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Neal and the meaning of Fluidity

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Peter finds him in the empty break room down the hall. Wedged into a corner, behind a couch, and table and chair set.

"Neal?" He hedges, taking a cautious step inside, followed by another and then another, before rounding one of the chairs and getting him in full view.

"How'd you know my real name is Neal?" The kid asks, less shaky but still with a fretful look in his eyes.

"How do you think I know?" Peter asks back. "Can we?" He points to the chair, griping the back of one and pulling it out in invitation.

Neal looks like the very idea offends him and shakes his head. Conceding defeat Peter grabs two throw pillows from the couch. Neal takes the one offered to him and pulls it on to his lap, hugging it tight to his chest. Peter places the second one next to him and when there's no objection, lowers himself to the floor, using it as intended.

"Are you a marshal?"

"A marshal?" Peter repeats insulted as he settles his back against the wall, trying to find a position that allows him a view of the door. "I'm an FBI agent. Why would you think I was a marshal?"

"Because they're the only ones who know my real name is Neal."

Peter draws in a long breath, needing to calm his mind in order to calm his words. "How long have you known about the marshals?" His tone is light yet cautious, hopefully hiding the fear he's pushed way, way down.

"Not long." Neal pauses. "My aunt Ellen told me."

Peter turns cold, can feel the blood draining from his face with each freely given syllable. "Neal? Can I call you that?" The kid nods, Peter braces himself. "How old are you?"

"Eighteen," Neal sighs like the weight of the world is on his shoulders.

"Oh boy." Peter leans his head back and breathes, in and out, in and out, nice and steady.

"Are you taking me back?"

"Back where?" Peter sighs dismissively, doesn't take his eyes off the spot on the ceiling he's been using to keep focus.

"Home." Neal respires desolately.

Peter blinks, not only at the word, at the tone. Turning gingerly, he studies Neal's body language. Eighteen maybe old enough for most things, an adult in body if not in mind. But eighteen is still very young to be on your own, without a network of support to rely on, without the guidance and comfort only a parent can provide.

"You want to go home?"

Neal shrugs. But his eyes are as wide as saucers and Peter knows that look. He's seen that look on Neal only three times in their life together. The very first time was during his sentencing. Neal heard the guilty verdict and took it all in his stride, even dared grin at the jury with that cocky butter wouldn't melt smile gracing his ruby red lips, but it was at his sentencing, on hearing he was going away for fours years that it truly sunk in. The game was over. The next time he saw that level of hopelessness was when the plane exploded and the third… the third time was the only time Peter hadn't been able to console the inconsolable. He'd stood on those steps, his anger at Kramer boiling beneath the surface as Neal walked towards them. He was smiling… smiling until the emotion, the anger was clear as day and Neal saw Peter. His smile faded and was replaced with the face that's looking at him now, right before he disappeared…

"Neal?" Peter braces himself. "Do you want to go home?"

"Not sure they'll want me back." He answers eventually.

"Why not?"

"No one's looking for me."

Peter stares dead ahead. "You ran away." He says like it's a forgone conclusion, one he should've come to long ago. "You're a runaway."

Neal's breathing picks up, his head drooping, gaze fixed to the floor. "I really didn't plan to. I just… I was… I just ran. When I ended up at the train station I… I…" and like that Neal breaks down, a dry sob cutting off his ability to form words. "Peter?"

Peter blinks, the hand unconsciously running up and down Neal's cold, goose pimpled arm pauses and he turns to look at the boy in the man's body who seems completely unaware of his place in time. "Yeah buddy?"

Neal is staring at him, and for a moment he thinks something like recognition flickers in those bright blue eyes.

"Agent Burke?"

Agent Burke? Peter's mind repeats.

"Neal?"

"Have you arrested me?"

Oh shit, this really is a trip through time. Peter isn't sure he can keep up. "Yes and no, look Neal," Peter reaches out, puts his hand on the kid's knee.

Neal instantly flinches, just like he had minutes before all this, when Peter had made the exact same move and Neal had completely lost it.

"Don't!"

Hands held up, palms out, Peter tries to look as nonthreatening as possible. "Sorry, I shouldn't have done that."

"No, it's okay," Neal's eyes lose the spark they'd regained. Once again resembling the frightened child hiding underneath. "I don't … know why I…"

"I think I do," Peter edges closer, asking permission with his eyes to resume contact.

Neal doesn't lose the deer in the head lights expression, but he doesn't object when Peter's hand wipes the sweat soaked curls off his too pale forehead. Somehow Neal can simultaneously seem both younger than his age and wise beyond his years. He's the only person Peter knows who can look completely different with a simple change of hair style.

"I'm used to you gelling your hair back," Peter says fondly, trying to explain the otherwise odd gesture.

"I never gel my hair." Neal frowns back.

Peter laughs. It's true. When he was chasing him, the Neal Caffrey he knew had a free-flowing fringe that gave him a boyish look. It was after Kate dumped him that he made the change.

"So, am I going to prison?"

"No Neal, you're not going to prison."

The kid looks so confused and Peter really can't blame him. He's tired, hell they're both tired. Taking a risk Peter shuffles even closer. Raising his palm, he shows his intention and waits for consent before dropping the arm around Neal's shoulders, pulling him close. The kid flows with the movement, resting his head high against Peter's shoulder without question.

"You cuddle with all your suspects Agent Burke?" Neal speaks up after a minute, sounding conflicted and confused despite attempts to mask it.

Peter laughs, chest moving up and down dislodging the head resting against him. There's something about his tone that tells him Neal knows his memories aren't right, that something is wrong, but clearly there is enough still in there that even without knowing what the hell's going on, Neal trusts him to handle it.

"Nope." Peter gets himself under control, tightening his grip with a squeeze "you're special Neal Caffrey." He sighs contently, recognising the truth of that statement. "You're very special."