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You Ruined Everything (In the Nicest Way)

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Peter spends a year searching before he even gets an image of the so-called Nick Halden: not a great one, high-angle, security camera blurry, black-and-white. But it shows the flash of his smile, just; his gaze is raised, as if he knows not only that he is under surveillance, but who watches him.

(He's talking to a mark, in the image. Peter talked to the mark after, but Nick's too smooth: there's nothing that can be done to recoup the mark's losses. If Peter's honest with himself, he was never really interested in the mark's problems anyway.)

Peter can't stop looking at this picture. He should be doing casework instead of staring at this one image; hell, it's eleven at night and he's at his own kitchen table, he should be up in bed with his wife instead of this.

Elizabeth slips her arms around him, sets her chin on his shoulder. "I'm sorry," she tells him softly.

"Sorry for what?" Peter asks her.

"Sorry you spent all this time looking for him and it turns out he's a crook," Elizabeth says.

"I knew he was a crook before I found him," Peter answers grumpily, trying to avoid what she's really saying. "Nobody has that many aliases if they're not at least a little bit crooked." Nick Halden, George Danvary, Sean Cassady, Charlie Fairweather, and his apparent favorite, Neal Caffrey.

Elizabeth doesn't let him get away with it, though: "I'm sorry you were disappointed," she says gently.

Peter sighs and strokes her arm where she holds him. He doesn't want to be disappointed, though he is. He didn't think his search would lead to this, a kid with six fake IDs in a hotel bar cozying up to a gullible asshole for an investment in some scam or another. There's something else though. When Peter looks at that edge of a smile and all it represents, the suavity, the sleight of hand, the blink-and-you'll-miss-it, he finds he respects the skill there. He's glad of that, even knowing that he shouldn't. He shouldn't be anything but disappointed. He closes the file on that bright, grinning face because it's been a year and the kid is like water, he always slips away. He doesn't want to be found.

The next morning at work, Reese Hughes says, "Why didn't you tell anyone you wanted Neal Caffrey? You can have it--you don't have to shark it. Stokes has had it up to here with the guy, I'm taking him off the case before he shoots innocent bystanders."

"Sure, boss," says Peter, hoping that the tightness of his expression doesn't betray anything more than embarrassment at getting caught rummaging through Stokes's files. After Hughes walks away from Peter's desk, Peter puts his face in his hands, takes two deep breaths, and tells himself to get the hell over it.

---

The first real break in the Caffrey case is when Peter gets close enough that Caffrey has to let his accomplice walk into the police net to get himself out of it. They can't pin anything on Kate Moreau, they know nothing about her, and she's too loyal to roll on her partner, so it's not a break that way--it's only a break because Peter recognizes her.

"I know you," he says when he sits down in interrogation, and he can't help grinning a little. "You dumped coffee on me and picked my pocket."

Kate's chin jerks up at this. She says nothing.

"At the deli up Sixth," Peter says. He doesn't say when, because that will only complicate the case. Two years ago, there would have been no case-related reason for either Caffrey or Kate's interest in him--Peter was only unofficially investigating him then. Did Caffrey really find Peter first? Peter's curious enough to risk giving Kate the opportunity to out him.

But all Kate says is, "I gave it back." Peter just looks at her. "Your wallet. I gave it back."

"And flirted with me for five minutes," Peter recalls. "Was he watching?"

"Yes," Kate says in a very small voice.

"He wanted to see me," Peter says, not quite a question. He's trying to think back, see if he can remember that bright smile hiding behind a cup of joe. Two years ago, and hadn't seen so much as a sketch artist's rendering of Fairweather or Danvary then--if Peter laid eyes on him, he can't find the memory. More likely he never did. Kate was playing a distraction. He thought he was clever, catching her hand in the pocket of his suit jacket, but that was the distraction. He never looked past her.

Kate swallows. "You... know, then," she says.

"That Caffrey likes to play with cops?" Peter says, for the benefit of the tape. (The kid's not going by Caffrey this job, but it's the oldest alias the Bureau has on him.) Kate's expression goes baffled for a brief flicker before it goes closed. "He was disappointed," Peter not-quite-asks again, because if Caffrey was anything but disappointed, he would have picked Peter's pocket himself.

"You're a cop," Kate says, mustering a watery smile. (Or is she only mustering the delicate look of unshed tears? What does she think it'll get her?) "Of course he was disappointed. No cop has ever kept up with Neal."

"Is that so," Peter says, his eyes narrowing.

After that, it's on.

---

Peter assumes the game is now I-know-you-know-I-know. Kate and Neal are thick as thieves. After they release Kate, which they must because they have nothing on her, she tells Neal. Peter expects Neal to play this card at some point. He never does.

The time Neal sends champagne to the surveillance van after a successful heist, Peter looks for some damning note. There is a bit of cream-colored cardstock, cut with a lacy edge around the border. All it says is XOXO, Neal. "He didn't even use his real name," Peter mutters. But then, neither has Peter, not officially.

When Neal delivers a Christmas present to Peter's desk without anyone ever seeing him, Peter expects something--revealing. Instead it's a blue silk tie with no commentary other than a left-handed scrawl on the return receipt, In case you're hopelessly beyond recognizing good taste. For a minute Peter thinks the return receipt is the real present, a clue, but, as it so happens, Caffrey paid with Reese Hughes's wife's credit card. The charges are eventually reversed, but Hughes tells Peter to keep the tie as evidence.

Then it turns out that while Neal was showing off leaving a present at the office, it wasn't because he doesn't know where Peter lives. Elizabeth leaves the Christmas card on the table instead of handling it further once she realizes who it's from, but she has already opened it, so there's little hope for clean prints. Peter expects something more personal, finally, but if anything this card is even more formal. Neal addressed it to Agent and Mrs. Burke. The card features an ink drawing of a cat batting a Christmas ornament hanging from the end of a branch, and it's only when Peter realizes that the generic message, Season's Greetings, wasn't printed by Hallmark but written by someone with an impeccable calligraphic script that he guesses that the entire card is Neal's personal handiwork. He wonders if he's supposed to be the cat or the ball on a tether.

Peter gets a good look at Neal's face when he arrests him, takes a pause before he turns the kid around and cuffs his wrists behind his back. Neal looks back, all amused fascination. Peter expects him to speak, expects him to name the secret between him, to try to startle Peter if not to outright attempt to use it as leverage. Neal doesn't say anything, so Peter breaks the silence as he closes the first cuff on Neal's left hand: "Gotcha."

"Took you long enough," Neal says to the alley wall with a breathy laugh, and Peter can't tell how much of a jibe it is, if he's talking about three years, four years, more.

During Neal's interrogation, at Neal's trial when Peter's on the witness stand, when Neal's sentenced to four years in prison, Peter keeps expecting him to say something. He never does.

The most personal Neal gets in four years of birthday cards is to address them Dear Peter.

When Neal breaks out of prison and Peter hauls him back and Neal begs Peter to take him on as a consultant, Peter expects Neal to say something. Peter expects Neal to ask won't Peter, out of the goodness of his heart, take pity and let him go. Peter expects Neal to follow up his proposal for early release with some demand that Peter owes him this much. Peter isn't sure he'd disagree if Neal were to say any of those things. But he never does.

"You could say something," Elizabeth told him, once. This was back during the trial. Peter wasn't completely sure what effect, if any, it would have had on the chances of conviction; the evidence was sound in its own right, Peter's motives aside, though it might have gotten the kid a sympathy vote or two in the jury. Still, it was out of respect for Neal, and the game, that Peter answered: "No, I can't. It's his move, now."

She says it again when Peter's agonizing over whether to get Neal out, be his keeper. "You could say something." She presses a kiss to his cheek because he's too lost in his own thoughts to catch a kiss on the lips.

"I don't know what to say," Peter says. So he doesn't.

---

There's only twice in the course of their early cases together that Neal says anything about it, and neither time is he speaking to Peter. Once, Peter's not even there. Jones tells him about it after: Jones called Neal on being a giant flirt, which Neal didn't bother to deny, because Neal has no interest in fighting losing battles. Jones subsequently asked him how badly he wanted to jump Peter's bones. (Jones has the grace to show some shame about this, though he notes that it's no worse than the usual banter when Neal takes part and Jones himself does not think of Peter that way at all. Sir.) Neal reportedly replied, "What? Ew, no." Jones questioned this response, because homophobia wasn't usually in Neal's repertoire. Neal then clammed up, refusing to say more than, "It's not like that with Peter."

"Dunno what the hell that means," Jones says. "I figured you ought to know, because he's sure obsessed with you somehow or another."

"Pretty sure I know," Peter says dryly. "Don't worry about it. It's handled." It's not much, other than a confirmation that Neal does know, and Peter had that six years ago from Kate.

The other time it's something Neal says to Elizabeth. They bring work home, Peter brings Neal home, they've got some shady company's financials spread out all over the coffee table and Elizabeth calls them both to dinner once, twice, and then a third time, "Before it gets cold!"

"Yes, Mom," says Neal. Peter glances at him, but Neal's not looking his way. Could mean anything. Could just be Neal being a smartass. Could be Neal tweaking him.

Sideways way to do it, anyhow.

---

Peter breaks first. They're in the middle of tracking down a jewel thief and Neal can't shut up about how second-rate the guy is, how much better he could have done it, how much better he has done it, nudge nudge, remember that time in, oh, better not say. What Peter wants to say--what he should have said--is that if Neal's so goddamn smart why hasn't he figured out how to catch the guy yet?

What Peter actually says is: "Will you put a sock in it, Francis?"

Neal whips around to stare at him, slack-jawed. It's hard to tell how much of a performance it is. The one good thing about it is that he has, in fact, shut the hell up.

"Francis?" Cruz snickers.

"It's his real name," Peter says, though if he'd been thinking he would have played it off as a joke, which he realizes moments later.

"That's not in his file," Cruz notes, intrigued. No, it's not, because Peter didn't discover it in the official investigation. It was part of the private one.

"My name," says the personage in question with deep affront, "is Neal."

So Peter feels compelled to elaborate on his behalf: "He was raised in a Catholic orphanage. Nuns picked it."

"I picked it myself. It's my name," says Neal.

"You know that's not how names work, right?" says Jones.

"You spelled it wrong," Peter helpfully points out. He has been wondering why Neal-with-an-a-not-an-i for a while.

"It's from annealing," Neal sniffs. "It's a blacksmithing process."

"And you think being raised by nuns was a trial by fire?" Peter asks.

"No," Neal shoots back, "I think being abandoned by my parents was."

Well. Peter wanted Neal to say something. He has, now. Peter doesn't know what to do with that, especially in front of Cruz and Jones; all he can do is table it and demand they get back to work. He has to tell Cruz she's not allowed to call Neal Francis no matter how much he bothers her. Cruz pouts. Peter wonders when he became a hall monitor and tells her she hasn't earned it. She gets an odd look on her face then but she leaves it be, so Peter counts himself satisfied.

Later Peter calls Elizabeth and tells her he's bringing Neal home for dinner; he lets Neal overhear and Neal looks up on cue. He doesn't refuse.

"What happened?" Elizabeth asks.

"I said something," Peter says.

"Oh," Elizabeth says, sounding worried and hopeful all in one breath.

"I think I said the wrong thing," Peter confesses, for Neal's benefit as well. Neal looks back down at his laptop. He's leaning on his fist. Peter takes a step or two and puts his hand on the back of Neal's chair. Neal's minesweeper game explodes.

"We'll make it right," Elizabeth promises.

"Yeah," Peter says. "We will."

---

The ride home is tense. Neal asks what they'll be having for dinner and Peter says, "I don't know," and mutters, "Humble pie, for some of us," under his breath.

Neal, petulant, says, "Then how do you know I'd want to eat dinner with you?"

"Look," Peter tries. "I didn't abandon you."

There's a fraction of a pause while Neal--Peter can practically see this in the glitter of his eyes--weighs how much of an admission that is. Neal barrels on, "And what would you call it?"

Peter admits to himself that it probably looks all the same to Neal. He sighs, tries another tack. "I was fourteen, you know. Fourteen-year-old boys are not well-renowned for their sensitivity or responsibility. I don't know that you would have been better off with me. I probably would have dropped you on your head a lot."

The corner of Neal's mouth twitches. He looks away.

It's not in Peter's nature to give up, though this would be easier if Neal would give him more to work with. "We'd be different people if I had, you know. Raised you. I don't just mean the inevitable brain damage, I mean--you wouldn't be you, and you've never struck me as someone who's unhappy with himself. I know I--and I can't believe I'm saying this, don't think this negates the fact that you can be an obnoxious, felonious, little headache--I actually like you the way you are. I'm not saying I don't wish things had been different, I'm saying--would you want to trade this?"

Peter waits for an answer, but there isn't one, so he lets Neal have his silence, staring out the window, until they get home.

---

Elizabeth greets them with an "Oh, honey, what happened?" and arms open to embrace Neal. Peter supposes that's fair; he's had Elizabeth's support for ten years, Neal can have it for this.

"He called me Francis," Neal reports to Elizabeth's shoulder. All right, Peter thinks, he knows Francis was a misstep. He can learn.

"Oh, oh dear," Elizabeth says. Peter is a little relieved to see that there's a sparkle in her eye at odds with the firm turn of her mouth. She pushes Neal back to arm's length to look at him. Still holding onto his arms, she asks, "What did you do to him?"

Neal yelps, "Nothing!" Elizabeth gives him an incredulous look and Neal breaks almost immediately: "I may have been bragging. About my criminal past. At work. In the FBI office."

"Uh-huh," Elizabeth says sympathetically, drawing Neal back into another hug and rubbing his back. "Not the best policy, is it."

"No," Neal admits.

"Do you want to come help me with the salad?" Elizabeth says, and leads Neal away to the kitchen.

Peter sits down on the couch and Satchmo comes and puts his head in Peter's lap. Peter scritches behind Satchmo's ears and listens as Elizabeth and Neal get out a cutting board. "I wish you were my mother," Neal says and Satchmo whines because Peter has stopped scratching him. Peter starts up again mostly to hush the dog so he can hear.

"You realize that would put me giving birth at about eight?" Elizabeth laughs.

"Three," Neal corrects. "Neal's got five years on Francis."

"Oh, honey," Elizabeth says again, and guesses something far more mundane than Peter did, when he caught that on Caffrey's sheet: "And when did you start making the booze runs for your social set?" Neal just chops more carrots, his expression focused, from what Peter can see in profile, and Elizabeth says, "Must have been tough with that baby face of yours, no matter how good the ID."

"I look older with short hair," Neal answers.

"Hmm," Elizabeth says, reaching up to brush the loose wave of his hair further to one side, as if trying to picture it.

"But if you were my mother," Neal persists, turning into her hand, "Peter would have kept me, right?"

"Yes, and you'd be eight, because the other way is just disturbing," Elizabeth says matter-of-factly. She lets her hand fall and goes back to slicing tomatoes.

Neither of them says anything for few moments. Then Neal says, so softly Peter has to strain to hear him, "That would be okay."

---

Dinner is quieter than Peter would like. The first time Neal starts to speak, Peter leans in expectantly and Neal requests, "Pass the focaccia?"

Peter can't help it. "Is that--is that really all you want from me? That's all you've got to say?"

It comes out harsher than he means it so it's not that surprising when Neal throws Elizabeth a bewildered look before saying to Peter, "I don't--I'm sorry, but what did I do wrong?"

Peter sighs. "Nothing. You didn't do anything. Have some damn bread." Neal accepts warily and tears off a corner without looking away from Peter, without saying anything. If he didn't have such a blank mask, Peter might have a clue what to do here. "I just don't know what you want, except to change history which, I'm sorry, I can't do. I can't turn back time, Neal."

Neal sucks in a breath. He's still holding the focaccia over his plate. "Would you, if you could?" he asks.

"I don't know," Peter says. "I was a kid myself. I was young and stupid and demonstrably not too damn careful. Like I said, I don't know that that would have been better." He can see he's not giving Neal what he wants and maybe all Neal wants is the declaration, but it would be dishonest to say yes unequivocally and this is too important to lie because it's easy. He wants to shake Neal for wanting him to. "I wish I'd known. Maybe I could have grown the hell up if anyone had told me I was going to be a father."

Peter expects that to be the word that makes a difference, but Neal doesn't react to father. Instead, he says, "Wait. You didn't know about me?"

That's a revelation? Were they too busy playing I-know-you-know-I-know to miss the things the other didn't know? "No," Peter says. "No, the first I heard about you was when you went to visit your mom, when you were eighteen." As soon as Neal could obtain his birth certificate. "I did try to find you then," he points out irritably. "You didn't exactly make it easy to get in touch."

"So you knew about me when you arrested me, and after," Neal says. His tone is more cautious than accusative, but Peter hears it that way anyway, especially when he adds, "You never said anything."

"I expected you to say something!" Peter protests.

"How was it my place to say anything?" Neal bursts out. "I was waiting for you to acknowledge me!"

"I didn't think you wanted me to," Peter says.

"Well, maybe you were wrong," Neal proclaims sullenly.

Peter makes himself stop and not yell back, makes himself pause to catch a ragged breath. El says: "I told you, you should have said something, dear."

"I knew there was a reason you were my favorite," Neal tells her, fumbling towards equilibrium.

"We should just let her handle things. We're clearly incompetent," Peter says wryly. If Peter ever had any doubts that Neal was family, they would have been erased by how easily he can frustrate Peter.

"Speak for yourself," Neal says in forced banter.

"Neal," Peter says carefully, knowing he's not going to want to hear this, "you understand that I can't publicly acknowledge you. Not now. The FBI wouldn't trust me with your custody. My bosses would think I cover for you more than they already think I do. They'd think I'd let you get away if you had the chance. You'd be back in prison before the week was out."

Neal nods jerkily. "Yeah. Of course." Peter's so relieved Neal sees reason on this point that it takes him a second to feel bad about how disappointed Neal sounds.

"But," says Elizabeth. They both look at her. "But you want him to know," she prompts Peter.

"Know what?" Peter asks. What fixes this one?

"You really should just leave it to me," Elizabeth says. She turns to Neal. "Honey, your father loves you very much and you make him proud. None of what he just said was meant to imply anything else." Peter thinks that should be obvious. It's all stuff he's said--not all at once and not in such emphatic terms, but Neal reads people, it's what he does, surely he got the message. "Now," says Elizabeth, "is there anything you'd like to say to him, or should I carry both sides of the conversation?"

Neal says directly to Peter, "Is that true?"

If Neal has to ask, then no, he didn't get it. Peter clears his throat and says, "Yeah, Neal." Neal's still watching him intently. It's not enough. Neal wants the declaration but Peter can't give him the last twenty-six years. "I'm sorry I couldn't keep you then. I'm doing my damnedest to keep you now."

"Oh," Neal says. Peter hopes.

"Oh my God, just hug or something," says Elizabeth. She starts clearing plates away, leaving them at the table to handle this one themselves.

Neal watches Peter carefully, though Peter can see he's keeping track of Elizabeth, too. It's easier for Peter because Neal's back is to the kitchen, so they're both in Peter's line of sight. Elizabeth is standing sideways at the sink, barely paying attention to the plate she's holding under the tap with one hand.

Deliberately, Peter stands up, drops his napkin on the table, and holds out his arms. Neal pushes up from his chair and tentatively steps up to Peter. Peter pulls him close. Neal's tense and so is Peter and Peter doesn't feel Neal relax, at all, which means that he can't either. After a moment, Neal says, slightly muffled and entirely flippant, "This is really awkward. Maybe we could come up with some other way to express our affection."

Peter lets him go. "You could stop giving me heart attacks." At Neal's confused look, he adds, "You know it kills me, worrying about you, right?"

"Very good, Peter!" Elizabeth calls. As far as Peter can tell she's still rinsing that one plate.

"I used a feeling word," Peter explains to Neal, hoping to make it a shared joke.

"Well, you don't have to, with me," Neal says, "if it makes you uncomfortable. I'm not gonna call you Dad or anything."

Which leaves Peter wondering if Neal's as unhappy with him as Peter always feared he would be.

---

Half an hour later, Neal has retreated to the couch, where he's ruffling Satchmo's fur and refusing offers of dessert. Elizabeth's sipping coffee and elbowing Peter to just go over there already, but Peter says, quietly, "I don't know what to say to him." He's not happy about this, but he's made about fourteen different attempts tonight, and it doesn't seem like Neal's willing to meet him halfway here. Either he won't say anything, he won't say anything illuminating, or he seems like he's on the verge of accepting Peter's overtures and then shuts down, troubled in some way he chooses not to articulate. Hot, cold, and opaque: that's Neal. "What if," Peter adds, "there's nothing I can say that makes this okay?"

"I still think you need to talk about your feelings more," Elizabeth opines.

"Yeah, I'm gonna freak him out if I keep doing that," Peter says wryly. "He didn't even take the hug well."

"I don't know why not," Elizabeth sighs. "He likes hugs fine from me."

"It's your mom powers," Peter teases her.

"No," Elizabeth says thoughtfully, "it's that I'm not obligated to mom him, but I will anyway. He needs convincing that... that you really do care about him, not just that you think you're supposed to."

Peter gives this his consideration. It's not a theory that would have occurred to him; how can Neal not have noticed that Peter cares? Actions are supposed to speak louder than words, aren't they, and Peter's made some pretty big gestures here, not least of which was getting Neal out of prison. Except that apparently Neal didn't get it until Elizabeth made the declaration on Peter's behalf and even now seems skeptical. Peter's not sure how words will be more convincing than everything he's done, especially as Neal shows every sign of distrusting words which don't fit into his view of the world, but Neal's view doesn't seem entirely swayed by actions and gestures either.

Neal's a conman. He expects people to lie with behavior, too. Peter's going to have to do both, he realizes, give Neal both the actions and the words until Neal can't find any evidence to hang his fears on.

"It's getting late," Neal announces. "I should call a cab."

"No, I'll drive you," Peter says.

"You don't have to," Neal replies quickly.

"It's okay," Peter says. "I want to."

---

As they're pulling away from the curb, Neal says, "I'm sorry I'm mad at you." He doesn't sound particularly regretful and he also says am, not was, so as far as Peter can tell this isn't an apology, this is Neal serving Peter notice.

Peter checks his blind spot and allows to himself that mad is at least a feeling word. "What are you mad at me about?" he asks, trying for neutral instead of defensive.

"Why do you think?" Neal says. He sounds tired. "I wasn't, for a long time. I couldn't tell if you knew about me or not and I just told myself it wasn't worth getting mad when you might not even know." Did Kate not tell him what Peter said to her, all those years ago? Or was it easier for Neal to pretend, easier to talk himself out of being angry and hurt if he could pretend? "For all I knew, she never told you or never had the chance, never saw you again--"

"No one's love-'em-and-leave-'em in ninth grade," Peter scoffs. "You have to go to class the next day."

Neal gives Peter a sideways look, eyebrow up. He holds it long enough for Peter to look away from the road at him twice in quick succession.

"No," says Peter. "I don't even want to know, do not tell me."

"Kidding," Neal says with a tight smile. Usually the gotcha moment is accompanied by a full-on blazing grin, so the fact that it's not means either Neal's not kidding, or Neal's not conning him. Neal is... Neal is not hiding that he's mad and he's still talking to Peter.

Peter realizes this means--a lot, for all that it feels uncomfortable. "So," he says, urging Neal to continue. "You thought I might not know?"

"And then you called me Francis." Neal spits the name. "And if you knew about that, then you had to know, because I was so damn careful not to leave any tracks back to St. Anne's. I went to prison under an alias, do you know what it took to pull that off?"

"Me not saying anything," Peter suggests.

Neal scowls. "Credit history. I fooled banks. And forged a social security card, so I could get a legitimate license. I paid taxes." He sounds so disgusted Peter has to chuckle. "I thought," Neal goes on, "it would be all or nothing. That either you'd have known all along and I could just flat-out hate you or you didn't know at all. It didn't occur to me I wouldn't be able to blame you for my crappy childhood but I could still find out you put me away, knowing. That was why--you know I found you, before you started working my case?"

"Yeah," Peter says. He wonders if he should say more or just listen.

Neal continues, "After I got confirmation on your DNA, I didn't--"

"My DNA?" Peter asks. Neal pauses. "You had Kate dump my coffee and pick my pocket for the cup. You--I thought you knew then. What, were you stalking everyone from my high school?"

"Just your year," Neal shrugs. "I would have branched out if I had to, but I got lucky on you. Burke's high in the alphabet."

Peter works this around in his head. "I assumed you already knew, that you wanted to get a look at me. That you sent Kate over because you didn't want to come near me yourself, because you were... disappointed in me."

After a moment, Neal repeats, "Disappointed?"

Peter shrugs uncomfortably. He feels hunched over the wheel. "That I wasn't like you. Too straight and narrow, or something."

"I wasn't disappointed," Neal says; his correction sounds scornful. "I was afraid. Because you were FBI. I was afraid it wouldn't matter to you that I was your kid, that you'd throw the book at me anyway. I was right about that, I guess. That's why I'm mad at you. And it's funny, you know, because I was never mad at you about that at the time, I told myself you were just doing your job but--knowing you knew--it makes it matter."

Peter wants to curse. "I wish you had talked to me, then," he says. "You were barely eighteen, there was probably hardly anything you could have been charged with as an adult, I could've--"

"What?" Neal asks. "Got me off easy, if I promised to shape up?" Peter doesn't answer because he can tell Neal's not fond of that thought and yeah, any relationship they can maintain has to be predicated on Neal giving up his life of crime. The one they've got now is based on that, only Neal suggested it himself, so Peter's not sure why it pisses him off so much. "So I should have changed my entire life around to feel safe enough to talk to you, when I barely knew anything about you?"

"Neal," Peter says, "the stuff I put you away for you hadn't done then--hadn't even thought of then. If you'd just--"

"Can we drop this?" Neal interrupts again. "Like you said, we can't change history. What's done is done."

Peter sees a big difference between choices no one told him he had when he was young and choices--to commit crime--that Neal made with his eyes open. But he knows Neal's upset and telling him he's wrong to be upset isn't going to help. "Okay," Peter says. "You're mad at me. Okay. This going to affect work?"

Neal looks at him solemnly for a long moment before giving him a blazing smile. "Work'll be fine," he promises cheerfully. It's so fake it hurts.

"And us?" Peter asks.

Neal shuts the smile off. "I'll let you know," he says.

---

There's a limit to how much Peter can change his behavior at work without freaking out his team, let alone Neal, but he gives it a shot. He makes a conscious effort to stop joking about sending Neal back to the supermax if he screws up; Neal's always given him hurt puppy looks about that. Those looks always seemed over-the-top, silly and artificial, but Neal's good at covering up real worries with fake ones as misdirection and if Neal wishes so badly that Peter had kept him, and is still mad about Peter having sent him to prison, then Peter is determined that Neal should not think Peter wants to send him back now.

Peter also tries to reward Neal for work well done. He worries that this will misfire, that Neal will think Peter only puts up with him as long as he catches criminals, but it's hard for Peter to show approval of Neal's general existence while at the office. It's probably Peter's fears on that score that make the words come out awkwardly when Peter pats Neal on the back and says, "Good job."

Neal gives him a strange look and says, "I'm not actually eight, Peter."

The reference to his conversation with Elizabeth in the kitchen--of course Neal was aware of how intently Peter was listening--makes Peter's heart stop momentarily. Keeping things under wraps at work has been odd, given the push-pull of Peter's efforts to show Neal he cares and his fears that if anyone knows why, he won't get to keep Neal here. Strangely, though, it doesn't feel surprising that Neal would be testing the boundaries on this. It's honestly how Peter was expecting the last eight years of their cop-crook acquaintance to run, so no, not surprising. Belated, but not surprising. Why make issue of it now, when it's out between them? Peter's forced to wonder if this is Neal acting out because he's still mad at Peter.

What Neal said is not enough on its own to be a revelation of anything but Neal's impulsive immaturity, though. Peter sees that when Jones shakes his head and laughs, "Sometimes you act like it."

"Yeah," Peter echoes, falling in with this interpretation. "You could've fooled me, kid."

At this moniker, Neal shoots him a look so blank that Peter suspects he's truly surprised. Then a smile unfolds on his face--it gets to the practiced, charming grin pretty fast, but there's an odd flicker in that progress, a moment when his mouth pauses at the closed half-smile Peter usually associates with Neal so engrossed in whatever task is at hand that he's forgotten to act his enjoyment. Did Neal just show him that on purpose? Does intent to reveal make it artificial? This is what Peter is still trying to figure out when Neal zings, "Whatever, old man."

Far from trying to give Peter fewer heart attacks, Neal seems intent on giving him more.

---

The furthest Neal pushes it happens on a stake-out of a museum Neal's certain the second-rate jewel thief is going to rob. Shoddy work makes Neal grumpy: "If he was any good, we'd never see him coming," he grouses.

"I dunno, I saw you coming plenty of times," Peter says. "And going. I just couldn't do anything about most of the time--you were taunting me on purpose."

"I don't think this guy even knows we're onto him," Neal snaps. "And for the record, yeah, maybe I was, and you never would have caught me if you weren't--" He looks over at Peter for emphasis and his mouth stops, open, because Jones and Cruz and four other agents are staking out other exits and listening on radio. They even had a few relevant opinions on the suspect's methods before Neal started dominating the conversation with bitching about the guy's sloppiness and stopping just short of calling Peter my father.

"Wait, are you saying I cheated?" Peter says incredulously.

"No, of course not, you would never," Neal says with dramatically played virtuousness.

"Then what?" Peter says. "You saying you let me win?"

"I wouldn't go that far," Neal drawls.

"So what are you saying?" Peter demands.

Peter doesn't get an answer on this, because Cruz says on the radio: "Can it, guys, I've got movement over here."

Twenty minutes, a farcical faux shoot-out (their jewel thief didn't even black the orange tip of the water gun he was carrying; Neal tsks) and one arrest later, Peter gives into the urge to keep bickering about it. "I did not take unfair advantage, I did your case completely by the book."

"Of course," Neal agrees in annoying, total non-agreement. "Just like you always do."

"Yeah, I do," Peter insists. "I didn't get sloppy, no matter how badly I wanted to catch you," which is as close a euphemism as he dares for that other motivation, the familial one Neal alluded to.

"Well, maybe I did," Neal answers, and something about it rings--not precisely true, because Peter recognizes maybe as a trick by which Neal makes statements true and false in equal measures, but important. What he says rings important to Peter's ears.

This is the crux of the matter and knowing that makes Peter take a deep breath and halt the argument where it stands. He might not be able to divine what Neal means clearly enough to give him the answer he wants, but he knows who can. "Hungry?" he asks. "Elizabeth was making lasagna tonight. We can reheat some before I drop you off at June's."

"Hey, boss, how come I never get lasagna invites?" Cruz asks--not, Peter thinks, out of any real feeling of being left out; more as a sarcastic stinger to tell him he's being unprofessional about Neal. It's funny that lasagna sounds more warning bells than the argument which Peter (and Neal, he's pretty sure) felt didn't so much skirt dangerous territory as wander directly through it.

Peter figures the truth is reasonable recourse here. "Because you don't inspire my wife to want to pinch your cheeks and fatten you up," he rallies.

Cruz snorts and rolls her eyes. Peter decides that's handled so he stops worrying and allows himself to be amused: it's hard to tell under the orange glow of sodium-vapor street lights, but Peter suspects Neal of blushing.

---

Elizabeth comes downstairs in a house robe to listen to Neal and Peter rehash the argument over their late supper. She makes sympathetic noises for both of them and looks like she's not only expecting it but dying to take over when Peter finishes, "So what the hell was he talking about?"

"Why aren't you asking me?" Neal complains.

"Because you didn't explain yourself when you had the chance," Elizabeth shushes him. She takes his face in her hands and gazes theatrically into his eyes as if she's going to read his mind. "I would say, let me see, he meant that if it had been anyone else pursuing him, he would have vanished into thin air a lot more often. That in fact he did, when it was anyone else. But he hung around playing cat and mouse with you, Peter, because--hmm?" she asks when Neal opens his mouth.

"Nothing," Neal says weakly.

El carries on happily with her big reveal. "Because he loves you and he wants you to love him back and it was the only way he knew how to get your attention."

Peter thinks of the card with the champagne Neal delivered: XOXO, Neal. Peter was stuck on Neal using an alias, because he didn't know, then, how insistently Neal had remade his identity. He probably didn't intend the signature to be anything other than matter-of-fact. XOXO... Peter thought that was Neal just being cheeky because he didn't see any sincerity in the name. Peter now thinks that if Neal was upfront with one, he was probably being upfront with the other. Damn. What a thing to miss.

"Yes," Elizabeth goes on with the psychic act, "I can see he wants you to know it was all that he loves you and not remotely because he craves an authority figure lacking in his childhood and you fit the bill so admirably that when you tell him he's done wrong, he's willing to accept his punishment instead of feeling it's a terrible injustice imposed on him by an uncaring universe." She does indeed give into the urge to pinch his cheeks on terrible, as if Neal's usual reaction to incarceration (and it's true, Neal did walk out of a few holding cells Fowler or Stokes or local PD put him in) is the most adorable thing ever.

There's a pause. Neal says shakily, "You're kind of scary," which is not a denial.

"Remember, you can try hugging again if the feeling words are too uncomfortable," Elizabeth says sweetly. Her hands are still cupping his face; she pulls him down to kiss him on the forehead, then lets him go.

Peter finishes working through El's claim and asks Neal, "You mean you stayed in prison for three and a half years because I put you there?"

"No," Neal says unconvincingly. Then: "Not entirely."

"Yes, there were guards and bars and locks and stuff." Elizabeth nods wisely.

Neal glares, because these things were no impediment when he put his mind to it and everyone knows it. "Stop torturing him," Peter tells Elizabeth.

"I never get to have any fun," Elizabeth announces.

"El wants to be your wicked stepmother," Peter explains to Neal because Neal is watching the byplay with rapt attention that is probably meant to convey something other than worried bafflement, if Peter didn't know full well that wide eyes are not a sign of innocence on Neal. "You know, whenever you get less--" Sensitive is definitely not the word to use. "--prickly about it."

"Prickly," Neal repeats, sounding like he's trying to decide if he should be insulted.

"Yes, dear," Elizabeth says. "I think it would be hilarious if you didn't actually feel like a poor, persecuted waif."

Neal blinks once. He appears to have reached a decision. "I am not," he declares.

"Of course not," says Elizabeth. "And as soon as you stop acting like you think you are, I'll take the kid gloves off." She steals an olive off Neal's salad plate and pops it into her mouth. She smiles at him.

Neal eyes her for a moment, then asks Peter, "Those are the kid gloves?"

"It's not the truth you need protecting from," Peter warns him. "It's her sense of humor."

"You don't think I'm a font of nurturing and understanding all the time, do you?" Elizabeth asks. "How much of a cliché would that be?"

---

Neal single-handedly gets a full confession from the bungling burglar by sitting down with him and offering to look over his work, supposedly to give helpful hints about being a more successful criminal but mostly as an excuse to get the most scathing criticisms off his chest. Peter might have stepped in if there had been any signs of molding more successful criminals, but it's mostly along the lines of don't do that, ever, are you stupid, with no alternatives offered, only reasons why it's a very bad idea, and some of the bad ideas Neal is berating him for include don't carry a gun, especially if you don't have any intent to use it--and carrying a toy gun is like, the definition of intent not to use it--because if it looks like you have a gun eventually someone will shoot you which is an important safety tip Peter wished more crooks followed to the extent of Neal's general avoidance of guns.

Getting Neal to talk has never been that easy. Still, Peter has a glimmer of a plan.

After Neal comes out of the conference room where he was amicably extracting this confession, Peter tries out a new compliment. "I'm proud of you," he says to Neal. Peter's not sure whether Elizabeth would classify that one as a feeling word or not.

There's a split second before Neal settles on a reaction. "Gee, thanks, Peter," Neal says with such a fine veneer of amused sarcasm that Peter can't tell if he means it or not.

"You wanna get out of here? Start the weekend early?" says Peter, because it might be only three-thirty but they deserve it, they've closed a case, and also it's easier to read Neal when he's not putting on extra layers of obfuscation for work. "Let's go get some coffee."

"There's coffee here," Neal points out.

"Good coffee," Peter suggests.

Neal picks up his hat off his desk and drops it on his head. "Lead on," he says.

---

So Peter leads Neal downstairs and out of the plaza. They get to the corner of Worth and Lafayette across from the Starbucks and Neal gives Peter a suspicious look, because Neal has opinions about Starbucks, but Peter keeps walking. "Where are we headed?" Neal asks after another block.

"You'll see," Peter says.

Ten minutes later, they're at the deli where Peter met Kate, years ago. Peter pulls the door to go in and realizes Neal is still standing unmoving on the sidewalk a few paces back. "You coming?" he asks.

Neal blinks at Peter, and what Peter wouldn't give to know what's going on his head sometimes. "Yeah," Neal says.

Peter goes up to the counter and orders an iced coffee, which is not usually Peter's thing but it's their specialty; Neal gives him a look chock-full of opinions and orders a hot coffee and a fresh danish. "Where did you sit?" Peter asks quietly.

"Over here," Neal answers, leading him to a booth half-hidden by a rack of potato chips. He slides in without looking at Peter. They drink their coffee without speaking for a few moments; then, as if Peter brought Neal to the scene of a crime to elicit a confession, Neal volunteers, disjointedly, "This was how I met Mozzie. Because I didn't want to do the DNA profiling through anywhere official, I was afraid it was going to come back to bite me in the ass somehow. Mozzie's got a PCR thermal cycler in his storage unit. He flipped out when he found out you were--" Neal's gaze flicks up briefly, inviting Peter to share the joke, "--the fuzz."

Peter smiles dutifully, though it makes his heart clench to imagine Neal, eighteen years old and running scared of him.

"When you asked me if I was disappointed, when I found out who you were," Neal says, apparently examining the wallpaper with great interest, "was that because you were disappointed, when you found out about me?"

"When I found out you existed or when I found out you were fleecing dumb businessmen?" Peter asks. "Those happened about a year apart for me, you know. For a long time I was disappointed that I wasn't ever going to get to meet you, because you didn't want to be found, at all, by anyone, it seemed like." Peter's doing his best to keep his voice level, casual. Neal's nodding along, his gaze drifting closer to Peter's own eyeline. He estimates Neal might be watching his chin by now. "And when I found out you were a crook, I was disappointed for you. That you'd had to--" Peter pauses to untangle the thought. "I thought if I'd been there to support you, you wouldn't have had to fall back on cons to take care of yourself. That was before I figured out how much you like it," Peter adds wryly, "that it's the thrill, for you."

"Not always," Neal says with a small shrug. "When you found out I existed?" he presses, before Peter can react to that admission.

"When I found out you existed," Peter repeats, reaching for other feeling words, "I was mad at your mom--for not telling me years ago, for telling me the way she did--"

"How did she?" Neal asks.

"She knew I'd gone into law enforcement," Peter says sourly. "She wanted me to make sure you wouldn't bother her family again." With no apparent recognition of the irony of that. "I'm sorry. I wish she'd put my name on the birth certificate, I wish you'd found me first," Peter says. "Of course, that would have meant acknowledging it wasn't a virgin birth and she--" Peter looks away, makes himself cut off a lot of old bitterness, at her for the refusing even to say hello to him by her locker, at himself for not figuring out what it meant when a girl went off to stay with relatives for six months, back when it mattered. When he looks back, Neal's staring directly at him. Peter says, "Mandy's family was strict. They screwed her up pretty badly. I'm sorry she didn't--it didn't work out for you, going to see her."

"Not your fault," Neal says. He glances down at his coffee to add, "I don't even think of her as my mother. I don't really care what she thinks." This is a blatant lie. Peter does Neal the favor of not calling him on it. "I care what you think. What did you think about me?"

"The fact of your existence?" Peter checks. After he gets the nod from Neal, he allows himself to look away, to check out that entrancing wallpaper. "It was a surprise, yeah," and surprise is too small a word, Peter thinks, "but not--not an unwelcome surprise. It was funny, you know, El and I had talked about kids, because it's something people ask you when you've just gotten married, and we didn't think it'd be for us. We both work too hard and she told me I was not temperamentally inclined because I'm professionally paranoid, and I said she'd enjoy warping young minds too much for anybody's good, and we agreed that we should never have kids because we'd scar them for life. So when I told El about you, she asked me--" Peter thinks maybe he's cheating, telling Neal about this with El's feelings, but Elizabeth and he feel the same on this, damn it. He quotes: "He's all grown up? It's too late for us to scar him for life? And I told her you were eighteen and I thought kids were still pretty malleable at that point."

Peter's got to say this clearly, he can't tell from Neal's rapt scrutiny if this is getting through; surely Neal would relax a little if he were getting it. He goes on, "We wanted to meet you, to know you, and maybe it was too late to raise you but we wanted to--to claim you, anyway, to be your family. It's like--people talk about being scared of parenthood when they're expecting and then the second they hold the baby in their arms, they figure out what it's all about, they fall in love with their kids. We thought we'd do fine without kids and then the second we found out you existed, we wanted you to be ours."

Neal says, very softly, "Oh," in that non-committal way of his. He plays with his coffee cup for a moment and Peter thinks that's all he's going to get, but then Neal adds, "You should tell Elizabeth she can be my wicked stepmother. If she still wants."

"You can tell her yourself," Peter says. "She'll like that."

---

It's two o'clock on Monday afternoon when Peter walks into the conference room to hear Jones and Cruz's brief on all their research and instead hears Neal utter the phrase, "...love child by a Catholic schoolgirl!" Both of his agents are yukking it up until they catch sight of Peter. Cruz looks away quickly and pretends to see him for the first time, only to have to fake a coughing fit, though Peter is not sure whether she's still laughing or trying to warn Neal, who has apparently obliviously continued, "What? Why's that so unbelievable?"

"Pull the other one," Jones says to Neal. His gaze flicks to Peter and he shrugs apologetically.

Peter regains his voice. "Caffrey," he barks. Neal spins in his chair. "My office. Now."

"Okay!" Neal says as he rises, both hands up and eyes wide in the dramatic representation of a wrongly accused man.

In his office with the door safely shut, Peter says, low and angry, "You wanna explain that little stunt to me?" But he doesn't give Neal the chance. He's got too much he's afraid of, too much he has to say. Damn it, he thought they were over the worst of this crap, after Neal got him say all those feeling words at the deli. Maybe El's right and he should have just hugged Neal. "You know why I don't want it to be public, you know you couldn't be in my charge if my boss knew, so I don't know if you're trying to get sent back or what the hell you're so pissed off at me about that you don't care--"

"Whoa, Peter, no," Neal says, catching his arm in the arc of angry gesture. "Seriously, calm down, you're gonna give me credibility here."

"Credibil--" Peter stares at him. Why's that so unbelievable, Neal asked, when he put it to Jones and Cruz in the most outrageous terms available. He wasn't trying to be believed, he was trying to make it a big joke. A big, long-running joke that will cover up all the slips they keep making, because they do keep slipping. Even this morning, when Peter tried to keep Neal and Cruz from sniping at each other about alleged bagel theft, Neal said: Or what? You'll ground me? They can't help alluding to it when they fight because it's at the bottom of all their fights and when they work well together, it's too easy to fall into feeling like family. "A joke, huh," Peter says.

"Yeah?" Neal asks hopefully.

"You could have asked me first!" Peter says, because it's a joke Neal made him the butt of and because Neal could have saved him the heart attack.

"Right, we need to invent something else for you to be mad at me about," Neal practically whispers. Peter realizes he spoke too loudly. "But I can work with that. Hold out your hand." Peter does, wary, and Neal starts patting down his own vest pockets. "You're gonna feel this, I can't do it clean and keep the audience from seeing, at this angle," Neal warns him, and Peter is still trying not to look through the glass wall to see who all's watching when Neal swings his hand down to his back pocket and slides in and out of Peter's jacket on the way. That is, actually, the first time Peter has ever felt Neal pick his pocket. Neal pretends to discover Peter's wallet on his own person and drops it into Peter's open palm. "Okay?" Neal says quietly.

Peter makes a show of checking to see that all his cards are still there while he mutters to Neal, "I can't believe you've got me running a con on the whole office."

Neal rolls his eyes. "It's a lot smoother than the con you were running on the whole office."

"Yeah, maybe," is as far as Peter will admit the truth of that.

On their way back to the conference room, they pass Hughes, who turns to ask jovially, "What's this I hear about Caffrey being your brat?"

Peter spares a moment to wonder how long Neal's been working this versus how fast the office grapevine transmits before he concedes to himself that the best policy is if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. "Absolutely true, sir," Peter says. "He's like a two-year-old, sticky fingers everywhere."

Hughes chuckles and goes on his way, which is a relief, but the reaction Peter's really watching is Neal's. Neal is beaming at him, quietly contained effusiveness, a closed smile and bright eyes. For the first time Peter looks at his son and knows everything's okay.