Thank you all so much for reading and/or reviewing, alerting and favouriting, I hope you enjoy this part...
"We all grow up with the weight of history on us. Our ancestors dwell in the attics of our brains as they do in the spiraling chains of knowledge hidden in every cell of our bodies."
"My mom used to do that," he divulged.
"Run her hands through your hair?" Elizabeth asked; her fingers still threaded through his thick locks.
He nodded sleepily. "When she was reading me stories, or telling me about her day before I went to sleep."
Neal opened his eyes and rolled his head to the side to fit her with an amused expression.
"Contrary to Peter's opinion, and that of the majority of the FBI, and other law enforcement agencies, I'm sure," he told her, with a wry smile. "I didn't just appear on this earth fully-formed with all my cunning and brilliance. It took years to hone my skills to the levels of perfection that I currently possess."
"You forgot to learn modesty while you were at it, though, I see," Elizabeth teased.
He shrugged. "No point in pretending I'm something I'm not. I'm the best at what I do – you know there are even students that studied me as part of their college courses. I'm a phenomenon."
"And yet Peter locked all that genius and talent up where the world didn't get to see it, put you in a cage," she replied; and there was no malice or hardness in her tone, just simple fact.
"Which I then broke free from," Neal said, and sensing her response continued, "And then Peter and I reached an agreement and look where we are now."
He smiled brightly at her, and she returned it.
And then his face fell and he tilted his head up to direct it towards her. "Why did you stop?"
She nodded towards the doorway where Peter was watching them, and he made a show of sighing dramatically and holding up his hands in defense.
"Now, Peter, whatever you think you saw – "
"Can it, Caffrey, I think I've had about enough of your drug-addled speeches for the time being," Peter told him, but there was a hint of a smile twisting his lips. "I just came by to make sure you hadn't strangled yourself on that oxygen wire."
"Oh, you mean, since they changed it from the mask I had earlier?" Neal asked, and winked at Peter. "Don't worry, partner, I've mastered far more complicated contraptions."
"I bet you created them too," Peter commented.
"See?" Neal said, and turned his bright smile back to Elizabeth. "Even he's not denying my brilliance."
"If those pills have killed him, I'm holding you personally responsible," he heard Mozzie say.
"They're from his bathroom cabinet," Peter replied.
"Precisely," his best friend merely said to that.
He could imagine Peter rolling his eyes at Mozzie's attitude, and then he said, "Just keep an eye on him."
"Yes, because you've been pumping his system with drugs, and when it's discovered he hasn't awoken from this slumber you've got him under, I will be the one to take the fall," Mozzie's voice got higher throughout, as the scenarios undoubtedly increased in his mind. "Not likely, Suit! I won't be part of a government conspiracy – you're not going to cover this one up!"
Peter sighed. "I'll be back later to check on him."
He heard the door close, and Mozzie's mumbled voice as he shuffled about the room, and he fell back into a deep sleep.
"You remind me of her," Neal told her.
"Your mom?" Elizabeth surmised.
He nodded. "It's probably what most attracted me to you. Not because of anything Freudian, although Moz would likely tell you psychologists all tend to disregard his work nowadays anyway," he answered. "It's more in how you are, it's the same with June."
Elizabeth was smiling at him as if she knew what he was going to say next and her agreement of the fact was evident already.
"You love me."
She laughed then, and it was wonderful and infectious enough that it made him smile back at her.
"You say that with such surprise, it makes me wonder at times if you really know how exceptional you are," Elizabeth said, and she shook her head at him.
"Not surprise, just – I guess it is a little unnerving, and yeah, it's somewhat unexpected," he stumbled with the explanation, like the memories and her presence were enough to throw him off-kilter; tear back the layers that he'd so carefully crafted with the same years it'd taken him to perfect his skill set.
"Why? Because we're not duty bound to care for you like your mother or Kate or even Peter?" Elizabeth asked.
He gave a half-hearted attempt at a shrug.
"For someone who can sell himself so spectacularly, you don't think an awful lot about your true character, do you?" she remarked, and she exhaled.
He kept his eyes on her, curious, intrigued; entranced almost.
"Your mother loved you, didn't she, Neal?" Elizabeth said then.
"Of course," he replied easily, and though his stab at a laugh of disbelief had him coughing instead, the point was made.
She watched him throughout with concern written all across her face, and when he recovered he gave her a smile that didn't shake, despite the tremors running their course through his body.
"I'm sure Peter has his assumptions about my past, and maybe a lot of it is right, but my mother never showed me anything but love, that much I do know," Neal told her; and he was sure the fondness that the memories brought him emanated from his every word.
"Then why is it so difficult for you to believe that others could love you just as much?" she said, her eyes beseeching him to take what she was saying to be true.
"Occupational hazard?" Neal tried, cracking a smile.
Elizabeth shot him a look. "That's a cop-out and you know it. And if that's the only explanation you're going to offer me then I suggest you just start accepting things for what they are. You, Neal Caffrey, are loved by a number of people, and the sooner you start accepting that the better."
She started to stroke his hair again and he leaned back into the pillows and slowly closed his eyes. His chest hurt like nothing he'd ever experienced before and he had a sneaking suspicion that it wasn't from lack of pain meds.
Neal tossed and turned to no avail. Resigning himself to the idea that sleep was now evading him, he lay back against the pillows with a sigh that hurt his chest, and stared up at the ceiling until he had to forcibly shut his eyes because it was too painful to keep burning that pattern into his retinas. With great effort, he managed to push himself up onto his elbows before dropping back down onto the mattress.
He'd caught sight of himself in the mirror, and he looked pathetic.
His hair was matted to his forehead with the same slick sweat that had his silk pajamas attaching themselves to him like a second skin. His face was pale, with dark circles embedded under his bloodshot eyes that only further highlighted the hollows of his cheekbones.
He couldn't believe how low he'd sunk.
How many years had he been on the run? How many years had he managed to fend for himself? And a simple cold was rendering him virtually bed-ridden: pathetic.
"I hear you've been swapping tales of old with my wife," Peter said to him when he opened his eyes and took in his surroundings again.
He took a moment to gather himself and then looked over at his partner and cracked a smile. "Apparently she loves me, who knew?"
"Everyone, except you," Peter responded. "Apparently."
"Hey! I've had a very tough life, according to you," Neal returned, and gave Peter a look. "I've probably grown up on the streets with only abandoned strays as my friends and alleyways as my return-to address. Or bounced from foster home to foster home because while everyone ooh-ed and ahh-ed at the little boy with the big blue eyes and charming mouth, they couldn't quite commit enough to give him a stable home."
Peter lifted his eyebrows. "Quite done?"
He shrugged, "I'm sure I could go on."
"But you won't," Peter deduced.
"But I won't," Neal agreed.
"Because you don't want to," Peter continued.
"Because I don't need to," Neal corrected with a pointed look.
"So what? You were cultured by actual experience, lived across continents because you owned a home in every country that took your fancy? Dressed in suits and dined at the finest restaurants because you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth and a mini Savile Row that was custom-made for you? And the rest was just rebellion? A Thrill-seeking movement to relieve the boredom?" His partner picked the crumbs he threw him and dropped a loaf of bread in return.
"And I'm exceptionally good at it," he said, with an incline of the head and a smile that warned never to forget such a thing.
"You were exceptionally good at it," Peter corrected that time. "You're reformed, remember?"
"That's right, I am," Neal answered, and grinned. "Oh, and you're wrong with that life-story too. Sorry."
"Except you're not really, because you enjoy having this secret life," Peter said, reading him. "You like having a past that not even I know about."
He shrugged. "Sometimes people don't talk about the past because they want to keep secrets, sometimes it's just because the past is personal."
"And yet you're sharing stories with my wife," Peter commented.
"Because she loves me," Neal said, not missing a beat, a fully-fledged smile spread from ear-to-ear.
When the rest of his night passed in a haze of painful coughing fits that seemed to be endless and the alternative shift of hot to cold, he rode it all out in exceptional discomfort and the hope that it was a sign that the fever was close to breaking point.
Squinting against the morning light, he thought for a moment that the worst was over, that the delirium and hacking coughs had been overcome by sheer force of will and the passing hours.
He managed to stumble to the bathroom, ignoring the mirror as he set about cleaning himself up, but literally collapsed no more than two steps back across the threshold. He lifted his arm up and struggled to reach the counter he'd narrowly missed cracking his head off on the way down, to creep his fingers along the top and swipe his phone across the surface. It landed a short distance away and he dropped the same arm to the wood floor with little care, exhaling with relief when his fingers curled round the small device.
Keying in the number from touch alone, he brought the phone towards the direction of his face and muttered against the hardwood floor, "Moz? I think we may have a problem."
"Has Peter sent you back in here to try and pry more information out of me?" he asked, amusement lifting his words like the smile that brightened his whole face.
"Is that your way of saying you won't be offering up any more pieces of your past simply because my husband has eyes and ears everywhere?" Elizabeth replied, taking a seat on his bed beside him.
"You're trying to play me with the mothering role now, I see," Neal remarked then, twisting his head to eye her, though his lips were turned up into a smirk.
She rolled her eyes, "Honestly, between you and Moz, I don't know who has a worse case of paranoia."
"Moz," Neal answered easily. "Definitely Moz."
Elizabeth laughed. "Well, I'd say you've inherited it in copious amounts."
"From my second surrogate father?" he said, and then shrugged. "I suppose it's not such a stretch."
"Second?" Elizabeth inquired, never one to miss a step.
"Ah," he smiled. "And so we evolve into the romance of the tale."
She made a show of getting comfortable and then met his eyes again and said, "Ok, I'm ready, go."
Neal chuckled. "Technically he's not my second, since I always considered Richard to be my actual father, but for the case of it-doesn't-take-blood-to-make-family, we'll go with Mozzie being my second surrogate father figure."
Elizabeth nodded, seemingly taking all of it in. "So Richard wasn't your biological father?"
"No," Neal shook his head, lips curved upwards at the edges. "He just loved my mom."
He was watching her as closely as she was watching him, and it was amusing and fascinating and utterly ridiculous too. He was basically spilling his life story, which he'd kept hidden since he'd buried the past and started afresh; to the wife of the man who'd tracked him down after chasing him for years and then had thrown him in jail. Then again, Elizabeth loved him; that certainly changed things.
"He was a confidence man," he told her, "in a way that is entirely different to whatever you imagine it was I did."
"To be honest, Neal," Elizabeth revealed. "I mainly know what Peter tells me, although I can conjure up an idea or two on my own without much trouble."
He smiled at her. "I was old enough to know that the toys and books he got for me and the nice clothes he bought my mom cost money, which he never seemed to have in a consistent flow. It would come in spells, and we'd be showered with gifts when it did. And then we wouldn't see him as much and we'd be content with simply each other's company."
Elizabeth shared in his memory with a smile.
"This went on for years," he told her. "When I got a bit older, and I found out what he did, I asked my mom how she could love him when he lied and cheated for a living."
"Did she tell you?" she asked, genuinely invested in what he had to say.
"My mom was never able to deny me anything," Neal replied devilishly.
"Much like everyone else you encounter, I imagine," Elizabeth remarked, with a teasing smile.
He returned the sentiment and answered, "She told me that as long as he'd been a part of our lives, he'd always treated us well. That he loved me like I was his own, and that was enough for her."
"She just wanted what any mother would want for her child," Elizabeth said, empathy evident in her tone and her expression and the way she knotted her fingers through his.
"He got caught in a scam to steal a painting from the museum my mom worked at and she was implicated," he continued. "He made a deal, got sent to jail, and my mom walked."
"He loved her," Elizabeth said, enraptured by his tale.
Neal nodded. "She died a year later, and he wrote to me to tell me he was sorry he couldn't be there for me, that he loved my mom an me. And then he killed himself."
"Oh my God, Neal, I'm so sorry," she breathed out, reaching for him.
"He wrote a P.S. that told me to make sure I did everything better than he did," he said, glazing over her condolences with a wry smile.
"Is it wrong that I want to tell you I bet he'd be proud of what you've done?" Elizabeth spoke after a moment, realizing quickly that he wasn't telling her any of this to draw sympathy; he just wanted to tell someone about their story.
"Oh, don't worry, I know he'd be proud of me," Neal replied, recovering quickly with a grin. "He'd slap me on the upside of the head for getting caught mind, but then he'd likely shake Peter's hand for a game well played. Tell him the better man won that round, and then help me plan how to avoid him when I got out."
The smile on Elizabeth's face told him he'd done their tale justice.
He beamed back at her, when he saw the recognition in her eyes. "Like I said, you remind me of her." He stifled a laugh. "Similar taste in men."
Elizabeth's laughter bounced off the walls of his hospital room and brightened the room like only the sun and his most brilliant smile could.
By the time Mozzie reached him, he'd made barely no progress to cross the room or return to his bed.
"Oh, my!" he heard June gasp as she stepped up next to his best friend.
"Always like to make things difficult, don't you, Neal?" Mozzie remarked.
"Keeps things interesting," he slurred from his place attached to the wooden floor.
"Right," was the offhand retort. "Of course it does."
His breathing was more labored than before, and June told him she was calling an ambulance before dashing off to do just that. He groaned at the thought, and Mozzie's face soon swam in front of his own.
"That's right, you should be feeling bad," Mozzie told him. "Do you know how much I'm putting my own health at risk by seeing you like this? It's a good thing I take all my vitamins and keep up with the homeopathic remedies because otherwise – "
"Moz?" Neal rasped. "Too much talk, too loud."
There was silence for a minute and then, "What if I whisper?"
"Only you could get pneumonia in the height of summer," Peter commented.
"Hey! I wasn't the one trying to downplay my knack for the exceptional," Neal replied, and nodded towards the only female in the room.
"That's true," his partner noted.
"Honestly, Elizabeth, go home, I'll be fine," Neal told her then with a reassuring smile.
"I don't believe that for a minute," she replied, eyeing him.
"I do, he has the doctors and nurses all eating out the palm of his hand," Peter remarked.
Neal smiled smugly at that and Elizabeth shook her head. "That doesn't change the fact I'd rather not return home and leave you here."
"It's your birthday, Elizabeth, I'm sure Peter had something planned," Neal said. "Go home, enjoy it, I'll still be here tomorrow."
"You better," Peter responded. "I told the night nurse she has permission to handcuff you to the bed if need be."
"Yes, because that's going to ensure I stay put," Neal remarked sarcastically, and rolled his eyes. "Honestly it's like you don't know me at all, Peter."
"Ok, ok, I'll go home," Elizabeth broke in then, looking between the two. "If only to get you both to stop bickering."
Neal grinned widely at her, and felt Peter's eyes on him.
Elizabeth bid him farewell and was walking just across the threshold when his partner questioned, "What have you got planned?"
"Oh, not me, Peter," Neal countered with a brimming smile. "You."
"Moz," he said as soon as the line connected. "I need a favor."
"Are you calling from the hospital phone?" Mozzie said to that. "You know I don't do public lines; there's too much chance of interference, traces – "
"Moz, I'll fix you up with another phone," Neal cut him off. "I need a favor, focus."
"If this is to stage a jailbreak count me out, I don't do hospitals, you know that," his friend answered.
A smile spread across his lips. "It's not, I wouldn't be able to leave anyway; Elizabeth has me on lockdown."
"Ah, Mrs. Suit, how is she feeling what-with having to spend this day of the year, her birthday may I add, in the hospital tending to your every need because your immune system is disgustingly low-caliber?" Mozzie inquired.
"Are you finished? Can I tell you why I'm calling now?" Neal replied, his tone expectant.
"Of, course, continue," his friend indulged him.
"Thank you," he said. "It's about Elizabeth's birthday."
"I'm listening," was Mozzie short response.
"I'm going to need you to procure an item from storage for me, and a nice bottle or two, and prepare a meal," Neal told him.
He heard Mozzie hum in the background and knew he was taking mental notes.
And then he added almost as an afterthought, "Oh, and I'll need you to break into their house."
"Let me think about that." A beat. "No."
"Oh, come on, Moz, you've been to their house before, and it's for Elizabeth," Neal beseeched him.
"Who is married to the Suit, who won't appreciate me breaking into his home, or you telling me to do it," Mozzie countered.
"What is it with you and Alex and your sudden objections to breaking into people's houses?" he questioned at that.
"Hmm, maybe it's because these people are Feds, and if we get caught we're the ones taking the fall, Mister Geppetto," was Mozzie's none-too-amused response.
"Moz, this is Peter, if you get caught, talk him round – it's for Elizabeth, and I really need you to do this," he said.
There was a heavy sigh on the other end of the line and then he heard his best friend say, "You know, this family dynamic of yours is completely dysfunctional."
"You're part of it." Neal grinned and filled him in on the rest of the plan.
When the phone by his bed rang, it took Neal a few minutes to compose himself enough to lean over and answer it.
"I don't know how you did it, but I have my suspicions," were his partner's first words in lieu of a greeting.
"Underestimating me again, Peter?" Neal replied, already entertained. "I thought we'd established that that's a dangerous thing for you to do."
"Remind me how that worked out again," Peter responded.
"Funny," he deadpanned.
"I try," was Peter's reply.
"While I succeed," Neal said, with a smug smile; just because Peter couldn't see him, didn't mean it would be heard in his voice.
"Yeah, yeah," his partner replied. "Listen, I'm not sure what the present you gave Elizabeth was but she looked set to burst into tears when she saw it so it better not have been a nude portrait of yourself or anything – "
"She never showed you it?" Neal said at that, his voice lifting at the end at that revelation.
"No," Peter answered shortly.
"Oh," he said to that, and again he couldn't seem to keep the surprise from his voice.
"Why? Should she have?" Naturally, his tone peaked Peter's curiosity.
"No, I just – no, it was for her, but I just assumed… " Neal trailed off, still trying to process the information; he blamed the drugs for his slow response-time, they were really ruining his game.
"Yeah, well anyway, she seemed to love it, she can't stop smiling now, so…" Peter stopped, as if trying to find the words. "For what you did, with the gift, and the dinner – I wanted to say thanks."
"Of course, Peter," Neal said. "You and Elizabeth are like my family."
"There's no 'like' about it," his partner replied. "We are your family. Along with June, and I suppose Mozzie too."
"I'm sure he'd love to hear that," Neal said with a laugh at the thought of Mozzie's reaction.
"Well, June skirts the line, so I'd say he's about even Suits to Cons," Peter replied, his tone light.
"What a dysfunctional family unit we have," Neal commented, thinking of his best friend's earlier words with a smile.
"It works though," Peter reminded him, and Neal could tell he was smiling too.
"Yeah," he agreed. "We make a good team."
"Damn right we do," Peter replied.
"The Fantastic Five," Neal said then, grinning from ear-to-ear. "The Dynamic Duo – "
"That's great," Peter cut in.
" – gave rise to the Terrific Trio," Neal carried on.
"Ok, I get the point," Peter cut in.
" – which led to the Phenomenal Four," Neal continued.
"Enough, Neal," Peter interrupted again.
" – resulting in the Fantastic Five,"
"That's wonderful," Peter mock-congratulated him. "Well done, Neal, really."
"I bet Elizabeth would like it," Neal replied in a fake-surly tone, a smile creeping into the edges of his words. "Besides, who said the Dynamic Duo referred to you and her anyway?"
"You're teasing me, that's what you're doing, isn't it?" Peter said, having been around Neal long enough to deduce his game strategy in times like these.
"It's what families do, Peter," Neal informed him almost gleefully.
"What families do," Peter repeated. "Right."
Neal laughed at the sound of his partner's voice, and he knew it would spread contagious across the line until there was a smile on Peter's face and he heard Elizabeth's laughter in the background.
They were family after all.
Enclosed is every letter Richard ever wrote to my mom.
It's not because they didn't love me enough, or that they chose their love for each over their love for me. I don't blame them, and I love them still. It's simply because I couldn't comprehend how a love like theirs, like the one you and Peter share, like the one June and Byron share; I couldn't imagine any world where that could ever be opened up to another as wholeheartedly as you have included me in yours.I hope these help you to understand.
Thank you for everything, and happy birthday.
"The family – that dear octopus from whose tentacles we never quite escape, nor, in our inmost hearts, ever quite wish to."
I don't tend to write Peter, or Elizabeth for that matter, because I really find it difficult to get into their minds, so to speak, so I hope I've done them justice here.
I'm currently working on a sequel of sorts, it's more a companion piece really, of the same style that will focus a bit more on Neal's past mentioned here, so if I do get it finished and posted, I hope you'll check it out :)
A/N: as ally pointed out in a review, the title of this fic originated elsewhere. However, I was listening to the Katy Perry song at the time of writing this, and felt it fit with my story, which was why I decided to use that line for the title, hence the credit going to the song and its singer and not elsewhere :)
Thanks for reading, please let me know what you thought of it :)