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WC: Need - Part 7: Love

White Collar -- Fanfiction

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

Title:  Need (Part 7 - Love)

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

When Neal gives Peter an unexpected glimpse into the depth of his suffering, Peter finds new determination and strength to help him heal.

Author's Notes:


This is the final chapter, in which Peter and Neal finally get to talk and to snuggle.  Thank you all for reading and commenting and being an all around encouraging and patient bunch.  All input welcome as always.



Part 7:  Love

This is as close to heaven on Earth as it gets for Peter.  His favorite team is playing the World Series, his feet are propped on the coffee table, he is wearing his lucky Yankees cap and a chilled bottle of American beer is sweating in his fist.  It’s a close game.  He should be glued to the TV screen that has been returned to its designated spot in the living area.  But while he nurses the beer in his hand, his focus keeps drifting over to his left, where his best friend occupies the far end of the leather sofa. 

Neal is barefoot and dressed in cotton gym shorts and the ribbed undershirt that has become his uniform since Peter’s shirt has fallen out of favor.  To no one’s surprise, he shows little interest in the game.  He occasionally glances up at the screen, takes a sip from the bottle of beer that Elizabeth had been reluctant to give him despite Peter’s insistence that it was a vital part of the viewing experience.  For the most part he sits hunched over the yellow writing pad in his lap.  The tip of the pen in his hand is incessantly dancing over the paper, outlining and texturizing, adding detail and dimension to the objects and figures he sketches.  Now and again he stops to review his work, sometimes abandoning a half-finished drawing to turn the page and start over.

“We can get you some better paper.”  Peter cranes his neck, trying to catch a glimpse of Neal’s latest sketch. 

“This is fine,” Neal says without looking up.

“Maybe even some of those special crayon-looking thingies,” Peter continues. 

Neal raises his eyes at the TV screen, possibly to determine why America’s favorite pastime has suddenly lost its appeal to Peter.  He doesn’t come up with a satisfactory answer and picks up his sketch where he left off. 

“This is fine,” he repeats.

“What’cha drawing?”  Peter is undeterred. 

Neal puffs out a long and slightly irritated breath.  He lifts the writing pad, tilts it in Peter’s direction.  The pen drawing depicts the head of a Labrador dog, holding a chewed-up baseball between his drooling chops.

“That’s my boy Satchmo!”  Peter’s face warms with a wistful smile.  “Now that’s cute.  You should show that to El when she gets back from the shopping.”

“Here.” Neal tears the page off the block and hands it to Peter.  “Keep it.”  He turns his attention back to his writing pad, intent on ignoring Peter’s curiosity for the time being. 

“Thank you,” Peter takes a closer look at the sketch and chuckles.  “The Babe Ruth signature is a nice touch.” 

There is no further reaction from Neal and for the next fifteen minutes Peter follows the game.  The broadcast pauses for commercials and Peter finishes his beer as he pushes himself to his feet.

“I’m going to grab a new bottle.  You want another one?”

Neal shakes his head then looks up at Peter with an inquisitive frown.

“Did I use to like beer?”

“No,” Peter grumbles.  “But it was worth a shot. “ He makes his way over to the fridge, pulls a beer for himself and a bottle of water for Neal.  He searches through the plastic storage containers of brunch leftovers, debating if any of them would satisfy his late afternoon snack craving. 

“Are you hungry for anything?”  Peter calls and continues to mine through the fridge contents.  He receives a grunt from the sitting area in reply.  He stops dead.  The last three weeks have acquainted Peter with the full tonal spectrum of pain in his friend’s voice and something in the dismissive sound coming from the couch makes the hair at the back of his neck bristle. 

“Neal?”  Peter tosses the open plastic container in his hand back on its shelf, slams the fridge door shut.  The rattle of the bottles inside the fridge is echoed by the sound of a beer bottle tipping over on the glass top of the coffee table, the table’s legs scraping on the tile floor.

Peter makes it to the sitting area a second later.  His face scrunched in agony, Neal has slipped from the couch and onto his knees and is clinging to the coffee table with white knuckles.  The spilled beer has spread over the tabletop and is dripping over its edge and onto the floor.

“What’s wrong?” Alarmed, Peter shoves the couch aside and drops to his knees by Neal’s side.  Breathing in short, rapid gasps, Neal glances over at him and pain has driven tears into his eyes.

“Can you breathe?” 

Neal nods.

“My back,” he groans. 

Peter settles a hand on Neal’s shoulder, slides his other hand under the hem of his undershirt and up his back.  His palm feels taut strands of muscle under scabbed and scarred skin.

“Your back is cramping,” he explains.  “This must hurt like crazy.”

“Ya think?”  Neal snaps breathlessly.

“Alright,” Peter retracts his hand, climbs to his feet. “Let’s get you on the couch.  You should lie down and try to relax.”  He grabs Neal by the arm, gently pulls him up until Neal yelps in pain.

“I got it,” Neal pants.  “Don’t touch.  Please.” 

Peter straightens the couch and grimaces in sympathy when Neal crawls onto the seat cushion, shifting and rolling, bending and straightening until he finds the least agonizing position. Lying awkwardly twisted on his front with his left knee drawn up, Neal presses his forehead into the cool leather and wills his breathing to calm. 

“Better?” Peter lightly pats his thigh.

“Don’t make me move again,” Neal whispers.  “Ever.”

“Okay,” Peter agrees.  “I’ll go see if we have some muscle relaxants for you.  Maybe some heat packs.” He heads for the master bedroom, picking up his cell phone to give Elizabeth and quick update.  She offers to come home immediately, but he insists that he has everything under control and she should enjoy her afternoon at the shopping center.  Peter searches their medical supplies, carefully reads the labels on the extensive collection of prescription bottles that Mozzie had assembled and shipped to the rental before their trip down here.  He picks one of the pill bottles and two of the chemical heat wraps and returns to the living room.

By the looks of Neal, his comfort level hasn’t improved.  Peter fetches a bottle of water and a roll of paper towels from the kitchen counter.  He unscrews the bottle and sets it on the coffee table within easy reach of Neal.  He shakes two pills out of the prescription container and places them by the bottle.

“Take those,” he requests softly but firmly.  “They’ll make it a lot better.  I promise.  You may get a little drowsy, but my guess is you weren’t planning on operating heavy machinery tonight.”

Peter doesn’t hover over him.  Armed with the roll of paper towels, he mops the spilled beer off the table and tiles.  From the corner of an eye he watches Neal prop himself onto an elbow to slip the pills between his lips and wash them down with a sip of water before gritting his teeth and shimmying back into his semi-prone position.

Peter stops by the kitchen to dispose of the dirty towels and to pick up the beer he abandoned earlier.  Back in the living room a quick glance at the scoreboard on the screen tells him that he hasn’t missed much.  He takes a long swig from the bottle and mentally congratulates himself on a new personal record:  dealing with Caffrey-inspired crisis in the span of an inning.  He looks down at Neal, who has closed his eyes and doesn’t dare to make a move.

“The meds are going to kick in in a few minutes,” Peter assures him.  He puts his beer down, picks up a heat wrap and tears the packaging open.  He folds the hem of Neal’s undershirt up and Neal flinches under his touch.  “Sorry.  I’m putting some heat on your back.  It’ll help with the pain.  When I was playing ball those things kept me going.  As a matter of fact, I’m convinced I single-handedly supported the entire chemical heat industry.”  He applies the heat-wrap to Neal’s lower back, gently smoothing it out before tugging Neal’s shirt back in place.

“Holding up?”

Neal nods.

“Do you mind if I hang around and watch the game?”

In lieu of a reply, Neal pushes himself a few inches toward the foot end of the sofa, shrinking further in on himself to clear a little more space for Peter to sit.  He sucks in a sharp breath when the movement jars his back.

“Thanks, buddy.  I appreciate it.”  Peter reclaims his beer and settles into his spot at the far end of the couch.  He tries to get comfortable in the small space, stretches his left arm along the backrest of the couch only to change his mind a second later and rest that hand on his thigh.  Finally he changes course one more time and lets his hand settle on Neal’s shoulder.  He waits for a flinch, a shudder, any reaction to indicate that his touch is unwelcome.  There is none.

***

Twenty minutes later, the Yankees are up by four runs and Peter feels the man under his palm relax.  He slides his hand over the round of Neal’s shoulder, gives his upper arm a light squeeze. 

“Pain easing up a bit?”

“Yeah.” Neal’s breathy reply is full of relief.  In a slow, controlled maneuver he rolls onto his right side, biting his lip in anticipation of a painful spasm.  When he is spared, he lets his head sink onto the sofa cushion with a sigh.

“Can I get you anything?” Peter asks.

Neal shakes his head then has a change of heart.

“A pillow maybe?”  He squints up at Peter.

“Sure,” Peter gets up to grab one of the pillows from the master bedroom and uses the opportunity to pull another beer from the fridge before Elizabeth has a chance to cut him off.  Back in the sitting area Neal regards him from bleary eyes that suggest that Neal’s sleep-deprived, weak constitution is no match for a dose of Mozzie’s medicine. 

Neal seizes the pillow but waits for Peter to squeeze back into his spot before propping it against Peter’s thigh and nestling into it.  Peter instantly regrets his failure to make a pit stop at the bathroom.  Neal looks to be settling in for the long haul.

“Comfy?”

“Hmm,” Neal mumbles into his pillow followed by something remotely sounding like “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”  Peter give Neal’s shoulder a light pat and leaves his hand in place.  He slides a little lower into the couch cushion, props his feet on the table again and tries to get caught up on the progress of the game.  Neal starts fidgeting the very second that Peter feels he can finally relax.

“Something the matter?” Peter tries his best not to sound impatient. 

Neal’s arm reaches for his lower back and pulls at his undershirt.

“Can you get that heat thing off of me?” There is a slightly distressed edge to his tone. 

“Hold on, I got it.”  Peter brushes Neal’s hand aside, hitches his shirt up and gently peels the heat wrap away from his back as Neal inhales sharply.  The skin underneath is red and hot, the healing welts there looking tender and irritated.  Peter clicks his tongue.

“Sorry about that,” Peter tosses the heat wrap aside touches his fingers to the heated skin.  Neal only curls onto his side, makes himself comfortable on the pillow once again.  He wiggles a little closer to Peter and Peter assumes that means his over-enthusiastic endorsement of the unpleasant heat wrap is already forgiven and forgotten.  Peter sits back, briefly lifts his baseball cap to wipe his brow with the back of his hand.  He picks up his beer and tracks down the game score on the screen. 

Neal watches him from the corner of an eye.

“Who’s winning?”  He asks without looking at the TV.

“The Yankees.”

“They’re the good guys, right?”  Neal slurs his speech a little.

“Yeah, that’s right.”  Peter offers him a small, crooked smile.

“Good.” Neal nods with a grave frown.

“The guy on bat is their best hitter,” Peter explains and watches Neal lift his eyes up at the screen. “He’s had a great season.”

“What’s his secret?” Neal mumbles.

In all the conversations Peter has had with Neal in his head over the past few days, the topic of baseball couldn’t have been a more remote possibility.  Neal isn’t like other guys Peter knows.  With Neal there is no safe, neutral ground to be found in sports statistics.  With Neal, Peter can’t smooth the waters with football chitchat by the water cooler.  Neal doesn’t work that way. 

But with his head nearly resting in Peter’s lap now, Neal listens to him.  His tired eyes focused on the screen he hangs on every word of Peter’s commentary, nodding his understanding on occasion, asking a simple question now and again, smiling softly when Peter gets carried away over a scored run.  Peter doesn’t stop rambling until the seventh inning stretch.  On his pillow, Neal has his eyes closed.

Peter sweeps his gaze over Neal’s body, passes his hand over his shoulder blade that is still too angular after three weeks of care.  Discolored welts and scars on Neal’s back are exposed below his ridden up shirt.  They look better now, nothing like in those first hours when Peter scrubbed dirt and blood from his friend’s weeping wounds.  Peter touches his fingertips to Neal’s back, traces the long, scabbed edge of a mark.

“Do you remember how you got this?”  He asks quietly, unsure if Neal is even awake to hear him. 

Neal cracks his eyes.

“Which one?” 

Peter’s fingers tenderly skim over Neal’s back.

“Any of them,” he speaks past the lump in his throat.  “Do you remember them doing this to you?”

Neal takes a deep breath and nods into his pillow.

“Yeah, I remember,” he says nearly voicelessly.  “Every single one.”

“God, Neal.”  Peter swallows, closes his eyes for a moment.  His fist clamps around a handful of Neal’s shirt because he needs to hold on to something.

“I had to remember.  It was all that mattered, you know,” Neal continues.  “Not giving them another reason to hurt you.”  His voice is faint, his diction slightly off.  Peter wonders how fiercely the drugs are chipping away at Neal’s defenses.  He debates stopping Neal, asking him to go to sleep.  Something about listening to Neal’s narcotized confessions feels like a breach of trust, a trust that Peter is aching to rebuild on whatever shattered foundations remain.  But he can’t help listening now any more than he could help turning page after page of Neal’s drawings earlier.

“It wasn’t bad at first,” Neal starts.  “I worked at the Superintendent’s house.  Painted a few rooms, sanded the floors, split wood for the stove.  I slept locked in a small room in his basement.”  Neal clears his throat, closes his eyes, furrows his brow as he struggles with his thoughts.  “Or in his wife’s bedroom when he was too drunk to care or just drunk enough to want to watch.”

“It wasn’t that bad.”  Neal nods eagerly as if to convince himself of his own words.  He continues to speak slowly, sluggishly stringing sentences together. “And then I thought I could get away.  I didn’t get far.  He checked his trunk before leaving the compound.  His wife begged him for leniency.  So they took my mattress and blankets.  I didn’t eat for five days.  I convinced them I had learned my lesson.  The only lesson I had learned was that I needed a better plan for escape.”

“Two weeks later they caught up with me in the desert.  And there was no mercy this time.  The Superintendent reserved the right to beat me himself.  I should have felt honored.”  Neal emits a short, caustic chuckle and falls quiet for a moment.  “They stripped me naked, tied me to a post outside his wife’s bedroom window until the next morning.  That was in January.”  A shiver runs through Neal as if his body still holds the memory of that freezing night. 

“In the morning they took me to the mines.”

With his fist buried in his pillow Neal calms his quickened breath.  He closes his eyes and remains silent long enough that Peter thinks he may have dozed off.  But then Neal’s eyelids flutter and he forces his eyes open with a determined inhalation.

“I remember the first thing I noticed was the quiet,” he begins to speak again.  “There was this large cavernous space filled with hundreds of men, but void of any human sound.  Like there were machines mining the rock.  Silence is the first thing the guards teach you,” he trails off then collects himself again.

“We worked sixteen hour shifts.  They’d put you to work with a pickaxe or a hammer for a few days until your hands bled so much that you couldn’t hold your tools any more.  Then they’d switch you to hauling duty.  And that was good, at first, because you got to see daylight when loading the trucks.  But then the skin on your shoulders would be gone and carrying the baskets would be excruciating and you would beg the guards to put you back on mining duty.  And they did, after making an example of you with a leather crop because you had the audacity to speak to them.”

“So next time you didn’t beg.  You did the job you were assigned until your body gave out and then you hoped and prayed that they wouldn’t break any bones when they kicked and prodded you to get up.  And if you had the sense to stay quiet through that and if you were really lucky that day they’d drag you back to the barracks and let you rest through the remainder of your shift.”

“After a while every thought you have, every decision you make is governed by the single overwhelming desire to minimize the amount of pain that will result from your actions.  Some days you embrace punishment because it leaves you with the certainty that you won’t make that same mistake again and the pain you incur now will save you potentially worse in the future.  And some days you will do anything to avoid punishment because you simply can’t take anymore.  Anything.  You let them humiliate you, let them screw you. Because what they do to your pride and your self-worth doesn’t leave bleeding wounds and because you can still do your job the next day when they’ve fucked you raw.”

Neal’s dry and hard voice falls silent for a moment.  He blinks, glances up at the TV.

“I think the good guys won,” he says.

“What?”  From far away, through the sound of rushing water in his ears, Peter hears cheering.  He snaps out of his petrified state, fumbles clumsily for the remote.  The buttons don’t cooperate with his trembling fingers when he tries to shut that damn game off.  By his side Neal props himself onto his elbow with a small grunt of discomfort.  He reaches for the bottle of water on the coffee table.  It shakes when he tips it against his lips.  Peter tosses the remote aside, supports Neal’s bottle while he drinks then returns it to the coffee table when he has had enough.

“Thanks.”  Neal drops to his pillow, rolls a little further onto his back to look up at Peter.  “You’re crying?”

Peter doesn’t know why the surprise in his friend’s voice triggers a chuckle.

“Yeah,” he nods as a fresh swell of tears brims over and runs down his cheeks.  “Of course, I am.”

“I’m sorry,” Neal frowns, still looking confused more than anything else.  With a deep breath he nestles deeper into his pillow, lets his eyes drift shut.

Peter sits in the silent room, listens to the sound of his racing heart and of Neal’s quiet breathing. 

“I tried so hard to find you,” he says when he finds the courage to.  “But you were gone.  There was no trace of you.  Hughes, even Diana and Jones, were convinced you had run, because the only person who could disappear like that was you.  But I didn’t’ believe it.  You wouldn’t have left like that.  Not without saying goodbye to Mozzie or Elizabeth.”

“And after a while, after a few months, I wanted to believe them.  I hoped you had run because the alternative would have been worse,” he continues.  “I just didn’t know how much worse it could be.”

“I remembered,” Neal says with a frown.

“What?”

“I remembered someone was looking for me,” Neal explains, hesitantly, as if still piecing his thoughts together.  “I didn’t know who or why, but remembering seemed important.  And by the end that terrified me.  Because nothing good could be that important.”

“When we came, did you recognize us?”  Peter asks.

“I knew it was you.”  He pauses, furrows his brow again.  “I mean, I didn’t know who you were but I knew you were the man who was looking for me.”

“That’s me, the man looking for Neal Caffrey,” Peter mutters and can’t help thinking that one day this will be as good an epitaph as any for him. 

“I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t found you, Neal.” His throaty voice threatens to break.  “If I had been too late.”

“Maybe you were,” Neal says quietly.

“No I wasn’t,” Peter replies adamantly from between clenched teeth. He trenches his fingers into Neal’s hair, closes his fist around a handful of it.  His touch is firm enough that somewhere in the back of his head a voice cautions him not to hurt Neal.  But Neal doesn’t pull away and Peter needs to hold onto him right now.

“The man you were looking for doesn’t exist anymore, Peter.”

“Yes, he does.  He is right here.”  Neal winces when Peter’s fist in his hair makes his point a little too vigorously.  Peter eases up on his grip.

 “You don’t understand,” Neal sighs, tired rather than frustrated.  “What I did in there—“

“You survived, that’s what you did, Neal.”

Neal shakes his head.

“I stole food.”

“You were starving.”

“I stole from people who needed it more.”

“I don’t think that’s possible.”

“I killed someone.”

Peter pauses and needs to convince himself that he heard correctly. 

“Friday nights were special,” Neal continues in a soft, plain manner.  “We didn’t have to work the full shift because the guards always had a barbecue on Fridays.  We could smell it all the way to the barracks.  They drank and they gambled.  After dark they would rope off an area in the yard.  And they would make us fight.  No weapons.  No rules.  The winner would get to eat as much as he wanted.  The loser wouldn’t eat until Monday.  I wasn’t picked often.  There were bigger and stronger guys.  When I was chosen, I learned to fold fast.  We wouldn’t beat a guy one’s he was down.  It was an unspoken pact that we adhered to unless we were given no choice.”

“That Friday one of the guards picked me for the final fight of the night.  I had been working in his section all week and things hadn’t gone well.  Some of the scaffolding framework had collapsed, trapping me underneath.  I wasn’t seriously hurt, but he missed his lunch break that day because he spent it pulling splinters out of my side.”

Perhaps unconsciously Neal’s hand settles over his left ribcage. 

“I guess that ticked him off.  He must have given the other guy some pointers because he knew exactly where I hurt.  He kept pounding my side and it hurt so much … and I couldn’t take it anymore.   I snapped.  I’m not sure how, but I ended up on top of him.  I hit him.  And I couldn’t stop.  It took three guards to drag me away from him.  They took me over to the water tank, dunked me until I stopped struggling.”

“He was a young kid, younger than me.  I don’t know his real name.  They called him Canelo.  He died later that night.” Neal’s voice remains flat and eerily uninflected, but his body is trembling now.  “And maybe I did too.”

“No,” Peter shakes his head and finds himself hardly capable of breathing.  “You lived through unthinkable cruelty.  You did what you had to do to survive and no jury in the world would condemn you for what you were driven to do.  You may think they have broken you, Neal, but they haven’t.  They never could have.”

“I’m tired,” Neal says and curls in on himself to still his shaking frame.

Peter buries his hand in Neal’s hair again. 

“I know you don’t want to hear it and you can’t see it now, Neal,” he sighs.  “But I know.  I know you.  I’m asking you to bear with me and trust me until you can believe it too.  Will you do that for me?”

Neal only turns his face further into the pillow.

“Will you promise me to try?”  Peter pleads.

Neal’s small nod under his hand is almost imperceptible, but it’s the best Peter could have hoped for.

“Thank you,” Peter whispers.  He passes his hand over Neal’s shoulder and up and down his back before resting it at the nape of his neck, the feather-light touch of the side of his thumb stroking the soft skin there.  Peter sits quietly, watching the tension leave Neal’s shoulders as his trembling slowly eases.  “Comfortable?” 

Without opening his eyes Neal shakes his head slightly.  He tugs on the pillow under his head, pulling it down to his chest while inching up until his head comes to rest on Peter’s thigh.  He settles down again.

“Peter?” He asks softly.

“Hmm.”

“Will you tell me about New York?”

“Of course.  What do you want to know?”

“Everything.”

Peter takes a deep breath.

“Well, I think you will really love the parks,” Peter starts.  He props a foot on the coffee table and slides deeper into the cushions to get comfortable with the new arrangement.  With his fingers gently raking through Neal’s hair, he tells him about the city’s neighborhoods and the museums, the food trucks and the taxicabs.  Peter doesn’t quite know when exactly his friend drifts off to sleep or whether the silent tears soaking into his pants start flowing before or after that happens.

***

When Elizabeth returns from the store an hour later, she walks up behind Peter and wraps her arms around his shoulders.

“What happened here?” She asks and softly presses her cheek against his. 

Peter doesn’t even know where to start.

“Hi, hon,” he says and nods at the Neal, who is sleeping in his lap with his mouth slightly open and a fist hanging on to Peter’s pants.  “I think I’m just going to sit here a while longer if that’s okay.”

“Yeah, that’s okay.”  She ruffles his hair.

Elizabeth slips out of her heels and tiptoes into the bedroom.  She returns shortly and pulls Neal’s undershirt into place before draping a light blanket over him.  She takes a long look at her husband who looks red-eyed and drained.  She touches her hand to his face and he leans into her tenderness.

“El, I have to do whatever it takes to make things okay for him.  No matter how long it takes or at what cost.”

She only smiles at him fondly and leans in to kiss his forehead.

“I love you, Peter.”  She rubs her lipstick away with her thumb.  “Dinner will be ready in an hour.”

Peter turns on the TV with the sound on mute.  With his eyes half closed he follows a nature documentary on the screen.  The sounds of Elizabeth cooking in the kitchen area behind him register only remotely.  In his head, Neal’s heartbreaking account replays on an endless loop.

When Elizabeth calls him to the table, Neal is still fast asleep.  Peter carefully slips out from underneath his head.  He lifts the blanket away then slides his hands under the sleeping man to gather him up off the couch.  Neal stirs and wraps his arms around Peter’s shoulders without waking.  On stiff legs Peter makes his way into the master bedroom, where Elizabeth is already folding the cover back.  As she closes the blinds to dim the room, Peter gently lowers Neal onto their bed.

***

Peter wakes to the same sensation he has woken to for the past three nights:  Neal’s thin, hard body pressed tightly against his side, clammy skin sticking to his, his head twitching slightly where it rests on Peter’s shoulder.

“Hey,” Peter whispers and presses a hand to Neal’s bare back.  Neal wakes with a gasp.  There is a brief moment of alarm before Neal relaxes and sinks back onto Peter’s shoulder.

“Sorry, was I talking again?” He croaks as he rolls onto his back and glances over to his left where Elizabeth is sleeping.

“Bad dream?”

“Actually, no.”  Neal furrows his brow.  “This was a good one.  I think I stole something.”

“Ah,” Peter chuckles.  “So you’re having my nightmares now.  Thanks.”

“I really made your life complicated back home, didn’t I?”

Peter shrugs and wonders if Neal even realizes that he called it home for the first time.

“Let’s just say it was never boring with you.”

With Neal’s head resting on Peter’s upper arm, they lie quietly for a few breaths.

“I’m starting to remember things,” Neal says to the dark ceiling above.

“That’s good,” Peter smiles. “I knew you would.”

“I remember that it wasn’t like this.”  Neal nudges Peter’s shoulder and it’s hard to miss the trace of sadness in his voice.

“Not exactly, no.”

“I know it can’t be like this when we go back,” Neal adds quietly and rolls over again, pressing his front against Peter’s side and nestling his forehead against Peter’s jaw.   Peter folds his arm around him, passes a hand up and down his back.  Neal’s closeness no longer feels foreign to him.

“No,” he admits regretfully.  “Probably not.  Are you afraid of that?”

Neal shrugs.

“Don’t worry about it now.  We’ll stay here until you’re ready to go,” Peter says.

He feels Neal’s calm breath against his collar, feels the healing wounds on Neal’s back that have become all too familiar in the past month.  Mostly, he feels overwhelmed by the surge of love for the man who has entrusted himself to his arms. 

Over Neal’s hair he sees Elizabeth pick up her head.  His small nod assures her that everything is fine.  He watches her move up behind Neal’s back, adjust the comforter and rest her hand on his hip.  Between them Neal takes a deep breath.

“Give me one more day like this,” Neal whispers.  “One more day.  And then I’m ready.”


THE END



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