the meeting.

Two minutes after she’d sat down, the door opened and James Robson entered. “Hey Ellis,” he said, setting his laptop up in the seat directly across from hers. “How’s it going?”

“Fine, thanks,” Sara said, not glancing up. There were only a few minutes before the meeting was due to start; surely she wouldn’t be Robson’s captive audience of one for too long.

“I heard you caught the Rodin case. That’s a juicy one. Any luck so far?”

“Not yet,” Sara said breezily, “but give me time.”

“Well, if you’re finding it challenging, I could take a look, make sure there’s nothing you’re missing.”

Sara did look up then. Robson smiled blandly at her from across the table. “No, thank you.”

“You’re sure your friend Caffrey didn’t have anything to do with it? That would’ve been right up his alley back in the day.”

Sara gritted her teeth. That was all she needed. “I’m sure.”

Robson shrugged. “Well, I suppose you have all the help you need from your friends at the FBI.”

Sara narrowed her eyes. “What does that mean, Robson?”

Robson shook his head. “Nothing. I mean, I think it’s great you never hesitate to use that connection. Whatever works, right?”

It was probably fortunate that the conference room door opened then, and the other investigators came in, as well as Winston Bosch himself. Sara sat back in her chair, eyeing Robson. It was rumored that Bill Horwitz, head of their division, was going to be leaving in a few months for a consultant position elsewhere. Sara had already let it be known that if the position came open, she wished to be considered, and she’d assumed that Robson would put his name in the hat, too. She’d known he’d be a dick about it, and she’d fully expected him to play the Caffrey card; she was an insurance investigator dating a notorious - if possibly reformed - art thief, after all. Before Neal had given back the Raphael, she’d have been worried, but that’d put her - and him - in Bosch’s good graces, and that was all that mattered.

On the other hand, Sara was distinctly not thrilled with the idea that Robson might be telling people that she couldn’t crack her cases without the help of Peter and his team. That could be just as damaging as unseemly rumors about Neal. It’d been useful to partner with the White Collar division in the past, but she might have to do without them for a while, at least until she beat Robson out for Horwitz’s job.

That was a bit of a shame, because her newest case would’ve been perfect for Neal. Robson hadn’t been wrong when he’d called it “juicy.” A bronze version of Rodin’s The Kiss, insured for six million dollars to one Henry Sullivan, had disappeared from Sullivan’s Manhattan penthouse three weeks ago. Sara was itching to get her hands on it. NYPD was stymied, but she could afford to be a little more patient. Something would surface, she was sure; priceless sculptures didn’t just steal themselves, and if there was anything Sara had learned over the years, it was that most criminals were not as clever as Neal Caffrey.

The background checks Sara had requested on Sullivan’s household employees came in while she was listening to Don Mackley give his usual long-winded update on his cases. She glanced over the reports with an eye for anything out of the ordinary and found herself pausing over the information about his housekeeper, Rita Malone. Malone, it seemed, had taken out a large loan three years ago, and she’d been behind on the payments until recently - until about a week after the sculpture disappeared, to be precise, when she’d suddenly paid up and then some, all at once. Sara quietly sent an email to her favorite research assistant and asked her to look into that. Then she sat back, satisfied that this meeting hadn’t been a total waste of time after all.

The meeting was nearly over when her phone went off in her pocket. She slipped her hand in and silenced it, but two minutes later it went off again. She silenced it again, but when it happened a third time, she pulled it out just far enough to see who kept trying to reach her.

3 missed calls from Peter Burke.

The bottom dropped out of Sara's stomach. There was no reason for Peter to be calling her unless there was some reason Neal couldn't.

The only reason she didn't excuse herself immediately was that they were already wrapping things up. She ducked out, leaving all of her things behind, and walked as quickly as she could without garnering suspicion to the women's restroom. A quick glance at the stalls told her that it was empty.

Peter hadn't left a voicemail. She called him back.

"Burke," he said. He sounded out of breath.

"Peter, it's Sara."

"Sara," Peter said, and in those two syllables, Sara knew that there weren't going to be any easy or harmless explanations. "You need to come to Lenox Hill Hospital. Neal's been shot."

Sara closed her eyes and forced herself to breathe in and out, evenly, once. "Right," she said. "Where?"

"Lenox Hill."

"No, Peter, where was he shot?"

"Once in the thigh, once in the abdomen. He's - there was a lot of blood." Peter sounded shaken. Sara dug her fingernails into the skin on the inside of her opposite elbow. It hurt, but it kept her from imagining how bad it must have been to shake Peter up. "I'm following the ambulance right now. They wouldn't let me ride with them," he added tightly.

"Okay," Sara said, swallowing. "Lenox Hill?"

"Yeah. Go to the ER."

"I'll see you there," she said, and hung up.

Her hands were shaking with adrenaline. Hopefully it would last her a while. She went back to conference room to grab her laptop, then took the elevator upstairs to her office. She locked her computer in her desk and grabbed her purse.

She managed to get out of the building without anyone trying to waylay her and caught a cab out front. She forced herself to look out the window as the car crept through Midtown rush hour traffic, cataloguing every pedestrian, every bicyclist. But her mind went inevitably to another cab ride this like one, eight years ago, when someone at NYPD had called to tell her that her parents had been in a car crash.

It took far longer than it should have to reach the hospital. Sara shoved a wad of cash at the cabbie and dashed into the ER. She didn't see Peter in the waiting area, so she stepped up to the nurses' station. "I'm here for Caffrey, Neal Caffrey," she said. "He was shot - he works for the FBI -"

"Sara," someone said behind her, and Sara turned to see Diana Barrigan approaching through the waiting area. "We're upstairs. They've taken Neal into surgery. Peter sent me down to find you."

"Oh," Sara said. "Thanks." She followed Diana out of the ER and into the hospital proper, where Diana punched the call button for the elevator. They stood in silence until Sara asked, "How bad is it?"

Diana didn’t answer right away. "It looked pretty bad," she said at last, "but I’ve seen people pull through worse. Peter can fill you in."

The waiting area on the fifth floor was almost empty. Peter was there on his cell phone, wearing suit pants and, incongruously, only a white undershirt. There was a lot of blood, she thought, and saw, as clearly as though she'd been there, Peter on his knees next to Neal, putting pressure on one of the wounds, blood spurting and smearing across his jacket, his lucky tie, his white dress shirt.

Peter caught sight of her. "I'll call you back, Jones," he said, and snapped his phone shut. "Sara. How are you?"

"I'm fine," Sara said, a little sharply. "I wasn't shot. How's Neal?"

Peter's mouth settled into a grim line. "They've taken him into surgery. We'll know more in a few hours."

"That's not an answer."

"I know," Peter said. "And if I knew more I'd tell you. For what it's worth, we know the bullet in his leg didn’t hit a major artery because he didn’t bleed out at the scene. If we’re lucky, that’ll just be soft tissue damage. But they won't know until they get in there how much damage the one to his abdomen might've done. They were worried about internal bleeding."

Sara nodded and sat in one of the chairs, clutching her purse in the lap. She listened as Peter told Diana to go back to the office and assist Agent Jones. Diana asked if he needed anything, and Peter said no.

"Did you call Elizabeth?" Diana asked, in an oddly gentle voice.

"From the car," Peter replied. "She'll be here soon. And she called Moz, too, so I imagine he and June won't be far behind. We're fine here, but I need you and Jones to handle things at the Bureau."

"You got it, boss," Diana said. "Call when you hear, all right?" She hugged him and left.

Peter seated himself in the chair beside Sara. "You need anything?" he asked. "Glass of water?"

"I'm fine," she said. He nodded. She stared at the pile of magazines on the glass coffee table in front of her for a moment, then asked, "What happened?"

Peter sighed. "What did Neal tell you about this case we were working?"

"Not much."

"It was an antiquities smuggling ring. Greek and Roman, mostly from Europe. Right up Neal's alley. Interpol was breathing down our necks, but it was a pretty standard undercover op. We sent him in as a potential buyer and were trying to get the whole thing on tape."

That didn't sound different from a dozen other cases Neal had told Sara about. "What went wrong?"

Peter sighed. “They made him, I’m not sure how. Things got ugly in a hurry.”

"’Things got ugly’?" Sara repeated incredulously. "Where the hell was Neal's back-up?"

"Too far," Peter said heavily. "We underestimated how dangerous the situation was. The leader of the smuggling ring has a reputation for keeping his hands clean. But when Neal walked into the meet, it wasn’t just him - he’d brought associates. Some of them have mob connections. Neal tried to keep them talking, but they weren’t interested.” He bent forward, resting his elbows on his knees, and shook his head. "I've seen ops go FUBAR in my time, but this must've set a new record. By the time we forced our way in, all the bad guys had rabbited and Neal was bleeding on the ground.”

Sara didn't say anything. Part of her wanted to blame Peter; it was his job to keep Neal safe, after all. Neal wasn't an agent, he hadn't been trained at Quantico, he couldn't protect himself like the agents could. But she wasn't cruel, and she knew that Peter was being harder on himself than she ever could. It wouldn’t help Neal for her to make Peter feel worse. She nodded, wordlessly, and settled in to wait.

They were still sitting silently, side by side, five minutes later when the elevator doors opened and Elizabeth Burke stepped out. Peter stood and kissed her, then hugged her, while Sara tried not to stare at them. "Any news?" Elizabeth asked, when Peter let her go.

He shook his head. "He'll be in surgery for a few hours, they said. I should probably go back to the office," he added, with tangible reluctance.

Elizabeth grasped both his hands in hers. "Can Diana and Clinton handle it?"


"Then you should be here. No but's," she added, when Peter opened his mouth to speak. He nodded. Elizabeth glanced past him and caught sight of Sara. "Hey," she said, pulling Peter over to sit beside her. "How are you doing?"

"I'm fine," Sara said, automatically.

Elizabeth reached over and squeezed her arm. "The Bureau will make sure Neal has the best care. It's going to be all right."

Sara knew Elizabeth had no way of knowing that - no more than she did, probably, and certainly no more than Peter, who had actually spoken with medical professionals about Neal's condition. But she said it with such conviction that Sara almost believed her anyway. She nodded. "Thanks."

The three of them fell silent. A few minutes later, Peter's cell phone rang, and he wandered away to answer it, leaving Elizabeth and Sara effectively alone. "Has this happened before?" Sara asked, in a low voice. “I know the whole Cape Verde story, but I mean . . . otherwise.” Neal had been shot in the thigh then, too, and still had the scar, a white puckering of skin that he always tried to distract her from when they were in bed together. She wondered if he’d been shot in the same thigh, or if he’d have a matching scar on the other one now.

"Otherwise, no, not to Neal," Elizabeth said. "About a year ago, Peter got hurt on a case, digitalis poisoning of all things. It was scary. I think Neal and I were in this very same room for a couple hours, while the doctors got him stabilized. And once, when we were younger - this must have been before Peter started chasing Neal, because we hadn't been married very long - Peter was shot. In the chest, though he was very lucky and it didn’t collapse a lung or hit anything vital."

What did you do? Sara wanted to ask, but she didn't get the chance. The elevator doors opened again, this time revealing Neal's landlady, June, and Mozzie. Elizabeth stood and hugged both of them, quickly sharing what she knew of Neal's condition. Sara forced herself to stand as well, accepting June's hug out of surprise more than anything else.

"Everything will be all right, dear," June said, patting her shoulder. "Neal's made of strong stuff."

She didn't know quite what to say to that. She nodded, rather than speaking, and sat back down as June and Mozzie pulled two chairs over. She could feel a spot of pain beginning to throb behind one of her eyes, and she found herself mostly tuning out the low thrum of the conversation around her.

Sara was freaking out. She didn't know how the rest of them were managing to sit there, talking, when she couldn't manage to string two thoughts together that didn't have anything to do with Neal lying on an operating table while a surgeon dug two bullets out of him. Neal could die on that operating table. That phone call this morning might be the last time she ever spoke to him. And that night two weeks ago, when he'd stayed over at her place and made her late for the work with shower sex the next morning, might be the last time she ever saw him.

"Excuse me," she murmured, and stood.

The women's restroom was empty. Sara ran a paper towel under the tap and pressed it against the back of her neck. She leaned against the sink and closed her eyes. This was ridiculous, she thought. It wasn't that long ago that her former fiancé had held a knife to her throat. She was stronger than this.

The door opened. "Sara?" Elizabeth said, sticking her head in. "Are you all right?"

Sara cleared her throat and straightened up. "Yes," she said, dropping the paper towel into the trash and reaching for the soap dispenser. "I'm fine."

Elizabeth stepped inside and let the door swing shut behind her. "It's okay if you're not, you know. I'm not. Neither is Peter."

Sara shook her head, drying her hands on the towel. "I just needed a minute."

"Are you hungry? June and Mozzie were going to go out and get some dinner for us."

Sara frowned. "What time is it?"

"Almost seven."

Sara blinked. She'd had no idea so much time had passed. "I'm not hungry, thanks."

"You should eat something," Elizabeth said, gently. "That was one of the first things I learned when Peter was shot. I had to take care of myself, or I wouldn't be any good to him at all."

Sara shrugged. "Yeah, thanks. Whatever the rest of you are having is fine." Elizabeth nodded but didn't leave. "What?" Sara finally asked, impatiently.

"Nothing," Elizabeth said, then hesitated. "Do you have anyone you'd like to call? A friend or - or someone?"

"No," Sara said, wearily. "I really appreciate the concern, but I'll be fine. This is all just a bit overwhelming."

Elizabeth nodded. "I understand. But you know you're not alone. We all care about Neal.”

"I know," Sara said firmly. "Thank you." Elizabeth was just being kind, she knew, but she couldn't help the little stab of resentment she felt. That was just the sort of woman Elizabeth Burke was, she suspected - the sort who always knew how to help, who had endless empathy and patience, even for a conman her husband had spent years chasing. The sort who knew exactly what to do when her husband was shot and probably had a dozen close girlfriends she could call to come and sit with her at the hospital while she waited.

Elizabeth eyed her for a moment. "Right. Okay, then."

The door to the bathroom opened, and June stepped inside. "I'm sorry to interrupt, but I thought you'd want to know that Neal's out of surgery. Peter's speaking with the doctor now about how it went."

"Oh," Elizabeth said, "yes, of course. Thank you, June."

"Yes, thanks," Sara echoed automatically, and followed Elizabeth out of the restroom. Peter stood off to the side, speaking to a gray-haired man in surgical scrubs. Sara shook her head when Elizabeth tried to get her to sit, and tried to read Peter's body language, to understand how bad the news was. It couldn't have been too terrible, she decided; Peter was nodding, and he looked serious but not upset.

Finally, he shook the doctor's hand. The doctor turned and disappeared through the door into the back, and Peter came back to them. "He's stable," was the first thing he said. "He's in the ICU, and he'll probably be there until tomorrow at least, but he's stable."

The rush of relief was so strong that Sara almost couldn’t breathe through it. She sat abruptly, like a puppet with all its strings cut.

"The bullet to the abdomen lacerated his spleen, which caused a lot of internal bleeding," Peter went on. "They had to remove it. The one to his thigh managed to avoid both his femoral artery and his femur, but it did some pretty significant damage to his quad muscle. It'll take him a while to recover, but his surgeon was optimistic."

There was a buzz of reaction from June, Elizabeth, and Mozzie, but Sara could barely hear it over the rushing in her ears. Neal would be all right. It would take a long time, but he'd be all right. "Can we see him?" she asked, when she could finally speak again.

Peter frowned. "They're pretty strict about visitors in the ICU."

And she wasn't family, Sara realized. Peter was Neal's medical next-of-kin, but she wasn't Neal's anything, not on paper. "Oh."

Elizabeth reached over and squeezed her hand. "But I'm sure Peter will see what he can do," she said, looking at Peter rather than Sara.

"Ah, right," Peter said, only a bit awkwardly. "Of course."

Whatever magic Peter worked, it did the trick. An hour later, a nurse led her and Peter into the ICU. Each small ICU room had a glass window that looked out onto the nurses' station; Neal’s was distinguished by the presence of an armed U.S. Marshal at the door. Sara raised an eyebrow at Peter.

He looked grim. “We still haven’t caught any of the men responsible, and you never know when there are mob connections involved. The guard is just in case.”

At the door to Neal's room, the nurse stopped them and said, "Mr. Caffrey is conscious but on very heavy painkillers, so he's likely not to be very responsive. One at a time, please. No more than five minutes."

Peter and Sara looked at each other. "You first," Peter said, after a brief hesitation.

"Thanks," Sara said, and stepped into the room. It was dim, lit mostly by the lights from the monitors around Neal's bed. They were reassuringly lively and regular, and his heart monitor beeped steadily. Neal lay on the bed, still and pale. He had an oxygen cannula in his nose and an IV line running to the back of his hand. His eyes were closed, but when Sara seated herself in the single bedside chair and carefully took his hand in hers, they opened, just barely.

"Hey there," she said softly.

Sara. His lips formed her name, but no sound emerged. His fingers tightened on hers, almost imperceptibly.

"Everything's okay," she said, unsure if anyone had bothered to tell him anything about his own condition. "They had to remove your spleen, but you'll be okay." She swallowed, feeling a sudden lump in her throat. "You owe me dinner and champagne," she added, voice cracking.

Neal frowned faintly, fingers tightening on hers again. Sara blinked and used her thumb to wipe away the tear that threatened to fall. She was conscious of Peter at the window, watching. She tried to speak, but she couldn't quite manage it. Neal's eyes drifted shut again.

When her five minutes were up, Sara stood. Neal's eyes cracked open again, following her. "I have to go," she said. "Peter wants to see you. But I'll be back as soon as they'll let me, all right?" She hesitated, then bent to kiss him on the forehead.

"You okay?" Peter asked, when she emerged.

"Yes, fine. Go ahead, your turn."

Sara watched as Peter went in and seated himself in the bedside chair. He seemed to be much more adept at the one-sided conversation than she had been. He gripped Neal's hand in his, and, after a minute or two, lifted his other hand to rest on the crown of Neal's head, thumb stroking over Neal's temple. Sara bit her lip, feeling suddenly voyeuristic, and looked away.

Eventually, Peter stood and came back out. "He'll be more with it tomorrow," he said. "I have you on the approved visitors list, so you can come back then."

Sara nodded. "Thanks."

Peter hesitated. "Can I give you a ride home?"

Sara frowned. Elizabeth had left already with Mozzie and June, but her own house wasn't anywhere near Peter's route back to Brooklyn. "I'm not on your way."

"I know, but . . ." Peter glanced sideways, through the window into Neal's room. "I'd like to talk," he said at last.

Sara had a suspicion where this was going. It was probably best to get it over with. "Okay.”

It was late enough that all the rush hour traffic had dispersed. Sara sat quietly, letting Peter make the first move. He waited until they were stopped at a light and then said, "So. How are you?"

Sara nearly growled. "I'd be better if people stopped asking me that."

"Right. Sorry." He cleared his throat. "Look, Sara . . ."

The light turned green. When they'd cleared the intersection and Peter still hadn't finished his sentence, Sara said, "Peter, whatever it is, just spit it out."

Peter nodded, gripping the steering wheel and staring straight ahead at the road. "Okay.” He drew a deep breath. “Sara, something like this really tests a relationship. I know you and Neal have been trying to figure things out the last few months, but I also know things are still pretty up in the air. I need to know if you're going to be there for him."

Sara had been prepared for something like this from Peter, but that didn’t make it less insulting. "You think I'd cut and run on him when he was flat on his back in a hospital bed?"

"I think you've done a very good job at keeping Neal at arm's length."

"That's not fair, Peter." It really wasn't. Ever since they’d decided to give it another shot, she and Neal had been much more open with each other. Or at least Sara thought they had. If Peter thought otherwise, then perhaps Neal did, too.

"Maybe not," Peter acknowledged, "but this isn't going to be easy. I need to know if you can handle it."

"Your faith in me is overwhelming. What the hell kind of a person do you think I am? Do you actually think -"

"I think you are strong, capable, and confident," Peter said, surprising Sara into silence. "I also think you’re used to making your own way in the world, and you don’t really know how to be someone’s partner. I think you hate feeling vulnerable or dealing with anyone else's vulnerability. I think that sometimes, you have trouble being kind."

Sara stared. “Jesus, Peter, don't feel you have to hold back."

Peter shook his head. "I'm sorry, but I don't have time to spare your feelings. There is nothing dignified or elegant about recovering from a gunshot wound. Neal is going to need people to help him through this. If you can't do it, I have to know."

Sara pressed her lips together in mute fury. The worst of it, she thought, was that Peter was right. Now that the immediate danger was past and she knew Neal would be all right, she'd started to think about how this was likely to impact her own life. Was she supposed to get up and go to work tomorrow? Pretend nothing had happened? She didn't think she could. But the alternative was - what, exactly? Personal leave? If she did that now, she could probably kiss her promotion to division head good-bye. What about when Neal was released from the hospital? Who would look after him while he recovered? Peter was right - none of this was going to be dignified. Neal was going to hate every minute of it, once the doctors let him up from beneath the fog of painkillers. Whether Sara could handle it was a question that begged serious consideration.

They turned onto her block at last, and she started digging in her purse for her keys. Peter double-parked in front of her building but left the engine running. "Sara?"

"I need to think about it," Sara said, hating herself a little. "I'll let you know tomorrow."

Peter nodded. "Okay. Have a good night."

"You, too," Sara said, and climbed out.