Peter and Neal get stuck in a cabin during a blizzard; problem is, Neal is hurt.…
Warnings: Pretty heavy Neal whump, but he will get over it.
Notes: I am French, and though my English is rather good, it is not my first language. My apologies for any language errors. Thank you to my beta readers MAM711 and Sara Caffrey for their great work.
This is my first White Collar fanfic, please let me know what you think.
Legal disclaimer: White Collar is the property of Jeff Eastin. I'm just borrowing the action figures to play in the sandbox.
(Chapter 2 deleted)
Peter Burke shoved the door open with his shoulder, tightening his grip on Neal's arm. He paused for a few seconds, giving his eyes time to adjust to the dim light of the cabin. He felt Neal's deep groan under his hand on his waist; he was carrying most of his weight by now. He entered the cabin and leaned Neal against the wall.
"Hold on there, buddy," he said, gently letting go of the arm he had put around his own neck.
Neal didn't react, either from being mostly out of it, or too busy controlling his pain.
Peter looked around, looking for the lantern he knew would be close by. He found it quickly enough and turned it on. A bluish glow immediately lit the place, pushing the shadows away. He took it in his hand and raised it to examine the place. He spotted a second lantern which he switched on too.
The place was a usual hunter's wood cabin or shack. Two benches doubling as bunks followed the walls on each side of the room, a small table was set by the back wall, and a wood stove stood near the entry. Peter knelt by the stove; it was already stocked with kindling. In no time he had a fire going; soon the place would be warm enough that they would need to take their coats and jackets off. A thick curtain covered a small window in one of the walls. He opened it, hoping to give the place some more light. The sky outside was dark with the ongoing snowstorm; it really didn't look like 3:00 in the afternoon.
He went back to the front door. Neal had slowly crumpled to the ground, half sitting on a pile of wood. His eyes were closed, his head against the wall, his breath hitching now and then.
"Okay, Neal, let's check that shoulder. Help me get you up."
Neal opened his glassy eyes, tiredly looking up.
"'Kay," he mumbled, but showed no signs of moving.
Peter went to his side and slid his arm around Neal's waist. He helped the young man up; Neal hissed. Slowly they made it to the closest bench on the right. Neal sat his back against the wall, arms limp by his sides, letting Peter take charge.
Peter took Neal's coat off and threw it to the ground. The garment was soaked and ruined anyway. Nice winter city coats weren't meant for snowstorms in the woods … or to stop flying bullets.
"Hey, that's cashmere," Neal whined as he saw the way his clothes were thrown down.
His jacket followed the same itinerary.
"Only you.…" Peter murmured.
"Only you would complain about treating clothing badly with a bullet through your shoulder."
"Can't do anything about the shoulder; can still save my coat.… Besides, it's not mine. I can't ruin June's stuff…." Neal was looking at the pile on the floor with sad eyes.
Peter couldn't help chuckle despite the situation—he doubted the old lady would complain about a ruined coat if Neal made it out alive. He ripped the shirt to have a better look at the wound on the left shoulder. He took the clean handkerchief from his pocket, glad Elizabeth always had him carry one, then put the cloth to Neal's wound and applied pressure. Neal couldn't help a scream.
"Sorry, Neal; I need to stop the bleeding."
"Hurts," Neal gasped.
"I know; I'm sorry. Here," he said, putting Neal's right hand above the cloth, "hold this. Tightly—you need to stop the bleeding. Tighter," he repeated, when Neal only kept the handkerchief in place. "Neal, I mean it. I'm pretty sure there's a first aid kit in this place; I need to find it, and I need you to keep pressure on that shoulder."
"All right," Neal growled.
"I mean it: tighter."
"Okay!" Neal all but yelled as he put more pressure on his shoulder, groaning in pain.
Peter got up and removed his own coat. He could feel the heat from the stove starting to spread. He went to the shelves by the entrance, moving stuff around until he located a white box with a red cross on top. He came back to Neal's side and put it on the bench. As he opened it, he swore softly.
"What, no morphine shots in there?" Neal teased.
"Not even a damn disinfectant!" Peter complained.
He emptied the box hoping against all odds that something would be hidden at the bottom.
"Keep that pressure on!" he reminded his friend.
Peter went back to the shelves, rummaged again, and took out a pan. Neal looked at him, confused.
"You're gonna knock me out with that?" Neal asked with a worried voice.
Peter took a back look at his friend, shaking his head. Where did he find the energy to banter? He opened the door and went outside; he came back with the pan full of snow.
"We'll need water to clean that wound, and lucky for us we have plenty of that," he explained, putting the pan over the stove for the snow to melt.
He went back to Neal's side. "How are you holding up?"
"Didn't know bullet wounds hurt that much.…" Neal mumbled, raising an eyebrow. He took a deep breath, closing his eyes, and leaned his head against the wall.
"Here, let me take over."
Peter removed Neal's hand, slightly squeezing his fingers in a friendly gesture before putting the hand down. He removed the ruined handkerchief and made a satisfied nod.
"Good, the bleeding has stopped."
He went back to the stove and put some water into a bowl. He came back to clean the wound as well as he could. Neal's breath caught from time to time but he didn't complain out loud.
Peter felt his own heart tighten; he knew how much a gunshot wound hurt. Movies made it look like you could just get up and go on, but he knew how it felt, and he wouldn't wish it on his worst enemy. And in this case, it was his best friend who had gotten hurt, and he didn't even have an Advil to give him to ease the pain.
The bullet had gone right through the shoulder; at least they didn't have to worry about that. He bandaged the wound using bandages from the first aid kit—the only thing in there. He loosened Neal's tie and undid the first buttons of his shirt.
"Don't get excited," he joked.
Neal's lips curved in a small smile. "Peter, you've been around me too long."
Peter hid a grin and removed Neal's tie; he used it to hold the bandage in place. Neal looked at his shoulder with a smile.
"That was my tie, MacGyver… Thanks."
"How do you it?"
"Keep up the smart talk when I know what you really want to do is curl over and cry in pain?"
Neal let the mask slip for just one second, eyes filled with a pain nothing could hide, and opened his mouth to reply, but Peter didn't give him a chance.
"And don't think I don't know the level of pain you are experiencing. I haven't always been in the White Collar division.… And no, I'm not telling you," he appended when he saw the spark of curiosity in his friend's eyes.
"Yeah, of course you would know," Neal whispered.
"Come on, lie down, get some rest. Sorry I don't have anything to give you for the pain; see if you can fall asleep."
"Or you could knock me unconscious.…"
"Keep that up and I'll make sure you shut up … I'm sure my tie can be of some use," Peter mockingly threatened.
Neal just grinned.
Peter took Neal's jacket and folded it in four, making a rough pillow for his head. Then he took the coat off the floor. The outside was wet, but the moisture hadn't gone through, and the lining was still perfectly dry. He covered Neal with it.
"Neal.…" Peter mock growled and Neal had a small smile as he tried to make himself comfortable on the wooden bench.
Peter rubbed his face with his hands, sighing deeply.
How the hell did they end up in a hunter's cabin in the woods during a snowstorm—okay, blizzard, he corrected as he listened to the wind getting stronger outside—during a typical White Collar case? He directed a dark look at Neal, who incredibly enough seemed asleep. Of course it was his fault! That man was a trouble magnet! When they got back to New York, he was going to lock him to his desk and drown him in mortgage fraud files until he cried. Keep him out of trouble even if the boredom killed him...
Peter shook his head ruefully. Here he was, grousing about the man when he wasn't even awake. He realized his feet were cold, his shoes soaked from the long trek in the snow before. He removed Neal's shoes and socks, then his own, putting everything to dry by the stove.
He decided to explore the cabin; he removed his jacket and tie—the place was indeed getting nicely warm. The cabin was well-kept, except of course for the almost-empty first aid kit. He found coffee, sugar and some jerky, lots of firewood, old newspapers and magazines. Finding a survival blanket, he covered Neal with it, hanging the ruined coat on a nail. He examined it closely. It was wet and muddy—nothing a good dry cleaner couldn't fix, but the blood would be difficult to get out— but as for the two holes in the shoulder.… He doubted it would be salvageable.
He went to the window. The snowstorm had now turned into full blizzard. He cast an eye to Neal's ankle: the tracker was working; the Marshals would find them in no time. Of course, they wouldn't be able to come until the storm was over, and it didn't show any signs of stopping. They were probably stuck there for the night. He might as well make himself comfortable. He went back to the newspapers and magazines; there were probably some crosswords puzzle to be done.…
He decided to make some coffee. Too bad they were stuck in the place under such dire circumstances. It would have been a good place for a rustic weekend in the woods. The area was nice, with lakes and trails to walk, big trees, lost cabins.… Maybe he could bring El here in the spring. Okay, not here: this place was bound to give him nightmares, but a nice weekend up north did look enticing. Hopefully, El wouldn't kill him when he got back for getting her so worried. He checked his cell phone again; it still showed no coverage. He started a crossword puzzle, keeping an eye on Neal's resting form.
Peter woke up with a start. He was sitting against the wall, the magazine he'd been reading still on his lap. He wondered what had woken him. The walls were shaking lightly, a sure sign that the blizzard had gotten worse, but he wasn't worried; these places were built to take any kind of weather. He heard a slight moan coming from Neal.
The young man was stirring in his sleep; he had pushed the blanket aside. His brow was glistening. Peter went to his side and frowned as he put his hand to the man's forehead. He was running a high fever and clearly fighting against something in his dreams.
"Hey Neal, wake up.… Come on, kiddo, it's only a dream."
He shook the man slightly when he received no answer, kneeling by his side.
"Neal," he said more forcefully, as the fighting intensified.
"Whaaat.…" Neal woke with a start and a confused look.
"Easy, buddy, you just had a bad dream."
Neal looked at Peter's face, then around him, confusion easing as he fully woke up.
"'Cause this place is actually a 5 star by the Côte d'Azur, right?" he managed to joke with a gruff voice and a cough.
Peter chuckled and rose to his feet. Before he even had time to give him a hand to help, Neal had put his feet down and was sitting up. He crumpled to the ground screaming in pain.
"Shit, Neal, what possessed you to move like that!" Peter shouted in anger, which quickly vanished when he saw Neal's face deathly white. He was curled in fetal position, his mouth open, eyes scrunched shut, unable to breathe with the sheer agony.
"Neal, you need to breathe; come on." Peter put a hand to his chest and pushed gently to help him exhale. "Come on, Neal, listen to me, breathe out slowly, now breathe in, come on, deep breaths. Ride the pain, don't let it crush you, follow it like a wave, follow it to the shore, go back, surf the next wave to shore, come on, in and out, follow the wave.…"
Peter kept repeating the litany, forcing Neal's lungs to expel the air and helping it in again. He could feel the man shivering under his hand. After what seemed like an eternity the breaths got deeper and more controlled; he left his hand on Neal to ground him.
Neal took a deep shuddering breath and let it slowly out, uncurled and let his head drop back. His face was covered in sweat, tears running from his eyes. Peter rubbed his arm affectionately.
Neal opened his mouth but no sound came out. He swallowed and coughed, wincing as the movement jolted his shoulder. He lifted his head to look at Peter, blinking away the moisture in his eyes.
"Okay, that was a bad idea."
"You mean sitting up on your own, from a wooden bench, after having slept for three hours? Yeah, I'd say."
"Peter, save the lecture for when I care," Neal grumbled. "Why is it so hot in here? Are you burning the place down?" Neal wiped his face with his sleeve.
"It's not. Actually you're burning with fever."
"Gee, blessings never come alone, do they?" Neal put his right hand on the bench behind him. "Help me sit up, will you, please?" He sat back on the bench, groaning, and looked around again. "You've been playing housemaid?" he joked as he saw the jackets and black socks hanging around the stove. "Peter, those are Italian leather shoes; they're not meant to be near heat sources!"
Peter glared at him and Neal amended, "Thanks for the blanket, though."
"You want some coffee? Not your favorite Italian roast, but not too bad."
"Probably better than FBI's.…"
Peter brought him a mug; Neal sniffed it cautiously then drank it with a sigh.
"Nice. Feels good; thanks."
"Neal, I'd like to have a look at your shoulder."
"Yeah, sure." Neal looked at his mug, then up. "Oh, and Peter, thank you."
"Helping me breathe. Where did you get that stuff about the waves anyway? Very flower power and all, not your typical area of expertise. But that was helpful.…"
"Yes, of course, why did I ask?" Neal had a dreamy look on his face and a small smile. "Her I can picture with flowers in her hair, running free on the beach.…"
"And you're going to stop your dreaming right there: put clothes back on my wife and drink your coffee," Peter growled.
"Yep, sorry.…" Neal answered meekly, not denying that he had had Elizabeth in the nude.
While they had been talking, Peter had untied the tie and removed the bandages. He frowned and looked up to Neal.
"What?" Neal asked, a bit worried by the look on the agent's face.
"It's badly infected."
"Well, not very surprising, I'd say."
"We didn't even have an old bottle of whisky.…" Neal tried to treat the problem lightly.
"Neal, I'm no doctor, but this shouldn't be looking like that after only three hours." Peter looked suspiciously at Neal. "Do you have any immune problem I don't know about?"
"What?" Neal's voice had a hint of anger.
"Like I said, you are running a high fever and this looks nasty, so I'm wondering.…"
"No! You're the one who cleaned it with melted snow! What did you expect?" Neal yelled. He got up with a shove and closed his eyes briefly when a wave of dizziness caught him. Peter started to answer but refrained. He had clearly stepped on sensitive territory even if he didn't know what or why. Neal's reaction was way out of line, even in his current state of confusion.
"I am going out; where are my socks?" Neal asked, moving to the stove.
"Neal, sorry to break it to you, but the snowstorm turned into a blizzard; you're not going anywhere."
"I need to pee," Neal told him plainly.
"Oh. Sit down; I'll get you your socks and shoes. Neal, please sit," Peter added when Neal started to follow him. "You will need to sit to put them on anyway, so save yourself the trouble.… I don't want to have to pick you up from the floor."
Neal was about to retort sharply when he saw Peter's face. The man was worried sick. The anger was just a way for his anxiety to come out. Neal sat down, casting his head down.
"Sorry, Peter. I know I'm behaving like a jerk." He put his head against the wall, closing his eyes. "I don't like being sick.…" he apologized.
Peter knelt by him, putting his socks and shoes on for him, dismissing the apology.
"Nobody likes being sick, Neal, and my bedside manner could use some brushing up. Besides, you're not sick. You have a gunshot wound in your shoulder which is now severely infected, you're running a high fever, and I'm betting you are half crazy with pain. You're good at hiding it behind your sarcasm, but I do know what you're going through. So let's say that I'm letting you off the hook on this one; just don't push it. You are allowed to feel pain. Okay?"
"Thanks." Neal's voice was so low Peter almost didn't hear him, but he did see a tear sliding from an eye.
"You need help out there?"
"No!" Neal opened his eyes, offended, and chuckled when he saw the smile on Peter's lips. "Very funny.…"
"Put your coat on."
"No, thanks, the cold will feel nice."
Neal stepped outside. The wind was blowing strongly, snow covering and masking everything. Luckily it was blowing from the back of the house, allowing the small porch to feel relatively safe. He stepped out to take care of his needs, savoring the cold on his hot body.
Peter let himself fall against the wall by the door, worrying about the infection. They were hours away from being rescued; if the infection kept getting worse at that speed, Neal would be dead before the Marshals found them. He wished there was some antiseptic in the first aid kit; hell, he'd settle for an old bottle of scotch! Anything to clean the wound properly or stop the infection. His eyes fell on the stove; a fire poker was sticking out of the firewood pile. His stomach dropped to his knees. He swallowed heavily, not letting the idea form in his head. No, he did not want to let his mind go there … and yet. He shook his head, feeling tears of fear and anger coming to his eyes. No way … and still, it was probably the only thing available to them right now.
The door opened and Neal came in, huffing and coughing strongly.
"Okay, you were right, that is a blizzard.…" he commented shaking the snow from his head. He looked at Peter still against the wall.
"Peter, you're okay? You look funny.…"
Peter blinked rapidly and stood up. Trust Neal to read him like an open book.
"M'fine, get inside before you freeze your ass, it won't do your cold any good. Have some coffee, eat something."
"We have food? Wow, this is getting better. So what kind of cans did you find?"
"Elk jerky, homemade, apparently."
"You're kidding, right?"
"What's wrong with jerky?"
"Peter, I put up with your deviled ham sandwiches, but jerky?"
"Dried meat, full of proteins.…"
"Next I know you'll have me chewing tobacco," Neal commented.
"Look, Neal, I don't even want to know what's wrong with jerky, so fine, don't eat anything for all I care," Peter scolded, closing the door with more strength than necessary. He pushed the lock, making sure the wind wouldn't blow it open; he then turned back, forcing his voice down. "At least drink something; with the temperature you have you're probably dehydrated. I realize coffee is certainly not good for you, but I'll admit the water isn't very appealing."
Neal stopped by the stove to fill his mug and sipped his coffee while going back to the bench. He couldn't believe how the small trip outside had exhausted him. Peter was poking the fire, putting an extra log in the stove.
"What did I miss?" Neal asked gently.
"Sorry?" Peter lifted his head.
"Peter, I thought we were okay. I apologized. I know I'm a pain right now." He shrugged slightly. "Okay, from your point of view I'm probably a pain most of the time, but really, I am trying. I mean, I can even try to eat some jerky if you really think I should, though honestly I'm not hungry. To tell you the truth I'm feeling a bit nauseous, so food isn't at the top of my list of priorities."
Neal looked at Peter with serious eyes. Peter could tell he was being honest, more than he had ever been, probably. No masks, no cons; this was Neal raw and fragile, admitting to weakness. It made his heart bleed. He went to sit by him, put a hand on Neal's knee, pressing it in a friendly gesture.
"Peter, you are seriously starting to freak me out." Neal looked at the hand with a worried frown.
"I … it occurred … damn, this isn't easy. Neal, I thought of a way to stop the infection, but I don't like it and you won't like it either, for sure.…" Peter started slowly, then the words came in a rush, faster and faster. "Except that I cannot think of any other way, and with this blizzard there is no way they are sending a rescue team anytime soon, even though by now they all know exactly where we are; and Elizabeth is probably sick with worry and the team at the office trying to figure out how to come despite the blizzard; and we are stuck here and if your fever keeps rising and the infection going on.…"
"Whoa, whoa, whoa, Peter, stop. Peter, breathe! You're not making any sense."
Neal looked worriedly at his friend. It wasn't like him to lose it and he was indeed losing it, whatever this was about. Peter blinked away the fear boiling inside him.
"Peter, I trust you, really. So whatever idea came up, I'm willing to give it a shot. Like you said we're stuck here for a while and I do realize this infection could kill me, which is probably the reason I am so pesky. Need to cope with fear one way or another..." His voice trailed as he stopped to breathe, then carried on. "So if you want me to go out and roll naked in the snow to get the temperature down, I'll probably do it. No peeking though," he added with a small smile.
Peter cleared his throat and took a deep breath, tightening his grip on Neal's knee.
"Okay, again with the freaking me out."
"Peter, give some slack to a guy with a high fever here. That was a bit fast for my confused brain. For a moment I thought I heard the word cauterize.… Holy shit, you're serious." Neal jumped from the bench when he saw his friend's pale and drawn face. He went to the other side of the room as if distance would change what he had just heard. "No way, no no no no, you're not putting a hot poker to my shoulder." He stared at the stove, seeing now the poker sticking out of the fire. "You are putting a hot poker to my shoulder.…" he repeated slowly, his face going totally white.
He started to sway, feeling dizzy; when it cleared he was sitting on the bench, Peter still bent over him.
"Did I pass out?" he asked, blinking.
"Not completely; blood pressure spike, I think."
"No kidding; I wonder why.…" Neal took a deep breath, putting his head against the wall, closing his eyes. He realized he was doing that a lot.
He didn't give himself much time to think. He couldn't; if he gave himself time to think he would run out the door, blizzard or not—running away had always been his best answer to predicament. The word seemed to come out of his mouth on its own.
"Yeah, okay, go ahead with your crazy idea. I mean, I don't like it—I really don't, just thinking about it makes me want to throw up—but you're right; it's the only idea that makes sense right now. And if you do have another idea later that does not involve burning my flesh, please keep it to yourself; not sure I'll be very understanding on belated ideas."
Peter put a hand to Neal's arm; the young man was shaking.
"Neal, I've never done this before.…"
"Well, you know I'm kind of glad you haven't. Not sure what that would mean.…"
"I'll try to make it fast."
"I'm not worried about that part; I think I'm going to pass out way before the pain registers. Actually I think I'm about to pass out now just from picturing it. That would actually be a lot less painful.…" Neal frowned and started shaking again. "No, not working, just scared shitless but not enough to pass out, apparently."
Peter let him talk, understanding the constant blabbing as a means of coping with the fear. Neal kicked his shoes off and lay down on the bench, wincing.
"So, you're gonna be giving me a bullet to bite on? That would be appropriate, given the situation, Butch.…"
"And risk ruining that killer smile of yours?"
"You think I have a killer smile?" Neal asked with an outrageous smile.
Peter chuckled, shaking his head; he had asked for that one.
"I figured a rolled tie would be easier on your teeth.…"
"So you did think it all through.…"
Peter handed him his tie.
"We'd better get out of here soon or we'll be running out of ties,…" Neal murmured as he rolled the tie. "We should have kept my silk one for this, used yours for the bandage."
Peter came back with the red-hot iron; Neal swallowed hard and put the tie between his teeth, eyes wide with fear.
"Ready?" Peter asked.
Neal shook his head slowly; he couldn't bring himself to nod. He kept his eyes glued to the red tip of the poker, fascinated by the light.
Peter swallowed past the lump in his throat. "Okay, hold on buddy. Scream as much as you need. Remember the waves.…"
Peter took Neal's right hand in his left. He pressed it affectionately and put it against Neal's chest, pushing him against the bench to keep him from moving. It gave them both something to grab onto, and Peter needed to hold him to ease his own pain. He then put the iron to the wound.
Neal screamed in a pain no words could describe, the sound partly muffled by the tie. His back arched as his body fought to escape the torture on his shoulder. Eyes scrunched, he bit deeper on the tie to fight the pain and tried to surf the waves as Peter had suggested. But they were elusive and just kept hitting at him, rolling him, pushing him, thrashing him. He groaned deeper, whimpered, a sob escaping, tears running freely on his cheeks, then it stopped all of a sudden as a giant black wave engulfed him.
At first, Peter was shocked by the smell of the burning flesh; he tried to hold Neal down to prevent any further injury, and he let his own tears flow. He had no idea how long he was supposed to keep the iron on the wound, but when he saw Neal finally pass out, he removed it, hoping he had held it enough time, not wanting to hurt him any longer, even though thankfully he wasn't feeling anything now.
He took the poker back to the pail—the floor was wooden; he didn't want to set the place on fire. He put the poker down and rushed outside to throw up. After the coffee was out, there wasn't much left in his body to throw up but he kept dry heaving, his body asking for relief. He let the tears flow, his body shivering not from the cold. When his stomach settled he moved to fresh snow and washed his face in it. The cold felt wonderful.
Going back inside the cabin, he filled a bowl with water and washed Neal's face, damp with tears and sweat. He gently wiped his face, then put a cold cloth on his forehead; it would help take the fever down. He checked Neal's pulse—still fast, but strong. He covered him with the blanket, sat on the floor by his head, unable to stay away. Exhaustion finally claimed him.
Peter woke up hurting; he groaned as his muscles complained from the rough treatment after having spent the night sitting on a hard wooden floor. He put his hand to Neal's forehead. The fever had dropped considerably. Neal seemed to be resting peacefully, the awful lines of pain around his eyes somewhat eased away. He hadn't moved since Peter had taken care of the wound.
He got up, stretching his muscles, then went to the window as he realized the noise outside had vanished. He stepped out of the cabin to relieve his bladder. It was still night—he checked his watch, 6:30—but the sky was clear.
"Just need to wait for the cavalry. Hold on, cowboy," he said, reentering the cabin.
"Butch?" A drowsy voice answered.
"Neal!" Peter rushed to him, a happy smile on his face.
"Wow, you sure are perky this morning. What's the fuss about?"
"Blizzard's gone. How are you feeling?"
Neal seemed to think it over and started coughing.
"The truth, Neal."
"You know, we'll need to discuss what isn't going out of this place. You know that 'what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas' stuff? It should definitely apply here."
"Neal.…" Peter's patience was growing thin, transparent thin.
"Not too bad." Peter raised an eyebrow. "No, really. I mean, I don't feel hot anymore, so I guess the fever is down; the shoulder isn't hurting that badly, but I haven't moved yet, and I'm thinking that I am not going to move until a medic gets a huge needle in me."
"You asking for a needle.… I understand your wish for this to stay here."
"Yeah, who would have thought? Right now I am willing to turn my backside into a pincushion to have something to dull the pain."
Peter swallowed hard, realizing how bad Neal must be feeling to admit to such a thing so easily. The con man was stripped of all his tricks, just a wounded human wishing for relief from his pain.
"Hold on for a little while; shouldn't be long. The blizzard is gone, the sky is clear; your anklet is still tracking so rescue should be here soon."
"You think they'll shoot first and check what happened next? Peter, I am not going to prison because this case went awry."
"Hey, you know you're okay as long as you're with me, no matter where that is. We're only relying on the GPS data of your tracker, and it's going to save us."
"How long do you think it would have taken Search & Rescue to find us with no tracker? We're in the middle of nowhere, in case you forgot."
"No I didn't forget that, nor that you wanted me to eat jerky."
"Which by the way would be a good idea. You haven't had any food in a long time."
"Which helped me keep the insides of my stomach … inside. And, come on, jerky for breakfast? Some coffee would be nice though.…"
"I'll make some."
Peter went to the stove to start a new pot of coffee and started rummaging through the shelves again. He couldn't help a chuckle when he found a small can hidden behind a jar.
"Don't tell me you found deviled ham," Neal's voice carried from the room.
Biting his lip not to laugh out loud, Peter didn't answer.
"Oh no, come on, you've got to be kidding me. No way.… I can't believe it. Elk jerky and deviled ham. You know, Peter, you're going to have to invite me for dinner quite a few times to make up for this.…"
Shaking his head, Peter poured some coffee for both of them and took the bag of jerky back to Neal. He put everything on the floor.
"Don't move!" he ordered, seeing Neal raise a hand. "You are going to sit up very slowly and I'm going to help you. Let's not jostle that shoulder of yours."
Peter used the battered tie to make a sling for Neal's left arm.
"Okay, let's get cozy for a second," he said, embracing Neal strongly with care.
With his arms wrapped around Neal's body to prevent any movement, he sat him up. Neal took his legs down, then let himself be turned, his back against the wall. His breath caught a couple of times but he was smiling when Peter let him go.
"Thanks, that was neat."
"Good, have your coffee," he added handing him his cup. "Some jerky?" He offered the open bag.
Neal looked at the content as if it would bite him, then picked up the smallest piece he could find. Peter grinned.
"Peter, thank you for … fixing my shoulder."
"Any time," Peter answered automatically.
"If that's ok with you, never again, please.…" Neal exclaimed, opening his eyes wide.
"Saving your life, again, any time."
"What about sticking to mortgage fraud?"
"Well, if I had been told that you would ask for mortgage fraud cases."
"And keep away from … wood stoves." Neal shot a dark look to the stove as if it was responsible for his wound.
"You're the one who talked about leaving some things in this cabin.…"
"Yeah, right. Like there's a chance Elizabeth isn't going to drill you until you spill every tiny detail."
"Despite what you may think, there are things I do not share with my lovely wife. But I certainly will tell her about you eating jerky; she'll love that."
"No way; you wouldn't dare."
"Peter, I can make your life very miserable if you do," Neal threatened.
"Like it was just a picnic so far?"
"You have no idea.…" And for just a second Peter was worried.
"I think I do. I chased you three years, remember?"
"Should I be claiming immunity based on brain-numbing pain?"
"What happens in Vegas.…"
"Stays in Vegas," finished Neal.
"Some day you'll have to tell me what happened in the Bellagio that October.…"
"You know about Vegas.…"
"I know about everything, Neal. Drink your coffee."
Neal sipped at his cup and nibbled on the piece of jerky. He didn't even wince in distaste, eyes lost on a distant memory. Peter let him be; at least he was eating, even if not consciously. He had no idea what had happened in Vegas; he had just played with the idea, guessing Neal had enough past hidden that something was bound to have happened. Neal was clearly lost in some old memory and was chewing distractedly.
Peter got up to pick up his discarded crossword puzzle.
"Hey, where did you get that?"
"Lots of old newspapers to light the fire."
"You've been busy," said Neal, glancing over the puzzle, "you're almost done. Your 4 across is wrong though."
"No it's not."
"Yes it is."
Peter got up and went to the other bench with his puzzle to finish it.
"Very mature.…" murmured Neal.
Peter stuck his tongue at him, a sparkle in his eyes.
"Unbelievable.…" Neal added, shaking his head.
Neal finished his coffee, savoring the quiet, the smell of the burning wood, the level of pain on his shoulder so reduced compared to the night before that it almost felt normal. He sighed deeply.
Suddenly, a hand on his shoulder roused him.
"Hello, my name is Mike and I'm a medic." Neal blinked owlishly. "Sorry to wake you up; your friend there tells me you had a bit of an accident?" Neal looked at Peter, still confused. He was having his coffee just a second before.
"You fell asleep sitting there," Peter clarified.
Neal looked around; he was lying on the bench again.
"Neal?" the medic asked again with a frown.
"Hi. Sorry. I guess I was asleep."
"So, how's the pain? Peter told me what happened. That must have been pretty painful. Are you allergic to anything?"
"No," Neal answered, "but I'm better now," he added when he saw the contents of Mike's bag.
"Neal," Peter growled. He turned to the medic and explained, "He doesn't like needles so he's going to pretend he's not hurting that badly."
Mike smiled and prepared a syringe. Neal made a face and flashed a dark look at Peter.
"Save those for people who don't know you; I'm totally immune to your dark looks."
Mike pulled down Neal's pants to expose his skin and injected him with a strong painkiller.
"Ouch," Neal complained.
"Oh, come on, you didn't even feel it," Peter chided him.
Mike proceeded to check the wound and dress it for the ride to the hospital.
"Wow!" Neal suddenly closed his eyes and put a hand to the wall to hold himself.
"Good, the painkiller is kicking in. You'll feel better in no time."
Peter had been doing his crossword puzzle when he had heard the engines. He had rushed outside and almost jumped in happiness. They had finally reached them! Two snowmobiles were approaching fast, both pulling stretchers. Peter had waved at them. The first to reach the house was the US Marshal. He flashed his badge.
"Paul Benton, US Marshal. You're Peter Burke?"
"Yes, glad you made it. We need medical assistance.…"
"That would be me," the second guy said.
Peter quickly explained to the medic what had happened and took him inside.
Neal had fallen asleep after drinking his coffee and was now lying on the bench again, the blanket covering his sleeping form.
While the medic went to Neal's side, Peter turned to the Marshal.
"Has my team in New York been notified that you were coming to get us?"
"Yes, we have been in contact with them since they didn't hear any more from you early afternoon yesterday. What the hell happened? The blizzard warning was issued in the morning. What possessed you to go into the woods like that?"
"Believe me, it's a long story. I'll be glad to give you all the details, but for now my partner needs medical assistance."
"Partner? I have a Neal Caffrey, listed as your CI, wearing a tracking anklet."
"Yes, that's him." Peter didn't feel he needed to add any further explanation.
Peter took a look at the snowmobiles outside.
"Don't take this the wrong way but why the snowmobiles? You don't have a chopper?"
"We do, but there's no place close to land. The team is on standby in case we need to hoist you out. Mike will make the decision."
Peter nodded in agreement.
Neal was feeling better by the second and started chatting amiably with Mike. Peter lifted a suspicious eyebrow when he heard him talking about his past as a singer, then proceeded to show him his talents. He approached Mike.
"What did you give him exactly?"
"Considering the extent of the wound I gave him something really strong. He isn't in immediate danger, so there's no need to call for a helicopter, but we're still a long way from the hospital and it's going to be bumpy; I made sure he would manage the ride.
"He seems to be a bit high…" Peter observed as Neal, his eyes closed, was mouthing the lyrics of some song.
"He's been in pain for so long that the relief is almost like being drunk. He's probably feeling lightheaded," Mike explained, watching Neal nod to a beat in his head.
"I need to go out," Neal suddenly announced to those present.
"We're leaving now, Neal; I'll get your coat."
"You don't get it, do you, Peter? 'I need to go out' means I need to pee." Neal rose and almost fell on his face; Peter and Mike hands prevented him from crumbling to the floor.
"Oops, legs gave out.… Funny, can't feel them. Hey, Peter, I can't feel my legs, and you know what? My shoulder isn't hurting anymore, not at all. Mike is much better at fixing me than you are."
Neal's face beamed in happiness, the situation seemingly quite amusing. Mike tried to hide a smile while Peter rolled his eyes. They helped Neal go out, and Mike had to actually help him do his business as Neal seemed to be at a loss how to proceed.
God, I hope he won't remember that, Peter thought. The stretcher was brought close to the porch and they got Neal inside, covered in heating blankets for the ride.
"Here, put this on," the Marshal told Peter, handing him a snowsuit and boots. "I guess you'd rather sit on one of the snowmobiles."
"Yes, thank you. Oh, Mike, would you have some medical stuff you could leave in the cabin? We used what they had in their first aid kit. I'm sure they'd appreciate having it back."
"Sure, no problem."
He quickly replenished the box, adding antiseptics and an assortment of medical stuff. Just what we would have needed, Peter thought grimly. He doused the fire with the leftover coffee, turned off the lanterns, gathered their coats and with a last look, closed the door. He sure wasn't going to miss that place.
Under other circumstances, the ride on the snowmobile would have been wonderful. Everything was covered in deep snow, glowing white under a very blue sky. The tall trees covered in soft powder seemed to glisten like a Christmas card. The air was fresh and crisp; everything around them was peaceful. They stopped a couple of times to check on Neal, who was fast asleep thanks to the painkillers.
When they arrived at the hospital, the emergency team rushed to them and quickly took Neal inside. Peter turned to follow them but was stopped by Mike and the Marshal.
"Let them do their job; don't get in their way," Mike requested.
"I need your full report on this. You're a long way from New York.…You're not getting away that easily," Paul added.
Peter had removed the snow suit and handed it back to them.
"Listen, I need to check on him. I will need to write a full report for my boss; why doesn't he send you a copy? You'll have to wait for a couple of days. I am not writing a report now, anyway," warned Peter.
"Fair enough; I can wait. I am guessing it wasn't easy in there. Go see your partner." Paul shook his hand with an understanding nod, handing him his card. "Let me know how he made it."
"I will. Mike, thanks for your help." Peter extended his hand to the other man.
"No problem; sorry we couldn't make it earlier to your location."
"Given the weather, I'd say you were pretty fast." Peter left with a last wave, rushing to the emergency entrance.
"I'm looking for Neal Caffrey; he's just been admitted," Peter told the nurse at the desk.
"Brought in by the snowmobiles?" the nurse asked.
"Yes, that's him."
"Okay, let me check with the emergency nurses."
Peter paced in the entrance waiting for news. A young male nurse came to him.
"You're here for a Neal Caffrey?"
"Yes, how is he?"
"He just went down to surgery," the nurse informed him.
"That was fast!" Peter was surprised.
"Most people have been stuck in their homes because of the blizzard; the morning has been quiet," the nurse explained. "I will need you to fill in this form. What's your relation to the victim?"
Peter showed him his badge. "Agent Peter Burke from the FBI in New York City. Neal Caffrey is my CI. He's wearing a tracking anklet; I am responsible for him."
The nurse checked his chart. "Gunshot wound to the shoulder, infection, flesh burn, fever.… Where have you been? How did he manage that? "
"Long story," Peter repeated, rubbing his eyes.
"I guess it is.…" The nurse' s voice trailed off. "Wait here, the doctor will come to see you when it's over."
With that the nurse turned around and disappeared behind the doors. Peter sighed and took out his cell phone.
"Great!" Peter groaned when he realized the batteries were dead.
He went to a pay phone, glad to find some change in his pockets, and dialed home.
"El, it's me." Peter felt his voice crack at the happiness of hearing the sweet voice.
"Oh my god, Peter!" Elizabeth sobbed. "How are you doing? Where are you?"
"Honey, honey, calm down," Peter soothed her. "I'm fine, really, I'm all right. Sorry for the fright; we got stuck in a cabin in a blizzard."
"A cabin? Honey, you're sure you are okay; you're not lying to me?" El didn't seem to believe him.
"I swear, hon. Honest. I'm fine," Peter tried to put as much sincerity in his voice as he could.
"Why are you at the hospital then?"
"What?" Then Peter realized she had probably heard the PA systems in the background.
"What happened to Neal?"
If Peter was fine, then the other member of the team was bound to be in trouble. For a woman who probably hadn't slept in hours, Elizabeth was deducing quickly.
"He'll be fine. He got shot. In the shoulder," he added quickly, hearing the hiss on the receiver. "The doctors are with him."
"Do you want me to come up there?"
"No, no need. I still need to see the doctor but I don't think they'll keep him very long. I'll let you know as soon as I have fresh news."
"You're sure he's all right?"
"He will be.… I promise," Peter answered in a soft voice.
"You're not telling me everything, hon, I can tell."
"Yes, I know; it's been a long day and night, but not now, honey. Later, please?" Peter pleaded; this was something he definitely didn't want to discuss over the phone.
"Okay honey, I'll wait for you. Let me know when you're getting back."
"I will. I love you, honey."
"Love you, hon," repeated Elizabeth as she hung up.
Checking the hall to make sure the doctor wasn't out yet, Peter made another call to the office. He could hear the cheering in the background when he got hold of Diana. He thanked them for sending the alert so fast and promised to keep them apprised of their situation.
He then went back to sit in the waiting area. Time seemed to go in slow motion. He got up, pacing, hands going through his hair, rubbing his eyes, then sitting again. The nurse at the station took pity on him and brought him a cup of coffee.
"Here, this is real coffee from our own machine, not that syrup from the dispenser," she said, handing him the cup. She looked at him with an understanding smile. "He'll be okay; our doctors here are good."
Peter gave a tired smile. "Thank you very much; that's very sweet. I'm not very good at waiting.…"
"No one is good at waiting in this place, but you've got to be patient and relax. Your friend wouldn't want you to be worrying like this, and he is going to need you; save your strength for when it's needed."
Peter looked at her face. She looked so young.
"You sound so wise for somebody so young," Peter whispered.
"I'm a nurse in a hunting county, Officer...?"
"Agent, actually.… Peter," he added.
"And you're from the city, Peter?"
"Yeah, I'm from New York City. What betrayed me? The shoes?" he asked, chuckling, looking at his ruined leather shoes.
The nurse chuckled and went back to her station. A few minutes later the door opened for a tall man who turned to Peter, the only person in the waiting area.
"You're here for Neal Caffrey?"
"Yes, Peter Burke. How is he doing?"
"He'll be fine. I cleaned and stitched the wound. There will be some scarring, but he can have plastic surgery later on to cover that. I'd like to have the details of what happened to his shoulder."
Peter almost collapsed in relief and the doctor took his elbow.
"Let's sit down and you can tell me about it."
The doctor checked the form Peter had filled in.
"I see that you declared yourself as having power of attorney for Mr. Caffrey?"
"Neal is in my custody for the next two years. I'll spare you the details, but I am responsible for him."
The doctor nodded. "So, tell me what happened back there?"
Peter dropped his head on his hands, elbows resting on his knees. His voice betrayed him more than once as he related their misadventure in the woods, on the brink of tears as he explained how he had resolved to cauterize the wound.
"You know you saved his life by doing that.… Of course, it's not something that I would recommend under normal circumstances, but this was an extraordinary situation..."
"No, no buts. You did save his life. I saw the damage and the lingering infection; I don't think he would have made it through the night."
"Why what?" the doctor asked, confused.
"Why did it get infected so quickly? Is his immune system weak?" Peter knew the doctor probably wouldn't give him an answer, but since Neal had almost hit him when he had asked, he tried fishing for information.
"No, he's fine," the doctor answered vaguely. "As for the infection, it just found a perfect territory. He was coming down with a cold, right?"
"Yes, he has been coughing for the past few days, but it didn't seem very serious."
"Probably not two days ago, but it was turning into something serious. Your chase in the snow sure did not help. Then he got shot. Gunshot wounds tend to get infected quickly if they are not treated properly. I understand you had no medications; my best guess is that the melted snow wasn't sterile, nor the bucket." The doctor ticked his fingers. "Tracheitis, no antibiotics, no antiseptic, unsterile water, over twelve hours of continuous pain. I'd say it's a miracle he isn't in worse shape. But you did the right thing cauterizing that shoulder. And to have the nerve to do it, well, honestly, I'm not sure I would have done it under such circumstances."
"Believe me, I do not want to have to do that ever again.…" Peter closed his eyes, willing the memory away.
"Well, the good news is it looks like he's going to be all right." The doctor looked him in the eyes and added, "And you saved his life. Think about that instead of feeling guilty for hurting him." The doctor raised an eyebrow, daring Peter to deny it. Peter gave a small nod; he wasn't okay with that yet, but he could go on for now.
"When can he leave?"
The doctor chuckled. "Eager to go back home?"
"He's going to be—he hates hospitals."
"I'd like him to spend the night here for observation; he probably can leave tomorrow morning. Will you be driving back to New York City?" Peter nodded. "I'll give him something so that he can travel without hurting too much, and a long list of instructions. He'll need to take care of both his lungs and shoulder."
"Thanks, Doctor. Can I go see him?"
"Yes, of course. He should be in his room now; check with the nurse. I'll see you tomorrow to sign his discharge."
"Thank you," Peter repeated, shaking the doctor's hand.
He went straight to Neal's room. A nurse was checking the IV line.
"How is he doing?" Peter asked.
"Still asleep; he may be for a while," she answered, pulling the blanket on the sleeping form.
She left the room and Peter took a chair to sit by the bed. Neal's face was still pale, dark shadows under his eyes accounting for the rough last hours.
"Neal, Neal, Neal.…" he prayed softly. "What am I going to do with you? I should chain you to your desk, never let you out again.…"
"Not fair threatening a sleeping man with chains. Come on, Peter; give a guy a break.…" Neal's soft voice was a bit blurred.
"Hey kiddo. How are you feeling? You need something?"
"Can I have some water?" he asked, coughing.
Peter handed him a cup with a straw and Neal sipped deeply. He put his head back on the pillow with a sigh, then looked around him.
"Hospital?" he asked. "How did we get here?"
"Snowmobiles?" Peter prompted.
"Snowmobiles? Gosh, and I missed that?"
"No, you were there. You even sang during part of the ride."
"Sang?" Neal repeated with a frown.
"Yes, and let me tell you something, you don't want to make that public knowledge."
Neal scrunched his eyebrows in confusion, trying to gather his thoughts.
"We were in the cabin.… Oh yeah, that guy.…"
"Mike," Peter helped.
"Right, Mike; he said he would give me some painkillers. Which was great, 'cause I was really tired of hurting.…" Neal frowned again, not able to remember anything after that. He raised a questioning eyebrow at Peter.
"Let just say that the painkiller was strong and you were.…" Peter hesitated as to which word to use.
"High?" Neal suggested.
"You can say that.…"
"Do I want to know?"
"No, probably not." Peter couldn't help a grin.
Neal considered asking, then decided he didn't want to know. Some things were better left forgotten.
"That's why I hate doctors and hospital and drugs.… They mess me up so much." He sighed. "So, when do I get out? Where's the doctor?" Neal lifted his head, looking to the door.
"Funny how I knew that would be your first question.…"
"Which wasn't; I asked for water first," Neal retorted.
Peter shook his head in amusement, then chuckled. The tension of the last day was falling away fast and he was starting to feel light-headed. He stretched his back; he was still needed here—he would rest later. Neal, though feeling much better, was still pretty out of it and didn't notice the change in his friend's composure.
"So?" he repeated.
"Tomorrow morning … if you're nice."
"What? Why not today? I feel fine."
"Neal, you had surgery, and the reason you are feeling so good is probably because of all the drugs they have you on. They want to keep you overnight just for observation. Anyway, it's a six-hour drive back to New York, so forget it; I am not driving back home today. That IV line is there to supply everything you've been deprived of since you got shot, so behave or I'll ask them to cuff you to that bed."
Neal raised a doubtful eyebrow. They both knew that was an idle threat.
"Rest; I'll stay here with you. Then I promise, I'll drive us to New York as fast as regulations allow. I'll even invite you for dinner at home. So now, just rest and get better, okay?"
Neal didn't answer; his eyes were closed, his mouth half open, claimed by sleep before he had time to plot something else. Peter gave a rueful smile and tried to make himself comfortable on the chair.
He dozed, waking up shaking as the sight of Neal's face twisted in pain came to him in his sleep. He jumped as he saw Neal looking at him, eyes open, frowning slightly.
"Hey," Peter mumbled.
"Hey yourself," Neal answered. "Bad dream?"
Peter rubbed his face with his hands to clear his head from the still-lingering image.
"How are you feeling?" he asked.
"You're good at deflecting.…" Neal observed.
"Learned from the best," Peter countered, a smile tugging at a corner of his lips.
"Peter?" Neal pushed softly.
"Feeling any better?" Peter asked again.
"Oh, so this is how you want to play it." Neal turned his head to look at the ceiling, silent for so long that Peter thought he had fallen asleep again. "Not too bad considering. I am not feeling any pain, which is good … really good." Neal sighed as if he didn't get tired of enjoying the lack of pain. "And I guess they found the proper stuff to give me since my head is pretty clear. No singing, right?" He turned his head to Peter, grinning.
"Yeah, no singing. I'm glad you're feeling better."
Neal looked at the ceiling again, and Peter looked at it too, wondering if there was something there.
"How about we trade?" Neal suddenly asked.
"What?" Peter was totally confused.
"You talk, I talk," Neal explained.
"Talk?" Peter asked, not getting it.
"You get to ask me the question that you have been dying to ask me, and you answer mine." Neal turned his head to Peter, watching him gravely.
Peter kept the stare, a thousand thoughts going through his mind and his face.
"You're as bad at this as I am. Where is Elizabeth when we need her...?" Neal murmured.
"Yes, she's good at that," Peter agreed, a loving smile on his lips.
"So I start," Neal announced. "What's wrong with you?"
"Wrong? You're the one in the hospital bed."
"Thanks to you."
"Yeah, right, remind me of that again, like I don't know!" Peter scowled.
"Peter, I mean it, thanks to you, as in 'You saved my life and I'm in a hospital, not in a morgue'." He raised an eyebrow. "Will you spill it, please? It may be obvious, but I have been too out of it, so I don't get it. Why are you looking so guilty?"
Peter's face paled.
"There, right on the nail," Neal observed. "So, care to share?"
Peter stood and walked to the window. He watched the snow-covered trees and realized that the room indeed had a nice view. He sighed deeply and kept staring at the snow.
"I can't get rid of that image.… The flesh smoking black and your face so twisted in pain it hurt." Peter bit his lips to keep the tears at bay.
"Peter," Neal called.
Peter didn't move from the window, grieving.
"Peter, could you please come back here," Neal called again, more softly, "I'm not sure getting up is a good idea right now."
That had the expected effect; Peter was by the bed in under a second.
"Don't you dare," he growled.
Neal had a tired smile. "Peter, you saved my life in that cabin."
"At what cost?" he pleaded.
Neal frowned, confused again.
"Hurting you like that …" Peter breathed deeply, "... it's beyond anything that I ever did, beyond anything I could imagine doing to someone. Do you know how much it hurt seeing you in that amount of pain and knowing I was the one causing it?" Peter bit his lip.
"Okay, I get the pain, but why the guilt?"
"I was the one holding that red hot iron." Peter's voice cracked in emotion.
Neal held his hand to Peter, who took it, pressing the fingers slightly.
"Peter, read my lips. YOU SAVED MY LIFE. You cannot feel guilty for that. I get the hurt, and you can grieve about that, and like any injury it will ease with time. But you've got to get over the guilt. What you did was right. I wouldn't have made it through the night." A shadow crossed Peter's face. "And you'll have to tell me what you've been meaning to ask; I can see it's eating you."
Neal closed his eyes, sighing; he was tired again. He reopened them to look at Peter.
"Please, Peter, promise me you are going to think about that. Let go of the guilt; the pain will heal in time. Please?" Neal was begging him by now, too tired to care, ready to strip bare to make Peter feel whole again.
Peter squeezed the hand. "I'll work on it."
"I'll settle for that for now." Neal let his eyes close again, relaxing.
Peter watched him for a moment, processing their conversation. He would try; it wasn't going to be easy, but he had made a promise. El was probably going to grill him over this too.…
"Shoot," Neal whispered.
"Where?" Peter was startled from his thoughts and had his hand by his side before he realized what he had meant.
"Not me, please. Been there, done that.…" Neal opened his eyes, glancing at Peter's hand. He could be so predictable sometimes.… "I know there's something you want to ask me. You look like you're afraid I'll rip your head off if you do, so since I said we'd trade, go ahead; I'll save the head-ripping for some other time." Neal let his lips curve in a smile.
Peter looked at the hand still in his. He had been unconsciously caressing it with his thumb, and Neal didn't seem to mind. Their "adventure" in the cabin had certainly taken their relationship to a new level.
"Remember when I found out that your wound was infected?" Peter looked at Neal who nodded. "I asked you if you had an immune problem I didn't know about.…" Peter's voice trailed off.
"And I almost chopped your head off," Neal finished for him.
Peter shrugged slightly. "It got me worried."
Neal let go of the hand and Peter felt oddly lost. He pulled the chair with his foot and sat by the bed, giving the young man the liberty to answer, or not. Neal was staring at his hand, and his face showed a thousand expressions rushing by.
"You don't have to tell me if you don't want to, Neal. You have a right to your privacy." Peter gave him an easy way out.
"When you asked me if I had an immune problem, you were probably thinking HIV." Neal lifted his head to look at Peter who nodded slightly. "And I have to admit it is a sensitive issue. I had some close calls with it, close enough to keep me awake for long nights. So I kind of overreact when the topic is brought up, and I wasn't at my best when you asked..."
"Prison…." Peter murmured, going very pale. A guy with Neal's looks was bound to run into problems. The guilt he felt increased tenfold.
"No!" Neal almost screamed when saw the guilt on Peter's face.
He saw the dubious look on the agent's face.
"Peter, I was smart enough to be able to propose other deals to ensure my… safety. " Neal explained with a reassuring smile.
Peter felt relieved. That intelligence and silver tongue were probably a blessing. That didn't answer his question though.
"Neal," Peter scowled lightly, "everyone is entitled to try stuff when you're young, but … drugs?"
"You were only allowed one question," he reminded Peter.
"Well, it is related." Peter fished for details.
"I had my young carefree days; who didn't? But put your mind at peace; I never got into that. You know I really don't like needles, never did."
"But then.…" Peter was at a loss; after all there were only so many possible ways to get the virus.
Neal tilted his head, watching him, then raised an eyebrow to help Peter process. Peter got it suddenly; his eyebrows went up in understanding then down to a frown almost instantly.
"Got a problem with that?" Neal asked, biting a lip.
"God no! Neal, you know I don't. I guess it's just that … you.…" Peter was at a loss for words. "The way you flirt with anything in a dress.…"
"And sometimes I cross the aisle to the pants section.… In my previous line of business it was kind of an occupational hazard and … well, you know..." Neal's voice drifted, not sure this was the place and time to be more specific about his past and his sexuality.
"Neal, I didn't mean to bring this up. When you overreacted at the cabin, I was afraid you were hiding something from me; it got me worried. Seeing you in pain was bad enough; thinking that you might be coming down with something worse.…" Peter swallowed; he couldn't believe he was being that open. "I asked the doctor.…" he apologized.
"Of course you did. You wouldn't be who you are if you hadn't." Neal waved it off.
He was feeling good, glad the topic had come up. Not that it made a difference or anything, but he thought that that was a part of him that Peter hadn't had a clue about. It was right that he knew.
"You're gonna tell Elizabeth?" Neal suddenly asked.
"What? No, yes, I don't know. Do you want me to? Why do you ask?" Peter hadn't had time to think about it yet.
"Since there's not much that you don't share, and this is pretty major. Peter, don't deny it; I know it surprised you. I guess I thought you would want to share with her. Just one thing: if you do tell her, please let me know if she tells you that she knew."
"You think she knows?" Peter asked.
"I'm pretty sure she will not be surprised. You have a smart wife, Peter Burke."
"Don't I know it."
The long conversation had exhausted Neal. He sighed, pushing his head deeper into his pillow.
"Do I get another question?" Peter asked.
"Mmm?" Neal was already half asleep.
"What happened in Vegas?" Peter asked.
Neal chuckled and mumbled something that sounded like, "I knew you didn't know," but Peter couldn't be sure. As Neal drifted off to sleep, he thought he felt Peter adjusting the covers on the bed and he smiled.
Peter watched as Neal fell asleep, a smile on his sensual mouth. Peter sat back on the chair, ready to spend the night watching over his friend. He hadn't anticipated being kicked out by the nightshift nurse.
"I don't care who you are and where you're from. I am in charge here, and I say you are not sleeping on that chair in this room. So go to your hotel. Pack clean clothes for your friend … and get a shower."
Peter sniffed at his jacket. He did need a shower and a change of clothes. He had a look at Neal, sleeping peacefully. He was going to need clothes to leave the hospital and they still had their room at the hotel. Suddenly a comfortable bed seemed much better than a hard hospital chair.
"Shoo, go," repeated the nurse. "He won't wake up anytime soon. And don't you dare come before you've had breakfast," she warned.
Peter lifted his arms in surrender and left the hospital.
He went to the local hotel where they had checked in upon arrival, but never had a chance to settle in. He dropped Neal's coat, wondering why he had kept it—the thing was ruined. He undressed and stepped into the shower. He let the hot water run over his body for what felt like hours; some of the tension and fear washed away, leaving him even more exhausted than he'd already been. Surprised that the hotel had robes, he dressed in the soft terrycloth and went to sit on the bed. He had put his cell to charge and though the phone was still attached, he dialed home.
"Hello?" El's voice was as sweet as ever.
"Hey, hon." Peter felt the last bit of tension fall upon hearing her voice. He sighed in pleasure.
"Honey, are you okay?" Elizabeth had misinterpreted the sigh.
"Yes, I'm fine. Happy to hear your voice, and I just had the best shower ever.…"
"They kicked you out of the hospital," Elizabeth guessed.
"I always said you were smart."
"I'm guessing that cabin of yours didn't have facilities.… Speaking of which, did you have dinner? When was your last meal?" When Peter didn't answer, she bristled. "Now, Peter, I know you're calling from your cell, so get the phone and call room service. I'm listening. Get yourself some food."
"All right, honey, I'm calling."
Peter called, ordered some soup and sandwiches.
"Happy?" he asked her after he hung up with the hotel clerk.
"Peter, don't get cocky, I haven't slept for over thirty hours so I am not in the best of moods." Elizabeth's voice cracked; she had worried so much.
"Oh, El, I'm so sorry. I realize how it must have felt.…"
"Peter, you have no idea. They told me they had located Neal's tracking signal in the middle of the forest and with the blizzard going on they couldn't get to you. They had no way of knowing if you were in a ditch or … dead. How come they don't have those cabins on their maps, anyway?"
"El, I … I'm so so sorry. I knew you would be insane with worry and I couldn't do anything about it. And.…" Peter stopped. He did know that El was bound to be worried, but he had discarded that thought, needing to take care of more pressing matters … such as burning his friend's shoulder. He groaned in misery.
"Peter, what happened to Neal?" El's voice had totally changed; she was soothing him now.
"He got shot in the shoulder … and it got pretty nasty."
Peter couldn't talk about it, not over the phone, not now, not ever. Elizabeth sensed something was bothering her husband but didn't push it.
"But he is fine now, right?" she encouraged.
"Yes, he can probably leave the hospital tomorrow. Which reminds me, my car is still at the farm!" Peter stood suddenly and scratched his head.
"I don't think it is, most probably at the local precinct. Peter, call the police."
"They tracked my GPS to find it."
"Right after they tracked Neal's." Elizabeth said with a chuckle.
"He's more valuable than my Taurus," Peter commented.
"Honey, call them and settle things. Then eat your dinner. I'll be waiting at home for you. Sleep well. I love you."
"Love you, hon."
Peter had slept like a log. A new long shower and copious breakfast made him feel human again.
He was back at the hospital later than he would have expected. He had gone to the precinct to retrieve his car, and clearing the paperwork had taken some time. He entered Neal's room carrying his travel bag. Neal was awake, in a reclining position.
"You said you would stay," he accused.
"I wanted to, but apparently I was polluting the air.…"
Neal opened his mouth in a surprised 'O', then lifted a corner of his mouth in a smile.
"I guess that's why I got the full sponge bath … twice," he groaned.
"What's wrong with sponge baths? The nurses I saw were pretty," Peter joked.
"I got the one from Misery.…" Neal complained.
Peter bit a lip to keep from laughing.
"So, how are you feeling?"
"Good, ready to spring this place."
"You saw the doctor already?"
"No, but I can—"
"In your dreams," Peter interrupted him. "No way I'm letting you out of this place before the doctor sees you and gives you a prescription and precise instructions. And why didn't you tell me your cold had gotten worse? You should have treated it."
"I don't like drugs."
"I seem to recall you saying that, and I quote, you were ready 'to turn your backside into a pincushion to have something to dull the pain'."
"I thought we had agreed that stuff in the cabin stayed in the cabin."
"We didn't define which stuff.…" Peter sobered. "Neal, when that IV comes out of your hand, you are going to ask for painkillers very soon, trust me."
"Or me," the doctor added, pushing the door open.
Peter turned to greet the man.
"Hi, Peter. So how is our patient doing?"
"He seems fine, eager to leave and complaining about the nurses, which I'd say is a good sign."
"He is here.…" Neal grumbled, feeling discarded from the conversation.
The doctor took the chart from the foot of the bed, read the notes, then proceeded to check Neal over. Peter stepped aside, giving them privacy.
"Okay, Neal, you're good to go. I'll give you a prescription for painkillers and antibiotics. You need to take those for a week—to treat your shoulder and your tracheitis. The infection in your shoulder isn't totally out yet; I don't think you want to play with that." The doctor looked at Neal with serious eyes, who nodded in agreement. He handed Peter the prescriptions, then turned back to Neal. "I'm going to give you something for your trip back; it will probably make you sleepy but you won't be feeling any pain until you're home. And I want that arm in a sling for at least two weeks; you don't want to tear the stitches."
"Thank you, Doctor." Neal extended his hand to shake.
A nurse came in with a cart and revealed a needle. She dabbed Neal's shoulder with a antiseptic. Neal groaned.
"I thought that was going in the IV," he complained. He turned to Peter, taking his hand. He scrunched his eyes and closed his hand around Peter's. "Any time now; I'm ready," he said after a few seconds.
"Neal, she's done," Peter said, softly pressing the fingers in his hand.
Neal opened his eyes cautiously, and turned slowly to the nurse who had put the needle away and was now removing the IV from his hand.
"I didn't feel anything.… Thank you."
"Of course not; I'm a trained nurse!" the nurse answered with a smile belying the dry words. Neal flashed his trademark smile and she melted. "You're still on strong painkillers; there's no way you could have felt a needle."
Peter rolled his eyes. She turned to Peter.
"Sir, why don't you go get his prescriptions while we get him dressed. I see you brought a bag."
When Peter came back, Neal was fully dressed, sitting and waiting for the wheelchair to leave. His arm was in a sling and he seemed quite cheerful.
"All set, I see."
"Just waiting for my ride," Neal answered.
The nurse turned back to both of them.
"Neal, that last shot I gave you is basically a local anesthetic; you won't be feeling anything in your shoulder area, which means you need to be careful. Pain is a way for the body to tell us to pay attention; we deleted that message, but the wound is still there and needs to be left at rest. So you do not move that arm, and make sure nothing touches it. Understood?"
"Yes, got it." Neal nodded to emphasize his answer.
They finally left the hospital and Neal all but jumped from the wheelchair in eagerness. Peter had parked the car as close as possible to the entrance and Neal settled in the passenger seat with a satisfied smile.
"Glad to be out?" Peter asked.
"Yes, I am," Neal confirmed.
By the time they reached the interstate, Neal was asleep. He didn't even wake up when Peter stopped for gas and a coffee. The miles rolled by, getting them closer to the big city.
The constant stop and go in the traffic finally woke Neal when they reached New York City. He watched out of the window, enjoying the sight, glad to be back. He was a city guy, his footing needed concrete, not blizzard-blown forests.…
"Peter, this is not the way to June's place."
"We're going home. My home," he added.
"No. First of all, I promised you dinner and second, you are staying at our place tonight. I'll drive you to your place tomorrow."
"Not trusting me to care of myself?"
Peter didn't add any comment, making it clear the topic was over. Neal sighed and went back to watching the buildings. He didn't have the energy to fight. Peter cast a discreet glance at the pouting man. That had been easy; he watched his face more closely. Faint pain lines were starting to show again around his eyes; he was all but sprawled on the seat—not your classy Caffrey there.
Peter parked the car in front of his house in Brooklyn and sighed; he was glad to be back. He took both bags and went up the stairs with a light step. Neal followed slowly.
"Peter!" Elizabeth jumped in his arms, hugging and kissing him with tears in her eyes. Then she held him at arm's length, needing to check him over.
"I'm fine, honey, I swear," Peter laughed, happy to be back; he pulled her closer into a deep kiss.
Neal waited outside the door feeling like the proverbial fifth wheel. Elizabeth looked at him when Peter broke the kiss to hug her again.
"Neal, sweetie, come in. Oh, I'm so glad to see you too."
Elizabeth went to him and hugged him tightly. Neal groaned slightly.
"Oh dear, excuse me, did I hurt you?"
"No, I'm fine; the hug was nice."
"Caffrey," Peter growled.
They made it inside, Satchmo happily jumping on his master and friend, tail wagging. Peter scratched his ears fondly. Elizabeth pushed the bags that Peter had dropped in the entrance to a corner.
"Come in, sit down. I'll make some tea and you can tell me everything."
Neal directed a look to Peter.
"See, told you," he murmured, as he let his head fall back on the couch.
He sighed deeply, relaxed and glad to be there. He was actually glad he wasn't alone at June's place. This room felt cozy and warm, the smell of home-made cookies drifted from the kitchen and the jasmine scent of the tea. Wait, how could he smell the tea from the kitchen? He opened his eyes to find a cup by his side. He groaned.
"Did I fall asleep again?" he complained.
"Again?" Elizabeth inquired.
"Neal keeps falling asleep," Peter explained.
"Damn drugs.…" Neal groaned.
"Which you are going to take even if I have to shove them down your throat myself," Peter warned.
Neal took his mug of tea, sipping in appreciation, then took a cookie and closed his eyes in pure bliss, moaning in delight.
"Beats jerky," Peter joked.
All he got was a dark look as Neal threw the other half of cookie in his mouth.
"So Peter, what happened? How did you end up in that cabin anyway?" Elizabeth asked, a worried frown on her beautiful face.
"You remember we were on that forgery ring case? We got word that some of the stuff was up north. I decided to go check the paintings with Neal so he could appraise them and see if they were part of the same lot. We left early on Tuesday.…"
"Tuesday? This is Thursday!" Neal exclaimed. "It feels like it was weeks ago.…"
"Yes, Tuesday. I drove us there, checked in at the hotel and went to the gallery where some of the stuff was. Neal checked it and could certify they were part of the same lot we had found here. That's when we got that tip of where the painting studio was. We went to that farm in the middle of nowhere."
"With no back-up…?" Elizabeth commented.
"We were only checking paintings; there was no reason to think anything could go wrong."
Peter winced; he should have called for local back-up, just in case. He had let his team know where he was going; the local police were more concerned by poachers than alleged forgers. But the small town looked so peaceful and quiet, he had let his training slip and acted on impulse.
"It was snowing lightly, nothing bad, so I didn't pay much attention. We got to that place—dirt road for the last few miles, and left the car behind a grove of trees."
"Wait," Neal stopped him. "When did you get the car back, Peter? Don't tell me you went there before coming to the hospital?" Neal looked at him worried.
"No, it was at the police precinct. They sent a team yesterday morning. At the same time they sent the team for us."
Peter took a sip from his cup.
"We approached the farm walking, got to the back of it, and entered what used to be a barn, I guess. It didn't take us long to find the stash of paintings. Neal checked them and confirmed they were indeed from the same forger. Then that guy came out of nowhere. I think that he must have had an underground room to keep the paintings. The ones we found were probably ready to be shipped out."
"That makes sense," Neal murmured. "When did you figure that out?"
"I had some time to think about the case while at the cabin," Peter answered with a wince. "I flashed my badge, started asking questions.… I guess he wasn't feeling very innocent, because the next thing I know he was dashing out at full speed, so we followed him. The snow had gotten strong by then. It was falling quite heavily, but we ran after him anyway. He knew the place perfectly and kept going deeper into the woods. I saw that cabin on our left while we were chasing him."
"That's when you saw the cabin. I've been wondering. How on earth did you see it?" Neal wondered. "The snow was blinding and I had enough trouble keeping my footing without looking around for invisible cabins," he muttered.
"My uncle used to take me hunting when I was a kid. We often stayed in places like that. They're meant to be used as emergency shelters if the need arises; that's why they're usually well-kept."
"Hence the coffee and jerky," Neal realized.
"Jerky?" El asked. "You mean you fed Neal jerky, honey?" She started laughing, shaking her head, unbelieving.
"See," Neal pointed out, turning his head to Elizabeth, as if it explained it all.
Peter shook his head, looking at both of them. He really didn't get it. He knew Neal liked great cuisine, but when in Rome.…
"Anyway, we were chasing him when all of a sudden he was facing us, pointing a gun at us and me pointing at him. Real shootout standoff, except we were in the woods and it was snowing. Where's a western town when you need one…?" Peter turned sharply to Neal. "That's when mister over here decided to play hero and jump in front of a bullet!" He yelled at the con man. "What in the world possessed you to do anything that crazy? He could have killed you!"
"I did not jump in front of a bullet; I moved to distract him so you could shoot," Neal explained stiffly.
"Yeah right, like he would be distracted but not shoot!"
"Okay, next time I'll draw snow angels, see if that distracts him!" Neal was yelling too now.
"You are supposed to stand behind me, not get in the line of fire!"
"Calm down now..."
"Well, excuse me if I didn't want you shot; you were the one with the gun!"
"Next time I'll shoot you myself it will save me the trouble."
"Perfect, so I won't get in the way.…"
"Guys, shut up!" El rose and yelled.
Neal and Peter, who were yelling at each over and talking at the same time, shut up suddenly and looked at Elizabeth. Elizabeth never yelled. Neal tried to melt into the couch; as for Peter, his face had taken on the resigned look of a man condemned to wash dishes for eternity. Their faces were so pitiful, Elizabeth felt her anger vanish and had to bite the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing.
"Thank you." She sat back on her chair. "Peter, Neal, will you please calm down? Do you realize that you scared each other to death? Yelling isn't going to change anything. It's over now; just let it go."
"Neal, I mean it, you ever do that again and I will kill you."
"Peter, stop, you know you won't. Why don't you just ask Neal never to do that again? And Neal, you ever scare my husband like that and you will answer to me."
Neal tried to disappear deeper into the cushions of the sofa; Peter kept glaring.
"Peter, please," Elizabeth begged softly. "I know that's just your fear making you react. He is alive, and he is promising it will never happen again. Right, Neal?" she asked, turning to him.
Neal nodded his head quickly several times. He respected Peter, but in a case like this he feared Elizabeth even more. There were a few minutes of awkward silence as everyone processed.
"Peter, I am sorry. I really meant to distract him. I thought if he looked my way even for a second then you would have an opportunity. I did aim for the ground to offer a smaller target."
"And I want you to understand that it is my responsibility as an FBI agent and your guardian to protect you. I know you meant well, but you really need to work on impulse control; we're talking about a gun here, not some painting or work of art you like."
Neal looked him straight in the eyes and nodded softly. Peter squinted, trying to read through the mask, but Neal seemed honest. Of course it was always difficult to know with the con man, but Peter liked to think he was getting better at reading his friend's face. And the drugs he was on had dulled the edge; Neal was more vulnerable and easier to read. Peter nodded back.
"So that's when Neal got shot in the shoulder," Elizabeth prompted, wanting to know the rest of the story.
"And that did give me the opportunity to shoot the guy. I ran to him to check—he was dead, so I just left him there and went back to Neal. His blood was already staining the snow. I helped him up, and decided to take him to the cabin; we were way too far from the farm. I didn't remember it was that far back though, and Neal was getting heavier by the minute."
"Sorry about that; I couldn't figure out how to handle the pain and the walk in the snow. It seemed like I never managed to lift my feet high enough." Neal shivered slightly remembering the trek in the snow.
"Anyway, we made it to the cabin. There I was able to take care of Neal's shoulder and wait for the rescue team. I knew that they would find us thanks to Neal's anklet... It was a long wait." Peter's voice faded.
Peter fell silent and Neal took his mug back to drink more tea. Elizabeth watched them suspiciously.
"There's more to it than you're telling me."
"Yes," Peter admitted. He stood and went up the stairs to the bathroom.
"Neal?" Elizabeth asked with a worried frown.
"Elizabeth, you've got to talk to him. He's feeling so guilty and I don't know how to tell him that I'm okay with what he did; I mean, he saved my life."
"What happened, Neal?"
With a sigh, Neal told her about the infection and the harsh solution that Peter had relied on to stop it. Elizabeth took her hand to her mouth, tears pooling in her eyes, though Neal couldn't guess if they were for him or her husband.
"We did go over this and I told him that I'm okay with what he did. And I mean it—I have no hard feelings; there wasn't any other solution. And now I'm starting to feel guilty that he feels guilty; after all, I am the one who got shot.…"
"Now, don't you start down that lane. I'll talk to him. He'll be okay, I'll make sure," Elizabeth reassured him. "How's your shoulder? Is it hurting now?"
"I'm okay. They gave me something quite strong to make the trip. Actually I only started feeling my shoulder again a little while ago, which is kind of nice. The numbness was really weird, like I was missing a part of my body."
They heard the door of the bathroom open and Peter came down slowly. Elizabeth rose.
"Dinner is ready. Peter, help me set the table. Neal, why don't you go wash your hands. Upstairs.…" she added.
Neal went up to the bathroom to freshen up. He tried to wash his face but the sling hindered his movements. He removed it and flexed his arm slightly, enjoying the pleasure of moving, even if it woke up some needles in his shoulder. He shrugged, savoring the almost pain-free satisfaction of feeling his muscles again. He used the toilet while he was there and washed his face and hands, realizing that this was the first time he was touching water since the morning the day before. The little miracles of everyday life that no one notices; he let the water flow on his hands in amazement.
Peter entered the kitchen and went to hug his wife. She rubbed his back slowly.
"I love you, Peter; I always will." She looked up at him. "Don't you ever forget that. And I know you love me. We'll get through this together."
She offered her lips for him to kiss. He kissed her softly, almost reverently, full of pain and scrambled emotions, then as El kissed him back, he became more passionate, a hand on her hair, the other going down her back slower and slower. A discreet cough made them separate; Elizabeth's cheeks were flushed and Peter rubbed a hand over his face.
"Dinner, table," he mumbled, going to the cabinet to get plates and glasses.
"Neal, can you take the bread?" Elizabeth handed him the basket, looked at his face. "And please sit, you look like you're going to keel over."
They sat down at the table. Elizabeth had prepared lasagna and tossed a small salad. The greens made Neal's mouth water in anticipation.
"Some salad, Neal?" Elizabeth asked.
Peter picked up the dressing and seasoned his salad.
"Thank you, Peter."
"I see you removed your sling," Peter commented.
"Yes, couldn't wash my face or hands with it. Left it in the bathroom; I'll get it later."
Peter extended his arm to get the water pitcher and his elbow toppled the salad dressing. Neal's left arm dashed to stop it and he doubled over, screaming in pain.
"Oh, Neal.…" Peter put a hand to his back. "Easy, buddy. Neal, you cannot breathe folded up like that. Come on, sit up and take a deep breath, picture the waves.…"
"Go fuck yourself in your waves," Neal answered in a voice that wasn't his own, eyes scrunched and teeth clenched.
He let himself slide to the floor, hugging his left arm with his right hand, doubled over his knees, his forehead on the carpet, panting.
"Neal!" Peter protested.
Elizabeth stopped him with a hand. "Honey, let me."
She crouched in front of Neal.
"Neal, sweetie, listen to me. I know you're hurting, but you need to sit up a little bit; you cannot breathe properly in that position." She pushed him slightly; Neal was still holding his left arm, fingers digging painfully. He unfolded slowly, lifted his head and Elizabeth put it against her shoulder, gently rubbing his back. "Okay, breathe now, easy, relax your hand, you're hurting yourself. Come on, breathe, slowly. Yes, much better, that's it."
Neal slowly got his breath under control and sat back on his folded knees. He opened his eyes to see a hand with some pills and a glass of water in the other.
"Here, take these; they'll help." Peter's voice was totally neutral.
Neal put the pills in his mouth and took the glass with a shivering hand. Peter steadied his hand while he drank. Neal stayed on the floor, eyes closed, breathing deeply, fighting the nausea and pain. After a few minutes, Elizabeth helped him to his chair and let go of the hand she had kept on his back all the time.
"Thanks," Neal murmured to no one in particular. "Please keep eating; I'll be fine in a few minutes."
Peter and Elizabeth picked at their food, keeping an eye on Neal's face.
"Those sure are fast-acting," Peter commented after a few minutes.
Neal opened his eyes and sighed. "How can you tell?" he asked, surprised.
"You've got some color coming back to your face. I can't believe how white you get. It's scary. Right out of a Tim Burton movie."
"Honey!" Elizabeth admonished.
"No, that's okay, Elizabeth. If I looked anything close to how I felt, it must have been pretty scary." Neal tried to lighten the mood.
"Feeling better, sweetie?" Elizabeth asked.
"Yeah, much better. I don't know what's in those painkillers, but they sure are strong."
"Then eat something now," Peter advised.
"Neal, painkillers that strong on an empty stomach are probably a very bad idea," Peter insisted.
"Not hungry," Neal mumbled.
He looked at the lasagna on the plate, pouting. Before he had time to think how he was going to con his way out of eating the dish, Peter had reached over and was cutting the pasta in small pieces.
"Here, you're not allowed to leave the table until you're done," Peter scowled.
Neal looked up, wondering if he was kidding, but the man looked dead serious.
"I'm not a kid," Neal protested.
"Well, you sure had me fooled for a minute; probably your better con in a while," Peter spat.
Elizabeth covered her mouth with her napkin, hiding a noise which sounded suspiciously like a chuckle. Neal looked at her, disappointed; if El wasn't helping then he was in trouble. He picked at his food, put a bit of salad in his mouth and masticated for a much longer time than was necessary.
"Peter, I am sorry. I didn't mean what I said," he apologized. He lifted his head to look at his friend, "You know I'm not the swearing kind. I apologize; I don't know why I said that.…"
"You flashed back to the cabin," Peter explained, looking at him.
Neal's eyes opened wide as he realized he was right.
"And you just figured it out. It's okay, Neal; I know you didn't mean it. You're bound to have a few nightmares after what happened. The FBI can provide you with the necessary assistance."
Neal shot him a dark look; he wasn't going to see a shrink over this. Peter sighed, not wanting to push the issue.
"Eat your food; I was serious about the not leaving the table."
They finished dinner quietly, Peter savoring the meal like he hadn't eaten in months, Neal doing his best to get the food down. He finally put his fork down, setting his back against the chair.
"Elizabeth, thank you so much for the lasagna. It tasted great."
"You didn't clear your plate," she softly admonished.
"I'm sorry; it's really good but I can't eat any more." Neal looked at his plate; he had only made it through half of it. He didn't want to disappoint Elizabeth, but he was exhausted and eating required too much effort.
"Why don't you go to bed, sweetie? You look worn out."
"I took your bag to the guest room and got towels out for you," Peter informed him.
"Thank you very much for dinner. Good night." Neal rose and went upstairs.
Peter followed him with his eyes.
"He'll be all right, honey. He's been through a lot. Let him rest."
Peter smiled at his wife, took a hand to her face, caressing the soft skin. She tilted her face and kissed his hand. He raised an eyebrow.
"You are a wonderful man, Peter Burke. I love you and I am very lucky to have you as a husband."
"You're not so bad either," Peter teased. She stuck her tongue out at him and got up.
"Just for that, you won't get dessert," she announced.
"And cruel to a wounded man," Peter lamely complained.
"There's ice cream in the freezer; knock yourself out."
"Wow, I'm entitled to ice cream? No 'watch your cholesterol' tonight?"
"No, you'll even have bacon for breakfast," Elizabeth added with a smile. "I am too happy to have you back. Did Neal really eat jerky?" she asked.
"About half an inch of it; then again he was totally lost in his thoughts.…" Peter shook his head, wondering if he should try finding out what had actually happened in Vegas.
Together they cleared the table, and put the dishes and leftovers away. By the time they were done, Peter had forgotten about his ice cream and wanted nothing more than to go to bed.
"El, I'm turning in," he said, giving her a soft kiss.
"I'll be right up. I'll just let Satchmo out for a minute."
Peter went up and was about to enter the bathroom when he saw the light in the guest room was still on. The door was ajar.
"Neal, you have everything you need?" he asked.
Receiving no answer, he slowly pushed the door open. Neal had barely made it to the bed. His upper body was on the bed, but his legs were still on the floor. Like he had been sitting and had fallen asleep before getting into bed. With a rueful smile, Peter lifted his legs onto the bed, covered him with the blanket and turned off the light.
"Good night, Neal; sleep well—you deserve it. I'm sorry for hurting you, but everything will turn out all right, you'll see."
Peter stepped back and closed the door. Elizabeth was right behind him.
"Yes, everything will be all right, for you too," she added.
Peter smiled at her. Yes, everything would be fine. He was back home, his friend was healing and his wife was by his side. Blizzards could blow in the forest; this was his home and he was safe.
Thank you for your time.
Thank you for your reviews. This is my first posting and it feels absolutely wonderful to hear back from you.