Mags Bennett was in her coffin her Sunday best and amongst the pre-sermon murmurs one could hear it said that she looked better than any three of her sons had in their coffins. And that was why poisons was always a woman's choice, wasn't it? No mess, no fuss, and you were guaranteed to go out looking as nice as you had at your last Sunday Dinner. The boys under the fresh dug graves hadn't been so lucky. Gun shots made for an ugly open casket. Broken necks and bruised flesh didn't make for much better, but at least they were easy enough to cover with makeup.
“And you can twist a neck back the right way, but that don't do much. We all know how Coover died,” muttered a woman near Mags' age. The women of Harlan County had poison in their whispers and their moonshine. She turned to glance at the handsome man standing beside her, dressed in a Sunday suit too nice for any Sunday they'd been blessed enough to see. “How'd you know Miz Bennett?”
An older man standing to the handsome stranger's left shrugged before leaning forward to look at her. “Ma'am, if he tells you before he tells me, I'd be amazed. And jealous.” He put a hand firmly on the younger's forearm. “Come on.”
They waded their way through the crowd, thick and teaming with residents even though rumors had been slowly seeping into the community. Whatever you wanted to say about her and whatever she'd done, Mags Bennett had been loved. And not just by those who still called the county home. They had to push through the crowd at some points, and for every three whispers about the nerve of pushing through a crowd at a funeral there was one ponderous mutter as to whether or not the younger man was to be recognised. He did look just a bit familiar, but no one could quite place his face.
It seemed as though they were halfway back down the mountain before they had any privacy to speak and they still had to keep their voices low. Noises traveled out in the open like this.
“You didn't make that hard.”
“I wasn't trying to.” Neal Caffrey answered with a shrug. “If I didn't want to be found you wouldn't have found me. It's Kentucky, not my island in the Maldives.”
For a moment the FBI agent paused, as if he were weighing the pros and cons of pursuing that particular line of questioning. He decided against it. “It took us a few hours to figure out where you were going. We've got three 'why' theories and four hundred dollars down –unofficially-- that Jones swears he's getting even after I showed him the files--” He paused again, raising an eyebrow. “Unless Mags Bennett was your biological mother.”
Neal made a face. It screamed disappointment “Peter.”
“Jones' theory. Not mine.” He held up a hand. “But the sooner you tell me why I had to follow you into Kentucky, the sooner we can leave Kentucky. I see only pros in that scenario.”
“You sound like me tw-- an undisclosed amount of years ago.” The hint of a smirk touched his lips as he corrected himself mid-sentence. “Most people who live here want to leave at some point. Barely any of them do, so you get people... families like Mags' who'll do anything to just make it better.”
“Enriching the community by selling drugs to their neighbors?”
“She stopped a mining company from ruining this before she died,” Neal said, gesturing vaguely around the base of the mountain. “I'm not calling her a saint, but she could be a good woman.” So it was perfectly natural that she'd die before he got to say goodbye or make peace. That was what happened to the women in his life.
Peter's hand rested on his hip, whether he was reaching for his guns, his cuffs, or an ankle bracelet, Neal couldn't be sure. “Good enough for you to run all the way down here.”
“She deserved to have more than just Dickie standing for her at her funeral.”
“Two kids in handcuffs with federal security details mourning over your casket. Every parents' dream.”
Neal wiggled his free wrists in a rather pointed manner. “No handcuffs. Security detail? You're flattering yourself. And she's not my--”
“Your mother. I know,” Peter interrupted. “But you cut off the tracker and ran out of New York, so she meant something to you. More than that Monet you were salivating over last week, because you didn't cut and run after that. So who is she?”
Mourners were being led in hymn at the grave site. The whispers turned to soft notes as the first bars of Amazing Grace reached out to where they stood. They would be laying the body to rest soon, which Neal intended to see for himself. She'd loved him, bless her, but Neal was certain Mags deserved better than Dickie watching over as she was lowered into the ground. Neal pressed his lips together just moments after Peter did the same, both men becoming increasingly impatient with the other.
Peter wanted to leave.
Neal wanted to mourn in private. “She took in foster kids. Some were legal. Some weren't.”
Peter let out a breath. “And which kind were you.”
“The illegal kind.” But that hadn't mattered, and in fact Neal had preferred it that ways in some respects. Mags hadn't taken him in for the state's money; she'd taken him in because she cared. “I was here for two years.”
“How old were you?”
He was an FBI agent though, and that came with an above average sense of observation. Peter had seen the looks on the faces of Mags' mourners. Not a one had fully recognised Neal. There had been squints and cocked heads, but no one who actually knew him. They were a close knit community; handshakes, hugs, and pleasantries were like currency for those who belonged. No one had tendered Neal any of those things and Peter took that to mean that he looked nothing like the child or teenager he might have once been. “It's been awhile.”
“Yeah,” Neal agreed. “Listen, she's the only one I've ever been able to bury, and I don't want to miss--”
Cursing the bonds of friendship and the things they made him do, Peter nodded and turned to indicate that they could start back up the hill. “Only one who?”
“My mother was cremated. You saw what happened to Kate.”
Ashes to ashes and dust to dust the saying may have been, but Neal wanted nothing to do with it and Peter understood why his eyes stayed fixed on the coffin as it was lowered into the ground. Ashes brought no comfort but, for whatever reason, this did.
Kin were due a certain amount of time by the grave site. It was only respectful, and Neal waited until Dickie Bennett had released a handful of dirt onto the coffin before stepping forward himself and picking up a handful of dirt.
Obvious as it was that Dickie didn't recognise him, Neal had to admit that aside from the pronounced limp there was very little to suggest that he'd once been the teenager Neal remembered. Stringy and seedy looking, Dickie didn't clean up nearly as well in a suit and cuffs as Neal did, and the almost mullet shape of his hair didn't help much. It covered his head in the exact shape of a trucker cap, which was only missing because one didn't wear hats in the presence of the Lord. Bad enough he was in handcuffs. They were both criminals, but the different paths their lives had taken were blatantly obvious. Even their lawman body guards were of a different breed. The white collar FBI agent in his shiny black shoes, suit and tie standing just behind a US Marshal with a gun on his hip (“At a funeral?” one woman murmured. “Now that's a shame...”), boots on his feet, and a Stetson in his left hand.
“He shoots first and leaves questions to priest giving last rites,” Peter had said of Raylan Givens once in New York. Neal couldn't remember how the topic had come up.
Givens had been the last person to see Mags Bennett alive though, he remembered that much. Dickie probably did too. Their eyes met as Dickie squinted, most likely trying to figure out who the stranger throwing dirt over his mother's grave was.
Your former foster brother, Neal thought. Who went into a line of crime where plaid and denim aren't acceptable.
“Neal Caffrey.” He would have held out his hand to shake, but given the circumstances it would have been rude. “And I know it doesn't do much, but I'm sorry for your loss.”
Dickie almost smirked. “You changed your name and thought you'd walk back in here'n nobody'd know?”
Not as smart as Doyle, but nowhere near as stupid as he seemed either. Neal gave a shrug. “It worked until you.”
“You ain't family. Not a Bennett. What're you doin' here?”
That refrain sounded familiar, except Doyle was usually the one reminding him and the other strays she'd take in. “I'm not a Caffrey either.” The dirt in his palm trickled through the spaces between his fingers. “I came to say goodbye to Mags as soon as I heard.”
“Brought a friend too.” Dickie glanced over Neal's shoulder where Neal guessed that Peter was sticking out like a sore thumb.
“He's friends with your friend.” Of course, by friend Neal simply meant that Peter was aware of Givens' existence. Most of the bureau was, if only because of the number of people in his custody ended up with a bullet hole somewhere on their body. Dickie looked unscathed, but maybe the baseball bat to the knee in high school'd been enough for the both of them.
“What'd you do?”
Maybe he was supposed to ask what Dickie had done in return, but Neal didn't bother since the FBI didn't keep the files on things like this nearly as protected as they thought they did. Neal smiled. “What haven't I done?” He'd gotten farther without a diploma or a GED than Dickie had with his; their paths in crime taking drastically different routes yet somehow ending with both in federal custody at a funeral. Peter was right. He looked at the grave. “Sorry.”
Dickie spat on the ground, a sudden movement that took Neal by surprise. “Sorry for not being here, or sorry for not being grateful, like any'a them other kids she took in? You may be the only one who showed up, but real family would'a been here. That little brat didn't bother neither. Ma tried to do right by that girl.”
“Loretta McCready? She had her father killed over something she could have grown more of.” It was blunt for a funeral, but it was the truth. What he'd told Peter stood-- he had no illusions that Mags was a saint, but the woman meant something to him anyway. “But that doesn't mean I-- I won't keep missing her and I can't believe she's gone.” Can't believe she went out the way she did either. But hell, what did I really know about her?
Neal Caffrey wasn't from Harlan County, but there'd been a boy who'd lived there once. The father he'd never met had been a cop and so that's what Neal had wanted as well. “Might as well know what you'll be up against then,” Mags said, handing off keys to the greenhouse and a hose to Dickie, Doyle, and Neal and instructing them not to come back until the plants were all well and tended for. They grew some of the finest Marijuana in all of Kentucky, and back then there hadn't been much hillbilly heroin to compete with. Sales were good, but they were just drug sales. The master con artist had not been born in Mags Bennett's home.
Despite it all, Mags Bennett hadn't had that kind of last effect on his life. Neal would never credit her with driving him towards a life of crime just because he'd watered some pot plants in his youth-- a gateway drug, it was not. He certainly hadn't acquired his love of fine art and historic artifacts from her. She hadn't taught him to read Latin and Ancient Greek or how to crack a safe. She'd been the best in a series of crappy childhood situations, and for that Neal remembered her fondly. It was one of the few memories from after his mother's death that he could smile about.
So while he hadn't known Mags like her sons or even the others at the service, and maybe he never been able to properly show how thankful he had been for a space underneath her roof, he'd shown up.
He'd shown up and apparently that was more than most could say. Neal opened his palm, sticky now with dirt and sweat. He said a silent prayer (though there were times he honestly wondered whether he was allowed to do that anymore) and brushed his hand against his thigh to knock off what remained. “It's good to see you, Dickie. Good luck with... everything.” One last glance at the cuffs on his wrists left Dickie glowering as Neal turned to walk back towards Peter.
The agent easily fell into step beside him. “New York?”
“Yeah, New York.”
Peter nodded, always far more relaxed when Neal had less to say and kept the witticisms to a minimum. It meant the conman wasn't plotting anything, and in this case he was right. He could tell. When the ground leveled off he put an arm around Neal's shoulder. “I'll buy you a beer when we get back to New York.”
Neal canted his head slightly. “No. We'll drink my beer and pretend you bought it, for the sake of my stomach and your dignity.”
“If that's what you prefer,” Peter answered.
“It is. You drink the Highlife,”Neal said, pausing a moment to glance back up the mountain. He was silent for just a second as he squinted up at the thinning crowd of mourners. “On second thought, apple pie.”
“Nothing. Just tell Elizabeth you'll be late.”
As if flying to Kentucky chase after a wayward con-artist determined to attend his foster mother's funeral hadn't already delayed their dinner plans.