Disclaimer: White Collar belongs to USA Network and Jeff Eastin.

Beta: Thanks again to my new beta mam711 for stepping in mid-story with helpful observations, and patience at my seemingly endless supply of typos and grammatical quirks.

WARNING: This chapter makes reference to physical child abuse and may cause triggering. If in doubt, please skip it.

Chapter 24

As it was clear Mozzie had said all he was going to regarding his involvement in the events at Drummonds and his limited knowledge of Jennika (or Genevieve as she had now become), Peter went on to recount the rest of Neal's story, which comprised six years of mundane farm labor interspersed with terrifying episodes of abuse at the hands of their captor.

The first couple of years had been the worst, while Neal and Jennika learned the rules of their new existence under the man's regime and struggled to handle the adult work put upon them. Their learning curve had been a steep one and he was quick to mete out punishments, especially if their mistakes resulted in wasted supplies, or worse still, damaged livestock. Both the children were very smart and although they had only had part of kindergarten before being kidnapped, they could read and write way past their age-range. The man had steadfastly refused them books or any reading materials and obsessively prevented anything coming into the house with writing. Whether this was because he thought it might help them escape or was just another mindless cruelty was unclear. All the farm supplies were kept in bins in a strict order and the children had to learn how to mix the various plant or animal feeds used on the farm by memory. One fateful mistake on Neal's part—mistaking a pesticide for a mineral supplement—had resulted in the loss of several chickens, and the man had dangled the petrified boy over the well, shaking him violently by his ankles, while Jennika literally begged for his life.

Initially, Jennika had tried to keep them literate, and when the man was away they would rummage through the garbage for scraps of packaging or mail to practice reading. These treasures were few and far between as most garbage was burned. They would scratch letters in the dirt or 'paint' them on each other in mud. That all came to an abrupt halt one day when the man returned while they were out in the cornfield and could not get to the well in time to wash them off. He had been so furious that he made them use bleach to remove the offending marks and Jennika's skin got badly burnt by the chemical. They never tried it again, although they were allowed to know numbers as they were essential to mixing everything, and one of the little luxuries they were allowed was to play cards. Inexplicably, the man taught them numerous games, from Go Fish to poker, a skill—which Peter noted ruefully—Neal had made extensive use of in later life.

The man was especially fierce when it came to the rule regarding their names. They were never to refer to each other using their old names. Any slip ups were immediately punished. Then he would drag them to the concrete block in the courtyard and whip them with his belt. Peter had watched as Neal's eyes went strangely dark and unfocused while retelling that part of the story. When Peter had tried to offer some solace by placing his hand on Neal's, his friend had flinched and involuntarily brought his hands up to cover his ears. Even though nearly three decades had passed, Neal could still hear the cruel swishing sound of the leather followed by the click of the metal prong as it hit against the buckle upon impact.

Early on, Jennika had taught Neal how to hold his breath and black out to get through the beatings. She had been in foster care since she was a toddler, and that she even knew how to do this was a heartache in and of itself. Jennika, it seemed, had been Neal's protector in their desperate circumstances. She taught Neal how to read the man's moods and watch out for the signs that he was about to lose it. She found hiding places for them to stay out of the way when things looked to be getting dangerous.

The man was a drinker, and although he never kept alcohol in the house, he would frequently go away from the farm and return several hours later a belligerent drunk. They would hear him cursing loudly as he stumbled around the courtyard and quickly retreated under their bed, leaving the blankets draped over the edge to conceal themselves below. If they were caught outside, there was the barn loft to run to, where they had emptied out some bales of hay at the back, providing a secret space. The man was not usually capable of more than a cursory search for them and they could creep back into the house after an hour or so, by which time he was safely passed out in his bedroom.

Their place of last resort, in the event that he did come looking in earnest, was a huge hollow tree on the edge of the property. It was large enough to fit them both and they would crouch down in the dark trunk while he ranted and raged. Those nights felt like the end of the world, and Jennika would desperately whisper prayers for help while Neal trembled in her arms.

As Neal revealed his sad history, Peter had done his best to hide his revulsion at the man's cruelty. Despite how horrific the first years had been, the saddest part for Peter was Neal's describing how he and Jennika eventually gave up on ever leaving the farm and came to accept their life there as normal. At some point they had become completely submissive and accepting of their lot, and to Peter's horror, Neal talked about the man as if he were a reasonable and even kind person. He told Peter how the man had taught him to shoot and described with pride what an accurate marksman he became, easily bagging wild geese on the wing. Ironically, it had been with the same rifle Neal would eventually kill the man with.

What really tore Peter up was the realization that Neal seemed to no longer have any memory of his life before being kidnapped. At one point, as the drugs wore off slightly and Neal seemed fairly lucid, Peter had asked him if he remembered who David Gibson and Jennika Swenson were, and Neal had looked at him blankly before asking what it was that he had allegedly stolen from them.

Neal's mind flip-flopped in and out of his ordeal. Sometimes he seemed aware that he was revealing too much and would stop talking and glare at Peter. At other times he slipped out of the present and lay there in tears as he relived the horror. Eventually, when Peter asked what had happened leading up to the shooting, Neal had looked at him for a long time before slowly turning his head away and whispering, "I'm not going to talk about that."

After that, Peter didn't have the heart to carry on. He sat for a while watching Neal as he drifted off to sleep, and tried to make sense of it all. Just hearing about what had happened had exhausted Peter, and he could not fathom how Neal had survived to be the man he was now. It was clear that what Neal had told him was only a window into the six years he and Jennika had been held captive. What else had gone on was too terrifying to consider.

When Peter finally finished his account of his talk with Neal, Elizabeth and Mozzie both appeared to be in shock, and he immediately regretted sharing with them.

He suddenly felt deeply ashamed at getting Neal to reveal so much of himself. It seemed a huge invasion of his privacy and Peter was left wondering if he had made an awful mistake. He didn't know if Neal would remember any of their conversation once the drugs wore off, and if he did, he had no doubt that Neal would be extremely upset at him.

For all the swagger and bravado Neal showed in public, he was intensely private, and it was clear from Mozzie's expression that even his closest friend had known few, if any, of the details of Neal's past. The three of them sat in silence, all trying to reconcile the Neal Caffrey they thought they knew with the child David Gibson.

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