aftershock

[ăf′tər-shŏk′] noun.

1. A less powerful earthquake that follows a more forceful one. Aftershocks can continue for days or months and usually decrease in magnitude and frequency with time.

2. the effect, result, or repercussion of an event; aftermath; consequence.

Chapter One

"You know, I do know what I'm doing." Neal snapped from across the conference table. "That's why you keep me around."

Eyebrows raised, Peter glanced up from the ops sheet. He wasn't the only one looking at Neal; Jones and Diana were too, both surprised at his sudden outburst. Sensing their disapproval, Neal's face quickly split into a grin. "And no one is better at running away than I am. Hence the reason I come equipped with GPS."

While his tone was playful now, it was as forced as his smile. It hadn't been light-hearted moments before; the words had been clipped with irritation. Even now, with the smile pasted on his face, his comments held an undercurrent of bitterness.

This wasn't the first time Peter had heard those unmistakable tones in Neal's voice but it was usually under his breath and not as public as it was now. In those instances, he'd covered so quickly most people would have missed it. But Peter wasn't most people and the truth was that he'd been watching Neal like a hawk the past three weeks, trying to get a feel for how he was doing behind the facade he was determined to present.

Now lounging back in his chair, Neal presented a picture of ease though Peter knew it wasn't real. It was a reproduction, a masterful forgery, and only an expert could tell the difference. And that what he was, the foremost expert on Neal Caffrey. And as that expert, he knew precisely what Neal was doing and had been doing for weeks; freaking out and pretending not to be.

Avoidant Coping Technique. That's what Dr. Duvall had called it and Neal had had decades to perfect it.

Neal had been back at work for just over four months, back in the field for almost three. He'd been medically cleared to return in mid-December and passed the required psych eval by the department shrink in mid-January. It had taken longer to get the second clearance because Neal had used every excuse he could to put off making the appointment. He'd been told from the onset he'd have to undergo a psych-eval before the Bureau would allow him back into the field. He could use a psychologist the Bureau had on retainer or he could find one of his own. And no, Dr. Haversham, with credentials from some obscure online university, didn't count.

Peter had explained it was standard procedure, a requirement for any agent returning to work after a critical incident. He'd been careful not to use the phrase traumatic incident; he knew Neal had a strong aversion to the term. He didn't want to be seen as a victim, but that was what he'd been. Not just five months ago when he'd been kidnapped, beaten, and forced to commit a crime but before when he'd been a boy named Danny. Peter still didn't have a last name but he had something even better; an understanding of how Neal had come to be the man he was.

Peter had learned more about Neal's past during those horrific four days than he'd learned in four years. He'd picked up a few more tidbits of information in the days following Neal's release from the hospital but, after the holiday season, the trickle of information had dried up. Neal had done just what Peter feared he'd do: pull away, paste a fake smile on his face and say he was fine.

Neal didn't want to talk about what had happened. Not to him, not to Mozzie, and certainly not to a shrink. It was only under the threat of serving his remaining time behind stacks of Mortgage Fraud and Copyright Infringement files that Neal had made an appointment with the ancient Dr. Prador. Three sessions later (the mandatory number required), he'd appeared at Peter's office door with a triumphant grin and the needed documentation. Peter knew Neal had told the doctor what he wanted to hear; that he was fully recovered from the incident and ready to get back to work. All Neal wanted was for things to get back to normal and, remarkably enough, they had.

The next week, Neal was back in the field, facilitating the sale of a piece of stolen art. Three weeks after that, posing as a wealthy investor, he'd helped expose insider trading at a brokerage in Queens. As the days and weeks passed, they settled back into their respective roles and routines. Neal's work was impeccable. He was pragmatic, focused, and clear-minded. The dark circles beneath his eyes lightened and disappeared altogether. But the curtain, that barrier between Neal and the rest of the world, settled in and remained firmly in place.

Peter had felt the March date for the trial was woefully optimistic and he'd been proven correct. It had first been pushed out to April, then to May. Just as he'd expected they would, Eden's defense lawyer tried to postpone the inevitable with a series of Motions to Continue. Talk around the office had mostly died down, and if anyone referred to the incident or the impending trial, Neal would brush it off, minimizing what Peter knew had shaken him to his very core. Realizing it was impossible to pretend it never happened, Neal seemed to have settled for pretending it didn't matter. But now things were moving forward with the trial and it was getting more and more difficult for Neal to appear unaffected. At times he was distracted, others bitter and then others, like a moment ago, impatient and irritable.

Even when Neal was at his best, meetings with key figures in illegal operations were dangerous and this one posed more than the usual risks. In conjunction with the NYPD Organized Crime Division, they'd been working to unravel a money-laundering racket operated by a man known only as Xavier. So far Xavier remained a mysterious figure. No one seemed to know who he was or how he worked or how to find him, and anyone who got too close either turned up as fish food in the Hudson or didn't turn up at all. Word had gotten out that Nick Halden was back in New York and looking for a way to clean large sums of money for some of his clientele. It had taken several weeks, but he'd finally managed to get a meeting with the elusive man himself.

Xavier protected his identity fiercely, even former clients they'd questioned had never seen him, so getting a face to face with him was a big step forward in their investigations. But if Xavier had any suspicions or thought Neal wasn't who he said he was things could get very bad very quickly. And given the meeting location, it would be hard to get back up to him if they did.

Neal was right, of course. This was why he was at White Collar; he had a skill set the Bureau could use. That had never bothered Peter before but after learning about Neal's past with Terrence Eden, it bothered him now. When he'd mentioned his misgivings to Neal, he'd shut him down, reminding him the work release had been his idea. Working with the FBI was a lot better than being in prison and he actually enjoyed his work with White Collar. Peter knew that was true, that Neal loved undercover work, but it didn't make sending him into potentially dangerous situations any easier.

"I know you know what you're doing, Neal," he told him. "And I didn't say to run away." That term didn't sit well with Neal. "I said get out of the way."

Neal's smile faded. "Same difference."

"No it isn't and you know it."

Neal shrugged and looked away. "Either way, I've done this before and I'll be fine." He tried to brighten his smile but it fell short. "Trust me."

Since that particular imperative was usually met with sarcasm, his response caused Neal's eyes to widen slightly. "I do trust you." Peter guessed Clinton and Diana shared his surprise but he didn't look to see. "It's him I don't trust," he explained. "I'm not thrilled with the location. If anything goes wrong in there-"

"Nothing will go wrong but if it does," Neal's expression softened and so did his tone. "I promise to duck and cover until you can get there."

Peter gave him a nod and directed his attention to the other members of the team.

"Diana," Peter said, "give Detective Carter a call and let him know where the meeting is. Tell him we'll need help covering. Jones, check out the equipment Neal will need and make sure everything is keyed up with the van. I'll go down to impound and sign out Halden's good faith payment. We'll meet back here at four tomorrow."

Everyone got up and exited the room, but Peter caught Neal before he got out the door.

"Neal." When Neal turned, brows raised awaiting further instruction, he continued. "You okay?"

"Yeah, I'm good," he replied. "I'm all set for tomorrow."

He wasn't asking about tomorrow's meeting and he was sure Neal knew that; hence the deflection.

It had been three weeks since he'd gotten the call from Agent Littleton, confirming the May date. A Federal Prosecutor from the Southern District of New York had contacted him the following week, scheduling meetings with him and Jones, and informing him of when he'd need access to one of the cases prime witnesses, Neal Caffrey.

Last week, those preliminary meetings had occurred. He and Jones had spent time with Mr. Whitlock; Neal had done the same. At separate times, of course. Although Agent Hughes had already pounded it into his head numerous times, Mr. Whitlock had also reminded him that he was not to discuss any aspect of the case with Neal.

Not that there was any danger of that. The call had come in three weeks ago, the preliminary pre-trial preparations the following week, and to date, his CI hadn't said a word about any of it. Peter knew he was struggling, and even if he refused to acknowledge it, the dark circles that had reappeared under his eyes spoke volumes.

According to tracking data, he was pacing his apartment until well after midnight and running in Riverside Park hours before daylight. They'd had no interviews this week, but the reprieve hadn't made Neal sleep any better. If anything, he was getting less than before. Meetings with the Prosecutor's office were set to resume next week. Whether that would be better or worse for Neal, he didn't know. And of course, Neal wasn't sharing. It was those meetings he was asking about. More than that, how Neal was coping with them.

During the years he'd known Neal, he'd seen his defensive mechanism deployed in varying degrees. There was, of course, the baseline when Neal, though it was far from true, came across as an open book. A smart, witty, attention-seeking, and often irritating book. This was Neal's natural state of being; defenses engaged but perceiving no immediate threat. The next level came when Neal was actively keeping something from him; an ulterior motive, a piece of information. Even though Neal had lied all his life, and still lied as easily as he took a breath, he didn't like to lie to him. So even though there were little differences in tone or demeanor, it was the occasional and very fleeting flash of regret in Neal's eyes that most often gave him away. But when the stakes were high, when Neal felt vulnerable or emotionally at risk, he withdrew. That is where he'd been after Kate's death and where he'd been since he'd come back to work. He still did his job, very well in fact.

He laughed, made jokes, complained about coffee and boring cases. He could engage in small talk with the team or discuss art or wine with Elizabeth over the Burke dinner table. But rarely did any genuine emotion play in his eyes and the smile he so easily produced never reached them. It was all surface, all show. All a ruse to keep whatever turmoil or pain he was feeling hidden from the world.

But since the call from Agent Littleton, Neal's defenses had ticked up a degree. He'd started taking cabs home after work, making excuses to skip lunch with the team. He'd also declined every dinner invitation El had extended. In short, Neal had been avoiding him. The only time they were together was when they were at the office and the only thing they ever talked about was their cases.

The dark circles began to appear beneath Neal's eyes, and then they grew darker. He wasn't sleeping and, judging from the way his clothes were starting to hang on his frame, he wasn't eating, either. Peter understood, better than most, what Neal was dealing with, what he was being forced to confront. There had been real monsters in his past. And these meetings, these interviews, were bringing them all up again.

Had the nightmares returned? Peter wanted to ask. He wanted to tell Neal again that he didn't have to go through this alone. But it was hard when Neal was shutting him out. Elizabeth reminded him why Neal tended to reject help when he needed it most; it was a learned behavior born of self-preservation. He needed to ask anyway, she told him, to help anyway. And the sooner, the better. Peter knew she was right, but so far, there hadn't been a good opportunity. And sadly, here in the Bureau conference room the day before an operation wasn't a good one either.

"Good to hear," Peter responded with resignation. "I'll see you tomorrow, then."

Neal nodded, but before he could turn to go, Peter spoke again. "If you want to hang around a few minutes," he offered. "I can give you a ride home."

"That's okay," Neal gave a quick shrug of nonchalance. "I'll just grab a cab."

Had he expected anything else? Not really. But he'd felt the need to ask, to offer.

"Then how about dinner Sunday night?" he pressed. They needed to talk. This was only the beginning. The trial was still weeks away, and even then, it was bound to drag out. "I know El would love to see you."

There was a brief glimpse of something in Neal's eyes, but it didn't linger. Was it wistfulness? Regret? It came and went with a rapidity that disallowed definition.

"Maybe another time," Neal replied. "But thanks for the invite."

Having declined yet another dinner invitation, Neal turned to go.

"This isn't going to work, Neal."

Peter didn't realize his thoughts had been verbalized in a mumble until he saw Neal stop in the hall.

He turned back to him, brow again raised in question. "What's not going to work?"

This wasn't the time or place to broach the subject, but now that he'd said it there was little to be done about it.

"This," he sighed wearily, getting to his feet. "This..." he stepped from behind the table, giving a small wave of his hand in Neal's direction, "thing you're doing."

"I'm a multitasker, Peter," Neal replied evenly. "You'll have to be more specific."

He'd spoken softly but his eyes held a challenge. Neal knew where this was going. Don't bring it up, his now narrowed, hard eyes warned.

Peter, of course, ignored it. In for a penny, in for a pound. Sometimes, when the right moment refused to present itself, you just had to take one and make it work.

"Okay, specifically, this wall you've put up." He watched for Neal's reaction. "You're closing yourself off and pushing everyone away." Peter couldn't keep the concern from his voice. "I know this is hard for you."

In this context, there was no need to define this. Just like months ago, there had been no need to define him. To Neal's credit, his demeanor remained remarkably unchanged; it was his sudden loss of color that betrayed him. There was the briefest of pauses, then Neal let out a breath Peter hadn't realized he'd been holding.

"It is what it is, Peter," he said, his utter emotional and physical exhaustion showing in the small statement. "Is it pleasant?" a touch of bitterness crept in. "No. Necessary? Yes." Determination. "I can handle this," he stated firmly. "I'll see it through this time. You don't have to worry about my testimony."

This time. Neal still blamed himself for not staying in Chicago and helping to put Eden away back then. Neal never felt a twinge of guilt for the crimes he'd committed, but somehow felt he deserved to bear the weight of Eden's. His conscience was as dysfunctional as the rest of him.

Peter held his gaze. "I'm not worried about your testimony, Neal," he explained in a low voice. "I'm worried about you."

Again, there was a flicker in Neal's eyes. His jaw clenched slightly. "Don't be."

If only it were that easy. "Maybe I wouldn't be if you would stop shutting me out."

The denial came surprisingly fast. "I'm not shutting you out." There was a slight strain in his voice. "I'm just doing what I'm told." Any other time Peter would have laughed outright at that declaration but Neal's countenance stilled the impulse. "We can't talk about it," he continued with a shake of his head. "Agent Littleton and Mr. Whitlock both told me that." His brow furrowed. "I don't want to mess this up."

Peter could appreciate that. He knew how important it was for Terrence Eden to go to prison for the rest of his life. Neal needed to see this through in order to ever have hopes of putting it behind him. But even in the best-case scenario that was still weeks away. And the strain was already starting to wear Neal down.

"We can't talk about the case," Peter clarified pointedly. "Or our testimony. It doesn't mean we can't talk at all."

"We do talk," Neal stated. "Every day."

"We talk about work," Peter pointed out. "Not about anything personal. Not about how you're doing with all this-"

"I'm doing fine with it!" Neal snapped. His instinct was to see concern as pity and Peter guessed that was what fueled the sudden anger that flashed in his eyes. But as quickly as his fury appeared, it disappeared, leaving a bleak look of weariness in its stead. His shoulders sagged. "Or as fine as I can be."

It was a quiet acknowledgment, a reluctant admission that he was having a hard time. He had to be exhausted; Peter could hear it in the hollowness of his voice. It had been in his face for days and now, even in his posture. It was more than the lack of sleep that was taking its toll; it was also the growing energy required to remain detached, to keep up the pretense that he was okay. But Peter knew he was not okay and whether or not he would admit it, he needed someone to help him bear the load.

"You remember what I told you?"

Neal gave a weak laugh, running his hand through his hair. "Not to do anything stupid?"

That, of course, was a standing imperative, but it wasn't the one Peter was looking for. There was something more important Neal needed to remember.

"You don't have to go through this alone." It was something Neal needed to hear again and again until it took. "Let people who care about you help." He paused. "Let. Me. Help."

Neal dropped his hand to his side and the faint smile on his face evaporated instantly. He swallowed, a range of emotions flittering across his ashen face. No wonder he's been avoiding me, Peter thought, he's barely keeping it together. The silence between them was heavy and Peter stood there, unsure of what to do. Part of him wanted to close the distance between them, grab Neal's shoulder, and give him a squeeze of comfort. But something in Neal's demeanor kept him in his place.

Neal took a shaky breath and straightened, pushed his shoulders back, and let his expression go blank. The transformation was impressive. Peter had only seen this once before; at the hanger when the Marshals had taken him back into custody. Neal had been far from fine then, just as he was far from there now.

"Thanks, Peter," he said. "I appreciate it but really, I'm okay."

He was so not okay. Peter knew it and he knew Neal knew it. And though the young man might appreciate his effort to reach out, he wasn't willing to reach back. Not yet at any rate.

"Well," Peter sighed, "if you change your mind, you know where to find me."