Title: The Philosophy of Darkness
Author: QWERTYfaced
Fandom: White Collar
Wordcount: ~1200
Rating: PG-13
Characters: Neal Caffrey
Genre: Angst
Notes: Part 5 of 5 of the "Senseless" exercise: sight. [Major depression and Neal!whump. It's pretty dark, and hints around the edges of suicidal ideation, so please don't read if it could be triggery for you.]
Summary: Neal Caffrey always thought he lived by his wits, but then something deprives him of one of his senses. One premise, five short standalone scenarios, each progressively whumpier. (It's a new word.)
Disclaimer: This is a work of fanfiction. All characters and settings belong to their respective copyright holders, not me. Which is why I don't have a wingéd unicorn yet.

Darkness, it turned out, was so much more than an absence of light. It was paradox, contradiction. It was a war and a twisted philosophy.

Sometimes Neal wished that he had more of a talent for hatred. It would be so much easier to give himself over to hatred, so much easier than this maelstrom of sorrow and anger and longing and bewilderment at everything, at the sheer depths of human viciousness. It would be easier than this endless regret, the Möbius strip of those two most soul-sickening words:

If only.

If only they had never taken that case; if only the man, the man it would be so much easier just to hate with passionate singularity, had less of that talent for hatred himself, or had more of a talent for escape than for art forgery.

If only Neal had not had that drink, purportedly old whiskey, purportedly from Mozzie.

If only he had stopped to reflect that a man who can almost flawlessly reproduce masterpieces can certainly reproduce handwriting.

If only he had realized what was happening sooner.

Memory was searing. It had been a long, slogging couple of weeks at work, and Neal never did like putting other art forgers away, so when he saw the dusty bottle of liquor with its fatal little note, he thought, well, why not? A little nightcap to smooth the day's rough edges, to soothe away the aches.

It had the gentled bite of something aged long in the barrel—went down nice and easy, then straight to his head. Two glasses were enough to send him stumbling to the bed with his brain spinning, but all he thought, as he consigned himself to an intensely beguiling sleep, was that was what he got for drinking while so worn out.

It never, never occurred to him that what he would really get from those innocently-taken drinks was darkness.

The next day, the worst hangover of his life slowly progressed into blurred vision, a crushing migraine, stomach pain that consumed him from the inside out. Peter found him in the men's room, heaving uncontrollably, while the tiles flashed and wavered in front of his eyes. He was too miserable to protest the rush to the hospital, but by that time, it was already too late.

Methanol. He had methanol in his blood. Not much, anymore. Not much, because it had become something else, something awful, shredding him, destroying him, all because of a drink and a man with a genius for hating.

The last thing he saw, before the shimmering, expanding blackness took over, was a clouded and almost unrecognizable Peter.

He had to learn a lot of things over the weeks that followed, but the lesson that came easiest and the lesson that came hardest were one and the same: that darkness was an ideology, a crazed one always at odds with itself. Peter practiced leading him; Neal practiced being led. As they tacked erratically around the hallways, Neal discovered that it is possible to be both pathetically grateful and powerfully resentful, at the same time and at the same person. He needed that hand on his elbow, steady and reassuring; he loathed it, the tension of anger/worry in that touch; he loathed that he needed it, and how helpless it all made him.

There was nothing left that was simple, nothing without duality. Everything that was designed to give him back independence also stressed that it had been taken away; every coping mechanism he was taught gave him strength, while underlining his vulnerability. Peter talked about how he would still be useful at the office (relief mixed with abject fear, because he didn't know how, appreciated the chance, didn't know what would happen if he failed), about all the ways they would adapt, all the devices that would adapt for him. He felt valued and worthless.

And June...June, wonderful and damnable June...

When he finally went home, he found that she'd spent hours affixing tiny round labels to everything, then spent hours more recording herself on the slim little device she gave him. He could press the device to a label on a suit and hear her saying dove-gray herringbone, silk and wool; could walk into the kitchen, where every setting on the stove had its own label.

Her consideration and selfless generosity undid him, devastated him in every way. It was so kind. It was so cruel. How could he tell her that behind his very genuine thankfulness, his stomach roiled with nausea at the sound of her voice describing his life?

He could only hope that no one else suspected his inner turmoil. He could only hope that June didn't begin to understand, when he asked her to store his art supplies and all his work, that it was because destroying them was unbearable and not destroying them was unbearable—that as unable as he was to live with them anymore, he wanted them kept just as fervently as he wanted them gone.

It was an interminable barrage, a siege against his sanity. But even that was better than the times when darkness showed its other side, showed that it was a paradox even to itself, and he went from feeling too much about everything to feeling nothing about anything. The switch was terrifyingly unpredictable and could happen in an instant.

At such times, he could sense the shadows living inside his body, but he couldn't tell whether they were pouring into him from the world of darkness, or whether they were pouring out of him and that was why the world was dark. Or maybe he was simply dissolving, and it didn't matter, because the bleak emptiness was the same inside and out and soon wouldn't even be separated by skin. He could sense all this, wonder about it, but not care. He could disappear, and not care.

That always scared Neal, when the switch flipped again. Scared him, fascinated him, and then scared him all over again. Yes, the storm of feeling was better than that. It had to be.

He told himself that, trying to make the message stick, trying to accept what life was now. When he was alone in the apartment one night, and his cane fell and rolled far out of his reach, he repeated it like a mantra while he dropped to his hands and knees to grope and crawl for the hated, necessary thing. He tried hard to believe it when he collided head-first with a piece of furniture he'd forgotten about and went sprawling. He tried harder when Peter picked that moment to show up, checking on him.

I'm so glad you're here. Please, go away. I want to be alone. Don't leave me alone.

Neal wanted to say it all, but he couldn't say anything. He didn't realize he was crying until Peter awkwardly knelt down and blotted his cheeks with a handkerchief. Once he did realize, he couldn't stop.

He wondered if the tears would stain the white cloth black, if he was weeping inky shadows. It was a mad thought, but then, it was a mad world.

He'd learned that, from the philosophy of darkness.