Title: Three Kinds of Hell
Written for: kriadydragon as a response to the collarcorner Prompt Fest #2 on LiveJournal
Would Like: Neal run ragged to the point of extreme exhaustion and collapse, either by an agent he is working with or a bad guy. I would like the exhaustion to be heavy and realistic, not just Neal out of breath and tired but so worn out he eventually can't move and it makes the situation worse. I am as much a comfort junky as I am a hurt junky, so comfort would be awesome. As would Neal ending up at home in his own bed, finally able to rest.
Don't Want: Neal's situation to be his own fault.
Summary: With Peter incapacitated, Neal is assigned a temporary new handler. Running through the city and spending evenings at various hospitals starts taking its toll on Neal.
Characters/Pairings: Neal, Peter, Elizabeth, OMC
Warnings: Spoilers for up to and including 2x09 'Point Blank'
Author's Note: Please cut me some slack, because this idea came to me some time between 2 and 3 AM after a long day at work. I wrote the first 500 words mentally in the shower, then quickly jotted them down in a notebook and typed them up the next morning. The rest poured out eventually. (And, no, that's not my usual creative process, but, hey, whatever works, right?)
I cannot recommend channeling knee injury karma, because I hit my knee on the accursed metal frame of my desk chair last night when I was pondering this fic. (I shall mention that it's the same IKEA chair model they're using for the White Collar FBI office set.) It still hurts after a good night's sleep. Man, I hope I never injure my knee beyond a simple bump and bruise.
This takes place between episodes 2x09 and 2x10, under the assumption that Mozzie got shot and ended up in the hospital in bad condition. I have a feeling the show's not gonna go there, but this doesn't work any other way.
Apologies to kriadydragon for not working in the "makes the situation worse", because it just doesn't fit for what I had in mind. Maybe someone else can write something and go that route. I still hope you like what I've come up with.
Thank you once again to the wonderful rabidchild67 for the beta-read. I almost feel guilty for siccing so many fics at you over such a short period of time.
Disclaimer: White Collar, its characters and its settings belong to Jeff Eastin and USA Network. And, guys? Your characters are not only welcome, they're wonderful. I'm just borrowing, I promise.
Neal Caffrey always had impeccable timing. Unfortunately, Peter Burke did not.
Just when Neal could have really used a break, Peter didn't have the heart to refuse a basketball game among friends and walked away (limped away, more like) with a badly banged up knee that required rather complicated surgery. So Peter was in the hospital, and they said it'd take at least a week until he was released. More weeks of extended sick leave were expected to follow.
They had stuck Neal with a temporary handler. No one in White Collar was available, so they'd assigned him to Feynman Frill. No joke, that was the guy's actual name. Neal wondered what the poor child must have done wrong as a newborn to earn parents sticking him with a name like that.
Fittingly so, Feynman Frill was a freakin' nutjob.
Officially, Frill was assigned to the Cyber Crime unit, but in the time Neal had spent with him, he had yet to see him work a case fitting into that category. In fact, for a guy specializing in computer crime, he spent surprisingly little time in front of any computer.
What was worse, Neal didn't think he would ever meet anyone who was more conspiratorially paranoid than Mozzie, but it looked like Moz had met a rival who was outclassing him by light years. The moment Neal met Frill, the guy started to ramble on about government conspiracies, asking Neal if he'd ever thought he'd been abducted by aliens. Neal constantly wondered how the guy had passed his psych evaluation. There should be rules against allowing someone as paranoid as this being an FBI agent.
It took a mere half hour with Frill for Neal to think of him as a badly caricatured Fox Mulder, and sure enough, Frill actually had an "I Want To Believe" poster in his office. Though, to the FBI's credit, Frill's office was on the third floor and not in the basement.
Frill didn't believe in driving. Cars were evil machines and could be traced through satellites. (He also insisted Neal switch off the GPS function in his cell phone.) Thus, there was a lot of taking the Subway and busses and mostly walking on foot. It was a farce, and Neal couldn't fathom how the FBI could justify keeping a guy like Frill on their payroll.
Worst of all, it made Neal start to wish he could exchange his Italian leather footwear for sneakers. Anything that would make walking through the city for hours on end less of a living hell of blisters and pressure marks.
Frill didn't believe in caffeine intake either—or any kind of indulgence in something as silly as, say, going on a lunch break. Food was always ingested in a hurry. A sandwich quickly grabbed at a deli, a hot dog purchased at a stall on the way to some godforsaken place or other Neal didn't even want to be.
Life with Frill was both dull and exhausting, and every new day brought on a louder prayer from Neal for Peter to have a speedy recovery. A miracle recovery would be nice. One that would forego the weeks of physical therapy and hobbling on crutches and just the general absence of Peter from the New York White Collar office.
Considering all this, Neal was sure he was eternally doomed to go from one hell to another—from Chivvying Frill Hell to Mozzie ICU Hell to an actually much more pleasant Peter Bedside Hell. It didn't help that Moz and Peter were in different hospitals, both outside of Neal's radius.
Mozzie ICU Hell sometimes became his refuge, because save for the beeping instruments, it was usually quite calm down there. The chairs were comfortable enough to doze off in, and the nurses offered you water, sometimes even coffee when they had a minute to spare. The vending machine also had decent snacks. Some days, though, the ICU was frantic with new arrivals and code blue emergencies. On those days, Neal quickly fled, patting Mozzie's lifeless arm, murmuring promises of returning the next day.
Peter Bedside Hell was more stimulating, except when Peter was cranky from acute pain or the inability to move around. It was worse when it was both. Elizabeth was as much a constant fixture in Peter's room as possible, but Neal knew Peter was grateful for his visits, even though they often coincided with El's because she and Frill had similar working hours.
Of course Peter inquired about Neal's new handler, but Neal was determined not to insinuate just how much of an ordeal working with Frill really was. There would be vague reassurances on Neal's part of, "You know, the cases we're working are pretty interesting." (not) or, "Frill's an okay guy." (in a total loony kind of way). Peter's pitying look told Neal that he wasn't buying any of it, but they both played the game.
The universe had thrown Neal for a loop, and he didn't know what kind of bad karma reservoir he must have poked around in so that the volcano on top of it had started to erupt in his face. He couldn't remember when he'd last slept in his own bed. More than three days, surely.
He remembered the night on the Burke's couch, when an emotionally fragile Elizabeth had broken down in tears on the way to drop Neal off at his house. He'd offered to drive her home and didn't have the heart to just leave her there by herself. One bottle of red wine and a long conversation later, some time after 2 AM, he must have fallen asleep on their couch, because he woke up the next morning with a blanket draped over him and a crick in his neck that he hadn't been able to get rid of all day.
The day after, a request from Jones and Diana had come in for Neal to help them with a particularly tricky case. Neal had jumped at the chance, because—really—any excuse to get away from Chivvying Frill Hell earned brownie points in Neal's book. It had originally been planned for an afternoon only, but it had unexpectedly stretched into a Municipal Utility Van stakeout that lasted half the night and then some. At least Neal had made it back to his apartment before dawn, but at 4:30 AM he knew that if he succumbed to lying down in bed, he'd be even more sluggish for the rest of the day. So he opted for the couch. Accumulated nap time that night amounted to less than three hours.
Last night had started in a chair next to Mozzie's bed and had ended on a narrow hospital cot in an empty exam room a compassionate nurse had shown him some time between 2 and 3 AM. He'd woken up around 6 AM, disoriented and frayed, when another nurse gently ushered him from the room because it was needed for an emergency.
And now, after another taxing day of chasing Frill-sized ghosts through the city, Neal had once again fled from the tumultuous confines of Mozzie ICU Hell to Peter Bedside Hell, praying that it wouldn't be another evening of whining about the food or exchange of meaningless platitudes to conceal the grimaces and the pain.
Thankfully, Neal was met with neither. Peter had his first post-surgery physical therapy session earlier and was boasting with newfound optimism and rare complacency. Rock bottom suddenly felt more distant than it had just minutes ago. Maybe it had also helped that Neal had grabbed two of the fancy coffee drinks in the cafeteria downstairs that he knew Peter would never admit to actually being quite fond of.
The rapid intake of caffeine on an empty stomach made Neal light-headed and he lowered himself in the chair next to the bed. The almost untouched remains of Peter's dinner stood on the tray above his bed, and Neal's stomach lurched into a rumble audible not only to him. Peter gave him a scrutinizing look, squinting his eyes just a little, the way he did when was trying to gauge something he couldn't put his finger on.
Neal's first instinct was to say no, because deflection was his middle name, but he was so damn hungry that honesty won. "You're not eating that?" he pointed at the mushroom and cheese omelet that didn't even look all that appetizing.
Peter pushed the plate away from him. "Knock yourself out."
A vacuum cleaner couldn't have gotten rid of the dish faster than Neal shuffling it into his mouth. Peter did a double-take. "Wow, is Frill starving you, or something?"
Neal flashed a quick smile. "He's not real big on meal breaks."
"Still, a man's gotta eat."
"Oh, he eats. Just not the kind of food I can easily stomach."
Peter gave Neal a quick once-over, clearly not liking what he saw. He pushed the call button for the nurse, and Neal wondered what he was doing.
Neal had to admit, it was kinda sweet. And kinda Peter. He didn't make big words or use grand gestures. It would be something as simple as asking the nurse if there was a chance there were any leftover meals that they could spare. And a glass and some water. Neal felt a lot better after a second helping of badly seasoned omelet and gulping down two glasses of water.
After some light banter about Peter's day and a lot of diverting Peter's attention from anything going on in Neal's life, they settled into comfortable silence. Peter asked Neal if he'd mind watching the game on TV. Even though Neal wasn't interested in the sporting aspect of it, it would be a welcome opportunity to rest without worrying about the next thing to say, to hide, the next truth to bend.
Half an hour later, Elizabeth found both men sound asleep when she arrived in room A241. Peter was snoring lightly, endearingly, through his nose with his head against the pillows. The TV was still on, showing some obnoxious nasal spray commercial. Neal's head had lolled to the side in the chair, his mouth half open. Elizabeth couldn't help but crack a smile.
Figuring her husband was getting enough sleep as it was, she went over to the side of the bed not occupied by a sleeping FBI consultant. She softly kissed him on the forehead, which prompted him to wake from his slumber.
Keeping her voice low, she smiled at him encouragingly. "Hello there, sleepyhead."
"Ugh, did I doze off?" He rubbed his face with one hand.
"Looks like it." She motioned towards Neal. "What's with the Sleeping Boys Club?"
Peter's voice softened. "Leave him be. I don't know what Frill's doing with him, but look at him. He's exhausted. He just inhaled two helpings of omelet, and they don't even taste good. He looks like he hasn't gotten a decent night's sleep in days."
Elizabeth frowned self-consciously. "You know, that might be partly my fault."
She told him about Neal's self-sacrificing night on their couch, and Peter reached out for her hand. "Honey, I'm sorry. I was an idiot to go out there to play basketball with kids half my age. Now look where it got me."
She squeezed his hand in return. "Oh, baby, I know you didn't do this on purpose. It isn't anyone's fault. You're being punished enough as it is. Please don't worry about me. Neal was really sweet to stay with me that night. I told him to go home, but he just wouldn't."
Peter's gaze went over to study Neal's sleeping figure and sudden unfamiliar gratitude washed over him. This prompted him to look at his wife.
"El, can you take him home? Make sure he sleeps in his own bed. Call him in sick tomorrow. Tell June to have a proper breakfast prepared when he wakes up. With Mozzie in ICU and me being trapped here, I think we've all been a little too busy to notice what's been going on with Neal."
"I will do my very best," she smiled at him, smoothing out the pillows next to his head. "So, are you okay? Do you need anything?"
"No, I'm good. Just take care of Neal."
Elizabeth gave her husband's hair a last, gentle stroke and then went over to Neal. She crouched down next to the chair and put her hand on his thigh, saying softly, "Neal? Neal, wake up, honey."
He woke up with a start, his eyes wide for a short moment until he rearranged the mask and the momentary, unguarded panic mingled with disorientation slipped away. "Elizabeth," he murmured.
She stroked her thumb back and forth along the fabric of his trousers. "Come on, let's get you home."
A low groan that she was sure had worked its way up without his approval escaped his lips when he moved his neck from side to side, trying to shake the stiffness and haze. "What time is it?"
She looked at her watch. "Quarter past eight. Come, I'm taking you home."
It didn't take much more coaxing on Elizabeth's part and mock threatening glares on Peter's part to get Neal out of the chair. "I'll be back tomorrow," Neal told Peter when he was about to leave.
"Neal?" Peter called out to him, his expression earnest and honest. "I mean this when I say it. You don't have to visit every day."
Neal's face turned into what could almost be a smile. "I know."
"Then how about you take a day off tomorrow?"
Neal considered this for a moment. "We'll see."
Peter pointed a finger at him. "I don't want to see you here tomorrow. And I'm not even joking."
"Peter, you're hurting my feelings," Neal quipped, and Peter found it mildly reassuring that the Caffrey banter could still resurface.
"I don't care. You can take it. No hospital visit for you tomorrow."
"Okay, got it," he finally agreed. "No visiting hours for me tomorrow."
Elizabeth was waiting for him out in the hallway by the little community area with the vending machines. She studied Neal as he approached. Peter was right, he looked terrible. Dark circles under his eyes, the usual spring gone from his step. This was a man who was spent, worn out and frayed, and she chided herself for not having noticed until now.
As he was rounding the corner, he suddenly swayed a little, holding out his hand to steady himself against the wall. She was by his side in a few, quick steps, supporting his elbow.
"Whoa, Neal, let's sit you down. Are you dizzy?"
"A little," he admitted.
She steered him over to one of the chairs. He was breathing more heavily than he should be and she got worried. "I'll be right back," she said.
At the nurse's station, she quickly found one of the nurses who accompanied her to where Neal sat, his eyes closed, the fingers of his right hand pinching the bridge of his nose.
The nurse crouched down next to him. "Sir, your friend said you're feeling dizzy. Do you need help?"
He held out a hand to fend her off. "No, I'm okay. Just a little light-headed. I'll be fine in a minute."
Elizabeth gave the nurse a worried look, and she understood. She went away and a few moments later a young female intern with a blood pressure meter came to see them. "Hi, I'm Dr. Kelly. Can you roll up your sleeve for me?" she addressed Neal.
Neal clearly didn't condone the fuss, but he eventually relented. Dr. Kelly felt his pulse, then took his blood pressure. "92 over 58, that's a little low. Do you have any other symptoms? Nausea, headache, fever?"
Neal shook his head. The intern walked away again, and it was the nurse from before who came back momentarily with a plastic cup the size of a shot glass that held a clear liquid in it. She held it out to Neal. "Here, this will help with the blood pressure. Give it a few minutes to kick in. If you keep experiencing symptoms, I'd recommend you see your GP."
Neal swallowed the liquid in the cup in one gulp, scrunching up his face at the bitter taste on his tongue.
Elizabeth sat down next to him as the nurse left, a watchful, worried eye on Neal. He looked so lost, it was breaking her heart. She wasn't used to seeing him so vulnerable, and that alone told her how bad it was. She slid to the edge of her seat and gently placed her arm around his back.
There was no need for words, and then she saw something that she did not think she would ever be allowed to see. Tears slid down Neal's face, warm and unstoppable. There was no sobbing, just tears and hitched breathing. Neal Caffrey was quiet and reserved even in despair.
She didn't say anything, didn't utter any soft shushing noises. She just sat with him, stroking his back in rhythmic patterns, offering companionship while he was letting out whatever needed to find its way to the surface. Maybe it was the exhaustion, the stress of being stuck with a new handler, maybe the grief for a friend in an artificial coma, or maybe all of it and more.
She couldn't tell how long they sat like this. It was probably less than half the eternity it felt. Finally, he wiped the tears away with his hands and straightened up in his seat. "Sorry," he mumbled.
"I don't know. This?"
"Neal, it's okay. You have nothing to apologize for."
He nodded slowly.
"Are you ready to go home?" she carefully prodded.
He drew in a breath, his shoulders sagging as he breathed out. "I don't think I can."
Elizabeth's expression grew worried again. "What do you mean?"
"I'm tired," he sighed, his voice devoid of energy, emotion. "I don't think I can move."
She certainly understood. "Neal," she offered sympathetically, getting up from her chair. She held out her hand for him to take. "Come on, we'll do this together. One step at a time. You have a beautiful, old oak bed waiting for you, remember?"
"Hand-carved mid-19th century tiger oak," he corrected her.
"There you go. Now come on."
Slowly, sluggishly, he took her hand and she pulled him up. His feet were dragging and he moved inertly as if he'd just been hit by a 40-ton truck, but they made it to her car without more incidents.
To Neal's credit, he didn't fall back asleep during the 15-minute ride to June's house like Elizabeth thought he would. He tried to assure her that he was fine and she didn't need to come up with him, but she turned around on him what he'd done for her the other night.
"I don't need a babysitter," he insisted.
"I promised Peter," she told him. "You don't want me to break a promise to my husband, do you?"
In the end, he relented, and she accompanied him through the mansion up the stairs to his apartment. After he had assured her he didn't need any help, she sat down on one of the chairs by the table.
"What, are you gonna watch until I'm tucked in?" he asked.
"If that's what it takes to make good on my promise, then yes."
"Do you want to watch me shower too?" he grinned as he grabbed his silk pajamas and made his way to the bathroom.
She laughed a soft laugh. "No, thanks. But I'm coming in there if you're not back here in 15 minutes. You know, just to make sure you didn't fall asleep on the bathroom floor."
"Yeah, I think I prefer my bed."
A minute later she heard the water being turned on and she looked for a piece of paper and a pen to leave him a note. Finding what she was looking for on the desk next to the kitchenette, she wrote. "Neal, I hope you slept well. Peter asked me to call in sick for you today. Please take it easy for a day. Call me if you need anything. El." She pocketed the note for now because she didn't want him to see it before the next morning.
Over on his nightstand, she found his alarm clock. It was set to 6:30 AM on a workday repeat schedule, and she switched it off, hoping he wouldn't notice and switch it back on. But even if it went off at 6:30, if he fell asleep within the next half hour, it'd still give him a solid nine hours of sleep.
When he emerged from the bathroom ten minutes later, he still looked haggard, but some of the color had returned to his complexion. Elizabeth got up and stepped closer to him. In the spur of the moment, she drew him into a hug.
She could feel he was disconcerted at first, but quickly recovered and briefly laid his head on her shoulder. She squeezed him just a little before she let go.
"Now sleep," he gently commanded. "You have my number, call me if you need me."
He smiled at her gratefully, whispering, "Thank you."
Not two minutes later, he was lying in his tiger oak bed, already drifting off into an exhausted sleep. Neal Caffrey had met the boundaries of his physical strength.
Elizabeth smiled a self-satisfied smile and pulled the note from her pocket. She put it on the dining table in plain view, hoping Neal would find it there in the morning. Her last duty would be to find June and arrange for Neal's breakfast. It would be an easy task to take care of, provided June was here. But surely the housekeeper could take a message as well.
Stepping out of the apartment, closing the door behind her, she took out her cell phone and started typing a message to Peter.
"Mission accomplished. Target is down for a good night's sleep. Will call in sick for him tomorrow. Love you."