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WC: Need - Part 2: Soap

White Collar -- Fanfiction

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

Title:  Need (Part 2 - Soap)

  • Rating: R
  • Warnings:  Language, Violence, Sexual References, PTSD
  • Spoilers:  none
  • Category: Hurt/Comfort, Drama, Nudity, Peter-Neal-Elizabeth Friendship
Summary:

A bath.  A meal.  A word.  A touch.  The first hours with Neal leave Peter with little hope that anything will be simple from here on.

Author's Notes:


Thank you all for reading the first installment.  I won't have time to post tomorrow, so I thought I'll get this next part out to celebrate the end of the week early.  Enjoy!



Part 2 – Soap

Neal wakes with a start. 

“Easy,” Peter says, his hand on his friend’s shoulder keeping Neal from tipping out the opened car door.  Panic is evident in Neal’s eyes when he realizes that the towel he was ordered to sit on is lying bunched up by his side.  His alarm heightens by another notch when he notices the smudges his face has left on the window.

“Come on, bud, we’re home.”  Peter offers his hand. 

Neal shrinks away.

Peter exchanges a helpless glance with his wife.  He backs off a few feet and straightens his back.

“Get out of the car,” he demands and cringes at the tone of his voice.

Neal frantically tries to smooth out the towel on the seat.

“Leave it.  You’re not in trouble,” Peter says.  “Just get out of the car.”

His limbs trembling with strain after three hours of immobility, Neal climbs out of the vehicle.  He gropes for the doorframe, letting go of the support instantly as if it was scalding hot.

“It’s okay.  You can hold on to the car until you feel you can stand.”  Peter reassures him. 

Neal doesn’t touch the car again.

Peter extends a hand in the direction of the front door.

“Follow me.”

Peter nods at Elizabeth when she holds the front door open for him to enter the house, his cowed charge obediently limping along a few paces behind.  He crosses the airy living room and into the guest suite.  He opens the door to the bathroom and motions Neal to step inside ahead of him.

“Take off your clothes,” he requests.  “All of them.”

Peter backtracks a few steps to pull a stack of towels from behind the glass door of the tall linen cabinet.

“What do you need me to do, hon?”  Elizabeth materializes behind his back. 

He turns to face her, his hand cupping her upper arm.

“El,” he hesitates.  “I know he’s different now, but I don’t think the Neal we know would want you to see him—“

Peter stops because Elizabeth stares straight past his shoulder.  He slowly turns.

In the open bathroom door Neal stands facing them, stark naked, slouching with his shoulders drawn up and his gaze lowered at the pile of dirty clothes at his feet.

“Oh God.”  Elizabeth covers her mouth with her hand.

Peter closes his eyes for a second and swallows hard.  He must compartmentalize.   Look at the injuries.  Think what needs to be done to make them better.  Don’t think about how they were inflicted.  Don’t think about what they have done to the man you care about.

“Come on then, El,” he says and desperately tries to inject his voice with confidence.  “I’m going to need your help.”

***

“Are you sure the water isn’t too cold?” Positioned at the head of the claw-foot tub El continues to stroke the crown of Neal’s wet hair.  His head is resting on a folded towel.

Peter checks the spray of the handheld showerhead that douses his partner.

“It’s fine.”

“Then why is he shaking?”

Peter directs the water off to the side for a moment and looks at his wife.  She stares at him from wide-open eyes, her shock at seeing Neal’s battered body still plainly written across her face.

“I think he’s terrified,” Peter says softly and swallows past the lump in his throat.  “Of us.”

She holds his gaze then takes a deep breath.  She blows a soft kiss on the top of Neal’s head before resting her cheek lightly against his temple.

“It’s gonna be fine, Neal,” she whispers into his ear.  “I promise.”

Peter is grateful that she can’t see the dread in their friend’s eyes.  He aims the showerhead at Neal’s chest and sweeps it up and down his naked body once more.  He has taken off as much dirt as a warm stream of water is able to rinse away.  What remains will require soap and some determined scrubbing.  What remains will cause a lot of pain.

“Let’s start with his hair,” he announces with a resolve in his voice that belies his true emotional state.

They nudge Neal to sit up with his head tipped back.  Peter lets the water run through Neal’s hair.  The nervous blue eyes dart over the ceiling.

“Close your eyes to keep the shampoo out,” Peter asks and Neal obeys.

Elizabeth squirts a liberal amount of shampoo into her palm and gently massages the suds into Neal’s scalp.  He flinches whenever her fingertips find a tender spot.  Peter rinses out the brownish gray suds and the specks of dried blood they contain.  They repeat the process twice until Elizabeth is reasonably satisfied that Neal’s hair is clean, however tangled and matted it still may be. 

“We’ll get that head of yours combed.  Give you a nice haircut, a decent shave.” she speaks to Neal as she spreads conditioner throughout his hair.  “It’ll make you feel like a new person.  You’ll see.”

They rinse a final time.  When the stream stops running over his head Neal tentatively opens one eye then the other, blinking drops of water away.

“You’re doing great, baby,” El praises him.  “You can lie back down in a minute.”

“Let’s wash his back while he’s sitting up.”  Peter lets his eyes take in the raw skin on Neal’s shoulders and the layers of fading, partially healed and fresh welts crisscrossing the pale back.  He sweeps his gaze over the protruding shoulder blades and down to the bruising and scratches on Neal’s lower back.  He exchanges a desperate look with El, who nods at him and passes the sponge and soap with shaking hands.

His white-knuckled hands clamped over the edge of the tub, Neal grits his teeth and breathes in short, rapid bursts.  He twitches at every painful contact with his wounds and remains chillingly quiet through all of it.

“I think that’s all that can be done here for now,” Peter says and watches Elizabeth rinse the suds from Neal’s back and shoulders.  “We’ll have to put some antibiotics on later, bandage what we can.”

Elizabeth gently pries Neal’s hands from the edge of the tub and guides his neck back onto the towel positioned at the head end.  Neal is panting heavily, his eyes watery and full of pain.  He looks to be hanging on to consciousness by a thread.  There’s a part of Peter that wishes he could just cut that thread and let Neal slip into oblivion.  The bigger part of Peter wants him to keep fighting.

“Let me take care of his face before you get to his front,” Elizabeth requests.  “He needs the break.  And so do you.”  She looks at Peter’s trembling hands.

He swallows and nods.  Peter surrenders the sponge to El’s waiting hand and climbs to his feet.  He needs to step outside for a moment.

“I’ll be okay,” Elizabeth assures him.  Positioning herself behind Neal at the head of the tub, she cups his chin to hold it in place. Peter can’t understand what his wife is whispering into his consultant’s ear as she gently dabs at the cuts and abrasions in Neal’s face.  He waits in the doorway for another minute before leaving for the living room to sit and tuck his head between his knees.

By the time he finds the strength to return, Elizabeth has cleaned Neal’s face, given him a shave and has moved on to pressing a washcloth to the bleeding knuckles of his right hand.  Peter settles a hand on her shoulder and blows a kiss onto the crown of her head.  He glances at Neal who looks calmer now as he breathes more regularly and looks at the window at the far end of the wall from half-closed eyes.

“Thank you, honey,” Peter says.  “I can handle the rest of this, if you need a break.”

She blinks up at him from tear-filled eyes and reluctantly agrees.  Peter is endlessly grateful that he doesn’t have to ask her to leave.  No matter what Neal’s current state of mind is, he knows that there’s a part left of him that couldn’t bear the thought of having a witness to the acts to come. 

“I’ll turn down his bed, get the supplies ready,” El says absentmindedly.  “I’ll be right outside if you need me.”

Elizabeth finds a patch of unmarred skin on Neal’s forearm and strokes him gently.

“Just hang on, sweetie,” she soothes.  “It won’t be much longer.  Peter will take good care of you.”

She turns and leaves the room and Peter’s heart jumps with both joy and sadness when he notices the pair of desperate blue eyes that follow his wife out the room.

***

Peter’s jaw is set in grim determination as he cleans the rest of Neal’s body.  He tackles one wound at a time.  Taken by itself, each cut, bruised or scraped inch of skin is insignificant.  A bump against a sharp edge here, a scab from a tumble there.  Combined, the wounds tell stories that Peter yet refuses to hear.  Taken together, the small patches of bruising on Neal’s arms and hips shape into handprints where cruel fingers held him in place.  Strung together, the inches of nicked skin morph into long welts inflicted by a whip swung across Neal’s chest and stomach.  Taken in their entirety, the scabs on his forearms and knees bear testament to the times Neal crawled because he was too weak to walk.

Peter can’t go there yet.  Maybe he will never be able to acknowledge the images that flash in front of his mental eye.  For the moment he can only be concerned with the picture of the man in front of him, who is biting on his lip hard enough to draw blood but who refuses to make a sound beyond that of his panicked breathing.

“Almost done,” Peter says, knowing that his words mean nothing to Neal.  Working quickly and efficiently to finish means something.  Peter squirts fresh soap onto the sponge and thoroughly washes Neal’s privates.  Neal doesn’t bat an eye when he is touched so intimately.  When Peter orders him to turn around and get onto his knees, Neal’s arms are shaking uncontrollably.  He can barely brace himself on the edge of the tub as Peter sponges the dirt out of the abrasions on his upper thighs and buttocks before dipping between them.

“It’s okay.  It’s okay.  It’s okay.”  Peter calms himself as much as his friend.  He lets the shower spray sweep up and down the naked body to flush away remaining suds.  “It’s okay.”

Peter turns off the water and looks at the trembling man kneeling in the empty tub, at the erratic twitch of sinewy muscles in the man’s shoulders and down his back.  He wants to settle a reassuring hand in the small of Neal’s back, like he has done countless times before.  Neal has always been the one who could show his attachment more openly.  Neal was the one who could remain unselfconscious when he enveloped Peter in a brotherly embrace, when they sat close to each other with their noses were buried in a case file.  Peter wishes he could have been more forthright in showing his fondness for his friend.  He wishes he could have found it in himself to comfort Neal better when he needed it.  Now he fears a consoling embrace, even an understanding hand on a shoulder would be lost on Neal.  Perhaps forever.

Peter takes a large, soft bath sheet and drapes it over his friend’s back.

“Are you listening, Neal?”  He asks.  Neal swallows hard and nods.  “I’ll leave you alone for a few minutes.  I want you to take your time finishing up in here.  There are more towels.  Use as many as you need.  Don’t worry if they get dirty, all right?  There’s a new pair of briefs for you.  Put them on.  There’s a toothbrush for you.  Use it.  Do you hear me?”

He waits for Neal to nod again.

“The bedroom outside this door is yours.  That means the bed is yours.”  Peter feels he needs to clarify.  “When you’re done in here, go lie down.  Elizabeth and I will check on you in a little bit.”

Peter leaves the bathroom door open and doesn’t look back when he crosses the guest room.  He finds El in the living area behind the counter of the open kitchen.  He silently walks up to her and takes her in his arms.  He holds her for a long time and fights the tears that threaten to choke him.

“I know, honey,” El soothes. 

He squeezes her one more time then takes a deep breath, straightens his shoulders and releases his embrace.

“That smells good.”  Peter lifts the lid off the pot simmering on the stove. 

“I wanted to make him the lamb he likes, but I don’t know what he’ll be able to stomach,” El smiles tightly.  “So I made some minestrone.  For a start.”

“I’m sure he’ll like it, honey.”  Peter takes her hand and nervously runs his fingers over hers.  “Listen, El, I need to ask you a favor.”

“Anything,” she replies with wide eyes.

“You’ll have to let me be the one who hurts him,” Peter says and his voice is shaking.

“Why would you want to hurt him?”  She stares at him.

“I don’t want to, El, but you’ve seen him.  Touching him hurts.”

“You don’t want me to touch him?”  El doesn’t understand.

“No, that’s not what I mean,” Peter replies and searches for the right words.  “I’m asking you to let me do the dirty work.  And maybe Neal will hate and fear me for the rest of his life, but I couldn’t bear the thought of him hating and fearing you.”

“Honey, he could never hate you.”

“Let’s hope you’re right,” Peter hugs her again.  “And let’s hope that by the end of this fucked up game of good-cop-bad-cop you will still want to talk to me.”

***

On the right half of the king-size bed Elizabeth sits sideways with her shoes kicked off.  To her left, close to the edge of the bed, Neal is stretched out on the clean, bright white sheet.  Elizabeth follows every move of her husband’s hands as they methodically spread antibiotic ointment over Neal’s back. 

Looking at Peter’s hands is easier than looking at the body they tend.  With the dirt removed, the reality of Neal’s condition is shockingly evident.  The dark patches on his skin can no longer be blamed on dust and grime.  They are bruises and shadows cast by bones that protrude too harshly and by muscles carved out too sharply.

Neal’s face is turned away from her as his fists clutch the pillow on both sides of his head.  El can see the play of his muscles around his set jaw line, can see that his eyes are screwed shut as he struggles to hold back the moans that want to escape his throat with every touch to a tender spot.  She reaches out to rake her fingertips through his hair, tugs a damp strand behind his ear. 

“He’s not bleeding much,” El says simply because she can’t bear the grim silence in the room.

“No,” Peter replies and doesn’t look up.  “Most of these injuries are minor and not recent.  But they add up.”  He squeezes fresh salve into his hand and spreads it over the large abrasion on the back of Neal’s left thigh.  Elizabeth can see the blush that creeps onto her husband’s face when his hand slides under the briefs to treat the scraped cheek hidden from view.

“Honey, if you want me to take over…” Elizabeth offers. 

Peter only shakes his head.  His hands hovering in mid air, he lets his eyes travel over Neal’s backside again, debating if there’s anything else he can do.  There isn’t.  He taps the prone man’s arm.

“Turn over, please,” he asks quietly.  There is no reaction from Neal.

“Neal, flip!” Peter orders sharply and Elizabeth recoils at his tone.  She hopes that Peter didn’t notice.

Neal releases his death grip on the pillow and slowly turns onto his back.  For a second he doesn’t know what to do with his arms then each of his hands finds a fistful of bedding to cling to. 

Elizabeth scans the body stretched out in front of her.  Neal is thin, his collarbones and ribs pronounced, his stomach hollow between the lower arc of his ribcage and his hipbones.  What little reserves remain are stored in hard, cut muscle, firm pectorals, thighs and abs that are twitching in expectation of the painful touches to come.  Elizabeth’s eyes fall on the dark bruising that stretches down Neal’s left ribcage.  There’s the clear outline of a boot that she refuses to recognize.

Peter’s thoughts must be leading him along similar avenues because his hand settles lightly over that patch of dark skin.

“Do you think they’re broken?”  Elizabeth asks.

Peter looks at her helplessly.

“Only one way to find out,” he says and raises his voice when he addresses Neal.  “Neal, you need to tell me if this hurts … bad.” 

Neal rapidly blinks at the ceiling and holds his breath, steeling himself for the agony that must follow. 

Peter’s fingers probe the bruised ribs.  Neal gasps soundlessly then purses his lips as sheer panic fills his eyes and he twists away from Peter’s touch. 

“Neal, damn it!”  Peter shouts and eases up on the injury.  “You need to talk to me.  I know you have a voice.  Use it.  Say something.  Anything.”

Neal’s chest rises and falls in the rapid, irregular rhythm of his breath.  His lips are pressed into a thin, bloodless line in stubborn resolve not to make a sound.  Elizabeth stares at him in wide-eyed dread.  Why is Neal doing this?  Had the punishment for speaking, for breaking an unwritten rule of silence been too terrible for too long?  Or is there still a shred of resistance left in Neal that refuses to give his tormentor the satisfaction of hearing him cry out?

“Neal, I’m not letting up until you tell me it hurts.”  Peter says and his voice and hands are shaking.

“Peter, no!”  Elizabeth begs quietly.

“El, please,” he pleads.  Close to tears, he locks eyes with her for a second then looks down at Neal again. 

“Look at me, Neal!”  Peter demands.  Neal’s fraught eyes shift and find his face but refuse to meet his eyes.  It’s close enough for Peter. 

“Just one word, Neal.  One word and I will stop.”

He doesn’t wait for a sign of acknowledgment.  Peter climbs onto the bed, straddles Neal’s thighs.  He grabs Neal’s wrists to pin them under his knees, disabling the last of his defenses.   He spreads his left hand over the center of Neal’s chest to keep him in place.  Then the fingers of his right hand dig into the heaviest bruising on Neal’s left ribcage.  He doesn’t stop until he can feel broken bone grind against broken bone under Neal’s thin skin.

Neal is desperately struggling as tears shoot into his eyes.  He gasps for air, his mouth opening in a silent scream.

“Just one word!”  Peter begs and looks like he’s about to break down.  He repositions his probing fingers.  And presses harder.  “One word and I will stop.  Please, Neal.  Talk to me!”

Neal is a tightly strung bow under the man who pins him to the bed.  He kicks and arches up, throws his head back as he desperately tries to buck off the man on top of him.  And, finally, he screams.

“No!”

It’s a husky, almost voiceless sound. 

It’s all Peter needs to retract his hand, climb off his friend.

And rush to the bathroom to vomit.

***

When Peter returns to the bedroom Elizabeth is still on the bed, leaning over Neal as she tenderly rakes her fingertips into his hairline.  She talks to him quietly.  Peter can’t clearly discern her words but he can piece together her mantra of comfort that reassures Neal that he is safe and loved and that everything will be fine.  Neal doesn’t look at her, but he is listening, if not to her words, then at least to the soothing resonance of her voice.  Perhaps there is a part of him that wants to believe her promises.  Perhaps if she keeps repeating them long enough, Neal will one day be able to accept them as close enough to the truth.

Neal’s breathing has calmed. Both of his hands are covering his broken ribs protectively as small tremors intermittently run through his body.  The very instant Neal becomes aware of Peter’s presence in the room is painfully obvious in the tension that returns to his body.  Peter rubs his hands with alcohol sanitizer and grabs the tube of antibiotic ointment before settling sideways on the edge of the bed.

“For what it’s worth, Neal,” he says softly.  “I won’t give you any bullshit about this hurting me more than you.  But this does hurt me.  Just in a different way. You know.”

Neal doesn’t know.  His nostrils flaring and his breath quickening, he shivers with fear of Peter’s next touch.  Helpless, Peter meets his wife’s tear-filled eyes.  She wants to be strong for him, support him in anything he needs to do, but she can barely hold herself together.  He takes a deep breath and turns his attention back to surveying the injured body in front of him.

“Let’s finish treating what we can.  Make him eat, drink some more.  Then give him something for the pain and hope he’ll sleep.”  He starts at Neal’s feet, spreading ointment over scrapes and cuts.  He keeps his touch light and still winces in sympathy with every twitch he feels. 

“Should I get some bandages ready?”  Elizabeth asks with a nod at the stack of wound dressings by her side. 

“Where do we start?” Peter replies, his voice harder than he intends.  “He’s—a fucking mess.”

“Okay,” Elizabeth says softly.  “We’ll change the sheets as often as we need.  That’s not a problem.”

“I want to cool his knee.  Keep the swelling down.”  Peter carefully probes the scraped limb.  “He was limping pretty badly.  Must have busted it when he tripped on the compound.”

“Okay,” Elizabeth nods. 

Peter continues tending to his friend, methodically covering inch by inch of skin.  On Neal’s chest, Peter passes his fingertips over the marks the leather straps of the heavy hamper have left, the skin worn raw on shoulders and collarbones.

“They worked you hard, kid,” he says quietly.  His hand curls over Neal’s left bicep.  He rubs his palm up and down the taut muscle, as if that small gesture could ease the tension out of Neal’s body.

“Peter?” Elizabeth says.

“Sorry, yes,” Peter snaps out of his thoughts and moves on to treat the wounds in Neal’s face.

“Peter,” Elizabeth repeats calmly, but with a certain urgency that demands Peter’s attention.  He glances up.  Elizabeth looks at him with a hint of surprise in her eyes, and carefully restrained happiness.  She lowers her gaze for an instant, prompting Peter to follow her cue. 

What Elizabeth is eager for him to see is Neal’s right hand that has found hers on the mattress.  His palm is resting on the back of her hand, two of his fingers curled in to slip under hers.  El remains passive in the tender contact.  She doesn’t give his fingers a reaffirming squeeze, doesn’t stroke his raw knuckles.  She does nothing to make Neal aware of his subconscious desire to cling to the least threatening human being he has encountered in over six months.

***

Neal only speaks up one more time that night. 

With Neal’s right knee supported by a pillow, Peter arranges several coolant gel packs around the swelling joint then wraps a towel around the knee. 

“Why don’t you go heat up his supper, hon?” Peter briefly looks up.  “I’ll finish up here.”

“No!”  Neal pleads hoarsely.  His hand clamps down on Elizabeth’s hard enough to make her gasp.

“What did you do?”  She stares at Peter.  She doesn’t mean to sound accusatory, but her protective instincts have revved into overdrive.

“Nothing.  I didn’t even touch him,” he replies, sounding dejected rather than defensive.  “I think he just doesn’t want to be left alone with me.”

“Honey,” El shakes her head, her eyes overflowing with pity.  “I don’t think Neal meant to—“

“It’s okay.”  He smiles uneasily.  “I’ll go get his soup.  You stay here with him.”

***

Peter folds the legs of the tray out and places it over Neal’s lap.  Sitting up in bed with his back supported by several pillows, Neal warily eyes the bowl of soup, thick slice of bread and the glass of water set out for him. 

“You’re in control here?” Peter asks his wife, her hand now clutched firmly in Neal’s.

She nods.

Peter walks over to the armchair in the far corner of the guest suite, hoping to put enough distance between himself and the bed to appear less of an immediate threat. 

“It’s all yours.  Go ahead,” El encourages Neal.  She wiggles her hand out of his grasp and lifts his right onto the tray, placing the spoon between his fingers.  “I made it just for you.  You used to like this soup when you came over for lunch to our house.  Remember?”

If Neal remembers, it doesn’t show.  He takes a first cautious spoonful.

For the ten minutes that follow, Peter watches his starving consultant hurriedly shovel spoon after spoon of minestrone into his mouth.  El occasionally rests her hand on his wrist, reminding him to slow down, reassuring him that nobody is going to take his food away.  She has taken control of the bread, tearing off small pieces that Neal immediately snatches off the tray.  Every few bites, she picks up the water glass, urging him to take a drink with his food.  Whenever she has an idle moment she glances over at Peter, glad of Neal’s appetite and heartbroken for his hunger.

“Should we get him some more?”  El asks when Peter picks up the tray with the polished bowl. 

“Not now.”  He shakes his head.  “Let’s see how he deals with this and then we’ll get him on a regular meal schedule tomorrow.”

Peter sets the tray aside and reaches into his pocket.  He pulls out a prescription vial and shakes two of the chalky tablets into his palm.

“Open your mouth, Neal,” he requests.  Neal steadfastly refuses to look at him when he obediently parts his lips and lets Peter push the pills past his teeth.  Peter tips the water glass against Neal’s lips.  “Swallow.”

Neal takes a drink of water.

“Did you take them?”  Peter asks, suspiciously eyeing his friend’s pursed lips. 

Neal nods with a nervous sideways glance.  Shifty, Peter would have called this behavior a few months ago.  Peter noisily exhales through his nose.  He should be happy that there is still enough of a con man in Neal to want to fool him.

“Don’t lie to me, Neal,” he says firmly but without menace.  He gives Neal a second drink of water.  “Swallow the medicine.  It’ll make you feel better.  Trust me.”

Peter is fairly convinced that the painkillers have gone down, but he makes Neal open his mouth to make sure.  He holds Neal’s chin up longer than necessary and unavailingly waits for Neal’s hollow eyes to find his.  Neal persistently avoids any eye contact and Peter reminds himself that he shouldn’t expect miracles.  Continuing to cup his friend’s chin, Peter reaches to brush a tuft of Neal’s wild, damp hair out of his forehead.  He freezes mid-air when Neal shrinks away, expecting a hit.

“Alright, kiddo,” he sighs.  “Try and sleep.  I’m a gonna go, take care of the dishes.”

“I can do that, honey,” Elizabeth offers.

“I got it, El,” he replies.  “Keep him company.  Please?”

***

Twenty minutes later the shades are lowered and the bedside lights dimmed and Peter sits quietly in the corner armchair and observes his best friend and his wife.  Neal is stretched out on his back, a sheet pulled up to his chest.  Next to him on the bed, on top of the covers, Elizabeth has settled down on her side, facing Neal and completely focused on him.  Her left hand has somehow found its way into Neal’s right once more.  The fingers of her other hand alternate between stroking his cheek and raking his hair back.

The strong painkillers have started to work.  Under the thin sheet, Peter can see the tension seep out of Neal’s beaten body, hypnagogic jerks occasionally running through his length.  On the pillow Neal’s face relaxes as his lids want to drift shut.  He fights the overpowering need for sleep, repeatedly forces his eyes to remain open and alert.  It’s a losing battle that Peter watches with fascination and worry.  As the physical pain drains from Neal’s eyes, as the narcotic erodes the paranoid fear, Peter searches for the relief that Neal must feel after months and months of suffering.  Whatever Neal feels at this moment, he is struggling against it with the last bit of his consciousness.  In his final waking seconds Neal’s eyes lock with Peter’s across the room for the first time in ten months.  Peter’s heart sinks at the emptiness in the watery blues.  He suddenly realizes that Neal is so desperately trying to hold on to the hurt because it still makes him feel human.

The shocking truth is paralyzing.  Minutes pass, during which Peter finds himself incapable of moving.  He wasn’t prepared for this.  Not when he left New York, not when they left for Ramsey’s hacienda, not even when they left the compound with Neal tied up in the back of the van.  Why is he the eternal optimist when it comes to Neal?  Why does he so steadfastly believe in the good in a con man who uses every inch of the leash he was given to run circles around him?  And why does he unflaggingly trust in Neal’s ability to bounce back from whatever life throws at him? 

There won’t be a quick rebound.  If there is any return to normalcy for Neal it will be a crawl, not a bounce.  It won’t simply take a shower and a haircut and a silly joke about coffee to make Neal better.  It’ll take all of Peter’s patience and discipline and kindness.  Most of all it will take hope.  Hope that there’s enough of Neal left to save.

Peter tries to take a deep breath.  The air doesn’t want to move past the lump in his throat.  He doesn’t care.  It doesn’t matter how he feels.

“El?” He asks quietly.  There is no reply.

Peter remains in his chair, collecting himself for a few more silent minutes then walks over to Elizabeth’s side of the bed.  She has dozed off, her fingers entwined with Neal’s.  It’s the shred of hope Peter needs tonight.  He drapes a blanket over her and she doesn’t stir when he leans in to kiss her cheek. 

Having walked around the king-size bed Peter hovers over his sleeping friend.  He takes his limp left arm and tucks it under the sheet.  The drugs have dragged Neal into a deep sleep.  Painless oblivion, Peter hopes, a few hours for his drained batteries to charge enough to make it through another day.  Peter doesn’t know what tomorrow will bring or the days after that.  For now, he allows himself to be glad that they’ve made it through today, that he has his partner back, his friend.  If not in spirit, than at least in body. 

For the next hour Peter perches on the edge of the bed and permits himself to be tender.  It’s surprisingly easy with the only witnesses fast asleep in the quiet solitude of this darkened bedroom.  He caresses Neal’s face, tracing the angular lines of his jaw and cheekbones, softly brushing the side of his thumb over the scrapes and bruises that blemish the handsome features.  They will heal.  He strokes Neal’s hair that is almost dry now and feels soft.  El will cut it tomorrow, will make Neal look a little closer to his former self.  A former self that Neal may not remember.  Peter sighs.  With the last daylight faded behind the drawn shades and with weariness weighing heavily on his exhausted mind and body, he presses his lips to his consultant’s bruised temple.


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