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Out of the Cold

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“Hon,” Elizabeth inquired drowsily, “was that the doorbell?”

Peter didn't  want  it to have been the doorbell. He'd spent too long creating the perfect cocoon of warmth beneath the covers, and he'd just been preparing to drop off to sleep. His brain didn't want to reboot. It was January. This was hibernation season. What's more it was a Friday night, which meant he had until Monday morning to remain in a vegetative state, savoring the heat of a brand-new electric blanket. That, he decided, had been a Christmas present of pure genius on El's part.

“Peter?”

“Mmm.”

“Someone just rang the doorbell.”

“It's probably some kid playing a prank.”

The doorbell rang again, followed by the unmistakable sound of a thud.

With or without his brain, Peter's body was up and moving. The cold of the room temperature was nothing compared to the blast of air that hit him with a jolt worthy of a shot of espresso as he opened the front door. If that wasn't enough to wake him up, having Neal cave in against him, like a mound of snow piled against the door, was enough to finish the job.

Before Peter could unburden himself of some of the sentiments that seemed most appropriate to the bizarreness of the situation, Elizabeth was there, turning on the lights and helping Peter move Neal out of the doorway by wrapping one of Neal's arms around her shoulders as he took him from the other side. Peter closed the door behind them with a foot.

Neal wasn't entirely unresponsive, but his mumbling was far from lucid as they laid him out on the couch, and his eyes were drooping.

Elizabeth put the back of her hand to the side of Neal's face. “He's  freezing . Go get some blankets, will you?”

When Peter returned, she was still trying to get a coherent response out of Neal, with limited success. Peter draped blankets over Neal, noting the lack of winter-appropriate attire. A turtleneck sweater hardly qualified, especially for a skinny guy who was currently shivering enough that Peter could feel the vibration where his knees touched the couch.

“Neal?” Peter crouched down near his head, shaking his shoulder.

Neal turned, curling on his side and clutching the edge of the blanket. He blinked slowly at Peter several times before a beatific smile eclipsed his stare. “Peter,” he slurred in greeting.

Peter was having flashbacks to the Howser clinic. He tried not to jump to conclusions. But the obvious question had to be asked. “Have you been drinking, Neal?”

“No,” Neal replied, easily and amicably, but adamantly as a toddler. “Not at all. Not a bit. Not even a drop. Not even—”

“—Okay, okay, I get the picture.”

“Peter,” Elizabeth spoke in his ear, “do you think we should be taking him to the ER?”

Before answering, Peter felt Neal's wrist to gauge his pulse. It was steady. His breathing seemed easy. No detectable smell of alcohol. His eyes were slightly dilated.

Meanwhile, Neal had discovered Elizabeth's presence and was smiling again, if anything more stupidly than before. “Hey Elizabeth.”

Elizabeth came closer, amused and worried at the same time. “Hey you. What do you think you're doing wandering around in the middle of a winter night without a coat on?”

“Was thinking...needed to get here n'stead of sleeping in the snow,” Neal answered pragmatically.

Elizabeth exchanged a glance with Peter before pressing, “But, honey, what were you doing out there in the first place?”

“Needed...out.”

Peter sighed. “He's high on something.” He shook his head. “Whatever it is, he seems to be doing alright.”

“Well he's certainly happy,” Elizabeth pointed out.

“M' not ...” Neal protested.

As tempting as it might have been to jump to conclusions, as far Peter knew, drugs had never been among Neal's vices. Besides, if he'd wanted to get hammered, alcohol would've been the more obvious choice. He patted Neal's shoulder in an attempt to draw his attention. “What happened?”

“Idiots with needles happ'ned,” Neal supplied concisely, looking mildly put out rather than truly angry. “They thought I knew where it was,” he mumbled. “But I  didn't . Told'm. But they gave it to me, anyway.”

“Who?” Elizabeth asked.

“The  idiot  with the  needle ,” Neal insisted with a sleepy frown of impatience.

“What did they give you, Neal?”

“Don't know. Wanted me to...talk.”

Elizabeth raised an eyebrow incredulously, mouthing “Truth serum?” at Peter.

Peter shrugged. It could've Sodium Pentothal, or Scopolamine, or any number of pop-culture dubbed “truth serums.” The  truth  was that what they generally produced was the equivalent of a chatty and persuadable drunk. At the moment the description certainly fit.

“Peter?” Neal moaned. “I think m'going to throw up.”

Elizabeth grabbed a trash bin just in time. Peter sat down on the sofa next to Neal, a hand supporting his back, while Elizabeth soothed Neal unflinchingly through a bout of vomiting that quickly came to dry heaves.

Elizabeth left with the bin, and Peter found himself pinned right where he was by the limp weight of Neal's head, resting against his shoulder. “Feel better?”

Neal nodded sloppily. “You're really nice to me, Peter.”

Peter had to chuckle. “You have no idea, buddy.”

“But I do,” Neal insisted. If anything, he was becoming more securely settled against Peter's shoulder by the second. “Because...you can get me out of anything.  Anything .”

“That's...that's good, Neal. I'm glad you came to me. But let's not test that theory any more than we have to, huh?”

“'kay.”

“The guys that did this to you, Neal, do you have any idea who they were?”

Neal shook his head. “Masks. Don't know where they went...”

“Okay. Well, we'll work on that as soon as you're feeling a bit better.”

Neal sighed, clearly comfortable, and to all appearances settling in to use Peter as a pillow for the duration of the evening.

Elizabeth had returned, and was seated in one of the chairs, observing them with a look that Peter knew meant she was moments away from going to get a camera. Peter was just contemplating whispering for her to grab an actual pillow, instead, so they could attempt to transplant Neal's head onto  it , when Neal decided he wasn't done yet.

“You know a lot, Peter.”

Peter exchanged an amused glance with Elizabeth. “Glad you finally noticed.”

“About me, I mean.”

“Sure, I know a lot. But you're still pretty good at keeping your fair share of secrets. There are still plenty of things I'd love to figure out about what goes on in that head of yours.”

Neal “mmm”ed at that thoughtfully. “So, what d'you want to know?”

Momentarily caught off-guard, Peter looked down at Neal's peacefully obliging expression. “You mean, about anything?”

“Yup,” Neal agreed, pleased with his own magnanimity, “Anything. They wanted me to tell them about...stuff. About where I hide things. But I wouldn't tell just anyone everything.” He smiled like it was Christmas morning all over again, and he was still young enough to believe in Santa Claus and flying reindeer. “But I'd tell you, Peter.”

“Thanks... Thanks, I appreciate that, Neal.” Peter gave Neal's shoulder an awkward pat. His arm was beginning to lose circulation. “But I'm not sure right now's the best time for that.”

“Don't you want to know?”

Peter wouldn’t deny it was tempting. There were so many questions that needed answers, and here Neal was, ready to spill his life's story—happily, even  blissfully  willing to do so. But Peter also knew he couldn't let him. Neal had come here because he trusted him. Maybe he was, if only subconsciously, coherent enough to have come here not only knowing Peter would take him in out of the cold, but because he'd also known Peter wouldn't take advantage of his vulnerable state to pump him for information. Either way, Neal's muddled intuition had done the right thing.

“Just relax, buddy. Get some sleep. We'll talk in the morning.”

Neal seemed confused for a moment by this rejection of his offer, but eventually his eyelids began to droop shut, and within minutes he was breathing deeply, becoming a fully dead weight that quickly began to obey the force of gravity as it slid off Peter's shoulder.

Elizabeth was there with a pillow, placing it in Peter's lap just in time for Neal's descent.

“You want some help escaping?” she asked smilingly. “He doesn't look like he's going to wake up again anytime soon.”

“I'll just give him a few minutes first,” he shrugged, “to make sure he’s asleep.”

That thoughtful, observant look of hers never failed to make Peter feel like he'd done something extraordinary, but he was too tired just then to figure out exactly what it was that he'd  done  to put it on her face.

“You're a good man, Peter Burke,” she said, kissing him, and staying long enough to drape a blanket over each of them.