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The Christmas Curse

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“The year that Christmas was cursed,” they called it later, but with a smile. At the time, it just felt like one damn thing after another.

The original plan had been for El and Peter to spend the holiday in Illinois with her family, making it back to Brooklyn in time for New Year’s and a belated holiday with Neal. El knew that Peter didn’t like spending the holiday away from home, and doubly so this year, since it was Neal’s first anklet-free Christmas and the first one they would spend as a real family. Normally she would’ve been onboard with a Brooklyn Christmas, but both her parents had had bad health years - her dad had had a minor heart attack in May, and her mom had been diagnosed with thyroid issues.

None of it was life-threatening, but all of it was scary. It reminded El that someday she wouldn’t have the luxury of fighting holiday traffic and security lines at JFK to fly home for the holidays. Once she put it that way, Peter came around quickly.

Neal, of course, understood. With his own family situation, he’d never have dreamed of asking her to give up spending the holidays with her family. He would have Mozzie and June and June’s family, not to mention June’s impeccably decorated mansion. Still, it wasn’t the same as spending the holiday with her and Peter, and El knew it. Unfortunately, there was never any question of Neal coming along. El’s dad would’ve seen through any carefully constructed story in about four seconds flat, and she didn’t want to be responsible for causing his second heart attack.

With three days until Christmas, everything was ready to go. El had managed to survive December, her busiest month, and the parties that were left looked like they were going to be trouble-free. Yvonne could handle them. Gifts for her family were bought and packed carefully in a suitcase for the plane; she and Peter were each taking something small to give each other on the 25th, but most of their presents were still under the tree, along with Neal’s. Peter would be working until the last possible minute on the 24th, but that was only to be expected.

The evening of the 22nd, she came home to a dark and empty house. That wasn’t surprising; Peter had called earlier to say that he and Neal would be working late. She made herself dinner and then hot chocolate with a touch of peppermint schnapps before settling in with a book on the sofa. It wasn’t snowing yet, but it was bitterly cold out. She hoped that wherever her boys were, they were warm.

She was deep into her book when her phone rang, startling her. She glanced at her cell and then answered. “Neal?”

“Hey, El,” he said, sounding harried and tired.

El frowned. “You’re not calling to tell me you’re on your way home, are you?”

“No, unfortunately.” El could hear the grimace in his voice. “So, um, don’t panic, but Peter and I are at the emergency room.”

What?

“I said don’t panic! I’m fine, and Peter’s - well, he’s mostly fine.”

El forced herself to take a deep breath. “What does ‘mostly fine’ mean?”

“He threw out his back chasing a suspect. He’ll be all right, he’s just really cranky - mostly about the suspect getting away.”

El pinched the bridge of her nose. “Do I need to come down there?”

“No, I can drive us back. I’m not sure how much longer it’s going to take here, they’re pretty busy.”

“Okay. Well, thanks for calling me. Be careful on the roads - it’s really cold out, and there might be ice on the bridge.”

“I will be.” Neal’s voice dropped. “Love you.”

“Love you, too.” Elizabeth disconnected and then covered her face with her hands. She had hoped when Peter had been promoted to ASAC a couple years ago that his days of chasing suspects might be over. But that wasn’t Peter, of course, and it wasn’t Neal either. These days she got to worry about both of them.

But Peter would be fine, Neal had said. Though possibly not in two days. El suddenly found herself calculating the odds that by the 24th, Peter would be well enough to sit through the flight to Chicago. She wondered how much it would cost to upgrade their tickets to business class.

. . . a lot, the internet informed her. But Burke Premier Events had done extremely well over the holidays, and it would be worth it if it let Peter be comfortable on the flight. But for the moment, El didn’t do anything except take a deep breath, fix herself a second hot chocolate - this one with two shots of schnapps - and do her best to settle back in with her book.

The sound of the key in the lock woke her from her slightly inebriated doze on the sofa. She got up to meet Peter and Neal at the door, pulling Satchmo back and sending him to his dog bed when he tried to greet Peter too enthusiastically. Neal had one arm around Peter, steadying him. Peter was clearly pretty stoned on whatever they’d given him at the hospital, but he smiled when he saw her. “Hi hon,” he said.

“Hi hon,” she replied, standing on tiptoe to kiss him. “Hi sweetie,” she added, and kissed Neal hello. Neal looked tired, and El wondered just how much of a hard time Peter had been giving him. Peter could be a handful when he wasn’t feeling well.

“What did the doctor say?” El asked.

Neal shrugged. “That it was just going to be a matter of time. He gave him some painkillers and said it might be easier for Peter to sleep in the recliner.”

“I need to use the bathroom first,” Peter said, eyeing the stairs without favor.

“Right.” Neal grimaced. “One step at a time.”

It took them a long time to get up the stairs. El mostly watched from the bottom, not wanting to get in the way; the staircase was narrow enough that there wasn’t much that even Neal could do to help. But it was obvious that Peter was in a lot of pain, even with the drugs he was on, and El’s sense of foreboding about their trip increased. Still, they had almost forty-eight hours before they were scheduled to fly out. He could be well enough by then.

While Neal helped Peter use the bathroom and change into pajamas, El went about making sure he had everything he needed to spend the night in the recliner - plenty of blankets and a heating pad for his back, as well as a glass of water, his medication, the remote control, a trash can, and his cell phone, all within arm’s reach.

Coming down the stairs didn’t look like any more fun than going up, but finally they got Peter settled in the recliner. Satchmo, who’d been watching it all from his dog bed, got up and came over to lay his head on Peter’s thigh. Peter gave a wan smile and scratched behind Satchmo’s ears.

“One or two?” Neal asked, shaking pills out into his hand.

“Better make it two,” Peter said. He swallowed them with the water.

“Do you need anything else?” El asked. “Are either of you hungry?”

Peter shook his head. “No, I’ve got everything I need. Including my guard dog,” he added, looking down at Satchmo with a smile.

“What about you?” El asked, glancing at Neal. “There are some leftovers in the fridge.”

He shook his head. “I’m really tired. I think I just want to crash.”

“Okay,” El said. “Have a good night, hon. And don’t hesitate to call if you need us,” she added, tapping Peter’s cell phone before bending down to kiss him. She headed upstairs while Neal gave Peter his own version of the same speech. It was late and she had a few things to finish up at the office in the morning before declaring herself done until after New Year’s.

She climbed into bed and listened to Neal using the bathroom and brushing his teeth before joining her. He slid in on Peter’s side and she immediately rolled towards him. He tucked her head beneath his chin. She thought it might have been the first time that the two of them had ever shared a bed without Peter; she knew that Peter and Neal had spent the night together often enough when she was taken out of town by work in the last six months, but she and Neal never had. Neal had been too cautious, El thought, too worried about infringing where he wasn’t wanted.

“How bad was it?” she asked.

Neal shook his head. “Not too bad. He went for a fire escape, but the rungs were icy and he slipped. He fell wrong - or, I guess, he tried not to fall, but he landed wrong.”

“Ouch.”

“You can say that again. And then he was on the ground yelling at me to go after the suspect.”

El wasn’t sure whether to smile or frown. “Poor Peter. Do you think it’s time -”

“- to talk to him seriously about slowing down? Yeah, maybe.” Neal shrugged. “I’m off the anklet, and I’m not even at the FBI full time anymore. It’s probably the best opportunity we’ll get. But not,” Neal yawned, “right now. I’ve been up for nineteen hours.” He cast her an uncertain glance. “Do you mind if we don’t - I really need to sleep, and -”

“It’s fine, Neal,” she said, and kissed him briefly on the lips before rolling away. Neal didn’t mind sleeping all tangled up after sex or if he wasn’t particularly worried about how he slept, but when he needed real sleep, he liked his space. Tonight, he was tired enough that El suspected it wouldn’t have mattered. She heard his breathing even out and deepen almost immediately. She closed her eyes and let its gentle rhythm pull her under.

***

Unfortunately, her alarm went off only six hours later. She slapped it into submission even as Neal groaned and buried himself deeper under the covers. El took her shower, then wrapped herself in her robe and went downstairs to check on Peter and make the coffee. The TV was on, the volume turned down very low; Peter was sound asleep in the armchair with Satchmo curled up on the rug beside him. El smiled at him fondly, turned the TV off, and gestured for Satch to follow her into the kitchen so she could let him out.

Even with the very late night, she expected to hear Neal stirring by the time she took what was left of her first cup of coffee upstairs to finish getting ready. But there wasn’t a peep from the bedroom. She frowned, glancing at her watch; it was forty-five minutes later than Neal usually got up, but perhaps he wasn’t scheduled to go into the office this morning. She hesitated, not wanting to wake him if it wasn’t necessary, before deciding it was better to be safe than sorry. She perched on the edge of the bed and shook his shoulder gently. “Neal,” she said quietly. “Neal, sweetie, are you going into the office this morning?”

“Five more minutes,” he mumbled, without unburying himself from the covers.

“You’re already almost an hour later than usual. Are you sure?” He didn’t answer. She tugged the pillow away from his face, then frowned. There was an unusual amount of heat coming off of him. She pressed the backs of her fingers to what part of his forehead she could reach. “Sweetie, are you feeling all right?”

Neal dragged his eyes open. “El?” he managed, groggily.

“Yeah, it’s me. Are you feeling okay?”

“I . . . no,” he said, sounding almost surprised. “I don’t feel well at all.” He coughed, weakly, and frowned, trying to sit up.

She helped him get there and pressed her hand to his forehead. “You feel like you’ve got a fever,” she said, “though I guess it might’ve just been having your head buried in the pillows. Hang on a second.” She went into the bathroom to fetch the thermometer, as well as a damp washcloth and a bottle of Tylenol. She came back to find him still sitting up, but with his eyes closed. He didn’t open them as he let her slide the thermometer under his tongue, but he did when she pressed the damp cloth to the back his neck and his forehead.

The thermometer beeped. El glanced at it. “A hundred and two,” she announced. “No school for you today.” Neal nodded, not even cracking a smile at the joke. El left the washcloth draped over his forehead and smiled at him. “I’ll call in for both you and Peter.”

“Won’t that look weird?” Neal asked, already drooping.

El shrugged. “If someone asks, I’ll say that you and Peter got back so late last night, you ended up staying over.”

She called the office, reaching the team’s new administrative assistant, who didn’t seem to be at all interested in whatever story El might have about why she was calling in sick for her husband and his partner. Then she went downstairs to supervise Peter’s venture out of the recliner and up the stairs to the bathroom.

They came back downstairs to find Neal curled up on the sofa under the comforter from their bed. “You look like hell,” Peter said, as El helped him sit back down in the recliner.

“Likewise,” Neal muttered, without opening his eyes.

“You two are quite the pair,” El agreed, surveying them ruefully.

Neal did open one eye then. “Try to contain yourself in the presence of our animal magnetism.”

El laughed. “I’ll do my best,” she said, and went to make breakfast - a single piece of buttered toast for Neal, who said he felt sick to his stomach, and cinnamon apple oatmeal for Peter. He took a painkiller with his food - just one for now, but she left the bottle within reach.

By then, it was well past the time El had hoped to be out the door, but it wasn’t as though she actually had meetings to get to, just some paperwork to finish up. She thought about not going in at all; with Peter not able to walk very well and Neal running a fever, she didn’t really want to leave them. But she and Yvonne had a few last minute things to discuss, and she’d feel better if they did it in person. She wanted to leave town with as few things to worry about as possible.

Assuming, of course, that she and Peter ended up leaving at all. He seemed better this morning; he was clearly still in pain, but he was also moving more steadily than he had last night. But there was a large gap between able to walk to the bathroom and able to travel to Chicago.

Fortunately, her work at the office didn’t take very long. Yvonne had things entirely under control; when El told her that she could call her at any point if she needed to, she just smiled and told El to have a merry Christmas. El smiled back without mentioning any of the possible changes in her and Peter’s plans, finished up the last of her paperwork, and headed home.

The house was quiet when she got there, though she could hear the low murmur of the TV in the living room. She kicked her shoes off in the entryway and padded in, pausing to drop her laptop on the dining room table. Neal was asleep on the sofa, only the very top of his head showing from beneath the comforter. Peter was awake and staring glassily at some sort of sports talk show. “Hey hon,” he said, as she bent down to kiss him. “That was fast.”

“I didn’t want leave the two of you on your own for long,” she said. “How’re you feeling?”

“I’ve been better,” Peter admitted. “Moving hurts.”

“I bet,” El said with a sigh. She pulled the ottoman over to perch on. “I guess we should talk about Christmas. What are you thinking? And be honest,” she added. “Tell me what you really think, not what you think I want to hear.”

He sighed. “Being honest . . . I think the flight would be a nightmare.”

She nodded. “What if we upgraded? I looked into it. It’s - well, you probably shouldn’t ask how much it would cost. But it’s an option.”

Peter was quiet for a few moments. “If it was just you and me,” he said at last, “I’d say, let’s try it. We could always just dope me to the gills for the flight. But you know I already wasn’t crazy about leaving Neal on his own for our first Christmas as us, and now - I don’t know, El. He might be better by Christmas, but I just hate the idea of him being sick and alone over the holidays.”

El nodded. “Yeah. Me too.”

Peter looked at her. “What are you thinking?”

She looked down at her hands. “I’m thinking it’d probably be better if we just canceled. But I haven’t seen my parents in so long, and I hate to disappoint them. And after this last year, I just . . .” She swallowed, glancing away. She hadn’t been able to make it out when her dad had gotten sick. Her sister had been there, and El had called them every day for two weeks straight, but it wasn’t the same. “I really wanted to spend Christmas with them,” she finished, voice cracking.

Peter reached over and took her hand in his. “Then maybe you should go, hon.”

She frowned. “But you just said -”

“I know,” Peter said. “That isn’t what I meant. I meant, maybe you should go without me. I don’t like the idea any better than you do,” he added, when El opened her mouth to object, “but I think it’s what we’re left with.”

El didn’t answer for a minute. She hated the idea, in fact; in sixteen years, she and Peter had never spent a Christmas apart. But she also hated the idea of not flying to Illinois.

At last she nodded. “I guess you’re right. I just - I don’t like either of these options.”

“Me neither,” Peter said. “But we can celebrate when you get back, just like we were going to with Neal.”

She nodded. “I know.” She took a deep breath. “Will you guys be okay?”

“I think so,” Peter said, glancing at Neal. He hadn’t so much as stirred during their conversation. “We might end up ordering a lot of take-out and eating stuff out of the freezer, but I think we’ll manage.”

El’s throat felt tight. “Are we really doing this? I’m going to fly to Chicago and you’re going to stay here, and we’ll wish each other ‘Merry Christmas’ by phone?” Peter shrugged, then grimaced, as though it hurt. It probably had. El drew a deep breath. “Well, then. I guess I have some things to take care of.”

A whole long list of things, as a matter of fact. She called the airline to cancel Peter’s ticket, then took stock of their fridge and freezer. There wasn’t much in the fridge, since she and Peter had been about to go out of town, and Neal had been planning to take Satchmo to June’s. There was some frozen chicken soup, at least, and she set that in the fridge to thaw. There were also a couple frozen dinners, but not enough to last them more than day or two if they weren’t eating anything else. By the twenty-sixth, one of them might be well enough to shop, but she didn’t like the idea of leaving them without enough food to get them through the twenty-ninth, when she’d be back.

She was being slightly ridiculous, she knew. There were a lot of restaurants in their area that delivered, even over Christmas, so there was no real reason for her to be thinking about making lasagna or more soup in the twenty-eight hours she had left before she had to get on a plane. But the truth was that she felt guilty for going at all, when her parents were basically okay and Peter and Neal clearly weren’t. The least she could do, she thought, was make sure there was food in the fridge.

Predictably for December the 23rd, the grocery store was a madhouse. Elizabeth grabbed a few staples and the makings for a veggie lasagna, and then called her mom while she was standing in an interminable line at check-out to let her know about the change in plans.

“Are you sure, sweetie?” her mom asked, sounding worried. “If Peter isn’t well enough to come, then doesn’t he need you there?”

“He’s all right,” she said, trying to convince herself as much as her mom. “He just couldn’t deal with the plane ride. And a friend of ours -” El sent Neal a silent apology “- is going to stay with him. I really want to see you and Dad.”

“We want to see you, too, sweetie,” her mom said. “I just know it can’t be easy to spend the holiday away from Peter. If you want to stay home, your dad and I will understand.”

“Thanks,” El said, “but Peter and I have already talked about it. The plan was for me to be with you guys on Christmas this year, and that’s where I’m going to be.”

“Well, if you’re sure, I won’t argue,” her mom said.

“I’m sure,” El said, trying to sound as certain as she possibly could. She thought she did well enough, considering she was not at all happy to be leaving Neal and Peter on their own, especially under the circumstances.

By the time she left the store, it was growing dark and the temperature seemed to have dropped about fifteen degrees. It had drizzled earlier, but now it all seemed to have turned to ice. She could feel how slick the roads were in the way the steering wheel either fought her or overreacted, but she managed to reach the house without incident. She grabbed the grocery bags out of the trunk and hurried up the walk, eager to be inside where it was warm and dry.

She didn’t see the slick patch of ice on the walkway until much too late. She slipped and her ankle rolled; she went one way, the groceries went the other, and the next thing she knew she was lying on her back on the walkway, the wind completely knocked out of her.

“El!” she heard Neal call.

I’m okay, she tried to say, but all that came out was a squeak. The front door opened, and Neal said, “Stay in the chair, Peter!” Then there were footsteps, and a pair of battered tennis shoes came into view.

“El?” Neal said, crouching down beside her. “Are you okay? Did you hit your head?”

“I don’t think so,” she managed. She tried moving and found that it wasn’t quite as bad as she’d feared. She got herself up onto one elbow and stopped. “Ow.”

“Yeah, that was quite the fall,” Neal said. “Here, let’s try and get you sitting up.”

“El? Neal?” Peter called from the house. And then, “No, Satch, no. They don’t need your help. Go to your bed.”

Neal sighed in exasperation. “Peter, I told you to stay in the chair.”

“I’m okay, Peter,” El said. “Don’t come out here, the walkway is pure ice. You shouldn’t be out here either,” she added to Neal, who had apparently run out in Peter’s gym shoes, a bathrobe over his pajamas, and nothing else. “You’re sick, and the temperature is somewhere below freezing.”

“Well, I wasn’t going to leave you lying on the sidewalk,” Neal said. “Now, what hurts? Do you think you can stand?”

El frowned. “I don’t know.” Now that she could breathe again and was sitting up, her ankle was starting to ache fiercely. “I rolled my ankle when I fell. It hurts.” She didn’t really want to try standing on it, but they couldn’t just stay out here. Every minute that Neal was breathing cold air was bad for him, and her butt was starting to freeze.

“Here, use my shoulder,” Neal said, and offered it for her to lean on. “One, two, three . . .”

It wasn’t easy, but somehow the two of them managed to get upright without falling over again. El leaned heavily on Neal’s shoulder as she tried putting weight on her ankle. Pain shot through it and she hissed through gritted teeth. But after a few seconds it eased up and she managed to hobble a step.

“Okay?” Neal asked.

His teeth were starting to chatter. Even if it wasn’t okay, El was going to make it okay. “Yup,” she said, and with his help managed to hobble the last few steps to the walkway. He helped her hop up the stairs to the front door, where Peter waited. He started to reach for her, but she and Neal both glared at him and he backed up.

“Dammit, the groceries,” she said.

“Let’s get you to the sofa and I’ll go back for them,” Neal said.

“No, leave them, you’re freezing -”

“I’m fine,” Neal said, though El could feel how hard he was shaking.

“You’re not fine,” El protested as Neal installed her on the sofa and dragged the ottoman over so she could put her foot up. Satchmo, who’d been watching the goings-on with interest from his bed, immediately came over to investigate. ”Neal - !”

Neal ignored her and disappeared out the door. El exchanged an exasperated look with Peter, who just shook his head. Neal was back inside in short order, both bags of groceries in hand. He took them into the kitchen and El tipped her head back against the back of the sofa, closing her eyes.

There was a thud and a crash from the kitchen. She sat up, alarmed. Peter, who had been about to climb back into his recliner, startled, turning too quickly before coming up short with a groan.

“I’m okay,” Neal said from the kitchen. But his voice was shaky and fainter than it should’ve been, and Peter didn’t hesitate before shuffling as quickly as he could toward the kitchen. El couldn’t hear or see what was going on, but after a minute or two Neal emerged from the kitchen, Peter hovering just behind him. He was white as a sheet.

“What happened?” El demanded.

“He fainted,” Peter reported.

“I did not faint,” Neal said, collapsing onto the sofa and against El with a barely-stifled moan. “I sat down. Abruptly.”

Peter rolled his eyes. “On the floor.”

“It seemed like the closest thing at the time,” Neal said. He fumbled for the comforter; El did her best to get it over him, and then made him lay his head in her lap. He was shaking like a leaf.

“Here,” Peter said, holding out his heating pad.

El didn’t argue. She slipped it between the comforter and Neal’s pajamas and ran her fingers through his hair, which was damp from rain and feverish sweat.

“You need ice,” Peter said to her.

“I’m okay,” El said. “You should sit.”

Peter shook his head. “Once I sit, I’m not getting up again for a while.” He shuffled back into the kitchen and returned with an icepack and a dish towel. El got it arranged over her ankle and breathed a small sigh of relief. Peter lowered himself back into his recliner with a minimum of groaning.

For a long time, no one said a word. Then Elizabeth began laughing. The other two looked at her like she was crazy, but she waved her hand, trying to reassure them that she wasn’t having hysterics. It didn’t seem to help.

“Sorry, sorry,” she said at last, wiping her eyes. “It’s just, this whole thing. It’s like the damn holiday is cursed.” She shook her head. “I don’t believe in signs, but if I did, then I’d say that someone just planted a giant neon one in our yard that said, STAY HOME.”

“You could still go,” Peter said, tentatively.

El shook her head. “No,” she said. “This is ridiculous. I don’t know how many more ways the universe can tell me not to get on that plane. Clearly we were all destined to spend Christmas here, nursing our various wounds in front of a roaring fire.”

“But your parents,” Neal said, rolling onto his back enough to look up at her. “I know how much you wanted to see them.”

“I did,” she said, smiling down at him fondly and stroking a hand through his hair. “I do. But I wanted to stay here, too. I’ll cancel my flight and use the credit to fly out for my mom’s birthday next month.”

“You’re sure you’re okay with that?” Peter asked.

El sighed. “I will be. I wasn’t crazy about leaving you two here on your own, anyway. Though I don’t know how much use I’m going to be now,” she added with a rueful glance at her ankle. It hurt less with the ice pack on it, but it was clearly starting to swell. And the rest of her didn’t feel much better. She shifted, wincing. “I’m going to be one big bruise tomorrow.”

“Hey,” Peter said, and held out his bottle of painkillers. “What’s mine is yours, right?”

El shook her head as she accepted the bottle. “I really didn’t think we’d get to this point for another fifteen or twenty years,” she said, but that didn’t stop her from swallowing one with a sip from Peter’s bottle of water.

“That’ll help, but we should wrap it,” Peter said. “I think there’s an Ace bandage up in the medicine cabinet, and we must still have the crutches from when I messed up my knee a few years ago.”

“I think they’re in the attic,” El said.

“I’ll get them,” Neal said. But he sounded exhausted, and despite his words, he didn’t move.

“You shouldn’t be fetching and carrying for us,” El said, frowning. She rubbed a hand up and down his upper arm. He was still shivering minutely, and she couldn’t help thinking about how much cold air he’d breathed in while helping her.

“I can do it,” Neal said. “Just give me a minute?”

El stroked her fingers through his hair. “Take as many minutes as you need, sweetie. I’m not going anywhere.”

***

Christmas Day dawned cold and clear after a night of snow. Elizabeth woke early, and lay for a long time without moving. In the other half of the bed, Neal was still asleep, but she thought she could smell coffee, and that meant that Peter was up. He was moving better now than he had been, but an attempt at sleeping in the bed the night before had been short-lived and unsuccessful.

She got up and limped over to the closet to put her robe on. Then she grabbed her crutches from where they were leaning by the door and hobbled out. Her ankle had been swollen and purple yesterday, and this morning it felt stiff, but at least she was able to put some weight on it.

She navigated the stairs carefully down to the living room, where she found Peter sitting in his recliner with a cup of coffee by the tree.

They hadn’t actually had a tree this year, since none of them expected to be there over the holiday. But Neal had ended up explaining the whole situation to June when he called her to let her know he wouldn’t be at Christmas after all, and she’d shown up a few hours later, with Mozzie and a six-foot Douglas Fir in tow. She’d brought a number of covered dishes as well, prepared by her own cook, to stock the fridge.

None of them had had to do a thing - well, except put up with Mozzie for an afternoon, which was easier for her and Neal than for Peter. But even he couldn’t say a word in the face of June’s generosity. And the truth, which none of them had wanted to admit, was that they really had needed some help. It had been nice to have a couple people with two functioning legs and the ability to be upright for more than five minutes around for a few hours. In addition to the tree and the food, El had been pleasantly surprised when she’d wandered into the kitchen after they left and found that one of them had done the mountain of dishes that had been piling up.

“Good morning,” El said as she reached the bottom of the stairs at last.

“Good morning,” Peter said, and levered himself out of the recliner much more easily than he had the last two days. He came over and kissed her. “Merry Christmas, hon.”

“Merry Christmas,” she said, and breathed in the smell of coffee from his cup. “Mmm. June’s Italian Roast?”

“She brought a pound of it with her yesterday,” Peter said with a smile. “Want some? There’s also coffee cake.”

“Please,” El said. “And maybe an ice pack while you’re there?”

“You got it,” Peter said, and disappeared into the kitchen. El hobbled over to the sofa and sat down, propping her foot up on the ottoman. Satch immediately wandered over and laid his head in her lap, asking for scritches. She gladly obliged, at least until Peter returned with her coffee, her cake, and her ice pack.

“Is Neal up yet?” he asked, once he was back in the recliner.

El swallowed her first bite of coffee cake. “Not yet. But he seemed to sleep better last night - much less coughing - so maybe he’s on the mend.” They had both been worried about Neal yesterday; he’d had a bad cough and his fever had crept up toward 103. All El could think was that if he ended up with bronchitis because he’d run out to help her when she fell, she’d never forgive herself. But Mozzie and June’s visit had perked him up a bit, and he’d managed to eat some soup for dinner.

“Chilly morning,” she remarked, once she’d finished her coffee cake. “What would you think about a fire?”

“Sounds great,” Peter said, “but even if I could get down on the floor, I probably couldn’t get up again.”

“Don’t be silly,” El said, pushing herself up off the sofa. “I can do it.”

And she did do it, albeit with a little armchair Eagle-scouting from Peter. Before long they had a cheerful little fire in their fireplace. El decided she wasn’t quite up to trying to stand again just yet and scooted back until she was leaning against Peter’s recliner. He passed her one of his blankets for her to wrap herself up in, and Satchmo wandered over, intrigued by one of his humans sitting on the floor. He flopped down beside her and El closed her eyes, leaning her cheek against Peter’s thigh.

It was an almost supernaturally quiet morning. There was no traffic and nearly no noise from outside the house. El had hardly ever experienced such quiet in the city. She imagined what things were like at her parents’ house this morning, with the chaos of Christmas with five young children and at least ten people, and was glad that she and Peter hadn’t tried to make the trip. Even if the flight hadn’t been awful, and she was sure it would have been, neither of them was really up to that much excitement right now.

Neal finally emerged around nine, looking rumpled and barely awake. He accepted Peter’s kiss with a mumbled, “Merry Christmas,” and then sort of just fell over onto the sofa.

“How are you feeling?” El asked, while Peter went to make Neal some tea.

“Groggy,” he said. “Too much sleep.”

“That’s an unusual problem for you,” she said, hiding a smile.

“Mmm.”

She pushed Satchmo off of her and struggled to her feet, then limped over to sit on the sofa. Neal snuggled in beside her, and she pressed the backs of her fingers to his forehead. “Well, all that sleep seems to have done you some good. You feel cooler at least. And your cough seems a little better.”

“Yeah. Still feel kind of congested.” He sniffled, as though by way of demonstration.

She let her hand rest on Neal’s chest, gently rubbing back and forth. “I was worried you might end up with bronchitis from breathing all that cold air when you ran outside to help me.”

“Nah, I think I’m okay.” He closed his eyes, relaxing against her, and then opened them to look up at her. “Hey. Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas,” she said with a smile. She shook her head. “Even if it might not go down as our best ever.”

“Probably not as our most exciting ever,” Neal agreed. “But . . .” He hesitated. “I hope you don’t mind if I say I’m glad you stayed.”

“Oh sweetie, of course not,” she said. “I’m glad we stayed, too. Mostly. I hope you know that my wanting to be with my parents didn’t mean I didn’t want to be with you.”

Neal was quiet for just a beat too long. “I do know that,” he said. “And I would’ve been fine, of course - June always puts on a great Christmas. But I’d rather be with you and Peter any day, even if we are the walking wounded.”

“What’s this?” Peter asked, returning with a mug of tea in one hand and a plate of coffee cake in the other. Neal sat up to accept both. El was glad to see that his appetite seemed to be better today, too.

“I was just saying I’d rather be here with the two of you than anywhere else,” Neal said. “Even if it took a Christmas curse to make it happen.”

“I have to say,” Peter said, sitting back down in his recliner with a small grunt, “all things considered, I don’t feel particularly cursed at the moment.”

“Me neither,” Neal said.

“Me neither,” El said. “Really,” she added when they both looked at her, and found that it was true. It was hard to feel cursed here, with the house smelling like pine and coffee, and the world outside so muffled, leaving only the crackling of the fire. It didn’t feel like a curse, she thought, but it did feel like a little enchanted bubble with just the three of them. She took a deep breath. “There’s no where else I’d rather be.”

Fin.