It was made from a toothbrush handle, a shard of pale-blue plastic meticulously filed to a point. Peter knew what a prison shiv was, of course, but he'd never actually seen one, outside of bad prison movies.
He dodged the first swing in a kind of disbelieving haze, nearly slipped and caught himself on the wall. How had this become his life? He was in the jail shower, completely naked, wet and slippery with a naked tattooed giant trying to stab him.
Showering was one of the few times Peter was allowed to mingle with the other prisoners in Manhattan's detainment facility, and he could tell already that no help would be coming from anyone around him. They knew he was a fed. For all he knew, they might be in on it. The showers were monitored and the guard would be here in a minute -- if he hadn't been paid off, Peter thought grimly, ducking under the giant's massive arm.
Someone tripped him from behind. It wasn't anything provable, just an anonymous foot thrust out from the onlookers, but he stumbled and that moment of hesitation was enough -- too much.
The shiv was cold, going into him below the sternum. There was no pain, not at first. He staggered and fell, his feet going out from under him, crashing down on his side on the wet shower floor. It smelled like mold and bleach. When he tried to shift to a more defensible position, all he could do was thrash, but the ripple of noise and activity around him let him know that the guard had finally put in an appearance -- either that, or something even worse was about to happen, but there wasn't much he could do about it, if so.
There was still no pain, just a coldness spreading out from his center to every part of him. He thought he might be wrong, that he might not have been stabbed after all, just knocked down. He tried to move -- his arms wouldn't work right, but he ran a numb hand down his chest and across his abdomen and brushed something hard.
Then the pain came, seizing him up, making him curl around himself as if that could stop it or even slow it down.
His blood was hot on his cold skin.
Some part of him saw himself from the outside, naked and cold and bleeding to death on a prison shower floor. This isn't my life. It can't be.
The guards weren't gentle. They had always been professional with him, but they took every opportunity to make it known in little ways that they weren't any more fond of dirty cops than the rest of the jail population.
But they got him off the shower floor and onto something softer, in some other place. He was still in the detention facility, though; no hospital would have sheets that scratchy. His head buzzed and he couldn't think clearly, and he was cold, so cold. They'd covered him with a sheet, but it didn't make a start on warming him. He was shivering so hard he thought he'd fly apart, and he wished it'd stop. Wished they'd give him something for the pain.
"God damn, what do you think I can do about this?" The voice was that of Ray Butler, the facility's medic. Peter had met him once already when he'd come in to have his arm disinfected after someone managed to cut him with a razor blade when they brushed past each other. It had only been a shallow cut and hadn't needed more than a brisk application of antiseptic and some butterfly bandages. Still, two weeks in detention and he'd already been sent to the infirmary twice. Not a good record, he thought, and tried to curl up again -- maybe he'd be warmer, maybe it would hurt less -- only to have firm hands straighten him out. Someone was making sounds like an animal in pain and Peter had a terrible feeling it might be him.
Someone asked a question and Butler said, "I just patch 'em up. He needs to be in a hospital. He's going to need surgery, antibiotics. Damn lucky if he doesn't have a perforated intestine."
The words flowed into the general background white noise, and the thought worked its way up from the back of Peter's mind that they might actually leave him here to die. He knew it was irrational and yet he couldn't shake it off. He was helpless -- could barely talk, couldn't think, couldn't even stand up -- and there was no one here he trusted and he just wanted to be home, he just wanted the last two weeks to never have happened at all, he just didn't want to be alone anymore, but especially not here, not now.
"Please," he said, trying to catch Butler's arm. He wasn't sure if Butler was any more fond of him than anyone else in the detention facility, but Butler had a higher calling: he was a medic, they didn't just leave people to bleed to death on gurneys. "Please, my wife, can you call my wife --"
"I don't pass messages," Butler said, catching Peter's wrist. He inserted an IV with a quick, practiced jab. "Stop moving. You've got a knife in your gut, don't you know that?"
He wanted to say that he knew, how could he not know, and he was more scared than he'd ever been. He just wanted someone to hold his hand and tell him it was going to be all right. And he knew it was stupid -- he was a grownup, for crying out loud -- but he couldn't help reaching out, his hand sticky with his own blood. Except there was no one to reach for and his hand closed on empty air.
"Elizabeth," he whispered. "Neal."
And then darkness whirled around him and everything was gone.
Neal had been working on cold cases since morning.
This was what the FBI had him doing now. They hadn't put him in prison, but they wouldn't let him go out in the field either. He was supposed to be outside June's at 8 a.m. for Diana or Jones to pick him up, and when they left the office, one of them dropped him off. In between, he was supposed to stay in the White Collar offices. The farthest he could get from his desk was the bathroom.
Neal, of course, being Neal, had spent the first couple of days exploring the limits of Callaway and the Marshals' tolerance. He went on coffee runs and fetched files from other floors in the building, and took every other opportunity he could find to push the boundaries while still having a good explanation for what he was doing.
This lasted until Diana sat him down and told him that without Peter to intercede on his behalf, there was no one with both the drive and the clout to keep him out of prison if he ran afoul of the Powers That Be. Then she added another argument that mattered more to him than the first: if he went around annoying the FBI hierarchy, he might be driving nails in the coffin of Peter's defense.
So he tried to be good. It wasn't just the limits on his movement that made it hard, but the fact that he couldn't be out there doing something, anything, to help keep Peter out of prison. Not that there was really anything he could do. James had yet to surface, and Neal -- like Jones and Diana -- had been poring over the files from the evidence box, collating information, running down the modern-day identities of the other people implicated. Some of those people were dead, but most of the rest had ended up being somebody important. Pratt was the highest placed by far, but they also had located four judges, two retired mayors, a half-dozen current or former police chiefs in various municipalities, and one well-known journalist.
One of the first things they'd done was make copies of the papers, both physical and electronic. Neal had made sure that Mozzie got a copy of the scans, even though he was probably committing a half-dozen felonies by smuggling it out the door of the FBI building. But he had a feeling that Diana and Jones might actually approve if they knew about it. Peter would probably grouse and complain and then give him a nod to do it anyway.
Peter. He still hadn't been allowed to see Peter. That was maybe the hardest thing about the entire situation. House arrest wasn't so bad. He could deal with it, at least in the short term; he had Mozzie and June's company in the evenings, and Diana and Jones and the rest of the White Collar group during the day. And if worst came to worst, he knew from experience that he could slip his leash and be gone in a matter of minutes.
But ... being at the White Collar office without Peter was just wrong. He still caught himself turning toward Peter's office, wanting to comment on some particularly ridiculous or banal aspect of the cases he was working on, or just wanting to drift up to hang out in Peter's office for a while and see what he was working on. But Peter's office wasn't Peter's office anymore. At least not right now.
Peter was only a few blocks away. Neal could literally have walked there, probably before anyone knew he was gone. But that wouldn't accomplish anything other than letting him stand outside the building; they still wouldn't have let him in, even during the limited visiting hours.
The sad thing was that if his movements hadn't been so restricted right now, he would have liked to walk by, even if it wasn't on his way home or his way to anywhere else. It would at least bring him closer to Peter than he could get otherwise, concrete walls notwithstanding.
He hadn't heard from Elizabeth since Peter's arrest. He'd left a message on her voicemail and then decided to let the ball lie in her court -- to use a Peterish sports metaphor -- and so far she hadn't gotten back to him. It was probably something he shouldn't hope for, he knew.
And he missed it. If he let himself think about it, he missed it all so much: the lamplit evenings at the Burkes'; the playful banter and long nights in the van; Peter's quick grins and bad puns and sharp mind. But he couldn't let himself dwell on that. He only had to believe that he could get it all back, like he'd done after the music box and after Keller and after the island -- that there was a way out of this for all of them, a fix or at least a patch for every broken thing.
Diana came down the stairs from the management offices, taking them two at a time and startling Neal out of his mindless contemplation, for the fourth time, of the copyright infringement cold case he was halfheartedly trying to solve. She jerked her head at him. Neal scrambled to his feet: when Diana looked like that, you didn't bother trying to argue. He reached for his hat. "What's going on?"
"Peter," Diana said, and Neal fell in step with her. They went out the doors together. It was the middle of the day and Neal wasn't supposed to be going anywhere, but apparently Diana was willing to deal with the consequences.
"Not good news?" Neal guessed as they waited for the elevator. The look on her face wasn't a good-news sort of look.
Diana shook her head. Her lips were set in a thin line. "I just heard from a friend of mine down at Metro Correctional. Peter's been stabbed."
Her words went straight through Neal and he knew, for that moment, what a blade in the ribs felt like. His brain gear-flipped between Who and When and Why, but finally he asked the most important question: "How bad?"
"Bad enough they sent him to Downtown Hospital." The elevator arrived and Diana didn't even wait for the doors to open fully before whisking herself and Neal into it. Neal suspected that she didn't want to give anyone a chance to stop them until they were well and truly gone.
"I thought he was in protective custody."
Diana stabbed the first-floor button viciously. "Yes, well, apparently since he's not dangerous himself, they consider it more of an advisory than a strict guideline. The real animals are watched 24-7 to make sure they don't eat someone's face, but the guy who might get stabbed by any of the many people he's put away, not to mention their friends and relatives, gets put in the communal showers."
Neal felt like pointing out that it was a fair assumption, not that he wanted to defend the US prison system, but it was true that there hadn't been any direct threats against Peter, at least not that he knew of, and therefore no clear danger for the guards to work against. The prison population was composed almost entirely of people with enemies; it wasn't logistically possible to put every one of them under individual round-the-clock surveillance.
But this brought him back around to aspects of his life he'd rather not bring up with Diana, namely his intimate experience with the finer details of the prison system. Ever since Peter's arrest, Neal had decided it was safer not to remind anyone, if possible, that he was potentially one step outside his radius from serving the rest of his time with a cellmate named Bruno.
The doors opened on the fifth floor. An intern pushing a mail cart took one look at Diana's face and decided waiting for the next elevator was the better life choice. Diana gave the "door close" button a swift jab. Once they were alone again, Neal said, "Does Elizabeth know?"
"Jones is on that end."
Probably a good decision. Which meant Diana was on Neal-wrangling duty. And, oh God, he was going to have to talk to Elizabeth at the hospital, wasn't he?
He stopped pressing Diana for information and let her lapse into silence, which she seemed content to do. They were close enough to walk it easily, so they went to the street rather than the federal employee parking garage. Heat shimmered from the pavement. Diana strode so fast that Neal had trouble keeping up with her.
They walked most of the way in silence before she suddenly stopped and turned. Neal almost ran into her. "I brought you because it wasn't fair to leave you out of this," she said. "But I need to know you aren't going to do anything inappropriate at the hospital."
"You mean like, steal something?" He was slightly offended. He wasn't a kleptomaniac, for God's sake.
"No, I mean ..." She hesitated, not precisely at a loss for words, but having trouble deciding how to proceed. "The Marshals will be there. Everything you do is potentially going to be fodder for Peter's hearings. Just don't give them anything to damage his case."
Now he was more than slightly offended. "What exactly do you think I'm going to do? Pickpocket my anklet key from the Marshals and dance around with it?"
"No!" Diana said. "The issue with you and Peter, or you and Elizabeth --" She stopped and looked around, as if she thought a U.S. Marshal was about to spring out from behind a lamppost. "The relationship you and Peter have is light-years beyond the normal CI-agent relationship. Don't be weird around the Marshals, is what I'm saying."
"For fuck's sake, Neal, do I have to draw you a picture?"
"No, I get what you're saying" -- sort of -- "I'm just trying to understand what you mean by weird. Peter and I aren't ... Okay, actually, I have no idea what you're telling me not to do, because I don't know what you're saying I do normally."
"Oh for God's sake, you do want me to draw a picture. Okay." Diana began briskly ticking items off on her fingers. "No touching, no hugging, no handholding --"
"Peter and I don't hold --"
"-- no hovering at bedsides, no late-night phone calls to agents' wives, no doing that mind-reading thing you and Peter do, no ... what am I forgetting here, I know I'm forgetting things ... no being inappropriate, Neal, I hope you get what I'm saying here."
"You know what we could do? We could get a large cardboard box," Neal said. "Then I can climb into it and you can tape up the top. Maybe cut a hole for me to talk through. Oh, wait, I'm not allowed to talk to anyone, am I?"
He was pretty sure she was glaring at him, but the sunglasses made it hard to tell. "I'm serious, Caffrey."
"So am I. What's the point of me even going to the hospital in the first place if I'm not allowed to speak to anyone, touch anyone, or even stay?"
Diana sighed and rubbed her forehead. "Look, I know giving you a checklist is just an invitation for you to find something not on the checklist and do it, so how about a general guideline. Of all the things I distrust about you, Caffrey, and it's a long list, the one thing I do trust is that you want what's best for Peter. Am I right?"
"Yes." Neal tried to infuse the single word with as much sincerity as he possibly could.
"Then don't do anything that could be taken the wrong way and used to hurt Peter later. That's all I'm asking."
"No pressure," Neal muttered.
By the time they reached the hospital, Diana looked like she'd gotten some of the higher-level tension out of her system and was no longer causing passersby to cringe. Which was good, because a long, convoluted quest through the hospital ensued, with a lot of badge-flashing and a lot of Diana explaining that she wasn't family, and Neal wasn't family, but she was a federal agent and needed to locate a prisoner, dammit. No, he wasn't her prisoner ...
Eventually they were routed to a waiting area that was occupied solely by a couple of Marshals hanging around, drinking coffee, and looking not even remotely inconspicuous.
"Well, well," one of them said when Neal and Diana walked in. "Caffrey. Long time."
Oh wonderful, out of all the U.S. Marshals in the country, one of Peter's guards was one he actually knew. Or who knew him, at least. Neal recognized his face vaguely and thought he might have been involved in taking him back to prison after his second escape. "Looking good," he said. "Have you lost weight?" The Marshal looked confused.
"Two of you, seriously?" Diana said. "We're spending federal funds on two armed guards for a guy who's been stabbed in the stomach?"
Neal went cold all over. Stabbed in the where? Now he wished he'd grilled Diana for more details when he could do it without the risk of seeming "inappropriate" or whatever the hell she was worried about.
"It's a high-profile case," the second Marshal said. "And Burke has known associates who are experts in evading the law." He didn't quite look at Neal as he said this. "No one wants a fuck-up."
"Oh, cut the crap, Robert," Diana snapped. "You and I both know Peter's not dangerous and he's not gonna escape. Even if he could."
She and Neal retreated to one end of the small room, ceding the other end to the Marshals. Neal considered a number of petty remarks about Diana's inappropriate behavior, but he couldn't muster the urge through his worry for Peter. "You didn't tell me he'd been stabbed in the stomach," he shot at Diana in a tight undertone.
Diana let out a long sigh. "Does it matter now?"
"Yes!" Neal said, but he was saved from asking any more questions that would probably be deemed inappropriate by the arrival of Elizabeth and Jones. And they showed up with paparazzi in tow.
Neal stared. There were four reporters, two with digital cameras, one with some kind of microphone, one wielding what might be a small TV camera. Elizabeth had a set, harassed look, and Jones was shielding her with his body. As soon as she was inside the waiting area, he chased out the reporters with threats to call hospital security. Elizabeth covered her face briefly with her hands. Then she lowered them and saw Neal for the first time. He'd risen from his chair, but now all he could do was stand there.
"Oh, Neal," Elizabeth breathed, and she all but threw herself into his arms.
Diana was giving him a death glare. Neal tried to telegraph with his eyes that Elizabeth had done it, if anyone was being inappropriate in front of the Marshals it was her, but mostly he just held onto her and let her cling to him. Diana could glare all day, but he wasn't about to push Elizabeth away at a time like this. Instead, he buried his face in her hair and she pressed her cheek against his chest.
They stood that way for a long time. Finally Elizabeth was the one to break their hug, peeling herself off Neal. She smiled shakily. "Sorry."
"No, don't apologize, just ..." That she clearly wasn't mad at him made him weak in the knees. He hadn't realized how hard he'd been bracing himself against that fear; it was like leaning into a strong wind and then suddenly having it die away, leaving him off balance. Peter was still an unknown quantity, of course.
The flash of a camera made both of them jump. Diana stormed past them. The intrepid photographer hastily tried to flee, but Diana grabbed his camera, popped out the flash card, and handed it back to him.
"Hey, that's theft!"
"You'll get it back," Diana said. "As soon as I have a chance to erase it."
The photographer whipped out a smartphone and began typing with his thumbs. "This is going on my blog."
Diana bristled and he hastily decided to do his blog-updating elsewhere. There was a brief, murmured exchange between Diana and Jones, and then Jones left the waiting room and headed for the nurses' station.
"Wonderful," Elizabeth sighed. "It'll be all over the tabloid blog sites in hours, I'm sure. FBI covers up killer's wife in clinch with felon." She touched Neal's arm. "Not your fault. Diana, thank you for trying."
Neal shepherded her to a chair, still mildly off-balance on a number of levels. "Has there been a lot of, uh, that sort of thing?"
"Mostly just the first couple of days. After that they gave up for the most part, though I guess this has got them stirred up again." Elizabeth touched her face. It was evident she'd been crying from her clumped-together lashes, but there were no fresh tear tracks on her face. "Has there been any news?"
"Not yet," Diana said gently, taking a seat on Elizabeth's other side. The two of them bracketed her, a sort of quiet bulwark against the world.
"All right," Elizabeth said. She sounded like she was talking more to herself than to either of them. She took a deep breath and pressed the palms of her hands against her eyes for a moment, then lowered them into her lap. "Diana, do you know if there's a coffee machine here?"
"Down the hall," one of the Marshals said.
"I was not," Elizabeth said crisply, "asking you."
Diana passed a quick look across the two of them, then said, "I'll get us some."
After Diana left, Elizabeth gave Neal a long, searching look. Whatever she saw made her face soften. "How are you, Neal?" she asked, her voice pitched too low to carry to the Marshals' end of the room.
"Me?" Neal said, startled. "I'm -- of all the people with things to complain about right now, Elizabeth, I'm really not one of them."
Elizabeth pressed her lips together, and then, as if breaking through some barrier in herself, reached out and laid her hand over his. "Diana told me what happened with James."
Neal fought down a sharp surge of anger. He'd told Diana and Jones only because he needed their help finding James; his screwed-up family life shouldn't be FBI water-cooler talk. But the anger and hurt faded an instant later. Diana had told Elizabeth because Elizabeth had a legitimate need to know what was going on.
"Yeah," Neal said. "That's ... a thing that happened, I guess. I'm sorry I brought him into your lives, Elizabeth."
"Don't," she said. "I ... look, Neal, I have a good relationship with my parents. I can't imagine what you're going through. But if you need to talk ..." She smiled shakily. "I could probably use the distraction from my own problems."
Neal's throat closed up. He couldn't speak; instead he did something that he'd never done before, would never have dreamed of doing with Peter's wife, but he'd always been a creature of impulse and so he went where impulse told him to go, leaning his temple against hers. Elizabeth scooted a little closer -- the hard plastic chairs seemed to be designed to separate people, but she tilted her shoulder against his and they leaned into each other, hands clasped together.
It was obvious that Diana had left them alone to talk, but there was no point in talking if there was nothing to say. Diana's brisk footsteps sounded at last, and Neal realized with a guilty jerk that he was probably going to get yelled at for this.
Instead she stood and looked at the two of them for a moment. She was carrying only one cup of coffee, which she handed to Elizabeth. "Jones is on his way back," she said. "I'm afraid I need to get back to the office. Is there anyone I can call for you?"
Elizabeth shook her head. "No. I'm all right. I have a neighbor coming over to tonight to walk Satchmo."
Diana nodded, and jerked her head at Neal. "Come on, Caffrey."
"You can't make me leave," Neal said, helplessly, because he knew she could.
Diana glanced at the Marshals, who were pretending not to listen while clearly listening. "This isn't a punishment, Neal. There's no point in being here. Peter's going to be in surgery for some time, and you wouldn't be allowed to see him even if he were awake, so let's go back to work before I get in trouble, all right?"
True. He was supposed to be in the office. He didn't feel that he had the right to ask Elizabeth for anything, not after all that had happened, but still ... "Call me?" he asked her. "If anything changes. If you need anything."
Elizabeth nodded and gave Neal's hand a squeeze before releasing it. "Don't forget, the offer to talk is still on the table."
"Thank you," Neal said, and meant it more than anything else he'd said that day.
Back out on the street, Diana said, "I'm not punishing you."
Diana rubbed a point between her eyebrows, a gesture that reminded Neal suddenly and painfully of Peter. "You know," she said, not so much to him as to the world in general, "I'm starting to wonder how Peter managed not to become a raging alcoholic in three years of handling you."
"I'm not that bad," Neal said.
"No, it's just that every time I tell you to do something, you do the opposite. It doesn't really help knowing that it's not just me; you're like this with everyone."
Neal would have argued further, except he had a terrible thought. "Do you think the Marshals think I'm having an affair with Elizabeth?"
"I wonder if there are any aspirin in my desk," Diana mused. "Jones always has some."
"But I'm not!" Neal protested. "I could go back and tell them I'm not, if it would help."
Diana caught his arm as he tried to turn around. "No, it wouldn't help. It would be the opposite of helpful. The best thing you can do right now, Neal, is to keep your head down and do your best impression of a good worker bee."
"I'm not terribly good at that," Neal said.
"Yes, I'd noticed."
He managed to spend the rest of the day working on copyright infringement and mortgage fraud cases only by reminding himself at frequent intervals that he was doing it for Peter and Elizabeth. He had to stop himself a dozen times from calling or texting Elizabeth. She would call him if anything happened. Elizabeth was very reliable that way.
And he did get a text near the end of the workday: Peter still in surgery. No news = good news, right?
Right, Neal texted back. Hang in there.
Diana drove him home, ignoring his entreaties to take him to the hospital instead.
"Neal, my hands are tied right now. I'll talk to the Marshals tomorrow and see if I can arrange a little more radius leeway for you, all right?"
"Okay," Neal said, because it was the best he was going to get and none of this was Diana's fault; it wasn't fair to take his frustration out on her.
Besides, if Diana couldn't help, there were always other ways.
By morning he knew via Elizabeth that Peter had made it through surgery and was in stable condition. Which meant he could breathe properly again. This didn't resolve the most pressing problem, though: that no one would let him see Peter. Or Elizabeth. Diana turned a stone-cold shoulder to his entreaties. Jones was avoiding him. He thought about calling Bancroft, but that was probably the sort of excess that Diana had warned him might get Peter in trouble.
It was strange to have his hands tied not by law enforcement, but by fear of what might happen to Peter if he made a wrong move. He'd been feeling desperately powerless, but in this situation he almost had too much power, despite being simultaneously at the mercy of forces greater than himself. It was a strange and uncomfortable sort of leverage to have.
By the time people started trickling out of the office at quitting time, Elizabeth's texts had informed him that Peter was awake and doing a lot better. Which was good, on the one hand, but also gave him a cold feeling in the pit of his stomach because once Peter was well enough to leave the hospital, they'd take him back to prison. There he'd be injured and helpless and surrounded by people who wanted to hurt him.
He'd also be completely out of Neal's reach, again, which lent a particular urgency to Neal's desire to see him.
"Can we go over to the hospital this evening?" he asked Diana as he gathered up his jacket.
"Neal, the Marshals aren't going to let you see Peter. You know that. I've tried. It's just not happening."
"I know," Neal said. "I guess I just want to be close for a little while."
Diana frowned at him. "You want to go sit in the hospital anyway, knowing you can't go in and see Peter?"
"Yes," Neal said.
"You're planning something, aren't you."
"I don't know what makes you say that."
Diana drew a long breath and rubbed her forehead again. "Tell you what," she said. "You have until we get to my car to come up with a good, logical, bulletproof reason for us both to go over to the hospital this evening. If you can do that, then yes, I'll take you there."
Luckily, coming up with implausible ways of distracting authority figures on the fly was something he'd had a lot of practice at. Neal reached over, picked up the staple-puller from his desk, and before he could think too deeply about what he was doing, closed it as hard as he could on the fleshy outside part of his left hand and yanked it out, tearing through the skin. There was a floating painless instant and then pain blazed a fiery trail all the way up to his shoulder.
Diana's mouth dropped open.
"I think I need to go to the hospital," Neal said. Or gasped, rather, because that had hurt a lot more than he was expecting.
Diana wrapped her scarf tightly around Neal's hand while everyone who hadn't yet left the office stared at them. Blake, somewhat pale, scurried to get the biohazard cleanup kit; there was blood all over Neal's desk. Several people asked him if he was all right, and Diana waved them off while Neal stared at the blood soaking through her silk scarf. He hadn't expected it to bleed this much. Or hurt this much. He was starting to think he hadn't quite thought this plan through.
Diana helped Neal stand up, supporting him when he wobbled, and shepherded him into the elevator. She then glared at him the entire way down. "Does it hurt?" she asked.
"Yes," Neal said meekly. Diana's scarf was soaking through, threatening to leak blood onto his suit pants. His shirt was already splattered.
"I can't believe you did that."
"It was an office accident," Neal said. He had to speak through clenched teeth, braced against the eye-watering pain. "It could have happened to anybody. I'm sure the emergency room has seen stranger things."
"You're going to need antibiotics."
"It's a good thing you're taking me to the hospital, then."
"Peter is going to kill you. And also me," she added speculatively. "But mostly you."
From the matter-of-fact way he was treated in the ER, they probably had seen stranger things. Neal filled out his paperwork one-handed -- Diana held the clipboard for him -- and then he sat in an uncomfortable chair, leaned his head against the wall, and waited for his name to be called. He'd already decided that holding off on the Peter hunt until he was no longer leaving a blood trail would be wise. Also, the world had gone kind of weird and floaty.
He sent Mozzie a one-handed text: HOSPITAL IS A GO. He might have spelled it "hopsital", but it was too much work to go back and change it with one hand.
This plan really could have been thought out a little better.
Still, it was a success so far, he decided. He was here in the hospital, right where he wanted to be. When they ushered him into the back, Diana gave him a hard-to-decipher look and stayed in the waiting room.
He went a little weak and shaky when they unwrapped the scarf. The side of his hand was a bloody, chewed-up mess.
"Dog bite?" the resident asked, glancing at Neal's paperwork.
"Office accident," Neal said. "You know how it is."
He got four stitches in the side of his hand and a heavy bandage that made it impossible to bend his fingers. They also gave him prescriptions for antibiotics, a topical antibacterial ointment, and Tylenol 3, and then turned him loose. Neal started toward the waiting room and then ducked quietly down a hallway. He fastened his jacket to cover up the bloodstains on his shirt, fumbling one-handed with the buttons.
He was still a bit lightheaded and had to force himself to stay on task. He wished he'd asked for some painkillers; it would have made it easier to concentrate if his hand wasn't such a distraction. Maybe he could get the prescription filled in the hospital and take one? But then he'd have to find the pharmacy ... Focus, Caffrey. Painkillers later. Peter now.
After a few twists and turns, he found his way to the part of the hospital where they were keeping Peter. It wasn't hard to figure out which room was Peter's: it had to be the room with a U.S. Marshal sitting on a chair outside the door, reading a book.
Mozzie was just down the hall from the now-empty waiting area where Neal and Elizabeth had been yesterday. He was wearing coveralls, a workman's respirator mask and goggles, carrying a stepladder over his shoulder with a toolbox in his other hand. "Nice," Neal said approvingly, taking in the ensemble.
Mozzie set down the toolbox to point at the mask. "Special issue." His voice was muffled and barely comprehensible. "Blocks 99.5 percent of germs. Of course, it's the other point-five percent that'll get you."
"I owe you one, Moz."
"Another one," Mozzie pointed out. "What happened to your hand?"
Mozzie's stare turned suspicious. "Is this anything like that time in Madrid?"
Right, Mozzie was the one person he couldn't con, because they knew all the same cons. "Er. Maybe a little. Except with a staple puller instead of a box cutter, and I was trying to get into the hospital, not out of a --"
"Neal," Mozzie said, managing to somehow heap a huge helping of worry and horror and disappointment into that one word.
"I know, I promised I wouldn't do anything like that again, but I had to! Diana needed a reason to bring me to the hospital."
"And this was the best plan you could come up with?" Mozzie said in disbelief.
"It worked," Neal pointed out.
Mozzie still looked dismayed. "I can't believe you're running around in a hospital with an open wound. Do you know the statistics on flesh-eating bacteria? I know a guy who can hook you up with some really heavy-duty antibiotics, the kind the FDA won't let over the border to hold onto their monopoly --"
"I have antibiotics. I'm fine, Moz. Just do your thing like we planned."
Neal hid around the corner, peeking out occasionally, while Mozzie set up his ladder in the hallway, right next to the U.S. Marshal guarding Peter's room. The man was forced to move his chair away from the door.
"Do you have to do that here?" the agent said, disgruntled. "Now?"
Mozzie opened his toolbox. "Asbestos waits for no man, my friend. Every time you inhale, all those little fibers -- well, better your lungs than mine. Here, you'll want these."
Neal peeked again to see the agent studying what Mozzie had shoved into his hands: earplugs. "We're in a hospital. There are patients here. Are you serious?"
"It's your ears, my friend. Now if you want to see the paperwork, it's all the same to me, I'm getting union wages here ..." Mozzie began flipping industriously through a fat clipboard. "Lesse, here's the 4039B, and of course the 708-triple-C --"
The agent waved him off. "No, I don't need to see the paperwork. Look, just -- be quick, all right?"
Mozzie gave a brisk nod and climbed his ladder. He settled a pair of earmuffs over his ears before pausing to look down. "Ear protection!"
The agent sighed and screwed in his earplugs. A minute later, a puff of dust came down from the ceiling.
"Don't I get a mask?"
"What?" Mozzie called down.
"I said --"
Behind the agent's back, Neal quietly opened the door just enough to slip through, while they continued to argue. He did owe Mozzie one.
Peter's room was dim, lit mainly by blinking lights on the equipment around the bed. Thankfully there were enough blankets and sheets to cover up anything that might have been unpleasantly medical. Peter's eyes were closed, and he looked terribly fragile -- which was a quality Neal would never have thought to associate with Peter Burke, but there was something so vulnerable about him that it made Neal's throat ache.
As Neal hesitated near the door, the room grew suddenly much dimmer. The window looking out on the corridor was now muffled by a drop cloth.
"Hey!" Neal heard the Marshal say.
"Regs, buddy. Can't damage the paint," Mozzie said. "Hey! Ear protection! You wanna get me in trouble with my boss?"
Grinning, Neal took the opportunity to tug down the blanket over the side of Peter's bed so that it hung to the floor, just in case he needed a quick place to hide.
"Is that Mozzie's voice?" Peter said weakly, and Neal jumped. He'd thought Peter was asleep.
"Er, yes. I think you might not want to know details."
"I'm sure," Peter said, sounding hoarse and exhausted and amused all at once.
"They wouldn't let me see you," Neal pointed out, hoping that didn't sound as plaintive to Peter as it did to him.
"Right, so obviously the solution is to round up Mozzie and the two of you --"
There was a loud thump from out in the hall.
"Don't worry, insurance will cover that," Mozzie said on the other side of the wall.
"... do what you do," Peter finished.
"Well, it is what we do," Neal said. He was beginning to wonder what had happened to this conversation and why he didn't seem to be in control of it.
Peter held out a hand. Neal clasped it with his good one. Peter's fingers were cold, his grip much weaker than normal. This was, Neal thought, probably just the sort of thing Diana had been afraid of. But no one was watching and, from the sound of the conversation in the hallway, Mozzie was still doing an excellent job of distracting Peter's guard.
Neal noticed with an unpleasant jolt, followed by a hot rush of anger, that Peter's other wrist was handcuffed to the bedframe.
"Yeah," Peter said, following Neal's gaze to the handcuff. He gave it an experimental little tug; the cuff jingled.
"Pick that for you," Neal offered.
Peter looked seriously tempted, but then shook his head. "I can't even get up without help. This means I get a nurse and a federal agent to help me to the bathroom."
"Peter --" Neal said helplessly. A choking tide of grief and regret rose in his throat. He'd been successfully squashing down those emotions, focusing on doing, on being, but it was the handcuff that did it, that damned handcuff, hanging off the bony point of Peter's wrist. It looked like he'd lost weight in just the last two weeks. And Neal remembered what that was like, too, and it was all tangled up with things he didn't think about: prison and Kate's death and nightmares that left him tangled in sweat-soaked sheets and turning on all the lights just to remind himself that he was at June's, not back there -- and it shouldn't be happening to Peter, it shouldn't, it shouldn't.
"I'm sorry," Neal said, and the words came out small and lost. "I'm so sorry."
"Hey," Peter said. "Hey. No." He tugged lightly on Neal's hand; there was little strength in his arm, but Neal let his hand be pulled over so that Peter could put his other hand, the cuffed one, over the top of it. "It's not -- Neal, yeah, you made mistakes, I made mistakes. That's done. Now we just gotta deal with it."
Neal drew a shuddering breath and tried to get himself pulled back together. "We," he whispered, and he'd been so afraid, so afraid, that there wasn't any we anymore.
"We," Peter said, and a smile tugged at his mouth, weak but genuine, and contagious; Neal smiled, too, and it felt like the first time he'd done that in weeks.
Then Peter said, "What happened to your hand?"
"Oh. That. Little accident in the office. It'll be okay."
"You did that in the office?" Peter let go of Neal's good hand to reach out and very gently take hold of the injured one by the wrist. He had his "examining the evidence" face on. "With what? Are we keeping Ginsu knives by the coffee machine now?"
"I'm sure Diana will tell you all about it later," Neal said hastily -- whether he wanted her to or not. He found a suitable distraction in the form of an insulated cup of water on the bedside table. It looked like it might once have had ice cubes, but they were reduced to a few fragile fingernails of ice. "Want a drink? Wait, are you allowed to drink?"
"Clear fluids only," Peter said, making a face. "Nothing important was pierced or perforated, they tell me."
"No, you just had major abdominal surgery, that's no big deal at all." Neal's legs felt weak again. There was a chair by the bed; he sank into it, and then held the cup of water for Peter to sip from. Peter was doing a decent job of covering it up, but he was clearly very weak. He couldn't even lift his head off the pillows.
"El's got a plan," Peter said. "Probably I shouldn't tell you."
"Probably," Neal agreed, and looked hopeful. Peter crumbled in just a few seconds; the painkillers must be lowering his resistance.
"She's going to take another try for bail." Peter paused and coughed, and Neal held the water cup for him again.
"What's your lawyer say?" Neal asked.
"He thinks we have a good shot," Peter said. "The judge denied bail the first time, but now the state's failed to protect me in jail, so we have a much better case. And I'm not a flight risk right now because, well ..." He waved his free hand weakly to indicate his current condition. "If we get it, I can recuperate at home."
This was vastly preferable to the thought of Peter in prison, weak and hurt and surrounded by people who hated him. "If I can help in any way --"
"No," Peter said quickly. "I mean, I appreciate the thought, but I think you can help best by --"
"Staying away and not reminding them you're friends with an escape artist. Yes, I get it. They can't stop me from visiting you at the townhouse, though."
"Neal, they can absolutely stop you."
"Much less easily than they can stop me from not visiting you in prison," Neal said, refusing to be deterred. "Or in the hospital. But here I am. Brooklyn will be a piece of cake."
"Neal," Peter said. "Not that I'm not glad to see you, because I am." His voice went a little softer when he said it, and something deep in Neal's chest warmed. "However, I'd really prefer if you didn't get sent to prison for dropping by just to watch the game with me."
"Peter. Did you forget who you're talking to?" Neal grinned. "I would never, ever watch the game with you. Any game."
"I caught you sneaking a few glances at the TV when the Twins were playing ..."
"That was fascinated horror," Neal said hastily. "Not actual interest."
"Well, if you can figure out a way to come over, we'll make sure to put on a movie you like."
They would, too, and there was nothing he could really say to that, nothing he could do but sit there in the dark while the small secret warmth in his chest grew strong enough to push back the throbbing in his injured hand.
Peter didn't speak, either. It had never been necessary to fill all the empty spaces between them; sometimes it was enough just to be quiet together, aware of the solid stability of each others' presence.
However, things had gone silent in the hall. Neal glanced at the door.
"You gotta go," Peter said softly.
"Yeah. I guess so."
As Neal rose, Peter caught the wrist of Neal's injured hand, trapping it in the gentle cage of his fingers, and ran his thumb lightly across the skin at the base of Neal's palm. "I'm going to hear this story later."
"I'm sure you will." Neal hesitated. The last time he'd seen Peter, he hadn't known it would be the last time. Now he felt as if this might be his last chance to -- he didn't even know what. His throat was tight with things unsaid, but the words wouldn't come. "I'll come see you in Brooklyn," he said at last.
"Be careful out there," Peter said, and let his wrist go.
Getting out was easier than getting in; he had the drop cloth to cover his exit. After ghosting around the corner, he sent Mozzie a brief text: OUT. Then he went to see if Diana was still waiting for him in the ER.
She was right where he'd left her, reading a magazine. "All done in there?" she asked, as if he hadn't just taken an extra half-hour for a simple medical procedure.
"All done." Neal dug in his pocket for the prescriptions. "Gotta stop by the pharmacy."
He was starting to shiver -- adrenaline crash, mostly, and the shock and pain he'd pushed aside to do what needed to be done. Diana left him in the car while she filled his prescriptions. He drifted, coming awake suddenly when the car stopped moving and he realized they were outside June's. The paper bag from the pharmacy was in his lap.
"I still can't believe you did that," Diana said. She opened the car door for him. "C'mon, Caffrey, up."
She came in with him, guiding him with a supportive hand.
"Am I in trouble?" Neal asked.
"For having an accident at the office? I certainly hope we're not that heartless."
"Sorry about your scarf."
"I always hated that scarf anyway. It was a gift from my mother."
She guided him upstairs and left him in his apartment.
It turned out that everything from brushing his teeth to buttoning his shirt took four times as long with his bandaged hand. Also, it throbbed enough despite the painkillers that he woke periodically throughout the night. He dragged himself to work in the morning feeling miserable and a little feverish and deeply sorry for himself. For once, he was glad that he wasn't allowed to go out in the field. Sitting at his desk seemed about his speed.
Diana brought him lunch -- a habit she and Jones had gotten into, to keep him from breaking the "don't leave the building without an agent" rule -- and Neal roused himself enough from his bleary haze of sleep deprivation and discomfort to see that she was grinning.
"I just talked to Elizabeth," Diana said. "Guess who got bail."
Neal sat up straighter, his discomfort temporarily forgotten. "Do they need bail money?"
"I never heard that question," Diana said. "No, they're putting up a bond. He'll be on house arrest in Brooklyn, but that's a whole world better than prison. Elizabeth said he might be out of the hospital as early as this afternoon, or tomorrow for sure."
Peter had been so pale and limp yesterday. "Are they supposed to be letting him out that soon?"
"Apparently, as soon as a patient can get around on their own, keeping them in the hospital is more detrimental than helpful," Diana said. Neal looked at her. She shrugged. "You can't live with a doctor for three years without picking up a few things."
"Peter's going home," Neal said. It didn't seem real.
"Until the trial," Diana reminded him. Still, she looked more relaxed than Neal had seen her in the last two weeks.
As soon as Diana went back to work, Neal texted Elizabeth a smiley face. She texted him back promptly with a "Yay!" and the two of them tossed little bits of cheerful text at each other all afternoon.
"Peter home tomorrow morning, I think," Elizabeth texted around quitting time. "Come by evening?"
The next day was Saturday. "Not sure if I'm allowed," Neal sent back. "Radius."
"I'll talk to our lawyer," was Elizabeth's response.
Ooh. The idea of getting a lawyer involved in the current limitations on his civil rights had not even occurred to him. Neal smiled behind his monitor.
"You look cheerful," Diana said. "Do I want details?"
"Peter's going home."
Diana punched the air and grinned.
Neal's phone rang that evening as he slouched at the table in his apartment, trying to work up the energy to call for takeout. His hand didn't seem to be producing lethal red streaks up his arm, so the antibiotics were doing their job, but it hurt and itched and he felt achy in every bone. He'd already been run down from everything that had gone on with James and the evidence box -- stressed, worried, not getting enough sleep. Tonight he was too wiped out to even check the caller ID before answering. "Yeah?"
"You stabbed your own hand," Peter's voice said. "What the hell, Neal."
"Hi to you too," Neal said. "I guess you talked to Diana."
"What the hell," Peter repeated. He sounded more energetic than the previous day, although possibly it was the sort of energy that was going to result in dragging himself over the edge of his hospital bed and lurching uptown to throw the book at Neal in person. "What were you thinking? ... Never mind, I know the answer to that."
"Diana said that if I --"
"Let's not bring Diana into this. You stabbed your hand."
"It was actually a staple puller," Neal said. There was a long, ominous silence from the other end of the phone. "Er, Peter?"
"Two weeks," Peter said. "You're out of my sight for two weeks and this is what happens. I guess I should be glad you haven't jumped off any tall buildings -- or at least, if you have, Diana hasn't told me about it yet."
Yeah, Peter was definitely feeling a lot better. "No tall buildings," Neal promised. There was a tap at the door. "Uh, I've got company, Peter. I have to go." If he could find the energy to get up.
"Wait, don't hang up, I'm not done with you," Peter said, just as the door opened and Elizabeth came in with several bags.
"Hi, Neal," she said, patting his arm. "Is that Peter? Say hi to him for me."
"Uh, Elizabeth says hi," Neal reported, gazing at her in dazed confusion as she started pulling cartons and packages out of the bags.
"Right, she's coming over to bring you soup and whatever," Peter said. "Your hand, Neal. You need your hands."
"I'm taking antibiotics," Neal said helplessly.
"Oh, your hand!" Elizabeth said. "May I see it?"
Neal tried to tuck his bandaged hand into the crook of his arm, but Peter said, "Let her see it, Neal," as Elizabeth got hold of his arm and laid it gently out on the table.
"Is this all right?" she asked him, and he nodded, so she began to unwind the bandages. Her bags, it turned out, also contained gauze, stretchy bandages, first-aid tape and other items of minor medical support.
He was supposed to be changing the bandages twice a day, but this had turned out to be such an enormous pain with only one hand that he'd just peeked underneath that morning to make sure it wasn't going septic, reapplied the ointment, and settled the bandages over it again. Also, he'd forgotten to pick up more bandages from the pharmacy anyway.
Mozzie probably would have helped -- with rubber gloves and a lot of complaining -- but Neal felt weird about asking him; it seemed like the sort of thing he should have been able to do on his own. He wouldn't have asked Elizabeth, either, but now that she was here, he didn't mind relinquishing his hand into her care.
"Oh, Neal," Elizabeth said softly once she unwrapped his hand down to the swollen and tormented flesh. She hovered a finger over it, caressing without touching. "Are these stitches?"
"There are stitches?" Peter demanded over the phone, sounding outraged.
"Did you call for any reason other than to yell at me?" Neal asked. Talking to Peter was a good distraction from whatever Elizabeth was now doing to his hand, which hurt.
"No, that's basically the reason," Peter said. "They let me have a phone now."
"Our lawyer is working on getting your leash loosened up so you can come down to the Brooklyn house and I can chew you out in person."
"Great," Neal said. "Something to look forward to."
His hand felt better once it was wrapped up in clean bandages. Sitting at the table with his cheek propped on the hand holding the phone, Neal realized that Peter hadn't said anything for a while. "Hey, Peter? Still there?"
"Still here," Peter confirmed. He sounded sleepy, his brief flare of energy fading. "I think I wore myself out yelling at you."
"Am I supposed to feel bad about that?"
"See you tomorrow, Neal." From the sound of his voice, Peter was flagging fast.
"Good night, Peter."
Elizabeth beckoned for the phone, so Neal handed it over and she exchanged a quick "hon" with Peter while Neal went to get a bowl for the soup -- chicken, of course -- that was steaming in a deli carton. "Staying for dinner?" he asked, holding up a second bowl.
Elizabeth shook her head and began to clean up the medical supplies. "No, I have to head home, let the dog out and try to get some work done this evening. Rain check?"
"Consider it checked. Elizabeth ..." He hesitated, then pulled her into a hug before he lost his nerve. "Thank you for coming over tonight," he told the top of her head.
She squeezed him back. "I think I realized something after we talked in the hospital," she said, pulling back to look up at him. "Namely, the world can be an awful, cold place, and the people in authority don't care, and the best way to stick it to the bastards is by looking out for each other."
"That's a terribly depressing viewpoint," Neal said. "I don't think Peter would quite agree."
"Probably not," Elizabeth said. "But accurate, don't you think?"
"Seems like it."
He walked her to the door. "So, tomorrow Peter's probably checking out of the hospital around noon or so," Elizabeth told him. "You want to come by in the evening? You'd be welcome."
"If my watchdogs will let me."
Diana called him in the morning, not too early. "So apparently the Burke townhouse is back in your approved areas. I thought you might want to know."
"Thanks. That's great." He was on the terrace, with a brunch delivered by June's maid. Even his hand felt a lot better. "How'd you swing that, exactly?"
"It wasn't me," Diana said. "Peter's attorney convinced a judge that denying him visitors is a violation of his constitutional rights, or something. I don't know whether to be concerned or impressed that the Burkes seem to have picked themselves up a Grade-A ambulance chaser, the sort of lawyer Peter normally hates."
"June recommended the attorney," Neal said. And was paying a hefty part of his exorbitant fees, although he was fairly sure Peter didn't know that.
"Well, that explains a lot. On the other hand, I don't care how unethical he is if he can get Peter off."
"Still a long way to go," Neal said. But for the first time, he felt that they might make it.
Peter was home, back with his wife and his dog -- and yeah, it might be temporary, but it was better than they'd had a few days ago.
It was, Neal thought, going to be a beautiful day.
He waited to leave for the Burke townhouse until it was growing dark, the lights of the city emerging like stars under a deep blue evening sky. He couldn't stop himself from staring at his anklet as the cab pulled away from June's curb. But the light stayed a steady, reassuring green all the way to Brooklyn.
He paid the cabbie and mounted the stairs to the Burkes', his heart in his throat. It seemed like a lot more than two and a half weeks since the last time he'd stood on their doorstep. Then, things had been so easy. Now, he stood for a long time with his hand poised above the doorframe before he finally knocked.
Elizabeth opened the door. She was wearing an apron and there was a smudge of flour on her cheek. And she looked happy -- relaxed, in her element, the shadow of exhaustion gone from her, if only temporarily.
"Neal, come in." She stood aside for him. "Peter's upstairs, and he's awake if you want to go say hi. We thought it'd be better if he didn't have to cope with too many stairs yet, so we've installed him in the bedroom."
"Sensible," Neal said. He tried to keep his calm veneer in place, though his heart was beating like a rabbit's. There was nothing to be nervous about, he told himself. It was just like old times. Nothing had changed, nothing that mattered.
Elizabeth kissed his cheek. "Thank you for coming over."
He climbed the stairs to the second floor. The door to Peter and Elizabeth's bedroom was open, the excited babble of a sports announcer drifting through. He hadn't been in their bedroom since the time he'd broken in to look for the U-boat art roster. Such a long time ago, he thought. It was like looking back on the life of another person.
Peter was wearing loose sweats and propped up with pillows on the bed. He noticed Neal hovering in the doorway before Neal could work himself up to knocking, and muted the TV. "Hey," he said, pushing himself a little higher with a grunt of effort. "Don't just stand there. How's the hand?"
There was a chair in the corner, but Neal opted to sit on the edge of the bed instead. He flexed his hand cautiously. "Better. It really wasn't that bad."
"Neal, Diana said you bled all over your desk and shirt."
"Diana is a tattletale."
"And you needed stitches. Sometimes I think I ought to have you put back in prison for your own protection."
"You really aren't going to let this go, are you?"
"You're a resourceful guy," Peter said. "Next time you have to sneak into a hospital, I hope you can come up with a better plan than committing bodily mayhem on yourself."
"Says the guy who was stabbed in the shower," Neal said, and then could have bitten his tongue off. He had no idea if they were far enough along to joke about this yet.
But Peter merely gave him one of his Oh, please looks. "If I'd stabbed myself, we might have a basis for comparison."
"It got you out of prison," Neal couldn't help pointing out.
Peter raised his brows. "I'm surprised this never occurred to you as an escape plan," he said sarcastically.
"I thought about it," Neal said. "People have tried it. Usually the guards catch on if you do it on purpose, though, mostly because people are too tentative. The trick to a really convincing self-inflicted injury is to do something people would never believe you'd intentionally do to yourself."
Unsurprisingly, this made Peter's gaze drop to Neal's bandaged hand. "A staple puller, though? Really?"
"It was the only thing handy."
"Because God forbid you think about your plans for more than two seconds beforehand." Peter cleared his throat and shifted position on the bed. "I wouldn't send you back, you know," he said, apropos of nothing.
"I know," Neal said. His throat felt tight. He did know -- Peter had proven amply that if there was anything in heaven and earth he could move to keep Neal out of prison, he'd do it. But it was one of the things they didn't talk about, part of the unspoken themness of them.
Peter cleared his throat again, and they studiously avoided each other's gaze for a minute or two. On the bedroom TV, small brightly uniformed figures ran around doing incomprehensible things.
"You know, just because I'm up here doesn't mean you have to hang around in the bedroom," Peter said. "But if you're going to stick around, go ahead and make yourself comfortable."
Neal thought about it, then settled next to him on the heap of pillows. Elizabeth must have culled every pillow from the rest of the house to pile at the head of the bed. There were more than enough for two.
"We don't have to watch this," Peter said, pointing the remote at the screen. "It's not a very good game."
"I don't know," Neal said. "I always kind of wanted to watch a game." He squinted at the screen until he was confident enough to make an accurate diagnosis of the sport. "... a football game. You can tell me what's going on."
"College football," Peter said, "and my alma mater's getting slaughtered. I think Nascar is on ESPN."
"You know how I love Nascar."
Peter shoved the remote into his unbandaged hand. "Fine, you drive."
Eventually they settled on North by Northwest. The theme of false murder accusations struck a little close to home for Neal's comfort, but it was one of the only things that one or the other of them didn't immediately veto as soon as they channel-surfed to it. They'd both seen it, but the main attraction for Neal was Peter free-associating about watching late-night Hitchcock movies on schoolnights when he was a teenager. "We had one of those old 1970s TVs, the huge ones with the cathode ray tube that takes forever to warm up. I'd sneak downstairs after my parents were asleep and drape a bedsheet over the stairs so the light from the screen wouldn't wake them."
"That's remarkably duplicitous of you, Peter. Almost con-artist-like."
"I assume that's a compliment coming from you."
After awhile Peter's disjointed recollections had much longer gaps in between, and finally he stopped talking entirely. Neal looked over to find that he'd fallen asleep, his head tilted to the side at a neck-destroying angle. Neal sat up and carefully wedged another pillow under Peter's head until he looked comfortable. He was still terribly pale, Neal thought, gazing at him critically, and still too thin, with blue shadows under his eyes.
But he was home. They could work this out. They could.
Neal nestled down among the pillows, his shoulder resting against Peter's, and got settled to watch Cary Grant and his classic suit evading the law.