Neal limped slowly past the rows of stainless steel doors, following the coroner to one on the far wall. He held his breath as the older man reached for the handle.
"Are you sure you want to see this, son?" The coroner's tone was gentle but had a practiced quality that was unnerving.
Neal swallowed hard and nodded, unable to say anything right then. He needed to cowboy up so that he could spare Peter the pain of identifying the remains. He clenched his fists and shifted his weight onto his uninjured ankle. It was now or never. "Open it," he said with a trembling voice.
The coroner frowned and tugged the handle so that the door opened and a bed slid out with a black body bag on it. The bag was zipped so Neal couldn't see anything yet, but the smell made him double over.
"Whoa!" The coroner shoved a small trash can under him, but there wasn't anything in his stomach. He dropped onto his hands and knees on the floor and took as deep a breath as he dared, careful of his bruised ribs.
It took a few minutes for Neal to get ahold of himself. When he lifted his head, he saw that the freezer door was closed and the nurse that had accompanied him from the ward was standing nearby with a wheelchair. Her name was Louise, and Neal had charmed her into calling all the area hospitals to look for Elizabeth. She was the one who brought him the news that a woman matching Elizabeth's description was in the morgue, but the body had been badly burned in the train derailment that had also landed Neal in the hospital.
"Let's go back to your room, Neal," Louise said gently as she reached out to help him to his feet and into the wheelchair.
"No," he mumbled, "I need to see her. I need to make sure that it's her so that Peter doesn't have to."
"Mr. Caffrey," the coroner approached from a side room, holding a tattered, charred green garment with tarnished gold buttons, "is this the sweater that your friend was wearing?"
Neal gulped and nodded. "Where did you find it?"
"It was on the body."
He leaned forward, put his head in his hands, and wished desperately to wake from this nightmare.
Peter cursed the traffic the entire way to Bridgeport. He'd never been prone to road rage, but he hadn't been able to get in touch with Neal outside of the text message he'd gotten that had simply said I'm okay. Peter had called the area hospitals until he found the one where Neal was a patient and had then spoken with a nurse to get the bare minimum of information, which boiled down to Neal being a very lucky young man.
So far, he hadn't been able to get in touch with Elizabeth at all. She wasn't answering her phone or text messages, and Neal hadn't responded to Peter's questions about her. When he'd been calling the hospitals, he'd asked about her too, but no one had a patient by the name of Elizabeth Burke. All the stress and worry was causing his stomach to roil and a massive headache to develop. What if she hadn't been found yet? Why didn't Neal get back to him? Why didn't he take off work a couple of days early so they could all drive up to Elizabeth's sister's house together?
When he finally pulled up at the hospital, he was a ball of nervous tension. He slid into the first space he saw and ran inside. The information desk again told him there was no one named Elizabeth Burke as a patient, but Neal Caffrey was in room 512.
He took the elevator to the fifth floor and followed the signs to the room. The door was open, but the lights had been dimmed. As he stepped inside, he caught sight of Neal, curled on his side with his back to the door. "Neal?"
His lover slowly turned to reveal a tear-stained face. Peter's knees weakened, and he stumbled to the bedside chair.
"I'm sorry," Neal whispered. "I'm so sorry. I shouldn't have let her go by herself. It was stupid. I'm sorry, Peter."
He leaned forward and put one hand on Neal's chest and the other tangled in the mussed hair on top of his head. "What's… What is it?"
"Elizabeth," Neal breathed the name like he was afraid to say it too loudly.
Peter pulled away abruptly, falling back into the chair and losing all physical contact with Neal, who started to sob.
"How?" he asked when he finally found his voice.
Tears were streaming down Neal's face. He pushed himself up to sit on the mattress and twisted the blanket in his hands while he spoke. "We had been playing card games on the train, trying to make the trip to Hartford go by faster, and she owed me a drink. We took a break, and she went to the café car. I shouldn't have let her go by herself."
He took a shuddering breath and didn't speak again until Peter prompted him with, "What happened then?"
"The train… it derailed and the cars turned over. There was a fire. I couldn't get around it at first. I looked for her everywhere... I don't know how I got to the hospital. I was at the train and then I was waking up in the ER." He rubbed at his temple and Peter suddenly noticed a livid bruise there.
"How do you know she's…?"
"She was wearing that green sweater her sister gave her last Christmas. The one with the gold buttons. It, ummm… The coroner… It was on the…" Neal choked on the words and curled back into his tight ball.
Peter sat forward and put a hand on his back. Neal leaned into the touch and made the most forlorn sound that Peter had ever heard. He moved so that he was sitting on the bed and pulled Neal into his arms.
The younger man's body was shaking, so Peter held him tightly. He didn't want to believe it, but he knew that Neal would never tell him this unless he believed it himself. It was too hard to imagine life without Elizabeth, too hard to think about anything other than comforting Neal right then. His heart couldn't take on more than that.
They were both crying when Louise entered the room several minutes later. She started to back away, but Peter saw her and beckoned her over. He wiped his face with a tissue from the box she offered him and tried not to be further upset by her pitying smile. Neal didn't lift his head from Peter's shoulder, and he couldn't seem to stop weeping.
"I'm Neal's next of kin. Could you tell me about his injuries?" Peter asked. The nurse he'd spoken with on the phone wouldn't give him details, and he needed to know what he could do to make Neal more comfortable. He wanted to do something, anything to help.
Louise nodded and introduced herself as the nurse on shift. "Neal's got a mild concussion, some bruised ribs, and a sprained ankle. There are some other cuts and bruises, but those will heal up pretty fast. He's on medication right now for pain and the nausea he was experiencing earlier."
"The best thing for him right now is rest, and I think you could do with some of that too. Should I have a cot brought in for you?"
Neal, who'd initially shown no interest in the conversation, suddenly gripped his shirt tightly. "Don't go."
Louise frowned but didn't comment.
"I'm not going anywhere, buddy. You should stretch out though and get comfortable." Peter tried to move away, but Neal wouldn't let him loose.
"Neal, would you like something to help you sleep?" Louise was trying to be helpful, but Peter doubted Neal would accept a sedative.
The younger man shook his head predictably.
"It'll just be something mild to relax you."
"No," Neal responded firmly.
"Okay," Louise replied. "I'll be back to check on you in about an hour."
She gave Peter a small smile and then left them alone again.
Peter looked down at Neal, leaning against his side in a way that could not be comfortable with injured ribs. He slid away before Neal could protest and coaxed the other man into a better position. Then, he lay back down beside him and held him close despite the narrow confines of the bed.
There were things that needed to happen and people Peter needed to call. He could feel his phone vibrating in his pocket, but right now, he needed this intimacy far more than anything else.
When Neal woke, it was mostly dark in his room. There was an absence of warmth beside him that meant that Peter was no longer lying there. He bolted upright and groaned as his head spun, his stomach turned, and his ribs protested. "Peter?"
"I'm here." Peter's voice was rough and raw.
Neal looked over and found Peter sitting in the bedside chair with his phone in his hands. The screen was illuminating his face in a way that made Neal shudder and reach for the light cord above his bed.
They both blinked at the sudden bright light, and Neal rubbed his eyes as his headache flared briefly.
"I called Abby," Peter said softly. "She's coming down in the morning."
"Okay." Neal hadn't even thought about calling Elizabeth's sister, Abby. He'd only met her last Christmas, and they'd become fast friends, but he'd only been able to think about Peter's reaction and then his own grief.
Peter's thumb flicked across his phone screen as a tear slipped down his cheek.
Neal knew he kept pictures of Elizabeth on his phone. There were some of himself too, and some of Satchmo, a couple of the White Collar team, including one with Diana and Theo smiling for the camera. He thought of his own pictures on his phone, which was in the top drawer of the bedside table, but he couldn't bring himself to pull it out.
Suddenly, Peter's phone vibrated, and the ringtone that filled the silence was one they both knew well. It was Elizabeth's favorite jazz song.
Neal watched as Peter raised the phone with a shaking hand. "Who is this?" His eyes widened, and they darted up to meet Neal's. He pulled the phone away and put it on speaker. "Would you please repeat that?"
"Mr. Burke, I'm calling from Yale-New Haven Hospital. Your wife's phone has you listed as her emergency contact. She's here in our ICU, and she's been unconscious since the accident. We were only just able to retrieve her phone from her personal effects to try and determine her identity."
"Would you-" Peter cleared his throat and tried the question again. "Would you be able to take her picture and send it to this number?"
"Certainly. Give me a moment."
Peter's hand groped the blanket for Neal's, and Neal grabbed on with a strength that he didn't know he had. Neal was finding it hard to breathe, hard to think beyond being afraid to hope that it was Elizabeth and that she was alive.
"Okay. You should receive it in a moment."
The phone vibrated again, and Peter tapped on something with the trembling index finger of his free hand. He gasped and started to cry again. "It's her." He held out the phone so Neal could see too. "It's her. Oh, thank god."
The image showed a woman lying in a hospital bed surrounded by equipment. Flowing brown hair framed a very familiar face. It was her.
Neal's head swam with the relief of it all. He fumbled with the bedside controls to raise the bed so he could lean back without laying down, only half-listening as the person on the phone described Elizabeth's condition as critical. All he really heard was that she had internal injuries that had required surgery and that the doctors were keeping a close eye on her status.
Before Neal could realize that Peter had hung up, the other man was throwing his arms around Neal and kissing him breathless. Peter's tongue pushed into Neal's mouth with an urgency that was usually reserved for other activities. "She's alive," Peter whispered against his lips, when they broke apart.
"She's alive," Neal echoed. "Let's go see her."
"I'll go," Peter said. "It's three in the morning. Let me go and see what's what, and I'll call you as soon as I have news."
"No!" Neal sat up and shook his head hard enough to cause his body to start tipping to the side. "I need to see her too, Peter."
Peter put a hand on his shoulder to both hold him up and keep him on the bed. "I understand. Believe me, I understand, but you're recovering-"
"-and I need you to be okay. We need you to be okay."
He refused to break eye contact with Peter. This was too important for him to be left behind. He pushed Peter's hand away and stood. He gripped the IV line just above the needle and yanked in one fast motion to remove it from the back of his hand. "I'm fine, and I'm going, with or without you." He turned to the closet and pulled out the bag that held what was left of his clothes. The ER staff had cut off his shirt but not his pants. He put those on and then sat down to tie his shoes.
"I need to see her." He didn't raise his voice or elaborate. There was no way he could explain to Peter how he'd felt when he was standing in the morgue with that smell and those strangers.
Peter scrubbed a hand over his face, turned, and headed out the door. He returned a couple of minutes later with Louise.
"Mr. Burke here tells me that you want to fly the coop," she said, taking Neal's wrist and measuring his pulse.
"Elizabeth's alive, but she's in a different hospital."
"Oh, honey." Louise patted his knee in a placating gesture, but Peter spoke up.
"He's right. We just got a phone call from a nurse at Yale-New Haven. Elizabeth's in the ICU there."
"Oh! That's great news." Louise smiled at them both and then stepped away toward the cupboard in the corner of the room. She rummaged inside until she came up with a bottle and a bandage. "Let me take care of that hand. I wish you would have waited for me to help."
Neal winced at the sting of antiseptic. "Sorry."
When she was done, she looked from Neal to Peter and back again. "If I ask you to wait until the doctor can have one more look at you, what would you say?"
"No. I can't stay when Elizabeth's not here. I need-"
"To see her. I understand." Louise nodded and headed toward the door. "I need to get the paperwork together for an AMA. I'll be right back, and I'll see about finding you a shirt. Mr. Burke, would you come with me?"
Peter gave Neal a pleading 'please stay here' look before following the nurse into the hallway.
"Mr. Burke, I'm concerned about Neal leaving the hospital. Between his injuries and his mental state, it's very unwise."
"I understand that, and I did try to talk him into staying, but I know Neal. He would be gone and halfway there before either one of us realized he was missing, if that's what it took. I'd rather he not do it alone."
Louise frowned but nodded. "I'll print up the AMA paperwork. I would page the doctor, but I don't think Neal will wait that long. I'm also going to give you a list of symptoms to watch out for in regard to his concussion and his ribs."
"Thank you." Peter knew that it was dangerous to take Neal out of the hospital, but they weren't going to be driving far or probably leaving the other hospital for a while. And Neal would calm down once he got to see Elizabeth for himself, not unlike how the butterflies in Peter's heart would finally settle too.
Twenty minutes later, Neal was in the passenger seat of the Taurus, wearing Peter's coat because his own had been lost during the derailment, and Peter was navigating the nearly barren late night streets.
They were silent during the drive and while they were searching the hospital for the ICU. It wasn't until they found it and were confronted with a night nurse who had a serious attitude problem that Neal finally broke down, sobbing. Peter was helpless to do anything but watch and try to soothe him with a hand rubbing gentle circles on the small of his back.
"Sir, visiting hours do not start until nine in the morning. You'll have to come back then."
"You don't understand. Please, just let us see her for a few minutes. Please. I need to know – we need to know – that she's okay. I can't… I have to see her. I have to. Please." Neal never begged, and Peter was concerned when he slipped his arm around Neal's waist and found that his entire body was trembling.
"Sir. I know it's been a long day, but I cannot let you into the ICU until nine a.m."
"Long day? Long day? I was in a train that derailed, I thought I lost my… Elizabeth, I tried to identify her body in the morgue, and then we got a phone call that she was alive and here and I need to see her. Right. Now."
The nurse took a deep breath and eyed both of them. Peter wondered how they must look to her because he felt completely disheveled, and Neal plainly looked like hell. He was pale, exhausted, and wearing dirty dark-wash jeans with a scrub top under Peter's too-large coat. "I'll give you fifteen minutes, but then you'll need to go and come back in the morning."
Peter moved his hand up to squeeze Neal's shoulder and nodded at the nurse. "Thank you."
Neal's knees threatened to buckle as they were led back into the ICU and past a number of glass-walled rooms. He kept his eyes focused on the nurse's curly blonde hair in its efficient ponytail. It bounced as she walked until she stopped and turned to motion them into a room.
The name Elizabeth Burke was written on the dry-erase board beside the door with several abbreviations that meant nothing to Neal. He looked through the door and gasped. She was lying so still with her dark hair spilling across the pillow on either side of her pale face.
He took several halting steps forward, wanting to be closer to her but afraid to be too close. Something hard nudged the back of his legs and Neal folded, dropping into the visitor's chair that had been pushed over to him. He looked up and saw Peter standing behind him, both hands on the back of the chair as if he were using it to hold himself up too.
Neal turned his attention back to Elizabeth and reached out with a shaking hand to brush his fingers along her arm. She gave no reaction; he bowed his head and cried tears of relief.
He was vaguely aware of Peter's hand gripping his shoulder and of the man's presence when he moved so that he could be closer to his wife. Neal would have sat there forever, praying silently for Elizabeth to wake up and be okay, but Peter eventually pulled him to his feet and steered him out the door and down the hall to the waiting room and into another chair.
"Neal?" Peter was kneeling in front of him when he raised his head. "Are you okay? Do you need to see a doctor?"
"No," he replied.
Peter pressed his lips together like he was gearing up to argue, but he deflated almost as quickly and pulled Neal into a hug. "She's going to be okay. Everything's going to be okay."
Neal wasn't sure who he was trying to convince, but he hugged Peter back and nodded against the older man's shoulder like he was agreeing. In all honesty, Neal was too strung out on fear and pain and exhaustion to really think about Elizabeth's condition beyond the immediate facts. She was hurt, but she was getting care. She was alive.
After a few minutes, Peter eased back and regarded him thoughtfully. "We should find somewhere for you to stretch out and get some sleep. Will you be okay here for a minute? I'm going to talk to the nurses about that."
Neal nodded and tipped his head back against the wall. He closed his eyes, intending to rest for a few minutes while Peter was sorting things out. He was asleep after only a few breaths.
Peter was disappointed that the hospital didn't have suites available on-site for patients' families, but he was grateful that the hospital actually had a hotel two blocks away. It would have to do for tonight because Neal was dead on his feet, and there was no way he would be able to sleep comfortably sitting up in a waiting room chair.
The nurses helped him make a reservation at the hotel, and then he roused Neal long enough to get him in the elevator and down the two blocks to the hotel. It was closer to walk than to find the car and drive, so they were in a room shortly with Neal already back to sleep while Peter tugged off his shoes and pants.
Peter lay awake for a long time, taking comfort in the feel of Neal's heartbeat under his hand. Neal was alive, and he would be okay. Elizabeth was alive, and he had to believe that she was going to be fine. Seeing her tonight in the ICU had been more jarring than he'd thought it would be. Elizabeth was the strong one, the invincible one. Peter's job was dangerous, and while he always tried to be safe, he knew that there was always a possibility of being injured or worse. Elizabeth should never be the one laying in a hospital bed with a machine breathing for her.
He cried, softly at first but when the sobs grew in both intensity and sound, he slipped away from Neal to lock himself in the bathroom and let everything out. He was terrified that Elizabeth would slip away from him and there was absolutely nothing he could do about it. It would be the worst torture for him to believe she was dead, find her alive, and then have to watch her die. Surely, fate would not be so cruel.
The next morning, Peter and Neal met with Elizabeth's doctor to discuss her care. She had several internal injuries that had warranted surgery immediately after she'd arrived at the hospital, and now they were monitoring her closely while waiting for her to come out of the anesthesia. Until her condition showed improvement, she would remain in the ICU.
Neal camped out at her bedside in an uncomfortable plastic visitor's chair, only leaving when the nurses kicked him out or when Peter prodded him to eat or sleep. He treated his own injuries as little more than a nuisance while he kept vigil.
However, it didn't take long for the near-silence in Elizabeth's room to become unbearable, so Neal made a stop by the hospital gift shop after lunch and bought a couple of books that he thought Elizabeth would like.
Peter was working a crossword in the corner when Neal cleared his throat and started to read:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
Peter snorted, and Neal glanced at him briefly before continuing:
However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.
"My dear Mr. Bennet," said his lady to him one day, "have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?"
Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.
"But it is," returned she; "for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it."
Mr. Bennet made no answer.
"Is that Pride and Prejudice?" Peter asked. When Neal looked up, he was surprised to see that there were tears in Peter's eyes. "That's one of her favorite books."
"I know. We've talked Regency literature before. I prefer Byron and Keats, but Elizabeth told me once that she liked to re-read Pride and Prejudice every couple of years."
"Usually around the holidays when all of her big jobs are finished and she finally has a few days to relax."
Neal nodded and looked over at Elizabeth, willing her to wake and read the book with him. After a moment of silence, he looked back down at the page and started to read again:
"Do you not want to know who has taken it?" cried his wife impatiently.
"You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it."
This was invitation enough.
"Why, my dear, you must know…
Abby, Elizabeth's older sister, had arrived the day after they'd found her, and she quietly kept vigil over them all until she hooked her hand through Peter's arm and nodded toward the hallway. "Take a walk with me."
He wanted to protest, but she raised her eyebrows in a very Elizabeth-like way, and he found himself on his feet and stepping out the door. Neal had fallen asleep in the chair by Elizabeth's bed, so Peter didn't wake him. He didn't plan on being gone for long anyway.
"How are you doing?" Abby asked as they walked out of the ICU and down the hall toward the stairwell. "And don't try to bullshit me. You should know better than that by now."
Peter shrugged noncommittally. "I've been better, but I look at El and Neal, and all I can do is thank god that they're going to be okay." He couldn't face the possibility of any different outcome.
She nodded but stayed quiet. Peter hated it when she did that, waited him out with a patience that no one else he knew, not even his wife, possessed.
They went down two flights of stairs before he started talking. "I wish there was something that I could do to help them. Elizabeth's clearly getting better, and they expect her to wake at any time, but no one can tell me when that will be. And there's nothing I can do that Neal's not already doing. If she's going to wake to anyone's voice, it will be his. She loves listening to him sing or read aloud.
"On the other hand, Neal's in so much pain, physically and emotionally, and yet, he won't accept any help. He doesn't want anyone to know, but I know him too well."
"I just don't know what to do for either of them." He sighed and ran his fingers through his hair as they stepped outside into the brisk afternoon air.
"Firstly, all you can do for Elizabeth is exactly what you're doing. Be there, talk to her, take care of yourself. She'll appreciate that more than you running yourself into the ground like Neal's doing."
That made a lot of sense. Elizabeth needed to focus on her own recovery when she finally woke, and he would only be a distraction from that if he let his worry drag his own health down.
"As for Neal," Abby continued, "you have got to talk some sense into him. I understand that he's upset – we all are – but El's going to be all the more upset herself when she sees the state that he's in."
"I know, but he can be more stubborn than your sister."
Abby gave him a sad smile. "I'll stay with Elizabeth while you get him out of that room for a while. Try to talk to him and get him to rest."
Peter nodded, and they turned to head back into the hospital.
Neal reluctantly agreed to leave Elizabeth's side in order to get lunch, but he refused to go back to the hotel to lay down for a couple of hours. The doctor and nurses kept saying that Elizabeth could wake at any time, and Neal really wanted to be there when she started to come around.
That afternoon both Peter and Neal were in Elizabeth's hospital room, quietly discussing a newspaper article they'd both read on the recent discovery of a lost Gauguin painting, when she moaned and started moving around a bit.
Her eyes fluttered open and fell on the both of them, leaning over her from the same side of the bed. The ventilator kept her from being able to verbally communicate, but her lips twitched around the tube while she squeezed Peter's hand.
"You're okay," Peter assured her while Neal pushed the call button. "Everything's okay."
Neal watched worriedly while the nurse came in and took charge, asking Elizabeth a series of simple yes or no questions she could answer by squeezing the nurse's hand once or twice and assuring her that she was being taken care of. Soon, the doctor arrived, and the nurses directed Peter and Neal out to the waiting room so that they could assess Elizabeth's condition and remove the ventilator.
They were allowed to return after what felt like an eternity. The head of her bed was now angled so that she was a little more vertical than she had been, and she was smiling tiredly when they entered. A nurse pressed a cup of ice chips into Peter's hand, and then the men were alone with their love.
"Peter? Neal?" Elizabeth's voice was weak and scratchy, but it was the sweetest sound Neal had ever heard.
"We're here, hon." Peter stepped back up to her side and took her hand in his free one. He offered her an ice chip, but she waved it away, so he set the cup to the side.
Neal moved to the other side of the bed, grasping her hand as soon as he could reach it. He smiled at her when her gaze shifted from Peter's face to his. Impulsively, he leaned over to give her a gentle hug but groaned when pain shot through his chest from his injured ribs.
"What happened?" she asked, looking him over with concern.
His eyes flicked over to Peter, hoping for some help in responding to her question.
Peter squeezed Elizabeth's hand to get her attention. "What's the last thing you remember?"
"Neal and I were on the train, on our way to the Hartford station. We were playing Blackjack, I think."
Neal nodded. "That's right."
"Everything after that is a blur."
"Hon, there was an accident, but you and Neal are okay. You're both going to be just fine."
She gasped. "An accident?"
"Your train derailed."
"You have some internal injuries, and you had surgery, but you're going to be fine."
"And Neal?" She looked over at him and gripped his hand tightly.
"I'm better now," he said softly. Tears were threatening to escape his eyes, but he tried his best to hold them back. He was just so damn happy to be talking with her that he wasn't able to get a hold of his emotions.
Her eyelids drooped before she could ask anything more, and Neal watched as Peter leaned down to give her a gentle kiss. Since his ribs were still aching, Neal settled for a peck on the back of her hand.
A few minutes later, after she had fallen asleep, Peter released a deep sigh and said, "Thank god she's okay."
Neal nodded, stood, and walked to the window so that he could have a moment to get himself together. Peter moved to stand with him and gently wrapped his arms around Neal from behind. Neal leaned against him and finally let his tears fall.
Peter was encouraged by Elizabeth's progress in a short period of time, but he was worried about Neal. The younger man didn't seem to be sleeping or eating well, even now that El was on the mend. The whole experience had been very traumatic for him, and Peter wondered if he would do better once they were all able to leave the hospital and go home.
The doctors moved Elizabeth to a semi-private regular room the morning after she woke and mentioned to Peter that they would probably send her home by the end of the week. Abby was insisting, during their walk to get coffee, that they stay with her until Neal and Elizabeth were better able to travel; it was only an hour to her house outside of Hartford but two hours back to New York, after all.
"We appreciate the offer, but-"
"There will be no buts, Peter. Between Elizabeth's injuries and Neal's ribs, they will both be in a world of misery in the car. There's no reason not to stay with me for a week or so." Abby Mitchell was a tough one to argue against. It didn't help that she was a lawyer, so it was also a bit of an exercise in futility unless you were her baby sister, who'd spent her whole life learning how to win their arguments.
Peter sighed. "Let's ask Elizabeth and Neal what they would like to do."
"That's fair." Abby smirked, clearly anticipating that they wouldn't mind spending time in her home.
They made their way back to Elizabeth's hospital room and found Elizabeth fretting over Neal. He was slumped down in a visitor's chair with one hand over his eyes, and the other squeezing the arm of his chair so tightly that his fingers were bloodless.
"What's wrong?" Peter asked, setting his coffee cup on the first flat surface he saw and then kneeling beside Neal's chair.
"He says his head hurts and the light is too bright," Elizabeth replied, wide-eyed and worried.
"I'll get a doctor." Abby headed for the door before anyone could say anything else.
Peter put his hand on Neal's knee and tried to get his attention. "Hey? Neal?"
"Peter," Neal whispered. He sounded like he was in a lot of pain, worse even than when Peter had entered his hospital room the first time a few days before.
"You're going to be all right. Just hang on." Peter rose far enough to place a gentle kiss against Neal's temple, and Neal made a distressed noise that sent Peter's concern into overdrive. "How long have you been feeling like this? Neal?"
"Headache never went away," Neal panted. "The room's spinning. Make it stop. Please."
"Just breathe." Peter had one hand on Neal's knee and the other on the back of his neck, kneading gently at the tense muscles. He met Elizabeth's horrified gaze and wished he could be in two places at once – by her side and taking care of Neal. "We're going to get you some help. Just breathe, buddy."
It didn't take long for a doctor and a nurse to hurry into the room. Peter moved away from Neal to stand on the other side of Elizabeth's bed and hold her while they watched the medical staff tend to him.
Within minutes, an orderly brought in a gurney and Neal was moved onto it and then whisked out of the room. The nurse, who was assigned to Elizabeth, promised to check on Neal's condition and update them as soon as she had any information.
Peter sat on the edge of Elizabeth's bed and held her as she cried softly. "I thought you said he was okay, Peter. What happened to him?"
He explained Neal's injuries to her as gently as possible and looked over to Abby for help when Elizabeth only started crying harder.
"Hey, hey." Abby ran a soothing hand over Elizabeth's shoulder. "He has the best doctors looking after him, just like you do. You're going to be fine, and Neal's going to be fine too."
Elizabeth grasped her sister's hand. "Thank you, Abby."
Abby smiled. "Now, this probably isn't the best time, but I want to put it out there so that you can think about it. I want you and Neal and Peter to come stay with me for a couple of weeks until you're feeling better."
"I don't know, Ab-"
"Just think about it."
"Okay," Elizabeth agreed, and Peter tightened his arm around her without commenting. Abby knew what he thought, and Elizabeth would make her own decision. He suspected she was waiting to hear about Neal's condition before committing to anything.
Neal woke in a dimly lit room with a dull ache behind his eyes and no idea how much time had passed. He looked to the side and wasn't surprised to find Peter dozing awkwardly in a visitor's chair with his hand wrapped loosely around Neal's. Neal squeezed his fingers and smiled softly when Peter jerked awake.
"Hey," Neal greeted quietly.
"Hey yourself." Peter kept his voice at the same level, which Neal appreciated immensely. Though his head wasn't as painful, he was afraid all the agony would come back tenfold if he so much as breathed wrong.
"You should be with Elizabeth."
Peter raised an eyebrow. "She wants me to be here with you. You can take that up with her if you want."
Neal shrank back a little against his pillow and said, "No, no. That's okay."
Peter smiled wanly. "That's what I thought. Plus her sister's with her."
"How are you doing?"
"Much better. The room's not a whirligig anymore."
"What did the doctor say?"
Peter frowned and Neal squeezed his hand tightly and held his breath. "They're going to run a few more tests, but they think it's something called post-concussion syndrome."
Neal swallowed hard against sudden nausea. "That sounds… bad."
"You're just going to have to take it easy for a little while. The doctors are going to do everything they can, and Elizabeth and I will do whatever we can. You're going to be okay."
Peter's tone was so calm and comforting that Neal believed him. He relaxed back against his pillows and said, "Thank you."
Peter stood just enough to lean over and give him a kiss. "Get some rest. I'll be here."
Over the next few days, Elizabeth and Neal were assessed, treated, and ultimately released with strict instructions to take it easy and not overdo it. There had been a series of hushed arguments that were quiet enough to keep anyone from being kicked out of the hospital but intense enough to get the point across; Elizabeth and Neal wanted to go home, where they would be most comfortable, and Abby eventually relented on trying to convince them to go back to Hartford with her. Instead, she was going to make the drive to New York with them and stay for a few days to make sure everyone was okay and really on the mend.
The drive was long, but Peter, Neal and Elizabeth were happy to finally be able to relax in the king-size bed they'd bought when the relationship between the three of them had turned serious.
Neal stayed close to Elizabeth in the bed while they dozed through a couple of classic movies. Peter and Abby split the chores between them so that one could be within earshot of the master bedroom while the other made a grocery run or picked up Satchmo from the neighbor's house.
After dinner, Neal was restless and seemed agitated but no one could get him to talk about what was wrong. Eventually they decided to let him be, and Peter, Neal and Elizabeth stretched out on the bed while Abby pulled up the armchair from the corner of the room. They were just about to start Casablanca when Neal cleared his throat and reached for El's hand before he asked, "Elizabeth, what happened to your green sweater with the gold buttons? On the train, I mean."
Her brow furrowed while she thought about it. "There was a young woman in the café car who looked like she was so down on her luck. She was huddled in the corner wearing a dirty, tattered sweater and hugging a coffee mug close like it was a lifeline. I bought her a sandwich and another cup of coffee. I just felt so badly for her, and she was shivering, so I gave her my sweater. I had another one in my bag anyway, and I just didn't think anything of it."
Neal's breath caught, and he had to look away from her. Peter could see the emotions running rampant across his face – gratitude that Elizabeth was okay, sadness for the woman that had died, confusion over how such a small act of kindness could have caused such grief. Neal's heart was on his sleeve, and it was breaking.
"Neal?" Elizabeth reached for him, but he pulled away.
Peter stood and walked to the other side of the bed, closer to Neal. "Are you okay?"
Neal shook his head and pressed his hand to his mouth.
"What's wrong?" Elizabeth looked torn between trying to comfort Neal and giving him the space that he seemed to want.
"They told me… They said…" Neal took a deep breath and blurted out, "They said that you were dead."
"What?!" Elizabeth's eyes went wide and immediately overflowed with tears.
"The hospital staff. They said that you were-" Neal cut off his own words with a sob and tried to curl in on himself as much as his tender ribs would allow. Peter put his arm around the younger man and rubbed his shoulder soothingly.
"It was the sweater that made us think that it was true," Peter told her. "Neal identified the sweater that had been on the," he choked up, "body."
"Oh, my god." Elizabeth didn't hesitate then to move closer and put her arms around both of her men. Neal was shaking with his sobs, and Elizabeth's body quickly followed suit. Peter drew Elizabeth closer to him and held them both as tightly as he could.
"It was so much like-" Neal's sob was choked off as his throat closed against the new wave of emotions. After a moment, he whispered, "It was just like Kate. The fire was so hot that I couldn't get close, but I wanted to… I needed to save you, but I just… I couldn't."
"Oh, honey," Elizabeth said as a new round of tears started to fall. "There was nothing you could do. We would have been devastated if you'd put yourself at risk. I'm here, and I'm going to be okay. I love you."
"We love you," Peter couldn't think of anything else to say except that simple but profound declaration.
Neal nodded, unable to say anything more than, "Love you too." He cried himself to sleep within minutes.
Elizabeth was still awake when Peter shifted slightly to look at her. "I can't believe that you both thought I was dead. That must have been horrible."
Peter nodded and kissed her, gently at first but then more deeply and desperately. "What's important is that you're here with us now, and you're okay. You and Neal both."
"Yes, yes, we are. I love you."
"Love you too, hon."