By: True Love

Summary: Short, somewhat angsty oneshot. He won't let anyone destroy his family ever again. He'll do whatever it takes to protect it. It just hurts to know that this devotion is only one-way. Inspired by "Brass Tacks." Obviously, this includes spoilers.

Disclaimer: White Collar doesn't belong to me. Surprise!

~~~~~WHITE COLLAR~~~~~

"You destroyed my family 30 years ago. I'm not gonna let you do it again."

His own voice reverberates in his head over and over, laying in bed in the middle of the night and knowing sleep was not coming anytime soon. He said those words to the corrupt and greedy family-destroying monster that hides under the guise of a US Senator. He also meant every single damn word of it, even if he's going to have to pay the price for it.

Pratt destroyed his family when he was just a little, defenseless, three-year-old kid, forcing his parents into Witness Protection and taking away his childhood - after all, his mother wasn't really there for him despite the physical presence thanks to the whole corrupt-cop-for-a-husband debacle that can easily enough destroy the psyche of a depressed might-as-well-be-widow single mother. Ellen was there for him, of course, but she certainly paid the ultimate penalty for it now, buried six feet under, as if hiding her whole life wasn't enough.

Heck, his whole life could have been so different if things with his father turned out differently. As much as it seems absurd and unlikely, he could have made a living on the right side of the law under different circumstances, much to Peter's pleasure.


The man who did so much for him without asking for a great deal in return.

Except for honesty and trust.

The guilt tries to settle in his stomach, but he squishes it before it can take hold of him completely.

Yes. He lied to Peter. The one thing he promised he never would do. He didn't just embellish or omit the truth. He literally lied right in the face of his handler, but more importantly his friend and partner, sometimes even his role model or father-figure depending on how many obstacles lay between them at a given point in time. And this time, there are plenty.

He told Peter that nothing was discovered about Ellen's key when it couldn't have been further from the truth.

The moment when he had to look Peter in the eyes and lie - he won't forget it. It's not something he wants to remember, and yet, he knows he will not be able to push it out of his mind either.

It was a necessary evil required for Peter's own protection. He might not have thought of it this way, but Elizabeth did.

Elizabeth. The woman that took in his appearance in her house, in Peter's life, and in her own life in stride ever since the first day he appeared on her door step, fresh out of prison. She helped Neal see Peter's point of view and undoubtedly vice versa when they disagreed and were at the lowest points of the roller-coaster ride that was their trust level.

And if Elizabeth wants Peter to be out of the loop for this in order to protect him, he is in no position to refuse her.

But that doesn't mean that coming to that conclusion hurts any less. And not just the part about deceptions targeted at Peter.

If someone told him years ago that he'd basically settle down and care so deeply for those around him, and not just Mozzie or his small circle of conman semi-friends, but rather a group of agents that hunted him, he'd laugh in their face. But things are different now.

He will certainly do whatever he possibly can to protect this new surrogate family of his - Peter, Elizabeth, June, Mozzie, Diana, Jones... his newly resurfaced father.

With Hughes out of a job and the endless, nerve wrecking possibilities that the new boss could bring, the stakes are even higher now, more complicated. But he'll manage it. Somehow.

It would just be so much easier with Peter at his side instead of on the sidelines.

Though as much as he tries to put the blame on Elizabeth for it, he just can't force himself to.

But that's not even the worst part.

What's worse is knowing that the people that you consider family, the ones you'll do anything to keep from harm's way and make them happy, all of which he currently seems to be failing at, don't really feel the same in return. Not quite the same way at least, not the way that Neal wishes and yet hates himself for doing so at the same time.

It's a one-way commitment.

Sure Elizabeth cares for him. She's shown that over the past three or so years. As does Peter, proving it time and time again on numerous occasions, not least of which was warning him to flee from Kramer and then returning him back to New York at the expense to his own job. But it's clear that when it comes down to it, he's out.

It's Peter and Elizabeth. They are the family and he's the outsider. He's a friend who they help out whenever they can. But when push comes to shove, they can go on without him. They don't need him as much as he needs them - his social network, his moral compass, his reason for returning to New York. Elizabeth made that clear. Peter comes first and Neal is on his own, might as well be thrown away like a toy.

He would never expect her to choose differently, if it came down to it. But it hurts to know that she can just so easily kick him out of their life - because that's exactly what she did.

By having to lie to Peter, their relationship is bound to slowly unravel, dissipate like a dream upon awakening. He couldn't lie to Peter in the face as he can to strangers. He's a conman. Lying for a living is what he did for many years and still does as part of his parole for the FBI. But lying to Peter feels differently, like more of a wrong, and it's hard to believe that Peter won't catch on to his lies as time goes. Despite how much Neal wishes their friendship could continue surviving despite their many bumps in the road they already had, Neal's straight-forward deception is not something Peter is likely to forgive and forget quite as easily.

Peter got hurt because of him. That's not something that's easy to swallow - being the reason for the people you care about getting hurt.

"Peter would do anything to help you... and this is what he gets?" Elizabeth, on the other hand, wasn't shy to point out to him that that is exactly what happened already and will not tolerate the possibility of another attack on her husband because of him. He closes his eyes as painful memories from the hospital come back to haunt him and squeeze his heart with depressing accuracy.

It's depressing to be pushed away, to be forced to do the same to the one person you want to be closest to, who has already been by your side through the roughest days of your life, like Kate's death. It doesn't seem fair. But it is also not reasonable to go against Elizabeth's wishes and, according to her, endanger her husband further, to try to take him away from her.

Apparently, going after a dirty senator is acceptable because that's what Peter is all about - justice, but investigating his family's old secrets hiding in Ellen's key is off the table. Considering those two are probably going to be related to each other once the key will lead to a location, hopefully it will not cause more harm than just his and Peter's strained friendship. Maybe going after Pratt and locating what the key is hiding separately will hinder their progress. But he can't bring that up to his friend's wife.

But no matter what, he'll keep his promise to Elizabeth. He owns her that.

Maybe baiting Pratt wasn't the smartest thing to do, potentially a reckless mistake instead, especially once he realized that he must have been recorded by the bug he himself helped to plant on Pratt's suitcase, which he honestly didn't remember about. But what's done is done.

He challenged Pratt. If he goes after anybody, it should be him and not Peter or anyone else.

Maybe this inadvertent declaration in front of the feds will do something useful. Maybe this will get to Elizabeth eventually. While that thought feels embarrassing, as if stripping him bare in front of her, maybe it will reassure her that he never meant her or Peter any harm. To show that he cared and he'll do anything to protect them, just like he promised to her.

And he will protect them. Whatever it takes.

He might not have all the answers right now, but that never stopped him before. He'll keep digging, with Mozzie - no Peter this time. Hopefully, this will not lead to the end of their partnership, their friendship.

Meanwhile, he has a losing battle to fight with what is bound to be his new best friend for the time to come - insomnia.

~~~~~WHITE COLLAR~~~~~

A/N: I think needless to say after this, but I was quite a bit mad at El's character after "Brass Tacks" even though normally, I think she helps keep the Peter and Neal bromance together on the show. But I had another round of insomnia tonight, or this morning (depending on how you look at it) and wrote this story instead of getting my beauty rest. Hence, this oneshot was not beta-ed. Plus, English is my third language. In a combination of all of the above, this story is the result that was born.