Neal had never thought to see a day like this. Family was not a concept he knew much about, and even friends were hard to come by when you lived as he did. He never suspected that going to prison would change things so much. Not that it was actually being in the jail that changed him, but every event that stemmed from that time had led him here, to a life, a home, a family.
Now it was Christmastime, and though Neal was still shackled by an anklet that tracked his every move, he felt free enough. He was sat at the dining table in Peter Burke’s house, the perp partner of an FBI agent welcomed in like a friend. Neal never could have imagined this scenario once upon a time, but here he was, and he couldn’t have been happier.
To Neal’s right was his girlfriend, Sara Ellis. Technically she played for the other team, the good guys, and yet she loved Neal more than he ever could’ve imagined being loved. What he had with Kate, he had believed it to be true love, to be forever, but this was different. Neal looked at Sara and he saw a different kind of future to what he had imagined for so many years, and he liked what he saw.
At the end of the table sat Elizabeth Burke, or as Mozzie liked to call her Mrs Suit. She was so warm and welcoming from the moment Neal came into Peter’s life, and he wondered at it every day. She cared about everybody and she always believed in the best of Neal, even when he couldn’t see it in himself.
As far as parents went, Neal felt he was set up well right here. Opposite him at the dinner table sat June, his landlady, his friend. She knew much of what he was and what he had done, and loved him like a son in spite of all. More than once she had mentioned he was the kind of boy she and her dearly departed husband might’ve had. Neal liked knowing that.
Then there was Mozzie. Neal didn’t even know where to begin when it came to his little buddy, his best friend who had got him out of more scrapes than he could ever list. They had each other’s back always, and Neal had no doubts he would have ended up in jail way more than he had without Mozzie’s help.
Finally, Special Agent Peter Burke sat at the head of the table, carving the turkey and cracking jokes about being better with a gun than the knife he had to use. To Neal he was all kinds of people, a brother, a mentor, a friend, sometimes even the father figure he had always needed. In a lot of ways, Peter had been Neal’s saviour, from prison and a less righteous path. He would always be grateful to him for that, always.
Those gathered around the table were having the best time, enjoying wine and good conversation. In this safe place they could tell their war stories without fear. Peter was off the clock, and nobody was going to tell any secrets revealed on this special day. There was laughter aplenty at many a con and heist, even at the tales of the FBI agent chasing the fraudster and not quite catching him, whilst food was piled high on plates and silly paper hats were worn. It was comfortable, peaceful, and full of joy, like a dream.
“How do you do that?” asked Peter so suddenly that Neal almost jumped at the question. “The most ridiculous paper hat and still you manage to look suave,” he shook his head, smiling, but when Neal glanced over he saw cold eyes staring back.
“He has to be the best at everything,” said Sara, placing her wine glass back on the table. “Of course, that only extends as far as skills that look after number one, right, Neal?”
She had the same sad and hollow look in her gaze when Neal met her eyes and it made him shiver all through his body. It was as if his friends were not his friends at all, the joyful warmth of their souls that made them whole evaporating in a second. He looked away towards Mozzie, or he meant to, but suddenly his friend was gone from the table, Elizabeth too, leaving only June on the other side. Neal shook his head, blinked hard, as if to clear his vision. It didn’t help.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
June smiled, but it was a cruel and twisted expression, the like of which Neal had never seen her wear and never wished to again.
“You did this, Caffrey,” she said coldly. “You betrayed them, allowed them to walk away.”
“Or be taken,” Peter added, a bladed edge to his tone as Neal realised what he meant.
Sara was gone from his side now. She and Mozzie had walked away, that much was true, and it was all Neal’s fault, but Elizabeth? No, she had been taken. Kidnapped on the instructions of Keller, because of how Neal had chosen to behave. He swallowed hard, reached for the wine glass but fumbled and split his drink all over the table. Dark red pooled in the white table cloth and stained it permanently. Neal couldn’t take his eyes off the sight of it, until a hand shot out and grasped his his wrist too tightly.
“You did this!” said Peter angrily, red-faced and livid as he wrenched Neal to his feet and stood toe-to-toe with him. “You destroy everything you touch. You think of no-one but yourself and yet you think you deserve everyone to fall at your feet!” he yelled in his face. “You can’t have this, Neal, you can’t have everything. All these people, this happy ending. It’s not your fate!”
Neal couldn’t understand what was happening. Tears filled his eyes as he opened his mouth to beg forgiveness from the only man he felt could save him again, but no words came out. His silver tongue was muted, his knees buckling beneath him as the true weight of his selfish mistakes pressed down on him, and then the world went black.
The former-con came to with a start on the couch and stared up into the bright blue eyes of Elizabeth Burke. It took a minute for him to get his bearings, unsure whether he had been asleep or just remembering. That Christmas that he saw behind his eyes was a recurring dream, never exactly the same but awfully similar, reminding him how close he had once come to losing everything.
“El, I’m sorry,” he apologised. “I was...”
“Having a nightmare,” she finished for him. “Must have been a bad one too, you were getting pretty restless there for a while.”
She came to sit beside him and Neal let his eyes look beyond her to the table. Everybody was there, Peter, Mozzie, June, even Sara, all gathered for a family Christmas, just as in his dream. The difference was that this was real, and everything Neal had feared was now over. Mozzie had left but soon returned. Sara had given up on her relationship with Neal for a while, but not for long. Elizabeth had really been taken by Keller, but they rescued her in the end and justice was done. Everybody was here, everything was okay. It was just a nightmare, based in facts when he first had it, but that was all over now, even if Neal did still wonder sometimes if he deserved to come out of his ordeals so unscathed, and still with so many people to care for him.
“Neal, seriously, are you okay?” asked Elizabeth worriedly.
He shook his head then, let out a long breath.
“I’m fine, El,” he promised her, a hand over hers. “I was just... Well, things could’ve been so different this Christmas. I came so close to losing everything, Sara, Mozzie, you,” he said sadly.
“Aaw, Neal, it all got figured out in the end,” she reminded him. “You gotta let go of the past and move forward. We all have.”
He nodded that he understood and even agreed with her, but it was a tough feeling to shake, feeling unworthy. It wasn’t an emotion Neal was used to yet. All those years of taking what he wanted, feeling he had earnt it somehow when running a long con or some complicated heist, never once feeling he didn’t deserve the prizes he walked away with, not until a few months ago, when Sara dumped him, when Mozzie walked away, the day when Elizabeth was taken and Peter turned to him which such a painful, lost look on his face that Neal would never, ever forget.
“Hey, stop monopolising my wife, Caffrey!” Peter called out to Neal then. “Just because it’s Christmas, not everything in stockings is a gift for you,” he said with a look as he wandered over and kissed Elizabeth’s cheek.
“And this is before we even pull the crackers and find the really bad jokes!” she rolled her eyes, returning his kiss. “Neal was just feeling the emotions of the day is all,” she advised. “I guess Christmas can be happy and sad, thinking over old times.”
“Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness,” Mozzie quoted, bringing a glass of wine over for Neal.
“Carl Jung,” his friend acknowledged with a nod of thanks for the drink.
“As much as I enjoy a good sentimental moment,” said Sara as she called to the group around the couch. “Something smells a little... over-cooked in the kitchen?” she advised.
“Oh, no!” cried Elizabeth, making a run for the stove.
June followed, promising to help salvage whatever may have been spoiled, and Neal did all he could think to do, he laughed.
“You think it’s funny that our Christmas dinner might be ruined?” asked Peter curiously.
“No, not at all,” Neal waved away the suggestion. “I just... I can’t really believe I’m here, that we’re all here. I mean, telling old stories, getting emotional, crisis in the kitchen. I feel like I’m in some Hallmark holiday movie,” he shrugged.
“I don’t remember the Hallmark family moment when guys like us ate Christmas dinner with the suit, Mrs Suit, and the half-suit girlfriend.”
“Me either,” Neal agreed, reaching for Sara’s hand and pulling her to sit down beside him on the couch. “But I remember a lot of those movies having family in them, not always blood related or anything, but family.”
He looked to Peter when he repeated that word, ‘family’. The hard-ass FBI agent tried his best not to grin but it was difficult. It was ridiculous to think that he had welcomed two ex-cons, three counting June, into his home, his life, his family, Neal was right on that, but he wouldn’t ever go back and change the decisions that brought him here.
For all that some might say he was crazy, that El and Sara were equally as unhinged for getting mixed up with Neal and people like him, Peter refused to believe it. He gave a young man a second chance, and in the end he more than proved himself. Here he was, no anklet holding him and yet choosing to continue his good works with the FBI, being the kind of man that would never need to go back to prison. Altogether, they had become a strange kind of family, all six of them, and that family was going to spend a wonderful holiday season together.
“C’mon, let’s eat,” said Peter to Neal, encouraging him, as well as Mozzie and Sara, to follow him to the table, just as El and June emerged from the kitchen with the turkey and more besides.
Neal pulled out the chair for Sara then took his own seat, looking around at the smiling faces surrounding him. He had never thought to see a day like this. Family was not a concept he knew much about, and even friends were hard to come by when you had lived as he did, but now here he was with a life, a home, a family. Neal Caffrey wouldn’t change any of this for the whole world, and only hoped that every Christmas would be as joyful as this moment.