[I saw three ships]
To: Nomes
From: Amadi
Fandom: White Collar
Threesome: Elizabeth Burke/Peter Burke/Neal Caffrey
Title: The Ways
Requested Element: Found families
Warning: no standardized warnings apply
Notes: Contains some not-too-graphic discussion of a gunshot injury and the process of recovery.
Summary: They have ways of keeping Neal, keeping him together.

Jack Tellis is a check forger, embezzler and thief. Purely by luck, Neal's just found the proof of Tellis's crime, sitting right on the man's living room table. A mastermind responsible for over $4 million in missing funds from the charity for which he was, until that morning, CFO, Tellis's reaction is to squawk like a startled pigeon and run. Neal was right on his heels and knows that he's currently hiding behind a bay of clothes dryers in the laundry room of his apartment building.

Neal doesn't know that he's also armed with a .38. He finds out when the shot echoes in the small room and white hot pain sears through his shoulder, just as he was going for his phone to text Peter.

He also finds out that Tellis is an overconfident thief, but not a killer. He crouches next to Neal, and sounds complete .txtere when he says. "I wish I hadn't had to shoot you. I wish you hadn't come over this morning. This is all such a mess. I just... I gotta get away and I can't have you following me. I tried not to hit the bone, I think it went straight through muscle. I'm really sorry, Steve," he apologizes to Neal's undercover alter ego, even as he steals Neal's phone from his jacket pocket. "Don't move too much and you shouldn't bleed much more, and you won't hurt it. When I'm far enough away I'll call for help for you. I promise. And," he glances at the clock on the wall, "Mrs. Kellerman from 3B will be down soon anyway, she's like clockwork on a Wednesday morning, I usually see her in the elevator. You'll be okay. Right as rain by Christmas."

Neal's more hurt than Tellis thought, though, bleeding fast from a nicked artery, and despite his best efforts to stay awake, sit up, call out, wait for this Mrs. Kellerman to come to his aid, he's passed out before any help arrives.

When he wakes up, it's dark, and cool, and he thinks for a minute that he must be dead, but swimming up from the haze of pain and anesthesia he hears an angel's voice saying his name, but she's an earthbound angel, his own.

"'Lizbet?" He slurs, voice rough from breathing tubes and drugged sleep.

"I'm right here, honey," El says, coming into view, a silhouette of less dark in the murk, illuminated by a monitor beeping out his existence into the world. She edges in between equipment and the bed to brush his hair back and kiss his forehead. "I'm right here. You gave us a little scare. I'm glad to see your eyes open."

"Wha..." Neal doesn't have to finish asking what happened. When he tries to lift his hand to touch her too, the pain brings all the memories rushing back. For a minute, or maybe an hour (he's still very fuzzy) Elizabeth's gone and he's back on that concrete floor in the Bronx, staining it red. That inept bastard Tellis.

"Neal? Honey?" She's just a little more than a whisper, it's not the first time he's awakened briefly, she won't disturb his rest if he's out again.

But he fights back to reality, coughing, getting some air in, getting a little bit of the fuzz out. "Light?"

Elizabeth pushes some button that clicks loudly and turns on the light over the bed. It's bright and he .txtes. She pushes the button again and the light softens, changes in a way he can't quite understand, but he's a little more awake now, and he can see her face, know for sure that she's really real. She smiles a little. He tries to smile too, but can't really tell if he's succeeded.

He's quiet as Elizabeth pets his hair like he's a small child. He's seen her do the same with Peter after a scare, when shots have been fired or another agent hurt. He knows it means she's finding her own comfort too, assuring herself that he's whole, there and alive, his warmth under her soft hand more proof of a still-beating heart than machinery or doctor's proclamations. He tilts his head into her touch.

"They get him?" When he remembers Tellis, Tellis who did this to him, hurt him, he remembers the sound of tennis shoes squeaking on that painted concrete as the man ran away. Coward.

"They're still looking, honey. Peter's out there looking. You know he'll find him."

"I will, eventually. You know I don't give up. Especially not where you're concerned, Neal." The voice across the room is soft, not the "Agent Burke" voice, even as he talks about his agent-ly responsibility, but Peter's voice, raw and a little hoarse, emotions right at the surface, his armor down. "Reese sent -" He can't bring himself to admit that he's been benched, sent 'home, to the hospital, to church, wherever you need to be to get your head clear, Burke.' It'll make Elizabeth worry and eventually, it would bother Neal too, if he remembered when he was really awake. "Reese sent his best wishes. Clinton and Diana, too. The whole unit's still working the case. We'll bring him in."

There's even more equipment on the opposite side of the bed from where Elizabeth's wedged herself, but Peter somehow makes himself fit, looming large over Neal even as he bends, lifting Neal's good hand to kiss the palm. "I called June and she called Mozzie, they said they'd come tomorrow."

Neal's just as glad that they're not there. He has everything he really needs right now.

He lies there quietly, listening to Elizabeth and Peter trading off as they offer him reassurances and suggestions of what they'll do as he recuperates, though following the train of conversation gets harder and harder. Elizabeth turns the light off again, and he realizes how late it must be. A little panic rises, he doesn't want to be left alone. In the dark, he realizes it must be getting late.

"You'll stay?"

"We aren't going to go anywhere," Peter promises, brushing his knuckles along Neal's jaw. He's done it a hundred times before. Neal's sure it's never felt so good. "We're staying right here with you."

Elizabeth kisses his forehead again. "We'll be right here in the morning, Neal."

He slips back into sleep.

It's months after the shooting and Neal is finally free of the sling, but still in intensive physical therapy. The recuperation has been slow going, and there are still worries about nerve damage, limited range of motion, deep tendon reflexes and other terms that make Neal's head swim with rage and despair. The injury has taken the wind out of his sails, limiting him to months of desk duty at work that have sapped his gregarious and easy charm. He's grown quiet and withdrawn in the uncertainty and the dual stranglehold of restrictions at work and residual pain. He's been spending more nights than any of them would like on his own, but El and Peter invest themselves into fighting against his retreat into solitude, determined not to allow the tendrils of depression to curl around him and pull him out of the delicate and precious thing they've so carefully built for themselves.

As spring starts giving way to summer and longer days make it harder for Neal to go right to bed at the end of a workday, he realizes just how depressed he is. He's only been depressed once before in his life and he's not sure what to do with it when he's not wearing an orange jumpsuit.

He's out on his balcony for the first time in ages, eyes closed, just feeling the breeze and listening to the city below, puzzling again over how to ask for help without facing an even harsher spotlight from the Bureau, assessments of his fitness, reassessments of his status. He's due to come off of the anklet in the fall. It's a bad time to do anything that might raise questions about his fitness to stay on afterward.

El lets herself in, stopping at the balcony doors, not wanting to startle him, but also noticing how brittle he seems. He's lost weight, his hair seems dull, maybe thinner. Something has to change, and soon.

"You smell like my mom's garden," he says, and his eyes pop open, a little wild and a lot frightened as he looks at her and quickly looks away again, not sure where the sense memory came from so suddenly, or where the filter between his brain and mouth went to.

She's startled by the revelation,.txtonsequential as it seems on the surface. Neal seems to barely remember his mother -- or perhaps it's that he doesn't remember much that's good, worth remembering, let alone sharing. She appreciates just how strong the sense memory must have been for the revelation, and how hard he's fighting to stay connected if his guard is so low. She.txthes slowly across the balcony, and wraps arms around his waist from behind, pillowing her cheek against his uninjured shoulder, giving him closeness and privacy at once.

"Your mom," and the words are said with such care, "probably grew lemon verbena. My mom did." She's quiet and deliberate as she shares with him, gently rubbing his stomach. His breathing is shallow, and his heart is pounding and she slowly unrolls her own memory to give him perspective on his own. "I read about it in a Little House on the Prairie book when I was eight, maybe? The teacher in the book smelled like lemon verbena." She had wanted to be a teacher then herself. "I asked my mom if lemon verbena still existed, and if it really smelled like lemon. So she found some, and we planted it, so that we could find out together." It's been one of Elizabeth's favorite scents ever .txte. "I found a verbena perfume oil the other day and I had to get it. I brushed some through my hair."

She doesn't ask what, if anything, he remembers. She doesn't ask anything at all. She just stays pressed firmly against his back, soothes him with that slow tender touch and deep steady breaths, and waits. The memory fragments come bubbling out of him in a rush, as abruptly as the earlier declaration: a small backyard, a warm day, a sprinkler to play in, his mom tending her plants, and then tickling him with a long leaf and laughing with him, the scent of lemons all around.

They stay in that hold, quiet for a long moment after he winds down, then he turns to face her. He pulls her close, burying his face in her hair.

They stay that way for much longer.

"Take me home?" he whispers.

She doesn't double check, just takes his hand.

They celebrate No More Anklet day with Mozzie and June at the Burkes' and Neal's requested meal of Elizabeth's bourguignon and a tres leches torte from The Greatest Cake. They toast to every good thing imaginable: freedom, travel, good socks that he can finally wear again. By the end of the night they drain two bottles of champagne and three of the same burgundy that was in the stew. There are presents,.txtluding Neal's first legitimate passport from Peter, and tickets for three to London from El. Moz, somehow aware and ever practical, has an international voltage adapter and a list of London-based Friends of Haversham to "check in on" if he had a free hour or two. June provides tickets on the Eurostar and a set of keys. "It's a little pied-a-terre in Quartier Les Halles. I knew Byron wouldn't want to visit Paris often and told him not to buy it, but it was after the war and real estate was a sound investment. My caretaker will have it ready for you."

It's all beyond generous and surprising and Neal can't stop smiling and laughing.

Peter can't stop smiling either, because Neal's laughter has been absent for so long, too long. There's still work to do, but Peter takes a deep breath, smiles wider, laughs himself. He knows Neal's coming back.

Later that night, El, sated, still a little drunk and wide eyed, kisses Neal's surgery scar as she rolls away from him. Neal catches her, keeping her curled against his side and murmurs about matching sets and how it's something he's done to Peter countless times, lips pressed to the fading evidence of Peter's baseball injury, the start point of the journey to where their lives entwined.

Peter rolls his eyes. "Fanciful talk," he grouses, lifting Neal's leg, kissing the tender spot where the weightiest part of tracker has rubbed a gossamer patch into his skin, a permanent reminder of the years on the electronic leash. "Too much talk."

Neal rolls his eyes right back, toes wiggling with pleasure, tickling the shell of Peter's ear. "Shut me up then," he challenges.

If the fast trail of Peter's tongue up his thigh doesn't, Elizabeth's sloppy, perfect kiss does.