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Cold Dark World

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Neal followed closely behind Diana as they sprinted through the dark woods after their suspect, a counterfeiter named Henry McDowell, who had been leading them on quite the chase from the city to upstate using his newly minted bills. Neal was busy trying to make sure he didn't run into a tree while keeping his footing and not losing sight of Diana in the rapidly growing darkness. He was a great multi-tasker, but the sun had set a while ago, and it was getting too late for this kind of pursuit.

Peter and Jones were out here somewhere too. They'd split up about twenty minutes ago, and it wasn't long after that when Diana and Neal caught sight of McDowell. It was probably sheer luck, but he'd stepped out from behind two trees with a large backpack and a hiking stick. He was just as surprised to see them as they were to see him, and so it had started.

Diana slid to a halt next to a large oak and put a hand out to stop Neal before he ran passed her. "Shhh," she hissed when he stopped and leaned against the tree, breathing hard.

Holding his breath was difficult when his lungs were screaming for oxygen, but he did so for as long as he could.

"Damn, I think we lost him," Diana whispered. She was scanning the area, and Neal did the same, but he couldn't see any movement or hear anything that sounded like a man running through the undergrowth. He took measured breaths and let himself rest while they kept their eyes on the woods.

Neal's head snapped to the right when he heard a muffled snap. He tapped Diana on the shoulder and pointed toward the sound. She nodded and motioned for him to stay behind her again as she headed slowly in that direction.

They were only about twenty-five feet away when McDowell popped up and made a run for it again. "Freeze! FBI!" Diana shot a warning shot in the air but that didn't deter him. "Dammit," she muttered and took off through the trees again.

Neal ran after her, promptly tripped over a gnarled root and hit the ground hard. He rolled almost immediately to his feet but couldn't see Diana or the suspect any longer. His adrenaline was pumping, which kept whatever pain he was now in at bay as well as kept the chill of the fall night air away. He knew he'd scrapped his palms when he hit the dirt, and his left ankle seemed to not be working quite right, but he wasn't about to be left behind out here in the middle of nowhere.

Jogging in the direction he thought Diana had last gone, Neal was surprised when he broke out of the woods and stumbled directly into some kind of body of water. There had been a lake on the map the whole team had studied at the ranger's station, but Neal had no idea where he was in relation to the lake. He slipped on a rock and sprawled face-first into the water. It was shockingly cold, and he splashed loudly for a minute as he struggled to get his feet under him and working properly to get himself back to shore.

Finally, he dragged himself back onto land and sat heavily against a large tree. He pulled his legs up to his chest to try and conserve some little bit of body heat. After a minute, he got his breath back and started to make a plan. He didn’t know where he was, and he'd lost the rest of the team. There was a radio in his pocket, but when he pulled it out, it was completely waterlogged and non-functional. So was his cell phone, not that he'd been able to get a signal out here anyway.

With shaking hands, he checked the rest of his pockets and found his lock pick kit, his FBI consultant ID, his wallet, a stick of spearmint gum, and his keys for June's house. Nothing that would help him get out of this situation. He stuffed them all back into his pockets except the busted radio.

His teeth started chattering, and he felt exhausted. He was crashing, he was alone, and he was scared. It had been a long time since he'd pulled a job by himself and an even longer time since he'd had no immediate back-up available if he got into a jam. All he could think to do was rest so that he could come up with a plan and get himself back to civilization or find the team, whichever came first.

"Neal?!"

He started, groaning when he whacked the back of his head against the tree. When had he fallen asleep? And what had woken him?

"Neal?!"

Was that? "Diana?" Her voice was coming from his right, away from the water, and he turned his head in that direction.

"Oh, thank God. Where are you?"

"Over here. Be careful. There's a lake or something."

She stepped out of the tree line a moment later, and he painfully waved a trembling hand at her. She hurried over and dropped down beside him. "What happened? Are you okay?"

"I tripped and lost you, and then I ran right into the water when I was trying to catch up. Did you get him?"

She frowned and squinted at him in the pale moonlight. "No, I lost him again, and then I realized that you weren't right behind me. You're a mess. Are you hurt anywhere?"

"Can't really feel anything anymore," he replied, shaking with cold. His muscles were stiff and sore now, which was going to make moving a terrible ordeal. "Maybe my ankle."

She bit her lip – a very un-Diana-like thing to do – and looked over her shoulder. "Come on. There's an old cabin about a quarter mile into the woods. It looked abandoned, but at least it's dry and we should be able to get you warmed up."

It took four tries to get Neal on his feet. Nothing wanted to do what his brain was telling it, not his arms or legs or hands or feet. Diana pulled his arm over her shoulder and nudged him into moving in the direction she'd indicated.

More than a half hour later, Diana kicked the cabin's door open and all but dragged Neal inside. She dropped him unceremoniously on the first piece of furniture she came across, a ratty old sofa draped with a dusty sheet.

Neal groaned and watched as she fumbled through the small cabin until she found a lantern and a box of matches. Then, they both took stock of the interior and what it had to offer. There was a fireplace in the center of the room and a small stack of wood beside it, a table in the kitchenette that included some cabinets and a couple of sets of dishes, and a bedroom area with a set of bunk beds and a dresser.

"Start a fire, see if there's something for Neal to change into or blankets to keep him warm and check for injuries," Diana muttered to herself.

"I'm okay." Neal surprised both of them by speaking. He didn't want her to think that he'd fallen unconscious, though the pull of sleep was starting to tempt him again. He was so cold and so, so tired.

"I think I'd like to check that out for myself." She stooped by the fireplace and started moving some things around. "How about you talk to me while I get a fire started?"

"About what?"

"I don't care. Tell me about the Antioch manuscripts."

Neal laughed until he coughed. Then, she was by his side, propping him up and helping him stay that way until the fit subsided.

"You okay?"

"Must have swallowed some lake water," he responded. She was warm, and he leaned against her without thinking about it.

"You're freezing and still soaked. We have to get you out of these clothes."

"Never thought I'd hear you say those words."

"Don't think too much of it, Caffrey. Peter would kill me if you died of exposure while I was sitting right here all nice and dry."

Neal had almost forgotten that Peter was out in the woods too. He sat up and his eyes widened in alarm. "Have you talked to him? Are he and Jones okay?"

Diana sighed and wrapped the sheet from the sofa around him before she got up and moved to the bedroom area to see if there were any dry clothes or blankets there. "I lost my radio while we were running. It came unclipped from my belt. I figured yours was a lost cause when I saw it laying in the mud at the lake."

"It got wet." He was struck by a thought and reached down to lift his pants leg with stiff fingers. The anklet was there, but its light wasn't glowing green. Or red. Or amber. It was, however, cracked down the middle. "Huh."

Diana dumped an armload of clothes and blankets next to him and bent down to inspect the device. "How did this happen?"

"I tripped back there in the woods, must have hit it against the tree or something. Didn't think it would break that easily."

"Neither did I." She hiked his pants leg up a bit higher and winced at the bruising and swelling that ran from mid-calf down to disappear under his sock. "Does this hurt?"

"Everything hurts," Neal replied. His body was still shivering as whatever heat it had managed to retain was still being leeched out by the wet clothes.

She frowned and looked up at him. "Can you get undressed while I get the fire started? Don't put the clothes on yet. Your shivering isn't getting any better, and we need to warm you up before you get dressed."

"Naked cuddling? I thought that was a myth."

"Standard FBI field medicine procedure."

She hurried over to the fireplace and got the fire going while Neal slowly got undressed. It took several minutes, but finally he was wrapped in nothing more than a scratchy blanket she'd brought him.

After the fire was stoked, Diana pulled the mattress off the bottom bunk and put it in front of the fireplace. It was a twin, so the space was limited, but she had to share as much of her body heat with Neal as possible anyway.

Neal let her help him over to the mattress, hissing as his ankle nearly buckled twice during the short walk. He noticed that she lowered him much more carefully to the mattress this time, and then she started piling more blankets on top of him.

He rolled onto his side and faced the fire. The flames were hypnotizing, and he barely registered her climbing under the coverings behind him until she slid her arm – a mercifully warm arm – around his stomach and pressed her chest to his back.

"Why do you get to wear underwear?" The lace of her bra and panties was tickling his back and buttocks in a way that made him wish the circumstances were very different.

"Because I'm not the one who fell into a lake."

"Didn't fall."

"Ran. Whatever."

Neal sighed and squirmed back against her more fully. Now, their legs were entangled, though they were both careful of his left leg, and her hand was in his hair, smoothing it away from his face.

"Don't go to sleep," she cautioned and pinched the skin across his ribs, which happened to be where her other hand was resting.

He groaned. "I'm so tired."

"I know you are, but you have to stay awake. Talk to me about something, anything."

He sighed and pulled the blankets closer to his chin. The fire was blazing, and his face was starting to feel warm again. "Does this really do nothing for you?" was the first thing to pop into his head. Because her body felt amazing where it was pressed against his, and he'd always thought she was gorgeous. The first time they met, he'd flirted, and he'd been pretty sure she was flirting back despite what Peter had said.

"No, Caffrey. Believe it or not, your shivering, hypothermic body does not excite me in any way."

"Not that. I mean-"

"I know what you meant."

They both went silent; Neal wasn't sure how to push the subject without sounding incredibly conceited, and he assumed Diana just wanted the subject to change. His body was slowly starting to tingle as warmer blood circulated through his core and out into his limbs. He moaned and squirmed against the sensation.

"Whoa. What's wrong? Neal?"

"Just hurts," he murmured.

"Lay still and breathe," she instructed.

Neal thought that was the most ridiculous advice he'd ever heard, but it did help to concentrate on his breathing for a while.

"Neal," Diana spoke into the silence a while later, "you don't have to be told that you're a handsome man with a great physique. I'd be lying if I said that hadn't escaped my notice, but I've never been attracted to men."

He sensed a but was coming so he stayed quiet.

"But I am open to trying new things."

Neal's jaw dropped open, and he shifted so that he could look over his shoulder and see her face. "Are you saying…?"

"Not tonight, but one day, maybe…"

Neal didn't know what to say. His mouth opened and closed several times but no sound came out.

Before he could get his thoughts in order to respond, the door to the cabin burst open, and Peter and Jones interrupted the moment. Soon, Peter was leaning over him, asking questions and prodding Neal's sore ankle. He drifted between sleep and wakefulness after that, feeling safe and warmer with his friends nearby. One day soon, he'd have to find out how serious Diana was about trying new things.

~End

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