A/N: Found this in my files from early last year. Haha. I can't write like this anymore, but I'll try to continue it if there's any interest. Also: There's this story I wrote on a different account called Big Hats, Long Ties (it's about de-aged Neal, I got around two chapters in and apparently couldn't anymore, although I guess I could try again) Anyway, that story I think borrowed a line from this fic because I think I gave up on this pretty early on, too. I think the line was this :"the con got lost in the smoke and sorrow of a plane on fire burning all his love away." Haha. Just so you guys don't think I was plagiarizing anything. Anywho. Hope you enjoy this.
Neal Caffrey is a man without an umbrella.
If the rain wasn't coming down in king-sized comforters, this wouldn't be a problem, but it is and here Neal is: standing on a mostly-vacated Manhattan sidewalk at one o'clock in the morning. Without an umbrella.
Now why is Neal here? Nobody knows. Not even Neal knows. You'd think he'd find some clarity with his hair plastered to his head, his body shivering with the chill of a New York downpour, but you'd be wrong. There's nothing clear in this black ocean and its attempts to drown the city in one fell swoop, it's just that same darkness he woke up in, blinking and scrubbing the backs of his hands over his eyes, his head filled with the haze of fire and smoke and Kate. He stood up from his bed, goose down comforter dripping to the floor, somehow managed to fall into a few rumpled clothes from the hamper (rumpled, but tasteful, mind you, and still as sweet-smelling as Neal from dawn til dusk and through again,) and walked out of June's house trying to forget everything he'd ever known. He tried, and he's still trying.
He tries to forget the tricks, his nimble fingers, the feel of leather freshly-sneaked from some poor chump's pocket. He tries to forget the satisfaction of a con gone right, the warm swell of pride in his chest with his eyes drifting over priceless aged paint, catching in the smooth or awkward strokes, whatever they may be it doesn't matter because it's brilliant and it's beautiful and Neal owns the hands that thieved it. Neal has clever hands.
They used to smooth over her naked sides and her eyes were beauty, bright and blue and full of something Neal decided must be love. He used to breathe in deep at the sight of her, his breath caught in his throat, and he forgets himself, breathes in deep now, tries to catch her again in this storm, but she's gone.
She's gone and when he breathes now, he's sure he can smell her burning.
The water sloshes his face as he gasps for breath, the phantom pressure of Peter's hands on his arms pulling him back to reality. On the sidewalk. At one o'clock in the morning.
Rain. No umbrella. Right.
What is he doing out here again? He shifts in his expensive shoes, blinks, and tries to come up with something justifiable, something that's not deep or angst-ridden, something that just is. Something that has to do with nothing, because it's starting to feel like everything has to do with nothing. He came into the world crying for nothing but his mother's lies about a dirty father, the roots of knowledge of women's deception but Kate always seemed so real until she wasn't a girl anymore, but the world. And now she's gone and the world is gone with her and here Neal is, standing unprotected from this downpour that must be non-existent because Kate is dead and Kate was the world so the world is dead, too. All this? The sidewalk under his feet, the city lights in his eyes, yellow taxis hydroplaning down the asphalt – tricks. Neal understands tricks. Sometimes he thinks he invented them.
He shakes his head. Droplets fly from the tips of his hair. He wraps his arms around his body because that's enough of this. Introspection is a cracked road that ends dead and he's done, he can feel the chill in his bones from thought and cold and wet, and it's time now. It's time to go the hell home.
El is making something delicious and unpretentious in the kitchen. Peter sniffs the air appreciatively, shuffles into the warm room in one shoe and one sock, looping his tie on the way.
She glances up from the stove. He sees a spot of blue as she throws him a quick glance, the splash of white teeth as she smiles.
"Morning, hon," she says. "How was your shower?"
"Lonely," Peter replies frankly. Because it was. And while yes, in general, the shower is for hygiene and the morning is for breakfast, El is beautiful and life is chaotic and time is lost. They're going to need to find it again, and soon. "Hey, you seen my left shoe anywhere?"
She raises one eyebrow, smirks. "No. How did you lose one shoe?"
Peter half shrugs. He tugs the last knot into his tie, his eyes skimming over the bacon in the pan as the barest hint of a thought skitters through his brain that maybe, just maybe, his luck is evening out this morning. "Maybe Satch took it."
He can practically hear El's eyes narrowing in mock outrage.
"You keep those accusations to yourself, mister. Satch is a good boy."
A happy thumping in the corner lures Peter's eyes across the floor, to where their only child is happily wagging his yellow tail against the kitchen tiles. Peter snorts. El coos.
"Aren't you a good boy, Satchmo? Yes you are. Don't you worry, baby, Daddy was just getting you mixed up with Neal."
"Neal did not-"
El cuts him off with an incredulous look. Peter snaps his mouth shut and takes a moment to realize how utterly insane his instant attestation that Neal Caffrey did not steal something truly was. "Okay, yeah, maybe he did."
Not that he really thinks Neal stole his left shoe, but he knows better than to completely omit the theory by now. Neal's capable of thieving almost anything, be it priceless art or what's left of Peter's sanity. Hell knows the kid's stolen a boatload of time already.
Time. And the most reluctant of gruff affections.
"How's he doing, anyway?" El asks softly as Peter slumps against the countertop.
"Oh, he's on top of the world when there are eyes on him." The words spill from his mouth like print from a book because that's what Peter is around El. He's an open tome waiting for her deft fingers to turn his next page. "When he doesn't know anyone's looking…" Peter trails off. He doesn't need to go on. She's got the rest in her head already. Different story.
Neal's a master at his crafts, a master of art and thievery, both of which require skilled and capable hands. It's the original story, the one Peter chased and caught. Twice.
Now it's the story of a kid who shakes when he's alone, trembling fingers, glazed eyes, sadness in the slope of his shoulders when he lets himself breathe out. The others don't see it, even if they know it, but Peter sees and knows how Neal works. And Peter was there when it was all blown to Hell, when the con got lost in the smoke and sorrow of a plane on fire burning everything away, when the air cleared and there was nothing left but a boy in a man's body, fingers digging into Peter's jacket, eyes bright blue and rimmed red and desperately fighting to maintain that disbelief.
"He should come over for dinner tonight," El says, and the memory crumbles away in the smell of the plated bacon she sets in his hands, the warm kiss she places on his head. "Tell him if he gives your shoe back he can have dessert, too."
Peter realizes then, as he does every time he looks at his wife, that his luck doesn't need to balance itself out. He has El. His luck is already as high as apple pie in the sky.
There's a buzzing that doesn't end. Neal isn't sure where he is, all he knows is that it's dark and warm and he's having slight difficulty breathing. He feels closed in. His arms feel heavy. He tries to hold them up, tries to reach for the cool steel bars of his cell because that's where he is, that's where he has to be, that's the last place he felt like this, like he was locked up and locked away and his brain may or may not be going somewhat dead.
He can't move them, though, so he just groans, and shifts his aching body on the soft cot…
Soft. First clue.
The rest comes tumbling down like dominoes: the buzzing stops; there's a cool, aged hand, coarse from years and soft from lotion, gentle on his forehead. Neal's ankle itches.
"Neal, honey, you're burning up." June's voice is awash with concern. "Can you open your eyes, darling?"
Neal cracks his eyes open. They're sleep encrusted, and he's quick to slap a hand over them lest June see him so naturally out of sorts.
She tisks and the kid gloves are full on when she pulls his hand away. It feels like seconds later, the cool washcloth dabbing at his face, the soft, melodic voice asking where he might have gotten this – whatever this is - from.
"Dunno," Neal's voice is hoarse and his throat hurts, and he's lying to June. The washcloth halts in its ministrations before starting back up, slower this time, as if thinking about its next move.
Neal isn't fond of the idea of inanimate objects held by mother figures strategizing.
"Were you out in the rain last night?" Her voice is crisp. Neal groans and winces. "You were," she says. "You got yourself wet and sick."
Wet and sick. Now he's dry and sick and not quite in prison. Not quite being the key words. "I'm alright, June," he tries to assure her, in a voice like a frog's croak. "See?" And he makes to get up only for her to cluck her tongue and push him back down again.
"I'm calling Peter," she says, one hand still on his chest, the other reaching for the phone on the bedside table.
Neal abruptly attempts to rise again, only to be forced back down. June may be in her later years, may be a small woman, delicate and still in full possession of her feminine wiles, but she's also spry. She's really damn spry and Neal's flat on his back on the bed, coughing up a storm.
"Why?" he asks when the coughing finally relents. His throat is raw and aching. And he's whining. He doesn't know why, but he's whining: "I didn't even do anything."
Her laugh is incredulous, and the phone is already ringing. Neal can hear the soft sound coming from the earpiece, can hear Peter's voice on the other line, short and to the point as he picks up: "Burke."
"Peter, it's June…"
And the conversation goes on. Neal blinks tiredly and listens to it, lays there with the warm weight of June's hand on his chest as she explains that she's going to be out of town for the week, that Neal is sick and she won't be here to care for him, but she needs to know that someone will do it or she won't go, can't go. Not if…
Neal quickly finds that straining to hear the other side of the conversation causes a pounding in his fevered head. He sinks back into his pillow, breathes congested breaths as June's hand absently rubs, as his eyes grow heavy and the thumping in his head quiets down. As he turns to the light behind his lids, tries to find the dark, reaches for sleep…
Blue eyes fly open. Peter's cold hand is palming his jaw, his neck, searching for something it's already found.
"Jeez," Peter says. "He's a furnace."
Neal's a furnace, a furnace that shakes with chills as its helped out of bed. June excuses herself and leaves the apartment lest she bare witness to Neal's achingly slow motions of undress, of Peter helping him into a fresh t-shirt and a black hooded sweatshirt, into the jeans Neal never wears because Neal is too tired, is the dead weight of a slumped body against Peter as the agent hikes them over the conman's hips and fastens them with the awkward movements of any straight, childless man in such a situation.
"You're coming home with me," Peter tells him, and that reminds Neal. Reminds him that he's a grown man, and a prideful one at that regardless of any recent jeans-applications handled by Peter.
Or he was.
"But I didn't," Neal whines, tucking his hot head into Peter's neck, ignoring that distant voice calling through that distant door in his distant brain, asking what are you doing?
He feels a tentative hand pat his back. "You didn't what, buddy?" Peter asks, but it's serious, his voice. Like he really wants to know not what Neal didn't do, but what he did. Allegedly.
"Do anything," Neal replies, and somewhere he knows that Peter's a little disappointed that this wasn't one of his drugged confessions, complete with ingenious strategy and a tap on the head, a smirk, and a "Think about it." Neal can't think about anything right now, other than that he doesn't deserve it, any of it, because he didn't do anything. Nothing that earned him a dead girl in a burning plane, or a potential weeklong trip to his handler's house, a watchful affair sure to be filled with rules that Neal can't keep unbroken, nor Peters and Els who Neal can't keep pleased.
"I didn't do anything," he repeats softly, and to his far-away horror, a tear slips out the corner of his eye and soaks into the crook of Peter's neck.
"Shhh," Peter says, and that uncomfortable hand on Neal's back turns smooth and gentle, like it knows something. Or a lot of things. Maybe everything.