Peter was just finishing the lunch dishes when he heard a sad little riff of coughs and sniffles behind him.
Turning, he found Neal leaning against the kitchen doorway, barefoot, clad incongruously in his own maroon silk pajamas and an old Le Moyne sweatshirt of Peter's. The sweatshirt was too big for him, and he looked like he wished it were even larger; he had his hands pulled up into the sleeves as if hoping to glean every last ounce of warmth from them.
"Hey," Peter said, "what're you doing down here? You should be in bed."
Neal shrugged, wriggling his shoulders in a way that eloquently conveyed that he was far too achy and restless to sleep.
"That sucks," Peter grimaced sympathetically, "You want something? Some tea? Juice?" he opened the refrigerator door, surveyed the contents, "Sprite?"
"Sprite's good," Neal replied, at about half his usual vocal capacity and a quarter of his usual ratio of words per sentence.
Peter poured him some, holding off on the ice. Neal lowered himself carefully onto one of the stools at the kitchen island, and hunched miserably over the glass. Must be one helluva virus Peter thought ruefully, to reduce Neal Caffrey to such a down-market beverage.
He tried again to figure out how he'd come to have a flu-ridden semi-retired conman in his kitchen.
"What's Neal up to this weekend?" Elizabeth had asked over their leisurely Saturday breakfast, coffee halfway to her lips.
"Lying low, I'd imagine. He went home sick yesterday."
A small vertical line of concern had instantly appeared on her forehead. "Really? What was wrong with him?"
"Cold, flu, I don't know. He looked terrible." And he had, pale and a little sweaty, hat jammed down over his eyes, like he wanted to block out the harsh office light.
Elizabeth was already punching numbers into her phone. "Just checking," she said to Peter's raised eyebrows, not embarrassed at all.
It took a few rings, but Neal picked up. "Hi honey," El said, "I hear you're under the weather." She launched into a detailed series of questions, while Peter pretended to read the paper, fooling no one with his apparent lack of concern, especially not himself.
"Did you know June was away for the weekend?" El had asked when she'd hung up, a hint of accusation in her voice. Peter had shaken his head. "I'm going over there," she'd informed him, "he sounds awful."
Peter considered trying to talk her out of it, but, truth was, he was starting to worry too. "You want me to come with?"
"No, no," El smiled, "don't want him to think we were ganging up on him."
Right, Peter thought, 'cause we would never do that.
Less than two hours later, she'd returned with an uncharacteristically disheveled Neal in tow, looking like he'd neither slept nor eaten since he'd left the office Friday afternoon.
"I think he has the flu," El had said by way of greeting, holding the door open for Neal, "like the real flu. Didn't you make sure he got a flu shot?"
"He's a grown man, El," Peter had protested, "he's capable of getting his own flu shot." But she'd just given him an unvarnished who-do-you-think-you're-kidding? glare, and Peter had had to agree, Who did he think he was kidding? He should've dragged Neal along when he went to get his own.
"Anyway, I couldn't just leave him there, to Mozzie's tender mercies," El continued.
"Hey, he has some great alternative remedies for these things," Neal chimed in, a little shakily, and then broke off to cough into his elbow.
"Uh-huh," Peter had put a hand under Neal's arm and steered him towards the couch, "well, here we can offer you the more traditional cures of Theraflu and whiskey."
"No whiskey, Peter," El had called from the kitchen, though there was no way she could've heard what he'd said.
Elizabeth had chivvied Neal into the shower, dosed him with various OTC medications, tried, with limited success to get him to eat something, and installed him in the spare room. Then she'd had to leave to supervise the set-up for a gallery opening.
"You did good, babe, bringing him over," Peter had said, kissing her good-bye, "he'll be much more comfortable here."
El had nodded, still looking a little worried. "Do you think I should cancel? Stay home?"
"Nah. Great bedside manner, remember?" Peter had teased, tapping his own chest, "Besides, he's probably just going to sleep. And I have a stack of files giving me the fish eye."
And yet here he was, confronted with a thoroughly wakeful Neal, shivering over his soda. Neal's hair had dried funny after the shower, an unruly mess of flat places and tufts, a byproduct of his losing battle with sleep, no doubt; it took about ten years off his age. Peter resisted the urge to push a hand through it, smooth it out. Instead, he pressed a palm to Neal's forehead.
"You're still pretty warm, there, buddy," he said, "you want some more of those pills?"
"Just took some," Neal said, mournfully.
Peter sighed. "Okay, you need to rest. If you're not going to sleep, at least go sack out on the couch, watch TV or something."
Neal nodded, shuffled obediently into the living room, and let Peter find an old movie for him to stare at blearily.
"You good?" Peter asked, setting a box of tissues down next to him, "'Cause I need to—" he gestured toward his home office.
"Yeah, yeah, I'm fine, go ahead." Neal plucked a tissue from the box and blew his nose with a resounding honk.
But Peter had barely made it through one file when he heard that same little symphony of sniffles and coughs behind him.
Neal was at the door, looking paler and shakier than ever. He now had their green throw wrapped around the too-big sweatshirt , and the box of tissues dangling from one hand.
"What's up?" Peter asked, concerned, "You need something?"
"No. I'm just—" Neal perched on the edge of the room's old leather recliner, started poking aimlessly through the pile of magazines on the side table next to it. He seemed to lose the thread of his sentence.
"Are you hungry?" Peter tried again, "I could heat up some soup."
"No thanks. I—" The sentence trailed off again.
So Peter just let him sit there, glancing at him now and then from the corner of his eye. It was as if the flu had performed some kind of species-switch on Neal, who, for all his enjoyment of people, usually maintained a cat-like self-sufficiency. Now, Peter felt weirdly like he was being trailed around the house by a sad and very sneezy puppy.
He's going to have to crash sometime, he consoled himself, no good trying to force it, and tried to push on through the drudgery of paper work.
The snuffling and half-suppressed hacking made it hard to concentrate, however, and when Neal gave in to a coughing jag that lasted a good thirty seconds, Peter pushed his chair back and stood up.
"You know what?" he lied, "I'm pretty much done here. Let's see if we can find something we both can stand watching."
"Okay," Neal didn't bother to hide the gratitude in his voice.
Back in the living room, Peter was pleased to find The Streets of San Francisco playing on cable—he was always happy to see a Karl Malden flick. He got Neal some more soda, and a beer for himself and settled in. If he was going to spend the afternoon playing nursemaid, he might as well enjoy himself.
Neal stayed in one place, at least, though he was still restless, shifting around on the couch as if each position were less comfortable than the last. He didn't complain, but Peter could see his face getting more and more drawn, pain pulling at the corners of his eyes.
Neal's left leg, in particular, seemed to be giving him trouble. He would stretch it out in front of him, pull it back, trying to find an angle that didn't hurt; and then start the process over again. When he thought Peter wasn't looking, he'd rub the toes of his right foot against the side of the left, dig them under the cuff of the anklet, worrying at it.
"That thing bothering you?" Peter asked finally, undone by sympathetic discomfort.
"No, I'm good." Neal jerked his right foot, which had started its creep towards the left one again, sharply away.
But Peter had a sudden, vivid flash of how awful it would be, if your skin were crawling with fever, your muscles aching, to have that thick band of hard plastic chafing against the bone. The anklet probably felt like it weighed a hundred pounds right now.
"I'll be right back," he said, and swiftly located the electronic key he kept in a locked drawer of his desk.
"You don't have to," Neal said weakly, when Peter came back, knelt in front of him, and pushed up the fabric of his pajamas.
"Don't worry," Peter grinned, "medical necessity. I'll call it in. Anyway, I doubt you're going anywhere tonight."
"You can say that again." Neal slumped against the sofa cushions with a muted groan.
Peter eased the anklet off. Neal's skin was hot under his hand, and he kept his fingers curled around the back of his calf a few moments longer than necessary, as if hoping his touch would quell that heat, draw out the pain.
But removing the tracking device did seem to help. When Peter came back from calling the Marshalls, he found Neal curled into an improbably small ball in the corner of the couch, legs drawn up under him and elbows tucked in, already snoring gently.
Peter smiled, feeling, absurdly, as if he accomplished something that day after all. He tucked the throw around Neal, and couldn't bring himself to go back to his study. Instead, he retrieved some papers, switched the TV over the Knicks game, muted the sound, and stayed.
And that's how Elizabeth found them when she got back from the gallery.
Peter was out of bed and across the hall before he had fully registered what had woken him.
At the doorway to the spare room, though, he paused. They'd left Neal safely ensconced in the guest bed, dosed to the gills with nighttime flu meds. But now the bedclothes were a tangled mess, and Neal was huddled on the floor at the foot of the bed, clinging to the corner of a sheet as though it were a lifeline.
His eyes were open, though he clearly wasn't seeing the room around him, and he was making the noise that had pulled Peter out of sleep, a keening, nerve-jangling "uuunnnn, uunnn" of pure terror.
Elizabeth almost bumped into Peter in her own hurry. "What—what's going on—?" she asked, taking in the scene over his shoulder.
"I don't know," Peter shook his head, "bad dream, I think." He took a step forward, trying to keep his voice as level and firm as possible. "Neal, wake up. You're having a nightmare, Caffrey, snap out of it."
His words made no impression. Neal just clutched his sheet-rope more tightly, and started muttering something under his breath.
Taking a deep breath—seeing Neal unhinged like that was more than a little disconcerting—Peter edged cautiously closer, until he could crouch in front of Neal.
"Not strong enough," Neal was murmuring, his voice a thin thread of sound, "can't get back—too far—"
"You're okay," Peter tried, "It's Peter, Neal—you're safe."
But Neal just shook his head in distress and went back to making that horrible, frightened moan.
Without really thinking about it, Peter reached forward and touched his shoulder. And then, too late, remembered why, in water safety classes, they always told you to never touch a drowning person, if you could help it. Because they'd panic.
Neal launched himself at Peter, almost knocking him over, coiling an arm around Peter's neck in what amounted to a stranglehold—his burning face pressed against Peter's cheek, his harsh, ragged breathing impossibly loud in Peter's ear.
Not sure what to do, Peter brought his own hands up, tried to smooth the tension out of Neal's back. Neal had plastered himself so tightly against him that there wasn't an inch between them, and Peter could feel the tremors shaking that lean frame juddering through his own body. Elizabeth was down on the floor with them now, too, murmuring "hey, baby, it's alright, easy now," over and over again.
But it was like trying to calm an animal driven half-mad by fear. Neal was a bundle of twisting limbs, scrabbling against Peter for some kind of purchase or security that never seemed to come.
It was starting to scare Peter a little, force him to entertain the possibility that Neal was truly delirious, or, worse, had suffered some kind of mental break, when a horrible insight came to him.
He took one hand off Neal's shoulder and wrapped it, tight, around his left ankle.
Miraculously, heartbreakingly, it worked. The fight went out of Neal almost instantly. He drew in a long, shuddering breath and lifted his head, blinking.
"Peter?" he said, slow and dazed.
Then Neal collapsed over Peter's arm, coughing as if he really were trying to expel ocean water from his lungs.
Neal was awake now, if completely out of it, and it wasn't hard for Peter and Elizabeth to get him back into bed and pull the rumpled covers over him. El got another round of pills into him, coaxed him into drinking some water. She took his temperature, too—which turned out not to be nearly as high as Peter had feared; it really had been just a nasty fever dream, not a side-effect of Neal's brain-cells boiling. Neal even managed to give El the happy little indulged smile he always got when she fussed over him before drifting seamlessly into sleep.
Throughout her ministrations, Peter sat on Neal's other side, one hand still curled around Neal's leg. Chances were he could have moved it, he knew—he just wasn't willing, yet, to see what would happen if he did.
"He's probably out for the night now," Elizabeth said, relieved, once Neal's eyes had closed, "we can try to go back to sleep."
"You go ahead, honey," Peter smiled at her, "I'm just gonna sit here a moment longer."
El looked at him, took in the position of his hand, and her mouth puckered with sympathy and understanding. She nodded, dropped a kiss on the top of Peter's head, and left.
Peter was still sitting there when Neal's fever finally broke, though whether it was minutes or hours later, he couldn't tell.
Neal stirred, hand going up to push the sweat-soaked hair out of his face. He made a small sound of discomfort, coughed harshly.
"How you doing?" Peter asked.
"Okay, I think," Neal answered, strangely unsurprised to find Peter at his bedside, "just, ugh." He plucked at his damp pajama top.
"Yeah," Peter agreed, "Lemme get you some dry things."
He retrieved new sheets from the linen closet in the hall, then ducked into the dark master bedroom, happy to hear El's quiet breathing, and snagged clean sweats and a t-shirt from his own drawers.
Once a re-clothed Neal was back under clean sheets, Peter decided it was probably time to call it a night. "Rest," he told Neal, as authoritatively as he could, and turned off the light.
"Peter," Neal called, before he'd quite made it out the door. "I'm sorry about being so—crazy—before—"
"Don't worry about it," Peter said, turning the light on again, "you were running pretty hot—that can do funny things to your head—"
"Mmm." Neal went on, and something in his tone told Peter that he wasn't quite as cogent as he had thought, was still floating muzzily through the aftermath of fever and anxiety, "it's just—I was feeling weird—you know?—like I didn't weigh anything at all—like a leaf, or something, a snake's abandoned skin—"
"Yeah?" Peter came back over to the bed and sat down.
"And then I started having this—I dunno—flashback, maybe—to this time when I was a kid, and I got caught in a riptide," Neal's voice was soft, dreamy almost, "Scared me to death—I completely forgot you were supposed to swim parallel, just flailed and panicked 'til they had to send a lifeguard out for me. And then I just panicked all over him too."
"But you're a strong swimmer," Peter said, even though it was beside the point. He was remembering a story—a story he believed—about Neal robbing some Lake Como villa by approaching—and escaping—via the water.
"I am now," Neal said, and Peter smiled, because that was the Neal Caffrey he knew, mastering every skill that life threw in his path.
But the Neal lying exhausted in their spare bed was still caught up in the memory of his frightened childhood self. "It was the worst feeling, seeing the land get farther and farther away, the current pulling me out. But then, in my dream, it wasn't the lifeguard anymore, it was you," Neal smiled, that incongruously open smile Peter could never believe possible from such a hardened conman, "and I don't know what you did, but it made the panic go away."
"I didn't do anything," Peter demurred, "You just woke up, that's all." But he had, he realized, unconsciously closed his fingers around Neal's ankle again, the skin, thankfully, much cooler to the touch now.
It was an illusion, Peter knew—in a few days, Neal would be back to his full, lithe strength, as glossy as any magazine spread—but right at the moment the long bones of his leg felt absurdly vulnerable, liable to be ripped away at any moment by the hard current of the world.
He rubbed his thumb over the sharp jut of the joint, the smooth hollow of flesh behind it, slowly, gently, until Neal fell asleep again.