My infinite gratitude to Sholio for the beta work, and also Kanarek for spotting the typos. All remaining mistakes are mine.
This is for the Hero Fest over there at WC H/C!
Title is from a play that was shown in Paris recently and whose poster I passed by every morning for weeks. No idea what the play is about but I liked the title.
I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky.
The blast of the explosion hit him at the exact same moment the scream pierced through his ear. It was a raw and hurting scream.
Neal felt the floor give under his feet. He fell through it and landed hard and flat on a concrete ground below. The shock took all the air out of his lungs. For a moment, he lost orientation. There were smoke and falling debris everywhere. Neal curled up, wrapped his arms around his head and closed his eyes…
…Jesus, Neal, talk to me!
Peter's voice called Neal back. It was coming from inside his head.
Neal? Please, Neal, say something…
No, it was coming from his left ear. Peter was screaming through his radio directly into Neal's earpiece. Behind the voice, Neal distinguished a rumble, that transformed into an overwhelming roar as he became gradually more aware of his surroundings. He was lying on his back. The air he was breathing was heavy and hot. His body was hurting.
Get out of there, Neal!
Carefully, Neal opened his eyes, the light was orange, almost red. It smelled of fire. The building was burning. There was smoke everywhere. It was rising in great clouds around Neal. Following their movement, Neal looked up, at the ceiling. What he saw was the light blue shade of a clear sky. The roof of the warehouse was completely gone. It was a nice day outside. But it looked like Hell inside. If "inside" still had a meaning among ruins.
It's too long, we don't have that much time!
Neal wasn't sure what Peter was talking about, but he could definitely feel the anger in Peter's voice now. Neal could only make some of the words out, but every once in a while, Peter's voice was coming back, loud and clear, calling his name, again and again.
Neal? Do you copy? Are you there, Neal?
"Pet-" Neal tried to call his partner but his voice remained stuck in his dry and throbbing throat. Peter would never hear him. Neal tried to call again but he got caught into a bad cough that shook his body and hurt his lungs. Neal raised his left arm just enough to glance at his watch. The device was smashed, useless.
Come on, Neal…
Neal sat up and immediately regretted it. The room spun around him and his vision got blurry. Yet, he resisted the impulse to lie back down. He had to get out of here. The more he waited, the more upset Peter sounded.
Damn it. I'm going in.
Neal didn't want Peter to be angry at him, especially not now. Peter had had his share of Neal-induced disasters recently. The treasure, Keller, Elizabeth's kidnapping.
It was actually a wonder that Peter could still tolerate him by his side. Neal knew there was nothing he could do that would make things right, but he still tried. He had thrown himself in the new case with all his heart, no matter the danger, despite Peter's reservation, to try and prove himself to the one person whose opinion mattered the most to him.
Neal carefully got to his knees. The heat was becoming intolerable, and breathing was getting harder. Neal's lungs burnt as if they were themselves on fire. Neal tried to get up, but everything went suddenly black and his knees gave under him. Neal staggered and lost balance. He fell back on his back. There were stars dancing around and black spots shadowing his vision. He blinked several times, but they wouldn't disappear.
He had to get up, get out of the building. Peter had stopped talking. He was probably through with him now. Neal couldn't blame him. Peter had been more patient with Neal that he had ever thought possible. He had given him more second chances than he deserved. And yet, Neal couldn't help blowing them one by one. He didn't mean to, really. He had tried. Maybe he simply didn't deserve such a friend. He didn't deserve that second shot at life. He was just a criminal and he would go back to prison. He didn't want to. Prison was no fun. But at least he wouldn't hurt Peter in prison.
Neal was vaguely aware that his thoughts were getting blurry. His chest and head were aching. His whole body seemed unable to move. He could just lay there and get some sleep. Peter wouldn't approve, but Neal felt so exhausted…
Neal jolted. Peter. Maybe he hadn't given up on him yet after all. Neal couldn't give up on Peter then. He had to get on his feet and get out of the building. And the warehouse – or what was left of it – was still burning, so it would probably be a good idea to listen to Peter… Neal didn't want to disappoint Peter. He wanted to continue working with Peter, make him happy, and proud.
Neal rolled over to his side and tried to push himself up, but his arms were shaking and he had no energy left. Something caught his eyes. Through the flames and smoke, he saw a gigantic shadow. It was coming his way. Gradually the shadow morphed into a more precise shape. It was human, and it was definitely familiar.
Neal smiled. Peter was here.
Earlier that day
The air in the conference room was thick. Hands on hips, lips tightly closed, eyes darting arrows, Peter was in a bad mood.
"I don't like it."
"There's no reason to worry, Peter, I –"
"No reason to worry?!" Peter burst out. "We're not prepared enough. We know nothing about the fence. There's no trace of him anywhere. And you don't know Caputo. He is slippery, highly unstable. He'll turn against us the minute something goes off. We should wait. Deal with a more reliable source."
"It'll take weeks, we'll lose trace of the Picasso."
"It's not that damn painting I'm worried about, Neal," the agent groaned.
"Come on, Peter, I go undercover all the time. This is our best shot, you know it."
Peter looked away through the window. Neal could almost see the rear of his thoughts, pondering the pros and cons.
It was frustrating. Ever since they've been back to work together, things had been a little awkward, between them. There was nothing specific Neal could point out, but something was off, cold. Peter didn't trust him with the job like before.
Peter turned to face Neal, shooting him one of his laser looks, like he was trying to read through his soul.
He raised a finger to weight his point. "No shenanigans."
Neal gave him his earnest innocent look and shook his head. "No shenanigans. Scout's honor."
Peter's jaw tightened a little, but he didn't say anything. Instead, he pointed his finger to Neal's chest.
"We stick to the plan," he said in a low voice. Neal nodded. "And if anything, anything, seems wrong, you say the word, we go in."
"Okay, then." Waving at Diana and Jones, "prep him," Peter said as he headed to his office.
Neal exchanged a look with his team mates.
Peter's hands were shaking. He was angry and scared.
It was all his fault. He should never, never have let Neal go in. He knew it was a risky case. He overestimated their luck and power as a team. He sent Neal right into the lion's den. He should never have let Neal talk him into it. He was the team leader. He was responsible for his team's safety. It was his job to protect them, make sure nothing happens to them, to keep them safe – against their own judgements if he had to. He should be making the calls. And he should never, never, let his personal feelings impair his judgement as a team leader.
He knew Neal was trying his best to make it up after Keller, and despite himself, Peter had encouraged it. It had helped him get over his initial anger. He'd seen in his partner's eyes the distress, the culpability. And watching Neal do everything possible to redeem himself had convinced Peter he really was sorry and had never meant to hurt him, or Elizabeth. In the end, Peter knew he was just as responsible as Neal for the situation that led to the treasure fiasco and El's kidnapping.
From up close, the fire was even more frightening. The whole roof had been blasted and all the left side of the building had collapsed. Long flames were licking the walls and a dark thick smoke was rising into the sky. Peter adjusted the small handkerchief on his mouth and nose, which was his unique protection, and entered the building. The extreme heat and the heavy air caught him at the throat. The air was suffocating. But he had to go in, he had to get Neal out of there. He knew from the audio feed that Neal had climbed a flight of stairs when he first came in, so he had to have been on the second floor. Except, there were no more second floor. A few steps were still rising, in the middle of the debris, leading to nowhere.
He should have talked to Neal. Tell him he was sorry too. He hadn't meant to put him in that impossible situation. He just thought… What had he been thinking exactly all those months trying to catch Neal red-handed but off book? Peter wasn't sure anymore…
"Neal!" Peter called desperately.
The heat inside was unbearable. As Peter progressed cautiously through the building, the smoke made his eyes sore and he couldn't suppress the tears. He had to blink to clear his blurry vision. The fire had started at the back of the warehouse and was gaining the front, eating the debris of wood and concrete, melting the metal, darkening and consuming everything. Dangerous flames were crawling along the floor and rising into the air. In the middle of the furnace, Peter distinguished what looked like a human figure, lying on the floor.
Peter ran, heart racing just as fast. He jumped above unidentified rubble. An arm raised in front of him, he threw himself through a wall of flames that were blocking the way.
The body was lying face down, limps at an odd angle. There was a dark pool of blood coming from the head. Peter felt struck down. His heart stopped dead. His whole body was shaking. There was no doubt the body lying at his feet was dead. Peter felt dizzy and sick. For a moment, he thought he was going to faint. Neal could not be dead. Not like that. Peter would never forgive himself. Forcing himself to calm down, Peter scrutinized the body, looking for an indisputable sign whether it was Neal or not. The dark clouds of heavy smoke were reducing the visibility and identification was difficult, but Peter didn't dare touch the body.
Suddenly, something on his right side moved and made him startled. There was another body 10 feet from here, and it was moving. With an immense relief, Peter recognized the familiar shape of his friend, who seemed to struggle to get up.
Peter rushed and kneeled down. Neal looked at him and a faint smile appeared on his lips.
"Neal, are you okay? Are you hurt? Can you get up?"
Neal frowned slightly, visibly struggling with his thoughts. "Peter…" he mumbled.
"I'm here," Peter said gently, as he quickly patted down his partner for any injury. Neal had a few scratches here and there, and his suit was ruined, but otherwise, to Peter's frank relief, he seemed in one piece, if a little bit out of it.
"…found me," Neal whispered.
Peter chuckled softly. "Yeah, that's what I do."
Suddenly Neal grabbed his arm tightly, eyes wide opened, an unexpected fear marking his face. "Don't send me back, Peter, please don't…"
Peter's heart missed a beat. For a moment he remained frozen, looking down at Neal, who wouldn't release his hold.
"I'm not – Do you really think…" Peter's voice was shaking. He had to clear his throat before going on. "I won't send you back, Neal," he murmured. His chest was hurting, his eyes were wet, and it wasn't entirely due to the surrounding furnace.
His words seemed to relax Neal, whose arm fell back, inert, on the ground. "Good, that's good," he slurred. His head swayed on a side. Trying to get his partner to focus and look at him, Peter cleared his friend's face of his messy hair, dampened by sweat and dust, and he put a protective hand on the side of his head.
"Hey, stay with me. Let's get you out of here."
"You think you can get up?"
Neal didn't answer but rolled over to try and get on his hands and knees, but his moves were clumsy and uncoordinated. He fell back on his friend's lap.
Peter got up and slid his arm under Neal's shoulder, but the young man was completely worn out. Pushing up, Peter got them both on their feet, with Neal a dead weight in his arms, his head lolling against Peter's shoulder.
There was no way Neal would walk his way out, even with Peter's support. Peter himself was starting to feel a little light-headed. He was out of breath, his chest was hurting and he was sweating profusely. Now he could see that Jones and Diana had a very valid point when they had vehemently tried to talk him out of going inside before the fire-fighters. He would not last long in this furnace. But now was not the time for retrospective thinking. It was time for action, and Peter would get both Neal and himself out of the building, even if that meant carrying his CI over his shoulder.
Taking a deep breath, Peter held Neal's arm up and, bending over, then pushing up, got him unceremoniously across his shoulders, carrying him in a fire-fighter carry.
"Jeez, Neal, who would have thought gourmet cuisine could weight so much!"
With Neal over his shoulders, one hand holding him firmly by the arm, the other by the leg, Peter began going back from where he had come. With the exhaustion growing and the additional weight, progressing through the ruins was slow and laborious. The path he had followed when he first came in was blocked by concrete blocks and a substantial fire consuming what seemed to have been a wooden cupboard. An instant, Peter remained dumbfounded in front of this impassable obstacle he sure had had to pass on his way in.
Peter took a right and entered another room. Luckily, the fire hadn't reached it yet and the air was more breathable there.
Neal was still mumbling on his shoulder. "I'm sorry. Didn't mean to hurt you. Didn't mean..."
His voice was weak and his thoughts sounded pretty incoherent to Peter, but at least it was a proof he was very alive.
"…sorry, Peter, I'm sorry."
An unsettling feeling invaded Peter as he realized Neal's words were actually echoing his very own thoughts. He swallowed hard the lump of anxiety in his throat, and secured his grip on his friend.
"Shhh, buddy. It's okay. We're almost there."
His steps were becoming less and less assured as Peter progressed through the building. He stumbled several times, Neal slipping a few inches from his back, and Peter tightening his grip each time. Taking a left, Peter passed a door and caught sight of the entrance, 10 feet in front of him. The way was mostly clear. Peter called up his last forces to make it to the door. These were the longest 10 feet of his life, but he eventually reached the outside.
Just as he passed the threshold, Peter saw firefighters and medics running his way. Trying to put some distance between him and the burning warehouse, Peter managed 2 more steps before collapsing to his knees, gasping for air. He let Neal slide on the ground next to him. The young man seemed unconscious. Peter put a hand on his chest. It was rising in rhythm with Neal's respiration. Peter let go a heavy sigh of relief, but it didn't completely ease the fear, or the guilt. Don't send me back, Peter…
Exhausted, Peter watched as the paramedics took charge of Neal, checked his pulse, listened to his heart, put an oxygen mask over his mouth, checked his pupils, secured him on a gurney… It took Peter a moment to realize a paramedic was also by his side, checking his vitals, and talking to him.
"…sir? Are you hurt, sir?"
Peter blinked, and finally detached his gaze from Neal. Making a mental check of his own condition, he shook his head. "I'm fine," he said, but the croakiness of his voice betrayed him.
"We'd like to take you to the hospital to check your oxygen sat."
Peter nodded absentmindedly. "Neal?" he asked anxiously.
"Your friend? His stats are good. He should be fine."
Peter was led to the ambulance where Neal's gurney had already been charged. He squeezed himself on the seat beside the gurney and took the oxygen mask someone held out to him. He looked at his friend, lying still in front of him.
"I'm sorry, Neal. I didn't mean to hurt you," he murmured.
Neal was released from the hospital two days later. He had a couple of severe bruises on his left side, due to the initial fall, assorted with scratches on his hands and forehead. The doctors had at first feared a concussion, but it appeared to be nothing to worry about. Neal's lungs had luckily been preserved from severe damages, and so had Peter, who had been released only a few hours after admission. The agent was now driving his partner home.
"Honestly, it was about time," Neal was saying. "I really can't stand hospitals."
Peter groaned. "They kept you for your own good, you know. They had to make sure that bump on your head was nothing to worry about. And stop whining, it could have been much worse."
Neal glanced at Peter, who was staring straight in front of him, focused on the road. His face was closed, and he had barely spoken two words since he came to pick Neal up at the hospital. He obviously had something on his mind, and the silence of the car was starting to make Neal uncomfortable.
"So, any leads on the bomb?" he asked tentatively.
To Neal's surprise, Peter turned pale. He clenched his jaw and frowned while gripping nervously the wheel. Keeping his eyes on the road, the agent cleared his throat. "Yes. We got the fence. His name's Thomas. Caputo didn't make it. It seems the bomb went off too early…"
Neal frowned. "Are you okay?"
Peter shrugged and strengthened up. "Yeah, sure."
At June's, Peter insisted on walking Neal up to his apartment and made sure his friend had everything he needed.
"Your meds are here, and I'm putting some El-made soup in the fridge. She insisted on making it, and believe me, you won't want to spoil it."
Neal couldn't help a smile watching Peter being all mother hen to him. "I'm gonna be just fine. Thank you, Peter. Thank you, for everything."
He grabbed his friend's arm and forced him to look at him. "I mean it, Peter. Thank you."
Peter nodded, a little embarrassed. "Look, Neal, I think we need to talk," he said, inviting Neal to follow to the balcony outside. It was a day as bright and sunny as the day the warehouse exploded, with a peaceful and incredibly blue sky.
Neal felt a knot of anxiety growing in his stomach as he sat down opposite to his friend at his little garden table.
"Peter. I know you're angry at me. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to screw up the op."
Peter shook his head. "Neal, that's not…"
"I really wanted this to work. I don't even know what went wrong…"
Peter sighed. "You didn't do anything wrong -…"
Not listening, Neal continued, following his thoughts. "I didn't want to disappoint you. I wanted to make you…" Neal paused. Happy. Proud. Love me.
Peter reached out and put his hand on Neal's arm. "Stop it, Neal. Stop beating yourself up. You didn't do anything wrong. It was Caputo. He wanted Thomas dead. It turns out, Thomas wasn't even there…"
"If anyone is responsible, it's me. Look, I know what you wanted to do," Peter continued softly. "You wanted to prove yourself to me, to show me you're sorry about the treasure."
Neal nodded and looked down. Yes, he wanted to prove himself, and what a great job he did…
"I've noticed, and I appreciate what you're doing, Neal. I really do."
Neal felt his anxiety subside a little. But there was still a point bothering him. "Are you still mad at me?"
Peter's chuckle took him a little off guard. "I'm not mad at you," he said, shaking his head. Then he turned serious. "Okay, I was mad at you about the treasure. But I'm not anymore. At least, I'm doing my best not to, because the truth is, I don't want to be angry at you." Peter planted his gaze into Neal's eyes. "I know you were put in a difficult situation, and I probably have my share of responsibility in the fiasco. But what matters to me, and to Elizabeth, is that you stood by our side. In the end, you did the right thing. We've both forgiven you – Elizabeth quicker than me," Peter added with a smirk, before finishing warmly: "and I think you should start forgiving yourself, too."
Neal remained quiet, absorbing what his partner had just said. Peter wasn't angry at him. Even better, he had forgiven him. And so had Elizabeth. Neal thought back on the past few days, on Peter's behaviour, that he had felt distant. Was it possible that he had read him wrong? Had he projected on his friend expected feelings that weren't actually there?
"Still, you were a little cranky all week…" He said finally.
Peter smiled apologetically. "I guess I was. I was worried about the case, and about you…"
"Yes, because I could see you were on edge, and that was because of me and I didn't know what to do because no matter what I say, you think…" Peter broke off and took a deep breath. "I'm sorry, Neal, we should have talked a long time ago. I just thought it would get better with time."
They remained silent, none of them knowing how to go on. Peter finally broke the silence.
"Do you remember what you told me, in the warehouse?" he asked, his voice so soft that it was barely audible.
Neal frowned. He had a vague sense of Peter appearing, talking to him, transporting him. Neal also vaguely remembered being scared, and talking, though he was probably delirious. Everything was all blurry and confused and he couldn't pinpoint any precise memory of anything that happened after the blast. He shook his head.
"You begged me not to send you back."
Neal looked at Peter with wide opened eyes. The sad smile his friend and handler displayed made the young man flinch. He swallowed the lump obstructing his throat. That threat of prison had been on his mind a lot lately, even though it appeared to be unfounded after all. And given Peter's face right now, it looked like Neal had involuntarily hit a sensitive spot he wasn't aware of.
He shrugged it off, trying to keep things casual. "I was kind of out of it."
"You looked sincerely pretty freaked out…" Peter replied.
"Well, you know, prison is no fun…" Neal said in the same casual tone, which obviously failed, given Peter's face, ridden by guilt.
"When Kramer came to visit, we had a talk. He told me about his CIs, 'his Neal' as he said. They were pretty close, like you and I. But when he told me that 'his Neal' was now sending him emails from prison, I felt… scared. I know I joke a lot about sending you back, but the truth is, this is actually my biggest fear. One day, catching you doing something I can't ignore and having to arrest you... I don't want to lose you, Neal."
Peter briskly looked up and Neal felt unsettled by the fever of his eyes. This was obviously something that had been weighting on the agent for a while. Neal heard, beyond the simple affection, the unspoken complexity of the situation his partner was put into by their friendship. Peter was a man of law and justice. It was what defined him. But he was also a generous man, who gave his heart fully. Neal knew that if he'd do anything that would force Peter to arrest him, the lawman would have to, but the friend would be crushed. Neal thought back about Keller's confession, that they both knew was false. Peter went on record and closed the case. He accepted the lie. For the first time, Neal wondered if Peter considered arresting him at all. This was a dangerous territory and Neal didn't want to think too much about the implications of Peter's confession. Between losing a friend and losing himself, Neal wasn't sure Peter would make the right decision for himself.
Yet, Neal realized it was also the reassurance he needed. Everything was just fine with Peter. Their bond had been stronger than the treasure fiasco. It was all behind them now. And Neal swore to himself he would never jeopardize his friendship with Peter again. His partner was worth all the treasures in the world. Neal felt a soft warmth growing inside his chest, radiating to his entire body. For the first time in months, he felt light, at peace.
He smiled at Peter, an earnest and true smile, and he saw his friend relax back on his chair, reflecting the same smile. They looked at each other in a quiet silent.
"Kramer didn't come across as the type to be friend with his CI," Neal said lightly. "I would never have guessed."
Peter laughed. "There's more to him than you saw. And you actually impressed him by your work at the bureau. Anyway, I gotta go. El's waiting for me."
Neal was reluctant to let Peter go. He walked him to the door of his apartment.
"You know, if it had been the other way round, I wouldn't have escaped the lecture on how stupid and dangerous it was not to wait for the fire-fighters…" Neal said with a smirk.
Peter laughed. "Probably, yes. Because there's no doubt you wouldn't have waited either."
Neal looked down, a smile at the corner of his lips. "Probably not…"
Peter turned drop dead serious. "Neal…"
The young man just shook his head. "Right. Anyway, I'm just glad I ended up with nothing more than a bump and a bruise, thanks to you."
"Me too. Alright, see you tomorrow, Neal."
"See you tomorrow." Partner.