"Love is not consolation. It is light." Fredrich Nietzsche
Peter Burke had the whole day planned out. After work, he was going to rush home and fill the house with candles. Long, thin candles that fit neatly into candelabras and short, fat ones that gave off the subtle smell of vanilla – El's favorite scent. Mario's, the most exclusive restaurant in the city with a reservation list for Valentine's Day filled out two years in advance, had a bus boy that owed him a favor, and the kid had promised to bring over the food at five o'clock precisely, so that Peter could have everything laid out on the good china by the time Elizabeth walked through the door.
Add a little of the right music, and it could be the best night in a long, long time.
The thought of the evening kept a smile on his face for the whole day, a mercifully slow crime day where his team spent most of their time filling out mountains of paper work and discussing their plans for the night.
"I got a reservation at Luigi's. Not exactly original, but I don't think the night will be a loss." Jones said, slapping Neal on the back. "What are you doing, pretty boy? You must have girls falling at your feet."
"You would think." Neal said with a little laugh. "But I really want to know about Diana's night. Is your special someone going to sweep you off your feet?"
"She'd better." Diana vowed, breezing by the boys on her way to drop the paperwork on the front desk. "Or she'll have a bigger problem than not scoring tonight." This answer made Neal and Jones roll with laughter.
The work day passed by quickly, and everyone begged off by four o'clock, rushing home to be a part of the most romantic day of the year. Peter and Neal left the office together, pulling on coats as they walked into the elevator.
"Have a good night, Peter, you deserve it." Neal said as they got to the parking bay. He started walking away, collar flipped up against the cold.
"Neal, I can drive you to June's. It's right on the way." Peter said, more than ready to get home but knowing that walking the couple of miles in the brutally cold weather would not be fun for the ex-con.
"I got someplace else to go first." Neal said, turning at the door and waving his goodbye. "Thanks, though."
"No problem. See you tomorrow."
Peter left, passing by Neal as the younger man struggled forward against the harsh wind, not knowing that the next time he'd see Neal would be in three hours, in a puddle of his own blood. Proof that crime never sleeps, not even on the day of love.
El's shock voice was worth every one of the problems he'd had. Peter hadn't anticipated the sheer time it would take to light ninety candles, and by the time he'd finished he'd had to break out the fire extinguisher. And then the kid from Mario's had arrived, breathless, closer to six than five, apologizing and saying something about a shooting at a store, that the police had closed off the street and traffic was horrendous, but Peter had ignored this and taken the food, giving the kid a twenty for his pains and telling him to go find a girl, because working at a restaurant that catered to couples on Valentine's Day must not be fun at all.
It had taken him five frantic minutes to arrange the food onto two plates, and he was just throwing away the Styrofoam boxes when he heard the scrape of El's key in the door. Perfect.
As his wife walked in and took in the candles, the soft music, the good china and their best tablecloth with a vase of roses placed exactly in the middle, her whole body betrayed her surprise. "Peter!" She threw her arms around him and kissed him, hard.
He returned the sentiment and gestured at the table. "So you like it?"
"I love it. Oh, Peter, I'm so glad we're staying in tonight, I'm only late because they closed off one of the main boulevards…can you imagine trying to get to a reservation with all that traffic?"
"I didn't want to share you with anybody." Not even strangers with their own dates. Tonight, El was all his.
He almost didn't even look at the screen of the phone when it rang, almost just turned the whole thing off, too hell with it all, he was having this night off with his wife, to try to make up for all those dates he'd had to reschedule because work got in the way.
But the name that flashed on the screen made him groan and hold up one finger to El. She frowned slightly and he shook his head. "One second, I swear, and then I'm turning it off."
"You'd better, or I'm throwing it out the window." But El took the time to shrug off her coat and put down her purse before looking at the food and smiling. She knew that her husband didn't make this – she doubted Peter knew where they kept the pans – but it was the thought that counts.
Peter turned away, flipping open the phone and hissing into it, "Neal, this had better be good."
"Is this Special Agent Peter Burke?" A strange male voice asked, and Peter's whole body tensed, a thousand scenarios running through his head.
"Is Neal alright?" He held up a hand to El, who turned her shocked face to him, begging her for another minute.
"Sir, I think you should come down here."
It was that street that had been closed off, the one that both El and the delivery boy had mentioned, the one that was interrupting everyone's Valentine's Day. Peter groaned when he got close enough to see what had actually been the target of the violence. A Hallmark store. If you were a guy looking to cause some mayhem, what better place to hit than a Hallmark store on Valentine's Day?
There were cop cars and ambulances and a DO NOT CROSS line that had surprisingly few spectators gathered around it. Peter assumed that most people had better things to do today that gawk at somebody else's bad luck.
He flashed his badge without really even thinking, craning his neck to look for the man he'd come here to see. He waved away an officer and jogged over to the body of a man on a stretcher, about to be loaded into an ambulance. "Neal!"
The heart that pounded hard in his chest surprised and terrified him. When had Neal become so important to him? At what point did Neal stop being an ex-con but a colleague, a partner, a friend?
"Sir, we need to get him into the ambulance." A young EMT said, and Peter glared at this kid, maybe nineteen, twenty, obviously a rookie who'd drawn the short straw to have to work on Valentine's Day. The guy withered under his gaze.
"Neal!" Peter leaned forward, noticing for the first time that Neal was missing his warm overcoat, was clad only in his thin suit jacket. "Will somebody get him a blanket? It's twenty degrees out here!" And Neal was shivering so violently…but maybe that was for the best. Maybe the cold would distract him from the pain, and maybe the freezing temperatures would keep him away from the dangers of shock. The dangers that accompanied a bullet wound to the chest.
"Oh, Neal." Without thinking, Peter ran his hands over Neal's face, his hair, trying to comfort without causing more pain. "You'll be okay. It's going to be okay." But the blood that was pooling on the stretcher told a different story, and Peter looked desperately around for the EMTs that had been there a moment ago. But they'd gone back into the store, hauling out more casualties, people whose lives had been changed because they wanted to get something for a special someone. Because they wanted to show that they cared.
"What happened?" Neal's eyelids slipped and Peter hit his face lightly, than harder. "C'mon, don't fall to sleep on me. You know the rules. Tell me what happened or I'm sending your ass back to Riker's."
"Like you would do that to a guy who's bleeding out." Neal said weakly, calling Peter's bluff even with a bullet in his body. Peter smiled at this defiance, bringing a hand up to his face before the tears could even accumulate in his eyes. He wasn't going to cry. He didn't deserve to cry.
"Here." He took off the heavy coat El had made sure he wore, tucking it around Neal's smaller body and saying before the con could even begin to protest. "Hey! I'm not losing my best man over this. You're taking my coat, Neal. What happened to yours?"
"The woman…she was so excited. Said she knew her boyfriend was going to propose…but she needed a card for him. Something special. I helped her pick it out." Every word was causing Neal pain, Peter could see it all over the man's face, but at least he was still conscious and lucid. "Her name was Ginny. The bullet hit her right near her heart."
Tears welled up in Neal's eyes, and unlike Peter he couldn't push them away with his hand strapped to the stretcher. So they fell, leaving freezing paths on his cheeks. Aw hell. "I took off my coat and put it around her as the guy…the shooter...he was all over the store…just kept shooting at people…innocent people…Ginny's blood went right through the coat. She was looking at me as she…" More tears, and Peter could see the struggle as Neal tried desperately to stop crying, but his voice hitched and the moan that came after the words was half emotional anguish and half physical pain.
"Shh…Neal, you'll be alright. The EMTs are just…" Peter looked over and saw the kid, that nineteen or twenty year old who'd pulled the short straw, bent over an equally young man, trying to restart his heart. Right now, he was all Neal had.
"I didn't think he'd shoot me, or I would have…but I couldn't move, 'cause she was dead in my lap, and she'd been alive right before, about to be engaged to Tom. Tom was her boyfriend, you know."
"Really?" Peter said, relieved that his voice came out smooth and calm. He was Peter Burke, the man who never lost his head in a crisis, not even when a man he'd come to love was dying on the cold, unforgiving streets of New York on Valentine's Day. "How'd you get shot?"
"He just came over and shot me. And it hurt so much. How come no one ever mentions that getting shot hurts?" Neal paused, thought, "It doesn't hurt anymore. Nothing hurts anymore." Neal locked eyes with Peter, brilliant blue orbs against a stark white face. "Am I dying, Pete? Would you tell me if I was?"
"You're not going to die." An order, a command, to Neal and to Death that was hovering nearby, scythe in hand, already taking so many of the other customers unlucky enough to walk into this particular store. "It'll be okay."
"If I die, Peter, you'll have to give June her flowers. I got them for Valentine's Day. I was going to make her dinner, too. She gets lonely sometimes." The fact that the stutter, the pain, was gone from Neal's voice didn't make Peter feel any more confident. Was his friend slipping into the last stages of life, when even pain ceased to matter?
"You'll give her the flowers, Neal, because you're not dying."
"And Elizabeth…" Neal continued, as if he didn't hear Peter, "The wine is for her. In the bag. She'll like it, I know. She's always been so nice to me."
"She'll love it." Peter asserted, one hand hovering over Neal's chest, the other cupped under his head, desperately hanging on. He wasn't even denying the tears now, which slipped down his face unchecked.
"The book is for Mozzie. I was just getting stuff for the girls but I saw it and he'll like it. But he doesn't like Valentine's Day, so give it to him later…" Neal's voice was getting softer and softer, his eyelids slipping again.
"Neal, shh…just be quiet now, you have to conserve your strength." The cold didn't matter, the wind didn't matter, the siren wailing in the background, harsh and piercing, didn't matter. Only this man, this good man, on the stretcher in front of him, face white, lips blue, eyes unfocused…and Peter realized with a jolt that love, the reason for this whole day, wasn't just for his wife. He loved Neal and his quiet humor and easy confidence and obvious, boyish good looks that got him into such trouble. Loved Neal for his even temper and rational thinking and puppy-like willingness to follow wherever Peter went. He loved Neal Caffrey.
And it was ironic, and so, so sad, that as soon as he would realize this when Neal had a bullet in his chest.
"I didn't get anything for you, Peter. I'm sorry. But you should know that...these last few years have been the best of my…my entire life…" Neal's voice trailed off at the end, and his face became soft and slack as he drifted into unconsciousness.
Wherever he was running now, Peter would not be able to catch him this time.
The EMTs lifted Neal into the ambulance, ripping back Peter's coat to get to the gunshot wound and the blood that bloomed like magic across Neal's chest.
And Peter was left on the cold sidewalk of NYC with roses in his hands that were the exact same color as the blood.
We hope everyone out there tells the people they love that you do love them. Not just your boyfriend or girlfriend, but your friends and colleagues and teachers and everyone. Because even on Valentine's Day shit happens. And sometimes you don't get a chance to say "I love you."
So, on that note, happy Valentine's Day.