?

Log in

Previous Entry | Next Entry

WC: Need - Part 4: Water

White Collar -- Fanfiction

Disclaimer: 
All recognizable characters are property of Jeff Eastin and USA Network. 
No copyright infringement intended.

Title:  Need (Part 4 - Water)

  • Rating: R
  • Warnings:  Language, Violence, Sexual References, PTSD
  • Spoilers:  none
  • Category: Hurt/Comfort, Drama, Nudity, Peter-Neal-Elizabeth Friendship
Summary:

Neal's headless escape puts more than his recovery in jeopardy. 

Author's Notes:


I really appreciate all the awesome feedback.  I'm tickled pink to see how many of you are excited about the story.  Here is part 4.  I have a super-busy week ahead of me, so the next installment won't happen until the end of the week.  Thank you in advance for your patience.



Part 4 – Water

It is past noon and Peter is desperate.  He pockets his cell phone after his latest check-in with Elizabeth.  No luck on her end either.  Neal has been out here for ten hours.  The last time Peter was frantically searching for his friend, ten hours turned into ten days, then into ten weeks and eventually into ten months.  If Neal is lost out here, he doesn’t have ten days.  He may not have another ten hours.

“Come on, Burke.  Find him.  It’s what you do,” Peter grunts as he steps over roots and shoulders past brushes on his arduous, disoriented march through the jungle.  The thunder that rumbles overhead bodes more misery.  He doesn’t have to wait long.  The sound of the rainsquall hitting the canopy of leaves above is deafening.  Peter is soaked seconds later.

“Neal!”  He yells against the wall of rain.  “Caffrey!”  He stops and listens, for what exactly, he isn’t sure.  Peter stomps ahead through the heavy underbrush, the water sloshing under his soles then between his toes.  He pauses every few steps to look around, scanning his surroundings for any sign of his friend.  What he thought was a trail to follow, was lost hours ago.  He is walking on instinct alone, trying to think like Neal, perhaps trying to think like a frightened animal.

Peter doesn’t know if it’s a particularly cold patch of rain that makes the hair at the back of his neck stand on edge all of a sudden.  He freezes then spins slowly on his heel.  He squints against the rain, surveying every detail in his field of vision, trying to pinpoint what caught the Burke gut’s attention. 

He almost misses it, the small patch of pink and white over to the right.

Peter runs.  At least his slipping and sliding stumble passes for a run in the privacy of the rainforest.  He skids to a halt in front of his friend.

Hugging his good knee to his chest, Neal sits, dwarfed by the massive tree trunk he rests his shoulder and temple against.  His black pants and white dress shirt are saturated with water, the fabric is hugging his body.  The heavy raindrops pelt Neal’s back and shoulders, the pink and purple and scabbed skin showing through the translucent cotton.

“Hey, Neal.”  Peter’s voice is soft and full of relief.  “If you were looking for the fridge, it’s about 6 miles that way.”

Peter points over his shoulder.  The gesture and the joke are lost on Neal.  He doesn’t look up.  Instead, he shrinks further into himself.  He lifts his hands, interlaces his fingers at the back of his head, shielding it from the man towering above him.

Shaking his head, Peter steps closer, then lowers himself to a knee directly in front of the cowered man.  Up close he can see Neal shiver despite the balmy temperatures and the warm rain. Peter reaches for his friend, but then he decides against touching him.

“Hey,” he says softly.  “Look at me, Neal.”

There is no visible reaction.

“Lower your hands and look at me, Neal,” Peter repeats.  “That’s an order.”

Neal’s hands tremble when he hesitantly drops them to his side.

“Good,” Peter praises.  “Now look at me.”

Very slowly Neal raises his face into the heavy rain, his hair matted against his forehead.  He blinks the raindrops from his lashes and looks at Peter’s chin. 

“Look me in the eye, Neal,” Peter insists, keeping his tone warm and reassuring.  “Just for a moment, all right?”

He patiently waits as Neal takes a few breaths.  Then Neal lifts his eyes, the bloodshot, glossy blues locking with Peter’s.  Peter wants to hold on to this instant, wants to freeze time to study everything concealed in his friend’s fearful eyes.  He knows he has seconds, at best, to get any kind of message through.

“I will never, ever hit you, Neal,” he speaks slowly and clearly.  “Do you hear me?”

For an instant, there’s a flicker of recognition in Neal’s eyes or perhaps only in Peter’s head.  For that split second Peter envisions Neal reaching out for him to sling his arms around his neck.  He can almost feel his friend’s body in his embrace, thin and hard and shaking.  But then the image is gone as quickly as it appeared, and Neal’s gaze is blank and distant again as he lowers his eyes to the soggy forest floor.

Peter settles his hand on the crown of Neal’s drenched head and ignores the sad truth that Neal still recoils from his touch.  He brushes his thumb then his palm over Neal’s forehead. 

“You’re burning up.”  He feels Neal’s cheeks and lets go off him.  “We need to get you home and dry.”

Peter pulls out his cell phone and pulls up the GPS map.  They are only half a mile from the nearest road if they head straight West.  He takes a screenshot and sends it to El’s phone before calling her number.  She answers at the first ring.

“I found him, honey,” Peter announces.  “I need you to meet us at the cul-de-sac. I sent you a map of it.  We’re not far but I don’t know how long it will take us.”

“Is he okay?”  She asks.

“He’s soaked and he’s running a fever, but he’s in one piece.”

“Okay, hon, I’ll crank up the heat in the car and I’ll see you shortly.”

Peter stows his phone and sweeps his eyes over his miserable partner, ending at his bare feet.

“My deductive reasoning tells me that you’re sitting here because you couldn’t walk any further,” he remarks and doesn’t expect an answer.  “Let’s get you on your feet and we’ll take if from there.  Come on, pull yourself up.”

Peter offers his arm and shoulder but Neal opts for the tree instead.  Biting back the pain, Neal claws his way up the tree trunk and onto unsteady legs.  He leans heavily against the tree.

“Yeah, you’re not walking anywhere, buddy.”

Without further ado, Peter lifts Neal’s right arm and stoops down, threading his forearm between Neal’s legs and hooking it around Neal’s right thigh.  With a strained puff of air, he shoulders his charge into a fireman’s carry.  He expected Neal to feel heavier than he does.

“Alright, giddy up, partner.”  Peter huffs.  “We’ll have you out of her in a jiffy.”

***

Elizabeth takes command of the situation the moment she sees her husband and his load stagger out of the dense forest and onto the paved road.  She opens the passenger door wide then heads a few steps down the road to meet Peter.

“Are you okay?”  She asks, looking Peter up and down.  Sweat mingles with rain and is dripping from his chin.

Too exhausted to speak, Peter nods and closes the remaining distance to the car.  Elizabeth walks by his side and uncertainly touches Neal, who regards his lopsided, swaying world from half closed eyes.

“Hi, Neal.  You gave us quite the scare.” 

“Is he conscious?”  Peter asks when he comes to a halt by the open car door.

Elizabeth nods.

“Neal,” She addresses his cargo, speaking firmly.  “Peter is going to put you down.  I need you to help him by standing on your own two feet for a moment.  Can you do that for me, sweetie?”

Neal blinks tiredly and she takes that as a yes. 

“Okay, Peter,” she prompts. 

Gritting his teeth, Peter mobilizes the last of his strength to bend his knees and lean sideways until Neal’s toes touch the ground.  There is little if any support coming from Neal.

“Neal, you have to bear your own weight,” Elizabeth insists.  “Will you try for me, please?”

He nods now.

Peter joggles Neal off his shoulder, holding onto him until he has found a tentative balance.

“Good job, boys,” Elizabeth praises.  She takes Neal by the arm and guides him into position to slide into the front seat.  “Get in the car, sweetie.  We’ll take you back now.”

Neal shudders and gapes up at her. 

“Back … there?” he wheezes.  The feverish shock in his eyes breaks Elizabeth’s heart.

“No, baby.  No,” she soothes.  “Back to the house.  With us.”

***

“I’ve got him,” Elizabeth says.  “Change into some dry clothes, honey, you’re soaked. One patient is all I can handle.”

Standing in the middle of the guest bedroom, she undoes the buttons that hold the front of Neal’s shirt together.  She peels the sticky fabric back over Neal’s shoulders. 

“Sure?”  Peter asks and considers the unsteady figure of his consultant, who looks to be teetering on the verge of tipping over when Elizabeth inches the wet shirt down his arms.

“Yes, we’re in control here,” Elizabeth smiles and tosses the shirt aside.  She moves on to unbutton Neal’s trousers.

“Fine,” Peter sighs.  He would have found everything about this image disturbing a year, even a week ago.  Now, the only thing that gets his blood boiling is the sight of the dress pants’ waistband that sags on his partner’s bony hips.  He points at the open door to the guest bathroom.  “I’ll get the bathwater running.  We need to wash the jungle off of him and get him warm.”

“Yes, honey.  I know.”  She nods eagerly and unzips Neal’s trousers.  They pool at his feet an instant later.  “I’m on it.  Go change, Peter.”

By the time Peter has toweled off and changed into a t-shirt and a pair of shorts, Neal is halfway submerged in the rising bath water.  His head is tilted back on the edge of the tub and his eyes are closed as Elizabeth tenderly wipes his face with the corner of a washcloth. 

“How is he?” Peter asks from the door.

“Exhausted.”  Elizabeth briefly looks up.  “Feverish. I think his side is infected.”

“Yeah, I was worried that was going to happen.  It didn’t look good last night.”  Peter sits down on the edge of the tub.  He notices Neal’s eyelids fluttering, his body stiffening.  He’d be a fool to think that Neal ever fully let his guard down in his company, but to see him wary to an extreme at the very inkling of his presence in the room hurts more than Peter would have anticipated.  Before long, they are going to have to address the issue head on, but not today.  He watches his wife’s tender ministrations for a short while and turns the faucet off when the water level has climbed up Neal’s chest.

“Can you handle things in here, hon?”  Peter asks.

“We’re fine,” Elizabeth confirms and combs her fingers through Neal’s hair. 

“Good.  I’ll get things set up in the bedroom.”  He gets to his feet surveys his consultant’s naked body through the distorting lens of the clear water.  “Just let him soak a few more minutes until he’s warmed through.  Don’t worry about washing him if you’re uncomfortable with it.  I’ll take care of everything later.”

***

“Sit down, Neal,” Peter requests.

Holding the towel around his waist closed, Neal looks down on the bed in front of him and then at the arsenal of medical supplies Peter has laid out on the bedside table.  Brushing past Peter, his eyes find the sliding glass door that leads out onto the patio.

“It’s locked,” Peter points out.  “There’s no more running away.  Now sit down.”

Neal awkwardly hobbles the remaining two steps and then lowers himself onto the edge of the bed. 

“Good,” Peter tips his head.  He grabs a bottle of Gatorade from the table and shakes it up to suspend the pain and fever meds he mixed into it.  “Drink this.” 

The bottle shakes in Neal’s hand when he raises it to his lips and takes a sip.

“Use both hands, Neal.”  Peter instructs.  “You have to finish the entire bottle.  You have a fever, you need to stay hydrated.  Do you understand what that means?”

Neal nods and lets go of the towel to support the plastic bottle.  He coughs when he swallows too hastily.

“Slow down.”  Peter sighs. 

He may as well be lecturing himself.  He needs to take this one step at a time, even if they take two steps back for every step forward.  He waits patiently for Neal to finish the sports drink then reclaims the empty bottle.  “Stretch out, Neal.”  He pushes the blankets aside and Neal swings his legs onto the bed and sinks down onto the pillow.  The muscles on his chest and stomach are twitching with the strain of the simple act.

“First things first,” Peter says and reaches into the nightstand drawer.  “You remember her?”  He holds up the tracking anklet.  Neal sighs affectedly and turns his face away.  It’s the closest thing to a sense of humor Neal has displayed since his rescue.

“Just like old times, huh?”  Peter grins.  He turns to the foot of the bed to put the tracker on and his grin fads.  Two steps back for every step forward, he reminds himself at the sight of the raw and bruised skin the shackles have left on Neal’s ankles.  Peter returns to the nightstand and picks up a roll of gauze.  He sits down at the edge of the bed and lifts Neal’s left calf onto his thigh.  He gently wraps the chafed skin with a thick layer of gauze.

“That’s sweet of you, honey,” Elizabeth materializes by his side and plants a quick kiss on the crown of his head, before placing the icepacks and towels she is carrying on the bed.

“Well, contrary to popular belief,” Peter replies with a pointed look at his patient, “I’m no monster.”  He checks the bandaged ankle then snaps the tracker closed over it.  The faithful green diodes flash to life.  Peter gives the leg in his lap a quick pat then lowers the limb back onto the bed.  He turns his attention to the other leg and wonders just how much damage Neal has done to his banged-up knee on his headless slog through the woods.  The joint feels warm and swollen again.  Peter slides a towel under the knee and layers the icepacks El brought around it.

“Okay.  Let’s roll him onto his right, see what can be done for his infected scrapes.” 

They turn Neal onto his side, facing away from the edge of the bed.  Elizabeth collects the pillows from the unoccupied half of the bed and places one at Neal’s back to stabilize him.  She slides the other between his chest and arm.  He hugs it to his front.

“How’re you doing, sweetie?” Elizabeth sits down at the head of the bed and runs her fingertips along his hairline before resting her hand on his shoulder.

“’kay,” he breathes.

“Peter is just going to take care of your side and then you can go to sleep.”  Neal nods into his pillow and Elizabeth nods at Peter.

Peter peels back the towel around Neal’s waist to expose the wounds on his flank and thigh, sucking in a sharp breath in synchrony with Neal.  He touches the hot and tender tissue and Neal flinches at the slightest contact.  Peter packs a few towels around the area to protect the bedding.

“Hand me the peroxide, please?”  He asks El, who unscrews the bottle and passes it on.

“This is probably going to hurt quite a bit,” Peter says with a concerned look at Neal and his wife.  “Try and keep still, Neal.”

Taking a deep breath, Peter pours a liberal amount of disinfectant onto the first patch of the infected area, catching the excess with a towel.  The liquid fizzes where it meets the open wound.  Neal tenses instantly.  There’s a choked outcry that he stifles by biting into the pillow he presses harder against his chest.

“Sorry, buddy,” Peter says and pours more peroxide onto his friend’s hipbone.

“You’re doing great,” Elizabeth reassures him and soothingly strokes the tight muscles on Neal’s upper arm. 

The agonizing process continues for the next few minutes.  By the time Peter dries the scraped skin with a thick pad of cotton Neal is shaking convulsively.  His ragged breathing sounds like sobbing, but Peter can’t be sure with his friend’s face buried in the pillow.  Peter spreads a layer of ointment onto the sores then covers the wounds with sheets of adhesive dressings. 

“Almost done here.”  He wipes beads of sweat from his brow with his forearm.  “I’ll give him a shot of antibiotics, I don’t think the topical is going to be enough to clear this up.”

Elizabeth opens the box of premeasured injections and removes one of the syringes.

“These?”

“Yeah,” Peter nods.  He takes the shot and the wad of cotton Elizabeth soaks in rubbing alcohol.  Peter tosses the towels stacked around Neal’s midsection aside and passes a hand over the smooth and pale skin of Neal’s unbandaged buttock, feeling for muscle to inject into.  He feels the tissue tighten under his touch.  “Relax, Neal, this will hurt if you clench.” 

He quickly rubs the spot he picked with the alcohol swab and silently counts to three as he wills the needle in his trembling hands to still.  There’s a small gasp from Neal when the shot goes in, but Peter suspects that on the scale of everything his friend went through in the past six months, the pain must be miniscule.  He slowly depresses the plunger, retracts the needle and swabs the area again.  Discarding the syringe, Peter surveys the quivering man on the bed.

“You did really good, Neal,” he says and wants to lay a comforting hand on him.  He doesn’t know where.  Peter scratches the back of his own neck instead.  “Do you want to keep lying on your side?”

Still short of breath and tense, Neal nods into his pillow and pulls up his good knee to curl up further.

Peter pulls the sheet over him and a light blanket on top of the sheet.  Elizabeth remains perched at the head of the bed and has taken to gently caress Neal’s hair and face again, only stopping to dab off some of the perspiration that has collected there.

“I’m going to stay with him for a while,” she says.  “Don’t worry about putting stuff away.  I’ll do it after he’s asleep.”

Peter nods and finally allows himself to feel utterly drained for the first time today. 

“He’s had his meds, he should be out fairly soon,” he says and checks his watch.  It’s only 3.  “Let’s give him a few hours of rest, see if we can get some food into him later.  We probably shouldn’t leave him alone tonight.  I’m worried about his fever.  I’m—“

“You’re exhausted, Peter,” Elizabeth cuts him off.  “Why don’t you go relax by the pool?  I’ll bring you some lemonade, maybe rub your shoulders?”

Peter’s mouth curls into a tired smile.

“You’re too good for us, hon,” he says and wonders when ‘me’ had become ‘us’.

***

“He didn’t mean to, Peter,” Elizabeth says.  “Don’t be upset with him, please.”

“I’m not.”  He replies and gently presses the towel against her bleeding nose.  “After the table lamp and the water glass, I should have known better than to leave anything breakable within arm’s reach of him.”

Physically, Peter is dead-tired.  He hasn’t slept in the past two days because taking care of Neal has become a 24-hour job for two people.  Between replacing the sweat-soaked sheets twice a day, between cleaning Neal’s wounds and changing the dressings, between the shots of antibiotics and the endless attempts to restore the fluids Neal is losing by the minute, Peter can’t find the time and peace of mind to rest. 

Sitting in the chair in front of him, Elizabeth looks about as fatigued as he feels.  She has been his rock these past two days.  Their rock.  Her patience with Neal is inexhaustible.  With his fevered head resting in her lap, she sits for hours, feeding Neal water from a plastic bottle one small sip at a time, undeterred by the liquid that spills onto her dress or onto his pillow when he fails to swallow and when he coughs.  Whenever that happens she simply dries his chin and his neck and doesn’t worry about her dress.

Before Neal’s elbow finally met its unintended target a few minutes ago, Elizabeth had a few close calls with Neal’s uncoordinated, flailing limbs.  Without as much as an annoyed sigh, she would collect the broken pieces of whatever she happened to carry and then she would sit by Neal’s side, still his hands and talk softly to him about home and the dog and about how much everyone misses him.

“I can restrain him,” Peter says flatly and lifts the towel to look at the bruise that is going to blossom in his wife’s face soon.

“No, you can’t.  Don’t be silly.  I’m fine.”  El shakes her head.  She would have been appalled by Peter’s suggestion two days ago, but now she knows Peter is near the end of his rope.  Maybe she is too.  Beyond tired, emotionally, because the only thing worse than bearing Neal’s stoic silence is hearing him scream in his nightmares.  Scream and sometimes cry and sometimes beg for mercy. 

They don’t talk about what they hear.  Elizabeth cries.  Enough for the both of them, because Peter hasn’t been able to let go like that yet.  He comforts her, with silent, strong embraces, the kind that he wishes he could comfort Neal with.

“El, I want you to get some sleep tonight,” Peter says.

“I can sleep next to Neal, hon.”

“No.”  Peter remains firm and adopts the Special Agent tone he rarely uses with his wife.  “I’m going to have a real meal delivered from the club house.  We’re going to eat at a real table.  And after that you will close the door to our bedroom, take a nice long soak in the tub, with a bottle of wine and scented candles—the whole shebang.   And then you’re going to sleep in our bed and not worry about my partner for a night.”

“What about Neal?”

“Ah!” He raises and admonishing finger.  “No worrying.  Starting now.”

She sighs heavily.

“Okay,” she relents.  “But only if you promise me you’ll take a dose of your own medicine tomorrow.”

“I promise.  Scout’s honor.”  He kisses her forehead. 

***

When Elizabeth wakes the next morning, it is still dark outside.  She stretches, extending her limbs in all directions on the king size mattress.  She gingerly touches her nose and cheekbone.  Neal got her good.  She is not looking forward to the image of herself in the mirror.  War wounds aside, she feels rested for the first time in days and a little hung over from the expensive bottle of champagne Peter served her in the tub the previous night.  She looks around then drinks from the glass of water Peter has left on her nightstand.  The clock radio next to the glass announces the ungodly hour of 5:03am. 

Sinking back into her pillow for a moment, she listens to the sounds of the dark house.  It is almost perfectly quiet.  There is the humming drone of the air conditioner unit.  Then there is a second layer of noise, fainter and further away.  A running faucet across the house, perhaps in the kitchen.  Peter may have left the water running when he finished the dishes or got himself a drink of water in the middle of the night.  Elizabeth sighs contently.  No sound coming from Neal.  That is a good thing.  It means he is resting.  Perhaps it even means that the fever broke.

She sits up in bed and scoots over to the edge until her feet touch the floor.  She should check on Peter.  Chances are he has passed out from sheer exhaustion in the least comfortable position, in a chair or on the floor of Neal’s bedroom. 

Elizabeth slips one of Peter’s T-shirts over the camisole and panties she is wearing.  She makes her way through the dark living room to the kitchen sink.  The taps are closed tightly.  Tiptoeing on to guest suite, she slowly opens the door.  The first thing she notices is the sound of the running shower that swells in volume the moment she cracks the door.  The second detail that draws her attention are the rumpled sheets on the unoccupied bed.

“Peter?”  She whispers and enters the room.  There is no doubt that the room is empty.  The door to the bathroom is ajar, casting a long, narrow band of light onto the teak floorboards.  Elizabeth heads across the room and inches the bathroom door open.  The image displayed inside is so full of raw tenderness and despair that her heart wants to overflow with a sudden surge of love for both of her men.

Still in his clothes, his back against the wall of the open shower stall, Peter sits with his legs spread.  Sitting between his knees, Neal is slumped against his chest, his head tipped back on Peter’s shoulder, his temple resting against Peter’s cheek.  His eyes are closed and he is breathing calmly.  The warm shower spray is raining down on them, pearling off of Neal’s bare chest and soaking into Peter’s clothes and into the towel Peter has draped over his consultant’s lap.

“Hi, honey,” Peter says with a tired, pitiful smile. 

“Hi,” she replies from her position in the doorframe.  She watches the water flatten the short hair against Peter’s forehead and run down the deep lines of worry and fatigue carved into his features.  “What are you doing?”  She asks softly and without judgment.

“I couldn’t get him to settle down,” he says and wraps his arms more tightly around Neal’s body, pulling him into his chest and passing a soothing hand up and down Neal’s stomach.  “He likes the water.  Been sleeping like a baby for hours.”

“Hours?”  Her eyes widen.  “How long have you been in here?” 

“Oh … since midnight … or so.”  Peter chuckles almost deliriously and checks his watch, its leather band soaked thoroughly.  “I’m glad they’re not charging us extra for the water bill.  And I think I may have developed webbed digits.”

“Oh, baby.”  Elizabeth clucks her tongue.  She squats down in front of the pair, just out of reach of the shower spray.  She takes her husband’s hand into hers, runs her fingertips over his pruned skin.  “I think I’m not quite ready to lose you to an amphibian life.  Do you think it’s time to move him back to bed?”

He nods and fumbles clumsily for the shower valve.  Elizabeth beats him to it and turns off the water.  For a few seconds they both hold their breaths, blinking at each other and at Neal, waiting for him to stir.  He doesn’t.  Peter carefully pitches him forward, putting space between his front and Neal’s back.  Neal’s head lolls onto his chest.

“I’ve got him.”  Elizabeth says and grabs Neal’s shoulders to keep him upright.  “Can you climb out?”

Peter nods unconvinced and grimaces as he extracts his stiff limbs from around Neal.  He pulls himself up by the shower rod and takes a moment to stretch his sore back.

“The things I do for that man,” he groans without true disgruntlement. 

“Can you do one more thing for him and help me get him to bed?”

“Of course,” Peter exhales and gathers all of his strength remaining at this hour.  He gets down on a knee and scoops the limp man into his arms.  He lifts him with a grunt and nods at Elizabeth to lead the way.  She hurries into the bedroom and turns on the bedside lamp at its lowest setting.  She spreads several towels over the bed and nods her okay at her dripping wet husband.  She supports the back of Neal’s head when Peter settles him down.

“Dry off, honey, I’ve got Neal.”  She tosses the waterlogged towel from Neal’s lap onto the floor and swathes him in towels, pressing down gently to soak up the water.

“I’ll be right back.”  She hears Peter say, her eyes never leaving the man under her hands.  Neal’s forehead wrinkles and a quiet moan escapes his lips when she makes contact with his tender flank.

“Shhh, it’s okay, sweetie.  Don’t wake up please,” she soothes and moves on to dry his wet face and hair with slow and light passes of the soft terry.  Neal’s eyelids flutter, but then he relaxes with a deep breath. 

Elizabeth folds back the damp towels that cover him, discarding whichever are not trapped under his body.  Peter will have to help with those.  The bandages covering the infected wounds on Neal’s hip and thigh are thoroughly soaked and peeling away from the moist skin.  She throws them aside along with the towel that protects the modesty Neal no longer seems to care about.  She scans the naked body in front of her and the injuries she can’t get used to, no matter how often and how long she looks at them.

Elizabeth has never been in denial about the fact that Neal is physically attractive.  Her relationship with Peter is solid enough to tolerate the occasional offhanded comment on his partner’s winning looks.  At work, she rolls her eyes at her female coworkers’ snickering and their suggestively raised eyebrows whenever she shares the latest anecdote involving her husband and his fetching consultant.  The girls at work haven’t seen the Neal who sits at their breakfast table with his arm elbow-deep in a box of cereal, the Neal who makes any sexual thoughts about him almost impossible.  She doesn’t blame them.  It’s easy to reduce Neal to a pretty face and an immaculate body.

It’s easy until you are faced with what is left of Neal after he has been reduced to nothing but a soulless body for months.  A body worked to the point of collapse every day.  A body thrown into a fight ring to serve as a punching bag to entertain cruel spectators.  A body used for sexual gratification, by bored housewives, as long as it was pretty enough for them, and by everyone else after that.

A body that will be back to its perfect shape with time and care, but that will be nothing without the vibrant, lovable spirit that used to inhabit it.  Neal’s sex appeal has always been a more than the sum of his trim abs and his steel-blue eyes.  It was his charming smile and the smart mischief in his eyes and his confident swagger that pulled people in and made them forget and forgive his criminal history. 

Elizabeth sighs and finishes drying Neal’s hands and feet and, lastly, the soft nakedness between his thighs.  The girls at work will never hear about it.

“Everything okay?”  Peter’s voice at her back startles her.

“Yeah.”  She smiles tightly and hopes the light is too dim to reveal her blush.  “Can you help me get the towels out from under him?”

“Sure.”  He briefly rubs her back as he steps up the bed.  He lifts Neal’s shoulders, then his pelvis and finally his legs, allowing Elizabeth to pull the towels out from under the sleeping man.

“That was quite the Kodak moment,” Peter remarks. 

El stares at him, embarrassment creeping into her cheeks again.

“In the bathroom, I mean,” he elaborates.  “I wouldn’t live that down at the office.”

“I thought it was very—“ Elizabeth thinks for a moment.  “Very endearing.  I know those things don’t come naturally to you, Peter.  But I also know your comfort means the world to Neal, even if he doesn’t comprehend that at the moment.  Thank you for being so kind to him.  It must feel a little strange for you, I’m sure.” 

She pulls the sheet over Neal’s body and moves its edge aside to keep Neal’s privates covered while exposing the wounds on his flank.  Peter collects fresh dressings from the nightstand, tears open the packaging and then lowers himself onto a knee to tape them over the healing patches of skin.

“All done here.”  He says quietly and tugs the sheet over Neal.  He doesn’t look at her.  “And it felt good.  Holding him felt good.  You know?”

She wraps her arms around him.

“I couldn’t bear losing him, El,” he whispers into her a hair. 

“You’re a good man, Peter Burke.”

“Above all, I’m a tired man,” he sighs.

“You must be.”  Elizabeth pulls him a little closer.  “Why don’t you go crawl into bed?  I’ll stay here with Neal.  With any luck, he’ll sleep for a few more hours.”

“Hmm,” he grunts.  “I would rather crawl into bed with my lovely and smart wife.”

“Oh, yeah?”  She wiggles out of his tight hold and looks up at him. 

“I’ll be sure to introduce you one of these days.”  He smiles a lopsided, exhausted smile and kisses her lips before she can protest.

By their side Neal stirs with a soft moan.  He rolls onto his side, groping for a pillow to hug.

“I think you better lie down with him, honey.”  Peter reluctantly releases his embrace.

Elizabeth lets her eyes wander back and forth between her husband and the man growing increasingly restless on the bed.

“Bed’s big enough for all of us,” she shrugs.


On to Part 5
Back to journal home