Show: White Collar
Characters: Neal, Peter (no pairings)
Rating: PG-13 for language
Spoilers: Set somewhere vaguely in the beginning of Season 2.
Summary: Caught in the demolition of an abandoned building, Peter and Neal are hurt, trapped, and . But it's in those moments they realize that it's not enough to know what someone is. To learn who they are, they have to ask the big questions.
Disclaimer: I own nothing. I swear. No, really.
A/N: Continued from Part 1.
There wasn’t much that Neal could do that he hadn’t taught himself.
He’d learned early in life that there was something to be said for the chameleon’s survival tactics. He watched people, mimicked them, learned their trigger points and how and when to push or avoid them. He blended when he needed to blend and stood out when he needed attention drawn to him and away from something else.
He mastered this art of manipulation before his thirteenth birthday. The circumstances of his youth pushed him toward his chosen profession the moment he realized he had power over something. In an environment that had been out of control—one filled with heartache and heartbreak—he’d found a way to make his world richer, cleaner, and removed from the clutches of those who could break him.
He grew up on the backside of wealthy, spending much of his childhood looking at privilege from the outside in. He was always warm and fed, but there were days when he was acutely aware of what others went without in order to provide for him. His mother was a simple, loving woman who had long ago turned her life over to her husband’s choices. His father was black Irish with a love for the pint and a weakness for ponies. He had a short fuse and a quick temper, but his loyalty to his family was fierce.
Neal ran his first con in an effort to save his father’s life from large, angry men looking to cash in on a debt owed. Though it worked in the physical sense, the knowledge that he’d had to be saved by his teenage son so shamed the elder Caffery that he shut down. He never touched or looked at Neal directly again after that.
By the time he was sixteen, Neal was able to copy famous works of art by the likes of Monet, Altichiero, Frieseke, and Testa. He’d made money for art supplies by selling forged IDs at the various high schools that were so authentic, law enforcement officials were baffled. He’d taught himself how to play the piano with concert-level skill and had developed a great appreciation for the opera. He promised himself a better future.
His inherited attractiveness won him the heart of many women—both peers and adults—and he learned to perfect the art of duplicity to gain access to whatever it was he needed, be that money for food or rent, supplies for school, or items to supplement his hobbies. He earned decent grades, only lacking in excelling because he rarely spent time on his own studies. It always seemed to be a waste of time; anything they taught him in school he could learn on his own by reading the books and the world was busy providing him a better education than he was ever going to get in a classroom.
Life was what he made of it until the day another debt came due and no sly smile or smoothly-worded con made a difference.
“No one taught me,” Neal started, working to find his way through the muddle maze of his usually sharp mind. He wanted to answer Peter’s big question; he just didn’t want to give too much away.
There were reasons Peter hadn’t discovered certain things about Neal’s past during his three year quest to apprehend him. Neal had been very careful to tuck certain facts away, keep them safely behind barriers, only to be released when he elected to set them free.
“I…find that hard…to believe,” Peter grunted.
Neal could hear the sound of rubble tumbling and rolled his head to try to peer in the darkness. He couldn’t make out anything beyond the outline of the hole.
“The first time I fired a gun…was the first time I’d held one,” Neal told him.
“You held that rifle like…you’d been born with the thing in your hand,” Peter said, pausing in whatever he was doing to catch his breath. “I’ve spent enough hours at a shooting range to know how hard it is to hit a moving target.”
“I don’t know…what to tell you,” Neal said, running his tongue over his lips. The water was gone, but his thirst was far from quenched. “It just always made sense to me…the way the tool worked…the weight of it…the impact of the firing pin…the spin of the bullet….” Neal closed his eyes, raising his hands as he spoke, picturing a handgun resting in his palm, the barrel sighted to an end point. He flexed his index finger and almost felt the kick run down from his wrist to his shoulder.
“…could get away with calling a weapon a tool,” Peter was saying.
Neal opened his eyes, realizing belatedly that his motion had jostled Peter’s jacket loose and it had fallen to the floor beside him. He left it where it lay, lacking the energy to retrieve it.
“That’s…how I always saw it,” Neal said softly, trying to keep from using too much air. The broken bones in his chest had slipped over the blurry edge of ache and into a clear-cut world of pain. Each breath seemed to act as a reminder that all was not well in the world of Neal Caffery. “Every time someone…picks up a gun…someone else could die…. It’s a tool for death.”
“Morbid, but…okay, I’ll give you that,” Peter replied.
Neal fumbled for the jacket; he’d started to shiver and the trembles were jarring the rebar that impaled his side. He knew he needed to get warm, stop shaking, but all he wanted to do was sleep. Even the thought of leaving his friend alone in the dark wasn’t enough to convince him this time.
Dimly he heard voices coming from Peter’s side of the wall. Part of his mind registered that one of the voices was Jones via megaphone, but he didn’t have the energy to focus on what the other agent was saying.
Peter’s voice ebbed, splashing on his ears like water. He wanted to sink beneath the surface where darkness was pervasive, where pain was non-existent, and where it didn’t matter who he was—or wasn’t. Beneath the surface the past was not even a forgotten memory. It was nothing.
He wanted to be nothing.
That’s how long Jones had said it would take to reach them. They’d apparently fallen through one floor, the debris from the roof and vaulted ceiling creating the pocket of air keeping them alive. However, since Armstead had jumped the gun, there’d been no time to check the detonators and nearly half of them hadn’t gone off, giving the rescue team a somewhat stable access point into the lower areas of the wreckage.
They were shoring up and digging through and Peter just had to get Neal to hang in there for thirty more minutes.
Except that Neal wasn’t answering him.
With true fear gripping his throat, Peter shone the flashlight through the hole. He could still see his partner’s profile, but Neal’s head was canted back against the wall, his lips slightly parted, eyes closed.
“Dammit,” Peter cursed. He dropped the flashlight and returned to his leg. “Don’t you do this to me, Neal,” he muttered. “I’m the only one who gets to tell you when it’s okay to quit.” Glancing back over his shoulder at the darkened hole he called out, “You hear me? You don’t quit until I tell you.”
He felt his leg shift and bleated out a curse as the pain ricochet through his body. Renewing his efforts, he felt concrete slab slide just to the right, a rush of pins and needles and all-together too much feeling swam up his leg from his ankle and he was suddenly free. The release was unexpected and he slipped, tumbling to the side, his wounded right leg falling across his left causing him to cry out.
After he lay still for a moment, breathing, he shouted for Jones. Silence was his reply.
“Great,” Peter pushed himself up on trembling arms. “That’s just…just great.”
“Agent Burke!” another voice suddenly bellowed down to him. “Jones is still about twenty minutes out, Sir.”
Peter called out, “Send down more water!”
“Right away, Sir!”
“Neal?” Peter tried, not really expecting a response. “I’ll be right there, okay? I’m bringing water.”
He reached tentative fingers toward his ankle, feeling the hot skin swelling around the wound beneath the torn remnants of his slacks. He wasn’t walking on it anytime soon, but he was still fairly certain it wasn’t broken.
“Agent Burke! Water coming down!”
Peter shone the flashlight up through the opening, watching as the same rope and rod combination slipped another package down to him. Water and flashlight in hand, he gingerly crawled toward the hole. Turning the flashlight on, he dropped it through the opening, lighting up the smaller space Neal occupied. The bottle of water followed, and then Peter laid the Kevlar vest along the jagged edge of the opening before pushing himself up on his good leg.
“I’m getting the answer to my question whether you like it or not,” he muttered to his unconscious partner as he clumsily heaved himself through the narrow opening. Crawling forward, he tried to lift his wounded leg through the hole without touching anything, but the heel of his shoe caught on the Velcro of the vest and he gasped with pain.
“Son of a bitch,” he growled through clenched teeth. “We are so getting workman’s comp for this.”
Once through the opening, Peter rolled to his knee, grabbed the flashlight and shone it on Neal.
“Oh, good Christ,” he whispered, his mouth going dry. “Neal, no…no….”
Blood covered one side of Neal’s handsome face, giving him an almost ghoulish, monstrous appearance. The rebar was protruding from his lower belly, just below his rib cage. His legs were splayed out in front of him, one bent slightly at the knee, and his hands lay limp at his sides, fingers curled in toward his palm.
Peter reached out a trembling, tentative hand, resting it on Neal’s throat. The pulse the skipped back at him was thready and weak, but it was there and Peter nearly collapse with relief.
“You look like shit,” Peter informed the unconscious man as he hurriedly positioned himself next to him.
He retrieved his jacket and, careful to avoid jarring the rebar wound, covered Neal’s chest and shoulders with it, easing an arm around behind the consultants back and pulling him close for body heat. Neal’s head rolled loosely as Peter shifted him, lolling to the side and coming to rest on Peter’s shoulder.
“Neal,” Peter said, his voice as stern as he could make it. “You open your eyes. Right now.” He began to rub the other man’s upper arms and shoulders, working to warm him up, working to push back the shock that had finally overtaxed his system. “You have a job to do, Neal. You made a deal and it’s not finished. Neal. NEAL. Neal, open your eyes. Open your eyes.”
Peter felt Neal’s head shift slightly against his shoulder, turning so that his cheek was now pressed against his collar bone.
“That’s it, c’mon, come back to me, Neal. I told you, you don’t get to quit until I tell you. And I still have work for you.”
Neal huffed out a wet-sounding breath, pushing his cheek against Peter’s chest as if trying to leverage himself out of something deep and murky.
“Easy, easy, just breathe, okay? Slow and easy, that’s it. That’s it, kid. You got this. Just open your eyes. Wake up, Neal.”
His order was finally followed. Looking down in the dim, yellowish glow from the upright flashlight, Peter saw Neal’s lashes flick and flutter until he was blinking, awareness returning slowly.
“How…?” Neal’s voice was gruff, ragged and sounded nothing like him, but it was the sweetest sound Peter had heard all night.
“Welcome back, partner,” Peter greeted him, continuing to rub warmth back into his wounded body. “Turns out you’re not the only escape artist on this team.”
Rolling his head back, Neal looked up at Peter, his eyes glassy, pupils wide.
“Not anymore,” Peter said. “You stopped talking to me. I wanted the rest of my answer.”
Neal swallowed and tried to weakly push away from Peter’s chest. The motion, however, caught him almost immediately and Peter felt his muscles tighten as a small cry escaped his stiff lips.
Peter shifted, rotating so that he was no longer sitting with his back against the wall, but parallel to it. Gripping Neal’s shoulders tightly, he eased the wounded man back, trying to ignore his sharp gasps and helpless cries of pain as he lowered Neal to his lap, the younger man’s head on his left leg. Neal’s eyes stayed tightly shut during the maneuver, but once he lay on his back, Peter noticed his breathing became slightly steadier.
Neal nodded, not opening his eyes. Peter adjusted the jacket to cover as much of Neal’s upper torso as he could, looking pointedly away from the rebar wound. He didn’t want to think about what vital organs it may or may not have hit.
“So, how ‘bout you tell me why you hate guns.”
“Taking…advantage of…the situation,” Neal protested.
“You bet your ass I am,” Peter informed him. “C’mon, spill.”
“Not a happy story,” Neal managed, blinking his eyes open and looking up at Peter.
Peter frowned, notice that as he warmed up, Neal’s eyes grew both clearer and more guarded. It made him realize, with a fair amount of surprise, that there were very few opportunities in Neal’s life when he wasn’t performing. Playing a role. Being who he needed to be to fit the moment.
You’re the only one…the only person I trust….
He’d been open, real, at the Howser Clinic. He’d been exposed just before the plane exploded. But those times were so rare that Peter decided he needed to start watching for them more. Cataloguing them, perhaps. Because Neal was right; there had to be a reason he so avidly pursued this one criminal—one among thousands that crossed his desk during those years.
Why me, Peter?
“Not everyone has a safety net, huh?” Peter replied.
Neal shook his head, and Peter felt the muscles under his hands tighten as if riding a wave of pain or warding off an attack. “You sure you want to…hear this?”
“Yeah, Neal,” Peter replied softly. “I’m sure.”
“My dad…was a good man, too,” Neal said, reminding Peter of his description of his own father. “But he…had his problems. When I was a senior in high school,” Neal swallowed, closing his eyes. “Those problems came after him.”
“And you were there?”
Neal nodded. “I was there. I’d…gotten him out of it once…about four years before that…,” Neal paused to take a breath while Peter’s brain began to do the math, “but this time…I wasn’t ready.”
“You were just a kid, Neal.”
Neal opened his eyes and turned his face to the side, exposing the wounded, bloody visage to Peter and making him cringe inside. “Doesn’t matter. I coulda helped ‘im…if I’da been ready,” Neal slurred. “Men…with guns…came to our house. It was…just me and Dad. They…were gonna kill us…,” Neal swallowed again, his breath catching on his words as he continued.
“Your dad saved your life,” Peter guessed.
Neal was quiet a moment, then whispered, “Just like your dad…. He was there for me when…I needed him.”
Peter closed his eyes, his hands slowing their movement and simply resting on Neal’s upper arms. He supposed there was always a way to bend the world so that it fit a preferred view.
“So, that’s why you hate guns,” Peter concluded.
“No,” Neal shook his head.
“Well…then why?” Peter pressed, resisting the urge to adjust Neal’s head so that he could see the unmarred side of his face. The gore facing him now began to turn him cold and he imagined he felt Neal shudder against him in response.
“He woulda killed…m’dad,” Neal replied, his voice slipping once more into that childlike cadence that twisted Peter’s gut.
“What?” Peter grew still, the implication inside those words hitting home. “Neal…are you telling me you…killed someone?”
In all his research, in all his studying of this man, he’d never imagine him to be capable of killing. He’d never imagined that he had killed.
“You never know…what you’ll do until… you have to,” Neal said softly, turning his head once more to face Peter fully, his eyes suddenly, completely clear, without guard, without guile. His voice wrapped around Peter as solemn as if they were priest and confessor. “I knew, Peter. He tried…to talk them out of it…tried to…but…,” he closed his eyes, “I knew.”
Peter wanted details. How had he gotten the gun? How had he gotten away? And how had none of this been in his file? But then a thought occurred to him…Neal had been in high school when this happened.
“Your dad took the blame for it, didn’t he?” Peter guessed.
“Told you…. He was there…when I needed him.”
“Neal,” Peter said, peering down at his partner’s wounded face. “Is that why you never graduated?”
Neal cracked open one eye. “Should make y’wait…’til the next…demolition f’that big question.”
“You left town, didn’t you?”
“Left the country.”
Neal closed his eyes. “Hate guns, Peter,” he said, his brow furrowing slightly as another tremor—this one not imagined—coursed through him. “Won’t…won’t use ‘em. Never again.”
“Okay, Neal,” Peter said, his hand moving along Neal’s arm, this time for comfort, not warmth. “It’s okay. I won’t make you,” he promised softly. No matter how good a shot you are.
“’m cold,” Neal confessed.
“I know,” Peter said, rubbing his hands together rapidly and then covering Neal’s hands with his beneath the jacket. “They’re coming, Neal. We’re getting out of here.”
Neal’s frown deepened. “Glad you’re here.”
Peter let out a starved chuckle. “Well, I’m not,” he said. “I’m missing a great game right about now.”
“Been ‘lone…awful long time,” Neal whispered.
And with that, he seemed to sag a bit, his weight increasing against Peter’s legs.
“No, no, hey, no, Neal, no,” Peter shook his head, lightly smacking Neal’s unblemished cheek, working to rouse his partner. “C’mon, I know you’re hurting, but you gotta hang in there a little longer, okay? Just a little longer, Neal.”
Neal exhaled, but didn’t open his eyes. “Y’keep sayin’ that,” he whispered.
Peter felt himself smile. “There you are.”
“You got any…cards?”
“Cards?” Peter asked, tilting his head toward the unmistakable sound of concrete being cut with a saw and pushed to the side.
“Could have a…game of War…’fore they get here,” Neal said, his smile lacking none of its usual charm despite its absence of color.
“Here!” Peter called, watching the light bob and weave through the opening. “We’re in here.”
Moments later, Jones’ dark face, smudge with concrete dust and sweat appeared in the opening. “Someone call for a ride?” he panted.
Neal and Peter both lift a hand, Peter’s jacket slipping from its protective position and exposing the extent of Neal’s wounds.
“You two look like shit,” Jones observed, the evidence of his tireless efforts to free them clear in the lines of his face.
“We gotta get Neal out of here,” Peter told him. “You have a backboard? He’s not gonna be able to—“
“On it,” Jones declared, ducking back out through the opening.
Peter heard additional voices filling the small adjacent room and a slight, brown-haired woman in a blue jumpsuit marked EMT climbed through the opening carrying an IV bag, stethoscope, and a flashlight. Peter watched quietly as she quickly examined Neal’s wounds, and then called out instructions to the others through the hole.
It was over. They were getting out. They’d made it.
Adrenalin began to abate and in its place was the dull roar of unanswered questions clashing with too much information. He watched through a vacant haze as the flashlights bobbed over a backboard being inserted through the hole. With barely any protest, he allowed another EMT—who’d miraculously fit into the narrow anteroom—ease Neal away from him, and sat back to wait until it was his turn to leave.
He didn’t even hear his name at first.
“Sir? I think he’s calling for you,” said the female EMT.
“Neal?” Peter leaned forward, seeing in the dim light his partner’s hand reaching from the straps of the backboard. “I’m here.”
“Vegas,” Neal managed.
“This place…like Vegas.”
What happens buried under the Eighth Street Bank and Trust, stays buried under the Eighth Street Bank and Trust.
“Got it,” Peter nodded.
“Thank you,” Neal found his eyes in the murky light, holding them with his own, allowing the real Neal Caffery to show through for the rarest of moments. “Mean that,” he asserted softly, the words heavy with the burden of meaning.
“You’re welcome, Neal,” Peter smiled.
As the EMTs lifted Neal through the narrow opening and maneuvered the backboard through the tunnel, Peter allowed himself a moment to breathe. He knew more facts about Neal Caffery than any other person in his life, save El. He knew the man’s skills as an artist, a forger, a thief, and a liar.
He knew the man could play any role with the skill needed to gain the desired result. He knew the man was an asset to his team.
He knew the man was a criminal.
“You ready, Agent Burke?” the male EMT asked as he finished tightening the temporary brace on Peter’s leg.
“Hell, yes, I’m ready,” Peter declared. “You guys move fast enough, I might be able to catch the second half of my game.”
The EMT chuckled. “Yes, Sir.”
And yet, it took this extreme situation for him to realize that he had far to go to really know this man. Know him as a person. As someone with a past beyond prison and heists. Beyond Kate. As someone who’d been a son and a victim and a child. As someone who’d lived through Hell and emerged broken and changed on the other side.
He would keep his promise. He wouldn’t open the wound again unless Neal did. But he was determined to find a way to show the younger man that he knew he was more than just a con artist. More than just a partner.
He was a friend.
a/n: I’ll leave you to decide who the true fortunate son was in this. I have my own interpretation, but it would be interesting to hear yours. I know it was angsty—and it was harder to write than I thought as I was so accustomed to the Winchester brothers—but I hope you were entertained.
For those of you who do read my Supernatural stories, I am working on “Sense” and it will start to post in the next few weeks. I just wanted to keep this promise first. Slainte!