pooh_collector: (pooh again)
[personal profile] pooh_collector
Title: Caretaking
Author: pooh_collector
Word Count: ~1900
Rating: G
Warnings: None
Pairings: Gen
Spoilers: 6.06
Summary: Takes place after Neal is killed, but before the episode ends. Peter needs some help to move on.
Beta: [livejournal.com profile] elrhiarhodan


The first time Peter saw Neal was exactly two weeks after his former partner’s funeral. He was visiting a crime scene, something he couldn’t seem to stop doing. A suspect in several financial frauds had taken a darker turn and allegedly killed one of his associates right in front of their offices on Wall Street.

Peter was standing over the well-dressed body lying strewn on the pavement thinking about the last time he had stood on a similar street, in the rain, staring down at David Seigel, with a white-faced Neal at his side. Neal. Peter looked up from the body and there was his absent partner, just across the street, leaning against the wall of a building, one foot tucked up to rest against the façade, his Fedora pulled low over his brow.

Peter blinked, certain that it was a figment of his grief-stricken imagination, or a metrosexual with nothing better to do but lurk at crime scenes in the middle of a workday. But when he looked again, he saw the unmistakable tilt of the head, the overt confidence in the stance and he knew it was Neal.

For a moment Peter simply stood there too startled by the appearance of a dead man to react at all. Finally, his feet started moving him forward of their own violation. But before he got to the curb, the ghost of Neal lifted his head, looked straight at him and mouthed the words “Please don’t.”

Peter stared at Neal, trying to make some sense of his appearance, trying to make some sense of the crushing pain he felt at the sight of him. Just then a group of tourists walked in front of Neal and once they had passed, Peter’s partner was gone.

That night in their bed Peter clung to his wife, her gently rounded belly pressing against him. He let the presence of his small but growing family soothe the tumbling thoughts that plagued him. He had stood over the cold and lifeless body of his partner in the morgue. He had known unequivocally in that moment that Neal was dead, that he had failed to save to him from Keller. He knew, despite seeing him through the traffic on the street that day that Neal was still dead. Peter wasn’t one to give credence to the supernatural. He left that to Mozzie, along with conspiracies large and small. But he also knew that the man who had stood across Wall Street from him today was Neal, or more precisely Neal’s ghost. It was the only explanation that he could accept. It was the only explanation that wouldn’t shatter his heart with an impossible hope.

***

It was a month later when they next met. Peter had had a terrible day filled with department meetings and budget planning that had gone on far into the evening. He was sitting in his darkened office reviewing new files for case assignments. The fourth file into the pile was, of all things, a bond forgery. Peter forgot, for just an instant, and started to write Neal’s name on the assignment list, smiling at the irony. The realization that his partner was gone was a punch in the chest that stole his breath.

“You should go home, Peter. You’ve been working too hard.”

Neal was sitting in the chair, the one he always sat in, his long legs stretched across the space, his polished oxfords resting on the corner of Peter’s desk. His head was tilted back into the shadows as his eyes followed the rubber band ball that he was tossing up from hand to hand.

“Neal?”

“Go home Peter. El needs you.”

Peter stared at his friend, the rubber band ball hypnotic as it spun up and down again and again. Finally, his eyes burning from fatigue, he had to brink. He knew instinctively that when his eyes opened again Neal would be gone. And, so he was.

Neal’s final words echoed in his head, El needs you, so Peter abandoned the rest of his of the work on his desk, got up, grabbed his briefcase and his jacket and made his way home.

Elizabeth was sitting at the dining room table, her dinner plate untouched, his own sitting across from her growing cold. Her mascara was smeared down her left cheek and tears were still pooling in the corners of her eyes and glistening on her pale skin when Peter pulled her gently up from her chair and wrapped her in his arms.

“Shhhhh” he crooned. “It’s okay. I’m here now.”

She nodded into his shoulder and Peter could just make out something about hormones and pregnancy. He knew it immediately for the justification that it was, and it broke his heart to hear her making excuses for him, for his inadequacies as a husband and a soon to be father.

“I’m going to be better El, I promise.” She nodded again and leaned into him. He held her close for several minutes and when he finally felt her relax he guided her back into her seat. Then he picked up their dinner plates and reheated them both in the microwave. When they were ready he came back out to the dining room, placed her plate back down and took his around to his own place at the table. They ate in silence until Peter placed his fork down with determination and said, “I’m going to be home for dinner from now on. I promise.”

El nodded, but the sad smile that graced her beautiful face told him all he needed to know. She knew he would try, but the FBI and his own seemingly unquenchable need to seek justice would always sneak in and take him away from her and their child. Peter would have a lot of work to do to prove that his spots could change.

***

Peter left the office at noon, he would be early to pick up El for their OB-GYN appointment, but that was more than okay. But instead of heading to the Brooklyn Bridge, Peter found himself across the Williamsburg and halfway down Metropolitan Avenue to St. Johns Cemetery. He knew he should turn around, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. At the cemetery he drove by rote to the section and row where Neal was buried.

Neal’s stone had been erected just two weeks ago, and El had planted a row of warm orange and bright yellow mums at its base. Peter stood there for a long moment, shivering slightly in the cool autumn air, not saying the things he had said the last ten times he had been here since the funeral.

“You need to stop coming here all the time.”

Peter closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “I miss you.”

Oddly, Peter heard Neal’s shoes ruffling the dry grass as he moved closer to his former handler. “I miss you too, but coming here every chance you get isn’t the solution to that.”

“I know.”

“Then get out of here and go pick up your wife and take her to her appointment. Take care of your family, Peter.”

When Peter opened his eyes a moment later, Neal’s ghost was gone. He ran his fingers lightly along the top of the dark grey granite stone once and then went back to his car and home to his wife.

***

Three weeks later Peter was back in the field again working on the forgery case that he had so longed to assign to Neal. Their suspect, Ethan Montgomery was no Neal Caffrey, but he had contacts and a certain amount of clout within the circles in which his former partner had once run. Jones and the team had tracked him to one of those rent by the day offices through an IP address that he’d failed to mask. He ran as soon as he saw the Brook Brothers suits entering the space, taking off through another rental space, giving him the opportunity he needed to at least temporarily evade the agents coming to arrest him.

Peter had been monitoring the takedown from the surveillance van. Through the comm chatter he knew that Montgomery had a decent head start so he jumped out onto the sidewalk in hopes of cutting him off. He was just in time to see Montgomery exit the building, bolt across the sidewalk and dart out onto 55th. Peter gave chase, stepping off the curb just in front of the van.

He had yet to set his other foot onto the street when he heard Neal yell out from behind him. “Peter!”

Peter spun around surprised by the urgency in Neal’s voice, but not before a Chevy Tahoe came barreling past the van. One moment and two more steps and Peter would have run directly in front of it.

Neal was standing in the shadow of the building cast by the late morning sun. Even across the distance that divided them, Peter could see the fear and the subsequent relief that blazed in Neal’s blue eyes. Then Neal smiled. It was a look Peter recognized, part happiness, part regret.

The honking of a horn from behind him brought Peter’s attention back to the street just as Montgomery reached the far sidewalk. When he turned back to his former partner again, Neal was gone, back to wherever ghosts go.

***

Peter was sitting in his son’s room, watching and listening to little Neal sleep in his crib by the pale light cast from the small giraffe-shaped lamp on the dresser. Peter’s son was just two months old and one little fist was clenching and unclenching in rhythm with his breathing. Every moment with his son was a precious thing and Peter was soaking up as many of them as he could get. This past year or so had been the hardest of his life, going to prison, Seigel’s death, Rebecca, the Panthers and hardest of all, losing Neal. But his son was a new start. A chance to do something good with his life that had nothing to do with the FBI, with a quest for justice, with the way Peter had come to define himself over the past two decades.

There was no sound, no change in the light, but Peter realized that he was not alone with his sleeping infant. Neal had always had a palpable presence, and he still did, even now.

“Thank you,” he uttered into the darkness.

“You don’t need to thank me.”

Peter turned to look at Neal where he stood in the corner of the room. “I think I do, and not just for that day on 55th.”

Neal shrugged. “If you insist.”

“You know this relationship is supposed to be the other way around? I’m the one who’s supposed to keep you out of trouble.”

Neal laughed. God how Peter had missed that sound. “It might be a little late for that, Peter.”

Peter nodded. “Yeah.”

“It’s okay, you know. There was nothing you could have done.”

“Yeah, I know.”

The darkness in the corner of the room grew deeper, and Neal was gone once again.

Peter looked down at his sleeping son again, so perfect and full of potential. In the end, he hadn’t been able to save the brash young conman who he’d chased, jailed, befriended, tried to reform, and undeniably, loved. But, he had been given the gift of another chance, with this new life that he and El had made and he would be damned if he failed again.

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