Disclaimer: White Collar and all of it's characters do not belong to me. This story does.
A/N: Not entirely sure if I want to keep this story as is or add on to it, so let me know what you think. Reviews make me a very happy little author.
The darkness consumed him, wrapping tight around his arms and his waist, crawling around his hips and twisting around his neck, latching onto his ankles. He couldn't tell if eyes were open or closed anymore. He shook his head, fought against it, but those horrid vines were much too powerful. They held him down tighter. He screamed as loud as could but found that no sound could work its way out of his dry throat.
"Please," he breathed and then he coughed and the action rippled through his body, shaking him and the vines coiled tighter all over his body and then, as quickly as they had shot to grab him, the released their grip and let him go. He relaxed and looked down at his leg, felt down it until he came to his ankle. It was scarred. In the dim light he saw his skin was red and raw. It burned.
Neal shot upright in his bed, sweat pouring down his face, his breathing heavy. He felt like somebody was sitting on top of his lungs. He tried to breathe in as deeply as he could but found that, no matter how much air he managed to take in, he couldn't get it out. He glanced around the room, shadows dancing around him in the dim moonlight. He ripped the covers off of his body and drew his knees in to his chest. He glanced down at his ankle. There it was, bulky and ugly and gray, the soft red light blinking up at him. It wasn't the scar he'd seen his dream- in his nightmare- but it was close enough. Neal looked to his left and saw the numbers of his alarm clock slowly bleeding into one another.
Neal shook his head and swung his legs over the side of the bed, slowly standing and making his way into his bathroom. The cool tiles made him suck in his already shaky breath sharply. He hadn't been expecting it. He considered turning on the light, but then figured it would be too difficult to coax his tired mind back to sleep if he allowed his eyes to adjust to the light. He stood at the sink and ducked under the faucet. He groped around for the dial and turned it, jumping a little as the cool liquid hit his neck. He stayed there for a minute and then lifted his head and shook out his damp hair. He reached for a small wash towel that he kept beside the sink and patted his neck dry.
He hadn't intended to, but as Neal was lowering the wash towel back down on the counter he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. He couldn't make out his features distinctly in the darkness but he did notice the deep circles under his eyes, the pale complexion of his skin.
"Damn," he muttered, the only word that managed to dance its way off of his tongue.
Neal shook his head again in a desperate attempt to clear it. His attempt proved fruitless, but at that point the man was much too exhausted to care. He shuffled out of the bathroom and crawled back into bed, snuggling underneath his comforter. He relaxed his head on one pillow and reached up to grab another, which he hugged close to his chest. He buried his face into the pillow, wishing that it were not a mere pillow and, instead, could have been a person. Someone who could calm him down after such a hellish dream. Someone who could hold him. Someone who could tell him that everything would be ok. Someone who could make him believe that was true.
Neal sighed deeply and turned on his side, staring into the LED numbers on his clock, watching time, precious minutes, slip away.
He closed his eyes, wrestled with his racing mind, desperate for that calming slumber he had gone without for many a long night. He opened his eyes again, accepting failure, and instead of fighting against himself anymore he just laid there, still and silent, watching time creep by.
The plan was simple. They would give Neal the money and he would waltz into gallery under the pseudonym of Harvey Smith, an avid art collector who has just flown in from North Carolina. He would inspect the painting for as many minutes as he deemed reasonable, and, with that sly and charming smile, he would offer up all that he had. Then the FBI agents, who many in the office deemed to be the true heroes of these many operations, would swoop in and grab the painting, taking the thief who'd taken away in handcuffs. They'd done it before, both with and without Caffrey, and they would do many times again. It was simple. Foolproof. Perfect.
Or, at least, it should have been.
When Peter arrived at the office that morning he had been expecting Neal to be there already, waiting for him in the swivel chair behind his back, wearing that ridiculous grin and greeting him in his all-too-chipper manner before offering a chair up to him and asking what mischief the FBI would be getting him into today.
Neal was there. He was in the swivel chair behind the desk. But he wore no grin. He gave no greeting. He offered Peter no seat and asked him no questions.
Peter slipped off his coat and draped it over one of the chairs in front of his desk, the one he normally pushed Neal into each time he found the younger man sitting haughtily at his desk. He looked Neal over. The ex-con didn't seem to notice him. He was pale, with dark purple circles under his dull and expressionless eyes.
"Morning, Neal," Peter said. Neal made a small, harsh noise in the back of his throat but other than that gave no response. "Neal?"
"Huh?" Neal looked up. He looked dazed, Peter noticed, as if he weren't all there. "Oh. Morning."
Neal glanced around the room, noticing where he was sitting, and quickly stood up and sat himself in the chair Peter had just dropped his coat on. Neal fidgeted a little as he looked around again and then met Peter's eyes once more.
"Sorry," he said softly. Peter shook his head. Never before had he seen Neal Caffrey do such a thing. It had become a kind of a game between the two to see who could get on the other's nerves more. Neal would be his usual self, cool and sly and witty, touching on Peter's nerves with small things such as stealing his chair or commenting on his bland sense of style, speaking just the slightest bit out of term in a meeting or complimenting Elizabeth one more time than Peter had. To counter, Peter would offer up long lectures to the younger man when they were trapped in a space together for long hours in certain operations, or bragging about Elizabeth's wonderful cooking and what she would be preparing for the night and then making up some excuse about why Neal couldn't be invited to share the dinner with them. It wasn't the kind of game that Peter particularly enjoyed, but it was something that kept both himself and Neal occupied. It was something that happened every day, whether either man had planned on what they'd be doing or not. It was something Peter had grown very accustomed to and he saw that he today that game simply was not going to be played.
"Neal," Peter started and Neal's eyes widened a little bit at being addressed. "Are you ok?"
"Fine," Neal said a tad bit too quickly. He nodded as if to assure himself that his answer was truthful. "I'm fine. Why?"
"N…Nothing," Peter replied, shaking his head. He looked past the glass walls of his office to see Hughes walking into his own. "I'll be right back," Peter said and before Neal had any chance to respond Peter rushed out of the room.
"Hughes!" he called as he drew closer to the older man. Hughes was already in his office, but he could still hear the younger agent. He glanced up at Peter and motioned for him to come in. Peter pushed the door open and let himself inside, sitting down in a chair Hughes offered to him.
"What is it, Agent Burke?" he asked and Peter wrung his hands, glancing over his shoulder to his office where Neal sat, practically motionless, his eyes trained on the floor. Peter turned back to his superior.
"It's Neal," Peter said slowly, carefully picking out his words. "I know we had him set up to go undercover today, but I just don't know if we should let him go."
"What do you mean?" Hughes asked, his eyebrows knitting together as he lowered gaze toward Peter. "You think Caffrey can't be trusted with this?"
"No, no, it isn't that," Peter said, shaking his head. He found himself looking back again at Neal. He swallowed past the worry in his throat and once again looked back to Hughes. "It's just that, he doesn't look so good to me. He's not…He's not Neal. He just seems so out of it."
"Is he sick or something?" Hughes wanted to know, looking over Peter's shoulder at the ex-con. Neal had lowered his head a bit, as if he could feel the gazes on him.
"I'm not sure. I just don't to risk this operation if Neal isn't up to it. He might not be able to pull it off if he's like this."
"I understand," Hughes said and Peter could see that he meant what he said. Hughes clasped his hands together on the top of his desk and allowed a sigh to escape his lips. "Talk to Caffrey. Get the story. Let me know if he can do this. If he can't, I'll send in Jones. He can act as Mr. Smith's assistant. We're getting this over with today, whether Caffrey can help us or not."
Peter nodded and thanked his superior. He then made his way back into his own office. This time, when the door opened, Neal reacted. He jumped a little bit, as if he had not expected the noise of the squeaking hinges- wasn't it just last week that Neal had made a crack about them?- and turned around to face Peter.
"What was that about?" Neal asked. Peter sat down across from him and looked the ex-con in the eye.
"It was about you, Neal," Peter admitted and he noticed Neal's muscles tensing. "The operation today-"
"Harvey Smith," Neal said suddenly. "Art collector. North Carolina. Don't we have to go soon?"
"Neal, are you sure you can handle this?" Peter asked.
"Handle this?" Neal scoffed. "I've handled worse."
"I know you have," Peter sighed. "But, Neal, you don't look good. You seem tired."
Neal snorted. "Yeah. Tired."
Peter tried to push the sad tone of Neal's voice out of his head, but those two words had already wriggled their way past his skull and were ringing in his ears.
"Neal, this could be dangerous," Peter said. He didn't know that for sure. Well, of course, any operation could be dangerous, but ones like this usually weren't. The art thief here wasn't brilliant like Neal, or Ghovat, and he wasn't clever like that short man Neal was always hanging around with. He was had average intelligence. He knew all the basics. But Peter knew that when Neal had classified the man as a rookie during their briefing on the case that his partner was right. They could catch this guy easily, have the painting recovered and the man behind bars in enough time for Peter to surprise Elizabeth by being on time for dinner. However, despite all of this knowledge filling his brain, Peter felt a fierce protectiveness running through him, a strong desire to keep Neal safe. If he had to lie, he would lie. He just didn't need Neal getting hurt.
"Did you get any sleep at all last night?" Peter asked and Neal leaned back in his seat and thought for a few quiet moments.
"4 o'clock," he said softly and Peter felt confusion cover his features. Neal sighed. "4 o'clock. That's when I woke up. I tried to get back to sleep but I couldn't."
"How about the weekend, Neal?" Neal shook his head and leaned his elbows on his knees. He pinched the bridge of his nose.
"Same," he said. "I haven't been able to sleep. It's been getting worse."
"What wakes you up?" The question was innocent, fueled only by Peter's concern for his partner, but hot tears filled Neal's eyes anyway. He held his head in his hands and bit his bottom lip, desperate to flee from a breakdown. Peter stood up and was at the younger man's side in an instant. He was never good with crying, but he knew something had to be done. Neal couldn't go undercover like this. Peter laid a strong hand on Neal's shaking shoulder and looked up, meeting Hughes' eyes from across the office of the FBI White Collar Crime Unit. He shook his head, glancing down at Neal, who was now forcing himself to take slow and even breathes. Hughes nodded with understanding and Peter nodded back.
The plan was simple.
Neal's life wasn't.
Hours later Neal found himself on his couch, fighting for sleep. Peter had instructed him to go home and rest. Neal had protested, wanting badly to go through with the operation and help the man who slipped him the closest thing to a real-life 'Get Out of Jail Free' card. He felt like going through business as usual would help him go back to some kind of normal rhythm in his life. Peter, however, was just as stubborn as he was and after a long bickering match between the two men, Neal had gone home.
So there was, lying on the couch in a quiet room. He had turned the TV thinking that maybe some kind of noise would help to soothe him into sleep but it only gave him a headache that pleaded with him to turn the machine off. He had dozed off a few times in the past hour, but each little nap was shorter than the last until he couldn't keep his eyes closed for more than a minute if he was that lucky. Every time he closed his eyes that horrible nightmare swam into his head. He was scared stiff to sleep, like that girl in that old horror movie. What was it? A Nightmare on Elm Street? Freddy Krueger ruthlessly haunted the dreams of teenagers, killing them if they dared to sleep long enough. This dream was like Neal's own Freddy Krueger, crouching in the darkest corners of his mind, waiting until he was relaxed in sleep before it attacked.
At around ten o'clock Neal made his way from his couch to his bed. For hours that dragged on like days he tossed and turned, closing his eyes as tight as he could as if that would actually help him fall asleep. It must have worked eventually, because he found himself immersed in another one of his nightmares. Those dark vines snakes around his entire body again, tightening around him until the pain was unbearable. He cried out, tears leaking out of his eyes. Before he knew it he was upright in his bed again. He touched his face. The tears he'd shed in his dream were real. Swallowing hard past the lump in his throat Neal looked at the clock.
He reached for his phone, which he always kept on his nightstand so that he could easily grab it on his way out in the morning. He flipped it open and took a shaky breath.
Neal wasn't even sure who he was calling until he had already dialed the number and had the phone held up to his ear. Ring, ring, ring. The sound bounced around in his head until it was broken by a groggy hello.
"It's nightmares," Near breathed into the phone.
"Nigh- …Neal?" Peter's voice sounded distant and Neal felt a pang of guilt run through his body for waking for the poor man at such an ungodly hour. He glanced at the clock.
"It's nightmares," Neal repeated. "I can't sleep because I'm having nightmares."