"It's A Wonderful Life"
Chapter One: "White Christmas"
"Well, another mortgage fraud successfully brought to its inevitable conclusion."
Peter glanced up as he closed the folder, his eyebrows raised. "Colonel Mustard in the Library?"
"I wish." Neal leaned back in his chair with a sigh. The week had consisted of nothing more than cases of insurance fraud, cases of such simplicity that his ever-active mind was practically clawing at the inside of his head in frenzied boredom. He moved. He shifted. He fidgeted. He looked out of the window longingly. He built paper swans; there was a flock of them roosting on top of Peter's file cabinets. Peter had put up with it, had even been slightly amused by it at times. It was like watching a schoolboy trying to do homework while all of the other kids got to play.
As they walked through the offices towards the elevator, Peter noticed an unusual amount of energy in his companion. There was an extra bounce in his step, a twinkle in his eye, and a slight upturn at the corners of his mouth. His silly fedora was even set at an extra jaunty angle.
"What is with you?" Peter asked, waiting as Neal pushed the elevator button.
"Come on." Peter tipped his head, his mouth widening into a knowing smile, his eyes narrowing. "What is it?"
Neal's face pulled into a momentary mask of innocence. "I don't know what you're talking about." He said, his blue eyes very wide as he side-glanced at his partner.
"I think you're paranoid."
"What're you up to?"
"You should really talk to Elizabeth about it."
Peter sighed. Glancing at Neal from the corner of his eye, he turned to face the elevator, his hands in his pockets. "Well, whatever it is…"
"No lying, no cheating. Nothing illegal." Neal promised; his eyes sparkled with amusement. "Just some good old fashioned Christmas spirit."
"Ohhhh…" Peter's eyebrows rose. "Anyone special? Or June, and her double-chocolate brownies?"
"June's left to spend the holiday's with family."
"Ahh. So someone special."
There was that enigmatic smile, the sidelong glance, and the rocking back on the heels. Peter's eyes narrowed; the kid was more pleased than usual.
"Someone extra special?"
Neal grinned. "We go way back." He said softly.
Two Weeks Ago:
"We're sorry. The number you have reached is no longer in service."
Neal listened to the message in disbelief. It had to be a mistake. He knew that number by heart, and not once had there ever not been an answer to its rings. Frowning he disconnected the call, slipped another quarter into the pay phone, and tried again. "Must have punched it in wrong." He muttered.
"We're sorry. The number you have reached is no longer…"
The crash of the phone in its cradle was enough to garner looks from several people. Neal stared at the phone for a moment, then sighed and turned away, his calculating mind already whirling. Maybe he could find a minute away from Peter at the office; running a search on an Evelyn Caffrey couldn't be too hard. And if Peter did catch him, what was he going to do? Tell Neal to stay away from his own mother?
The minute alone presented itself sooner than he had expected. As Peter left his office in answer to Hughes's beckoning finger, Neal waited until he was out of sight and then quickly seated himself in Peter's chair. As the keyboard clicked beneath his fingers the thought crossed his mind that he could have asked Peter to run the search, instead of sneaking around. His musing was cut short by a soft beep. He blinked; that had taken less time than he had expected.
His heart began to beat faster. Grabbing a notepad and a pen he hurriedly wrote down the information, barely closing his search and returning to his chair before Peter walked in, armed with a new case file. If Peter noticed Neal's slight agitation, he did not show it.
Neal pulled out his key and opened the front door of June's house. With the bustling older lady and her granddaughter gone, the house seemed big and empty, but Neal hardly noticed. A package was held under one arm, and a small bag hung from his hand, carrying a card and a carton of eggnog. Closing the door behind him Neal checked his watch, noting the hour with some dismay, and then he took the stairs two at a time.
One Week & Five Days Ago:
Once again, Neal stood before the pay phone, holding the receiver in a slightly unsteady hand. He could use his cell phone; but then Peter always checked his calls the way he checked his tracker, and Neal rebelled against this being just another piece of his open-book life. This was personal. The quarters were loud in the snowy quiet, and the rings that followed the dialing of the new number seemed to take forever. After the third one, however, there was a faint click.
Neal's heart did a flip in his chest. He inhaled sharply. "Mom?"
There was a pause. "Neal?!" The soft, feminine voice was suddenly filled with warmth and surprise and delight. "Neal! Oh my gosh, is it really you?!"
"Hey," He smiled, and leaned against the solid form of the pay phone. "Mom. Yeah, it's me. How have you been?"
"How have I been?! I've been fine– I just moved, someplace a little smaller; you know, fits me better. But what about you? I haven't heard from you in so long!"
"I know, I'm sorry about that. Things have been a little crazy." Resting his free arm on top of the pay phone, Neal closed his eyes. "I'm– I broke out, Mom."
"What– you what?"
"It's okay." Neal hurried to reassure her. "I had a good reason, but– it's a long story. Anyway, the FBI agreed not to send me back, and in return I have to work for them for the next four years. I'm now an official FBI consultant."
"Ooh," her tone had the perfect amount of motherly appreciation. "That sounds important." She also, it seemed, had chosen to ignore the reason her son was working for the FBI, something which Neal was grateful for. "And how is Kate? Are things going well between you two?"
At that Neal dropped his gaze to his shoes, scuffing a leather toe in the snow. "No. Um, Kate left, Mom. She's gone."
There was a quiet intake of breath. "Oh, honey. I'm so sorry. What happened?"
"A long story. That's okay, you can tell me about it later. Oh, Neal, it's so good to hear your voice again!"
The warmth in her words made him close his eyes and smile; just hearing her brought back tons of good memories he had somehow forgotten. He swallowed. "It's good to hear you too, Mom."
"What are you doing for Christmas? Can you make it up?"
Neal felt his stomach clench. He hated telling her about the tracker; one more failure he had to admit to, one more black mark for her to deliberately ignore, just so she could still, in her own heart, look upon her son with pride. Still he told her, his words faltering and hesitant and full of apology. There was no recrimination in her reply. Only understanding and joyful planning.
"I am leading the Christmas choir at Church, but I have an assistant who is more than capable of taking over for me. Now, where do you live?"
Neal gave her the address. "Mom," he ventured. "Will you…?"
"I'll be there the Friday before, don't you worry." She assured him; he could swear he heard laughter in her voice. "We must carry on tradition, mustn't we? You must have a tree!"
The card and gift he hid under his bed, and stowed the eggnog in the fridge. Glancing around he checked to make sure that he had set out blankets and a pillow on the couch for himself, and that he had remembered to change the sheets of his bed for his mom. Satisfied that all was ready, he hurried to shower and change.
The Week Before:
Despite the influx of torturously boring cases, all involving mortgage fraud, the week passed quickly. Every day after work Neal stopped at the pay phone next to his favorite coffee shop, and he and his mom would talk for hours. She was thrilled that he seemed to be getting along so well, with a nice place to live and a steady job with the FBI; it was her opinion that his skills were put to their best use there, having such unique and genius abilities as he did that allowed him to shed light on the darkest, shadiest clues. Of course she asked what he was doing art-wise, and he admitted, to her disappointment, that as of late he had done nothing. Evelyn had chided him gently, and encouraged him to start painting again. Didn't he remember how he used to keep a painting journal where he painted portraits of his friends, and his dad and herself? He should do that again.
"Who knows," she joked as an afterthought. "In a hundred years, someone may discover your box of old journals, and just like that you'll be famous!"
"I'll be dead in a hundred years."
"Honey, everyone knows you have to die to become famous." She quipped.
The story of Kate was briefly touched on, of the man with the ring, and the attempts made to seize his stuff, and how when all was said and done, he and Kate had looked at each other, and realized that whatever they had was long gone. Kate left.
Evelyn had moved from the big, old house into something more compact and with less stairs. Neal felt a twinge of sadness that he would never see the house he had grown up in again, but his mother assured him that she had kept all of the furniture and pictures, and that except for size, you could hardly tell one house from the other. Holmes, the grey-striped cat, was as alive and well as ever. Though he did miss the old thrill of the mouse-hunt, as the new home sheltered none of the furry creatures.
Talking with his mother, Neal felt himself growing whole again. A piece that had been missing, since this whole fiasco began over four years ago, was finally found. He would often close his eyes while he listened to her talk, and he could picture her, sitting at the small kitchen table with Holmes in her lap, her grey and blond hair pulled back, wearing a white apron and drinking a cup of tea. His grandmother's English habits had carried over to her daughter, in more ways than one.
Soon he would see her again, her grey eyes sparkling warmly at him, and they would put up the Christmas tree and eat popcorn and drink eggnog, and she would turn on the old Christmas music, and he would waltz with her like his dad used to.
Neal smiled, and listened to her chatter.
Neal rubbed his hair with a towel, and checked his watch again. She should be arriving any minute now; his mother had never been anything but punctual. Throwing on a clean pair of slacks and a shirt he went out to his small kitchenette and pulled out a bowl and the brand new popcorn maker he had purchased just that week. Then he checked his watch again.
Crossing to the living room he checked to make sure that he had remembered to rent It's A Wonderful Life. There it was, sitting on the coffee table.
With nothing to do but wait, Neal settled for pacing, his body thrumming with nervous excitement. Four years. Over four years since he had seen his mother. Had she changed much? Had he changed?
His cell phone rang. It was a number he did not recognize. He flipped the phone open.
"Hello, is Neal Caffrey available?"
For some reason, he felt his stomach clench in foreboding. "This is."
"Mr. Caffrey, this is Dr. Webster from Westchester Hospital." There was a slight pause. "I'm calling about your mother."
As Neal listened, he felt like the bottom had dropped out of the world, and he was falling into whatever abysmal pit lay beneath. The doctor's words were chosen with care, giving the facts while maintaining a note of sympathy and compassion. Baking cookies. Heart attack.
The popcorn maker sat on the counter, cold, and forgotten.