THE OFFICE: FOUR DAYS LATER
"Neal. Good lunch?"
"Yeah. I introduced Jones to Ethiopian food. He loved it."
"He's never been shy about diving into anything new. Especially if he can eat it. Is that your report?"
"Huh? Oh, right. It is. No blue crayon, I promise. I need to make sure about a couple things, though."
"I hope you won't, but we'll have to see." Neal joked lamely as he took his seat. Peter reached out for the papers, but the young man held onto them.
"Please. First off... a tutor isn't against the rules, right?"
"Moz didn't write anything for me. The book... I didn't think it would twist my brain the way it did. The whole thing kind of... confused me. He just helped me get my head back on straight, that's all."
"In that case, tutors are not only acceptable, they're encouraged."
"Good. Okay... the second thing is that I need a favor. Maybe a big one, I don't know."
"My records. I need to see them."
"Not likely Hughes will agree to that. Besides, there's not much in there you don't already know about."
"Not my FBI record or my prison files. I know you must've looked into everything while you were chasing me... that's SOP in a case like mine. All I'm asking for is a promise that you'll try and get me the pages that go all the way back to the beginning. Then... I'll hand over the report."
Peter frowned deeply, concern and curiosity warring for control of what he would say next. It came out a mixture of both.
"You're sure, kid? I looked at it once, way back. It took me a long time to push it outta my head. You may seriously regret ever making the deal."
"I don't care. I can handle whatever consequences there are. I just... I have to see... to read it for myself."
"Are you saying you don't remember? There's never been any hint of it in anything I've read." Peter pushed, concern now decisively winning the battle.
"Well, it's the truth. Security measures, I think. Maybe self-induced amnesia in the name of sanity? It's not that uncommon. I have to find out if I'm right... and how bad it was."
Peter carefully considered the issue for a long time before he responded.
"Birth info... names, dates, places... that's all you want?"
"Up to age thirteen. After that... the photo album's pretty much intact."
"No guarantees? I do my absolute best, try as hard as I can and whatever I'm able to get you, even if it's next to nothing... you accept it?"
"You have my word."
"And you have mine. Despite how it looks here at work, Hughes actually has a decent sized heart. I'll appeal to his compassion. I don't see how he can possibly refuse me. Now... report?"
Neal smiled thinly and finally handed in his finished work. While Peter read it, the other man wandered the office, alternating between people-watching through the door and staring out the window at the vigorous, dynamic city far below. Almost thirty minutes later, after going through the entire folder twice, Peter finally lowered the report to the desk and turned to speak to Neal, who was in the window portion of his rambling cycle.
"Excellent work, Neal. Mozzie did a really good job of helping you make the connections."
"He's known me a while. Nobody gets me like he does."
"Okay if I ask *how* long?"
Neal didn't respond, but after a few moments Peter realized the answer on his own. "You said thirteen... no wonder you two are so tight."
"He admits he saved me... but I can't remember what from and he won't tell me. Says the only good idea the feds ever came up with was 'need to know'. That's why I want the pages."
Peter scowled and stared down at his hands.
"I'm sorry, pal. I thought the book would just be another lesson. I didn't intend to dredge up anything... or make you go looking for stuff that's better off if it stays buried. The point of this isn't to cause you any more pain. That's the last thing..."
"Hey, I know..." Neal soothed, pushing off the wall and slowly moving back to his seat. "I may not have been happy about all this in the beginning," he said, waving vaguely at the door and the outer office. "but the idea wasn't to hurt me. As much as the world's ugliest ankle bracelet might frustrate me... it keeps me safe. *You* keep me safe."
Peter rose and took his turn at the window.
"I'm damn sure trying."
"And most of the time I'm grateful, even if I don't act like it. Speaking of gratitude... I think I figured out the reason you assigned me this particular book."
"So. Let's hear it."
Now it was Neal who couldn't find quite enough courage to look up as he spoke.
"Accountability. That and not dumping on the ones that give a damn and only want the best for you. I have to say... I don't like Tom a whole lot. He's just not sympathetic. He's got a roof, a bed, three meals... people more than willing to care for him and try to put a little knowledge and basic manners in his head... and the only voice he's listening to is that seductive whisper from his Id. I want, I need, I deserve... and to hell with anybody else's feelings."
"That's practically the definition of a pre-teen boy, isn't it? Toss in that he's an orphan who never had a real chance to learn the concepts of discipline and respect or why he should bother with them..."
"No excuse. He's obviously got a brain. He figured out how to lie, manipulate... he can learn how not to and he can learn what's really important."
Despite his best efforts, a tiny smile graced Peter's lips and he simply had to speak the words that were begging to be released.
At first Neal glared daggers at his mentor, but the dark expression soon softened into a rueful grin.
"And I thought the only stupid question was the one you *didn't* ask." Neal snarked, certain he would get as good as he'd given in lieu of being reprimanded.
"Insulting the guy who could get your parole revoked isn't the smartest move either." Peter volleyed right back, his face alight with pleasure.
"Uh, that would be Hughes and he's not in the room at the moment, so I think I'm safe. Can I get my grade? If I don't get back to the cold cases my boss buried me in this morning, the slavedriver'll have my ass in a sling."
"Slavedriver? Sounds like somebody wants the plus sign behind his A wiped out."
"No! Tough, but fair, that's Agent Burke's middle name. Tough, but fair... and, boy, does he know a joke when he hears one..."
Once again, Peter detected traces of real unease beneath the surface shield of playfulness and humor. Though it concerned him, he kept his smile in place and strove to stay calm.
"Relax, kid. I didn't mean it. I'd never take back something you legitimately earned."
"A plus." Peter confirmed, sliding the report into a drawer and turning a key in the lock.
Neal grinned, nodded and rose to his feet.
"So what's next?"
"I don't know yet. I'm still playing it by ear, waiting for inspiration. Gimme two or three days, alright? By the time I get a response to your records request... I should have your next assignment ready. Now get back to work before the 'slavedriver' decides to give you detention and keep you after school doing the week's filing for the whole office."
Neal laughed brightly as he walked backwards out of the small space.
"Tom didn't have to whitewash, I sure as hell can find a way out of scut work ."
Peter sobered just a bit.
"But if I did ask you to..."
Neal paused and cocked his head slightly then responded to the plea he now found in his mentor's expression.
"If you *asked*? I'd get it done no matter what."
"That's all it would take? A request instead of a command?"
"Hey, if Aunt Polly'd nagged and ordered a little less, 'requested' a little more... who knows? The story could've turned out completely different... but it'd still be a classic."
As Neal strolled away, Peter turned and sagged into his desk chair, questioning, for the hundredth time in the last few weeks, what he was doing and whether he had any right to let it continue.