“Heads up,” Peter said, tossing the car keys before his CI could even look up.
Neal's quick reflexes saved him from losing an eye. Barely. “Tired of playing the 'scare the crap out of Neal by swerving across more than three lanes of traffic' game already? It's only been three years.”
Peter threw his hands up and looked heavenward for help. Caffrey could be the most irritating conman on the planet sometimes. “Get in the car.”
“Not that this isn't an interesting development in our relationship, but is there any particular reason you want me to drive?”
“It's dawned on me that I've never seen you behind the wheel of a car.”
“Ah, so this is a test.” Neal grinned, but it wasn't his full monty. “Well, I'm sorry to disappoint, but I can drive, even have a valid license. There's no need to subject me to rush hour traffic.”
“I think there is. Get in.” Peter was leaving no room for discussion. In fact, he was already halfway onto the passenger seat.
Neal walked around the front of the sleek black Taurus and slid into the driver's side. He made a show of adjusting the seat, the mirrors, the seatbelt.
Peter's long-suffering sigh went unnoticed, but his smack across Neal's chest didn't. “You're acting like a teenage girl about to take her first driving exam. Let's go already.”
Neal started the car and pulled out into the flow of traffic. “You realize that makes you the crotchety DMV employee, right?”
Peter didn't bother to dignify that with a response. He watched as Neal expertly maneuvered the car through late afternoon Tribeca traffic. They had turned down a residential street on their way to interview a witness for their latest money laundering case when a blur darted out in front of their car.
Neal hadn't been speeding, and his reflexes and instincts kicked in just in time to swerve away from the child and into a parked car. The airbags deployed, but Neal was out of the vehicle before they had a chance to deflate.
Peter was too stunned to move for a minute. Between the impact and the airbag, the shock stole his breath. As he calmed, he shoved the door open and stumbled from the wreck. People were starting to gather around. He pointed to a woman holding a cell phone. “You. Call 911.” Then, he tried to find his CI. “Neal?”
The younger man was crouched in the middle of the street with the very child that had run out in front of them. He was talking softly to the little girl, who was crying. “You're okay. It's just a scrape. Where's your mom? Is she nearby?” He barely noticed his injured left hand, broken during the airbag deployment, but he kept it close to his chest, all but hidden by his suit jacket.
“Neal?” Peter kneeled beside them and saw that the girl was mostly okay. She had a long scrape down her arm and smaller ones across her knees where she'd fallen when the car had startled her. Mainly, she was just scared. “Medics are on the way.”
Neal ignored Peter, keeping up his soothing litany until the EMTs arrived and pulled him away. He was led to a waiting ambulance and helped inside, where they took his vitals. He was silent until they started to check his left hand.
Peter was giving his statement to an officer when he heard Neal's yelp of pain. He was at the ambulance before he realized that he'd moved. “Hey? Everything okay?”
“Peter?” Neal turned at the familiar voice. He blinked and then panicked. “The girl? Is she okay? Did you see her? Peter?”
“Whoa, calm down.” The paramedic was already restraining Neal, but Peter climbed into the ambulance anyway to sit on the stretcher beside his consultant. “The girl's going to be fine. Thanks to you.”
“I didn't mean for her to get hurt. I wasn't going that fast. It just happened so... Is she okay?” Neal's eyes and speech were both frantic. He tried to look past Peter, but there were only bystanders and cops in his field of view.
Peter shot a concerned frown at the paramedic, who reached for a syringe and bottle of what was sure to be a sedative. “She's already been cleared, and her mother got here a minute ago. They live two houses down. She didn't even know the girl had gone outside.”
Neal didn't seem to hear him. He kept asking about the girl even as the sedative was administered.
“Lean back,” Peter said, moving to help lay him down on the stretcher before the drugs kicked in.
Before his eyes closed, Neal whispered, “She can't be dead. It's not fair. I didn't mean it.”
Peter stared at him, wondering what the hell was going through Caffrey's mind. Nothing in his file indicated that he'd had any fatal vehicular accidents, but then again, there was an eighteen year gap where anything could have happened. He hadn't had a chance to request Danny Brooks' records, though he doubted that the Marshals would give up a minor's file willingly anyway.
It was a couple of hours before Peter was allowed to see Neal at the hospital. By then, Elizabeth had joined him for the irritating waiting game. Diana and Jones had swung by for a bit but had to get back to work. They'd been sent by Hughes to tell Peter to take the afternoon off. And that he was expected to report back on Neal's condition. Peter had agreed, if they would see about getting information on Daniel Brooks, a kid who'd been in WitSec until 1997.
“Agent Burke,” a pretty nurse with square-framed glasses called his name. “You can see Mr. Caffrey now. He's down the hall to the left. Room 115.”
Peter and Elizabeth both thanked her and made their way to Neal's room. He was sitting up on the bed with his casted left hand propped up on a pillow in his lap. He smiled dopily at them. “Peter. El. Hi.”
Elizabeth laughed as she gave him a gentle hug. She brushed his hair back from his forehead and looked him straight in the eyes. After what Peter had told her about the scene of the accident, she was concerned. “How are you doing?”
“I'm good. Very good. Doesn't even hurt.”
“Just wait for the good drugs to wear off,” Peter said, taking the only chair in the room.
“Drugs are good,” Neal stated with an emphatic nod. “Hey, are you here to spring me? Can I go home yet?”
“The doctor has to check you out one more time, sweetie,” Elizabeth replied. “It shouldn't be long now.”
“Good. That's good.” Neal yawned and rested back against the scratchy hospital pillows. Within a few moments, his eyes shuttered and his breathing evened out.
Elizabeth and Peter shared a look, amazed that he could fall asleep that fast, even on painkillers. She looked around for a place to sit, finally settling on Peter's lap when it was clear that there weren't any alternatives. Neal's bed barely held him, much less left space for her, not even beside his feet.
“This was all my fault, El,” Peter said quietly. “I made him drive today, just to see him do it. I never should have done that.”
“Oh, hon.” Elizabeth gave him a kiss and stroked the hair at the nape of his neck. “This could have happened to anyone, even you. No one can predict the actions of a child, and Neal's going to be okay.”
“I'm not so sure about that.” This whole thing was nagging at Peter like a gnat that got stuck in your ear and wouldn't leave. This was going to get much worse before it got better, and no matter what El said, it was his fault.
Fifteen minutes later, they were talking quietly about what to make for dinner when Neal stirred. He whimpered, throwing his arms up and nearly braining himself with the cast. Elizabeth ran for a nurse while Peter tried to gently hold the ailing man down.
Neal was awake by the time the nurse arrived, breathing harshly but trying to convince her that he was okay. “Just a bad dream,” he said, flashing a grin as bright as he could muster in the aftermath of the day terror. “Me and painkillers. We're not good friends.”
She took his vitals and notated them on his chart. “Try to relax, Mr. Caffrey. The doctor's on his way.”
Neal was still getting himself under control when the doctor walked in a few minutes later. He did his best to charm the hell out of the doctor, but, in the end, it didn't make much difference. Nightmares were to be expected after nearly running over a child in the street, and painkillers made even the most stoic of men a bit loopy sometimes.
He was discharged with instructions to keep his arm in a sling until his follow-up appointment and prescriptions for Percocet and a sleeping pill that none of them could pronounce and that Neal probably wouldn't use. Peter and Elizabeth wanted to take him back to their home, but Neal insisted that he would be fine at June's. He could take care of himself, especially since he was right-handed and June's staff often brought him meals anyway. Reluctantly, they'd dropped him off and asked him to call if he needed anything.
The call came at three in the morning two nights later, and it was June's voice that woke Peter instead of Neal's.
“What's wrong?” he asked, grabbing for his pants and sandwiching the phone between his shoulder and ear in order to get them on.
“It's Neal. Something woke me so I went to check on him. He says he's fine, but he's shaking and his eyes... They're not right, Peter.”
“What do you mean 'not right'?” Peter was almost fully dressed now, but tying his shoes was awkward. On some level, he'd been expecting this call.
“They're haunted.” She shuddered as she said the word. Neal had scared her more than she thought possible.
“I'm on my way.”
“Thank you, Peter.”
Neal was out on the balcony when Peter let himself into the studio apartment. He was sitting on the floor with his back against the retaining wall, staring up at the sky. “I miss stars,” he said when the FBI agent joined him.
“Yeah, stars are nice.” Peter agreed, waiting to see how this played out.
Neal was silent for a few minutes, weighing his need to get this off his chest with his ability to trust Peter. “I could see the stars that night. Laying on the stretcher before the EMTs took me away. They were everywhere.”
Peter scooted closer until his shoulder was pressed up against Neal's, but he didn't say anything. This was going to have to unfold on Neal's clock, not his. That didn't stop him from wishing he'd grabbed a couple of blankets and a beer before he sat down though.
“I was sixteen, and I took Mom's car without her permission. There was a girl. Annie Spencer. You would have liked her. She was smart, funny. And she was a junior. A whole year older than me, which is why it was a surprise when she agreed to go on a date with me.” Neal took a deep, quivering breath and pulled his knees up to his chest. “We just drove around for a while. Stopped at Bob's for a burger, shared a Coke, but then kept driving. I loved it. The wind blowing our hair, the speed, everything.”
Peter could easily picture a young Neal, smiling, laughing, with a pretty girl. On a joyride. In a stolen car. Typical Caffrey. They were probably having the time of their lives, out past curfew, nothing but the naked road in front of them. He'd been young once too; he remembered all those feelings and then some.
“I don't know what happened exactly. Never could remember all of it. There was a head-on collision with a station wagon. A nurse on her way home after a double shift. Annie was thrown through the windshield. She didn't... they said she died fast.” He put his head down and sobs wracked his compact frame. “I killed her.”
Peter didn't hesitate to put his arm around Neal's shoulders, hoping any modicum of comfort he could offer would help. He waited until Neal slumped against him, spent and cried out. “It wasn't your fault, Neal. It was an accident. That's all. Just an accident.”
“I was driving.” Neal sounded so guilty and so matter-of-fact at the same time.
“If Annie had been driving, do you think anything would have been different?” Peter asked, without thinking. He hoped Neal wouldn't make the association that he could have died in her place.
The younger man shrugged but still refused to look at Peter. “I dunno,” he finally murmured.
“It was her time, kid. Nothing you could do about that. But a couple of days ago, you saved that little girl's life. If I had been driving, I don't think I could have swerved as fast.” He realized with a start that it was true. Not only that, but this was what Elizabeth had been trying to hammer into him. The wreck a few days ago was just an accident. Fate had chosen her stage and her players.
Neal did turn to look at him then and surprised Peter with a glare. “Don't do that. Don't lie to me. And don't treat me with kid gloves.”
Peter suppressed his sigh and gave Neal what he hoped was his honest face. “I'm being serious. I barely saw the girl by the time you had already driven us into a parked car.”
Neal studied him for a moment before deciding that he was sincere. He looked away again and struggled to sit up on his own. “Sorry about the car.”
“You're more important than the damn car. Are you okay?”
There was a hesitation before Neal finally admitted, “I think so.”
“That's good.” Peter clapped him on the shoulder as he stood, pulling his consultant up with him. “Think you can sleep now?”
Neal shrugged but followed the older man back inside the apartment.
“Listen, Hughes is giving you the rest of the week off as medical leave. I'm recommending that you talk to one of our psychiatrists.” He held out a business card bearing the name Lisa Blankenship. “Before you protest, I want you to know that I've already been to see her twice. Lisa's good, and she's required to keep your sessions completely confidential.”
Neal wanted to dig his heels in, he really did. But he couldn't deny that he felt better after having talked to Peter tonight. “What about our session?”
“Tonight?” Peter wanted to be clear. When Neal nodded, so did he. “You did nothing wrong, Neal. There's nothing for me to report. I won't tell anyone.”
“Not even Elizabeth?”
“No,” Peter replied. “This isn't for me to tell.”
Neal knew how hard it was for Peter to keep things from Elizabeth, especially when their friends were involved. He sensed no malice or deceit from Peter either, just concern.
“Okay.” Neal took the business card and tucked it into the pocket of his pajama pants.
Peter smiled then. He followed Neal toward the bedroom nook and flipped off the lights before making himself comfortable with a blanket on the couch while the other man climbed back in bed.
Neal turned onto his side. The faint moonlight allowed him to see Peter, so he was sure that Peter could see him as well. “You don't have to stay.”
“I know,” Peter replied with a yawn. He listened until Neal was breathing in even, steady breaths before he himself fell into sleep.
Thanks for reading!