By Any Other Name
By Any Other Name
by J. Rosemary Moss
Neal stared at his cell phone. He had to make this call. He had to apologize to Peter for his behavior this past week. But first he had to think up some clever explanation, because--as Moz had so helpfully pointed out--the truth made him sound like a selfish, immature brat.
For all his crazy talk, Moz had a way of nailing the facts.
Neal sighed. He was happy for Peter and Elizabeth, he reminded himself. They'd wanted a kid for a while now. The new baby would complete their family. And if that left less room in their lives for Neal, that was ok.
The trouble, Neal told himself, was that he was just too high maintenance. He required too much of Peter's time and attention--time and attention Peter would now have to devote to his real family. And that was fine. That was the way it should be. Neal would survive with a little less attention from the agent . . . and he would survive without acting like a drama queen.
He picked up the phone and dialed Peter's number.
"Neal?" Peter said as he picked up.
"Hey Peter," Neal said. "Got a couple of minutes to talk?"
"I have a better idea," Peter said. "Why don't I come over there? There's something I'd like to discuss with you."
Neal furrowed his brow. Peter didn't sound angry or annoyed, but there was still an ominous quality to his voice. Or maybe Neal was just paranoid.
"Um, sure, you can come over," he managed. "Are you--are you still upset with me?"
"For the crazy stunts you pulled on this last case? No, I'm over them."
Neal was relieved, but he wasn't ready to relax yet. "Is something else wrong?"
"No, we just need to talk."
Neal cringed. Peter had spent a lot of time talking with Hughes of late. Something had to be going on. "Am I in trouble with the Bureau, man?"
He could tell Peter was rolling his eyes as he answered. "You're not in trouble, Neal. See you in a bit."
Peter bit back a grin as he walked into Neal's rooms. The kid had his 'best-behavior' look on.
"Hey Peter," he said, smiling. "Want a beer?"
"How about some coffee instead?" Peter asked as he took off his coat and helped himself to a seat at the table.
"Coming right up--I have your Italian roast right here."
Peter waited while Neal poured the coffee and took a seat opposite him. The kid looked relaxed and casual, but Peter knew damn well he was nervous wreck. Should he let Neal sweat for a bit? It would serve him right, considering his behavior this past week . . .
But, in truth, Peter was every bit as nervous as Neal. He had no idea what the kid would say to his offer. He just hoped that if Neal wasn't interested, he would let Peter down easy.
"So, how's Elizabeth feeling?" Neal asked.
"Good. No morning sickness so far. But, you know, she's still a little frightened. Hell, we both are. This isn't the first time we've conceived only to--
"To lose the baby?" Neal asked.
Peter nodded. "That's why you can't say anything to anyone at the office. We're going to wait a while before we share the news."
"I won't say anything," Neal promised. "You can trust me."
"I know." He paused to take a sip of coffee. "If all goes well," he continued, setting the mug down, "El wants you to help her design the baby's room."
Neal smiled--a smile that seemed half genuine and half forced, if that was possible. "I'd love to," he said. "We can talk about it this weekend."
Peter nodded. "Give her a call later."
"I will," he promised. He paused, giving Peter a hopeful look. "So, what did you need to talk about?"
"You first," Peter invited. "What did you call about?"
Neal flashed him one of his 'you-can't-possibly-be-angry-at-me-when-I'm-this-adorable' smiles. "I wanted to apologize for being such a pain in the ass this week."
Peter knew his eyes were softening as he answered. "That's ok--I told you I was already over it. Besides, El thinks it's natural for the first kid to act up when a new one's expected. It's a jealousy issue."
Neal managed a small laugh. "Yeah--but I'll get over that. And just because I'm jealous--well, that doesn't mean I'm not thrilled for you both."
He took a deep breath before he continued. "Listen, Peter, I know I'm a high maintenance partner. But I'll behave myself for the next few months, at least. No more crazy risks, and I'll play everything by the book. You won't have to waste your time worrying about me. I'll even try to stay out of your hair when we're not working," he added. "I know you need more time with Elizabeth."
But Neal plowed on. "And once the baby is born, I promise to be on hand when you two need a break. You can let Uncle Neal baby-sit."
Peter cocked his head. "How about big brother Neal instead?"
"Sure," Neal said, shrugging. "That works."
Peter folded his hands on the table and leaned toward him. "Do you want to make it work officially?"
Neal raised his eyebrows. "Officially?"
The agent nodded. "That's what I came to discuss."
The ex-con's face went blank.
"Look, I don't know what you'll think of this idea," Peter began, "but I want to put it on the table. El and I both consider you family, Neal. There's no way to make you legally a part of the family as my little brother, but I can make you legally my son."
Neal stared at him. As far as Peter could tell, he still didn't get it. Peter wanted to savor that; he didn't often catch the ex-con off guard. But he was too nervous.
"Well?" he asked, as Neal continued to stare at him.
"You--you want to adopt me?"
Peter ran his hand through his hair. "Why not? You're already my responsibility. And God knows you're as much trouble as a real--as a biological kid."
"You're not old enough to be my Dad," Neal pointed out, his voice slow and uncertain. "Not unless you were a really active thirteen year old."
Peter gave him a reproving glare. "The state of New York doesn't care how much older than you I am--not for an adult adoption."
Neal smiled at the glare, but then his face grew serious. "Ok. But are you sure? I mean, do you really think of me as a son?"
"Yes," the agent admitted. "Sometimes."
Peter shrugged, knowing it was best to be honest. "Sometimes I think of you as a son and sometimes as a little brother. And sometimes I think of you as my partner--and sometimes as an infuriating ex-con who needs 24-7 supervision."
Neal smiled a little--but then he sighed and leaned back in his chair. "Are you just feeling sorry for the kid who doesn't have a real family?"
"You do have a real family, Neal. That's the whole point."
Apparently those were the magic words. Neal smiled yet again--but this time the smile lit up his whole face.
"Where do I sign?"
Neal stared at the preliminary paperwork Peter had handed him. They were sitting on the couch now, and Peter had his 'this-is-serious-Neal-so-pay-attention' look on.
"I want you to understand what you're getting into," Peter was saying. "If something happened to me, and Elizabeth wasn't on hand, you could end up having to make a life-or-death decision on my behalf."
Neal cringed--he didn't like to think of Peter in a condition so dire that there would be questions about trying to revive him or life support. But he was flattered that Peter would trust him in such a situation and he was determined not to let him down. If, God forbid, it came to that, he would make the best decision he could.
"I understand," he managed. "If we go through with this, you might have to make the same kind of decision for me."
Peter nodded and then placed a hand on his shoulder. "I know."
Neal bit his lip. "What about the FBI? Will the Bureau let me keep working for you if you adopt me?"
Peter withdrew his hand. "That's what I've been speaking to Hughes about."
Neal's eyebrows shot up. "You told Hughes?"
"The man's not blind, Neal. He's willing to let you continue to work for me as a consultant, even if we go through with this--that's assuming you still want to work for the Bureau once you've done your time."
"I plan to--if they'll give me a real salary."
"I think we can negotiate that for you when the time comes."
"And I can stay your partner? Even as your adopted son?"
"Yeah, because on the books you'll still be a consultant. The problem is that right now you're under my supervision as a prisoner. We might not be able to finalize the adoption until your sentence is done."
"So we have to settle for unofficial until then, huh?"
Peter shrugged. "It's already unofficial."
Neal nodded. "Yeah, I suppose it is. And--and you're sure Elizabeth is on board with this?"
"Yes. She wants you to be a legal part of our family, Neal."
"And she's ok with becoming my step mother?"
"Yeah. She can adopt you too, if that's what you want, but she thought--"
"No, that's ok," Neal said, interrupting. "It's--it's feels right this way. I'll love having her for a step-mom--" he broke off, considering. "Wait, is it wrong to flirt with your step mother?"
Peter rolled his eyes and reached out to give him a playful cuff. Neal dodged easily, laughing at the agent's exasperated expression.
"I don't quite think of her as a mother," Neal continued, growing serious again. "She's too much my partner in crime."
"Yeah, about that," Peter said, his voice turning stern. "I'd appreciate it if you don't involve her in any more shenanigans, Caffrey."
Neal raised his eyebrows. "You won't be able to call me that anymore, you know."
Peter didn't seem to get it. "Call you what?"
His utter cluelessness annoyed Neal. No, 'annoyed' wasn't a strong enough word. Didn't the man understand the implications of adoption?
"If you mean to go through with this, Peter," Neal explained, "I want your name out of it."
Peter narrowed his eyes. "Sure about that?"
"Yeah, I'm sure. Are you?"
The agent didn't answer--he was regarding Neal with an unreadable expression.
"If I'm your son, I'm your son," Neal said with a sudden and fierce anger. "I want your name. Otherwise you can just keep me as your pet convict."
He paused as a new idea--a hideous idea--struck him. "Or is this whole offer just a way to keep me on the straight and narrow while I'm in your custody? Is that why we have to wait to make it official? Are you just stringing me along?"
"Jesus, Neal--why would I string you along about something like this? Is that how little you think of me?"
But Neal wasn't listening--he was too close to a blind rage. He reached for the coffee cup that Peter had brought to the couch with him and hurled it across the room, taking pleasure in the way it shattered.
Neal swallowed. He rarely lost his temper, but when he did he almost always broke something.
Peter stayed silent--so silent that Neal felt his stomach twist itself into knots. Had he just destroyed any fatherly feelings Peter had for him? The agent wasn't even looking at him now. He was staring at the broken pieces of the coffee mug.
Nonetheless, Neal didn't apologize. If Peter really wanted him for a son, he would make that clear now.
As the silence stretched out, though, the remainder of Neal's anger--the part he hadn't used up in smashing the mug--evaporated. He began to rethink his strategy. He swallowed hard and forced an apology from his lips.
"I'm sorry, Peter," he said. "I was--I was testing you."
"Yeah," Peter answered, still staring at the broken pieces. "I got that."
Neal risked a small smile. "Not much gets by you, huh?"
Peter didn't say anything.
Neal bit his lip. Was Peter going to rescind his offer? That was the last thing Neal wanted, but he wouldn't blame the man. "What are you thinking?" he asked the agent, his voice so soft it was almost a whisper.
But Peter shook his head. "Go to bed, Neal. We'll talk in the morning."
"Neal, right now I don't care if you consider yourself my pet convict or my son. Either way, I own your ass and I'm ordering you to get to bed. Now go. I'll clean up the mess."
Neal opened his mouth to argue, but changed his mind. He nodded and made his way to his bed without another glance at the agent, praying that his temper tantrum hadn't ruined everything.
Neal did his best to fall asleep, but it was no use. He forced himself to stay in bed for an hour, but then he got up.
Peter was still there. Neal could see him standing by the table, staring out over the city. Neal smiled--Peter loved that view.
He padded over to the agent, making just enough noise not to startle him. Peter kept still, so Neal stepped up behind him and risked nestling against Peter's back as he wrapped his arms around the agent's waist. It was an entirely inappropriate, almost lover-like embrace, but Peter didn't object. Neal's inappropriate gestures rarely flustered him anymore.
Not that they ever really had.
Neal rested his chin on the agent's shoulder. "I'm sorry, Peter," he said again. "I know your offer was real. I knew it before I--"
"Before you started testing me?"
Peter sighed. "Neal, I know I haven't always trusted you. I should've believed you when you told me you didn't steal that diamond--"
"--And I shouldn't have assumed you were holding Kate just because of a stupid ring," Neal interrupted. "So we're even."
Peter put his hands on Neal's arms. "Yeah," he said, the trace of a smile in his voice.
"You forgave me pretty easily for that," Neal commented. "For thinking you had Kate, I mean."
"I was just glad you blurted out your suspicion when you did instead of letting it fester."
Neal didn't respond to that. He pulled Peter closer instead.
"Anyway," Peter said, "I thought we were back to trusting each other."
"We are," Neal said at once. "It's just that--look, man, I'm not used to anyone wanting to be my father. It's going to take me some time to adjust to that idea."
Peter grunted as he rested his hands on top of Neal's. "Does that mean I can expect more tests?"
"And more broken mugs?"
"No. I hardly ever have temper tantrums like that--you know that."
"Yeah, I know." The agent turned around and put his hands on Neal's shoulders. "Listen to me," he said. "I'd be proud to have you take my name. But I don't want you to feel like you have to forget your past or change who you are. Believe it or not, I like who you are, Neal."
He paused, giving Neal a sheepish look. "And I'll still call you Caffrey when you're acting up."
"So . . . your offer's still on the table?"
"It is--or it will be, once you finish your probation."
Neal stared down at the floor for a moment before looking back up at Peter with what he hoped was an irresistible smile. "Then how does Neal Caffrey Burke sound?"
Peter cocked his head at him, as if he were considering it. Then his face broke into a wide grin. "It's you."