When Peter wakes up, the first thing he notices is that the scratchy hospital sheets have graduated from annoying to itchy. The first thing he sees is Neal sitting in a chair in the corner, tailor style, watching him.
"Hey," Peter rasps. He clears his throat and reaches for the water pitcher by the bed. With a trembling hand, he pours some into the matching cup and then takes a sip. "Have you been here all night?"
Neal grins and shrugs. "Someone needed to make sure that Nurse Nightingale kept her hands to herself. You're a married man."
Peter doesn't actually remember the nurse bothering him in the night, but Neal would know better than him. The concussion has robbed him of many of his important mental faculties, and he's looking forward to his brain coming back online soon.
"You should go home and get some sleep. They're supposed to spring me this afternoon."
Neal nods but doesn't move from his chair. It's dark in the room, but Peter can see some blood on the collar of Neal's white dress shirt, stark against his black jacket. He frowns and tries to remember if Neal was injured in the takedown that had landed Peter in this hospital bed. Peter doesn't see a bandage from his point of view, but he's sure that Diana or Jones or even Elizabeth would have insisted on Neal getting checked out by a doctor.
They're both silent for a moment before Neal motions to the newspaper laying open on the bedside tray table. "Can you believe the streak the Red Sox are having?"
Peter looks at him like his partner's grown a second head and Neal laughs.
"I've been bored waiting on you to wake up. It was either read the Sports page or mentally redecorate this room, which I've already done. Twice."
It's Peter's turn to chuckle, but it makes his head ache fiercely again. He squeezes his eyes shut and breathes through the pain. When he opens them again, Neal's attitude has turned somber.
When the younger man speaks, his voice is rough. "I'm sorry, Peter."
"For what? Making me laugh?"
Neal shakes his head and looks away. "I should have listened to you. McDowell was dangerous, much more dangerous than I gave him credit for. I'm sorry."
Peter barely remembers their suspect Thomas McDowell pulling a gun on them. There was a fight too; that's how Peter got knocked out, but it's mostly just a blur to him.
Neal is quiet, and Peter finds that unsettling. He can't help but ask, "Were you hurt? Did a doctor look you over?"
Neal's eyes finally meet his, and Peter flinches away from their hollow, sunken appearance. "They did what they could. How are you feeling?"
"Drugged and spacey. The doctor said I had a concussion, but I've never had one that felt like this before." Peter tentatively fingers the gauze bandage on his forehead that covers the neat row of stitches.
"You're going to be okay," Neal replies. "That's what matters."
Peter frowns and fits against his suddenly drooping eyelids, all this talking has been too much too soon after his head injury. "You're okay. That's important too."
Neal doesn't respond right away, and Peter's drifting toward unconsciousness when he hears the faint words, "Thank you. For everything."
The next time Peter surfaces, Elizabeth's holding his hand and smiling at him through red, puffy eyes.
Peter greets her with a smile and a "Hon".
"Hey, Hon." She gives him a soft kiss and rubs her thumb over his cheek. "How are you feeling?"
"Ready for my own bed." He glances toward the corner but sees that Neal's chair is vacant. "Did Neal finally go home?"
Elizabeth's eyes shine as they fill with tears, and she slowly shakes her head. "Hon, Neal's…"
Peter sits up in alarm, and groans when the throbbing in his head amplifies. He wills it to settle as he forces his eyes open and reaches for his wife's arm. "What's wrong with Neal? He was just here a little while ago, and he seemed okay. A little off, but okay."
"Oh, Peter." Elizabeth's hand presses against her mouth. She squeezes her eyes shut as tears start to leak down her cheeks. "Neal's-"
"What is it, El?"
"Neal's… Neal was shot. He's gone." She all but whispers the words, and she chokes out a sob when Peter's hand recoils from her.
"No. No, no. He was here. The last time I was awake, he was sitting right over there, and he looked fine. He's fine, Elizabeth!"
"Peter, honey, calm down." Elizabeth is on her feet now and has both hands on his shoulders, trying to push him to lie back down. Alarms are starting to go off on the monitors to the side, and he finds that he can no longer take a breath very easily. There's a heavy weight in his chest, squeezing his heart.
"No, no. He was here, El. I swear. I talked to him. He was right over there! He was here!"
A couple of nurses run into the room, but Peter has lost all sense of what's happening around him. Darkness tunnels his vision until everything's just gone.
The next several days pass in a daze, but Peter insists on attending Neal's funeral. There's a large turnout at the cemetery where June stands up and gives a eulogy that doesn't leave anyone with a dry eye.
Peter catches a glimpse of Mozzie leaning against a tree far enough away to have a head start if anyone makes a move in his direction but close enough to hear June's words. He wouldn't speak to Peter, but he had called Elizabeth several times over the last few days.
The whole event feels surreal, like a dream that he should wake up from at any minute. He's off kilter enough from the concussion and the anti-depressants Elizabeth keeps giving him that the scene wavers and loses focus a few times. He realizes he's crying only when Elizabeth offers him a tissue from the pocket pack she's been steadily making her way through.
When the time comes to lower the casket, everyone is reluctant to approach the grave. Sara, who'd flown in from London as soon as she'd heard, squares her shoulders, marches up to the casket, and carefully places a red rose on top. Diana is next, with her yellow rose, and then Jones, who presses his hand to the polished cherry wood and says a quiet prayer. June sets a white rose on top of the others and stands for a moment with tears falling quietly down her cheeks until Jones helps her back to her seat.
Elizabeth clutches Peter's hand tightly as they approach together. She adds one red and one white rose to the others while Peter reverently sets one of Neal's fedoras next to the flowers. It's one of Neal's favorites, black with a stingy brim. He'd forgotten it after a late night of working a case with Peter, and Peter could never remember to take it to him. He lays a hand on the casket and bows his head. His tears fall and slide down the wood in tracks that he can't take his eyes off of. Neal lies inside wearing one of Byron's best suits, and there's not a damn thing that Peter can do to rewind time and change that.
Elizabeth takes his free hand at the same time that he takes a step back, forcing himself to move away from his best friend. She gives him a sad half-smile and then a soft kiss. He knows that she'll be there for him, but he misses Neal so much it hurts. His heart aches, and his head throbs. Neither want to accept the loss; neither have a choice.
Thank you for reading.