Neal ran. His heart pounded in his throat until he thought he'd be sick, and he pulled in fast, rough breaths that were shredding his lungs, but he pumped his legs faster, ducking between cars and brushing past faceless pedestrians. He ran, focused only on Peter, who he could glimpse up ahead from time to time, too far away through the canyon of buildings.
He ran, sweat stinging his eyes, the city growing dark around him, and just as he was almost there, almost caught up to Peter, almost close enough to call out, almost close enough for Peter to hear him, Peter climbed inside the Taurus. The car door closed with a thunder clap, and Neal fell to the sidewalk as the car exploded in a ball of orange fire, lighting up the night and filling it with screams. He felt his own screams locked inside his chest, echoing like the last notes of a symphony as he crawled up to hands and knees and then to his feet.
He stumbled, trying to run even though he knew he was far too late to save Peter, until he fell again. His feet had found Peter, thrown free of the burning car, his suit scorched and smoldering, blood spreading out underneath his body. He reached a hand up to touch Peter's ash-covered face just as Peter's eyes turned blank and empty in death. The heat of the burning car reached inside Neal, the smoke burning his lungs to ash in his chest, and he closed his stinging eyes in surrender.
Peter had known that Neal wasn't feeling well from the time he arrived in the office that morning. His face was a sallow shade of pale and sweat dotted his forehead, but Neal brushed off Peter's concern and fixed himself a large mug of tea. Peter was willing to humor Neal as long as they were only working in the office, but when he heard Neal coughing violently and walked around the corner to find him leaning against the wall, eyes closed and one hand pressed flat on his chest, he knew it was past time for Neal to go home.
Peter thought about telling Neal to go to the doctor, but his fever didn't feel very high, and once he pulled himself together he looked only mildly sick rather than on the brink of collapse. Neal promised that he'd go straight home and dose himself with Nyquil, so Peter watched him get into a cab and then went back up to the office to keep working on the case at hand. They had a line on a con man who had recently escalated from swindling to murder, and Peter had every intention of getting the man in custody before he had the chance to hurt anybody else.
Neal woke, his aching body tangled in sweaty sheets, feeling exhausted and hollowed-out, though he couldn't understand why he felt so bad. He could remember being at work, reading through files on a new case, but nothing specific after that. He dragged himself to the bathroom, shivering in the cold morning air, trying to figure out why his chest burned from the slight exertion of walking across the room but unable to think past the general haze in his mind. He relieved himself and splashed some water on his face, and it was only when he looked at the mirror and saw the vacant look in his eyes that he remembered.
His stomach cramped, his knees shook, and he dropped down to the bath mat, holding onto the edge of the sink. Peter was dead. Dead. And he'd forgotten. And Peter was dead. Neal's throat ached, and he put one hand over his mouth as he coughed up a sob. He pulled himself to his feet, but he couldn't stand the sight of his reflection so he stumbled back to bed and crawled back underneath his damp sheets, pulling them over his head. His chest burned, his jaw ached with holding in sobs, and when he gave in and let go he didn't know if he'd ever be able to stop crying.
His head pounded, his whole body wracked with the misery he knew was his due for letting Peter die, and he didn't know when the hot darkness behind his eyes gave way to sleep.
Peter frowned at his phone as he sat stuck in morning rush hour bridge traffic. He'd called Neal before leaving the house to check on how he was doing, hoping that if Neal still wasn't feeling well that he could keep him from coming into the office. Peter had expected at least a text message in response, but there was nothing. He tried calling again but didn't bother leaving a second voicemail when Neal didn't pick up. Traffic finally started moving, and when Peter reached the other side of the bridge he took the turn that would get him uptown to June's house rather than the route directly to the office; if Neal thought he was well enough to work Peter wanted to see it for himself.
June's housekeeper answered the door and let Peter in, explaining that June was visiting her daughter for the day. The housekeeper hadn't seen Neal since he'd arrived home the day before, so Peter headed up the stairs, a bad feeling growing in his gut.
He knocked on the door, listening for movement within the apartment. "Neal?" He knocked again, tapping his foot as he waited. After another minute, he found Neal's key on his keyring and let himself inside, grumbling, "Damn it, Neal," under his breath.
The apartment was lit only by weak sunlight coming in through the windows, and as he walked inside Peter saw a suspiciously Neal-sized lump under the covers on the bed. He thought about just turning around and leaving Neal to sleep since he clearly needed the rest, but he knew he'd be distracted the rest of the day if he didn't at least check to make sure Neal didn't need more medicine or something.
From the side of the bed, he reached out and shook the part of the blanket-covered lump that he thought was probably Neal's shoulder. "Neal? You awake in there?" He felt Neal tense up under his hand and pulled back, expecting Neal to push the covers back and at least tell Peter to leave him alone. When no response was forthcoming, Peter shook Neal's shoulder again. "Neal, you okay?"
"I'm sorry." The words came at a whisper, far too intent for a man apologizing for sleeping in. The unease in Peter's gut kicked up a notch, and he pulled the covers back from where he thought Neal's face should be.
Neal's eyes were pressed closed in his pale face, and Peter could feel his fever as he folded the sheets down below his chin. "Neal, it's okay. I'm going to see if I can find a thermometer, see how high that fever of yours is."
"No," Neal replied, the word breathed out on a dry sob.
Peter patted Neal's cheek, noting that it was hot and dry despite the sweat gumming up his hair. "Neal, open your eyes," he ordered.
Neal's eyes began to open slowly, then widened as soon as he focused on Peter. He gasped, and the rapid inhale turned into a cough. The cough turned into a series of dry hacks that had Neal curling around his knees, his face red, struggling for air. Shocked, Peter wrapped an arm underneath Neal and climbed far enough onto the bed that Neal could sit leaning against him.
Eventually the coughs tapered off into panting breaths and Neal roughly whispered, "You're dead."
"Don't think so buddy. You, on the other hand, need to go to the doctor."
Neal shook his head and Peter adjusted his hold so that he could see Neal's face, which was wrecked with grief in a way Peter hadn't seen since just after Kate's death. "Just a dream," Neal muttered.
"Neal, I need you to open your eyes and look at me."
Neal blinked his eyes open and sighed, looking at Peter like he wanted to cry but didn't have any tears left inside him.
"Explain to me," Peter said slowly, "why you think I'm dead."
"I saw your car explode," Neal whispered. "I was too slow, and I saw your car explode. And I saw you die." A dry sob turned into another painful-sounding coughing jag, and Peter tugged Neal up to lean against the headboard and went to get a glass of water.
When he got back to the side of the bed, Neal was breathing heavily, leaning forward against his knees which were pulled up in front of him. Peter pulled him upright again and put the glass of water against his lips. "Come on, take a few sips. You'll feel better."
Neal dutifully took in a few swallows of water, then opened his eyes looking somewhat more alert. "Is this real?"
"Very real. I'm alive. You're alive, mostly."
"But your car--"
"My car is parked down on the street and thankfully not exploded. I think you've been running one hell of a temperature, had a nasty fever dream."
"But I woke up this morning, and it was real," Neal said weakly. "I knew it was real."
"That was just the fever. Now, do you think you can get dressed? I'm going to run you in to the urgent care clinic, see if you need some antibiotics or something."
Peter put the glass of water down on the bedside table then turned back to help Neal out of bed and found himself wrapped up in Neal's wiry arms. He returned the hug, rubbing Neal's back as Neal breathed raggedly against his chest. There wasn't anything he could say, but he could give Neal this--physical proof that he was alive. Neal's grief was unsettling and humbling, and Peter didn't know what to do other than hold him close and pat his back until he stopped shaking out of his skin.
Neal did whatever the people at the clinic told him to do. He let them stick a thermometer under his tongue and breathed on command for the doctor with the stethoscope. He sat still and let them put in an IV; anything, as long as Peter stayed within his line of sight.
He knew vaguely that he was being silly, that Peter would continue to be alive and okay if he was in another room or on the other side of the curtain. But every time Peter had stepped away Neal started to question himself--what was real, what was the dream. They both felt real and unreal in equal measure, and so he needed proof. Needed Peter.
By the time the nurse pulled the IV out of his arm, Neal felt better and much more certain that his current reality was the true one. The doctor gave him a diagnosis of acute bronchitis and prescriptions for antibiotics and an inhaler, and Peter drove him to Brooklyn instead of home to June's.
Peter nudged him in the direction of the overstuffed recliner and brought over blankets, tissues and a bottle of water in dizzying succession. When Peter sat down on the couch catty-corner to Neal with his laptop on a tray table and Satchmo at his feet, Neal gathered his brain cells to speak.
"Shouldn't you be at work?"
Peter gave him a long look, his face oddly somber. "Do you really want to be alone?"
Neal didn't really want to answer that question. "My fever's down," he said instead. "I'll be okay."
"I know." Peter turned the TV on to a news channel, the volume low enough to be a meaningless murmur.
Neal thought he should probably argue that Peter didn't have to stay, that he should really go in to the office, but he didn't. He covered himself with Elizabeth's lavender-scented blankets and watched Peter work until his eyes slid closed and he dropped into dreamless sleep.