"I'm fine, okay? Allistar… he like the theatrics. I-I'll try not to react, try to keep strong… s'not as bad as it sounds, okay? I'm okay." Neal's ragged breaths could, again, be heard."Just promise me… promise me you'll stay in the van. You come in here, I don't know what will happen… what he'll do. There are two guards, both armed. And security by the gate. Just promise…promise that…"

Neal vomited, the painful wrenching sound reverberating through the van. "Shit. P-Peter… I'm okay, b-but I… please have EMS ready. I'm okay, I swear. I just-"

The door clicked opened, and Samson Allistar's voice could be heard.
"So, Nick. Ready to learn the rest of that lesson?"

"Diana. Jones. Is there any way to get this comm. system working both ways?" Is there any way to talk to Neal?

"The microphone is in his watch. There aren't even any speakers to tamper with," Jones responded. Of course, it make perfect sense. Peter just wasn't thinking clearly. But dammit. If the positions were reversed, he'd want someone telling him what was going on outside. Someone to tell him he was doing alright. Some sort of comfort, especially in the face of the animalistic cruelty.

"God, this must be torture for Neal.." Diana muttered, mostly to herself.
Two pairs of eyes darted to her as she colored, realizing the implications of what she'd said. Torture.

"No, I meant.. I mean, it is, but Caffrey's… He's strong. He defines himself by the masks he can create, the masks he can wear. What they're doing to him… he can't hide. He knows we're listening, and he can't hide from what's happening…" Diana lost herself in thought, her jaw set in place.

"Jesus, Neal.," Peter whispered. He looked down at his own shaking hands, clenched them, unclenched, and then scrambled back to the computer. Peter's heart stopped as he heard the sound of Williamson approaching Neal. He could hear Neal's broken breaths.

"So, Nick. Ready to learn the rest of that lesson?"

"C'mon Allistar… Haven't you had enough? We go way back. You've made your point, can't we be civil? I just want to-"

A slap could be heard then, a slap so loud that in even made Jones flinch.

"You screwed me over, Halden. You want to talk about going way back? We could've been great business partners, and you ruined it. You slimy little-" CRACK. This time, Neal let out a gruff cry. Neal spoke again, his voice gravely now.

"Only because you were trying to do the same to me. Mad I beat you to the punch, huh Sammy? "

It was almost cliché that Samson Allistar chose that moment to throw a devastating punch to Neal's midsection. For agonizing seconds, only the sound of Neal's labored panting could be heard.

Jones and Diana found themselves breathing in cadence with Neal.
Peter wasn't breathing at all.

"What's the matter, Halden? Cat got that silver tongue of yours? S'the-matter? No witty come-backs? No" –punch- "smart" –punch- "remarks?"

Neal was silent which was perhaps the most unnerving thing of all.

"You listen to me, you smug son of a bitch. I was kind to you this time Next time you double-cross me, I won't be so thoughtful." Neal sucked in a breath as something happened, though Peter couldn't discern what it was.

"Keep it. Consider it a gift between friends. Jerry—let him down." Thud.
"That's what we are, huh Nick? Friends?"

"Friends."

"I'll give you a moment to collect your thoughts, clean yourself up. There's an ajoining bathroom. Please, try and make yourself presentable. If we're going to talk business… I'd rather not have to look at that filth."

The sound of a door closing could be heard.

Peter was anxiously waiting for Neal to start speaking. Come on, Neal. What's going on in there? Neal.. Neal, come on. Maybe he'd spoken aloud, because Jones was looking at him.

Ring. Ring.
Peter's cell phone!

"Neal?!"

"Hey."

"Christ, Neal. Are you alright?" Dumbest question ever.

"Peter, I'm fine. I've only got a minute before he comes back in here. We'll go through with the meet as planned, okay?"

"To hell we will. I want you out of there. Tell him… tell him that you need to go home and clean up, say something. I want you out of there, Neal."

"He won't go for it. He wants to send a message."

"He did, Neal, he did. Christ, I want you out of there."

"You don't understand. THIS was only part of it. He wants me to go to the meet like this, send a message to his other associates. Serve as a warning."

Neal's voice was raspier than Peter had ever heard it, and it had a breathless quality to it.

"Neal… how bad is it?"

"I've seen worse."

Peter knew better than to expect a direct answer. One thing was nagging at him, however.

"What did he mean when he said 'keep this' to you? What was that about?"

Neal let out a bitter chortle.

"He dabbed at my face with his handkerchief, threw it at me when he was done. He probably thought he was being dramatic. It's a white handkerchief, Peter. White. He basically threw in a white flag. The symbolism will not be lost on him when we bring him in." Peter could hear the ghost of a smile in Neal's voice.

"Neal… please. How are you, how badly are you hurt?" Peter was afraid to hear the answer, more afraid of not hearing it.

"Most of it is superficial, looks worse than it is. I think he may've bruised my ribs a little."

Peter unwittingly found himself thinking back to that gut-wrenching scream… when Neal screamed, an animalistic growl followed by a series of unrelenting sobs. He could hear Neal dry heaving, coughing, muttering unintelligible pleas. "Please, please stop… God." His voice was laced with pain. A sound that Peter didn't recognize could be faintly heard, followed by another scream from Neal. Before today, Peter had never heard such a sound of unadulterated pain. To hear it from Neal, to hear Neal begging for his agony to end… Peter swallowed his growing nausea.

"Neal, please." Peter's voice may have given a bit on that last sentence, the screams and barely contained whimpers playing themselves on repeat in his mind.

"I'm fine, Peter. I'm fine, okay?"

"Don't deflect, dammit, Neal! For once, can you just listen to me?"

He heard Neal sigh.

"My leg, my calf more specifically. I don't think it's broken, but it felt like it at the time. I can probably walk on it. Just might need some help when I get out of this." Neal was admitting he was going to need help, something that would normally be comforting to Peter (Neal working with him, being honest, being a member of the team), but in this case was all-too-telling as to how badly Neal was likely injured.

"Christ, Neal. Please, what else can you tell me? Anything, anything at all? And you remember the code phrase, right? Neal? Neal. Caffrey, answer me dammit."

"Sorry," Neal slurred. "Yeah, it's been a pleasure doing business with you."

"Things go bad, you give me the word, we get you out of there." If things go bad. IF.
"You say.. you say bonds. Bonds, and we storm in. We get you out of there. I don't care, Neal, your life is more important.. your life is more valuable than any of this, you get me? Do you understand that?"

Peter wondered how a man like Neal could have such an appreciation for art, for the things that glittered, for love,for friendship, for the wonders of life… yet have so little regard for his own… how he could fail to see his own value. And that damn well broke Peter's heart.

Feeling the consuming fire of anger and guilt rise like flames, his own disgust fueling the fire, Peter found himself suppressing animalistic urges. He wanted to storm in then and there. Peter was the agent, not Neal. Neal hadn't signed up for this. Neal was his responsibility.

The fire in his stomach rose. Perhaps there was a twisted irony to it. Peter's initial months working with Neal had been marked with distrust, ulterior motives. It wasn't until that day at the hanger when Neal had turned back to him, an unreadable look in his eyes, that Peter had realized what he meant to the younger man. Peter had always knew that the two were friends, but that horrible day… as that explosion took Neal's love from him, it fueled Peter's. Because dammit, the world was so cruel to Neal, and someone needed to show him that there was good in the world. Call him a proxy father if you want, but the same day that that explosion wiped away Neal's future with Kate, it fueled Peter's desire to keep his friend close, to keep him on the straight and narrow, to show him that guys like him could have happy endings.

And it was that same fire that he was fighting now, because here Neal was, trying to do something good, trying to save lives, and the unrelenting grip of the past was dragging him down.

Often, Peter found himself trying to get into Neal's head. Neal was a brilliant man, and he wore the mask of the confidence man with ease. It was in those quiet moments, the small sentences scattered in a weak, that the façade crumbled a bit. It was rare, but at the right time, or maybe even the wrong time… Neal spoke like a man who knew what it was not to be in control of his own life, to be spiraling downward in a life he didn't ask for, a life he didn't want. A few times, Peter had intended to ask Neal about it. To ask him what he wanted, what would make him happy. He'd chickened out, afraid of the answer. Peter prided himself on giving Neal a good life, a better life, but what if it wasn't enough, wasn't what Neal wanted?

Peter swallowed down his feelings of angst.

"Shit. He's coming back. I have to hang up."

"You get in to trouble, you say the word. Bonds, remember? Bonds. You get the location, you say the take-down phrase."

"Got it. Bonds. Promise me you don't move in until I say the phrase. Got it, Peter? I don't care what you hear. Even if I get him to fork over a location. You wait until I hear the phrase, okay?"

Peter hesitated and exhaled.

"I promise."

The call disconnected.