It started as a tickle, a little dryness in the back of his throat. Neal ignored it; he'd been helping June clear out some antiques in the basement over the weekend for a charity auction, and he'd inhaled a lot of dust. Surely all those boxes he'd moved around accounted for the soreness as well, the fact that he seemed to ache vaguely in his joints.
After all, he was a healthy man and he had very few bad habits (other than the felony, forgery, thievery, and confidence games, but those weren't exactly health risks and he'd sworn off the hard stuff for Peter's sake). He rarely got sick. Even that one time when half the prison had come down with some kind of creeping crud, Neal had been well enough to be tapped for infirmary duty, and he'd never caught the bug. So there was no reason to assume he was ill.
And the headache, well. They'd been in the van since lunchtime, taking shifts staring at the monitors. A headache was pretty natural.
"Will you stop escalating things?" Peter asked out of nowhere, and Neal looked up. He'd been bent over one of the workspaces, rubbing his temples, trying to make the sharp pain under his eyes go away.
"What?" Neal asked, tiredly.
"I tell you not to whine, so you do this passive-aggressive I hate the van in silence crap," Peter said. "Sit quietly and stop symbolically complaining."
"Touchy," Neal said, sitting back. Peter rolled his eyes.
"Boss, you should have a look at this," Diana announced, leaning back and passing Peter her phone. He looked down, frowning. "They're already sending out blizzard warnings. Another two hours, we might not be able to see the perp even if he does try to make a run for it."
"Jones, we got those thermal goggles?" Peter asked. Jones tapped a black case with his foot. "Good. Chances are if he knows there's white-out conditions he'll try to make a run for it. If we can track him with the heat sensors we can nail him."
"Are you seriously suggesting that, if a white-out hits, we're going to watch him leave his house and then try to drive by heat-sensing goggle?" Neal asked.
"Nope. He leaves, I follow him on foot," Peter said.
"You are crazy," Diana told him.
"Gets the job done," Peter said. He tipped his head at Neal. "How do you think I got him, by letting the weather scare me off?"
Neal resisted the urge to rub his temples again. The van was uncomfortably warm, and his throat was still dry. He loosened his tie slightly.
Fortunately, within half an hour Hughes had saved them from Peter's obvious insanity. The blizzard warning meant only emergency personnel should be on the street, and the FBI didn't qualify. Peter argued with him over the radio for about five minutes before Hughes said one of the best things Neal had heard in his life.
"I don't care if you're chasing Jack the Ripper, get the van back to the Bureau now and get your agents home."
"Copy, sir," Peter sighed, and tossed the radio down. "Fine, you heard him. Jones, you okay driving?"
"Sure," Jones said, climbing into the front of the van and starting it up. The heaters came on full blast; Neal cringed away.
"You're a delicate flower," Peter told him sardonically. "Jones, head for Diana's place. We'll drop her off, swing past Neal's, then I'll take you home and get the van back to the Bureau."
"We're going right past your place," Jones said.
"Yeah, but I'm the boss," Peter sighed. "That means I get the -- holy shit," he said, leaning around Jones in the driver's seat. "You see that?"
Neal, though his legs protested and cramped, got up and joined him at the front of the van. Jones had brought it to a standstill.
Ahead of them, in the distance, the sky was turning black -- and the city was turning white.
"You ever seen something like that in your life?" Peter asked.
"No, sir," Jones said slowly. "Is that what I think it is?"
"That's the front of the blizzard," Diana put in. "Jesus."
"New plan," Peter said. "That looks like it's about fifteen minutes away. We get stuck in that, we're all sleeping in the van. My place," he said. "You three can bunk with us tonight."
Jones floored it. Neal felt his stomach lurch, and dropped backwards into one of the chairs.
The first gusts of wind were just beginning to really blow when Jones pulled the van up in front of Peter's house. Neal and Jones ran inside with the most expensive of the equipment while Peter and Diana locked and secured the van. Neal didn't bother knocking; the door was unlocked, and they burst into the house in a flurry of snow and wind.
"Oh, thank God," came a voice from the living room, and Elizabeth ran up to meet them. "Peter, I -- Neal?"
"So they said there was no room at the inn," Neal deadpanned. Elizabeth laughed and hugged him, hurrying both men out of the way as Peter and Diana arrived at a sprint, already battered by snow.
"I thought you might have tried to stay on the stakeout," she said, wrapping Peter in a hug.
"He wanted to," Diana told her with a grin. "Hughes made him call it off."
"Hon, I hope you made a lot of meatloaf," Peter said.
"Of course. There's no way you're getting home in this," Elizabeth said, going back to the living room windows. The front of the blizzard had already swept in. Neal, peering out over her shoulder, couldn't see more than an outline of the van. "Hon, go make sure the heat's on in the guest room?"
Peter shook some snow off his coat and hung it up. "Tight quarters, guys. Unless two of you want to cuddle, there's only room for one in the guest bed."
"Dibs on the couch," Neal said, sinking down onto it. He felt weirdly out of breath, which the short run up the Burkes' front walk shouldn't inspire. The idea of climbing the stairs appealed about as much as going back out in the snowstorm.
"You need any help, Mrs. Burke?" Jones asked, following her into the kitchen. Diana sat down on a chair nearby and took out her phone -- calling Chrissy, of course, making sure she knew where she was. Neal fumbled for his own phone and dialed June -- got a message machine, left a brief message, called Mozzie and got transferred through three different routing posts before he finally reached voicemail and left him a message, too.
When he looked down to hang up the phone, the world tilted dizzily and the numbers blurred; Neal inhaled through his nose and waited for the vertigo to pass. Looking up, he caught his reflection in a mirror on the wall, some decorative thing he'd helped Elizabeth hang last time he was here. His face was pale, down to his lips.
"Crap," he muttered, because of all the times to get sick, camping out in Peter's house during a blizzard was not the best. Peter would call him a drama queen, and it wasn't like he had the privacy to curl up under a blanket and wait to stop feeling like he was going to die, as he usually did on the rare occasions he got sick.
"How long is this supposed to last?" he asked Diana, jerking his thumb at the windows.
"Hopefully not long," she said. "Otherwise we're tunneling our way out of here when it finally ends."
"Great," Neal said. He rubbed the back of his neck, trying to think clearly. If he were his usual self, he'd be in the kitchen, poking around, pestering Elizabeth for food, pestering Peter into letting him choose the wine. He wasn't sure he had the energy, frankly.
Jones emerged from the kitchen laden with plates and silverware; Elizabeth came behind him with a platter of meatloaf in one hand and a bowl of mashed potatoes in the other. Neal tried to get up, failed, tried again, and darted around the stairs to the wine rack just inside the kitchen door.
"Red, sweetie," Elizabeth called.
"Yeah, got it," Neal called back, pulling glasses out of the cupboard. Peter, Elizabeth, Diana, Jones, himself, that was six, right?
He fumbled for a moment, because something felt off, and one of the glasses crashed to the floor. Neal looked up, wide eyed, as Elizabeth leaned in through the doorway.
"I'm -- sorry, I just..." he gestured, almost dropping another glass.
"Satch, no!" Elizabeth yelled, blocking the inquisitive nose that was poking through between her legs. Neal just stared, a little horrified by the broken glass around his feet.
"Okay, you come through, I'll hold Satchmo, then you hold him while I sweep that up," Elizabeth said distractedly. Neal slipped past her, setting the glasses on the table, offering Diana the wine because frankly he didn't trust himself to open it.
"Did I hear something break?" Peter asked, descending the stairs. "Ooh, mashed potatoes."
"Neal dropped a glass," Diana said, as Neal took Satchmo's collar from Elizabeth and she reached around the door for a broom.
"Sorry, sorry," Neal muttered. Peter peered at him, frowning.
"Well, I'll take it out of your allowance," he said, but he didn't sound like he meant it.
"There, not too much mess," Elizabeth announced, emerging from the kitchen. "It's just a glass, Neal," she added. "Sit, everyone, eat, before it gets cold."
Peter -- and Neal almost laughed aloud, though he sensed it wasn't supposed to be that funny -- took the head of the table, with Elizabeth on his left and Diana on his right. Jones sat down next to Diana, so Neal took the last spot, next to Elizabeth. She dished him out a huge slice of meatloaf and more mashed potatoes than he had ever seen on one plate, or at least it seemed like it.
Eating was probably not a good idea. On the other hand, Peter would notice if he didn't finish his wine, and drinking on an empty stomach while sick was an even worse idea. He ate small mouthfuls, washing them down with wine, ignoring the queasy weight in his stomach. He let Peter carry the conversation, and only barely noticed that Peter was playing patriarch -- talking to reassure his junior agents, making sure they knew they were safe and this was a temporary situation.
"Sweetie, are you okay?" Elizabeth asked him quietly, as he tried valiantly to finish his potatoes.
"Not very hungry," Neal murmured, smiling. "I'm fine."
"You're flushed," Elizabeth said.
"No more wine," Neal answered, his smile turning rueful.
"I'm serious, you don't look good," she insisted. Neal vaguely noticed that the others were carrying their plates to the kitchen, Peter stopping at the door to casually slide some potatoes into Satchmo's dish.
"Probably just the...blizzard and everything," he said. "I'm gonna use the bathroom, I'll come back down and help you with the dishes."
"Okay," she said uncertainly, as Neal circled the table and faced The Stairs. There were about a million of them, he decided, and clearly they were designed by a sadist; his foot kept almost-missing the next step, and when he finally reached the top he was winded.
Which was when his gut tightened and his chest ached, and he lunged the last few feet to the bathroom, pulling the door shut behind him and locking it. He tamped down on the nausea long enough to turn the sink on and then hunched over the toilet, trying not to taste anything as he heaved.
It went on longer than it should have, but he felt marginally better in the end.
Until there was a knock on the door.
"Neal?" Peter's voice.
"Yeah, hang on," Neal called, cupping his hand under the tap and bringing the water to his mouth, spitting and then drinking again. The doorknob rattled.
"Seriously, hold it in for two seconds," he yelled, and then the door opened.
"Lock's broken," Peter said, leaning in the doorway. Neal made a show of washing his hands. "What the hell's up with you?"
"Nothing, I had to pee," Neal snapped, and Peter's eyebrows shot up. "Look, I'll just go -- get out of your way, okay?"
Peter didn't move out of the doorway. Neal stood there, facing him, desperate to be anywhere but here. Finally Peter reached up and pressed his hand over Neal's forehead.
"How long have you been running a fever?" he asked, lowering his hand.
"It's just the wine -- "
"Neal, don't screw me around. You ate four bites of dinner, you had one glass of wine, and you've been sulking all afternoon. Why didn't you just tell me you were sick?"
Neal gave up and dropped his head, running a hand through his hair. "I thought it was just a headache. Look, you've got three extra houseguests, we're enough of a pain in your ass without -- "
"Oh for the love of..." Peter wrapped a hand around the back of Neal's neck and pulled him along into the bedroom, releasing him with a shove. Neal staggered and caught himself on the bed. "You're my partner, they're my agents. This is what I do, Neal, this is what I'm supposed to do for my people. Strip."
"What?" Neal asked.
"Take your stupid vintage suit off and that freakish skinny tie and get in the damn bed," Peter said. Neal didn't even think he could argue; he shrugged out of his jacket and let it fall to the floor (he could pick it up in a minute, when the room stopped moving) and managed to get his tiebar off and drop his tie next to the jacket. He started working on the buttons of his shirt but his fingers wouldn't cooperate, and when he looked down at them they were shaking.
"I'm sorry, I can't..." he closed his eyes, because tears of frustration were threatening.
"Here," Peter said, and his tone was a little gentler than before. Neal found himself pushed back to sit on the bed, and when he opened his eyes Peter was bending over him, undoing the buttons on his shirt.
"Sorry, sorry," Neal mumbled, unable to stop himself, because the last thing in the world Peter should be doing was unbuttoning his shirt.
"Shh," Peter said. "Hush, don't talk."
Neal nodded, miserable, and let Peter help him off with his shirt. The cold air on his arms made him shiver. He should have worn a thicker undershirt.
"Can you stand?" Peter asked, which was ludicrous, of course he could stand. He struggled up and fumbled with his belt, managed to get that off on his own, and pulled his pants down -- his stupid shoes caught in the cuffs. Peter knelt and pulled them off.
"Bed," he ordered, turning back the covers. It looked inviting, but this was Peter and Elizabeth's bed -- "Neal, get in the bed."
Neal tumbled into the bed, dizzily. He felt the blankets pulled up around him and tugged them closer, shivering uncontrollably. A hand rested on his head, warm fingers cupped over his ear. God, his ears were cold.
The blankets felt amazing, warm and oddly solid. He pulled his knees up and curled into as small a ball as he could, hugging his body to keep in what warmth he could manage. His knees nudged against something else in the bed, and he opened his eyes to see Peter sitting on the blankets, turned to him, studying him. Sometimes the scrutiny Peter could bring to bear was overwhelming.
Footsteps, somewhere; Neal concentrated on the warm blankets, praying it wasn't Diana, who would probably give him shit about this forever.
"Oh, no," someone said. Elizabeth.
"Yeah," Peter answered, and Neal wondered vaguely what they were talking about. They said some other things he didn't catch, and after a while Peter's hand went away. It was replaced by a pressure on his chin, and Peter's voice coaxing him to move.
"Open," Peter said gently. "Just for a minute, we need to know how bad this is, Neal."
Neal obediently opened his mouth, and something jabbed him under the tongue. He coughed, wincing.
"Sorry," Peter said. Neal tried to ask what for, and almost crunched the thermometer between his teeth. It was removed soon enough, and he heard Peter swear.
"Hundred and two. You don't mess around, do you?" Peter asked. Neal coughed again. "Okay, sit up for a second."
Neal moaned in protest, but Peter was hauling him up, both arms around his shoulders. He sat, shivering, staring at Peter, who was shaking something out of a bottle into his palm.
"We gotta get your fever down," Peter said. "Open, again."
Neal pulled a hand out of the blankets -- the air was freezing -- and Peter shook his head. "Just open your mouth."
Neal closed his eyes briefly, then opened as ordered. Peter put two pills on his tongue and pressed the rim of a glass to his lips, tipping it up. Neal swallowed -- the water felt good, a little on the warm side, and he drank greedily once he'd swallowed the pills.
"Easy," Peter said, pulling the glass back. He pushed Neal's chest and Neal sank gratefully back into the blankets. He wanted to say something, maybe get up and at least move to the guest bed, but things went blurry and then dark, and he gave up for a little while.
"How is he?"
Peter looked up from where Neal was, hopefully, asleep. Elizabeth stood in the doorway, arms wrapped around herself, looking anxious.
"Not so good," Peter admitted. "If his fever goes any higher he should be in the hospital."
"I don't think we're going to get an ambulance out here in this weather," Elizabeth remarked, coming into the room. Peter held out an arm and wrapped it around her waist, his other hand still resting on Neal's head, brushing sweaty hair back from his temple -- he might be shivering, but he was sweating too, which wasn't exactly a good sign.
"He's tough, he's fighting it pretty hard," Peter said. "But I think we're camping on the floor tonight."
"Diana's in the guest room," Elizabeth told him. "Clinton's doing the dishes -- don't look at me, I couldn't stop him," she added, when Peter frowned. "I think he wants to impress you. I told him he could have the couch. I'll get the bedrolls out," she said, kissing him.
"I think I'd better sit up, keep an eye on Neal." Peter shook his head. "I'll sleep in the chair, I've slept in worse."
"Mmhm." Elizabeth looked skeptical. "I'll bring the bedrolls in here."
After she left, Peter shifted a little, pulling one leg up on the bed so that he could look down at Neal. He could see the pulse beating in his throat. Neal wasn't very old, but he looked even younger with no color in his cheeks except the high fever flush, with the blankets pulled up over his jaw.
"So, you're the master thief," Peter said, trying to feel amused instead of worried. He rubbed the edge of Neal's ear with his thumb. "Brought a little low now, huh? Good thing Elizabeth busted your I'm fine act. You should know nothing gets past her."
Neal didn't move. He was so still, eerily still. Even the shaking had stopped.
"Someday you're gonna stop trying to con me, and we'll probably both have heart attacks from the shock," Peter continued. "Bet you really hate people trying to look after you."
He heard footsteps on the stairs, and turned in time to see Jones put his head in the doorway.
"What happened?" he asked.
"Neal's got a fever," Peter replied. "Think I'm going to be sitting up with him."
"Anything I can do?" Jones asked. Peter shook his head. "You need anything?"
"Nah. You call your ma?"
"Yeah, she says thanks for putting up with me," Jones said with a grin. Peter smiled back.
"Well, the couch is yours, don't let Satch bully you off it," Peter said. "Help yourself to anything in the kitchen if you get hungry. TV's yours too if you're bored, unless Diana wants to wrestle you for it. You need pajamas?"
"Oh..." Jones hesitated. "Well, probably, yeah."
Peter nodded at the dresser. "Second drawer. Most of my stuff should fit you."
Jones glanced sidelong at Neal as he opened the dresser. "He looks bad."
"I know," Peter sighed.
"Let me know if I can help," Jones said again, and left, carrying away a set of blue-striped pajamas with him.
"I think Diana's settled," Elizabeth announced, coming back into the bedroom. "She brought her laptop in, says she's going to catch up on paperwork."
"Probably my paperwork," Peter said.
"It's kind of nice, having a full house," Elizabeth told him, leaning against his shoulder. He butted his head into her arm, affectionately. "Like having kids, without the messy, boring parts."
"Except for the problem child," Peter said, turning back to Neal.
"Hon, I don't think your feelings for Neal are exactly parental," Elizabeth said, rubbing his arm.
"No," Peter admitted. "Well, are yours?"
"The last thing I want to be is Neal's mother," she agreed. "But I think that's a talk we should have some other time. Come on, get out of your suit, it's been a long day."
Elizabeth shook out the sleeping bags while he changed into a pair of sweats, picking up Neal's clothing and hanging up the jacket -- Neal wouldn't appreciate wrinkles. He quietly retrieved the book he'd been reading from the nightstand on his side of the bed, then settled into the chair facing the bed and propped his feet up, switching on the lamp nearby. Elizabeth, in her nightgown, came over with one of the sleeping bags and climbed onto his lap, draping the crinkling nylon over both of them.
"Oh, I like this," Peter said, wrapping an arm around her.
"Me too," she replied, tucking her head under his chin. "Wake me up if you start to fall asleep, I'll keep an eye on him."
"Mm." He opened his book with his free hand and propped it on his knee. Neal, in the bed, still wasn't moving. Outside, through a corner of the curtains, the snow blew hard against the window.
A few hours passed; Peter read, then set the book down and just watched Neal, trying not to worry too much.
Around midnight, Neal began to shift restlessly under the blankets, twisting them around his body, legs kicking and tangling up in the sheets. He let out a low moan, and Peter shook Elizabeth gently. She made a questioning noise, but she let him slide out from under her, curling up in the warm spot where he'd been sitting.
Neal was sweating again, almost thrashing now.
"Neal. Neal," Peter said, sitting down on the bed, cupping Neal's cheek. "Come on, buddy, calm down."
Neal's eyes flew open, panicked, and he shoved himself backwards with a start. Peter held up his hands.
"Easy, it's just me," he said, but Neal looked, if possible, even more frantic.
"How did you -- I don't -- " Neal gasped out, looking around wildly. He must be delirious, which meant his fever was worse. Definitely not good, especially with the snow still falling outside. Peter was about to wake Elizabeth, because he wasn't sure what the hell to do, when Neal seemed to actually focus on him. Recognition flared for an instant in his eyes. He made a short, shrill, desperate noise that Peter never wanted to hear again, and jerked forward. His forehead crashed into Peter's chest, sending a brief sharp pain through his ribs, and Peter caught him before he could tumble out of the bed.
It wasn't shivering, now -- Neal was trembling, frightened of some unseen thing. Peter got his arms around Neal's shoulders and held on, stilling his head with one hand. Neal was sobbing and coughing at the same time, clinging to him.
Peter hushed him softly, trying to calm him down. He was going to hyperventilate in a minute.
"I'm here," he murmured into Neal's hair. Neal's skin felt hot, unnaturally so. "I'm right here, not going anywhere. Breathe with me, okay? I got you."
He inhaled deeply, felt Neal try to copy the breath and got a wracking cough against his chest.
"Again, come on," Peter said gently, inhaling. This time Neal managed a shaky breath, and then another. After a few minutes of deep breaths, broken by the occasional cough, Peter eased him back a little. Neal's face was terrified still.
"Neal, are you seeing things?" he asked. Neal nodded. "Tell me what you're seeing."
"Dolly," Neal said, swallowing convulsively. He flinched.
"Dolly?" Peter asked, perplexed.
"The elephants. Saint Anthony," Neal whispered, and Peter realized he was saying Dali. Jesus, no wonder Neal was terrified. If he was seeing the elephants from that stupid Dali painting...
"Okay," Peter said. "Neal, I have to get you something to -- to get rid of the elephants, all right?"
"No, you can't -- " Neal grabbed for his hair, and Peter bit down on a yelp of pain. He reached up and untangled Neal's fingers.
"I have to get you some water, some aspirin to get your fever down," Peter said, holding Neal's wrists. He cast around and caught sight of his phone, charging on the bedside table. He picked it up, yanking on it to pull the charging cord out, and pressed it into Neal's hands. God knew if it would work, but it was worth a try. "This is my phone, okay? It'll keep you safe. Look at the phone, Neal."
Neal stared down at the phone like it was magic. He looked back up at Peter after a second.
"Don't take your eyes off the phone," Peter said, and Neal looked back down hurriedly, nodding. Peter eased off the bed, backing out of the room. He ran down the hallway to the bathroom, grabbed a water glass from the counter and filled it hurriedly, dashing back. Neal was still sitting in the bed, blankets around his crossed legs, staring at the phone intently. Peter set the water down and shook out two more aspirin.
"Okay, like we did before, right?" Peter said, but Neal didn't look up from the phone. His knuckles were white, he was clenching it so hard. "Neal, you can look at me."
Neal inhaled and looked up, eyes unfocused.
"Open," Peter said, and Neal's mouth dropped open. He put the pills on his tongue and tipped the glass against his mouth, like he had before, and Neal drank obediently. Peter gave him small sips, Neal's eyes never leaving his face, until the water was gone.
"They're still here," Neal whispered, eyes darting quickly to one side and then back to Peter's face.
"Yeah, but you've got my phone, you're good," Peter said. Neal nodded slowly. "Lie down, let's get the blankets untangled."
Neal tried to help, which was more of a hindrance, but finally Peter got him untwisted from the sheets and blankets, and spread them out again as best he could.
He looked down at Neal, who was curled up with the phone clutched to his chest, and then over at Elizabeth, who was sleeping in the chair.
"Screw it," he decided, and pulled back a corner of the blankets, crawling into the bed. Neal immediately slid up against him, burrowing into his chest, the phone bumping against his ribs.
"There were the horses too," Neal said, like he was confessing a sin. Peter sighed.
"Those horses know better than to mess with me," he said, and Neal laughed, an edge of panic to it.
"I'm not Saint Anthony," he said. "I don't know anything about him."
"Well, you've come to the right man for that," Peter said. "He was Egyptian. He sold everything he owned and became an ascetic."
"Sucker," Neal muttered. Peter laughed.
"He had visions from the devil, but I guess he prayed them off or something," Peter continued, trying to remember anything else from Sunday school. "Anyway, Satan didn't win, so go team Anthony, I guess."
"Got a lot of good art out of it," Neal mumbled, words slurring. "Bosch. Cezanne."
"Why couldn't you see a bunch of curvy naked women instead, huh?" Peter asked. Neal exhaled instead of replying, and his body slumped into Peter's a little. Sleep. Good.
He must have drifted off himself at some point; when he woke, it was because Elizabeth was shaking him gently.
"Snow's still coming down," she said, wrapping a robe around herself. "It's almost eight, I'm going to go make breakfast."
Peter rolled over, away from Neal, who mumbled sleepily. Elizabeth frowned at them.
"Why does he have your phone?" she asked. Peter sat up and looked down at Neal, who did have Peter's phone clenched to his chest.
"His fever spiked," he said, putting a hand on Neal's forehead. "Still warmer than I'd like."
"You gave him your phone for his fever?"
Peter slid out of bed. "Downstairs," he said, as Neal rolled over and pressed his face into the pillows.
"He was hallucinating," he continued, as they walked down the stairs. Jones was sitting on the couch, watching the news on mute. "I gave him the phone and said it would keep him safe."
"And he bought that?" Elizabeth asked.
"Whatever works." Peter shrugged, then wrapped an arm around her as she stretched up to get a box of pancake mix off the pantry shelf. He kissed her ear and she eased back against him, covering his hand in hers.
"You should have woken me up," she said.
"Nah, I handled it. He seems better. Hell of a cough though. Hey," Peter said, releasing Elizabeth as Jones walked into the kitchen. "How was the couch?"
"Your dog is an asshole," Jones muttered.
"Not a morning person," Peter said to Elizabeth, who grinned and switched on the coffee machine. "Jones, go back to the living room, there's no swearing in the kitchen."
"Ngh," Jones said.
"I'll bring you some coffee," Elizabeth promised.
There was no chance of going in to work -- even if the snow stopped, which it showed no intention of doing, the roads weren't plowed. Peter went out briefly to have a look around and make sure nothing was threatening to fall over in the backyard, and came inside soaked to his knees. Elizabeth and Jones played rummy for most of the morning, while Diana raided their bookcase and Peter oscillated between checking on Neal and watching the news, until the cable died a little after lunch.
"There goes the internet, too," Elizabeth said. "I'll get the flashlights, power might be next."
"It's like camping," Diana said. "I mean, I think. I never went camping as a kid."
"I was a boy scout," Jones put in. "But, you know. In Manhattan, so not too much camping."
"Peter's a survivalist," Elizabeth teased, setting out the flashlights while Peter rummaged in the sideboard for candles. "He grew up on a farm. He went backpacking and built fires by rubbing two sticks together."
"Yep," Peter agreed, dumping his prizes on the table. "Used to catch squirrels for dinner. Got a rabbit sometimes. Good eating on wild rabbit."
"Suddenly, I'm okay with not having gone camping," Diana said.
There was a thump from upstairs, and everyone looked up. Peter sighed.
"I'll go," he said, and took the stairs two at a time. He found Neal, wrapped in a blanket, leaning in the doorway of the bedroom.
"I'm pretty sure I'm dying," Neal said with a wan smile.
"Drama queen," Peter replied, as Neal staggered around the corner to the bathroom, leaving the blanket in a pile outside the door. He listened, but he didn't hear any retching, so he left Neal what little privacy he had left and waited for the door to open again. When it did, Neal was shaking.
"What time is it?" he asked, accepting the blanket with a grateful look.
"Just past one. Hungry?" Peter asked, and Neal shook his head, staggering a little. Peter noticed he still had the phone in his hand. Neal climbed back into the bed without bothering over the sheets, curling into the blanket. "Neal, I gotta ask, are you seeing things?"
"Like what?" Neal asked, muffled by the blanket.
"Anything," Peter said.
"No," Neal answered. "Jus' leave me alone, I'll be fine."
"I'm sending Elizabeth up," Peter said. "You sass her, she'll kill you quick."
"Put me out of my misery," Neal replied. Peter ruffled his hair and left him to sniffle and cough.
"He's fine," he said, when he came downstairs again. "Hon, I think he needs some...juice or something."
"Hot tea." Elizabeth stood up and kissed him. "I'll get him some."
Peter sat down at the table, where Jones and Diana were playing chess. They exchanged a brief look.
"What?" he asked.
"Listen, I got an uncle with a snow plow on his truck," Jones said. "I make a few calls, he might be able to dig us out, get Caffrey to a hospital. Take him maybe two hours to get here, but..." he shrugged. "If it's serious, it's an option."
"Thanks, but he's getting around okay," Peter said. "I'd rather have him here than stuck in a truck trying to get to a hospital. Not worth the risk."
"We want to help, boss," Diana said.
Peter sat back and smiled, proud. "I know you do. But the best thing for him right now is just to sleep it off. You want to help, see if one of you can get Satchmo to go outside."
Jones held up his hands. "We're not speaking to each other. He knows what he did."
Diana rolled her eyes. "Okay, just tell me where the leash is."
The snow began to lighten around three that afternoon, and had stopped falling entirely by dinner. News reports on the radio said that plows were getting out on the streets, but it'd be a while before everyone was dug out. The snow was hip-deep in their front yard.
"I think you're going to have to spend one more night at casa del Burke," Elizabeth said, with a sympathetic look at Jones and Diana.
"Flip you for the guest bed," Jones said. Diana gave him a look. "What?"
"They should get it," she said, indicating Peter and Elizabeth. Elizabeth smiled.
"One more night in a sleeping bag won't kill us," she answered. "That's sweet though."
"Nah, I can take the couch again," Jones offered.
"I'll pull rank on you," Diana threatened.
"Executive decision," Peter announced. Everyone looked at him. "Elizabeth slept in a chair last night, she gets the guest bed. Diana can have the couch. Jones, you're sleeping on the floor in the guest room so Satchmo doesn't come pee all over you or whatever it was he did. I'm staying with Neal."
A network of complicated looks passed around the table, but finally Jones and Diana nodded.
"That's fair," Jones pronounced.
"We should probably try to get some more fluids in him," Elizabeth said, but Peter put out a hand to stop her.
"I'll go up. I need to see if I can check my voicemail, anyway," he said.
He found Neal sitting up in bed, one blanket in some kind of complicated nest in his lap, another wrapped around his shoulders. He was reading Peter's book, or at any rate staring at it. The phone was nowhere to be seen, but there was an empty mug on the nightstand.
"Hey," he said, coming to sit on the bed. Neal looked up, sniffled, and gave him a nod. His nose was rubbed raw, and his hair hung in his eyes. "How ya doing?"
"Fine," Neal said, huddling a little deeper in the blankets. "The tea was good."
"Glad to hear it," Peter said. He put a fresh mug of tea on the nightstand and set an apple next to it, digging in the nightstand drawer for the pocket-knife he was pretty sure was in there. Neal watched warily as Peter flicked the blade out of its handle and locked it, cutting the apple open. He offered Neal a slice and Neal took it quietly, chewing small bites off of it. Peter popped a slice in his own mouth as well.
"So how are you actually?" he asked, as Neal chewed. Neal ignored him, though he accepted another slice when Peter offered it. He seemed perplexed and a little surprised by the apple, but at least he was eating. "Neal?"
"Mm?" Neal said, looking up.
"How are you?"
"Fine," Neal said, shoving the apple into his mouth. He looked as if he wasn't aware he'd just answered the question a moment before. Peter sighed and gave him another slice. "This is a good apple," Neal said. "How'd you know?"
"Know what?" Peter asked. Neal took a bite of apple, chewed carefully, and swallowed.
"When I was a kid my mom gave me apples when I was sick," he said. "How'd you find that out?"
"I didn't know. It's a folk trick," Peter answered. "Apples are good for you, won't make you puke."
"Oh." Neal sipped the tea Peter had brought, then set it down and curled tighter into the blanket. Peter put the remains of the apple aside, wiped the knife blade clean with a tissue, collapsed it into the handle, and tossed it back in the drawer. He reached out to tip Neal's chin up and Neal pulled away, but he couldn't get very far. Peter caught his chin again and brought it around until Neal met his eyes.
"How are you?" Peter repeated. Neal snorted, but he didn't reply. "Neal."
"How do you think?" Neal asked sharply, reaching up to brush his hair out of his eyes. "I'm tired and useless and everywhere hurts, half the time I'm..." he closed his eyes momentarily. "I keep seeing things that aren't there. I'm cold, I can't sleep, I've been wearing the same underwear for days, and I want a shower but I can't stand up long enough to get to the goddamn bathroom. So just stop asking, because anyway there's nothing you can do."
"Okay, okay," Peter said, as Neal ducked his head and coughed. "Look, we're all useless right now."
"I don't even know why I'm here," Neal muttered.
Peter frowned. "You remember getting here?"
Neal shook his head wretchedly. Jesus.
"You're here because we got caught in a blizzard," Peter said. "My place was closest. Diana and Jones are stuck here too, so it's not just you, okay?"
Neal looked around as if he expected them to appear.
"The snow just stopped, so tomorrow we'll get you to a clinic and get you checked out," Peter continued. "Then you can...go home, or we'll put you up here, whatever you want."
Neal's shoulders slumped in defeat. "I hate being sick."
"Yeah, nobody loves it," Peter answered, smiling a little. "Listen, if I can get you to the bathroom can you shower on your own? I promise hot water," he said. Neal shrugged. "Want to give it a try?"
Neal let himself be tugged upright, pulling the blanket tighter around his shoulders as they walked carefully to the bathroom. Peter leaned him against the counter and turned on the water, hot as he thought Neal could tolerate, and then turned back to Neal, who was struggling out of his undershirt.
"I'm going to wait outside," he said. "You have any trouble, yell."
Neal nodded. Peter saw him set something carefully on the toilet, as close to the shower as he could -- Peter's phone, like some kind of magic charm.
He left Neal to undress and went back into the bedroom, digging out a pair of boxer shorts, some sweatpants, and an old t-shirt. He stepped into the bathroom quietly, retrieved the dirty clothes Neal had left on the floor, and set out the clean ones on the toilet. Task completed, he leaned against the wall outside and waited, mentally timing the shower. Any longer than twenty minutes and he'd go in, Neal's dignity be damned, and make sure he hadn't passed out.
Around eighteen minutes in, the water shut off and he could hear wet footsteps on the tile. Neal emerged, damp and shivering but with clean, slicked-back hair and fresh clothing. Peter passed him the blanket again, and they made their way quickly back to the bed. Neal sighed blissfully as he crawled under the rest of the blankets -- then stiffened suddenly and began searching through them as if he was missing something.
"Your phone," he said, panic rising in his voice. "I lost your phone -- "
"It's in the bathroom," Peter said. Neal tried to get out of the bed. "Stay put, I'll get it."
"I'm sorry," Neal called after him, like a child. Peter grabbed the phone off the back of the toilet and came back in, handing it to Neal. He clutched it tightly. "Thank you."
"You are such a wreck," Peter said affectionately, adding another blanket to the bed. Neal curled up again, tugging them tight around his body, and didn't reply.
Neal woke to darkness and utter silence. At first he couldn't figure out where he was, and a lingering sense of unease made him lie very still, eyes flicking over the few unfamiliar shapes he could see. It was so quiet, much too quiet, and he ached everywhere. His mouth was dry, lips chapped. He wondered if he'd been kidnapped.
Something was pressing against his chest, the rounded edge of something small, and Neal shifted only as much as he had to in order to unclench his hand from whatever it was. There was a solid weight on his shoulders that moved when he did, but that might just be a heavy blanket -- he could feel a few of them on his legs. He brought his hand up and fumbled with whatever he'd been holding until his knuckle brushed a button and it lit up, blinding him momentarily. He squeezed his eyes shut until the sting of dilation had passed, then cracked them open.
Before he could process why the hell he'd be unconscious with Peter's phone in his hands, there was a noise like someone exhaling and movement too close by, much too close, up against his back. He scrambled away from it, almost falling to the ground when the bed suddenly just sort of ended. A hand grabbed his shirt and yanked him back. Neal flailed, but whoever had just pinned him by his arms to the bed was heavy and a lot stronger than he was.
"Neal, it's me," Peter's voice said, and Neal stopped struggling. The hands on his shoulders eased, and he looked up into Peter's face, mostly shadows. "You okay?"
"Where are we?" Neal asked. Peter frowned.
"Are you seeing things?" he asked. Neal blinked. "Neal, talk to me -- "
"No, I'm not seeing things," Neal said. Peter's weight against his ribcage shifted, and a warm hand pressed to his forehead.
"Oh, thank God," Peter said, and dropped his head down to rest against Neal's chest. Neal, uncertain what to do with this, waited for Peter to make the next move. "Your fever broke," Peter said, and rolled off him, out of the bed. This was -- oh, this was Peter and Elizabeth's bedroom. So, probably not a kidnapping, unless Peter had unplumbed darkness in his soul.
Neal pushed himself up to sitting and looked around, eyes adjusting to the darkness. Peter had walked out into the hallway and now he returned, glass of water in one hand. Neal licked his lips and took it eagerly, making undignified slurping noises as he drank it down. Peter sat on the edge of the bed and took the glass when he was done.
"You remember how you got here?" Peter asked, and Neal reeled his mind backwards, but the last thing he remembered was the front of the blizzard --
No, there was something else there, chaotic and disorganized. Fragments -- broken glass, Salvador Dali's Temptation of Saint Anthony, Peter feeding him apple slices like he was a child. Being cold down to the bone, standing under hot water until his skin turned red.
"Some things," he said cautiously. To his surprise, Peter cupped a hand against his cheek, studying him.
"You look better," he said, relief evident in his voice. "If you got worse I didn't know what we were going to do."
"It's just a cold," Neal answered, and then blew his credibility by coughing so hard Peter had to prop him up.
"You ran a pretty high fever," Peter told him. "You were seeing elephants, Neal."
"Pink?" Neal asked, grinning. Peter didn't smile. "Seriously, I'm okay."
"You should get some more sleep," Peter said, letting go of him. "Hope you don't mind bunking with me. I didn't want to leave you alone."
"No, it's fine," Neal said, trying for careless, probably hitting somewhere closer to please don't leave me alone. He eased back down into the bed and tugged the blankets over his shoulders. He heard Peter get off the bed and circle around it, and then felt Peter's back press up against his.
The cellphone, screen gone dim, was still lying nearby; Neal wrapped a hand around it, intending to put it on the nightstand. Instead, though, he held the warm plastic tightly and pulled it in against him. It just felt...safer, having it there.
"Sorry," he murmured in the darkness.
"Hm?" Peter asked.
"Just sorry," Neal repeated.
"Yeah, this is completely your fault. I bet you invented that blizzard and deliberately got yourself infected," Peter said. "You're a menace. I don't know why I put up with you. Go to sleep."
Neal grinned and was about to drift off when a terrible thought struck him.
"Am I wearing your underwear?" he asked.
"It's clean," Peter said, obviously only half-awake.
"But it's your underwear?"
"Caffrey, if you don't go to sleep I'm going to smother you with a pillow," Peter said, "and you'll be wearing my underwear to your eternal rest."
The rest of them were already eating breakfast when Elizabeth came downstairs the following morning: Peter and Jones each had an enormous bowl of cereal, Diana was peeling an orange, and Neal was sitting across from Peter, hands wrapped around a steaming cup of coffee. Neal looked awful, and Peter suspected he knew he looked awful -- pale and worn, with dark circles under his eyes and slumped shoulders -- but he was smiling. When he caught sight of Elizabeth, Neal's eyes lit up.
"Hey," he said, sounding like he'd been gargling with sand. He cleared his throat and tried again. "Hey."
"Hi, sweetie," she said, wrapping an arm around him briefly and kissing the crown of his head. Peter looked on, contented. "Feeling better?"
"I got tired of malingering," Neal said with a wide smile. Then he coughed roughly into his wrist.
"Plow's coming through around ten, is what the neighbors say," Peter said. "First thing we do is get this one to a doctor." He waved his spoon at Neal.
"Well, I can take him on my way in," Elizabeth said. "You can take the van, drop off Clinton and Diana, then get your car and pick him up."
"I can take a cab," Neal said.
"And abscond with my underwear?" Peter asked. Neal looked down at his coffee. "I'll pick you up. In the meantime," he said, standing up, "I have three snow shovels and a front walk to dig out. Come on, kids," he said, and Jones and Diana exchanged a wary look and followed him.
By the time they reached the street they were cold and damp in some places, sweaty in others, but the plow was coming through. It briefly buried both Elizabeth's little Honda and the surveillance van, but Peter could tell Jones and Diana were eager to get home -- they got the van free in record time and raced back inside to get their things, leaving Peter to clear out the snow for Elizabeth and de-ice her door locks. After a few seconds of thought, he climbed into the car and turned it on, cranking up the heating.
Jones and Diana voted him down two to one for driving privileges; Peter sulked as Jones took control of the van and steered them first to Diana's apartment building, then back to the Bureau where he and Peter collected their voicemails and their cars. The White Collar office, usually bustling even late at night, was eerily quiet with almost everyone still snowbound. Peter reached into his pocket to call Elizabeth from the Taurus and let her know he was on his way to get Neal -- and found his phone gone.
"That little bastard," he said, laughing. At least he knew what clinic she'd taken him to.
Neal was sitting in the waiting room when he arrived, a pile of paperwork on his lap. He was quietly folding the top sheet ("CARING FOR YOUR COLD") into an origami snowman, which he then offered to a runny-nosed child sitting in the seat opposite him. Peter tapped him gently on the shoulder and Neal stood up, wiping his own nose with a crumpled tissue from his pocket.
"What'd the doctor say?" he asked, as they headed for the car.
"Upper respiratory infection," Neal replied, holding up a prescription sample bottle. Pills rattled inside when he shook it. "I got codeine."
"That'll put you on your ass," Peter said.
"Yeah," Neal sniffled, pulling his coat tighter around him as they walked into the building's parking garage. "I'm thinking I'll take the week and try not to be conscious. That work for you?"
"Sure," Peter said, unlocking the car. He put a hand on Neal's shoulder, stopping him from getting in, and then stretched out his palm. Neal, reluctantly, took Peter's phone out of his pocket and returned it to him.
By the time they were out of the parking garage, Neal was asleep, snoring congestedly against the window.
Neal woke up briefly, fuzzily, when someone shook him and then hauled him out of the nice, warm, comfortable car into the terrible world outside. He yelped as Peter more or less dragged him up to a shoveled walkway and along high walls of snow on either side. Finally they made it through a door and Neal sighed with relief. He might have several flights of stairs to climb to get to his rooftop apartment, but at least he was --
-- being dumped on Peter and Elizabeth's sofa, where Satchmo got both front paws up on the cushion and licked his face.
"I thought you were taking me home," Neal groaned, shoving Satchmo away.
"I'm not letting you out of my sight," Peter replied. "Diana and Jones can handle work for a day or two. Nobody's going to be committing white collar crime in snow like this, they're all at home with the central heating cranked up like intelligent people."
Neal rolled over onto his side and saw Peter crouched in front of the fireplace next to the couch, the one he'd always assumed was decorative. He was layering kindling into it in some complex mathematical pattern, stacking it around a fire-starter in the center.
"Cheating," Neal said, pointing at the fire-starter.
"I choose to live in a world of electric razors, chemical fire-starters, and cars with GPS," Peter said loftily. "Just because I can start a fire with two sticks doesn't mean I have to."
He lit the little cake of sawdust and chemicals. Flame flared up briefly, catching the kindling and the crumpled newspaper stuffed beneath it. Heat began pouring out of the fireplace almost immediately. Peter sat back, obviously pleased with himself, rolling up his sleeves and holding his hands in front of the fire.
Neal gave up pretending he was fine, pretending this wasn't where he wanted to be, and pretending he wasn't enjoying the fire. He slithered off the sofa and joined Peter on the floor, curling up against him. Peter slung an arm around his chest to steady him, grinning.
"When you're better, you and I are going to have a talk," Peter said.
"Mmhm," Neal agreed absently, dozing on Peter's shoulder.
"Neal, did you hear me?"
"Yeah, whatever," Neal answered. He snuck one hand out, lifted Peter's phone out of his pocket casually, and tucked it up the sleeve of the sweatshirt he was wearing. Peter, if he noticed, didn't let on.
Contented, Neal slept.
Oh the weather outside is frightful
But the fire is so delightful
And since we've no place to go
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.