A/N: This is a one shot.
Beta credit belongs to the wonderful deej1957!
Neal turns around. They're gaining on him.
He turns back and slams against the door to his right. The apartment is empty and he can see a closed window at the end of a narrow hall. He runs to the window and attempts to pry it open with his sweaty hands. Miraculously, it works. He can feel the cold air rushing in and he starts climbing out into the emergency stairwell outside the building.
Something went wrong, somehow. He was having the final meeting with their perps of the week, working undercover as George Donelly, and then today they suddenly knew. They called him Caffrey and Neal bolted, a shower of bullets following him out of the apartment.
"Guys, I would really really like to have a Merry Christmas right now."
He pants into the transmitter in his watch while climbing down from the tenth floor. He's been saying the stupid panic phrase for five minutes now, and he can't see any backup anywhere.
He curses when he slips around the third or fourth floor down, but he catches himself in time. It's cold, and he's only wearing his suit; his winter coat was left somewhere in the apartment.
He can see Christmas lights from the decorations swooshing by on the windows. He looks up for a second when he hears yelling up above and a man appears only two floors away and starts shooting again.
He reaches the second floor and stops abruptly realizing that the last part of the stairwell is missing. He's in a narrow street without traffic, and all he can think about is running and how Peter should really be here by now. He ducks from another shower of bullets, looks doubtfully at the frozen sidewalk below, and decides he'll have to risk it.
Suddenly he feels a burning pain in his left arm and he launches himself, startled at the pain. His feet make contact with the floor and then they slip. The ground is glassy and wet, and in one panicky moment, he knows he's falling. He hits the ground with a loud crack, his head connecting painfully with the ice.
He stays down. It's a weird feeling, but he can't really remember what he was doing, what the urgency was. Someone was chasing him. He… He probably stole something again. Wait, that's not right. He… um… Someone was looking for him…
He rolls around and a wave of dizziness hits him. The world starts spinning and when he tries to lift his head to get his bearings, everything gets a thousand times worse. He struggles to breathe and opens his eyes carefully. It's snowing. The Christmas lights are floating around. Everything's strange. There and not there. The lights dance around in the walls and in the sky. It's some kind of dance with the snow flakes, and it's cold.
It's so cold.
It hasn't snowed like this in Saint Louis in years. For the last couple of years it's mostly been a kind of freezing drizzle or at best some quick melting snow. This year, he's had three snow days. Everything is literally frozen. Although it's still a few weeks to the special day, there are already Christmas lights and decorations everywhere.
Danny stops and presses his hands and nose against the glass. He loves to look at the Christmas displays on the windows of shops. He's made this a tradition. He learned early on that nobody noticed a six-year-old wandering alone when he blended in with all the other kids out with their families doing their Christmas shopping. Four years later it still works like a charm.
His nose is freezing and he wants to get to the Pool Hall before the rest of his face gets permanently damaged from the cold. Okay, he's exaggerating, but it really is freaking cold! Anyway, he can't seem to be able to step away from his favorite display.
How do they do it? With the lights and the little people, the houses, the moving train, and the cool Santa Workshop at the right side of the display!
He's never believed in Santa. Aunt Ellen tries to make things special and does the whole thing with the presents under the tree, but he knows the truth. He's not stupid. Then there's the Jesus thing, he doesn't know if he believes in that either. He's tried to believe. Honest. But it's fishy and he's not sure about either of them, Santa or God, both always there, looking over him to see if he's being good.
Danny takes a final wistful glance at the display and walks away. It's been bugging him, the lie he told to get out of his art class today. Not because of the lie, but because he really doesn't want Aunt Ellen to find out. He knows that everyone has something they want out of someone else. He's good at being what they want to see and saying what they want to hear. It's easy.
"Everyone loves my stories." He says it out loud, and then frowns.
Well, everyone except Aunt Ellen. He sighs. She doesn't believe my stories. She doesn't take any crap from me.
Danny reaches the Pool Hall and enters from the side door. Len, the bartender, says a brief hi and continues drying the glasses on the counter. Danny waves and makes his way to the pool tables.
Sure enough, there's this guy he's been watching play for the past couple of days. He's good, but Danny knows that if he plays him right, he'll wipe the floor with the guy. He takes out the forty bucks he's put together in the past month, and puts them on the pool table after the guy takes a sip of his beer and collects his money. He just won a game.
He's overconfident. He's a little drunk. The timing couldn't be better.
"Forty bucks says I beat you at Eight Ball," he says smoothly, and walks around the table to face him.
The guy turns around surprised and laughs when he sees him.
"Who the fuck let the kid in here?"
"Hey man, its forty bucks. I'm putting it up front," Danny argues.
The man ignores him and takes another sip of his beer.
"What? You afraid a ten-year old will kick your ass?" Danny asks raising his voice at the last part and making sure the other guys at the bar look his way.
The man's face turns a shade of red and Danny hears laughter from the usuals in the bar.
Len laughs loudly and shouts to the stranger. "Hey man, you don't know who you're messing with!" He gives Danny a wink.
The guy's hands are playing with his lighter, opening and closing it, while he regards Danny. He sets the lighter down on the table, puts another forty bucks on top of Danny's and starts setting up the table.
"I break." That's the only thing he says, and Danny shrugs.
He's a bit surprised that it worked this fast. He'd expected the guy to need a little more work to give in, but hey, it's alright by him. He looks at the shiny lighter while the man sets things up. It looks heavy; silver plated, and has a grizzly bear design on its sides. It's shiny, and Danny likes it.
They play the game, and almost halfway in, he realizes that the man is a lot better than he had let on, and he'll probably lose the bet.
He needed that money to buy Mark a jacket. He's old and when he sleeps in the park at night he must almost freeze to death.
He stares intently at the lighter after he misses his shot. A lighter like that would probably cover it. The man would probably never even miss it. His old friend from the park could die.
He makes up his mind and grabs the lighter. A man by the door tries to stop him, but he dodges him and makes it outside.
He can hear shouts and curses behind him and he knows they're following him out to the street.
He runs faster.
He almost slips as he goes around the corner, but he steadies himself and keeps running. He jumps a fence about two blocks away, and on his way down, he knows something's not right. His ankle twists while he's landing and he barely registers the pain when his head hits the frozen ground beneath him.
He lies sideways on the ice. He's confused. He's sure he was doing something important. Someone was following him, or looking for him, maybe? He stole something. He knows that. His head is spinning and the Christmas lights dance around his head and on the walls of the two buildings around him.
It's so cold.
He opens his eyes slowly. He feels like he's been laying there for a long time and his tired mind tells him he has to move. His right hand tries to holds his head and the pain is a weird kind of thumping. He sits and looks around. There's no one nearby. He tries to move and lets out a little scream when his ankle spikes up like it's on fire. It's probably sprained. It's not broken; he fell from the roof a year ago and broke his arm. It doesn't feel like that.
It's not looking good. He's three blocks away from his house and he's sure he can't call Aunt Ellen to come help him. He stole the damn lighter and he's skipping the art classes she worked so hard to get him into. It's been just four days since he got caught borrowing a new pastel set from a classmate's backpack.
He can't call Aunt Ellen, not after she saved his ass just a few days ago.
Danny briefly considers calling his mom. He dismisses the thought as quickly and picks himself up painfully. He's wet and cold, and his head is still fuzzy.
He limps his way home slowly.
The house is empty. He goes to his room and takes a considerable amount of time to change into warm clothes. He looks at his forehead in the mirror. There's a big gash above his left eyebrow. He cleans it with soapy water and swallows a couple of the pain killers for kids that Aunt Ellen put inside the bathroom.
He doesn't know what to do with his ankle. He's pretty sure that the pain has doubled after the walk home. There are no bandages though, and he can't think straight. He's sleepy. He sits in his bed to try to think and then lies down and closes his eyes.
It's dark when he wakes up again. He hears sounds coming from the kitchen. His mom must be back from work. He rolls carefully so his back is to the door and holds his breath. She turns off the lights from the kitchen and stops briefly at his bedroom door to look at him, before moving on to her room and closing the door behind her.
Danny lets out the air he's been holding. Everything is still fuzzy. Everything hurts. He feels tears running down his face. He's holding the stupid lighter in his hand and it doesn't feel like it was worth it. He doesn't know what to do.
He just stays there, and after a while, he sleeps.
Ellen opens the front door and closes it quickly behind her. It's snowing outside, and it's close to midnight. It's been a long day. No one answered the phone earlier and she's worried about Danny again.
A teacher called her in the afternoon. Apparently, she wanted to talk about Daniel's performance in art school and she didn't get an answer from his mom. She mentioned that she was sorry he'd missed school that day, and hoped he was okay. Ellen had thanked her and dropped her head in her hands. He is too good at lying.
"Danny?" she whispers, pushing the boy's half closed bedroom door open.
She walks over to the bedside lamp and turns it on.
Danny is sleeping on a corner of his bed, curled up in a little ball, hardly taking up any space. His wavy brown hair is tousled all over the place and Ellen thinks briefly that a haircut is in order, before she sees the ugly gash in his forehead. She kneels immediately beside the bed and brushes the hair away to look at his face. The tear tracks are painfully obvious, as are the red rimmed and dazed eyes that look up at her when she touches his shoulder.
"Danny…?" she asks softly.
He stares up at her unable to put together any words. Her concern is growing by the second.
She tries to make him move, to sit him up on the bed, but the boy whimpers holding his left ankle in his small hands. Her heart catches in her throat at the sound.
"What happened?" she asks forcefully, noticing his swollen foot and ankle.
He's started to shake slightly and holds his ankle trying not to cry.
"What happened, Danny?" she asks again, gentler this time. "Where are you hurt?"
The boy impossibly curls more into himself.
"I'm s'rry," he mumbles, while tears run down his face.
"S'rry. S'rry….s'rry…s'rry s'rry…"
"Shh. Shh... It's alright Danny-boy," she says soothingly, with a hand gently placed on his head.
She stands up and grabs a jacket from his closet. She carefully maneuvers Danny into it. After another glance at the swollen foot, she decides not to worry about socks or shoes. She grabs a blanket from the bed and wraps him up. She picks Danny up a little clumsily, and carries him outside, not even glancing at the other woman's closed door. She whispers reassurances to him all the way to her car.
Ellen takes Danny to the hospital. They don't know exactly what happened, so they do a routine CT scan, just in case. He has a mild concussion and a sprained ankle. He gets some pills, a cast, crutches, and instructions. They leave the hospital six hours later.
Ellen turns to look at Danny. He's sitting unusually quiet and still beside her, looking out the car's window. The dawn makes everything outside seem a different shade of blue. It makes everything look mysterious and beautiful. She turns back and accelerates when the light turns green.
She knows that Daniel is a troubled boy. She's probably the only person in this world that acknowledges it. She knows he's emotionally neglected. She knows his mom is… a mess. She tries to be there, but she's not his mom. She could never be.
Danny is also wonderful, intelligent, clever, and so talented. Everyone likes him and he likes everyone.
"I talked to your mom," Ellen says. "You're going back to my place for a few days."
Danny shifts uncomfortably in his seat.
"I'm fine," he responds defensively, still looking out the window.
"I didn't say you aren't."
"Well, I am," he says, smiling reassuringly at her. "I can manage. Just drop me off at my house, okay?"
Ellen doesn't respond. The boy doesn't trust people. And isn't that the root of everything else? Danny doesn't trust his teachers or his classmates, and he certainly doesn't trust his mother. She sometimes doubts he trusts her.
They stop at another light. "Danny," she says seriously, and he looks back at her, smile stubbornly plastered in his face. His forehead looks horrible, and the gash is now accompanied by bruises.
"Let me take care of you, please?"
His smile falters and he slowly turns back to look at the window. She still catches him blinking rapidly before she turns away again and drives.
They sit quietly for a while, both distracted by the other cars. She can't believe there's so much traffic at this hour.
"We have to talk about this sooner or later Danny."
"I think I'd rather have later," he says.
"I'm saying we're doing this now," Ellen clarifies. "You've never been anything but smart, which is why I can't understand you sometimes. You like to do things, makes up stories, lately, you've been stealing too? Somehow, you always end up hurt or in trouble and I just don't understand why you do it." She shakes her head.
"It's not about the stuff," he says somewhat apologetically. He's never meant to hurt Aunt Ellen. He doesn't want to be a burden. She already does more than enough for him.
He doesn't know how to explain the rest of it. He can't really explain the need he feels inside. He doesn't even know what it is he needs. So, he says the only part he is sure about.
"I like being smarter than everyone else."
"Believe me Danny; you're smarter than the rest of us. You don't need to prove it," she snickers and smiles at him.
"You understand why it's wrong, right?" she asks as an afterthought.
Danny controls the urge to roll his eyes. "I know right from wrong, Aunt Ellen. I do. I understand the importance. I want to be a cop after all." Then he adds confidently, "I'm just having a little fun, you know, to pass the time."
"Uh huh," she says, and worries that he doesn't ever apologize after things like these happen. She worries that most times he doesn't even look guilty, and what worries her most is that he still wants to be a cop.
Probably for the millionth time she wishes that James was here, and that he'd never done whatever it was he did. Her old partner's actions had affected them deeply. It had turned their lives upside down. It had nearly destroyed Danny's mother. It had forever changed the life of the brilliant little boy sitting beside her.
Ellen finds a parking spot two houses away from her house, turns off the car, and holds his hand before he can go out.
"Your father is gone, sweet boy. That doesn't mean your mom's not here alright? That doesn't mean I'm not here," she assures him.
He shakes his head. "My mom…"
"Your mother loves you. It's harder for her," she says, and she's not sure why she's making excuses when there should be none. "She just misses your father. We all do."
Danny looks at her in the eyes and wishes there was something he could say back. He doesn't understand why it's harder for his mom. He knows they miss his dad. He misses him too. He understands why his mom doesn't want to spend time with him, though. He knows he doesn't really live up to his father.
They walk inside and he changes into his pajamas. It's Saturday, and they spend the day watching television on the couch, his foot with the cast resting on top of a cushion. When he falls asleep for the third time, she orders him to his room and he goes without protest. Some of the pain is back and he just wants to sleep.
Ellen sits beside him and tucks him in. "Sleep well, Danny-boy," she says quietly, giving him a loving look.
He nods and grants her a genuine smile.
"I think she loves me," he says out of the blue.
"She does," she assures him once more, she obviously meaning his mother.
"Yeah, but," he pauses. His clear blue eyes look up at her intently, and his next words fill her soul. "I know you love me."
She bends down to hug him and he hugs her back. They hold each other for a moment and then she kisses his cheek tenderly and pushes him back into his pillow.
Danny falls asleep to the feeling of Ellen's hand in his.
He'll be fine.
He opens his eyes and it's cold again. There are Christmas lights floating around over his head and it'scold.
Peter is shaking him. How did he get here?
"Pet'r?" he slurs, shutting his eyes again.
"Don't do that, keep your eyes open," Peter orders roughly. His other hand is holding on to his arm and it burns.
It's an order, and it's Peter, so he tries, but…
"Neal!" He shakes him carefully again.
"What happened, Neal?" Peter asks, trying to divert him into staying awake.
"Neal…?" Neal asks weakly and somewhat stupidly.
Peter's heart beats faster and the urge to hit someone grows exponentially. "Diana," he growls to his right side. "Where's that freaking ambulance?"
Diana is unfazed by his murderous mood. "Three minutes, boss."
"Pet'r…" Neal whispers mumbling, "someone's following…stole something…" he pauses, and tries to move.
"Whoa, buddy!" Peter holds him down. "You're not going anywhere."
Neal stays down and looks up pleadingly at Peter. Neal looks at him like he's the damn solution to all his problems; like whatever he's saying is more important than his bullet-grazed arm and obvious concussion.
"Can't get in trouble again... I…I stole something."
Peter holds him down, hand slippery on his arm, trying to keep the wound from bleeding. He doesn't know what the hell Neal's talking about.
"It's okay," Peter assures him.
Neal opens his eyes lazily and stares at him.
"I won't let anyone get you. You're not in trouble. I promise. I'm here. I found you."
Neal just looks at him blankly. He tries to nod and pain spreads through his head. It's cold and there are Christmas lights and his head hurts and… and he doesn't know what's going on...
"Don't call Ellen," he says through his teeth, obviously in pain.
Peter lets him go after a hand in his shoulder pulls him away. The emergency workers take over and Neal lets go of consciousness.
He can feel a soft small hand holding his. It feels warm and whoever it is smells like lilies and is rubbing circles on his hand with a thumb.
"Ellen?" Neal whispers, not wanting to startle her. He tries to open his eyes but his eyelids are not cooperating.
"No sweetie…" A woman's voice calls back to him.
It's not Ellen. There aren't many options left. Only one really, he thinks. He doesn't want to open his eyes now. He doesn't want to take the disappointment when he does and she's not here.
"Mom?" he asks in a tiny vulnerable voice.
Elizabeth's heart breaks and she curses herself for not simply telling him who she is as soon as he woke up. Peter had said he was confused earlier.
"Neal honey, it's Elizabeth."
Neal opens his eyes slowly and with effort, and looks at El sitting down beside him.
"Um… sorry," he says shyly.
El doesn't think she's ever seen a shy Neal before.
"Shh, shh. It's okay, honey."
They've both been whispering, but something must have disturbed her husband, because she sees Peter waking from where he's been resting on the chair beside her. He looks sleepily at Neal and smiles.
"Hey, buddy," he calls out tenderly and gets up to stand on her other side, closer to Neal.
Neal looks at him tiredly. He can't put together what happened. The pain in his head is getting worse. He can't think. Everything is suddenly fogged again.
"Peter?" he asks in a strange voice.
Peter frowns. He puts a hand to Neal's shoulder. "The Marcucci's figured you were working for the good guys. We caught them, but while you were running from them you slipped on ice and hit your head. You have a grade II concussion."
"You found me," Neal concludes. El and Peter look at each other, concerned.
"I found you," Peter confirms.
Peter decides there's been enough excitement, and turns around to call the doctor, let him know Neal's awake.
Peter stops and looks back at Neal. "Yeah?"
"Peter, I didn't mean to steal it."
Confusion and concern fill up Peter. Is he talking about the Nazi treasure? There really wasn't anything to steal during this case, so he doesn't really know what he's talking about.
Neal, sensing Peter's hesitation, tries to say something. He has to say something. Make it better. He doesn't want Peter to leave.
"I'm sorry," Neal says earnestly.
"Let's just talk about this later, okay sweetie?" Elizabeth intercedes, rubbing Neal's hand again.
"I'm getting a doctor," Peter announces and moves to go once more.
"Did you call Ellen?" Neal asks suddenly.
Peter stops in his tracks. He doesn't know what to say to that. Maybe Neal is thinking about something… some kind of memory? He's definitely confused.
"Neal," he says coming back to stand beside El.
"I'm sorry, buddy. It's been a few months now." His voice is soft and caring. "Ellen died."
Neal frowns in confusion. He looks around the hospital room and stares at Peter and Elizabeth.
Peter and Elizabeth. That's right. He's older now. He's Neal now, not Danny.
He can feel the tears coming and his head starts pounding again in protest.
"I know," he manages. "I know she did." He tries to turn his head away from them, but it hurts to move his head.
"It'll be okay Neal." Elizabeth reassures him weakly, tears gathering in her own eyes. She can't stand to look at him like this. Neal never breaks his façade.
Peter leaves and returns a minute later with a nurse. She puts something in his line and Neal blissfully goes slack and sleeps.
The next time Neal rouses, he feels a lot better, and wakes up to Diana, Jones, June, El, and Peter all whispering around his bed. Neal is thoroughly embarrassed about earlier with Peter and El, but puts on a brave face. He jokes easily with Diana and Jones. He smiles politely and kisses June in both cheeks.
He goes through all the hospital motions and after several check-ups, and putting up a small fight, he finally relents and accepts to stay in chez Burke until he recovers. Peter surprises him by saying he asked for the week off and Elizabeth tells him that she only has one more event on the 23rd and then she's free.
On his second day at the Burke's, Elizabeth leaves early for her event. Peter and Neal spend their day watching corny Christmas movies and eating popcorn and pizza. Neal falls asleep again and Peter can't help watching him. He's never been able to observe him like this before, just tired and vulnerable and simply… normal.
Neal's been sleeping on and off all day long. After everything that's happened to him since, well, since he was a child, Peter thinks, he can't really blame him for just wanting to rest.
On top of everything, James "father of the year" Bennett disappeared again to "keep searching for Ellen's killers". Naturally, Neal didn't take it too well, and it pisses Peter off more than it should, but he can't stand that James has basically abandoned Neal once more.
He turns back to the TV and sighs.
"I remembered something after I fell." Neal speaks out just a bit sluggishly. Peter doesn't interrupt.
"I sort of relived a memory of when I was a boy," Neal continues. "It was something I hadn't thought about in a long time."
Peter turns to face him on the other side of the couch. Neal's leaning his head on the arm of the couch. His feet are pulled up so not to bother Peter. He has a blanket covering him. His head is slightly turned and he's staring at Peter.
Peter sips his beer. "Want to talk about it?" he asks nonchalantly.
Neal turns his head and stares instead at their Christmas tree for a few minutes. Peter doesn't push.
"Logically, my brain knows...," Neal shakes his head and he starts again. "I know that I have to let go of the past. I have to let it go, but I can't…," he breaks off.
They watch the movie quietly for a while, neither of them actually seeing it, both absorbed by their own thoughts.
Sometimes I think there must be something wrong with me. Something changed me and now I'm just not that kind of person… I don't know if I can be the person you want me to be. Neal can't say it out loud, he's not sure Peter would understand.
Peter wants to tell him to let go of his past. He wants to say: Neal, even when you break my trust, even when you drive me crazy, even when I don't want to see you. Even then, I don't think you're unworthy, you're better than your past.
Peter can't, he can't open his stupid mouth. He's not good with feelings. So he settles for the only thing he can say. He keeps looking at the television and glances sideways for a second.
"We're not going anywhere, you know?" he turns back to look at the screen. "El and me. Mozzie and June. Jones and Diana. Your job. We're here to stay."
Neal smiles. "It's taking me forever to get it, but I know."
They're interrupted by the sound of the doorbell, followed by knocking in iambic pentameter. Peter lifts his eyebrows and struggles to keep from rolling his eyes but grins at Neal. Peter goes to open the door and Mozzie bursts in.
"Hi Neal!" he yells to him cheerfully while removing his scarf and ear muffs.
"Suit dog," he says seriously, stepping away from over friendly Satchmo.
"This really is preposterous, Suit. Weather modification is supposed to be beneficial to humanity. Cloud seeding to gather water, but this snow storm is ridiculous. I can't believe they're trying to deny that it's not controlled by the government…" Mozzie goes on and Neal smiles at him fondly.
Peter offers Mozzie a glass and a bottle of wine, and then sits back on the sofa beside Neal. This time he does roll his eyes at Mozzie and Neal laughs.
Neal pulls up his blanket and appreciates the Christmas lights on the tree for a few more minutes. He falls asleep to the sound of the television, the wind blowing against the windows, and his friends' voices.
It's warm and nice inside.