A/N: Sorry, real life has been busy and tiring and troubling. This story is now concluded, but I can do one-shots in the same verse when I have time for those interested. Thank you for all your support, for reading and for reviewing, and favoriting and following. All of you are spectacular.
They're as alone as they've been for days with Neal in his room. The kid moped and shuffled his feet, dragged them through the family room and up the stairs, but not once did he say a word of protest. When Peter got him to his room, Neal sat on the bed, obediently took the thermometer into his mouth, and watched with those eyes, bright and febrile as Peter silently read the result. It wasn't a good one, but instead of allowing Neal an adult's knowledge of his own condition, he simply gave the side of the conman's leg a gentle thwack, indicating that Neal should lie on his side because it was bedtime. Again. Again and for always, it seemed.
But this time, Neal didn't obey. He kept looking at Peter as if the physical nudge hadn't even registered, those eyes fighting to come to a decision. And Peter looked back, wondering if he should say something, anything, to help the kid along, but he found himself, not for the first time and not for the last, without words to fall back on. It didn't matter this time, though. As unnerving as the staring contest became, it didn't matter, this feeling of being suspended in the air without a wire, with nothing to cling to. It was in Neal's hands now and for the first time in memory, he was the one to catch Peter.
And he did, in those strong, slender arms he threw around Peter's waist. In that deceptively young face he buried into Peter's midsection. In those moments of silence with a meaning so deafening that it would get lost in spoken word, Neal caught Peter.
And Peter could barely breathe, the moment too pure to be polluted by whatever lay in his exhalation. His hands were still and rigid at first, but eventually they went to the boy's hair, where he stroked with a tenderness he had only begun to discover. He felt Neal's hot breaths against his shirt and they stayed like that until Neal broke away, not looking at Peter as he kicked his legs up onto the bed and let his head fall into the pillow. The only acknowledgement he gave was the shift upwards of his hips, aiding Peter in pulling the covers down so they could be brought over him, tucked firmly around him, along with another stroke to his hair and this time, a gruff kiss to the side of his head.
It seemed like the right thing to do, Peter thinks now, on the sofa with El's feet on his lap and Satchmo at his side. The kiss seemed natural, a movement riding the momentum of the catch, of that moment where Peter's feet were grounded and safe and his heart was alive and pounding in his chest, where he knew with the steadiest of certainties that this was exactly where he was meant to be.
"Maybe we were too hard on him." Peter hears the words coming out of his own mouth, but his brain can't quite comprehend that he was the one who said them.
The Arts & Leisure section of the newspaper hits El's lap with a sharp crinkle. Peter feels her eyes like lasers burning a hole into his head and he hears himself again, this time retreating, "…or maybe not."
"You bet your ass maybe not," El grumbles, and picks the paper back up, returns her eyes to the text, and says no more. Apparently, Peter muses, the things that come out of his mouth are just that stupid.
It's two hours later and they're in the kitchen, Peter chopping up vegetables for a fresh batch of Elizabeth's chicken soup, Elizabeth pouring broth into a large pot. Satchmo is in the corner of the room chewing on a rawhide bone, his tail thumping happily against the kitchen floor. Peter remembers a few days ago, a morning with one shoe and an only child. Something about that doesn't ring true anymore.
Especially when another, larger and less furry, but another child, manages to get all the way downstairs and to the fridge without making a noise. Peter and El spin around at the sound of the freezer door opening, see Neal with mussed hair and bare feet pulling a pomegranate popsicle out. It goes straight into his mouth and he sucks on it, turns to face them, blinking sleepy blue eyes in their direction, grinning around the hunk of fruit-flavored ice.
"Not punishin' m'self," he garbles out, and winces, gestures to his throat. He sniffs the air appreciatively and pads over to observe Elizabeth stirring a chopped carrot into the broth.
And Peter knows, knows that he should send Neal back upstairs to do his time – and he will, later – but for right now he doesn't. Because Neal's not punishing himself. Kate's dead and gone and Neal is alive and here, but his hands are steady and his eyes are bright, but dry. His mouth is red with popsicle, his teeth bright and white as he smiles at Peter, as he edges closer and closer until their shoulders are touching.
Peter puts down the knife. He lifts his hand and places it on the back of his boy's neck, thinking that maybe it won't always be this way, maybe just like with his illness, Neal will relapse into tears and shakes, but for now he is whole and functioning, sneaky and willing to take what he is given, to thieve what he's sure he's entitled to.
Neal tilts his head to the side, lets it keep falling until it's caught by Peter's shoulder. His skin is warm in the crook of Peter's neck. Peter snakes an arm around the kid's waist, pulls him in and lets him rest there. He's not sure if this moment is something he's giving, or something Neal's taking, but for the first time in the years since the chase began, it feels like it doesn't matter.