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Mutually inconsistent

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There aren't words accumulated from all the languages Neal knows to accurately convey how much he hates getting sick. Thankfully it doesn't happen often, but sometimes he's just due.

The sniffles started the ball rolling, then a couple of low grade fevers that never lasted the night, progressing to a bit of a burning feeling in his throat. Neal already knows there's a frog in there, but when he gets to the office his standard greeting to Peter is met with less mild concern than complete bafflement. Fuck.

Neal takes out his phone and types quickly before showing it to Peter. Nothing came out, did it?

Peter scrunches up his face like he doesn't want to say no.

"Fuck," Neal says, apparently silently.

You want to go home? Peter signs. Or doctor? He's getting better at that, but his technique needs a little work.

Neal shrugs, and is distantly angry with himself for not just going to his desk and starting the work day. He's fine. He's fine. It's a cold. But this has never actually happened before. It feels like he forgot his clothes, like anyone can walk up and see he's missing something vital. He can't be deaf and sick and have no voice. That's just one thing too many.

Peter waves so Neal will look over to see him sign, Okay. Doctor.

It's tedious to answer questions by passing his phone back and forth to the doctor, an older guy who keeps turning toward his computer in mid-sentence until Peter tells him to knock it off.

Of course they want his history. Neal has thoughts, several in opposition to each other, about Peter sitting in and getting the cliff notes of what happened to weedy little Danny Brooks, who had a poster of the Saved by the Bell kids on his wall next to Tom Cruise and Paul Newman from The Color of Money. (The rare few who find out he can't hear are always curious about the how of it, as though it makes any difference whatsoever. Neal prefers to keep it to himself just to be contrary, honestly.) But mostly right now he's just glad someone is there saving him from having to be hyper-vigilant about reading everyone's lips when his head is already stuffed with that itchy pink insulation fluff. Peter, bless him, is even supplementing his texts by trying to interpret a bit using his smattering of ASL classes.

Neal keeps telling himself not to think of it as dependence. He isn't going soft just because one man lets him ease up a little.

It feels like dependence, and could easily turn into it.

Peter taps his hand. Neal jerks in his seat, the infuriated gym coach in his head reminding him he's not allowed to zone out, and reads the latest text explaining that they're done. Rest, fluids, ibuprofen over the counter, and a mild steroid they can pick up at the pharmacy. See a specialist if this persists more than two weeks.

Two weeks. After two more days of this, the authorities will be eating his dust. He'll be in an Italian monastery on the edge of a cliff, painting and drinking until his voice comes back or they run out of wine, whichever comes first.

Peter already gave the nurse the pharmacy info. As they pick up the meds, he signs, No Olympics for you, laboriously finger-spelling Olympics. Neal puts a hand to his chest and throws his head back, devastated. Peter laughs.

Part of Neal wants to hug him right there in the middle of Duane Reade against a backdrop of alphabetically arranged vitamins. Another part is counting the curious faces around them, intrigued by catching sign language in the wild. He should only be a spectacle when he chooses to be. It's impossible to forget that Peter's the sole reason anyone besides Mozzie knows about him, and the membership to that once exclusive club doubles by the day.

In the car, a second from putting their seatbelts on, Peter mouths, Mine or yours?

There's no way of knowing, but Neal later thinks he might have made another choice if Peter had actually spoken those words. He points at Peter, who nods, straightforward, low drama. Nothing to see here.

Between the clinic, the pharmacy, and stopping home to change and pack a bag, it's the tail-end of lunchtime by the time they get in. Elizabeth is puttering around in the kitchen, her laptop open on the table. She smiles at them, slightly confused, already noticing something off.

"Our friend is trapped in a box," Peter explains verbally, in ASL, and then in mime.

Peter's horrific suburban dad humor has been getting under his skin less today, but when he sees him mention Marcel Marceau by name, Neal goes for the door. Elizabeth vaults forward and tugs Neal back by the cuff of his jacket.

Sucks to be sick, she signs, giving a grinning Peter a swat on the arm. They practice together. It's both logical (Who else is Peter going to drill with?) and a bit too much. He tries to never think about it for more than a few seconds at a time.

Neal nods, knowing he looks a little like shit. He hasn't been getting up early enough to turn himself into Neal Caffrey Super Con TM the last few mornings, and the energy it took to get to work and deal with that doctor tapped the last of his resources. With a sympathetic frown, she takes the blender out of the cabinet and some berries and OJ out of the fridge so he can make a smoothie. By her decree, he stopped being a guest around the tenth time he showed up and henceforth would be expected to fend for himself if everyone else is. Neal tears off a banana from the bunch on the counter, removes an ice tray from the freezer, and goes to town.

Peter is half done with the sandwich he made out of cold leftover chicken when he checks his phone. Okay if I go back? he signs. The head of the white collar division can't skip out on an entire day of work because his pet felon got laryngitis. But he almost seems to be mulling it over, like he would figure something out if Neal said no.

Neal rolls his eyes and makes a shooing motion toward the door.

Elizabeth gets up to go not long after, briefly ruffling his hair when he obediently promises to keep his phone charged and on his person in case land pirates attempt a home invasion or something. He's settled on the couch. Without comment, she leaves a glass of ice water on the coffee table next to his pharmacy bag, and breezes out.

His head is clearer since he consumed half the fruit in the house and he feels strangely light despite the various grumbles and aches of his immuno-compromised body. It doesn't matter that Peter's doorbell isn't hooked up to the light because this isn't Neal's home and anyone who stops by is the opposite of his problem. That wouldn't be the case if he stayed at his apartment. Here he can simply doze off on the couch and exist, his only obligation feeding Satchmo and letting him out the back door in four hours.

As if summoned telepathically, Satchmo ambles into the den and starts pawing at Neal's anklet. He's always been fascinated by the light. Neal tickles the space under the dog's chin until he loses interest and remembers how much he enjoys licking Neal's fingers.

Not exactly his tranquil monastery in the mountains, but it'll do.