When Peter walks into the living room humming "For unto us a child is born" and sees the bookcase sitting in the middle of the floor, his first thought is that it must be a Christmas present from El—but for as long as he's known her, Elizabeth has done all of her Christmas shopping in one mad, superstitious marathon session on Christmas Eve, and this year's shopping blitz won't start until tomorrow.
Curious, Peter walks up to the bookcase and strokes a hand across the top – it's a beautiful piece of furniture, obviously handmade; the wood is smooth and glowing, and it's sturdy without looking awkward or clunky.
There's only one person in Peter's life who would break into his house in the middle of the afternoon on the day before Christmas Eve to leave him a piece of expensive furniture.
Peter walks into the kitchen and, sure enough, finds Neal sitting at the table, reading the paper and drinking from a white mug.
Neal looks up at Peter's entrance and smiles, holding his hands up.
"Elizabeth let me in on her lunch break – I didn't break in." Neal tilts his head, and thinks for a moment. "This time," he amends.
"I saw the bookcase," Peter says, and Neal's smile gets wider.
"It's beautiful," Peter says evenly. "Who's going to be missing their bookcase tonight?" After eight years, he knows Neal Caffrey's sense of humor pretty well.
The smile drops off of Neal's face, and he stands up from the table.
"Nobody," he says tersely. "This was a mistake." He sets his mug in the sink and walks by Peter without meeting his eyes.
"Merry Christmas, Peter," Neal mutters, still not looking at him; he's out the front door in thirty seconds.
Peter walks out to the living room to look at the bookshelf again – it really is beautiful, but it's not fancy or ornate. It's just five pieces of lumber – two upright for the sides, one horizontal for the bottom, two horizontal for the shelves, and one on top. The more Peter looks at it, the more he feels like an ass. Neal can be like a child sometimes, and he does like to yank Peter's chain every now and then, but he does respect Peter – Neal wouldn't give him stolen goods for Christmas. There's no reason he couldn't have gone out and bought this at a furniture store like a normal person.
Peter crouches down and takes a closer look – it's kind of an odd-looking piece of furniture, because not all five of the boards are the same kind of wood – they're not even the same thickness. The mismatched wood doesn't make it any less beautiful, but—
No, Peter thinks, shaking his head, No way. But he bends over anyway and starts scrutinizing every inch of the bookcase. Sure enough, there it is – a tiny "NC" scratched in the bottom right corner of the middle shelf. Neal always signs his work.
Parked illegally outside of June's house, Peter gets out of the car and walks around to the back of the house instead of ringing the doorbell. In the dumpster out back, he finds empty cans of stain and varnish, and a respectable pile of used sandpaper. He stands up and turns in a circle slowly, and sure enough, on a house just down the block, he sees the telltale blue tarp that means someone is in the middle of renovations. Peter's willing to bet that, if he checked the dumpster behind that house, he'd find scrap wood and mostly-used varnish cans.
When Peter goes back around to the front door and rings the doorbell, it's opened by June herself, looking forbidding. She doesn't say anything – just stares.
"I'm here to apologize," Peter says.
June's whole demeanor changes – she beams at him and says a hearty "Merry Christmas," before beckoning him in and shooing him up the stairs to Neal's room.
The door is open, but Peter knocks on the doorframe for politeness. When Neal walks over to the door, he looks tired, and Peter looks around this big room and, for the first time, sees the emptiness of it, rather than the extravagance.
"I was a jerk," he says. "I'm sorry."
"Oh," Neal says, eyes wide.
"It's a great present. I love it. Thank you."
"Oh," Neal says again, this time with a small smile creeping across his face. "Thanks. I'm glad you like it. Want some hot chocolate?"
Sitting at Neal's table, blowing gently on his drink, Peter says, "I didn't know you could make furniture."
Neal shrugs. "I can't. But the workers from the house down the street said that a bookcase was simple enough that even a novice couldn't mess one up too badly. They let me use their tools."
"I'd wondered about that part," Peter says idly.
"The kindness of strangers," Neal says softly, smiling fondly at nothing. "June says it's the Christmas spirit."
"I don't have anything for you," Peter confesses. "I mean, I did, but… it wasn't good."
"You got me a present?" Neal asks, his eyes bright – he looks like a little kid.
"No, no," Peter protests, "it wasn't any good."
"I'm sure it's great!" Neal insists, but Peter knows it really wasn't. He had tried, but the prospect of buying a gift for a man who could have anything in the world that he wanted was just too daunting, and instead of thinking creatively, like Neal, Peter had just thrown in the towel and bought some awful, dull cufflinks which Neal doesn't even need and would have pretended to like.
"I really don't have anything," Peter says firmly – to give Neal the ugly, thoughtless cufflinks now, now that he knows how much work and thought Neal had put into his gift, would be hurtful.
"No?" Neal asks, looking crestfallen.
"No," Peter says firmly, but when he swipes his tongue across his lips, tasting cocoa and marshmallows, and sees Neal's eyes follow it before quickly flickering away, Peter thinks there might be something after all.
"Actually…" he says, and Neal leans across the corner of the table eagerly – Peter slowly, carefully reaches up with his hand to fit the plane of Neal's cheek into his palm. Neal breathes in sharply, but instead of flinching away, he leans gently into Peter's touch.
Fighting down the sizzling nervousness in his chest, Peter watches as Neal's eyelids flutter closed, then softly brushes his lips across Neal's. He means for that to be the end of it, but Neal's mouth opens in a small gasp, and he shivers under Peter's hand, and Peter can't help but kiss him again, tasting chocolate on Neal's tongue and slipping his hand further back into the silk of Neal's hair.
When they break apart for air, Peter takes a deep breath and leans back in his seat – watching him closely, Neal does the same.
"Merry Christmas," Peter manages, which makes Neal smile.
"And a Happy New Year?" he murmurs, raising an inquiring eyebrow.
Peter takes a minute to try to figure out all the implications of what he thinks Neal might be asking, then decides he doesn't care.
"Yeah," he says, meeting Neal's blue, blue eyes. "I hope so."