No matter what Elizabeth said, Peter didn't mean to pry. He really didn't. It just ... happened.
And it happened with Neal especially. Neal was a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a very likable kid, and the combination was irresistible to Peter, especially since he couldn't help feeling that most of what he didn't know about Neal was likely to come back and bite him one way or another.
But a lot of it was just ... he wanted to know Neal better, in part because it seemed that Neal had had very few real friends in the years since he'd escaped from the institution where he'd grown up, and for someone as friendly and gregarious as Neal, that was a tragedy. A crime, almost.
But Neal was heavily resistant to people prying into his life and past -- for good reason, Peter had to admit -- which meant he was left slipping around the edges, looking for cracks and trying to pry gently into them.
One of those cracks came up unexpectedly when Jones had a birthday. A card went around, collecting signatures and playful reminders of impending senility, and the other agents kicked in a little cash to buy him a pair of Yankees tickets.
"I could have forged those for free," Neal said, wandering into Peter's office just after Peter got back from lunch with the sneakily purchased tickets. Peter had flinched guiltily and stuck them under a stack of paperwork on his desk; now, relieved it wasn't Jones, he retrieved them.
"I'll pretend I didn't hear that."
Neal grinned and did a fancy little flip-toss with his hat in a way that Peter was pretty sure was calculated to drive him up the wall.
"You sign Jones's card yet?"
"Card?" Neal said.
"Birthday card," Peter said. He held it out, along with a pen.
Neal opened the card and then hesitated, head tilted to the side. He was reading the other messages, and Peter opened his mouth to say something about being nosy, when he realized that the way Neal was reading them ... eyes flicking from one to another ... it wasn't just his usual playful poking-into-things kind of deal. It was the way he soaked up information on a con.
And Neal was subtle, always had been -- he was only at it for a few seconds (such as a person might spend considering what to write) before he scribbled something and then passed the card back to Peter. Peter glanced at the new inscription. "Don't do anything I wouldn't do! XOXO - Neal"
There was nothing wrong with it. Peter wouldn't even have thought about it if his brain hadn't just been going down these lines already. But it was terribly generic, without enough of the usual Caffrey flair. Like he'd read the other notes on the card and copied their general tone and style.
The words were out before he could stop them. "You've never signed a birthday card before, have you?"
Neal went a little tense. "What, do they teach a special FBI birthday-card-signing course at Quantico?"
"No, it's just ..." Peter slipped the card back into the envelope, giving himself a minute to think about it. He'd been stupid not to realize it before, he supposed. It wasn't that he tended to forget that Neal hadn't had anything even approaching a normal childhood; it was just that he often found himself missing all the implications, getting tripped up by things so basic that he didn't even realize he didn't know them.
Which, come to think of it, was probably what Neal felt like all the time.
"I never actually asked about your birth date," Peter said. Neal, without making a big deal about it, seemed to have shuffled a little closer to the door. Peter sat down -- he'd been standing behind his desk -- to make himself less intimidating and make it clear that he wasn't going to try to stop Neal from leaving. "We try to do a little something for agents' birthdays -- give them a card and a little gift, that kind of thing. I'd like to add you to that list."
"I'm not an agent," Neal said tightly.
"I know. But you're part of this team." Neal didn't say anything to that. On the other hand, he hadn't left yet, either. Peter kicked around some different ways of skirting the subject, then decided to go for broke. "Neal, has anyone ever done anything for your birthday before?"
Neal's reply was a small, bitter laugh. "This isn't Oliver Twist, Peter. They didn't keep us locked up in a dark room all the time with no food or water, or whatever you're thinking."
That was a little too specific to be entirely hypothetical. Peter's heart hurt. "Birthday parties, though? Cake? Balloons? The paperwork that we have on you lists your birthday as Jan. 1, 1979. That seems unlikely." Though, he supposed, not impossible. There had to be people born on the first day of the year, after all.
Neal shrugged. "It's my official birthday."
"As opposed to?"
"I don't know, Peter," Neal snapped, his calm breaking. "What are you looking for? We had pretty normal childhoods, as much as they could manage. Our caregivers gave us toys. We had a party once a year for all the kids -- yes, a birthday party, with cake and balloons and everything. I know how birthday parties work. I didn't grow up in a cave."
Peter raised his hands placatingly. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean -- So, January 1, that's the date I should put on the birthday list, then?"
"Do whatever you want," Neal snapped. "You usually do anyway." He stomped out.
So Peter did. But he kept thinking about it. Official birthday. A group birthday party once a year for all the kids. That was just ... creepy. And not at all like having a birthday party of your own, when you were the guest of honor and everyone was there because they liked you and wanted to celebrate you.
He told Elizabeth about it, because he couldn't not tell her, and he had to get it out of his head before he did something like grab Neal in a bear hug in front of the entire office. Elizabeth listened quietly with her eyes huge and sympathetic.
"El, if I could go back in time and burn that place to the ground, I would."
"But you can't," she said gently, squeezing his hand. "Well, you have from now 'til the end of December to find out what kind of cake Neal likes, because I am going to make him the biggest birthday cake you ever saw."
Peter squeezed back. Best wife ever. "I don't know, El. I don't think he has any attachment to that day at all. When I was chasing him, I never noticed him acting any differently on January first than any other day of the year. It's an arbitrary day they assigned the kids so they didn't have to deal with juggling individual birth dates. Might not have known actual birth dates for a lot of them." One of the many things that made him want to throw a bunch of people down a deep, dark hole was the ominous fact that he still didn't know where they'd gotten most of the kids they'd experimented on. Orphanages? Surrogate mothers? Children given up for adoption by well-meaning mothers who hoped they'd go into loving homes? Did Neal have an entire birth family out there he didn't even know about?
"You're worried it might bring up more bad memories than good ones," El said.
Peter nodded. "He's just starting to trust me, El. And this is something he really doesn't want to talk about; I can't push him. I don't want to set us back months by throwing him a birthday party, of all things."
"So pick another date," El suggested. "Something that has meaning for him."
Peter thought about it. Tried to think what sort of meaningful anniversaries Neal might have in his life. The day he'd escaped from the institution ... no, because as far as Peter knew, a lot of Neal's friends had died that day; it was the exact opposite of a happy anniversary. What other milestones did Neal have in his life?
"The day I arrested him?" He was more thinking out loud than making serious suggestions, but El's nose wrinkled like she was trying not to laugh.
"Try again, super-detective."
"Well, if you have any ideas," he said, disgruntled.
Even between the two of them, they couldn't come up with anything that Neal might consider a happy occasion worth commemorating. Which was an absolutely miserable idea all on its own.
"Well, we'll just have to pick a date, then," El said firmly. "Something that's brand new, a day he have any associations with already. That way he can build up new memories without having to deal with any old ones. And it may as well be soon, because he's waited almost thirty years for a real birthday party, so why make him wait any longer?"
Definitely the best wife ever.
They selected the upcoming Saturday for no reason other than El was right, why wait, and as far as Peter could recall (and he checked Neal's file to be sure) there were no known booby traps lurking around that date. At least none he'd discovered so far. It'd be just his luck that it would turn out to be the date of something horrifying, but, well, it wasn't like any other day on the calendar was less likely to be, so he may as well go for it.
He thought about trying to sneakily quiz Neal about his weekend plans, but gave up on that idea within about 10 minutes of walking into the office, because Neal would just get suspicious and would then be poking around trying to figure out what Peter was up to. Instead he just said, "Doing anything Saturday?"
"Why?" Neal asked, going for suspicion anyway.
"El wants to have you over for brunch." Technically true, as far as it went. "Unless you're busy."
"Nope. Not busy."
Well, that was easy. And a good thing too, since Peter was pretty sure El had called the florist already.
He wasn't sure exactly what she had in mind, but he noticed uneasily, the following morning, that she'd pulled out color swatches. "Hon, we don't want to embarrass him, right? This should be low key."
"Low key is how you prefer things," El said, patting his leg. "Neal seems like someone who would want to be fussed over. Especially since no one has ever done it."
Peter thought about pointing out that Neal had panic attacks just walking into certain kinds of public buildings. But that was private, not the kind of thing he even wanted to mention to El.
"I just don't want this to go down in Burke family lore as the day we broke Neal Caffrey."
Elizabeth laughed. "It's so cute when you worry about him."
"I'm not worr--"
"But hon," she went on, "have a little faith. I do this for a living, you know. Picking out what my clients want before they even know they want it is what I'm good at. The same way you know when someone's guilty of a crime just by looking at them, even if they think they're doing a great job of hiding it."
"Okay," Peter admitted, "point taken, but if this party involves life-size ice sculptures and a 12-piece orchestra, I will object."
Somewhere between then and Friday afternoon, the thought occurred to Peter that Neal wasn't just unused to surprise birthday parties, he was completely unused to surprises in general.
He found himself mulling over that thought quite a bit, once it had occurred to him. You couldn't surprise a telepath, and Neal had been telepathic since early childhood. No surprise parties. No surprise presents, period. He wondered if the institution's caretakers hadn't just failed to make a big deal over the kids' birthdays because they were amoral, inhuman monsters who deserved to rot in prison (although, yes, that too) but also because the kids simply wouldn't have gotten the appeal of presents. Well, presents in general, probably. All kids liked getting new stuff. But presents wrapped in paper, that you waited until a particular day to open ... what would be the point of that? The kids might have genuinely failed to understand the appeal of it. And even after Neal escaped and found people who appreciated him -- Mozzie, Kate -- he'd still have the same problem. Surprises would be impossible.
It was definitely verging on Oliver Twist territory at this point, and Peter knew that Neal probably didn't mind -- couldn't mind, really, because he'd never experienced it; he might be curious, but he couldn't miss what he'd never known.
With the psychic damper on, it might be the first time in Neal's life that it was possible for someone to give him an actual surprise gift.
He'd been so focused on the whole idea of giving Neal a party that he'd never actually thought of giving him a gift.
Which meant Peter had about a day and a half to come up with something suitably awesome to make up for an entire lifetime of never getting presents, for a person who was completely impossible to shop for, due to having tastes 180 degrees opposed to his own.
He presented this to El, who seemed to find it hilarious. "Hon, I think he'll be delighted just to have a party on his behalf. And it's going to be a very small party anyway. I already picked out a couple of things for him, a bottle of good wine and tickets to La bohème. From both of us. There's no reason why you have to give him anything else."
"Yeah, but ..."
He couldn't even explain to himself, let alone to her, why it did matter. It was true that Neal probably wouldn't mind if he didn't. And there was literally no chance that he could come up with something that was better than what El could. El even shopped for Peter's parents, because she was about a million times better at coming up with appropriate, tasteful gifts than Peter himself.
And yet, it didn't feel right not to. He could tell himself that he'd get other chances, but he wasn't entirely sure that he actually would. This whole deal -- the psychic damper, Neal consulting for the FBI -- was terribly tentative and subject to be revoked at any time; they were dangling from a very thin thread and Peter knew it. The only reason why he'd gotten them to go for it in the first place was because the entire situation was so incredibly weird and no one was entirely sure how to deal with a telepathic criminal. Peter had volunteered to take on a burden which promised to be dangerous and politically messy, so they were more than happy to hand Neal off to him. And it'd last only until they a) came to their senses and realized they'd set a psychic criminal loose on the streets of New York, or b) some branch of the federal government found a use for Neal that overrode the political ramifications of acquiring him. (It was the last one that kept Peter up nights. Just off the top of his head, he could come up with a dozen unscrupulous ways the military could use a telepath, which meant there were analysts out there who'd already thought of a hundred options, and not one of those involved Neal doing it voluntarily.)
The best present he could give Neal, really, would be to take that damned migraine-inducing monstrosity off his head and let him go.
But he couldn't, and not just because he'd be setting Neal loose to rob and con and lie. Peter was pretty sure that there was no possible future in which the government planned to let a telepath who had it in for them walk free again. If Neal wasn't where they could keep an eye on him, then there was probably a bullet with his name on it.
And what had he come to, that he could honestly believe his own government would assassinate Neal rather than let him go free?
He didn't want to believe it. He wasn't entirely sure that he did believe it. But he wasn't confident enough to stake Neal's life on it.
So yeah, the safest place for Neal right now was where Peter could keep an eye on him and track him 24/7. Peter toyed with the idea of trying to find Kate on Neal's behalf and bring her in for a ... date, conjugal visit, whatever; but no, first of all the idea of using Kate as some kind of prize made him a little sick, and anyway, she'd made it clear that she didn't want to be within a thousand miles of the FBI or Neal. Circumstances being as they were, encouraging Neal's Kate obsession probably would be the opposite of kindness anyway.
So. Back to square one. Tickets to ... something? He could get El's help in picking out a show or gallery opening that Neal would like. But that still felt so impersonal. Not quite right. Not good enough.
And he knew he was being ridiculous. Neal wouldn't actually care if Peter got him anything at all.
In the end, Saturday morning rolled around and he still didn't have anything at all. And he knew, in the grand scheme of things, it didn't matter. The party was gift enough. (But the party was El's baby.) There was a tidy little stack of presents on the living room table, surrounded by flowers with an enormous cake crowning the whole assembly. (But that was all El, too.)
"Honey," El called up the stairs. "Neal is coming over around ten, and it's a quarter to. Are you dressed?"
"Getting there," he called back down, and looked wildly around the bedroom for something. Anything.
(If you thought of this stuff more than two days out, Burke, maybe you'd be better at it.)
But desperation could sometimes breed inspiration, and he had an idea. He located a pad of paper by the phone -- El's favorite stationery, with kittens and flowers on it -- and wrote "I.O.U." in large block letters.
He was going to just leave it at that -- a blank check for whatever Neal wanted to inflict on him; after everything the government had done to him, having Peter at his beck and call for one big favor was probably not too much to ask. And as he stared at the nearly-blank sheet of paper, he couldn't help thinking about that aspect of it, too.
The whole reason they were throwing this party was because Neal had had his whole life stolen from him. He'd been denied the chance to grow up with parents and siblings and school and .... and birthdays and cakes and lawns to play on and people who loved and supported him. Instead he'd been locked up, subjected to torture, and used like a lab animal.
Nothing in the world could make up for that. Certainly not one little surprise party and a handful of presents. There was literally nothing Peter could give him that would make up for that.
Thinking about that, Peter scribbled a few lines underneath the I.O.U., then folded up the paper and wrote Neal's name on it.
The doorbell rang. "Hon!" Elizabeth called up the stairs. "The guest of honor's here."
He made it downstairs just as El was opening the door for Neal.
Peter and El had talked about inviting the people who seemed to have become close to Neal in the White Collar office, or maybe turning it into a neighborhood barbecue. But in the end, they'd opted to make it extremely low-key, just the three of them, on the off chance that Neal was going to react badly to it. The only person they'd told was June, who had responded warmly and sent down a card and small wrapped package by courier.
And Peter found himself glad of it when Neal came in and stopped dead, looking cautiously around the living room at the flowers and, most pertinently, the "HAPPY BIRTHDAY" banner strung between the bookcase and a shelf. (That part had been Peter. El thought it was tacky; Peter contended that a birthday party wasn't a proper birthday party without a $2 glittery string of birthday letters from Walmart or the nearest big-city equivalent.)
"Okay," Neal said. His forehead had developed that particular little squinch that it got when he was trying to read people's minds -- which Peter was pretty sure he wasn't aware he did. "Peter, your birthday's in November, and El's is in August."
"Yep," Peter said, and put a hand on Neal's back, steering him into the living room. "It's yours. Happy birthday, pull up a chair and cut the cake."
"It is not my birthday," Neal said. He looked dazed. "You know when my birthday is."
"Official birthday," Peter quoted him. "You and I both know it's probably not your real one. And since there's no way we're ever going to know which day is your actual birthday, we figured March was as good as any other month."
"Better, maybe," El put in, sliding an arm around Neal's waist to give him a sideways hug. "It's right on the edge of spring. The crocuses are coming up in our yard -- I'll have to show them to you. Everything is waking up after the long winter. What better time for a brand new birthday?"
"You can't just ... pick a day and decide it's my birthday," Neal said, staring at the presents on the table. "It doesn't work that way."
"It's already been done once," Peter pointed out. "So, why not pick a date out of a hat and start making some new memories."
"I don't really ..." Neal began. "I mean, I wasn't ..." He stared at the presents and the cake for another little while. The cake said HAPPY BIRTHDAY NEAL. "Can I .... use your bathroom?"
"Upstairs on the left," El said, and Neal vanished up the stairs with unseemly haste.
"Should I be worried about him going out the window?" Peter wanted to know.
"He's overwhelmed. Anyone would be, I guess." She gave Peter a little squeeze. "I'm glad we didn't invite anyone else. This is probably enough for him to deal with."
Peter took advantage of the opportunity to add his pathetic gift to the pile, tucked under the more colorful presents. He couldn't help checking the tracking app on his laptop, just to make sure Neal was still in the house -- which he was. Peter dithered over whether to go up and make sure he was okay, but Neal came back down before he could decide.
Neal didn't look like he'd been crying, thankfully, but he still seemed unsure. Tentative. Peter supposed that he'd expected Neal to take over and become the life of the party, as he usually did. Instead, Neal hovered at the base of the stairs like he didn't know what to do.
"What do you want first?" El asked. "Presents, or cake? There's no right or wrong way to do it," she added, and Peter suddenly realized that Neal really didn't know what to do. He'd never had a conventional birthday party before. He wasn't sure what was expected of him.
"I'm not sure," Neal said. He prodded at the presents, and began picking them up, looking at them.
"Bet you don't know what's in those," Peter said, bouncing happily.
"Bet I know what's in this one," Neal countered, holding up a suspiciously wine-bottle-shaped package.
"How about I light the candles and you make a wish and blow them out," El suggested. "I wasn't sure exactly how many, so I put on twenty-five."
"She's finally given up on trying to make me blow out a candle for every birthday I've been alive," Peter said.
"Set the cake on fire?" Neal asked, a sparkle dancing in his eyes. He seemed to be recovering some of his emotional equilibrium as the teasing reasserted what passed for normal with them.
"Very nearly set the drapes on fire," El said, and Neal laughed out loud. "A visit from the fire department isn't the kind of birthday surprise that anyone wants."
"If we're all done pointing out how old I am," Peter said.
El patted his arm. "You're not old. You're vintage."
"Yeah, not actually helping. Can we get back to blowing out candles now?"
"An excellent suggestion," El said, and lit the candles with the long-handled barbecue firelighter. Neal leaned over them, and El whipped out her phone to take some pictures.
Neal got them in one blow.
"Guess you get your wish," Peter said.
"I don't believe in wishes," Neal retorted, but his eyes looked a little damp.
He had to prod at the presents and pick up each and every one of them before opening them. For the most part they weren't much; Peter and El only had a few days, after all. But Neal seemed delighted with the bottle of wine and with the various gallery and concert tickets that El had acquired on his behalf, all inside his radius. June had sent down a pair of antique cufflinks that had been Byron's.
Peter's little I.O.U. scrap of paper was almost overlooked in the drifts of wrapping paper now cluttering the table. Neal found it eventually, though. "I see you really knocked yourself out, Peter."
"Hush up and be glad you're getting a present at all."
"What, am I on the naughty list?" Then Neal unfolded the paper and read it. Read it again. Folded it carefully and put it away in his pocket.
He didn't say anything else about it, and they moved on to cutting the cake and then the light brunch El had prepared -- cut-up fruit, croissants, mimosas. After brunch, El went to respond to some business-related emails for an upcoming event, and Peter put on steaks to marinate for later in the afternoon, since Neal showed every sign of sticking around. (Which they'd hoped for, but didn't quite want to ask for.)
Peter realized as he closed the refrigerator door that he'd lost track of Neal. He resisted the urge to check the tracking app and instead stuck his head into the living room to see if Neal was with El, which he wasn't, and then checked the backyard to see if Neal was there -- which he was.
Neal was sitting on the deck with the letter unfolded in his lap, rereading it. Peter came and sat down beside him. Neal made a move as if to hide it, then didn't. It wasn't like Peter needed to read over his shoulder when he'd only written it that morning, though.
I'm sorry for what they did to you. I guess my idea here was that I could do something to make up for it, a little bit, but nothing in the world can make up for that.
And it eats me up that I'm part of a system that did that. All I can promise you is that I'll do everything in my power to bring the people responsible to justice, and protect you from them with everything in me. It's not much. It doesn't give you back anything you've lost. So, here's this tiny downpayment on an enormous debt the U.S. government owes you. I know it's not much, but it's a start.
You can redeem this note at any time for anything. An afternoon outside your radius, or one free apology, or whatever. Up to you.
They sat in silence for a bit. Peter wasn't sure what to say. Finally Neal said, with an attempt at a smile, "Most depressing birthday present ever?"
"Sorry," Peter said. "I was trying to be ... I dunno. Positive about it. Somehow it twisted around on me."
"Well, it's an inherently depressing situation." Neal creased the paper, refolding it neatly into a small flat package that he shifted from hand to hand in his lap. "For whatever it's worth, Peter, I don't hold you responsible in any way for what happened to me. You were just a kid when all of this started, and even after you were in Quantico, there's no reason why you would know what was going on. You didn't do any of those things to us."
"I know," Peter said. "Doesn't mean I don't have a responsibility to fix 'em, though."
After another little while, Neal leaned into him slowly, tilting against Peter's shoulder. Peter put an arm around him. Neal rested his head on Peter's shoulder.
"This has been ... I don't know what to say, actually," Neal said at last. "I never ... getting surprised hasn't been high on my list of life experiences, I guess."
Peter laughed softly. "I thought it might not have been. I kinda expected you to figure it out, though. You're usually on the ball about those things."
"I think it was so entirely unexpected that I wouldn't even have considered it. You're sneakier than I gave you credit for, Peter."
"Thanks," Peter said. "I think. You okay with a March birthday?"
"I guess so," Neal said. "Though I don't know if I feel like an Aries, really."
"Zodiac signs? Really? You can always change it. Pick a birthday for a sign you feel more in tune with." Peter resisted the urge to make air quotes.
"No," Neal said after a thoughtful pause. He burrowed his head a little deeper into Peter's shoulder. "I like this one."