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Before the Future Slips Away

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"I'm sorry, but the tests are conclusive. You have non-Hodgkin's lymphoma."

Neal blinked. Then he blinked again, because the room had gone fuzzy and kind of white. He had cancer. But that didn't make sense. He felt fine. It had been a routine physical with routine blood work. He couldn't - he didn't -

The doctor was still talking. He was using words like "radiation,” "chemo," and “treatment options,” and Neal wasn't following any of it. He hadn't thought much about it when his doctor's office had called to make a follow-up appointment with him, and of course they hadn't said a word about it on the phone.

His doctor had stopped talking, he realized. He'd stopped talking, and now there was a nurse with him, Tessa, who’d taken his blood-pressure when he’d come in for his check-up. She was asking if there was someone she could call for him. Neal usually knew Peter's number by heart, but not today. He had to get his cell phone out, find Peter's number, and show it to her, and then she made Neal get up and leave his doctor's office, go wait in one of the exam rooms while she called Peter. When she came back she had a packet for him, a manila envelope of information, and also the name of an oncologist at Sloan-Kettering who specialized in cases like his.

"Cases like his." That phrase suddenly took on a whole new meaning.

Neal hadn't managed to open the packet by the time Peter arrived about twenty minutes later. The nurse showed him to Neal's exam room, and Neal didn't know what they'd said to Peter on the phone, but it was clear he'd hurried. He was out of breath, sweat beading at his temples.

"Neal?" he said, as the nurse left, shutting the door behind her. Once she was gone, he crouched down in front of Neal's chair and reached for Neal's hands, pressing them between both of his. Peter's hands were so warm. Neal hadn't realized how cold he was until then. "What's going on? They wouldn't tell me, just said that you'd asked them to call me."

Neal opened his mouth, but the words wouldn't come out. I have cancer. They stuck in his throat. He handed Peter the packet instead. Peter took it from him and stood up to open it. He went through the top few sheets, then suddenly stumbled over to the chair beside Neal's, landing heavily. "Cancer?" he said.

"Non-Hodgkins lymphoma," Neal said. His voice sounded very far away. "They said the tests were conclusive."

"What tests?" Peter demanded. "Neal. Why didn't you tell us?"

"I didn't know," Neal said. "I didn't - I didn't know they were running tests. I feel fine. They must've found something in my blood work that tipped them off. I didn't know."

Peter was silent. Then his hand found Neal's again, and he gripped it hard. "You're going to be okay," he said, in his firmest, brook-no-nonsense Special Agent Peter Burke voice. "We're going to be okay."

Neal nodded. If Peter needed to believe that, then he wasn’t going to argue. They sat like that, hand in hand, for a few more minutes, and then Peter made him stand up and go out into the waiting area. Neal stood by while Peter spoke to the nurse, who said that the oncologist they'd referred him to would call within twenty-four hours to make an appointment. Then Peter took him by the arm and walked him out to the car. He put Neal in the front seat and got in on the driver's side.

It was three o'clock, not nearly early enough to quit for the day, but there were no serious cases on their docket right now. Neal stared out the window while Peter called Diana on the car phone and told her not to expect them back. Then he called Elizabeth.

"Hey hon," she said, picking up. "This is a surprise."

"Hey hon," Peter said, and then stopped. Neal said nothing. Peter was driving for now, literally and metaphorically. That was good.

"Hon?" El said after a moment or two.

"What do you have going this afternoon?" Peter asked at last.

"I'm catching up on email," El said, sounding surprised. "Why?"

"Could you meet us at home? In an hour or so?"

"I could," El said slowly, not hiding her surprise. "Peter, what's going on? Is everything all right?” Peter didn’t answer. El gave a little gasp. “It's not, is it. Peter, what's wrong? Just tell me. Don't make me drive all the way home wondering what it could be."

Neal said nothing. He could feel Peter glancing at him, but he just kept staring out the window. "Neal had a doctor's appointment last week, remember?" Peter said at last. "They did some blood work, and something must've raised some red flags, because they ran more tests. Today he got the results."

He seemed to run out of words there, or at least he stopped. There was a beat of silence, and then El said, "And? What did they say? Peter!"

"I have cancer," Neal said, startling all three of them.

El gasped. "You - what - are they sure?"

"The tests were conclusive," Neal said, the phrase dry and wooden in his mouth.

"Can you meet us at home, El?" Peter asked again.

"Yes, of course. I'm leaving now. Neal, I'm - I'm so sorry."

Neal didn't know what to say to that. "Thanks," he said, aware that it sounded stupid and wrong but not knowing what would be more appropriate. Peter and El were only the tip of the iceberg, though, in terms of telling people, so he supposed he'd better figure it out.

Peter disconnected, and the two of them drove in silence through Lower Manhattan, then across the Bridge and into Brooklyn. By the time they pulled up at the house, Neal felt a little steadier. He didn't really need Peter to hold his arm as they walked up the front stoop, but it seemed more effort than it was worth to push him away. Peter got them both inside and Satchmo immediately came trotting over, intrigued by having his people home in the middle of the day. Peter started to shoo him away, but Neal crouched down, ruffling Satchmo's fur, allowing himself the first moment of normalcy he'd had in well over an hour.

These moments were about to become few and far between, he realized. He didn't know much about cancer, but he knew that his life was about to change drastically. The body he'd relied on for so long had betrayed him - and not by slipping on a rooftop, but in a way he'd never expected.

Shock suddenly gave way to blinding fear. He was probably going to lose his hair. He'd probably lose a lot of the muscle tone he carefully maintained. This was going to be disgusting and undignified, and it was going to hurt. And Peter and El would never think of leaving him, not in that state. They would want to be with him every step of the way. And that - that frightened him at least as much as all the rest. No one should have to see him like that.

Neal said none of this aloud. He went into the living room with Satchmo, while Peter went into the kitchen. He came back with a bottle of beer and two overly full glasses of red wine, which he set down on the coffee table. Then he sat next to Neal. "We'll figure it all out," Peter said, reaching over to take his hand again. "I'll work things out with the Bureau, you don't have to worry about that end."

Neal nodded. "Thanks." It wasn't as though a prison infirmary could handle something like this. Even if he'd been diagnosed while in supermax, he'd have been transferred to a regular hospital for his treatment. But hopefully they could do this without anyone handcuffing him to the bed.

It was only a minute or two later that they heard El's car pull into the driveway. "I hope she didn''t run any red lights," Peter muttered, checking his watch. Neal didn’t answer; he listened as she slammed her car door and hurried up the stoop. He had just enough time to stand up before she was blowing in the door.

She looked at him, blue eyes huge in her pale face, and said, "Neal," then seemed to run out of words. She shook her head, dropped her purse on the floor, and stepped forward to hug him so hard he almost lost his breath. He froze for a split second, then hugged her back, resting his cheek on the top of her forehead. She didn't let go, and after a moment he felt Peter come up behind them. He rested a hand on the back of Neal's neck, then pulled them both in close. Neal closed his eyes, savoring this moment, tucking it away against the horrors to come.

"Anything you need, sweetie," El said at last. Her voice was rough but her eyes, when she tilted her head back to look up at him, were admirably dry. Neal couldn’t say the same for himself, and he wasn’t sure Peter could, either. "Anything. We're here." Peter nodded his agreement, and Neal forced a smile. He couldn't put them through this. He couldn't put them through any of it.

Of all the reasons he'd thought he might run, back when Peter had first put the anklet on him, sparing Peter and El having to watch him suffer and maybe die of cancer had never made the list.

He said nothing, of course. The three of them moved into the living room, and they put him on the couch in between them, holding onto him. Peter reached for the manila envelope, but Neal stopped him. "Tomorrow," he said. "I can't tonight."

He nodded his understanding. "Tomorrow, then," he said. "We'll go through it together."

"Together," he agreed, lying through his teeth. Peter looked at him sharply, and for a second Neal felt entirely transparent. He didn’t know what to do or say to cover for himself, so instead he kissed Peter - to throw him off the scene, but also because he always wanted to kiss Peter, and he had no idea how much longer he'd be here to do it.

Fear, it turned out, was the opposite of an aphrodisiac. Neal wanted nothing more than to make love to Peter and El just then, but his body was uncooperative. He kissed Peter, and then he kissed El, and when still nothing seemed to happen, he pushed them together, sliding off the couch to sit on the floor and watch. They tried to include him, but he just shook his head, pushing himself a little further back from the sofa, so that he was leaning up against the armchair. He fondled himself idly, enjoying it for what it was but wishing that it was more. They were beautiful together, though. Made for each other. They'd be all right, he thought, and somehow, that made it a little bit better. Not much, but a little bit.

When Peter and El had finished, collapsing in a disheveled, gorgeous heap, Neal stood and went into the kitchen. There was a fresh loaf of bread on the counter, and he sliced it up before getting a wedge of good brie, some fancy, cabernet-soaked cheddar, and a bunch of grapes from the fridge. He took the food and the rest of the bottle of wine back out to the living room. El sat up from where she lay draped across Peter and kissed him; Neal nuzzled her neck, breathing in the smell of her skin and hair, of her and Peter.

They ate sitting on the carpet, with Satchmo sprawled nearby, keeping an eye out for any crumbs of cheese or bread that might happen to fall. Peter and El were watching him carefully, Neal knew, and so he kept the conversation light, steadfastly ignoring the elephant in the room. The envelope lay on the coffee table, almost impossible to ignore, but to Neal’s relief, Peter and El took their cues from him.

Eventually they all went up to bed. Peter and El tried to put Neal in the middle, but he maneuvered to end up on the outside. Nothing was worse than being unable to sleep while trapped between two peacefully sleeping partners, he knew from experience. He ended up tucked up against Peter, who wrapped his arm around Neal's chest, holding him tight against him.

El, on Peter's other side, reached across and stroked a hand through Neal's hair. "We love you," she said. "And we will love you no matter what."

Neal managed a smile. "I know," he said. And he did. That wasn’t the problem.

None of them fell asleep easily. It was well after midnight before Peter's nonsensical mumbling and El's gentle snoring told Neal that his partners were asleep. He waited another fifteen minutes, just to be sure they wouldn't wake, then slipped out of bed, tucking a pillow into his spot to give Peter something to hold on to.

Satchmo didn't get up when Neal came downstairs, though he did lift his head and thump his tail a few times. Neal sat down on the sofa with the packet of information and tried to bring himself to open it. It would be better to know, he thought. Cancer research had come a long way. Maybe it wouldn't be as bad as he thought.

Or maybe it would be worse.

Eventually he gave up. He let himself out onto the back porch and stood looking out the darkened garden. By the yellow glow of the streetlights he could see the raised flower beds that he and El had put in a couple months earlier, and the vegetable garden that had been last year's project. It had been a good summer - not too terribly hot and humid, but warm enough at night to sit out here on the evenings he came over and share a bottle of wine with El while Peter drank beer. He'd been looking forward to fall and then to the holidays. For the first time in years, Neal had thought he'd have somewhere to be on Christmas Day.

Now, he was likely to be in a hospital somewhere far from here under an assumed name - the sad, lonely patient whom everyone liked but who never had any visitors.

He didn't know how long he stood there, contemplating his future, but eventually he realized he wasn't alone. Peter was standing in the open doorway behind him.

"I didn't mean to wake you," Neal said, without turning around.

Peter didn't reply immediately. When he did, it wasn't anything that Neal had expected. "Please don't," he said.

Neal did turn to look at him then. "Don't what?"

"Don't do what you're thinking about," Peter said, meeting Neal’s eyes unflinchingly. "Don't run from this."

Neal turned away again. "I can't run from this, Peter," he said quietly. "That's the hell of it. No matter where I run, I can't get away from this."

"Don't run from us, then," Peter said, voice low and fierce. "I know what you're thinking. You're thinking it'd be better for us if you weren't here. But it wouldn't be, Neal."

His hand landed on Neal's shoulder, and it was all Neal could do not to lean back into Peter's warm solidity. "You want to hold my head while I puke from chemo?" Neal said, not bothering to hide his disbelief. "You want to wake up each morning to more hair on my pillow and less on my head, watch my body waste away like I'm eighty years old?"

"Want is maybe the wrong word," Peter said. "Of course I don't want any of those things. I wish to God, Neal, that this weren't happening to you. But it is. And if it is, then yes, I want to be there. Because the alternative is too awful for me to even think about. If you disappeared, it wouldn't spare us anything. We'd know you were out there, sick and alone and hurting, and that would be far, far worse. So please, please, don't do what you're thinking about. Please don't do that to us."

Neal swallowed. "You shouldn't have to do this," he said. "You shouldn't have to go through any of it."

"Neal." Peter stepped into his personal space and forced Neal to turn to face him. "Listen to me. What if it were me? Or El, what if it were El who was sick? Would you expect either of us to leave?"

Neal shook his head. "It's not the same."

"It is, though," Peter said, an edge of desperation to his voice. His fingers were digging into Neal's shoulders so hard it hurt. "It is the same. In sickness and in health, till death do us part. I know we've never said that to you, but you have to know we mean it anyway. Please, Neal. Don't do what you're thinking about doing. Let us go through this with you, as partners and lovers and - and spouses."

Neal closed his eyes and pressed his forehead against Peter's. "I guess even if I did run, you'd find me, wouldn't you?"

"You bet your ass I would," Peter said. "And then I'd be three and oh."

Neal cracked a smile. "Can't have that."

"No," Peter agreed, "can't have that." He kissed Neal, sliding one hand around to the back of his neck and into the hair at the nape, then pulled him close. Neal let himself lean on Peter, breathing him in. "I know you,” he murmured. “I know what your first instinct is. But it won’t help El and me, I promise you that.”

Neal kept his eyes closed so he wouldn’t have to look at Peter. “I’m really scared.”

“I know. I am, too.” He pressed his lips to Neal’s forehead. “Come back to bed?"

Neal opened his eyes. "Yeah," he said. "Okay."

This time, he let Peter put him in the middle. El rolled over with a sleepy sigh to drape her arm across him, and Peter pulled him up against his chest. Neal closed his eyes and let himself dare to envision a future - however long or short it might be - where he was always so cared for, protected, loved.

***

The next morning, Peter called in for both of them. Neal didn't know what he said to Hughes, since he took the phone out to the porch, but whatever it was, it worked - neither of them had to go in. El took the morning off, too, and made pancakes and strawberry compote, Neal's favorite. They ate on the porch in the morning sun. Neal felt vaguely nauseated from fear and anxiety and stress, but he forced himself to finish one pancake anyway.

When they were done, Peter went inside and got the manila envelope from the coffee table. The three of them looked at it. "It's better to know," Peter said at last, and reached for it himself.

Neal's phone rang. He glanced at it and saw that it was his doctor's office - not the oncologist he was expecting to hear from, but his regular GP. He frowned and answered it, with some trepidation. "Neal Caffrey speaking."

"Good morning, Mr. Caffrey. This is Tessa from Dr. Combs's office. I'm calling about the test results you received yesterday."

Neal frowned. "What about them?" he asked. "I thought Dr. Combs had referred me already to someone at Sloan-Kettering."

"Yes, but I have - well, I have some very good news for you. It seems that there was a mix-up at the lab that did your blood work, and those weren't your results at all."

For the second time in two days, Neal blinked and then blinked again, because everything around him had gone fuzzy and white. "I'm sorry, what?" he managed.

"Those weren't your test results," she repeated. "You don't have cancer. You are, in fact, extremely healthy according to the results I have here."

"I," Neal said, and then couldn't say anything more. He shook his head, then realized that both Peter and Elizabeth were staring at him - terrified, Neal realized, that he was getting worse news. "Hang on," he told Tessa, and pulled the phone away from his mouth.

"Neal," Peter demanded, before he had the chance to say anything, "what the hell is going on?"

"I don't have it," Neal said, and suddenly he was grinning harder than he ever had in his life. "I don't have cancer. They weren't my test results."

"They weren't - what do you mean they weren't yours?" El said, eyes wide.

"There was a mix-up at the lab," Neal said, still grinning, dimly aware that he looked like an idiot and not caring. He didn't have cancer.

"There was a what?" Peter said, and before Neal knew it, Peter reached over and yanked the phone right out of his hand. “This is Special Agent Peter Burke,” he snapped into Neal’s cell. “I came down to your office yesterday after you mistakenly told my partner that he had cancer. Do you have any idea what the last eighteen hours have been like? What the hell kind of operation is this?”

"Peter, stop!" Neal said, just as El said, "Hon," in a placating tone of voice. Peter frowned, but Neal just shook his head and reached for the phone. He knew he should be angry, but he was too relieved to feel anything else. Peter relinquished the phone but continued to mutter under his breath about finding out whose fault it was. "I’ll have them audited" was the last thing Neal heard before he put his cell back to his ear.

"Sorry about that," Neal said to Tessa.

"Don't be," Tessa said. "You have every right to be upset. Though I would appreciate it if you let your partner know that the mix-up really was at the lab and not here at our offices."

"I will do that," Neal said, and drew a deep breath. "You're sure I don't have cancer?"

"You do not have cancer," Tessa confirmed. "And I am, once again, very sorry - for the mix-up, I mean. Dr. Combs has already had words with the director of the lab.”

“Thanks,” Neal said. Tessa said a few other things to him then - giving him his real results, maybe - but Neal had tuned out. Once he’d hung up, he found himself just sitting, staring at the garden like he had the night before. He didn’t have cancer. He wasn’t going to die - at least not of that, not anytime soon.

Sometime during Neal’s conversation with Tessa, El and Peter had disappeared. When they returned, El bore three champagne flutes and Peter orange juice and and a bottle of champagne. “It could be colder,” El said, about the champagne, Neal assumed, as she set the flutes on the table, “but I didn’t know we’d be doing this this morning. And I think this news deserves mimosas, don’t you?”

“Yes,” Neal said, smiling. Peter popped the champagne cork, startling Satchmo, and then poured some for each of them, while El added the orange juice.

“To not having cancer,” Neal said, still smiling despite himself as they toasted each other. He took a long swallow of his mimosa. “Are there anymore pancakes?” he asked, suddenly hungry.

“Of course,” El said, and reached over to take his plate. “I’ll get you some.”

“I can -”

“I got it, sweetie.” She disappeared inside.

He and Peter were quiet. Neal found himself thinking of the person for whom the diagnosis had been intended. He didn’t have cancer, but someone else did. And it could have been him, he thought. Life really did change that fast sometimes. Or it could have been Peter or El. And someday, it would probably be one of them. The odds weren’t great, really, that all three of them would make it to ninety with no health problems, and Peter was twelve years older than he was. But whatever happened, they would face it together, all three of them. In sickness and health, till death do us part.

Peter must have been thinking along similar lines. “About what I said last night,” he said a bit gruffly, after nearly a full minute of silence. “You know it’s still true, don’t you?”

Neal smiled. He reached over, taking Peter’s hand in his. “I know,” he said quietly. “Me too.”

Fin.