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Title: Super Heroes Make Great Con Artists
Author: hurinhouse
Fandom: White Collar
Rating: PG
Characters: Neal, Peter, Elizabeth, Mozzie
Summary: Peter, Elizabeth and Mozzie tackle an adventure to help an adorably helpless Neal
Disclaimer: Entirely fiction
Word Count: 15k+

Notes: This is super late for [livejournal.com profile] sherylyn's fandom stocking. She requested this kind of genre and I've never written it before so it was supposed to be just a little drabble to try it out. Got away from me. Hope you like it, [livejournal.com profile] sherylyn!

PartI





It begins with startled blue eyes, a panicked mass of confusion, and the love of a good friend.

She can't even say it took two seconds to make a decision because there was no decision. He needs them, so here they are and she finally, at thirty eight years, understands that saying: "it is what it is."

* * * * *

"Tator tots?"

He looks at both of them warily before nodding politely. "Yes please."

Spooning them onto his plate, she catches sight of the barely touched macaroni and cheese. She'd sent Peter to Shoprite to grab something, anything, last minute and this is the only thing he claimed he'd found for their first night. She suspects it's an excuse for him to get something fat and greasy for a change. She'll have to make a run to Fairway tomorrow and stock up, 'cause it looks like the tator tots aren't a hit.

"Neal? Sweetie, you don't have to eat that if you don't like it."

"El, you shouldn't start coddling-" She interrupts Peter with a glare.

"I like it, Liz'beth." That lie. Accompanied by the thousand watt smile they love so well. And so it begins. Elizabeth Burke is always down for a challenge.

When she gets up before her boys the next morning to make breakfast, she notices a quarter of the paté from this weekend's wedding missing from the fridge. No crumbs or any other evidence, though the cracker box is less full.

So the grocery list will become more creative now. She can work with that.

* * * * *


"Anything yet?"

"Still working on it, Suit. I had to deal with your people first. I can get to what's important now."

"I don't like the way we're doing this."

"Your precious government hands have been spotless so far, haven't they?"

"It's just wrong."

"And the alternative?"

Peter sighs and rubs a palm down his face, "I know."

"Trust me, if there's a way to fix this, I'll find it. I can still take him to Europe if you can't handle it. They'd never find us."

"Absolutely not. We'll figure it-"

And there it is, what he'd hoped he wouldn't hear, right behind him. The surprised little intake of breath, right before... "Petr! I drew that one!"

A Monet. Christ, they've been here all of twenty minutes. He'd always suspected there were forgeries of Neal's all over the country, the world, that hadn't been discovered yet.

"What?! What did he say? Did you take him to a museum!?"

He hangs up on Mozzie and runs after Neal, who's practically bouncing beneath a line of paintings. "Neal. Sssshhh."

"Why?"

"We're supposed to be quiet in museums. Remember? Like the library?"

"Right. Sorry."

"It's okay, Buddy."

This little field trip was a mistake. It's not the noise level. Nobody here cares that a four year old is a little loud, because truthfully, he wasn't that bad. It's the freaking conflict of interest. Peter doesn't want Neal telling him everything he forged or stole or broke into. It's not like he'll be able to forget it when Neal changes back. Mozzie will never believe he brought Neal to the MoMA on merely El's suggestion of getting out of the house. He should have stuck with his batting cage idea.

If the excited confession just now and the beginnings of a van Gogh on Peter's laundry room wall are any indication, Neal has forgotten that forging is a no-no. The kid had just shrugged last night when Peter had asked what he was doing, brush loaded with some type of blue. "Paintin'," he'd said, as though defacing laundry rooms was as everyday as eating cereal or brushing your teeth. And now he's confessing to federal crimes.

"Hey Neal, let's check out the gift shop."

He's never seen that kind of sneer on the face of a child before. "The gift shop? Isn't that for... " A wrinkle pops up between Neal's brows while he tries to find the snobbish words that used to spill off his tongue like silver. No reason to help him with that...

"For artists? Yes, they love gift shops and all the generic plastic stuff in them. Let's go."

For all the distaste of mass retail and the unrefined that Neal tries to remember, his four-year-old mind falls in love with every shiny thing in that place; paper, glass, tin... and yes, plastic. Doesn't matter, his eyes light up at all of it and Peter is determined to keep an eye on those slippery hands.

As they walk to the car with two plastic bags of cheap souvenirs, Peter tries to remember how silly his friends with spoiled kids always seemed in the past. But he's gotten off easy today. If he'd been trying to placate the six-foot Caffrey of two weeks ago, he'd have had to spend a hell of a lot more than $63.50.

* * * * *

The immediate aftermath goes like this: The day after it happens, ShrinkGate Plus One, Peter claims Neal is sick. Neal had earned a couple of sick days after all his hard work over the months, the years, and he looks "miserable, and by the way, contagious(for good measure)," when Peter checks on him on the way in to the office.

No one questions him. A couple of people remark that they don't remember Neal ever taking time off so he must be feeling pretty badly. Sharon in Legal offers to take him chicken soup but Peter promises to keep Neal nourished himself, not wanting anyone else to be exposed to any germs.

Reese doesn't complain either. Neal has been undercover for weeks in Chinatown on the smuggling case, culminating in several arrests at the Shanghai Cafe and the recovery of numerous Buddhist artifacts, all but one currently in the FBI's evidence warehouse marked for return to Tibet. This is a high profile win and their senior ASAC doesn't begrudge Neal a couple of days off. Peter's banking on Mozzie's research of that one "missing" artifact to result in the solution to their current problem. More importantly, he's grateful ShrinkGate occurred when Peter and Neal were alone in the warehouse.

When they realize it will take longer to fix than a couple of days, the quest for a cure/fix/full body transplant is set aside for the more urgent need of cover. In the wee hours of a Tuesday morning, a very effective but diminutive bespectacled man makes a visit to the decadent and over-mortgaged home of the most influential, and the third most corrupt, official within the top rung of OPR. Nothing convinces a man to cooperate as quickly as the threat of his own secrets being exposed.

Within four hours, the chain trickles down to Kyle Bancroft, who pulls his subordinate upstairs to share the new and surprising orders. Reese is incensed, and more than a little confused. He returns to the 21st floor to order Peter into his office, delicately explaining that OPR has pulled rank and taken temporary possession of Peter's CI for a classified undercover assignment in a joint operation with Interpol. Doesn't matter that the guy apparently has the flu. World security trumps health every time.

Predictably, Agent Burke bristles up and down in the presence of his boss, quite convincingly, his voice carrying throughout the bullpen, insisting that OPR has no legal right to take his CI. He rages on long enough that Hughes passes on Bancroft's warning: If Peter interferes he'll be putting his own career, and Neal's safety, in jeopardy. Therefore Reese forbids him to do so. Exactly what Peter was hoping to hear.

Reese informs him that Neal will be picked up by OPR within the hour and Peter is free to go, alone, to say goodbye. Peter storms out of the office as El had advised, and does not return until the next morning. For days he keeps the storm brewing in his face. For weeks he makes sure to scowl any time the topic of his CI is brought up. Everyone on the 21st floor exudes sympathy for him, and they all know not to bring up the topic of one Neal Caffrey in front of their boss.

The fact that Peter and Elizabeth are caring for her ill cousin's small son thankfully keeps Peter busy and distracted from the absence of his partner, a blessing in disguise as far as Diana and Clinton are concerned. No one in the office thinks it odd that Peter no longer stays late and often works some mornings at home. Such is the sacrifice families often make.

* * * * *

"Good afternoon, Mrs. Burke, this is Cecily Hahn from the Academy. I'm sorry to bother you during the work day."

Wow. That sudden skip in Elizabeth's heart is new. She asks Yvonne to take over sorting linen samples and shuts the door to her office.

"It's not a problem. Is Neal okay?" Worry for Neal wars with concern of keeping this principal happy. June had called in a hefty favor to get Neal into this school for gifted children.

"Oh yes, he's fine. What a delightfully precocious child he is." El can hear an air of exasperation hidden within those words.

"Yes, we find him to be quite a rewarding challenge. Is there something wrong?"

"Not a problem per se but... could you perhaps clarify Neal's native language?"

"Excuse me?"

"I must apologize for assuming it was English when you enrolled him. We at the Academy strive to be inclusive and accepting to all cultures and ways of life. I assure you I meant no offense."

"I assure you that none was taken."

"Wonderful. So getting back to the issue at hand... Neal seems to revert to languages other than English when he's stressed."

"Does he? Which languages might those be?"

"Some of our instructors know multiple languages and from what we can tell, it seems to be mostly French or Italian, though one instructor thought she heard some Dutch as well."

"I see."

"With a modified Montessori approach here at the Academy, it's important to us to accommodate Neal in whatever way he needs to express himself. We do have a translator on call, but if we need to hire one full time for Neal, we'll need to know with which language he's most comfortable.".

"Mrs. Hahn, can you clarify in what situations Neal is reverting to his... native language?"

"Certainly. For example, yesterday, when asked if he'd like to read, he chose a book from the shelf and curled up on one of the bean bags. Yet when the instructor spoke to another child then turned back around, Neal was gone. She found him later in an art supply closet, holding the little crafting rhinestones up to a magnifying glass. When asked why he wasn't reading, he began protesting in French about our gems being fakes."

"Interesting."

"Utterly. We certainly encourage the children to go about their day as freely as possible, but he does seem to wander."

"He tends to get into his own little world."

"Another example would be this morning. Neal was surrounded by several girls in the class, speaking to them in what our instructor thought to be Italian. The girls seemed to be hanging on every word, though none of them were aware of exactly what he said."

"I can see where that might be a problem."

"Yes, all the girls think he's quite charming. We want Neal to enjoy himself here, so if you could confirm which language Neal's most comfortable with... "

"We would prefer Neal to stick to English at school. It sounds as if he needs a refresher. No translator is necessary."

"You're sure?"

"Absolutely. Thank you so much, Mrs. Hahn."

"Have a nice day, Mrs. Burke."

Elizabeth sits in her office for another ten minutes going over the conversation in her head. Okay. So Peter warned this wouldn't be easy. Neal One, Elizabeth One. Elizabeth suspects this may be just the beginning.

* * * * *

"Typical Caffrey. Dive in first - "

"Literally!"

" - and don't think about the consequences."

"Neal procreating is scary. He's Alex's, isn't he?"

"Diana, of course not. He's Kate's. She had the same coloring as Caffrey... which is why the kid looks exactly like him... "

Peter's subordinates bicker on the back patio chairs while Peter keeps an eye on Neal through the window. He hadn't had to say anything, they'd both just jumped to conclusions the second they saw Neal, which is better than Peter having to tell the truth.

"That may be, but Neal hadn't seen Kate since before prison. The kid would have to be older than this."

"Who's to say Neal and Kate didn't hook up after prison without us knowing? Besides, Alex wouldn't name him after Neal."

"True, but it'd be just like Alex to dump Neal, Jr. here off like this the very day OPR takes Neal away."

"Clinton! Diana!" They jump, both simpering into contrition. He sighs. "I can't tell you. And Neal didn't know about... him."

That's as close to the truth as Peter can get. Without seeing it happen, ShrinkGate, as Mozzie named the event, is impossible to believe. Unless you happen to be Mozzie, who believed Peter immediately for once. "I knew it! I always told him to be careful which artifacts he touched but of course he doesn't believe in curses." Or El, who only had to look at MiniNeal once to know he was just... Neal, only younger.

He can't chance Neal going into Child Protective Services, or some experimental medical facility, so Clinton and Diana think they're getting "the truth."

"Peter, OPR might let Neal out of the Interpol assignment if they know he has a kid."

"They won't, Jones. And I'd like to keep this quiet at the bureau for now."

"Which is why you're claiming he's the son of El's sick cousin."

"Exactly." It sickens him how easy it's become to keep these lies straight.

"So this cousin... "

"There is no cousin, Diana. Jennifer Mitchell is a work of fiction, as is the power of attorney she signed over to Elizabeth and me."

Jones and Diana look at each other warily.

"I know, I know. I'm skirting some fine lines here. What do you think would happen to him otherwise, with no blood relative to claim him?"

Clinton sighs. "CPS."

Peter had tried to keep them from coming over as long as he could, to keep from having to tell this second lie. But they'd dropped some files off unexpectedly and there was Neal, right in the living room with a set of blocks shaped into the Eiffel Tower. Luckily Peter had recently reminded him that he was to pretend not to know Diana and Clinton if he ever saw them before becoming a big boy again. Neal had replied that he'd had lots of practice at Pretend.

"How long are you going to keep him, Peter?"

"As long as it takes."

* * * * *

A strangled cry has Peter on his feet and stumbling toward Neal's room in eight seconds, not even sure if he's awake when he trips over Satchmo in the hall. Satch was pawing at Neal's door; Peter will have to sand it again. Neal tosses in his bed, tangled in the sheets.

"Daddy, no!"

"Neal."

"Don't leave me here!"

Damn it. James was a fucking bastard. Still is, as far as Peter knows.

"Neal." He rubs Neal's arm and Neal jerks, eyes still closed, then quiets in his sleep. Peter watches for a while, his flush little cheeks evening out now that he's resting calmly. He seems fine. But Peter knows how nightmares work. They come right back.

He pats the bed to invite Satchmo up and lets him lie next to Neal.

"Come on, Buddy. Wake up for me."

Neal's lids flutter. He scrubs his eyes with the heels of his palms. "Petr?" He seems to sense the dog, rests his head on Satchmo's back without taking his eyes off of Peter.

"Yep."

"You came."

"Of course."

"Why are you here?"

"I live here, Buddy."

Neal looks around his room. "Oh."

"You had a bad dream. Do you want to talk about it?"

"No."

"Okay. You need a drink before going back to sleep?"

"Pineapple juice?"

"Water."

There's that put upon look. Such a martyr. "Fine."

Neal throws off the covers, toppling them onto the dog, and Peter catches sight of his legs.

"Neal, why are you wearing jeans in bed?"

Neal sees them too. "Not allowed to?"

"Sure but it just doesn't seem comfortable."

"Couldn't find my bat pants."

"Didn't you wear them to bed?"

Neal knits his brow, tilts his head, and shrugs. Peter remembers that shrug and all the meaning behind it. But Neal is four now and Peter is too tired to unearth potential secrets.

He opens the drawer to Neal's nightstand, a pile of pencils rolling to the front, the lead pulled out of all of them. That's... not troubling enough to worry about either, once he finally finds the flashlight and shuts the drawer. He flips it on, sweeping it about the room.

Okay, so that didn't take long. Right there on the floor at the foot of the bed. Batman pants. Not brightly colored fleece pants covered in yellow ovals with bats in the center. No, "that's for babies."

These are snug plain dark blue sweats, almost black. Because the real Batman wouldn't actually wear the bat symbol on his clothes like a cartoon. He'd blend in just like any superhero / con artist. El had made Neal a matching homemade cape since none could be found without the same offending graphic, as long as he promised to drop the con artist part of the description, out loud.

"They're right here, Buddy. How about you get those jeans off and put these on?"

Neal's fingers haven't remembered yet how to maneuver the snap so Peter moves this along with a flick of his thumb, dumps the jeans on the floor while Neal pulls on the sweats. He carries Neal into the bathroom, tries not to think how normal this feels. Neal settles atop the toilet lid while Peter fills a Dinosaur Dixie cup and hands it off. Neal takes a tiny sip.

"How come you and Liz'beth don't have kids?" No filters on this little guy.

Peter leans his back against the edge of the sink and crosses his arms. He wasn't planning on having a heavy deliberation at two in the morning but apparently Neal's wide awake now. Instead of an awkward infertility explanation, he shrugs and says, "Just never had time. We're busy people; we like our jobs. You know."

Neal stares at him a moment, then nods, less chipper than he'd been. "I get it." He takes a quick sip and hands the cup back to Peter. "I'm ready for bed now."

Usually Neal tries every trick in the book to stay up once he's up. Peter can't help but think he's just put his foot in his mouth again as Neal rolls over to face the wall while he's tucking him back in.

* * * * *

"Gooyer, please."

"Pardon?"

The killer smile falters a bit. He knows he's not pronouncing it correctly, but he doesn't seem to get what's wrong. Moz cuts in...

"Uh, he'd like the Chicken Gruyere with Sautéed Mushrooms. I'd like the Salmon and Swiss. Dairy free, of course."

"Can we have cheese sticks?"

"Excuse me?" Since when would Neal eat fried grease?

"They're good, Moz."

The waitress turns to Mozzie, "I'm sorry, Sir, we don't have that here. We have Bruschetta."

"That'll be fine, thank you. And can we get a new tablecloth please? This one doesn't cover the entire surface."

"Okay. I'll see what I can do."

"Thanks."

The waitress hurries off to the next table, probably planning to ignore Mozzie's request. All thoughts of the menu are forgotten as Neal peels labels off their sparkling waters.

GPS watch aside (that embossed Batman on the strap doesn't fool Mozzie), he's surprised The Suit let him take Neal out "unsupervised." Surely he's worried Mozzie will steal him off to an island in the Pacific. Moz isn't quite sure why he's not doing just that.

His first priority Post-ShrinkGate was to reverse the effect, and he's still desperate to do so. He misses his best friend, brainstorming cons, drinking Brunello, contemplating Area 51. He sees Neal slipping away with the Macy's jeans and the Disney movies being pushed at him in the Burke Fortress. Not that he hasn't always thought Neal was a snob with that excessive tailoring but... retail is not Neal. And now cheese sticks?

But watching Neal now, this tiny fresh little ball of wonder, Mozzie realizes this for the golden opportunity that it is. His chance to shape a dazzling young mind from, mostly, the beginning, and curb those ridiculous romantic hero tendencies.

"So how's life at Chez Suit?"

"I beat Petr at chess yestaday," the kid says absently. The label is on its way to becoming some type of mammal-shaped gift for the waitress, he's sure.

Moz waves that off. "Child's play" almost slips out but he steers it into "He has no chance against your brilliant mind, Mon Frére. In fact, I caught on to a new-"

"Moz did you know there's cowboy Casanovas?"

Cowboy what? Oh.

Oh.

"Neal, do they have you listening to country music?"

Neal shrugs. "Liz'beth listens to it while she cooks. I like the red cup song."

"That stuff is written to brainwash the masses, Neal! They play it so the gullible will blindly follow whatever patriotic lies the government and CEOs want you to believe."

"Wow. I better tell Liz'beth."

"Uh, better that you don't. She wouldn't understand."

"Can we have Twinkies for dessert?"

Moz texts himself to look up flights to Bora Bora.

* * * * *

His little fingers squeeze through the dough rhythmically. There's flour in the grout, he broke one of her grandmother's mixing bowls and they had to throw away the first batch because he sneezed into it. Elizabeth had been inclined to use it anyway, to somehow will herself to forget it had happened. It's not like there'd been anything visible there and she hadn't wanted to start over. But he'd picked up the ball of dough, an enormous wad in his tiny arms, carried it to the trash and dumped it before she could stop him.

"Mozzie won't eat it if there's germs." And that's all there was to that. She didn't realize Mozzie would be coming over but, hey, the more the merrier. So they're onto the second batch.

When she'd told him they'd bake this weekend, and had asked him for ideas, she'd been prepared for any request from Petit Fours to Orange Ricotta Cheesecake to Hazelnut Tarts. She'd been intrigued when he requested plain old cutout Christmas cookies. In April.

"Okay. If that's what you want."

"The sugar ones that you decorate," he'd clarified, in case she wasn't sure. "With sprinkles."

She'd assumed all those decorations would be hard to find now, that she'd have to go to the specialty store, but they were on the shelf just as if it'd been December, which made her wonder just what was in preservatives. And here they are rolling out dough.

"Like that?"

"Exactly like that. Maybe push down a little harder? It might need to be thinner."

His little tongue peeks out as he pushes the roller across the dough, his brow knit in concentration.

"That looks great, Neal. You ready for the cookie cutters?"

"Yep."

She marvels at how strategically he places each cutter to maximize the dough field. He carefully sets the inner edge of the candy cane around the curve of the bell. The snowman's scarf fits neatly within the crevice of the evergreen's branches. She remembers just sinking the cutters in anywhere there was acres of space when she was his age. She's sure she wasn't able to get half as many cookies as he is now before she'd had to pick it all up and roll out again.

They get three sheets full before she puts the first into the oven. Now to other things.

She knows the answer before she asks. Why else would he choose these cookies but for warm memories of his mother? But she can't help herself. If she's going to possibly (hopefully - please fail, Moz) raise this child, she wants to know more.

"These will be beautiful. You're an expert at this, Neal. Your mother taught you well."

He stills and looks down, his jaw suddenly tight. "No."

"Oh that's okay. So, you baked with Ellen then?"

He shakes his head fiercely, eyes blinking rapidly. He takes a deep breath. "Never did that. I heard 'bout other kids doing it. Sounded like fun. 'Specially the sprinkles."

She watches him try to dictate his emotions like the Neal he used to be. She sits down on the floor and pulls him into her lap. It's easy for him to bury his face in her sweater and she knows he's stifled any tears that may have come to a normal four year old. She hopes he can't see hers. This was the opposite of what she'd expected.

"I'm sure your mama wanted to do things with you, Baby. Maybe she was just too sad."

He nods.

"Do you want to talk about her?"

"Not s'pposed to."

"I won't tell anyone."

He doesn't say anything for a while. His breathing evens out and she's sure he's fallen asleep when he offers, "We used to sing. Ellen came over every night an' gave me a bath an' read to me sometimes an' made sure my clothes were clean sometimes. But mama sang with me while we waited for Ellen to bring dinner. It was pretty."

"I bet it was, Baby. What did you sing?"

"She liked slow songs. Tony Bennett an' Lena Horne ."

"Mmmm. She had good taste. Did she like Ray Charles?"

He looks up at her. "Why are you crying, Lizbeth?"

"It's such a beautiful memory."

Neal turns around in her lap, that beautiful boy, kneels right in front of her. His starfish hands cover her cheeks and he looks at her in sympathy. "I'll sing with you if you want."

A half laugh / half sob sneaks out of her and she hugs him so tight the air rushes out of him. "I would love that, Sweetie."

The oven beeps and Neal pops up, racing around the island.

"Not on your life, Mister!" She catches up with him before he can touch the handle. "This part's all me."

"I've used ovens lots of times, Liz'beth."

"And you will again, but not till you're ten. Or thirty."

Before they start on decorating she texts Peter: Bring Home More Sprinkles.

* * * * *

"Good morning, Mrs. Burke, this is Cecily Hahn from the Academy."

Ugh.

"Mrs. Hahn. So good to hear from you. Is there trouble?"

"Oh, no trouble at all, but... well a request that you perhaps speak with Neal, let him know that teachers are placed in the classrooms for good reason, though that reason may not be evident to him."

"Did he disobey a teacher? That's not like Neal." That's exactly like Neal. Not outright defiance. Finding a way to edge around the rules? Neal to a T. But, Mrs. Hahn doesn't need to know that.

"Not exactly disobey. More like try to take over the curriculum."

"Take over?"

"Yes, apparently Neal felt that the pipe cleaner and paper plate art project Mr. Yoder suggested for today was not worthy of the class. As he put it when questioned later, it 'lacked depth, vision and purpose.'"

Well crap.

"Mr. Yoder had turned the class over to his college intern, Josh, for a while during a staff meeting and when he returned, all of the students were engaged in creating a joint sculpture made of the class' rulers and cauliflower from, well, the cafeteria. They were making Michelangelo's David."

"The intern just let a four-year-old take over?"

"Somehow Neal convinced him that allowing the students to explore their creativity would gain him extra credit for his degree."

"Mrs. Hahn, I'm so sorry."

"I appreciate your apology, Mrs. Burke. Mr. Yoder was able to deal with the situation, and as I've said, we encourage the children to explore new avenues but... we wanted you to be aware."

Elizabeth smooths things over and ends the call, but with pipe cleaners and paper plates for art supplies, she has to wonder where all her money's going at this place. And as much as she'll have to burst Neal's bubble tonight, she's insanely proud of him right now.

* * * * *

"So pull this little lever here."

Neal leans over Peter's seat and pops the hood.

"Good. Come on." Peter helps him out of the car and round to the front. "Now you have to kind of feel for this one."

He pokes around beneath the crack of the hood till he finds the strut. Neal positions his fingers where Peter directs them and together they unhook the latch, Peter lifting and hooking the hood strut into place. He checks that each part of the engine is cold - he wouldn't want Neal to burn himself. He hears a clink and looks around...

Neal's crawled up beside the toolbench, running his fingers between the jaws of Peter's woodworking vise. "Neal!"

The kid startles as Peter lunges toward him, trying to decide how to react. So Peter stops, calms down. "Need your help over here."

"Kay!" He scrambles over and up onto the stool Peter set beside the car. He watches Peter pull the dipstick.

"What's that?" Neal leans his small body against Peter's side, his tiny hand holding onto Peter's shirt for balance.

"That's the dipstick."

Neal lifts a brow, his eyes owlish, "I don't think you're 'llowed to say that around me, Petr."

"It's not a bad word. Actually... never mind, you'd be better off not saying it." He gets the stick all the way out and shows it to Neal. "See?"

"Ew. Why am I here again?"

"Now we wipe it clean."

"Good thinking."

Peter tries really hard not to roll his eyes. "And now we stick it back in."

"Why?"

"To get the oil back on."

"Then why did you clean it?"

"So I can check to see how high the oil is on the dipstick. Now, pull it back out... "

"It's going to be dirty again."

"Yep. But now we check it."

"See. Dirty."

"Yes, Neal, I know. It looks like we need to add some oil."

"You shouldn't have kept wiping it all off."

"Okay, maybe it was too early for this, but you'll understand eventually."

"It's okay, Petr. I don't hafta."

"Why not?"

"We can jus' use the guy Mozzie pays to fix his car."

Pays? Peter would be shocked if that were true. "First, it's not broken. We're maintaining it so it keeps running smoothly. Secondly, you can't pay everyone to do everything for you."

"You said I can't con them anymore."

"Right, but then you do the work yourself."

"It's dirty. And boring."

"You don't mind getting dirty when you're painting or making sculptures in the dirt."

"That's my safe house, Petr."

"Wheelhouse."

"'Xactly."

* * * * *

El trips over Neal's palette. Again. She pushes it against the hamper in the corner to get a little extra folding room.

His mural is coming along nicely. The background reminds her of Monet's lily pond but there's no mistaking van Gogh's starry night blended in above it. It's beautiful. But it's in her laundry room. If they have him much longer she's going to talk to Peter about clearing out the extra room on the third floor. With her office right beside it, she could keep an eye on him while he paints.

"Neal, where did you get that shirt?"

Uh-oh.

"Moz gave it to me. It's soft. See?"

"And those shoes?"

"Mozzie."

Here we go. She can hear Peter stalking from the living room.

"El, did you know about this?"

"I... Yes. I did."

"And you were okay with it?"

"I think they're adorable."

Peter heads out to the patio, already dialing. She follows and pulls Neal up to the table.

"Here, Sweetie." She hands him a worksheet from school. "Finish this for Mr. Yoder. I'll be right back."

Peter's pacing when she joins him out back, "Come on, come on."

"Hon, calm down."

"How many different burner phones does he have?" He gives up on that one and redials.

"Peter, it's really not the end of the world."

"El, Neal isn't going to learn the value of work ethic if everything is han- ... Mozzie? This is Peter. Yes, of course you know. Listen, we can clothe Neal just fine on our own."

El snatches Peter's phone and puts it on speaker before he can stop her.

"Sears doesn't carry the kind of clothes Neal needs, Suit."

"He doesn't need a pair of two hundred dollar shoes. I don't own two hundred dollar shoes."

"I'm aware."

"And that shirt."

"Tom Ford. French cuffs."

"It was five hundred dollars, wasn't it? I looked online, don't bother denying it." Hands on hips, this is serious.

"Well, if you're just going to answer your own questions-"

"I don't know why even you would encourage this. You've always balked at extravagance."

"It's who he is, Suit. You're wiping away all the parts that make him Neal when you force him into Walmart clothes."

"They're from Target." El has to interject.

"Maybe this is who Neal is, or was, before he had to reinvent himself with the luxury camouflage to pull off cons."

"Maybe. It may have been armor, but it was his choice. You're oppressing him."

"Regardless, we can't afford these kind of clothes. I don't want him to get used to them."

"Oh yes, far be it for an overpaid government official to provide basic necessities for a minor in his custody. I paid for those clothes with Neal's own money by the way!"

"From illegal activities."

"That depends on your definition of 'illegal'."

"There is only one definition!" Peter's hands are flying up in the air. This is going nowhere.

"Black and white, G-man."

"Okay, that's enough."

"El-" She stops Peter's protest with a glare. He knows better.

"Mozzie. We appreciate how willing you are to contribute to Neal's upbringing. But keeping him dressed to the nines will not stop him from changing into whatever he'll end up as, if he does change. Please limit anything you buy him in any one week to less than one hundred dollars."

"One week?"

"One hundred?"

"Peter. I agree that Neal doesn't need designer labels, but clothes have always been a part of his line of defense. As much of an adjustment all of this is for everyone else, can you imagine how he feels? It doesn't hurt to accept help from our friends who also love him and as long as they are legal purchases, and not excessive, that shouldn't be any problem."

Peter rolls his eyes, shaking his head at the ground.

"Do we have a truce, Gentlemen?"

"Define excessive."

El puts her foot down. Literally, right between his, and gets up in his face. "Truce?"

"Fine." Fine. She backs off, gives him some room to grumble.

"As long as Neal gets to choose what he wears."

"Done."

"Done."

"But no hats!"

* * * * *

"What's he doing up there, El?"

"Maybe he's scared, the poor thing." Right. Debra Mitchell is a pushover. But she'll also probably pinch his little cheeks and fill him full of sugar like a 50s sitcom. Not the end of the world, but the kid has no idea what he's in for when Alan gets a hold of him.

"Neal? Come on down, please."

Neal walks down the stairs in a suit. One of those fancy bespoke suits June had had made for him last month that were tailored to the quarter inch like Byron's had been. He guesses Neal still remembers how to tie a tie better than Peter. He's holding the small fedora June also got him - Moz got around that with a pretty easy technicality - and the deja vu gives Peter a head rush when Neal steps off the bottom stair. He doesn't look like a cartoon this time, though. Maybe an illustration.

"Well, aren't you handsome?" Debra coos as Neal flips the hat onto his head. He almost drops it, must still be getting used to small hands.

The kid reaches up to Debra's hand and kisses it, for Christ's sake. "Bunswa, Madame."

"Oh my, what a gentleman you are."

Out of the corner of his eye, Peter sees El's hand fly up to her mouth, hiding a grin.

"El, what did he say?" He whispers, but Debra's already on that.

"Oh Alan, he's speaking French." The little shit is trying to con El's parents. He sidles up to Alan next, shakes his hand.

"Mishur. Petr an' Liz'beth speak high of you."

Alan doesn't smile, doesn't point out the improper grammar, doesn't quiz Neal on how he went from a six foot man to a three and a half foot child in what Peter remembers as a flash of light.

Peter didn't want to tell them. He wanted to wrap this secret in bullet-proof glass and keep it in an airtight safe forever. But Alan and Debra have no terminally-ill nieces named Jennifer, and Peter and El can't keep them from visiting forever.

*

Normally El sits beside Peter in the front seat, leaving her parents in the back. This time, Neal soaks up all the attention sandwiched between the women, while Peter's stuck with total silence from Alan all the way to the gourmet restaurant El directs him to. Peter's pretty sure she chose this place specifically for the dress code.

The rest of the evening is much of the same, Neal exuding all the charm he can remember with his usual finesse and flair. Debra eating it up. Of course, he's four now, so these clever overtures are interspersed with childish moments whenever he forgets to be "on." Like the joyous outburst when he sees a Toulouse-Lautrec print on the wall or the indignant pout when the waitress brings him a booster seat. But as Neal cleverly presents her chosen card, the correct one in fact (Peter still has no idea how he does that), Debra graciously does not point out it's from a deck of a different color.

Of course, El's dad is exactly who Neal's performance is really for and psychiatrists are never easy targets. Neal keeps as far as he can from Alan, the old man quiet as always and staring straight through him. Peter would rescue Neal if he knew how.

At the end of the meal Peter learns more skills that Neal hasn't lost. It's always a contest with Peter and Alan when the check comes - the quickest wallet wins the metaphorical prize. He tries to keep the pride out of his smile when he wins this round, swiftly sliding his Visa atop the check. Then he notices Alan fumbling in his jacket for his wallet.

"Alan are you sure you had it when we unpacked? I remember you setting it on the dash when we left for Brooklyn this morning."

"I distinctly recall putting it in my jacket when we got out of the car."

Everyone searches the floor near the table, their path on the way in. All the while Neal ignoring Peter's glares in his direction.

"Neal, let's go to the Little Boy's Room before our drive home."

"Don't hafta go, Petr."

Neal's on a sugar high, practically bouncing with a smug energy he no longer knows how to hide. Peter snatches him up from his seat beside El, "Let's just make sure, Hot Shot."

He waits until they're alone in the marble and glass men's room and locks the door, looking down at Neal from a difference of three feet, "Okay, where is it?"

"What?"

"You know what, Neal. Alan's wallet."

"Liz'beth's mama said he lost it, Petr."

"Neal, this isn't funny."

"Maybe he put it in the wrong coat when we were leaving?"

It takes Peter about two seconds to get what Neal's saying. Sure enough, Alan's wallet is in the opposite pocket of Peter's own suit jacket. The kid's eyes are lit with delight when Peter pulls it out, Neal's hard work finally out in the open, his grin as prideful as any day he'd strategically avoided paperwork in the office.

"Neal, you can't do this stuff anymore."

"Why?"

"Why? Because it's illegal! This kind of thing is how you landed in prison."

Neal's face drains of color, his eyes widening. His jaw drops as he gasps, "Petr! I'm sorry. Was going to give it back. Please don't send me back there!"

He clutches at the hem of Peter's jacket, tears welling up quickly, gaping up at him as if Peter has the ability to save the world. Oh for Christ's sake. Peter squats down to one knee, pulling Neal into a hug.

"Calm down, Buddy. You just keep quiet. I'll take care of it." He adds, "But we'll talk about this later" for good measure.

Neal sniffs and nods, no longer a miniature Cary Grant, but a forlorn puppy dog hanging on every word. What do normal parents have to worry about? Peter's pretty sure it's not teaching their preschoolers not to pick pockets. It doesn't matter that El's parents know exactly who Neal is, Alan can absolutely not find out that Neal took that wallet.

Neal falls asleep on the way home. That very un-Caffrey-like cookie monster for dessert didn't last long enough to keep him from crashing. Luckily, Alan's helping El out of the car - a conveniently caught heel, thank you, Hon - when Peter carefully tosses the wallet onto the street.

"Alan, is this it?" He makes sure Alan sees him lift it from the pavement, carries it over to him.

"Well, I'll be damned. I must have knocked it out of the car when we arrived this afternoon."

"I told you you didn't have it, Dear. I can't believe it wasn't stolen."

Alan looks straight at Peter. "Yes, that's almost too good to be true, isn't it?"

*

Peter tucks Neal straight into his new sleeping bag on their floor, El showing her parents to Neal's room. Once everyone's settled, Peter sinks down beside El onto the couch.

"He was conning them."

"You didn't think he'd be past that already, did you?"

"And he stole your dad's wallet."

"I had a feeling that's what was going on."

"You're pretty calm about it."

"Peter. He's four."

"He's also Neal Caffrey."

"What is the one thing that comes naturally to Neal?"

"Lying."

"Let me rephrase... what is the thing most important to Neal?"

"Well, it used to be money."

"No, Peter. He wants people to like him. He wants to belong. That's all he's ever wanted."

"So he's conning them into liking him."

"He's trying to."

* * * * *

Still soft and supple. Maybe a little oil wouldn't hurt. Definitely a little oil. Peter pulls it out of the old banker's box and sets it on the table.

Neal reaches for it, slides his hand up inside. He frowns. "Too big."

"That one's for me. But-"

He pries open the box that had arrived the day before last. His mother was happy to get some of it out of her house. An old backpack with his school logo, trophies from middle school, and...

"This one is for you."

"Wow." Peter's glove from little league. Still too big for Neal right now, but better than nothing. Mom couldn't find the peewee glove he'd had.

"Try it."

Neal slips his hand inside. "It fits!"

"Like a glove?"

Neal frowns at him. Sometimes Peter misses their banter. He didn't realize how literal even genius preschoolers are.

The park is usually pretty sparse early Sunday morning and Peter's never been more glad that he and El aren't religious. He and Neal get a large section all to themselves. He's not even sure how to throw a baseball at a little kid, so he tosses it lightly. Good reaction time - Neal reaches out instinctively with the mitt, exactly where he should. He drops the ball, though, a little awkward.

They spend an hour playing catch, mini-popups, "running" catches, grounders. That little belly laugh each time Peter purposely misses is like music. Neal does fairly well for the first time, catches almost half at first, more than three quarter by the time they're done. Good progress considering the size of the mitt.

"When I was Danny, I played shortstop."

"You played baseball?"

"Yeah."

"At school?"

"At the park." Neal spreads his fingers out, examining his right hand. "My hands worked better then."

"You just need to get used to them being so small again. Plus... " Peter squats down, places the back of Neal's hand against his own palm to compare size. "... they'll grow."

Neal drops the glove to his side and looks up at Peter, a sudden realization. "They will?"

"Of course."

But now that Neal asks, Peter wonders, too. He'd just assumed all this time that, unless they found a fix to the artifact's curse (or whatever you call what changed him), Neal would grow up just like any other boy. He needs to talk to Moz first chance he gets.

* * * * *

Good afternoon, Mrs. Burke. This is Cecily Hahn from the Academy.

Elizabeth is tired. She's found herself in varying states of exhaustion over the last month - life is different with a child in the house - and this has been a particularly "interesting" week. She hesitates, afraid to ask. But she must. "Hello, Mrs. Hahn. Has something happened to Neal?"

"He's perfectly fine but... there's been an issue. Neal was somehow able to get into the locked teacher's lounge. He took a Chicken Caesar Salad and a banana parfait from the staff refrigerator."

And things were going so well. "Are you sure? How do you know it was Neal?"

"He left a note inside the refrigerator. There was a piece of paper, folded up into the shape of a cat. Inside it read 'IOU. xoxo Neal.'"

Despite the headache forming, Elizabeth has to cover the receiver so she can't be heard laughing.

"Mrs. Burke, are you there? Hello?"

"Yes, I'm so sorry. Neal had plenty to eat in his lunch box this morning."

"Well, it turns out Neal wasn't planning to eat it."

*

Elizabeth explains it to Peter when he gets home. A boy in Neal's class, Tyler, had no money in his lunch account. His mother had sent in a check but the lunch ladies believed they couldn't credit his account till the check cleared, a misunderstanding Mrs. Hahn has now clarified. The ladies gave Tyler a PB&J and an apple, what they give every kid without lunch funds. Neal had felt this was an incredible injustice and had taken it upon himself to be Tyler's champion for the day. No one had said whether Tyler actually wanted the salad and parfait.

They both sit Neal down and explain that though they are proud he helped a friend, he cannot steal at preschool. Or anywhere. He says he understands, convincingly solemn with wide soulful eyes. But it seems to El that he really only got two things out of the conversation: First - Peter and Elizabeth will never understand so it's pointless to explain further, and Second - in the future he needs to put more effort into not getting caught.

So Neal Seven, but Elizabeth Six

*

Elizabeth's done adjusting the covers, done flipping her pillow, just settling into a doze, when Peter jerks straight up in bed.

"Hon, what is it?"

"The portrait of Julianna's grandmother."

"Julianna?" El knows there's nobody at the Bureau named Julianna.

"I get it now. That's what justice is for Neal."

"What is?"

"It's about people, not rules. Rules let people fall through the cracks. Neal squeezes them back up." Peter turns to look at El, a dreaded dawning on his face. "All this time, he's been a God damned vigilante."

"I'd better make him a bigger cape then." Just as soon as she gets some sleep.





PART II:
Super Heroes Make Great Con Artists




Date: 2016-01-21 03:26 am (UTC)
sherylyn: (Default)
From: [personal profile] sherylyn
Oh, *SQUEE*!! I can't wait to read! THANKS for this, so very, very much!!

*glomps you*

Date: 2016-01-21 03:00 pm (UTC)
ext_24338: (Neal Smile)
From: [identity profile] leesa-perrie.livejournal.com
Oh, this is adorable!!! *off to read part 2*

Date: 2016-01-22 02:44 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] hurinhouse.livejournal.com
Thank you!!

Date: 2016-03-06 08:02 am (UTC)
sherylyn: (Love Wins)
From: [personal profile] sherylyn
Re-reading, and I just remembered I never told you desperately much I love this line: "It's about people, not rules. Rules let people fall through the cracks. Neal squeezes them back up." Peter turns to look at El, a dreaded dawning on his face. "All this time, he's been a God damned vigilante." **Perfection**. That is soooooo Neal, no matter what size he is!!! <3

Date: 2016-03-07 11:48 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] hurinhouse.livejournal.com
yes! I'm glad you caught that. I've been wanting to scream that for years. neal's care for people trumps peter's devotion to the law all day long. I had to have peter finally get that sometime.

thanks!

Date: 2016-03-07 08:15 pm (UTC)
sherylyn: (Default)
From: [personal profile] sherylyn
Oh, it soooo does!! I caught it (and loved it) when I first read this, too, but just forgot to mention it in all the other squeeing I was doing! LOL!! There are some rights and wrongs that are just beyond the law, period, and I totally agree with Neal on that. (And even El told Peter that the letter of the law is subjective, so *there*!!) What Neal did in S5 to get Peter out of prison, even, only happened b/c the law was being screwed up by the asshats who were in charge at that point (Callaway, etc.). Ooh, I could rant for eons!! :-P

I'm glad it finally got through to Peter, too. He's so smart, but so blind about Neal sometimes ;-)

Date: 2016-03-08 04:59 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] hurinhouse.livejournal.com
exactly. that line when peter said that neal corrupted a system he believes in was total crap. the system was corrupted all on its own. neal was righting a wrong.

that whole disaster of a plotline makes me so angry. I either have to make a deal out of it in fics or I have to ignore its existence altogether. can't be objective about it.

Date: 2016-03-08 05:25 am (UTC)
sherylyn: (Default)
From: [personal profile] sherylyn
I absolutely, completely agree with you! I've been re-watching some of S5 (which is an almost tortuous thing for me to do, in some ways) b/c I've got a plot bunny for a semi-fix-it fic, and I needed to know some specifics to put in there, if I'm actually going to do more than have this thing stuck in my head ;-)

I just can't... that whole thing makes *no sense* to me, for a zillion reasons. And Peter *knew better* about sooooo many aspects, too, and that's part of what annoys me so much. Just. ARGH!!!

Date: 2016-03-08 06:44 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] hurinhouse.livejournal.com
You're writing? By all means, get thee to thy computer! I'm eager to read it.

Date: 2016-03-08 09:43 pm (UTC)
sherylyn: (Love Wins)
From: [personal profile] sherylyn
LOL Welllllll… I'm *trying*, at least!! I've had an angsty de-aged!Neal fic in my head for ages, and now it's finally trying to get onto the computer, instead ;-) I'm hoping maybe it'll finally happen this time!

Date: 2016-03-30 09:55 am (UTC)
kanarek13: (Default)
From: [personal profile] kanarek13
I'm having a weeeeee meltdown here :D :D :D :D :D OMG, this is the most adorable thing evah ♥ *off to read part 2* :D

Date: 2016-03-30 09:54 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] hurinhouse.livejournal.com
thank you! I'm glad you're enjoying it so far!

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