To all you wonderful, patient readers who have reviewed and follow this story, all I can do is apologize for the crazy delay in posting an update.
As a child, he remembered a house full of music and love. His mother would dance through their home, the sounds of the classic composers giving her movement a soundtrack, and he loved nothing more than when she would scoop him up into her embrace as she twirled and spun, humming along with the music under her breath. Anna would sit in the living room, the window of that room the only one that provided the natural sunlight her artist eye so desperately craved.
At times he would sit with Anna, watching as she carefully put paint to canvas, the colors and lines becoming things of beauty at her command. He adored his sister, and the first time she guided his much smaller hand in creating a simple stroke of color across the plain white he knew this was his calling. The feel of the brush was natural, and even at such a young age, he knew this was what he wanted to do.
It is these memories that he thinks of first, and he doesn't know how to share them with the man staring at him now. His right hand, not burdened by the bandages like that of his left arm and wrist is shaking as it comes up to his eyes, wiping away a tear that he did not mean to shed.
Peter stood up, needing a moment to comprehend. He ran through his thoughts, trying to put this new piece of information into context. Neal jumped slightly at Peter's sudden movement, feeling embarrassed for doing so. He had lost so much of himself in the past week, and he didn't think there was much left to spare.
"Hey, Neal, it's okay..." Peter said in a low tone, the look on the younger man's face causing him concern. "Are you sure you want to do this?" Although the trained agent in him wanted the information that Neal so closely guarded, the friend in him was having reservations seeing how difficult this simple admission was.
Neal glanced sideways, unwilling to make eye contact. His emotions were so close to the surface, the memories that he never allowed himself to reflect on now overwhelming him. It was too much for him to sort, the past feeling like an enemy that needed to be destroyed, not something to be reflected on, or even worse, shared. The only consolation Neal had at this moment was that the only person he truly trusted was the one to bear witness to the opening of the floodgate.
Peter was not sure how to handle this Neal that sat before him. He knew how to deal with the arrogant, shelf assured conman, and he knew how to deal with the determined to solve a problem no matter the cost Neal, but this person falling apart in front of him was neither of those. He thought for a moment to get Elisabeth, his wife having a way with people that he did not, but he didn't. Not because he thought Neal would mind, or Elisabeth would refuse, but because he was afraid to leave Neal, even for a moment. Instead he resumed his seat on the solid oak coffee table across from Neal, leaning forward slightly to rest elbows on knees and waited.
"My mother was beautiful." Neal stated quietly, his eyes focused on something Peter could not see. "She had been a dancer, a ballerina, before she had my sister." he looked at Peter then, wanting to gauge his reaction.
Peter was caught off guard more by the look in Neal's eyes than the actual statement. It was the same haunted look that ghosted his face when he thought no one was watching, but the depth made Peter wonder how the younger man had kept it so concealed normally. It seemed that Neal was a better conman than the agent had ever realized.
"A sister..." Peter repeated, once again rearranging his internal Neal Caffrey file. "What was her name?"
The question was so normal it hurt, and Neal closed his eyes in an attempt to hold back the new tears that were forming. "Her name was Anna...she was the person who taught me how to paint."
Peter noted the past tense in both references to Neal's mother and sister, confirmation of what he already suspected This level of emotion could only come from great loss.
"Who were you then?" Peter asked, hoping that he was not pushing his luck with the question.
Neal smiled slightly, opening his eyes to really look at Peter. "I was Nikolai, the younger brother of Anna, the son of Nadya and Dmitry." he took in a slow breath, then released it, feeling the tension like a wild animal waiting to strike.
The variation of a theme, Peter's training noticed. He had always suspected that Neal's real name was a variation of Nick given the number of times he used it as an alias, especially early in his 'career'. He also knew that no matter what, he would never use this information to incriminate his friend.
Neal breathed in deep again, needing to verify that the feeling of drowning was anxiety, not reality. Peter leaned forward, slowly as to not cause the younger man to startle again, and patted his knee offering silent encouragement to continue.
"My mother was kind, intelligent and scared all the time." Neal said softly. "I didn't realize it then, not until I was older, but we were always in danger. My father was a sad, brave man, a member of the secret police. He would come home a shadow, and Anna would just sit with him, returning the light to his eyes every time."
"We left when I was seven, almost eight. I didn't understand what was happening, just that it was so important that we were quiet, so quiet." Neal continued so softly that Peter had to strain to hear him. "We took almost nothing, and waited for my father nearby in a car. I remember the fire in the area where we lived, and was scared that it might damage our home. Of course it was our home that was the one on fire."
Memories long forgotten came back to him now, and he felt the fear as strongly as that night. Sitting in the back seat of the modest car, Anna next to him with a protective arm around his shoulder. Only four years older than him, but wise beyond her young age, she understood the danger they were in. Their mother sat in the front, glancing back behind her often, verifying that they were not being followed as well as reassuring herself that her children were safely in the back.
Peter watched Neal quietly, waiting for the younger man to join him back in the present. He wasn't so sure they should continue this tonight, concerned that Neal's still recovering body couldn't handle the stress this was clearly causing.
"Neal...you with me?" Peter asked quietly a few moment later, his tone gentle. Neal blinked rapidly several times, the struggle to shake off the past more difficult than it normally would have been. "If you're not up to this Neal, we can pick this up later." Peter offered, his concern for his friend outweighing his need to know.
"We drove for hours, long into the night." Neal continued on, seeming to not hear Peter's offer. "I fell asleep still not aware of what was going on, and woke up to Anna shaking me frantically. We had stopped in the middle of a road, the snow falling so hard it was impossible to see much beyond the front of the car. But I knew there was something down the road because the area was glowing with the other car's headlights. Anna was scared, and that made me scared too. My father was gripping the steering wheel so tight I was sure it was going to break."
Neal's eyes were closed, the memories overwhelming him now. He could feel the cold, his sister's hand gripping his own. His mother was crying quietly, her eyes wide as she looked at her husband.
"What shall we do Dmitry? Will they believe us that we are on a midnight drive to my sister? With our home burned to ashes? What will they do to you? To the children?" Nadya whispered, glancing back at her son and daughter.
Dmitry stared ahead, anger and sadness fighting for dominance in his features. "They must have been watching me. How foolish I was to attempt this." he turned slowly, his hand coming up to caress his wife's cheek. "I am so sorry beloved. I have failed you."
Nadya leaned into his caress, closing her eyes against the lights that doomed them. "How far away are they Dmitry? Are we even close?"
"If it was a straight line through the woods, it would be less than a mile. The rendezvous is just this side of the boarder. The area is difficult to travel, which is why it was chosen. Not many people would attempt this path, especially in this weather." he looked at his wife, determination in his eyes now. "With this snow, it would cover your tracks almost instantly. Perhaps you could make it, with the children. I will provide the distraction, you will run-"
Nadya sobbed, shaking her head. "No, Dmitry, that won't work. I am not strong enough to make that journey, and I wouldn't know where to go. But you, you will do this."
Dmitry pulled back, fear winning over all else. "No, Nadya, no! I will not allow you to do this!"
Nadya leaned towards her husband, staring intently into his eyes. "Yes, you will. You will do this to save our children. Their only hope is with you."
Nadya reached towards the back seat to her children. Anna, comprehending her parent's conversation was crying now, but she leaned forward to embrace her mother, pulling Nikolai with her. Nadya put her arms around both of them, kissing each one on the cheek.
"Anna, my brave daughter, you listen to your father. Take care of your brother. Teach him how to dance and paint." She cradled her son's face in her hands, trying to infuse a lifetime worth of love into this moment. "Nikolai, you must remember that I love you more than I can even express. You listen to your sister, and look out for her. You be brave and strong."
Nikolai nodded, willing to agree to anything to make his mother stop crying. She reluctantly let them go, leaning towards her husband once more to kiss him, then pulled back, Dmitry's gun now in her smaller hand.
"Anna, hold onto your brother. When the car stops again, get out on your side and run, straight into the woods. Do not stop. I will catch up to you." Dmitry instructed, putting the car into drive once more. With a final glance at his wife, he accelerated the car for a moment, turning the lights off at the same time as he cut the wheel hard to the left. As soon as the car stopped, Nadya opened her door and stepped out.
Anna stared at her mother, reality freezing her in place. Dmitry opened his door, getting out as well but in a crouch, and opened the back door. The lights from ahead had started to move towards them, but slowly as if they were sneaking up on their prey.
"Anna go!" Nadya cried, startling her daughter into action. Anna grabbed her brother's hand and pulled him with her out of the car. Without looking back, she started to run, Nikolai being half- dragged behind her. She did not stop, not even when she heard the gunfire.
When she couldn't run any further, and only when she couldn't see the lights from the road, did she stop for a moment, clutching her crying brother close to her chest. The snow was fierce, even in the woods, and she realized that although that would help protect her from those from the road, it would also make it impossible for her father to find her as well.
Then she heard it, the sound of heavy breathing and careful steps. She hid behind a tree, a hand pressed to her younger brothers mouth to enure that he didn't make a sound. Nikolai was beyond frightened, and would obey every command she gave.
He walked past them, their hiding spot so well concealed by the snow, afraid to call out their names, when he heard his daughters small cry of recognition. She ran to him, her brother still tightly in her embrace, and he hugged them both as he sobbed. He took just a moment to embrace them, before taking Anna's hand and leading them away.
Thank you so much for reading this latest chapter. I have had this chapter written and on my computer for a long time, and for so many reasons was just not able to get to the right place and the right time to post. But like all things we enjoy doing, sometime we need to make the effort to get back into the groove.
I know this back story is completely different than what the wonderful creators of the show have given us, but that is the joy of fanfiction. I hope you have enjoyed, and please feel free to review.
More to come, and more timely than prior history would imply.