Neal coughed into his elbow and turned back to the sketch he was frantically trying to finish before Christmas. He'd gotten Peter's name in the Secret Santa exchange, and the Ellington house rules were that the gift had to be handmade.
He'd been working on it for a few days and was just about to start adding color. Peter had a lot of interests, but his favorite things were playing baseball and collecting baseball cards. That was why Neal had decided to create Peter's own baseball card, complete with his best friend in a Yankees' uniform.
The only problem was that he'd picked up a little cold from the half of the school that had been sick since the temperature had dropped and winter had hit in full force with snow or sleet almost every day. It was also possible that he'd gotten sick because he was working in the attic, which was the only private space he had to get the gift done without Peter seeing, but it was also the only unheated area of the house.
Neal paused to blow his nose into a tissue and pull a blanket more firmly around his shoulders. Then, he got back to work. It was only two days until Christmas, and he had a lot to do.
"Dinner!" June called up the stairs, smiling at the sound of feet pounding down the hall on the second floor and heading toward the stairs. She turned to go back into the kitchen to put the finishing touches on dinner while the kids set the table in the dining room.
Byron was working late, so June called the boys in to help her carry the roast and side dishes to the table. She handed off food to both Peter and Mozzie before realizing that someone was missing.
Peter shrugged. "He wasn't in our room."
"I haven't seen him for a while," Mozzie added. "Maybe he's up in the attic."
June sighed and shook her head. It had to be freezing in the attic. "That boy. Peter, would you go get him please?"
"Be right back." Peter replied as he jogged out of the room.
June and Mozzie finished putting dinner on the table and took their seats just as Peter and Neal were coming downstairs.
"Sorry, June," Neal said, sniffling into his sleeve.
"Are you okay, my dear?" Now that he was sitting beside her, she could see that Neal was pale and had bags under his eyes. He listlessly picked a roll from the basket and started pulling it apart in small pieces.
"I have a little bit of a cold, but I'm okay." Her concerned expression must have worried him because he immediately added, "It's not like last time, I promise."
"I'll be the judge of that." June put her hand on his forehead and was relieved that he wasn't running much of a fever. "How about you go to bed early tonight and we'll see how you are in the morning?"
"No arguments. Now, I hope you can eat a little something."
He nodded and filled his plate with a little of everything, but she kept an eye on him to make sure he actually ate. She hoped he was feeling better by Christmas morning.
The rest of dinner went quickly with a little chatter from the others about their last exams before the Christmas holidays. They all had one more day of school before a two-week break, and they were all excited.
Neal stayed home from school the next day, Christmas Eve, because he felt run down and exhausted. June allowed it, but she wouldn't let him go up into the attic to finish his drawing for Peter. Instead, she insisted that he work on it in his room while Peter was at school.
He was worried about getting it finished, especially since he had to stop and take a couple of naps throughout the day, but he put the finishing touches on it just before the school bus dropped Peter, Mozzie, Sara and Diana off in the afternoon.
June offered to wrap the present and slip it under the tree. There were several gifts already there, some wrapped by June's precise hands, and some wrapped haphazardly in Sunday comics by one of the teens. Neal hadn't spotted one with his name on it yet, but they weren't allowed to touch the presents until Christmas morning.
Dinner was a raucous affair because everyone was excited about the holiday and about the school break. That led into the traditional cookie bake-off where Byron and Mozzie made frosted sugar cookies and June and Diana made oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. Peter, Neal and Sara were usually the judges, but Neal excused himself to his room and dozed to the pleasant sounds of the rest of the household.
It was after nine when there was a knock at the door. Neal sat up and wiped the sleep out of his eyes. "Come in," he called.
"Hey," Sara greeted, opening the door and poking her head inside. "Are you feeling better?"
"A little. You can come inside."
She smiled and pushed the door open all the way to show that she had her cello with her. On Thursdays, Sara took cello lessons from a friend of Byron's, but Neal had never heard her play before.
"What's all this?" Neal asked, watching her with interest.
She pulled his desk chair over beside the bed and sat down to position her cello. "So, I know I'm not supposed to tell you yet, but I'm your Secret Santa, and I thought you might like a live version in addition to your actual gift."
His eyes lit up, but she started playing before he could say anything about how happy he was to hear her play.
The song was apparent almost immediately, and he remembered mentioning to her a long time ago that his favorite Christmas carol was "O Holy Night". His mother used to sing the original French version, "Cantique de Noël", when he was younger, and it was one of his most favorite memories of the holidays.
Tears filled his eyes as he thought about those Christmases years ago, and Sara stopped playing as soon as she noticed.
"Please keep playing," he said softly. She hesitated, and he whispered, "Please? It's really good."
Sara gave him a small smile and started from the beginning. When she finished the first song, she played two other carols, stopping only when he was clearly exhausted and half asleep.
As she was leaving the room, Neal sleepily said, "Thank you, Sara. You're really talented."
She nodded and accepted his kind words with a heartfelt "Merry Christmas, Neal."
Thanks for reading!