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Home for the Holidays

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Peter got back from Belize feeling more relaxed than he had in years. He'd even managed to forget -- after El hid his phone so he couldn't keep calling the Marshals to make sure Neal hadn't skipped on his anklet -- that he had a convicted felon in a highly experimental work-release program awaiting him.

But Neal was still here, and New York was still here, with all its gray December chill. He'd also managed to forget that it was a week before Christmas, which meant the city was bustling with shoplifters, scammers, and other criminals of every description, not to mention the seasonal upswing in domestic violence and suicide ...

El sometimes told him that his outlook on the holiday season was needlessly cynical. Peter countered that he wasn't cynical, just realistic. It wasn't that he disliked the holidays. He had very nice memories of Christmas as a child. But he was thirty years past that now, and for adults, he'd found, Christmas was mostly composed of obligation, guilt, and headaches, not to mention crime.

El really liked it, though. As far as Peter knew, there wasn't a holiday she didn't like. And it worked out well, because she had no problem putting together homemade gift baskets and cards for his family as well as her own. It was a small price to pay for being drafted into helping decorate the house every year (at least the parts of it out of El's reach). Peter wouldn't have minded celebrating the holiday with microwave pizza and football, which described the majority of his Christmases before he'd gotten married. But he had to admit he liked their quiet little home Christmases, snugging with El in front of the TV and watching sappy Christmas movies while the tree twinkled in the corner of the living room.

With her usual talent for organization, El had done most of the holiday shopping and mailed boxes to their respective families before they'd left for Belize. But they hadn't done the house yet, which meant that rather than kicking back in front of the TV before going to work in the morning, he got to spend the evening helping El decorate.

"You'll enjoy it," El said, as she always did, and after a token amount of grumbling, he did enjoy it, as always. At least until El lost her mind.

"We should invite Neal over on Christmas," she said, draping garlands over the fireplace.

"Neal? The felon, Neal?"

"How many Neals do you know?"

Peter stretched to get a string of lights above the kitchen doorway. "I'm trying to figure out why our Christmas needs a felon in it."

El looked over her shoulder to wrinkle her nose at him. "He might not have anywhere else to go."

"I told you about June, right? I can basically guarantee that he'll be pressed to the bosom of her family over the holiday weekend." Peter still wasn't sure that Neal hadn't conned her, but if so, he didn't seem to be doing any harm, at least not with the anklet to control his movements.

"That's good." El carefully tweaked a loop of the garland to match its neighbors. "But I think it would be nice if we invited him anyway, even if he turns us down. A friendly gesture, you know?"

"I'm not sure if I want to be that friendly with someone who lied, cheated, and stole his way across most of the countries in the EU and twenty-seven states, that we know about. My idea of a relaxing Christmas doesn't include constantly watching the neighborhood thief to make sure he doesn't walk off with every valuable item in the house."

The corners of El's mouth twitched. "Maybe he'll take that awful candelabra my mother gave us two Christmases ago."

"I don't think it would fit under his jacket," Peter deadpanned, and then sighed. "It would be a nice gesture, you're right. Neal would probably appreciate it." And he felt vaguely guilty, now, about the birthday cards they'd gotten while Neal was in prison. The idea of reciprocating had honestly never occurred to him -- he didn't even send cards to his own parents if El didn't remind him, and didn't particularly care, personally, if he never received another card of any sort. He just didn't care about that sort of thing. But it had been nice to be remembered, he had to admit. Maybe he should have returned the gesture. Neal probably hadn't gotten much mail in prison.

"Assuming this works out, he's going to be in our lives for the next four years," El pointed out. "We may as well get off on the right foot."

"I think in our lives is overstating things, don't you?"

But El just smiled at him, and Peter could feel the solid ground under his feet becoming treacherous. He'd agreed to Neal's proposal with the idea that he could keep everything firmly in hand: he'd been reasonably confident that he could control Neal and maybe get the kid pointed in the right direction, and if Neal had only suggested the deal as a sneaky way to escape from prison (which Peter was about 90% sure was the case), then karma would catch up with him in the form of Peter Burke and a pair of handcuffs.

But while he might have guessed that Neal would take every opportunity to work the situation to his advantage, what Peter had somehow forgotten was that he really liked Neal, he always had, and the idea of Neal wasting his life in prison or getting himself shot in a con gone bad really hurt. When Neal went to prison the first time, Peter had argued to the DA for a reduced sentence; he wasn't sure if it had helped, but his hope had been that prison would scare Neal straight, or at least make him think twice about some of his life choices. Now that he'd had an opportunity to deal closely with a post-prison Neal, he really wasn't getting a "scared straight" vibe. But even when Neal was unrepentantly breaking the law, he was just so earnest that it was hard to get mad at him.

That's how he operates, Peter told himself. The difference between being his parole officer and being his mark is remembering who he is and what he does.

But one thing he'd already figured out about Neal was that trying to force him to do anything wasn't going to work -- and that included leaving behind a life of crime. He couldn't make Neal stop breaking the law, at least not by anything less drastic than throwing him back in prison. But maybe he could give him reasons to want not to.

Like an invitation to Christmas dinner.

"Sure," Peter said. "I'll invite him." El beamed at him.

 

***

 

Neal had enjoyed his week of relative freedom.

He'd still been required to go into the White Collar office from nine to five, but no one seemed to know what to do with him, plus things were slightly chaotic due to Peter being gone and people taking holiday-related leave. The agent named Jones gave him a desk, which had a computer that could access both the Internet and their internal network. This was the famously security-conscious FBI? Neal thought about tampering with some files just to point out their gigantic Neal-sized security hole -- nothing major; maybe he'd stick in the names of random Disney characters or something -- but then he decided that it would be a stupid way to get thrown back in prison, so he behaved himself. Agent Jones gave him a stack of cold cases and told him to see what he could figure out. It was boring, but also, in most cases, trivially easy. Peter would have come up with something harder. Neal decided to pace himself: he figured out exactly how many cases he'd need to solve per day in order to finish the pile by the time Peter came back, and then spent his spare time using the Internet to do research -- not just on Operation Crack the Anklet and Find Kate, but also to figure out how much he'd missed during the years he was in prison.

And when he wasn't in the office, he was ... well, not free, never free; there was a weight on his ankle reminding him just how free he wasn't. But after four years of his world being bounded by concrete walls and prison guards, a two-mile radius was almost oppressively huge. As much as he would have loved to jump on a plane and just go, go, go, he found himself reluctantly glad that his newfound freedom was somewhat limited. The choices were still overwhelming. Where to go for dinner? What to do on weekends? He was out of the habit of making even the most trivial choices about his own life.

Which was probably terribly sad, if he got to thinking about it. So he tried not to.

And he still didn't sleep much; he had nightmares, he woke up gasping, thinking he was back in prison. The open plan of the apartment, with all that glass, suited him very well right now. Even when he couldn't sleep, he could get up and paint. He could have a glass of wine. He could stand on the terrace with the cold December wind ruffling his hair, looking down at the lights along Riverside.

There was a part of him that wanted to be pathetically grateful to Peter for getting him out of prison. He firmly resisted that urge, because it had been his idea, damn it; and Peter was only a means to an end in any case.

But the Dutchman case had been fun, and he hadn't expected that, though he probably should have. Playing cat and mouse with Peter had been fun too, after all. The cat always won, the game was stacked in the house's favor, and other mixed metaphors; Neal had thought he could beat the odds, but he hadn't even been able to muster anger when he'd lost. It had been a game well played, after all, and if nothing else, Neal had always been a graceful loser.

Partly because he usually had a plan to turn a loss into a win.

Okay, right. So he was going to walk into the White Collar office on Monday morning, keeping firmly in mind that Peter was his parole officer, that this was strictly a business arrangement for both of them, and that he was going to escape as soon as he could figure out how.

He was mildly irritated to catch himself grinning when he walked in, looked across the bullpen and saw Peter back in his office. It was a strangely contented feeling, like something had slotted back into place.

Peter glanced up and saw him. Neal mounted the stairs to Peter's office at a bouncy trot, trying to look jaunty and cheerful (as opposed to looking like someone who was habitually up half the night hunting for clues on Kate, and the other half because he couldn't sleep for nightmares). "Hi," he said with a level of perkiness calculated to annoy, because annoying Peter was fun. Then he recoiled in sartorial horror. "Are you wearing a Christmas tie?"

"It's almost Christmas," Peter said, as if that made it okay.

"Peter, your tie has little Christmas trees on it. There is no excuse for that in any season."

"If you're done mocking my wardrobe," Peter said, "sit down."

"Oh, believe me, I haven't even begun mocking your wardrobe." But he sat. "How was Belize?"

"Good," Peter said. "Great, actually." Aside from the awful tie, he looked ... remarkably relaxed, Neal thought. There was a light sunburn across the bridge of his nose and he'd lost some of that tightly-wound look that he typically wore.

"Bring me back anything?"

Peter's smile morphed into a look of annoyance. "Because it's perfectly normal to shop for souvenirs to bring back to my criminal informant while I'm on a romantic vacation getaway with my wife."

"I would have gotten you something," Neal said, feigning hurt.

"You mean you would have stolen me something."

"I'm not sure what point you're trying to make."

Peter cleared his throat and passed a file across the desk. "Jones says you've been making yourself useful while I've been gone. Want to see how you do on a tougher case?"

Neal skimmed the folder's contents and gave Peter a look of hurt disbelief. "Real estate scams? Really?"

"It's what we do," Peter said.

"My talents are wasted on this."

"Is every case going to be a power struggle?" Peter asked, exasperated. "You didn't give Jones a hard time."

Mostly because Jones was so straight-laced that needling him wasn't any fun. "Maybe if you'd brought me back a present ..."

"If you're going to be difficult, I won't invite you over for Christmas."

Neal blinked at him. "That's an option?"

Peter looked suddenly embarrassed. "For some reason my wife wanted me to ask you if you were interested in coming over for Christmas dinner."

"Oh," Neal said. "Uh." He tried to slap a slick con-artist mask over his moment of ... he didn't know what he was feeling, actually. If he went to the Burke house, for the holidays or at any other time, he wanted it to be on his terms. He liked catching Peter off guard, not being caught off guard himself. He could easily imagine Peter spending the entire meal glowering at him like he was going to steal the silverware and pumping him for information on Kate.

On the other hand, it was weirdly flattering to be asked.

"I have plans," he said. It had the advantage of being true; June had let him know that he was entirely welcome to join her family for the holiday.

Peter looked both profoundly relieved and maybe just a bit disappointed. "Right," he said. "Let's get to work; that real estate scam isn't going to solve itself."

 

***

 

The week before Christmas, the stores were crowded with desperate last-minute shoppers. Peter would have liked to avoid the madness completely, but El had an assortment of last-minute errands to run, and he joined her because he'd been struck by the urge to give Neal a gift.

It was stupid, he knew. Neal wasn't expecting anything and it would probably do nothing other than embarrass both of them. For that matter, Neal was a felon released into his custody, not a long-lost relative.

But he kept thinking about those birthday cards sent from prison, about the champagne and flowers sent to surveillance vans, the postcards and phone calls. It had been Neal's way of taunting his pursuers, and, even from prison, continuing to taunt the man who'd caught him. But Peter was starting to realize there was also something touchingly sincere about it. He'd always thought it was nothing more than Neal tweaking Peter's chain. And it was certainly that. But maybe it was also that Neal didn't have many people to send cards to.

And Peter hadn't brought him back anything from Belize. Not that he had to. Not that the thought had even occurred to him at the time. Still, there weren't a lot of souvenir shops in prison ...

Peter knew Neal's tastes better than his wife's, at least in the sense of figuring out what restaurant he'd pick or what he'd steal next. But the problem was that anything Neal would like was drastically out of Peter's price range. Besides, even if he could afford it, there wasn't a chance he was going to buy a thousand-dollar silk tie for a criminal under his surveillance.

He finally swiped a lock-picking brain teaser puzzle off a stocking-stuffer display near the counter of the bookstore where El was picking up a cookbook for Yvonne. Once they were back in the car, he showed it to her.

"Who's this for?" El asked, turning it over in her hand.

"Neal."

There was a brief silence. "Um," El said politely.

"You don't think it's terribly inappropriate to give him gifts, do you?" Peter asked. He was pretty sure it wasn't against regulations -- well, assuming he wasn't giving Neal a thousand-dollar tie -- but he hadn't really thought that it might put both of them in a bad position.

"Oh, no, no." El leaned over to kiss his nose; he was chilled from the December wind and her lips were very warm. "I think it's very sweet of you. It's just ... hon, does this really seem like Neal to you?"

"Oh come on, it's not that bad," Peter defended himself. "Hopefully he'll take it in the spirit in which it's intended."

"That is a danger, yes."

 

***

 

"You look like the cat who swallowed the canary," Neal told Peter the next day. It was the day before Christmas Eve and was the last day either of them would see the other, at least in theory, until after the holiday. At least, assuming Neal did not decide to take the Burkes up on their offer -- though Peter was hoping that they'd gotten that topic out of the way and didn't have to worry about it anymore -- or, more likely, assuming Neal didn't take advantage of the holiday weekend to escape.

"No idea what you're talking about," Peter said. Neal's gift, neatly wrapped by El, was tucked inside his coat pocket. He planned to hand it to him as his very last act before leaving work, thereby avoiding the possibility of an embarrassing scene.

"Do you need my help shopping for Elizabeth?" Neal asked cheerfully.

"My anniversary was a one-time thing," Peter retorted. "And it was my idea in the end, anyway. No, El's gift is already picked out." He'd called her mother, who had been able to walk him through the acquisition of a nice bracelet that got the Mother-in-Law Seal Of Approval when he texted her a picture of it.

"Hmm." Neal eyed him. "I know you haven't closed any big cases lately, because you would have been crowing about it around the office."

Since Neal seemed to want to be in his personal space today, Peter took advantage of the opportunity to study his new CI. Under the surface gloss, Neal looked tired and stressed.

"Still looking for Kate, aren't you?"

"The bottle meant goodbye," Neal said, a little too quickly.

"Uh huh. Well, grab your coat, Casanova."

"You're taking me in the field?" Neal sounded eager. They'd been working in the office since Peter had gotten back from Belize, Peter sticking mostly to the behind-the-scenes legwork. Not that there was any advantage to keeping Neal away from fieldwork; if Neal was going to try anything, he had plenty of opportunity in the evening, when he didn't have any supervision at all. Still, after what had happened with the Dutchman, Peter found himself wary of giving Neal too much leash until he had a better idea of what Neal would do with it.

"Don't make me regret it."

 

***

 

Neal's delight turned to gloom when he discovered that he was going to be stuck in the surveillance van.

"Really? You have a valuable asset like me, and this is the best thing you can think of to do with me? I could be in there, talking to people ..."

"Nope," Peter said, and put his headphones on. After a minute, once Neal had had time for some pouting, he relented enough to slip the headphones down. "You're good with body language. Better than most of our trained profilers, if your file is anything to go by. I want you to watch while Jones and I are talking to these guys."

These guys were Larry and Jake Cross, a pair of brothers in the smuggling business. They weren't high priority, but the FBI had been keeping tabs on them for awhile, and this week word on the street had been that the two of them might be moving into more rarified, mob-connected circles. Peter and Jones were going in as possible buyers for a shipment of bootleg DVDs and testing the waters a bit. If there seemed to be anything to the mafia theory, they'd pass the case over to Organized Crime and it'd be off their desks.

"How much can I see from inside the van?" Neal protested. "I'm not a backup singer, Peter, I'm the front man."

"Well, you're a backup singer on this one. You're not running your own show anymore. If this band is Burke and the Burkettes, then you're a Burkette today."

Neal winced. "Please never call me that again."

 

***

 

After Peter and Jones left, Neal tried twirling his chair a few times until Peter's former probie, Diana, showed up with coffee and told him to knock it off or she'd take the chair away and make him stand.

"I heard you're transferring to DC," Neal said. He didn't know her well -- didn't know anyone well, yet -- but word was all over the office.

"Yeah, my last day's in January."

"Glad to get out of here?"

Diana shrugged. "I don't know. This is where I've been since I got out of Quantico. It'll be strange not working with Peter."

Reminded by the mention of Peter's name that he had a job to do, Neal took a quick glance at the screens. Peter and Jones were still waiting; there was nothing to be seen. Neal returned his attention to Diana. "In a good way or a bad way?"

"What do you mean?"

"Seeing as I'm stuck with him," Neal clarified, shamelessly playing the "I'm just a poor working schmoe like you" card. "I'm wondering what to expect."

Diana snorted, not falling for it. "Aren't these the sort of questions you should have been asking before you let him put a tracking anklet on you?"

"Most felons aren't allowed to ask for character references on their parole officer."

"Oh, come on, Caffrey. I know perfectly well that you've been studying Peter as long as he's been studying you. If you didn't have a pretty good idea of his character, you'd never have pitched the deal to him. And if you're looking for leverage that you can use to manipulate him, look somewhere else; I'm loyal to Peter, not to you."

Neal sat back in his chair and looked at her with new respect. "No wonder you're going to DC. You're wasted here."

"Watch your screens," Diana told him.

The Cross brothers had just showed up. They exchanged terse pleasantries with the two FBI agents. Despite his resolve to look as bored as possible, Neal found himself getting caught up in the deception in spite of himself. It was fascinating to watch Peter's body language shift as he assumed his undercover role. His weight balanced differently; he held himself with a sense of contained menace, as if he might lash out at any moment. Peter was good, Neal thought approvingly. A proper con wasn't just about words. It was about selling the illusion -- becoming the role you played. He'd always suspected Peter might have the makings of a good con artist; now he revised that thought. Peter could have been brilliant if he'd gone over to the other side. Ah, what might have been ...

"Well?" Diana asked him, and Neal hastily reoriented his attention from admiring the finer points of Peter's technique, to studying the Cross brothers. The headset, held lightly against his ear, gave him a tinny rendition of their conversation.

"This would be easier if I knew what their normal body language is like," Neal said. "And filtered through all this equipment, I can hardly even --"

"Peter said you stay in the van. In the van you stay." Diana reached past him for the mouse. "I can show you some footage from last week to compare, though."

Meanwhile the conversation went on. Peter and Jones never came out and said anything about working with the mob, but they dropped hints that someone in the know couldn't help picking up on.

"That's nervousness," Neal said, pointing to the way Larry Cross was fiddling with his watch. From a slight shift in the angle of Peter's head, he could see that Peter had noticed it too.

"What did he react to?" Diana asked

Neal tried to figure out how to play back the footage without actually admitting that he didn't know how to use the controls on the program. Diana either realized what he needed or got impatient; in any case, she reached for the mouse again, running the recording back and then forward. The audio did a nerve-raking stutter, and now Neal was getting a double layer of conversation, the recorded version and the one that was currently ongoing. Neal divided his attention accordingly, almost without thought. Being able to think and operate on two or three levels at once was standard operating procedure for some of the high-end cons he'd run.

"It was when Peter started talking about moving business uptown," he said. "Yeah, look at the other guy now. See the way he keeps touching his ear? He's done that three times in the last minute. They're both getting nervous. And look how his attention is focused on Peter now."

Diana touched her earpiece. "Peter? I think we've got what we need, especially once we run it by the analysts. You can start wrapping up."

Peter couldn't respond, but Neal could tell by subtle shifts in his body language that he'd heard them.

Then Neal's eyes were drawn to something else. Larry Cross shifted his weight to balance on the leg away from Peter, and he dropped his hand while his other hand moved back --

"Diana, he's got a weapon--" Neal began, and he hadn't even finished before she was speaking into the radio: "Peter, they're armed!" But the screen had erupted into motion -- Larry Cross whipped his hand forward, Peter swung to the side --

It was a knife; Neal got that much as Peter spun away and the knife went into him somewhere on the side that was hidden from the camera. Everyone was in motion -- the other Cross brother started running, Jones drove a fist into Larry Cross's face, and in the van, everyone around Neal was scrambling for weapons and vests.

But all Neal could do was stare at the tiny figure of Peter on the screen, crumpling to his knees and bringing up a hand to his shoulder. Turn, Neal thought, because he couldn't tell whether it had hit Peter in the shoulder or the arm or the ribs -- or missed completely.

"Caffrey!" This wasn't the first time Diana had said his name. "You stay here, Caffrey, got it? Rawlins, make sure he stays here."

There was no need to make him stay. His knees had gone weak; he didn't think he could have risen from the chair if he'd tried.

On the screen, Jones had Cross down on the pavement, twisting his arm behind his back. Other small FBI figures sprinted past in pursuit of the fleeing suspect. Diana was crouched next to Peter, who took his hand away from his arm and stared at it dazedly. On the screen, his blood looked almost black.

Neal managed to get up. "Hey," the remaining FBI agent said, planting a hand in his chest and pushing him back. "You're not supposed to leave."

Neal simply went eel-graceful and slithered around him. He was out on the street before he could be stopped.

By the time he got there, the commotion had died down. Both Cross brothers were having their rights read by noticeably unsympathetic FBI agents. Peter was sitting on the curb with Diana next to him, one hand on his shoulder. He was gripping his upper arm, and his jacket was soaked with blood, but although his face was pale, he didn't look like he was about to pass out.

Neal's knees were still wobbly. Sitting down seemed like a good idea, so he sat on Peter's other side.

"Hey," Diana said. "I told you to stay. I'm gonna kill Rawlins."

"It's not Henry's fault. Neal doesn't stay," Peter said. His voice was a little shaky. "Hi, Neal."

"Hi," Neal said. A wailing siren was drawing close. "I screwed up, Peter."

"What?" Peter looked genuinely surprised. "No, you didn't."

"I screwed up, I was supposed to be watching the screen --" But then the ambulance drew up in front of them, and he couldn't talk to Peter because paramedics descended on them. Soon Peter was bundled into the ambulance and he found himself on the sidewalk with Diana.

"What happens now?" Neal asked her. He felt cold all over, though he couldn't say why. He hadn't been hurt.

"Paperwork," Diana sighed. "Tons of paperwork. I guess someone needs to notify Mrs. Burke, too. You can catch a ride down to the hospital with me if you like."

"No," Neal said, "I mean to me," but Diana was already getting distracted with another crime-scene detail, so he ended up riding with her after all. There didn't seem to be anything else to do.

 

***

 

Peter had been attacked in the line of duty before, but he'd never quite managed to get used to it. Only his quick reflexes had saved him from having the knife go into his chest; he'd managed to turn in time so that it tore through his jacket and the fleshy outer part of his arm. It hurt horribly, but he could tell that it wasn't bad, especially since the paramedics didn't seem terribly concerned. They let him sit up in the back of the ambulance, put on a pressure dressing, and chatted with him on the short ride to the hospital.

By the time he got there, he was already regretting allowing himself to be pulled away from his crime scene. He ended up on the phone to Diana, then Jones, then one of the techs, until the nurse who was stitching up his arm threatened to confiscate his phone. Then Elizabeth called him, because someone had called her, and he had to reassure her that it was fine, he was fine, everything was just fine.

"Peter! Someone tried to stab you." She sounded near tears.

"But they missed," he pointed out. "I'll be home soon. Hon, please don't cry."

"I'm not crying," she said in a belligerent way which meant she was probably crying. "Which hospital? I'll pick you up."

"There's no need to drop what you're doing and come down. I'm in good hands, and I can get a ride --" The curtain of the examining room parted and Diana slipped in, followed by a nervous-looking Neal. "Actually, Diana's here now. I'll get a ride home as soon as they're done with me and meet you at home, okay?"

El sighed. "I suppose that telling you to be careful is hopeless."

"I'm always careful. Love you." He gave Diana a quick smile as he hung up. "Wife," he explained.

She smiled back. "Yeah, my girlfriend worries about me too. I just wanted to stick my head in before heading across the hall. Apparently Larry Cross insisted on being taken to the hospital too; he's claiming police brutality because Jones hit him."

"He was trying to stab me," Peter said, indignant.

"I know. I'd have punched him too, if I'd been close enough. Right now I need to go put out some fires."

"Hang on, I need to find my jacket." Peter's jacket and shirt had both been cut off him, but he spied the remains in a bin against the wall. He slid down from the examining bed and wobbled, at which point both Diana and Neal sprang into action, caught hold of him, and put him back.

"Caffrey," Diana said. "Stay here with him and make sure he stays here. Can you do that this time?"

"Uh, okay," Neal said. Diana vanished around the curtain. "Are you going to stay here?"

"Apparently," Peter sighed. He didn't like how weak and shaky he felt. "Can you get my jacket for me? I need to empty the pockets, since it's trash now."

Neal fastidiously picked the bloody jacket out of the bin, touching it as little as possible. He looked pale, Peter thought; ashen, almost. "Well, considering that it's an off-the-rack suit, at least it's not a great loss," he said as he dropped it on the bed next to Peter, but the heart didn't seem to be in his teasing. "Sadly your Christmas tie seems to have escaped intact."

"I liked that suit," Peter said. "And the tie." He frowned at Neal. "Sit."

"Uh, okay." Neal perched on the edge of the bed. "Why?"

"Are you all right?"

"Me?" Neal said, too quickly. He looked away, chewing his lower lip. "No, I just wondered -- I was wondering about our deal. If you were thinking about terminating it."

"What, and send you back to prison?" Peter was honestly baffled. "Why?"

"I was supposed to be watching the screens." Neal's careful facade fell away and he looked suddenly very young and vulnerable. "I wasn't fast enough."

"They were fast," Peter said. "I didn't know it'd turn violent. I wouldn't have brought you along if I'd expected that. Look, if anyone screwed up, I did." Neal's discomfort was making him uncomfortable, so he began emptying the pockets of the ruined jacket to give himself something else to focus on, trying to use his injured arm as little as possible. A small pile of items began to form on the bed next to him: a pad of paper and pen, a pair of latex-free gloves, some receipts --

"I just wasn't expecting ..." Neal trailed off, floundering a bit.

"Yeah, it's dangerous," Peter said. "This job can be a dangerous thing. So's prison."

"No, that's not what I meant." Neal gave up on whatever he'd been trying to say, and changed the subject. "Hey, what's that?"

"That" was Neal's brightly wrapped Christmas present, which Peter had forgotten was in one of the jacket pockets. He turned it over to make sure there was no blood on the wrapping. "It's for you," he said. "Christmas present. Meant to give it to you later."

Neal looked genuinely shocked. "You got me a present?"

Peter held it out. "You could either open it now or wait until Christmas."

Like he had to ask; Neal was tearing into the wrapping before he'd finished speaking. Neal, Peter thought, had definitely been a present-shaker as a kid. Heck, he'd probably been the sort of kid who snuck downstairs on Christmas Eve, unwrapped all his presents, then wrapped them back up again and feigned surprise the next morning. Neal and delayed gratification were not good friends.

"Don't get too excited," Peter said hastily. He was starting to wish he'd paid more attention to El. He didn't want to see the light go out of Neal's eyes when Neal discovered it was a gag gift.

It was too late; Neal had already unearthed the Houdini puzzle. "Huh," he said. "Peter, you shouldn't have. I mean, you really shouldn't have."

Peter went on the defensive. "I'd like to point out that a minute ago you didn't even know I was getting you anything, so you're coming out ahead, all things considered."

"Is that the kind of logic they teach at Quantico?" Neal asked, but absently; he'd already begun to fiddle with the puzzle, his clever fingers unable to resist poking, twisting and turning. "Aha!"

"You can't have solved it already," Peter said in disbelief.

There was a click as Neal locked it again. "Here, your turn," he said, dropping it in Peter's lap.

"Hey," was all Peter could manage. "It's your present."

"Yes, and I've solved it, which means it's your turn to see if you can beat my time."

"I don't think that's possible," Peter muttered, picking up the lock with his good hand. "What was that, twenty seconds?"

He was still struggling with it, trying to ignore Neal's cheerfully sarcastic comments, when Diana came back to see if he was ready to leave.

 

***

 

Neal wasn't really planning on going back to Peter's house with him, but that was where Diana went first, so he ended up coming along whether he wanted to or not. Peter had given him back the puzzle, after some irritable grumbling, and it was now shoved down deep in Neal's pocket. He kept slipping his hand in to touch it.

He hadn't expected Peter to give him a present, any more than he'd expected the way his legs had turned to water when he'd seen the knife slide into Peter's flesh. And yeah, Peter was the one thing standing between him and jail right now -- the one thing that kept him in a position where he could still look for Kate.

But somehow it had become more than a business deal. Neal felt off balance now; the wheels were coming off his nice getting-out-of-jail plan and suddenly he felt like he was on a runaway train, and he had no idea where it was going.

The windows of the house were dark. In the front seat Peter and Diana were having a terse conversation about whether Peter's wife had stopped on the way to pick up painkillers and soup -- "I'm not an invalid," Peter said, and Diana retorted, "Yes, but I've met your wife" -- and whether it was all right for Peter to be home alone. ("Did I mention I'm not an invalid?")

Then Elizabeth pulled up behind Diana's car in the Burkes' Taurus. A brief and emotional reunion ensued, while Neal tried to blend into the seats and Diana looked just as uncomfortable.

"So I'm going to take Caffrey uptown, then," Diana said.

"Thanks for everything," Peter told her. "Hey, you got plans for the holiday?"

"We're going out of town to Christie's folks."

"Have a good one, then." Peter gave her a quick, one-armed hug, then turned his attention on Neal. "And you, uh --"

"I have plans," Neal said quickly.

"I know," Peter said. "You already said so. But, you know --"

"You can come over if you want to," his wife supplied, reaching out to give Neal's hand a squeeze. Elizabeth Burke, he'd already noticed, was a rather handsy sort of person.

"Thank you," Neal said. "And thank you for the present. I didn't get you anything."

"I wasn't expecting it," Peter said. Some of the color had come back into his face, and when he smiled, he looked younger, the careworn and stressed FBI agent giving way to a different person entirely. "I just wanted to get things off on the right foot, I guess."

"Merry Christmas, Neal," Elizabeth said. She squeezed his hand again before letting him go.

"Merry Christmas," Neal said, feeling dazed. He still felt that way as he and Diana pulled away from the curb.

Diana left him to his own thoughts on the drive into Manhattan. She seemed to know where to go, or at least didn't ask. Neal tucked one hand into his pocket so that he could rest it on the puzzle, and left it that way for the entire drive.

"Have a good Christmas, Caffrey," Diana said when she let him out at June's.

"You too," he told her, with rare sincerity, and stood at the curb as she pulled away, running his fingertips over the puzzle in his pocket.

He hadn't really been allowing himself to think about the future. He wasn't even thinking about Christmas much -- June's house was beautifully decorated for the holidays, but the contrast between four years of prison Christmases and this was so huge that his mind couldn't really encompass it. And the whole thing was still so tentative. He hadn't even been sure if he'd make it to Christmas, let alone beyond. Maybe he'd end up back in jail; maybe he'd run; maybe he'd run afoul of the Man with the Ring, whoever he was, and die.

But now he was starting to glimpse something even more terrifying than uncertainty: the first sketchy outlines of a future. It was still nothing more than a rough charcoal underdrawing, the broadest strokes of something hinted rather than seen. But it was there in June's holiday invitation, and the one from the Burkes; it was there in the ridiculous joke present in his pocket, which nevertheless meant that Peter had been thinking of him; it was there in Diana's Christmas wishes, and in his own terror and (if he was willing to admit it) sympathetic pain at seeing Peter stabbed.

He still couldn't examine it too closely. The future, he had learned, had a way of vanishing when he got his heart set on a particular outcome. Don't want anything, just take the days as they come -- that was the way to get through.

But even if this was only temporary, he was starting to think it might work out better than he'd hoped.

"Merry Christmas," he whispered -- to whom he wasn't sure -- and turned to go into June's as the first light flakes of snow began to fall.