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In Sickness and Health

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Hospitals in the middle of the night were their own special hell dimension, Neal thought, especially when you couldn’t sleep. Every light, every sound from the hallway was magnified a hundred times. The bed was too hard, the pillow was too thin, he was too cold except where he was too hot, and he was stoned on pain meds but still managed to hurt everywhere.

“You have pneumonia, dear,” the night nurse said, when she found him awake on her rounds. “You’re going to be uncomfortable for a while.” Neal must have looked extra pathetic, because her face softened. “Let me see if I can’t find something to help you sleep.” She took his temperature, tsk’d, and left. Neal curled on his side, wishing she’d stayed just a little longer.

The worst part of all of this, he thought, was not being sick and in the hospital. It was being sick, in the hospital, and alone. In the three days since he’d collapsed at the office with a galloping case of pneumonia, the only visitor Neal had had was June. She’d come every morning, Greatest Cake bakery bag in hand, and sat with him for at least an hour, trying to tempt him into eating something. It was extremely kind of her to come, Neal knew, and he was grateful for it, but that was only one hour out of twenty-four. Mozzie called, two or three times a day, but he was a germophobe and there were some things Neal just couldn’t ask of his friend. Diana and Jones checked in with him daily, too, but they were very short-handed at the office right now and really didn’t have time to visit.

And it didn’t matter, Neal thought morosely, because none of them were who he really wanted.

Ironically, it was Neal who had planted the idea of another anniversary trip in Peter’s head, months ago now. It’d been three years for Peter and El since Belize, and he’d told Peter it was time to take El someplace new. Just because Neal still had another year on his anklet and couldn’t join them didn’t mean they shouldn’t go. They’d both resisted at first, arguing that it wouldn’t be the same without him; they could just book a fancy hotel suite in Manhattan and celebrate together.

But Neal had persisted. It helped his case that New York was having a horrendous winter; by the time a frigid, snowy February gave way to a gray, damp March, Peter and El had both clearly warmed to the idea of escaping to the equator for a week long tour through the Galapagos Islands. It really wasn’t his sort of vacation at all, but Neal was still jealous; hell, he’d been jealous of Jones that time he’d gotten to go to Cleveland for a technology conference. He’d hidden his envy well, though, just as he’d hidden the flu symptoms that’d started manifesting the day before they left. It wasn’t hard; Neal was a good liar and Peter and El were distracted. By the time he was really sick, they’d landed in Quito, and and it was easy to pretend during their brief “we got here okay, miss you, sweetie!” phone call that the roughness in his voice was because of a poor international connection.

Neal had tried to push through. It was quiet in the office without Peter around, and all he really had to do was read case files. He’d come in later than usual and a left a bit early, and tried to get a lot of rest, but somehow he just got sicker and sicker. Finally, on Friday morning, Neal had stood up from his desk to refill his mug of tea for the tenth time and blacked out.

He’d woken up in the hospital with Diana at his bedside. The doctor had informed him that his temperature had topped out at 104.3 degrees. Neal had been almost too sick to understand what that meant, and he’d certainly been too sick to ask any useful questions. Unfortunately, he hadn’t been so sick that he didn’t notice them sliding a huge needle into his back to suck out the fluid in his lungs, an experience that had been, hands down, one of his top five least favorites ever.

Hours later, after they’d admitted him and he’d finally gotten settled in an actual room, he’d squeezed Diana’s hand to get her attention and asked, “Peter? El?”

“They’re in the Galapagos, Neal, remember?” she said. She sounded worried and unaccountably gentle for Diana, and that scared Neal more than the needle had. “They’re on a cruise ship until tomorrow. It’s almost impossible to get a hold of them.”

“But after,” Neal rasped. “Hotel information’s in top drawer of my desk. Phone number.” They’d be in a hotel on one of the islands for another four days, once they left the ship. Peter’s cell wouldn’t work there, but the hotel could get a message to them.

“Neal, they can’t do anything for you from there,” Diana pointed out. “They’d just worry and it’d ruin their trip.”

“But -” Neal said, and then stopped. He couldn’t say any more, he thought, suddenly anxious he’d said too much already. No one knew about the three of them. No one could know, or there’d be trouble. He couldn’t tell Diana that they’d want to know he was sick, and he really couldn’t tell her that all he wanted was to hear their voices, just for a few minutes. Even that much would make him feel better. But it wasn’t allowed. “Yeah, you’re right,” he said at last. "Sorry. I‘m not thinking.”

“I know,” Diana said. “It’s going to be okay, Neal. Look, I have to run, but Jones and I will call you tomorrow. Hang in there, all right?” She squeezed his hand.

“Yeah. Okay,” he’d said, and watched her go.

Three days later, he was getting better, though not as quickly as his doctor would have liked. They were letting him go home tomorrow; June had said she’d had the staff prepare a first floor guest suite for him so he wouldn’t have to climb the stairs. The day after tomorrow, Peter and El would be back. This had been a miserable experience, but it was almost over.

If only he could sleep.

Eventually, the nurse returned with something that was supposed to help, and Neal managed to doze off. He slept badly, though, as he had every night in the hospital, and woke wishing for his bed at June’s, or better yet, Peter and El’s bed at their house. Neal was usually a high thread count guy, but Peter and El kept flannel sheets on the bed in the winter, and Neal had to admit that it was nicely cozy when the weather was bad. He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to pretend he was there, tucked up and being fussed over. He didn’t generally like being fussed over when he was sick, but he thought he might make an exception this time. A few days of tea and toast and just having Peter and El there sounded almost too good to be true.

His tenuously constructed illusion was ruined when an orderly arrived bearing this morning’s watery eggs and cold toast, which Neal ignored. Then there were vital signs and finally, thankfully, Neal’s doctor. Neal sat up and tried to project an image of general wellness. She made noises about stubborn fevers and congested lungs and wrung a promise from him to come straight back if his fever went up or his symptoms otherwise worsened, but in the end she signed his discharge papers. Neal breathed a sigh of relief and tried to not to pass out while getting dressed. Somehow, he thought that might delay his escape.

June had said she might be able to come pick him up, but she called just after eleven to say that Samantha’s doctor’s appointment on the other side of town had run longer than expected. “I could send the car,” she offered, sounding harried.

“That’s okay,” Neal said, though the idea of a cab ride made him want to curl up and die. “I’ll see you at home, all right?”

“Of course. Janet will show you the guest suite and get you anything you need. Take care of yourself, and I’ll see you in a few hours.”

For once, Neal didn’t protest being chivvied out of the hospital in a wheelchair. He was exhausted just from getting dressed, and he honestly wasn’t sure he could have managed the walk himself. As it was, staying upright in the cab for twenty minutes was almost too much after the relative excitement of his morning. He fumbled his wallet, his fingers clumsy on the bills, and finally just shoved a wad of cash into the cabbie’s hand.

Somehow he got himself up the front walk and into the house. Janet took one look at him and ushered him straight back to the guestroom. Neal stripped off the clothes he’d just put on and collapsed into bed, so tired he was almost in tears. Just before he passed out, he caught sight of the clock. Peter and El would be back in less than twenty-four hours. He reached out and pulled his cell phone in to hold against his chest. He didn’t want to miss that call for anything.

***

“Well, hon,” El said as they settled into their car at longterm parking at LaGuardia, “who are you going to call first, Diana or Neal?”

Peter reached over and took her hand. “Who says I’m going to call anyone? I want our vacation to last at least until we get home.”

She laughed. “That’s sweet of you to say, but I know you’re dying to make sure nothing happened at work while you were gone. I know being so out of touch must’ve made you crazy. Go ahead, it’s okay.”

Peter sighed. “I wish I could say you were wrong.” It had driven him crazy. His cell phone hadn’t worked on the ship or the island at all. He’d woken several times in the middle of the night sure that something was wrong and they just couldn’t get hold of him to let him know; he’d nearly called the office twice and Neal three times. “Thanks.”

He waited until they’d pulled out of the garage into the exact same chilly gray drizzle they’d left behind a week ago and then activated the car phone. “Call Diana,” he said, and listened to it ring.

“Hey boss, welcome back,” she said when she answered. “Did you have a good time?”

“We had a great time, Diana, thanks. I just wanted to check in, see how things went.”

“Well, we survived without you, but don’t worry - we’ll be glad to have you back. There’s a stack of paperwork waiting for you.”

“Great,” he said, and almost meant it. “How did Neal do? Did he listen to you and Jones all right?”

Diana’s pause was several seconds too long. “That wasn’t really an issue, boss.”

Peter frowned and glanced sideways at El, who frowned back. “What does that mean?”

“Neal got pretty sick while you were gone. He was here but really quiet the first couple days. Then on Friday he collapsed in the office. They diagnosed pneumonia at the ER and admitted him.”

“WHAT?” he and El burst out at once. “He’s in the hospital?” Peter demanded. “Which one?”

“He went home yesterday. I talked to June, and she said he was doing okay, just sleeping a lot.”

“He was in the hospital for three days?” Peter said, and had to suddenly slam on the brakes to avoid running a red light. The car behind him blared their horn. “Why didn’t anyone call and tell me?”

“There wasn’t anything you could’ve done, boss,” Diana pointed out. “We didn’t want you to ruin your trip thinking about things you couldn’t do anything about.”

El touched his arm. He looked at her; her eyes were wide, her mouth grim, but she shook her head, and he realized he had to reign himself in or else he’d end up giving away more than would be good for any of them. “Right,” he said, trying to sound reasonable, even as he plugged June’s address into the GPS with one hand. “In the future, Diana, if something like this happens, if Neal gets hurt or sick while I’m gone - I want to know about it immediately, all right?”

“Yeah, of course,” she said, sounding faintly surprised. “I’m sorry - we just thought -”

“I know,” Peter said. “It’s okay. Thanks, Diana.” He disconnected just as the light turned green. “Call Neal,” he told the phone. He could hear how tight and upset his voice was, now that he didn’t have to put on a show for Diana. “I knew something was wrong,” he muttered. “I knew it.”

“Honey, you heard what she said,” El said to him quietly. “He’s home and getting better.”

“That’s not the point,” Peter replied. “Can you imagine being so sick and not able to call me? No one else even thinking you should call me?”

“I know,” El said, and then didn’t say anything more because the ringing cut off. There were some fumbling noises, the sound of someone coughing, harsh and wet, and then Neal said, in a heartbreakingly hopeful voice, “Peter?”

“Neal, I just talked to Diana. Are you all right?”

Neal was silent, briefly. “Yeah, I’m okay.”

“You sound pretty rough still,” Peter said. He sounded awful, actually.

“Yeah, I’m -” - he coughed “-still sort of sick. Um. Are you - do you and El - I know you must be tired from the flight -”

“Sweetie, we’re on our way,” El said. “Right now. We should be there in just a few minutes.”

“You don’t have to. If you need to get Satch and go home for a bit, I’ll be fine, really.”

Peter didn’t believe that for even half a second. “Yeah, Neal, because what I’m worried about right now is picking my dog up from the boarder’s and checking the mail, when you were in the hospital for three days and no one thought to tell us.”

Neal audibly swallowed. “I tried, Peter. I asked Diana and she wouldn’t.”

“Sweetie, he wasn’t blaming you,” El said. “We’re just upset.”

“I know. I know, this isn’t what you wanted to come back to. I’m sorry.”

Red light. Peter managed to slide to a stop without almost causing an accident this time, and glanced at El. She had her hand over her mouth. “We’re not mad,” Peter said. “I promise you. Look, we’re almost there. I’m hanging up now, but we’ll see you in fifteen minutes.”

Neal took a deep breath. “Fifteen minutes,” he repeated.

“Fifteen minutes. See you really soon, Neal.” Peter disconnected.

It was a very silent fifteen minutes to June’s. They circled the block twice looking for a spot, Peter growing more and more impatient, until El finally said, “Hon, you’re going to get us into an accident. Let me park the car.”

“Thank you,” Peter said gratefully, and double-parked in front of June’s house long enough to hop out. He dashed up the front walk through the rain and knocked at the door.

June opened it herself, seconds later. “Oh thank God,” she said upon seeing him.

Peter blinked at her. “Sorry?”

She shook her head. “Come in, Peter, please.”

“Elizabeth’s just parking the car,” Peter said, as he stepped inside the house. One of the staff - Janet, Peter thought her name was - came to take his coat. “We came as soon as we heard. June,” Peter hesitated, “is he all right? He sounded terrible on the phone.”

June pursed her lips. “‘All right’ would certainly be overstating things. He’s better than he was, but I’m given to understand that he’s not improving as quickly as his doctor would like. I think . . . well, he seemed rather depressed in the hospital. I think having you gone was very difficult for him.”

Peter rubbed a hand over his face. “Did he say anything to you about that?”

“No,” June said, and met his eyes steadily. “In fact, unless I miss my guess, I’d say he was very careful not to say anything about it at all. Am I mistaken?”

Damn. Of all the people to figure it out, June was probably the least dangerous, but still - damn. “No,” Peter admitted, “you’re not.”

June nodded, and turned to lead him down a corridor that led away from the living and dining areas. “Well, you’re here now, and that’s what matters.” She paused in front of a door and rested her hand its knob. “Please be patient with him. He’s still running a fever.”

Peter nodded. June opened the door a few inches and then got out of the way. Peter drew a deep breath and pushed it open.

The room was dark and slightly stuffy, and it smelled of sweat and sickness. Peter could just barely make out a vaguely Neal-shaped lump in the bed; it stirred at the sound of the door opening. “Peter?” Neal said, breathless and hopeful.

“It’s me,” he said, seating himself on the edge of the bed. He reached out to cup Neal’s face in his hands. He was hot, too hot, and had at least three days of stubble that probably itched like hell. His hair, when Peter stroked it, was lank with sweat. “El will be here soon, too, she’s just parking the car.”

Neal swallowed. “Put the light on and help me sit up.”

Peter frowned. “Why?”

“Because I want to see you,” Neal said, his voice definitely breaking, “and then I want to hug you.”

And then never let go, it seemed. Neal slid his arms around Peter’s chest, buried his feverish face in Peter’s neck, and simply hung on. And shook. He felt frighteningly insubstantial in Peter’s arms, and Peter wondered how much weight he’d lost; Neal had had very little body fat to spare to begin with. “Hey, it’s okay,” Peter said, stroking Neal’s back awkwardly. Neal didn’t answer, and Peter felt slightly ridiculous for having said anything at all. Clearly, it wasn’t okay.

He looked up as the door opened briefly and Elizabeth came in. She paused, taking them in, and her eyes met Peter’s. She looked just as guilt-stricken as he felt. Intellectually, Peter knew their vacation had had nothing to do with Neal getting sick. But it was his fault, Peter thought, that he hadn’t left explicit instructions with the Bureau about what to do if Neal got sick or injured while he was gone.

El sat on the bed beside them, and Neal reached out a hand, blindly, searching for her. She shifted closer and wrapped her arms around him, gripped Peter’s hand with her own. “Neal, sweetie, we’re so sorry,” she said.

“It wasn’t your fault,” Neal replied, muffled.

“We’re sorry anyway,” Peter said. He pressed his lips to the top of Neal’s head. “We’re sorry you had to go through this alone.”

“Do you want to talk about it?” El asked gently.

“No,” Neal said, “I really don’t. I want . . .”

“What?” El prompted. “Neal, it’s okay, whatever it is.”

Neal swallowed. “I want to come home with you. But it isn’t - that wouldn’t be safe, would it?” he said, lifting his head to look at Peter. “I’m already here. It’d be suspicious for me to go to your place.”

Neal was really off his game, Peter reflected, not to be able to think his way around that roadblock. “It’s okay. If anyone asks, I’ll tell them that June was going out of town and you couldn’t be left on your own yet.”

“Oh,” Neal said, sounding nonplussed. “Yeah, that’s - that’s good.”

El kissed Neal’s forehead. “Just leave everything to us, all right? We’ve got you.”

“Yeah,” Neal sighed, closing his eyes and letting his head fall to rest against Peter’s shoulder. “Yeah, that’s good, too.”

***

Neal woke with a gasp and a jerk, to a dark room and the horrible, disorienting sensation of not knowing where he was. It was too quiet to be the hospital, and it didn’t smell or feel like June’s. June would’ve never kept rose-scented potpourri in her guestroom, nor put flannel sheets on the bed. But Peter and El did.

Peter and El. They were back. They were back, and they’d come straight to him, and he was in their guestroom. He was . . . well, he was very nearly where he wanted to be. He would have preferred to be in their bed, but they had suggested he sleep in the guestroom - to rest more easily, they’d said. It was true that Neal didn’t think he’d ever slept an entire night through in their bed without being woken by El snoring or Peter mumbling in his sleep, but he really didn’t care at the moment. He wanted to be held more than he wanted to sleep.

Neal had been on the verge of saying so when he’d realized that it might not only be him they were thinking about. They’d just gotten back from a long trip; they had to be tired. He was still coughing and feverish, and he probably snored like a freight train from the congestion that lingered in his chest and sinuses. “Yeah,” he’d said, after - he hoped - not too long of a hesitation. “Good idea.”

It didn’t seem like such a good idea now. His head ached, he was thirsty, and he couldn’t breathe. The door to his room was cracked open, and he could see, across the hall, that El and Peter’s was, too, but was he really supposed to call out for them like a child? All he needed was a glass of water, a decongestant, and some Advil. Maybe some dry pajamas. He could do that on his own.

He struggled upright and got to his feet by hanging onto the bedpost. His head swam and his stomach roiled a bit, but standing very still with his eyes shut took care of both. He shrugged into his bathrobe and shuffled out of the room, trying desperately to keep his cough at bay until he was in the bathroom with the door shut.

In the bathroom, he slumped down on the closed lid of the toilet, head in his hands, and gave into the coughing jag. It was a bad one; he coughed until he cried, and then until he almost gagged; by the time it passed, he was so exhausted he could barely remember what he’d come in here to do, much less think about how he was going to get back to his bed. Maybe he’d woken Peter or El, he thought, almost hopefully, and was immediately ashamed of himself. But it hurt to breathe, his whole body ached like he’d been beaten, and he was still thirsty and his head still hurt.

He’d felt like this in the hospital, he thought wretchedly. Sick and weak and . . .

He didn’t want to think it. It wasn’t true, it really wasn’t; even thinking it was unfair, and he knew it. But he thought it anyway, because he couldn’t stop himself.

Sick and weak and abandoned.

He had no idea how long he sat there, not crying only because he didn’t have even that much left in him. He was utterly drained. Eventually, he realized he would have to move if he didn’t want Peter to find him like this when he got up. He drank a few handfuls of water from the faucet, took two Advil - his hands shook getting the cap off - and shuffled out.

In the hallway he paused. He could hear them sleeping: their breathing, slightly out of sync, the faint rustle of the sheets, Peter sighing as he turned over. He could go in, he thought. They wouldn’t say a word if he crawled in bed with them and said he felt lonely and didn’t want to sleep in the guestroom anymore. They’d probably put him in the middle and stroke his hair until he fell asleep. But they both had to go back to work today; Peter was due at the office by eight, and El had two client meetings, one this morning and one in the afternoon. They had to be at their best.

In the end, he dragged himself back to the guestroom. He didn’t think he’d sleep, but he hadn’t accounted for his own exhaustion. He lay down, closed his eyes, and the next thing he knew, it was morning and there were voices outside his door.

“Peter?” he said groggily, raising his head.

The voices ceased, and Peter pushed the door open. Neal caught a glimpse of El just behind him. Both of them were half-dressed already, and Peter had a cup of coffee in his hand. “Neal, good morning,” Peter said. “Sorry for waking you. I guess it’s a moot point now,” he added to El.

“S’okay,” Neal said. “What’s going on?”

“We were debating whether to wake you,” Peter said wryly. “We both have to head out soon, but we wanted to make sure you had everything you need first. We thought you’d be more comfortable in our room during the day. You can watch TV, and I brought the DVD player up, too.”

“Oh,” Neal said. “Thanks.” He let Peter help him sit up and then stand. He leaned heavily against Peter as they made slow progress across the hallway and into Peter and El’s room. El had gone ahead and turned the covers down; Neal crawled into the bed and she pulled them over him, tucking him. He burrowed into the pillows, as close to happy as he’d been since he’d gotten sick. The sheets still smelled like Peter and El, and even though he’d have preferred to have them in the bed with him, at least he could hear them moving around the room, speaking quietly to each other as they finished getting ready.

He was nearly asleep when El touched him lightly on the head. “Sweetie, we’re going. I’ll be home for lunch, but I put your phone here on the nightstand. Call us if you need us, all right?”

“Yeah,” Neal mumbled, even though he knew that was unlikely. “Have a good day.”

He slept like the dead for most of the morning and woke around eleven to find Satchmo had nosed the door open and jumped up on the bed with him. Satch wasn’t supposed to be on the bed, but Neal decided that just this once, he didn’t care. Getting up to put on a DVD felt like too much effort, so he turned the TV on and found Ocean’s Eleven on one of the movie channels. He curled up, lazily scratched Satch behind the ears, and watched the movie through half-shut eyes.

At 12:30, he heard the front door open and close, followed by the sounds of El dropping her bag on the table in the front hall and kicking off her shoes. She was nearly soundless on the stairs, except for the one at the top that creaked. Neal muted the TV and rolled over.

El stopped in doorway, mouth twisting wryly. “Satchmo,” she sighed, and snapped her fingers. Satch jumped down immediately and trotted out the door. “You know he’s not allowed up here,” she said to Neal as she slid onto the bed.

Neal let himself be persuaded to lay his head in her lap. “Sorry. Just wanted the company.”

“Mmm,” El said, thoughtfully. She tugged her fingers through Neal’s hair. “I can imagine.” She was silent briefly, still stroking his hair, scritching his scalp very lightly with her nails; Neal closed his eyes, blissful. He’d thought about it this in the hospital, so many times. “Poor baby,” she murmured. “You’ve been alone a lot in all of this, haven’t you?”

Neal kept his eyes closed. “It’s okay. It wasn’t your fault.”

El sighed. “It wasn’t our fault,” she agreed, “but that doesn’t mean it was okay. If it were me - if I had gotten sick while you and Peter were gone - God, Neal, I don’t know what I’d do.”

For about two seconds, Neal considered just ignoring what she’d said. She was only trying to be empathetic, and all Neal really wanted was let her stroke his hair until he fell asleep. But she had to see that it wasn’t the same at all. “You’re Peter’s wife, El,” Neal said, rolling over onto his back to look up at her. “If it were you, and you got sick while we were gone, you would at least be able to call us. No one would think twice about it. And if Peter had to come home, no one would think twice about that either.”

She looked unhappy. “I know. I’m sorry. All I meant was that I can imagine how hard it must have been, to be sick and alone.”

Can you imagine it? Can you really? Neal wanted to ask, but it was unfair to be angry with her for something she hadn’t had any control over. Instead he just nodded, looking away.

But it was Elizabeth, and he knew that wouldn’t be the end of it. They watched the end of the movie together while they ate lunch; soup for Neal, a sandwich and fruit for her. While the credits were rolling, she reached over and took his hand in hers. “Neal, I know - I know I’m not Peter, but I love you. I know this has been very hard for you, and if you want to talk - well, I’m here.”

Neal didn’t know what he was supposed to say to that. What did she want to hear from him, really? he wondered. I was sick, sicker than I’ve ever been, and you weren’t there. I wanted so badly just to hear your voices and no one knew and I couldn’t tell them. They stuck an enormous needle in my back and sucked fluid out of my lungs and I had no one to hold my hand. I’m not all right. I’m really, really not all right.

He couldn’t say any of it, but Elizabeth was looking at him like she knew it all anyway. Neal dropped his eyes down to his bowl and said, “I don’t want to sleep in the guestroom anymore. I kept waking up last night, not knowing where I was.”

El looked stricken. “Oh sweetie, I’m sorry. We should’ve known better.”

Neal shook his head. “No, it was fine. I just . . . I’d rather not do it again.”

“Of course,” she said, and reached over to stroke his hair out of his face. “Of course.”

***

The house was quiet when Peter arrived home that afternoon. He nearly called out to El, as usual, but then he checked himself and was glad he had, once he glanced into the living room and saw Neal sacked out on the sofa in front of the muted television. He paused, listening, and heard the faint sound of the radio from the kitchen. El liked to listen to the news while she cooked.

“Hey hon,” he said, pushing the door to the kitchen open.

“Hey,” she said, glancing up from the stove. Vegetable stir-fry, it seemed. “How was your day?”

He kissed her. “Fine for being my first day back. Diana wasn’t lying about the pile of paperwork. How were your meetings?”

“Good, really good. But we need to talk.”

“Uh oh,” Peter said, retrieving a beer from the fridge. “What’s wrong?”

She leaned against the counter and crossed her arms over her chest. “You know how Neal keeps telling us he’s fine with what happened, and it wasn’t our fault, and he doesn’t want to talk about it?”

Peter didn’t really like where this was going. He uncapped his beer. “Yeah.”

“Well, he’s lying. I’d say he was conning us, but he hasn’t been that successful. I think the fever has him a bit off his game. I tried to talk to him about it this afternoon, but he wouldn’t give me much. I think I handled it badly,” she added with a sigh. “I tried to tell him I could imagine how it’d felt, and I think that made him a little angry.”

“Angry?” Peter repeated, raising his eyebrows. As far as he knew, Neal and El had never fought, not once in all the months they’d been doing this.

She shrugged. “The truth is that I don’t know - neither of us knows - what he went through. That’s the problem: we weren’t there.” She swallowed, her eyes too bright, and Peter moved to take her in his arms without a second thought. She pressed her forehead to his chest and took a single, shaky breath. “But all I got him to admit was that he didn’t want to sleep in the guestroom again.” She looked up and looked him straight in the eye. “You need to try to talk to him.”

Peter sighed. “El, you know I’m terrible at that sort of thing. If he won’t talk to you, what makes you think he’d talk to me?”

“Because you’re you,” she said, squeezing him hard. “I love Neal, but the two of you - it’s different. It’s okay,” she added, before Peter could object. “Not everything has to be completely equal in this relationship, and it’d only make it worse if we tried to pretend that it was.”

She was right, there was no good denying it. Neal adored El, but he didn’t react to her the way he reacted to Peter. Peter didn’t understand it, but that didn’t make it less true. “How should I - I mean, what am I supposed to say?”

“Don’t force the issue,” El said, pulling away and turning back to the stove. “I tried that already, and it didn’t work. I think now we just have to wait for the right opportunity to present itself.”

“What if it doesn’t?”

She turned and kissed him lightly on the mouth. “It will, hon. Now,” she said, forcefully cheerful, “can you help me make a salad to go with this?”

Peter spent the rest of the evening looking for the right opportunity. They woke Neal for dinner; he picked at his stir-fry before finally admitting it was probably too spicy for him, and asking El if there was any more soup from lunch that he could heat up. An hour later, he started sort of listing to the side and his eyes had gone glassy, so Peter took him upstairs and got him settled in their bed. He thought his opportunity might present itself then, but Neal looked so tired, so drained, that Peter couldn’t bring himself to do it. Instead he stretched out on the bed next to Neal and pressed a damp washcloth to his pulse points and the back of his neck, watching as Neal’s eyelids grew heavier and heavier. Finally, Peter folded the washcloth over and draped it across Neal’s forehead. Neal sighed softly and was asleep within moments.

El looked up expectantly when he came back downstairs, but Peter just shook his head. He cracked open another beer and stood at the counter in the kitchen, staring blankly out the window at the darkened backyard. “That damn fever’s really taking it out of him,” he said. “If it hasn’t broken by tomorrow morning, I’m taking him back to the doctor. He can’t keep going like this.”

Those must have been the magic words, because late that night - or rather early the next morning - Peter was awakened by Neal shifting restlessly in the bed beside him. “Wasswrong?” he mumbled, lifting his head.

Neal went instantly still. “Nothing, sorry,” he whispered. “Go back to sleep.”

Peter shifted up onto his elbow. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” Neal said, “it’s just - I think my fever broke.” He plucked at his pajama top with a grimace. Peter pressed the back of his hand against Neal’s forehead; it was cool - and very damp.

“Come on,” Peter said, trying to sit up without waking El. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”

“It’s okay,” Neal said quickly. “You don’t have to - I can go sleep in the guestroom or -”

“No guestroom,” Peter said firmly. “Come on. You’ll feel better if you rinse all that sweat off.” He pulled Neal to his feet, wrapped an arm around him, and ushered him into the bathroom, where he sat him down on the closed lid of the toilet. In the light, he could see that Neal’s pajamas were soaked through with sweat. He turned the shower on, and tested the water. “Go ahead and get in,” he told Neal. “I’ll just get you some dry clothes to put on.”

“Thanks,” Neal said wearily, and started peeling his shirt off over his head.

The bag Peter had packed for him at June’s consisted almost entirely of clothes that were suitable to be slept in, so he didn’t have to dig very hard to find something Neal could wear. He folded the clean pajama bottoms and undershirt and placed them on the toilet lid.

Then he hesitated. He could leave Neal his privacy and wait outside for him to finish, or he could climb in with him. He didn’t want to push his way in where he wasn’t wanted, but on the other hand, it didn’t seem like Neal was very good at asking for things he wanted - or needed - at the moment. What would El do? Peter wondered; almost before he’d finished the thought, his shirt was off, his own pajama bottoms in a puddle on the bathroom floor.

Neal was standing - well, slumping - against the far wall of the shower. He looked startled when Peter climbed in but slid into Peter’s arms easily, letting his face rest in the crook of Peter’s neck. Peter turned them around so Neal’s back was to the spray and held them both up.

This, Peter thought, might be what El meant about an opportunity presenting itself.

He said nothing at first, just held Neal and felt their breathing slowly sync up. Then, when he felt the moment was finally right, he drew a deep breath. “When Diana told me what had happened, I was so angry,” he said quietly into Neal’s ear. Neal stiffened, but Peter only tightened his hold. “I was so angry at myself and El. I know it’s not our fault,” he added, before Neal could, “intellectually, I know there was no way for us to know what would happen, but I was still angry. It isn’t fair that you couldn’t ask Diana to contact me and let me know what was going on. It isn’t fair that you were alone with no one to look after you. You’re my partner, Neal, in so many ways, and I’m sorry, I’m so, so sorry, that I wasn’t there when you needed me.”

Neal made a muffled noise into Peter’s neck. His shoulders shook, and Peter held him and waited. At last Neal turned his face to the side enough to speak, though he didn’t lift his head. “I’ve tried really hard not to be angry,” he whispered. “I really have. But it - it was terrible, Peter. I was so sick, I thought I was dying, and all I wanted was to hear you tell me everything would be all right. Even if I could only hear it through the phone, that was all I wanted. And last night -” Neal’s voice broke “- last night was really bad. I woke up and didn’t even know where I was at first, and then I realized I was here, and you were just across the hall, but I couldn’t bring myself to wake you up. I felt so lonely, Peter, and it brought it all back, how I felt in the hospital.”

“Oh God,” Peter managed past the lump in his own throat. “Neal, I’m sorry. We thought you’d be more comfortable. We should’ve realized.”

“It’s okay,” Neal whispered.

“No, it’s not,” Peter said, suddenly a little pissed off. “I want to eliminate that phrase from your vocabulary, Neal. Last night wasn’t okay. What happened while we were gone wasn’t okay. You weren’t okay when you were lying in a hospital bed, so sick you thought you were dying, and you’re not okay now.” He pressed his lips to Neal’s forehead and waited until Neal had nodded, as much admission, Peter thought, as he was likely to get. “But you will be,” he said, then. “I promise you that you will be. And I swear to you, Neal, this will never happen again.”

Neal sighed. “Don’t make promises you can’t keep, Peter. You’re never going to go on vacation again?”

“Probably not, after all this,” Peter said, a bit wryly. “But that wasn’t what I meant. This morning I submitted a statement to Hughes, in writing, that says in no uncertain terms that I am to be contacted immediately should anything happen to you while I’m away for any reason.”

“Oh,” Neal said, then frowned. “But doesn’t that look sort of strange?”

Peter shook his head. “I’m listed as your primary contact in case of a medical emergency, and people know we’re friends. It’s not that strange. Hughes didn’t bat an eye, just said he hoped you were on the mend.”

“Oh,” Neal said again, and sagged a bit against Peter. “Oh. Good. That . . . that makes me feel better. I really don’t want to do this again, Peter. Ever.”

“You won’t,” Peter told him. He kissed Neal once, firmly, on the mouth, and then pressed their foreheads together. “You won’t, I promise. In sickness and health.”

Neal went very, very still in his arms. “In sickness and health,” he repeated, so softly Peter almost didn’t catch it. He swallowed. “Peter?”

“Mmm?”

“Will you help me wash my hair?”

Peter closed his eyes. “Yeah. Let’s wash your hair.”

Later, after Peter had helped Neal wash his hair and dress himself in the clean clothes he’d laid out, the two of them slid back into bed. El stirred briefly, then settled. Peter rolled over onto his side and put his arm around Neal, protectively.

Neal sighed. “Peter,” he whispered, and then stopped. But Peter knew what he was trying to say anyway. He always had.

“Yeah,” Peter whispered, and pressed a kiss to the back of Neal’s neck. “Me too.”

***

The next morning, Neal woke to the familiar sound of Peter working on his laptop. He lay very still for a moment, certain he was dreaming, but when he opened his eyes, there Peter was: barefoot but otherwise fully dressed in a sweater and jeans, sitting on top of the covers with his computer on his lap.

“Peter?” Neal said, blinking at him. “What are you doing home at -” he glanced at the bedside clock “- 10:30 in the morning?”

Peter’s hand found Neal’s shoulder and squeezed. “I told Hughes I’d be working from home today, barring some sort of emergency.”

Neal hardly believed what he was hearing. “Really?”

“Yeah.”

“But won’t that -”

“Neal.” Peter’s hand squeezed again. “Don’t worry about it. We’ve got it covered. I’m staying home today, El’s staying home tomorrow, and then we’ll see how you’re feeling and take it from there. Now,” he said, closing his laptop and setting it aside, “what do you want for breakfast?”

Neal shook his head. “Peter . . . I know what I said last night, but this really isn’t necessary. I’m -”

“Stop. What did I say last night?”

I want to eliminate that phrase from your vocabulary. “Er,” Neal said, uncertainly.

Peter smiled and dipped his head to kiss him, morning breath and all. He rubbed a thumb over Neal’s cheekbone. “You’re not okay yet. But El and I are going to do whatever we deem necessary to make sure you will be. Today, that includes breakfast in bed. How does scrambled eggs and toast sound?”

There was a sudden tightness in Neal’s throat. He had to swallow several times, but finally he managed to reply, “Great, Peter. That sounds great.”

Fin.