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17 December 2013 @ 08:28 am
FIC: Of Christmases Past, Present and Future  

Art by kanarek13

Title: Of Christmases Past, Present and Future
Rating: PG13
Genre: Hurt/Comfort, Emotional H/C, Angst, Schmoop, Christmas, Post-Anklet
Pairings: P/E/N
Word Count: ~ 7,250
Warnings: None for eps. Not really medically squicky but might be triggery for some???
Summary: Somewhat inspired by the wonderful fic by winterstar95 - Upon Waking. Neal is badly injured just before Thanksgiving. Peter and El wait and hope for a Christmas miracle.



Peter sat down in the chair next to the bed. His throat was dry and the pungent scent of antiseptic stung in his nose.

The papers Dr. Kline wanted him to sign were clenched in his fist. He wasn’t prepared to do what the doctor was asking of him. He wasn’t prepared to relegate his lover to some dark hole from which he would never emerge.

Peter stood again, dropped the papers in the chair he had just vacated as if they were toxic, lowered the guardrail on the bed and sat down, his hip to Neal’s hip. The early morning light coming through the window cast an angelic glow on Neal’s face. Peter had seen the same innocence on Neal’s beautiful countenance a hundred times before when he woke before his partner in the bed they shared with Elizabeth. It never failed to tug at his heart, to make him love Neal just a little bit more somehow.

Peter reached around the ventilator tubing and ran his fingers through the soft strands of Neal’s hair. It needed to be trimmed. He touched the dab of gray on his partner’s temple. He had teased Neal about it and getting older just a few days before…

The sound of wood striking bone, a sound Peter would never forget, a sound that haunted his dreams and his every waking moment, rang in his ears again. He swallowed hard against the nausea and the sting of guilt the memory produced.

Despite his love for the game since early childhood, despite his pleasant memories of watching games on TV and throwing the ball around with his father, despite his own short-lived, but fondly remembered career in the majors, Peter would never think of baseball in the same way again.

Ernie Shatz had been a lot like Peter. He had played briefly in the minors and then even more briefly in the majors before an injury had sidelined him permanently. But Ernie didn’t give up the game entirely, he started collecting and selling memorabilia. And, when the economy tanked in 2007 and times became hard for everyone, Ernie branched out from collecting to creating. He wasn’t the world’s best forger, but he knew enough from his legitimate dealings to be able to fake things well enough to stay off of law enforcement radar for more than half a decade.

The day Peter and his team went to serve the warrant on Shatz, Peter had been eagerly anticipating the holiday season. Thanksgiving was just two days away and he and El would be staying in the city, with Neal, instead of going to her sister’s. They had even managed to get out of any plans for Christmas with extended family, so it would be just the three of them, for the whole of the holiday season. Peter couldn’t imagine a better way to celebrate Neal’s first holidays off the anklet.

Maybe he had been distracted by his eagerness, maybe he had been lulled into a false sense of security by Shatz’s non-violent history, maybe he was getting too old for fieldwork. Whatever the reason, Peter had missed the fear and anger in Shatz’s response to being caught. Peter turned his back on the man while he surveyed the showroom of both legitimate and forged baseball cards, gloves, uniforms and bats.

By the time he turned back to face Shatz, the carved stick of ash wood was already in motion. Peter yelled at Neal to duck, but it was far too late for that. Neal barely had time to register Peter’s words, his blue eyes opening wide in alarm, before he was struck in the back of his head.

Shatz was on the ground moments later, a half dozen agents who had been there for evidence collection on top of him, but Peter hardly noticed. His eyes were riveted to his fallen partner, who lay unconscious on the cold laminate floor, the back of his head already swelling.

Neal’s first few days in the hospital had been a frightening litany of conversations with doctors that included all manner of terminology that Peter had never wanted any knowledge of. Neal was suffering from a brain edema. The doctors first treated the intracranial pressure with oxygen therapy, along with IV fluids to keep Neal’s blood pressure up. When that didn’t work they added medication therapy which could have numerous side effects that Peter’s mind just blocked out. They were simply too horrible to consider. When that didn’t work Neal’s neurologist performed a ventriculostomy, drilling a small hole in Neal’s skull to drain the cerebrospinal fluid that was putting undo pressure on his swollen brain. Then they placed Neal in a medically induced coma to give his brain time to heal.

Apparently, this final procedure worked and the swelling eventually went down. But, that wasn’t the end of their horror story. The swelling had pushed down on Neal’s brain stem, damaging the RAS, Reticular Activating System. When they discontinued the medication that was inducing Neal’s coma, he didn’t wake up.

That had been four weeks ago. Dr. Kline, Neal’s neurologist had sat Peter and Elizabeth down on the loveseat in Neal’s private hospital room. He had pulled the chair from Neal’s beside so close to the small sofa that when he sat down, his knees were just brushing up against Peter’s. The doctor was an avuncular man, Peter had trusted him from the moment they were first introduced the very day Neal was admitted, and the look on his face now scared Peter. He took El’s hand in his and squeezed it tightly. He didn’t know whether it was to give strength to his wife or to take it from her.

The three of them sat there for a long moment before Dr. Kline spoke. “Neal’s Glasgow Coma Scale score is very low. He scored a four when I tested him earlier today on a scale of three to fifteen. He’s in a deep coma.”

Peter blinked, trying to find a way to process what Kline had just said. “What does that mean?”

“It means that the part of Neal’s brain responsible for arousal and awareness was damaged by the edema. The damage may be minimal and temporary, it may also be permanent. The latest MRI and CT scans were unfortunately inconclusive.”

Peter felt Elizabeth’s hand squeeze his tighter at the doctor’s words. “You’re saying that Neal may never wake up.”

It wasn’t a question, but Kline nodded in response. “I’m sorry. If Neal is going to awaken, it will likely happen somewhere in the next four weeks. The majority of all coma patients who recover consciousness do so within that time frame. We’ll keep Neal here for now so that he can continue to receive therapy and we can closely monitor his condition.”

Peter read between the lines of Dr. Kline’s words. “And when Neal’s four weeks are up?”

Dr. Kline’s eyes softened. "We'll need to explore long term care options for Neal. There are several excellent facilities here in the city and in Westchester.”

Christmas Eve was now a mere two days away. It had been almost six weeks since Peter had joyfully anticipating spending the holidays with Elizabeth and Neal. He was certain that he would give anything to awaken tangled up with Neal and El in their bed on Christmas Day. To taste Neal’s morning breathe on his tongue as he kissed him good morning. To feel Neal’s strong arms gather around his chest. To smell the dried sweat and the lingering tang of cum on Neal’s skin as he buried his face in the crook of his lover’s neck and shoulder.

Tears welled in Peter’s eyes and then slid down his cheeks to fall on the blanket covering Neal. He couldn’t do what Kline asked of him. He couldn’t condemn Neal to another prison. He had done that once already, and once was enough.

It was going on nine and Peter needed to get himself together and go to the office. He reached down and kissed Neal gently on the cheek. A lingering brush of his lips against Neal’s soft stubble. “I love you.” He whispered in Neal’s ear before he rose again.

Then he swept the remaining tears from his face and got up putting the guardrail back in place. He picked up the papers authorizing Neal’s transfer to the long term care facility in Rye that was holding a bed for Neal and shoved them into the drawer in the bedside table, hoping that out of sight would mean out of mind and quietly left Neal’s room.

Neal heard something. It was faint, like the sound was coming from far away, but he was certain he heard it. His mind felt dull, thick. It was hard to pull his thoughts together, to come up with an inkling to identify the sound. It was musical, and light. As Neal listened he was reminded of stained glass, tall spires, ringing voices and bells. Bells. That was it. But, just as he finally had it tagged, the soft chiming faded away and then Neal followed.

~~~

“And now Scrooge looked on more attentively than ever, when the master of the house, having his daughter leaning fondly on him, sat down with her and her mother at his own fireside; and when he thought that such another creature, quite as graceful and as full of promise, might have called him father, and been a spring-time in the haggard winter of his life, his sight grew very dim indeed.”

Elizabeth felt a single tear trickle down her cheek at the thought of Scrooge’s sorrow over lost love and lost happiness. She had thought that reading a Christmas story to Neal would be a good idea, to bring a little of the magic of the holidays into his sterile hospital room. Perhaps she had chosen Dickens’s classic by mistake. Instead of adding cheer, it was doing the opposite, making her feel her own loss more keenly. She may not have been complicit in her own heartache the way Scrooge had been, but losing Neal would be a grief she would carry for the rest of life.

She shook her head and sighed a reproachful sigh, Neal was not lost to them. It was Christmas after all, a time for hope, a time for miracles.

She quickly checked her watch. She still had another 15 minutes or so before she had to leave to manage a holiday party for a law firm in midtown. It was her last event before Christmas. She picked her kindle back up and continued the story. “’Belle,’ said the husband, turning to his wife with a smile, ‘I saw an old friend of yours this afternoon.’”

Neal heard the bells again. They were softer than they had been before, their key higher. They sounded sad, almost mournful to his tired mind. As he listened he felt their sorrow penetrate the grey that surrounded and enveloped him. He suddenly realized how very much he missed Peter and Elizabeth, how much it hurt to be separated from them.

When it was time for her to go, Elizabeth put her kindle back in her bag and bent over her lover to kiss him goodbye. The sides of his face were wet and while Elizabeth stood watching twin tears rolled down from the corners of his eyes.

“Neal, baby?” Hope flooded her and her heart beat quicker in her chest. They had been warned, repeatedly, that coma patients often smiled or cried and that it was not an indication of waking in and of itself. But, this was the first time that she or Peter had seen Neal give any sign that he might one day wake up.

She found the call button next to his head and pressed it, several times in succession. Moments later Neal’s day nurse, Elise strode into the room.

“He’s crying,” Elizabeth stuttered.

Elise joined El on the other side of Neal’s bed. She glanced at the monitors before looking down at Neal’s face. She picked up Neal’s hand and said firmly, “Neal, can you open your eyes for me?”

El held her breath, waiting for the moment when her hope would be rewarded and she would get to see the beautiful blue of Neal’s eyes once again.

Nothing happened. Elise asked the question again and another tear trickled down from one of Neal’s eyes, but they didn’t open, didn’t even flicker. Then Elise asked him to squeeze her hand. There was still no response from Neal.

Elise looked up at El. “I’m sorry,” she said gently as she placed Neal’s hand back on the bed.

El just nodded. She couldn’t speak. She was afraid that if she opened her mouth the helplessness and pain she felt would come tumbling out unstoppably, like the evils from Pandora’s Box.

Elise left the room. Elizabeth bent over the rail on Neal’s bed and placed a gentle kiss on his forehead. Her lips speaking a benediction. Come back to us. She ran her hand once though his hair pushing the soft strands away from his face. Then she turned away, picked up her bag and coat and left.

Neal felt something soft and soothing brush against his forehead. It felt almost like the wings of an angel sweeping lightly against his skin. The feeling eased the ache in his heart that formed when he realized how much he missed his lovers. It made him feel lighter, warmer. He didn’t miss El and Peter any less. But strangely, it made him feel closer to them.

~~~

It was Christmas Eve and Peter was just wrapping up the last of the paperwork on his desk. He was planning to meet El at the hospital to spend a quiet evening with her and Neal. His cell phone began to ring and Peter picked it up expecting it to be El calling to find out what he wanted from the Chinese place where she was picking up dinner for the two of them. It wasn’t exactly traditional, and they had been eating far too much take out since Thanksgiving, but it made it possible for them to maximize their time with Neal.

Instead of his wife, Peter saw that it was Dr. Kline calling. He frowned, afraid to answer. Afraid that Neal’s doctor was calling to try and talk Peter into signing the paperwork that would send Neal further away from him and Elizabeth. So far away, that Peter knew they would never get him back. He thought very briefly about not answering. He needed to have this Christmas with his partner and his wife. A Christmas with the chance, however slim, that Neal would wake up and recover and come home to them. But if he didn’t answer, Dr. Kline would likely just track him down later, at the hospital and it was better to have this conversation without Elizabeth. There was no point in letting this decision put a pall over her holiday too. Peter hadn’t told her yet that the hospital was looking to move Neal to the long term care facility and he had no desire to have her find out until at least the 26th.

Decided, Peter picked up his phone and answered the call. “Dr. Kline, how are you?”

“Peter, “Peter noticed immediately the eagerness in the doctor’s voice. “Neal’s fighting the respirator.”

“He’s… what?” Peter’s heart started to pound his chest. “Does that mean he’s waking up?”

“Not precisely, but it’s an important first step. We’re going to turn off the machine and see how Neal does with breathing on his own. If he does well we'll remove the vent and I’ll recheck his Glasgow score and see where he is now. I don’t want to give you any false hope here, but this is good news.”

Peter squeezed his eyes tight, trying to hold his expectations in check. “El and I will be there soon. We can see him tonight, right?”

“Of course. I’ll see you shortly.”

The doctor ended the call and Peter sat there at his desk for a few minutes wishing that miracles did come true at Christmas.

Neal was hearing things again. The bells had transformed into the voices of a choir. It sounded like they were coming from a choir loft above him as he sat in the pews near the altar of a church. Oddly, he couldn’t understand the words, but the melody seemed so familiar. He had heard it before, possibly at one of the Christmas services that Ellen had taken him too when he was young. They would go to midnight mass on Christmas Eve, at the Catholic Church that was in walking distance from the small house she lived in. Neal had loved the majesty of those nights. The church was dimly lit, the darkness of the night outside casting a strange glow through the stained glass windows. The choir loft housed a huge organ that rang triumphantly throughout the church, reverberating in the wooden pews and in Neal’s whole body.

He could feel it now, that sense of power. It chilled his skin, raising goose bumps. And, as he breathed he caught a familiar scent as well. Incense? He focused on the sounds around him. He could hear a clattering. It didn’t sound exactly like the censer on the chain that the priests would swing as they walked down the center aisle at mass, but it was similar enough. The scent he was smelling wasn’t quite incense either. It was more like a medicinal smell.

He tried to place the sounds he was hearing, the smells, the feeling that thrummed through his body. But thinking was so hard and he was so tired. Before he realized what was happening, Neal slipped away again into the darkness of the December night.

When Peter reached Neal’s hospital room, El was already there with Dr. Kline. Neal was lying in the bed exactly where he had been for more days than Peter cared to count, but the respirator that had marred Neal’s beautiful lips and mouth was gone along with most of the other medical equipment that had surrounded the bed.

El smiled up at him when he turned his head to look at his wife and his partner’s doctor. “He’s breathing on his own.” Her voice was soft, but filled with a joy that Peter hadn’t heard from her for far too long.

Dr. Kline nodded. “Neal’s doing well. I’m going to give you both a few minutes with him, then I’d like to take about an hour and recheck his Glasgow score. If everything goes the way I hope it might, I may have more good news to share later.”

Peter smiled tightly. He was overjoyed, but so afraid that he was getting his hopes up for nothing. The conversations that he and El had had with Dr. Kline about permanent vegetative states and permanent minimally conscious states filling his head. Breathing was good, but conscious was something entirely different.

Dr. Kline apparently saw the uncertainty on Peter’s face. “Peter, enjoy your Christmas Eve with you wife and your partner. I promise you, I’m doing enough worrying for all of us.” He gave Peter’s arm a reassuring squeeze. “Talk with Neal, eat your dinner and I’ll be back in an hour to run the tests.”

Dr. Kline left them then. As soon as he was out the door, Elizabeth pulled Peter into her warm embrace. She held him tightly, resting her forehead against his chest. He held her back. The tears he had been holding onto since he ended his call with Dr. Kline finally spilling from his eyes.

They stayed that way for several long minutes, and then Peter gently separated himself from El, so that he could go to Neal’s side and kiss his lover’s lips for the first time since two days before Thanksgiving.

Neal’s lips were badly chapped from the vent, but they tasted like the finest ambrosia to Peter. “I love you,” he whispered into Neal’s ear before kissing him a second time, carefully, almost chastely. “Please come home.”

El had joined Peter beside the bed. He took her hand in his as they gazed down at Neal’s perfect face, finally free of the ventilator tubing. Peter ran his other hand through Neal’s hair. It was a bit lank and greasy. Neal would be appalled, but Peter didn’t care. “El and I are going to have some dinner. But, we’ll be right here, okay?” Peter said as his fingers ran through his partner’s curls. “We love you, so much.”

Peter moved away and El took his place. She leaned over and pressed her lips to Neal’s, her delicate hand cupping his cheek. The sight of them together brought tears to Peter’s eyes again.

They spent the rest of their hour eating the Chinese food that El had brought. Peter was actually hungry for the first time in a long time and because it was Christmas Eve, El had thrown the low-cholesterol rules out the window. So he ate his General Tso’s chicken on top of the fried rice after downing two egg rolls.

For the first time in a long time their chatter was lively, filled with laughter and talk of the future, a future the three of them would have together. Peter was afraid they were getting ahead of themselves, but El’s joy was infectious and it was Christmas.

Before they realized it, and before Peter was ready, Dr. Kline was back. “Why don’t you go down to the cafeteria? Neal and I will be about an hour.”

Peter nodded, swallowing hard, the anxiety that had plagued him since Neal had been injured returning full force.

~~~

Neal heard a voice, one voice this time. It was commanding, almost booming. Neal didn’t believe in any god, but if he did, this is what God would sound like. He couldn’t make out any of the actual words, but the commanding tone forced him to focus past the cloak of blackness that had enshrouded him for so long. He was trying so hard to hear the words that the sharp pain in his finger took him by complete surprise and he jerked his hand away.

The voice got louder then, more demanding, more like the god of the Old Testament rather than the god who gave the world his son for its redemption on Christmas Day. But Neal tried hard to listen anyway. It was important, right, when God spoke to you?

He started to catch snatches of words, 'squeeze' and 'fingers'. He thought about it for a minute trying to figure out the mechanics of movement, and then he tried. He wasn’t sure that he succeeded but after a while the words changed 'open' and 'eyes'. He thought about that for a minute and then brightness pierced his eyes. It hurt, like looking into the sun on a bright summer’s day. And, then the brightness was gone. He must have let his eyelids drop. God was telling him to open them again. He didn’t want to, it hurt the first time, but God was commanding him, so he tried. This time it didn’t hurt, instead it was like looking up at the sky on a clear winter’s night. Something moved and Neal looked over. It made him dizzy and his stomach flipped.

Suddenly he was exhausted in a way he had never experienced before. God was speaking again, but Neal couldn’t make out the words anymore. His eyes slid closed and the darkness encompassed him.

In the cafeteria, the mood was more subdued than it had been in Neal’s room. Peter grimaced with every sip of the over-brewed coffee in his mug. El was sitting across from him nursing a cup of chamomile tea. Her right hand was gripped in his left across the white laminate table.

“This was good, Peter. He’s getting better.”

Peter simply nodded. He didn’t want to dim his wife’s joy at the day’s events, but he couldn’t truly share it. He was so thankful that Neal was breathing on his own, but he couldn’t read more into it. He couldn’t bear the disappointment of believing that this was the start of a full recovery if in the end Neal was left in a permanent vegetative state. Until Neal was fully conscious and aware, until he could hold Neal while Neal held him back whispering words of love in his ear, Peter would cleave to his skepticism. Hope was a poison that would destroy him if he let it.

Elizabeth frowned back at him. “Hon?”

“It’s good, El.”

El tilted her head and pursed her lips. A sure sign that he hadn’t been convincing.

Peter took a deep breath and tried again. “It’s amazing, really. But, I need him whole. It was my fault that he was hurt and until I know he’s okay, I’m not going to be able to forget or forgive. And, I can’t let myself believe he’ll be okay, I just can’t.”

El squeezed his hand tightly and nodded. “Then I’ll believe for both of us. It's Christmas.”

At the end of the hour they returned to Neal’s room. Dr. Kline was sitting in the chair beside Neal’s bed scribbling in a chart.

“Peter, Elizabeth, please sit. Let’s talk,” Dr. Kline said indicating the same loveseat they had sat on when they were told that Neal was in a coma that he might never recover from.

Dr. Kline turned his chair to face them. They must have looked petrified because Kline smiled and then said, “It’s good news, I promise.”

Peter realized that he had been holding his shoulders so tightly they were nearly touching his ears. He consciously dropped them and took a deep breath.

“Neal’s Glasgow Coma Score is a nine. That’s a tremendous improvement.”

Peter could feel Elizabeth’s smile, her optimism radiating off of her. “What does that mean, exactly?” He asked Dr. Kline.

“Neal was able to respond to some commands. He was also spontaneously tracking movement with his eyes. He’s beginning to vocalize, which I expect to significantly improve when the soreness from more than five weeks on the ventilator eases. In other words, I’m diagnosing Neal as minimally conscious and I’m cautiously optimistic that he will continue to improve.”

“He’s waking up?” Peter whispered, shifting his attention from the doctor to the bed where his partner lay.

“I believe so. It’s still a waiting game. And, I can’t guarantee that he’ll make a full recovery, but the improvements he’s made in just the last few hours have been nearly miraculous.”

~~~

One of the angels whose wings he had felt before was with him. She was speaking to him softly, asking him questions he wasn't sure he could answer. It was hard to make out all the words and his throat hurt when he tried to talk.

But she was pretty, with golden hair and green eyes and she kept smiling down at him. He did his best to smile back. Neal had to admit it was nice to have some company. The angel seemed kind and her touches were gentle. But, having her here made him miss El and Peter all the more acutely.

The angel washed his face with a warm cloth and then put something cool and soothing on his sore lips. She put a small pen light in his hand and asked him to hold on to it. Then she asked him to give it back to her. He was confused, why would she ask him to hold it if she really wanted it? But, he did as she asked anyway.

Neal was just beginning to feel tired enough to close his eyes when he began to hear other voices. The angel was standing directly in front of him, blocking his view, and the voices sounded distant, but familiar and so very welcome.

When Peter and Elizabeth walked into Neal's room on Christmas morning, the head of Neal's bed was raised and Elise was standing over him. She turned toward them when she heard them come in and smiled. "Good morning, Peter, Elizabeth. Merry Christmas."

Then she turned back to Neal and pointed toward the Burkes. "Neal, can you say Merry Christmas to Peter and Elizabeth?"

Neal's head turned on the pillow ever so slightly and his eyes seemed to find them. Peter's heart leapt when Neal's mouth moved and the words "merry trees" emerged in very soft and scratchy tones.

Elise smiled. "He's jumped two grades on the verbal section of the Glasgow Scale since last night. He's still disoriented, but he's responding to questions."

"Oh sweetie," El breathed in joy, rushing to his side.

Neal felt El's hand run through his hair. It felt incredible, like warmth and safety and love. He had missed her so much, had longed for her and Peter in the darkness. He closed his eyes, savoring the feel of her touch. Someone took his hand, weathered, calloused, strong, Peter. Neal closed his eyes and tears of contentment fell. Everything would be okay, now that they were with him.

Peter took his partner's hand in own and then looked up into Neal's face just as the first tears spilled from his now closed eyes. Peter was immediately concerned, afraid that his presence was scaring Neal, or that Neal knew Peter was responsible for his injury and didn't want him around.

But El seemed to understand Neal's response immediately. "Ssshhh baby, it's okay. We're here now. We love you," she consoled as she gently brushed his tears away.

Neal opened his eyes again, looked from El to Peter and said, "Here."

El nodded and kissed Neal's forehead. "Here." She replied.

Neal's fingers tightened slightly against Peter's and all Peter could do was pray that this wasn’t the end of Neal’s recovery. He needed Neal at his side, like he needed El, like he needed air.

Neal faded in and out a lot that Christmas Day. Elise assured Peter and Elizabeth that that was normal. Neal was still healing, he still had a way to go before he would be fully conscious and his brain needed rest to continue its recovery.

When he was awake and aware they talked to him constantly and practiced the therapeutic exercises that Elise patiently taught them. Sometimes Neal responded slowly, but as if he was fully cognizant of what was happening. Other times he seemed confused or just plain obstinate.

In the early evening Peter was trying to feed Neal some chicken broth. After successfully managing the first few mouthfuls, Neal would no longer open his mouth for the spoon.

"Come on buddy, just a few more bites," Peter cajoled. Neal stared at Peter, his still chapped lips forming a thin, tight line. "Neal, you need to eat, so that you can get well."

Neal's eyes scanned over to Elizabeth, who sat perched on his on other side on the hospital bed. If Peter had to describe the look he gave her, he would have to call it pleading. "Hey there, no appealing to a higher authority."

Neal sighed, looked back to Peter and said slowly "No, gross."

El started giggling; she couldn't help herself. Neal was adorable, and so much like the Neal she was afraid that she had lost forever. "Oh, sweetie, if you eat this tonight, I promise to bring you some of my homemade broth from the freezer tomorrow."

Neal smiled at Peter, his con man smile, and then opened his mouth. Peter just shook his head in amusement.

Neal managed to eat most of the bowl, but soon afterward he became significantly less responsive and his speech more confused. El lowered the head of bed down, kissed him and then ran her fingers gently through his hair, soothing him back to sleep.

~~~

Peter had long planned to take a few days off after Christmas, but a case that had been simmering for months unexpectedly heated up and so Peter found himself at the office on the 26th.

When El arrived at the hospital alone, carrying a Tupperware full of chicken broth for Neal, Elise was with him. Neal was sobbing loudly, uttering incomprehensible sounds. Elise was trying to calm him, but she seemed to be having little luck.

El quickly tossed her things into the bedside chair, dropped the guardrail and gathered Neal into her arms. He didn't immediately respond, so she began rubbing her hand in gentle circles on his back as she rocked him, murmuring reassuringly into his ear. "It's okay baby, you're okay."

Eventually the tension in his body eased and he melted into El's embrace. The sobbing stopped and gave way to deep, shuddering inhalations and then finally a normal pattern of breathing. El moved to lay him back against the bed, but his fingers gripped her sweater holding her to him. "No here," he stuttered.

"Oh sweetie, I'm sorry. Peter and I went home for the night, but I'm here now."

Elizabeth held him until he fell into an exhausted sleep. Once she had him situated back in the bed, she grabbed her cell phone and walked out into the hallway. Close enough to Neal’s door to notice if he woke, but far enough away to talk to Peter without disturbing him.

"Hey hon, how's Neal?" Peter asked in a harried voice as soon as he answered her call.

El hesitated, she didn't want to worry Peter, but she needed to tell him what had happened this morning.

"El?"

"He's okay. But, when I got here this morning he was pretty upset."

"Why?"

"I think that he woke up and we weren't here and..."

"Oh no." Peter exclaimed.

El could hear the guilt and anxiety in her husband's voice. "He's okay Peter, really. I just think we need to make sure one of us is here for him until he's more aware."

Peter sighed through the phone. "Yeah, of course. I'll be there later and then we can work out a schedule for the next few days. I know you have that event on Saturday."

"We'll work it out hon. See you later."

El disconnected the call, took a deep breath and then went back into Neal's room. He was still sleeping peacefully, but she felt the need to be close, so she pulled the chair up next to the bed and took his hand in hers through the guardrail.

In the midafternoon, Neal was working with his newly assigned occupational therapist, Leon. Leon had placed a half dozen objects on Neal's tray table and he was working with Neal on object recognition and use. El was sitting on the loveseat typing on her laptop when Mozzie slipped into the room and sat down beside her.

"How is he?" Moz asked quietly.

El smiled over at him. "Tired today, but better. He's so much better."

Mozzie didn't reply, he just sat and watched as Neal worked with Leon for another half hour. When Leon started packing up at the end of their session, Elizabeth put away her laptop and went over to the bed so that Neal could see her. He looked up at her, gave her a tired smile and then closed his eyes.

"Hey sweetie, can you open your eyes, just for a minute. You have a visitor."

Neal whined, but reopened his eyes just as Moz came up to stand beside El. Neal looked at him, blinked and then quietly uttered "Havisham."

Moz's eyes grew large behind his glasses. He was clearly alarmed that Neal had used that alias, but El smiled down at her lover, "Showing off?"

Neal smiled up at her, then turned his smile on his oldest friend and said, "Moz."

"It's good to see you, mon frere."

Neal nodded, closed his eyes again and was asleep moments later.

Peter was finally able to break away from the office around seven that evening. At the hospital he found his partner and his wife fast asleep in each other's arms. After Moz's short visit, the physical therapist had arrived and had gotten Neal up and sitting in the bedside chair for a half an hour and then Dr. Kline had shown up and examined Neal. The exertions of the day had completely done him in. By the time El had managed to get a few bites of soup and pudding into him, he was barely following her commands and he was back to saying incomprehensible things. El had called Peter again and filled him on their day once Neal had given in to sleep.

Peter went to the bed and kissed Neal's forehead gently and then walked around the other side and kissed El's lips. She woke at his touch and smiled a sleepy smile up at him. "Hey hon," she whispered. "Catch any bad guys today?"

"Yup. Who would have thought a guy who managed to evade us for months would be sentimental enough to show up at his mother's house the day after Christmas?"

"You, which is why you had her house staked out." El reminded him.

"Touché." Peter glanced over toward their partner. "Tough day?"

"Busy. I spoke with Dr. Kline after Neal's exam this afternoon. He's really encouraged. He thinks if Neal keeps progressing as he has over the last three days that he'll make a full recovery."

Peter nodded, running a hand through his hair. "That's great news."

"But, you still can't believe."

Peter frowned and shook his head. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be. You're here for him and for me, that's all that matters." El assured him.

Peter helped her out of the bed and then they curled up together on the loveseat. They sat and talked quietly for a couple of hours until El realized it was going on ten o'clock. "We should get home."

"You go. I'm going to stay here with Neal tonight. And, I'm not going in to the office tomorrow either. Jones can handle the wrap up from our takedown today."

El took Peter's face in her hands and kissed him deeply. "You are a wonderful man Peter Burke."

After Elizabeth left for the night, Peter spent an hour or so working on a crossword puzzle in the newspaper he had picked up in the hospital gift shop. By then his eyes were drooping and the need for sleep was compelling. He looked over at the loveseat, but it was far too short for him to get comfortable on. The bedside chair, which he was currently sitting on was an even worse option. Then Peter looked longingly at Neal and the bed. It would be a tight squeeze, but the idea of sleeping with his partner in his arms was far too tempting to resist.

He pulled off his shoes and his belt, lowered the guardrail and scooted up next to Neal, gathering the sleeping man into his arms. Neal instinctively curled up into Peter's embrace, tucking himself in under Peter's chin. Peter kissed the top of Neal's head. He felt at ease for the first time in a long time. If this was as far as Neal got in his recovery Peter would never forgive himself, but he would still have this Neal, a Neal who could be an active part of their lives. It wouldn't be enough, but he would learn to accept it for the small gift it was. It wasn't long at all before Peter joined his partner in sleep.

The angels were back, cradling Neal as he glided gently through the late December night sky. Neal felt protected and safe as he traveled east toward the rising sun. It felt so good to see the light peering up over the horizon. Neal had been trapped in the darkness for so long, too long. As he got nearer to the sun Neal felt its light touch his skin. It warmed him, clearing away the last of the darkness that had held him captive.

In the morning Peter woke as the rising sun spilled across the bed. Neal was still asleep, his body turned into Peter's. Neal's upturned cheek caught the morning light reminding Peter again of an angel lying in repose. And, somehow, impossibly, Peter found he loved the man he held in his arms even more than he had just yesterday. Peter tightened his hold, relishing the warmth of Neal's body pressed against him.

Neal stirred, mumbled something incomprehensible and then wiggled closer to Peter. Peter closed his eyes again, enjoying the moment, knowing that Elise would be in soon and he would have to get up.

Neal mumbled something again and Peter pulled away slightly so that Neal's face wasn't tucked up against his chest so tightly. "What was that, buddy?"

Neal's eyes were still closed, but from the sigh he emitted when Peter pulled away it was clear he was awake. After a moment he hummed softly and then said, "Peter, love."

Peter brought his forehead down to touch his partner's. "I love you too, Neal. I will always love you, no matter what may come."

~~~

In the days that followed that Christmas, Neal continued to improve. He worked hard with all of his therapists, emerging more from his minimally conscious state with every day that passed.

When Peter arrived at the hospital on the eve of the New Year he found his wife sitting up in Neal's bed, the younger man's head in her lap as she read to him from her kindle. His eyes were closed and he looked like he was sleeping.

"'Good Spirit,' he pursued, as down upon the ground he fell before it: 'Your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life?'

"The kind hand trembled." Elizabeth read the words from the fourth chapter of A Christmas Carol softly while running the fingers of her free hand through Neal's hair.

Elizabeth paused, probably to swipe to the next page and a different voice picked up the story. "'I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me."

As Neal perfectly quoted the line from memory Peter was overcome. In a tidal rush all of his fear, all of his repressed hope for a whole and healthy Neal washed away. Neal was here, with them. He was their past, their present and he would yet be their future.

One Year Later

The plan for a quiet Christmas Eve was going well this year. The pies for tomorrow’s dinner were in the oven, permeating the air with the smell of pumpkin and cinnamon and nutmeg. Their Christmas tree sat in the corner of the living room, its lights casting a warm and colorful glow through the room. Empty Chinese take-out containers littered the coffee table.

Peter was relaxing in his favorite chair, ostensibly working on his crossword puzzle. But he was really blissfully watching Elizabeth and Neal on the couch. The younger man was lying with his head in her lap as she read A Christmas Carol aloud. Neal was smiling up at her while unconsciously twisting the plain gold band he now wore on the ring finger of his left hand.

Peter hoped, he believed that this would be the first of many such Christmases they would share together.

 
 
 
Frith: Zundry - raining heartsfrith_in_thorns on December 17th, 2013 04:11 pm (UTC)
UTTERLY ADORABLE. This was so sweet, and sad, and I want to hug them all. I especially loved Peter and El looking after Neal right after he woke up, when he was still so confused and tired and disorientated. I'm off to re-read it now! ♥♥
pooh_collectorpooh_collector on December 20th, 2013 10:46 pm (UTC)
Yeah!! I'm so glad you enjoyed it.
elrhiarhodan: Neal - Cab (Empire City)elrhiarhodan on December 17th, 2013 04:22 pm (UTC)
I don't know whether things are catching up to me, or it's the season, but I've been moved to tears twice today by the loveliness of someone's generous spirit - the piece I posted about the Hopi artifacts, and now - more profoundly - this story..

There is such a spirit of wonder and beauty here, the pain and triumph, the loss and recovery. I really don't have more coherent thoughts right now because it's hard to think when you're crying so hard.

Thank you for writing and for sharing and for making me cry in the best possible way.
pooh_collectorpooh_collector on December 20th, 2013 10:47 pm (UTC)
I'm sorry I made you cry so hard. 'Tis the season for sentimental schmoop so I went for it.

I am glad that you enjoyed it.

Thank you for the wonderful comment.
kanarek13: ot3kanarek13 on December 17th, 2013 04:47 pm (UTC)
Absolutely beautiful, a tale of unconditional love and commitment that brought tears of sadness and tears of joy to my eyes. I know I will come back to this story many, many times, if I could just stop sobbing before someone sees me!! :D :D :D

I have no other words that could do this story justice. Just... THANK YOU, thank you so much for writing this and posting it. Thank you ♥
pooh_collectorpooh_collector on December 20th, 2013 10:49 pm (UTC)
THANK YOU for reading and for replying with such a lovely comment.

You are always so supportive and I truly appreciate it.
morgansladymorganslady on December 17th, 2013 07:24 pm (UTC)
Lovely,I did get nervous at the beginning,so glad a Christmas miracle occurred..
pooh_collectorpooh_collector on December 20th, 2013 10:49 pm (UTC)
Me too.

Thanks for reading!
a rearranger of the proverbial bookshelf: White Collar - Neal & Peter hugembroiderama on December 18th, 2013 01:19 am (UTC)
Oh wow, this is gorgeous. It made me cry and made my heart grow a couple of sizes and awwwww man. Thank you for this.
pooh_collectorpooh_collector on December 20th, 2013 10:50 pm (UTC)
You are most welcome.

I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Thanks for reading!
bluegreen_17bluegreen_17 on December 18th, 2013 01:20 am (UTC)
Even though I knew it was going to end well, I still found the beginning really scary and sad -- you did a fantastic job! I loved all the rehab scenes, and the ending is so warm and comforting and all around wonderful -- it's a perfect Christmas fic. Thank you!
pooh_collectorpooh_collector on December 20th, 2013 10:51 pm (UTC)
Awww, thank you blue. I'm so glad that it worked for you on a variety of levels.
angelita26: Neal!Sleepingangelita26 on December 18th, 2013 02:27 am (UTC)
You silly bear - you made cry! *hugs*

This was amazing, and I absolutely adore it more than words can say. When I first started reading it, I realized that it was the fic we'd discussed, and I was so interested to see how you handled Neal's condition. I thought it was very well done and believable, and even though it brought back memories (I'm hearing my brother's voice in my head right now from a voicemail he left me not long after he regained consciousness), I will read it over and over again.

Thank you for writing such a great story, and thank you for sharing it with us! *more hugs*
pooh_collectorpooh_collector on December 20th, 2013 10:52 pm (UTC)
*Hugs you back*

Sorry I made you cry. But, I'm really glad that the story was believable. You certainly helped with that my dear angel!

Thanks for reading and for replying with such a lovely comment.
love_82 on December 18th, 2013 01:14 pm (UTC)
Wow, this was beautiful! A story of love.

I love all of the details of Neal's recovery, Neal conning for Elizabeth's broth and the gold band at the end. And I love how you wove A Christmas Carol throughout too.

Almost forgot to add that I love all of Neal's thoughts before and as he was waking up. How he thought there were angels and God talking to him.

Thank for writing and sharing this.
pooh_collectorpooh_collector on December 20th, 2013 10:53 pm (UTC)
Thank you for reading and for the priceless feedback. I love hearing what worked for people.
Winterwinterstar95 on December 26th, 2013 06:30 pm (UTC)
I have to say I am honored that my story Upon Waking inspired such a beautiful story. Thanks so much for this and for your truly inspiring beta of my story! Hugs you tight.
pooh_collectorpooh_collector on December 26th, 2013 07:05 pm (UTC)
Thank you!

Your story definitely sparked something in me. There are differences of course, but the idea of the coma and looking at the events from the prospective of a lover waiting for healing were all your inspiration.

Hugs you right back!
caseyf123 on December 27th, 2013 02:27 pm (UTC)
This story was absolutely beautiful. So heartbreaking yet filled with so much hope and love. It will be one I will always remember. Nice job.
pooh_collectorpooh_collector on December 27th, 2013 04:15 pm (UTC)
Thank you so much. I'm glad that it resonated with you.
Ruahnnaruahnna on January 1st, 2014 06:48 am (UTC)
Carolling
I'm a confirmed Scrooge-a-phile, so bringing in Dickens was a definite lure for me.

I'm glad things ended well. I was worried for a bit that thay wouldn't, especially with the brain trauma, but happy things turned out well in the end.

Thanks for sharing!

Ru
pooh_collectorpooh_collector on January 1st, 2014 09:53 pm (UTC)
Re: Carolling
Thank Ru!!!

I didn't even realize when I started writing this just how much A Christmas Carol was going to play into it.

Thanks for reading and commenting.
Sholio: WhiteCollar-Peter Neal soft filtersholio on January 1st, 2014 12:17 pm (UTC)
Ohhhhhh! This is absolutely lovely. ♥
pooh_collectorpooh_collector on January 1st, 2014 09:54 pm (UTC)
Thank you!

I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Thanks for reading and commenting.
joy2190joy2190 on June 9th, 2014 07:13 pm (UTC)
"Peter, love."

Ugh, you're wiping me out here, Bear! Somehow I have only just discovered this story and the subsequent time stamps. Don't know I could have missed them. Such a great story and so many time stamp treats ahead!
pooh_collectorpooh_collector on June 22nd, 2014 10:00 pm (UTC)
So glad you discovered them and that you're enjoying them!

This one is a little bit heartbreaking, but it does have the happy ending you're also on me about.