"It's A Wonderful Life"
Chapter Five: "I'll Be Home For Christmas"
Peter clamped his fingers around the edge of the box, arms straining as he tried to keep the two on top balanced; they weren't heavy, but they were awkward. Why did ornament boxes have to be such an odd size? Peering over the top of his load, Peter lifted his foot, and kicked. The banging sound echoed down the hall and empty stairs, but the door didn't budge.
Peter kicked again.
"Coming!" the answer came to him, muffled through the wooden barrier. A moment later the handle turned, and then the door opened. Neal stared at him, his blue eyes wide and confused. "Peter," he said, blinking.
"Yes, it's me." Peter grunted, adjusting his precarious hold. "Would you mind letting me in?"
"Yeah, sure." Neal stepped back and let him through. Peter immediately went for the couch, depositing the boxes with a sigh of relief. Behind him he could hear Neal greeting Elizabeth, and offering to take her coat. As he straightened, Peter noticed a small tree standing in the corner, colored lights twinkling and reflecting from the garland. For a moment his face fell with chagrin, glancing down at the boxes he had just set down, but then he noticed that there were only a scant dozen ornaments on the tree. He relaxed. Turning, Peter saw Neal approaching, his hand outstretched; Peter shrugged off his coat, and gave it up.
"No problem. What are you doing here? I thought you guys were having Christmas at home." Neal's brows were pulled together in puzzlement.
"Yeah, well," Peter adjusted his sports jacket. "We did. Then lunchtime rolled around, and we thought, you know– June's gone, Mozzie's gone, he's just got a cat– and a cat isn't much company anyhow–" trailing off, Peter had his hands on his hips, trying to look cool and disinterested. Except that Neal was giving him one of those looks; the look that reads every single thing between the lines and figures out what you're trying so hard to keep him from figuring out. Peter shifted. "It was Elizabeth's idea." he said, too quickly.
There was a snort from the kitchenette, where Elizabeth was pulling containers from a paper bag. "Don't believe him, Neal." She called. "All day he kept talking about your Christmas traditions, and how big the house is for just one person…"
Peter narrowed his eyes in her direction, shaking his head when she gave him a sweet look and mouthed a kiss. Meddlesome woman.
Neal lifted his eyebrows. "Peter," he said in awe. "You do care!"
That earned him a chuckle, and the ex-con left to hang up their coats.
When he returned, Elizabeth had set the table with the food she had brought, still steaming and hot. Peter was in the cupboards, trying to find dishes. Neal hurried over and pointed out the correct cupboard, but when he tried to help Elizabeth shook her head, insisting that they could take care of it. "There, see?" she said a moment later. "Table is set."
He sniffed appreciatively. "It smells good."
"You should have been there while she was cooking." Peter grumbled. "All day, the house smelled of roasting goose…"
Blue eyes glanced at them. "You made a goose?"
She smiled, and her voice was quiet. "Peter said your mom always made a goose on Christmas." She explained. "Your Aunt Miriam gave me the recipe."
For a moment Neal was quiet. He dropped his eyes, as though struggling for control. Elizabeth stared, her expression faltering, until Peter touched her shoulder and gave her a reassuring glance. Then he lifted the bottle of wine from the table, and took a step forward, holding it up. "You got a corkscrew?" he asked. He set the bottle on the counter.
There was a deep breath. "Yeah." Neal said, turning. As he did so he risked a quick glance, a silent thank you, in Peter's direction. The agent nodded.
Neal rummaged through a drawer, and pulled out a corkscrew. "Enjoy your Christmas Eve?" he asked, opening the wine.
"Yes." Peter answered, collecting three glasses and holding them up for Neal to fill. "We had a fire, eggnog, beautiful music… What about you?"
"You know, nothing much." Neal mumbled. Then he realized that he was brushing Peter off, and hurried to make up for it. "After we came home yesterday, I got Holmes settled and… you know, did some things here and there." He set the wine bottle down, and accepted the glass Peter held out to him. They headed to the table, and joined Elizabeth in sitting down. "Miriam came over around four. She brought the tree,"
Peter glanced over. "Ah. Nice."
Nodding, Neal was lost in thought for a moment. Then he snapped back and returned his attention to them, offering a smile. "She made chowder, helped me set up the tree… turned on loud Christmas music."
Peter took the bowl of potatoes and dished himself a hearty portion before passing them on to Neal. He glanced up with a twinkling eye. "You dance?"
"Yeah." Neal didn't make eye contact, but his cheeks colored just a little bit.
Peter narrowed his eyes.
As if sensing Peter's curious gaze Neal glanced up, and he shrugged. "She's a big fan of the jitterbug." He explained.
Elizabeth laughed. "The jitterbug, huh?" She passed the greens and the bread. "I love that dance! Maybe we could turn on some music later."
He couldn't help it; he started to laugh, and shook his head. "It's not really my best."
"Come on," Peter said incredulously. "The great Neal Caffrey, afraid of a dance?"
"Can you do it?" The younger man challenged.
Peter paused, his mind filling with an image of Neal doing the jitterbug Agent Burke-style, and he turned to Elizabeth. "You're right. We should definitely have him show us the jitterbug."
"Hey!" Neal exclaimed. "Thanks for backing me up, partner!"
"Anytime." Peter smiled.
The meal was delicious; when it was over everything was cleared, and then Neal lifted the cover off of a cake tray. Sitting on it was what looked like, to Peter, a lump of brown cake-like something. "Is that the pudding?" he guessed carefully.
Neal nodded, pouring some very expensive brandy over the top of the dessert. "Yep." Setting the bottle aside, he picked up a matchbox. His blue eyes flickered towards them, twinkling. "Watch this."
A moment later, the pudding was covered with blue flame. While it was lit, Neal picked up the tray and carried it to the table, setting it reverently down in the center. Peter watched in fascination; Elizabeth was glowing.
"Wow." She whispered.
After a moment, Neal blew the flame out, and took up a knife and cut three generous slices, topping each with a heavy dollop of whipped cream. Peter was hesitant at first, taking a bite and chewing it slowly. It was not incredibly sweet, but it was very, very rich, with an incredibly dense texture, filled with raisins and the flavor of molasses. His eyebrows rose as he chewed. He nodded. "This is good." He said. "This is very good."
"So this is Christmas pudding." Elizabeth observed, licking whipped cream from her lip with obvious enjoyment. "Wow. A girl could get hooked on this."
His piece was gone far too soon, but Peter reflected that it was so rich he really couldn't have any more. So he helped with the dishes. When the last one had been dried he herded Neal into the living room. "Here," he said. "We brought over some things."
"What?" Neal asked, frowning as Peter pushed his shoulder, moving him forward.
Elizabeth opened two boxes, revealing the contents. They were full of ornaments, still in their packages. "We didn't think you had any." She said.
"You guys, you didn't have to…"
"Don't worry." Peter assured him. "We didn't spend much. They're having great sales today, so we got it all cheap."
Neal tipped his head. His eyes narrowed. "Wow. Thank you." He deadpanned.
Peter rolled his shoulders back, his face full of satisfaction. "No problem."
"I feel so much better."
"Glad to hear it."
Elizabeth shook her head. "You can put the ornaments up whenever you want to." She said, moving two of the boxes to one side. She opened the third one, and pulled out some presents.
Peter sat on the couch, and Neal joined him a moment later, carrying the two presents he had retrieved from beneath his small tree. Elizabeth sat on the other side of Peter, her lap full of bright packages. For a moment no one moved. Elizabeth smiled. Peter shifted. Neal waited.
"Alright, exchange!" Peter finally ordered. For a moment there was a blur of bright paper packages before him as things were passed back and forth, and then they were all opening their presents. Peter first opened the gift from Elizabeth; it was the pair of shoes he had been admiring, to replace his old and scuffed ones. He thanked her, and kissed her cheek, relishing the look of delight on her face that she had done well. Then he opened the next present; Neal had gotten Peter a tie clip, and a pair of snowflake-covered, snowmen socks. Neal felt the look immediately sent his way, and struggled to keep a straight face.
"I found the store." Was all he said. "And I didn't even have to ask El."
Elizabeth pulled out a beautiful, matching set of gloves and a scarf. She oohhed and aahhed appropriately, running her fingers along the soft knit scarf. "Thank you, Neal!" she said, trying on the gloves.
As Neal slowly opened his own present, he suddenly heard a shriek, and looked over to see Elizabeth hugging Peter. A necklace of chocolate diamonds was clutched in her hand. Neal grinned, and quickly went back to his own gift, giving the couple their moment. From the corner of his eye he saw the embrace finally end, and Peter leaned back into the cushions, a very self-satisfied expression on his face. Well done, partner. Neal thought. As the wrapping paper came free in his fingers he found a box, taped all the way around with packing tape. Layers, and layers, and layers of packing tape.
Peter glanced over, feeling twin daggers shooting his direction. He was met with blue eyes staring at him in frustrated exasperation. "There a problem?" he asked innocently.
Elizabeth glanced over, and immediately shook her head, pressing a hand to her mouth. It was an awful thing to do, she mentally chastised Peter; but… the look on Neal's face!
"You wrapped this, didn't you?" Neal accused.
Peter tipped his head. "Well… Elizabeth was very busy making the goose…"
Narrowing his eyes, Neal pressed his lips together, and began to rise from the couch, intent on finding a knife. A hand on his arm stopped him, and Peter, openly chuckling, handed him a small pocketknife. "Here." The agent laughed.
The tape was cut quickly, the knife returned to its owner, and the box lid lifted off. There, nestled in tissue paper, was a beautiful grey fedora with a satin band. Neal grinned, carefully lifting it from the box. "Wow!" he said, gazing at it. "That is nice. Thank you."
Peter settled back, feeling very satisfied. "Elizabeth picked it out." He admitted.
"It was his idea." Elizabeth countered. She laid her head against Peter's shoulder, watching as Neal twirled the hat in his hands and set it on his head, tilting it over one eye roguishly. He lifted his chin so he could see, and laughed.
"Hey Holmes, how do I look?" he asked the grey cat, who was sleeping under the Christmas tree.
There was a slow, green-eyed blink, and a large yawn.
It was late when Peter and Elizabeth left. Neal closed the door after them, and locked it, then returned to his own rooms and closed and locked that door. He sighed, a contented sigh, and sent up a little prayer of thanks before turning and venturing further into his abode. Snow was beginning to fall; the radio was on, Dean Martin's voice filling the air. The hat was on the table, and he picked it up and twirled it around, then in a smooth movement he suavely laid it back on his hair, humming along with the song. A smile touched his mouth when a memory came, unbidden, of his parents singing along to this very song, acting silly just to make their little boy laugh.
Beneath the tree was a final present. Tucked back, away from sharp eyes and questions. There was a part of him reluctant to open it, whether in a desire to preserve it as a cherished piece of memorabilia or because he didn't have the courage to, Neal could not tell. He had found it, waiting beneath his mother's Christmas tree, and brought it home with him.
He picked it up, holding it carefully in his hands. It was square; boxed up, so he couldn't guess what it was by feel. Neal sat down slowly, fingering the holly paper; and then he tore it. The box soon lay in his lap, brown and unassuming. His lips pressed together; for a moment his resolve faltered. There was no way to return it to its wrapping; so he opened the lid. His throat tightened, and his eyes grew warm. He took a deep breath. Resting in the soft paper straw was a beautiful black painter's journal, its pages crisp and pure white. Beside it lay a bottle of Bordeaux. A full bottle. Unopened.
Taking a deep breath, Neal lifted the card that was tucked beneath it. Inside was a handwritten letter full of a mother's love and warmth, her wishes, her praise, her uncontainable pride. Something swelled in his chest, both warm and heart-rending at the same time.
Below her flowing signature, was a post-script. It was simple, but said everything he needed to hear.
You made it.
The grey-striped cat raised his head and peered up, blinking his pale green eyes, weary and curious as to what had disturbed his sleep. It was nothing more than the sound of snow against the tall windows. Large, heavy flakes fell against the glass, their wet, pattering sound rhythmic and soothing. Shifting on the soft cushion, Holmes yawned, his pink mouth gaping wide, and then he licked his lips, sleep already causing his eyelids to droop. A large, slender hand descended, and he felt the comforting weight on his back, stroking his fur. Holmes purred in contentment. He did not know why he had been moved to yet another strange dwelling, and this place was as mouse-free as the last, but beside him was the comforting scent of a well-known, well-loved member of his family. With a sigh, Holmes turned and tucked his chin on the warm leg. One of his paws curled up, stroking the leg in the same manner as the large hand stroked his fur.
Happy and content, Holmes closed his eyes, and fell asleep once more.