Snow was falling softly onto the windshield as Peter drove expertly down the winding roads of Connecticut. A case had finally taken them out of the city, and Neal had been almost too excited to sit still for the drive. Diana, in the backseat because Neal had called shotgun, had taken to whacking him on the ear with her pen whenever he started fidgeting or messing with the radio or the heat setting.
The three of them had spent an hour in Hartford talking with Mrs. Maria Goodwin about several of her paintings and why she thought they had been replaced with forgeries. Then, Neal had checked them over carefully before informing her that nothing was amiss. She'd apologized profusely for dragging them out to her estate, but she was an older woman who wasn't able to travel into the city, much less with all her paintings. Neal had thanked her for the opportunity to get away from New York, and the three of them had been on their way.
Now, Neal was in the backseat and feeling decidedly less energetic. He'd probably overdone it with the excitement of the road trip. A little over two weeks ago, he and Peter had been investigating an embezzlement case that had gone south, and Neal had been shot. It had been a through and through on his left side, and while the bullet broke a couple of ribs and he'd lost a lot of blood, the damage had been minimal. He'd had exploratory surgery to make sure he wasn't bleeding internally and spent a week recuperating first in the hospital and then at June's. The following week, he was on desk duty, which he whined about more than the bullet wound. This was his first case back in the field.
"You doing okay back there?" Peter was watching him in the rearview mirror when Neal rolled his head against the headrest to look in his handler's direction.
"Tired," Neal replied honestly. His still healing wounds and ribs had started to ache too, but he hated how the pain meds made him feel so he hadn't taken any.
"We're still a ways from home. Why don't you get some sleep?"
Diana twisted around in her seat and gave him a once over. "You look like crap, Caffrey."
"Don't hold back, Diana." He smirked and held her gaze until she turned back around.
"Play nice, you two," Peter admonished. He gave Neal a stern look in the rearview and then turned his attention back to the road.
Neal must have dozed off because he lost some time between then and when the car jerked abruptly to one side and then the other. He opened his eyes to see Peter fighting the wheel as they spun around, flew off the road and slammed, passenger side, against a fence post.
Agony erupted from Neal's side and his vision whited out. When it returned, Peter was in the backseat with him, coaching him on how to breathe.
"Slow it down, Neal. You with me? Slow your breathing. Take a deep breath."
He opened his mouth and gulped in air, but his left side protested and he cried out in the exhale. He started panting, trying to draw in air and compensate for his broken ribs.
"No cell reception, Boss," Diana said. It sounded like she was still in the front seat. "There was a motel about a mile back. I could go for help."
"Just," Neal gasped, "give me… minute."
Neal focused on Peter's face as he worked to calm himself. Peter's lips were pressed together as his mind whirled with plans of action – Neal knew that look well. He also abruptly noticed for the first time that there was a trail of blood down the side of Peter's face. When he reached for it, Peter took his hand and guided it back down to the seat.
"You with me now?" Peter asked.
"Think so." Neal was still breathless, but his body was slowly relaxing. "What happened?"
"Black ice." Peter looked angry with himself. "The car won't even start now, and neither of us have cell reception."
Neal fumbled his phone out of his pocket and squinted at the display. The Searching for signal message was disheartening.
Peter tapped Neal's arm to get his attention. "What hurts?"
After a brief hesitation in which Neal decided that since he'd already almost hyperventilated and as such there was no reason to lie, he gestured to his left side. "Seatbelts are not always great."
Diana snorted. "I think you mean that broken ribs aren't great."
Neal sought her out and forced a smile. "That's what I said."
She rolled her eyes, but it was Peter who responded. "All right. Let me have a look." He reached for Neal's coat, but Neal batted his hands away.
"It's okay. Just hurts."
"Neal, don't be stupid. You just had surgery-"
"Three weeks ago," Neal interjected.
"-and we need to know what we're dealing with."
"Peter, it's getting cold in here, and you can take a look back at the motel easier than here." Neal hit the release on his seatbelt and slowly sat up straighter, hoping he looked healthier than he felt. "Let's go before it gets any colder out there."
Peter glanced at Diana, who nodded at him, and he finally conceded. "Fine. Let me grab some things from the trunk."
While Peter was rummaging around in the back, Neal slid to the edge of the seat and contemplated the most painless way of getting to his feet. The ground outside was covered in a layer of snow, and he didn't look forward to getting his feet wet. In front of him, Diana had crawled over the console and was sitting in the drivers' seat, taking deep breaths.
"Are you okay?" Neal couldn't help but ask.
"Wrenched my shoulder. It's okay, just sore."
Peter walked back over to them with a small bag slung over his shoulder and a smaller red one in his hands. He dropped the red one in Diana's lap and then fished a mini-Maglite out of his pocket, which he handed to Neal. "Diana, I need you to bandage the cut on my head before we get moving. Neal, give her some light."
While Diana and Peter traded places, Neal twisted the flashlight until the beam was at its brightest and then pointed it at Peter's head.
"Do you feel dizzy or nauseous?" Diana asked while she worked.
"Did you lose consciousness?"
"I don't have a concussion. Stop asking me questions."
Diana sighed and fell silent as she finished up. "Okay. You're good. Let's get out of here. I'm freezing."
Neal gratefully handed the flashlight off and pulled himself to his feet with a groan. He bit his lip and pressed one hand to his aching chest until the pain abated enough for him to start moving.
The snowy walk to the motel was less than pleasant, especially once Neal started shivering. The movements jarred his side, and it was all he could do not to whimper at the pain. Peter had one hand on his back, keeping him moving, while Diana led the way with the flashlight. Darkness had descended too quickly for even the winter months, and Peter had muttered a couple of times about how it looked like a storm was moving in.
The proprietor of the Highway 15 Motel was upwards of seventy and eyed all three of them with suspicion. It probably didn't help that Peter's jacket and shirt had large spots of blood from his head wound, and Neal himself all but collapsed into the first chair he saw and hunched over.
"Two rooms, please." The sound of Peter's credit card hitting the counter was a welcome one. Neal looked forward to getting horizontal under some warm covers sometime in the near future.
"We've only got one left. Looks like lots of folks decided to stop off tonight. Storm's rolling in, you know."
Neal looked up just as Diana and Peter exchanged glances and shrugs.
"We'll take the one then. Do you have a rollaway or something?"
"You're stuck with Caffrey," Diana said while the old man was ringing them up.
Peter ignored her to speak to him, "We had some car trouble down the road. Is there a garage nearby?"
"Sullivan's. They're closed now. Number's in the book."
"Thanks." Peter replied dryly as he signed the receipt and motioned for Diana to take the offered key.
"Number 113," Diana read off the number.
"That's around back," the owner so helpfully mentioned. If he said anything else, Neal lost it in the haze of pain that came as Peter pulled him to his feet.
Neal moaned and panted. "Warn a guy… next time."
"It's better this way. Doesn't give you a chance to tense up." Peter kept an arm around his waist as he led them out into the cold again.
Diana hurried ahead to unlock the door and get the heat going for them. Neal watched her and wished he could move that fast too.
"How're you doing?" Peter asked, as they made slow but steady progress.
"Could be better."
"Care to share with the rest of the class?"
Neal shook his head and stumbled when his vision wavered. "Just need to lay down and sleep. I'll be okay in the morning."
"You're going to be so stiff that you can't move."
Neal didn't have a response to that. He focused on putting one foot in front of the other and would have kept on going right past their room except that Peter pivoted them through the door of 113.
The heater was moaning and groaning but putting out air that was slightly warmer than the temperature of the room they'd stepped into. Peter took charge and in short order had Neal stripped of his coat, jacket, shoes, wet socks and pants and tucked under the covers of the bed closest to the heater.
Neal fought the urge to curl into a ball, knowing that it wouldn't do his ribs any good. Instead, he focused on his breathing and watched as Peter checked Diana's shoulder and frowned at her limited range of motion. He fashioned a sling for her out of a pillow case and apologized profusely for not doing it sooner. She waved him off and got settled into the other bed.
While Peter disappeared into the bathroom to check his own wound, Diana found the TV remote and started flipping through channels. "Any requests?"
"No chick flicks?"
She laughed and Neal dredged up a grin. "It's like you don't know me at all, Caffrey."
"Is there a game on?" Peter asked, exiting the bathroom and moving around Diana's bed to sit down beside Neal.
Neal lifted his head to glare. "Veto!"
Diana kept channel surfing as Peter lifted the sheets and reached for Neal's shirt. Neal made an undignified sound and tried to pull the covers back down.
"Cowboy up. I need to see your side."
Neal squirmed but allowed Peter to pull back the sheet and then lift his shirt. There were a few spots of blood on the bandage that covered his healing wounds, but nothing too bad. Peter was gentle when removed the medical tape but Neal still sucked in a breath and whimpered. He caught Peter frowning at his side and assumed he was looking at the impressive bruising there.
"Has it always been this dark? Neal?"
He tried to contort himself into a position to get a glimpse but had to stop when he almost blacked out. "Can't see it," he spit out through gritted teeth.
Diana whistled low and Neal opened his eyes to see her peering over Peter's shoulder and handing him items from the first aid kit. While it felt like Peter was doing some sort of not-so-subtle torture on him, Neal was sure he was just applying a new dressing.
"We'll find a clinic in the morning and get the both of you-"
Diana cleared her throat at the same moment that Neal glared at him.
"The three of us checked out."
Peter got up and then came back a minute later with a small cup of water and a pill, both of which he held out to Neal.
"No. I'm okay."
"Here's the deal. You're not taking full breaths still, which means that you're risking pneumonia. I'm not sure it's going to warm up any further in here, and we've all been wet and cold today for longer than we should have been. You'll take the pill, and you'll get some sleep." Peter's no-nonsense tone was one he didn't really use often, but Neal knew it when he heard it.
He quietly swallowed the pill and then turned his head away from the TV. He drifted off almost immediately, barely aware of Peter settling in on the bed or of Ghostbusters beginning to play on the TV.
Neal had really hoped to sleep in, but it was still dark in the room when Peter shook him awake. He moaned and rolled to the side of the bed just in time to be sick on the faded gray carpet.
"Neal?" Peter's voice sounded urgent, but Neal couldn't respond. It was all he could do to ride out the pain. His side was on fire, the room was spinning, and his stomach was roiling. "Diana!"
"I'm calling for help, Boss."
Their voices faded out as Neal lost the struggle with nausea and was sick again. He felt Peter's hand on the back of his neck, but his awareness was shaky at best. Time felt like it was moving too slowly and running out at the same moment.
Things came to him in bits and pieces after that. The paramedics were faceless, nameless people who hurt him more than they helped him, and he remembered calling out for Peter and Diana more than once. The ER was a blur lost to fear and agony and distress.
When he finally woke with cognizance, he was laying in a hospital bed with a nasal cannula, an IV in one arm, and a Peter attached to the other. He looked over, unsurprised that Peter was asleep with a crossword puzzle nearly falling off his lap.
"Caffrey. Are you awake?" Diana's voice came from the other side of his bed, and he turned his head fast enough to send the room into a lazy loop-de-loop. "Caffrey?"
"Yeah?" He focused on her and blushed when he remembered being sick all over the hotel room and calling her name in the ambulance or the ER or both.
"Do you need a nurse?"
"No. I'm okay. How long have I been here?"
"Since yesterday." She reached out to awkwardly pat his arm. "You were bleeding internally. The accident caused your broken ribs to puncture your spleen, and the doctors here had to operate."
He grimaced. "Sounds bad."
"It could have been." Diana didn't pull her punches. It was one of the things he usually admired about her, but right now, he could do with a little sugar coating. "Luckily, it was a slow bleed."
Neal nodded and glanced back over at Peter. "Are you guys okay?"
"Yeah. Docs gave me a muscle relaxant for my shoulder, and Peter got a proper dressing for his head. Nothing to worry about."
"Good. That's good." Neal yawned and squirmed, feeling suddenly exposed in front of Diana.
"You can find trouble just about anywhere, can't you?" She mused quietly.
He chuckled and winced at the flare up of pain. His hand moved toward his side, but she intercepted him.
"Go back to sleep, Neal."
He started to shake his head, but her fingers were suddenly smoothing his hair back, and her thumb was rubbing a slow circle against his temple. "Hmmm… feels good," he whispered, despite himself.
"You tell anyone, and I'll break your drawing hand."
He smiled softly as his body relaxed. "Knew you liked me."
"Yeah, yeah, whatever." She sounded annoyed but her fingers didn't stop their soothing motions and soon he was asleep again.
Thank you for reading!