Walk Closely Together by Arsenic
Summary: Getting the fuse bifurcated does not go as planned. Sequel to Nine Simple Isotopes.
Categories: White Collar, Miscellaneous Characters: Elizabeth Burke, Neal Caffrey, Peter Burke
Genres: None
Warnings: Medical themes, Violence
Challenges:
Series: Hurt/Comfort Bingo, Men Must Not Divide
Chapters: 1 Completed: Yes Word count: 8816 Read: 4314 Published: 20/10/10 Updated: 20/10/10
Chapter 1 by Arsenic
Thanks: To elucreh not only for being an awesome beta, but for betaing this puppy while HAVING NO COMPUTER. Not even kidding, guys. She's like a superhero. Anything still awkward or wrong or terrible? Totally all me.

AN: Title comes from Robert Barr quote, "No one can tell, when two people walk closely together, what unconscious communication one mind may have with another." Fill for my "experiments by evil scientists" square in hc_bingo.

***



All three of them went to the clinic for the first consultation. It had taken the better part of a year to find a neurologist who 1) knew his way around single fuses, 2) was willing to try a bifurcation, and 3) was willing to try it on someone whose original consent to the fuse had been somewhat questionable, given his options. Neal had done his best to try and charm the first two—both women, and so normally a slam dunk for him—into believing him that he absolutely was consenting this time, but it had been a no-go. Neither were willing to so much as consider it.

But the Chakarti & Dennison clinic was world-renowned for its work repairing fuses damaged in a number of ways, and Dr. Harden—one of their senior physicians—had agreed to take on Neal’s case. The three of them had spent two hours discussing the procedure. Because Peter already had a two way fuse, the easiest way to go about extending the one way was to essentially cross the tech he had with Neal with El’s tech, already in his mind. For Neal, things were a bit more complicated, since the actual nature of the tech had to be reworked.

When they got up to go, Dr. Harden said, “One last thing: I’ll need both of you to come in and fill out a full medical history form before the procedure.”

They had both nodded and agreed to come in when they had a moment. Peter had gotten his done a week later, and had gone in for his procedure only a few days later. While it was more extensive than the original fuse, it was still outpatient and took less than an hour. El picked him up at the clinic afterward, and Neal came home from the office slightly early to be Neal—i.e., to annoy the hell out of Peter by way of trying to show affection. That was fine; Peter could tell Neal had been worried, he knew how to take Neal’s nerves as they came. Peter felt well enough to go back into the office the next morning.

In contrast, Peter finally got Neal to go and do his almost three months after the initial appointment. Pushing Neal out the door of the office, he’d yelled after him, “And be honest!”

It was the last thing he said before Neal disappeared.

*


Neal felt the pinch in his neck while he was considering what to say under the “family history” section. “Have no clue,” didn’t seem like it would fly, but Neal had left home at fourteen, as soon as he was old enough to pull off a fake driver’s license. And there hadn’t been much speaking with his parents when he’d lived with them. There’d been plenty of yelling, even more hitting, and the occasional throwing of things, but not much talking.

He was considering listing off the things he’d noticed about his parents that might have suggested health issues when he realized that his vision was going hazy. He touched his fingers to his neck, at the place where he’d felt the pinch and thought it was just a mosquito or something equally innocuous. He felt the (very slight) hole and thought, Peter. Peterpeterpeter with as much urgency as he possibly could before he couldn’t resist the tug of whatever he’d been injected with.

*


Peter’s favorite thing about being double-fused was the way Neal’s and El’s strands played against each other. El’s hum sort of harmonized with Neal’s tic-tac-toe of a beat. Peter rarely paid full attention to either, unless they wanted it, but he had felt Neal’s swirling uncertainty the whole time he was at the clinic. That was why the sudden switch to utter panic and then nothing made Peter stop breathing for a whole of probably ten seconds.

When he remembered to breathe, El was clamoring at his thoughts. He couldn’t respond and his phone rang. He picked up blindly. El’s tone was urgent. “Peter?”

“Neal,” Peter managed.

“What, what about him?”

“I can’t-- He’s gone.”

El said, “You’d better mean gone like he got on a plane, gone.”

A fuse going silent meant one thing and one thing only. Even if a person was deep in a coma, the recipient end of the fuse would at least be able to feel the patterns of their subconscious. Silence meant death. Peter swallowed, feeling sick to his stomach. The echo of Neal’s panic was still inside him.

El said, “Peter!”

“He was at the clinic,” Peter said. “I have to go to the clinic.”

*


Neal awoke to a fuse-break headache. He made himself breathe shallowly, and keep his eyes shut, trying to gain some focus. Then, slowly, he opened them, which accomplished absolutely nothing, since, wherever he was, it was pitch dark.

There were bands around his wrists and ankles, and one over his midsection. The ones at his wrists were metal, and a quick check with his fingers didn’t reveal the sources of the lock. Neal was pretty sure he could slip them if he was willing to dislocate a thumb, but that would make it hard to pick the locks on the other wrist, as well as his ankles and midriff. And if he wanted to walk out of here, breaking his feet to slip the anklets wasn’t workable. Also, Neal generally left that option as a last resort.

A door opened to Neal’s right and light flooded in from a hallway, causing the pain in Neal’s head to ratchet up. The figure in the door said, “You’re awake, then.”

Neal swallowed. He recognized the voice. “Dr. Harden?”

The man didn’t bother to respond, moving into the room and turning on the light. Neal squeezed his eyes shut against the pain, but after a second, made himself re-open them so that he could assess the situation. Peter should know where he was; the more he could help when Peter came, the easier it would be to bring all of this to an end.

He was in a lab. The room was small, windowless, only the one door by way of entrance and exit. There were a number of machines Neal couldn’t ascribe a function to, and he found that he was hooked up to at least two or three of them. As Dr. Harden touched them, their screens came alive, giving off input Neal didn’t understand.

He tried talking again. “Dr. Harden, when we spoke about the procedure—“

The doctor just turned and inserted something into Neal’s IV. Neal fought against the immediate haziness that came in response to it, but it was of no use. His final coherent thought was that Peter had better get there pretty fucking soon, because Dr. Harden was just a little bit too Victorian Mad Scientist for Neal’s taste.

*


Peter got to the clinic only to be informed that Dr. Harden had left for the day. Peter said, “It’s two in the afternoon.”

“He had a meeting, sir,” the receptionist told him, a placating smile on her face.

“There was a man, here. Dressed like he stole Sinatra’s closet and took the personality to go?”

“Sure, he was filling out forms. He must have left while I was on lunch.”

“We’re partially-fused. I would know if he had left.”

“You’re—“ she frowned. “Sir, why don’t you sit down while I call the local hospitals?”

Peter swallowed. He nodded once at her, but rather than sitting down, he went to the hall and called Hughes.

Hughes picked up. “Peter?”

“I need a warrant for the Chakarti & Dennison clinic.”

“To what end?”

“As of this moment, it was the last place Neal was seen.”

*


The search turned up nothing, as well as the calls to hospitals and morgues. Peter had breathed a little easier at the latter, even if it meant nothing. After leaving the clinic, he sat in his car for a few seconds before saying aloud, “Jesus, Peter,” and grabbing his phone.

Moz picked up on the first ring. “Suit.”

Peter didn’t waste time. He just filled Moz in on the details and said, “Help me find him, Moz,” quiet and more desperate than he would have preferred. His head was so silent. He hadn’t realized the extent to which Neal inhabited certain corners of him, but even with Elizabeth’s hum, high and strung tight as a guitar string, ready to break, he felt like he was in an empty cavern, not even a steady drip of water to keep him company.

“When I find him, we’re going to have a serious conversation about you losing him in the first place, Suit.”

Peter closed his eyes. “I will buy you the vowels, Moz.”

*


Peter wasn’t coming. Neal wasn’t sure how long he’d been wherever he currently was, but he’d woken up twice, now, so long enough that if Peter knew where he was, and was going to get Neal, he’d have come. There were a few logical deductions to be culled from this: 1) the fuse was malfunctioning and Peter thought Neal was either dead or had managed to run, somehow, or 2) Peter knew, but was not getting Neal because this was government sanctioned. The second option was something Moz would have liked, but it felt a little too overblown for Neal.

He went with option one. Well, okay, he had moments of doubt, but he blamed that on the fact that Dr. Hyde kept poking at his brain. Neal made an executive decision that getting that to stop had to be his first priority. He could worry about escape when brain damage or long-term vegetation didn’t seem to be strapped to the table right alongside him.

Having made this decision, Neal tried to formulate a plan. The Good Doctor was quite literally poking at places inside his skull. Even with the local, Neal could feel the pressure, and occasionally it would cause muscles to spasm, or, worse, his vision to grey out. He was working pretty hard not to panic about what, exactly, was being done, which was making it hard to concentrate.

Also, when he said, “So, doc—“ the doc said, “It’s fairly easy to make a mistake in here. Wouldn’t want me accidentally short-circuiting your language centers, or anything.”

And, no, actually, Neal really wouldn’t want that. Which left him strapped face-down to a table, in restraints that were going to take some time to work out, time he would need to be left alone for, without communication, and with the sense that as soon as the local wore off, he was going to be in a world of pain.

On the upside, Peter had caught him twice. Neal kind of hoped the saying “third time’s a charm” didn’t apply to Neal not being found this time around.

*


Moz came over and the two of them, Jones, Diana and El, spent the evening digging up everything on Dr. Harden they could find. Moz found the paper the man had written in undergrad, the one that had made his academic advisor drop him as a student.

Peter found the trail of hidden funding by paramilitary groups. He rubbed a hand over his face.

Moz looked over his shoulder. His, “Follow the money,” sounded less than enthusiastic.

*


Neal had been right about when the local wore off. He was glad he was on his front. Otherwise, he would have aspirated in his own bile, and Neal felt that, given the situation, he at least deserved the dignity of dying from unauthorized brain surgery, rather than aspirating in his own bile, thanks.

He thought about art he wanted to show Peter and El. He had yet to get Peter to go to the Cloisters with him, despite repeated attempts. He wanted to sit in front of the embroidery with the annunciation, and talk to Peter about Peter’s mom. Peter had good mom stories that Neal was pretty sure he never told anyone except Neal and El. Neal didn’t delude himself, he knew he lived vicariously in certain ways. If Peter had figured out that Neal was using Peter’s childhood experiences to stand in for Neal’s own, Peter had never stopped telling him the stories. Neal thought Peter had to know. Peter was the smartest guy Neal knew.

The maps at the Vatican—Peter would like those, lapsed Catholicism and all. They told stories about the shaping of the world as they knew it, about power and politics and things that Peter knew better than to ignore, even if he didn’t always understand them.

And El would go into the modern art collections with him, always quiet, unfairly abandoned. Neal had sat in the Sistine Chapel for six hours straight one day, making his way around the perimeter. His neck had been so sore when he’d left he hadn’t been able to sleep until two nights later, and it had still been worth it. But that was no excuse to simply skip the other collections, replete in themselves.

He was considering the Amber Room—if Peter would let Neal tell him about it without only seeing the music box, blind to the perfection of its restoration, a government-sanctioned forgery—when Dr. Harden came back.

Neal felt his heartbeat kick up and he made himself breathe. There was no point in panic, he reminded himself, panic never got anyone free. There was the snap of gloves, unduly loud against Neal’s ears, reverberating in his mind. Neal couldn’t think, but he tried to focus on the color of amber, its warm tones, just one thing to think about, help keep his thoughts together.

Something sharp rested itself at the base of Neal’s skull, and then, without warning, pushed through. After that, all Neal concentrated on was not giving into his desire to scream.

*


“This is taking too long,” Peter said. He hadn’t really meant to say it aloud, but it didn’t matter. He was at the breakfast table with El, like either of them had slept. For that matter, like either of them had any desire to eat.

El, ever his voice of reason, said, “It’s only been six hours since you figured out what needed to be traced.”

Peter knew that. He also knew that if Neal were here, they would have come up with a plan that didn’t involve trusting other Bureau teams, those with less impressive solve rates and no particular attachment to Peter’s CI.

Both Bancroft and Hughes had made it clear that so far as they were concerned, Neal was one of the Bureau’s, and this work was to be done with all possible haste, but that didn’t necessarily mean people thought they would be penalized if they didn’t get around to things quite as quickly as they would with, say, an agent.

Luckily, Peter’s team from Jones and Diana on down were acting pretty much the same as if Peter himself was missing, which was lighting a fire under other people’s asses in its own way. Still, “By noon today, it’ll have been twenty-four hours.”

El nodded. “He’s crafty.”

Peter didn’t mention that even Neal wasn’t crafty enough to craft from beyond the grave. She could feel his concern. It was enough.

*


Neal was really thirsty. He wasn’t even sure how he could notice, given how much pain he was in from his head through to his shoulder blades, but he could. And he couldn’t stop thinking about it, no matter what kind of distraction technique he tried.

When he heard the door open and footsteps, he tried saying, “Water.” It took four tries, and it hurt. Neal thought he must have screamed at some point; his throat was too raw for it to be just dehydration. At least, he was pretty sure. There wasn’t any way to tell time, but he hadn’t been fed or given water, so it couldn’t have been that long.

Then again, Neal was unsure what was being pumped into or out of him through the IVs in his arm. So maybe it had been longer than he was thinking. Trying to sort it all out made his head hurt worse, and his vision grow fuzzy. He took as deep a breath as he could without having to whimper and concentrated on the task at hand—getting himself some water.

The footsteps continued, but there was no response to his request, so he repeated, “Water,” trying to add more emphasis. He considered for a second, and then tried, “Please.”

“You’re not to ingest anything. You’re being given fluids.”

Maybe so, but Neal was parched. Just because it wasn’t going to kill him wasn’t making him feel better about the situation. Knowing it was doomed to failure, he tried, “Please,” once more.

Then the footsteps moved behind him, and after a few seconds, Neal was just doing his best not to beg, not to give the doctor the satisfaction.

*


Diana found the account everyone else had missed around six, while Peter, Jones and she were sitting at the conference table with all the data, pretending to eat the takeout that one of the PAs had put down before them with an insistent look on her face. Peter knew better than to piss off the PAs. He’d known that before Neal had taught all of them 101 Creative Ways to Use a Paperclip.

Diana said, “I think I—“ and then slid the file across to Peter, who scanned it and looked over at Jones.

“She’s right, this isn’t an account. It’s a—“ Peter was already standing as he realized what he was seeing. “Real estate investment.”

He was running before he knew it, the sound of Jones calling for backup processed only vaguely. He called El from the car, driving in a way that would have caused Neal to make high-pitched sounds and possibly wet himself.

She picked up with, “You found him?”

“Maybe, possibly.”

“Make it a yes, Peter.”

Peter always listened to his wife.

*


There was noise outside the door. Neal knew, because it sounded roughly ten million times louder than he was pretty sure it actually was. Then the door opened, and the doctor yanked away from him with a curse. Neal retched from the pain of it.

“Wasn’t I clear in my instruct—“

“FBI, get your hands up.”

Neal’s plan had been to take a breath. He couldn’t really help that it came as a sob. He didn’t recognize the voice, but that was okay. Peter was probably there, just maybe they’d spread out, were checking different doors. He couldn’t say, still had no idea of the layout of the building. But Peter would be here, soon, Neal was sure.

Sure enough, someone was yelling for Agent Burke, and then there was Peter’s voice, familiar and safe, even if he was saying, “Jesus, that’s a lot of-- Neal? Neal?!”

Someone lowered the table—he’d been at a tilt while the doctor was opening him up—and Peter’s hands were at his wrists, fumbling with the locks. He barked, “Somebody find the key to these things!”

Diana’s hands appeared in Neal’s range of vision and the locks were undone. Neal had planned to roll over slowly and sit up, but just the instinctual act of curling further in on himself caused the world to spin. Peter’s hand was on his shoulder, and he was saying, “Don’t move, Neal, you’re bleeding. I’m not sure—“

“Feel me?” Neal choked out.

Peter brushed a thumb over Neal’s forehead. His, “No,” was soft. “No, that was the first thing to go.”

Neal took a breath, then another trying to stay calm. But no bond meant no freedom. Neal reached up and found Peter’s hand. It was slippery with blood. “Peter?”

Peter leaned down so that he was at eye-level with Neal. “Hey, hey. Slow your breathing, okay? Stay with me. Paramedics are on the way. We kinda sped out of the office when we figured out where you were.”

The dizziness was getting worse, and everything hurt, but Neal needed to know: “Send—“ He blinked. It was hard to focus through the pain.

Peter asked quietly, “What do I need to send, Neal?”

Neal shook his head out of pure habit and then regretted it when it caused pain so bad he doubled over, squeezing Peter’s hand hard enough to get a gasp out of him. Neal mumbled apologies. “Didn’t mean—“

“Sh, it’s okay. What about sending?”

Neal tried to swallow. His mouth was so dry. “Back? Prison?”

What?

Neal reached out with a shaky hand and tapped Peter’s temple. “No fuse. Prison.”

The muscle in Peter’s jaw jumped. He said, “Not gonna happen, Neal. Not in a million years.”

Not sure how well he was going to manage, but completely game, Neal worked up a smile for Peter. It was a sweet sentiment, even if Neal didn’t necessarily believe that Peter would have the final word. He could feel the edges of his lips crumbling, shaking, when there were other hands on him, and people started talking about things like BP and heart-rate. Neal shook at the presence of new hands on him, hands belonging to voices he didn’t recognize.

Peter said, “I’m riding in the ambulance,” to nobody in particular.

Neal remembered he was still holding Peter’s hand. He held on harder than technically necessary.

*


El came to the hospital with quality coffee and one of the two specialists who’d refused to work on Neal. Peter was sitting by Neal’s bedside, talking quietly to him, slowly feeding him ice chips. Neal was still awake, the hospital staff too scared to give him anything until they knew the extent of damage to the fuse and possibly the brain.

Peter hadn’t left his side, but he had kind of forgotten about the fact that be looked like an extra from Texas Chainsaw Massacre until he heard El’s gasp. Peter winced. They’d cleaned Neal up as best they could, but Harden had shaved half his head, and one of the nurses had gone ahead and done the rest so as to make sure they got the entire area cleaned out. The damage was horrifically apparent. Neal was in a hospital gown, but his clothes were in a heap on a chair, making it clear where all the blood had come from.

Placatingly, Peter said, “Hey, sweetheart.”

She came around to where she could kiss Neal on the forehead. Neal blinked up at her, clearly exhausted and in pain. He said, “Elizabeth,” slowly, like he was unsure. Then he smiled. “Elizabeth, make Peter clean up. He knows I don’t like blood.”

Peter started to protest, but El carefully took Neal’s hands from him and looked at him meaningfully. He could feel her soothing him, reassuring him that Neal would be fine, he could take the three steps into the hospital room bathroom and get himself a little washed up.

He left the door open even as he ran the water, so that he could hear El talking. She said, “Neal, I brought Dr. Miura, from the Atlanta Institute.”

“Elizabeth—“

“She’s going to look at your case, see if she can fix the fuse, all right? If she can’t, she’s willing to find colleagues to help out. We’re going to fix this, it might just take some time.”

Peter looked out the door at Neal’s rigid frame. He could see Neal’s breathing quicken. He said, “We’re not going to leave you alone with her. Not with any of them.”

There was a long moment of silence before Neal said with patent, sickeningly-false cheer, “Poke away, doc.”

*


Dr. Miura was four foot eleven, if that, and she had one facial expression: that of a hawk hunting for prey. That said, when she had finished conducting a preliminary examination, she settled Neal in a position she had made certain was comfortable for him, and asked—in a tone that indicated it would be wholly all right if he said no, “Do you want me to tell you what I know right now?”

“Please,” Neal said, and tried not to think about how the last time he’d said that, it hadn’t meant anything.

She said, “I don’t know what your captor was trying to do. The fuse has essentially been stripped, for lack of a better word. My best guess is that he was going to experiment with telepathy. Ironically, if you are still interested in bifurcating the bond, the stripping should make that eventual step a little easier. It’s going to make repair harder, though.”

“I want the bifurcation,” Neal told her.

“Neal, maybe you should—“ Elizabeth started.

Neal said, “Think it over? I’ve had a few days to do that.” Well, not really, but he wasn’t going to let Elizabeth know that when he’d been thinking it over, it had been about how much he needed one of them there with him, talking to him, not leaving him alone.

Elizabeth winced all the same. Neal said, “I’m sor—“

“No, you’re right, that wasn’t-- I shouldn’t be questioning your judgment. You just look so tired.”

Neal couldn’t deny that a good night’s sleep sounded like bliss. He also couldn’t deny that the likelihood of that happening in a hospital, unless there were drugs, was slim. “What’s the verdict on me taking a couple of Tylenol, doctor?”

To his surprise, Dr. Miura smiled. Her smile was as sharp as everything else, but she said, “I think we can probably do a little better than that.”

*


Peter waited until Moz had arrived to go into the office. Jones raised an eyebrow at his presence, but Peter just said, “What’ve we got?”

Jones shook his head. “He’s not talking.”

Peter couldn’t say he was surprised. Not that it mattered whether Harden talked or not—his hands had been in Neal’s head—but it could possibly help with repairing Neal’s fuse, Peter’s fuse. Even having been able to see Neal, touch him, Peter felt like he’d gone a week without caffeine and still not managed to kick the habit without Neal’s frantic buzz lying low at the base of Peter’s skull.

Peter, for the first time, made himself focus on Harden, on their first meeting, before all of this. He said, “Guy has an ego.”

“I hadn’t noticed,” Jones said dryly.

Peter managed a hint of a smile. “Yeah, well. Let’s play to that.”

*


Neal awoke by himself in a room that smelled of antiseptic and with a pounding headache. He didn’t even really think before detaching the IVs, and he was all the way to the parking lot before a wave of nausea had him on his knees, vomiting on the pavement.

A concerned voice said, “Sir, are you—“

A familiar voice cut in, “It’s all right; I’ve got him.”

Peter’s hands were on him then, competent and calming. When the worst of the voiding had died down, Peter said, “Hey, partner.”

“Don’t,” Neal bit out. He wanted to handle Peter with more finesse, but it was late fall, and wind was whipping through his hospital gown and he wasn’t—if he was being entirely honest—wholly sure why he was even out here. It had been more instinct than plan. His knees hurt from the gravel and he felt like a moron. “Don’t treat me like a victim.”

Quietly, Peter said, “I’m treating you like my lover, Neal. Can we talk about this inside?”

Neal wasn’t sure he could stand, but he did his best, and Peter, bless him, didn’t say a damn word when he had to support most of Neal’s weight. Instead, as they were heading back to the room he said, “Well, at least we both know you can still disappear on me with only a minute and change.”

“You were there?”

“Nature called.”

“Oh,” Neal said.

Peter put him back in bed and called for a nurse to get him hooked back up to the IV’s. She frowned at him, but Neal summoned up enough charm to reassure her it was just a one-time thing, and even to get her to add some anti-nausea medicine to the cocktail.

When she’d left, Neal asked, “Harden?”

Peter smiled at that, looking self-satisfied. “He likes to brag to pretty women.”

“Diana?”

Peter nodded. “We sent the transcript to Dr. Miura. Most of it doesn’t make sense, but what I did get was that he was being contracted through a shell corporation to do illegal research. Evidently he thought your convict status would mean that less resources would be spent on you.” Peter all but growled.

“Peter, focus,” Neal said.

“Whatever he was doing, it had to do with advancing the empathy fuse into a telepathy fuse, but a broad-range one, rather than just one or two people.”

“Has Dr. Miura said anything?”

Peter shrugged. “Mostly just that you’re probably going to be able to hear a lot more than you want to if we go ahead with the bifurcation.”

Neal took a second to think about the implications of that. “What do you think about that?”

Peter opened his mouth, then shut it. After a long moment, he answered, “I honestly don’t know.”

Something in Neal loosened at Peter’s upfrontness about the situation. “We don’t have to. She can probably fix it, go back to like it was before.”

“Before didn’t work.”

“There’s nothing to say that this would work better.” Neal didn’t say, It worked enough. It got me out. It got me you and Elizabeth.

Peter sighed. “Get some sleep.”

“Peter.”

“I’ll think about it. Scout’s honor. Now sleep.”

“Were you really a Boy Scout?”

Peter rolled his eyes. “I don’t know, Neal, was I?”

*


Moz showed up around eleven in the morning and Peter took a coffee break, as well as the chance to call El. She picked up on the first ring. “How is he?”

“He escaped while I was in the bathroom, so: still Neal.”

El laughed. “I shouldn’t laugh.”

Peter smiled. “You can laugh.” He loved the sound of her laugh.

“You found him, so you’re still Peter.”

“I think I’ll not count this one in the tally.”

“Big of you.”

The silences between them were never awkward, but they were sometimes complex. Peter sipped at his coffee. Finally, El asked, “What’d he say to upset you?”

“Noth-- Just, he asked if I really wanted to bifurcate with the possibility of how much he’ll be able to hear.”

“Do you?” El asked quietly.

“The thought scares the hell out of me.”

She gave him a moment. Then she called him on it. “That’s not an answer.”

“The last time I let fear get in the way of something I wanted, I almost didn’t ask this gorgeous assistant manager I’d met on a case out to dinner.”

“How would that have worked out for you?”

“I’d’ve been lost.”

She gave him time to consider that, then said, “I’ll be there around three. Are you going into the office?”

“No, Bancroft and Hughes have got everyone routing through me at the hospital. Moz is in the room with him right now.”

“Think I can get you to go home and shower when I get there?”

“We’ll discuss it then,” Peter said. “I should get back, before Moz helps him escape.”

“Tell him I expect him to be there when I come.”

“That might actually work.”

*


According to Dr. Miura, it was going to take at least three procedures to correct the damage: the first simply to reconnect the fuse to Neal’s neural pathways in proper ways, the second to re-establish Peter’s link and the third to effect the bifurcation. She said, “I cannot promise it will not take more. You can refuse consent at any time.”

Neal said, “Take me through the procedures.”

She explained the basics, with color-coded pictures, which Neal appreciated. When she was finished, he asked, “And this can be done with a local?”

She blinked. “No. You’ll have to be put under for these procedures.” The muscle in her jaw ticked angrily, but Neal didn’t think she was upset with him. He sensed it had something to do with the fact that he probably should have been under for whatever the hell Harden had been doing back there.

Still, Neal wasn’t feeling all that confident about going to sleep in a room with a head doctor again. He started to say he would think about it when Peter said, “I’ll be in the observation room the whole time.”

Dr. Miura whipped her head around to look at Peter, and Neal couldn’t help smiling. Sometimes (okay, a lot of the time) Peter forgot to ask nicely. At the moment, Neal didn’t really care all that much.

Neal looked at Dr. Miura and asked, with his most charming smile, “Would you mind giving us a moment?”

She didn’t respond to the smile—tough cookie—but she left the room. Peter asked, “What’s on your mind?”

“The deal’s off if I don’t at least repair the single-direction fuse, correct?”

Peter winced. “I talked with anyone I could reach, but yes.”

“Life sentence, or mitigated by good behavior and the fact that I didn’t run?”

“Neal—“

“Last time I was put to sleep even near an operating table I woke up with a psycho who shaved half my head and tried to rewire my brain, Peter.”

“I wasn’t there.” Peter looked like saying the words tasted bad. “I won’t let them do a damn thing.”

“Because you’re going to know if they decide to get creative.”

Peter paced a little at that, then stopped. “It’s this, or me aiding and abetting a felon.”

It took a second for that to sink in, for Neal to get that for all Peter had threatened him with a return to prison that first year, and well into the second, he was saying he wouldn’t allow that, that he would protect Neal. Neal bit back a sigh at Peter’s need to complicate everything. And Peter acted like Neal was the one who made things less simple. Neal held Peter’s gaze. “You won’t move from the observation window?”

“Not an inch,” Peter said.

“Okay,” Neal said. He supposed he’d taken greater risks before, even if he couldn’t think of them right then. “Okay.”

*


The first procedure was by far the worst. Neal was gratingly cheery when they rolled him in, the way he got when things were really going to shit. Peter could see Neal’s panic in the lines of his body when they put the anesthetic in his line, panic that took longer than Peter felt it should have to melt away once the drugs did their job.

The part that was the killer, though, was that when Neal woke up, his eyes unfocused and his breathing uneven, there was no evident difference. Dr. Miura had assured Peter and El that everything had gone well, the basic repair had been effected with little to no difficulty. But all that meant was that things were in place for the partial fuse to be reconnected.

When Neal awoke the second time, it was nearly midnight, so El was there. At first the hospital had tried imposing visiting hours, but Peter had gotten Neal declared a flight risk, which meant an agent had to be with him at all times. Peter had never thought there would be a day when Neal’s convict status would be useful to him outside of a case.

Neal was a little more with it on his second try at consciousness, and asked, “Water?”

El was immediately on her feet. “Sure, sweetie.”

She fiddled with the bed so that Neal was slightly more vertical and held a cup with a straw to his lips. He took a couple of slow sips, then pulled back. She put the cup aside and reached out to touch his cheek. Peter could tell she was unsure of how to handle the complete lack of hair, usually an aid in touching Neal, since he liked it when El played with his hair.

Neal leaned into the touch for a moment. She asked, “How’re you feeling?”

“’M on the good stuff,” Neal said softly, his vowels lazy and elongated.

She smiled, “You sure are.”

Neal looked at her hard. He asked slowly and with a tone that suggested he wasn’t sure he wanted to know, “You’re really here, right? That’s-- The stuff’s not that good?”

“We’re here,” Peter said from behind her.

Neal looked up and blinked a few times at him. He frowned. “Pretty sure this is real. Mostly sure.” He reached down and pinched himself pretty brutally.

El soothed her hand over the spot. “Hey, stop.”

He told her earnestly, “Peter always brings cuffs when he gets me in the dreams.”

Peter could tell El was struggling not to smile. “He is fond of his cuffs.”

Equally earnestly he explained, “They hurt my wrists. I would go with him anyway. I mean, now I would. Before, maybe not. But now, I don’t want to run. I just don’t like the handcuffs.”

Peter, unable to stand still, came around to the side of the bed El wasn’t on and sat down, cupping his hand over Neal’s neck. Neal leaned back into the hand, and let his head loll toward Peter. He frowned. “I’m talking too much.”

“Painkillers do that to you,” Peter said knowingly.

“Huh,” Neal said. Then, “You’re Peter, though. That’s good. Peter doesn’t use my weaknesses against me. He’s very honorable.” He frowned, then, “You’re very honorable?”

“Neal,” Peter said, lost as to what the hell else there was to say.

“I think I’m tired again,” Neal mumbled.

El squeezed his hand. “You go to sleep, sweetie. We’ll be right here. Me and Honorable Peter.”

“Love you, El…izabeth.” His eyes fluttered closed. “Your name has lots of syllables if you’re not Peter. And I’m not Peter, so I can’t call you El. But that’s easier, El.”

El’s smile was soft, and she stroked his cheek once more. “We’ll see how challenged you feel by my syllables later.”

Neal made a noise that Peter interpreted as, “I’m asleep.”

*


The worst thing about being weaned off of painkillers, Neal decided, wasn’t the pain. It was that he always remembered everything he’d said while on them. In a moment when it was just Moz and him he said, “What’s the likelihood I could flee the country in the next three hours?”

“Before the Suit gets back?” Moz looked to be actually calculating the odds. He shrugged. “We could work with credit, until we can take care of the solvency issue.”

Neal considered it for a moment. He was pretty sure he would fall on his face somewhere between his bed and the door, or, at the very least, the nurse’s desk. “I’ll keep it in mind.”

“What did you do now?”

“Do we have a chess board? Maybe in the waiting room?”

“Nice try, Caffrey.”

“You’ve seen me on painkillers. More of an Arp than a Poynter.”

Moz rolled his eyes. “Look, it’s awkward that I have to explain this to you, so I’m only going to do it once. Listen carefully, grasshopper. When people love each other—and as much as it pains me to admit that the Suit contains human emotions, for your sake, I concede the point—they forgive each other moments of sloppiness and crassness and even, dare I suggest it, drugged, vulnerable romanticism.”

Neal tightened his jaw. He thought it might be offensive to ask Moz how he could be sure about any of that. At the same time, Moz didn’t lie to him. He left things out and he evaded, but he didn’t lie.

“I called Elizabeth El.”

“Oh, well, in that case, let me book the tickets. Uzbekistan, or somewhere more esoteric?”

“I’m having more brain surgery in another few days. You should be nice to me.”

“I’ll let you win the chess game.”

Neal didn’t believe that for a second.

*


Neal came back to Peter in fits and starts through the course of the second operation. At one moment, the thick swirl of activity that was Neal, even unconscious, would whirl through his mind, and the next it would disappear. Peter took four Tylenol in the middle of the procedure.

Finally, when it was over—the second one took considerably longer than the first, clocking in at just over seven hours total—Peter had Neal back. He didn’t feel quite the same. Some of the strands of color and sound that coalesced to make Neal were muted, bent in ways they hadn’t been before. But it was still Neal, and for the first time since the connection had cut out, Peter felt like he could breathe.

Peter left Moz with Neal once they had gotten him back to the room, and went to get El, who had come as soon as she was done with her clients, and was sitting in the waiting room. She had been with him the whole time, a concertedly calm presence, keeping him as still as he could be. It was better, though, to be pulled down into the chair next to her, to feel her hand, cool against his face.

“Hey,” she said.

“Mm,” Peter responded, closing his eyes, letting Neal be as much a part of him as possible. He could feel El reaching out so that she could feel as well.

“Oh thank G-d,” she murmured.

Peter opened his eyes. “Dr. Miura said Neal’ll probably sleep for most of the next few days.”

El nodded. Peter admitted, “I’m a little tired.”

El laughed, her fond laugh, the one that called Peter on all of his bullshit. She asked, “Moz is here, right?”

Peter nodded. She tucked a hair behind his ear unnecessarily. “And you’ve got Jones guarding the room?”

“Until eleven, then Gelfland takes the night shift. Neal likes Gelfland.”

“Let me take you home.”

Peter stiffened. “I don’t—“

“He needs you on your toes, Peter. You’re barely awake in here.” She tapped his forehead.

Peter dug the keys out of his pants pocket. He’d stood for all seven hours of the surgery, eyes on Neal, nothing else. It had been like a stakeout, without anyone to do a food or coffee run. “I think you’re going to have to drive.”

*


Neal awoke a couple of times to Moz, who made sure his pain meds were working and told him stuff that Neal promptly forgot. The third time he woke up, Peter was there, reading through a file. Neal had barely even blinked awake when Peter looked up, grinning. “Morning, Sleeping Beauty.”

Neal made a face. He did not feel beautiful. He did not even feel so much as presentable. He quirked a smile at Peter. “You look better.”

“El made me sleep.”

“She’s a keeper,” Neal said, and didn’t ask what he wanted to ask. If it had worked, Peter would know he was worried anyway.

Peter put the file aside and said, “Stop worrying. I didn’t miss the worrying.”

Neal had known a fair amount of relief in his life, but nothing so pure and overwhelming as this. Nonetheless, he kept his face in a pleasant mask. “Liar. You missed everything.”

Peter sat Neal up and handed him the cup of water, making sure he could actually take it. Then he said softly, “Smart. I like smart.”

Neal put the water back on the stand next to the bed. “When’s the Bureau expecting me back?”

“Depends on if you have the third surgery or not,” Peter admitted.

In that moment, Neal missed wine sharply. He missed the taste on his tongue, crisp and full of secrets. Mostly, though, he missed the way one or two glasses could help mute his emotions, everything from terror to ecstasy, and help him think.

He looked up and saw Peter, clearly unaware of what Neal was thinking, but just as clearly aware that Neal felt lost, unsure. Neal had thought he hadn’t missed this part of the fuse, where Peter got to see the parts of Neal that weren’t polished, poised, gleaming with charm. Oddly, as it turned out, this was possibly the part he had missed the most.

Finally, Neal said, “My pros and cons chart leads me to believe that being able to annoy the everloving bejesus out of you even more than usual wins over my slight anxiety at once again having my head opened up and played with.”

“Slight anxiety, huh?” Peter sniped, but his eyes were soft.

“You’ll see,” Neal said, as nonchalantly as possible. Peter would, so it was more threat than promise, but Peter would get that, too.

Peter’s jaw tightened for a moment before he said, “You know, Neal-- You know you have us? Whether you do this or not?”

The common-sense, smarter than the average bear, human or Nobel Prize winner part of Neal knew, yes. The part of Neal that tended to find people who either abandoned him, stole from him or managed some combination of the two? That part wasn’t so sure. And despite himself, that part had a tendency to win. “I know,” Neal said.

“Liar,” Peter echoed Neal’s earlier accusation.

And since that was partway true, Neal didn’t argue.

*


Paradoxically, the final surgery was the shortest of the three, clocking in at close to four hours. Dr. Miura had told them this was likely, since most of the prep work had been accomplished in the previous two surgeries and by Harden. Still, it felt weird to Peter, walking out of the observation room and only being on the verge of collapse, rather than ten miles past.

He and El both waited with Neal until he woke up, because Neal had never been reciprocally fused before, and Peter well remembered the adjustment period his first time. El was a pretty easy presence to take, as these things went, and he had been extremely pleased, ready to be sharing that part of her. It had still taken some adjustment.

Peter felt Neal wake up long minutes before Neal opened his eyes, but he let him be. Finally—still without opening his eyes—Neal asked, just short of plaintively, “Can you think a little more quietly about the Ponzi scheme you’re trying to root out? Please?”

That wasn’t hard, actually, since most of Peter’s focus had shifted to Neal. El laughed softly, “Hey, sweetie.”

For a second, Peter reflected on the fact that Neal could read him well enough to know what case he was thinking about. Neal hadn’t mentioned anything that he’d specifically been considering, though, so his abilities probably stopped at the level of being able to ferret out the “headlines” or “topic sentences” in Peter’s thoughts.

Neal grumbled to El, “Now he’s trying to figure out how much I know about his thoughts.”

“I know,” El told him. “Live with a person inside your head long enough, and you can start to figure out where an emotion comes from, even without the plain text.”

“How did I end up being the one person out of three with two recipient fuses?” Peter asked.

“We’re both smarter than you, dear.” El patted his hand, sympathetically. Peter didn’t argue. He’d kind of chosen them for just that reason.

Neal’s eyes widened and he stared at Peter for a second. Peter smiled. It had been a while since he’d been able to shock Neal into speechlessness. Evidently, there were going to be some pretty considerable benefits to Neal having more access, after all.

“Sneaky,” Neal said, the beginnings of a pout coming over his face.

El didn’t ask what had passed between them, just leaned down and kissed the pout into the smile Neal was hiding from them. Peter’d been wondering how easy it would be to bring it out.

“You’re taking advantage of me in my feeble state,” Neal told El solemnly.

“Absolutely,” she responded.

Neal grinned. “When do I get to go home?”

“When Dr. Miura says,” Peter said, no room in his tone for disagreement.

“But you’ll tell her I’m fine, right?” Neal blinked prettily, in that calculated way that Peter never fell for, except when he did.

Not this time, though. “She’s the doctor, Neal. I think she’ll know whether you’re fine or not.”

“You ruin all my fun,” Neal said, sighing.

“It’s how our dynamic works,” Peter agreed.

*


The hospital kept Neal four nights for observation, continued intravenous antibiotics and because Dr. Miura liked to torture him. He had even gotten her to admit this last justification. He was growing on her, he could tell.

Finally, though, they let Peter wheel him out to the ever-trusty Taurus and take him home. (Well, Peter’s home, which was home, but Neal was very careful not to think of it in that way. That would only lead to madness and heartbreak, he was entirely certain. Then again, now that he was formally fused with Peter, both of those were probably unavoidable.)

Neal paused in his thoughts as he felt Peter laughing at him. Neal looked over. “It isn’t nice to laugh at the infirm, Peter.”

“Infirm, my ass. And you’re thinking so hard I can see the smoke coming out of your ears.”

“Better than the screeching of gears I keep hearing every time you try to puzzle something out.”

Peter didn’t respond to that, incredibly, managing to keep his eyes on the road even as his lips quirked in a half smile. Neal wanted to kiss him.

“Wait till we’re home,” Peter said, not as strictly as Neal knew he’d meant to.

“I’ve actually decided I don’t need to be in a car accident so shortly after three brain surgeries,” Neal informed him.

“I drive just fine,” Peter said mildly, but Neal could feel the small quirk of annoyance and exasperation that his needling caused. It was way more encouragement than Peter probably meant to provide.

“Elizabeth agrees with me. Majority wins, you lose.”

“El does not.”

“Does too.”

“I’m not having a does not/does too argument with you.”

“So, I win by default?” Neal basked in the warm fondness that spread through Peter, overtaking any irritation he’d managed to build up toward Neal.

“You have the emotional maturity of a five year old.”

“Perhaps. But what does it say that that works for you?”

Peter growled, a little, not even all that menacingly. (Neal knew; he’d heard Peter’s menacing.) “Just wait till we get home.”

Neal grinned both at the words, and at the promise underneath them, swirling in a determined pattern at the base of his brain. “I’m not a patient person.”
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