Peter had sent three texts to Neal without a response, and he was getting worried. When he finally got a break, he stepped outside the precinct to grab a cup of coffee and a sandwich and to call Neal.
When it rang for the fourth time, he expected voicemail. However, an out-of-breath Neal answered with a clipped, impatient tone. "Yes? Hello?"
"Hey. Is everything okay?" Peter wasn't one to beat around the bush, especially not when Neal sounded like he was a heartbeat from losing his shit completely.
"No," Neal replied. "Joan ran away last night. We've been looking all over the city for her."
Joan was a runaway that had showed up at the shelter last week and that Neal had formed a bond with almost instantly. He'd told Peter about her over dinner a couple of nights ago. Her stepfather was abusive, and neither Neal nor Sara had been able to talk her into getting a physical from the medical staff yet. She was smart and artistic, and Neal connected with her on both levels, which seemed to get her to open up to him a little bit.
"Is there anything I can do to help?" Peter was still within steps of the precinct and was ready to go back inside and round up some uniforms, if he had to.
"I don't think so. There are already officers helping us search, and I don't want to disrupt your day. Sorry I didn't text you back."
"That's the least of my concerns right now. I want to help, and Diana will cover for me. Where are you?"
Neal hesitated before answering. "Central Park by Columbus Circle."
"I'll meet you at the Carousel in twenty minutes, okay?"
"You really don't have to do this, Peter."
"I don't have to, but I want to. I'll see you soon." Peter hung up before Neal could protest further. He jogged back into the precinct and explained the situation to Diana. She wasn't happy that he was leaving for the day, but she understood why he was doing it.
Then, Peter hailed a cab and got dropped off at Columbus Circle with just enough time to swing by the Merchant's Gate café and get two cups of coffee and a couple of pastries. He doubted that Neal had eaten anything since Joan had gone missing, and he had to be running on empty by now.
He found Neal pacing by the carousel. His clothes – jeans and a t-shirt – were uncharacteristically simple and rumpled. His hair was mused from running his fingers through it, and his face was pale and drawn with worry.
"Neal!" Peter called and Neal turned so fast that he stumbled. "Whoa. Are you okay?"
"It's been a long day," Neal replied. He raised an eyebrow when Peter shoved a cup of coffee in one of his hands and a small paper bag in the other. "What's this?"
"It looks like breakfast, but I'm pretty sure it's the only meal you've had in the last twelve hours at least, so eat up."
"No. I don't have-" Neal hesitated, pressing his lips together for a moment before he finished his sentence, "-time."
He tried to give the food back to Peter, but he refused to accept it. Upon closer inspection, Neal was shaking and there were dark bags under his eyes. Peter slipped an arm around his back and gently steered him toward a nearby bench.
"Here's what we're going to do. We're going to take five minutes to sit down and have our donuts and coffee. Then, we'll check in with the other teams and see what ground needs to be covered."
Neal tried to resist, but he wasn't a match for Peter. Within a minute, he was sitting on the bench taking small bites of his donut while his eyes darted around, scanning each face that passed by.
Peter was quiet while he ate, keeping an eye on Neal for signs that he was having any trouble with his head. The glitch with his speech could be a one time thing or could be the result of a bigger health issue. Neal wasn't likely to tell him anything, so Peter watched him for clues.
"We have to find her," Neal all but whispered once his donut was finished. He stood and threw his trash away. "She doesn't know anyone else in-" he paused again and pressed a hand to his forehead, "-city."
"Sit back down." Peter hovered as Neal sank down on the bench and leaned forward with his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. "Does your head hurt?"
Neal nodded. "Not bad. Just aches."
"How long have you been out here?" Peter looked around and spotted the Ballplayer's House not far away.
Neal waved a hand in the general direction of the city. When he spoke, his words were slow and deliberate. "I've been looking all night and all day. She's been missing since last night around ten."
"Okay. I'm going to get you a bottle of water. Will you stay here for a minute?"
He waited until Neal nodded before hurrying toward the eatery. In hindsight, the coffee was a bad idea, but he hadn't realized how long Neal had been searching, and he didn't realize how exhausted and worried he was.
Neal was exactly where he left him when he returned a couple of minutes later. He cracked the seal in the water and then handed the bottle over. "Drink this."
He drank half the bottle before looking up at Peter. "I'm okay. It's going away."
Peter was skeptical since Neal was shielding his eyes with one hand, which was shaking. "How about I take you home and you can lay down for an hour or so while I look for Joan?"
"You don't know what she looks like," Neal replied, pushing himself to his feet. He wavered for a moment before adjusting his stance. "I need to keep looking. You can stay here or-" He threw his hands up and groaned in frustration when the word failed to come to mind.
"Neal, you're exhausted and you're making yourself sick. Be reasonable, please." Peter reached for him, but Neal stepped back.
They were staring each other down when Neal's phone started to ring in his pocket. He quickly pulled it out and put it to his ear.
Peter could really only hear Neal's side of the conversation, but when his shoulders slumped, it looked like the weight of the world had been lifted from them. He quietly approached and put a hand on Neal's shoulder to remind him that he was there and to offer his support.
"Are you sure? That's good to hear. Thanks for calling, Sara." Neal looked over at Peter then and he shook his head even though Sara couldn't see him. "No, if she's okay with you, then I'm going-" He closed his eyes and squeezed a fist full of his t-shirt in frustration.
Peter gently took the phone from his hand and tugged Neal into his chest where Peter could put one arm around him and hold him steady. "Hey, Sara, it's Peter. I'm going to take Neal home. He's exhausted."
"Thank you. I really appreciate that. I tried to get him to rest earlier, but he wouldn't stop the search."
"I know. He'll be okay. I'll have him call you later, okay?"
"Tell him that I'll take care of things at Ellen's Place today. He's off until tomorrow morning."
Peter suspected that Neal wouldn't like that, but he agreed. "I will. Bye."
He hung up before Sara could really respond and then shifted his grip on Neal so that his arm was around Neal's waist and could catch him if his legs decided they didn't want to hold him up any longer. He pointed them toward the street and nudged Neal into falling into step with him.
Within a few minutes, they were in a cab pointed toward Riverside Drive, and Neal's head was against Peter's shoulder. Peter could tell that he wasn't asleep, but he also wasn't up to talking, so Peter just rubbed small circles on his thigh while the taxi driver negotiated the usual traffic.
Peter paid the driver and then hauled Neal back to his feet. He was almost dead weight at that point, moving more on muscle memory than anything else, and Peter wasn't looking forward to getting up to the fourth floor. He was wishing that he'd taken Neal back to his place with it's nice, easily accessible elevator when the front door opened and June stepped outside.
"Peter? Is he okay?" She looked and sounded upset by Neal's condition, and Peter wasn't surprised at all. She clearly cared very much for Neal and vice versa.
"He's just tired," Peter replied as he got Neal moving toward the door. "You wouldn't happen to have-"
"Staff elevator in the back," she interrupted and started to lead the way. "It's a tight fit, but Neal won't rest well anywhere but his own bed."
She wasn't lying about the size of the elevator, but all three of them squeezed inside. Neal was between them, propped up against Peter's chest and the side of the elevator car while June felt his forehead and fretted at how he couldn't keep his eyes open.
It took both of them to get Neal to his bed, and Peter pulled off his shoes and jeans while June busied herself with getting him a fresh glass of water and some Tylenol for his head.
Peter had just finished tucking him in under the duvet when Neal's hand snaked out to grasp his wrist and his eyes fluttered open. "Thank-" He took a breath and blew it out through flared nostrils. "-you."
Peter smiled and kissed his lips softly. "Just rest. We'll talk later tonight or tomorrow."
Neal nodded off before he could respond, and Peter stood there looking at him for a moment, making sure that his respiration was even and his sleep was sound.
"So," June said, when she joined them and placed the glass and the pills on the bedside table, "Joan?"
"Sara found her. I don't know the details, but she said that Joan was okay."
June nodded. "Thank you for bringing him home."
"No need for thanks." Peter pulled his small notebook and pen out of his inner jacket pocket and scribbled a note. Tearing off the paper, he handed it to June. "Will you make sure he gets that when he wakes up?"
She took the paper and smiled at him. "I will."
Peter nodded once and then headed out the door. He trusted that June would give Neal the message to call him since he doubted Neal would remember their brief conversation once he woke up. Peter hoped that Neal would feel better after some rest and that he'd call Peter as he'd requested in the note. He couldn't help it if he worried; he wanted to make sure that Neal was going to be all right.
Thank you for reading!