Neal padded quietly down the stairs and stood by the kitchen entryway to listen to the commotion in the dining area. It was late – after ten – and Peter's team was gathered around the table with laptops and case files and maps of the city. Jones was barking orders into his cell phone while Diana typed furiously with one hand while using the other to keep Theo in place on her lap. He kept reaching up to bang at the keyboard, and she kept inching it further away from him until he let out an annoyed shriek.
Elizabeth, in her fuzzy bathrobe and slippers, was making coffee. She turned to go to the fridge and was the first to notice him. "Did they wake you?" she asked, giving him a sympathetic smile.
Neal shook his head and skirted around her to get a glass from the cabinet. She left the refrigerator door open for him after she pulled out the cream, so he grabbed the orange juice and pour himself half a glass.
"Hey, Neal," Diana called out.
Jones threw him a wave before turning his back to shout into his phone again about NYPD's incompetent officers spooking their suspect.
Peter looked up, surprised to see him. It took him a few seconds, but finally he beckoned Neal toward him. "Sorry if we woke you."
Neal shook his head and couldn't help from peering at Peter's screen to see what was up. It was the IAFIS file on someone named John Smith, and his lips twitched at the common name.
"He's a fence. We're trying to find his seller, an art forger named Johan Wan. Have you heard of him?"
Neal turned and grabbed a pen and small pad of paper from Elizabeth's desk in the corner. He wrote: Don't know. Picture?
"Diana, toss me that file on Wan."
It sailed across the table to land beside Peter's laptop, narrowly missing his nearly empty coffee mug. He picked it up and showed the picture paperclipped to the outside to Neal.
He took a long look at it, imagining the man with a mustache or shorter hair or darker hair or glasses. None of the images pinged in his internal database, but that didn't mean much these days. He shrugged and wrote: Sorry.
"It's okay. NYPD spooked our fence here, so we're on a clock. The painting was supposed to be sold tonight at seven, but now our fence is in hiding, and we need to nail the forger."
Before Neal could respond, Theo burst into full tear mode at the other end of the table. Diana cursed creatively and tried to interest him in a toy he'd tossed on the floor at some point in the evening.
"Everything okay?" Peter asked, sounding as if he was afraid of the answer.
"Sorry, Boss. He's tired and cranky from the teething. He'll need a bottle in about five minutes, and I'll give him some medicine afterwards. He'll be out like a light."
Neal sympathized with the baby. He felt pretty tired and cranky himself since he wasn't able to sleep in anything but snatches of time that lasted from thirty minutes to maybe three hours. He'd been staying with Peter and El since he'd been released from the hospital last week, but his sleep cycles weren't getting any better.
He moved over to Diana and held out his hands.
She raised an eyebrow.
Neal pointed to Theo and then himself and held out his hands again.
"I've got him, Neal. He's in a mood," Diana said, but she winced when Theo let out another shriek.
Sighing, Neal reached out and gently pulled Theo from her arms. He held the baby carefully but competently against his shoulder and started bouncing him. Theo quieted, snuffled against Neal's shoulder and settled down. Neal gave Diana a 'See, I have this' look and then headed into the living room where Elizabeth had added a glider rocking chair to the décor at some point in the last seven months.
Unfortunately, Theo started to fidget and fuss as soon as Neal sat down. He tried bouncing him again, then just rocking, and almost gave up on the whole idea of keeping him occupied before Diana came to his rescue with a warm bottle of formula. The baby immediately latched on to the nipple despite the unfamiliar person holding the bottle.
Neal let the sounds from the kitchen and dining room fade in the background until all that he was focused on was the baby in his arms. Once upon a time, he'd dreamed of doing this – rocking his and Kate's baby to sleep after their long con had paid off and they'd flown off into the sunset together. Now, he was just thankful for having the friends he had and that Diana trusted him enough to even let him sit twenty feet away and feed her son.
He was so intent on what he was doing that he didn't realize he'd started humming and then singing a French lullaby. His voice was hoarse after so many weeks of disuse, but Theo didn't seem to mind.
Dodo, l’enfant do,
L’enfant dormira bien vite
Dodo, l’enfant do
L’enfant dormira bientôt.
Une poule blanche
Est là dans la grange.
Qui va faire un petit coco
Pour l’enfant qui va fair’ dodo.
Dodo, l’enfant do,
L’enfant dormira bien vite
Dodo, l’enfant do
L’enfant dormira bientôt.
Tout le monde est sage
Dans le voisinage
Il est l’heure d’aller dormir
Le sommeil va bientôt venir.
Neal set the bottle aside when the baby was finished and moved him to his shoulder to see if he could get a burp out of him. He'd seen Diana do this recently, so he mimicked her movements and was rewarded shortly with a loud burp. He kept Theo against his shoulder and kept rocking so that he could maybe lull the baby to sleep. It didn't take long for Theo's little body to relax against him. Neal leaned his own head back and closed his eyes for a moment. Theo was such a warm and comforting weight on his chest that Neal couldn't help but drift off too.
He woke later to a swift kick in the stomach. Theo was squirming and gearing up for another crying jag. He started to shift the baby but found him suddenly pulled out of his arms. Neal's eyes shot open, and he lashed out, trying to protect the baby.
"Whoa!" Peter's voice accompanied firm grips on both his wrists.
"Easy, Caffrey," Diana said. His eyes finally focused on her standing just in front of him with Theo in her arms. The baby was playing with the pendant on the end of her necklace, oblivious to the fact that Neal had nearly had a minor heart attack over Diana picking him up.
"Sorry," Neal said, and then realized that he'd spoken. His jaw snapped shut as he pulled his arms from Peter's grasp and jumped to his feet to move away from them. He stood by one of the living room windows and put his back to the room.
There was silence for a moment before moving footsteps indicated that everyone was scattering back to their previous positions in the house. All of them except for one person, of course. Peter's footsteps moved closer until he was standing just behind Neal.
"Are you okay?" he asked quietly.
Neal nodded but didn't turn around.
"Can we talk about it?"
Neal shook his head this time and then lowered his eyes to study his hands. He could feel the warmth where Theo had been slowly leaching out of his chest until he was chilled. He shivered.
It took less than a minute for Peter to grab a throw from the back of the couch and put it around Neal's shoulders. He hesitantly placed his hand on Neal's shoulder, and Neal immediately felt better. He leaned into the touch without even thinking about it.
"Neal, it's going to be okay."
He didn't know if it was the words or the strength in the hand on his shoulder, but Neal turned abruptly and took the small step that moved him into Peter's space. His friend's arms encircled him without hesitation.
Neal's own arms moved without his consent, returning Peter's embrace and clinging to his friend as he began to sob. The past seven months had been the hardest of his life, and the last four weeks since his rescue had been even more difficult that he'd imagined when he allowed himself to dream of salvation. Now, all the emotions he'd had to keep locked away were breaking free, and all he could was hold on to Peter.
At some point, his knees must have buckled because when his tears dried up and his breathing calmed, he found himself sitting on the floor behind the couch practically in Peter's lap.
"You with me?" Peter asked softly.
Neal nodded and tried to extract himself.
"No, no. Just take a minute and get your bearings, okay? Everything's okay."
He lay against Peter's chest and just breathed for a minute. His eyes ached, and he felt hollow, like he'd cried out everything he'd had inside of himself.
Eventually, Neal pushed himself up so that he was sitting with his back to the couch. Peter handed him a glass of water that he'd seemingly produced from thin air, and Neal drank deeply. He yawned as he handed the empty glass back.
"Listen, I hate to say this, but I need to get back to work. Do you want to lay down upstairs or down here on the couch?"
Neal started to point toward the couch, but Peter reached over and pushed his hand down.
"You can say it."
He cleared his throat and said, "Down here."
Peter smiled and helped him to his feet. He shadowed Neal around the couch and then dropped the throw over him once he was sitting back down.
"I'll just be over there. Let us know if you need anything?"
He watched Peter grin at him again and then tracked his progress over to the table, where he took his seat and asked for an update from Jones.
His eyes swept over the room until they landed on Diana, who was turned in her seat and watching him. She silently stood, with Theo in her arms, and moved back over to him.
"Lay down, Caffrey," she ordered with an impatient tone that he'd come to regard as her general state of being.
He did as she said and was surprised when she placed a sleepy Theo on his chest and pulled the blanket up over both of them. She gently placed a hand on Theo's head and then on Neal's own before heading back to the table.
Neal put his hands on Theo's back, rubbing small circles and humming the lullaby again until the baby settled and went to sleep. Neal followed almost immediately, feeling more safe and secure than he'd felt in months. He had a long way to go still, but he was starting to feel hopeful that things would really be okay.
Thank you for reading!