It was a case that had taken them out of town, driving on icy roads on a midwinter afternoon. They were bantering about the holidays, the edges between them soothed and buried under the blanket of snow.
"Why don't you spend Christmas with us?" Peter asked.
Neal glanced over at him, surprised by the offer.
Peter apparently took his silence as objection. "Why not? You just said June will be out of town, and that's a pretty big house to be alone in, especially for Christmas."
"Peter, you don't need to do this. I'll be fine by myself. I've done it before." As soon as he said it, Neal knew it was the wrong thing.
Peter's lips firmed, and his voice came out determined. "That doesn't mean you should have to do it again." He slumped, opening his mouth, then, after a moment, closing it. He tried again. "This isn't an order, Neal. You don't have to come. We'd just like to have you there."
Neal looked at him, bright blue eyes taking in the sincerity written all over Peter's face. "Peter, -"
They hit a patch of ice.
The tires squealed.
"- Peter! -"
- smash -
Neal wakes up.
For a moment, he doesn't know where he is. All he registers is the cold, cold all around him, and a feeling similar to being shot: swooping fear cutting through a cloud of shock. Then the pain hits.
It rolls over him in a wave, wringing a groan from his lips. It feels like every inch of skin on his body is bruised, but the worst of it seems to be coming from his left arm.
He moves it slightly, and has to bite his lip to hold back the scream of agony threatening to escape. Definitely broken.
Suddenly he remembers. He hadn't been alone in the car. Carefully, he turns his head towards the driver's seat, moving as little as he possibly can. Peter is there, head slumped, little bits of glass glittering in his hair from when the windshield shattered.
"Peter?" Neal calls, voice scratchy.
Peter doesn't respond.
Neal lifts his hand, the one that isn't injured, towards Peter's neck. The angle is awkward, but he can feel a pulse, beating slow but strong. He prods Peter with one finger, trying to rouse him. "Peter?"
This time Peter moves, but he still doesn't wake.
Neal unclips his seatbelt, then clumsily shuffles closer to Peter, holding his injured hand against his chest so not to jar it further. It's uncomfortable, but he makes it, and shakes Peter's shoulder. "C'mon, Peter, you have to wake up now. You have to." Still no response, so he shakes harder, uncaring of how the movement is jarring his broken arm. "Do it for-" for me, rises to his lips, but he swallows it back down. He has no right to ask that, not with all he's done to Peter. "Do it for El," he says instead. "It's nearly Christmas, you can't leave her alone. For Elizabeth."
This final effort seems to be the one. Peter rouses, eyes blinking open. "El?" he asks hoarsely.
Neal slumps back in his seat, a smile forming. His hand stays on Peter's shoulder. "Yeah, Peter. For El."
It's been nearly an hour now, as far as Neal's phone can tell him, and they are still stranded out here. They are too far into the mountains to have any reception, and the roads are deserted. The witness they were going out to interview is still several hours drive away, so they won't be missed for hours. No one is coming for them.
To make matters worse, Peter is barely staying awake. That initial flash of relief Neal felt when Peter opens his eyes has long since abandoned him, buried under the weight of his worry. Peter's pupils are uneven, clear sign of a concussion, and in this kind of weather, he knows that if Peter falls asleep, it's unlikely he'll ever wake up.
"Stay awake, Peter," he says through his shivers. "Tell me...tell me what you're doing for Christmas."
"Christmas?" A soft smile takes over Peter's face. "El and I, we make eggnog, every year. My mom's recipe. Then we sit down on the couch, and watch It's A Wonderful Life. It's El's favourite movie, we watch it every year for Christmas. Sitting on the couch, curled up with El and a glass of eggnog...that's my favourite part of Christmas. Never had anything better."
His retelling brings a smile to Neal's face as well. For a while, they just sit there, shivering bodies and chattering teeth disregarded, basking in the glow of imagined comfort.
All too soon, reality comes back. The car is even colder now, cold enough that Neal can see his breath in the air. Peter's stopped talking, and Neal realises with a start he immediately regrets that he doesn't even know if Peter is still awake.
"Peter!" he half shouts, voice raspy against the cold. "Peter, talk to me. Say something."
"It wasn't supposed to end like this," he mutters. The words hang in the air, crystallised by the freezing cold. Not that it matters: no one can hear him anyway. "You were supposed to survive, keep taking cases, being a hero. You can't die here. People care about you."
Neal's eyes start to slip closed. He doesn't both trying to open them again. If they're dying here, he'd prefer not to know it. He doesn't want to watch Peter die.
Some last words tumble out of his mouth, words he's never dared share before. Here, with both of them dying, he has nothing left to lose. "You're my family, Peter. I don't think I could stand losing you - not to anything." It's easier to admit this now, the words hanging in the air like their breath. "I guess now I'll never have to."
It's almost reassuring, dying. Nothing can go wrong, it already has. There's nothing he can do. No con, no trick, no forgery. It's the end.
He lets go, and slips into the darkness.
A white light is pulling at his eyelids, and the first thing Neal thinks is he's dead. He's never really believed in life after death, but surely there's nowhere else he could be. Then the cold hits him, and reality comes crashing in, along with the sounds of familiar voices. Someone found them.
He opens his eyes, desperate for a glimpse. His earlier lethargy is gone now, banished in the wake of discovery. Hopefully, it's the team. They can take them back to civilisation, back to home, with Christmas movies and glasses of eggnog.
If it's not, if this isn't Diana and Jones talking over him and waking him up, he doesn't know what he'll do.
Thankfully, he'll never have to find out.
"How did you find us?" Neal croaks, wincing in the light of the flashlight.
"We caught the guy," Diana tells him, her pride shining through her concern. "It was an inside job, his manager had stolen the painting. An ATM cam proved he was in the area, and when we talked to him, he confessed."
"We tried to call you, but you weren't answering," Jones interjects. "The witness hadn't seen you either. So we came to get you."
Neal flashes a grin at them, weak but heartfelt. "And we're very glad you did."
That's enough of a reminder for him to lurch upright, head twisting around to look at the drivers seat. "Peter!"
Peter's not there.
"Peter! What happened, he was right there!" His breathing increases. Peter was just there, right before he blacked out. He was cold, injured, but alive. Where has he gone?! His chest feels tight, like all the air disappeared with Peter.
"Neal, Peter's fine!" Words cut through the haze. "Neal, look at me." He opens his eyes. When did he shut them? Diana is looking at him. "The ambulance took him first. He's headed to the hospital right now. He'll be fine."
Air rushes back in. Peter's alright, Peter's alive.
"It should be back any minute now for you," Jones adds.
"Can't you just drive me there?" Neal asks. Every second he has to stay out here is another second too long. Surely a car trip wouldn't be that painful?
Jones snorts derisively. "With a broken arm and hypothermia? No way, man. We're waiting for the ambulance."
He's saved from arguing further when the ambulance pulls up outside the car. They quickly and efficiently load him on to a gurney, immobilising his broken arm and covering him with a blanket.
"What about my friend?" he asks the paramedic, too worried to even flirt with her. "Peter, he was in the ambulance before me. Is he okay?"
She smiles gently at him. "Your friend is going to be fine."
Neal settles back on the gurney, closing his eyes as a smile flickers onto his face. Now, he can sleep; when he wakes up he can tell Peter he'll be visiting for Christmas.