The usual disclaimer: I own nothing about White Collar.

Peter Burke swore as he chased the seemingly harmless old man down the short hallway. Well, he knew the guy wasn't completely harmless; despite the grandfatherly appearance the old coot had been happily ripping off the federal government and his fellow senior citizens with a complicated Medicare scam. The take down should have been easy. Instead the old boy had produced a handgun, shoved Neal right into Peter and ran to the door with surprising quickness. By the time he had untangled Neal from his legs, the old man went through the door and locked it.

It had taken Neal a second to pick it; Peter barked orders to Diana and Jones in the van over the radio. "Jones, Diana, he's running; cover the back. Neal, watch the other door across the hallway." It was a perfect place for ambush. As he gave chase, Peter got a glimpse of Neal moving closer to the door; soon he swearing and uncharacteristically fumbling with picking that lock. Naturally, Neal wouldn't stay where he was supposed to. Dammit. A quick last look confirmed that Neal was still struggling with the door so it probably hadn't been opened for a long time, if the condition of the building was any clue.

Peter ordered backup to Neal's position, immediately. The way this case had gone, who knew for sure.

Ahead of him, the old man burst through the back door into the swirling snow and wind. Damn, he'd better not have a car waiting! Peter would never hear the end of it at the Bureau; how a seventy four year old man had escaped. He could hear Ruiz now. Besides, it was Christmas Eve; he really wanted to get home early tonight. A blizzard coming in; the best place to be was home with wife and dog.

The old man was finally slowing, a hand pressed to his side when Peter yelled, "Don't make this any worse than you already have. Stop now!"

Gasping for air, the man turned, throwing the pistol down into the snow, his face red and sweaty. "Don't shoot," he said a in phlegmy, quavering voice, raising his hands.

Peter, the snow and wind stinging his face and blowing into his eyes, slowed to a stop. Last thing he needed was a lot of bad press about an FBI agent running an old man to his death on Christmas Eve.

"I've got him, back alley," he said into his radio while motioning the old man closer.

The old man stepped forward a pace, then his eyes widened in fear. "No, no, I wasn't going to tell-"

Before he got to the second no, Peter whirled. Behind him stood a well-dressed man with a goatee and a very large handgun which he fired with a smile.

Peter snapped off a shot, hitting the man in the shoulder. But his first shot hit Peter in the chest, and then a second hit his leg. Peter fired again but the goatee man was quicker and more accurate. He felt a tremendous kick in the side.

Pain, sharp and gut twisting, unlike anything Peter had ever experienced before, swamped him. The cement was cold, wet, hard and unforgiving and he didn't even remember falling. He struggled to raise his head to see his assailant…..

What the hell was Neal doing, tackling an armed perp?

Before he could point out Neal's idiocy, the remorseless pain overwhelmed him. He was dimly aware of Neal screaming his name and from somewhere, Diana appeared at his side on her knees and she started yelling at him. Then everything slid to black.

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Suddenly he was here.

No idea where here was, except for a hospital emergency room. How he got here he had no idea. But damn, people were still yelling.

Nurses moved around, doctors – what, more than one? Phrases flew around. He's crashing. We're losing him. Somebody jostled him and the pain struck again; if he'd had the strength he could have cried out. Or cussed out the bastard who bumped him. But pain took every single ounce of his energy and his will. Pain overrode his defenses and suddenly he had to escape, to leave. It was just too damn much. He flew to the darkness.

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When he opened his eyes again, he was in a waiting room. Comfortable chairs and carpet but despite the efforts, still an impersonal atmosphere. A private room. A short, somebody was going to get some bad news.

With a start, Peter noticed the three occupants were Neal, Diana and Jones.

He didn't need his FBI training to notice the tense hostility of the atmosphere. Diana was standing in a corner, glowering and oh so angry. Peter knew that mood well. That always meant serious trouble for somebody.

Clinton Jones sat by the door, hands folded in front of him and a strange look in his eyes. Outwardly calm, but his eyes glistened with anger and …. fear?

And then there was Neal.

Neal was pacing, like a caged tiger. He was also a rumpled mess. Taking a closer look, Peter could see the young man was on the edge of hysteria. Alarm bells went off in Peter's head just looking at him. This was trouble. He needed to fix this fast.

Then, he noticed something he hadn't before because of Neal and Jones' dark suits. But Diana had blood all over her grey pant suit. So did Neal and Jones. A lot of it.

Peter felt a surge of raw anger. What the hell? His team was in a shootout and nobody called him? He would have somebody's ass for this.

It was instantly clear that Neal and Diana were fighting, bitterly. Peter could see they were both emotionally overwrought and saying the most hurtful things they could think of.

Diana lashed out. "Any other time you go chasing after Peter whether you're supposed to or not. Now, this is the time you stay put?"

Neal was equally hostile; actually shouting. "I followed orders! Peter asked me to check the door and I did! You two were too far away; you must have parked the van in the next borough!"

Peter was about to intervene when Jones spoke up. "Look, we had bad intel. Nobody, not even Peter, knew Vince DePaul of the Sarasota gang was involved in this. "

Neal flung himself down on the short couch. "So we go pay Ruiz a visit?"

"Damn straight. But I'll go; I don't need any hotheads coming along screwing things up."

That earned him hostile glares from both Neal and Diana. Peter was aghast; what had happened to his team? They were way too professional for this kind of crap.

Diana sat down on the couch, but kept a distance away from Caffrey, who gave her an inscrutable, insolent look, one calculated to goad Diana into another round.

Peter frowned; this wasn't right at all. He had to get Diana calmed down right away. And Neal? Times like this is when Neal acted like an idiot and caused huge headaches and even larger piles of paperwork. This had to stop, right now.

First, he had to stop Diana from killing their CI, so he sat down, squeezed in between them on the couch and told them to knock it off.

To his surprise and mystification, neither one listened or even acknowledged him.

Diana angrily talked right on through him; Peter couldn't recall a time that had ever happened – and Neal continued that strange mix of anguish and insolence. Jones looked right at Peter but said nothing.

Peter scowled; this was going to stop right now. How could they ignore him when he was right…

But he wasn't. No wonder he could fit on the small couch. He didn't exist.

The door opened and Reese Hughes walked in with Elizabeth Burke. Peter's heart constricted; his darling El looked shell shocked and so very frightened.

Neal and Diana jumped up; their harsh words instantly stilled. But nobody knew what to say. An awkward silence ensued. Hughes indicated the couch and Elizabeth sat down but Peter knew by her expression she could have cared less if she stood or sat. He last saw that look when her Aunt Alice, a childhood favorite, passed away.

"What happened?" El asked, dread in her voice.

They looked at each other, nobody wanting to be the first to speak so Hughes started but Elizabeth cut him off. "Please, Reece, I'd like to hear it from them."

Neal could not meet her eyes. Diana gave him a glare. "Neal and Peter were going to arrest an old man for Medicare fraud." Her voice softening, she added, "Routine case, that's what we thought."

Summoning his courage, Neal spoke in a soft, stricken voice. "Peter gave chase when the old man pulled a gun. Told me to check the door across the hall; we thought we'd heard somebody in there earlier. I had some trouble with the lock; it was so rusted the picks weren't working. I should have just left it; there was nobody in there. " Neal gave vent to a bitter laugh. "The one time I actually followed orders and this is what happens!" His voice unsteady, Neal shrugged, trying to maintain the façade. "I went to find Peter but before I got there I heard gunfire. Several shots. I went outside and found Peter laying there, the old man nearby, shot in the stomach and some thug in a bad suit running off. He was wounded though and I tackled him. Then Diana arrived and right afterwards, Jones."

"Yeah," Jones added gloomily. "We got all the bad guys, but the price was way too high, man. Way too high." Clearing his throat, he addressed Hughes in an undertone while Diana touched Elizabeth's shoulder in support. "They told us about ten minutes ago the old man didn't make it. But Vincent DePaul will recover just fine."

Hughes grunted. "How nice." The wintry look in his eyes grew colder.

Peter had heard enough. Suddenly it came back to him; the pain, the cold, the sickening sense of surprise and dread when he'd heard that gun being cocked behind him. He needed to get back. He should get back. But how?

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He was wandering, lost in a heavy fog. He heard voices; he didn't recognize them but they were still barking out orders about pressure and bleeding and a bunch of terms he only vaguely recognized but couldn't tell you the definition. That way was dark and threatening and …. painful. That awful, mind tearing pain lurked in the darkness and instinctively he shied away.

Suddenly a soft, wet nose touched his hand. Looking down, he was astonished to see Scout, his best friend from boyhood, back with him, the way he was in his prime before arthritis and old age ravaged him. Scout, half golden retriever and maybe half lab, was the greatest friend a boy could have growing up in upstate New York. He loved that dog more than the one girlfriend he'd had back then. Scout had a truer soul, at any rate.

Scout nuzzled him again; inviting him to go on a hike, just like they used to. He frowned; he should go the dark way; duty lay in that direction and honoring the code. But…. Scout was here and who knew when he would have a chance like this again. It was all so confusing. Feeling guilty, he nevertheless left with his best friend.

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He stood by the water cooler in the FBI White Collar bullpen. Members of the Harvard crew hustled by, their manner harried and their faces tense. Hmm, must be a hot case handed down by the brass. But when he glanced up to his office, there was a different man inside.

Ben Gathers. In MY office. What the hell?

Gathers was a professional butt kisser who always managed to look good to the brass but was, in reality, a lousy agent and a worse supervisor who thought you got results by bullying people. He scowled; he knew things were not as good as they once were in the Bureau but Gathers in White Collar was surely somebody's idea of a sick joke.

Then he spotted Diana and Jones standing by her desk, Jones watching as she packed up her stuff. "Back to DC, huh?" Jones asked.

Diana smiled but it didn't come close to lighting her eyes. "Agent Gathers doesn't want Peter Burke's 'co-conspirator' hanging around, inciting the Harvard crew to remember the good old days when we actually used to catch bad guys."

Jones shook his head. "I remember when those days. When we had that high conviction rate. Plus, we had fun, dammit. We nailed the bad guys and we did it with style. Caffrey saw to that. Now we do it with memos. If we catch anyone at all. Conviction rate is down to fifty five percent now."

Diana gave him a sidelong look. "So, what's next for Clinton Jones?"

Jones shrugged. "Unsurprisingly, I'm not all that popular with our new boss either. I'm waiting to hear about that transfer to the Boston office."

Diana frowned. "Boston? But that's a step down for you."

Jones snorted with a quiet laugh. "So's DC for you. You see, I have my sources." His expression turning serious, he added, "It isn't right what they're doing to you. They're trying to make Peter sound like he was an out of control maverick, with no regard for the rules." At Diana's pointed look, Jones subsided. "Yeah, Peter did play it pretty fast and loose toward the end but his memory's being smeared now and a damn fine team is being broken up. It stinks."

"It was that idiot Caffrey," Diana muttered. "He kept luring Peter into taking more and more chances."

Jones smiled. "He appealed to Peter's weakness all right; he and that little geeky friend of his. But Peter wasn't the type to let people lead him around by the nose. I think he knew things had gotten out of hand; he tried to put a cap on it after he returned with Caffrey from his island sojourn. But now, especially to paper pushers like Gathers, everything connected with Burke is toxic."

Diana scrubbed a hand over her eyes. "I guess. But Peter deserved better than being ambushed by a low rent mob guy with a Medicare fraud scheme." Her eyes distant and bleak, she added, "I will never forget that day."

"I won't either. The day everything went to hell." Jones gazed around until he saw Agent Gathers glaring at him from Peter's, er, Gathers' office. "Tell you what; let's go out and have some drinks tonight. Remember the good old days."

Her eyes shiny, Diana nodded. "Yeah. The good old days."

Peter watched, his eyes stinging as his two best agents made plans to say their goodbyes. Glancing around, he saw it must be Christmas time but the only decoration was that ugly ceramic tree Janice had made in her class, sitting on her desk. Gathers came out of the office, down the steps and casually swung a hand out and knocked the tree off Janice's desk. It shattered in numerous pieces. He sauntered on by, tossing over his shoulder, "I warned you about holiday displays in the Bureau. If I let one person have one, then everybody and his dog has to have decorations for their respective religions. This is a workplace, not a festival."

Janice bent down to start picking up the pieces. She muttered, "It was only a Christmas tree, you jerk."

Gathers either didn't hear or didn't bother but headed for the elevators. Everyone had stopped; heads turned, mouths opened – and shut. Diana and Jones exchanged bitter looks and went back to what they were doing. In short, the place had as much life as a party crashed by your in laws. Peter glanced up at Hughes' office but ominously, there was a new man in there as well. He glanced up at the commotion, looked bored and went back to talking on the phone.

A dreadful thought struck Peter. "Hey," he said to Scout, who was looking very disinterested in the whole thing. "You're not the ghost of Christmas past, are you? Or Christmas future?" Suddenly Scout took off; Peter tried to follow in the heavy mist. "Hey, just for the record, I am NOT Scrooge!"

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Everyone was silent in the waiting room when a young doctor walked in wearing scrubs. His expression was weary. "Are you here for Agent Peter Burke?"

Peter, who had lost Scout in the mist, wanted to jump up and say hey, I'm right here but he'd tried that countless times with Elizabeth already with no response. He stood in the corner unnoticed by all.

Reese Hughes placed his arm around Elizabeth's shoulders. "Yes, we are. This is Mrs. Burke, Agent Burke's wife. And these," his nod encompassed Neal, Jones and Diana, "are members of Agent Burke's team."

The Doctor swallowed and moved forward to Elizabeth. In a gentle voice, he said, "I'm sorry; we couldn't save him."

Neal suddenly reeled away; Diana looked broken and disbelieving. Jones stood there with a stunned expression on his face. Hughes squeezed El's shoulders but she remained dry eyed. In a brittle voice, she asked, "Why?"

The Doctor cleared his throat. "I'm sorry?"

"Why couldn't you save him?" Elizabeth asked a flat, dry voice.

Hughes tried to intercede but the Doctor waved him off. "He simply had too much damage and lost too much blood, Mrs. Burke. We did everything we could possibly do and then some. "

Unseen, Peter watched, panic stricken and dumbfounded. He was here but he was dead? And why did he feel so guilty?

Neal refused to look at anyone, continuing to face the wall. Peter knew he would run if he could get to the door. Diana had also turned away, hands to her face and shoulders hunched. Peter wasn't sure if she was crying or not. Jones stayed beside Elizabeth, Hughes on her other side.

Thanks, Clinton.

Elizabeth continued to stare at the Doctor. Her eyes reflected complete devastation and emptiness. Peter knew Elizabeth would soldier on, get through the funeral and then collapse when she thought no one was looking. Her expression tore at Peter's soul. God, he should be there. But he was there. Or here. Or whatever. Why was this happening?

He couldn't let this happen. He had to take care of this.

Suddenly he was back in that hated room, standing (or hovering as it were) over a bloody, mutilated body he just knew was his under the surgical wraps. For a moment, he balked. He couldn't do this. He just couldn't take it. It was just too much.

God, and Elizabeth, forgive him.

He fled.

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"Please sir, can I have some more?"

He couldn't find Scout again; that heart rending sense of loss and grief was back, much as it was when he was sixteen. He really didn't know where he was; whatever, it was a cold, impersonal place full of tension and desperation.

Oh, wait a minute. He knew this. Supermax.

The visitor's room came into focus and at the table sat Neal Caffrey. Neal had a cup in his hands, totally against regulations of course and it was empty. "Please, sir, may I have some more?" He addressed the guard.

Peter came close to rolling his eyes. Seriously, first ghosts of Christmas and now more of Charles Dickens? What, were we going to go through the entire catalogue here?

The guard came closer, his face unexpectedly kind, given his occupation and Neal's position. "Sure Caffrey, I'll get you some more water. Just as soon as your visitor arrives."

Neal was looking alarmingly thin, Peter was startled to see. Moving closer, he noticed Neal looked awful; dark circles under his eyes, his hair dull and unwashed. He was unshaven; truly unshaven, not that scraggly look Neal favored in better times. His eyes were bloodshot and there was a marked tremor in his hands. Peter was stunned; it was like this after Kate's death but this was much, much worse. Almost involuntarily, he stepped closer still.

To his shock, Neal raised his eyes, looking directly at Peter. He felt a thrill of hope; could it be that Neal sensed him in the room? Or even saw him?

When he was about to speak, Neal suddenly shook his head and looked down at the table. "God, I know you must hate me, Peter but I wish you'd quit haunting me," he said softly.

"I don't hate you!" Peter exclaimed but neither Neal nor the guard reacted.

Another guard entered. "I'm sorry Caffrey but your visitor has missed his time and hasn't shown up yet. We need the room so you'll have to go back now."

"Okay," Neal said without interest. Laboriously, he stood up; the first guard steadied him so he could turn away from the table. Peter watched, aghast and appalled as Neal shuffled away.

The first guard handed him off to someone named 'Bobby' and Neal left. Guard number two frowned sympathically after him. "Wow, he's no threat anymore. When I first got here he waltzed out under everybody's noses. What happened?"

Guard number one sighed. "He's had some bad breaks and made some bad choices. He worked with a Fed for a while; same agent who caught him the first time. Guess they were a helluva team. But the agent got gunned down by mob guy while on a case; Caffrey was with him. Some new jerk took over at the Bureau and was going to try and pin some of the blame on Caffrey, who promptly panicked and ran. Made it down to Miami airport but he tried to make a leap from one baggage train to another. He missed, hit the tarmac with his head and hasn't been right since."

"That sucks. So how long is he here for this time?"

"Well, the Feds couldn't prove anything on the first Fed's death but he violated parole – again, from what I heard. He's got another ten years to go; with good behavior he'll be out in six."

The second guard looked pensive. "What then?"

The first guard shrugged. "Who knows?"

Peter listened with a stricken soul. Damn, Neal. Naturally he'd take off like a bird – and fly into the first pole he saw. He tried to follow Neal, still being partially convinced that Neal saw him but the steel doors shut him out as securely as they kept Neal in. If he could, he would have pounded his fists on the doors. Damn it, Neal. It became a litany in his head. Peter milled around a bit, tried to find a way in but suddenly everything disappeared.

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He stood at the bottom of an ornate staircase and suddenly felt very aggrieved. Oh come on, Peter said aloud, at least aloud to himself. June Ellington manages very well with me, thank you. We are really getting carried away with this weight of the universe business.

There was a crash upstairs and the sound of people running, more crashes and then an ominous thud. Peter tensed and reflexively reached for a gun that was not there. The Christmas tree nearby lay on its side, broken ornaments and scattered tinsel leaving a debris field behind.

It was out of the corner of his eye he noticed June lying behind one of her chairs in the living room, unmoving.

"Oh no!" He raced over to check her pulse but of course, ended up reaching right through her. "This being dead crap is really getting on my nerves," he muttered. To his relief, June was alive but profusely bleeding from a head wound; it looked like she was struck by a gun butt.

Before he could do anything else however, the sound of people coming down stairs distracted him. Instinctively Peter moved to hide and then sheepishly realized they couldn't see him anyway.

As he expected, four guys marched Mozzie down the stairs, a gun at his head.

"Really, I think we can work this out without violence," Mozzie said desperately.

"Only if you have that Monet that Mr. Spelling wants back. Even then we'd have to teach you a lesson," the thug with the gun advised. "Mr. Cletus Spelling does not approve of free-lance smash and grab artists breaking into his mansion and helping themselves to his art collection."

As Peter's interest perked up, Moz hung his head in defeat. "How did you find me? That's been so long ago. And I was never a smash and grab guy," he added with pathetic defiance.

"Mr. Spelling makes big political donations and charity donations to the NYPD. Your name, or one of them, turned up in a Federal report about six months ago. I guess you lost your source to keep you off the books, because suddenly there were several reports revised that revealed what a good citizen you've been, helping the Feds." Thug number one added. "Come on; it's a one way trip for you, Mozzie Wilson. You wouldn't want to be late."

They marched Moz out the door and Peter was powerless to stop them. "That lousy Gathers. It had to be him." He fumed and wondered briefly how Moz ended up with such a pedestrian name like Wilson this week. Mainly though, Peter stood lost in defeat, haunted by Moz's expression and Neal's hellish misery. Then he vanished.

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He stood in a room he knew very well and one he loved. His and Elizabeth's bedroom. The place was uncharacteriscally untidy. Not that he and El were ones to put every little thing back every night but this was chaos. And there was somebody banging on pipes in the bathroom.

Peter moved to check it out. Some fat guy with a dirty tee shirt and gapping jeans lay under the sink, clanging gustily on the pipe. "What the hell?" Peter thought. Looking closer, there was water everywhere on the floor. "And this dummy is banging on the pipes?"

A voice he loved more than life floated up the stairs. "How is it going, Mr. Rice?"

"Well, I think you got a real problem here, Mrs. Burke. I'm afraid it's going to cost a lot more than I first thought," Rice added complacently.

Peter nearly boiled over. You lousy blood sucker, he seethed. It only needs a new U joint!

Elizabeth came up the stairs, looking tired and distracted. She had aged from when Peter had last saw her but she still had that determined spunk in her eyes. Now, however, it was like it had worn down, like a rock under a water fall. "What happened?" She asked flatly.

Peter beamed; you couldn't' t put anything over on Elizabeth.

Mr. Rice launched into a lengthy and needlessly technical explanation of the problem when the front doorbell rang. Elizabeth excused herself and went downstairs. Mr. Rice, to Peter's fury, helped himself to Peter's new wrench, which found itself in Rice's toolbox.

Nearly apoplectic, Peter floated downstairs in time to see Elizabeth with a well-dressed man who wore a smile not unlike Neal's when he was about to close in on the mark.

They sat on the couch with papers spread in front of them. "You see, with the insurance company is fighting paying the claim on Peter's death; there is a good chance you could lose the house, Mrs. Burke."

Elizabeth looked devastated. "That can't be. Peter was an FBI agent; the federal government selected these life insurance policies! I don't understand how this can happen!"

The man smiled and patted El's hand in a manner that displeased Peter mightily. "Well, well, they haven't won yet, Mrs. Burke. And if you put me on retainer, I shall fight them with all of my not inconsiderable experience."

Peter finally placed the guy. It was that smug lawyer on TV, the one who promised huge settlement payments. What he did not advertise was the fact that he took over seventy five percent of the settlement money.

El raised her eyes. "I'll think about it."

Mr. Smug preened. "Perhaps we can do dinner one of these nights?"

El looked ill and Peter raged in silent fury.

Later, after she had gotten rid of the ambulance chaser and the shyster plumber, Elizabeth broke down and sobbed uncontrollably into Satchmo's fur. "God, I miss him so much, Satch," she cried brokenly.

Peter stood by, feeling cold and useless. "Take me back," he said.

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"Peter, there is no guarantee you will survive this. You might die all over again."

The voice was firm and it sounded remarkably like his Grandfather Burke, who died back in '79. Looking down at that same nurse who still stood by his body, he watched as she sadly placed the drape over his head.

Steeling himself (was that really what was left of him?), Peter said simply, "I have to go back, Gramps. No choice. I won't be able to exist anywhere without knowing I gave it everything I had."

Suddenly the world blacked out.

The nurse who was attending the Federal agent's body heard a faint sound and stopped. Running a practiced eye over the machine, she gasped. Pausing only for a second look, she raced to the phone. "Get everybody back in here now!"

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The doctor pulls out his phone, annoyance on his face until he reads the message. "Don't leave yet!" he advised Hughes as he raced off. Elizabeth looks up, hope springing to life despite everything. Diana is afraid to hope; she remains hard and she thinks, in control. Jones is openly curious and Neal, well, Neal's face is a study and a conflict. Neal the man doesn't want to show weakness; showing hope and then having it dashed would cause a reaction appearing weak. But Neal the dreamer can't help but let hope rise. It shows in his eyes.

When the doctor returns nearly three hours later, he confirms what they all wanted to hear but were afraid to ask. Peter Burke was alive. Still critical but alive, seemingly back from the dead.

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Everything is a series of hazy, disconnected images for Peter. He rides along on a tide of drugs; he can't really feel that much but he knows that black ripping pain is waiting close by, waiting to attack him once his defenses are down. He knows he should have his guard up but he can't seem to concentrate or summon up any energy for the task.

Sometimes he wonders if these images are indeed, reality. Elizabeth, seeing his eyes open, nearly collapses because she was crying so hard. Neal, trying to wear the mask and for once, failing, choking up and fleeing. Diana tearing up and simultaneously trying to chew him out. Jones and Hughes both talking about something and Peter trying to fight the drugs long enough to figure out what they said. He failed.

His only Christmas memory is a small plastic tree on the nightstand that El brought in, along with some plastic mistletoe that the sight of made him vaguely happy, given the custom that went with it. There are a series of people in ruefully explaining why they haven't brought Christmas gifts – yet. A lack of room, wait until you get home, etc. etc. On the bad days though he's not sure he will make it home. Rare moments of clarity recall the dream time, as he chose to privately call it and deep down, he's scared. Really scared. But then the drugs kick in and he floats along, somewhat bemused by it all. He does get one other reminder of Christmas; after he had convinced an exhausted El to go home, Neal arrived and ended up staying all night during a bad time. While sitting there, he also did an amazingly detailed pencil sketch of Santa seated by a fireplace with a Christmas tree and a sleeping dog that looked like Satchmo. Even through the drugs and the pain, Peter liked it although Santa wears a very melancholy expression. Neal was about to throw it away when Peter stopped him. Afterward, Neal left it on the table but Peter had to keep picking it up to see it and reaching was a bitch right now. Early the next morning a short orderly with glasses and a surgical mask, brought in a poster tab while Peter was sleeping. Now the drawing was on the side of the bedside stand where Peter could actually see it. For some reason, it gave him hope; there was still life out there. If he made it through this though, he was going to have Neal change Santa's expression to something a bit more jovial.

Finally the drugs cleared a bit but the pain came back. Maybe not quite as bad as before but it still hurt – a lot. Peter was more of a suffer in silence guy but some days were killers. Elizabeth stayed constantly; if she wasn't there, Neal was. Diana and Jones were in a lot. Hughes and his wife were frequent visitors. But that was about it. The days wore on and he felt irritable although he tried mightily not to snap at Elizabeth. He did snap at Neal a couple of times but Neal simply shut his mouth when the retort was on his lips to fire back. It worked, because then Peter felt even worse for snapping in the first place.

Days turned into weeks and at long last, he was allowed up for wheelchair rides. It was pathetic , how weak he was. Neal pushed him around in the wheelchair one day. They ended up in a sun room and Neal sat down on a chair beside him. Snow covered the ground outside and Peter felt as bleak as the land looked. "So, the world does go on out there?"

Neal's mouth quirked into a smile. "What, did you think life would stop without you?" The tone was light but Neal looked exhausted, like he hadn't slept in weeks.

Peter froze; the unintentional reminder of the dream came right back to the forefront. Fortunately for him, Neal didn't pick up on his unease (wow, Neal really was tired) and so he let the subject drop.

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Night time became a time that Peter dreaded. He was hurting but reluctant to ask for an increase in pain meds; he already felt like he'd missed half of his life span. Also, the night nurse, Nurse Martinez, was a hefty, imperious woman who was rapidly turning into his personal nemesis. He tried to not engage in pettiness but he was depressed (Elizabeth had caught a cold and went home early) and Neal was working on a case which Peter knew nothing about. It irritated him and he wasn't in the mood to be treated like a four year old. So he treated Nurse Martinez to a hefty dose of Burke sarcasm regarding the food.

In turn, Nurse Martinez did not appreciate an ingrate who wouldn't eat his vegetables and the battle was on when Diana Berrigan walked in.

Diana's face was a study in fury and she went immediately got in Nurse Martinez's face and both women yelled for a bit until the Nurse finally walked off. Peter had a sinking feeling that he would never see any food again in this century.

"That woman is never going to be back in here again!" Diana hissed.

For his part, Peter was beginning to feel a bit embarrassed. "Look, I probably deserved it. I was being, well, you know."

"A jerk?" Diana cracked a wintry smile.

"Well, I wouldn't have phrased it quite like that," Peter shot back, pleased to have some verbal repartee going again. Everyone had treated him with kid gloves for so long, even Neal. God, he missed them all.

Diana rummaged around in her bag and held up a small foil wrapped package. "Would you like this instead of your green beans?"

Peter's mouth began to water. "Di, you're the best!"

Wearing a pleased smile, Diana watched as he ate but still kept out an eagle eye for Nurse Ratchet, as she phrased it. Peter refrained from asking how she thought she could shift nurses around as Christy was no longer in the picture. At this moment, he didn't care. He could only manage half of the half sandwich but it still tasted like heaven.

Diana settled down beside him in the chair, looking curiously at Neal's sketch. "You still on the Christmas theme, boss?"

Peter tried to shrug but immediately thought better of it. "I guess."

Diana was curious. "Why?"

Why, indeed? How he could he explain this? Trying not to sound like a whiner, Peter said nonchalantly, "I guess it's because it's a sign of the outside world. Like this sandwich. Some days I feel the walls closing in and I just look at it. I can't really explain it very well though. But its hope."

Diana smiled fondly. "I think you just did. Explain, that is." Her brow furrowed. "We almost lost you, boss. In fact, I guess we did lose you, for a while. It scared the hell out of every one of us. But it sounds to me like we've been too content to stand back and smother you with caution. I know Elizabeth has been terrified ever since. And Neal has been a model citizen, believe it or not. Not one lie of omission, not one bending of a rule. Jones went over to shovel your walk the other day and found the little pocket pal had already done it. Any time Elizabeth needs anything, one of us is there for her. Mostly Neal though; he leaves early," she added in mock annoyance.

They shared a quick laugh. "El is okay though now, isn't she?" Peter asked anxiously. He still felt so guilty over his actions in the dream.

"She's holding it together, boss. Every day you get better, she's better. But the rest of us have been keeping your visitors to a minimum for fear we'd over tire you. I see now that was a mistake." She grinned. "Expect more visitors soon. But I'm still going to monitor who's coming over," she added impishly. "Oh yeah, I'll bring case files tomorrow."

Peter closed his eyes for fear they would give him away. "Thank you. For everything," he added huskily.

They talked some shop but sometime during their chat he drifted off. God, he was sick of that. To his surprise however, the chair Diana had sat in now held Neal. He was going to say something but a second look revealed Neal slumped over, fast asleep. Peter didn't have the heart to wake him (Neal still looked terrible, he noted with concern.) so he just let him be.

After a while they were both asleep, their faces untroubled for a change. Looking in, Nurse Martinez humfped; she didn't like either one of them. But at least they weren't mouthing off for a change.

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After that, Peter had a steady stream of visitors. The Harvard crew, Jones, Diana, Neal, Hughes, Sara Ellis, June Ellington, even Mozzie one night very late, way past visiting hours, grandly explaining that rules were for plebeians. Peter couldn't sleep anyway so it was all good to him. Elizabeth, Neal and Diana had conferred over Nurse Martinez and how they pulled it off he couldn't guess but that lady was off the Burke case. Peter hoped Neal didn't get too carried away in grand plots but he had to admit he was glad she was gone. He was still stuck in the hospital but at least he now had something to think about. No time to keep mulling over that weird dream. Thank God.

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Finally, they let him go home.

He was so weak and tired Satchmo's exuberant greeting nearly knocked him over before Neal could collar him. Everybody, it seemed, was dropping by that day. It became a revolving door. June came over early, bringing a ton of food so that 'dear Elizabeth' would not have to cook right away. Peter figured it would feed the Harvard crew for a month but El looked so relieved and grateful it tore at his heart, just thinking about everything he put her through. Neal was there of course, and soon after five, Hughes and his wife were there. His boss looked very emotional and sounded very brusque but nobody took that seriously. Diana was there and then Jones arrived, armed with a brand new advance copy of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. He declined to explain how he had obtained a copy that wasn't on the newsstand yet. Neal was conspicuously absent in the kitchen. Sara Ellis stopped by. But nobody stayed too long, which was fine with Peter who felt like he'd just run a marathon.

Neal and Elizabeth were in the kitchen clearing up when there was an elaborately coded knock on the front door.

Peter went to get up when the door opened and Mozzie sailed in. "No need, Suit. I come here often," he pronounced grandly.

"Oh good," Peter replied weakly, wondering how worried he should be.

Neal came out with a none too pleased expression on his face. "Thought you were going to wait until tomorrow, Moz," he said with an edge in his voice.

"Au contraire," Moz replied, oblivious. He held up a strange looking device. "I have this!" He waved a strange looking headset device in front of Peter.

"That's nice," Peter said politely. "Pray tell, what does it do?"

"Eavesdrops on everybody in an area far greater that your government issued trash. It's-"

"Russian surplus," Peter, Neal and Elizabeth said in unison.

Moz deflated just a little. "It is the newest one out there," he said in a rather plaintive voice.

Peter smiled. "Show me." Moz looked delighted and proceeded to lecture and inform.

Later, after Neal and Moz had melted away with the night, El and Peter went up to share a bed for the first time in an eternity it seemed.

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Peter decided he would never tell anyone about the dream time. What could he say that wouldn't make him sound like a loon? Or a coward. As it receded into the distance, he began to wonder if he had actually imagined the whole thing. God knew his memories were scrambled enough about everything else. But the dream remained in perfect clarity.

A couple of weeks later, when he was finally beginning to feel like a ghost of himself again, he was lying in bed with Elizabeth watching the sun come up. Satch, in flagrant violation of all the house rules and in his zeal to be next to Peter at all times, lay on the foot of the bed, even though there really wasn't room for him.

It was a glorious, peaceful moment, one that Peter feared he might never have again. His wife, his dog, his house, even his job would soon be back. He sighed in contentment.

An arm tightened cautiously around his chest. Elizabeth still tended to handle him like her Grandmother's china. "Hey, hon," she said with a smile.

Peter smiled back, pulling her closer. "Hi, hon. Beautiful morning."

El's eyes were shining. "They all are now."

Peter sighed again. "God, it's good to be home."

El snuggled even closer, slightly disturbing Satchmo but not enough to make him move. "I feel like I've just woke up from a long nightmare; the worst one I ever had."

"Oh, I know," Peter agreed, his mind suddenly back in that emergency room. "You wouldn't believe what I ….. um, never mind."

Fully awake now, Elizabeth sat up and turned a steely gaze on him. "Tell me," she commanded in that take no prisoners voice.

He could never hide anything from Elizabeth, so, with some stumbling, he told her. Everything. Including his shameful weakness regarding the pain and his fear of a long recovery. Peter couldn't bear to look at her. He concluded with a simple, "I am so sorry, El."

Elizabeth turned his face toward her. "Oh, Peter! My God, how awful that must have been for you! I knew you would come back if you could. And you did. My world shattered when that Doctor told us you were dead. I couldn't take it in; just could not accept it. It would be easy for me to scold you and say how dare you even hesitate. But I think it is impossible to know what anyone would do in that situation."

Peter blinked. "You mean you actually believe me? That story is pretty wild."

El laughed. "Well, I don't think even Neal could make that up. And there have been some truly strange happenings with people who have died (she nearly choked on the word) and then came back to life. I am just so grateful you came back. That's all that matters." She paused, considering. "But please don't tell me the only reasons you came back was because of a crooked lawyer and thieving plumber?" Her blue eyes danced with laughter, despite the strain around her eyes.

Peter made a disgusted sound. "The circumstances were really strange," he mumbled. She laughed and he grabbed for her. They fell together, laughing and kissing. They cried just a little bit as well, until Satch decided it was time for his breakfast.

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On his first day back to work, Peter was startled to see that lopsided ceramic Christmas tree on Janice's desk. She caught his glance and gave him an impish smile. "Christmas is going on a bit longer this year, boss. We haven't had the Christmas party yet."

Peter was stunned. "Um, you people do know it is February, right?"

Jones shrugged. "We weren't all present in December. We are now."

Neal stood right beside Peter, his blue eyes keenly searching Peter's face. He had caught Peter's look of shaken surprise. Neal looked curious and intrigued; Peter groaned inwardly. He knew he wouldn't have a moment's peace now.

The day was pretty much reports and paperwork (light duty) until Hughes came out of his office at two. Then, the paper cups and refreshments appeared (in Christmas colors) and all semblance of work stopped. It was not a wild party till you drop atmosphere but there was joy, happiness, serenity and a sense of profound thankfulness as more than one file clerk teared up. Peter ate, drank and talked but later he went back up to his office, just to get off his feet and rest before the trip home. Neal, naturally, followed him up there.

"You ready to go?" Neal asked, lounging in the doorway with a bright green cup in his hand.

Peter sighed; he knew where this was leading. "Not yet. Just going to sit a while and then we'll go."

Neal glanced at his watch. "That works. Elizabeth won't be at June's until four thirty. We can hang out here a bit. Then I'll get us a cab."

Peter arched an eyebrow at him. "I'm glad you've got my schedule down. Let me know if I need to do anything, otherwise I'll just sit here and do nothing."

Neal tsked. "Yeah, you're tired all right. Getting cranky; a sure sign Agent Burke needs to go home."

To Peter's exasperation, Neal came on inside and sat down, making himself comfortable. "So, are you going to tell me?"

Peter leaned back and looked outside the window. "About what?"

"About Janice's Christmas tree. Now, I realize more than anyone else what an affront to the eyes that crooked thing is, but you jumped out of your skin when you saw it. What gives?"

Peter stalled for time, tried misdirection but the young man kept on until he haltingly told Neal the dream, fully expecting Neal to break out in gales of laughter.

Instead, Neal kept silent and his face paled as he listened. When Peter finished, he gave Neal a sidelong glance and was surprised when the younger man finally spoke. "I don't think you're allowed to die again." Swallowing, he mustered a sickly smile. "Now, what would you say if I came up with a story like that?"

"Get your head examined?" Peter said promptly.

"Yet, you have not," Neal observed pointedly.

Peter shrugged. "I'm over it."

"I'm not. Not yet," Neal said slowly.

Peter was a bit surprised at the admission but only for a moment. Neal was a very deep river; the current moved fast and was hard to see through but once in a while, the truth came out. He leaned back in his chair. "Look, I really can't explain it and I don't know why I was given a second chance but I took it and now I'm here."

"Did you think about it? Hesitate? Neal asked quickly.

Peter frowned; damn Neal and his perceptiveness. "Yeah, I did. I was a coward, Neal. For a moment, I didn't want to go through the pain and the long recovery, if I made it at all. I certainly didn't want to die twice."

"But you couldn't leave Elizabeth," Neal finished for him.

"No, I couldn't. A ghost of a grin lit Peter's face. "But I also thought about you, Neal. Ending your days in orange and I told myself, yeah, Neal needs me. I've got to go back. "

Neal snorted. "Yeah, sure. More like Neal will be out living like a king somewhere, rich and happy and I, Peter Burke, must come back and make his life miserable."

Peter couldn't help it; he laughed and after a moment, Neal laughed as well and shook his head. "Are you ready to go?" He asked in mock annoyance.

"Yeah, I am. But let's stop at that little deli before we get a cab; I'd like something to eat before Elizabeth picks me up."

"What, again? I saw you and Jones sneaking seconds this afternoon," Neal complained.

"I've got El's blessing," Peter said smugly. He had lost a lot of weight in the hospital.

"Well, your appetite is back at any rate. But we don't need to stop at that deli; June said she'd have something for all of us tonight, so Elizabeth wouldn't have to worry about dinner."

Peter was pleased; June had the best food and he was concerned at how tired Elizabeth still seemed. Some days he thought he was bouncing back faster than she was.

They said their goodbyes through the bullpen and waited outside the elevator door. Suddenly Neal touched his arm and then enveloped Peter in a hug. "Merry Christmas, Peter."

Surprised (hugging in the FBI!) and touched, Peter returned the embrace. "Merry Christmas to you too, Neal. And thank you."

Neal stopped; puzzled. "Thank me? I didn't do anything."

"You gave me a great gift; the gift of companionship in trying circumstances. Because I know you don't normally spend your holidays hanging around in a hospital. It means a lot to me."

Neal's eyes widened and his expression was completely open for a change. "There was no place else I could be or wanted to be." The young man suddenly looked away as the elevator dinged its arrival. His eyes suspiciously bright, he asked quickly, "But I was the only one who could see you, in that dream?"

Peter came close to rolling his eyes. "You didn't see me; I thought you did but you didn't."

"I'll be I did," Neal replied confidently.

"Yes, Neal," Peter replied with long suffering sarcasm. "You were the only one, Neal." He added in a voice that sounded like a chant.

"I thought so," Neal replied smugly.

Going inside the car, Peter kept trying to puncture Neal's smug balloon, to no avail. But he decided he wasn't going to have Neal redo that pencil Santa drawing after all. It was fine the way it was. It was a gift of immeasurable value.

It was all anyone could ask for, really.

Thank you for reading. Also, thank you for all the past reviews and favorites on the previous stories. I appreciate them.