"Do you know what I need?"
Peter briefly closed his eyes before raising them to look at Neal across the conference table. The con was leaning back in the chair with his feet crossed on the table, an open folder in his hands. The hat was tipped precariously to the left side of his head. Peter straightened and shoved the folders in front of him away.
"Alright, Neal. Tell me, what do you need?"
"Telepathic powers," Neal said with a smirk, "Think about all the criminals we could put away if we could read their minds."
"Wouldn't that be circumstantial evidence?"
"Not if their thoughts led us to the tangible evidence," Neal said, "Come on, you know it sounds cool."
"I think you've been watching too many sci-fi movies again. I'm telling June to block that damn channel."
Neal chuckled and flipped through the pages of his file, "You're just jealous you don't have it."
"Why would I want to spend what little free time I have watching mind numbing, badly written, horrible special effects movies? Not too mention the very bad acting."
"Because that's the whole point," Neal said, pulling his legs off the table and putting the file down, "They're like a drug. They suck you in with their all around horribleness until you're yelling at the screen and asking yourself 'why did I even turn this crap on?' It's addictive."
"They're stupid." Peter said.
Neal threw his hands into the air but smiled just the same, "Not as stupid as working on Christmas Eve."
"Don't remind me."
Peter really didn't want to be reminded. He hated the thought of Elizabeth sitting at home, sipping eggnog, with Satchmo curled in her lap, all without him. He closed the file and rubbed his temples. Neal watched him, the smile slowly fading from his mouth.
"If you could have one thing," Neal asked, "what would it be?"
"A day off," Peter answered, "so I could spend it with my wife. Hell, I'll be happy if I get Christmas Day off."
Neal nodded, "Fair enough."
Peter gestured to him, "What about you? What's the one thing you'd want?"
Peter pointed a finger at him, "And don't say Kate."
Neal chuckled, "No, I can't tell you."
Neal shrugged, "You'd never let me live it down."
"Oh, come on. Fine, I'll give you a free pass."
Neal cocked an eyebrow, "A free pass."
"It's Christmas. Come on, what is it?"
Neal looked away from him and debated if he should reveal his secret or take it to his grave, as he had fully intended to do.
Finally, Neal sighed and said, "A NASCAR race track."
"You do realize you're over thirty years old, right?"
Neal rolled his eyes at Peter's snigger, "See, I knew I shouldn't have told you."
"Alright," Peter said, smiling, "why do you want the race track?"
"We didn't have a whole lot when I was growing up," Neal said, "Christmas gifts for me were used boots three sizes too big from Goodwill, if I was lucky. I never had any toys, not new ones anyway, and I always wanted a NASCAR race track, like the ones I saw on the TV playing in the stores." Neal shrugged, "So, that's why I want the track."
"Why not just go and buy yourself one?" Peter asked sincerely.
Neal shrugged again, "It's not the same. Buying your own wishes doesn't mean as much when someone who cares about you gives you your wish as a gift," Neal smirked, "Lame right?"
"No," Peter said, "It's not lame."
Neal cleared his throat loudly and picked up his file, "We should probably get back to it if you're ever going to get back to Elizabeth."
"Yeah," Peter agreed, awkwardly looking away from Neal. Damn male bonding.
He tried to focus on the file and the case, but his mind kept wandering back to the vacant office. Jones had been lucky enough to fly out to his parents' place in Texas. Lauren was visiting her mother in Vermont. There was hardly anyone in the office except for the janitor and Lisa May, an intern who had gotten behind on her filing and was doing her best to make a good impression by staying late on Christmas Eve.
Just Peter's luck that they would get a tip on the art thief they'd been tracking for two weeks. On a normal day, Peter would have been ecstatic, but it was Christmas, damn it. He was supposed to be at home watching It's a Wonderful Life, not digging through files trying to find a connection.
Peter raised his head and looked up to the door way. Lisa May was leaning against the frame, peering at him with over zealous, eager eyes.
"You're wife is here to see you, sir."
Peter frowned, "Elizabeth."
Lisa nodded, "She's just out here. She wants you and Mr. Caffery to see her."
Neal dropped the file back onto the table and got up, plucking his hat off the floor from where it had fallen. Peter frowned and led the way, a hundred horrible scenarios going through his mind. It wasn't like Elizabeth to just show up, unless of course she had a crying friend accompanying her. Neal was hot on his heels, hands shoved in his pockets as they went down the stairs to meet Elizabeth.
She grinned at him and quickly greeted him with a kiss, "Hello, honey. Surprised?"
"I'd say so," Peter said, "What are you doing here?"
"Well, I thought since you couldn't make it home for Christmas," Elizabeth held up a wicker picnic basket, "I'd bring it to you."
"Wow," Neal said grinning, "Peter you really are a lucky man."
"Don't I know it," Peter said with a genuine smile.
"I couldn't let you boys spend Christmas eve alone, now could I?" Elizabeth smiled, "I just have to get plates from the break room."
"Oh, allow me," Neal said as he crossed behind her.
Peter pulled Elizabeth close to him and smiled down at her, "Have I told you lately how much I love you?"
"Hmm," Elizabeth smirked, "I think you said so at lunch, but a girl never gets tired of hearing it."
Peter kissed her, "I love you."
Elizabeth kissed him back, "I love you too."
Peter pulled away and took the basket from her hands, "I'll go put this up in the conference room. Why don't you help Neal with the dishes?"
"Yes, sir," Elizabeth grinned, pecking his cheek and taking off her scarf.
Peter turned and headed for the stairs. His heart was glowing and his step was light. In the back of his mind, he heard the ring of the elevator. His instincts flared that something was wrong, but all a moment too late. He was turning casually, checking to see who came out of the elevator when Elizabeth screamed.
Nick tiredly rubbed his hand over his eyes as he slowed down at the intersection. The brakes of the eighteen wheeler squealed as the truck came to a stop. The extra large cup of coffee sloshed over the edge and dripped down the gear shift. He'd been on the road twenty-seven hours straight. He was two hours from his stop, but the exhaustion was catching up to him.
He sipped some of his coffee, running through the schedule in his head. If he cut the trip to an hour and a half, cut the ride home from an hour to thirty minutes, he'd have six hours to sleep before his mom called him from California. He smiled, liking the odds of his math.
Nick looked to the left and then to the right as he flipped his blinker up. His eyes blurred and he rubbed them hard. He blinked and frowned.
A girl in her early twenties was dancing in the middle of the street. Dressed all in white, she held her arms out to her sides and twirled slowly under the lightly falling snow. Her red hair fanned out behind her like a halo as she tilted her head back, stuck out her tongue, caught a fat snowflake and smiled. She looked over at Nick, and the tired truck driver found himself staring at the brightest green eyes he'd ever seen. She lifted a white gloved hand and waved, smiling at him before dancing again.
Nick smiled softly and looked at the green numbers on the clock face. Five and a half hours of sleep was just as good as six. Nick flipped his blinker down and turned left.
Peter spun around, flinging the basket of food to the side as his hand automatically went for his gun. Turkey and mashed potatoes, gravy and stuffing tumbled across the carpet, leaving behind stains and a mess the janitor would loathe. And Peter saw what he'd always feared in his worst nightmares.
A man of average build and size, dressed in a black trench coat and jeans stood in front of the elevator. His eyes were brown, but hard and angry. Two days of unshaved stubble lined his jaw and neck. In his hand he held a .45 Smith and Wesson. And it was pressed at Elizabeth's temple.
"Pull it out," the man said, his voice hoarse and shallow, "and put it on the ground, slowly."
Peter stared at Elizabeth, at her trembling lip and wet eyes. He watched the first tear slip past her eyelashes and trail down her cheek to the collar of her red coat. Her eyes searched his for answers to her fear, but all she would find were his own fears reflected there.
Peter jerked at the man's harsh yell and quickly held out his hands. With two fingers, he pulled his gun out and gently laid in on the ground. Every instinct in his body yelled at him to take action, but he wouldn't do anything while Elizabeth was in his hands. He wouldn't put her in danger.
"Kick it over to me," the man said.
Peter obeyed. The gun skidded across the carpet to the man's foot and he kicked it away.
"I'm going to tell you exactly what is going to happen," the man said quietly, "and you aren't going to interrupt."
Peter glanced at Elizabeth and nodded.
"I'm the man you've been looking for," he said, "My name is Connor Grace and two weeks ago I stole a painting. It wasn't the first and it won't be the last, but you won't find it."
"Why are you-"
Grace jerked Elizabeth and pressed the gun harder into her temple, "I said don't interrupt!"
Elizabeth gasped and bit her lip, tears falling down her cheeks. Peter held up his hands and backed away.
"That's better," Grace said, "Now, I'm telling you this because tonight I'm leaving the country and I don't want to be followed. If you do exactly what I say no one will get hurt and everyone wins."
Peter opened his mouth but stopped. Grace grinned and nodded his permission for Peter took speak.
"What do you want?"
"I want you to do nothing," Grace grinned, "There is a small plane waiting for me. It will take me to a less FBI infested place. If you stay here, alert no one what I have done, I will call you in two hours about this fine lady's whereabouts."
Peter stepped forward, "No you can't take her."
Grace smiled, "Do you have a better suggestion?"
"Take me," Peter said quickly.
Grace laughed, "And why would I do a foolish thing like that? An FBI agent, trained in the field to take down armed suspects? I don't think so. No, I'm sorry, agent. But you can't offer me anything better than what I already have."
"But I can."
Peter tore his vision away from Grace to look behind him. Neal stood in the doorway of the break room, hands empty and limp at his sides. Grace stepped back to have Neal and Peter completely in his view. He smirked at Neal.
"And what, per se, can you offer me?" Grace asked.
Neal stepped forward, eyes trained on Grace, "Leverage. I'm a consultant for the FBI. They'd do a lot to get me back, even negotiate with terrorists."
Peter suppressed the urge to roll his eyes. Figured Neal would rate himself high on the FBI's most wanted list.
"I don't have any training and I'm deathly afraid of guns," Neal said, "so you wouldn't have to worry about me doing anything stupid."
"So far you're only equal," Grace said, "I'm waiting for the clincher."
"I'm assuming you're paying this pilot to fly you from here," Neal said, "What if you didn't have to?"
Grace smirked, "I'm listening."
"I can fly," Neal said, "and a hostage rarely gets paid for their services."
Grace chuckled, "I like you, Mr…"
"Leach," Neal said, "Archie Leach."
"Well, Mr. Leach, I think I'll take your offer." Grace said, but his good humor vanished. He stepped towards the elevator until his back was pressed against the metal doors, "Come here, and push the down button."
Neal did as he was asked cautiously, hands raised to show he posed no threat. The elevator dinged and as the doors opened, Grace shoved Elizabeth forward. Peter rushed forward and barely caught her, landing roughly on his knees. As he gathered her in his arms, Peter looked up in time to see Grace grab hold of Neal and pull him in front of him. Grace dug the gun into Neal's side, making Neal grimace. Grace stepped back into the elevator and pulled Neal with him.
As the doors slid shut, the last thing Peter saw was Grace grinning the Cheshire of all grins, waving the gun and Neal looking surprisingly relieved and understandably frightened.
And then they were gone.
"Jesus, Elizabeth are you alright?" Peter asked as he pulled Elizabeth to her knees.
She nodded, running a shaking hand through her hair, "I'm just a little…shaken, I guess. Oh, God, Peter! You have to get Neal. He-"
"I know, sweetheart," Peter said, "but first, I-"
Elizabeth looked up at him, "You what?"
Peter decided words would be a waste. He was never good with them anyway. He took Elizabeth by the shoulders and pulled her close, locking her mouth in a kiss. It was a cliché thing to do under the circumstances, he knew, but he needed it. He needed to know that she was alive and warm and perfect and completely safe in his arms. He needed her kiss, her touch to sear away the image locked in his mind of her in danger, of her trembling in death's grasp.
Elizabeth seemed to understand as she returned the kiss.
Peter pulled away and looked over his shoulder at Lisa May. She had tears running down her face as she crawled out from under the desk she'd hid behind. She had her cell phone in her hand.
"Should I call the local police?" she asked.
Peter squeezed Elizabeth's hand before shaking his head, "No, it's too dangerous."
He got to his feet and ran to the wall his gun had landed against.
"What are you going to do Peter?" Elizabeth asked as she got to her feet.
"I'm going to track them," Peter said. He checked his gun and put it in its holster, "Neal's still got his tracker on, and as long as Grace doesn't find it, I'll be able to follow them."
"El, I don't have time to argue about this. Every second we waste is another Neal doesn't have."
"Grace said Neal had to fly him," Elizabeth said, "He can't do anything to him or he won't-"
Peter gently took her by the arms, "El, he never had a pilot. Grace was our number one suspect. He has a pilot's license."
Elizabeth stared at her husband tears pooling in her eyes, "You mean…Neal knew?"
"Yeah," Peter said quietly, "he was betting on Grace," Peter paused searching for the right words, "leaning towards his moral side."
"Moral side, I don't understand."
"The guy we were looking for, Grace apparently, has killed twice before, both men. It's easier to put a bullet in a man than in a woman."
Elizabeth's mouth fell open as the air rushed out of her. A sob tore from her throat as the full implication of what Neal had done hit her. Peter quickly pulled her into his arms and ran his fingers through her hair.
"I'll get him back, El. I promise."
She nodded, "You'd better."
Peter smiled softly and kissed her temple. He glanced back at Lisa.
"Do not call the cops. I'll call you when it's all clear."
He pressed the down button and cursed under his breath when the elevator started rising. That meant they'd already gotten off and were on their way to God knows where. Peter pulled out his phone and accessed Neal's tracking GPS. The doors opened and Peter stepped in, pressing the button for the garage while trying to locate Neal.
Someone stepped into the elevator with him. He looked up and glared.
"I'm coming with you."
"No, you're not."
"Damn it, Peter!" Elizabeth yelled, "He gave himself up for me. I'm not just going to sit here and wait!"
Peter bit the inside of his cheek, "You could get hurt!"
"I'll stay in the car," Elizabeth said, "Please, Peter. He's my friend too."
Peter swallowed hard, "You stay in the car and do exactly as I say."
Elizabeth nodded and watched the doors close in front of her.
Joe whistled happily as he shut off the lights to the coolers and twirled the key ring around his middle finger. The Christmas music still played softly over the speakers and he hummed along to the tune. The store was dark, freshly mopped and just waiting to be locked up. Joe was all too happy to oblige.
He checked the backdoor and then headed to the front. He frowned when he saw a young woman knocking lightly on the door. Joe sighed, rubbed his balding head and unlocked the door.
"We're closed," he said.
She offered him a small smile, "I'm sorry, I know you want to go home, but it's an hour drive to my home and nowhere else is open. Can't I please, just use your bathroom?"
Joe wanted to tell her no, but he was caught by her bright green eyes. Silently, he opened the door and let her in.
"Thank you," she said, "I won't be long."
"Yeah," Joe said tiredly, "Bathroom's-"
"To the right," she said with a brilliant smile, flipping her red hair over her shoulder, "and the handle sticks. I know."
Joe only raised an eyebrow as she disappeared and shook his head. He sat down on the stool behind the counter and grabbed a magazine.
"Turn here, Mr. Leach."
Neal obeyed, taking the corner casually. Grace sat beside him, leaning against the door. He propped the gun on his knee, aimed directly at Neal's head. Neal tried not to look at it for it only distracted him, made him nervous. He had to stay focused and wait for Peter to come.
"He's not coming, you know."
Neal glanced at Grace and his smug face, "Who?"
Grace chuckled, "Act naïve all you want, but you know who I'm talking about. That agent, he's got his lovely wife back. Coming for you would be a big mistake and he knows it."
"You don't know Peter," Neal said, "He doesn't take it too well if you threaten his wife."
"So it is all about the wife," Grace smirked, "He doesn't give a damn about you, does he?"
Neal shrugged, "I'm just a consultant."
"Yeah, to hell with you, right. As long as this Peter gets his man, it doesn't really matter what happens to you." Grace laughed, "And still, you put yourself on the line for his wife. Kinda makes me wonder, what's in it for you?"
Neal tightened his grip on the steering wheel until his knuckles turned white. He couldn't catch a break, not even with the criminal. Was it so hard to believe that he would do something selfless and not have an ulterior motive?
"I did it for her," Neal said, "no other reason."
"Right, like I'm going to believe that. Everyone has a reason for what they do and ten times out of ten, it's a selfish one."
"Not all of humanity lets their selfish inclinations control them," Neal muttered, "just the jackasses."
Grace snarled at him and moved quicker than Neal could follow. He saw the gun move, turned his head to see, and felt the impact of metal against his skull. Pain exploded on his temple, white hot and dancing with stars. His automatic reaction was to cradle his head in his hands and he let go of the steering wheel.
He felt the car slide to the right and heard Grace grumble about something, but Neal was distracted by the pain. He pressed his palms against his temple and clenched his eyes shut, waiting for the pain to subside. Finally, it dulled to an ache and Neal pulled his hands away. He wasn't entirely surprised that they were covered in blood.
"Take the damn wheel," Grace growled, "before we end up in a snow bank."
Neal looked up and saw Grace was leaning across the console to hold onto the steering wheel. Realizing that wasn't the best idea given the weather conditions, Neal took the wheel in his hands and tried to focus on the road.
"Damn, that was close," Grace said with a chuckle.
Neal glanced at him, "You're bipolar, you know that. You don't pistol whip the driver while he's driving!"
Grace laughed, "But where's the excitement in that?"
Neal stared at the road and wished himself away from this man. He'd been frightened before as any sane man with a gun pointed at him would be, but now the rules had changed. Grace wasn't just a desperate art thief with a gun anymore. He was a deranged art thief with a gun, unpredictable and cocky, prone to impulsive decisions most of which ended badly for Neal.
Kevin turned the key once more and closed his eyes at the sputtering engine. He had no idea why his car had decided to die four miles from his house in the suburbs. He didn't have the faintest idea what to do about it either. The extent of his knowledge on cars was that the gas went in the hole and any lights on the dash board were bad.
This was not what he needed after a double shift at the ER on Christmas Eve. He'd already missed his flight to Montana. His sister would be angry at him for missing Christmas but there wasn't a whole lot he could have done differently. Christmas was the most dangerous time of the year, the busiest for the hospitals. And they were short staffed as it was what with the flu going around. His sister would just have to be angry with him. Maybe he would be able to catch a later flight and spend the weekend with her. If he ever got home and slept first.
A soft knock on his window startled Kevin from his thoughts. He looked up and saw a young girl looking back at him. She smiled and waved at him. He rolled his window down only a crack.
"Yes?" he asked, tentatively.
"There's a gas station down the street," she said, "just a block and I know it's still open."
He looked down the block. Sure enough he saw the lights of the gas station on the corner. He sighed with relief, at least he could call a tow truck. He looked back at the girl to thank her only to find she'd vanished. Kevin frowned and got out, looking down the street for the girl. He didn't see her. Shrugging and shoving his hands in his pockets, Kevin started for the gas station on the corner.
The light was red and Grace was getting impatient.
Neal tried hard not to look at him as he bounced his knee up and down and tapped the barrel of the gun on the door. Neal glanced in the review mirror to distract himself and did a double take.
Standing behind the car was a beautiful woman dressed in white. She gave him the saddest smile he'd seen in a long time and mouthed two words.
Neal blinked and the girl was gone.
"This is taking too damn long," Grace grumbled.
Neal jerked around, more frightened by the man with the gun than the disappearing girl, "Would you rather get pulled over by the cops?"
Grace grinned, "Give me something to do." He lifted the gun and pretended to fire it twice.
Neal swallowed and looked up. The light sluggishly changed to green. He pressed on the gas.
Joe groaned as he saw the figure trudge up to his door. He slammed the magazine down, wondering if he'd ever get home to sip his good Scotch and look through his old albums. He glanced back at the bathroom and cursed the girl. How long did it take to pee anyway?
"We're closed," Joe growled as he opened the door. The man, in his late thirties Joe guessed, looked up at him, his cheeks red from the cold.
"My car broke down," he said, "Please, I just need to call a truck."
Figures, Joe grumbled to himself, didn't anyone spend Christmas at home anymore?
Joe was about to nod when he glanced up at the intersection. He frowned at the man in the passenger seat. Was he waving a gun?
"Hey, is that…" Joe stepped out of gas station and pointed at the car, "What the hell?"
Kevin turned around as the old man pointed at the car stopped at the light. His eyes widened when he saw the gun.
"Oh my God," he said out loud.
Then the light changed.
Nick gasped as he lifted his head and shook it hard. He had to stay awake. But his eyelids were so heavy and it was just so hard to keep them open. If he could only close them for a moment…just one second…
The car eased forward. Neal was so focused on not angering Grace that he never saw the truck as it ran the red light. It hit the passenger side at full force.
"Call 911!" Kevin yelled.
He was already running to the crumpled car as it jumped over the curb and hit the light pole. It came to rest in the snow. No one moved in the wreck.
"Jesus," Joe muttered as he followed Kevin, "Be careful, that one man…"
"I know," Kevin said, "but they're hurt."
"Do you know what to do?"
"I'm a doctor," Kevin said. He chose to go to the driver's side first, hoping the driver didn't have a gun.
The young man had his eyes half open and fresh blood was running down the side of his face. His arm was wrapped protectively around his middle and the other hung uselessly beside the door. He moved tired blue eyes up to Kevin as the doctor wrenched the door open.
"No," he muttered, his words slurring like a drunkard, "Go…has a …get hurt…"
"What's he saying?" Joe asked as he carefully made his way around the wreck to the passenger side door.
"I don't know," Kevin answered, "Hey, man, easy. You're going to hurt yourself worse. Can you tell me your name?"
"N-neal…stay…gotta go," Neal groaned, "Grace has a gun…"
Kevin looked up at the man who was slumped in the passenger seat. His head rested against the dash board, dripping blood onto the carpet. The window beside his head was shattered but still held its frame. Blood was smeared across the dense fog of cracks. Joe wrenched the door open, but the metal was so twisted that it would only open a few inches.
"Careful," Kevin warned, "He's unconscious but he had the gun."
Joe swallowed hard but nodded as he reached his arm through. Carefully, he pressed two fingers against the bloody throat and held his breath. After a long moment he looked up at Kevin.
"I can't find a pulse," he said thickly.
Kevin nodded, "Well, Neal here is still kicking. Let's help out the living and worry over the dead later."
Joe nodded grimly, "You ever get used to this?"
Kevin shook his head, "I see death every day. Somehow, even the scumbags leave their mark. You wanna check on the truck driver?"
Joe quickly turned and headed for the idling semi truck parked in the middle of the street. Kevin turned back to Neal and felt his heart jump when he saw the young man's eyes had closed.
"Hey, kid, wake up," he ordered, gently tapping his jaw, "I'll let you sleep when I know you'll live."
Neal parted his eyes and searched out Kevin's face. It took five seconds for his eyes to focus. Kevin didn't like those numbers one bit.
"Does anything feel broken?" he asked.
Neal frowned, "Ribs…head," he paused, gasped and said, "hard to breathe..."
Kevin looked down at Neal's throat and saw that the seat belt was pressed tightly against the skin. He gently pulled it back, studying the purple bruising already forming, the rapid swelling, and listening to Neal's shallow breathing. Kevin would have loved to curse out loud, but he didn't think Neal would appreciate it. He carefully reached across Neal's stomach to undo the seat belt and searched out Joe.
"Hey," he yelled as he saw the old man and the truck driver carefully making their way to the car, "I need some help over here."
"Not s'loud," Neal muttered as his eyes drooped shut.
"Hey, hey, no sleeping yet, pal. Stay awake," Kevin ordered.
"Truck driver's shook up," Joe said, "but he doesn't seem hurt. Course, I'm no doctor."
"Yeah," Kevin said. He looked at the driver, "What's your name?"
"N-nick, oh my…I did this?"
Nick looked at the demolished car and felt his stomach turn. He saw the blood splatter and the slumped silhouette of a man and gagged.
"Oh God, no. Please tell me I didn't…" Nick leaned heavily against the light pole and closed his eyes against the tears.
"Crap," Kevin muttered, "Hey, Nick. Nick look at me. Look, I know this is hard for you, but we need you to focus right now. This man, Neal, is still alive and we need to get him into the gas station."
"Are we supposed to move him?" Joe asked.
"Normally no," Kevin said, "but I'm a doctor and I know what I'm doing. Now listen. Nick, are you listening?"
Nick looked up at him with glassy eyes. He nodded slowly.
"My name is Kevin, and this is," he gestured to the gas station clerk and frowned, realizing he didn't know his name.
"Joe," he said with a nod.
"Joe," Kevin said, "Now, Neal here has some broken ribs and a concussion, but those aren't a big problem. What is a problem is that his seat belt has effectively bruised his throat to the point that it's swelling and he can't breathe."
"Oh god," Nick gasped.
"Now I can help him, but I can only do that if we get him inside and I need you to help me carry him. Can you do that?"
Nick stared at Kevin.
Finally, the distraught man nodded. Kevin sighed in relief and looked down at Neal who was staring at his diseased partner with vacant eyes. His lips, tinted with blood, were moving soundlessly.
"What?" Kevin asked him as he leaned close.
Neal turned his head slightly and whispered one solemn sentence in his ear.
"There but for the grace of God."
"Is it still stationary?" Peter asked.
Elizabeth nodded, "It hasn't moved in the past ten minutes."
Peter nodded and tightened his hands on the wheel, "What the hell are they doing? It's nowhere near the air field."
Elizabeth shook her head, "I don't know. I'm worried, Peter. If something happens to him…it'll be my fault."
Peter quickly reached over and grabbed his wife's hand. He brought her fingers up to his mouth and gently kissed them. Elizabeth looked at him, tears threatening to escape.
"It's not your fault," Peter whispered.
"He gave himself up for me," she whispered back, one tear passing her defenses, "How is it not my fault?"
"Neal wanted you safe," Peter said, "just like I did. Grace is the one who put Neal in that situation, not you."
Elizabeth looked away and closed her eyes while she tightened her fingers around Peter's hand, "Why did he do it, Peter?"
Peter stared at the snow falling on his windshield, "I think it was his Christmas gift."
Elizabeth looked at him, "What?"
"It was his gift to me," Peter said softly, "He knew I wished more than anything to have you safe. And even though he knew I would do anything and everything to get you back, it wouldn't be the same," Peter swallowed hard on the lump in his throat, "because Christmas wishes mean so much more when they come from someone who cares about you."
"Oh, Peter," Elizabeth whispered.
Peter stared out at the road hard and cleared his throat, but it didn't help. His voice was still thick and it cracked as he said, "That stupid son of a bitch. Why couldn't he have just gotten me a box of cigars like a normal partner?"
Elizabeth smiled softly, "When have you ever known Neal to be normal?"
Peter smirked, "Good point."
Elizabeth looked down at the cell phone and quickly took her hand out of Peter's. She sat up straighter and looked desperately out the window.
"It's up here," she said, "just three blocks away."
Peter turned the corner and felt his jaw fall. His foot slipped off the gas pedal and he heard Elizabeth gasp beside him and cover her mouth. Peter could only stare at the semi truck sitting in the middle of the road and the crumbled tuna can that resembled a car parked on the curb.
His heart clenched at the quiet, tearful voice of his wife. He turned to her as she raised the cell phone up to show him the stationary dot. In the intersection in front of him.
"Jesus," Peter cursed and slammed his foot on the pedal. The car shot forward the next two blocks. Peter swerved up over the curb and parked not five feet from the wreck. He was out of the car before he'd even finished putting it in park, drawing his gun and ordering Elizabeth to stay back. He didn't know if Grace was still at large, or what he would see in the car.
The smell of blood hit him first. He covered his nose with his fist and stepped forward. His stomach flip flopped when he saw the empty seat and the dead body beside it.
Elizabeth threw open her door and stood beside the car. The cold assaulted her, made goose flesh form on her skin. She watched her breath come out in small gray puffs as her husband approached the car. She wanted to rush up behind him, push him forward, do something. But she stood still, watching through blurry eyes as Peter pulled the driver's side door open further and peered inside.
Her heart hammered in her chest. She was scared to death that he would turn around and pull her into his arms. Not that she was afraid of the contact, but of what it would mean. That they were too late, that Neal was already dead.
Elizabeth gasped loudly and spun around, backing into the car. She stared at the girl who'd suddenly appeared beside her, her mouth flapping like a door off its hinges.
"He'll be okay," the girl said softly. She pulled something out of her pocket and held it out to Elizabeth, "Here," she said with a smile, "You're going to need this."
Shocked into compliance, Elizabeth took the object and looked down at it. Confused, she looked back up, but the girl had disappeared.
Elizabeth spun away and ran to her husband. Peter shook his head.
"Grace is dead," he said, "but I can't find Neal."
"What?" Elizabeth shook her head, "that doesn't make any sense."
Elizabeth looked up. A man dressed in flannel was standing in the door way of the gas station. He looked terrified. Peter stepped forward.
"Yeah?" he asked cautiously.
"Either of you got a pen?"
In the car, Grace stirred.
He raised his head, wiped the blood away, and peered out the cracked windshield.
Grace watched, confused. Hadn't he left that agent and his wife at the FBI building?
He looked to the left, frowned. Where the hell was his hostage?
Grace smiled as he realized his gun was sitting in his lap. He could make it work yet.
Grace raised the gun and smiled.
Peter followed the man, Nick as he called himself, into the gas station. He noted the old man, Joe as Nick called him, talking to emergency dispatch on the phone behind the counter, but his mind was on the man lying on the floor in the third aisle.
"God, Neal," Peter breathed when he saw his partner.
He was spread out on his back over a thin blanket, his clothes torn and crumpled. A large gash had opened up on the right side of his face and was bleeding heavily onto the blanket. There was a man leaning over him, opening half a dozen packages of gauze.
"What are you doing?" Peter demanded as he knelt down.
The man looked up at him, "My name's Kevin. I'm a doctor. Who the hell are you?"
"Special Agent Peter Burke," Peter growled back, "That's my partner you're working on."
"I haven't started working yet," Kevin in formed him, "Nick, you got that knife sterile yet?"
"It's coming," Nick told him.
"Whoa, you are not taking a knife anywhere near him," Peter said angrily, "This is not a damn hospital-"
"I'm aware of that," Kevin said, "but Neal can't wait for a hospital."
"What are you talking about?" Elizabeth asked quietly.
Kevin sighed, "Neal's throat has been injured and it's swelling. He can't breathe. Just listen."
Silence fell in the small gas station. Joe had hung up the phone and was digging in the drawers for a pen, but stopped and closed his eyes. Nick, who had been wiping the knife with alcohol, stopped and almost covered his ears at the sudden silence. And Peter heard it.
He watched as Neal's chest hitched then rose and fell too quickly. He heard the strained wheeze in his breath and the way it seemed to catch at the back of his throat, never making it too his lungs. Peter ran his hand over his mouth and dared to look at Neal's face. His eyes trailed over the closed eyelids, over the dark shadow of eyelashes on the pallid skin, over the blood trail running down the bridge of his nose and arch of his cheek bones, down to the barely parted lips and he cringed when he saw that they were tinted blue.
"You see," Kevin said, "It can't wait."
Peter looked up at the young doctor and nodded.
"What do you need?" Peter asked, unashamed that his voice betrayed his tears.
"A hollow tube," Kevin said as he continued to open gauze, "like in a pen. It has to be clean and-"
"Will this work?"
Peter looked up at Elizabeth. She held out a small, clear package. Inside was a tiny plastic tube.
Kevin smiled, "That's perfect."
Peter took the package from her and opened it, carefully leaving it on the plastic and placing it beside the stack of gauze Kevin had prepared. Nick held out the now sterile knife.
"What now?" Peter asked.
"Everyone back up, except you Agent Burke," Kevin said, "I'll need you to wipe away the blood."
Elizabeth bit back a sob and turned away. Joe tenderly put his hand on her shoulder and led her to the corner. Nick quickly followed.
"This will be quick," Kevin said, "and he won't feel a thing. But we have to hurry."
Peter nodded and swallowed hard when Kevin reached for the knife.
Grace stumbled out of the driver's side door. He shook the glass out of his coat, ignoring the cuts that burned and stung in his hands.
He looked up at the gas station and took a step forward.
Logic stopped him. He had the chance to get away free. The agent hadn't called in back up and he was otherwise occupied with his little partner.
Freedom was knocking on his door.
Grace waved off the gas station and slipped into the agent's car. Which he had so generously left unlocked and running.
Grinning like a fool, he drove away.
Kevin placed the tip of the knife against Neal's throat just below the Adam's Apple. He moved it down slowly and surely. For a moment, Peter thought he hadn't pressed hard enough.
Then the blood started.
He quickly grabbed a wad of gauze and wiped up the oozing blood. The wound bubbled and leaked even as Peter wiped at it. He choked back the gagging reflex, trying to focus on the task at hand rather than his queasy stomach.
Kevin flipped the knife over in his hand and inserted the thin handle into the incision. He turned it to the right only part way and then removed it. More blood oozed out.
"Jesus," Peter muttered under his breath.
Kevin picked up the tube and wordlessly put it into the cut. He placed gauze around it and pressed down. Peter sat back on his heels, hoping it was over.
"I need the tape," Kevin said. He nodded to the medical tape lying on the floor. Peter picked it up and handed it to him.
"Keep your hands here," Kevin ordered.
Peter took his place and held the gauze around the tube as Kevin quickly taped it. When it was safe, Peter pulled back his hands and watched Kevin breathe into the tube. With tears in his eyes, he watched Neal's chest rise and fall. Once then twice.
Peter smiled as Kevin sighed and leaned back.
"Thank you," Peter said.
"Don't thank me," Kevin said meeting his eyes, "Thank whatever angel was watching out for him tonight."
It was snowing harder. Grace could hardly see out the windshield.
He leaned forward, squinting at the snow as the wipers swished back and forth.
He was almost to the airfield, almost home free.
Then he saw the girl standing in the road, head bent, red hair blowing around her. He slammed on the brakes, but the roads were nothing but ice and the car slid forward.
The girl raised her head. Her bright green eyes stared daggers into his soul. She said two words and he heard them clear as a bell.
Grace yanked the wheel. He felt the car slide and skid, felt it jerk out of control. He felt it slam into something hard.
But he didn't feel the barrier give out on the bridge. He didn't feel the car teeter on the edge then plunge into the cold river. He didn't feel the icy water fill the cab and cover his head.
Because Grace was already dead.
Christmas came late for the Burkes. They weren't about to celebrate it without Neal. It was a week before he was released from the hospital. But it did give time for Peter to find Neal's gift.
"Why do I have to wear this thing?" Peter grumbled, "I wear a tie year round. Don't I get one day off?"
Elizabeth smacked him lightly on the arm as they approached June's house, "Quit whining. I want you to look nice."
"The shirt would look fine without that stupid tie," Peter muttered.
Elizabeth pinched him in the side just as the door opened to the house. June smiled back at them, warmly.
"Peter, Elizabeth, so nice to see you," she said, "Come in. Everyone's in the parlor."
"Thank you, June," Elizabeth said, "It's so nice of you to let us use your home."
"Not a problem. I've got plenty of space," June smiled, "Here let me take your coats. Neal's been anxious to see you all day."
Peter handed her his coat and followed Elizabeth into the parlor. He smiled warmly when he saw Joe and Kevin sitting in the arm chairs and Nick standing beside the Christmas tree.
"Peter," Kevin grinned being the first to notice the couple, "Elizabeth, glad you could make it."
"Nice to see you, Kevin, Joe," Peter nodded at each of them and then looked at Nick, "How's the truck?"
"Hardly a scratch on her," Nick said smiling.
"Wish it was the same for me."
Peter looked down at the couch where Neal sat, smiling widely at Nick. Two large white bandages were attached to his skin, one over the gash on his head, and the other over the cut on his throat. Neal stood and folded Elizabeth into his arms.
"How's the throat?" she asked.
Neal chuckled, "I'm not going to break, Elizabeth. My ribs barely hurt anymore. You can hug me harder than that."
Elizabeth smiled and indulged herself, tightening her hold on him. Suddenly, Neal jerked back with a small cry of pain. Elizabeth jumped away, tossing her hands into the air, eyes wide and an apology tumbling off her lips.
Neal grinned at her, "Got ya."
Elizabeth glared at him, "If you weren't hurt, I'd hurt you."
"You could always save it for later," Peter said with a smirk.
Elizabeth grinned and Neal looked at Peter.
"Thanks a lot," he muttered.
"I'll make it up to you," Peter said, "Come here."
Neal was hesitant to follow, "I'm not sure I should."
Peter rolled his eyes and went back into the foyer. Neal looked at Elizabeth.
"If I'm not back in five minutes, call the cavalry," he said.
Elizabeth laughed and pushed him lightly on the back, "Just go."
Neal walked out to the foyer, cautious not to jostle his mending ribs. Peter was digging into the box of gifts he and Elizabeth had brought. Neal smiled softly and lowered himself down onto the stairs, watching Peter through the railings.
"Looking for something?" he asked.
Peter grunted and moved to the second box.
"Ah-ha!" he cried triumphantly.
He pulled out a large rectangular box wrapped in red paper. Dancing penguins decorated the paper and it was tied with a green bow. Peter handed it to Neal and sat down beside him.
"There's no card," Neal said.
"Just open the damn thing will you?" Peter said, rolling his eyes.
Neal smirked and carefully slid his finger under the corner of the paper. He pulled it back and lifted it slowly. Peter squirmed beside him.
"Damn it, you're making this torture."
Neal chuckled and decided to give Peter a break. He pulled off the bow and tore the rest of the paper at the end, sliding the box out. He piled the discarded paper on the step below him, turned the box over and stopped. He stared up at Peter.
Peter shrugged, "What you always wanted, right?"
Neal smiled and ran his hand over the Hot Wheels race track, "Yeah. Thank you, Peter."
"No problem, Dudley."
Neal's head snapped up and he smirked, "So you figured it out?"
"Wasn't hard," Peter said, "I just Googled Archie Leach, found out he was better known as Cary Grant and then Googled Grant's most famous Christmas movie."
"Though I've got to say," Peter said with a grin, "it's a little narcissistic to call yourself an angel."
Neal chuckled, "It was the best I could come up with at the time. I was under a little pressure."
"Yeah, but it was true," Peter said sincerely, "if it weren't for you, Elizabeth-"
"Don't even go there, Peter." Neal said quickly, "She's fine."
Peter nodded, relishing in the sound of Elizabeth's laughter from the parlor. He looked at Neal and frowned when he saw the young man quietly staring at his gift.
"Are you fine?" he asked.
Neal glanced at him, "I just can't get over how it went."
"What do you mean?"
"Nick said that wasn't his normal route. He usually went a different way, but that night he saw a girl dancing in the street and turned left instead. What are the odds?"
"That's what your fussing over?"
Neal shook his head, "What about Kevin? His car died."
"When he took it to the mechanic there was absolutely nothing wrong with it. It's been running fine ever since. So why did it die right there, one block from the intersection, five minutes before Nick came plowing through it?"
Peter frowned, "Good question."
"And Joe said that he was supposed to be closed, but a girl asked to use the bathroom so he stayed open."
"And that's strange because?"
"When he went back, she wasn't there."
"A lot happened, Neal. Maybe she ran off when they were helping you."
"Maybe," Neal said, frowning.
"But you don't think so," Peter sighed, "Alright, what is it?"
"It's this girl. She keeps popping up everywhere and I think…I think I saw her, Peter."
"Saw her when?"
"That night, right before the crash. I looked up and she was standing behind the car. She told me to…she said…"
"What?" Peter asked softly.
"Hold on," Neal said. He looked up at Peter, "like she knew what was going to happen."
Peter rested his hand on Neal's shoulder, "Neal, I think this is one of those things you have to let go."
"Everything that happened, the way it played out, I think maybe it happened for a reason. It went the way it was meant to and no amount of thinking or suspecting is going to give you any answers."
"Am I hearing you right?" Neal smirked, "Is Peter Burke suggesting I believe in miracles?"
"Hey," Peter said with a shrug, "It's Christmas."
"Oh, there you boys are," June said as she came around the corner, "I left the card table up on the roof. Would you mind getting it?"
"I can do that, June," Peter offered as he stood.
"I'll come with you," Neal said, "I should put my gift away."
"Neal, aren't you too old for toys?" June asked smiling.
Neal just grinned at her and followed Peter up the stairs. Peter continued to the roof as Neal went to put his gift in his apartment. As he opened the door, he wished he'd thought to bring a coat, but it was too late to go back. He spotted the card table in the corner and quickly grabbed it, folding the legs in. He headed back to the door when he saw the girl.
She was standing on the edge of the roof, looking down at the city. She was dressed in white and her red hair flew over her shoulders, dancing in the breeze. She turned her head and smiled at him.
"Hey," he called, "what are you doing up here?"
"Enjoying the view," she said, her green eyes twinkling, "Nice day for a miracle, don't you think?"
Peter stared at her, a dozen question running through his mind. He could only come to one conclusion.
"Did you find it, Peter?"
Peter looked at the door and Neal standing at its threshold. He looked back at the ledge, horrified to find the girl was gone.
"What's the matter, Peter?" Neal asked, "You look like you've seen a ghost."
Peter looked at Neal and smiled softly, "Not a ghost," he looked back to the ledge and said under his breath, "just an angel."