Characters/Pairing: Neal & Peter plus others; Gen
Word count: 4000
Content Notes: Car accidents, drowning
Other Notes: For kanarek13, as a get-better-soon present!
Fills the "hospital stay" square on my hc_bingo card.
Summary: Neal's on the wrong side of a high-speed chase, and he and the mark find themselves trapped in a sinking car together.
The car hit the river side-on.
There had been oil on the road, maybe, or water, or perhaps Merrick, who was driving, had simply lost control in his panic at being chased by the FBI. Whichever it was, Neal grabbed instinctively to something to brace himself against as they smashed through the dockside fence at an angle and spun out into the air, seeming to hang weightless.
Then the car hit the river and the impact slammed him forwards into the passenger airbag, the seatbelt striking a blow across his chest as it restrained him in the sudden dimness.
The confused mayhem of the crash could only have lasted for a few seconds, but it felt like hours. Neal came out of the shock of it to find himself slumped against the side door — pinned there, he thought for a panicked moment, but when he cautiously tried moving he found that he was only held by gravity. The car had settled with the passenger side lying on the river bed. Dark green water was all he could see out of the windscreen, barely any light filtering through it.
"Merrick," Neal said. He coughed; talking let him feel every one of the bruises the seatbelt had left down his ribs. "Merrick!"
"Gary?" Merrick's voice was weak. He moaned. "Oh my god, we're underwater!"
"Don't panic," Neal ordered. But the cold touch of encroaching water was already seeping into his shirt, and the instinctive jerk he gave showed him how very close to panic he too was. "We need to get out of the car before it fills up. Are you hurt?" He unclipped his seatbelt, falling fully onto the door as he lost its support. There was more water. It was pooling fast across the side of the car.
"I don't know — I'm stuck! Gary, help me!" Merrick thrashed ineffectively.
"Stop moving!" Neal tried awkwardly to reach up and see what was wrong.
Merrick grabbed his shoulder, fingers almost tight enough to leave more bruises. "We're going to drown. Oh, god…"
"We're not," Neal insisted. He had found the problem — Merrick's legs were wedged under the steering column, although not as badly as he'd feared. "Look. Undo your seatbelt, and you'll be able to slide free."
Merrick stared at him uncomprehendingly, so Neal hit his seatbelt release himself. As he'd thought, gravity and Neal tugging him in the right direction was enough to pull Merrick out. Neal tried to stop him falling too heavily into the growing pool — it was more than knee-deep by now. And rapidly getting deeper.
It was a new car, fully electronic. That meant they couldn't crack a window to let water in slowly to equalise the pressure. "We can get out most easily through the trunk," Neal said. Merrick was still in shock, and useless.
"We can't go out into the river," Merrick protested.
"We're already in the river. You want to drown in here on your own?" Without waiting for an answer, Neal climbed awkwardly over and around the seats, splashing and half-swimming through the cold water. He was soaked through by the time the manual release inside the trunk was within reach. "Take your shoes and jacket off. They'll make it harder to swim." He remembered to take his own advice.
"Gary, I can't!" This time Merrick's voice was shrill with terror.
"Get up here!" Neal snapped. No more time for cajoling. "Or I'll go without you!"
Merrick finally did what he was told, and Neal shoved him into a position where he was braced against the back of one of the seats. "Wait until the water stops rushing in," he ordered. "You won't be able to get out until then anyway. Don't panic." He waited to see if his words were getting through. Merrick wasn't the brightest bulb, but he wasn't malicious — just a spoiled rich kid trying to help his friends avoid import restrictions. He didn't deserve to drown.
After a couple of seconds without Merrick visibly freaking out, Neal took the deepest breath he could, and reached for the trunk release.
The river rushed in in a solid wave, slamming Neal back. He fought to hold his position as the cold water coiled around him like a constricting snake, swallowing him. No air, no air! his instincts began screaming.
He forced his eyes open, straining into the dimness. Merrick was clinging to a seat back. Neal grabbed his arm, propelling him by force through the water before Merrick's brain clicked into gear and he began to kick. Neal guided him towards the open trunk.
But the opening was moving… it was a couple of precious heartbeats before Neal realised that the weight of the inrushing water had pushed the car off balance, and it was beginning to tilt.
Neal pushed for the opening as quickly as he could. But Merrick, slow on the uptake again, wasn't going to make it… Neal made a split-second decision and used the momentum which could have gotten him out to instead give Merrick's feet a furious shove, forcing him finally free of the steel trap of the car right before it rolled over onto its roof.
The swirl of displaced water was enough to send Neal into a spin. Still inside, he flailed frantically to right himself. His lungs were burning. He was trapped. Get out get out get out —
The trunk lid had mostly closed, and it rested against the silt of the river bed. But there was a small, tight gap, and Neal fought to eel himself through it. He'd gotten through smaller spaces. Not underwater though.
His chest hurt. Lungs ached. Couldn't see. Need to breathe…
The inhalation was reflexive. The water stabbed and burned against the lining of his lungs. He spasmed, thrashed, hurts breathe breathe hurts —
They were too late to witness Merrick's car go over the side of the dock. But Peter turned the corner in time to see the impact waves still slapping back and forth on the river's surface, and the torn-away sections of the fence swinging loosely.
There was no sign of the car's passengers.
He didn't need to give orders. Diana was already on the radio demanding a rescue crew and paramedics. Peter slammed the car into park and was stripping off his jacket, over-shirt and tie even before he was fully out of the door. He kicked off his shoes.
Only his training prevented him from diving in — he sat on the edge of the dock instead and slipped into the water feet-first, gasping a little at the chill. There was still no movement at the surface as he kicked out to where he estimated the car must have sunk. His fear rose with every moment that ticked past.
He took a deep breath and dived down, straining to see into the murk. Nothing. He could find nothing before he had to rise back to the surface to breathe.
He swam down again and — there! A dark, struggling shape. Peter was next to him with a couple of powerful strokes, and then took his arm and kicked upwards. They broke through the surface, the man he was supporting gasping loudly for breath and clinging to him.
"Can you swim to the side?" Peter demanded. Diana was crouched there, ready to haul him out of the water.
"Gary —" Merrick panted.
"I'm going back down for him. Can you get to the dock?"
Merrick nodded weakly. Peter wouldn't normally have left someone in such a state, but Neal still hadn't surfaced…
At least he now had a better idea of where the car had ended up. Peter took a final deep breath and dived again.
And at last he found the dim shape that was Neal, floating gradually upwards. Unmoving. Peter almost let precious air escape him in horror — Neal's eyes were open, fixed.
He grabbed a fistful of the front of Neal's shirt, towing him up. But there was no reaction from Neal as they reached the air — he was limp and unresisting as Peter swam, his overexerted muscles burning.
Diana was waiting. She leaned down as Peter hoisted Neal up as best he could. She got hold of Neal's wrists and pulled him up and out of sight. "Merrick, help my partner," she ordered.
Merrick, drenched and miserable, appeared over the dock edge and reached down a hand which Peter took gratefully, able with the assistance to pull himself out of the river as.
Neal was on his back. Diana crouched over him, compressing his chest with the heel of her interlocked hands, pausing in the rhythmic motion only to force rescue breaths in through his mouth. It was almost physically painful for Peter to tear his eyes away from Neal's white, slack face to rummage through the pile of belongings he'd abandoned on the dock for his handcuffs.
Merrick, too, was transfixed by Diana's efforts to save Neal. He didn't protest as Peter approached him, silently offering up his wrists. Peter cuffed one of his hands and wound down the car window to attach the other end of the cuffs to the frame. "Stay there," he said.
Merrick nodded. "Will he be okay?" he asked, in a very small voice.
Peter didn't reply — he was too afraid of what the answer might be. He dropped down beside Diana instead. "I'll spell you," he said, and she nodded, moving out of the way so that he could take over.
CPR was gruelling. Peter was gasping for breath again almost immediately.
"Come on, Neal," Diana panted. She had her fingers wrapped around his wrist, waiting for the first hint of a pulse.
Peter kept going. Because he couldn't lose Neal, not like this. Not Neal, who was brave and caring and reckless, who had risked his life for him before. Peter wasn't giving up on him — he couldn't.
Neal abruptly jerked under his hands. Then he choked, and Peter and Diana reacted instantly, rolling him onto his side so that he could retch up river water. Peter held his shoulder as he spasmed and hacked, rubbing Neal's back with his other hand.
The painful choking noises finally stopped, although Neal kept coughing weakly. Peter manoeuvred himself around so that he could see Neal's face — his eyes were half-open. "Neal," he said. "Can you hear me?"
Neal's eyelids flickered, but didn't manage to open more fully. "P'ter," he croaked.
"Yeah, I'm here." He felt for the pulse in Neal's neck — it was weak, but seemed steady.
"It would probably help his breathing if we got him raised up a bit," Diana suggested. She, too, was still holding on to Neal as if afraid he would slip away.
Peter knelt down and they pulled Neal's head and upper torso onto his knees. Peter brushed damp curls away from his face. "Hang in there," he said. "You're going to be okay."
Neal mumbled something incoherent, eyes closed again. He turned his head slightly to press himself against Peter, and his hand scrabbled out blindly. Peter took it, and Neal clung on to his fingers.
Peter looked up to meet Diana's eyes. Her expression was a numb mixture of fear and relief — Peter imagined he must look much the same. He abruptly realised how cold he was; dripping wet and with the brisk wind cutting through his sodden shirt.
He shivered, and Diana started. "Hang on," she said, and pulled off her jacket, tucking it over Neal. Then she retrieved Peter's own jacket.
"Thanks," he said, accepting it from her. His teeth were beginning to chatter. He rubbed his hand up and down Neal's arm, trying to get some warmth into him. And he kept up the motion because of the way that Neal stirred slightly at his touch — a reminder that he isn't dead, he isn't, he's going to be okay…
June was sitting with Neal when Peter arrived at the hospital the next evening, having finished for the day as early as he could. (Probably a little earlier than he should have, but he hadn't seen Neal since he'd been settled in hospital the previous day. That was a long time. A lot could go wrong in that time…)
June nodded in greeting as he entered the room, putting a hand on Neal's shoulder. "You get some rest," she told him. "I'll see you in the morning."
"How's the patient?" Peter asked, as she stood.
She briefly let her worry show on her face, making sure that she was turned away from Neal first. "His temperature's climbing, and they're worried about his lungs," she said. "He's been on broad-spectrum antibiotics to try and head off infection, but…"
"I can hear you, you know," Neal interrupted. His voice was gravelly.
"He's also not in the best of moods," June said.
Peter grinned over at Neal. "Thanks for the warning."
He took June's seat as she left. Neal was slumped listlessly against the pillows, the bed raised to keep him in a semi-upright position. His face was somewhat flushed. "Yeah, I know, I look like crap," he muttered.
"Most people don't really care about their appearance when they're in hospital," Peter said. He had a look at the monitor Neal was hooked to. According to the readout, he was running a fever of 102.4. No wonder June had looked worried.
As if to underline the point, Neal began coughing. It was a raw sound, and he leaned forward, fingers balling in the blanket. Peter slipped a hand onto his back, rubbing gently.
Neal slumped back when he finally stopped, momentarily pinning Peter's fingers. He extracted them. "How are you feeling?" he asked.
Neal groaned. "Awful," he admitted. "Everything hurts, and I've been coughing til I puke. You should've let me stay drowned."
"Don't say that," Peter ordered. He knew that Neal wasn't serious, but it was still far too soon for him to shake the memory of him lying on the dock, still and pale. Dead. He had hardly been able to sleep the previous night.
"Sorry," Neal said. "I didn't mean that." He reached out a hand as a conciliatory gesture; Peter took it and gave a brief squeeze. "Did I say thank you?"
"You did," Peter said, "But you were pretty out of it." Neal had been semi-conscious the previous evening, for a brief period before everyone had been thrown out of his room to allow him to sleep undisturbed. With the potent combination of exhaustion and painkillers, Peter was surprised he remembered anything at all.
Neal hadn't let go of Peter's hand. "Thank you for pulling me out of the river," he said.
Peter gave him a smile. "You're welcome. Although I'm sure we've had a talk about reckless heroics before."
Neal coughed. Peter tensed, but it didn't develop into another racking bout. "Not heroics," he said. "I would definitely remember you using that word. Do you feel it applies here?"
"Don't let it go to your head," Peter warned him. "But yes. Merrick's been singing your praises. He gave a full confession and flipped on everyone else."
"Oh, good," Neal said. But then he did progress into another full coughing fit, wheezing horribly as he tried to get enough air.
"Neal!" Alarmed, Peter hit the call button. Neal tried to push his hand away from it, completely ineffectively. And completely stupidly, considering he couldn't breathe.
Fortunately, a nurse arrived almost immediately. She checked the oxygen flow through his canula, and injected something into his IV line. "This should help you relax," she said. "Try not to talk too much, remember?"
"Oh, you've been told that before?" Peter asked, and Neal managed a weak smile and a half-shrug for him.
It was, however, hard to remain stern at Neal when he didn't look like he had the energy to take it. Everything about him was a picture to inspire sympathy — he was loose and drooping against the bed, struggling to re-open his eyes each time they fell closed.
"Why don't you try and sleep?" Peter asked, but Neal just shook his head. His temperature had already climbed another couple of points in just the time Peter had been sat there.
At that point a different nurse came in. "I'm afraid visiting hours are over," she said, apologetically.
Neal reacted with more animation than he had shown so far. "No!" he said, sharply, and grabbed for Peter's arm.
Peter didn't even think about his response. "I'm an FBI agent," he said, pulling his badge out. "I'm afraid I can't leave — this man's instrumental to an active case and needs Bureau supervision right now."
The nurse raised her eyebrows. Peter tried to look as official as he could with Neal maintaining a white-knuckle grip on his jacket sleeve. "This wasn't the case before now?" she asked.
"Circumstances change," Peter said, just about managing to maintain a straight face.
"Very convincing," the nurse said, but she was grinning. "Okay, you can stay. Maybe he'll have an easier night."
"What happened last night?" Peter asked, once she had gone, but Neal just shrugged again.
Peter found out sooner than he would have liked. Every time Neal slipped into a doze he jerked awake within minutes, gasping in panic and thrashing weakly. Drowning.
"You're okay," Peter kept reassuring him, and Neal nodded each time, eyes feverishly bright.
"I want to go home," Neal moaned. "Peter, there's too much — stuff — here. Just want to go."
"I know, buddy, but you need to stay," Peter said. He had a hand resting against the top of Neal's head. "You're pretty ill, you know?"
"Yeah," Neal said, although he didn't sound very convinced. He was getting more and more feverish, which scared Peter. At least he was being regularly checked on by the medical staff.
It was a long night. Neal went through bouts of choking coughs that doubled him over until he vomited phlegm and bile, and it took him longer to wake up from each successive nightmare. Sometime after midnight he was fitted with an oxygen mask that covered his nose and mouth and that seemed to help with his breathing, although he kept trying to talk through it, forgetting that Peter couldn't hear him.
Eventually, Peter ended up snatching sleep by pulling his chair as close to the bed as he could get and resting his head and shoulders on the mattress. It had the advantage that he and Neal could keep hold of each other, which was reassuring for both of them. It wasn't long until Peter woke from a nightmare of his own, convinced that Neal had drowned and he was sitting up to watch over his body. But Neal's arm was draped over him, and his eyes were closed in one of his first periods of real sleep.
Neal spent six days in total in hospital. He had to be reminded of that, because the first two or three of them had blended together in his memory into an exhausted, feverish blur.
He leaned against June for the drive. Peter was on the other side of him, and Elizabeth was in the front passenger seat. He'd been given the option of convalescing in Brooklyn (fewer stairs, Peter had pointed out), but by that point he had been desperate to just go home. Even though it was with an entourage of people who were worried about him.
He was very glad of Peter's support, though, for him to lean on as they ascended the stairs. They had to take long breaks on each landing — Neal was quickly dizzy with the effort, and his heart was pounding as he struggled to control his breathing. He'd already made use of the inhaler he'd been given, and kept it clenched tightly in his fist.
"You okay?" Peter asked. "Do you need to sit down?"
Neal shook his head stubbornly. He just wanted to get this over with, and he wasn't sure he'd be able to summon up enough motivation to get up again if he stopped for a proper rest.
They finally reached the top landing, and Neal spared the breath for a sigh of relief at the sight of his door standing open. Peter didn't stop, but guided him straight through the apartment to his bed.
"Do you want some pyjamas?" Elizabeth asked, appearing at his other elbow.
Neal shook his head. "No. Just lie down." There were black dots in his vision, and he was afraid that he was about to faint.
Peter helped control his collapse, easing him onto the mattress. Someone pulled off his shoes, and the duvet was tucked over him. He was instantly warm, and more comfortable than he had been at any point in the hospital, and he pressed his face gratefully into the pillow as his breathing and pulse began to settle. He could already feel himself drifting off.
After a little while, the others in the room continued to talk. He must look as if he couldn't hear them. "He looks awful," Mozzie said.
"Better than he did," Peter said, wryly. "And he's begun to actually sleep, finally."
"I still can't believe you let him drown," Mozzie said, accusingly.
"Do you think I feel good about it?" Peter retorted, voice sharp.
Neal wanted to tell them to stop arguing, but he was far enough into a doze that he couldn't summon the energy to do anything.
"Both of you, drop it," Elizabeth said. "How many times have you been over this?"
Lots, Neal guessed, from the slightly guilty muttering that ensued. He finally forced himself to roll over. "My fault," he mumbled, without opening his eyes.
"Neal?" The mattress dipped as Peter sat down next to him. "What are you talking about?"
"The river," Neal tried to explain. It was hard work putting his thoughts together properly while half asleep. "My fault or no one's. Not yours."
"You wouldn't have been there —" Mozzie began.
It wasn't much of an argument, but it seemed to work at getting Mozzie to stop loudly blaming Peter. Not that Mozzie did actually blame him — Neal had witnessed Mozzie taking out his worry on convenient targets enough times to be able to recognise it. He'd thought that enough time had passed since the river that he would already have gotten it out of his system, though.
"Right," El said, in a distinctly changing-the-subject way. "Lunch. Neal, I'm going to raid your cupboards."
Neal made a general noise of fine by me.
"I'll come help you," Mozzie said. Then he paused. "I don't expect your husband will, though."
Neal cracked his eyes open. Enough to see that Peter, having sat down on the empty side of the bed, had leaned against the pillows and fallen asleep.
"Oh dear," June said, and laughed. El, in the background, sounded like she was stifling giggles.
Mozzie was looking at Peter, frowning. Then he lifted up Peter's feet and pushed them onto the bed too, so that he was no longer at a painful-looking angle.
"Moz —" Neal said, quietly.
Mozzie transferred his frown to him. "I still can't believe you went and drowned," he accused. "You're stupid and reckless, you know?"
"I've had this lecture," Neal protested. "And I had to help Merrick."
"Well, at least the Suit was there to help you," Mozzie allowed. "And I hope you appreciate him missing out on so much sleep over this."
"I can hear you, you know," Peter mumbled.
Mozzie visibly started, and flushed. "I knew that," he snapped, and scurried hastily away towards the kitchen.
Peter chuckled sleepily. "He's right, you know."
"What, that I'm reckless?" Neal found himself rolling sideways, pressing himself against Peter's body. He coughed roughly.
Peter put an arm over him, unselfconsciously. "Yeah. But I'm proud of you, you know. For saving Merrick's life like that."
"Oh," Neal whispered. Warmth fizzed through him. "Really?"
"Really," Peter said, and smiled at him tiredly. "Now shut your eyes and rest, okay? Preferably without nightmares."
Neal smiled back. "Only if you do."
"Deal," Peter agreed, and then looked at him pointedly. Neal closed his eyes obediently, and felt Peter also relax as he settled against him. He fell asleep with Peter's arm still over him, and the quiet voices of the others in the background.
Nightmares or not, he knew he was safe.
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