Someone was tapping his face. Neal felt so weak and his body ached all over. His mouth was so parched that his tongue felt stuck to the bottom of his mouth. He was cold, shivering, and was lying in fetid feeling water. He felt confused and then humiliated, thinking he had wet himself.
Blue eyes gazed down at him. "You okay?"
Taking inventory, Neal had to admit that he was not. He felt nauseous. His head floated and he had to fight sleep which pulled at him as if he was sinking in an ocean of weariness. He vaguely remembered sitting in a cafe with Kate and Peter. Then Kate had kissed him goodbye and Peter had taken him by the hand, leading him away. He had to wonder why he had gone so passively. Why had he not fought to stay with Kate?
"Who are you?" Neal asked this stranger.
"Anatoly Gregorovitch in this house. Tony Jenkins in the art world."
"Oh, Moz's protegee."
"His first," the man replied. He frowned.
"We look a lot a like."
"Guess Moz has a type," Anatoly said. "Let's get you out of there."
Trying to get up, Neal creating waves, wincing at the smell emerging from the tank.
"Let me drain this thing," Anatoly said, fiddling with the control panel.
The putrid fluid drained away slowly.
"Oh, damn," Anatoly said as the elevator moved upwards. "I thought everyone was in the attic. They thought there was an intruder up there."
Moving was excruciating. Anatoly's nose was wrinkled and he kept wincing. Neal said, "Listen. Get me in the shower. Maybe I can pull myself together after that."
Anatoly said, "I doubt that. You don't look good."
"Thanks. You must have learned diplomacy from Peter."
"Ah, the Suit."
That made Neal smile. "Yeah, my keeper."
After dragging Neal into the shower, Anatoly grabbed a chair and helped Neal into it. "You are skin and bones."
"I think they stopped pumping food into me."
Neal couldn't help drinking some of the water cascading down on him.
"Sorry," Anatoly said. "No cups." Glancing anxiously back, eyes wide and mouth in a white line, Anatoly said, "Elevator must be stuck. Do you hear something?"
Neal concentrated and now he heard bellowing and then a man screaming. "No, Eleni! God, Isadora! Please. Saint Christopher protect me."
Anatoly's hands shook, but he handed Neal a washcloth and soap. "Nothing we can do about it."
"It's your mother and aunt," Neal said.
"Or the ghosts of his long dead conscience."
"Anatoly, I think you should try to stop them. Save him."
"It's your father no matter how much you hate him," Neal said, his voice a thin rasp.
"What would you know about that?"
Anatoly headed for the elevator and leaned against the door. "Mother, Aunt Izzie? Don't kill him. Don't let him make you into him!"
The third time Anatoly said it, the elevator slid to their floor and the door opened. Neal could see the two dark haired beauties standing over the huddled lump of Gregorovitch on the floor.
"Is he?" Neal asked.
Anatoly knelt, turned his father over. Vacant eyes gazed at him and then Gregorovitch smiled broadly. "Casmir? Brother, oh, brother, you live. I didn't mean it. I was tired of you winning our races and when you had the cramp, I just meant to enjoy you losing. I'm glad you didn't die this time."
Shocked, Anatoly drew back. Gregorovitch rocked on the floor. He muttered in Russian, speaking to someone no one else could see. Up above, Neal could hear the distant sound of gunshots...one of the least welcome things that Peter's partnership brought to his life. Oh, joy, oh happiness, Neal was probably going to be shot by Russian thugs in the all together. And he wouldn't even look his best given the beastly treatment he had been enduring.
When armed people burst into the room, Anatoly jumped in front of Neal to protect him. Since one of them was Peter, this resulted in Moz's first protegee being shoved roughly aside so Peter could inspect Neal before bundling him in his jacket. It didn't cover much, but it was thoughtful. Too bad Neal spoiled any benefit by tumbling to the floor when Peter and Jones tried to carry him onto the elevator in their arms. He must have wiggled before they had a good grip. Sprawled naked except for the tangle of Peter's jacket, Neal saw the ceiling swirl and dissolve. Peter knelt and gathered him in his arms. He was safe. Time to rest.
Once Peter had taken Neal's pulse...two or three times, he was ready to have a look at Gregorovitch's den. The mobster sat in a corner, having a conversation in Russian with the air.
Anatoly said, "I don't think you'll be able to prosecute my father, not like this."
"Too bad," Peter said. He was furious. He felt as he did when someone threatened El. Somewhere between catching Neal and losing Neal, Peter's strong and unruly heart had decided that Neal belonged in the citadel where only El resided before.
Anatoly dropped his eyes and said, "I'm sorry. I wasn't gloating. He meant to either kill me or pummel me into his image. I don't love him." Anatoly hunched his shoulders and gave a small shake of his head. "Moz was more a father to me then hum." He winced as he looked at his father and then back at Peter. "Still I don't like seeing him like this."
Peter patted Anatoly on the shoulder wordlessly, his thought moving ahead to Moz's second protegee that Peter had taken for his own.
An IV fed into Neal's arm. He was as pale as the sheets, the hollows of his face looked like bruises against his yellow pallor. Peter carefully sat on the bed. Neal's eyes fluttered open.
"You promised me chicken soup."
Peter had. In the last dream he had.
Smiling, Neal reached towards Peter until Peter gently took his hand. "You led me by the hand and asked me to sleep with you."
Ignoring the faint roll of heat across his cheeks, Peter said, "The chicken soup is on the way. El didn't want to wait until you are strong enough to fly home."
It was hard to resist fussing over Neal, but Peter disengaged his hand, contented himself with a pat on the hand without the IV. "You get well. We have work to do."
"I'm still hungry, Peter."
"As soon as the doctors say yes, there will be your lobster ravioli, eggplant cannelloni, your violet and broken almond shortbread, and your ten dollar glasses of wine," Peter said, reciting what Neal had ordered at the Cafe Fouquet.
"And how am I getting that?"
"Anatoly knows a chef who formerly worked at Cafe Fouquet."
"A good man, that Anatoly."
"Moz knows how to pick them."
"He does," Neal agreed, his eyelashes fluttering closed. Drowsily, Neal added, "Thank you for working with Moz to save me. It made me feel ..."
Sleep gobbled the last word, but Peter knew what it was. Loved. Neal felt loved.
Just a quick stroke to brush Neal's hair from his forehead. It didn't mean anything. Really. It didn't.
Neal woke with a clearer mind. He had been awake for brief intervals, knew that he was seldom alone. Moz was there. Peter most of the time. Once Anatoly.
Opening his eyes, Neal looked at Jones. "Hey."
"Hey. Welcome back, man. Peter went to the airport to get Elizabeth."
"Good," Neal said.
"You should have seen Diana and me undercover. We smoked. I was the bodyguard in a muscle shirt and spangled vest. I'm going to hang on to the outfit for Halloween."
"Wish I had seen it."
"Yeah, well, it was a good con," Jones said. "Diana was a psychic. Made Gregorovitch think that his wife's ghost was haunting him."
"A good con," Neal said. He shut his eyes, seeing in his head the twin beauties that had appeared to him. Not a con. Real ghosts.
Jones' wide grin and ducked head brought Neal from his momentary triste. Neal said, "Tell Diana that I want pictures of the pair of you."
"Yeah, I can get some," Jones said.
"Hey, what's going to happen with Gregorovitch's money? Is it going to be all tied up with a tax investigation and victim's compensation?"
"Not all of it, turns out the guy had a good head for investments. There are several sources of revenue that look clean."
"He has another kid on the way, the cook, Kesinia, is pregnant."
"Yeah, your 'brother', Anatoly, is going to make arrangements to care for her and the boy."
Neal was tired again and wishing for Peter and El. The lonely misery of his childhood he had tried so hard to leave behind haunted him. It stirred something, having Anatoly described as his brother. Funny, he had never liked the idea of Anatoly and he thought of Moz as more of a big brother than a father. However, Neal knew he prided himself on how well he had eclipsed Moz's first student. He was the one who took everything Moz had to offer and exceeded his teacher in everything. So much better than a minor artist who ran an obscure art gallery. He had never even asked to meet Anatoly. He was too fond of his self image of needing nothing except Kate to admit jealousy, but whenever Moz went to visit Anatoly, Neal made sure he had something else to do.
"I'll let you get some rest," Jones said.
The silence after his friend left seemed to press on Neal. He looked around at the green walls of the room and sighed. He was too weak to read and the TV did not interest him. He rang the bell and a nurse came in, the young blond one. He said, "They said that maybe I could eat something."
Blue eyes twinkled and the woman said, "Yes, they did.'
Weak broth, juice, and jello was not what he had in mind, especially after Peter had recited his favorite menu from Fouquet's, but his shriveled stomach would accept any fuel even if he had to be fed like a baby. He flirted mildly with Nurse Soto. Not that he was interested; it was just the image after all.
Even the passive role and the sop of a meal tired Neal out. He felt drowsy and hoped that his dream would take him back to the Cafe Fouquet, but if he dreamed, he was not in that strangely lucid state in which he had found himself when in the isolation chamber. No Kate. No ghosts. No Peter to hug.
El insisted on stopping at a store and then to the Home Inn suite to which Peter had transferred. Moz had moved from the shabby motel as well, no longer willing to have the suits know where he was staying. Strange, loyal little man.
The soup takes time to simmer into the golden elixir that El made. She always says it was her love that made the soup good, but Peter suspects it was that she cooked the chicken in broth and took such care to make the chicken pieces small. The noodles were fresh made. At home, El might have made them herself, but here she magically knew which shop has freshly cut noodles in trays ready to soak up flavor as the packaged ones never did. The steam colored El's cheeks, made sweat curls around her face, made her even more beautiful. His El...
Peter's hands found her hips and his head rested in the curve of her neck. She was his strength. He drew her scent into his nostrils. Neal had leaned into him like this, ethereal Neal. That told him something but his mind skirted from it. It was enough that Neal was safe and soon they would fly home where Peter would keep a closer eye on him. Keep him safe.
Peter slept peacefully and dreamlessly on the bed while the soup finished. He needed the rest, but he missed Neal.
Neal woke to chicken soup and kisses. The kisses and the soup were from El. He smiled at her and she kissed him again. "We never gave up."
"I know. I knew Peter would find me. He promised."
Pulling out her comb, El set to work on his hair. He relaxed into her care, cub to a very lovely lioness. El always knew how to make Neal feel better and what he needed, including looking his best.
"May I have some soup now?" Neal asked. "Peter wouldn't let me eat anything."
"You can't hold that against me. It was a dream. I thought if you ate there, you would have been trapped in that world."
"With Kate," Neal said yearning. But really... he was in no hurry to die. He did as Peter said have something good in this world.
Grinning, Neal said," I guess you fared better than Demeter. I didn't even eat one pomegranate seed."
"Of course," Peter said, "I'm very good at what I do."
El unpacked the picnic basket Peter had carried in. It contained a thermos of soup, a linen placemat and soft napkin as well as a sterling spoon. He smiled at it all; El had style as distinct as Neal.
Moz popped in just as El finished. He was accompanied by Anatoly who had a rather stunned look.
"Anatoly just won the DeLand Award."
The DeLand was nationally known, a very select art show. Neal had always dismissed juried shows, preferring to make his mark fooling curators and cops.
With a shrug, Moz added, "And found out his father's accounts will make him and his little brother wealthy."
"So I suppose you will be staying in Florida?" Neal asked, moving closer to El for comfort.
"Here? With all that media scrutiny? Might as well invite big brother to scan my retinas and put a chip in me." Moz said.
"Besides, you need looking after. Taking up with Feds, getting kidnapped, you're the one I have to keep an eye on."
Neal smiled as Anatoly winked at him.
Neal didn't need to win awards. He had something more valuable in mind.
Love was always his to steal away.