Neal felt Elizabeth's and Peter's eyes on him as he walked toward a stall with several hats on display. The market wasn't very busy yet, and Neal wanted to see about the gray fedora on top of the rack.
They'd been renting a villa on the beach for the last week or so. Neal couldn't tell you how many days exactly; they blended together until it was all one very long stretch of sun and sand and sleepless nights. Peter and El were giving him space, which was what he'd asked for as soon as he'd been released from the hospital, but they were somehow also smothering him at the same time. It was frustrating.
He smiled at the older man working the stall and pointed to the fedora. There was a brief exchange in French, the matter of payment, and then Neal flipped the hat onto his head with only a slight bobble due to his sore wrist. It was the most comfortable he'd felt in weeks.
Spinning on his heel, he meant to head back over to Peter and Elizabeth but suddenly there was a crowd of people – mostly kids – running through the market. They were laughing and joking in French about a game of some kind, but Neal couldn't hear much of it over the rush of blood in his ears and the pounding of his heart. He couldn't see Peter or El, and he was being pushed and moved along with the flow of the crowd.
Black spots appeared in his vision just as a hand grabbed him and roughly pulled him backwards. He lashed out with uncoordinated fists and feet until his arms were pinned to his sides and his body was held back against a strong chest.
"Neal. Calm down. It's okay. It's me," Peter said in his ear. As soon as the familiar voice registered, Neal's body relaxed so quickly that they both almost hit the ground.
Elizabeth kneeled in front of him when Peter lowered him down to sit. "Neal? Are you okay?"
Neal brought his knees up to his chest and tucked his arms in close to his body while trying to catch his breath and calm his racing heart. After a minute, he nodded and looked up into her eyes. "I'm okay. Sorry."
"Nothing to be sorry about, buddy," Peter replied. "Are you ready to go back to the house?"
Neal nodded again and got to his feet. He was shaky, but okay. It was ridiculous, he knew, to be afraid of kids playing a game, but there had been so many of them all at once. Silently, he longed for a time when he would have joined them in whatever they were playing.
As soon as they got to the villa, he disappeared into his room to change into running shorts and a white t-shirt. A little exercise would help him clear his head. The exercise was good for him, and it gave him a focus and a peace of mind he couldn’t find anywhere else right now.
The sand was warm under Neal's bare feet as he jogged along the shore. It had only been twenty minutes but his legs were already burning with fatigue and his chest was heaving. He stopped and dropped down to sit in the sand for a moment.
At eight in the morning, there were only a few other people on the beach, but he ignored them as he watched the waves rolling in. He hated feeling weak, but he also wasn't up to pushing his body much harder yet. His physical injuries were still healing, including his ribs and his wrist, which still needed to be in a brace for at least the next couple of weeks.
He stared at the water for a few more minutes before setting off back toward the house. The two-story villa was just visible in the distance when he caught sight of a familiar figure. Peter, wearing navy board shorts and a red t-shirt, was jogging toward him.
"On your way back already?" Peter was trying for surprised but only managed to look concerned. It was his default facial expression these days.
Neal shrugged and squinted at him. "Twenty minutes today, thirty tomorrow…"
"I'll walk with you."
"No, you should finish your run. I'm fine."
Peter wavered until Neal walked past him, intent on getting back to the house. "I'll be back in thirty," he called.
The stairs up to the house were old and uneven, so Neal ascended them carefully. The last thing he needed was to fall and break something. Peter would wrap him in bubble wrap and never let him leave the property.
Skirting the pool, he stepped into the cool interior of the villa. He could hear Elizabeth in the kitchen, mostly likely making breakfast, but all he wanted was a shower and some time to himself.
He padded quietly through the living room and into the bedroom on the first floor. Peter and Elizabeth insisted he take it, and he didn't argue. It was nice of them to give him the space when he knew they wanted to keep him in sight at all times. They hadn't said that, but it was written all over their faces. It was all over everyone's face – June's, Mozzie's, Diana's, Jones', even Sara's when he FaceTimed with her.
After his shower, he sat down at the desk and flexed his fingers. He'd started drawing again as soon as his wrist had begun to heal and was making postcards to send back to June, who he knew was helping fund this vacation. Neal might be distracted these days, but he wasn't stupid.
The windows were open. He could hear the sounds of the boats coming in and out of the harbor nearby and smell the salty sea air. It was all so refreshingly different than that dank room where he'd been held captive.
I wish you could have come with us. France has always been one of my favorite places, and Theoule-sur-Mer is very beautiful. Peter and Elizabeth are doing well, but I think they're starting to miss New York. We'll probably see you soon.
P.S. Please tell Mozzie to check his Metro mail drop.
Neal set the postcard aside with the intention of mailing it the next day. Then, he pulled out a fresh sheet of paper and started a complex drawing of one of Mozzie's favorite paintings. His wrist twinged, but he pushed through it.
Elizabeth heard Neal come inside and bit her lip to keep from calling out to him. She and Peter were giving him the space that he needed, but it was so hard sometimes. He was a different man now, and it hurt her heart to see him hiding in his room or dancing away from casual touches that he'd relished before.
She concentrated on chopping spinach for the crepes that she was making. Neal's therapist had given them some ideas of things to do that might put Neal more at ease. One of them was making new foods; he had lost his appetite during the captivity, and while he had never said why, Elizabeth suspected that whatever they'd given him to eat had been all but inedible.
Neal had been kidnapped in broad daylight and held for three weeks by three men that had been hired by Rachel Turner to help her escape from New York. In return, they were to receive a hefty sum, presumably from the sale of the Hope diamond's twin, but when her efforts had been thwarted by Neal, her henchmen had taken him so he could give them the money. They'd had no idea that the diamond had been handed over to an FBI agent, who had then turned it in to the State Department.
She didn't know the rest of the details. Neal said he didn't remember much of those three weeks, but his physical state told its own story. She had her own nightmares about what he must have gone through.
Neal's injuries would heal, but he would always carry the scars with him. Elizabeth hated that most of all. There would never be a day when he wouldn't be reminded of the ordeal because of the scar on his wrist from surgery to repair the damaged tendons or the scar on his chest where he'd been stabbed with some kind of short-bladed knife.
Peter had lived off of bad coffee and sheer determination to find his best friend for the entire three weeks, and then more bad coffee while Neal was recovering in the hospital. Peter wouldn't talk to her about it still, but she made sure that he knew she was here whenever he was ready.
Elizabeth herself had gone on to DC for the first several days, when the Marshals and most of the FBI had been convinced that Neal had run again. It wasn't until Mozzie called her, frantic with worry because Neal hadn’t taken his go-bag, hadn't contacted him at all, hadn't contacted anyone that Mozzie thought he might. Not even Sara.
Elizabeth had put in for a leave of absence from a job she'd been at less than a week and was told that if she walked out the door, they wouldn’t be able to guarantee her job. She had told them that the National Gallery had been a dream of hers for a long time and that she was honored to have been given the opportunity, but if that's how they felt, then she wished them the best with her replacement.
She didn't look back as she marched out of the office and went straight to Union Station to catch the next train home. Peter needed her, and once Neal was found, he had needed her too. Even though he had a hard time admitting it.
She finished with the spinach and added it to the skillet she was using to heat the tomatoes and herbs. Next, she added her goat cheese and stirred until it was all ready to be put inside the crepes she'd bought at the market. Elizabeth was making fast friends with some of the vendors despite how she couldn't remember anything but the most basic of her French lessons from high school and college. She was getting by, due in large part to Neal stepping in when she was about to embarrass herself.
After slipping the crepes into the oven, she went to check on him.
A sudden knock on his door startled Neal. He shot up from the desk chair and looked around frantically.
"Elizabeth," he called back in acknowledgement while willing his heart to stop racing.
"Breakfast is ready. I made spinach, tomato and goat cheese crepes, and honeyed fruit salad. Come and get some before Peter gets back and eats everything."
Though she was being polite, it wasn't a request. She'd made it clear that she wouldn't stand for him skipping meals after the first disastrous week post-hospital when he had been overwhelmed by the light and the size and the sounds of their dining room. Even Satchmo had been too much with his barely contained excitement at having Neal home. He'd retreated so many times to the guest bedroom that they'd finally started having meals in there with him on the bed and Peter and El on the floor while they watched a movie together.
She smiled at him when he opened the door. "Do you want milk or juice this morning?"
"Juice," he replied, following her through the living room and into the kitchen where he sat at the bar. She'd left him a plate with one crepe and a mound of fruit salad. "This looks good."
"I hope it is. I found the recipes online after Colette told me about them."
He looked up, confused. "Colette?"
"Lovely woman I met at the market. She sells cheeses and speaks five languages."
Neal nodded and started eating small bites. The crepe was good; it had a great texture and was filled with just the right combination of ingredients.
"She said she would teach me French, but I told her I already had a tutor. What do you say? Would you be willing to teach me a little?"
He shrugged. "I'm not a very good teacher."
"That's not true. I've heard all about the things you've taught Peter – forging signatures, tending bar, that thing with the colored jewels." She took a bite of her fruit salad and chewed it slowly. "I'd just like to know a few basic phrases for when I'm at the market or in one of the shops."
Neal bit his lip and carefully removed the diced pear from his plate. "I'll think about it."
"That's all I ask."
He could feel her eyes on him, and he tried not to let it bother him. He finished his crepe and had a few bites of fruit before looking up at her. "This was good. Thank you."
"You didn't finish your fruit."
"It's really good, but I'm full."
She frowned but nodded. "All right, but don't go far. Colette told me that the beach is great for looking for sea glass, and I thought we could do that this afternoon."
He wanted to say no. The beach would be crowded later in the day, but she looked so hopeful that he had a hard time denying her. "Okay."
"Great. It'll be great."
Neal nodded and took his glass of juice with him as he went back to his room. He spent twenty minutes trying to read, but he couldn't concentrate on the words. That's when he decided it was probably best to try for a nap instead.
His sleep was restless. He woke himself by crying out and struggled to get off the bed and out, away from… wherever he was. His heart pounded and he felt dizzy as he found the doorknob and twisted. The door opened too easily; it abruptly flew wide and narrowly missed hitting him in the face. He stumbled back and cried out again when the doorknob slammed against the wall beside him.
"Are you okay?!" Peter looked everywhere, even going so far as to check his bathroom and closet. "Was there someone here? What happened?"
Neal slid down the wall and pulled his knees up to his chest, still not sure what was really happening. His eyes darted from Peter to Elizabeth and then around the room. This was… bright and nicely decorated. The bed was big, and… It hit him at once. He was on vacation with Peter and Elizabeth. He was safe. He buried his face in his knees and tried to push back the tears of relief.
"Hon," Elizabeth called softly to get Peter's attention. She must have pulled a blanket off the bed because Neal felt the soft material as it was draped over his shoulders. "Neal, sweetie, are you okay?"
"Yeah," he said into his knees.
"Are you sure?"
He wiped a hand over his face as he tilted his head up. She was sitting cross-legged on the floor a couple of feet away, frowning at him. "Yes."
She pressed a hand to her chest and breathed a sigh of relief. "Good. That's good. You almost gave me and Peter both heart attacks."
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to scare you."
"It's okay." Peter sat down beside Elizabeth and faced Neal. "Do you want to talk about it?"
Neal shook his head. "No. I don't really remember it anyway. I just need a minute."
"Sure, of course." Elizabeth gracefully climbed to her feet and waited for Peter to do the same. When he looked like he was about to refuse, she made a 'come on' gesture with her hands and pointed out into the living room.
"We'll be out by the pool," Peter finally said as he got up.
Neal nodded and noticed that they didn’t shut the door behind them as they left. That was okay because he was within reach of it himself. He pushed it shut with his foot and sat there, just breathing for several long moments.
When he felt steady, he went into the bathroom and splashed water on his face. He was pale – well, paler than usual these days – but the fear that had gripped his heart and squeezed for all that it was worth had subsided.
He hated the nightmares and the residual fear and the terror that came back to haunt him every time he closed his eyes. It was so damn frustrating to relive flashes of the three weeks he'd been held captive every damn time he closed his eyes. He didn't remember all that much of it, but he remembered enough.
He turned away from the mirror and took a deep, calming breath. Mozzie had been trying to train him in meditation, so maybe he'd try it before bed tonight. It certainly couldn't hurt.
Peter was losing spectacularly at dice to Elizabeth when Neal joined them on the patio outside. "She's cheating," he declared with a solid double finger point in Elizabeth's direction.
"I am not!"
"That's a pretty serious accusation, Peter." Neal took a seat and tilted it back on two legs.
Peter threw his hands up and sighed. "Fine, you play with her and see how you fare."
He almost held his breath as he waited to see what Neal would do. The dice game had been Peter's idea. He wanted to see if they could draw Neal out a bit using something that was supposed to be fun. He knew Neal had gone through hell during his captivity, but he didn't know how much longer he could keep going with the way that things were now.
Neal was barely sleeping, and he physically recoiled from a lot their touches. It made Peter feel horrible when he accidentally brushed Neal's shoulder or absent-mindedly placed his palm on the small of Neal's back. The only reason they'd all made it to France with their sanity intact was because they'd taken the redeye out of New York when there were less people in the airport and on the plane, and Neal had reluctantly taken a sedative at June's request.
"Maybe later," Neal said. "Elizabeth wanted to go looking for sea glass."
Peter grinned. "Mind if I join you?"
Neal glanced at Elizabeth and then shrugged.
"Great," Peter responded. "Let me grab my sunglasses."
"And I need my hat." Elizabeth hopped up and ran up the stairs to get her floppy straw hat that Peter hated. He kept teasing her, but she kept wearing the darn thing.
Peter noticed that Neal had gotten his own sunglasses when they found him waiting for them by the stairs that led down to the beach.
"Let's find some sea glass!" Elizabeth led the way down to the sand and supervised their efforts as they walked. She had a small canvas tote that she was keeping their finds in, but Peter saw Neal stash a few pieces in the pockets of his shorts.
"What are we going to do with all of this?" Peter asked as he dropped a handful into Elizabeth's bag.
Neal shrugged and kept his eyes focused on the ground.
They walked in silence for several minutes before Peter spoke up again. "So, I was thinking we could go out for dinner tonight. What do you say?"
"That sounds lovely." Elizabeth smiled and pulled him into a kiss.
Neal hesitated in his steps and then shook his head. "I'm kind of tired, but you two should go out and have fun."
"We could make it a late dinner," Elizabeth offered. "We'd like for you to come with us."
Neal walked a few more paces down the beach before taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly. "I'd rather stay in. Can we make dinner?"
Peter shared a 'what-can-you-do' look with Elizabeth before saying, "Sure. Let's barbecue outside."
"Oh, and we can steam vegetables. Maybe we can play a game of dice while Peter does the cooking for a change."
Peter raised an eyebrow which sent Elizabeth into a fit of giggles.
Neal turned back and gave her a fond smile. "Yeah, that'd be good."
They walked for a few more minutes before Peter noticed that the sky was starting to darken. He hadn't looked at a weather forecast since they arrived, but it definitely seemed like a storm was blowing in. "Let's head back."
It didn't feel like they'd walked that far, but the trip back was taking much longer than Peter thought it would. He couldn't even see the villa yet when the sky opened up and rain started to pour down on them. They all took off running, hoping to get back to shelter before they were thoroughly drenched, but luck wasn't on their side.
By the time they got to the house, they were completely soaked. Peter was bringing up the rear, watching his step up the terrible back staircase when Neal, who was five or six steps above him, slipped and fell with a cry of pain.
"Neal!" Peter leaned over him and reached out to pat him down. He felt Neal flinch and try to back away, but there wasn't anywhere for him to go. "Are you hurt?"
"My leg," Neal muttered and pulled his hands away from his shin to show the bloody wound.
"Damn." Peter wanted to see how bad it was, but the rain was coming down harder now and he had to squint to see Neal anyway. "Let me help you inside so we can see how bad it is. Can you stand?"
Neal put his hand up and motioned for Peter to move back a ways. He reluctantly did so and watched as Neal used his hands to push up to his feet, and then used the aging railing to keep vertical. He winced as he took a step up on his injured leg, and Peter all but growled.
"Let me help, Neal. Please." Peter slowly lifted the younger man's arm over his shoulder, giving him plenty of time to pull away if he needed to.
Neal stiffened at the contact but actually leaned on Peter more as they navigated the rest of the steps and then got inside the house.
Elizabeth had already grabbed an armload of towels and the first aid kit from their bathroom. She had a lamp on and a chair with its ottoman turned in that direction.
"Hon, go and put on some dry clothes while I take a look at Neal's leg," Peter said, as he helped Neal sit down.
"Are you sure?" Elizabeth asked softly.
Peter nodded. "Will you bring down a couple pairs of my sweatpants and two t-shirts when you're done?"
She nodded and headed for the stairs while Peter turned back to Neal and handed him a towel. Then, he put another one across the ottoman and gently lifted Neal's leg up onto it.
Neal complied with a hiss of pain.
"Just where it's cut. It's not broken or anything."
Peter glanced up at him and frowned. "Let's see what we can see once we get all this blood out of the way."
There was a bottle of saline in the rather large first aid kit, which Peter used to irrigate the wound. It was a deep slice right across the shin, which meant it was bleeding pretty steadily. "Sorry, Neal, but I need to apply some pressure."
Neal nodded his head and gripped the armrests of the chair tightly in anticipation of the pain. He winced and shifted his braced right hand, trying to find an angle that didn't aggravate his sore wrist.
Peter folded a washcloth and pressed it down against the wound, trying his best to ignore the whimper that Neal hadn't been able to hold back. He held the washcloth there with one hand while he fumbled a dressing out of the first aid kit with his other hand and ripped open the packaging with his teeth.
"Peter!" Elizabeth exclaimed from the stairs as she hurried back down. She dropped the clothes she was holding onto the floor and grabbed the package from his mouth. "You couldn't wait two more minutes?"
He didn't bother to respond, but he did let her take over with the kit. Soon enough, there was a line of necessary supplies sitting at his side.
"Hey," Elizabeth took Peter’s chin in her hand and turned his head until he was looking at her. "Let me take over while you get cleaned up."
"I got it."
"Hon, you're going to get sick. Go dry off and put on fresh clothes."
"Peter, it's okay," Neal said through clenched teeth.
Peter shivered, suddenly aware of how chilled and wet he was. "Here," he took Elizabeth's hand and put it over the cloth on Neal's leg. "Keep the pressure on until I get back. We might have to take him in for stitches."
"No!" Neal frantically shook his head, but Peter quickly placed a hand on his chest to stop him from moving. Neal pushed Peter’s hand away but stayed in the chair.
"We'll see how bad it is when I get back. Try to relax and stay calm."
Neal glared at him but didn't say anything and didn't make another move to get up.
Peter picked up a towel and a set of clothes from the floor and disappeared into Neal's room where the first floor bathroom was.
Neal groaned when Elizabeth shifted her grip and pressed hard against his leg. He couldn't believe it hurt so badly, but he hadn't gotten a good look at it yet. He closed his eyes and hoped that it didn't require a trip to the hospital. It was hard enough having Peter and Elizabeth tending to him; it would be so much worse if it were strangers. Back when he was in the hospital, he knew intellectually that the nurses were there to help him, but everything they initially did hurt and he was always anxious and unsettled in their presence.
He shivered and pulled the towel around his shoulders even tighter around his body. Though the ambient temperature was warm, the rain had been cold enough to give him a chill.
"How are you feeling, sweetie?"
"It's not that bad," he replied. "Peter's overreacting."
"That may be, but that's not what I asked."
He sighed. "I'm cold."
"We'll get that sorted out in a minute."
Neal nodded and closed his eyes, letting everything fade into the background for a minute while he centered himself. He was surprised to realize that Elizabeth's free hand was running gently up and down his uninjured shin, and he hadn't even noticed until now. It felt like she'd been doing it for a while, and it made him feel comforted for the first time in a long time.
Peter's voice startled him a few minutes later. "Let's take a look."
Neal's eyes popped open, and he watched warily as Elizabeth moved aside and Peter peeled the cloth off his leg. He hissed at the sharp return of pain but forced himself to stay still.
He couldn't see Peter's face, but he could see the wound now, and it looked terrible. Ragged, raw, and still bleeding sluggishly.
"El," Peter said quietly, "go and call the owners and see if there's a concierge doctor we can get out here."
Neal relaxed a little. He would absolutely take one doctor over an entire emergency room.
"Hang in there," Peter said to him. "I think you definitely need some stitches, but we'll see what we can do about that from here. In the meantime, I'm going to wrap it up tight and then we can get you into some warmer clothes."
Neal nodded and watched as Peter wrapped his leg in gauze and bandages. Then, he accepted a dry towel and sat up so that he could towel off his hair and upper body better. He stripped off his shirt, aware of the scars on his chest and back that were now visible.
Before he could ask for the t-shirt that Elizabeth had brought down earlier, she stepped into the living room, holding up another, larger towel. She was careful not to stare at his chest as she hurried over and lay it over him. It was warm, fresh out of the dryer, and it was amazing. He snuggled into it, content to stay exactly where he was for a moment.
Elizabeth smiled at him. "Let's get you changed, Neal. I don't want you to get sick."
He pouted but sat up. "Can I have the shirt?"
Elizabeth handed it over, and he pulled it on quickly. It was too big, but it smelled like Peter and Elizabeth's sheets back in Brooklyn, and he smiled a little at the thought.
"Okay, now comes the hard part." Peter held up the pair of sweatpants, and Neal frowned.
"I can do it."
"Let's not test that bandage. I'm no doctor."
Neal groaned but started unbuttoning his shorts under the towel. He slid them and his boxer briefs down to his knees, but then he was forced to let Peter ease them over the bandages and off his feet. He lay back and just breathed for a moment while Peter got the sweatpants up over the bandages. He felt exhausted, and it had only been about twenty minutes since they'd gotten back to the house.
"Your turn, buddy," Peter said. Neal reached down under the towel and wiggled the sweats the rest of the way on.
"I called for a doctor, and he should be here soon," Elizabeth told them as she sat down on the floor on Neal's uninjured side and leaned against his chair. Her hand started moving slowly up and down his leg again, and it felt amazingly comfortable even while his other leg throbbed. He closed his eyes and let Elizabeth and Peter deal with what was going on. "Peter, would you grab the blanket that I put in the dryer?"
Peter didn't respond verbally, but Neal heard the rustle of his clothes as he stood and moved away from them.
"Thank you," Neal whispered to Elizabeth.
She patted his foot and said, "You're very welcome, sweetie."
Neal was nearly asleep when the doctor arrived. Peter had let him in and led him into the living room where Elizabeth was still sitting on the floor next to Neal's legs.
"I'm Dr. Giroux," he said with an accent that wasn't too heavy.
"This is my wife, Elizabeth," Peter introduced, "and our friend, Neal. He fell on the stairs during the storm and cut his leg pretty badly."
"Let's have a look." The doctor kneeled beside the chair and set the large bag he was carrying to the side. He pulled a pair of latex gloves out of the side pocket and put them on.
Neal tensed when Giroux started unraveling the bandage. It took all he had not to jerk his leg away from the man's touch, even though it was gentle.
Giroux glanced up at him a few times but didn't say anything until he was finished examining the wound, which was still bleeding a bit. "You need a few stitches, but it looks mostly superficial. Are you able to wiggle your toes?"
Neal did with only a slight wince when the wound's edges moved and caused the bleeding to start up a little more seriously for a moment.
The doctor nodded and started pulling supplies out of his bag. Two of the first items were a syringe and a vial of liquid. "This will relax you a little. It will be less painful if you're relaxed."
"No!" Neal sat up and tried to pull away from the doctor.
Giroux blinked and sat back on his heels to give Neal some space, but he also got a firm grip on his ankle to keep him from moving the injured leg too much. "What's wrong?"
Peter frowned and crossed his arms over his chest. "It's a very long story. Is there any way to do this without giving Neal a sedative?"
Giroux clearly didn't like it, but he nodded. "Will you consent to me numbing the area around the cut, Neal?"
"Okay, then we'll do that. It's going to take me a few minutes to get set up. Try to relax."
Neal nodded and leaned back in the chair but kept his eyes on the doctor whenever the man was in the room. He disappeared briefly into the kitchen to wash his hands, and Neal half-hoped he wouldn't return.
"Is there anything that we can do to help?" Elizabeth asked softly. She offered her hand, and Neal tentatively reached for it. She squeezed his fingers gently, and he returned the gesture with a little more strength.
"This is good," he said after a moment.
While he sutured Neal's shin, Dr. Giroux kept up a running commentary of what he was doing and what they needed to watch out for in regard to infection or complications with the wound. Neal watched the doctor but didn't have the energy to keep up a conversation. Luckily, Peter and Elizabeth were both very attentive to what Dr. Giroux was saying.
After the doctor left, Elizabeth and Peter helped an exhausted Neal to his bedroom and got him settled in bed. Peter watched as Elizabeth sat on the bed by Neal's hip and brushed his hair out of his face. It was clear that she was relishing being able to touch him without fear of upsetting him.
"How are you feeling?" she asked.
"Tired," he murmured.
"Get some rest, all right?" Peter patted Neal's foot through the blankets and tapped Elizabeth's shoulder to get her moving.
She stood up, but Neal clutched at her hand.
"Don't go," he said softly, blinking blearily at her.
Elizabeth glanced over at him, and Peter frowned. Neal's bed wasn't big enough for all three of them, and Peter didn't think the younger man was up to moving upstairs. After a brief, silent debate full of eyebrow raises and forehead wrinkles, Elizabeth suddenly grinned. "I'll be right back."
She smoothly disentangled her hand from Neal's while pulling Peter closer and sliding Neal's hand into his. Peter immediately started rubbing his thumb across Neal's knuckles.
"Try to sleep," Peter whispered.
Neal's eyes were closed, but he squeezed Peter's fingers in response. He was hanging on to consciousness by his fingernails, and Peter could make his guesses about why but Neal was in no shape to talk about it.
A few minutes later, Elizabeth returned with her arms full of bedding and pillows.
"What's all this, Hon?"
"We're going to sleep in here tonight," she replied.
Neal had roused at the slight commotion and watched her get the blankets situated through heavy eyelids. "Thanks."
"Just rest." Peter leaned over and kissed his forehead lightly. "We'll be right over there."
Neal let his hand go and almost instantly fell asleep. Peter gingerly moved off the bed and flipped the lamp off on his way to the makeshift sleeping bag. "You're a brilliant woman," he whispered and kissed his wife. She smiled against his lips and kissed him back.
When Neal woke in the morning, he was surprised to see how bright it was in his room. He'd slept for more than eight hours, and he hadn't done that… in a very long time. He sat up, stretched and gingerly got to his feet. His leg was sore, but he'd had much worse.
After he washed his face and brushed his teeth, he headed into the kitchen where Peter and Elizabeth were sitting at the breakfast bar sharing a large omelet.
"Morning," he greeted and limped by them to get a glass and the bottle of orange juice out of the fridge.
"Let me do that, sweetie." El hopped off her stool, but he waved a hand at her.
"It's fine. I've got it."
She frowned but sat back down. "Do you want an omelet and toast?"
Neal considered it for a moment before nodding his head. He was feeling hungry, and their breakfast looked pretty good. "Please."
While Elizabeth was cooking the eggs, Neal sat down beside Peter and took a section of the paper that was laying at his friend's elbow. It was mostly about French politics, but Neal didn't have much interest in that today, so he leaned over to see what Peter was concentrating on. It was a half-completed crossword puzzle.
"Seventeen down is Tautou."
"It can't be," Peter replied, stabbing at the third letter, which was a 'u' based on the across answer of 'humpback'.
"T-A-U-T-O-U. She's an actress."
Neal laughed lightly at Peter's befuddled expression, which caused Peter to look over at him with a wide grin.
Elizabeth slid a plate in front of Neal and handed him a fork, so he left Peter to his puzzle while he ate. She'd added sautéed onions, mushrooms and peppers to the omelet, and Neal finished the whole thing while Peter filled in the last answers.
"What should we do today?" Elizabeth asked, looking from Peter to Neal and back again.
Peter shrugged while he picked up everyone's plates and got started on the dishes. "I'm thinking a board game competition. Winner gets his or her choice of a foot or shoulder massage tonight."
Elizabeth laughed. "We haven't done that in years."
Peter just smiled and glanced at Neal. "What do you think? I saw a stack of games in the hall closet."
"Okay," Neal agreed, since he didn't feel up to moving around too much. His leg was starting to ache, and he was just about to ask Elizabeth where the painkillers were when she handed him a couple of white pills.
He smiled his thanks and downed them with the last of his juice. They chatted while Peter finished cleaning up, then relocated to the living room to begin the tournament. It was a lazy day, with a break for lunch and an afternoon nap, but Elizabeth managed to narrowly defeat both guys in three out of seven random games.
That night, they went their separate ways, with Neal in his own bedroom and Peter and Elizabeth upstairs in theirs. Neal had only been asleep for about an hour when he clawed his way back to consciousness through one of his more dark and twisted nightmares. Flashes of manacles and fists and blood were still in the front of his mind when he stumbled into the bathroom and splashed cold water on his face. It took him several minutes to calm his heart and his breathing. By then, he'd already retrieved a pillow and blanket from his bed and was halfway up the stairs.
He stopped outside Peter and Elizabeth's door and listened. They were both sleeping. He could hear El's soft snores and Peter's mumbling through the thin wood. Not wanting to wake them, he curled up on the floor and let their normal bedroom sounds soothe him.
Peter was the first one up in the morning. His cell phone had vibrated across the night stand and woken him just after dawn. It was Diana with some questions about a case he'd worked more than eight years ago, but the suspect had never been caught and someone with her MO had popped up on the White Collar radar these last couple of days.
He'd been in the middle of describing what he remembered about the case when he opened the bedroom door and nearly stepped on Neal. Peter rubbed his eyes and blinked down at the slumbering form. Then, he carefully stepped over him and made his way down to the kitchen to start a pot of coffee. He'd be damned if he was going to wake Neal from a sleep deep enough that Peter nearly trampling him hadn't woken him up from.
Later, he heard Neal limp down the stairs and back into his own bedroom, but Peter was hard at work at the kitchen table with his laptop and the case files that Diana had emailed him.
Elizabeth appeared at half past seven. She gave him a kiss as she made her way to the coffee pot.
Peter looked up and smiled at her. "Guess who was asleep outside our door this morning."
Her eyes widened and she glanced in the direction of Neal's room. "Really?"
Peter nodded. "He was pretty dead to the world too. I was down here for at least an hour before he came down."
"Did you talk to him about it?"
"No, I think he went back to sleep. He didn't come in here."
"What do you think it means, Hon?"
Peter grinned then and stood to pull her into his arms. "He's going to be okay. That's what it means. He's starting to trust us again."
On the back, he wrote:
France has been amazing. I'd forgotten how peaceful it could be here. Thank you for making the trip possible.
Elizabeth loves the beach, and we gathered sea glass the other day until a storm forced us to return to the villa.
Peter's been making the best of it. I know sun and sand aren't his idea of an ideal vacation (that would be more like Opening Day at Yankees Stadium) but I hope he's enjoyed some of his time here.
I've missed you and Mozzie. I hope you've kept him out of serious trouble, and I look forward to seeing both of you soon.
Thank you for reading!