Note: For complete heading info, please refer to Chapter 01.
The next time Neal opened his eyes, he immediately shut them again. The bright lights hurt and with the thought of that hurt, the rest of his body made itself known. With each subtle shift on the bed, he recalled the pain that Adler had inflicted on his body. He remembered staring into the uncaring blue eyes of his supposed father.
Then Neal felt a hand squeeze his own and he let his eyes creak open. He was greeted with the sight of Peter and with a turn of his head, he saw Elizabeth on the other side of the bed. At first, he thought he was dreaming until Peter bent down and pressed a light kiss to his forehead. When Elizabeth did the same, he felt tears welling up in his eyes.
"You're safe," Peter was saying and Neal wanted to believe him. "We told you earlier, but I'll tell you again, Adler's dead and everyone else is in custody."
Neal blinked. He'd only been with the man for a week, but it felt like a lifetime had passed. Knowing that the man was dead loosened something within him and tears slipped down his cheeks.
"I couldn't stop them," he managed to say with an incredibly rough voice. The realization that it was his own screams that had ruined his voice made his heart clench.
"You survived and we have you now," Elizabeth said as her hand gently caressed his cheek.
Neal wanted to pull away from her touch as he no longer felt clean and worthy of their attention, but he couldn't bring himself to. Instead, he leaned into the touch and let his mind drift with the soothing strokes.
"Neal?" Peter's voice brought him back to reality and he wasn't sure how much time had passed. "You with us?"
"Yes, Master," Neal responded on instinct. As an after thought, he added, "Peter." What had taken the Burkes years to accomplish; Adler had destroyed within a week.
"Do you think you'll be able to give a statement to Hughes? They need to know if there is anything else to worry about now that Adler is dead. We don't know what his motive was for taking you."
Neal nodded. The sooner he could say it, the sooner he could forget it ever happened. But the knowledge that there were marks that would scar and the brand on his ass told him that he would never forget it for the rest of his life.
With Hughes in the room, Neal started with what happened when he was taken. When he got to the part of Adler's motives, he hesitated. Learning of his past had left him feeling lost and confused. Part of him had always wondered what would have happened to him had he been raised free with loving parents. The other part decided that being slave was worth it so that he had Peter and Elizabeth. With halting words, he relayed the tale of his father, the cop gone bad and a system that sold kids to line their pockets.
Peter had gone quiet, his face set in stone. Elizabeth just kept squeezing his hand and Hughes just wrote things down. When Neal was done, Peter stepped outside with Hughes while Elizabeth watched as his nurse gave him another sedative.
"We'll be here when you wake up, Sweetie," she said with a kiss to his lips and Neal let himself fade off again.
It was a week before the doctors allowed him to be released. But going home with Peter and Elizabeth brought a whole new set of worry to Neal. He loved them, but he felt that they shouldn't love him anymore. He wasn't the slave that had belonged to them for ten years.
But when Neal had tried to head for the guestroom instead of the bed he'd shared with them for years, Elizabeth quietly steered him into the room. Neal didn't protest as she helped him out his clothes and into bed. The healing marks on his backside made him lay on his front and he hated the thought of Elizabeth seeing the way Adler had ruined his body.
But instead of being repulsed by the sight, Neal felt her press her lips near the scarring marks. She worked her way along each line, telling him how much she loved him as she progressed. Then Peter joined them on the bed, effectively sandwiching Neal in between them. Together, they traced their fingers around the edges of the brand and then leaned down to kiss each side of it.
"We love you for you," Elizabeth said, causing tears to well up in his eyes. "Even when you get old, gray and lose those abs you're so proud of, we'll still love every inch of you."
Peter didn't talk at first, he just guided Neal's hand across his own body. Letting Neal feel the stomach that was just starting to get a little slack in the middle. He brought Neal's hand up to the wrinkles that had deepened the last few weeks across his face. Then he ended the journey with Neal's hand on the scar Peter had always carried from his college sports injury.
"We all have scars, Neal," he said softly. "They make us who we are."
Neal let his tears fall to the pillowcase as they wrapped their arms around him. Logically, he understood what they were saying, but he figured it would take time for him to really grasp what they meant.
It was a month before Neal thought of touching something with the intention of doing artwork. Each time he thought about the loft with his unfinished pieces, his chest would tighten. The danger had passed, but his instinct was telling him that it wasn’t safe to go back there. Instead, he'd asked Mozzie to bring him a sketchpad and some of his pastels. He usually worked with paint, so it would be something different.
He started with a pencil sketch and found himself drawing the outline of the brand that Adler had pressed to his ass. It was stylized V overlapping an A. Neal had seen the design all over the rooms that he had been kept him. In color, the logo had popped with a blood red V and a pitch black A. While his skin lacked the color, he could still see it every time he twisted his body in the mirror.
Once he had the lettering on the paper, Neal picked up a pastel with shaking hands and started applying color over the mark to disguise it. When he was done an hour later, you couldn't see a trace of the mark beneath the swirl of colors he had created. That's when the idea formed in his head and he started working in earnest with his sketchbook every day, searching for the perfect design.
Several days later, with Peter and Elizabeth wrapped around him in bed, he broached the subject.
"I would like to get a tattoo," he said softly. Peter looked at him sharply, while Elizabeth knowingly traced her hand over the brand.
"It wouldn't cover it completely," she said.
"But it wouldn't be his anymore either. I want- I need to make it my own."
"Anything you want," Peter said. "You work on a design and when the doctor says it's okay, you can get it."
Neal kissed them both. "Just don't ask me what I'm working on. I need to do this on my own."
They nodded and held him close as he drifted off to sleep, taking comfort in the warm embraces.