(Chapter 8)

Christmas eve arrived, Neal moping a bit but his arm was now out of the sling at least. It still bothered him, especially near the shoulder so he wore the sling as needed. Peter was in the same boat, an obvious limp still present when he arrived at their home with Mozzie in tow. Sara hadn't called him or showed up at his place after her initial call so he figured her business had kept her away, not wanting to think she didn't want to see him. Maybe it was pride but Neal hadn't called the insurance investigator back hoping in the back of his mind for something more than he deserved. Perhaps he had read more into her words. When it came to love, his luck ran out more times than he liked to count.

"Neal? Merry Christmas, sweetie."

El gave him a hug, kissing his cheek as he faked a smile for her and Peter. Nobody seemed to realize he was feeling moody, memories of what he had dreamed while unconscious coming back to him. Especially those memories where had had been engaged to Sara. He knew they weren't a couple any more and so much had happened between her leaving for London and Keller taking credit for the steal that perhaps it was best to leave it as the fond memory it was. He heard a cough and looked up to see Peter was standing there, dressed in a dark blue cashmere sweater, something nicer than the agent normally wore. Probably a gift from Elizabeth but still a great shirt if his friend didn't squirm in it slightly as he seemed to be.

"Nice shirt, Peter. Cashmere?"

He was trying to lighten the mood, hide the fact Peter was probably about to confront him on his feelings. The agent nodded, smiling at his wife when she turned from Mozzie to look at them, but scratching slightly at the shirt sleeves when she turned away.

"Little itchier than I expected. Maybe I should have put a tee underneath. How are you… doing?"

The agent had stopped playing with the sweater for a moment, Elizabeth giving him a look as she walked over with a tray of what looked to be eggnog. Mozzie was already holding his glass, while the rest of them took theirs. El put the tray aside, one glass still on it as she held up hers with a bright smile.

"A Christmas toast…"

She was waiting for everyone to raise their glasses up as they stood there, Neal's attention turning from the tray to join in when the doorbell rang. Peter looked surprised, Elizabeth making eyes at him as if to say, "answer it" and Peter mouthing a surprised, "ok" before excusing himself somewhat sheepishly towards the front door. Mozzie looked impatient to make a toast, his attention on his drink as he moved to sip it then didn't, babbling about various toasts from past years. El was looking at Neal, but also over her shoulder with a glance that made him think something was about to happen.

"Hey…"

Peter's voice carried over to them but it was the next one that made Neal turn around.

"I apologize for being late. Mr. Bosch insisted on taking everyone out for a drink. It was all I could do, short of being rude to excuse mys… Neal."

Sara stood in the doorway beside Peter, her brown eyes flashing curiously towards the con as he nodded back with a whispered reply. Everyone was silent for a moment before Mozzie piped in.

"I didn't hear what you said, Neal. Speak up!"

The comment was typical Mozzie, Elizabeth shushing him like a child. Neal didn't seem to notice, moving in one smooth motion as he picked up the extra glass and walked towards the entrance. Sara smiled, taking the glass as she finished hanging up her coat and placed her purse on the table.

"Thanks. Merry Christmas."

She was looking straight into his eyes, no malice or hard feelings in her expression as he felt himself smile back.

"Merry Christmas…"

There was another moment of silence, not too much but enough that Peter coughed, which was enough to get Elizabeth started on the toast again.

"Sara, you're just in time. We were about to make a toast. Dinner's almost ready so I thought what better time to say what we're thankful for. Hun, why don't you start?"

She was holding her glass up, looking around as Peter raised his next, then Sara as she stood near Neal who lifted his with Mozzie happily doing the same.

"A toast to good friends, family and surviv… uhm, celebrating another Christmas in reasonable health."

El gave him a look, Peter's cheeks flushing only a bit as his wife kissed him with a wry smile. Considering everything that had happened, the past few weeks had been hectic for everyone, Elizabeth hugging her husband with her free hand before she took her turn.

"The same as my loving husband so eloquently said but with the addition of being thankful for blessings from business and opportunities to come."

She nodded at Neal who was next, the con uncertain what to say as he glanced over at Sara and felt a slight warmth of his cheeks as if he were blushing.

"To friends and family, close and far."

He smiled slightly seeing Sara looking a bit nervous as her turn came up. It was obvious she hadn't expected to make a speech but they were all family and friends here.

"To closing old doors and opening new ones."

She shrugged slightly, Neal intrigued by her comment. The only person left to cheer was Mozzie who could barely contain himself it seemed as he spoke.

"To everything said before me and the future freedom of my friend, let us partake of this ambrosial nectar. Cheers! Amen! Salud! Salut! Kampai!"

The sentiment towards his soon to be future was nice, eliciting a cheer from all but everyone rolled their eyes at Mozzie's silliness at the end. The speeches over, they were now sipping on eggnog as everyone started to mingle. Elizabeth pulled Peter over to the kitchen a moment, leaving Neal with Sara as Mozzie leaned over a particularly nice bric a brac on the Burke's bookshelf. The little guy was distracted for once but Sara seemed less than herself, possibly jet lag if Neal had to guess.

"Catch any art thieves lately?"

He was trying to make chit chat, his mind imagining her in the red dress for a moment from his dream.

"Uhm, no. Mr. Bosch was helping me with my reassignment."

She sounded distracted a moment before her eyes looked into his almost guiltily. There was something she wasn't saying but they were just friends now if anything so it wasn't really his business to pry.

"Oh. London too metropolitan?"

He was teasing now, thinking of their last words at the Empire State Building. It had not been a good day for any of them, particularly Peter but it was in the past. He had a year left on his anklet and was doing his best not to screw it up. Sara glanced at him and smiled slightly, something that made him hopeful.

"It just wasn't home. I'm actually asking for an assignment here in New York."

She was definitely smiling now, Neal about to answer when Mozzie butted in.

"Did I hear correctly? You're coming BACK to New York?"

The little guy didn't seem all that elated even if he did sort of like Sara. She was still not one of them, a con, but he approved of her in other ways. They would still probably just be friends but it was nice to know she might be back in the city.

"Great. We could celebrate. I'm sure Peter… well, you know."

He was going to say change his radius but stopped himself, the look between them slightly awkward when it came to his current incarceration. Sara had no problems with him but she knew his past with the treasure among other things. The Empire State Building "con" had been more for Peter's benefit than his to get at Senator Pratt, but he had hoped in a naive way Sara had come back for him. Perhaps it was vanity.

"Neal…"

She looked desperate to tell him something when someone knocked on the door suddenly, interrupting her next words. Mozzie moved towards the door and opened it up. They both turned to see a tall man, dark brown hair cropped short with a look of confusion at all of them until he saw Sara. Mozzie was trying to interrogate the young man, who was dressed in a suit cut in a European style he recognized. The raucousness of Mozzie attracted Peter and El came out of the kitchen at that point, peeking around the corner curiously.

"Mozzie… I apologize… I'm Peter Burke. This is my home. How may I help you?"

Peter had taken over the situation, giving the little guy a glare that made him move aside but not stop muttering about uninvited guests under his breath. Sara was walking towards their new guest, her manner familiar with them as Neal tried to figure out who the man was.

"Andre… I thought you had a meeting."

Sara address the man directly, his voice glad to see her as he babbled quickly in French what sounded like an apology. Peter looked perplex, El intrigued and Mozzie annoyed. Neal felt something else as he eavesdropped.

"Sorry, I forget to speak English. I did have a… meeting. It ended early and I remembered the address you spoke of here. My apologies for… crashing your party. Is that the right phrase?"

He was polite and charming, El taking a liking to him it seemed as she nodded then shook her head.

"Any friend of Sara's is a friend of ours. We have plenty to share if you're hungry. We were just about to start."

El didn't hesitate to welcome the newcomer, looking at Peter who took the young man's coat and hung it up on the rack by the door. Mozzie hovered around trying to figure out who their new guest was but Neal was pretty sure he knew. Andre immediately leaned over and kissed Sara on the cheek, the affection returned with a kiss on the lips. El and Peter seemed surprised, both giving Neal a quick look as he put on his best blase look. He wasn't going to give anyone the satisfaction.

"Let's sit down. Hun, grab another chair for Andre…"

()()()

The dinner was awkward at best although everyone tried to hide it, only their unexpected guest comfortable it seemed. Sara and Andre left early, Neal staring out the window as he watched them leave. It was a brief indication of any interest in the situation, no words spoken as Mozzie started to mutter about this and that. After the car left, Elizabeth and Peter came back inside, both looking his way before quietly whispering. Elizabeth convinced Mozzie to help her in the kitchen while Peter walked over and sat down with him. The agent put a hand on his shoulder, squeezing gently to get his attention.

"You ok? You were rather quiet tonight except when it came to Andre."

Peter was giving him that big brotherly look of concern, something he wasn't sure he was ready to admit he needed. The past month had been hectic, the case with Dawson bringing it to an explosive end before the calm of the holidays which were anything but with Sara's reappearance. The more he thought about that other life he had wished for in his comatose dream, the less he could deal with seeing Sara.

"I'm fine. Thinking I might head out myself."

He was going to make an excuse about his injuries bothering him, which they still did, but he left that part out. Neal tried to stand up but Peter gently sat him back down again, a look of apology in his friend's eyes.

"We thought… Sara had called to say she was in town. I'm sorry, Neal. The evening didn't go as planned."

It was obvious they had thought Sara was single as he did, hoping with past experience… His friends had meant well even if he was feeling miserable. For a con man he was pretty naive, his heart on his sleeve but that was just Neal.

"It's ok, Peter. I should tell Elizabeth goodbye…"

He stood up this time without interference from his friend, Peter looking at him with that guilty look still. Neal didn't blame them for what he should have seen coming. Why wouldn't she have a new beau. The guy had seemed nice enough. Peter was standing nearby, stretching some before he spoke.

"Neal, why don't you stay here tonight. The guest room is made up. El was going to make pancakes in the morning and French toast. What do you say?"

His friend was trying to soothe him but Neal wanted to wallow a bit, about to say no when El walked in with Mozzie, both carrying trays with coffee and what looked like pie. The little guy was already eating some of his.

"You have to try this pie, Neal. There's no comparison."

Mozzie's words made El smile, the pie obviously her handiwork as he politely nodded then shook his head.

"I was actually about to go. Save me a slice?"

Neal was trying to be coy about his reasons for going, Peter giving El a look as they obviously decided to let him be, but Mozzie in his infinite wisdom had to pipe in.

"Go? June's not home and I'm here. Is this about Sara?"

The topic was out there now, the awkwardness back as Neal excused himself quietly again, grabbing up his coat and scarf and letting himself out before anyone could do anything. He wanted to smack Mozzie but it was not his fault, just frustration making him feel that way. It was snowing as he walked down the street looking for a cab. Being alone would be the best thing at the moment. Yes. He just needed to be alone.

"Neal!"

He paused, turning back to see someone running towards him. It was Peter, the agent's breath evident in the street lamp's glow.

"You left before I could offer you a ride back. Least I could do."

His friend pointed at the car a few yards back, Neal reluctantly agreeing as they walked back towards the Burke home. He helped clear off the snow, Peter warming up the car as they were doing that. They ducked into the warmth inside and sat a moment in silence, Neal staring out the window at the falling flakes. He had found the mysterious man on his doorstep on a night like this in his dream. The man had ended up being Peter but he still didn't understand the why of it.

"I haven't told El this… When were were trapped under the rubble, I had a strange dream. It was about that Black Widow case. Ends up I had to divorce Elizabeth and marry our suspect for my cover. We were both miserable, but you were my best man and Mozzie presided over the ceremony which was the only thing that kept it from being legal."

He laughed nervously, tension obvious even if this was meant to alleviate it. Neal looked at his friend a bit more closely, wondering if he should confess about his own strange dreams.

"Odd. It's up to you if you want to admit to wanting to secretly marry a woman who wanted to kill you, Peter. None of my business."

He was trying to be funny but came across as sarcastic, Peter shrugging.

"Well, I woke up because she stabbed me on our honeymoon. When I came to, I realized it wasn't a knife stabbing me but a dislocated shoulder. I was a little confused at first but the realization it had been a dream comforted me."

He looked a little sheepish but also guilty, Neal trying to figure out how someone as smart as Peter could get so upset over a dream. Suddenly it occurred how he had been acting since the accident.

"Neal? I know something's eating you and I won't force you to tell me but just know that I'm here if you need an ear to bend. Ok?"

Peter started to pull on his seat belt, the wipers quietly swishing in the background as they sat there in the darkness. The agent was reaching to change gears when Neal reached out and stopped him. Brown eyes questioned his only a moment before a silent consensus was made and they were out of the car and walking back up into the warmth of the Burke home. Mozzie was talking about some nonsense, something about hybrid vehicles and UFO technology when Elizabeth interrupted.

"Hun… Neal?"

Peter had walked in first, removing his coat, scarf and gloves as Neal did the same and El seemed to quietly accept their return without comment.

"I saved a piece of pie for you, Neal. Let me warm it up."

El acted like they'd never left as she went towards the kitchen, Peter heading upstairs as Neal continued to stand in the entrance way. Mozzie was looking at him.

"Did you forget something?"

Mozzie's comment was irritating after the earlier one, Neal shaking his head as he headed upstairs without a word. He had decided to come back despite his better judgment, heading down the 2nd floor hallway towards the bathroom when he saw Peter step out. It was now or never.

"Can we talk?"

()()()

Neal's dreams were a little better than evening. Mozzie had slept downstairs on the sofa much to Peter's better judgment but El had insisted. The agent muttered something about going over the house inventory in the morning before El shushed him, bringing down clean blankets for the little guy and another set for Neal upstairs in the guest room. He thought back to the chat he finally had with Peter. Maybe the incident with Dawson had scared him more than he wanted to admit, the dream he'd had a result of that fear. His subconscious tried to wipe his slate clean, giving him a memory of a life he never had; A life that he realized was out of his reach after seeing Sara.

Peter had looked thoughtful, his hand scratching his chin before he smiled in that fatherly way of his. The agent put him at ease when he needed someone to ground him and now was one of those times.

"Quite a dream, Neal. Sounds like something to think about when your anklet comes off. You know how much we appreciate your art and all the skills you use at the Bureau. I think you could be that person you dreamed about. I'd definitely pay for a Neal Caffrey original."

The agent grinned, squeezing his shoulder gently as he stood and Neal followed, the two men heading back downstairs. They'd almost forgotten about Elizabeth and Mozzie. The con felt better as he took those last few steps down and sat with his friends. The dream was something to work towards, not compare his current life to. Peter was making him see that now, the holidays looking just a little bit better.

(The End)