"Oh, Yvonne, I'm so sorry… Well no, of course, not… I totally understand… Yes, I'll take care of it… Don't worry about that. You just take care of yourself and get better… I will. Talk to you later."
Elizabeth disconnected the call and sighed, looking toward the stairway. Peter hadn't come downstairs yet, and she wasn't looking forward to greeting him with this news.
In the spirit of sharing good news with bad, she went to the kitchen first, pouring a cup of fresh coffee to bring with her.
There was some banging coming from inside the bedroom as she walked in, and she quickly identified the source. A pair of feet sticking out of the closet was the only bit of her husband visible. "Peter?"
There was a thumping sound – someone hitting his head? – and a grunt of pain, and then the feet began to work themselves backwards. Soon more of Peter followed, and eventually his head and shoulders appeared. "Got 'em," he said, triumphantly holding something up.
"Ah, your hiking boots." She grinned and handed over the coffee as he got to his feet. "To complete your lumberjack look."
Peter held his hands out, looking down at his own attire. "Are you laughing at my flannel shirt?"
"Oh, of course not!"
"Hmmmm." Holding the coffee cup carefully off to one side, he wrapped his other arm around her, pulling her close. "I think you might be."
She planted a quick kiss on his lips. "Merely admiring your manly wardrobe choice."
"In other words, I look ridiculous."
"It's just a very different look than your usual work uniform."
"Very diplomatic, Mrs. Burke." He took a sip of coffee and then set the cup on the bedside table. "You'd better get dressed yourself so we can get on the road," he said as he sat down on the bed to put his boots on.
"Yeah, about that…"
It was obvious from the look on his face that Peter had already guessed her news wouldn't be good. "El, what is it?"
"That phone call was from Yvonne."
"Is she all right?"
"She has strep throat."
"Oh, that's not good."
"No, it's not. There's no way she can cover the Fraser wedding today."
Peter nodded his head slowly. "So you'll have to do it."
Elizabeth sat down next to him. "Yes. Peter, I'm so sorry. But there's really no one else who can do this."
His arm wrapped encouragingly around her shoulders. "The price I pay for marrying such a brilliant, indispensable woman. What about next weekend?"
Elizabeth shook her head. "Events both days. I suppose we could just get something in town this year…"
"No, you had your heart set on this." Peter bent down to finish with his boots. "I'll go, and have it here by the time you get home."
"Are you sure you can handle it alone?"
Peter tugged the laces tight, and then looked up with a smile. "Oh, I think I know where I can get some help."
Neal looked up from his work, the brush poised over the canvas as he studied the scene outside the balcony doors. It was a dark, overcast day, with clouds hanging so low they appeared to almost touch the tower of the Chrysler Building. The world outside seemed defined by varying shades of grey, and he was trying to capture that contrast.
His contemplation was broken by the sound of a knock on the door.
Not iambic pentameter, so it wasn't Mozzie. June was out of town. If something had come up for work, he would have expected a phone call. So it would be interesting to see who was intruding on his quiet Saturday morning.
"Peter!" Neal swung the door open, offering admittance.
Neal cocked an eyebrow at the older man's attire – plaid flannel and boots? "What's the occasion?"
Peter had moved over to the easel, studying the in-progress painting. "I stopped by to see if you were busy today."
Neal shrugged. "No particular plans, I guess," he admitted, though a little voice in the back of his head was warning him to be wary. "Why?"
"I could use your help with something."
"Is there a new case?"
"Totally not work related."
"So what is it?"
"I'll tell you all about it in the car. We'll have plenty of time on the drive."
Neal stole another glance out the window. "You know there's supposed to be a storm coming in, right?"
"All the more reason to get on the road." Peter gestured toward the back hallway. "Come on, get dressed. Something warm."
"It'll be fun, I promise."
"Seriously, all this way for a Christmas tree?"
Peter let loose his most patient, long-suffering sigh. Seemed to come out quite frequently with Neal around… "Yes, Neal, really."
"You do know there are all sorts of lots in the city where you can get a tree, right?"
"Not the same as picking and cutting your own."
"And that's worth driving across the state, with a winter storm blowing in?"
"We're not driving across the state."
"Where is this place then?"
"It's a farm. The nearest town is Accord."
"That's a real town?"
"Yes, Neal, it's real. Close to Mettacahonts."
Peter grinned. "It's about ninety miles northwest from Manhattan. Not exactly the ends of the earth."
"Near enough," Neal mumbled, just loud enough for Peter to hear. "Ninety miles – that has to be close to the Catskills."
"Pretty close, yeah."
"And that's the closest tree farm?"
"I don't know about closest," Peter admitted. "El and I found this place years ago when we spent a long weekend at a B&B in Woodstock. It's kind of become a tradition for us to come up here."
"Except Elizabeth isn't here," Neal pointed out.
"I told you, Yvonne got sick."
"Right. So you substituted your work spouse."
Peter did a double-take. "My what?"
Neal shrugged nonchalantly. "Work spouse. You do realize, right, that some weeks you spend more time with me than with your wife."
"Much to my displeasure," Peter grumbled. "And don't ever use that term again."
"Relax, Peter. It's purely a platonic relationship."
"Oh, well, when you put it that way…" Peter paused turning to glare at Neal. "Don't use it again."
Neal's response was to laugh and reach for the radio controls.
Peter swatted at his hand. "Don't touch."
"Come on, Peter, we need some appropriate music for this excursion." He feinted low, then went high when Peter moved to block. "There, that's better."
Peter raised an eyebrow. "I don't see what's better about someone singing about wanting a hippopotamus. Go back to the basketball game."
"It was the Nets, Peter, you're a Knicks fan. And since this is a holiday excursion, we should have holiday music." Neal leaned back in his seat, crossing his arms. "Besides, I won't survive two hours in the car with basketball."
Now that the hippopotamus song was over, and they were on to chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Peter actually did find the holiday music inspiring. Not that he was going to admit it, of course. "You know, you could look at this as an adventure. When's the last time you were in upstate New York?"
"It's been a while," Neal admitted. He gestured at the rolling countryside outside the window. "I'm kind of a city boy. Not a lot of city out here."
"You mean there's not a lot to steal out here."
"Not much worth stealing out here," Neal corrected, and Peter didn't miss the small smile playing at the corners of his lips. "Hypothetically, that is."
"Of course," Peter conceded dryly. "Anyway, you said you didn't have any plans."
"Well, I was painting."
"Which master were you copying now?"
"Actually, it was an original. I was going to call it 'Grey Day in the City.'"
"Well, it's early December. I'm sure there will be plenty of grey days this winter to inspire you."
"I should have brought my sketchpad. I could have chronicled this 'Lost in the Country' trip."
"We're not lost."
"So you say."
Peter laughed and turned up the volume on the radio. "Just listen to your holiday music, Picasso. We still have over an hour to go."
In fact, it was an hour and twenty two minutes later when they turned into the drive that led under the 'Bell's Christmas Trees' sign.
Eighty two minutes of discussing such highly relevant topics as the relative merits of a hippopotamus versus a rhinoceros, the advisability of using one of Neal's hats on a snowman and whether any magical animation would occur, whether chestnuts really 'popped' over a fire, what exactly a 'bobtail nag' was, and whether 'upsot' was really a word in 'Jingle Bells.'
The biggest debate was over whether the boy's tale of woe in 'The Christmas Shoes' was real or just a con to get money from strangers. Peter argued it was a con, Neal accused him of being too cynical, and they managed to bicker about it until Peter pulled the Explorer to a stop in front of the large barn that served as the retail center for the tree business.
Eschewing the offers of hot chocolate and cookies – though promising to stop in the gift shop and café on their way out – the two men were soon outfitted with a saw, a toboggan, some rope, and a tarp for hauling their prize back, and a map of the grounds showing where various types of trees were located. It also showed where the farm's boundaries lay.
Peter settled the saw on his shoulder and confidently headed toward a hill to the west.
Neal rolled his eyes and managed to keep his comments about completing the lumberjack look to himself. He did, however, surreptitiously snap a photo for future use. Then he tugged on the rope, pulling the sled along behind him as he followed. Fortunately, there was enough snow that the wooden base slid easily once he was past the trampled area right behind the barn.
Though the hill Peter was heading toward did look rather steep…
Over the river and through the woods…
That line kept running through Neal's mind as they trudged along. Though perhaps over hill and dale would be more appropriate. They were on the third hill now, and still Peter had shown no sign of stopping.
Neal had pointed out several trees that he thought looked as close to perfect as could be. And contrary to Peter's somewhat snarky comeback after the first couple of suggestions, he was being serious. With an artist's eye, he could judge the symmetry and balance quite well, thank you.
In fact, there was another one just ahead…
"Peter, what about this one?" he said, pointing.
Neal watched as Peter turned back, hands on hips, and shook his head. "No, not that one."
With Peter stopped, Neal caught up. "Peter, it's as symmetrical as you're going to find. The branches are full."
"No, it's just not right."
"What, exactly, are we looking for then?"
"Those are balsams. El had her heart set on a grand fir this year."
Neal pulled the hand-drawn map out of his pocket. "According to this, the grands are north of the entry area. We've been heading west."
Peter shook his head. "No, they're out this way. One more hill, I think." And with that, he was off.
"Of course it's one more hill," Neal muttered. He took another look at the map – which did, indeed, show the grand firs in a different direction than they were headed. He shook his head, folding the map and putting it back in his pocket. "Who am I to argue with Paul Bunyan?" he said, entirely to himself now, since Peter had disappeared around a bend in the trail.
Then he picked up the rope again and pulled the sled onward.
"Peter, you said one more hill," Neal pointed out, even as they left the fourth hill behind them.
"It must be one more," was Peter's reply. "I haven't been here for a year, and we haven't had a grand fir since the first year we were married."
Neal pulled the map out again. "Peter, seriously, I think we're going the wrong way. Based on this, we're pretty much at the edge of the known universe. You know, the place where the ancient mapmakers used to put 'here there be dragons' because beyond was the great unknown."
"I highly doubt there are any dragons in New York," Peter replied. "Wolves, maybe."
"Yeah, they've been reintroduced to the Adirondacks area by the wildlife conservation groups. I heard something about some sightings down this way too."
"Maybe this was something you should have mentioned a while ago. Like, before you dragged me out here."
"Oh, come on. The odds of running into a wolf are pretty slim."
"Pretty slim is still more than zero. And I saw the movie."
"The one with the pipeline guys being stalked by wolves. 'The Grey.'"
"Oh, come on, Neal. You can't really believe that wolves stalk people like that."
"Well, it's nice of you to bet my life on the movie being wrong."
Peter just turned and started off again. "I think it's just one more hill."
It was actually two more hills before Peter stopped and turned back, a triumphant grin on his face. "Ha! Here they are."
The trees didn't really look that much different to Neal; in fact, they looked suspiciously like the Fraser firs that had been back by the barn – already pre-cut. But he didn't say anything; there was no sense encouraging Peter to go even farther afield.
They were already in dragon territory.
Peter was wandering amongst a small group of trees, his expression as excited as the proverbial kid in the candy store. So Neal did his best to buy into that enthusiasm…
And not look at the dark, nearly black, clouds that seemed to be gaining on them fast.
How long had it taken them to get out here to the edge of the world?
When Peter finally announced that he had found the tree, Neal was sure he hadn't heard such wonderful news in years.
The saw took both of them to operate, one on each end. Getting down low enough, under the bottom branches, turned out to be seriously challenging. But finally the tree toppled, sliding a few feet down the snow-covered hill.
Peter stepped back, wiping his brow with the sleeve of his jacket. "El's going to love that tree," he said.
And if El was going to love it, Neal decided not to make any more comments about falling off the edge of the world or dragons. There was, however, something that needed to be said. "Those storm clouds are coming in fast, Peter. And it's going to take a while to get back."
"Yeah, this did take longer than I thought. Look, you get the tarp laid out on the ground so we can wrap the tree up. I'm going to check just over this hill, see if there's another way back. I seem to remember an old logging road."
Neal nodded in agreement and headed back for the sled. He bent down to pick up the tarp – and felt something wet on his nose.
A drop of sweat from the exertion, or the first snowflake?
Well, even if it was just sweat, the snow would be coming soon, judging by the storm clouds. He shook the tarp out, spreading it on the snow close to the felled fir. Then he grabbed the trunk of the tree, starting to slide it over…
The SNAP! and the scream of pain reached his ears almost simultaneously.
He dropped the tree and scrambled to the top of the hill, scanning the area below…
Peter was lying on the snowy ground, grabbing at his right leg. And the snow underneath his foot was red, not white.
Neal slid down the slope, scrambling toward his friend. "Peter?"
The agent looked up through glassy eyes, turning his body slightly…
And now Neal could see Peter's foot, caught in the jaws of a trap.
"I stumbled over something," Peter managed to say. "Fell right into it."
Neal had dropped to his knees, studying the steel contraption. He grasped the two sides, pulling for all he was worth, but the jaws didn't budge. And unfortunately, he didn't see anything that looked like a lock that could be picked. What he did see, however, was that the trap had been anchored, and the chain was taut, putting even more pressure on Peter's leg.
Not wasting words, he used his hands to brush away the snow, following the chain. It led back under the low-hanging branches of a pine tree. He pushed his way through, finally uncovering the stake that was holding it in place.
It took all of his strength, fueled by fear over what the trap was doing to Peter, to pull the stake out of the frozen ground. But it finally came free in a sudden manner, sending him falling back on his ass.
Peter probably wasn't in any kind of shape, or mood, to laugh.
Without the chain pulling the trap even tighter, Peter had started looking at the device himself by the time Neal got back to him. "I guess I've never been much of a trapper," the agent admitted, his voice tight with pain. "I'm not sure how to open it."
"Not really one of my areas of expertise either," Neal said, getting down right next to the trap to study it. "I think this might be the release," he finally said, pointing at a flattened area near one end. It looked like it could be depressed, but his first attempt brought no movement in the jaws trapping Peter's leg. "I don't know what this is going to do, exactly. I'm afraid if I don't get it right, it might snap back and hurt you worse."
"You could go back to the farm for help…"
"And leave you here in the storm?" Neal held out his hand, his black glove quickly covered by tiny snowflakes. "Not a chance." He studied the trap again, and then pulled the loose end of the chain toward him until he could grab the metal stake. "I'm going to try pushing on the release," he said, handing the stake over to Peter. "If the jaws move, I want you to push this into the hinge."
Peter nodded in understanding. "Keep the trap from snapping shut again."
"That's the idea. Can you do it?"
Peter repositioned himself, hissing in pain as the motion aggravated the inured limb. "Yeah, I can do it," he finally said, twisting until he had the stake held close to his ankle.
Neal carefully cleared the snow from under the end of the trap; he wanted as firm a surface as possible. And then he pushed down on what he hoped was the release. There was resistance, he pushed a little harder, and finally the jaws moved, just a little. Encouraged, he kept the pressure on, but shifted his weight a little to press harder. "Be ready."
The additional pressure finally produced results, and the gap in the jaws widened. Peter shoved the stake in as close to the hinge as he could, and kept pushing it down as Neal managed to get the steel-toothed jaws farther and farther apart. Finally, with one last effort, the trap sprang open.
Not trusting the jaws to stay that way, Neal moved his hands just beyond Peter's on the spike, pushing down. "You need to pull your leg back, Peter."
The bloody trail that was left behind as the agent moved almost made Neal ill, but he concentrated on keeping the trap from springing closed again. When Peter was finally clear, Neal slid back as far as he could and then let go of the spike, pulling his hands back as quickly as possible…
The trap lay there, benignly open.
The material of Peter's jeans had jagged rips, and Neal forced his fingers into the holes, tearing back the denim to expose the wound. He held his breath, hoping that would help quell the queasiness he felt at the blood and torn skin.
Peter was lying back in the snow, eyes closed. "How bad is it?"
"There's a lot of blood, Peter. But it looks like some of the teeth caught your boot."
"So it could have been worse."
"Yeah." Neal stripped his gloves off so he could better work the buttons on his jacket. He removed his outerwear, then pulled his sweater over his head.
"What are you doing? Neal, you'll freeze."
"Not right away." Neal had worn a long sleeve shirt under the sweater, and he took that off now. The material resisted his efforts to tear it, so he scrambled over to the trap, using one of the least bloody teeth to make a hole. Then he tore a strip down the back before coming back to where Peter was. "I'm going to have to take the boot off so I can bandage your leg. It's… going to hurt."
Peter pulled in a deep breath, his hands fisting at his sides. "Just do what you have to."
Neal worked at the laces, his fingers already tingling from the cold. There was more snow coming down already, and the wind had definitely picked up. The snow trapped in the knot didn't help either, but he finally got the lace out, loosened the boot as much as he could, and pulled it off.
Peter's muttered curse of pain was actually quite creative.
Neal rolled Peter's sock down, exposing the entire injured area. And then, as gently as he could, he wrapped the strip of his shirt around the wound.
It was a little dismaying how quickly some spots of blood soaked through.
Using the trap again to start the process, Neal tore a few more strips from the shirt, wrapping a second layer around Peter's ankle. The other pieces he stuffed into his jacket pocket as he gratefully pulled his sweater and the jacket back on. His fingers were stiff from the cold, so the gloves felt good when he pulled them back on.
He just really hadn't dressed for being out in a storm.
Neal knelt down next to Peter's shoulder on his injured side, pulling the older man's arm around his neck. "All right, let's see if we can get you up."
Peter was shaking his head. "Neal, you should go for help."
"I already told you, Peter, I'm not leaving you out here." Neal fished in his pocket and pulled out his cell phone, scowling as he looked at the display. "No signal."
Peter shifted carefully, reaching for his own phone. "I've got nothing."
"Well, we'll check again as we get closer to the car." Neal stowed his phone and took a tighter hold on Peter's arm. "I'll brace you on this side. You just push with your good leg, all right?"
Peter took a deep breath and nodded. "I'll try."
"Damn right you will," Neal said, getting his feet under him. "If you don't, I'm going to run. And you won't be able to catch me, because you'll be sitting here in the snow."
"That's motivation," Peter said, attempting a grin. "All right, let's try it."
Neal pulled, Peter pushed, and after some shaky stumbling on the slippery slope, both of them were finally upright.
Neal turned them slowly, facing up the hill. And it looked much steeper now that they were facing a climb…
Peter nodded, tightening his grip around Neal's shoulders. "As I can be."
Progress was slow, and Neal quickly learned to make sure each foot was planted firmly before moving the next one. The slipping and sliding might have been humorous under other circumstances, but Peter really was in no shape to handle a fall.
They finally reached the top, and both men breathed a sigh of relief.
"Your chariot awaits," Neal said, pointing at the toboggan. "I think that was the steepest hill."
He hoped that was the steepest hill…
Peter just nodded, still breathing hard from the climb and the pain. He did his best to hop along as Neal helped him toward the sled, balancing precariously when Neal bent down to brush off the layer of snow already covering the wooden bed.
Neal helped Peter down, getting him settled facing the back. Then he grabbed up a couple handfuls of snow, kneeling next to the sled. "This should help with the pain a little," he said, packing the snow around the bandaged ankle.
Peter nodded. "Cold, yeah." Then his eyes went to the tree and he sighed. "We came so far for that."
"And we're not going back empty-handed." Neal went back to his previous task, dragging the tree onto the tarp. "I'm not going to disappoint your wife. If she gets her tree, maybe she won't kill me for letting you get hurt."
"I think I pretty much did this to myself," Peter said sadly.
"Something that's not my fault?"
"Well, it is the season of miracles," Peter replied with a small smile. "Or so they say."
Neal grinned. "Right." He wrapped the rope around the tarp, leaving a long end free. "Be right back."
He disappeared back over the hill, returning quickly with Peter's boot – and the trap.
"What's that for?" Peter asked, eyeing the metal contraption with distaste.
"Just in case it's needed," Neal said. "I'm not coming back for it." He tossed the boot and the trap onto the tarp and started to tie down the other end. "Someone set that trap, and since I'm pretty sure we're off of the Bell property, somebody might want to figure out who." He finished his work and went back to the sled, tugging the wrapped tree behind him. "You'll have to hold onto this," he said, handing over the rope.
Peter nodded, wrapping the loose end around his gloved hand. "Are you sure you're going to be able to pull this thing with me on it?"
Well, no, not really…
Neal plastered on his most confident smile. "Piece of cake."
All right, so maybe 'piece of cake' had been a little over-confident…
Neal stopped as he finally crested the hill. He made sure the sled was also firmly on top – no way did he want to make that climb again. And then he dropped the rope handle and bent over, hands on his knees, trying to take a few deep breaths and steady himself.
Peter had his cell phone out, holding it up as high as he could. "Still no signal."
"Not much reason out here to need a signal," Neal said. "And I'm sure the storm isn't helping reception."
The storm had, in fact, intensified exponentially, with heavy snow now falling. The wind had picked up as well, blowing almost directly out of the east – pretty much directly into his face as he pulled the sled. He'd resorted to putting the tow rope over his shoulders, and using his gloved hands to cover his face.
But the simple fact was, neither he nor Peter were dressed for this kind of weather. There was a big difference between winter wear fit for city use, and what this kind of weather called for out in the wilds.
Here there be dragons? A nice fire-breathing dragon might not be so bad right now…
He knelt down by the sled, repacking some snow around Peter's ankle. "How are you doing?"
Peter's face was pale, and even in the cold he was sweating. But he nodded gamely. "I'm all right. Look, maybe I can try to walk…"
"No way, Peter. You'll just start bleeding again, and I think you're starting to go into shock."
"I can't stop shivering," Peter admitted.
"Yeah. Look, I need you to talk when we start again, so I know you're still with me."
Peter's eyes were drooping closed. "Talk about what?"
"I don't know, maybe the latest case? Or sing Christmas carols. Just something so I know you're all right."
Peter smiled, reaching out a shaky hand, pointing. "Your nose is turning red," he said. "Maybe I'll sing Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer."
"Cute," Neal said. "First I'm your work spouse, then your indentured servant, now your reindeer."
"Rudolph was pretty heroic," Peter said quietly.
Neal just patted his friend's shoulder. "You sing whatever you feel like."
Peter nodded, shifting a bit on the sled and wincing. "I think I'm getting splinters."
Neal laughed softly, pushing himself to his feet. "Yeah, well, pulling splinters out of your ass is definitely not in a work spouse's job description. You'll have to deal with El on that."
"Probably better," Peter agreed.
"Definitely better." Neal moved to the front of the sled, sliding the pull rope over his shoulders again. Standing up, he was hit by the full force of the wind again. But there really wasn't much of an option, so he started to pull again.
Behind him, very faintly over the growing storm, he heard Peter's voice.
Rudolph, the red nosed reindeer…
By the time he finally got a signal on his cell phone, Neal could barely make his fingers work enough to press the buttons to call for help. But when the emergency operator came on the line, he really thought, despite the heavy static on the connection, that her voice was the best sound he had ever heard.
That estimation didn't last long, because when he heard the sound of snowmobiles coming closer, he decided that was the best sound ever.
It turned out that the Bells had already called for help after the storm worsened and there was still a customer vehicle parked out in front of the barn. But with visibility greatly reduced, and no idea which direction to search first, they'd had no luck. Neal's call, with the general direction they had traveled, helped.
The storm had closed the roads, but the county was prepared for that possibility. The Sheriff's office had snowmobiles, and two deputies had been tasked with the search.
When they finally met up, Neal literally dropped to his knees, partly due to exhaustion, and partly in gratitude. One of the deputies was a certified emergency medical technician, but with the worsening storm she determined that their best course of action was to get to shelter as quickly as possible before attempting any treatment.
The other deputy rigged up a system to pull the sled, and he started back toward the road with Peter following behind, at least now wrapped in a blanket. Neal had been given a blanket too, and he pulled it tight around his shoulders as he climbed onto the seat behind the EMT.
Finally, out of the swirling snow, he could make out the shape of the barn. They pulled up into the shelter offered by the building, and he staggered off of the snowmobile. The other machine was already there, the sled empty.
He numbly followed the deputy toward the farmhouse. The door opened as if by magic as they approached, and then, even more blessedly magical, a steaming cup of hot chocolate was pressed into his hands.
They made their way to what looked like an office, judging by the desk and filing cabinets. But there was a fireplace, with a big, friendly blaze already burning, and a couch, where Peter had already been settled. The other deputy, and one of the men who had greeted them at the farm, were helping him get his jacket off.
Neal felt a hand on his arm, and something behind his legs. He looked just long enough to recognize that it was a chair before he let himself drop onto the seat. Hands still cradled around the mug of steaming ambrosia, he watched as the EMT started to unwrap the bandage around Peter's ankle.
He'd have to make sure and get names at some point, to thank their rescuers, but that seemed like far too much effort just at the moment…
Being extra careful not to make any noise, Neal walked back to the office from the bathroom. He'd finally felt thawed out enough to clean a little of the day's sweat and grime off. The quick wash from the sink basin wasn't as good as a shower, but it still felt good.
With the weather the way it was, the Bells had insisted that Peter and Neal stay there for the night. And fortunately, once Lori, the EMT, was able to check Peter's injured leg, the news had been mostly encouraging. It was obviously going to be sore for a while, and there was some muscle damage, but it appeared that the ligaments and tendons had escaped serious harm. She cleaned the jagged wound, added a few stitches where the cuts were the deepest, doused it with an antibacterial ointment, and re-bandaged the leg. After conferring with the nearest hospital, she was able to leave Peter with some painkillers to make it through the night.
Hopefully they'd be able to make it out the next day so they could get Peter to a doctor before he needed more for the pain. Lori had also recommended a tetanus booster, since Peter couldn't recall having one in recent years.
The fire was still burning in the hearth, though it was banked a bit now for the night. Still, it provided enough glow for Neal to see where he was going as he pushed the door almost shut and then made his way toward the couch.
He was just settling onto the floor when Peter spoke. "Some adventure, huh?"
"Oh, yeah." Neal leaned back against the arm of the couch, pulling his legs up. "The next time you ask me if I already have plans for the day, let's just assume that I do."
"Yeah, this day didn't turn out quite the way I envisioned it."
"No, I suppose not. Hey, you were asleep before. How did Elizabeth take the news?"
"She says maybe we need to start a new tradition next year."
"Like going to a lot in the city for your tree?"
"Maybe." Peter laid a hand on Neal's shoulder. "She also said she was glad you were here with me."
"Well, someone has to look out for you."
"I think that's usually my line."
Neal nodded in the semi-darkness. "Time I returned the favor. Oh, hey, the Bells confirmed we were off their land, and the deputies said that kind of trap is illegal here. They took it, and said they'll try to find out who might have set it once this storm clears."
"Good. I'd hate to think there might be more out there for someone to stumble into."
"Next time do you think you'll listen when I tell you we're heading the wrong way into dragon territory?"
"Do you think you'll listen to me when I tell you not to do something rash and impulsive?"
Neal laughed softly. "I guess maybe we both have things to work on."
"Yeah, I guess we do," Peter agreed. "Seriously though, Neal, thank you. If you hadn't been there…"
"But I was there, Peter. And I know you would have done the same for me." He turned, looking over his shoulder. "That's what friends do."
"Yeah, they do," Peter agreed, yawning. "Not sure about work spouses though…"
Neal found himself yawning too. "Oh, it's totally a work spouse thing."
"I suppose you can prove that?"
"Sure, I'll show you the rules."
"There are work spouse rules?"
"Well, there will be."
"Yeah, as soon as I write them."
"I guess I should be happy the rules are original, and not a forgery."
"Oh, definitely original. And there will be some special rules, of course."
"Well, first, all work spouses named Neal should be acknowledged frequently and publicly for their brilliance…"
Neal paused, stopping in mid-sentence as a blanket was thrown over his head. But through the fabric he could hear Peter's reply.
"Dream on, Neal. Dream on."
Peter and Elizabeth had made plans to spend time with his family, so it was actually three days after Christmas when the Burkes invited Neal over for dinner to celebrate the holiday.
Neal brought a homemade spinach and artichoke dip that he heated up and loaded into a bread bowl. And he made sure to add a smudge of flour to his cheek just before he rang their doorbell so he could talk about making the bread himself.
Elizabeth garnered oohs and ahs when she pulled a perfectly medium-rare prime rib roast out of the oven. She also had accumulated more samples of sweets from her various holiday events than three people could possibly consume in a week.
Of course, that didn't mean they didn't make a game effort to eat everything that night.
Peter provided the wine, which made Neal a little nervous – until the older man admitted he had snuck a peek at the labels on some of Neal's collection and bought the same kind. Not that he thought the prices on those wines were in any way reasonable. In fact, now that he thought about it, there might be some pricing collusion going on…
He grinned and shut up when both Elizabeth and Neal told him to stop.
After dinner and clean-up, they gathered around the sparkling tree – which had, in fact, been confirmed to be a Fraser fir after all. But with the lights and the decorations, it added just the right festive touch.
The Burkes had already exchanged their own gifts, so tonight was dedicated to the gifts to and from Neal.
Elizabeth loved the collection of rare early jazz recordings on CD. In fact, the background holiday music was quickly changed to the jazz.
Satchmo was ensconced under the table, gnawing on his new toy, and trying to figure out how to get it to give up the tantalizing treats he could smell inside.
Peter handed a box over to Neal. "This is from both of us."
Neal looked at the box, grinning at the tiny dragon charm attached to the ribbon. "Here there be dragons," he said, smiling. "Should I be worried?"
"I think it's safe to go with this dragon," was Peter's reply.
Neal carefully opened the wrapping and lifted the lid. "Wow, a VIP invitation to the next Masters Retrospective at the Channing."
"It helps to know the organizer for the event," Elizabeth said.
"Always good to know the right people," Neal agreed. "I'll get my tux cleaned." He turned his attention back to the box, pulling out an envelope. It had his name on it, definitely in Peter's handwriting. He opened it slowly, extracting the contents, and then he grinned. "Two 'Get Out of Radius Free' passes."
Peter shrugged. "I figured you'd appreciate that more than anything else I could think of for you. Pick your events and let me know. We'll work something out."
"And it's actually three passes," Elizabeth said. "The Channing is extra."
Peter nodded. "Someone talked me into that," he said, pulling his wife down to sit next to him on the couch. "She can be very persuasive."
"Well, thank you," Neal said. "Both of you." He gestured at the box by Peter's feet. "Your turn."
Peter picked up the box and made a show of shaking it next to his ear. "Haversham didn't have anything to do with this, did he?"
"I think Moz was a little offended that you got rid of the Rai stone," Neal replied. "He might not be inclined to give more gifts for a while."
"Best news I've heard in a long time," Peter muttered as he started to open the gift. Once the wrapping paper had fallen away he opened the box…
And immediately started laughing.
As Elizabeth leaned in to see what Peter thought was so funny, he pulled a plush hippopotamus out.
"I did tell you that hippos were a much better choice than a rhinoceros," Neal pointed out.
"But rhinos have horns," Peter argued, hearkening back to their earlier debate. "I think that would be much better for home security."
Neal pointed over toward the table, where a certain yellow lab had fallen asleep, one paw draped protectively over his new toy. "You have Satchmo."
"Never hurts to have more security. Now this hippo…"
Peter almost dropped the toy. "What the hell was that?"
Elizabeth was laughing along with Neal. "Oh, is that the farting hippo from that show on CBS?"
Neal nodded. "It is."
Peter set the hippo on the floor, careful not to squeeze it again. "How did I never realize before that I needed a gassy hippo?"
"Well, sometimes you just need someone else to help you see the light, Peter," Neal explained. Before Peter could come up with a retort, Neal pointed back at the box. "There's something else in there."
"I'm almost afraid to look," Peter said. But, of course, he did look, and he pulled out a thin brochure with an ornately decorated parchment cover. "The Illustrated Guide to the Rules of Work Spouses," he read.
Neal nodded. "I told you I was writing it."
Peter turned the booklet over in his hands; it looked like there was only one page between the two heavier covers. "Somehow I expected there to be more rules."
"I decided the rules could be condensed," Neal explained.
Peter opened the cover, looking at the contents. "The first rule of work spouses," he quoted. "Always have each other's back."
"I thought that pretty much summed things up," Neal said.
Peter nodded, looking at the illustration – two abstract figures, drawn back to back, lifting a large globe over their heads. "It does," he agreed. "Thanks."
"Merry Christmas, Peter."
"Merry Christmas, Neal."