Every year, or so Jones told him, the White Collar office had a holiday party. They moved the desks out of the way to open the floor up for the possibility of dancing, catered in hors d'oeuvres and hosted an open bar. It was night when the office let loose, and Neal was actually looking forward to it.
He'd missed the previous year's party because of Fowler, the plane, and prison, and this year, it was certainly the most interesting holiday plan that he had. June was out of town with her daughters, and Mozzie had left for parts unknown. Neal was facing Christmas in a mansion in the middle of one of the biggest cities in the world, and he'd never felt lonelier.
On the night of the party, he wore his best suit, black with a white button-down and a red tie. He also made sure to arrive fashionably late, so the party was well underway by the time he stepped off the elevator.
"Neal!" Blake greeted him immediately with a grin and a tilt of his glass of beer. "You made it. Peter was looking for you."
Neal nodded and made his way toward the bar. There were servers milling about with trays of canapés and cheeses. He snagged a mini-quiche and sidestepped Sue, one of the clerks, who looked like she'd already had too many glasses of something.
He ordered the most expensive wine he could see, which was merely a mid-priced Pinot Noir that would make Mozzie twitch, and then looked around for Peter. It took him all of five seconds to hear him, laughing boisterously at something in the middle of a group of agents. Diana and Jones were there too, laughing, and Neal hesitated to join them.
He suddenly wondered why he'd bothered to come at all. They were Feds, and he was a con, would always be a con. Sure, Adler was dead, the Nazi treasure was hidden away, and Peter had no idea, but none of that made Neal feel good.
"They say when you're caught in a stare, your mind needs a break." Elizabeth surprised him, and he spun around to face her.
"Elizabeth, hi." He recovered quickly by smiling and waving at her deep green dress. "You look gorgeous."
"Well, thank you." She grinned and gave him a little twirl. "You're not so bad yourself, handsome."
His smile didn't reach his eyes that time, but he forced it nonetheless.
"What were you thinking about?"
"It's just strange, don't you think?"
She looked confused, and he wasn't sure how to explain himself in a way that she would understand. Elizabeth had always been on the right side of the law with reliable friends and a good family. She'd had great holidays with them and exchanged frivolous gifts and baked cookies for Santa.
"This time of year is for spending time with friends and family. Everyone's having a great time. Even Hughes." He nodded toward Peter's boss, who was telling what appeared to be an outlandish story to a couple of the newer agents.
Elizabeth frowned and reached out to take his free hand. "But not you?"
Neal looked away and shook his head. "I don't belong here."
"You can't possibly believe that, Neal. You've done great work for the Bureau. Peter's told me about some of it." She gently lifted his chin with her fingers and looked him directly in the eye. "You've made some mistakes, but everyone does that. Even Peter."
He raised an eyebrow, and she smirked in return.
"You are family, Neal."
He took a step back, breaking the hold she had on his chin but her other hand was still squeezing his fingers. "Elizabeth-"
"What's going on here?" Peter walked up behind Neal and slid an arm around his shoulder.
"Nothing," he replied a little too quickly. He forcibly pulled away from Elizabeth's touch and adopted a queasy look. "I'm not feeling that well. I think I'll catch a cab back home."
Peter's eyebrows drew together, and he gave Neal a long, hard look up and down. Neal did his best to look ill and uncomfortable, which really didn't take all that much acting. "We'll drop you. Elizabeth was just saying that she was ready to go."
Elizabeth nodded and smoothly agreed. "I was. We've been here for over an hour, and the wine selection, I must say, is not nearly as good as mine."
Neal could only nod at that. He set his still full glass on a nearby table and moved out of Peter's grip. "You guys should stay and enjoy yourselves. I'll see you next week, Peter."
It was Elizabeth that pressed her hand to his forehead and clucked her tongue softly. "You might be getting a fever. We should make sure you get home okay. Peter, would you grab my coat?"
This was getting out of hand. Neal batted her away and started for the elevator. "That's not necessary. I'll be fine."
By the time he made it through the throng of people starting to dance in the middle of the office floor, Peter was waiting at the elevators with Elizabeth's coat and his own. And Elizabeth was right behind Neal. She pressed the down button and let Peter help her into her coat.
"Seriously, you don't have to do this," Neal said as he was herded into the elevator car.
"Oh, sweetie. Just try to relax."
Neal wisely shut up and followed them through the garage to the Taurus.
He was staring blankly at the window, watching the buildings pass with no real sense of where they were going until they stopped outside of June's. The entire house was dark because June had given the staff the week off after asking if Neal thought he would need the chef or the maid to be on call. For the first time, it looked unwelcoming and Neal took a deep breath to try and get rid of that feeling.
Elizabeth turned in the passenger seat to regard him with worried eyes. "Is June not home?"
"No, she took her daughters on a cruise for the next couple of weeks."
"You should come home with us. I hate the idea of you in this big house all by yourself this time of year."
"I'll be fine," Neal replied.
She pressed her lips together and looked over at Peter. There was some silent communication between them that Neal couldn't quite decipher before Peter met his eyes in the rearview mirror.
"Go up and pack a bag. We have more than enough room, and we're not leaving town this year. Neither of our families wanted to do the big Christmas thing this year after we spent Thanksgiving and the weekend after with each of them."
Neal wanted to refuse. He really wanted to put his foot down and spend the next few days watching bad TV and eating bad food while not having to face anyone. On the other hand, there was a part of him that wanted to be in the Burke house, slipping food to Satchmo under the table and dancing with El to some of her jazz albums.
"Please, Neal." It was Elizabeth's big blue eyes that did him in.
"Okay. Give me twenty minutes?"
"We'll be here," Peter assured him.
Neal packed his suitcase in record time and while everything wasn't meticulously folded, he was going to take it out and hang it up as soon as he got to the Burkes anyway. He tucked the small wrapped packages that he had for them into his suitcase before he zipped it up. He hoped they liked the small sketches he'd done of each of them for the other. They weren't much but he'd had a hard time settling on an idea for their gifts.
When he climbed back in the car, Elizabeth had her head on Peter's shoulder while she searched through radio stations. She sat up after choosing a cheery holiday station, and Peter was able to turn and look at him.
"Ready to go?"
Neal nodded and expected Peter to turn around immediately, but he didn't. "What? Do I have something on my face?"
"No, no. I just wanted you to know that you're always welcome at our house. You should never have to spend the holidays alone, Neal. We're family."
The lump that formed in his throat made it difficult for Neal to say anything. No one had ever said that to him. Not his mother, not Kate, not anyone. He really didn't quite know how to respond except to say, "Thank you."
Thanks for reading and Happy Holidays!