Author's notes: So, this is it, folks. The consensus seems to be to finish the story before Christmas - which makes sense - so I hope people have the time to read it. Now for the Oscar speech.
There are some people I really need to thank. First and foremost my wonderful Beta, Susan, who did the most amazing job under almost impossible conditions. She not only finds those things my eyes literally can't see - whether it's a comma or period, little i or I, but she also knows exactly when to challenge a phrase I've been too lazy to change or when to leave a Britishism I don't want to change. However, I just can't bring myself to write 'gotten'. It's a British thing. She is also my cheering section through the long process before this sees the light of day. Thank you, my friend.
Great thanks also due to my family (who all love White Collar) - my long suffering husband and my fantastic sons who helped both to inspire the plot of the story and supported my writing when I felt insecure. To my three good friends - NDKidsMom, Wondo and Last1Stnding - for their wonderful feedback, support and friendship. To Sharon who's stuck in there with me through several fandoms. To those stalwart readers who have given me feedback throughout posting and with whom I've enjoyed some great correspondence - BlueDiamondStar, Govgal, Pechika, Wotumba, DeepSorrow, TheOneThatGotAway, Maryt, NickHalden, Swiftalon, daisiesndaffidols, Caseylf123, Curlybean, joy2190, GingerH. Thanks to anyone who took the time to review. This story took me over a year to write, so comments are greatly appreciated.
Lastly, thanks to Jeff Eastin and to Tim DeKay and Matt Bomer who have give us such wonderful characters.
Senseless - Epilogue
Peter's time as a hostage had the potential to be traumatizing, but most of his memories were hazy, and he was left with only a confused jumble of impressions and sensations. He certainly didn't remember being strapped onto a gurney or the heavy throb of the helicopter blades as they flew him to the hospital. However, the one thing he'd have liked to have forgotten but that remained etched in his memory with painful clarity was the image of Neal collapsing as Petrovic fired and Peter stabbed the screwdriver backwards with adrenaline-assisted strength. The three actions were so close to being simultaneous, it was impossible to separate cause and effect.
The image refused to be deleted from his memory even after the rigours of surgery, remaining filigreed onto the forefront of his mind, so that every time he tried to emerge from the drugged state that held him motionless and passive, the subsequent agitation always earned him new medication and sent him spiralling back into the drug-induced depths. It was a vicious cycle of limbo and fevered nightmare that seemed to last for an eternity, but in reality was just three days.
He hated the drugs that trapped him in that instant of silent, screaming panic, numbing the physical pain while holding him at the mercy of the raw fear that ripped through him. It also made waking up a battle, a constant struggle towards consciousness while fending off the crushing weight of medication for every inch he ascended. This time, as he awoke, he found himself alone though the darkness might explain the lack of people he had sensed there earlier. The pain was actually more pronounced than he remembered, which suggested that they were weaning him off the harder drugs. He appreciated the greater clarity of thought even if it came at a cost.
He tried to sit up, but his side protested violently to the movement, cracked ribs and abused muscles vetoing any change of position. The mere attempt had his stomach threatening to climb into his throat and empty itself over the sheets, even though there couldn't have been anything in it. A glance around showed him an empty bed on the other side of the room, and somehow it was enough of a reminder of Neal's absence to start his heart thudding out a Morse code of distress and bring an immediate response in the form of a nurse.
He breathed deeply through his nose, forcing himself to relax and fight back the overwhelming fear that feathered across him like a cold snow. He tried to ask her a question, but his tongue was too heavy and the moldy taste in his mouth discouraged swallowing. She seemed familiar with his dilemma, holding up a cup with a straw and enabling him to take a sip, but she must have also increased his dose of painkillers, because his eyes were already fluttering shut before he could speak.
The next time he woke, he knew instantly that El was in the room, either through some arcane marital instinct or, more likely, a subliminal clue such as her scent had wafted in his direction. When he instinctively opened his eyes to look for her, the daylight was too intense, and he quickly closed them again, but not before locating her curled up asleep in a chair to his right, hair framing her face, eyelashes lying dark above her cheekbones. It was a beautiful sight, guaranteed to soothe Peter's most immediate tension. He tried to stay calm and not touch that lurking, burning worry, but it was a smothering blanket, and he couldn't get enough air. He squinted a trifle guiltily at El, hoping the increasing beeping hadn't broken through her slumber, but she had her own highly developed spousal awareness. Sleepy blue eyes opened, widening dramatically on meeting his.
With a gasp that could be a sob, she moved forward, resting her forehead against his. "Peter!" Her voice was hoarse, partly from recent sleep, but more from overwhelming relief. Her husband was able to outdo her in the frog-imitation stakes. His croak of "Hi, Hon," was barely intelligible. Much as the nurse had earlier, El offered him a glass of water in response, touching his lips with the straw, and Peter welcomed the moisture soaking into parched membranes and washing away at least some of the crud that seem to have accumulated in his mouth.
After giving him a chance to take several sips, she offered casually. "Before you ask...again, Neal is fine.
Peter spluttered out the last mouthful, but he was too grateful for the information to be indignant as to the timing. He let out as deep a breath as his ribs could tolerate, allowing himself a shudder to shake out the fear that had been curling in his gut for too long, and concentrated on his wife. He could hear the slight reproof in her words. He wasn't quite sure of the reasons, but it filled him with a sense of ill usage. "If the doctors weren't quite so eager to pump me full of drugs every time I wake up, I might remember a little more."
"If you weren't so eager to jump out of bed every time you wake up, they wouldn't have to," she responded tartly.
Peter's eyes were now accustomed to the light and he noticed for the first time that her hair hadn't been recently washed, she was wearing no makeup and the drawn look in her eyes attested both to lack of sleep and worry. He was wise enough in the ways of marriage to not comment on her appearance, but to do what any good husband should. "I'm so sorry, Honey." For good measure, he tried to think up different ways to apologize until she kissed him silent then, helping herself to his hand, she held it in both of hers and sat close to him.
She was smiling again, but it looked rather forced and there was still tension around her eyes. He hated to see the strain in her expression, especially since he'd been the one to put it there and had no idea how to remove it. He must have still been dopey from the pain medication because he decided more explanation was needed. "I saw Neal go down, and I thought Petrovic had shot him." The words brought back the nightmare that he couldn't blink away. His internal Neal monitor was still insisting that something was wrong since at no point in his hazy semi-consciousness had he heard Neal's voice, and if his friend hadn't been to visit and he wasn't hurt, he must be under arrest.
"Did Samuelson put him back in jail?" The thought was alarming, and Peter tried to push himself upright, but El held him down with a practiced hand in the center of his chest, carefully avoiding his injuries.
"Promise me you'll relax and follow the doctor's orders, and I'll tell you everything I know."
Peter subsided meekly, radiating innocence. He wanted to stay out of reach of the long needles of the doctors and to keep his wife happy, and he would agree to almost anything to have answers to the questions that had been haunting him. It was a win-win situation, so his intentions were pure, his only unspoken reservation an internal recognition that circumstances could change. He watched her expectantly, and when she didn't start immediately, he kindly prompted her. "So, Neal wasn't hurt?"
She hesitated momentarily, but it was sufficient for the monitor to betray an increase in his heart rate. "He wasn't hurt exactly. I mean, he wasn't shot or anything, but at some point in the action…" she paused, apparently hunting for the right words.
"El?" he urged her to continue.
She wasn't trying to worry her husband - very much the opposite. She'd been a helpless witness to his nightmares, the little movements and distressed sounds, and wanted to ensure she explained the situation in terms that would relieve his fears, not increase them. "At some point in the proceedings, he must have jarred his head. The doctors don't think he actively hit it, which could have been fatal in his condition, but he rattled his brain enough to cause a setback in his recovery."
Peter's throat rippled as he swallowed. "Is he back in a coma?" The words caught in his throat before being forced out of his mouth.
"No." El's response was firm, but lacked conviction at the same time. She clearly heard the contradiction and hastened to clarify. "The doctors said it wasn't a coma; he was just...unresponsive for a while."
Peter slumped back and tried to remember how to breathe. "What's the difference?"
It was intended as a rhetorical question, but El answered it anyway. "It's something to do with brain activity. Anyway, the doctors are confident that it's just a setback, his prognosis is good. He's conscious, but he sleeps a lot and he's very quiet - I think because his speech is worse again."
"I need to see him, El." Peter didn't make the mistake of trying to sit up, but his white fists clenched in the sheets made his restraint obvious.
For her part, El didn't mention Peter's recent promise to lie still. She knew how hard this was for him. The close bond that Peter and his partner had always shared had only been deepened by Neal's injury and by Peter's assumption of the position of caretaker. Confined to his bed, Peter's fierce protectiveness was given no outlet. It was dammed up, ready to burst out in a display of 'against medical advice'. El's goal was to find some release for that need to assure Neal's well-being before it reached critical mass.
"As soon as the doctors say it's safe, I'll take you there myself," she promised. "You almost died you lost so much blood, and your fractured rib nearly punctured a lung. It's not going to help Neal if he's worrying about you exacerbating your injuries. Someone is with him at all times during visiting hours, I promise. June's there now, and I know Mozzie is often there when no one is supposed to be."
"There's no guard on his room anymore?" Peter asked, more for verification than because he thought it was necessary.
"No. All the charges against him have been dropped and, since everyone involved in the case is under arrest, Hughes didn't think it was necessary anymore."
"What about Petrovic?"
Peter nodded grimly, not surprised nor exactly upset by the information. "Did Jones shoot him?"
"I think everybody did - Jones, Diana and at least one sniper that Hughes had successfully got into position. They were all very worried about you." She bit her lip. "So was I."
There was nothing he could say to that, so, although everything was aching intensely, he gathered her in, kissing her and murmuring words of love and apology when they broke apart. His lips were chapped and dry, but possessive, and El allowed him to pull her close and, once sure she wasn't hurting him, relaxed into his hold. She brushed the back of her hand against his jaw, feeling the scrape of stubble. "If this isn't seen to soon, matters could deteriorate to the Magnum fiasco of '03."
"I'll get right on that...in the morning," he promised. She said no more, merely enjoying his solid dependability and the steady beat of his heart hypnotically soothing under her ear. In their embrace, it didn't take long for Peter to relax back into sleep.
He didn't wake when she finally eased herself away from his side, an indulgent nurse finally encouraging her departure a long time after visiting hours were over. "Get some sleep and clean yourself up. He wouldn't want you to exhaust yourself on his account. He'll still be here in the morning."
It was dark again when a low squeak alerted Peter to a presence in his room. Without even opening his eyes, he knew instantly who it was. "Hey, Neal."
The response was a trifle subdued, but at the returned, "Hey, Peter," something stitched itself together in Peter's chest. There was sufficient ambient light in the room from the machines surrounding him to show him Neal's familiar figure near the door, but not enough to read his expression.
"I'm sorry, I d-didn't mean to wake you. I just n-needed to…" He broke off, then continued in a more nonchalant tone. "I n-needed to stretch my l-legs."
It wasn't anywhere close to one of his better efforts at prevarication, but Peter didn't call him on it. He knew exactly what had motivated Neal's nighttime perambulations because he felt exactly the same impetus - the need for reassurance that a third party couldn't provide, that only the evidence of one's own senses could sufficiently deliver.
"Come and sit down," he invited, gesturing at the seat vacated by El, as Neal made no effort to venture deeper into the room.
"I sh-should probably…" the young man nodded towards the door, but despite his words, made no movement towards the exit.
Peter made it easier for both of them. "Please, I could do with the company." As Neal limped closer, the agent thumbed a button on his control panel to raise the head of his bed, a handy way of sitting up without leaving himself shaking and weak. This decision was substantiated by a close look at his partner. There was uncharacteristic anxiety in Neal's eyes, and he repeatedly made twitchy movements, almost reaching toward Peter as if he wanted to prove to himself that his friend was alive and not some figment of his imagination.
Peter tended to be the tactile one in the partnership, quick with a pat on the back or an arm slung around the shoulder. Neal was always more reticent at initiating contact, seeming almost surprised to be on the receiving end of this casual affection, as if nothing in his past had prepared him for the idea that someone could like him for more than his sex appeal or his ability to acquire specific objects. Yet, during his convalescence, Neal had frequently reached out to Peter, his sense of touch functioning both as a means of communication and of grounding himself when his injured mind perceived the rest of the world as a hostile and confusing place. Peter was unwilling to see him slip back into his more reserved behaviour.
Neal's hand had made it as far as the bed, twisting in the fold of a sheet, so Peter reached out a hand, resting it casually on his partner's arm, relishing the warmth and solidity he found there. From the gradual release of tension under his fingers, Neal felt the same. Neither man said anything for a while, each enjoying the quiet opportunity to assess the condition of the other. Peter's assessment wasn't particularly comforting. Neal still didn't quite look like himself, although a large part of that was his close-cropped hair, one side cut short to match the area shorn for the operation. His skin, not surprisingly, held the pallor of a man who'd been confined inside for nearly a month. Most telling, however, were the stress lines that radiated like tiny scars from around blue eyes that mourned new, unidentifiable losses.
Peter was sure his own appearance reflected the strain of the past few weeks as well as the ravages of current injuries. However, Neal's first words offered a more optimistic appraisal of the situation. "You're n-not looking too b-bad for a guy I thought was d-dead yesterday," he finally whispered through a throat that was clearly too dry and tight for easy speech. It hadn't occurred to Peter that Neal had suffered through the same devastating fears on his partner's fate as he had.
"I could say the same." He offered Neal the honesty of a glimpse at his own heartache and then added, "How's the head?"
Neal offered a deprecating shrug. "It seems to be keeping my b-brain where it sh-should. How're the ribs?"
In much the same tone, Peter answered, "Keeping my insides inside." Ignoring the fact that his own response had been equally uninformative, Peter pushed on, wanting to be sure that Neal wasn't endangering his health with this nocturnal visit. "I've heard some wild rumours that heads are for more than simple brain containment, that keeping them functioning well can enhance the thought process." He was familiar with the pain lines that suggested a headache. "Are you suffering from nausea or double vision?"
Finally, there was a familiar spark of mischief in Neal's eyes. "Are you asking m-me if seeing two of you would m-make me nauseous?"
Peter waggled a reproving finger on the theory that that was the one part of his body that didn't hurt. "I can recognise evasion when I hear it. Your equivocation and prevarication will not work on me."
Neal spread his arms in a gesture of honesty. "Really, Peter, I'm fine."
Peter looked unimpressed. "Forgive my scepticism, but I seem to remember you uttering the very same words while bleeding into your brain, just before lapsing into a coma and needing a hole drilled into your head. 'Fine' just doesn't cut it for me anymore. From now on, I want you to expunge the word 'fine' from your dictionary."
Neal scratched his head - on the uninjured side -and tried thoughtfully. "I need to pay a ...t-tax on my overdue library book."
"Neal." Peter's warning tone was more playful than real.
Neal obediently tried again. "I'm okay, I'm good, everything's hunky dory."
"How about working on - 'Peter, I'm in trouble, Peter, I've got a broken arm. Peter, I've got massive hemorrhage. Peter I've been shot."
"You want m-me to get shot?"
Peter resisted the urge to slap him upside the head, since it would merely exacerbate the issue. "We're working on honesty here. How about a code? You like codes. How about orange light or red light? That's easy to remember."
"Traffic signals? How pedestrian. How about Matisse as a warning and Van Gogh if I'm really in trouble?"
"So, if I hear Van Gogh, I should know that you've cut off your ear and are ready to commit suicide."
"Talking of which, should I worry about this new suicidal tendency of yours to taunt people into firing guns at you?" It was a 'thank you', well-disguised under apparent criticism, but a recognised part of the loaded language that had developed between them.
"People who march into murderers' houses alone don't get to throw around phrases like 'suicidal tendencies'," Neal retorted. It was another offhand statement of gratitude, but he was aware of just how much he owed his friend, not least for acquiring the proof that Neal was innocent, but perhaps most of all for believing in him from the beginning and staying by his side.
He could feel the warmth of Peter's gaze on him, eyes capable of dissecting him with laser precision to uncover his deepest secrets but which were now trained on him with concern and affectionate amusement almost in invitation to play. It was like Satchmo dropping a conversational ball in front of him and wagging his tail in invitation. It felt right, a resumption of normality, smoothing away the jagged, painful edges of the past month. The charges against him had been dropped, and his rehabilitation could continue uninterrupted. The journey of recovery might not be as short as he might want, but he was already comfortable with the progress he'd made so far, and trusted that it would continue to a successful end.
"It's not like I want to be critical, Peter continued, "but there has to be a better rescue plan than offering yourself up as a sacrificial goat. You have the self-preservation instincts of a depressed lemming on crack."
"Don't sell yourself short; you love being critical. If you weren't in the hospital, you could come up with one of your 'everything you did wrong' PowerPoint presentations."
Peter pretended to consider that one. "I don't think so. I believe PowerPoint presentations should be brief and to the point. Detailing the number of times you've almost got yourself killed would take far too long." Suddenly serious again, he pushed himself upright, ignoring the dull throb in his side. "I don't...I can't...I don't want to go through that again. I don't want to lose you." The admission was pulled out of him, and for a moment he looked down, unwilling to hold Neal's gaze.
In an effort to ease the discomfort, Neal offered, "The new tracker should be here soon. That will help you with that problem."
Peter ignored the proffered escape. "You nearly died, Neal. I watched you collapse and then sat at your bedside for days while the doctors threw around words like 'coma'' and 'brain damage.' If we'd got you to the hospital any later, the outcome would have been very different. If you'd made a different decision that night and taken the tram, you'd be dead."
It was a sobering thought, but Neal had made a career out of never considering the consequences of his actions, trusting luck and improvisation to carry him through what planning couldn't. However, he did regret causing Peter so much trouble, but he'd make it up to him later. Right now, he was more concerned about the pain lines that were deepening into well-worn grooves on his friend's face even as he watched. "I guess the lesson to be learned from that is 'running is bad', except if I'd stayed in jail, the outcome would have been the same; but for now, I'll promise to stay away from blunt objects, if you promise to lie back and rest."
He stared down at the IV stint taped to the back of his Peter's hand and frowned. "I would say that the drugs you're on aren't strong enough."
"You may be right about that." Peter lowered himself down, choking back the groan that threatened to escape. "I'm on cloud four and a half at most."
"Take it easy. I'll call the nurse."
"Don't do that." Peter made a grab for his arm as Neal started to get up. "They've been pumping me full of drugs since I came in. It's a relief to be able to think clearly for a change, and that clear thought tells me you're trying to change the subject again. All I'm saying is: just turn the reckless endangerment down a notch. I mean, I know it wouldn't be you if you weren't engaging in some death-defying stunt every week."
"Would it be inappropriate for me to point out that we're in your hospital room."
Peter regarded him with a slightly owlish gravity, a product of drugs and exhaustion. "I could point out I'm the one with the gun, the one paid to take risks, and that I didn't actually invite anyone to point a gun at me, but…" He waved a hand magnanimously.
"What? You need to hail a taxi? Summon a waiter? I don't speak random limb twitch."
"And you're usually a regular tower of Babel."
"Well, my interpretation was, 'you're absolutely right, Neal. Thank you for pointing it out.' However, that seemed unlikely enough that I thought I'd get verification."
"You must be confusing me for someone short, bespectacled and bald."
Neal found the concept that anyone could confuse Peter for Mozzie very amusing and he huffed a laugh. Suddenly they were both grinning at each other, and it wasn't because of anything particularly humorous. It was a helium laugh of pure relief, of unexpected lightness after the removal of a heavy burden.
"It's over, isn't it." Neal needed to hear Peter's confirmation.
"Looks like it. Charges are all dropped, right?"
They are - thanks to you... and Hughes." Neal shook his head in admiration. "You should have seen him take Samuelson apart with an eyebrow and a few eviscerating words."
"Mind like a razor and a tongue just as sharp. He gave us a lot of latitude during this case. I owe him a lot."
"Well, you also cracked a big case, which will reflect well on him and the department," Neal pointed out
Peter refused to consider that his victory. "Mozzie deserves a lot of credit for that, and, funnily enough, so does Fowler. We'd never have cracked this case without him."
"I bet that's something you never thought you'd say."
"You mean when I was planting my fist in his face, or putting two bullets into his chest? Well, he was once a good agent, but he went off the rails with the death of his wife, and I can't really blame him for that one."
"On the phone - he said he needed my help." Neal looked almost as surprised as Peter at that sudden revelation. "He wanted me to crack a safe, I think to find some evidence to break open the smuggling ring."
"Anything else?" Peter tried to keep the question casual. "Anything from his apartment?"
"That's a total blank, I don't think I'll ever remember that, but words and phrases from the phone call emerge occasionally."
Neal yawned again, almost cracking his jaw with the energy of the movement. This time, Peter didn't suggest his friend return to his room, knowing instinctively that neither of them wanted to be alone at this point.
"If you're going to stay, you might as well make yourself comfortable. There's a perfectly good bed over there needing an occupant." He inclined his head in the suggested direction.
Neal gave the bed a measuring look, clearly weighing up potential comfort versus the effort of immediate movement. Peter decided subliminal encouragement would work more efficaciously than overt prodding, and he relaxed into his own mattress with an exaggerated sigh of relief. It seemed to work because, with a slightly aggrieved sigh, his friend dragged himself up and limped slowly around the room to collapse gratefully, but with a smidgen of his former grace, on top of the covers. "We could watch television," he suggested facetiously.
"Yeah, I'm sure there's a gripping infomercial on somewhere at 4 am. Hair products for the follicly challenged or something."
"Glass eyes for one-legged parrots," Neal suggested absently, deciding to work his way under the sheet.
"Underwater pogo sticks. I actually remember seeing that one on an insomniac night once."
"You're right, it's a bad idea. Sleep is definitely preferably to that."
"Goodnight, Neal." Peter closed his eyes, contentment infusing every pore as, for the first time in entirely too long, all was right with his world again. The moment proved all too brief as a sudden thought struck him. "Did you leave a note for Mozzie telling him where you were going? The last thing I need is for him to set off an alarm during the night because he finds you missing. Or worse, wake up to him creeping around the room looking for you."
Regrettably, Peter found himself no longer sleepy as he imagined himself waking up to myopic eyes staring down at him.
"Don't worry. Mozzie has already made his nightly visit, but I'll be sure to tell him you were thinking of him."
Peter tried to settle back down, but his brain had been reactivated and now pushed restlessly against a competing exhaustion, more from the force of habit than because of any specific worry. There was no doubt that his relationship with Neal had matured to a new level, shifting on the partnership spectrum in the familial direction, and he wasn't sure how it would affect their team dynamics and working relationship. He knew his protective instincts towards Neal were on hyper-alert, and he was fairly sure he'd be unable to suppress them any time soon.
"Stop thinking so hard," Neal mumbled from the other bed.
"You should be asleep," Peter commented gruffly.
"How am I supposed to do that when I can hear your brain churning from over here?"
"I was just wondering," Peter improvised, "if this new resolution of yours not to run came with an expiration date." It was said lightly, as he wasn't really looking for more serious discussion that night, but the thoughtful silence that followed showed that Neal at least was taking it seriously.
When he spoke, his voice was subdued. "This is my home now, and I won't willingly leave it. However, taking recent experiences into consideration, promising not to run is asking for trouble, but I will make you a promise that I won't run without talking to you first."
"That works for me." Peter accepted the offer promptly, actually preferring it to the initial suggestion. Analyzing relationships wasn't his forte, but he was aware that he and Neal sometimes struggled with communication, which was ironic when the two of them could understand each other at a glance, but their Achilles Heel was a failure to share information - usually in an effort to protect the other. Neal was essentially promising to come to him when he was in trouble, and, for Peter, that was Christmas and Hannukah rolled into one neat package with a tidy red bow on top.
The sense of peace that promise delivered allowed Peter's exhaustion to reassert itself, sleep beckoning with inexorable insistence. "Don't snore too loud," he slurred, a rough code understood by both to mean, 'don't go anywhere'. Within minutes, his breathing had evened out, and Neal knew he was asleep.
Neal had no intention of leaving the room. If his rationale was queried by a curious onlooker, he might have mentioned the fact that this mattress was more comfortable than his, the TV slightly larger, the setting quieter and more conducive to sleep, and the circulation of air more salubrious. The true reason, which he would only admit in the privacy of his own mind, was the sense of security provided by the man in the other bed. It wasn't a suffocating sensation. Peter didn't hold him back from the edge, but gave him wings and allowed him to soar, but he also provided an unerring safety net, and Neal had learnt the value of that during his time in the hospital. He snuggled further down, wrapping the covers tighter around him.
The falcon might not be completely free, but he had purpose, and that wasn't such a bad way to live. He also had family, cobbled together though it was in a non-blood-related fashion. In that easy moment between dream and reality, Neal wrapped himself in the warmth and completeness those concepts radiated, and he allowed himself to fall into the space created.