Title: Planes, Trains and Automobiles (or, The Long Journey Home)
Characters/Pairing: Neal, Peter, Elizabeth (with appearances by Diana & Mozzie)
Warnings: None (but FYI, it's a de-aging fic)
Summary: Neal encounters yet another mystical de-aging object, and Peter and Elizabeth try to find the right way path to turning him back.
AN: My entry for Round 2 of run_the_con, for dragueuse's prompt, "I'm on a boat!" This is another story in my kid!Neal 'verse. You don't really need to have read the previous ones to read this, but if you want to, you can find them under the Kid!Neal entry in my masterlist, which is HERE. Note that in this 'verse, Peter has discovered that Neal has a strange affinity for discovering mystical de-aging objects. :-)
AN #2: The wonderful kanarek13 made me an illustration for this story (back around Christmas time), but I didn't have a place where I was keeping images that made adding them to LJ posts easy. And then I got a Dropbox, but the image was huge...and so I'm finally getting around to finding out how to resize it. I think it worked this time:
Neal looked up at him, eyes slightly unfocussed. He blinked once, twice, then swept his gaze from side to side, taking in their surroundings.
“Peter?” he said with a frown. “Why am I on a boat?”
There was a slight delay as he glanced down at his own lap. “And where are my clothes?”
One week earlier
Peter felt his phone buzzing and pulled it out of his pocket, frowning when he saw Diana’s name on the caller ID. They’d just made an arrest in a big antiquities smuggling case the day before, and the team (okay, Diana, Jones and Neal) had convinced Peter to take the day off today. With all of the extra hours he’d been pulling, both at the office and in the field, and with Elizabeth having had to head out of town several times to meet with clients, the two of them had barely seen each other the past couple of weeks. It was Friday, and while there was paperwork to do, Peter’s team really needed to sift through their suspect’s several stashes first, and so Peter was at home spending some well-deserved quality time with his wife while various members of the White Collar office were cataloguing the goods at the assorted properties they’d traced back to Stuart Jackson, the (alleged) mastermind of the New York end of the smuggling ring.
Or at least Peter had been spending some quality time with his wife. After enjoying a leisurely morning – the first in some time where neither one of them had to be up and off to work early, they’d taken Satchmo for a walk to one of their favorite parks, ventured to the farmer’s market, and picked up some take-out for lunch on their way home. They’d just settled in for a late lunch when the phone rang.
Peter was at a loss as to why Diana would be calling him. They’d joked that this should be an “only call if someone dies” day, and even though he’d only been half-serious, Peter knew that Diana wouldn’t bother him on his day off unless something had happened that absolutely couldn’t wait. Which didn’t make sense, seeing as she was at one of Jackson’s houses, where she and Neal were cataloguing artifacts and logging them into evidence.
“Hon?” Elizabeth said, catching Peter’s look when he saw who was calling.
“It’s Diana,” Peter replied.
“But,” Elizabeth said, her curious look replaced by a frown of her own. She knew all about the “don’t call” rule.
Peter shrugged his shoulders. He had no idea what was going on. Surely no one had died, and really, how much trouble could they have gotten into sorting through boxes of antiquities? He should have known better, of course.
“Boss,” Diana replied. The relief was clear in her voice, but Peter didn’t get the impression that things were as dire as a dead body.
“Diana? What’s going on?”
“Peter. It’s Neal.”
“Of course it’s Neal,” Peter thought. On the plus side, it didn’t sound like Neal was in mortal danger. But then…what?
“We were working our way through a box of sculptures, smaller stuff, mostly bronze.”
It occurred to Peter that Diana seemed to be rambling a bit – he suspected that the size and medium of the sculptures might not be the most important details here. And then another thought hit him.
“Diana,” Peter broke in. “Is Neal…how old is he, Di?”
Peter heard Diana’s sigh. “I’m not so good with kid’s ages, Peter, but I’d say maybe 6 or 7.”
“Not again,” Peter thought. Then he thought about Diana being unexpectedly saddled with a child-sized Neal Caffrey. She’d found out about Neal’s strange predilection for de-aging objects the last time Neal had been turned into a child, when she’d stopped by the Burke’s house with an update on a case and come face to face with Neal, then about five years old, concentrating intently on the Lego spaceship he was building. But that had been a brief encounter, followed by a de-brief from Peter over Irish coffee at the Burke’s new kitchen island while El had gotten Neal off to bed.
Dealing with Neal immediately post-transformation was something else entirely, and Peter couldn’t quite stop from chuckling at the thought.
“Not funny, boss,” she grumped at him in reply, but there wasn’t really any heat in it. “Seriously, though…how do you deal with it? I mean, those sad puppy eyes are dangerous enough when he’s a 30-something con man.”
“Did he cry?”
“How’s he doing now?”
“Thankfully he recognized me, and that settled him down enough to listen when I said I’d call you. That seemed to do the trick. I said I didn’t know how long it would take to get in touch with you – I didn’t want to promise something I couldn’t deliver. But he assured me that you’d come find him. Apparently you’re really good at that.”
Peter chuckled again, but at the same time it warmed him to hear. As rocky as things sometimes were for him and adult Neal, Neal as a child had a way of reminding him of just how strong the bond between them was.
“I guess I am,” Peter said. “And as much as you seem to be doing okay, I’m guessing you’d like me to come and get him.”
“Sorry to bother you on your day off,” Diana began, but Peter cut in before she could get any farther into her apology.
“Not your fault, Diana,” he said. “And it sounds like it’s not actually Neal’s fault either, this time. It’s just one of those things.”
Diana let out a short laugh at that. “For Caffrey, apparently.”
Peter shrugged, then remembered that she couldn’t see him. “Fair enough,” he replied. “But it is what it is, and it’s not like he can help you log any more evidence at this point. And really, it makes the most sense for him to come here. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
“Thanks, Peter. And bring something for him to wear?”
“So it was one of those changes”, Peter thought. Sometimes Neal’s clothes became little along with the rest of him, but sometimes…well, that wasn’t something he felt like talking about with Diana.
“I got it,” he answered, then double-checked the address with Diana and hung up.
Elizabeth was looking at him with a mixture of amusement and disbelief.
“Neal’s a child again, isn’t he?”
Peter nodded. “About six or seven, Diana thinks. I’ll get the booster seat and head over there. Can you…?”
“I’ll call Mozzie,” she said before he could even finish his request.
“I don’t know if Neal and Diana took a break for lunch yet,” Peter added, trying to remember how things stood with regard to kid-friendly food in their kitchen. Neal as a child wasn’t a picky eater, but they usually tried to keep things simple.
“I’m pretty sure there are still some chicken nuggets in the freezer,” El said, “and I’m sure we have tomato soup – I can always whip up some grilled cheese.”
“What would I do without you?” Peter said, leaning in to give her a quick kiss before digging Neal’s booster seat out of the closet (and pointedly not thinking about how strange it was that they had a ‘Neal’s booster seat’ in their closet in the first place).
“I love you too, Hon,” Elizabeth said, and as Peter headed out he thought about just how lucky he was to have her to share his life with – the good, the bad, and well, the crazy.
By the time Peter arrived at the house where Diana and Neal had been working, he couldn’t help but wonder what he would find. As he let himself in, he was relieved to find that it sounded, at least, like all was calm. It wasn’t that Neal was a difficult child, but changing could be traumatic, and Peter was glad that Diana seemed to have been successful at keeping him calm. The explanation of just how she’d done so became clearer when Peter made his way to the living room, where he found Diana and a sleepy-looking, tousle -haired Neal on the sofa. Neal was wrapped in a blanket and was leaning up against Diana, his head on her chest. Diana appeared to be telling him a story.
Peter paused just outside the room, grinning at the scene playing out before him.
After a moment Diana looked up, meeting his eyes, then shook her head at him. He could hear the unspoken, “Not a word” clearly in his head, and though he didn’t say anything, neither did he make any serious effort to wipe the grin from his face. In end Diana just shrugged, as if to say, “What can you do?” then leaned down and nudged Neal’s shoulder. Neal looked up at her and she pointed across the room to where Peter was standing.
“Peter!” he said. “I told Aunt Diana that you would come find me!” And with that, Neal slid off of the sofa, but got caught up in the blanket, almost falling before Diana caught him, gently untangled his legs, and set him on his feet so he could dash across the room. In his birthday suit.
Peter crouched down and gave Neal a hug. “It’s true. I’ll always find you. Now how about we get you dressed and take you home?”
“Yes, Elizabeth is home, and she can’t wait to see you.”
Peter gave Neal the clothes he’d brought, and left him to get dressed while he talked to Diana about the details of what had happened, and in particular what the object was that had led to Neal’s current state. It turned out to be a small bronze statue of a man on a horse. Peter had a moment’s thought that it was a good thing that Neal had “just” been turned into a six-year-old and not, say, a horse. After which he found himself wondering if objects with that sort of power existed. After which he decided that he really didn’t want to know about such objects if they did exist.
After getting Diana’s story and packing up the horse statue, Peter led a still sleepy Neal out to car and took him home.
By the time Mozzie showed up that evening, Neal had had his bath (complete with toy submarine), eaten his grilled cheese and his tomato soup and his small bowl of chocolate ice cream, changed into his shark pajamas, and been tucked in by Elizabeth.
This was a good thing, since Moz, for all that he was close to Neal and more than a little protective of him, and for all that he seemed to be the resident expert on de-aging, he was also less than comfortable with an actual de-aged Neal and tended to avoid interacting with any of the child-sized versions of his friend. Of course that didn’t stop Moz from looking in on Neal, sleeping in the guest bedroom, under the pretext of using the upstairs bathroom. Peter, for his part, didn’t call him on it. He just thanked him for coming, gave him the statue, and asked him to call as soon as he knew more.
Six days earlier
Mozzie got back to them, and though he’d learned a fair amount about the statue he unfortunately didn’t have a definitive answer for how to “fix” Neal. What references he could find all pointed to the key having something to do with transportation or travel (hence the riding of the horse), but there weren’t any specific instructions for reversing the transformation. Peter was initially concerned that the key would be some sort of spiritual journey specific to the person, and he’d have to figure out what kind of “travel” Neal needed to do, but Mozzie assured him that the statue’s creator was not so much about the philosophical but rather more of a jokester (or, as Peter preferred to say, “a pain in the ass”). And while not having to unravel the mystery of Neal’s “journey” was reassuring, it left them with the frustrating task of more or less randomly taking Neal the child on different sorts of conveyances with the hope that they’d hit upon the right one sooner rather than later.
Five days earlier
Mozzie had assured Peter that the answer wouldn’t be as simple as a horse ride, despite the fact that that was exactly what the statue depicted. Though Mozzie was almost frighteningly good at identifying mystical de-aging objects, and he hadn’t yet steered them wrong, Peter knew he’d kick himself if he didn’t try something so obvious. Unfortunately, Neal wasn’t quite tall enough for horseback riding. On the other hand, Mozzie had encouraged Peter and Elizabeth to, “think outside the metaphorical, but all too real, bourgeois conformist box.” Peter didn’t really know what that meant – and frankly wasn’t sure Mozzie did either, but he decided that they could try going symbolic first, with the horse ride.
Which is how the three of them ended up on an outing to Central Park. Neal was excited at the prospect of going to the zoo.
“Will we see tigers?” Neal asked as they made their way to the zoo entrance. Elizabeth, who had printed out a zoo map the night before, gently explained to Neal that no, there wouldn’t be tigers.
“There are snow leopards, though,” she said.
“What’s a ‘no leopard?” Neal asked, sounding very serious, and El did her best to explain. Neal decided that he liked the snow leopards a lot, and ultimately declared them his favorite, followed by the penguins and then the snow monkeys.
They took a nice walk, ate overpriced hot dogs and popcorn, and eventually Peter guided them to the carousel.
“What do you think, Neal? You want to ride the horses?”
Neal graced him with a solemn look. “They’re not real horses, Peter.”
“No, you’re right, they’re not, but it looks like fun, doesn’t it?”
Neal looked just a little uncertain. It seemed as if he had something he wanted to say, but was reluctant to do so. Peter had seen that look before. For all that adult Neal almost always seemed confident and in control, Peter had learned to look below the surface. It wasn’t easy, but he had gotten much better at seeing the uncertainty that sometimes lurked underneath Neal’s smooth surface. Neal wasn’t as good at hiding that uncertainty as a child.
“Neal?” Peter prodded, hoping to coax whatever it was out of him.
“Do you and ‘Lizbeth want to ride too?” he asked, which, Peter realized, was his way of saying he wanted them to come with him, but was hesitant to ask. Peter mentally cursed whoever had made Neal timid about asking for help or company.
In the end, all three of them rode the carousel. The bad news was that Neal ended up the same six-year-old boy he’d been before they’d gone on the ride. The good news was that he’d had such a good time he rode again on this own. Twice. After that, Peter managed to get them all on a carriage ride around the park before they headed home, in case a real horse was required, but with no more success.
Two days earlier
Peter was getting frustrated with their lack of progress, and today Elizabeth had passed on a message from Mozzie, telling Peter to stop asking her to call in the hope that there would be some new insight as to Neal’s “little problem.” Peter didn’t know exactly what Moz had said, and Elizabeth wasn’t telling, but the most important take-home message was that he hadn’t found anything more out about the statue or how to reverse its effects.
In the meantime, Peter and Elizabeth continued trying to get Neal on as many different forms of transportation as they could while not either having the whole thing seem suspicious in some way (Neal might be a little boy, but he was a perceptive little boy) or ending up spoiling Neal with so many activities that he’d start expecting them all the time (assuming that the whole Neal as a child thing was going to happen again – which, based on experience, seemed not unlikely).
The day after the Central park trip, Peter had gone to work and El had taken Neal, by subway, to the Museum of Natural History, and then by bus and subway to the Children’s Museum of the Arts. The next day Elizabeth had had a meeting that she just couldn’t move, so Peter had stayed home with the intention of taking Neal on a helicopter ride. When he’d suggested it, Neal had looked excited for brief moment, but then he’d just looked down at his feet, shrugged his shoulders, and said, ‘I guess.” It took some coaxing, but eventually Peter had managed to get Neal to talk to him about was wrong.
“Don’t you have to go to work?” Neal had asked. “I know you have a ‘portant job, catching bad guys. I can stay here with Satchmo,” he’d offered. Peter had explained that he had taken a few days off from work, since Neal was visiting (and since it was a special visit, like a vacation, he could also explain all the things they were doing – trips to museums and to the park, helicopter rides, etc.). He hadn’t mentioned that he certainly had no intention of leaving Neal alone in the house.
The helicopter ride hadn’t worked either, and today the plan was bicycle riding at a local park. At least that was Peter and Elizabeth’s plan, but Neal again looked uncertain, and this time neither Peter’s nor Elizabeth’s reassurance that they were on vacation and had time to do all these things with Neal seemed to make him feel any better.
Elizabeth squatted down so she was at eye level with Neal, who was sitting on the sofa finishing his juice box. “It’s okay, sweetie, we can do something else,” she said, shooting a pointed look at Peter over Neal’s shoulder.
She was right, of course. As important as it was to figure this thing out, they weren’t going to force a six-year-old into a “fun” activity he didn’t want to do.
Peter came over and sat down next to Neal, who appeared to be studying his juice intently.
“Neal?” Peter said gently, waiting until looked up at him.
“Elizabeth is right. We don’t have to go biking if you don’t want to.”
Neal had a very serious look on his face – perhaps too serious, Peter thought, for a discussion of whether or not they would go bicycle riding that day.
Finally, just as Peter was about to nudge him again, Neal said, very quietly, “Can we still go if I don’t know how?”
“You do want to go?” Peter asked
Neal just nodded yes.
“But you don’t know how to ride a bike?”
Another nod, “no” this time, and Neal turned his attention to his lap.
Peter was surprised. He knew that adult Neal knew how to ride a bicycle – there’d been that one time when he’d escaped after a heist (okay, alleged heist) by posing as a bike messenger.
“Would you like Peter to teach you?” Elizabeth asked. Neal looked up at her, then at Peter, a hopeful look in those big blue eyes, and Peter again found himself angry at whatever had transpired in the past that made six-year-old Neal seemed to think it was too much to ask for bike-riding lessons. There was nothing he could do about that. But he could try to teach this six-year-old Neal, for however long they had him, that it was okay.
In the end, they did go to the park. The bad news was that, once again, Neal was still a little boy at the end of the day. But he was also a natural on the bike – even at six Neal was athletic and had excellent balance. And one or two minor mishaps, a scraped knee and a Batman band-aid later, and he was riding on his own.
Two hours earlier
Peter was running out of ideas. Luckily it was summertime, which made it easier to do things like biking and carousel riding, and no one was going to ask him why his child wasn’t in school, but he was starting to worry about how much longer it was going to take to get Neal back to normal.
Today they were trying boating. Or rather, Peter was trying boating – El had gotten a desperate call from a frantic bride, and had headed off to put out whatever fire had sprung up before it was the bride’s mother on the phone.
Peter had originally been thinking that he’d take Neal on the Staten Island Ferry, or maybe the Circle Line, but then he decided that if they were going to be on a boat, they might as well make a day of it, and he’d packed a cooler with some sandwiches (okay, El had made those the night before – ham and cheese for Peter, turkey for Neal) and drinks, and gathered his fishing gear. A bit of research found him several lakes out on Long Island that had boat fishing, and eventually one with a nearby boat rental and tackle shop. Mozzie came through with a child-sized rod and reel, though it came with a dire warning to Peter should he, “lose Neal at sea,” which wasn’t in any way tempered by Peter pointing out that they would be fishing on a lake.
Neal was quiet for the first part of the drive, but he didn’t seem unhappy, and after they’d been on the road for a bit he began to pepper Peter with questions.
“How much further is it?”
“Why did we leave so early?”
“What kind of fish will there be? Do they eat worms?”
“Will there be snakes? Will we see a bear?”
When they got to the tackle shop, Neal was fascinated by not just the containers of live bait, but all of the different lures. Peter wasn’t a fishing expert, by any stretch, but he knew enough to explain the basics to Neal.
Eventually they got everything squared away and found their way to the small boat launch at one end of the lake. Peter navigated them out to what seemed like a good spot. He was about to get their rods out, but stopped at the sight of Neal, who had his head tipped back and was looking up at the bright blue sky. After a moment, he looked left, then right, and suddenly declared, “I’m on a boat, Peter!” And the smile on Neal’s face was enough to convince Peter that this trip had been worth it, whatever age Neal was when he took him home.
Soon after, Peter was tying Neal’s lure, taking his time so Neal could watch the process, then showing him how to cast his line. Peter had taken care of his own rod and they’d been sitting in companionable silence for a few minutes when Neal spoke up.
“Peter?” he said, quietly, as if not to disturb the fish.
“How do you know so much about fishing?”
“My dad taught me. He used to take me out on the weekends, when I was not much older than you.”
Neal frowned at that, and Peter mentally kicked himself. He’d only told Neal the truth, but it was another reminder of things that Neal hadn’t had.
Peter was trying to think of something to say, a way to make it better, when Neal’s face cleared and the frown turned into a smile.
“I’m glad I have you to teach me, Peter,” he declared…and shortly thereafter disappeared in a flash of light, leaving a dazed-looking, and very naked, adult Neal in his place.
“Peter?” Neal said with a frown. “Why am I on a boat?”
There was a slight delay as he glanced down at his own lap. “And where are my clothes?”
“It’s a long story,” Peter replied. “Let’s just say for now that I need to call El and tell her we’re having Cornish hens for dinner instead of chicken nuggets.”
And as Peter handed Neal the clothes he’d been bringing on all of their outings (just in case) and dug his phone out of his bag, he couldn’t help but wonder if Mozzie had been wrong after all, and it really had been about the journey.