Neal had never stopped to imagine Peter as a child. Peter Burke, six-foot-two of broad-shouldered federal agent, may have had a boyish side, but the idea of him as a child, the tiny person he must have been decades ago, had never felt real. In Neal's private mythology, Peter was born full-grown, sprung from the bosom of Quantico, ready to pursue only the very best white collar criminals across land and sea in pursuit of justice. Standing in the middle of a storage unit, staring at three and a half feet of shaggy-haired, pink-cheeked Peter Burke, Neal had the feeling he was going to need a whole new chapter in his mythology.
The worst part was that Mozzie was going to crow with vindication; he'd sworn that he had reputable reports of the ancient sculpture they were searching for causing anybody who touched it to spontaneously turn into a child. Neal hadn't believed the story any more than he believed most of Mozzie's crackpot theories, not that he would tell his friend that, and it wasn't until he saw Peter's hand touch the bronze sculpture that he entertained the idea that there might be something to Mozzie's story.
Then, just as Peter's hand wrapped around the sculpture, the lights flickered, the air in the room seemed to ripple like a bed sheet shaken between two pairs of hands, and Neal looked down to see a small boy sitting on the floor, body draped in Peter's cheap suit, eyes wide and round and brown and terribly familiar.
"Oh, crap," Neal muttered, mind racing as he tried to figure out how he was going to fix this.
"What was that--" Diana came around from behind a large wooden crate and stopped in her tracks at the sight of the child on the floor. "Caffrey, where did you get that kid?"
"Why do you think I got him somewhere?"
"He didn't just show up magically." Diana rolled her eyes. "Boss! Where are you?"
"I'm over here." They both turned at the sound of the small voice. He had a familiar perturbed-Peter-Burke expression on his little face, then he looked down at the clothes blanketing him and scrunched up his unlined forehead. "Neal, what did you do to my clothes?"
"Why does everybody think I did this?"
"Boss!" Diana called out more loudly before turning to look at Neal again. "Where did he go."
"I'm right here!" Peter sounded like a petulant child about to stomp his foot. "Wait, what's wrong with my voice?" Neal stepped closer and Peter drew back. "How did you get so big? Did somebody drug me?"
Neal closed his eyes, took a deep breath and turned to face Diana. "That's Peter," he said, gesturing at the little boy on the floor. "He touched the wrong statue and got turned into a child."
"Yeah, right. Everybody knows those are just old wives tales."
"What are you talking about?" Peter insisted in his strange, small voice.
Neal forced himself to stay calm. "Go look at him. He's wearing Peter's clothes, and there wasn't enough time to dress some random kid up in the same clothes Peter was wearing five minutes ago. Look at his face--he's Peter. I'm calling Mozzie to see how we can fix this."
As he pulled out his phone and dialed, Neal watched Diana approach little Peter as if he were a potentially dangerous animal.
"Mozzie," he said over his friend's secret passphrase of the week, "you remember what you told me about the Minoan bronze, the sculpture of a child?"
"That you shouldn't touch it? Don't touch it!"
"I didn't touch it." Neal paused as Diana stared into the boy's eyes and then sank down on her haunches.
"Boss?" she whispered.
"What in God's name happened to me?" Peter asked, eyes wide.
"Neal? Who touched it? I somehow doubt this is a hypothetical question."
"Can you come out to Long Island City?"
"This isn't a trap is it? Who's there? The suit, the lady suit, the junior suit?"
"Just Peter and Diana. I'll text you the address but uh, can you pick up some clothes that would fit a four year old? Jeans and a sweatshirt and some kind of shoes? As quickly as possible?"
"Just so you know, I'm doing this because I want to see a miniature suit."
"As soon as possible" Neal reminded him before hanging up and texting Mozzie the address.
"One of you had better tell me what's going on here!" Peter's words were every bit the commanding federal agent but his eyes were wide and wet, his lower lip quivering like he was about to burst into tears.
Neal sighed and sat down on the floor of the storage unit, mentally apologizing to Byron for exposing his suit to concrete. "Peter, you touched the Minoan statue and got turned into a little kid. But Mozzie's on the way with some clothes for you, and he's going to tell us how to get you back to normal."
Peter tried to stand up, got tangled in his oversize clothes and tumbled back to the floor. He squirmed around until his arms were free and wiped at the tears in his eyes. "He better be able to fix it soon." Peter crossed his little arms over his chest and set his face in a stiff pout, making it clear he wasn't talking about anything until somebody had a solution.
Neal unfolded himself from the floor and went to talk to Diana just out of Peter's earshot. "You're not going to call this in or write it up or anything, are you?"
"What exactly would I say? Peter Burke's been kidnapped, apparently without his clothes, and some little kid has been left in his place? And neither of us saw the suspects? I'd be fired, you'd be sent back to prison and who knows where this kid--Peter--would end up. You just better be able to fix this quickly enough to keep Peter's absence under the radar."
"I don't know why everybody seems to think this is my fault."
"Because nothing like this ever happened before you were around."
Neal sighed and leaned back against the wooden crate. He sent Mozzie one more text: hurry.
Mozzie arrived remarkably fast, especially considering the fact that he had two plastic shopping bags in hand. One had child-size underpants and a t-shirt, socks and canvas sneakers from a discount store, the other held tan corduroys and a green, brown and gold striped sweater, both clearly vintage from a thrift store.
"You couldn't just get jeans and a little hoodie?"
Mozzie sniffed and looked around Neal at Peter where he sat on the floor next to Diana. "The verisimilitude is pleasing."
Neal just raised his eyebrows. "So, do you have any idea how long this is going to last? Or how we can reverse it."
Mozzie pushed his glasses up on his face. "It's uncertain, but the lore seems to indicate that the way to reverse the change is to fulfill 'the purest wish of childhood.'" He waved his hands in the air as he quoted the supposed lore.
"And if we can't figure out what that is?"
"Frank Brennan, you remember him?"
"The passport guy?"
"Yeah, he got into making passports after he recovered from his run-in with the statue. When it changed him, he got picked up by the cops and stuck in the miniature version of juvie hall. He said he was so miserable he didn't change back until he got big enough to run away and break into a candy store."
"Great, okay, thanks Moz."
"I did it for Mrs. Suit. Tell her I said hi." Mozzie nodded and left.
"You got the clothes?" Diana called out, standing up from the floor and brushing off her pants.
"They look like something out of a kindergarten class picture from 1970, but yes. You want me to help you get dressed, Peter?"
"I can dress myself!" Peter frowned and held his hands out for the bags.
Neal handed them over and watched as Peter stood up and pushed off the oversize suit jacket and shirt and tie. He stood barefoot, wearing Peter's white undershirt like a dress, and glared up at Neal and Diana. "Privacy?"
Neal turned his back to Peter, struggling to keep his amusement from his face, and he saw Diana do the same. He listened to the crinkle of plastic packaging and the brush of fabric against fabric as Peter dressed, and then he heard a frustrated sigh. "Neal?"
Neal turned around, trying not to look too eager. "Everything fit?"
Peter was on the floor again, sitting on top of his suit pants and fully dressed except for his untied sneakers. He gestured at the shoelaces, a ridiculously hopeless look on his face. "My fingers don't work right. They're all...fumbly."
"Haven't learned to tie your shoes yet, huh?"
"I will put you back in prison."
"You're going to have to get big again before you can do that, so I'm not too worried." Neal bent down and tied Peter's laces for him, double-knotting them for good measure. "Are you ready to get out of here?"
"I'm supposed to go back to work. Diana?"
"I don't think that's a good idea, boss. I'll tell Hughes you came down with a fever and laryngitis and had to go home; that'll keep you out sick for at least a day or two. You better let me drive you and Neal home."
Peter scowled and then gave in, narrow shoulders slumping. Neal picked up Peter's suit with his badge, wallet and keys, Diana took custody of Peter's gun and locked up the storage unit, and Peter just walked out to the Taurus and strapped himself into the back seat. The storage unit had been in lower Manhattan, so the drive to Brooklyn was mercifully short, Diana clearly having trouble keeping her eyes off the rear-view mirror and Neal nervously thinking about how he was supposed to take care of a small child, even if he did have Peter's brain inside his head.
As an only child who grew up without any other family close, Neal had almost zero experience with children. He was just grateful that Peter was old enough that there wouldn't be any need for diapers. He hoped--God, he hoped. He wished that Elizabeth could be home to take over responsibility for Peter, but she was in Chicago for the rest of the week.
"Peter, do you want me to call Elizabeth? See if she can come home early?"
"No! No, I don't want her to know about this!" Peter's voice cracked with panic.
"Okay, okay. But you don't even want to talk to her?"
"I don't want her to think of me as a--a child. I'm her husband."
Neal stifled the urge to laugh. "But what if she calls?"
"Tell her I have a sore throat. Tell her I'm undercover. Con her, I don't care."
"Permission to con your wife, noted."
"Aaaand, you're home," Diana announced, handily parallel parking the car in front of Peter and Elizabeth's house. "Everybody out."
Neal got out and held the rear door open while Peter climbed down from the seat. "I'm not actually four years old, you know?"
"You kind of are, and I'm not about to let something happen to you while you're all--" Vulnerable, Neal wanted to say, but he didn't think it would go over well. "Small."
Peter sighed and walked across the street before tromping up the stairs to his front door. Neal unlocked the door, and they were greeted inside by Satchmo who came running and then stopped in his tracks and tilted his head, staring at Peter. Peter drew back against Neal's legs, clearly taken aback at his dog being so much bigger than him, and Satchmo approached and proceeded to sniff Peter up one side and down the other before licking a slobbery stripe from Peter's chin to his forehead.
"Saaatch," Peter whined, wiping off his face with the back of his hand, but then he scratched the dog's head and both of them looked happy. Neal had never seen Peter with that kind of open, uncomplicated happiness on his face, but clearly petting a large dog wasn't his "purest childhood wish" because there was no sign of the grown-up Peter returning. Neal had a feeling that the next day was going to be a busy one, trying to find the trigger that would turn Peter back, but maybe it wasn't so much of a curse for Peter to spend one evening as a child without scrambling to undo it.
Dinner time was getting close, and Neal didn't know if Peter's tastebuds were going to be more like a four year old's or a 45 year old's, but considering that Peter wasn't much of a gourmet at the best of times Neal decided to play it safe and order delivery from an Italian place whose menu he found in the kitchen. Spaghetti with marinara sauce for Peter, a Greek salad and a side of garlic bread for himself. He checked on Peter and found him on the couch flipping through sports channels on the TV, the remote looking huge in his tiny hand, so he took the opportunity to call Mozzie and beg him to pick up his overnight bag and a couple changes of clothes from June's and some pajamas and other clothes for Peter. He wished he'd had the forethought to ask for all of it earlier, but he hadn't ever thought to run scenarios for dealing with magically deaged federal agents.
When dinner arrived, Neal thought about just eating on the couch, since Peter was already set up there, but then he thought about what kind of damage a four year old could do with spaghetti sauce and decided that Elizabeth would never forgive him. He placed a phone book on one of the dining room chairs, and Peter glowered at it but he climbed up to sit and started eating his spaghetti.
Neal did his best to keep his eyes on his own food as Peter struggled to curl the pasta around the tines of his fork, his small hands lacking the dexterity to do it effectively. Part of Neal wanted to reach over and cut up the spaghetti to make things easier, but he knew there'd be no end to the repercussions so he just tried not to watch, tried to keep a straight face as Peter's face became increasingly covered in marinara sauce. It wouldn't even do him any good to take pictures since nobody other than Diana and Mozzie would believe the boy was Peter.
When Peter finished eating, less than a quarter of a way through the large order of spaghetti that grown-up Peter would've demolished without difficulty, Neal broke down and begged Peter to go wash his face. He'd just disappeared up the stairs when Mozzie knocked on the door. Moz had on a hat and glasses, deep into paranoid mode, and he held up Neal's carry-on and a large K-Mart bag before taking off down the front steps. Neal brought the bags inside and nodded gratefully at the normal kid's clothes Mozzie had brought along with some of his own more casual clothes before noticing that he hadn't heard the water turn on upstairs.
"Peter? Everything okay up there?" No reply came, so Neal climbed the stairs, hoping he hadn't managed to let something bad happen to Peter already. "Peter?" he called again as he walked down the short hallway to the bathroom. Inside the small room he found Peter with his scowling face still covered in pasta sauce and his arms crossed over his narrow chest. "What's wrong?"
"I can't turn on the water," Peter admitted, indignantly. "I can't reach the damn taps."
Neal looked at the sink, seeing that from Peter's perspective it was relatively high, the basin set back from the front of the counter, much too far for him to reach.
"I tried to carry in the chair from the bedroom but it was too heavy and wouldn't move." Under the marinara, Peter's face was pink with embarrassment or anger, and Neal didn't think he'd react at all well to the offer of being boosted up.
"Okay, give me a minute."
Neal jogged down the stairs and found the small fold-up step-stool El kept next to the refrigerator for reaching the high cabinets when Peter wasn't around. He ran back upstairs and set up the stool in front of the sink. "How about that?"
Peter frowned but then climbed up on the stool and was able to reach the taps and the soap with no difficulty. "Thanks," Peter mumbled.
"No problem, Peter. Mozzie brought over some more clothes, so if you want to get out of the kindergarten class of 1970 outfit there you can. He brought pajamas too if you want to get ready for bed."
"It's only seven o'clock! I'm not going to bed!"
"Okay." Neal held up his hands. "I just thought, you know, it's been a long day and you might be tired."
"I'm not tired," Peter insisted his now-clean face starting to turn red again.
"Okay. I'll just go down and find something to watch on TV."
Downstairs, Neal cleaned up from dinner and then turned the TV on and started scrolling through the channel guide for something they could both watch. He heard Peter come down the stairs and then start messing with something in the other room, but he didn't turn to look, determined to give Peter some space. As much as his mind seemed to be adult, his emotions were clearly those of a four year old, and Neal was seriously hoping to avoid a temper tantrum. After a few minutes, he heard a heavy sigh and then, "Neal?"
"Yes?" He stood up and turned around and saw Peter struggling with his briefcase.
"My laptop's too heavy. I can't get it to the table."
"Why don't we just watch things explode on TV?"
"I need to check my e-mail."
The business-like tone in a small child's voice was so incongruous that Neal once again struggled not to laugh. "But you're supposed to be out sick."
"Don't you think I check my e-mail when I'm out sick?"
Neal opened his mouth and then closed it. "Okay." He picked up Peter's 17" laptop, which was in fact quite heavy, and set it on the table next to the wireless mouse. Neal was about to go retrieve the phone book for Peter to sit on again, but Peter just knelt up on the chair in front of his laptop and opened it. Neal stood behind him for a moment taking in the odd sight, but then Peter turned around and glared at him, so Neal headed back to the couch to find something more to his own taste to watch until Peter was done working.
He didn't find anything truly worth watching, but he settled on an episode of Antiques Roadshow, and just as Joe Bob was about to find out that his family heirloom painting was nothing more than a cheap reproduction Neal heard a clatter and bang come from behind him. Neal jumped up and walked around to the table, taking in the details of the scene: the wireless mouse on the floor near the wall, the batteries and battery cover scattered around it, Peter standing on his chair with his arms crossed over his chest, glaring down at his laptop, Satch crouching in the corner looking nervously up at Peter.
Neal walked around to the other side of the table and saw Peter's face, bright red and scrunched up in anger. "What's going on?"
"I can't do it right. My hands are too little and stupid, and I can't type or hold the mouse right, and I can't focus on all the little words on the screen." Peter uncrossed his arms, his little hands balled up in fists, and jumped down to the floor with a thud. "This is all your fault Neal!"
Neal bit his lip as he saw Peter's eyes welling up with tears, his lower lip quivering. "I'm going to fix this, Peter."
Peter sniffled deeply then turned his back to Neal. "Leave me alone!"
Neal could hear the tears in his voice and knew there was nothing he could say right then to make Peter feel better. The stress and strangeness of the whole situation were difficult enough for an adult to deal with, but it was clearly overwhelming for Peter's suddenly pint-size brain and body, no matter how adult his thoughts were. Neal retreated to the second floor and unpacked his overnight bag in the guest room then browsed through the books on the room's small bookshelf until he decided that the storm of Peter's temper tantrum must have passed.
When Neal went back downstairs, neither Peter nor Satchmo were anywhere to be seen until Neal looked at the couch. Satchmo was curled up on one of the cushions, where he definitely wasn't supposed to be, and Peter was laying with his head and upper body pillowed on Satch's side, his tear-stained face burrowed into the golden fur, legs sprawled onto the middle of the couch. Satchmo looked at Neal and panted contentedly, swatting his tail against the back of the sofa, but Peter was fast asleep, his breathing slow and steady. Neal patted Satch's head and then hesitated before gently brushing Peter's sweaty hair back out of his face.
"I guess you're going to sleep down here tonight, huh?" Neal whispered, not wanting to wake Peter. He lifted the top off of the nearby ottoman and took out both throw blankets inside then spread them out over Peter's sleeping form. He went back upstairs and changed into his own sleep clothes then came back downstairs with a book and a blanket from the guest bed. Neal checked the locks on the doors, turned off all the lights other than the reading lamp next to the sofa then sat down on the unoccupied end of the couch and put his feet up on the ottoman.
Neal had slept in less comfortable places than a well-stuffed couch, after all.
Neal woke early the next morning to a stiff neck and the sense that somebody was watching him. When he opened his eyes he saw Peter--miniature Peter, Neal marveled all over again--sitting sideways against the far end of the couch, his legs folded together in front of him.
"Morning," Neal said, testing the waters.
"Good morning." Peter looked down at his lap, where a liter jug of orange juice was propped between his legs. "I'm sorry about my performance last night."
"Hey, it's okay. I wouldn't be too happy either, in your situation."
"Right, you'd probably be out on the street swindling old ladies out of quarters with your big blue eyes."
"That sounds like a great way to end up in foster care."
"Yeah, maybe." Peter was quiet for a moment before he looked at Neal again. "It was weird. I got frustrated and then it was all just overwhelming, and I lost it." Peter lifted the OJ and took a long gulp.
"Elizabeth would kill you for that, you know." Neal pointed at the jug.
Peter rolled his eyes. "I couldn't reach the glasses." Peter sighed. "Too little."
"That's the problem, I think. You feel like your adult self, but your body's only four years old. So you got tired before prime time, and you had a meltdown when you got stressed out. I'm pretty sure that's normal."
"It's not like I'm going to tell anybody."
"You're a good friend," Peter said, like he was admitting a secret. Then he held out the half-full container of juice. "Want some?"
Neal eyed it up, thought about what Mozzie would have to say about sharing germs and about how Elizabeth's perfectly nice juice glasses were ten steps away in the kitchen, then gave in. "Sure." He smiled, accepting the juice, then took several sips followed by a long swallow. He'd forgotten how much better juice tasted straight from the bottle.
Peter grinned and Neal made a silent wish that they'd have a good day and that they'd find the key to reversing Peter's transformation.
After a breakfast of eggs scrambled by Neal and toast buttered by Peter, they sat back down at the table with a pad of paper to brainstorm ideas for what Peter's "purest childhood wish" might be.
"Think of this as letting your inner pre-schooler have free rein. Sky's the limit."
"I barely remember being this little at all."
"I don't suppose there's anybody we could ask? Not that there would be any way to ask that wouldn't sound insane."
Peter shook his head. "My mom died when I was sixteen. My dad about five years ago."
"I'm sorry," Neal said, aching at the thought of sixteen year old Peter dealing with that.
Peter shrugged one small shoulder. "It was a long time ago." But his face was too somber for his four year old body, and Neal didn't think the line of conversation would be conducive to achieving their goal for the day.
"Okay, so what do you remember from when you were just a little older? Kindergarten? First grade?"
"Well, I always loved baseball."
"Too bad it's not baseball season." Neal had never expected to say that.
"Yeah, I always wanted to meet one of the players. Shake their hand, you know?"
"Okay, writing that down. Anything else you can think of?"
"Horses. I was always watching westerns with my dad--Big Valley, Bonanza. I wanted to learn how to ride a horse, but didn't get to until I was 19 or 20."
"So, a pony ride?"
"I don't think so. I remember one of those from when I was almost this little and it was...disappointing."
"Okay, writing down horseback riding lessons. On a real horse. Next?"
"I had a thing for wolves for a while. Like dogs but cooler, you know?"
"Don't let Satch hear you say that." Neal smirked, and Peter grinned the devious little boy grin that Neal couldn't help wanting to see more often.
"Anyway, I always wanted to see one, though I think I did eventually on some elementary school field trip."
"Okay, anything that doesn't involve athletes or live animals?"
"This isn't anything big, but I didn't see a movie in the movie theater until I was about ten, and I always wanted to."
Peter nodded. "My mother, she was great, really. But she wasn't a big fan of going out and doing things, and my father was working all the time. So, we had a lot of fun at home, and I went places with school but not very often on the weekend until I was old enough to go with friends."
"Okay, a movie sounds doable." Neal added it to the list. "What about something small? Mozzie said that one guy this happened to, he changed back after breaking into a candy store."
"We're not committing any crimes!"
"I didn't mean that. Just, did you have a particular passion for candy?"
Peter sat quietly, thinking. "Ice cream. When my dad would take us somewhere on the weekend, I always wanted to go to the ice cream parlor. And then I could never decide which flavor to get; it probably drove him crazy."
"Okay, ice cream. If we try everything else we can get to and nothing happens, we'll pick up all the flavors you want on the way home."
"Speaking of something happening, am I going to end up naked in the middle of whatever public place we happen to be in, with my clothes shredded like the Incredible Hulk? Because that would be pretty embarrassing."
"I don't think so? Mozzie sent me some more information last night, and apparently the people who changed back felt something, some kind of warning, and they had time to get to a private place to change."
"What kind of warning?"
"Apparently it's the kind of thing that you'll know when you feel it."
"Great. Well, we better bring along some clothes just in case there's not enough warning to get back here."
"Good thought. So, can I use your laptop to research plans for the day?"
Peter sighed, looking dejected for a moment before shaking it off. "I guess you might as well. Just tell me you trust me to go take a bath without drowning myself."
"Leave the door unlocked?"
Peter glared at Neal, suddenly looking surprisingly like his adult self. "You're not my babysitter; remember that."
"Ten-four little buddy. I put your clothes on your bed."
"Thanks," Peter muttered before not quite stomping up the stairs.
Neal pulled Peter's laptop over and opened it, turning to Google for help in figuring out how to make some of Peter's wishes reality. First, as much as he wasn't a fan of zoos, he found the websites for New York City's various zoos, but none of them had wolves listed among their animals. Two upstate zoos looked more likely, but that kind of trip would have to wait for another day, assuming they couldn't get Peter changed back more quickly. He thought that they'd have to at least get out of the city for horseback riding lessons, but he found a stable offering lessons in Prospect Park; maybe they'd be able to get Peter back to his usual adult self without even leaving Brooklyn. He made notes of contact information for the stable and jotted down some possible movies and times.
The baseball player idea was more difficult. It was long past baseball season, but even so Neal thought that Peter might be more impressed with meeting a former player he'd remember from his early childhood, so he sent Mozzie an e-mail asking him to look for men who'd played for the Yankees in the early 70s. Neal ran his hands through his hair and breathed against the anxiety rising inside him. The plans that had felt like such a plausible solution while he was talking to Peter now felt like little more than a semblance of an idea that would be more likely to fall apart than come together. He knew he wasn't responsible for Peter getting changed into a child, but that didn't alter the fact that Peter and Diana were both looking at him to reverse the change.
If he and Peter, with Mozzie's help, couldn't get Peter changed back within a few days, Neal didn't want to think about what the repercussions would be. Elizabeth finding out that her husband had been replaced by a tiny version of himself would be the least of it. As far as the FBI was concerned, Peter would have to be declared missing, Neal would be the main suspect, and Diana would be out of a job. And Peter himself? Unless he could be hidden--unlikely considering the certain investigation into Peter's disappearance--Peter would end up in foster care, and Neal knew from experience that the system was a mixed bag at best.
He thought about getting Mozzie to work on creating a false identity for Peter, identifying him as Elizabeth's adopted child or something similar, but that would feel too much like giving up. If it came down to that, Neal would just have to hope that Mozzie could work fast enough to keep Peter out of unfamiliar hands. He leaned his forehead into the heel of his hand, trying to push away the headache from spending the night with his neck at a weird angle, then looked up when he heard Peter's light footsteps descending the stairs. Peter had put on blue jeans, a heather gray long sleeve t-shirt with a fire truck on the front, and a navy blue hoodie, unzipped--a perfect outfit for the crisp, sunny early fall day waiting for them outside and much more ordinary than Mozzie's vintage outfit from the day before.
"What's wrong?" Peter asked, standing at the bottom of the steps with a far-too-large-for-him backpack clutched in his hands.
"Nothing." Neal smiled, doing his best to push away his worries and sell Pete the lie. "I'm just trying to figure out what we should do first."
Peter frowned. "You know I didn't mean it yesterday when I said this was your fault. I'm sorry I said that."
"Oh hey, don't worry about that. What's in the backpack?"
"Adult clothes so I don't end up naked in a public place."
"Excellent. You think you can let Satchmo in while I go change?"
"Yes, Neal, I can take care of my own dog."
Neal refrained from patting Peter on his head as they crossed paths in front of the stairs. Just barely.
Holding hands was the first battle. Neal wanted Peter to promise to hold his hand anytime they were walking on the street, but Peter balked, arguing that since he wasn't an actual child he wouldn't be likely to get lost. Neal crouched down in front of Peter on the sidewalk in front of the Burkes' home.
"What if somebody grabs you and you're too small to get away? Or what if the impulsive four year old inside you takes control and you go haring off into the street and get hit by a car? How am I supposed to explain that to Elizabeth?"
Peter stiffened his lips like he was going to be stubborn, but then his shoulders slumped. "Okay, fine. Just as long as you remember that I'm not actually four."
"How could I forget when you keep reminding me?" Neal stood up and held out his hand, and after a moment Peter wrapped his small hand around Neal's fingers and they took off toward the intersection where it would be easier to catch a cab to their first stop--Prospect Park. Neal felt strange, walking hand in hand with Peter Burke, but he held on tight to the reminder that the Peter he knew would be back and that he was responsible for making that happen.
The woman behind the counter at the park's stables raised one pencilled eyebrow as she looked down at Peter. "Our minimum age for riding lessons is six years old but we do have pony rides."
"I don't want a pony ride!" Peter piped up.
"Peter here turned six just last week, so that's perfect." Neal smiled and leaned in closer. "He's just a little small for his age but we try not to make him self-conscious about it, if you know what I mean."
"Oh, I see," she whispered before leaning over to get a better look at Peter. "So what grade are you in, young man?"
Neal could see the irritation in Peter's eyes but he suspected the woman wouldn't notice it. "First grade," he said.
"Shouldn't you be in school today?"
"I'm homeschooled. And my mom has an appointment today so my uncle's taking me to the park. Can I ride a horse now?" Peter paused for a moment before adding, "Please?"
The woman looked taken-aback, but at least Peter's little speech was likely to have convinced her that Peter was no four year old. She took Neal's credit card and then outfitted Peter with a tiny helmet and tightened it under his chin. Neal yearned to take a picture but knew that it would only result in Peter confiscating his phone, so he resisted the urge. A college age girl came to meet them and after introducing herself as Janey led them back into the stables where the smell of horses made Neal think of Monaco and days long past. Then he looked down and saw Peter smiling as he looked up at the horses who were poking their heads out of their stables as they walked by.
The horse she led out for Peter was smallish with a glossy red-brown coat, and it took Neal a moment to realize that Janey was waiting for him to lift Peter up into the saddle. "You ready?" He asked Peter, who looked up at the horse as if he were calculating the likelihood of being able to climb up on his own and then nodded. With his hands under Peter's armpits, Neal lifted him up and held him until he felt like he was steady on the horse's back. "You good?"
"I'm..." Peter's eyes were wide, his hands clenched tight on the front of the saddle. "This is really high."
"You can get down if you're scared, it's okay," Janey said. "But this girl won't hurt you, I promise."
Irritation at being condescended to seemed to chase away the fear on Peter's face and he shook his head. "No, I'm not scared. Can we go ride through the trees?"
Janey smiled but shook her head. "How about we try riding around the small ring in here first? When you come back for your next lesson, we can try riding outside. What do you think?" Janey looked at Neal and then at Peter, but Neal could only hope that there wouldn't be any need for future lessons. Neal stood next to the horse as Janey coached Peter on how to hold the reins and how to sit in the saddle. She seemed impressed by how quickly Peter picked up the technique, and soon enough Neal was walking alongside as the horse sauntered around the ring under Peter's direction.
"How does that feel, Peter?" Neal asked, trying to find out if Peter felt any indications that his body might be getting ready to change back.
Peter shook his head and then shrugged his shoulders. "It's fun though. At least I get to be taller than you."
"You'll be taller than me again soon." Neal sincerely hoped that was true.
Before long, the lesson was over, and Neal helped Peter down from the horse's back. "You have your land legs?" At Peter's nod, Neal pulled off his helmet and couldn't resist running a hand through his damp, disheveled hair. Peter squirmed away but didn't look angry, and he didn't argue about taking Neal's hand as they walked away from the stable. Neal bought two bottles of water and a soft pretzel from a cart and found a bench where they could take a break.
"So, I guess that wasn't your purest childhood wish?"
"I always imagined riding fast, flying across the prairie, you know? Not walking around the ring at a snail's pace, but I guess they're not going to let small children gallop through Prospect Park."
"Unless you were to liberate one of the horses while they weren't watching?"
"I thought you said we weren't committing any crimes?" Neal smirked.
"Oh yeah. Right."
Neal checked his phone and found a message from Mozzie that he was still working on the baseball angle, but he knew they couldn't bank on that. "So, what you think? Movie time? We could get to one of the early matinees if we catch a cab soon."
"What do you want to see?"
"It doesn't really matter what I want to see, right? But I think we have to go Pixar because I'll probably get arrested for child endangerment if I try to take you to a violent movie, and you don't want to go to a chick flick, do you?"
"No, not really. Pixar?"
"They're supposed to be fun." Aside from the way people would look at him for taking pint-sized Peter into an action movie, Neal wasn't sure how Peter's four year old emotions would be able to handle explosions and violence on the big screen with its overwhelming sights and sounds. Traumatizing him would be counter-productive. And horrible. "So, let's head to the movie theater and then if you're still little we'll get lunch at McDonald's. If you're grown up we'll get lunch somewhere they serve alcohol."
"Sounds like a plan." Peter nodded and hopped down from the bench.
After a short cab ride to Cobble Hill, Neal bought two tickets to the latest animated movie, a small soda and a box of Milk Duds for Peter and coffee for himself then led Peter into the movie theater. It was nearly empty, not surprising given that it was a weekday afternoon, and Peter tugged Neal toward one of the back rows and then down to the middle of the row. Neal checked his phone--still nothing more from Mozzie--then opened Peter's candy after watching him struggle with it for a minute.
"Thanks," Peter whispered.
"You're welcome," Neal replied in a purposefully overblown stage whisper, and Peter giggled. A happy, giggling Peter--Neal was glad that the darkening theater hid his amusement.
After watching Peter squirm around in his seat for ten minutes, Neal led Peter to the restroom and back just after the actual movie started, but after that Peter was the perfect audience member, quietly munching on his Milk Duds and watching the animated characters go about their adventure. A little past the halfway mark, Neal felt a weight on his arm and looked down to see Peter had fallen asleep, his legs curled up on the seat, his head tilted against Neal's side. Neal sighed and checked his phone again, not worrying about the light since there was nobody seated behind them or very near them.
Finally, he had a text with an address and a name, another option to try before he had to start thinking about getting Peter upstate or tracking down some kind of aunt or uncle or psychic who might be able to give them a better clue to what they needed to do to let Peter grow up again. Neal thought about waking Peter and moving on to their next destination, but then realized that a rested Peter was more likely to be happy than a tired, cranky Peter. He reached his arm around Peter's shoulders, letting him cuddle in closer, and tried to pay attention to the rest of the movie.
As the credits rolled at the end, Neal gently shook Peter's shoulder to wake him up. He blinked his eyes open, and for a moment there was no trace of adult Peter in his expression, just a sleepy child trying to get his bearings in a strange place.
"I hate to tell you, but you slept through most of the movie."
"Oh." Peter sat up straight in his seat and looked around at the other people leaving the theater. "El would say I never really grew out of that."
"What do you think, you ready to go to McDonald's? We should get some lunch, and then I have a surprise for you afterward."
"A surprise? Why don't you just tell me?"
"I think it would work better as a surprise." Neal stood up and held his hand out for Peter's. "Are you hungry?"
"Starving!" Peter took Neal's hand and followed him out of the theater. "El gives me a hard time if I eat fast food, but I guess I don't have to worry about my cholesterol right now."
Neal laughed; he wasn't looking forward to the grease and chemicals himself, but if it made Peter happy, well, that was the name of the game. They walked down the block to the closest McDonald's, and watching Peter grin around his cheeseburger made up for the mediocre chicken sandwich Neal ordered for himself. If they were lucky, Peter would be back to his usual self within a couple of hours, but Neal realized that he was going to miss this little boy with Peter's face when he was gone.
As Neal moved toward the curb in front of McDonald's to hail another cab, Peter planted his feet in place and tugged on Neal's arm. "Are we going somewhere we can get to on the subway?"
"I think so, but a cab would be faster."
"Do we have to get there at a specific time?" Peter lisped on the word specific, his mouth unable to form the word correctly, and Neal struggled to suppress his amusement.
"No, but what's wrong with taking a cab?"
"I like the subway." Peter's eyes lit up and his lips turned up in a truly devious smile. "And I always wanted to ride on the subway when I was a kid so maybe that'll be what turns me back."
Neal knew he was being played but didn't have much of a rebuttal to Peter's argument, so he pulled out his phone and looked up public transit directions in Google maps. The route wasn't too bad; they only had to walk a block or two to get on the G and then transfer to the elevated tracks for the 7. As they descended into the subway station, Neal breathed through his mouth to block out the stale odor that always reminded him of prison, but then the train pulled into the station and Peter's broad smile as he turned his face into the wind of the passing train pulled Neal away from those memories. Nobody had smiled that way in prison, nobody sane.
Peter didn't want to sit on the train, preferring to wrap his arms around a pole and hang on, leaning one way and then the other against the movement of the train. Neal stood over him, one hand holding tight to the pole, the other hovering over Peter's shoulder. When they transferred to the 7, the four flights of stairs from underground to the elevated train tracks were a challenge for Peter. He climbed the first flight enthusiastically and then climbed more slowly on the second flight up to street level.
When Peter turned to trudge up the next flight of stairs, Neal steered him to the side. "How about a ride?"
"I'm not that little," Peter said, looking offended.
"You're little enough that I think I can carry you for a few minutes. We have to walk a few blocks on the other end of this ride so why not take a break?"
Peter looked up at all the stairs above them and then quirked his mouth to the side. "This is another thing you'll never tell anybody about, right?"
"I promise. Anyway, why would I want to tell people about being your pack animal?"
"Okay." Peter held his arms out resignedly, and Neal bent down to pick him up. Peter wasn't quite as light as he looked, but once Neal adjusted the backpack on his back and Peter wrapped his arms and legs around Neal's body he felt stable in Neal's arms. "Up the mountain, sherpa!" Peter freed one of his arms to point up the stairs and then quickly wrapped it around Neal's side again.
"Don't push it," Neal whispered into Peter's ear.
The elevated train platform was a vast improvement over the underground station, with fresh air replacing the fetid smell that had put Neal's nerves on edge. When the train came,
Peter chose to take a seat instead of holding onto the pole, but then he turned around and knelt up to look out the window at the passing rooftops of Queens. They'd only gone a few stops when Neal nudged Peter. "Time to go."
"Sunnyside?" Peter asked, raising his eyebrows--an oddly adult expression on his small face.
"Looks that way," Neal replied, refusing to give away any more information.
Peter declined the offer of a ride down the stairs but took Neal's hand without prompting once they reached the street. Neal consulted the map on his phone and then the two of them walked down Queens Boulevard for a few blocks before turning onto a cross-street and then walking up to an apartment building. Neal pressed the buzzer for apartment 3B and waited, hoping that Mozzie had truly set this up for them.
"Yeah?" A man's gravely voice came across the speaker.
"Sir, I'm a friend of Dante Havisham--" The buzz of the door unlocking cut off Neal's introduction, so he looked down and smiled at Peter. "Looks like we're in."
They had the small elevator to themselves, and Peter peered up at Neal. "Are we going to see some kind of witch doctor who's going to use chicken entrails to try to turn me back?"
"No. And please don't talk about chicken entrails considering that's probably what I ate for lunch."
"If somebody in this building has a wolf I'm really going to have to report that to the--"
"No. No wolves, sorry." The elevator doors opened on the third floor, and Neal nudged Peter out into the hallway in front of him.
"Shh, you'll find out in a minute." Neal knocked on the door of apartment 3B and closed his eyes for a moment to focus on his hope that this would be the solution to turning Peter back into an adult. They would have to head back to the Burke's home soon, and they were running out of childhood dreams to fulfill.
The door opened a few inches on a chain then closed and opened again to reveal an older man in a Yankees t-shirt. He looked at Neal and then down at Peter before stepping back and opening the door further. "Come on in."
Neal kept his eyes on Peter as they walked inside, and he saw Peter's eyes go wide as he gasped, "Wow!" The reason for his awe was apparent as Neal took in the room, which looked like a miniature Yankees museum. The walls were covered in posters, pennants and framed shirts, most of them vintage, and two sets of glass-front bookshelves were full of baseballs and other memorabilia.
Peter turned around in a circle, taking in the contents of the room with his mouth wide open, and then stopped to look at their host. Neal was trying to figure out if he could tell Peter to stop staring without causing an incident when Peter said, "I know who you are!"
Please don't let Peter know this guy from wanted posters, Neal silently hoped, hoping that Mozzie would have better judgement than that.
"Is that right, kid?" The old man replied, raising one bushy eyebrow.
"Johnny Ramirez, shortstop for the Yankees 1968-1973!" Peter bounced on his toes, looking about a heartbeat away from jumping up and down in excitement. "I remember you!"
"I think that was just a little before your time, huh kid?"
"He means he remembers you from his dad's baseball card collection, right slugger?"
Peter scowled up at Neal but then looked back at the old man and nodded. "Yeah, and we watched you on TV too!"
"Classic games on cable," Neal interjected. "By the way, I'm Neal... Burke, and this is my nephew Peter." He held out his hand and the old man took it.
"John Martinez, but I guess the kid already told you that."
Peter was still staring at Mr. Martinez in star-struck awe. "Can I look around at your collection?"
"Sure, kid. Go ahead." Mr. Martinez watched Peter as he walked over to the low cabinets and peered inside with his nose an inch from the glass then motioned to Neal to walk a few steps away. "So what's wrong with the kid?"
"What do you mean?" Neal sincerely hoped that Mozzie hadn't used some sob story that he and Peter would have to try to sell.
"Well, Haversham calls me up outa nowhere, asks to cash in an old favor so some kid can come meet me and look around my living room. I figure the kid's got the, uh, cancer or something but he looks normal."
"Oh, no, Peter's fine. He's just been through a lot of changes recently, his father not in the picture and all." As always, Neal preferred for his lies to contain as much truth as possible. "And Dante owes me a favor or two so he was happy to help give Peter something fun to focus on."
"Oh. Well, he sure is focused."
Peter was examining everything in the cases like it was evidence in a case, and Neal watched him to see if he had any kind of reaction that would indicate he was getting ready to change back to his adult form. He was standing on tiptoe, craning his neck to try to look at one of the framed shirts on the wall, but Neal knew he wouldn't be able to see much more than glare from that angle so he walked over to stand behind him.
"How about a lift?"
Peter looked up and nodded his head so Neal bent and picked him up, turning to give Peter better access to look at the items on the wall. Peter held his hand out, ghosting it over the shape of the numbers on the jersey. "Mr. Martinez?" he asked, "did you wear this in a real game?"
"Sure, kid. Lotsa games."
Peter beamed, smiling from ear to ear, and Neal whispered in his ear, "You feel anything?"
"Just happy," he whispered back before squeezing Neal's ribs in a quick, surprising hug. "Just happy."
By the time they left Mr. Martinez's apartment the sky was turning dark with the promise of dusk and rain so Peter agreed to taking a cab back to Brooklyn. Peter fiddled with the zipper on the backpack containing his adult-size clothes and looked sheepishly up at Neal.
"I'm sorry that nothing happened."
"Peter, you don't have anything to be sorry for. I'm sorry I didn't find the right experience for you."
"But maybe I could've made myself feel happier. Or stayed awake at the movie at least."
"I don't think that's how this thing works. Anyway, I wouldn't say that nothing happened today."
"What d'you mean?"
"We had fun, right?"
Peter smiled then, looking relieved. "Yeah, we did."
Neal had been planning to try letting Peter go crazy on ice cream for dinner if he hadn't already changed back, but after a day of treats and fast food he had a feeling that he'd end up with a sick kid on his hands, and he wanted this second evening with young Peter to be better than the first, not worse. They could always try an ice cream bacchanalia the next day if they didn't come up with any better ideas.
When they got back to the Burkes' townhouse, Peter let Satchmo outside while Neal got the dog food ready and looked in the fridge for healthy dinner possibilities. Once Satchmo was busy gobbling his kibble, Neal set out the ingredients for a stir-fry and turned to Peter.
"Why don't you go pick out a DVD or something on TV for us to watch while I make dinner?"
"I could help if you want. I usually cut up the veggies for El."
"Do you really trust your fine motor control with sharp knives?"
"Maybe I'll just go pick out a movie." Peter took off for the living room, and Neal did his best not to laugh--at least not out-loud.
The stir-fry was easy to assemble--left-over rice in the microwave, chicken and vegetables cut into slices and sauteed with seasonings mild enough to not offend a four year old's palate. He served up bowls for both of them and took them into the living room along with a can of Sprite for Peter.
They sat on the floor by the coffee table eating dinner and watching The Rookie then moved up to the couch when the food was safely out of the way. When the movie was over, they both cleaned up and changed into pajamas then returned to the sofa with Satchmo at their feet. There was a Doctor Who marathon on TV, and if they both spent the night on the couch again, at least nobody cried themselves to sleep.
Neal woke to somebody whispering his name, a finger poking him in the ribs, and as he pried his eyes open he remembered where he was and why. "What's wrong?" The dim, pale light filtering through the curtains told Neal that it was very early morning, and both of them had stayed up late enough that Neal thought Peter would be out until mid-morning. He wanted a few more hours of sleep himself.
Peter was kneeling up on the couch next to Neal, bouncing in excitement. "I had an idea in my dream. I think it's a good idea."
"Hmm, what is it?"
"Swings! I want to go swing on the swings, and there are good swings in the small park down the street. This early there'll be nobody else there."
"Riding a horse and meeting a baseball player didn't work, and you want to try playground swings?"
"It was in my dream! I always wanted to swing on the swings all day long, forever, but my mom didn't think they were very safe so I could only get on them at school where there were too many kids competing for them to stay on long." Peter sank down to sit on his heels. "I feel it in my gut. We should go now."
Neal wanted to tell Peter to just go back to sleep, that the swings would still be there in a few hours, but he couldn't deny that following Peter's gut was usually their best bet. "Okay. Let's go get dressed!"
Peter bounced off the couch and ran upstairs, the noise of it startling Satchmo awake. Neal scratched behind Satchmo's ears as he unfolded himself from the couch. "Keep your paws crossed, buddy." He jogged upstairs and pulled on his clothes from the day before; by the time he made it downstairs, Peter was standing by the front door, bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet.
"You think you should have some breakfast first?"
Peter shook his head decisively. "Swings then breakfast."
"Okay then, let's go." Neal locked the door behind them then took Peter's outstretched hand and hurried with him toward the small park that occupied a grassy triangle of land. Once they were off the sidewalk, Peter pulled his hand away from Neal's and jumped onto a swing, holding the chains tight in his hands and pumping his legs furiously.
"Push me!" Peter demanded, a hopeful smile on his face, so Neal went to stand behind the swing and gave it a gentle push. "Higher!" Neal caught the swing and gave it a slightly more energetic push. "Higher higher higher!" Neal gave in to Peter's enthusiasm and pushed the swing hard. He backed up to give Peter more room on the backswing, and with each arc of the swing he reached up above his head and shoved the swing forward for another go.
Peter was whooping with joy, his little legs pumping on the forward swing, straightening on the way back. Neal felt his arms growing tired of the unaccustomed exercise, but he kept dutifully pushing the swing until suddenly Peter called out, "Time to go home!"
Neal caught the swing at the bottom of its arc and held it still. "Hungry for breakfast now?"
Peter shook his head, grinning. "Time to go home! Time to go back!" He jumped down from the swing and grabbed Neal's hand, pulling him out of the park. By the time they crossed the first intersection, they were both running as fast as Peter could go. Neal opened the front door and Peter darted inside and straight up the stairs, where Neal heard Peter's bedroom door slam shut.
Satchmo lifted his head and stood up, looking toward the source of that bang. "What do you think?" Neal asked the dog. Satchmo trotted over to the stairs then started climbing them, and Neal followed. "Yeah, me too, buddy."
Neal felt like an idiot, standing outside Peter's bedroom, waiting with a dog to see if the door opened to a man or a boy. There were no sounds coming from the room but then Neal blinked and his ears popped. Satchmo whined and pawed at the door, and Neal reached for the doorknob but found it locked. He looked at his watch, decided he'd wait three minutes before picking the lock, and listened closely.
Some soft sounds of movement came from inside the room, but Neal couldn't hear enough to discern what might be going on. "Peter?" There was no response, and Neal looked at his watch--still a minute and a half to go. Thirty seconds before he intended to pull out his lockpick set, the door unlocked with a click. Satchmo's ears perked up. The knob turned and Neal held his breath.
The door opened to six-foot-two of Peter Burke, wearing jeans and a t-shirt and an embarrassed smile. Neal sighed, feeling two days worth of tension rush out of his body, and leaned against the doorjamb. "Boy am I glad to see you."
Satchmo pushed through the half-open door to whine and nuzzle at Peter, so Neal left man and dog to their reunion and went downstairs to put on a pot of coffee and send Mozzie a text. A few minutes later, he heard footsteps and turned around to see Peter, barefoot and tousle-haired with Satchmo trailing behind him.
"So," Peter said, leaning against the counter, "that was weird, huh?"
"Just a little bit."
"I need to thank you--"
Neal cut him off. "You don't."
"I do. I don't want to think about what could've happened if I'd touched that thing without you to help me get back to...myself. So, thank you."
Neal tilted his head in acknowledgement. "There's something you can do to make it up to me."
Peter narrowed his eyes in suspicion. "What?"
"Now that you can reach the stove, you can make me breakfast."
Peter laughed, and Neal could see the traces of Peter's younger self hiding under the square jaw and stubbly chin. He watched Peter fry bacon and toast bagels and told himself that he didn't miss the little boy version of Peter because that--that would be the weirdest thing of all.