WhiteCollar-Hard Sell Peter Neal

An unfinished White Collar fic from the WiP folder

I was poking at some of my fics today, trying to find one I want to work on (I have 13K now on the White Collar/Winter Soldier AU, and yet I am obnoxiously stuck) and I stumbled across this unfinished time-loop fic. It's really a neat premise (at least I think so) but is highly unlikely to ever be finished because it relies on the character dynamics as I imagined them for season six, based on the end of season five, which is COMPLETELY not what they actually are. So I figured I'd go ahead and toss what I have of it onto LJ/DW for people to read, if they like.

Start, Stop, Rewind
Gen, 3500 words; spoilers for the end of season five, but no actual ones for season six since this was written before it started.

I note again that this story is unfinished and probably will never be finished, so be prepared for that going in.

--

During the three days that Neal is held in the dark -- three days, but it feels so much longer -- all he can think about is getting back. Peter, please find me. He holds himself to sanity by spinning memories of June's apartment, of the Burkes' living room, of the White Collar bullpen and Theo's laugh and Diana's quiet smile and Peter's hand resting warm against his shoulder ...

... and then he's back, and it's not the fantasy, and he can't handle it.

Peter's first reaction when he pulled Neal out of that tiny dark room was to hug him, hug him so hard his ribs hurt, but now Peter is weird and tired and sharp-edged, and doesn't laugh much anymore. And Elizabeth's in DC, and Sara's in London, and Diana and Jones are all business (except when they're not), and and and ...

-- and the thing is, he knows it's mostly him. The world is either too small (out, out, he has to get out) or too huge, the lights too bright or not bright enough. Life at White Collar has always been an awkward dance between urges pulling him in opposite directions. When he stops and makes himself look at things objectively -- he does have that setting, no matter what some people claim -- he can see the warmth in Diana and Jones's banter with him; he can recognize that a lot of what's going on with Peter right now has everything to do with the Elizabeth situation and nothing to do with him.

But ...

He's just angry. Angry all the time, at everything. Things aren't as bad as they were after Kate's death, but he feels like he's back in the same headspace that losing Ellen put him into, where he's a tightly curled ball of rage liable to explode in any direction. He knows it's not Peter's fault and he tries not to let it spill over onto Peter, but it does, of course. And onto Mozzie, and onto Sara in their occasional long-distance phone calls.

He has another eight months on the anklet and he just can't. He thought he could, but he can't. Twice in the last three years he's had freedom held in front of him and snatched away, and he's done. He knows it's going to hurt Peter's career if he runs, and he knows he's going to burn bridges he doesn't want to burn, but he can't.

So he plans.

He plans quietly, with Mozzie and sometimes with June. Mozzie alternates between actively helping him make plans and a sort of uncharacteristic hesitation -- "Are you sure, is this really what you want to do, man?"

And the thing is ... it is and it isn't. He wants to feel the sun on his face on a foreign beach; he wants to go for a walk without his every move being monitored. He wants to make his own decisions. He wants to be free.

And he wants to do it without watching everything he's built here go up in smoke, but he's not sure he has the option anymore. There's a restlessness under his skin, an itch clawing at him, a darkness sucking all the light out of the world. He's impatient and angry and he hurts, and he's tired of finding the silver linings in all the clouds. He's just tired of everything.

By the time he's been back for a month, he's pretty sure that he's going to do it. The idea of hurting Peter that badly is still a sickness curling in his stomach, an ache like unshed tears at the back of his throat, but the raw urge to run has never been stronger and Mozzie's got all the pieces in place. At this point it's basically just a matter of saying the word and he can vanish -- like he never was, like none of this ever happened.

He's drinking wine at the table and staring into darkness, the apartment lit only by a single lamp and the city lights outside, when there's a quiet knock at the door, jolting him out of the cage of his own head.

It isn't Mozzie, and it doesn't sound like June. He doesn't have anything openly incriminating on the table, but he hastily whips out a sketchpad and some pencils -- he's not about to admit that he's been staring at nothing for what, for all he knows, might be hours -- before he goes to open the door.

Seeing Peter there is a genuine surprise. Peter came by to see him a couple of times after the kidnapping -- hovering would probably not be too strong a word for what Peter was doing: hovering, but also distant; it was weird -- but that tapered off and Peter hasn't been back since.

Now he's standing there with a brown paper bag in his arms, and Neal flashes back so hard it hurts: two years ago, Peter with a screw-top bottle of wine and an open amnesty offer. Until the sun comes up.

Now ...

"Can I come in?" Peter asks quietly, entirely at odds with the brashness of the way he used to walk into the apartment.

Neal makes an "after you" gesture and stands aside to let him.

Like that other night, all those months ago, the bag contains a six-pack of beer and a bottle of wine. No screw tops this time. Neal raises his eyebrows in surprise. "This is actually ... decent." Mozzie wouldn't think so, but then, Mozzie disdains almost anything that costs less than two hundred a bottle.

"I do pick up a few things here and there." Peter puts the beer away, keeps a bottle out, pops the top.

It's so much like that other time that Neal can't help asking, "Do I get immunity?"

"Do you need it?" Peter shoots back with no hesitation and a slight grin.

Neal grins back. It's so easy to fall into this, so easy to forget ... everything.

But Peter's grin slides away, and he's totally serious when he sits at the table, glancing at the sketchbook in that not-quite-casual way he has. Serious ... and tired, almost gray with exhaustion. Neal can't really remember a time when Peter hasn't looked tired since El went to DC -- maybe before that, maybe since the prison ... or before that, even?

He doesn't know when things got so hard for them.

"No," Peter says, one hand curled around his beer and the other spread loosely on the table, "no immunity, not this time. Neal, we have to talk."

Neal's stomach lurches. Peter knows. How, he can't even begin to guess, but by now he's stopped being surprised at the way Peter just knows things.

"You're going to want alcohol for this," Peter adds, nodding at the half-empty wine glass.

Well, that's not ominous or anything. Neal tops off his glass and sits at the table with the best relaxed game face he's got.

"You're going to run," Peter says, so matter-of-factly that Neal can actually feel his mask slip a bit. How the hell does he do that? They were so careful!

"Peter," Neal says, a dozen scenarios spinning through his brain as he tries to figure out how to do damage control on this -- not just keeping himself out of prison, but emotional damage control on Peter as well, because this is one bridge he very much doesn't want to burn. "I don't know what you heard or saw, but I need you to know --"

Peter holds up a hand. Neal stills. "I'm not here to yell at you for being stupid, although you probably deserve it -- God, Neal, you only have less than a year --"

"And then what?" The anger roars up, a beast barely chained anymore, even on his best days. "So they can find another reason to extend my sentence? A legal technicality to keep me for another year, or another five, another ten?"

"They won't." Peter's hand clenches into a fist on the table. "They won't, Neal, the law's on your side, and I'll stop them if they try --"

"You can't protect me." He doesn't intend it to come out as bitter as it does, and guilt hits him immediately, especially when Peter seems to crumple. He looks old, like he's aged a year since Neal last saw him just a few hours ago.

"I'm sorry," Neal says at last. "I'm sorry, that was ... but it's true, Peter, and you shouldn't have to keep giving up things for me."

"So you're going to just slip out and hop a train for Jersey, then?"

This time Neal can't restrain his flinch, because that was exactly what he was going to do -- well, part of the plan. And no matter who Peter's been talking to or what paper trail he picked up on, there is absolutely no way he could know that much detail. Which can only mean ...

"Have you been talking to Mozzie?" Neal can hear the hurt and disbelief in his own voice. He can't believe Mozzie would sell him out like that, despite the doubts that Mozzie's been kind of vocal about.

"No," Peter says, and he's sincere enough that Neal believes him, which just leaves him even more deeply confused. "I'm not here to -- Neal, there's something you have to know. I don't know how I'm going to tell you this -- how I'm going to convince you, but ... Neal." He looks up, and his brown eyes meet Neal's: open and warm and terribly, terribly sad. "Neal, if you do this, you're going to die."

"That's ... more dire than your usual warnings," Neal says, trying to smile, because Peter sounds like he believes it and that's the worst part.

"This isn't hypothetical," Peter says, still staring at him with unnerving intensity, like he's willing him to believe. "Neal, I know you're going to die. I know it because I'm the one who had to identify the body."

Something about the verb tense catches and snags in Neal's brain. "Had to?"

Peter takes a deep breath. Presses his lips together. Then he unbuttons his sleeve and pushes it up. He turns his arm toward Neal, exposing his forearm.

Neal isn't quite sure what he expected, but it certainly isn't this. Peter's been writing on his arm. Some of it is ballpoint pen, scratched deep enough to leave red marks on his skin along with the blue ink. Some of it is laundry marker, or something akin to it. All of it is fresh.

The first thought that comes into Neal's head is Well, I guess I don't have the market cornered on crazy around here after all.

The biggest words are at the epicenter of the whole mess, blocky letters in Peter's bold handwriting slashed across the blue veins that run from wrist to elbow. SIX MONTHS, EIGHT DAYS, THREE HOURS. AUGUST 18, 2013.

It is currently the 16th of August.

Neal tips his head, curiosity warring with a gut-deep horror. Most of the notes are cryptic enough not to help much, scattered at seeming random across Peter's skin. 6 hrs give or take ... rain ... jason morstan (masters?) ... lenox hill ... 3rd from left ... nov 22/23 ... silver toyota suv

"This probably looks worse than it is," Peter says. He sounds apologetic. "I always forget most of it, so I've started getting the details down while I can remember. Especially the important ones, like when and where."

"When and where what?" Neal asks faintly.

That bone-deep pain is back in Peter's eyes. "When and where you die, Neal."

"August 18," Neal says through a throat that's tightened like a vise.

Peter's response is so quiet that Neal almost doesn't hear it. "This time."

One thing about living the life that Neal does ... he's had a lot of practice in thinking around corners. There is nothing possible about any of what Peter's saying, but Neal has already jumped to putting one and two and four together, adding up to a sum that is completely irrational and yet, would explain a lot of things about the way Peter looks right now. "Has this happened more than once?"

Peter hesitates, then his head moves in a small, jerky nod. "About a dozen times since I've known you, I guess."

Neal's mouth works for a minute before he can manage, "A dozen?"

"I said you'd need alcohol," Peter says with a shaky smile.

"What." Neal shakes his head, like he can shake off the impossibility of all of this. "And you -- what -- use a time machine to go back and rescue me? Peter --"

"The first time it happened, you were in prison," Peter says. "Turned out a guy you screwed over on the outside was in with you. Larry Harper."

"Larry the Louse?" Neal blinks; he hasn't thought about Larry in -- a decade, almost. "What -- he's in prison now? I didn't ... I mean, I haven't talked to Larry since ..."

"Since you and Keller conned him, apparently. Yeah, he held a grudge, it seems."

"Peter ..." Neal shakes his head helplessly. "I wasn't in the same prison with Larry. I didn't even know he was in prison."

"No, you weren't," Peter says, "because I had you transfered. Remember when you went to supermax? It would've been about a year into your sentence."

"Of course I remember that. Like I could forget that. Wait." Neal glares at him. "You were behind that?"

"Yeah I was, Neal, because you got shivved in a prison shower," Peter says flatly. "I only knew 'cause I happened to be talking to a buddy of mine who works in the prison system on the day it happened, and he knew I'd arrested you. Told me about it. Harper got you in the gut, nicked an artery. You bled out in minutes."

Neal stares at him. Peter really sounds like he believes what he's saying. But ... if something like that had happened, Neal would know, wouldn't he? He doesn't even feel a glimmer of recognition. He can't help touching his stomach lightly, feeling the smooth and unscarred skin through his shirt. And now he's pretty seriously worried about Peter. The obvious exhaustion, Peter's irritability and withdrawn demeanor over the last few weeks ... maybe the double whammy of prison and Elizabeth moving to DC is affecting him in ways Neal never dreamed.

"Peter .... that never happened."

"I know," Peter says. "Because I stopped it. And trust me, Neal, I know how this sounds. I know how I'd react if someone told me this."

"That you're a time traveler? Yeah. It's kind of hard to swallow, Peter."

"I know!" There's desperation on Peter's face. "I believe in hard facts, Neal. I don't know anything about physics or ... or whatever this is, but I do know it's impossible. Except it keeps happening. That first time, I went to bed with El and I woke up when my alarm went off, except it wasn't the day I'd gone to bed. It was two days earlier. And everything that'd happened to me in those two days was hazy as if I'd dreamed it, except I remembered enough about you and Harper to do some fact-checking. I'd never even heard of Larry Harper, but the transfer was just going through to get him kicked over to the prison where they had you in GenPop. I didn't know -- still don't know, really -- if anything would've happened, but I pulled a few strings and got you moved upstate, just in case."

"You had me transferred because you dreamed that I'd died? Seriously, Peter?"

"I didn't believe it either, but I wasn't taking chances," Peter says, stubborn. "Better safe than sorry."

Neal's not entirely sure how pissed off to be about this, since he'd just been getting the hang of navigating the social minefield of his first prison before he got bumped into an even worse one. On the other hand, he's not sure he would've done differently in Peter's shoes. "You said it keeps happening. What's another time?"

"Avery and the comic book vault," Peter says immediately. "He shot you in the back before you even knew he was there. I got there just in time to put cuffs on him but too late to stop it. I think that's when I started believing this might actually be happening to me, because it was a week later when I went back again -- maybe twenty seconds before it happened. I had just enough time to get there ahead of him, slap that damned button and seal us in."

Neal stares at him. Peter stares back, his face drawn with traces of a remembered grief.

"You didn't say anything," Neal says at last, softly.

"What was I going to say? I didn't really believe it myself, not entirely -- but two weeks after that, you got yourself shot in the middle of the Robinson diamond-thief takedown."

"No, I didn't, you knocked me out of the way --"

"Yeah," Peter says. "The second time. I'd lived with it for almost a month at that point."

His arm is still resting on the table. Neal looks back at it, at the words slashed into his skin: SIX MONTHS, EIGHT DAYS, THREE HOURS. Drawn with enough force to nearly draw blood. Drawn with anger.

Oh God, Peter.

"Is it longer every time?" Neal asks. "Before you ... go back." If he's going to jump into Peter's delusion world, he may as well do it with both feet.

Peter nods. His throat works for a minute before he says, "Every time. It was a month and a half after -- after Keller killed you -- don't ask, you don't want to know about that one. You died twice in Cape Verde, which I guess is when I realized that it was possible to go back twice if I don't get it right the first time, but it was a longer wait on the second one. Enough time, every time, for me to start wondering if this is the time it's not going to work, this is the time I just keep living forward ..." He breaks off, swallows hard, and drains the rest of his beer. Setting it down, he says without looking at Neal, "It was about four months after ... the last time."

"What was the last time?" But even before Peter answers, Neal thinks he might already know. He's remembering the desperation of Peter's hug when they pulled him out of that little room in the dark. Like Peter thought he'd never see him again.

"Did anyone ever tell you what happened to Farine?" Peter asks, an apparent non sequitur. Farine's the name of the guy who bricked Neal up and left him to die. "How we found you."

"NYPD got him in a raid," Neal says. "And he told you where I was." He frowns, because Peter's looking at him with the edge of intensity that Neal's starting to dread. "That's what the report said. Diana let me read it."

"Yeah. That's what the report said." Peter gives a small, miserable laugh, starts to take another drink and finds his beer is empty. He gets up and goes for another one, and only resumes talking once his back is to Neal. "He never meant to leave you longer than a day or two. At least, I don't believe he did. On the other hand, once the NYPD got him, he got too caught up in his own problems to actually remember he had a prisoner."

"I don't think I want to hear this," Neal says. He's already feeling an edge of panic creeping in. It must have crept into his voice, too, because Peter looks at him quickly over the refrigerator door, then closes it and comes to stand next to him. Neal doesn't really want to, but he slides sideways against Peter's leg -- like Peter's body is a magnet, drawing his spine to bend that way -- and Peter rests a hand on his shoulder. Neal closes his eyes, and breathes, and fights back the sickness and the tingling in his hands and feet, the lightness in his head, 'til he's all the way back again.

"You never did see that therapist I recommended, did you." Peter's rubbing a circle slowly on Neal's shoulder with his fingertips, digging into the tight muscles, not hard enough to hurt.

"Peter, the last therapist you sent me to --"

"Was a criminal. This one works closely with the FBI and is experienced at dealing with trauma."

"Have you talked to her?" Neal counters.

Peter snorts softly, which answers that question.


---

And that's where I stalled into silence.

Just for giggles, here's the chat session (which I apparently copied into the fic to remind myself of the plot) in which I described the idea to [personal profile] frith_in_thorns:

[personal profile] sholio:  Basically, Neal finds out somewhere circa season six-ish that he's actually died about a dozen times, and every time it happens, Peter jumps back to right before his death and has a chance to change things.
Peter doesn't know why it's happening either.
[personal profile] frith_in_thorns:  eeep!
[personal profile] sholio:  The first time was either while Peter was still chasing him, or when Neal was in prison, and nothing like that had ever happened to Peter before.
Also, the first time, there was a lag of only a few hours. Every time it happens, though, the lag is longer.
And it's COMPLETELY erratic how much time he has to fix stuff.
Like, in "Checkmate" when Peter shows up in the nick of time when Keller is attacking Neal -- originally, Neal died, and Peter jumped back with literally only a few minutes to fix it.
But for HIM, there was a lag of a month or two before he jumped back. So he's never entirely sure if it's actually gonna happen or if this is the time he's stuck with an actual dead Neal.
Fortunately, his memories of the other timelines get really hazy afterward. He's not even sure how many times it's happened.
[personal profile] frith_in_thorns:  O_O
[personal profile] sholio:  He finally tells Neal because he jumps with something like 3 days to fix things this time, and for him it's been something like 6 months of dead Neal, so he finally tells him to try to get Neal to STOP DYING
And then they have to fix [thing that is going to kill Neal] together

I still like the idea, but since the season six dynamics are so different than what I was writing here, I'd have to do a lot of revising (move it to a different part of the timeline, maybe, or revise the character interactions a lot) and I just don't think I'll ever do it. So I decided to set it free into the wild. Go free, little WiP, go free.


This entry is also posted at http://sholio.dreamwidth.org/985735.html with comment count unavailable comments.
Oh my god, this is so heartbreaking and so beautiful. I love Peter in this, he's just brilliant.

I see why you would have abandoned it, though. I'm trying to write a post-S5 AU right now and it is extremely difficult, more so because I love how S6 is going.
Thank you so much! :) Poor poor Peter; his life is AWFUL in this story. All those dead Neals!

But yeah, as much as I love the general setup, I had to take a hard look at it and ask myself if I can finish writing it now that we're deep in S6, and .... no, I just don't think I can. In large part because I agree with you: I'm really loving season 6, and I like the actual canonical character interactions a lot better than my now-AU version. It would be easier to AU it if I were hating the current direction of the show, I guess ...
OMG, I would be in chronic heartbreak mode if I had to see what Peter's seen :O

I can imagine, I keep giving up in between, but I think I'll eventually get mine written, maybe because it's mostly Sara's POV?
I love this time travel scenario. No wonder Peter is on the edge of total exhaustion and despair. He's fighting battles in several worlds. Neat idea!
Thank you! Yeah ... poor Peter; this is such an awful thing to do to him! (Although it does end happily, at least in this particular case!)
This is so beautiful, love how Peter is a sort of guardian angle. His nightmares must be terrible, no wonder he is exhausted.
Oh, poor Peter! *hugs him* I loved the snippet, of course. Peter trying not to sound crazy, Neal trying to understand - and Peter never knowing if this time he gets to fix things is so heart-wrenching! *hugs him more*
I just have to say that this is brilliant and has been haunting me ever since I read it... I'm just a bit failing at the commenting part ATM, lol. But better late than never, hee :D

I love this idea and everything you have written here. It's just WOW. Poor, poor Peter, OMG *clings to him*
Awwww, thank you! :D Poor Peter, indeed. And this is particularly poignant now, considering what happened in the finale ... did he spend the whole year expecting to leap back? ;___;
OMG, you are right, he would have spent the entire year waiting... and then probably coming to terms that it wasn't gonna happen, that it was final. Not knowing that there was no reason to leap back... ohhh *heartbreak*