A/N: By the end of season 4, a lot of info about Neal's past was uncovered, and a lot of the old threat against Neal and his family seemed to have been eliminated. I wondered if Neal was free to reconnect with his family, and from there a plot bunny emerged. It started as a fluffy story in which Neal hears a tale of his childhood. Then the plot bunny turned rabid and angsty.
Initially I envisioned this story being set during or immediately after the first episode of season 5. But I was writing an AU series, in which Peter recruited a 24-year-old Neal as a consultant in 2003, and therefore Neal never went to prison. I've retrofitted the idea behind Caffrey Envoy to fit into that AU. But you can imagine it set in season 5, if you prefer.
If you've read "By the Book" in the Caffrey Conversation AU, you may recall the last chapter mentioned a babysitter who called Neal and his cousins "the spawn." Here, the babysitter will tell his side of the story.
Warnings: Includes a child who has an upset stomach, and another child with bloody nose. The third child just screams. Ear plugs are recommended.
White Collar Division, New York. January 16, 2004 - Friday afternoon.
When Special Agent Peter Burke returned from lunch, an administrative assistant informed him that General Eccles of the U.S. Air Force had called with a request to meet Neal Caffrey. The General would be available to stop by the Federal Building anytime that afternoon.
"Where's Caffrey?" Peter asked Agent Jones.
Jones looked up from a case file he'd been reading at his desk. "He's with Agent Wiese. We want to do surveillance on a suspected fence, and they're deciding on the best location to set up the van. They should be back any minute. Something up?"
"Maybe." Peter mentally ran through every con, fraud, forgery and theft Neal had confessed to, but could recall only one that involved the military. He still couldn't believe someone as young as Neal had passed himself off as a British Admiral. Neal had simply said it had been dark, and left it at that. "Has Neal worked any cases recently that the Air Force might be interested in?"
"There was that fake mortgage lender scamming military families, but I think all the victims had Army ties."
"See what you can find out about General Eccles. There's a chance he'll tell me his interest in Caffrey when I call him back, but I doubt it. Nothing's that simple when Neal is involved."
"On it," Jones answered, and Peter went to his office to return the General's call.
Peter spoke to an aide who politely declined to describe the reason for the General's interest in Neal. They set up the meeting for 2pm, and Peter went back downstairs to see what Jones had. "Got anything?"
Jones shook his head. "He has an impressive military record. No ties to recent crimes as a victim or suspect. Nothing pops as a reason he'd be interested in Caffrey or the FBI."
Neal strolled off the elevator with Agent Tricia Wiese, both of them holding cups of coffee. Peter was willing to bet Caffrey's drink had a long, Italian name. "Caffrey! Get over here."
Neal perched on the edge of Jones' desk and took in Peter's expression. "Should we have called to ask for your orders, too?"
"I don't care about your overpriced coffee. Tell me why General Eccles of the U.S. Air Force is interested in you."
Neal sipped his coffee as he thought, and finally said, "I don't recognize the name. There was that mortgage case last week, but the victims were in the Army." Another sip of coffee. "Do you have a picture of him?"
With a few keystrokes, Jones had a picture on his computer screen. "Here ya go."
Neal walked around the desk to look at the picture over Jones' shoulder. "Still not familiar."
"I don't like this," Peter said. "He's going to be here any minute. Jones and I will keep looking for information about him. I'll have you meet with him in Hughes' office, so we can see you from here. Wave at us if you need help, and I'll come upstairs. Is there any way you can signal us details of what he wants?"
"We could plant a bug," Jones suggested.
"It takes half an hour to set up the monitoring equipment," Neal said, with the resignation of someone who had been assigned that task more often than he liked. "Do you know Morse code?"
"Yeah," said Peter.
"Me, too," said Jones.
"If I need to get information to you, I'll stand against the glass wall and tap out a message. Thumb for dots and index finger for dashes. If they notice, it should just look like a nervous gesture."
An admin escorted two uniformed officers into the White Collar bullpen. Peter introduced himself, Neal and Jones. The older officer, in his late 60s, identified himself as General Eccles. The other man was not introduced, but was in his mid 50s and wore the insignia of a colonel.
"Jones," said Peter, "show our guests upstairs. Neal, let's get them some coffee."
The colonel requested water, instead. He had a hint of a southern accent. The general said he'd take coffee with cream.
"Do you recognize either of them?" Peter asked as he poured a cup of coffee, and Neal grabbed a bottle of water from the break room.
"No," said Neal. "But the colonel is the one who's really interested in this meeting. While the general was paying attention to all of us and taking in the surroundings, the colonel kept staring at me."
"I noticed," said Peter. "I'm sure Jones did, too."
They met Jones at the top of the stairs, and he told them, "The other guy still didn't give a name. When I mentioned my service in the Navy, he told me he's spent most of his career at Langley, but did a tour in Afghanistan last year."
Jones' comment triggered an idea, one so unlikely Neal almost didn't mention it. But as he hadn't been able to think of any other explanations, he said, "There's a slight chance his name is Trent Lombard."
"Who – " Peter started.
"They're gonna get suspicious if we keep talking out here." Neal took the coffee from Peter and walked into the room where the officers awaited. He handed over the beverages and didn't try to break the silence in the room. He had a feeling they were drawing things out to rattle him, but a good con artist didn't rattle easily.
The general leaned on the desk, and asked Neal and the colonel to be seated. They took matching chairs facing the desk, and the colonel angled his chair slightly to observe Neal. "Thanks for meeting with us with so little warning," the general said. "I hope we didn't disrupt any FBI operations."
"Nothing Agent Burke can't handle," Neal answered. A pause followed. He knew they expected him to ask what they wanted, but he simply smiled politely and out waited them.
The general glanced at the unnamed colonel, who shrugged. "I hear you're claiming to be Edmund Caffrey's grandson," Eccles said.
"No," said Neal.
"You're not his grandson?" Eccles asked.
"I am, but I've never told anyone," Neal said. "I'm not going around claiming to be anyone's grandson."
"Can you prove you're Meredith Caffrey's son?"
"Why?" asked Neal.
The general stood up and paced the room. "Is there a reason you're trying to be difficult about this?"
Neal casually leaned back in the office chair and crossed his long legs at the ankles. "Yes, there is. I have no idea why you're interested in my mother or me. If you're familiar with the family, then you know why we've been out of touch with them since I was a very young child. When I officially signed myself out from WITSEC last month, I agreed not to share any information that might endanger those who remain under protection, particularly my mother. Therefore I find your interest in us suspicious."
"Do you think I'd offer to come to the FBI if I had been part of the ring of dirty cops and mobsters your dad was running with?"
"As you didn't give me time to look into you before this meeting, I have to err on the side of caution."
The general studied Neal a moment, and then turned to the colonel and said, "He certainly has Edmund's talent for polite evasion. Are you satisfied, Lombard?"
The colonel stood up. "Yes, sir. Thanks for your help. I can take it from here."
The general turned to Neal, who also stood. "Mr. Caffrey, I've met your grandfather a handful of times, and he always made an impression. I think he'll like you." He shook Neal's hand and left.
The colonel remained standing after he closed the door behind the general. Neal leaned against the glass wall, letting his hands rest against the cool surface. With his right hand, he tapped out one word.
Peter pulled a chair up to Jones' desk, hoping it looked like they were having a conversation about a case. But in reality, Peter kept an eagle eye on Hughes' office while Jones looked up Trent Lombard.
"Found him. I have a recent photo of a Colonel Trent Lombard, and he's definitely the mystery man upstairs," Jones said. "He served under Eccles in Afghanistan, and was based at Langley most of his career. No record of being a victim or suspect in a crime. He's married, with two sons. The wife and kids look clean, too."
"Can you find any connection to Caffrey?"
Jones entered new search parameters. "That's interesting."
Peter pulled his eyes away from Hughes' office for a moment. "What?"
"Could be a coincidence. Another member of Eccles' unit in Afghanistan was a David Caffrey."
A motion upstairs caught Peter's attention. The general was pacing, and he did not look happy. Neal shook his head, and the general looked even less happy than before.
"Neal," said Peter under his breath. "What are you doing?"
"Ok. Definitely not a coincidence. Take a look, Peter." Jones turned his computer screen around so Peter could see.
Peter's first thought was that Jones had found a picture of Neal in an Air Force uniform, but then he noted the other details of the photo. The officer had an arm around a woman holding a baby, and the woman's clothing and hairstyle were both from several decades ago. "That's David Caffrey?"
"Yeah." Jones pulled the screen back and did more typing. "He died in action this past summer. His plane was shot down."
Peter watched Hughes' office again. Lombard was standing also. "Afghanistan?"
"That's right. Ok, I've confirmed Neal is his nephew." He brought up more information and looked surprised.
Before Peter could ask what Jones had found, he saw Eccles leave the office and head downstairs. Peter stood to greet him. "Is there anything else you need, General?"
"No, thanks. My colleague can take it from here."
Peter saw Neal tap out a word against the glass wall. "Godfather?" he muttered. Did Lombard have mob ties?
Eccles did a double take. "You're quick. I didn't think the FBI would figure that out on such short notice." He glanced upstairs before turning back to Peter. "But it makes sense. Every Caffrey I've had the pleasure to meet has been sharp, and they like to be around bright people. This one wouldn't work for you if you couldn't keep up with him. Lombard is here as an envoy from the Caffrey family in DC, but you're right about the other side of the relationship. He feels some responsibility for your consultant, and some frustration that circumstances have prevented him from acting on that responsibility."
As the general walked away, Peter looked back upstairs again. Lombard was Neal's godfather? "Let's see what else you found, Jones."
"My name's Trent Lombard. I appreciate your patience with all of this, Neal. Take a seat," said Trent. "I promise I'll explain what's going on here."
Neal returned to his chair and asked, "Why the secrecy?"
"When your grandfather learned you were out of WITSEC and had chosen to identify yourself by your mother's maiden name, well, he was ecstatic and worried. On the one hand, it seemed like a miracle that his long-lost grandson could be returned to the family. On the other hand…"
"I'm a stranger," Neal said.
"Yes, and you know what they say about things that seem too good to be true. Edmund's a diplomat, and as such his reaction was to send an envoy on behalf of the family. Someone to meet you. Someone who could help determine if bringing you back into the Caffrey family would be a good idea."
"A good idea for me, or for them?"
"Like I said, Edmund's a diplomat. He wants a mutually beneficial arrangement. I assumed that you'd be as smart as the rest of the family. That means you've done research on them already, and you might recognize my name. But you'd probably be less likely to recognize my face. I wanted a chance to form a first impression anonymously. The general was willing to lend his name and assistance, because David and I had both served with him." Trent finally sat down. "You've heard about David?"
Neal nodded. "I considered going to the funeral, but I didn't think I could have slipped in unnoticed."
"You've got that right. Give you green eyes and you're the image of your uncle 30 years ago. Just looking at you takes me back to our days at the Air Force Academy."
"I take it you're not going to ask for proof that I'm David's nephew."
"No. I'd already checked with the Marshals. Eccles said that stuff to see how you would react. It helped me get a sense of your character."
"Yeah, if you're looking for character, let me save you some time." Neal looked out toward the bullpen and waved.
Jones had found archived articles from the social pages of a DC newspaper. Trent Lombard was best man at the wedding of David Caffrey, and a few years later David returned the favor at Trent's wedding. Also mentioned in the first article was father-of-the-groom Edmund Caffrey, recently named ambassador to an Eastern European country whose name had changed in the intervening decades.
"Neal's grandfather was an ambassador," Jones said. "Did you know that?"
"No. And it's the kind of information that might have gotten him preferential treatment."
"Do you think he knows?"
"Which part? That his grandfather is a VIP, or that sharing that information might have smoothed the way for him here?" Peter shook his head. "Someone as smart and inquisitive as Neal… I have to assume he knew both."
"Why not tell us?" Jones asked.
Peter guessed that Neal wasn't going to brag about a connection that might not want to acknowledge him. Having a suspected criminal in the family could be detrimental to a man in politics. Edmund Caffrey might want to shut Neal out of the family for the sake of his career.
Was that why Lombard was here? To tell Neal not to contact the Caffreys? Peter's eyes narrowed at the thought. That's when he saw Neal wave. He almost ran upstairs in response to the signal.
When he opened the door to the office, he heard Neal saying, "I'm not an innocent lost lamb here, Trent." Neal looked up to catch Peter's eyes. "Tell the colonel what the FBI suspected me of, Peter. Give him the full list."
"We have at various times suspected Neal of forgeries, frauds, thefts and burglaries. We also know that he is a talented artist, a creative thinker who is perhaps more creative than a government agency like the FBI knows how to appreciate, and a valuable member of the White Collar division."
Neal's smile seemed reluctant. "And I'm a mean piano player."
Peter crossed his arms and added, "He also claims he could beat me at poker, but I find that difficult to believe unless he plans to palm a few cards. Anything else you need, Neal?"
Neal looked at Trent. "You were right. Too good to be true. Give my regards to my grandfather, and let him know I understand why he won't want to meet me. No hard feelings." Neal sounded perfectly calm, but Peter thought he saw a few cracks in the façade. It had hurt Neal to say that.
"I think you underestimate Edmund. He remembers you were a handful as a child, and he doesn't expect you to be a choirboy now. He picked me as his envoy, and I'm the one who nicknamed you the spawn. I'm not saying he's going to be thrilled about all of the things you've been up to, but the fact that you're working for the FBI says a lot. If you need time to get used to the idea, your grandfather will understand, but I've known him since I was 14, and I promise he'll want to meet you as soon as you're ready."
As Neal was temporarily speechless, Peter asked, "Is there a story behind that nickname?"
A mischievous light appeared in Trent's eyes, making it easier to imagine him as the best friend of the man who had looked so much like Neal. "Oh, yeah. And like many good stories, it starts with trying to impress a girl."
In mid-March of 1981, Lieutenant David Caffrey, his sisters Noelle and Meredith, their spouses and their children filled the living room of Trent's DC townhouse to capacity. It was rare for all three Caffrey siblings to be in town at the same time. They wanted to hang out together, and Lieutenant Trent Lombard had volunteered to babysit the three children so the adults could have some grown up quality time. Or in other words, hit some bars. It was Saint Patrick's Day after all, and Caffrey was an Irish name.
"You're sure about this?" David asked one more time. Like his sisters, he had dark hair and green eyes. "I can't believe any bachelor in his right mind wants to watch these kids. I mean, my little girl's an angel, but the boys are almost as evil as their mothers were growing up."
"Yeah, I'm sure. You know that hot kindergarten teacher who keeps refusing to go out with me? She finally said she's only interested in men who want a family, and she sees me as just a party guy. You should have seen her expression when I mentioned what I'm doing tonight."
David's grin showed he understood and approved. The twins, Noelle and Meredith, chattered advice and warnings at about a hundred miles an hour. Trent kept nodding until their husbands ushered them out the door. He felt a brief moment of doubt after closing the door and turning around to face the kids. He couldn't remember being that small. They seemed almost alien. He could still see the reaction of Polly, the hot kindergarten teacher. Her expression of amazement that he was going to watch three children had been followed by peals of laughter. But he shook off the doubt. Everyone said David was great with the kids, and Trent could master anything his best friend could do.
The oldest, five-year-old Henry, was already exploring the living room. Fortunately his mother had moved anything breakable or swallowable beyond his reach before she left. The kid seemed intent on picking up and inspecting everything Trent owned. It struck Trent how much Henry and his cousins contrasted with the townhouse. The space was basically beige and medium brown, with lighter carpets and walls and darker trim and cabinetry. Even the sofa and ottoman were brown leather. Trent faded into the space, with his blond hair, brown eyes and neutral wardrobe. But the kids introduced a world of color. Henry's hair was such a dark brown that it almost seemed black. His eyes were hazel, and his clothing red and black.
The other two had black hair with mahogany highlights. They also wore primary colors. The youngest wore yellow and green, her eyes green like David's. The middle cousin wore shades of blue and had his father's blue eyes.
Nine-month-old Angela sat on the sofa with a stuffed animal that appeared to be a bunny with one ear torn off. She threw the bunny on the floor. Then she looked at Trent. He looked back. She screamed louder than a fighter jet.
Trent jumped. "Jesus!" Of all the kids, Angela scared him the most. What did he know about little girls? Mostly that David would kill him if any harm came to his angel. Talk about false advertising. Who called a screaming maniac angel?
The middle child picked up the bunny and placed it in Angela's lap. She shook the poor toy by its remaining ear and was silent again.
Neal would turn three in a few days. This kid was Trent's godchild. Trent wasn't Catholic and hadn't really understood what being a godfather meant until he was at the christening, where a priest asked him to make vows to look out for the infant in Meredith's arms. It had sounded daunting at first, but Meredith and James had everything under control. Neal hadn't needed anything from Trent, yet.
But this evening, something had seemed off. Like maybe Meredith and James had been fighting. And Robert and James, cops from Baltimore and DC respectively, hadn't been as friendly as usual. Trent would have to ask David what was going on, in case it was time to step up as godfather to Neal. Trent wasn't sure what that would entail, but trusted that David would know.
The bunny landed at his feet.
"Pick up," Neal said.
The screaming resumed. This time it sounded like one of the companions on Doctor Who facing the monster of the week. Trent grabbed the bunny and gave it back to Angela. When she was quiet again he asked, "Why does she throw it away if she wants it?"
"Game." Neal shrugged, a surprisingly eloquent gesture that seemed to add, it's a stupid game but what could you expect of a baby girl? Then he turned to watch Henry, and the three-year-old's face lit up with admiration.
Trent followed Neal's gaze. "Holy sh- " He stopped himself from saying something he was sure the parents wouldn't approve of. Henry was climbing up the bookshelves, and Trent jumped over to pry the kid off the middle shelf. Any higher and he would have made the unit top heavy and brought it crashing down. "No climbing!" he told Henry.
Henry narrowed his eyes and pouted. This was not a happy camper. But before Trent could do anything about it, Angela started screaming again. When Trent had returned the bunny to the sofa, the cessation of screaming allowed him to hear the grunt of a small child. Henry was putting all his strength into pushing a massive ottoman toward the bookshelf. "Whoa," Trent said, plucking Henry up to sit beside him on the ottoman. Trent put a restraining arm around the boy and stared up at the shelves. "What is it you want up there?"
Yeah, there was a bowl of colorfully wrapped chocolates up there. You could smell them when you stood next to the bookshelves. "Stay here." Trent grabbed the bowl. When he sat back down beside Henry he said, "You can have one." Henry picked up and rejected several chocolates, finally keeping one wrapped in red.
When the not-an-angel started screaming again, Trent placed the bowl on the coffee table and retrieved the bunny. "Neal's right. We need to teach you a better game." And then it hit Trent that he didn't see the middle cousin. He spun around. "Where's Neal?" he asked Henry, who now had a smear of chocolate on his right hand and right cheek.
"Hide 'n seek," Henry said in a tone that implied Trent was being dense. The little boy hopped down from the ottoman and stood with his hands on his hips, looking around the room with a serious expression so much like Henry's dad often wore that Trent struggled not to laugh. The five-year-old detective was on the case of the missing cousin. "Hmm," said Henry as he pulled back a set of curtains.
"Hmm," repeated Trent when he felt the cold breeze. One of those windows had been opened. He reached through and grabbed a wriggling boy, pulled him inside and closed and locked the window. "No going outside," he told Neal severely.
The child simply gave Trent an irresistible grin and said, "Your turn."
"What?" Trent asked.
"Now you hide," Henry explained. "And we find you."
"Wait. Were you…" Trent trailed off. How paranoid would it be to think that Henry's pursuit of the chocolate had been intended as a distraction while Neal slipped away? Kids their age didn't strategize like that. Right? Noelle had said something about the boys being particularly bright, but every mom thought her kid was brilliant.
Angela screamed. "I gotta take care of Angela first," Trent said. "Then we can play again." Returning the bunny, Trent noticed the little girl seemed more subdued this time. He pulled a blanket out of the massive bag of stuff that had been left for the kids. If he wrapped it around her, would she fall asleep?
"You didn't feed her?" asked Neal in Hughes' office. For some reason he couldn't name, he felt appalled at the notion.
Trent laughed. "Even as it occurred to me that my life would be much simpler if Angela fell asleep, Henry insisted I had to feed her first."
"Did you remember that, Neal?" Peter asked. "It seems like too much of a coincidence otherwise."
"How could I remember anything from that age?" Neal countered. "No one has memories of being that young, unless something traumatic happened. I can't believe Angela's sporadic screaming traumatized me."
"I was feeling traumatized before the night was over," Trent said. "Let me skip forward a bit."
Feeding Angela was an experience Trent never wanted to repeat. She spit out more than she swallowed. At least she wasn't screaming. She laughed and giggled and seemed to think it was great fun. Sure. She wasn't the one who had to scrub down the table, the countertop, the floor, and two cabinet doors. Trent had just changed her into clean clothes when Henry rushed into the kitchen, his face a picture of misery. He held his stomach and threw up all over the kitchen floor.
Trent had never been that elated to have linoleum.
He laid a sleepy Angela down on the sofa, and noticed the candy bowl was completely empty, surrounded by more than a dozen empty wrappers.
He pulled out the cowboy pajamas Henry's mom had left, cleaned up the sobbing boy, and scrubbed the kitchen floor again. Two of the kids had made a mess of the floor. Trent wondered if Neal was going to put him through it again. Last he remembered, the three-year-old was busy with a coloring book on the living room floor. Maybe he'd draw over the linoleum.
With Henry dozing on the opposite side of the sofa from Angela, Trent looked around for Neal. The coloring book lay abandoned on the floor, and the boy was nowhere to be seen. Immediately Trent double checked that the front door and windows were closed and locked. Then he looked everyplace he thought a child could hide. He even dashed upstairs, checking closets, under the beds, in the bathtub. But the kid had vanished.
How on earth was he supposed to tell Meredith and James that he'd lost their son? He was a terrible godfather.
Long before cell phones were common, he had no good way to contact the kid's parents. Who knew which bar they were at? It crossed his mind to call Polly, since she was an expert on kids, but what could she do? Desperate, he swallowed his pride, kneeled beside the sofa and shook Henry's shoulder. "Come on, kid. I know you're tired, but you have to tell me: where is Neal?"
Henry mumbled, "Thas cheating." Then he turned his face into the sofa pillow.
"No, I'm not cheating. Look at me, Henry." When the boy opened his eyes, Trent said. "I give up. Neal wins. Now you have to tell me where he is."
Henry wearily lifted an arm and pointed.
"The dining room? I looked there."
Henry let his arm fall and yawned. "Door."
There was a door in the dining room that led to the garage. Trent had already checked that it was still locked. But then he really looked at the door. The last people to rent this townhouse owned a large dog, and had installed a dog door in the house-to-garage door. Trent didn't even notice it anymore, but it was exactly the right height to beckon someone Neal's size. "Thanks!" Trent instinctively ruffled Henry's dark hair and then rushed to the garage.
At first glance, he didn't see any sign of Neal, but when he forced himself to slow down and pay attention, he saw the passenger door of his car was slightly ajar.
This wasn't just any car. This was Trent's pride and joy: a 1964 silver Aston Martin. This was what James Bond drove in many of the movies. It was not a toy, and definitely not a place for a nearly-three-year-old boy to play. Angry, Trent yelled, "Neal, get out of there right now!"
Neal had been in front of the driver's seat. When he started to scramble out of his hiding place, he hit the right combination of pedals and instrumentation to put the car in motion. It started to roll backwards. His head popped up, and he looked around in surprise.
Before Trent could reach the car, it hit the closed garage door and stopped rolling.
In Hughes' office, Neal's right hand automatically went to the middle of his face.
"Exactly," said Trent. "When the car lurched to a stop, you did a face plant into the steering wheel. You banged your nose and had a cut on your forehead, and it seemed like you were spewing blood. By the time I jumped into the passenger seat, you were crawling toward the back to escape the evil steering wheel. I'd swear it was less than a minute from impact until I dragged you out of the car, but the next day when I cleaned the interior I found tiny blood-soaked fingerprints everywhere."
"You stole a car when you were two!" Peter exclaimed.
"I was practically three. And I didn't steal it. I accidently put it in gear. You could as easily say the car stole me."
"You remember it?" asked Peter.
"No…" Neal frowned. "It's more like a sense of déjà vu as I'm hearing the story. What happened next, Trent?"
"You mean, after I decided you should come with a warning label?"
Peter couldn't help laughing. He'd often felt the same way.
"As much as Angela's screaming and Henry's crying bothered me, it was your silence that got to me the most. I carried you inside, put ice in a towel to help stop the nosebleed, and the whole time you didn't say a word. You just stared at me, wide-eyed. I thought maybe you were frightened of me after I'd yelled at you, but you didn't resist while I cleaned you up and got you into your Star Wars pajamas. In fact, you didn't want to let go of me, and I had to carry you upstairs so I could change into a clean shirt. With Henry and Angela asleep on the sofa there wasn't space for us once we got back downstairs. I turned on the TV, sat on the floor in front of the sofa, and you gradually relaxed until you fell asleep in my arms." Trent sighed. "I glossed over everything that happened when your parents got back. Then the next day I told Polly the kindergarten teacher everything, poured out all of the terror, and I swear her heart melted when I confessed how I felt when you slept, like I wanted to hold on to you and not let anything ever hurt you again. At that point the idea of having kids of my own terrified me. I stopped chasing Polly. But she'd made up her mind and started chasing me. A year later we were married, and now we have two boys of our own. And I don't let either of them drive the Aston Martin."
"If you don't mind me asking," Peter said, "how is it that you're Neal's godfather, instead of his uncle David?"
"It was supposed to be David. He was posted overseas but planned to come back on leave. Weather got in the way, delaying his flights, and he asked me to stand in for him." Trent paused to drink from the bottle of water. "And that brings us to my other reason for being here. There are some things I want to ask you, as your godfather. To start: did we do the right thing, letting you go into WITSEC with your mother?"
"Letting… There was another option?"
"Didn't your mother tell you?"
Neal shook his head. "We never talked about life before WITSEC. It was my 18th birthday when I finally learned we were in WITSEC and why. That was more than I could handle. I ran away that night and haven't seen her since."
"You never knew… That wasn't a scenario I was prepared for. Let me try a different question. How was it, growing up with your mom?"
"It was…" Neal swallowed. He glanced at Peter, then clasped his hands between his knees and stared down at the floor. "It was fine."
Peter caught Trent's eyes and shook his head.
"Peter, can I talk to Neal alone?"
Reluctantly, Peter stood to leave the room. Before he closed the door behind him, he said, "Take your time. And Neal, check in with me when you're done." He went down to Neal's desk and watched the conversation as it played out in Hughes' office over the next hour.
Neal remained seated after Peter left, with his back to the bullpen. Trent paced as he talked, pausing beside Neal twice to lay a hand on his shoulder, and Neal ran his hands through his hair a couple of times. At one point Trent sat down, leaning forward and gesturing as if trying to make an important point. Then Neal buried his face in his hands for almost a full minute, and Trent's expression was pained. Eventually Neal stood up and walked away from Trent to look outside. Trent gave him a minute and then followed, saying something to Neal. Neal looked at him a moment without speaking, and finally nodded. Trent gave him a quick hug, which appeared to take Neal by surprise. Then they walked down to the bullpen area, stopping next to Peter.
"Thanks for letting me monopolize Neal's time, Peter," Trent said. "Neal, if there's ever anything I can do, please don't hesitate to ask. I can't tell you how deeply I regret not being able to do more as your godfather when you were a child." He patted Neal on the shoulder and then strode out to the elevators.
Peter took in Neal's distant gaze and asked, "Can you tell me about it?"
Neal nodded absently.
"Neal?" When Neal looked at him, Peter said, "Is this something we should take out of the office? Maybe to a bar?"
"Stay right here. I'm going to grab my coat."
When Peter returned, Neal hadn't moved, but he seemed more aware of his surroundings. "It's not even 4 o'clock, Peter. Shouldn't we wait?"
"No, not this time."
They walked to a bar a couple of blocks from the Federal Building. When Peter had a beer in hand and Neal had his customary glass of wine, Peter simply said, "Start talking."
"It was a few weeks after Trent's adventures in babysitting that my dad was arrested for murder. Late April. At first he maintained his innocence, but by the end of May he made some kind of plea deal. The family didn't know the details at the time, only that he confessed. Around the same time, my mom told her family she was pregnant."
"An only child, yeah. She miscarried in early June. Trent said she was distraught when she learned James was guilty, and went over the edge after the miscarriage. She was there, but not there, if you know what I mean. We went into WITSEC at the end of June, and the family had about a week's warning. Turns out they had some big arguments about what they should do with me."
Peter sat his beer down on the table. "I don't get that. Going into WITSEC means you were in danger from the people James implicated. How could the Marshals let the family do anything other than send you with your mom?"
"My uncle David and his wife offered to adopt me. He was deployed in the South Pacific, and he thought living on a military base that far away would be as safe as anything the Marshals had planned. Especially…" Neal sighed. "Especially because they didn't think my mom was emotionally stable at the time."
"That does make sense," Peter said. "But I can tell from how long you and Trent talked that it wasn't that simple."
"No, it wasn't. Mom's sister disagreed. Noelle felt that losing me, after the loss of a husband and baby, would be too much for her to handle. If Mom was going to have any chance at regaining emotional stability, she needed me. She needed to have the incentive of being strong for me, and the responsibility of leading a normal life with me. If I were taken away, Noelle argued that that my mom would simply give up and not take care of herself at all. She might even have refused to go into WITSEC and hoped that Dad's enemies went after her. Or even…"
"Killed herself?" Peter could guess where this was going. "And they let you go with someone they thought was that unstable. They put the pressure of saving her on a three-year-old child."
"Trent says they had bitter arguments about it. There was a stalemate: Noelle and my grandfather against David and my grandmother."
"What about Trent? Didn't he have a say, as your godfather?"
"Yeah, but he wavered. At first he thought David was right, but Noelle's a psychologist and she made convincing arguments about the value of a child my age staying with his mother. She said being taken away would be as traumatic to me as it would be to my mom."
"What tipped the balance?" Peter wondered.
"Your aunt Noelle's husband?"
Neal nodded. "He's not exactly a people person, not swayed by emotion, and as a relative by marriage he seemed more objective. When he said I should stay with my mom, Trent was convinced and sided with Noelle."
"And?" Peter prompted.
"And over the years Trent learned that Robert wasn't objective at all. He was motivated by trying to protect his own son. Robert fell into the like-father-like-son camp, certain that I would turn out like James, and he didn't want me around to influence Henry."
"But you wouldn't be around if you lived with David."
"David and his family went back to DC for vacations and holidays, and they weren't always stationed that far away. In WITSEC, I was never going to see the family again. But by the time Trent figured that out, it was too late. He tried talking to the Marshals, but they weren't going to upset the balance of the life they had established for us in St. Louis. All Trent could do was to hope that things worked out for the best."
"He feels guilty he didn't do more for you."
"True, but that's water under the bridge. It doesn't do anyone any good to think about what life might have been like if Trent had sided with David, instead."
Peter finished his beer. "Hard not to think about it, though."
Neal stared into his nearly empty glass of wine. "Yeah." He finished the wine. "I can't stop wondering what it would have been like. Probably a happier childhood as Angela's big brother. I wouldn't have had a reason to become a criminal. You and I wouldn't have met. Instead of working for the FBI, I guess I'd have followed in David's footsteps and joined the Air Force."
"You'd have spent most of the last year in a war zone," Peter reminded him.
The more Peter thought about it, the less he agreed with the scenario Neal had laid out. His consultant didn't have the heart of a soldier, and if David were as smart as people said, he would have guided his adopted son into art. Both men remained lost in their thoughts until the check arrived. "You have any reservations about meeting the rest of your family, you know, in light of what they let you go through?"
"I told Trent I was willing to meet them, but want to give it a little time. Let this all soak in first."
"Sounds smart," Peter agreed.
"Plus I think Trent's going to keep feeling guilty about this. Give it a month and he'll cave and let me drive the Aston Martin."
"You aren't going to wreck it, are you?"
"Peter, that car is a piece of art. I'm not going to wreck it. I'm going to take it."
Neal flashed his trademark grin, and Peter relaxed. "I'm going to hide it. But given his story about babysitting, I'll bet he has to ask for Henry's help to find it."
"I still can't believe you stole a car when you were two. That has to be some kind of record."
Neal rolled his eyes. "I was nearly three, and I told you I didn't steal it."
But when Peter returned from the restroom, Neal was on his cell phone saying, "That's right, Mozz. Say what you want about running cons as a pre-teen. I stole a classic car when I was two."
A/N: LianneZ4 raises a good question in her review: Why would the family let Neal go with Meredith if she seemed unbalanced? Here's what I think Noelle would say: Meredith was heartbroken after losing her baby, but grief takes time to work through and she was making progress. Getting away from her home and life with James would help her distance herself from the issues with her marriage. The family had every reason to believe Meredith would be fine if she weren't burdened with another loss. The Marshals were informed of the miscarriage and agreed to keep watch over her mental and emotional state. They also agreed to move Kathryn Hill/Ellen Parker into the same location, as a family friend who was aware of the situation and could raise a flag with the Marshals if Meredith seemed to destabilize. And of course, Noelle broke some rules to keep tabs on her sister over the years.
To see the car, go to Wikipedia and search for Aston Martin DB5.
Thanks again to Silbrith for editing and for her helpful suggestions.
In case you're wondering if Neal could really remember anything from that age, I think he could because I have memories of a traumatic 3rd birthday, and anything I could do, Neal could do better, right?
The next story in this series is tentatively titled Caffrey Flashback, and will be centered around a case where Neal goes undercover and things go wrong again, triggering flashbacks to memories he had repressed. There will be angst, H/C, humor and father/son relationship between Peter and Neal. And possibly a birthday party for Neal.