Author's Note #1: WOW ! I have been blown away by the response this story has gotten, and all your wonderfully kind words. They mean so, so much to me. I wasn't able to respond to all the reviews, for some reason the site wouldn't let me, so if you didn't get a reply, I want to take the opportunity now to say Thank-you very much, as well as to anyone who has made this their favorite or has alerted to it.

So this is actually where the story actually began, and turned out much, much longer than I expected; more than chapter 1 and chapter 2 combined. This played out like a movie in my head and I hope I was able to capture the emotions and feeling of both of them, how much they care about one another, the complicated relationship that Peter and Neal have, and the unique little family that they, Mozzie and Elizabeth all have made for themselves.

Author's Note #2: Big Thanks to Riathe Mai for all her awesome help.


Peter silently closed the beautifully ornate doors behind him, pocketing the spare key that had been given to him for emergencies. The foyer and the rest of the large, former speak-easy was dark; June was out of town for the week with her granddaughters and the minimal staff present in her absence had all gone home for the night.

He climbed the stairs slowly, thigh muscles aching, ribs protesting; feeling like the weight of the world rested on his shoulders.

And it did.

Not the entire world with its billions upon billions of people, nor the city of New York whose laws he was sworn to uphold and her people protect. No, that didn't concern him. Well, it did…but not now, not at this particular point in time.

But his world and what he held dear. He never could have guessed that things would have ever turned out this way.

His entire state of being, his entire existence, had been tilted on its axis when Neal Caffrey had entered his life. Up was down and down was up. Black was white and white was black; and the grey line in between never stood still, but twisted and turned like a kite in the wind that you could never quite grasp.

It was a vast and endless greyscale Peter tried to interpret, navigate, handle, and accept on a daily basis.

Just trying to keep up with Neal—never mind stay one step ahead of him—was like riding the tail of a comet…you held on tight with both hands, helpless but to get swept up in the awe and magic that surrounded you.

As crazy as Neal made his life, Peter couldn't imagine—didn't want to envision—what his life would be like without his partner…his best friend…his brother, in it.

The loft was quiet, totally silent as Peter reached the landing, and he didn't know whether he should be relieved or nervous. Neal's door stood partially open, and Peter just stood there. For the first time in his life, Peter was unsure of what to do. Anxiety, apprehension and trepidation—such foreign emotions for the usually cool, in-charge FBI Agent—flowed through his veins, making his pulse throb loudly in his ears.

Neal could be sleeping, and the part of Peter that didn't know how to fix this was silently hoping that was true.

Because, after all…after everything, Neal needed his sleep.

The logical, still rationally-thinking portion of Peter's brain was telling him that he was a coward. That he already knew that wasn't true; that that wasn't the cause of the silence.

For one important reason.

The partially opened door.

The one that Peter still could not seem to raise his hand and knock on.

The sound of breaking glass changed that immediately.

"Neal!" Peter stormed through the door, all feelings of nervousness and unease disappearing in the wake of concern.

And stopped abruptly just inside the threshold.

Mozzie's sarcastic quip that Neal had done 'a bit of redecorating' was an understatement of epic proportions, and shock rolled through Peter as he surveyed the loft.

Distraught and angry, Neal had swept through his apartment like the uncontrolled winds of a hurricane looking for release, leaving destruction in his path.

A wine glass lay shattered on the floor by the front door, undoubtedly the source of the breaking glass that he'd just heard, the clear liquid—water, not white wine, Peter noticed with interest bordering on concern—ran in thin rivulets down the wall.

Two of the dining chairs were noticeably missing from the table; one lay toppled by the coffee table in the living room and as Peter looked, he could just see the leg of another sticking out from Neal's bedroom. He wondered offhandedly if they had been thrown or kicked.

The small coffee table by the couch was tipped over, whether by Neal's hand or the dining chair hitting it Peter didn't know, and it didn't really matter. The silver serving platter, whose place was always on top of the hand-made table, was now leaning against the large bookcase; the usual trinkets that sat in its center were strewn about the small space. Through some miracle, the only damage sustained by the glass antique lamp that lay on its side on the floor was a broken bulb.

"Well, Agent Burke, what a surprise. Please, why don't you just come on in," Neal sneered, arms open wide as he turned to face Peter fully. "Watching my tracking data isn't enough for you…isn't telling you exactly what I'm up to? I'm going to be subjected to daily surprise, pop-in visits now? Why don't you just give me back my orange jumpsuit…complete the picture."

"What? No," Peter assured. Stepping further into the room, his foot connected with something lying on the floor, and he watched as the small, black object skittering into a corner; Neal's FBI Confidential Informant Badge, the leather case twisted and crumpled. "Never. I heard glass breaking. I was worried."

"Oh, so what, you just happened to be standing outside my door at that exact moment? You're not a 'believe in coincidence' kinda guy, Agent Burke. And spying…" Neal shook his head, "so beneath you."

"Neal, I was…I'm just concerned about you," Peter stated with as much empathy as he could even as Neal's continued scornful use of 'Agent Burke' cut straight through his heart. "You spent so much time just going in circles…I didn't know what you were doing…if you were okay. If you—"

"If I what?" Neal challenged darkly, stormy blue eyes glaring at Peter. "If I'd manipulated my tracking data somehow? Because you've been sitting at your dining room table all this time watching me…tracking my every movement? That's what you were doing, wasn't it? Wasn't it!"

Peter's usual quick mind was reeling. Anything short of the truth, Neal would just see right through; and the truth—as Neal would see it—would only push him over the edge of that thin precipice on which he was balancing.

Peter realized too late that he had taken a second too long to answer.

Neal suddenly spun around, right arm shooting out, sending the granite chess board sitting on the table clattering to the floor, propelling the stone playing pieces violently in all directions.

"That's right. That's exactly what you were doing." Neal's voice rose as he spoke. His hands were fisted by his sides, but Peter didn't miss the slight tremors running through them that he was either trying to hide or control. "Apparently I'm trustworthy enough to help you solve your cases…to be a tool in the belt of the FBI…but not trustworthy enough to have a personal life. To make my own decision!"

"Don't you dare twist my words around like I'm one of your marks," Peter growled out, Neal's combative accusations reigniting his own anger.

"Twist your words?" Neal laughed, but it was short and hollow, devoid of any mirth. His muscles were corded and tense as he closed the space between them and stood toe to toe with Peter. "You told me to my face that I have no rights," he spat out. "This is my family. My business. Mine! Not yours! But, I'm just the con-man, right? So, I'm the one twisting the words."

"Damn it, Neal! I didn't….," Peter stammered and stumbled over words he couldn't find and that wouldn't come out. "You're not…You just…" His jaw tight, he reached out, grabbing the younger man's shoulder as he started to walk away. Neal flinched as if he'd been burned, spinning sharply and shoved Peter's hand off as he took several steps back.

"Don't. Just…don't," Neal choked out, his harsh, erratic breathing the only sound filling the space between them. He seemed to deflate in front of Peter's eyes, the intense anger of just a few moments before gone as quickly as it had appeared, leaving only hurt behind.

Peter could see the raw emotion shining in Neal's eyes, but beneath all the anger and despair—hidden where only someone who knew him as well as Peter did could see—there was fear.

Not fear of Peter. Or of any answers he may find…or may not ever find.

But fear of himself.

That tiny part of Neal that was still rational enough to realize just how out of control he was. Peter could see how much it terrified his usually level-headed, unflappable, young CI that he couldn't rein himself in…to know what he was capable of in his anger and not have the power to stop it.

"Alright," Peter forced out evenly, backing away a little; his own anger still feeling like a runaway train.

Peter took a few deep breaths, and then a few more, grabbing hold of his erratic emotions and tamping them down. He hadn't come here to fight or yell, or for them to throw accusations at each other. Getting angry wasn't going to solve anything.

And he needed to fix this.

The worry, guilt, anguish…it didn't matter what he called it, because it all squeezed his heart tighter just the same as he watched his young friend pace the floor looking absolutely wrecked. For the first time since entering the house, he actually took a good look at Neal.

The right side of his face, from temple to jaw, was already a kaleidoscope of purples, blues and blacks; and Peter winced in sympathy at just how painful it must be, and how much worse it was going to look in the morning. He'd caused that damage. It didn't make him feel any better knowing that he'd had no choice.

At some point Neal had taken a shower and changed. Instead of his usual impeccable suit and tie, he was wearing a pair of simple black pants and white tee-shirt. His normally neatly styled hair was tousled, dark curls falling in soft waves across his forehead; making him look so incredibly young.

Peter ran his hand roughly across his jaw. None of this was turning out the way he had intended. He was the first to admit that he was no good at expressing himself, and right now was a horrible reminder of that. Everything that Neal had said, while the words had been true, the meanings and intentions behind them had gotten tragically lost in the translation.

Elizabeth's voice, gentle and reassuring, sounded in his head and he took another deep breath to calm himself, attempting to put her sound advice into action. 'Tell him exactly what you feel, talk to him…don't interrogate him.'

Peter walked around the table, picking up the chess board as he went and placing it back where is belonged. Neal had finally stopped pacing, frenetic movements having burnt themselves out and now he stood unmoving just inside the French doors.

Peter stopped a few feet from him, consciously giving him his space while at the same time staying close. He kept the silence for a few moments, staring out at the million-dollar view Neal's apartment offered of the city they both called home.

"Neal, I didn't come here to fight with you," Peter began slowly. "I'd like for us to talk. I want to explain some things…explain myself. Will you listen…hear me out? Give me a chance to do that….explain myself?"

Peter watched Neal, waiting for him to acknowledge any of it, but he still stood there, unmoving, and seemingly unhearing. Peter took a deep breath before he said anything else. He wasn't one to play the odds, hated gambling; and right now, even with his immense math background he couldn't even begin to calculate the odds on the outcome of what he was about to suggest.

"Neal…just…hear me out. Afterwards, if you still feel the same way…," Peter hesitated as his voice broke, not even wanting to put voice to the idea, "then I'll approve a transfer for you. You can finish out your sentence with another department…with another handler."

That got Neal's attention.


His head snapped towards Peter, shock written all over his face.

"Same deal. Same terms. Nothing would change."

Peter's heart beat in quick, loud burst, thudding against his ribcage as he watched Neal, waiting for him to respond; to say something…anything.

For the first time, Peter realized with apprehension, he couldn't read Neal at all.

Neal finally nodded his head. It was the slightest of movements, so quick and so minute that Peter would have missed it if he hadn't been looking.

Neal's acknowledgement didn't slow Peter's racing pulse or ease his nerves. He didn't know whether Neal was agreeing to hear him out, or if he was agreeing to the transfer request. He was not a praying sort of man, but Peter sent out a silent plea to anyone who might be listening that it was the former.

Peter opened his mouth to begin, but then closed it, not even knowing where to start to try and make things right.

Neal took the decision out of his hands.

"Do you really not trust me?"

His voice was so quiet…so forlorn, that it tore at Peter's heart, and he had to wonder if this was how Neal had felt all those years ago when Ellen had told him the truth about who he really was.

Peter wanted so desperately to take a step forward, to close the gap between them and give Neal a reassuring squeeze on his shoulder, but he knew that they were not even close to being at that point yet. He bit back the urge, delving into all the training he had to stay rooted in his spot.

He wanted to say 'it's complicated,' because it was; because he wanted to be totally honest with Neal. But then he remembered Mozzie's reaction to that same statement not an hour before, and knew that Neal's reaction would be much worse.

So he settled for saying it another way, and prayed for the best.

"With most things. Yes."

Neal said nothing, save for crossing his arms, hugging his chest tightly, while his mouth settled in a thin, firm line; essentially closing himself off from Peter and the world.

Building back up all the brick walls that Peter had worked so hard for so many years to break through.

"Neal, please…" Peter knew that he was pleading, but he didn't care. It worked. He could see Neal relax, even if just a miniscule amount.

"I trust you to have my back, Neal. To use your charm and that silver-tongue of yours to get us out of an operation when things go south. And if you can't…I trust that you'll have a plan—no matter how outrageous or crazy—to get us both out; alive… and relatively unscathed."

Peter could see just the barest hint of the tiniest smiles cross Neal's face before it disappeared; and for the first time since this mess had begun, he felt a tiny sliver of hope.

"I trust that no matter what case we're working on, you're going to work your hardest to try and solve it, even all those mortgage fraud ones that you loathe so much. When you go undercover, and we remove the anklet, I always trust that you're not going to run."

Neal tipped his head a bit at that last statement, and Peter knew that it had taken him by surprise.

"Sure, you may wander a bit," Peter said knowingly, "go meet Alex, or Mozzie, or gather information for some con I know you're no doubt working, but I know you won't take off…because you have a home here now, a place to belong." Peter swallowed against the growing lump in his throat. "People that care about you very much."

Peter risked a small step forward. "I trust you with my wife." And because he needed Neal to understand, he said it again. "I trust you with Elizabeth, Neal, the single most important thing in my life. I've put her life in your hands many times and I've trusted that you'd keep her safe."

Neal turned his head, finally meeting his gaze. His expressive blue eyes were overly bright and shone in the glow of the terrace lights. Peter could tell just how much his words had affected him, how much they'd meant to him; but that they were not entirely what he was looking for.

"But you just don't trust me."

Neal stressed the last word and Peter knew exactly what he meant. This was the complicated part, the part that Peter didn't know if he'd be able to find the right words to explain.

"No, Neal," Peter began. Immediately, he saw Neal's shoulders tense and he realized how totally wrong that word was to use.

"No. No, Neal, that's not what I mean…how I mean it," Peter said quickly. He ran his hands through his hair in frustration. "You know how bad I am at this. Please."

Neal rolled his shoulders and looked at his partner. Peter could see him visibly relax, understanding passing over his face; because he knew how bad they both were at this.

Knew that was one of the things that got them to this point in the first place.

Peter felt like he was on a roller coaster. Just when he thought it was over and he was going to come to a smooth stop, the ride took another sudden sharp turn, and he was back in a white-knuckled grip, not sure how far the drop was going to be this time.

He blew out a breath and took a couple more small steps, directly even with Neal now, only the width of the French doors separated them; just a mere few feet instead of the hundreds of miles Peter had felt since the boxing ring.

"Neal, it's—" Peter stopped abruptly and blew out a frustrated breath. Damn it, there was that word again. How was it he could easily question hostile suspects, but the simple act of talking to his good friend seemed like a Herculean task?

Peter ran his hands roughly down his face. If he was ever going to fix this, he needed to lay it all on the line. He was a big believer in leading by example, and if he ever wanted Neal to be honest with him, then Peter needed to step up to the plate and do the same.

"Neal, this, right now," Peter motioned his hand between the two of them, "what happened, all of it…it doesn't have anything to do with trust.

"Do you know why I accepted your deal, took you on as my CI?" Peter asked suddenly.

Neal opened his mouth to answer, and then shut it just as quickly. His brow furrowed in thought as he glanced at Peter, before shaking his head slightly. "No."

There were no quips, no witty remarks; just a simple, open, curious need-to-know. Peter felt the tight knot of anxiety that was lodged in his chest loosen just a bit.

"Some of it was your expertise, yeah…but I genuinely liked you, Neal. I realized early on—when I first started chasing you—all the heists, all the crimes you committed, it was never about the money or materialism with you, it was all about the challenge.

"You bring a very unique, out-of-the-box thinking to the table, and I've come to realize—and accept—that sometimes, your way of doing things…while not 'lawful,' yield better results than going strictly by the book."

"Really?" Neal had turned to fully face Peter, and he could hear the incredulousness in his tone. Peter just shrugged one shoulder, not really believing that he just admitted that out loud either.

"Yeah. Lesser of two evils," Peter said with a smirk. "I can look the other way on a bit of creative evidence collecting if we can put a big time crook behind bars"

Peter closed the gap between the two of them, coming to stand right beside Neal.

"Somewhere along the lines, duty and responsibility gave way to us becoming 'real' partners, friends…but more than that, Neal, Elizabeth and I consider you family. But you have to understand, Neal, what kind of a position that puts me in. I'm your handler…your boss," Peter implored, "I'm suppose to be detached, impartial, keep you on the straight and narrow…not invite you to cook-outs, encourage your nefarious behavior and be impressed as hell by some of the things you manage to pull off."

"Nefarious, Peter? Really? You wound me," Neal quipped, a bit of the old Neal Caffrey sarcasm coloring his voice as he brought his hand to his chest in mock hurt.

Peter's heart swelled with joy at the simple sound of Neal calling him by his first name. "Yeah, yeah. How 'bout delinquent? Felonious maybe? Or we could go with—"

"No, no, I like nefarious," Neal retorted with a smile. "Makes me sound like a pirate. I've never been a pirate."

"I find that hard to believe," Peter responded dryly before his expression once again turned serious. "Do I always trust you? Usually…most of the time…not always; just like I know you don't always trust me. But I always have faith that whatever it is you're doing, it's for a good reason. Do you understand what I'm saying, Neal?"

"Yeah, I do." Neal said quietly. He let out a long sigh, running both hands through his dark hair, making it even more unruly than it already was. "I can't express to you just how much I appreciate what you've done for me, Peter…how much you've risked and sacrificed over the years…how much your friendship means to me."

Neal visibly swallowed, his voice quite as he continued, and Peter didn't miss just how much it trembled. "But I need answers, Peter. Neal Bennett? Danny Brooks? Neal Caffrey? I've had so many aliases I have no clue who I really am." He huffed out a breath. "My first alias ever was given to me by the Marshal's. How ironic is that?"

Neal looked at Peter, blue eyes beseeching; pained desperation with a need for answers. "I can't go back; I can't go forward…"

Neal shrugged one shoulder, leaving his thought unfinished as he rested his head on the side of the doorframe and gazed out at the darkening city.

"I'm going to do everything in my power to find those answers for you, Neal." Peter affirmed.

"I'm really, very sorry about how things turned out, Neal," Peter continued softly, "Everything I did; I did because I care about you. It terrifies me what you'll do…the lengths you'll go to in order to find the people responsible for murdering Ellen. How far you'll go and…what you might do when you finally have them."

A shudder ran through Neal's entire body as he squeezed his eyes shut, and Peter's heart broke at how much his friend was still hurting.

"She was more of a mom to me than my own," Neal whispered thickly. He turned to Peter with a wistful smile. "She taught me how to shoot, you know. She was a crack shot."

"I bet she was," Peter agreed. "She the one that taught to how to fight also?"

Neal laughed. "That's a story for another time."

"Whoever these people are, Neal, they're powerful," Peter urged. "It terrifies me what they could do to you…what I won't be able to protect you from. You were forced into WITSEC as a very young child, Neal. You know how serious that is. I can't imagine what growing up like that was like. To find out everything you believed was a lie…the dreams you had…" Peter could only shake his head. "But I've seen the scar's it's left behind."

The light evening breeze had picked up, the sweet smell of exotic roses filling the air as Peter watched Neal walk slowly across the patio. He leaned up against the stone wall, his gaze on the city below. Even from where he was standing, Peter could see the faraway look in his eyes and knew he was in another time and place.

"Sometimes I wish that my mom had lied to me," Neal laughed bitterly, "well, a better lie…or maybe, less of lie." Neal briefly closed his eyes, rubbing the side of his head gently, and Peter imagined that he must be in a considerable amount of pain.

"I wouldn't have grown up admiring a man…the idea of man…that didn't exist," Neal said, "wanting to be just like him…wouldn't have brought down the whole house of cards by wanting to follow in his footsteps. Just another fairytale shattered."

He whirled around, the sudden movement causing him to sway dangerously. Peter rushed forward to catch him before he hit the cold, hard stone. But Neal managed to side-step him, barely grabbing hold of the nearby chair before he toppled over.

"Only I did actually follow in his footsteps. Guess I got my wish after all." Neal stated cynically, dropping himself into the chair and resting his head in his hands.

"You're not a murderer, Neal."

"No. But I am a convicted felon," Neal said flatly.

"Yes, you are," Peter said simply. "But you are also a good person, with a big heart." Peter paused, walking over to the small patio table and sitting down across from Neal. "The Haustenburg case, 'Girl With Locket'…"

Neal looked at Peter, expression perfectly schooled to reveal nothing.

"You think I don't know that the one hanging in the Channing Museum is one of your forgeries? That right now, the original is hanging—where it rightfully belongs—in Julianna's house?"

"You don't know that," Neal said carefully.

"Yes, I do," Peter assured, and his expression softened, "because you're Peter Pan and Robin Hood all rolled up into one. And you know I can name a dozen more instances just like that one. You gave her back a precious piece of her grandmother, Neal. Mozzie was wrong, you know. Guys like you do deserve happiness…there not just fairy tales. We'll get you your answers."

Neal cleared his throat, his expression almost shy as he ducked his head, clearly not at all comfortable with the kind words just expressed about him. At that moment, Peter wished he, himself, were the artist. With no walls, no charming smiles or schemes…just Neal…it was a beautiful thing to see.

Neal looked back up. The anger had long since faded, leaving behind the pain and hurt of keeping almost thirty years of unanswered questions, loss and confusion bottled up. "In case you've forgotten, Peter, Sam is long gone. He's back in hiding, and he doesn't want to be found."

Peter leaned back in his chair. "You know, I could be mistaken, but it seems to me that anything Neal Caffrey sets his mind to…he achieves," he said slyly. "And Agent Burke…guy never gives up…impeccable record. And together, the team of Burke and Caffrey—"

"Caffrey and Burke," Neal corrected with a smile.

Peter smiled back. "They haven't failed a case yet. Don't know about you, but I don't plan on changing that record anytime soon."

"Ninety-seven percent closure rate. Best in the Bureau," Neal boasted. "Gotham City's finest."

"Exactly," Peter agreed.

"Not that there's a plaque or anything," Neal muttered off-handedly.

Peter sighed, shaking his head slightly. "Not the point."

Neal straightened up, his expression brightening. "You know, I could probably…"

"Neal…," Peter warned without heat. Then, more serious, he said, "We good?"

"We're good," Neal assured honestly. Not one to ever be deterred, he continued unabashed. "Because seriously, it would just take a letter signed by…"

"I need a beer," Peter said, the exasperation coloring his words for show only. He pushed his chair back and stood up, walking into the apartment with a smile on his face and his spirits lifted.

Peter came back, both hands full of the items he had grabbed, and stopped momentarily in the doorway to observe his young friend.

Neal was leaning back in his chair, eyes shut as he rolled his head and neck in a slow circle. A faint groan slipped past his lips, and he let his head fall onto the back of the chair.

Peter quietly watched him. Neal's breathing was deep and even…and if you ignored the swollen, discolored eye and cheekbone, the tightly closed eyes and the pain etched in the creases of his face...well, you could convince yourself that he was simply resting.

Only Peter wasn't the conman in the partnership, and he knew better. The guilt that had entwined itself around his entire being reared its head once again.

Peter approached the table, putting the two drinks and bottle down as he sat in the chair.

"I'd ask you if you were fine," Peter said; his tone was easy and light, but that underlying touch of 'Agent Burke' made it clear he expected an answer, "but you'd only say you were. So how 'bout, you tell me how bad it really is."

Neal's eyes opened to half-mast before he blinked and opened them fully. He tipped his head slightly and gazed at Peter out of the corner of his eyes. "The circling, twinkling stars have finally gone away," Neal bantered. "As entertaining as they were, I'm counting that as a win."

The charming grin that Neal aimed for fell far from its mark.

"As entertaining as your new dance move was a few minutes ago, I suspect, or that squinty, if-I-don't-move-too-quickly-I-won't-pass-out thing you've got going. Very avant garde. And you didn't answer my question." Peter slid the wine glass and the small bottle across the glass surface to rest in front of Neal. He motioned towards the small bottle. "Painkillers. Take them."

Peter wrapped his hands around his beer bottle, his fingers absent-mindedly picking at the label as he peered across the table. "Neal, I'm sorry—"

"Peter," Neal lifted his head, and Peter couldn't help but notice just how careful the motion was, "trust me, I've had a lot worse. You have nothing to apologize for."

Neal picked up the bottle and opened the cover. He shook one pill out into his palm and then looked at Peter momentarily before he tipped the bottle a bit further so two more rolled out.


"Peter, please." Neal held his hand out, forestalling anything else Peter was about to say. "It's me who should be apologizing," Neal objected. "I was out of line. I let my emotions get the better of me. I jeopardized not only the case, but your safety as well, and for that I'm sorry."

Neal reached over and lifted the wine glass, swirling the water around before swallowing down the pills. "And as for this," he tenderly probed the side of his face, "never go into a fight emotionally compromised…painful lesson to be reminded of."

Neal lifted his wine glass, motioning toward the beer bottle sitting across from him as he extended his arm across the table. Peter tipped his head, eyebrow raised in a bit of suspicion-tinged curiosity, as he lifted the bottle, mirroring Neal's move.

"I say we call a do-over," Neal announced.

"A do-over, huh?" Peter pondered. "That doesn't mean we have to step into the ring again, does it?"

"No," Neal asserted strongly, carrying out the word for dramatic effect. "If I never have to get into a ring again, it won't be too soon. Past couple of days…you and I…never happened. Fresh start."

"Best plan I've heard all day." Peter smiled, tipping his bottle forward and signing the deal with a clink of their glasses.

Peter took a long pull from his beer before setting it down. "So…'never go into a fight emotionally compromised,' huh? Very wise words," Peter said casually. "From a very wise woman."

"She was," Neal said simply.

"Why did she teach you to fight?" Peter inquired, genuinely curious, but wanting to pull his friend out of the far-away place he was sliding back into.

While Neal never passed on an opportunity to regale others with the escapades of his 'alleged' heists, he revealed very little about his childhood years. Peter had no doubt though, that they would be just as daring and bold as everything else in his life, because Neal didn't do ordinary.

The change was instantaneous.

Neal's mouth lifted in a broad grin and mischief lit his blue eyes. Keeping up with an adult Neal was a task unto itself…a young Neal, with all the boundless energy that a child possessed, well…not for the first time did Peter wonder just how much of a handful Neal must have been growing up.

"I was nine," Neal began," and there was this pool hall…"

Peter took another sip of beer, not that he was thirsty; it was more to hide his smile of amusement, because of course a nine-year-old Neal was in a pool hall. He leaned back in his chair, no longer bothering to hide his smile; all thoughts of mysterious boxes, missing lockets, and corrupt cops pushed aside as he got caught up in the adventure and intrigue that surrounded everything his young friend did.