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WC: Need - Part 5: Trust

White Collar -- Fanfiction

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

Title:  Need (Part 5 - Trust)

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

Although Neal is on a steady path to recovery in their tropical refuge, Peter feels unhappy.  Will he ask too much too soon of Neal?

Author's Notes:


Thank you all for your your patience, your continued encouragement and all the great comments.  Here is the next installment.  There will be one more part after this, but it still needs some work.  I'm hoping to be happy with it by the end of the weekend, but no promises!



Part 5 – Trust

Elizabeth doesn’t fall back asleep.  She shares the top sheet with Neal, who lies close to her with his head resting on her left shoulder.  He sleeps calmly while she gently and tirelessly rakes her fingers through his damp hair.  His body is still giving off warmth, but not the frighteningly high levels of heat it has been emitting for almost three days.

To her right, Peter has succumbed to the deep sleep of the truly exhausted.  Lying perfectly still, he has staked claim to a small portion of the king size bed.  He brought his pillow from the master bedroom and rests on top of the covers, not quite a part of the tender scene to his left, but not completely removed from it. 

Elizabeth wants to have him here and his quiet, reassuring presence.  She prays that the hours Neal spent this night in Peter’s protective arms helped to close the distance between the two men.  There is an ever-faithful core deep inside her that harbors the staunch belief that Neal can fully recover if only he can regain his trust in Peter. 

She wants this for Peter’s sake as much as Neal’s.  Peter may never admit as much, but she knows that his feelings for Neal have long surpassed those of curious fascination and professional responsibility.  This boy, whose complete history they may never learn, wormed his way into Peter’s heart long before the tracking anklet sealed their unusual partnership.  Perhaps even long before Peter locked him behind bars for the first time. 

Elizabeth has given up trying to define the relationship her husband has with his consultant.  She has stopped questioning Peter’s wisdom in forgiving Neal his repeated transgressions, despite Neal’s failure to show any remorse for his actions.  Maybe the old adage is true after all.  Maybe love really means never having to say you’re sorry.  Maybe a different woman might be shocked by this realization.

Jealousy is not an issue for Elizabeth.  What matters to her is that Peter is a happier man for having Neal close to him and that he is miserable when Neal gives him reason to worry.  These last few days haven been physically, mentally and emotionally taxing for Peter.  They are nothing compared to the ten months that preceded them, when Peter was unraveling at the seams, consumed by the obsessive search for any trace of his friend.

Elizabeth sighs contently as she turns her head left and right, looking at her two sleeping men.  She isn’t sure what time it is.  The sun is up, the first rays reaching over the privacy wall out back, heralding another sunny day in their tropical sanctuary.   With Neal’s fever broken, perhaps easier days are on the horizon.

As if reading her thoughts, Neal stirs.  He opens his eyes.  Elizabeth keeps stroking his head, giving him all the time he needs to blink at the bed sheet and at the window across the room.  Finally, his eyes find her warm smile.

“Good morning, sweetie,” Elizabeth whispers.

Blurry-eyed, he stares at her, as if struggling to remember who she is and why he is naked and sharing a bed with her.  Judging by his confused expression, Elizabeth can’t be sure he comes up with a satisfying answer to any of those questions and whatever else may be puzzling his foggy mind.

“Hi, Neal.”  She decides to start simply, reminding him who he is. 

He opens his mouth.  Nothing but a voiceless moan escapes his dry lips.

“Shhh, it’s okay, sweetie,” Elizabeth assures him.  She brings her right hand around to cup his cheek and brush her thumb across his lips. 

“Your throat is a little dry.”  She smiles.  He doesn’t need to know that he has been talking and screaming in fevered dreams.  “We’ll get you a drink of water in a minute.  Just lie still for a little while.  Let your head catch up.  Okay?”

He nods.

“Do you remember where you are?”  She asks without prodding.

His eyes flit around the room once more.  He nods hesitantly.  Elizabeth is not convinced.

“Good.  And you know who I am?”

He blinks at her and a small smile steals onto his tired face.

“’lizabeth,” he replies voicelessly and looks mighty proud to publicize such an important piece of knowledge.

“Yes, that’s right.”  El smiles and caresses his cheek.  His brow furrows when he studies her face.  His hand emerges from under the cover and hesitantly inches toward her.  She doesn’t flinch when his fingertips touch her bruised cheekbone. 

“You’re hurt?” He breathes.

“It’s not bad.  Stupid accident.”

It is obvious that Neal doesn’t buy her reply.  She shouldn’t try to con a con man. 

“Who?” He asks.  He looks ready to punch whoever has hurt her, the second he can muster the strength to lift his head off her shoulder.

Elizabeth just brushes her thumb over the dark purple bruise on his temple and leans in to kiss his forehead.

“Don’t worry, okay?”  She whispers.

The implication slowly dawns on him.

“Oh,” he says.  “’m sorry.”

“Apology accepted,” she replies softly.  “And that’s the last I want to hear of this.  Now, how about some juice for you?  Maybe some oatmeal?  You haven’t eaten in three days.  You’ve been very sick.”

“Three days?”  Neal sounds skeptical.

“Yes, sweetie.  You were confused, you ran away.  It took us a long time to find you in the jungle.  But we did and we brought you back here and took good care of you.  And now you’re better.  It’s alright if you don’t remember everything right now.”

“Rain?”  He asks, struggling to recall anything coherent from his recent memories.

Elizabeth examines his bewildered scowl and can’t be sure whether he remembers being drenched by the tropical monsoon or by the warm shower with Peter last night.  It doesn’t matter.

“Yes, it was raining hard.  Very good.”

The proud half-smile returns. 

Elizabeth passes her fingertips over his chapped lips.  She wiggles her shoulder out from under Neal’s head and pushes the pillow into place.  Neal’s eyes follow her every move as she extricates herself from under the sheet, trying neither to jar the hurt man at her left or her sleeping husband at her right.

Neal’s calm and contented demeanor changes to out-and-out hysteria the moment he realizes who is left to share the bed with him after Elizabeth has crawled off.  His panic-stricken eyes locked on Peter’s sleeping face, he scrambles to the edge of the bed until he runs out of mattress and plummets to the hardwood floor.  He yelps in agony when his barely healing left side hits the floor.

“Neal!”  Elizabeth hurries to his side as Neal rolls onto his back, gasping for air and clutching his hands to his ribs.  Kneeling down she catches her husband’s confused, sleepy gaze across the bed.

“What’s going on, hon?”  Peter props himself up on his elbows.  “Everything okay?”

“Um, we may need a hand over here.”  She shoots him an apologetic look then turns her attention back to Neal who blinks away tears of agony that have shot into his eyes.  “It’s okay, Neal.  Peter is going to help you.”

He seizes her arm and voicelessly pleads with her as he shakes his head.

Peter rounds the bed, hesitating for the fraction of a second, still not quite used to being confronted with his buck-naked consultant next to his wife first thing in the morning.  Elizabeth gives him a quick nod that’s equally encouraging and grateful.  She moves aside, Neal’s fist still clenched around her forearm.

“Shhh, it’s fine, Neal.  This is Peter.  Remember?”  Elizabeth strokes his hair and softens her worried face with a reassuring smile.  Next to her, Peter is already checking his wounds then palpates the bruising around his broken ribs.

“Can you breathe, Neal?”  Peter asks.  Elizabeth helplessly glances at her husband when Neal only keeps panting with his mouth and eyes wide open.  She watches Neal shudder with fear when Peter bends forward, slips his hand around the back of Neal’s neck and brings his ear within an inch of his mouth.  He closes his eyes and listens for several of Neal’s frightful breaths, holding his own all the while.

“He’s alright.  Just another panic attack.” Peter puts her at ease.  He takes Neal’s face in his hands.  “Hey.  Look at me, Neal!”

The frightened blue eyes are still locked with hers, and Elizabeth offers him a small nod.  It takes several more seconds before Neal’s gaze finally shifts to Peter’s face.

“Calm down, boy,” Peter urges.  “Nobody is going to hurt you, okay?”

Neal nods feebly.

“Good,” Peter acknowledges and continues to speak calmly.  “Now let go of Elizabeth’s arm.  You’re hurting her.”

Neal instantly complies.

“Sorry,” he wheezes.

“It’s okay, sweetie, I’m fine.” Elizabeth assures him with a tight smile.

Peter releases his grip on Neal’s face and gently brushes Neal’s hair back before resting his hand on his forehead, keeping it there while he patiently waits for the young man’s breathing to calm.  Elizabeth sits back on her heels, rubs her smarting forearm and takes in the weariness still evident in her husband’s sleep-scrunched face and the tender affection contained in the simple touch of his palm to his friend’s brow.

“His fever’s better,” Elizabeth says.  “I think we’re going to be okay, Peter.”

***

Two weeks later okay wouldn’t be Peter’s choice of word to describe their situation. 

Reclined on the poolside lounger, he looks up from the mystery novel that Elizabeth had bought him at the clubhouse souvenir store yesterday.  At the far end of the pool, Neal sits with his left leg hugged to his chest and his right foot dangling over the edge of the pool.  Neal watches his foot lazily stir the smooth surface of the water as he flexes and straightens his right knee in its elastic brace. 

It’s as close to a swim as Neal has come.  After he had been curiously circling the pool for a few days, Elizabeth had bought him a pair of swim trunks earlier this week.  He is sporting them now, along with Peter’s favorite shirt that he has insisted on wearing every day of the last two weeks.  Elizabeth faithfully washes the shirt each night, hanging it to dry over the back of Neal’s chair in the dining room, where it waits for Neal at the breakfast table every morning.   It is just another peculiar detail in the strangely ordinary routine they have fallen into, a routine that has left Peter feeling like a bystander. 

The long feverish nights and days had drained Neal of his physical strength and for the 48 hours that followed Neal had barely been capable of getting out of bed without enlisting Peter’s muscle power.  Neal had accepted Peter’s help as a necessary evil, never requesting it and rarely uttering a word of thanks.   Rarely speaking a word to Peter at all and never without prompt. 

These days, Elizabeth has taken over almost all of Neal’s care.  She washes his back when he takes a bath, keeps his healing skin moisturized and protected from the sun, gently massages his muscles when they involuntarily spasm after months of malnourishment and abuse.  She doesn’t mind.  It comes naturally to her.  Perhaps part of her even enjoys her new role.

Neal certainly likes their current arrangement.  Not having to rely on Peter to get around the house allows him to stay his distance.  Peter admits that Neal’s continued wariness towards him hurts.  He is angry with himself for harboring such selfish feelings, when he knows that distance is what Neal needs from him right now.  Neal relaxes when he is alone with Elizabeth.  He talks to her.  They don’t speak about the past or the future or about anything of significance, but they talk.  And sometimes Neal even laughs.  Peter should be happy about this—and he is—but he resents being left out.  He heaves a heavy sigh.

In the lounger by his side, Elizabeth looks up from her laptop, the fading bruise on her face discretely hidden under a layer of makeup.  She studies her husband, follows his line of sight across the backyard to their friend. 

“What are you thinking, Peter?” She asks. 

Peter snaps out of his thoughts, turns toward her with a distracted smile.

“Nothing, hon,” he mutters.  “I’m just … reading.”

“You haven’t turned a page in fifteen minutes.”  She folds down the screen and slides the laptop onto the side table.  “And I’m pretty sure they heard your sigh all the way to the gatehouse.  What’s on your mind?”

Peter looks at his wife’s vaguely amused face then gazes over at Neal, who continues to draw watery circles with his right foot, his hands now fiddling with the tracker around his left ankle.  His favorite shirt is unbuttoned and the sleeves are rolled up, offering glimpses of the healing injuries that still cover the gangly body. 

“I was thinking Neal looks better,” Peter finally says.  “He’s gained a couple of pounds.  He looks … healthier.  Don’t you think?”

“Yes, Peter, he does,” Elizabeth agrees dryly.  “Now tell me what’s really on your mind.”

“It’s nothing, really,” Peter replies.  “I’m just a little … restless.”

“Uh-huh, I see.” Elizabeth nods and raises her eyebrows.  “Peter Burke, why don’t you stop beating around the bush and tell me what’s wrong?”

He sighs even more deeply than earlier. 

“It’s just…” he trails off.  He really shouldn’t burden her with his unwarranted feelings of isolation or jealousy or whatever this silly knot in his stomach is.

“What, honey?”  She keeps prodding.

“It’s just that I didn’t think it would be me against the two of you,” he spits out hastily and feels his face flush as he rambles on.  “And I know that’s exactly what I set myself up for when I asked you to let me do the dirty work.  And I know it’s what’s best for Neal right now.  I shouldn’t act like the kid in the sandbox who nobody wants to play with.”

“Peter,” Elizabeth says quietly.

“I’m sorry, El,” he continues without looking at her.  “I’m being selfish here, I know, but I’m frustrated.”

“Peter,” Elizabeth calmly cuts in once more.  “I couldn’t disagree more.”

“What?” Peter stares at her.

“I disagree that it is selfish of you to feel isolated.  And I disagree that this is what’s best for Neal,” she states matter-of-factly. 

Peter can only assume his facial expression has safely entered comical territory.  Luckily, his wife takes this as a prompt to elaborate.

“Honey, we have to be realistic,” she explains.  “We’ve had him back for almost three weeks.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind looking after him and I don’t mind staying here for as long as it takes.  But sooner or later we will have to go back to New York and continue one version or another of our lives.  I’ve come to terms with the possibility that Neal may not be able to cope on his own for a long time to come, and I’m okay with that.  He’s welcome to live with us if that’s what we decide he needs.  But in order for this to work, I can’t be the only person he feels safe with.  You’ve seen him, he doesn’t let me out of his sight.  The man can’t sleep at night without me by his side.  Call me selfish, but at some point I would like to share a bed with my husband again.”

Elizabeth pauses and glances over at Neal who has picked up his head and is watching them suspiciously, perhaps trying to catch snippets of their conversation.  Elizabeth turns back to Peter and lowers her voice.

“Peter, I can’t be the security blanket he clings to.  At least not the only one.”

“I know, honey,” Peter agrees softly.  He feels a certain relief to find that Elizabeth shares his fears about the Neal’s future—their future.  Overwhelmingly, he feels guilty.  He takes her hand.  “I am incredibly sorry for burdening you with this, Elizabeth.  I know that’s not what you thought you signed up for when you married an FBI agent.”

“No, I didn’t.”  Elizabeth agrees.  “I didn’t sign up for this, I didn’t ask for this, and neither did you.  And I’m pretty sure that man over there didn’t ask for the hell he went through.  I know you feel guilty, Peter.  I can see it when you toss and turn at night and when you look at me and, most of all, when you look at Neal.  You’re torn up inside over what happened but that doesn’t help me or Neal right now.”

Peter remains quiet for a long time and studies her face.  He didn’t think her words sounded angry, but it doesn’t hurt to double-check.  There is no accusation in her face.  She looks tired, worried and desperate and all Peter wants is to make his strong and confident wife not feel that way.

“What do you need me to do, El?”  He asks.

“Make him trust you again, Peter,” she says softly.  “Don’t let him push you away.  He needs you, even if he doesn’t know it right now.”

“You’re right, honey.”  Peter exhales loudly.  He looks over at Neal who instantly averts his eyes, trying his best to act completely disinterested in them and their secretive conversation.

“Listen, El, let me take over for the rest of the day, maybe even a few days,” he requests.  “Neal will have to learn to cope without you.  He may not like it, but that never stopped this FBI agent before.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I think it’s time to rewrite a few pages of the White Collar teambuilding handbook.”

He gets up from the lounger and bends down to kiss her.

“They don’t call you ‘special’ for no reason, Agent Burke,” she smiles.  “Be careful with him, okay?”

***

“Get up for a minute, Neal.”  Peter positions himself behind Neal, his feet apart, his shoulders squared.  It’s a posture he adopts when he means business.  He is certain that he would look more impressive in his suit and tie, but the shorts and t-shirt will have to do today.

In front of him, Neal tenses noticeably, his foot no longer splashing around the water.  His eyes dart over to Elizabeth.  She remains hidden behind her large-framed sunglasses and pretends not to notice as she sits with her ear buds in and her focus on her laptop screen. 

“Elizabeth needs some alone time this afternoon.  So it will just be us boys for a while,” Peter explains.

Neal blinks up at him now, squinting into the sun directly above Peter’s head. 

“Come on, buddy, get up.” 

He holds out his hand, but Neal refuses to take it when he climbs to his feet.  His movements have become steadier over the past two weeks, but they carry none of the fluid elegance he used to have.  On his feet, facing Peter, Neal remains tense.  He throws desperate glances over his shoulder at Elizabeth, futilely hoping for any reaction.  Peter gives him time, waits patiently for Neal to reach the conclusion that he’ll have to make do without his trusted brunette bodyguard for the time being.  The utterly helpless sound that escapes his throat falls somewhere between a sigh and a whimper.  Neal’s theatrics would have made Peter laugh ten months ago.

“Let’s give El a break this afternoon, Neal,” he says with what he intends to be a companionable smile.  “You know how women get, right?”

He gives Neal a light slap on the shoulder and feels him flinch.  Neal uneasily looks at the shoulder that was touched then up at Peter.  He nods mutely and without much conviction, as if to simply cover his bases in case Peter’s question wasn’t purely rhetorical.

“You look better,” Peter continues, his glance sweeping over the skin exposed under the open front of Neal’s shirt.  “Are you feeling a little better?”

There’s another tight-lipped nod and overt suspicion in the blue eyes.  Neal grabs his shirt with both fists and folds the front closed. 

“That’s still my shirt, you know?” Peter points out.  Neal tightens his grip on the cotton shirt and offers a scowl that is equally defiant and possessive.  Peter knows that look all too well.  He was the target of it only last night, when Neal had his arms wrapped around his sleeping wife and Peter had conceded defeat by not kissing her goodnight before trudging off to the deserted master bedroom.  He is willing part with his shirt, but he’ll have to insist on getting his wife back at some point.

“What do you say, wanna go for a swim?” Peter asks with a smile.  “It’s Olympic regulation depth so maybe you can show me how to do those cool turns and all.”  He studies Neal’s reaction carefully.  The suspicion returns, mixed with a good amount of anxiety as Neal turns his head to survey the pool.

“Not today,” Neal responds quietly.  His inflection leaves room for debate whether he means to make a statement or pose a question.

“Come on, man, you’ve been running laps around the pool ever since we got here,” Peter adds another light tap to Neal’s upper arm.  “The water is great.  You’re an excellent swimmer.  You know you want to.”

Neal mutely shakes his head.

“Okay, Neal,” Peter gives in with a frustrated sigh. “Tomorrow then.  Let’s shake on it.”

He extends his right hand.  There is a hint of triumph twitching in the corner of Neal’s mouth when he looks down at the open palm offered.  He squares his shoulders and Peter thinks he can feel a little of the old Caffrey self-assurance in the way Neal’s hand settles into his. 

It is a pity that it won’t last.

The seconds that follow have been rehearsed in Peter’s head to a tee.  His heart beats in his throat, but his execution is flawless.  His firm grip of Neal’s hand as he reaches for the back of his own waistband.  The familiar ratcheting sound of the handcuff as it closes around Neal’s right wrist.  The determined wrench that spins the baffled man around.  The desperate yelp when the second cuff snaps shut behind Neal’s back.  The spectacular splash of Neal’s bellyflop into the pool.

“This is insane,” Peter mumbles to himself, in the back of his mind counting the passing seconds as he watches his friend writhe and kick in the water.  He briefly looks up to find Elizabeth staring at the scene in open-mouthed shock.  He gives her a quick nod.  Then the count in his head reaches 30 and he dives into the pool.

Giving Neal’s thrashing legs a wide berth, Peter circles around to Neal’s back. Gasping and sputtering, Neal struggles to keep his nose and mouth above water.  Peter slides his hand around the Neal’s neck, lifting his chin to a safe breathing position. 

“I’ve got you, Caffrey.”  Peter wraps his other arm around Neal’s shoulders, pulling him against his chest.  “Relax.”

Neal doesn’t exactly relax but he suspends his struggles to cough up pool water and suck in heaving lungfuls of air. 

“I’ve got you,” Peter repeats.  “I won’t let anything happen to you.”

Peter slowly pushes backward, leisurely gliding through the water with his friend’s rigid and motionless body in tow. 

“See, the water is great.  Nothing to be afraid of.”  He can feel Neal breathe more evenly and as Peter completes an easy lap around the pool he meets Elizabeth’s observant eyes with a hopeful smile.

“Let go of me!”

Peter would be certain that the faint request was a figment of his imagination if it wasn’t for the determined jolt in his arms that accompanies it.  Neal slips from his grip, his head briefly dipping below the surface before Peter can hook a hand under his chin to pull him back up. 

“Let…go…of…me!”  Neal spits out between gasps.

Peter doesn’t know what catches him more off guard, the fact that Neal has directly spoken to him for the first time in three weeks or the fact that the aggressive maneuver Neal launches a second later is not motivated by fear but by unbridled rage.

The back of Neal’s skull connects with Peter’s jaw and Peter tastes coppery blood seep between his teeth.  Neal grunts with strain when he yanks an elbow up to deliver an unexpectedly forceful blow to Peter’s solar plexus.  Stunned and inhaling a mouthful of water, Peter loses his grasp on Neal.  Using Peter as leverage, Neal kicks off with both feet to propel himself in the direction of the pool’s edge. 

Ten months ago, even with his hands tied behind his back, the short distance to safety would have been no challenge to an excellent swimmer like Neal.  Now he is floundering in the water, trying to make up for his physical weakness with stubborn determination.  Lacking strength and coordination to stay afloat Neal spends too much time below the surface for Peter’s liking.  With three quick, powerful strokes, Peter catches up with his friend.  Ignoring the anguished whine of protest from Neal, Peter seizes the back of his shirt and effortlessly drags him to the tiled edge of the pool.  He dives, takes a hold of Neal’s legs and gives him a boost until Neal’s upper body is hoisted safely onto dry land.  Within seconds Peter has climbed out of the pool to find Neal crawling and clambering away from him.  With a swift grab for the handcuff chain Peter puts an end to his pitiable effort.

“Let go!”  Neal demands breathlessly. He yanks on the cuffs and can’t contain the groan that follows.

“I’m trying!” Peter argues, his voice squeaky.  “Will you hold still already?”  He straddles Neal’s legs, immobilizing him while searching through the pockets of his own swim trunks for the key to the cuffs.  Peter’s slippery, wet fingers and Neal’s persistent battle with the handcuffs make inserting the key into the lock a frustrating undertaking.  Neal jerks his hands out of Peter’s grasp as soon as his wrists are released.

“Listen,” Peter speaks and takes his weight off of Neal’s legs. “I’m really sorry.  That was the dumbest idea I’ve had in … well, possibly ever.”

Snorting dismissively, Neal crawls a few inches, his face contorted with pain as he twists awkwardly to take pressure off his healing left side.  His mouth open and his face pressed into the pavers he breathes heavily.  Peter rests a hand on his leg.  The defiant twitch makes it clear that his sympathy isn’t wanted.

“I’m only trying to help, you know?”  He adds softly.  He looks down at Neal who regards him from under hooded, wet lashes.

“You know?” Peter repeats emphatically.  For the first time in weeks Neal doesn’t avert his gaze when Peter holds eye contact.

“Why couldn’t you be too late?”  Neal speaks so quietly that Peter is reading his lips rather than hearing his voice. 

“Neal?”

“Why did you have to find me, Peter?” Neal breathes harshly.  “Why couldn’t you fail, just this once?”

“Neal, don’t—“ Peter can barely speak.  The tightness in his chest wants to choke him.  He reaches for his friend again, but Neal scrambles away from him and pushes himself to his feet.

“Talk to me, Neal!”  Peter pleads.

Neal limps past him, his eyes focused straight ahead.  He shrugs out of Peter’s waterlogged shirt and tosses it behind him.  It lands as a soggy heap at Peter’s feet. 

“Neal!”  Peter calls after him.

“I don’t know who that is anymore,” Neal hoarsely shouts over his shoulder before he steps from the patio into his bedroom. 

Behind him, Peter and Elizabeth gape at the sliding glass door as it is shoved closed and locked.

On to Part 6
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