He wiped his hands on the towel and then studied the painting, walking back and forth a few times as he took in all angles. Not quite perfect he surmised as he grabbed the brush and redid a few spots. He yawned and then glanced at the clock; nearly dawn and he hadn't slept a minute.
Neal sent a quick text to Peter to let him know he was sick and wouldn't make it in to work. It was the day before Christmas and they had no current case so he assumed Peter would be ok with him taking the day off.
Neal grabbed some clean clothes and then headed to the bathroom for a badly needed shower and hopefully a few hours of uninterrupted sleep.
He was excited about the painting and he hoped Peter would like it. He would never be able to repay the agent for going through the transplant with him but at least this would show Peter how much Neal appreciated it. It was a small gesture but it spoke volumes...at least to Neal it did.
Neal opened his eyes and he squinted in the darkness. He heard the pounding again and then Peter's voice.
Jumping up from the bed, he grabbed his robe and hurried to the door before Peter broke it down, thankful that June was out of town for the holidays.
"What's wrong? Do you have a fever?" Peter raced through the door, speaking almost as fast as his feet were moving. "How bad do you feel?" He ran a hand through his hair as he studied his friend.
"Peter, I'm fine" Neal remarked evenly as he suddenly realized what his call did to Peter. "Really, I'm sorry. I was tired and I'd figured I'd take the day off. Peter, I'm not sick."
Neal stepped back as Peter took a step closer, eyes a blazed with anger. "You're not sick?"
Neal gulped...he hated Peter's calm voice...it was always a sign of how angry he was. "If you're fine, why did you call in sick?"
"I was tired" Neal admitted somewhat reluctantly. "Peter I was up all night working on something and I needed some sleep."
"Then why didn't you say that?" Peter asked.
"Would you have said ok?"
"I don't know" the agent responded with a hint of exasperation. "But I would not have raced over here like a madman if you had just told me the truth."
"Peter, why are you here?" Neal's tone suddenly matched the agent's. "We're eighteen months from transplant..."
"Eighteen months" Peter repeated as he paced around Neal. "Not even two years" Peter spit out as he continued to walk circles. "You are not cured for five years and I know you're aware of that." Finally he stopped and faced the ex-con with his hands firmly attached to his hips and clearly still angry.
"I take notice of every cough and every sneeze and any time you look paler than normal." Peter shook his head.
"You can tell when I'm pale?" Neal asked incredulously. "Peter, you need to move on, I have."
"I will move on" Peter remarked evenly, "when you pass the five year mark. Understand?"
"I do now" Neal said with a shrug. "If I call in sick you become unhinged. It won't happen again." He held his hands up in mock defeat. "Peter, I'm sorry. OK?"
The sarcasm was not lost on Peter as he rubbed his weary eyes. "Do you remember last Christmas?"
"I do" Peter continued. "We were isolated and you were not feeling well and it didn't feel like a holiday."
Peter smiled weakly. "This year is going to be special. I have a house full of people and we're going to celebrate...and" he hesitated with a nervous chuckle. "I want you there and I want you healthy."
"I will be" Neal assured him with a genuine smile. "Now stop worrying ok?"
"Not going to happen" Peter quietly answered. "Please, just tell me the truth." He glanced at the covered painting. "What are you working on?" He took one step but Neal blocked his way. "You'll see it tomorrow" the younger man said as he stood in Peter's way.
Peter's eyes darted suspiciously from Neal to the painting before finally settling on the ex-con. "Do you feel like coming to work?"
"No" Neal honestly answered. "I'd preferred to get a few more hours of sleep and then finish up my painting. Do you need me there?"
Peter chuckled. "No reason for you to be there. Everyone will be too excited about vacation to get anything productive done. Go back to sleep."
Neal walked the agent to the door and then staggered back to bed.
Peter found a small open spot to lean against the wall and take a breather. It had been Elizabeth's idea; they were spending Christmas alone so she thought they should invite everyone involved with Neal's recovery over as a thank you. Peter hesitantly went along, thoroughly believing that no one would show up.
He was wrong. It was an all day buffet style set up that Elizabeth had catered and guests were showing up throughout the day, seemingly before and after their own family plans. Faces he hadn't seen in nearly a year; welcomed faces with names he no longer remembered but Neal played the charming host, hugging nurses and doctors that were there from the beginning.
Peter's own team was also invited and he didn't hide his gratitude for the way they continued to support Neal, long after he seemed fully recovered.
And for the most part he was; he looked and acted like the Neal they knew before transplant but there were days...more frequent than Neal would admit...when the ex-con wasn't one hundred percent. He still took occasional naps but always with a well rehearsed excuse that caused him to lose sleep the night before.
Neal was still going strong but Peter knew he was starting to tire out; the agent noticed things that no one else did. Peter sighed; maybe he noticed too much but it wasn't something he could easily let go of. Those months watching Neal suffer had affected him deeply and Peter would do everything possible to ensure Neal stayed healthy, even if it meant nagging and worrying more than he should.
"He's having fun."
Peter startled; so lost in thought he didn't hear Elizabeth approach.
"Yeah" he quietly agreed.
"Peter, I know that tone. What's wrong?"
"I'm just tired" Peter admitted.
"It's almost over and we'll have the house to ourselves." Elizabeth said as she wrapped her arm around Peter's waist.
"I'm thinking we'll have a house guest tonight."
"Really?" Elizabeth glanced upward. "I don't recall Neal agreeing to stay the night."
"Ten minutes after the last person leaves, he'll be asleep on the couch..."
"Trust me" the agent interrupted smugly, as he eyed his friend.
"Go mingle" Elizabeth ordered as she gently pushed Peter towards the others, secretly thankful that the party was almost over.
"Should I feel threatened that you were right?" Less than ten minutes after they started cleaning up, they found the pliant form of Neal Caffrey face down on the sofa, quietly snoring with Satchmo keeping guard.
Peter chuckled. "I spent months isolated with him..." Peter paused as he grabbed two bowls of chips and dumped the remains into the garbage. "He overdid it working on the painting."
"That you still haven't seen" Elizabeth reminded him as she eyed the canvas sitting behind the tree, still covered. "You could take a peek."
Peter shook his head. "Neal asked that I wait so he could explain it to me."
"Aren't you curious?" Elizabeth circled around her husband, picking up discarded glasses and silverware.
"The cat died hours ago" Peter admitted as he opened the dishwasher and started loading it. They silently finished cleaning up and thirty minutes later Elizabeth declared it was good enough, the rest they could finish in the morning.
"Are you going to wake up sleeping beauty?" Elizabeth neared the sofa. "I don't think he's moved an inch."
"If he argues staying here I'm going to tell him I had too much to drink and can't drive him home."
"He could take a cab" Elizabeth countered as she wiped a stain on the table.
"Not an option" Peter remarked. "Go to bed. I'll join you as soon as I get him settled."
After Elizabeth left, Peter shooed the dog away and knelt down on one knee. He took the opportunity to lay his hand lightly against Neal's forehead, sighing with relief that he felt cool. "Neal." He gently shook his friend, surprised at how easy it was to fall back into the caretaker role. Neal stirred several minutes later with one opened eye.
"Sorry" he muttered as he struggled to an upright position. "I'll help you finish cleaning."
"We're done" Peter informed him as he stood with a slight groan. "Do you want to sleep here or upstairs?"
Neal eyed him suspiciously. "Can you drive me home?"
"You still have clothes here and I had too much to drink. Where do you want to sleep?"
Neal was too tired to argue. "Here is fine" he muttered as he started to tilt.
"No you don't." Peter hauled him to his feet. "Go upstairs. Change and use the bathroom and if you have the energy to come back down fine. Otherwise, you know the way to the guest room." Peter shadowed him up the stairs and then joined his wife in the master bedroom.
"Is he settled?" Elizabeth was already in bed, flipping through a magazine.
"He's in the bathroom." Peter grabbed some pajamas and quickly changed. A few minutes later he sat on the bed with a heavy sigh.
"Peter is something wrong?"
"I'm not sure" Peter admitted. "He has his three month blood draw next week but I'm going to see if we can move it up."
"Peter, you don't think..." Elizabeth's words dangled precariously in the silence.
"I don't know." Peter settled next to his wife. "The chances for a relapses are slim but..." He turned onto his side, so he could face his wife. "I'll feel better once we get his counts." Peter shifted until he was lying on his back, suddenly wide awake.
"Peter, don't..." Elizabeth moved closer. "Don't panic until you have a reason to." She took her husband's hand and gently squeezed it.
He knew she was right but the lingering thought of a relapse kept Peter up hours after Elizabeth had fallen asleep.
It was nearly noon when Neal strolled into the kitchen, dressed casually in a pair of khakis and blue polo shirt.
"Good morning" he greeted just as Peter was putting away the last of the glasses. "Do you need help?"
"Just finished" the agent answered as he dried his hands on a towel. "How do you feel?"
Neal's eyes narrowed in anger. "Peter" he hissed in a warning tone.
Peter silently studied his friend. "You look a little pale" he stated evenly, gauging the ex-con's reaction.
"Peter, I'm fine." Neal walked out with Peter in tow. He stopped and eyed the painting with a deep sigh and then faced his friend. "OK, you want the truth. I've been a little tired lately but I don't feel sick and I'm not running a fever..." Neal shrugged. "It hasn't come back..."
"Neal, I called your doctor this morning."
"The day after Christmas" Neal exclaimed with a wave of his arms. "Peter, you had no right." Neal stopped himself mid sentence. He gave Peter that right when he asked him to go through the transplant. "What did he say?" Neal asked after an awkward few minutes.
"He'd like you to go in tomorrow for your blood draw."
Neal lowered his head. "Does he think I relapsed? He asked in a whispered tone.
"No" Peter answered firmly. "But he wants to make sure nothing else is going on."
"I feel fine" Neal insisted, though it sounded hollow to his own ears. "Are you going to give me a ride home?"
"Do you want to go home?"
Neal shrugged; Peter knew that was the only answer he would get. "Elizabeth will be gone most of the day and I don't mind the company."
"We could go into work" Neal suggested as he strolled into the living room and plopped down on the sofa.
"You want to go into work? Peter asked incredulously. "I remember how excited you were when I gave everyone the rest of the week off." Peter sat down next to his friend. "I suppose we can go in and tackle some cold cases. Is that what you really want?"
"No." Neal leaned back and stared up at the ceiling.
"Why'd you make the appointment?"
"You know why." Peter mimicked Neal's position.
"It could have waited to next week..."
"No." Peter said loudly as he sat up. "You know the odds are better if they catch it early."
"I'm not going through that again..."
"Neal...you know that's the only cure."
"Not again." Neal stood abruptly. "If it comes back, I'm not going through another transplant."
"Neal..." Peter shot up and grabbed the ex-con's arm. "We need to stop this..." Peter gripped Neal's shoulders. "Look at me." Peter waited for his friend to comply. "No more talking about a relapse...ok?"
Neal nodded a wordless yes before lowering his gaze.
"Why don't we go for a drive? Maybe stop for coffee somewhere."
Neal shrugged but didn't turn down the offered jacket and meekly followed Peter out of the house.
Peter hunched over and clasped his hands together, trying to keep it together for Neal's sake. Not that the ex-con noticed; he was off in his own world, sitting at the far end of the room with his back to Peter.
It was a routine Peter knew well and one he would never get used to. Every blood draw was the same, though normally they went home to wait for the phone call.
This time was different; the doctor put a rush through and so they waited, both tense and unable to do anything but sit there and think the worse.
Elizabeth wanted to come but Peter said it was best if she stayed home; knowing it would be harder for Neal if Elizabeth was there.
Peter took a deep breath as he glanced at his watch; nearly two hours had gone by without a spoken word.
Neal wanted to be left alone but not be alone so Peter sat quietly and stared at the floor, counting tiles he never saw before and didn't need to know existed. But they were there and he counted to pass the time.
The doctor was encouraging as he examined Neal and saw no outward signs of cancer but he wanted immediate results to ease all their minds and allow everyone to enjoy the coming New Year.
After an eternity in Peter's mind the doctor walked in with his usual non-poker face; grinning broadly and Peter finally allowed himself to breath.
Neal didn't budge.
"Neal, its good news. Turn around."
Neal moved slowly as if every muscle in his body hurt. He saw the doctor's face and then closed his eyes, releasing a deep sigh.
"Doc, what's causing his issues?"
"Low iron" the doctor answered. "His stored iron is extremely low..."
"Transplant related" Peter interrupted as he glanced Neal's way, surprised at how quiet the ex-con was.
"Most likely" the doctor answered as he scribbled on a piece of paper. "You can get these over the counter and it should do the trick."
"Should..." Peter remarked evenly.
"It will." The doctor smiled reassuringly. "Neal, I do want you back in a month to check your iron levels, ok?"
"And you're sure, that's all that's wrong?" Peter still wasn't convinced that Neal was fine.
"His counts are perfect and there are no blasts and I have no doubt he's still one hundred percent donor. I wish all my patients were doing this well... now get out and let me take care of sick people."
"Neal, you heard the man. Let's get out of here." Peter grabbed the ex-con's arm and hauled him to his feet. Neal managed a feeble thank you before the agent whisked him out of there.
"Are you ok?" Peter asked as they exited the hospital.
"This never gets easy does it?"
"It will" Peter assured him as they neared the car. "Once you hit that five year mark, we'll all breathe easier."
"Seems so long away" Neal whispered as he leaned against the car and eyed the agent.
"We'll get there" Peter said as he gripped Neal's shoulder with a reassuring squeeze. "Let's go. Elizabeth is making a celebratory dinner..."
"But what if it was bad news?" Neal asked as he jumped into the passenger seat.
"No one would have felt like eating" Peter quietly answered as he started the car.
"He didn't eat much" Elizabeth commented as Peter put the last of the dishes away.
"And he didn't ask to go home" Peter countered as he leaned against the wall and faced his wife. "I think this scared him much more than he's willing to admit." Peter frowned; Neal wasn't the only one keeping his feelings a secret. Peter hated feeling helpless and there was nothing he could do or say that would make this journey any easier. Five years was a long time when your future depended on it.
"Did he really say he wouldn't go through a second transplant?"
Peter nodded. "But if it ever came to that point, I think he would."
"Let's hope it doesn't." Elizabeth leaned against her husband. "Since our house guest went up to bed how about we get cozy in front of the TV?"
"Sounds like a plan" Peter agreed as he grabbed a bottle of wine and followed his wife.
"Is he ever going to uncover that?" Elizabeth pointed towards the picture.
"Tomorrow" Peter assured her as he settled down next to her. "For the first time in weeks I feel like I can relax again." He rested his head on her shoulder.
"You knew something was wrong, didn't you?"
"Yeah" Peter admitted. "That's why I raced over there when he called in sick. I thought that was the other shoe dropping." He shuddered. "I'm not sure I could go through that again."
"But you would" Elizabeth stated quietly.
"I would..." Peter agreed as he reached for the remote.
Peter flipped through stations, wondering how anyone could find anything to watch during the day. Elizabeth had gone to work and Neal was still sleeping.
Satchmo lifted his head and Peter glanced towards the stairs, just in time to see Neal staggering down them looking like he had just woken up.
"What?" Neal asked self-consciously as he plopped down next to the agent.
"You could have combed your hair" Peter remarked with much amusement. "Do you realize it's nearly two o'clock?"
"So?" Neal rested his head back. "I'm on vacation so I can sleep all I want." He ran his fingers through his hair, trying to tame the unruly curls.
"Are you that tired?" Peter asked, unable to completely hide his concern.
"Just catching up" Neal answered as he grabbed the remote.
"Be my guest" Peter muttered. "Good luck finding anything to watch."
Neal dropped the remote after finding nothing and closed his eyes with a contented sigh.
"Neal, you are going home today right?" It was more of a statement than a question and Neal didn't bother answering. He wanted to go home but he was fine staying also; he had put the transplant behind him and this brought it all back and it scared him more than he wanted to admit; but he didn't have to. Peter knew and would have let him stay as long as he needed but they deserved time alone and Neal had to move on... again.
"I stopped thinking about it and then I started feeling tired all the time."
Peter sat up straighter but remained quiet, allowing Neal to continue if he wanted to.
"Can you believe I don't remember much from that time?"
Peter's only reaction was a raised eyebrow.
"I don't" Neal insisted as if trying to convince them both. "It seems like another lifetime" he quietly stated before standing and nearing the painting. He lifted it off the easel and brought it closer to the agent.
"This may seem a little odd but this is what I remember whenever I think back to that time." Slowly he lifted the cover and then glanced down to watch Peter's reaction.
Peter's eyes widened.
"You don't like it?" Neal quietly asked...
"No...Yes. I...do" Peter stuttered as he stood. "It's just so real." And it was. Neal was lying in bed with that cap he always wore on his head and his eyes were full of pain. He must remember it Peter silently mused to be able to paint it so true to life.
And Peter was hunched over and staring at Neal and the expression...Neal had only painted the agent's profile but Peter knew that look; he felt that look as he watched over Neal day after day with such a feeling of helplessness.
And Neal had captured it perfectly.
But what stood out most were their hands. Neal's hand enclosed in Peter's hands; the grip so strong as if...
"You were my lifeline" Neal whispered as the meaning of the picture became clearer to Peter. "I made it through transplant because you were there and I want you to remember that."
"Neal..." Peter's voice faltered with a loss of words. "I..." He took a deep breath and counted to ten but he couldn't stop the tears that spilled down his cheeks.
Peter looked away with an awkward breath. Neal circled him until he could see the agent's face and smiled through his own tears.
"I don't want you to forget how much this meant to me."
"Never..." Peter's voice cracked and he gave up trying to speak. He grabbed Neal and pulled him in, holding tight as his façade broke and he allowed the tears to flow freely. By the sound of it, Neal wasn't doing much better as he buried his face against Peter's shoulder.
Neal pulled away first and wiped his face on his sleeve.
"You ok?" he asked with a somewhat steady voice as Peter kept his back to the ex-con.
The agent studied the painting and ghosted his finger across the clasped hands.
Neal took a step so he was standing next to the agent.
"I felt so helpless watching you suffer. Neal there was nothing I could do." Peter's voice grew stronger with each word though Neal could still hear the emotion in his tone.
"You did everything I wanted you to" Neal stated firmly. "Peter you were there and that's all I needed..."
"Neal, I'm not sure I ever thanked you for asking me."
Neal chuckled softly. "That's not something most would be thankful for...but I can't imagine anyone else who would have willingly done that for me."
They grew quiet, lost in thought or memories of a time that was extremely difficult but cemented a bond that would never break.
"Neal, I know you said you you'd never do it again..."
"I don't want to die" Neal interjected. "But I don't want to think about it unless I'm forced to. Can we put this behind us and not bring it up again?"
"We can do that." Peter clapped him lightly on the back. "Go upstairs and get dressed. There are plenty of leftovers from last night and..."
"And then I can go home" Neal finished for him. With a twinkle in his eyes, Neal bowed slightly and then headed upstairs.
Alone, Peter continued to stare at the painting, catching little details he missed the first time.
Mostly he concentrated on Neal and the way the ex-con looked at him. There was fear and there was pain in Neal's eyes but there was something else...
Maybe Neal was right. Peter wouldn't call himself a lifeline but he might have been the strength Neal needed to make it through the transplant.
Never again he silently mused, brimming with renewed hope that Neal wouldn't relapse.
But as awful as it was Peter would never regret being there for his friend.
He heard the shower turn off and with one last glance at the picture, Peter headed to the kitchen to heat up lunch.