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White Collar Fic - Welcome to the Family (or, The Great Christmas Tree Controversy)
Neal-Boxing
doctor_fangeek
Title: Welcome to the Family (or, The Great Christmas Tree Controversy)
Rating: G
Characters: Neal, Peter, Elizabeth, Mozzie
Length: ~4050
Spoilers: None really, unless you are way behind (takes place sometime in Season 2)
Warnings: None
Summary: Peter thought Neal had been doing better, but the holidays don't seem to be helping his mood. And having Neal over for dinner has, mysteriously, made things worse. Fear not, though - Peter, El and Mozzie are on the case.

AN: My entry for the 2013 whitecollarhc Advent. Inspired by this prompt from rabidchild (though it doesn't really fill it). Big thanks to my good friend miri_thompson for the super-helpful brainstorming, and the gang at wcwu chat for encouragement and cheerleading. Un-beta'd (as I've been working frantically to finish it somewhere close to on time).

Peter made his way through the terminal, pausing when his phone alerted him to an incoming text…which announced a change in the meeting location. With a sigh and a shake of his head, he changed course, heading toward the other end of the concourse. If he’d thought that the cold weather would not only lead to a change in venue for his semi-clandestine meeting with Mozzie (which it had) but also save him from Mozzie’s intricate meeting rituals, well, he would have been wrong. With another sigh, Peter sat down at one of the tables near the designated restaurant and unfolded his newspaper.  A minute or two passed, and then he heard the scrape of a chair as someone sat down at the table behind him. “I’ve heard the coffee is good here,” came a soft voice from the same direction.

“I didn’t do the stupid bird thing,” Peter said, before the other man had the chance to prompt him with the ridiculously scripted response. “And I’m not doing the stupid coffee thing.”

“I’ll remind you, Suit, that you called me. I’m doing you a favor here, not the other way around.”

“I thought we were both helping Neal,” Peter replied, dispensing with the pretense of the newspaper and turning in his chair with a frown.

“Fine,” Mozzie said. He sounded annoyed, but Peter had a feeling it was largely for show. The two of them had reached a sort of truce, united as they were in the goal of helping Neal survive the latest tragedy in his life (and, if necessary, protect him from his own propensity for acting on impulses that often led him nowhere good).

“You said he was doing better,” Mozzie continued.

“He was. I mean, I know it’s been hard, and this isn’t something that he’ll suddenly just ‘be over.’ But it seemed like we were maybe past the worst of it. You know, the shakes, the flashbacks.”

“’And now?”

“I don’t’ know. I mean, at first I thought it was just the holidays in general. No big blowup or anything. He just seemed…” Peter was struggling for the right words.

“Too quiet,” Mozzie offered.

“Yes,” Peter replied with a nod. “And at work…he was still smiling and flirting and, you know, being Neal. And I know that some of that is probably just for show anyway, but I got the feeling that he was, I don’t know, working too hard at it. Does that make any sense?”

Moz just looked at him for a moment, his gaze discomfortingly intense. “For a bureaucratic drone, you continue to surprise me with your perceptiveness.”

“Thanks. I think. But we were talking about Neal, not my unexpected talents.” Peter paused. “Has he seemed out of sorts to you?”

Mozzie sighed. “Perhaps. A bit. But nothing that seemed inconsistent with the oncoming season of so-called festivity. Given what’s happened. And I take it you and Mrs. Suit came to the same conclusion.”

“Pretty much.”

“Given that I am presumably your option of last resort, I assume it’s gone beyond whatever general malaise we’ve all apparently observed. Did something happen I should know about?”

“That’s the problem. I don’t know what happened. One minute Neal, El and I were having a nice dinner and Neal seemed, if not ‘good,’ at least temporarily not in a funk. And the next minute he’s excusing himself, claiming a headache that just came on. And he didn’t even try to sell it. I mean, even when Neal is sick, or hurt, or otherwise not one-hundred percent, he can still convince most people of, well, most anything. Even El couldn’t persuade him to stay, or to give her some idea what was wrong. And now….”

“Stop,” Mozzie said, interrupting Peter mid-sentence. “Back up and tell me exactly what happened at this dinner. Everything that happened.”

“It was just El’s lamb stew. And onion bread. All we did was eat.”

Mozzie shook his head in annoyance. “I don’t need the menu. Unless of course Neal took one look at the food and did a runner. But I figure you would have mentioned that already.”

“I think so, yes,” Peter said, irritation bleeding into his tone.

“Then what else happened?” Moz asked.

“Nothing. We ate. We talked.”

“About what?”

“I don’t know…nothing important.”

“Think, Suit.”

Peter sighed, then closed his eyes and did a mental five-count. Maybe Mozzie was right. Something had clearly set Neal off, and really, Peter didn’t have any better idea as to how to figure it out.

“It was a couple of weeks ago when Neal first started, I don’t know, regressing? Like I said, it wasn’t any one thing, he just seemed out of sorts. I talked to El about it.”

“A good idea, of course. But weren’t we talking about a recent event? As in the past few days?”

Peter frowned. “You wanted to know everything, and I figured it was best to start at the beginning.”

“Okay. Fair enough,” Mozzie said. He gave a vague, “Go ahead” gesture.

“So El and I talked,” Peter continued. “And we decided it might be a good idea to invite Neal over for dinner. Just, you know, give him something else to think about beside, well, whatever was going on in his head. El made those Cornish hens Neal likes so much. I’m pretty sure he knew exactly what we were up to, but it seemed to work. So we figured we’d do it again this week, maybe make it a regular thing, at least for a while.”

“But….”

“But it didn’t go quite as planned.”


Earlier that week

“So,” Peter said, “El is making her grandmother’s famous lamb stew.”

“Peter.”

“Neal.”

“You don’t have to keep doing this. I’m fine.”

“Then you can call my wife and turn down her invitation.”

“You play dirty, you know that?”

Peter just shrugged.  Neal sighed, but he didn’t look particularly upset.

“What time?”

“Why don’t I just give you a ride when we’re done here?”

“Okay. I surrender.”

Peter couldn’t help but grin at that.  Neal rolled his eyes in response, but Peter caught the hint of a smile on his face as well.

Everything was going well.  The team had wrapped up a major case the day before, and with nothing pressing coming in by mid-afternoon they were able to get the evidence processed and the paperwork finished, and Peter and Neal were heading down to the parking garage by just after 5pm.

Peter even found a parking space a few doors down from the house.

“Hon?” Elizabeth’s voice called from the kitchen as Peter bent down to give Satchmo a scratch behind the ears and Neal shut the door behind them.

Satch moved on to circle Neal, butting up against his legs, while Peter hung up his coat and headed into the kitchen, briefly glancing back to see that Satch had flopped to the floor and Neal was squatting down to give him a belly rub.

“Hey, Hon,” Peter said as Elizabeth stepped away from the stove. They met in the middle of the room and Peter bent down to give her a quick kiss.

“You’re home early,” she said.

“I told you we were leaving on time tonight.”

“She’s been married to you for how long, Peter?” Peter looked up to see Neal smirking at him from the other side of the room.

“We convinced him that mortgage fraud could wait until tomorrow,” Neal continued, turning to Elizabeth.

“Well I appreciate that,” she said, stepping around Peter to give Neal a welcoming hug. “I’m glad you could make it.”

“Thanks for inviting me,” Neal replied. “Again.”

Elizabeth just smiled at him and let that last comment slide. “Why don’t you open up a bottle of wine?”

Neal smiled back. Peter was pretty sure that Neal knew exactly what Peter and Elizabeth were up to, but he was willing to go along with it, and it really did seem to be helping, and Peter figured that was good enough to go on for now.

Neal took a minute to peruse the Burke’s wine selection while Peter set the table.

The three of them enjoyed a glass of wine while the stew simmered and the bread warmed, then sat down to eat. El vented about the wedding she was working on – apparently the bride’s parents were very hands on. Neal vented about the existence of mortgage fraud in the world, or more particularly about the fact that the White Collar division was tasked with solving mortgage fraud cases.

They were clearing the table of the dinner detritus, stashing the leftovers in the refrigerator and adding the dishes to the current load in the dishwasher, and getting ready for dessert when the topic of this year’s Christmas tree came up. It was an old argument, and Peter found himself falling easily into the familiar rhythms.

“I was thinking that maybe we could go with all white lights this year,” El said, as if on cue. Peter shook his head.

“I don’t know, Hon. We just bought another batch of colored lights last year.”

The Burke household Christmas decorations were, in fact, the result of a compromise that they’d worked out years ago, but that didn’t stop one or the other of them from lobbying for a change every now and then. Okay, pretty much every year.

“Hon,” El said, with just the right note of pleading in her voice.

Peter smiled warmly at her. “Maybe next year?”

“Okay, but you have to promise not to go overboard on the tinsel.”

“When have I ever overdone the tinsel, Hon?”

“Peter Burke. Do you really want me to answer that?”

“Okay, so there was that one time….”

“And what about that wreath?”

“There was nothing wrong with the wreath.”

“Whatever you say, Hon,” Elizabeth replied, her tone clearly saying she was humoring Peter now. “Hey! I have an idea. If you want to pick out a new wreath for the door, why don’t you take Neal with you? He can help.”

“I’m sure Neal doesn’t want to drag out decoration shopping with his boss,” Peter replied. “Right, Neal?”

“Neal?” Elizabeth said, her teasing tone from a moment ago gone, and real concern in her voice.

Peter turned back to where Neal had been slicing the pie and putting the coffee on, only to find him standing and staring, empty mug in hand. It was terribly cliché, Peter knew, but Neal looked like he’d seen a ghost.

“Neal,” Peter said, taking a step in the other man’s direction. “Are you okay?”

“Neal!” he repeated, a little more sharply, when there was no response to his initial attempt to get Neal’s attention.

Neal blinked a couple of times, then turned his gaze to the floor for a moment, before setting the mug he was holding on the counter next to the other two already lined up by the coffee maker, offering a hasty excuse about needing the bathroom, and disappearing through the living room and up the stairs.


Now

“Oh, no,” Mozzie exclaimed. “You didn’t.”

“Didn’t what?” Peter answered, feeling more than a little lost.

Mozzie sighed heavily.  “The Great Christmas Tree Controversy,” he replied, and Peter could just about hear the air quotes. And the capital letters.

“You do realize I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Kate loved the classics.”

“Kate,” Peter said with a shake of his head. “How did I not see that coming?”

“Perhaps I need to reconsider my previous assessment of your perspicacity.”

“Perhaps we could talk about me some other time? You were about to tell me something about Kate?”

Mozzie sighed dramatically. “She may have wanted to be seen as unconventional, but Kate had a real thing for Christmas. And Neal wasn’t much better. And she insisted that there had to be a tree – which, I’ll have you know, isn’t always the easiest thing to do. It didn’t matter if the two of them were – allegedly, of course – busy avoiding the clutches of the Federales.”

“That’s Mexico,” Peter said, unable to help himself.

“Whatever. The long arm of the oppressors.”

Peter just gave him a look.

“Anyway, it apparently wasn’t Christmas without a tree, even if was small enough to fit onto the desk in a hotel room. And the proper way to decorate said tree was an ongoing debate. You should know that Neal is with the lovely Mrs. Suit on the subject of lights.”

“Somehow that’s not surprising,” Peter said.

“You might, however, be surprised by his views on tinsel.” There was something in Mozzie’s tone…as much as he was making this story about Neal and Kate (and Peter did believe that it was, for the most part, about them), Peter also had the feeling that Mozzie wasn’t quite as much of an uninterested bystander as he was making himself out to be. And that he did not agree with Neal’s approach to tinsel, whatever that might be.

“Not a minimalist?”

“That’s one way of putting it,” Mozzie replied. “Anyway,” he continued after a moment’s pause, “It seems we’ve found the root of your problem. Or, well, Neal’s problem as it were.”


Unfortunately, while understanding the why of Neal’s abrupt exit earlier in the week might have given them some ideas about what to do to make things better, it didn’t really do much to help with the how of coaxing Neal out of his self-imposed exile. Peter wasn’t at all surprised that Neal had chosen to slink off to lick his wounds in private. Or that Neal had no interest in talking about what was bothering him. But it was increasingly difficult to watch Neal putting up a front of being “fine,” even as Peter could see the cracks in the façade. And Elizabeth felt terrible, even though she’d had no way of knowing that something as innocuous as her yearly “battle” with Peter over Christmas tree lights would send Neal into a downward spiral. They couldn’t help Neal if he refused to let them back in, and Neal just continued to rebuff any and all of Peter’s invitations.

One night he wasn’t feeling well, another he had slept poorly the night before and was too tired. One Saturday morning he was running errands for June. Most recently, Neal had begged off Peter’s dinner invitation saying that he’d promised her that he’d put together the bicycle she’d bought for her granddaughter Samantha. Peter was fairly certain that June could easily have the bicycle delivered fully assembled, but he let it slide.

Somewhat surprisingly, Elizabeth had no better luck. Peter could usually rely on his wife as his trump card – neither Neal nor Mozzie seemed to be able to say no to her – but Neal had politely but resolutely declined even El’s invitations. Which led El to schedule a lunch date with Mozzie in hopes of getting some new insight, or barring that, perhaps a plan to get Neal to the Burke’s house whether he wanted to come or not. Peter was pretty sure El and Mozzie working together could be a dangerous proposition, but even the two of them hadn’t made any significant progress solving the “Neal problem.” Mozzie had eventually admitted to Elizabeth that while Neal wasn’t going so far as to kick him out when he barged into Neal’s apartment and drank his wine, he wasn’t exactly welcoming Moz in either, nor was he making an effort to be even marginally good company. And while Mozzie could come up with any number of ideas for tricking Neal into going to the Burkes so they could implement “Operation Christmas Tree,” and while Elizabeth been the one to ask for such a plan, in the end she found herself uncomfortable with that approach. And though his frustration with the whole situation was almost enough to convince Peter to grasp at whatever crazy scheme he might be offered, he had a feeling that El, as was so often the case, was right. It needed to be Neal’s decision to come to them.

That didn’t, however, mean that Peter and Elizabeth were entirely out of cards to play. Which is why Peter went to “run down another lead “a few nights later, leaving Neal in the van with Jones and Diana. And ended up at June’s, where she served him tea, listened as he explained both the problem and what he and Elizabeth were hoping to do, and, thankfully, agreed to “give Neal a nudge” in the right direction.


“Have I told you that you play dirty?”

Peter looked up from the report he was reviewing to see Neal standing in the doorway of his office.

“On several occasions,” he replied.

“Fair enough. But June?”

“Did it work?”

Neal sighed, but there was actually a hint of a smile on his face. “Yeah, it worked. Should I ask you what time dinner is, or just assume that you’re going to drive us both to Brooklyn when we’re done with today’s stack of cold cases and mortgage fraud?”
                                
“I’m driving,” Peter answered, “And you left something off of that list.”

“We have another case? Tell me it’s something juicy, Peter.”

“Neal.”

“Yes, Peter?”

“You know you still need to finish that report on the Pederson case, right?”

Neal sighed.

“And no conning the new probie into doing your work for you.”

“Have I told you you’re no fun, Peter?”

“On more than several occasions, Neal. But that report isn’t going to write itself.”

Neal shook his head, a look of distaste on his face, but he headed down the stairs to his desk and got to work.


In the end, it was a better day than either Peter or Neal expected. Peter got a call from NYPD to consult on a stash of goods that had been recovered on one of their cases, so he and Neal got out of the office for a while and Neal got to show off a bit, but nothing pressing came in to keep them late at the office. Peter indulged Neal’s request to stop and let him pick up a bottle of wine to bring for dinner, after he insisted he needed to have something to give Elizabeth in apology for rebuffing her previous two invitations. Peter feigned offense at not getting an apology of his own. Neal rolled his eyes.

Despite the banter, however, Neal was still subdued, and only grew more so the closer they got to the house. Peter was able to find a spot about halfway down the block. He snuck a glance at Neal, just in time to see him take a deep breath and paste a smile on his face. Peter hoped he and Elizabeth were doing the right thing.

He wasn’t sure a couple of minutes later as he watched as Neal handed the bottle of wine off to Elizabeth, stepped past her into the living room…and froze, staring at the Christmas tree in the corner of the room. It was decked out in pale blue lights and silver and blue garland.

“Neal?” Elizabeth asked quietly as if trying not to spook him. She stepped up beside him and reached for his hand, which he let her take in hers.

“Is it okay?” she asked. Peter could hear the worry in her voice.

“It’s,” Neal started, then stopped. “It’s amazing. I don’t.  How did you know about?” Neal was uncharacteristically struggling for words.

“We had a little help,” she replied. “Peter talked to Mozzie. I’m so sorry we upset you before. If I’d known….”

“It wasn’t your fault,” Neal said with a shake of his head. “You had no way of knowing. And I shouldn’t have run out on you. It was silly.”

“It wasn’t silly. You miss her.”

“Every day,” Neal replied, the pain clear in his voice.  “We used to talk about how we would celebrate when I got out. And about the things we were missing. I owed her four years’ worth of Christmases. Before everything went crazy, I told her that we’d do whatever she wanted this year, that I wouldn’t even argue with her about the lights.”

Peter had moved to stand on Neal’s other side and he could see the unshed tears in the younger man’s eyes.

“We thought maybe it was time for a new tradition,” he said, settling a hand on Neal’s shoulder and hoping that it was at least somewhat comforting.

“I,” Neal started, then stopped again. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Elizabeth replied. “Help me with the salad?”

Peter followed the two of them into the kitchen and put together the garlic bread, then opened the wine Neal had bought. El’s lasagna was already in the oven.

Dinner started out in the usual way, with Elizabeth telling them about her new clients and about her assistant Yvonne’s new boyfriend. Peter told El about their field trip to visit the NYPD. Neal was unusually quiet, a pensive look on his face. For a few minutes no one spoke, the only sounds the clinking of silverware as they ate and Satchmo padding across the floor to visit his water dish.

“She loved Christmas,” Neal said suddenly. Peter, who had been pointedly not looking at Neal, turned toward him just as Elizabeth reached out and put her hand over his. Peter thought it was a good sign that Neal didn’t pull away from her.

“Especially the lights on the houses. Someday, when we settled down, I was going to make sure she had the prettiest house on the street.” Neal paused then, and took a deep breath, blinking back tears.

“And there was always hot chocolate on Christmas Eve,” he continued. “She was constantly looking for new ways to make it. Marshmallows, mint…one year it was Mexican chocolate and she put some kind of pepper in it. It sounded awful, but it was really good.”

“And of course the tree. There always had to be a tree. And Moz,” Neal said with a smile. “He acted like he didn’t care about any of it. But he had this beat up old angel, I’m pretty sure it was from Mr. Jeffries, and he would always put it on the top of the tree when no one else was around.”

“And Kate and I, we were always arguing about the decorations. And I guess when she was a kid, everyone in the family had an ornament. She gave me one to put on the tree our first Christmas together.” Neal looked away for a few seconds. “She even gave one to Mozzie,” he said with a smile. “He scoffed, but we knew he was happy about it.”

“In my family, it was stockings,” Elizabeth said.

“Stockings?” Neal asked.

“Everyone had a Christmas stocking, including the dog.”

“I still remember when I got mine,” Peter added. “That’s when I knew I was part of the family.”

“You and the dog?” Neal asked with a smirk.

“Be nice, Neal,” Elizabeth chided, but she was smiling.

“Sorry, Peter,” Neal said, though he didn’t sound particularly repentant.

“I’ll let it slide this once, Caffrey.”

“Okay,” Elizabeth said, breaking up their bickering. “I think it’s time for coffee,” Elizabeth paused. “And Neal?”

“Yes?”

“Thank you.”

“What for?”

“For sharing all of that with us. And for letting June convince you to stop dodging our invitations.”

Neal looked unsure about how to respond to that. It wasn’t just Peter who was less than comfortable talking about his feelings.

“Coffee?” Peter said. Neal shot him a grateful look. Peter smiled in return, though he knew Neal was in for one more surprise….

It took a few minutes after they all made their way back into the living room, coffee mugs in hand, but Peter knew it the moment Neal caught sight of the stockings hanging off to one side of the tree. All four of them.

At first Neal just stared. Then he got up from the sofa and crossed the room to get a closer look. Eventually he raised a hand toward the last stocking on the right, the one with “Neal” embroidered across the top, though he seemed reluctant to actually touch it, as if it might disappear.

Elizabeth had moved to stand behind him. “Welcome to the family, Neal,” she said, opening her arms to envelop him in a hug.

Wonderful and absolutely perfect.

Awww. Thanks for the lovely comment.

Such a beautiful story - low-key but very touching. Thank you for posting it.

So glad you liked it. Thanks for taking time to comment.

Aww, this is beautiful! (So glad to finally get to read it!)

I adore the roles Mozzie and June had in helping the Burkes to help Neal through his struggle, and the ending was wonderful. I also love the memories that Neal shared about Kate and Christmas - makes her feel less impersonal (than what the show made her) somehow.

Thank you for the lovely feedback. And also for the encouragement in wcwu chat, especially as it got later on Saturday night. :-)

I'm glad I was able to make Kate more real for you, and that you enjoyed the different roles everyone played.

Aww, this is wonderful! Poor Neal *hugs him* So glad he has friends willing to help him, including June! :)

Thanks for taking the time to comment. I'm glad Neal has friends to help him too. :-)

Awww, so glad you finished it and posted it \o/ It's perfect, I love it so much, all of Neal's friends working together to give him a happy Christmas :D Awwwwww *hugs*

Thanks for posting :D

I'm glad you enjoyed the story so much. Also, I have to say that I really appreciate your enthusiasm as a fic reader - as a writer, I really appreciate all of the feedback.

And I'm glad I got the story finished too. :)

Oh, such a sweet story. And I love that Mozzie is just as soppy about his decorations. I hope he has a tree to out them on too.

Thanks! I enjoyed the bit with Mozzie and his 'secret' sentimentality. Heehee.

Glad you enjoyed the story.

*sniff* Awww, Neal! So very sweet. I love how you wove Kate and Neal and Mozzie's traditions into this story. Wow. So good! Thank you for sharing!

And thank you for commenting!

I'm glad you liked the weaving of the traditions. When I realized I couldn't write RC's original prompt, I also realized that I still liked the idea of Neal & Kate having Christmas traditions (it was just that he needed to make new ones).

Thanks again.

Very touching.
I loved the Neal/Kate/Moz background, and the christmas stocking touch was adorable.

Thanks so much. I'm glad you liked the background - I definitely had fun writing it.

This was lovely! I love everyone working together to help Neal and the Christmas memories for him and Kate. And the stocking at the end. <3

Thanks for sharing.

And thank *you* for taking time to comment. So glad you enjoyed the story. I like the idea of everyone having a role to play in Neal's Christmas.

Edited at 2013-12-24 08:56 am (UTC)

I was glad to see you finished and posted this!

Great fic. I love stories set during this time, and I love Peter working with Mozzie to figure out what was wrong. Great job.

Thanks for the comment, and also for the cheerleading when I was trying to get the story finished. :-)

Once I figured out that I wasn't writing the original prompt, and then what I *was* writing, I struggled a bit with when to set the story. I eventually came back to the original prompt's time frame. I like this time in the show too. :) And I really enjoy writing Peter & Mozzie interactions - glad you enjoyed that part.

That was extremely sentimental and sweet.

You had me in tears right along with Neal.

I really liked the stocking bit and you did a great job with the beginning, Peter's response to Moz's secret code bit. Very nice.

Thanks so much for the feedback.

My entry into this story was totally Peter meeting Mozzie to talk about Neal, a la Withdrawal. So glad you liked that bit. It feels weird to say that I'm glad I made you cry, but I think you know what I mean. :)

Thanks again.

Glad you liked it. Thanks for the feedback!

This made me cry, in a very good way! Absolutely beautiful, thank you for sharing!

Thanks so much. Glad those were "good" tears (and that the story touched you).

Very sweet,thank you for a great Christmas story.

You're very welcome. Thank *you* for stopping by and for taking time to comment.

Oh that was a sweet story. I love the ending where Neal gets his own stocking. : )

Glad you liked it. I was bouncing around a few ideas for how the story would end - good to hear that you liked that part.

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