Neal could count on one hand the number of times he’d been ill in his adult life. A cold here and there, the occasional headache - that was all. Well, except for Venice. That was where he’d had his first and only sinus infection, a thoroughly miserable experience. The heat in his dank little hotel room hadn’t worked, and his Italian had been rudimentary at best. He’d huddled, shivering, under the blankets until Alex had arrived and arranged for better accommodations and blessed antibiotics.
He’d been sick twice in prison, and almost hadn’t minded. The food in the infirmary was better than in GenPop, and he’d charmed the nurses into giving him extra green Jell-O. It’d been what passed for pleasant in the gray, unchanging world of the supermax.
In prison or out, he was pretty sure he’d never been as sick as he was now.
It’d been a vicious flu season in New York. Neal had dutifully gotten his shot along with everyone else in the office, but he supposed nothing was a hundred percent effective. In this case, judging by the number of people who’d called out last week, it was exactly zero percent effective.
Neal managed to lift his head long enough to fumble for his cell on the bedside table. Sick, he texted, and decided that was good enough. He hit Send and pulled the covers over his head. He was weak and chilled, his head was throbbing, and he ached miserably all over. He wanted Tylenol and hot tea, but the kitchen and bathroom were too far away. And he didn’t have any Tylenol. He never got sick, so he never thought to keep that stuff around.
Two minutes later, his phone beeped. He reached a hand out and pulled it into his cocoon. El too, Peter had texted back. Was going to text to let you know I’m working from home today. You need anything?
Reading the text on his phone was nauseating. Neal had to lie back with his eyes shut and wait for it to pass. There were any number of things he needed. Tylenol was only the tip of the iceberg. He didn’t have soup or crackers or Jell-O or anything else that counted as “sick food” . . . or even just plain “food.” He had tea, but definitely no honey or lemon to put in it. He didn’t even have a damn thermometer, though he guessed, based on his limited past experience, that his fever was hovering somewhere between “high” and “get thee to the hospital.”
And the worst part, he was only just realizing, was that he really didn’t have anyone who could bring him these things. June had escaped the gray, deary, flu-ridden New York February for Florida and given the staff the long weekend off. Moz was out of town on unnamed “business.” But if Elizabeth was sick enough for Peter to stay home, then he really shouldn’t have to take time away from her to come into Manhattan and bring Neal soup and crackers.
I’m okay, he wrote back. He wanted to tell Peter to tell El he hoped she felt better soon, but he just couldn’t deal with holding his eyes open any longer. He sent the message, closed his eyes, and passed out with the phone still in his hand.
He woke at mid-morning, feeling - if it was possible - even worse. His eyes were burning and his skin felt weirdly hypersensitive. The sheets were too rough, but he was so cold that he clutched them tighter anyway. His tracker was an added discomfort, weighing down an ankle he was almost too weak to move. He was incredibly thirsty. Worst of all, he had to pee.
He struggled upright, longing for the prison infirmary, where he could have called a nurse to help him to the bathroom. It took him a small eternity to cross his dining room, but once in the hallway he could at least hang onto the wall. That was good, because it felt like the floor was shifting beneath his feet. His stomach rolled with it, and he staggered the last few steps to the bathroom, where he threw up into the sink.
Or tried to. He hadn’t eaten much the last couple of days. He brought up bile and vile-tasting stomach acid and then dry-heaved for a few excruciating seconds. The room was spinning violently by the time he was done; he barely turned his collapse into a controlled fall so he didn’t hit his head, and then lay on the rug, not even sure which way was up. This is bad, he realized. And it was only going to get worse.
The dizziness finally abated, some uncountable number of minutes later, but Neal didn’t move. He was too ill, too wrung out, and he had no idea how he was going to get back to his bed.
He still had to pee. Eventually, that forced him to drag himself up. He sat slumped over on the toilet with his head in his hands, and then, when he was done, pulled himself to his feet using the edge of the sink. He leaned on his elbows and rinsed his mouth out with water from the tap before taking a few tentative sips. Ginger ale. Ginger tea. Neal vaguely recalled that such things were good for calming upset stomachs. Too bad he didn’t have anything of the sort on-hand.
Somehow he made it back to his bed. He crawled beneath the covers and tried desperately to stop shaking, but he couldn’t. Bad, was all he could think, this is really bad. He clutched his phone and thought about calling Peter, but he didn’t think he could stand it if Peter told him it was just the flu and he had to cowboy up. Besides, El was sick, and Peter was hers before he was Neal’s. That was how it worked.
It was how it had always worked: Neal wore Peter’s tracker, but El wore his ring and he wore hers, and that trumped the tracker every time. Neal knew that. But for some reason, the realization that he had no real right to ask anything of Peter was just devastating. El had Peter, but Neal had . . . no one, really, and he was starting to realize that he needed someone. Not just to bring him canned soup and Tylenol and leave them outside the door, which was what Moz would’ve done if he were here, but to sit with him, make him drink hot fluids, and take his temperature every few hours to be sure his fever wasn’t cooking his brain to mush. He was very ill and very weak and completely alone.
If Kate were here, he thought, and then realized he had no end to that sentence. He’d taken care of her, and she’d let him. The truth was that he had no idea what her reaction to having to look after him for a change would have been. She might have found it endearing . . . or her reaction might’ve been more like Alex’s when she’d shown up in Venice and found him a miserable mess in a hotel room. Alex had taken care of him, but she’d been annoyed about it, and he’d had to make it up to her later with a very expensive pair of Venetian glass earrings (legally acquired, even).
Moz was a true friend, and Neal could rely on him for a lot, but not for this. June was . . . June would have taken care of him, but he didn’t want June, he finally admitted to himself. He wanted Peter. But he didn’t have Peter, not in any real sense. Not like El did.
He didn’t have the strength left for a breakdown. Instead he simply lay there, limp as rag doll, until at last he fell into a numb fog of unpleasant fever dreams.
Peter checked the reading on the digital thermometer and smiled. “101.5,” he reported to El, who made a sleepy noise and burrowed deeper into her pillow. Still too high, but nothing like that morning. When he’d taken her temperature at seven-thirty and found it to be nearly a hundred and three degrees, he’d almost taken her straight to the ER. But the weather was hideous - barely above freezing and pouring rain - and he hadn’t wanted her breathing in all that cold, damp air. Instead, he’d waited impatiently until eight o’clock and then called the advice nurse at El’s doctor’s office.
Fluids and rest, they’d told him, to be followed by more fluids. They’d seen a lot of people with this virus get dehydrated. She really shouldn’t be left alone until her fever broke.
Peter stroked a hand over El’s hair, grateful that today was Friday and this weekend was a long one. He’d planned on working on Monday - white collar criminals didn’t exactly observe federal holidays - but if El was still under the weather, he’d happily trade that for another day like this one. He’d spent most of it sitting on top of the covers on his side of the bed, going through a stack of cold case files while El slept with her head resting against his hip. He’d kept the damp washcloths, Tylenol, and hot tea coming at regular intervals and a marathon of El’s favorite old movies running, muted, on the bedroom TV. He’d never seen her so listless, and if her fever hadn’t dropped below a hundred and two by four o’clock, he’d have called her doctor’s office again. But it had, and so he breathed a sigh of relief and went downstairs to make his millionth cup of hot tea with honey and lemon.
The only problem now, Peter thought as he waited for the water to boil, was, as usual, the Nagging Problem of Neal.
He’d been surprised by Neal’s text that morning. Neal’s immune system seemed to be nearly iron-clad, though Peter knew that an American ex-pat matching Neal’s description had received treatment for a sinus infection in a local hospital during Neal’s stint in Venice. That morning, Peter had been too worried about El to think much about Neal beyond a vague sense of relief when he’d said he didn’t need anything. But now, with El finally on the mend, there was room for worry about Neal to elbow its way in.
He wondered who Neal had taking care of him. Mozzie was a germophobe. June, perhaps - except Peter recalled Neal mentioning earlier that week that she was leaving Thursday and would be gone the whole long weekend.
Peter looked around the kitchen, at the detritus of a day spent looking after his wife: the box of teabags out on the counter, the empty Tupperware container that once held frozen homemade chicken soup in the sink, a six-pack of ginger ale with two cans missing. If Neal was as sick as El had been, he could barely lift his head, much less take care of himself. Not to mention, Peter had seen Neal’s fridge: with the exception of the occasional carton of leftover chow mein, there was never anything in it.
El looked a lot more alert when Peter went back upstairs, mug of tea in hand. She was half-sitting up against the pillows, and she’d apparently had the energy to find the remote, because When Harry Met Sally was on low. She accepted the mug of tea with a flu-roughened, “Thanks, sweetie,” the first time all day she’d managed to string two words together. Then, peering at his face, she asked, “What’s wrong?”
He sighed, sat down on the edge of the bed, and rubbed a hand over his face. “Neal, of course, what else would it be? He texted me this morning to tell me he was sick. He said he didn’t need anything, but I keep thinking about what your doctor said, about how I shouldn’t leave you alone. June’s out of town, and Moz -”
“Call him,” El said.
Peter nodded, grateful, so grateful, that she was El and would never even think to be jealous of his concern for Neal. “Probably he’s fine,” he said, pulling his phone out of his pocket. “It’s Caffrey. He always lands on his feet.”
El didn’t answer. She muted the TV, a little line of either pain or worry forming between her brows. Peter reached out and smoothed it away with the pad of his thumb while he listened to Neal’s phone ring. She smiled and leaned her face into his palm.
“‘Lo,” Neal croaked. At least, Peter assumed it was Neal. He didn’t sound anything like himself.
“Neal?” Peter said, frowning. “Hey, buddy, it’s Peter.”
“Peter,” Neal said, his voice rough and thin. “Oh.” There was a sharply indrawn breath, then another. But it was only with the third that Peter finally understood: Neal was crying. “Please, Peter,” he finally managed. “Please. Please.”
Neal couldn’t seem to manage anything else, but it didn’t matter. Peter had already decided he’d do damn near anything to never hear Neal say “please” in that horrible, broken voice ever again. “Jesus Christ, Caffrey,” Peter said, already fumbling around for his shoes. “I’m on my way. Twenty minutes. Hang in there, okay? I’m coming.”
“But El -” Neal managed to choke out.
“El’s doing much better,” Peter said, cradling the phone between his ear and his shoulder while attempting to tie his shoes one-handed. “Twenty minutes, all right?”
“Twenty minutes,” Neal repeated, as though he didn’t dare believe it.
“Twenty minutes. Eighteen if I make all the lights. I’m going to hang up now, but I’ll see you soon.” He hung up.
“That bad?” El said quietly.
“Honey, I’m so sorry,” he said. He leaned over to kiss her on the forehead. “I’ll be back as soon as I can. I might have to bring him with me - hell, if he’s as bad as he sounds, I might have to take him to the ER. You need anything?” he added, surveying her bedside table. She had tea, tissues, Tylenol, the remote, a glass of water, the thermometer . . . “Where’s your cell phone?”
“Oh,” she said. “In my bag, probably. The blue one.”
He found her phone and put it on the nightstand. “If you start to feel worse or your fever goes back up, call me. Promise?” He took her hand and squeezed it for emphasis.
“Promise,” she said, squeezing back. “Go. Take care of Neal.”
He kissed her good-bye and left, stopping briefly in the bathroom to grab some Tylenol and in the kitchen to stuff tea and ginger ale into a bag.
Luck was on Peter’s side. He made all the lights - one or two of them might’ve been a bit pink - and got to Neal’s in record time. No one answered the door, but Peter had a spare key for emergencies. He let himself into the dark, silent, freezing house, and turned on a light so he wouldn’t trip and kill himself on the stairs.
He didn’t bother knocking on Neal’s door. The loft was, if possible, even colder than the rest of the mansion. Peter turned on one of the Tiffany lamps by the sofa and set down his bag of supplies. “Neal,” he called softly. The lump of blankets on the bed stirred and moaned. “Hey there, buddy,” he said, easing himself down on the edge of the mattress. “I’m here. Twenty minutes, just like I promised. Less than, even.” He reached out and lay a hand on Neal’s back.
Neal coughed weakly and turned his head to look up at Peter. “Sorry,” he rasped. “Didn’t want to . . .” He coughed again, rough and worryingly wet. “. . . take you away from El,” he managed to finish.
“Right,” Peter said, surveying him. “You decided dying quietly would be a better option. Can you even sit up?”
Neal moaned. Peter took that as a no. He turned on the bedside lamp, and Neal flinched and squeezed his eyes shut. In the pool of yellow light, Neal looked every bit as bad as Peter had feared: white as chalk, sweating and shaking, dark bruises under his eyes, lips that were chapped and dry. Peter rested a hand on Neal’s forehead; he was burning up. “Where’s your thermometer?” he asked, poking gingerly through the pile of used tissues on Neal’s nightstand.
“Don’ have one.”
Peter should’ve expected as much. “Of course not. Neal Caffrey never gets sick. No Tylenol either, I bet.”
Neal shook his head miserably.
Peter went to retrieve the bag from the sofa. “Fortunately for you,” he said, sitting down again on the edge of the bed, “I was a boy scout.” There was an empty water glass on the nightstand; Peter cracked open a can of ginger ale and poured some into it, then broke the blister pack on two Tylenol Cold and Flu.
Neal licked at his chapped lips. “I’m so thirsty,” he said, as though he’d only just noticed.
“Yeah, that’s because you have the flu and haven’t drunk anything all day,” Peter told him. “You know how they recommend rest and fluids for sick people? That’s not just to sell more ginger ale. Come on.” He hauled Neal semi-upright, offering him his own shoulder to lean on, and gave him the pills one at a time, with small sips of ginger ale in between. Neal slumped into Peter’s side, hot as a banked coal even through layers of clothing. “I don’t suppose you’ve eaten anything today,” Peter said, after a few minutes of silent sipping.
Neal shook his head. “Sort of lost my appetite after I threw up.”
Peter had to count to ten before he trusted himself enough to speak. “Okay,” he finally said, “then, right then? That’s when you should have called me.”
“Couldn’t,” Neal said, letting his head fall to rest against Peter’s shoulder. “No phone in the bathroom. Also, I was too busy wishing to die.”
Peter had seen Elizabeth than morning and could believe it. He pressed his lips together, biting back any number of responses. Sarcasm is not going to improve this situation, he could hear El telling him. And she was right - or would have been, if she’d been here to say it - but it might’ve made him feel better. He was pissed that Neal had been left alone to suffer in this cold house, and even more pissed that he hadn’t felt able to call Peter and ask for help. He was worried, too. More than worried. Neal Caffrey never shut up, that was how he worked his magic, and just now he was quieter than Peter had ever seen him.
Their first stop would have to be the ER, Peter decided. This would require some delicate handling; Neal hated hospitals. Peter set the glass aside and gently tightened his hold around Neal’s shoulders. Neal pressed his face into the side of Peter’s neck and curled into him. It was far more intimate than he ever got with anyone but Elizabeth, but Neal was so hot and so - so fragile in his arms. Neal was a tactile creature by nature, he liked to touch and be touched and sometimes it drove Peter a little crazy, but just now he could admit, if only to himself, that this was as much for him as it was for Neal. If Peter hadn’t called him, if Neal had gone another twelve hours alone in this freezing loft . . . Peter couldn’t bear to think about the state he would have been in then.
He didn’t want anyone else taking care of Neal, he realized suddenly, just like he wouldn’t want anyone else taking care of El. Looking after Neal was his job. Even when it drove him crazy.
“You know,” he said quietly, “my life would be a lot easier if you had any sense of self-preservation.” Neal made a wordless noise and curled into Peter even tighter. Peter tugged at the comforter, making sure it was tucked around Neal’s shoulders, and then cradled the back of Neal’s head in his palm. “Your phone is on the nightstand, I can see it from here. Was there some reason you couldn’t have used it to call me once you peeled yourself off the bathroom floor? Did it walk away and then walk itself back when I called?”
“Elizabeth,” Neal replied, as though that were the only explanation necessary.
“Yeah, but dammit, Neal . . .” He sighed, reining himself in. “Never mind. This isn’t your fault,” he said, more to remind himself than to reassure Neal. “You were alone today, and you shouldn’t have been. I’m sorry. But everything’s going to be all right. We’ll head back to the house, and you and Elizabeth can fight over the remote and play Scrabble till you’re both feeling better. Sound good?”
Neal breathed out, hot against Peter’s collar bone. “Sounds wonderful.”
Peter nodded, knowing Neal would feel it. “There’s just one catch.” He pulled away to look at Neal. His face, wan, worried, and white as chalk, only made Peter more determined. “I need to take you to the ER first. Don’t argue,” he added, before Neal could even open his mouth. “I’m not interested in the rose-tinted Neal Caffrey version of reality. You’re dehydrated. I don’t even know how high your fever is. You need a bag of saline, an IV, and probably codeine. Got it?”
To his shock, Neal nodded, slowly. “Okay.”
Peter blinked. “Really?”
Neal nodded again. “Codeine . . . sounds pretty good right now.”
“I bet,” Peter said, ruffling Neal’s hair. “Well . . . good. Lie down for a few minutes while I pack you a bag, all right?” He eased Neal down under the blankets and pulled them up to his chin.
“Peter,” Neal said, as Peter started to turn away. Peter turned back, expecting some fussy instruction about which pajamas to pack. Instead, Neal was looking at him, all pretense stripped away by fever and exhaustion. This was him, Peter realized. No cons, no facades, nothing. The real Neal Caffrey.
If only it didn’t take a high-grade fever to get him to reveal himself.
“Thank you,” Neal whispered. “Really. I don’t know -”
“It’s nothing,” Peter said, gently. “Give me just a couple minutes and we’ll be on our way.”
Elizabeth woke the next morning with a lingering headache, a sore throat, and a vague sense of confusion. She frowned, not quite sure where the confusion was coming from, until she stretched out her arm to tap Peter on the shoulder and realized that Peter’s side of the bed was empty. Not only empty - it hadn’t been slept in.
El sat up, cautiously, and winced at the protest of aching muscles. She didn’t feel nearly as flattened as she had yesterday, but she still felt far from her usual self. She needed at least another day or two in bed, drinking tea and watching old movies. Thank God she didn’t have any events scheduled for this weekend.
At the moment she really wanted to know where her husband was. She’d gotten a text from him about seven the night before; it’d said that he and Neal were at the ER and they’d be there a while longer. They weren’t back yet when she fell asleep at nine, and she hadn’t heard them come in. She fumbled for her phone on the nightstand to see if there were any missed calls or texts; there weren’t. She relaxed. This was probably a case of no news being good news.
She stood up slowly, reaching out to hang onto the bedpost until a brief wave of dizziness passed. She didn’t dare try and navigate the stairs on her own, but she thought a short trip to the bathroom might not be asking too much. She used the toilet, took some more Tylenol, and splashed some water on her face, all while avoiding her reflection in the mirror; she knew she looked like hell, but she didn’t feel the need to have it confirmed.
She’d refilled her water glass and was on her way back to bed to try and call Peter when she noticed the door to the guest room was cracked open. She frowned; it was by far the messiest room in the house, and they usually kept it shut when it wasn’t in use.
She eased the door open a few more inches, peered inside, and smiled. Peter and Neal were sound asleep on the bed together. Peter was fully dressed and sitting upright against the headboard, as though he’d sat down and just passed out. His head was tilted back, his mouth was open, and he was snoring softly. Neal was tucked under a pile of blankets at Peter’s side, his head on Peter’s stomach. Peter’s hand rested protectively - almost possessively - on Neal’s head.
It was damn near the sweetest thing El had ever seen - and just a little bit sexy, too, she admitted. Part of her wished she had a camera, but she knew this wasn’t something either of them had ever meant anyone to see. She smiled to herself and went back to bed.
Her second Project Runway rerun of the morning had just started when Peter shuffled in. He looked - well, he looked like he’d spent the night sitting upright in his clothes. “Morning, hon,” he said, leaning down to kiss her. He checked her temperature by pressing his lips to her forehead and grunted in approval. “How’re you feeling?” he asked, slumping down on the edge of the bed.
“Much better,” she said, smiling. “I think I might even want toast to go with my tea. How’s Neal?”
Peter sighed and scrubbed a hand over his face. “Better, I think. Still sleeping. He’ll be all right.” He hesitated. “It was . . . it was bad, El. They almost admitted him. His fever was over a hundred and four degrees. The doctor spent so long listening to his lungs, I thought for sure they were going to tell me he had pneumonia. That house was freezing,” he added, shaking his head.
“What did they tell you?” she asked, frowning.
“That he doesn’t have pneumonia - yet. But they were worried enough to give him antivirals to go with his codeine, and an IV bag full of God knows what. He was seriously dehydrated. And scared.” Peter drew a deep breath. “This scared the hell out of him. He cried, El. At the hospital, after the doctor left. Tried to hide it, but . . .”
Neal obviously wasn’t the only one who’d been scared. El reached out and took Peter’s hand in hers. “What did you do?” He gave a helpless shrug, and she frowned. “Peter. Please tell me you did not tell Neal to cowboy up while he was in a hospital bed with an IV in his arm.”
He glared at her. “Give me a little credit, will you? I just sort of . . . sat there until it was over. Then I straightened his blankets and got him a cup of tea from the vending machine. What else was I supposed to do?”
El patted his hand. That was Peter all over. “Nothing. You did good, hon.”
Peter relaxed, nodding in relief. “Anyway, he’s here now. He’ll be fine. I’ll see to it.”
“I know you will.”
He nodded again. “All right. Tea and toast, coming right up. Then I need to shower. I should probably hit the store, stock up a bit. Neal specifically requested green Jell-O, if you can believe it.”
“Could you run me a bath before you go?” El asked. “I feel so gross, and I think I’m starting to smell.”
Peter nodded. “Good idea. I didn’t want to say anything, but -”
“Oh shut up,” she said, and unceremoniously kicked him off the bed.
Life was just plain better with solid food and clean hair, El decided an hour later as she soaked in the bathtub. The hot water eased some of the ache in her muscles, and the steam cleared her sinuses and took the edge off her headache. She cradled a mug of tea against her chest and sipped it slowly, feeling very lucky indeed. Peter was a little emotionally dense, but he actually had a great bedside manner. Poor Neal, she thought. Alone and sick all day in that huge, empty house. She wondered why he hadn’t called Peter sooner. Things might not have gotten so bad if he had.
She was just changing into the clean PJ’s Peter had set out for her when she heard Neal call out, “Peter?” in a strange, hoarse voice. She wrapped herself up in her robe, and went to check on him.
He was sitting up, hair mussed, face flushed, and eyes a little wild. He went very still when he saw her, and then, from some untapped reserve of energy, dredged up a smile. It was almost believable, too. “Hey, El,” he said. “Is Peter around?”
“Peter went to the store,” El said, easing herself down onto the edge of the guest bed. “How are you feeling?”
He shrugged. “Fine. Don’t worry about me. I can wait till Peter gets back.”
El gave him a look. “Don’t lie to me, Neal. I’m sick, not stupid. Hey,” she added gently, when he glanced away. “Look at me, Neal. It’s okay.”
His smile faded. He looked down at his hands. “I need to use the bathroom,” he admitted. “And I’m really thirsty. I’m sorry,” he added. “El, I’m so sorry. I didn’t want - Peter’s yours and he should be taking care of you and I‘m so sorry -”
“Stop, shh,” she said, reaching out to brush Neal’s bangs out of his face. So, she thought, that was why Neal hadn’t called sooner. That was . . . interesting. And a little heartbreaking, too.
“Don’t be silly.”
“Hush. Come on, I’ll help you to the bathroom. Then it’s back to bed with both of us. But if you want,” she added, keeping her voice deliberately casual, “you’re welcome to join me for my Project Runway marathon.”
Neal swallowed. “Thanks, but - but I can’t - it’s your room, yours and Peter’s -”
For someone who had made a career out of crossing boundaries, he sure was interested in maintaining these. “Neal,” she said, “I promise you, this isn’t a trick or a test.”
He stopped and looked her in the eye for the first time since she’d sat down. “Are you sure?”
She nodded, stroking a hand over his hair again. “It’ll be easier on Peter if we’re in the same room. It’s a big bed, much nicer than this one. And I’d like the company.”
Neal nodded. “Then yeah. Thank you.”
“It’s nothing. Come on, then,” she said, standing. “We’ll just take it slow.”
Glacial might have been a better description, El reflected a few minutes later. She wondered how Peter had gotten Neal up the stairs the night before; he was unsteady on his feet, and she worried about what she’d do if he fell. She was a little light-headed herself from standing for too long, and she had to lean against the wall outside the bathroom while she waited for him. By the time they made it back to bed, thankfully without incident, she was more than ready to lie down. Peter, bless him, had changed the sheets, and it felt wonderful to slide between them with clean PJ’s and clean skin.
Neal lay down on Peter’s side of the bed but refused to get under the covers; after twenty seconds of arguing, El gave up and pulled the spare comforter at the food of the bed over him. “There,” she murmured, stroking his hair back from his face. He sighed and closed his eyes, leaning into her touch like a cat. She smiled and tugged her fingers through his hair, pulling gently at his scalp. Neal curled up, closed his eyes, and within seconds was either sound asleep or else zoned out on the codeine he’d taken.
Fifteen minutes later, El heard the front door open and close. She listened to Peter drop the groceries off in the kitchen, greet Satchmo and let him outside, and then trudge up the stairs. “That was fast,” she said, when he came in. She leaned up for a kiss.
He shrugged. “Didn’t want to leave you on your own for long. Everything all right?”
She nodded. “I’m feeling at least fifty percent more human today, especially after that bath.”
“Good.” He felt her forehead. “Still on the warm side,” he said, frowning, then reached across to feel Neal’s. His frown deepened.
Neal stirred, blinking up at him blearily. “Peter,” he mumbled, and then froze. “Peter. I’m not - this isn’t - I swear -”
“Relax, Caffrey,” Peter said, rolling his eyes. El bit her lip; the look of frozen horror on Neal’s face was funny, but the genuine fear in his eyes was not. “Believe it or not, I’m not terribly anxious about you having designs on my wife just now.” Neal relaxed, fractionally. “You warm enough?”
Neal nodded. “I’m okay.”
“Hmm,” Peter said, studying him. “Is that ‘okay’ like okay or ‘okay’ like yesterday when you told me you didn’t need anything?”
Neal hesitated. Peter nodded to himself and left the room, but not for very long. He returned seconds later with two of the blankets off the guest bed. He came around to Neal’s side - well, his own, really - and said, “Scoot over.” Poor Neal, who clearly had expected to be booted off altogether, stared up at him blankly. Peter sighed. “Move over, Caffrey, or I’ll move you myself.”
Neal moved over, right up against El. Peter gave her a glance over the top of his head, and she reached for the remote to turn the TV off. Peter settled onto the bed and spread the extra blankets out over Neal, tucking them around him thoroughly. He put his arm around Neal so his hand grazed El’s shoulder. She smiled and reached for his free hand and let their linked fingers rest on Neal’s chest. El turned onto her side and lay her cheek on the top of Neal’s head; Peter’ forehead came to rest against the crown of her own. Then they sat, without speaking, as the tension slowly leaked out of Neal’s body.
“Neal,” Peter finally said, very quietly. Neal made a wordless noise and opened his eyes. “I want you to think about something. Is there any way you can think of that yesterday might’ve gone differently? Any scenario that doesn’t end with the two of us in an ER, getting fluids pumped into you?”
Neal couldn’t really move, cradled as he was between the two of them, but he tried to shove himself upright. “I’m sorry, Peter. I -”
“Neal, stop,” Peter ordered, and Neal fell silent. “I’m not mad at you. Just answer the question. If I hadn’t called, what would you have done?”
Neal didn’t answer right way. He pushed himself up again, but he wasn’t frantic anymore. El and Peter let him resettle himself, half-sitting against the pillows, half leaning against Peter’s chest. “I don’t know,” he finally admitted softly. “I don’t - I didn’t know what to do. I thought I had a back-up plan for everything, but I never thought - I thought, it’s just the flu, how bad can it get? And then suddenly I was lying on the bathroom floor, so weak I couldn’t move, and . . .” He broke off, swallowing. “I’ve never been that sick before,” he whispered.
“Even in Venice?” Peter asked shrewdly. El lightly slapped the back of his hand and gave him a stern look; now was not the time to go fishing for information about past crimes.
Peter, to his credit, looked abashed, but Neal hardly seemed to notice. “Not even in Venice. I’ve never - it’s the life, you know? You take care of yourself because there’s no one else to do it.”
“That sounds very lonely,” El said.
Neal shrugged. “It was always okay . . . before.”
He didn’t say before what, but El thought he didn’t have to. Before the anklet. Before Peter. Maybe even before she and Peter.
“And this time?” Peter asked.
He shook his head, closing his eyes wearily. “It wasn’t okay, but I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t call you, not when El was sick, and I didn’t have anyone else. I don’t know,” he repeated, voice cracking. “I don’t know what I could’ve done.”
“Oh sweetie,” El said, rubbing her fingers along the nape of Neal’s neck. “Did you really think Peter would say no?”
Neal wouldn’t look at either of them. “Maybe not, but . . . Peter’s yours.”
“You keep saying that,” El said, “but I’m not sure what you mean. Peter’s got a big heart. There’s enough of him to go around, and I don’t mind sharing.”
“You shouldn’t have to,” Neal muttered. “And I didn’t want to - to -” He stopped.
“What?” Peter asked.
Neal seemed to curl in on himself, away from both of them. “Some things can’t be stolen. Or forged. If you do, they’re not . . . they’re not real anymore.”
El looked up and met Peter’s gaze. She could see her own realization echoed in his eyes. “That’s true,” Peter said slowly. “But you couldn’t steal me from El even if you wanted to, and I think you know that. Asking for what you need isn’t stealing. People do it all the time in relationships.”
“It’s a good thing,” El added. “Trusting someone enough to ask for what you need is a good thing, Neal.”
“But El was sick, too,” Neal pointed out, looking up at Peter.
“True,” Peter conceded, “and from a practical point of view, you were right about one thing - I couldn’t leave her. But you’re part of a team, Neal. If you’d called me, I could’ve called Diana or Jones and had one of them look in on you. Once they’d realized how sick you were, they would’ve called me, and I would have had them bring you here.”
Neal blinked, slowly. “Oh. I . . . didn’t think of that.”
Peter smiled. “Of course you didn’t. You were half-delirious. It’s all right,” he added, tightening his arm around Neal’s shoulders. “It just scared the hell out of me, seeing you like that and knowing how much worse it could have gotten if I hadn’t called you when I did.”
“Scared the hell out of me, too,” Neal confessed. He closed his eyes. “I’d really rather not do that again.”
El rubbed a hand up and down Neal’s arm. “That’s our point, sweetie - you don’t have to.” Neal nodded, eyes downcast. El decided that was about as much emotional crap as any of them could deal with under the circumstances. “All right, enough of this,” she announced. “Neal and I have some very serious TV watching and napping to attend to. Care to join us?” she asked Peter.
“What are you watching?” he asked warily.
“Project Runway. There’s a twelve hour marathon on today,” she added brightly.
Peter didn’t bother to hide his grimace. “I think I’ll pass, thanks,” he said. He extricated himself from Neal and slid to the edge of the bed. “I have some case files I should take a look at. Do you need anything?”
“I’m good,” El said.
Peter looked at Neal. “Neal?”
Neal swallowed. “I’d like some tea, please.”
Peter smiled at him fondly, so fondly that El felt her breath catch in her throat. “I can do that. And I’ll get started on the Jell-O, so it’ll be ready by lunchtime.” He left, pulling the door mostly shut behind himself.
For a long moment, neither of then moved. Then, without looking at her, Neal whispered, “You’re so lucky.”
“Oh sweetie,” El said, rolling onto her side to look at him. She wondered if she dared, and then decided that she did. She’d seen them together that morning, she’d seen the way Peter had looked at him just now, and she’d seen how determined Neal was to protect them, even at his own expense. “You could be lucky, too,” she said, very quietly.
Neal didn’t answer. After a moment, El reached for the remote and turned on the TV, settling back on her pillows. “Good Lord,” she said, blinking at the TV, “what is he putting on that dress? Are those wings?”
Neal made a derisive noise. “At least Nina won’t call it boring.”
El smiled. Without taking her eyes off the TV, she patted the spot on the bed right next to her invitingly. After the smallest hesitation, Neal crept closer, tucking himself against her side. He closed his eyes and sighed, and she echoed him, content.
We could all be very lucky, she thought, and smiled.