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Comfort Always

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Cure sometimes, treat often, comfort always. ~ Hippocrates

Neal rubbed his forehead, between his eyes where the ache had been building since his undercover assignment earlier that day had gone sideways. Everything had turned out okay even though their embezzlement suspect tried to pull a runner, but it had been a tense couple of hours while they were moving in on the guy.

He took a deep breath, put on his best 'I'm great' face, and rang the doorbell at the Hughes house. Emma had finally talked him into sleeping over for a night, and she was too excited for him to even think about canceling on her because of a headache.

"Hey!" She greeted as soon as she opened the door. "Come in, come in."

He let her pull him into a hug, though he was gentle with his embrace. "How are you doing?"

"I'm good." She'd been out of the hospital for about a month and seemed to be doing really well. "I'm still a little weak and tired when I do too much, but I took like two naps today to prepare to kick your butt at Monopoly tonight."

He chuckled. "No one beats me at Monopoly."

"There's a first time for everything!" She reached for his overnight bag, but he twisted away from her and tightened his grip on the strap. "Come on. Let me show you your room."

He followed her up the stairs, where she gave him a quick tour. There were three bedrooms – the master, Emma's bedroom and Michael's bedroom – and a large bathroom.

"So you have a choice here. You can stay in Mike's room, or we have an air mattress that we can put in my room."

"Michael's room is fine."

She looked disappointed that he didn't want to stay in her room but said, "Okay."

"You'll need to rest tonight, and I've been known to snore." The lie rolled off his tongue easily even though his head was starting to pound harder. He really wished he'd taken some Tylenol earlier when he'd grabbed his overnight bag from his apartment.

"Emma! Neal! Dinner's ready!" Cathy's sudden shout made them both jump, and they laughed as they headed back downstairs.

When Neal stepped into the kitchen, Cathy was smiling at him. "It's so good to have you here."

"Thanks," he replied, unsure of what else he could say. He smiled softly at her and asked, "Is there anything I can do to help?"

"No, no. Just have a seat. Everything's already on the table."

She had made Cornish game hens with rosemary mashed potatoes and steamed vegetables. It looked amazing, but Neal's stomach wasn't faring well as his headache had graduated to a throb.

Cathy, Emma, and Reese carried the majority of the dinner conversation. Neal liked hearing about each of their days. He had no idea that Cathy volunteered at a soup kitchen or that Emma was thinking about the best time to go back to school to finish her Master's degree in Art History. Reese even surprised him by talking about his interest in mystery novels, specifically the Sherlock Holmes series.

He looked up sharply when he felt Cathy's hand on his arm. "Is it okay, Neal? You've hardly eaten anything."

"I'm sorry. It's great. Today was just a long day, and I don't have much of an appetite."

Cathy looked over to Reese, who nodded gravely. They had a wordless conversation in looks, and then Cathy turned her attention back to Neal and smiled. "I can wrap it up and put it in the fridge for later. Maybe you'll be hungry tonight."

When everyone else was finished, Neal and Emma tried to help with the dishes, but Cathy waved them off. They grabbed a couple of board games out of the cabinet and headed upstairs to Emma's room.

Emma won the first couple rounds of Sorry, but the tables turned for the last three games. Neal grinned as he triumphantly moved his last green piece to the home space.

"You cheated!" Emma exclaimed immediately and then hit Neal in the face with one of her pillows.

He felt the impact in every nerve ending in his brain, so he let himself fall backwards onto the bed so that he could take a moment to regain his composure. It was best to play dead until he could open his eyes and see straight again.

"I didn't hit you that hard." Emma poked his shoulder until he grasped her wrist and rolled his head in her direction.

"I hate to call it a night so early, Emma, but I'm exhausted. Can we play Monopoly in the morning?"

She gave him a good hard Hughes stare, and he had no idea what she saw, but she agreed pretty quickly. "Sure, but don't expect me to go easy on you after this." She pointed at the Sorry board before starting to pack it up into its box.

Neal got up slowly and headed toward the hall. He hesitated in the doorway and turned to look back at her. "Emma, thanks for inviting me over."

His sister grinned. "Thank you for coming, Neal. Good night."

"Good night."


Neal hurried through his nightly routine as quickly as his head allowed. He also managed to find a bottle of Tylenol in the medicine cabinet, and he took four in the hopes that they would work fast.

Cathy and Reese stopped by his room to say good night, and he asked them to turn the light out and shut the door when they left. Neal fell into an uneasy sleep for about an hour before he was woken by his head threatening to split apart and his stomach lurching.

Neal slapped his hand over his mouth and stumbled across the hall to the bathroom. He shut the door with his foot, turned the water on in the sink with his free hand, dropped to his knees in front of the toilet, and finally let his stomach heave. And heave. And heave.

Eventually, with no memory of how he got there, he found himself lying on the cool tile floor of the bathroom staring at the base of the toilet. He felt like all his energy had been thrown up with what little he'd eaten at dinner, and he had no idea how he was going to get back across the hall.

A knock on the door was unexpected, as was the female voice asking, "Neal? Are you okay?"

While his aching brain was trying to come up with a response, the door opened and Cathy poked her head inside.

"Oh, no! What's wrong? Are you sick?"

Neal didn't know what to say, and he was too spent to lie. "Migraine," he muttered, closing his eyes as she flipped on the light.

She made a sympathetic noise and moved around, careful not to step on him as she gathered supplies. "I'm afraid," she said softly as she worked, "that you get those from me. And I do sincerely apologize for that. On the other hand, I had my worst migraines while I was pregnant, so be thankful you won't have to worry about that."

Two minutes later, she shut off the overhead light and knelt beside him. There was a nightlight by the door that cast just enough light for them to see each other. She put a cold, damp washcloth on his forehead and held another against the back of his neck.

"I imagine you already tried to take some medicine. Do you have a prescription?"

"Uh-uh," Neal murmured. "Tylenol."

Cathy tsked and moved the cloth from his neck so that she could massage the tense muscles there. "Next time, we'll try something a little more targeted, okay? Until then, just breathe for a few minutes. When you're feeling better, we'll see about getting you back to bed without waking the rest of the house."

He was quiet for several minutes, but his curiosity got the best of him. "How did you know?"

"I just woke up. I was laying in bed, trying to figure out what was going on when I heard the bathroom door shut."

Neal leaned a little more into her touch as she worked the knots out of his neck. "Thanks."

"Shush." Cathy shifted and stood. "Are you feeling up to moving now?"

Neal sighed, nodded, and let her help him to his feet. He wavered unsteadily for a moment before making his way across the hall and gingerly lowering himself back into the bed.

Cathy disappeared downstairs. When she entered the bedroom a few minutes later, she was carrying an eye mask and an ice pack. "These will help, I promise."

He was skeptical but followed her instructions for putting the eye mask on and then laying on his back with the icepack over his forehead. He was already drifting off when Cathy started humming a vaguely familiar tune.


The next morning, Neal felt much better. He took a warm shower, dressed in gray trousers and a black button-down, and joined the others in the kitchen. Emma and Cathy were still in their pajamas, but Reese was dressed casually in jeans and a t-shirt. Neal had never seen him out of a suit, so he did a double-take.

Reese chuckled. "I have some work to do around the house for Cathy."

"The master bath faucet has been leaking for days," she said, shaking her head. "Morning, Neal. Do you want breakfast? We were trying to decide if it was a French toast or an omelet kind of morning."

"An omelet would be great," Neal said, without hesitation. "If that's okay."

Cathy smiled. "Omelets it is. Emma, pour your brother a glass of orange juice."

"There's coffee, right?" Neal looked around the kitchen before spotting the pot in the far corner.

"There's always coffee in this house," Emma said, laughing. "I'm going to go set up the Monopoly board. After we eat, it's on!"

Reese was reading the paper in the corner, and with Emma out of the room, Neal saw an opportunity. He moved over to Cathy and tentatively slipped an arm around her shoulders in a kind of half hug. "Thank you, for last night," he said quietly.

She gave him a smile that he was starting to realize she reserved solely for him and brushed his hair away from his forehead. "I'm just glad you're feeling better. I hate to see any of my kids in pain."

Neal nodded solemnly and moved away to pour his cup of coffee. As far as families went, Neal had seen some bad ones and some good ones. The Hugheses were turning out to be much more than he could have hoped for, and he was starting to feel lucky to be a part of their lives.


Thank you for reading!