He came to with a startling clarity, like a man emerging from the ocean, his lungs greedy and starved, his senses alert.
He gasped, fitfully stirring, arching his back off of the bed.
Neal was aflame.
Peter dry heaved into the toilet bowl, sweat beading down his neck and spine. He clumsily fumbled with his collar, undoing the top two buttons. This was all too much.
Am I on fire now, Peter?
Peter wasn't one for the melodramatic, but images of Neal writhing around in that godforsaken warehouse, on that filthy cement floor, taunted him, haunted him. Memories of Neal pleading, Neal pleading. Of bright red blood spattered on grey floor, of guns and screams, the stench of sweat and blood and bile, of desperation and madness.
I wish it had taken me instead.
Sometimes I think it still wants me. The fire, Peter. The fire.
With a grunt, Peter forced himself to one knee and then up to his unsteady feet.
Sometimes I want to give in to it.
Peter took a shaky breath. He really should get back to the room now. June was waiting on him. Neal was, too.
I wish it had taken me instead. Sometimes I think it still wants me.
Am I on fire now, Peter?The ache in Peter's chest was like a living thing, eating away at him, crawling its way out.
I don't want it to go back to what it was. I was always going to stay.
Please ask me to stay.
Memories of the tarmac flooded Peter's awareness.
I was always going to stay.
The fire in his stomach rose, and Peter swallowed bile, swallowed his bitter thoughts and the overwhelming anger, frustration, general hatred and bewilderment at the entirety of these past few days—hell, these past months, year, whatever.
Peter often wanted to ask Neal what his plans were post-anklet, but a part of him was never willing to accept the possibility that Neal was here to stay.
A part of Peter always (and he would never admit this to Elizabeth) waited for the other shoe to drop, for a midnight phone call from the Marshalls informing him that Neal had cut and run, that he had slipped away. Now that Neal had really almost slipped away, in the literal sense, Peter ate his words. They tasted bitter. Neal was his friend, and Neal was here to stay. Christ, had he ever proved that.
Peter had always known that the two were friends, but that day at the hanger… as that explosion took Neal's love from him, it fueled Peter's. Because dammit, the world was so cruel to Neal, and someone needed to show him that there was good in the world.
The same day that that explosion wiped away Neal's future with Kate, it fueled Peter's desire to keep his friend close, to keep him on the straight and narrow, to show him that guys like him could have happy endings.
Still, Peter often wondered just what it was the Neal was going to say in the breath before the explosion, before the plane and Kate rained down on them. Was Neal going to say his goodbyes, tell Peter what the past months had meant to him?
Was he going to simply nod and smile, turn away, never to be seen from again?
The explosion had ensured that Peter would never know.
Peter was never really able to let it go, but he never asked Neal about it. The memory was still too raw, even after all of this time. Kate was still too raw.
I wanted to… before Kate was… I was going to stay. I was always going to stay… Need him to want me to stay. I was always going to stay.
Need Peter to know that. Need him to understand.
Need him to want me to stay.
I was always going to stay.Neal wanted to stay. He wanted Peter to want him to stay, and dammit, how could Neal not know that Peter did? How could he be so unaware? And did he really think that he couldn't stay? Neal had a family, a home. Why would he think he couldn't stay?
Maybe that's why… I can't stay. if… if I had gone, Kate and I would be gone together.
Peter had been beside himself with worry over Neal, quietly terrified about the man after the incident at the tarmac. Incident seemed such a tame word for it; Neal had watched the love of his life die, had seen her murdered before him, and he had been steps away.
Peter had been uneasy about Neal's mental state after that, because no matter how brilliant Neal was, he was human (something Peter tended to forget). Kate had been the driving factor of Neal's existence, and to have her so close only to abruptly lose her like that… Peter couldn't even put himself in that place, couldn't even imagine anything like that happening to Elizabeth without coming to a halt.
When it had happened, Neal had tried to run toward the burning plane, towards Kate. He had screamed her name, a raw desperation, a plea, lurching for her, for the fire.
Peter had had to hold him back. He didn't know if Neal had been trying desperately to save Kate or if he had been aiming to join her.
But Peter did know that he had been there to hold Neal back. He would always hold Neal back from the edge, from the dark abyss of his mind.. because Neal's mind could be a frightening place.
Peter had been walking as he'd mused, and he found himself at Neal's hospital room, at his door.
He opened it, peered inside.
"Hey," Neal smiled.