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Neal stared. Swallowing couldn't get his throat to work; his tongue was thick and uncooperative. He croaked, "What?"

"You heard me, Caffrey." The face retreated, but the view wasn't any better. The man had a barrel-chested body that would automatically excuse his demeanor.

Neal grimaced, shaking his head, but it only seemed to make him dizzier. "I don't…who?"

"Michael Docks, Mr. Caffrey." His companion finally spoke up, barely audible behind the tower of vibrating anger looming over his bed. The other looked like a young intern with premature silver on his temples, eyes too large for his face, giving him a permanently shocked look.

Neal again didn't know where he was. That the first thing that came into Neal's mind. The next was that he was in a hospital, cuffed to a bed.

Oh, the things he could say right now.

Apparently, the man wasn't interested in introductions, witticisms, or had thought to help Neal out by explaining how and why he was in a hospital (whatever it was, he didn't do it!). He just went right into reading Neal his Miranda rights. Neal wondered how beneficial it would be if he offered to recite it back to the man in reverse.

"What's going on here?"

Elizabeth sailed into the room, dark hair half-piled and half-spilling on top of her head. Dressed in a form-fitting, burgundy cowl-necked sweater and jeans, eyes blazing, one hand curled over a coffee cup, Neal thought all she was missing was a halo and a pair of wings.

"Who are you? What are you doing in here?"

"Agent Tom Dunbar," the second introduced himself. His pitched voice matched him. He flashed Elizabeth his badge. He gestured toward the other man who dwarfed him by a good head. "This is Agent Henry Rook."

"We're reading the prisoner his rights," Rook said, not even looking at her (mistake one). His eyes were nearly colorless with rage as he stared at Neal. Rook went right back to his recitation; the FBI's version of their ABCs. "You shouldn't be in this room, ma'am."

Ma'am? Mistake two.

Elizabeth glanced over to Neal; her hard gaze that would even cow Peter eased a fraction when she saw he was awake. Her eyes narrowed into slits to match her mouth when her gaze drifted to the handcuff encircling his right wrist.

"First off, he's not a prisoner," Elizabeth said slowly, in a tone that gave the others pause.

"If you give up that right..." was trailed off into a cough behind a fist.

"And secondly…" Elizabeth drew up to her full height. The scowl on her beautiful red mouth barely reached Rook's chest. "Since Neal's not a prisoner, there's no need for handcuffs."

Rook's expression twisted. "Neal?"

Dunbar waved pale hands at her, trying to assuage her. "Look, he was alone, unescorted by a federal agent. As a prisoner under work-release, we have to secure him."

"Securing the prisoner by handcuffing him to the bed?" Elizabeth said tightly.

Neal wearily lifted his leaden foot.

"And his ankle?" Elizabeth added, her voice rising. "Were you afraid that a man, who was unconscious for thirty hours, was going to cartwheel out of bed?"

Wait. Thirty hours?

Rook took a deep breath.

"Look, Miss—"

"Mrs. Burke."

The two agents exchanged a glance. Dunbar cleared his throat delicately. "Excuse me. Burke as in Peter Burke? So you're—"

"My wife."

Neal blinked heavy-lidded at the door. Peter stood in the center, arms folded across the chest, looking very much like he wanted to shoot someone. Maybe his dry cleaner? Peter's charcoal suit looked like it had gone through a couple wars. Didn't he wear that yesterday? No—she said thirty hours—day before?

A light touch on his elbow drew him away from Peter stalking toward Rook. The other agent took a step forward and Neal fuzzily wondered if this was what Moz was trying to tell him about fission: two charged atoms colliding.


Neal looked blurrily at the heart-shaped face. His chest lurched briefly when he took the dark hair and bright eyes, but when his name was repeated, openly worried, the feeling steadied as he focused. He smiled faintly when he saw it was Elizabeth. There was still an ache in his heart, probably from whatever that happened to him.

"...my case in Organized Crimes for three years, Burke..." Rook sounded like he could be foaming at the mouth.

Neal turned his head to look, morbid fascination overriding common sense. The touch on his elbow turned to a squeeze and drew him back.

"Do you want some water?" Elizabeth asked gently. There was a look in her eyes Neal hadn't seen since she and Peter took him to the gravesite they helped him choose for Ka...for her.

"There's no reason to believe he had anything to do with it!"

Do with what?

"Bullshit! You reported to the marshals when his tracking went dark. He was off your leash for sixty-two minutes! I want to know what Caffrey was doing with my key witness! What the hell kind of deal was he making? Was he getting Docks out of the country?"

"Here you go, sweetie."

Neal grimaced as he tried to lift his head higher to sip at the spoon of ice chips. His neck felt like rubber, his head like it was strapped down with weights.

"There is no evidence Caffrey had any dealings with—"

"So he just accidentally woke up next to his body?"


The echo of someone pleading bit his ear. His nostrils flared at the suffocating smell of blood, but no one else seemed to smell it. Something to Neal's right beeped loudly. Elizabeth turned sharply to the three men verbally going at it by the foot of his bed.

"Peter..." Elizabeth tried, but Peter held up a hand. She heaved a sigh. Elizabeth was not having a good day today.

"We don't have enough evidence..."

Rook stood toe to toe to Peter. Dunbar looked like he wanted to be handcuffed to the bed instead of Neal.

"CSU verified it was Caffrey's prints on the murder weapon."

The monitor next to him bleeped again. Neal's throat suddenly felt tight once more. The room shrank around him.

"That doesn't prove anything—it's clear it was self-defense!"

Phantom hands applied weight over his throat again. More hands clenched bruising and heavy on his hips.

"Hold him down, damn it!"

There was a flash of silver, caught in the light. A shadow above him, around him, hands crushing him down on the bed. There was screaming, begging.

"Get his mouth open!"

He bit the finger digging into his jaw, prying his mouth open and something acrid and thin flooded in where air should be. He gagged; he choked.

Someone was screaming by his ear.

Now a machine to his left beeped. The right, not to be outdone, began to pick up its chime more frantically.

Elizabeth wrapped her hand around his fingers. They felt chilled and she was staring wide-eyed at Neal, but for some reason, he couldn't get his fingers to work properly to squeeze hers.

"Honey," Elizabeth said, still looking at Neal, but it didn't look like she was talking to him.

Peter swore under his breath and suddenly, he was grabbing Rook by the arm, pulling him toward the door. Rook growled, Dunbar jumped back, hands up to keep the two agents apart and Neal suddenly felt like he was drowning.

"Get the doctor!" Neal heard and his chest clenched.

Was Elizabeth hurt? His hand spasm around hers, Elizabeth gripped hard back, as if she was in pain. She was wavering in front of him. Peter's voice rose to shouting but he was still too far away.

There were footsteps, more footsteps running in and Neal suddenly realized how open he was out here on the bed. Hide, he was supposed to hide.

Elizabeth's hand jerked away, but before he could grab it back, something cold, sharp and unyielding bit into his wrist, into his ankle as he fought.

No, don't go! Don't get on the plane!

The machines on both sides now wailed around him, the room spun into a misty white that laid over him, an unwelcome weight. Hands, hands he didn't know grabbed him.

"Hold him down, damn it!"

Neal felt something cool and damp over his mouth, a prick in his arm and as he spiraled, he heard one last scream.

"No, no, please! Don't kill me!"

* * * * *

"I thought I told you two Caffrey was off limits!" Peter spun around as soon as he stepped out into the hallway. If his voice was inappropriately loud it was because it was better than assaulting a fellow federal agent. If it happened to drown out the beeping and the doctors and Elizabeth's soothing voice urging to Neal to calm down, well, that was just an added benefit. "Hughes said no one was harassing Caffrey while he was recovering."

The frenzied activity they were just thrown out of hadn't defused Rook. He squared his wide shoulders to brace himself against Peter's ranting.

"That was before CSU finished processing the scene." Rook jerked his head toward Neal's door. "We held off getting his statement—"

Peter took a step into Rook's space and growled, "You call handcuffing him to the bed 'getting his statement'?"

"Damn it, Burke. I don't know what you Ivy Leaguers in White Collar are doing, screwing with our case—"

"We weren't screwing around with your case!" Peter started to shout again, but a nurse squeezed by them to get into Neal's room and shot them a dirty look. His voice dropped to a hiss. "There wasn't a case for us. I don't know what exactly happened here, but it had nothing to do with anything we're working on, or some pissing contest you think we're having here!"

Dunbar stepped between them, playing peacemaker. Thin, almost skeletal fingers held up three digits in front of him. "Agent Burke, we'd had Giraldi under investigation for three years. He picked up what was left of Giotti's empire and ran with it."

"Murder, racketeering, human trafficking, drugs," Rook took a step forward, pinning his partner's shoulders between them. "We couldn't even pin him for those god damn fake Coach bags on Canal Street."

Dunbar nodded, but kept darting eyes at his partner to ward him off. It didn't seem to work.

Rook kept clenching his jaw. "NYPD picked up Docks on suspicion of—"

"Kidnapping, rape and murder. I know," Peter cut in harshly. He could still hear Elizabeth's outrage when she learned of the deal the federal prosecutor gave Docks.

"We don't have proof of murder," Dunbar said hurriedly. "Local PD had DNA samples, some closed circuited images, but no bodies."

"The Ronn statement," Peter reminded him. He read the file Diana had accidentally taken instead of the Groening insurance scam. How she mistaken a red file from a blue file she'd never clarified.

Rook shot him a dark look. "That wasn't public knowledge and he retracted it."

Peter scoffed. "After disappearing for a week and shown up in South Carolina half-beaten to death." He scowled. "Docks was a depraved psychopath—"

"And also Giraldi's money man," Dunbar jumped in before Peter could continue with what everybody thought of Michael Docks. "He offered the FBI every single bank account Giraldi has under various shell companies here and the Caymans. A total of $129 million in liquid assets. There's enough in there to convict Giraldi with over a hundred counts of money-laundering alone."

It took effort to control his expression but Peter couldn't temper his voice. "In exchange, you turn a blind eye to murder."

Rook's nostrils flared. "The DA didn't have enough proof for murder. Laders and Arron—"

"Oh come on, we didn't need Corpus delicti for Hawkes or Fraser!" Peter pursed his mouth. "You just wanted Giraldi more."

Rook grunted, neither confirming nor denying. He glanced over his shoulder at the room, still shut.

Peter checked the door as well. It was quieter now, the doctor and nurses inside talking in murmurs instead of shouts. It was a good sign, right?

"It's moot at this point," Rook said tightly. "Your pet convict killed our star witness. Our case is shot."

Dunbar gave Peter an apologetic look as he pulled out a file from the briefcase he carried under his arm like a wayward toddler. Peter flipped it open, making a face of his own at the photo of a bloody switchblade, its handle stained with aluminum powder and the clear elongated circular shape of a thumb at the base where knife met the handle. He peeled the photo back. Tucked behind it was the AFIS printout and Neal's grainy prison photo. Neal had often complained he hated that photo.

"We have a good full set. All fifteen points check out," Dunbar said, his voice was steady, low, an odd contrast to Rook's. He handed over a flimsy fax sheet. "And the blood on Caffrey's shirt and..." Dunbar coughed quietly into a fist. "…trousers were tested. Definitely Docks."

"You know what I think?" Rook spoke up.

No, but I'm sure you'll tell me, Peter thought wearily as he stared at the photo of the bed Neal found himself on. Christ, Docks' blood had flowed all over the bed. It left nothing untouched.

Rook's blunt finger stabbed the air between them. "I think Docks went looking for Nick Halden to get a ticket out of the country. Docks offered him a piece of Giraldi's pie, except Caffrey wanted all of it. He shakes a piece of ass, got Docks' tongue wagging and—"

Something hot flared and flew out of Peter's throat. "Now wait a minute." He slapped the folder on Rook's chest.

The agent looked at it like a fly he wanted to swat away.

"You saw the bruises," Peter said low, his eyes narrowed, daring them to contradict him. "Whatever happened; it wasn't his choice." His jaw set, blocking the words from coming out. Somehow, it felt like everything would be better if he didn't voice it out loud.

Rook grunted, unimpressed. "Doctors said there were no signs of sexual assault—"

"I know what they said. I was there when I asked them to check for it, damn it." Peter glowered at Rook's and Dunbar's unmovable expressions. "What? You think he planned all this? Somehow get himself OD on flunitrazepam to the point he went into respiratory distress, slip into a coma for thirty hours for some con?" Peter was breathing heavily from the effort not to shout.

"I wouldn't put it past him," Rook sneered. "He nearly flew out of the country a few months ago with that girlfriend of his. Heard he changed his mind and broke it off with her. Permanently. Seemed to have gotten over it pretty quick. For a piece of $129 million, I think Caffrey learned to be flexible."

Later, Peter wasn't sure if it was the smirk Rook made mocking Kate, the lewd insinuation, or just because he really hated the guy. He drew his fist back with the vague notion that hitting that huge chin was going to break his hand.

Neal's door cracked open. On cue, the two men backed away from each other. Dunbar breathed out. Peter's fist dropped.

"Peter?" Elizabeth's eyes darted between him and Rook like she would when Satchmo stole something from the dinner table.

Peter shoved his hands in his pockets. "How's Neal?"

"He would feel better," she said tersely at Rook and Dunbar, "if he wasn't cuffed to the bed."

Rook opened his mouth to argue when Elizabeth continued.

"So…" Elizabeth's lips curved sweetly.

Rook and Dunbar looked at each other then at her warily.

"Neal asked me to return these to you." With a finger, she held up two sets of handcuffs.

Peter bit back a groan and the ridiculous urge to smirk when Dunbar accepted the cuffs. Rook's head was too busying trying to boil itself off his body. He took a step in front of Elizabeth and could practically feel her rolling her eyes at his back for it.

"If Caffrey's making a statement, it's to me," Peter grounded out. "I'm his handler. So back off."

"Agent Burke," Dunbar tried, placating, "Mr. Caffrey was the last person to have seen Docks alive."

"He made sure of it," Rook muttered under his breath. He met Peter's glare unflinchingly, no remorse for having been overheard.

"You want to talk to Caffrey, you talk to Hughes first." Peter folded his arms in front of him. "I'll be sure to pass on whatever Neal tells me." He bared his teeth in a grin. "Intradepartmental cooperation and all."

Rook looked like he wanted to say something more, but Peter knew the agent couldn't come near Neal without Hughes' say-so. Though he also knew once Ruiz and the DA heard Neal was finally awake, the federal prosecutor would be howling for something to keep their case against Giraldi afloat.

After a deep breath that seemingly drew Rook taller by a few inches, he made a sound like grinding molars. "Caffrey can't hide in this hospital forever," He seethed and pivoted around. "This isn't over," Rook snarled over his shoulder as he stormed off, Dunbar hurrying after him.

"Didn't think so," Peter murmured. He felt El's arm quietly slipped around his middle. She gave him a squeeze.

"Everything okay with Neal?"

Peter kissed the top of her head so he didn't have to lie to her face.

* * * * *

"So any plans tonight?" Peter asked casually, not looking up from his file.

Neal doubted that the classic whiplash Medicaid scam was that fascinating of a read. He decided to humor Peter though, pausing as if to give it some serious thought.

"I was thinking of going to Valley National," Neal remarked as he pinched the knot of his tie, straightening it from the lopsided position he could see on the glass wall's reflection. "Thought maybe I would check out their security systems, their entry points, see when Brinks makes their deliveries." He turned around, grinning toothily. When Peter's head predictably shot up, Neal added, as the coup de grâce, "For old times' sakes."

It was proof Neal's skills were slipping when Peter's shoulders relaxed instead. "Last I checked, bank robbery wasn't one of your MOs."

"MOs? As in plural?"

Peter rolled his eyes. "Correction. Allegedly."

"That's what my counsel advises."

Neal caught Peter shaking his head, his mouth forming the word "Mozzie." Neal's grin broadened.

"Besides," Neal couldn't resist adding, "I enjoyed my soiree as a bank security consultant during the Architect case. I want to keep my skills sharp."

"Any sharper and you'll be drawing blood," Peter muttered. Almost immediately, he grimaced and peered up at Neal.

The smile on Neal's face began to hurt. He checked his watch, making a point not to look at Peter. He spied Peter relaxing, having believed Neal hadn't heard. Neal smoothed down his tie, a multi-toned gancinos Salvatore Ferragamo he bought to replace the one she'd stolen for him. She had just been practicing what she'd learned from Moz, a bit of showing off combined with wistful window shopping because weeks before, still under Adler's payroll, she would have gotten this for Neal during her lunch hour. Neal bought this one because he'd lost the original somewhere between his arrest and his first incarceration.


Peter's quiet query drew his eyes away from his fingers ironing out the broader part of the tie. It must have been too long because Peter was no longer reading his file, but was half up from his chair like he was going to come around his desk.

Neal retreated. His shoulders met the cool glass wall that encompassed Peter's office.

Peter's brow furrowed.

"Sorry, what was your question again?" Neal asked as steady as he could. He made himself look at his watch again.

"Roast beef."

Huh? Startled, Neal looked up. "Roast beef?"

"El's making roast beef. She wanted to see if you want to come by for dinner tonight." Peter shrugged as if it didn't matter to him either way. "I'm supposed to pick up dessert if you say yes."

It should have touched him; Elizabeth always found a way to include Neal in things that felt sincere, not obligatory to feed her husband's CI. Today, however, he had an urge to snidely suggest to Peter he could pick up dessert at the "Greatest Cake." And that odd, out of nowhere, knee-jerk reaction made Neal take another step back to put some safe distance between them.


Neal smiled. He chuckled awkwardly as if he was caught in a lie. Maybe he was. Maybe he wasn't. "I'm fine" was getting easier to say to everyone these days.

"No. Thank you. Actually, I was thinking of going down to Blackman's Galleries on Hudson. They're doing a show on neo-expressionism. Saw an article on it. This is the last week."

"An art gallery?" It was comical how high Peter's eyebrow went. This time, he did look worried.

Neal flashed teeth at Peter. "There's this nice life study that's by the fire exit, under this low skylight..." Neal smirked.

Peter glowered. "Very funny." He eyed his paper folded to the crosswords. "It was in today's paper?"

There was a brief twist in his chest when Neal realized Peter would see the brief article in the arts section, the gray-scale miniature photo of one of its pieces. He knew then the well-intended, misplaced questions, the looks and the invites to roast beef would increase tenfold.

"Would you like to come?" Neal offered, or challenged, as he spied Peter studying Neal openly.

Peter blanched.

Neal suspected Peter knew if he accepted, he ran the risk of Neal appointing himself docent in the gallery.

To his surprise though, Peter delicately cleared his throat. "Well, if you want..." he hedged.

Neal's smile faded. "That wasn't a real invitation," he said stiffly. Neal rubbed his thumb along the pattern on his tie. He took a deep breath before meeting Peter's eyes squarely. "You don't have to keep doing this, Peter."

To Peter's credit, he didn't pretend to not know what Neal was talking about. He lifted one shoulder. "El worries."

"Just her?" Neal sighed. He resisted running a hand through his hair. "I appreciate you guys, all of you, thinking I need...I'm fine," he stressed. He'll be better when her murderer was found.

"It's only been three months—"

"I know," Neal interrupted before Peter could tally up how many days it has been since he failed her. "I know."

Peter nodded, agreeing to what, Neal was afraid to ask.

The corner of Peter's mouth quirked up. "A gallery, huh?" he drawled.

It was easier to smile at that one. "What can I say?" Neal shrugged, tipped his hat over his head and smiled crookedly as he smoothed out the brim with two fingers. "I like art."

"Tell me about it," Peter groused. He made a shooing gesture at Neal. "Go. Do your art thing and don't complain if you have to eat the leftovers El is sure to make me bring over tomorrow."

"I like her leftovers," Neal protest.

"Uh-huh." Peter chuckled. Thankfully, he sat down and reopened the file he was pretending to read before.

"Well, I'll see you tomorrow. If you change your mind…" Neal slyly added.

"I'll know where to find you," Peter snorted, waving him off.

It was with a sense of déjà vu Neal woke, blinking up at the fuzzy white, flat nothingness which could only mean a hospital ceiling, the languidly rhythmic chirping telling him his heart, his breathing was regular. The medical gauge of normalcy.

He didn't feel normal though.

Neal lay there, blinking tiredly as the doctor (blue scrubs, white coat, drone voice, face still round with youth--he was either a doctor or a very ineffective candy stripper) entered, introduced himself and competently listed his injuries like a shopping list. The doctor assured him the bruises on his throat, hips and ribs were going to be sore, but non-life-threatening. The flunitrazepam overdose was going to leave him a bit unbalanced though. Neal was trying to decide if there was a double-meaning in that.

There should be no lasting side effects.

With time, he should recover.

He looked to be okay after everything that happened.

He was fortunate.

For a foggy second, Neal wondered if the doctor was talking about Docks or Kate.

And good news (the doctor offered with a smile that looked too restrained to be sincere): there was no sign of what everyone avoided saying like the word was a verbal landmine. Neal nodded politely as the doctor rattled off the things he didn't have—no tears, no bleeding, just a lot of hurt—to come to the conclusion Neal's been trying to tell everyone who would listen.

He was fine.

When the doctor paused, Neal wondered if he was supposed to thank him.

"We have someone here if you would like to talk…"

Neal stared at him blankly. It felt like he turned the channel to the middle of a different show. "I'm sorry. I don't understand."

The doctor pulled an appropriate sympathetic face that made Neal cringe. "The hospital offers trauma counseling." After a beat, the doctor added, "We have a female counselor if you want."

Neal wondered if laughing out loud right now would wipe the "I know how you're feeling" textbook look off the doctor's face. It was the same look the prison staff gave when he was returned to the Super Max like an overdue library book. But he coped then. He could cope now.

"You just said nothing happened," Neal pointed out, smiling.

The doctor looked taken aback by the smile. "Yes, but it may be helpful to talk about what happened."

"But I don't remember anything. How can I talk about something I remember nothing about? Especially if you're telling me it didn't happen." Neal folded his hands on his lap. "Thank you, but no. I don't think my insurance will cover that." Seeing the doubt that flickered over the previously impassive face, Neal added, "Most likely, the FBI will have me go to therapy once I'm discharged." Or throw him back in jail. Neal tried not to think hard on why that didn't seem to bother him at this time.

"Well…why don't I send up a resident from the psychology department to chat with you first?" The doctor glanced at the clipboard. "See how you're feeling before we decide anything?"

"I feel…" He felt nothing actually, haven't for months. "I feel tired." Neal pulled his covers up to his throat and felt better for it being covered up for some reason. "I would like to sleep if you don't mind."

"If that's how you feel," the doctor hedged.

"Yes," Neal said firmly. "That's how I feel."

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Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?

~ Gandalf "The Hobbit"

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