Ch 2 'Christmases When You Were Mine'
To his surprise, as he approached his glass-walled office, he saw that he was not the earliest person there. Neal was sitting in his customary chair, already elbow deep in paperwork, the skin between his eyes pinched together in a frown of concentration. When Peter entered, however, he glanced up, then returned to the file in his hands.
Slipping his coat onto the back of his chair, Peter eyed Neal curiously. "Good morning, Neal." He greeted, sitting down.
"Morning." The response was mumbled.
Peter paused in his reach for the computer's power button. "Everything okay?"
"Yeah." The eyes were a little too wide as they glanced up, the answer a little too quick. "Yeah, everything's fine. I'm good."
"Uh huh." Peter nodded. As his computer brightened into life, he leaned back. "You… have a good weekend?"
"Do anything special?"
"Nope. Just hung out, you know, took it easy."
Neal wasn't meeting his gaze, hunched a little too far over the pile of files. Peter dared to venture a little further. "Did the someone special…"
Neal sighed in exasperation. "They couldn't make it." He said, standing. "I'm going to get some coffee. You want some?"
"No, thanks." Peter watched with narrowed eyes as Neal strode from the office, and headed, not for the door and the little coffee shop he loved so much, but for the communal office coffee-pot. Leaning his elbows on the desk, Peter pressed his fingertips together. The ruined weekend had obviously been a blow to the ex-conman; he could only hope it hadn't ruined the rest of the week, too.
The rest of the day Neal said very little, burning through the pile of cases as though he had the devil himself after him. Peter didn't complain; he might be able to go home early as a result. Elizabeth would be surprised and delighted. By the end of the day, however, he was beginning to get concerned. Neal's mood, which Peter sometimes called 'petulant' or 'sulking', had not improved and had at times bordered on anger; usually at Peter, who had periodically kept asking questions. At five their work was done, much to Peter's relief. As he turned off his computer and slid on his coat, he noticed that Neal had not moved.
"Hey," Peter jostled his shoulder. "Work day's done; we get to go home early."
"Yeah, I think I'm going to stay a while longer." Neal answered, his dark brows furrowed as he scanned yet another file.
"Why?" Peter asked, wrapping his scarf around his neck. "This will still be here tomorrow. Come on, it's Christmas week. Go home. Decorate your tree. Drink some eggnog."
Neal slapped the folder onto the desk and looked at Peter in frustration. "Why don't you mind your own business?"
The agent froze, staring.
Neal continued. "What makes you think I have time for that kind of thing, anyway?"
"Come on," Peter didn't roll his eyes, but the temptation was so strong. Neal Caffrey, hopeless romantic, against all things Christmas?
"Ex-con, Peter. We felons don't have time for tinsel and carols." Neal's reproach became a mumble as he returned to his work. His expression betrayed his embarrassment at his outburst.
Studying the man before him, Peter decided to let it slide. For now. "Okay," he said, and nodded, clapping a hand on Neal's shoulder. "See you tomorrow."
As he waited for the elevator, Peter stole a quick glance up at his office. Neal leaned back in his chair, wearily running a hand through his hair, pressing his fingers to his eyes.
As predicted, Elizabeth was thrilled when Peter walked in their front door at five-thirty. A tree was waiting outside the door for him to bring in, and boxes of ornaments were carefully set in the living room. Slipping an arm around his shoulders, Elizabeth kissed him, her eyes shining.
"You're home early!"
"Wouldn't miss this evening for the world." Peter said, returning the kiss.
She smiled, and headed for the table. As she poured them each a glass of wine, she glanced over her shoulder. "How was work today?"
"Good; you know, boring, but…" Peter pulled a face as he hung up his coat. "Neal was in fine sorts today."
"Oh?" her brows pulled together. "He tell you what was wrong?"
"No," Peter sighed, stepping up behind her and slipping his arms around her waist. Her hair tickled his nose, and he breathed in. "Though he hinted that his weekend hadn't gone as planned."
"Ah," turning in his arms, Elizabeth frowned in sympathy. "The someone special?"
"They didn't show."
"Yeah." Peter bit his lip, thinking. "But– nah, there's more to it than that."
"Stop investigating." Elizabeth told him, the corner of her mouth twitching up. "You're home now; you're my husband, not an agent. He'll be better tomorrow. You'll see."
Looking down at his beautiful wife, Peter smiled. "Yeah." Kissing her, he brushed the end of her nose with his lips. "Want me to bring in the tree?"
Neal pulled the collar of his coat tight around his neck, shivering as a blast of cold air drove against him. It was far too late to be out walking the snowy New York streets. Quickly he unlocked the door and stepped inside, brushing the snow from his shoulders. Slowly he ascended the stairs, one at a time, sliding his hand along the railing. His cell phone beeped at him; three unread messages. It was someone else from the hospital, he was sure, trying to get a hold of him, wondering if they could connect him with a support group, wondering also if he was going to contact a funeral home, or if he needed someone to do it for him.
Neal ignored the persistent beep. His phone's battery would die soon enough, and then he wouldn't have to worry about ignoring calls anymore.
For now, all he wanted to do was hide. So he warmed a frozen meal (Mozzie would be horrified), opened a bottle of wine, and sat down on the couch. With a click of a button the familiar opening scene to It's A Wonderful Life flickered on the tv; he had rented it. He might as well get his three dollars worth.
When the movie ended, Neal was curled on his side, an afghan wrapped around him, his slow even breathing the only other sound besides the white noise now coming from the tv.
When he woke several hours later, the room was dark, the pale light of the tv glowing ghost-like before him. It was silent.
Neal spent the rest of the night staring up at the ceiling.
Peter approached the office slowly, eyeing the drawn blinds with trepidation. He didn't like not being able to see inside his own office, especially when he wasn't sure what to expect from his partner.
To his surprise, the office was empty. There were perfectly stacked piles of folders on his desk, with a note on the top that said 'Done. NC'. Frowning, Peter picked the note up, and then glanced at the massive stack and shook his head. How late had that crazy man stayed to get all that done? Tossing the note onto his desk, Peter shook his head again. "Neal."
The agent turned quickly, even as he chastised himself. It wasn't the first time Neal's cat-like walk had made his approach undetectable. Schooling his features to reflect none of his startle, Peter took in his partner's appearance. Neal was clean, his hair perfectly combed, his suit impeccable, and by his expression his mood was considerably improved. There were lines of weariness around his eyes, though Peter wasn't surprised since the pile of folders suggested Neal had stayed at the office far into the morning hours.
Neal held up two hot coffees; his expression became apologetic. "Brought you coffee."
Peter eyed the cup and its bearer, then his mouth quirked up in a smile. "You're a life saver." He said, taking the offered cup and moving around to his desk chair. "Since June left to visit family I've been missing her Italian Roast."
He was rewarded with a half-smile. It quickly disappeared, though, and Neal seated himself across from Peter, his posture awkward. "I wanted to apologize." He said. "For my behavior yesterday."
"Hm? What behavior?" Peter decided to play the innocent card.
Neal's eyes narrowed knowingly, and he set his cup on the desk. "You know what I mean. I was rude and disrespectful towards you, and while there were extenuating circumstances that warranted my anger it in no way exonerates me from taking it out on you. I'm sorry."
Peter nodded, turning on his computer. Neal apologizing; and without a nudge from Elizabeth. He glanced up. "You are forgiven." His stoic face broke into a smile, and there was a twinkle in his eye. "Now, genius, since you did all of our work for the day last night, what do you think we're going to do now?"
Neal glanced at the pile of folders, his eyes large as his mind ran through what Peter had said. "Um…" He glanced back at Peter.
Peter folded his hands, and stared.
Neal pointed over his shoulder. "I'm going to go find some work for us."
Peter nodded; and smiled.
The rest of the day went surprisingly well, with no major cases and no snags or problems in the minor cases they worked on. Peter silently sent a prayer of thanks up to heaven; God must be smiling on them because it was Christmas week.
There were times that he still felt this cloud over his partner, though; times he almost thought the smile and the easy expression were just a mask. Once, when he was down getting coffee, he had looked up in time to see Neal's face held in his hands as he sat in Peter's office. When he raised his head he looked exhausted, drained, and Peter knew it wasn't from the late night. He had seen Neal after a late night before; this was not it. Yet to any subtle question Neal just shrugged it off and said he was fine, simply tired from working late. The unhappiness in his eyes belied the smile; but Peter let it go. He knew better than anyone that it was impossible to make Neal confess anything, short of holding a gun to his head. Peter really didn't think this situation called for such a dramatic act.
At the end of the day, Neal stood and gathered his coat and hat in tandem with Peter. His movements were slow, but he smiled and slid his hands into his pockets and followed Peter to the elevator with a brisk step, peppering him with such questions as "Did you get me anything for Christmas?" and "Well, what did you get Elizabeth?" Resisting the urge to cuff the young pup on the back of the head, Peter settled for scowling at him in exasperation. He pointed a finger at Neal as they entered the elevator.
"Stop it." He said, and raised his eyebrow when Neal opened his mouth. "Stop it."
Neal sighed, and watched the doors close. He was silent. For a moment. "Is it breakable?"
Heaving a breath, Peter glared at him. "For the last time, I'm not telling you what I got you for Christmas, if, in fact, I got you anything."
Neal looked back with big, innocent eyes. "What? I was asking about Elizabeth's gift."
"Ah." Peter narrowed his eyes in suspicion. He stared straight ahead at the elevator doors, intent on ignoring the only other passenger. He saw Neal, from the corner of his eye, make a face of unhappy defeat, and then he heard him sigh. The corner of Peter's mouth turned up. "It's shiny."
Neal looked at him quickly.
"El's been eyeing this necklace for six months; she has no idea she's getting it." Peter's smile was full-fledged now in self-satisfaction and anticipation. He rarely got to surprise his wife, and was enjoying every minute of it.
Neal's laughter was contagious. "Peter, I'm impressed!"
"Thank you." Peter tipped his head, accepting the praise.
"Is there something I've been wanting that you're getting me but pretending not to get me, too?"
The narrowed eyes sent Neal walking quickly through the elevator's opening doors. "Nope. I guess not." He said under his breath.
The house was just as dark and cold as he had feared it would be. With no maid, no June, no Mozzie, the rooms seemed hollow and dead. Neal hurried up the stairs to his own set of rooms, desperate to turn on some lights and maybe a radio, or the tv, anything to disrupt the silence and the dark.
It worked; for about an hour. Then Neal put away his reading, set aside his glass, and looked around. There was nothing to do. He considered calling Mozzie, but the strange little man was in Montana visiting his own mother and putting up her tree, while she made a spiked punch and watched The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Neal stood and strode over to a bookshelf, and began to run his long fingers along the spines of the movies and CDs stacked upon the shelves. Nothing appealed to him. He had heard it all before, watched it all before. With a sigh of frustration he went to the couch and picked up the remote, turning on the tv. As he flipped the channels and found nothing of value, he began to clench his teeth. He needed distraction; he had managed to keep himself distracted for almost four days, keeping his thoughts at bay, but in the silence and isolation in the big house they were starting to creep back, despite his struggles.
Restless, he walked over to a small desk where his phone sat, dead as a doornail. He absently picked it up, flipped it open, then closed it and tossed it back onto the desk with a huff. Then his eyes fell on the calendar. Tuesday was circled: 'Bake cookies with Mom.'
Neal stared. He remembered her excitement the last time they had talked. She had been telling him all about the plans she had made, and asked if there was somewhere they could attend a Christmas Eve service, within his two miles. He told her about the small Church just a block from where he lived.
"Wonderful. I do hope they have a choir; I so love choirs."
"Do you still play piano, Mom?"
"Of course I do; as often as I can. It was a chore, but I did manage to move the Spinet from the old place to my new living room. Do you still play, sweetheart?"
"Very rarely. Only twice since I got out, both times when June wasn't around."
"Oh, for shame, Neal!" There was laughter. "Well, perhaps we can play a grand duet together when I come down. Oh, and before I forget, do you have any baking supplies? No, no, of course not. Silly me! What am I thinking. Don't worry, I'll bring everything. We'll have Date Balls, Spicy Fruit Nuggets, Currant Cookies, Snicker doodles, and Molasses Cookies."
"No Cherry Kisses?" He teased.
She huffed on the other end. "Of course not! You can't have Valentine cookies for Christmas! Silly boy."
Neal came out of the memory, still staring at the calendar. His eyes felt hot. Turning quickly he strode to the other side of the room, and then he turned and began to circle the room, his hands clenching and unclenching. He went one way, reached his destination, realized he had nothing to do there, and turned and went somewhere else. His mother's voice still filled his mind, chatting happily away, talking about her visit with obvious delight. Neal glanced to one side and saw the corner he had cleared to make a space for a tree.
His throat suddenly seemed to be choking him. Grabbing his coat and his keys he fled from his abode, slamming the door shut behind him. The empty rooms of the house seemed to taunt him on every side, a whisper in his mind saying over and over again 'Alone, All Alone…'
Neal ran from the house, locking the door with trembling hands.
Neal hadn't been sure of where to go. The snow was falling gently in large, puffy flakes, and the street lamps glowed peacefully in the night. Neal had started to walk, fast and with intent, in the direction of Peter's house, only knowing that he needed someone, anyone, to distract him from his own mind. If he could just hold on a little bit longer, keep his thoughts at bay for just a few more days, he could forget it all and move on. Peter and Elizabeth would fill the air with loud talking and distracting conversation. He just needed to get there.
His feet carried him automatically, moving with a will and a purpose, until he was standing before Peter's door. Through the front window he could see Peter and Elizabeth talking and laughing as they cleared the table from their supper. Peter had the plates in his hand, and Elizabeth the dish that had held the food. As she passed, Peter leaned down and caught her in a kiss, whispering something in her ear that made her laugh and smack him with an oven mitt.
Neal froze, watching the scene within. It looked so warm, so happy in there. Suddenly he wasn't so sure he wanted to go in. His mind warred with itself between a desire to leave the happy couple and not pour his woe on them, and a desperate need for contact. Neal paced back and forth on the front walk, struggling. Then the thought of the empty house that waited for him at home came to mind, and with it a wave of pain so fresh that Neal was at the door and knocking before his rational side had even begun to take back control.
It was a moment before he heard footsteps. Neal almost reconsidered his decision again, but then the door opened, and Peter was staring at him in surprise.
"Peter." Neal pushed his hands deeper into his coat pockets, frozen in place. It was like his feet had been glued to the top step. He stared, unblinking, into his partner's waiting and confused gaze. "I just wanted– I wanted to– I mean, I needed–" Neal's words were faulty, and he fidgeted uncomfortably, mentally smacking himself for his inability to speak. He tried again, even as he realized that he had no idea what he was trying to say. After a few more attempts he closed his eyes and sighed. If he could have kicked himself, he would have. When he opened his eyes, he saw Peter staring at him, his face softened into an expression of quiet concern. Neal opened his mouth again, but no sound came out. He shrugged helplessly.
Peter nodded in understanding, and fully opened the door. "You want to come in?"
The relief Neal felt must have shown, because the muscles around Peter's eyes tightened slightly in deeper concern, and yet there was also an echo of relief in his own eyes that he had guessed Neal's unspoken plea. Please ask me in.
Nodding, Neal stepped through the door, and heard Peter close it behind him.