Neal groaned as he climbed into bed. His wonderful, wonderful bed. He’d never been happier to see it. “I’m going to be fine. I’m just gonna sleep.”
Peter frowned again. “I don’t know. Moz isn’t here, June isn’t here. You heard the doctor, if your fever goes up -”
“It isn’t going to go up,” Neal told him blearily. “They gave me a bunch of fluids and stuff. You need to go home. Bad enough you had to bail on Christmas Eve with El and her parents to take me to the ER.” He’d never have called Peter at all if he’d remembered, but he’d been sick enough that it hadn’t occurred to him to wonder why neither of of them was at work.
“Hey, none of that,” Peter said. “I’m glad you called me.”
“You’re glad you got out of being psychoanalyzed for a few hours,” Neal replied. He yawned, barely holding his eyes open. “I’m okay, seriously.”
“Seriously, I’m going to be calling you in a couple hours to check on you,” Peter replied. He was still frowning, even as he helped Neal pull the blankets up to his chin. He left, and Neal closed his eyes, assuming that was it. But Peter shook his shoulder gently, and Neal dragged his eyes open to see a bottle of yellow Gatorade hovering in front of him. “Tylenol and a few sips of this,” Peter said.
It seemed easier to obey. Peter helped him hold his head up, and then he eased him back against the pillow. Neal blinked up at him slowly, as Peter folded a washcloth and laid it across Neal’s forehead. It was cool and damp against his heated skin, and Peter’s hand was gentle as he smoothed Neal’s hair back from his forehead. Neal blinked, tears suddenly prickling at his eyes.
Peter sighed. “I really do need to go. I’ve got your phone plugged in here. You’ve got a couple bottles of Gatorade here and more in the fridge. I set an alarm so you remember to take your medicine. I’m going to be calling you regularly, and you’d better pick up or I’ll be here, Christmas or not. Got it?”
Neal nodded, his throat still too tight to speak. He suddenly had the urge to ask Peter not to go, and the hell of it was that Peter would probably stay if he asked. If he said he was too sick to be alone, Peter would stay without hesitation. But he couldn’t take him away from El on Christmas, and with her parents visiting there was no room at the house for him. He was going to have to tough it out on his own.
Peter promised he’d be by on the twenty-sixth, at the very latest, and then he was gone. The apartment was suddenly very quiet. It was snowing out, and the apartment was suffused with a soft blue glow from the balcony. Peter had turned the heat up plenty high in the apartment, but Neal still felt chilled.
It seemed impossible to lie to himself then. It was like a perfect storm: he was running a fever; it was Christmas Eve; Peter had just left him to go back home, where El and her parents waited for him. Neal was pretty good at deceiving himself most of the time, but at that moment he had to admit to himself that he would have given anything in his stash to have Peter and Elizabeth with him. He closed his eyes, imagining that they were curled around him in the bed, that he could hear the low murmur of It’s a Wonderful Life on the TV, that one of them was gently stroking his hair.
“Hey sweetie,” El murmured. “You awake?”
“Mmm,” Neal managed. “El?”
“Of course, sweetie. Who else would it be?”
Neal sighed. He felt awful, achy and exhausted all over, and his head hurt. “I feel like someone ran me over.”
She laughed gently. “Poor baby. Can you sit up? We need to get some hot tea into you.”
He grunted in reply and struggled upright, even though no part of him wanted to. He leaned against her, closing his eyes and breathing in the sweet smell of her perfume. “I love you,” he mumbled, resting his hot head against her collarbone.
Her lips brushed his forehead. “I love you, too,” she said, and held a cup of hot tea to his lips. She’d sweetened it with honey, and it went down smoothly, more smoothly than Neal was expecting.
After the first sip, he managed to open his eyes and hold it himself, cradling it against his chest between sips. “I’m sorry I ruined Christmas.”
“Oh hush,” she said. “Peter and I don’t care about that. It wouldn’t have been Christmas without you here, germs and all.” Her hand rested on his forehead for a moment. “You feel a little cooler to me. Maybe after your tea we can move you downstairs. Peter made a fire, and we still have presents to open.”
“That sounds nice,” Neal said. Navigating the stairs wasn’t going to be much fun, but he knew they wouldn’t let him fall.
Neal was nearly done with his tea when Peter came in. The mattress shifted as he sat down. “How’s the patient?” he asked, resting a hand on Neal’s arm, thumb moving gently back and forth across the sensitive skin on the inside of Neal’s elbow.
“A little better,” Neal said.
“Well enough to come downstairs?” Peter asked. Neal nodded. Peter helped him up and gave him a shoulder to lean on. Neal started shivering almost immediately, and El draped a bathrobe across his shoulders.
The stairs were hard. Neal felt woozy and kind of nauseated halfway down and really just wanted to sit. But between leaning on Peter and leaning on the wall, he managed to make it to the bottom. The living room was warmer than upstairs from the fire Peter had built in the hearth. Quiet carols were playing in the background, and the tree they’d put up together two weekends ago was glowing softly. Someone, probably Peter, had pulled out and made up the fold-out couch, and the three of them piled on top of it in a nest of blankets. El made hot toddies for herself and Peter and more tea for Neal, and she and Peter took turns fetching presents for all three of them from under the tree.
“See?” El murmured in his ear once they were all done and Peter had gone upstairs to take a shower. She held Neal securely against her chest and stroked his hair, even though it had to be greasy and lank with dried sweat. “Christmas wasn’t ruined at all.”
If given the choice, Neal wouldn’t have been sick on Christmas. But he had to admit, as he fell asleep in El’s arms again, that she was right. It certainly wasn’t his worst Christmas - not by a long shot. In fact, he thought it might have been one of his best.
He was nearly asleep in her arms when his phone started ringing. Neal frowned, raising his head. “El, could you grab that?” She didn’t answer, and Neal frowned harder, fumbling for his phone in the sheets. It kept ringing and ringing, and his head hurt, and El wasn’t helping.
It stopped, finally. Neal sank back in the sheets, only to realize that Elizabeth wasn’t behind him at all. He blinked, confused, and realized that he wasn’t at the Burkes’ house, tucked into the fold-out couch in their living room. Peter and El didn’t even have a fold out couch in their living room. He was in his bed at June’s. It was Christmas Eve, and he was sick, but Peter and El weren’t there. They were at home with El’s parents.
Neal’s breath caught in his throat. The dream had been so real. Every detail of it: the way El had felt as she held him close; the way Peter had touched him, so gently; the way their house had smelled and sounded, like home. He’d felt safe and protected and so, so loved.
But it wasn’t real. It had never been real.
Neal’s throat was tight, his eyes burning. He was so good about not thinking about what he couldn’t have, but now, to feel like he had it only to wake up and realize he didn’t - it was cruel. He curled up on his side and buried his face in his pillow, trying to breathe through the urge to cry.
His phone started ringing again. He’d almost forgotten about it, but that must’ve been what had woken him up - his real phone ringing in his dream. He fumbled for it. Peter Burke, it said, with a photo of Peter’s smiling face looking up at him.
He couldn’t talk to Peter. He could not possibly talk to Peter right then, it would wreck him. But if he didn’t answer, Peter would worry, and then Peter might come here. He didn’t want Peter to leave El and her family again, and he didn’t want Peter to see him like this. Hearing Peter’s voice would be bad enough, but if Neal had to see him, he didn’t think he could bear it. He had to answer.
He managed to catch it right before it rolled to voicemail. “Peter?”
“No, sweetie, it’s me,” Elizabeth said, gently.
That was, if possible, worse. Neal had to swallow twice before he could answer. “Hi, El. Merry Christmas.”
“You, too. Though Peter didn’t make it sound like you were having much of one.”
Neal managed a brief laugh, only a little watery. “No, not really.”
“I wanted to call and make sure you were okay. I feel so bad that you’re on your own, and Peter’s worried about you, I can tell.”
Neal couldn’t answer. His throat was tight with unshed tears, and his head was pounding. Lie, he told himself, but the words wouldn’t come. All that came out was a harsh sob.
“Neal?” El said, clearly alarmed. “Neal, are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” Neal managed, voice breaking horribly. “I’m fine, don’t - don’t, I don’t want to ruin your Christmas. I’m fine,” he repeated, but his voice broke again, and he knew she could hear it.
“Sweetie, you don’t sound fine at all.”
“I am, I’m fine,” he insisted. “I just - you know how sometimes when you’re sick, you have dreams and they’re really, really vivid?”
“Yes,” El said, gently. “Did you have a nightmare?”
Neal swallowed. He closed his eyes and remembered how it felt for her to hold him. He would have given anything to feel so cherished again. “No,” he whispered. “It was a good dream.”
“Oh,” she said. She was quiet for a few seconds. “Sweetie, I’m going to tell Peter he should come and get you.”
“No,” Neal said, torn between horror and yearning.
“Yes,” El said, in a tone that brooked no argument. “Peter didn’t feel right about leaving you alone, and after talking to you, I don’t either.”
“But your parents,” Neal said. “There’s no room.”
“We’ll figure it out,” El said. “Just hang tight for a bit, all right? It’s snowing, so it might take Peter a little while to get into the city.”
No, don’t, Neal wanted to say. But he couldn’t; the words stuck in his throat. He nodded, then realized she couldn’t see him. “Okay.”
“Good,” she said, quietly. “I’ll see you soon, all right?”
Neal let his hand with the phone in it fall to lie amid the rumpled sheets. This was both the first and the last thing he wanted. He felt worse than he had when Peter had brought him home from the ER, and he was starting to think he shouldn’t be on his own. Peter and El would take care of him. But at the same time, it was so close to the dream he’d had, he wasn’t sure he could handle it in his current state. And the only thing worse than having to suffer in silence would be if they figured it out.
He must’ve fallen asleep, because the next thing he knew, Peter was gently shaking him awake. Neal blinked up at him, completely disoriented, unsure if he was awake or dreaming. He still wasn’t sure when Peter helped him sit up and dress in warm clothes for leaving the house. Peter didn’t make him talk, and the silence made everything a little surreal. He hung onto Peter as they navigated the three flights of stairs down to the main level of the house, and then Peter bundled him into the car, tucking him under a blanket and leaning the seat back. Neal blinked slowly up at the gray sky sliding by overhead.
They were halfway across the city, making very slow progress because of the snow, when Neal finally asked aloud, “Is this real?”
Peter came to a stop at a stoplight and looked at him. “What do you mean?”
“This,” Neal said. “You, me. Is this really happening?”
Peter frowned. “As far as I know.” He reached over and pressed the back of his head to Neal’s forehead. “Damn, I should’ve taken your temperature before we left. You feel awfully warm. Maybe we should swing by Lenox Hill.”
“No, please,” Neal said. The mention of the ER was enough to wake him up. He didn’t want to spend four more hours in the waiting room today, shivering and surrounded by people who’d cut themselves carving the turkey or gotten food poisoning from Christmas dinner. “I’m okay.” He sat the seat up a little bit, so he wasn’t lying flat. For the moment, he decided to trust that this was real. “Sorry for dragging you out again.”
“Don’t be,” Peter said. “I shouldn’t have left you on your own earlier. El had words for me about that.”
Neal shook his head. “You have her family in town. The last thing you need is me, throwing a monkey wrench in things.” It came out a little more bitter, a little more self-loathing than Neal had intended, and he closed his mouth before he could say anything else too incriminating.
Peter didn’t answer right away. He waited until they’d come to a stop at another light. Then he pulled the parking brake and turned in his seat to look at Neal. “Neal. Stop. You’re not throwing a monkey wrench into anything. We’ve got family in town, but in case you’ve missed it these last three years, you’re family, too.”
Neal didn’t know what to say. “Thanks,” he finally said, voice barely above a whisper.
The light turned green, and Peter released the parking brake. “Don’t worry about it.”
The Burkes’ house smelled and sounded and looked a lot like it had in Neal’s dream. The air was heavy and warm, redolent with spice, the tree shone enticingly in the front window, and carols were playing softly in the background. El greeted them at the door, took one look at Neal, and started ushering him toward the stairs. Peter pulled Neal’s arm over his shoulder and helped him climb them, one slow step at a time.
Neal was out of it enough that it didn’t occur to him to object until they were actually at the threshold of Peter and El’s bedroom. “No, no, no,” he said then, flinching away.
“Yes, yes, yes,” El countered. “My parents are in the guest room, and you need a real bed. Peter and I can camp out downstairs.”
“I can’t,” Neal said, but El was relentless, and Neal didn’t have the guts to tell her why he couldn’t do it. Before he could figure out a counter-argument, she had him tucked in bed, in fresh sheets that smelled of fabric softener. Neal hid his face against the pillow case.
He could hear El and Peter murmuring to each other in worried tones. He twitched a little as Peter slipped a thermometer into his ear. “A hundred and two point seven,” he heard Peter tell El. “If it weren’t such lousy weather out, I’d say we should go back to the ER. He’s half delirious. He asked me on the way over if what was happening was real.”
El tsked. “He told me he was having very vivid dreams. Well, I think you’re right - going out in this isn’t going to help him. We should just give him the medication he got this morning and keep a close eye on him.”
“I might sleep up here tonight,” Peter said. “I probably won’t get a lot of rest, but I don’t want him to wake up disoriented in the middle of the night.”
“That’s a good idea,” El said. There was a soft sound; El pressing her lips to Peter’s, Neal knew, without even having to open his eyes to look.
The next few hours were patchy and strange. Neal slipped in and out of sleep, waking when Peter or El came to check on him. They brought with them damp, cool cloths, Gatorade, pills, small dishes of apple sauce, mugs of broth. Neal never fully woke, or at least that was how it felt. He was woozy enough that leaning against them, resting his head in the crook of El’s neck or against’s Peter’s arm, seemed reasonable. The next thing Neal really knew, Peter was pulling him upright and forcing him out of the bed.
Neal groaned in protest. “Shh,” Peter whispered. “You can go back to bed soon, but you should use the bathroom before we sleep.”
Now that he was upright, Neal had to admit that was probably a good idea. He let Peter more or less carry him into the bathroom. Peter sat him down on the toilet so he could pee, and then pulled him up again when Neal was in danger of falling asleep there.
In the bedroom, El was plumping pillows and straightening sheets. Neal thought about protesting one last time; he hated the idea of displacing El from her own bed. But he was so tired that he tumbled over to lie on his side before he could even think about getting the words out. El tucked the comforter over him and brushed a hand across his forehead, smoothing sweaty hair out of his eyes. “There you go. Peter’s going to stay with you tonight. Anything you need he’ll be right here.”
“Okay,” Neal murmured. “Love you.”
Her hand smoothed Neal’s hair back one more time. Neal could smell the faint scent of her perfume, faded on her wrist. “We love you, too, sweetie.”
El went away. Some time later - it might have been five minutes or it might have been an hour - the other side of the mattress dipped. “Just me,” Peter said. Neal rolled toward him, pressing closer. “Jesus, you’re a furnace. I might have to sleep on top of the covers.”
Neal made a wordless noise of protest and nestled closer against Peter. There was a moment of stillness, and then Peter’s arm wrapped around him. “You’re really out of it, aren’t you?” he murmured fondly. “You’d never be this handsy otherwise. Well, don’t worry. I’ll still respect you in the morning.”
Neal didn’t answer. He was already asleep.
He woke in the early hours of the morning, soaked in sweat from his fever breaking. He managed to disentangle himself from Peter without waking him and shuffle into the bathroom. He turned on the shower and got in.
For a long time, he just stood under the spray, staring fixedly at the tile of the Burkes’ shower. His memories of the last twenty-four hours were spotty at best, but his feeling of having been robbed of something he’d never even had was clear enough. For years now, he’d been careful to draw the line between fantasy and reality and to never, ever go over it. But that line had blurred all to hell as his fever had risen. He could only hope that neither of them had guessed what he really meant when he told El he loved her.
Under normal circumstances, Neal thought, he would run. But even though his fever had broken, he still wasn’t well; he was weak and exhausted, and even if it hadn’t been snowing he didn’t think he’d have gotten very far. It was Christmas Day, and there weren’t going to be many cabs out. He was going to have to stay and deal with whatever fallout awaited him.
It was still dark out, though shading toward light at the horizon, when Neal made his way carefully down the stairs to the living room. The least he could do, he decided, was wake El and send her up to get a few hours of sleep in her own bed with her husband. He could curl up on the sofa and learn to live with his own crushing disappointment. Maybe by the time everyone else got up, he’d have somehow gotten over himself.
“Hon?” El’s voice called softly.
Neal’s final step faltered. “No, just me.”
“Neal? Are you okay?”
He paused at the bottom of the stairs, hand on the rail. “Yeah, I’m actually a lot better. I think my fever broke. I was just going to tell you that you should go upstairs and sleep in your own bed for a couple hours. I’m okay down here.”
“Thanks, sweetie, but I actually slept pretty well. I just woke up at six because that’s when I’m used to waking up.” In the dim light, Neal could just make out El patting the sofa next to her. “Come join me?”
He shouldn’t. He knew he shouldn’t. He went anyway. El lifted up one side of the comforter she’d been sleeping under and he slid beneath it. It was warm already from her body heat, and he pulled his bare feet up under it. “There you go,” she said, helping him arrange the blanket over himself. “Oh, I know what we need.” She reached over the side of the couch and turned the tree lights on, filling the living room with just enough light to see by.
Neal’s breath caught in his throat. Outside the world was dark and silent: between the snow and the holiday, there was no early morning traffic on DeKalb at all. Here, in the Burkes’ living room, it was warm and quiet, and the light from the tree made it feel like there was some sort of magic in the air.
“When I was a kid,” El whispered, “I used to wake up really early on Christmas, but my parents told my sister and me that we couldn’t wake them until seven. So we’d sneak downstairs and put the tree lights on, and lie there under the tree, looking up through the branches, until everyone else got up.”
“That sounds nice,” Neal said. He supposed he should offer a story now about Christmas when he was a kid, but the truth was that it was never very special. His mom never had the money or the energy for a tree. Ellen had done her best, but she’d been busy with work, trying to make enough to support all three of them, since his mom couldn’t pull her own weight. There had been small presents, and some years a nice dinner. But probably nothing like what El or Peter had had.
“Neal? Are you okay?” El asked softly. Her hand landed lightly on the back of Neal’s neck, and her fingers started stroking the short hair at the nape.
“I’m okay,” he said. “Just tired.”
“Lie down then,” she said, tugging him down so that his head was on her lap. She started stroking his hair again, and Neal closed his eyes. It wasn’t fair, he thought, for everything in his world to feel so right, and yet to know that it was all an illusion.
“Neal,” El murmured, “I was wondering. The dream that you had, the one that you said felt so real. What was it?”
Neal stopped breathing. And here he’d thought he might get away with it. He should have known that El would see through him. “I - nothing. It wasn’t anything. I don’t remember.”
“Hmm,” El said. Her fingers were still moving slowly through Neal’s hair. “Somehow, I don’t think that’s true.”
Neal opened his eyes, just barely. He could lie, he thought. He could tell her that he’d dreamed Kate or Ellen was with him, and then woken to realize that she was gone. But that felt wrong. It felt like a violation of the bubble of intimacy he and El were in. And he suddenly didn’t want to lie, even if he also couldn’t bring himself to tell the truth.
“I dreamed I had something I don’t,” he finally said, in a hushed voice to match hers. “Something I want but can’t have. And when I woke up and realized I didn’t have it . . .” He stopped, unsure how to finish that sentence. It broke my heart was the truth, but it felt like that might give away too much.
El made a wordless noise of understanding. Neither of them spoke for a long time. Neal relaxed again, slowly, under her hands, letting his eyes drift shut. Finally, she said softly, “Are you sure you can’t have it?”
Neal sighed. “Yes. But it’s okay. What I do have is pretty good.” He opened his eyes. Dawn wasn’t far off now. “I’m used to taking what I want, but I can’t take this. I can’t steal it. If I did, it wouldn’t be real anymore.”
“Mmm,” El said. She was quiet, but she was still touching him, and Neal thought he might not have ruined everything.
There were footsteps on the stairs. Neal knew without looking from the tread that it was Peter. He sat up, slowly and carefully, but El kept one arm around him, so that he was pulled tight against her. “Good morning, hon,” she said softly. “Merry Christmas.”
Peter stopped at the bottom of the stairs and looked at them. Neal braced himself for disapproval, even it was only joking, but to his surprise Peter smiled. “Merry Christmas, you two,” he said. He came over and bent to kiss Elizabeth, who smiled up at him. Then he looked at Neal. He slid his fingers into Neal’s hair, ruffling it gently. “How are you feeling?”
“A lot better,” Neal said.
“Good,” Peter said. His hand curled around the back of Neal’s head, and to his shock, Peter bent and pressed his lips to Neal’s forehead. Then he straightened, as though nothing had happened. “Want me to put the coffee on?”
“Thanks, hon,” El said, smiling.
“Neal, you want some tea?”
It took Neal a couple of tries to find his voice. “Yeah, thanks. Tea would be a great.”
Peter went into the kitchen. Neal looked at El, who smiled at him. She reached out and cupped his chin in her hand. “The thing about wanting something, sweetie, is that sometimes you don’t have to steal it. Sometimes you can just ask.”
“Oh,” Neal said. He fell silent, and he was still silent as Peter came back with mugs of coffee for himself and El and a mug of tea with honey and lemon for Neal. It was a tight fit for the three of them on the sofa, but they made it work. Neal ended up bracketed between the two of them, his head on Peter’s shoulder and his feet tucked against Elizabeth.
“Is this real?” Neal asked. He had to know. It could have been his dream, he felt so loved and cared-for. The only difference was that in his dream, he hadn’t also been a little terrified.
“Yes,” Peter said, and reached under the blanket for Neal’s hand. “Yes, Neal. This is real.”