Continuity: Post Point Blank, but no actual references to the episode.
References: Mr. Hoffmeister from Bad Judgment (season 1) makes an appearance.
RESPECT THE POM
December 19, 2010
At seven in the evening, a shady art collector (Neal) and his equally shady business associate (Peter) were shivering in a Hoboken warehouse, brokering a deal with some mobsters. Everybody was bundled up to the eyes, for all the good it did. Jones and Diana, stationed in the van, and Hughes, listening from another coordination point, could hear teeth chattering over the wires. Hughes was nervous about this particular operation. Even though Burke had told him they had this covered, the hairs on the back of his neck were prickling; every instinct was screaming that they were one false move away from catastrophe. He hated putting his people in harm's way, especially with surveillance and tactical support forced to hang back so far, but it was necessary due to the layout of the warehouse district. With his usual cool façade in place, he slipped one hand into his pants pocket and started palming the miniature brass engine. Other agents squeezed stress balls; he played with trains. Collecting them had been a passion of his since childhood.
Hughes listened as the recorded conversation came around to business. Theoretically, Neal was supposed to exchange an electronic bundle of money, conveniently flagged by the FBI, for a priceless Ming vase, but there was one big potential problem: the wide gulf between theory and practice. In the end, it proved too far to cross.
Issue number one: Peter's team had been baiting the target with several interesting tricks, all Neal's ideas, to make him feel like the full weight of the FBI was closing in on him and help convince him that the wisest thing to do would be to get rid of a very hot potato, which would get them the vase that much faster. This left the mobster feeling uncomfortable and a little twitchy, which is not the way anyone should feel when carrying a loaded weapon.
Issue number two: Peter got a minor detail wrong when quizzed about the money situation. It was an innocent mistake, he rallied immediately, and if the mobster had been feeling less nervous, it would have been fine. Instead, their target jumped on the screw-up and started waving his gun around while screaming that Peter was an FBI mole.
Negotiations went south pretty fast after that. Things ended with Peter on his knees, nose bloodied, face bruised, with a .38 pressed to his temple. Neal got in the middle of the fight as fast as he could, and in a move that he'd learned from Mozzie, he ripped the gun straight out of the hand that was holding it to Peter's face and coldly dared the attacker to try something stupid. The goon backed off. Neal motioned for everyone else to join him. He planted himself protectively in front of Peter, faced down the six large thugs and their boss, and held the gun on them.
"Jim is my business guy," Neal said coolly. "He's been working for me for six years. He's not a Fed, and that was completely uncalled-for, especially since I just transferred the funds to your account. I'm taking my vase, and we're leaving," he finished. By which he meant: If there are any Federales in the area, now would be the time to get the hell in here and arrest these guys before they decide to kill us. Thank you. "Besides, if Jim was an FBI mole, they'd be swarming already." And, cue the battering ram.
What Neal didn't know was that five minutes ago, most of the back-up in the area had been suddenly pulled away for another operation, leaving Hughes scrambling to provide assistance and Diana and Jones preparing to go in on their own. The surveillance van was parked six blocks away.
They wouldn't be there for another ten minutes.
A lot could happen in ten minutes.
Neal's first instinct was to stall, so he started talking. "Look, can we just settle this like rational human beings? You don't want to kill us. You're obviously on somebody's radar. You kill me, or him, and it'll just bring more heat. Take off with your money, leave the vase, and we'll call it even."
"Oh, we'll call it even, all right," said the mobster. He wiggled his Blackberry at Neal. "I appreciate your money, pretty boy, but I gotta make sure you idiots don't think you can cross me. Boys? Show him what we do to people who mess with us. But, you know, don't kill him."
The goons grinned at Neal. A few of them started wrapping leather straps around their knuckles. Neal tightened his jaw and to Peter's woozy surprise, he stood his ground and got ready to fight, stuffing the gun into the back of his pants, fiddling his left foot so his stance was shoulder-width, and bringing up his fists.
Facts flitted through Peter's confused brain: Neal's aversion to violence. Neal's dislike of guns. Neal getting punched in the face by an Adam Lambert wannabe last month in a yarn store. Neal failing to hit the guy back. This was the same person who was now preparing to fight off a small army. Peter closed his eyes and bowed his head. Jesus Christ, he thought. We're gonna die.
Neal spoke to Peter without turning, keeping his eyes on the advancing pack of goons.
"Hang in there, man. I got this."
December 20, 2010
The sun had been down for about half an hour when Jones and Diana finally made it to the Midtown General second floor Trauma ward. Neal had been set up in one of the curtained areas, and Elizabeth opened the flap to let them in. She and Peter had been hanging out with him since four o'clock. Peter was stationed in a chair at the bedside, dressed in a warm fleece pullover and jeans, a small flannel blanket draped over his lap and that morning's crossword in his hand. He looked tired and worked over, but considerably better than Neal, whose major achievements today had included consciousness, lucidity, and keeping down some hospital food.
Diana immediately went over to the bed and leaned down to get a look. Elizabeth was gently laying an ice pack over Neal's right eye. He hissed slightly at the sting and the cold.
"Sorry, Neal," she murmured. "Oh, Diana, he's shivering again. Would you pass me that extra blanket?" She shook her head in despair. "I can't believe what those animals did to his face."
"Elle, it's a shiner, not the end of the world. Besides, he's got bigger problems."
Elizabeth thought about arguing but sadly, Peter was right. The ER doctor's thoroughly unprofessional words had been, verbatim, "This guy got his ass handed to him."
Sitting here now, Peter was still trying to figure out whether to be mad at Neal for taking on half a football team of goombas, or to be grateful for his consultant's unexpected heroism and willingness to protect somebody else at great personal cost. At the moment, he was leaning towards option B. Neal had been through the wringer; he didn't need anyone jumping down his throat right now. Also, Elizabeth was in the room, so A, while satisfying, could potentially get ugly.
"Ugly" could describe Neal pretty well, too. A black eye, a cut lip, and two slightly cracked ribs from the melee. A messed up left shoulder. A sprained right ankle. A goose egg on his head and a minor concussion to accompany it. Bumps, bruises, and scrapes all over the place. And to top it off, a few hours after being admitted, the nurses noticed his face was a little hot. Now his nose wouldn't stop running and he was constantly chilly. Getting the sniffles was nothing compared to everything else, but Peter worried anyway.
The shoulder was intentional. At some point during the smackdown, one of the goons had gotten him with a two-by-four right across the deltoid muscle. While it barely even counted as a partial dislocation, the bruise was big and nasty, and some small blood vessel had sprung a leak somewhere in there. So the ER staff drained half a pint from around the joint, and there had been dire conversations about internal bleeding and trauma surgery until they realized that the leak had stopped on its own, and Neal was stabilizing. The shoulder was bandaged and his arm was in a sling.
The ankle was an accident. When Neal realized what the thugs were planning to do to him, his first idea was to run. It worked for about four minutes. Once he had his enemies' complete attention, he allowed them to chase him all over the warehouse to buy time for the cavalry to arrive. But on one final diversionary pass, he slipped on a frozen puddle halfway across the building and went down wrong. The adrenaline rush dulled any pain, and he got back up and fought like a demon without even realizing what he'd done to himself. It wasn't a terrible sprain, but he'd be off his feet for a few days and on crutches for at least a week.
"Lizb'th, it's okay," Neal protested. Elizabeth was bunching the covers around his hips and ignoring him. "'m fine."
Elizabeth shushed him, Diana started tucking the blankets on his other side, and Jones and Peter smirked. Neal finally realized resistance was futile and silently let the women have their way.
"Hey, Neal," Jones said.
Neal tracked his eyes over to the agent. "Hey, Jones," he rasped. "Glad you guys are here. Glad you guys were there, too. Nick of time."
"I'm just sorry we didn't get there sooner," Jones said. He shared a look with Diana, who was getting the blankets around Neal's left foot. She nodded. Jones unzipped his puffy jacket, carefully removed something, and held it up so Neal could see. "We, um, we made you something at the office. We didn't know how long you'd be here, so…"
Neal approved. "Found object art. Nice."
It was a thoughtful gift. Five glossy paper irises (folded New Yorker pages) were attached to wire stems (unbent jumbo paperclips) and sat nestled in a vase made from a jelly jar, rescued from the break area in the bullpen.
"Diana made most of them," Jones said, "But I made one, too."
It was pretty easy to tell who had made what. Diana's irises were crisp and perfect, and Jones' contribution looked as though he'd sat on it. But the man had tried, God bless him, so Neal smiled indulgently.
"They're beautiful. Thanks. Whose idea was the jelly jar?"
"Mine," Jones said. He set the little jar down on the rolling bedside table. "I cleaned it out."
"Yeah, with his tongue," Diana jabbed playfully.
"What? Strawberry's the best jam in the world. Anyway, I washed it, so you won't get my cooties, don't worry."
Neal sniffed hard to try and clear out his nose. "Well, that's good, 'cuz I got enough cooties of my own."
"Yeah, so we heard. Oh, Hughes says hey, and good job. He wanted to come with us, but he's stuck at the office."
"What's he doing?" Peter asked.
"Trying to figure out who jacked our back-up," Diana explained. Then she smiled. "And then he'll have to figure out a good punishment when he finds out who did it."
"Peter, how are you doing?" Jones asked. "You survive your 'observation' period okay?"
"Yeah, I guess so," Peter said. Then he yawned. "I'm sorry. I didn't get a wink of sleep all night. You know what it's like in the hospital. Thank God they let me go at noon; I was ready to make a run for it."
"Well, at least you had a nap at home," Elizabeth said. She was getting ready to tuck the blankets around Neal's right foot, which was strapped up in bandages and propped on a pillow.
"Hey, 'Lizbeth?" Neal said.
"Could you do me a favor and scratch my foot? I can't reach."
Elizabeth smiled. "Sure. Where?"
"Between the big toe and the next one."
Elizabeth scratched the itch gently and Neal moaned in relief. "Thanks."
Just as Elizabeth got the blankets over his bandaged foot, an Asian gentleman with a stethoscope around his neck walked in through the curtains and picked up Neal's chart from the plastic holder on the bed. "Hi, everybody."
"Hi, Dr. Yuen," Peter said. He turned to Jones and Diana. "This guy's in charge of Neal's case."
"Ah, Mr. Caffrey, you're awake," said the doctor, leaning over Neal. "Wonderful. Are you in pain?"
"A little," Neal admitted.
"All right, I'll put in an order for something a bit stronger. In the meantime, I have some very good news for you. We're releasing you in three hours."
Peter looked at Neal, who was quite a sight, and then turned to the doctor. "You're releasing him," he said flatly. "To what, a mortuary?"
"Hey, 'Lizbeth, do me a favor an' kick Peter."
"Um, it does seem a little premature," Diana pointed out.
"I understand your concern," the doctor said, "And I know his injuries aren't pretty, but believe it or not, he's going to be fine, and there's nothing more we can do for him. The concussion is minor. He's stable and recovering. We treated his shoulder. He moved it around a little this morning, so he can continue physical therapy at home. Sprained ankle? Splinted. Ribs? Nothing we can do, unfortunately. Cuts? Sterilized and bandaged. Bruises? They'll go away. And for the grand finale, I ran some blood work. Mr. Caffrey has an infection, which we have identified as the human rhinovirus. It's the common cold. There's no cure."
"If Mr. Caffrey stays here, that'll just provide opportunities for more serious infections to get him, so I figure he shouldn't be around sick people any longer than necessary. We're discharging him at 8 o'clock, and we can arrange transport. Anyone riding along?"
Peter looked around at everybody. Elizabeth and Jones nodded, but Diana shook her head.
"Diana, you can't come?" Elizabeth asked.
"I promised Christie I'd go to her basketball game tonight. It starts at seven. I mean, if you need a fourth person then I can call her…"
"No, no," Neal said. "Go cheer her on."
Diana looked dubious. "You're sure? I mean, it's just amateur ball, and there'll be other games."
Peter shook his head 'no.' "You can't disappoint the spouse. Trust me on this." Elizabeth smiled.
Neal asked, "What's her team called?"
The doctor cleared his throat and clicked his pen. "Sorry to interrupt, but where will Mr. Caffrey be going?"
"Oh, yes dear, of course we'll make it work. It's no trouble. And I'll see you all for dinner on Christmas Day, right? … Yes. Please, tell Diana to bring Christie. Everyone is welcome. All right, yes, goodbye." June hung up with Elizabeth and turned to Mozzie, who was sitting at Neal's kitchen table, finishing his pasta dinner. "Chop chop, Mr. Haversham. We've been mobilized."
Mozzie wiped his mouth with his cloth napkin and raised an eyebrow. "For what?"
"Moving things downstairs," June said. "Neal will be here by 8:30, and I want him close in case he needs my help, so he'll need to be in a room on the first floor."
"But the Suit said –" A glare from June had him rethinking his word choice. "I mean, but Peter said, Neal wouldn't be out of the hospital until at least tomorrow."
June was already bustling to the bed. She threw her hands up. "Well, they've moved everything up, haven't they? But it's certainly good news. Less time in the hospital is always better. Now, what shall we bring down for him?"
Mozzie got up to join her. "He'll definitely need the comforter and pillows, at least." He started stripping the bed and gathering things up.
"I'll get his drawing things," June added, and found a small tackle box full of pencils. Nearby was a nearly empty sketch pad.
Mozzie, almost buried under the bedding, gingerly walked down the stairs with June at his side. When they were halfway down he commented, "So, I'll stick around to make sure he gets into bed okay, and then I think I'll get out of town for a few days. It's my Christmas tradition."
"Wait, I'll see you on Christmas for the dinner, won't I? … Mozzie?"
Mozzie shuffled a little. "I … I don't know. You know, I have plans. … Big plans."
June wasn't fooled for a second. "Mozzie, I want you to be here. Promise me."
Mozzie turned and looked at her, and finally figured out that the jig was up, and the offer was sincere. His answer was quiet. "Okay."
"I can' believe you," Neal groused at Peter. "A mortuary? That was mean."
"Well, you do look like death warmed over," Peter explained. "And I can't believe they're just tossing you out on your butt with a couple of prescriptions. You'd think that damn health care bill would have some effect on the system by now."
"Stop defracting," Neal argued. He was getting dizzy from the IV injection a nurse had just given him, and he blinked. "Reflecting." Another blink. "Refracting? … Deflecting. 'ere it is. Deflecting. Stop that."
Peter rolled his eyes. "The good stuff is kickin' in there, hey, Mr. Hero?"
Neal looked sort of absently disgusted. "I saved your life, man," he said. The small crowd was silent while he gave this some thought. Then he continued, slowly and deliberately, "I literally … physically … got in there and saved your freakin' life." He started to smile. Peter's lips were a thin line. "Put on the damn hat."
"It's at home," Peter said.
"No it's not," Elizabeth said, and she held up something fuzzy and brown. "I had a feeling, so I packed it."
Peter's eyes went wide.
Diana laughed and turned to Jones, who had all the information from both sides, and had told her everything. "Oh my God, is that The Hat? The one Neal threatened to knit him in the van? The one that Peter made the deal for?"
Jones nodded. "Yup. Peter, you should put that on. It's only right."
Peter was blushing in embarrassment. With a warning glare at his subordinates to refrain from commenting, he held out his hand for the hat and stuffed it on his head. It was a beautiful hand knit cap done in a rich brown, with a flat box top. Layers of white and golden streaks had been overstitched seemingly at random, starting on top of the hat and trailing down, and there was a knitted white cube on the top, right in the center. The cap had earflaps which dripped down into foot-long chains, each ending in a large fluffy white pom-pom. But the seven rings of gentle elastic inside the hat were what really made it work. They cinched the knitted fabric into layers of circles. It was artistic, lovingly made, and had required a lot of effort and skill.
It also looked like Peter was wearing a stack of pancakes for a hat. A pat of white butter was melting on top, and the butter (the white yarn) and maple syrup (the golden yarn) were dripping down the sides.
Diana and Jones held it together for about three seconds before bursting into laughter. Elizabeth beamed.
Neal was very proud of how Peter looked. "Yaaaay. Awesome. … I can't move ma' arms. Somebody applaud."
Jones actually looked ready to try, but a withering glare from Peter stopped him.
Diana was struggling to compose herself. "Boss, I know you hate it, but it really looks good on ya. Fits perfectly and it's a great color. I even like those stupid pom-poms."
"Hey, respect the pom, a'right?" Neal said. "Those damn things take forever to make. First you gotta wrap, and then you gotta tie, and then you gotta cut, an' if you want a fluffy one, good luck. You'll be there for two hours with a hair brush smackin' the thing back and forth to get it fuzzy."
"Oh, Neal, I didn't mean to insult you," Diana said, patting his good shoulder. "I know you worked very hard. And I like the pom-poms. I do."
Jones, meanwhile, had been critically appraising the hat. "I want one."
Neal looked at him. "Seriously?"
"Yeah! Well, not pancakes, but a Neal Caffrey original would be cool."
Neal smiled. "I can do that. I'll have some time on my hands for a little while, that's for sure."
"I want one too," Diana said. "How'd you come up with this design?"
Neal shrugged his good shoulder. "Peter calls me Peter Pan all the time, and I just looked at him and I thought, well his name actually is Peter, so maybe he can be Peter Pancakes. I don't know. My mind does weird things sometimes."
"Well, the hat's definitely a keeper," Elizabeth said. "Just like the model," she added, gently squeezing her husband's hand. "And a very brave somebody made sure he got out of that warehouse in one piece, so thank you." She moved over to Neal and dropped a little kiss on his cheek. He gave her a slight smile.
Peter smiled for reasons of his own. Neal's eyelids were drooping and his blinking had slowed. "You should relax and try to sleep. We'll take care of the paperwork and get you back to June's in a few hours."
"M'kay." Neal closed his eyes.
Diana made a graceful exit. She gave Peter a hug, a wink, and a tug on his earflaps. With a wave to Elizabeth, she saw herself out. Jones settled into a chair. Peter fell asleep for another impromptu nap, and Elizabeth went to go find out about the transport van.
The consensus was that a gurney with a raised head was the best way to get him home, so Elizabeth called June again and explained. An hour later, a big, sturdy, husky guy in a courier's uniform arrived, juggling a small mountain of warm blankets and clothes. As Peter signed for it, he spotted the guy's name tag.
"Ray, is it? Well, thanks for coming so fast."
"No problem. Happy Holidays."
Jones and the Burkes bundled up for the nasty weather outside, and the orderlies hefted Neal onto the gurney, which Elizabeth had prepared by spreading two blankets over it. As soon as Neal was laid out, she brought the blankets up and over him, and wrapped him snugly from chin to toe. Jones followed the doctor's directions, stuffing a pillow under Neal's injured foot and throwing a heavy quilt over him, and Peter put a plain knit cap on his head. Neal woke up a few minutes later. He looked like he was riding a dogsled pulled by invisible huskies. Fortunately, he was so loaded on pain medication that he didn't care, and he spent the next fifteen minutes smiling like a goofball at whoever happened to lean into his field of vision. At eight o'clock on the dot, Dr. Yuen gave them the nod, and it was time to go. Elizabeth walked on Neal's left, Jones walked on the right, Peter pushed the gurney from the back, and they formed a small honor guard to ferry Neal home. Even though Peter spent most of the evening inside, he didn't take off the pancake hat.
December 25, 2010
"Come on, you're almost there."
"I can't believe I fell asleep during dessert. That's pathetic."
"Well, your body's trying to heal. You need to rest."
"Yeah, because I haven't been doing that for four days," Neal grumbled.
He leaned his elbow crutches against the nightstand and Peter helped him hop the last step to the bed. Neal sat down heavily on the mattress. He'd done his best to make himself presentable for this afternoon, and he'd mostly succeeded. His facial injuries were healing up nicely, and he'd managed to put on a cozy gray sweater, black lounge pants, and one Ferragamo loafer for the occasion ... classy lounge wear that was easy to take off.
June's Christmas dinner was exceptional. Elizabeth, Peter, Mozzie, Jones, Diana and Christie had all shown up, and while Hughes was flattered at the invitation, he was trapped upstate with his large extended family and unable to make it. He sent his regards and regrets, along with one heck of a Christmas present. There weren't any sick days guaranteed in Neal's arrangement with the Bureau, which meant that any recovery time from illness or injury was technically supposed to be tacked onto the end of his sentence. Hughes felt this was profoundly unfair, especially since Neal had stuck his neck out for Peter, so he'd thrown around every ounce of his weight as SAC and got Neal's necessary absence counted as time served.
Neal toasted this good news with sparkling water, slightly envious of the wine at the other place settings. The drink was plentiful and the food was incredible. His appetite wasn't quite back – pain meds and cold medicine had that effect – but he managed about half a plate of excellent turkey and roasted vegetables and gratefully received two other presents, courtesy of everyone at the table. They had all gone in together on two generous gift certificates for him, one for a particular art supply house he was fond of, and one for KnitPunks, which was his favorite website for yarn. He laughed, they smiled, and June used the opportunity to demand a shawl from him as soon as he could manage one. He agreed and thanked them all. After dinner, everyone gathered in the parlor for coffee and pastries. Neal sat down in a wingback chair, propped his foot up on an ottoman, nibbled at a biscuit, took a few sips of his tea, and was lulled to sleep by the gentle murmur of conversation. Peter shook him awake fifteen minutes later and everybody agreed that he should go back to bed.
"You doing your ankle exercises?" Peter asked as he helped Neal out of the sweater, and straightened out the loose white thermal top that Neal wore underneath.
"Every day. My shoulder is getting stronger, too."
"I can see that. You're doing pretty well with the crutches," Peter said happily. "It's really coming along. Just don't stress yourself too much, okay? You're not cleared to go back to work until January."
Peter helped Neal get his left shoe off, and set his right foot on a small pillow. Neal leaned back against the pillows and tried to help grab the blankets that Peter was fussing with. June had decreed that he be kept as warm and comfortable as possible; the bed had been invaded by extra pillows and the comforter was weighed down by two quilts and a throw.
"Well, if I'm not fine by then…"
"I have no doubt that you will be." Peter had been imbibing throughout dinner, which meant it was dangerous to be around Neal right now. Several glasses of fine Prosecco had loosened his tongue. "And I'm glad you're all right, 'cuz I honestly don't know what I would do if you weren't. Speaking of which, I gotta tell ya. You're a hell of a fighter when you put your mind to it. I saw you with those guys, before they finally gotcha. You kicked some ass back there."
Neal considered this, and finally shrugged. "I just did what I had to do. I had to buy us some time."
Peter nodded and brought the blankets up and over Neal. "I know, and I'm grateful for what you did." He sighed. "And … thanks for the hat."
Neal gave him an amused grin that was all teeth. "Aw, Peter, I'm touched. Do you really like it, or did Elizabeth threaten you with starvation if you didn't say something?"
Peter's smile was small and warm and honest. "It's growing on me."
Neal accepted the compliment. "Good. Hey, maybe I'll knit you that matching scarf after all."
"Yeah, hey, maybe I'll strangle you with the matching scarf," Peter said, tucking the blankets around his partner.
"… Maybe I won't knit you a matching scarf," Neal said, allowing himself to be packed in.
Peter snorted, bringing the covers to Neal's chin. "Just promise me one thing, all right? Don't ever try to save my life like that again. You almost gave me a heart attack."
Neal nodded. "It's a deal."
"All right." Satisfied that Neal was tucked in and warm enough, Peter stood. "Merry Christmas, Neal."
"Merry Christmas, Peter."
January 10, 2011
It was 11 AM. Peter, Diana, Jones, and Hughes were gathered in the conference room because a courier had arrived with three packages from a Mr. Neal Caffrey.
Diana took the plunge first. She read the tag: "Thank you for a great Christmas. This is in honor of your favorite sports team." She opened the small box and squealed in delight.
Peter, Jones, and Hughes watched as she put on a truly one-of-a-kind hat. It was done in wonderful grays and whites. Neal had designed it to look like a shark with big black button eyes, a gigantic mouth and a rather tiny body was trying to eat her head. The jaws of the creature were dotted with little knitted white teeth, and they formed the hat's base and ear flaps. The hat rose to a point with the help of some interior stuffing, and the crowning touch was a wibbly-wobbly knitted fish tail. The shark itself was wearing a little red knit cap with a fuzzy pom-pom on it, and "GO SHARKS" was overstitched on the back of the hat in red lettering, across the shark's side.
Jones opened his. "Thank you for a great Christmas. This is in honor of your favorite jam." Inside his package was a hat that looked like the top half of a strawberry, vibrant red with black seeds and knitted green leaves on top. Included in the leaves were two green pom-poms, for extra fuzziness. It was extremely well made, very detailed, and completely ridiculous. He put it on immediately and Diana started laughing at him.
Peter, who'd had some warning before leaving the house today, took out his pancake hat and put it on in a show of solidarity.
That just left a perplexed Reese Hughes, who stared at the wacky creations on the heads of his employees and was a little worried when he opened his package. He put on his reading glasses and had a look at the card. "Thank you for pulling those strings. This is in honor of your favorite mode of transport. I saw the models in your office."
Hughes put his glasses on the table and pulled out the hat. It was white, which conveniently matched his hair, with simple earflaps that trailed down into long tails, ending in white pom-poms. A tag inside the hat said "BACK," so Hughes quickly figured out how to put it on. He faced his subordinates and gave them the dourest look he could manage. They were trying not to laugh.
Coming up diagonally from the back of the hat and heading for Hughes's left eyebrow was a gray strip of overstitched railroad tracks. On either side of the train tracks were two little knitted trees, staggered a good distance from each other, their green tops overstitched with white so they looked like they were covered in snow. The trees were stuffed with bunting to make them stick straight up off the hat and attached to the track in between them was a knitted red engine, also stuffed and 'snow-dusted,' so Hughes's head looked like a snow-covered hill with a little train chugging up over the crest. His subordinates made the mistake of looking at each other, and they couldn't hold it together. Soon everybody was laughing, and when Hughes caught sight of himself in the reflection off the flat screen, he joined them.
"Burke, you've created a monster," Hughes said.
"I don't know," Jones said thoughtfully. "I'm kind of digging the idea of wearing a piece of art."
"You're not seriously considering leaving the house in that thing," Peter warned him. "You'll be laughed out of the country."
Diana was opening the Skype program on her laptop, because their consultant had agreed to telecommute from June's for a week until he was well enough to come back to work. "Oh, we have to show Neal. Come on, guys."
The men grumbled, but it was a mere thirty seconds out of their lives, and Diana eventually used the word "please," so they gave in. And when they showed Neal the hats, the honest joy on his face and his laughter ringing through the laptop's speakers was worth any inconvenience.
"You all look great. And, wait, announcement … I just got the okay to spend some time off the crutches."
"That's terrific," Diana said. "We'll see you here next week, right?"
"Yep, I'll be there on the 18th, bright and early," Neal confirmed.
"I'll pick you up at 7," Peter said, and Neal nodded on the screen.
"I'll be waiting. So, if there's nothing else you all need right now …"
"Nope, we're okay," Diana said. "Just get yourself together, and unless something comes up, we'll see you on Tuesday."
"Sounds good to me. Over and out."
Back in bed at June's, Neal turned off Skype, put the laptop aside, and finally registered the incredible mess of yarn spread out over the comforter. He absently scratched at the stubble on his cheek and looked around at the four different projects he had going.
"Yeah, I can finish this by then," he said to himself. "It'll be fine."
– END –
The reviewer response to this project has blown me away. I would like to thank Neal, Peter and everybody else on White Collar for inspiring it, and all the folks here on FFN who have read and commented on it. Happy Holidays, everybody. See you in 2011.
Peace (on Earth),