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24 June 2012 @ 05:53 pm
Fic: Brittle  

Title:  Brittle Rating:  PG13 Pairing:  Pre-OT3 P/E/N Word Count:  ~ 6,950 Spoilers:  A couple for the Season 3 finale Time frame:  Post Season 3 Summary:  Written for this prompt from embroiderama in the Comfort Fest 2012 at whitecollarhc:  Neal loves the city, but the winter can be miserable, with the ice-cold winds whipping between buildings, and then it snows and there's disgusting gray slush everywhere. He's been sick (a nasty case of bronchitis or something) and stuck at home for a few days, now he's catching car rides from home to work and back and he's feeling the cold too much to do much walking outside. So, he's feeling a bit claustrophobic, oppressed by the city, and he's getting depressed.

Peter works something out, and he and El take Neal out of town somewhere at least a little bit warmer where he can get out of the gray chill of the city and walk around in the sunshine. Maybe Peter finds a professional conference somewhere in the south and El tags along. Gen, slash or OT3.

Note:  This also fills the square for pneumonia on my h/c bingo card. This is unbetaed.  My apologies for any booboos.

Brittle

When Neal fled New York after Peter’s nod in his direction it was mid-summer.  He and Mozzie landed in the South Pacific, and stayed there for more than six months of hot tropical days and warm tropical nights.  When Neal finally returned to New York, with a new parole contract and a shiny new anklet it was mid-January, very cold, very damp and very grey.

At first Neal was extremely happy to be back, despite the radius and the anklet.  He loved New York, the energy, the pace, the people.  And, if he was honest with himself, he loved his life here, the job, the team, Peter and Elizabeth.  And, if he was really honest with himself he loved Peter and Elizabeth a lot, more than he should.

But by February first, Neal’s body had had enough of the harsh New York winter.  The cold and the dampness had eaten through his tropically-weakened defenses and he was officially sick.  It started as a simple cold, but Neal was Neal and he refused to admit he wasn't feeling well.  He made his way through Thursday and Friday on hot tea, Advil and the patented Caffrey charm.  Peter gave him a few sideways looks, but Neal was nothing if not a master of deflection.

Of course Neal was attempting to fool himself as much as anyone else, so instead of playing it smart and staying in bed on Saturday, he decided to go to an art opening on the edge of his radius.  The weather was awful, windy and cold with freezing rain falling from the sky.

When Neal left the gallery his cough had become a wet hack and his chest hurt.  He took a cab back to June’s and dragged himself up the stairs to his rooms.  He was wheezing by the time he made it to his door.

Once inside he pulled off his wet clothes and took the hottest shower he could stand.  He stood under the spray shivering, until the water began to cool.  Then he dried off, pulled on his warmest robe, took three Advil and climbed into bed.

June heard him coughing late Saturday evening and when she found him he was sitting up in his bed hunched over himself helplessly hacking and barely able to get in a breath in between.

Once he was finally able to stop she helped him dress and took him to the hospital.  He tried to protest, but between the hacking and the attempts to keep breathing, he wasn't able to say much, let alone anything convincing.  

At the hospital they stripped off his warm clothes and left him shivering in a paper gown.  The nurse ran blood tests and checked his vitals.  The doctor made tsking noises after listening to his chest and then ordered an x-ray.

Finally, they diagnosed pneumonia and then kept him the remainder of the night pumping him full of fluids and antibiotics.

He tried to sleep but he kept coughing.  The lights were too bright.  And all the activity in the ER was too loud.  In the morning June returned to take him home and he was never more grateful to see her.

She helped him up to his rooms where there were clean sheets on his freshly made bed.   By the time he was tucked in, had consumed a cup of tea and a slice of toast Neal was beyond exhausted.

Despite the coughing he managed to sleep for the remainder of the morning and half the afternoon.  The meager winter light was starting to fade when he woke up.

The doctor had told him at the hospital that it would be at least ten days before he could return to work.  Neal figured it would be better to call Peter today rather than face his wrath in the morning.

Neal sat up, propping a couple of pillows behind his back, drank some of the water that June had left by his bed and cleared his throat before dialing.  He knew he had to be honest with Peter, but he didn't want Peter or Elizabeth to needlessly worry.

Peter picked up the phone after the third ring.  “Neal, there had better be a good reason that you’re interrupting my Sunday afternoon with my wife.”

“Sorry, Peter.   I just wanted to let you know that I’m not feeling well, and I don’t think I’ll be in to work at all this week.”  Neal had spoken quickly.  He was hoping to end the conversation before he broke out into another coughing jag.

Alarm bells went off in Peter’s head as soon as Neal began speaking.  His voice sounded rough, gravelly and whenever Neal began a conversation with an apology, things were not good.

“What do you mean you don’t feel well?”

“It’s nothing serious, really.  I just need a little time.”  Neal could feel the beginning of the need to cough again rising up in his throat.

“Define nothing serious.”  Peter replied sternly.

Neal opened his mouth to reply but began coughing instead.  He put the phone face down on the bed and hacked fiercely, painfully for several minutes.  When he finally stopped and was able to get his breathing back to something resembling normal Neal picked the phone back up again.  There was dead silence on the other end.

“Peter?”  Neal asked tentatively.

“I’m going to ask you three questions Neal and you had better honestly answer yes to each of them.”

“Okay.”

“Have you seen a doctor?”  Peter began.

“Yes.”  Neal croaked.

“Did he prescribe medication?”

“Yes.”

“Are you taking it?”

“Yes.”

Neal heard Peter sigh.  He waited, knowing Peter wasn't done with him yet.

“What did the doctor say?”

“That I have pneumonia.”

“Damn it, Neal.”

“I’m sorry Peter.”

“Don’t be.  I’m pretty sure this isn't really your fault.  Though I’m guessing you weren’t feeling well at the end of the week and failed to say anything about it.”  Peter chided.

“I thought it was nothing, just a cold, really.”

“Okay.  Get some rest, take your medication and I’ll check on you tomorrow.”

“Okay.”

*   *   *

When Neal woke the next morning, it was still mostly dark outside and he was not alone.  He rolled over and there was Peter sitting on the side of his bed.

“Peter?”

“Hey, how are you feeling?”

“I’m… what are doing here?”  Neal asked.  “And what time is it?”

“It’s just after seven.  And, I told you yesterday that I would check on you today.”

“I wasn't lying.”  Neal said defensively.

“Hey,” Peter said placatingly.  “I wanted to make sure you were okay, not check you story.”

Neal shook his head, “Sorry, I’m… it’s the fever.”

Neal finished speaking and started coughing.  He struggled to get upright and then he felt Peter’s arms come around him lifting him up and against Peter’s own chest.   Neal coughed and coughed some more while Peter rubbed his hand up and down Neal’s back.  Eventually Neal’s coughing stopped and his breathing evened out.  Peter continued to hold him for another minute.  It felt unbelievably good to be held by Peter, comforted by him.  Neal had missed him, missed Peter’s protectiveness, his caring so very much.

Peter propped Neal’s pillows up behind his back and gently leaned him against them.    

“Okay?”

Neal nodded.

“Let me get you some more water.”  Peter grabbed the tumbler from the nightstand, filled it at the sink in Neal’s kitchenette and then returned to his bedside.

“I should go to the office, but I’ll check in with you later.  And, I think El’s planning to stop by with soup.”

“That’s really not necessary.”

“Sure it is,” Peter replied.  “You’re sick, you need rest and meds and fluids and soup.  Besides you know El, since when has ever passed up an opportunity to play mother hen?”

Neal nodded.  “True.”

“Rest.  I’ll call you later.”  Peter commanded at he headed out the door of Neal’s apartment.

*   *   *

Neal spent the next seven days shuffling between his bed and his sofa.  El, Peter and June came and went, plying him with medication and juice and the promised soup.   When he was alone he was either sleeping or bored out of his skull, too bleary to concentrate on reading, too weak to paint and except for a couple of amusing shows on USA Network, TV was too much of a train wreck to occupy him for long.

On Saturday Neal could stand to be inside no longer so he pulled on his warmest robe, wrapped himself up in his warmest coat and made his way out onto the balcony.  It was frigid and there was a biting wind, but Neal didn't care.  As soon as his he got his first lungful of the cold air he began to cough violently.  He plopped down on one of the loungers and pulled his knees up to his chest and rode it out.  Once he was breathing again, he realized that the brisk air felt freeing.  He loved that he could see the skyline without the obstruction of the French doors.  He was sick of being stuck inside.  He was sick of the bitter, grey winter weather.  He was sick of the boredom.  In short, he was sick of being sick.

Unfortunately, it only took June about 20 minutes to find him and drag him back inside.

“What in heaven’s name were you thinking, Neal?”  She scolded as she helped him off with his coat.

“I was thinking that I’m feeling better and I’m tired of being stuck inside.”  He replied petulantly.  He was shivering, his body betraying him.

June wrapped her warm arms around him, hugging him tightly.  “I know dear.  I’m sorry.  But, you were very ill and you haven’t yet fully recovered.  Would you rather be stuck inside your apartment for ten days or the hospital?”

Neal sighed heavily into June’s shoulder.  “Here.”

“Good, then let’s get you under the covers so you can warm up.  And, then I’ll go get you a cup of tea.”  June ushered him over to the bed and tucked the covers up around his chin once he had lain down.  Neal had to admit that it felt good to be back in his bed, he was cold and tired, but he hated the enforced seclusion.  In some ways it was worse than prison had been.  At least there he got an hour out in the yard every day.

*   *   *

On Monday, Neal got up early, showered and dressed in one his favorite suits.  The idea of being able to get out of the mansion, to go back to work, sent a little thrill up his spine.  He was tired by the time Peter knocked on his door, but he s only going to spend the day catching up on case files at his desk anyway, so it really didn't matter.

Peter didn't bother to wait for Neal to answer.  He let himself into the apartment just as Neal was slipping on his coat.  

“Hey, I’m ready to go.”  Neal said with a smile.

Peter walked over and stood in front of Neal, his brow furrowed.  “I don’t think so.”

“What?”

“Have you looked in the mirror this morning?”

“Of course I have.”  Neal replied indignantly.  “Do I have bagel stuck in my teeth or something?”

Peter gave him the look, the one that said ‘you know what I mean, Neal.’

“Peter, I’m fine.”

“Mmmhumm.  I’m not buying it.  You’re pale and you still have dark circles under your still bloodshot eyes.  And, you’re clearly tired.”

“I’m not going to do anything but sit at my desk all day reading files, come on Peter.”

“Sorry, partner.  I’m not going to risk your health.  Rest, heal and we’ll try again on Wednesday.”

“Wednesday!  Peter I really need to get out of here.  I've been cooped up in this apartment for more than a week and I’m starting to go stir crazy.”  Neal could hear the petulance in his own voice, but he was genuinely beginning to feel a bit desperate.

“Yeah, more stir crazy than when you spent nearly four years in prison?”

Neal wanted to say ‘YES’, but he knew beyond a doubt that Peter would only use it as ammunition somewhere along the line to give Neal shit over something.  So, he just shrugged out his coat and dropped it on the back of one his dining chairs.

“Hey, it’s not the end of the world.  Just take it easy for two more days, and I’m sure that you’ll be ready for work on Wednesday.

Neal just nodded his acceptance and then moved off toward his closet to take off his suit and put his pajamas back on.

*   *   *

On Wednesday morning, Neal didn't bother to dress before Peter arrived.  There was no point until Peter declared him well enough to return to work.

Peter found him sitting quietly at his dining table.  “Hey, you’re not dressed.  Are you feeling okay?”

“I feel fine, just like I did on Monday.  I didn't see any point in getting ready for work if I wasn’t going to work.”

“Okay.”  Peter drawled.  He took a moment to survey Neal.  The kid was still pale, but the dark circles had faded and he seemed rested.  He also looked defeated, as if the illness and the confinement had done a number on him.

“Go get dressed.”

At lunch time, Peter attempted to take Neal out, but he begged off, claiming he had a lot to catch up on and that he would get a sandwich from the coffee shop in the lobby.

It had been twilight when Peter had driven Neal to work in the morning and almost full dark as they drove back to June’s in the evening and Neal had spent another day without really seeing the sun.

The day went in the exactly the same manner on Thursday.  Neal went to work with Peter in the pale early morning light, sat at his desk all day and then went home with Peter in the dark.

On Friday, Peter put his foot down and insisted that Neal come to lunch with him.  It was cold and windy, but he dragged Neal six blocks to a café that he knew Neal loved.  Neal needed some sun and a change of scenery in a bad way.

After they had placed their order Peter attempted to engage Neal in small talk, or shop talk or any kind of talk at all, but Neal was stony, one syllable answers seemed to be all he was capable of.

“What’s going on with you?”  Peter’s asked, concern for his partner mounting.

“Nothing.”  At least that was two syllables.

“You’ve been really quiet since you came back to work.  Is there something going on that I should know about?”

“No.”

“Neal,” Peter started, exasperation peppering his voice.  “You’re not acting like yourself.  Something is clearly bothering you.”

“I’m fine.”

Their lunches arrived and they ate in silence.

*   *   *

In the early morning hours on Saturday, it began to snow, hard.  It continued throughout the day.  Neal stood at the French doors staring at the swirling white flakes.  Normally, he really enjoyed snow.  It was beautiful, each flake its own work of art.  But today, the snow was nothing but another set of bars, confining Neal, keeping him trapped and alone.

He thought about painting, reading, playing a game of chess against himself, but nothing appealed.  Lunch time came and went, but Neal wasn't hungry.  June came up and tried to convince him to come downstairs and watch a movie with her, but he didn't really want any company, so he politely declined.  Peter called to check on him and Neal kept the conversation as short as he could.  El called an hour later and he did the same thing.

Neal knew he wasn't acting like himself, knew that he was letting the cold and the confinement break him down, but he couldn't seem to muster the energy to care.  It was really easier not to.  It was easier to just climb into his warm bed and close his eyes, and not think about it.

When Neal woke up on Sunday, the snow had stopped but the sky was still a dark and looming grey.  He got up, ate a piece of bread he was too indifferent about to toast, thought about taking a shower and then went back to bed.

Around lunchtime June came in and found him there.

“Neal, dear are you feeling sick again?” She asked with concern.

“I’m fine, just a little tired.”  He mumbled in reply.

She placed her hand against his forehead anyway, to check for a fever.

“Really June, I’m okay.”  He tried to sound reassuring, but even in his own ears his voice sounded dull, lifeless.

“Would you please come down and have lunch with me then?”

Neal nodded.  He didn't want to have lunch, but he really didn’t want to worry her.

So he got up took a quick shower and dressed in a sweater and a pair of khakis.

Downstairs with June he tried to be amiable, but his heart wasn't in it.  He picked at his food and made his escape as soon as he thought reasonable.   He spent the afternoon staring out the French doors at the cold, grey city.  Neal imagined that the cold and the grey had moved right through the glass of the doors, had penetrated his skin and were now slowly eating their way through him.   Neal returned to his bed as soon as it was dark.

That evening June called Peter and told him that she was very concerned about Neal.  “He still looks so pale and drawn.  He’s not leaving his room; he’s barely leaving his bed.”

“He hasn't been okay since he got sick.  I’m not sure what to do.”  Peter replied.

“It wasn't easy for Neal to come back to New York.  It was what he wanted, but it meant losing his freedom again.  And, the weather has been so harsh, not at all like the South Pacific.”

“I can’t just send him off on a vacation June.”

“I understand Peter.  I just wanted you to know.  I don’t want to lose him again.”

“Neither do I June.”

El found Peter sitting in their dark living room some time later.

“Hon, what’s wrong?”  She asked as she sat beside him and took his hand in hers.

“I think I made a terrible mistake El.”  His voice was filled with misery.

“About what?”

“I should never have brought him back.  I did what I wanted for him, not what was best for him.”

“Did something happen to Neal?”

“ I've been worried about him since he got sick.”

El nodded.  “We both have.”  She waited patiently for Peter to continue.

“I just spoke to June.  Neal’s not okay.  He’s been depressed, not going out, not even getting out of bed apparently.”

“Can you talk to him?”

“I tried on Friday, but he did what Neal does, said he was fine and then clammed up.  I don’t know what to do.  We can’t lose him El, we just got him back.”

“We’re not going to lose him.  We’ll figure something out.  Find a way to get him reinvested in his life here.  Don’t give up on him Peter.”

*   *   *

Neal was waiting out on the sidewalk when Peter came to pick him up on Monday morning.  Peter smiled encouragingly at him when he got into the car.  “Hey, good morning.”

Neal nodded in acknowledgement, put on his seat belt and proceeded to stare out the passenger side window for the drive down to Federal Plaza.  Neal wasn't really seeing anything in the pre-dawn light as they drove.  He just didn’t want to talk to Peter.  He didn't want to have to pretend that he was okay, that he wasn’t feeling stuck and alone.

In the morning status meeting, Neal sat as far away from Peter as he could get.  He said nothing unless he was asked a direct question and even then he kept his answers brief and to the point.  When the meeting concluded Peter asked Neal to join him in his office.

“Sit.”  Peter commanded.  Neal complied, sitting in his usual chair opposite Peter.

“Neal, I need you to talk to me.  I can’t help you if I don’t know what’s going on.”

Neal just sat there for several minutes, staring at some point just over Peter’s left shoulder.  He didn't want to admit that he wasn't okay, that he was trapped, alone and even a little afraid that he was getting so low that he wouldn’t be able to find his way back up.  He didn't want to tell Peter that he hadn’t felt so messed up since he was eighteen years old, not when he was in prison, not even when Kate was killed.  But, despite his desire hot tears began to slide down his cheeks.

Peter came around his desk, crouched down in front of Neal and placed his hand on Neal’s knee.  “Please let me help you.”  He begged quietly.

“I don’t think you can.”  Neal whispered.  “I don’t think anyone can.”  Neal slumped in his seat, broken.  Peter’s heart lurched and he reached up and pulled Neal into his embrace heedless of anyone who might be watching through the glass walls.  Neal was limp in his arms, his head tucked into Peter’s shoulder.  

“I’ll do whatever it takes, Neal.  We’ll figure this out together.”

Peter felt and heard Neal sob, once, twice and then Neal’s arms came up and he pulled Peter to him tightly.

“I don’t know what happened.”  Neal mumbled into Peter’s shoulder.  “I don’t know why I feel like this.”

“How do you feel, Neal?”

“Trapped, stuck, alone, sad.”  Another sob.  “I’m sorry.”

“Hey, don’t be sorry.  You have nothing to be sorry for.  This is MY fault, Neal.  I brought you back to New York.  I put the anklet back on your leg.”

Peter felt Neal shake his head.  “I wanted to come.  I missed my life here.  I missed June, and Jones and Diana, and Elizabeth and you.  I wouldn't have come back if I hadn’t wanted to.”

Peter’s legs were beginning to tire from holding Neal’s weight in such an awkward position but there was no way he was letting go.  Neal was still clinging to him as if his very life depended on it and sobbing softly into Peter’s shoulder.

“We’ll work it out.  It’s going to be okay.”  He soothed as he rubbed his hand up and down Neal’s shaking back.

Eventually, with Peter’s support Neal felt his whirling and anxious thoughts calm.  He held Peter against himself for another minute, gathering strength from Peter’s embrace and then pulled himself back up into his seat.  

“I never stopped to think how hard this would be on you, coming back here, coming back to the anklet after the life you had been living for all those months.”  Peter said, his hand back on Neal’s knee.  “Winter in New York can be a bit gloomy to begin with and then you got so sick and you were cooped up for so long.”

Neal nodded and then he coughed; the perfect illustration of just how sick he had been and the fact that he still wasn’t 100 percent.

“Okay, we’re done for today.  Let’s get out of here, go up to Central Park, take a walk, hit the Met for a little while.  Then we’ll go out to Brooklyn and let El make us dinner.”

Neal’s look was incredulous.  “Really?”

“Yeah, I said I would do whatever it takes Neal, and I meant it.  We’ll start by playing hooky for the rest of the day, getting some air and a little sun.  It actually looks like it’s pretty nice out there.”

“Yeah, it does.”

They took a long walk in the park, it was bitter cold, but the sun was bright and Peter had to admit that even he was missing the feel of its warmth and the taste of clean air in his lungs.  Then they spent a couple of hours wandering the halls of the Met.  Neal was still quiet, but Peter caught the hint of a smile a couple of times as he made lame jokes about some the pieces he and Neal were viewing.        

At some point he had called El and warned her that he was bringing Neal home with him.  When they arrived at the house they were assaulted with the smell of baking bread and something sweet and something spicy.  They found El bustling around the kitchen putting the finishing touches on what turned out to be an incredible Italian feast.  As soon as El spotted Neal she threw her arms around him and hugged him fiercely planting a kiss intimately on the side of his mouth.  Neal melted into her embrace.    

“I’m so glad you’re here sweetie.”  She said warmly.

“Me too.”

When Elizabeth laid the food out on the table Neal realized that he was actually hungry for the first time in weeks.  El and Peter kept the conversation light during the meal and Neal chimed in occasionally.  It felt good to be able to relax among the people he loved.

El served tiramisu for dessert and by the time Neal had eaten half of his slice his eyes were closing and he was listing dangerously toward the floor.

El looked at Peter with a sad smile and told him to take Neal up to the guestroom which she had made up for him earlier in the afternoon.

“Come on buddy.  Let’s get you up to bed.”  Peter said as he helped ease Neal up from his chair.  Neal nodded and allowed Peter to guide him up the stairs and into the guest room.

*   *   *

On Wednesday Peter was keeping a close eye on his partner from his office.  Taking the day off on Monday had definitely helped Neal, but he was still too quiet, too pale and nowhere near his normal self.  

It was going to be an uphill battle to get the Neal they loved back in their lives.  But Peter had been nothing but serious when he told Neal he would do anything to help him.

Peter spent the morning alternating between watching Neal and looking through a stack of new case files.  Halfway through the pile he found one that had his mind reeling with possibilities.  He read through the folder carefully, making sure that he had all the facts straight, making sure that he had a good chance of selling his idea to Hughes.

Peter had confided to Reese what was going on with Neal the day before, in part as an explanation for their disappearance on Monday and in part to inform his boss that Neal was not okay and that it was going to take some time and some work to get Neal back to his old self.

Reese was understanding and told Peter that he would help him with Neal in any way that he could.  As Peter walked into Reese’s office he was hopeful that his boss had been sincere.

“Peter, how’s Neal doing today?”

“About the same.  I have an idea that I’d like to run by you.”

Hughes nodded and pointed Peter toward a chair in front of his desk.

“This case just came across my desk.  It’s right up Neal’s alley.  Some billionaire whose supposedly impenetrable security system was penetrated.  Several masterpieces were apparently stolen from the property and replaced with forgeries.  I think it would be good for Neal to work a case that would make use of his unique qualities so well.”

“Agreed.”

“There’s a catch.”

Reese’s brow furrowed.  “What kind of catch?”

“It’s in Miami.”

“Miami.  You want me to authorize Neal going to Miami?”  Reese shook his head.

“I know it’s asking a lot, Reese.  But, I really think Neal needs to get out of the city for a little while and someplace warm would be particularly ideal.”

“Peter, have you forgotten that the kid ran?  That he was MIA with millions of dollars’ worth of Nazi plunder for seven months?”

Peter shook his head.  “Of course not, but he came back, willingly.  He wants to be here Reese.  And, if we don’t help him now, I’m afraid he’ll sink so low that he’ll be of no use to us any longer, no use to himself.  I won’t see that happen to him.  I owe him that for telling him to go and then making him come back.”

Reese sighed and considered Peter’s words.  “What are you proposing?”

“We leave tomorrow.  Spend a couple of days working the case.  I doubt it will take longer than that, at least for what needs to be done on site.  Then we spend a couple of days on the beach.  We’ll come back Sunday night and be back in the office Monday morning.”

“And, he’ll never leave your sight?”

“Not for a minute.  And, I’ll have the Marshalls keep his anklet active, so if anything happens we’ll be right on his tail.”

“Okay, but if anything at all goes wrong with this, I will not be able to pull your ass out of the fire Peter.”

“I wouldn't expect you to.  Thank you Reese.”

Peter returned to his office and made several phones calls.  The first was to El to let her know the plan and to see if she could pull any strings in finding them a first class hotel on the beach.

At the end of the day, Peter grabbed the case file and headed down to collect Neal.  “Hey, ready to get out of here?”

“Sure,” Neal replied getting up from his desk.

“I’m giving you some homework.”  Peter said as he handed the file over to Neal.  Read through this tonight and get your bag packed.”

“My bag packed?”

“Yeah, we need to check the premises in person and our flight leaves at 7AM.  And we’re going to need to stay through the weekend I think.”

Neal flipped open the file and quickly scanned it.  “Miami, we’re going to Miami?”

“Yup,” Peter replied with a smug smile on his face.

“How did you ever get Hughes to approve this?”

“I told you, I would do whatever it takes Neal.  And, I think it’s going to take a little time on the beach.  It’ll only be a couple of days, once we get this case taken care of, but I hope it will help.”

Neal felt tears prickling the back of his eyes.  God how he loved this man, who would yet again risk his career, his whole life, to help a con man.  “Thank you, Peter.”  Neal choked out as he swiped at the moisture forming in the corners of his eyes.

“You’re welcome.”  Peter replied as he wrapped a supportive arm around Neal’s back.  “Now, let’s get out of here.  We’re going to have a very early start in the morning.”

*   *   *

When Peter arrived at Neal’s apartment the next morning, Neal was still packing, taking things out of his bag, putting others in.  He seemed anxious and stressed.

“Hey, we need to get going, Neal.”

“I know, I’m sorry, I just…”

Peter walked over and joined Neal where he stood by the bed.  He placed his hand on the back of Neal’s neck.  Neal was trembling.

“Let’s see what you've got here.”  Peter said as he began rifling through the things in Neal’s bag.  Shirts, slacks, underwear, swim trunks, shoes, toiletry kit.  How about a pair of shorts?”

Neal pulled a pair out of the pile sitting on the bed and handed them to Peter.  “Perfect,” Peter said as he placed them in Neal’s bag.  “Let’s go.”

Peter picked up the bag and started toward the door.  Neal stood where he was.  “Neal, coming?”  Peter called back over his shoulder.

“What if I screw up?  I don’t want to screw up.”  The anxiety Neal was feeling came pouring out with his words.

Peter’s voice was emphatic, “You will not screw up.”

“How do you know?”

Peter walked back over to Neal and stood before him.  “Because I know you Neal Caffrey, better than anyone.  You will not screw up.”

The matter settled in Peter’s mind.  He placed a hand on Neal’s shoulder and guided him over to where his coat was slung on the back of one the dining room chairs.  He helped Neal put it on and grabbed the porkpie that was sitting on the table and placed it on Neal’s head.   Then he ushered a compliant Neal through the door and down to the car.

El was sitting in the back seat.  “Took you boys long enough,” she said as they climbed into the car.

“You can’t rush perfection, El.  And, we still have plenty of time.”  Peter chided.

Peter and El chatted amiably on the way to LaGuardia while Neal sat quietly watching the scenery go by.  When they arrived Neal expected that they would pull up to the terminal, he and Peter would get out and El would then take car back to the city.  But Peter took the car to a short term parking lot and three of them got out and Peter pulled three bags from the trunk.

“El’s coming with us?”  Neal asked tentatively.

“Of course sweetie.  There was no way I was passing up the chance to spend a few days poolside.  Besides I know someone who knows someone and I got us a screaming deal on an amazing hotel.  You’ll love it.”

On the plane Peter and El stuck Neal in between them.  Just before takeoff El took Neal’s hand in hers.  “I get a little nervous during takeoff.  You don’t mind, do you?”

Neal shook his head.  He didn’t mind at all.

Once they were in the air, Peter said “Why don’t you close your eyes and rest.  We’re still going to have a long day ahead of us once we arrive.”

Neal was tired.  He hadn't really slept at all the night before, worrying about the trip.  So he closed his eyes and as he drifted off to sleep he realized that Elizabeth’s hand was still wrapped comfortingly around his own.

When they arrived in Miami, Peter and Neal put El and their luggage in a cab.  They picked up their rental car and made their way to the palatial home of their victim, Dennis Humphreys.

Upon their arrival, Humphreys spent twenty minutes explaining why his security system was impenetrable.  Neal took 90 seconds to show him how the system had been bypassed by the thief and another two minutes to explain what Humphreys could do to prevent it from happening again.

Neal took significantly longer looking at the five pieces that Humphreys believed to have been replaced with forgeries.  He went back and forth from piece to piece for nearly an hour.  Humphreys’ patience had expired some time ago and he had started mumbling about his annoyance.  Peter could see that it was making Neal anxious, so he tried to shield his partner from it and keep Neal focused on the work before him.    

Eventually Neal looked up from the Monet he had been examining.  “They’re all forgeries.”

“It took you that long to figure it out.  I knew in a couple of minutes, some expert.”  Humphreys snarked.

“I knew they were forgeries as soon as I first saw them.  I’ve been looking for a tell as to who forged them.  And, I found one.”

“Yeah, what did you see?”  Peter said encouragingly.

“He signed them.  Well, at least three of them.”

“Show me.”

Neal placed the magnifying glass up to the edge of a supposed Monet.  There, RP, Remy Penoit.”

“Do you know him?”

“Only by reputation.  I found his initials in the Van Gogh sketch and in the Kandinsky as well.  I’m sure if I took a little more time I’d them in the Degas and the Picasso too.”  

Peter smiled at his partner.  “Nice work, Neal.”

Neal smiled back, a genuine smile.  The first one Peter had seen on Neal in a very long time.

They collected the evidence, drove to the local FBI office, filed the necessary reports and paperwork and were on their way to the hotel by four.

When they pulled up in front of the Marseilles Neal could hardly believe it.  “This is where we’re staying?”

“Yup.  It seems my wife is rather well connected.  I spoke to her when we were at the office.  She said she would meet us out at the pool.”

They picked up their key cards at the front desk, went up, changed into their swimwear and then headed down to the pool where they found El lounging with a book in one hand and a mojito in the other.    

Neal swam some laps and then took up a lounge chair on the opposite side of El from Peter.  He closed his eyes and listened to the sounds of the guests coming and going, others splashing in the pool, Peter and El chatting beside him and let them lull him into a pleasant doze.

Sometime later Elizabeth woke him by running her hand through the curls on his forehead.  “Hey sleepyhead, it’s time to get ready for dinner.  We have a reservation.”

The reservation turned out to be at an exquisite restaurant down the beach from the hotel.  They sat at an outside table, the evening air fresh and brisk.  Elizabeth looked radiant in the moonlight and Peter was as handsome as Neal had ever seen him.  As the meal progressed, Neal could feel himself relaxing by degrees, the cold and the darkness that had taken up residence inside him melting in the warm Miami evening.  By the time they had finished their coffee and desert Neal almost felt himself again, except for a deep longing and need for the two people he shared the table with.

As they stood up to leave Neal put his hand on Peter’s arm and said “I’d like to walk back along the beach if that’s okay?”

Peter eyed him for a moment weighing his promise to Hughes against his trust in Neal.  “Sure, would you like some company?”

“No thanks, I just want to… I want to make the most of these few days.”

Peter nodded and Elizabeth kissed him on the cheek.  “We’ll see you later, sweetie.”

The air had cooled considerably as the evening had worn on but Neal didn't mind.  It was still nowhere near as cold as New York.  He took off his shoes and socks and walked along the boundary where the water met the sand as it washed up against the shore.

He felt lighter, but stronger than he had in so long, since before the treasure, before Adler.  He could breathe again.  It would take more time he knew before he would really be okay, but Peter’s generosity, El’s kindness and this opportunity to walk on a beach, by himself had gone a long way toward healing him.

When he returned to his room, the adjoining door to Peter and El’s room was open.

“Did you have a good walk?”  Peter called out to him.

“I did, thank you.”  Neal replied as he went and stood in the doorway.  Peter had changed into pajama bottoms and El was wearing a frilly nightgown with a matching robe.  Neal felt his heart flutter at the sight of them.

“I should get ready for bed.  It’s been a long day.”  Neal said as he turned back toward his own room.

“Neal,” Peter called out sharply.  Neal turned back around to face them.  “El and I, we’d like you to join us.”

“I’m sorry?”  Peter could not possibly be asking Neal what it had sounded like.

“We’ve missed you, a lot and we have no intention of losing you again.”  To illustrate his point Peter took Neal around the waist and gently pulled him into the room.  Then he pulled Neal one step further so that Neal’s body was pressed up against his own and kissed him.

At first the kiss was tentative, as if Peter was unsure of what Neal wanted, of how Neal would react to their offer.  But when Neal opened his mouth invitingly Peter came on full force, passion and love clearly fueling his actions.  

So intent was Neal on Peter that he failed to notice that El had come around behind him until she wrapped her arms around his chest.  “My turn,” she whispered in his ear.

Peter reluctantly released Neal and he turned in El’s arms and she placed her lips against his.  Where Peter’s kiss had been fierce, almost rough in its passion, El’s kiss was tender, intimate and indescribably wonderful.    

Neal’s knees began to grow weak.  How was it possible that the one impossible thing that he wanted in his life was suddenly his?

Before he knew what was happening he was in the middle of their king size bed El wrapped around one side of his body, Peter the other, while tears spilled from his eyes.

“Neal?”  Peter asked worriedly as he gently wiped Neal’s tears with his thumb.  “We didn't mean to push.  If you don’t want this…”

“No, Peter I want this more than I can possibly express.  I just think I need some time to…  I want to make sure that I’m okay before…”  Neal fumbled trying to find the right words to express what he was feeling.

“We’ll go as slow as you want.”  Peter said reading Neal’s thoughts.  “Whatever you need.”

“I need you, both of you.”

“That you can have right now and for always.”


 
 
 
a rearranger of the proverbial bookshelf: White Collar - Neal b&wembroiderama on June 25th, 2012 12:54 am (UTC)
I love this so much! Neal's downward slide feels just right, and I love Peter and El for making that temporary escape happen. Thank you for writing this!
pooh_collector: pooh2pooh_collector on June 25th, 2012 01:08 am (UTC)
You're welcome. Thanks for providing such a wonderful prompt.
Winter: sailingwinterstar95 on June 25th, 2012 01:14 am (UTC)
This is just the right amount of angst. I keep asking myself how are they going to have Neal come back - why would Neal ever want to come back, if not for Peter? And this just works so well!
pooh_collector: pooh2pooh_collector on June 25th, 2012 02:22 am (UTC)
Thanks!

I think it's pretty clear that Neal "loves" the life and many of the people he left behind.

I doubt Eastin will work this angle, but it was fun to try it out.
ascendmeplzascendmeplz on June 25th, 2012 01:33 am (UTC)
Loved this!
pooh_collector: pooh2pooh_collector on June 25th, 2012 02:23 am (UTC)
Thank you!
oh these heroes come and go;: [wc] ot3;;micheleeeex on June 25th, 2012 04:47 am (UTC)
I love love love this!
pooh_collector: pooh2pooh_collector on June 25th, 2012 06:33 pm (UTC)
Glad you enjoyed it.
love_82 on June 25th, 2012 10:03 am (UTC)
I love all of the love in this. Peter and Elizabeth willing to do anything to help Neal, which they would. Beautiful story.

Edited at 2012-06-25 10:07 am (UTC)
pooh_collector: pooh2pooh_collector on June 25th, 2012 06:36 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I think after the events of season 3 it's pretty clear that Peter and El would do anything for Neal.

Peter lied in an official statement about Neal's involvement with the treasure. That pretty much takes the cake.

Thank you for reading and for the lovely fb.
elrhiarhodanelrhiarhodan on June 25th, 2012 01:24 pm (UTC)
Love this like burning - you've captured all of the want, the longing, the need so beautifully.

What a lovely treat - thank you!
pooh_collector: pooh2pooh_collector on June 25th, 2012 06:38 pm (UTC)
Thank you Elr. I thought it was an interesting challenge to write about THE eternal optimist caught in a bout of depression.
ladyrose42ladyrose42 on June 25th, 2012 10:23 pm (UTC)
The only reason to work night shift is getting to see sunlight while driving home! Well, there are other reasons, but I did love this one. Well able to see the blue Neal in this tale.
pooh_collectorpooh_collector on June 27th, 2012 01:24 am (UTC)
Tell me about it. I worked nights for 10 years.

I'm glad Neal's depression came through.

Thanks!
Frith: White Collar - El - hair upfrith_in_thorns on June 26th, 2012 09:24 pm (UTC)
I really enjoyed this - poor Neal. I loved Peter picking up on what was wrong and being determined to do something about it :)
pooh_collectorpooh_collector on June 27th, 2012 01:26 am (UTC)
Thank you! I'm fond of a Neal in need of saving and a Peter in shining armor.
lauracollaredlauracollared on December 28th, 2012 01:24 am (UTC)
This was beautiful. Difficult, sad, and comforting. El knew just what to do, but poor Peter having witnessed it and having guilt, was lost. Poor thing. And Neal! Ugh, baby. But also he was strong, really strong. He knew he needed love and comfort. And was able to articulate that eventually. <3

I hope that he will ge therapy, though, even though the thing he needs the most is love and comfort from Peter and El.
pooh_collectorpooh_collector on December 28th, 2012 02:15 am (UTC)
Thank you so much for your kind comment. I loved your observations.
sapphire2309sapphire2309 on February 19th, 2013 03:17 pm (UTC)
You don't get a hat trick! I'm not sure whether to be happy or sad about it :P
I laughed this time, at peter's three questions, and I was d'awwwing my way through the rest of the fic :) Really cute :)
pooh_collectorpooh_collector on February 21st, 2013 09:43 pm (UTC)
Awww, no hat trick, DANG!

I'm glad you liked it even though I couldn't make you cry this time.
sapphire2309sapphire2309 on February 26th, 2013 02:39 pm (UTC)
I was just happy to read something by you that didn't make my eyes sting. And it was GOOD.
deepasoceandeepasocean on January 19th, 2014 01:12 am (UTC)
Such a heart breaking angst, sweet concern and love, great outcome, lovely story.
pooh_collectorpooh_collector on January 20th, 2014 03:45 pm (UTC)
Thank you!

I'm glad that you enjoyed it.