Neal closed his eyes and breathed deeply of the sweet-scented steam that surrounded him, relishing the pounding sting of the hot spray against his skin – a welcome distraction from the troubled, nauseating mess of his thoughts. He usually enjoyed these brief moments of solitude in the midst of the Burkes' well-meaning scrutiny – the only time these days that he seemed to be completely free of someone's worried attention.
In the privacy of the Burkes' upstairs bathroom, late at night like this, was the only time when Neal could be sure that he was really, completely alone, and didn't have to worry about whether someone might notice the trembling of his hands, the distraction in his demeanor. He could simply let go, and give in to his troubled thoughts until the hot water relaxed him enough to finally let them slip away.
Of course, tonight that was more difficult than usual.
In the grand scheme of things – in comparison to the last eight months of his life – what had happened with Thomas Banks was nothing, really. A short-lived scare, a momentary threat that had been swiftly and easily averted. But in those brief moments, a multitude of emotions had come flooding back, and now, Neal couldn't seem to close his eyes without feeling the phantom touch of unwelcome hands on his body… and he couldn't seem to stop shaking.
That trapped, helpless feeling, as he was hemmed in, shut off from escape and targeted, like a victim, like prey, like nothing more than someone else's plaything, with absolutely no regard for how he felt about it – the incident was over and done, and yet Neal couldn't shake the feeling, couldn't quite get his head straight.
If the incident with Banks had been the first time, maybe… but it wasn't.
The possessive, exploratory slide of a stranger's hands on his body – the wet heat of an unwanted mouth against his skin, hungry and demanding, devouring. Neal shivered despite the shower's heat, removing his hands from his own body and bracing them against the shower wall instead. He swallowed hard, struggling to catch his breath.
Get it together, Neal… you're not there anymore, and no one's here. It's safe… you're okay… you're okay…
But he couldn't shake the feeling that someone was watching, lying in wait to take him the moment he stepped out of this room… couldn't stop feeling the greedy, grasping fingers clutching at his body, taking, bruising, invading…
No… it's not real… it's not real, it's not real, please, please stop…
"Hey!" Neal yelled out as the men – five of them, leering, eyes lit with a chilling lust even in the near darkness of his cell, closed in on him, silently spreading out to surround him on all sides. "Guard! Guard! Help!"
Even as he called out, Neal's heart sank… because these men had just been hand-delivered to his cell by the very guards he was calling to help him. His back hit the wall, and there was no further retreat left to him. When the first one grabbed at his orange prison uniform, Neal jerked away, striking out in panicked fury.
"Don't touch me!"
Someone else caught his wrist, forcing it back against the wall beside his head. Neal struggled to free himself, but he was swiftly overwhelmed, dragged away from the wall and forced face down onto the floor. His arms were yanked painfully behind his back and bound with what felt like a thick leather belt, his shoulders pinned down by someone's strong hands.
How do they even have that? It's not allowed in here. They're not allowed in here. How can they be doing this? They can't be doing this… this can't be happening…
"Get off me!" Neal yelled, his voice hoarse with panic. "Stop! Guards! Someone help me!"
His struggles intensified as rough, invasive hands jerked his pants down, leaving him humiliatingly exposed, but the fight was pointless. There were hands on his calves, pinning him down, hands on his shoulders, a hand in his hair, too many hands, everywhere else, groping, exploring.
The sound of footsteps coming down the stone hallway made the room fall silent, and Neal's hopes rose at their approach. Whatever game the guards who had done this had in mind, maybe someone else had heard the confrontation and was coming to put a stop to it. He flinched as bright flashlight beams pierced the darkness, and he felt his skin burn with shame as the light emphasized his state of helpless exposure.
Still… that light was his only hope.
"Help me," he gasped out into the expectant silence. "Please… please help me…"
"It's after lights out," a low voice barked from behind one of the flashlights. "You all are keeping everyone up."
Neal blinked, disbelieving that of all the things wrong with the scenario they'd walked in on, that was what the guard chose to point out.
"Yeah," the second guard agreed, and the calm, almost bored tone of his voice chilled Neal's blood almost as much as the cold words he spoke next. "Shut him up, and keep it down, or this party's over, boys."
"What?" Neal gasped out, horrified. "You can't be – wait a second!"
But before he could protest any further, his voice was silenced by a wad of damp, foul fabric stuffed into his mouth by one of his attackers. From the awful taste and odor, Neal guessed it was someone's sock. He tried to pull his head away from the hand locked onto his hair, tried to spit out the disgusting gag, but a rough hand slapped over his mouth, yanking his head back, and a menacing voice hissed in his ear.
"Shut your mouth, bitch, or we'll shut it for you."
"Yeah," a second voice sneered, taunting and cruel at Neal's other side, as a hand closed tightly around his throat, momentarily cutting off his air. "Can't scream if you can't breathe, can you?"
It didn't stop Neal from trying to draw as much attention as possible to what was happening, to somehow draw the attention of a guard who wasn't in on this, or at least maybe create enough of a ruckus that the guards who were involved would make good on their threat and call a halt to it. It didn't stop him from struggling, despite the fact that his hands were bound and he had no chance at all of overpowering the five bigger, stronger men who surrounded him.
But struggling didn't do him any good at all.
The five men took their turns, violating him, tearing into his body with vicious fervor – and then three of them took a second turn. By the time they were finished – Neal was beyond pain, beyond even anything resembling coherent thought. The fiery agony of their intrusion had faded into a strange numbness that seemed to have fallen over his mind. He wasn't fighting anymore, wasn't trying to expel the gag, wasn't making a sound. By the time he realized that they were finished and he was alone in his cell again, he had no idea how long they had been gone.
Just before dawn, and the morning shift change, the guards returned to his cell. They weren't at all gentle as they hauled him up, untying his wrists and pulling the gag from his mouth.
"Don't know what you did to piss him off," one of them muttered with a low, dark little chuckle. "But I bet now you'll never do it again."
Neal shook his head a little, confused. "Wh-what?"
"Shut up and listen," the second guard snapped, shaking him slightly as they dragged him to his feet between them, ignoring his wince of pain, and the little cry he tried his best to stifle at the impact to his battered body. "You keep your mouth shut about this. You tell anyone, and they won't believe you, anyway. It's your word against everyone else's – and I'm sure you can figure out how that'd play out."
They took him from his cell, and Neal had a vague hope that they were taking him to the infirmary, where at the very least he could get some high dose ibuprofen, and a soft bed in which to allow the oblivion of sleep to give him some respite. But where they should have turned left, they turned right instead, and ended up in the solitary confinement wing, where they tossed him into a tiny, gray cell with only a very small window near the high ceiling for light.
As the hours passed, and Neal's capacity for rational thought came back to him, he figured that the guards on the day shift must not have been in on it; it was the only explanation for why they'd ordered him to silence, because who else could he possibly tell? And in spite of their warnings, they'd thrown him in here for the day in an effort to ensure his silence.
And… there was another reason for the undeserved isolation, Neal realized… later that night, when four more eager inmates were herded into the solitary cell with him.
This time, they didn't have to worry about gagging him; the heavy, soundproof door accomplished that well enough. His already agonized body, barely beginning to heal, was viciously torn open again by their abuse, and they left him bleeding, bruised, shattered and shaking on the floor of the cell when the guards returned to take them back to their own cells.
They'd been gone about an hour when the cell door opened again. Neal flinched away from the sound, struggling to sit up with his back against the wall, unwilling to be any more vulnerable than he had to be. Unfortunately, he was already pretty vulnerable, given the fact that his pants lay discarded halfway across the room, and any attempt at that much movement sent electric sparks of agony shooting up and down his spine. He settled for covering himself with an arm across his groin, looking up and bracing himself for the worst as his single visitor entered and the door closed behind him.
Warden Blake gave Neal a pitying look, shaking his head in false sympathy as he slowly approached. Neal flinched as the warden reached out a hand, but all he did was to stroke gently through Neal's hair, as he crouched down to face him, ducking his head in an attempt to meet Neal's eyes.
Which would have been a lot easier if Neal could have lifted his gaze above floor level at the moment. A sick shiver ran down his spine, his skin prickling with cold and fear as Blake edged closer to him, so close that Neal could feel the slight shifting of air from his movement.
"You see what happens when you step outside of my protection, Neal?" Blake said softly. "See how much worse it could be for you than you've had it these last few weeks? Because of me. I'm the one who kept them from hurting you for as long as I did."
Neal stared down at his arm across his lap, willing his bare, exposed body to stop trembling in the chill of the cold stone on which he was seated, and the oppressive presence of the man hovering over him. He swallowed hard, trying to dampen his dry mouth and find the strength to speak, because it seemed that Blake wanted an answer, and self-protective instinct dictated that Neal should give it to him, and quickly.
The only problem was that Neal couldn't even begin to imagine what he should say. Short-circuited by pain and shock and terror, his mind couldn't seem to make the usual connections, to process Blake's body language and facial expressions and gauge what words he needed to use to get himself out of this situation as quickly and painlessly as possible.
Painless wasn't exactly on the table anymore… and it was more obvious with every moment that there was no way out of this.
"So tell me, Neal," Blake asked, his voice quiet, his hand unsettlingly gentle as he tilted Neal's head up to try again to meet his eyes. "How do you feel about my proposal now?"
The idea of submitting to this man, selling himself for protection and privilege, made Neal sick, and he instinctively jerked his head away from Blake's touch. The man's hand froze for a moment, and then Blake stood up.
"Fine," he said coldly. "Have it your way." He turned and started back toward the door, tossing nastily over his shoulder, "Enjoy your company tonight."
Neal's stomach dropped, and he swallowed back the sick wave of nausea that swept over him at the very suggestion. "Wait!" he called out, his voice raspy and weak, the word followed by a whimper as he moved forward too quickly, and a sharp, stabbing pain shot through the lower half of his body.
The warden stopped, half-turning with a look that was skeptical and pitiless.
Neal bit his lower lip, closing his eyes for a moment and willing himself to simply do what he had to do.
Just give him what he wants… just for now… You can figure out what to do later, once you're clean and dressed and not in pain… but for now, just figure out how to not let him walk out that door…
"I-I'll do it," he offered in a hoarse whisper, wincing as he climbed up onto his knees, assuming the position he'd refused before. "Please. D-don't go. I'll – I'll do… whatever you want."
With slow, measured, predatory ease, Warden Blake returned to stand in front of him, glaring down at him with cold expectation. Neal stared at the front of the man's slacks, directly in front of his face, for a long moment, before reaching up with trembling, hesitant hands for his zipper. Blake slapped his hand away, before slapping him full across the face, knocking him back off his knees. Neal hit the wall, biting back a cry of agony at the impact.
"Please," Blake sneered, giving Neal a derisive up and down look. "Like I'd let you touch me after all of those disease-ridden degenerates just had you. Who knows what filth they've left on you? What diseases you've caught?"
Neal's face burned as much with the shame of the words as from the slap, and he stared down at the floor. That was a new and terrible consequence of the previous two nights that he hadn't focused enough to think of yet. "I-I'm sorry," he whispered. After a moment, he frowned, hesitantly looking up, though not as far as Blake's eyes. "Then… then what…?"
"We'll get you cleaned up first," Blake clarified with a satisfied smile. "Tested. Give you time to recover. And then… we'll see if you're capable of earning the protection you so clearly need." He paused, a disgusted note in his voice as he added, "I told you, you wouldn't survive a night in here without my help."
He left Neal to his own humiliated thoughts, until about thirty minutes later, when a couple of orderlies showed up, at last, to take him to the infirmary.
Neal stepped out of the shower, the steam billowing around him and out into the hall as he wrapped himself in the soft, new bathrobe he'd found with his clothes in the Burkes' guest room. He glanced at the clock in the hall, noting that it was after 2am. The house was quiet, and he made his way silently down the hall to the guest room. He frowned slightly, noticing that the door was slightly open.
Satchmo? he wondered. But he usually sleeps in Peter and El's room…
"Satch?" he called softly as he pushed the door open. "You here, boy?"
"Nope." Elizabeth smiled at him from the chair next to his bed. "Hopefully I'll be better company." She paused, her smile fading slightly as she added, "Neal… I think we need to talk."