Title: Time in the Bat Cave
Genre: hurt comfort, angst
Warning: serious infection/illness
Spoilers: any and all
Summary: Neal contracts a serious illness, Peter waits. This is for the serious illness square on my dark_bingo card, it fills the major illness square on my angst bingo card, and it fills the severe/life threatening illness on my hc bingo card! Wowza! A triFICta! Okay I stole that from rabidchild67 who also gets many kudos for supporting my writing of this fic and doing the beta!
The smallest thing would change his world. It had just been a scratch, a simple turn of the skin. When it happened, Peter didn’t even truly take notice of it. He wasn’t even sure Neal had taken more of a passing interest in it.
Neal had actually said ”yikes” when the small bat lit on his hand as he searched the warehouse for the evidence they needed. He shook his hand twice and frowned, cursing the flying rodent and then added, “Ouch.”
The words sound like a siren in Peter’s head now, though when it happened Peter hissed at Neal and told him to pipe down. They were on a case and they didn’t need to scare their quarry. The next minutes were a mass of confusion in Peter’s memories but the details are still there, still haunting him as he sits in the corner of the hospital room, head in hands.
He should have known better. He’s an F.B.I. agent, but that day, that operation went south and one of their agents had been shot. Peter never looked back, never thought how a simple ‘ouch’ could turn into life and death. Looking back, the bullet wound to the arm of one of the young agents could not even come close to outweighing that simple word, that simple exclamation.
A little over a month later, Peter’s life would funnel down to the moment of Neal shaking his hand. He doesn’t know if he imagines the squeal of the bat or if it protested as Neal yanked his hand away from it. It is a gradual decline, slow and broken. As each flake of Neal’s perfect façade falls way, Peter inches back to Neal’s hand, the hand jerking away from the small animal, the hand with the tiniest red pucker of a bite.
Peter looks up at the bed through the isolation window, watches as his friend, his partner, twitches ever so slightly in the bed as the virus makes its way through his nerves to his brain. He lets out a sigh, but it shivers through him and he thinks he might need to vomit. He doesn’t see her, doesn’t hear her enter, but like some miracle Elizabeth’s arms are around him, holding him, keeping the pieces together. He thinks he’s lost parts of himself and wants to tell Elizabeth to find them, but it is no use.
It was just the flu; he repeats to nobody, says it over and again in his head. Neal had the flu like thousands of other New Yorkers. Everyone gets the flu. The illness lingered beyond a few days; it turned into a week, and then ten days. Neal cradled his left hand close to his body, not letting anyone touch it. He started to have trouble swallowing, even water. Peter finally convinced Mozzie to get Neal to the hospital.
They tested him for everything and all the current viruses to in-vogue illnesses and came up negative. Peter had relaxed a degree; it would just be the flu. He promised himself as the doctor went over Neal’s chart again and again. Finally a young intern quizzed Peter on Neal’s history.
“Any recent trips outside the country?” she’d asked.
“No,” Peter said, pointing at the anklet. “Not recently.”
“Any interaction or relationships with someone who’s been ill?” The woman stared at him, her eyes tired but still alert in that paradoxical way young people can affect.
“Not that I know of,” Peter answered.
“Exposures?” Peter asked. He hadn’t been sure he understood the question.
“Chemicals, biological agents, animals?” Her large round eyes reminded him of radio telescopes searching for signals and information he just did not have.
“Chemicals?” Had Neal been doing laboratory work again? It was always possible.
“Chemicals, biological agents or animals?” She nodded as if to prod him. “Animals like cats, dogs, you know, rats.”
Lumbar punctures to test his cerebral spinal fluid occur after Peter finally recalls the bat. The CDC is called in, Neal is placed in isolation, and the diagnosis is confirmed. No one can enter the room without biohazard precautions. He is a threat to everyone; he is dying. He has rabies.
They explain the worst of it; the fatality rate is near a hundred percent. Vaccination is out of the question once the disease has manifested. Palliative care is the best they can offer. They transfer Neal to Mount Sinai. The staff and hospital facilities are set up to handle infectious diseases. They use words like simulating brain stem death and cerebrum vasospasm. They keep him sedated most of the time to manage his pain. The sedation keeps him in a twilight sleep.
Although human to human transmission is rare, it can happen. They promise to make Neal as comfortable as possible. In his lucid moments, Neal’s eyes search the room and he whispers in a hoarse voice for Peter, and sometimes for his mother. It breaks Peter’s heart when he hears from Mozzie that Neal has no family he can call on anymore.
Neal’s lips are cracked and bleeding from the lack of moisture. He no longer tolerates any form of water or nutrients through oral administration. Intravenous lines map his body. The beep of the heart monitor waits to sound the cardiac arrest. These are his last moments and the terror pierces deep into Peter until he cannot breathe, until he cannot stand entering the isolation room dressed in the garb of astronauts.
As he sits defeated in the outer room listening to the slight moans coming from Neal, he hears another doctor or nurse enter. He doesn’t look up; there is nothing to look up to see. Instead of walking into the room to check on Neal, the doctor stops in front of Peter and waits.
He looks up to see a short woman, the size of maybe a fourteen year old, staring at him. Her hair frizzes out at all angles and he’s certain he glimpses the tip of several ballpoint pens sticking out of her curls. She has a wide face to go with the frantic hair and a soft smile that touches her eyes when she talks. Her skin has olive undertones but her eyes are a washed out blue, they are distracting.
“Agent Burke?” she asks, then offers her hand. “I’m Doctor Melissa Angelo.”
Peter nods; he isn’t in the mood to listen to the death sentence prognosis again. He takes her hand, if only to be polite. She gives him a firm shake.
“I work in infectious diseases with a specialty in neurology and rabies.” She waits and when he doesn’t respond, when Elizabeth just sniffles, she slides into the chair next to him and folds her hands in her lap. “Call me, Melissa; we’re going to get to know one another well over the next few months.”
Months? It draws his attention and he glares at her. “Neal doesn’t have that long.”
“He will, if I have anything to say about it,” she says and her smile is fierce, determined, and bold.
Peter’s heart rips a hole in his chest as it drums a beat. “What?”
“Have you heard of the Milwaukee Protocol?” When he doesn’t answer and Elizabeth just shakes her head, the doctor continues, “Let me start with this, rabies is a terrifying disease and most people are frightened of it with good reason. But one of the biggest misconceptions is that it causes irreversible brain stem death. It does not. Rabies is not cytolytic, it doesn’t kill cells. The problem is that it is also very poorly inflammatory, which means the body doesn’t defend against it. By the time the body puts up a defense, there are other mitigating issues that lead to death.
“The Milwaukee protocol has been used with some very limited success for the treatment of rabies. It involves putting the patient in an induced coma, giving them a cocktail of anti-virals and waiting for the immune system to kick into high gear. By doing this, we give the patient’s natural immune system time to defend itself before the side effects of the infection cause death.”
“It works?” Peter forces the words out, they jumble in his throat and choke him.
“It has some very limited success, not great but better than what we’ve seen without any treatment at all.” She lowers her eyes and says, “Agent Burke, I won’t lie to you. Your friend is dying. The official fatality rate for rabies is ninety seven percent, but the three percent survival is questionable because those cases were never truly confirmed as rabies. There’s very little we can do. This is our best chance, even if it really isn’t a great one. It increases his chances of living into the double digits.”
She frowns but says, “The cases are single digit cases, so the statistics are still in question. But somewhere around ten percent chance of survival, it is so much greater than the questionable three percent.”
The words whirl around in his brain and he cannot make sense of them. All he can hear is the last part of the sentence – questionable three percent chance of survival. He drops his head into his hands again and he feels Elizabeth run small circles over his back. This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen, he keeps thinking. After Elizabeth’s safe return, after Neal’s confession, Peter had come to terms with the ultimate failure of their partnership, their trust. He considered Neal with fresh eyes and weighed whether or not the commutation of his sentence should occur. Now the panel has been indefinitely suspended as they wait for Neal to succumb to a freak bite by a wayward bat.
He didn’t want revenge. He wanted Neal to understand, to learn his lesson. He never wanted this. He wants to pound his fists on the ground and scream to whatever higher power there might be, he wanted a new start. He swears it.
“Agent Burke? Peter?” The doctor says and she bends down to meet his eyes. “I would like to get your consent immediately. We need to do this before the delirium sets in, before vasospasm in the cerebrum, before the virus does damage. The faster we start the protocol, the higher chance your friend has.”
Peter glances up at her. Though he towers above her in height, his bones, his substance shrinks back, shrivels and congeals. He feels old, unworthy, unwanted. Only Elizabeth’s hand on his arm stops him from breaking down.
“Sure, yes,” Peter says. It is a hope, it is a possibility. “Where do I sign?”
The doctor waves to the hallway and Peter glimpses a nurse standing to the side, waiting. The young woman enters and offers him the clipboard. She points to the important parts of the consent form, explains the experimental status of the treatment, the risks. Peter ignores all the information and scratches his signature whereever they tell him.
“I’ll get prepped to start the protocol,” the doctor says as she stands. “You might want to explain it to your friend. He’ll be in a coma for anywhere between a week to ten days. Following that, if his immune system doesn’t kick in,” she stops and then adds, “if his immune system doesn’t kick in he probably won’t come out of the coma.”
She’s telling him to say goodbye. Elizabeth gasps and puts a hand over her mouth. Peter grabs her other hand and says, “That’s not going to happen.”
The doctor purses her lips, nods, and excuses herself. The nurse ushers them over to the side room with the masks, the scrubs, the gloves. An automaton sensation overcomes Peter; every movement like that of a robot. He struggles as he puts the gown on over his clothes, pulls on the mask, covers his eyes with goggles, and snaps on the gloves. Elizabeth readies as he finishes. She reaches a gloved hand out to his and they walk into the room together.
The silence hits him first. It isn’t true silence, the machines beep and chirp. The blood pressure cuff clamped around Neal’s arm breathes in and out as he is monitored. The lights are low but there is a window with the view of the sky. He thinks of Neal, trapped on the anklet, thinks of Neal, committed to stay here. His heart sinks, causes nausea to come over him.
Elizabeth moves over to the bed but Peter stays back toward the window. Leaning over, Elizabeth strokes a hand over Neal’s sweaty brow. Peter sees the nurses have applied a balm to his cracked lips, but his face and cheeks are still chapped from his inability to swallow his saliva.
Peter stares out the window; he’s not sure he’s ready to say goodbye. The thought of Neal walking out of his life twists in his gut. He glances at the bed, watches as tremors shiver through Neal’s body, hears his wife speak in low tones.
“Mom?” Neal whispers. His focus is bleary and dazed as he searches the room.
Elizabeth makes a tiny sound that rips the shields Peter’s constructed, tears them down until he cannot bear to stand. He steadies himself against the window sill. His wife shushes Neal and waves Peter over.
He doesn’t move; she peers at him, and tells him to come. His feet feel as if they are stuck in mud. She stands up straight and glares at him.
He opens his mouth as if to say something and the only sound that comes out is an unintelligible cry. In seconds, she has him in her arms, her strong embrace. He holds on and wants to disintegrate into her touch; he wants to forget everything that’s happened in the last days. Instead, Elizabeth leads him to the bed and he reaches to Neal’s bound arms. It is another shackle of the disease that Neal wouldn’t even try to release himself from the bindings. The bindings strapping him to the bed are for his safety, not to secure him for legal reasons.
Peter grasps his hand in his and looks at Neal. The slight quakes course through his body. He makes nearly inaudible moans as the medication can do nothing for the escalation of pain. Neal faces away from him and Peter squeezes his hand.
The low scratch of his voice touches the air. His eyes glazed yet with a fearsome clarity that strikes Peter as perceptive and terrifying all at once. “Peter?” Neal turns and looks at him. “What – what?”
“You’re sick, Neal,” Peter says and his words break. He glances at Elizabeth for help.
She stands at the head of the bed and says, “The doctor says you’re very sick. They are going to do a special treatment.” Elizabeth looks back at Peter and he identifies the same trepidation in her eyes.
“When they give you the meds, you’ll sleep for a while,” Peter says, gathering all of his reserves and his training as an agent. “You’ll sleep as you heal.”
“Will- will it,” Neal murmurs. He flinches as his body seizes. Panting, he continues, “H-hurt?”
Elizabeth cups his face with her hand. “No, no, you’ll be sleeping.”
Peter reaches in and holds onto Neal’s shoulder. “We’ll be here the whole time.”
Neal nods but turns away as the disease surges through him and he bites back a scream. The pain suffering through Neal is palpable and Peter swallows back bile.
Peter doesn’t notice when the doctor and nurse join them. The doctor speaks in quiet tones as Neal shifts and curls against the bindings on his wrists. “In order to treat you, Mister Caffrey we need to put you in a medically induced coma. Agent Burke has given his consent for this procedure but I wanted to explain to you that it really is the only way.”
Neal clinches his fists and shudders through another seizure. His focus wanes and ebbs as the doctor speaks; Peter sees he is barely holding onto reality. The drugs are heavy in his system, fighting them to stay aware means he experiences more pain, more distress.
“Mister Caffrey do you understand?” the doctor asks.
“Just do it, now,” Peter says a curse on his lips.
“I know he’s a ward of the federal prison system, but I do not intend to use an experimental protocol on someone who is cognizant and part of a vulnerable population without explaining it to them,” the doctor states.
“You have my consent, he’s suffering, just do it.”
Neal’s words strangle in his throat as more saliva smears over his chin and lips.
The doctor injects the port on the intravenous line and the last glimmer of light drains from Neal’s eyes. Peter turns away, gulping for breath and ignoring the instructions of the doctor to the nurse. His shoulders ache; his eyes burn from holding the tears back for too long. He wants to go home, he doesn’t want to leave. He hates Neal, he loves him. It is Elizabeth again, who holds him and guides him out of the room.
The last days had been long, but the wait will be even longer.
They take blood from Neal several times a day, analyzing it for the white blood cell counts and to examine whether or not the antibodies against the virus are increasing in number. Neal is subjected to lumbar punctures to test for antibodies in his central nervous system. Peter doesn’t ask, he swallows back his fear and watches as Neal sleeps away the last vestiges of life.
They rotate turns sitting with Neal in the isolation room or right outside, watching him from the window. Diana, Jones, June, Sara, Elizabeth and even Mozzie takes a turn. Peter talks to Mozzie in the late evening one day. Mozzie has no regrets about the lost treasure but Peter catches a stray glance from him that has a slight accusatory glint to it. Peter says nothing.
The guilt is real and part of what he hangs onto during the long days and cold nights. He asks for a cot to be set up in the observation room. Hughes pulls strings and gets Neal listed as a flight risk since they removed the anklet after the official diagnosis. How a person in an induced coma might flee the country is another argument entirely, but the doctor says nothing when she reads the order. Her round, hazy blue eyes offer him only comfort.
They take turns sleeping in the hospital, but Peter visits every day. The burden of standing sentinel over Neal falls on him and he accepts it. It is his shield, his badge of honor or dishonor. He doesn’t sleep when he is at the hospital. He doesn’t sleep at home.
He sits, and watches, and wonders how their lives might have been different if he hadn’t accepted Neal’s idea of the anklet. Neal would be alive, in prison and waiting out his sentence. Peter would be at work, at home, making love to his wife. Things would be different, but so much more bereft. He cannot go back to those days of steel gray, he wants this new life he’s fashioned where someone questions always and leads him to places he’s never been.
He feels as if he is dying with Neal.
On the back porch of his house in Brooklyn, he sips his beer and glances up at the dulled night sky. It is day five and the doctors are happy with Neal’s immune response, but at this point it literally means nothing. An immune response is expected, how fast and how strong is more important. The protocol has to race the virus as it tries to invade the brain, as it eats away at the essence of who Neal is. The immune response has to be stronger, has to win the competition with the virus in order to save Neal’s brain. The idea of the loss of that brilliance twists something down in his gut. Containing his fear and rage has become a daily chore.
The back door swings open and Elizabeth, in her robe and slippers, joins him. She stands to the side and doesn’t sit down. Satchmo whines at the door. Waving him off, Elizabeth slips onto the chair next to Peter and reaches out to touch his arm.
“Come to bed, Peter,” she whispers.
He shakes his head and frowns. “I can’t, I just can’t.”
“It’s been days, it will be more days still. Come to bed.”
He looks up at the spattering of stars in the sky and then back at his wife. “I don’t understand it, El. I don’t know.”
“He’s always lived a charmed life, maybe, I don’t know. But he makes it out and is better for it.” Peter places the beer bottle down; it bleeds condensation over the glass table top.
“Then he’ll make it this time,” Elizabeth states.
“Maybe not, maybe this is some cosmic jinx on him because of what he’s done, you know karma or something.”
She giggles, an honest giggle. “Peter, you don’t believe that.”
He sighs. “No, no I don’t.”
“So what is this about?”
He stops and slides his finger through the drips on the bottle. He folds his hands and puts his elbow on the table. He feels like he is in a confessional. “I feel guilty, El. Like I wanted something bad to happen to Neal.”
“Yes, maybe I wanted this to happen. I was so angry with him. The treasure,” Peter says and adds with a pat to her hand. “Keller. I wanted to hit him, to hurt him when I found out.”
“But you didn’t,” Elizabeth says. “You listened, you believed. Neal always counts on you believing in him, much to his own detriment.”
He nods and then says, “When I saw Keller beating the crap out of Neal – I just knew.”
He doesn’t want to say this, not to her, not to his wife. “I didn’t want to take it out on Neal. I wanted an excuse to save him from himself.”
“Neal has always been your project.” She rubs his arm. “Peter, you’ve never been in the revenge business. You’ve said it to me so many times when studying a case. It isn’t about revenge but justice. Justice was served when Keller was put in prison. Neal lost a fortune, he lost a dream. Justice was served.”
She tilts her head and smiles. “And now, Neal wants to build his life here. You’ll help him do that, you’ll show him the way.”
“If he gets a chance,” Peter mumbles.
She grabs onto his arm and says, “Please, Peter, for me, believe he will.”
He looks at her, seeing the pain and hurt marring her features. It is a sin for her to worry, so he concedes to this wish. He promises they will get through it, Neal will get through it. They will all survive. He promises that there will be more cases, that there will be a commutation hearing, that Neal will make more mistakes and Peter will rage at him. He vows life will continue as it always has with Neal in it.
He lets Elizabeth lead him to bed and they make a slow and desperate kind of love. It is reaffirming as he embraces her, as she cradles him. As the emotions ride through him, Peter finds a certain acceptance in her arms and falls into a slumber though it be tortured and troubled.
On day seven, they start to ease the drugs keeping Neal in a medically induced coma. There is no difference in his solid state. He still lies without movement, with lines and bags hooked up to him. His face looks gaunt and hollow, as if gravity has eaten a hole inside of him and he’s collapsing in on himself.
The doctor warns them that Neal is still very sick, that this will essentially be the test to see if the protocol has worked, but that his body is still fighting the virus. Once he is revived from the coma there is no turning back. If the virus waits at the gate of his neural processes, it will invade and they will have lost.
On the second day after the drugs have been lifted, Neal coils in his bed and opens his eyes. He doesn’t make any other sign that he is awake other than that, but the medical staff sees it as progress. He is still in isolation. His immune response is sky high the doctors report, they watch and wait as they administer anti-virals. His viral load is insignificant, so the medical staff is oddly buoyant.
The doctor reports the tapering of the sedation will lead to more function, but not to be surprised by the lack of motion or response. Neal might seem blind, deaf, unable to speak, even unable to move for days. The doctors caution them but also assert that since there has been no EEG loss they are on a promising pathway.
Time ticks by until finally one day, Neal follows the medical staff around the room with his eyes and mouths words. No one notices until Peter walks into the room and Neal locks his gaze.
“Neal?” Peter crosses the distance to the bed and clamps onto Neal’s hand.
Neal opens his mouth but doesn’t focus on Peter. He grabs onto Peter’s hand as if he is afraid and tugs at him. Peter looks up to the doctor.
“Some patients cannot speak after the infection. It will take time,” the doctor says. “He may not be able to move, or speak, or even recognize you. The fact that he is awake and moving is a very good sign. Paresis and sensory denervation should resolve in the next few weeks but it may take months for him to fully recover.”
Peter isn’t sure of half of what she says, but one thing is certain – she is talking in months and not hours. By the time Peter looks back to Neal, he has fallen into a deep sleep again. Peter sits by the bed holding onto him the rest of the day. Neal doesn’t wake up until the middle of the night. He tries to lift his head but cannot. The only strength he seems to have is in the hand holding onto Peter. The eerie light of the machines monitoring Neal’s condition throw elongated shadows about the room. Peter drifts off into a fitful sleep as Neal closes his eyes, again.
A slow and aching keening sound sears open Peter's chest, leaves him bare and vulnerable as Neal struggles. Peter jerks up and cups Neal's face in his gloved hands. It is the first time that he notices the tears streaming down Neal's face, the terror pulsing in his expression. Peter tries to comfort him like Elizabeth did right before they put Neal in the medically induced coma. It doesn't work.
Neal scrapes at the bedding with his right hand, cries out, and shudders. Peter has his face close to Neal's, their foreheads tipped together. For a startling moment, Peter thinks this is it, the treatment did not work, the doctor is wrong. His chest pounds, his eyes burn, and he drowns in the sorrow. The sorrow takes on a physicality, a thread of pain and loss so real and close to the surface that it threatens to overwhelm him.
It is the feel of Neal's lips against his cheek that slowly reels him back from the edge of despondency. He realizes Neal mouths words, a word over and over again. He leans back and gazes down upon the pale, carved out core of his friend.
In a whispered murmur, Neal says 'Peter' over and again as if it is a prayer, as if it is his tether to life.
"Neal," Peter says, catching his chin and turning his face to meet his focus. "I'm here. I'm here. Can you hear me? Tell me you can hear me."
Sound fails him. Neal searches around as if he cannot see Peter, as if the shadows of the disease lurk within the room to terrify and devour him still. His eyes scan around and Peter tilts his head again, touches his forehead to Neal's, hoping that the pressure, the force of the touch will be enough to telegraph to Neal that he is not alone. The cadence of Neal's voiceless murmurs somehow changes and Peter lifts up to try and read Neal's lips.
The words, the plea rips away at Peter's resolve. He grapples to hold on; he pushes away his own despair. "What are you afraid of Neal?"
Neal repeats - 'afraid, afraid, afraid.'
Peter can only surmise how frightened, how alone Neal must be considering his isolation, his inability to voluntarily move more than the fingers on one hand. With impaired sight and struck nearly mute, Neal is lost in a sea of overriding fear and emotions. As Peter starts to explain to Neal, to offer solace and comfort to his friend, someone yanks him from the bed.
The same moaned cry issues from Neal as he loses contact with Peter.
Two orderlies grip Peter's arms. The nurse stands close by.
"What the hell are you doing?" he says. "He's frightened. He needs help."
"Sir, I have to ask you to leave the room. This patient is in intensive care for a reason," the nurse says. Her expression is stern; her stance closed as she folds her arms about her.
The hoarse rasp of sound coming from Neal cuts through Peter. He will not leave, not now, not ever. "No. He's frightened. He can barely make any sound, he can't move, he can't see. I will not leave him to suffer. What the hell kind of nurse are you?" He shrugs off the orderlies, pulls off his mask and gloves, tears away at the gown and goes to sit with Neal.
"Please sir," she says. She picks out her words with care, he can tell. She's weighing his response, trying to reach the rational part of his brain.
He swallows once, nods and says, "I’m not leaving."
She sighs and her shoulders droop as she gestures for the orderlies to leave. "I'll call the doctor."
He nods, not sure why the doctor needs to be informed, but turns back to Neal. He grabs hold of Neal's hand and, immediately upon contact; the tension in Neal's body eases a degree. Now, Peter shushes him again and Neal turns to face him. His eyes wander about the room, still absent. Peter touches his face with his bare hand, feels the stubble, the heat of his skin and soothes him.
Sometime during the next hours, Doctor Melissa Angelo walks into the room. The first light of dawn colors the steel and chrome of the cityscape outside the window. She glances out the window and smiles before she approaches Peter.
It occurs to him then that she is no longer wearing the protective garb. She does snap on gloves as she examines Neal. Her gentle prodding does not disturb him and she logs several of the readings in the computer.
Peter hesitates but gathers his courage to ask, “How, how is he?”
She considers him then taps the computer once more before she turns to answer him, “His immune response has been excellent. His viral load is negligible. He’s doing well.”
He licks his lips once and asks, “Is he cured?”
She offers him a smile; it is light and bright and reminds him of the dawn. “The signs are very good.”
He hadn’t realized he is holding his breath until he gasps for one mouthful of air. His heart speeds up and he feels as if he’s raced uphill forever. “He doesn’t seem to be able to see or talk or move.”
She glides a stool over from the nurse’s station and sits. Her feet dangle off the floor. “This is completely normal for a person recovering from the aggressive form of sedation and rabies treatment. The virus has damaged-.”
“He has brain damage?”
She holds up a hand to stop him. “The brain is much more plastic and able to heal than we ever thought possible. We have to give him time and allow him to recover at his own pace.”
“He will recover?”
“It is my hope that he will, it just depends on his strength, his fortitude, and probably a little bit of luck. Is your friend a lucky man, Peter?”
Peter glances over his shoulder at Neal. He is still sleeping, the light from the window filters over his face and for the first time in weeks he looks at peace. “Yeah, yeah, I think so.”
She reaches over and grasps his folded hand. “He has a very good chance, a very good one.”
As he considers the last weeks, he remembers the moment he actually believed the doctor, the moment he let himself give way to hope. It had been a little over two weeks since the medical team brought Neal out of the drug induced coma. His progress had been iceberg slow, even painful to watch as he strived to comprehend all of what happened.
Neal seemed to have no memory of why he was in the hospital, and often fought against the nursing staff when they tried to care for him. It became a tug of war with him and his obvious confusion and jumbled mental state against the nurses and doctors working to heal him.
Peter confronts the issue head on one evening as Neal shoves the spoon of yogurt away from his mouth. The nurse sighs and tries again, asking him. Neal twists around in the bed. His limbs are still weak, his coordination off. When Peter appears at the door to the private room – Neal had been moved from intensive care three days prior – Neal smiles.
“Peter,” Neal says. His cadence possesses a halting quality as if he is just testing out his voice, the words. It sounds uniquely alien to Peter’s ears yet at the same time it warms him. It sounds like Neal.
“Neal, are you giving the young lady problems?” Peter nods to the nurse and she only rolls her eyes.
Neal shrugs. He has issues formulating thoughts into coherent strings of words.
Neal looks down as if he’s hiding something. The look is so uncharacteristically Neal, it sets off alarm bells, but then Neal says, “Not a baby.”
“But a very sick man, we agreed on that right?” Peter says as he stands next to the bed. He waves the nurse off and takes up the spoon.
Neal agrees but turns away from Peter when he offers him the spoonful of yogurt. “Please, Neal, you lost ten percent of your body weight. You’re skin and bones.”
As Peter leans in, Neal shifts and turns. Peter scoops the yogurt into Neal’s mouth then goes back to spoon up some more. He finishes feeding Neal and sets the spoon aside. Placing the empty container on the tray, Peter makes a mental note of how much Neal ate, not enough in his judgment.
“Cards?” Peter asks and pulls out a deck from his jacket pocket.
They started to play nearly every day. It is usually an easy game – either Go Fish or War, nothing too elaborate or dependent on strategy. Neal pulls the table forward as Peter takes the food tray and slips it onto the side counter of the room.
“Black Jack,” Neal says and waits for Peter to deal the cards.
Peter frowns and says, “Maybe War would be a better game.”
“Make it worth it,” Neal smiles and produces two twenty dollar bills out of thin air.
“Where did you-” Peter stops. “You did not steal them, did you?” He glances over his shoulder and thinks of the young nurse or even the overly muscular orderly.
“Nope, won them.” Again the smile, but it is so patented Caffrey, Peter has a hard time not believing him.
“You won forty dollars,” Peter states.
“Actually a hundred.” He winks at Peter.
“Hmm, how?” And suddenly he’s doubting Neal and he feels like a prick. “Never mind, let’s just play.”
“Black jack,” Neal repeats.
Peter snorts but silently agrees. Complex strategies and mathematics aren’t things he’s tested Neal on just yet. He deals the cards; they make promises, and bets. Over the course of a few hands, Peter wins ten dollars but then promptly loses it and another fifty before the sun sets. He starts watching the game more closely, sure that he must be missing something. He hears the clatter of Elizabeth’s sandals and turns to look over his shoulder.
She lifts up a bag of take-out, only gourmet take-out for Neal. “Good afternoon, gentlemen. Dinner has arrived.”
“Lucky you, she doesn’t know you’re a card shark,” Peter comments then turns back to Neal in time to see a slight flip of the card from his sleeve. Peter glares up at him and Neal flushes a brilliant red. “You’ve been doing that all along?” He seizes Neal’s arm and pushes up his silk pajama sleeves (only just provided to him by June yesterday) to find a slew of cards hidden in easy access pockets.
“Byron had -- all -- cool clothes,” Neal says with a wink.
Something about it feels right and good and so Caffrey that Peter grins back at him and tosses the cards aside. Neal laughs and the sound rings in the air like a song.
“Come now, clean up boys before it gets cold,” Elizabeth says as she waits for them.
After Peter clears the table and Elizabeth sets up the little picnic for them, Neal leans over and says to her, “Thanks.”
“Always,” Elizabeth says and squeezes his hand.
“For the extra deck of cards,” Neal smiles again.
Elizabeth eyes Peter for a second and then places a finger against her lips. “Shhh.”
“What?” Peter looks between the two of them. “You’ve corrupted my wife.”
Neal remains quiet as Elizabeth ignores him. She fills up a plate for Neal and offers it to him. He thanks her again and silently moves to eat. Both Elizabeth and Peter assist him since his muscle strength has not returned. Peter shakes his head, though it is not in exasperation, but more in realization. If he pays fifty dollars or a hundred or more, it would surely be worth it to see Neal being reconstructed, rebuilt into himself.
“Still easy mark,” Neal stammers, his words fail him.
Peter scowls but can’t keep up appearances and breaks out in a laugh. They join him and it is bright and perfect.
When Peter steps into the hospital room for the last time, he finds Neal sitting in a wheelchair with the tray table’s mirror bent to his height. He’s dressed impeccably but still cannot manage his tie as he fumbles with his left handed weakness. It is ironic that his left hand has lagged behind in recovery, though the doctor remains hopeful.
Peter smiles and says, “Big day today.”
Neal glances at him and says nothing. Frustration mars his features as the knot in the tie falls apart. Peter crosses the space and, without a word, slides the tie free of Neal’s collar. He straightens the shirt, notices the silk pocket square folded on the table awaiting its place in Neal’s jacket pocket.
“You’re just going home today,” Peter says and by home he means to his house. Neal should be going to a rehabilitation center, but he has refused and the state was somewhat hesitant to spend the money for a quality institution. Instead, Neal will stay with them for a few weeks, go to private physical therapy, and then transfer back to June’s when his progress supports independence. Peter doesn’t ask how Neal is paying for the individualized therapy, but he’s certain Mozzie has something to do with it.
“It’s part of-.” Neal stops, takes a breath as the words form. “Being me.”
The name, the person means so much to him. Peter nods and swallows hard, but he slips the tie around his collar, knots it and adjusts the tie pin. He uses special care to place the pocket square after he helps Neal don the jacket.
Neal grins at him. Peter asks, “Are you ready?”
Just as Peter stands to wheel Neal out of the room, Doctor Melissa Angelo walks in. Neal lights up and reaches for her. She’s at his side and gripping his hands. Her fierce determined look hasn’t faded but it softens and her watery, light eyes glint in the morning sun.
“I’m happy you’re leaving here, Mister Caffrey, my nurses and my orderlies have been somewhat distracted by your antics and your celebrity status.”
“Celebrity?” Peter says.
“It isn’t every day someone walks away from a diagnosis of rabies and lives,” she replies.
“Not really walking, just yet.”
“In time, you know that, I know that,” she says and wrinkles her nose in a grin. “You’ll be doing some of those catlike maneuvers you were telling me about in no time.”
“Catlike – what?” Peter says then waves them off. “Please don’t tell me, I really don’t want to know.”
Neal reaches around and pats Peter’s hand which rests on his shoulder. “It’s all right, Peter. It was – allegedly.” Neal turns back to the doctor and pulls her close again, holding her for too long but not long enough. Peter hears his whisper. “No words, no words.”
She tightens her embrace and says, “Just go and make me famous with your complete recovery, okay?”
He nods and she steps back. As Peter starts to roll the chair around the doctor, she calls, “One week, come back for a checkup.”
“Yes,” he confirms.
“El has the car at the discharge exit,” Peter says. He glides the chair to the elevator as the nurses and orderlies stop and watch. Many of them wave or smile as they pass; some of them offer Neal cards and small gifts. This has been Neal’s home for over six weeks. His progress has been nothing short of a miracle, and Peter still feels as if he’s walking a thin line between a dream and a nightmare.
The elevator arrives and Neal gives the crew his final thanks and they say their goodbyes. “Ready?”
Neal only gives a bow of his head. Peter looks down and realizes Neal’s hat is in the bag still. He digs it out and offers it to Neal. With a smile, Neal flips it on his head then tips it to the hospital staff as they get onto the elevator.
“You look good,” Peter comments, though he doesn’t know why he needs to fill up the empty space as the lift goes to the ground floor.
When Neal doesn’t respond, Peter glimpses a slight tremor in Neal’s shoulders, in his hands. He places both of his hands on Neal and says, “It’s good, you’re good.”
“Should be dead,” Neal says.
“No, no you shouldn’t. You beat this thing,” Peter says and walks around to face Neal. He recognizes the pain etched in his friend’s features. It reminds him of Neal’s reaction to Kate’s death, or Mozzie’s brush with death.
“No one is that – lucky,” Neal stammers out. “I feel – blessed, but-” He stops and stares at his left hand.
“But,” Neal says and looks up at Peter. “Do I – deserve it?”
Peter knows the answer; he understands the answer without a doubt. But he cannot give the answer to Neal; he has to learn it for himself. “What do you think?”
The elevator chimes and the doors open. Peter steps to the handles of the chair and pushes it out. They are there, the whole of the New York White Collar division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, lining the short corridor to the glass exit doors.
Hughes is closest to the elevator. As Peter moves past him, Hughes claps once, twice, and then the entire line joins in, encouraging and celebrating. Jones stands at attention as if he is still in the Navy and salutes as Neal glides by him. Diana’s face is steel and she holds herself rigid, but Peter catches the shine of tears in her eyes. When they come to the end of the line, Sara with Mozzie greets them. Neal has both hands in fists as if he’s digging his nails deep into his palms to control the emotions coloring his face, wetting his cheeks.
“What do you think?” Peter repeats.
Neal bites back his words as he blinks too many times. Peter braces his hand on Neal’s shoulder to steady him.
“Let’s go home,” Peter says and he knows for the first time that the nightmare, the guilt, and the fear will not follow them, will not haunt him. Neal is safe, and Peter has been saved.