Drowning: - A White Collar Fic

Disclaimer: - I own no part of White Collar

NB: - I'm English, therefore I quite unapologetically write and spell in English. I'll do my best to keep these characters American. Many thanks to everyone who read, alerted, favourited and best of all, reviewed this fic. I'm very glad you liked it.


Drowning


Part Five

Peter put the phone down slowly, and moved across to the window. He stared out through the glass at the view of the yard with thoughtful and unseeing eyes. Six whole weeks since he'd left the hospital, and he was becoming a little stir crazy, but the ache in his lungs persisted and a nagging cough still kept him awake at night. If it wasn't the cough, it was the nightmares. He would jolt awake, gasping and floundering. Even now he felt vaguely disjointed, as if his life had veered out of synch.

He supposed it was understandable.

A result of the trauma he'd suffered.

It would be better when he returned to the office, and then everything would get back to normal. He shuddered to think of the backlog, and then shifted restlessly again. There would be plenty of work for him and Neal – the same Neal who had become invisible. The whole event had been a salutary lesson if he'd ever believed they were friends.

He felt tired and more than a little betrayed. In his arrogance, he'd thought he'd known better. In the end, he'd been fooled like all the others, maybe blinded by his subconscious. Had he been stupid or simply gullible . . . there was no easy answer to that question. He'd never thought of himself as either, and he most certainly wasn't naïve.

He blinked, and tried to shift the sense of failure. Feeling miserable wouldn't solve anything. He'd done all he could, within the bounds of the law, even admitted the man into his private life. At the end, it was down to Neal and his conscience to decide what was right or wrong.

"Hey, honey, you okay?"

Elizabeth came in from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a towel and trailing clouds of baking olive bread around her. He was glad of the distraction and contact as she gave him a hug from behind.

Ever since he'd been home recuperating they'd spent a great deal of time together. At first it had been really necessary, as to his chagrin, he'd needed around the clock nursing, and El had scaled down her appointments to be with him during the day. He hadn't been the greatest company – he was either coughing or sleeping. The pneumonia left him weak and exhausted and he was worn out most of the time.

She'd been as strong and perceptive as ever, for which he was eternally grateful, but sometimes, he would look up quickly, and still see the fear in her eyes. He could understood why she'd been anxious, and why she was still scared to leave him. Ever since he'd woken up in the hospital, she could hardly bear to let him out of her sight.

Things were better now and he was better.

They were both recovering slowly but surely, although it had been a long and painful process. He was regaining his independence and strength, and Elizabeth was less over-protective. He'd been pleased and more than a little relieved to hear her re-scheduling clients on her cell. Sunlight shafted in through the window and he lifted his face with sheer pleasure. The last week had been clear-skied and balmy with a welcome hint of spring in the air. Since he could walk without becoming too breathless, they'd even taken Satchmo outside.

Elizabeth tickled the nape of his neck, and planted a distracting kiss on his hairline. "Who was that on the phone?"

"Diana with some news about Sobek. He was knifed to death yesterday at Rikers. He was about to make a deal with WITSEC - looks like the man was right."

"Does this have any implications for you?"

He considered it. "I don't think so – I hope not. It's up to the Organised Crime boys. Komichenko's wanted for murder by half the countries in Eastern Europe. They may choose to extradite him through Interpol instead of pursuing a prosecution over here. The Russian Mob just made things a lot harder by having Vinny Sobek shanked."

Elizabeth was quiet for a moment, and then she shivered and held onto him more tightly. "When I think about what those men did to you – about those days when I thought I might lose you. Does it make me a very bad person if I tell you I don't really care?"

"Oh, sweetheart," Peter turned and took her into his arms, the familiar guilt rippling through him. He just wanted her to feel safe again – he placed a light kiss on her brow. "You could never be a bad person. After everything you've been through lately, I guess it just makes you human."

"I know there can't be any promises," she paused, and her eyes slanted up at him. "I've always had to live with that knowledge and the fear something this might happen. Seems to me it's a choice between peace of mind, or not having you in my life."

"El - "

She stopped him. "It's okay, you don't have to say anything. I've been over and over this subject, and I don't plan on breaking our rules. I just want you to take as much care as you can - to come home to supper each night."

There it was.

It was all she asked of him. Peter hoped things could be that easy. He drew a ragged breath and pulled her up under his chin, the exhalation stirring strands of her hair. He understood what this had cost her, and how much she must have agonised. Freedom . . . she had given him her blessing. He was choked and a little humbled. It was the greatest gift she could offer him. The liberty to do the job he loved.

He didn't speak because words were superfluous. She was right, he couldn't make any promises. All he could do, was try and honour her trust in him. To make it home at the end of the day.

If only everything could be as straightforward. He was a simple man, he liked things uncomplicated. No games or elaborate pretexts. His thoughts strayed to Neal again. Things seemed okay on the surface, or at least, so he'd heard from Diana. They were working on a pyramid selling scam, which was taking up a lot of their time. From the sound of things, it was pretty elaborate, and so far, Neal had been very useful. Peter supposed he should be grateful for small mercies, but still, a phone call or two might have been nice.

He coughed and it pulled at his ribcage. It was a timely, if unwelcome reminder. Elizabeth took hold of his uncasted hand and led him across to the couch. Satchmo cocked a reluctant eye at them both, and pretended to go on sleeping, but El wasn't fooled for a second, as she bundled him down onto the floor.

"Let me guess," she curled in beside Peter and placed her hand on his knee. "You're still worrying about Neal's strange behaviour?"

"That obvious, huh?" Peter sighed. "I guess right now, I'm feeling kind of foolish. Just for a second there, I thought we'd cracked it. I really believed we were friends. Stupid - " he scrubbed his free hand across his face. "I can't blame him, it's all about survival. There's nothing in the rule book about liking one another, we're both just a means to an end."

"Oh, honey, for a perceptive and vastly intelligent man, you're being remarkably dumb." Elizabeth smiled a little wistfully. "You know – I totally get why Neal's been so absent from our lives lately, and that's why I've tried to cut him some slack."

"Of course you do," Peter was rueful. "I might have guessed - my wonderful, all-seeing wife. I don't know why I didn't just ask you before, could have saved myself a whole lot of bother. Now, how about enlightening this poor dumb man, and cutting me a little slack?"

"There was a part of me, when I heard you'd been injured, which was tempted to act just like Neal did. Fear of loss makes you angry, turns you into a coward – makes it easier to run away."

Peter frowned as he tried to make sense of her words. God, he must be particularly stupid. He was usually pretty quick on the uptake, but this whole Neal-thing had him totally perplexed. "But Neal didn't run."

"No, he didn't – he wouldn't leave you, however much he might have wanted to. In-fact, he was forced to save your life, and that's a big part of the problem."

"The problem being that he went into the water?"

"The problem being, you nearly died."

Taking a breath, he was assaulted by memories he'd either buried or imagined he'd forgotten, the pain and shock of the sudden beating and the feel of the rough wooden deck. The latent terror was easier to deal with now – he was becoming somewhat of an expert. Peter sifted painstakingly through the images and remembered his phone call to Neal.

He'd asked him to take care of Elizabeth.

His arm tightened reflexively around her. The only reason he was able to do so, was because Neal had saved his life. The same Neal who'd lost the woman he loved, when she was killed right in front of his eyes. It was always so simple with hindsight. He felt as though his brain had kicked in again. There had been real panic in the other man's voice - he wasn't the only one who'd been afraid.

Light dawned, and he regarded El with something like awe, slightly tinged with a trace of astonishment. After a moment he leant forward with a sigh of relief and placed a kiss on the end of her nose.

"You know what? You're right, as usual. How would this poor dumb man manage without you?"

She dimpled up at him, her eyes full of mischief, and then cocked her head as the doorbell rang. "I didn't tell you, we're expecting some visitors. I invited Neal and Moz around for supper. As for the whole managing without me thing . . . maybe we can look into that later."


Neal knew well-enough, when he'd been rail-roaded, but it was El and there was nothing he could do about it. He was forced to grit his teeth and keep smiling after one glimpse of her implacable blue eyes. He considered and not for the first time, that Peter's wife had missed her true calling. She was good – very good - at running rings around them all. It was a talent he recognised.

It was a lovely day and Satchmo needed a walk. There would be plenty of time before dinner. Wasn't it handy Neal was here to go with him . . . all the fresh air would do Peter good.

So here he was.

Him and Peter, just the two of them.

Okay, three, if you included Satchmo . . . but all he cared about was a ride in the car, so essentially, he didn't count.

As for Moz, Neal guessed he was in on it. The little man was clearly besotted. He would probably sell his mother down the river, to earn a brownie point or two with the suit's wife. Robbed of an opportunity to stare fiercely at El, Neal had turned his laser glare upon his friend. Moz had dropped his head a tad shame-facedly and scuttled off at speed towards the kitchen.

Peter disappeared to find his jacket, and El smiled sweetly as she handed Neal the car keys. She caught hold of his bicep in an iron grip and stretched up to whisper in his ear.

"He isn't as well as he pretends to be. Look after him and don't you dare upset him."

She had pulled away, still smiling like a tigress, as Peter came back down the stairs.

Neal stole a quick glance to the right as he handled the car through the traffic, but Peter refused to look back at him, and stared out of the side-window instead. A small nerve jumped at the pivot of his jaw and Neal tightened his grip on the steering wheel. He didn't – really didn't want to do this – not right now when his emotions were so raw. There was no point raking over the angles when they kept twisting like dead autumn leaves

He'd done a decent job of maintaining a poker face when Peter asked him to head out to the marina, despite the fact his guts were churning and the thought of going back made him feel sick. What the hell . . . he didn't understand the reasoning. He just wanted to move on and bury this; to put the bad memories firmly behind him, and try to move on with his life.

Surely Peter must want that too?

Mister Vanilla could be an enigma.

Each time he deciphered the last piece of code, a new aspect would slide into place. Of the two of them, he sometimes wondered, who was really the better con man?

He turned right into the marina. The parking lot was virtually empty. His heart lurched with a jolt of deja-vu as he realised it was Friday evening. Had Peter chosen this day deliberately or was it simply a macabre coincidence? For a few seconds he kept the engine running as he contemplated driving away. He didn't, though. He switched the ignition off carefully and waited for his heart-rate to settle. In a small token act of rebellion, he'd parked the Taurus in the very same space. A burst of sun slanted in through the windscreen, and he was forced to shade his eyes against the brightness. Notwithstanding the whisper of spring in the air, even the weather was essentially the same.

"So – here we are," his voice was remarkably calm.

"Here we are," Peter answered, blandly, as he swung his legs out of the car.

Satchmo whined and jumped out beside him, his plumed tail wagging excitedly. Neal suppressed a small sigh of irritation as Peter started fumbling with the leash. It would probably save them some time if he helped, but instinct stopped him from offering. There was a certain resolve about Peter. He seemed determined to do it himself.

Neal locked the car while he waited, and tried not to look too impatient. He wanted to get this over with . . . whatever the hell this was. He thrust his hands into his pockets and tried hunching into his jacket. It was cool enough in-spite of the sunshine, but at least he'd thought to bring the fedora.

"Would you mind?"

Peter straightened up and handed him the dog-leash, wincing slightly as if the movement still hurt him. Neal took it without any comment – he was guessing it probably did. His gut clenched with a familiar anxiety. What had he been expecting? It was nine weeks since they'd been in the river . . . nine weeks since his entire world had changed.

Avoiding Peter had become an art form, and until now he'd become pretty good at it. The FBI had proved an unwitting ally by keeping him involved with a case. It was a little like living in limbo – within a twilight world of bogus realities, playing along as if everything was normal while Peter's illness dragged on for weeks.

They walked around the side of the boathouse onto the walkway which lead to the marina. He was forced to shorten his usual stride to match Peter's more careful pace, but Satchmo had no such inhibitions as he panted and dragged at the leash. He sensed Peter was finding this difficult. Elizabeth hadn't been kidding. They were forced to pause for a second or two as Peter recovered his breath.

It was back again – a slight fizz of anger. He could feel it uncoiling inside him; rearing its head as it gathered momentum, and getting ready to strike like a snake. The old adage that time was a healer – in this case it didn't seem to be working. Peter was fragile, all planes and angles, as though he might snap in the wind.

Staying away hadn't helped things.

He'd been stupid to imagine it would.

"Let him run," Peter gestured at Satchmo. "He's safe enough by the side of the river. If he goes in, you might have to towel him down before he gets back in the car."

If he goes in . . .

Neal shivered; he didn't want any part of this. It was obvious what Peter was up to. "Why are we here?"

"To bury some ghosts. I think we both need some closure."

"I see," Neal curled his lip. "Peter Burke's Psych 101?"

"If you like," Peter came to a halt, and turned to stare out across the Hudson. "More like Grandpa Burke's, actually. You fall off the horse, you brush the dirt off your ass, and then you climb back on again."

"Great, and now we have Peter Burke's folk wisdom. Don't tell me . . . let me guess. Grandpa Burke also told you to cowboy up whenever things got tough?"

"Look at it," Peter ignored him, and refused to rise to the bait. He flung out his arm and gestured, as he watched the rise and fall of the water. "It's like a great artery feeding New York, and at one time, it fed the whole of America. Most of our ancestors' first sight of the country, and the reason the city was built here. Since we arrived you haven't looked at it once. You want to tell me why that is?"

Neal didn't like where this was going. "Hey, you're the one with all the answers."

Peter walked along the bank a little further with Neal trailing reluctantly behind him. For a man still recovering from pneumonia, he seemed happy enough to take the lead. He stopped and stared down intently, examining the flat ground near the waters-edge. There was no evidence of tyre-tracks or footprints – no indication anyone had been near.

"Is this it – is this where it happened?"

"For god's sake, Peter, it's been nearly three months. How do you expect me to remember?"

He did though.

Remembered it, perfectly.

In every austere and terrifying detail.

The searing cold of the water and the blood red streaks in the sky.

This was the place – the exact same place where he had stood and confronted his demons, where everything had hung on a decision which determined whether Peter lived or died. Neal swallowed and felt his adrenalin spike. His heart rate began beating faster. It hammered against the wall of his ribcage as though trying to fly out of his chest.

He raised his eyes for the first time and forced himself to look at the Hudson. Peter was right – he'd been ducking this moment ever since they'd arrived. It was rougher now than it had been that evening, the swift current uneven and jagged. Small waves ran in asymmetrical patterns, ruffling the surface into split grey silk. It was impressive – beguiling even, glinting bright with gold flashes of sunlight. Hard to believe such beauty could be deadly. The river was a con man and a thief.

Peter crouched with an audible knee-crack and trailed his hand in the water. "It's still pretty cold, less than forty degrees. Makes you wonder how we survived."

There were so many ways he could have countered, but Neal found himself incapable of answering. He was transfixed - mesmerised by the river as it reached out towards him again. They were kin – they had something in common. Saw something they wanted and took it. Him and the river, who would have thought it? They stole things they had no right to take.

"Neal?"

Peter was talking . . . to him . . . at him . . . but Neal could no longer hear. He was drowning, falling down in the blackness, and the cold beat like a hammer in his head. No air. His lungs had stopped working. This time, the river would claim him. Deeper now . . . he was sinking deeper and his heart was bursting out of his chest.

Strong arms around him – holding him.

Pulling him up out of the blackness.

Rubbing circles between his shoulder blades, as for the first times in weeks, he felt safe.

"Okay buddy – its okay. Just keep taking some deep breaths for me."

Peter gentled him as though he was baby – albeit one who responded to orders. Neal shuddered and choked on a strangled laugh, as he took a lungful of air and obeyed. It settled through him and his muscles began to relax. Peter's voice was extraordinarily soothing. His heart-rate slowed to something like normal as the rage and dread melted away.

A panic attack – a full-blown panic attack – he was forced to acknowledge the truth of it. He'd been running on empty – so full of anger and fear, a perfect recipe for PTSD. All of it, Sobek and the river, he'd somehow transferred the blame to Peter, but none of it had been Peter's fault and it certainly wasn't his. If he was honest, he could admit it ran deeper. A profound fear of loss was ingrained in him. Neal closed his eyes and acknowledged the truth.

It all stemmed back to losing Kate.

And not just in the explosion.

His sense of bereavement was more visceral.

There were times when he was forced to wonder, if he'd ever really had her at all.

Not Kate, but you do have Peter, he realised with a sense of astonishment. How ironic that his eventual nemesis should be the one constant thing in his life. He shivered and looked at the river again. He'd come damned close to losing that constant. The thought of being left alone and rudderless had pulled the rug out from under his feet. He still didn't know if he could settle down and conform to a life of convention, but he was one step closer than ever before, and he no longer despised those who did.

The afternoon sun was warm on his face and he felt it soak into his consciousness. The light purged the last dark shadows from where they hid in the recesses of his brain. He was sat on the grass next to Peter, but he had no recollection of falling. He scrubbed his face and realised with a shade of discomfiture that Peter was still rubbing his back.

"There's no need," he pulled away in hasty embarrassment. "Looks like your psych session worked."

"That's okay," Peter looked at him levelly. "I seem to recall, back in the hospital, you doing something similar for me."

"About that - "

"You don't have to explain. Elizabeth helped me reach an understanding. Neal, you do know that if anything happens to me, Reese Hughes won't cast you adrift?"

"That's all right, then," Neal couldn't help smiling sardonically. "Wish I'd known before I went into the river."

Peter grinned back. "I bet."

Neal stared intently at a blade of grass, and swallowed down the lump in his throat. He knew then with a lightening flash of surprise, it wasn't just about his future. He liked Peter – cared about him, and more than that – the man was important. He was the gleam of hope left in the wooden box when everything else had fled. It didn't matter if Reese Hughes would take care of him. He wouldn't want to work with anybody but Peter. He was the only one he really trusted, Mister Vanilla – straight as a die.

He sighed. "You know I was really pissed at you?"

Peter nodded. "I kind of figured."

"I thought I'd lost the fedora, had to leave it behind on the bank."

"But you didn't."

"Nope, I didn't," he looked at the hat. "And that's good – because I've grown rather fond of it. Actually, if you want the real truth, I'd feel lost if it was gone."

"I'd say you were stuck with the thing. Doesn't look like its going anywhere." Peter was having difficulty rising. "Doesn't look as though I am, either, unless you help me get back on my feet."

Neal smiled – really smiled and reached out his hand. They understood each other perfectly. He waited while Peter steadied himself and called Satchmo back to heel. A light breeze blew in off the Atlantic, whipping the current to a white-capped frenzy. The waves lapped the waters-edge in concentric arcs as they raced up the shoreline to his feet. It was a hundred – no; a thousand times different than the last time he'd been on this stretch of river-bank.

He twirled the fedora on the tip of his finger, and then flipped it back onto his head.

THE END

Lisa Paris - 2011