After four months of watching Neal go through the most horrific experience of his life, Peter still didn't understand him.
They were going home. More specifically Neal was going home. Peter wasn't sure where he would be but at least he could see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Neal was feeling ok. His blood counts were good and his appetite was much better but he was still weak and didn't have much stamina. Appearance wise, he was pale and thin but his hair was growing back ever so slowly and occasionally he would sport that Caffrey smile that Peter never trusted but missed so much.
He wanted to go home yet he was scared; Peter understood that part but he was surprised to see how upset Neal was as they were leaving the apartment. And angry; he spent all morning disagreeing with everything that Peter had suggested.
"I called June and asked her to cancel the dinner she had planned." It was going to be a small get together to welcome Neal home but he didn't want to see anyone. Peter glanced sideways at a red light but Neal wouldn't look at him; he kept watching out the window as he had done the whole ride.
"Neal, are you feeling ok?" Silence greeted his question. Peter took a deep breath and then turned the radio on, hoping the music would lull Neal to sleep.
Neal reached over and turned the radio off.
"Damn it Neal, what is wrong with you?" Peter pulled over the first chance he had. He turned the car off and stared at his friend.
"Neal, you're going home. Why are you so angry?"
Neal turned as far as the seatbelt would allow with his back to Peter. The agent reached over and touched his forehead; it was cool so at least Neal wasn't hiding a fever. "Neal, I'm not sure what's wrong but I'm here when you're ready to talk." How many times have I said that Peter silently mused as he shook his head?
Peter started the car up and they drove the rest of the way in silence.
The stairs were daunting. Peter had unloaded the car while Neal sat in the front room with June. From the look on the older woman's face she hadn't gotten much from Neal and seemed concerned. Peter couldn't believe how much stuff they had accumulated in four months and was grateful that Elizabeth and Mozzie had made several trips during the week taking home what wasn't needed.
After the last suitcase was toted to the apartment, Peter entered the living room. "Neal, are you ready to go upstairs?" The ex-con nodded as he slowly stood and followed the agent.
"Just take them one at a time" Peter said as Neal latched on to the railing. Peter stayed one step behind with his hand on Neal's back encouraging his friend the whole way up.
Neal stopped with ten steps left to catch his breath.
"You're almost there" Peter whispered. "Can you do it?"
Neal didn't answer but he slowly slid down to a seated position with Peter immediately next to him.
"Peter, maybe this wasn't a good idea" June said as she hurried upstairs. "I can set up a bedroom on the first floor..."
"No." Neal said between breaths. "I want to sleep in my own bed. Just give me a few minutes."
"June, it will get easier" Peter added as he stood. "Come on Neal, you can do it." Carefully he hauled his partner to his feet. He slid an arm around Neal's waist and supported most of his weight as they slowly took the rest of the stairs. Once inside Neal's apartment Peter deposited him on the sofa.
"Rest" Peter ordered. "I'm going to start unpacking the suitcases."
Neal leaned against the wall staring at downtown Manhattan, a view he wasn't sure he was ever going to see again. Peter was watching him, as he had for the last few hours, but he was keeping his distance and allowing Neal to do what he needed.
Neal wasn't sure what to do. It was weird being home and he spent the first hour walking around, glancing at the artwork left unfinished when the cancer world invaded his peaceful existence. Every so often he would glance at Peter and a couple of times he caught the agent's eyes and it was clear Peter was concerned about him.
"Neal, can you put your jacket on?" The CI looked over his shoulder as Peter neared him. He took the jacket and silently put it on.
"Miss the view?"
"El will be here soon with dinner. Is that ok?" Neal knew what he was asking; earlier he had said he didn't want anyone around but Elizabeth didn't count. Neither did Peter. They had been there since the beginning and they were family now...or maybe they were before and Neal was just starting to realize that.
"Of course it's fine." Neal drifted away from the wall and settled at the table, his strength sapped from the day's activities. Peter sat down beside him.
"Peter, I don't know how to act right now."
Peter smiled, as he leaned over and rested his elbows on the table. "Sorry, I can't help you with that."
Neal looked away, clearly not happy with Peter's response. A few minutes later he went inside, leaving a befuddled agent behind.
Dinner was over, and Peter had just said goodbye to his wife. Neal was talkative during dinner but they all knew it was an act and played along with the good natured conversation about everything but the obvious.
Now it was just the two of them and after disappearing for nearly ten minutes Peter found Neal in the walk in closet. He heard him first and Peter stood in the doorway, debating if he should stay or go. After everything that Neal had gone through, coming home finally broke him and the muffled sobs tore at Peter's heart. It wasn't a hard decision and Peter slowly approached Neal, kneeling down in front of him.
"Hey!" Peter touched his shoulder. Neal seemed to shrink away, burying his face against his forearm. "Don't push me away now." Peter tugged Neal away from the wall and towards him, wrapping his arms around his partner. Neal's body shook within Peter's embrace and the agent felt helpless, as he rested his chin on Neal's head and held him close.
Neal scooted away a few minutes later but he didn't go far. He leaned sideways against the wall with his back to Peter, his breathing still ragged as he tried in vain to calm himself.
"Deep breaths" Peter encouraged as he settled back against the wall with his hand gently massaging his friend's shoulder.
"Wow, Byron had a lot of clothes" Peter remarked as his eyes took in all the racks. The off the cuff remark seemed to have the desired effect as Neal managed a small chuckle.
"What is wrong with me?" Neal eked out with a wavering voice. He swiped at the steady flow of tears that continued to row down his face. "I should be happy I'm home..." Neal paused as his voice cracked and his resolve crumbled once again.
"Let it out" Peter whispered as his hand settled on Neal's head, momentarily void of the cap he wore most of the time. Peter turned and wrapped his free arm around Neal, speaking nonsensical words of comfort as he once again held his friend.
An hour later Neal finally regained his composure; he was seated next to Peter with his back against the wall, neither man speaking.
"Neal, don't fall asleep here. You still have meds to take before bed." Peter glanced at his watch, surprised at how late it was.
"Are you going to answer my question?" Neal asked, voice low but stronger than before. It took Peter a few minutes to remember what Neal had asked.
"I think you're overwhelmed right now. I think you convinced yourself you were never coming home. I think you've finally realized just..." Peter paused to rethink his words. "Neal, in the hospital you didn't have the energy to think about what was going on. It was pure survival instinct...and now it hit you."
"We did it, didn't we?"
"You did it" Peter corrected. "I was just along for the ride."
"What a ride."
"Indeed." Peter agreed, with a deep sigh as he finally glanced sideways. He took a tissue from his pocket and held it out. "Your nose is still running" he added, as Neal grabbed the tissue and wiped his nose.
Peter took that moment to really look at his friend. "Neal, it's not over and you need to realize that. The next couple of months you're in isolation, especially during the flu and cold season."
"I know." Neal tried to stand but his legs failed him as he fell to his knees.
"I'm ok. Just worn out from today." Peter stood and pulled Neal to his feet, holding his partner up until Neal was steady on his feet.
"OK, meds first and then we'll call it a night." Neal nodded and when he was able, they exited the closet.
Elizabeth often used the word fragile to describe Neal and Peter disliked that term and never agreed with her until today.
As he sat on the edge of the bed and watched Neal sleep, Peter could no longer deny how much Neal had changed in the past four months.
The physical changes were apparent to the eye and eventually Neal would regain the weight he lost and his strength. Peter worried more about his psyche and he hoped that time would heal that also.
He stood and fixed the covers, as Neal stirred briefly before settling down.
Peter grabbed a beer from the fridge, and his laptop and then seated himself on the sofa, hoping for a peaceful night.
He woke up suddenly and jumped off the sofa.
"Neal, what's wrong?" He rushed to the kitchen table where Neal was furiously scribbling notes. "Why are you up in the middle of the night?"
Neal shrugged. "I woke up and couldn't fall back to sleep so I started thinking."
"About?" Peter prompted as he sat down opposite his friend.
Neal put the pen down and cautiously eyed the agent. "Give me one week to get my head on straight and then you go back to work."
Peter's eyes widened but he remained silent sensing there was more.
"And you finally get to sleep in your own bed."
"Neal. No." Peter stood. "I think you're getting ahead of yourself. Slow down and we'll take it day by day."
"NO!" Neal stood also, slamming his hand on the table. "If I keep using a crutch how will I know if I can manage on my own?"
"And that's what I am? A crutch?"
"Peter of course not." Neal neared the agent and settled his hand on Peter's shoulder. "You know what you are to me. And it is time you get your life back." Briefly they made eye contact; Neal smiled before removing his hand and walking away.
"I won't be alone. June is here and Mozzie will come by. And you'll be here too." Neal pointed to the line sticking out of his chest. "It's not like I can do this alone."
Peter released the breath he wasn't aware he was holding. "That's some thinking you did last night. Are you sure about this?"
"OK. We'll do it your way. But if you don't feel well..."
"I'll call you. I promise." Neal held up his hand.
"Do you think you can go back to sleep?"
"Yeah." Neal headed back to bed; once he was settled Peter turned off the lights.
"Peter" Neal called out in the darkness.
"You know I wouldn't have gotten this far without you."
Peter smiled. "Goodnight Neal." The agent turned on his side, yearning for his bed and the company of his wife. One week. Finally he was going home.