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White Collar -- Fanfiction

Disclaimer: 
All recognizable characters are property of Jeff Eastin and USA Network. 
No copyright infringement intended.

Title:  Hell is other people, hell is yourself (Part 3/3)

  • Rating: R
  • Warnings:  Language, Violence, Sexual Content, No graphic descriptions but strong references to NonCon, Neal/OMC
  • Category: Hurt/Comfort, Drama, PrisonFic, Peter Neal Friendship
Summary:

"Hell is other people"
-- No Exit, Jean-Paul Sartre

"Hell is yourself and the only redemption is when a person puts himself aside to feel deeply for another person"
-- Tennessee Williams

Author's Notes:


This is the last of it.
Comments, suggestions, criticism welcome as always...



Part 3

I’ve lost all sense of time and place when I regain consciousness.  Three blackouts in who knows how many hours will do that. I’m very sleepy.  No, more than that.  I’m drugged.  Weightless.  Lulled into oblivion by your friendly neighborhood pharmacist.  I turn my head and feel my brain slosh around my skull, sluggishly like molasses.  I find that image funny.  The impulse to smile is only curbed by my inability to control my facial muscles.  I’m neither bothered nor concerned by that.  Nothing concerns me.  I doze off again.

I’m more lucid.  Not quite awake, but I’m no longer trapped inside my head.  My eyelids are too heavy to lift, but I can smell and hear and I can feel my toes.  I’m still at the hospital.  Still flat on my back in linens that smell of commercial detergent.  Still thirsty.  But things are different than before.  It’s quiet now, no muffled noises hinting at a busy world behind a wall.  Perhaps it’s nighttime and I’ve lost the entire day, maybe more than that.  What’s the last thing I remember?  Lying on the floor in a hospital gown, half exposed, with pain shooting down my twisted arm from my wrist locked to the bed railing above.  I remember the unpitying face of the smoker.  I remember craning my neck to stare at a distant spot outside the glass wall.  A spot where Peter had stood and … Oh god.  Stop!  Don’t go there yet.

A quiet, pathetic whimper issues from my throat.  It’s followed by the sound of chair legs scraping over the floor to my left.  I’m not alone. 

Someone is standing over my bed.  I don’t move and keep my breathing even.  I will the person to go away and leave me alone.    I don’t have another fight in me right now.  I don’t have much of anything in me.  I want to keep it that way.  I want to milk every damn molecule of drug coursing through my veins for every damn second of blissful nothingness it buys.  That’s all I ask:  a few more hours, a few more minutes to spend in the void before I have to hurt again.  Before I have to think again.  Before I have to pull myself together and function, somehow.

I get my will.  The person lingers by my side a short while longer then the chair legs scrape the floor again, softly this time, as if the chair is repositioned with consideration.  I turn my face away from the chair and sink into the linen-scented pillow with a deep, relieved breath. The drugs are tugging at my consciousness.  I don’t put up any resistance.  I let myself fall with open arms.

I’m chilly.  I’m standing in a small room, barefoot and wearing nothing but a hospital gown.  I look around to figure out where I am, where I’ve wandered off to and why.  Cheap tiles on the floor.  Whitewashed walls.  A fluorescent lamp on the ceiling.  No windows.  No door?  I’m puzzled.  A noise behind me.  I spin around.  He’s here.  The Alpha.  The one who always has first dibs on me.  It’s been too long, he says.  He’s missed me.  He smirks and comes closer, his leering eyes roaming over me.  I back off, shaking my head no.  I am done with this.  I shouldn’t have left, he says.  Good boys don’t leave.  My retreat is stopped by someone at my back.  An arm reaches around my chest from behind, pins my arms.  The Alpha has brought his lackey, the one I fear the most.  The Alpha gets off on friction, the lackey gets off on watching me suffer.  I can’t breathe.  He’s dressed so prettily for us, the man behind me breathes past my ear.  His callous hand has slipped into the open back of my gown, working me, roughly and secretly, because he doesn’t get to touch me first.  I’m paralyzed with fear.  The Alpha closes in, crowding me.  His hand slides around the back of my neck.  He makes me kiss him and all I want to do is scream.  He tells me he’ll forgive me.  He’ll let me make it up to him, he says, and his lips are on mine again.  I’m being pulled to the floor, pushed down on my back, because the Alpha missed my pretty face and because he wants to see how much I enjoy it.  It’ll be good, he promises.  It’ll be like the first time, he says, because it’s been so long.  His hands glide over my body, like they need to remember what I feel like.  I’ve never forgotten what his hands felt like.  He tears my gown aside, tells the Lackey to pin my hands over my head because he likes how that makes me look.  I close my eyes.  I don’t want to watch.  I feel him braced over me now, his face inches from mine.  He commands me to look at him.  I shake my head, I know what his face looks like when he’s on top of me.  It’s permanently tattooed on the inside of my eyelids.  Look at him, the Alpha’s lackey whispers into my ear.  You’ll like what you see, his hot breath tells me.    He always knew how to make me obedient.  He twists my right wrist.  I open my eyes and it’s not the Alpha’s face hovering over me. 

It’s Peter’s.

I begin to weep.  Once the floodgates are open, there is no holding back.  I blubber like a child.  I can’t see through the tears.

Look at me.

Not just Peter’s face, his voice now, too.  My ears never trick me. 

I fall quiet.  Only for a moment, only to let the betrayal sink in and rip out the last seedling of hope I had tended inside. 

I take a deep breath. 

And then I fight. 

This is my last stand.  I will hurt them.  I will make them angry.  Unleash a rage they can’t control.  I’ll let that rage fuel their lust and their blows, let it take away any inhibition, any fleeting reflection on the sanctity of human life.  I’m going to make them take it one step too far.  And they—The Alpha, his lackey and Peter—won’t know when they’ve taken that step.   I’m a con man, and I’ll take my last breath as a con man.  Making them think that this boy can’t be broken.

Look at me, Neal.

This boy is a fool.  Thinking that, spread naked on the floor, he can outwit the great Peter Burke.  There’s no anger in Peter’s voice. 

Wake up, buddy.

Yeah, wake up, buddy, and smell the shit pile under the rosebushes that is your life.  This here agent won’t be manipulated into cleaning up this mess.  He won’t be doing your dirty work.  You’ve conned him one too many times.  He won’t let you use him again.  He won’t deal you that convenient blow that will make it all better by ending it all. 

Peter takes my wrists, effortlessly pulls them from the Lackey’s tight grip, lowers them to my sides, holds them there.  I feel his weight on me, feel the fabric of his suit brush over my bare skin.  I shiver.  His mouth is close to my face, I turn away from him and screw my eyes shut.  His tenderness is a farce.

Shhhh.

Fresh, warm tears are running over the bridge of my nose.  Silently.  Defeated.  Hopeless. I don’t stop them.  Maybe I can let my life drain out of me, drop by salty drop.  How long would that take?  How much life can one tear carry?  How long until a man dies of loneliness and shame?

Open your eyes. 

I shake my head with what little will I have left.  I hear him sigh in frustration.

Yes, you can, Caffrey.

I crack my eyes.  The walls of the small, doorless room retreat and open to a brighter and airier place.  A window is the first thing I can make out.  I haven’t seen one in ages. I think it’s raining outside.

Hey.

I turn my head to the left by a few degrees.  Peter is stooped over the bed I rest in, his hands on my arms, holding down my left wrist and the heavy cast that encloses my right.  He looks disheveled.  Sweat is beading on his forehead.  He has shed his jacket and tie.  I remember a yellow mustard stain.  It has been replaced by a coffee stain on the front of his shirt.  His cuffs are unbuttoned, one of the sleeves rolled up to his elbow.  He is breathing heavily.

So am I.  I’m panting.  I’m trembling visibly.  The front of my hospital gown sticks to my chest.

You awake?  Peter asks.

I nod, although I’m not fully convinced.

One by one, Peter peels his fingers away from my arms, watching me closely as if he doesn’t trust the peace. 

Good, he puffs out a long breath and wipes his palms on his thighs.  He straightens the blanket that covers me, tugs it a little higher up my shivering body.  I flinch when his fingers graze my chest.  The last hands to touch me there were Alpha’s.  Mere minutes ago.

Nightmare? He asks.

I nod again, not trusting the peace any more than Peter. I dare not to blink, for fear of being thrown back in that room.  I glance down my body.  My right arm is in a cast from the elbow down.  The IV from my left arm is gone, a thin strip of gauze wrapped around the crook of my arm, purple bruising spreading from underneath the bandage.  There are no handcuffs, no restraints of any kind.  Only Peter, watching me like a hawk.

Do you remember what happened?

Some. My dry, aching throat produces a mere whisper. 

Wait.  Peter finds the remote control, pushes a button that raises the head end of the bed by a few inches.  Then he takes a cup of water from my bedside table, offers me the straw.  As I drink I watch Peter’s other hand suspended in midair, like he doesn’t know what to do with it, like he doesn’t want to touch me.

They said your throat might be sore from the endoscopy.  He puts the cup of water back and produces a second one.  I got you some ice chips, I thought that might help.  He holds a plastic spoonful out for me.

I let the cold liquid slowly trickle over the tender tissue and sigh with pleasure at this small amount of bliss.  Peter smiles down at me and couldn’t look happier with himself had he invented frozen water.  He offers me more, but I shake my head no.  I sink back against the pillow, close my eyes.  My breathing has calmed, my body is not shaking much anymore.  I feel pain now.  My stomach is sore, but the blinding flares of agony have stopped.  My wrist hurts under the cast, but it’s bearable.  My head is throbbing.  I touch my fingers to my forehead, feel the bandage at my hairline.  It’s an excuse to wipe away the tears.  Peter has the courtesy to look away.

What happened?  I sound only marginally more like myself.

Peter inhales deeply, pulls up the chair.  There’s the familiar scrape of its legs on the floor.  He sits down, takes a drink from the coffee cup on my nightstand. 

You collapsed when you came to our meeting.  That was yesterday morning.  Just about a full day ago.  He talks slowly.  Perhaps choosing the right words and tone is difficult for him, perhaps I look like someone who needs to be spoken to slowly.  He looks at his coffee cup, only glancing up occasionally while relaying the events of the past day.  He tells me that I hit my head on a bench when I passed out, says he is sorry for not catching me.  The guard thought I was faking it, he explains, wouldn’t let Peter near me.  There’s a twinkle of glee in Peter’s eyes when he details how he cut the guard down to size, Burke finger-jab and all, how he made it perfectly clear that neither he nor I were going to move an inch until medical personnel checked me out.

Peter turns quieter.  The nurse practitioner came as soon as she was alerted.  Peter liked her.  She asked the right questions of him and the guard while she checked me over.  I was in bad shape, Peter says, too sick to be treated at the prison.  They wouldn’t let him ride in the ambulance, kept him out of the hospital ER.  Against protocol, Leslie came and found him in the waiting room.  She told him about the bleeding stomach ulcer they had diagnosed, said I must have been losing blood for some time, must have been in severe pain for a lot longer.  The ulcer had been cauterized but it would take time for me to recover from the anemia and substantial weight loss.  They would keep me in the hospital for a night or two to monitor the possible concussion I had sustained in the fall. Then they’d transfer me back inside.  She would look after me, she had promised him

The next thing I hear is you’re back in surgery to repair a dislocated wrist, Peter continues.  He is becoming agitated and trying to conceal it.  But I see that telltale play of tension around his mouth, see him pummel the paper cup between restless fingers, subtle signs of the impotent rage that bubbles up in Peter Burke when a situation has—when I have—slipped his control.  The guards haven’t heard the last of him, he says.  The stupidity to leave me cuffed to the bed and go to lunch!  Like I am some bicycle that can be locked to a streetlamp for convenience!

I chuckle hoarsely and Peter glances at me in surprise.

What?

That’s kind of the whole point of prison, Peter, to lock criminals away for convenience.

He doesn’t look amused.  He looks startled.  He studies me closely, maybe trying to detect if my comment was intended to be a much more personal affront than my light tone suggested.  I don’t think his ruling is conclusive.  He deflates with a deep breath, rolls some of the tension out of his shoulders with all of the élan of someone who hasn’t slept in a proper bed in days.

What happened in there, Neal?  He sighs.  I watch him pinch the bridge of his nose, rub his forehead with his eyes screwed shut.  Then his head jolts up.  In the recovery room, he clarifies in a rush.

And then I am certain. 

I’m certain that he knows.  I know he’s read my file, turned page after page of the horrific scrapbook Leslie and the doctor have assembled.  He’s talked to the warden, interviewed the guards.  Peter would be thorough like that.  He’s had a day.  A day is all Peter Burke needs to get to the bottom of things, to get his facts straight on how a perfectly healthy man could get into a car in New York and end up crumpling at his feet a thousand miles and six months later, reduced to a grotesque shadow of his former self.

I also know Peter isn’t ready to talk about this.

Neither am I. 

Not now. 

Try never.

I fell out of bed, I lie.  I don’t remember how.

Peter doesn’t buy it for a second, but something in his careworn expression tells me he’s glad for my evasiveness, relieved he doesn’t have only himself to blame for ignoring the big, hairy, scraggly elephant in the room a little longer.

The room.  I finally tear my eyes from Peter and survey my surroundings.  My bed is the only one in the large space.  There is a TV mounted on the opposite wall that Peter has muted and turned to a hockey game.  The walls are painted a warm buff and there are fabric window treatments instead of sterile aluminum blinds.  To my left, behind Peter, a small seating area is set up with a three-seater sofa and a small coffee table.  The wrinkled pillow and blanket tossed onto the sofa seat leave little doubt where Peter spent the night.  Above the couch, a large reproduction painting depicts a pastoral scene taken straight from a Hallmark greeting card that falls somewhere between the Sympathy and Get Well Soon categories.  To my right, within a few steps of the bed, a half open door leads to a small private bathroom.  This isn’t bad.  I’ve stayed in hotel rooms that were a lot less ritzy than this.  If it wasn’t for the call button by my bed and the pervasive smell of antiseptics, I could be easily convinced that Peter has abducted me to some motel room off of I-40.

This is one of those rooms where they take people for bad news, huh?  I rasp.  Don’t tell me something happened to the dog!  I smirk as best as I can.  Peter pushes himself up from his chair and offers me more water from the straw, before shoveling two heaping spoonfuls of ice chips into my mouth.  It’s his way of telling me I’m not funny and should probably shut up.

I wanted to get you away from that circus for a while, he explains and plops back into his seat.  It wasn’t a hard argument to make, given that the supervision of two guards and at least a half dozen nurses left in you worse shape than you were in when they wheeled you in here.  And I can’t say I prescribe to their solution to keep pumping enough sedatives and painkillers into you to fell a wild boar.  Or a big, hairy, scraggly elephant.

I glance down at the crook of my left arm where the IV used to be. 

I asked them to take you off.  Peter explains and looks a little rueful.  If the pain is too much, I can call someone.

I tell him no, even though the throbbing in my head has escalated to a hefty pounding.

I’m a little groggy, I admit.

That’s okay, Peter nods eagerly.  You can go back to sleep.  I’ll keep watching the game.

Yeah?  Who’s playing?  I challenge.

Peter glances at the TV set where the broadcast has gone to commercials and shakes his head in his trademark, feigned exasperation.  I’ve missed seeing it.  Even more, I’ve missed putting it there.  Peter turns to me and just for a second I am sure he sees who I used to be, his friend and partner, the guy who knew exactly how to push his buttons.  But then his eyes veer off again and all he can look at is the scruffy beard that hides my face and the sweat-soaked front of my hospital gown that hides nothing.

Get some more sleep, Neal, he sighs.

I don’t think he understands. 

How could he?  How could he comprehend what it’s like to be afraid of what may be waiting for me when I close my eyes?

I’ll be right here, he says softly. The chair legs scrape again when Peter inches closer to the bed.  He takes my left hand, watching my every reaction closely as he rests his fingertips on the back of my hand at first then encloses my fingers with his. 

I’m right here, he repeats and gives my hand a light squeeze. I’ll wake you.  I’ll bring you back when it gets bad.  Okay?

I stare at him and at his resolute, caring eyes.  He doesn’t avert them when I shed the first tears that aren’t born out of despair.

I need to stop doing that.  Crying.

I wake curled onto my side, my hand still in Peter’s grasp, my head close to the edge of the bed, closer to him.

Hey, Peter says.

Hmm, I reply and could swear that that sounded a like a clever, full sentence in my fuzzy brain.  I drink from the straw that Peter slips between my lips.  The water is tepid now.  How long? I croak.

Couple of hours.

Did I?   I look down the bed, searching for any signs of another fit of terrors I don’t remember.  The sheets are neatly draped over me, my skin dry, my breathing calm.

Slept like a log, Peter smiles and finally lets go of my hand as he straightens on his chair and works the kinks out of his neck.  I roll onto my back, fumble for the controls of the bed until the head end pushes me into a semi-upright position.

You were here the entire time?

I said I’d be, didn’t I?

Hmm.  I mumble and mean Thank You

I watch Peter get to his feet, rock onto his toes to stretch his tall frame.  He shakes out the legs of his slacks, smoothes the front of his rumpled shirt, rolls up his left sleeve to match his right.  He looks like he has been released from a long, tedious briefing, weary but anxious to spring back into action.

I’m sorry.  My good hand scratches an itchy patch of beard on my chin.  You must have been bored.

Nah.  Peter shakes his head with about two degrees too much enthusiasm to convince me.  He produces his Blackberry from his pocket and unnecessarily glances at the empty screen.  I’ve been honing my texting skills.

Everything all right at—?

Home, I want to add, but then I leave the question dangling like that.  Home.  It took me too long to train myself not to think about Peter, Elizabeth and that whole damn city in that term.  I can’t let a thoughtless slip of nostalgia rekindle sentiments I’ve fought countless dark nights to repress. 

Yeah, everything’s well.  Peter looks at me a little bemused.  Everything’s great.  I faxed Jones your report.  It was … excellent, Neal. 

I let the compliment wash over me and try not to grin like a fool. 

We suspected who the mole was, Peter continues and his face lights up with the pride and excitement that only a solved case can incite.  But the inconsistencies in the paper trail she left were too random and sporadic, we couldn’t have connected the dots without your help.

So the unit is safe?  Diana?  Jones?  You are?  I barely stop myself from saying We.

It might take a while for things to be completely sorted out, but yes, Hughes seems to think so.

That’s good.  I sink back into my pillow, close my eyes to take stock of how I feel about this victory I’ve earned as a mercenary in someone else’s battle. An unpaid mercenary.  No, not unpaid.  Rewarded with a few days of feeling significant, with a few hours of bedside company for old times’ sake.  Trifling, in the grand scheme of things.  I’m not resentful.  Perhaps I will be later, when the loneliness of my cell overwhelms me again and when the selfish core of me insists that I deserve better, as it often does.  But that part of me is silent now and I know I’m not lying or even stretching the truth when I quietly tell Peter I’m glad.

Peter doesn’t offer a reply.  I look up to find him slowly pacing the room, one hand on his hip, the other raking his short-cropped hair repeatedly.  His gaze brushes over the walls and furnishings, the painting and the window, over anything but me.  I feel a knot tighten in my stomach again and it has nothing to do with my ulcer.  I recognize a man who wants to make his exit and doesn’t know how.

I know you have to leave, Peter, I say.  It’s okay.  I have to swallow so hard on the okay, I’m not fooling anyone.  Peter stops in his tracks, and if I have ever seen a flight-or-fight debate play out in someone’s face, it is in Peter’s in this very moment. 

He doesn’t flee.  There is hesitation in his steps when he approaches me.  I don’t like this.  I don’t like seeing Peter insecure.  It unnerves me.  He bypasses the chair and sits down on my bed.  I flinch.  I don’t intend to, but his weight on my covers makes me feel pinned and I can’t have that right now.

Peter doesn’t notice, too preoccupied with getting his thoughts in order and his tongue untied for whatever speech he is still frantically drafting in his head.  His eyes dart over my face, over the gauze taped to my forehead and over my unkempt beard.  Then he finally locks eyes with me.

I’ve made a mistake, he says.

My thoughts are reeling.  I open my mouth to say something without really knowing what.  Peter raises a hand.

Let met talk, Neal, he pleads.  He waits for my small nod.

I made a mistake, he starts over and stops again to consider his own words.  He frowns and minutely shakes his head.  No.  Not a mistake.  That sounds trivial, like an oversight.

He rambles.  I’m worried, because Peter Burke never rambles.

I was mad at you, Neal.  Really.  Fucking.  Mad.  And disappointed.  And so unbelievably tired of you and your lies.  I wanted you gone from my life.  For—what did you call it?  For convenience, yes.  I knew there was a real possibility that you’d be …

He falters.  Don’t you dare say it, Peter.

That something bad could happen.  I knew that no distance from me or from the FBI would be material in lessening any threat to you.   I knew that.  I chose not to think about it.  For convenience. 

He looks at me with a tortured self-reproach and I don’t know if his silence is meant to cue a response. 

I’ve often asked myself, Neal, how you—of all people—could be a criminal.  How you could hurt people with your deception, how you could ruin their lives by stealing and lying.  It didn’t make any sense.  Not for you.  You like people.  You thrive in their company, in their affection and admiration.  But I think I get it now, Neal.  You’ve learned to turn it off.  You choose not to care because sometimes that is more convenient.  I get it, Neal.

That doesn’t mean I understand it.  I don’t understand how I could sit across from you two weeks ago and see that you were hurting and emaciated and … haunted.  I saw all that and chose not to care.  I should have cared.  I should have asked you the right questions.

It wouldn’t have mattered, Peter, I quietly offer.  I would have lied to you.

Then I shouldn’t have let you get away with it!  Not this time!  Peter is nearly shouting.  What kind of person does that make me, Neal?  What kind of person turns a blind eye to his friend’s suffering?

You’re here now.  I don’t know what else to say to make Peter stop whatever it is he is doing to himself and me.

Yes, after you were too sick to even stand.  He sounds tired, looks more so.  I spoke to the nurse, Neal.  The one who cared for you in prison.  I asked her what happened, how someone like you could waste away like that.  You know what she told me, Neal?

I don’t want to talk about it, Peter, I tell himMy eyes flit over to the call button dangling from the nightstand by its chord.  Peter moves it out of reach without even looking at it.

She told me that months of isolation and fear can do that to any man.

She had no right.  My throat is so tight, I can hardly speak.

She wouldn’t tell me anything specific, he continues.  Did you think that would stop me?

You had no right, Peter.  I choke.

I’ve never been more desperate to get away from a conversation.  I look at the door, consider my chances to make it there without falling flat on my face.  Those chances aren’t good, but I feel my entire body tense, every muscle overstrung, ready to jump at the first opportunity.  Peter briefly glances down, finally noticing that his weight is trapping me under the covers.  He doesn’t move.

You’re right, I didn’t. Peter speaks softly.  But I had to.  I had to know what I put you through.  The last 24 hours were quite possibly the worst of my life, Neal, but I know nothing of what I saw in those files and what I made people tell me comes close to the reality of what you had to suffer.  And I wish I could make it all undone.  I wish I could go back to that garage six months ago and stop myself from making that mistake.  I want to go back and stop that marshal’s car and drag you out of it and yell at you like you’ve never been yelled at and vent all those frustrations I had with you and do anything but send you away.

Peter’s lips are quivering.  He takes a deep breath, straightens his shoulders.

And that’s why I’m here now, Neal.  I can’t send you back there. No matter what.  I want to give you a choice and you can take as long as you need to make it.  Hours, days … whatever.  It’s all good. 

What choice?  I’m pretty sure I say that out loud.

There’s a guard outside that door.  I can make him go away, whenever, for however long you’re going to need.  My car is in the hospital garage.  I can leave the keys on your nightstand and go get some coffee.  I have two hundred dollars in my wallet.  I can get more.  I can get what you need for those first few days before Mozzie catches up with you and the two of you disappear.  For good.

You’ll lose your job, I say and Peter smiles almost wistfully.

Not your problem, Caffrey.

What’s option two?

You come home. 

That’s all he says.  No conditions, no long list of contingencies.  No indication of what that vision of home looks like in Peter’s mind, whether it comes with an anklet, with a job at the FBI offices, with his friendship. 

Think about it, Peter says and gets to his feet.  He self-consciously wipes his palms on his shirtfront, points a thumb at the door and looks like a person who is in dire need of some air.   Or a drink.   I’m going to step outside for a few minutes.  Grab some coffee, see what they want you to eat for lunch.

My eyes track his steps to the door.  I watch him open it, his hand hesitating on the doorknob. 

I want to come home, I hear myself say before he is fully out the door. 

Peter freezes and looks at me, glad and relieved, I think.

I want to go now, I add.  I know I’m pushing it.

Peter stalls for a moment, chews on his lower lip.  He glances at the window, perhaps to guess how much daylight remains.  Then he looks at me, gauging my ability to travel 10 feet across this room, let alone to travel 1000 miles across the country.  I assume the mumbling that follows sends a Hail Mary to any higher power Peter Burke is still capable of believing in.

We’re leaving in an hour.  With a determined nod and, his phone already in hand, he is out the door.

I can’t move for ten minutes.  I can barely breathe.  I’m waiting for something, for the walls to close in, for me to wake up and find myself on the cot of my small cell or bleeding on the floor of the visitation room with a guard standing over me and with Peter gone.  I rap my knuckles on the cast around my wrist then touch my fingers to the bandage on my forehead.  I suck in a sharp breath.  It hurts.  This is good.  It hurts and I’m still here in this bed and Peter will be back soon to take me home. 

I could swear the distance to the bathroom looked a lot shorter when viewed from the bed than from the dizzying height atop a pair of shaky legs.  I’ve never been happier to find a washroom tricked out with safety rails in every conceivable location.  To pee standing up with one usable hand and piss-poor balance is out of the question.  My masculine pride will have to wait to be fully restored another day, but shedding the flimsy hospital gown is a giant leap in the right direction. 

I turn on the shower and step under the warm spray. For a long time I simply stand with my eyes closed and my good hand wrapped tightly around the support bar.  I feel the stream of water pelt my skin, drop by drop massaging life back into atrophied muscle.  My hand lets go of the support long enough to rub shampoo onto my head.  I rinse the greasy, sweaty buildup out of my hair then wash my face and body as best as I can without bending over and risk losing my balance. 

When I’ve turned off the water and covered myself with a towel wrapped around my waist, I feel good enough to face the mirror.  I wipe the condensation off the glass with my hand.  The dripping man staring back at me from above the sink is hollow-eyed and gaunt and has a soggy patch of gauze taped to his forehead.  I carefully peel back the tape and flick the bandage into the trashcan.  I lean closer to the mirror and press a fingertip to the tidy surgical knots that secure the stitches.  There’re six of them.  I’m going to have to wear bangs for a few weeks.  I touch my cheekbones and the lines in the grayish skin around my eyes.  Bangs and sunglasses, for sure.  Or a large paper bag with holes cut in it.  I take a deep breath.  I may hardly recognize the stranger in the mirror, but it is probably a good idea to shave him anyway. 

I locate the shaving kit laid out among the toiletries on the small wall-mounted shelf.  My good hand struggles with the plastic wrapper around the disposable razor.  I tear it open with my teeth.  The jerky movement makes my head swim for a second.  I lean my hips against the sink, rest my cast on the edge of it to steady myself as best as I can.  I use my left hand to splash water onto my face and slather shaving cream onto my beard.  The white, frothy mess instantly improves my looks.  The razor doesn’t feel natural in my left hand.  I’m going to have to work on that if I ever want to go undercover as a lefty.

Peter’s reflection appears in the mirror when I’m halfway finished with my left cheek.  I see him standing in the room, a few steps away from the bathroom, with an armful of clothes, looking at me through the open door.  Looking at my bare back and shoulders, to be more accurate.  I let him stare, let him get the repulsion, the pity—whatever it is he is feeling in this very moment—out of his system.  He has a right to see what he’s taking home.  He has a right to change his mind if this is too much to handle. 

He snaps out of it when I nick my skin.  He tosses the clothes on the bed and is at my back in a flash.

You should have waited, he grumbles and rolls up the sleeves of the fresh shirt he has changed into.  He grabs a washcloth, takes me by the shoulders and turns me around to face him.  The way his body crowds me against the sink makes me uncomfortable, but I swallow the reflexive impulse to push him away.  Peter tips my chin up, dabs at the pink foam around the small cut on my jaw.  Then he tears a small piece of tissue from the toilet paper dispenser and sticks it to the nick.  He twists the razor out of my hand, reaches around me to rinse it and the way his shirtsleeves skim over my bare skin makes me dizzy with an unchecked bout of panic.

Hold still, Peter asks and grips my chin again to hold it in place while he continues to shave my face with short, careful strokes of the blade.  He reaches around me and rinses ever so often and after some time the physical intimacy doesn’t frighten me much anymore.  I relax back against the sink and watch Peter’s concentrated face, as he silently and meticulously goes about his task, tilting and turning my head as he needs it.  He never makes eye contact, never lets me get a glimpse of what might be going on inside his head.  But once in a while his focus strays and his eyes flit down to my carved out collarbones or to the mark on my chest that the Lackey’s greedy fingers have left and that is still healing after more than a month.  His eyes never linger and Peter continues his work stoically until his treacherous gaze escapes his control again.  Finally, he takes a half-step back, turns my face sideways by a few degrees then in the opposite direction and applies the blade one last time to clear a patch of stubble from my chin.  He takes a towel to wipe the traces of shaving cream from my face. 

And then I see it.  The single tear that suddenly rolls down Peter’s cheek. 

I’ve never seen Peter cry.  I’ve never even pictured what that would look like.  It was something outside the realm of possibility.  Now I am standing here, paralyzed, gaping at him in wonderment and horror like I’m witnessing a unicorn being clubbed to death.  Peter clears his throat, swiftly passes the back of his hand over his cheek.  Without looking at me he tosses the towel aside, turns to walk away.

Peter?!  That’s as far as I’ve gotten in coming up with something valuable to say.

He stops, turned half away from me.

Did you ever blame me?  He asks quietly, his voice raw and near the point of breaking.  When it happened?  Did you blame me?

I shrug or shake my head.  I don’t quite know.  Either way, Peter can’t see from his position.

I didn’t think about anything, really.  When it happened.  I gave the same answer to the rookie shrink a few weeks ago to a question I can’t recall anymore.  Much like the psychiatrist, Peter looks greatly unsatisfied by it.  I step around him, make Peter face me head-on.  I’ve always been more convincing when people have to look at me.  I’m not sure that my current condition and the soaked towel around my waist work in my favor.

Um, I say.  It’s a terrible start, but it gets Peter’s attention.  He raises his gaze to look at me.  There is more moisture brimming in the corners of his eyes and that just about kills me.  Peter, I’ve thought a lot about you in the last few months and sometimes in anger and a lot of times in despair.  I don’t want to … I can’t really talk about much of it yet, but I can tell you that blame never entered the equation.

My throat hurts from speaking and I’m beginning to feel light-headed from spending too much time on my feet or from the overwhelming desire to disappear into thin air, but Peter blinks at me expectantly.

I don’t know what else I can say, Peter, my thin voice continues, about three steps ahead of my whirling mind.  I’m trying to move forward.  As far as I’m concerned you’re not the guy who sent me away.  You’re the guy who slept on a shitty couch last night and who wasn’t completely weirded out that a grown man can be too fucked up to sleep without someone holding his hand.  Peter, I’ve been afraid almost every day for the past six months.  Scared to the point of losing my mind.  And I… I still am.  But when you showed up and asked me to come home, I suddenly felt I knew who I am again, and where I want to be.  Without a doubt.  I don’t know what’s waiting for me back in New York, but I know that it will be okay.  We will fall into place.  We always do.  Somehow. 

Peter releases a long breath, lets his chin drop to his chest.  Taking a small step forward that very instant feels like the right thing to do.  A jolt runs through him when his head comes to rest on my shoulder.  I cup my good hand around the back of his neck, pull him in as close as I can stand it without having my hammering heart break through my chest.  Peter buries his face in the crook of my neck and I can’t tell if he is sobbing quietly or breathing heavily.  I dare not to move, even though the added weight is making my legs wobble precariously. 

At last, when I am near the point of having to let go in order to stay on my feet, I feel Peter shift against me.  His arms wrap around my back and he pulls me in with enough force to rob me of my breath.  In a good way. 

Somehow, huh?  He hooks his chin over my shoulder.

Hmm.  I need to come up for air soon.

Peter loosens his vice-like embrace, passes a hand up and down my back as I suck in a lungful of air.

Damn it, Caffrey, you’re a rail!  He steps back gives my bony shoulders a last squeeze and my body a sweeping glance up and down. 

Yeah, I’m going to have to have my suits altered. I shrug and rub a patch of skin on my stomach that still feels warm from his contact.  I’m guessing the Bureau doesn’t keep a good tailor on retainer.

Peter’s patented crooked smile looks odd when combined with a pair of red and tear-stained eyes.  It is still the best thing I’ve seen all day.

I don’t think that’s going to be the solution to your problem, not if Elizabeth has anything to say about it.  He tosses me the clothes he has brought.  I’ll have your stuff shipped from the prison.  For now that’s all I could find in the gift shop.  Hope you’re a fan of the … he thinks for a moment and shakes his head in confusion.  The local sports team.

I’ll be able to see her? Elizabeth?  I ask hesitantly.  Peter busies himself with his briefcase as I tear the underwear package open with my teeth and yank the briefs up my legs as swiftly as I can. 

Yeah, sure.  He nods.  As soon as I think she’s ready for thisHe glances up from his case as I step into the plaid flannel pajama bottoms.  I spoke to your doctor and I think we should check you into a hospital when we get to the city.  Just for a few days.

Okay.  I’m quick to agree.  I have fifteen hours in the car with Peter.  I’ve changed his mind in a lot less time.  From across the room Peter eyes me with overt suspicion when my head pops out of the neck hole of the cotton sweatshirt. 

Sit down, Neal.  He points at the bed.

I drop onto the mattress with an affected sigh, steeling myself for a lecture.  But Peter only picks up the shoebox he has brought, gets down to his knees in front of me and silently wiggles a pair of socks then the brand-new sneakers over my feet.  He takes his time lacing them, tightening them just right, the way he tightens handcuffs and tracking anklets.

What are my chances of taking you out of here in a wheelchair?  He looks up at me from his kneeling position. 

I don’t have to say it.  He climbs to his feet, pulling my arm over his shoulder in the process.  Curious eyes follow us through the hallways and into the elevator.  Peter looks straight ahead, not paying them any attention.  He doesn’t look at me either, but I can tell he is tuned into me by the way he slows down whenever I need it, tightens his grip whenever I slip.  We cross the nearly empty parking garage that looks so much like the one we found ourselves in six months ago, yet feels so different.  The familiar two-note chirp of Peter’s car unlocking sounds up ahead.  He walks me around to the passenger side, helps me into the seat, buckles me in.  His unnecessary and excessive attentiveness is slightly discomfiting, strangely pleasant and greatly amusing.  He digs around on the back seat, reappears by my side with a blanket and a pillow he has undoubtedly stolen from the hospital.  I make a mental note to hold it against him in the future.  I noisily clear my throat to put an end to his nervous fussing when he starts tucking the blanket around me.

You’re good?  Peter glances up.

I’m good.

Peter climbs behind the wheel, starts the engine, tunes the car radio to a sports station.  Then he shifts into gear and slowly rolls the first few yards of our fifteen-hour journey home.

I’m sound asleep for every minute of it.

The End.

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