Neal opened his eyes.
Something was wrong. He knew something was wrong; it was just a feeling. He couldn’t quite explain it. Call it instinct.
It was warm. His cheeks felt hot, but in a good way. Comforting, even. Because his head felt as if someone had banged it against concrete for hours. So, warm was good. He could rest.
He felt a strong pressure above him, pushing him down. That was what gave him that feeling, that ice-cold feeling that something was very, very wrong. But, for some reason, he couldn’t bring himself to care. He didn’t have the strength to wonder why. For the first time in his life, Neal didn’t feel the need to understand everything. He didn’t need to know what was pushing him down, further into the floor, he didn’t need to know why his breathing was slow and ragged, he didn’t need to know why the air warmed the skin on his face.
That is, until it started to burn.
The air was suddenly piercing. Trying to stop it from heating his face so harshly, Neal tried to move his hand to cover his eyes. But the moment he tried to shift his hand, he realized he was immobilized. Restrained.
Neal’s mind suddenly raced, sprinting its way back to reality, and suddenly everything became real. The pressure on his chest, pushing him down heavily, his injured side shifting from mere pain to unbearable agony. Neal tried to scream but something was constricting his throat, something like dust or soot, and he weakly coughed, feeling choked.
It was pitch black. Whatever was lying on top of him was shielding him from his surroundings. Neal’s heart suddenly cantered in his chest, as he realized exactly where he was, and exactly why it was suddenly so hot.
He was in the middle of a fire, beneath a crumbled building that was determined to crush him.
Using every ounce of energy he could summon, Neal shoved upward on what was holding him down. To his relief, it began to shift off of him. The moment it left his abdomen, the pain in his side tripled and he screamed another soundless cry.
Breathing harshly, his eyes searching wildly in the darkness, Neal pushed upward again. Faintly, he heard something that nearly made him drop it back down.
“Neal! Where are you?”
Peter. Peter was searching for him. Neal tried to yell back, but again, his throat seemed to be coated with glue. Ignoring his failed attempts at speaking, Neal shoved harder against it.
It moved another inch.
Neal breathed hard and shallow. After the fifth shove, light pierced the darkness that surrounded him. He was lifting it. Just not high enough.
Gritting his teeth, Neal pushed up harder, his arms burning and his side throbbing. A sudden wave of dizziness washed over him and he almost dropped it. But he didn’t. He increased his strength, feeling it give away more, and it moved up a few more inches. The lighting, even dim as it was, hurt his head. Pain erupted behind his eyes, but he kept shoving.
He didn’t know how long it took. Minutes. Hours. Time had frozen in his mind. His arms were nearly numb. But somehow, whatever was crushing him suddenly tumbled to the side, and Neal relaxed, falling back to the ground, groaning as his side burned and an intense pain throbbed in his chest, where the debris had hit him.
He blinked, turning his head slowly and gently to the side. Even the slight movement sent a wave of dizziness over him again, and he felt as if the ground was shifting. Trying to blink away the blurriness, Neal scanned the collapsed building. His eyes widened. The entire building was collapsed. Debris and broken shards of marble surrounded him. The only light was coming from the flames dancing around the edges of the room. Smoke swirled around the ceiling, slowly descending every few seconds. The heat was more intense now, burning his skin. Neal coughed again, wiping sweat from his eyes.
Another look told him that he was probably thirty feet from the front doors. But that wasn’t what immediately took the front doors out of the equation; the fire consumed the entire area. There was no escape there.
Neal coughed again as the smoke began its descent toward him. He didn’t know what to do. Where had Peter gone? Had he…
No, Neal told himself. Peter was fine. Peter got out, and Peter was fine.
He had to be.
The thinness of the air suddenly caught up with Neal, and his breathing became even more shallow. He had to get up. He had to get up, and find a way out. He couldn’t just give up. He wasn’t going to die; he was going to be okay.
He promised Peter and Mozzie that.
Neal took a short breath, and pushed himself up. He cried out, his voice finally breaking whatever barrier that had stopped him before. He grasped his side as the pain burned. There was no way that getting up was going to be easy, not with broken ribs. The only thing keeping him moving at this point was raw adrenaline. Neal took another shallow breath, and pulled the collar of his shirt over his nose and mouth as the smoke came closer.
The flames were near. He didn’t have much time. Turning his head, fighting an intense wave of vertigo, Neal looked for an exit. He knew there was a door that led to the alley—it had to be here somewhere.
Neal squinted, his vision blurring and moving. Flames devoured the entire wall across from him, but not the one he was staring at.
Nor the side exit that his gaze landed on.
Heart beating in a fury of hope, Neal grabbed onto the broken wall in front of him, a sharp slab of stone, and he hoisted himself up, screaming through his teeth. The jagged edge of the wall cut into his hand as he leaned his weight onto it. Ignoring the fresh pain, Neal shifted his hand forward, blood staining the stone, and he stepped with his leg, temporarily forgetting he’d been shot.
Neal let out a strangled cry as his leg gave away and he fell back to the ground, striking the marble hard. His vision flickered. He shut his eyes, trying to work up the strength to push himself back up. The door was mere feet away. He could make it.
Neal felt a sudden piercing pain on his arm, and his head whipped down, terror coursing through his veins; his jacket was on fire. He cried out again, twisting up to his knees, ripping the jacket off his body and throwing it. He fell back against the broken stone wall, his chest rising and falling abnormally fast. His head swam violently and he fought the nausea that rose in his stomach. Neal looked down at his arm, and saw a dark red line of burns running down his skin. ”God,” he whispered, as the heated air angered the burns. Blinking sweat from his eyes, Neal shifted his way toward the door, using the broken wall to keep him steady as the very earth seemed to shift beneath him.
He moved along the wall again, and was two feet from the door. Not even attempting to prepare for it, Neal lunged at the door, hitting it hard and he grunted. The door was burning hot. Neal fell back against it, sinking to the floor. His ribs burned excruciatingly, nearly paralyzing him. He couldn’t reach for the handle. His consciousness was fading. With his arm, he banged on the door, hard, wishing it would just break down like the rest of the building. But it held strong, and only seemed to get hotter.
His strength was waning.
He hesitated in his attack on the door and was still. Leaning there, collapsed against the back of the door. The heat from the room spreading through the walls, piercing the thin material of his shirt and burning his back. The room so blurry it was only a mess of colors, of twisting blood red and rich black. It moved around him both in silence and in chaos.
I’m going to die.
The words were silent in the back of his mind. Silent and real. And he knew they were true. Sweat and blood dripped down his face. The agony that had been tormenting him was just melted pain, no longer fraying his nerves, it was just all he had become. He blinked heavily.
I’m sorry, Peter.
He’d be mad. Furious. Peter would never forgive him for dying. Not after everything Peter had gone through for him. He chased Neal for years. Pursued him and never gave up on him to this day. Neal smiled briefly in the firelight. His own father had never fought for him. For anything.
In a way, Peter had saved his life. Long before he came to his rescue today. He gave him a new life, a new purpose. Peter gave him something Neal couldn’t have stolen from anywhere on the planet. Something Neal had tried to forge throughout his whole life, but never got close enough to make it feel real.
Peter gave him a family.
Neal blinked slowly. Not only had Peter made Neal family, he also fought like hell to keep it that way. Peter didn’t deserve to risk everything to save him just to find him dead under all the rubble. Neal owed him that much. Peter never gave up on him.
Neal couldn’t give up on Peter.
Neal blinked again, his eyes heavy and hard to keep open. His strength was nearly all gone, his vision blackening at the corners. The heat was burning, burning, burning. The flames crept closer while his attention was elsewhere.
Neal took a shallow breath, summoning every ounce of strength he had left. He banged as hard as he could against the door again. The flames drew closer. The air burned his skin. His vision was nearly gone. He didn’t have the strength to hit it again. He sagged against the door, heart pounding in overdrive.
It was then that Neal wished that things could change; that they could be different. That he could keep what Peter gave him. That his wrongs and mistakes in the past wouldn’t catch up with him now, that they wouldn’t take it away from him, just like every other good thing he’s ever had.
His eyes shut of their own volition and he couldn’t get them to open again. The heat was suffocating. He could hardly breathe. He was slipping away.
He was dying.
In the last moment before the darkness took him, he thought of Peter. He thought of guilt and pain and gratitude.
He melted away with one final thought.
Thank you, Peter.