A/N: Yes, I know the bromance between Peter and Neal is a bit strained right now on the show, but I've decided it will be fixed LONG before Neal's four year sentence is up :-)
Peter found himself staring at the calendar, his eyes focused on a date three days hence. There was nothing special about the box on the page, of course. It had the number 'twelve' in it, and a line that faded in and out as it wrapped around to form a border.
It was probably supposed to be something very artistic, in keeping with the general theme of the calendar.
It was funny – it wasn't something he'd ever pick for himself. In fact, he'd probably term it artsy-fartsy if he saw it in a store.
Nevertheless, the calendar was hanging in a prominent place on the wall of his office, the current month showing a muted watercolor print of a scene along the Seine. The Eiffel tower rose in the background, pointing toward the clouds in the wavy blue sky. In the foreground, an artist stood before an easel, capturing the tableau on canvas.
No, if he'd had his choice, the calendar hanging on the wall would probably feature his favorite hockey team. Or maybe basketball, or baseball, or football…
But none of those would grace his wall anytime soon, in spite of the calendar's theme. Because this one had been a gift, postmarked from Paris at the end of December. It had come with a letter, detailing a whirlwind tour of Europe, extolling the virtues – and values – of the many and varied museums and galleries visited.
It was the last time he had heard from Neal.
It had been a long few months, marked largely by a period of heavy-hearted withdrawal. After four years of working together, sometimes six or even seven days a week, often for twelve or more hours a day, Neal's absence had left a huge hole in Peter's work life.
And, of course, there was also the personal aspect. Despite the ups and downs they had experienced over those same four years, there was no doubt that Neal had become a big part of Peter's life outside of work as well. Barely a day went by that Elizabeth didn't ask if there had been any word, so the other man had worked his charm on her as well.
Who could have known what four years would bring on that first crisp, cool autumn day when Neal had walked out of the prison door, pulling up his pant leg to show the tracking anklet secured there. Four years of the job, and fun, and sharing a beer, working through distrust issues – just becoming part of each other's lives, in so many ways.
And then, after what seemed like both an eternity and a blink of an eye, it was over. Four years to the day from when Neal first walked out to join him in the fight against white collar crime, the time had come. There was a meeting – there were always meetings – with the FBI, the Department of Justice, and the US Attorney's office all represented. They reviewed the case summary Peter had prepared, and agreed that Neal had met the terms of his release agreement.
'More or less,' a couple of the committee members had said. Well, definitely more in Peter's book, considering all of the times Neal had put his life on the line – including several instances to save Peter or members of his team…
For the final time, Peter had inserted the electronic key into the anklet, watching as the indicator lights winked out. He remembered that Neal had simply stood there for what seemed like a long time, staring at his unencumbered ankle, before finally looking up with a smile. Then there was the obligatory party, a night out for drinks at a local bar. All of the White Collar agents had shown up, and a number of agents from other areas as well. Add in the civilian group including Elizabeth, June, Sara, and several people whose cases Neal had helped solve, and it had been a good turnout.
Mozzie, of course, had insisted that it was all a grand Suit-created conspiracy to… well, Peter never really had understood what the conspiracy was supposed to do.
There had been a quiet dinner the next night, just Peter, Elizabeth, and Neal. They'd talked around the topic all night, until Peter had finally asked about Neal's plans. And the younger man's eyes had seemed focused on a great distance as he smiled and said he was off to become part of the world at large again – the world beyond two miles that he'd been missing from for so long.
And then he was gone.
The postcards had come every few days starting the next week. Neal was in Chicago, Toronto, San Francisco, Honolulu, Tokyo, Hong Kong, St. Petersburg, Warsaw, Berlin, Munich, Oslo, Amsterdam, Geneva, Madrid, London, Paris…
And fortunately, no great crime spree seemed to be following Neal's travel route – and Peter had checked…
But with the letter from Paris, and the Christmas package that came with it, the news had stopped.
And the hole in Peter's life had grown exponentially.
Peter reached into a drawer and pulled out a file, laying the contents out on his desk. An assortment of cards faced him – all of the birthday cards Neal had sent him through the years of their chase, Neal's incarceration, and, of course, their partnership. A record of the years they had shared, one way or another.
In three days it would be his birthday again – and he couldn't quite shake the lump in his throat as he wondered if the nearly six month gap of silence would end.
Or if he would face his first birthday in ten years without a card from Neal Caffrey.
Elizabeth juggled the presentation folders and her laptop as she dug out the keys and opened the door to Burke Premier Events. Even though she had turned over the day to day operations to Yvonne a couple of years ago to return to the art gallery world, there were still times when she needed to take care of business at the shop.
Her hand reached for the light switch, even as she realized her foot had kicked something on the floor. As the lights came on, she set the items in her hands down on a counter and reached for the flyer by her feet.
Classical and Modern Italian Fare
There's love in every dish we serve!
SPECIAL OFFER FOR OUR NEIGHBORS
Reserve a table for that special night!
Receive 50% off your food and drink total.
Just mention code NOVALEEL when you call.
"Wow." Elizabeth picked up her laptop case again and headed for the back office. Rodolfo's was a new eatery that had opened within the last couple of months, and just a couple of blocks away. From word of mouth, it seemed like they had done quite well in establishing a menu full of wonderful Italian fare. Everyone she had heard of who had gone there had raved about the food…
And mentioned that the fine food came with quite a fine price attached.
Still, it was exactly the kind of place that Peter would probably love. And maybe it would even be good enough to take his mind off of Neal for a while.
The truth was, she missed Neal too – but having worked together so closely for so long, she knew Peter felt the younger man's absence even more keenly. And the total silence over the last few months had definitely not made things any easier.
She picked up the phone, dialing the number from the flyer. "Yes, I just got your flyer with the code NOVALEEL, and I was wondering if you have any reservations available for the evening of the twelfth… Yes, it is a special occasion. My husband's birthday… Eight o'clock would be just fine… The last name is Burke… Yes, I'll bring the flyer. Thank you."
Elizabeth hung up and slipped the flyer into her purse. Well, at least she had the dinner part of Peter's birthday taken care of.
Tomorrow was light on meetings, so that would give her time to look for a gift…
Peter took a long lunch and, without conscious thought on his part, he found himself in the park where he had met Mozzie after Neal's second release from prison. The chalk-marked Xs had long ago been washed away, but it wasn't hard to find the bench.
He sat down, closing his eyes, and turning his face up to the spring sun. It was hard to shake the feeling that if he'd just brought the international section of the paper, maybe someone would sit down behind him, ask about mockingbirds…
What the hell color were mockingbirds anyway? He wasn't even sure. Maybe it was something he should look up.
Finally, after what had probably been too long to play hooky, he opened his eyes again, sighed, and stood up. It wasn't a surprise that no one had shown up to meet him – and yet, he couldn't help but feel a little disappointed.
All of Mozzie's various phone numbers that Peter had once had were now disconnected. One by one they had stopped working after Neal left. Even Elizabeth, who had seemed to bond so well – and so somewhat inexplicably – with the quirky man no longer had a way to contact him.
And Peter well remembered the hurt and puzzlement in her voice when she'd made the discovery. Then again, as they'd come to accept after a long talk with lots of wine, Mozzie had only been in their lives because of Neal, and with Neal gone…
On a whim – or maybe as part of a plan he wasn't even really aware of himself – he found his way to Riverside Drive. June was at home, as regal and charming as ever. They exchanged pleasantries over a cup of Italian roast, agreed that the weather was beautiful for the time of year, and talked about how well Samantha was doing following her kidney transplant.
But no, June had not heard from Neal for some time, though she still hoped he would return someday. The guestroom was just as he'd left it, and the maid dusted weekly. They'd aired it out several times in the warming spring weather. So should he return, he had a welcoming place to call home.
In the end, he left her with the same message he'd given several times before. Call if she needed anything, and she promised she would.
With no new answers, but at least feeling somewhat refreshed from being outside for a while, Peter made his way back to the office.
It was a very long day, especially considering how little actual work got done.
Peter found himself studying the bullpen frequently, watching for the mail clerk. They got several deliveries a day, so the clerk could be there at any point. Fortunately, the man was very good at making sure the mail got to the right people. Unfortunately, he was also very social, so his rounds took a while as he stopped to chat here and there, leaving smiles as he went.
It reminded Peter a lot of the way Neal had worked the group…
Jason made three trips through the White Collar unit that day, and each time Peter found himself holding his breath as the deliveries reached his office. But although he received something on each round – mostly inter-departmental material for old and new cases – there was no card.
Several of the agents took him out for a birthday lunch, and Peter made sure to smile and thank them for the gesture. It just would have been easier if they hadn't chosen a restaurant that he and Neal had frequented…
The mail at home that night brought only bills, and a notice telling him that he might have already won one million dollars.
"There's still time," Elizabeth said that night as they went to bed. "You birthday's not until tomorrow."
"Yeah, there's time," Peter agreed. "And he's got to be busy, right? Running around the world, having fun."
Elizabeth snuggled in closer, holding him tight. "He hasn't forgotten about you," she whispered. "He couldn't if he tried."
"Yeah," Peter replied, closing his eyes. And really, it was just a card…
He spent the day puttering around the house, his list of odd jobs laid out on the coffee table. Many of them were simple things – things that normally wouldn't take long at all. With the whole day to work on them, the list should have been nearly completed.
Would have been nearly completed if he could concentrate on what he was doing.
But Peter found himself spending an inordinate amount of time looking out the front window, watching for the mail carrier. And each time he tried to tackle something on the barely-finished third floor, he found himself making frequent trips downstairs, worried that he was missing a knock on the door.
Which was silly, because if Neal actually showed up, he'd just let himself in anyway, right? It's not like any lock in the Burke household would give the man more than a momentary challenge…
In any event, Neal's presence in the Burkes' life had only been a result of the work release plan. Now that he was free of his escape sentence, why would he want to hang around?
Because over the course of four years they had become so much more than convict and handler…
Of course, if they hadn't even heard from him in months, there was no reason to think that Neal would just show up – even if it was Peter's birthday. No, he really needed to stop thinking about things like that.
Still, when the mail finally did come, Peter was waiting outside. Probably scared the mail carrier with his enthusiasm…
There was no card.
In the end, he gave in and settled on the couch, absently flicking through various sporting events on the television. Satchmo kept him company, seeming to enjoy the lazy afternoon. Finally, as the day turned to evening, Peter turned the TV off and climbed the stairs. He showered, and dressed 'nice' as he'd been instructed. He gave Satchmo one more turn out in the backyard, and then it was time to go.
El had made a reservation at a new restaurant they'd talked about trying, and he vowed that he would be pleasant company tonight. After all, he really was the luckiest guy to have a woman like her in his life.
Peter used a piece of garlic bread to wipe up the last bit of sauce on his place, popping the morsel into his mouth with a satisfied sigh. "El, this place is great. Thank you."
"Hmmm, I'm glad you liked it," she replied, sipping her wine. "And with the coupon for dinner, I had plenty of money left for your gifts."
His eyes strayed to the table, smiling at the sight of the Mets-Giants series tickets and the monogrammed money clip. "I didn't realize that places like this did coupons," he said, reaching for his own wine.
"It was a flyer I found at the office," Elizabeth said, reaching into her purse and setting the paper on the table. "I guess they want their neighbors to like them."
Peter glanced at the flyer. Something about the discount code tugged at the back of his mind, but he didn't really have time to think about it as a shadow fell over the table. He looked up to find the entire wait staff gathered around, with their waiter – Tony – sliding a cake onto the table.
"We heard it was your birthday," the waiter said, lighting the single candle. He gestured to the others, who chimed in with a hearty yet refined 'Happy Birthday' before heading back to their own stations.
Tony removed their entrée plates, replacing them with smaller dessert plates and fresh silverware. Then he laid a knife in front of Peter, and pulled an envelope out of his pocket, laying it on the table. "I'll be back in a moment with coffee," he promised, heading away.
"Wow, I didn't know Rodolfo's provided cake too," Elizabeth said. She ran her finger along the base, and then licked the icing off. "Oh, that's good. Make a wish, Peter, and blow out the candle."
Peter watched the flickering flame for a moment, thinking about what he really wished for. Then he puffed out a breath, and the flame dropped to a gentle glow, and then disappeared altogether in a wisp of smoke.
He picked up the envelope, turning it in his fingers. "More presents, El?"
"Not from me. Must be something the restaurant does."
Peter slipped his finger under the flap and pulled it open, extracting the card. The back came out facing him, and as he turned it over…
It was hand-painted in watercolors, a scene from Paris with the Seine River, the Eiffel tower in the background, an artist on the sidewalk…
Peter's head snapped up, his eyes searching the restaurant. At first he didn't see what he had been sure he'd find.
And then, he was there.
Neal stood by the bar, impeccably dressed, as always. The deep charcoal suit he wore almost seemed to blend in with the ebony furniture. But there was no mistaking the smile, or the twinkle in the blue eyes that almost seemed to glow.
Later, Peter realized he wasn't even aware of getting to his feet, or of moving. But somehow they met in the middle, and then his arms wrapped around his friend.
"I can't believe it. You're really here?" he said, almost afraid of not getting an answer.
"I'm here," Neal said quietly. "You didn't really think I'd miss your birthday, did you?"
Peter found he couldn't even reply. But, like so many times, Elizabeth saved him. "He was worried he'd miss getting a card," she said, accepting, and giving, a hug of her own. "Having it delivered in person… it's perfect."
"Yeah, it is," Peter agreed. He took Neal's arm, almost afraid to let him go. "Come on."
They sat down at the table just as Tony arrived with the coffee. And Peter realized he wasn't even surprised that the waiter had three cups.
There were so many things he wanted to say, to ask… "Neal, where the hell have you been?"
Neal laughed, taking a sip of coffee. "That's direct."
"It's been months," Peter pointed out. "And not a word."
"I know," Neal acknowledged. "I just knew that if I was going to make it out there, and not fall back onto the old ways, I had to do it on my own."
"So where have you been?" Elizabeth asked.
"Mostly Paris," Neal replied. "I've been painting, even some original work, if you can believe that." He paused, giving a shake of his head and a smile. "I actually have a gallery show opening next month."
Elizabeth leaned across and hugged him. "Neal, that's fantastic!"
Neal just nodded. "Thanks." He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out an envelope, hesitating just a moment before sliding it across the table. "Happy birthday," he said softly.
Peter reached for the envelope, aware that his hands were shaking. He opened it, extracting two vouchers. "Tickets to Paris?"
Neal nodded again. "If you'd like to come," he said.
And Peter wondered if he was the only one who caught the uncharacteristic hesitation in Neal's voice, as if unsure of where he stood.
"Oh, Neal, we'd love to." Elizabeth reached for her husband's hand. "Honey?"
"Original work from Neal Caffrey? I wouldn't miss it," Peter said.
And then, finally, the full Caffrey smile appeared…
"It'll be great to have you there," Neal said, a full level of confidence back in his voice. "A friendly face if the show totally flops."
Elizabeth slapped at his hand playfully. "Oh, as if!"
"So is that your plan now?" Peter asked. "Stay in Paris, try to succeed as a struggling artist?"
Neal smiled again and shook his head. "No, this was just to prove to myself that I could do it. I'm not really all that wild about the whole starving, struggling artist thing."
Peter found he was almost afraid to ask the question that came to mind. "So what are you going to do? Any chance you'll come back here?"
"Remember Stuart Gless?"
"Sure, you forged his un-forgeable bond."
Neal gave that a shrug and a slightly-embarrassed – or maybe slightly-proud – half nod of acknowledgement. "I also saved his daughter's life," he pointed out. "Which seems to have earned me a few points. He's offered me a job in Atlantic's internal security department."
"So will you be moving back to New York?" Elizabeth asked.
Neal nodded. "That's the plan, though I'll be traveling some. I called June today when my flight got in. She's offered me the apartment again – at the same rate as before." He paused, shaking his head and smiling. "I told her I could pay market rate."
"Renting you that room was never about the money for her," Peter pointed out.
"Yeah, I know," Neal said. "I've missed her too."
"Well, if it doesn't work out at Atlantic, the FBI can always use a consultant with… special skills," Peter said.
"Paying market rate this time?" Neal asked.
Peter grinned, well aware of how much Neal's skills could earn on the open market, even in legitimate pursuits. "I imagine we'd have to."
Neal's grin was immediate and warm in reply. "I might be able to find some time to consult on a freelance basis."
"I'll talk to Hughes," Peter said. And he hoped no one in the restaurant knew how much he wanted to whoop for joy like a kid at the prospect of working with Neal again…
"So what are your plans now?" Elizabeth asked. "Are you staying?"
Neal nodded. "For a few days anyway. I want to catch up with some people, arrange a few things with Stuart. Then I'll be going back to Paris to get ready for the show..."
They talked until late into the night, falling back into the easy pattern that had defined the best of times between them. And really, the months that had separated them now seemed like no time at all
The restaurant closed, the cleaning crew came in, the lights were dimmed…
They finally took the hint, standing to leave. And with a promise from Neal to come for dinner the next day, it wasn't really that hard to do.
Some generous tips from Neal even seemed to mollify the remaining staff, making their late night less onerous.
Elizabeth had the remnants of the cake in her hands as she stood chatting with Neal, laughing now at something he said. And Peter had to smile when he realized the box was from The Greatest Cake – Neal had set things up well.
As he reached for his gifts, Peter's eyes fell on the discount flyer – and suddenly he knew what had attracted his attention about the code before. NOVALEEL…
Yes, Neal really had set the whole thing up very well.
The birthday card was the last thing he picked up, smiling as he put it carefully back into the envelope. It would soon take its place in the file with the others, reminders of the long and varied history he shared with the enigma that was Neal Caffrey.
One arm around El's shoulders, and the other around the shoulders of his best friend, Peter steered them toward the door. "Best birthday ever," he said quietly as they walked out into the crisp, clear night.
NB: Happy Birthday to Tim DeKay, June 12!