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Something Comfortable

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					                     Posted originally on the Archive of Our Own at
                      http://archiveofourown.org/works/227391.


 Rating:               General Audiences
 Archive Warning:      No Archive Warnings Apply
 Category:             F/M
 Fandom:               White Collar
 Relationship:         Neal Caffrey/Sara Ellis
 Character:            Neal Caffrey, Sara Ellis, Peter Burke
 Additional Tags:      Hurt/Comfort, Concussions, Injury
 Stats:                Published: 2011-07-23 Words: 3781


                       Something Comfortable
                                       by sahiya

Summary



        Sara considers herself competent in any number of areas -
        including two forms of martial arts, three languages, and the
        circumvention of the most common high-end security systems - but
        she's never been good with vulnerability. In fact, one might say
        she's allergic to it.



Notes



        Many thanks to via_ostiense for a fast and dirty beta and to
        fuzzyboo for telling me that no, really, I had to follow her advice.




 "Hi Sara, it's Peter. I'm calling on Neal's behalf to let you know he won't be able
 to make your date tonight. He got knocked on the head pretty good this
 afternoon during a takedown, and he probably won't be up and about for a few
 days. He's staying with us until it's safe for him to be on his own, but I'm sure
 he'll give you a call once he's back at June's."

 Of all the things Sara expected to hear when she checked her voicemails
 during a break in her usual spate of Monday afternoon meetings, that was .
 . . probably not as high on the list as it should have been. She'd known
 about the takedown this afternoon, at least in the broadest sense; Neal had
 mentioned it when they'd made plans for this evening, since it might've kept
 him at the office until later than usual. And God knew she was aware that
 Neal's job wasn't risk-free. But until it's safe for him to be on his own sounded
fairly serious. She was sure Peter had things well in hand, though, and it
wasn't as though he'd asked for her help.

Wait. Why hadn't he asked for her help?

It was a question she kept worrying at through the rest of her meetings.
True, she and Neal hadn't made any sort of commitment to each other; it was
mostly dates in trendy little restaurants followed by some of the most
creative sex Sara had ever had, with a side of stimulating conversation.
Sometimes he made her lunch or breakfast and occasionally even dinner. It
was the most fun she'd had in years, if she was honest with herself, but . . .
yes, all right, Peter was probably justified in thinking she wouldn't come
running if Neal was groggy and concussed.

Which begged the even more vexing question: Did she want to come
running?

On the one hand, while Sara considered herself competent in any number of
areas - including two forms of martial arts, three languages, and the
circumvention of the most common high-end security systems - when it came
to this sort of thing, she was the first to admit that she was terrible at it.
Vulnerability annoyed her, and one of the things she liked about Neal was
that he rarely showed her any vulnerability. Other women, Sara knew,
yearned for such moments; she avoided them like the plague. A groggy,
concussed Neal Caffrey would probably be disarmingly vulnerable. Sara had
no idea what she'd do if faced with that.

Peter clearly knew what he was doing, Sara decided as she sorted papers to
take home with her. He was the better choice for taking care of Neal; he'd
known Neal longer and probably seen him in similar situations before. It
would be easier for all involved. She'd call and see how he was doing, of
course, but - well, Peter was right to assume what he had. They weren't to
that point yet. They might very well never reach it at all.

There, she thought with satisfaction, as she pushed through the doors of
the Sterling-Bosch building and strode out into the fall drizzle. Decision
made.

Once home, Sara dropped her briefcase on the the table in her foyer, kicked
off her shoes in her bedroom, and settled herself on the couch to call Neal. It
rang three times before he finally answered, in a rough voice so unlike
himself that she could hardly believe it was him. "Hello?"

"Hey, Neal, it's me," Sara said, frowning. "Peter left a message telling me
what happened. How're you doing?"

"Not so great," Neal replied, his words slightly slurred. "Sorry about tonight.
I'll make it up to you."

"Don't worry about it. I just wanted to see how you were. Do you need
anything?"

"I'm okay. Peter'll take good care of me."

He sounded like talking was painful - or possibly it was just that everything
was painful right now. Sara felt a twinge of sympathy and, unexpectedly,
genuine worry. She suddenly wondered if the impulse to see for herself that
he was all right might not be stronger than the impulse to avoid Neal Caffrey
at his most vulnerable. "I'm sure he will. But you know," she added, hardly
believing herself, "I seem to be free this evening all of the sudden, and if you
wanted company . . ."

"You want to come over?" Neal said, sounding surprised through his
bleariness. "Really? I'm probably gonna be really boring."

"I don't care," Sara said, and was surprised to realize it was the truth.

"If you're sure, then . . . yeah. That'd be really nice. Really nice. Oh, uh,
Peter wants to talk to you. Hang on."

There were some momentary rustling noises that signaled the phone being
passed over. Then Peter's voice said, "Hey, Sara."

"Hi, Peter. Is Neal all right? He sounded dreadful."

"More or less. He was out cold for a couple minutes at the scene, and now
he's nauseated and groggy and he's got a pretty bad headache. The doctor
at the ER said he'd be all right, but he shouldn't be on his own, so I brought
him home with me."

"Good," Sara said, relieved. "I hope it's okay I invited myself over. If not, just
say the word and -"

"No, no, it's fine," Peter said. "Neal almost cracked a smile when you offered.
I just didn't think . . ." He stopped.

"You didn't think I'd want to."

"I didn't think you and Neal had that sort of relationship."

"Yes, well," Sara shook her head, "it's sort of news to me, too. I don't mean to
step on your toes -"

"You're not stepping on any toes," Peter said quickly, though Sara suspected
she sort of was, and perhaps in more ways than one. It actually wasn't the
first time she'd had that feeling; she'd been putting off examining it too
closely. "It's fine. I guess we'll see you in a bit, then."

"Probably it'll be about an hour," she said. She wanted to shower and
change; a tailored power suit was probably not appropriate attire for
visiting one's concussed lover, especially when the lover in question was as
appearance-conscious as Neal was. In this case, the phrase slip into
something more comfortable wasn't a euphemism at all, more's the pity.
"Should I bring anything?"

"Ginger ale, if it isn't too much trouble. I thought we had some here, but we
don't, and his stomach's pretty rocky."

"Ginger ale, got it. See you soon, Peter."

Sara hung up. Well, this was not how she'd pictured her evening going.
"Right," she muttered to herself. "Comfortable clothes. Ginger ale. I can do
this. I can be," she paused, testing the shape of the syllables out in her
mouth before saying them aloud, "nurturing."

Oh hell, who was she kidding. It was fortunate for both her and Neal that
Peter would be there.

***

An hour later, Sara rang the Burkes' doorbell, plastic bag of ginger ale - and
ginger tea for good measure - in hand. She was wearing jeans and a faded
college sweatshirt, and she had her hair pulled back, though she'd drawn
the line at taking off her make-up. There were things she would not do for
Neal Caffrey, and going out in public without make-up on was one of them.

The door opened. "Hi, Peter -" she began.

"Thank God you're here, I have to go," he said, bringing her up short. "Diana
called about twenty minutes ago, this case we thought we'd wrapped up just
imploded. Neal's upstairs in the guest room," he added as he shrugged into
his jacket. "I have him set up with a TV and a DVD player. See if you can get
some food into him. He hasn't puked in a couple of hours, but try the ginger
ale first, then maybe some crackers and soup, there're some in the
cupboard. I hope I won't be too long, but if I'm more than a couple of hours,
can you let Satchmo out into the backyard?"

"Um, sure," Sara said, taken aback. "Is Neal okay with this?" Peter'll take good
care of me, Neal had said, with complete faith.

"Think so," Peter said, grabbing his keys. "He knows how important this case
is. I'll call in a couple hours and let you know how long I'll be. Thank you!" He
rushed out the door, cell phone already in hand. Sara was left standing in
the entryway, staring after him.

She gave herself exactly half a minute to panic before she took herself and
the situation in hand. She was a magna cum laude graduate of Smith, she
had a Master's degree from Yale, and she'd had guns pointed at her. She'd
once had to fake her own death, in fact, so this? This was nothing.

She decided to start with the ginger ale, simply for the sake of something to
do. It wasn't cold, so she separated one can from the six-pack, stuck the rest
in the fridge, and cracked the can open before pouring it into a glass with
ice. Then she considered the Burkes' liquor cabinet and the virtues of a stiff
shot of bourbon. For herself, that was, not for Neal. She was fairly certain
people with concussions weren't supposed to drink alcohol.

The Burkes' dog - what had Peter called him? Gizmo? - stared at her as
though he knew exactly what she was thinking. "Don't judge me," she told
him, but in the end, she went upstairs without any liquid courage.

She could hear the murmur of the TV from the guest room. She knocked, and
the TV sounds ceased. "Yeah, come in," Neal said.

"Hey," Sara said, nudging the door open. "I come bearing ginger ale."
"My hero," Neal said, making a half-hearted attempt to shove himself up in
bed. Sara set the glass down on the nightstand and pulled a pillow behind
him. Peter hadn't been exaggerating when he said Neal looked like hell. Half
his face was bruised and he had two black eyes. More startling still, though,
was that the usual Caffrey charm was damped down to a mere spark. Sara
wasn't sure she'd ever realized how on he was around her until he was quite
suddenly off.

"Do I want to know what the other guy looks like?" Sara asked with a smile,
easing herself down on the opposite side of the bed and handing Neal his
ginger ale. The covers were rumpled, she noticed, as though someone -
Peter - had been sitting on them, and an extra pillow was shoved up against
the headboard.

"There is no other guy. I got hit over the head with a gun and then knocked
down a flight of stairs."

"Ouch."

"Yeah, it wasn't much fun, but as Peter has pointed out multiple times, it
could have been worse - I could've broken my neck. The next couple of weeks
aren't going to be pleasant, though." Neal leaned his head back, looking
exhausted. "Thanks for coming. You really didn't have to."

"I know," Sara said. "But I wanted to."

Neal looked dubious. "Really?"

"So it seems," Sara said, a little wryly. She glanced over at the TV; it was
frozen on a close-up of Matt Damon's face. "What are you watching?"

Neal grimaced. "I don't even know. Peter put it on." He looked down at his
ginger ale and gave a woeful sigh. "I'm sorry - I had plans for us this
evening."

"Well, I promise not to hold it against you," Sara said lightly. This won her a
very small smile, though Neal was mostly still glaring at the glass of ginger
ale like it had personally insulted his mother. "You're supposed to drink
that, you know."

He winced. "I know, I just . . . I really don't think I can just now."

She was about to argue with him - it was ginger ale, after all, and would
probably help calm his stomach - but he looked so miserable, she couldn't
bring herself to do it even for his own good. "Okay," she said, taking the the
glass from him and setting it aside on the bedside table. "It's here if you
want it, just say the word." He nodded, vaguely. Sara bit her lip, glanced at
the TV, and said, "You want to put the movie back on?"

"Sure," Neal said, sounding relieved. "Er, do you want -"

"Just scoot over a bit." She kicked her shoes off and pulled her legs onto the
bed, scooting back until she was sitting against the pillow propped against
the headboard. Then she pulled a pillow over onto her lap and patted it.
"Come here."
He frowned in apparent confusion. "You really don't have -"

"Neal," Sara said firmly, "I want you to trust me to know I don't have to do
anything I don't want to. If you'd rather not -"

"No, no," he said hastily, and lay down with his head on the pillow in her lap.
She located the remote where it had gotten lost in the comforter and un-
paused the film. One of the Bourne Identity movies, she thought. Not her
thing and probably not Neal's either, but Peter had probably thought he'd
be the only one watching it. Neal sighed, relaxing against her, his head a
comfortable weight in her lap.

She started to stroke his hair, realized that was probably a bad idea, and
settled for running a hand up and down his back, scratching lightly with her
nails. "Okay?" she asked quietly.

"Yeah," he said, in a voice already rough with sleep. Sara nodded to herself,
and settled back to watch the movie. This was almost . . . nice, she thought.
Peaceful. And there was undeniably something satisfying about being the
one to look after Neal. It made her feel sort of warm and just a bit . . . fuzzy.

Christ, had she just thought that? Never again, she promised herself, and
tried to refocus her attention on the movie. It was, on the whole, much safer.

At some point, she must have drifted off. She woke to a dark room and Neal
shifting restlessly on her lap. "Mmm?" she managed, blearily glancing at the
bedside clock. It was after eleven. "What's wrong?" she asked. "Is Peter
back?"

"No, I -" Neal stopped, swallowed. "I don't feel so hot."

It was easy enough to figure out what that meant. A quick glance around
told her that the only trashcan in the room was both wicker and unlined.
Brilliant. "C'mon," she said. She swung her legs out of the bed and pulled
Neal to his feet as well; he swayed, going white, and she barely kept him
from going over. She kept him upright by sheer force of will, and steered
them both out of the bedroom and into the hallway, where she promptly
realized she had no earthly idea where the bathroom was.

Fortunately, Neal got hold of himself enough to stumble the last few feet. He
shoved the door to the bathroom open, dropped to his knees, and was sick
into the toilet. Sara turned the light on, which made him flinch and moan
before he retched again, and then hung back, wincing as he dry heaved.
After what felt like hours, but was probably only a minute or two, Neal
slumped against the toilet, resting his head on his arm. "Please shoot me,"
he mumbled.

"Sorry, I left my gun at home," Sara replied. Neal made a noise that might've
been a laugh or a groan. Sara poked around in the bathroom cupboards and
finally came up with a washcloth. She ran it under the tap and draped it over
the back of Neal's neck. "How are you doing?" she asked, resting a hand on
his back.

"I've been better," Neal said, and let himself slump sideways so he was
sitting, leaning against her legs. "Sorry," he added, looking up at her
blearily. "Not what you signed up for, I know." He swallowed, grimacing.
"Look, it's late and you have work tomorrow. I'm sure Peter will be home
soon. I'll be all right until then."

Sara stood looking down at him. What was she supposed to say to that? she
wondered. It was hardly to believe that only a couple hours ago, she'd been
feeling fuzzy toward Neal Caffrey. At the moment, she wanted to hit him.
Gently and, yet, repeatedly.

"I am not," she finally said, in a very even tone, "going to leave you on the
bathroom floor. What sort of person do you take me for, Neal?"

He looked up at her. "I - um."

"I realize," she went on, in the same very steady voice, "that none of this
situation is about me, so I've been trying really hard not to take it personally
that Peter called and left me a voicemail message to let me know you were
hurt, and that you were visibly surprised that I called to see how you were.
I'm trying not to take it personally that you've told me three times so far that
I don't have to be here and can leave if I want. And I'm trying not to take it
personally that you apparently think I would leave you on the bathroom floor
with no way to call for help if you needed it. But the cumulative effect is
quite insulting, so I wish you'd stop."

Neal was silent, leaning against her. After a moment, Sara knelt down and
pulled him against her, her arm around his waist. "I'm sorry," he said. "I
didn't think you'd . . . I wouldn't have blamed you, you know. I am glad you're
here, I'm just a bit . . ." He swallowed. "The thing is, I'm almost used to Peter
and El caring. Coming from anyone else, I don't really expect much."

"Oh." Sara blinked. And all along she'd been thinking it was her. And yes, all
right, maybe it was, a bit - Peter had certainly been surprised that she'd
wanted anything to do with this - but how much of it had been Neal thinking
no one would care? And what had happened to him to make him think that?
His past was still a black hole to her; where she was guarded, he was
downright secretive. "Well, get used to it."

"Should I?" Neal asked, frowning up at her.

"So it seems," she said, wryly. "Against all better judgment, I assure you."
She turned her head and kissed him just over his eyebrow. "Do you think you
can stand?"

"Yeah," Neal said, and let her help him to his feet so he he could rinse his
mouth out with Scope. He leaned on her during the slow shuffle back to the
bedroom, but not as heavily as before, and he accepted the ginger ale easily
enough once she got him tucked in.

"Would you mind calling Peter?" Neal asked. "I thought he'd be home by
now."

"Sure," Sara said, brushing hair back out of Neal's face even as she quashed
a twinge of something that was certainly not jealousy toward Peter Burke.
She settled on the bed beside Neal and pulled out her cell phone to call
Peter.
"Oh God, Sara," Peter said by way of greeting. "I thought for sure I'd be
home by now. I - damn, okay, I can be out of here in fifteen minutes and
home in forty-five, I'm -"

"Peter," Sara said firmly, "it's okay."

"- so sorry, I completely lost track of - er." Peter pulled up short. "Really?"

Sara rolled her eyes. "Why is everyone so surprised by this? Never mind,"
she added, when Neal looked up at her and raised his eyebrows, "I don't
think I want to know. Do what you need to, Neal and I are fine here."

"Did he eat anything?"

"No. Ginger ale is enough of an achievement tonight."

"Ah," Peter said. "Well, I should be home . . . sometime. If I can get this
wrapped up, I'll take tomorrow off."

"I can go in late if you want to sleep in."

"Are you -"

"Yes," Sara said, with barely controlled patience, "I'm sure."

There was a brief silence on Peter's end. "Thank you," he said at last. "I
appreciate it."

"No problem. Do you want to talk to Neal?"

"Yeah, thanks."

Sara handed the phone over to Neal and then eased herself out from
underneath him. She padded downstairs to lock up and let the dog out into
the backyard. It'd rained all day and there was a bite in the air that spoke of
winter on its way. Despite the chill, she stood in the doorway, staring out
into the backyard.

It was almost possible to pretend that this was her life, rather than just a
fluke of circumstance: a house in Brooklyn with a yard and a mortgage, a
dog that had to be walked, Neal waiting in their bed for her. Sara had never
thought she'd want that sort of domesticity, but - well, she'd certainly
surprised everyone else tonight. She thought she might yet surprise herself.

She climbed the stairs quietly and paused just outside the bedroom door to
eavesdrop shamelessly. Curiosity had always been a weakness of hers,
though it'd yet to get her killed.

". . . doing okay," Neal was saying. "She didn't even bat an eye when I threw
up in front of her." He paused and then he said, sounding as though he'd
said it before, more than once, "It's okay, Peter, really. I'm not upset." There
was another pause and then Neal huffed out a laugh, "Fine, all right, I'm a
little upset, are you happy now? . . . Good, because I'm going to sleep. Get a
cab if you're too tired to drive. . . . G'night, Peter." Sara heard the faint
sound of her cellphone being placed on the nightstand, and then Neal
cleared his throat. "You can come in now, instead of lurking in the hallway."
Sara nudged the door open and refused to be sheepish when she smiled.
"Did you give me a good report?"

"Yeah," Neal said, sliding down under the covers. He pulled up one corner in
invitation. "Maybe a little too good. I think Peter was disappointed to hear
we were getting on so well without him."

"Hmm," Sara said, stepping out of her jeans. "You and Peter have an unusual
relationship, you know."

"Yeah," Neal sighed, "I do. Do we have to talk about it now?"

"No," she said, sliding into bed beside him, "not now." She turned off the
light and rolled onto her side so that his back was to her front, her arm
draped across him. "I don't have to wake you every hour or anything, do I?"

"No, they don't do that anymore," Neal said, grasping her hand in his. "I'll be
okay. G'night, Repo."

Sara smiled. "Good night, Neal."

Fin.



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