Rating: FRT (one accidental naughty reference, so better safe...)
Summary: Peter meant it as a joke. Neal, of course, decides it isn't...
Disclaimer: Don't own them, but man... I'd make them all so much happier. Except Kate, who is, hopefully, somewhere *extremely* hot and *very* painful at this point, and I don't mean in the plane. Not that I think they'll let it happen on the show. She'll find a way to survive, you wait and see...
ONE WEEK LATER:
Peter gazed down at the paper-clipped sheets of paper on his otherwise tidy desk then up at the man sitting across from him, privately enjoying and approving the smug grin his young colleague was unable to completely suppress.
"So?" Neal asked, his joy escaping its confines a little more. Peter considered torturing him a bit more, but he couldn't justify it. The effort Neal had obviously poured into his assignment deserved respect, and Peter was more than willing to give it. The fact that he'd found it on his desk that morning had deeply surprised him, but then Neal was always doing that. The quality of the writing and the astute perception that shone from the pages, however, were everything he admired about Neal Caffrey and wished the young man would let more people see.
"It's amazing. A terrific job. But I've decided the report is only half the assignment. Now for the oral."
Neal gaped for a moment and flushed bright pink. Peter scowled faintly and, feigning anger he didn't actually feel, tried frantically to cover how flustered he was about the unfortunate turn of phrase. "I didn't mean it like that and you know it, you goof."
"Right... right. Go ahead."
Peter watched Neal suddenly fighting off a mild bout of the shakes and was immediately concerned.
"Hey... you alright?"
"Not yet. What were you trying to say?"
Yeah, it's no big deal. C'mon, speak, fed-head." He grumped, momentarily channeling Moz.
"Fed-head?" Peter repeated skeptically.
"Okay, okay. I've got a couple questions I want verbal answers to. Do that to my satisfaction and the A I was gonna give you on the report... turns into an A plus."
Tremors subsiding, Neal's proud smile now emerged full force.
"An A? Seriously?"
"Focus, Caffrey." Peter admonished, clearly amused. "Question one: At what point do you think he started making a difference in the lives around him of his own free will?"
Neal frowned deeply and turned his gaze down as he sank into thought. When his response, at least initially, was hesitant and quiet, Peter felt his surprise-meter edge closer to the breaking point.
"Well... he didn't really know it... I mean, he just did it on impulse, but... the first one was the letter he delivered to the grocer. It made him feel like... like he pulled one positive thing out of all the chaos he was stuck in. There's all the stuff he started doing for Stanley... but that was really to make his life calmer and let him think, so... ulterior motive. It did still make the kid feel better, though...The cat, the stamps, the bet, helping bring down that bastard Gilt..."
Neal thought silently for another few moments then looked up, clearly fighting to keep his uncertainty buried behind a grin, but having little success, at least in Peter's eyes. "Too many, none of them a real clear turning point. It was sort of... cumulative. Sorry. That's the best I can do."
"Sorry? Why? That's exactly what I was looking for. It not only proved you trusted me enough to finish reading the book, it showed you enjoyed it enough to remember details. Second and last question, in two parts: Do you think he really sees the value of everything he gained on the journey? If he does, do you think that understanding will be enough to overcome the temptation when a piece of his old life comes calling?"
Neal smiled thinly.
"If you think you're being subtle..."
"No delusions on my side of the desk. I can't speak for yours."
After giving Peter a complicated look, Neal rose and moved slowly to stand by the window behind where his mentor sat.
"I don't know. I think he wants Dearheart more than he ever wanted anything in his life... and that scares him. If he lets that fear get too big... yeah, he might go along if an old crony walks in saying they need him... that it's life and death. Same with the fear of letting down all these new people... strangers who suddenly look up to him, depend on him... trust him. That's a lot to carry when the only one you've ever had to worry about is yourself. Of course, Dearheart... she's terrified he'll change her... make her start to see life isn't all darkness and stupidity and people with bad intentions. Maybe if they were both willing to talk more... about the stuff that mattered..."
The thought trailed off, leaving the room weighed down with quiet intensity. Peter had to swallow hard, twice, before he was able to speak.
"Wow, that's... that's a really profound bit of insight, kid. 'Course, I'd expect nothing less from a mind like yours. A plus. Definite A plus."
"Yeah? Cool." Neal replied, lightness and good spirits easing back into his tone. "So what's next?"
"My next assignment."
Peter thought he actually heard the surprise-meter blow itself to smithereens.