It was Neal Caffrey’s day off.
While the knock at his door at quarter past nine in the morning wasn’t so surprising—Mozzie was always expected to drop by at his own leisure—the sounds that bounced off the walls in the hallway caused him to peer over the columns of text in front of him and raise an eyebrow. A child’s incessant, high pitched wails echoed from the other side of the door, howls that belonged to what Neal could only guess was a newborn infant rather than a youngster somewhere between the ages of two and five. For the life of him, he couldn’t understand why a baby would have any reason to be in June’s home unless Mozzie was in fact standing outside his door and had a lot to explain to him. When the knocking resumed, Neal clambered to his feet in such a rush that the newspaper scattered across the outdoor balcony.
June called to him from the hallway. Her voice was tinted with concern. “Neal?”
Neal’s heart began to race in his chest, as if her panic was a tangible, contagious entity. He took a shuddering breath and pulled open the door at last, greeted with the sight of the matronly owner of his not-so-humble abode cradling a squirming, red-faced infant in her arms. Neal had to give the kid credit for having a hell of a set of lungs.
“June,” he addressed. “Come in—who’s our little guest?”
He offered her a grin which was quickly cancelled out by the elder woman’s stoic expression, soft brown eyes swimming with genuine distress. They had known each other long enough for Neal to realize that was never a good sign. He shuffled out of the way to let June and the baby across the threshold into the apartment, closing the door behind them. He couldn’t get a good view of the infant swaddled in a mess of pastel green fabric other than two small arms flailing and tiny fingers grasping at the air.
“You never told me you had a great-grandchild,” Neal continued over the baby’s cries. He wasn’t sure why his mouth was so determined to keep spitting out empty words and statements unless it was his mind’s latest defense mechanism to cope with particularly strange situations.
“That’s because I don’t, Neal,” June declared. Neal acted as if he wasn’t expecting the answer. Even though that wasn’t true.
The crying stung his ears. “Then where—”
“A nice young woman came by here scared out of her wits,” June explained. “She didn’t say much. But I saw the look in her eyes. She told me she couldn’t be a mother to this sweet little baby and wanted to drop her off somewhere safe. I said it might be a better idea if she left her in the care of a hospital, but she wasn’t hearing any of it.”
Neal’s eyebrows knit together. He could hear the blood pulsing in his ears, could feel his heartbeat increasing. The distant sounds of traffic on the street below came sharply into focus somehow, above the screeching child in a cocoon of plush fabric.
“Did she say why?”
“No, but she gave me a letter.”
June hesitated for a moment. “To you.”
It felt like all the air had been forced from Neal’s lungs. His breath hitched, throat tightening in on itself enough to make him feel as though he was choking. He raked an unsteady hand through his bed-tousled hair and hoped that the room wouldn’t spin. Perspiration surfaced on the back of his neck and his temples, and his clothes felt damp against his skin. Of all days to be in such a perplexing situation, it would be this one. The day that was supposed to be stress free and relaxing, spent lounging around the apartment and perhaps putting a brush to canvas if inspiration struck him. But of course in his world, twenty-four hours of relaxation were few and far between.
And he wasn’t exactly sure how to respond to this. In his storied arsenal of calm, charming, and witty comebacks there wasn’t a protocol for being faced with a wailing child whom—and he could barely get himself to think of this realization, much less process it rationally—he might have fathered. Because what other reason would cause a young woman to pawn off her child and place all the responsibility onto his shoulders with only a note in her wake? Neal didn’t understand what her thought process had been to decide that a conman who’d served a four year jail sentence and was still under the scrutiny of the FBI would make a suitable father to a newborn baby. It wasn’t that Neal didn’t like children. He did. A lot, in fact. He just didn’t know how to take care of them on a long-term basis. The idea of having a helpless days-old infant completely dependent upon him was frightening.
June dug the hastily written letter out of her pocket and offered it to Neal. He took the wrinkled piece of used paper without saying a word, thankful that the child’s screams had decreased in volume, although she was still crying profusely. Neal unfurled the paper and leaned against the table to read it. He recognized the handwriting; small, concise, made up of half-cursive loops joining certain letters together. An image of a petite strawberry blonde woman flashed in his mind’s eye. They hadn’t spent all that much time in each other’s company, but it had clearly left a lasting impression.
For starters, I apologize. I’m a coward for not having this conversation face-to-face, but I don’t have much time, and I need to move on before someone picks up my trail. I realize this is going to be a shock to you. I was afraid to tell you and for awhile I weighed the options. My life is no place for a child, and you know I don’t want to leave it all behind. I can’t. It’s all I’ll ever have. And it’s not like we were ever planning to settle down together. I’m not the mothering type, Neal. I wouldn’t be of any use to her, and she doesn’t feel like mine, anyway. I’m not asking you to raise her but I wanted you to at least know she exists. Make sure she gets to a good home and people who will give her everything she needs. I owe it to her to let her have that chance. Her name is Gemma Matisse. She’s yours.
Neal let out the breath he hadn’t noticed he had been holding while he read the note several times through, blue eyes scanning the loopy cursive-and-printing mix until the words no longer made sense and the information swirled around his head. He lowered the note onto the table beside him, his weight still against the edge. His gaze found June and the baby, who was too scared to stop her whimpering and occasional crescendo of sobs.
“Well?” June asked.
He scratched the back of his neck. The news was not processing well, despite the two cups of Italian roast coffee in his system and a full night’s rest. “I have a daughter.”
I wasn't expecting such a nice response! Thank you so much! I hope you'll continue to enjoy this fic.
The statement hung in the air for a prolonged, tense minute. Neal, who was straddling the line between con and consultant to the FBI, never imagined himself facing single parenthood. He had pictured himself a father before, but that vision of settling down into family life had always been nothing but unattainable, distant. A thread of something not meant for people who lived like he did. His acquaintance, Annalise, had been right in recognizing that. But what about him? Was there room in his chaotic, sometimes dangerous lifestyle for that screaming bundle of joy? He had not a clue of how he would juggle work with a newborn, but as he slowly reminded himself, that little baby wasn’t just any newborn. She was partially him. How could he get through his days if he ever let her go, knowing there was a little girl out there somewhere whom he had been responsible for bringing into the world?
Annalise said she wanted her to stay with people who would give her everything she would need, who would take care of her, and love her. Neal couldn’t imagine his daughter staying anywhere but here with him. It was a curveball he was less than prepared for, but he had to make it work, if only for his daughter’s benefit. She needed at least one of her parents to stick with her.
“What are you planning to do, Neal?” June asked. Her expression had softened from concern to empathy. Neal noticed a flicker of newfound fondness in the older woman’s eyes upon learning the little girl was indeed his.
“If you don’t mind an extra tenant,” Neal decided, “Gemma will be sticking around for the foreseeable future.”
June’s face broke into a smile. “Of course not. You are both more than welcome, you know that. It’s been a long time since I’ve cared for a little one…” She looked excited at the prospect. “Here, I’ll let you hold your daughter and then maybe she’ll stop her fussing.” She ran her finger across the pink skin of the baby’s cheek, damp with tears, before passing her over to Neal.
He had such a look of panic on his face that it made her laugh. She remembered her husband wearing the very same expression upon becoming a first-time father. The memory made her heart swell with joy. She laid the infant in Neal’s awaiting arms with the practiced care of an experienced mother and grandmother. Neal swallowed the lump in his throat.
“I don’t want to, you know, hurt her,” he said, eyes wide. “Is this…right?”
June chuckled again. “You won’t hurt her, you’re doing just fine. See there? Make sure to cradle her head. There you go.”
Gemma’s head was ever-so-gently propped in the crook of Neal’s arm, his other arm wrapped around her, holding onto her from underneath. He was acutely aware of his movements, his hold on her steady and strong. He was still petrified. This was uncharted territory. His heart kept its rapid rhythm, afraid that one moment he would do something stupid or wrong to mess this up.
“Well, would you look at that,” June observed. “She’s stopped crying.”
Truth be told, Neal had been so preoccupied he barely noticed. Gemma had, in fact, ceased in her hysterical sobs and chest-heaving whimpers.
“She has an impressive set of lungs. I bet she tired herself out.”
“I think she just wanted her daddy,” June smiled. Neal’s lips upturned in a smirk, more pleased than he was willing to admit. “I’ll leave the two of you to get acquainted and make a few phone calls. There might be some of my granddaughter’s things packed away that she can borrow.”
“Thanks, June,” Neal said as she made her way to the door. She paused with her hand poised on the doorknob and pivoted on her heel to face him.
“I know this is overwhelming, but I have every confidence that you’ll make an excellent father, Neal. I think you might need her as much as she needs you.”
When the door clicked shut, Neal dared to move from his spot and began to pace across the apartment with Gemma cradled against him like he would never let her out of his grasp. Walking aimlessly, he finally had the chance to look down at the infant now in his care, the little human being who shared half his genetics and his last name. She was gazing up at him, too, oddly quiet. She was captivated, tiny fingers still grasping at nothing but the air. Neal pushed the ends of the blanket away from her to get a better look, and then eased his index finger into her tiny palm.
He let out a sharp gasp when her impossibly small fist curled around his finger. Neal didn’t expect her to have such an iron grip; she held onto his finger like it was the only way she had to tell him she didn’t want to let go, either. And he was okay with that. More than okay.
Her skin was soft, new to the world. It was a strange sensation, one that Neal could only marvel at. He could never dream of looking at this baby and feeling nothing but wonder and amazement at her very existence. Neal guessed that was where he and Annalise differed. As he took in the image of his daughter, he was mesmerized by the fact that he had helped create her. She was more precious than any work of art he had ever laid eyes on, anything at all he had ever forged or stolen in his entire life.
And there was no doubt she was his. The similarities were striking and visibly apparent. Waves of thick dark brunette hair stuck up at odd angles, curling across her forehead. For an infant, she had long, elegant eyelashes, damp with the remnants of her shed tears. Her cheeks were rosy and held the typical chubbiness of a newborn. Her sweetly curved lips were open, tongue smacking against the roof of her mouth.
“You have your mother’s nose,” Neal observed. “It’s all right. It’s a good nose.” He laughed when her fist pinched his finger. “But you’re all Caffrey, little girl.”
Gemma had his eyes, and his eyes exactly. The same shade of crystalline light blue. It was startling to Neal to see a copy of himself perfected in this tiny infant.
“That’s okay, too,” he continued. “It’s not so bad, I promise. Just means you’ll be a handful.”
Neal leaned down to place a kiss onto her forehead, eyes fluttering closed. “Gemma,” he whispered at last, voice tinted with a songlike cadence. He liked the name. “Gemma Matisse. I think I’ll call you Gem.” He chuckled to himself. “You have no idea what I’m saying to you, but you’re cute. I’ll give you that.”
Gemma made a small cooing sound, earning a grin from her father. “Ah, so you agree. Fair enough.” He continued his pacing. “I bet you don’t know that you’re named after an artist. Pretty clever of your mom, if you ask me. When you’re older I’ll have to tell you about him, excluding the few times I’ve forged his work. That is an entirely different story we’ll be saving ‘til you’re much, much older.”
When she made another nonsense noise, Neal added, “Although it would make for an interesting bedtime story.”
Another knock on the door interrupted Neal and tore his gaze away from his daughter. She had nearly been sleeping from the gentle rocking motion he had subconsciously created while he carried her around the room. The abrupt sound woke her up and provoked a few noises of irritation from her tiny lips. Without thinking, he unhooked his finger from her grasp and swept the back of his hand across her cheek in an attempt to comfort her.
“Shhh, it’s okay, Gem,” he said to her, voice hushed. To the knocking, Neal called, “Door’s open, June.”
The door was pushed open, but the person behind it wasn’t June. Neal was both surprised and unsurprised to see Mozzie stroll across the threshold, perfectly at home. He halted, though, once he saw Neal, and more importantly, what Neal was holding.
“Hey, Moz,” Neal greeted. Mozzie was so confused by the presence of an infant in his friend’s arms that his jaw just about dropped to the floor. He was even more bewildered that Neal chose to act like everything was normal. Like this was merely a typical day according to what their typical days consisted of, which was not really anything typical at all.
“I walk in here and you’re holding a baby and all you have to say to me is hey?” Mozzie exclaimed. “I demand an explanation. Pronto.”
Again, thank you so much for the wonderful response! I hope you enjoy chapter 3, and please let me know what you think! And as always, I don't own anything, I'm just having a bit of fun.
“What…is that?” Mozzie questioned.
He stood a great length apart from Neal, as if he didn’t want to even be caught breathing the same air as their tiny room occupant. He broke out into a nervous sweat at the very sight of the squirming miniature human bundled in his friend’s arms, stomach clenching. Mozzie fidgeted and wrung his hands, trying to do everything in his power to avoid eye contact with the baby once he noticed its existence.
Neal threw him a look. He pulled the blanket back around Gemma, afraid that the slightest breeze through the open doors to the balcony would make her cold.
“I know it’s a baby, Einstein. The more important question is: what is it doing here?”
“Gemma lives here,” Neal responded. He was impressed with how easy the statement sounded. It was still a difficult thing to process—that he was holding a living, breathing, wondrous miniature of himself after not even being able to prepare for parenthood over the expected nine months—but somewhere, it felt right.
“Oh, so you’re June’s designated babysitter now. How domestic.”
“If you think babysitting is too domestic, you’re not going to like my real answer.”
Mozzie’s eyes widened. “What kind of mess do we have to get you out of?” When Neal didn’t respond right away, Mozzie continued with, “Whatever it is, at this point I don’t care, we can fix it.”
He dared a glance at the newborn like he was trying to interpret what exactly Neal could have done to end up with it. He sure as hell hoped his friend hadn’t resorted to kidnapping, although that would be out of character (not to mention unnecessary) so the reason had to be, unfortunately, more permanent.
“Hate to break it to you, Moz, but you’re nine months too late,” Neal chuckled. “She’s my daughter.”
“Excuse me, what? Can you repeat that again, I don’t think I heard you right the first time,” Mozzie exclaimed, exasperated. “Are—are you sure she’s yours? I mean, they have tests for that. We can get this straightened out and send her back to wherever she came from.”
Neal laughed. His tone turned cynical. “No, she’s not mine. The fact that she looks like me is only a very good coincidence. I forged her.”
Mozzie wasn’t so amused. “We can still send her back,” he defended. “Babies are like puppies. She can’t understand what her name is, she doesn’t have a clue of what’s going on, and she’ll forget it all once they hand her off to some white-picket-fence family in the suburbs. You have options here.”
“You clearly know nothing about children.”
“You’re right, I don’t. I try not to. In fact, I’ve perfected the art of avoiding any degree of interaction with those germ infested, disgusting…things over the course of my adulthood. …Until today, thank you very much.” Mozzie cast a narrow-eyed frown in Gemma’s direction, raising his voice at the baby girl for emphasis.
“Gemma isn’t going anywhere. You’re just going to have to cowboy up and get used to her sticking around for awhile.”
“And when you say ‘awhile,’ how long are we talking?”
Neal rolled his eyes. “Why are you so concerned? Jealous, Moz?”
“I’m just saying you should take her elsewhere before you get too attached.” Neal only grinned. “Oh, no. No. No, Neal. You cannot do this. No! This is what they do, they drag you in with their beady little eyes and squishy cheeks and soon you’re talking to them like you’re sucking in helium. Please don’t say you’re already fond of that mouth breathing, parasitic—”
“Watch yourself,” he warned, a hint of sarcasm apparent.
“Raising offspring was not in the cards. You, of all people, should know this.” He pointed his finger at Neal.
“Gem’s a happy accident,” he replied, fingers dancing along her soft brunette curls.
“Yeah, well, I’d rather not be present when the Suits find out about your ‘happy accident,’” Mozzie protested, making quotations in the air with his fingers.
Neal had to at least silently agree that he was most afraid of Peter’s reaction to Gemma. A Peter Burke lecture was something he was not looking forward to. But no matter how stressful balancing work and child rearing was going to be, there was no person on this planet who could convince him to give Gemma up to another family. He hoped keeping his daughter wouldn’t jeopardize his current good standing with the Bureau and his value as a consultant.
“It’ll be fine,” he lied.
Mozzie crossed his arms over his chest and thought otherwise.
Neal sighed. “We need to get Gem some essentials—diapers, bottles... I need you to watch her for a bit while I get dressed.”
“Have you not been listening to a word I’ve said? I declare my immense dislike for children and now you’re asking me to babysit the thing? I want no part in this.”
“Okay, Moz,” he answered, slightly irritated. “One: she’s not a thing. She’s a baby. She has a name. Two: she’s my daughter, so for me, just this once, can you make an exception?”
Mozzie persisted in his glowering attitude toward the infant in an attempt to ignore the pleading look in Neal’s eyes and consequently failed.
“Fine,” he declared. “But for you. Not her. And on one condition.”
“I’m not touching her.”
Neal smirked because the answer was so typical Mozzie that he shouldn’t have even bothered to ask. He directed his friend to grab a quilt from the back of the couch and spread it onto the floor by the seating area, where he very gingerly bent down to place Gemma on her back in the center. From there, he was able to create a plush barrier around the blanket with pillows just to be on the safe side. Gemma wasn’t especially fond of the new location and gave a few high-pitched whines to express her annoyance at being separated from her father.
“I’ll be right back,” Neal told her with a smile. “Have fun with Uncle Mozzie.” He turned to the aforementioned man. “Don’t take your eyes off her.”
“I am not her uncle. That title is not going to be anything permanent,” Mozzie called to Neal’s back while he retreated to get ready for the day. “I told you I don’t want any part in this!”
Mozzie’s request went unanswered and he sat down on the floor beside the blanket, which was pushing way too many boundaries of close personal contact with a baby for his liking. He observed the baby with a miniscule degree of curiosity, watching how she kicked her legs and waved her hands in the air in front of her face, sometimes touching her cheeks like she was making a new discovery about herself. She started to make some cooing and nonsense babbling noises along with the sound of her tongue smacking against her mouth. When she stuffed her fingers into her mouth, Mozzie groaned in repugnance.
“I don’t understand how someone could ever intentionally want one of these things,” Mozzie commented aloud. “You’re not cute, you know. Why must you put your fingers in your mouth? That is absolutely disgusting.”
Gemma only made more gurgling sounds and flung her now saliva-drenched fingers near Mozzie’s face. He quickly inched away before the sticky appendages could make contact with his skin.
“I’m not sure what you did to make your dad like you so much. I beg to differ. And if you think you’re going to change my mind, you’re sadly mistaken. I’m not your uncle. Learn that now, let it sink into that sponge-like brain of yours. I am in no way related to you. You’re of no use to me until you can pick locks and swipe people’s wallets. Got that, Little Miss Happy Accident?”
If he didn’t know any better, Mozzie could have sworn she almost smiled. He wasn’t sure if it was possible for babies this small to manage a grin, but if he knew anything about Neal and his mannerisms—and he did—she definitely had a smile wide enough to rival her father’s. Mozzie, though, decided he didn’t like this. Not at all.
“You look just like him and personally, I find that unnerving. It’s not right. There’s something disturbing about it,” Mozzie scrutinized. “I mean, first I have to put up with you being here. Which is a complete inconvenience because now when I walk in, I’m going to have to expect to be bombarded with your headache-inducing cries and your whiny dependence. I can’t even drink Neal’s wine without being revolted by your dirty diapers. I don’t think you understand how much this throws off the balance of things.”
Gemma appeared to be more and more pleased with herself as Mozzie continued to talk.
“Well, just you wait,” Mozzie complained. “I hope you’re not expecting any birthday presents from me. You can forget about the babysitting. This is a one-time deal. And depending on how this whole growing up business goes, we’ll see how much I decide to teach you. Then again…I can have you perfecting the art of the con by age seven and then your father will be sorry he decided to keep you around.”
At that point, Gemma began to cry. It started out as a few whimpers, and then she exploded into red-faced screaming. Mozzie panicked, ill-equipped to deal with a sobbing newborn.
“Neal! I think it’s broken!” he hollered. “Whatever she’s crying about I didn’t do it and I have proof! I think we need to seriously consider taking her back!”
“Nice try, Moz,” Neal said, entering the room dressed to the nines, fedora perched on his head. It was moments like that which made Mozzie seriously wonder what a man like him was thinking when he decided to keep that shrieking monstrosity. “She might be hungry. I’ll see if June can keep an eye on her while we make a run to the store.”
“What is this ‘we’? How many times must I repeat that I refuse to aid and abet to the raising of your offspring?”
Disclaimer: I don't own anything, just having fun!
A/N: I apologize for the long wait between chapters. I blame school and a bit of writer's block. Anyway, thank you again for the wonderful response, and I hope you enjoy this extra-long chapter!
“You can’t hate your niece,” Neal reasoned. “She’s just a baby—she couldn’t have done anything to you. You’ve been with her for twenty minutes.”
Mozzie knew it was a losing battle on the front of being called Gemma’s relative. He was a con man, not an uncle to a gurgling, shrieking baby girl, especially if said infant was the next generation of Caffrey.
“I don’t like babies,” Mozzie shrugged. “I’ll tolerate her because she’s yours. It doesn’t mean I have to like her, at least until she’s past this crying, splotchy, slightly irritating phase. But I make no promises. And I don’t like the term ‘uncle’.”
“Too much commitment,” Mozzie answered.
“Until she’s sixteen, right? And then you’ll be turning her into a pick pocket. Don’t think I didn’t hear you, Moz.”
“Sixteen? I was thinking at least by her seventh birthday. I’d be smarter to start her early, while she can still retain things quickly. Kids are like sponges, and if she’s anything like you, I’m fairly confident she’ll be able to pull off the basics by age nine.”
“I’d appreciate it if you didn’t coerce my daughter into conning to spite me.”
“We could at least make her useful,” Mozzie continued. “Look at her, she could make a killing! I see the mischief in those beady eyes. It’s unmistakable. She could be plotting an escape right this second without us realizing it.”
“I’m sure the only thing she’s thinking about is how hungry she is,” Neal said, crouching down to Gemma’s level in front of the quilt.
His face broke into a wide grin, and Gemma’s cries dissipated into sporadic hiccups. Gingerly, he scooped her up into his arms and held her against his chest. Mozzie was still keeping a wary eye on her, internally debating all kinds of conspiracy theories he believed were racing around the newborn’s mind.
“No felonies for you, little girl,” Neal told her.
“You’re wasting a million opportunities here,” Mozzie huffed. “We have a chance to raise what could possibly be the greatest con the world has ever seen, and you’re going to say no?”
“We? So now you’ve changed your mind? That was quick.”
“There’s only a ‘we’ involved if she’s a worthwhile investment.”
“I’m saying no, Moz,” Neal said, his tone quite serious. “I don’t want that for her, and I’m sure her Uncle Peter will have something about that as well.”
“Wait, so the Suit gets the title, too? When did you decide this?”
“Relax,” Neal laughed. “I thought you didn’t want to be called ‘uncle,’ anyway. You shouldn’t be concerned. If you eventually warm up to the title, you can share her.”
“Well this spoils the whole plan. As usual.”
“No con tricks,” Neal replied.
“I make no guarantees.”
Mozzie trailed Neal down the stairs to find June, who was seated in the living room with a cup of tea, phone poised on the table in front of her. She smiled at them and set her china cup delicately on its plate. Cradled against Neal’s chest and the nest of blanket, Gemma let out a few soft cries, which prompted him to hold her in his arms instead. It was strange, but he figured she felt like she was being left out, that she wanted to be a part of the goings-on around her. Clear blue eyes darted around them room, observant and young, taking in the new scenery. To her, it must have been a complete sensory overload.
“My granddaughter and her boyfriend will be dropping off a crib in a few hours,” June confirmed. “Along with a few other things that might be helpful. I’ve set aside some money so you can get her the necessary items she’ll be in need of immediately, and I wrote out a list.”
Neal spied a scrap of paper covered with her elegant handwriting along with a sizeable stack of twenty dollar bills on the table beside the phone.
“I don’t know what I’d do without you, June,” Neal replied.
It was amazing, really, when he thought about it. June had taken his daughter into her home without hesitation, without question; a true display of her character and good heart, like when she had offered him a place to stay. There wasn’t a doubt in Neal’s mind that having a baby in the house would be a challenge. He had a suspicion, though, that June was looking forward to it. Some part of her had instantaneously adopted Gemma as her own, from the moment she had learned the baby girl didn’t have a mother figure. Neal was relieved knowing June would be there to fill some of the maternal void in his daughter’s life.
“Don’t mention it,” she answered. “It’s the least I can do, and believe you me, I would do pretty much anything to help you or that baby.”
“She sucks you in. That’s what they’re good at,” Mozzie commented. To Neal, he affirmed, “I told you. See? It’s started already. We should capitalize on this.”
Neal ignored his friend’s constant wheedling. “I’d hate to bother you so soon, but—”
“I’ll keep an eye on her,” June finished. “Take these.” She gathered Gemma into her arms and Neal picked up the list and money off the table top, stuffing them into the inside pocket of his suit. “There’s a store a few blocks down—a boutique; you’ll find everything on the list. There’s more than enough money, but don’t preoccupy yourself with giving any of it back. Gemma needs some clothes, too.”
“You’re too good to me,” Neal grinned. He leaned over and kissed June on the cheek, and planted another soft kiss onto Gemma’s forehead. “I’ll be back soon, little girl. Don’t give June trouble.”
Minutes later, they were on their way to the boutique after Neal had made a mental note of the address. It was a clear, spring day, with a slight chill in the air as winter tapered off. The leaves on the trees were beginning to blossom and heavy coats were being replaced by hooded sweatshirts. Neal thought about how advantageous it would be for him to be raising Gemma in the first months of her life during the spring and summer. He was already silently planning trips to the zoo and the park and a few museums, thankful she wouldn’t have to be cooped up in the apartment. He had seen her eyes when shown the ornate architecture and all manners of furnishings inside June’s home. He couldn’t wait until she was a bit older and went to her first art gallery. Neal wanted to see her face once she caught sight of the wide array of colors and patterns.
“—tell the Suits?” Mozzie was saying as Neal dropped out of his reverie.
“I said, have you given any thought to how you’re going to break the news of Little Miss Happy Accident’s existence to the Suits? Or are you blatantly avoiding the subject for as long as possible, waiting to see when they’ll notice?”
“Well, I can’t keep her a secret,” Neal stated.
“I’m sure you could, with a few detailed, carefully placed lies.”
“I guess I should rephrase that: I don’t want to keep her a secret,” Neal said. “I’ll tell Elizabeth and Peter soon, once Gem’s settled in and I figure out when is the best time to break the news without getting an earful.”
“And the rest of them?”
The rest of the walk was in relative silence, in which Neal was pretty sure Mozzie was still plotting all the ways he could turn Gemma into his little con artist prodigy behind his friend’s back. Neal paused in front of the boutique, grabbing Mozzie’s sleeve when he breezed past, lost in the depths of his mind rather than the ebb and flow of the New York City street. The shorter man gawked at the exterior of the baby boutique, a small building tucked in the middle of a high end women’s clothing store and a family owned tailor. The storefront had a pink and white awning, and the window had the name of the store stenciled onto the panes in the form of children’s wooden blocks: Once Upon a Baby. From outside, he could see the amount of light pink and soft blue and neutral green and enough sickening cuteness to send him reeling. Mozzie made a pitiful noise of disgust.
“You’re really going to do this. You’re going to drag me into that store against my will.”
“Come on, it can’t be that bad.”
“Are we seeing the same place here? It looks like Anne Geddes, Walt Disney, and Jim Henson had a threesome that went awry.”
Neal cringed. “You’re over exaggerating. Let’s go.”
He reached for the door with Mozzie following slowly behind, discreetly looking from his left to his right, afraid to be seen by any of his contacts in such a horrendous establishment. They walked through the door, signaling the bell above. Apprehensive about how to approach the idea of shopping for a newborn girl, the two of them lingered in the doorway and scanned the rows of essential baby items and racks of clothing. A few expectant mothers, some with husbands in tow, deliberated over cribs and strollers and monitors. There was a couple with twin boys going through a rack of clothing in the back of the store. Neal and Mozzie, suffice to say, felt more than a bit out of place.
“There is an overwhelming stench of baby powder in here,” Mozzie observed.
Neal dug out June’s list from his suit pocket. “All right. Formula, bottles, diapers, wipes…” He studied the list and suddenly the whole situation became surreal again. He never pictured buying diapers and baby bottles would be a part of his future. Maybe once, a long time ago, but not since he’d been in prison. “Seems…easy enough.”
It was not, as Neal had assumed, easy. He had to bribe Mozzie to get him to come all the way into the store, back to the aisle of diapers and formula and shampoos. Neal didn’t anticipate having so many choices, so now he was locked in a futile staring contest against the ten different brands of diapers and baby formula, with a couple shampoos and packages of wipes and bottles sitting in the bottom of the cart. Mozzie still didn’t want any part in the shopping experience, but he was certainly amused by Neal’s indecisiveness.
Mozzie watched him pick up yet another package of diapers, the same one he’d seized from the shelf five minutes ago. He scrutinized the outside, and Mozzie hid his smirk at the thought of someone as intelligent as Neal Caffrey being stumped by a package of diapers.
“I don’t know why you’re making this a big deal,” Mozzie said, humor in his voice, “Just pick one.”
“I’m not sure which is the right one.”
“What does it matter, as long as it does the job?”
“I’m just weighing the options—”
“For fifteen minutes,” Mozzie complained. “Too much thought for something she’s going to make a mess in, if you ask me. You should save yourself the money and frustration and train her to go outside.”
“Very funny, Moz,” Neal said. “And for the last time, she’s not a puppy.”
Mozzie leaned over and took a can of formula off the shelf, tossing it into the cart. He didn’t want to be in this place longer than necessary, so he didn’t think it wise to have Neal spending thirty minutes deliberating which brand of formula was the best option.
Neal placed the package back and grabbed another, holding it up for Mozzie to see.
“They look like jeans,” he said, face breaking into that trademarked Neal smile of pure amusement, similar to an overgrown five year old. Mozzie could only grunt in response.
“Please tell me you’re not considering those as a viable option.”
“I like them.”
Mozzie shook his head. “I can’t believe you.”
“What? They’re adorable,” Neal replied. And then promptly put them into the cart, despite Mozzie’s whine of protest.
“I don’t think I can handle being seen with you anymore, not after this.”
“Come on, I want to get Gem some clothes,” Neal told him. “And a new blanket, while we’re at it. Do you think she’d like a stuffed animal?”
Mozzie glared. “Do you hear yourself right now?” he countered. “What has this child done to you?”
Neal made a beeline for the blankets, some of them neatly folded in stacks at the end of the aisle, others on the shelves, bound with a satin ribbon to match the color schemes or simply off white or neutral, bright green. He skimmed over one with a pattern of teddy bears, another with flowers, and still others with zoo animals or marine life. His eyes eventually landed on one so perfect he could hardly believe such a thing existed. Neal would have opted for a Matisse painting, of course, but finding a plush fleece blanket made in the image of Van Gogh’s The Starry Night was a pretty acceptable substitute. This time, there was no deliberation. The blanket joined the array of items in the cart hanging from Neal’s arm.
Mozzie rejoined Neal at the aisle littered with stuffed animals, to find the con-turned-consultant had a small menagerie that had overflowed into a secondary cart. He spotted a fuzzy teddy bear, a monkey, a glow worm, and a puppy that looked eerily similar to Satchmo. Mozzie could only roll his eyes and trail in Neal’s wake while he strolled over to the section of baby girl clothing. His eyes lit up upon seeing a selection of hats made for small children, much bigger than the infant-sized Gemma.
“Moz, look at this!”
Neal held up a child-size fedora with a pastel pink ribbon above the brim. “You’re spoiling her,” was Mozzie’s retort.
“I thought that was kind of the point.” The fedora was dropped into the menagerie of stuffed animals.
He sought out a few packages of what June had called ‘onesies’ on her list, taking a few minutes to consider the different colors and once again, the varieties of cute looking animals printed on them. Neal decided on a package of plain white ones and another with pink, blue, green, and purple. Mozzie, meanwhile, had chosen to make himself scarce while Neal moved onto the footie pajamas, socks, and shoes. He picked out a pair of black patent leather shoes Gemma would have to grow into, and a few packages of socks, some of them with frilly lace. As for her pajamas, Neal chose a plush light blue sleeper to match the color of her eyes and another yellow one with a bumblebee pattern.
Lastly, he browsed the racks of little dresses, realizing it would be a couple months until Gem would wear them, especially considering the inevitable humidity in the city. But it couldn’t hurt to be prepared, right? Neal studied the pint-sized dresses, silently wondering where Mozzie had run off to, or if he’d left the store altogether, which wouldn’t have been all that surprising. Instead, Mozzie appeared out of nowhere looking bored and more than a little impatient.
“She’s lured you into her tiny clutches and it only took about two hours,” he was saying. “I’ve been thinking it through, and I have to admit, that’s an impressive feat. She is going to do great, devious things someday.” It was clear that Neal wasn’t paying any attention to him, perusing the racks of dresses still. “Or, it’s merely a sign that you’ve just been clay in her hands from the very start, which judging from the amount of June’s money you’re going to spend on her, is the more likely scenario.”
Neal set a turquoise blue dress into the cart and contemplated whether or not to buy more than one.
“Are we done here, or are you going to buy out the entire store?”
“Five minutes,” Neal said.
Mozzie sighed and disappeared again. His presence was replaced by that of an eager-looking woman who happened to be an employee of the boutique. If Neal had to guess, she probably owned the place. She flashed a brilliant white smile at him and hovered.
“Can I help you with anything?” she inquired.
Neal gave her an equally charming grin. “Nah, I got it covered. I’m just…browsing. But thanks.”
She still hovered. “First-time daddy?”
“It’s that obvious, huh?” Neal chuckled.
“The first-timers are always easy to pick out,” she answered. “It’s rare we get just the daddies coming in here—it’s nice of you to take care of things for mommy.”
Neal felt the conversation was rapidly becoming awkward, but he went with it anyway.
“Yeah,” he replied. “I try, you know? It’s the least I can do after everything she’s dealt with over the past several months.”
She gave him an awww-that’s-so-sweet patronizing sort of smile. “When is she due?”
“Ah, actually, she had the baby a few days ago,” Neal explained, in half-truth. “I’m picking up some things…it’s kind of a surprise.”
“Oh, congratulations!” she exclaimed. “What’s the lucky little girl’s name?”
Neal hesitated, and for some reason unknown to him, he gave the overzealous woman a fake name for his daughter. Old habits and all that.
It bothered him that he didn’t know where that had come from all of a sudden, either.
“Beautiful! Well, pass along the well wishes to mommy, okay? She’s lucky to have such a devoted husband.”
Neal chuckled hollowly, watching her saunter off. “…Yeah.”
Disclaimer: I don't own anything, I'm just having fun!
A/N: This isn't my favorite chapter, but it kind of sets up the next one. Still, I hope you like it!
Mozzie decided he’d had enough interaction with babies and vomit-inducing cuteness to last him a lifetime, so somewhere between the baby boutique and June’s mansion, he ditched Neal, whose arms were laden with overflowing pastel colored bags. In the back of his mind, he knew he’d gone completely overboard, but Gemma needed her own things to make her feel at home, and Neal would have been lying to himself if he admitted he didn’t get enjoyment out of spoiling her. If Annalise decided to cut herself from their little girl’s life, he would be damned if he didn’t try to give Gemma the best upbringing he could manage. He already loved her with every fiber of his being, from the very moment he’d read those words in Anna’s note. And, Neal quickly discovered he was suffering from a mild case of separation anxiety—it had only been a few hours, but he was eager to hold Gemma again and show her everything he’d bought for her.
“Look who’s home, Gemma,” June said as Neal stepped into the loft apartment, bags nearly dropping across the floor, one of them beginning to tear at the bottom.
June was seated away from the center table with his wide-eyed baby girl in her tender, grandmotherly hold. She could have sworn she detected a smile on the infant’s lips when she caught sight of her father, who knelt beside the chair and peered over the elder woman’s shoulder. He poked the tip of her nose, prompting her tiny fist to curl around his index finger.
“How was she?” he asked. “Not screaming her lungs out, I hope.”
“She was just fine,” June smiled. “A little fussy at first, but I gave her the grand tour of the house and she fell right asleep soon after. She slept the whole time my granddaughter was here and woke up a couple minutes ago. She’s a curious little thing.”
“I really appreci—”
“Not another word, Neal,” she warned, tone playful. “Gemma’s family.”
“Please thank your granddaughter for me, at least.”
“Already taken care of. The crib is right over there, but you’ll need to put it together.” She gestured to a huge box by the balcony doors.
Neal glanced at the cardboard sagging at the seams, taped up like someone was attempting to staunch the flow of the Hoover Dam, parts hanging out of both ends. He cringed but tried not to make it noticeable.
“There’s a few other things…a bassinette, a car seat, changing table. We’ll have to get Gemma a stroller; the weather’s warming up and those walks in the park during the afternoons will be wonderful for her.” Neal was about thank her again, but June held up her hand. She didn’t need to be thanked for her actions, because she felt it had only been the natural response. And June loved Gem as if she were her own granddaughter. “Now, I’m going out to lunch with a few friends of mine, will you be all right here by yourself with Gemma?”
“I’m sure I can handle it,” Neal replied. “A little father-daughter bonding time is something I think we both could use right now.”
“She’ll probably need to be fed very soon. There should be some instructions on the container of formula to set you straight, but if you have any trouble at all, don’t hesitate to call me.”
June stood and placed the infant in Neal’s care. “We’ll figure it out, right, Gem?”
“Have fun, you two,” June told them, smiling, before she exited the apartment. “I expect the house to still be standing when I return.”
Gemma was surprisingly calm once June left. She was busy studying her father and all the fascinating knick-knacks within her view around the loft. The both of them stayed mostly silent, observing one another as if they weren’t sure what the next step was, aware that they were together but alone for the first time since Gemma had arrived this morning. Not counting the few minutes between June and Mozzie’s visit, the two generations of Caffrey were on their own for the time being to figure this business of child rearing and cohabitation out. Neal’s mind was swimming with questions and fears, anything from how the hell he was going to feed her, to what he was going to do when he had to go back to work. Gemma, meanwhile, seemed to be content just where she was. Neal wondered if she understood what was going on at all.
“Well, Gem,” he started, “Would you like to see what I got for you?”
Neal located the bassinette that had been set up nearby and placed her down gently. Barely keeping his eyes off her, he seized the bags and dug out the items Gemma would find most interesting, bypassing the bottles and packages of socks. He showed her the menagerie of stuffed animals first. Gemma’s eyes sparkled with excitement when the glow worm lit up; she tried to clutch it in her fist and ended up gnawing on the end of it between her gums.
He gave her the yellow lab stuffed animal last. “Your Uncle Peter and Aunt Elizabeth have a dog just like this. His name is Satchmo.” Neal held his hands a wide length apart. “And he’s about this big. He likes to get scratched behind the ears and sometimes, if he likes you enough, he’ll lick your face.”
Neal put the baby Satchmo doppelganger next to the glow worm and its monkey and teddy bear companions. He fished out the blue dress and patent leather shoes, explaining that they were for Gemma once she was able to grow into them. The next item of interest was one of his top favorite purchases, the fleece blanket sewn in the image of The Starry Night. With careful hands, he untied the satin ribbon holding it together and unfolded the blanket, holding it up for Gemma to take in. He figured she would enjoy the vibrant swirls of color more than anything else. He unwrapped her from the soft green blanket and laid the new one in its place.
“It has a painting on it, Gem. See?” he laughed, fingers tracing across the soft fabric. “I’ll spare you the long winded details for now, but the Van Gogh lecture will be in your future at some point. And then Matisse, and Bernini, and Dali, and Monet and Degas…and I’ll shut up now because all of this is going way over your pretty little head.”
Gemma made a small noise, tongue snapping against her mouth. Neal grinned. “Okay, last but not least, I bought you something you’ll have to grow into, but I think you’ll like it.” He pulled the child sized fedora from the bag and held it up for Gemma. “Look, it’s just like Daddy’s.”
He tugged his fedora off and compared the two side-by-side, then placed Gemma’s on top of his head, flipping it on with a flick of his wrist.
“I think it’s more your style,” Neal joked.
Gemma was starting to get fussy again, her face beginning to turn red from her whining. Neal knew it was only a matter of time until she burst into tears—it looked like she was gearing up for a good, loud sob. Secretly, Neal had been dreading this since June had left. He knew he would have to confront the container of baby formula eventually, and he could only hope the directions were helpful enough to walk him through it because he had no knowledge of bottle making whatsoever.
“All right, baby girl, I hear you,” he soothed, rummaging through the bags in search of the bottles and formula. “I’ll get you fed as soon as I can figure this out.”
Neal opened the package of bottles and stood at the counter near the stove contemplating the container of baby formula. Meanwhile, Gemma was now screaming at the top of her lungs and Neal was beginning to panic because he wanted to hold her, but he couldn’t very well do that and unlock the secrets to preparing a bottle at the same time. He felt awful that he couldn’t attend to her right away, especially when she was in such distress. The directions on the container were not, as he had been wishing, simple. Neal was horrified of doing something wrong, and he certainly didn’t want to feed his daughter something if it hadn’t been prepared correctly or safely.
For all his world class intelligence, Neal never would have guessed he’d be puzzled over something like this. He could lie and cheat his way out of the most dire situations, weasel his way into places with the toughest security measures, but Neal Caffrey was terrified of preparing a baby bottle.
“I wanted to avoid this at all costs,” he sighed, “but I think we’re going to have to give your aunt and uncle a call.”
They didn’t have children, of course, but Neal was hoping Elizabeth’s maternal instincts would kick in and give him a helping hand. Reluctantly, he pulled out his cell phone and dialed the number of the Burke residence, a number he knew by heart. While waiting for Peter or El to pick up, he began panicking again, wondering how the two of them would react to Gemma. He couldn’t think too much about the consequences; right now, his main priority was to get his daughter’s needs met.
“Hey, Neal!” Elizabeth answered, tone bright and cheerful as always.
“Elizabeth,” Neal replied, keeping his demeanor calm. “Is Peter there?”
“Actually, he’s out taking Satch for a walk, but he should be back soon. Should I tell him you called?”
“No…listen, I kind of need your help.”
There was a pause, and then, “You’re not in any kind of life-threatening trouble, are you?”
“Not this time,” Neal responded. “I just—”
“Neal, is that…” Elizabeth trailed off, her voice turning from cheery to completely bewildered. “Is that a baby?”
“You have a baby in your apartment, don’t you?” Elizabeth gasped. There was something else in her voice besides pure surprise that he couldn’t quite pin down. “Oh, the poor thing, I can hear it screaming from here.”
“Yeah, that’s kind of why I called…”
“Sit tight, and we’ll be over in twenty minutes. You have a lot of explaining to do, Mister,” El promised.
“You really don’t have to bring Peter with you,” Neal said, pleading.
“Good try, sweetie, but Peter’s not getting left out of…whatever this is that’s happening,” El replied. “Sorry.”
“I was afraid you’d say that.”
Disclaimer: I don't own anything, except Gemma.
A/N: It's so wonderful to be writing this fic again, I must say. I missed it and I'm glad my White Collar muse is back. I hope you all feel the same! Thank you again for your patience, kind words, and kudos.
Also, if you haven't already, check out the future!fic one shot that goes along with this fic, called "Pawn."
Enjoy the new chapter! Drop me a line on your way out!
"Hon, I know what I heard," Elizabeth said, descending the steps up to Neal's loft, "I'm a hundred-percent sure. You really don't believe me?"
Peter allowed himself a faint smirk, the first one in the time it had taken them to drive from their home to June's. Truth be told, he hadn't expected his day off to go quite like this. Taking Satchmo for a walk, eating a nice meal prepared by his wife, relaxing with a beer to catch the game, sure. A phone call telling him his consultant had asked his wife for help (thankfully of the non-perilous variety) in the department of childcare? Never. Of all possible situations where Neal was concerned, this hadn't ever been a thought to cross Peter's mind. Rationalization hadn't given Peter any opportunities to be angry. Above everything else, he felt he was somewhere between puzzled and amused.
"Of course I do," Peter said. "But a baby?" He shook his head. "Oh, this is good. I think I'm going to enjoy watching him talk his way out of this one."
Peter and Elizabeth reached the landing. They could hear the hysterical cries of what was in fact an infant, slightly muffled by the walls and door providing a barrier between them. Elizabeth made a very maternal cooing sound and let her bottom lip jut outward in a truly endearing display of what Peter could only think of as sympathy.
"Maybe he's babysitting for someone," El offered.
Peter couldn't hold back a derisive chuckle. "Never thought I'd see a day with those two words in the same sentence. The man with an anklet, the FBI documenting his every move, babysitting."
"I don't know, I actually think he would be good with kids."
Peter considered this with a half-shrug. "Kids—not babies. Maybe. Neal's got this whole debonair bachelor act going for him. I can't see babysitting skills fitting into his repertoire."
"Well, that's Neal for you," El answered. "Always full of surprises."
He knocked on the door. It took a moment, but Neal finally yelled to them, "It's open!" over the weeping of the baby in his care. Peter turned the knob and ushered Elizabeth inside before closing the door behind them.
Neal Caffrey was a frazzled mess in a way the Burkes had never seen before. They had never experienced his panic at the hands of a baby, much less one, upon further inspection, who looked newborn, so this was unprecedented. By his very nature (and his chosen profession), Neal always upheld a composed demeanor and kept whatever alarm he felt carefully concealed. This was not the case. His hair was ruffled like he had run his fingers through it one too many times and thus had caused it to stick up in odd places. His dress shirt was halfway untucked and wrinkled in spots, and his tie had been thrown with haphazard abandon onto the floor on the opposite side of the loft. The epitome of panic was written with clarity on his face, in his eyes, as if the dictionary had invented the word for him.
The baby in question was cradled in his arms, swaddled in a blanket with swirls of blues and yellows. Peter found himself recognizing the print as Van Gogh's The Starry Night, which only propelled his confusion to near-epic proportions. He could only stand wordlessly beside Elizabeth with one hand on his hip, wondering who the hell Neal would know that would have a baby and ask him to take over in what Peter hoped was a temporary agreement. The fact was, Neal did know a lot of people Peter wasn't aware of, which therefore made the potential of this situation credible. That didn't mean, however, that Peter couldn't continue to find it comical.
On Neal's part, of course. Not the baby's.
Neal Caffrey, the man who worked in a world of dangerous, shady people, disheveled and flustered by an infant.
"Look at you," Peter said.
"Please don't start, Peter," Neal sighed.
"What do you mean? I'm just trying to take in the sight of my CI unhinged by a baby."
Elizabeth elbowed her husband and crossed over to Neal. The sight of the baby in Neal's arms elicited another maternal squeak. Her face was reddened with the effort of crying, eyes scrunched closed. She had, to Elizabeth's surprise, a lot of feather-light, dark brown hair for such a small thing.
"Awww," El crooned, "she's so cute!"
"She's cuter when she isn't crying, believe me. I can't get her to stop," Neal explained. "And the directions on the container of formula aren't exactly helpful."
"All right. I'll see what I can do," El said. She moved over to the kitchenette and began to work her magic on some baby formula and a pan of water to warm up on the stovetop.
"You'd think she would run out of steam by now," Neal said.
Elizabeth pivoted on a heel. "Never underestimate the lung capacity of an infant. Especially one with an appetite."
Peter took a few, somewhat tentative, steps forward. He was still attempting to process the situation—and the picture of his wife taking over bottle preparations. He didn't doubt El's parenting abilities. She'd babysat for nieces and nephews on her side of the family before, though Peter had never been present to watch her in action, moving with the confidence and know-how of a woman who did those things on a daily basis. It twisted at something deep in his gut and he wasn't sure how to acknowledge it, so instead he cleared his throat and fixed a stare at Neal.
"So," he drawled, "who roped you into this? I have a feeling Mozzie is far out of the question."
He watched Neal's brow furrow as he rocked side-to-side in an almost absentminded manner; a futile effort in the battle against the infant's cries.
Peter knew Neal couldn't be that dense. "Spending your day off babysitting. It's decidedly un-Neal Caffrey-like."
"I'm not babysitting."
He decided he also didn't like Neal's tone. There was something off about it, something that he was accustomed to. It carried underlying hints of, I have a problem I can't handle on my own and I need your help but I don't know how to ask for it. Peter had been in Neal's company long enough to understand the caught expression on his face.
Peter crossed his arms. He couldn't figure out if he'd traded amusement for concern or another, sharper emotion. There was a good chance that whatever Neal told him was going to complicate his life further.
"You want to try and explain that?" he asked. He wore that expectant look, the one Neal himself had grown used to whenever Peter managed to be a half-step ahead of him.
Neal sighed. "Her name is Gemma," he said, slowly, like a rebellious teenager 'fessing up to his parents. "She was left here. Her mother decided it was for the best—she couldn't raise her, not with her lifestyle."
"And you just…took it upon yourself to—"
"Gemma's my daughter, Peter," Neal said. "She's my responsibility now."
Peter went slack-jawed, and he was pretty sure El had nearly dropped the pan into the sink in the process of pouring the lukewarm water into the bottle.
"Your daughter?" He wiped a hand over his mouth, keeping his composure. Or at least making the effort.
"There's a note from her mother if you want proof." Neal gestured his head at the sheet of paper on the tabletop.
Elizabeth had finished giving the bottle a good shake. "May I?" she asked Neal. He nodded and placed Gemma into Elizabeth's careful hold. Her crying ceased once El prodded the bottle into her mouth. She sucked on it, content, her bright blue eyes locked on her newest caregiver.
El let out a gasp and broke into a grin. "Hon, I don't think you need any proof." Now that Gemma's eyes were open and her face had relaxed, the resemblance was clear. "She looks exactly like Neal."
Neal moved to stand by Elizabeth's shoulder. The corner of his mouth quirked in a smile when he saw Gemma's eyes begin to droop with sleep. El watched him drag the back of his fingers across Gemma's cheek. Peter, meanwhile, had been stunned into near silence. He wasn't sure what to say or how to respond to this latest development. Their work release agreement hadn't covered unplanned parenthood.
"Neal," Peter said, in his disapproving tone, "this is…I don't know what to do here."
"Things like this happen all the time," El cut in. "It wouldn't be fair to blame anyone for it. What matters is, her mother came to Neal and let him know about Gemma. And it's obvious he cares about her."
"We need to think of the situation seriously," Peter said.
Panic flittered across Neal's eyes again. "I can't give her up. I can't imagine not seeing her grow up, being raised by other people. I want to take responsibility for raising her. She deserves that."
"I understand—hell, I admire you stepping up," Peter replied. "But you're a convicted felon with a tracking anklet and a risky job. One wrong move and you'd be sent back to prison—where would that leave your daughter? I'm not sure they'd let you keep her. And you know a lot of dangerous people, Neal."
"Peter and I decided to put off having kids because of our jobs," El clarified. "His job, especially. He was afraid something would happen. It's scary—those types of people don't hesitate to use your loved ones as bargaining tools. Or worse. Gemma's safety wouldn't always be certain."
"I would never let anything like that happen to her."
"You wouldn't," Peter agreed. "Sometimes it's out of our control."
Neal sunk down into a chair, face in his hands, elbows resting on his thighs. After scrubbing his face with his palms, he exhaled. Peter hated seeing him so broken up. This was a complication like no other, and while Peter was well aware of the repercussions, part of him was sympathetic to Neal's obvious frustration. He was a good man at heart who had made more than a few missteps. Peter saw it in his eyes; he wanted to raise his daughter right, make a good path in the world for her. Any parent would want that. The idea of letting go was unfair.
"Look," Neal said, voice wavering a bit, "I realize I'm not A-plus parenting material. I get it, okay? But I can learn. Everything aside, I'm willing to do whatever it takes. I want to be there for her. Please. Please, Peter. If you can do anything to convince them to let me keep Gemma…"
"That might be impossible."
"I'm asking you to try," Neal said. "Please. If they see I'm a fit parent, that I can take care of her and balance work…I don't know. I just can't lose her. Gem's all I've got."
"Not all," El smirked. "Not even close." She set the bottle on the counter, now emptied. Gemma had fallen asleep. "I work from home most days and I wouldn't be opposed to the idea of babysitting."
Neal lifted his head. "Are you sure?"
"Absolutely." She turned to Peter. "If they see Gemma and Neal have a support system, it might help."
"It's a stretch," Peter said. He pinched the bridge of his nose to ward off the inevitable headache. "Worth a shot, but I can't promise anything."
"Thank you, Peter."
"I can't say I completely agree with this," he admitted. He pointed an accusatory finger at Neal. "You owe me."
"Don't I always?"
Peter heaved a long-suffering sigh and moved to lean over his wife's shoulder. She had adopted Neal's subconscious side-to-side rocking. Gemma was asleep, quiet, except for a few intermittent, soft sounds. He found himself cracking a smile at the sight of her, all rosy cheeks and tufts of deep brunette hair. El had been right—she was Caffrey's kid, through and through. Peter could only imagine twice as much trouble for him in the future. Unless, of course, he had any say in Gemma's upbringing.
"She is cute."
"Told you," El said. "How can you say no to that face?"
"That's the problem," Peter said. "You can't."
Peter realized then that he would, without a doubt, make the person who had the guts to use Gemma against Neal wish they hadn't.