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WC: Need - Part 3: Food

White Collar -- Fanfiction

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

Title:  Need (Part 3 - Food)

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

Neal surrenders to Peter and Elizabeth's care.  Can his compliance be trusted?

Author's Notes:


Thanks for everyone who has been reading and commenting.  Here's the next installment. 
Everything's unbeta'ed, btw.



Part 3 - Food

“Morning, honey.” 

Peter cracks an eyelid and blinks in the bright sunlight that floods the room.  With the shades rolled up and the drapes pulled aside the large wall of windows opposite the bed offers an unobstructed view of the private pool and patio area in the bungalow’s backyard.  Unobstructed, save for his wife’s silhouette that looms as a dark shadow against the glaring radiance of the early morning sun.

“Morning,” Peter groans and lifts his head off the pillow.

“You slept on the floor?”  She asks, equally commiserating and reproachful.

Peter pushes the cover aside and sits up, his back protesting the movement as he peels his vertebrae off the floor one by one.

“I put a blanket down,” he shrugs off her concern.  “You know I can sleep almost anywhere, hon.”

“You didn’t want to leave me alone with Neal,” she observes and rakes her fingers through his sleep-mussed hair.  “You were worried.”

“No offense, but Neal’s a little unpredictable at the moment,” Peter sighs and twists his stiff back to look over at Neal’s side of the bed.  “Is he all right?”

“He’s been awake since 5,” Elizabeth explains.  “He’s kept quiet though, just looking around the room, getting his bearings.  I think the drugs knocked him out pretty hard.”

Peter checks his watch.  It’s just after 7.  He climbs to his feet, ineffectively smoothing out the wrinkles in the pants he didn’t bother taking off when he stretched out by the foot of Neal’s bed last night.

“Well, I didn’t exactly expect him to jump out of bed, demanding June’s Italian roast and French pastries,” he mumbles.  He walks up to his friend and surveys the stains his weeping wounds have left on the clean white sheet that covers him.  “How’re you holding up, Neal?”

“We’re not very chatty this morning.”  Elizabeth appears by Peter’s side and rubs the small of his back.  She smiles up at him, her tearful distress from last night replaced with determination and unwavering optimism.  She gives Peter a warm smile that is as good as a two-hour pep talk.  Then she looks down at Neal, who only shows interest in the large pink stain that has seeped into the sheet at his hip.  He anxiously tries to cover it with his hand.  When that proves ineffective at hiding it from view, he pulls on the sheet until he can tuck the stain underneath his body.  As a result, a second, equally large stain moves into prominent display on the center of his chest.  He frantically tucks the sheet in the other direction, his rising panic quickening his breath.

“It’s okay, sweetie.”  Elizabeth’s hands settle on both of Neal’s, holding them in place.  “It’s just a stain.  No one’s mad at you.”

Neal pauses as if to evaluate the truthfulness of El’s words.  His eyes flit over to Peter and he decides to err on the side of caution.  He shakes off Elizabeth’s hands and continues his endeavor to hide all evidence that he tarnished the crisp white cotton.  A soft, desolate whimper issues from his throat when his efforts open a wound and cause a fresh stain to blossom over his sternum.

“Neal, stop it!” Peter orders, letting his voice slip into a lower register.  “Listen to hear.  It’s only a stain.”

Neal deflates.

“Arms at your sides,” Peter instructs.

Neal obeys.  There is a hint of hesitation in his movements as if he is debating the wisdom of lowering his arms to a position where they can’t protect him from punishing blows.  Balling his hands into fists he closes his eyes and waits for the first strike to hit.

Peter can only exchange a powerless glance with Elizabeth.  Then he carefully folds back the sheet over Neal’s chest to inspect the damage done.  He pulls a tissue from the nightstand and covers the opened laceration.  Elizabeth holds out the dispenser box, and he changes the tissue twice before the bleeding stops.  He dabs a fresh layer of antibiotic ointment onto the wound.

“That ought to do it,” Peter says with a satisfied nod.  He pulls the sheet entirely off Neal’s body and inspects his condition.  He gently probes some of the scabs and cuts, checking the skin’s temperature.  He doesn’t like the looks and feel of the scrapes on Neal’s left thigh.  They will have to keep an eye on the injury to stave off an infection.  He unwraps the towel around Neal’s right knee and tosses the warmed gel packs off to the side.  The swelling around the joint has gone down.  He’ll stabilize the knee with a brace once Neal will be spending more time on his feet, but for the moment he should be fine. 

“Turn over,” Peter demands, and Neal obediently rolls onto his stomach, a little more relaxed now that punishment for staining the bedding appears to be delayed, perhaps altogether avoided.  Peter ignores the stains where Neal bled onto the fitted sheet.  The stains on his behind where Neal bled into his briefs are more disturbing.  Peter shuts his eyes for a moment and takes a deep breath through his nose.

“What’s the plan?”  Elizabeth asks softly, making a point to look at him not at their friend.

Peter settles a hand on Neal’s buttock, only to retract it instantly when he feels Neal clench under his touch.

“Sorry,” he mumbles before pulling himself together and addressing his wife. “Um, let’s get him on his feet for a short while.  It’ll keep his energy up.  He needs some fresh underwear, some light clothes, and we should change the sheets.  Get some breakfast into him.  Maybe you can give him a haircut?”

“Sure, honey, that sounds good.”  Elizabeth walks over to the dresser and pulls a new pair of boxers  from one of the drawers.  She tosses them at Peter and leaves for the master suite to retrieve a set of freshly washed sheets.  When she returns, Neal is out of bed and out of his underwear.  El hesitates for a split second then just continues on with her chore of stripping the bedding.

“I’m sorry, El,” Peter apologizes quietly, taking her by the elbow.  “I’ll talk to him about dropping trou in front of you.  As soon as I think he’ll have a better grasp of things.”

“It’s fine.  It doesn’t make me uncomfortable.  Really.”  She smiles fleetingly then looks past Peter at Neal, who is swaying precariously when he tries to thread a foot into a leg hole of the boxers.  “You might want to give him a hand, hon.” 

While Peter helps his partner into his underwear, Elizabeth abandons the job of making the bed and makes another trip to the master bedroom to pick one of Peter’s button-down shirts out of the laundry hamper.  She sniffs the fabric.  It smells worn, but clean, carrying a faint scent of Peter.  Maybe this will help.  Maybe wearing this will move something in Neal’s subconscious, reinstate feelings of safety and trust. It’s a long shot.

Rejoining her husband, she holds his shirt open for Neal.

“Hey, that’s my favorite shirt.” Peter catches himself sounding like a kid asked to share his new toy.

“I know.  It’s very soft and comfy and it’ll be Neal’s for now,” Elizabeth replies matter-of-factly.  “The A/C is running.  He needs to cover up a little.”  She wiggles the shirt, encouraging Neal to slip inside.  Caught in the middle of the argument, Neal remains rooted to his spot.

“We brought a suitcase full of Neal’s clothes,” Peter continues to squabble, if only to hold on to that moment of lighthearted normalcy.  “He used to make fun of this shirt, you know.”

“I know, hon.” Elizabeth nods her agreement.  “I guess this can be a teachable moment for everybody.  You will learn to share and Neal will learn that it helps to own shirts that aren’t cut for the bodies of 15-year-old boys.  To be honest, half the time I wonder how he breathes in those.”

She shakes the shirt once again.

“Alright,” Peter declares defeat.  He looks at his frozen consultant.  “Put on my damn shirt, Caffrey.”

He watches Elizabeth inch the shirt up Neal’s arms and over his shoulders.  Then she closes three of the buttons and folds the cuffs up so that they don’t cover his hands.  She steps back to inspect the result.  The oversized shirt hangs off of Neal’s angular frame, collarbones and ribs showing under the open collar.  Elizabeth smiles regardless.

“Come on, baby,” she chirps and holds out her hand, waiting patiently for Neal to take hold of it.  “Let’s go make breakfast.  Our Peter’s a little grumpy before his morning coffee.”

Leading him by the hand and taking small, slow steps, Elizabeth makes her way out of the guest suite.  Peter watches his friend traipse after her.  He lets his eyes sweep over the bruised and skinny legs under the hem of his shirt.  Peter finds it difficult to believe that the man who limps heavily on shaky legs was carrying baskets of rocks just a day ago.

“Shit, Neal,” he grumbles and picks up the abandoned task of changing the bed sheets.

***

“Good coffee.”

Peter lifts his mug and studies his friend across the breakfast table.  He questions whether Neal will ever properly respond to him or even look him in the eyes again.  In any case, it is not going to happen in the next few minutes because at this moment Neal’s world revolves around nothing but the pile of scrambled eggs El has spooned onto his plate.  The eggs remain untouched, as does the large glass of orange juice, the coffee and the box of cereal that sit on the table in front of him.  His hands resting in his lap, Neal stares at the food, as if the eggs were in immediate danger of dissolving into thin air should he take his eyes off them. 

Elizabeth appears by their side and sets plates of cooked bacon and slices of fresh toast onto the center of the table.  She catches Peter’s bemused expression and follows his line of vision.  She puts on a sympathetic smile for both men.

“It’s very polite of you to wait for me, Neal.” She settles into the chair to his right and across from her husband.  “Now go ahead, take what you want and eat before it gets cold.”

There’s a quick, measuring glance into Peter’s direction, assuring that the wide tabletop provides enough of a safety zone, then Neal’s hand snatches all four slices of toast from the serving plate and deposits them onto his eggs.  A second grasp procures more than half of the sliced bacon.

“So much for good manners,” Peter mutters and is immediately shushed by his wife.

“Now, Neal,” she addresses their friend, her tone teacherly.  “Why don’t you start with a slice or two and I promise to make fresh toast if you’re still hungry after that.”

Not waiting for a response, she extracts two slices of bread from under his protective hands and drops a slice each on her and Peter’s plates. 

“Would you like me to put some butter on your toast?  Some raspberry jam maybe?”

Neal is frozen in a state of near terror, trying to work out what complicated rule he broke by doing exactly as he was asked and taking what he wanted to eat.  Elizabeth sighs and resolves to deal with Neal’s irrational fear by ignoring it for the moment.  She takes Neal’s slices of toast and spreads butter on one and jam on the second before placing them back on his plate.  She takes all but two slices of bacon and returns them to the serving platter.

“Here, finish this first, and then we’ll see, okay?”  She puts a fork into his hand then gets comfortable her chair, scooting closer to the table in the process.  With a quick nod at Peter she starts to eat as if this was any ordinary morning at the Burke breakfast table.

Peter and Elizabeth have made it halfway through their plates and are in the middle of an idle conversation about the weather when Neal finally begins to eat.  Hunched over his food, he eats hastily, alternating between taking bites of toast and bacon and forkfuls of eggs.  He only pauses to drink from his juice whenever Elizabeth pushes the glass in his direction.  He finishes his food before Peter made it through a second cup of coffee.  Neal puts his fork down.

“Did you have enough, sweetie?” Elizabeth asks. 

Neal sits and breathes heavily, as if the simple act of eating took a lot out of him.  Elizabeth throws Peter a questioning look.

“Answer her, Neal.”  Peter requests sternly.

Neal swallows hard.

“Yes,” he eventually says, quietly, with a voice hoarse from lack of use.  There’s a long pause before he rasps a barely audible “Thank you.”

***

Humming to herself, Elizabeth inspects her handiwork one more time.  She flattens another section of Neal’s damp hair between her index and middle fingers and pulls it away from his head to trim the uneven tips.  The clippings join the pieces of hair collecting on the towel draped around Neal’s shoulders and on the tile floor of the kitchen area.  Putting the scissors aside, Elizabeth finger-combs his hair.  Neal sucks in a sharp breath when her nails accidentally scrape over a tender spot on his scalp.

“Sorry, sweetie,” Elizabeth apologizes.  She cups his chin, tilts his face up and plucks a few strands into place on his forehead.  She sighs.  “Well, it’s not your usual expertly coiffed head, but you look very cute, Neal.  Don’t you agree, Peter?”

She smiles over at her husband, who watches them from a distance away, leaning against the kitchen counter with his arms folded over his chest.  He snaps out of his thoughts and takes another sorrowful look at the scrapes and bruises in Neal’s hollow-cheeked face.

“Sure, honey, he looks … cute.”  Peter says absentmindedly.

Elizabeth lifts the towel from Neal’s shoulders and brushes the clippings from his shirt.  He flinches and gasps when she makes contact with raw skin hidden under the thin layer of cotton.

“Sorry,” she repeats and stops her fussing.  Her hand hovers over the crown of Neal’s head, hesitant to settle over another tender spot.  “Would you like something for the pain?”

He shakes his head.

“Sure?”

He nods.

“Okay, then.”  Elizabeth relents and looks at Peter for directions.  “What now?”

Peter blinks a few times, taking in his consultant with his boyish haircut and his anxious eyes that must have memorized every spare inch of tile floor at his feet.

“Now I’ll give Neal the grand tour of the house, and then I think it’s time for a nap.”  He checks his watch.  It’s 9:30 in the morning.  Peter has been ready for a nap since about an hour ago.  “Come on, buddy.”  He steps into Neal’s peripheral field of vision and waves him to get up.

Neal staggers to his feet.

For the ten minutes that follow Peter takes slow, deliberate steps as he ambles through the rented bungalow.  Neal follows on unsteady, bare feet, maintaining a constantly checked balance between keeping a safe distance to Peter and trying not to appear disobedient by falling behind.  To an outsider, his downcast eyes would suggest a disinterest in his surroundings.  To Peter, his consultant’s stolen glances around the sun-drenched space are a clear indication that Neal is processing, mapping and cataloging his environment.  They will have to keep an eye on him, four, whenever he they can.  Neal has been on the run for a large part of his life.  Perhaps those instincts are more deeply engrained than the blind submission beaten into him over the past months.  Stepping through the sliding glass door that leads from the living room into the backyard, Peter scans the eight-foot privacy wall that surrounds their rental and measures it against the frail figure of his friend.  It may as well be the Great Wall.  He has to give Mozzie credit for picking the place.  Peter takes a deep breath.

“Nice pool, huh?”  He doesn’t expect an answer.  Neal only wipes his hands nervously on his thighs and shifts more of his weight onto his good leg.

“You used to swim a lot,” Peter continues.  “I know that because you repeatedly tried to convince me that the bureau should pay for your gym membership.”

Neal draws up his shoulders, shivering slightly in the cool morning air that still hangs in the shaded areas of the sunny patio.

“Maybe in a few days, when you’ve healed a little, you can hop in for a few laps,” Peter continues the casual, one-sided conversation and reminds himself not to get frustrated or discouraged by Neal’s stubborn insistence to look utterly lost.  With a tip of his head he motions Neal to follow him.  “Alright, Caffrey, I believe that lounger over there has your name on it.  How does some shut-eye by the pool sound?”

Peter resigns to the fact that most of his questions for Neal will be purely rhetorical for the near future.  He strolls over to the group of padded chaises and pulls one of them further into the shade under the branches of a tree Peter can’t name.  He lays a beach towel over the cushion and lowers the head section of the lounger to a semi-recumbent position.

“Hop on,” he prompts.  “I’ll go grab my wife and a book and we’ll join you in a minute.”

Peter sticks around long enough to watch Neal climb stiffly onto the lounger and settle back.  Peter rubs his face with both hands.  Elizabeth bumps his shoulder gently when she appears by his side wearing a summery dress and carrying a tray full of fresh lemonade.

“How is he doing?”  She asks.

“Trying to set a new record for looking least comfortable in a poolside lounger.”

“Give him time, honey,” she replies.

“I will.”

***

The rest of the day is uneventful and as routine as the unusual situation allows.  Neal sleeps through most of it.  His legs covered by a light blanket he dozes with his mouth slightly open and his face finally relaxed.  Elizabeth sits in the lounger by his side, reading magazines.  Mostly she watches Neal and the calm, regular rise and fall of his chest.  She occasionally glances to her other side at Peter, who is catching up on the sleep he missed on the hard floor the previous night.

They reluctantly wake Neal for lunch and again for an early dinner.  He doesn’t eat much.  Elizabeth is worried, but she doesn’t want to stoke Neal’s insecurity by making a big deal of it. 

After dinner Peter takes Neal to the shower.  He lathers Neal’s back but leaves the rest of the washing to Neal, only giving instructions when he feels it necessary.

By eight, Neal is in bed.  Peter applies fresh antibiotics to his back.  He concentrates on his work, listening to Neal’s ragged breathing and to the sound of El clearing away the dishes in the kitchen.  He doesn’t like the looks of the deeply gouged skin along Neal’s left hip and thigh.  The surface is hot, and Neal moans into his pillow at the lightest touch.  Peter throws another judging look at the bedroom door and hopes that Elizabeth will keep herself busy in the kitchen for a few more minutes.

“Lift your hips a little, Neal,” he requests.  Neal hesitates but obeys, his body tense when Peter tugs his underwear down his thighs and then completely off.  He inspects the scrapes on the left side of Neal’s pale bottom.  His friend must have been stark naked when he was dragged over the dirty, rough ground.  Neal is quivering under his touch when he coats the heated skin with a liberal amount of ointment. 

“I’m sorry, buddy, I need to do this.”  He squeezes out a large glob of antibiotic onto his fingertips and takes a deep breath before dipping between Neal’s cheeks to treat the bruised and sore skin there.  He expects Neal to clench or jump or at least grunt in protest.  But when Peter’s fingertip barely breaches, Neal simply shuts down.

“I’m not one of them, Neal,” Peter says from between gritted teeth and struggles with the tears of rage and endless pity that threaten to flood his eyes.  “Do you hear me?”

Whatever or whomever Neal hears and sees as he lies there with half-closed, glazed-over eyes and trembling lips, it’s not his friend.

***

“Are you going to sleep in here again?”  Peter asks in a low voice from his position in the corner armchair.

“I think I should.”  Elizabeth replies.  She sits on the bed, leaning against the pillow at her back, with a book in her lap that is difficult to read in the dimmed light of the bedside table lamp.  On the pillow next to her, Neal is asleep.  He has turned onto his side, facing her, his forehead almost touching her hip.  His fist has found a handful of her summer dress.  With the hand that is not holding her book, Elizabeth adjusts the sheet that covers his naked body, before she continues to stroke his hair.

“Today went well, don’t you think?” El says.  “He was very calm.  Maybe this won’t be as bad as we feared.  A few more days of rest and he might start to get back to normal.”

Peter doesn’t reply immediately.  He doesn’t share his wife’s tender optimism.  Whatever was done to Neal goes deeper than they may be able to comprehend.  It certainly goes deeper than Neal will lead them to believe.  Neal’s honesty can rarely be trusted when he’s at his best.  Frightened and hurt, his defensive walls may be impenetrable. 

“Maybe,” he finally says.  “To be honest, I’m not even sure he’s fully here yet, honey.  For all we know he may still believe that this rescue is nothing but a hopeful dream.  Look at him, El.  He clings to you like he’s afraid you’ll disappear any moment.”

El looks down at the fingers bunched around the fabric of her dress.

“Then we won’t disappear.”  She says with determination.

Peter chuckles weakly.

“I think Neal wouldn’t mind seeing me out of the picture, hon. He’s still terrified.”

“Then he’ll have to learn that too, Peter,” Elizabeth replies sternly.  “We may have to force him for his own good, but by the end of this he will trust you again.”

“The end of this?” Peter sighs.

***

Elizabeth wakes to the insistent shake of her shoulder.

“Honey,” Peter’s voice urges. 

She blinks up at him, and even through her sleepy haze she can immediately tell that there is something amiss.

“Neal’s gone.”  Peter says.

Elizabeth’s head whips around to the empty spot on the bed next to her then over to the open bathroom door.

“I already checked all over the house,” Peter explains.  “The door to the patio was open and one of the chairs has been pulled up to the wall.”

“You think he jumped the wall?”  Elizabeth is out of bed in a flash.  “When?”  Her eyes dart to the radio clock on the nightstand.  It’s only 6:30. 

“The last time I checked on the two of you was shortly after midnight.  I knew I should have slept in here again.”  Peter rubs his forehead.

“Honey, yesterday he could barely walk from here to the living room.  He can’t be far.”  She looks over to the discarded shirt and underwear Neal was wearing the previous day. 

“He pulled some clothes from the dresser.”  Peter nods at the open drawer.  He inhales deeply, his mind racing through a number of possible scenarios.  “Listen, El, I need you to get in the car and drive trough the neighborhood.  The open patio door and the chair might be a smokescreen.  He could have just walked out the front door.  If Neal is stumbling around looking like he does, he’ll give some unsuspecting vacationers a good scare.  I’d rather not draw the police’s or anyone else’s attention.”

“You’ll go after him over the fence?”

“Yeah.”  Peter nods.

“Peter, there’s miles and miles of jungle out there.”

“I know. Let’s hope my Eagle Scout tracking skills are still sharp.” He sighs, and throws another glance at the opened dresser.  “At least it’s safe to assume that Neal’s wardrobe doesn’t include camouflage.  He should be easy enough to spot.”


On to Part 4
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