Christmas Eve at the Burke home was turning out to be less fun that Peter and Elizabeth had imagined. It was Neal's first Christmas with them since they'd taken custody of the three-year-old back in April, and they were both looking forward to spoiling him a little on the biggest holiday of the year.
Neal had been so excited about Santa coming until the flu symptoms started a couple of days ago. Then, he'd attached himself to Peter and pretty much refused to let go. It was a concerning turn of events for the usually independent little boy.
Peter hummed a half-remembered lullaby while he cradled the fevered toddler to his chest and rocked back and forth slowly. He hoped that Neal was drifting deeply enough into sleep that he wouldn't wake when put in his bed. So far, every attempt had been met with loud cries and tiny fingers clenching tightly to Peter's shirt.
"How's he doing?" Elizabeth asked quietly from the doorway of the guest room that had slowly transformed into little Neal's room over the last few months. There were trains in the wallpaper and on the bedspread, stuffed animals had taken over an entire corner of the room, and a plastic art easel held a half-finished crayon drawing of a blob that resembled Satchmo, Neal's very best friend.
"I don't think his fever's gone up any, but he's still a furnace. Maybe we should put him in the tub again."
She moved over to them and put her hand on Neal's forehead. "I'll get the thermometer. If it's over 102, then I'll draw a bath."
Peter nodded and craned his neck to see if Neal was awake. His eyes were, thankfully, closed, and his breathing was a little labored but even. If anyone had told him a year ago that he would be sitting here rocking a sick child to sleep, he would've laughed right to their face. But now, he wouldn't have it any other way.
Elizabeth returned quickly and gently slipped the tympanic thermometer into Neal's ear and pressed the button.
Neal startled badly at the intrusion. His eyes shot open, and he cried out so loudly that Peter's ears started ringing.
"Shhh, shhh," Peter soothed while rubbing his hand across Neal's back. "El's just checking your temperature. Everything's okay, buddy."
His eyes raised to meet his wife's, and she gave him a slight smile. "101.3. Lower than it was before dinner."
"That's good news. Very good news."
Neal chose that moment to raise his head and puke all over Peter. There wasn't much in his stomach since he'd only managed half a small bowl of oatmeal and some juice at dinner.
Peter grimaced. "Neal!"
The toddler cringed and ducked his head to hide it in the unsoiled half of Peter's shirt. "Sowwy," he mumbled.
"It's okay, sweetie," Elizabeth assured him as she picked him and held him against her own chest. "Does your stomach still hurt?"
"Okay, let's get you two cleaned up so we can all go to bed." Neal whined at the mention of bed but didn't fight Elizabeth as she carried him into the bathroom and set him in the bathtub. "Peter, would you bring in a new set of pajamas for him?" she called through the open door.
"Be right there!"
Elizabeth carefully pulled Neal's soiled shirt over his head. "How are you feeling, baby?"
"Sleepy." He rubbed his eyes while she tugged off his pajama pants. "Santa coming tomorrow?"
"He is. Have you been a good boy?"
"Uh-huh." Neal pulled his knees up toward his chest and shivered.
Peter walked in then and set a clean pair of his own pajamas and a clean pair of Neal's on the closed toilet lid. He'd taken off his t-shirt and pants in the bedroom, and he shucked his boxers before stepping into the bathtub with Neal. "You can take a quick shower with me, bud. How's that?"
Neal held his arms up to Peter and made a disgruntled noise when Peter only lifted him to his feet.
"I'll go change his sheets," Elizabeth said, leaving the boys to it.
Neal was quiet and pliant throughout the shower and re-dressing, and he was pretty much asleep when Peter tried to lay him down in his own bed. However, almost immediately he turned into an octopus and wrapped his arms and legs around Peter while muttering, "No, no, no. Daddy, no."
Peter frowned and looked over at Elizabeth. It wasn't the first time he'd called Peter Daddy. In fact, it was becoming more frequent, but it was still startling to hear it.
"Let's put him in bed with us again. I think it's the only way we'll all get some sleep tonight." She turned and headed into their bedroom where she turned down the bed and dimmed the lights.
Peter laid down with Neal while Elizabeth finished getting ready for bed. The toddler was completely conked out by the time she climbed into bed.
"What are we going to do about the Santa stuff?" Peter asked.
There were presents that still needed to be wrapped and put under the tree for Neal from Santa.
"How about we just put the presents out without wrapping them? I don't know about you, but I'm too tired to think about having to wrap something else, and I don't really think he's going to let you go too far for too long."
While Neal usually gravitated toward Elizabeth – he loved to help her cook – he often made a bee-line for Peter whenever he didn't feel well. It made for interesting days when Peter had to go to work, but Neal was too sick to go to his daycare. Elizabeth had watched him cry himself to sleep just the other day because Peter couldn't stay home with him. There was no consoling the child when he was in a 'Peter' mood.
"Sounds like a plan." Peter started untangling himself from Neal's slack grip, but she put hand on his chest.
"Stay here with him. I'll put out the gifts and the stockings."
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah. He needs the sleep and so do you. I'll be back up soon."
"Love you, hon."
"Love you too."
The next morning, Peter and Elizabeth woke to sweaty sheets but a cooler Neal. His fever had broken in the night, and he was sleeping peacefully, curled in a ball with his hands clutching Peter's bicep.
"Thank goodness," Elizabeth said after she felt his forehead.
Peter smiled and jostled the small body. "Neal. Hey, Neal. Do you remember what today is?"
Neal yawned, stretched and blinked his eyes open. He was like a cat when he woke up, and it took a minute for Peter's words to register. Then, he sat up and scrambled toward the edge of the bed. "Santa day!"
Peter and Elizabeth laughed and hurried to follow him. The stairs were steep, and they didn't like him to go down them by himself. When he got to the edge of the stairs, he plopped down on his butt and started scooting down.
"Wow," Elizabeth said quietly. "If only we could bottle his resiliency, we could be millionaires."
Peter just laughed, and they both headed downstairs where they could see that Neal had already found his gifts from Santa.
"Santa came!" Neal said, grabbing both their hands and dragging them over to see the toys. He pointed out each one in turn and told them all about it. There was a train set, a large stuffed lion, a couple of puzzles, a board game, a book, and some various small gifts. Neal was enthusiastic about each one until his attention was drawn by one of the others.
Peter slipped away to start the coffee and pop some pre-made cinnamon rolls in the oven. When he returned, Elizabeth was sitting in the floor, working one of the puzzles with Neal. They shared happy smiles over the boy's head.
They spent the rest of the morning playing with Neal's new toys and munching on cinnamon rolls. Eventually, they'd called his attention to the wrapped presents under the tree, and he'd reached a whole new level of excitement over them.
Close to ten, Neal conked out on the couch surrounded by a number of new toys. Elizabeth covered him with a blanket and sat with Peter in the recliner to observe the remnants of their first Christmas as pseudo-parents. There was wrapping paper everywhere, toys strewn about, and the tree looked absolutely bare with nothing under it.
Elizabeth gave Peter a kiss and a wide grin. "Merry Christmas, Hon."
He returned both the kiss and the smile and pulled her close so that her head was tucked back under his chin. They could both watch over their sleeping toddler then. "Merry Christmas, Hon."
Thank you for reading!