Waltzing with Bears
Elizabeth had one foot out on the stoop by the time Neal finished paying the cabbie, keeping the door open with her hip. She gave him her usual warm smile, eyes crinkling at the corners, but she looked tired, slightly less put-together than usual—no lipstick, a few strands of hair hovering, static-y, around her face.
Neal smiled back. "What'd you do?" he asked, wrestling the pile of folders he was carrying into some kind of easy-to-grasp position as he came up the walk, "hold one of his guns to his head?"
That's what it had sounded like, anyway, when Peter's voice, congestion rendering it almost unrecognizable, had come up on the speaker phone to tell them he was taking a sick day. He'd rattled off a list of things they were supposed to get done in his absence, in between some magnificent sneezes and trumpet-worthy nose-blowing. Neal was pretty sure he wasn't the only one who'd felt like washing his hands when the call ended, even though they all knew germs couldn't travel down the phone lines.
Nevertheless, when Elizabeth had called a few hours later and asked him to bring some materials over to the house, he readily agreed. He was glad enough to get out of the office, and she'd sounded a little harried, even on the phone.
The joke about the gun got him a wry little laugh. "Something like that," she said, "Thanks for coming out—maybe he'll settle down if he feels like he's doing something useful."
"Not the best patient, huh?"
She cocked her head ruefully. "In the dictionary, next to the phrase 'bear with a sore head,' there's a picture of Peter when he has a cold."
She led him into the house, and through to the den Peter used as a home office. The room held a beat-up old couch—clearly banished from the more tastefully decorated living room—and a big new TV, but Peter was sitting hunched up in front of a desktop computer, squinting at the screen, a little heap of used tissues next to him, spilling onto the floor.
"Look, honey, a friend has come to play," Elizabeth said.
Peter turned and stood, giving her a look that was indeed impressively bearish, but she just smiled sweetly back at him.
Even at the best of times, Peter looked like he had only hastily made himself presentable; at the moment he looked—well, if the man hadn't been so clearly miserable, Neal might not have been able to resist laughing. Peter was wearing what were possibly the world's oldest sweats, frayed along the neckline and torn around the ankles. The top might have borne some logo once, but all that remained were a few flecks of white lettering, indecipherable. And that wouldn't have been so bad, except that over it all he was wearing a threadbare flannel bathrobe, in the kind of garish plaid you rarely saw outside of hunting catalogs. He had clearly neither showered nor shaved, and his skin was patchy with illness—red nose, pale cheeks, dark smudges under red-rimmed eyes.
Neal mentally sorted through several possible greetings before he found one that seemed suitably neutral.
"Nice robe," he said.
But even that was enough for Peter to try and take a swat at him. A slow swat, it was true, slow enough for Neal get out of harm's way, holding up the stack of papers placatingly. "Hey," he said, "I come bearing files—don't kill the messenger."
Unfortunately, the movement had triggered some kind of coughing jag, bad enough that Elizabeth moved in, pushed Peter back into the chair, kept a hand on his back, even as he ineffectually batted at her.
When it eased up, she rolled her eyes. "I'm going to make you some more tea," she said. Peter groaned, and Elizabeth looked at Neal. "He thinks anything can be cured by a shot of jack and power nap," she said, in long-suffering tones.
Neal smiled at her nervously—he wasn't sure he wanted to be drawn into this particular domestic battle.
"Play nice, boys," Elizabeth said, as she left.
After they'd been at it for half an hour or so—Peter moving through the files at about one-sixteenth of his usual pace—Elizabeth stuck her head into the room again, beckoned to Neal.
"Look, I hate to ask, but can you stay for a while?" she asked, when he stepped into the hall, "I need to go into the office—just for a couple of hours—turns out there are a few things I can't do from home…"
"Don't need a babysitter, El," Peter growled from the den.
"Not a babysitter, Peter" she called back, "a guard. Don't think I don't know you'd be in that car and off to the office as soon as I cleared the corner. Don't let him do that," she told Neal sternly.
Neal shook his head, and drew a solemn cross over his heart.
Still, when Elizabeth got to the front door, she hesitated.
"He's been running a low-grade fever all day, but if it spikes higher, give me a call, okay? Or if the cough gets really bad, or—"
Her brows pinched, and her mouth puckered in concern, so Neal tried to look as sincere and reassuring as possible. He wasn't sure what had her so spooked—this was a woman whose husband left the house every day with a gun, dealt with bad guys every month of the year. Having him stuck home with a cold should be a relief from all that, not something worse. But he wasn't going to second guess her, she wasn't the kind of person to give into irrational fears.
"Hey," he put a hand on her arm, "Don't worry—I got it. You just get your stuff done, and I'll take care of things here."
She held his gaze searchingly for a moment, seemed to find what she was looking for, nodded, and left.
Unbelievably, Peter did go to the window and watch Elizabeth's car round the corner, and then looked at Neal expectantly.
"Come on," he said hoarsely, "we can get in a few hours work and be back before she knows we were gone. I'm fine, really—I just stayed home to humor El."
Neal shook his head at him incredulously. "No." he said. "And also: No. Have you looked in the mirror today? Because believe me, you're doing the Bureau a favor by staying home, not infecting innocent people with your super germs. Saving them a bundle in lost man-hours and insurance fees."
Peter glowered at him.
"And besides," Neal continued, on a roll, "you don't need to go in—everything you need is online. And you were texting the team every half hour all morning—you completely up to date on where we stand. So you should really just, you know, get some rest or something."
Neal stopped, because it had suddenly occurred to him that the files he'd brought over would have been in the databases too by the end of the day. He wondered whether Elizabeth had called him out of an unconscious desire for reinforcements. Probably not, but he decided he wasn't displeased that she thought of him in that capacity.
"Yeah," Peter admitted glumly, "It's just—I hate being cooped up all day, drives me nuts."
"I know, I know, but, honestly, you look awful and you sound worse—I'm in pain just watching you. Go upstairs and lie down already—enjoy the day off."
"Nah," Peter muttered, "I'm good." But he moved away from the window, took up one of the files again.
They worked--or mutually pretended to work--in silence for a bit. Peter blew his nose again, loudly. Then he hacked out some of the gunk stuck in his throat, and finally, as Neal watched in horror, he spat a whole wad of the stuff into a tissue, balled it up, and added it to the pile on the desk.
Neal stared at him. "Do you know how disgusting that is? Because I don't think you know how disgusting that is."
"Hey, no one's asking you to stay. Don't like the snot, stay out of the kitchen. Or whatever."
"Elizabeth," Neal said, as much to remind himself as Peter, "Elizabeth asked me to stay."
They went back to shuffling papers. Finally, Neal thought of one last ploy.
"Wonder what the score is?" He put as much faux-curiosity into the question as he could.
At least it got Peter to look up. "Score for what?" He asked suspiciously.
"Oh, I don't know," Neal said, his bluff blocked—he'd been hoping the phrase would slot into the schedule of some sport Peter actually followed. "There's always some score for something going on, isn't there? It's why bookies make such a good living."
Peter opened his mouth to argue, but a huge sneeze overtook him. It looked like it hurt, or at least that's how Neal interpreted the way it left Peter pressing one hand to his throat, the other to his sinuses when it was over. And it was the sneeze that broke the camel's back, apparently, because Peter gave him a look of pure hate, but lurched over to the couch and flicked on the TV.
Something came up on ESPN—highlights from last season's NHL playoffs, looked like. Good enough for Peter, though, because he sank into the sofa with a kind of wheezy sigh, put his feet up on the coffee table, and thumped his head back on the pillows, as if the shift from desk to couch had just about exhausted him.
Hiding his joy that his stratagem had worked, Neal joined him.
"She worries," Peter said, eyes fixed on the slashing sticks and flying puck.
"Of course she worries," Neal said, "I think it's one of the marriage vows."
They listened to the scrape of skates on ice, the thump of padded bodies against the boards.
"No," Peter said after a while, "It's because. A few years ago. I got knocked off a boat in the East River—apprehending some asshole." The story came out in staccato bursts, interspersed with more sniffs and nose-blowing. "Clocked me over the head, too. By the time they pulled me out, I'd swallowed about a gallon of New York's finest. And, you know, one thing and another--I ended up with pneumonia. It-- Well, it wasn't great. Spent a few days in the hospital before they got it under control. Scared El," he finished mournfully, like out of the whole story of near-drowning and hospitalization, that was the worst part.
"I'm sorry, man," Neal said, "That sucks."
"And the doctors told her," Peter went on, "that if you've had pneumonia that badly, it can make you more susceptible, you know, in the future. So, now, even with a bug like this, she worries."
Neal turned to look at him. Peter's watery eyes were still trained on the screen, and he rubbed savagely at his nose with the sleeve of his bathrobe. He was scowling, like he'd let Neal in on some kind of embarrassing secret, like once people knew, they were going to take away his badge for dereliction of badassery.
"That's a good thing, Peter," Neal said, "it's good to have someone who worries about you like that. It's a good thing."
Peter scowled harder, and stared at the hockey like the outcome hadn't already been decided back in May.
Apparently the sound of violent men smacking the hell out of a tiny piece of rubber was more soothing than you'd think, because Neal only realized that he'd drifted off when he heard Elizabeth coming back into the house. He listened to her rustling around in the kitchen, greeting Satchmo, and thought he should probably go help. But something was weighing him down.
The something turned out to be Peter's sock-clad, not-entirely-odor-free feet thrown haphazardly across his thighs. The rest of Peter was sprawled over the remainder of the couch, arm covering his eyes, snoring so loudly Neal was surprised he he'd been able to sleep through it. He was still wondering how to get Peter off him without waking him up when Elizabeth came into the den.
She made a face at them, halfway between "how cute" and "god, men are so pitiful," but there was no malice in it. She just flicked off the TV, and then bent over Neal and lifted Peter's feet so deftly and gently he barely stirred. Neal slid out from under, so close to Elizabeth as he slipped past that he could smell the expensive, herbal scent of her shampoo, feel a faint breath of warmth from her skin.
Freed, he stood and stretched, watched as Elizabeth fussed over a Peter, pushed her fingers through his sweat-spiked hair, tested his temperature with a hand against his cheek. Peter snuffled a little under her touch, leaning into the familiar comfort, but didn't wake. And Neal thought, not for the first time, how clear Elizabeth was, how strong--no codes, no subterfuge, no evasions.
She looked up, and he realized he was staring in a way that wasn't entirely polite. But she didn't seem to mind, just said, "We'll let him sleep—it's better for everyone involved if he goes into hibernation mode."
Elizabeth spoke lightly, even sardonically, but Neal thought he could hear something else beneath it now, and suddenly he knew how it must have shaken her, even her, to see her husband lying in a hospital bed, fighting something he couldn't take out with a warrant or a gun.
"He'll be starving when he wakes up," Neal said, trying to match her tone, swallowing down the rush of protectiveness he felt for her, for them both.
Elizabeth smiled then, looking more relaxed than she had since he'd gotten there. "Come on," she said to Neal, giving Peter one last caressing little pat, "keep me company while I put some dinner together."