Warnings: medical squickiness
Notes: Here I was busily trying to work on another piece and the muse decided to start poking me. If there is one thing I've learned, it NEVER pays to ignore the muse. Beta'd by Ozmandius, Beta-Reader Extraordinaire. She's my PiaP, my cheerleader, gives me a swift kick when necessary. She makes me sound so much more literate. Any remaining mistakes are my own.
Spoilers: first season through 1.08 Hard Sell.
Word Count: approx. 4500
Summary: What was there to decide?
Feedback: Feedback is always welcomed. Flames will be ignored.
Disclaimer: White Collar and the characters mentioned herein are the creative properties of Jeff Eastin. This fanfic was created and shared solely for the enjoyment of fellow White Collar fans. No copyright infringement intended. No monies made.
*Further informational Medical Note at the end of the fic.
Penance [pen-uhns] - noun
a punishment undergone in token of penitence for sin.
"Life comes down to a few moments... this is one of them."
In ten days it would be four years - one thousand four hundred sixty-one [including leap year] days; the end of his parole. At one time early on, when he was chaffing at the bit to get rid of the tracker, he could have told you down to the hour how much longer he had until freedom. Now, his future lay open before him. There was talk that he might be given a full pardon when all was said and done. He had worked harder, lost more sleep, had more headaches, more adrenaline rushes, been bored to tears and been in more danger in those four years than he had ever been in the previous dozen or so years pulling cons and dancing away from law enforcement.
His birthday was less than a week away and he would be thirty-six when the tracker would be taken off for the final time; still in his prime. He could do anything. He had made enough legitimate contacts and friends during his time as an indentured FBI consultant that he could pick and choose what he wanted to do once he was free and clear on any claim the FBI had on him. The upside was he didn't have to worry about any of them finding out about his past as they already knew courtesy of Peter and the FBI.
June, bless her generous soul, had extended her invitation that he could continue to stay in her home in perpetuity if he wished. As she said, there were tons of empty rooms and she enjoyed having him around. Cindy, her granddaughter, now an art-college graduate was currently doing grad study in Europe. The mansion was pretty empty except for June, him and her live-in staff [and the frequently present, always welcomed Mozzie].
If he had been asked four years ago, what he would do if he was completely free to do whatever he desired, his answer would have been an instant "Find Kate" followed by a "Get back in the game." But so many things had changed in the last four years, not the least of which was himself. Kate was gone. Her role in the scheme to get the contents of his nest egg had blown up in her face, almost literally. Sure Fowler had used her, but she had not been silent about wanting what she felt entitled to. Both Peter and Fowler had made certain he knew the truth.
In the end to save Kate's life, Neal had gone to Peter and they had approached Hughes with what he and Mozzie had dug up. He did not have the Amber Music Box in his stash and he and Moz had met with little success when trying to get a line on it. He had sacrificed his cache to bring down the nasties threatening Kate. And in the chaos Kate had disappeared without a trace and they still had nothing on her. Peter and Hughes had managed to keep Neal's name away from any connections with goods that were confiscated by the Feds and in return he was not charged with any related crimes. And he had done his best to keep his nose clean for the rest of his parole.
He was not destitute by any standard. He still had a handful of overseas accounts that he created years ago on the advice of a very wise mentor. They were mostly untouched although he had luckily managed to contact Mozzie and have the management firm pull the majority of the funds out of the stock market before everything went to hell. He had two or three accounts available through the Caymans. He would never go hungry.
Other things had changed as well. One of the biggest reared its ugly head almost two years ago, halfway through his parole. When one of their suspects rabbited as the FBI descended on the scene, Neal had pursued. The man was unarmed and Neal did not feel he was in harm's way going after him [other than the stern lecture Peter was bound to deliver once again]. The guy had slipped between some shipping containers and Neal was hot on his heels.
It almost felt good to be running. He had always been athletic and lithe and made certain to take advantage of the home gym at June's at least three or four times a week. Roger Aimes, the suspect, had stumbled over some debris and it had slowed him enough for Neal to take a flying tackle to bring him down. They had ended up in a tangled pile of legs, arms and crushed cardboard boxes.
They had both been stunned by the impact. Aimes had a mild concussion as his head had bounced at least once off the pavement and Neal had the wind knocked out of him. Before either had recovered, Cruz was there with her gun not even breathing hard. "Ah, the cavalry's arrived at last," he'd wheezed out and then coughed as he rubbed his chest and realized he had a few other aches and pains making themselves known as the adrenaline rush wore off.
After the EMTs were called to the scene, Aimes was taken, with Cruz in tow, to the ED for an x-ray to confirm that he had only a mild concussion. Peter had given Neal one of those looks that promised a lecture when he had limped back to the main scene. "Did you get checked out by the EMTs as well?"
"Yes, Dad." He carefully sat on small crate off to the side. "Just a few bruises." He rubbed his chest where Aimes's elbow had connected hard and driven the breath out of him. By the time they returned to the offices to start the 'After Action' reports, he had his breath back even if his muscles had stiffened up and his knee was killing him.
When they had finally called it a night and sent everyone home, Neal could barely limp much less walk and had voiced no objections when Peter detoured to the nearest ED. Almost four hours later he was once again in the car. X-rays had determined that he had badly strained the ligaments in his knee so with a script for pain-killers, anti-inflammatories and along with crutches and a huge monstrosity of a leg/knee brace he was headed to Peter and El's home. El had insisted when Peter had called to explain why he was late getting home.
He kept up with all the follow-up appointments and physio-therapy sessions. Problem was that he found various aches and pains kept making appearances even when there was no apparent cause. He pushed through the pain mostly and thought he had it covered until about three months later, long after the brace and crutches were gone and PT was a bad memory, he woke up one morning so stiff and achy that he could've sworn someone must have come in and worked him over while he somehow managed to sleep through it.
Slowly, breathing harshly he managed to snag his cell from the nightstand. Several deep breaths later, he pressed '1'. Third ring he heard, "What's up, Neal?"
"Peter, I'm calling in sick." He shifted and barely managed to stifle a groan. He felt chilled and tugged the covers up higher.
"What? Are you okay?"
"I'm-" What the hell was he supposed to say? 'I hurt like hell and need to see a doctor'? "I think I'm down with the latest flu." Without even trying, he knew he didn't sound well; his voice was raspy and sounded strained. Hell, it even hurt a bit to take a deep breath.
"I thought you got a flu shot when the rest of the office got theirs?"
"I did." He sighed. "But you know as well as I do - it's no guarantee that I wouldn't get it or maybe this is a different strain." He couldn't find a comfortable position; everything ached. "I-I need to...." God, his head ached.
"Have you called and made an appointment with a doctor yet?"
"Not yet." He glanced at the clock next to the bed. "The office doesn't open until eight and it's not even six-fifteen yet."
"You make certain you get in today. They have Tamiflu that can help you get over this faster if you take it in time."
"Yeah, I know." God, he wondered if June's driver was available. He didn't feel up to dealing with a taxi.
"If you need a ride, give me a call."
"I will." He had to smile to himself. Peter tried to come across as such a hard-ass but in reality he was a truly great guy and friend. "Thanks."
Fortunately, by the time the doctor's office was open and he had called to schedule an appointment [thank god there had been a morning cancellation], he had finally managed to drag his aching body out of bed and into the shower, gotten cleaned up and dressed. He was trying to summon the energy to head down the stairs and flag a taxi when June's granddaughter had knocked on his door, checking up on him. "Neal? Everything okay?"
"Umm...." He grabbed his jacket. "Be right there."
"Is everything-" Cindy blinked at him when he opened the door. "You look terrible." She frowned.
"Yeah. Yeah." He gave her a wan smile as he slowly moved past her heading to the stairs. "Don't get too close. I think I might have the flu." God, let it be just the flu. "I've got an appointment with the doctor."
"Do you need a ride?" Cindy was a good kid. She shared her grandmother's huge heart and had, despite being younger than Neal, seemingly adopted him as well.
"I'll call for a taxi." Despite the initial thought of using June's driver, he didn't feel he should impose.
"You'll do no such thing." She hovered as he slowly descended the stairs. "Edward is available. I'd drive you except I have a morning class." Before he could respond, she had scooted around him at the bottom of the stairs and went in search of June's driver.
Nearly three hours later, after being sent to the hospital for blood draws, urine samples, a skin biopsy and a chest x-ray along with another x-ray of his knee, he was back in the exam room at the doctor's office listening to the diagnosis. "It'll be a few days before all the tests are back, so I can't give you an absolute diagnosis just yet." Neal rubbed the band-aid on his arm where the biopsy had been taken. They had seemed particularly interested in the rash he had barely noticed before. "There are several possibilities - given the various symptoms you've displayed - but the most likely appears to be 'systemic lupus erythematosus*'." Neal blinked. Lupus? What?
"Now, it could be argued that it is far more common for women to be diagnosed with Lupus, but men do get it as well and frankly, all indicators seem to point that way...."
He thought he could handle just about anything life sent his way. After all he'd handled elaborate cons and fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, make-them-up-as-you-go schemes and even prison and barely broke a sweat. But he was wrong. He must have zoned out sometime during Dr. Jameson's explanation because the next thing he was aware of was Peter talking to him, Peter's hand on his shoulder reassuring him, grounding him.
So his life became a rat race of doctor's appointments and exhaustive tests and scans. It had taken another two months to rule-out several other possibilities and to finally confirm the lupus diagnosis. His life then revolved around trial runs on different med cocktails, blood work and follow-up visits. It had taken nearly ten months to get his symptoms under control without any undue side-effects from the drugs and he had now been in remission [via drug therapy] for about eight months.
All during the nightmare that had become his life, Peter, El, Mozzie, June and Cindy had been there for him, going well above and beyond. And to a lesser extent Cruz, Jones, hell even Hughes, had been a part of the support network as well. Early on he had had days where he could have almost believed it was all just a bad dream and then he had days where the joint pain, muscle aches and fever were bad enough that it was an effort to just get out of bed in the morning.
Hughes had been surprisingly understanding of the situation; it seemed a cousin had been diagnosed with lupus years before when the treatments were far less effective. Neal had continued on in his role as FBI consultant working in the office or working from home when he couldn't handle the commute. Peter and his boss had stepped in when there had been some minor talk that if Neal could not fulfill his end of the parole deal then he should be returned to prison. Both men pointed out that it was Neal's experience and expertise that was needed, not whether he could go to a crime scene or handle an undercover op.
Things were nearly back to normal now. He was feeling the best he had in a very long time [the doctors hadn't been wrong when they said that the on-set of lupus had been happening over a long course of time]. Neal had also always been flexible. If the new normal now meant taking a handful of prescription meds over the course of a day, he handled it with as much aplomb as he did most things in his life. 'Sides under the watchful gaze of his friends-cum-caregivers-cum-family he didn't have much choice.
The dilemma.... No, that was the wrong term. The decision facing him was what he wanted to do with his life once the tracker was officially off his ankle. What would he decide? At one time, he would have run to Kate [if he could have found her] or spent the rest of his life searching for her as he jumped head first back into the con game. There would have been no choice, no decision to be made.
But somehow during his time as Peter Burke's pet-conman, as the indentured Fibbie consultant, he had discovered another side of himself. There was excitement and challenge in pitting his wits along with Peter and his team against the latest White Collar scheme. He had put down roots for the first time in his life. Years in foster care shuffled from house to house followed by a young adulthood of transient existence moving from city to city, sometimes country to country, hitting new marks with new schemes while avoiding law enforcement had left him somewhat ill-prepared to deal with having real ties and real friends beyond the rare exception of someone like Moz.
Reese Hughes had proven to be a source of surprise for Neal more than once during the nearly four years of his parole. The older agent was a hard-nosed as they came, had a definite moral code and had little sympathy for any criminal - reformed or not. Yet, when faced with the hard facts of Neal's aid in solving cases with Peter's team he had stepped up and given his staunch support. In fact, just the previous week Hughes had called him in to his office early one morning. After a polite inquiry about Neal's health, Peter's boss made an offer. He came right out and admitted that Neal had been a real asset and that he was being offered the consultant position for real once the tracker came off. And he hoped that Neal would give it serious consideration.
A significant percentage of the legitimate contacts he had made in the art and business worlds had also over the last six months reiterated offers of a job once he was free of his obligations to the FBI. He would have been a fool if he dismissed them without serious consideration. Did he want to go legit and work for a gallery or art dealer or a financial enterprise? Would he be able to get himself out of bed everyday and face a schedule existence?
One thing he had to admit, even in the midst of treatment when he had mostly been confined to the office or home, his time with the FBI had never been truly boring as a whole. Yeah, he got bored poring over financial reports, sorting through case files stuffed full of ledgers, receipts, paper trails and even electronic trails, but there was always a new case around the corner or something would fall into the laps. Sometimes when a case was hot and the leads were fresh they would work eighteen to twenty hour days; sometimes when they successfully wrapped up an op and the baddies were all in custody, after the initial reports were complete, Hughes would kick the lot of them out of the offices declaring he didn't want to see hide nor hair of any of them for the next forty-eight hours.
Some days, Peter would meet with El for lunch and be home in time to share dinner with her [often as not with Neal as a tag along]. Some weeks, Peter and El would barely manage to communicate via voice mails and texts as their schedules were in conflict. Fortunately, as word spread on the team and in the offices that Neal was indeed legitimately ill someone was always there prodding him, whether he was in the offices poring over reports with the team or at home with his laptop and papers scattered across his bed, making certain he took his meds and got some rest. Even June's personal staff had embraced him as one of their own. From his first appearance in the mansion, they had accepted him without question or hostility, but as his illness progressed they had all but adopted him as well.
His phone chirped, drawing his attention. He fished it out from among the papers scattered across the table in his room. It was text message from Moz. 'Havng a gr8 here. Wish u were time.' He grinned. June had finally convinced Moz to take advantage of a timeshare she had in the Bahamas. Mozzie, the ultimate New Yorker, had argued he had no wish to be baked on a tropical beach and deal with sand in places that he didn't even know he had. But in the end he had given in and June had had the time of her life helping Moz go shopping for a little sun and fun clothes. He was due back in a few days.
He glanced at the clock on the phone and winced. Oops! Time to get changed and get over to the Burke's house. El had commanded his presence at dinner. It was Saturday and he had spent the morning shopping for the few necessities he needed for his personal kitchenette and well as restocking a few personal toiletries. Bringing home a fresh corned beef sandwich from a local deli to nosh on, he had spent the afternoon sorting through the paperwork for yet another cold case White Collar crime.
Cleaning up, he shaved and put on a suit with a deep sapphire blue silk shirt and no tie. El hadn't specified a dress code, but she had said she was fixing a nice dinner and it seemed wrong to show up in jeans. He grabbed a bottle of wine, grabbed his jacket and coat and headed downstairs to the waiting taxi.
The house was almost dark when he arrived. He could just make out the light spilling out from the kitchen. Neal grinned; no doubt El had Peter helping well beyond just setting the table. Shifting the bottle to the crook of his arm, he pressed the doorbell. "Be right there!" He heard El's voice muffled through the door and moments later the locks rattle and the door opened to reveal Peter with his sleeves rolled up and a chef's apron.
"Caffrey." His partner grinned and moved to allow him to enter. "El's in the kitchen." Peter took his coat and motioned him towards the dark living room. "I've been ordered to keep you company."
About five seconds before the lights snapped on, he got a sudden sense that all was not quite what it appeared.
He stumbled back into Peter, who steadied him with a hand to his back and then laughed as he pushed Neal forward. And he found himself grinning like a loon as everyone laughed and surged forward. It seemed everyone was there from Moz and June to Jones and Hughes. El had gone all out with the 'Rat Pack' theme of the party that was meant to celebrate Neal's birthday as well as the end of his parole; not that he would've expected any less from an event planner of El's caliber.
He shook hands or exchanged hugs or even kisses with enough people that he lost track sometime after Tara, Claire and Bai and her father. Finally, he found himself face to face with the woman responsible. "Mrs. Burke." He bowed his head in deference to her.
"Mr. Caffrey." El's grin was brilliant enough to light up the party on its own.
"I don't.... I don't know what to say." He truly felt a bit overwhelmed. "Except.... Well, except for 'thank you.'"
"I think I should note this in my planner." El was laughing as she hugged him. "I made the always suave and eloquent Neal Caffrey speechless."
"You are too much, El." Neal laughed along with her as he pecked her on the cheek. "This is really too much." He swept his gaze around the room filled with friends and family.
"Nope." She glanced around the room. "Everyone wanted to be here and the party was Peter's idea." El winked at him. "But I'm sure he'll deny everything."
"What will who deny?" Peter stepped up and wrapped an arm around his wife's waist.
"See you on Monday." Jones clapped him on the shoulder. "Your last week as a parolee." They exchanged grins as Neal stepped back and shut the door. He stifled a yawn as El walked past and headed upstairs.
"It's late. You know you're more than welcome to stay over in the guest room, Neal." She touched his shoulder. "'Sides between us we can drag Peter to Dim Sum at Jing Fong's in the morning."
"Sounds like a plan to me." He returned the conspiratorial grin and followed her up the stairs. The back door closed and Neal heard Peter locking up after taking Satchmo for a quick walk.
A few short minutes later, he settled under the covers wearing his second most favorite sweats. Somehow over the course of the last four years a portion of his wardrobe had migrated over to the Burke's house to the guest room that had all but become his own. El even kept the guest bath stocked with his preferred soap and shampoo.
El woke to the scent of freshly brewed coffee and sighed as she shifted and snuggled closer to Peter. Unfortunately, her bladder wasn't going to let her snuggle much longer. She sighed and finally pushed herself out of the warm nest of bedding and husband.
A few minutes later, she stepped into the kitchen to find Neal pouring her a mug of coffee. "Morning." The Sunday paper was spread out on the dining room table and Satchmo was contently sprawled next to the chair Neal settled on.
"Thanks." As she sat down at the end of the table, she realized that something was different with Neal. Sipping her coffee, she studied the younger man. "Neal?"
"Yes, El." He folded the section of paper he had been scanning and set it aside.
"You've decided haven't you?" she prompted.
"What was there to decide?" The sparkle in his eyes and brilliant smile spoke volumes.
"You play the hand you're dealt. I think the game's worthwhile."
Systemic lupus erythematosus
Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is a chronic, inflammatory autoimmune disorder. It may affect the skin, joints, kidneys, and other organs.
Symptoms vary from person to person, and may come and go. The condition may affect one organ or body system at first. Others may become involved later. Almost all people with SLE have joint pain and most develop arthritis. Frequently affected joints are the fingers, hands, wrists, and knees.
Inflammation of various parts of the heart may occur as pericarditis, endocarditis, or myocarditis. Chest pain and arrhythmias may result from these conditions.
For more information please check out the Lupus Foundation of America.