NB: - Many thanks to everyone who took the time to read and review this story, especially the brave Guest reviewer for Part Six, who mentioned she'd been in a similar situation to El. I was truly moved by your courage and honesty... my sincere best wishes to you!
Just a Feeling
Later, when it was all over, she would say it was just a feeling. Just a feeling which made her cancel her flight and turn around and come home…
Peter shifted uneasily and placed his hand on his belly. Although he'd been home for nearly a week now, he remained incredibly sore. Maybe it wasn't such a good idea to try and catch up with his emails. One thing had led to another and he'd been sitting here for more than two hours. He got to his feet very carefully, catching his breath as he leant on the table. The doctors had warned him it was going to take time, but he hated feeling like this.
Like this… he forced his spine a little straighter. He was damned lucky to be feeling anything. Since his recovery it was glaringly obvious he was fortunate to still be alive.
The doctors had been pretty blunt with him and hadn't pulled any punches. There was a difference between courage and stupidity and he had well and truly crossed the line. He hadn't meant to – it was a no-brainer. It was a stomach bug or something vaguely similar. If he'd known, there was no-way he would have left things. He hadn't planned on causing all this pain.
Not his own. He was able to deal with that and even the debilitating weakness, and in a way, he kind of deserved it. He'd messed up horribly badly and been forced to pay the piper. The real problem was the knowledge he'd been an idiot, to say nothing of the crippling sense of guilt.
Elizabeth hadn't blamed him for anything. She'd been patient and unfailingly caring. Nonetheless, there was something, perhaps a hint of reserve, and he wasn't totally blind. The fact that she loved him was never in doubt, it was there in every touch, in every gesture, but Peter knew how much she'd been suffering. He could still see the grief in her eyes.
Neal had been rather more frank with him. Peter winced – as if it was needed. The heavy arm-brace he wore was a wordless reproach, even worse than a slap in the face. The main gist of it was he'd been selfish. By not speaking, he'd placed them in danger. It didn't matter if he'd thought his priority had been trying to wrap-up the case.
He sighed and straightened all the way up. It was tempting to stay hunched over. Aching muscles protested tenderly and he couldn't help grunting out loud. He sneaked a sheepish look at the time. At least an hour past his next scheduled painkillers. The doctors had told him to keep taking them until he could walk with no discomfort.
"Have you been sitting there all afternoon?"
Peter jumped at the unforeseen intrusion and then cursed at his hasty response to it. Sudden movements could still take his breath away and felt like a knife in his gut.
"Not entirely," he answered defensively. "I forgot to keep an eye on the clock."
"Obviously," Neal sounded sarcastic as he made his way through to the kitchen. "The whole bent double thing gave it away."
Peter pulled a face behind Neal's back and glanced longingly across at the sofa. It looked soft and awfully tempting right now, but after all, he still had some pride. How the hell had he missed hearing Neal come in? The man was positively cat-footed. Either that or he was still so out of it, he'd failed to notice the key in the door.
"Here," his pissed-off looking nursemaid wandered back from the kitchen and held two pills and a glass out in front of him. "Better take these before Elizabeth gets home. It wouldn't do for her to see you in pain."
"I didn't hear you come in, where's Satchmo?" Peter swallowed the tablets obediently, and did his best to change the subject.
Neal shifted his jacket off awkwardly but shook his head at Peter's gesture of help. "It's okay, I can manage. He's staying for a sleepover at June's." He paused and looked down at the laptop and then scowled pointedly at Peter. "Let me guess, you've been working solidly ever since I left the house?"
"Maybe," he was feeling slightly truculent. "Its okay, Florence Nightingale, there's no need to read the riot act. It's not as if you caught me doing push-ups or getting ready for a ten mile jog."
"Not funny - so not funny," Neal still wasn't happy. "You've been sitting there at the computer for hours. When I came in, you were wavering all over the place. You looked like you could barely stand up straight."
"I was not wavering – I do not waver. I've been going stir crazy with boredom. I asked Jones to send me over some files. I have a lot of catching up to do."
"Fine," Neal glared at him sarcastically. "Wipe yourself out, why don't you? Put us all through another round of torment when you eventually collapse with exhaustion."
"Neal - "
"Don't 'Neal' me, Peter. Have you looked at yourself… really seen yourself in the mirror? You couldn't possibly be any paler, not unless you were - "
He stopped, aghast, pressing his good hand to his mouth, expression shocked and positively stricken. You didn't have to be a genius to figure the next word which lay between them broken and unsaid.
"Dead," Peter rounded off softly. "Not unless I was dead."
"Do you know, do you even realise…" Neal choked and turned away from him, shoulders shaking with suppressed emotion. He paused and tried to pull himself together, but his next words were fractured with pain. "…how close El came to being a widow?"
"I'm sorry I put everyone through this," Peter spoke to him really gently. "But I'm here, and I'm not going anywhere. I'm here, Neal, and everything's okay."
Neal continued to stare at him and his Adam's apple worked noiselessly. For a brief second, any pretext of a mask had slipped, and his eyes were naked with agony. If there was ever any issue – any shadow of a doubt – that their relationship had become more than professional, then the question had been answered in that instant and Peter wasn't left with any reservations.
Neal looked lost, almost panic-stricken… a million light-years from his usual demeanour. All the laconic self-assurance had been stripped from his face as though it had melted away. It spoke volumes – more than a shed load of words – and Peter felt a glimmer of enlightenment. Sometimes life handed you a golden opportunity, and this was one, right on a plate. There were occasions when he'd looked in the mirror and wondered what the hell he was doing, filled with qualms and self-recriminations, as he considered his alliance with Neal.
He'd heard the whispers that flew in some quarters. He wasn't blind nor was he an idiot. Once a conman always a conman. Neal was playing him and he was a fool. There were times, when he was tired or dispirited, that he worried about Neal's motives. The U-boat fiasco, for instance, when Keller had taken El. Was he merely a means to an end for Neal or an amusing and diverting little stopgap. Perhaps an opportune get-out-of-jail card until his sentence was finally done?
Byron's treasury plate, for instance. Peter knew in his heart, Neal still had it. Would he ever be able to resist the allure of returning to his old way of life?
The truth was, had he ever really left it?
It was back to the ten million dollar question. The one which itched like a burr beneath the saddle and kept him awake at night.
He sighed; not if he could help it. He was still convinced Neal was worth saving. Who knew what the future held for them both, but the truth lay in moments like this. Neal's fear was strong, almost tangible and Peter felt bowed under by the weight of it. It was more than a sense of duty and a warmth began to spread through his veins. He wasn't a fool, he was an optimist who had seen through the cracks in the hard shell, and if friendship was a basis for redemption, then surely Neal stood every chance?
"It's okay," buoyed-up with sudden assurance, Peter took a step forwards. He gripped hold of Neal's good shoulder with a firm and steadying hand. "You can't shake me, you should know that by now. I'm always going to be right behind you. I'll be here, buddy, just where I've always been. Ready and waiting to catch you."
Neal leaned into his grasp for a second or two and then pulled away abruptly. The alley-cat look faded out of his eyes and gradually his shoulders relaxed. They were guys and they didn't do the hugging thing much, other than in times of heightened emotion, but this time, the contact helped both of them and the air of tension faded and died.
"To catch me, huh? Well, that figures. You always were my pain in the ass."
"Actually, I prefer the term nemesis." Peter shook his head with mock-dignity, and gave Neal a few seconds to recover. "And while we're sort of on the subject of pain, how's your shoulder today?"
"Divert and distract?" Neal smirked at him. "Oh, Peter, by now, you should really know better. But in the spirit of playing along with you, thanks for asking, it feels pretty good."
"Who's diverting?" Elizabeth came through the door and placed her purse down on the table.
"Peter's trying," Neal gave her a welcoming grin and headed for the coffee machine.
"Very trying," El agreed heartily, after closely scrutinising her husband. Once she appeared satisfied with what she observed, she walked across and gave him a kiss. "But he can be distracting as well."
"TMI," Neal called over his shoulder. "I'll leave you two kids to make nice."
"Do we need to?" Peter looked at El searchingly, as he steered her through into the living room. "Hon, I wish you'd yell at me or something, before we start to make nice, I mean."
His feeble joke made her smile a little and eased some of the strain from her features. They sat facing one another on the sofa and he refused to let go of her hands.
"Peter - "
"El, please talk to me? You and I – we never have any secrets. It's time to get this out in the open. There's clearly something weighing on your mind."
She sighed a little and relinquished her hand and then reached up to stroke his cheek tenderly. Fingers lingering, she traced around his jaw line, and then allowed them to stray to his lips. He closed his eyes and remained very still. Something told him she needed the contact. Although sensuous and somehow reassuring, her touch was as light as silk.
They had always been very tactile and had clung together all through his recovery, but in some way he knew this was different, like a reaffirmation of life.
"I nearly lost you."
The words hung between them. Soft and bruised, a non-accusatory indictment. Reaching up, he caught hold of her fingertips and then brought them to his mouth for a kiss. Here it was, then. The gentlest form of reproach. It wasn't like he didn't deserve it. He'd acted with the best of intentions but the whole world had imploded around them.
"I'm so sorry."
What else could he say to her?
Words seemed surplus and superficial. He loved her, he would lay down his life for her, and yet he had put her through hell. If he could undo so much as an atom of her pain, he'd do whatever it took in a heartbeat, but sadly it wasn't as simple as that. Peter knew he'd betrayed her trust.
"You shouldn't be," her beautiful eyes were awash with tears but she blinked them back and looked at him candidly. "That morning, before I left for the airport, I knew something wasn't right."
"El - "
"No, please let me finish. You looked so pale and exhausted. I told myself I was imagining things… that everything was going to be okay. But it wasn't, and somehow I knew it. I never should have got into that taxi. I had a premonition you were in danger. I sensed it here in my heart."
"Oh, honey," he pulled her towards him. "It's not your fault, I was an idiot. It was a fluke – no-one could have predicted it. It was me who messed up, big-time."
"Yes, you did," she said bluntly and laid her head on his shoulder. "There's no denying you should have told me, but then again, I should have trusted my instincts. At the end of the day, I'm your wife."
"Thank God for that," he kissed the top of her head. "This goes to show I'm hopeless without you. I'm so sorry for the hurt I caused you. I'll never do it again."
"Not ever," she twisted around fiercely. "Peter, you have to promise me. We both took things too much for granted. We must never, ever keep any secrets, however insignificant they might seem."
He looked at her solemnly, "I promise you, sweetheart, on my honour. I won't hide stuff to stop you from worrying. It was the wrong thing for the best of intentions, and believe me, I learned my lesson. "
Twinkling up at him, some of the pain left her eyes, and he was profoundly relieved to see the back of it. She snuggled into him very gently, still mindful of how fragile he was.
"That's good, very good, and definitely wise. You see, I've reached a kind of conclusion. When it comes to you, I might even be psychic. Perhaps if I practise hard enough I could learn to read your mind."
"Psychic, huh?" he took a moment to digest and then shook his head and grinned with mock chagrin. "Oh, boy, now I'm really in trouble. You know, a part of me always wondered if maybe I married a witch."
"Hey," she gave him a gentle tap. "From now on you need to be careful. If you do anything to upset me then I might turn you into a frog."
"I seem to remember that story," Peter pulled her a little bit closer. "As I recall, the frog got lucky and ended up with a kiss."
Her lips were amazingly sweet and he melted as she lingered against him.
"Like that," he whispered softly, "but I'm afraid you lucked-out on the prince."
"You can keep him," she leaned in and kissed him again. "I already won the lottery."
"That makes two of us,"he said, somewhat roughly, "Hon, I don't know what I did to deserve you. For the record, I'd be happy to be your frog. I love being under your spell. Now please, can we put this behind us, and do like Neal says and make nice?"
"How nice?" she slanted her eyes at him.
He tightened his hold on her, "Neal's here."
"I see," she answered somewhat mournfully. "Quite nice as opposed to very nice."
Much later, as she turned the bedroom lights out, she spent some minutes watching him sleeping. He looked calmer and vastly more comfortable for the first time since leaving the hospital. Sighing a little, she reached out a hand and brushed his hair back from his forehead. In many ways it still felt like a miracle to have him lying here at her side.
Talking it through some had helped her. There was no doubt her mood had lightened. She'd been harbouring a deep sense of terror for what seemed like an eternity. Peter was safe – he was here. It was over. She took a breath and the nightmare diminished. She would not be left broken and grieving, or forced to carry on all alone. She had been so sure… just for a moment… that fate had meant to steal him away from her, and in leaving that morning, she'd failed some sort of test, and the penalty had been Peter's life.
It was far too high a price to pay.
El recalled the afternoon she'd left the hospital and a sense of deja-vu made her shiver. Even now, she was shocked at how fragile it seemed and how close they had come to the edge. There had been something, a strange feeling of displacement, like being on the verge of waking. The layers had been shifting around her as though she'd been trapped in a dream. He'd been within a hairsbreadth of dying. She knew that more strongly than anything. For a brief instant she'd been aware of him beside her, and felt the light touch of his hands on her skin.
The afternoon had been grey and leaden although the air had felt shifting and sentient. It had been tilted and oddly off-centre as she'd walked through the shadowy house. She remembered the cold of the window pane and the yellow splash of the tulips, and her hands reaching out in the darkness, so certain he had been standing there. So certain… in-spite of her heartache and the bone-aching feeling of exhaustion. All her nerves had been jumping like crickets and there was no chance she had fallen asleep.
It had been Peter, Peter beside her, no ghost or hallucination. She had summoned him and he had come to her, just as warm and as real as he was now. She still had no convincing explanation, other than he'd been attempting to comfort her. It was typical of the man, she smiled a little. She knew in her heart he would move heaven and earth to try and help ease her pain.
In another time and place she would have laughed at herself. She wasn't given to flights of fancy. She was sensible and down-to-earth and practical, a great believer in living for the moment.
In another time and place she would have got on the plane and jetted off to the damned symposium, but here and now, everything was different and her world had been tipped upside-down.
Peter muttered a couple of words and then moved his head on the pillow. El watched as his eyelashes flickered before coming to rest on his cheek. Did he remember, had he experienced it too - was it weird of her to even wonder? Her scalp prickled a little in the half-light. Maybe one day she might even ask him, not just yet, but sometime in the future. When the night-terrors finally left her and their lives regained a semblance of normality.
Maybe one day she might even ask him… or maybe she never would.
El blinked as her eyes filled with emotion. Since he'd been home, she'd had no problem crying. It was strange and a little unsettling after all those arid days with no tears. Gradually, her muscles had begun to relax and the tightness in her chest was receding. If she closed her eyes and wished hard enough, then eventually, it might go away.
One day… when he stopped looking so fragile and she could feel the strength return to his body. When his energy and clear-eyed vitality made the house burst with life once again.
Until then, she would continue to count her not inconsiderable blessings. El sighed; it was easier said than done when she still shouldered some of the blame. Peter too - it was plain to see when she looked up and caught him watching her, his forehead furrowed with a criss-cross of lines as he worried on her behalf. He was sorry and she was sorry. Even Neal had confessed he felt guilty. At the end of the day, they had all been bruised and everyone was filled with regrets.
She pulled the duvet over his shoulders and resisted an urge to kiss him. The painkillers were weaving their magic and he was obviously completely relaxed.
It was going to take rest and patience, but at long last, the doctors were pleased with him. He was doing a lot better than expected and healing up pretty well. It was hard to believe he had been so ill. That he'd been on the verge of leaving her. Even now, she could barely acknowledge that time, or come to terms with her pain.
Just a feeling, it was just a feeling, and to think she had almost ignored it, that she'd actually gone to the airport and nearly boarded her plane. Shivering, El whispered a quick prayer of thanks to whoever might be listening. If such a warning ever repeated itself, she would never disregard it again.
Switching her bedside lamp off, she snuggled down next to her husband. He felt warm and incredibly solid as he turned his head and muttered her name.
She kissed his lips very softly, "Shh, yes, it's me. Now go back to sleep."
He was silent for a moment, and she thought he'd nodded off, but then he hitched an arm across her shoulders. Pulling her closer, she felt his warm breath tickle her ear.
"I was hoping you might want to make nice…"
Lisa Paris - 2012
Lisa Paris – 2012