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WC: Need - Part 1: Rescue

White Collar -- Fanfiction

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

Title:  Need (Part 1 - Rescue)

  • Rating: R
  • Warnings:  Language, Violence, Sexual References, PTSD
  • Spoilers:  none
  • Category: Hurt/Comfort, Drama, Nudity, Peter-Neal-Elizabeth Friendship
Summary:

After Neal has been missing for ten months, Peter and Elizabeth are following a final lead to find their friend alive. 

Author's Notes:


I won't put up any pretense that this is anything but an all-out hurt/comfort fix.  There'll be sponge baths and full-frontal and lots and lots of cuddling and comforting.  The whole shebang!

I'll be posting in parts as I'm still tweaking the story here and there.  I hope this helps passing the long days between new episodes.  Comments are welcome.  Love 'em, as a matter of fact.



Part 1 – Rescue

“You shouldn’t be here, El.” 

In the backseat of the SUV Peter nervously shifts his hand on his thigh and with it the small hand securely clamped over his.

“I couldn’t let you fly down here by yourself, honey.”  Elizabeth replies, lowering her voice to keep their conversation private from their driver.  She gives him the sweetest smile she can muster amid the nervous turmoil in the pit of her stomach.  She needs to be his rock now.  “I wish you could have told Diana or Jones.  Even Reese.”

Peter just shakes his head.

“They think I’ve lost my mind,” he says quietly.  “Maybe I have.”

Elizabeth’s heart wants to break again in the face of the mounting self-doubt that has been torturing her husband for ten months.

“Peter,” she states with conviction. “If your gut feeling tells you that he is alive, then I believe you.”

Peter gives her a weak, grateful smile.

“Besides,” El continues.  “He’s my—“

She pauses, stumped by her inability to put her feelings into a single word.  Friend?  Concern?  Pain-in-the-rear?

“He’s my Neal, too.”  She finally says and squeezes her husband’s hand.

Peter looks amused for the first time in days, before the deep lines of worry return.

“This is the last wild goose chase,” he says firmly.  “If this is another dead end, I’m giving up.”

“I know, hon.”

“If Frederick’s intel is wrong …”

“It isn’t.  I have a good feeling about this,” she reassures him.  “Frederick and you go way back.  He wouldn’t throw this at you if he wasn’t sure.  He wouldn’t have gotten his deep undercover agent involved for a wild goose chase, Peter.”

“I hope you’re right.”  He looks out the window at the mountainous landscape.  Something in the distance catches his eye.  A tall fence on a rocky mountaintop.  He peers over his shoulder at the rickety van following their vehicle.  The van he is supposed to load with a bunch of fortunate souls who will escape hell to work on the hacienda of a deep undercover CIA agent.  The van that may soon hold his friend and partner, who disappeared during a routine case ten months ago.

“We’re getting close to the compound,” Peter says.  “Are you sure you’re ready for this, El?  The conditions there might be … bad.”

“I know,” she nods and swallows hard.  “Last night, after we arrived at the hacienda, I talked to one of the workers who made it out.” 

She hadn’t slept much afterward. 

Peter tries to smile, but despair gets the better of him.

“El, if he was here and I didn’t find him in time, I don’t know—“

“Shhh,” she soothes.  “I have a good feeling about this.  Remember, honey, I have a Burke gut too!”

***

Peter’s heart sinks straight to his own Burke gut when he climbs out of the SUV’s back seat.  The driver continues to hold the door open as Peter offers his hand to help his wife out of the vehicle.  He forces himself not to look around.  Not yet.  He can’t will himself to ignore the oppressive heat that hangs in the dusty air.

“Mr. Turner.”  A short, stocky man in a white suit and a Panama hat greets him.  The short man seems momentarily confused about Elizabeth’s presence.  Then he smiles at her.  “Mrs. Turner, I presume.”

“Call me Cindy.”  El replies with a thick southern inflection that is complete news to Peter.  She shakes the short man’s fleshy, sticky hand.

“I’m Señor Alvarez.  Hector,” he replies. “Pardon my look of surprise, we rarely see such beauty up here.”

“What can I say, she’s an adventurer.  Couldn’t convince her to stay at the ranch.” Peter cuts in with an amenable smile as he grabs the other man’s hand.  “Perhaps we should stop flirting with my wife and get down to business, Hector.  Unlike Cindy here, I prefer a cool spot and a glass of good tequila.  I have no intention of staying out here for a moment longer than necessary.”

“Of course,” Hector replies and waves them to follow.  “I have already preselected a few men for your consideration.”

“That’s very thoughtful of you,” Peter says.  “They speak English?”

“Well enough to follow orders,” Alvarez grins.  “Don’t worry, Mr. Turner, I’ve been in business with Señor Ramsey for a long time.  I know his preferences.  I don’t think he was ever disappointed in the personnel he’s purchased from me.  I’m surprised he didn’t take the trip here himself this year.”  Peter doesn’t fail to notice the trace of suspicion in the short man’s scrutiny. 

“What can I say, he trusts me,” he explains.  “Ramsey and I were army buddies before he settled in Panama.  I saved his life.  That kind of history builds a certain understanding between men, don’t you think?”

“Of course,” Alvarez concurs. 

Two guards join them as they walk along a narrow path, lined by almost vertical faces of cliff walls.  Peter doesn’t allow his gaze to linger on the dust-covered, worn faces of the shackled men who chip away at the rock face.  A brief glance is enough to determine that none of them are Neal.

“We’re widening the road,” Alvarez explains.  “It’s hard to get heavy equipment to the mines.”

“Who needs equipment if you have a supply of good manual labor, right?”  Peter jokes and is surprised that his voice is capable of sounding so cruel.

Alvarez chuckles.

The narrow path widens into an open courtyard, lined by wooden barracks and a large three-story stuccoed building that must serve as the administration’s quarters.  Armed guards patrol the compound, with more positioned on top of small towers in the corners. 

On the far end of the yard, secured by heavy wooden beams, three mineshaft entrances hint at the cavernous darkness that expands into the mountain. A continuous stream of men in ragged clothing spills from those entrances, carrying or dragging sturdy baskets of rock and ore.  Others load piles of rocks onto truck beds.  Still more work in small groups, shattering large pieces of granite with unwieldy hammers to extract small chunks of precious ore.

At first and second and third glance, there are few conveniences for the prisoners.  Several plastic barrels, sitting in the sun, supply tepid drinking water.  Crowded in the narrow strip of shade along the side of the barracks, wooden benches provide seating off of the gravel ground.  Through the open door of the closest barrack, Peter catches a glimpse of a row of stained mattresses, positioned with little if any space in between.  Peter shudders.

“Over here.” Alvarez urges and draws Peter’s attention back on him.  The short man leads them to the shadier side of the administrative building, where a group of roughly a dozen prisoners is lined up against the wall.  It takes one sweeping glance to determine that Neal isn’t among them.  Peter didn’t realize how hopeful he was until that hope is taken away from him.  He doesn’t show his disappointment.

Peter inspects the young men presented to him, with their open sores and tattered rags and their refusal to make eye contact.  He doesn’t want to think about that he may be holding their lives in his hand.  He can only pick five.  Five and Neal. 

“This is boring,” Elizabeth states with a yawn.  “I want to take a look around.”

“Ma’am, I’m not sure that’s—“ Alvarez trails off because Elizabeth is already wandering across the compound.  He signals two guards to follow her and throws an apologetic glance at Peter.

“She’s difficult to entertain,” Peter reassures the short man.  He throws a long look after his wife, making sure she is safe before turning back to the row of unfortunate creatures behind him.  He takes his time studying them, makes his selection silently as he buys time for El to take a look around. 

There’s a kid, looking barely sixteen and not yet worn down like the rest of them.  He’ll pick him.  Then there’s the blond man with delicate, handsome features, narrow shoulders and a slightly effeminate tilt in his hips.  He’ll take him too because the guy must be going through hell of a different kind here.  The other three are more difficult to choose.  Peter must keep in mind that he is here under the cover of purchasing farm hands.  He quickly picks three of the men who look to be good workers.  He refuses to think of the rest.  And he refuses to choose a sixth person to fill Neal’s spot.

“Darling dear!”  Elizabeth calls across the yard and waves him to come over.  Peter sighs and shoots Alvarez an apologetic look.

“Excuse me for a minute.  When the better half calls, business will have to wait.” Peter gives Alvarez a slug on the shoulder.  “What can I say, I’m a whipped man.”

“Aren’t we all, Mr. Turner?”  Hector grins uneasily and follows when Peter strides off to catch up with El. 

Elizabeth slowly continues to make her way to the corner of the compound, occasionally looking over her shoulder at her husband.  Her smile looks tight and fake to nobody but Peter.  When she’s not looking at him, her eyes are fixed on a group of workers loading rocks onto a pickup truck.  Maybe half a dozen more are waiting in line with brimful, sturdy hampers strapped to their backs.

“Hurry up, honey, I want to show you something,” El whines.  Peter scans the group of men once more.  He can’t tell what is drawing his wife’s attention. 

A sudden commotion up ahead draws his.

Someone in the back of the group of waiting men stumbles then goes down hard.  His over-laden basket knocks two more workers off balance when its contents spill over the dusty ground.  Several guards come rushing in, shouting at the prisoners who try to sort out the chaos of shackled limbs between scattered rocks, and half-full baskets that pin their bearers to the ground.  Someone must be asking for the guilty party, because suddenly several arms extend in the direction of the hapless klutz who lost his footing. 

Two guards step around the strewn rocks and grab him by the shirt to yank him to his feet.  With his shoulders still strapped tightly to his hamper they fail to do anything but pull him across the gravel.  Dissatisfied with their progress, one of the guards orders a brief timeout to unbuckle the hamper’s shoulder straps.

Peter can’t pinpoint at what exact moment of the events that follow he realizes that the man on the ground is Neal.  It may be the way his leg twitches when the guard’s boot impacts his midsection or the way his arms come up to shield his face when a thick crop is swung at him.  It’s not until he is dragged off to the side by the chain between his ankles, coughing up dust, that Peter gets a good enough look to be certain. 

Peter has imagined this moment for every day of the last ten months.  The scenarios had changed.  He had imagined simply running into Neal browsing through the used book bins at the Strand book store.  He had envisioned picking up his trail at an exclusive Swiss mountain resort.  He had even pictured bailing Neal out of a small town prison somewhere in Texas.  Peter had imagined this moment to fill him with relief or anger or plain happiness.  He had never expected the paralyzing rage and overwhelming sadness that surges through his every fiber in face of the cruel reality of what Neal’s life has been for months.

Peter can feel Elizabeth flinch under his touch when he puts a hand on her back.  Then her phony smile returns as she slips back into her role of over-indulged wife.

“Everything okay, baby?”  Peter asks rubbing her back.

She turns, her eyes darting between Alvarez and her husband.

“I want him,” El demands.  “Buy him for me, darling.”

Alvarez and Peter exchange confused looks.  Peter’s heart is beating in his throat now.  He is in sheer awe of his wife’s cool-headed act. 

“Honey, we talked about this.”  He plays along.  “We’ll hire you a new pool boy.”

“I. Want. Him.”  Elizabeth pouts.  “It’s my birthday!  I should get what I want.”

Peter exhales from puffed up cheeks and looks expectantly at Alvarez.  The short man is clearly incapable of taking a subtle hint.

“Let’s take a look at him, shall we?” Peter inclines his head in the direction of the man still curled up in the dust some fifteen yards away.  Alvarez looks as startled as before, but hesitantly signals his guards to bring the prisoner over.

“Perhaps we should return to the shade,” Hector suggests and gestures at the shady wall of the administrative building.  “This heat can do strange things to a person’s head.”  He throws a skeptical glance at Elizabeth.  She smiles unconcerned and hooks her arm around Peter’s elbow.

“Yes, honey, let’s go in the shade.” 

As they stroll back to the stuccoed building, Peter resists the urge to look behind him at the man who is roughly hoisted to his shackled, bare feet and marched across the yard.  Elizabeth squeezes his arm, her hands shaking.  They’ve found him.  Getting him out should be the easy part.  They can do this – if Neal doesn’t blow their cover.

The man they come face-to-face with a few minutes later is either an Oscar-worthy actor or a complete stranger in a beaten, haggard shell that bears a vague resemblance to their missing friend.  There is not even the faintest sign of recognition in the prisoner who keeps his eyes trained on the ground.  His shaggy, grimy hair droops deep into his forehead.  The dust covering his face sticks to the fresh scrapes the guards’ treatment has left on his cheekbone and chin.  His nose is bleeding and blood is dripping onto the front of his long-sleeve collarless shirt, the color of which can no longer be determined. 

Peter lets his eyes sweep over the ill-fitting linen garments that hint at the bony frame underneath and that may shield from the sun but not the cold mountaintop nights.  They certainly offer no protection from the guards’ fists and boots.  The shirt is threadbare where the straps of the carrying basket were fastened across his chest and shoulders.  Peter doesn’t want to speculate what the rough leather and heavy loads must have done to the skin underneath.  Neal’s pants, of the same coarse but thin material as the shirt are too loose on his narrow hips and too short to cover the heavy iron shackles that are clamped around his ankles and connected by a linked chain.  Peter’s survey ends at Neal’s bare feet.

He still knows this man’s shoe size.  He can’t be certain that he knows the person in front of him anymore.

Alvarez signals his guards to step back.  He retrieves his nightstick from the back of his belt and prods his prisoner to move forward to line up with the rest of the men along the wall.  Unsupported by the guards, Neal takes a shaky step forward.  His right leg refuses to bear his weight.

Peter’s breath catches in his throat when his consultant crashes to the ground at his feet.  Neal’s hand clutches Peter’s shoe in an attempt to push himself off the gravel.  The tremble in the man’s arm carries straight up Peter’s leg.  The convulsions that rip through Neal’s helpless body when Alvarez’ baton comes down on his back in rapid succession carry straight into Peter’s aching heart.  There is nothing more than a quiet moan coming from Neal.

“Stop it,” Peter shouts.  “You’re getting his filth all over me.”

Peter swallows his disgust with his own inhumanity as he boots Neal away from his leg and shoe.  He doesn’t kick hard but the impact of his foot with the bony frame elicits a restrained yelp from the man in the dust, who rolls and scrambles away from him.  Peter watches Alvarez yank the stumbling man to his feet and shove him against the wall. 

“What’s his name?”  Elizabeth asks and looks as bored as before.  She pulls a stick of gum from her pocket and starts to chew.

“Out there, I don’t know.  In here, he’s called Blue.”  Hector gestures vaguely at his own pair of eyes to explain the reference.

“Blue.  I like that.”  Elizabeth smiles up at Peter.  “You know I have a thing for blue eyes, darling.  Now give Hector here the money so that I can take him home.”

Alvarez nervously shifts on his feet, and scratches the sweaty back of his fleshy neck.  He seems to consider his next words.

“Mr. Turner, I feel I should be honest with you.  Your friend, Señor Ramsey, is a valued business partner of mine.  I don’t feel comfortable offering him substandard merchandize.”

Peter barely resists the urge to punch the short man square in the face.

“Is he a bad worker?”  He asks instead.

“No, he’s perfectly fine.  Very obedient, too.  No backtalk.  And my men tell me that he’s a bit of a dark horse in the Friday night fights.  Made a few of my guards a nice chunk of change on some pretty low odds.”  Hector grins, obviously proud of the operation he is running.

“Then what’s the problem?”  Peter presses on.

“Mr. Turner, in my experience, men like this have an expiration date.  He’s been with us for a long time.  I don’t want to ruin a good reputation by selling Señor Ramsey something that may not be useful for long.”

Peter makes a dismissive gesture.

“Don’t worry, this purchase will be of a purely personal nature.”  He wraps his arm around El’s shoulder and pulls her close. 

“I understand.”  Alvarez smirks.  “As a matter of fact, I remember the Superintendent’s wife quite enjoyed his … company when he arrived here.”

“But not anymore?”  Elizabeth chimes in, sounding decidedly possessive of her prospective new toy.

“Not for a while,” Hector replies.  “I don’t think she appreciates the lived-down look.”

“Ah,” Peter chuckles caustically.  “I don’t think that will be an issue here, won’t it, Cindy?”

Elizabeth beams up at him and he can tell she is desperately holding back a swell of tears.  They must wrap this up before their fragile façades crumble. Alvarez’ next words aren’t helping.

“I hear the boys still make good use of him, if that sort of thing strikes your fancy, Mr. Turner.”  Alvarez wiggles his eyebrows suggestively as he lightly taps his nightstick against the back of Neal’s upper thighs.  There’s a small twitch in Neal’s face and a flash in his downcast eyes that give Peter hope that his friend may still be somewhere in that abused and dispirited body.  He feels his fists tighten at the thought of what it took to elicit any reaction from Neal.

They need to go.  Now.

“No, it doesn’t strike my fancy,” he replies coldly and watches the smirk on Alavarez’ face wither.  “But we’ll take him anyway.”

Peter hooks his curled index finger under Elizabeth’s chin and tips her head up.  He plants a kiss on her mouth.

“Happy birthday, baby.”

***

The ride back to the hacienda is an exercise in self-control.  In the backseat of the SUV, Elizabeth keeps looking out the rear window at the van that is following them.  The van Neal was thrown in along with the five others, their shackles released but their hands tightly secured behind their backs by sturdy zip ties.  The SUV hits another bump in the unpaved road, and Elizabeth can’t help picturing Neal as he is tossed around the unpadded loading bay of the van. 

Peter squeezes her hand.

“Another hour, honey.”

She hasn’t cried yet.  It’s easier to hold back the tears when she doesn’t have to look at Neal.

“He was so … quiet,” she says.  She’s knows it’s the understatement of the century.

“Maybe he was just trying to protect our cover, honey,” Peter tries to reassure her.

“Maybe,” Elizabeth replies softly.  She stares out the window in silence for a long time.  “I think he doesn’t know who we are, Peter.  And after all the horrible things we had to say in there—“

“El,” Peter implores gently.  “Don’t torture yourself.  You were smart and amazing and in control in there.  You found him, you found the right words to say to get him out of there.  That’s all that matters.”

Elizabeth shakes her head.

“Maybe he can’t even remember who he is,” she continues.  “You saw the conditions there.  You heard what he had to live through!  The backbreaking work, the constant manhandling, the cruel punishment at the smallest offense, the fights to entertain the guards, the ra—“

“El!”  Peter stares at here with wide eyes.  He’s not quite ready to process what he witnessed on the prison compound.  “Don’t think about this now.  Please.”

“Okay, honey.”  It’s El’s turn to squeeze her husband’s hand.  “We’ll take one step at a time.”

Peter slumps back against the seat and checks his watch again.

“I just want to hug him,” Elizabeth says.

“You will.”

***

An hour later, after Ramsey has met them with their rental car by the highway, after Neal has been removed from the van, after the cable ties have been cut from his raw wrists, after everyone else has left, Peter and Elizabeth are finally alone with their friend.

Neal stands in the deserted parking lot with his arms at his sides and his eyes on the ground.  From a few feet away Peter watches his friend’s eyes shift nervously.  Neal wants to look around, perhaps to convince himself that he has escaped the devil he knows, perhaps to look at the devils controlling his life now.  He wants to look and doesn’t dare to.

“Neal?”  Elizabeth approaches her friend.  He shows no reaction.

“El,” Peter cautions.  “Don’t expect too much.”

Don’t expect much.  That’s what Ramsey had quietly said to Peter after taking one sweeping look at Neal.  Hope for the best, but don’t expect him to survive this. If he does, don’t expect him to be the man you knew.  Don’t expect him to recognize you or look at you or speak to you or tell you when you’re hurting him.  He’s been taught not to.  The hard way.

“I know.”  Elizabeth replies before putting on a warm, caring smile for Neal.  She wraps her arms around the man.  Peter’s heart breaks when he watches Neal go rigid with fear in his wife’s embrace.

Be firm.  Ramsey had quickly outlined instructions for how to deal with Neal.  Don’t ask.  Order.  It’s the only thing he will understand.  Tell him what’s best for him, because he won’t know for himself.  Force him, if you have to.  Be cruel to yourself to be kind to him.

“Hug her!”  Peter orders.

By the small tilt in his head he can tell Neal is listening, but he is incapable of computing what is being demanded.  Elizabeth doesn’t seem to fare much better and throws a startled look at her husband.  Peter signals her to stay put.

“Put your arms around her,” Peter commands. 

Neal hesitantly obeys.

“Pull her in.  Gently.”

Peter watches Elizabeth be drawn against his friend’s chest.

“Good,” Peter allows himself to offer a hint of praise before his voice hardens again.  “Now rest your head against hers.”

Peter surveys the absurdity of an embrace he’s created.  Neal looks tense, insecure and utterly confused.  But Elizabeth closes her eyes for a moment and absorbs the feel of the man in her arms.

She needed this.

***

Three hours later Peter throws another glance in his rearview mirror at his sleeping consultant.  It was hard to convince El not to climb in the backseat with Neal.  She badly wanted to comfort him.  Peter reasoned with her that Neal wasn’t ready for her kindness, that her closeness was nothing more than a threat to him.  It was at that point that the first of her tears broke free.

Even in the relative safety of the empty backseat, Neal hadn’t been able to settle down.  Too conscious of trying not to move past the boundaries of the beach towel they had laid down to protect the upholstery of the rental car, he sat stiffly, keeping his hands in his lap.  Something about the stillness in Neal’s ever-restless hands upset Peter deeply.  Whenever he felt unobserved, Neal’s wide eyes soaked in every detail of the landscape rushing by outside the window.  Peter convinced himself to take it as a sign of the indestructible Caffrey curiosity.

An hour ago, Neal had finally dozed off, the lulling hum of the car’s engine too powerful a force for the exhausted man to battle.  His head is resting against the side window, the grime and drying blood in his face leaving streaks on the spotless glass.  The plastic Gatorade bottle he had hastily emptied while throwing furtive glances at the couple in the front seats has slipped from his grip and is rolling over the floor in the rear seat foot well.  By Peter’s side, El looks over her shoulder at Neal and then smiles at Peter.  He turns off the A/C and cracks the window.  Their friend is in desperate need of a bath.

“Almost home.”  Peter says after swiping the keycard to the gated community.

He drives past the clubhouse and follows the winding one-way road for two more miles to their vacation rental tucked away in the tropical forest.  He can’t wait for Neal to see the lush surroundings and the manicured garden that encircles their rented villa.  How different it must look from the barren desolateness he has seen for six months.  Perhaps the change in scenery will help.  Perhaps Peter is being overly optimistic.

He pulls into the driveway and shuts off the engine.

“What now?”  Elizabeth asks.

Peter exhales from puffed cheeks.  He throws another long look at his dozing friend.

“We get him inside, get him cleaned up.  See what the damage is, the physical damage, anyway.”  He pauses for a moment.  “And then we’ll take care of him.  And hope for the best.”


On to Part 2
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