Spoilers: Post-series fic
Characters: Neal (with brief appearances by Mozzie, Peter & Sarah)
Summary: Neal Caffrey has a terrible track record where letters to Santa (or approximations thereof) are concerned...
AN: My entry for the 2016 whitecollarhc Advent. In a bizarre plot twist, unlike the last two years I'm getting this posted before I leave to drive to my mom's, rather than semi-frantically finishing it up at her place while waiting for the rest of the family to arrive. Hurt of the emotional kind. Definitely comfort, eventually. Not beta read, as I finished last night and did a quick review/edit this morning. Thanks are again due to my good friend jrosemary for the word wars during which I wrote the bulk of this.
When Neal Caffrey was four – old enough to understand, more or less, what happened to his dad, and young enough to be writing letters to Santa Claus (okay, Aunt Ellen helped him with the writing part) – he made a list. He wanted to make sure to remember when he was sitting on Santa’s lap (Aunt Ellen had promised to take him to see Santa at the mall on Saturday). “Dear Santa, I’ve been a very good boy this year. I didn’t mean to break that vase, I really didn’t. I want a toy police car – the kind with the lights that flash and the siren that goes off when you push the button on top, and some new paints, and a puppy, and a Hot Wheels track.” Neal thought that maybe if he snuck the puppy in, in the middle, Santa might not be paying such close attention, and he’d get it even though he was pretty sure his mom wouldn’t be so happy about it (and Aunt Ellen hadn’t wanted to put it on the list at all). “And,” Neal added, after some hesitation, “I really, really want my dad to come home.” Ellen had looked at him with that sad expression she sometimes got. Part of Neal knew his dad was gone forever, but there was still that little bit of him didn’t quite believe.
When Neal Caffrey was six, he decided he was maybe too old to believe in Santa Claus. He could walk to the bus stop all by himself, after all. And he knew, really knew, that his dad was never coming home. But his first grade teacher had the class write letters to Santa one day, and Neal liked Miss Carter, and he didn’t want to disappoint her. And maybe a part of him wasn’t ready to let go just yet. So Neal told Santa what he really wanted that year, besides the toys and books and art supplies. “Dear Santa, I’ve been a very good boy this year,” Neal wrote, as usual. But this time at the end of his list…”I really, really want my mommy to be happy again. And I wish she had more time to play with me.” Funny, but Miss Carter’s face when she collected Neal’s paper looked a lot like Ellen’s sad face.
When Neal Caffrey was seventeen, he was obviously way past the whole Santa Claus thing. He was also past wishing his mom would finally get over losing his dad. Neal was doing well in school, he had friends, and was busy with the track team and his art projects. He didn’t need anyone to hold his hand, and he could make his own snacks after school or practice, and even make his own dinner when his mom was working late (or just too tired or out of it to cook). But then his art teacher gave his class the “What I want for Christmas” assignment. Neal thought about it. Part of him wanted to paint the dog he’d never gotten as a child, that (other) item on his list for Santa that went undelivered year after year. He knew that didn’t really fulfill the assignment, but he figured Mrs. Collins would give him the benefit of the doubt. And Neal wasn’t sure he wanted to put his true desires on canvas in fear of jinxing himself. But in the end he decided to just damn the proverbial torpedoes, and a few weeks later he was proudly revealing his project, a ‘family portrait’ of his Aunt Ellen and his mom, smiling, his mom’s hand on his shoulder, and Neal himself proudly holding a letter. “It’s my acceptance to the Police Academy,” he told Mrs. Collins when she asked.
When Neal Caffrey was twenty-nine, the idea of wishing for much of anything for Christmas was far, far away, lost to the monotony of institutional gray prison walls, bland food, and life in an eight by ten foot cell. The days ran together, and there was little to mark holidays other than the cook’s middling attempts at a special dinner. Well, that and Kate. Kate who still came to visit him every week, bringing with her a splash of color and a much-needed hope of a future. And, at least on Neal’s birthday and on Christmas, a gift or two. He’d missed her visit the previous Christmas when he’d ended up handcuffed to a hospital bed on Christmas Eve (and a couple of days beyond) after he’d gone from keeping his next door neighbor up with his coughing to worrying the generally blasé prison doctor by coughing up blood. So it was with even more than the usual anticipation that Neal waited for her next Christmas visit. This time she brought him some new pastels and drawing paper (carefully vetted by the prison staff, of course), and a scrapbook of postcards representing all the places they would go when Neal was released. And a new game. A few weeks ago they’d sat in the visitor’s room trying to one-up each other with ever-more elaborate vacations they’d take in another couple of years when Neal got out (and many of those destinations, if not the adventures they’d described, were featured in the scrapbook). This year Kate smiled at him and told him they were playing “Letters to Santa.” Despite his rather disappointing track record with such things, Neal couldn’t bring himself to say no, which to be honest described his whole relationship with Kate for the most part. But her eyes lit up in anticipation, and Neal found himself actually getting into the spirit as they went back and forth, their list of requests getting more outlandish as they went (Neal was pretty sure Kate didn’t actually want the Taj Mahal, or think it was a thing that you could actually have anyway, and he suspected that she also knew that he didn’t care to be named King of New York, and wouldn’t even if that were a thing). But then, as they found themselves running out of steam, Neal paused, and took a deep breath.
“Seriously, though?” he offered, half expecting Kate to brush him off. But she didn’t. She gave him that look, the one that made him fall in love all over again every time, and nodded.
“I just want to be a family. You and I,” he said, stopping just short of the “and maybe a couple of kids” that he wanted to add.
When Neal Caffrey was thirty-five, he didn’t send a letter, to Santa or to Peter Burke. He was afraid to. So instead he sent a bottle. He’d had to leave New York, for everyone’s sake. He wasn’t sure he could trust the FBI (Peter, yes, the FBI, not so much). He knew he couldn’t trust the Panthers. Or rather he could…he could trust them to go after anyone close to him if they found out he was the mole. Keller had been right about that. He knew what Peter would say. “Talk to me, Neal. We can work this out, find a way to do this together.” But for all that Peter chased criminals for a living, and for all that he was very, very good at it, there were things he just didn’t understand. And even if Neal had thought there was a way, that somehow they could keep everybody safe, that wasn’t the only problem. Even with his deal with the FBI in writing, there was a voice in the back of Neal’s mind asking if he truly believed he’d have his freedom. The only way to be sure, really sure, was for Neal Caffrey to die. And as much as Neal cared for the Burkes, as much as he thought of them as family, as much as he didn’t want to leave, it was best for everyone. The Burkes would be fine. They had each other. Yes, they cared about Neal, but he wasn’t really family. He was someone they trusted “to a point.” So Neal Caffrey was killed by Keller, that nasty piece of work. And Nicholas Dumont built a life in Paris. His references were solid (but not so impeccable as to garner undue attention), and he managed to find work at one of the many small galleries in the city. Charlotte, his boss, had told him she was sorry she could only offer a position as an assistant to the manager, and that she understood if he said no, given his credentials in restoration. But Nicholas, in return, had insisted that he was happy with the position, and it hadn’t taken long for Emma, the manager, to realize that Nicholas had quite the eye for new artists and soon he was more or less in charge of finding the talent for their “Up and Coming” exhibitions. It was a good job, and one he enjoyed. Paris was every bit as beautiful as he (or rather, Neal) remembered. He enjoyed walking in the city. He got to know the proprietor of the bakery that he passed on his way to work. He made some friends, and went on the occasional date (though not frequently enough, if Charlotte and Emma were to be believed). He knew that both of his bosses cared for him. He suspected that some would look at his life and make some comment about him always landing on his feet. They would think him lucky. And while he knew there was some truth to that, no matter how settled he had become, no matter what kind of makeshift family he had built, there was a nagging feeling that kept resurfacing. An ache that wouldn’t truly go away. A longing for another family.
When Neal heard that the last of the Panthers had been sentenced to life in prison and shipped off to maximum security, he reached out to his oldest friend, hopeful and uneasy at the same time. It took Mozzie about a week, and thankfully he showed up at Neal’s apartment to chew him out and not the gallery. Neal, for his part, let Moz rant – it wasn’t undeserved after all – and then, when his friend had wound down, he offered him his best bottle of wine. They made up – they always did – and for a week or so Neal was too busy wining and dining and sightseeing with Mozzie and fending off his offers of help in a variety of proposed heists to think about other lost friends. But Moz, as was his wont, begged off staying longer, offering only a clichéd, “Places to go, people to see, trinkets to steal” (okay so the last part was Mozzie’s personal addition) before swanning off to who knew where. Truth be told, Neal wasn’t surprised. He appreciated that Moz had been willing to make New York City his home base when Neal was stuck there on a two-mile tether, especially given the other man’s self-proclaimed aversion to putting down roots. But he’d moved on since Neal’s “death,” and Neal strongly suspected he had something in the works that wasn’t really compatible with a no longer in the business con man or a thief who refused to steal things. And Neal pointedly didn’t look into the local news out of London after he got the postcard featuring a collage of tourist attractions and a cryptic message in only semi-disguised handwriting. Nor did he look to see if any of the major New York museums had lost anything when he got the postcard of the Empire State Building (though he did have a few moments of irrational anger that Moz had gone back to New York without telling him). He really couldn’t complain, in any case. Moz had been surprisingly understanding once he’d finished berating Neal and finishing off several glasses of an excellent Beaujolais. And when a few weeks after they’d parted ways Neal asked for a favor, Mozzie acquiesced with only the mildest of objections, though he approved of the puzzle aspect. Neal didn’t think Moz realized that it wasn’t about sending Peter a puzzle so much as it was about Neal’s anxiety about putting his feelings into words. Telling Peter and Elizabeth that he missed his family was not going to happen. When several weeks passed with no sign that his message had been received, though he knew Peter had gotten the bottle, Neal began steeling himself for another loss. And so it was, that when there was a knock on his door one Friday evening, he assumed it was Charlotte, or Emma, or both, coming to pry him away from a night alone in his apartment, and was taken completely aback to find Peter Burke on his doorstep. He was equally taken aback by the punch to the jaw (though in retrospect he was pretty sure Peter had pulled his punch) and by the fierce hug that followed it.
“I missed you too?” Neal ventured, rubbing his jaw once he’d been released from Peter’s arms.
Neal Caffrey is forty-two, and he is writing a letter to Santa. Or, more precisely, he is taking dictation from his four-year-old son, who has Sara’s red hair, Neal’s blue eyes, and a stubborn streak a mile wide (for which each of his parents blames the other). Jack (a.k.a. John Peter Ellis-Caffrey) frowns in concentration, making sure he isn’t forgetting anything. Neal just smiles, and waits…and thinks, as he often does, that he can’t quite believe his good fortune. Somehow, after everything that had happened to Neal over the years, after all the things he’d done and all the things that had been done to him, after everyone he’d lost, he found his way back to the family he’d come to believe he couldn’t have. Somehow “we can work this out, find a way to do this together” had turned out to be true and Neal was able to come home. He truly hadn’t seen that coming. Even less expected was opening his door one Saturday morning assuming it was Peter there to recruit Neal to help with one of his DIY projects, or Mozzie, back from who knows where, there to crash on Neal’s couch and drink his wine, only to find Sara Ellis on his doorstep. Somehow, after everything they’d been through – including the exaggerated reports of Neal’s demise – they were both back in the same city. And somehow, after a bit of an awkward beginning, they eventually found their way back to a place where Neal was on one knee, ring in hand, and this time it was utterly real. And now, as his son declares his Christmas list complete, and his wife calls down from upstairs to nudge the men in her life to get ready to go – they’re having brunch at the Burke’s – he marvels at the fact that after all those failed wishes for a family, he now has two, and he promises himself that that is one thing his son will never have to put in his own letters to Santa.