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White Collar -- Fanfiction

Disclaimer: 
All recognizable characters are property of Jeff Eastin and USA Network. 
No copyright infringement intended.

Title:  Hell is other people, hell is yourself (Part 1/3)

  • Rating: R
  • Warnings:  Language, Violence, Sexual Content, No graphic descriptions but strong references to NonCon, Neal/OMC
  • Category: Hurt/Comfort, Drama, PrisonFic, Peter Neal Friendship
Summary:

"Hell is other people"
-- No Exit, Jean-Paul Sartre

"Hell is yourself and the only redemption is when a person puts himself aside to feel deeply for another person"
-- Tennessee Williams

Author's Notes:

This isn't related to any particular episode.  Feel free to imagine it as the aftermath to Countdown or to comparable circumstances.  It came together quickly and is quite a bit darker than some of my other fics.  Please heed the warnings listed above.  If you don't like, don't read.

This is unbeta'ed.  It's all my fault. 

To nice_disguise.  For those good days.  It may not be the badass!Neal you asked for, but desperados can't be choosers!

Parts 2 and 3 are finished and will go up as soon as I've edited them.


Part 1

I didn’t think he’d have it in him. 

Neither does Peter, from the looks of him.  He can’t look at me as he hands me over to the marshals.  I stare at him, silently and without blinking.  I must look insane to anyone observing the scene.  But there’s no one here to watch us at three in the morning in the deserted parking garage below Federal Plaza.  I stare at him and I wait to meet those warm, wise eyes.  Peter denies me their kindness.  Perhaps his kindness lies in sparing me their fear.  The handcuffs ratchet closed around my wrists and Peter doesn’t check to make sure they’re not too tight.  They are.

You’ll be safe in Tennessee, Peter tells me.  Nobody there knows you helped the Feds. 

I say I’m sorry.  Again.  He scribbles his signature on a document.  I keep staring at the side of his face, at the tension in his jaw.  I ask—I beg—him to let me apologize to Elizabeth before I’m being moved.  There’s no time to wait for her release from the hospital, Peter insists.  He still won’t look at me and I know he’s lying.  I know Elizabeth is fine.  Physically, at least.  They’ll let her go in the morning.  That’s why I have to go now.  Peter won’t allow her to change his mind.  He won’t give her an opportunity to convince him how foolish it is to send me away, to put a thousand miles, four state lines and feet and feet of steel and concrete walls between us.  He won’t be reasoned with.  Not by Elizabeth, not by anyone.  Least of all by myself. 

Take care of yourself, Caffrey, Peter says. 

He dares to catch my eye.  Just briefly, just long enough to let me know that he is sincere—and sincerely worried.  His hand shakes a little when he passes the document in his hand on to a marshal.  Then all I have left to do is stare at the back of his head as he briskly walks away.

I call his name.  My voice echoes off the bare walls of the parking garage.  I sound desperate.  I don’t care.  Neither does Peter.  He doesn’t hesitate, doesn’t turn around.  The only reply I get is the sound of his car doors unlocking when he pushes the remote on his car key.  I fall silent then and don’t speak another word for the fifteen-hour drive to Tennessee.  I’m awake for every minute of it.

When we get there my hands are numb and my wrists ache where the cuffs have worn grooves into them.  My fingers are still tingling when I sign the inventory of my possessions.  They raise their eyebrows at the tailored suit, which I’m carefully folding as I undress.  One of them comments on my cufflinks and tie bar but I’m not listening to them and their thick Southern accents.  I don’t look at them either.  I don’t bother finding their names on their uniforms.  They are nothing to me, just like I am nothing to them. 

I am a convict.  Faceless.  I’m nothing but a case number to the guard who takes my booking photo.  I’m a chart full of acronyms and stats jotted down by the nurse practitioner who has cold hands and gives me a rushed physical.  Age, height, weight, vitals.  My body is conning her.  The numbers on her chart lie.  I’m a dead man.

Everything looks good, she says as she closes the file.  She checks her watch.  She wants to go home. 

Me too.

Instead, I am marched down the hall to take a quick shower.  I’m finally allowed to dress.  I missed dinner service.  They stop by the mess hall and push a wrapped sandwich and a bottle of water into my hands.

The prison ward is hot and overcrowded.  I feel like I can’t breathe as soon as I set foot into it.  But I raise my chin and look straight ahead, undaunted and unimpressed to anyone looking at me.  The noise level momentarily drops and curious, judging pairs of eyes follow me as I’m escorted to my cell up on the second level.  There is no hesitation in my steps until I realize that I have a cellmate.  I speak up, addressing the guards directly for the first time since arriving here.

Yes, they’ve read the marshal’s request—Peter’s request—but that there cell is the best they can do.  Walter is a good old fella and up for parole in three months. 

The door locks behind me.

Walter is no immediate threat to me.  I know that from the moment he puts his book aside and extends his small, arthritic hand.  I shake it and give him my first name with a small nod.  Then I give him my sandwich.   For the sake of politeness, he offers to vacate the lower bunk for me, but I won’t make a frail seventy-year-old climb up to the top bed.  I can see his relief.  I ask to borrow from his pile of books and his face lights up.  I am not a threat to him.

Others are.  Two weeks into my stint Walter is bullied into leaving the door to our cell open. 

There are three of them.  One of them has a cousin in Queens who knows a guy who knows another guy who’s heard a rumor.  Now they want to know if I’m that FBI snitch.  That’s all I gather before the first punch lands.  If this is an interrogation, they are terrible at it.  They don’t recognize the fine line between softening somebody up and switching off his lights.

I come around in the infirmary with a pounding headache.  Somebody pries my swelling left eye open, shines a penlight into it.  The light hurts.  I want to swat it away, but the instant pain in my right shoulder stops me.  A male voice behind the light tells me to keep still, explains that my shoulder is dislocated.  For the fraction of a second the voice sounds like Peter’s in my ringing ears.   My heart leaps and I desperately try to see beyond the blinding light.  But then the voice calls me Mister Caffrey and I feel like a fool.  I want to tell the voice to call me Neal.  I want to be funny and quip that Mister Caffrey is my father.  But that wouldn’t be the truth.  It wouldn’t be very funny, either.  So I shut up. 

The penlight switches to the other eye.  When it disappears for good I try to blink the dark spots away.  The man in the white coat leaning over me even looks like Peter.  At least when judged by my one good eye and with dark blotches dancing around my vision.  Fuck.  The goon squad must have rung my bell pretty good.  I haven’t thought about Peter in days. 

The white coat addresses someone named Leslie.  I’m pretty sure he is not talking to me, but a shred of doubt remains until the nurse practitioner moves into view behind his shoulder.  They talk briefly, come up with a master plan of how to put Humpty Dumpty back together.  I don’t catch all the details, but I figure I’ll know soon enough.  I close my eyes and try to relax on the exam table.  Notpeter, MD, and Leslie work with practiced efficiency.  They stitch up my chin, clean my face, roll my shoulder back into place.  They apologize when I grunt in pain.  I try to tough it out, but Leslie really needs to do something about her cold hands.

They are still putting my arm in a sling when the warden and two guards come to question me. 

Cut myself shaving, I tell them. 

The warden stares me down.  My good eye stares back.  I’ve made my clichéd point.  He chews the inside of his cheek, puffs out a long, exasperated breath and leaves.  I’m back in my cell after a night of observation.

Establishing yourself as the guy who doesn’t rat a fellow inmate out is a good thing. I wouldn’t say I’ve made friends.  Friendship is for good people.  For people out there.  For people like Peter.  Friendship doesn’t apply to anything inside these walls.  Neither does living.  But for the next few weeks I’m left to exist.  I’m not eating at the cool kids’ table but I’m tolerated as a harmless sideshow act who amuses the depraved masses with card tricks and Sinatra tunes.  I wear the jester’s coat well.  It’s a piece of body armor I’ve never underestimated.

Establishing yourself as the guy who is unlikely to kiss and tell is fatal. 

Vanity is one of my lesser sins.  I know what I look like.  I also know that not cutting my hair for a couple of months and not shaving for a few days doesn’t change much about how others perceive me.  At least I’m tall.  Not as tall as Peter, but tall enough when I keep my back straight.  I stand with my feet apart to appear confident.  I like to think that most people buy it.  But then my shoulders are a little narrow and I’ve lost some fighting weight since I got here.  All things considered, I’m sure tough guy is not the first thought that pops into people’s heads when they look at me in here.

I let my guard down.  It’s hot and dusty in the exercise yard and I’m restless and sweaty and I just want to get out of the sun for a few minutes.  I don’t wander far.  Out of sight of the crowd but with their soccer game still within earshot.  It doesn’t matter how close I am.  Nobody hears me after a large, hairy hand clamps over my mouth. 

The two of them have done this before.  I know, because it takes practice to work out the mechanics and logistics of holding a man down while peeling him out of these damn orange overalls.  They’ve come prepared.  Seeing that shiny condom wrapper disposed onto the ground is the only bright spot in the agonizing minutes that follow.  I struggle through every second of it.  Because the last thing you want is to establish yourself as the guy who enjoys it.

It’s over fast.  A test drive.  Perhaps aimed to make it brutally clear to me that nothing that is going to happen down the line is up for debate.  Perhaps intended to establish the pecking order amongst themselves.  Number two doesn’t get his turn.  He vents his frustration with a kick to my groin.  When they walk away, my hips are raw and bleeding from being pushed against the crumbling concrete bench.  There will be bruises almost everywhere tomorrow.  Everywhere but my face.  They’ve done this before.  They know what the guards don’t see won’t make them ask questions.  I’m grateful for their considerateness.  And ashamed of the gratitude I feel.   And ashamed.

Hidden inside my clothes I trudge back to my cell.  Walter glances up from his book, takes one long look at me over the rim of his reading glasses.  Without a word he gets up from the lower bunk and I curl up there with my back against the wall.  Walter fills my water bottle, places it in the crook of my arm and then he leaves to give me space.

I’m not sure if Walter alerted the guards.  Maybe my poker face is not what it used to be and everybody knows everything by simply looking at me.  After dinner that night the warden orders me into his office.  He doesn’t mention the assault, but he offers to move me to isolation. 

For how long, I ask him. 

For as long as the circumstances persist, he says. 

I have two years left on my sentence, I reply. 

He nods.

There must be a misunderstanding, I tell him and smile.  The misunderstanding is that there is no way in hell I will spend the next two years in a windowless room with nothing that remotely qualifies as human contact.  No.  Fucking.  Way.

The warden studies me for a long time.  He is a hard man, but not a bad man.  There is concern in his eyes and respect.  Respect for the fact that, even though I’ve gambled away my civil liberties, I’m still a man of free will.  I think Peter would like this guy.  He closes his eyes, pinches the bridge of his nose.

Very well, Mister Caffrey, he sighs.  He wants to know if I need medical attention.  I don’t.  He asks if I’d like a shower and a change of clothes. 

Yes.  I want to scrub their sweat and their stench off of me.  I don’t use those exact words. 

My offer stands, he tells me.

It won’t be needed, I insist.

Two months later I prove myself a liar. 

I’m back in his office because I can’t take it anymore.  Can’t take them anymore.  I stopped fighting a week ago.  The bruises and scratches wouldn’t heal.  They just changed color as new ones were added on top of layers of old ones.  I thought not fighting would make it hurt less.  It didn’t.  When I gave them my body willingly, their hands and lips and words began to take my soul.

I knew this morning that I had to end it.  Because as I lay there in nothing but my socks, on the floor of the storage closet, on the pile of dirty laundry they had thrown there to make me comfortable, as they called me good boy and bitch and fag, as they took their sweet time, all I could do was stare at the crack of light under the closed door, waiting for it to open, waiting for rescue.  Waiting for Peter. 

I could picture him so clearly, with that look of disappointment in his eyes as he glances down at the scene to take it all in, to understand what I’d gone and done this time.  I could hear his voice, hard and uncompromising as he tells them to leave and promises to deal with them later, then with soft restraint as he tells me to cover myself and get up off the floor.  I wanted to, but I couldn’t move, because all I saw was the unspoken revulsion in Peter’s face at the sight of me and the filth I had become.  I couldn’t bear it.  Not from Peter, who always saw me for who I really was. 

I had to end it.

Now I’m sitting across from the warden and I’m shaking.  I try not to, but that only makes it worse.  He has one of his guys go grab me a blanket.  It’s 75 degrees in here and the blanket doesn’t do a thing to help, but I take it anyway.  I thank him and I mean it.  Simple gestures of kindness are a rare gift in here.

I will have to go on record as requesting the relocation, the warden tells me.  I nod without looking at him.  I need to submit to a medical exam, he explains.  Something in my bearing must give away the dread I feel because his voice softens. 

It’ll be all right, the warden says. 

There won’t be any evidence, I whisper.  I don’t mean to, but my voice comes out that way.  I’m desperate for a glass of water.  I’m desperate. 

The warden walks me from his office to the infirmary.  I’m not sure if that is part of protocol or if he is being nice.  When we get there he hands me over to the nurse’s care and asks the doctor to step outside the open door to have a word with him.  I don’t take my eyes off them as Leslie leads me over to a chair to sit down.  I strain my ears but the two are out of earshot.  I don’t have any more luck trying to read their lips.  The warden has turned his back to me and the doctor contributes little more than an occasional nod to the conversation.  Reviewed by two functional eyes and sans a concussion the doctor looks nothing like Peter.  At least not until he throws a curious, probing glance in my direction that could have come straight out of the Peter Burke playbook.  Caught staring, I turn my head.  Next to me, Leslie is impatiently checking her watch.  My eyes seek out the wall-mounted clock.  Her shift must have ended ten minutes ago.  I wish she had left.  I could do with one less person to see me like this.

A short time later, when the warden has left and the door to the hallway is closed, I’m glad Leslie stayed.  As soon as she realizes why I am here, she cares.  She gently helps me undress and is mindful of my sore body when I climb onto the exam table.  She keeps me covered with a sheet as much as possible and keeps a stilling hand on my shoulder when those damned shakes won’t stop.  I appreciate her good intentions, even if her cold touch on my bare skin only makes me shiver harder. 

Leslie nods her encouragement when I answer the doctor’s questions in my broken, dry voice that won’t project above a whisper.  She smiles softly at me as she and the doctor exchange fleeting glances.   They know I’m lying.  They know that the how and the when and the where and the how often I’m willing to admit don’t add up to tale spelled out by my body.  They don’t call me on it.  They only scribble notes onto my chart and they catalog and photograph and sample.  Leslie holds my hand through the worst of the humiliation.  Yeah, I’m glad she stayed.

They draw my blood and make me pee into a cup.  It hurts.  But that’s okay because after that they let me shower in the privacy of the small bathroom.  I take my time, turn the water as hot as I can bear it.  Showering makes everything better.  I close my eyes and pretend to be somewhere else.  In that cute, expensive boutique hotel room in Paris or at the first apartment I shared with Kate, or in my shower at June’s. But nothing feels right.  My senses deny my mind the escape.  The pungent smell of bleach in my nose, the sting of the coarse bar of soap on my skin won’t let me be fooled.  I cry then, silently, and let the water sweep my tears away and down the drain where they belong.

I refuse to leave the numbing bliss of the shower stream until Leslie pokes her head in the bathroom door to check on me.  The scalding water has left my skin hot and pink and tender all over.  Leslie has a half pitying, half reproachful click of her tongue for me when she towels me off and applies ointment to the open sores weeks of abuse have left on me.  I sit impatiently through this final ordeal, waiting for her to stop touching me where I don’t want to be touched. 

I don’t want to be touched anywhere. 

I hurry to pull on the fresh clothes Leslie brought for me and choke down the handful of pills I’m given before I’m fully dressed.  I run my hands through my wet hair and expectantly blink at Leslie who jots a few more notes onto the chart.  She checks her watch for the first time in an hour.

I didn’t mean to keep you late, I say and find my voice has regained some strength. 

She smiles distractedly as she finishes her notes and dismisses my polite concern with a small shake of her head.  Without looking up she unemotionally tells me that the test results will be back soon and that I’ll be on an antibiotic and preventive drug regimen for a while.  She’ll set up an appointment with the visiting mental health professional before the end of the week and she’ll check on me daily to make sure I’m physically healing.  Leslie ends her explanations with a heaving sigh and puts her pen down.  She raises her eyes, pensively looks me over where I’m perched at the edge of the exam table. 

Mister Caffrey, she says softly and chews her bottom lip. You’re the worst I’ve seen in a long time.  I wish you had come sooner. 

I stare at her, at her bright, hazel eyes that try to understand me.  Then I look at the chart in her hand and at the digital camera sitting on the on the desk in the corner and I wish I hadn’t come at all.  She follows my line of vision and nods her silent understanding.

Take care of yourself, she tells me.  Eat, you’re underweight, she says.  Sleep, you look like you need it, she adds when the guard leads me out of the infirmary and to my isolation cell.

I sleep.  Deeply and free from dreams.  For days.  With sheer exhaustion or from whatever Leslie and Dr. Notpeter are slipping into the drug cocktail I swallow twice a day.  The first few days pass quickly this way, my waking hours broken into small, manageable pieces by the guards that bring me food and by my daily visits to the infirmary where Leslie tends to me and sometimes talks about her upcoming wedding. 

I’m forced see the shrink twice that week.  He’s barely out of graduate school and he still thinks he can make a difference in here.  I go easy on him.  I nod my head a lot and I pretend to listen.  I delicately word the lies I dish out.  I wouldn’t want to crush the kid’s enthusiasm.  I thank him politely and try to look a little less broken when I walk out of his office and back to my cell.  It’s quiet there.

For those first few days, I embrace the quiet, the reprieve from the constant, multitrack din of caged men.  No flushing toilets, no restless banging against bolted down furniture, no vulgar catcalls, no muffled sounds of self-gratification.  No anonymous cries of human despair echoing down the dark hallway at night.  Cries I wish I had the courage to shout into the darkness, to give a voice to what’s eating me up inside, to release the paralyzing tightness in my chest for even one second.

After a week, the silence begins to swallow me.

The first few days and nights of blissful sleep segue into insomnia.  I have the sneaking suspicion that this isn’t going to a phase. I go for days in a row unable to find rest, with my mind projecting images on the pitch-black walls of my cell at night.  Images of my childhood and of girls I loved and of wild nights on the lam and of small patches of blue sky above the skyscraper-lined canyons of Manhattan.  

I exercise.  I try to wear my body down, every day, empty it of any energy still held in those wiry strings of muscle that line my shrinking frame.  Sometimes it helps.  Some nights my wakeful mind succumbs to sleep for a few hours.  I wake in cold sweat the next morning, with lingering dreams of their hands and lips and cocks.  With visions Peter watching it all and silently shaking his head.

I don’t know when exactly the pain in my stomach starts.  It manifests itself as a deep-seated feeling of dread, something psychological rather than physical.  I ignore it for as long as I can.  I’ve always been good at isolating and locking away the problems I’m unwilling to deal with.  Maybe Peter has learned as much from me.  Maybe that’s why I’m in here now.  Maybe I’ve been that knot in Peter’s stomach all along.

The ill-defined sensation of dread turns into something physical before long.  Lying on my cot in the dark I curl around the pain as it takes root deep inside me, hoping to corral it there, hoping to curb the sudden flares of agony that sporadically spread from it, that pull at my heart and my spine and my groin like greedy tentacles.  During the day I squirrel away small bits of food.  Sometimes eating helps, sometimes feeding the monster appeases it.  Sometimes it spits my humble offerings back at me.  I should tell someone.  I should get help.  I won’t.  I’m afraid.  Afraid that this torturous creature at my core is the only thing that still makes me feel something.


On to Part 2