The first chapter is from the one-shot Turnabout is Not Fair Play, which I decided to extend so it could have a happy ending.
No slash, just deep friendship. but a lot more intimacy than your average bromance. Just like White Collar itself. Standard canon pairings apply.
This is somewhat dark, when it comes to the initial relationship between Peter and Neal. My aim is to slip it in between canon to explain why Peter changed and acted so cruelly in season 5, and how they wound up so close to back to normal by the pilot episode. Some personal closure, if you will.
I'm not going the stereotypical "beaten and raped in prison" route. What happened to Peter and Neal was much more frighteningly close to legal treatment and not a lot of fun to read about. This isn't a terribly violent story; they almost get killed, repeatedly, but this time it's not the work of violent criminals. If you're willing to go along for the ride, I promise a happy ending.
I live for comments and reviews :)
Peter's head spun, his vision blurring around the edges. He stopped breathing. And everything hit him at once. Horror, shock, pain, fear, guilt, helplessness.
Frantic desire to defend himself, coupled with the inability to form basic words.
His arms were shaking. He couldn't even feel the handcuffs, or his feet, or remember what day it was.
More than anything, he wanted to cry. He kept waiting for it to end, but first the walk through the lobby, past his team and strangers, then the ride to the office, sitting in the interrogation room facing a dirty agent all seemed to stretch on for hours.
And when the cell door closed and no miracles had come for him, when he was finally alone, he did cry. He told himself all the ways it could work out just fine, and tried to silence the horror of all the ways it might not.
He wished desperately for El and Satchmo and his living room and his life. His FBI, Jones and Diana and Hughes and bad coffee.
Oh, God. All the times I've done this to Neal. I knew it hurt. I didn't know it could be this bad. That is one tough, loyal, forgiving son of a bitch.
His breath caught when he saw Peter in an orange jumpsuit, looking - more than devastated, more than terrified, more than hurt. He'd seen Peter on a stretcher with his heart stopped. Peter with his wife in the hands of a ruthless kidnapper. But never Peter broken. Never trying and failing to look brave and calm.
The sight broke him.
This time there were no jokes about irony, just his best friend sitting raw and wounded.
Neal sat down and tried to meet Peter's eyes, but he wouldn't look up. "Peter."
It took a good minute for him to respond. "Neal."
"We'll get you out of here, you know that, right?" Neal didn't know what to say, not to Peter. Not to this.
"I'd put myself in your shoes instead if I could. Peter, tell me what I can do, what I can say, anything."
Neal felt desperate. He was used to having a plan, or at the very least someone to turn to. He hadn't really absorbed until just now how often that plan involved Peter, or the fact that most of the time, he was that someone to turn to.
"How did you handle it?" Peter asked finally. "I - am - trying everything I can to be brave, and strong, and have hope that this will go my way. And every minute feels like someone is beating me in the heart with an baseball bat. How. How did you handle this?"
Neal leaned forward on the table, as close as he could get, and held his cuffed hands. "It's different, being guilty. When you arrested me on that diamond heist, that was a whole new level of pain. If I were in your shoes right now, I'd be crying myself to sleep every single night."
Peter gulped and closed his eyes. "I do."
"Peter." Neal was remembering the gentle, compassionate, utterly reassuring FBI agent who had eased some of the worst pains in his life. "My turn. How did you manage to help me so much? How did you know what to say and what to do all those times it was me in here?"
He was starting to understand the emotions behind that wrenched expression Peter gave him so often. To be worried about someone you felt such deep empathy for, and to be helpless to pull them out or charge in with the cavalry or even stand by their side...
"I - I really didn't know. I cared about you. I knew I couldn't change the circumstances, so I just - tried to show you I cared and that your world wasn't gone."
Peter's voice sounded so lost and faint at the last part that Neal wanted to hug him.
"Okay. Listen to me. I know - what this brand of fear feels like, and there is no way out from under it. There is something about losing control of your future, not even being able to see the future, that's - if some thug kidnaps you and holds you at gunpoint, the world is at your back. You may not know what's going to happen or if you'll survive, but you know he's the bad guy and you're the good guy."
Neal looked at the ugly tiled walls, the bars, the guard standing outside. Thought about all the hate his fellow inmates had felt for the "screws" running the place, for police and FBI and everyone in a suit or a uniform.
And about the affection he had for those very same people. With the exception of the corrupt and cruel ones, the criminals who had figured out it was easier to get away with if you wore a uniform, they had ten times the heart of Brutus the meth-addicted chop-shop owner.
And finally, about the pain of having them look at him like he was dangerous, untrustworthy, and something less than completely human. It had to hurt Peter exponentially more.
He gripped Peter's hands tighter. They were cold, and felt weak. "When you're arrested, the world is against you. You don't know what's going to happen to your future, but you know nobody cares and you just have to take it, because you're not the good guy any longer."
"That's - exactly it," said Peter, giving him a deeply grateful look. "I've been captured with armed men ready to kill or torture me, and - I'm ten times as frightened by being in a clean cell with humane treatment and lawyers and - I can't fight them, because I won't. I don't know how to do this."
"Listen. El, Mozzie, your FBI crew - me - all those smart, creative, caring minds that have solved so many cases are working for you now. You just remember the passion and effectiveness and magic of everything we can accomplish together, and know that you mean the world to all of us," said Neal.
Peter's eyes were filled with tears, his hands shaking. "Thanks." His voice broke twice just trying to say one word.
"You're loved. You're missed. There's a Peter Burke-sized hole in your world out there, and we aren't going to stop until you're back in it."
"I miss all of you, so much," Peter whispered. He still looked unbearably devastated. A metal door slammed, and he flinched.
Neal wondered if he should tell the truth, and finally decided in favor of it. "You know what kept me going sometimes?"
"I'd think about my worst fears. That I would be here for life. That I'd die here. That I'd be shipped to some mythical hellhole where I'd live in solitary confinement, beaten and raped every day. That everyone would forget me or hate me. That I'd never experience joy again."
"Pretty much been doing that," said Peter dryly. "Shockingly, it's not wonderful for my spirits."
"Then I'd decide how I would handle it. Sometimes it involved suicide. Sometimes I realized I would be okay. But I had a plan for each of my fears. So far, I haven't had to use one of them. But it helps, not shying away. And then whenever I was having a really horrible time, I'd think forward to a year, five years, whatever distance I needed, and look at how small and forgettable it was going to seem in the future."
"And Peter - try not to grieve for what you've lost until you've really lost it." Neal hesitated. "If this were an undercover assignment. Getting thrown in here as a prisoner for a while. You knew it wasn't real. Would you find it particularly hard to cope?"
A flash of spirit entered Peter's eyes. "No. Not at all."
"Con yourself, Peter."
FIVE WEEKS LATER
Neal stepped out onto the balcony and let the harsh, frozen wind tear at him. It stung his eyes and let him pretend the water in them was just the weather.
There'd been so much joy in his life, so many exhilarating experiences, so many challenges of the good kind.
But those were hard to see when there was this much pain with it. He'd handled everything that was thrown at him as a child and a teenager. He'd handled prison. He'd handled losing Kate. He'd handled getting to know his father and finding out the man was a worse human being than his nightmares had dared suggest. And all the smaller things in between.
He'd handled all the pain and worry and stress and humiliation of being Peter's ankleted CI, because those had been some of the best times in his life.
What he couldn't handle was having the one person he'd ever truly trusted, the one safe person, change.
Neal bit his lip, put his head down, gripped the edge of the stone railing, and cried.
He knew crime and criminals. He knew traps when he saw them, and had always been smart enough to steal the cheese without springing them. With Hagen, he'd walked right in, stepped on the trigger, and let it fall. He'd known he would be paying for it and he didn't care.
He'd known Hagen could bring it all down. Had known that if he did this, and Peter suspected, it could end everything. But he couldn't bear to see Peter suffering so deeply, and it had seemed like a worthy sacrifice at the time. He'd meant every word when he said he'd put himself in Peter's shoes if he could.
Because Peter was the other cardinal rule of criminal survival he'd broken. You never let anyone get close enough, or let yourself care enough, that there was anyone or anything you couldn't throw away.
If you put your trust and faith and heart in someone, they would use you, abandon you, and break your heart. They always wanted something, and would always walk away when they were done with you. You didn't let someone in close enough to genuinely hurt you. Ever.
He'd not only let Peter in, he'd placed his trust and love and loyalty in him. He'd let Peter hurt him, control him, shape him. Because he adored the man and what he was doing. And he'd been conscious the entire time.
For no reason other than simple affection and decency, Peter had been trying and succeeding to save Neal. To pry him away from the criminal world and show him a life that had all the challenge and thrill and exhilaration, but added security and trust and love and moral authority to the mix.
Peter was the only man he'd ever met who never acted out of malice or selfishness or revenge. He was honest to the core. He never preyed on the weak or hurt people when they were down. He was never cold, never turned his back on people who needed him.
He cared. He simply and plainly cared.
And Peter had turned into a smug, hard, phony, career-climbing suit. The joy of life had gone out of his eyes, his affection for people and compassion replaced by a fake smile and a hard voice. A life and death bond of friendship had been deliberately and brutally severed.
Maybe it had been the pain and betrayal of false accusation by the criminal justice system that underpinned his life. Maybe it had been what he'd encountered in jail; what had been relatively easy for Neal the con artist could have been a nightmare for Peter the FBI agent.
But the bottom line was that Peter was smart and he was tough, far tougher than Neal. And if Neal had been able to get through years in prison not only with his spirit intact but the ability to forgive and adore the man who put him there, Peter could handle spending a few weeks in jail without being warped beyond recognition.
He'd always affectionately slapped Neal in the face with the anklet, and in doing so gracefully diverted the uncomfortable truths that Neal was somewhere between his pet and his slave. He'd managed to make it funny, fun, and somehow, impossibly, cool and dignified.
This time, he'd slapped Neal in the face for real, discarding him and handing him over to be controlled by someone they'd never met. Like a master selling a slave. That was possibly the most painfully humiliating thing Peter could do, and he had a hard time trying to convince himself that Peter was dumb enough to be unaware of the dynamic.
He'd even used the anklet to do it, in a way. New anklet, new "handler," new Peter. Goodbye.
This was sick, and it hurt. This was not the Peter Burke he adored and trusted. That man was gone, that friendship and trust was gone, and he was left sobbing on a balcony.
Because he was a criminal, and he'd broken the rules of being a criminal. So much for redemption.