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Strays

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The warehouse raid had gone almost flawlessly, Peter thought. They’d gone in and seized the forged bonds and the forgers with hardly a hitch. Personally speaking, he considered any case they closed where Neal didn’t end up having a gun pointed at him to be a success. In this case, everything had gone exactly to spec.

Until, that was, Neal lifted up some cardboard lying in corner and found three mewling newborn kittens underneath. In less than ten seconds, every competent agent on Peter’s team turned into a cooing, gibbering, kitten-loving idiot.

They weren’t even cute, Peter thought, eyeing the kitten squirming in Neal’s hands. With no hair on their tails, they looked like rats.

“Where do you think mama kitty is?” Jones asked, cupping a black and white kitten in his huge hands.

“I’m sure she’s around here somewhere, waiting for us to clear out,” Peter said. “The sooner we finish up, the sooner she’ll come back.” The last he directed pointedly at his agents, who sheepishly put the kittens back where Neal had found them, snapped on new latex gloves, and got back to doing their jobs.

Neal, on the other hand, stayed right where he was, crouched by the kittens. “What if she doesn’t come back?” he asked, looking up at Peter. “It’s cold in here.”

“She’ll come back,” Peter said firmly.

“But what if she doesn’t?”

Peter sighed in exasperation. “What do you want from me? Permission to put the damn things in a cardboard box and take them home with you?” Neal didn’t answer, but he did pick up the litter’s lone calico - the smallest of the three kittens - and gently scritch behind her ears. “You do, don’t you,” Peter muttered, mostly to himself. “What are you going to do, bottle feed them?”

“Yes,” Neal said, looking up. “They make kitten formula, you know.”

Peter got a sudden flash of Neal Caffrey, art thief extraordinaire, bottle feeding a kitten, and knew he was doomed on multiple fronts. “All right,” he said, “tell you what. Put the kittens back. We’re going to finish processing the crime scene, and then we have to go back to the office to file the paperwork. When I take you home, we’ll swing by here. If there’s still no sign of the mother, you can have your strays.” It wasn’t anywhere near on the way home, but Neal would be insufferable if Peter didn’t make some sort of compromise.

“And you’ll take me to the pet store to buy formula,” Neal added.

“And I will take you to the pet store to buy formula,” Peter promised.

It took four hours to finish processing the scene and turn in the paperwork. By then, Neal was twitching. Peter made him wait by the elevator while he collected his coat and called El to let her know he’d be a little late for their Friday night plans. He didn’t tell her why, since he didn’t particularly want to end up with his own furry, mewling bundle of joy to feed in the middle of the night.

Peter waited in the car while Neal went into the warehouse, a cardboard box lined with rags in his arms. He returned in less than five minutes, and Peter could tell by how carefully he was holding the box that he had the kittens with him. “No sign of the mother?” Peter asked as Neal maneuvered himself inside. The Taurus was suddenly filled with a chorus of mews.

“No,” Neal said, not sounding terribly upset about it, “and listen to them, they’re hungry.”

“Right, right,” Peter sighed. “Formula. I promised.” He pulled away from the warehouse and made his way back toward downtown. “What are you going to do with them, anyway?” he asked, after a few minutes of listening to Neal mutter to himself about names. The mostly-black-with-white-paws male had been christened “Vinci,” while his splotchier brother had been deemed “Vincent.” The female’s name was still under advisement, with “Georgia” and “Frida” apparently tied for the lead.

“Raise them and give them away,” Neal said, as though it were obvious. “I bet Jones would take Vincent. I think they bonded.”

“You’re not going to keep one of them?” Peter asked in surprise. The way Neal had been fussing over the little rats, Peter had thought he’d try to weasel June into letting him keep all three.

“Nah,” Neal said, absently. “I don’t have the lifestyle for a cat. Cats hate moving and I -” Neal stopped.

Peter eyed Neal sideways. “Neal?” he prompted.

“Sorry,” Neal said, looking at him. “It’s just . . . that’s what my mom always said, when I asked if I could have a cat. That we moved too much. After she - when I was older, it was still true. I always sort of wanted one, though.”

“No reason you can’t have one now,” Peter pointed out, not daring to comment upon this rare gem of information about Neal’s childhood. “You’re not going anywhere for at least another year.”

“Yeah, but what about afterward?”

Peter shrugged. What would happen after Neal’s sentence was up was something they had never talked about. Peter harbored certain hopes - that Neal might stay on at the Bureau in some capacity, as a normal CI or a consultant - but he knew chances were good that Neal would vanish immediately to the other side of the globe. “That’s a good question. You should think about it.”

Neal was silent then for a long time. “Georgia,” Peter finally heard him mutter. “I think you’re definitely a Georgia.”

On Monday, when Peter arrived at the office, Neal was already there, box of kittens on his desk. Or rather, an empty box that had presumably once held kittens on his desk. Jones was holding the splotchy one and apparently allowing himself to be persuaded into adopting it when it was big enough. The team's admin assistant Lisa was expertly feeding Georgia the calico and chatting about 3AM feedings with Neal, who cradled his fedora carefully in one hand.

Peter thought about arguing about the presence of kittens in the office. This was the FBI and they had standards of professionalism to maintain. But he suspected that he would be in the extreme minority, and he had no desire to annoy Lisa, who could make his life very difficult if she so chose.

Peter paused in front of Neal’s desk. All conversation stopped, and he could swear everyone held their collective breath. “Where’s the other one?” he asked.

Neal smiled, as though pleased that Peter had joined in the mass kitten psychosis that had seized his team, and held out his hat. Peter peered in to see the mostly black kitten curled up inside. “Cute,” he remarked dryly. “Anyone laid claim on him yet?”

“Yeah,” Neal said, reaching in to trail a finger down the kitten’s back. The kitten yawned hugely, revealing a pink tongue.

“Who?”

“Me.” Neal caught and held Peter’s eyes, as though daring him to argue.

Peter smiled. “Glad to hear it,” he said, and climbed the stairs to his office.

Fin.