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[personal profile] tinnuial
Title: Fragile
Author: [livejournal.com profile] tinnuial 
Rating: PG
Warning: Reference to off-screen violence
Summary: An op goes south. Jones observes the aftermath. My first White Collar fic!

Prequel: Mea Culpa

It had been five weeks since that terrible day when they had found Neal and little Sophie Boudin huddled and chained and bloody in a dark corner of that dreadful, crumbling sub-basement. Six weeks since Neal went missing on that god-awful mission that had gone to hell in a hail of gunfire and incompetence. Neal was now back at work, and while he tried to act like everything was back to normal, Jones could tell it wasn't. When Neal didn't think there were eyes on him, Jones could see the mask drop, leaving behind a tiredness, an emptiness that wasn't there before. Sometimes his hands shook. Sometimes he'd catch Neal staring out the window at nothing, his shadowed eyes seeing things that weren't there, flashing back on some unspeakable horror. His fancy clothes hung on him and Jones could tell he'd yet to regain any of the weight he'd lost. There was still a lingering painfulness to his movements. Peter wasn't saying anything, but Jones knew how to put two and two together. Something bad had happened during that missing week, and Neal had sacrificed himself and buried the hurt so deep to keep that little girl alive and unharmed.

Jones had been wary at first when Peter had taken Neal on as a consultant, and then he'd wondered at how effortlessly Neal had integrated into the team. Slowly, he'd found it impossible not to like Neal as a person. He may have been a convicted felon, and boy did he try Peter's patience sometimes but Neal was just about the most non-violent, fun-loving person he knew. He was interested in everything and anything. He genuinely liked seeing people happy and being the cause of that happiness. It was a strange dichotomy. And the office was never dull with him around. It didn't hurt that Peter's team was pulling in a steady 92% closure rate with Neal there. He'd never liked his job more.

Neal was in Peter's office discussing the latest case of mortgage fraud when Bancroft walked in with the Boudins. Jones saw Peter nod to Neal, as if to say, "We've got visitors." A small, fragile smile appeared on Neal's face as he saw Sophie happily skipping like any four-year-old alongside her grandmother and grandfather. She was wearing a bright red wool coat and pretty pink stockings with a matching hat and scarf, her light auburn baby wispy curls fluttering around her like a halo. The last time Jones had seen her, she'd been in a wan, yellow hospital gown, curled up on Neal's uninjured side in his narrow hospital bed, sobbing in fear and refusing to let go of her only friend and protector, even as he gently soothed her in his pain-fevered state, bruises stark against the white sheets and red soaked bandages.

Neal came out of Peter's office to stand by the stairs, watching the elderly couple and the little girl coming into the bullpen. Peter followed close behind, an uncertain look on his face. They weren't sure what seeing Sophie would do to Neal's carefully constructed facade that he'd been desperately trying to maintain these last few weeks.

Every person in the office seemed to stop and watch as the little girl caught sight of Neal standing by the railing. Her face completely lit up in childish joy as she squealed in surprise, "NEAL!" and let go of her grandmother's hand to run up the passageway between the desks as Neal came down the stairs, a similar smile on his face. Neal leant down with his hands outstretched as the little girl launched herself into his arms with a happy laugh. He straightened up with the child in his arms, as she hugged him for all she was worth. His whole face seemed transformed by the effervescent brightness that had been missing all these miserable weeks. The darkness had lifted away, if just for that moment. Neal held her up, saying something quietly to her in French as she giggled and put her little hands on his smooth, blushing cheeks and laughed some more. The whole office seemed to sigh at the simple tenderness of the moment. Jones caught Peter's eye and they exchanged a look of relief.

Sophie's grandparents walked up to Neal and Sophie with Bancroft just behind them. Pierre Boudin, the one-time French ambassador, took Neal's hand in both of his, shaking it in immense gratitude. He too knew what the young man before him had sacrificed for his only grandchild. Mariette Boudin hugged Neal to her, kissing him on both cheeks, holding his face in her frail hands, nearly in tears, thanking him profusely. Neal's eyes grew suspiciously bright and her husband had to put a hand around her to guide her away before Neal lost his composure in the middle of the office.

Hughes signalled Peter to follow them and with the Boudins, Hughes and Bancroft went into Hughes' office. Neal then proceeded to take Sophie on a grand tour of the office, introducing her to every cooing secretary and friendly agent in the office, all of whom predictably were taken in by Neal's sweet charm and Sophie's guileless curiosity. They petted the child, gave her little lollipops and chocolate raisins and told her how pretty she was, while Neal held her close and translated their questions and her own.

Jones observed silently as Ruiz approached the group and it parted for him. Ruiz had technically been in charge of the disastrous op that had resulted in the kidnappings. He had insisted on using Neal for the undercover op to Peter's objections and Neal's stoic resignation. Jones had never liked the other agent much, and he knew that even before that terrible day, Ruiz had gone out of his way to make his opinion of Neal, his manner of dress, his alleged sexuality, his criminal record and his place in the office loudly known in antagonizing clarity. And after Ruiz and his team's display of utter disregard had led to his friend getting so badly hurt and Sophie losing her parents, he had yet to find it within himself to forgive the man. He watched as Neal turned to look at Ruiz, with Sophie still in his arms. She must have sensed his hesitation, because she seemed to clutch at him tighter. All smiles dropped to the floor.

"Well, aren't you going to introduce me to the little lady, Caffrey?"

Maybe it was something in Ruiz's tone or the undercurrent of hostility she sensed directed at her friend, but before Neal could turn to Sophie, she curled in on herself, burying her little face in Neal's neck, her tiny fingers bunching in his shirt, fear radiating from her as she trembled in his arms like she had all those weeks ago.

Jones saw Neal's mask drop again, like a shadow had fallen across him as he tried to calm the little girl. For Neal, suddenly the room seemed too bright; there were too many eyes on him and the office noise whited out to a blur and it felt like he was trapped and chained back in that dark, mouldy basement boiler room with Sophie crying into his shaking arms. He could hear his heart pounding so fast in his ears like it might burst and he ducked his head down to cradle Sophie closer to him. The room and the people and the lights seemed to spin and he felt his throat constrict and the cold tendrils of dread crept up his spine as he tried to find a way out of the turmoil.

Jones instinctively knew that Neal was having a flashback and was up from his desk, striding across the bullpen to protect his friend.

Neal was blinking in confusion, staring blindly around him, as though trying to find his bearings, still gently stroking Sophie's trembling little back, his breaths coming short, fast and ragged. Ruiz's mouth lifted in a sneer. The secretaries and other agents looked up at Jones as he approached, mostly worried and concerned. Neal was well-liked by most in the White Collar division, having proven himself over and over in the last few years. He moved to stand in front of Neal, his gestures slow, as he leaned forward and down to try and catch Neal's darting, unseeing gaze. He didn't dare touch him yet.

"Neal," he whispered softly. "Neal, it's Jones. Neal?"

A moment, then two. You could hear a pin drop.

Neal stilled. And looked up at him.

"Jones," he whispered.

"Neal. You're ok. You're safe now. Everything's ok."

Jones felt his heart clench and release, as those pale blue eyes fluttered closed in relief. He put a supporting arm around Neal's narrow shoulders which were shaking again through the thin cotton shirt, and guided them up to Peter's office where there was a couch. Diana followed quickly behind him. Sophie hadn't moved at all, still shuddering and safely clutched in Neal's arms. He sat them on the soft cushions and Diana draped Peter's coat over the both of them, running a gentle hand over Neal's dark curls. One of the secretaries came to the door carrying two cups of hot chocolate, bless her kind heart. For not the first time, Jones wished there were blinds in Peter's office as he felt every eye in the bullpen focused on the four of them inside. He shifted to the side and as much as he could, he blocked Neal from view. Peter would come find them soon, and he'd know what to do.

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July 2011

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