Neal blamed Blake for the flu that had taken out more than half the office before it finally hit him. Now, it was Christmas Eve, and he was supposed to be spending the evening with the Hugheses, but the last thing he wanted to do was get Emma sick. So, while he hated to do it, he called Cathy to let her know he wouldn't be able to make it to dinner.
"Oh, Neal. Are you sick?" she asked, sounding concerned over the line. "You sound a bit congested."
"Yeah, I came down with whatever is making the rounds at work. I'm sorry, Cathy."
"It's okay," she assured him. "Rest, drink plenty of fluids, and call me if you need anything."
"I will. Thank you."
He hit the end button on his cell, tossed it on the night stand, rolled over, and promptly went to sleep.
A couple of hours later, he woke feeling even worse. His throat was scratchy, he was cold despite the layers of blankets, and his whole body ached. He wrapped the comforter around himself and stumbled into the kitchen to make a cup of tea. He had a ginger-mint that Elizabeth had recommended, and that sounded like it would be great with a little honey and lemon.
It didn't take long for the water to boil. He was sitting at the table, sipping on the warm drink, when there was a knock at his door. "Who's-" he started coughing when the second word caught in his throat.
He'd left the door unlocked and it opened to reveal the Hughes family trying to push past each other to get to his side.
"Ugh," Neal groaned and buried his head in his hands. "You have to go. Please go."
"What's wrong, honey?" Cathy asked, sitting beside him and putting her hand on his shoulder.
He could feel the others hovering on his other side, so he pulled the comforter up over his head and huddled inside of it.
"Don't want to get anyone sick," he mumbled as loud as his sore throat would allow.
"We all had our flu shots, and Emma's wearing her mask. She knew you'd be worried," Cathy said, trying to pry the blanket down. "Now, let me see you."
Neal slowly peeked out and looked at them warily. "Look, this is really nice of you all, but I'm probably going to sleep a lot, and I didn't want to ruin the holiday."
"Nonsense. This is our first Christmas as a whole family in a very long time." Reese reached out to get a hand on his forehead to test his temperature.
Neal ducked away but just made himself dizzy and almost fell off his chair. He wound up leaning against Cathy, who put one arm around him and pressed her other hand to his forehead while he couldn't get away.
She tsked softly. "Here's what we're going to do. If you feel up to it, Neal, you're going to take a shower. We're going to start on dinner and do a little decorating."
He opened his mouth to protest, but she was already helping him to his feet and turning him toward the hallway that led to his bathroom.
"No arguments. Go, take a nice, long, lukewarm shower. Don't worry about a thing."
Michael came around the table to shadow Neal down the hall. "She gets like this when any of us are sick. It's best to just grin and bear it."
Neal leaned against the bathroom doorway and sighed. "I really just want to lay down and sleep. Can you get her to go home?"
"Not a chance, little brother. Not a chance." Michael slapped him gently on the back and pointed to the shower. "Are you good here?"
"I'm fine," Neal replied as he closed the door.
The shower made him feel less like a reanimated zombie, so he downed some cold and flu medicine and dressed in a pair of charcoal slacks and a cashmere sweater. He took a deep breath, put a smile on his face and stepped out into… Santa's workshop?
In half an hour, they'd transformed his apartment with a small Christmas tree in the corner that Emma and Reese were decorating with balls and lights, large sparkling snowflakes were hanging from anything that was immobile, and there were strings of lights around his door frames and some of the windows. Michael was hanging even more lights around the mirror near his bed.
The table had been set with bowls and mugs at each place. Neal stepped forward and brushed his fingers along the red and green table runner that he recognized but hadn't seen in more than twenty years.
"You guys didn't have to do all this," he said softly.
"It's a special day," Cathy said, leaving the stove to pull him into a hug. He'd gotten better at accepting hugs from her as the months went on, and now he leaned into it a little before she stepped away to check on the soup.
"What are you making?"
"We went for something easy on the stomach and easily portable, so this is vegetable beef soup. I'm heating up some rolls in the oven, too."
"Sounds good," he said as he took a seat at the table and leaned his head against his hand. He was already feeling a bit tired, and the night had only just begun.
Soon, the rest of the family joined him at the table, and they joked and laughed about past Christmases and things the twins had done as toddlers while they ate. Neal sat back and took it all in, quiet but attentive to anything they wanted to share.
However, by the time that Cathy pulled out a pumpkin pie, Neal was all but asleep in his chair. He blinked blearily at Reese, who pulled Neal to his feet and guided him over to his bed. Neal stumbled but managed to make it mostly under his own steam.
Reese got him situated and pulled the covers up over Neal's chest. He hesitated for a moment before patting Neal's arm. "Get some rest, son."
"Night Dad," Neal murmured and immediately dropped into sleep.
Thanks for reading!