Neal woke slowly, feeling his mother's fingers gently working their way through his hair. It took him back to when he was younger and he would get sick. She'd always do the same thing. Keeping his eyes closed, he heard her and Peter talking. They were talking about him. He sighed. Peter was reliving one of the times they almost caught Neal, most likely leading up to the time he did catch Neal. Before his mother could learn the conclusion to the story, Neal sat up slowly, rubbing his eyes and stretching.
"Look who's awake. Welcome back to the land of the living." His partner joked. Neal rolled his eyes at Peter before looking around for the clock.
"How long was I out for?" His mother smiled warmly, smoothing his hair.
"Only about half an hour. Do you feel better?"
"Yeah. Much better. Thought I should keep Peter from boring you to death." He smiled at Peter mischievously. Charlotte laughed, shaking her head.
"No, Peter and I were having a nice conversation while you napped. It's fine." Peter smiled and Neal wondered what exactly the agent had said. Judging by that smug smile on his face, he either told mom something or was told something. No doubt that something was embarrassing and about Neal.
"Alright. Where's Paul?" Charlotte smiled.
"He's out fishing with a few of 'The Guys'." She made air-quotes. "I'd call him and tell him you were here, but he doesn't have service on his phone. They should be getting back soon though. They get down there around five in the morning and come back around noon."
"Sounds fun. That's why I never went fishing with him when I was a kid. Too early."
They continued talking and laughing, the conversation rolling smoothly, covering years of time, until the sound of the front door opening.
"Paul!" Charlotte called over her shoulder. "Come in here and see who dropped in!" A moment later, Paul was in the doorway, dropping his tackle when he saw who was sitting on his couch.
"Neal?" He asked.
"In the flesh." He stood, hesitantly walking closer to his step-father.
"It's been a while." Paul began slowly.
"Yeah, it has."
"C'mere." Paul pulled him into a tight hug before looking at him again.
"You look like shit, kid." Everyone laughed. Soon the story was explained and they were in the backyard, scaling fish. Peter had to admit he'd never done that before, but Neal obviously had. He made it look easy. Soon, the fish were cut up and battered, being dropped in the deep fryer while Neal helped his mom set the table.
Peter smiled as he watched his partner. Neal always blossomed in social situations but he was practically glowing now, under the love of his mom and step-dad. Peter had been worried when Paul had first arrived, wondering what he would think of his step-son's career path. However, just like Charlotte, he was willing to forgive those transgressions because Neal was safe and home at last.
They sat down for lunch, quiet for the first few minutes as everyone was eating. Finally, Paul took a long drink and then looked at Neal.
"So I can assume you'll be staying on the up-and-up from now on?"
"I am. Working for the FBI doesn't exactly leave much wiggle room."
"Because when you get off your tracker thingamabob, I expect you to come out here on weekends and keep us old people company." Charlotte laughed and playfully smacked her husband's arm.
"How many times do I have to tell you? We aren't old."
"My gray hairs beg to differ." She rolled her eyes.
"Well, Neal, we'd also love to come out and see you. And I'd love to meet June; she sounds like a wonderful woman." Neal nodded.
"I'm sure June would like to meet you too. You would get along great."
"Well" Paul began, wiping his fingers on a napkin "Anyone who can keep you in line deserves a gold medal." Neal laughed.
"I'm not that bad."
"Anymore." Peter interjected, earning himself a dirty look from his friend. "Did I tell you he used to send pizza to our stake-out vans? And wine bottles?" Neal's parents laughed, looking like they were both proud of him for being so clever and disappointed that the FBI had to be looking for him in the first place. "And" Peter continued "He used to send me hand-drawn Christmas cards and birthday cards." Charlotte squeezed Neal's hand.
"Oh, Neal. You always were such a character. Just like your father." Peter didn't miss the way Neal's eyes darkened but no one else caught it. It had been a long time since they'd studied those almost unperceivable emotions and Neal had gotten much better at concealing what he was thinking since he left home.
Finally, when the sun was starting to set, Peter decided they needed to get going.
"Well, I don't want to say it, but I'm afraid we have to get going back to the city." Neal looked at Peter with pleading eyes but the agent shook his head. Neal understood. It was enough that he'd been allowed to come out here in the first place.
Goodbyes were said, promises to visit soon were made and phone numbers were exchanged. Neal was all smiles as they got into the car.
"Thanks." He said, as Peter began to drive down the street. Peter smiled too. It had been worth it, seeing the look on Neal's face.
"Not a problem. After everything you've done for the FBI, you deserved it." Neal grinned but didn't say anything else. Thinking about the day, trying to remember everything his mom and Paul had said, Neal drifted off to sleep, not waking until the car pulled up in front of the Burke household.
"Don't I ever get to go back to June's?" Peter rolled his eyes.
"Eventually. El's here, she'll take care of you."
"Where will you be?" Neal asked, hand lingering on the seat belt buckle, looking at Peter warily.
"I'm going to run by the office. I'll be right back. Then we need to talk."
"I don't think I like the sound of that." Neal muttered, unbuckling his seatbelt. Peter laughed.
"Just go. El probably wants to feed you or something." Neal sighed and slid out of the car, walking up the familiar steps to the door. When he knocked, Satch came running, barking excitedly until El opened the door, smiling as she let Neal in.
"How was it? How'd it go?" She asked, not missing the smile plastered on Neal's face.
"It went great." He followed her to the kitchen, telling her about his day as he helped her with dinner.
"That's great, sweetie. Here, you do the mashed potatoes while I make the meatloaf." She handed him a few potatoes and went back to her counter.
"Mashed potatoes and meatloaf? Sounds like some real comfort food. Bad day?" He asked, genuinely concerned, as he began to peel the potatoes. She smiled at him softly.
"No. I just thought…well, if everything didn't go well today, I thought maybe you would like it." Neal understood. The comfort food was a precaution, if his day had gone badly, El wanted to do what she could. Sometimes Neal felt like El was his other mom. She and Peter needed to have kids; after all the practice they had taking care of him, they would be great parents.
"I'm just glad your day went well."
Peter came home to find them both in the kitchen, laughing and talking like old friends. Neal was sitting at the table, trying to keep a bowl of potatoes away from Satchmo and El was doubled over, covering her face with her oven mitt, tears in her eyes from laughing.
"I don't even want to know." Peter pulled the eager dog away from the food. "How long 'til dinner's ready, El?" She glanced at the timer.
"Probably about ten minutes now. Neal, give me the mashed potatoes, I need to keep them warm." Neal handed over the bowl.
"Alright." Peter smiled, kissing his wife on the forehead. "I need to talk to Neal about something but we'll be right back." He motioned for his partner to follow him out into the backyard.
"What are we talking about?" Neal asked, sitting on the porch swing. Peter sat across from him. That was never a good sign. If they were working together on something, Peter usually sat next to him.
"Your dad." Peter could see Neal stiffen, recognizing the tension that held him. "Neal, you can do something. You can make things right again." Neal shook his head.
"My dad's dead, Peter. And as much as I appreciate the faith you have in me, even I can't make that right." He was trying to deflect now, Peter thought. Neal's eyes were wild, searching for an escape route.
"But his killer is still a free man. Is that ok with you, Neal?" Neal gulped, looking towards the window, praying El would save him. "Is it, Neal?" Neal remained silent. "Damn it, Neal, just look at me." Neal flinched but looked up slowly. "Your dad is dead. I'm not trying to say you can bring him back, but you can at least put this Johnson guy away."
"I don't want to." Neal's voice was quiet, the smile that had been a permanent fixture on his face since his mother opened the front door was gone, shaken away by the memories Peter was dredging up.
"Why not? You just want him to go on without suffering for what he did? For what he did to you and your mom?"
"Peter, stop." The agent didn't listen.
"Neal, I looked into it, they never closed the case, it's still an open investigation. It would be best for everyone if you told them what you saw."
"Peter…" Neal pleaded.
"Neal, your testimony could put him away for life. He was already a person of interest to the police, but they didn't have any solid evidence at the time. Ballistics and DNA have both come a long way since then. Between that and you, he could be up for life, without parole. Neal,-"
"Stop!" Neal yelled, the volume of his voice surprising even himself. "Just…just stop." He leaned back against the swing. When he closed his eyes all he could see was the evil smile of Sam Johnson, the smile that haunted him as a kid. He didn't want to remember. The backdoor opened slowly.
"Everything ok out here?" El asked softly. Peter nodded but Neal could only look at her, his eyes wide with a forgotten fear. She walked over, sitting next to him and pulling him into her arms. She could feel him trembling. "Peter, what happened?" Behind her concerned tone was a thinly veiled threat.
"We were just talking, El."
"I don't think Neal wanted to be talking about it. Why don't you go in and set the table, Peter? I'll be right there. The meatloaf still has about five minutes left." When Peter obediently disappeared through the door, El lifted Neal's chin. "What's wrong, honey? What'd Peter say?"
"He…He wants me t-to testify against the guy who killed m-my dad." Neal buried his face in the crook of El's neck, trying to relax as he inhaled the blended smells that defined her; her perfume, her shampoo, the scent of spices and home-cooking that were trapped in her dark hair. Even as he took breath after breath of those, all he could smell was the sharp tang of gunpowder and the musty familiarity of his old couch.
"Oh, sweetie, I'm sorry. I'm sorry." She kissed the top of his head, rubbing his back as a single hot tear hit her neck. "It'll be ok. It will all be ok." He took a shuddery breath, his arms snaking around her, holding himself close to her. "I'm sorry. Peter means well, he really does. He just doesn't know how to show it, that's all." She pulled the crumbling conman tighter into her arms. "It's ok, if you cry, I won't tell Peter." She whispered. Neal put together a watery smile.
"I know. I just don't want dinner to get cold." He lingered for a moment longer in her embrace until the tears no longer threatened to fall. Pulling away, he smiled shyly at her. "Thanks." One tiny word wrapping up so much gratitude, saying in one word what Neal could not say with a thousand.
Thank you for all those times that, just like now, you've held me. Thank you for letting me into your kitchen, teaching me that a home-cooked meal is better than anything in any restaurant in Paris or Rome or anywhere else in the world. Thank you for sometimes just letting me sleep on your couch. Thank you for being everything to me your husband couldn't be; a confidant about semi-illegal activities, a friend to watch movies with on the couch, a nurturing pair of hands that could repair any scrape.
"You're welcome, Neal." For everything. She smiled at him, brushing his cheek dry before leading him back to the kitchen. The timer beeped as they entered and El snatched the oven mitt from Peter to remove the meatloaf.
Dinner was quiet. Neal savored the taste of the food, silently thanking El for having made such a comforting meal. He needed it, though not for the anticipated reasons. Avoiding Peter's gaze, he finished his plate, pushing it forward and heading upstairs at El's instruction.
Closing the guest bedroom door, he sighed. He curled up on the bed, both wishing for the quiet reprieve of sleep and dreading the memories that would return. Before sleep could claim him, though, the door opened. Looking up, he saw Peter, standing tentatively in the doorway.
"What?" Peter sat down next to him, rubbing his arm.
"Look, I'm sorry about what I said earlier. I should have listened to you." Neal nodded. "But, that being said, I don't think you realize what you could do, Neal. You could make things fair again." Neal closed his eyes.
"I can't…Peter, I can't go back…" Peter sighed exasperatedly.
"Neal. Listen to me."
"Why won't you listen to me?" His voice broke; face flushing as he grew closer and closer to breaking himself. "I can't go back. Peter, he tried to kill me, he probably thinks I'm dead. I can't go back and…and I can't do that to my mom. You saw her today, she's happy now. I can't do that to her. I can't." Neal feels his eyes watering but he keeps going. "Please, please don't make me. I can't. I can't even think about it."
Peter pulled Neal up, unsure what to do with the younger man. Neal hid his face in Peter's shoulder. The agent awkwardly rubbed his back, sitting silently while Neal sniffed back tears.
"Alright, ok. I won't bring it up again." Neal nodded, pulling away from Peter and scrubbing his face with his hand.
"Thanks." His voice was small, hoarse, telling of memories held back and nightmares to come.
"I didn't mean to ruin your day. Your mom is pretty cool, huh." Neal smiled.
"Yeah…she is. I was impressed you found her so easily, actually. Not that I'm complaining." Peter chuckled and squeezed Neal's arm.
"Well, I didn't tell you earlier, but it wasn't as easy as it looked." Neal's confused blink urged him to continue. "She was off-radar for years, Neal. Right after you left home, she disappeared. People thought someone kidnapped the two of you." Neal felt a cold spot growing in his chest. "I had Jones compile a file. It's got everything; newspaper clippings, testimony, everything. If you ever want to read it that is."
"Where did she go?"
"No clue. I don't even know how she managed it. Charlotte Madison reappeared about a year and a half ago." Neal nodded. If he had broken his nose eighteen months prior to when he did, Peter wouldn't have been able to find his mom. He wanted to ask Peter more, but the agent wouldn't know any more than he did. And his head hurt.
Lying back down, he fell into an uneasy sleep. Peter didn't leave, rubbing his partner's back as he shifted again and again, seemingly unable to get comfortable. Moaning, he turned again; sweat dampening the back of his shirt.
Watching Neal sleep, ready in case the younger man awoke from his bad dream, Peter thought. He remembered what Charlotte had made him see in Neal, the part of him that sought what was write, whether it was by the book or not. That's what Neal was doing now. He knew it was wrong to let Johnson go, but he thought it would be more wrong to upset his mom so soon after finding her.
Peter smoothed Neal's hair in the same way Mozzie did, hoping he would calm. He didn't. Neal's breathing was growing ragged, his body thrashing to get away from Peter. He woke with a shout, startling the agent. The conman sat stunned for a moment before Peter reacted, pulling the younger man to his chest as he began to shake.
"Shh..shh, you're ok. You're alright, I've got you. You're fine." Neal mumbled something but it was incoherent. "What?" He pulled Neal away so he could hear him clearly.
"I changed my mind. I want him in jail. I want him to pay." Neal's voice was laced with such malice that he could hardly recognize it.
"What changed?" Peter asked, continuing to rub Neal's back.
"He threatened my mom. That's why she hid. He can't mess with my mom." Peter smiled. Neal would do whatever it took to protect those he loved, including tormenting himself with memories of his past.
"I'll give Garden Valley PD a call tomorrow morning. It'll be ok, Neal. You're doing the right thing." Neal nodded, leaning back into the pillow.
"Don't let them drag mom in. Please, just don't." He pleaded as he slipped off to sleep again.
Two months later, Neal Caffrey, formerly Neal Peterson, gave testimony in the trial of Sam Johnson, wanted for the murder of Robert Peterson. As per Neal's request, Charlotte was unaware of the trial. As much as it hurt to lie to her, it would have hurt her worse to have to suffer through the whole ordeal again. Neal was dealing heavily in grey areas.
The trial was exhausting, the defense latching on to Neal's criminal background, making him repeat each and every painful memory. They tried to paint Neal as someone without morals, someone who only wanted to make a profit.
At the end of the last day, Neal gave Peter a tour of the little town, showing him the house where his father was killed and the second house. Finally, he took him down to the creek, the one he used to play in as a child. Neal lay down on the bank, as he had done so many years before, turning his face away from Peter as he cried. Peter sat next to him, rubbing his arm.
When the tears finally ceased, Neal apologized but Peter stopped him.
"You're fine. It's ok." Neal nodded, watching the water rush by over the little rocks and reeds. It seemed nothing had changed, but he knew it had. Some for the better and some for the worse. He still couldn't get the Johnson's smile out of his head. The nightmares were back; just as bad as when he'd been younger.
As Neal drifted off to sleep on the creek bank, Peter smiled at him. In the late-afternoon sun, his partner looked almost childlike. But that childish face had been stony and courageous on trial as he pointed at Sam Johnson, identifying him as the man who killed his father and threatened to kill him. Peter knew it was a mask. He knew that behind the mask, his friend was scared. But he was doing what he felt he had to do. He was keeping his loved ones safe, by laying himself on the line, giving up his mental well-being and sleep for God-knows-how-long so that his mom could sleep in peace at night.
Peter smiled. He trusted Neal completely now, trusting him to always to the right thing, to see beyond the easy yes-and-no of life into the 'maybe's and the 'sort-of' s. He knew Neal would always have his back.
Looking down at his partner's contented face, he mused that this whole adventure had begun with a broken nose, some drugs and the picking of locks.
AN: So sorry for the delay. I ended up in a different state for a while. Hope you enjoy…Also, I almost hate to ask, but how many of you would be interested in a smut fic? With plot, I promise.