Disclaimer: White Collar belongs to USA Network and Jeff Eastin.


Diana swiveled her chair round to face the glass entrance to the White Collar Crime Unit as she and Jones heard the soft ding of the elevator doors.

Peter strode ahead and held the door for Hughes who nodded his thanks and headed to his office. He smiled absently at her, and Jones who was perched on the edge of Diana's desk, casually swinging his leg.

They chorused, "Good morning, Sir," as he passed by.

Half way up the stairs he paused and turned around as it dawned on him that something was not right with this picture.

Peter was standing beside Neal's desk, looking at his watch and frowning. Neal's chair was tucked in, there were none of the customary papers strewn around and no sign of the ubiquitous fedora.

"It's past ten, has he even been in yet?" Peter thundered.

It was possible Diana had sent Neal on a coffee run, which she was want to do when left in charge. Neal had a habit of badgering her and Jones when Peter wasn't around to keep him on task and she found it easier to give him a twenty just to get him out of their hair. It was a darn sight easier than trying to get him refocused on whatever mortgage-fraud case he was trying to get out of working on.

However, Diana shook her head.

"He called in sick. Said he tried your phone but it was turned off."

Peter was not pleased. Of course Neal knew his phone would be off. When he'd dropped him at June's last night he'd told him he couldn't give him a ride in today. The quarterly departmental budget meeting was starting at seven o'clock and would be two hours at the very least.

As Neal was getting out of the car Peter had warned him to behave and not give Diana any grief. Neal had rolled his eyes as Peter sternly reminded him that she was the boss of him.

"Will you stop, already? You sound like your talking to a five-year old. I am a fully grown man, Peter." Neal had snapped, closing the car door more forcefully than necessary.

"Fully's stretching it a bit, don't you think?" Peter called through the open window as Neal stalked off.

Spinning around, Neal crossed his arms tightly and glared back. As he opened his mouth he caught sight of Peter's smug smile, realizing too late that he had just played straight into his partner's hand.

"Well, at least I didn't stomp my foot on the sidewalk!" He had the good grace to laugh.

"Goodnight, Neal. And don't be late!"

"Goodnight, Dad."

Neal could hear Peter's laughter as he eased the BMW out into the evening traffic.

Many a true word is spoken in jest.

As he ambled up to his apartment and started to shed his business clothes, Neal couldn't help but wonder how things might have turned out for him if he'd had a different upbringing. No WITSEC, no crooked Dad, a Mom who hadn't fought depression for all the childhood that he could remember.

Sometimes, when he was over at Peter and El's he found himself imagining that their home was his. That he was their son, and they his doting parents.

Once, when El had presented him with milk and cookies after he'd come in from digging her garden with Peter, he'd let slip, "Thanks, Mom." before he could catch himself.

He'd been horrified, and had tried to pass it off as a joke. But when El had laughed and playfully given him a kiss on the cheek, replying, "You're welcome, Sweetie," he had felt his eyes start to smart.

Thankfully, Peter had come barging in at that moment, arms full of vegetables and El's focus had switched to her husband as she unloaded the produce into the sink to wash it.

Peter had never mentioned anything to him about it so he had assumed, or rather hoped, that El had thought he'd just been playing around. He was sure Peter would have teased him if he'd found out. But then again, El was far more perceptive than Peter. Maybe she'd seen right through him, and had told Peter but had instructed him not to say anything, lest he upset Neal. God, he hoped not.

It made him feel a bit queasy to think about it and he had pushed the whole incident deep into the back of his mind.

Then there was Peter.

While he would never, ever, EVER admit it to Peter, barely even admitted it to himself, Neal often caught himself looking up at Peter sitting in his office and wondering what his life would have been like had he spent his Saturday afternoons practicing curve balls upstate with Peter instead of hustling in the smokey pool halls of St. Louis. If it had been Peter encouraging him to follow him in his dream of making it to the Big Game, instead of Mozzie nurturing his budding criminal career.

Neal pulled on his silk sleep pants and a soft cotton tee, his comfort clothes. He opened a Merlot, one of three Mozzie had left behind after what looked to have been a well-oiled Book Club meeting with June this afternoon, and headed out to the balcony. Unable to shake off his maudlin mood, before he knew it, he was back inside opening the second and then the third bottle of the inferior plonk.

He had no recollection of having reheated the leftover Chinese (had he even bothered to reheat it?) but the cartons strewn across the flagstones attested that he had eaten them. That, and the fact that he had awoken in the middle of the night freezing, and not at all well.

As the walls pitched back and forth around him, he clung to the furniture in an attempt to stay upright. He couldn't tell which was worse, the red-hot pain between his eyes or the fierce stomach cramps. When the furniture ran out he slid slowly to the floor and proceeded on all fours inch-by-inch to the bathroom. What felt like hours later, he made it to the commode and unceremoniously hurled the components of his evening's self-pity.

When he came to, at around eight o'clock, he found himself in a world of white. Beneath him the cold porcelain of the tub, on top of him the soft cotton of his bath towel and robe, along with the bath mat, which he had apparently dragged in with him.

Cautiously he crept out of the tub and stood or rather gently swayed, surveying the room. It did not look, or smell, at all good. After a couple of attempts he wrestled open the tiny beveled glass window, blasting the room with some much needed fresh air. Shivering as he cleaned up the mess he replayed the evening in his mind, his shame growing exponentially with his recollection of just how far he has fallen into his gloomy world of regrets.

Just as he felt himself slipping back into the dark realm he was jolted back into the present moment as he realized the street sounds drifting in through the open window were not the usually early morning routines. He rushed out of the bathroom, a wave of nausea washing over him as he made his ungainly way to the bedside table to check his phone.

Groaning, he sunk down onto the soft mattress and rested his head in his hands.

Had Peter already been and left, disgusted by what he'd found?

He couldn't imagine Peter leaving him alone without checking he was okay. He picked up the phone and pressed Peter's name. The moment he heard the ringing, he remembered Peter was going with Hughes to a budget meeting this morning. He quickly pressed End and tried Diana's number instead, his stomach sinking as he heard her angry voice.

"This better be good, Caffrey."

He started apologizing, but was stopped by the sound of his own harsh voice. This time Diana's tone was considerably softer.

"Whoa, do you feel as bad as you sound?"

"Much worse."

"Shall I come and take you to a doctor? What the hell happened?"

"No, please. I'm fine. Well, obviously not fine, but I don't need a doctor. Just a lot of Alka Seltzer and water, I think."

Neal heard Jones laughing in the background.

"Oh, by the way you're on speaker phone."

"Yes, I got that, thanks."

Diana laughed too, although not unkindly.

"So tell us, are you alone? Answer truthfully, we've got lunch riding on this!"

Just the mention of food made Neal start to feel sick again. He tried breathing slowly a couple of times as he wiped the sweat off his upper lip. He groaned and held his belly listening to Diana and Jones' growing laughter.

"Yes, I am alone." He heard Diana's gleeful, "Yes! Sushi it is, Jones."

"Oh, God. Please Diana, don't mention food. I think I'm going go hurl!"

He dropped the phone and rushed back to the bathroom, ejecting the last of the fatal Merlot/Szechwan combination. By the time he'd cleaned himself up and got back to the phone, Diana had long gone.

He called her back and apologized profusely. He sounded so pathetic that she hadn't the heart to even scold him.

"Please, please don't tell Peter I'm hungover. It could have been food poisoning." He added, not untruthfully, as he caught sight of the take-out boxes littering the balcony.

"All right, relax. I don't think you've had a sick day since you started. I'm sure Peter won't mind. Drink plenty fluids and get some rest."

As soon as he hung up, Neal felt a little better knowing he would have the day to recover. He stripped off his gross night clothes and headed for the shower, stopping en route at the medicine cabinet.

Thirty minutes later he emerged from the bathroom, smelling a lot sweeter, and leaving the room in a far better state than he had found it.

The balcony was still a disaster though, the last thing he wanted was for June to see it like this so, despite the morning sunlight spearing him, he ventured out. With faulty steps and squinting eyes he managed to gather everything up and double-bag it so none of the smells set his still tender stomach off again.

Then he washed his wine glass(es) and retreated back to bed, with a large bottle of ginger ale and even larger pitcher of cold water, together with a packet of mineral salts. To be on the safe side he'd also brought a towel and a basin.

Even though he'd only put on some boxer briefs and had left the French doors open the light breeze did nothing to cool his fevered brow. He thought about getting up again to get a cool washcloth but all the cleaning up has depleted what energy he had and he could not face moving any more.

Feeling thoroughly sorry for himself he rolled onto his side and clutched a pillow to his tender belly, burying his face in another and wishing too late, that he had thought to change the sheets. Within seconds he was out for the count.

Diana had been true to her word and had not let on the cause of Neal's illness. None the less, it was so unusual for him to be out sick that after a couple of hours catching up on the cases Diana and Jones had been reviewing while he was at the budget meeting, Peter decided to take an early lunch and stop in to check on Neal.

He found Neal fast asleep, his skin pale and sweaty, despite the room being quite cool. He felt his forehead and while it was a little hot, it was not excessively so. Neal stirred a little but did not awake.

Not wanting to disturb him he went into the bathroom to see if there was a thermometer in there. Finding one he went back to Neal to take his temperature. He was going to wake him up but something stopped him. He clearly had been unwell and he looked so peaceful, despite his pallor that he found he didn't want to disturb him. He managed to slip the thermometer under Neal's arm and gently held it in place until it beeped. He looked anxiously to see if the sound had woken Neal but he didn't move at all, just snored quietly. Peter checked the reading and while it was on the hot side it was still within the normal range.

He decided to leave Neal alone and have his lunch while he rested. Heading over to the kitchen he made himself a coffee and took it out onto the balcony to have with the deviled ham sandwich he had brought with him.

As he sat enjoying his peaceful lunch he noticed the black plastic bag in the corner. Once he'd finished eating he thought he'd help out and went over to take it to the trash can out back. As he picked it up he heard the clang of glass and put it down. Judging by the weight of it he could tell there was more than one bottle in there. Carefully he picked it up again, trying to avoid making too much noise. He walked quickly through the apartment and down the stairs and dumped it in the garbage.

When he came back in Neal was still asleep so he took his briefcase outside and after calling Diana to let her know he would be working from Neal's for the afternoon he started reading through the files he had brought with him. After an hour or so he got up to stretch.

A breeze caught a couple of the papers from the file he had set down on the lounger and they wafted onto the ground by his feet. As he bent down to pick them up he noticed one of Neal's sketch pads and some charcoal under the lounger. He picked them up and set them beside the file and walked over to the balustrade to take in the view.

He sighed and smiled to himself. Neal you really are a lucky dog. This apartment, this view, how come he always hit the jackpot? Here he was supposedly repaying his debt to society, but instead was living the high life.

He went it to check on Neal and finding him the same decided to make himself another coffee. While it was brewing there was a tap on the door and when he opened it he found a rather startled June, carrying a small tray of fancy looking cream-filled confections.

"Oh, I heard moving about and thought Neal had the day off. I know he loves these pastries and they were just baked fresh"

Peter explained the situation and June cast a worried look in Neal's direction.

"The poor dear. You know you do work him hard? The hours he puts in, you're certainly getting your money's worth out of him."

Peter laughed. It was impossible to take offense at June's remarks. He knew how fond she was of Neal and how protective.

Yet again, Neal had lucked out.

"It seems it was more likely something he ate, or more accurately drank last night."

"Oh." June looked back at Neal and then to Peter, her expression turning from concern to something more akin to apologetic.

"I'm sorry, Peter. Forgive me, please. I didn't mean to imply you had made him sick. That was unkind of me."

"No apology needed, June. It's good to know you're looking out for him."

"As are you, Peter. Thank you."

"You're welcome. Not that he needs my help. If anyone lands on their feet, it's Neal."

June looked at Peter a while and then shook her head slightly.

"You know, it may seem like he has it all, but really he has nothing at all. What was it you called him once? A cartoon, wasn't it? I think you were spot on. The suits, the hats, the easy demeanor. They're all just an act. A facade. A cartoon, if you will.

"What he wants, what he longs for, what he needs is a family. He'd trade it all in a heartbeat if could. I don't think there's anything he wouldn't give to just belong.

"And the sad part is, he might be able to achieve that, except that deep down, I think he truly believes he doesn't deserve it. Just because his mother and that awful James couldn't give him the love he needed, he's convinced himself that he is in some way unworthy of it."

June stopped, suddenly flustered, and pushed the tray into Peter's hands.

"Goodness, listen to me. Going on like that, I don't know what came over me. I didn't mean to get carried away like that. I'm sorry, Peter. I didn't intend to make you uncomfortable."

"No, not at all. You didn't June, honestly. You know El has said the exact same thing. She often remarks if he could just have had a do-over, what would he have made of his life."

"Well, everyone deserves a second chance, don't you think?"

"Yes, I do. Neal as much as anyone."

"We'll, I'd best be going. I'm due at the Trevor Project fundraiser with Mozzie in an hour and I'm nowhere near ready."

June reached forward and rested her hand on Peter's forearm, squeezing him gently.

"Thank you for being here for him, Peter. Not just today, but with everything."

With that she turned and hurried back downstairs. Surprisingly quickly for someone her age. Not that Peter had any idea how old June actually was.

He went back into the apartment and put the pastries on the kitchen counter. His coffee was cold now so he poured it away and made a fresh one before snagging a pastry for himself and heading back outside. He set them on the ground beside the lounger and sat down. He picked up the file and sketch pad and set them down, picking up his snack. In doing so he tipped the saucer slightly sending the cup sliding off and dropping onto the pad. Cursing, he hastily set the plate and saucer down and snatched up the cup and now dripping sketch pad. As he held the pad up to let the coffee run off, some of the pages that must have been loose inside slid out and fell onto the wet flagstones.

"For the love of God!" Peter growled as he put the cup back onto the saucer and laid the sketch pad on the lounger, squatting to gather up the sketches.

Luckily they only had a little coffee on them and he quickly dabbed it up with his handkerchief, laying them on the lounger while he wiped down the cover of the pad and flipped through it to check nothing else was wet. With relief he found all of the inside pages were fine, in fact they were all blank.

He turned his attention to the sketches he had laid out on the lounger, they were face down as he'd been drying the backs of them. Luckily they had not gotten very wet at all and he'd wiped away what coffee had got on them fast enough that there was hardly a trace left. He turned them over and started to put them back inside the cover of the pad.

It was only then that he noticed what they depicted. He'd been too busy panicking that he had possibly ruined Neal's work that he hadn't even looked at their content.

Now he did, and his heart suddenly felt a little heavier.

There were six pictures in all. The same subjects in each; El, himself, Satchmo and Neal. Well, it was undeniably Neal, but not as he was now. The same face, but much more youthful, and with a child's body. Neal had created another Burke family. One in which he was their child and they were clearly his parents.

The first picture was of Neal sitting atop Peter's shoulders. Both of them were smiling. Peter was holding onto Neal's legs and Neal had his arms wrapped tightly around Peter's head.

The second one was of them both again, but this time Neal was sitting on Peter's lap, leaning back against his chest. Peter had one arm around Neal's waist and the other resting on the side of the recliner. He was holding a bottle of beer, while Neal was holding a bottle of cola. They were both staring ahead intently. On the TV in front of them a baseball game was playing.

The next two pictures were of El and Neal. In the first he was on El's lap. She was holding a big book and her mouth was open as she read to him, her chin resting on the top of his head. Neal was smiling and pointing to something on the page. Peter could see from the cover that the book was Winnie The Pooh.

The other picture of the two of them had El sitting on one of the chairs in the kitchen. Neal was standing on a step-stool behind her, brushing her hair. The stool was exactly like the one El used to reach the top cupboards. Peter wondered if Neal had been imagining this scene whenever he saw El using it in their kitchen, as he must have done countless times. Although Peter had never known El to brush her hair in the kitchen. Perhaps Neal had once brushed his own mother's hair in this way.

The final two pictures were of the whole family. One was outside, at the local park where they usually walked Satchmo. Peter immediately recognized the pathway, flanked by the ornate wrought iron garbage cans the local Home-Owners' Association had donated. Satchmo was waking in front, a tennis ball in his mouth while behind him Peter and El were holding Neal's hands and swinging him up high between them. Neal's head was tipped back and he looked like he was squealing in delight as he kicked his legs forward.

Were these perhaps Neal's real memories of the Bennett family, transformed into Burke family scenes? As in all the pictures, he looked to be about three or four-years old. They could have happened before James left. Peter tried to think back over his own childhood memories. He couldn't really think of anything earlier than when he was in kindergarten. So maybe not.

Then Peter had a sickening thought. What if these were not memories at all, but desires? Perhaps they were things that had never happened to Neal, but that he wished that they had. That seemed far worse to Peter. They all showed normal, everyday events that surely all children experienced. Not some fantastic visit to Disneyland, but simple weekend family fun. But then, Neal hadn't had a family. How can a single parent swing a child by the hand? If James was gone had anyone else ever hoisted Neal onto their shoulders, or watched baseball with him?

Peter knew the answer. He could see it all too clearly right there in front of him.

No, they had not.

Come to think of it, why baseball? Peter had more than once invited Neal to watch a game with him and it had been clear from Neal's expression than he would have rather chosen to walk over hot coals. Yet here he was, snuggled against Peter's chest, guzzling cola and enjoying the game. It occurred to Peter that maybe Neal had wanted to go to a game with him but that it would have made him sad to do so, remembering that he never got to do it with James.

Suddenly Peter felt weak at the knees, he sat down on the lounger and gathered the five pictures behind the last one. He felt sick to his stomach and could taste the bitter bile in the back of his throat.

Neal had sat on this very spot last night after saying, "Goodnight, Dad" to him. He had drunk himself sick as he drew the childhood he never had.

Peter could imagine him getting deeper and deeper into despondency as he watched the scenes he had hoped for appear before him, knowing that the time for getting to sit on laps and ride on shoulders had passed him by. That his wishes would forever remain unfulfilled.

The final picture lay on the top of the pile beside Peter. He traced his fingers across it, a faint glimmer of relief that at least he could be sure this last one had some tentative roots in reality. It showed El and Peter sitting on the steps out back their house while Neal held a hose pipe and Satchmo leaped and snapped happily at the water coming out.

This scene had actually taken place the previous summer, although obviously with a grown up Neal. He and Peter had been digging up vegetables from El's garden and afterwards she had given them milk and cookies and they had sat outside to eat them. At least Peter had, Neal had set his down and gone off to play with Satchmo while El sat watching with Peter and laughing, exactly like the picture.

Now that he thought about it, he remembered that he had found it odd that Neal had not sat with them to eat their tasty treat. El rarely baked cookies as they hardly ever made it onto the Peter Burke Eating for Health Plan that she was forever struggling to engage him in. She'd probably not baked them for him at all, but with Neal in mind. She was always saying she wished she could put ten pounds on him.

Any residual annoyance that Peter might have had about Neal getting too drunk last night to make it to work today evaporated. June had summed it up correctly. Neal would give anything, give everything for something he knew he could never have. A simple yearning, but forever unrequited.

In that instance Peter wished he could just scoop Neal up somehow and keep him in his pocket, forever safe and sound.

It all seemed so hopeless.

He sighed and carefully put the drawings back into the sketch pad. Then, after guiltily looking over his shoulder to check that Neal had not woken up, he took them out and carefully photographed each one with his phone.

There was no way of knowing what order they had been in. He'd been too busy making sure they were not damaged to notice. Hopefully, Neal would have been too drunk to remember himself. He slid the pad under the lounger, picked up his things and went back inside.

Then he went back down to the garbage, retrieved the black plastic sack and put it back where he had found it on the balcony. He left the French doors how they had been when he first arrived. He took the kitchen sponge and wet it through before going back out and making sure there was no trace of coffee on the flagstones. The he rinsed it, cleaned his dishes and left them in the sink to drain.

With luck, Neal would never know he had been out there and seen any of the pictures. Having covered his tracks he set his files out on the dining table and attempted to work on them, but found his mind too bothered to concentrate in any meaningful way.

About three o'clock he heard Neal start to stir and went over to check on him. He had more color now and his skin no longer looked sweaty. Peter fetched a washcloth from the bathroom and held it under the running water in the kitchen sink until it was icy cold. After wringing it out he went back to Neal's bed and sat down beside him.

Neal groaned and clutched his pillow tighter. Then slowly he opened one eye and looked over at Peter.


"Is that, I'm sorry or misery?" Peter asked, smiling down at Neal, as he put a hand on his arm. Neal flinched slightly at the contact with Peter's skin, cold from the faucet.

"Both." He groaned.

"That's looking like quite the hangover you've got there, budy."

Peter draped the folded washcloth over Neal's forehead and eyes, shielding him from the afternoon sun that was now streaming in. Neal made a sound that was somewhere between a grateful sigh and a pathetic whimper.

"Am I in really bad trouble?"

It was all that Peter could do to keep from laughing out loud. While Neal lay before him, clearly an adult, it was the little boy in the pictures that Peter now saw beside him. He patted Neal gently on the shoulder.

"You look like you're already well into your punishment, I don't think I need to add any more, do you? Besides, I'm sure Diana was happy to have a free-pass today. She'll probably get five times more done than if you had been in."

Neal just harrumphed and lay there, unable or unwilling to move.

Probably both. Peter thought, not ungenerously.

"I really am sorry. That you had to come over. Take time out of your day."

"I was glad to be out of there. Those budget meetings do me in, all the politicking, I can't stand it. Gave me a hell of a headache. You've done me a favor."

He had overplayed his hand. Neal slowly released his pillow and slid his hand up to lift the washcloth off his right eye. He shot Peter a skeptical look.

"Are you messing with me? Are you about to start yelling and beating a drum about my head? Because I'm warning you, if you do, there could be throw-up involved."

Peter did laugh out loud this time. He was glad to see that Neal was not so under the weather that he couldn't be a smart ass. He decided he would give him an out.

"No, I'm guessing for it to get that bad, Mozzie must have been a part of it somehow."

Neal made a half-hearted attempt to sit up, but quickly gave up and buried his face back in the pillow, as much to avoid having to look Peter in the eye as to block out the light. The washcloth slipped to the floor and Peter picked it up and draped it over the water bottle on the night stand.

"Kinda, little bit."

It was not a complete lie, Mozzie had provided or rather left behind the crappy wine he'd drunk. Although, in fairness even the best vintage is going to lead to all things awful by the time the third bottle's empty.

"Well, I guess you get a free-pass today, too."

Peter gently ruffled Neal's hair then stood up and bent down, kissing him on the top of his damp curls. Neal snorted from amidst the pillow.

"Did you just kiss my head?" Neal laughed. "You must have really hated that meeting."

Peter laughed, "Sorry, didn't mean to freak you out. I won't do it again. I'm only used to taking care of El and she likes that."

"My shapely legs must have reminded you of her."

Neal surfaced from his pillow, grinning at Peter. Peter smiled and looked down over Neal's prostrate body.

"Hmm. Your way too tall, have no curves to speak of and frankly, the leggy brunettes I go for are far less ... hairy."

"Whoa, way to hit a guy when he's down. Low blow, Agent Burke."

"Cowboy up, pardner"

Peter pulled the duvet up from the bottom of the bed and draped it over Neal. He snuggled down into it, only the top of his head still visible and sighed deeply.

"Seven-thirty sharp, tomorrow morning. No excuses." He tapped Neal on the leg.

"Hear me?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good, now get some rest."


Peter got up from the bed and started toward the table to gather up his things.



"I didn't really mind it."

"Mind what?"

"That thing you did."

"What thing I did?"

"With my hair."


"Only, you know ... just, please don't do it at work."

Although his heart clenched a little, Peter couldn't but laugh. He could only imagine the living hell Diana and Jones would put Neal through if that happened.

"Okay. But at home's okay?"


Peter was grateful to be having this conversation with Neal safely under the duvet, and he suspected Neal was equally so. In fact, he was sure that it would never have happened if they'd had to actually face one another.

"Which home?"

"Any home."

Peter walked back over to Neal and rested his hand on Neal's covered foot.

"Don't forget to drink fluids."


"Lots of fluids."

"Got it."

"Lots of non-alcoholic fluids."

"Seriously, I got it."

"Goodbye, Neal."

He gently closed the door behind him. Neal's response was muffled beneath the comforter, but Peter was pretty sure he heard him say,

"Bye, Dad."