White Collar -- Fanfiction
All recognizable characters are property of Jeff Eastin and USA Network.
No copyright infringement intended.
Title: Hell is other people, hell is yourself (Part 2/3)
- 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
"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!
It’s been five months since I watched him walk away from me. When I’m told someone’s here to see me, I am flustered. Peter is not. He has come prepared, with a banker’s box of files and meticulously policed facial expressions.
I know I don’t look good, but I don’t realize how bad I look until I walk into the visitation room and see Peter’s self-possession slip for a brief moment. I watch his eyes brush over my unshaven face and my unkempt hair, then down my body. I shudder at the thought that he can see every paling bruise, every scar, every fading bite mark that I conceal under my clothes.
Peter’s composure is restored to its stone-faced foundations before the guard has finished his pat down. He gestures at the seat across the table from him and doesn’t take his probing eyes off me as I settle onto the bench and rest my sweaty hands in my lap. It takes all my courage to make eye contact with him.
He takes a seat on his side of the table and asks me how I am. His uninflected voice doesn’t waver.
I ask about Elizabeth and don’t answer his question. I sound insecure and I clear my throat to make that stop. Peter tells me she is fine. His tone makes it clear that this is as far as he will let me intrude into his private life again. It hurts and I wonder if hurting me is the reason he has come here. I glance over my shoulder at the door and contemplate asking the guard to take me back to my cell.
Peter catches my movement and a flicker of panic rushes across his features. He came all the way down here. He wants me to stay. I feel a rush of power that I haven’t felt in months.
Caffrey, he calls me and there is urgency in his tone. I make a point of looking at the door again. I pout. It’s childish, but I don’t care. I want him to call me by my name, the way he used to when we were friends.
Neal, he finally relents.
Peter, I reply and my tone has a slightly mocking, triumphant quality when I let my pitch rise on the last syllable to make it sound like a question. Peter narrows his eyes. He hasn’t come to dance with me.
Then why has he come? Why now? And who is he, this man sitting across from me? Is this the man I used to know? Peter, who once got me out of a place like this, who joked with me and chided me and trusted me more than he should have. Who forgave, until he couldn’t. Who cared. Even loved?
Or is he the man who is haunting me in the waking nightmare my life has become? Is this the warped ghost of Peter Burke, whose resemblance bled into the impassive face of a doctor probing me with latex-covered hands? Is he the man whose laughter joined the jeering chorus at my back when I was on the floor, swallowing bile and blood and them as someone kicked my thighs apart? Is this the man whose steps I hear approaching my cell at night, rousing me from sleep with a sudden rush of hope, making me listen to the suffocating darkness, making me curse the erratic hammering in my chest that drowns all other sound? Those nights I stand with my forehead pressed against the cool metal of the cell door. Listening. Imagining Peter mirroring my posture, his forehead inches from mine. Some nights I swear I can feel his warmth through the heavy layer of steel, hear his breathing as he wills himself to remain motionless, as he silently debates what to do about me. Some nights I fall asleep this way, sliding down the door when my legs refuse to bear me longer. I wake with a start when I hit the floor, panicked that I’ve missed the footsteps leaving. Sometimes I call his name then, hoping that my cries will carry far enough along that dark narrow hallway to still catch him, to convince him to come back for me. Sometimes I simply sob.
I’m not entirely certain how often he calls my name until it registers. When Peter swims into focus, his face is naked with concern for what he sees in my eyes. What does he see? Anger? Defiance? Insanity? Terror?
Why are you here? I ask, even demand. My voice is thick and throaty, like I’ve just been crying. Fuck, have I? I make a conscious choice not to wipe at my eyes to check.
Peter continues to stare at me. I watch him reconstruct his defenses, one facial muscle at a time, I witness the pity and confusion give way to detachment. He leans back a little, puts an inch more space between us. His lips open, then he hesitates as if second-guessing his wisdom to speak.
We need your help. The words suddenly spill out of his mouth, perhaps against his better judgment.
Who is we? I want to know. We used to be us. Peter and Neal. Burke and Caffrey. Butch and the Sundance Kid.
The Bureau, Peter states flatly. Diana. Jones. He adds, as if I may have forgotten. My small nod prompts the tiniest glimmer of relief in Peter’s expression. I’m following. I’m not rejecting him outright.
Listen, Caffrey, he leans in.
I listen. I concentrate. I watch his lips as they move rapidly because I fear to lose track of what he tells me. No one has spoken to me in a long time. Not like this. Not like it has the slightest consequence for their lives if their words get through to me or not. I’m trying hard, but my brain lags at least two sentences behind my ears. I struggle to retain the most vital pieces of information. Sabotage at the White Collar division … investigations undermined … tanking case clearance … threats to restructure the unit … imminent transfer of Diana and junior agents … internal investigation of Hughes and Peter … My stomach cramps. I dig my fingernails into my thighs, try to keep the pain out of my face. The grunt that issues from my throat must sound like bitter dismissal to Peter. He falls silent. He looks at me and he looks wounded.
You’re the only one I can trust, he speaks. With this, his eyes silently qualify before they are cast down, avoiding mine. I seize the opportunity to study him without subjecting myself to his scrutiny. How much did it hurt him to come here, to admit that—after everything—he still needs me? I’m waiting for a trace of self-congratulation to stir inside me, for any hint of satisfaction gleaned from Peter’s desperation. I’m searching for any flare of red-hot anger in my chest at his audacity to come here and ask me a favor after what he put me through. There is nothing. I’ve never been able to hate this man. No matter how hard I’ve tried.
I do it, I tell him.
Peter’s eyes flicker up to meet mine. There is that small, tender half-smile on his lips. The kind of smile he always reserved for those rare moments when I surprised him, in a good way. He holds my gaze for a long time as if trying to decide if I mean what I said. I give him a small nod that somehow unleashes the full-blown investigative agent that always lurks below the laid-back, congenial Burke exterior.
On his feet now, with his arms braced on the table surface, Peter rattles off the facts. He runs me through the contradictory pieces of evidence that have made a mess of his unit’s—our unit’s—cases. His fingers dance over the tabs of the file folders in the banker’s box and he pulls documents with a swiftness that leaves no doubt that he has pored over every leaf of paper and every printed word and every pen stroke recorded there. I love watching Peter when he gets like this, all concentrated brainpower and effortless efficiency. God, miss watching him.
I miss him.
Peter suddenly stops. He looks down at me, confused, self-consciously so. I realize I must have been staring at him, with a half-witted, dazed expression in my face, with my mouth hanging open. I feel the heat rise to my cheeks. I close my lips and awkwardly clear my throat and I blink too quickly for too long.
Peter’s mien takes on a comical hue as he swings violently between concern and utter bewilderment. Hesitantly, his fingertip taps at a file fanned out on the tabletop. Focus, damn it, the small tap tells me. And Please, Neal, it begs.
The pecking fingertip gives me something other than Peter’s face to gape at. Good. Visual aids are good. They help me concentrate. They help me keep it together. I feel Peter’s eyes on the crown of my head as I hunch over the papers, shuffling them around, aimlessly at first, then increasingly with method as my shaky logic catches the thread of Peter’s narrative and tenuously hangs on. Peter is patient with me, even though I can see the nervous energy in his fluttery fingers that hover over the files spread out in front of me. He rephrases and repeats his explanations, twice, then again if something in my demeanor hints that I’m not following.
Five more minutes, the guard suddenly announces.
With a deep sigh, Peter falls silent. He methodically returns the files to the banker’s box, and looks positively apologetic when he shows me the 8-pack of wax crayons I have been approved to call my own from now on. Peter pushes the box across the table and his fingers settle over mine. He leaves them there only briefly, but longer than necessary. At least that’s what I tell myself. The next touch I feel is the guard’s firm hand on my shoulder, urging me to get up from the bench.
How much time to go through the files, I ask Peter, when I really want to know how long I must wait to see him again.
Ten days is all he can give me, Peter says. There’s a glint of hostility in his face directed at the man who handles me and pushes me toward the door. Then Peter’s focus is back on me and he is running his eyes over me once more with all those unasked questions at the tip of his tongue.
Ten days is all I need, I repeat back before he is foolish enough to ask any of them.
For the next week the pain in my stomach becomes my trusted ally. It keeps me on my toes, figuratively, and sometimes brings me to my knees, literally. It wakes me up at night after I’ve dozed off on a bed of files that are scattered over the concrete floor and over my cot. I’ve known kinder wakeup calls than a debilitating cramp in my midsection. I’ve known crueler, too. And, anyway, I should know better than to fall asleep when I have a deadline.
I’d give one of my crayons for a taste of that paint stripper that passes for coffee around the FBI office. I chug milk instead, from the 8-oz cartons that the night guard supplies me with because he likes me or because I never give him any trouble. The milk is part of my delicate deal with the simmering agony inside me that demands to be fed but will make me pay dearly should the wrong menu choices make it down my throat. At least the monster and I agree that prison food is inedible. I can’t rouse suspicion, can’t let the guards know something is wrong. Not yet. So I eat what little I can choke down and flush the rest of the food they bring down the toilet.
I have three days left and I crack Peter’s case. I’m sitting on the floor with my legs crossed and I’m waiting for the high to hit me. I want that rush of pride, that Gotcha! moment that makes me feel giddy and inflates my chest with a disproportionate amount of self-satisfaction. The high doesn’t happen. Maybe the rush has always been to see my pride reflected in Peter’s eyes, for that heartbeat’s moment’s worth of hubris that he permits himself to indulge in before he dutifully cuts me down to size and tells me that it’s our darn job and that he wants my report on his desk by the morning.
I spend the next two days hunched over the brand new legal pad that I’ve saved for this very purpose. I use my fingernails to shave wax off the blue crayon, sharpening its tip to a fine point. I write the first few pages of my report in flawless copybook lettering, pausing occasionally to resharpen my crayon and to sort through the chaos of notes and messy scribbles I’ve left on the back of photocopies and in document margins, pausing frequently because the sharp, sudden flare-ups in my stomach double me over.
I know I’m in trouble when the fever sets in. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to focus. I draw my letters one by one, determined to keep them neat. I feel like a first-grader, the crayon awkwardly held by sweaty fingers that cramp in stubborn resolve to stay within the paper’s ruling. I lick my lips in concentration and don’t notice until they are chapped and tender. I finish the report. I go through it once more to add footnotes and cross-references. I don’t know how much time I will have with Peter, how much I can explain in person. How much I’ll be able to explain. I’m not feeling good.
Twenty-four hours until Peter’s visit and I start vomiting blood. I don’t know what Leslie’s professional assessment of my condition would be, but I’m guessing seriously fucked about sums it up.
I pack the banker’s box, filing everything in the place Peter had assigned for it. I put the legal pad on top, its pages filled with thick-lined, childlike writing that takes me back to my grade school days when I counterfeited classmates’ homework in exchange for their lunch money. Today I’m not certain what my payment will be, whether these last ten days have earned me anything or if Peter merely came to collect interest on a much larger debt he holds against me. Perhaps my only reward will be the knowledge that I can still do something of consequence, that my actions still ripple beyond these four walls, that I still have substance, that for ten days I was more than a nearly hollow shell locked inside a small room. When I sink onto my cot, dizzy and in pain, I’m feeling content for the first time in months.
I sleep deeply and without dreams that night and even the agony inside my belly fails to break through the tar-like blanket of complete exhaustion that keeps me under. I wake when my door is unlatched and a tray of breakfast and a change of clothes are placed on my table. The guard asks if I want a shower before my meeting. I assume the pervasive smell in my cell tells him yes, but from my position on the bed, with my elbow draped over my eyes I politely decline. I know that my legs will carry me down that hallway exactly once, and it will be to the visitation room, not the showers. The guard grunts his disapproval and leaves.
Sitting up is nauseating. Getting to my feet makes my head spin. Past the ringing in my ears and the blackness dancing at the edge of my vision I realize with sudden panic that I’m going to be sick. I don’t make it to the toilet. I feel my knees slam into the concrete floor and a few painful seconds later I’m braced on trembling arms with acrid liquid dripping down my chin, panting and staring at the repulsive puddle on the floor. I laugh at the sheer absurdity of it all.
I crawl to the toilet paper dispenser. The single-ply coarse paper does nothing to absorb the mess. I clean the floor and slowly pull myself to my feet by the edge of the wall-mounted table. I’m expecting another wave of vertigo to wash over me, but I am spared. I’m standing with all the grace and sure-footedness of a baby giraffe, but I’m standing.
I cover the short distance to the sink with growing confidence in my abilities. The small, nearly blind mirror is kind to me. It throws back the fuzzy reflection of a man having a wicked hair day and the beard of a Williamsburg hipster, a little worse for wear, but still recognizable as remotely human. I turn on the faucet, give the water the head start it needs to become lukewarm. I strip naked and the cool temperature in the cell gives me an excuse to be the shivering bag of bones that I am. I scratch a dry patch of skin on my ribs. Bag of bones is close enough to the truth. The mirror spares me the grim details.
I lather up the washcloth and start at the top, steadying myself with one hand on the edge of the sink as I work my way down. I pay attention to every square inch of skin I can reach, on occasion scrubbing hard in foolish faith that the month old scars and bruises will finally wash away. When I’m done I don’t feel clean, but I smell it. I towel off in a hurry, and slip into my fresh underwear and overalls. I’m in dire need of a shave but the beard masks my sunken cheeks and there’s something to be said for that. I wet my fingers, rake them through my unruly locks to restore a semblance of order. I brush my teeth and spend a good ten minutes trying to scrub away the crayon shavings that are lodged deeply under my fingernails. I turn off the water, reasonably convinced that Peter will be able to stomach my company for a short while.
Stomach is the word of the hour. Mine makes itself known again, sending spikes of pain through me, sharp enough to make me dizzy. Bent at the waist I settle onto the chair by the table, praying for a bit of reprieve. The agony dulls to a constant but manageable burn. I reward it with a few sips of milk and a nibble of toast from my breakfast tray. When the guard knocks on the door to escort me to the visitation room, I don’t bother hiding my uneaten food.
I rise to my feet and the room is canting left and right. I hope I can find my sea legs before I make it into the hallway. If sober men can act drunk, then lightheaded, wobbly messes like me can pretend they are able to walk down a straight hallway. The logic makes sense to me. But then I’m still running a fever, so who knows. I grab the banker’s box and it feels heavier than it should. Luckily, the weight in my arms helps to keep me moving. I let gravity do the work for me, let the weight of the box pull me forward, and all I have left to do is point the box in the right direction and put one foot in front of the other to keep up. I make it halfway down the hallway and almost feel like my self-congratulatory self.
I’ve always known that running away from Peter Burke is a marathon. Turns out that shuffling toward him at the edge of consciousness is a marathon, too. Three sharp turns and three endless hallways later, I have sweat pouring down my back and I’m fighting to keep my meager breakfast where it belongs. We arrive at the visitation room and the guard gives me a funny look before he steps aside without searching me.
Even from the door Peter looks like crap. And that’s coming from me. With blood-shot eyes and his tie too loose and stained with yellow mustard, he looks like someone who just woke up from a nap in the parking lot of a highway rest stop. He seems equally unimpressed with my appearance. When the banker’s box leads me to his table, Peter hastily parts with his paper coffee cup and meets me halfway.
Peter’s eyes dance over me, disbelief, even shock written all over his face.
I’ve got your guy, I announce. Your gal, to be exact. It doesn’t come out as triumphant as it sounded in my head on the trek over here. Peter acts like he hasn’t heard me, still preoccupied with making sense of the odd, sickly creature that bears an uncanny resemblance to his former consultant.
I solved the case, I repeat. I feel a small pinch of indignation at not receiving the instant, euphoric recognition I was shooting for. That pinch to my ego is accompanied by a more substantial cramp in my midsection that twists my face with pain and makes me want to curl around the box I carry. I lose my balance, stagger to the side. The shift in motion makes my stomach reel and I am nearly hysterical with the sudden dread of falling apart in front of Peter. Through the ringing in my ears I hear him call my name. He sounds miles away but then he moves into view at the edge of my shimmering vision. I feel him lift the box out of my hands.
And then the floor leaps up to meet me.
Nothing compares to the instant terror of waking up flat on my back with unwanted hands on me. I lash out blindly. I try to push them away, but the hands are strong and insistent. I feel cool air on bare skin and initiate DEFCON 1. I launch an all out evasive maneuver, surprising my attackers with a sudden roll to the side. I collide with the plastic of a railing and for a second the support under me tilts precariously. I wait for the impact that is sure to follow. Instead of a hard crash there is an uproar of voices around me and more hands grapple for a piece of me.
Someone calls out to me, calls me Mr. Caffrey, tells me to stay still.
Nice try. I don’t think so.
Then there’s a female voice, close to my ear, asking me to calm down, explaining that I’m in the hospital ER. She’s not making any sense because I’m certain that the blink of an eye ago I was in prison and talking to Peter. But the voice that keeps speaking to me isn’t Peter’s. It’s not even Leslie’s. Neither is the distinctly warm hand on my forehead. The voice is surprisingly pleasant when it tells me in no uncertain terms that I must lie still or be restrained. I know when I’m beaten. Panting and trembling with exhaustion I settle down.
I crack an eye open, then two. The view of the fluorescent lights some distance above is partially obscured by what must be the source of the pleasant voice. The nurse flashes me a small but pretty smile and restates the need to relax. The warm weight on my forehead is briefly lifted when she removes a bloodied wad of gauze and presses a fresh compress in its place. I grunt because it hurts and because I can’t remember for the life of me how the hell I cracked my head open.
I lift my head as far as I can. My overalls are cut away and an IV needle is stuck in my arm. At the far end of the plastic tubing a kid in scrubs attaches a new bag of clear liquid. On the other side of me a white coat and his stethoscope try to figure out what brought me into his ER. He gets his first clue when he presses his palm into my belly and I nearly jump off the gurney. They let me curl onto my side and the pleasant voice has a tray at the ready when I start retching. Through the tears that the pain drives into my eyes I see two uniformed guards hovering by the door. I try to scan more of the room, looking for any sign of Peter, but the nurse blocks my view when she wipes my lips and replaces the dressing on my forehead once more.
I’m given a few seconds to catch my breath, before being wheeled into an elevator that shrinks to claustrophobic dimension after two prison guards, two nurses and an attending file into it. The room I am taken to next is small and filled with flatscreen monitors and expensive looking equipment. The doctor moves into focus. He opens my mouth, sprays something bitter into the back of my throat. The poor man has no idea what he is unleashing when he tries to stuff a tube down my throat. The guards step in to secure me. I have not an ounce of strength left to fight them off. I try to suck in lungfuls of air but the weight of a guard on my chest leaves me gasping helplessly. Blackness slowly seeps into the edge of my vision.
Let’s put him under, is the last thing I hear before I’m gone.
When I wake I am alone. I know that without opening my eyes. I don’t feel anyone around me. I don’t feel much of anything. I’m warm and dry and dressed. I’m not pain. Not yet. A dull throbbing in my head is waiting to blossom at the first opportunity. Ditto for my belly. My throat is parched and oddly numb and there is still the familiar pressure of a cannula inserted into the crook of my left arm. On my right arm an even more familiar sensation: cool steel around my wrist. No surprise there.
I’m still at the hospital. It smells like hospital. Sounds like it, too. Faint noises of people talking, of supply carts and IV poles being pushed over linoleum flooring, of the occasional pager going off just behind a thin wall. I open my eyes.
The wall is made of glass. Guess I am not so alone after all. None of the people behind the glass are watching me. The blonde at the nurse’s station has her back to me, sorting through a stack of patient clipboards piled high on her counter. A haggard old man in a bathrobe is slowly shuffling his slippers as he tries to sneak a pack of cigarettes past the nurse. It would have been less conspicuous to hide the pack under his high-domed mesh-back cap instead of in his bathrobe pocket.
Further away, where the hallway turns at a right angle, I spot a familiar face, turned away from me and almost hidden around the corner. Even half-drugged I no longer understand how I ever saw a resemblance between this man and Peter. Dr. Notpeter, dressed in the requisite white coat and with a patient file pinned under his elbow, apparently holds a day job outside the prison system. He is talking to someone outside my field of vision and judging by the way he keeps shaking his head in a calm but adamant fashion, the conversation isn’t going his way. I’m not particularly interested, but the case of the smuggling smoker and the oblivious nurse continues to proceed at a glacial pace and makes for less than thrilling diversion while I wait to regain full control of my doped senses.
I turn my attention back to Dr. Notpeter. The patient file has now been extracted from under his arm and become either object or evidence in the heated but civil discussion that continues between the doc and his unseen opponent. The latter must have launched into a lengthy, well-reasoned argument, because for a minute or two Dr. Notpeter remains still, his head slightly tilted as he listens. I find myself secretly rooting for the doc to come out on top of the debate, but, at last, he deflates in surrender. The victor claims his prize, his arm reaching for the file in the doctor’s hands. I would recognize that Brooks Brothers sleeve anywhere.
My heart doesn’t sink. It plummets at terminal velocity.
Peter steps out from behind the corner, his eyes still fixed on the doctor, who offers few more words before he completely disappears down the hidden hallway. Remaining rooted in place, Peter tracks the doc’s movements for a short while. Then, with a heaving sigh he lowers his eyes and opens the file.
I have to stop him. Every second Peter is allowed to keep reading, every second he delves deeper into the illustrated chronicles of my failure as a man, chips away at my capacity to ever face him again. To be in the same room with him. To speak to him and look at him without seeing anything but pity and carefully guarded repulsion in his eyes.
Look at me, Peter!
I shoot up on my bed and my head is spinning out of control. I shout his name. All that escapes my useless, violated throat is a husky, voiceless croak.
Peter doesn’t look up, already too far into his reading to dare and glance in my direction.
Look at me, Peter! Look at me before there’s no going back!
I tear at the handcuff around my wrist, but it won’t budge. The cuff is loose, but not loose enough to slip it. I look around my bed, frantically searching for a tool to pick the lock. Anything. I grab the straw from the water cup on the bedside table, then toss the flimsy plastic aside. Twisting on the bed, I rip the tape off my left elbow, taking fine hair, even skin with it. The pain barely registers. I yank the IV cannula from my vein, pull the tubing away from it. The heavy gauge needle might just do. I curse at my fingers that shake uncontrollably when I insert the slick needle into the lock. I wiggle it around, trying to hit the sweet spot. I can almost feel the lock release. And then the needle drops to the floor.
I wail, a hoarse, soundless cry that doesn’t reach beyond the glass wall. I see Peter, still absorbed by the file in his hands, by the trashy fiction recorded there, that I never—Not once!—admitted to. He slowly turns on his heel, away from me. He’ll be gone in a second. For good.
Look! At! Me!
This is my last chance to stop him. I will drag this damn bed with me if I have to. I swing my legs over the edge and push off. If my feet ever make contact with the floor before my legs crumple, I cannot say. The punishing blow of hitting the linoleum tiles is nothing compared to the searing pain in my wrist. But it’s all good because, finally, someone hears me scream.
The smoker has stopped his tedious trek and is gaping at me through the glass. His face lacks any interest as he watches my attempts to clamber to my feet. My legs kick out clumsily and find no hold on the smooth floor only renewing the agony in my wrist with every slip. Dizzy, nauseous and out of air, I let gravity have its way. As the room and everything beyond it steadily dims to gray, I see the old man turn to the nurse behind the desk.
And Peter is gone.
On to Part 3
Back to Part 1