Characters/Pairing: Neal, Peter, Diana; Gen
Word count: 2200
Warnings: PTSD. Also spoilers for 1x13 and brief reference to a scene from 2x16.
Notes: Written for kriadydragon's fandom_stocking. (Also claiming as my Fire square on hc_bingo.)
And leesa_perrie made me an awesome cover!
Summary: He can't look away from the flames and suddenly, horribly, it's Kate's face he sees in them; that moment of the explosion hanging suspended in white heat.
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The stink of burning gasoline fills the air; thick and sour and hot, cloying in his throat and lungs. The flames crackle and hiss greedily, clawing at each other and at the walls of the fuel drum as they stretch higher, higher, while within them the papers writhe and twist and can't escape. Black lines of text glow briefly before they char to ash.
That smell… the heat on his face is fierce and his chest begins to hurt, his heart pounding. Neal blinks, vision blurring as the smoke stings his eyes, and his mouth moves soundlessly, involuntarily. No, no.
Fire before him, and he's breathing burning fuel. He knows, knows that this is a different day, a different time, but he can't look away from the flames and suddenly, horribly, it's Kate's face he sees in them; that moment of the explosion hanging suspended in white heat, flames reaching out and her hair burning and her flesh burning, over and over, red and gold and charred black.
There are different faces, wavering, shouting, but the roaring of the fire swallows their words. Someone shoves him and Neal stares back, the burning plane stamped across his retinas. The tangle of the two realities holds everything, slows everything.
Three realities, because he abruptly recalls that he's undercover but he can't remember who he's supposed to be. What he's supposed to be doing.
Then there is a gun pointing at him, he's staring down the dark barrel, and this happened before, this is part of her story too, and still she's dying, screaming, flames devouring, KateKateKateKateKate…
Peter shouts to drop the gun, drop it! Neal, frozen, waits to hear the shot, although this isn't Adler in front of him. Different faces. Clarke, that's his name. Clarke slowly lowers the gun and Neal blinks, the FBI swarming through the scene, through the overlaid images.
"Neal, what happened?" Peter demands, his voice too harsh, too full of sharp edges as he gets too close. "Are you hurt?"
Neal shakes his head quickly, trying to clear it. "No," he says. "No, I'm okay. It's…" His eyes flick between Peter, who's there, and the memory-image of Kate, who's not.
Peter's voice is loud and anxious, but he's trying hard to gentle it. "Neal, what are you looking at? Come on, talk to me."
Neal fumbles for words. He feels all wrong, somehow — sort of lightheaded, and disconnected from the people moving fast around around him. He stares at the trodden-down mud under his feet, speckled with ash. "It's the smell," he tries. "It keeps bringing back —" a motion of his hand attempts to encompass the fire, the plane, the gun.
Dark hair. No, not Kate; Diana. "Neal, are you having a flashback?" she asks, carefully, and he gives a jerky nod. Not something he wants to admit. No one's supposed to see these cracks.
He desperately wants to hide them.
"I need to get him out of here," Peter says. "Can you run point?"
"Sure thing, Boss. I'll keep in contact."
Peter shepherds Neal towards the car without touching him. Neal is aware of how fast he's breathing, like he's running a race, not walking slowly across this small patch of wasteland. The sky is a cold, steely grey. He's tense, shaking. He balls his hands into fists and the nails dig deeply into his palms.
Then the car door shuts out the noise, the smell, and he almost gasps with the relief of it. The images are fading, finally. He closes his eyes as Peter starts the engine.
"You okay?" Peter asks, cautiously.
"Yeah," Neal says. "I'm fine, yeah."
Something occurs to Neal, and his eyes fly open, just in time to see them pass the last of the Bureau's vehicles, turning onto the street. "We hadn't finished the operation," he says. "Not enough evidence to hold them on forgery."
"Don't worry about it," Peter says, although there's a slight disappointed set to his mouth which he can't quite hide.
"Sorry, though," Neal insists. He's tense again, breathing too fast.
"Clarke was about to put a bullet in you! I'd rather we stopped that than keep playing through in the state you're in right now. " His voice is too much on edge.
"I'm okay," Neal protests, more to himself than to Peter. He's panting for air, his chest far too tight and painful. There had been a gun, and Kate, and he had screwed up the case, and he had nearly got shot at point-blank range, and —
Peter jerks the car to a stop, sharply enough that Neal slams into his seatbelt with a grunt. Then Peter's unclipping the belt, pushing him to lean forwards.
"Can't — breathe —" Neal wheezes. He can't get enough air even though he's gulping it in, there isn't time to breathe out properly, he's dizzy and lightheaded and terrified.
"Neal! Listen to me, you can breathe just fine, I know you can. Slowly, try and take it slowly."
"Can't," Neal insists. His vision is tunnelling and he squeezes his eyes shut, feels Peter hastily loosening his tie and collar.
"Yes, you can. I know it feels horrible, but you can." Peter's hands are warm, wrapped around Neal's, and Neal tries very hard to breathe properly, normally.
"Sorry," Neal pants at one point, because he shouldn't be reacting like this, he's been in danger lots of times before, this is stupid. "Sorry, sorry."
"Don't apologise," Peter says, firmly. "It's okay, don't worry."
Neal nods vaguely. His chest hurts, his whole body clenched up tight. It seems to go on forever but Peter's there, coaxing him gently through.
Eventually, the pressure in his lungs begins to ease. Not because of anything he's done — his body is simply too exhausted to maintain that enormous level of tension. He slumps more and more into Peter, who's there to support him and doesn't rush him, not saying anything until Neal's breaths are down to a rate suggesting some moderate level of exercise, rather than impending suffocation. "Doing better?" he cautiously asks, eventually.
"Think you're ready to make it the rest of the way?"
Neal rubs his knuckles into his eyes. "Yeah, I'll be okay."
Peter squeezes his hands before releasing them, and waits for Neal to do up his seatbelt again. He manoeuvres the car uncharacteristically carefully through the late afternoon traffic. The sunlight spikes in though the windshield. Neal feels drained, weak and shaky, and his chest feels like it's been pummelled. His breathing is finally under control but all his muscles are tensing up again and he can't do anything about it. He reaches out and fiddles with the radio, finding some catchy pop song that's helpfully distracting. Peter probably hates it, but he doesn't say anything.
When the car finally stops, Neal kind of wants to get up the steps and into the shelter of the house as quickly as possible, but he forces himself to move as naturally as he can. He's embarrassed, now, by falling apart like that.
Peter, however, seems nowhere near as inclined to brush the whole thing off. He frowns worriedly and presses Neal down onto the couch. "Stay there," he orders, and pulls his phone out of his pocket as he heads for the kitchen.
Neal meant to come up with a sarcastic retort, but somehow it never finds its way out of his mouth. Truth is, right now he's grateful that someone else is making the decisions for him. He's shaky, and still anxious, and quite a bit nauseous.
Satchmo pushes his head against Neal's legs, and Neal starts violently, although he recovers almost instantly and is very glad no one else is there to see.
"C'mon," he says, patting the couch beside him. "Up here, boy." Satchmo clambers up beside him and Neal scratches at his warm fur. "Good dog," he says, and Satchmo nuzzles him happily.
Neal closes his eyes. He can hear Peter talking on his phone in the kitchen, too distant to make out the words. You're safe, he tells himself, sternly. Bad things don't happen here. But his body hasn't managed to get the message yet, and nor really has his brain, which keeps throwing up images of fire and Kate's eyes and the dark barrel of a gun staring at him.
His eyes snap open as soon as he hears Peter's footsteps. Peter has shed his jacket and tie, and is holding a gently steaming mug in one hand. He also looks rather less worried — he's clearly been soliciting advice from someone, probably Elizabeth. "You've got some of your colour back," he remarks.
"I don't know why that happened," Neal says. It comes out as more of a mutter. "Sorry."
"Well, it's not like you're in trouble for having a PTSD attack." Peter hesitates, noticing Neal's not-quite-controlled grimace at the term. "But you're going to need to see one of the department's shrinks, you know, before you can be cleared again for fieldwork."
Neal groans theatrically, but it doesn't really come as a surprise. He did blow the operation, after all. Peter might not be blaming him, but that doesn't make it any less true.
"We'll talk about this later," Peter says. "Or tomorrow. El says right now you should lie down, try and get some rest. You do look pretty worn out."
Neal is briefly undecided. If he were in his apartment he would want nothing more than to down a glass of wine and collapse onto his bed. But he isn't alone here, and as such he's instinctively trying to throw up a front, paper-thin and obvious as it is. Although… he's woken up before from nightmares of flames, shaking and sweating and wishing desperately to have someone there with him. "Okay," he says.
Peter looks pleased, and also surprised, having clearly anticipated more of an argument. He presses ahead before Neal can change his mind, ushering him up the stairs and into the guest room, and finding a t-shirt and sweats for him to change into. He also presses on Neal the mug of sweetened tea — another instruction from El, apparently.
"I'm not sure I can drink that," Neal admits. He's still feeling rather queasy.
"Try, anyway," Peter urges.
He leaves the room while Neal's changing. Neal sits on the edge of the bed and sips cautiously at the hot tea, feeling extremely self-conscious.
"You're supposed to be lying down," Peter points out, reentering the room with his laptop under his arm.
Neal shrugs awkwardly. "About today —" he begins, and then isn't quite sure how to continue.
Peter sits down next to him on the mattress. "It was Kate, wasn't it? You were flashing back to that."
He nods. "I couldn't — it was like it was playing over and over in my head, watching the plane go up, and I couldn't snap out of it." His breath is hitching again uncomfortably, but Peter's thumb is rubbing gently against his shoulder. "And then Clarke pulled his gun on me. And I didn't do anything."
"You're cold," Peter says. He pushes back the duvet and, with a hand still on his shoulder, presses Neal down. Neal goes along with it this time, realising suddenly how much he wants the warmth. "Neal, listen. Imagine you'd had an allergic reaction to something, and we'd had to call off the op for that. This is just the same. Not your fault."
Yes, but… It isn't just the op. It's a whole new set of fears, that this could kick in and freeze him at any time. He'd thought he was at last able to move from all this, had buried it deeply enough, but it's still lurking like a ticking bomb inside him and he hadn't known.
"Neal?" Peter asks, lightly, with no hint of knowing what's going on in Neal's head. Or, maybe, he knows exactly.
"You're right, I know," Neal says quickly. Then he hesitates, and adds, "Thank you," with much greater sincerity.
Peter nods, almost-casually, and settles himself against the headboard, opening his laptop. "Close your eyes," he says. "You'll feel better after you rest."
"Mmm." Neal might have commented on him clearly quoting El again, except that he suspects it's very good advice. He shuts his eyes, and tries to relax, listening to the quiet, rhythmic noise of Peter's breathing and his fingers tapping at the laptop keys. There's still a sick, anxious feeling inside him but it seems less important now, and he suspects he'll be able to sleep eventually. Or soon, because he really does feel completely done-in.
"Neal?" Peter murmurs after a little while. "You still awake?"
"Yeah," he mumbles, without opening his eyes.
"Email from Diana. Clarke just confessed, mostly because she construed his pointing a gun at you as attempted murder. So congratulations — the op was a success."
There's an easing fondness in his voice. "S'good," Neal says.
"Yeah, you did good," Peter agrees, and ruffles Neal's hair.
"Knock it off," Neal mumbles drowsily, and some more of the tension in him drains away at Peter's chuckle.
Sometime soon after, he falls asleep, and doesn't dream.
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