Ch 3 'A Candle in the Window'
"Hey, Elizabeth." Neal said, managing a small smile. "Merry Christmas."
"Merry Christmas to you too." Elizabeth looked up at him, and beckoned with her hand. "Come on, take off that wet coat. You look like you've been in a blizzard!"
"Yeah, what did you do? Walk the whole way?" Peter asked as Neal allowed Elizabeth to take his coat.
The ex-con glanced up, and he looked embarrassed.
"You did?" Peter stared. "Are you insane? Do you know how cold it is out there?"
Neal shrugged, following Peter into the living room. "Seemed like a good idea at the time."
Peter shook his head.
Elizabeth headed for the kitchen, Neal's coat draped over her arm. Before she went through the door she stopped and called over her shoulder, "We were just about to have some dessert, Neal. You want some?"
His stomach rumbled silently, reminding him that he hadn't eaten yet. At the thought of one of Elizabeth's desserts, his eyes perked up. "Yeah." He remembered his manners. "Yes, thank you."
She smiled, and disappeared into the kitchen.
Peter went to the small console that held their wine, and he picked up a glass, raising his eyebrows in a question. When Neal nodded he picked up the already open bottle, and soon the last of the crimson liquid was splashing into the glass goblet. Neal accepted it, and thanked him.
As they settled in the living room, Peter in his overstuffed chair and Neal on the couch, Peter looked over his partner with a critical eye. "Everything okay?" he asked.
"Yeah, everything's fine." Neal got up and stepped over to the fireplace, seemingly intent on admiring the small figurines on its mantel. "Just, you know, with Mozzie and June gone the house is a little… big."
It had not escaped Peter's notice that Neal was avoiding eye contact. He leaned back into the cushions. "Yeah; lot of rooms."
"Lots of rooms." Neal moved from the mantel to some photos on the wall. "These from your vacation?" He asked.
Peter stood and stepped to Neal's side, nodding, his face lighting up with the memory. "Yep."
"Looks like you had fun."
"Yeah." Peter slid his hands into his pants pockets, trying to look nonchalant. "Yeah. It was good." He felt Neal glance at him, and knew that the observant young man was reading past his façade. So he allowed himself a broad smile, and was rewarded with a chuckle.
"Okay, boys." Elizabeth called. "Dessert's ready."
Rich, moist chocolate cake with orange liqueur frosting awaited them. Neal did not protest the extra large slice she gave him, and as they sat around the dining room table, the conversation turned to humorous anecdotes that had them all laughing. It was nice, seeing Peter here in his family life, relaxed and enjoying himself. The warm looks and twinkling eyes shared between the husband and wife made Neal smile. He loved to watch people interact, and the subtle body language, the looks, the things that were unspoken and shared between the two– it was a treasure trove for any professional observer.
An hour passed, and then they all stood to clear the dishes and the dessert, and another hour was passed in the kitchen the same manner as the first. Elizabeth washed, Peter dried, and Neal watched. His only job, according to Elizabeth, was to put away the dessert and then sit there and look good. He didn't sit; he had too much energy for that, but he did relax and enjoy the company.
The dishes were put away. The lights were turned off or turned down. Elizabeth had gone upstairs for something, and Peter was just returning from letting Satchmo, their dog, out. He found Neal standing in the middle of the darkened living room, the soft, many-colored Christmas lights the only source of illumination. Neal was staring at the tree, his hands in his pockets, his face relaxed and almost expressionless, except for the faint line between his brows, and the heavy sadness in his eyes. When he heard Peter's approach he blinked quickly and looked up.
As Peter came in, Neal could see the concern in his face, and he wondered how long Peter had been watching him. There was an unspoken question in the dark eyes, but Neal wasn't sure he could explain. So he went back to looking at the tree. "Hey."
"Hey." Peter approached cautiously. When he was close he paused, and then followed Neal's stance, and looked at the tree. It really was beautiful. Red and blue and green lights glowed gently, garland and ornaments catching their light, and here and there something sparkled.
"We always put our tree up seven days before Christmas."
Peter looked from the corner of his eye. He was silent.
"We'd have popcorn and hot chocolate, and Mom and Dad would dance. I danced with her, later, after Dad…" Neal's voice trailed off, and he left it. "She had it down, what to do and when to do it. Three days before, she would get up early, and bake cookies all day."
Neal had a soft smile, and Peter felt an answering smile on his own face.
"Christmas Eve we'd attend Church, and she'd make chowder and biscuits for supper. Then she'd set out a plate of cookies and a glass of milk; she insisted on doing it, even when I was eighteen."
"The next morning we'd open our presents, and she'd make a goose, and Christmas Plum Pudding." Neal glanced at Peter. "She was very British." He explained.
The corner of Peter's mouth rose. "She sounds wonderful." He commented.
Neal nodded, and looked back at the tree. "Yeah."
For a moment there was silence. There was such a look of loneliness on his partner's face that Peter finally sighed. "I could find her number for you," He said. "If you'd like."
To his surprise, his offer triggered a short, wry laugh from Neal, who dropped his head and shook it. "No." Neal said, still shaking his head as he turned and walked away. "That's okay."
Peter frowned, confused. He followed Neal to the couch, where the young man sat down and sighed, avoiding Peter's gaze. "Come on." Peter said, also sitting. "Christmas is all about spending time with family."
His name was said in such a quiet voice that he almost didn't hear it.
"My mom is dead."
Everything seemed to go still. Peter stared at him, and in understanding he began to recognize the subtle signs from the past few days– the restlessness, the moods, the looks. Now a muscle was working in Neal's jaw, and he was staring at his hands as though he could burn a hole through them.
"My mom is dead." He whispered again, as though he were just hearing the news himself. His cheeks began to flush slightly, and he looked up, staring at nothing, blinking rapidly.
Peter didn't know what to do. "Oh, Neal." He said quietly.
The blue eyes glistened, even as Neal began to fidget, his jaw clenching. "Mom's dead." He whispered again, and a trail of moisture suddenly appeared on his cheek. He wiped it away almost angrily, avoiding looking at Peter. Another wet trail appeared, and he wiped it away as well, but there was another, and another, Peter could see Neal's face breaking. With a ragged breath Neal stood and left, barely managing a mumbled "Excuse me" before he was gone.
Peter heard the door to the bathroom close. He shut his eyes, exhaling long and deeply, running a hand through his hair before leaning back into the couch cushions. As he sat there he heard a soft step behind him, and then Elizabeth's hands were on his shoulders. He opened his eyes. Her gentle face was above him, and there were tears in her eyes and on her cheeks. Peter reached up and clasped his wife's hand. She squeezed his gently. Muffled sounds could be faintly heard in the direction of the bathroom, and she flinched.
Peter closed his eyes. "I don't know what to do." He said, blowing out a heavy breath. "I'm no good at this."
Elizabeth wrapped her arm around his shoulders and pressed her cheek to his hair. He heard her sniff, knew she was crying, but her voice was strong when she spoke. "Yes you are."
"No, I'm not."
She rubbed his shoulder. "You're good enough for Neal." She whispered.
He opened his eyes, and looked up at her.
She offered him a small smile, her cheeks glistening in the tree light. "He came here tonight, Peter. He came to you."
Peter stroked her hand, and prayed she was right.
Elizabeth went to find bedding and some pillows. Peter sat and stared at the tree for a while longer, then he stood, and walked to the wine console. Opening the two little doors he studied the contents, chewing on the inside of his cheek, before finally settling on brandy.
Neal walked in as he was pouring the two drinks. Neal approached him slowly, uncertainty in his expression, his eyes lowered. They were still slightly red, and his hair was damp from the cold water he had splashed over his face. Peter glanced up, keeping his posture relaxed and open. He held out the snifter. Neal looked at the glass, and then at him,
"I know it's not your usual drink." Peter said, and he held it out encouragingly. "Thought something a little stronger was in order."
Neal glanced at him again, then accepted the proffered glass. He sat down at the table, taking a deep breath. Peter sat down across from him. The amber liquid shone in the light as he swirled it, slowly.
Peter took a drink, savoring the burn as it traveled down his throat. Following suit, Neal lifted his glass. In moments it was empty. He lowered it, swallowed, and released a slow breath. "Thanks." He whispered.
The corner of his mouth lifted, and Peter picked up the bottle and replenished the empty snifter. Then the two men sat in silence. "Neal," he said quietly after a long minute. "I'm so sorry."
Blue eyes lifted to his. "Yeah." Neal rubbed his forehead, and then ran his hand over his hair. "She was supposed to drive down last Friday."
Peter recalled Neal's excitement that day, and his enigmatic statement We go way back. "What happened?" he asked, keeping his voice soft.
A deep breath, a slight cough. "She had a heart attack. A friend of hers was going to watch the cat, and when she stopped by…" Neal paused. He swallowed, and stared at his glass. "She was baking cookies."
Peter rolled his glass between his hands, listening.
They talked quietly for a long time, sharing brandy and stories; most were lighthearted, and some made them laugh till the tears ran. Elizabeth made few appearances, leaving the men to their talk. Peter saw her move about in the background, making a bed on the couch, carrying blankets, books, the dog's water dish– he loved that about her. She knew when to participate, and when to keep herself busy, and she did both things well.
Neal's face was flushed from the drink, his eyes slightly glazed, and Peter was pretty sure he looked the same. Peter had just finished telling a story, and the younger man was laughing hard and deeply. His hair was loose and tousled; currently he was resting his head against his hand, his fingers tangled in his dark locks. "I can't believe you actually did that!"
Peter chuckled, and he raised his eyebrows. "Believe it."
"Peter, you're a rebel!"
"Ah," he pointed a finger at the still-laughing ex-con in mock seriousness. "You repeat that to anybody and I'll take your hat, and I'll wear it!"
The idea only made Neal laugh harder. "I can just see Hughes face, when you walk in wearing my hat!"
Peter had to laugh pretty hard himself.
Neal's laughter faded, and he stared at Peter for a long minute. After refilling their glasses, Peter looked up, and suddenly realized that the blue eyes were glistening with tears.
"I didn't get to see her…" His voice broke on the last word, choking him. He stopped and closed his eyes, two tears escaping and running down his cheeks. He rested his face against his hand, turning slightly away.
Peter glanced down, giving him a moment to regain control. When he looked up, Neal had wiped his hand across his face. He cleared his throat, blinking.
Peter felt his heart break a little. "You okay?" he whispered.
Neal took a deep breath. "No." he breathed. "No, I'm not."
Peter nodded, and glanced from his glass to Neal. "You will be."
Glancing up, Neal stared at him, his gaze betraying his desperate longing to believe Peter's words. He swallowed. "You promise?"
His eyes were dark, and full of reassurance. "I promise."
The next day Elizabeth made a big breakfast, and then she and Peter convinced Neal that putting off the inevitable wasn't going to make it easier. The hospital had to be called. The funeral had to be arranged. A trip was made to June's, where Neal collected some clothes and his dead phone, which Peter immediately plugged in, mumbling something to himself and shaking his head.
Neal sat on the edge of the coffee table, his gaze hollow. "I don't know how I'm going to do this."
"We'll be there." Peter assured him.
"Peter, she's in Westchester. It's outside my two miles."
Peter gave him a look. "Neal," he said slowly. "It's your mom." He paused. "I think Hughes will be okay with this one."
Neal blinked, as though the thought had not occurred to him. He had grown so used to no excuse being good enough that he hadn't thought about it, hadn't even considered the possibility.
"Besides," Peter started moving again, gathering things. "If I'm with you, you can go anywhere you want."
Neal watched him. "You're coming?" he asked quietly.
Peter looked at him, and saw the faint glimmer of relief and appreciation. "You thought I'd let you go alone?" he responded incredulously.
He was rewarded with a smile.