Elizabeth Burke believes in balance: for there to be good, for example, there has to be some bad, for there to be a winner, there has to be a loser, and for there to be a lawman, there has to be a criminal. The world is made up of balances and the acts and circumstances that create them. For these acts and circumstances to take place, there has to be time. Time is made up of lives, from birth to death. A person is born, it ages, it acts and is acted upon, it becomes part of the balance until it dies. Time moves ceaselessly forward, societies and environments change and evolve, sometimes experiencing severe hiccups but never going fully back. To regress is a human inclination, not an earthly one.
Which is why this, this three foot five inch blue-eyed conman trying to pull his teeny tiny (God help her) precious little hand out of her husband's unrelenting grip, makes absolutely no sense. Zero. Zilch.
"Neal?" she asks, her mind numb, her cereal and toast doing funny things in her stomach, because what is this? This can't be real. People don't just age backwards. Not even Neal Caffrey, who is capable of a great many things from each and every point of balance, is capable of regressing to the height, weight, and possible mentality of a five-year-old. "Peter…is that Neal?"
Peter nods, looking as numb as she feels, and Neal stops pulling, his eyes large as he gauges her reaction to him. She wonders if he realizes how strange it is that she recognized him the instant he and Peter entered the room, correctly identified a truth at the top of a long list of impossibilities. It occurs to her that she almost always thinks about Neal in these terms, regardless of the moments where he is turning up the charm, where he is handsome and debonair and fully capable of getting all manners of things done, of bending the universe to his will. Because underneath that adult skin, inside that body with those quick appendages and cunning digits, there's not only a mind perpetually full of schemes, but a heart full of innocence. There's the way, at times, that Neal looks at Peter.
Like Peter is Batman.
Elizabeth is startled out of her maudlin reverie when Neal surprises them with one mighty yank of his captured hand, squeals as, taken off guard by Peter's lax hold, he tumbles to the ground. Elizabeth gasps, her hand going to her mouth, her feet just about to run to him when he looks up with suspiciously wet eyes and indignantly proclaims, "Peter dropped me!"
Peter snorts, looks down at the ground, nudges the boy's bottom with the toe of his shoe. "I didn't drop you, Neal. I wasn't carrying you. How can I drop you if I wasn't carrying you?"
"You let go!"
"You pulled away!"
"Boys," Elizabeth interjects, because it's only natural when they start up like this, never mind that one of those argumentative voices is chipmunk-like in terms of pitch. She watches, still numb, still amazed, as Neal gets to his feet and comes running right for her. His movements are ungainly, like those of a newborn colt, and she holds her arms out to steady him to a stop. But he's got this as he crashes into her side, hugging her leg and burying his face into her hip, before pointing an accusatory index finger right at Peter, eyes brimming with unshed tears.
Peter is unmoved. "You know, for someone who keeps claiming to still have the mind of an adult, you sure play five really well, Caffrey."
Elizabeth feels like she's watching a game of Pong. Or tennis. Something in which a ball moves back and forth and her eyes are forced to move with it, because now she's looking back down at Neal and his face is all but melded with her hip. She can't see his eyes or his nose, nothing but the curly mop of brown hair and the rise of his cheek that comes with a smirk, because that's what he's doing. He's smirking. With tears in his eyes.
As for Peter's eyes, they're rolling towards the ceiling. "Hon, just because he's small, doesn't mean we can-"
"Trust him an inch?" Elizabeth says. "Yeah. Got that."
And back down to Neal, who has honest-to-God rivers rolling down those cheeks now as he looks up at her. No smirk, but a pout, his lower lip jutting out and quivering and oh, her heart.
If only she were that easy.
She lays soft hands on his narrow shoulders, kneels down so they're eye to red-rimmed eye. She says it quietly and with the air of her own mother in stern mode: "Are you trying to turn me against my husband?"
She catches the surprise flitting through a teary blue eye. "N-no, Elizabeth."
She squeezes his right shoulder with her left hand. "Then what do you want, Neal? What are you trying to con us into doing?"
He goes still under her touch, paralyzed in thought, and they're quick things, she can practically see them flashing through his head, his lips barely moving as he makes to say something witty, ambiguous, thought-provoking, more adult than his current stature. His diminutive hands begin to shake and she knows where he is, she knows he's with that plane, can smell the smoke in the air because when you tell someone to really think about it, think about what they're doing and why, where else to find the answer but in the most recent and most terrible thing possible?
Elizabeth doesn't hesitate. She asks, "Do you want a hug, sweetheart?"
He nods, not quite looking at her.
She puts her arms around him, lifts him as she gets to her feet, tries not to groan because he's heavier than he looks. His legs wrap around her waist and he buries his nose into her neck, his own arms limp against her sides, those hands still going at it like teeth in the cold.
But then there's Peter, whose own hands are big and strong and, as of this morning, know all about catching the hands of little criminals. He steadies those hands in his own and the three of them, Peter, Elizabeth, and Neal, stand there. Exist there. Balance there. Just like that.