I can't believe how long it's been since I wrote one for this cheerful little series… but if anyone out there is still reading, Merry Christmas!
Since it's been so long, I'll remind you that by this episode, Peter and El have Mattie and Rebecca; Neal and Sarah have Raphael. Neal is a free consultant. And it's perfect.
FUTURE PERFECT: BELIEVE
Mattie was five when he started wondering. He didn't want to say anything to anyone, but he wondered nonetheless.
It was a bright May Saturday when he actually asked someone, and he was an old man of six. He knew he didn't want to ask his Mom or Dad, they might get upset. But there was always someone he could ask anything…
Neal Caffrey, FBI consultant, former conman, and father, glanced up from the two three-year olds who were finally asleep on the family room floor and smiled at his godson, speaking quietly. "What's up, sport?"
"I have a question."
Neal looked into the serious brown eyes, so much like his father's when he was worried about something that it was almost scary. "Okay." He adjusted the blanket on the floor over his son and Becca, stood up and motioned toward the kitchen. "I think they're going to be out for a while. How about we talk over some lemonade?"
Mattie nodded. "Yeah…" He walked thoughtfully into the other room, and Neal took a deep breath. The best part of Peter and El being ahead of them as parents was that he had Mattie to practice with, before Raphael got old enough to look that serious. Good grief, he's six. How bad can it be?
In the kitchen Mattie sat at the table while Neal poured them both a drink. They both took a sip. Matt seemed to be hesitating, but Neal knew that determined, concerned look all too well - although he was used to it coming from a few feet higher up. "So. What's the question?" Please not sex, no, it can't be sex, he's six for heaven's sake…
Mattie took another sip, his eyes staying on the glass. Abruptly, his focus went to Neal, and again, the familiar serious expression threw him. Six.
"Is Santa Claus real?"
Neal blinked. Well, I didn't expect that…not in May. But that's Mattie. "Lots of people believe in Santa. Why do you ask?"
"But does Santa bring the presents, or is it all Mom and Dad?"
For a moment, Neal looked away. Belief was a very strong component of being a con man, as was being able to convince people what to believe. He knew that he could easily convince the lad that the storybook Santa was real. He glanced toward the living room, where his own son lay sleeping, and frowned thoughtfully. Do I believe in Santa? Well… And what would Peter want me to say?
Neal thought about last Christmas, when Rafe asked Santa for his first real art supplies, and how happy the boy was when he got them. The sparkle, the joy… the amazingly grateful attitude. The delight in a world that might not always be so kind. He took a deep breath, and looked into his would-be nephew's eyes.
"Well, you're really smart, Matt. You pay attention to details. What do you think?"
Matt sighed a far too adult sigh. He looked away for just a second, then back. "I think it's Mom and Dad."
Neal nodded thoughtfully, took another sip of lemonade. "Well, you're a smart guy. I guess you're growing up. Now you'll really believe in Santa."
Matt frowned. "What do you mean?"
Neal leaned closer to him, speaking quietly. "Don't you see, Matt? The presents… they're the proof. Santa does get the presents."
"But you just said Mom and Dad did…"
"Right." Blue eyes widened with the intensity of his words. "So what does that make Mom and Dad?"
Matt stared for a moment before his eyes widened in return. "They're… Santa?"
Neal slapped him on the shoulder. "Exactly! And when you're old enough to know that, you're old enough to be Santa, too!"
The boy didn't look so much disappointed as curious. "Will I still get presents?"
"Of course you will! It's not that kind of game. It's not a con, it's –"
Mattie put his lemonade down. "So why don't people just say that from the beginning? Why make it so… complicated?"
Neal grinned. "Hey, it is complicated, Mattie. It takes a while to realize that Christmas is about giving, not getting. But real little kids don't understand that, and that's okay. They're so little they need people to take care of them all the time… and they're not old enough, not responsible enough to be something like Santa." Again, the familiar look, deeply thoughtful brown eyes in a face far too young. He leaned close again, speaking quietly. "You want to know a secret?"
Matt nodded seriously.
"I remember what Rafe got for Christmas last year. I remember how excited and happy he was… and I remember that here." He put his hand over his heart. "I know I got some really cool stuff too, and I was grateful to get it… but nothing makes you happier than giving something to someone. And when they don't even know it was you? They think it was Santa?" He grinned. "Even better. You'll be amazed."
"Oh, yeah. You get to go out and find things, or make things for people, and sneak around and keep them hidden and surprise them… you have to pay attention and remember things… it's great. You're going to love it, now that you're grown-up enough to be Santa too."
Neal watched as a grin began to grow on the young boy's face. "Yeah… I know when it's Mom's birthday I like to surprise her… "
Mattie smiled, and then frowned. "There are kids at school who go around telling little kids there's no Santa."
Neal shook his head sadly. "They don't know. And I bet they don't talk about how cool it is to give, do they."
"Yeah. Someone probably told them without giving them the whole story, so they think it's some kind of a con job. It's pretty sad." They nodded, sipping the lemonade together as if were fifteen-year-old brandy. "Which brings me to another point. You have to be really careful around people who aren't grown up enough. And people who just really like to believe."
Mattie looked toward the family room thoughtfully. "Bec and Rafe aren't old enough."
"Nope. Oh, and there's another person you should be really careful around."
Young eyebrows peaked. "Who?"
"Your mom. She's so good at giving that she believes in Santa big time. The idea that everyone does it at Christmastime makes her really, really happy. I think she feels like half the time she's from another planet, and at this time of year… she feels at home."
They both laughed, and Mattie nodded. "Thanks, Uncle Neal."
"Hey, no problem, Matt. You know you can talk to me anytime." He stood and opened a cupboard. "You hungry yet, or should we wait for the kids to wake up?"
"Already?" El's blue eyes were a bit watery. "I hoped it would last longer…" Peter hugged her and rubbed his hands over her back.
"El, it sounds like Neal did a great job talking to him about it. I don't think it'll be a problem."
She sighed. "I guess Becca will believe for a while longer…"
Peter grinned at her, and gave her a kiss. "I love you."
Smiling, she kissed him back, then started abruptly when she glanced at her watch. "Oh! I have to get going."
"Right, Matt's field trip with Uncle Neal. I'm sure they'll have fun at the museum."
"Evidently they're talking renaissance today. Neal is so sweet with him, and such a good teacher." Picking up her purse, she shook her head. "I'm just glad Mattie knew he could talk to someone if he was worried about how we would react. We're very lucky." They kissed again, and she flew out the door.
Peter stood in the kitchen for a few minutes, looking out into the May sunshine. His little boy was growing up. It was bittersweet, but amazing. With a sudden grin, he thought, and so is his uncle.
Half a year later, on a snowy Christmas Eve, two families were enjoying their traditional time together. Four parents sat together in the kitchen, while three children played with their new treasures under the tree. Matthew, now seven, was fussing with his first digital camera. Rafael had spilled out his brand new marker set and was arranging them by which colors were his favorites, and Rebecca paused in her building of a Lego throne for her Barbie to stare at her brother, speaking with faint accusation in her voice.
Just loud enough for the parents to hear as they sat, suddenly very attentively, in the kitchen.
"So if he brings all the presents, how come some people get them the day before?"
Mattie shrugged. "I think they have a deal."
"That doesn't make sense."
"You don't make sense."
The sound of raspberries floated over the Christmas music that was playing softly.
The young lady of the trio turned to Raphael. "What do you think, Rafe?"
"About what?" The markers were nearly perfectly arranged.
"About Santa. Marsha at school says he's fake."
Mattie interjected quietly. "He's not fake."
Raphael Caffrey blinked up at the Burke siblings. Normally, he stayed out of disagreements. It was safer. This time, though, he looked at Matt curiously. Their eyes met for a long moment, and when Rafe lifted his eyebrows, Matt nodded.
While Rebecca and Raphael were great friends, there was still a guy bond between the two boys. Besides, Becca was a girl, and the youngest – by a whopping six months.
Rafe glanced at Becca for a moment, then went back to organizing his markers. "I don't think he's fake. Someone has to bring stuff."
"Yeah, but –"
Mattie sighed, swinging around to look at her through the viewfinder. "It doesn't matter, Bec. Whoever brings the stuff is Santa. So Santa is real, or we wouldn't be getting stuff, right?"
She frowned, just a bit, as she looked at the boys. Then she shrugged, deciding it was more important to make her throne bigger.
On Christmas morning, the Burke family was sitting happily in the family room. Music was playing, the aromas of fresh coffee and hot chocolate mixed with fresh pastry in the air. The children had opened their stockings, and now the family was taking turns opening presents, with many a delighted squeal and lots of laughter.
They had opened almost everything when Becca did her usual crawl under the tree, making sure nothing had been overlooked. "Found one!" She crawled back out holding a tiny box, wrapped in green paper with a little red bow. It was taped onto a square of card stock. Turning it over several times, she shrugged, and then handed it to her father. "That's weird. No name, Daddy. But a note."
Peter took the box from her and frowned. He looked at El and mumbled quietly. "This look familiar?" She shook her head. "Hmh." He turned it over and read the very neat lettering on the card, "for the Mom of the house. Merry Christmas, love, Santa." His eyebrows lifted. "The Mom of the house. Well, then. I guess this is for you, El."
El smiled and kissed his cheek. "Thanks, sweetheart."
Peter shrugged. "It's not from me. It's from Santa." El smiled, but he shook his head, his eyebrows shrugging again.
She frowned with a curious smile, her head tilting a bit. Then she carefully unwrapped and opened the box.
Inside were a pair of delicate earrings, each a hanging filigreed silver leaf with three small pale green beads hanging across them. "Oh, how did - I saw these…" She stared at them, then blinked and looked at her son.
It was actually the day after Neal had let them know about Mattie's question. She couldn't resist going into the museum gift shop while they waited for Neal, and Matt had wandered over to the toys, but came back when he saw her looking at the jewelry. On the counter was a rack of pretty pieces that had been marked down, making room for the new items of the season. She tilted her head thoughtfully at a silver and green pair of earrings. "Oh… these are beautiful. And they'd go perfectly with the new suit I bought for work."
Mattie looked at them thoughtfully. "Yeah. You should get them."
Elizabeth looked at him and smiled. "Well, I would, but I can't really justify it right now..." she sighed. "Of course, by the time I could, they'll probably be gone, since they're on sale."
Matt opened his mouth, then frowned and closed it again. At that moment, a voice behind them spoke. "I thought I'd find you here…"
El turned around and laughed, giving Neal a hug. "Hi, Neal. Thanks again for taking him…"
"It's my pleasure. Really." Neal grinned at Matt and ruffled his hair. "You ready, sport?"
The boy gave a wide grin. "Sure am. See you later, Mom."
El gave her son a hug and kiss. "Be wonderful. And polite. And don't let him buy you anything." She shot Neal a look, and the man gave her a most innocent look.
Mattie spoke with thoughtful reassurance. "Don't worry, Mom. I won't let him buy me anything."
Which was absolutely true.
Her eyes were watering as she looked at her son, remembering that day so many months ago.
Matthew, for his part, was sitting cross-legged on the floor, hiding a smile behind his mug of hot chocolate. He blinked at her in a performance worthy of his uncle. "What did Santa get you, Mom?"
Elizabeth took a deep breath. "He got me the most wonderful earrings. I saw them a long time ago, and liked them so much. I wonder how he knew?"
Mattie shrugged innocently, not able to stop smiling. "Well, you know Santa, Mom. He has eyes everywhere."
The kids were finally in bed. Everything was quiet.
He looked up from his new book on baseball, and blinked at his wife affectionately. "Yes, dear?"
She hesitated. "How did he do it?"
Peter smiled broadly, closing his book and putting it on the end table. "Great story." Leaning forward, he spoke quietly, in case little ears weren't quite asleep yet. "Neal said that after you left the museum that day, he said he wanted to buy you the earrings for Christmas, but he didn't have enough money yet. Neal agreed to buy them and hold them until Matt could afford to buy them."
Her eyes widened. "Really? That was at least five months ago!"
"He saved his allowances, bought them from Neal, and swore him to secrecy, at least until Thanksgiving. I didn't know anything about it until I told Neal I was worried that Christmas might be different for Mattie this year, after the whole Santa thing this summer… and he told me."
El swallowed hard. "He really is growing up."
Peter moved over to the couch and wrapped his arms around her. "I know." He turned to kiss her, and smiled. "It's pretty wonderful, isn't it?"
"It is." They kissed again. "Merry Christmas, sweetheart."
God Bless us, Every One!