As always, my firm belief and grateful thanks go to my two tireless betas.  They listen to me complain and whine about not knowing what to write or how to say something; they tell me a story is good when I need encouragement and they tell me something sucks when it does and it needs to be rewritten even though I’m tired.  My name is after the ‘by’ simply as a matter of form.  This story, in reality, comes to life and to you in its present form by me and two wonderful betas.  I owe my reputation to their hard work and I never forget it.  My thanks to K and A for all that hard work.  And, of course, as always, my thanks to M.  He actually came up with the idea for the ending when the four of us knew the original one wasn’t good enough but were stuck on ideas.

 

One Step Forward: A White Collar Fanfiction Story

By Dash

9/12/10

 

Walking toward the elevators, Peter fought the urge to glance behind him, back to his office, to see what Neal was doing.  The look on the younger man's face had been such a mix of emotions – anger, frustration, sadness – that it had taken every ounce of will power he still possessed after such a long day not to reach out and comfort him somehow.  To take back the brutally honest words and hard realities of the situation and what he would do if Neal insisted on once again ignoring the consequences staring him in the face, or make a joke or something – anything – to relieve the pressure in the room.  Taking the pressure off Neal was something he simply couldn't do at this moment – it was too critical a juncture.

 

The elevator dinged and under the pretense of stepping in, he gave in and glanced up at his office for a quick glimpse of the younger man and saw nothing – the office was empty.  Swearing, he stepped inside and rode the empty car down to the lobby, not wanting to make the call and find out the news on official property where he’s be forced to act.  Walking across the street feeling the dread grow in his stomach, he was on the phone to the Marshal's Tracking Unit.  The fact that Neal had not put on the tracking unit and joined him at the elevators, making a joke about being a good Indian and once again on the Reservation or bummed a ride back uptown to June's did not bode well for what the Marshals would tell him.

 

"US Marshal Tracking," a female voice answered on the second ring.

 

"Yes, this is Peter Burke, FBI Badge number 489765, I need the location of Tracking Unit 9305 Alpha please," he said tersely, not wanting to have his fears confirmed.  If the unit was still in his office, still in the FBI Building and not moving, his long day was going to be made even longer and drag into the night.  Neal would be running – again – and the clock would be ticking to catch him. 

 

The female voice returned to the line after a brief pause, "Yes Sir, I have him located at 26 Federal Plaza, New York."

 

Peter swore, recognizing the address.  "Can you tell if the unit is moving or stationary?"

 

"The Unit appears to have not moved from its location since activation 90 minutes ago," the woman said.

 

Snapping shut the phone, Peter swore again as he stalked back toward the building, knowing what he had to do as much as he hated it.  He had activated the new unit while waiting for the younger man to appear in his office and the unit was still there, probably sitting on the pile of papers on his desk, right where he had laid it in front of Neal.  The main office area was empty as he walked back through – less than ten minutes after he departed and five minutes more than Neal needed to have a significant advantage in their latest game of cat and mouse.  Shaking his head as he mounted the steps toward his dark and empty office, Peter mentally rehearsed how he'd tell Elizabeth.

 

As he flipped on the light, he sensed the presence in the office before he spied the feet and outstretched legs visible from behind his desk.   Freezing, it took him just a moment to recognize Neal's shoes and slacks before another step brought him around the desk and in full view of the other man now sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall, his head back and eyes closed.

 

"Can you turn the light back off?" Neal asked, lifting his head slightly to peer at Peter for a moment before closing his eyes again and resuming his slumped position against the wall. 

 

"Why?" Peter asked automatically, not moving toward the light switch.  "And what are you doing in here and why exactly are you sitting on my floor?"

 

Opening his eyes again, Neal looked at him for a moment before giving a lazy smile and shrug.  "You're always questioning me, Peter.  Don't you trust me? Oh, no – never mind since we both know the answer to that one."

 

"Have you given me a lot of reasons to trust you?" Peter asked back, his voice calm but firm.  "Considering the fact that this," he continued, tapping the tracking unit still sitting on the desk, "belongs here."  Nudging the other man's ankle with his own foot, he stared down at him.  "Put this back on and then we can talk about trust."

 

Neal glanced away, studying the wall next to him before looking back at Peter, not moving.

 

The other man nudged him again, "Come on, Neal.  It's been a long day and I want nothing more than to go home to Elizabeth, take a hot shower and get something to eat before I have to be back here in ten hours."  Eying him, he added, "Before we're both expected back here in ten hours."

 

"Then go," Neal shot back, leaning back against the wall.  "Why did you even come back? Forget something? Or did you decide that your little pep talk wasn't enough and wanted to check up on me?"  Closing his eyes, he waved a dismissive hand in the other man's direction.  "Go away, Peter.  I got the message loud and clear earlier."

 

"And yet the anklet is still sitting on my desk and you're now sitting on my floor," he said absently as he began to study the other man more closely. 

 

Giving a shrug, Neal didn't open his eyes and just continued to lean against the wall.  "It wasn't planned - that's just where I ended up," he said before adding softly.  "It's been a really long couple of days for me, too."

 

Peter eyed him for a long moment, mentally debating his next move.  Bending slightly, he held out his hand, "Come on, get up.  I'm not going to continue this conversation staring at my floor. It's just weird."

 

"You could sit on the floor with me," Neal said even as he took the offered hand and stiffly got up.

 

"That's even weirder," Peter said, pulling over the desk chair for Neal to sit in.  Settling on the desk, he reached over and grasped the younger man's chin and moved it more into the light.  "When did you get this?" he asked, eyeing the bruise forming down the side of Neal's face.

 

Neal shrugged irritably, trying to pull away.  "I don't know, either one of the two times I was tazered and knocked out or maybe when one of Wertz's men threw me onto the floor."  He shrugged again, successfully pulling away finally, "Or it could have been when they shoved me into the van.  Like I said, long couple of days."  He smiled wryly, "But that's OK, us tools can't really complain.  We're just meant to be used and then discarded when we're not useful any more."

 

"She's an idiot," Peter said firmly.  "She has no idea how useful you can be."  He shook his head, "Which is why you have this chance, Neal --"

 

"Yeah, I know," Neal said, cutting him off even as he glanced away for a moment.

 

Picking up the anklet off the desk, Peter held it out.  "Then what's the hold up? Let's go – put it back on and let's end this."

 

He leaned back in the chair slightly, eyeing the device and making no move to pick it up.

 

"Neal …"

 

"You know when you walked out a few minutes ago," the other man said, interrupting. "You said it was my choice?"

 

"Yeah," Peter said, "It is your choice.  It's always been your choice.  You have this great opportunity to do something good.  You just have to decide to do it."

 

Neal nodded, still eying the anklet.  "So when you walked out, I knew I would put it back on."  He smiled slightly at the memory, "It felt really good to see the girl safely back with her father, to know that Wertz was going to be off the streets."

 

"Because of you," the older man said softly.

 

Neal shrugged, "I sat down to clip it back on and I just .. couldn't.  My hands started shaking and I felt sick to my stomach so I stood up to go to the bathroom and then my legs just sort of gave out.  That's how I ended up on your floor.  Just sitting there, staring at it, wanting to reach up and grab it and being totally unable to do anything."  He glanced up at the other man and smiled slightly. "First time in my life I haven't been able to just take what I wanted."

 

"But do you really want it?" Peter asked, turning the device over in his hands. 

 

The other man smiled wryly and gave another half shrug. 

 

"Yeah, that's what I thought," the agent said, dropping it back on his desk.  Crossing his arms, he said, "So … what do you want to do?  Should I just put it back on you and forget this whole discussion?  Or maybe I should just drive you back to prison tonight since you clearly broke the rules this afternoon when you left the crime scene, not to mention the whole issue of you and Alex which is clearly against your parole? Or maybe you think I should walk back out of  here, go home and hope - pray - that you get some sense into your head and do the right thing or …"

 

"I don't know, Peter!" Neal said angrily, pushing back in the chair until it hit the wall behind the desk.  "Just do what you want, I don't care."  He shook his head, "It doesn't matter anyway."

 

The older man looked at him, "Of course it matters and I think you'd care a lot if I drove you back to prison.  This is your choice, Neal.  You can keep screwing around and dancing on the lines and sooner or later you're going to go too far and end up in prison and there won't be a damn thing I'll be able to do about it.  Or, you can hold on to the feeling you had this afternoon and keep working at it.  You're doing great work here and you can keep doing it if you choose to."  Reaching out, he tapped the other man's knee, adding, "Come on, you never disappointed me in the past, don't start now."

 

Giving a derisive snort, Neal shook his head.

 

"What?" Peter shot back, his annoyance at the situation growing.

 

Meeting the other man's eyes, Neal gave a small, bemused smile.  "I'm just surprised, considering how often you've pointed out that my life choices have been less than ideal in the past."

 

"OK," he said with a small smile, "I'll agree that some of your life choices have been less than ideal but you, Neal Caffrey, personally have never been a disappointment.  You've come through every time and done great work here.  I knew you could do it, I knew you wouldn't let me down and that's why I was willing to stick my neck out for you."    Glancing deliberately at the anklet and then back toward the other man, he said, "So, come on, it's your choice."

 

Dropping his gaze, Neal said quietly, "Maybe this time I don't want it to be my choice?"  He shook his head again as he stood up suddenly and strolled to the window, looking out into the lights.  "Maybe I don't trust myself to make the right decision. And even if I do, I don't trust myself to keep making the right decision time after time after time," he said softly to his own reflection.  "I don't think I can keep it up and this will just end in a huge disappointment.  Maybe I'm tired of fighting against something that I know will just end up happening anyway."

 

Peter watched the emotions play across Neal's face in the window reflection for a long moment before standing up.  "Do not move from this office," he ordered firmly.  "I'll be right back and I'd better find you in here."  Not waiting for an answer, his gut telling him that the other man wasn't going anywhere, he stepped out of the room and headed down the stairs into the deserted main office.  Picking up the phone at Neal's desk, he quickly dialed his home number.

 

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

 

"It's late," Neal said as the other man reentered the office several minutes later.  "You should go home, see Elizabeth.  I'm fine."

 

Ignoring him, Peter picked up the anklet and slid it into his coat pocket.  "Let's go. Get your coat," he ordered even as he glanced around the room for it.

 

Neal slowly turned from the window and smiled, "Would you believe that I was in such a rush to get over here once I realized I had forgotten my anklet that I forgot it at June's?"

 

"No."

 

He shrugged. "It is at June's though."

 

"We're heading over there anyway to get you a bag so we'll pick it up," Peter said evenly, moving toward the door.  Motioning with his hand, he repeated, "Let's go." 

 

Hesitating for a long beat, he said as he slowly walked across the office, "Where are we going after that?"

 

Peter glanced at him before flipping off the office light and heading toward the stairs.  "I didn't think you cared what happened."  His voice was sharp and out of the corner of his eye, he could see the younger man hesitate before following him.  Part of him wanted to reach out, pull him close and tell him it was going to be OK, that they'd get through this together.  But, like earlier, a bigger part of him knew that he needed to stay firm.  Neal responded better to firmness and not having full control of a situation.

 

Not speaking as they rode the elevator down to the parking garage, Neal glanced warily at the other man.  "Peter …"

 

He held up a hand, silencing the younger man, "No, I'm tired of talking.  You had your chance, you said you didn't care – several times in fact – so don't start now.  We're going to June's, we're going to get a bag for you and your coat.  That's all you need to know."  As the door pinged open into the parking garage, he motioned for Neal to step out and then followed him.  Softening a bit, he casually rested a hand on the other man's shoulder, giving it the briefest of squeezes before dropping to his back for a moment.  "Trust me, Neal," he said quietly, not looking at him.  Stepping away, he unlocked the car as they approached.

 

Neal glanced over the car's roof, meeting Peter's eyes for a moment before looking away.

 

The ride uptown was silent, the radio off and Peter concentrating, or at least pretending to concentrate, on the traffic.  In reality, half of his attention was focused on Neal who was resolutely staring out the window.  From time to time, the light and timing would match exactly right and he would get a quick glance of the younger man's face reflected in the glass, eyes staring out, seemingly as lost as they had been in the office. 

 

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Glancing at Peter as he parked the car, Neal asked quietly, "How long ….?"  His voice faltered for a second before he caught himself and shifted in his seat.  Sitting up straighter, he swallowed and gave the smallest of smiles. "Since you're the man with the plan, what do you want me to pack?"  His voice was carefree and easy, a hint of charm and light that made the question seem as casual as a weather inquiry.

 

Not fooled, the older man opened his door, "Don't worry, I'm going up with you.  We'll figure it out once we're there."

 

"You don't have to …" Neal started before catching Peter's eye and giving another smile.  "I look forward to your opinion on what I should wear," he said, getting out of the car.  "You know how much I appreciate your own daily choices."

 

"Exactly," he said, exiting the car and heading toward the house, not waiting to see if Neal would follow, knowing he would.

 

Opening the door to the upstairs studio a minute later, Peter said, "Where's a suitcase or duffle bag?"

 

The other man eyed him cautiously as he stepped around the agent.  "Depends on what I'm packing …"  he said carefully, hoping the silence would encourage Peter to fill in the space.   When that didn't happen, he continued,  "If I'm packing clothes, a suit, there's a bag hanging up in the far closet … if I'm just packing books …" 

 

"You're packing whatever you need to stay with El and me for a couple of days," Peter said firmly, heading toward the far closet Neal had indicated.

 

Neal gave a short laugh and then quickly stopped, seeing the glare on Peter's face.  "You're not kidding." Holding up his hands, he said, smiling in his charming way, "You know, I appreciate the gesture, but I'm fine.  And really, I think you should check with Elizabeth before you start making offers …"

 

Glancing at him over his shoulder, Peter said, "I did check with her and the way I see it – it's either this or the FBI holding cells."  Pulling a small black suitcase from the closet, he continued, "The choice is yours, Neal, but those are your only two choices."  Walking back over, he held up the bag. "So which is it?  Are you putting clothes and your shaving kit in here or just books?"

 

The other man glanced out the darkened glass doors for a second before turning back to Peter.  "Why don't I just put the anklet back on and you can go home to Elizabeth?  No need for all this drama; things will be much better after a good night's sleep."  He smiled. "Seriously.  I'm fine."

 

"Too late," Peter said.  "It's either home with me or a holding cell.  It's been a long day, I'm sick of the games.  You had your chance – you had several of them in fact – and decided to screw around instead of seeing what was right in front of your face."  He shook his head in disbelief and let out a long breath.  "I'm not going to let you mess up your life like this if I can prevent it.  Or take down my career, which is what would happen if you bolt right now and require me to catch you all over again – which you know I would – and throw your ass back in prison –which you also know I would. Not to mention what El would say to me about that disaster.  So, in order to save you from yourself and me a lot of hassle, I'm putting you some place where you're protected from yourself."

 

Neal bristled at the words, his face hardening.  "I don't need a lecture, Peter, and I certainly don't need to be protected.  I did good work today, I was threatened, tazered, beaten up, managed to rob a known killer without making him mad – a huge feat in and of itself – and still managed to save the girl – literally."

 

Putting the suitcase in front of the other man, Peter looked at him. "Pack – what you pack is your last choice tonight."

 

Neal folded his arms in front of him, ignoring the suitcase. "What makes you think if you drag me home, I won't just bolt from there?  Your house isn't exactly Ft. Knox."

 

Stepping closer to the other man, Peter smiled slightly. "You and I both know that locks and bars mean very little when it comes to what you want.  You may not trust yourself to make the right decision all the time, but I'm trusting you.  Don't worry about doing it all the time, just focus on making the right decision tonight, that's all you have to do right now.  That's enough." Meeting the younger man's eyes, he waited silently.

 

Unable to hold the other man's gaze long, Neal glanced out the glass toward the sparkling skyline view and then finally unfolded his arms and quickly picked up the suitcase.  A moment later, he began filling it with clothes.

 

Knowing better than to push his luck or call attention to Neal's compliance, Peter was content to take a seat on the small sofa and casually flip through one of the magazines on the coffee table.  Idly flipping through the pages, he watched out of the corner of his eye as Neal crossed from the wardrobe to the bed several times before walking to the bathroom, returning a long moment later with a leather bag that also disappeared into the black case.  Looking up only at the sound of the zipper, he asked casually, "Done?"

 

Neal nodded once, not looking at the other man, as he picked up the suitcase off the bed with a small sigh and wince as strained and tired muscles protested the extra weight.

 

Seeing the pain ghost across his face, Peter held out a hand as Neal crossed in front of him.  "Wait, here, look at me."  Once again grasping the other man's chin in his hand, he tilted it gently toward the light, revealing the growing bruise.  "Go get something cold to put on your face for the car.  Elizabeth is going to have a enough of a fit when she sees you, neither one of us need this getting any worse."  

 

Neal looked as if he were gearing for another round but good sense or the late hour, Peter wasn't actually sure which, won out and he reluctantly did as he was told, wrapping a cold pack in a kitchen towel and following his suitcase, now carried by Peter, out the door.

 

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"I wasn't going to run, you know," Neal said softly in the darkness of the car twenty minutes later.

 

Peter glanced at him, surprised at the sudden words.  Neal had been so quiet since they left June's, he had half thought his partner had fallen sleep.  "I didn't know that in the office earlier."

 

"Do you know that now?"

 

Peter thought for a moment, weighing his words carefully before saying in a firm voice, "I trust you to make the right decision tonight.  And the right decision is not to run even though you could.  Your anklet is off and as you pointed out, my house can't hold you."  Glancing at him again, meeting Neal's eyes in the darkness, he continued, "But yes, I know you're not going to run."

 

"Do I still have to go home with you?" Neal asked, his voice a bit stronger than the previous question, the charm coming through a bit clearer.

 

Peter laughed. "Yes."  Nodding toward the towel in the other man's hand, he continued, "So put that back on your face and save us both a lot of grief from my wife."

 

Neal gave a small chuckle, once again propping his elbow on the window and holding the cold pack to the bruise.  "You know it's not going to work, right?" he said softly a minute later, the tiredness and emptiness once again creeping into his voice.

 

Peter was ninety percent sure Neal wasn't talking about the cold pack and bruise and glanced at him, seeing him once again staring out the window into the darkness.  "It's the best plan I've got right now and we're going to make it work," he said firmly, putting a slight emphasis on ‘we'.

 

Next to him, the other man made a non-committal noise.

 

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The brilliance of Peter's plan shone brightly as soon as they stepped through the door into his living room and Elizabeth spied Neal and quickly and efficiently took over.  Settling him at the dining room table with only the smallest tisk and shake of her head at the bruises, she got food and drinks arranged.

 

Ever the gentleman and good guest, Neal put on a happy face, filling her in on the funny details of the case and leaving out the disturbing ones.  A few funny airport stories were told, with the standard self-deprecating comments of cons that were only thought of, or heard of, never actually carried out.  His voice was cheerful and charming, the picture of relaxed ease as the jokes and stories flowed around the table.

 

If Peter hadn't actually seen the look in his partner's eyes just hours before or couldn't read the man's underlying tension, he would have been completely fooled.  As it was, he could see the lines and the slight drift of the eyes as they ghosted off into the distance as Elizabeth talked about a cooking class she and a friend had signed up for in France, not realizing that the entire class would be in French. 

 

Still, he laughed in all the right places, did an excellent imitation of a French chef and promised to bring excellent croissants from a little bakery he just happened to know about the next time he was invited for breakfast.

 

"You know, you've never actually been invited for breakfast, right?" Peter asked, eying him and allowing a faint smile.

 

Neal waved a hand, "I know it's implied; you don't have to go through any trouble with an actual invite."

 

Standing up, Elizabeth kissed him on the top of the head as she gathered up the plates, "That's right, Neal.  It's a standing invitation."

 

"Hey," her husband protested.  "I think waiting until you're invited is an excellent habit to get into." He glared at Neal knowingly, "Especially with you." A small bit of tension eased from his neck as the other man flashed him a genuine smile, complete with exasperated eye roll.

 

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Peter jerked awake at an unfamiliar night noise in the house, his hand inching toward the night stand drawer where he kept an extra gun before he remembered that they had a guest.

 

"What?" Elizabeth asked, shifting against him in the dark.

 

Leaning over, he kissed her, "Nothing, sounds like Neal is up roaming around downstairs."  He slid out of bed.  "I'm going to go check on him."

 

"He's probably getting something to drink, honey."

 

He laughed softly, putting on his robe. "He's probably appraising the silver."

 

Elizabeth laughed, rolling over and hugging her husband's pillow to her chest. "I'm sure he's already done that.  Be nice to him."

 

"He's out of jail and currently casing my house," Peter whispered back, "because I'm nice to him."  Halfway down the steps, he saw the glow from the TV flicker and heard metal lightly click on porcelain. 

 

Neal glanced up as the other man walked into the foyer.  "You have excellent taste in ice cream."

 

"I'm glad you approve."  He glanced at the TV as the familiar strains of the "Law & Order " theme started and then back at Neal with a questioning glance.  "Seriously?"

 

He shrugged. "It's on and you wouldn't believe how popular it is in prison.  I swear, some guys took notes." Smiling slightly, he added, "Not me of course, since I was innocent and framed and knew that it was just a matter of time before my name was cleared."

 

"Is that all the ice cream?" Peter asked, ignoring the comment.

 

Neal took a small bite. "Now Peter, would I do that?"

 

"Yes."

 

"There's plenty left," Neal said, turning back to the TV.  "Go get some and we can watch and you can explain in excruciating detail everything they get wrong."

 

Twenty minutes later, Peter glanced over at the younger man and found him staring off, no longer watching the TV.  "So why exactly are we sitting here watching this at 2:30 in the morning?" he asked quietly.

 

Neal shrugged, glancing quickly at his friend before refocusing on the TV. "I don't know."

 

"Can't sleep?"

 

Neal shrugged again, "Maybe I like Law & Order."

 

"Maybe you can't sleep," Peter said simply. 

 

Neal smiled, turning back to the TV.

 

Peter knew that smile, knew it too well, and hated it almost as much as he hated the tired, lost expression in Neal's eyes.  The last time he saw that expression was when the younger man was sitting on the floor of an empty apartment clutching a wine bottle.  Then, he had known that Neal was too tired and heartbroken to run. Now, he couldn't shake the feeling that it meant that the other man was too tired not to run, too tired to keep winning against the demons that tempted him every day, or at least every night. 

 

"You remember that case with Interpol and Mei Ling," Neal asked, glancing quickly at the older man.

 

"Of course," Peter said automatically, jerking his thoughts back to the present and focusing on the other man.

 

"And I almost screwed it up because she promised she'd tell me where Kate was, who had her, and I was willing to do anything to get that information."

 

Peter nodded, remembering his frustration and anger over the other man's single mindedness, despite the risk to the operation and bringing an agent's killer to justice.  "I do," he said.  "But you came through and we got ‘em."  He nodded, adding, "I knew you'd do the right thing."

 

The other man smiled slightly, glancing at him again before turning back to the screen.  "You know what did it?  What made me want to get them, even though I sort of went along with her as well?"

 

Raising an eyebrow, Peter looked at the younger man.

 

"OK, so more than sort of went along with her," Neal corrected, making an exasperated face.  "But we caught him and that's the important thing in the end."

 

"Yes and yes, I remember telling you that you couldn't trust her – which you couldn't – and that she didn't care about you or Kate, she was just looking out for her own budget."

 

Neal nodded impatiently. "Yes and you were right, satisfied?"

 

"A bit.  But I'll be more satisfied when you tell me what I told you that got you to believe me."  Looking away for a moment Peter took a deep breath as if to say more, but instead turned his attention back to Neal.  "So enlighten me please on these magic words that break through."

 

Giving a small, embarrassed grin, he said, "You said we were partners."

 

"I did and we are," Peter said firmly.  "At least when you're not off doing something stupid, then you become my responsibility.  I have to tell you, I was pissed that afternoon at you and your attitude, the situation of course not helping.  I was ready to call it quits because I didn't think I'd be able to get through to you – Kate has got you just so twisted up, you can't see straight sometimes and that scares me, Neal."

 

"But you got through," he said quietly, once again turning to the TV screen as if he cared about the show.

 

"I did," Peter agreed, "but it's tough when your partner scares you like that."

 

"You scared me that afternoon," Neal said, eyes still fixed on the screen.

 

Peter looked at him for a moment, trying to read the other man's half hidden expression.  "I scared you?"  Learning forward in his chair, he nudged Neal's bare foot with his own. "Hey, look at me."

 

Turning, Neal met his eyes for the briefest of moments before leaning his head back against the couch. "Forget it.  I'm tired, I'm going to bed.  The show's almost over anyway."

 

"No, you don't get to drop that in my lap and then bail," Peter said firmly.  "Talk to me.  Tell me how I scared you, what you mean by that."

 

Looking up, Neal flashed him a smile. "You want the definition of scared?"

 

"Neal."

 

"Peter."

 

Peter looked at him and shook his head. "No, we're not doing this.  Tell me."  

 

"OK, so maybe scared is the wrong word," Neal said, putting his head back again with a sigh.  "I don't know."

 

Swallowing back a sharp retort, Peter closed his own eyes briefly, silently cursing the long days and this very complicated young man he cared too much about.  "So what do you think the right word is?  Because I have to tell you, if it takes scaring you a bit to keep you in line, then I have no problem with it.  Threats, punishments, desk duty, restrictions, whatever, Neal – I'll do it.  I really don't want to put you back in jail."

 

Neal rolled his head against the back of the couch to smile at the other man, "Elizabeth would kill you."

 

"She would kill both of us," Peter corrected.  "So tell me what did it that afternoon.  I remember you begging Elizabeth to stay."

 

Giving an honest chuckle, Neal smiled sheepishly at the memory. "Yeah.  That wasn't my finest hour.  I really wanted her to stay, or at least take me with her.  Anything but being left with you."

 

Peter smiled at the memory of the normally cool young con resorting to out and out begging his wife not to leave him alone with his keeper.  "And what exactly did you think I was going to do to you, Neal?" he asked, shaking his head slightly as he tried to resume his serious face.

 

"I don't know," he said with a shrug, glancing away.  "It's getting late."

 

Ignoring the comment, Peter nudged Neal again, feeling that he was finally making some headway in unlocking the mystery to Neal's mood tonight and what he should have done in the office earlier. "Tell me."  He studied the other man's profile, the struggle visible just under the surface as the normal faηade, fractured in the office, began cracking further.  Silently debating his options, he went with his gut and said in a quiet, firm voice, "Neal."

 

"I'm tired, Peter.  I want to go bed.  It's been a shitty day and I'm over it.  I'm sorry I woke you up, just forget it."

 

"Neal," he repeated in the same controlled voice.

 

Not removing his gaze from the living room ceiling, Neal said, "I really thought that you looked like you would love to hit me."

 

Shocked, Peter was momentarily stunned before saying, "You really thought I was going to hit you?"

 

"Spank me," Neal corrected, making a face at the ceiling.

 

"Which is it?"

 

"Spank," Neal said in a quiet voice.  "You really looked like you would love to bend me over the table or your knee or something and give me a hard spanking," he said in a rush, eyes glancing toward the other man for a brief second before resuming their study of the off-white ceiling.

 

Peter stared at him for a moment before chuckling and rubbing his eyes tiredly.  "God."

 

Neal glanced at him again and frowned, shoving off the couch as he stood up in a quick motion.  "And with that final humiliation to cap off a wonderful day …"

 

"No, wait, Neal," Peter said, reaching out and snagging the fleeing man's hand.  "Wait."

 

Jerking his arm free, Neal shook his head, once again refusing to look Peter in the eye and all but bolted for the stairs.

 

Peter watched him go, knew that he should probably go after the younger man, make him sit back down so they could talk about what was revealed, but instead, sat in the chair and listened to the footsteps disappear up the stairs and the soft close of the guest room door.  In all honesty, Neal's revelation didn't shock him as much as it might have.  Years of studying the man and now working with him for six months gave him a deep insight into how that fantastic brain worked.  And, more importantly, what it really responded to.  He knew Neal responded to boundaries, or, more accurately, the boundaries that he personally set.  All others – the FBI, the Marshals, Hughes - seemed to be dependent on his mood and how much it interfered with what the younger man wanted.

 

"Hey."

 

Peter's head jerked up at the sound of his wife's voice as she quietly walked into the living room.  "Hey honey, I'm sorry, I didn't hear you."

 

Coming up behind him, she kissed him gently, smoothing his hair.  "That's fine, I was just worried.  I heard Neal go to bed a few minutes ago and then when you didn't …"

 

"Yeah, I was just sitting here thinking."

 

"About Neal?"

 

He laughed, kissing her hands wrapped around him, "What else?"

 

"Come on, come back to bed and you can tell me what he's done now," she said with a small smile.  "I was worried when you called this evening and you're right, he shouldn't be alone right now."  She paused as her husband stood up, thinking and then shook her head. "He tried tonight at dinner for sure, but he's struggling right now."

 

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

 

"So then I swore and he bolted, El," Peter said into the darkness of their bedroom ten minutes later.  "I wasn't thinking and let my guard down with him.  Classic, rookie mistake.  I should have handled this better, it's not like this was a huge shock."

 

She laughed softly. "No, I wouldn't think so."

 

"He was so lost in the office earlier; he's being pulled in several directions and really doesn't know which way to go.  That, I think, has got him scared.  He told me he wanted to put the tracking anklet back on but he couldn't make himself do it.  He told me he's not sure why he should keep trying to do good, working with the FBI,  staying within the lines, when he's just going to fail anyway."

 

"I don't think he cares about working with the FBI, he'd blow any random agent off as soon as he was bored," she said softly.  When her husband looked at her, she smiled. "I think he cares about working with you."

 

Peter sighed and nodded. "Yeah, working with me."  He shook his head, replaying the scene in the office earlier that evening.  "He's tired," he said simply.  "He's lost and confused and tired of everything – he's balancing too many things and the choices are piling up.  He responds so well with clear expectations."

 

"Your expectations," she corrected.  "He wants to make you proud of him.  He likes showing off for you, showing you how good and smart he is."

 

"Yeah," he said, nodding in agreement and smiling as he remembered the numerous cocky grins he had gotten as clues were discovered and cases solved.    "He just needs direction and boundaries he can respect."  Shaking his head in the darkness, he could clearly see the path this train of thought was heading down.  "My expectations, my boundaries, my rules."

 

"Oh Peter," Elizabeth said with a sigh.  Kissing him, she fell silent for a minute. "You know what he wants, what he responds to.  You know what he needs from you and I don't just mean you spanking him."

 

He gave a short, quick laugh.

 

"Hush," she ordered.  "You have to go speak with him about this.  You can't just leave him alone with this hanging between you."  She kissed him again before sitting up in the bed, "Go, before he does something stupid."

 

Nodding, he reached for his cell phone on the night stand, "First let me call the office and leave a message.  It's almost three, neither one of us are going to be in any shape to be at work in four hours.  It's Friday anyway."

 

 

 

Peter glanced at the crack under the guestroom door before knocking and wasn't surprised to see a faint light coming from underneath.  Cursing to himself when Neal didn't answer his knock, he quietly opened the door, hoping that maybe the younger man had simply fallen asleep with the light on.  "I knocked," he said, focusing on the relief he felt not coming through in his voice.  And obviously failing if he read Neal's expression correctly.

 

"Sorry," the younger man said, not sounding remotely sorry as he turned back to the window.  The blinds were opened to the unremarkable dark city street view.  A light was on at a house further down and the sky was lit by the urban glow, but the rest was dark.

 

"It's not much of a view," Peter said, coming into the room and shutting the door behind him.  He leaned against the wall next to the small dresser and studied the other man.  Taking a deep breath, he said, "I'm sorry I reacted the way I did in the living room."

 

"I've seen much worse views," Neal said, ignoring the last part of his comment.  "And I don't mean in prison.  One time, I was … well, somewhere and …"

 

"Neal," he said, interrupting. 

 

Turning from the window, Neal frowned.  "No Peter, it's fine."  He waved a hand, "Just forget about it.  I shouldn't have said anything.  It was stupid; let's just blame the lack of sleep."  Sitting down on the bed with a sigh, he shook his head slightly as he scooted back to lean against the headboard, legs stretched out in front of him.  Closing his eyes against the light, he said, "Go, please."

 

Peter shook his head as he pushed off from the wall, "No.  We don't have to have a big discussion tonight, but we're not just going to leave it either."  Sitting down on the edge of the bed facing the younger man, he studied him, trying to read the shuttered face and the emotions hidden beneath the tiredness.  "I called Hughes and left a message saying we were both taking tomorrow off," he said quietly.

 

"Today, you mean," the other man said, not opening his eyes, but smiling slightly.

 

Peter laughed amiably. "Yes, today." 

 

"So all of this was for nothing."

 

"What do you mean," Peter asked.

 

Neal chuckled, "You could have just left me sitting on the floor of your office and then you would have gotten home earlier.  And then you wouldn't still be awake in the middle of the night with a consultant who seems to have lost his mind and then you could gave gone to work…today...and life would be all normal."

 

"My life hasn't been 'all normal' for about six months now," Peter corrected, smiling slightly.  "And no, this wasn't all for nothing and no, there's no way I was going to leave you sitting on the floor of my office."

 

"I noticed you didn't correct the crazy part," Neal said dryly.

 

Reaching out, Peter tapped the other man's leg and said in a firm voice, "Look at me."

 

Slowly opening his eyes, Neal cautiously obeyed.

 

Meeting his gaze, Peter nodded seriously.  "I heard every word you said in the office, Neal.  I know how your mind works, I know what you respond to, even if you don't like that you respond."

 

"Peter …"

 

Holding up a hand, Peter continued. "No, just listen.  I was serious in the living room when I said I was willing to do anything to help you, to keep you out of prison.  I understand what you're struggling with right now, you've made a huge … lifestyle change in the last few months."

 

Neal laughed harshly. "Lifestyle change?  I guess that's one way to put it."  He shook his head, "Yeah, from freedom to being an underpaid consultant, doing what I want to being at your beck and call.."

 

"Actually," Peter said dryly, "I was thinking more like prison to freedom."  His eyes met the other man's and held fast, daring him to contradict the truth in the statement.  "Maybe more like running to stability," he said in a softer voice when it was clear that Neal wasn't going to come back with a smart remark, "Or being on your own to having someone who is willing to help you."

 

"I have plenty of contacts who are willing to help," Neal shot back.  "Mozzie. Alex."

 

"Moz is a great co-conspirator, a good friend for sure, but I don't know if he can give you want you really want," Peter said.  "And I know for a fact that Alex can't give you anything that half of the female population of New York isn't willing to give you."

 

Neal shook his head. "You don't know anything, Peter."  His voice should have been hard if he was angry, but instead, came out quiet and tired.  "I've done just fine on my own," he said before catching Peter's raised eyebrow and hastily adding, "with the minor and occasional detour along the way.  But I've been fine, thanks."

 

"And up until today … yesterday, you've done great working with me."  Peter smiled, seeing Neal's own expression, "With a few minor detours into … gray areas."  The reality that this past case was the first one where Neal really went off the reservation and also was the first one where he wasn't working with .. for .. Peter which hadn't escaped his notice as he added, "I can't help but think the last few days would have gone much differently if you had been with me the whole case, not just the end  - where you were already half way gone."  Motioning toward his own face, mirroring Neal's bruise, "And I don't just mean that.  I'm thinking more this."  Taping the bare ankle, he looked at the other man.  "What do you think?  Would you have pulled this stunt if I had been around the whole time?"

 

Neal shrugged, not looking at him. "I think I'm tired," he said softly.

 

"So is that why you did this?" he asked, again tapping the bare ankle.  "You did this because you were just tired and it had nothing to do with who you're working with?"

 

Jerking his foot away, the other man shrugged again. 

 

"Answer me, Neal," Peter said, struggling to get the right amount of firmness tempered with gentleness into his voice.  "Would you have pulled this stunt on me?"

 

"No."

 

Peter felt a weight move off his chest at the simple word and the raw honesty he saw in the other man's face.  He sighed and gave a small smile, "OK then, at least we've solved  that problem.  I'll speak with Hughes on Monday.  After this disaster – with Rice," he quickly corrected, seeing Neal flinch slightly, "I don't think it'll be a problem."

 

The other man looked at him for a second, starting to say something and then stopping, glancing away as he closed his eyes again. 

 

Watching him struggle, Peter sat quietly, simply reaching out and resting his hand on the bed so that his fingers just touched Neal's ankle.  He knew he needed to be still, to let the other man work out what was going on in his head and trust that once it was worked out, he would know.

 

"We work well together," Neal said softly.  "I mean, I think we work well together."

 

"We do – we make a very good team.  You're my partner," he said simply, knowing there was more coming. 

 

"I'm tired of always having to make the right choices," Neal said in a softer voice than before.  "I'm scared that I can't do it any more, I have a feeling that I can't do it any more.  I want ….  I don't know what's right any more.  I thought I wanted … but now …."  He sighed and shook his head, "I want this, Peter.  I want a house and a dog and a wife to come home to and kids and I want to cut the grass on Saturday morning and then go watch the kids play .. soccer or baseball or whatever in the afternoon.  But, I don't know how to get that, the way I thought I was going to get it … I just don't know."  Closing his eyes again, he rubbed at them. "I'm just scared and tired like I've never been before."

 

Moving closer, Peter pulled him into an awkward hug for a moment. "I know," he said quietly.  "But I promise, we'll figure it out.  I just need you not to do anything stupid while we do that, OK?"

 

Neal laughed, pulling back after a moment as he took a deep breath.  "I don't know if I can do that.  I don't know if I know what you think of as stupid."

 

Peter laughed. "Oh, you know all right, you just don't like to admit that you know.  But you know exactly where my lines are, what boundaries I expect you to stay within and you know full well when you cross them, too."

 

"Beyond my two miles radius?"

 

He looked at the other man. "Yes and you know what I expect from you."

 

 "What will you do if I can't stay within your boundaries?" Neal asked, once again looking away.

 

Peter's mind raced at the question, this was the moment of truth in this whole conversation, this whole evening, and now he had to make a decision.  They both were very clear on what was on the table and now Neal was giving him the opening to see if he would take it.  If he was being truthful with himself, he knew that Neal would probably respond very well to being spanked by him.  The younger man respected him, respected his rules and boundaries – even if he pushed them, he rarely actually crossed them, at least not without having an eye on Peter to watch for a reaction.  As soon as he barked, Neal retreated back inside the boundaries.  Now, the younger man was afraid his internal restrictions were starting to slip and the next time Peter barked, he wouldn't cross back inside the lines and instead would continue to run across them.  Firmer boundaries were needed, real consequences, and Neal respected him enough to put himself at his mercy.  "Have you ever been spanked as an adult?" he asked in a clear voice.

 

Neal flinched slightly at the words, but nodded.  "Years ago, when I was first starting out in … well, somewhere.  A guy was helping me out, teaching me some stuff and considered it a very good teaching aid."  He smiled a bit at the memory.  "He considered himself a sort of father figure and …."  His voice trailed off as he shrugged again.

 

Filing that bit of personal information away to be checked up on later, Peter nodded, "And you responded well to it?"

 

Neal laughed and grinned.  "What can I say?  I'm a classical sort of guy."  He studied the other man for a moment before saying, "I have to say, Peter, you don't look particularly shocked by this conversation."

 

He laughed. "Well, the thought has crossed my mind before … several times before."

 

"Ha!" Neal said, hitting the bed with his hand, "I knew it!  I knew I should have been worried about being left alone with you after the Interpol sting."  He smiled, pleased that his instinct had been correct. 

 

"Yes, yes, you're very clever," Peter said with a sigh.  "And also very lucky, I might add, but I think your luck has run out.  You pull something like that again and I promise you won't be happy about the results."

 

Turning serious again, the other man swallowed and met Peter's gaze, "What will you do?"

 

The older man matched his gaze and said in a clear, firm voice, "I'll bring you here, take you down to the basement living room where we'll have a long discussion about my expectations of your actions while I apply a paddle to your butt." 

 

"Yeah, I don't think that would make me very happy," Neal said simply.

 

"Actually," Peter said softly, "I think it will make you very happy … at least afterwards."  He smiled as the younger man nodded.  "We'll deal with this together, Neal.  You're not the only one who is now responsible for your behavior.  Just think of me as a nice safety net."

 

He laughed. "A safety net is supposed to be soft."

 

"A safety net just has to catch you," Peter corrected with a smile.  "And that's what you know I'll always do."  He glanced at the bedside clock, now reading 3:30. "Anything else before we finally put this night to bed?"

 

"Do you already have a paddle?"

 

Peter smiled. "Actually, we do.  Elizabeth has a rather interesting client who gave her a very nice and diverse gift basket in between the time when you broke out of jail and before you were released.  For some reason, I hung on the paddle."   

 

The other man gave a short laugh and shook his head.

 

"Anything else?"

 

"I guess this means Alex is off limits," Neal said, more seriously.

 

Peter nodded. "Alex is bad news for you right now – nothing but temptation to screw around with your anklet because of that stupid box.  I want her gone and I'll tell her if you won't.  Her way is not how we're going to solve the problem with Fowler."

 

"But Peter, if I lose her, then …"

 

"I'm not kidding, Neal," he said firmly.  "Gone.  There is zero give in that rule right now with you.  You don't need – can't handle – the temptation right now.  We'll figure out a solution without her."  He shook his head. "And more importantly without risking your freedom."

 

"I guess you're probably right."

 

Peter stood up. "I know I am about this."  Reaching out, he rested his hand on the younger man's head for a moment before dropping it to his shoulder and squeezing it gently, "Trust me." 

 

Neal nodded, relaxing under his touch.  "Yeah, I can do this."

 

"You can," he confirmed.  "We can. Just keep telling yourself that."

 

Giving him a smile, he nodded again, sliding down on the bed, "Thanks, Peter."

 

"Sleep well."  As he closed the door behind him, he heard Neal repeating the words softly.

 

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

 

"Peter, wake up."

 

Slowly opening his eyes and blinking in the sun light, he groaned and glanced at the clock.  "What's wrong?"

 

Elizabeth sighed, handing him a note.  "Neal left this, along with a lovely bunch of origami tulips, on the dining room table."

 He cursed under his breath, taking the note from his wife as he stumbled over the small desk set up against one of the bedroom walls.  Toggling Elizabeth's laptop awake as he opened the note, he began to read.

 

"Dear Peter," it said in Neal's neat handwriting, "Sorry but I was wrong - I can't.  I'll take you up on the offer – I want to take you up on the offer – but I have to find and settle things with Kate first.  Enjoy the flowers and I'll see you on Monday. NC  PS.  Even if I couldn't take you up on the offer right now, I could take back the anklet.  I trust you to check, just like I trust you to keep the offer open."

 

Handing the note to Elizabeth, he quickly logged into the secure tracking website and felt deep relief at the sight of Neal's tracking dot securely at June's home.  He pulled up the data and ran its movements, shaking his head as he saw the dot begin moving at 5:45am.  "He must have begun to cave as soon as he was alone," he said with a sigh. 

 

"But he cared enough to find the anklet and put it on," she countered, tapping the note.  "And he told you his plans … sort of and that he wants to come back."

 

"That's true," he said, sitting down at the desk.  "Even if it feels sometimes like it's two steps forward, one step back."

 

"That's still one step ahead and with Neal, I think that's about as fast as you can expect most times."

 

Peter laughed, "Yeah.  I'll call him later, just to let him know I'm watching."

 

She kissed him, "He'll like that."

 

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

 

They didn't speak of the conversation later that day or on Monday when they were back at work. 

 

On Tuesday, in the elevator leaving for lunch, Neal said quietly, "I meant what I said. I hope you believe me."

 

"I want to."

 

"I just need to get this sorted out.  It should be all done in a couple of days."

 

Peter looked at him. "I would hope that doesn't mean what I think it means."

 

The other man shrugged. "We can talk about it in your basement in a few days."

 

Two days later, Neal looked at his friend, suitcase slung over his shoulder and shrugged, struggling with what to say and with the choice before him, seconds before the plane exploded behind him. 

 

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

 

Three Weeks Later

 

 

Peter glanced at his watch for the fourth time in an hour that felt like a week and tried to hide his impatience as the two US Marshals finally made their way into the waiting area.

 

"Sorry, Agent Burke," the first Marshal said with an indifferent shrug.  "Traffic was worse than we were expecting."

 

The other Marshal smiled tightly.  "But we're here now ... as ordered,"  his voice putting special emphasis on the last two words as if the Agent was unclear on his opinion about this whole situation.

 

Peter ignored the tone and the lateness, having spent the last week fighting with their boss and getting Hughes to fight with their boss's boss before finally winning the battle this afternoon.  The Marshals had balked again, but a few well placed phone calls and – in Peter's imagination at least – threats of revealed buried bodies finally got the two Marshals out to Rikers this evening instead of waiting until Monday as they had originally requested, not seeing the difference between Friday evening and Monday morning.  On the drive over, only fantasies of somehow locking up whatever idiot who had expressed that opinion for the next forty eight hours and seeing if it made a difference then had kept Peter's mind occupied and away from worrying about Neal.  The revenge fantasy had been a welcome change.  Now, in the waiting room, he stood  up and smiled tightly, "Wonderful.  The warden is waiting."

 

"Great," the first Marshal said. 

 

Knocking on the closed office door, Peter waited a moment before opening it.  "Warden Greenberg, they're here," he said, biting back any more colorful commentary.

 

The older man looked up tiredly from his computer. "It's about damn time.  It's after 8 o'clock, gentlemen and believe it or not, I do like to go home at some point.  When I set an appointment for 7pm, I expect it to be kept.  I run a tight ship that's dependent on schedules and rules and everyone doing as they're told." He eyed the two Marshals. "It's a shame when I have to report to my own people that they can't leave yet because the US Marshals are incapable of either telling time or showing up promptly."

 

Only the second Marshal, the younger of the two, had the good sense to look even mildly embarrassed at the warden's words.  "Traffic .."

 

He waved at the words, cutting the other man off, "Is nothing new and should be accounted for."  He shook his head, "All right, let's get this paperwork finished so we all can go home."

 

"Please initial and sign this sheet that states that the US Marshals are against this agreement," the first Marshal said, pushing the paper toward Peter twenty minutes later, "and are doing so only because of a direct request from the FBI to protect one of their witnesses, who is not part of the Witness Protection Program.  It also states that the US Marshals agree to track Monitoring Anklet 8932 Charlie and notify the FBI if the wearer strays from his designated half-mile radius, but are not involved in either the protection of or recapture of the prisoner if he escapes."

 

Not bothering to comment on the fact that the Marshal was wasting time reiterating everything they and the FBI took a week to iron out and could simply push the paperwork at him and he'd sign happily, Peter just nodded, saying as he scribbled his name, "As we agreed to."

 

The second Marshal eyed the agent, "We know, Agent Burke but we also feel that this is incredibly dangerous and  …"

 

Peter looked up and glared at the other man. "And I really don't care what you think and neither does my boss - this is our witness, our responsibility, so he's going to be in our custody."  Turning toward the warden he smiled tightly, "And we'll take him now, if you please."

 

The older man nodded, picking up the phone and having a short conversation with the person on the other end.  "He should be out of the cell area in about 30 minutes," he said, hanging up the phone.

 

Standing up, Peter shook his head, "I'm going with your men to get him.  It'll be …"  He paused, searching for some legitimate sounding excuse on why he – an FBI Agent – needed to go and personally fetch a prisoner from his cell instead of simply following protocol and finally gave up after a second.  "It'll be faster," he settled on.

 

The Warden wasn't an idiot, he had reviewed the prisoner's file and knew full well who Neal Caffrey was – his crimes, his alleged crimes, his escape a year ago. And, more importantly for his job, what his previous arrangement had been with the FBI and why he was sending almost daily status reports to the head of the White Collar Crimes Division who was, most likely, passing those reports directly on.  There was a reason the prisoner had been placed immediately into protective custody and why, after a stressful 48 hours during which the prisoner had not spoken and had eaten or drunk little, he had been placed on modified suicide watch at the FBI's insistence.   "Fine," he said, simply, picking up the phone again.  He really didn't care at this point and the sooner everyone was gone – including the prisoner – the sooner he'd be able to leave as well.  Special cases and organizational turf wars were nothing but trouble – these two agencies could figure it out between themselves and leave him and his prison out of it.

 

"If Agent Burke is going to the cell area, I should too," the first Marshal said, standing up.  "I don't feel comfortable with the prisoner being released from his cell without the tracking anklet in place."

 

Peter looked at him, holding out his hand. "Give it to me then and I'll attach it.  I know how to do it."

 

Shaking his head, the Marshal smiled slightly. "It's the responsibility of the US Marshals.  Since we have to track it, I want to make sure it's secure."  He eyed the other man. "Given the problem this guy has had with anklets in the past, it seems safer."

 

"Fine," Peter said with a tight smile.  Turning to the warden, he held out his hand, "Thank you for your assistance.  The Bureau appreciates all of it."

 

"Always glad to help," the other man said as he stood up and shook the offered hand stiffly.  He glanced at his door as an officer appeared, knocking lightly on the door frame.  "Have a good evening and best of luck with your … witness."  Watching as his officer escorted the three suited visitors from his office, he sat back down in his chair and let out a breath, relieved the problem was now someone else's.  On the surface, Neal Caffrey had not been that much different than many of the prisoners currently being held at Rikers.  The issue of the past escape had been solved by simply putting the man in 24-hour lock down; the issue of his past involvement with the FBI had been solved by putting him in protective custody.  The issue with the FBI's constant involvement though had not been so easily solved.  Within twelve hours of placement, the warden had received two phone calls and a personal visit from the Bureau.  The prisoner's attorney had arrived within twenty four hours and within thirty six hours, he had received another three phone calls and two personal visits – one from a different FBI agent and one from his own boss stressing the importance of the situation.  During all of this, the oh so dangerous, harmless, trusted,  mistrusted, feared and revered – depending on which report you were currently reading or which visitor you were listening to – prisoner lay almost catatonic in his cell.   

 

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

 

Flanked by two guards, the Marshals trailing the group, Peter mentally reviewed his game plan and the arguments he'd make if Neal once again balked.  The other man's refusal a week ago, when Peter had approached him about resuming their agreement, had taken him by surprise.  He hadn't expected Neal to show much joy, but refusal and indifference weren't what he'd expected either.  Then, two days later, Moz had called saying that Neal was on board and ready to leave.  Of course, the lawyer also hinted in the broadest sense that if the move was to be legit, the FBI needed to expedite the paperwork.  Now, with Hughes's blessing, the paperwork had been expedited and Neal Caffrey, key witness and confidential informant, was being released into the custody of the FBI.  Neal Caffrey, FBI consultant, was still being reviewed and would take weeks – weeks that neither Hughes nor Peter felt the younger man was able or willing to wait in his current physical and mental condition.

 

Rapping on the door to the dim cell, one of the guards called out, "Caffrey, get up.  The FBI are here - you're being released."  He pressed a button on the outside of the cell, brightening the dim light and illuminating the bare walls.  "I'm coming in," he said as he released the lock and stepped inside. 

 

"He wasn't told?" Peter asked the other guard, surprised.

 

The guard smiled slightly, glancing over his shoulder before shrugging.  "We've dealt with the US Marshals before – no sense getting the guy's hopes up if it was going to be Monday."

 

Peter nodded, glancing into the cell and forcing himself not to react as he saw Neal sit up on the edge of the bed dressed simply in a pair of white boxers and a tee shirt.  The younger man was pale and thin, which was to be expected, but worse looking than when they had seen each other just a week prior.  Then at least, he felt that his friend – partner – had been making an attempt to appear his normal self.  Now, in this setting, the mask was temporarily down and revealed just raw sadness.  Stepping into the small cell, he smiled. "Hey.  Ready to go?"

 

Neal looked up and gave a small smile in return.  "Peter."  Then glancing around him, seeing the two guards and Marshals, he glanced again at the other man and forcing a brilliant smile. "Of course."  Standing up slowly so as not to alarm the guards, he gave the group another winning smile.  "If I had known you were coming, I wouldn't have gone to bed so early.  It's been a long week and there wasn't much on TV, Friday night and all."

 

Laughing, wanting to encourage the faηade for at least another few minutes until they were away, Peter shook his head.  "So no Law & Order?" 

 

"Not on Fridays," Neal countered, taking the offered plastic bag from the guard.  "Clothes?"  Opening it, he peered inside, "What happened …"  Then, catching himself, simply said, "Great, thank you."

 

"Courtesy of your lawyer," Peter explained, knowing what the question was going to be and not wanting to delve into the details of the state of the clothes he had been wearing when he was brought in.  "Get dressed," he said firmly, nodded toward the bag.  

 

A minute later Neal was dressed, once again sitting on the bed as one of the Marshals knelt before him attaching the anklet to his left leg.

 

"Too tight? Too loose?" the Marshal asked, moving the plastic around to check the fit. 

 

"It's perfect," Neal said simply, not making eye contact with anyone.

 

The Marshal nodded, clicking the final lock in place and standing up. "That's it - you're all set."

 

Watching Neal's back as they made their way down the corridor, Peter tried to keep the worries and questions at bay.  Even in handcuffs, as he was now, the other man usually carried himself with casual grace, but not now.  Flanked by the two guards, he walked stiffly and slowly like an old man afraid of taking a misstep that will result in a broken hip ... or a beaten younger one who is simply exhausted and afraid. 

 

The transfer took another twenty minutes until they stepped through the gates into the visitor's parking lot.  Peter's Taurus and the Marshal's own Taurus lined up neatly next to each other in the empty parking lot.  Walking slowly despite the cold, Peter allowed the two Marshals to out pace them, avoiding the awkwardness of walking along side and feeling the need for conversation or the heavy weight of the silence. 

 

Alone, Neal chuckled and glanced at Peter as the other car quickly pulled away, "The government buying in bulk to save money now?"

 

Peter smiled. "And buying American."  Unlocking the door, he opened the passenger door and started to help the other man inside.

 

Shying away, Neal frowned, his good mood vanishing as quickly as it had appeared. "I got it, thanks," he muttered quickly, not looking at Peter.

 

Peter shook his head slightly as he walked around to the other side and slid in, turning the heat on as soon as the car was started.  He shivered slightly in the cold, noticing for the first time that Neal was just in a sweater.   He caught himself just before he asked where his coat was, reflex more than thought almost pushing the words from his mouth.  The coat, of course, had been on the younger man three weeks ago and was with the rest of his clothes, in a garbage pile somewhere, reeking of burnt jet fuel, ash and smoke.  Peter's own coat had been tossed the next day, small burnt holes from the flaming debris making it unsalvageable even it the smell hadn't.  "There's a blanket in the backseat, get it.  You're freezing," he said instead.  "Neither one of us need you getting sick right now."

 

"I'm not an invalid, Peter," Neal said, not moving in his seat.

 

Glancing at him, he took a deep breath, pushing down the fear.  "I don't think you are.  But it's been a rough few weeks, it's below freezing and there's a blanket in the back seat you can use to keep yourself warm until the car heats up.  That's all."  He smiled slightly, playing his trump card.  "Elizabeth will be worried even more than she is now if you get sick." 

 

The other man glanced at him, still making no move to retrieve the blanket.  A moment later, he asked softly, "Elizabeth is worried?"

 

Peter shot him an exasperated look, but stayed quiet, letting Neal's own thoughts do most of the work for him.  Ignoring him, he put the car in drive and started the long drive back home.  As soon as they were past the guard check points on the bridge,  he glanced at the other man again and then pointedly toward the back seat.

 

"Anything to keep your eyes on the road," Neal muttered, undoing his seatbelt before twisting carefully and snagging the blanket's edge.  Dragging it up, he left it balled on his lap, hands buried in the plaid wool. 

 

Biting back a comment, Peter focused on the traffic.  He jumped a moment later as the window on the passenger side slid down several inches and a blast of frigid air filled the car.  "What are you doing, Neal!" he barked, hitting the window controls on his side to raise the window back again.

 

Neal silently countered his movement and hit the down button again, inching the window down a fraction more as the two controls fought for possession.

 

"Stop," Peter said sharply, toggling the master button and locking out the other controls.  "It's 20 degrees out there and you're not wearing a coat, but even if you were, there's no way we're riding with the windows down."  He glanced at his friend. "Are you trying to catch your death of cold?"  As soon as the words were past his lips, he wanted to take them back, but there were no backsies allowed. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean that," he said.

 

The other man glanced at him for a moment and then sighed, closing his eyes as he leaned his head back against the seat.  "No, Peter.  Despite what you and the Bureau seem to have thought, I'm not trying to kill myself – now or then."  His voice was tired but casual, matter of fact as if he were stating a simple fact, no different than saying his eyes were blue or his hair brown. 

 

Peter glanced at him, not fooled by the tone, and saw the other man's slightly shaking hands tightly gripping the blanket in his lap.  Not wanting to have that conversation now, in the car, he retreated back to the original issue.  "Tell me why you want the window down and I'll think about it," he said, making his voice sound reasonable and as if he would actually consider rolling down the car windows in this weather.

 

"It's not important," he said quietly, eyes still closed.

 

"Neal," he said in a firm voice.  It always amazed him, the power of simply saying the younger man's name in the right tone for the situation.  Whether he was frustrated and wanted him to stop, whether he was trying to coax the truth from him or get him to open up about something, simply saying his name worked miracles. 

 

Neal sighed, sitting up as he opened his eyes and fixed them on the other man.  "Fine, everything smells, I smell and I can't get it out of my head, OK?  I smell this stench with every breath and it's disgusting.  You're never clean in there and the smells just leach into everything –  your skin, your hair, even these clothes.   I want to throw up every time I inhale …."  His voice caught for a second before he gave a harsh laugh, struggling to regain his casual composure.  "It's embarrassing – not up to my usual standards at all.  I was hoping that maybe a bit of fresh air would at least keep the smells at bay, before you noticed."  Unable to keep up the casual faηade, he turned toward the window, focusing on the lights flashing by the car. 

 

"OK," Peter said softly.  "See, you tell me the truth and I agree.  Was that so hard?"  Not waiting for an answer, not wanting to push, he reached over and tapped the blanket.  "Wrap up in that and then I'll roll down the window enough for some fresh air."  Turning the heat up higher, he waited until Neal spread out the blanket a bit more before giving a satisfied nod and pressing the window controls.  Cold air filled the car as the passenger window slid down three inches.  He looked at the younger man for a second before asking, "How's that?"

 

Neal swallowed and nodded silently, eyes firmly fixed out the window.  Blinking several times, he swallowed again before saying in a hoarse voice, "It's perfect, thanks."

 

Alternating between watching the road and watching his passenger, Peter's mind drifted to the last time Neal had been his car and he wondered if the other man was thinking of the same ride and same conversation afterwards. 

 

"We're going to your place?" Neal asked, speaking for the first time in almost a half hour as they got onto the Brooklyn Queens Expressway.  Sitting up straighter, he glanced at the other man.  "Does Elizabeth know?"

 

Peter laughed.  "Of course she knows.  This is not the sort of surprise I'd spring on her at 11:00 at night.  I do like my wife, you know and would like to continue to be married to her." Glancing at him, he asked with a smile, "Where did you think you were heading?"

 

The other man thought for a second and then shrugged, "I don't know.  I hadn't given it any thought."  He smiled slightly as he sighed, seeming to relax a fraction and nodded.  He opened his mouth as if to speak and then closed it again, cutting off his words. 

 

"What?"

 

"She knows, right?  About … everything?"

 

Peter glanced at him as his mind raced to define ‘everything' in Neal's mind.  Deciding that it didn't matter, the younger man could take his comments however he wanted, he nodded.  "Elizabeth knows everything.  You know I can't keep anything from her." 

 

"Good.  It's easier."  Turning back to the open window, he tilted his face up slightly, catching the breeze across his face as he closed his eyes, hands kneading the blanket restlessly.

 

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Almost every light in the front of the house was on as Peter pulled into a surprisingly empty spot across the street and glanced at Neal.  "OK?" he asked when the other man didn't move even after the car was shut off.

 

"Yeah – why wouldn't I be?" he asked, flashing a quick smile.  "Casa del Burke, my favorite Brooklyn address."  Looking at the townhouse, he swallowed and closed his eyes, taking a deep breath.  Opening his mouth for a second, he closed it again, eyes fixed on the house.

 

"Just checking," Peter said as he watched unidentified emotions quickly pass over his friend's face.  He waited for a moment to see if he would say anything else before opening his door and stepping out into the street.  When Neal didn't join him a moment later, he walked around to the other side of the car and opened the door.   "Want to talk about anything before we go in?" he asked quietly, bending slightly to peer inside.

 

"Yeah, no," Neal said, shaking his head with another smile, "I'm fine.  Sorry.  Let's go." Sliding out of the car, he clutched the blanket in front of him.

 

Peter glanced at the plaid wool and decided it didn't matter.  Neal was constantly fidgeting and playing with things – stray bits of paper, pens, coins – and if the holding the blanket gave him something to do with his hands, so be it.  It wasn't worth calling attention to the fact and making him uncomfortable.  It was late and getting them both in the house and the other man settled for the night was a big enough goal on its own.  "Elizabeth is going to be very happy to see you," he said, glancing down the street before crossing it.  "She was sorry not to be able to come see you earlier."

 

Neal smiled, glancing at Peter.  "This is better anyway.  I wouldn't have wanted her there, to see  …"  His words were cut off as the door to the house opened and Elizabeth stepped out onto the landing, smiling and giving a quick wave.  He froze at the sight of the waving silhouette, his mind flashing back to another waving silhouette.  Forcing it from his mind, he made himself smile in greeting.

 

"Hi honey," Peter said, climbing the steps and kissing her quickly as he stepped around her into the house.  "Smells good in here, what did you make?"

 

"Hey Elizabeth," Neal said in a quieter voice, trailing after the other man.  "Thank you so much for letting me …"

 

"Oh, Neal," she said, stepping forward to hug him, ignoring her husband's question for the moment. "It's so good to see you."  

 

"No," he yelped, jerking back as he took several stumbling steps down from the landing, hands thrust in front of him as the blanket fell to the ground.  At the sight of her face, he swallowed and tried to smile again.  "Sorry, sorry," he said, stepping back onto the landing.  Trying to refocus and smile, he managed a quick flash before saying, "I'm sorry."

 

Stepping back out of the house, Peter, squeezed his wife's arm for a second as she retreated inside.  He reached out and touched Neal's arm as if to steady him.  "What's wrong?  What happened?" he asked quietly, leaning in.

 

Neal shook his head. "Nothing.  Everything is fine.  I'm sorry – let's just go inside."  Bending down, he scooped up the blanket and glanced at it. "Did I carry this in from your car?"

 

"Yeah, it's fine though," Peter said, "don't worry about it.  But tell me what just happened."

 

"Why did I carry this in from your car?" Neal asked, ignoring the question and refusing to look at the other man.  Flashing a quick smile, he added, "Do you want me to bring it back?  Give me a second and let me run it back to the car for you."

 

The other man sighed, taking the blanket from him, "I don't know and it doesn't matter right now and you certainly don't need to return it to the car."  He debated about using one of their standard jokes and decided after a second that if the younger man wanted to pretend everything was fine, he could too.  Lightly backhanding his shoulder, he smiled, "And as if I'd trust you with my keys."

 

Recognizing the softly lobbed joke for what it was, Neal smiled. "It was worth a try."  He took a couple of deep breaths before nodding faintly.  "What smells so good?" he asked with a shaky smile. 

 

Standing in the foyer, Elizabeth kept her hands tightly clasped in front of herself as the younger man walked in, her husband close behind.  "I made apple cobbler," she said with a smile.  "I knew it'd be late and you had probably had dinner … already," she finished lamely, suddenly uncomfortable as she imagined the dinner he had probably eaten and the location in which it had been eaten.

 

Neal smiled at her, but stayed several feet away, back almost pressed against the door and effectively trapping the other man behind him.  "I'm so sorry about just a second ago, Elizabeth," he said with a sigh.  "I … it just  …  I'm sorry."  Jerking slightly as Peter brushed past him, giving his shoulder a squeeze, he smiled a bit brighter and took a deep breath.  "I spilled coffee all over myself," he said, gesturing toward his chest.  "I didn't want you ruining your clothes if you hugged me."

 

"Oh Neal, it's fine," she said with a smile, allowing him the obvious lie.  "I wouldn't have minded at all but I do appreciate the thought."  She glanced at her husband, shaking her head and then winked at Neal. "Now if you could only get him to be as careful.   You wouldn't believe how many blouses he's ruined trying to help with the laundry."

 

Peter laughed. "That's a problem that's easily solved, you know."  He turned to his friend, putting a hand on his back. "Come on, why don't I take you upstairs?  You can take a shower if you want or at least change into something more comfortable.  Then when you're done, you can join us for something to eat.  El's apple cobbler is very good."

 

"My grandmother's recipe," she added with a smile.  "There's ice cream too, if you want."

 

The younger man smiled back and nodded. "I'm sure it's delicious.  I'll just go upstairs and ... change, I guess, first."

 

"There's clothes for you upstairs," Peter said, filling in the unasked question.  "Between some stuff that Moz brought over and then just some stuff Elizabeth picked up, you should be set for several days at least."

 

He glanced at her. "You didn't have to do that.  I would have been fine."

 

She waved her hand. "It was no problem at all, Neal.  I just picked up a few basics.  In a few days, maybe when things are a bit more settled, we can go shopping and round out what you need."  Nodding toward the stairs, she smiled again. "Now go, shower, change, whatever and come have cobbler."

 

Blinking several times, he smiled and gave her a small bow. "Yes ma'am."

 

"See Peter, Neal knows the right answer."

 

The other man laughed and gently hit Neal's shoulder again, pushing him toward the stairs.  "Thanks, that's exactly what I need – to be shown up in my own home by you."

 

He laughed. "Sorry, Peter, but really, with that tone and look on her face?  What did you want me to say?"  He winked at Elizabeth as he started up the stairs. "Plus, it's cobbler.  And ice cream."

 

"Only if you're good," she called out, "do you get ice cream."

 

"I'm always good," Neal said with another laugh.

 

Behind him, propelling him up the stairs, Peter snorted and muttered, "Yeah, that's all it takes.  The threat of taking away ice cream."  As he followed the other man, he pushed away all thoughts of the threats that hadn't worked, hadn't kept him safe and hadn't kept him out of jail.  Of course, his mind also instantly supplied the one threat that both he and the younger man had discussed that would work.  Pushing away the thought for the time being, he concentrated simply on getting through the next few hours and days.

 

"I really appreciate this, Peter," Neal said, lightly tapping the dresser where two drawers had been filled with clothes.  "I hadn't really thought about it …."  Shaking his head, he smiled and gave a small laugh.  "I'm usually much better prepared, just …" 

 

Peter waved a hand. "Don't worry about it and it was all Elizabeth's doing."  Reaching out, he patted the other man's shoulder. "Come on.  Go take a shower – there's plenty of hot water and I know she's put a clean toothbrush and razor and pretty much everything else you might want in there.  Get cleaned up, change into something else and come downstairs when you're ready."

 

Sinking down in the old wing back chair against the wall, Neal sighed, closing his eyes as he bowed his head slightly.  "Yeah, I'll be right down.  Let me just grab a quick shower."

 

Peter walked closer and sat on the edge of the bed across from him. Tapping his left leg, he said quietly, "I'm trusting you not to do anything stupid tonight, Neal."  He smiled, raising an eyebrow as the other man met his gaze. "In fact, I'm trusting you not to do anything stupid for awhile.  We're both on very thin ice here – a lot of people have gone out on a limb for this arrangement - and if you do something stupid, I'll go down with you.  So, nothing that will cause problems." 

 

The younger man nodded. "I know and I appreciate it.  I know I didn't sound like it earlier, but I do.  Moz was right to call you." He smiled a bit trying for light and casual, adding, "And what's your definition of ‘awhile'?"

 

Standing up, Peter laid a hand on his head for a moment before dropping it to his shoulder and giving it a squeeze. "I'll let you know when you can do something stupid again.  Until then if some scheme or idea passes through that head of yours, assume the answer is No."  He nodded toward the door. "Go before there's no more ice cream left."

 

Neal laughed. "You know, you had like three cartons last time I was here."

 

"It's been a stressful few weeks," Peter said as he started toward the door.  "And Elizabeth really likes ice cream."

 

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Shutting the bathroom door behind him, Neal shook his head as the quiet of the room allowed memories and images to flood his brain.  He flipped on the water to drown them out, allowing it to heat up as he quickly stripped.  A moment later, the pounding water filled his ears and he concentrated on washing away the smells that filled his nose and mouth.  Reaching for one of the numerous travel size scented body washes that someone – Elizabeth, he was sure – had put out for him, he smiled as the scent of peppermint filled the small room.

 

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After quickly changing and locking his gun in their bedroom safe, Peter walked down the stairs, glancing into the living room, looking for his wife.  "Honey," he called, before spying the back door partially open.  His heart jumped as he walked quietly toward the back yard, relaxing as he saw her shape sitting on one of the chairs and heard the dog's tail swishing across the concrete.    "Everything OK?" he asked softly, coming outside into the darkness.

 

She nodded, but didn't look up from petting Satchmo.  

 

Moving one of the other chairs closer, he sat quietly, watching her and hearing the ragged breaths she struggled with.  "The cobbler was a great idea," he said finally. "Neal really appreciates it, I'm sure.  He's looking forward to ice cream, I think."  He knew he was babbling, but was at a loss as to what to say or what was wrong.  He didn't think she was upset at him or at Neal staying with them; he had barely gotten the question out of his mouth before she had readily agreed and started to make plans three days ago.  "He didn't mean anything by it, El."

 

"Oh Peter," she said, looking up finally. "It's certainly not his fault, it was all mine.  I'm so sorry I hurt him.  I really didn't mean to rush him at the door and …" 

 

Sitting back in the chair, he held out his arms, "Come here, sweetie." 

 

She moved quickly and settled onto his lap, head resting on his shoulder as he stroked her hair.  "I wasn't thinking about how on edge he might be.  God knows he's been through so much the last few weeks and who knows what happened to him … in there."

 

"It's not you at all," he said gently.   "And I don't think you rushed him."  He debated for a second before deciding to tell her the truth before her imagination filled in the holes with even worse thoughts.   "Nothing happened to him in there, I promise.  We made sure of that and the warden knew we were keeping a close eye.   He was physically as safe as possible."  He paused for a second, letting his words sink in.  "I think the problem really was that Rikers and most of the prisoners there don't exactly smell great," he said, kissing her hair.  "I'm not sure how to describe it exactly, damp, old and musty and like .. iron and concrete and just …"  His voice trailed off as he struggled to find the right words.  "Just misery, I guess.  I didn't smell anything in the car, but he was desperate to have the fresh air, claiming the smells were making him sick."

 

"I thought Mozzie brought him new clothes," she asked.

 

Peter shrugged. "Yeah, he did, but I don't know.  My guess is that he's not even sure what's going on in his head.  He's not in great mental shape right now."

 

Sitting up, she looked dubiously at her husband. "Gee, honey, his girlfriend is killed, he's almost killed and then spends the last three plus weeks locked up in hell.  I never would have guessed."

 

He laughed. "All right, I guess that goes without saying."  Tugging her back down, he sighed and held her close.  "It'll be OK though."

 

"Yeah."  A few minutes later, she sighed, sitting up.  "As nice as this is, I think we need to get back inside.  I'm getting cold and I don't want him coming downstairs and finding the house empty."

 

Helping her up, he smiled. "I was comfortable.  You make an excellent blanket."

 

She laughed and shook her head. "Fine, then next time you can sit on my lap so I can stay warm."

 

Following her back inside, he heard the water running through the pipes and glanced at the clock, marking the time.  Twenty minutes later, the water was still running and he glanced at Elizabeth.  "What do you think?  Should I go make sure he's OK?"  Visions of everything that could go badly – accidentally and on purpose - in a bathroom and with water filled his head even as he mentally shoved them aside.  Neal had told him in the car that he wasn't interested in hurting himself and he tended to believe him.  Neal was a survivor and that was a very hard personality type to act against.

 

"I don't think it would hurt," she agreed, glancing at the clock nervously.  Walking over to the stove, she poured a cup of hot water from the kettle sitting there.  Plopping in a tea bag and spoon, she handed it to him.  "Here, you can tell him I made him some tea."

 

He laughed, taking the mug. "He'll see through that."

 

Shrugging, his wife smiled patiently. "It doesn't matter, honey.  It's the excuse and the thought and something for him to latch onto.  This way, if he wants to think – know – that you're worried about him, he can.  If that's too much, he can think I made him tea and made you bring it up. Either way, it gives you a good excuse to check up on him and the explanation that he needs right now." 

 

Peter leaned over and kissed her. "You know how much I appreciate smart."  Carefully walking up the stairs so he didn't spill the hot liquid all over his hand, he put the mug in the guest room and headed toward the closed bathroom door.  Knocking, he called, "Elizabeth thought you might like some tea.  It's in the bedroom for you."  When the younger man didn't answer, he knocked again. "Neal?"

 

"Yeah, OK, thanks," the voice behind the door said.

 

His hand hovered over the doorknob while he struggled not to worry.  Giving it up as a lost cause when it came to Neal, he said, "Everything OK in there?" 

 

"Fine."

 

Not liking the monosyllable answers or the tone, Peter put his hand on the knob, "Can I come in for a minute then?"  He heard the water being shut off a moment later and several small thumps.  Seconds from quoting the fact that Neal was in his custody and he was responsible for his safety and barging in, the other man's privacy and feelings be damned, he heard him speak again.

 

"Come on in, Peter," he said in a tired voice.

 

Stepping into the bathroom, the older man quickly surveyed the scene.  The window was partially open, allowing the moisture to escape, but other than that nothing looked out of place or suspicious. He could see the razor hanging on the little hook next to the shaving mirror mounted on the shower wall and the other man was freshly shaven.   Neal was standing next to the shower with a towel wrapped around his waist, another towel slung around his neck from his wet hair.  Several old bruises from the explosion were still visible on his shoulder, side and upper arm but there was nothing new, much to his relief.  "Elizabeth thought you might like some tea," he said, his eyes focusing on his friend.  "She thinks it helps with sleeping.  Some sort of herbal blend thing," he added as his eyes tightened, studying the man in front of him, noting the goose bumps and paler skin.

 

Neal nodded. "Thanks.   I'll be down in just a minute.  I'm almost done in here."

 

Without thinking, he took two steps forward and touched the other man's wet upper arm, not surprised to find the skin and water on it ice cold.  Meeting Neal's eyes, he looked at him, not needing to ask.

 

Stepping slightly away, Neal smiled and gave a small shrug. "The hot water ran out before I was done."

 

Peter sighed inwardly. "Next time, take that as a clue that you've showered long enough.  All right?"  When the younger man nodded, he patted his shoulder again. "Five minutes more minutes, tops, and then I expect you downstairs."

 

"Or no ice cream?" the other man asked with a smile.

 

Peter smiled back. "If you're not down in five minutes, you don't even get cobbler."

 

"Sent to bed without dessert, huh?"

 

Peter laughed. "If that's all I do to you, you should count yourself very lucky."  The words were out of his mouth before he had given the other man's reaction any thought.  Meeting his friend's eyes, he held the gaze, watching the play of emotions across the tired face.  Not seeing distress or anger, he held his tongue, waiting for Neal to direct the conversation.

 

Neal smiled slightly and nodded. "Yeah."

 

"Five minutes," he repeated before turning and retreating out of the bathroom.

 

"Peter," Neal called quietly after him.

 

Stopping in the hall, he looked back into the small room, "What?"

 

"I remember that I promised you we'd talk about me bailing from here a few weeks ago."  His voice was quiet and he glanced up at his friend, meeting his gaze before shifting his eyes slightly to the far wall.  "I still want to do that, I think.  Still need to do that, I mean, I think."  His words were uncertain, but his voice was confident in its meaning.

 

Peter nodded. "I think I'll give you your one and only free pass on that one.  We'll start over fresh and the first rule is no more long, cold showers. Got it?" 

 

He smiled slightly. "Does that mean, since there's a first rule, there's going to be a second?"

 

"And a third and a fourth and, knowing you, probably a few dozen more," Peter said, shaking his head and trying hard not to smile back.  "Nothing extreme and certainly nothing you don't already know not to do."  He held his friend's gaze for a moment before adding softly, "You know you can trust me."

 

The younger man nodded and took a deep breath. Moving his left leg a bit, he smiled. "And you can trust me too."

 

"I know.  I'm counting on it."

 

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Keeping an eye on the clock on the stove, Peter helped his wife set out plates and mugs.  He smiled as the younger man appeared three minutes later.  "Perfect timing," he said easily.

 

Neal smiled at him and then at Elizabeth.  "Smells good."

 

She put down the glass container of warmed dessert and smiled back at him, taking a hesitant half step toward him.  "How was the shower?"

 

"It was excellent, just what I needed."  He glanced at Peter and then back at her, "Do I have you or Peter to thank for wide choice of body wash?"

 

Pulling out his chair, the agent snorted at the idea.

 

"I'm glad you liked them, Neal," she said with a smile.  She looked at him for a moment, studying the tired face and circles under his eyes.  He had clearly lost weight over the last few weeks and if she hadn't known better, she would have guessed he had been sick.  She felt herself move closer, wanting to reach out to him and comfort him.  He gave an almost imperceptible nod, moving his arms slightly apart and that was all the opening she needed.  Reaching out, she pulled him closer and hugged him tightly.

 

Resisting slightly for a brief minute, he hugged her back, wrapping his arms around her burrowing his face into her shoulder.  He could feel his breath catch in his throat and his eyes prickled as he struggled not to relax too much, afraid of what would happen if he did.

 

"I'm so glad you're here," she whispered.  "We're both so glad you're here."  She wanted to add that everything was going to be OK, that he was safe, that Peter would take care of everything and would get the person or people who had done all these things.  But she held back, not wanting to spoil the honest moment with platitudes that might come across as being insincere or end up not being true.   When she felt him nod, she gave him another squeeze and a light kiss on the check.  Pulling away slightly, she smiled. "Sit, eat, you need to put some weight back on."

 

Neal laughed, pulling out her chair before moving on to his own.

 

Peter smiled at him. "Just wait – give it a few weeks and she'll be giving you a dirty look when you try to take seconds like she does with me."  He exchanged smiles with his wife as the conversation flowed around the table.

 

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Lying in bed two hours later, Peter lightly stroked his wife's back as she lay curled up on his chest.  "I think he's going to be OK, El.  I think I got him out in time; we got him back."

 

"I think so too," she said. 

 

Absently holding her, he allowed his thoughts to replay the last several weeks and everything that could have gone wrong, but didn't.

 

Kissing him as if reading his thoughts, she smiled.  "You did good, Agent Burke.  Now stop mulling over the past.  The future is big enough to deal with all on its own."

 

He laughed, "Yes ma'am."  But despite her orders, his mind refused to obey.  He replayed the images he saw on the daily security tapes sent over by the prison that showed Neal laying in bed, unmoving.  And then later, simply sitting on his cot, eyes closed, head against the wall, the paper and pencils and books provided going untouched for hours at a time.  Guilt, anger and sadness formed a restless mix and had taken up what seemed like permanent residence in his mind.  An hour later, he glanced at the clock and finally gave in.  Carefully sliding free from Elizabeth's arms, he padded out of the bedroom and down the hall.  Like his last middle of the night visit to this room, he wasn't surprised to see a light still burning.  He knocked softly and then cautiously opened the door to peer inside.

 

Neal was curled up on his side, eyes closed and asleep, buried under the comforter and an extra blanket against the winter chill of the house.  The night stand lamp was on, filling the room with a soft light.

 

Slipping inside, Peter sat quietly down on the wing back chair and studied the younger man for a long moment.  He knew he should leave and not risk waking him, but he couldn't.  His mind replayed the last time he walked out of this room and the aftermath and he wondered how much could have been prevented if he had stayed.  So he sat and listened to the other man's even breaths, thought about the future and tried not to think of the past.  Twenty minutes later, he noticed blue eyes watching him from the nest of covers.  "Hi," he said softly, putting down the book he had just picked up as distraction from his thoughts.

 

"Hi," Neal said, not moving.

 

"I didn't mean to wake you up."

 

"You didn't, I wasn't asleep," he confessed with a smile and shrug.  "I heard you come in a while ago."

 

"You looked asleep."

 

The other man shrugged again.  "What are you reading?"

 

Peter sighed, glancing at the book in his hand and shook his head.  "Nothing, just the first thing I grabbed from the bookshelf. You should be asleep."

 

"I could say the same thing."

 

"I know you're not sleeping well and I wanted to make sure you were OK," he said softly.  There was more he wanted to ask and say, but one in the morning was not the time for that conversation, if there ever would be a time. 

 

Neal shrugged again.   "You should go back to bed.  I'm fine." 

 

Peter watched him for a moment and then picked up his book, "I think I'm going to sit here for awhile until you fall asleep."

 

"If the past is any indication, that might be awhile," he said honestly.  Stretching a bit under the covers, he adjusted the pillows so he could look at Peter more easily.  "Location was only part of the problem."

 

Peter looked at him gently.  "What were some of the other problems?" he asked.  "We can get you something to help or someone to talk to, you know."

 

The other man shook his head. "No need to talk about anything and taking something, god, that would be horrible.  Trapped asleep, not being able to wake up and …"  His voice trailed off as he gave an involuntary shudder.  "It's better to wake up screaming at least."

 

Having seen the videos and having read the reports, Peter didn't need to ask for an explanation.  "I don't think any of the drugs that they sell over the counter or even by prescription are that strong, Neal," he said.  "If you need to take something, it's fine.  We can work out whatever you need, make sure it's OK.  It might help."

 

"No," he said in a voice that effectively ended the conversation.

 

Peter smiled. "Then I guess until I feel more comfortable, you're stuck with my remaining solution."

 

"So you're going to sit there and pretend to read and I'm going to lie here and pretend to sleep," Neal said with a smile.

 

Peter nodded. "That's the plan."

 

Neal laughed, curling up tighter against the pillow clutched to his chest.  "Sounds like a good one."  Closing his eyes, he sighed softly.  "You're really not going to leave?"

 

"I'm really not going to leave," he said firmly, hoping he was reading the correct double meaning behind it. 

Fifteen minutes later, Peter he knew his guess was right and was almost positive the younger man was no longer faking sleep.  His mouth was slightly open and his breathing had grown more shallow with a faint snore at each intake of breath.  Smiling, he resumed his reading, confident that Neal would never do anything as undignified as snore just to fake being asleep.

 

Slipping into the bedroom six hours later, Elizabeth smiled at the scene of both men fast sleep, snoring in unison. 

 

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"We need to talk about this," Peter said, tapping Neal's left ankle and the tracking anklet blinking lazily on it.  It was late Sunday afternoon and they had been sitting in the living room, Neal reading while Peter watched college basketball.  The weekend was ending, which meant that Peter would be returning to work in the morning and Neal would be home.  It wasn't a solution he was happy with, but with Neal's status still as witness and confidential informant, there was no way he could officially be back in the office.  Neither he nor Hughes felt that broadcasting the younger man's released status was a good idea, even if it was probably known by anyone who cared to look. 

 

Putting down his book, the younger man turned slightly on the couch and looked at him.  "I promised I wouldn't run, Peter, or do anything stupid.

 

He smiled and nodded. "I know and I trust you.  But I just want to remind you.  You're on a short leash right now, half mile only from the house."

 

Neal shrugged, picking up his book again. "I don't care.  I don't have any place to go anyway."

 

Bumping the other man's shoulder with his own, he smiled. "Well, it's a good thing then that you like it here."  When Neal smiled, he added, "Plus Elizabeth is working from home for awhile, so it's not like you'll be totally on your own.  I think she has a list or something she wants help with."

 

He laughed. "So I don't get to be the unpaid servant of the FBI, but I can still be your unpaid servant."

 

Peter pretended to think for a moment before nodding. "Sounds about right.  At least we're giving you room and board."  Glancing at the book the other man was reading, he reached out and tilted up the cover, raising an eyebrow.  "Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art," he said, reading out loud.  "Yeah, that's just perfect Neal, exactly what you need to be reading: a new play book."

 

"Elizabeth got it for me yesterday," he protested, pulling his book back.  "It's from the library so it's OK.  Perfectly legit.  It's interesting and I remember when they went on trial, all the talk around .. certain places."

 

"Uh huh," Peter said with a smile as he wondered what his wife was up to, "Did you know them?"

 

The younger man shook his head. "No, not personally, and we weren't in the same art circles.  I didn't do England very often anyway, that ground was too well claimed and I didn't have many contacts there."

 

"So not even unsolves for you there?"

 

Neal laughed and gave Peter a broad smile. "Oh, I'm sure there's a few things that I'm not even alleged of doing yet floating around the island."  Waving the book, he said, "You know what's the really unfair part of this though?"

 

"Oh, I can't wait to hear this," Peter said with a smile, enjoying the other man's excitement and thinking that Elizabeth had completely known what she was doing with her book selection.

 

"The main guy – John Drewe?  Almost two million pounds – served less than two years," Neal proclaimed.  "How is that fair?"

 

"Yes, highly unfair," Peter agreed, remembering the case.  He had just been assigned his own art forger and remembered reviewing the files, wondering if his cases had been solved already for him.  Glancing outside, he saw the sun was shining for the first time in several days.  He stood up, patting the other man on the back. "Come on, up, let's take the dog for a walk, get moving, get some fresh air.  It'll be good for you."

 

Neal made a face. "I don't have a coat, Peter, remember?  Plus, I'm comfortable here reading and you're watching the game."

 

"Games," the other man corrected with a smile, "tournaments going on right now."  Motioning with his hand, he headed toward the hall closet. "And you're in luck – I do have more than one coat, you know."  He waited, watching his friend.  "You'll feel better, I promise," he said softly. 

 

"I don't want your trench coat," Neal said, standing up, making a face.  "I want to pick."

 

Opening the closet door, Peter motioned inside. "Whatever you want, it's yours."  Then, seeing the smile returning to Neal's face, added, "Wait – that didn't come out exactly right."

 

"Oh no," he said, peering inside, "that's exactly what I like to hear."

 

"In the closet," Peter corrected himself, "whatever coat you want in the closet, you can borrow, which means it's returned." 

 

 

 

Keeping his eye on Neal, they walked casually, allowing Satchmo to sniff to his heart's content.  Neal talked more about the Drewe and Myatt cases, filling in some of the rumors going around about them and the unidentified forgeries that were still around, the owners still unwilling to risk verification by coming forward.

 

"It's like a parlor game among certain circles," Neal said with a shrug, giving Peter a small smile.  "Doesn't the FBI have something similar?  Like at your banquet things, every table is given some famous cold case to try to solve?"

 

Peter laughed, enjoying the picture.  "No but that's a good idea.  Plenty of unsolved cases out there."  They lapsed into comfortable silence, carefully walking the blocks, stopping and turning when Neal's anklet gave the first warning beep that he had reached the end of his half mile radius, backtracking several times when roads Peter had always thought were straight turned out not to be and they crossed the line unexpectedly.

 

Each time the anklet beeped, Neal flinched slightly.  "I hate this thing," he muttered softly.

 

Reaching out, Peter patted him on the back, but didn't say anything.  There really wasn't anything to say exactly.  Telling him to cowboy up would just be cruel and telling him that it would be OK was meaningless.  It was simply something else the younger man would have to deal with, learn to live with and ignore.  "You know, thinking about cold cases," he said after awhile, "why don't I bring a couple home with me?  It'll give you something to do and we might even be able to solve some while you're off."  He smiled at him. "Got to keep my closure rate up and your skills up, you know."

 

Neal laughed. "It'll take more than a few down weeks to rust my skills, Peter."  Flashing a quick, honest smile, he held up the other man's keys and shrugged.  "I was laid up one time for a good four months and barely lost a step."

 

Snatching his keys back with a rueful shake of the head, Peter worked hard but eventually gave up trying to hide his smile. "Why were you laid  up for so long?" he asked, mentally searching his history of Caffrey Cases.  Allowing Neal to simply talk, he decided, was a good thing.  It made the younger man's eyes light up and his face and hands and whole body slowly became more animated, losing some of the quiet, old-man air he had taken on.  The drawn lines and dark circles had lessened just a bit, enough to give Peter hope that there was in fact light at end of this tunnel.  He had no illusions though that this was going to be a quick journey and had already braced Elizabeth for the twists, turns and stumbles he knew were coming.

 

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The first real stumble came a week and a half later.  His schedule and case load were being kept as light as possible right now and Peter was focusing on being home on time for dinner, a fact that Elizabeth loved.

 

"Hey, honey," she said, looking up from her laptop and work spread out on the dining room table, as he let himself into the front door a few minutes after six.  Tilting her face up for a kiss, she smiled, "I could get used to this schedule, you know," she whispered as she pulled him close.

 

He laughed. "Me too."  He loved his job, loved the satisfaction he got, but the hours and schedule did sometimes take their toll.  These last few weeks had been a welcome break, after the initial adjustment.  Pulling out a chair, they chatted for a few minutes about his day, office gossip and the proposal she was putting together for two different corporate dinners to be held in the upcoming months.  Ten minutes later, he glanced around, "Where's Neal?"

 

She gave a half shrug. "Out walking the dog."  Then added, "Again." 

 

"Third time today?" he asked, remembering the conversations he had had with both of them during lunch.

 

"Fifth," she corrected, "but only the third time he's taken Satch."  Pushing her computer toward him, she nodded at the small screen in the corner she had open.  "I've sort of been watching."

 

He smiled, pulling the computer closer and maximizing the US Marshal's anklet tracking screen.  He had given his wife his log-in information awhile ago and found it funny that she was now using it to track their friend.  "Does he know?"

 

She snorted. "He might guess, but I make sure I log off every time I leave the computer.  He knows you track him, of course, so it's in the history from that."

 

"Of course," Peter confirmed, remembering the various times during the day when he quickly logged on, just to see.  If Neal went outside his half-mile radius, he got a call but still … there was something comforting about seeing the blinking dot precisely where it belonged, where it was hopefully safe.  The first week Neal had been with him, the younger man rarely ventured outside, had done little but take long showers – if Peter was home, always taking care to comment that the water was nice and warm - sleep and read.  Now that he was more active Peter was happy, but it also caused him to worry more.  The dot's path was going in circles, back and forth over all the various streets within the radius.  It would stop from time to time, but never for more than a few minutes and in no pattern he could spot initially.  "It looks like he's just ... roaming," Peter said after a minute.  "At least he's on his way back here," he added, noting the dot about two blocks from the house and heading in the right direction.

 

Elizabeth nodded. "That's all he's doing, I think – just roaming around, but it's more and longer every day.  I asked if he wanted company and I did go out with him this afternoon once, but the rest of the time, he said he was fine."

 

"Fine meaning he wants to be alone."

 

"That's how I took it, which I can understand, but I worry.  Do you want me to push?"

 

Peter shook his head. "No, let me think about it and if so, I'll do it.  I'd rather you stay out of it – the nice supportive ear he can turn to when I'm mean to him."

 

She laughed. "All right, I'll play the good cop then to your bad one."

 

Leaning over, he kissed her. "Love you."

 

"Me too," she said, pulling back the computer and logging off the site and closing it down.  "Go change, he'll be here soon and we can have dinner in a bit."

 

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Peter had just finished changing when he heard the front door open and close, greetings being exchanged and the sound of Neal coming up the stairs.  Killing a few minutes in the bedroom to give the younger man some space and not appear to be hovering, he headed down the hall and knocked on the closed door. 

 

"What, Peter?" Neal asked through the closed door.

 

His hand paused on the door knob, once again torn between respecting privacy and wanting to make sure everything was OK.  "I was just going to say Hi," he said finally, not opening the door.  "See how your day was."  He winced at the last part, which sounded lame even to his own ears. 

 

"I'm fine, Peter," Neal said in a slightly monotone voice as he opened the door a moment later.  "My day was good.  How was your day?"  He gave a quick, brief smile that didn't reach his eyes. 

 

Peter shrugged and smiled. "Mortgage cases that are crossing several state lines, which means a ton of paperwork, conference calls and meetings to make sure everyone is kept up to speed and no one feels like their toes are being stepped on." He laughed as his partner made the expected face, "Comes with the territory.  I did bring home a couple of cold case files if you're interested.  Maybe you'll have a chance to look over them in the next few days and we can talk about it this weekend when we have more time."

 

Neal shrugged, glancing away just a bit to stare over his friend's shoulder. "OK."

 

"You don't have to, you know," the agent said quickly, instantly wondering if he was pushing too hard.  Or, maybe the idea of helping the FBI was repugnant after all that had happened in the last few weeks.  "If you'd prefer that I don't, just tell me, Neal.  It's fine and we'll go at your own speed."  He studied the younger man still not meeting his eyes.  "Neal," he said firmly. 

 

Darting his eyes back, he meet them for a moment, "What, Peter?"  His voice was sharp, with a rare, impatient air.  He heard his own voice and then shifted immediately, smiling.  "I'm more than happy to help; it's the least I can do."

 

Hating that smile, Peter felt his own temper snap.  "Don't," he said, sharply.  "Be honest with me here.  Tell me what you want to do, not what you think I want to hear or what you think you should be saying."

 

Neal gave a quick laugh, "What do I want to do?  When has that ever entered into the equation?"

 

"That's not fair," Peter snapped back, annoyed. "You've had plenty of choices and no one else to blame if you've made the wrong one at times."  Hating his tone and knowing he was handling this situation all wrong, he watched Neal's eyes harden and close as he struggled to find the right words.  "What I mean …"

 

"You're right," the younger man said quietly, interrupting.  "It's all my choices, it's all my responsibility."

 

"That's not what I'm saying," Peter said sharply.  "What I'm trying to say …"

 

Neal waved a hand, cutting him off as he stepped back out of the door way and into the bedroom.  "It's fine, Peter.  I'm glad you brought the cases home, I'm more than happy to look at them.  Like you said, it'll help the department's closure rate and give me something to do."

 

"Neal," Peter started again.

 

"No, it's fine and I mean it," Neal said quietly with a smile. 

 

Not knowing how to call the younger man on the obvious lie, Peter sighed inwardly, cursing the direction this conversation had gone.  "Dinner will be ready soon." he said finally.

 

"I'm not hungry," he said, "but enjoy your dinner with Elizabeth."

 

"You have to eat," he countered immediately even as he saw the other man's eyes harden almost imperceptibly, one of the few signs that he was already withdrawing.  "You've already lost too much weight, Neal.  It's not healthy." 

 

Taking another step back into the room, Neal looked at Peter and said coolly just before he shut the door, "But it's my choice."  

 

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"So when he said he wasn't hungry, what did you say again?" Elizabeth asked quietly as she glanced at the third plate empty at the table.  Breaking apart the crust of the chicken pot pie, she shook her head.  "He has to eat."

 

Her husband sighed. "Yes, I know and I did tell him that, El.  And believe me, after we get through tonight, he'll be eating.  I'll talk to him later."  Taking a small bite, he smiled. "So do you think you have a solid chance with the two proposals you're working on?"  He knew it was a bit of a Hail Mary pass, anything to change the subject off Neal right now and away from how badly the earlier conversation had gone.  He did believe every word he said to his wife:  Neal was an adult, he would eat when he was hungry and there was no way to really force the younger man to do anything he didn't want to do.  The last few weeks had been traumatic enough; he didn't want to make their home a place of stress and conflict when it hadn't yet reached that point.

 

"I think so," she said, picking up the cues and chatting easily about her plans and potential clients.  Thirty minutes later, she glanced up at the soft sound of feet on the stairs.  "So I'm really not sure," she said easily, picking up the spoon and removing the cover from the serving dish to put more of the casserole on Peter's empty plate with a nod.   "Is brown and blue still different enough or has it been overdone the last couple of years?"  Taking a bit for her own empty plate, she glanced up as Neal wearily made his way into the living room.  "Hey," she said casually. 

 

Peter glanced at his friend and gave a small smile. "Hi," he said, trying to match El's casual tone before turning the conversation back to her.  "You know, honey, I couldn't even have told you that brown and blue even go together."

 

She laughed. "Peter, remember that tie I gave you last year for Christmas? Dark brown, small blue print?"  As she talked, she watched the younger man out of the corner of her eye.  His eyes darted between the coat closet and the front door and out the window at the darkness.  She shifted her gaze and met Peter's eyes and saw the same concern echoed there.  Turning, she said in a louder voice, "Neal, come sit with us.  You can help me convince my husband that the tie he's never worn looks perfectly fine."

 

The younger man jerked slightly, looking guilty for a moment before smiling and easing into the dining room.  Pulling out the chair across from Peter, he sat down and glanced at Elizabeth.  "You know given Peter's fashion sense, I'm not sure that even I can convince him of that."  His smile widened.  "You know he only has like five suits."

 

She laughed, "He actually has more than that but, believe it or not, some of them are worse than what he normally wears to the office."

 

"I'm sitting right here," Peter protested.  Taking a bite of the casserole on his plate, he smiled, "This turned out really good.  Did you do something different?"

 

She beamed at the compliment even if it was the same one he had given her earlier.  "I marinated the chicken," she said, pausing for a second as she glanced at Neal, who had glanced at the dish.  Picking up the spoon and without asking, she scooped out a large serving, pleased to see that it was still warm enough to steam a little and, chatting the whole time about cooking, served him.  "My grandmother always just roasted the chicken whole, but really, to me, that's just a huge mess and a lot of waste." 

 

Peter laughed. "I think your grandparents also raised those chickens and that's not something I think we want to do either."

 

She laughed. "Yeah, I think they did and I'm in complete agreement on that.  I'm perfectly fine with the foam trays and plastic wrap."  Years of making small talk with clients and other professionals gave her plenty of experience in talking and filling the silence while simultaneously watching her surroundings.

 

"Where did your grandparents live, Elizabeth?" Neal asked quietly, glancing up from picking at the food in front of him.

 

Taking another small bite of food, she said, "They had a farm out in the wilds of New Jersey, which is now the middle of the suburbs."  With that new topic of discussion and Peter's help, the conversation flowed around the table for another thirty minutes while Neal slowly picked at and eventually finished his food. 

 

"That was really good," Neal said as he finished.  Smiling at her, he studiously avoiding looking in Peter's direction.  "You did your grandmother proud, I'm sure."

 

Standing up, Peter reached for his wife's plate. "Here, we'll clean up since you cooked, right Neal?"

 

"You'll hear no complaints from me," Elizabeth said, sitting back in her chair and sipping at the last of her wine.

 

Taking his own plate and Peter's, the younger man silently carried them into the kitchen and turned on the water to rinse the plates.  "Dinner was good," he said after several uncomfortably quiet minutes alone with Peter.

 

"It was," the other man agreed.  On the obvious pretense of washing his hands, he joined Neal at the sink, gently bumping him over with his shoulder.  "I'm glad you came down," he said quietly. 

 

Next to him, Neal silently nodded, eyes fixed on the sink.

 

"I don't think whether or not you eat dinner should be your choice any more," Peter said evenly.  "It's now an expectation.  You don't have to talk, you don't have to be social, you don't even have to sit with Elizabeth and me, but you do have to eat dinner at a reasonable time every day."  Reaching for a towel, he studied the other man's expression while he dried his hands.  "You made the right choice tonight though. I'm happy you joined us."

 

Glancing at the older man, Neal gave him a brief but honest smile.  "Thanks."  Then, picking up the last plate to wash, he added, "And you're right, it probably shouldn't be a choice."

 

Peter nodded, saying casually, "OK then, so that's Rule Number Two."  Resting his hand briefly on the other man's shoulder, he gave it a gentle squeeze, feeling Neal relax into him.  Not moving, he felt him take several shaky breaths even as his eyes stayed fixed on the plate in his hands. 

 

After a long moment, Neal straightened up slightly and took a deep breath.  "So how many rules did you say there were, Peter?" he asked, trying to make his voice sound casual.

 

"With you? I'm thinking dozens and dozens," he said with a laugh.

 

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Jerking awake several hours later, Peter stared into the darkness wondering what had woken him up.  The house was quiet and he could hear Satchmo's snores coming from the floor on Elizabeth's side of the bed.  Through the partially opened bedroom door, he listened to see if he heard Neal crying out in his sleep or the soft murmur of the TV that would tell him the younger man was once again up and roaming around, unable to sleep.  The first week had been the worst, with Neal waking up several times a night, and they had gotten into the habit of leaving the door open so they could hear more easily.   Peter would wake up and either sit in the younger man's room and read while Neal struggled to fall back asleep or would join him on the couch and watch TV until he fell asleep. 

 

"I've never slept well," Neal confessed during one of these late night sessions.

 

"Why not?" Peter asked.  "Bad dreams? Thinking about jobs?"

 

He shook his head, "I don't know – just never have.  It's a great time to draw though, I could do it quietly and not bother anyone else."  Smiling wistfully, he said, "Sometimes, if we were … doing something, Kate would wake up and there were be dozen of drawings on the floor, sometimes of her, sometimes of other people or just copies of other works and I'd be fast asleep at the table."

 

"What happened to all the drawings?"  He remembered Neal's cell after he had escaped and all the drawings there, but none had been of his girl friend.

 

He shrugged. "We burned them as we moved."  Swallowing, he turned back to the Law & Order rerun they were watching, saying quietly, "Seems sort of prophetic now."

 

Now, lying awake early Thursday morning, Peter listened to the uneasy silence in the house.  Carefully getting out of bed so as not to wake Elizabeth, he threw on a robe and padded out into the hall.  A quick glance down the stairs showed no lights or the telltale flicker from the TV.  Listening at the half closed guest room door, he heard nothing.  Feeling a small flicker of fear start in his stomach, he gently pushed the door open and swore at the sight of the empty bed.  A quick glance in the bathroom confirmed that Neal was gone.  "Damn it, Neal," he muttered, heading downstairs to check the tracker.  The young man couldn't have gone far or the Marshals would have notified him. 

 

"What's wrong?"  Elizabeth asked, coming into the living room a few minutes later as Peter powered up her laptop on the table.

 

"Neal's gone," he said tersely.  "He went out the front, but at least had the good sense to put on a coat." 

"So he's out roaming again," she said, moving to peer outside the living room windows.  "I don't see him on the street."

 

Clicking through the screens, Peter sighed. "No, he's about three blocks down and moving away from the house."  Heading back into the living room, he gave her a tired smile, "Do me a favor, honey.  Watch the screen while I go get dressed."

 

Ten minutes later, he quickly walked down the street, phone pressed tight to his ear, listening to his wife's directions.

 

"It looks like he's turned on 9th, heading toward Union," she said. 

 

"Excellent, I'm at the corner of Union and 8th so he should be coming right at me," he said.  "Actually, I see him, thanks honey."

 

"Love you," she said.  "And I think I'll stay up until I see him heading back toward the house."

 

"I do love smart," Peter said with a small laugh as he closed the phone, slipping it back into his pocket.  Standing in the middle of the deserted sidewalk, he watched the familiar figure walk toward him, hesitate for a step as he was spied and then slowly continue forward.  "Bit late for a walk," he said as Neal stopped in front of him.  The younger man was dressed in jeans and Peter's ski jacket and his face was drawn, the dark circles standing out from the pale face in bad light from the street lamp.  "It's freezing out here," he added.

 

The younger man glanced at his friend for a moment before shrugging. "I couldn't sleep."  Then with a cocky smile, he added, "What's your excuse?"

 

"So instead of reading or watching TV or drawing or playing on the computer, you decide that a stroll at 2:30 in the morning, alone, in the dark, in 10 degree weather is the perfect idea," Peter shot back, seriously annoyed. 

 

"I stayed within my half mile radius," Neal said, not bothering to hide the challenging tone to his voice.  "And we're in the city that never sleeps and there are street lamps every few feet.  It's not like we're in the middle of North Dakota, Peter."   The last sentence came out in an oh so patient tone as if speaking to a five year old child.

 

Without making a conscious decision, Peter gripped him by the upper arm and, turning him slightly, swatted the younger man twice on the butt.  "Do you think I'm in the mood to put up with that tone, much less that attitude right now?"

 

"Judging by your …" Neal started and then stopped himself, shaking his head.  "No," he said simply.

 

"Excellent decision," Peter said, turning them both and heading back toward Union and the townhouse.  A block later, he heard the younger man start to say something and then catch himself, growing silent again.  "What, Neal?" he asked, forcing his voice to stay firm but patient.

 

"I wasn't running," he said simply.  "I was just walking.  I didn't even take my wallet."

 

The simple confession took Peter by surprise and he stopped, looking at his friend.  "Neal," he said seriously, "it really never crossed my mind that you were running.  I'm not annoyed because I thought you were running."

 

"Then why are you so annoyed?" he asked, interrupting, frustration clear on his face. 

 

Peter stared at him. "Because it's 2:30 in the morning, you're alone and it's freezing cold out here."  Why this was such a foreign concept to the younger man was beyond him.  "You don't think that's enough reason for me to be worried?  How long have you known me now?"

 

Neal smiled. "Umm, like seven, eight years now."

 

"And the fact that I would be worried about a friend, about my partner, putting himself in this situation is coming as a shock?"

 

Giving Peter another small but genuine smile, he shrugged.  "But, like I said, we're in the city that never sleeps, lots of street lights."

 

"Don't care," Peter said, holding up his hand, cutting him off.  "Let's go, it's cold."  Resuming the quick walk, he added, "And for the record, you not having your wallet, which means no ID, no money, on you doesn't add to my sense of well being."

 

He laughed. "Sorry, it was supposed to."  He stopped again and jerked up his jeans' leg slightly to reveal the blinking light.  "Plus, I sort of think if anything happened, this would you let you know."

 

Pushing aside the thoughts of what could have happened and what that phone call would be like, the older man shook his head.  "You're on a roll tonight; you've got a new rule," he said a block later. "Number Three: No walks alone between 10pm and 6am."

 

The other man glanced at him. "If you're just now making the rule up, why did you swat me before?  Isn't there some sort of clause grandfathering in my behavior?" 

 

Peter glanced at him, judging his reaction.  "Not in this case.  This clearly falls into the Stupid and Dangerous category, as well as the Things Peter Wouldn't Let Me Do If He Knew one."  Watching Neal process the news out of the corner of his eye, he saw the younger man's expression darken slightly. 

 

Neal stopped short on the sidewalk and stared at Peter. "I'm not sure I like this rule."

 

Stopping and looking at him, Peter inwardly sighed. "Why not, Neal?  Are you upset over the fact that I'm not going to allow you to go roaming around in the dark by yourself again?  Over the fact that I don't want to wake up in the middle of the night again and find you gone?  What exactly is so wrong about any of that?"

 

The younger man took a deep breath as if about to speak and then clamped his mouth shut with a small shake of his head and looked down at the sidewalk.  "Never mind, let's go.  It's cold."

 

Knowing the discussion was far from over, Peter nodded.  Five minutes later, he opened the front door to the house and ushered the other man inside.  Elizabeth, the master of planning, had closed down the computer and tucked it away, but left several of the living room lights on.  Pointing to the sofa, he said firmly, "Sit."

 

"You know, it's sort of late," Neal started, hesitating at the foot of the stairs.   Then, seeing Peter's expression, he turned quickly and sat on the couch.  "I'm sitting," he said unnecessarily.

 

Watching for a moment, Peter nodded, softening his expression as he angled one of the chairs toward the sofa and pulled it closer.  Sitting down, he leaned in, arms resting on his legs and said, "So talk to me,  tell me what's going on.  What don't you like about me not wanting you out roaming in the middle of the night?  You couldn't sleep and …"  He let his voice trail off, allowing Neal to fill in the rest.

 

He sighed, putting his head back against the couch and closing his eyes.  "I couldn't sleep so I thought I'd take a walk.  That's all.  No big mystery."

 

"Instead of doing something else," Peter said.  "I would think you'd be sick of walking, considering how much you've been going out lately.

 

Neal shrugged. "I've stayed within my radius."

 

"Yes."  Watching him, Peter struggled to stay quiet, letting the silence settle and giving Neal the space he needed to explain.

 

A minute later, Neal sat up, eyes opening in frustration. "It helps with everything, OK?  Sometimes when I'm still, my mind just goes and goes and goes because it doesn't have anything to latch onto.  I can't concentrate on what I'm reading and the stupid TV doesn't help.  I have to do something and walking has just become that default."

 

"I can understand that," Peter said simply.  "That makes sense, I can see where it would help, but we're going to have to find something else to do besides walking at night."  Bumping the other man's foot with his own shoe, he said, "What about drawing? Or painting?"

 

Neal gave a sharp, bitter laugh and shook his head.  "No."

 

"Why not?"

 

Shaking his head, he gave Peter a rueful smile. "It's not a good idea, trust me."

 

"What ideas do you have then?" he asked.

 

Putting his head back against the couch, Neal closed his eyes again and sighed softly.

 

Long hours on stake out had taught Peter patience.  Sitting in the chair quietly, he watched the flicker of emotions pass over the other man's tired face.  Five minutes later, he got up and moved over to the couch, bumping up against his friend gently, relieved when he felt the other man relax slightly into him.  Yawning, Neal shifted as Peter lifted his arm and moved closer.  "Tired?" he asked softly.

 

"It seems to be a pretty consistent state right now," Neal said, not opening his eyes.  "I just can't sleep."

 

Reaching up, Peter rested his hand on the other man's head, holding him close.  "I know."  Letting the silence settle around them, he waited to see if Neal would continue.  "So what can we do about it?" he asked, keeping his voice quiet, not wanting to actually wake him up if Neal was falling asleep.

 

"Walking is the only thing that helps," Neal said slowly.  "I just walk and walk and try not to think."  He smiled, shifting slightly into the sofa back and Peter.  "It works great until my stupid anklet beeps and jolts me back to reality."

 

Peter chuckled. "Thank god for beeping, otherwise there's no telling where you'd end up."

 

"Swimming with the fishes," Neal said with a giggle.

 

Peter glanced at him and bit back a laugh at the uncharacteristic giggle.  "I think you're getting loopy on me."

 

"I just don't have any other ideas, Peter," he said, his voice honest.  "My brain is dead right now, I'm blank.  I use to have such great ideas and they're all gone now.  I have no idea what else might work but …"  He shifted, coming fully awake as his eyes fixed on the other man.  "I don't know what else to do."

 

Peter nodded. "Then you wake me up and I'll go with you.  No matter what time it is, if taking a walk around the block or blocks or whatever is what you need, then I'll go with you."  Watching Neal process the information, he tried to keep his expression matter of fact.  Slowly standing up, he held out his hand, "Come on, it's late and if you fall asleep on the couch, there's no way I can get you up the stairs."

 

"You don't have to …" Neal started, looking up at him.

 

"Get you up the stairs?" he asked, deliberately steering the conversation to a lighter area and allowing himself to smile.  "Trust me, you don't want to sleep on that thing.  I have a couple of times and it kills your back."

 

"Fights with Elizabeth?"

 

Peter glared at him, pulling him to a standing position.  "No, extra innings and overtimes."

 

Neal grinned, "If that's your story …"

 

Pointing him in the directions of the stairs, Peter gave him a gentle push. "Upstairs.  Bed.  It's late."  He waited until Neal began the climb up and then slowly shut off the lights, making sure the front door was secure before following him upstairs.  Knocking on the half closed guest room door a few minutes later, he nodded approvingly into the dark room.  "Good, stay there until at least six, please."

 

Neal glanced up from the bed.  "I don't know if I can sleep from where you swatted me.  My butt hurts."

 

Hesitating for the briefest of seconds, Peter shook his head. "If you're that sensitive to pain, then I suggest you don't do anything to make me actually spank you.  Tonight was two little taps just to stop the attitude, nothing more."  He paused and then smiled slightly. "I'm glad it worked."

 

Neal picked up his book and flipping on the bedside lamp, he glanced at the older man for a brief second before giving a quick nod.  "It worked," he said quietly.

 

He walked over and touched the other man's head for a moment.  "Good," he said honestly, as he took the book and flipped off the light, darkening the room again.  "Close your eyes and try to sleep."  Carrying the book over to what was rapidly becoming his normal nighttime spot, he sat down in the wing chair.  "Close them," he ordered as he turned on the other small light.

 

Sighing, Neal rolled over onto his side, and curled around a pillow and closed his eyes. 

 

Five minutes later, Peter sensed the other man's eyes on him again.  Without looking up, he casually turned the page and simply said, "Neal."  His lips twitched as he heard the younger man sigh softly again.  Ten minutes later, his patience was rewarded with soft snores.  Creeping back into his own bed a half hour later, he kissed his wife gently.

 

"Everything OK?" she asked.

 

"We're working on it," he said honestly.  "Slowly but surely."

 

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"This is such utter …." Neal said in a tight voice, fists clenched as he glared at Peter across the room.  "Why are you being such a bastard?"

 

Peter leveled his gaze and stared at Neal.  "I said No."  This was the second time the subject had come up in the last thirty minutes and he was tired of it.

 

Glancing behind him as if he could see through the drawn curtains, Neal shook his head.  "It's barely dark."

 

"It's snowing," Peter said, enunciating the last word and praying for patience.  Elizabeth had left for an event around noon so it was just the two of them home alone Friday evening.   "You were out when I got home for who knows how long and that was only an hour ago.  You don't need to go back out now."  Taking several steps closer to his friend, Peter lowered his voice. "Plus, we're going to eat soon.  Your tomato sauce smells wonderful."

 

"It was easy.  Elizabeth and I went shopping this morning and it took ten minutes," he said with a small smile that disappeared a moment later.  "I always liked Italy."  Glaring at his leg for a second, he shook his head.  "It's not snowing hard, Peter.  It's New York, it's winter, if you don't go out when it's cold or snowing, you'd never go out."   

 

Motioning with his hand, Peter pulled out one of the dining room chairs, picking up the deck of cards they had been playing with the night before.  "Come teach me one of your card moves," he said with a smile.  "I don't believe that El was able to beat both of us last night, I think you had to be stacking the deck in her favor."  He recognized the restless expression in the other man's eyes and knew that it could lead to disaster.  Distracting him enough that he would talk was the best option.   

 

Neal glanced at the window again and moved toward the door. "I'm going for a quick walk.  Ten minutes, tops," he said.

 

Moving quickly, Peter blocked his way. "Neal, stop.  Take a couple of deep breaths for me, you don't have to go for walk.  Come sit down with me, we'll talk, we'll eat, you can run circles around me in cards."  He smiled and nodded. "Come on.  It's cold and snowing out there, you don't want to really go out, do you?" Silently wondering if he was handling the situation correctly, if he should offer to go with the younger man, he waited.   Making up his mind, he shifted slightly into the other man's personal space and said in a low but firm voice, "I said No and I mean it, Neal.  This is not your choice right now."

 

Neal closed his eyes as he nodded.  "Cards, please," he said in a strained voice.

 

"Excellent," Peter said, reaching out and squeezing his arm as they turned away from the door.  "You can show me what you did last night."

 

The other man laughed, "Yeah, so you can catch me next time.  I don't think so."

 

Peter could tell the younger man was distracted, so was he of course, but they both pretended otherwise and gradually, he could tell Neal was getting calmer, more relaxed and into showing off his skills.  Eying the face down line of three cards in front of him thirty minutes later, he knew the queen wasn't in any of them - of course -  but he also had no clue when or how Neal had picked it up.  He had been watching carefully, not letting himself be distracted by the banter or flashing cards, and he still didn't catch the younger man doing the switch. 

 

"Come on, Peter," Neal said with a small, honest smile.  "Where is she?  You know she was just there …I showed her to you."

 

He laughed. "Yeah, I have no idea.  Your front pocket?"

 

Neal grinned, looking at his friend, not at the cards, as he flipped them over, one by one, each one a queen. 

 

Peter laughed again. "I give up!"

 

"And I made it as easy as possible for you," Neal laughed.  "All you had to do was pick one and you would have gotten it."

 

Standing up, shaking his head, he grinned back. "Yeah, somehow I doubt that.  I would have picked one and somehow my card would have turned into the ten or an ace."

 

"You never know," Neal said sagely.  "You sometimes just have to take a chance and you'll find her."  His fingers ghosted over the red queen as his face turned more serious.  "Even knowing the risks, you still have to keep looking for her."

 

Peter watched him, "But the smart man knows when the game is fixed and when it's over and you have to be able to move on."

 

The younger man shrugged, eyes still fixed on the cards.  "It's easier to keep lying to yourself," he said softly.  "You can make yourself believe that you're smart enough to watch all the moves, pick up on all the tricks and see through the sleight of hand and that you'll be able to find her in the end.  I just wasn't smart enough or quick enough.  I could have found her if I had been."

 

"No one is that smart all the time, Neal," he said cautiously, not liking the dark turn the moment had taken.  "Come on, put the cards away –  I think we're done with them for the night.  I heard the oven a minute ago, so why don't you set the table and I'll pull the manicotti from the oven and start the bread.  I'm sure there's something in the wine cabinet that will suit you well enough." 

 

Scooping up the cards, Neal nodded slowly. "OK."

 

 

 

Peter looked up from putting the bread in the oven a few minutes later and eyed Neal, silently cursing.  "Going somewhere?"  The younger man was standing in the kitchen, holding Peter's ski jacket and gloves, shifting slightly.

 

He swallowed. "I don't know."

 

"No, you're not," Peter said firmly.  "We're going to eat dinner in just a few minutes."

 

"We spent six months in Naples," he said quietly.  "Our landlady made the best sauce, she taught me how to make it, said real men knew how to cook."  He smiled slightly at the memory before shaking his head as if banishing the thoughts.  "So I'm going to go out, but you enjoy dinner.  I'll have some when I get back, I'm not hungry right now anyway."

 

Moving closer, Peter shook his head, "No.  We're going to eat."

 

"No," Neal said, his eyes tightening.  "You can't tell me what to do, Peter."

 

The older man looked at him. "Yeah, I can."  Nodding toward Neal's left ankle, he said, "You listening to me and doing what I say is part of our agreement."  Keeping his eyes focused on his partner, he continued, "And we agreed on a separate, private arrangement as well.  One you brought up and said you wanted and I agreed to.   Both of those tell me that yeah – I can tell you want to do and yeah – you're supposed to listen and do it." 

 

Glancing away for a moment, Neal shifted his attention back with a small smirk, "I don't care, I'm leaving."  He stared at Peter for a second before turning and walking out the kitchen door.

 

It was a childish answer, Peter knew, akin to sticking out his tongue and saying ‘I dare you' to get the result he wanted or needed.  And, he knew Neal knew this too, at least on some level, and it was a test.  It was as much of a test as the initial conversation, as much of a test as Neal not saying Good-bye when he was leaving or throwing Peter's offer back in his face in prison three weeks ago.  The chase and the game that had always been between them:  prove that you know me better than just the face I show you.  Peter also knew that it was a test he could never fail without disastrous results.  "Neal," he barked sharply, catching up with him in four quick steps. 

 

"What?"

 

Taking the coat from him, Peter tossed it on the sofa, "I said No, several times, I meant No and I'm sick of saying it.  Obviously, I need to do more than just talk to make you understand."  Holding him by the arm, Peter swatted him hard across the butt.  "Let's go."

 

"What if I don't want to?" Neal shot back, pulling back slightly.

 

"Then you say so.  Until then, I'm going to handle this how I think is best and what I know you'll respond to."  Giving the younger man's arm a gentle squeeze, Peter said, "It's all about knowing the other person and trusting them, not just their actions but with your own."

 

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The basement was mostly Peter's area, where he could go and spread out files for big cases – especially those of elusive cons whose alleged crimes took up boxes-- or retreat to watch TV while El needed quiet for her own work.  The older TV from the living room had been moved down there when they got the flat screen and the furniture from their first apartment had fit in perfectly, the thicker lines and sturdier fabric complementing the casual air of the area.  It seemed fitting somehow, he reflected, watching impassively as Neal reluctantly took off his jeans, since their initial relationship began in this room with Peter pouring over files for hours.  Sitting on the couch, he held out his hand, "Come on."

 

Allowing himself to be pulled over and settled face down across the other man's knees, Neal shifted against the couch.  "I just wanted to go for a walk," he said.  "I'm not sure what the big deal was in that."

 

Peter swatted him again. "The big deal is that I said No, multiple times, and you still refused to listen.  That's what the big deal is, Neal."

 

He squirmed but remained quiet.

 

Swatting him three more times in rapid succession, Peter continued, "When I say No, I mean No.  I'm done letting you have free rein.  There are rules and consequences if you break those rules, and the consequence that I think works best is going to be dealing with it privately, between you and me."  He swatted him again. "Otherwise ….  I refuse to see you back in jail again if I can prevent it."

 

"But it was just a walk!" he protested again and then gasped, squirming more as Peter pushed down his boxers, exposing his butt.  "Peter!"

 

"This is about more than just taking a walk, Neal," he said firmly as he picked up the paddle lying next to him.  "Tell me what this is about."

 

"I don't know!"

 

Bringing the paddle down with a sharp swat, Peter said, "Yes, you do."  Methodically working his way down the other man's butt, he delivered four sharp swats.  "What's this about, Neal?" he asked softly.

 

"Fuck off, Peter," Neal shot back, tense and rigid under the punishment.

 

"And that's not it," he answered simply, raising the paddle again and delivering a half dozen hard swats in rapid succession.

 

"Peter, please," he said, his voice cracking slightly as he tried to squirm from under the other man's hard grasp. 

 

Putting the paddle down for a moment, Peter pushed back the other man's damp hair.  "Tell me what this is about, Neal," he said softly.  "Why am I doing this?  Why is this important?"

 

"I don't know!" he said, struggling to get up.

 

He picked up the paddle again and brought it down in another firm swat. "Then I suggest you start thinking about it because I promise, you'll get tired of this long before I will."  Landing a dozen more swats on the rapidly reddening skin, he put the paddle back down and stroked his back.  "Why am I doing this, Neal?"

 

"You said you'd do this," Neal said between shallow breaths.  "You said since I didn't trust my own judgment right now, you'd take the choice away from me, make me live within your boundaries and rules."

 

"That's exactly right," he said.  "You're not the only one responsible right now for you.  If you make the wrong choice, I'll pull you up short before you fall.  Your safety net, remember?"

 

"My not soft safety net," Neal countered, squirming.

 

Swatting him, Peter said, "The always will catch you safety net."  Swatting him two more times quickly, he continued, "Which means when I say No to something, that means No."  He heard the younger man's breath catch and felt him tense as he struggled against his emotions.  "It's OK," he said softly, patting his butt.  "I know it hurts."  Pulling up his boxers, he slowly eased him off his lap and then in a smooth motion, brought him up to sit on the sofa, leaning against his chest.  "I've got you, Neal.  It's OK," he whispered softly.

 

"Everything hurts," Neal said quietly.  "Being numb was better."

 

"Only in the short term," Peter said firmly, remembering how terrifying those days of video had been, watching the blankness and reading the reports of no talking, no activity.    Even when he knew the younger man was being closely watched, it wasn't until he saw him actually speak to someone again that he felt the slightest loosening of the iron bands around his chest. 

 

Choking on a breath, Neal struggled slightly. "I want up."

 

Peter tightened his hold. "No, you're fine here."

 

"But …"

 

"Are you going to be sick?" he asked.

 

"No."

 

Shifting so he was leaning back more, the younger man held closely against him, he swatted his butt, "Then you're fine for awhile."  He could feel the slight tremors running through the younger man's muscles as he struggled to hold himself together.  "I've got you," he repeated softly.  He felt Neal nod his head against his chest and smiled inwardly.

 

"You think Elizabeth's clients pictured this little scene when they gave her a paddle," Neal asked quietly ten minutes later. 

 

Peter laughed. "I don't know but I doubt it.  I have to admit, I'm very glad I hung on to it."  Giving the other man a gentle nudge, he asked, "How are you feeling?  Do you want to get up now?"

 

"I'm fine," Neal said automatically as he sat up slowly as Peter's arms loosened.  Not looking at the other man, he stood up and scooped up his jeans from the arm of the chair.  "I'm going to go take a shower."

 

"You have 15 minutes," Peter said firmly, standing up and watching his friend.  "Then we're going to eat." 

 

"But I'm really …" Neal started.

 

Holding up his hand, Peter shook his head. "Don't want to hear it.  You need to eat, so shower, change, whatever and back down in 15 minutes."  He saw a smart retort flash across Neal's face and he looked at him.  "Neal," he said simply.  "Fifteen minutes or we’ll come right back down here."

 

The other man gave a quick nod before moving toward the stairs.

 

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Stripping off his clothes with shaking fingers and stuffing them into the bathroom hamper, Neal studied himself in the mirror over the sink while the water heated in the shower.  He had been avoiding a direct look for weeks, concentrating on pieces while he shaved and deliberately not looking while he brushed his teeth at the sink.  Now, he looked full on and shook his head.  His face was still drawn and the circles under his eyes made them seem too big for his face.  The casual confidence that had been his mask for years was gone and he felt his eyes prickle as he studied his face.  Swallowing hard, he shook his head as he turned away and stepped into the shower.  The warm water hit his sore butt and he gave a small cry that quickly turned into a sob.  Clamping a hand over his mouth, he shook, rocking slightly as he struggled to regain control. 

 

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Well aware of the time, Peter didn't need to glance at the kitchen clock to see that Neal was back in the kitchen in 13 minutes.  Glancing up from the bread loaf he was slicing he nodded and gave an approving smile.  "Why don't you go ahead and set the table while I finish up in here."

 

"It smells good," Neal said quietly as he opened the cabinet for the plates.  "I haven't made that sauce in awhile. I'm glad Elizabeth suggested it this morning."

 

Picking up the thread of the conversation, Peter nodded, "Yeah.  I'm sure she'll want some reheated when she gets home tonight."  He laughed, carrying the hot dish of manicotti into the dining room. "She rarely eats at events and is always starving when she gets home."

 

"What time do you think she'll be home?" he asked as he sat down at the table.

 

Peter shrugged. "I think she said around 10:00 or 10:30.  It was some business event that started around 4:00." As much of a professional at small talk as his wife, he allowed the conversation to drift around Elizabeth's work, filling in the silence with stories of other jobs and funny clients. That got Neal going about museums and private galleries he had seen or allegedly been inside.  The evening passed quickly, with them ending up quietly watching a movie and Neal not even glancing at the windows or making a move toward the closet. 

 

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Jerking awake, Peter glanced at the clock that glowed 3:28 in the darkness.  The familiar glow came from the guest room as he made his way quietly down the hall.  Peering through the crack of the partially open door, he saw Neal standing by the window, arms wrapped tightly around his chest as he stared out onto the dark street.  He knocked softly as he pushed the door open and stepped in.

 

"I wasn't going anywhere," Neal said in a quiet voice, not turning around. 

 

"I didn't think you were," the older man answered honestly, walking over to him.  Reaching out, he put a hand on his back. "Everything OK?"  He could feel the tense muscles under his hands twitching and he instinctively rubbed slightly, trying to ease the tension.

 

Nodding silently, Neal reached up and quickly brushed at his face, still staring out the window. 

 

"Anything you want to talk about?"

 

Shaking his head, the other man remained silent.

 

Peter could feel the tension and minute shaking under his hand and forced himself to remain still and quiet. 

 

"Thank you," the younger man said softly several minutes later. 

 

"Always," he said in a firm voice.  Giving the tee shirt covered back another pat, he said, "You should get back to bed.  It's too early to be up." Taking a step back, he touched his arm to encourage him when the younger man didn't move, "Come on." 

 

"Yeah," Neal said in a shaking voice, allowing himself to be half guided the few steps back to the bed and settling in.  Rolling over on his side, he curled up around one of the pillows as he glanced up at the other man.  "I'm good," he said.  "You don't have to stay."

 

Peter smiled as he reached out and touched the other man's head for a moment. "I'm not sure I'd ever put Neal Caffrey and Good in the same sentence."  His smiled widened at the mock outrage that the other man flashed.  "Close your eyes," he ordered gently, sitting down on the edge of the bed, not wanting to be as far as the chair.  "I'll tell you the story of how Elizabeth and I got this house," he said, resting his hand on Neal's shoulder.  As he spoke, he felt the tension slowly drain out of the other man as he drifted off to sleep.

 

The End