After all the hiatus, right when the sun sets in New York City to give way for Christmas Eve, it was as if magically everything went quiet. All families went home to enjoy dinner with their loved ones while others just went home, alone perhaps… this year, Neal Caffrey had found a home to go to and became one of those who were sharing dinner with loved ones.
He arrived early at the Burke's, barely containing the excitement of actually enjoying a family Christmas since the one before his 18th birthday when he ran away from home in St Louis… he felt giddy and kept on smiling and saying "Merry Christmas" to all by-passers in the street.
"Merry Christmas, Peter!" came Neal's cheerful salute when Peter opened the door
"Merry Christmas, Neal!" answered Peter with a big smile "Oh what the hell, come here" he said hugging the younger man with a manly bear-hug
Neal grinned truly enjoying this exchange. PDA with Peter was not common and he cherished every single moment
"I got the wine" said Neal awkwardly after they parted and quickly walked in. Peter just cleared his throat and followed suit; both men incapable of showing affection for one another in an open way.
"Hi Neal!" said Elizabeth cheerfully and also went to hug him
Neal felt truly loved in this house "Wow, look at this! It feels like I just stepped into the Clause's and not the Burke's household. You really went all the way with decorations!"
Peter groaned "Yes, I suffered it… but it was worth it" he corrected after Elle's glare
Neal chuckled enjoying how whipped the magnanimous Agent Burke was when it came to Elizabeth… he didn't see himself becoming like this, ever. Or maybe someday…? Peter interrupted his daydreaming…
"So, how was clubbing last night?" asked Peter carrying the wine to the fridge
"Huh? How did you… did you check my anklet? Peter, that's getting old and lame you know" said Neal with a disapproving look
"Of course. After you decided to play cops and robbers, I had to. Can you blame me?" said Peter shrugging
Neal sighed "Guess not" he muttered
"I do it for your own good, Neal" explained Peter as if he was explaining the weather
Elle grabbed Neal's arm "He does, believe me. If he could, he would have me under surveillance as a way of saying I love you"
"Aw Peter, does that mean you love me?" said Neal with his best sarcastic and charming smile
Peter just glared trying very hard not to smile. The truth was that he did love Neal, he was like the little brother he never had.
"So, at what time are the guests arriving?" asked Neal seating in one of the kitchen stools
"You mean, the Ellis' sisters" stated Peter with a smirk "Or, the youngest of them"
"Hon, stop messing around with him. Neal, you want some punch? It's my special recipe with lots of fruit and rum" said Elle lightening the mood
"That sounds great, thanks Elle. And yes, Peter, I do want to see Sara but mind you, I just saw her this morning, at my house, as you probably saw in the records. Good thing the anklet doesn't track sound too because you would've been in for a treat…" retorted Neal
"No details needed" said Peter with a disgusted face "So, if you didn't have your anklet, would you follow her to London?" he asked now teasing
"Peter, if this is another joke about how you can get me into prison again anytime, please save it" said Neal tired of this over and over
"I'm not joking, it's a hypothetical question. Have you even thought about it?" asked Peter still smiling mischievously
"I'll get the door…" said Neal standing up and using it as a distraction for the very awkward subject they were dealing with at the moment. He found Mozzie at the door "Hey Mozz!"
"Are they serving the punch already?" whispered Mozzie
Neal chuckled "Yeah and it's delicious, come on in"
"So I just put the presents under the tree then? I'm sorry but this particular pagan settling is not of common practice for me" said Mozzie as a way of greeting
"Yeah, just put them there. Thanks for bringing gifts, Mozzie, you didn't have to" perfect hostess as always, Elizabeth Burke, was beaming with happiness for this little holiday event
In no time, Elle had the three men occupied with tasks such as placing the silverware and not stealing it, accommodating the presents by recipient's alphabetical order, turning up the fire at the chimney, etc.
It was 8 o'clock already and they had agreed to meet at 7:30 but the Ellis' sisters were nowhere around…
"Sara's always late" said Mozzie trying to explain to the Burke's and Neal just frowned at him "What? She is!"
As if on cue, the doorbell rang at that moment. Neal stood up instantly and went to get the door "Hi Sara" he smiled his megawatt smile and grabbed her hand to pull her in for a hug and a quick kiss on the cheek
"Geez, is that your smile, Neal? The Christmas tree ain't shining at all compared to it" teased Emily
"I'm happy to see you too, Emily" said Neal grinning and hugging her as well
"Sara! It is so nice to see you again!" greeted Peter and went to hug her; Elle did the same.
"Thanks for the invitation, Peter, Elle, I've missed you guys" said Sara truly touched at this little family who had been there for her in the past. "Mozzie, hi"
"Hello miss Repo" said Mozzie with a shy smile and seemed to balance from one foot to the other.
Sara smiled tenderly at him and kissed him on the cheek "Missed you too, Mozzie"
Sara realized that Emily had been standing there in the back awkwardly "Um, everyone, I'd like you to meet Emily… my sister"
"Hi…" said Emily suddenly shy "Um, Agent Burke, Mrs Burke, thank you for having me tonight"
"Nice to meet you, Emily, please call me Elizabeth; you're very welcome in our house anytime" said Elle warmly
Peter nodded smiling "I'm Peter, drop the Agent, unless you want to talk about some egg-related issue?"
"What's that hon? Did you want eggnog?" said Elle playing along and pretending to divert Peter's attention from the touchy subject
Everyone laughed at that and Emily was blushing crimson red. Sara smiled widely and turned to catch Neal laughing just the same and their eyes met. He stopped laughing and winked at her putting a hand on the small of her back with a knowing smile. Never in a million years had she thought that she would be living this moment: Christmas Eve surrounded by so many people that cared about her and most importantly, sharing it with her sister again after so many years. And Sara knew that Neal had everything to do with it. She smiled even further… Neal. He was quite a riddle in her life and it represented everything she was afraid of but at the same time, he had become the man she had stopped dreaming about since she was a teen, right when fantasies and soul mates became just that, fantasies. This moment was good indeed.
Conversation was pleasant among them and mostly, Mozzie complained about the inutility of extreme shopping in the holidays as having nothing to do with the true spiritual motivation of the season
"But it's good, it activates economy" had suggested Sara
"Oh no, no, no, don't even get me started on that…" said Mozzie turning exasperated "Neal! Could you tell your girlfriend how absurd this is?!"
Neal just shrugged and the term girlfriend didn't go unnoticed so he smiled enjoying this too much
"Oh great, you're just as whipped as Mr Suit here… agh women!" said Mozzie almost on the verge of a nervous breakdown
Both Neal and Peter said at unison "Hey! I'm not…" and then realized it and laughed together making everybody laugh too. Elle shared a knowing smile with Sara.
"Ok, I say it's time for presents, shall we?" said Elizabeth standing up and signaling everyone to sit around the living room and the tree
Elizabeth got everyone some "surprise" warm socks with colorful animals and she apparently found this funny because she was the only one actually smiling. Neal looked at Peter knowingly and Peter just shrugged in resignation.
Peter got Neal and Mozzie matching sweatshirts with an "FBI most wanted" print on the front. Mozzie grinned loving his present and Neal couldn't help but smile in appreciation; deep down, he was deeply touched at whatever present Peter could give him.
Mozzie and Neal gave Peter and Elle their respective presents bought at the MoMA and Neal gave Sara the Swarovsky watch with Van Gogh's starry Night print in it.
"Neal, this is beautiful, thank you!" she said kissing him on the cheek
"And this is for you, Emily" said Neal handing her a small box
"Oh thanks!" said Emily excited opening a beautiful little marble sculpture of a ballerina "Oh wow, this is very pretty! Is it marble?"
"Yeah, I did it myself" said Neal with a little sheepish smile
"That marble looks suspiciously a lot like the one you used for Duvois" said Peter
Neal grinned "Good eye, Peter. I got some leftovers and that came about but I never thought I'd have someone to give it to so now it's yours Emily"
"Well, it's an honor to have a Caffrey original. Thank you, Neal!" said Emily smiling sincerely
"I've never gotten a Caffrey original" said Sara pretending to be upset
"Oh but you got THE original Caffrey at your beck and call, which is so much better" said Neal with a mischievous smile
"Shut up, Caffrey" said Sara blushing and shoving him playfully "My turn!"
Sara had brought different fancy presents for everyone: she got a silk tie for Peter and matching silk scarf for Elizabeth; Mozzie got a rare copy of Darwin's manifest and Sara explained that it was "a true conspiracy". She then got Emily a beautiful gold and silver Pandora bracelet with several charms pending. Finally it was Neal's turn and she got him a box which contained a beautiful and stylish dark grey fedora from a very exclusive and very expensive vintage store in London
"Wow, Sara, I love it!" he said putting in on with an elegant flip "How do I look?"
Sara smiled "Very handsome"
"Aw look at you two" Peter smiled at them proudly "There's one present missing… here" he said handing Neal an envelope
"For me, Peter? Another one?" said Neal genuinely surprised and started opening the envelope. He got out two plane tickets to Washington DC on his name "Um, thanks but I would prefer a ticket to London" he said grinning and then "Peter, I don't understand"
"Keep looking into the envelope" instructed Peter with an unreadable face
Neal got out the letter and started reading and then laughed "Is this a joke?"
"Nope, apparently the FBI thinks it's a breakthrough in the history of crime investigation training" said Peter finally smiling
"What is it?" asked Sara trying to peek
"Give me that" said Mozzie grabbing the letter and began reading out loud "The Department of Justice and the FBI would like to congratulate Mr. Neal Caffrey for his outstanding service over the past 4 years and at the same time, invite him to participate as Key-note speaker at the Annual Criminal Profiling Seminar, to be held on February at the DC HQ, to share his valuable expertise and insight in order to enrich the knowledge and quality of training for top talent FBI agents… What?! Oh great, now you will be sharing our secrets with the baby suits?! Neal!"
Peter chuckled "Keep reading Mozzie, it gets better"
Mozzie grunted and proceeded "… The seminar will have a duration of 2 weeks with all paid expenses and a 20,000 dollar paycheck to be deposited in a trust fund on Mr. Caffrey's name, to be released once his service is through with the Bureau. This first seminar will be a pilot program and will serve as a milestone for further discussion into making it a permanent one. Due to Mr. Caffrey's international expertise, some international agencies like Interpol and Scotland Yard have showed interest in participating as well and making it a global best practice… Wow, so this means you become a Crime-solving Deepak Chopra…" finished Mozzie not liking this at all
Neal hadn't read through this point but he was in shock and all he could do was stare blankly at Peter "So… I keep being a criminal but now a teacher too?"
"Paid international expert and key-note speaker" corrected Peter smiling proudly
"But I'm still on an anklet, Peter… is there a way to shorten the sentence or how exactly is this going to work? Do I get an international radius too?"
Peter chuckled "Nope, I get to travel with you until your anklet comes off"
"Road trip!" said Neal sarcastically
"Look, Neal, I know this isn't exactly what you would like but it's something never heard-off and it's a way of rewarding you for your great work over these past years. Plus, this means you could have a permanent job, very well-paid job may I say, once your anklet comes off. I mean, 20 grand in two weeks! That's much more than I make in 3 months!"
Neal was reeling with possibilities in his head, not really believing and understanding the extent of this new deal. He felt a soft hand on his arm, which belonged to Sara… "Hey, just think about it ok?" she said with a little smile and something that resembled pride in her eyes. It was all that it took for Neal to see the bright side of this; maybe it was a way of getting closer to her and giving her the assurance she needed. He smiled and nodded grasping her hand in his.
"Peter, did you have something to do with this?" asked Neal still doubtful
"No, it came as a surprise to me too this morning. I agree with Sara, just think about it. I think it's a good thing" said Peter with the same little smile and pride in his eyes. Neal was starting to think that it was indeed good but he somehow felt trapped and used. Teaching was not of his liking and even less so, teaching FBI future agents how to catch him… not that he wanted to commit crimes again, soon, but he liked the thought of feeling free of doing whatever he pleased… he had to think it through and not right now.
"Ok, thanks… well, Merry Christmas then! Cheers!" said Neal rising his glass to make a toast and break the tension, especially the tension in his own bones.
Everyone began chatting and Neal got up and went to the patio. He closed his coat around and put the collar up protecting from the cold. He put his hands on his pockets and began looking at the sky. He laughed at the irony: this is exactly how he felt, trapped inside a white-picked fence which resembled a cozy home, able to look at the sky but trapped nonetheless.
"Looking at the stars on Christmas Eve, Neal? How spiritual of you" said Emily coming from inside
Neal turned and smiled "Just needed some fresh air"
"You too, huh?" she said with a knowing smile "Big thing back there with the teaching position the FBI is offering you… from the look on your face is not something you expected… or wanted"
Neal didn't look at her "I never went through an existential crisis while I was a teen and it doesn't feel right having one now"
"Not used to planning ahead then? You never wanted to be an astronaut?" she asked standing next to him
Neal gave her a brief look and remained looking ahead "I wanted to be a cop… Long story" he sighed
"Yeah, Sara told me a little about it… I'm sorry about your father. But you're a good man, Neal. Even as a criminal, the FBI is rewarding you, how cool is that?" she said smiling and putting a hand on his shoulder
He shrugged "I guess… but what does it mean? I'm more of an in-the-moment kind of guy. Am I supposed to plan ahead vacation time, teaching time and stuff?" he said shaking his head a little
"You don't have to change your in-the-moment attitude; it just means you get to have a normal life and normal means settling down maybe?" she said carefully knowing all too well that this was a delicate subject
Neal turned to look at her smiling "Settling down? What does that mean?"
"Well… forgetting about running away ever again, for starters" said Emily now grasping his arm and looking deep into his eyes "It means you could finally make that damn proposal real, Neal. Sara loves you and you love her. It's a no brainer"
They heard a throat clearing and turned to see Sara standing there looking puzzled at the scene "Think about it" said Emily winking at him and leaving them alone
"Hey" said Neal extending his hand to Sara and pulling her to him. He put his arms around her from behind and kissed her cheek
"What are you doing out here, it's very cold" she said snuggling into him and Neal hugged her tighter
"Just thinking" he said nonchalantly
"About the FBI teaching proposal? It sounds nice…" she said
"Yeah… but I'm also thinking about everything else. So much has changed…" he said with a hollow voice, almost scared.
Sara turned in his arms and looked in his eyes "Change can be good… being afraid of it is ok too"
"Me, afraid?" said Neal cocky
Sara raised her eyebrow with a disbelieving look "You don't have to hide from me, Neal. I know you're afraid. I mean, being with an anklet and with Peter is a safe deal, you get to do mischief and Peter cleans after your mess with no bigger consequences. But that won't last forever"
"I know" he said kissing her forehead and hugging her close to his chest "dance with me"
"So cliché, Caffrey, dancing when there's no music" she said chuckling
"You sure know how to kill the romance" he said spinning them around
After a while of swaying slowly and enjoying each other's company, Neal broke the silence… "Did you mean it, Sara? When you said you would marry me?"
She stiffened a little and secured her arms around his waist from the inside of his coat "Yes…" she said in a small voice
"But you're afraid of what marrying a conman means" he stated reading into her body language
Sara didn't say anything for a while… "Yes" she said finally and Neal just sighed leaning his head on top of her hers. Sara then pulled away looking into his eyes and leaned in for a small kiss "But I love you, Neal" she said seriously and then with a little smile she added "I figure we can be afraid together"
Neal smiled "Really?"
She smiled back "Yeah, I'm not gonna lie to you, I will always be terrified of having people going away but someone very wise told me that I can't be happy if I keep letting my fears dictate the course of my decisions so…"
"Sara, I cannot change who I am…" he started and she silenced him with another kiss
"I don't want you to change. I always knew who you were from the beginning and I fell in love with you anyways" she said matter-of-factly
He chuckled "even when you wanted to nail my ass to the wall?"
"Especially then" she said playing along
They laughed together "I love you just the way you are, Neal" she said
"Look who's being cliché now" he said teasing her
"And look who's killing the romance!" she said slapping his shoulder "Seriously though, I don't care that you are a conman, I even find it sexy but what I like the most about you is the sweet, smart and kind person that lives underneath all the suave devious man that is Neal Caffrey"
Neal just grabbed her face tenderly and kissed her with all he had, wanting to tell her everything he was feeling now in that kiss. After a while they parted a little breathless "Thanks for believing in me, Sara. I love you too"
Sara smiled feeling absolutely happy "You know what, you don't even have to find a job, just make sure you get the anklet off soon so we can take a nice vacation to a beach or something, alright?"
Neal snorted "So you're gonna work for the both of us? Do I get to be home-stay husband?"
"If that makes you happy…" said Sara grinning "Just make sure you keep cooking those nice meals and making yourself look deliciously sexy when I get home every night and I'm sold"
Neal laughed wholeheartedly "Now that's what I call a done deal!"
They were laughing together and teasing each other and it felt so good "Marry me, Sara, for real this time" said Neal after their laughter died down
She smiled "I told you I would"
Neal shook his head "No, don't say you would. I need you to say you will" and he kneeled down
"Neal! You don't have to..." she started saying but Neal interrupted
"I don't have a ring now but I need to be sure right here right now, that you will be mine once this thing is off me and we can be finally together" he said taking her left leather glove off and kissing all around it making an imaginary ring with little kisses in her finger "Sara Ellis, WILL you marry me?" he said enhancing the word 'will'
Sara covered her mouth with her other hand trying to hold back tears and then grabbed Neal's soft hair and kneeled down herself "Yes, I will marry you, you crazy bastard"
And they kissed with such force that they stumbled over each other making Sara fall on top of Neal clumsily. And they laughed together maniacally on the floor
"What the hell…?" asked Peter once he saw what was going on at his patio
"Peter! We're getting married! She said yes!" said Neal grinning while Sara kept laughing lying on top of Neal's chest
Peter frowned not really understanding and trying to remember how many bottles of wine and champagne they had drank tonight
"Look at my ring, isn't it beautiful, Peter?" said Sara showing an empty finger
Peter frowned even further "Do you guys need some coffee or something?"
"He thinks we're drunk" said Neal to Sara making her laugh even more "C'mon babe, let's get up before he starts offering his pickle juice"
Neal got up taking Sara with him and went inside with Peter. Apparently Diana and Jones had arrived as well to the dinner party. Neal stood by the dining room table "Alright everyone, I have an announcement to make" he said grabbing Sara's hand in his calling everyone's attention
Neal turned to look at Sara who just leaned into his shoulder shyly and then said "Sara and I are engaged" he finished grinning proudly and Sara showed her empty hand grinning proudly
A gasp was heard in unison along with a couple of "What?!"
Emily and Elizabeth started clapping happily "Where's the ring!" said Emily excited
"Um, well, I'm a in-the-moment kind of guy so the ring will come later" said Neal with a knowing smile. Emily just nodded smiling back.
The women started hugging Sara and chatting animatedly; Elizabeth already asking to be the wedding planner frightening Sara already.
Peter kept frowning not knowing exactly what to think. Neal turned to look at him "Peter, if you agree, I accept the teaching position for now. I want to get this anklet off ASAP"
Peter finally smiled and nodded extending his hand "Congratulations, Neal. I'm very proud of you"
Neal took his hand and smiled pulling him over for a hug. At first Peter stiffened but then he complied and hugged him back ruffling Neal's hair with affection. They parted and cleared their throats apparently trying to get rid of some sort of hair-ball in there "Thank you, Peter"
Midnight came and everyone said "Merry Christmas!" – The White Collar family and now extended family was happy to be sharing this moment.
"So, sis, does this means you will be moving back to NY or what?" asked Emily out of the blue startling Sara from the very nice chocolate cake she was having
"I don't know, Em, I haven't thought about that yet" said Sara honestly
"Neal's anklet isn't gonna come off for at least two more years, is it? Are you planning to get married after that?" said Emily a little shocked
Sara looked down at her fork spinning it around "I don't want to wait that long" she said
Emily smiled "So, I guess there's your answer; funny how our life's priorities change, huh?"
Sara smiled back "Yeah… I want to be with him every day and even though I love my job, I think I could arrange something to get back my old one here in NY, even if it's not the CEO position anymore…" said Sara realizing what a big decision she was even thinking of making, putting aside her pride and self-achievement to be with the one she loved. That is something she had never thought she would be doing and certainly not something her father would've approved of but it somehow felt right and she felt like a weight from her heart was being lifted.
"Yes! That would be awesome!" said Emily excited "We have so much to make up for, I mean, that is if you want to…" said Emily suddenly self-conscious that Sara was moving back to NY not because of her but because of Neal
Sara smirked "Of course I do, Em. Not only is Neal making me rethink my priorities. You too…" she said shyly
Emily grinned and hugged Sara "Thank you!"
Sara grinned back feeling very very happy. She would've never imagined that after dying and not having anyone mourn for her, she was now having a fiancée, a sister and a bunch of friends caring for her.
Mozzie had been quiet through this time and finally he approached Neal "So, you're finally settling down I see"
"I think I am, Mozz" said Neal happily
"That's, um, good for you. I like Sara, I think she makes you happy and so it makes me happy too" said Mozzie awkwardly and Neal tilted his head softening at his friend's unusual display of affection
"Thank you, Mozz. Will you officiate the wedding?" said Neal grabbing his friend's shoulder
"Oh please, of course not!" said Mozzie playfully "So, I guess that means our partnership will be soon dissolved"
Neal smiled and stood there in silence "Not exactly, Mozz. You're my best friend and that will never be dissolved… I may have to settle down for a little while just to get the anklet off, but then, later, who knows? A conman never dies, right? Our smiles just fade away" he said shrugging
Mozzie frowned "But, what about Sara?"
"Let's just say she loves me just the way I am" said Neal with mischief
Mozzie grinned "I'll toast to that! Cheers mon frère!"
So that's it. Thanks for sticking with me till the end. It was a beautiful ride! I love these characters so much!
Appreciate your reviews, thoughts, complaints, suggestions, anything!