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04 February 2012 @ 11:30 pm
[fic: white collar] Strings  
Title: Strings
Characters/Pairing: Neal, Peter, El; Gen (with background canon pairing)
Genre/Rating: Angst, hurt/comfort; T
Word count: 6000
Warnings: Violence, angst
Notes: For this prompt by sholio -- although it did get away from what I was intending. Among other things, it's a bit dark. (The warnings really are there for a reason.) This also contains a trope involving manpain which I know can be problematic.
Thanks to Roz and Helen for beta-reading.

Summary: This wasn't a bank robbery Neal wanted anything to do with. So it was a shame he didn't get a choice.

- o -

Neal pressed his face against the cold marble floor and tried very hard to look like an innocent member of the public. Beside him Peter was doing the same, although probably with less complicated motives.

So far the bank robbery appeared to be progressing rather smoothly. At least the men weren't doing anything stupid like shooting hostages — especially as he was one of the hostages. He appreciated that.

"Is El okay?" Peter whispered.

Neal turned his head over very slowly. El was on the floor to the other side of him. "Peter says, you okay?" he whispered, as quietly as he could.

She nodded slightly. Her face was set. "Should we be doing anything?" she breathed.

"Just what they say." There were seven men, and they all had guns. Hopefully they would get what they were looking for and make an exit which didn't involve any sort of hostage stand-off. Then he and Peter could have the satisfaction of tracking them down.

El gave him a slight smile.

Everyone who had been in the bank had been down on the floor for several minutes now. Definitely enough time for the police to have arrived and set up a perimeter. There was no doubt that at least one silent alarm had been triggered — that was part of the training for working in a large bank like this, to have the alarm-pressing drilled into your muscle memory so that you would do it instinctively, sometimes not even remembering afterwards.

Neal turned his face back to Peter. "She's fine," he reported under his breath.

Peter nodded, but didn't look particularly reassured.

Neal risked lifting his head a little, to get a better look at the situation. It was a mistake.

"Caffrey?" the ringleader demanded, surprise evident in his gruff voice.

Neal dropped his face back down and tried very, very hard to look as if the name meant nothing to him.

"Caffrey." A boot prodded his shoulder. "Get up."

Reluctantly, Neal stood. "Lee," he said. "Long time."

"Aren't you supposed to be in prison?"

Neal lifted his pant leg slightly, displaying the tracking anklet. "Got parole for good behaviour."

Lee was a little older than Peter, similarly built and with thinning blond hair. "You can do good behaviour?" he asked, with a not-very-nice smile.

Neal shrugged. "You'd be surprised."

"I'm sure I would, but I don't really care. You're here, so you're going to make yourself useful and do what I say. Just like old times, eh?"

"Just like old times," Neal repeated coolly, and could practically feel Peter's eyes burning his back. "Do I get a choice?"

Lee didn't bother to answer, just turned away to mutter to one of his men. Neal took the opportunity to finally get a good look at the situation.

There were about thirty hostages, all lying face-down on the floor as they'd been instructed to in the area where most of them had been queueing. The clear double doors at the top of the steps down to the street were shut and bolted, as were the opaque set at the bottom. That meant he couldn't see out at all, and the windows were also set too high for that purpose. The police wouldn't be getting a look inside, especially as the first thing Lee had done was to force the manager to shut off all the cameras. Bad design, Neal had thought at the time. The controls for them shouldn't be on-site at all.

He risked a glance at Peter and Elizabeth. They had closed the gap he had left between them, and their hands were clasped. El gave him a minute nod, but Peter looked like he was in danger of exploding with questions. You ran with bank robbers? Neal could almost hear him demand. He badly wanted to protest that when it came to Lee deciding you were useful to him you rarely got a choice in the matter, but he would have to save that for later. And hope he didn't get arrested as an accomplice in the meantime. Or shot.

"Caffrey!" Lee snapped, and Neal sauntered over.

"What are you even doing here?" he asked. "I thought you were in Seattle."

Lee didn't answer, nor did he introduce either of the men currently with him. Neal mentally assigned them numbers to keep them straight.

"Why do we need him?" Three asked. "Are you expecting us to split our take?"

"I don't work for free," Neal stated.

Lee gave him a hard look. "It'll be worth your while if you don't screw up. You haven't lost your skill for vaults, I hope?"

"Can't tell you without seeing it."

Lee raised an eyebrow and Two punched Neal in the stomach, once. He staggered back a couple of steps, gasping for breath.

"This is very simple," Lee said. "Even if you're out of practice I know you're a better safe-cracker than all my boys put together, so I want to make use of you. Do what you're told and stop with the smartass remarks, or you'll regret it. Clear?"

"Okay. Okay!" Neal said, holding up his palms. "Wow, this really is like old times."

Three still didn't look convinced. "He knows you," he said to Lee. "What if he flips on us?"

"I'm sure he wouldn't do anything so stupid," Lee said. Neal stayed silent.

A telephone began to ring shrilly. One of the hostages gave a startled gasp at the unexpected noise, quickly cutting himself off.

"Are you going to answer it?" Neal asked, after it had been ringing for a while. "It's the police. They'll only want to talk. Might be good to stall them, let them know everyone's okay in here."

Lee rolled his eyes. "You always assume everyone else is so much less intelligent than you, Caffrey," he said. "That's your problem, you know. Sort it out and you'll have so many more friends."

"Maybe I only want to be friends with smart people."

"Maybe you should keep your mouth shut, unless you enjoyed the attention of my friend's fists."

Neal shook his head quickly.

"Hey." Four walked up, a welcome distraction. "We've found it," he said. "Two problems, though. We need an employee code to get through the door sealing off the vault itself. Could cut through, but the vault'll take us long enough on its own."

"We have plenty of employees to pick from," Lee said. "What's your second problem?"

"It's yours too, Boss." Four held up his smartphone. Neal got a fleeting glimpse of a news site, and felt his stomach clench. Somehow, he knew what was coming.

Lee's expression barely altered. "Interesting," he said. He walked towards the hostages and stood there for several seconds, looking over them, letting the tension spread and spread. Eventually he pointed to a woman in her late twenties with dark brown ringlets and a bank uniform. "You. Get up and come here."

She did, moving with trepidation, and halted just out of Lee's reach.

He smiled, a sharp edge of cruelty to his mouth, and pulled his gun from his belt holster. "Everyone watching?" he asked.

"Don't hurt her!" Neal blurted out. He had seen this before. He knew what was coming.

Lee, to his shock, lowered the gun. "I'm not going to. That is, I'm not going to if the federal agent in this room gives himself up right now."

Peter didn't hesitate. "I'm the FBI agent," he said. He had let fall El's hand, and didn't look at her at all. Her own expression was rigid.

"Well," Lee said. "Isn't this friendly. On your feet." He gestured to Four, who produced a cable tie from his pocket and secured Peter's wrists behind his back.

The telephone began ringing again.

"You might want to consider getting that," Peter said. "There are ways out of this situation, you know."

Lee grinned. "Oh, I know. Caffrey, bring the girl."

Four jabbed Peter in the spine with the barrel of his gun to make him start walking.

"It's going to be okay," Neal muttered to the woman. He took her arm gently. She flinched, but quickly stilled herself. "Do what they say for now, I won't let them hurt you. What's your name?"

"Briony." She relaxed slightly in his loose grip. They walked behind Lee. Four waited so that he and Peter could bring up the rear.

"Hi, Briony. I'm Neal." He gave her his most reassuring smile.

She managed a shaky smile in return. "Hi."

"Nothing's going to happen to you," he reiterated firmly. "It's going to be fine."

He expected to be told again to shut up, but Lee said nothing.

They stopped before the door sealing off the vault area. "I only have the basic codes," Briony said nervously.

"We know," Four told her. "You just need to open this one. You can do that, right?"

She nodded and punched in a six-digit code. The lock clicked open.

"Okay," Lee said. "Wait here. Boys, get started. Caffrey, keep walking."

Neal followed him down the corridor into a store room lined with filing cabinets. Peter was being brought too. Four closed the door behind them.

Lee pushed Peter down onto the floor in the middle of the room. "So," he said. "You're FBI."

"Yes," Peter said.

"What are you doing here?"

"It's the weekend. I was depositing cheques."

"You're a problem," Lee said. He reached into Peter's jacket and found his credentials. "Agent Burke. What do you suggest I do with you?"

"Give yourselves up," Peter said. "You haven't hurt anyone — you'll get off lightly. This doesn't have to go any further."

"What, give up a haul like this? I don't think so."

"Let the hostages go, then," Peter suggested. "You certainly don't need this many, and Law Enforcement will look more kindly on you if you do. This really is your best chance."

Lee turned to Neal and Four. "Amusing, isn't he?" he said lightly. His face went suddenly hard. "Caffrey, kill him."

"Are you insane?" Neal demanded, the words forcefully driven out of him. "You want to kill a Fed?"

"No," Lee said. "I want you to kill him."

Neal could barely think over the horror beating inside his head. "I don't hurt people."

"Today you do."

"No. Listen, killing him would just be unbelievably stupid. You want a manhunt the size of the one you'll get if we do?" His heart was hammering in his ears. He didn't dare look at Peter, in case he fell apart.

Lee stared at him for long, long moments during which Neal could hardly breathe and fought to keep his panic off his face. "You haven't got any easier to work with," he said.

"Sorry to hear it," Neal replied, lightly.

"I really don't think you are." Lee's gun was in his hand, and pointing directly at Peter's head. Neal's eyes were fixed on the barrel.

Lee moved lightning-fast, grabbing his wrist and forcing the gun into his hand, his own fingers tight over Neal's. "You want me to keep him alive?" he demanded. "You get one favour today, Caffrey. One."

Neal looked at Peter, at last. "Yes," he said, desperately. "Don't hurt him."

Peter's jaw was set.

"Ah." Lee's grip was like a vice. "The term used was alive."

He clenched Neal's fingers over the trigger.

If Neal had been Peter, if their places had been exchanged, surely he would have been able to do something heroic and last-minute to stop the gun from firing, or at least make sure that it missed its target. But he wasn't — he couldn't — he didn't —

Neal stared at the blood, at all the crimson blood pulsing from Peter's thigh, and went completely blank, his head a storm of white noise.

"There," Lee said, re-holstering his gun. "You got what you wanted. Nice shot, by the way."

Peter was leaning forwards, reflexively reaching for the bullet-wound, but with his hands secured behind his back he was helpless. His breaths were coming in gasps.

He lifted his white face to meet Neal's eyes. "Not your fault," he said.

"Of course it is," Lee snapped. He kicked Peter in the ribs, toppling him onto his side against the tiled floor. "Make sure he doesn't bleed out too quickly," he ordered Four. "There's got to be a first-aid kit somewhere." He turned to Neal. "There. That was your favour. Are you ready to do what I tell you now?"

"Yes," Neal said, slightly surprised that he was capable of speaking.

"Right then." Lee looked pleased, as if this had been nothing more than resolving a trifling disagreement. "Let's get moving."

Neal allowed himself to be led back to the vault, not daring to look behind him. Peter, oh god, Peter. At least he wasn't dead. Lee hadn't killed him. He hadn't killed him.

Yet.

It seemed that more of his emotions were showing on his face than he'd thought, because Briony gave him a wide-eyed look of fear. He tried to smile at her but she brought her fingers up to tap her chin, and when he automatically mirrored the gesture his fingertips came away bloody. He hadn't even noticed himself biting down into his lower lip. He wiped the evidence away hastily.

"So, get on with it," Lee ordered.

They had all the tools ready. Neal didn't argue, just started to work, wondering how he could have imagined that at any point he had been more than a hostage. But that was Lee. You were useful to him, and then you weren't, and then he screwed you over and hurt the people you cared about while telling you that it was your fault, for not going along blindly, for asking too many questions, for protesting.

That image. That image behind his eyes of Peter jerking on the floor, straining to reach the deep hole in his thigh out of which deep red blood was welling. Even the delicate process of cracking a high-security vault couldn't distract from it. It was always there, through the drilling, the listening, the drilling again. And the tape in his mind spooled past what he'd seen, throwing up new images of Peter lying unconscious, bloodless now, and Elizabeth on a different floor, so close but still all unknowing.

I shot Peter, he imagined himself saying to her. And then, But I didn't mean to, I didn't want to, he made me!

Excuses. Empty air.

He worked without stopping, and it was a surprise when he managed, at last, to get the door open. Lee had been gone a lot of the time, showing up now and then to check on the progress, and he was there at the moment. Briony had always been standing against the wall as she'd been ordered. She had smiled at him whenever he had looked around.

"I'm done," Neal said. It came out as a slight croak — his mouth was completely dry, and his body was trembling from the tension of the job. He couldn't even guess how long he had been going for.

"Impressive," Lee said. He pushed on the door and it swung open, revealing the gold bullion stacked inside. He gave a low whistle. "My lucky day, finding you. You're twice as quick as anyone I could hire. No offence," he said as an aside, in the direction of Five and Seven.

Seven shrugged. "Get paid to stand around instead of do my job? I can live with that."

"Glad I could be of service," Neal told him coldly. He badly wanted a long drink of water and a chance to sit down, but didn't think for a moment that either would be soon in coming. "You've got what you wanted, Lee," he said.

"Yes," Lee said. "I suppose I do. Caffrey, go stand by that silly girl who's been making eyes at you for hours. Me and my boys have work to do here."

He did. Briony reached for his hand and he gave it to her, squeezing her fingers gently. "Are you alright?" she whispered.

Which was the wrong way round. "I'm fine," he whispered back. She didn't look convinced.

Neal leaned against the wall as Lee and his men packed the gold bars, more exhausted than he wanted to admit. Please, just let this be over. He couldn't even muster up a smile for Briony — he had run out of reassurances. He didn't even much care that Lee clearly had an escape route lined up. They would leave, and he would be free to help Peter.

If Peter was even still alive.

When they had finished packing all the gold they could apparently carry into bags, Lee took out his gun again. It took several seconds to elicit a reaction from Neal. "You two, in the vault," he ordered.

Briony moved to obey, pulling Neal along with her. Lee stopped at the threshold, gesturing for them to go further inside.

"You're going to lock us in," Neal said, and Briony stiffened suddenly, going tense against him.

"Just let us go back upstairs with the others," she begged. "Please. We won't make trouble, I promise."

Lee looked her up and down. "Are you claustrophobic?"

"Yes," she admitted. "Please don't lock me in. You can tie me up somewhere else, please — anything."

"Anything?" Lee asked.

Neal put a steadying arm around her shoulders. "Don't do this," he said. "She's done everything you asked. This has nothing to do with her."

Lee smiled. "Took you long enough to realise that, Caffrey," he said. "But you're right. Seems cruel to lock her up when she's so frightened. Maybe I should shoot her instead, save her the misery."

Neal tightened his arm instinctively around Briony's rigid frame. "No! Please!"

"You just don't listen, Caffrey." Lee gave a half shrug, as if out of regret that Neal hadn't been paying better attention. "You only get one favour."

And he pulled the trigger.

Neal was caught off-balance as Briony was knocked backwards by the impact of the bullet. The weight of her body pulled him to the floor.

"No," he pleaded, pulling her towards him, up into his arms. "Briony. Briony!"

The bullet had taken her in the neck, ripping open the artery in a spray of bright, bright blood. He was covered in the red warmth of it, and she was already dead.

He stared up at Lee. "Why?"

Lee looked down at him dispassionately. "No more use for her. It's just the way things go. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to take care of the Fed."

Neal had thought his level of desperation couldn't take any more, but he had clearly been wrong. Lee's words caught him like a physical blow. "Not Peter!" he blurted out. And then realised what he had just said. What he had just done.

"Peter." Lee finally entered the vault, his steps slow and measured. "Agent Peter Burke, you mean?"

"I —" Neal searched for the words which would save him, which would save them both, but they failed him. "Lee —"

Lee halted a couple of paces away, looking down at Neal, still cradling Briony. "You know," he said conversationally, "When I heard you were working with the Feds I didn't believe it. Because I know we've had our differences, but I always thought you were loyal. To a fault, even. Caffrey would never turn snitch, I thought.

Neal said nothing. He couldn't.

"And then I'm carrying out a bank job that's been months in the planning and I find you there in the middle of my hostages, with a tracking anklet and a Fed to keep you company, just like I'd been told.

"You knew," Neal whispered. "The whole time, you knew."

"Really, you still haven't learnt to listen. Remember what I said? You think you're so much cleverer than everyone else, that no one can possibly know what you know, that you can con your way into or out of anything. You need to work on that." Lee paused. "You know, if you had just owned up I wouldn't have made you shoot your friend. But you lied to me, like you always have. Consider this a lesson in paying back debts."

In the midst of his numb horror Neal found a flare of anger. "I've never owed you anything, certainly not honesty," he said. "You've forced and blackmailed me into working for you — I didn't have a choice."

Lee kicked him hard, in the centre of his chest, too quickly for Neal to have reacted even under normal circumstances. He was flung back and his head cracked against the stone floor. Stunned, he lay still, struggling to catch his breath, and then Lee kicked him in the ribs and stomach, again and again.

Neal stared up at the florescent light on the ceiling, dazed and empty, and let it happen. He hardly noticed when Lee eventually stopped, and he didn't react even when Lee walked right up to him, his face looking down against the white ceiling. The walls were spinning.

"Pathetic," Lee said. Neal closed his eyes and it felt like he was falling. He listened to Lee's footsteps as they moved away.

Lee didn't shut the vault door. Neal gave it about thirty seconds and then opened his eyes, almost certain that he was being played again. But the door stood open and there was no one in sight.

He sat up, slowly, and eased Briony's head off his legs, brushing her curls away from the pool of her blood spreading across the floor. His clothes were soaked in it and he could feel the splatter drying on his face.

He crawled to the wall and used it to help him get up. His vision swam; the crack to his head had been a bad one. His balance was completely off and he had to keep leaning against the walls as he doggedly began walking, leaving a smeared trail of Briony's blood as he went.

Peter was gone.

Remarkably, Neal didn't feel this latest blow like the gut-punch the others had been. It was too much, too much to take in — all he could do was keep going. Because there was a trail — not in blood drops, although there was too much blood on the floor in the little filing-room for him to be able to look at for more than a second — but in streaks of blue ink at intervals along the wall. The image was delivered to him instantly, Peter with his hands still bound but with an FBI pen he had managed to fish out of his pocket, half-hidden now beneath his jacket sleeve, stumbling against the walls as he was jostled along. It wasn't exactly the sort of thing most people would keep a lookout for.

Neal was moving faster and faster, the incapacitating dizziness thankfully beginning to recede. How had it not occurred to him that Peter's presence could be invaluable to Lee as a final hostage, a trump card for if the getaway was discovered at the last second? Few police officers would want to risk shooting a Fed.

He was unsurprised when he came to a floor-to-ceiling cupboard which had been shoved aside to reveal a passage into the building next door. He had to slow to climb a flight of steps, pulling himself up by the handrail, but the biro marks continued at the top and he broke into an unsteady jog.

Gold was heavy. Despite their head-start, Lee and his men, slowed by their bags of bullion and by Peter, had only just reached the side-door beyond which their van was parked. Lee was watching the men load the bags, gun out in one hand, the other holding Peter by his upper arm. Peter was slumped sideways against the door frame. Even from a distance he looked to be at the very end of his endurance. At least, though, someone had bandaged his leg tightly, well enough for him not to be leaving a blood trail, although the white material was darkly stained.

Neal had no plan, no time to make one. Maybe what he should have done in the first place was get himself back to the hostages and the phone line and call for help, but it was far too late for that now. All he could do was provide a distraction, and trust Peter. "Lee!" he shouted.

Lee did a double-take when he turned towards Neal, but he recovered almost instantly, and his weapon came up. Neal dived for the doorway of the nearest room.

The door was locked. He slammed against it helplessly. Lee had a clear shot —

The gunfire blasted out but Neal wasn't hit. The bullets went into the ceiling as Peter side-checked Lee with his entire bodyweight, bearing him down to the floor. Lee's gun was knocked out of his hand and Neal steadied himself and charged, flinging himself across Lee's upper body.

"Neal!" Peter shouted, and Neal understood and fumbled a hand at Peter's wrists.

Lee, unrestricted by injury, was already forcing himself free of the tangle of bodies. Neal stabbed the biro hard against his neck. Lee froze, the point pressed sharply against his carotid.

"You don't hurt people, Caffrey," he said, with some slight difficulty.

"I do today, remember?" Neal said. "You want to risk it?"

Beyond the open doorway the back of the van was slammed shut, and a moment later the vehicle pulled away recklessly into the traffic.

Peter used his good foot to sweep the gun into Neal's reach. Neal rested it against the back of Lee's head and, one-handed, used the point of the pen to depress the grip of the cable tie so that Peter could pull his hands apart.

Neal had expected that the next step would be to hand the gun over to Peter and then stroll out and along the block to the police cordon, but just then there was the sound of many fast-moving feet and Jones and Diana, in vests and leading an assault team, appeared from down the corridor.

"Hello," Peter said. He was leaning against the wall now, rubbing his chafed wrists with his legs stretched out in front of him. "That was fast."

Neal rolled off Lee as two men moved in quickly to secure him. "This guy's in charge," he said. "His friends seem to have run off with most of the gold. Sorry about that."

Peter looked at him and almost choked. "Neal, shit, you're hurt —"

He looked down and realised what a sight he must look — he was getting equally horrified stares from everyone else. "It's not my blood," he said wearily.

Jones shook his head. "Looks like were got here none too soon, which is a minor miracle considering the hostages got told that the bad guys weren't going to be far away and if any of them moved they'd be shot."

"So how did you know?" Neal asked.

Diana had flanked Lee as he was taken outside; she came back in once she was satisfied. "Elizabeth. She used the telephone to call out the second the hostages were left alone."

"Can always count on her," Peter said, and slumped.

Jones bent down next to him, and Diana moved to crouch by Neal. "How badly are you both injured?" she asked.

"Peter, Peter was shot," Neal said, stumbling slightly over the words. "I'm okay."

"Yeah, I don't think so."

She reached towards him and he fended her off. "Please," he said. "Please, just — don't."

He thought she was going to protest, but after a long moment she backed off slightly, turning so that she could also take in Jones, and Peter's unconscious form. "Okay," she said, quietly, and patted Neal's leg. Almost on the same spot where the bullet wound was on Peter. "Okay."

- o -

It was three days later that Neal found himself standing outside the Burkes' front door.

El was good at not showing surprise, but Neal was pretty sure that on this occasion her lack of it was genuine. She ushered him inside. "Neal! I was hoping you'd come by."

He was suddenly anxious, too much so to manage social platitudes. "Are you okay?" he asked.

She gave him a half-smile, an understanding one. "Getting there," she said, and he thought of her lying on the cold floor, not knowing what had happened to Peter, just waiting. Waiting. "So are you, by the looks of it."

He forced the image out of his head. "What do you mean?"

"You're here," she answered, as if it was an explanation, and it probably was.

Neal shifted the weight of the bag he was carrying. "Um. Is Peter around?"

She gestured vaguely. "He's watching the game, go on through. You'll be staying for dinner, of course."

Her tone was decided, and left no room for argument. "Thanks," Neal said, and she smiled at him, a whole one this time.

Peter was watching the game with his feet propped against Satchmo. A hospital crutch was leaning on the arm of the couch, but all other evidence of his injury was hidden beneath the loose-fitting clothes he was wearing. He looked up. "Neal."

"Hey." Neal deposited the shopping bag onto the coffee table and Peter looked hopeful at the sound of clinking from within. "Brought you something."

Peter pulled out one of the beer bottles and looked at the label appreciatively. "Nice. Expensive, too."

Neal shrugged and took out one himself. "Thought I'd join you. Figured if you spend enough on beer it has to gain some redeeming qualities."

"It doesn't work like wine. That's the whole point." Peter sighed. "And stop standing over me like that. Sit down."

Neal sat down where Peter was indicating, on the couch next to him. "How's your leg?" he asked.

Peter rubbed it reflexively. "For a bullet wound, not so bad. It missed everything major."

"Good," Neal said, and absently watched the little figures chase each other around the screen. "That's good."

Peter nudged his arm with the beer bottle. "Hey," he said, and Neal turned to look. "What about you? How are you doing?"

Neal opened his mouth for a reflexive, I'm fine, but then stopped. "I didn't mean for any of it to happen," he said. "I thought that going along with Lee would help. I never meant…"

"Neal," Peter said, carefully. "You know I don't blame you, don't you?"

"I know that," Neal said, because El and Mozzie had been chatting on the phone, and she'd made sure Mozzie passed that along. "I'm still sorry, though. Lee was right — I underestimated him."

"Lee's going away for life," Peter said. "And Jones and Diana picked up his men a few hours ago." He paused to let that sink in. Neal breathed out. He felt a sense of relief, but not happiness. Not yet. "What happened, when you ran with Lee?" Peter asked.

Neal hesitated. He didn't like to think about that time. But he owed it to Peter. "It was a long while ago. Me and my friend did some burglary jobs for him, some forging cheques, that sort of thing. Then… he wanted me to work more closely with him, and I found out some of the other things he was involved in. I think the other day gave you an idea." He waited for Peter's nod, and continued.

"So, I protested. Said I wasn't going to work for him anymore. And after that he sent us in to a group of his contacts — one last job, it was supposed to be — and made it look like we'd betrayed them."

"What happened?"

"I got away. My friend was pretty badly hurt. A cop found him, actually, took him to a hospital, but he died anyway."

"I'm sorry," Peter said.

Neal tried to shrug it off, because he preferred to keep his feelings about that firmly locked up in the past, and it wasn't what was important right then. "We made choices. That's the thing, it ended badly but we chose. Briony Salas didn't, and Lee killed her like she meant nothing on her own account, like she wasn't important at all. He shot her just to spite me. And the whole time he knew about me and you and everything. He was just playing with us all."

"I read your statement," Peter told him. "Diana showed it to me after you escaped from the hospital before anyone apart from her could see you."

"I didn't escape. They let me go."

"I heard it was a fine line." Peter rubbed a hand across his face and leaned back. "Look, you're not in trouble. But honestly, none of us are really okay right now. Elizabeth's seeing someone and regulations say I'll be talking to the department shrink when I go back to the office again. Something to think about."

"Mmm," Neal said non-committally. He clenched his fingers into a fist as the feeling of the smooth click of the trigger crept up on him. It was in his dreams, along with the warmth of Briony's blood on his face. Something to think about. He realised that he felt better now than he had for the past few days — still not good but, as El had said, getting there. Not that he had expected that he could do penance — to himself, to Peter and El, to a ghost — merely by showing up at a door with beer that the internet had recommended. But it could be a beginning.

He leaned back as something incomprehensible happened on the screen. Peter looked enthralled by it, so Neal watched him instead.

"Stop staring at me," Peter said, eventually.

Neal fussed Satchmo instead, and then realised that Peter was still looking at him. "What?" he asked.

Peter shook his head quickly. "We're not talking about this over dinner. Just so you know."

"Thanks for the tip, I wasn't going to." Neal kept looking at him, waiting. Whatever Peter was trying to say, that wasn't it.

"I notice you didn't ask for immunity before telling me your history with Lee."

Neal shrugged slightly. "It — didn't seem important." He met Peter's eyes, and frowned. "Seriously, what?"

Peter stopped looking like he had something just on the tip of his tongue, and smiled self-consciously. "Just… it's good to see you," he said. "I'm glad you dropped by."

"So am I," Neal said, and took a swig of beer. "Ugh. I should have brought wine after all."

"You don't watch a game with wine," Peter scolded. "Quiet, they're about to score."

Neal didn't care about the game. But seeing that a good part of the sum total of things he cared about very much were in that house with him, he quieted down obediently.

And when Peter again caught Neal watching him more than the game, he just patted his arm awkwardly and didn't say anything about it.

- o -

Posted at http://frith-in-thorns.dreamwidth.org/42270.html with comment count unavailable comments.
 
 
 
helle_d: stylehelle_d on February 4th, 2012 11:47 pm (UTC)
EEEEE YOU POSTED IT I AM GOING TO READ IMMIEDIATLY
Frith: White Collar - El - happy phonefrith_in_thorns on February 5th, 2012 12:45 am (UTC)
:D
Sholio: WhiteCollar-Peter Neal look to sidesholio on February 5th, 2012 12:05 am (UTC)
Awwwww boys. ♥ ♥ ♥

You were worried about getting away from the prompt, but I really don't mind - I like what you did with it a lot! I think it's a believable situation for Neal, that he would run into someone he used to know under those circumstances, and I'm glad you didn't pull back from dealing with the darkness of the situation, particularly Briony's death - I can see the point you made about it in the intro notes, but I'm also glad that you went with it as a dramatic decision, rather than pulling away at the last minute. And the scene where Peter got shot - meep! Poor everybody!

As much as I adore h/c, I like it best when it's a little understated and characters aren't too incapacitated to still rescue themselves, so actually this worked just fine for me on the Peter h/c front, too. :D I loved their teamwork in taking down Lee - Peter's been shot, Neal's in psychological shock, but both of them get it done anyway. And I actually really appreciated that it wasn't a story about hovering in hospitals, or anything like that - I really liked the fact that they ended up simply getting on with their lives, as best they could, until they'd gotten to the point where they could have an awkward heart-to-heart about it. ♥ The final scene with Neal watching the game with Peter was just pitch-perfect and heart-melty and exactly what I needed to finish the whole thing off. ♥ *adores them* I think their affection and trust comes through loud and clear, along with the requisite amount of verbal awkwardness at actually showing it, because they are them, after all. *g*

Thank you so much for filling my prompt!
Frith: White Collar - Neal+Peter - handfrith_in_thorns on February 5th, 2012 12:43 am (UTC)
I am really, really happy you liked this -- I was quite nervous about posting it, not having written anything this dark for a long time. I think I felt that once Neal had been recognised it had to go quite dark, really. But I'm glad it didn't get too much. With Briony, she really was central to the sort of story I was wanting to tell with this, but I did think I ought to mention that upfront, especially since the prevelance of that trope in media is something I critisise a lot!

Glad you liked the h/c, too :) I felt kind of evil, but at the same time it was fun to write. And I also love characters saving themselves. I actually spent ages trying to work out how to round this off, so I'm very happy you liked what I went with :) I just love the characters, and how they are so bad at having heavy conversations *gg*

Seriously, thank you so much for your awesome comment! ♥ ♥
Winterwinterstar95 on February 5th, 2012 12:53 am (UTC)
You have a great villain there and wonderfully laid out plot. Great story. Thanks for posting !
Frith: White Collar - Neal - smile hatfrith_in_thorns on February 5th, 2012 12:59 am (UTC)
Thank you very much, I'm glad you enjoyed this! It's ridiculous how long it's been since I last wrote actual plot *gg*
helle_d: vorkosiganhelle_d on February 5th, 2012 01:10 am (UTC)
ALL THE DELICIOUS ANGST.
I loved just how quickly the situation intensified and I went from being Mostly Alright to Not At All Alright, Why Frith Why, My Heart!. The dialogue is spot-on and, you were able to sketch out the OCs really impressivly solidly, in so few words, and AUGH AUGH NOOO, the realisation that Neal's been played. I LOVED how they ended up Mostly OK and Getting By, with the lovely understated comfort to round off all the hurt ('Not quite OK but getting by' is one of my favourite story ending moods ever). And, god, that is heroic competence in taking down the bad guys - the bit about "Peter used his good foot to sweep the gun into Neal's reach. Neal rested it against the back of Lee's head and, one-handed, used the point of the pen to depress the grip of the cable tie so that Peter could pull his hands apart." had me blinking for a moment, trying to work out whether it was possible, and figuring out that if you have hand co-ordination like Neal's, it probably is. I think I must just accept that I will never be as much of a bamf as Neal, Peter or El.
I see what you mean about the manpain; when Briony was killed, I was all "NUUUU, WHY FRITH WHY" - for some reason, I'm always surprised by deaths in fiction - but looking on the text as a whole, it would have been ... cheap, for everything to have been magically ok without any tragedy resulting. <-That doesn't say quite what I mean, but I can't think of how better to phrase it. But I think it makes it a better story.
BASICALLY THIS IS AWESOME. Yesyes.
helle_dhelle_d on February 5th, 2012 01:31 am (UTC)
Oh yes, and re-reading it, it strikes me that I love how NICE Neal tries to be, trying to reassure Elizabeth and Briony even in the hellish situation. And how that's then shattered.
(no subject) - frith_in_thorns on February 5th, 2012 03:37 pm (UTC) (Expand)
kriadydragonkriadydragon on February 5th, 2012 02:52 am (UTC)
Oh, that was excellent. Such an awesome, nasty villain (I was mentally cheering when Neal and Peter took him down), very intense (I was so tense my back kind of hurts, now) and lovely resolve.
Frith: White Collar - Neal - worried shirtfrith_in_thorns on February 5th, 2012 05:43 pm (UTC)
Thank you! I was definitely going for tension with this fic, so I'm glad it worked (but I hope your back's stopped hurting!)!
(Anonymous) on February 5th, 2012 03:52 am (UTC)
Wow! Terrific story!
Frith: White Collar - Neal - paperfrith_in_thorns on February 5th, 2012 05:43 pm (UTC)
Thank you very much! :)
ivorysilkivorysilk on February 5th, 2012 03:57 am (UTC)
Really liked this--I would love a sequel, cuz there's going to be aftermath for Neal, you just know there is (and I bet Diana will have Things to Say too!)--but I really really like the way you dealt with the whole situation here. :-)
Frith: White Collar - Neal+Peter - blindsfrith_in_thorns on February 5th, 2012 06:17 pm (UTC)
Thank you very much! And yeah, they've still got some way to go after this. Not sure I could write it, though - I find that sort of thing very hard to do. I'm glad that you enjoyed reading :)
Sally M: white collar 4sallymn on February 5th, 2012 05:30 am (UTC)
Ohhh, this is wonderful... pitch-perfect voices (always the main thing with a character junkie like moi) just the right amount of darkness (I love that you didn't shy from giving Briony real character - I was definitely jolted when she was killed) and a villain whose motivation made perfect sense (Evil for Evil's sake is one of my bugbears and all too common)

I absolutely adore your take on Neal, I really do...

Thank you!
Frith: White Collar - El - happy phonefrith_in_thorns on February 5th, 2012 10:49 pm (UTC)
Thank you so much! Especially that my bad guy's motivation was believable, that was something I was definitely going for. And I'm really happy that you like how I'm writing the characters! ♥
oh these heroes come and go;: [wc] peter - really?;;micheleeeex on February 5th, 2012 05:53 am (UTC)
I loved this! Why are all your fics fantastic? lol
Frith: White Collar - Neal+Peter - blindsfrith_in_thorns on February 5th, 2012 10:50 pm (UTC)
Awww, thank you! :D
pooh_collector on February 5th, 2012 06:06 am (UTC)
This was fabulous.

Neal is such a good guy, for a bad guy. I love how he has lines that he will NOT cross and how angsty and guilt stricken he feels when he is forced to so here. You communited his horror and his pain so well in the vault scenes.

So nicely done.
Frith: White Collar - Neal - worried shirtfrith_in_thorns on February 7th, 2012 04:43 pm (UTC)
Thank you very much! This was very much the darkest thing I've written in this fandom to date, and I was quite worried about overdoing the angst. I'm really glad that you enjoyed reading it :)
pipiljpipilj on February 5th, 2012 07:20 am (UTC)
Love a good Peter whump story. Peter leaving little clues, Neal and Peter working together to get Lee. Loved the end.
Frith: White Collar - Neal+Peter - walk wallsfrith_in_thorns on February 7th, 2012 04:45 pm (UTC)
Thanks! I'm really glad you liked this! And especially that you liked the ending, because I really struggled over how to wrap it up :)
noiproksanoiproksa on February 5th, 2012 08:19 am (UTC)
That was a very intense story which had me at the edge of my seat.

This sounds kind of cruel but I like that Lee eventually shot Briony, which made it more realistic and gave the whole scene where Neal tells her it's going to be alright a dark tint. He tried so hard, but it was just out of his control.
In that context, I really liked the reiteration that Neal only got *one* favor, which on re-reading gives the scene a sense of inevitability, or looking at it from the other side, it gives the part where Peter gets shot a sense of foreboding.
Which is also a scene that shows Lee's twisted way of thinking: It's a "favor", though it really isn't. Everything is relative. It *is* a favor if the alternative is killing him, but obviously it's a terrible thing to do and if the alternative would be not hurting him at all, it's the exact opposite of a favor.

At this scene I was literally holding my breath: "Amusing, isn't he?" he said lightly. His face went suddenly hard. "Caffrey, kill him."
Obviously, I knew Neal wouldn't kill him, but the potential of that situation and the way you handled it with all the emotional fallout took my breath away. (And again, Briony's death was a good way to enhance the emotional!whump even more.)
And I absolutely *love* that Peter, although he just got shot, still manages to reassure Neal: He lifted his white face to meet Neal's eyes. "Not your fault," he said.

And on top of all the emotional!whump poor Neal has to endure, you also gave us physical!whump when Lee beats him up (as you can see, I'm a sucker for Neal!whump *g*).
And last but not least I really liked the comfort part, which was just cute, and I was in desperate need of it after all you put me (well, Neal and Peter...) through. That last part was just cute all around with a perfect last image that left a smile on my face. (Also: I grinned at Neal bringing beer he had to look up on the Internet ;)
Frith: White Collar - Neal - smile hatfrith_in_thorns on February 7th, 2012 07:00 pm (UTC)
Wow, thank you so much! ♥ And I'm so glad you commented on all those little bits, because apparently you read this story in exactly the way I was hoping it would come across, which is making me go YAY. And yeah, I knew Briony would die before I started writing her, I really wanted this dark/angsty scenario where Neal just had no control of the situation at all.

I am also very bad at avoiding Neal!whump, I must say! Glad you approved :D I'm especially glad you liked the ending because that took ages to write - it was quite hard to think of a reasonable resolution for this! And with the beer, I thought it was just the sort of thing Neal would do :D Thank you again for your awesome comment!!
saphirablue on February 5th, 2012 08:34 am (UTC)
This is awesome!

The tension, the way you set up the story (jump right into the robbery), the Neal POV, the bad guys, that you didn't pull the punches - awesome!

The description of Neal's shock was great and you already implied that it will take Neal some time to get over shooting Peter and not being able to prevent Briony's death.

Love Peter reassuring Neal at the end.

Thank you very much for this fic! :)
Frith: White Collar - Neal+Peter - blindsfrith_in_thorns on February 7th, 2012 07:06 pm (UTC)
Thank you very much! ♥ I'm really pleased that you enjoyed this - I was quite worried that it was too angsty, so I'm happy that it wasn't the case :) (Also, I started off with a very different plot and then it totally ran away down a tangent! *gg*)
Glad you liked the ending, too - as much as I like happy endings, I felt that one really wouldn't fit this story.
Thanks again!
love_82 on February 5th, 2012 08:37 am (UTC)
This story is great. I love Neal and Peter working together to get the badguy in the end. Peter leaving a trail to follow and Elizabeth calling for help. I love smart characters and people working together to rescue themselves.

I liked the ending with them all trying to get on with their lives. Not OK but getting there. Perfect ending for the story. And Neal watching Peter was just awww.

You write the characters so well and I can just see everything happening in the story.

Frith: White Collar - Neal - hat bluefrith_in_thorns on February 7th, 2012 07:10 pm (UTC)
Thank you very much! :D Competent characters are by far the most interesting ones to write, and I love these ones to bits (I know I keep saying it, but it's so true!).

Really happy that you enjoyed this, thank you :)
(Anonymous) on February 5th, 2012 10:45 am (UTC)
Great story have loved any of yours that iv read
Frith: White Collar - El - happy phonefrith_in_thorns on February 7th, 2012 07:10 pm (UTC)
Thank you very much, anonnymouse! ♥