Neal sniffled and tried to hold back the cough that had been tickling his throat for the last few minutes. It was raining, so Peter was driving him home after the successful completion of their art forgery case, and he didn't want Peter to know that he was getting sick.
Illnesses were rare in Neal's world, but when they happened, they usually knocked him for a serious loop that he'd rather Peter not be present for.
"You doing okay?" Peter asked, giving him a concerned glance while they were idling at a stop light.
"I'm fine," Neal croaked and then coughed into his elbow.
Peter raised an eyebrow but didn't say anything as the traffic crept forward.
Neal closed his eyes and leaned against the door. The glass felt wonderfully cool against his overheated skin. That, the gentle motion of the car, and the Christmas carols that were playing softly on the radio combined to lull him into a doze.
"Hey," Peter's voice was close to his ear when Neal startled awake. "Neal? C'mon, we're home."
He blinked his eyes open and frowned. "Why are we in Brooklyn?"
"Because June's on her winter vacation, and you're sick. The last thing you need to be alone in that big house."
"Is a germaphobe."
Neal sighed, which only set off a coughing fit. When he got himself under control, he wiped the involuntary tears from his eyes and conceded defeat by opening his door and climbing to his feet.
Peter was there when he swayed a little and put a hand on his elbow while shadowing him through the light rain to the door of the Burke townhouse. Lights were on inside, and Elizabeth called out a greeting when the door shut behind them.
She was wiping her hands on a dishtowel as she walked out of the kitchen and stumbled over her own feet when she caught sight of Neal. "What's wrong? Are you okay?"
"He's a little under the weather, and June's out of town," Peter explained.
"I'm fine," Neal tried to say, but both Burkes turned to give him identical looks of disbelief.
Elizabeth moved to stand in front of him and then put her hand on his forehead. Neal jerked back but not fast enough if her frown was anything to go by. "You're burning up!"
"It's just a cold, I swear."
"Peter, take him upstairs and make sure there are clean sheets on the guest bed. Then, get him something more comfortable to wear." Elizabeth glanced back at the kitchen, and then reached for the phone. "I'm going to call in an order of Egg Drop Soup."
Neal reached out to try and stop her. "I'm really not that hungry."
She gave him a sympathetic smile and squeezed his hand. "You need to keep up your strength, but I think the lasagna I made is a little too heavy. Soup will be good."
Peter put a hand on Neal's shoulder and steered him toward the stairs. "It's better not to argue with her when she's in this mood."
It wasn't long before Neal was wearing a pair of Peter's flannel pajama pants and t-shirt and was tucked under the covers of the guest bed. He turned on his side and was asleep before Peter turned off the light in the room.
It was still dark when Neal woke, feeling unbearably hot and tangled in the sheets. He squirmed and kicked, trying to free himself, but all he managed to do was fall off the bed with a thump. His head connected solidly with the hardwood floor, and he cried out.
"Neal?!" Peter threw the door open and flipped the lights on in two quick motions. Both of which startled Neal badly enough that he started to sob.
Peter was frozen in the doorway staring at him. Elizabeth pushed her way inside and gasped. "Neal?"
"I'm s-sorry!" Neal was crying so hard that he could barely speak. "I sh-should have t-told you this-s could hap-happen." Some how, some way, whenever Neal got sick, he physically shrunk to his three- or four-year-old self. It had been happening for as long as he could remember, but he hadn't been sick in several years, so he hadn't thought to warn his friends.
Elizabeth got over her shock first and kneeled to pull him into her arms. "Shhh, sweetie. Calm down. Shhhh."
Neal wrapped his arms and legs around her and tried to get himself under control. He was starting to catch his breath when a coughing fit took over, and when that was finished, he was an exhausted heap of small child in Elizabeth's arms.
"He's really burning up, Peter." Elizabeth kept her voice low, but the concern was all too obvious.
Neal opened his eyes to see Peter crouching down beside them. Then, his large hand brushed Neal's hair back and rested on the little boy's forehead for a moment.
"Damn," Peter cursed under his breath. "What do we do?"
"Run a lukewarm bath. Let's see if that'll bring it down."
Neal clung to Elizabeth's neck as she carefully stood up and started pacing back and forth, talking quietly to herself. "Lukewarm bath, children's Tylenol… we don't have any of that. Maybe Tom and Teresa do."
She carried him down the hall and into the bathroom, where Peter was nearly finished drawing the bath.
"I'm going to run across the street to Teresa's and see if they have any children's Tylenol. Will you watch him in the bath?" Elizabeth asked as she put Neal on his feet beside Peter.
"No," Neal said, grabbing her pants and holding on tight. "Stay."
"It's okay, sweetie." She gently pried his hands off and turned him toward Peter. "I'll be right back."
"El! What are you going to tell them?" Peter looked horrified about the whole situation.
Elizabeth gave him a wry smile. "That my nephew is visiting, and he got sick. Don't worry, Hon. I'll be right back."
Neal leaned against Peter's legs and burrowed his face into the worn denim.
Peter awkwardly patted Neal's back and then eased him away. "Let's get you out of that shirt and into the tub for a little while, okay, buddy?"
Neal had nearly forgotten that he was wearing the oversized t-shirt that he'd fallen asleep in as an adult. He held his arms up and let Peter pull it off. Then, the older man lifted him into the bathtub.
When his feet hit the water, Neal screeched and tried to pull away, but Peter tightened his grip. "Cold! It's cold!" Neal exclaimed.
"Hey, hey, it's okay. We need to get your fever down, buddy. The water will feel okay in a minute. Just try to relax."
Neal cried as Peter sat him in the water. His head was pounding from the illness and from all the crying, and his coughing was getting worse. Neal felt absolutely wretched, so he wrapped his arms around one of Peter's arms, leaned his forehead against Peter's bicep, and refused to let go.
Peter frowned and shifted to sit more comfortably beside the bathtub so that Neal could continue to hold on. Then, he took a washcloth in his free hand, wet it, and started wiping down Neal's back and shoulders and chest with it.
Neal shivered and whimpered, but after a few minutes, he grew accustomed to the lukewarm water, and started to relax.
By the time that Elizabeth returned, with an armload of small clothes and a nearly full bottle of children's Tylenol, his eyes were heavy lidded, and he was yawning his way into weak coughs.
Quickly, he was toweled off, dressed in pajamas that fit, and coaxed into taking the cherry-flavored medicine. He was asleep before the covers were pulled up over him.
Later, though it was still dark, Neal was woken by the jostling of someone picking him up. He opened his eyes to see the shoulder of Peter's familiar overcoat. "Wha?"
"Go back to sleep, buddy. It's okay." Peter rubbed his back through the thick blanket that he'd been wrapped in as they headed down the hall and then down the stairs.
Neal could see that the Christmas tree in the corner was lit up, but he was too weak to lift his head to get a better look. The multi-colored lights were twinkling, and he caught a glimpse of some presents before Elizabeth stepped into his line of sight and pulled the blanket up over his head. Neal whined but Elizabeth shushed him quietly.
Outside, he was shifted into Elizabeth's arms before they got into the car, and then he fell back to sleep.
A weird beeping sound poked at Neal's consciousness until he couldn't take it any longer. He opened his eyes to see bars right in front of his face, and he panicked. The beeping sped up as he pushed himself up and started shouting, "No, no, no!"
"Hey, buddy," Peter's voice became clear when Neal had to pause and take a breath. Then, the older man's hands were around him and carefully lifting him out of the… crib? He'd been in a crib? But he wasn't a baby… Neal was confused but didn't care much when Peter settled him against his chest and started rubbing his back. "That's it. You're okay. You're going to be just fine."
Neal snuggled closer and coughed into Peter's shirt. "Peter?"
"I know you do, but the doctors gave you some medicine, so you'll start feeling better soon."
Neal moved his hand so that he could clutch Peter's shirt with his fingers while sticking his thumb in his mouth.
"Don't do that, buddy," Peter said as he gently pulled Neal's thumb away.
Neal whimpered at the loss of his comfort item. When he'd quieted again, he could hear that there were Christmas songs playing nearby over the steady beeps he'd already started tuning out. "Peter, is it Christmas?"
"It's Christmas Eve."
"Santa's coming tonight?"
Peter pulled back enough to be able to look down at Neal's face, and he was frowning as he did it. "Santa? What are you talking about? Neal?"
"Santa's not coming?" Neal's heart sped up – along with the annoying beeps – and his breaths were ragged. "He can't find me!"
"Calm down, Neal." Peter patted his back and bounced him, but he was way beyond those soothing motions.
"Santa! Santa!" Neal started coughing so harshly that a nurse entered the room and started messing with the tube that was coming out of his hand. Within a couple of minutes, he was too sleepy to say anything or even hold his head up.
Peter lay him back on the mattress, and Neal used all his remaining strength to turn over onto his stomach.
Time sped up, and Neal only caught glimpses of things when he managed to open his eyes. There was a mask over his face at one point, and Elizabeth was holding him in a rocking chair later, and Peter was reading him a story while rubbing one hand across his back.
He didn't know how much time had passed when he woke up to a teddy bear sitting on the bed beside him with a red bow tied around its neck. Reaching for it, he was startled with a warm hand brushed over his head and down his back.
"Hey, sweetie." Elizabeth looked tired, but she was smiling at him. "How are you feeling?"
Neal yawned instead of answering, and she laughed quietly.
"Your fever's down, and I think we'll get to take you home very soon. Would you like that?"
Neal nodded, grabbed the bear and pulled it into his arms. "Elizabeth," he whispered, voice scratchy from the illness and disuse.
She put a finger over his lips. "Quiet. You're still ill, and you should be resting."
Peter came into the room then, grinning when he saw that Neal was awake. "Hey," he greeted, brushing his fingertips over Neal's forehead and lightly bopping the tip of his nose. "Good to see your eyes open, buddy."
"Peter," Neal croaked, shrinking back when Elizabeth cleared her throat and gave him a look.
"So, I just talked to the nurse, and she said that you could have some grape juice." Peter held out a sippy cup, and Neal took it eagerly.
"Slowly," Elizabeth admonished, reaching out in case she needed to take it away from him.
Neal did his best to drink slowly, but it tasted so good and the cool liquid soothed his aching throat. When he finished, he handed the cup over to El and laid back down.
The rest of the morning was spent watching cartoons, reading stories, and napping. Though Neal's fever wasn't quite gone, he was doing much better, and the doctor decided to release him that afternoon.
Peter and Elizabeth bundled him up and took him home where the Christmas tree was still standing in the corner. Peter turned its lights on while Elizabeth carried Neal over and sat down with him in her lap right beside the tree.
"Christmas?" Neal asked softly.
"Well, it's a couple of days late, and we don't know how long you'll be a little boy, but we wanted you to have a good Christmas." Peter sat down in front of them and handed Neal a wrapped box.
Neal gasped and looked from Peter to El and back again before taking the present. He tore off the wrapping paper, beaming as he pulled out a pack of crayons and construction paper.
Next was a couple of Matchbox cars and after that was a small fedora that was just his size. Elizabeth spread out a blanket for him and turned on holiday cartoons while the three of them sat in the floor and played until Neal was too tired to move.
Peter carried him upstairs, but before he could lay him on the guest bed, Neal clutched at Peter's neck and whispered, "Thank you."
He was asleep before Peter could respond.
Neal felt different the next time he woke. His muscles were sore, but more like he'd worked out for several hours than like he'd been ill for several days. He stretched and startled when his hands hit the headboard at the same time that his feet seem to move beyond the edge of the bed. Moving his hand in front of his face, he noticed that it was much larger than he last remembered it being.
Between one shuddering breath and the next, the memories of his time as a little boy flew by in his mind's eye. Neal had no idea what he'd done to deserve friends as good as Peter and Elizabeth, who'd taken care of him when something as unnerving and unthinkable as age regression happened. They'd done it without hesitation too, and Neal planned to pay them back for their compassion one day.
For now though, he couldn't help but roll over, curl his hand around the teddy bear they'd brought him in the hospital, and fall back to sleep. He was safe, warm, and feeling much better. There was nothing more that he could ask for in that moment.
Thank you for reading! Happy Holidays!