Know Me (Not)
Hint 4: Designated
Neal was only human.
Oh, he hid it well, but Peter always thought that he could handle Neal better than anyone else because he never forgot there was a person underneath that glossy veneer. Still, seeing Neal feverish, his breath laboring under a tangle of tubes, Peter thinks that maybe he doesn't understand as well as he thought he did.
Staph infection. It happened so fast. It spread to his lungs and kidneys in less than a day and—because driving Peter crazy was his MO—Neal contracted the type that doesn't respond to antibiotics.
It was day three, but it might as well have been one long, unending day of worry-work-wait, worry-work— Jesus the wait. It could have been an eternity. Peter's knees bounced as he stared unseeingly at the casefiles he brought with him while he and Diana waited for news about Neal's ICU transfer. Something about complications with the latest medical cocktail they've been mainlining. Neal hasn't been lucid, his fever hadn't broken.
Peter nearly spilled his papers when the attending physician approached. He scrambled out of the garish waiting room chair and resisted rubbing at the ache in his tailbone. Diana's at his side, and in a rare soft gesture, squeezed his elbow...
If anyone could find anything on Neal Caffrey, it'd be Peter Burke.
Which is why when the doctor said it'd be best to start reaching out to his next of kin, Peter set the responsibility squarely on his own shoulders.
The paper trail doesn't just run cold before Neal was eighteen, it slams into a brick wall. Peter knew this years ago, but that's not stopping him from combing through boxes of his old notes at two in the morning, rubbing his eyes raw and letting his third cup of coffee grow cold.
He revisited the idea that Neal Caffrey isn't his real name and spent the next day in the vaults, rerunning names and cross-checking aliases-that-might-not-be-aliases through the database. He cashed in a few favors and ran the names of every dirty cop who died between 1981 and 1985.
It was as if Neal sprang from the head of Zeus fully formed.
He questioned June, called Sara overseas, left a message on the number Moz had given El. Has he ever said anything? Dropped a name, a location in passing? In an anecdote? The women expressed their regrets and Moz responded with radio silence.
His colleagues noticed his manic behavior and gave him wide berth, unintentionally rubbing at his frayed nerves by shooting him concerned and doleful looks. One of the probies made the mistake of giving his condolences and Peter nearly snapped the kid's head off.
"Neal isn't dead!"
Neal isn't dying.
Only he might be.
In the paperwork, Neal named Peter next of kin. He wondered if that was before or after Kate had died. It wasn't useful information, so he ignored it.
Peter's rifling through Neal's file again, the words starting to blur and float off the page. There was soft footfall and the light swish of cotton brushing against the stairs. A warm weight draped across Peter's back and El pressed her cheek against his. They stay like this for a while, breathing together, Peter's wall of tension helpless against his wife's silent support and he felt it crumble, replaced by a weariness that spread through his limbs.
"Peter, it's late," she said.
"Well, you know how Neal likes to keep me up," Peter responded gently.
El lets her hands slide off his chest, leaving it cold, and sat next to Peter. And waited.
"I need to do this. Just in case." Peter stared through the table. "He's done good work." He was noble and heroic in his own rapscallion way. He was a light in this world, had friends who cared about him... "If he's got anyone, they deserve to know."
El reached out and curled her fingers around Peter's hand, running her thumb soothingly across his knuckles. He gives in.
"I don't want him to not get his goodbyes, El. Reconcile. Whatev—whatever he needs...because I didn't try hard enough."
Peter Burke knew everything about Neal Caffrey, but nothing at all about the boy in the hospital.
"You haven't been to visit in a few days," El said without any accusation in her voice.
Peter nodded in acknowledgement, but still found it difficult to swallow.
"Peter, he's still here."
Peter slipped into the hospital room, his eyes on Neal, a pale, gaunt Endymion in repose, and closed the door gently behind him.
He stood still, matching his breath with Neal's and the rhythm of the monitors, cautious not to break the spell of serenity.
There was a small but deliberate sound of rustling and Peter realized suddenly that the room hadn't been empty.
It wasn't Moz or June or Clinton or any of the small handful of people Peter would have expected, but a young man with sandy hair and tired eyes.
"Agent Burke." The man stood to address him. He'd been sitting in Peter's usual spot and it took a moment to place his face...
It was the well-worn shoulder bag next to his feet that tipped Peter off, incongruous with the fancy suit jacket slung over the backrest. Last spring this guy and some hotshot lawyer had come in to consult the White Collar Unit on a case they'd worked on the year prior. Peter usually doesn't expend any effort remembering the lawyer types, but this kid had made an impression: bright and eager and had reminded him a little of Neal in spirit, if not in appearance.
"You're that lawyer...from..."
"Yeah. Yeah, it's Mike," Mike said as if he were both pleased and relieved Peter remembered him. He extended out a hand, but Peter didn't take it. "Um...would you like a seat?" He offered the chair next to him instead.
Peter's eyes narrowed and he suddenly felt a surge of protectiveness.
"You an ambulance chaser?"
"What? No! No." Mike stammered. "Neal's...we're friends. We're friends."
Peter looked at him inscrutably, uncomfortable with the idea that Neal would have a close friend that he didn't know about. The young man shifted uncomfortably under Peter's gaze.
"I'm...gonna go," he drawled awkwardly, thumbing at the door. "It was nice to see you again, Agent Burke." He hesitated though, an unidentifiable emotion crossing his face. "I'm really glad you're here," he added.
Peter felt a pang of guilt. "No, you can stay if you want," Peter said, even though he actually wanted to keep vigil over Neal alone. Part of him though, warmed at the thought that Neal might have made a friend who wasn't of the criminal variety. Maybe.
Maybe he'll run Mike's name tomorrow.
The young man nodded, relief and gratitude in his eyes, and they both sank into the chairs.
They sat a long time without a word, the young man next to him perched with his elbows on his knees, his chin on his clasped hands, worrying his thumbnail on his teeth in a tableau of a prayer.
The silence grew stifling.
"The doctors don't know if he's gonna make it," Peter said, the burden suddenly unbearable.
Mike stayed silent for a beat. "Yeah, I know."
Peter vaguely wondered how Mike could have gotten a hold of that sort of privileged information, but, more distressingly, maybe it was just that obvious.
"I couldn't...They asked me to contact his family..." Peter said, surprised by his own confession.
Mike looked startled and watched Peter closely.
"I couldn't find anyone. They could be out there, wondering...and Neal would nev—" Peter huffed in frustration and breathed in slowly, trying to stanch the tide of emotion swelling up in his chest and into his throat. His eyes burned and his neck was warm with embarrassment. He could feel the young man frown at him. Christ, Burke. Man up!
"You, uh," Peter clears his throat. "You wouldn't happen to know anything, would you?"
Mike seemed to chew on Peter's question, the pregnant silence heavy as his eyes flitted about in search for something appropriate to say. Finally, Mike looked up at Peter from his hunched position, serious, and maybe a little sad, and cleared his throat.
"Look, Peter," he said, and Peter was a little surprised with the familiar use of his name, "I know it's not really my place to say..."
Peter forgets how to breath.
"But you are Neal's family."
Peter barked out a laugh, embarrassed at how high his hopes had spiked in that nano-moment. He shook his head and let Mike's words sink in, the knot in his chest easing.
"I'm like family, huh? He said that?" Peter mused, a little pleased despite himself.
"Not just like family," the stranger amended with a crooked smile.
Peter's smile fades as the meaning behind Mike's comment settled. Peter cared for Neal, he really did. At some point Neal stopped being just his CI and became something like a friend, though they were more often teased for being more like father and son. But this just might be the first time he really understood that it was real for Neal; that he had become important enough for Neal to acknowledge him as family in front of others even if he'd never admit it to his face.
A terrible feeling of responsibility crashed into Peter. But after the initial flash of panic, Peter also found that he didn't really mind.
"It's the family you choose, right?" Peter said, feeling marginally comforted.
Mike smiled kindly and leaned over. "Don't tell him I told you," he said conspiratorially, "He'll kill me."
Peter laughed, genuinely for the first time in days, "I'd hate to pass up the opportunity to tease him about this, but alright, your secret is safe with me."
After Mike leaves, Peter falls asleep.
Author's Note: Wow, it's been a while. I was going through old reviews and it woke up my muse, so thanks, guys! This entire fic assumes no show knowledge after 3x10 "Countdown," first aired in the US summer 2011. There is a tiny USA Network easter egg here. Hope it was worth the wait.