Neal looked over at his partner across the table. Peter was staring into space, his coffee cup raised halfway to his lips.
"Penny for your thoughts."
"Hmmm?" Peter replied, pulled from his reverie.
"I was just wondering what's got you so distracted this morning?"
Peter paused for a long moment before replying as he looked into Neal's bright blue eyes. "I was imaging what our lives will be like this time next year, when your work release is over."
Neal lifted an eyebrow and smiled. "Oh, what have you got in mind?"
Peter set his coffee mug down, reached across the table and laid his hand on top of Neal's. The look in Peter's eyes was so earnest and determined that Neal knew with a certainty he had never felt before that Peter intended to make the future he envisioned a reality for them both. "Just like this. You and me together, sharing our lives and our work at White Collar, but openly. I want everyone to know that I love you, that I believe in you."
Neal flipped his palm over so that he could squeeze Peter's hand. "I want that too, very much."
Peter smiled again and gently squeezed Neal's hand in return. "As much as I love June, and your apartment, I miss my own bed."
Neal pulled his hand away and picked up his own mug. "You can sleep at your place any time you like," he replied coyly.
"Are you kicking me out of your bed?" Peter questioned with mock apprehension.
In the pale winter light filtering in through the French doors, Peter could see the slightest blush bloom on Neal's cheeks. "No, just imaging how great the phone sex would be."
Peter snorted out a laugh. "Don't get me started or we'll be late for work."
Neal smirked. "I can't think of a better way to start the day, or a better reason to be late."
"You are incorrigible."
"I had to find some way to repurpose my criminal tendencies, now that you've reformed me." The crazy thing was that Neal meant it, he was reformed, and it was because of the trust and the love that Peter had given him. A gift he was looking forward to repaying for as long as Peter would have him.
"And you chose sex?" Peter was trying to sound authoritative, but he knew he sounded amused to Neal. It had become a game, since they had become more than cop and con, for Neal to act like the cocky, brash conman that Peter first met outside a Manhattan bank, and for Peter to act like the stern and straight-laced FBI agent who had finally caught him.
"Are you complaining?" Neal asked.
"No, not at all. But sadly, now is not the time."
Neal could hear the regret in Peter's voice. "Duty calls," he uttered with a sigh.
Peter nodded. "Something like that."
"Then you'll just have to agree to come back here with me tonight."
"It's a date."
The office was bustling when Peter and Neal arrived, on time, for the workday. Four days ago, a forged Warhol had shown up on the legitimate art market, the second in just two months. In both instances, an unsuspecting amateur collector purchased the piece, only to find it was a forgery when they had them appraised for insurance purposes. With the likelihood of more of these pieces on the way, the case had become the top priority of the department.
Neal and Peter parted at the top of the stairs. Neal made straight for the conference room, where they were holding the forged Brillo Box. Peter had tasked him with trying to find any clues to the forger in his or her work. Peter turned into his office to continue sorting through the list of potential leads his team had dug up in the hopes that something was worth pursuing.
They worked through lunch and halfway through the afternoon before Neal fixed his gaze on his partner though the glass that divided the conference room from Peter's office. When Peter looked up, Neal broke off, rose and headed to the oft neglected men's room in the back corner of the White Collar offices. Peter waited a few minutes and then followed.
Neal was leaning up against the metal wall in the last stall. Peter maneuvered into the tight space, closed the door and slid the lock into place. He wrapped his arms around Neal's slender waist and tugged until their bodies were pressed together and Peter could feel the heat and the need emanating off of Neal through their warm winter wool suits.
"I've wanted your hands on me all day," Neal whispered low into Peter's ear before taking the lobe into his mouth and biting down gently.
Peter answered with a possessive grumble as he tightened his arms around Neal and slid his hands down to cup his sculpted ass.
Neal wrapped his left leg around Peter's calves pulling them closer still. Even a year after Neal had gotten the anklet removed for good behavior, Peter missed the feel of the hard plastic digging into his skin when they made love. He had found it terribly arousing and Neal had called it Peter's most obvious kink. But it had also been the physical embodiment of the power he held over Neal, and he felt just a little bit guilty about the thrill it had given him. Thankfully, his partner was endlessly creative in divining new ways to turn him on now that the anklet was but a memory.
Neal moved from Peter's ear to his jawline, sucking kisses as he shifted closer to Peter's waiting mouth. Finally, Neal's lips met Peter's and he didn't hesitate, opening and pushing his tongue into Neal's mouth.
His cock was growing impossibly hard and he could feel Neal's was too where it pressed against his thigh. He wanted nothing more than to push Neal up against the cold metal stall wall, strip his pants off and fuck him where they stood. And from the hungry look in his partner's eyes, Peter knew that Neal would relish it.
But sadly, this was neither the time nor the place. He kneaded Neal's ass roughly for another minute as they continued kissing and then he reluctantly pulled away.
"Want you too," Peter said breathlessly. "Later, I'm going to bend you over that antique bed of yours and nail your ass into it."
"Promises, promises," Neal replied with a wink. Then he reached out and straightened Peter's tie and smoothed the lapels of his jacket.
They exited the stall together and Peter splashed water on his face at one of the sinks while Neal washed his hands. When Peter judged that he was presentable once again, he left the washroom and made his way back to his office. Neal returned to the conference room, a few minutes later.
It's was almost six and Peter was seriously considering quitting for the day so that he could fulfill that promise to Neal when Diana stepped into his office.
"Boss," she said excitedly. "I've got something."
Peter looked up from his computer screen, eyebrows raised. "Tell me."
"It took some work, and I owe one of the Cybercrimes guys my first born, but we managed to trace the IP address of the seller."
"A guy named William Keach. We've got an address in Nassau, New Hyde Park."
Peter stood and waved to Neal who was watching the conversation from the conference room. "Does he have any priors?"
"Just some petty stuff, larceny, loitering," she replied with a shrug.
I assume you're pulling a warrant."
"As we speak."
"Okay, grab Jones and a couple of the others and let's head to Long Island." Diana nodded and left the office, passing Neal as he entered.
Peter was pulling his shoulder holster on. "We've got a lead. Ever hear of a William Keach?"
Neal pondered for a moment and then shook his head. "No."
"Diana traced the seller's IP to Keach's address out in New Hyde Park. Ready to go for a ride?"
Neal smiled. "With you, any time."
It was pitch dark and frigid, with an icy breeze blowing by the time they reached the address Diana had found in the suburban, tree-lined neighborhood just outside of Queens.
In the excitement, Neal had forgotten to grab his wool overcoat, a failure which he regretted dearly the moment he opened the door of the Taurus and stepped onto the curb across the street from the house.
Just before eight in the evening, most of the houses on the street were brightly lit and Neal could see big screen TVs alive with color and movement behind the living room windows as his eyes scanned the block. But 1624 Highland Avenue was dark. The front lawn was scruffy and barren, the white siding on the house old, dingy and cracked. This house was clearly out of place in the neighborhood. It was also dark. No cars were parked in the driveway. There was a small unattached garage back behind the house. Jones made his way there, careful to stay unseen by anyone who might be in the house and reported that it was empty.
"Okay, Diana, Reynolds and I will take the front. Jones, Whitman and Eiler will take the back entrance that Jones saw from the garage. Keach is probably just a middleman, but watch your backs okay?" The team nodded in turn and then Peter looked over at Neal, who was leaning up against the Taurus to try and stay out of the wind. "Wait here until we've cleared the house, got it?"
Peter looked at him hard for a long moment. It had been a long time since Neal had gone off the reservation. But, trouble seemed to follow his partner like a shadow on a midsummer day and Peter wouldn't have been who he was if he didn't make every effort to keep his team and the person he loved most in the world safe. "I need you to say the words 'I'll stay here until you clear the house.'"
"Peter," Neal began in protest.
Peter waved a finger in the air. "Ah, ah… nope. Say it."
Neal glared at him, the whites of his eyes reflecting brightly in the orange glow of the street lights. Then he lifted his hand in the Boy Scout salute. "I'll stay here until you clear the house."
Peter nodded and then the team was gone across the street to take up their positions outside of the dark and quiet residence.
Neal watched the shadows of his partner and his teammates as they moved across the street and around to the doors of the house. He always hated this part. It felt unnatural to wait in the wings while someone else took the risks. He knew they would be careful, they always were, but that didn't stop Neal from worrying, it never would.
He shivered, not from the cold this time, but from the adrenaline coursing through his veins as he waited for the bang which would come when they forced the door open. The whole world seemed to still for a long moment before it came, along with Peter's shout of "FBI!"
The shadows moved inside and then Neal could see flashlight beams blazing around the house through the windows.
The team hadn't been inside for more than five minutes when a car turned onto the street and made its way toward him. His instincts told him immediately that it was Keach. Neal pulled his phone from his breast pocket and dialed Peter. Unfortunately, by now the car was already abreast of the FBI vehicles and had slowed to a stop.
Neal was moving out into the street even as Peter picked up. "Neal?"
"Keach is out here, Peter. Light-colored, older-model Oldsmobile, four-door sedan."
"Stay out of sight," Peter commanded.
"He's already made us, I'm going to try and keep him from running." Neal had reached back into his jacket and pulled out his wallet, flipping it open as if he was holding a badge.
"NO! Neal, don't do anything. We'll be there in a…" Peter's final word was cut off when Neal hit the button on his phone to end the call.
Peter was in one of the bedrooms on the second floor when his phone rang. He knew something was wrong before he even answered. "Neal?"
"Keach is out here, Peter." Neal's voice was low and it held a hint of excitement. "Light-colored, older-model Oldsmobile, four-door sedan."
"Stay out of sight," Peter replied, urgency and fear stealing his breath. There was a reason he made his partner wait outside, confronting suspects on his own most definitely was not it.
"He's already made us, I'm going to try and keep him from running."
"NO! Neal, don't do anything. We'll be there in a…" Peter's final word was cut off when Neal ended the call.
Peter stumbled on the steps in the dark of the narrow stairwell in his rush to get back out onto the street. He managed to catch himself before he fell, but it was a close thing and it wasted precious seconds.
He yelled for Jones to follow him as he hurdled through the living room and out the front door.
The street was quiet and empty. No Oldsmobile and no sign of Neal. "Neal?" Peter yelled as he ran across the front lawn, scanning the street.
He stopped at the curb. Jones joined him there and then Diana a moment later. "Boss?" Diana asked.
"Neal called me. Keach was here."
"I don't see anyone," Jones said.
Peter didn't reply. He didn't know whether to be happy or scared as hell that no one was in sight. Keach was gone and so was Neal, but at least his partner wasn't lying bleeding or dead in the street.
He walked across the road toward the three cars they had driven out from the city, the wind whipping the hem of his overcoat around his calves. On the ground by the driver's side of the Taurus Peter spied two darker spots on the concrete – Neal's cell phone and his wallet.
They already knew from Keach's DMV records that he didn't own an Olds, and they had a bolo out on the sedan Neal had described within minutes, but Peter knew without the plate number chances were slim they would get a hit on the vehicle. Back inside the house they discovered a workroom in the basement with paints, canvases, a variety of other art supplies and most tellingly, photographs of every angle of various Warhol pop art pieces. There was no immediate sign of any other completed forgeries, but Peter couldn't stay to help with the search, he had other more important and more pressing priorities – finding Keach and Neal.
He left Whitman and Eiler at the house to continue to look for anything that might give them a clue as to where Keach might run to and also wait for the investigation team that would do a full search of the premises.
He took Jones and Diana back to the office with him, to dig through known associates, job history, personal information, anything and everything that might lead to finding Keach and more importantly, Neal. Jones tried to get behind the wheel of the Taurus, but Peter waved him off. He needed the time alone in the car on the drive back into the city to focus his fear for his partner into something he could control and put to use – anger. By the time he pulled into the garage below the FBI building, Peter was certain of one thing, he would get Neal back alive or he would die trying.
The night passed more slowly than his accounting lectures had in college despite how busy he was running point on the search, checking in with the team constantly and completing his own assigned tasks. As he suspected, their bolos on the car and on Keach himself, were turning up nothing and they were striking out on coming up with places where Keach might have run to. Someplace where he could hold a hostage without bringing undue scrutiny on himself. That Neal was still alive and a captive was their operating mandate and would be until Keach was apprehended.
As daylight finally began to filter into the windows of his office, Peter found himself staring over his desk at the chair Neal generally occupied. For a moment, just before the winter sun drove the shadows away, a trick of the light created a figment of his partner, his Italian-leather shod feet perched on the edge of Peter's desk, his dark grey pinstriped suit complete with crisp white shirt and a sky-blue tie, an irksome smile playing on his lips and that one stubborn lock of hair falling over his forehead. Peter's breath caught and the anger he had worked so hard to muster faltered, opening the gates to the fear and the grief he was trying so valiantly to keep at bay.
He blinked and the vision was gone, Neal's chair sat empty again. Peter pulled in a ragged lungful of air and turned back to his computer pushing his emotions away. It was too soon to give in and he would never give up.
It wasn't the cold, but the pain that finally pulled Neal back to consciousness. He was curled in a tight ball on a hard, freezing surface. Slowly, he stretched out, his muscles burning from being tensed for so long. Eventually he shifted onto his back and opened his eyes. He was in a small, dark space, lit only by thin shafts of light seeping in from one side. The space was maybe six by eight feet, there were haphazard stacks of what looked in the dimness like garden implements around him on three sides and the other, where the little light was coming from, what was probably a set of metal double doors. A garden shed.
Gingerly he pulled himself up into a seated position on the metal floor. Then he took a moment to assess himself. His body was stiff and cold, but now that he was moving the cramping pain had eased. His left thigh hurt more than the rest. When he ran his hand along it, he could feel some bruising and a sticky patch on his pants that undoubtedly meant he had cut himself somehow too. The worst though was his head, with a throbbing that started at the base of his skull and radiated up and out from there, probably a concussion. He was thirsty, hungry and really cold. But he could work through that for now.
He stood slowly and took the two steps to the doors. They were locked from the outside. The thin bit of light was coming from the narrow spaces where the shut doors met and where they failed to sufficiently overlap the wall of the shed on either side.
"Hello! Is there someone out there? I seem to be locked in. Help, please." Yelling made the pain in his head swell and he staggered and almost landed on his ass. He caught himself on the metal wall and sank down to sit beside the doors, before his jelly legs forced the issue.
He closed his eyes and took several deep breaths, trying to get the pain in his head to settle back down to a bearable throbbing. He thought he was just about there when he heard footsteps outside and then a key in what had to be a padlock.
Neal scooted away from the wall to face the opening doors. Bright light streamed into the small space and Neal had to squint as the pain in his head ratcheted up again. He threw up one arm to block some of the light, but all he could see was the backlit shadow of someone standing before him.
"Shut up!" A male voice whispered. "There's no one around here, no one is going to find you, so just shut up."
Suddenly, Neal's mind flashed back to a dark, quiet suburban street and an Oldsmobile sedan. He remembered walking out in front of the car holding up his wallet, the headlight beams blinding him and then the car accelerating toward him.
“Okay,” he said placatingly. “I won’t yell. But can we talk about this?”
“Talk about what?” His captor seethed. “How you broke into my house? How I had to run for my life? How I have to figure out what to do next?” He smirked. “You gonna help me figure out how to flee the country?”
Neal shrugged. “I have managed it once or twice, myself.”
“Liar, you’re a fed.”
Neal shook his head. “No, in fact I’m not. I only work for the feds. I’m a criminal informant. I made a deal to get out of prison on parole.”
“Well isn’t that just fucking wonderful.” Keach spat out. “I didn’t even manage to kidnap a fed. What the hell kinda bargaining chip are you going to be?”
With his head pounding so fiercely, it was hard to think, but Neal knew he could get out of this if he could find the right angle. “Just let me go. I’ll come up with some story to cover you. Give you some time to head to Canada or wherever you want to go.”
“Let you go? So, you can give me up? You’re nuts if you think I’m going to let go of my only leverage.”
Neal put on his most trustworthy face and kept his voice calm and neutral. “If you make a clean getaway, you won’t need any leverage. I can help you.”
Keach looked uncertain, glancing at Neal and then back out through the door of the shed and back at Neal again. Finally, he asked, “Why would you that? What’s in it for you?”
Because I want to get out of this freezing shed. Neal swallowed back the scathing retort that popped immediately to mind. “I’m in their custody. It’s not a picnic, believe me. I would do it just to make their heads spin.” Three years ago that statement would have been mostly true, but now Neal had to sell it to try to save the life with the FBI that he had come to love.
Keach now looked even more confused. He shuffled his feet and looked nervously outside again.
Neal fought off a wave of dizziness and pressed on. “Here’s one that worked for me. Drive out to the port of New York, take a suitcase and a passport and get on the first cruise ship. You’re in the Bahamas before anyone has even thought to look beyond the New York/Canada border and the airports. When I’m found, which won’t be for a few hours, I promise, I’ll tell them you decided to drive to Michigan and make for the border with Canada there. They’ll be looking for you on I-70 for days.”
“I don’t know.”
“It’s a sure thing.”
“I said, I don’t know!” Keach yelled as his uncertainty exploded into anger.
Neal held up both hands in a placating gesture. “Okay, just think about it.”
Keach stormed out, slamming the shed doors together. Neal heard him slide the padlock into place and snap it shut. A moment later, there was only the sound of his retreating footsteps and the pounding in the back of Neal’s head.
The next time Neal woke, feeling numb with the cold and nauseated, the thin slits of daylight were gone. The complete darkness in the shed was disorienting and Neal struggled to sit up and then shuffle over to lean up against one of the sheds walls.
He shivered when his back touched the freezing metal and he wrapped his arms tightly around his torso to conserve what little body heat he was still managing to generate. He had no idea how much time had passed since he had been brought here or long it had been since he had last seen his captor.
His head still hurt fiercely, but he knew he had already wasted too much time; if he was going to find a way out of here, he needed to get off his ass. Slowly he pulled himself up bracing himself against the wall. First, he tried tugging at the doors to see if there was any chance the door handles through which the lock was set were weak. They didn’t budge. Unwilling to give up on the idea, Neal turned to the piles of junk that littered the shed floor. He spent long minutes feeling around carefully, to see what treasures he might find to work with.
There was less than he thought, a plastic snow shovel, a broken wheelbarrow, a couple of hand spades, several bags of old dried up topsoil, another of cedar chips, two rakes, a straw broom and finally something that might just do the trick, a hoe.
Neal made his way back over the doors and slid the edge of the metal hoe between them. Then he moved his hands down to the end of the long wooden handle and pushed, hoping to apply enough force to break one the lock’s handles off. He was dizzy, weak and colder than he could ever remember being before, but he put all the strength he had into it as he pushed against the handle. He heard an encouraging scape of metal against metal, so he pushed harder, leaning his weight into the effort. Suddenly, there was a sharp crack and Neal stumbled forward, landing on the hard floor on his knees with what remained of the broken wooden handle still clutched in his grasp.
He sat there panting for long moments, his head pounding with newfound momentum, trying to regain his equilibrium. Finally, he looked back at the doors; they were still firmly sealed. The other half of the hoe lay useless on the door before them.
“Plan B,” he muttered to himself as disappointment filled his head and heart.
Slowly he stood, picked up the remains of the hoe and stashed both pieces under one of the bags of top soil. Then he curled back up on the floor to ponder his options and wait for his head to stop hurting so much.
He woke to the sound of metal clanking as the lock was undone and the doors slid open. Neal sat up, blinking, it was daylight again.
“Hey,” he croaked. “Got your suitcase packed?”
“I’m not telling you anything. I know you were trying to manipulate me. It’s not going to work.”
Keach was wearing one of those puffy coats, a hat and leather gloves. Neal couldn’t help but eye them enviously. He took a deep breath before responding. “Of course, I was trying to manipulate you. I would like to get out of this shed, preferably before I freeze to death. But, I wasn’t lying to you. Helping you find a way out of this, helps me find a way out of this. It’s a classic win-win.”
“Well, I don’t need any more of your help. I’ve got my own plan now.”
Neal didn’t like the sound of that, at all. “I hope it involves letting me out of here?”
Keach didn’t reply. He tossed a bottle of water and a couple of granola bars onto the floor of the shed. Then he left, closing the doors and locking them up behind him.
Neal listened to his footsteps as Keach walked away. That was that then. He was on his own. If he didn’t find a way out of this shed, he would die here.
He reached over and picked up the precious items that Keach had left for him. He unwrapped one of the granola bars and ate it slowly. It had been far too long since he had had anything to eat or drink and he didn’t want to end up throwing up from eating too quickly.
When he was done eating, he allowed himself to drink one third of the bottle. It did almost nothing to slake his thirst, but he knew it was helping nonetheless.
After he ate, he forced his mind to concentrate on the problem at hand, Plan B. With the little daylight that was now filtering into the shed he looked through the assorted items scattered around once again. The only new thing he found was one half of a pair of gardening gloves, thin from use and torn along one seam.
Trying to circumvent the lock by attempting to pry the door handles off had been a failure. There was another way out, there always was, he just had to find it. He scanned the floor, the roof and the walls of the structure in turn, looking for options. The shed was one of those build-it-yourself constructions, the panels were corrugated metal strategically held together with large bolts and nuts.
Neal looked back at the doors. The handles were also attached with bolts and nuts. That might be his chance. If he could work the four nuts off one of the handles, he could push the handle off the door and free himself.
He gave careful consideration to both handles before beginning, hoping one would have at least one loose nut to give him a starting place. Sadly, there didn’t seem to be any give on any of the eight nuts.
Neal picked up one of the small spades and knocked against the plate, screws and nuts holding one of the handles in place, hoping to jar off any rust and maybe create a little give. Then he set to work on the first nut. He tried wearing the glove he had found, hoping to spare his fingers, but it was too bulky. His fingers were stiff with cold, but he wrapped them around the first nut pushing and pulling, and working the small nub of metal.
It didn’t take long for his fingers to start to shred from his efforts. They were numb enough that he hardly felt it, but he regretted needing to continually wipe the slick blood from his hands on his $400 shirt. At least he finally had a reason to be thankful for the cold.
The light faded and darkness fell outside while he was working on the second nut. With the sun gone, the interior of the shed was colder, but he could hardly feel anything anymore. Thankfully, he was still shivering; he knew that once he stopped his chances of survival would be nearly gone.
When he finally got the second nut free, he took a break, nearly tumbling to a seat against the cold metal wall. He ate his second and final granola bar, chewing each bite slowly, with intention. Then he sipped at the second third of his water bottle which he had stuffed into the inside pocket of his suit jacket earlier to prevent it from freezing.
He wanted to give himself a few minutes to rest, his eyes were sliding shut of their own accord while he drank his precious water, but he was desperately afraid that he might never wake up. So, he gave himself just a couple of minutes to sit after placing the bottle with its now meager contents back inside his jacket, then he got back up on his knees and started work on the third nut, though he couldn’t even see it in the darkness that pervaded the shed.
While he worked, he kept one thought in his head, repeating it like an aged Buddhist monk would a mantra – I will live to be with Peter again.
The text on his computer screen was a blur. Peter was exhausted. In the days that Neal had been missing, Peter hadn't gone home, not once. He had gone to June's, to let the woman who was more surrogate mother than landlord to Neal know that he was missing and to shower and change into a clean suit. June had made him promise that he would find Neal. It was a promise that Peter made earnestly, hoping with all his heart and mind he would be able to fulfill it.
He had ordered the remainder of the team to go home and get some rest in shifts. Peter had been pleasantly surprised by the amount of loyalty and determination they were all showing toward Neal. Things had understandably been rocky when Peter had first taken Neal's deal. Neal was cocky and devious and far too charming and the team had been wary and at times even a bit antagonistic. But eventually, probably right around the time that he and Neal had figured out that their feelings for each other were mutual, Neal had mellowed and the team had found a way to let him in.
Peter ground the heels of his palms into his itchy, tired eyes. They had been in and out of the office continually interviewing Keach's known associates, including Keach's parents, aunts and cousins, co-workers at the UPS depot he worked at, even his high school friends. Other than extolling on his artistic talents, something that would hurt Keach in the end, no one seemed to have any clue what he had been up to in the basement of the house he had inherited from his grandparents. The Olds had apparently been registered to Keach's grandfather and Keach had never put it in his own name. He just pulled it out the garage, with the license plates that no one had bothered to return on the bumpers and went on his way.
They were nowhere on finding Neal, and Peter was heartsick. No one was giving up, but they had hit a wall. Peter returned to his computer screen and the phone logs from Keach's house that he was reviewing. Keach ate a lot of pizza from Umberto's and got the usual number of unwanted calls from solicitors, but he didn't seem to make or get any calls from anyone of relevance on his landline.
Peter looked up to find Jones standing in his doorway. He looked anxious and way more energetic than Peter felt. "What's up?"
"We've got something. I mean Diana and I found something that might give us something."
Jones was talking so fast that Peter wasn't at all sure he heard him right. "Slow down and tell me what you've got."
"Keach's dad, isn't his dad."
Peter shook his head. This was getting worse instead of better. "Jones…"
Clinton held up a hand. "He has a different biological father. Apparently, Alice Keach got pregnant by some other guy before she married Thomas Keach, but not before she gave birth to Will."
"Thomas is listed on William's birth certificate?"
Jones nodded. "He is."
"Then how did you and Diana figure this out."
Diana noticed when the two of you visited the Keachs that they both have blue eyes, Will's are brown. It's not a guarantee, but it got Diana thinking and then she and I were…"
"Jones!" Pete interrupted. "Please, just get to the punchline."
"Keach has a profile on Ancestry.com."
Twenty minutes later they were on their way back out to Long Island, to Riverhead where William Keach's biological father, Elliott Sloter owned a home.
Neal heard the clink when the last nut finally came off and hit the metal floor beneath his knees. He sighed in relief and dropped his aching head against the cold door. His fingers were so numb, he hadn’t known for sure whether or not they were twisting the nut of just fumbling in the air.
He let himself rest for just a minute, trying to slow his breathing and get some control over the pounding in his skull. But he didn’t dare close his eyes. He was too close to being free to risk falling asleep or worse, losing consciousness.
He stood, leaning up against the door as his knees wobbled. When he felt as steady as he knew he was ever going to, he worked on the four bolts, pushing them through the holes in the metal door. Four new points of lights streamed into the shed, but Neal didn’t hear the clank of the handle and lock falling away that he expected.
He tried sliding the door, but it didn’t budge. The handle was probably rusted to the door. He put both hands on the door and rattled it as hard as he could with his waning strength. Nothing happened. He was still trapped. All those hours of achingly tedious work and he was still trapped.
Neal slid back down to the floor, pulled his knees tight to his chest and wrapped his arms around his head and gave in the despair that he had felt since it became evident that Keach was leaving him locked in this shed to die. His tears burned a path down his cold cheeks as he quietly sobbed.
It was too much. He was too cold and too tired and he just couldn’t do it anymore. He was done. Neal let his eyes slide closed.
The visage of his partner scowling appeared behind Neal’s closed eyelids. It was a look Peter had not graced him with in a very long time. He looked really pissed and in a detached sort of way Neal wondered what he could have possibly done to earn that look. As far as he could remember it had been a while since he had stolen anything, he hadn’t lied recently, except a little white lie about liking a tie that Peter had picked out for himself a couple of weeks ago. He hadn’t broken any important rules. He had been teasing the new probie, but that couldn’t be enough to earn this look, where Peter’s lips thinned to a white line and his forehead got all crinkly. This was clearly a Neal’s gone off the reservation look. But, he hadn’t. Had he?
Neal fought for long moments to think of what he possibly could have done. Eventually, the words he had spoken to himself after he had realized he was trapped and alone came back to him. I will live to be with Peter again. Oh, that had been a promise, hadn’t it? If he just sat here and died, he would be going back on his word.
“Get up, Neal!” Peter’s voice rang in his head. Neal knew his partner wasn’t really there, wasn’t really speaking to him, but he also knew that Peter would be furious if he found him here frozen to death, with just a bit of rust between him and escape.
Neal sighed, lifted his head and wiped the tears from his scruffy face before regaining his feet, balancing against the door briefly until the dizziness passed. Then he kicked it hard, again and again, finding strength he didn’t know he still possessed, until finally he heard the telltale clank of the handle, and the lock with it, falling to the side.
He put his trembling hands back on the door, his heart hammering in his chest and tugged. It stuck for a moment and then gave with a metallic screech. Bright white daylight flooded the shed. Neal blinked waiting for his eyes to adjust to so much light. Eventually, the world came into focus and he stepped out of his prison.
It had snowed since the night that Neal had tried to stop Keach’s car. The field before him was blanketed in white. In the distance, up a hill, stood a white-clapboard farmhouse with a wrap-around porch. It was dark and likely empty with Keach gone, but Neal hoped that inside he would find a working phone or at least a coat or a forgotten blanket. He started up the hill, his feet sinking into the cold, wet snow.
On the too long trip out to Riverhead, Peter learned that Will Keach’s biological father was a snowbird, who spent his winters in a condo in Boca Raton, leaving the house on the island empty. They still didn’t know for sure that this was where Keach had taken Neal, but if Peter was a betting man, he would have put money on it.
When they finally arrived, the house looked deserted. There were no cars in the driveway, not even the Olds sedan Keach had used to make his escape. But the property was huge, and it was possible he had pulled it behind the house to avoid detection. Peter sent Jones and two other agents around to the back of the house, while he and Diana covered the front.
When everyone was positioned, Diana did the honors, knocking in the front door and beginning their sweep. They met Jones’ team in the dining room and continued through the house. It didn’t take long to realize that someone had been there recently, there were dirty dishes piled in the sink and one of the beds on the second floor was unmade, but the house was empty now.
Once their search of the house was complete, Peter stood in the kitchen surveying the mess Keach had left behind and fought down on his disappointment and despair. It would do nothing to help him get Neal back.
Jones found him there and quietly approached him. The agent knew about his relationship with Neal, as did Diana, and they had both been solicitous in the extreme since Neal had been kidnapped. “Peter, there’s a two-car garage and a shed down the hill out back. I’m going to go check them out.”
Peter nodded, not trusting that he would be able to keep the tide of emotions he was feeling from his voice right now.
Neal had only taken a few trudging steps up the hill toward the house when the exertion began to make him sweat. It was strange, since only moments ago he had been so very cold and he was still only wearing his navy-blue suit. He took another step, and another, and suddenly it felt as if his skin was on fire. He pulled off his steel-gray tie, and dropped it into the snow before pulling open several of the buttons on his shirt. He took another half step; he just needed to get to the house, but the weight of his jacket, heavy and hot against his skin was too much to bear. He stripped it off and dropped it to lay near his tie. He took a breath, hoping that he would cool down now, but if anything, he felt even warmer.
Peter jumped at the sound of Jones’ voice from somewhere outside. Twenty-plus years of instinct took over and Peter ran out onto the porch, his weapon unholstered and in hand. Jones was pointing out into the expansive yard behind the house.
Down at the bottom of a hill, surrounded by a field of blindingly-white snow, stood Neal. His pants were open and down around his knees and he was in the process of pulling off his undershirt.
“Neal!” Peter yelled. Neal stopped struggling with his tee shirt, which was over his head and halfway down his arms and looked up toward the house briefly before shrugging the shirt completely off.
Peter holstered his gun and bounded down the porch steps into the snow. It was several inches deep, covering his ankles, heavy and wet, and Peter felt it begin to seep into his shoes immediately.
“Neal stop, please!” Peter yelled again as he stumbled down the hill through the snow.
Again, Neal looked up, but it seemed like he didn’t see Peter or Jones who was right on Peter’s heels. As Peter watched helplessly, Neal toed off his leather shoes and kicked off his pants.
Clad now only in his socks and boxers, Neal stood in the snow wondering why he was still so hot. He struggled out of his socks, nearly losing his balance and then pulled his boxers off too, dropping everything into the snow. He would find something else to wear, something cooler, when he made it up to the house.
The house, he was trying to get to the house, to find a way to contact Peter and to get warm. Wait, he was already too warm, wasn’t he? Maybe he should go back to the shed, it was cold in there.
Neal turned, took a step and stumbled in the tangle of his now sodden and stiff pants. Unable to regain his balance, he landed on his hands and knees in the snow. The shock of hitting the ground hurt. Neal’s palms and knees burned, but whether it was a feeling born from cold or from heat, Neal couldn’t tell anymore.
Peter saw his partner turn and then stumble and fall, his bare skin sinking into the snow. “Neal!” He yelled again, desperate to reach him, to hold him, to make him safe.
He was trying to push himself up when Peter finally skidding to his side and gently grasped his arm. “Neal.”
Neal looked up at his partner, and didn’t seem to recognize him for a moment. “Peter?”
Neal’s voice was a faint whisper, and Peter’s heart broke at the misery the sound of it held.
“I’m here, buddy. I’m here.”
Neal blinked slowly, still clearly confused and then said, “He left me in the shed. I tried to get out.”
“You did really good, Neal. It’s okay now.”
Jones had pulled off his parka and handed it to Peter who wrapped it gently around Neal’s back. Then he put his other arm under Neal’s knees and pulled him up against his chest, cradling him as gently as he could as he stood. Neal’s skin was white and cool to the touch and Peter thanked whoever looked out for conmen and the fools who loved them, that Neal was still conscious and shivering.
Neal’s head tipped over to lean against him as Peter began to climb the hill back up toward the house.
“I’ll go get the car started and the heater going,” Jones said before he took off at a jog back to the street.
“Thanks, Jones,” Peter replied to his retreating back.
Peter looked down into his partner’s exhausted face. “Yeah?”
“I kept my promise.”
“What promise, Neal?”
“I promised I would live to be with you again.”
Peter pulled Neal tighter against his chest. If he had ever, even for the briefest of moments wondered if Neal had been playing him to make his parole easier or to find a way to run, he would never, ever do it again. “You did so good, babe. I’m so proud of you and I love you so much.”
“I love you too,” Neal whispered with his shredded voice.
Somehow, Peter made it up to the car without losing his footing or his mind. He would kill Keach when they finally found him for leaving Neal to die.
Jones opened the back door as they approached and closed it again gently once Peter and Neal were settled on the seat, Peter still holding his partner in his arms.
Peter's wool coat, that he had shrugged off during the long drive from the city, was bunched up on the seat beside him. He used one hand to carefully spread it over Neal, while he continued to hold him close.
Neal saw more than felt Peter spread the coat over him. Somewhere on the way to the car, he had lost the ability to determine whether he was still hot or cold once again. He was still shaking, but he could hardly tell now that he was bound up safely in Peter's arms. He let his eyes close, knowing that he no longer needed to find his own way and that Peter would take care of everything.
Peter watched as Neal's eyes closed. "Neal, buddy, wake up." There was no response from Neal so Peter gave him a gently shake. Neal's eyelids fluttered and he uttered as a soft moan, enough to assure Peter that Neal was still conscious.
He brushed a kiss on Neal's forehead and then turned his attention to Jones. "What's our ETA?"
Jones had put the bubble on the car and was driving at breakneck speed through the sleepy town of Riverhead.
"Less than ten," he replied without taking his eyes off the road.
Peter nodded, though Jones couldn't see him and held tight to Neal as the car turned sharply at an intersection. Peter took the time to take a better look at Neal. Beneath his cool, white skin there was bruising and a jagged cut that had closed over on Neal's left thigh and something had clearly happened to both of his hands, they were covered in dried blood and the skin on his fingers looked shredded.
Just a few minutes later, Jones pulled into the driveway of the glass and brick-faced Peconic Bay Medical Center coming to a stop at the doors to the emergency entrance. "I'll go get some help," he said as he jumped out of the car and ran inside the building.
Moments later he was back with an orderly, a nurse and a gurney. Jones opened the car door and Peter slid carefully out of the vehicle, trying not to jostle Neal.
"What have we got?" The nurse asked as Peter laid Neal onto the gurney.
Peter talked as they walked the gurney through the sliding glass doors and into the emergency department. "He was held captive in a metal garden shed for three days. He's still shivering, I'm positive he's hypothermic and exhausted. He has some nasty bruising and a cut on his upper left leg, I suspect he was knocked unconscious when he was taken, so possibly a concussion, and his hands.
"We'll take it from here," the nurse told Peter and Jones as they reached the double doors that led to the heart of the ER.
"But I'm… he's my partner," Peter said. "I need to be with him."
The nurse nodded to the orderly who pushed the gurney with Neal through the doors. "I understand," she replied. "But right now, we need you to fill out his medical history and let us get him assessed and start treatment." She put her hand on Peter's arm. "I promise someone will be out to get you as soon as possible." Then she turned and followed Neal's gurney.
Peter stood there for a moment, unsure of what to do – follow his partner or do as the nurse asked. Then Jones gripped his arm and led him over to the desk to collect the paperwork they needed to fill out for Neal. Peter took it when it was handed to him and followed Jones to a pair of chairs in the corner away from the bustle of the waiting room.
Jones made sure that Peter was sitting and starting on the forms before going back out to move the car to a proper parking space and call Diana to fill her in.
Peter was still working on the forms when Jones returned and sat beside him. "I've known Neal's shoe size since before I knew his name, but I have no idea how to answer most of these questions," Peter said in exasperation.
Jones shrugged. "Just fill in what you can. I think most of this stuff is just about making sure loved ones have something to do while they wait."
For a moment, Peter thought he needed to make some comment about how Neal was just a colleague, but Jones knew they were together, and when Peter looked at him, it was clear that he understood that they were lovers in every sense of the word. "Thank you, Clinton."
Peter finished what he could of the forms and returned them to the desk. "Any news, yet?" He asked as he handed the clipboard over.
The woman at the counter shook her head. "Not yet. I'm sure someone will be out as soon as they have something to share."
Peter nodded and returned to his seat.
His anxiety grew and grew and his imaginings of what was going on with Neal swirled to darker and darker places the longer he sat. He rubbed his hand over his face for probably the one-hundredth time with an exaggerated sigh.
"Peter, why don't you step outside for a minute, get some air. I'll wait here," Jones suggested.
When Peter looked up at the glass windows the daylight was fading fast. He thought he should probably walk around the parking lot and get rid of some of his anxious energy before night fell. "Yeah, okay."
He got up and walked outside. The air was freezing and Peter hacked hard after taking his first deep breath. He set off around the perimeter of the parking lot trying to let the physical activity clear his mind.
He did two loops, the second one with his hands tucked under his armpits and then stepped back into the ER. Jones was walking toward the doors with an older man dressed in a doctor's coat. "Peter," he called out when he saw his boss.
"How's Neal?" Peter asked as soon as he reached them.
"Moderately hypothermic, exhausted, dehydrated and a bit banged up, including the concussion you suspected. But with rest and time, he should make a full recovery."
Peter stuck his hand out. "Thank you, Doctor…"
"Evans," the doctor replied as he shook Peter's hand.
"Can I see him?"
"Soon, we're just getting him transferred up to a room. A nurse will come get you as soon as he's settled in."
Peter nodded and the doctor retreated back into the ER.
Jones handed Peter the keys to the Taurus. "Diana will be here in just a minute pick me up. One of us will be back out tomorrow with some stuff for you and Neal. Call if you need anything else, or if anything changes."
"I will. Thank you."
About twenty minutes later a nurse came and took Peter up to the third-floor room where Neal was laying in the sole bed. Neal seemed to be sleeping, and the nurse quietly explained that the IV was simply warm saline and the nasal cannula was delivering warm humidified air to Neal’s lungs. There were leads running from his chest to a heart monitor that was just a precaution. He was buried under warming blankets and his temperature was coming up nicely.
"His hands?" Peter asked in a whisper. Neal had been a conman by profession, but he had always been an artist at heart. If he could no longer use his hands… Peter didn't want to think about what that would mean for him, for them.
"Some bruising and a lot of raw and scraped skin on his fingers. They'll heal just fine."
Peter sighed in relief. "Thank you."
She nodded and then pointed Peter toward the chair that stood next to the bed.
Peter pulled the chair even closer and then sat. Neal still looked awful, pale and exhausted, but much better than he had when he had been whisked away by the hospital staff in the ER. There was some color to his skin and the sunken look around his eyes was less pronounced. It was shocking to see him in a hospital bed. Neal had always seemed invincible in Peter’s mind, his amazing exploits, daring escapes, even his near misses since coming to work at White Collar, survived with at worst a tattered suit and a rakish grin. This Neal, vulnerable and hurt, was another side to the man he loved and Peter hoped never to have to see him like this again.
He didn't want to wake Neal, but he needed the reassurance of touch. Gently, he ran his hand through Neal's soft curls. Someone had washed and dried Neal's hair, probably part of dealing with the hypothermia.
Neal sighed and turned his head toward Peter without waking. With Neal’s warm head under his hand Peter felt the tension and the fear that had consumed him since the night Neal disappeared melt from his body. He was safe and he would heal. Peter had never been so grateful for anything in his life. His own exhaustion pulled at him like an inescapable riptide and he sagged against the bed and leaned his head against Neal's blanketed shoulder.
He woke to a terrible crick in his lower back and the feel of something moving under his head. The space as dimly lit and Peter blinked against the fog of sleep trying to get his bearings. The something moved again and Peter lifted his head remembering where he was.
One of Neal's bandaged hands was fingering the tubing of the nasal cannula. His eyes were wide and confused.
"Hey Neal, leave that be, okay."
Neal lowered his hand and turned his head slowly toward Peter. "Peter?" His voice was hoarse and soft.
Peter pushed his fingers through Neal's hair again. "I'm here babe."
Peter smiled down at his partner. "A hospital on Long Island. You managed to get yourself in a bit of trouble, but you're going to be fine."
Neal blinked slowly a few times, trying to process Peter's words and trying to remember how he had ended up in a hospital bed. Flashes of memory flitted through his mind, the dark and freezing-cold metal shed, Keach's dark shadow standing over him yelling, the snow, white and bright. "Keach." Neal's breathing sped up and the heart monitor’s tempo increased as his memories returned.
"Hey, hey, none of that, everything is okay now. You're okay." Peter said calmly, as he stroked his hand through Neal's hair.
"He left me. He left me to die," Neal whispered plaintively.
Peter nodded. "Yeah, but he had no idea who he was up against. If a supermax can't hold you, a garden shed had no chance. You got out, Neal. You got out and we found you and you're safe."
Neal sighed and Peter saw the exhaustion that still held his partner take hold as the tension in his body eased and his eyes began to close. "Go back to sleep. I'll be here."
Neal nodded and one bandaged hand came up toward Peter. Peter grasped it gently in his own and guided them both back down to the bed. "I love you."
"Love you too," Neal mumbled.
Much to Neal's chagrin, the hospital insisted on keeping him under observation for a full forty-eight hours. But finally, late in the afternoon of the second day of his hospital stay, the last of the discharge papers were finally signed and Neal sat in a wheelchair, dressed in the pea coat, sweater and jeans that Diana had brought, waiting for someone to escort him out of the building.
"Can't we just go, Peter?"
Peter bit his tongue and counted to ten before replying. Neal was still tired, cold and definitely cranky and winding him up further wouldn't do either of them any good before the three-hour drive back to the city. "I'm sure it will be just a minute."
"You said that ten minutes ago."
Peter got up from the chair he had occupied for most of the last two days. "Just hang on. I'll go check."
He was halfway to the door when an orderly stepped into the room. "Thank god," Peter sighed under his breath.
"Ready to go, Mr. Caffrey?" The man asked as he stepped toward where Neal was sitting.
"More than," Neal replied.
Peter grabbed the bag with their things and headed toward the door. "I'll get the car."
Neal nodded at his partner's retreating back. It appeared Peter was as anxious to get out of Riverhead as he was.
The cold air in the parking lot seemed to slice right through Neal's coat and sweater. He was shivering, which he was completely over by the way, as he climbed out the wheelchair and into the passenger seat of the Taurus.
"You okay?" Peter asked as Neal pulled the seatbelt over his chest. Neal’s hands, while still red and raw, were no longer bandaged, but Peter could see them shaking slightly as Neal buckled the belt.
Neal nodded. "Just a little cold."
Peter frowned. "As soon as the car warms up, I'll crank the heat."
"I'll be fine. Let's just get home." Neal could think of nothing he wanted more than to be in his own bed wrapped up in his warm duvet and Peter's arms.
"On our way," Peter said as he put the car in gear and pulled out of the parking lot.
Peter watched Neal out of the corner of his eye as he drove. His partner was leaning deep into the car’s seat with his head turned toward the passenger side window. He had been extraordinarily quiet during his hospital stay and Peter was beginning to worry about what might be turning around in Neal’s head.
“We should probably stop somewhere and get some dinner. It’ll be really nice to eat something that doesn’t come off a hospital tray. You want to pull out your phone and see if you can find something that looks good around Westbury?”
Neal kept his eyes on the view of the highway outside his window. “No thanks. I would rather just get back to the city. We can get delivery from the Chinese place you like when we get to June’s.”
“Okay,” Peter drawled. Refusing the opportunity to eat out, especially when he got to choose the restaurant was not Neal’s usual MO. “Neal, maybe it’s time for us to talk about what happened.”
Neal turned to look at Peter. “That’s not necessary. I’m okay, just tired. I’d really rather not spend time sitting in a restaurant when I could be home, in bed, with you.” He pulled up a small smile and winked at Peter, hoping that would be enough to get his partner to let go of his worry and drop the subject, at least for now.
“I suppose I can’t argue with that logic, nor do I feel particularly inclined to since in bed with you is just about my favorite place in the world.”
Neal nodded and returned his gaze to the view out the window.
For all of his partner’s charms and quick wit, Peter wasn’t fooled. He knew something was going on with Neal, but getting him home to a place where he felt safe and comfortable was the immediate priority. Convincing him to open up about his experiences with Keach could wait.
Neal fell asleep somewhere on the LIE and stayed that way for the remainder of the drive to June’s. Under the city streetlights his skin still looked too pale and his hands where they lay in his lap too fragile. Peter hated to wake him, but once the car was parked and the engine turned off the interior of the car was rapidly cooling. “Neal, babe, we’re home,” Peter said softly.
Neal snuffled, then woke with a start, jumping in his seat awkwardly in the confined space of the car.
“Sorry, sorry,” Peter said as he laid his hand on Neal’s arm. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
Neal took a moment to compose himself, blinking at the darkness outside the car’s windows. “It’s okay. It’s just… I was just dreaming.”
“Let’s get inside where it’s warm.”
Neal nodded and extricated himself slowly from the car. Peter grabbed their bag and then wrapped his other hand around Neal’s shoulders for the short walk to June’s front door. He was afraid that Neal might pull away, public shows of affection weren’t really their thing, for several important reasons, but instead Neal burrowed into Peter’s side as if all he wanted was his partner’s warmth and protection.
June met them at the door and Neal let himself be passed off to his landlady as she fussed and cooed over him. She walked them up to Neal’s apartment, her arm wrapped protectively around his waist.
Neal was grateful for her presence and her strength on the climb up the stairs. Despite two days in bed and the long drive in the car, he felt a little unsteady on the four flights up. Once they were safely in the brightly-lit apartment June helped him take his coat off and then got him settled in one of the chairs at the dining table.
“Cook will be up in just a minute with your dinner. I had her prepare chicken and dumplings with biscuits. Then I want you both to get a good night’s sleep.”
She kissed Neal on the cheek and Neal took her hand in his for a moment. “Thank you, June. You didn’t need to go any trouble.”
“You my dear, are never any trouble.” She turned toward Peter. “Look after our boy.”
Peter nodded. “I will.”
“Good night,” she said as she made her way out of the apartment.
“Good night,” Peter and Neal replied in unison.
The meal was delicious and Peter was pleased to see Neal eat. When they were done, Peter cleaned up their dishes and put the leftovers in the refrigerator. Neal was standing at the French doors looking out at the darkened city. Peter walked up behind him and wrapped his arms around Neal’s waist. “How about we go to my favorite place?”
Neal turned in Peter’s embrace and wrapped his own arms around his partner. “In a minute. Just want to hold you first,” he replied into Peter’s sweater.
Peter tightened his grip slightly and kissed the top of Neal’s head.
“Missed this,” Neal continued.
“Me too, so much.” Peter hesitated a moment before continuing, unsure whether or not this was the right time to talk to Neal about what had happened. But, he needed Neal to know. “I was really scared that we would never have another moment like this, that I had lost you forever. I wanted you safe, that’s why I left you outside on the street, but I screwed up. I’m so sorry.”
Neal shook his head against Peter’s chest. “It wasn’t your fault. I thought I could stop him on my own, or at least delay him long enough for you to get to us. I didn’t listen, that’s not on you.”
“I didn’t keep you safe. That’s the number one priority of my job, Neal. I promise I’ll do better.”
“I promise I’ll try to listen.”
Peter smiled. “You’re still incorrigible.”
Neal shrugged. “This shouldn’t be news to you.”
“No, just stating the obvious.” Peter bent and kissed Neal. It was soft and light, a token of his love. “Come on, bed.”
Neal let himself be led over the alcove that served as his bedroom. He started to undress, but Peter gently pushed his hands aside and carefully stripped him down to his boxers. Then he pulled down the covers and guided Neal as he lay down. Peter pulled the covers up, kissed him on the forehead and then stripped down and climbed in next to his partner turning on his side to face him.
Neal's skin still seemed cool to the touch. “Are you warm enough?” Peter asked.
Neal snuggled in against Peter’s chest, one leg worming between Peter’s, Peter’s breathe ghosting against his head. Peter was warm and strong, a shelter against the cold he hadn’t stopped feeling somewhere deep in his bones. “I am now,” he replied once he was settled. Then he kissed Peter's jaw, sucking Peter's stubbled skin into his mouth, enjoying the familiar taste. "Hmmm, but I know I could be warmer," he murmured.
Peter wrapped his hand around the back of Neal's head and brought their mouths together. Kissing Neal was always vibrant, exciting and just a little bit dirty. This night, after being deprived for so long, it was perfect and incredible and Peter was relishing every moment. They kissed and touched and teased, refamiliarizing themselves with each other for long, luxurious minutes. Peter was careful with Neal, ghosting his fingers over his partner’s bruised skin, but he still managed to find several places to caress and taste.
Eventually, Neal took it upon himself to ramp things up. He cupped a hand around Peter's ass and pulled himself even closer to Peter. Then he lifted the leg that he had inserted between Peter's knees and began rubbing the top of his thigh against Peter's crotch.
Peter moaned into Neal's mouth, sucking Neal's tongue deep into his own. His cock was paying serious attention, growing uncomfortably hard pressed between Neal's thigh and his own body. His brain was getting ready to short circuit from the feel of Neal's skin pressed to his, Neal's mouth on his, Neal's hand kneading his ass. It was too good. It was too much.
He reached between them to provide a little reciprocation and found that Neal was totally soft despite the foreplay they had been avidly engaging in. Immediately, Peter's ardor flew out the skylight over their heads. Just hours ago, Neal had still been lying in a hospital bed. He needed to rest and heal. Sex could wait.
Peter gentled his kisses and gradually disentangled himself from Neal.
"Shhhh, you need to get some rest. There will be plenty of time for shenanigans later."
Neal titled his head on his pillow. "Did you really just say shenanigans?"
"I really did."
"And, you really don't want to have sex right now?"
"Oh no," Peter contradicted. "I really do want to have sex right now, but I want you rested and well, even more. So, no shenanigans tonight."
“If you’re sure.” Neal smiled enticingly, and brushed his thumb along Peter’s slightly sweaty cheek.
Peter could feel how raw the skin of Neal’s hand still was against his skin, reaffirming his decision. “I’m sure.”
Neal rolled over so that his back was to Peter. "I assume spooning is not on the list of shenanigans?"
"That's a valid assumption," Peter responded as he pulled himself up against Neal's back and wrapped an arm around his waist.
When they were settled against each other, Peter whispered "Don't ever think that I don't want you or that I don't love you."
"I won't. I love you too." Neal couldn’t admit it to Peter, but he was glad that his partner had put the brakes on. He wanted him, always and in every way, but he felt edgy and exposed and he needed some time to wrap his mind around what had happened to him so he could find a way to let it go and move on, back to the life he shared with Peter, the life he was so thankful to have gotten back.
He snuggled in closer to his partner and closed his eyes. He concentrated on the feel of Peter’s heartbeat against his back, matching his own breathing to the steady measured thump. He was safe here in his own bed, with Peter holding him close. He repeated this thought back to himself over and over, until finally his body was pulled down into sleep.
The cold, windy and snowy month of February gave to way to an equally cold and windy March while Peter watched and waited for Neal to heal.
The outward signs of his trauma didn’t take too long, the bruising on his leg, the cuts and scrapes on his hands and even the concussion, with the exception of some lingering headaches, all faded away in short order. But there was something deeper inside of Neal that wasn’t getting any better.
There was nothing truly obvious, Neal smiled and joked, was as brilliant as ever at work and as loving and attentive as ever at home. But Peter could see the fine cracks in the veneer, the times when Neal was a little too quiet, the times that his gaze became unfocused, the times when all the things that normally came so naturally to him seemed to require a new level of effort.
Neal was far from delicate. He had survived so many losses and more than four years in prison, but there was something about what had happened to him with Keach that he couldn’t seem to shake.
Peter waited and he hoped that Neal would find the answers, or at least come to him and ask for help. But he either couldn’t or wouldn’t, despite Peter’s gentle urging.
He was struggling with how to help his partner, without pushing him too hard, weighing his options for how to approach him on a cloudy Tuesday night as he arrived at June’s mansion. Neal had gone home earlier in the evening, leaving Peter to try to catch up on the pile of reviews on his desk. It was getting late, so he used his key and was taking off his coat in the main hall when June approached him.
“Good evening, Peter.”
“Do you have a moment before you go upstairs?”
“For you, of course.”
June led him into the parlor and motioned him to a seat on the elegant sofa while she sat in a velvet upholstered chair. She didn’t bother with any small talk, but got right to the point. “I’m worried about Neal. He hasn’t been himself.”
Peter dropped his head and sighed. “No, he hasn’t,” he admitted.
“What happened when he was kidnapped, Peter?”
Peter wasn’t quite sure how to answer that question. June didn’t need to know the gory details – how Keach hit Neal with his car, dragged him across the pavement and into the vehicle and then dumped him into a freezing shed where he taunted him and finally left him.
“Peter?” She urged.
“You don’t need to know the specifics. I think the relevant part was that our suspect left Neal locked in a shed. He didn’t intend to come back and he didn’t intend for anyone to find Neal until spring.”
“He left Neal to die,” she clarified.
A look of cold fury passed over June’s features. It was gone a moment later to be replaced by her usual serene countenance. “And, how are we going to help him?”
Peter shook his head. “I don’t know. I’ve tried subtly to talk to him, without success. I’ve been wracking my brains trying to come up with some way to get him to talk about it, with me or with someone else. It doesn’t help that he’s pretending he’s fine.”
“He’s a conman, Peter. That part comes naturally to him.”
Peter nodded. “True.”
“I have an idea that might help. I have a house out on Fire Island. After Byron died, it became a sanctuary. Walking on the beach, hearing the waves, sitting by the fire in the evenings with a glass of wine, they were simple things. But they helped me find a sense of peace. I’ve called the caretaker, he’s going to have the house opened up and stocked with groceries by Friday. I think it would be a good idea for you to take Neal there for a few days, a week if you can arrange it. I know he’s still on probation of course, but it’s not out of state, so hopefully you can get permission.”
"Thank you, June. I think it's a great idea. I'll do my best to make it happen."
"I know you will Peter."
The next morning, Peter made straight for Hughes' office. He told his boss about June's offer and then prepared himself for a fight.
"Go, I'll clear it with the Marshals," was all Hughes said.
"Peter, Caffrey is a pain in my ass. But he's done good work here and I read his account, and yours of what happened. He's earned some time. You both have."
Peter didn't think that Hughes knew about the two of them, nothing had ever been said and Neal and Peter were scrupulously careful while on the clock, with the exception of the occasional visit to the back men's room, but the look on Hughes' face hinted that he knew far more than Peter had imagined.
"Thank you, Reese."
Two days later, on a bright Saturday morning, Neal and Peter were on the ferry from Bay Shore to Ocean Beach, Fire Island. It was too windy and cold to stand on the open deck, so they stood instead by the windows watching as the pier came into view.
"Tell me again how you managed this?" Neal asked.
"I can be very convincing," Peter said.
Neal laughed. "Right."
Peter wrapped an arm around Neal's waist. "June offered and Hughes agreed. We all just want you to be okay."
"I am okay."
Peter turned so that he was facing Neal. "I know you want me to believe that. I know you want to believe that."
"It's true," Neal insisted.
"Convince me," were the words that immediately popped into Peter's mind and for a moment he considering saying them and pushing the point right here on the ferry. But if Neal shut down now, it would defeat the whole purpose of taking him away for the week. So, he nodded and said, "Then consider it a well-earned vacation, your first since Club Fed."
"I don't know. How are you possibly going to top the luxury six by six with concrete walls, bars instead of doors and no natural light, not to mention the outstanding cuisine?"
"Oh, I think we'll be able to manage."
June's caretaker met them at the ferry dock and took their bags on the golf cart he was driving. He handed them a map to the house on the ocean side of the island, about a fifteen-minute walk away and then he took off to deliver their luggage.
The air was crisp and salty, the narrow cement track they walked on was littered with sand and flanked by tall reedy grasses. Other than the small handful of people that got off the ferry with them, the island seemed deserted. They were just a couple of hours outside the city, but it seemed like another world.
Peter took Neal's hand in his as they walked. They could be themselves here, for a whole week, they could just be Peter and Neal, not an FBI agent and his parolee. Peter hoped that would be enough to at least begin to help Neal heal.
The house was a two-story, wood-clad building that they reached by walking on a wood-plank path over the sand from the road. It sat right on the shoreline and had an enormous deck that faced the water. The caretaker had already come and gone by the time they walked into the front door. The kitchen was indeed fully stocked right down to the two dozen bottles of wine in the rack and the two six-packs of Peter's favorite Heisler in the fridge.
There was a note on the kitchen island with the caretaker's phone number should they need anything and directions to the few all-season restaurants in town.
Their bags had been left for them in the master bedroom, which had sliding glass doors and a small balcony overlooking the water as well.
Neal made them a simple late lunch and then they bundled up again and went for a long walk down the sand. The rhythmic sound of the ocean crashing against the shore, the taste and smell of the salt air, the sight of the dunes and the long, tufted grasses waving in the ocean breeze were truly welcome to Neal. It had been more than six years since he had been to a beach and had the chance to hear the waves and feel the shifting of the sand beneath his feet. He had forgotten how calming it could be. And, with Peter beside him, the fingers on their hands interlaced, it was better than any beach on the Riviera, the Amalfi Coast or the Caribbean had ever been.
They were on their way back down the beach toward the house when Peter twirled around and pulled Neal into his arms. Peter was smiling, clearly already enjoying their respite from the world. "Already having a good time, I see."
Peter nodded. "I could get used to this. The sand, the surf, having you all to myself."
Neal touched his forehead to Peter's. "Me too."
Peter hugged Neal tighter for a moment and then let him go so they could resume their walk. "What do you say we try one of those restaurants in town tonight?"
"Not tonight. I just want to stay in, build a fire and relax. Is that okay?"
"Yeah, of course, whatever you want. This is your week."
They did just that when they got back to the house. Peter started a fire in the fireplace in the living room and Neal opened a bottle of wine. Neal made pasta and they ate on the shag rug in front of the fireplace and then lay down there, Neal snuggled into Peter's side.
"Warm enough?" Peter asked. "I can grab the throw from the sofa."
"No, don't move. I'm perfect just like this."
Peter placed a kiss on the top of Neal's head and then they lay and watched the flames until Peter felt Neal go completely boneless beside him and his breathing even out in sleep.
They spent the next few days eating quiet meals together, taking long walks on the beach and snuggling beside the fire in the evenings. Peter felt more rested than he had in years and he noted that Neal began to look less worn.
On Wednesday morning, Peter woke to find Neal's side of the bed empty. Peter pulled on jeans and a sweatshirt and made his way downstairs. No Neal. Peter made a pot of coffee, filled a mug and took it outside on the porch.
Neal was about fifty yards down the beach, his long camel-hair coat open and whipping in the morning breeze. It looked like he was throwing rocks out into the surf.
Peter went back into the house and grabbed his coat and a second mug of coffee and followed his partner out onto the sand.
Neal had been up with the sun. He peeled himself carefully away from Peter's warmth and out of the bed. He slipped on a tan tee shirt and slacks, grabbed his warm beige sweater and made his way downstairs. In the living room, he stood at the sliding glass doors looking out at the waves for several minutes, until the itch to be out in the fresh morning air became too great to ignore. Then he pulled on his shoes and his coat and headed out onto the beach. He walked up the shore away from the house where the beach widened out and felt more secluded. Then he knelt and found several rocks mixed into the sand. He took a deep breath of the salty air and then tossed one of the stones out into the surf, lobbing it with all his strength.
The days away from the hustle and bustle of the city and the demands of the FBI had been good. He felt rested from their four idle days, but somehow still not at ease. He was fine, his hands were healed, the bruises gone, the headaches from the concussion nothing more than a minor annoyance. He was fine. The fact that he was uncomfortable in the dark, that the sound of metal scraping on metal made him jump, and that feeling cold made him anxious, were irrelevant. He was fine, he insisted to himself again as he flung another stone far out into the waves.
Neal looked far too pensive as Peter approached him on the beach. “Hey, coffee?”
Neal looked at the mug Peter was holding out to him. “Thanks.” He threw the rest of the rocks out into the surf, brushed the sand from his hands and then took the mug.
“It’s nice out here. No honking, no yelling, no hordes of people to get around,” Peter said as he looked out at the ocean.
“Maybe when your parole is over we can start renting the house from June from time to time.”
Neal nodded again.
Peter bit the inside of his cheek and then asked the question he knew would get some kind of a reaction, likely just the ubiquitous I’m fine, but that would be something at least. “You okay?”
Neal started to nod, but then shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know,” he admitted grudgingly.
“You know it’s okay not to be okay, right?” Peter replied gently.
Neal looked at his partner, his eyes shadowed from the pain he’d been trying so desperately to ignore. “I got out. I’m fine… I should be fine.”
Peter took Neal’s mug from his hand and set both of them down in the wet sand. Then he enveloped his arms around Neal, pulling him close. “You will be fine. But, Neal you went through a physically and psychologically traumatic event. You were freezing, starved, dehydrated for days. That in itself was hell, but what Keach did, leaving you alone to die. Babe, I’m surprised you’ve handled it this well.”
Neal buried his head against Peter’s broad chest and wrapped his arms around him, clinging to Peter’s warmth and strength. “I didn’t want to die there. I kept telling myself that I had to be with you again, that I couldn’t die without telling you how much I loved you, without being in your arms one last time.”
Peter could feel Neal’s shoulders shuddering beneath his hands. Tears formed in the corners of his own eyes, but it wasn’t time for him to feel sorrow about what might have happened. Neal was here, safe in his arms. “And, you did it. You got out, all on your own. And, we’re together.”
“I know. That’s why I should be fine.”
“It would be nice, if it were that simple, Neal. But it doesn’t work that way. It takes time. You need to process what happened and come to terms with it. We’ll get through it, together. And, if you need more help, we’ll get that too.”
“I don’t want to feel this way, Peter. I don’t want to be afraid.” Peter could barely hear Neal’s soft intonations over the roar of the waves.
“Tell me what you’re afraid of,” Peter prompted gently.
“The cold, the dark, the thought of being trapped or locked in somewhere.”
“Then we’ll just have to keep the heat turned up, the lights on and the patio doors cracked open. Whatever you need to feel safe, Neal, we’ll do it.” Peter dropped his head closer to where Neal’s ear was tucked into his chest. “It will get better. I promise and I’ll be here with you every step of the way.”
Neal nodded and held on to Peter, knowing that his promises were not made lightly. It would get better, he would get better. He just needed time, a little faith and Peter’s love. The first was easy enough to come by, the second he could manage, and the third was already his.
The next few days were spent much like their first few on Fire Island had been, with time on the beach, games of chess, reading curled up together on the couch and evenings lounging before the fire. But, they talked more and Neal continued to open up about his experiences in the shed.
In the report he had written for the FBI, Neal had described those days in a clinical manner, like it had happened to a character on a television show, but now he was talking not just about the events but what he was feeling while he experienced them and what he was feeling now as a result.
It was hard for both of them, Peter couldn't help but feel guilty for leaving Neal out on the street in New Hyde Park and for how long it took the team to finally find Neal, and Neal struggled with the what ifs – what if he hadn't challenged Keach in the street that night, what if he had managed to talk Keach into letting him go, what if Peter hadn't found him before he succumbed to hypothermia.
It was hard, but it was what they both needed and as their week of respite wound down, Neal began to believe that he could and would get past what happened to him.
On their last night, they walked the few blocks to the bay side of town to CJ's, one of the seafood restaurants that was open year round. They sat side by side in a booth at the back of the dining room and shared an intimate meal, something they couldn't risk in the city. There were mussels and lobster and rich red wine and Peter was so very thankful to see his partner relax into the cushions in the booth and truly enjoy their meal.
They walked back to the house hand in hand. When they got there, Neal bypassed the porch and drew Peter out onto the beach and down to where the waves were rolling up onto the sand. The moon was nearly full and bright. The sound of the waves crashing held a music of its own and the salt in the air left a tang on the tongue that perfectly finished off their dinner. The sky was cloudless and they stood for long minutes enjoying the beauty of the night.
"I'm going to miss this," Neal admitted.
"We'll be back," Peter promised.
Neal smiled at Peter, open and warm, and then led him into the house. They built a fire and lay down on the rug in front of it as it began to flame yellow, orange and blue.
They lay there for about a half hour, not speaking, just watching the fire grow and crackle. Then Neal sat up and pulled off his sweater. He rolled over as he lay back down, covering Peter's body with his own. "I love you," he whispered, ghosting his lips over Peter's. "And, I want you."
Peter responded by threading his fingers in Neal's hair and bringing their lips together. The kiss was deep and erotic and Peter's cock immediately took notice.
They had cuddled and kissed and had slept wrapped up in each other since they had come to the island, but they hadn't had sex. Peter had wanted this week to be about rest and healing and he hadn't wanted to ask anything of Neal that his partner didn't feel able to give.
But as Neal reached between their bodies, undid Peter's pants and wrapped his hand around Peter's cock it was clear he was ready give and get.
Peter arched into Neal's hand with a shuddering moan. The hand not wrapped in Neal's curls, found its way to Neal's ass and squeezed, pressing their bodies closer.
"What do you want, Neal?" Peter managed somehow to ask.
Neal rubbed his hand over Peter's cock with just the right amount of pressure to produce a pleasurable pain. "I want you inside me."
The combination of Neal's hand and his words were almost too much and Peter pulled their mouths back together in an attempt to slow things down enough so that he could actually give Neal what he asked for. The kiss was sloppy, wet and fierce and served only to heighten Peter's arousal. He growled into Neal's mouth and then nipped his partner's bottom lip.
Neal responded by grinding his hips against Peter's already oversensitive groin.
"Jesus, Neal. We should take this upstairs before I'm incapable of walking."
Neal's face got that "I'm up to no good" look that Peter used to loathe and that he'd learned to love. "No, want you right here," Neal said as he reached into the back pocket of his slacks and pulled out several packets of lube and a strip of condoms and dropped them onto Peter's chest.
He kissed Peter hard one more time and then shimmied down his body peeling off Peter's jeans and underwear as he went. Peter's shoes and socks were dealt with deftly and then he was naked from the waist down.
Neal sat up on his knees and smiled lasciviously down at his handiwork. Peter pushed himself up on his elbows and said, "Wipe that grin off your face and get naked already."
"With pleasure," Neal replied before pulling his tee shirt off over his head. Peter removed his own sweater and shirt while Neal finished getting undressed and then they were skin to skin with Neal laying atop Peter once again.
Neal's body was warm and his cheeks flushed from their proximity to the fireplace and Peter couldn't help running his hands along his partner's smooth skin. "So beautiful," he murmured into Neal's ear before nibbling on its lobe.
Neal shuddered and slid his knees apart so that he was straddling Peter's waist. He licked a stripe up Peter's neck while pulling and teasing one of Peter's nipples. Peter's skin grew hot and he couldn't help but whither against Neal in an attempt to get some friction on his needy cock.
Neal twisted the nipple he had been toying with. "Nope, not without me," he chided.
Peter groaned and bit his own lip to quell his urgency. He grabbed one of the packets of lube that had fallen next to his body. He quickly coated a couple of his fingers and then reached for Neal's ass. His partner's cheeks were partially spread from the position he was in with his legs over Peter's hips. Peter wormed between them and ran his lubed fingers around Neal's pucker, making him squirm.
Neal moved in to kiss Peter and as Neal slid his tongue into Peter's mouth, Peter breached Neal's hole. Neal continued to focus his attention on Peter's mouth as Peter worked first one and then two fingers into Neal, prepping his partner carefully.
It was a task and a half to get a second lube packet open and three fingers coated while Neal was sucking Peter's tongue deep into his mouth, but Peter managed somehow.
He spent several minutes working those three fingers steadily in and out, feeling his partner's erection grow hot and heavy against his belly. When he was certain that Neal was ready, Peter pulled his fingers out, put both hands on Neal's hips and then rolled them in one smooth motion so that Neal was lying in the pillows on the floor with his pink cheeks, ruffled hair and spread legs like some debauched cherub. Peter sucked in a breath at the beauty of the sight. "I have no idea what I did to deserve you," he mumbled as he ran his hand though Neal's sweaty hair.
Neal smiled, his blue eyes glowing in the firelight. "You gave me a chance, Peter. One I probably didn't deserve."
Peter bent and kissed Neal. "You're exasperating Caffrey, but you've proven a hundred times over that you deserved it."
He kissed Neal one more time and then picked up the condoms. Once he was sheathed and lubed he didn't hesitate. He pushed into Neal in one long, smooth stroke. Neal arched up into his partner and wrapped his legs around Peter's thighs. "So good," he sighed.
Peter started jacking in and out of Neal in an easy rhythm, trying to bring Neal over the edge before coming himself. He knew he'd found Neal's prostate when his partner's breathing stuttered and his eyes clamped shut. Peter kept at it, hitting Neal's sweet spot again and again until Neal came, shaking and spurting ribbons of cum between their bodies.
Peter picked up his pace then until he came moments later, thrusting his cock deep into Neal's tight hole. When his brain came back online, he pulled gently out of Neal and tossed the condom into the fire. Then he drew Neal up into his arms and promptly fell asleep.
Hours later Peter woke. The fire had died out and he shivered in the cold night air. From the moonlight streaming in through the patio doors, Peter could see that Neal was awake and staring at him. "Hey, you okay?"
"You sure? It's cold."
"I'm good," Neal said before he reached over and kissed him tenderly. "Thank you."
"For this week, for understanding what I needed, even when I didn't, for loving me."
"That's quite a list."
"It is." Neal's soft smile was electric in the firelight. "I've always known that you meant it when you said you wanted us to be together openly after my work release, for the companionship, the sex, the work at White Collar. But these last weeks, since Keach, you've shown me that there's even more to it than that, that you're in it for whatever may come, the good, the bad and the very bad. I want you to know that I am too. That this, us, means everything to me, that you mean everything to me."
Peter cupped his hand around the stubbled curve of Neal's cheek and leaned in to kiss his lips. It was warm and sweet and imbued with Peter's love. "Me too, for the rest of our lives."