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Before I Sleep

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Neal woke first the next morning with a dull ache inside his head and a restlessness that wouldn't allow for more sleep. Elizabeth had rolled away sometime since he'd last been aware so that her back was to him, and Peter's arm was easy enough to slip under, even though his head swam for a moment with the movement.

He padded softly down the stairs, making sure to keep a tight grip on the railing, and greeted Satchmo with a head scratch and a quiet, "Hey boy. You want out?"

Satchmo wagged his tail and trotted over to the door, waiting patiently for Neal to follow. Halfway across the room, vertigo hit and Neal flailed, getting his hands on the back of a kitchen chair to steady himself. He carefully lowered himself to the floor and put his head down. Satchmo whined in his ear when the dog came over to lick at his face, clearly worried about the odd behavior of his human.

"I'm okay, Satch," he said, when the Lab whined and shook with the repressed urge to do something. Neal understood the feeling; there was nothing to do but ride out the remaining symptoms of his concussion, and it frustrated him to no end.

A few minutes later, he was feeling steady enough to risk standing. He used the chair and kept his movements slow and smooth. His vision didn't even waver once he was fully upright, which also annoyed him. Sometimes the dizziness hit with no warning, and sometimes it came at the usual times: standing, moving too fast, leaning down to take off his shoes.

Satchmo seemed reluctant to leave his side when Neal finally opened the door, but the call of nature was too difficult to deny, and he bounded out into the yard after only a minute of wavering in the doorway.

Neal checked the cabinets in the kitchen for something quick and easy to make. His stomach had been sensitive the night before, but now he was ready for a little bit of something. He found a packet of instant oatmeal and got it going in the microwave before pouring himself a glass of orange juice and sitting at the island.

He was staring a hole in the counter when a soft hand touched his shoulder; he jumped and spun around too quickly.

"Whoa." Elizabeth's hands gripped his shoulders as he moaned and listed to the side. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you, sweetie."

The microwave gave a triple beep, meaning it had been done for a few minutes and no one had opened the door. Neal winced at the sound and moved to stand.

"Stay there. I'll get it." She pressed down firmly on his shoulders to keep him in place before heading to the microwave. Pulling open the door with one hand while using the other to dig through the cutlery drawer for a spoon, Elizabeth also twisted so that she could see him.

He didn't bother to protest that he could get it, not while she was wearing that look of concern and distress over the situation. Instead, he asked, "Did I wake you?"

"No." She stirred the steaming contents of the bowl and used a potholder to place it in front of him. "Brown sugar and cinnamon?"

"Please."

She complied using a small Tupperware container that was in the bottom cabinet and labeled 'brn sugar/cinn'. Neal had seen her use it a million times, but he hadn't remembered where it was when he'd been searching for the food in the first place. He sighed and rubbed the back of his neck to try and ease the tension that was building up.

"You okay? Is your head hurting again?"

"It's okay. I'm okay. This isn't my first concussion, El."

"Is that supposed to be reassuring?"

He flinched at her brusque tone and shrugged noncommittally. The oatmeal was still hot, so he stirred it with his spoon to keep from looking at her.

"I'm sorry, sweetie. That was rude. I'm just worried about you." She pursed her lips as she poured her own glass of juice. Then she sat down beside him and reached out to tuck his tousled hair behind his ear so that she could see the swollen bruise blooming across his cheek and around his eye. "What happened? Peter wouldn't tell me, and you weren't in any shape to do so last night."

"We were casing a bar to see if our suspect was going to show. He'd been there three or four nights in the last week, so it was a pretty good bet. Diana and Jones were out in the van so they could follow him afterwards. Peter and I were talking, having a couple of beers while making sure our suspect wasn't going to go out the back. This drunk guy started making comments about us. I didn't think we were being explicit about anything, but Peter's hand was on my back and I leaned over to say something in his ear, and this guy just exploded. He shoved Peter. I don't know what I was thinking or even what I said, but he punched me hard enough to knock me backwards into a table. Peter said I hit my head on the edge and then again on the hardwood floor." He shrugged again, like it was nothing, like it was an everyday occurrence in the life of Neal Caffrey.

Elizabeth's mouth opened in surprise, but she didn't know what to say. She hadn't expected that at all, and now she knew why Peter had been so upset about the whole incident last night.

"I think it freaked Peter out," Neal confided quietly. "When I woke up in the ER, he was arguing with a doctor about painkillers and more blankets."

She nodded and started rubbing slow circles across his back. "He called me from the ambulance, and I couldn't even understand what he was saying for a minute. All the words were running together, but I could hear the siren."

While he thought about how to respond to that, Neal ate a spoonful of oatmeal. It was warm and sweet, but wholly unappetizing in light of this conversation.

Satchmo scratched at the back door, ready to be back inside. Elizabeth stepped away to let him in, and he immediately went to Neal's side and sat down with his chin on Neal's knee.

Neal rubbed behind the dog's ears absentmindedly. "I was scared," he confessed, not looking up from his bowl. "If that guy could see through us, could see that Peter and I had a relationship, then everyone else must see it too. He was a perfect stranger. A random drunk guy, and he knew."

She turned him gently on the chair and put her arms around him. "I love you, Neal. Peter loves you. Who cares what some drunk idiot said in a bar last night?"

Neal pulled back far enough to see her face. "It's not the drunk idiot that I'm concerned about."

Frowning, she cupped his face in her hands so that he couldn't look away. "Honey, everyone knows that you and Peter have a great friendship, and there's no reason for them to think that it's anything more right now. When the time's right, we can share our news with our friends. Until then, don't worry about what drunk strangers think, okay?"

He rubbed his uninjured cheek against her palm and then kissed her palm. "Thanks, El."

"Now, are you going to finish that oatmeal?"

He grimaced and pushed the bowl away. "It's cold."

"Do you want something else?"

"No, thanks."

She filled a fresh glass with water and slid it across the counter to him with two Tylenol tablets. "Go back to bed."

He took the rest of his water with him as he cautiously headed back up the stairs. Satchmo followed him, keeping out from underfoot but close enough that Neal was aware of his presence.

"You know Peter won't let you up on the bed," Neal told the Lab as they walked into the bedroom.

"That's right," Peter agreed, giving the dog a stern look. He was sitting on the edge of the mattress with his feet halfway into his slippers. "Where were you?"

"No need to send out the Marshals." Neal held up his free hand in surrender. He sat down beside Peter and cradled his drink. "I thought I was hungry."

Peter frowned and put his arm around Neal's back. "Did you get sick?"

"No, just didn't eat much." Neal sighed and slumped to lean his head against Peter's shoulder. His trip down the stairs and back up had used up more energy that he'd thought it would. He was so tired all of the sudden.

"Lay down, and get some sleep," Peter said, taking the water glass from him to set it on the nightstand. "It was a long night."

"Sorry you guys had to do that," Neal murmured as Peter eased him down onto the mattress and helped him get comfortable.

Peter quieted him with a soft kiss on the lips. "Just sleep, Neal. Don't worry about it."

Neal turned onto his side and pulled Peter's pillow against his chest so that he could be surrounded by the familiar scent as he drifted off to sleep.

Peter stood in the doorway and observed Neal for a moment. He couldn't believe that the younger man had stepped in between him and the jackass in the bar last night. It was unexpected and unnecessary, and he really wished that Neal hadn't gotten hurt. He would have to be more careful in the future to watch out for him, to keep him safe.

~Finis

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