Peter's car, Connecticut. January 8, 2004 – Thursday night
To Neal, it felt like he'd lost a game of hot potato with Peter's cell phone. Peter gripped the steering wheel tightly in a show of needing to keep his attention on the road on this snowy night. Henry, with one arm in a sling and generally slowed down by pain medications, appeared entirely absorbed in removing the wrapper around his hamburger.
In the backseat of the car, Neal held the phone with an emotion approaching horror. "Um. Hello, Mrs. Winslow," he said to a woman he didn't remember at all, but who was his mother's twin sister. "I'm… My name is Neal. Henry is, um… He's kind of busy, I guess. And a little out of it. I mean, he's fine. Compared to what he told me about breaking his leg on his tenth birthday, this is nothing."
"What happened?" asked the woman with his mother's voice.
"There's a winter storm going on here, and the snow covered most of the parking lot. That's why we didn't see the ice. He slipped and fractured a bone in his lower left arm."
"Yes, ma'am. We took him to the hospital, and they x-rayed it. He has a cast now, and they gave him something for the pain and he's… um, sleepy, mostly. We got him a hamburger and he's really absorbed in trying to eat it with one hand."
"Are you with the FBI?"
"By with them, you mean…"
"Do you work for the FBI?"
"Yeah. Um, I mean yes, ma'am. Sort of." Where had his reputed silver tongue gone? He couldn't remember the last time he'd stumbled this much over his words. He hated to imagine what his aunt must think of him. "It's only been a few weeks. I don't feel real, yet. I keep messing up, even when I think I'm doing the right thing. But I have a badge." Oh, great. He was rambling. Why hadn't he faked an accent to keep her from remembering this conversation if they ever met in person? "I'm sorry we didn't call you from the hospital."
"I'm surprised the hospital didn't call me, as Henry's emergency contact. Clearly they didn't call his father. Robert learned about it when the techs at his office texted him."
"Oh. That's because Henry gave a different contact."
"Really?" In the background, Neal could hear what sounded like texting. He could only guess what would happen when someone replied with the name of the emergency contact Henry had given.
"I should go," Neal said, eager to get off the line before she saw his last name. Henry's father had hidden his animosity at first, but he hated Neal. That had been rough, but Neal didn't think he could handle hearing this woman with his mother's voice call him a worthless criminal like his old man. Even remembering Robert's voice made Neal cringe a little. "When Henry's more alert I'll remind him to call you."
"Wait! Did you say your name was Neal?" She paused a moment, and while Neal held his breath rather than answer she continued, "Tell me your last name."
"It's not important." Neal looked up, catching Peter's watchful eyes in the rearview mirror. The words I'm no one died on his lips. He had a feeling Peter wouldn't approve of saying that. "Caffrey."
"Neal," she said in a voice so laden with emotions it would take an hour to name them all. "Meredith's Neal."
It sounded like she was laughing and crying at the same time. "You can call me Aunt Noelle, sweetie."
"I don't think I can. Not yet." He hated to disappoint her, but it was the truth. He'd rushed into thinking of Robert as an uncle and a father figure, with disastrous results. Now he approached the idea of family much more cautiously.
"I see. You don't remember me at all, do you?"
"Well, how could you remember? Taken away so young, and not allowed to bring any family photos. They even made you change your name."
Neal's inner smartass made a resurgence to say, "Please don't start singing 'Candle in the Wind'. I'm not a fan."
She laughed, and some of Neal's defensiveness melted. He liked her. "I suppose I should ask for proof," she said. "The Marshals would insist, I'm sure."
"Yeah, they asked me for proof when I finally talked to them." Neal wondered what kind of proof Noelle would expect.
"Henry had led us to believe he found you in Chicago and then you went your separate ways, but now I think he was misleading us for some byzantine reason. At the very least he's kept track of you all these years, and maybe more. In that time he would have told you some of the family pet names."
He had. Neal had thought it was a joke at the time. These weren't pet names, but a code used to verify identities. What kind of family had code names for the family members? Especially names like these. But Henry had kept nagging until Neal had memorized the names. "You're Armageddon," he said.
With that, Henry perked up, dropped what was left of his hamburger into the paper bag the restaurant had provided, and held out his right hand imperiously. He wanted the phone.
Having gotten over the initial awkwardness, Neal didn't want to give up the phone now. Instead he asked his aunt, "Who picked those names? They're terrifying."
"My older brother, David. When he was in his teens and into dark comics and such, he got annoyed at the way Meredith and I switched identities on a whim and confused everyone. He was probably a little jealous. He introduced our code names and insisted that we had to be honest about which of us we were when those names were invoked. Of course we selected a name for him, and then for our parents. We even had them for our spouses, eventually. I have to admit we ran out of creativity when it came to our children, however. David's best friend referred to you all collectively as 'the spawn' and we stuck with that."
"Sounds like he didn't like us very much."
"He was upset at the time. He vowed never to babysit anyone ever again."
"Which one of us –"
"All of you. We should have known better than to try that on his first attempt, but he was so confident he could handle it. We have a photo of him asleep on the floor with you surrounding him like little conquerors."
Neal smiled at the thought. "I'd like to see that. Do you still talk to my mom at Christmas?"
"Yes, she's doing very well, all things considered."
"I heard she stopped drinking after I left."
"She has stopped drinking, but there wasn't a cause-and-effect relationship between those events, sweetheart."
"The evidence would indicate otherwise," Neal said, realizing he sounded a bit a like Peter. He felt as if he were drawing on his father figure's patience and strength while dealing with a painful topic.
"I would suggest you're looking at the wrong evidence, then, or missing some pieces. Your mother had gone to rehab twice with disappointing results. Before you left, it was obvious she needed help again. I'd recommended a facility that took a different approach toward treatment. She'd been on their waiting list for over a month when you left. The fact that you ran away right before they had an opening for her was a coincidence."
"She never said anything," Neal said. "I wish I'd known she was getting help."
"And she wishes she had told you. Sometimes she wonders if you would have stayed, if you'd known."
Neal turned that over in his mind. The main factors that had driven him away were the pain and shock of learning his mother and Ellen had lied to him almost his entire life about things as fundamental as who he was, and that his father was a murderer instead of a hero. The drinking was a small factor in that picture. "No, it wouldn't have made a difference." But he wondered – once he'd been found in Chicago and had a chance to calm down, would he have been open to returning home if he'd had hope that his mom would stop relying on alcohol and actually have the strength to confront their past? He would need more time to unravel his thoughts about that.
"I'd love to spend some time with you, Neal. When Henry returns home to Baltimore on Sunday, can you come along?"
"No! You… You need to talk to Robert before you suggest something like that. He wouldn't like it."
"Are you telling me that Henry introduced you to Robert, and not to me?" Noelle sounded miffed.
Neal could feel his pulse increasing, and realized he was breathing faster. He hated that Robert still had the power to panic him, but he kept his voice calm. "We all regret it, believe me."
"Neal! Either give me the phone or put it on speaker," Henry insisted.
"Henry wants to talk to you," Neal said, and handed the phone over to his cousin. He closed his eyes and focused on relaxing. Then he remembered his rapidly cooling hamburger and started to eat.
"Don't push him," was the first thing Henry said when he had the phone back. "He'll be gone in the blink of an eye… Yes, that was a lapse of judgment, but it was almost four years ago. I've learned my lesson, believe me… Yes, he is, but we'll talk about that when I get home… Yeah, I'm fine. It's an annoyance more than anything." After a few more assurances that Henry was all right and a promise that he'd let his employers know, he ended the call.
He returned the phone to Peter, traded phones with Neal, and checked his messages from Win-Win. "These people need to get a life," he muttered, before navigating to the number he wanted and placing a call. "This is Henry Winslow, I'm returning Allen Winston's call… No, you don't need to get him. Tell him I'm fine and I'll be back in the office on Monday as planned… No, really… Ah, hell… Yes, Mr. Winston, as I was telling your assistant, I'm fine. It was a minor accident and as you know we had been using my phone to track someone else. That's why I didn't see your messages until a few minutes ago… No. Stop right there. This is what we do. The whole point behind all of our data and resources is supposed to be so that we can help people. If I can't do that, then I don't belong at Win-Win… No, I'm not going to be more careful. I was walking across a stupid parking lot and slipped on a patch of ice. That was embarrassing, not reckless. I'm not going to stop walking in the snow, and I'm not going to stop looking after my family when they need me simply because the board has a panic attack at the thought I might get hurt if they let me outside the office… Yeah, well think it over. Tell me on Monday whether you want me to stay at the company, because I'm not going to change my mind."
Henry hung up, and leaned back into the passenger seat. He'd clearly put a lot of energy and concentration into those phone calls, and now he was exhausted.
Peter glanced over at Henry and asked, "What does your mother do for a living?"
"She's a professor of psychology now. She worked at Winston-Winslow before that."
"What is it with Win-Win and psychologists?"
Henry smiled. "We make great receptionists."
Neal caught the surprise in Peter's expression in the rearview mirror. "It's a long story, Peter."
"I'd like to hear it someday. Henry, why did your mother leave the company?"
"She quit to finish her PhD after I was born. She got the divorce partly because Dad kept pressuring her to go back. She figured out he'd married her to recruit her. He thought bringing a psychologist of her caliber into the company would win him approval from the board. And he thought, well…" Henry ran his right hand through his hair. "He thought any children he had with her would be genetically predisposed to be assets to the company."
"And your mother had no idea?" Peter asked, abhorrence written on his face.
"She said love blinded her. The thing is, he was right. I'm good at the work. I like it. But it's creepy knowing I was bred for it."
"That's why you resisted following in your father's footsteps," Peter said. "And why Neal…" Peter caught Neal's eyes in the rearview mirror.
"Why I said I'd rather go to prison than be the reason Henry went to work for them," Neal finished for Peter. "But I also see the appeal of infiltrating them and shaking them up. That's very much in Henry's skill set." Neal knew he should let his cousin fall asleep, but one thing kept nagging at him. "Henry, why didn't you ever tell me about being haunted by my disappearance when we were kids?"
"Hmm. Good question. I guess…" Henry yawned. "I guess I was supposed to be strong, when I found you, you know? Make sure everything was taken care of, make you sure felt safe. Does that make sense?"
"Yeah, I think it does," Neal said.
Several minutes later, when Henry was asleep, Peter said softly, "He was waiting until he thought you were mature enough to handle learning that your big brother could be frightened. And your stunt today frightened him again."
"I get it."
"Do you?" Peter asked. "Do you get that I can be frightened, too? Because I was, Neal. Back in the warehouse, seeing Lucas point a gun at your head, I managed to hold it together until you were safe. But the thought of you dying, of seeing another pool of your blood like in that crime scene photo last night, that pushed me past a breaking point. I couldn't be rational, then. I might not be rational the next time, either."
"But there will be a next time."
"Knowing you, and knowing the job, yeah, it will probably happen again. I'll try to be prepared for it. But I also need you to be aware of the consequences. Think about what it does to me, and to Henry, when you put your life on the line. Think about whether it's worth it, whether there's another way to achieve your goals. The alternative might be harder, or less likely to succeed, but for the sake of those of us you think of you as family, make the trade-off."
"I can't change who I am overnight, Peter. But I do get it. I'll… I'll work on it."
"I'll do what I can to help. We'll try alternatives to surveillance assignments to teach you what you need to know about field work. We'll go through some past cases and scenarios, and talk through what you would do, what you should do. I know you can do this, Neal. You can be great at it. I'd just appreciate it if we can get there without giving me a coronary."
"Yeah, I'd like to avoid that, too."
"What were you doing outside when Henry fell?"
"We thought… I thought it would be warmer in the truck. It was my idea, Peter, not Henry's."
"He was right there with you, though, when I found you."
"For all you know he was trying to stop me," Neal suggested. He didn't think that was the case, but knew Peter would prefer that to be the truth.
"Did he try to stop you? That wasn't why he fell, was it?"
"No, he wasn't faking the fracture. I saw the x-rays."
Peter shook his head. "That isn't what I meant. You could see the pain in his eyes and in every movement. I don't believe either of you could have faked that all of this time. I was asking if maybe there was a struggle."
"He wouldn't have tried to stop me like that."
"How would he have stopped you?"
Neal thought back to the moments before Henry fell. Henry's last comment was that Neal shouldn't drive. What would have been his next step, if he wanted to keep Neal out of trouble rather than join him in trouble? "He would have stalled. He'd tell me the truck needed time to warm up a bit before we started driving, and guessed that you'd hear the engine. You'd come running to stop us."
"Yeah, he is." And now Neal wondered if that really had been Henry's plan.
"You know, it would have been warmer in the car, too. But I'm guessing you wanted some distance after I said I was going to fire you, right?" Neal nodded. Peter was quiet for a moment. Neal hoped he'd let it go. But of course he couldn't. This was Peter, and he asked, "You were going to steal the truck, weren't you, Neal?"
This was one of those times Neal really wished he could lie to Peter. "Not exactly. I planned to deliver it to the FBI impound lot."
"Do you even know where that is?"
"No, but I thought I could call for directions."
"You were going to call after you took the truck?"
"Henry warned me you wouldn't be happy, but I was already fired. What difference would it make?"
"'Someone who thinks he's already lost everything will throw caution to the wind.'" Peter said. "Thomas was right. For future reference, we impound vehicles in New Jersey. And if you don't get authorization first, taking a vehicle from a crime scene would be considered theft. The Bureau doesn't have a sense of humor about things like that. And despite Win-Win's many resources, I don't believe Henry could get those charges dropped for you."
"My job is to teach you the right procedures. It isn't to let you get away with flouting those procedures and then clean up the mess for you. I meant it when I said I won't tolerate breaking the law."
Neal nodded, and they fell silent. Neal watched the increasingly snowy landscape, but his mind was on Peter's words. For once he wasn't annoyed by the heavy-handedness of the law. This time, he felt a sense of warmth inside because Peter, who valued the law above almost anything else, didn't want to abandon Neal when there was a conflict between the law Peter honored and the responsibility Peter felt for him. The other so-called father figures in Neal's life would have gladly sacrificed Neal to attain their personal goals. Peter cared enough to drag Neal along toward a goal of lawfulness. This father figure wanted to share his goals, and to achieve them together.
As they approached New York City, Neal became more aware of his surroundings, and the fact that Peter had been driving in patient silence all of this time. "Sorry I didn't offer to help drive," Neal said. "But I've never been good at winter driving conditions."
"If the snow lasts through the weekend, I'll teach you," Peter offered. "Growing up in upstate New York, I got a lot of practice. And that's what it takes – practice."
Henry yawned and stretched tentatively. "Better you than me, Peter. I tried teaching him once. He totaled my car."
"Because you were a terrible teacher," Neal countered.
"Because you were impatient, and tried stuff before you were ready. You never could accept that I'm older and wiser than you, and always will be. Just bow before my superiority in all things."
"Right," Neal scoffed. "You couldn't tell a Pollock from a Picasso."
"I will admit that art is outside my area of expertise, but I'm not that ignorant."
"You couldn't tell a Rembrandt from a Renoir," Neal said.
"True," Henry said.
Because Henry's rental car was parked at the Federal Building, and neither he nor Neal were capable of driving it tonight, Peter offered to drop them off at Riverside Drive and to pick Neal up in the morning. When they arrived at the Ellingtons' mansion, Byron was asleep. Neal introduced Henry to June, but she was distracted with worry about her husband, and Henry clearly needed one of the pills he'd been prescribed for pain. The conversation didn't last long. Very soon Henry was upstairs and asleep.
In other circumstances, Henry would have tried to gain an invitation back to the FBI Friday morning, but this time he was happy to stay in the warmth and comfort of the mansion. At breakfast Neal was dressed in a suit, but Henry wore a robe over sweats and a T-shirt. Byron was wheeled into the dining room soon after they started eating, and he also wore a robe over pajamas. He looked more frail than ever, but was alert and talkative. Soon he and Henry were deep in a discussion of the psychology of con artists. Neal thought they didn't notice him leaving the room, but Henry turned around and asked Neal to grab a pen and paper before he left. When Neal stepped outside to join Peter, Henry was busy taking notes and sounded as if he'd like to update his master's thesis to cover the experience of the con man who manages to give up the cons.
"I'm still not fired?" Neal asked as Peter drove them to the Federal Building, but he smiled as he said it.
"Not yet," Peter said, matching his tone. "We have an exciting day ahead of us. More paperwork to close out the case against Wickham, Denny and their colleagues."
"Great. Remind me to get coffee first thing." Neal was eying the radio controls, and Peter expected the car to be filled with music at any moment, but instead Neal asked, "Is the Sinclair case really closed?"
"It was more the Collins case than the Sinclair case, from our perspective. Marie Sinclair's actions are a matter for the police and CPS rather than the FBI. But yes, unless you know of other pertinent information we should add to the file, it's considered closed. It's in the hands of the prosecutors now to press charges against Collins, and they may ask us to testify. That's all that's left."
"Shouldn't we follow up? Someone has to make sure Marie Sinclair doesn't cause trouble for the girls."
Peter shook his head as he pulled into the parking garage. "CPS will follow up with the kids. And depending on whether Marie's found guilty of assault for pulling that gun on Collins, she might have a probation officer. But that's all outside our jurisdiction." He parked and looked at Neal, whose body language communicated dissatisfaction with Peter's answer. "Neal, we aren't staffed to follow up on everyone we meet to see if they're getting into trouble again. We wait for evidence of a crime and then investigate."
Neal followed Peter out of the car, remaining silent as they walked through the lobby and entered the elevator. A few floors up on their ride to the White Collar division, Neal's frown dissolved.
"What?" Peter had to ask.
"I'll have Henry do it."
"Follow up on the Sinclairs periodically?"
"Yeah. He'll want to, now that he's met them. I wouldn't be surprised to learn he does that for some of the cases he works at Win-Win."
Peter almost told Neal that he needed to learn to let go of cases when they ended. It would get to be overwhelming otherwise. But he supposed that turning them over to Henry was a step toward letting go. And it also indicated a couple of positive things. First, that Neal expected Henry to stay with Win-Win. And second, that Henry might provide the conscience Thomas had said Win-Win needed, in part because Henry wouldn't want to disappoint Neal.
As they entered the office, Peter got the double finger-point from Hughes. Peter walked upstairs expecting a request for a status on Henry and Win-Win. But stepping into Hughes' office, he saw a familiar face. U.S. Marshal Simon Preston from St. Louis stood to shake Peter's hand. A Scandinavian blond, Preston was even taller than Peter. Preston had been the one to meet with Neal in St. Louis a month ago, to arrange for the birth certificate and background Neal needed in order to work for the FBI.
"Marshal Preston is in New York for a conference this week, and asked if he could meet with you and Caffrey this morning," Hughes announced. "I'm going to get some coffee. I'll send up Caffrey."
"Sorry," said a sheepish Preston after Hughes left. "I didn't expect to cause such a commotion when I asked to talk to you. Your boss wasn't thrilled that I wouldn't tell him what I needed to discuss. If he pressures you for information, send him to the Marshal's office."
"I can handle it," Peter said.
Neal stepped into Hughes' office, greeted Preston and asked, "What's going on?"
"It's been a month since we officially discharged you from WITSEC. We want to make sure you're adjusting. Since I was in town, I volunteered to be the one to talk to you."
"Thanks," Neal said, taking a seat. "Everything's going all right. I'd already established the identity I'm using. It wasn't exactly a big adjustment."
"Have you given thought to contacting your extended family? We can let them know that you're no longer in WITSEC, and therefore it's safe to get in touch again."
"I've been in touch with a cousin on my mom's side of the family," Neal admitted. "I don't know much about my dad's family."
Preston grimaced. "There's not much family on that side. Your Bennett grandparents passed away several years ago. Your father had a stepsister, but they weren't close. Our records show she's lived in Arizona since before your father was arrested, and that she didn't have any contact with him during the trial or later."
"Not much point in contacting her, then. I can't imagine she'd be interested in hearing about me."
"For our records, is it your older cousin you've been in contact with, or the younger one?" the Marshal asked.
"There's another one?" Peter asked.
"The older cousin, Henry Winslow," Neal answered. "The younger one is in college, out on the west coast, Peter. You don't have to worry about that one yet."
"Is there anything else the Marshals can do for you, Neal?"
"Can you get a message to my mom, and to Ellen? I'd like for them to know that I'm out of WITSEC, and safe. And… I think they'd like to know that I'm working for the FBI."
Marshal Preston paused before answering. "I can probably get that through, but as a one-time request. You understand we have to discourage communication between family members who are in Witness Protection and those who aren't."
"Yeah. I know you want to keep them safe. But I think they might be more inclined to stay put and follow the Marshals' instructions if they know I'm doing okay and that I've settled into a stable life. And that I'm not like my… not like James."
"I understand," said Preston. "And I agree it would be helpful. I'll do everything I can to get the message through to them." He stood. "It's been good to see you again, Neal. As I said, contact me if you need help."
When Preston was gone, Neal took a deep breath. "I'm not used to having a family, Peter. I'm afraid of messing it up."
"You're not in this alone. I'll help you, and so will Henry. We've got your back." Peter cleared his throat. "And, speaking of Henry…"
"He's doing well. Thanks for getting him to the hospital last night. It would have been a nightmare without you."
"Good. You're welcome. But I wanted to know what he had in mind when he asked for you to cover for him this weekend. Something with Shawn?"
Neal's mischievous grin should have worried Peter, instead of making him smile in return. "Enjoy the mystery, Peter."
"Someday you'll tell me."
"You mean you're going to trust me, instead of trying to find him in your files?"
Peter shrugged. "We need something to talk about on those occasions when we're working in the van, right? I figure I'll wear you down with my persistence and patience."
"Yeah, you probably will."
"And you'll tell me about the receptionists at Win-Win, too." Seeing the agents filing into the conference room, Peter stood and said, "Looks like it's time for the morning briefing."
Neal stood, too. "I'm trying, Peter. I'm really trying to do things by the book for you."
"Sometimes it seems like a whole new interpretation of the book. But maybe we need to be shaken up a little. A little, Neal, not torn down from the foundation. It's just that I see how Henry can do good by shaking up Win-Win, and that makes me realize that getting set in our ways isn't necessarily the best thing here, either." Peter waited until Neal was about to open the door to leave Hughes' office. "And Neal?"
"I'm proud of you." He didn't add Son. That didn't seem appropriate in the office. But the light in Neal's eyes told Peter that the message was received.
A/N: Thanks again to Silbrith for editing. Any remaining mistakes are my fault for continuing to tweak the ending.
That's the end of this story, and I hope you enjoyed it. Thanks for reading!
The next story in the Caffrey Conversation series will be a short piece called Caffrey Envoy; it started out as fluff but became angsty at the end.
After that I'll start posting a longer story more like By the Book, titled Caffrey Flashback. In that story, all of Neal's repressed memories will come out to play as the result of another undercover assignment. Angst and H/C galore, and more father/son relationship.