Title: There's a First Time For Everything
Characters: Neal, Elizabeth
Summary: Elizabeth visits Neal in prison when he gets put back there after the plane exploded. Kind of a sequel to my other story, Wreckage, but also works as standalone.
Warning: Spoilers for 1x14 'Out of the Box'.
Author's Note: There's nothing like a walk in the snow to make your mind wander and chase plot bunnies. Thanks to the great people over at wcwu who helped figure out the timeline and other likely scenarios for what happened between episodes 1x14 and 2x01. Also thanks to the ever awesome rabidchild67 for the beta-read.
Last but not least, this is a bit of an homage to the wonderful story Playing Through by kriadydragon over on LiveJournal. Those who have read it will hopefully realize why. I should warn you that there is a mild form of Neal!Whump in this, but nothing drastic or intense.
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.
Apparently, inmates weren't allowed to have visitors in the prison infirmary. Elizabeth Burke had to learn that the hard way.
It wasn't fair, though, was it? When you were sick, that's when you needed empathy and sympathy the most. That's when you needed to know people cared and worried about you, thought about you.
To say the bleak and uninviting white-washed walls and steel doors of the penitentiary's interior were intimidating would be an understatement. The wire glass windows were another apt reminder of where she was. The black tag on the door with white writing read "INFIRMARY".
They hadn't told her why Neal had been transferred here, but there were vague assurances that he was okay and she was not to worry. She didn't understand why anyone wasn't forthcoming, and she blamed federal or prison rules that she didn't know anything about.
Still, all kinds of unsettling images played in her head and made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. She knew prison could be rough, and other inmates unpredictable. Violence came with the territory. It just didn't compute that Neal could have been involved in a physical altercation. But maybe that wasn't it. She reminded herself that she shouldn't let her imagination run wild just yet.
The guard that had escorted her was talking into the receiver that was mounted on the wall. It had taken all of Elizabeth's resolve and flirting abilities to get here. And maybe a mention or two that her husband was an FBI agent.
Finally, the door opened and a nurse greeted them. Intimidation and insecurity flooded Elizabeth as she was guided inside. The actual beds were hidden from prying eyes so that she could only see a row of light blue curtains. The nurse whose nametag read Hascall stopped in front of one, drawing it aside. Elizabeth's breath hitched slightly, trying to mentally prepare what she was going to see.
It was Neal. And he looked... normal. No bruises, no cuts, no visible injuries. She noticed that the orange jumpsuit made his face look too pale, even for his light-skinned complexion. Her silent breath of relief was only stifled when she noticed the restraints around his wrists and ankles.
She had never known Neal to be anything but charming and loveable. It felt wrong to treat him like a hardened criminal. The rational part of her brain knew it was because he was considered a flight risk, but it was hard to believe that in his current state, he could break out of this place.
His eyes were closed and she tried to keep the anxiety in her voice to a minimum when she addressed him, only mildly succeeding. "Neal?"
His eyes flew open, flooded with momentary panic. His features softened quickly when he realized who was standing at the foot of his bed. "Elizabeth," he said in a croaky voice that he tried to make sound cheerful but didn't quite manage.
"Neal, are you okay? What's wrong with you, they wouldn't tell me anything."
He put on a brave smile. "Yeah, I'm fine." The hand he wanted to raise to wave it off was halted by the padded restraint. "Just a migraine. Nothing to worry about."
"Nothing to worry about? They must have thought it was serious if they moved you to the infirmary."
"Yeah, well," he said off-handedly. "It was kind of a really bad one."
"Are they treating you all right? Are you still in pain?"
"You wouldn't guess from what the place looks like, but the meds they have here work wonders."
"Good," she breathed out in relief, taking a seat on the wheeled stool next to his bed.
His eyes were inquisitive on her. "So, what are you doing here? This hardly feels like a social visit."
She smiled. "Actually, it is."
"Last time I checked, visiting hours are only on Wednesdays and weekends."
"Do I have to remind you that my husband is an FBI agent?"
"No," he responded quickly, and Elizabeth thought she detected a hint of awkwardness there. It puzzled her. Was there something that she wasn't aware of?
"Is Peter still suspended?"
"He has a hearing with the DOJ next Tuesday. Then we'll see what happens. He really hopes they're going to lift the suspension. He wanted to come see you, but they're not letting him before the hearing. Something about the potential for conspiring."
"Neal, he's doing everything he can to get you out of here. You know that, don't you?"
His blue eyes were intense on her, his expression inscrutable. "Yes, I know."
She sighed a heavy sigh. "This is all wrong. You shouldn't be in here."
She had half expected a flippant response, but it was only silence that greeted her. She studied his face more closely. That migraine really must have thrown him for a loop. This wasn't the Neal Caffrey she knew. Then again, she had to remind herself that he'd lost the love of his life just shy of a week ago. The woman he broke out of jail for.
Something inside her stomach formed a lump and she reached out her hand to touch his arm. He flinched ever so slightly, and she immediately regretted the notion. She didn't know about migraines from experience, but she vaguely remembered that they might make people more sensitive to certain sensory stimuli.
She quickly withdrew her hand and took in Neal's apologetic gaze. "I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't—"
He forced a quick smile. "It's okay."
A wave of unbidden emotion washed over her, and she had to fight another impulse of physically reaching out to him. "Neal, I wish... I wish there was more I could do. This must be hard for you."
"I'm okay," he said, underlining it with a, "Really."
She inhaled a long breath, because she knew he wasn't okay, couldn't be okay. You didn't lose the woman you loved a week ago and be okay. But she was willing to let it go, for his sake.
"Is there anything I can do for you? Anything I can do to help?"
He forced a smile. "No. But thanks."
"Neal," she half sighed, but the plea in his eyes stopped her cold. If she pressed on, she knew he'd break down right here, crumble like a sand castle hit by the approaching high tide. She couldn't help herself when she reached out for his hand. He returned the squeeze without hesitation, closing his eyes.
She could practically feel the battle going on inside of him, but she also knew that the Neal Caffrey she knew would not succumb to his feelings here in front of her but rather lock them away and release them in the middle of the night when he was alone with nothing but sorrow and grief to keep him company. Something inside her chest constricted and made her squeeze his hand just a little bit harder.
They sat like that for long moment. There were a million things that she wanted to say to him, things that he wouldn't let her say. So she didn't say them.
Eventually, he withdrew his hand from under hers and gave her a weak smile. She knew. She had to play the game, to give him the dignity he yearned for.
"So, a migraine...?" she asked, trying to sound casual.
"Yeah. Please don't tell Peter about that, would you?"
She frowned. "Can I ask why?"
He shrugged. "I... don't know. I just..."
But then she understood. Neal didn't like admitting to weakness, especially not in front of her husband. It was just who he was. "It's okay. I won't."
"Thank you," he mumbled.
"Do you get them often?"
"Once a year maybe? They're not always this bad."
"So what happened?"
"It's not a story worth telling, really."
"Let me guess. Disturbed vision, splitting headache?"
"Yeah, and projectile vomiting."
She lifted her hands in a please-no-more gesture. "Okay, too much information!"
He chuckled. "I was kidding."
"Are they going to keep you here overnight?"
"Actually, I'm not sure. I have a feeling they might not. Though I wouldn't really mind. The food here is better than in GenPop."
She gave him an encouraging smile. "You're a conman. I'm sure you can con your way into another night in the infirmary."
"Have you ever tried to con prison personnel into anything?"
She laughed. "Can't say I have. Unless them letting me into the infirmary when I wasn't really allowed counts."
"You know, I think it kinda does."
"Well, then maybe I can con them into keeping you here another night."
"You would do that?"
"Oh, of course, Neal. Any time."
"Well, then give it your best shot."
She gave him a mischievous smile. "I might need some help from you, though. Can you fake being in pain?"
His face suddenly contorted and he let out a sound that was halfway between whimper and groan. Elizabeth almost fell for it, but his expression quickly relaxed and turned into a smile. "Like this?"
She returned the smile. "Perfect. I think another night in the infirmary is guaranteed."
His smile was genuine. "Sweet."
She got up from the stool. "Okay, let me go find the nurse. You ready?"
"As ready as I'll ever be."
A grin spread over her face. "Oh, this is exciting," she whispered. "This is the first time I'm involved in actually conning someone."
He grinned back. "There's a first time for everything."