"When skating on thin ice, our safety is in our speed." - Ralph Waldo Emerson
He knew it wasn’t just the prospect of playing for gold making him nervous, either. It’d been a week since Peter had said good-bye to Neal at his apartment in Buffalo, slipping out in the early morning light. Peter had barely had time to breathe all week with all the press events to promote the U.S. hockey team, but any time he had had was taken up in thinking about Neal and when they would see each other again. They’d exchanged a few texts in the meantime but hadn’t spoken, and now that Peter knew they were in the same building, he found he couldn’t wait another minute to see him again.
It was a madhouse backstage, where Team USA was milling around, waiting to head out into the stadium. Peter had trouble shaking his teammates long enough to go look for Neal, but he finally managed to escape. He dodged a cluster of loud, boisterous, and quite possibly drunk snowboarders, and wondered if he’d even recognize the figure skaters if he found them.
Peter turned and saw Neal jogging toward him. Damn him, he actually managed to make the hideous team sweaters look good. “Hey, there you are,” Neal said. “I was hoping you’d be marching. How was your trip?”
“It was fine. Um, how was yours?” Peter gave a mental wince. Awkwardness, thy name was Peter Burke.
“Not bad,” Neal said easily, as though he hadn’t noticed what a dork Peter was being. “Do you have plans for after?”
“I’ll probably just go to bed,” Peter said, a little apologetically. “I’m trying to get over the jet lag before we start playing.”
“Fair enough. I have a training session tomorrow I need to be fresh for, but not until the afternoon. Breakfast?”
“Sure,” Peter said.
Neal grinned. “Great. There’s a café down the street from me with a trainer-approved menu, let’s go there. Nine o’clock okay?” Peter nodded, and Neal pulled out a phone identical to the one Peter himself had received from the team’s officials before leaving for the Games. “What’s your number?”
“Uh,” Peter said, and had to dig his own phone out to check. He rattled off the number, which seemed strangely long and hard to read without the dashes in the right places.
“I’m texting you my address in the village,” Neal said, already typing. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” He reached out and squeezed his arm, then turned and vanished back into the throng of skaters.
Peter managed to get back in line with his team just as they started making their entrance into the arena. “How’s Neal?” Jones asked him wryly.
“Fine,” Peter said shortly, giving him a look.
“Neal?” Jim Roberts, one of their teammates, said from Peter’s other side. “Neal who?”
“Caffrey,” Peter said, hoping that that would put an end to it.
Roberts raised his eyebrows. “The figure skating fairy?”
Peter had never really had an opinion about Jim Roberts, but he instantly decided he didn’t like the guy. “I don’t know what you mean by that,” he said frostily. “If you mean that he’s gay and he’s a figure skater, then yeah, that’s him. And he’s a friend of mine, so I’d appreciate it if you talked about him with some respect.”
Roberts held his hands up. “Jesus, Burke, don’t get your panties in a twist. I don’t care who you’re friends with.”
“Damn right,” Peter said, and glared until Roberts backed off and went to sell his special brand of homophobia somewhere else.
Peter turned and realized that Jones was giving him a look. “What?” he demanded.
“Nothing,” Jones said, “just, you might want to tone it down a bit.”
Peter frowned. “You think that was an overreaction? He called Neal -”
“I know what he called Neal,” Jones said, “and I totally support you calling him out about it, but don’t forget that we have to skate with that guy for the next two weeks. If there’s bad blood between you two from the beginning, it could affect the whole team.”
Peter sighed. “You’re right. I’ll apologize to him later.”
“Hey, I wouldn’t go that far,” Jones said, and slung an arm across Peter’s shoulders as they entered the arena. “The guy’s a dick.”
The opening ceremonies were exciting, but they were also long, and it was late by the time the athletes left the stadium. The air in Salzburg was brisk and dry as Peter walked with his team toward the tram that would take them back up the mountain to Olympic Village. He’d felt more settled after seeing Neal, but the ceremonies themselves had amped him up again. Whatever he’d said to Neal before, he probably wasn’t going to be going to be able to sleep right away.
At the tram stop in the village, Peter started to follow the rest of his teammates back to their accommodations, but at last the minute he veered off, glancing down at his phone. Neal’s accommodations were only a couple of blocks over from the tram stop, and Peter’s feet carried him there almost of their own accord.
It occurred to him in the elevator that Neal might not be back yet; just because Peter had turned him down didn’t mean he hadn’t found anyone else to go out with. But Peter was there, and so he knocked, fully expecting one of Neal’s roommates to open the door.
It wasn’t a stranger who opened the door. It was Neal.
“Hey,” Peter said.
“Hey!” Neal said, face lighting up in a way that Peter had to admit was gratifying. “What are you doing here? I thought you were going to bed.”
“So did I, but I was so worked up after the ceremony, I don’t think I could sleep yet.”
“I know what you mean,” Neal said. “Come in. I’m not sure where my roommates are, but they probably won’t be back for a bit. In fact.” He closed the door behind Peter and immediately pushed Peter up against it. “Hello,” he murmured, inches from Peter’s face.
“Hello,” Peter said, and realized then that he’d made a slight miscalculation: this was not likely to calm him down. In fact, it was pretty much guaranteed to have the opposite effect.
Neal kissed him. In the week since Peter had last seen him, he’d thought about where and when he might kiss him again, but somehow right up against the door of Neal’s apartment, not even an hour after the opening ceremonies, had never occurred to him. They kissed until Peter was dizzy with desire for Neal, and he was on the verge of asking just how long he thought his roommates would be out.
And then someone knocked, about two inches from Peter’s head. Peter startled, breaking the kiss, and Neal swore. Peter blinked in slightly frustrated confusion. “What the -”
“Sorry,” Neal said, and pulled him away from the door in order to open it.
The guy on the other side had wild brown hair and was almost as handsome as Neal, though in a totally different way. He looked vaguely familiar; Peter thought he must’ve seen him earlier tonight, though it was possible he had some sort of endorsement deal and he’d actually seen his face in an ad for cold medication.
“Michael, hey,” Neal said, letting him in. “Peter, this is Michael Schneider. He skates pairs for Germany. Michael, this is Peter Burke. He -”
“Is a very good hockey player,” Michael finished in faintly accented English, holding his hand out for Peter to shake. “Yes, I know. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Peter.”
“Likewise,” Peter said, though he wasn’t sure he totally meant it. “I take it you two are old friends?”
“Yes, very old,” Michael said, and rested his hand on Neal’s back in a way that Peter could only describe as proprietary. “We are very old, very good friends, aren’t we, Neal?”
“Yeah, we go way back,” Neal said, looking awkward. It was a new look for him; Peter didn’t think he’d ever seen him look uncomfortable before. Frustrated, sure, but never uncomfortable. It all but confirmed Peter’s sneaking suspicion that Michael and Neal were more than just ‘old friends,’ or if they were, they were the kind of old friends that slept together whenever the opportunity arose. Like tonight, maybe.
The silence went on a little too long. “I hope I didn’t interrupt something,” Michael said at last.
“No, no,” Peter said. “I just came by to say hi. I should head back, get some rest before tomorrow. You two have a good night.”
“Peter -” Neal started, in an apologetic voice.
“Nah, it’s fine, Neal, I’ll catch you tomorrow."
Neal hesitated before nodding. “Breakfast like we planned?”
“Yeah, sure,” Peter said. “I’ll see you then. It was nice to meet you, Michael.”
Outside on the street, Peter had to stop and force himself to take a deep breath. He and Neal had had the benefit of existing inside a little bubble in Buffalo for a couple of weeks, but they’d both had lives before that. It wasn’t Neal’s fault he hadn’t lived like a monk for ten years like Peter had. They hadn’t made any promises or decided to be exclusive, and Peter had absolutely no right to expect anything from him.
Logically, he knew all that. But it was hard not to feel hurt at the idea that maybe, to Neal, this just wasn’t as big a deal as it was to Peter. Peter was risking a lot, and right up until now he’d been certain it was worth it. But now he wasn’t as sure.
The walk back to Peter’s own building was longer and colder than he’d expected. By the time he climbed the stairs to the apartment he and Jones were sharing with four other members of the U.S. hockey team, he was looking forward to his bed.
Jones was already in bed, watching something on his iPad, when Peter came in. “Hey, where’d you go?” he asked, looking up. “I turned around and you were gone.”
“I went to see Neal,” Peter said shortly, stripping his shirt off over his head.
Jones was silent while Peter finished changing into his pajamas. “Everything okay?" he asked. "It’s just,” he added, when Peter looked at him sharply, “usually when you see Neal you light up like a Christmas tree.”
“I do not.”
“You do, too, and you didn’t answer my question.”
“Look, Jones, we might be sharing a room for the Olympics, but this isn’t a twelve-year-old girl’s slumber party,” Peter snapped. “I’m not going to braid your hair while we talk about boys.”
“I hope not,” Jones said, skimming a hand over his shaved head. “But you know that if you want to talk, I’m here. So c’mon, tell me what happened. Were his roommates home or something?”
“No. He had somebody over.” And with that, Peter went to brush his teeth.
He’d hoped that would end the conversation, but Jones was waiting for him when he came out of the bathroom. “What do you mean, he had somebody over?” Jones demanded.
“Will you keep your voice down?” Peter hissed. Jones sighed and followed him back to the bedroom. Peter shut the door behind them. “I mean, I was there and he was there, and then this guy showed up, Michael Schneider. I guess he skates for Germany. He was all touchy-feely with Neal and ‘we’re very old friends.’ I could just tell he was waiting for me to leave so he could rip Neal’s clothes off.”
Jones raised his eyebrows. “Are you sure? I mean, you know how it is at this level, everyone knows everyone else, and there aren’t that many other people who get what it’s like to be us. Maybe this Schneider dude just meant what he said - they’re very old friends.”
“Maybe,” Peter said dubiously. “I don’t know, there was something about how Neal was acting - he seemed uncomfortable, and if Michael was nothing more than a friend, I don’t know why he would be. Anyway, it doesn’t matter.” He climbed into bed and pulled the covers up to his chin. The beds were comfortable, he was glad to find; the beds in Vancouver four years ago had been too hard and his back had ached for the first three days.
“What do you mean, ‘it doesn’t matter’? Of course it matters.”
Peter shrugged. “We didn’t talk about exclusivity before I left for New York. You know what it’s like in Olympic Village during the Games, and Neal’s never been before. If he wants to sleep with other people, I don’t have the right to stop him.” He’d assumed certain things, but it seemed he shouldn’t have. He thought that that probably stung more than anything else, the idea that he’d thought they were on the same page when in fact they weren’t even reading the same book.
“But if it bothers you,” Jones started.
“If it bothers me, that’s my problem, not his. I’m old enough to know that.”
Jones was silent. “Well, I guess you’re right about that,” he said at last. “Hey, take one of the melatonins the doc gave us, all right? Otherwise you’ll probably be awake at three in the morning.”
“Yeah, okay,” Peter said, and dug through his doc kit to find them. He took one and let it dissolve under his tongue, as instructed. Jones went back to watching whatever he had been watching on his iPad, and Peter lay back and did his resolute best not to think about Neal and Michael Schneider.
If it weren’t for the melatonin he probably wouldn’t have slept at all, but he actually managed to get a decent seven hours. He woke in time to join Jones for a run through the still-quiet streets of the village. The cold was bracing, and Peter could feel himself start to gear up mentally for the competition to come. They had today and tomorrow left to train, and then on Monday their group games would begin.
He showered and dressed, then headed out to meet Neal. Jones, devouring a bowl of oatmeal and a plate full of fried eggs in the living room, shot him a look but didn’t ask where he was going.
The café was bustling by the time Peter got there. He ordered the standard breakfast, which looked like it included enough food to keep him going through their morning skate in a couple of hours, and then snagged a table by the window. Neal came in a minute or two later. He waved to Peter and went up to the counter to order. He came back with a cup of tea and nothing else.
“No food?” Peter asked. He’d already started picking at his toast while he waited.
“I ordered some eggs and toast. They’ll be out in a bit."
Peter nodded. Then, because he had no idea what to say, he shoved most of a piece of toast in his mouth. A coward’s way out, probably, but he was almost starting to regret having shown up at all.
Neal opened his mouth, closed it, then opened it again. “About last night."
Peter shook his head and swallowed. “You don’t have to explain.”
“No, I think I do,” Neal said. “Look, for years Michael and I had a standing . . . arrangement, I guess you’d call it, whenever we saw each other at international competitions. Then he started dating someone and we stopped, but I guess they’ve broken up since the last time we saw each other. He was hoping we could pick up where we left off.”
“I see.” Peter didn’t look at Neal.
“Peter,” Neal said, very quietly, “I didn’t sleep with him.”
“Oh,” Peter said, and blinked. “You didn’t?”
“No, I didn’t."
“But we never talked about - you could have, you know,” Peter said, because he was a reasonable human being, dammit. He and Neal had had all of two weeks together in Buffalo, and based on that he had no right to tell Neal anything about how to live his life.
Neal shrugged. “Would you believe me if I said I didn’t want to? I mean, with Michael, it was always fun, but we both knew it wasn’t serious. He took it well when I told him that we couldn’t pick up again, because I’d just started seeing someone.”
“Oh,” Peter said again, and didn’t know what else to say. Fortunately, Neal’s eggs came out then, giving him a minute or two to try and pull himself together. “Did you, um, tell him who you were seeing?”
Neal shook his head. “But Michael’s a smart guy, and I think he probably worked it out. Don’t worry, though, he’ll be discreet. I think he was only slightly less furious than Mozzie when Matthew outed me in the tabloids.”
Peter nodded and looked down, picking at his food. The silence stretched, not wholly uncomfortable, but not exactly companionable either. “Hey,” Neal said after a few seconds, “are you okay? I thought you’d be glad I didn’t sleep with him.”
“I am,” Peter said, looking up. “I’m really glad, but that’s just it, we’ve had so little time together that I don’t really see how I have the right to expect that of you.”
“You didn’t expect it of me,” Neal said. “I did. Look, you told me it’s been a while for you. Well, it’s been a while for me, too. I think we have a lot of potential, and I didn’t want to screw that up. So - it’s not you, it’s me, if that helps.”
Peter smiled. “I think this might be the first time that phrase ever actually did help.” He took a sip of his coffee, feeling himself start to calm down. “So, you have practice later?”
“Yeah,” Neal said, grimacing, “and the judges will be watching.”
Peter's mouth fell open. “Wait, seriously?”
“Unfortunately. So if I fall on the quad, not only will it get caught on tape, but the judges will see it and decide I can’t do it before I even have the chance to try it in competition.”
Peter frowned. “That doesn’t seem fair.”
“Not really, no,” Neal said with a shrug, “but that’s how it is. What about you?”
“We have the ice for a couple hours this morning,” Peter said. “And I think Jones and I are going to go to watch Diana play tonight. They’re going to trounce Japan.”
“That sounds like fun.”
“It will be,” Peter said. And then, impulsively, he added, “You should come.”
Neal looked taken aback. “Really?”
“Sure, if you have the time. Have you ever seen a live hockey game?”
“No,” Neal said. “Can’t say that I have. Except for watching you and Diana and Jones, of course.”
Peter shook his head. “That wasn’t a real game. Live hockey is something else, and this should be - well, it probably won’t be a good game, but our women’s team is always worth watching.”
“Okay,” Neal said, after a split-second hesitation. “Sure.”
“Great,” Peter said, trying to quash the voice in the back of his head that was wondering what the hell he’d just done. It was one thing to get photographed on a cell phone out in public, but there would be real cameras at the game that night. They were almost certain to find Peter in the stands at some point, and they weren’t going to miss Neal sitting next to him. But then again, who cared? People could assume what they wanted. Neal had said he was okay with a little secrecy, but Peter refused to live in shame.
The café gradually emptied over the next hour, as Peter and Neal chatted. Finally, with great reluctance, Peter checked his watch and said, “I hate to do this, but I need to get going. If you’re at the stadium a little before six, I’ll meet you outside and get you in.”
“Sure." Neal swallowed the last of his second cup of tea and stood. “Looking forward to it.”
“Me too,” Peter said.
Outside the café they paused and looked at each other. Peter felt a brief but intense longing to kiss Neal good-bye, but his better judgment stayed his hand. Neal, as though reading his mind, gave him a soft smile instead. “Until tonight,” Neal said.
“Tonight,” Peter said, like a promise, and forced himself to turn away.
He couldn’t afford to let Peter distract him either, as much as he wanted to. He was glad they’d been able to put the Michael issue to rest so quickly; he hadn’t wanted it distracting either of them. Besides, everything Neal had told Peter was true - Michael had taken it well. The only thing he’d left out was that Michael had definitely guessed who it was, and quickly.
“You’re seeing someone?” Michael had said. “That’s great, Neal, who is it? Do I know him?”
“Not exactly,” Neal had said. He’d wanted to tell Michael, was the thing. Michael was a friend. Even when they’d been competing against each other in pairs, he’d been a friend. Neal knew he’d be happy for him, and so he’d wanted to tell him. But he wasn’t sure how Peter would feel about it.
“‘Not exactly’?” Michael repeated. “What kind of answer is that?”
“A deliberately vague one,” Neal replied dryly. “Look, I can’t say. It’s complicated.”
Michael’s eyebrows went up. “What is complicated, Neal?” Neal opened his mouth to reply, even though he had no idea what he was going to say. But then Michael held his hand up, and Neal could see the lightbulb in his head turning on. “Wait, let me guess. He is another athlete, competing here, but in a sport that is not so tolerant as figure skating. So he is not out. Am I right?”
“Yeah,” Neal said, reluctantly. He wasn’t going to lie to Michael, not when he so clearly had it all figured out.
Michael smiled, somewhat apologetically. “So I did interrupt something earlier.”
“Maybe,” Neal admitted.
“Well, I am sorry about that. But I hope you know what you’re doing. Dating someone who is in the closet is difficult.”
“God, now you sound like Moz,” Neal said with a sigh. “Between the two of you, who needs a mother?”
“Moz and I both worry about you. We just -”
“Don’t want me to get hurt, I know,” Neal said. “But I am a grown man, you know, and I can make my own choices. And my own mistakes, if it comes to that.”
“That is true,” Michael replied with a shrug. “Well, I wish you the best of luck. I press my thumbs for you and Peter.” He held up both fists in demonstration, thumbs tucked inside his crooked index fingers. “And because we are speaking English, I also cross my fingers, though I think that’s a silly way to wish someone luck.”
Neal had smiled. “Thanks, Michael. That means a lot.”
And it had. But Neal had known that he couldn’t let Peter go on thinking he’d hooked up with Michael. He might’ve been well within his rights to sleep with whomever he wanted, but he’d known that even if Peter said he was all right with it, he really wouldn’t be. Peter, for all that he was older than Neal, had considerably less experience, and Neal knew this was a big deal for him. He was risking more than Neal, and if he thought Neal wasn’t taking this as seriously as he was, he’d be hurt. But Neal thought their conversation at breakfast that morning had put Peter’s worries to rest.
Moz was staying in Olympic Village not far from him. But Sara, being neither a coach nor an athlete, was staying in Salzburg proper with June, so he hadn’t seen her in a couple of days. He’d been wondering how she’d do, being here and not competing, but to his relief she seemed happy when he saw her at the practice rink. She was wearing a Salzburg 2014 sweatshirt, which made him raise his eyebrows. Even in practice sessions, Sara never wore a sweatshirt.
“What, I’m not allowed to be a tourist?” she said, when he smirked at it.
“Enough chit chat,” Moz said abruptly, even though there’d only been about six words of it. “We’ve got the rink for two hours and I intend to make the most of them.”
After that, Neal didn’t have enough breath for chit chat. Moz worked him hard enough that he forgot about the cameras and the judges watching, forgot about anything but his body and even that was operating mostly on muscle memory. He was vaguely aware of the other skaters on the ice, enough that there weren’t any unfortunate collisions, but that was all.
Two hours went by in a blink. He landed the quad twice; he fell on it once, but that was better than he’d expected. He felt a little disoriented when they were finally called off the ice, so that it could be prepped for the next group of skaters.
“Good work,” Moz said.
Neal looked up from putting his blade guards on and blinked at him. “What?”
“I said, good work,” Moz replied, deliberately over-enunciating.
Neal looked at Sara in confusion. Sara shrugged. “You heard him right.”
Moz frowned. “You’d think I’d never given you positive feedback before.”
“You have,” Neal allowed, and finished putting his blade guards on, “but it’s always been followed by a ‘but.’ ‘Good work on the spins, but your jumps lacked height.’ ‘Nice height on the triple axel but you were clearly phoning in that combination spin.’ I’ve never heard you say ‘good work’ with no caveat.”
“That’s not true,” Moz objected.
“It’s totally true,” Sara said. “I’ve never heard it either.”
Moz threw his hands up. “Fine. You did good out there. Your spins had great form, and your jumps had great height. You’re skating the best you’ve ever skated. Keep it up.” With that, he pulled the collar of his coat up over his neck and left.
“Damn,” Neal said after a moment. “I don’t know what to do with that.”
Sara grinned. “You know what they say about gift horses.” She sat down beside him while he unlaced his skates. “Hey, want to come down into the city with me? I know June would like to see you.”
“Sure,” Neal said. “I can’t stay for too long, though. Peter asked me to go to the women’s hockey game tonight.”
“Did he now,” Sara said, raising an eyebrow. “Well, we won’t keep you from that. Although . . .”
“Do you think he’d mind if I came?”
Neal frowned, even as he sipped at the thermos of hot herbal tea he’d brought with him. “I don’t think so. But since when do you like hockey?”
“Women’s hockey,” Sara corrected him, “which is awesome. Also,” she added, studying her nails, “I was wondering if that friend of his, Clinton Jones, would be there.”
“Ahh,” Neal said, grinning. “Now I get it. Well, I’ll have to check with him to make sure he can get you a seat, but sure.”
“Thank you,” Sara said, leaning into him. “I promise I won’t get in your way.”
Neal threw an arm around her. “You never could. Besides,” he added, standing up to head into the locker rooms, “Peter and Jones are roommates - if you keep Jones busy, I have a much better chance with Peter.”
His afternoon in Salzburg with Sara and June was a pleasant break from the tension and excitement of the village. They walked through the Cathedral and then took in a string quartet the hotel concierge had recommended to June. The city was snow frosted and beautiful, full of music and charm, and the company was excellent; everything would have been perfect, save for Neal’s growing awareness that the tickle in his throat, which he’d chalked up to the dry air that morning, was not going away no matter how much hot tea he drank. By the end of the afternoon, his ears had started to ache as well. But after all, he’d spent the whole afternoon out in the cold, and the streets of Salzburg were windy. He made sure he had enough time to go back to his apartment, where he grabbed a hat, a scarf, and another thermos of hot tea before heading over to the stadium.
Hockey was alarming in person. Neal knew exactly how fast it was possible to move on the ice, but when he was out there, it was only him - and Sara, back in the day - not ten skaters in padding that suddenly seemed totally inadequate. If this was what it was like with rules about bodychecking, as Peter explained to him, then Neal had a hard time imagining what it was like without them.
But it was exciting, there was no doubt about that, even if the game itself was, as Peter had predicted, pretty lopsided. When Neal got bored with the game, he watched Peter, who watched it avidly with an expert eye. Or, alternatively, he watched Sara, who was flirting heavily with Jones, much to Jones’s pleased surprise. Both of these provided relatively effective distractions from the scratchy throat that was becoming progressively scratchier.
After the game was over, they waited to congratulate Diana on her team’s overwhelming victory. She hugged Peter, slugged Jones on the arm, and grinned at Neal before heading off with her teammates to celebrate. Sara and Jones disappeared soon after that, leaving Peter and Neal to walk back to the tram alone.
They just missed one, and there was a fifteen minute wait for the next. Neal listened to Peter expound at length on the strengths of the women’s team while wishing he had any tea left in his thermos. Three hours of sitting in an ice rink had left his nose running and both his head and his ears aching. He couldn’t help but sniffle and clear his throat - not quite a cough, but close. He tried not to - the last thing he wanted to was to call attention to it - but after the second or third time, Peter broke off mid-sentence and said, “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Neal said. “Just a throat tickle.”
“Just a throat tickle?” Peter repeated. “Neal, there is no such thing as ‘just a throat tickle’ at the Olympics. Are you getting sick?”
“No,” Neal said, too quickly, only to have Peter give him an incredulous look. “Probably not,” he amended. And then, when Peter still kept staring at him, “Maybe.”
“Neal,” Peter said. “Why didn’t you say something?”
“I didn’t think it was anything,” Neal protested.
“You mean you were hoping it wasn’t anything.”
“Yeah,” Neal sighed, “I guess so. I just need some sleep. I’ve been jet lagged since I got here.”
“Yeah, I don’t think so,” Peter said. “This is the Olympics, Neal. You don’t play Russian Roulette with your health. We’re going to the polyclinic as soon as we get back to the village. They’ll give you some approved cold medication.”
Neal glared at him. “You’re worse than Mozzie.”
“Under these rare circumstances, I’ll take that as a compliment.”
The polyclinic in the village resembled a clean, modern emergency room, with a waiting area and a few cubicles in the back. Neal appeared to be their only patient, and so the nurse on duty quickly ushered him into the back. A young doctor poked and prodded him a bit, made him say ahh, looked in his ears, and finally told him he had a cold. Neal barely managed not to roll his eyes, especially when he ended up leaving with an array of over the counter cold medication that’d been approved by the IOC for use by athletes. But there was also a course of antibiotics, because the doctor said she didn’t like the looks of his ears. Neal briefly imagined trying to skate with an ear infection before filling the prescription without further protest.
To add insult to all this injury, she also gave him a face mask and told him to wear it whenever he was out in public until his symptoms abated. The last thing they needed was for a cold virus to start sweeping through Olympic Village. Neal saw the wisdom in it, but all he could think was that he was going to look ridiculous wearing a face mask in practice.
Peter was waiting for him when he finally came out, prescriptions in hand and mask covering his nose and mouth. It was late by then, and Neal wouldn’t have blamed him if he’d left. But he was awfully glad he hadn’t.
“What’s the verdict?” Peter asked, standing.
“The common cold,” Neal said, “though she was worried about my ears, so I have antibiotics.”
“Good,” Peter said. “See, isn’t it better that we came in?”
“Yeah, yeah, except she told me to rest tomorrow and the next day, no practicing, so now I can’t avoid telling Moz. He’s going to be insufferable. And when I’m not in practice tomorrow someone is going to ask why and then the commentators will be all over it like white on rice.”
“A small price to pay for being well enough to compete,” Peter pointed out. “How many days do you have left?”
“We go after the dance and the pairs,” Neal said, “so about five. I should be okay by then.” But the lost practice time was going to sting. Moz had been right earlier; he was skating the best he ever had. He was afraid that if he stopped now, even for just a couple of days, he’d lose his momentum, and whatever ground he’d gained on his quad would be lost. There was no point in whining about that to Peter, though.
Despite Neal’s protests that it was out of Peter’s way and he would be all right getting home on his own, Peter walked him back to his apartment. It was almost eleven by the time they got there; his roommates were either out or asleep. Peter made him sit down on the stiff IKEA sofa in the living room while he made some tea, and then supervised him as he took his first dose of antibiotics, along with some of the nighttime cold medication. Mug of tea in hand, Neal relaxed slowly into Peter’s side. For all that he’d protested, it’d been nice to have someone take charge and force him to act sensibly.
“I had fun tonight.”
“Hmm,” Peter said. “Sitting in a cold rink for a couple hours probably didn’t do you any favors.”
“No, but I’m glad I went anyway.” Neal let his head fall to rest against Peter’s shoulder. “Your first game is tomorrow, right?”
“Yes, tomorrow evening. I was going to ask you to come but you’ll have to watch it on TV instead.”
“I will,” Neal promised, snuggling closer to Peter. “Are you going to go out with the team afterward?”
“Probably, but I’ll see if I can get away early enough to stop by. Now come on,” Peter said. “To bed with you.”
“Would rather to bed with you,” Neal replied sleepily, prompting a laugh from Peter.
“Me too, but it’s not in the cards tonight.” Peter pulled Neal to his feet and helped him shuffle over to the door to his room. There they paused. Peter brushed his lips across Neal’s forehead - not quite the kiss Neal was hoping for, but he couldn’t blame Peter for not wanting to expose himself. “Get some rest, all right?”
“I will,” Neal said. He leaned in the threshold and waited until Peter had let himself out before closing the bedroom door.
His own roommate, one of the dancers, wasn’t in, but that was to be expected, since he was married to his partner. Neal changed into warm pajamas and crawled under the covers, glad despite himself that Peter had forced him to see a doctor. He really felt like crap, and left to his own devices he probably would have stayed in denial until it was too late to do anything about it.
Moz was just as insufferable the next day as Neal had feared, and even though Neal knew it was only out of concern, that didn’t make his mother-henning less annoying. He hovered until Neal finally kicked him out, and then Neal curled up in his bed with his laptop to watch some of the snowboarding coverage and nap intermittently. His teammates were giving him a wide berth, and Neal didn’t blame them. He wouldn’t have wanted to risk catching something either.
He was dozing to a recap of the previous day’s events when the mention of his name caused Neal to open one eye just in time to see a shot of him and Sara in the stands with Peter and Jones. “Turning out to support their teammates on Team USA were figure skater Neal Caffrey, his choreographer Sara Ellis, and Peter Burke and Clinton Jones from the men’s hockey team. You don’t see much interaction between the hockey players and the figure skaters, do you, Jane?” the commentator said, turning to his female co-anchor.
“You don’t,” the woman - Jane, Neal supposed - said. “But it’s the Olympics, so everyone pulls together to support each other, especially in the team sports, like hockey. Burke and Caffrey both train in Buffalo, so it’s possible they were friends before the games started. And Jones was looking very friendly indeed with Sara Ellis.”
Neal snorted in amusement and closed his eyes to go back to sleep.
He was feeling a lot better by that evening - still congested, but his ears didn’t hurt at least. Michael, who’d heard through the grapevine that Neal was under the weather, showed up just as the hockey game was starting. He heated Neal up some of the soup Moz had brought him earlier and pulled a chair up next to Neal’s bed so they could both watch.
It was the first time he’d gotten to see Peter play outside his scrimmages with Diana and Jones at the rink in Buffalo. Watching the game on his laptop screen wasn’t ideal - he could barely see the puck - but listening to the commentators helped. Peter’s return after being out for months with his injury was apparently one of the big stories of the night, and the commentators openly speculated about whether he was really ready. “I’ll guess we’ll find out,” one of them said, unnecessarily ominously, in Neal’s opinion, and then the game started.
The U.S. was playing Slovenia, and like the women’s game the night before, this one obviously wasn’t very well matched. The U.S. scored two goals in the first five minutes. Neither of them were by Peter, but it was still exciting. Less exciting, though, as the game went on in pretty much that same way. Peter seemed to have a good game, even if he didn’t score a goal, and by the end the commentators seemed to have concluded that he was back in shape.
“And that’s really down to his own determination,” one of them said as the clock ran down on the last two minutes of the game. “A lot of people would’ve decided there was no way they’d be back in time for the Olympics with a broken leg, but Burke really pushed himself.”
“Not sure if there’s much he can do for the Sabres at this point,” the other commentator said. “They’ve had such an abysmal season so far.”
“I don’t know, I think the verdict’s still out on that. Burke’s not just a great defenseman, he’s also a leader, and I think with him back we’re going to be seeing a very different side of the Buffalo Sabres. Speaking of which, Clinton Jones has the puck and he’s broken away from the crowd - we might be getting one last goal in tonight - yes! Straight into the net at the buzzer. Eight to one here tonight, and well done, Team USA.”
Michael started to turn it off, but Neal swatted his hand away. “Post-game interviews,” he said.
Michael rolled his eyes. “You’ve got it so bad. And for a hockey player.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Neal asked with a frown.
“Just that hockey players, they aren’t exactly geniuses.”
“And most figure skaters are?” Neal replied, dryly.
Michael waved his hand. “One must have a sense of aesthetics for figure skating. A sense of art. This skating back and forth and back and forth after a tiny puck and slamming into each other, that does not require thought.”
“Peter has a degree in applied mathematics from Boston College,” Neal said. “They don’t hand those out in the parking lot, you know. It’s more education than I have, that’s for sure.”
Michael opened his mouth to respond, but Neal waved him silent because Peter had just appeared on the screen, and the interviewer was shoving a mike in his face. “So, how does it feel to be back after so long on the injured reserve list?”
Peter was grinning from ear to ear. Just seeing him so happy made Neal happy. “It feels great. I’ve been practicing a lot, but I’ve really missed being out on the ice with my team.”
“Were you happy with your performance tonight?”
“I was,” Peter said. “Practices have been going well, our lines have really been gelling. We all play for different teams in the NHL, but that doesn’t matter here. Honestly, I think this team is capable of great things.”
It was so like Peter, Neal thought, to take a question that had been about him - the interviewer clearly hadn’t meant that you to be collective - and make it about the team. Neal had never really been into team sports himself - not that ice skating had left much room for other sports, but he’d done a little running and swimming over the years, both solitary pursuits. He and Sara had been a team, though, and he still mourned the loss of that.
“Great things, like a gold medal?” the interviewer asked. “You guys are definitely in contention for the podium, but Canada’s team is a real powerhouse, and the Finns, Swedes, and Russians are all contenders as well. Do you think you could beat them if it came down to the two of you in the gold medal game?”
“Canada has some great players,” Peter said, “including some I’ve played with on the Sabres for years. But I think we’ve got a great shot at it.”
“One last thing before we let you go,” the woman said, just as Peter was obviously about to turn away. “You and Neal Caffrey were spotted out and about last night at the women’s game, but we didn’t see him here tonight. Care to comment?”
Peter didn’t even miss a beat. “Neal and I shared ice in Buffalo for a little while. He’s a good guy and a great friend. I’ve been trying to win him over to hockey, but he couldn’t make it tonight.”
The woman obviously thought that was adorable. “What about you, has he won you over to figure skating?”
“He’s working on it,” Peter said with a grin, and the interview ended.
There wasn’t likely to be any more Peter, so Neal let Michael turn it off. He sat back, feeling tired and ready for a shower and bed, even though he’d slept most of the day. Michael got up and took his soup mug and his tea into the kitchen, then came back and leaned in the doorway, looking at him.
“What?” Neal asked, irritably.
“That didn’t bother you?” Michael said. “That he said you were a friend?”
“A great friend,” Neal corrected, “and no. What was he supposed to say? We shared ice in Buffalo and also we boned once? Yeah, once,” he added, when Michael looked incredulous. “We didn’t have a whole lot of time, and we’ve both been a little busy since then.”
Michael shrugged. “Okay, then. Do you need anything?”
“Nah, I’m okay,” Neal said. “I’m going to take a shower and go to sleep.”
“You will call me if you do need anything?”
“I will,” Neal promised, and saw him out.
The hot shower felt good and left him sleepy and relaxed, as well as breathing better. He made himself some toast and another mug of tea, pretending all the while that he wasn’t waiting for Peter to text him and say whether he was going to make it by or not.
His phone finally buzzed as he was climbing back into bed. Hey, hope you’re feeling better, Peter had written. I don’t think I’m going to be able to break away in time to stop by.
No problem, Neal replied, even though he was disappointed. But he got it; after a victory like that, Peter probably both wanted and needed to be with his team. Congrats on the win. Maybe tomorrow?
Definitely. Late morning okay? I’ll bring lunch.
Perfect, Neal replied. Most of his roommates would be out then.
Neal set his phone on his nightstand and then curled up under the blankets on the still unfamiliar mattress. Michael could think what he wanted, and so could Moz, he thought. He knew that this thing with Peter was worth it, every little bit of it.