pooh_collector: (pooh again)
[personal profile] pooh_collector
Title: A Christmas Pilot Part 2
Author: pooh_collector
Rating: G
Characters: Neal Caffrey, Peter Burke, Elizabeth Burke, June Ellington, Diana Berrigan, Clinton Jones
Pairings: Past Neal/Kate, Pre-P/E/N
Spoilers: S:1 E:1, Pilot
Warnings: Canon Character Death
Word Count: 12,370 total
Summary: A retelling of Pilot set during the holiday season where Neal was never a criminal, but he and Peter strike a deal (or two) nonetheless.
A/N: Thanks [livejournal.com profile] kanarek13 for all the amazing art!







“This is it?” Peter asked as they started up the main aisle of the church on West Eighth Street.

“Yup.”

The building was obviously under renovation, scaffolding graced the front of the church, along with a field of white drop clothes and cans of paint and painting paraphernalia.

As they began to walk up the aisle, an older, grey-haired priest approached them. “You can’t come in. The church is closed for restoration.”

“Oh, sorry father,” Neal responded.

Peter thought fast and went with the first thing that came to him. “Can we just have a minute?” He asked the man. The priest nodded and then Peter put his arm around his shoulder and directed him back down the aisle, out of Neal’s earshot.

“Father, please father. My friend is having a crisis of the soul.”

The priest lifted his eyebrows in skepticism.

“He recently lost his wife. And, he’s having a very difficult time.”

“It’s very common with men in his situation. Unfortunately, very common.”

“And I want to confront him about this before he lets it destroy him. He is a mess, but he is very spiritual. I know this is the place where my words will have the most effect.”

The priest looked at Peter, concerned, but still resolute. “This is the city of churches. We’re closed. Surely there is another place…”

Peter put it in overdrive. “This is where he was married,” he added quickly.

The priest breathed a sigh and then nodded. “Five minutes.”

“Thank you, thank you father.”

Peter turned and walked back to Neal. “Sorry about that. We have five.”

Neal looked at Peter, wondering what the older man could possibly have told the priest to gain them admittance. “Did you just lie to a priest?”

“Nope.” Peter didn’t elaborate. He didn’t feel great about using what little he knew about Neal’s obvious pain to help them solve this case, but if working to solve the case helped heal some of that pain, then maybe it would all balance out in the end.

The continued up the aisle to the transept where the Church’s artwork was in the process of being restored.

“Extraordinary,” Neal said as he examined the frescos before him.

“Real nice. How does this relate to the bond?”

Neal climbed over a small railing to get a closer look. In the pattern on a hem of a dress in one the frescoes he saw them, the C and the H.

“Look, C and H.” He motioned to Peter, who climbed over the rail to join him.

Peter scanned the area that Neal had pointed to. “Where?”

Neal put his finger right up against the spot where the letters were painted into the design. “Right there, C, H.”

Peter shrugged. “Maybe, it looks a diamond to me.”

Neal shook his head at Peter’s feigned obtuseness. “Ah, it’s a C and an H. You know the alphabet right?”

“What am I looking at?”

Neal pointed again. “Right here. In this diamond. It’s the only one that has a C in it.”

“It looks like an arrowhead to me.” Peter replied, baiting Neal just a little.

“Um, yes, but this isn’t Indian art. You know the alphabet, that’s a c and an h.” Neal knew that Peter was playing with him. This banter between the two of them was starting to become routine and Neal liked it, even when it was sort of frustrating.

Peter squinted at the fresco. “Am I looking at the round…”

“The square one, the square one.”

“Hmmm, maybe.”

“Can I help you gentleman?” Neal had been concentrating on the fresco and on his enjoyment of Peter’s companionship, so he missed the approach of the man behind them. When he turned around, he was face to face with the man they suspected of forging the Goya, Curtis Hagen.

Hagen squinted up at Neal. “Your face, it’s familiar.”

Neal stepped back over the railing and held out his hand. “Neal Caffrey.”

“Forgive me if I don’t shake hands with a competitor,” Hagen’s British accent seemed to get stronger with the sarcasm.

“Think of me more as an admirer,” Neal countered.

“Admirer or no, I’m concerned about having you in my space,” Hagen replied dismissively. Then he turned his attention on Peter. “And you are?”

“Just a friend,” Peter replied nonchalantly as he climbed back over the railing to stand beside Neal.

“Well friend, this church is closed.” There was an unmistakable edge of venom in Hagen’s voice.

Peter took the hint and put his hand on the small of Neal’s back and began to lead the younger man back down the aisle of the church.

“Did you see it?” Neal asked when they were nearly at the end of the nave.

“You’ve got me curious. We’ll check him out.”

***



Back at the office they went their separate ways, Neal to his confiscated conference room to continue his restoration and Peter to his office to get down to digging into Hagen - and Neal.

By the end of the day he hadn’t learned much more about their suspected Dutchman, but he had learned something simply heartbreaking about his expert.

That night, over dinner, he told El about Neal’s Christmas wedding two years ago, and how his beautiful wife was killed just one year later when their private plane blew up on the runaway when a gas line cracked in the freezing December weather.

“No wonder he’s been hiding himself away for the last year.”

Peter could only nod. Telling the tale had made his throat tighten and tears well in his eyes. Just imagining the magnitude of Neal’s loss was enough to make him emotional. He had no idea how he would manage to go on if he ever lost El.

His ever-perceptive wife saw the sadness he couldn’t keep from being revealed on his face and reached across the table to take his hand. “You can’t get rid of me that easily. In fact, you’re going to be stuck with me for a very long time, Peter Burke.”

“I hope so.” He knew he wasn’t as good as he should be at showing El how much he loved and appreciated her. He didn’t yet know how he was going to do it, but he would find a way to make this anniversary special. He would find a way to let her know that she was the best thing that would ever happen to him.

“I know so, Mister. Now, what are we going to do to help Neal?”

Peter sighed. “More of what I’ve been doing, I guess. Keeping him working with me on this case. Help keep his mind in the present, instead of the past.”

“That’s a good start.”

That mischievous smile was back on his wife’s face. “You have some other ideas?” Peter asked.

“I might be working on one or two.”

***



Neal didn’t show up at the office the next morning. Peter tried calling his cell and it went straight to voicemail, something Peter was all too familiar with from before they started working together. So he took a drive uptown to June’s Riverside Drive mansion.

June herself opened the door. “Peter? Neal left for your office nearly two hours ago.”

Peter grimaced. “He never arrived.”

June sighed. Peter wondered if she had experienced a disappearing Neal before.

“Do you know where he could be?”

“I’m afraid I do. 177 Prince Street. The apartment on the top floor. Would you be a dear and go and get him. Bring him home or better yet, take him to your office. Let him help you with the Dutchman.” She took Peter’s hand. “You’re helping him as much as he’s helping you, perhaps more.”

Peter nodded, honored and honestly a bit frightened by June’s admission. “I’ll go find him.”

The address that June had given him was for a loft in Soho. Peter used his badge to get into the building and made his way up to the apartment. The door to the loft was open and Peter walked in without knocking to find the place nearly empty. An old bicycle sat against one wall, a filing cabinet against another, and sitting on the floor, against a pillar in the center of the expansive room, sat Neal holding an old Bordeaux bottle.

“So, I was wondering if I could get your help with something,” Peter said as he circled the space.

“Do you have more information on Hagen?” Neal asked dully.

“No, Diana has that back at the office.” Peter didn’t know if he was taking the right tack, but it was all he could come up with, and it was worth a shot. “I’ve been going through my wife’s visa bill, you know trying to come up with a solution for our anniversary.”

Neal held his gaze on the bottle in his hands.

“I’ve got it all. Her ebay bids, video rentals, library books. Thank you Patriot Act.”

“So you’re stalking your wife?” Neal asked, hesitantly.

Peter shrugged. “That might be one way of putting it.”

“You figure out what she likes?”

“Yup, it’s all in the summaries, pottery making, Nancy Drew mysteries, the Princess Bride, scented candles, Oleander, Harrison Ford, old jazz, anything Italian except anchovies.”

Neal cleared his throat. “I don’t think you’re going to find your answer tucked into a list of her old ebay bids.

Peter crossed his fingers hoping he wasn’t crossing a line. Then he crouched down in front of Neal. “Then help me out here. What would you do?”

Neal turned the bottle over in his hands again. “Do you know what this is?”

“It looks like an ’82 Bordeaux. Pricey, they cost what, 800 bucks a pop?”

“It does when it’s full. I got it empty.” Neal’s lips turned up in a sad smile.

“Empty?”

It was desperately hard to talk about his wife, but for some reason, it was getting easier, at least with Peter. “When Kate, my wife, and I first met, we had nothing. So I got this bottle and I used to fill it up with whatever I could afford and we would sit here in this crappy apartment and drink it over cold pizza and pretend we were living in the Cote d’Azur.”

“How’d that work out for you?” Peter prompted.

“It was a promise of a better life. One that we got to share for a minute and half before she was killed.” There were tears in Neal’s eyes. “Make Elizabeth any promises Peter? And you think what she really wants is Oleander candles?”

Peter shook his head. “Yeah, and no.”

Peter stood and reached his hand down to Neal. “Come on, we’ve got a Dutchman with a British accent to catch.”

Neal hesitated. This place, with its beat up walls, faulty HVAC system, and film-coated windows was his past. One that he would do anything to get back. But Kate was gone and these walls held nothing but memories. Memories he could take with him, if he moved forward.

He took Peter’s hand and let the FBI agent pull him easily up to his feet.

***

Later that afternoon, Neal was sitting with Peter in his office going over what they had on Hagen, when Diana walked in. “Hagen is leaving the country. He booked a flight though a private charter company in Barcelona for the 23rd.”

Peter scowled. “Three days, dammit Neal seeing you must have tipped him off.”

“He’s going to Spain, that’s something,” Neal offered.

“Is there any connection to the books, or the bonds or the murder?” Peter asked.

Diana shook her head. “Hagen is impressive as hell. A lot of international holdings, but he keeps himself out of the muck.”

Peter was furious at the prospect of losing years’ worth of work on this case. “Get every available agent on this. You know the good ones. Steal them if you have to. I want to know every single thing about this guy. I don’t want any excuses. Anything gets in your way…”

“Forge your signature. Always do,” Diana confessed as she headed back out of the office.

“That’s what I want to hear!”

When Diana was gone, Peter turned back to Neal. “If you’re right about Hagen, we have three days to connect him to the bond. If we lose him, on the 23rd…” Peter shook his head.

***

Neal went home that night, let himself out onto the balcony and stared up at the stars. It was freezing, but he hardly noticed. December 23rd, the anniversary of Kate’s death. In three more days Neal would have somehow managed to live a year without her.

The simple act of living had been easy at first. June, who was a dear friend and an early patron of his work, had taken him in. She had made sure he had a bed to sleep in, food to eat, wine with which to drown his sorrows. After a time, she slowly and carefully began vetting job offers for him, at first just one here and there, things he would find intriguing for clients who were understanding and generous. And then a few more. And before he realized it, summer had come and he was working every day on the balcony in the sun. Still, he didn’t leave the mansion often. People asked questions he didn’t want to answer. And, it was hard to watch life go on without the woman who meant everything to him, who had in fact been his life.

When Peter Burke had called, Neal had admittedly been intrigued. He had always seen the task of art restoration as solving mysteries. What had the original artist intended this color to be? What emotion was he trying to convey with that brush stroke? What story was he trying to tell? So the idea of helping the FBI solve a real mystery was tempting and frightening. Dealing with people he didn’t know, who didn’t know him; he hadn’t thought he was ready to do that.

But Peter had persisted and then June had done what she had spent the past year doing and pushed him gently, telling him in her own way that this was something that he should do. And so he had.

It was good to feel useful, to feel like he was doing something for someone other than himself, to feel just a little bit, like a part of the world again. Even more he liked Peter. The older man was gruff, inelegant even, but he had a kindness that Neal couldn’t really describe. He was easy to be with, he didn’t treat Neal like someone who was damaged. He didn’t ask for more than Neal could give, he didn’t expect anything other than Neal’s expertise.

But one way or another Neal’s time with the FBI, with Peter, was going to come to an end in three days. If you had asked him a week ago, he would have said no, he wanted nothing to do with the FBI, or with the Dutchman, or with Peter Burke, but now…

Now, if it was going to end, he wanted it to end well, with Hagen behind bars. Determined Neal stepped back inside his apartment. He had some phone calls to make.

***

Early the next morning Neal knocked tentatively on Peter’s office door. Peter turned away from his desk and smiled before waving Neal into the office.

“You figure out your anniversary plans yet?” Neal asked once he had stepped inside.

“I’m getting close. Very close,” Peter replied.

“So you’ve nothing?

Peter nodded. “Nothing, but I’ll find it.”

“Well, I found Hagen.” It was hard not to be excited about what he had discovered, but Neal kept his voice even.

“Where?” Peter asked immediately.

“There’s this warehouse, down by the docks. Hagen runs it through a shell corporation out of Guatemala.”

Peter looked at him skeptically. “We didn’t know about this? How did you?”

“I don’t’ think you rely on rumor as much as I do.”

“Neal-“

Neal held up his hand to forestall Peter’s further questioning. “Peter, I run in the same circles as Hagen, or at least I used to. And, I know a lot of people, who know a lot of things about the very small circle of art restoration.”

Peter couldn’t argue with that. “Let’s go.”

***



An hour later they found themselves down by the docks in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The address Neal had gotten was for a large, plain metal building with a corrugated roof. From around the corner of a nearby structure Neal and Peter scoped out the warehouse. Outside stood four large men, who looked like they were trying hard to blend into the scenery, just dock workers on a break. They were failing.

“Check out the security,” Neal said pointing his thumb in the direction of the muscle for hire.

Peter shrugged. “So they’ve got themselves some plain wrapped guards and they keep a low profile. So do half the warehouses in this harbor. I need more than that. I need more.”

Just then a truck began to move through the space between them and the guards. With no more than a moment’s hesitation Neal booked out from their hiding space and scrunched up behind the wheels of the truck. Peter was right behind him. They moved right past the four men and around the side of the warehouse.

When they were clear, Neal tucked himself up against the metal wall to see if he could hear what might be going on inside. Excitement crawled up his spine. “Do you hear that, Peter?”

“Hear what?”

“Kind of a shush shush.” He couldn’t keep his feelings from coloring his voice. “That’s a press. Dammit Peter that’s a printing press. He’s printing the bonds in there right now.”

That piqued Peter’s interest. “How long until they’re done?”

Neal shrugged. “A multi-color print job as complicated as the Goya. Test proofs, ink formulation, perfect registration, he’ll be running it for days. Probably until just before he leaves to catch his flight to Barcelona.”

Peter pulled out his cell and dialed. Moments later his probie answered. “Diana?”

“Yeah boss?”

“We need recording equipment down here immediately.”

“You got it boss.”

Four hours later Neal and Peter were back in Peter’s office listening to a replay of what the recording engineers got from the warehouse.

When the playback finished Peter turned to Neal. “We’re good. It’s a Heidelberg windmill platens press manufactured in 1942. I’m on board. Hagen is our guy.” Peter sighed. “But we still don’t have enough for a warrant.”

Neal was incredulous. “We know the bonds are there. Just open the door.”

Peter slid a faux leather-bound tome across his desk to Neal. “Um hm. You should read this. Warrant law. All I’ve got is a sound coming out of a warehouse and no way to link him to the bonds.”

***

Very early the next morning Neal lay on the sofa in his apartment in his red silk pajama bottoms scanning the book on Warrant Law. Peter had of course been correct. He couldn’t get a warrant with the information that they had and he couldn’t just walk in without tainting all the evidence they might find. There had to be some way to get Peter and his team in there legitimately.

Neal shut the book and placed it on the floor beside the sofa. There was one way, it was crazy and impetuous and impulsive as hell, things he hadn’t been since Kate’s death.

It was his impetuousness that had brought them together in the first place when he was just starting his career. She was the hostess at a charity dinner that Vincent Adler was throwing. He was one of the world’s foremost art collectors and had huge pull in most of the world’s best museums. So Neal faked his way into the event, switched his place card with Adler’s girlfriend’s and managed to get two minutes to convince Adler to hire him to do some restoration work for him.

It was a thrilling victory, but the best part of the evening was meeting Kate; the shine of her blue eyes when she realized how he had impishly wormed his way into the event and onto Adler’s radar.

Neal had been in love the moment he saw her. Kate took some convincing, but every moment of the time that had taken, and every moment they had after that, had been irreplaceable.

It was time to start being the man that Kate eventually fell in love with again. Determined, Neal got up, got dressed and borrowed the keys to June’s Jag.

Not long after sunrise, Neal brazenly pulled the Jag up right in front of the warehouse and got out with his camera in hand. In full view of the guards he began snapping pictures of the whole area.

Almost immediately one of the goons approached him. “Hey, hey!”

“Hey there,” Neal replied with a small wave, before resuming his picture taking.

“You can’t be here,” the guy said.

“Oh, I’m taking a photography class over at the annex and pictures of rusty sheet metal are a surefire A.”

The guard signaled to two of his buddies and in moments they had grabbed him on either side.

“You must be doing some kind of surveillance,” one of them stated.

Neal rolled his eyes. Not the brightest bunch, as he had hoped.

“He’s not a cop,” the first guy concluded. “Okay take him in. And go get Hagen.”

The men dragged Neal into the warehouse where stacks of Blanca Nieves y los Siete Enanos sat on pallets next to the running printing press. The press itself was quite obviously churning out copies of the Spanish Victory bond. Neal smiled to himself.

The men grabbed the camera from his hands, but didn’t bother to search him before tossing him into a glass-paneled office in the center of the space.

As soon as they shut the door behind him, Neal turned away, pulled his phone from the pocket of his pea coat and dialed Peter’s number.

“Hello, Neal?”

“Um, hey Peter. I’m calling to make an official report. I’m being held against my will in a warehouse in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.”

“Excuse me?”

“I would really appreciate it if you could, you know, send in the cavalry.”

“I’m on my way. And Neal, please don’t do anything stupid… anything else stupid.”

“I’ll try.”

Neal hung up, stashed the phone back in his pocket, turned back around and while no one was watching, locked the door to the office.

Twenty minutes later, Hagen showed up striding angrily toward the office where Neal stood before an antique desk.

“What exactly is going on here?” Neal knew the moment that Hagen recognized him. “Why’d you bring him inside?” He asked his henchmen angrily.

“He was taking pictures,” one of them replied as if that was explanation enough for their actions.

With murderous intent clear in his eyes Hagen attempted to enter the office. It rattled, but the lock held. “Open the door!” He commanded.

Neal smiled back at him, somehow enjoying the moment, despite the danger.

“You’re a dead man,” Hagen yelled.

Neal leaned toward the door and shrugged. “That’s sounds like inch-thick Lexan.”

Hagen signaled to one of his men, who rushed off. Turning back to Neal he said, “Keys are on the way.”

Neal rapped his knuckles on the top of the huge desk. “Nice,” he commented as sat down on its surface. There were two wooden boxes beside him. One was clearly a humidor. When he opened the second, he found the original victory bond. He smiled and then looked back to Hagen. “You shouldn’t have signed the bonds,” he said. “I’m no stranger to vanity myself so I understand the impulse.”

Hagen sneered. “I’m gonna to kill you. I hope whatever they’re giving you is worth it.”

Neal thought about it for a moment. What was he getting exactly? He had spent more time out of his apartment in the last week than he had in the last year. He had met good people. He was engaging in life again, with a smile even. For the first time since Kate had died, he was looking forward to what came next. “It is.”

From outside the sound of approaching sirens could be heard. Peter was here and not a moment too soon.

“You are a particular kind of bastard,” Hagen said to Neal as the reality of the situation became obvious. He turned back to his crew. “Grab the bonds. Everybody let’s go. Come on.”

Moments later the doors broke open and FBI agents wearing bullet-proof vests and carrying semi-automatic weapons swarmed the space, Peter and Diana trailing them.

“Hands in the air!” Someone yelled. It took no time at all for Hagen and his men to be rounded up and placed in cuffs.

Peter smiled as he spotted Neal safely ensconced within the office. Neal unlocked the door and then hopped back up to his perch on the desk. He grabbed two cigars from the humidor and offered one to Peter as the older man joined him.

Peter took Neal’s offering and then peering into the other box on the desk. “Is that the original victory bond?”

“Yes, yes it is,” Neal replied, pride and true happiness radiating through his voice.



***

The day after they had nailed Hagen with a warehouse full of evidence, including one kidnapped consultant, Peter returned to the mansion on Riverside Drive. This time when he knocked on Neal’s door the younger man opened it wide and stepped aside to let Peter in. While his demeanor had certainly changed, Neal looked tired and if Peter wasn’t wrong, sad.

“Peter.”

“Neal. You doing okay?” Peter asked as he stepped into Neal’s apartment.

Neal smiled faintly and nodded. He may not have known the kid for very long but Peter wasn’t fooled for a minute.

It was mid-afternoon, but an open bottle of red stood on the dining table with a half-full glass beside it.

“Can I join you?” Peter pointed toward the table and then walked over to the refrigerator. “I hope you have a beer in here.”

Before pulling the handle, Peter glanced at the door and noticed four lines of magnetic poetry stuck there:

“There your light is barely a whisper”

“Sleep bitter sleep”

“Music is honey”

“Fiddle together”

Peter raised an eyebrow, opened the fridge and ducked his head in in search of a beer. There was one bottle in the back, some small batch local brew. Not his usual taste, but it would work in a pinch.

Neal had returned to the table and was sipping from his glass so Peter took a seat across from him, twisted the cap off the bottle and took a long swig while he considered how to start this conversation.

“I thought about what you said,” he finally began.

Neal looked up at Peter questioningly. “Which was?”

“About promises. I found my bottle. El and I, we let a lot of time get away from us, between her company and the FBI. And, you were right, we don’t know how much time we’ll have together. I need to make sure she knows that every one of them is precious to me.”

Neal nodded. Peter could see the beginning of tears brightening the younger man’s eyes.

“I promised her a trip to the Caribbean a long time ago. I’m taking her to Belize for a week. We leave the day after Christmas.”

“She’ll love it. Good choice, Peter.”

“Yeah. Now I just need to come up with a special way to tell her.”

Neal smiled again and this time Peter could see something genuine lurking within it. “Leave that to me.”

Peter nodded. “Okay.”

They sat in silence for a few minutes, sipping at their drinks while Peter tried to come up with something to say that wouldn’t sound too stupid or overly cheesy. But, Neal beat him to it.

“I appreciate you coming by today, Peter.”

“I thought you might like some company for a while.”

Neal nodded. “I miss her.”

“I can only imagine and honestly I don’t want to,” Peter conceded.

“It’s getting better, most days, thanks to June and my work and… more recently you.”

Peter smiled and then reached over and placed his hand on top of Neal’s where it lay resting on the tabletop. “I’m glad.”

“Me too.”

***



On Christmas Eve Peter took El to dinner, a corner booth at Donatella’s. But instead of going straight home afterward they drove to Riverside Drive. He led her up the stairs and before they headed outside to the patio, Peter pulled one of his ties out of his pocket and wrapped it gently around El’s head, covering her eyes. He didn’t want her to see what Neal had helped him arrange until she was standing in the midst of it.

He opened the patio door and led her out. She was smiling brilliantly despite the blindfold. “Careful, hon.”

“All right.” She stumbled slightly. “Oh.”

“All right,” Peter repeated.

“Honey?”

“Almost there,” he assured her as he led her farther out onto the patio.

“I think I’m getting sea sick.”

“A little farther.”

“Okay.”

They took a few more steps forward and then Peter stopped her. “All right. This is good. Now, I want you to keep your eyes closed,” Peter said as he reached to untie his tie.

“Oh, I promise.”

Peter moved over to the table and turned on a boom box. Calypso music filled the cold night air. “Okay, open them.”

El opened her eyes to find herself on a roof deck strung with white lights. The space was decorated like something out of the tropics complete with deck chairs, palm trees, an umbrella, and against one wall, a surfboard. Near the loungers sat a roaring brazier.

Peter stood awkwardly in the middle of it all. “Honey, you know how every year, I’m always promising you that we’re going to go to-“

“To the Caribbean.”

Peter looked around. “This is sort of what you wanted?”

“Well, I think if I keep my eyes closed,” she began, closing her eyes again. “I can actually imagine us being there.”

Peter took her by the hand and led her over to the fire pit.

“Ohhh, it’s getting warmer.”

“It is. Come here.” Peter gently pulled her with him as he sat down on the deck chair closest to the fire. El snuggled up against his chest. Peter handed her a beer and then grabbed one for himself.

“Huh, screw top,” El said with a smile.

“Cheesy?” Peter asked.

“It’s a little cheesy,” El confirmed. “But it’s sweet.”

“Maybe this will help.” He pulled the plane tickets out of his jacket and handed them to his wife. “Belize.”

“What?” She looked at the tickets in her hand, trying to figure out what Peter was saying.

“I found the time. We have a week. And two plane tickets and a seized villa in Sarteneja.”

“Where?”

“Oh, this really incredible beach front villa that the bureau seized from some narco trafficker. It's amazing.”

El stopped him, by placing her hand on his cheek. “Just tell me it’s nice?”

“It’s nice.”

“I love you.”

Peter looked at her and remembered Neal for a moment and then thought again about how damn lucky he was to have El in his life. “I love you.”

She smiled again and snuggled closer to him. “Thank you.”

“Thank you.”

***

Christmas day dawned bright and cold. The sky was a stunning crystal blue. Neal dressed in one of his favorite suits, the one Byron used to wear when he took June dancing. He added a bright red tie and pocket square to his outfit and then headed downstairs to share brunch with June, her children and her grandchildren.

It was bittersweet. He smiled as he watched the grandkids excitedly opening and playing with their gifts. But, then he thought about the children he would never have with Kate. Brunch was delicious and the chatter and laughter around the table were joyful. Neal knew he would always be welcome at this table, but he couldn’t help regretting that there was no table in his own happy family home to invite others to.

Once the gifts were all opened and the brunch dishes were cleared, Neal kissed June on the cheek, pulled on his overcoat and caught a cab out to Brooklyn, a bouquet of flowers in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other.

He hesitated at the top of the steps, not certain that he really belonged here, not certain of where he belonged at all.

Before he could turn away and head back onto the street, the door opened and there was Peter, a bright smile on his face. “Neal! You’re just in time.”

“Just in time?”

Peter nodded, took Neal by the elbow and guided him into the house. Neal’s arm where Peter was holding him felt warm and the touch felt comforting and right.

The Burke house was all aglow in Christmas cheer. A tree stood in one corner of the living room, covered in white lights. Carols were playing softly in the background and Neal could smell cinnamon and roasting turkey in the air.

Peter took the wine and the flowers from Neal’s hands. “Take off your coat. El will be right out with the appetizers.” He nodded toward the flowers. “I’ll just go and put these in some water.”

Neal’s hand went to stomach automatically. He had tried not to eat too much at brunch, knowing he was going to be having dinner here, but he definitely was not ready for appetizers yet.

Alone in the Burke’s living room, Neal pulled off his wool coat and draped it over the back of a chair and then went to take a closer look at the tree. The ornaments were a hodgepodge of colors and styles. Some looked quite old while others were clearly from more recent years. In the center of the tree was a silver heart, a photo of a younger El and Peter in its center. Etched around the edge it read Our First Christmas.

Tears sprung to Neal’s eye unbidden and grief for the things he never got to have with Kate tightened in his chest.

A slender arm enfolded around him as El pulled him into a gentle hug. “I’m sorry, sweetie. We wanted you to have a happy Christmas. I should have moved that ornament around to the back of the tree.”

Neal let himself be held for a long moment before replying. “It’s okay, really. I just wish Kate and I had had the chance to have what you and Peter have.”

El pulled away and smiled up at him. “Me too.”

Then Peter was there, wrapping his arms around the both of them. “Me three,” he said. He pulled them both in a little tighter. “But we get to have this, our first Christmas together, the first of many.

Neal smiled through his tears. Once he thought he knew what his future held, his beautiful wife, children, a white picket fence, years filled with love and adventure. Now, he had no idea what was coming, but for the first time, that was okay. There were new people in life, and new opportunities for love and it was time for some new adventures.



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