Neal coughed as he crouched and half-ran, half-fell down to the stairs to the second floor. The smoke was thicker here, and he could feel the heat of the fire licking at the floor beneath his bare feet. He hadn't actually seen any fire yet, but the heavy smoke indicated that the situation wasn't good. June's room was just down the hall, and he had to make sure that she and Bugsy were out before he could leave the mansion.
He thanked any and all higher beings that no one else was home this week except for the staff, whose living quarters were downstairs so they were probably already out of the building. It was four in the morning, and he'd been woken by the smell of smoke and fire. He wasn't even wearing shoes because he thought he'd been dreaming about Kate again, about the plane and the fire, but by the time he made it down to the third floor landing, the smoke was wafting up more and more from below.
His cell was still in his apartment, but he had to get to June before he could even think about finding a phone to call for help. Surely, one of the neighbors had done so already. Or the staff. Someone.
He coughed again as he made it to June's door, which was closed. He felt the door, somehow remembering to do so from a fire safety program as a child, and found it to be cool. Then, he twisted the knob and pushed it open.
“June!” he called out, but his voice was hoarse. “June! Bugsy!” he tried again.
No one answered, so he crawled into the room, trying to stay below the worst of the smoke, but it was everywhere.
He made it to June's bed and pulled himself up so that he could feel the blankets for a person or puppy shaped lump. There were neither. He tried to breath a sigh of relief but only managed his worst coughing fit so far. Exhausted, he fell back to the floor and took a moment to steady himself. It was getting harder to breath, harder to see, harder to move.
He turned over onto his stomach and forced himself forward, trying his best to ignore the headache growing behind his eyes. However, the door wasn't where he'd left it. He’d run into the wall when he was pretty sure he was right at the doorway. He looked left and right but the smoke was thick, obscuring all but a few inches in front of his face.
Neal quelled his rising panic as best he could and started following the wall to the left, hoping he wasn't going in the wrong direction. For all he knew, the door was a foot to his right, but he had to make a choice and get his butt in motion or he would never get out of this room.
The going was tough and slow. His body needed more oxygen than he was able to pull out of the air. Any breath that wasn't shallow sent him into a fit that robbed him of even more oxygen and, worse, time to get out.
He had collapsed onto his back, chest heaving, vision tunneling, when hands suddenly touched his foot, his shoulder, his face.
“Neal?” A familiar, deep voice called his name. “Neal, is that you?”
The man sounded far away and muffled. He couldn’t see him clearly in the smoke, but he felt himself lifted up, one arm behind his knees and the other at the middle of his back. Neal fought to keep his aching head up, resting on the man’s shoulder for stability.
“You’re going to be okay, Neal. Do you hear me?”
Neal could barely make out the words, but the person was becoming clearer in his mind. The navy blue Yankees t-shirt under his cheek was a pretty big clue.
Peter! That was Peter’s voice. He was scared and maybe a little angry. His hand was clamped around Neal’s calf, just below the side of his knee, and he squeezed the skin painfully and jostled him. “Huh?” was all Neal could get out through his rapidly closing throat. Each breath was an effort.
“That’s it. Stay with me. We’re almost out.”
Neal let the words wash over him with the relief of having Peter there. Most of his concentration was on dragging in each rough inhale and pushing out each labored exhale, but the rest of it, he devoted to listening to Peter’s steady stream of words.
“You’re going to be okay. June and the staff are outside, worried sick about you. I had to borrow a mask from a firefighter. You’ve been a bad influence, but they wouldn’t listen to me when I told them where I thought you’d be. Always the hero, aren’t you, Caffrey?”
Neal’s body shook when Peter jostled him again, so he murmured an “umhmm” and clumsily patted Peter’s chest with one hand.
“You’re lucky I was a volunteer firefighter in high school and throughout college and knew what to do to get to you. Otherwise they were going to start at the fourth floor in their search. But everything’s okay. We’re almost there.”
They burst out the front door and into the sweet, cool night air outside. Neal immediately started coughing as he gasped desperately for the oxygen that was now all around him.
The EMTs must have been ready because pretty quickly Peter was setting him on a gurney and someone was pushing an oxygen mask over his face. There were too many unfamiliar hands on his body, and he reached for Peter blindly, grasping what he was pretty sure was the hem of the Yankees shirt and holding on with all his remaining strength.
Hands on his face caused him to flinch away, but Peter’s voice stilled him. “Open your eyes, Neal.” He hadn’t realized he’d closed them. It took a lot to get them open again, but when he did, he was staring up at a blurry version of Peter’s smiling face. “Hey, there. Calm down, and let the medics do their job. They’re going to take you to the hospital, and June and I will meet you there.”
“No!” he clutched harder at the shirt and ignored the involuntary tears streaming from his eyes. They stung painfully, but he needed to keep Peter within sight.
Peter frowned and rubbed a hand over his face. “Okay. Hang on.” He turned away and spoke a few words to an officer standing just in Neal’s line of sight. Neal caught a little bit of it, mostly June’s name and the promise to get her to Lennox Hill in one piece.
The EMTs were still bustling around him, but he wasn’t letting go of Peter’s shirt. They started pushing him toward the ambulance when Peter turned back to him and squeezed his shoulder. “How are you doing?”
Neal tried to respond, but the effort irritated his throat. He started coughing and couldn’t stop, couldn’t take in any air, and he panicked. It may have taken seconds or hours, but the EMTs must have given him something, because his eyes closed of their own volition and everything slipped away.
He woke to a quiet, dark room with vague memories of coming around before when there’d been tubes stuck down his throat, his nose, and of the panic that came with the helplessness and fear. Peter had been there then, talking to him just as he had in the smoke-filled house, and he’d surfaced briefly another time to Elizabeth reading aloud from a book – maybe something by Dickens.
Laying still, he gave himself time to adjust to being awake and aware. He was startled by a sudden snore from somewhere nearby. When he turned his head, he caught sight of Peter sitting there with his feet propped up on the end of Neal’s bed and his head tipped to the side against the backrest of the visitor’s chair.
Moving his foot, Neal weakly kicked at Peter’s shoes and grinned when his partner shot up, looking frazzled but immediately alert. “Hey,” he tried to say, but it came out as a croak.
“Are you okay? What’s wrong?”
Neal shook his head and pointed at the monitors to the side to show that he was fine. No alarms had even gone off. His chest ached, and his throat was incredibly sore and scratchy, but he felt all right. Even his headache had dulled to barely a nuisance.
Peter reached out and pressed the call button. “The nurse’ll know if you can have some water, and she’ll want to check you over. The doctor said that you’d be good as new, but it’ll take some time for your lungs to heal.”
Neal nodded and grabbed Peter’s hand to tap out J-U-N-E in Morse code on his palm.
Peter smiled softly. “She’s great, not a scratch. She’ll be by to see you in the morning.” His expression fell as he shifted his grip and squeezed Neal’s hand. “You’ve been here a few days. It was touch-and-go for the first twenty-four hours, but you’re bouncing back.”
Neal returned the squeeze, wishing that he could say something. The experience had obviously been hard on Peter, and Neal hated seeing that strained look on his face.
“And,” Peter looked up, “you’re going to be okay, and everyone else was out of the house before the fire department showed up.”
Neal smiled and pulled Peter’s hand up to his chest, where he hoped that his partner could feel his heartbeat.
Peter pulled away a minute later; the tension in his shoulders and the lines around his eyes started to fade away.
The nurse walked in a moment later to answer the call. She was pleased to see Neal awake and didn’t seem concerned about his throat. She gave Peter ice chips and some water for him and told Neal that he should rest. The doctor would see him at rounds in the morning.
Five minutes later, Neal was exhausted from the effort of communicating without his voice and trying to put up as healthy a façade as he could for Peter’s sake. He finished the last sip of water and laid his head back against the pillows.
“Get some rest. It’s probably going to be a busy day tomorrow. There are lots of people who want to visit you.”
Neal forced his eyes to stay open long enough to see that Peter wasn’t leaving, just settling more comfortably into his chair. “Thank you,” he whispered and fell back into his dreamless sleep.
Thank you for reading!