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15 May 2015 @ 08:01 am
Reverse Big Bang Fic: The Long Journey Home, Part 2  
Title: The Long Journey Home, Part 2
Artist: kanarek13
Author: pooh_collector
Word Count: ~11,200
Characters/Parings: P/E/N Peter, Neal, Elizabeth, June, Jones, Diana
Rating: PG13
Warnings: Teeny bit of language
Spoilers: None
Summary: When Neal leaves the city at Peter’s beckoning for a case he ends up farther away from home than he thought and getting back proves to be quite the journey.
Kanarek's Art Post is here.

“Hey, buddy, you can’t sleep here.”

The voice boomed in Neal’s ears and he woke with a jerk, his eyes flying open. Above him loomed a large man, with close cropped dark hair and dark eyes. He was wearing a black polo shirt with The Horseman’s telltale logo emblazoned over his heart.

Neal slipped his feet off the seat. “Sorry, I’m sorry. I’ll just pay my check and go.” He scrubbed a hand over his face and was surprised when he felt much more than a 5 o’clock stubble on his cheeks and chin.

He looked up then and noticed that the scene before him seemed very different from when he had fallen asleep. It could have only been a short time ago, but entirely new patrons sat at the counter and in the other booths that he could see. The light was wrong too. It had been just half past one when he had gotten off the train and now the sun was almost gone, the sky turning dark outside the windows.

Neal threw a twenty on the white laminate table and slid out of the booth, his overcoat clutched in one fist and his phone in the other. He made a beeline for the restrooms and ducked into the door that read men. The mirror held the image of a different man from the one he had seen just this morning in the mirror in his own bathroom. His once clean-shaven face now held a full beard, one that should have taken him a week at least to grow. He leaned in close to the mirror and turned his head from side to side, and noticed threads of silver in the beard and in the hair at his temples too. What the hell?, he thought to himself.

He couldn’t have been asleep for more than a few hours. And even that seemed strange. Why would no one have woken him sooner? Neal looked down at his phone and pushed the button to activate the screen. Nothing happened. He pushed the button again with the same result. Then in a combination of frustration and fear, he jabbed at it repeatedly. Still nothing happened. Clearly the battery had died while he had been sleeping.

Neal slipped the phone into his jacket pocket, hung his coat up on the hook on the wall beside the sink and turned on the tap. When the water was good and cold he cupped his hands under the stream and splashed the water on his face. It was bracing and Neal felt the residual fog of sleep melt away. He repeated the action and then pulled a couple of paper towels from the dispenser and dried himself off roughly scrubbing at his skin.

The face staring back at him from the mirror was still not the one he expected to see. His heart thudded in his chest in time to the headache that somehow still pounded behind his eyes. But he wasn’t going to find any answers to what was going on hiding in the diner’s washroom, so he straightened the lines of his rumpled suit jacket, grabbed up his coat and walked back into the diner proper.

The sun had set outside the diner’s windows. Neal took a deep breath, pulled his coat on and headed outside. He was startled to find the air beyond the diner’s door to be warm and slightly sticky. He had expected it to be cold, colder even than it had been when he had first made his way across the street from the station. He looked up and down the street through the growing gloom and realized that the trees that had been completely bare earlier in the day were now covered in leaves and the ground beneath them green with grass.

Neal looked up to where the constellations were just beginning to brighten the night sky. He expected to see Orion flanked by Gemini and Taurus, but the Twins were on their own, just rising up in the west. That was wrong, all wrong. It was February, they should all be there.

Neal stumbled as he spun around searching the sky for the stars he knew should be lighting the night. His balance gone, he fell to his hands and knees on the pavement, the cement biting into the heels of his palms. He knelt there for a long moment, as his head spun and pounded trying to regain his bearings, trying to make some sense of these last few minutes of his life.

He pulled the warm air into his lungs raggedly and shivered as cold sweat ran down his spine. He wanted to let the panic win, to curl up into as small a ball as possible and just wait until Peter found him. Peter always found him.

Neal pulled one of his hands from the pavement, brushed the grit that was embedded in his shredded skin off on his coat and tugged at his pant leg hoping like hell he would see the anklet’s little light glowing red. He wanted Peter, but right about now, he would settle for the Marshals. But his anklet wasn’t red, in fact just like his phone, it appeared to be dead, with no light glowing at all.

He didn’t understand what was happening and in truth he didn’t care. He just wanted this surreal feeling to go away, to be home safe with Peter and Elizabeth, at their house, in their bed, in their arms. Right now, he would give anything to be there.

Neal pushed himself over so his butt met the pavement and breathed deeply to settle the panic. He looked up again to the twins, Castor and Pollux, “Tell me what’s going on, please?”

They remained mute in the sky despite Neal’s plea. The more he stared up at them the more their light and the light from the other constellations and stars began to bleed and swirl together, almost like Neal could see the galaxies or distant nebulae with their dense patches of greens and blues and golds. He blinked once, twice and then his vision cleared to again reveal the stars of late spring. Neal shivered again, sighing.

He was going to have to get himself home and then hopefully Peter could help him sort it all out. Hopefully.

Neal pried himself up off the sidewalk, feeling his hands sting again as he pushed off against the cement. The train station and his ticket home were just across the street.

The station house was dark and locked, but Neal found the ticket machines on the platform and bought himself a one way back to Grand Central Terminal. He didn’t have a schedule and he had no idea when the next train was going to roll through, so he walked down the platform to a row of black metal seats next to a billboard for the latest Broadway revival of Oklahoma and plunked down.

Neal sat and waited while the florescent bulbs above him buzzed behind the chirp of the crickets. He sat and waited while the warm air enveloped him and filled his lungs and made his shirt stick to his skin under his suit jacket and wool coat. He sat and waited as his spine and ass throbbed from the hard metal seat. He sat and waited while the night grew deeper and the stars traversed across the sky. He sat and waited while his desire to be home grew and grew and his anxiety over the events of the day increased.

Finally, after what seemed like hours upon hours of waiting, Neal heard the sound of the train’s whistle as it announced its arrival, followed by the ding ding ding of the gates at the nearby crossing as they warned of the train’s approach. He stood and looked north and saw the headlights of the engine as it rolled toward the platform.

Briefly, Neal’s mind flew back to the previous day, or was it months or even years ago, and the last set of headlights he had seen, the ones that almost knocked him flat and sent him careening into the icy slush. Neal could still feel the wet and the cold and the hard cement against his body. How could that have been months ago?

He was pulled from his thoughts as the slowing silver cars began to pass, the Metro North logo on each one flipping across his field of vision like frames in an old black and white movie. Eventually, the train came to a full stop before him and a pair of doors slid open a few pacess away. Neal stepped on board and looked to this left. That section of the car was occupied by a lone kid wearing a fifty dollar Macklemore concert tee shirt and worn and strategically torn jeans. He was sitting in a seat in the middle of the space tapping his sneakered foot on the linoleum floor as he listened to music on his iphone through a set of Beats headphones.

Time may have somehow inexplicably passed him by while he had been asleep in the diner, changing the seasons from winter to late spring, but at least it was apparently still the same decade. Neal turned to the right, into the part of the car that was unoccupied and took a seat as the train pulled away from the station. He was finally on his way home.

It wasn’t long before the conductor entered the car and called for tickets. Neal pulled his from his coat pocket and handed it over to be punched.

Something clicked in his head as the conductor handed the ticket back to him and Neal examined it closely. The date stamped in the corner read June 12, 2012. Four months. Somehow it had been four months since he had left the city.

How was he going to explain this to Peter, to Elizabeth? He supposed it wouldn’t really matter once the Marshals got ahold him and he was sent back to prison, possibly for the remainder of his life.

He turned his head to look out the window, but all he could see against the black of the night was his own reflection created by the florescent lights in the car. The beard with its strands of grey was too disturbing a sight, so he turned away again to stare blankly down the length of the train car.

The train rolled south stopping briefly in Irvington; Ardsley-on-Hudson with its historic Tudor stationhouse; Dobbs Ferry, and the funky flowers painted on the ticket office; Hastings-on-Hudson; Greystone; and Glenwood whose platform was totally surrounded by trees and tall green bushes, and Neal could feel the tension coiled tight from his shoulders to his stomach loosen ever so slightly the closer he got to the city. He knew there would be no easy solution to whatever it was that had happened to him, but he knew if he could just get home, he would find a way to deal with whatever came next, even if it was prison.

They had to have been nearing Yonkers when Neal felt the train shudder and then abruptly slow until it came to a stop. The overhead lights flickered a couple of times as the train ceased moving and then went out. Emergency lights came on leaving the train still mostly dark and bathed in eerie shadows.

After a minute, the conductor’s voice rang out over the PA system, muddled and indistinct. Neal could just make out something about the engine and repairs. The coil in this body twisted tighter and Neal closed his eyes against the fear this new lack of movement ignited.

About fifteen minutes later the conductor made his way through Neal’s car, explaining in more detail that they were trying to repair the problem with the engine and thanking everyone for their patience.

As it did on the platform in Tarrytown, time seemed to creep by as Neal waited. The air in the car grew stale and thick with the air conditioning system as dead as the lighting and Neal began to worry that he might possibly never make it home or at least not in time to be with Peter and El, not in time to make a life with them. The idea that they would be old and grey, or worse yet dead and gone, by the time he finally reached the city was so irrational on the surface that Neal almost laughed aloud, but then he thought about the beard on his chin and the green leaves on the trees outside and the hot, sticky air that he was breathing in and he nearly cried instead.

Neal suddenly felt an overwhelming need to talk to his partner. He pulled his phone from his pocket and tried to turn it on one more time, only confirming its uselessness. Then he remembered the kid sitting on the other side of the car and his iphone.

Neal stood and fumbled his way in the dim light down the aisle to where the kid sat with his headphones now wrapped around his neck.

“Excuse me, is there any chance I could borrow your phone for a quick call? Mine is dead,” he explained as he waggled the offending thing before the kid as evidence.

The kid looked at him, blinked lazily and then replied. “Sorry man, mine croaked a little while ago. Didn’t think we’d get stuck or I would have saved some battery power.”

Neal nodded. “Thanks anyway,” he murmured as he turned to make his way back to his seat, disappointment and a smothering sense of dread filling him.

They waited silently for a long time, hours perhaps, before the conductor came around again and announced that the train would need to be towed in for repairs and that in the meantime a bus had been dispatched from Yonkers to drive the passengers to the remaining stations along the route.

Then they waited for the bus, and when it finally arrived the train doors were opened and the conductor led the few passengers to the bus that sat idling next to the tracks. On the short walk, Neal looked up at the sky longing for even a glimpse of Orion’s belt, but the twins were still alone in the heavens. He sighed, the balmy air clogging his lungs.

Thankfully, as he boarded the bus he was hit by a wash of cool air that prickled his overly warm skin. At least the air conditioning on the bus was working. There were only about twenty passengers, so Neal slid into a row near the front of the bus and had both seats to himself. A woman in a dark blue, fitted power suit and three-inch Jimmy Choo stilettos sat just across the aisle from him. Neal noticed that she looked harried and more than a little put out by the delay. He certainly couldn’t blame her.

Not long after the bus pulled away onto the road heading toward the Yonkers’ station she took out a cell phone and typed something into it. Neal assumed she was sending a text. Before she could return the phone to her bag, Neal leaned across the aisle. “Excuse me, could I possibly borrow your phone to make a quick call. Mine died and I’d like to let my partner know where I am.” He smiled at her, hoping she would be charmed, or at least not concerned by a stranger’s request. He knew there was no way he could pull off anything near the full Caffrey right now, but he gave it his best shot.

She looked at him for a moment, and Neal felt acutely self-conscious about the beard and the greying hair, but then she smiled as she handed him her phone. “Sure.”

Neal dialed Peter’s number from memory and waited while it rang, his heart beginning to thud in his chest in anticipation of hearing his lover’s voice. It rang three times and Peter failed to pick up, which was odd even in the dead of night. While Peter’s voicemail greeting played, Neal thought about what he should say, how he would explain his absence in a thirty second recording. “I’m sorry, I’ve been gone so long. I miss you and I’m on my way home.” “Please don’t sic the Marshals on me.” “I know it’s been months since you’ve heard from me but, I promise I didn’t run.”

It all sounded so ludicrous and lame in his head that when he finally heard the message beep, he hit the end call button on the phone. When he made it to the city he would go straight out to Brooklyn to Peter and El’s; he would explain in person what had happened. He would sincerely apologize and he would hope like hell they would forgive him and welcome him back into their lives.

He handed the phone back with a smile and a thank you and then turned his head to look out the window into the night. The darkness persisted as they drove to the station in Yonkers and then Ludlow and then to the Riverdale station with its colorful, tilted metal houses public art.

As they pulled away from Riverdale and turned toward the city again, Neal was certain that he could see the lights from Manhattan, glowing like a beacon in the window of the home of a sailor long lost at sea. He kept his eyes fixed on them as they drove ever closer to the shores he longed to set foot on again.

The bus continued on, stopping at Spuyten Duyvil and then it followed the Spuyten Duyvil Creek to stop right on the water at Marble Hill. From there the bus would continue down the Bronx side of the Harlem River, parallel to Manhattan until after the Yankee’s Stadium stop when they would likely take the Madison Avenue Bridge across the river to reach the 125th Street station, the last stop before they would finally, finally reach Grand Central. At this point, it really did feel like it had been months since he had gone to the terminal and boarded the train for Tarrytown.

Just as the driver began to pull away from the Marble Hill station a new fear gripped Neal. He needed to reach Manhattan and from there Brooklyn. He couldn’t wait for the bus to eventually travel through the Bronx before traversing the river to Harlem. They were on 225th and the bus was approaching Broadway and Neal saw the lights from the elevated track of the One subway line above the road and he knew what he had to do.

“Stop!” He yelled as he rose from his seat. The driver hit the brakes, startled by Neal’s shout and Neal scrambled up the aisle to the door. “Please, I need to get off,” he pleaded, pointing to the street as he stood on the top of the steps leading to the doors.

The driver mumbled something that Neal was probably glad not to hear, but he pushed the lever to open the doors.

“Thank you,” Neal intoned honestly before he bounded down the steps, out of the bus and onto the street. Just across the road were the stairs to the subway platform, a stairway to heaven, to home.
Neal booked across the street to the sidewalk, past the Garden of Eatin and up the three flights of steps to the train platform.

With the tracks before him, Neal scanned the platform and spied a ticket machine. Trusting that the train wouldn’t pull into the station before he had a chance to buy his ticket, he raced to the machine and shoved his credit card in. He choose a single ride ticket, hoping desperately that he wouldn’t need another, that he wouldn’t be turned away at the Burke’s door.

His ticket in hand, he turned back toward the tracks. He looked to the north, but there was no sign of the train. As he had been in Tarrytown, Neal was alone on the platform. The night still carried on, long and lonely. Neal had no idea what time it actually was, but he was certain that each minute that ticked by took an hour or more to pass. He wanted desperately for this night to end and even more, to have his life back the way it had been before he had gotten on the train to Tarrytown.

And yet he paced the length of the platform and waited, knowing that there was no way he was going to get the answers he needed until he could talk to Peter. Eventually a train would come and he would be that much closer to DeKalb Avenue.

Eventually the train did come, the iconic white number one, encircled by a red dot, painted on the side of each car. The train stopped and a pair of doors opened just in front of him and Neal stepped into the car. There were only three other passengers, a couple sitting in a two-seater holding hands and chatting quietly, and on the far end of the car an older gentleman, dressed shabbily, probably using the train as his flop for the night. Neal wondered for a moment how closely he resembled the homeless and lonely man.

Neal looked at all the empty orange and yellow plastic seats, but opted to stand and hold onto the pole in the middle of the car instead. He was so tired and the pounding in his skull had become a constant staccato throbbing and he really just wanted to sit and rest. But the fear of falling asleep and losing more time, more days, or weeks or months kept him on his feet.

The train pulled away from the station with a lurch and Neal stumbled slightly, gripping the metal pole harder to help regain his balance, making the scrapes on the heel of his hand ache.

As the subway crossed over the water, Neal looked out into the night though the windows above the seats and caught his own reflection again in the glass, the beard and the hints of grey hair. He swallowed hard against the fear that rose from his stomach up his chest and into his throat. He stepped in close to the pole and gripped it with his other hand as well, closing his eyes against this reality he didn’t want to see or acknowledge in any way.

The train stopped at 215th Street, 207th, Dyckman, then dipped down underground before stopping at 191st, 181st, and down and down through Manhattan on its way south. At 116th, the stop for Columbia University, a gaggle of students climbed on board Neal’s car, raucous with laughter. Despite the fact that the noise was escalating Neal’s already nasty headache, he welcomed their presence, the first bright sign of life he had encountered since leaving The Horseman so very long ago.

They kept at it, laughing and horsing around as the train passed 110th, the stop Neal would have taken to go to June’s. While the doors were open at the station, Neal almost jumped off, second guessing his decision to go straight to Peter and El’s as the thought of his apartment, safe and comforting, pulled at him. But, before he could will his feet to move, the doors slid shut again, and the train departed the station.

The revelers got off at Columbus Circle and Neal stayed on for two more stops, until the One reached Times Square. Neal got off there, right behind the couple he had shared the car with, and followed the signs to the tunnel that led to the NQR line that would take him out to Brooklyn. The normally bustling Times Square station was also quieter than normal, even for some time in the middle of the night, or hopefully by now, the very early morning. Neal could no longer see the sky, trapped as he was in the underground station, but for some reason he believed that the night was coming closer to its end the closer that he got to Peter and Elizabeth.

At the platform for the NQR, Neal waited again, this time with about a half dozen others for the train to arrive. When a Q finally pulled into the station, Neal uttered a silent thank you. He was about to begin the final leg of his journey.

As he gripped the pole in the car, he realized that his hand was trembling, that in fact his whole body was quaking. He didn’t know whether it was from exhaustion, fear, anticipation or some combination of the three. As the train pulled away from Times Square he willed himself to stop, taking several deep breaths and trying to consciously relax the muscles that had been bunched in knots since he woke up in the diner.

He didn’t have much luck, but he did find counting off the stations as the Q traveled toward Brooklyn somehow soothing, 34th, 28th, 23rd, Union Square, 8th, Prince, Canal. As the train headed out on the Manhattan Bridge, Neal got his first look at the sky again, though obscured by the bridge’s upper deck. He thought maybe, just maybe, the darkness was giving way a bit to the east.

Finally, the Q pulled into the DeKalb station and Neal stepped off the train, his chest tight with both anxiety and exhilaration at finally being just blocks away from where he most wanted to be in the world. He strode purposefully to the stairs at the south end of the station that led up to the street level entrance on DeKalb. Then he bounded up the steps two at a time, his exhaustion forgotten.

On the street, finally, Neal ran the four blocks to the quiet residential section of Brooklyn where the Burke’s lived. He stood on the sidewalk just outside of the small, black wrought iron gate and looked up past the steps to the inviting door of their home just as dawn broke. The white trim around the glass glowed in the light of the sun just rising in the sky. Suddenly, Neal was reminded of the pearly gates. When he approached his version of heaven, would St. Peter let him in? Would he still be worthy to be in Peter and El’s life, in their hearts, in their bed, after disappearing for so long without a word?

He didn’t know the answer, but he needed to find out and face whatever consequences Peter decided to mete out even if it meant he would be banished to purgatory or his own version of hell, separated from the people he had come to love.

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly before opening the gate and walking up the steps to the front door. He rang the bell and moments later he heard Satchmo whining on the other side of the door. Neal’s chest fluttered and he whispered a prayer, please help me, Peter.

Finally, the door opened and there stood Neal's hope for salvation. Peter was apparently still getting ready for the day, his dress shirt half buttoned, no shoes on his stocking feet. “Neal, what are you doing here?”

Whatever resources Neal had been using to hold himself together though the endless hours of the night, disintegrated at the sound of Peter’s voice. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled. “I’m so sorry.”

Peter stepped closer to Neal, into his bubble of personal space, and looked at him intently. It was the look Peter used when he was trying to solve a puzzle during a case, a blend of serious and curious with his lips pursed and his brows furrowed.

“I don’t know what happened, Peter. But, I came straight here, as soon as I could.”

Peter looked even more perplexed. “Neal, I told you last night to take it easy this morning, sleep in.”

Neal blinked, trying to process Peter’s words. He remembered that night last February; Peter’s mouth on his, Peter’s hand caressing his cheek, Peter’s words “Get some rest. Sleep in in the morning.” But, that couldn’t have been just last night. “I…,” Neal stuttered. His hand went to his cheek. The beard was still there and the warm air filling his lungs reminded him that it clearly wasn’t February any more.

When Neal’s hand touched his cheek, Peter fully registered for the first time the full beard, laced with silver that graced his partner’s pale face. Then other inconsistencies glared up at him, the winter coat Neal was wearing, the scape on his partner’s hand that hadn’t been there last night.

Peter wrapped his arm around his younger lover’s trembling shoulders and began guiding him carefully into the house. “Come on, let’s take this inside, okay,” he encouraged soothingly.

Neal nodded compliantly and let Peter lead him into the house. In the foyer, Peter gently eased the wool winter coat off Neal’s body and draped it on one of the hooks on the wall before steering Neal over to the sofa to sit.

Peter perched on the edge of the coffee table across from him and picked up one of Neal’s hands to examine the scrapes he had seen on the porch. Neal’s hand was shaking in his and Neal wouldn’t meet his eyes. “What happened here?” Peter asked as he grazed his fingers against the scratches on the heel of Neal’s hand.

“I fell. I couldn’t find Orion and I fell.”

“Orion’s a winter constellation, buddy.”

Neal nodded, still refusing to meet Peter’s eyes.

“I know. I’m sorry. I don’t know how it happened.”

Peter put his hand under Neal’s bearded cheek and tilted his head up so that their eyes finally met. “How what happened?”

Neal looked at Peter quizzically, as if he was the one who was making no sense. “How I was gone so long. I came back as soon as I could. I promise.”

Peter realized he was getting nowhere fast with his gentle probing and decided to try a different tack. "Why don't you start at the beginning and tell me what you do know, okay."

Neal nodded, dislodging Peter's hand. "I got the text you sent me the morning after we tried to arrest Edmunds, telling me to come up to Tarrytown."

"Text?" Peter couldn't help interrupting. He hadn't sent Neal a text this morning.

"You said we had a new case, and I was going to love it. So I took the train to Tarrytown, like you said. I texted you when I got there, but you didn't answer, so I texted again that I was going to wait in the diner across the street."

Peter looked at his partner carefully, once again, searching his face, his mannerisms, the tone of his voice. This was not Neal lying or withholding things he didn't 'think' mattered, or even weaving some tale to cover his tracks. This was Neal at his most raw and genuine, his usual walls broken down, and it was beginning to scare the heck out of Peter.

"I fell asleep in the booth, while I was waiting for you, and when I woke up..." Neal's eyes widened, his ice blue irises radiating his anxiety and fear. "When I woke up, everything had changed."

Peter gathered both of Neal's hands in his, squeezing gently, and coaxed his partner to continue. "Tell me what changed, Neal."

"The people were all different and my face, my hair. Then I went outside and the trees were covered in leaves, the grass was green, there were flowers everywhere. And when I looked up, I couldn't find Orion or Taurus; they were gone."

Neal pulled his hands free from Peter's grip and ran them though his hair. "I didn't run, Peter, I swear. I don't know what happened, but I wouldn't leave you and El. Not like that." Neal's voice broke and Peter suddenly felt as confused and helpless as his partner obviously did. Neal's story made no sense, but clearly the younger man believed every word of it.

"Hey, it's going to be okay," Peter said as he sat forward and pulled Neal into his arms. Neal let himself be drawn into Peter’s embrace and dropped his head down onto Peter's shoulder as Peter wrapped his arms around his back. Neal shook and shook as Peter rubbed his hand soothingly over the taut muscles in Neal's shoulders and along his spine.

Eventually, Neal's body began to relax, the shaking winding down to the occasional shudder. "Neal, the Edmunds' takedown was yesterday. You haven't been gone at all. You're just a little confused, buddy and probably concussed. I think your doctor got it wrong last night."

Neal pulled himself out of Peter's arms. "No, Peter. That can't be." Neal shoved his hand in his jacket pocket and pulled out a wad of papers and began sorting and flattening them out on the coffee table next to Peter's thigh. There were two Metro North train tickets and a Metrocard. Neal held up one of the train tickets. "Here, this is the ticket for the trip to Tarrytown that I took. That was in February."

Peter took the distinctive ticket with the MTA's blue watermark from Neal's hand and examined it. It was a one-way from Grand Central Terminal to Tarrytown. The date in the right hand corner read February 12th, 2012 and the time stamp next to it read 11:56. And, it had holes from a conductor's puncher in it, marking it as used at some point within the two weeks after it was purchased.

"And, here's the one I bought on the platform in Tarrytown to bring me back." Neal's urgency was obvious as he stuffed the second ticket into Peter's hand. This one looked almost the same as the first, until Peter checked the time and date on the bottom. It was yesterday's date, June 12 and time was stamped as 20:48. It too had been punched somewhere along the line by a conductor.

When Peter looked up from his perusal of the second ticket Neal held out the Metrocard. "The train broke down and I couldn't wait for the bus to go all the way around the Bronx and back to Manhattan, so I got on the subway at Marble Hill."

Peter took the card from Neal's hand. It was a one way from Marble Hill to DeKalb. The purchase time read 3:43 AM, June 13. What the hell? That was all Peter could come up with. None of this made a lick of sense. Peter knew without a doubt the he had seen Neal yesterday, that he had nearly lost his mind with fear when Edmund's car almost struck his partner, that he had waited and worried in the ER while Neal was being examined and that he had taken his lover back to Riverside Drive, against his better judgement and left Neal in his Tiger Oak bed, yesterday.

The click of El's heels on the stairs brought Peter out of his reverie. "Neal, sweetie what are you doing here so early?"

Neal's head snapped up to look at Elizabeth as she continued to descend the stairs. Peter could see a renewed sense of panic reflected in his wide eyes. "Elizabeth."

El reached the main level and entered the living room, her eyes locked on Neal. "Honey, you don't look good. Why didn't you sleep in this morning? Or even better, why didn't you let Peter bring you home with him last night?"

"Last night?" Neal echoed in his confusion.

"Yes Neal, last night." Peter waved the tickets that he still held in his hand. "I don't know how to explain these, but I do know with absolute certainty that that craptastic Edmunds' takedown was yesterday."

Somehow Neal paled even more. Elizabeth, seeing his distress moved quickly over to the couch, sat next to Neal and took his face between her delicate hands, brushing her fingers against his beard. Glancing at Peter she asked, "What's going on?"

Peter shook his head. "I really have no idea. Neal's convinced he's been AWOL since February. And, something happened. That's obvious from all these tickets, and the beard and the scratches on his hands, but... I have no clue what."

Neal relished the feel of El's comforting caress as she smoothed her hands against his cheeks one last time. Then she picked up one of his hands, examining the scratches there just as Peter had done earlier. El tsked. "I'll go get the first aid kit."

"It's okay. They don't hurt," Neal murmured, certain that he didn't want her to move from his side.

"They still should be cleaned up." El got up from the couch, kissed the top of Neal's head and made her way back upstairs.

"Neal,” Peter said, to gain his partner’s attention. “I promise you that you haven’t been missing for months. You haven’t been missing at all.”

Neal shook his head and Peter could see that Neal was still trembling, but from exhaustion, pain, confusion, anxiety… Peter couldn’t determine for sure. Probably all of the above.

Neal plucked the tickets from Peter’s hand and shook them for emphasis. “This happened to me, Peter.”

Peter frowned, then nodded. “I know something happened,” he concurred as he reached up and ran his hand along Neal’s new beard. “You didn’t grow this overnight.”

Neal leaned into Peter’s touch, desperate for some sort of reassurance. He longed for this all to be some figment of a concussed brain, or some strangely visceral nightmare, but he knew that wasn’t the case. He knew he had been to Tarrytown. He could still feel the vinyl of The Horseman’s booth seat against his back, he could still smell the burgers and the pizza, he could still feel the sting of the sidewalk where his hands hit it. “No, I didn’t.”

It was then that El returned, with the first aid kit and a warm, wet washcloth. She took Neal’s hands gently and wiped them down with the cloth and then with an alcohol swab, clearing away the dirt and grit. As she was patting them dry, Peter asked, “Neal, are you hurt anywhere else?”

Neal shook his head, “No.” He blinked, trying to clear the tears that were forming in the corners of his eyes, but instead they came free and rolled down his cheeks and into his new beard.

Peter slid from the coffee table onto the sofa, took Neal by the shoulders, pulled him against his chest and wrapped his arms around him again. “Hey, it really is going to be okay. I can only imagine how scary this was, but you’re here now and you’re safe. No one believes that you were gone at all. I didn’t hear anything from the Marshals and if they ask, you were with me. You don't have to worry.”

Neal nodded against Peter’s neck, but he was still shaking and Peter could feel the dampness of Neal’s tears bleeding through his shirt.

Peter’s arms were around him, the tender touch of El’s hand was against his back and Neal felt the warmth of their love finally melt the defenses he had erected around his heart. “Thank you.”

“For what?”

“For believing me, for loving me.”

“Always,” Peter replied tightening his hold on his lover. “You’re a part of us, and we’re so glad you found your way home to us.”

“Always,” Neal repeated, knowing with all his heart that it was true. That no matter where he went, no matter how far away he roamed, no matter what obstacles were placed in his path, he would always find his way back to Peter and Elizabeth.

They stayed that way for long minutes and then El urged them off the sofa and upstairs to the bedroom.

Together, Peter and El carefully stripped Neal down to his boxers and tucked him into the middle of their bed. Then they joined him cocooning him between them.

“Close your eyes, get some rest. We’ll be right here.

Neal closed his eyes, knowing that he was finally safe, that he was loved, that he was home. Unlike Rip he had only lost months, and maybe only in his own mind. He might never learn the truth about what had happened, but he would use those lost months as a reminder that every day was precious. And, he would treasure each moment he had left with Peter and El, the lazy days of picnics in the park, the not so lazy days working in the office, and the long nights spent together in this bed.

kanarek13kanarek13 on May 15th, 2015 02:52 pm (UTC)
Squee \o/ So, SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO much love, d'awwwwww. I just read it again and I just adore poor Neal all lost, trying to get back to his life and the people he loves :D And it's all somehow magnified by the vastness of the night sky ♥ Oh, the glorious angst and doubts and evil means of public transportation :P

And the ending - d'awwwwwww. Neal's home is definitely in Peter's arms ♥ Together they will figure it out and everything's gonna be okay :D Squeee :D

Thanks again for claiming my little prompt and giving such perfect source of endless inspiration :D {{{{{{{{{{TACKLEHUGS}}}}}}}}}}}
pooh_collectorpooh_collector on May 15th, 2015 02:55 pm (UTC)

I'm so happy that you I could make you squee!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Your art is always an inspiration and this piece in particular created such a vision in my little bear brain.

Thanks again for being the perfect collaborator!
joy2190joy2190 on May 31st, 2015 11:17 pm (UTC)
Kanarek, your artwork for this story is so perfect (as per usual!). It really feeds into the mood,of the piece.
kanarek13kanarek13 on June 1st, 2015 08:16 am (UTC)
Aww, thank you so much :D ♥
riverotter1951: north American river otterriverotter1951 on May 15th, 2015 05:03 pm (UTC)
Thank you for a haunting story. I have always enjoyed Washington Irving's stories and the glimpses of New York as well.

My favorite Irving book is an travel log set in Granada Spain. There are stories that describe the Alhambra and then a fictional story about that place.

As a Californian, I find NYC a fascinating place and so very different from the cities I know, Los Angeles, San Diego and the San Francisco Bay area.
pooh_collector: Journey Home 1pooh_collector on May 31st, 2015 05:12 pm (UTC)
Thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

I've never read the Irving book you mention, but I'm going to go find it. It sounds really enjoyable.
nywcgirlnywcgirl on May 15th, 2015 06:27 pm (UTC)
Lovely story, poor Neal, and the art, wow... Great job the both of you.
pooh_collector: Journey Home 2pooh_collector on May 31st, 2015 05:13 pm (UTC)
Thank you!

Kanarek's art is always so inspiring!
pipiljpipilj on May 16th, 2015 01:10 pm (UTC)
Love the detailed description of the places Neal visit. I love the unexplained bits in the story. Glad Neal found his way home. Great art as well kanarek13. They blended beautifully..

Edited at 2015-05-16 01:14 pm (UTC)
pooh_collector: Journey Home 1pooh_collector on May 31st, 2015 05:14 pm (UTC)
Thank you!

This was a bit of a departure from the normal WC fic, but it's just the way the story went when I looked at Kanarek's original art piece.
doctor_fangeekdoctor_fangeek on May 19th, 2015 04:02 pm (UTC)
Awww, Pooh. I just wanted to reach out and hug Neal (a few different times, I'm sure). I was initially trying to figure out what was really going on, and then how you would resolve the situation you'd put Neal in...and then it didn't really matter...Neal finds his way home and that is the most important thing. Haunting and lovely.
pooh_collector: Journey Home 2pooh_collector on May 31st, 2015 05:21 pm (UTC)
Awwwwwwwww! Thank you!

That was EXACTLY the reaction I was hoping for from this story.
Laura: Neal in streetcookielaura on May 23rd, 2015 01:49 am (UTC)
Oh this is great, I could really feel Neal's fear, what a terrifying and confusing situation! Such an intriguing and mysterious story too. But yay for coming home to cuddles :)
pooh_collector: Journey Home 1pooh_collector on May 31st, 2015 05:22 pm (UTC)
Thank you!

It was definitely a departure, but it was fun to write.

I'm glad you enjoyed it.
joy2190joy2190 on May 31st, 2015 11:16 pm (UTC)
Ooh, so much fun Pooh! I like that we never know what really happened, spooooky!
pooh_collector: Journey Home 1pooh_collector on June 15th, 2015 01:51 am (UTC)
Thanks joy!

It was a little outside the norm for me, but I was hoping people would be able to go with it.

Edited at 2015-06-15 01:51 am (UTC)
angelita26: OT3angelita26 on June 1st, 2015 01:13 am (UTC)
Awwwww, poor Neal! So confused and lost but making his way to Peter and El, like he knows he should. They will definitely take care of him. *HUGS to all of them*

Very cool story, pooh bear! I loved it lots! Thank you for sharing!
pooh_collectorpooh_collector on June 15th, 2015 01:53 am (UTC)
Thanks ang! It was a very different form of Neal torture. I'm glad I was able to give them a happy ending, if a little unresolved.
sapphire2309sapphire2309 on June 1st, 2015 03:11 pm (UTC)
I love that the ending is just a little unresolved and that they'll never really find out what happened. Lovely story :3
pooh_collector: Journey Home 2pooh_collector on June 15th, 2015 01:55 am (UTC)
Thanks sapphire! It was fun to write something a little out of the ordinary.

Edited at 2015-06-15 01:57 am (UTC)
dennih23: OT3dennih23 on June 7th, 2015 12:23 pm (UTC)
I love the last paragraph:

Neal closed his eyes, knowing that he was finally safe, that he was loved, that he was home. Unlike Rip he had only lost months, and maybe only in his own mind. He might never learn the truth about what had happened, but he would use those lost months as a reminder that every day was precious. And, he would treasure each moment he had left with Peter and El, the lazy days of picnics in the park, the not so lazy days working in the office, and the long nights spent together in this bed.

We may never know what happened, but Neal made it home safe – and everyday is precious and this is just a small reminder of that fact.
pooh_collector: Journey Home 1pooh_collector on June 15th, 2015 02:10 am (UTC)
Ah, thanks denni!

That was the heart of the whole story. I'm glad you enjoyed it.