A/N : Once again, thank you all for the wonderful reviews, alerts, and favorites! I love getting reviews, and I'm happy to hear anything you have to say. I have plans, but not for how many chapters there will be… summer hiatus sucks, so I might just drag this on as long as possible. (Even if that's only a couple more chapters.) If you think I should just wrap it up at any point, or if I should keep going, just let me know.
Now, without further delay, the next installment!
He woke up in pain, certain he was dying.
Through a haze, he could feel his chest on fire, and his first reaction was to scream. Except he couldn't. He was choking on something, and this time it wasn't words. It was something very real in his throat, making him gag.
He thrashed his entire body, sending a sharp jolt through his chest, down his arms and into his stomach.
"Help! I need help!"
That sounded like Peter.
Oh, God, something was wrong.
He opened his eyes, only to shut them immediately as bright light blinded him. He kicked out, this time connecting with something solid.
"Dammit, Neal, stop fighting!"
Hands grabbed his wrists, pressing him into the bed and holding him there. He didn't want to stop fighting-didn't Peter know he was choking? He felt hot tears escaping his eyes, but did as he was told, fighting back the instincts that told him to break free.
"Mr. Caffrey, try to calm down," another voice said, this one feminine.
"You're in the hospital," Peter was saying, closer this time. Neal could feel his breath against his ear. "You're okay."
Peter was crazy. He was far from okay.
"Don't worry, the doctor's on his way," the woman's voice said.
Cold hands replaced Peters, exerting little force. He was too tired to fight now.
Hearing the disembodied voice was confusing, a little frightening, but he didn't dare open his eyes again.
"You still with me?"
He heard more sounds in the background, a door opening and heavy footfalls.
"Mr. Caffrey, welcome back. Can you open your eyes for me?"
Neal cracked his eyes open, barely making out the shape of a man in the glare of lights.
"Good!" the man said, sounding far too cheerful. "My name is Dr. Jossen. I know you're in a lot of discomfort, but we're going to remove the breathing tube now."
Breathing tube… so that's what he was choking on.
He felt himself rising into a sitting position.
"When I tell you to, I want you to take a deep breath, open your mouth as wide as you can, and pretend you're screaming," the doctor told him.
He tried not to focus on the activity going on in front of his face. If he tried, his vision blurred.
"Okay, deep breath in."
He had the presence of mind to comply, and sucked in as much air as he could.
Neal wished he could really scream. The sensation of the tube being pulled swiftly from his throat was more than just uncomfortable. For a moment he forgot the pain in his chest, gagging as the tube was tugged free. He coughed, hard, and agony exploded in his chest.
"That's a boy!" The doctor sounded pleased. "Keep taking deep breaths."
He dutifully dragged in several deep breaths, and eventually the coughing subsided, leaving his throat raw and the pain doubled.
Something cold pressed against his chest, and he flinched away, moaning.
"Deep breath," the doctor instructed.
The request still seemed impossible. The pain in his chest was unbearable. His head swam, and he closed his eyes.
"Is he okay?" he heard Peter ask.
A good question.
After a moment, Neal decided the answer was no.
"Heart rate and respiration are elevated," the doctor said calmly. "Nurse?"
A subtle heat spread through his arm and he went under again.
When he surfaced again, it was dark.
He blinked away momentary confusion. Hospital, he reminded himself. As if it weren't obvious. The sheets were scratchy, nothing like the Egyptian cotton that graced his bed at June's. And he certainly wasn't wearing his silk pajamas. The room was quiet, just the soft sounds of someone breathing. There was just enough light spilling in from the hallway to see, and he spent a few seconds glancing around the room.
His head felt stuffy, and though he could see clearly, it seemed his brain took a little extra time relaying the images he was seeing. Machines, curtained windows, an empty hallway… and someone sleeping in the chair beside his bed. Someone slim, dark hair spilling around their shoulders.
He forgot the ache in his chest.
Forgot to breathe.
He tried to speak, had an odd, fleeting sensation of déjà vu, and painfully cleared his throat.
The figure stirred, and his heart leapt back into the picture, pulse pounding in his ears.
"Kate?" he croaked.
The voice, while familiar, was definitely not Kate's.
Elizabeth shot out of the seat, and once she was standing practically on top of him, he finally made out her features. His foolish heart sank.
He looked up, dismayed at the look of concern staring back at him.
"Hey," he rasped.
A smile broke out on her face, so wide it was startling. He furrowed his brow, trying to figure out why she was so happy.
"I told Peter nothing would happen while he was gone," she said. "Oops."
Her laugh was nervous, her eyes glancing at the door.
"Peter…" he trailed off. Every word felt forced, like razors against his throat.
"He went home to shower and change," she explained, gripping the rails of the bed tightly. "Neal, how do you feel?"
He yawned, the action reminding him of the pain in his chest.
"You don't remember?" Now she really looked worried.
He didn't want to think about it.
He thought he mumbled a response, but he couldn't be sure. He was so tired…
He closed his eyes again.
The smell of coffee of coffee woke him. For a moment, he imagined he was home, in bed. Kate sometimes let him sleep in. All he had to do was open his eyes, and she would be there, sitting at the table, drinking from her favorite mug, and reading the paper. Waiting for him to wakeup so she could say "I made the coffee, you're in charge of breakfast."
He knew better, but he embraced the image anyway, savoring it. Let himself believe it, just for a moment. But once acknowledged, consciousness stubbornly pressed itself upon him, and he had to let go of the dream.
Reluctantly he let his eyes open, squinting against the bright sunlight filtering in the window. His head felt fuzzy and his mouth was bone dry. He groaned as a familiar throbbing ache made itself known.
Lazily he twisted his neck to regard Peter through half lidded eyes. He looked terrible, exhausted and unshaven, eyes bloodshot.
"How are you feeling?" Peter prompted.
He tried to reply, but his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth, making speech difficult.
"Thirsty," he managed to say.
"I, uh… I don't know if you're supposed to drink anything," Peter said.
Still, he stood, approaching the tray beside the bed. Neal watched as he poured a small amount of water in a cup, then stuck a straw inside. Getting the straw to his mouth without spilling anything was difficult, but Peter managed. Raising his head long enough to take a sip required more than a little effort, but the water was cool and refreshing. He held it in his mouth for a few seconds, relishing the moisture, then swallowed, letting the liquid soothe his sore throat.
He took another sip before Peter pulled the cup away, cautioning him against drinking too much. With a soft grunt, he let his head hit the pillow again.
"Yeah," he whispered, finding it to be true. "What… happened?"
"You don't remember?" Peter asked, his tone sharpening.
He closed his eyes, remembering noise, a wall of pain slamming into his chest. He remembered masks and guns, swarming in to save him. Swarming in too late. After that, nothing.
"Shot?" he asked, opening his eyes again.
Peter nodded grimly.
"She confessed," Peter replied smugly. "Last night… spilled about everything."
He made a soft sound of approval, but noticed Peter's smirk disappear just as quickly.
"She's negotiating, using the location of the jade elephants for a reduced sentence."
Neal narrowed his eyes. Peter threw up his hands, but anger flashed across his features.
"Believe me, Neal, if it was up to me she'd be lucky to end up with life without a possibility of parole," he growled fiercely, surprising the young man.
"Didn't know you cared," he joked.
Peter scoffed in good nature, but his look soon turned somber. "Seriously, Caffrey… how are you feeling? You took a hell of a shot."
Neal let his eyes wander, trying to peek at his chest, but couldn't see much. He felt it, though, more and more with every minute he was awake.
"Hurts," he admitted. "'M I okay?"
"You will be," the agent said. "The bullet didn't hit anything major, and they don't think there will be any permanent damage. It'll take some time, though. You'll have to take it easy for a while. No heroics."
"No," he agreed, then frowned. "Hate guns."
"I know," Peter said softly.
"You-" he had to pause as his throat caught. He coughed, wincing. "You look tired."
"Yeah, well," the older man said, looking away.
Neal watched him suspiciously, then lifted his head again, looking around the room. "El was here."
It was more of a question than anything else, and Peter nodded in response. "She had to get back to work. She didn't want to, but I finally convinced her."
Blue eyes narrowed.
"We didn't want you to wake up alone," he mumbled under the scrutiny.
It might have been amusing at one point, watching Peter squirm, obviously embarrassed as he rubbed the back of his neck with one hand. Now it just left him startled, wide eyed. That they'd be worried stood to reason, but this went beyond responsibility or overseeing. Their response-and his-startled him. Even more alarming, it felt… good. Weird, but welcome.
"Thank you," he said.
"Yeah," Peter said, then cleared his throat. "Listen, I should find a nurse, tell them you woke up."
Neal nodded once, and watched him leave.
The nurses took his blood pressure, temperature, recorded his stats on a chart, and held a brief meeting with his doctor. To his credit, Neal did his best to stay awake and pay attention, but after only a few minutes, he began to fade, exhaustion getting the best of him. Judging by the lines around his eyes and the set of his lips, the pain was, too.
The doctor smiled knowingly, and promised Neal rest-and a heavy dose of painkillers-as soon as they removed the NG tube.
Peter watched from the sidelines, trying not to grimace at the ministrations.
"Hold your breath!" the nurse instructed all too cheerfully.
The look on Neal's face as they pulled the tube free was a mix of disgust and misery. Peter definitely didn't envy the kid. He turned away when they removed the catheter, giving Neal-and himself-some privacy; he didn't want to see the look on his face when that happened.
When they were done, Neal still looked miserable, but a little relieved.
While the nurse cleaned the residue left by the tape from the end of his nose, the doctor injected something in the IV port.
"What is that?" Peter asked, eyeing the syringe.
"It's a little something to help with the pain. He'll be resting comfortably in no time," Jossen assured him. "This evening we'll get him started on a liquid diet, see how he does. If things keep going well, he should be released within a couple of days."
Peter nodded, watching as the nurse let Neal sip some water.
"If he needs anything, just press the call button. You may have to remind him," the doctor said, stripping off his gloves. "The nurses will be by to check up on him again, but if you need anything, remember-"
"Right," Peter said, offering a smile. "I will."
Dr. Jossen clapped Peter on the back, then strode out, the nurse and her supplies following soon after. He watched them disappear down the hallway before turning back to Neal.
Already he looked spaced out, his eyes half lidded, his mouth slightly open. As Peter approached his lips slid into a wide grin.
"Peterrrr," he greeted.
"Neal," he returned, lips twitching. "They give you the good stuff?"
"Good," Neal agreed, then looked up, staring at him seriously for several long moments. "When'd you get so tall?"
Peter had to suppress a chuckle. "So you're not in any pain?"
"I don't think I care," Neal said honestly, his voice still hoarse.
Shaking his head, Peter crossed the room and lowered himself into the chair, looking over his charge carefully. Neal was still pale, with dark smudges under his eyes, and a look of disarray that was very much unlike him. His hair was a mess, tangled, with strands falling in his eyes, and a few days worth of dark stubble adorned his chin. His cheekbones had always been sharp, but now his cheeks looked hollow, his blue eyes sunken and dull.
He still sported the IVs, a nasal cannula, and an uncomfortable looking pulse ox monitor clipped to his finger. Even so, Peter mused, he looked better. Sorta.
"You better hurry and heal," he said offhandedly. "Or Mozzie will have my head."
Neal looked up at the mention of his friend. "Moz?"
"He was here, you know," Peter said with a nod. "June, too."
He looked shocked, but pleased. "Moz was here? He hates hospitals."
"He cares about you. Gave me an earful."
"I should call him," Neal worried, looking down at the blanket that covered his legs. "Where's my phone?"
"In the drawer," he answered, nodding toward the bedside table. "But the battery's dead."
He dug in his pocket, withdrawing his own cell and passing it over the bed rail. "Use mine."
Neal took it, squinting at it for a moment, as if he weren't quite sure what it was. Then, with one hand, he dialed, raising the phone to his ear.
Peter watched with interest as Neal's eyes went comically wide, presumably listening to his friend's response. He tried, but couldn't remember if El had called to update the man. He knew she'd been keeping June updated almost hourly, but judging by the look on Neal's face, Mozzie was reacting with uncharacteristic enthusiasm.
"Yeah," Neal was nodding. "Hm? Oh, it's Peter's phone… I dunno…"
The words were slightly slurred. Listlessly, he let his head fall back on the pillows, staring at the ceiling.
"Wrap it up," Peter whispered.
Neal lifted his head to blink at him. "Hey, Moz? I gotta go. Yeah, thanks… No, I'll be fine, don't worry about it. 'Kay."
He didn't say goodbye, just let the phone slide off his shoulder. With a roll of his eyes, Peter leaned over and grabbed it, hastily tapping out a message to El before snapping the phone shut.
"Told him he didn't have to come see me again," Neal said.
"Think he'll listen?"
"He's Mozzie," came the reply. "So, probably not."
"Sounds familiar," Peter commented.
He didn't reply right away. After a few minutes, he softly said, "You don't have to stay."
Peter slid the phone back into his pocket. "I know."
Neal nodded, watching him carefully. He held his gaze, letting the ex con know he wasn't going anywhere.
"Okay," he said finally.
"Get some sleep, Neal."
El left work a little early that night, stopping by the house to change and pick up a few things before she headed back to the hospital. On the way up to Neal's room she chatted with June, informing her that he was indeed awake, and, according to Peter, working his way through a bowl of gelatin.
She was just hanging up when she reached his room, overjoyed to see him sitting up, holding an actual conversation with her husband.
"Neal!" she greeted happily, bending down to kiss his cheek.
"Hey," he said, offering her a tired smile.
"You look better!" she exclaimed, stepping back to look him over. He was sporting a sling and just a bit of color to his cheeks.
"Anything was an improvement over yesterday," Peter muttered dryly.
She swatted him on the shoulder, then leaned in to give him a kiss, too.
"Well, either way," she said, winking. "How do you feel?"
He set his bowl on the tray over the bed, and smiled. "Better. Tired."
She frowned. "Does your throat still hurt?"
"They said that's normal," Peter spoke up. "Should clear up in a day or so."
"Hmm," she murmured, peering in the bowl. "You should finish that, Neal."
He made a face. "I'm not really hungry."
"He had some broth earlier," Peter volunteered.
"Yummy," she deadpanned.
Neal laughed, which turned to a cough. He grimaced and accepted the glass of water El held up to his lips, taking a long drink.
"Sorry," she said, frowning.
"It's fine," he assured her.
"Doctor says another day or so and he'll be ready to go home," Peter said, glancing at the ex con.
"Yeah," Neal agreed.
"Just a matter of time," Peter teased.
"Yeah, don't remind me," Neal groaned.
El put her hands on her hips, surveying with a smile. Not so long ago she'd worried he wouldn't make it through the night. To see him alive and well-and antagonized by her husband-was a miracle.
She turned to her husband. "You."
"You need to take a break. Go grab some dinner. I'll stay with Neal," she instructed.
"Look, I appreciate it, but neither of you needs to stay with me," Neal said, looking from El to Peter.
"We're not doing it because we need to," El told him, raising her eyebrows.
Neal didn't answer, looking away. She looked to her husband for help, but he just shrugged.
"Getting sick of us?" she asked, peering down at him.
"No!" he said quickly. "I just don't want to take you away from more important things.
"Hey," Peter said before she could. "There's nothing more important right now, Caffrey."
"Okay," he said after a beat. "But do me a favor? Both of you take a break, okay? Grab some dinner, get some air… I'm stuck here, but you don't have to be."
"I think it's a good idea," she said. "Honey?"
She was sold, but her stubborn husband still looked undecided.
"It's okay," Neal insisted. "Look, Mozzie's stopping by anyway, I won't be alone."
"I don't know," Peter frowned. "Maybe it's not the best idea."
"I'm not going anywhere, Peter," Neal said, voice tight. "They've got someone in here every half hour. I couldn't run if I wanted to."
"It's not that…"
"Then it's settled," she broke in, bringing her hands together. "We'll go get dinner, and be back before visiting hours are over. Can we bring you back anything?"
He shook his head. "Thanks though."
"Come on," she motioned to Peter.
He rose, casting a glance back at Neal.
"It's fine," she whispered to him. "Let's go."
She waved to Neal and all but dragged her husband from the room. She couldn't shake the feeling that for once Neal needed a break from Peter. Funny, how the tables had turned.