Title: The In-Between Years
Genre: Angst, H/C
Length: ~3,300 words
Warnings: Child abuse (described briefly, but non-graphic), off-screen mentions of rape, some violence, descriptions of an alcoholic parent. Generally sensitive subjects.
Summary: Neal's spent his whole life trying to wash away the stains other people have left on him.
A/N: This story is my first White Collar fic. It's been sitting forgotten on my HD for about nine months now, and I figured it was time it saw the light of day. I'm fascinated by Neal's psyche, his backstory, and his almost compulsive need for things that are refined. This story is a character study that revolves around those themes. I won't lie, it's angsty and dark in places. But there is a happy ending, I swear. It was written as a gen/friendship/family type story, but I realized while editing it that it could very easily be interpreted as OT3 if that's your cup of tea. So feel free to read into it as much or as little as you please. Feedback of any kind, including con-crit, is always greatly appreciated. Title from the Depeche Mode song "Clean."
When he's seven, a boy named Hunter invites Neal over for the night. Hunter has a cool name, and a slingshot, and a Batman lunchbox. He lives in a green house with flowers out front, and inside he has two parents who are still married and who smile real smiles with white, even teeth. Their kitchen smells like baking bread and there are pictures on the walls. Everything is clean and warm and full of love, and Neal can't imagine wanting to be anywhere else.
Even if their white carpets make him feel dirty, like he's in danger of leaving stains wherever he steps.
When he gets home, Neal pulls dusty bottles of Windex and bleach out from under their leaking sink and sets to cleaning the kitchen. He imagines how it will look when he's done, gleaming and white and full of afternoon sun. A place where people will smile and bake bread and hang pictures. But no matter how hard he scrubs, the yellow spots on the floor won't come up and the formica is peeling away from the edges of the counters like sneering mouths full of musty teeth.
When his mom wakes up and sees that he's poured out the finger's width of vodka left in her bottle in order to wash and recycle it, she slaps him, slaps him, then cries and kicks one of the splintered cabinet doors.
The afternoon sunlight crawls across the linoleum and disappears into the dark corners, and Neal cradles his stinging cheek in small hands and watches his tears make little spots on his shirt.
His mom's breath smells like rotting food and rubbing alcohol, hot and wet on his cheek as she cups his face and sniffles wetly and says "You're a good boy, you know that right, baby?"
There are tears in her eyes and snot crusting on her upper lip. Neal can't tell if she's crying or if it's just the usual disarray of a body struggling to stay afloat in a flood of alcohol.
"I know, mom," Neal tells her, and pretends he doesn't see that she's braless in front of her twelve year old son, in nothing more than a threadbare tank top and underwear that hangs off her wasted hips. Her hands on his face smell like stale smoke and vomit.
"I haven't been a good mother to you,"she sobs, but it's not really an apology. Her voice whines like a child's, full of self pity and a demand for reassurance. Her hair is greasy and hangs around her face in tangles. Neal can see flakes of dead skin on her scalp between the dark strands.
"It's okay, mom," he tells her, guiding her to sit on the couch. "You're a good mother."
She isn't. She wasn't ever. But in those fleeting moments when she's not sobbing and drunk or bitter and hung over, she looks at him like she hasn't seen him in years. Like he's the one who's been gone, and she's sad and sorry and surprised that he's still there.
Neal thinks that somewhere inside of her she sees him and loves him enough to wish she could be what he needs.
When he's fifteen, Neal has an art teacher named Mrs. Caffrey. She's willowy and small and talks with a strange accent that lies somewhere between valley girl and Southern. She wears paint-stained overalls and there is clay and ink and smudges of pastel on the sleeves of her shirt. The art room is cluttered and chaotic, color and texture and half-finished artwork on every surface.
She shows them slides of Matisse and Jackson Pollack, her voice vibrant and animated as she gestures at the wild displays of color. Her iron-straight black hair swings untamed around her face as she tells them "Art is messy – art means getting dirty."
When Neal's hands smooth through dark arcs of charcoal on his page, black gets into the whorls on his fingertips and the creases of his palm. The sleeve of his thrift store button-down, which he has kept so carefully white, gets dingy and gray.
But the picture he makes is like a window into a world he never knew existed, and for the first time in his life Neal doesn't mind getting dirty.
When he's sixteen, Neal gets a stepfather.
Lyle is wide and balding with muscled arms and a gut that hangs over his John Deere belt buckle. He's never clean shaven, and there are urine-colored sweat stains under the arms of all of his wife-beater tank tops. He thinks it's hilarious to put his slender stepson into headlocks, pushing Neal's head into his wet, stinking armpits and laughing while Neal gags and struggles. He tells Neal, "Maybe if you spent less time drawing faggy little pictures, you'd be able to defend yourself. "
Neal hates him.
Two weeks before his seventeenth birthday, Neal comes home from school to find Lyle passed out in his bed, drooling on Neal's pillow as he snores and snuffles like a boar. Lyle's boots are still on, and there is mud on the pale blue sheets that Neal washes and irons and smoothes onto his bed twice a week. A half-full glass of rum and Coke has been knocked over onto Neal's desk, congealing into a sticky mess around his carefully arranged pencils and paints, soaking into his sketchbook. When Neal opens it, the pages are stuck together, warped and brown like the water stains he stares at every night over his bed.
Neal throws the sketchbook at Lyle's head and screams "Get out, get out, get out!"
Lyle comes awake like an angry bear and backhands him into his bookshelf, growling "This is my house, now, boy!"
The blood that drips onto the floor from Neal's lip is vermillion red, just another stain he won't be able to get out.
He gets up and runs and never goes back, his feet falling to the rhythm of get out, get out, get out.
New York City smells like piss and dead rats and exhaust, and there are homeless drunks and scheming junkies and dangerous people with eyes like wolves, but there are also beautiful people in clean Armani suits and Italian leather shoes, art galleries and mirrored buildings that reflect sunsets. There are more people than Neal has ever seen before, a cacophony of voices and faces and lives that nearly overwhelm him before he learns to pick out the subtle, sweet songs of individual people.
There are street punks with homemade piercings who make sweeping murals out of spray paint and crumbling walls, old black men with saxophones who fill subway stations with music, and kids who dance and spin and move like primal things to the sound.
New York is filthy and full of beauty and the first place Neal's ever felt at home. When he forges his new birth certificate, he thinks of his old art teacher and puts Caffrey as his surname. He remembers her with paint on her face, saying art is messy - art means getting dirty and thinks she'd approve of his choice.
Neal meets Kate at an art gallery in Manhattan on New Year's Eve.
They're both there to steal the same Lichtenstein. Kate's come in through the ventilation system and Neal's cut a handy entrance through the adjoining wall of an easily-infiltrated boutique next door. Kate sprays him in the face with mace and makes off with the Lichtenstein, tripping the alarm as she leaves. Neal barely makes it out in time to avoid the police, eyes watering and lungs burning as he stumbles into an alley behind a bakery.
He leans against the cool brick and dabs at his eyes, picturing the mystery woman's dark eyes and confident smirk. The scent of fresh bread wafts into the alley from the bakery, like clean houses and sunshine in bright kitchens.
She was beautiful and graceful and clever, and Neal determines to find her.
Six days later when he does just that, cornering her in her room at the Bellagio, they argue with wits like rapiers and fight for dominance like alley cats. When they fall into bed together, her sheets are clean and crisp and her hair smells like lavender.
Neal holds her face in his hands and presses against her smooth skin and loves her immediately, completely, helplessly.
Prison is messy, but there is no art there.
Everything reeks of fear and guilt and blood and Neal has never been so afraid in his life. He tries desperately to find some tiny seed of beauty to cling to, but the earth is salted and nothing good can grow there. Prison crushes beauty under its heel, grinds it into the bitter ground, and Neal is too beautiful for his own good.
They find him in the laundry room and force him to his knees, tell him how pretty he is. Pretty hands. Pretty mouth. Pretty when he cries.
That night Neal curls up on his bunk and shakes, wondering if he'll ever be able to feel clean again.
Peter teases Neal for being neat.
He chuckles when Neal picks lint off of his suit or brushes imaginary dust from his fedora, and rolls his eyes when Neal arranges everything on Peter's desk into perfectly-aligned piles. He jokes that Neal takes more time in the bathroom than most women, shakes his head fondly when Neal stops to dispose of someone else's coffee cup that didn't quite make it into the trash can.
He doesn't see, doesn't realize that the soap and tailored suits and white smiles are all just wallpaper over rotting walls. Flimsy barricades against the shame and disgust. Neal's been waiting for the stains to seep through, for everyone around him (for Peter) to see him and be horrified. The anticipation of that moment coils deep inside him, whispering fear and regret and grief.
So Neal doesn't tell Peter that he's spent all of his life uselessly trying to wash away the stains that other people have left on him. It would only hurt Peter – hurt them both – and Neal wants to keep all of that as far from Peter as he can because Peter is a good man.
Peter is the best man Neal knows, because even though his suits are always rumpled and there are ketchup stains on most of his ties, he is honest and heroic and carries a solemn, selfless sense of responsibility. When he holds a gun, his hands are steady and strong and determined. When he brushes Ellie's hair behind her ear, his fingers curl in a way that is grateful and loving and tender. When he rests his hand on Neal's shoulder, his touch is trusting and fond.
There are no dark corners in Peter Burke, and when Neal is near him the shadows under his skin recede just a little.
When Kate dies, the smell of burning fuel and plastic sinks itself into Neal's hair and skin. His lungs ache from the smoke, his eyes burn, and he screams fights and tries to run into the flaming wreckage because Kate is in there. Kate, his Kate, whose skin smells like tangerines.
But Peter won't let him go. He pins Neal's flailing arms to his sides, pulling Neal to his chest with panicked hands.
"She's gone, Neal," Peter tells him over and over again, his breath shaky and coffee scented on Neal's face. Neal doesn't believe him until ash begins to drift over them in swirling, hot currents. Kate's ashes, he thinks, and it's like every dirty, shameful thing in his life has coalesced and devoured her and she's gone and Neal's clothes smell like fire.
Grief squeezes his chest like a vice and forces out all his air in a sobbing, keening rush. His knees buckle and he gags and retches and chokes, bile trying to climb its way out and air struggling to get in and neither succeeding. He thinks maybe his heart will stop.
Peter is running a hand through Neal's hair, dislodging little clouds of ash. He pulls Neal down to rest against his chest, murmuring "Neal, Neal" and "You've gotta breathe, just breathe, I've got you."
Neal clings to Peter, wraps his arms around him like he's in danger of being swept away.
He turns his face further into Peter's chest as he shudders with desperate breaths, but the ash and the smoke still find their way into his lungs and settle into places Neal will never be able to wash.
Marcus Ventrilli reminds Neal of his step father.
When he pins Neal against the alley wall he smells like Lyle – sweaty and unwashed and mean. But Neal is not a child any longer. He tries to fight. Ventrilli bounces the back of his head off the brick and laughs, as though Neal's just told him the funniest joke he's heard in days.
"I'm gonna tear you up and then I'm gonna tear you apart, you filthy fucking snitch."
Now Neal is the one laughing, because none of the intelligent and perceptive people in his life have ever been able to see what this stupid, stinking mob thug can. That Neal is filthy.
Ventrilli grabs him by the back of his neatly pressed collar and throws him into a pile of trash. Neal's hands skid over rough, oily asphalt. Rancid juice splatters his face and neck, and soft, decaying, slimy things shift and depress under the angles of his body. Neal's laughter dies under the crush of a desperate gag.
When he hears Peter's angry, anxious voice shouting FBI, freeze, he is both relieved and cripplingly ashamed. He wants to scuttle away and hide in the dark (like a rat, or a cockroach) so that no one will see him like this. He is wet and all of his careful angles and creases are jumbled and out of alignment. He smells like the things no one wants, the things people have discarded and forgotten.
But Peter's hands are already on his shoulders, rolling him and pulling him up, searching him for hurts. Neal looks down at Peter's hands (because he can't look up, can't look at Peter). Peter's fingers are slipping over dark, wet stains on Neal's shirt. He's going to get dirty. He's going to get Neal's filth on him.
"No!" Neal gasps, pushing him away. His hands leave bloody smudges on Peter's grey suit jacket. He stares at his torn hands. There is dirt under his nails. His clothes are wet and rancid and dotted with rotten food. He feels something viscous slide down an errant lock of hair and drip onto his check. All his carefully constructed barricades are falling.
"Oh, god," he says, brushing desperately at his clothes, his hair. The dirt smudges but doesn't go away. It never goes away.
"Neal," Peter says gently, grasping Neal's wrists and stilling his hands. "Stop."
"I'm dirty," Neal insists, staring at Peter's fingers where they wrap around his wrists. "I'm dirty."
Peter rests one hand on Neal's cheek, forces hi m to look up. Peter's eyes are dark with concern and forgiveness and something that looks like understanding.
"You're okay, Neal," he says. "You're just fine."
Neal nods and doesn't try to talk. His breath rattles and catches but he doesn't cry. Peter takes him home and Neal showers until he can't stand up anymore, until the water runs cold and his skin is pink and pruned.
He doesn't eat for three days, unable to stop picturing his food decaying in an alley.
Peter watches him with careful eyes, and he never teases Neal for being neat again.
Peter commissions Neal to paint an anniversary gift for El. He looks endearingly awkward when he asks, passing Neal an 8x10 glossy of Peter and El on their wedding day.
When Neal paints Peter's face, he pays particular attention to the joyful, amazed slope of his mouth. He spends hours perfecting the gentle angle of Peter's hand on El's hip, the adoring tilt to El's head as she leans into her new husband for a kiss.
When he's done, he stands before the canvass and stares at the image. For a moment he tries to picture Kate in a wedding dress, baby's breath and pearls in her hair. He tries to imagine his mother in white that isn't yellowed or torn. He tries, but can't. This image is just a window into something that was never his.
He thinks maybe he should feel more regret, more bitterness or jealousy, but all he can feel is grateful. Grateful that there are moments like this in the world at all. Grateful just for the chance to be near something so unconditionally generous and loving.
It's a snowy Sunday morning in January and Neal is exhausted. He feels gritty and greasy, too much coffee and not enough sleep. They've worked through the night to catch a dangerous man with a stolen *. After the thief cornered Neal in a warehouse (and before Peter swooped in with his steady hands and his gun) there had been a moment when Neal thought his grey matter might end up making a gory mess on the boxes behind him. He can tell by the way Peter looks at him in the car that Peter has had the same thought. Neal thinks that might be why Peter has insisted on taking him back to his place, but he's not complaining.
El ushers him upstairs to the shower when they arrive, and there's already a clean towel and a pair of Peter's flannel plaid pajamas waiting for him. The water is hot and the handmade orange clove soap smells clean and spicy. After the fear and the sweat swirl away down the drain, he slips into the pajamas. They're soft and warm and he doesn't even care that they look ridiculous on him.
When he goes downstairs, El and Peter are in the kitchen. El is pulling a loaf of banana bread from the oven, Peter standing behind her with a hand resting on her hip and a familiar smile curling up the sides of his mouth. Satchmo scrambles up off the tile, tail thumping against the cabinets as he trots to press a cold nose into Neal's palm. Sunlight shines through the ice that curls like a crystal fern over the outside of the kitchen window, and Neal stops in the doorway to revel in the gentle sound of El's laugh.
They pull him over to the table and El puts a thick slice of bread in front of him, a pat of butter melting into it. The bread is warm and cake-like, just the right amount of sweetness and vanilla. Neal savors it silently while Peter and El tease each other fondly over past baking disasters, pretending to argue over who will do the dishes. Peter eats the crusts off El's plate and El brushes crumbs from Peter's lip with her thumb.
"You should get some sleep, honey," El tells him when he yawns and blinks sleepily. "I've got the guest room all ready."
"Are you sure you don't mind?" Neal can't help but ask.
El folds him into a warm hug. "We're glad you're here," she says softly into Neal's damp hair. "We want you to stay, sweetie. Please stay."
Something shifts in Neal's chest, something opening and letting go. Peter's hand settles firmly onto Neal's shoulder, thumb pressing into the tense muscles of Neal's neck. He squeezes gently, the pressure just as warm and enveloping as El's arms, and it's like a warm breeze that moves through all the places inside Neal that he'd thought would never come clean. It sweeps through him, blowing away the dust and the cobwebs and the memories, until all that's left is just this moment – a kitchen that is clean and bright and smells like baking bread.
Everything is clean and warm and full of love, and Neal can't imagine wanting to be anywhere else.