Chapter Seven: Blood Relations

"Les Miserables," Peter asked, laughing a little at the irony.

"Yeah," Neal answered, impressed that Peter had caught the irony. Peter always amazed him with exactly how much he did know.

"So I just headed out, and I had no clue where I would end up," Neal said to Peter.

"Why did she…ummm…Liv…help you," Peter questioned.

"Divine intervention," Neal answered.

Peter thought Neal was being facetious, but he saw the earnest expression on Neal's face. Peter smiled, remembering the conversations about religion they had had over the past two years. It was hard for Peter to believe that in spite of all Neal had been through, he could possibly be a believer. "What was going through your mind at the time," Peter asked.

After a moment of hesitation and contemplation, Neal answered, "My mother."

"Why," Peter asked.

"Because she and my father had been married for almost 15 years when she left," Neal answered, pausing a moment and rocking his head and shoulders back and forth several times.

Peter waited patiently beside him.

"And even though she left with nothing, she left nothing behind. There was nothing…no indication that she had ever existed in that apartment that she had kept up for almost 15 years. There was just nothing," Neal quietly spoke, his eyes filling with tears.

Peter grimaced, not understanding where Neal was going with this.

Neal continued, now with an agitated tone, "You wondered why you couldn't find anything on me prior to my 18th birthday! Well…I'm sure my father had something to do with that! I'm not sure how he pulled it off, but I'm sure he's the one who's responsible. Besides, my Uncle Austin was pretty well connected. Probably in the back of both of their minds, I would return to their lives and point a finger for all of the crap they had done that I knew about and was involved in. So, they made sure that I simply ceased to exist…was simply erased…just like my mother!" Neal tilted his head back to keep the tears from falling down his face.

Peter turned to look at Neal, who had then turned to look in the other direction away from him.

"Neal," Peter said.

No response.

Silence engulfed the room for a few minutes. Then Peter saw Neal shuddering. He couldn't determine if Neal was shaking from cold or was rocking himself because he was emotionally uncomfortable.

"Please answer me," Peter asked calmly.

Neal continued to face in the other direction. Then suddenly, he sprang up and tried to head toward the front door of the Burke home.

"No…no…no you don't," Peter yelled to Neal's back. "You need to stay and face this," he continued. Then Peter grabbed Neal from behind in a bear-hug and physically restrained him from going any further toward the front door.

That physical exchange caused panic to rise up in Neal, and he writhed to be free of Peter's grasp on him. Peter struggled to hold on to Neal, surprised at how physically strong Neal actually was.

"Wait…hold on," Peter said into Neal's ear without raising his voice.

After several moments of tussling, Neal gave in and became still. He realized that Peter wasn't going to let go of him—literally and figuratively. Peter could see the back of Neal's head moving from side to side as if he wanted to say no to some question that he thought Peter was going to ask.

"Calm down, Neal," Peter quietly spoke, continuing to hold him in a bear-hug. "Calm down…calm down…You can't keep burying this."

After a few minutes of Neal shaking his head, he admitted, "I'm not okay, Peter." Neal then dropped his head to the floor.

"I know you're not," Peter whispered in his ear. "There's no way you could be, son. What you lived through was horrific."

Neal began to sag down like a spent doll. Peter grabbed him up and guided him back to the couch. He lowered Neal to the couch into a seated position and sat down beside him. Quietness ensued. Peter wanted to hug him, to draw him closer, but he wasn't sure what to do. He wasn't sure how receptive Neal would be at that moment of having someone physically touch him again. He decided to just sit there so Neal would know that he wasn't alone. He knew enough about Neal to know that what Neal really needed was reassurance that Peter would be there for him.

Leaning forward and putting his face in his hands, Neal let go of some of his pent up emotions and allowed himself to cry silently with Peter sitting beside him. Peter could see Neal's stomach rise and fall as several tears slid through his fingers and hit the wooden floor below the couch. Peter placed his hand on the center of Neal's back but kept it still. He just wanted Neal to remember that he was still there. After several minutes, Neal inhaled deeply, stopped, and rubbed his face. He then cleared his throat and readied himself to face Peter once again.

Neal felt conflicted as he visualized himself putting on one side of the Scales of Justice how much he had grown to love Peter and Elizabeth and his work with the FBI and on the other side of the scales how intense the rush of adrenaline had been for him in the warehouse full of the German antiquities. His mind batted back and forth these two polar opposites. He knew he couldn't have both. He recalled Peter's advice several months back, "You can either be a con or a man; you can't be both."

Neal turned his head toward Peter and confessed, "I don't know who I am anymore." He dropped his eyes and turned away again.

"I know," Peter acknowledged, "But I'm here to help you figure that out."

Neal rubbed his hands over his face again and rocked several times back and forth. He said nothing as he waited until he could better hear through the deafening pounding of his heart in his chest.

Peter broke the silence between them, "I just need to tell you this, Neal."

Neal made no movement and kept his head down, facing away from Peter. The pounding in his chest intensified.

"Fathers don't necessarily have to be blood relations," Peter spoke softly, removing his hand from Neal's back and putting it on the side of Neal's face to turn him to face Peter.

Neal's glassed-over eyes changed as if someone had turned on a switch. He raised his eye brows, pulled his head back a little, and exhaled a short deep breath through his nose. "I don't think you know what you're getting yourself in to," Neal bantered.

"Ohhh…I think I do," Peter bantered back but in a serious tone of voice, looking Neal directly in the eyes.

Neal looked back at Peter and shot him an inquisitive expression. The corners of his mouth upturned slightly.

After a few minutes Neal said while holding his forehead, "My head is killing me. I'd like to go home now. I think you already know the rest."

"No, I don't think I do. Help me out here," Peter answered.

"What do you mean," Neal questioned innocently, knowing full well that there were huge gaps in what he had told Peter about his earlier life.

"Well, let's see," Peter said. "I know there is so much more you haven't told me. That's okay. I respect that. You can tell me when you're ready. But answer me this, okay," Peter asked.

Neal hesitantly nodded.

Peter continued, "You left your hometown at age 18. I know you came to New York and met up with Mozzie when you were about 21, and you guys were together for three years. You were in prison for almost four years and you've been with me for two years. That makes you about 30 right now," Peter stated.

"Yes," Neal affirmed.

"But that doesn't tell me what you did from the time you left home and met up with Mozzie," Peter interrogated.

"Oh, Peter…come on," Neal complained. He sat quietly for several moments as Peter continued to stare at him. Suddenly he smirked and said, "We gotta have some mystery between us to keep this relationship alive."

Peter knew that Neal was finished disclosing the secrets of his past. He quipped back, "Mystery…I have my fill of mystery with you."

"Anyway, I know you already know," Neal responded.

Shaking his head, Peter answered, "All I know is your spotty record during this three-year period when you were busted for various petty crimes in many different places. Your record doesn't really tell me about you during this time."

"Well, like I said. Let's just keep the mystery alive," Neal replied.

Peter frowned.

Upon seeing Peter's expression, Neal bantered, "Come on, Peter…there isn't much to tell."

"Okay…we'll get back to this at another time," Peter retorted.

Neal just nodded at him. They both sat back against the couch, smiling, relieved that the heaviness in the room was beginning to dissipate.

After a few silent moments, Neal stated softly, his tone changing, "You know, I didn't do it, Peter. I wasn't involved in the con against Adler. I swear to you that I didn't exchange those paintings with my own."

"Yeah, I know," Peter said, "I believe you."

Neal shifted his weight on the couch, the key to the storage unit pressing into his leg. "Peter," Neal continued.

"Yeah," Peter answered.

Neal studied Peter's face, digging deeply within and contemplating whether or not he should come clean with Peter at that moment. He again thought about the Scales of Justice. They locked eyes for a few seconds, and Peter noticed Neal's conflicted facial expression.

"Do you have something you want to tell me," Peter asked.

"Yeah," Neal answered, searching for the words. After a few minutes, Neal reached into his pocket and pulled out in a balled-up fist the key and card and released them into Peter's hand. "Yeah, I need to tell you this," Neal spoke in a hushed tone that depicted his insecurity and inability to find the words he should use.

Peter looked at the key and the small typed note with an address on Ganesvoort Street. Under the address was one sentence: "YOU LL THANK ME." Peter looked inquisitively at Neal.

Neal's eyes shot down to the floor. He wasn't sure how Peter would react. What Neal was sure about, however, was that Peter would be there for him….would help him through this ordeal. Peter would protect him.

For the first time in a very long time, Neal felt safe.

The End