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Friday, September 3rd, 2010 12:12 am
Author: J. Rosemary Moss
Genre: White Collar; Gen/Friendship 
Rating: PG 
Disclaimer: Alas, I don't own White Collar or the characters
Summary: Neal has a surprising idea of what Peter owes him.
Notes: Part of my 'My Old Man' verse

~oOo~

“So how do you like Peter as a Dad?” El asked, clinking her beer bottle against Neal’s.

Neal grinned. “You’re not upset about that, are you?”

She laughed as she unscrewed the cap. They were sitting out on the front steps, enjoying the sunshine and all the commotion of the block party. Everything seemed perfect. Or almost perfect. She had this feeling in the back of her brain that Neal wasn't quite ok.

“What?” she asked, keeping her voice light and teasing. “Upset that you conned our whole block into thinking that Peter got some poor girl pregnant when he was a teenager?”

“In fairness I only conned your next door neighbor, Mrs. Murphy,” Neal corrected. “She did the rest.”

“True,” El admitted. “Honestly, Neal, I like having our neighbors regard you as part of our family. The block party was a good idea, by the way.”

She paused to glance at Peter, who was playing basketball out in the street with a bunch of neighborhood kids. She couldn’t help but smile and shake her head at her husband. “He looks like a kid himself, doesn’t he?”

“Yeah,” Neal agreed, leaning back against the top step. “He’s enjoying himself. And look how everyone loves your pasta salad.”

“And your cake--maybe you’ve drummed up more business for your bakery.”

Neal laughed. “Let’s hope! That place has a ton of overhead.” He took a sip of his beer and then treated El to a sidelong glance. “Tell me the truth. You’re really not angry?”

“No. Why should I be? I get to play the cool, sexy step-mother.”

“Right. Besides, this is Peter’s fault.”

Elizabeth rolled her eyes. “He told you to pretend to be his son, huh?”

“No--he made a smart-ass comment about how hard it is to raise me. I just took him at his word.”

“And you’ve given him even more excuse to boss you around in the process,” El pointed out. “Sure that was smart?”

Neal grinned again. “Yeah. Any authority over me makes him happy. And I figure the happier he is, the happier I am.”

Elizabeth nodded, but she wasn’t quite convinced. She watched him watch Peter--and there was something foreign in his eyes that spoke more of anger than of happiness. She put her hand on his arm, wondering what was wrong, but he was all bright-eyed and chipper as soon as he turned back to her.

It was worse when the party was over. Neal was still smiling and chatty while he was conversing with Peter and El--but sitting on the couch by himself, he seemed to sink into some dark, somber corner of his own mind.

Elizabeth was worried enough to draw Peter aside in the kitchen. “What happened?” she whispered. “Neal had a great time today. He showed the kids magic tricks, he had all the old people eating out of his hand--what’s upsetting him now?”

Peter shrugged. “He’s--he’s just had too much to drink.”

El bit her lip. “I’ve seen him drink before, but I don’t remember him being morose like this. Peter, I’ve never seen him morose. Not even after--well, after Kate died.”

She paused, putting her hand over her mouth. “Is that it? Is he thinking about her?”

“That’s probably part of it.”

“Part of it? What’s the rest?”

Peter hesitated before answering. “I don’t know. I never know with Neal. Look, let’s just get the guest room ready and then get him up to bed. He’ll sleep it off and feel better in the morning.”

Elizabeth sighed, letting her arm drop. “I’ll get the guest room ready. You talk to him--see if you can get him to open up to you.”

Peter shook his head. “He’s not that drunk, El. He’ll go right back to putting on a performance for me, showing off how supposedly happy and satisfied he is.”

“Try,” she said. “Just--well, order him to tell you what‘s bothering him.”

“El, there’s no chance that will work.”

“Why not?” she countered. “He seems to want to try you out as a father figure--it can’t hurt to exercise a little parental authority.”

~~~~

Neal had the TV remote in his hand when Peter walked back into the living room. He was so busy surfing channels that he didn’t seem to notice Peter watching him. Maybe that was just as well, Peter thought. It gave him a glimpse of Neal with an unguarded expression.

Elizabeth was right; this wasn’t like him. The kid wasn’t only depressed; he was angry at something. Maybe this was wrapped up in Kate’s death--Peter knew that Neal had never allowed himself to mourn for her and to let her go. But his instincts nagged at him, insisting that something else was wrong.

He finally walked over to the couch and took a seat next to the ex-con.

“Oh, hey,” Neal said, as if Peter had appeared from nowhere.

“Hey,” Peter answered. “Want to tell me what’s on your mind?”

Neal smiled as he kept his eyes trained on the television. “Wow, Peter. You’re as good at small talk as ever.”

“Don’t you mean ‘Wow, Dad’?”

That drew a more genuine smile from Neal. “I was afraid you were sick of me calling you that by now--you've been hearing it all day.”

Peter nodded. “Good point. To be honest, I still can’t decide if I mind or not.”

“Which way are you leaning?”

“Toward not minding--at least once I get past the idea that everyone thinks I'm old enough to be your Dad.”

Neal glanced up at him, meeting his eye. “Thanks.”

“But since you have been calling me that all day, I get to order you to tell me the truth about what‘s bothering you.”

To Peter’s surprise, Neal nodded. Then he shut off the TV and shifted on the couch so that he was leaning back against Peter with his feet up.

Peter wasn’t sure how to react to that. He and Neal had a fairly tactile relationship--but there were unspoken rules about it that Peter had yet to untangle. He wouldn’t have guessed that Neal leaning back against him like this was allowed, but apparently it was. Eventually Peter shrugged, put one arm loosely over the kid and settled back more comfortably against the couch.

“So come on, Neal. Let’s have the truth.”

Predictably, Neal answered with a question. “What kind of Dad would you have been? If you had raised me, I mean.”

Peter shrugged. “I don’t know. A good one, I hope.”

“You can be more specific than that, Peter.”

Peter furrowed his brow. “Well, El would have put every picture you ever colored up on the fridge. And we’d have both gone to all the PTA meetings. I‘d have taught you how to catch and how to bat--taken you camping, stuff like that. And, you being you, I guess we would have brought you to art lessons and to the Met and to MOMA.”

Neal smiled. “So I’d have had this wholesome, white picket fence home life, huh? What would you have done when you had to punish me?”

“Pretty much what I do now. Lecture you and ground you. You’d have been stuck in your room though, instead of having a two-mile radius.”

“House arrest, huh? You wouldn’t have spanked me?”

Peter grinned. “I don’t know. Maybe. G-d knows there are times now when I’d like to put you over my knee.”

Neal shifted just a bit so that he could give Peter a mischievous glance. “If you do, I’ll call you ‘Daddy’ and promise to be a good boy.”

Peter laughed outright at that. “Oh yeah? That could work, pretty boy. Just let me run that by El first, ok?”

Neal nodded, still smiling, as he settled back down. But even with the lamp casting shadows over the kid’s face, Peter could see his expression turn serious.

“Peter, if I tell you what’s wrong, you have to promise--you have to promise just to take it for what it is.”

“And what is it?”

“The petty and irrational anger of a guy who’s had too much to drink.”

Peter started massaging Neal’s shoulder. Neal didn’t object, so he kept going, trying to get the kid to relax.

“Ok,” Peter said. “I can deal with petty and irrational anger. What’s up?”

“I'm pissed off at you for not raising me--for not being my Dad, and for not letting me grow up here. I could have had everything I ever wanted in this house.”

Peter felt his mouth drop open as he stopped massaging him.

Neal glanced up at him again. “I thought you said you could handle petty and irrational?”

“I can,” Peter said at once. And he could, he realized. He wasn’t actually offended. He even started rubbing Neal’s shoulder again. “I’m not upset, Neal. You just--that’s not what I expected you to say.”

Neal shrugged. “Well, that’s what I feel. I know it doesn’t make sense to blame you--you didn’t even know me when I was a kid--but, well, whatever.”

“I guess it doesn’t have to make sense,” Peter said, frowning. “But, Neal . . .”

“But what?”

“You’re here now.”

There was a long moment of silence. “Yeah,” Neal admitted, finally speaking up. “I’m here now. I suppose you want me to settle for that.”

Peter allowed himself a wry grin. “I know settling’s not your forte.”

“No, it isn‘t,” Neal agreed. “I’m much better at impossible desires. But I guess I can give settling a shot.”

“It’s not so bad,” Peter insisted. “I’ll even put some of your sketches on the fridge, if you want.”

Neal nodded. “That sounds good. I hope it’s too late to teach me how to bat and catch, though.”

“It wouldn‘t kill you, you know.” Peter paused to look Neal over. “Still pissed off?”

“Yeah,” Neal answered. Then he shifted so that he could curl up against Peter with his head leaning on Peter’s side. “But if you stay here like this for a while, and let your drunk friend use you for a pillow, I’ll think about forgiving you.”

Peter nodded as he tousled Neal’s hair. “Ok. Guess I can handle that.”

Neal nodded back and closed his eyes. “I expect that camping trip when this anklet comes off--just make it someplace with a luxurious lodge.”

“Oh yeah? Your bakery going to foot the bill?”

“Nope,” Neal said, nestling closer. “That’s part of your fatherly duties.”

Peter grinned again and decided to let Neal have the last word. That seemed like a fatherly kind of thing to do.

~The End~
 

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