March turned out to be a miserable month. It was freezing cold with a lot of rain, which led to everyone passing the same cold back and forth every few days. They were all unhappy and utterly sick of being sick.
One night, Neal retreated to the safety and solitude of the library after Sara and Mozzie got into a shouting match about what to watch on TV: America's Next Top Model or a Roswell documentary. He sniffled, coughed hard into his fist, and snuggled under the blanket he'd dragged in there with him. He felt terrible, but there was nothing anyone could do, so he hadn't said anything.
It didn't take long for the words in his History text to start to blur and dance on the page. Neal rubbed his eyes and carefully set the book on the floor by his chair. Maybe if he took a nap, he'd be able to concentrate.
Peter had noticed Neal withdrawing more than usual from the group over the last couple of days. That was never a good sign with the younger boy, but Peter wasn't too worried. Tempers had been short in the house lately since everyone was cooped up together, and Neal disliked arguments and raised voices. Peter wasn't a fan himself.
After finishing up his homework for the night, Peter wandered down to the TV room to see if he could catch the end of SportsCenter. Mozzie and Diana were enthralled in some kind of alien conspiracy show while June worked on her knitting.
Deciding not to push his luck with asking to change the channel, he headed into the kitchen for a snack. Byron, the resident baker, was mixing batter for a cake that was probably for Neal's birthday the next day, and Sara was sitting at the table glaring at her Algebra book.
"Have you seen Neal?" he asked while pulling a small bag of chips out of the snack cupboard.
Byron looked up and shook his head. "Not for a while. I thought he was upstairs studying with you."
"No. Must be in the library." Peter turned to go down the back hallway but Byron stopped him.
"Take him a bottle of water and a banana. He looked flushed at dinner and hardly ate any of his spaghetti." Byron rummaged in the drawer by the fridge and pulled out a bottle of Tylenol. "Maybe a couple of these too."
Peter gathered the items and headed off in search of his friend. As soon as he stepped into the library, he couldn't help but smile. Neal was curled into an impossibly small ball in his favorite wingback chair with a red and black flannel blanket pulled tightly around his body. His head was resting on his knees, and he was completely asleep.
Hating to wake him but wanting to make sure he was okay, Peter walked across the room, dropped the food on the nearby desk, and shook Neal's shoulder. The first thing he registered was the heat coming off Neal, and the second was that Neal wasn't immediately on his feet in a defensive posture. Peter had rarely been able to get this close to his best friend when he was sleeping, much less actually touch him, without Neal having a minor heart attack.
"Hey, Neal?" Peter shook his shoulder harder. When Neal's eyes cracked open, Peter crouched down to get a better look at him. "Hey. Are you okay?"
Neal blinked several times before he said, "Peter?"
"Yeah, it's me. What's wrong? Are you sick?" Peter didn't really wait for a response before he grabbed the bottle of water, uncapped it and held it out. "Drink some of this."
Neal tried to push it away, but Peter wasn't going to budge. He waited until Neal took the bottle and started to sip from it before he put his hand against Neal's forehead.
"You're burning up."
"No, I'm cold." Neal coughed into his fist, a deep, wet cough that made Peter wince.
"I'm going to get June. Stay here."
"No!" Neal surged forward, but got tangled in his blankets and fell to the floor with a loud thump and a yelp.
Peter reached down to help him, but Neal kicked free of the blankets and scooted away.
"It's just a cold. Please. I'm okay." He coughed again, harder this time.
Peter had taken one step toward him when Neal spun and lunged for the trash can nearby. All the water that Neal had just drank plus whatever he'd managed at dinner made a re-appearance. Once he was done, Neal leaned back against the wall and groaned.
By that time, June had heard the commotion and was halfway across the room. "Oh, Neal. What's wrong?"
"He's sick," Peter said, at the same time that Neal replied, "I'm fine."
"Well, you are most certainly not fine, young man." She carefully kneeled beside him and pressed the back of her hand to his forehead. "Peter, dear, would you run and get the thermometer for me?"
Without a word, Peter ran out of the room and up the stairs to the bathroom that housed their first aid supplies. He grabbed the thermometer and a box of cold medicine before dashing back down to the library.
June was sitting beside Neal, and the younger boy was leaning against her side with his eyes closed. She'd pulled the blanket back over him, and had two fingers pressed to his wrist to determine his heart rate while she was running her other fingers through his hair. Neal had to be pretty sick to allow all the physical contact, and he looked worse than miserable.
"Should I get Byron?" Peter asked as he handed off the supplies.
Neal made a sound of protest but didn't actually say anything.
"Not just yet." She slipped the thermometer under Neal's tongue and went back to stroking his hair.
Peter fidgeted, caught between finding something to do and waiting to see what Neal needed. In the end, he shoved his hands into his pockets and rocked back and forth on his feet while he waited for the thermometer to beep.
Once it did, June clucked her tongue and pressed a kiss to the top of Neal's head. When she turned her face up toward Peter, she was all business. "Would you please get a coat for Neal and a pair of shoes? Ask Byron to bring the car around while you're doing that?"
"How bad?" Peter had to know.
"It's over 103, but I'm sure he'll be right as rain after some antibiotics." She gave him a small smile and then pointed to the door. "Go on, now."
Peter swallowed hard and then hurried out of the room again. As he left, he heard Neal start to cough again.
Neal wanted to protest the trip to the ER, but he was too tired to put the sentences together. He'd leaned heavily against Peter and Byron as they helped him out to the car, and then fallen asleep across the backseat with his head pillowed on Peter's thigh.
The actual admittance to the ER was a blur. Neal was pretty sure the doctors and nurses had asked him questions, but he had no idea if he'd answered them or what he'd said if he had.
When he was next aware, he was in a private room with an oxygen mask over his mouth and nose. June was sitting on one side of the bed and Peter was on the other.
"Wha-?" he tried to ask what happened but the first word was strangled by a nasty cough. Peter and June pulled him up and tucked a pillow between his chest and his arms to give him something to hold on to and to help ease his discomfort.
By the time Neal got the coughing under control, he was exhausted. He slumped against June's chest and murmured an apology. "I'm so sorry, June. So sorry."
"What for, sweetheart?" She brushed sweaty locks of hair away from his face and ran her other hand up and down his back.
"Didn't tell you I was sick."
"Oh, Neal. Pneumonia can come on suddenly after a bout with a cold. Don't you worry about a thing. The doctors are taking care of you, and Peter and I will be here. Okay?"
"Hey," Peter shook his knee to get his attention, and Neal forced his eyes open to look at his best friend. He didn't exactly remember closing them, which was more than a little unsettling. "I'm sure this is the last thing on your mind, but happy birthday."
Neal blinked heavily and suddenly there was a gift shop bag in front of him. Peter smiled as he held it out, so Neal lifted a heavy hand and accepted it. He fumbled with the slick plastic until Peter dumped the contents into his lap.
It was a stuffed animal, a black cat that looked a lot like Pickwick, who hadn't left Neal's side very often since he'd started getting sick the day before. Neal looked up at Peter and gave him a shaky smile as he pulled the cat closer to him. "Thanks," he said quietly.
"It's not much, but I thought you might be missing him."
Neal nodded and closed his eyes again. He was pretty close to sleep as June and Peter carefully maneuvered him to lay back down on the mattress and covered him with the blankets.
By afternoon, the entire house was gathered in his small hospital room in the Pediatric ward. Sara, Mozzie, Diana, and Peter were squeezed onto the sofa in the corner where June and Peter had taken turns sleeping after Neal had been admitted last night. June and Byron were sitting in the two visitor chairs beside the bed.
Toy Story was playing on the television. Peter knew that it was one of Neal's favorite movies though the younger boy had only barely admitted it to him once, back when he'd been on bedrest after the Fratelli brothers incident. They'd spent a late night watching it together in the TV room while everyone else had been asleep.
Neal was already showing signs of improvement on the antibiotics. His oxygen mask had been swapped with a nasal cannula, and his coughs were less frequent but still forceful and wet. He also still had a fever, but it was coming down and the medical staff was pleased by that.
Peter noticed that Neal had tried to hide the stuffed cat under his blankets, but its head was poking out now and he was absently stroking it with one hand while he giggled softly at the antics for Buzz Lightyear.
Once the movie was over, June took charge of dinner. "Neal, what kind of soup would you like? I've asked the nurses, and they told me it was okay to bring you something."
"Chicken noodle, please."
The other kids started shouting out their orders, which boiled down to three burgers and a salad. Sara always had to be the odd one out when it came to food choices. And sometimes Neal, but he at least wanted interesting meals; Sara always got salad.
While June went to get their carry-out order from the one local restaurant they could all agree on, Byron stepped out to make a few business phone calls. Peter and Mozzie moved to the visitors chairs while the girls stayed on the couch.
"How are you doing?" Mozzie asked.
"I'm okay. Thanks for hanging today." Neal took a halting breath but kept his cough at bay somehow. "I know it's pretty boring."
"It's not everyday that you have a birthday, Caffrey," Sara said.
Diana couldn't help but add, "And, hey, you're still awake to entertain us."
Neal laughed unexpectedly which sent him into a coughing fit. Peter took his hand and gave it a squeeze to encourage Neal to do the same if he needed . Neal gripped it tight and shot Peter a grateful look as he got himself under control. "Sorry, sorry."
"Relax," Peter said quietly. "It's okay."
"Sorry, Neal!" Diana called.
He waved a hand in her direction and closed his eyes until he caught his breath.
"Do you need us to call someone?" Mozzie asked anxiously. He was on the edge of his seat with his finger already on the call button.
"No, no. I'm okay." Neal rubbed his free hand over his face and opened his eyes again. "This sucks. I hate being sick."
"That's a given," Sara said. "I'm going to run out for a Diet Coke. Do you need anything?"
Neal shook his head but Diana popped up to stand beside Sara.
"I'll go too. Need to stretch my legs."
Mozzie stood too. "I could use a drink. Be right back, Neal."
Peter laughed when Neal raised an eyebrow at him after the door shut behind the three of them.
"What are they up to?" Neal must have realized that he was still holding Peter's hand because he quickly pulled away when he asked the question.
Peter shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know. I've been hanging out here with you since last night."
"You should go home with the others later. I'll be okay tonight."
"I'd rather stay." Peter had never had to spend the night alone in a hospital room, and he hoped he'd never have to. It had been oddly quiet, apart from Neal's coughs and labored breathing, and pretty damn creepy to go out into the hall and find no one but a couple of night nurses milling about.
Neal was interrupted by the door opening as the others returned, already singing "Happy Birthday". Sara and Diana led the way with a banner that simply stated, "Happy Birthday Neal". They were followed by Mozzie, who was holding a plate with a single, peeled banana on it. There was, oddly, an unlit candle poked into the banana. Finally, June and Byron came inside carrying the bags with their dinners.
Peter joined in on the singing and smiled at Neal when the younger boy reached for his hand again and latched on. His eyes were wide and bright with unshed tears.
As the song died down and Mozzie presented Neal with the plate, Neal sniffed and coughed into his elbow. "Thank you," he said, looking around at all of them. "But, um… the banana?"
"The nurses wouldn't let us light the candle," Sara explained as she shot a glare at the closed door.
"You'll get cake when you're well enough, but the banana's good for you until then." June sat back down by his side and patted his free hand. "Happy birthday, Neal."
"Thank you," Neal said again.
Peter leaned over and gave Neal a hug, which also gave him time to get himself together. He took a couple of shaky breaths, released them in a long exhale, and embraced Peter tightly before letting go. When they parted, Peter saw that Neal was steadier and his eyes were clearer. He gave Peter a confident smile and a nod that everything was okay.
It was a hell of a fifteenth birthday, but Neal wasn't known for being particularly low-key anyway. Peter just hoped that sixteen wouldn't be quite as dramatic.
Thank you for reading!