Secret Names

Summary: When they start calling him Danny, he's just old enough to be a little thrown. Two looks at Neal and his name, one at three years old and one at eighteen.

A/N: New information, new inspiration, new chance to try little-boy Neal perspective because I seriously had to get it out of my system. Spoilerish for Diminishing Returns, but I think I kind of gave away all that the story does in its summary anyway.

Three

When they move into the new house, he gets a lot of new things. New clothes, a new room, and a whole lot of new rules he doesn't understand. He asks for his daddy a lot, pleads for him, spends many evenings waiting for him to come home from work. His mommy tells him that Daddy can't come home, ever again, and then she cries and he feels bad inside, so he learns to stop asking. He doesn't like to see her cry.

Though not seeing Daddy is what hurts the most, it is not the only thing that has him confused. The very day they move into the new house, everyone starts calling him Danny. Even Ellie calls him Danny.

"Who Danny?" he asks the first time, little boy face all scrunched up in interest.

"You are," his mother says.

"Noooo." he says, completely sure. "I Neal."

His mother's voice, all exasperation and sadness. "Danny, please. Just play with your toys," she says, pushing his bright toy car across the table towards him. He grabs it and smiles, rolling it across the table and for awhile, he forgets what he wanted to say.

But then Ellie calls him Danny that night, when she tucks him into bed. "Goodnight, Danny," she says, and he sits upright, the frustration he'd felt earlier coming back in full force. "I not Danny!" he announces. "I Neal!"

She sighs. "I know, but you have to be Danny now. It's...safe to be Danny."

"Not safe to be Neal?"

"Right."

"Neal is a secret?"

"Yes, that name is a secret now. It's a really important secret to keep, okay?"

He knows what important means. It means being brave like Daddy at work, or always being nice. Those things are important, and so is this. "Okay," he says. "I be Danny."

After that, he tries to remember to be Danny, but he forgets sometimes, like when Ellie says the name and he has to think hard to know she means him. He tries to remember Neal too, because it's a secret, which means it's supposed to be kept, not forgotten. After all, if he doesn't remember Neal, who will?

Every day it gets harder, though, and Neal slips away a little at a time. At some point, he stops having to think about being Danny and just is. On his fourth birthday, when he asks about the words on the cake, Ellie tells him it says, "Happy Birthday, Danny."

And for the first time in a long time, he remembers that there was another name once. A secret name. It started with a "Ni" sound. He thinks the sound over and over. Nih, Nih, Nih. Nick. He thinks maybe that's what it was, even though it doesn't sound or feel completely right to him.

But then Ellie lights the candles, and everyone at the party sings to him, Happy Birthday, Danny, and he realizes that whatever the secret name was, it doesn't matter anymore. Only Danny feels right to him now.

Eighteen

There's clutter in his head now, too much information, thought after thought piled on top of each other. The bus that gets him out of the city is loud; there is a baby crying and an old homeless man coughing up a lung in the back, but it is nothing compared to the noise in his mind.

He doesn't want to think about his father, what he did. He doesn't want to think about how his lifelong dream of being a cop has become tarnished with dirt that will never come off. He doesn't want to think about or feel remorse for running away, for leaving Mom and Ellen and his friends behind. He doesn't want to think about how his whole life has been a lie. Even his name has been a lie.

Danny. Neal.

Neal. Neal. Neal.

This is one train of thought he doesn't mind following, because even though it hurts, it hurts the least. He rolls the unfamiliar name over his lips, quietly to himself. "Neal." It's not a bad name, he decides, but it doesn't feel like his. All the people he can remember meeting in his life know him as Danny Brooks. Smart and artistic Danny, good in school, going to become a cop, has his life figured out young. Danny Brooks, the name beneath the most awkward fifth grade picture in his class that year, with his hair too shaggy and a stain from lunch on his shirt. Danny, who wanted to be like his dad, heroic and brave so that others could be safe.

But that's not him anymore, is it? He's hopped on the first bus that's come along, going God knows where to do God knows what. He's eighteen and he doesn't have anything figured out, doesn't even know who he is, and if there were any time to have a fresh start, he thinks, this is it. But Neal needs a last name.

Before he can stop himself, he thinks of his father. He would have gladly taken his father's last name, once upon a time, but the very thought now makes him feel sick. He quickly casts around for other possibilities. Neal Brooks, maybe, he thinks and nearly laughs out loud. He isn't a hybrid of Neal and Danny, he knows that, because Danny doesn't exist and never has.

So that leaves -

Before he can finish the thought, the bus comes to a jolting stop and lets in a new round of passengers who crowd into the vehicle. Among them is a pretty girl, seventeen or eighteen maybe, and she quickly scans the bus, looking for a good place to sit. She notices the empty seat beside him and gives him a quick once over - the fact that he's young and not noticeably threatening seems to appeal to her. She asks him tentatively, "May I sit here?"

He is suave, cool like his name. "Certainly." he replies, hoping it makes him sound older than he looks. She takes the seat and relaxes into it. "What's your name?" he asks, friendly as can be.

She looks him over again, and seems to decide for the second time that he can be trusted. "Amy," she says finally, giving him a friendly smile. "You?"

For just a moment, he forgets about his father and his problems, his past and he even forgets Danny. Because there's a pretty girl beside him, and maybe he has a chance to impress her. She will be the first person in his new life to know him as he is. So he holds his hand out for a shake, and smiles his most dazzling, most charming smile. "Neal. Neal Caffrey," he says, and it feels entirely right to him now.