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[personal profile] hurinhouse
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!

PartII



He doesn't want them to cut his hair. He cries in the chair at Famous Hair when he thinks they'll do it anyway, then acts embarrassed when he seems to remember that isn't typical Caffrey behavior, swiping angrily at the tracks on his face. Elizabeth reminds him that he'd probably gotten very frequent trims when he was bigger because his hair had always looked fantastic.

He lifts his chin then, a hopeful, guarded look and whispers sudden memories of colorful hanging lights and red leather chairs behind the shiny doors by the big park. She calls seven salons the next day before she finds the right one. Peter's furious to find out Neal had been spending two hundred dollars for haircuts all these years, even more so when he suspects Neal maybe hadn't paid at all.

Elizabeth barters services for running the salon owner's anniversary party the following fall, spinning a very convincing story of why the four year old he'd never met looks eerily familiar and just has to have Marcello cut his hair, and why they very firmly cannot afford to come back. The man carefully sticks to her script as he works his magic on Neal's hair.

"Signore Neal, so sorry this will be last time to cut your hair. I must return to my family in Italy. But I give your mamma name of man even better than me. You will go to him for me, yes?"

Neal acquiesces, chattering in Italian about the dog they'd seen on the way, and the pistachio gelato he remembers from the street vendor down the block.

Neal holds Peter's hand as they walk out first and calls back cheerily, "Addio, Marcello. Tell Rosa Ciao."

Marcello scratches his head, frowning as Neal helps Peter hail a cab outside. "How does he know my wife's name? I only tell long time customers."

Elizabeth smiles. She's learned a few things from Neal over the years. "Oh, I'm certain I heard you mention her. Are you feeling okay Marcello?"

* * * * * *

The first annual Mitchell-Burke-Caffrey camping trip was devised by El and Debra while she and Alan met Neal the first time. A weekend of Alan, Peter, and Neal in the great outdoors. Peter makes sure not to jinx himself with the thought "What could go wrong?" but he's pretty sure that if Neal has ever camped it had to have been in a luxury resort with room service in Vail or someplace equally ritzy, and he'd probably just as soon keep it that way.

Neal falls asleep halfway through the drive again - must be a kid thing. Makes for another awkward hour on the road with Alan staring ahead, judging Peter's driving. Worse than Neal ever was because he doesn't say a word, just sighs every time Peter hits a bump.

The spot they've reserved is remote enough to seem like roughing it, but not so far they can't walk back to the pavilion if they have trouble. Peter carries supplies from the rented truck to the site while Alan starts on the tent. Neal absently ties the canvas straps into various geometrical shapes while regaling them with a story about a cottage in the Swiss Alps he'd stayed in a decade earlier, each detail more extravagant than the last.

"There were these fountain things right at the hot tub where these fruity drinks came right out of a hose so you didn't need a glass. Maybe I might not be able to have those anymore. An' the deck had a toboggan slide built in without aaaany trees in front of it so you could see the stars allllll the way down the mountain."

Alan finishes pounding in the first stake and turns to Neal, unimpressed but not gruff. "When you're done with all that nonsense, come here and help me with this tent."

Neal stares at him a moment, and Peter's sure he's going to have to intercept a smart aleck remark. But Neal's shoulders drop in what looks surprisingly to Peter like relief. From that moment on he's in the here and now, asking how to start a fire and the best way to find water and if the howl they heard is a coyote (it's the neighboring camp's dog).

They spend three days in that "wilderness," Neal roughing it as much as the next guy. He doesn't care for the fishing and he refuses to use live bait, but he loves hiking and canoeing and with Peter's supervision he etches an otter he'd seen into a tree trunk. He chats excitedly with El on Peter's cell as they drive home, telling her all about the otters and the absence of a toilet (not a good idea, according to Neal) and about Peter's snoring, which Peter is sure was actually Alan. By the end of the trip, Alan nods his approval at Peter over the top of Neal's head. Peter hadn't known it had mattered to him.

* * * * *

The day they upgrade the alarm system goes like this:

Elizabeth puts Neal down for a nap. HIs cranky little butt needs it because they'd let him stay up with them last night watching a documentary on The Fall of Rome, yet he'd still woken way too early in Elizabeth's opinion.

She'd made a mixed CD last week of his favorites: U2, Bach, Raffi, Sinatra, Davis, Seger... the most relaxing songs of each. She sets it on repeat so Satchmo's barking won't wake him, waits until he's completely out. Then she gets to work on the landscaping out front. They've been so busy adjusting to life with a child, she just hasn't had time to worry about it, but there are dead leaves caked in the flower boxes and weeds in the front stoop cracks and she wants to plant some flowers with Neal next week.

Mrs. Miller calls over from her own sidewalk, the afternoon paper in her hand. El thinks it's charming how she still reads it every day even though she knows Alice is an internet junkie in her mature years.

"How's that adorable little munchkin of yours doing?"

"Very well, thank you. He seems to be adjusting easily."

"He's quite the charmer, that one. Put my rake and broom away for me a couple of weeks ago."

"Really? Was Peter with him?"

"I assumed he was around the corner. Anyway, such an imagination, that child. And so realistic. You'd think he'd actually been to Greece and Africa and the depths of the sea to hear him talk."

"He definitely knows how to tell a story."

They talk about a recipe or two and then get back to their own tasks. It takes a while to get the front looking new again, but it's kind of pleasant listening to Neal's CD through the monitor. When she's done, she sweeps up the mess and heads inside for the dustpan she forgot.

As she crosses the threshold she hears it, sees it and smells it. The mechanical ticking of the oven, an odd burning smell, and smoke. All coming from the kitchen. She panics, bolts upstairs to grab Neal and stops. The smoke alarm's not going off yet and she can hear humming from downstairs.

And there he is as soon as she turns the corner. Sitting on Peter's creeper seat, black marks on the tile leading to the back door. He's rolling it back and forth in time with the tune he's humming, bent over, drawing pictures in a pile of some kind of black dust on the floor. The creeper is attached to Satchmo by extension cords tied to his collar, as though he's on a wagon trail. Satch thumps his tail at her in welcome.

Most of the smoke is swirling out the window Neal had apparently opened. Her panic ratchets down a few notches while her impatience rises. She's not complaining. Not much. She adores him, loves him, and she's still secretly hoping for a little longer before he changes back. But if these kind of surprises keep up she's going to have a heart condition.

"Neal George Caffrey."

He jolts at her voice, jumping up and positioning himself in front of the oven, arms stretched out, blocking her way. "Hi Lizbeth." Satch stands up in support of his friend.

"Neal, why is the oven on?"

"You look lovey t'day, Liz'beth. Why are you here?"

On the island are the empty shells of the pencils he's been culling in his nightstand.

"Move aside, please." He drops his arms in defeat, steps back from the oven. Inside she finds Peter's woodworking vise, closed tight, atop one of the cookie sheets. She turns the oven off.

"No!" Neal reaches for the knob, but she's had it.

"Neal, go sit at the table. Now." He stops in his tracks, does as he's told. The vise is heavy when she pulls it out. This must have been why Satchmo was recruited. She lies it on the island and cranks it open. That same black dust that's on the floor falls out into a little pile.

Oven closed, two more windows open, she sits down at the table across from him.

"I want the truth Neal."

"Makin' somethin'."

"I can see that. What?"

"Can't tell you."

"You can."

"I'll tell Peter."

"Peter's not here. But I'll tell you what you can do. You can clean up that mess right there."

"Yes, Ma'am."

She steers him with the broom and dustpan, sits down to watch him while her heartbeat slows down. She hasn't been keeping track of their little... invisible competition, but she'd guess Neal was ahead by now quite a bit. She's not jealous of the boys' relationship; she truly is glad for them. But she'd thought she and Neal were also getting close, finding their own niche. Hell, they'd conspired together to ban deviled ham from the house. Yet he still can't trust her.

*

Neal and Peter have a heart to heart in Neal's room that night. When she'd told Peter on the phone what had happened, he'd been pretty sure he knew what Neal was doing and at first he'd been angry, rambling on about crimes and juvenile detention centers. But he'd been pulled away on a case and when he'd called back he was calm. He wouldn't tell El why, but he wanted to talk to Neal before discussing his suspicions with her.

They still need to decide on a punishment, hard to figure out with Neal. The emotions and mentality of a precocious four year old mixed with the memories and skill set of the most successful conman in the country. What do you do with that?

"So?" She prompts Peter when he comes downstairs.

"He's out. Long day I guess."

"Not just for him."

"I know, Hon." He rubs her shoulders - she hadn't realized she'd needed that. "He was making a diamond."

"What?" She turns around, facing Peter, more worried than she'd been before. "I thought this was just some mad scientist experiment."

"Well, it wouldn't have worked. He knows the formula of course. Graphite, high heat, high pressure. But there's no way our oven or my vise would do the job."

"That explains the pencils."

"Yep."

"Peter. This is not good."

He nods, but she's surprised how calm he is. "It wasn't a forgery, El."

"Then what?"

"Mother's Day is this weekend."

Her lungs pull in a gasp involuntarily.

"That's why he didn't want you to know. Would have ruined the surprise. Superhero code and all that." He shrugs, almost looks proud.

She doesn't want to cry. She has every right to be angry. How does this exasperating little person bring tears to her eyes after breaking her heart?

"El, I told you this wouldn't be easy."

"I know."

"You always thought he was adorable even when he was thirty but you didn't see the... "

"The wild side?"

It's Peter's soft laugh that makes her relax. "Yeah. Where the Wild Things Are."

"Apparently they live on Dekalb Avenue."

* * * * *

"Here." El hands him the jumble of cotton. Peter takes it gingerly, wrinkling his nose and she rolls her eyes at him, exasperated, and not fondly. "Just go start a load of whites please."

The water's running again in the bathroom as he watches her march back into Neal's room, not at all waylaid by the smell that nearly knocked Peter unconscious.

Peter sighs and bounds down the stairs. Once he hits the bottom tread he takes his time, in no hurry to return to the disaster area. He steps into the laundry room, holds his breath and dumps the sheets into the washer, but the sour stench still drifts back at him before he can get the lid shut. Holding down a gag, he takes a moment to breathe through his mouth a few times before starting the washer.

He turns around and leans against it, feeling the mechanics come to life behind him, just wanting a moment before he returns to Sick Bay.

The mural on the opposite wall has evolved exponentially. El must have let Neal work on it several times this week. Peter feels guilty when he realizes how long it's been since he was in here and he makes an unrealistic vow that he'll help out more around the house, get home even earlier than he has been. Especially since Neal's picking up all these germs from school. And now the flu.

So Neal's forging Botticelli now. Well, not a forgery of course, since there are various changes Neal's made and it is rendered on thirty year old drywall. Still. How has Peter's life come to the point where he's raising a child who can recreate a 1400s master?

Aphrodite lies leisurely upon her shell rather than standing in it, thankfully covered with some kind of cloth. She gazes up at van Gogh's brilliant sky. Sitting beside her is... The Thinker? Seriously? The guy is as naked as Rodin had made him, elbow still lent against his knee, but his eyes are raised toward the sky as well.

This is getting stranger each time he looks at it, but Peter's glad it's... original... kind of.

"Peter!" Oh... the clean sheets.

The glub glub of the bathtub draining seems to mark an end to the chaos upstairs. El's wiping water from the bathroom floor when Peter peeks in. "Go to bed, Hon. I'll get this after he goes to sleep."

Her brow says she's skeptical but she lets Peter pull her up. "El, I will. I know you have a client meeting in the morning. I'll call in and work from home."

"Thanks." They head across the hall. Neal's room looks, and smells, much better. And so does he. Damp hair, dressed in fresh PJs, curled atop a stack of blankets beside Satch. And El has cleaned the puke off of the floor. All while Peter stared at a wall downstairs. Nice, Burke.

"Hey, Little Man, how ya' feelin'?" He snaps the bottom sheet out and spreads it over the mattress while El sits on the floor next to the patient, rubbing his back.

"Not s' good." Neal's little face is flushed and he looks listless and sleepy. He cradles Edgar in his arms as though the piece of plush is the key to all his dreams.

Edgar is Neal's second zebra. They'd looked everywhere for Johannes with no luck. The kid was genuinely crushed about Johannes' absence, but Peter couldn't help think that Neal knew more than he let on. When El had brought home a new zebra the next day, claiming she'd found Johannes behind the washer, Neal hadn't bought it for a second. He named the new guy Edgar and a week later, right after a Mozzie outing, produced a twenty to pay for him. Peter'd made Neal give the money back but they'd let Neal set the table and sweep the floor to help "pay" for the toy since he'd apparently adopted some type of overblown conscience during this second youth. That had been the kickoff to allowance at the Burke residence.

Peter makes quick work of the top sheet and slips Neal's pillowcase on. El sticks around long enough to help Peter tuck the colorful comforter into the footboard, then she bends down and runs a hand through Neal's hair. His eyes open, hands clutching her sweater as she hugs him. "Good night, Baby."

"Night, Ma-... Liz'beth."

A kiss to his forehead and she's out of the room, tired smile in her eyes. Peter settles Neal into the covers, sure that he'll be out in twenty seconds but...

"Petr, will you read t' me?"

"Sure, Buddy. Lie down here and get comfy." Peter spreads Neal's Bat Cape atop his comforter and surveys his shelves, scanning over the spines of the novels El's letting him read. It's been difficult finding books for him. He's a freaking genius and Wheels on the Bus doesn't cut it. Peter reaches for Gathering Blue. El said she thought he might relate to the artist in the main character and it didn't seem inappropriate.

"No, Petr."

"Don't want this one?"

"Can you read Mowgli?"

"Sure, Bud." He snatches The Jungle Book and sits on the bed beside Neal.

"It was seven o'clock of a very warm evening in the Seeonee hills when Father Wolf woke up from his day's rest, scratched himself, yawned, and spread out his paws one after the other to get rid of the sleepy feeling in their tips."

If there was ever an orphan's tale that fit Neal, this was it. Pre-ShrinkGate, it would have been Peter Pan. But now, Mowgli was like a mirror.

* * * * *

He would love to go help, not only for nostalgia's sake but also because he doesn't want Neal to get hurt. That little body isn't as strong as that of his alter ego. Besides Moz has been waiting out here for four hours. But it's better if Neal thinks nobody knows.

When The Suit had handed Neal off for Mozzie's regular Sunday afternoon this week, he'd pulled him out of earshot. "He's sneaking out of the house."

"To?"

"If I knew, would I be asking for your help?"

"You didn't follow him? He could have gotten hurt!"

"Of course I would have followed him if I'd realized! Look, the alarm doesn't go off when he gets out. Of course he knows how to bypass it, even after the upgrade."

"Ah. Still the best."

The Suit had sighed like the martyr he always acts like. "Yeah, that's what's important here."

"Hey you can take the kid out of the conman-"

"What does that mean? You didn't... did you find a fix?"

This again. He hadn't had any luck at all. He'd meditated in temples in Thailand and Sri Lanka. He'd hiked the Tibetan Plateau with some very angry monks. He'd even gone to Skinny Li behind the Shanghai Cafe in Chinatown, who only takes appointments the third Thursday of every third month. They all concurred... it was rare for the curse to happen because the prayer wheel had to be turned in a complicated sequence to activate, and even then, it only transformed those worthy. According to the Monks it was a gift, since the endless knot on the artifact symbolized rebirth. For Neal to have done it accidentally was a sign that should not be trifled with, even if they had known a way to reverse it, which they didn't, thank you very much. Their advice: be grateful and leave well enough alone.

But if the Burkes knew Neal was never changing back, they'd adopt him flat out and Moz would lose him forever.

"Still researching. Getting close."

"Sure. Anyway, I'd noticed last month that the security had been overridden in the middle of the night. I just assumed El couldn't sleep and had gotten up, let Satchmo out. No big deal, I didn't even ask her."

Amateur.

"But it's happened a couple of times this month. All in the early hours of Saturday morning. I asked El and she said she hadn't done it, but she remembered that she'd found dirt in Neal's sheets the morning after both times-"

"Maybe he's taken up gardening."

" - and I remember he wore jeans to bed once."

"I already weaned him off jeans when he was twenty-two, I'd rather not do it again."

"Mozzie, are you listening? So I got up around that time this morning and I saw him sneaking back into the house. If I ask him- "

"You'll never get the truth and he'll be more sneaky."

"Exactly. And if he sees that I'm not in bed before he sneaks out he won't do it at all."

"What's been happening every Friday night?"

"Nothing out of the ordinary."

"Everything is out of the ordinary for him."

"We've been getting pizza and a movie. He's been doing chores. That's about it."

"You make him do manual labor?" He'd known The Suit had a mean streak.

"Every kid does chores, Mozzie."

"You wish."

"You live somewhere, you chip in. And sometimes you get paid."

"More rules. Okay, keep track of him till at least eleven thirty Friday night. I can't get there till then."

"Do I want to know why?"

"Not if you want my help."

"Fine."

Turns out, Neal isn't going far. An elderly neighbor beside the Burkes, Mrs. Miller, has a small garage that backs up to the alley. Moz texts The Suit that he has sight of their mutual friend as he watches Neal stand on some cement blocks to climb onto a trash can, a small plastic Duane Reade bag over his shoulder. Why doesn't Mrs. Suit use reusable bags?

Neal shimmies through a low unlocked window and disappears into the garage - with much less finesse than usual - Moz is glad he's finally getting a lesson on the vertically challenged.

Moz is out of his cab and sidling up to the garage ten seconds later. He watches through a window as Neal pries apart two loose wallboards and tugs out what looks like a backpack. He retrieves something from the pack - black and white, Moz isn't sure what it is - and hugs it before slipping it back in. Then the contents of the plastic sack are dumped into the backpack before it's squeezed back between the boards.

Neal scrambles back out the window, making sure to drop back down onto the grass instead of the trashcan. Same old dive and roll Moz has seen him do countless times during jobs. He slinks back across the yard and through the Burkes' back door.

Moz makes sure to text The Suit again so he won't be caught watching for Neal, then slips into the garage and checks the hiding place. The backpack is old and well-used with a roaring panther stitched on the front. Inside: Some cash, looks like almost sixteen dollars from various coins and dollar bills. A handful of colored pencils in a baggie, a sketchbook, a baseball (that's perplexing). And Johannes. Zebra mystery solved.

Neal's making a go-bag.

Moz texts The Suit one last time: Does he get paid for those Friday night chores right away?


What? Yes.


He's been doing them willingly?


I'm not standing over him with a whip. What's this about?


Nothing to worry about. I'll take him on a playdate tomorrow and explain later.

*

"How's preschool going?"

"Too many rules."

"Even the progressives are oppressing our nation's youth."

"What?"

"Nothing."

Neal's distracted by the cotton candy. This is fun. Taking him on the carousel and the Ferris wheel. He'd caught some barker screwing them out of a cardboard airplane Neal won fair and square. Felt good to stick up for someone else for a change.

"So you like it here? With Peter and Elizabeth?"

"Yep." So strange to see his suave friend happily skipping alongside him.

"And you don't want me to take you to Europe?"

"Europe? Can we swim in the Seine?"

"Eh... no. Let's save the enjoyment for dryer pursuits."

Neal whirls around, almost knocks Moz over. "Let's climb the Eiffel Tower!" His face is lit like a Chinese lantern.

"Maybe we could use the stairs. Just you and me?"

"Yeah." Ah, good, back to normal. He walks on ahead, a little more sober. "An' Peter an' Liz'beth."

"What if they couldn't come?"

"We can wait for them."

"Maybe they can't make it at all."

Neal tilts his head back and thinks for a moment. "We could smuggle them in the cargo hold."

"So you want them to come?"

"Yeah."

Moz steers them to a bench facing the ocean. The boardwalk can be convenient that way. "Then what's with the stash in the wall of Mrs. Miller's garage, Mon Frère?"

"Jus' in case."

"In case of what?"

"When Peter an' Liz'beth don't want me anymore."

"How would that happen?"

"When I change back."

"Okay, about that-"

"Or if I do something bad."

"Such as?"

He just shrugs. Like that's not ominous. "Neal, you didn't tell The Suit about any of our jobs, did you?"

"We had jobs? Like Peter's?"

"As if. I'm talking about take the goods, run from the cops type of jobs."

"Oh that. Yeah, told him."

"Neal!"

Neal holds his hands out in a what-can-you-do kind of gesture. "You said not to tell him 'bout pictures we took. I didn't."

Oh sure, but it's okay to wax poetic in the MoMA about paintings he forged. Four year olds.

"My bad. What did you tell him about?"

"The shiny pointy hat with all those scary statues."

"Ahhh, Easter Island. Yeah those statues were pretty creepy." The ancient crown of Hotu Matu'a is reduced to a shiny pointy hat?

"Did Peter ask for details?"

"No. Laid down with me, told me to go back to sleep."

Huh.

"Well, don't tell him anything else. You don't want to go back to prison when I find a cure."

Neal stills, stops shoving the cotton candy in his mouth. "Did you?"

He's been getting complacent, better to keep him on his toes. "Sure. Just have to get it ready for you."

"Oh." Any kind of animation that's ever been in the kid drops out like a piece of lead. He stares at the ground, hugs himself. Moz doesn't like to see that.

"Moz, can we go home now?"

* * * * *

"This is Burke."

"Good afternoon, Agent Burke. This is Cecily Hahn at the Academy."

"Mrs. Hahn. What's he done now?"

*

Peter tries not to take advantage of his position but today is not the time for chivalry. For some lucky reason he and Diana are five blocks from the Academy interviewing a branch manager on an equities case. Peter tears down Flushing at fifty before Diana has the light slapped up top. He parks on the Academy lawn.

"Mr. Burke, that was fast. The fire department isn't even-"

"Where is he?"

"Out back. Follow me."

So he does. Peter follows Mrs. Hahn through the school and out the doors, into the chaos that the playground has become. As they step out, the wail of sirens seems closer than when they'd walked in. It's not difficult to discern which tree Neal's in since everyone's staring at it. One of the teachers is standing on a stepladder lent against the trunk but he doesn't look crazy about the idea of going any further.

"I've been trying to talk to him but he says he'll only talk to you."

"Neal!" Peter and Diana look up through the branches, just catching sight of Neal's red shirt through the bright green leaves. There's movement though, and he can see Neal's dark head turn to the right.

"Petr?"

"Hold on, Buddy. I'm coming up."

Diana grasps his arm, "Peter, the fire department's almost here."

"I'm not waiting."

It takes longer than Peter would like to hike his leg up from the top step to the bottom branch. How the hell did Neal get up here? Once he's on a branch his boyhood muscles remember how to climb easily, though his body protests the harsh angles and rough edges.

He settles on the limb below Neal, afraid he'll be too heavy for the upper branches. From here he can see Neal's Batman cape, rigged around shoulders and knees like a makeshift wing suit, and torn. Neal holds his left arm tight to his body.

"Neal, are you hurt?"

"Dunno."

"Why are you up here?"

"Jus' checkin'."

"Checking what?"

"If I can still base jump."

"Okay. Any reason that's important?"

The chatty mood ends at that question. Peter can see some of the teachers herding the rest of the children back to the building while others unlock the gate to let the fire engine back in.

"Told the truth, Petr."

"When?"

"Told you I base jumped off that building with the dancer painting."

The Degas.

"I can do it. You thought I was lying."

"You're right, I did. I'm sorry." Peter gestures toward Neal's location. "What happened today?"

"Branches got in the way." Uh... yeah. Peter's not sure which would have been worse, the tree or a building with plenty of space and concrete beneath.

"So you did jump?"

"Yeah, I landed there," he looks toward the branch above him, "Then I fell here. Then I was scared to try again."

*

The emergency room is a learning experience for Elizabeth. Luckily Neal's wrist is just sprained, but the doctor finds evidence of a much earlier break, a little suspicious for a four-year-old. Elizabeth explains that they're caring for Neal for her cousin, and that they'll look into what could have happened. Peter's badge assures the man it'll be done. If he only knew.

Elizabeth doesn't want to know if Neal's parents had abused him. But she has to know, they both do. So she waits till they're home and he's distracted, digging into the chocolate mousse she picked up for him. "Neal, did you ever break your arm?"

"Oh yeah. Barcelona. It was when Moz an' I-"

Peter lets out the same relieved sigh El is feeling, holds a hand up, "Hold on. I'm sorry, Buddy, I need to take Satch for a walk. But you go ahead and tell Elizabeth, okay?"

"Okay."

Peter grabs Satchmo and heads out the door. They've perfected this dance pretty well over the weeks, Peter ducking out any time Neal mentions something incriminating, El telling him only what he needs to know later. Just in case.

She's just happy there's not much to tell.

* * * * *

"Mmm. So good."

"I can't believe how long it's been since we've gone out to eat without having to worry about spills."

"Or restroom trips."

"Or charmed waitresses."

Peter changes lanes for the turnoff to Dekalb. They only have an hour left before they're to pick up Neal. Maybe it'd be advantageous for them to become friends with Greg and Janie. They could trade babysitting duties.

"I miss lounging on Sunday mornings."

"I miss sleep."

"Sex."

El points out the dashboard clock. "Be home in twelve. Nine if you step on it."

Of course that's when her phone just had to ring. She looks at the display with a worried frown and answers.

"Hi Janie, is everything okay? What? He ran off?" El looks straight at Peter and he kicks the car up speed, veers back out of the turn lane.

"We'll be right there."

*

"You have no idea which way he went?"

"Greg and the neighbor are out looking for him."

"Did anything happen to make him upset or scared?"

"Tyler, can you tell Elizabeth what happened please?"

"We were talking about our daddies. I said my Daddy bends metal and makes roofs for people. He said his Daddy is a cop and keeps people safe."

Huh, it's odd Neal said something positive about James.

"And I said he puts bad guys in jail. Neal got real quiet then, and said his daddy put him in jail so Neal must be a bad guy. His eyes got all watery and he went to the bathroom."

Peter looks at El, sees all his worry mirrored back at him.

"Elizabeth, I tried to talk to him through the door but he said he really just had to pee. When he didn't come out a after a couple of minutes, I opened the door and he was gone. The window was open."

This is what Neal does. He runs.

Peter's mind goes into agent mode. He pulls out his cell and dials while barking out a few orders."Let's fan out in the neighborhood. Janie can you post this on facebook and call anyone you know in the area to keep an eye out?"

"On it."

"Elizabe-"

"Hey Peter. What's up?"

"Clinton, I need your help."

*

Jones and Diana, Mozzie and June's driver have all come to help search. El's as frantic as Peter but she's kept herself together while they walk the neighborhood and Peter's proud of her.

"Do you think Satchmo could find him?"

"He's not a bloodhound."

"Peter."

Peter goes home to get Satch. He wants to send El to do this because it's a lost cause and he's more experienced at searches than her, but something in El's voice pushes him to do it himself. As he walks in the house, he sees light spilling out from under the laundry room door and his throat tightens, his eyes tearing up. He has to take a deep breath to settle down. He knows he turned that light off before they left the house. He almost calls Els but he needs to know before giving her false hope.

He steps slowly toward the door and turns the latch. As he opens it, he's bombarded with the smell of acrylics, and the sight of Neal, asleep against the dryer. A brush dipped in a dark navy has fallen out of his limp hand and decorated the tiled floor. Pale cheeks are marred by smudges of paint. Neal's little chest rises and falls, and Peter's heart stops stuttering. His old school Panthers backpack sits against the washer.

Watching him sleep takes him back to that nightmare. Seems like an eternity. He'd assumed Neal was dreaming about James abandoning him. But it was Peter, putting him in prison.

He steps out back and calls El, tells her the news. He can hear Clinton in the background and tells El to ask him to handle calling off the search. He owes Clinton lunch for a week.

Back in the laundry room he sets the brush back on Neal's pallet and joins him on the floor. He lifts the little hand in his own and softly calls Neal's name. Neal stirs immediately curling up to Peter's side for a moment before stiffening and raising his head.

"Petr." His face is open and frightened. His eyes dart around for an escape, resting on the backpack.

"Is that your go-bag, Buddy?"

Guilty as charged. The little guy looks down at his lap.

"You were going to leave, weren't you?"

Neal nods.

"Neal, it's okay. You're okay. Come 'ere." Neal looks back up to Peter, searching his face for duplicity. Apparently he finds none. He sinks into Peter's lap and cries.

Peter doesn't tell him not to cry, just holds him, rocks him, for long quiet moments, until the sobbing quiets and his soft hiccups are the only thing to drown out the buzz of the refrigerator.

The front door slams open. "Peter?"

Neal starts to pull away but Peter hugs him more tightly. "In here."

El rushes in, frantic and wind-blown, but her flurry halts dead stop when she sees them. She kicks her heels off and kneels down in front of them. "Baby, why did you run?"

"Sorry, Liz'beth." She pulls Neal onto her knee. "I wanted to finish it before I went away. But I fell asleep."

"Why would you need to go away?"

"Moz found a cure. I won't get to be here anymore. I like it here."

Damn it. Peter doesn't want a damned cure. Maybe he can lock Mozzie up in a cell for the next fourteen years.

"Neal, we don't care if Mozzie finds a cure. We love you and we'll always be your family."

"I won't hafta go to jail?"

It doesn't matter what Neal does anymore, child or adult. At this point there is no way Peter would ever be able to allow that. "I won't let that happen, Buddy. Okay?"

"Kay. Liz'beth?"

"Yeah?"

"I don't want to go to Tyler's house anymore."

"Oh, I thought he was your friend. Isn't that why you took that food for him at school?"

"No. He jus' needed help that day. He's boring. He likes to play Hungry Hippos and Battleship."

"Ah. Not much of a challenge?"

"And he plays by the rules."

"I can see the problem," Peter helps.

"Travesty." El smiles.

El settles down on the floor beside Peter, Neal in her lap, his legs stretched atop Peter's. Peter lets his head drop back, tired.

The painting has changed again. Aphrodite's hair is dark and the Thinker has something small and shiny sitting at his feet. The size of a badge. Beneath them, kind of holding them up, is a dark cape, dark blue. In the distance, backlit by van Gogh's stars flying above the pond, is a bat. It's flying directly toward them. Flying home.

* * * * *

Cheery and peaceful. Cookie cutter. No imagination. Average drone of a neighborhood. Perfectly lined flower boxes, manicured miniature lawns. Finding the life savings of any of these people would be duck soup.

Moz can hear some pounding from around the back when he walks up to the stoop for the last time, and inside, some Sinatra. How many ways has he snuck into this place over the years? If they only knew.

Ha! Even the doorbell is mass produced domesticity.

"I get it!"

"You just wait for me, Mister."

Neal opens the door, El behind him.

"Mozzie!"

"Bonjour, Mon Frére. Comment avez-vous été?"

"Fantastique! Et occupé."

"Avec quoi?"

"Okay, in English please."

"Sorry Liz'beth. Moz, come on." Neal pulls him into the living room, shows him the sculpture he's building out of gummy worms. A fractal... that's intriguing, and perhaps worrying.

"Why are you building this?"

Neal seems flummoxed. "'Looks neat?"

"Oh, carry on, then."

"You help." Moz proceeds in a minion capacity, doing the grunt work of handing off supplies while Neal gets the glory job. At least that hasn't changed.

After a while it's evident Neal had apparently merely originated with a fractal, or Mozzie was seeing things, and is now turning the project into the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, marvel of engineering he supposes, but too modern for Moz's taste.

"Mozzie, would you like some tea?"

Ah, Elizabeth with a reprieve. "Brand?"

"McNulty's"

"Did you buy it in Greenwich Village?"

"From their online store."

"Flavor?"

"Chamomile or Orange Pekoe."

"Pekoe, please."

He follows her into the kitchen, watches her work away effortlessly, Neal singing Fly Me to the Moon in the living room. He can hear the G-man pounding away out back but he's nowhere to be seen when Moz glances out - he refrains from asking, wouldn't want to be roped into manual labor.

A box of animal crackers is pushed up against the backsplash by the sink, beside a Batman water bottle. Truly the life of the American middle class.

The pounding stops and soon after Peter pops inside, hammer on his belt. "Mozzie."

"Suit."

"To what do we owe this pleasure."

El hands a glass of water off to Peter, then sets the teacups on the island between them. Moz stretches his neck, makes sure Neal's in his own little world - still singing, still building a masterpiece.

"Suit, I want you to understand, if there's ever a hair harmed on his head, if I ever think you're not treating him like he's spurned from your own flawed loins, or not letting him expand his mind or his creativity, if I ever hear wind of the slightest-"

"Mozzie."

"... I will make this," he pulls a manila envelope from his coat, "and him, disappear where he can lead an enriching life of culture and education and-"

"Crime."

"I... actually... No. I wouldn't do that. I certainly wouldn't let him fall prey to government mind-washing or brainless media sheepherding. But I wouldn't encourage anything too illegal."

"Too illegal."

"A loophole is always important."

"Fine. Why the threats?"

He pulls a sheaf of papers from the envelope and drops them onto the island with a flourish.

They're divided into four sections: A death certificate, in the name of Jennifer Lynn Mitchell. A birth certificate, in the name of Neal George Mitchell. An MIA form, complete with letter of apology and another of commendation from the US Government in the name of Neal George Caffrey. And approved adoption paperwork from the state of New York to Peter and Elizabeth Burke.

He watches their reactions for signs. Tears immediately spring into El's eyes, her hand flying up to her mouth, which is spread wide in a grateful grin. No surprise there. But The Suit... his eyes light up, his face opens up, and his jaw quivers for just a fraction of a second. He stands there staring at the papers like they're a golden egg, afraid to take it. G-men Drones.

"No cure?" once he finally finds his voice.

"Not that I've been able to find."


"If you can't find it, Mozzie, it doesn't exist."

"I don't have an answer about aging, either. We'll have to keep track of his measurements and... " Moz throws his hands up in defeat.

"And hope for the best."

"Yeah."

The Suit comes around the island and Moz backs up involuntarily a step before he stands his ground. Peter holds out his hand, waiting for Moz to take it. "Thank you, Mozzie. You don't know how much this means."

Moz has some Purell in his pocket. He's also pretty sure government contagions can't infect Free Thinkers anyway. He meets J. Edgar halfway, offers his hand in return.

"Really, thank you so much."

Mozzie offers a thin smile, lowers his eyes and nods. And then pops his head back up, "Just don't pin him into a black and white world. He needs to spread his wings. And when he gets to be fifteen-"

"He has you to help with all that, Moz." El chimes in.

"Excuse me?"

"Aren't you sticking around?"

Peter goes along with her line of coercion, probably because he knows it's inevitable, living with Super Woman, "I was thinking weekly dinners at least."

"Well, if you don't think you can handle him on your own, of course I'll put my extensive plans on hold for a little while."

"Thanks, Moz. We couldn't do it without you."

"And don't-

Peter opens his mouth, stops him with a raised hand. "Truce. We can all make this work. For Neal."

"For Neal."

El steps forward and hugs him. He'll have to iron his scarf but it's worth it.

Neal runs in behind Moz. "What's for Neal?"

Peter picks Neal up, carries him to the window. He points toward the sky, Neal looking up.

"A safe house!"


"The beginnings of one."

Moz looks out into the tree in the Burke's back yard. A few boards are already in place for a tree house, ladder built up against the trunk. It has long way to go, but there on a low-hanging branch, just above the burgeoning floor of Neal's future "safe house," flapping in the breeze like a flag, like an invitation, is the smoothest dark blue cape Moz has ever seen.

* * * * *

It continues with sparkling blue eyes, a gloriously promising future, and the love a clever little boy.

Neal - First Place. Elizabeth - Jackpot.



fin


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