Title: When I Was a Child
Genre and/or Pairing: Gen
Notes: Written for a prompt on White Collar Prompt Fest
Warnings: De-Aged fiction
Summary: A disease which causes its victims to physically regress to childhood strikes the world.
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners including Jeff Eastin and USA television. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
All Peter really wanted was to kick off his shoes and watch a game. In light of that, arriving to find cars all over the neighborhood was not a happy moment. It reminded him instantly that El and Neal, who somehow had become ElNeal, an evil entity of adorable chaos, were having a rally for De-Aged rights.
It started as support for Cruz who was one of the first victims. When she woke as an eight year old, there had been no protocol. They finally shipped her over her furious objections back to her parents, where she was forced to go back to fifth grade. Peter had felt terrible for her, but what could you do?
"She looks like a child so she is one."
"No, she has the mind and experiences of an adult in a eight year old body.
"Appearance isn't everything. It shouldn't matter if you look different. Lauren should have been allowed to keep her job and her life," El said with Neal nodding agreement.
"Fine. How would I have what appears to be a eight year old girl as an agent? Who would respect her?"
"There was a time when no one respected a black man in a responsible rule or a woman. There are still people who judge a person because they look, speak, or think differently. DeAged..."
Peter interrupted Neal and repeated, "De-Aged? What kind of word is that?"
"Lauren says that how she would prefer that people describe her if they must classify her as anything."
"When did she say that?" Peter demanded.
"I talked to her yesterday. I think we're closer now than we were before this happened. She feels that I respect her for who she is, that I realize she is still the same Lauren."
"So you're saying offering her an ice cream cone ...."
"Oh, Peter..." Neal said mournfully.
Lauren had been crying--- and crying women, especially if they looked like adorable eight year old girls, was utter torture to Peter. He had cast around for anything that could make stop and ice cream seemed like a decent bet. Kids liked ice cream, right?
El just shook her head at the same time as she shook the spray can with which she was painting her sign.
Trudging back and forth, Peter offered June a bottle of water and then gave her another for the gnomish child next to her who was holding a sign that said, "Old at heart. Give me my rights."
"Suit, look at me!" the child who was as pale as the underside of a toad said.
Wincing, Peter looked at Moz. He hunched his shoulders nervously. No one knew how the disease was spread. There was talk of isolating the victims, but so far nothing unusual was isolated in their bloodstreams or secretions. Peter still tried not to shake hands. Not that Moz would offer to shake hands.
"You can't even hand me my own water?"
"Sorry, Moz. Really, really sorry," Peter replied. He hurried up to distribute the rest of the water. It had seemed like the most innocuous thing he could do.
For six months, they did isolate the de-aged. Not Moz though. June and Neal hid him. Peter seriously violated FBI protocol by refusing any cases involving tracking down de-aged persons who refused to report to quarantine.
They got Lauren though. She had risen to the top of the de-aged movement. Peter saw her taken on the news. She had fought with fists and feet. She had screamed curses in three languages. It took two grown men to contain her and she managed to tear their isolation suits, resulting in their quarantine as well.
Jones took a leave of absence, shortly after which, Cruz broke out of detention.
Despite the quarantine, cases popped up. The president had gone into isolation for his safety. Despite having no contact with de-aged individuals, he finally appeared on television, an adorable black child who looked the same age as his daughters. He made a plea for equal rights.
It took six more months to pass the equal rights and job protection bill for the de-aged.
Lauren declined to return to the FBI. She spearheaded the commission for reparation to the de-aged and was the leader of the new bureau that would assure that there would be no further abuses.
Moz still refused to come out of hiding.
Life went on. The next time Peter voted...he still insisted on going to the voting booth...he bumped his knee on the little step stool provided for De-aged voters. He could handle all the accommodations made for the De-aged. What really killed him was the first time he had to collar a De-aged criminal. It was actually Tulane who had been in quarantine during the months that no one was supposed to talk about.
Tulane had disappeared after the quarantine was abandoned. Somehow Peter never expected him to return to his life of crime, but the temptation had been too much for the pint sized jewel thief. He was small enough to fit in so many places he was not supposed to go.
One thing being De-aged did not change. Your fingerprints. Tulane had forgotten his gloves when he cracked the safe of Ms. Van De Mittan.
Fortunately, Peter caught Tulane without a struggle. It was his naptime.
The first thing that Peter found out is that adult sized handcuffs do not fit a eight year old.
The second thing that Peter found out was that being De-aged might leave the intellect undamaged, but emotions were a little unstable due to physiological changes. Tulane, a platinum blond at age ten, started to cry when Peter took out his cuffs. He heaved and sobbed steadily until Peter looked around helplessly and said, "Maybe we could just let him go with a spanking?"
"For shame, Peter, have some respect!" Jones said, back, but still a De-aged rights radical.
Neal cuffed Tulane himself with plastic cuffs that could be adjusted. He saluted Tulane with a fist in the air. "Go, Tulane, don't let the norms get you down."
Still sniffling, Tulane said, "Thank you, Caffrey."
The slight, wiry boy trudged between Jones and Peter, head held high.
So far there was one prison for the De-aged and only a few inmates. Everything was carefully designed for its inhabitants, kid-sized bars, guards who underwent intensive psychological screening because...well...for obvious reasons.
Peter felt peculiar all day. Neal had been exasperating and Peter couldn't even threaten to send him back to jail because his sentence was up two weeks ago. The number of bureaucratic tasks had been monumental and Hughes called him twenty times to ask when he was getting them done.
Peter attributed the splitting headache he had by the time he arrived home to the bad day. He couldn't even eat the baked ham that El had cooked. He went to bed without so much as looking at the work he had carried home out of habit.
After all, going to the bed early was a wonderful choice. Peter woke up full of energy. He felt light as a feather when he rose from his covers. Stretching, Peter smiled as El walked into the room. The smile vanished when El's hands flew out, trembled, and then went to her mouth to cover her scream.
Looking behind him, Peter saw no threat, but when he saw himself in the mirror the odd perspective he had peripherally noticed made sense. He looked at a Peter only familiar from the baseball picture that El kept on her dressing table. His round freckled face blanched. He staggered back until he fell on to his bed.
It took long moments before El joined him and held him, trying to comfort him. He could smell her. He could feel her, but that subtle reaction he always had to her was gone. He had not been a very precocious boy, not about sex. He had been a sports obsessed, competitive little monster who did not like to play with girls. At thirteen, the lights turned on and he had fallen all over himself in the pursuit of Irene Knobel. Irene has blue eyes and long black hair that hung down to her cute little bottom. Peter enjoyed a surprisingly good first kiss with her. The way Peter felt right now, with the sexiest woman in the world holding him, was all wrong. He felt no sexual appreciation for El. He could see she was beautiful, but his body seemed to be ignorant of that fact.
The sadness and the fear felt like it was squeezing out of him. Peter fought it, but he sobbed. He fucking sobbed and could not control himself.
"Peter, honey, Peter," El said, rocking him.
Peter hated to take comfort in El's embrace, huddling against her like he might have a mother.
Out of control, Peter cried himself to sleep.
Waking, Peter walked to the stairs, hearing Neal and El talking.
It was okay. Of all the people with whom he worked, he minded least Neal knowing what happened.
Oh God, Peter was going to have to go in like this. He would have to go and have the tests that showed he was a De-Aged individual. He would be subject to the same uneasy pity that he showed to Moz and Lauren.
Sitting down, Peter put his head on his arms.
Worst of all....
He really wanted some ice cream.
The day was exhausting. Peter called in sick, only revealing in which way when El tried to take the phone. They made an appointment at the De-Aged Bureau so Peter could link his former identity with the current state of his body. His medical records had been faxed over. It took hours to have the physical, to endure the blood tests...and he cried when they took his blood.
The horror of it all. It was bad enough to have to go out in some jeans and a tee shirt that Neal rushed out to buy after El sent for his help. Peter wanted his suits and ties. He wanted his dress shoes and his trench coat. He did not want a tee shirt, designed by Moz-In-Hiding that said, "Intellect is not measured by Height."
At the end of the day, Peter watched the mandatory DVD of "So you've de-aged, what to do now" which was as stultifying as any other government video. He had a brochure that gave him educational resources, support groups, and information about his rights with Lauren's face on every other page.
Neal went home with Peter and El to be supportive, but left when El said she was making deviled ham.
What was strange was that the deviled ham smelled terrible. It was Peter's favorite food, but when he took a bite, it was too fatty, too spicy, too...he spit it out in his napkin, making a terrible face.
"I hate this," Peter complained. "You made it wrong."
"It's the same recipe I've always used and the ham was great."
Always. No, Peter hadn't always liked deviled ham. He hated it until he was in his late teens. His father loved it, but young Peter disliked it immensely. "I'm sorry. I'll make myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich."
El was good. She might worry about Peter's slightly clumsy reflexes, but she did not insist on opening the jars or making sure the knife was not too sharp. Thank God, El had become a De-Aged advocate!
The files waited from yesterday and Peter was eager to bury his pain in them. He found a game on TV, grabbed the files and settled down.
By nine pm, the files felt heavy in Peter's hands and he was nodding. Again, El said nothing. Peter groaned, gave up, walked upstairs and brushed his teeth. His eight year old body needed more sleep than his adult body.
The alarm woke Peter and the first thing he did was feel his chest, hoping that he had changed back. No such luck. He turned to say good morning to El and she was missing. He found her coming out of the guest bedroom.
El blushed. She said, "Oh, Peter."
"I am still your husband, still myself."
"I know, but..."
Laws can make them leave you on the job, but it can't make your boss meet your eye. It can't make a perp stop laughing.
Neal was great though. He drove Peter, still joked, teased, and touched Peter the same way as before.
It was Neal who presented Peter with his suits in miniature along with child sized dress shoes in Peter's exact favorite style and a perfectly scaled down trench coat.
Neal went along with it when Peter chose a hamburger over their favorite Thai restaurant. He was sympathetic when Peter had a crying fit over a skinned knee and when Peter yelled at him, Neal yelled right back instead of giving him a look of pity.
It was more difficult with Peter.
Moz was Moz in any form and Neal loved him dearly. Becoming De-Aged didn't make Moz any more or less different. He was unique and wonderful...and knew it.
Lauren Cruz was someone that Neal had never figured out, but he had always respected her so it was easy to extend that to her De-Aged self.
The trouble with Peter was that it broke Neal's heart to see him mourn his former life.
However, it was easy to see Peter in the adorable eight year old. He was so All American boy.
Like right now, Peter was unconsciously skipping rocks over the pond as he waited with Neal for an informant to meet with them. The man had information about an insider trading scam. Peter had a good arm even at eight. Neal waited on the bench, checking his watch. The informant, unnamed, did not show up on time. Peter finally returned to the bench and said, "I need a hot dog."
"Let's give it another fifteen minutes," Neal replied.
"No. I wanna a hot dog now. I'm starved. I'm gonna faint."
Serious, always-in-control Peter kicked Neal in the leg and said, "Hot dog. Come on. You're stupid. I'm hungry now."
It would be so unenlightened to take Peter over his knees and spank him. Neal drew a deep breath and counted to ten. It didn't help much.
Peter's foot readied for another kick and then he caught himself. "Oh my God. Neal, I am so sorry. I don't understand what happened. I just lost it."
"Blood sugar," Neal said. "Your body just can't go as long between meals. Come on. The guy is late. He has my number. Let's go get your hot dog."
Neal watched the blotchy redness leave Peter's cheeks as his friend ran ahead, full of energy. Despite his strong belief in equal rights for the De-Aged, Neal was starting to realize that there were differences. The childish body affected the brain. The hormones were different. He reminded himself that this adorable child was still Peter with all of his potential. Neal just needed to make sure that Peter ate on a schedule as El made sure that Peter had enough rest.
There was no way that Neal would eat a park hot dog or any hot dog after the graphic way Moz described what went into them. He was neglectful for allowing Peter to eat them, but then again, it was Peter's decision.
Walking back to the bench where they were to meet their informant, Neal saw a thick bull-headed guy sitting there. It didn't look like the soft-voiced lisping caller.
The man said, "There you are. What was tho important that you walked away?"
The lisper just didn't match the mental image in Neal's head. Strike another one for stereotyping.
Peter stood there, standing in his familiar way, arms akimbo, legs firmly planted, his look taking everything in. He was only three feet and ten inches tall, but he naturally took command of the scene.
"So how did you find out about the scam?"
"They wanted me in," Mr. Anonymous said. "But I'm an honeth guy. Don't do that stuff. Juth my job. I played along and called you guys."
"Thank you," Peter said. "We're glad you did."
The informant dangled his meaty paws and said, "Man, I hope I don't get that De-Aged sing. When I was a kid, everyone thought I was stupid because I was big, clumsy, and lipthed. Don't want to go through that again. Anyway, Paul Hill and Jeremy Todd are the ones running the deal. No sure how, but they think they are computer whithes so if you got their laptopth..."
"Thank you very much," Neal said.
The man lumbered away. Neal shook his head. Don't judge a book by its cover.
Peter yawned, winced, and said, "Neal, do you feel like taking a break? I think I need a nap."
Poor Peter. Neal nodded and said, "Me too."
"It is so much more difficult than I ever thought," El mourned. She shoved back her cup of coffee, sloshing some and not even trying to clean the spill as she leaned on her elbows and covered her face with trembling hands.
"I know." Neal cleaned the spill with his napkin.
El took her hands from her face and grabbed Neal's hands, holding them tight. "I know he's here, but I miss him so. I miss my big strong husband. I miss his body wrapped around mine. It's so awful. I know when I don't sleep with him, it hurts him, but I can't. I mean, even in a totally platonic way, I can't. All those words we spoke. The rhetoric. It's not how I feel. I want to protect him. I want to stop him when his sweet tooth gets away from him or he won't eat his vegetables. I tell myself he's an adult in a childish body, but my heart doesn't listen."
"I do understand. I miss him too."
"He called me 'Peter Pan'. I could have handled it. Hell, I might have liked it. Imagine the cons I could pull with my intelligence and experience in a kid's body."
"Even with a gap in your teeth?"
"Must Peter tell you everything?"
"He thought it was adorable. He thinks you're adorable a lot of the time."
"Adults thought that I was adorable except for father dearest."
Oops. That was more than Neal should ever have said. He slumped. It was sad. He wistfully considered the joys of being a child sized Neal. Oh, the banisters at Junes. The snuggles from El...the spanking from Peter.... on second thought.
"Oh, honey, I'm sorry."
"It wasn't a big deal, El. Don't worry." Neal flashed a bright smile. The kind of smile that had never worked with his father, but had worked with most of his step mothers.
"Neal, I can see right through you sometimes."
"El, that's a hard thing to say to a con artist."
"I'm not your mark. I'm your friend who needs a hug."
Never let it be said that Neal denied a friend anything in his power. He stood up and held out his arms. El walked into his embrace, put her head into his shoulder, and started to cry.
"I can't always be strong," El said between sobs.
Neal offered his handkerchief; she was getting snot on his suit and he was torn between sympathy for her and its fabric. Blowing her nose, El handed it back. Neal did not particularly want it at that point. Practically perfect El did not sniffle daintily when she wept; she bellowed and her nose ran.
Guiding El to the couch, Neal sat down, held her, and comforted her. Satchmo pressed close to them, howling at his mistress' sobs.
Hearing a noise, Neal looked towards the stairs, saw Peter rubbing his eyes and then his stricken look as he took in the scene.
"You and El..." Peter gasped, before running out the door, his bare feet padding as he ran.
Neal and El both ran after Peter who was pretty damn fast for a short legged kid with bare feet. Neal sped ahead and grabbed Peter just before he ran into the street. A car sounded its horn as if to blame them for its speed.
"Never, never do this again!" Neal yelled.
Pounding his fists into Neal, Peter screamed, "You're taking my wife. You're taking El. I hate you. I hate myself."
"She was crying, Peter," Neal said. "That's all it was."
Sobbing himself, Peter said, "She doesn't love me anymore."
"Of course, I love you!" El said, catching up. "Neal and I both love you. I was just having a bad day."
Peter wiped his eyes and hugged El. "Promise you won't stop loving me?"
"Never, ever!" El promised.
Peter looked deep into her eyes before saying "Okay."
"Can we go home then?" El asked.
"Yeah, my feet are cold and I stubbed my toe."
Mood changes at eight are mercurial. Peter asked, "Do you love me, Neal?"
"Of course, I do. You saved me from prison, Peter."
"You can be my best friend."
Neal lifted Peter to his shoulders and said, "This is just because you don't have shoes on. No sign of disrespect, right?"
"Yup, no more hugging El, though. She can hug Satchmo if she's sad."
El trailed after them, head down, stealthily wiping her eyes.
"I'm very, very hungry," Peter whispered in the elevator.
"We'll take an early lunch," Neal promised.
"I'm hungry for the cupcake in the window."
Sighing, Neal punched the down button. Oh, well, as the owner of the "Greatest Cake", he got a one hundred percent discount and there was still time before they had to meet with the judge.
Shortly afterwards, Peter sat, his eyes rolling up with ecstasy as he consumed a chocolate cupcake which had once been decorated with a Labrador Retriever head. Peter giggled and said, "It's funny because it's a chocolate lab. Get it?"
Peter kicked Neal in case that would jump start his humor.
"No, really, I get it. I really get it." Neal would fire whoever had that low a sense of humor.
"I am enlightened. I respect the rights of the De-Aged."
No matter how many times he said it, Neal couldn't sell it to himself. He peered out between his spread fingers as Jones helped Peter put on his sized down holster and try the weight of his miniature, but fully functional Glock.
"I finally feel clothed again," Peter exulted.
It was so wrong. Peter's adorable freckled face intent upon the adult weapons of destruction.
Neal hated guns even more.
The hulking thug marched toward Peter, scoffing at him. "Kid, put down the pea shooter and I'll let you life."
Struggling to his feet, Neal winced as his arm told him in three part harmony that it was not happy with any kind of movement. He had given into his protective instincts and tried to get between this behemoth and Peter. Their informant hadn't mentioned that the inside traders had hired this extra from a sixties James Bond's flick as their guard. All he knew now was Peter was facing off this blood thirsty body guard by himself.
The sharp crack of a gun whipped through the room. Once. Twice. The ogre toppled, screaming. Pint sized Peter ran forward and captured his opponent's gun just as Jones, Hannah, and Curry rushed into the room.
"Good going, Boss!" Jones exulted. "Got him in the gun hand and one knee."
"Did you get his bosses?"
Peter strolled over and looked down at Neal from all of his three feet and ten inches. "Not that I don't appreciate it, Neal, but leave the physical stuff to the professionals."
Neal settled back to the floor and sighed. Peter really was a powerful little package.
Testifying, Peter had to sit on a booster to be seen over the witness stand. Neal could see that this bothered his friend a great deal. Still, his pride was assuaged when they covered his shooting of the guard. It's not often someone three feet and ten inches was accused of police brutality.
Accusation or not, the arraignment went well. Bruto, as Neal had named the surly bodyguard, was willing to plea bargain as a result. At the meeting table afterwards, Peter's feet swung steadily back and forth. It was difficult for an eight year old to sit still so long.
As they walked out of the meeting, Peter's gait seemed stiff as if he was holding himself back. Instead of turning toward the car, Peter marched toward the corner. He said, "Neal, there's a park. We're going."
Out of sight of his colleagues, Peter broke into a run. "Catch me!" he called out, looking behind his shoulders.
"Watch the road!"
Peter yelled back, "Neal, I may look like a kid, but I'm not an idiot."
At the park, Peter looked wistfully at an impromptu baseball game. A child, a real one, came over and silently offered him a baseball and bat before running back to the game.
Neal threw balls until his arm felt as if it was going to fall off. Peter was pink cheeked, sweaty, and so adorable that Neal really wanted to violate his De-aged rights and tickle the hell out of him.
Collapsing on the grass together, Neal bemoaned his suit, but not the warm sun overhead, or the sweetness of crushed grass, or the company of his best friend in any size or shape.
Another stake out and damn if Peter wasn't eating a deviled ham sandwich.
Opening the window, Neal asked, "When did you start eating that again? I thought you hated it now."
"I woke up craving it," Peter said. He bit a large bite, leaving a jagged piece in the middle since he lost his front teeth last week.
Peter's current state of adorableness was so intense that Neal tried not to look at him. Tow headed kids with freckles, a cow lick, and gaps in their teeth should be forced to wear bags over their heads or just accept that they will have cheeks pinched.
Spewing a few crumbs, Peter said, "You're looking at me that way again."
"I can't help it."
"Don't say it. Just don't say it."
Neal determinedly stared out the window. The suspects never showed. Peter fell asleep in the car and Neal carried him up to his bed in what used to be the guest room. El tucked Peter in and wistfully kissed his forehead.
"We should have had a son. Now I know how sweet he would have been."
Hugging El, Neal went downstairs. He decided to sleep on the couch. It was much too late to bother going home and El had already prepared the couch with sheets and the pillow she had purchased for Neal's occasional stays.
The morning silence was broken by cries from a voice Neal had almost forgotten.
"I'm big! I'm big. El, Neal, I'm grown up again."
Neal ran to the foot of the stairs and saw Peter swinging El around. He was naked except for a few shreds of his pajamas. "Peter!"
Bounding down the stairs, Peter lifted Neal off his feet, spun him too, and smacked him on the lips with a pretty much non-platonic kiss. He had to catch Neal before he fell, stunned and thrilled.
"I'm cured! Deviled Ham is the cure!"
"Peter, it can't be."
Sadly for Neal's sake, it was.
Not everyone's deviled ham. Only El's secret recipe with the maple syrup and cilantro reversed the process of De-aging.
The odd thing was that some of the De-aged refused the cure. Lauren was one of them. Her identity had become so invested in being a De-aged person that she would not consider one bite of deviled ham.
Alas, there was no way to duplicate El's secret recipe in the lab. The scent of deviled ham filled the house for days.
Worse, Moz, who chose to grow up, became a deviled ham addict, meeting Peter for entire orgies of the stuff.
So Neal, ears offended by the perpetual crunch of the celery, nose blistered by fatty meat, peppers, and onions, eyes tortured by the pink quivering, almost living sludge of deviled hams, was left to mourn the company of child Peter and to idolize him in a series of paintings which made him, to his horror, the new Norman Rockwell.
Thus is written tragedy.