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A Sapling of Trust

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Neal couldn’t remember a time when someone was always there. There never really had been a time when someone was always there.

 

He would come home from school and some days his mom would be in the kitchen, smiling her smile where her eyes were still sad but it was better than no smile at all. Sometimes she would ask him about his day and give him cucumber sandwiches as a snack. They were elegant, she said, and though he knew the cucumbers grew in Ellen’s garden and the bread was often stale he loved them anyway. His mother loved elegant so he loved it too.

 

Some days he came home to the sad eyed smile and the elegant cucumber sandwiches, but some days his mother wasn’t in the kitchen. Some days she was in her room with the shades pulled down and the covers pulled up ignoring any effort to bring her back out, or perhaps not hearing it at all.

 

Some days she was there and some days she wasn’t. He took the days she was but he never trusted that she would be.

 

Some days he would come home and Ellen would be there. She would chat with him about school, his job working at the library (she didn’t know about the pool hall that became his second job), and help out with the chores around the house that he couldn’t manage himself, teaching him how to do them. Some days she would get out old recipes and help him cook something delicious with their meager ingredients, and some days she would take him outside and teach him to shoot, and some days she would get a twinkle in her eye and they would drive half an hour away to the rock climbing walls that Neal loved.

 

But Ellen also had a life and struggles of her own. Many days Neal would come home from a long day of work and school, and Ellen wouldn’t be there. She was working most often, trying to make ends meet for herself. Neal knew he couldn’t call her when he grew careless cutting vegetables and wasn’t sure what to do about the gash in his hand or when he felt himself grow dizzy with hunger but was too exhausted to do more than grab a piece of bread. Ellen might want to be there, but she couldn’t and Neal knew that.

 

So as he lay in bed, sixteen years old, feverish, in and out of consciousness, and gasping for breath (pneumonia he realized years later when he looked back) he felt no self pity as he did his best to care for himself, aware of the fact that Ellen had already spent all her vacation days on him. That was just how it was. How life was.

 

Some days she was there and some days she wasn’t. He took the times she was but he never trusted that she would be.

 

***

 

The life of crime had never been his plan until after that fateful eighteenth birthday, but in some ways Neal had always been prepared for it.

 

The first rule of a life of crime was that you could never trust people—not really. Perhaps you could trust them sometimes, but unwaveringly? Never. It wasn’t a hard lesson for Neal Caffrey to learn because Danny Brooks had learned that well already.

 

And so Neal Caffrey threw Danny Brooks away but kept one thing—his smile.

 

It was the smile that seven-year-old Danny had given his school nurse when she sent him home with a stomachache telling him to make sure his mother took him to the doctor if he wasn’t feeling better in a few days. It was the grin that thirteen-year old Danny had reassuringly flashed at old Larry from the pool hall with as he was sent home with a sprained ankle and instructions to get Ellen to take him and get it treated. It was the smile sixteen-year-old Danny had given sweet Jenny the librarian when she had sent him home, feverish and coughing, with the command to let someone taken care of him for a few days.

 

It was the smile that let the world know that Neal Caffrey could look out for himself and that he was just fine doing it.

 

As Neal learned his way in the world, the world did nothing to brighten his view of it. Having companionship like Mozzie and Kate was wonderful but he knew better than to trust them.

 

“My stash is in San Diego.” He told Kate.

 

“It’s all in Portland.” He told Moz.

 

San Diego, Portland, there were no bonds, money, or art in either place. He loved them both but knew better than to trust them. They weren’t always there.

 

But one day, there was someone who was there. Someone who could be relied upon, someone who didn’t leave. At first it was a nuisance and a rather large one at that.

 

“Neal, you’re on the radar of the FBI! The Man is going to take you down and experiment on you and I’ll never hear about you again and—”

 

Mozzie was melting down and Neal was less than happy about it himself. Not that he feared getting caught, but it would certainly complicate things significantly. But soon he found it added an element of challenge that spurred him on. At first there was just the pure enjoyment of sticking it to the FBI as they straggled behind him, but it was curiosity that drove his meeting with Agent Burke outside of the bank.

 

Brooks Brothers suit, very little sense of style, but the man’s face was open, honest and friendly as he took the time to reassure (as he thought it) a worried civilian who hoped he didn’t accidentally own counterfeit bonds. Neal had never really encountered a face like that.

 

As he pulled off job after job Neal enjoyed having that face in his mind’s eye to play up against. He told Mozzie it was just a game when Moz grew nervous, something to raise the stakes, add a bit of intrigue, and no, he wasn’t trying to impress The Suit, but Mozzie was a con himself and knew a lie when he saw one, sometimes even when the liar didn’t know they were lying.

 

“Be careful Neal, The Suits will always be there.”

 

The Suit will always be there.

 

***

 

Neal toyed with the idea of feeling bad for waking the agent up in the middle of the night as he hung up the phone a few months after the bank encounter, and decided to feel bad but not bad enough to never call in the middle of the night again.

 

The first time he answered Agent Burke sounded sleepy and confused and Neal could hear him trying to trace the call, but by the fifth time in forty days or so he simply answered with a long-suffering,

 

“Caffrey.”

 

“Agent Burke. I thought I’d check in.”

 

“You want to know how close we are to pinning the Ming Vase thefts on you.”

 

“No, I just wanted to chat but they do say keep your enemies close for a reason.”

 

Neal could hear Burke huff in irritated amusement over the phone.

 

“I object to being labeled ‘the enemy’ in this scenario Caffrey, you were the one who stole the vases.”

 

“I cannot confirm or deny that, but if it were hypothetically true, would you consider me the enemy?” The question was asked lightly, but the pit in Neal’s stomach as he asked it wasn’t light.

 

“Most people would certainly say so.” Peter side-stepped the question but if it was in the spirit of the bantering conversation or if it was intentional Neal couldn’t quite tell.

 

“I asked what you would say Agent Burke.” Neal pointed out. This time it was a real effort to keep his tone unaffected and breezy. There was silence for a long moment before Peter answered, dropping the semblance of banter as his tone grew quiet—thoughtful.

 

“No, Neal, you’re not an enemy.”

 

Neal wasn’t quite sure how to respond to the sudden depth of the agent’s words. There were a lot of things he wanted to ask, What am I then? Or perhaps, Who am I, Agent Burke? But he couldn’t very well expect Burke to answer questions he didn’t know the answers to himself. Finally he just pulled in a breath,

 

“Well, this has been enlightening. Thanks for chatting Agent Burke.”

 

“Anytime, Caffrey.”

 

Neal knew that the agent’s words were sarcastic but they still made him feel unaccountably warm as he hung up the phone.

 

Anytime, Caffrey.

 

***

 

There was a lot of blood. He could feel it, warm, running in rivulets down his chest, soaking into his clothing. Somehow it was the warmth of the blood that  was the most prominent sensation, and not the ripped muscle and flesh, or shattered bone. Alarm bells began ringing in his head.

 

Pain...where is the pain?...blood means pain...shock...Caffrey you’re in shock...

 

He fumbled for his phone and his fingers trembled as he dialed a familiar number.

 

“Caffrey.”

 

Neal had never been so glad to hear the familiar voice on the other end of the line.

 

“Agent Burke.”

 

Something about the way he spoke must have tipped Burke off that something was wrong and the next words were sharp with concern,

 

“What’s going on? Are you alright, Neal?”

 

“How would I hypothetically treat a copiously bleeding bullet wound to the shoulder?” Neal breathed, trying for careless and landing somewhere nearer to ‘currently bleeding and in shock’.

 

“Dammit Caffrey,” Neal could hear Peter curse, “you call an ambulance! Do you hear me? Get some medical help! Or—I’ll get it for you, just tell me where you are, I can help you.”

 

“That’s not really an option, prison isn’t part of my plan this summer.”

 

“Isn’t your life more important than prison?!” Neal could feel the urgency of the agent’s tone but his mind felt too cloudy to dwell on it or it’s implications beyond a simple thought, he cares . “Dammit just tell me where you are Neal!”

 

“I’m not in New York anywa—“ The wave of pain hit suddenly and crashed over him, drowning out everything else. When it abated slightly he could still hear Peter on the other line,

 

“—okay? Caffrey, talk to me, come on, Neal! ” The last word sounded almost anguished.

 

“Agent Burke?”

 

“Caffrey! I need you to listen closely...” Neal held on to Burke’s voice like a life saver and obeyed his instructions, ripping his shirt up and pressing it against the wound, unsuccessfully biting back a moan of pain and hearing Burke’s murmured reassurances as he wrapped the ragged hole. He leaned, exhausted against the wall as he finished. “Please let me get you help Neal.” Burke’s voice sounded almost as drained as Neal felt. Neal sighed, a little frightened by how tempted he was the take the agent’s offer. Yes, he would get arrested, but something about the very real distressed urgency in Peter Burke’s voice told him that Peter didn’t care about arresting him right now. Peter’s help sounded...frankly wonderful. But prison did not.

 

He was thinking a bit more clearly now as the bleeding slowed, he decided he would call Alex to help patch him up. She’d be pissed that he’d interrupted her planning but she would probably do it.

 

“Like I said, prison isn’t part of my vacation plans.” The joke fell slightly flat but they both needed a bit of ease, “Thank you Agent Burke. I’ll be alright.”

 

“Take care of yourself Neal. It’s not satisfying to arrest a corpse.” If it was meant to be a joke Burke’s all too serious tone ruined it, but Neal huffed a quiet laugh anyway.

 

“Don’t worry, I’ll be evading your clutches for many more years to come.” Neal hung up and almost smiled.

 

It wasn’t until hours later as Alex forced antibiotics on him for his climbing fever, that he thought to wonder why he’d  called Burke and not Mozzie or Kate or Alex or someone who could actually come and help him far more quickly.

 

Because he’d be there. The answer floated across his mind as he fell into a restless sleep. I knew he’d be there.

 

***

 

A few years passed and Peter stayed as a steady fixture in Neal’s life, always just around the corner and growing steadily closer until, finally, Peter Burke caught up.

 

Neal found himself going from Kate’s arms to handcuffs in one fateful minute, but in between—a steady, warm handshake.

 

It was a terrifying thing to look Peter Burke in the eyes and realize that for the first time in his life here was someone who saw past the smile that had protected him for so long. Here was someone who could reach through the defenses that Neal had spent years building and could brutally toy with the brittleness behind it. After all, that’s what people did if it helped them, wasn’t it? And breaking Neal Caffrey would certainly help Peter Burke.

 

But there was kindness in Burke’s eyes and he stayed near as Neal was cuffed, keeping a steady hand on his shoulder. There was concern as he sat in the courtroom when Neal was sentenced. There was care as he visited Neal the day he was transferred to prison.

 

And it was in prison that Neal looked back and realized with wonder that never once had Burke used, manipulated, or hurt Neal in any way, though he surely could have gained from doing so. Instead there was prison but there was also a card with an FBI phone number for the White Collar division’s Special Agent in Charge, one that Neal kept close until it was all but worn away. It was a number he called more than once over the next nearly-four years.

 

Then Kate left and Neal escaped only to be arrested again by the inevitable Peter Burke. A plan formed in a few moments as he plucked a possibility of freedom off the Brooks Brothers suit in the form of a small fiber and hope bubbled up as he looked at the puzzled expression of the agent in front of him.

 

So Neal sat, four weeks later, with a piece of paper in front of him, a radius, an anklet, and a binding agreement putting him almost fully at the mercy of one single person.

 

He paused only for a moment before signing it with a characteristic flourish, a flutter of very real apprehension in his stomach, and a wide grin on his face. It was official.

 

Neal Caffrey, CI.

Handler: Peter Burke.

 

A sapling—bigger than an acorn though it wasn’t near an oak. But it was there, and it was Peter’s now, this strong sapling of something that could grow large if it were really cared for. A sapling that Neal had never planted before in his life. Trust.

 

***

 

Of course Peter knew that Caffrey trusted him to a certain extent. Neal had literally signed himself over to be Peter’s CI after all and that gave Peter no small amount of power over him; he wouldn’t have done that without trust.

 

But trust was no rarity in Peter’s life. He’d grown up loved and cared for, had never had a reason to distrust those who should have been trustworthy. Even through his career—truth, valor, honor, trust, they came hand in hand with the badge and though they were valued by Peter and his fellow agents, they were not unusual. Peter had never stopped to think about how different the criminal world could be or if the consequences of a life so much more barren than his own.

 

Peter hadn’t seen firsthand most of what the world had done to Neal Caffrey but he did see the armored shields Neal had built to protect himself—shields far thicker than most people ever needed. Shields like that could only hide enormous hurt and Peter grieved over them. But Peter had never thought to wonder over the stark difference between those shields and Neal’s signature on the probation agreement. Perhaps he should have thought about it more, but it wasn’t the life he had lived and so the agent never thought to wonder that it was perhaps strange or unusual that his CI put so much faith in him.

 

It was one candid, drug induced conversation on the conference room floor of the clinic that showed Peter the truth.

 

“Before I go you should know this. Out of all the people in my life, Mozzie, Kate—you’re the only one.”

 

“The only one what?”

 

“The only person in my life I trust.”

 

Peter was startled by the implication of the uncharacteristically honest words. He had guessed, of course, that a con man’s life left very little room for trust but that in Neal’s twenty-seven years of life he trusted only one person? The significance of Neal’s words hit Peter hard with the realization he had never had before.

 

Neal had no family. No ‘inner circle’. For Neal Caffrey trust was no commonality, no every day occurrence, it wasn’t something that was a natural part of life, love, and relationships. Trust was something Neal had never truly had in any person.

 

Neal’s trust was an exquisite and precious gift, something that had never been created before. And Neal had given this gift to Peter .

 

With eyes childishly wide from the drugs Neal was showing Peter the value of the gift he was giving—a gift he’d already given with phone calls, birthday cards, an anklet, and a binding signature on a harsh contract.

 

It was a gift that Peter had already nearly damaged with mistrust over two small initials on a pink diamond, but Neal had given it and was still giving it and it wasn’t too late to accept it.

 

And suddenly Peter was terrified.

 

It was a truly frightening thing to hold in your hands—the trust of someone who had never given it before. This delicate sapling was now Peter’s to care for and to guard and the consequences of failing were more awful than Peter wanted to admit.

 

You hold the power to build a good man, or twist a hurting one into a monster. Something whispered the words to him and he recognized their truth and cowered from them.

 

Why me? Peter wanted to ask, Isn’t there someone else more fitting? Why have I been given something so valuable, why should I be worthy of it? I’m just a guy trying my best to do the right thing and not always succeeding very well. Why me, Neal?

 

But who else was there? Peter was the one who had reached out to this person, hurting from a lifetime of being alone and so desperate for someone to care.

 

Peter was the one who was there.

 

The questions fell by the wayside and the doubts receded as Peter realized that only one thing was important. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t a saint or even anywhere near perfect. He had been given care of Neal’s trust and so care for it he would, to the best of his ability.