Neal - new default

It's A Wonderful Life, Part I

Title: It’s A Wonderful Life
Author: eldorah
Word Count: ~8,000
Rating: PG-13
Characters: Neal, Reese Hughes, Mozzie, Peter/Elizabeth, Jones, Diana, Satchmo, Estelle, Neal Burke 
Spoilers: Up to 6.06 – Au Revoir
Warnings: Angsty Neal, Peter, Mozzie; moment of non-canonical death of a canon character (resolved shortly after)
Beta Credit: rose_of_sharon1
Summary: Reese Hughes, guardian angel of Peter Burke, tracks down Neal to show him what life is like for those he loves now that Neal Caffrey no longer exists.

Author’s Note: This is a fill for kessiebabe’s prompt over in whitecollarhc who asked for a fic in which Neal sees what the world is like if he had never existed, a la the Christmas movie It's A Wonderful Life. It was written for the White Collar 2014 H/C Advent.     I had a completely different fill written for this, which one day I might edit and finagle something out of it good enough to post, but after the finale, I wasn’t ready to post it. My heart broke, but only because the finale was just the right amount of hurt and comfort and was oh so devastatingly beautiful. I am just not ready to do any more to our beloved characters right now than has already been so beautifully done in canon, so instead comes this.If you have not seen the series finale, episode 6.06, please do not read this if you don't want to be spoiled. For those of you who have seen the series finale, if you choose to read, I do hope you enjoy. Thank you to kessiebabe for an epic prompt. I hope you don’t mind the artistic license I took with the interpretation, given the fun ambiguity canon has now given us to play with.

Thank you so much to the very wonderful and oh-so-talented kanarek13 for taking the time to make beautiful, beautiful cover art for this story. I am a very lucky author. J

wonderful


Neal was happy.

Well, happy may have been the wrong word. One day, he might be happy again. But for now, Neal was satisfied. He had pulled off perhaps the greatest con - the world thought he was dead. And as much as he knew that would crush his friends – no, his family – it was the best, and only, way to keep everybody safe. Time could heal all wounds, or so he forced himself to believe. Woodford would have stopped at nothing but the sight of Neal’s blood to attain revenge and if that meant going through everyone on Neal’s contact list, so be it. Caffrey, the brilliant conman that he was – is - had found a way to give him blood without the manhunt. Someday, they all would recover from this. The loss of Neal Caffrey would not be easy to bear for anyone. But they all would recover, and one day he, and even Peter and Mozzie on the other side of the world, would wake up and life would feel normal again.

That day was not today; but one day, it would be true.

Neal sauntered along the street, flashing a smug smile in the direction of every attractive French woman who caught his eye. He had no two-mile radius and not a single root to ground him. His ankle felt a little lighter. His fedora felt right atop his head. Money abounded and he had a new alias. He was a free man, but he had left a large part of his heart in New York City.

A café around the corner offered the smell of freshly pressed Italian roast and the most perfect view of the city. It was also the perfect place to watch the comings and goings of the Louvre security. Neal hadn’t decided just yet if he was ready to go back to the life of a con, but he figured he ought to prepare either way.

“Elliot,” the young waiter stopped at his table, “The usual for you this morning, sir?”

“Yes, thank you,” Neal said with a tip of his hat, handing him the crepe paper menu that was on the table. It was just a little too cold for this time of year but his recently tailored Devore jacket kept the chill away from his bones. Stretching out his slender legs underneath the table, Neal leaned back in the wicker chair, readying himself for nothing in particular.

“You’re a son-of-a-bitch, Neal,” an all too familiar voice sounded from the chair next to him, “But you’re the best damn son-of-a-bitch I’ve ever seen.” 

Neal closed his eyes and for a brief moment, his heart flew into his throat. How on Earth did this happen? He had taken care of every last loose end….

“Agent Hughes,” the conman said, regaining composure and turning to shake the senior agent’s hand, “How did you find me?”

“I have my ways, Caffrey,” Reese replied in that way that made it impossible for Neal to determine a hidden meaning, “So, you found the perfect escape, I see?”

“I found the only solution to a giant problem that put everyone’s life at risk,” the younger man said, immediately defensive, “I had no other way.”

“You didn’t, at the time, I agree,” Hughes countered.

“I suppose you won’t just leave it at that,” Neal replied flatly.

“I can’t just leave it at that, Neal.”

“Did the Bureau send you?”

“No, the Bureau doesn’t know. They think you’re dead.”

“Did Peter send you?”

“No, Peter thinks you’re dead.”

“Did Mozzie send you?”


Reese just looked at him plainly in response.

“Right. That would be too much.”

“The whole world thinks you’re dead, Caffrey – “

“Excuse me, your coffee, Mr. Spade,” the waiter interrupted.

Neal, his cheeks suddenly flushing at the apparent burning of his brand new alias, hastily thanked the waiter and slipped an American twenty into his hand. The waiter understood and immediately scurried off.

“Elliot Spade, a strong name,” Hughes said contemplatively, “It suits you well. Nothing like the name Neal Caffrey, but good nonetheless.”

“What brings you here, Agent Hughes?” Neal demanded, “I can’t go back. It’s better for everyone this way, you understand.”

“Neal,” the senior agent said, leaning in across the small round table, “Do you really think that Peter is better off thinking you are dead? Did you think you were worth that little to him?”

“No - ” Neal stammered, “I didn’t. I didn’t want to do this. But Woodford - ”

“I know, Woodford would have stopped at nothing - ”

“So you see my predicament.”

“I also see another solution,” Hughes said softly. An unsettling quiet fell over the table as Neal processed what the older man meant.

“Let them know I am alive again?” Neal questioned, and Reese nodded silently.

“No. It’s too risky. If Woodford ever found out, if Keller ever found out - ”

“Keller’s dead, Neal. Peter shot him,” Reese informed bluntly, and Neal paled. He had never thought of Keller as more than a giant pain in the ass, but he hated death. He hated violence. And God, he hated guns.

“Still, if Woodford ever found out - ”

“What if I can show you what it’s like without you?”

Now, Neal stared blankly back at the agent.

“What if I can show you what their lives are like now that Neal Caffrey no longer exists?”

“How could you do that?”

“Do you trust me, Caffrey?”

Neal was silent for a moment. “With all due respect, sir, the only person I have ever trusted is Peter Burke.”

“Peter Burke trusts me. Is that good enough?”

Neal eyed the older agent curiously.

“Come on, let’s go for a walk. I have something I need to tell you,” Hughes said, getting up from his seat at the table.

The conman stayed seated for just a moment longer before reluctantly standing to join him. He was entirely uncomfortable at the thought of anyone from the Bureau knowing he was still alive, let alone someone as close to Peter as Reese Hughes. There goes his ideation of settling down in one place.

“Take me someplace beautiful, Caffrey, I have a lot of explaining to do and I have never seen this fine city.”

“It’s all beautiful, sir. That’s why I chose to come here.”

“It wouldn’t have had anything to do with Kate, would it?” Reese asked bluntly, starting off down a narrow alleyway.

Neal stopped in his tracks to face the senior agent.

“What do you know about Kate?” he asked forcefully.

“Relax, Caffrey. Nothing. I always just felt for you on that matter,” the agent said, “I wish I could have done something to stop it.”

Neal sighed. “She’s everywhere here. I see her in every coffee shop, in every storefront, in every piece of art being sold on the street. She loved it here. New York…New York was my home. But this,” Neal said, gesturing all around him, “This was our home.”

Reese looked empathetically on at Neal.

“But what could you have done,” the conman said, moving on quickly, “Now, what did you have to tell me?”

Reese sighed. “What if I could show you what life is like for those you love now that you’re dead?”

Neal cringed at the word. “That’s impossible.”

“But it’s not.”

“Look, I know I am good, but I doubt that I can spy on Peter long enough to assess his quality of life without him noticing. You think I could just peek through one of his windows at night?”

“That’s one option,” Hughes said with a small laugh, “Satchmo might make known your presence, though.”

“Exactly. So what are you proposing?”

Reese stopped and looked squarely at Neal. “Again, I need you to trust me.”

“And again, I’ll tell you that the only person I’ve ever trusted is - ”

“Peter Burke, I know. That’s what this is all about.”

“I’m not following.”

“Neal, I’m not Reese Hughes. Well, you and Peter know me as Reese Hughes. But…” the older man trailed off, and Neal looked on expectantly.

“I am his guardian angel. I was sent down to protect Peter Burke from the day he was born. He is my assignment until the day he dies.”

Neal eyed the man before him slyly before scoffing and turning away.

“If you want to bring me back to the States that is most certainly not the way, Reese.”

“I don’t want to bring you back. I’ve played many roles in Peter’s life. When he moves on, I move on and take on a new persona. One that he will not recognize, but I always remain close. I’ve worn so many different hats that I’ve almost lost count,” Reese explained, and when Neal was still silent, he added, “Does that sound familiar at all, Caffrey?”

“That doesn’t explain what you are doing here now, with me.

“I am here to protect Peter.”

“No, I protected Peter when I faked my death to appease Woodford. Peter knowing I am alive won’t make him any more safe than he already is. Let him heal so he can forget and move on.”

“Do you think he will be able to just forget, Caffrey? I’ve watched him agonize over losing you for twelve straight months. He isn’t going to just move on, not anymore than you are going to move on after losing him. Except, you know he’s alive. You know he’s still living and breathing. You let him think you were dead, Neal. You know just as well as anyone how hopeless and final that feels.”

Reese’s last remark stung deeply as Neal turned around and saw Kate’s face flash in the window of a first floor apartment.

“So what if you are an angel? Are you here to change my mind? Do you think if I just waltz back into Peter’s life he will welcome with me open arms?”

“Who do you want to see first, Neal?” Reese countered, “Let me show you what I mean. I can’t change your mind, but I can help you change your own.”

The conman backed away from the senior agent, spooked and not the least bit convinced by anything he had just heard.

“Caffrey, please, just trust me,” Hughes pleaded, “Do it for Peter if not for me. Hell, do it for yourself.”

“I want to see Moz, then,” Neal said softly after another few minutes of contemplation, “Show me that he is alright.”

“Mozzie it is,” Reese said, “Close your eyes, Neal, and take a deep breath. This is where you need to trust me.”

Neal started to reiterate his sentiment about whom exactly he trusted again, but his breath was abruptly taken away.

~~~~~

The conman startled as he was suddenly thrust onto a subway platform, nearly losing his balance and his hat. Straightening the navy blue fedora, Neal whipped around to find Hughes standing solidly next to him. The signs above the tracks were all in English and Neal recognized the street names as those belonging to mid-Manhattan.

“How the hell - ” Neal started.

“Look, you’re in New York. You can see and hear everybody but they can’t see or hear you,” Hughes explained, “Don’t try anything stupid and we need to stay together.”

“Do you know how much easier this would have made stealing… everything?” Neal marveled.

“Did you really just say that, Caffrey?”

“It’s the truth,” Neal said sheepishly, and Hughes shook his head in disapproval.

“I was always so sure that one day you were going to give Peter an aneurysm with remarks like that. Now, look around and see who you find,” the agent instructed.

“If we are waiting for Mozzie, he won’t be here,” Neal replied matter-of-factly, scanning the crowd, “He hates the subway. Too many germs.”

“And yet…” Hughes said, his voice trailing off as he turned and looked toward the center of the tracks. Neal followed his gaze and momentarily caught his breath at what he saw.

Halfway across the platform, in plain sight, Mozzie stood waiting dutifully behind the yellow line as the next train sounded its horn and rushed into the station.

“Hey, Moz!” Neal called, raising his arm and trotting over to him. The conman watched as a glimmer of hope danced across his friend’s face as he turned in his direction, only to be extinguished by the shadowy look of a man who had not slept in far too long.

“I told you,” Hughes said, coming to Neal’s side, “He can’t hear you.”

“I’m following him into that train,” the conman challenged defiantly.

“Go right ahead,” the senior agent said, ushering the former CI into the subway car.

“Is this present time?” Neal asked as he tried to avoid touching people he wasn’t sure could even feel him. He never took the subway; the confinement made him edgy.

“No,” Reese answered, looking up at Neal, “This is a day after you died.”

Neal stared in blank disbelief at Reese. “How is that possible?”

“I will show you anything you want to see that will help you see what you need to do. Anything except the future, because that’s not written yet,” Hughes said, “I thought this was a good place to start.”

The younger man sighed and leaned against a seat, surveying his friend from a few rows away as the subway car gently rocked back and forth. Only then did Neal notice how strangely Mozzie was dressed. He was wearing his fine black tuxedo, the one that they used when a caper involved an escape via limo. His black bowtie was placed perfectly along his collar. A white lily was tucked neatly into his breast pocket, and in his hands, he clenched in a white-knuckled grip a brown paper bag, presumably with some kind of alcohol inside. His eyes, behind those signature thick glasses Neal had come to adore over the years, were bloodshot and glassy. He wasn’t sure if his friend had spent a few days awake, drunk, or both. Wrinkles creased his face in places that he had never known to be faulted before, and he no longer had his mischievous air about him. Aside from the tux and his brown-bagged accessory, he could almost pass as a normal, albeit exhausted, citizen. There were no more quirks. There was no more eccentricity. There was no more Moz, and this realization tightened a knot in Neal’s throat unlike any other.

“Where is he going?” Neal asked sadly, afraid he already knew the answer.

“We’ll have to wait and see,” Hughes said, looking away.

Neal stared silently out the window for the duration of the ride, having suddenly lost all desire to talk to Hughes but unwilling to look at the shadow of the man who had been his friend. A few stops later, Mozzie finally exited the car, and Neal quickly pursued him.

“This is just the beginning,” Hughes said as he caught Neal’s arm, “Are you sure you want to keep going?”

The conman eyed the senior agent for a moment before ripping free of his grasp, moving quickly to catch up with Mozzie. He fell in stride naturally beside his friend like he had an infinite number of times before, and it wasn’t long before they were standing in front of June’s house.

Mozzie halted for a moment in the walkway, running his fingers through the negligible hair on his glossy head and his shoulders heaving with every breath.

“This isn’t happening,” he muttered once or twice as he paced the walkway, “This isn’t happening.”

Before Mozzie had a chance to regain composure, June flung the door open.

“Where is he? He hasn’t come home,” she asked expectantly, not bothered by their mutual friend’s erratic behavior. Mozzie, at the sound of her voice, stopped dead in his tracks and remained silent on her stoop, unable to look her in the eyes.


“Mozzie,” June gasped, raising her hand to her mouth when the comprehension finally gripped her, and the bald man could do no more than hold up the brown paper bag, still unable to raise his head. June stepped aside to let him in, and Hughes and Neal slipped in behind. All three followed as Mozzie silently climbed the flights of stairs to Neal’s apartment and watched as he quietly pulled two square whiskey glasses from the cupboard. They then sat down at the table, and the fedora Neal had left there the morning of the heist sat like a sacred centerpiece between them.

Mozzie’s hands shook violently as he removed the brown paper bag and poured June a triple shot of Shackleton. He then took his own swig straight from the bottle.

“The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time,” Mozzie quoted quietly, his voice cracking, as he placed the lily from his pocket in the ribbon of Neal’s fedora. His hand lingered there for a moment longer, as if the hat would disintegrate if he touched it again.

“But it was altogether too soon,” June concluded, “Altogether too soon.”

Neal watched with red-rimmed eyes as his friends drank in silent mourning of his death. He wasn’t sure which was harder to watch, June’s silent strength or Mozzie’s last cling to composure, but he soon decided he had enough.

“Fast forward,” Neal muttered quietly.

“Excuse me?” Hughes asked, unsure of what Neal had asked of him

“Fast forward to sometime later. Show me Mozzie two, three, six months out. I don’t care. Just fast forward.”

“Alright, Neal,” Hughes said, taking Neal’s shoulders, “Close your eyes.”

~~~~~

The young man was again rendered breathless, and by the time he found himself standing on secure ground, he was doubled over trying to find air.

“Easy, Neal,” Hughes said with a reassuring hand on the young man’s back, “Just relax.”

The conman hacked until finally oxygen made its way into his lungs. “Where are we now? How much time has passed?” he asked in a raspy voice.

Hughes let his hand fall back to his side. “Mozzie again, six months.”

Neal looked up at the building he was standing in front of, a dark and dirty warehouse in the depths of Queens.

“This is Sunday Night,” he said quietly, “Mozzie’s mourning safe house.”

Hughes nodded solemnly, and Neal instinctively reached in his suit pocket for his lock pick set.

“There’s no need,” Hughes offered as he opened the door, and the younger man eyed the angel skeptically as he slid past. They slowly climbed the four flights of steps until they reached the fourth floor loft where they found the door slightly ajar. Hesitating just a moment, the conman gathered the courage to push it open.

The dim splashes of light from the flickering flames of many candles danced about the room, casting shadows on the dark grey walls that were lined with hundreds of sheets of paper. In one corner, dozens upon dozens of empty glass bottles stood sentry, keeping guard over the bare wooden floor. Estelle appeared anxiously from the farthest dark corner, flying frantically about Neal with a crumpled note attached to her foot. Neal could tell by the condition of the paper it had gone undelivered for far too long.  

“Can I take it?” Neal asked quietly.

“No,” Hughes said succinctly.

“Does she know I am here?” Neal questioned.

“She can sense us,” Hughes replied.

With that, the conman wandered to the far wall, tailed closely by the pigeon, and placed his hand on one of the pieces of paper. It was an interview transcript from January 1978 that detailed the decoy hearse conspiracy surrounding John F. Kennedy’s death. Neal ran his fingers across the cement, coming to another paper explaining the mission of the Secret Service, circa 1975. Further down, the subject matter varied, with manuscripts researching the preparation of the deceased complemented by information on wax working models of the human body. On the adjacent wall, Mozzie had dug up conspiracy theories surrounding the deaths of an alarmingly large number of public figures and random civilians alike. There was a detailed map of the proposed abandoned tunnel system deep underneath the city, on which he had mapped every possible escape route from their location on Wall Street that day. Pamphlets from Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, and the Greek Isles were clustered together a few feet down, and the information on the cities was cross-referenced with the passenger list for all flights leaving for these locations via JFK airport from the past six months.        

The papers were highlighted, written-on, some crumpled and ripped, and others pristine and never touched. There were medical records, death certificates, information on emergency medical care, and mortuary services. Matthew Keller’s file was spread out, encompassing nearly an entire wall opposite Neal.

“Are you okay, Neal?” Hughes asked gently, still standing in the doorframe.

“Estelle,” Mozzie suddenly reprimanded the frantic bird, and Neal’s eyes landed on a dark figure huddled at a small table in the darkest corner.

“Moz,” the conman whispered in a broken voice, briskly covering the distance between them. He knelt down in front of his friend, placing his hand on Mozzie’s knee.

“Neal,” Reese warned, but the younger man didn’t move. Estelle came to rest on Mozzie’s knee, right next to Neal’s hand, and as Moz reached out to pet the bird, Neal could almost feel their hands touch. In the center of the tiny table was Neal’s fedora, the white lily now crumbled and dried in the hat’s ribbon.

“Mozzie,” another voice spoke softly from the doorway, and both conman shot in the air, sending Estelle fluttering again. “Sweetie, I’ve come to check on you. I brought homemade kale and feta rolls.”

Neal’s heart melted at the sound of Elizabeth’s voice, and he could almost feel the serenity she brought to the situation as she brushed past him on her way to Mozzie.

“Did you decide?” Mozzie asked, his voice painful and raw. 

“Yes, we did. We are going to name him Neal,” she replied.

Stunned, Neal ran his fingers over his reddening eyes and looked at Hughes, who nodded slowly in affirmation.

“Good. That’s good. But, you shouldn’t be here,” Mozzie reprimanded his friend, “You need to be resting.”

“Neither should you,” Elizabeth responded, cupping her hand on Mozzie’s cheek, “This is not helping you. You know he wouldn’t want to see you like this.”

“No, no I don’t,” Neal whispered.

“There has to be a loophole, El, something we haven’t found yet. There has to be,” Mozzie replied, his voice cracking into a sob, “There has to be… there has to be something.”

Elizabeth simply took Mozzie’s glass from him and placed it on the floor.

“How’s Peter?” the bald man asked, reaching to the ground to pick up his glass again after a moment.

“He needs a friend right now,” she said honestly, “He’d like to see you, you know.” 

Mozzie sighed and took a sip of the glass, and Neal could smell the strong scent of bourbon fill the small space. Elizabeth waited in uneasy silence for a response Neal knew was never going to come. Finally, she turned to go.

“Take care of yourself, Mozzie,” she said.

“You too, and baby Neal,” the older man replied.

“You know, not everything is a conspiracy theory,” she said, smiling empathetically as she turned back, “Someday, you’re going to need to face this.”

“Today, m’lady, is not that day,” he replied sadly, and Elizabeth, with nothing left to say, quietly departed.

“I’m done,” Neal whispered, looking back at his friend for a last time before pushing past Hughes out the door. “I don’t need to see anything else. They would all be better off had I never existed.”

“Neal - ” Hughes started as the conman ran down the steps.

“No, Reese,” Neal said, “That’s the truth.”

“No, it’s not, Neal - ”

“It is. Mozzie, Peter, Elizabeth, June – they wouldn’t be going through any of this if not for me.”

“Neal, stop! Don’t you dare run away,” Reese said, grabbing the conman’s shoulder as he started to dart out the front door, “You’re wrong.”

“I don’t think so,” the conman said, defeated.

“Close your eyes, Neal.”

“No, just take me home,” Neal replied as a stray tear slid down his cheek.

“Do as I say,” Hughes ordered, and reluctantly, Neal complied. Again, the breathless feeling overcame him, and before he could argue, they were gone.

~~~~~

When Neal opened his eyes, he was standing in the middle of a hospital emergency room, surrounded by complete chaos. He caught parts of terse conversations through all of the ambient noise.

“FBI agent - ”

“—on her way!”

“Hands off, and clear - ”

“What is going on?” Neal said, whipping around trying to orient himself.

“You said you wished you were never born. I thought I’d give you a chance to see what that would have been like for the people you love.”

Neal’s darting eyes landed on a gurney in one of the alcoves that was surrounded by a sea of doctors and EMT’s.

“He’s suspected to have ingested poisoned Armagnac,” an EMT yelled to the doctor, “We don’t know the poison, but we lost one in the field already. He presented bradycardic with an irregular rhythm, miotic pupils, and convulsing.” 

“It’s digitalis!” Neal shouted, breathless as he remembered the moment Jessica admitted to poisoning Kent, “It’s digitalis!”

“Heart rate dropping, we’re losing him, people!” a doctor shouted, “Push Epi!”

“Damnit, it’s digitalis,” the conman shouted again, to no avail, and threw himself toward the gurney.

“They can’t hear you,” Hughes reminded as he fought to pull Neal back.

“He’s crashing, he’s crashing! Initiate CPR!”

“I can help him!” Neal said, pulling against Hughes’ strong grip, “I can help him. I was there, I heard her admit it myself.”

“No, you can’t, Caffrey, you don’t exist. You weren’t there to put the pieces together.”

The conman watched in horror as the doctors slowly backed away from the table, removing their gloves and masks. Solemnly, one called the time of death, and as the last professional left the alcove, the curtain was pulled shut behind him.

“His wife will be here in five. Let me know when she gets here,” the doctor muttered to the nearby nurses.

“No,” Neal whispered, pulling out of Reese’s grip, “No.”

Neal ran to his fallen partner, putting his hands on either side of his face.

“Peter,” he whispered, choking back a sob. Reese was soon behind him, looking over his shoulder.

“You prevented this, Neal,” he reminded, “Don’t forget that. You saved Peter. If you had never existed, Peter would have died today.”

“I know,” Neal said, brushing the hair out his partner’s face, his breathing becoming more even, “I know.”

“Come on, do you want to take one last journey with me?”

Jaw clenched, Neal faintly nodded, and after closing Peter’s eyes and pulling a white sheet to conceal his body, he turned to face Reese, his reddened eyes tightly shut.

~~~~~

The white noise of idle small talk filled his ears even before he opened his eyes. The aroma of sugar cookies, good wine, and evergreen surrounded him, and he could feel the draft of the bitter cold outside nipping at his ankles. Opening his eyes, Neal quickly recognized that he was at the Burke’s house, and it was Christmas time.

“When?” the conman asked succinctly, still overwhelmed by his last experience.

“Seven months,” Hughes replied, walking into the house, “Come inside, let’s mingle.”

Neal threw Hughes an annoyed look but surveyed the crowd. Everybody from the office was here, including some young faces Neal did not recognize. Diana was tending to a very pregnant Elizabeth, who was being held unwillingly at the kitchen table.

“You’ve done enough already,” Diana chuckled, “When I was this far along I could barely move, let alone organize a holiday party.”

Elizabeth smiled and waved her off. “I feel great, Diana, really. And Peter’s a great help.”

“What about Peter?” Neal’s partner swooped in, putting his hand on his wife’s shoulder, and Neal tensed at the sight of him. It had been far too long since he had seen that smile and heard that voice.

“He’s going to make a great father,” Elizabeth replied, pulling his arms tightly around her.

“He sure is, and you make an excellent Sangria,” Diana said, laughing, “Not that you would be able to tell right now.”

Both women laughed lightly.

“Hon, can I get you some hot chocolate?” Peter offered.

“Sure, that sounds good,” Elizabeth said, smiling as Peter disappeared into the kitchen. Neal followed his partner, wishing with every fiber of his being he could just say hello.

“How are you doing, Peter?” Jones asked, who was already in the kitchen helping himself to a cup of coffee.

“I’m good, Elizabeth is due in a month now, and we are just putting the last touches on the room. I have a few things left to fix up around the house and then I think we are all set - ”

“No, Peter,” Jones interrupted his boss, “How are you doing?

Peter looked at his fellow agent and took a deep breath. “I hate to be at the office, you know? I walk by his desk, and see him, arrogant as all hell with his feet propped up throwing that little rubber band ball up and down. I see him walk off the elevator at half past eight and imagine the excuse he’d give me about where he’d been. I imagine what he’d say about every tie I put on.”

Jones smiled knowingly. “I hear you, Peter. Honestly, I was happy you decided to have the Christmas party here. It’s just not the same at the office anymore. I think everybody feels the same and appreciate that you and Elizabeth have opened up your home for us tonight.”

Peter nodded silently, stirring the hot cocoa.


Jones sighed audibly. “Have you spoken to the little guy?”

“No,” Peter answered, “Not since… not since… Well, Elizabeth has been in touch with him, anyway. Excuse me for a minute, Jones, I have to give this to her.”

“Sure, boss, I should get back to my date anyway.”

“You brought a date?” Peter looked up, surprised.

“Not yet,” Jones said mischievously, “But by the end of the night I might have one.”

Peter chuckled as he headed back into the dining room with Elizabeth’s cocoa.

“I’ll be right back, Hon,” he said, kissing her on the top of her head.

“Everything okay?” she asked.

“Everything’s fine, just need a minute.”

El understood, “Call me if you need anything.”

Peter nodded and weaved his way through the crowded living room to retreat upstairs. Neal hesitantly followed, stopping for a moment to look at the picture that had planted the first seeds of distrust between he and his partner. Now, thinking back, he realized how stupid he had been to even consider that Peter would have played a part in it all that had happened to Kate.

He heard footsteps coming from the direction of Peter’s bedroom, and Neal restarted his pursuit. Coming to a halt in the doorframe, the conman found Peter rummaging through his sock drawer. It was in this space that the agent kept his most prize possessions; namely, small gifts for El and back-up batteries for the remote. Neal had often made a habit of teasing Peter about his “secure” hideout during their partnership, and he smiled now as he remembered their easy banter. Finally, though, Peter found what he was looking for and fell back tiredly onto his bed.

Neal smiled fondly when he saw that the agent was holding a frame of what Elizabeth had affectionately dubbed their “prom photo”.

“You should be here tonight, partner,” Peter said quietly, “Nothing’s the same without you.”

Satchmo, who had been relaxing in the bathroom off of the Burke’s bedroom sauntered out and jumped onto the bed, fitting his yellow body close Peter’s. The agent placed his arm around the dog, pulling him closer.

“You miss him too, don’t you, Satch?” he asked, and the dog whined in response.

“We all do,” he said as he buried his head into Satchmo’s soft fur, not bothering to fight the tears as they came. The conman idly wondered how often of an occurrence this very scene had been recently, but he quickly decided he did not want to know the answer.

Neal shoved his hands deep into his pockets, slowly coming undone. Peter looked so very broken, and he couldn’t bear the thought that he had brought this upon his best friend without explanation.

“Please understand, Peter. I did it for you,” he said, but his words echoed back to him unheard.

“They would have stopped at nothing, do you understand?” he nearly shouted, “Woodford, he would have come after me. He would have come after you, Elizabeth, your son. How was I supposed to let that happen, Peter? How else was I supposed to protect you?”

But Neal’s soliloquy was only met with silence, and so the former CI could do little more than stand there, useless and alone as his partner unraveled before his very eyes. 

After a few minutes crawled past, Neal noticed that his partner was starting to slowly regain composure. His heaving shoulders steadied and his tears dried. After kissing Satchmo on the head, he got up and replaced the picture in his sock drawer, his hand lingering above it just a moment too long. Then, he readjusted his collar and straightened his hair. Taking a deep breath, he headed downstairs to return to the party as inconspicuously as he had left it.

Neal followed him to the first floor and found Hughes waiting at the door.

“Port in a Goddamn storm, that one is,” Reese said, crossing his arms as Peter walked by.

“I thought you were an angel,” Neal said accusingly, “I didn’t know angels could curse.”

“Nobody is sinless, Caffrey,” Hughes answered, “Not a single one of us. Have you seen enough?”

“Yeah, I have, sir,” Neal answered, closing his eyes and pushing the memory of Peter breaking down far into the back of his mind. “Take me home.” -- Continue to part two!

~~~~~