Neal was willing to accept that this was merely an unpleasant day, right up until he stepped off the curb into an ankle deep slush puddle. Then, he gave up. This day was utterly miserable and there was nothing at all redeemable about it. Cursing, he shook the slush off of his shoe and hunched deeper into his coat. Snow stung his eyes, and the wet ick was wicking up the wool of his pants. He already had a layer of snow piling up on his shoulders and hat. The hint of damp seeping through his coat was a promise that whatever warmth he might eventually get would be thoroughly spoiled by wet cold snowmelt.
Neal hated winter. Neal hated this winter particularly. He didn’t remember New York being this bad; he certainly knew it hadn’t been this cold. The weather reporters were having fits over the record lows. The snow wasn’t even pretty anymore. Instead of big soft picturesque fluffy flakes, they got snow most charitably described as crystalline: hard, sharp and pointy.
Neal beat off the snow as best he could before he got into the house but, as he had predicted, he was soaked by the time he got up to his loft. Shivering in the chill air of his apartment, Neal started shedding clothes as soon as the door was shut, draping them across whatever was available. His shoes and pants were caked with salty wet residue; it was going to require a good day of work to prevent his clothing from being irrevocably damaged.
Just one more negative to add to Winter‘s tally.
The other major one was how it had ruined his loft. The loft was gorgeous in the warmer months and cozy in the fall, but it was frigid in the winter. These old homes were hard to heat at the best of times but the open plan combined with the wall of windows made it impossible for the loft to be anything more than lukewarm. Neal slid shut the heavy curtains he’d installed, cordoning off the nook that held his bed. He turned the space heater up and huddled under his blankets, waiting to warm up. The thick quilts were cool, leaching what little warmth he had out of his skin, but the outside air was colder and the bedding would eventually warm up. He shivered, feeling utterly miserable.
This was such a contrast to how he’d spent last night, warm and sated, tucked between his two favourite people. Before that, his time had been filled the the burn of muscles and the percussive friction of a flogger. But El had meetings and Peter’d had some sort of a professional development thing, and Neal had gone home to spend the day with a pile of cold cases.
It had seemed like a good idea at the time. The office was boring without Peter, and Neal had been feeling pleasantly sore from the last night’s activities. He’d be able to treat himself more gently if he didn’t have to keep up appearances for the office. He could enjoy the lingering sensations instead of having to cover them up and hide. But those feelings of satisfaction had faded with each step he took away from the Burke’s house. Now, he just felt tired, physically and emotionally. The idea of spending any time outside of this warm cocoon was incredibly disagreeable.
As the bed started to warm up Neal uncurled slightly, wincing as his bruises protested. He rolled onto his back, squirming into the sting of tender flesh. A gust of wind hit, rattling against the windows. The snow hissed as it slid across the panes. Neal pulled the blankets tighter up over his chin. Mozzie, like any sensible person, had suddenly discovered he had urgent business in the south as soon as the cold had set in. Normally, Neal would have been right there beside him, but there wasn’t anywhere that warm that was within 2 miles of downtown New York.
Neal drifted, listening to the cold wind thudding into the walls. It was trying to get at him, Neal thought darkly. New York was out to get him and take away everything. She was a beautiful city. New York provided a taste of everything he once had, but it was really only enough to remind him what he was missing. It was taunting him with potential.
Eventually the space heater started to have an effect. Steeling himself, Neal kicked off the blankets and reached for his pyjamas. He’d get food and then he could just hibernate in bed until he got over this funk. Belting his robe tightly, Neal shivered as he started the coffee. He made a quick trip to the bathroom while that was brewing, then loaded up a tray with the coffee, bread, cheese and cookies. Setting the tray beside his bed, he made a quick detour to grab a bottle of wine. Just in case.
He was still tucked in bed, glaring at the snow and feeling sorry for himself, when someone came knocking. Neal considered ignoring them, but not that many people came to his door, particularly in this weather. It could be Peter or Elizabeth. Or Peter and Elizabeth. Feeling the faint stirrings of a better mood at that thought Neal crawled out of bed, trailing blankets to the door.
It was June, who neatly covered her surprise at Neal’s appearance. “Neal, dear, I wondered if you might like to join me downstairs for dinner tonight.”
Neal sagged. He wouldn‘t have gotten up for June. He caught himself, a little surprised at that thought; June certainly didn’t deserve his snippiness. Neal schooled his face into a smile and politely refused the invitation. He was perfectly comfortably up here and had already eaten.
June looked like she didn’t believe him for an instant, but she at least allowed him the courtesy of accepting his excuse. “You know you can come down any time.”
Neal waved off her concern with a smile. “I’m fine, but thank you.”
June very deliberately did not look to the quilt Neal was clutching around his shoulders. Neal was grateful, as he really didn’t have anything to say to that.
June turned to leave, then looked back to throw out an offhand comment that was all the more pointed for its studied casualness. “If you’re going to have Peter and Elizabeth over tonight, I have some mulling spices that I think you could make good use of. And you don’t need to be skimpy with wood for the fireplace.”
Neal smiled wider, covering confusion with charm and pleasantries, and shut the door. He hadn’t had any plans to have them over, but that was a hint if he’d ever heard one. Neal just had no idea why.
Neal retreated back into his nest with a book and opened the wine.
The phone interrupted his attempts at reading. He glanced quickly at the display, then scrambled to answer. Peter.
He missed Peter’s opening pleasantries entirely, too distracted by his immediate emotional response to Peter’s voice. It felt like the sun had just come out from behind a cloud. Neal groaned.
“Nothing’s wrong.” Neal immediately dissembled, then he hesitated. This was the kind of thing that Peter insisted on knowing, but he didn‘t want Peter to worry. Peter had other things to do today, and he didn’t want to distract Peter with something so unimportant as a bit of an emotional valley. “Just realized I’ve been dropping a bit today.” There, that sounded casual enough.
Neal could imagine how Peter looked right now, focused on how to fix the problem of Neal. “How ‘bout El and I come by tonight then?”
Conflicting desires warred within Neal. On one hand, yes so very much yes he wanted to spend the evening with them. On the other hand he didn’t want to push his luck, and he’d been spending a lot of time with them lately. Surely they wanted an evening of their own. Plus the weather was still crap. “The roads-” he began to protest.
“Neal.” Peter cut him off firmly. “The roads aren’t that bad. The Taurus has 4-wheel drive. If it gets bad we’ll call you and figure something out.”
“I’m not that bad.” He was just feeling a little delicate. He’d definitely had worse.
“It’s still important.” Peter’s voice softened. “And spending an evening with you is hardly a hardship.”
Oh. Neal felt a smile edge onto his face.
“I’ll call again later. We’ll bring food. You just take it easy on yourself today.”
“Thanks, Peter.” Neal hung up with a smile on his face. He could just picture the evening, mulled wine and a warm fire. The cool of the apartment was suddenly a bonus as it would be an excuse to snuggle together and share body heat.
He froze when he realized the image he‘d created. It was exactly what he needed and exactly what June had been hinting at. June knew. That was the reason for the worried looks and the somewhat pointed reminders. He wondered absently how long she’d known.
After changing into something more formal than his earlier ensemble of pyjamas and a quilt, Neal slipped downstairs to the sitting room where June was quietly reading with a cup of tea at her elbow. She looked up with a pleased smile when Neal entered.
“Neal! I’m glad to see you’re feeling better.”
Neal hovered somewhat awkwardly. He didn’t really feel up to a conversation but he didn’t want her to worry. “Peter and Elizabeth are coming by later.”
“Oh good.” June sounded relieved. Neal was glad he decided to make this effort, even more so when she immediately took control of the conversation. “Let me get you those mulling spices. I assume you have a suitable wine?”
Neal nodded as June moved off. She came back with a sachet of rich smelling spices. “These cold days it’s nice to have a little extra warmth inside.” Her hands were warm when she pressed the gift into his hands, and Neal knew she wasn‘t talking only talking about the weather.
Neal pressed a gentle kiss to June’s cheek. “Thank you, June, for everything.”
“You’re welcome, dear. Now, go up and get that started. I’ll send Peter and Elizabeth up when they get here, but if you need anything before they arrive you just let me know.”
“I’ll be good.” Neal promised.
“I’m sure you always are.” June offered with a wink and Neal couldn‘t help but grin.
Neal’s step was light as we went back upstairs. He knew the loft wouldn’t be completely comfortable until the weather lifted, but the space heater must have been making a heroic effort while he was downstairs. He felt warmer already.