There was a headache burrowing deep into his skull that just wouldn’t go away, no matter how hard he tried to ignore it. Delayed stress from the just-finished undercover stint, he had assumed at first, but as the interminable day wore on the headache continued to pound along with his pulse, and was gradually joined by faint nausea and a general feeling of unwellness.
“Neal,” Peter said, suddenly appearing in front of his desk. Neal started, and hastily sat up straight.
Peter looked at him measuringly for several long moments. Eventually he sighed. “You know, you can just say when you’re getting sick.”
Neal shrugged diffidently, the effect somewhat spoiled when he winced at the ceiling lights. “I’m not getting sick. I’m just tired.” He reached for his usual attitude. “Too tired to do my paperwork.”
Peter raised his eyebrows. “Luckily for you, then, you’ve been zoned out for long enough that it’s time to go home.”
Neal blinked, and checked his watch. To his surprise, Peter was right. Everyone in the bullpen was beginning to pack up. He glanced guiltily down at the decidedly-unfinished report he’d been working on, and then back up at Peter.
However, Peter didn’t look annoyed. “Come on,” he said. “I know this case took a lot out of you. I’ll give you a ride.”
Privately, Neal suspected that this was partly so Peter could keep an eye on him. But however much he was determined that he was not getting sick, it didn’t seem like his body agreed with him, and he was grateful not to be stuck waiting for a cab.
He could feel Peter’s eyes on him in the elevator, and when he was settling into the passenger seat. “Stop staring,” he said, finally.
“Sorry,” Peter said. He looked away, and then back. “You're pretty pale, you know.”
Neal sighed, and pressed his knuckles against his aching forehead. “I think maybe I am coming down with something,” he admitted. “I’ve been feeling kind of awful all day.”
“Yeah, you’ve been looking it,” Peter said. Neal shot him a reproachful glare. “I’m expressing sympathy.”
“Keep working on it,” Neal grumbled, resisting the temptation to catch a glimpse of himself in a mirror to see if he really did look that bad. The motion of the car really wasn’t helping. He pressed his arm over his stomach, trying to be surreptitious about it.
Of course, Peter noticed. “Are you going to puke?”
“No,” Neal said, firmly.
Peter looked disbelieving, and turned the air-con on. The blast of cold air into Neal’s face helped. “Seriously,” he said. “You should have told me you were feeling bad. I’d have let you go home.”
Neal shrugged, wanting to change the subject. You worked through it; it was what you did. Especially when he was still slightly on edge from being undercover, further than usual from Peter’s head-space of social support and sick leave.
“Neal?” Peter prompted.
Neal tightened his lips, swallowing as they went over a bump. “Talking’s probably not the best idea.”
Peter fell silent. But he kept shooting pointed looks at Neal, which managed somehow to be an almost exactly equal combination of touching and deeply irritating, until Neal finally shut his eyes so that he couldn’t see them anymore.
He came out of the light doze with a jolt. Peter had parked the car in front of June’s townhouse and was tapping him gently on the arm.
Neal pulled his jacket around himself, and tried to come more awake by force of will. “Thanks for the lift.”
“You’re welcome,” Peter said. He didn’t look happy, though. “You know, you really don’t look good. Are you sure you’ll be alright?”
Neal groaned. “I do know how to look after myself, you know.”
“That isn’t what I meant,” Peter said. Instead of allowing himself to be baited, he looked deadly serious. “Just because you can look after yourself, doesn’t mean you always have to.”
Neal found himself genuinely touched, despite himself. “Thanks,” he said, and mustered up a grateful smile. “But I really am okay. And June’s around.”
“Ah,” Peter said, clearly relieved. “Okay. And I won't expect to see you tomorrow. Call me if you need to, though.”
Neal grinned suddenly. “Like if I need several more days off work?”
Peter sighed, and rolled his eyes exaggeratedly. “I take it back. Go.”
Neal chuckled, and climbed out of the car. He somehow managed to mostly avoid reacting as the motion brought both his headache and the carsickness back in full force, but he still had to squeeze his eyes shut for a second as his surroundings tilted.
He recovered quickly, out of long practice. “Have a good evening,” he said, and Peter nodded back at him, still looking concerned.
The house was dim when he let himself in. June had gone to a concert with a friend, he remembered. He held onto the back of a chair for a moment to steady himself, but then his stomach lurched and he reached the ground-floor bathroom just in time for him to throw up.
His head was pounding abominably, and he was abruptly shivering in a way that told him he was beginning to run a fever. Still, it took him a while to move, shying away from the prospect of the mountain of stairs he knew he’d have to climb sooner or later.
It took an age to get up them. He was stumbling unsteadily and clutching hard to the banister by the time he finally reached the top, his sight swimming dizzily. His hands were shaking enough that it took several tries to get the key in the lock, and he was close to tears of pure frustration by the time he finally managed it.
And he was boiling now, sweating through his clothes. He pulled off the jacket and tie, and was only part-way through undoing the impossibly difficult buttons when the nausea came back in full force. He only made it as far as the kitchenette sink before he threw up again, clinging to the side to stay upright. He couldn't remember when he’d last felt this ill.
He ran the cold tap, splashing water against his overheated face and then sipping mouthfuls from his cupped palm. It seemed like far too much effort to try and find a glass. He only had just enough wherewithal after that to stumble across to the bed, kicking off his shoes and pants, as well as finally managing to get the rest of the shirt buttons undone.
A few moments later he was cold again, and huddled tightly into the duvet, the heel of his hand pressed tightly against his forehead in the vain hope that it would suppress the pain.
He lost track of time, drifting through a hot haze until he was roused abruptly by an icy touch against his face. Someone there. He threw up his hands, trying desperately to get away from whoever it was.
“Neal, it’s me! You’re safe.”
He had to struggle to place the voice. June. Of course it was June. He tried to open his eyes. After several seconds’ effort he succeeded, but everything was too bright.
Something cold and damp against his face. He squirmed away, but a hand cupped his cheek and held him still. “There. You’re all right.” A voice used to nursing children.
The cool cloth was fighting against the burning pain in his head. “June,” he croaked, and couldn’t manage any more words.
She folded the covers down, leaving him shivering in his sweat-soaked undershirt. He moaned, and tried to retrieve them, but she ruthlessly held his hands still. “Neal, you’re burning up. Hold still for me.”
He finally managed to keep his eyes open, enough to see her smile comfortingly at him as she mopped his neck with the damp cloth. He was cold, and yet the cold of the cloth was soothing, as was the cool of her fingers when she laid them against his forehead.
“I’ll be back in just a moment,” she promised, waiting until he nodded slightly in acknowledgement before she slipped away. But she was back again immediately, and stripped him of the shirt so that she could lie a second damp cloth over his chest. “I’m trying to cool you down,” she said as he flinched away in protest. “Neal, darling, you’re really ill.”
“Feel awful,” he whispered.
She was sitting on the bed beside him and stroking his hair as if he were a small child. “I’m here.”
He nodded against the steadiness of her hand. She was there. He’d been ill before, of course — he’d said as much to Peter — but you kept on going because you had to, because the alternative was being ill and vulnerable and alone in a rented apartment or a hotel room, knowing that if they came for you now there was nothing you could do.
But June was there to watch his back.
“I’m a good look-out,” June murmured, and Neal wondered what he was saying out loud and whether any of it made any sense at all.
“Shhh.” June’s fingers kept stroking through his hair. “It’s okay, it’s safe.”
He dozed against her, until his stomach roiled and he jerked awake with a gasp, trying to rise but not having the strength to do so. But June caught his shoulder and turned him to his side, bringing up a plastic basin for him to retch into.
He dropped his head down against her lap, and she held her palm against the side of his face. “Do you think you can drink some water?” she asked.
He shook his head slightly, his eyes pressed tightly closed.
“Neal, you need to try for me, please? I’ll get a glass, and we’ll see.”
The mattress moved as she got up and the space where she had been was suddenly freezing. Neal curled into himself. God his head hurt... this was like... Berlin? No, Bruges, and Alex had been... he couldn’t remember.
Alex... and Kate not there, he had called out for her, he was sure, or maybe that was now. A sudden compulsion drove him to try and get up but he couldn’t, nothing was working properly.
“Neal!” Hands were holding onto him, pinning him inside a dark fog. “You need a doctor.”
“No!” June should understand. Doctors were dangerous; they were paper trails and witnesses and tugged-out scraps of truth. “No, can’t...”
“Neal. Neal. Look at me.”
He forced his eyes open. It was hard to see; things were fuzzy and sliding in and out of focus. But June was there, even if he couldn’t make her features out. “Neal, you’re very sick and I’m worried. So I’m going to take you to the hospital. I’ll be right there with you.”
She was anxious; scared. He found one of her hands, and clung to it as an anchor. “June, June…”
Then things fractured, splitting and spinning and he could hear June talking, but none of the sounds made sense.
Blackness, and then his eyes opened and there were faces, someone he didn’t know speaking to him, over and over. “Can you tell me your name?”
He couldn’t follow. “June,” he pleaded, because she was the only thing he knew right then that made sense, but she was gone. “Where —”
“I’m here.” And she was, suddenly filling his vision. “Neal, you had a seizure.”
“My name’s Maia,” the other woman said. “I’m a paramedic. We’re going to take care of you. Can you give me your name?”
It was like probing the missing space left by a knocked-out tooth with his tongue, but he found it. “Neal."
She smiled at him. “That’s great, Neal. How about today’s date?”
He stared at her, and tried to remember. “It wasn’t Berlin,” he whispered.
“Shh, shh.” June was holding his hand.
“I can’t find it,” he told her. “We were looking, and it’s not here.”
“We’ll figure it out later, okay? Calm down, shh.”
She was there with him in snapshots. Being carried on a backboard down all those stairs. In an ambulance. He kept being asked questions and he couldn’t tell anymore if it was the same or different people. Too much heat, and his head hurt so badly he thought he might have been screaming, but there was blood in his mouth where he’d bitten into his cheek so maybe he’d done that instead.
He was terrified of being shackled and locked away but June kept whispering to him, it’s okay, you’re safe and she said it enough times to maybe make it true.
Time got lost again. When he managed to pick up the thread of what was going on he was in a hospital bed, twisting uncomfortably.
“How is he?”
“They're worried.” That had been Peter’s asking, and it was June who answered. Their voices sounded odd, close and far away at the same time.
He tried to speak, and didn’t manage it. But someone squeezed his arm. “Neal, can you hear me?” Peter.
They were wavering shapes, distorted as if by a heat-haze. “..es,” he managed.
“How can they not know what’s wrong with him?” Peter demanded.
He knew what was wrong with him. He was too hot, far too hot, and his head was splitting open. He imaged his brains inside, bubbling and steaming, building up pressure.
June took his hand and held on, even though he couldn’t make his fingers tighten around hers. Peter gripped his other arm firmly. “Neal, calm down. Okay?”
More time gone, in ungraspable half-dreams that nonetheless had him shivering in unformed terror. He was being swept away; drowning; and he couldn’t find the shore.
When he opened his eyes next it was because there was a sharp pinch on the back of his hand, and it hurt. Peter was somewhere, saying his name over and over, asking questions that Neal couldn’t follow. He struggled to concentrate.
“Did you take it?” Peter kept saying.
“Stop, stop,” Neal whispered. He hadn’t stolen anything, couldn’t Peter know that?
“He’s not listening,” Peter said, his voice loud and uneven but not angry.
“Neal,” June said, and held his shoulder so that he had to look at her. “I need you to concentrate. Can you hear me?”
“What’s happening?” Neal whispered. He couldn’t manage anything louder.
“The doctors think you’ve been poisoned,” she said. “We really need you to think — when you were undercover, did Carter give you anything to eat?”
He closed his eyes. June tightened her hand but he wasn’t falling asleep, he was thinking, and he shook his head slightly to let her know. “Yes,” he finally said. “Sandwiches. Handed them out.”
Neal only realised when an unfamiliar voice started talking that there had been someone else in the room all along. Peter was replying, too fast for him to catch, but June leaned close to stroke his hair. “Everything’s going to be fine,” she said, soothingly. “You’ll feel better soon.”
He could just nod against her hand. He had no real sense of place or time, too lost inside illness to picture a soon, but the relief in her tone calmed him, and let him slide back into the dark.
- - -
Eventually, he woke properly. He cracked his eyes open, wincing at the daylight that was bright in the small hospital room. His head ached; all of him ached.
June was sitting in a visitor’s chair next to his bed, her head tipped forwards as she dozed. She was holding his hand. Realising, Neal tried not to make a movement to wake her, but he was too late. She stirred, yawning.
“Neal!” she exclaimed, looking delighted, even as she rubbed sleep from her eyes, and he smiled back.
“Hey.” His voice was rough and scratchy, and his throat almost too dry to manage swallowing.
“Here.” She passed him a cup of water, and he sipped it gratefully. She was watching him closely. “You look a lot better.”
He couldn’t help grimacing. “I bet. Remind me not to do that again.”
“I agree,” June said. “I’m too old to stay up all night.”
“Never,” Neal countered quickly. He flexed his limbs carefully, muscles protesting. “How long have I been here?”
“Since the early hours of yesterday morning,” June said. “I’m not sure how much you remember. You were delirious for most of it.”
Neal shuddered, dropping his eyes. “I remember... bits.” He looked up at her. “You were there. All the time.”
“Of course I was.” She said it in a perfectly ordinary way, but there was deep understanding in her eyes as she laid a hand over his. “Neal, everything’s okay.”
He sighed, unwittingly tensed muscles going limp. Part of the soon-learned fear of hospitals was the knowledge that in them your body might not belong to you, and your mind and tongue might betray you. Defenceless, resourceless. But June had understood, and she hadn't left him to be alone. “Thank you,” he whispered.
She smiled gently at him, the lines around her eyes crinkling. “I’ve done this before, you know. For my babies, and for Byron. And Ford, once.” She lowered her voice conspiratorially. “The police kept coming round, but they never threw me out.”
“Thank you,” he said, again, still astonished that he had friends who would put their life on hold to sit by him while he was unconscious in a hospital bed. Not to mention everything else that June had dealt with and endured on his behalf. It was like the debt due to a parent; he could never hope to repay it.
She smiled a little, as if she could see his thoughts, and then shook herself. “Peter will want to know you’ve woken up,” she said, briskly. “And I suppose we should call someone in to look you over.”
“Do you think they’ll let me out of here soon?” Neal asked, hopefully.
She raised an eyebrow at him. “Doubtful, but you can always ask.”
- - -
It was another day until his doctor let Neal go home, much to his frustration. It didn’t matter how often Peter reminded him that it was for his own good — being restricted to a hospital bed started to feel unbearable very quickly.
The first couple of hours alone in his apartment were heavenly. June had helped him upstairs (very slowly — he was still unbalanced and unsteady on his feet) and made sure that he was all right. He curled up underneath the bedclothes, closed his eyes, and just enjoyed the quiet, and the wonderful sensation of being all on his own, with no beeping machines and well-meaning nurses coming in to check up on him.
But after a while he had to get out of bed to use the bathroom, and while making his way back again he was suddenly hit by a spell of dizziness strong enough that he didn’t even bother trying to make it to a chair. He sat down hard on the floor, pressing his forearm against his head.
Of course, that was when the door opened. “Neal, what —” Peter began, alarmed.
Still with his eyes shut, Neal held up a hand in an I’m fine gesture.
He heard Peter’s footsteps briefly retreat, and him calling June’s name down the stairwell. Then he hurried back over to crouch down beside Neal. “Are you okay?”
Neal opened his eyes and lifted his head,, relieved when he didn’t seem anymore to be in danger of passing out. “Yeah.” Feeling like he should give more of an answer, he pointed out, "You were there too when my doctor said I'd experience this for a while. Stop hovering."
That didn’t, though, do much for Peter's worried expression. Nor did it stop Peter from hauling him up as if he wasn’t capable of doing it himself before guiding him over to the bed, into which Neal collapsed gratefully.
“Are you glad now you didn’t leave the hospital sooner?” Peter asked.
“Nope,” Neal grumbled into a pillow.
Perhaps fortunately, June arrived then. “What happened?” she asked.
“Nothing,” Neal said, but unfortunately his mouth was still full of pillow, which gave Peter the opportunity to give his version of events.
“Hmm,” was June’s immediate reaction.
Neal rolled over. “He’s making it sound a lot worse than it is.”
Peter glared at him. “Shall I remind you they wanted to keep you in for another day’s observation?”
Neal groaned loudly. “No, please don’t."
“I don’t think it would be especially helpful,” June said, her lips quirking. “What’s done is done, after all.”
Peter still didn’t look very happy.
“I’ll get us some lunch sent up,” June said, brightly.
After she was gone, Peter sat down carefully on the edge of Neal’s mattress. Neal was beginning to feel awkward being at a different level, and sat up. Peter helped arrange the pillows so he could lean against them comfortably, and then sat back. “Neal?” he asked, after a moment.
He looked less annoyed, at least. “Yeah?”
Peter sighed. “I’m sorry for getting cross with you just now. I just don’t understand why you didn’t say anything to me on Tuesday evening when you were that ill. Instead you were alone up here most of the night, and in the morning I got a call from June to say that you were in hospital, you were delirious and seizing...”
Oh. Neal hadn’t really thought about what that would be like from Peter’s point of view. It was uncomfortable to realise. “I didn’t know I’d been poisoned,” he tried to argue, without much heat. “I just thought I was coming down with flu or something.”
“And when you realised it was more than that?”
“I’m not sure there really was a point. I was pretty out of it.” He paused, noticing the unhappy expression on Peter’s face and feeling increasingly guilty. “But you’re right. I should have done something.”
“Okay,” Peter said, looking surprisingly satisfied from so few words. "Thank you." He patted Neal’s knee through the covers.
“Have you boys finished talking?” June asked, re-entering. She headed to the counter. “I’m going to make us coffee. Not for you, Neal.”
Neal huffed a little for the sake of it, but didn’t protest the glass of fruit juice he was given instead. Then June pulled a coffee table over next to the bed and, with Peter, moved two chairs up by it. “I thought we could eat over here,” she said. “Much more sociable.”
Lunch arrived with a couple of boxes of board games, which Neal eyed speculatively. After they’d eaten, during which the conversation had stayed safely far away from anyone’s past or current line of work, Peter cleared the table and June brought the games out.
“Are you sure you want to play?” Peter asked Neal. “You really should be resting.”
Neal rolled his eyes. Peter looked for a second like he was going to say more, but then lifted a hand apologetically instead.
“He’s fine,” June said, firmly. “Besides, he’ll be less of a challenge if he’s half asleep. Might go down to you and me.” She winked at Neal, not letting Peter catch it. Neal, who had played plenty of different games against June, grinned and said nothing.
Peter caught his grin, and returned it. “Well in that case, I might have a trick or two up my sleeve to surprise you both with,” he said.
June narrowed her eyes. “Agent Burke, do you cheat?”
“Certainly not!” Peter protested.
June and Neal exchanged looks. “Good to know,” June said, and began dealing.