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Island Blues

Chapter Text

~*~o~*~oOo~*~o~*~

 

The trek home from the site of the burning warehouse drained away the adrenaline, leaving Neal more weary than anything else, his rage at Peter’s baseless accusation set on a low simmer.

At home, the sight of the card and key sent a new jolt through his system, waking him up with curiosity instead of hurt and anger.

At Gansevoort the sight of the treasure – art, gold, and jewels all around, stacks upon stacks – filled him with unholy glee.

 


If he was going to be damned if he didn’t, might as well be damned if he did.

 

~*~o~*~oOo~*~o~*~

 

Chapter Text

Five days later and some minutes after Peter had left Neal’s apartment – smiling again – Mozzie entered. He looked about ready to deliver a stinging lecture on co-opting his resources for government purposes, so Neal greeted him with a smile of his own. “Hey, Moz, thanks for helping out today. I know what a wrench that must have been.”

Mozzie let out the air he’d been saving for his rant and gestured dismissively. “We can take off for the island as often as we like. Even a Suit has only one life. It was my pleasure to assist a fellow human being in a time of extreme need.”

Neal raised his eyebrows. “Oh? You acknowledge that Feds are human?”

Mozzie looked up and away. “Some of them, mon frère, some of them.”

Neal hid a private smile. As much as Mozzie posed as uncaring about government-corporate-military-industrial shills in general, he had similar morals to Neal’s when it came to people they knew as individuals.

“Speaking of taking off,” Mozzie continued, “we have to sell something.”

Neal frowned. He’d just got the ever-vigilant, suspicious, distrustful Peter off his back. Selling anything that had been even possibly through Nazi hands, or appeared treasure-like, was bound to bring his laser focus right back on them. “Why?” he asked.

Moz gave him a shoulders up and hands out gesture, complete with a ‘duh’ look. “Our first attempt was compromised. We’ll need to fund a second.”

Oh, right. Living the lawful life was impoverishing Neal, especially since he couldn’t earn any legitimate money either. He complained about Moz drinking his wine without replenishing it, but Neal knew he himself was essentially living off his friends, June and Moz both.

“I was thinking about fencing one of the paintings,” Moz added after a moment.

“Why not melt down some of the gold bars? They’d easily clear us a few millions.”

Moz looked at him like he was crazy. “Are you crazy?” he asked. “We’re trying to avoid the impression that we have secreted away an enormous treasure, and now you want to announce to all and sundry that we have millions in gold lying around?”

“Oh, yeah. Hmm.” Neal had been thinking that once converted (forged) into various types of modern coins and bars, the gold could escape the Nazi treasure connotation, but the sheer amount they’d have to move would be a huge tip-off. Even if they kept it from Peter’s ears (unlikely), those in the life would come nosing around.

“A painting is only one item, one that could have come from anywhere and been stored in a cache for any length of time –” argued Mozzie.

“Seventy years, give or take,” murmured Neal.

He glared. “Any length of time. We’re known for moving art. It wouldn’t surprise anyone for us to move one highly valuable painting.”

“All right, Moz,” Neal agreed. “Look through what we’ve got. I trust you’ll pick out something suitable.”

 

~*~o~*~

 

The next day at the office was a calm one, for which Neal was profoundly grateful. He never thought he’d be happy to sit at a desk all day doing paperwork, but a week of being drugged, kidnapped, nearly blown up, nearly drowned, nearly shot, and nearly blown up again, topped off with a tap dance around Peter’s accusations, pulling off cons and stings simultaneously, and witnessing a friend’s life endangered, had a way of changing a man’s mind.

Neal was beginning to think a little boredom in his life would be welcome for a time.

After lunch, he sauntered in through the elevator lobby doors, looking up to see Peter’s double-finger point from where the man stood on the mezzanine in front of his office. New case? New ping on an old alias? Neal hoped it wasn’t a new round of suspicions.

Fortunately, Peter was smiling as he leaned against his desk. “I told El about your heroics the other day.”

“My heroics?” Neal frowned in confusion.

“You and Mozzie, concocting that last minute plan to save Clinton’s life.”

“Oh. That’s not heroics. That’s what I do – why you keep me around.” Neal grinned. It had been quick thinking, but then that was what he did. It hadn’t been especially heroic, except possibly on Mozzie’s part. Nice of Peter to think of it that way, though.

“Uh-huh. Anyway, El says to come to dinner tonight. Sara and Mozzie are invited too, if they’d like to come.”

Neal’s eyebrows went up. “Oh, so for them it’s optional but for me it’s mandatory?”

“Uh-huh. Yep,” Peter said, popping the last consonant. “It’s like you know me.” He was grinning now.

“I know Elizabeth.” Her dictates were not to be denied, neither by husband nor CI.

Peter chuckled. “Her too.”

Chapter Text

Neal entered the Burke abode with a bottle of wine in hand and an apology on his lips. “Sara thanks you for the invitation but unfortunately couldn’t make it tonight. Mozzie, uh, likewise.”

Peter smiled knowingly. “Come on in,” he said. “El’s in the kitchen, finishing up.”

Neal brought the wine to the counter to open it. Elizabeth looked over her shoulder from the stove to smile hello. “Peter said something about Mozzie saving the day with an airplane?”

“Mm-hmm,” he hummed, pouring a couple of glasses.

“How did he come up with an airplane at a moment’s notice?”

He grinned. “‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ might be ending for the US military, but it’s still good policy around Moz.”

“An airplane, though. You don’t keep one of those in a storage unit.”

He chuckled. “Oh, an airplane’s nothing. One time I had an urgent need for an elephant, complete with houdah, and Moz came through for me.”

She had turned from the stove to lean on the counter, sipping her wine. “Oh, this story I’ve got to hear.”

Peter chimed in from where he was leaning against the wall. “Yeah, this sounds like a good one. Go on.”

“Um, well…” He cast through his mind for the least incriminating way to relate the incident while still retaining the sense and some entertainment value. “There was this princess –”

“Ooh, sounds romantic!” said Elizabeth. “I like it already.”

“It gets better,” he assured her.

“Yes, please, do go on,” urged Peter, eyes hooded.

They were finishing up their salads when he came to the end of his anecdote. “...and so the ruby and pearl parure was restored to the royal family.” He grinned happily at his audience.

Elizabeth had her elbows on the table above her empty plate, resting her chin on the intertwined fingers of both hands. “And?” she said, eyebrows up.

“And what?” he asked.

“The princess!” she exclaimed. “Did you get the girl?” Her smile grew a bit wicked.

“No, turned out she wasn’t actually a princess.” He chuckled, shaking his head sadly.

Now Peter’s eyebrows shot up. “Wait, the peerless conmen were conned?” He smiled gleefully.

“No,” he defended. “She had been a princess, but when she married without her family’s approval, they derogated her title.”

“Oh.” Elizabeth’s face crumpled. “So, wait, she was married the whole time…”

“Yeah. She was hoping to work her way back into the family’s good graces with the return of her great-grandmother’s famed and priceless jewelry, but although they were happy to take back the gold and gems, they left her out.”

She frowned. “That’s kind of sad.”

He shrugged. “I guess only Disney princesses are guaranteed a happy ending.”

Peter was frowning slightly too. “So what did you and Mozzie get out of all this?”

He grinned. “What, we can’t have the satisfaction of returning lost heirlooms? Or doing our best to help a damsel in distress?” Faced with identical skeptical expressions, he chuckled. “We were young – or at least I was. I’d do it all again just for the adventure,” he added nostalgically, twisting his wrist to make the light glimmer through his wine glass. He and Moz had got what they’d been after, which had been neither a princess nor a famous lost set of jewelry, hence the improvisational nature of the elephant acquisition, but their original goal wouldn’t have made nearly as entertaining a story. Not to mention being even less legal, in a country where he wasn’t as familiar with the statute of limitations.

“Mm-hmm,” Peter hummed neutrally.

He shook his head slightly and smiled. “So suspicious, all the time. You can’t relax and enjoy a good story? Even if it sounds like a fairy tale?”

“Maybe when Disney tells ’em.”

Elizabeth slapped his arm playfully, then stood up, gathering the dirty dishes. “Let me get these, and then I’ll bring out the main dish.” He started to stand but she waved him back down. “No, no, I’ll take care of it. You two have been working hard lately and I appreciate your stories,” she added with a reproachful look at her husband.

He grinned again. “Thanks, Elizabeth.”

Under the clatter of the dishes, Peter asked him, “So, why did you go calling on my wife the other day, when you knew I wasn’t home?” He spoke in his usual blunt and tactless way.

He shrugged. “To ask her the same thing I asked you. I wanted to know why you stopped trusting me.”

“Uh-huh. And what did El say?”

“That I’m a con and will always be one, so I’ll never be trustworthy.” As long as we’re being forthright, he thought.

Elizabeth’s gasp was audible, the clattering of dishes having ceased. “Neal!” she exclaimed, hurt. Okay, so those hadn’t been her exact words.

“Those her exact words, were they?” asked Peter.

Neal sighed, rubbing a hand through his hair. “She brought up escaping prison, which was over a year ago; stealing the music box – half a year ago, and nearly shooting Fowler. I’ll grant you that last one reflects pretty badly on me.”

“You –” started Peter.

“– And I do very much appreciate the effort you went to to keep me out of prison,” Neal continued. “You didn’t send me back then, when you had every right to. But now – if you had a shred of evidence that I stole the U-boat treasure, I’d be locked up right now, wouldn’t I?”

Peter shook his head. “It’s not that simple.”

“No, it isn’t, is it,” Neal said, leaning forward, arms folded on the table. “I was a model prisoner for over three years – right up until Kate was in danger. Or are you still going deny that she was in danger?”

“Neal, that’s all in the past.”

“It’s the past that’s keeping you from trusting me now. All three things Elizabeth mentioned were related to Kate. And I know I shouldn’t have gone after Fowler – you’re right, revenge is not the way. I wasn’t even trying to get revenge on Adler –”

“You weren’t?” Peter’s mouth twisted in doubt.

“No! He saw the art go up in flames and blamed the closest scapegoat. Sound familiar?”

He sighed. “Neal…”

“After Fowler, I gave up on revenge. I said, we do it your way, remember?”

He dropped his chin. “Ye-es…”

“That was when we went after Larssen, who shot Mozzie and then framed you. We worked together to bring him down. Your way.”

“Right, so that was one time.” He leaned back in his chair.

“It was a turning point for me. Kate’s gone. After Moz was nearly killed, I realized I had to focus on the friends I have here.” Neal could feel his eyes going hot and tight, the way they did just before the tears came.

“And I appreciate that,” said Peter, “but it’s going to take some time to rebuild trust.”

Neal scoffed. “Rebuild it? When did I ever have it?” His arms went out to the side. “If you haven’t trusted me since I escaped prison, you’ve never trusted me.” He forced those damn tears back. Not now, no way.

Peter leaned forward, planting an elbow on the table and pointing his index finger. “I trusted you when we had to switch roles.”

Neal cocked his head. “Did I let you down?”

“No. No, you didn’t,” Peter said, shaking his head.

“I haven’t, since Fowler. That’s not a coincidence. It’s a change. But if you’re going to keep holding over me everything I did for Kate–” It must be all these mentions of Kate’s name that kept the tears threatening.

“I’m not! I just said that!”

“So what happened? What happened between the Stanzler case and now to erase your trust?”

Peter looked away, as if the living room sofa held an answer. Or likely he just wanted to escape this conversation. “I can’t– I can’t answer that, Neal, I’m sorry.”

That brought Neal up short. “What do you mean?” He was genuinely confused. He thought they’d fixed the problem with the painting scrap. Was the Dearmitt test inconclusive? Was there something else? He felt a stab of anxiety.

Peter turned back to look at him. “I’m sorry I accused you without proof first. Is that what you’re looking for?” He raised his arm from the table, palm up. “Do you want an apology? There, you have it.” His palm slapped down on the table.

Neal sat back. “Fine. What I want is your trust, but fine. I was a criminal for years; I suppose it doesn’t matter how many times I save your life or someone else’s. As long as I wear the anklet and I’m your criminal informant, what I’ll be is an untrustworthy criminal.”

Peter blew out a strong breath. “Neal, that is–”

Elizabeth intervened, bringing out dinner. She must have thought this argument had gone on long enough and was getting nowhere, which was all too true. “What Peter’s trying to say is that it will take more time to fully earn his trust and the FBI’s, right, hon?”

“Well…” said her husband.

“Exactly!” Elizabeth smiled brightly, as if he had agreed wholeheartedly. Neal could only smile back. Her tactics were excellent, and her good cheer infectious. “Everyone appreciates your help, Neal, but it takes consistency over a long period of time to earn trust. Don’t you agree?”

He considered it. “Yeah. Yeah, you’re right.” He nodded.

“And you still have a couple years to do that in, right?” She sat down and picked up her fork, still smiling at the both of them, a hint of a wink at Neal.

He huffed, somewhere between a laugh and a sigh. “Yeah, I do.”

“Two and a half years,” specified Peter.

“You’re counting?”

“I have to figure out how I’m going to maintain our ninety-four percent clearance rate after you’ve moved on.” They all managed a chuckle at that.

“Well, then let’s make the most of our time together, shall we?” said Elizabeth.

Neal grinned, back in full-on charming mode. “Yes! Starting with this delicious dinner!”

Chapter Text

Using the laptop Mozzie had so dramatically unveiled – the treasure did rather demand theatrics – Neal panned the camera view all around the storage room, taking in as much of the artwork as he could, which turned out to be nearly all of it. Gold and gems were all very well, but Moz was the true treasure.

He took particular note of the paintings and sculpture that were visible and identifiable through the camera. Some were difficult to discern, especially the sculptures, but he noted down (in code, of course) the ones he could be certain of. Next he opened a browser. He was sure Mozzie had already put into place any number of security safeguards.

Next stop: the Art Loss Register.

He didn’t stop there, though. The ALR might be the largest listing, but there were numerous databases that recorded missing and stolen works, some of which were devoted to those looted or otherwise lost during World War Two.

He wanted to know who was aware that these particular pieces went missing and when, and who had made a claim for rightful ownership of them.

 

~*~o~*~oOo~*~o~*~

 

Dinner with Diana and her girlfriend Christie was turning out to be much more fun than Neal had anticipated. It was great having Sara on the same page with him, like a real partner.

And to think, Diana took a pottery class. He couldn’t have imagined anything better. His ulterior motive was a bust, but he would have set this up just for that tidbit alone.

That and this dessert. And the wine. Who knew they’d have such great taste?

Sparing Diana any more Ghost references (for now), Neal attempted to get her ranting about her day with her infamous (though temporary) boss. “So Helen was that bad, huh? Like what Jones said?”

Christie and Sara shared puzzled looks.

“Evidently, ‘she puts the hell in Helen’,” Neal confided, to much laughter. The wine was really good. Trust a diplomat’s daughter to have the best social lubricant.

“Yeah, he pretty much nailed it,” Diana agreed.

“You never did call me for advice,” he pointed out.

Her brows went up. “Oh, you think Peter is a demanding boss?! You don’t know the meaning!”

“Considering I work for free–” started Neal.

“For your freedom, yeah,” she interrupted. “D’you think it was easy working through college and Quantico? We worked hard so we can be here, working hard. This is what people like Peter and me do.”

Sara tried to head off what was another awkward moment in the making, saying to Christie, “I expect medical school was no picnic either.”

Christie laughed, happy to ease the tension. “Neither was residency! It was a long, difficult time getting that MD after my name.”

“Was it worth it?” asked Sara, curious. Neal knew Sara herself was no slouch at her work, but she hadn’t excelled at school.

“Oh, absolutely! It’s still hard work, but I love being a doctor. Most days,” Christie added with a shared glance and smile at Diana.

Neal understood the value of doing work you love and putting in the effort to do it well. His activities might have been less than legal but he still had long hard hours of preparation and exertion to pull them off, not to mention the diligence needed in simply keeping up-to-date in his field. But still... “Why work so hard if you don’t have to?”

That bought him another of Diana’s piercing glares. “Because most of us would rather have the satisfaction of doing a hard job well than steal the fruits of other people’s labor.”

He didn’t know why he said these things he knew would goad her. Maybe it was the “people like Peter and me” comment, that excluded him, as if he wasn’t part of their team now, and working hard for them.

Or maybe it was the wine.

“Speaking of stealing fruits,” he said with his most beguiling grin, “I think I’m going to snag the last piece of this delicious berry torte –”

“Oh no you don’t! I earned that!” said Diana, reaching to smack his hand away. They were all laughing again as he and Diana each tried to outmaneuver the other.

Chapter Text

Watching Mozzie and his old mentor Mr. Jeffries reunited and trading quotes made a heartwarming end to a stressful day of fake cons with faux fights, and real mobsters with real guns.

Okay, so Mozzie was not the only sentimentalist here, Neal reflected.

“Speaking of saying goodbye,” said Peter, “I’m afraid I have to get going. Mr. Jeffries, can I take you to the office to make your statement? If you prefer, you can come in tomorrow.”

“Oh, let’s go now,” said Jeffries. “I’d just as soon get it over with.”

“Afterwards, I can show you New York the way I know her,” offered Mozzie.

“That would be wonderful! I’d love to see the New York Public Library, all the art museums…”

“Hit the tourist highlights?” Peter smiled.

Mozzie looked away a bit shiftily and waved his hand vaguely. “…Sure, Suit. You keep thinking along those lines.”

Peter shook his head knowingly, holding his arm out for Mr. Jeffries to come along with him to the door. “Oh!” he exclaimed, turning back to the others. “Elizabeth invites all of you for dinner tonight.”

“The three of us?” asked Neal. “That’s quite an addition on short notice.”

“When I get worried, I want to arrest somebody. When El worries, she wants to feed people. I think she can host at least a dozen tonight.”

Jeffries and Mozzie exchanged a glance. “Uh, thanks but no thanks, Peter. No offense, but I’ve had enough of suits for one day. Tell Mrs. Suit I’ll be in touch tomorrow.”

“Will do. Neal?”

Neal smiled charmingly. “At your service, as always, Peter.”

Peter frowned. “It’s an invitation, not an order.”

Neal’s grin morphed into something more authentic. “It’s fine. More than fine. I’m always happy to eat Elizabeth’s cooking, you know that.”

Peter pointed a finger at him. “One of these days, you’re coming over for my pot roast. El’s not the only one who can cook.” He escorted Jeffries out, leaving Mozzie and Neal with the apartment to themselves.

A breath, a pause.

“Drink,” said Moz succinctly, heading for the wine rack.

“Yes!” Neal agreed with alacrity, fetching the glasses.

They relaxed in each other’s company for a time, enjoying a companionable silence. Neal thought over some of the things his friend had said that morning and again in the evening, about selling the art. “Hey, Moz, what did you mean about the treasure not being tainted?”

“Oh, I figured out it’s all from a Russian museum. So it’s not like loot the Nazis took from people they shipped off to concentration camps. The items in the Russian museums typically came from the old Tsarist families, who’d at least paid for them. Usually.”

Hmm… That didn’t quite align with what Neal’s own research had uncovered, but he let it slide for now.

“Even so, Moz… In museums the artwork is available to everyone to view, not just a few excessively wealthy people.”

His friend recoiled in horror. Not the mock sort of horror like when you admit to reading mass-market paperbacks for the mindless pleasure of them, but the real horror as if you just realized your friend has turned into a pod-person. “Since when do you care about stealing from museums, Mr-Raphael-what-Raphael? A minute ago I advised you to enjoy your time with the Suit while you can, but now I see that working for the Feds really has twisted your mind!”

Neal rolled his eyes. “Overreact much, Moz? Calm down. I’m just suggesting –”

“Suggesting what exactly? Need I remind you that this treasure makes us – will make us – some of those excessively wealthy people ourselves? Isn't that what you've always wanted – what we've been about since the beginning? I told you to remember who we are! Or are you going to take a vow of poverty upon entering the FBI monkhood?”

“Now you’re just being ridiculous.” He leaned forward, across the table. “Look, a painting here or a sculpture there – you're right, I've never felt a twinge about removing. Especially not when I leave them a replacement that's essentially as good. But we're talking about half a collection! This is a whole other scale, Moz!”

“Exactly my point,” Moz said, leaning back and crossing his arms.

“C’mon, Moz, I know you’ve often longed for the big score, the one that will make you wealthy beyond imagination, and able to buy your own island, but let’s be real for a moment. I thought you meant it when you told Peter that time it's not about the money, it's about doing what we want to do.”

“Yes, it is, exactly! The millions we'll get from this treasure will fund a lot of activities that I'd like to do!” His arms thrust up into the air.

“Like what? Lying on beaches sipping mai-tais?”

“Well, among other things, sure…”

“Don't you think that's going to get old fast? You said you were ready for retirement after you got shot. But you weren't after all. You really think you're ready now?”

“The money could fuel any number of projects – and we wouldn't have to worry about those endeavors generating income.”

“Uh-huh, like what projects?”

“Like, well, like, uh…”

“Maybe we could locate long-lost treasures and restore them to the world?”

“Yeah, like– Curse you, Neal! I'm supposed to be your friend, not your mark!”

“I know, Moz, you are,” Neal emphasized.

“So speaking as your friend, mon frère, and talking about ‘getting real’ you need to remember what you really are –”

He’d heard enough today on that subject, and he burst out with, “You know what, Moz? I am done with people telling me what I am!” He slammed both hands down on the table and stood up. “You know what you and Peter agree on, huh? You wanna know what you and a Suit, a Fed, have in common?” He was shouting, leaning over towards Mozzie, who was pushing himself back into his chair, eyes wide behind his large glasses. “You both tell me I’m a conman and nothing but! Maybe I want to decide what I am! Maybe I want to be who I am – not Peter’s pet criminal, and not your front man!”

Moz sat there gaping, stunned. “Okay, okay, how about this. This has been a hard day for all of us. We’re all a little wound up. I’m going to go see Jeffries, give you some time.” He got out of the chair and headed for the door.

“No, wait, Moz, I’m sorry –” but Moz was out the door, closing it behind him. Neal fell back in his chair. He dropped his head in his hands, grabbing fistfuls of his hair. He needed to get a grip on himself, or he was going to lose everything.

 

~*~o~*~

 

By the time Neal arrived at the Burkes’ for dinner, he was feeling calmer and more in control. Enough to put on his usual charm, anyway. Elizabeth’s company (and food) was always a pleasure, and he and Peter were celebrating a threefold win complete with a touching resolution. Keeping his cool should be a piece of cake (literally, too, with any luck).

Elizabeth set the last dish down on the already laden table and took her seat. “So, how was the prom?” she asked, simpering.

Peter grinned back at her. “Great! We took down the bad guys, Mozzie's safe –”

“Peter and I have broken up, though,” Neal added with mock woe.

“Aw, what happened?” she asked, playing along with a pretense of dismay.

“He fired me.”

“Peter! Why would you do such a thing!” she exclaimed, an exaggerated hand brought to her chest.

“Accused me of shorting the register,” explained Neal.

“Peter!” She sounded genuinely upset this time.

Peter was spluttering, trying to get a word in. “It was for the cover! Dammit, Neal –”

Neal laughed. Yanking Peter’s chain. It never got old.

“Boys!” Elizabeth said fondly. She lightly smacked a shoulder of each of theirs.

Neal was tempted to stick his tongue out. He settled for saying, “See if I go with you to senior prom,” with a pout in Peter’s direction.

“Like I'd ever ask you again! Worst date of my life!” They were all giggling by this point.

The laughter tapered as they settled in for the meal, too busy savoring all the delicious food.

“Seriously, Peter,” said Neal after a while, “thanks for working with Mozzie on this. I know he can be –”

“Infuriating? Impossible?”

Elizabeth nudged him. Not too subtly.

“Challenging,” he clarified. “For, uh –”

“Normal human beings? You know, those of us not paranoid about our own shadows following us?”

“Hon!” She sounded a bit exasperated.

“For law enforcement types. Not sure whether to classify you as 'normal' or not.”

“All right, both of you, now stop!”

Peter turned to his wife. “You didn't even hear what he said about you tonight!”

Oh, this ought to be good. Neal’s brows skyrocketed and he grinned widely, “You're going to tell her about that?!”

“Wait, what? What did he say? Was this while you were undercover?”

Peter had gone beet-red and seemed about ready to plead the fifth. Neal urged, “Go on, tell her. Now you've brought it up. Not like it's not true,” he added with a wink at Elizabeth.

She crossed her arms. “You know, Neal's right. Now that you've mentioned it, I want to hear it.”

“It was something… something about you…” Peter mumbled.

Neal took pity on him. “I said you should give me a call next time you get lonely.”

She tried to hide her smile. “Well, that sounds… reasonable,” she said, clearing her throat.

“It was the way he said it!” said Peter. “He called you, he said –”

Elizabeth waited expectantly. “Yes? Neal? What did you call me?”

“It was a compliment! About your looks – that you were beautiful.”

“'Hot',” clarified Peter. “He said, 'Next time your hot wife gets lonely, tell her to call me.'” Peter had found his tongue, evidently.

“Ooh, very nice.” She smiling lasciviously at Neal.

Before her husband could go off about that, Neal put in, “Also, Peter does love my hats.”

“The hell I do! You look like a cartoon.”

He smirked impishly. “‘My glowing smile and my adorable hats’. I believe that's a quote.”

“Your conman's smile and your annoying hats!”

Silence. Neal blanked his face and even Elizabeth looked taken aback.

Peter awkwardly tried to explain. “Well, you know, we were just saying… whatever for the cover. I was pretending to fire him.” Peter’s big brown eyes looked into his. “You know I don't mean that crap about only ever being a con, whatever it was I said.”

“If you say so,” Neal replied calmly. Keep your cool, keep your cool.

The Burkes shared a puzzled glance.

“I am the first one you blame whenever anything goes wrong,” he continued. He was still calm. He could do this. He wasn’t going to lose it.

“Now that – that's not true –” started Peter.

“I was so furious after the warehouse explosion, when you accused me of the theft. I'd had nothing to do with it – it hadn't even occurred to me – so for your first thought to be, ‘Neal did it’ – I – it was enraging.” Okay. Maybe he was losing it. A little.

“You’re still angry about this?” Peter frowned. “I thought we’d moved on.”

Neal sighed. “Yeah, I thought so too. Sorry, I know our argument was for the audience, but, uh, I guess it got to me anyway.” Just a little, you think? he scolded himself.

“That sounds understandable,” said Elizabeth, always the rational one. Mediating and peacemaking must be a requisite skill for organizing weddings. She was the reason he’d thought he could handle this dinner tonight. “Neal, I’m glad you can tell us what you’re thinking, how you’re feeling, when you’re with us.”

Oh, sure, absolutely, he thought to himself sarcastically. Aloud, he said, “Thanks. I remember, too, we said it would take a while to build trust – overcome the years when there wasn’t any.” There, placate the mar- his hosts.

“Yeah, for good reason,” Peter just had to add.

But now Neal had his mask firmly back in place. “Right, right. But I still didn’t short the register,” he said to their relieved laughs.

Chapter Text

Peter declined the use of Neal’s lock-picking skills and opened the warehouse door himself. “You search that side,” he said, pointing. “I’ll look over this way.”

Neal nodded and moved quickly to his half. He’d expected Peter to suggest splitting up, which was why he’d told Alex to meet him here. They had unfinished business – among other things, he needed to return a key to her. Cat-like, Alex appeared before him. “Do you have it?” she asked impatiently.

“Hello to you too,” said Neal, grinning. His hands slipped into his pockets but his grin faded into a frown as he couldn’t find the key, no matter how often he looked through each of his pockets, even the hidden ones.

Alex held her hand out. “Stop with the games, Neal. It was my key originally, remember? You wouldn’t have any of this if it weren’t for me.”

“I know, I know!” said Neal. “I’m trying to find it.” There was his lock pick set, his wallet, his other wallet, his phone, his burner phone, his house key, the Gansevoort key, but Alex’s cherub key was missing. He looked up from the collection of items in his hands. Alex had left and in her place stood Sara.

She looked at him impatiently and said, “I don't need the treasure; I just need you.”

Neal looked again, because Sara never said anything sentimental like that, and saw that she wasn’t Sara after all, she was Kate. Behind her he saw the airplane, sitting in the middle of a hangar-like space in the warehouse.

“Kate!” cried Neal. “Don't get on the plane!”

“I have to,” she answered, turning away to climb the airplane steps. “Otherwise Adler will kill me.”

“No, he can't, he's already dead!” he called out to her.

Kate sighed. “Then it will be Keller.”

“No.” Neal shook his head. “No, I won't let him.”

“How will you stop him?” she asked, arms crossed in front of her chest. “He's already killing Peter.” She gestured with her chin behind him, and he turned to look. From where he was standing on top of the warehouse shelves, he looked down through a sturdy wall of glass. Peter was lying curled up in a large icebox. He wasn’t dead yet, but water was flooding the floor of the warehouse, and when it covered the icebox it would freeze and Peter would die. Neal pounded on the glass pane but he couldn't get through.

He turned back to Kate to ask her for help, but she was already in the door of the plane. “No! Don't!” he screamed.

Kate looked over her shoulder sadly. “You can't just say, 'Hey, help me out here.' You con people. If my death means anything to you, stop lying to your friends.” She stepped inside and the plane exploded.

It knocked him down and he picked himself up. An exit door was nearby. He had to leave, the warehouse would explode next. He ran out the door and then around to the other side of the burning warehouse, looking for Peter. He found him finally, on the other side of a barred gate. Neal was in the prison side of the warehouse, and Peter was outside of it. “You chose the wrong side, Neal,” Peter said.

 

Neal awoke with a start, feeling like hell. He was used to the explosion dreams, dreams of watching Kate die, about being stuck in prison, and the ones where he was trying to find or rescue Peter; but having them all thrown together like that, with the damned music box – the treasure – as the thread linking all of them was too much.

It was as if his subconscious was trying to tell him something, he thought ironically. Maybe something about this tightrope he'd been walking, the one with no net, that he was about to fall off any second when the frayed ends he'd been holding together with lies and smiles gave in.

But he had chosen a side, hadn't he? He was going to stay in New York. He'd never wanted to leave. The island might be calling to Mozzie, but all Neal had wanted was the treasure. He'd felt he'd deserved it, after everything he'd been through. All the work he'd put into it: getting the box, deciphering the code, risking his life to open the sub. He'd thought he deserved it for Kate, if nothing else.

He recognized now that such reasoning made no sense. He didn't deserve anything, least of all a priceless collection of art looted by Nazis. It was certainly not what Kate would have wanted (well, maybe she would have. He would have wanted to give it to her. He would have wanted to share the island life with her .) But Neal loved New York, and Sara loved her work in New York, and they could have – they did have – a life together here.

So Neal had picked a side, hadn't he? He had. Yes.

 

All he needed to do now was tell Moz.

 

~*~o~*~oOo~*~o~*~

 

Neal entered his apartment, taking a moment to appreciate all the lovely – and very expensive – items that he and Sara had bought on a ninety-million dollar shopping spree yesterday. It would all have to go back tomorrow, once they’d taken down the original thief, so he’d enjoy it while he could.

Unfortunately, Mozzie’s mouse-like form, darting here and there collecting various items usually kept tucked safely away, was proving to be a major distraction.

Neal usually didn’t ask too many questions of his friend – if Moz wanted him to know, he’d tell him – but the thoroughness of Mozzie’s collection was beginning to worry him. He leaned against the doorway, affecting a casual pose. “Moz. Planning on going somewhere?”

Mozzie didn’t pause. “While your Suitmate lives here? I might be.”

“What about Sally? You just gonna leave her hanging?”

Mozzie spared him a brief glare. “For your information, not that I need to tell you anything, I’m bringing some stuff over to her place to help protect her while Brauer’s still on the loose.”

Oops. Neal winced. “Oh. Sorry, Moz. For what it’s worth, Peter has set up a sting. One that moves the target from Sally to me.”

“All is forgiven.” Mozzie beamed and gestured expansively, then returned to his packing.

Neal wandered over to the table. “Hey, Moz, by the way,” he drawled, “did you happen to go looking through Sara’s things, by any chance?”

“Ugh. Am I her boyfriend? I don’t need to know what size bra she wears or her preferred brand of stockings.”

“So not even, say, her Sterling-Bosch case files?”

That got Mozzie’s attention. “Ohhh, those.”

“Yeah, those.”

Mozzie gesticulated wildly. “You know, you’re always coming to me wanting to know about this thing or that happening on the street – how do you think I keep up my knowledge? Your FBI masters are plenty happy when I can provide useful information –”

“Relax, Moz, I don’t mind.”

“Well, good. Because it’d be pretty hypocriti–”

“You saved me the trouble.” They shared a chuckle.

“If she didn’t want us to go through those files, she should never have brought them into the habitat of known sneaks,” Mozzie pontificated.

“Speaking of, what did you find?”

“Ha! If she asked me, I could solve about half those cases.”

“Only half? Moz…” Neal affected a disappointed mien.

“Off the top of my head,” Mozzie defended. “The others I’d have to make inquiries about.”

“Well, no need to worry about that. What’s the half you do know?”

Mozzie started listing, then stopped when he saw what Neal was doing. “For Mnemosyne’s sake, don’t write this down! What are you thinking!?”

“Relax, Moz – my phone’s protected, and I’ll delete this note in a minute. Not all of us have as thoroughly quick and reliable memories as you.”

“It’s like I’ve taught you nothing,” muttered Mozzie, but continued relating what he’d learned from Sara’s files.

 

~*~o~*~

 

Having taken the previous day off to indulge in a bit of vengeful shopping, today Sara was working her regular job. Mozzie left for Sally’s place, leaving Neal with the loft to himself. Taking out his phone, he compared the cases from Sara’s files to the research he’d done on the proper owners of the rescued U-boat treasure.

When he found an overlap his eyes lit up and his smile grew wide.

 

~*~o~*~

 

The challenging part, of course, would be telling Mozzie.

“WHAT?! You refuse to sell a painting until we have the manifest but you’re willing to GIVE THEM AWAY?!”

‘Challenging’ might have been understating the case. Neal held the phone away from his ear until Mozzie finished his angry ranting.

“Hear me out, Moz. There are so many Degas dancers that even if a few are listed on the manifest they won’t necessarily point to a couple minor ones that might turn up now.”

“So why can’t we sell the masked dancers?”

“Because that particular painting is famous and distinctive. The two I’m talking about are much like a hundred others that he drew. They wouldn’t bring in even half a million on the black market, let alone the six you’re hoping to get.”

“If they’re so common and nondescript, how can you be sure they even belong to this family?”

“Well…”

“See?! You’re not even returning them to the deserving!”

“Will you listen to yourself? Since when are we the deserving?”

“Since we outwitted Adler.”

“So you need to keep billions to yourself. You can’t even spare a couple of pastels for a family that lost their grandparents to the Holocaust. That have donated much of their wealth to art museums and Holocaust memorials –”

“All right, all right!” Mozzie threw up his hands in a disgusted surrender. Neal could tell from the way Moz’s still-angry voice grew fainter. “If it’s that important to you –”

“It is.”

“Fine. We’ll officially join the Robin Hoodie Cabal of Philanthropy.”

“Do not ever say that again.”

“It was your idea,” said Mozzie, sullen.

Chapter Text

Neal sat at the table, strumming his (temporarily his) Les Paul, surrounded by all the tokens of the high life he enjoyed so much. He looked across to Sara, even more lovely than anything else in the room. “What if I told you that we could keep living like this?”

Wrapped in her (temporarily her) faux-fur coat, she laughed. “What – rich beyond measure, unaccountable to anyone or anything, not a care in the world?”

He grinned, a gleam in his eyes. “Is that a yes?”

She quelled his excitement. “No, it's a daydream.”

“Well, maybe daydreams can come true,” he offered, still hopeful.

“But we didn't earn it, Neal. People like me don't get gold-plated guitars.”

“Why not?” he asked.

Sara sputtered, confused. “What do you mean, why not? Because... I – I don't make that kind of money. And even if I did, I wouldn't spend it on a gold-plated guitar!”

Oh, this he could work with. “What would you spend it on?” he asked as he leaned back and sipped his wine.

“I – Look, that's not the point! The point is –”

“The point is,” he pressed, “why shouldn't you have the things you want? You work hard, Sara. You're good at what you do – really good.”

“Yes, I am. I know. And I earn damned good money at it. It's not everyone who can afford a townhouse in New York.”

“So you do get the things you want.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I do.”

All right. Fair enough. Who needs reproduction statues and fake furs? Authenticity is better. But part of her argument still confused him. It was much like something Peter had said once, when Neal first moved into June’s. That had confused him too. This notion of... “So who are these 'people like you' who don't?”

She sighed. Evidently, he reflected, this was one of those things that he would just never ‘get’. “Honest people,” she said. “Hard-working –”

Hard-working! Weren’t those exactly the sort of people who should get what they want? “But you just said –”

She interrupted his interruption. “You're not listening, Neal. We get the things we really want. We don't indulge in toys – not expensive ones. Not these trivial – ostentatious things. Silly, really. Does a gold-plated guitar actually sound any better than a wooden one?”

That… was a good question. Why did he want a gold-plated guitar? “Well, it's not just about the sound –”

“No, it's about the showing off. Having things just to impress everyone else with how much you have. The people like that…”

The people like me, then. “What? What about them?”

“Neal, they rarely earn their money honestly. They're all about climbing to the top by stepping over everyone else. They do whatever it takes, including cheating – stealing, fraud – because that's all they want. More money to show off that they have more money.” She paused, sipped her wine, obviously considering how to get through to him. “The people like the ones Peter takes down.”

Right. “People like me.”

“Well, Neal, is that what you really want? A gold-plated guitar? Is that what makes you happy?”

In other words, did he need to show off – well, no. It wasn’t about other people, it was about Neal himself having the things he liked. Was he showing off to himself? Proving something to himself? Did he just like the bling? What was it about?

“Here’s my daydream,” he said after a considering moment. “In it, I'm free. I can go wherever I want, do whatever I want. I'm with my friends, or I can go visit them anytime I like, wherever they are.”

Sara smiled. “That's a lovely dream.”

“Do you think it can come true?” He honestly wanted to know.

“The free part – it will happen, if you can stick out the anklet a few years.”

“But even then, living the life I want – no, I don't need gold-plated guitars, but I do like good wine, good food, quality, tailored clothing –”

“Good shoes!” Sara added with a laugh.

Neal chuckled with her. “Yeah. And travel's not cheap. You make good money, but don't you feel – stuck, in New York? Tied down?”

“No, I don't know. I do travel a lot –”

“For work.”

She smirked wryly. “Yeah. Even when I go to a Caribbean island it's not just to enjoy the beaches. But then I like to come home, be home. New York is endlessly fascinating. I love it here.”

He could understand that. “Yeah, so do I.”

“Neal, I get it, the anklet chafes. In more ways than one. But it's not forever. And you have so many amazing talents. You could make your dream come true, if you put your mind to it,” she said earnestly.

“Legally? Honestly? The way 'people like you' do it?” He was doubtful.

“If you want it, if you try, yeah, Neal, you could. Look, you can make anyone believe in anything – didn't you once sell a guy a Lamborghini in less than five minutes?”

He smiled at the memory. “He'd sold himself on it months ago. I just closed the deal.”

“But that's it – no one else saw him as an opportunity, but you did. You see opportunities, Neal. And where you don't see them right away, you find them. You can look for those opportunities in legal ways.” Sara sounded persuasive, but…

“I don't know. Even when I sold that Gallardo, I was running a con at the time.” Not the kind of con that hurt anyone, but still. That was how he worked. How he thought, even.

She dismissed that argument. “What do you think sales is? What do you think insurance is, for that matter?” They laughed together. “Even artists, Neal. It's about getting people to see what you do, see things your way, convince them of your vision. Ugh, and the gallery owners, art dealers…”

“Oh, I know, I know!” he agreed, shaking his head in mock dismay. “So, I could be an international, jet-setting, art and wine dealer –”

“There you go!” She gestured triumphantly with her own wine glass.

“Without the FBI or Interpol or – or you chasing me, hmm?”

“Well. That depends,” she said, a bit coy.

Oh? “On?”

“Whether or not you've returned the Raphael.” She grinned and sipped her wine.

Damn. Not the answer he was looking for. “I don't have it,” he said, somberly, honestly.

“What?”

“The Raphael. I don't have it.”

“Neal, come on…” she said, exasperated.

“No, I seriously don't have it.”

“Yeah, not in this apartment. But you know where it is.” There it was. Her ‘I see right through you’ tone. The one that had that unfortunate side effect of really turning him on.

“I… yes. I do.” This was the trouble with these sincere conversations, dammit. Stuff you never meant to say just slipped right out. Or maybe it was a con, one he pulled on himself. Wouldn’t Mozzie say something like that?

Sara had drawn in a startled breath at Neal’s sudden and unexpected honesty, at finally getting the truth out of him. She’d paused a moment to gather herself, and now said, “Neal, I'm not gonna make you go fetch it this instant.”

“Well, good, because I can't. It's out of my radius. But if I could get it returned to you…” He couldn’t believe he’d just made that offer. As he had evidently started down this road, though, he might as well stay on it, so he didn’t attempt to retract his words or deflect or joke. Project confidence, always. Never admit a slip or mistake.

Sara wasn’t used to serious, honest heart-to-hearts with Neal either. Relaxed, smiling, she said simply, “Then my recovery fee would keep me in Colette heels and Nadezha faux-furs for a long time.”

 

~*~o~*~oOo~*~o~*~

 

It was the third morning in a row Neal had woken up to Sara in his bed, and it hadn’t begun to feel old yet. Though apparently Sara was half-seriously contemplating digging out some old leg warmers to wear to bed. “Anything to protect me from that anklet of yours.”

“I’m sorry,” he apologized, with his best puppy-dog eyes. In case that didn’t work, he slid over to kiss her - a distraction technique that could work out well for both of them.

Unfortunately she pushed him back after a brief time. She gave him a considering look. “Or maybe we could chain the anklet to the bed post on your side –”

“No,” he said flatly, lying back and shuddering. Now he wasn’t in the mood. “Sorry, Sara. Peter jokes about that too much as it is.”

“Oh, sorry.” She looked at him with her head on her folded arms. “You’ll have to think of another way to make it up to me for these bruises.”

He looked back, smiling. “I can probably do that,” he said, moving towards her again.

She slid away and stood up from the bed. “Another time. Right now I’ve got work.”

“Ugh, don’t remind me.” He rolled back over and threw his arm up over his eyes.

“That bad?” She asked sympathetically.

He shrugged and removed his arm. “Shouldn’t be. We’re supposed to take down Brauer today.”

“I hope so!”

He rolled onto his side and watched her as she got ready for work. “How’s your day looking?”

“Looks promising. I got a tip yesterday, now I just need to figure out how to –” She interrupted herself and looked at Neal, who smiled engagingly back. “I expect you can tell me how to pick a Zeiss lock. I’ve never seen this brand before.”

“Sure. They’re more common in Europe. It’s not hard, but it helps to have a special kind of jiggler. Here, let me get mine.” He went over to his dresser and pulled it out from his lock-pick set.

Sara reached to take it from him, but he held it away. “Uh-uh-uh,” he said playfully. “What’s behind the lock?”

She drew her hand back. “You know I can’t…”

“C’mon,” he pleaded. She shook her head. “Hey, how about if it works, you owe me lunch.”

She laughed and agreed. “Lunch I can do.”

He handed over the jiggler. “You know, normal couples don’t make lunch dates based on successful heists –”

“– recoveries –” Sara corrected.

“– recoveries. My point stands,” he said. “Repo.”

“Conman.” She smiled wide. “I’m dating Neal Caffrey. Why would I be looking for normal?”

He joined in her chuckle. “Point to you.” He kissed her and she returned his ardor for several long minutes before finally breaking off.

“Sorry, gotta go. Got a hot date with a Zeiss,” she said softly.

“And then one with me,” he said confidently. She smiled and waved goodbye as she left.

 

~*~o~*~

 

When Neal saw Sara’s name on his phone, he answered the call, saying immediately, “So, where are we eating?”

Her gurgling laugh came over the line. “How do you know I’m calling to say it worked?”

“I have confidence in you.”

“Flatterer.”

“Repo. Can I see it?”

“See what?” She could make a good con artist; her confusion sounded real.

“Well, you couldn’t tell me what was behind the Zeiss, but it’s not behind anything now.”

“So, um, I could show you… something, while we’re having lunch,” Sara reasoned slowly.

“Exactly! No need to say where it came from or where it’s going.”

“I have to wait for the authenticator anyway,” she said. “Tell you what: it’s a deal if you make me lunch.”

“Wait wait wait – who helped who out? And now I owe you lunch? That wasn’t the deal!”

“You want to see it or not? I’m not leaving it lying around in a restaurant for an hour.”

“Lunch at my place it is,” he answered promptly. “Asian chicken salad or shrimp stir-fry?”

 

~*~o~*~

 

At Neal's apartment, Sara offered him the jiggler. “Worked like a charm. I’ll have to get one to add to my set.”

“Keep it,” he said, grinning. “I’m sure I’ve got an extra.”

“Thanks,” she said, kissing him as she maneuvered past him.

Still putting the finishing touches on lunch, he gestured to the awkward portfolio case she carried. “Need help with that?”

“No, I’ve got it,” she said, looking over her shoulder coyly. She set it down against the wall underneath the one-way mirror. “I’m going to go –” she gestured to the hallway that led to the bathroom “– freshen up. If you decide to peek, be sure to close it back up the way it is.”

Neal looked at her, hurt. “Would I be likely to leave any traces?”

She gave her gurgling laugh. “Lunch smells great!” she called as she left.

He got to work quickly in opening the case, but then paused to admire the Renoir inside. From behind the wall panel he carefully removed the Degas dancers, already protected by yellowing glassine paper that Mozzie had dug up from some store of his. Deftly he slid it behind the backing of the recovered painting.

When Sara returned, he had their meal set out on the table, but the case was still open, the painting now displayed in front of the mirror. “I thought we could admire it during lunch,” he said. “Unless you’d rather I put it away now?”

“No,” she answered, smiling up at the Renoir. “Let’s leave it up. It’s lovely.”

“It certainly is,” agreed Neal, but he was looking at Sara.

 

~*~o~*~

 

After lunch Sara left to meet the authenticator. Neal slipped out a small portfolio case from behind the wall panel. He had his own errand to run.

 

~*~o~*~

 

Later that afternoon, he was on his way to the Flatiron Plaza. Moz had called him earlier, arranging to meet there. He wanted a place where they could talk without being overheard by ‘the Suitmate’. Or the probies collecting the remnants of their shopping adventure.

Thinking of Sara, Neal pulled out his phone to call her with the good news. The charges against Brauer were going to stick, and Sara’s money (and everyone else’s) should be returned to their accounts soon.

“We got Brauer,” he said when she answered.

“I heard,” she replied. “When will you be home?”

Neal smiled. “Are we a ‘when will you be home’ couple?” That could be… nice. Maybe.

“I… I'm asking because when you said that we could keep living like this, what did you mean, Neal?”

Oh, these were more dangerous waters. Probably came with the ‘when will you be home’ territory. He paused before answering. “It's just like you said – I was...daydreaming.”

“Really? That's all?” She sounded skeptical.

“Come on. Smile. You're gonna get your money back,” he offered reassuringly. “We'll celebrate tonight – we can talk more then.”

 

~*~o~*~

 

When he saw Sara at the loft that evening, she didn’t look as happy as he thought a successful recovery agent with a restored bank account should.

“Everything all right?” he inquired, solicitous, sitting down near her.

“Hmm, in a way,” she answered, frowning at him in a way he didn’t like.

He gave a concerned look back, and when her expression didn’t change, he tried grinning. “‘In a way’ is good, right?”

She kept frowning. She can be entirely too much like Peter, thought Neal. Sometimes that was good – Neal had a serious competency kink, among other things – but that he couldn’t con her any more than he could Peter was no good at all. He dropped the grin and put concerned back on. “You wanna tell me about it?”

“I think I might have shared too much. Already.”

His expression slipped altogether in favor of honest worry. “Was it not authentic? I swear it looked the real thing to me –”

“Oh, it’s authentic all right. The problem is, so was the Degas hidden behind it.”

“What?” The stab of anxiety that had struck Neal briefly made his shock more realistic. “Wait, you’re saying there was a Degas hidden with the Renoir?”

She nodded. “You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that, would you?”

“No,” he said. “No! I – I’m not used to being accused of giving away artwork…”

“So this wouldn’t be anything like the time you had the FAA send me a cockpit recording.”

“No! Sara, I – I wouldn’t involve you in a theft.” She looked skeptical at that, so Neal continued, “I don’t even understand how this could be a scam or a theft – not on my part, at least. Maybe the thieves you recovered the Renoir from hid the Degas there too?”

“Neal. I’ve never had a recovery that inadvertently recovered a second item, something we weren’t even looking for. Never. Then the one time I leave something near you –”

“You didn’t leave it here! You were with it the whole time. You took it with you!”

“Oh, Neal, don’t even start.” She walked out to the terrace.

“Start what? What did I even –?!” he called after her. He paused, then decided to give her some time. He bent forward, elbows on knees, and ran his hands through his hair. He was so screwed. Whatever he did, it wouldn’t matter. It would never be good enough.

No, stop, these thoughts weren't helping.

He got up and poured two glasses of sherry and took them out onto the terrace. He handed one to Sara, who took it without looking at him. “I, um, I’m not sure what went wrong here –” he began.

She sighed.

“But can we start over? Is there a way we can enjoy this evening?” He took a sip of his wine. It was pretty good.

“You can tell me the truth,” Sara said frankly.

“About what?”

“About how the Degas got behind the Renoir,” she said impatiently.

“I don’t know!” He ran his hand through his hair again, careful not to spill the sherry he was holding in his other. No need to waste a good amontillado. “I don’t know why you’re mad at me – what you’re accusing me of!”

Sara looked at him, mouth twisted. She took a sip of the wine and said, “I’m not mad at you.” She walked back into the loft.

He trailed after her. “You’re not? You’re not. That’s… good. I’m glad you’re not angry,” he said cautiously.

She stood next to the kitchen table, gazing around at the now empty-looking loft. “After all, what we’d done wasn’t a theft,” she said, waving her glass in a wide arc, the absence of the pricey goods somehow more noticeable than their presence had been.

“No, not at all. We always planned to return all of it,” said Neal, relaxing, “in the same condition as when we bought it.”

“Peter didn’t like it, but I went right along with it.”

“We were trying to get your money back. And we did,” he said earnestly.

“So if a Degas gets returned to its rightful owners even though they didn’t know it was stolen, then it hardly matters the details of the how, right?”

“Right,” he agreed. “So you were able to identify the lawful owners of the Degas? But wait, you just said it wasn’t stolen? I don’t –”

Sara sighed again. “You do, Neal, and I wish you’d just own up to that, but if you really need me to spell it out for this charade, I will.”

“No, you don’t need to,” he said. “If you think you already involved me too much, you don’t have to say anything more.”

She looked at him skeptically. “You don’t want to know that your scheme worked? That I’m the only one with concerns, that everyone else is perfectly happy?”

“If the topic is upsetting you, I’d rather we just dropped it,” said Neal. If you can’t run, change the subject. “I picked up fresh fish for dinner, and I thought we could throw together a salad to go with it.” He set his glass down on the counter and started removing ingredients from the fridge.

She followed him and leaned against the counter, arms crossed. “The owners were ecstatic. Evidently they thought the Degas lost when their family fled Europe at the start of World War Two. Their grandparents were able to send some art with their children – the current owners’ parents – including the Renoir, but they thought the Degas and several other works were lost. The family listed them on various lost and looted art registries, but never expected them to turn up.”

Neal turned to look at her, frowning slightly. “Because it was never lost, right? The grandparents put it behind the Renoir – made it easier to transport. They should check behind their other paintings.”

“That’s… a good idea, actually,” Sara conceded. “But Neal, Sterling Bosch authenticates paintings when they’re insured in the first place. Why wasn’t the hidden Degas found then?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe some authenticators are more thorough than others? If there’s no reason to be particularly suspicious, removing a painting from its frame can potentially cause unnecessary damage.”

“Maybe.” She frowned down at her glass.

“Sara, c’mon,” he pleaded. “We’re supposed to be celebrating. By tomorrow your bank account should be flush again.”

She smiled a little. “With an addition – the recovery fee for the Renoir.”

“Yes! Plenty to celebrate. And Mozzie is busy with his own new… interest” – that got a gurgling laugh from Sara, having heard about Sally, the pretty, petite young hacker, and her crush on Moz – “so we’ll have an undisturbed evening in.” Neal’s voice grew lower and softer as he wrapped his arms around her and kissed her. She kissed him back, gently at first, then more enthusiastically.

 

~*~o~*~

 

After dinner, Neal brought out Champagne and a collection of small pastries.

“Oh my god, Neal!” Sara exclaimed. “Sherry, wine with dinner, and now Champagne and pastries! How am I supposed to eat all this?”

“It’s a celebration!” he said. “What’s a celebration without great food and drink?”

“How did you even have time to do all this?” She carefully selected a little phyllo cup filled with cappuccino cream and bit into it. Swiping her tongue over her lip, she gushed, “Oh wow, delicious!”

He grinned. “It helps to own a bakery.”

She started at him. “You own – that’s right, I thought I heard something about a bakery and an escape. So it’s a real bakery?” She picked up a tiny lemon tartlet, baked in the thin shell of a tuile cookie.

Neal was biting into a small triangle of baklava. “Yes. Very real, very delicious.” He thought for a minute. “May have been the best investment I ever made.”

“Probably the best legal one!” Sara laughed.

Neal smiled as he ate a chocolate French macaron.

 

~*~o~*~

 

A little bit later, and they were both more than a little bit tipsy. Neal was trying to move along to the bedroom portion of the night’s celebration, but Sara was pushing him back. “Wait, wait. We still – there’s still something we have to talk about.”

He frowned. He hoped they weren’t going back to the Degas issue. “We do? Now?”

“Yes, we do and yes, now.” Sara sounded way more sober than such a thin woman should after several glasses of wine. “You said, over the phone. About daydreams, and that we’d – you’d tell me something.”

“I said that?” His frown deepened. He didn’t remember the conversation like that.

“Yes,” she said firmly. She’d definitely picked up too many tricks from him. Or from somewhere. “Talk.”

“Is this an interrogation or a conversation?” he teased. And deflected, sure, but mostly teased.

Sara gurgled a laugh. “Neal! Neal… never stop being you.”

“I hope not,” he said, but he was more than a little confused. And probably more tipsy than Sara, which was not a good sign. Deflection, obfuscation, misdirection… where were his skills?

“Daydreams,” she said. “Living the high life forever. How?”

He sighed, then took a deep breath. He needed to sober up and fast. “I can trust you?”

Now it was her turn to frown. “Yes. Of course.”

“The thing is, you were pretty mad earlier, and I hadn’t even –”

She kissed him. “Neal,” she said softly, intimately, foreheads together, lips an inch away. “It’s just us. Tell me.”

It was like being mesmerized. He wondered vaguely if his own marks ever felt like this. It felt pretty damn good, honestly. “It’s more of a show and tell,” he said. Taking Sara’s arm to bring her with him, he got out his laptop and set it on the table.

Her jaw dropped – literally, she was gaping – when Neal opened up the treasure-cam. “What?! Where is this? How did you –!?”

“We don't know where,” he replied. “Mozzie's got a… friend, a contact, who found the IP address, but we haven't been able to track it back to its originating location.” Ooh, nice to know he could still bald-faced lie. Of course, when he was cornered was when his skills came out the most.

“This is the treasure from the sub, isn't it? It has to be. Neal, you have to tell Peter! Why haven't you?”

He grimaced and took a deep breath.

“Because he already suspects you, is that it?” Good. He loved it when people answered their own questions. “You have to know he'd forgive you if you brought him this. Even if he still thinks you took it. If you bring this to the FBI, and they can't prove anything, and you're a CI already –”

“Yeah, Sara, that's part of it, but you need to understand. This came from a friend of Mozzie's. It's not my secret. And the last thing I want to do is ruin my friendship with Moz. Or destroy what reputation I have left on the street. Not only would I be useless to Peter and the FBI, there'd be a huge target on my back, if I lost someone a stash like this.” Would Mozzie actually turn on him for a betrayal like this? It was possible. He’d withdraw his support, which might amount to the same thing. There. He wasn’t even actually lying. Much.

“And you think there wouldn't be if you just stole it? That’s what you meant, about living the dream forever, right? You’d have to take this for yourself.”

“We're not planning to steal it. Whoever's got this, wherever it is, it hasn't shifted. It’s hardly been touched. They're having trouble moving it.” All true statements.

“Which is where you come in,” said Sara.

“Me and Moz, and his friends, contacts, yeah. Or…”

“Or?”

“Or maybe whoever is watching this isn't watching too closely.”

“You think you could what, steal bits of it?”

“Maybe. Maybe leave something in return.” He smiled. Huh, wonder if he could – nah, it’d be too much work, trying to make believably forged copies of everything. Or even enough of everything. Still…

“Oh my god, Neal.” She was shaking her head but smiling. “You are irrepressible.”

“Aw, Sara. You say the sweetest things.” He batted his eyelashes bashfully, making her laugh. Good, relaxed. Much better than the earlier tense, worried state. “Look, I know this is a lot to take in. I don't blame you if you want nothing to do with it. Moz and I, we're not sure how we're going to proceed either. If you decide to go to Peter, just – give us a heads up, all right? So we can –”

She pulled back. “Thank you, Caffrey. Nice of you to call me a snitch – you say such sweet things too!”

“Your first thought was to tell Peter! Now do you understand why I haven't?”

She breathed out a heavy sigh. “Yeah, Neal, I get it.”

“The grey area can be fun to work in –” he started.

“– but tricky to navigate, mmm,” she completed.

“In the meantime,” he closed the laptop, and brought his head closer to hers, “care to do a little navigating in the dark?”

“Oh, where we have to find our way by touch?” She smiled, reciprocating his interest. Her hands came up to caress his cheeks gently; her lips sought out his.

“Mmm, yeah and, hmm, scent – that's a good one,” he nosed along her neck, “– and taste,” he added, kissing her. “Definitely taste,” he said, speaking against her lips.

Those were the last coherent words spoken during their celebration.

 

~*~o~*~oOo~*~o~*~

 

When Sara arrived home the next evening, it was obvious she was ruminating on something, and she kept darting odd looks at Neal when she thought he wasn’t watching.

He finally gave in. “What?”

“What what?” she asked.

He gave her the ‘don’t give me that’ look. “You’re stewing about something. What is it?”

She drew in a breath. “I made the suggestion you mentioned. About looking behind their other paintings.”

“Oh? They find anything?”

“Yeah, actually.” A pause. “They found a number of things.”

At that he did a double-take. His eyes grew wide. “Seriously? A number of things? I don’t suppose you could give me the number? Or tell me any of the things?” He grinned prettily.

Sara laughed. “I don’t even have the complete list.”

“C’mon, they must have told you some details. Did they find a da Vinci drawing? Please tell me they found a da Vinci drawing!”

“No! Why are you so anxious for a da Vinci?”

“I love his drawings. It’d be an historical event, to find a lost one. To be that close to history…”

“They found a second Degas.”

“Yeah? More dancers, or something else?”

“Did he do anything else?”

He gave her a Look. “Fine. You don’t have to tell me.”

Sara chuckled. “Yes, another set of dancers.”

“And?”

“And?” she teased, but at Neal’s sulky pout she gave in. “The others were seventeenth or eighteenth century French artists, I think. I didn’t get the details either.”

He shook his head in amazement, a helpless smile on his face. “That’s fantastic!”

“You’re telling me! Now the family will have to pay extra in insurance – Bosch is so pleased with me!”

Neal let his incredulity show. “An artistic find of this size and you think only of the money –” he cut himself off at the sound of Sara’s gurgling giggle.

“Got you!” she said.

He smiled again, indulgently. “Yeah. Yeah you did.”

 

~*~o~*~

 

“Seriously?” asked Mozzie, over a glass of Bordeaux. His eyes were nearly bugging out. “You mean the family did – seriously?! So how did they lose their Degas?”

Neal shrugged. “If the latest drawing was eighteenth century and it was behind an equally old painting, it might have been a habit the family had generations back but forgot about. The Degas might never have been hidden, or they might have been behind paintings that the family hadn’t been able to send with their children. They still have paintings listed on the Loss Registry.”

“But none that we have.”

“None in the warehouse, no.”

“So no more donations to causes more worthy than us, right?”

“Don’t have any more such plans, nope.” Neal grinned and raised his glass in toast to Mozzie’s.

Chapter Text

“Hi honey, I’m home!” Sara called out cheerfully as she entered the apartment.

Instead of answering Neal walked over to her, took her in his arms, and kissed her thoroughly.

Sara was happy to reciprocate. “Mmm, not that I object to an enthusiastic welcome,” she said as they stopped for breath, “but what brought this on?”

Neal released her so she could put her things away. “I can’t just miss you? Kissing isn’t its own reward?”

“Aha, Caffrey. If we’re going to give this a go, you should learn to answer questions, instead of deflecting,” she said as she bent over to remove her heels.

He grimaced. Leaning casually against the table, hands thrust in pockets, he said, “Uh, someone broke into Jones’ apartment and attacked him.”

“Oh my god! Is he all right?”

“Yeah, just some bruises.”

“But you should see the other guy, right?” she guessed, probably thinking about Jones’ training and physique.

“Yeah. He’s got a hole in his shoulder now.”

Sara’s eyes widened. “Oh my – did you guys catch him?”

He shook his head. “But we will,” he said reassuringly.

“Of course,” she responded faintly. “Hey, are you concerned this guy might come here? Is that why the greeting?”

“Oh no, not at all. More just being glad that I can feel safe here – and my friends too.”

“Yeah, no kidding.” She gave him a wry look. “I remember when a man armed with a gun broke into my bedroom in the middle of the night…”

“Hey!” he protested. “You might not believe me, but I was as traumatized as you by that incident!”

“Uh-huh.”

“Really! You should’ve heard me begging Peter to intervene. I didn’t want to shoot anyone!”

“Not even me?”

“Not even – ahahaha, okay you got me again.”

“Yeah, I did.” She leaned forward, hands on his chest, and kissed him again. “I know you don’t want to hurt anyone, even your enemies; it’s one of the things I like about you.”

He hummed agreement, placing his hands on her hips, and kissing her in return. “I never thought of you as an enemy.”

“No?” she asked, pushing a lock of her hair back into place.

“Nope. You just didn’t know me well enough yet, that’s all.”

She huffed a laugh. “Caffrey, your ego…”

“One of the many things you love about me, right?” he said, smiling winsomely.

“Uh-huh.” She kissed him briefly. “More like I know I can intimidate you more than you can scare me, gun or no gun.”

“Hey!” he said, then thought about it. “Wait, you’re right.” He walked over to the counter. “Sherry?” he offered.

“Yes, please!”

With sherry in their hands, standing side-by-side at the terrace balustrade, gazing out over evening-lit Manhattan, Neal gathered his courage. “I said a few days ago that I might be able to recover the Raphael for you.”

She turned to him, surprised. “That’s right. You meant it?”

“Of course!” he said, hurt. A little. “There’s some… complications.”

She sighed and turned back to the view. “Of course.”

“Not like that,” he said. “I just need your help.”

She looked back at him, surprised again. “Of course I’ll help.” Then she got suspicious. “This isn’t another scam–”

“No, no. Look, let me explain.” He brought her back inside, where they sat down at the table. “The Raphael is in the apartment of a woman who had nothing to do with the theft.”

“Okay…”

“She probably doesn’t even know what it is.”

“Oohkaayy…”

“The most important part is her name needs to be kept out of any reports – written or oral.”

“Neal, all I need is the painting.”

“I know, that’s why I’m hoping you’ll help. I can’t just go there myself, because it’s outside my radius.”

“So send me. I already know it’s on Roosevelt Island.”

Neal did a double-take, eyes wide. “You knew that?”

“Ha!” Sara pumped her hand in the air. “I knew it! I was so close!”

Neal smiled. “Ah, yes, you were. But,” he continued, “I can’t just send you there; the woman doesn’t know you, and breaking into her place would be even worse.”

“Can’t you just, I don’t know, call her?”

He shook his head. “No, I don’t have her number. It’s unlisted, and trying to get it would cause all the problems for her that I’m trying to avoid.”

She frowned, shaking her head. “I don’t understand.”

He looked straight into her beautiful green eyes. “Sara. Will you trust me?”

 

~*~o~*~

 

“Sara! Hello,” greeted Peter with a smile, as she entered his office.

“Hi,” she said, “Um, can I – do you have a minute?”

“For you? Sure. How can I help?”

“It’s not work-related. Well, not for me,” she added, twisting her hands. “I’m hoping you’d be willing to give Neal an extension on his radius for an evening.”

“You need his help? No, you said it’s not work-related.” He leaned back in his chair with a questioning look.

 

~o~

 

Neal stood up as Peter escorted Sara past him to the elevators.

“Thanks, Peter,” she said. She sent a coy smile and wave to Neal over her shoulder. He smiled and nodded back.

As Sara left, Peter came back to stand in front of him. “So, this is serious,” he said with a smirk.

“Mm-hmm.”

“Meet the family time. That’s… serious.”

“Yes, serious, right.”

“You’ve moved in together –”

“That’s temporary –”

“And now you’re meeting the family. Pretty serious–”

“–Serious,” Neal said with him. “Yes, we’ve established that. I know it’s just her cousin, but Sara doesn’t have much family left… ”

“Yeah, she mentioned that her parents have passed, no siblings…”

“Right, so this dinner is kind of important to her.”

“Uh-huh.”

 

~o~

 

Back in his office, Peter had agreed to her request. “Well, sure, I think I can authorize this. Sara, I trust that you won’t let Neal talk you into anything I wouldn’t approve of during this visit?”

She gave him a wry look. “We’re having dinner with family. The standard’s going to be pretty high on behavior.”

 

~o~

 

“So,” Peter reminded him, “During the time outside your radius, you are going to be absolutely law-abiding –”

“Peter! I’m hurt –”

“Ah-ah-ah! No side trips, no ulterior motives, no nothing.”

“Of course. Peter, this is simply dinner with family.”

“All charming, no conniving.”

“Absolutely.” Neal nodded and agreed wholeheartedly.

 

~o~

 

Earlier, Peter had asked Sara for the information he needed to allow the extension. “Paperwork,” he said, pulling out a form. “I trust you’re familiar with the concept.”

“Oh yes,” she chuckled. “No lack of it in insurance.”

“No,” he agreed absently. “All right, and your cousin’s name?” He looked up expectantly.

“Okay, um, look, she moved here from Missouri and, uh…”

“What? What does Missouri have to do with it?”

She sighed. “It's what she left behind there. It's the reason she has to be very discreet about where her name shows up.”

“Oh, no,” Peter rubbed his hand across his eyes. “Don’t tell me she’s some kind of criminal too?

Sara was taken aback at the implied slur on her family. “What? No! Peter, are you telling me you can't imagine any reason why a woman would have to leave all her family and friends behind and move halfway across the continent to remain as anonymous as possible – except that she's a criminal?”

“No, I – what? Oh.” Light dawned. “You mean, her husband...?”

“Or, uh, something. Look, she hasn’t told me a lot, and I haven’t pressed her. She’s looking for support, friends, not a – an interrogation into her whole situation.”

Peter nodded slowly. “Okay. Okay. I can leave the name off, but I do need the address.”

“Of course,” Sara agreed, relieved. “It's an apartment building on Roosevelt Island. Main Street.”

 

~o~

 

“Jones is attending the Barrett-Dunne reception today, see if we can get a bead on this Striker fellow,” Peter told Neal.

“Right,” Neal nodded.

“So tonight should work well for you and Sara to visit her cousin for dinner.”

“Thank you.” He smiled gratefully.

“But if we end up needing you –”

“All you have to do is call, Peter; anytime, of course.”

“And you’ll be wearing your tracker.” The agent squinted at him.

“And I’ll be wearing the tracker, and you can always see exactly where I am, yes, Peter.” Neal refrained from rolling his eyes, but just barely.

Chapter Text

On the way over to Roosevelt Island, Sara became unusually nervous and fidgety. “What if Ellen’s not at home?” she asked, pushing a lock of hair behind her ear.

Neal smiled and reached over to take her hand. “Then we’ll hang out and wait to see if she comes home. There’s a park nearby. We won’t look suspicious.”

She let a breath out. “No, of course not.” She used her free hand to push her hair back again. “Won’t it be weird for her, your bringing over a complete stranger with no notice?”

Neal huffed. “It’ll be weird for her seeing me at all.” She gave him a puzzled look and he returned a wry one. “Last time we saw each other was nearly fifteen years ago.”

 

~*~o~*~

 

Remarkably, it was hardly awkward at all. Ellen instantly put Neal at ease, and accepted Sara without question, smiling warmly at her. “Any friend of Neal’s is a friend of mine. I’m so pleased to meet you. And to see you again, Neal, it’s been so long.”

Neal smiled affectionately in return. “We’d love to spend the evening visiting with you.”

“If it’s not an imposition,” Sara added. “So sorry to barge in on you with no notice.”

“Oh no, not at all! I’m so happy you came.”

“We’re hoping to treat you to dinner,” he offered.

Sara glanced at him. “Ordered in, if that’s all right.”

Ellen gave a knowing look at Neal. “Can’t be seen in public?”

“It’s not that so much as… is it still here?” he asked.

“Oh, yes, of course. It is.”

They ordered Chinese from a local favorite of Ellen’s and enjoyed a comfortable evening of reminiscences. Neal could see that Sara was dying to ask all sorts of questions about Ellen and Neal’s past, but she circumspectly refrained, and let them take the lead on what to share.

Over coffee, Ellen asked him, “Truth. Do you hate me for telling you what I did?”

“No. No, my mom told me my father was dead. Said he died a hero, but you told me the truth. He was a dirty cop... and he's not dead.” He could feel Sara’s eyes burning on him, but she needed to know. He wasn’t afraid to share.

“You were gonna go and join the force,” said Ellen. “I told your mother, ‘The moment he sets foot in the Police Academy, he's gonna get an earful.’”

He nodded and took a deep breath before looking back at her. “Truth. Was my father always corrupt?”

“We met when we became partners as first-year detectives. He was the best...then. The evil came after.”

“What about my mom? Did you ever –”

“No,” she said sadly. “I haven't seen or heard from her – or your father – It's been years.” She stood up and moved to a framed print hanging on the wall. She took out a photo that was hidden on the back. “I saved this for you. You and your father.”

“Oh, my God.” He tilted it to let Sara see. In the photo he was three years old, wearing his father’s police hat, both of his chubby little arms up to hold it on straight.

“You’re adorable!” exclaimed Sara. “Oh my god, you have to show this to Peter!”

He chuckled weakly. “Maybe.”

“You have your father’s eyes,” said Ellen. While they were still poring over the photo, she opened a closet door and removed an art tube carrier. She handed it to him. “Here it is. Kept it safe. Didn't open it. It's postmarked the day before you were arrested.”

“Yeah. Kate never came to get it?” He thought she’d have come for it as soon as he could pass the message to her through his coded letters from prison.

“The pretty girl with the dark hair?”

“Yeah.”

“She did. Almost five years ago now.”

That would have been about right. “But she didn't take it?” So much for everyone who thought she was mercenary. He’d known her better.

“She changed her mind. Said she wanted you to have it. I have to admit I'm curious. What is in there that's so special?”

A romantic gesture. Like all the others that she’d rejected. She didn’t want his love if it was based on theft. Took him too long to figure that out. “Something I took trying to get back a life I lost, and it's been chasing me ever since.”

“Better not let it catch you,” said Ellen warningly.

“Too late,” he responded, and heard Sara say the same words along with him. They exchanged amused glances. Ellen looked a little puzzled but he didn’t want to explain. As open as he was trying to be, Ellen’s home still felt like a haven for the hidden.

Thinking of secret places, he said to her, “Listen – coming here, I'm sorry. I’m hoping to keep this visit under the radar, but I’m afraid some officials might come around asking questions.”

“Don’t worry. It was worth it to see you again, and meet your lovely friend. If I have to move, well, this island was getting a little small for me anyway.” She chuckled.

“Thank you. For everything,” he said heartfully.

 

~*~o~*~

 

On the way home, Sara was gripping his hand tightly again, but this time not out of nerves. “I can’t tell you how much this means to me,” she said, holding securely the Raphael in its carrier.

“You don’t have to say anything,” he told her. He could read the warmth and something almost like awe in her eyes, her face.

He appreciated her gratitude, but it sat uncomfortably with him. There wasn’t any need for him to hold onto the painting; it didn’t require that much effort to return; and he hadn’t obtained it in the first place for her. From one lover to another, he reflected. The one who didn’t want it to one who did – but only to give it back to the world.

Well. For the modest fee of three hundred thousand dollars.

Maybe he did deserve some of that gratitude.

Chapter Text

In the evening the next day, Neal was enjoying the quiet in his loft when Moz poked his head in the door. “Where’s the Suitmate?” he asked.

Neal scrunched his nose. “Working. Evidently, her recent successes have bred –”

“More success?”

“More work,” he said with a wry look.

“Ah. See? The trouble with working for the corprocratic overlords. For us, more success breeds less work. Speaking of, are we still on for Friday?”

Neal sighed. “Yes, Moz. We’re still on.”

“Good. Great.” Moz hesitated. “It’s good to be working as partners with you, Neal.”

Neal smiled. “Yeah, Moz, it’s great working with you.”

Moz nodded, smiled at the wall, and took his leave.

Neal rubbed his face. It was good to work with Moz, and with Sara, and with Peter. But it didn’t look like he would get to keep them all. How was he supposed to pick?

The quiet was making it too easy to think. He left to find some company.

Where to, he wondered, out on the sidewalk. Ah, Jones, he thought. With the agent’s best friend mixed up in some kind of trouble, and said friend’s wife, currently in town to help, also happening to be Jones’ former fiancée – well. Jones’ life rivaled only Neal’s in its soap opera qualities.

Maybe they should talk.

 

~*~o~*~

 

With van Horn aka “Striker” locked up and Jones’ friend Jimmie retrieved, the case was all over bar the shouting. And the paperwork. Neal pled traumatic exhaustion from running from a compound-bow wielding villain with very good aim and ducked out of the office early.

He came home to find Sara packing up her stuff.

“Oh, hi,” she said, looking up. “You’re home early.”

“Uh, yeah, uh… long story. So, you’re moving out?”

“My remodel’s pretty much complete, so, um, yeah.”

“Were you going to tell me, or wait for me to return to an empty fait accompli?”

Sara huffed and gave a puzzled half-smile. “Of course I was going to tell you. I had some time to pack so I took advantage. Been busy lately.”

“Yeah…”

Sara’s confusion turned to concern. “Hey, are you all right? This long story – you’re not hurt, are you?”

“No, no.” Neal smiled reassuringly. “I – this just took me by surprise, that’s all.”

“Okay. We’re still okay, you know. We are, right?”

“Yes, absolutely.” Neal clasped her lightly round the waist and kissed her. “Mmm. That’s better.”

“Mmm – yeah. Welcome home, honey.” She smiled. “You up for helping me move back to my place?”

“Make it worth my while,” he murmured, sneaking in more kisses.

“Always an angle with you, Caffrey.”

“Hey, you want my help to get away from me. I gotta get something out of this.”

Sara pulled back just far enough to see his face while she spoke. “I’m not getting away from you, Neal.” She ran her arms up and down his sides. “I love you. It’s just, this loft is lovely – I love the skylight and the terrace and the French doors – but it is kind of small for the two of us. This was always temporary, right? I don’t think Mozzie would forgive you if I were here permanently. I know I cramp his style.” She laughed softly.

Through long training Neal’s brain kept up with everything she said, but it had fuzzed out a bit after “I love you.” She loves me? She loves me!

Fortunately, she had slid it in the middle of her speech, so he didn’t have to respond to the declaration immediately. He latched onto the last thing she said. “You don’t have to worry about Moz,” he assured her. She loves me? Really? She does? Do I love her?

“I know.” Pause. “The thing is, Neal…”

“You need your space too.”

“Yeah.” She smiled wryly. “And I think you appreciate yours.”

“Mmm. I love you too,” he said. “And I’ll be happy to help you move out. Get the inside scoop on your security system…”

“Always the angle, Conman!”

“You’d know, Repo.”

 

~*~o~*~

 

Neal went into the office after seeing Sara settled into her renewed old place, rather than return to his own, now rather empty apartment.

When Peter got to boasting about his deviled ham for the night’s stakeout, Neal was wishing that one of van Horn’s arrows had got him that morning. Not anywhere critical, just enough to make a good excuse not to work for, oh, a week or a month or two. He’d rather still be hanging up pictures in Sara’s apartment. He was too coordinated and too careful to actually injure his fingers, but, as he told the team, “I would rather pound my thumb with a hammer than do another stakeout.” Literally, no lie.

If Peter still made him spend the night in the van with all its malodorous fumes and noxious miasma of soul-crushing stupor, he’d do it. It’d be a good excuse to Moz for putting off the break-in planned for tonight, but if it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well it were done quickly, as Mozzie would be the first to agree.

Also, deviled ham. Anything but. Please.

 

~*~o~*~

 

Neal had gone through with opening the Burkes’ safe and snapping a picture of the manifest mostly by trying to forget whose house he was in, which was made fairly difficult by first Satchmo, and next the framed photos. He was ready to bug out when the phone rang. Peter. Of course. He had to answer it, otherwise Peter would be bound to check his anklet. He racked his brain for some story or deflection in case Peter was calling because he had checked Neal’s anklet. “Hey, Peter, how’s the stakeout?”

“Jones is on a coffee run,” came the response. “Listen, that call you made before you left the office tonight…”

“Yeah?”

“Was it Sara?”

Neal sighed. “She’s moved out.” How Not To Answer Questions One-oh-One.

“Oh, wow. That was sudden.” Peter sounded surprised.

“Yeah,” Neal sighed. Wait – “No, it was always temporary, remember?”

“Uh-huh. So how are you holding up?”

Neal took inventory. “Let’s see, this morning I posed as a Navy commander to rescue a kidnapped whistleblower, got shot at by a Kali-trained marksman wielding a bow and arrow, then spent the afternoon helping my girlfriend move out of my place.” And then broke into my best friend’s home, he didn’t add. “You know, just another Friday.”

“Uh-huh. Well, I’m glad you got to have that dinner with her earlier.”

“Yeah, thank you for that.”

“Listen… You and I have been through some stuff, and we've had to keep things from each other. But… if you want to talk, and I – you know, I mean, really talk… I'm here for you.”

Wow, Neal’s mask of confident insouciance must be seriously slipping if Peter felt impelled to make an offer like that. Neal tried to turn the conversation back to a lighter footing. “Is this the loneliness of the van talking?”

“Maybe, maybe,” Peter conceded. “But, uh, I – you know, I think you deserve some happiness. And I, uh – whatever I can do to help you with that… Let me know.”

“Thanks, Peter. That means a lot.” It did, too. God, what a bastard he was.

“Yeah. No problem. See you tomorrow, Neal.”

“See you tomorrow.”

Chapter Text

You’d think with all the work they’d put in over the past week, they’d get Saturday off, but no: the emergency with Jones’ friend had taken top priority, but today it was still all hands on deck to get back to everything that had been pushed off to the side.

And it was just as well they’d all been planning to work anyway when they heard that Matthew Keller was back in town once again. Since the last time he’d been in New York he’d kidnapped a Federal agent (Peter) and escaped from maximum security imprisonment, you wouldn’t think he’d dare stir up the hornet’s nest that was the city’s entire law enforcement network, but evidently Keller’s ego knew no bounds.

Neal hated the man, but he could concede that perhaps they had one thing in common.

Keller was on the trail of an Egyptologist named Raquel Laroque. Or he might be chasing rumors of the U-boat treasure. Or– who knew the convoluted workings of the man’s brain. All Neal knew was that while he worked his hardest to stay abreast of him, Keller was usually already three moves in front.

This time, Neal was determined to stay at least one step ahead. As he called Mozzie for help connecting to Laroque, he felt the glimmers of a plan forming.

 

~*~o~*~

 

“I set up a meet with Hale,” said Mozzie. “He keeps tabs on most of the other fences in the area.”

“Great. Thanks, Moz.”

They arrived at a locale of the type Hale preferred: a deserted lot in a quiet industrial area. Neal greeted him warmly. “I heard Moz did some work on your mobile office,” he said, indicating the gleaming Cadillac convertible.

“Yeah, I'm still learning all the bells and whistles. Mozzie refuses to write down instructions,” griped the older man.

“Obviously, we don't want any public record of our modifications,” explained Mozzie fretfully.

“I'll settle for that Degas you keep promising,” Hale replied.

“What if we could get you something better?” Neal suggested.

“Well, my buyer has his heart set on that Degas –”

Neal interrupted. “Before we can move any art, do you know a fence named Raquel Laroque?”

“I do. She has this intricate concealment technique.”

“Yeah, that's what I'd like to talk to her about. She's in the market for a new restoration tech.”

“If you get the job, that will help eliminate your delay with the Degas?”

Mozzie glanced to Neal. “Uh…”

“No. I’m sorry, Hale.” Neal shook his head. “The Feds already caught wind of the Degas when we offered it earlier. We were hoping the heat would die down but it hasn’t.”

“Damn!” Hale swore. Neal understood his frustration. The fence had stood to make at least a million or two on the transaction. He didn’t want to disappoint their old friend, but putting anyone on the Fed’s radar was hardly doing them a favor.

“No kidding,” said Moz, giving Neal an odd look – half angry glare and half puzzlement.

“I’m afraid it gets worse,” Neal confessed.

“How?” He was confronted by identical looks of apprehensive suspicion.

“Do you know Matthew Keller?” he asked Hale.

“The crook who leaves a trail of bodies wherever he goes?” the man responded. “Got every kind of law enforcement plus half the mobs looking for him?”

“Yeah, that'd be Keller,” confirmed Moz.

“What do you want with him?”

“Nothing!” exclaimed Mozzie, staring hard at Neal.

Neal kept his focus on Hale. “We have reason to believe he’s in town, and he’s probably going to come looking for me.”

“Well, if I run into him, I’ll be careful not to lead him to you,” assured Hale.

“Actually, I’d prefer the opposite.”

“Come again? You remember the part about bodies, right? Those would be dead bodies,” Hale emphasized.

“Exactly. And I don't want you to be one of them,” Neal said. “So if he asks you anything, send him to me.”

“… All right. If you say so,” Hale reluctantly agreed.

“I do,” Neal said confidently. “Can I count on you for the Laroque intro?”

Hale shook his head. “I don’t know, Neal. What’s in it for me?”

“Something better for your client. Something that’s not on the current FBI Most Wanted Art list.”

Hale had his arms crossed, looking away. “Yeah, Caffrey, I know you got this in with the Feds, which is handy for the intel, but why do you want this job so bad? It wouldn’t have anything to do with your FBI handler, would it?”

Neal hesitated.

“Yeah, see, now why would I want to sell out a fine young woman like Raquel?” Hale asked rhetorically. “I’m not gonna vouch for someone I know is gonna turn on her –”

“We’re not after her,” Neal explained. “She’s just the go-between. We want the ends – her source in Egypt, and her buyer here.”

Hale was still skeptical. “Isn’t Egypt a bit out of the Feds’ jurisdiction?”

“Not if the source is currently in town.”

Hale paused a moment, contemplating. “Now, I can put two and two together as well as the next man –”

“We wouldn’t work with you otherwise, mon frère,” contributed Mozzie.

“So you come here talking about Raquel, then that the Degas is too hot, and that Keller’s in town, now this mysterious Egyptian smuggler is also in town? Did Keller happen to arrive here via Egypt? Or is he also after the Degas? Or even the ‘something better’ you’re now offering?”

“Ah-ha-ha-ha – don’t sell yourself short, my man, you do much better than most,” complimented Mozzie, somewhat nervously, darting glances at Neal.

“You put two and two together and come up with eight. Which is very much how Keller works as well. I wouldn’t be surprised to find he’s after all of the above,” said Neal.

“And think he can get away with all of it too,” Moz added darkly.

“Keller’s pretty high on the FBI wanted list, too, isn’t he?” asked Hale.

“After kidnapping an agent and escaping max security via murder?” Moz’s arms gestured widely. “You think?”

“Yes, he definitely is,” Neal confirmed. “Laroque can extricate all the artifacts she wants from her intricate hiding places if we can nail Keller.”

“You sure you want to tangle with him? If the city’s heating up, sounds like a good time for a vacation to me,” Hale reasoned.

“Yeah, well, some of us are stuck here,” Neal said to Mozzie’s glare and Hale’s doubtful look. “In any case, I’d rather take Keller out for good. I’ve tangled with him before and come out ahead. He’s not going to run me out of my own town.”

“Uh-huh. So what’s this something better my client could potentially acquire?”

“A Monet,” he answered.

“Or a Picasso,” offered Moz.

Hale thought it over. “All right. If you can promise me Raquel’s not gonna end up in Federal hands, I’ll give you an intro.”

Neal answered with a dazzling grin. “Deal.”

 

~*~o~*~

 

As they turned the corner away from Hale and his ‘mobile office’, Mozzie rounded on Neal. “Why didn’t you tell me about the Degas being too hot?”

“I just did!” Why was everyone flinging accusations at him these days?

“I thought we were partners!”

“We are! Moz, I told you –”

“Yeah, I heard, just now with Hale. Partners mean you tell me stuff this important right away, Neal. Not wait until you have an audience so you can be more… efficient, or whatever latest the corprocratic-speak is.”

Neal rolled his eyes. “Will you stop with the ‘corprocratic’?” The first couple of times Moz used the term he’d picked up from his hacker friend Sally it had been cute. Now it was just... un-Moz-like. “I wasn’t waiting – Look, with Keller in town, that’s where my focus is going to be. I’m sorry if I got caught up in thinking about him and this case Peter’s got me on.”

Mozzie waved off his apology. Evidently all was forgiven again. Odd that it was paranoid Moz who trusted him the most.

“Keller might be after the treasure,” warned Mozzie.

Or it could be that he simply had his priorities straight.

“He might, yeah,” Neal agreed. “Whatever he wants has to be big enough for him to run all those risks that Hale mentioned.”

“I told you this secret’s too big to keep!” Moz expostulated.

“You could be right. Speaking of secrets, and partners – you’ve been moving some of the treasure to a different location, haven’t you?”

Mozzie’s eyes shifted back and forth. “Wh-what?! Neal, why would you– I’m shocked –”

“Relax, Moz, it’s fine. Yes, I’ve noticed some items have been shuffled when I’ve checked the cam. But I think it’s a good idea, having a second location.”

“That’s exactly what I thought,” Mozzie agreed instantly, calm and in control again. “A backup plan.”

“Moz, I trust you, all right? I know you’ve got my back. And there’s plenty of treasure to go around – I’m hardly going to dicker with you over every gold coin or pearl strand.”

“Right, of course not. That’s beneath us. Although,” Moz confided hesitantly, “I was becoming worried when you started giving artworks away.”

Neal smiled. “You can take them out of my share.”

“Already done.” Mozzie’s face was tilted up and away.

“Do me a favor, and keep the paintings in the cam room for now. I’ll see if I can find out about any of the others listed on the manifest.”

 

~*~o~*~

 

Raquel Laroque turned out to be a distractingly beautiful woman, who knew how to dress to maximize both her beauty and the distraction. Fortunately, Neal was far more intrigued by her mind, which was intelligent, knowledgeable, and had that edge of deviousness that he really appreciated. The mental stimulation kept him on his toes.

Hale was his usual punctual self. Neal waited until he and Laroque had exchanged friendly greetings before making his own appearance at the café.

Hale smiled and nodded hello to Neal. “I was just telling Raquel that I absolutely understand the need for personal, trustworthy introductions. There are some very bad people in town these days.” He gave a quick, knowing glance at Neal.

Raquel picked up on the fleeting look, asking Hale, “But you’re telling me Mr. Caffrey here isn’t one of those?”

“That’s exactly right, Raquel. He’s one of the finest men I know. Highly skilled, professional, loyal.”

“That’s some high praise,” she noted.

“He’s deserving of it. Handles himself well under intense pressure too. Always comes out ahead.” Hale gave him another sly glance.

“I make sure everybody wins,” said Neal. “When I come out ahead, so do my partners.”

Hale nodded. “That’s true. I’ve worked with Neal for many years and I’ve never had cause to regret it.”

Neal grinned brilliantly. “And you never will,” he replied. “Neither will you, Raquel,” he added, lifting his glass to her, “if you give me a chance.”

Chapter Text

Neal was at the FBI office, finishing up a conversation with Peter, when his phone rang. Checking the caller, he smiled. “Sara, hi!”

No answer, just background noise from a street. “Hello?” he asked, turning up the volume. He ducked into an empty conference room.

Still no answer, but he could now make out a man’s voice over the sound of traffic. “–ty sure you can. So put the phone away. There you both are, what, purchasing four helicopters.” Damn, it was Keller. Harassing Sara with a very poor English accent. Now Neal was angry. He set the phone to record the conversation.

Meanwhile, Keller was still talking. “What does one do with four helicopters? Sterling-Bosch has some pretty strict rules about theft recovery, Sara. Your boss, has he mentioned anything about an internal investigation?”

Neal could just barely hear Sara’s softly spoken “No.”

“That's right,” Keller said. “Probably because I haven't mentioned this case to him yet.”

“Well, I honestly don't know what to tell you.” Atta girl, Sara!

“Yeah, you do. Just give me something. Give me something, and maybe Neal skates on a light sentence. But if not, Caffrey goes down hard, and I've got enough to make you an accessory.”

All right, Neal had heard enough of Keller’s infuriating intimidation. Sara could handle herself, but there was no need for her to feel put on the spot. He wished he’d thought to warn her about Keller the way he’d warned Hale, but he hadn’t thought Keller would target her. Their relationship was still fairly new.

Thank god she’d thought to call him. He disconnected, then called her back.

Sara’s voice started faint and grew louder. “–gent Sloan, I gotta take this. Hello?”

“Go ahead and give him the IP address,” Neal said softly, hoping his voice wouldn’t be overheard by Keller. “I've got a plan.”

“The what? You’re sure?”

“The IP. Yes,” he confirmed confidently.

“OK,” she agreed.

Neal overheard Keller in the background, sounding impatient. “If you’re not taking me seriously, I’m sure Mr. Bosch will.”

“I– I can't talk now. I'll call you back,” she said into the phone.

“Yes, right away, please.”

“All right,” she said, then hung up.

Neal left the conference room, which was likely to be flooded with agents at any time, and waited anxiously at his desk for her call.

Peter stopped by his desk, rapping his knuckles on it. “Everything all right?”

“Yeah,” said Neal. “I got word of Keller.”

“Where? What’s he doing?” asked Peter, shifting into full agent mode.

Neal shook his head. “Keller didn’t want my contact talking on the phone. I overheard a snippet of conversation. I’m waiting for a call back –” His phone rang. Sara again. “Is it all right if I take this in private?” he asked Peter quickly. “I don’t want to spook my contact.” Peter waved him off. Neal ducked into the file stacks across from his desk. “Sara? You okay?”

“Yes,” she answered. He felt a wave of relief and leaned against the tall shelf. “That was Agent Sloan from Interpol, Neal. He knows about the treasure!” she hissed.

“That wasn’t an Interpol agent, that was Matthew Keller,” Neal told her.

“Matthew Keller? Wait… Isn’t he some sort of rival of yours?”

“More like an enemy. He’s a very dangerous man. Look, Sara, can you come down to the FBI office and tell Peter about what happened?”

“I– yeah, sure, I can.”

“Good. I want you tell him about ‘Agent Sloan’ approaching you, and describe him.”

“You know, it makes sense he wasn’t an agent, because he behaved in a really creepy manner.”

“He is very creepy. Tell Peter everything, including how he made you feel.”

“Scared, honestly. And I don’t get scared often!”

“I know you don’t.” Neal smiled, and hoped she could hear the warmth in his voice.

“But, Neal, you want me to tell Peter the IP address too?”

“Yes, exactly. Don’t worry about it; I have a plan.”

“You gonna throw those other thieves under the bus after all? Mozzie’s friends and everything?”

“No – not exactly. Trust me, I’ve got this covered.”

“All right.”

“Oh, one more thing. Don’t tell Peter about your calling me while Keller was talking to you – which was a smart move, by the way.”

“I know,” she said smugly. “You’re not the only one who knows a few tricks, Conman.”

“Don’t I know it, Repo. And, uh, try not to mention about getting the IP address from me –”

“Honestly, Caffrey! I thought we’d been over this –”

“– Or that it was my idea to give it to Keller,” Neal said, ignoring her interruption. “It might come up, because I told Peter that I’d heard from a contact about Keller, and he knows I’m the phone with said contact now –”

“So when I come in describing ‘Agent Sloan’ who turns out to be Keller, Peter’s Neal-dar is going to ping.”

“Yeah, exactly. If he asks – presses us – we don’t have to lie –”

“But you don’t want to volunteer anything extra.”

“You know me so well, Repo.”

 

When Neal returned to his desk, he was relieved to see Peter up at his office, talking with men who likely represented the Egyptian Embassy, judging by their accent and the way they were dressed. He hoped they kept Peter busy talking about the amulet. He didn’t want Peter asking questions about his ‘contact’, at least not until Sara told him her story.

Neal returned to his desk and focused on work, refreshing his knowledge about the amulet, Egyptology in general, and the restoration techniques that Raquel would likely require. In the midst of his research, he got her message about their next meet - tomorrow at her lab. Excellent. Everything was coming together. He was feeling the beginnings of the high he rode when on a really good con. Nothing beat that feeling. He hadn’t felt this good since… since the shopping trip with Sara. No – since the con at the bank that got them access to the millions for the shopping trip. They were fantastic that day: he, Moz, Sara, the three of them working together…

And they were going to do it again, only this time Peter would approve whole-heartedly, because they were going to take Keller down and wrap up the U-boat treasure investigation, all without any wrongdoing leading back to Sara, Mozzie, or himself.

Peter escorted the visiting men back to the elevator, then stopped by Neal’s desk.

“They looked important,” Neal remarked.

“From the Egyptian Embassy,” said Peter. “What –”

“I heard back from Raquel,” said Neal. Sure, he was stalling, but the amulet was important too.

“So when is the rendezvous?”

“Two o’clock tomorrow. Her lab.”

“Good. We’ve got her place staked out, and her phone’s tapped.”

Neal looked past Peter to the doors leading from the elevator, where Sara was just walking in. Following his gaze, Peter looked over his shoulder, then turned towards her. “Hello, Sara,” he greeted genially.

“Peter! Hi.” Her eyes flicked briefly to Neal, then back to Peter. “I just had an encounter with an Interpol agent. I wanted to keep you updated with the information I gave him.”

Peter frowned. “Interpol? Is it about one of my cases?”

“Yes, I believe so.” She glanced again at Neal. “It’s, um, kind of sensitive. Can we speak in your office?”

“Of course.” Peter gestured the way, letting Sara lead. He frowned down briefly at Neal, who gave a ‘who, me? I know nothing’ head shake and shrug in response.

Neal returned to his research and awaited the double finger point from Peter.

He didn’t have to wait long. He bounded up the stairs and into Peter’s office.

“Neal,” drawled Peter, “would you like to act as a sketch artist for the ‘Interpol agent’ Sara met today?”

 

Sara provided an excellent description and Neal knew who he was drawing anyway, so it wasn’t long before he had an image based on Sara’s words that was easy for Peter to identify.

Just as the sketch became unmistakable, Jones popped into the office. “Interpol denies knowledge of an Agent Sloan who fits Sara’s description, and they don’t have any agents currently in New York City working on any art or financial crimes. They added that they’d keep this office informed and coordinate with us if they did.”

“Thank you, Jones,” said Peter. “Look who it turns out Sara met.” He held up the sketch.

“Keller,” said Jones, mouth tightening.

“Yep,” said Peter. “While Sara thought she was speaking to Interpol, she gave him this IP address.” Peter stretched his arm across the desk to hand Jones a slip of paper. “Have Cyber Crimes look into it.”

“On it.” Jones nodded and ducked back out.

“Now, Sara,” said Peter, angling his body towards her and leaning forward, “can you tell me why you shared the address with the supposed Interpol agent, but hadn’t brought it to me or investigated it yourself?”

“Well,” Sara sighed. “In the first place, I wasn’t very interested in assisting Agent Sloan – or Keller, I suppose I should call him. I didn’t like his sly manner or his attempts at intimidation. I just wanted him to go away.”

“Uh-huh,” said Peter.

“But I didn’t really have anything to tell him. This IP address – it came from a confidential source that, um, is often not very reliable.” Peter darted a glance at Neal, who sat impassively, focused on Sara. She took a deep breath. “I hadn’t followed up on it myself or passed it along because I suspected it was some kind of scam, or hoax. I didn’t think it was worth the time or effort. But it was the only thing I could think of in connection to the treasure. If it wasted this guy’s time and got him to go away, that worked for me.”

“So you think we’re wasting Cyber Crimes’ time investigating it?”

“I don’t know,” said Sara honestly. “I mean, my source does provide useful information – there’s a reason he’s a source. But sometimes it’s a misdirect, or a false lead.”

“Uh-huh.” Peter looked at Neal again, who gazed back, face open and inquisitive. Peter turned back to Sara. “All right, can you tell me the name of this source?”

“Confidential means confidential, Peter. I’m sure you can understand.”

“Do you want me to leave?” asked Neal, looking between both of them.

Sara shook her head. “It won’t matter. My sources don’t want me giving their names to law enforcement. They’ll dry up in a hurry if I do, even just one.”

“Uh-huh,” said Peter, leaning back in his chair. “This source of yours wouldn’t happen to be from Missouri, would he?”

“What?” Sara was genuinely confused, then she turned pale with shock and anger as the implication of his words sank in. “I thought we had a good working partnership, Peter,” she said tightly, standing up. “I’m sorry to learn otherwise. If you have further questions for me, you can come to Sterling Bosch with a warrant, and I’ll be certain to have my lawyer present when you interrogate me. Good-bye.” She turned on her heel and left.

“She’s a good actress, isn’t she?” remarked Peter.

“That wasn’t an act.” Neal felt sick. He and Sara and Peter were supposed to be on the same page. Now it seemed Sara was going to be forced to choose between being in a relationship with Neal or being able to work well with the White Collar division. He hadn’t wanted to put her in such a position. He didn’t even know which she would choose. “You’ve really made her angry, Peter. And I don’t know why you would.”

“Afraid you’re going to lose your girlfriend?”

“Yes, actually, I am! Is that what you want, to split us up? I thought you liked her.”

“I do. I did. But that was when I thought she’d be a good influence on you, not you a bad influence on her.”

Neal shook his head slowly, trying to contain his own anger. “I don’t know what’s wrong with you, Peter. We’re all trying to take down Keller, right? If we find the treasure too – ”

Peter scoffed. “You know where it is! You gave her that IP address! I don’t know what scam you’re trying to pull now, but I don’t like being your patsy, or the way you’re using Sara.”

Neal stood up slowly. He could feel his face paling, growing chill. “All I’m trying to do is take down Keller. I thought we all were.” His hands were trembling and he shoved them in his pockets. “Do you need me any more? I have research to do for the Laroque meet tomorrow.”

Peter was still leaning back in his chair, watching him from under hooded eyes. “Go,” he said, waving his hand to the door.

 

Neal composed himself on the short walk back to his desk. He still had work to do. They could still do this, no matter how suspicious and distrustful Peter was. Keller, the amulet, the treasure – all of it. He might have lost the high (temporarily) but he still had it under control.

He was still a step ahead of Keller, and he certainly had more friends on his side. Even if one of them was being a bastard at the moment.

 

~*~o~*~

 

Neal worked diligently at his desk for a solid half hour. He felt Peter’s eyes on him more than once but he ignored everything except his computer. Finally it was within reasonable quitting time. He snagged his hat off the bust of Socrates and left the office.

When he arrived home, he found Mozzie asleep on his couch, a glass of Bordeaux within arm’s reach. Neal might have shut the door a little extra firmly, startling Moz awake. “It wasn’t me! I have proof!” the man gasped. “Oh, it’s you.”

“Who did you expect in my apartment? Feel free to make yourself right at home.”

“Now that your Suitmate has moved out, I will, thank you.”

“Her name is Sara,” he said firmly. Not petulantly.

Mozzie’s eyebrows rose. “Oh? If it’s so serious, ‘Mr. Sara Ellis’, why has she just moved out?”

“She didn’t want to cramp your style.” He grabbed the half-empty Bordeaux bottle and poured himself a glass.

“This loft does work better as a bachelor pad than a couple’s honeymoon suite, don’t you think?” Moz observed, looking around.

Neal grunted. He’d sat on one of the kitchen chairs and put his feet up on the table.

“See? Would the Su– Sara have approved of that?” Moz asked, gesturing towards Neal.

“Yes,” Neal answered.

“No,” said Moz, ignoring Neal’s response. “Whereas I have no objections whatsoever to any of your behaviors in your own place.”

“I should hope not,” Neal murmured. He had his nose practically in the bowl of his glass, savoring the rich aroma. He was taking larger swallows than he should, but it was that kind of day.

“In return, I thank you for your generous hospitality. I have been working hard today.”

Neal pulled his feet down and sat up. “You get the treasure split up?”

Mozzie nodded. “All except the paintings, as you advised.”

“Great.” Neal smiled. “I have a plan for how to handle Keller.”

“Yeah?” asked Moz. “Going to share with the class?”

Neal grinned broadly, eyes shining. “We're going to give him the treasure.”

“Wait, what?” It was kind of funny, watching Mozzie’s eyes bug out and his face fall. “No! No, no no no!”

“Yes!” he insisted. “This will solve all our problems: the manifest, Peter, Keller, all of it.”

Mozzie looked panicked, near to hyperventilating.

“Moz, come on, think! Why did I have you split the treasure up?”

“Half for you and half for me,” he answered instantly. “Or, um, in case one was discovered.”

“Right,” said Neal. He was a bit disturbed about the ‘half for each’ notion, but one problem at a time, and their current biggest problem was Keller, with Peter a close second, and his plan was going to solve both. He’d willingly give up his share of the treasure to see Keller go down. “Now think, Moz,” he continued. “In all the martial arts, what do you do when faced with someone stronger than you?”

“Uh, I’m guessing it’s not run away, then sneak around and stab him in the back.”

“No, Moz,” he answered patiently. “You use his own strength against him.”

“Physical fighting has never been my forte, sorry.”

“Nor mine either, but I do know some basics.”

“What makes you think Keller is stronger than us in any case?”

“Because…” started Neal, then hesitated. Instead of trying to explain, he used a quote. Those were Mozzie’s forte. “‘No misfortune is worse than underestimating the enemy. Underestimating the enemy, I risk losing my treasure.’”

“Oh – Laozi! Uh… ‘Yield and overcome’,” replied Mozzie sagely.

“Exactly. And if you do believe that we are stronger than Keller, which we may very well be, what does Sun Tzu advise in that case?”

“‘Appear weak when you are strong.’”

“Yes! ‘Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant.’”

“Keller is already plenty arrogant,” Mozzie said darkly.

“One of his personal flaws, whether he’s in a position of strength or not.”

“Yes, and we will exploit his arrogance!” cried Mozzie, lifting a pointed finger into the air for emphasis. Then he squinted at Neal. “Exactly how is giving him the treasure going to do that?”

Neal smiled, and began his explanation with more quotes from The Art of War. “‘All warfare is based on deception. Engage people with what they expect...’”

 

~*~o~*~

 

By the time he finished explaining, Moz was in reluctant agreement with the plan. “We’ll lose a large portion of the treasure, but it will be worth it for the freedom to move the rest. So did you find out which paintings were on the manifest?”

“I think so,” Neal replied, and listed them off. “So make sure those stay –”

“In the treasure-cam room, got it.” Mozzie sighed. “I wished you’d shared this plan of yours before you gave Keller the IP address.”

“I didn’t have time, Moz. I wasn’t expecting him to go straight after Sara. In fact, I didn’t have the plan worked out until she called me, with Keller putting her on the spot.”

Mozzie nodded in understanding. He reached for the Bordeaux to pour the last (generous) glass for himself. “I did set up the cam with high security. It should take Keller and the FBI a while to trace it back. In the meantime, I will move some of the non-manifest paintings we’d prefer to keep. Like the Picasso.” He paused, taking a large swallow of his wine. “It’s too bad about the Raphael portrait; I was growing rather attached.”

“Mmm,” Neal nodded in glum agreement. “I really liked the Klimt, too. And the Matisse.”

“Of course.”

“Oh – be certain to leave the Rembrandt behind; Adler mentioned it on the sub, so Peter knows about it.”

Mozzie tapped his head. “I know. Eidetic, remember? I’ll move the Monet, since you offered it to Hale.”

“Okay. Can you take the Vlaminck for me? And the Magritte?”

“Sure.” Mozzie chuckled. “Every time I see that hat and tie and the man disappearing into blue sky, I think of you, mon frère.”

 

~*~o~*~

 

Neal expected a quiet evening, with Mozzie out shifting artworks. Instead, he heard a familiar light step on the landing and a knock at the door.

“Sara!” he greeted as he opened the door, smiling broadly. It had to be a good sign that she came over, right?

“Hi.” She gave him a quick kiss hello as she walked in. “I, uh, had an interesting conversation with Peter. Well, infuriating would be more like it,” she said wryly.

“I’m sorry,” he said, full of concern.

“Don’t be. I knew who you were when we got together.” She rubbed her hands along the sides of his chest, up to his shoulders. “I wasn’t expecting you to change.”

“Umm…” He wasn’t sure how to respond to that. This wasn’t good. He was always supposed to know how to respond. To think on his feet.

Sara smiled reassuringly. “Don’t look so worried, Caffrey. What I’m trying to say is, I knew you couldn’t be completely honest with me, that you’d always have secrets. That’s okay. I knew you’d have, um, projects that you couldn’t tell me about.” She turned away, pushing back a lock of her hair, and sat down at the kitchen table. He joined her, and they clasped hands across the table. “You’ve been more open than I ever expected.” Her eyes were shining. “And yes, I know you are still holding things back, but like I said, I expected that.”

He still had no idea what to say, so he tried going with that. “I have no idea what to say.”

Sara gurgle-giggled in her distinctive fashion. Her legs were crossed, and her skirt was riding high up her thigh. Maybe this would be an evening that didn’t require a lot of talking. “I wish Peter had had the same problem,” she said, derailing his thoughts (and his hand, which had been tempted to caress that lovely expanse of revealed leg).

“I‘m sorry, Sara, I didn’t mean to put you in that position…” he started, but she was shaking her head.

“It’s fine, Conman, really. I don’t mind working in the grey areas. Peter does, and I get that, but he doesn’t get to tell me how to live my life.”

“Did you try telling him that? How did it go over?” asked Neal dryly.

She gurgled again. “Not well. I expect you’re familiar with that.”

“All too well, yes.”

Sara sighed. “He caught up with me after work. Let me tell you how it went…”

 

~o~

 

Peter wanted to speak with Sara as a friend, he said. “I know first hand how charming and convincing Neal can be. But he’s never as innocent as he makes himself out to be. I’ve seen changes in him since the whole incident with Adler – he’s harder, emotionally; he’s distanced himself. I’m worried about you – that he’ll get you caught up in something more than he’s telling you.”

“Thanks for the confidence in my intelligence, Peter, I appreciate that,” Sara replied. “I can see through Caffrey’s conning smiles as well as you can. He still sends them my way, but not as often. He’s been more open – even if it’s just to say he can’t tell me.”

“You’re fooling yourself.”

“No, Peter, I’m not. Look, I know Neal is still not completely honest” (Peter huffed at that) “but he’s working to return things instead of stealing them.”

“How can you of all people say that?” Peter expostulated. “Look, has he even turned over the Raphael to you?”

“As a matter of fact, the Raphael has been recovered,” she said, arms crossed over her chest.

He was taken aback. “What? You got it back? Why didn’t you tell us? We still have that case open.”

“Because we didn’t get any leads on the original thief. At Sterling Bosch our main concern is recovery of the property. And we’ll be happy to share with you the information we have when you come back with a warrant.”

Peter ran a hand through his hair. “I didn’t – that changes things. Look, Sara, I – I’m not sure what to say.”

She took pity on him. “He’s still trying to avoid getting himself or his friends in trouble. So yes, he’s still hiding things, covering them up, going through elaborate workarounds instead of straight through.”

Peter was shaking his head. “He’s going to get himself – and you – in trouble. That’s my concern.”

She sighed. “I can’t stop you from worrying about Neal. But I’m a grown woman: I can handle myself and my relationships. And you’re right, he is changing, but it’s for the better. If you can’t see that, Peter, you’re the fool, not me.”

Chapter Text

After lunch the next day, Neal arrived back at the FBI office in time to see Jones bound up the steps to Peter’s office. He followed discreetly. He heard Jones say something like, “love the password,” and Peter make an inquiring noise.

Then Jones said clearly, “Draupnir.”

Peter instantly replied, “The golden ring of Norse legend that dropped eight new gold rings every ninth night.”

Ah, right. Peter’s love of all things Viking. Jones had moved into the office, leaving the door ajar, so Neal walked in, saying, “Brokkr and Eitri.”

“No,” said Peter, frowning. “Draupnir.”

“Oh, I thought we were talking about the brothers who forged the magic ring.” He smiled brightly.

“We’re talking about the password to the site of the IP address Sara gave us,” said Peter blandly.

“Oh?” he asked. “Is the site all about the hidden locations of the secret treasures of the Aesir?” He smirked jokingly.

“No,” replied Peter, unamused. He looked up at Neal from under his brow. “Here, see for yourself,” he offered, turning his computer screen.

He leaned over to scan the view. “Oh, that’s – that is the U-boat treasure…” He let his mouth open slightly, releasing a few quiet breaths. “I don’t believe it.” He turned wide wondering eyes back to Peter. “Have you told Sara? She’ll be amazed – Peter, this is fantastic!” He ended with a wide grin.

Peter seemed less than impressed, though, leaning back in his chair with his hands on the armrests. “Mmm.”

He frowned, puzzled. “Peter, my god, you found it! It did survive the fire, and you’ve got it! Why aren’t you happier?”

“Well, we don’t have it quite yet,” said Peter.

“You don’t know where it is? You only have the feed?” asked Neal. “Wait, is it a feed – is it live? Or is it a still, or a loop…” His questions trailed off.

“Keller has received the same info that we got,” Peter noted.

“Oh-kay…” He stood up straight, and exchanged a questioning glance with Jones.

“So right now it’s a race between him, us, and the thieves who put it there,” said Peter, gesturing at the screen.

“Uh-huh,” he acknowledged. “Well, Keller’s always got resources, so we can’t discount him, but it seems to me that, unless the thieves know the feed’s been compromised, Cyber Crimes is more likely than Keller to trace the address first.”

Peter watched him silently.

“I… Peter, what –?”

“And there it is.” Peter looked away, throwing up a hand in a gesture of disgust.

Neal looked back at Jones, concerned, confused. Jones regarded him impassively.

Peter faced Neal again, expression closed. “Are you ready for the Laroque meet?”

He was taken aback at the abrupt change in topic. “Yeah. Sure,” he answered. He rocked back on his heels, hands in his pockets, sanguine.

“This,” said Peter, pointing at the screen, “is in Cyber’s hands now. We’ll focus on the amulet.”

He smiled confidently. “All right. Sounds like a plan.”

 

~*~o~*~

 

In Raquel Laroque’s lab, Neal was glad he’d undertaken his self-taught refresher course. The chemical process to dissolve the tchotchke disguise was fairly straightforward and the restoration of the scarab amulet was executed smoothly. He gave the take-down phrase for the agents listening in over his FBI-issued watch. “You read the inscription?” he (ostensibly) asked Raquel.

But instead of FBI coming through the door, Matthew Keller did. “‘You have come forth to the beautiful place to which we run.’ It's remarkable, isn't it?”

Without looking up from the amulet, which he was still carefully scraping clean, Neal said, “Hello, Boris. Been wondering when you’d join the party.”

Raquel whipped her head between Neal and the newcomer. “Boris who?”

“I call him that because he’s been tangled up with the Russian mob a long time, isn’t that right?” said Neal.

Raquel stared at him, aghast. “And you invited him here?”

“Oh, he never waits on invitations,” he said dismissively.

Keller finally spoke up for himself. “That’s right. I invited myself to that amulet from the Egyptian museum, and now I’m inviting myself to it again.” He pulled out a gun and waved it between Neal and Raquel.

“Really?” Neal finally looked up from the scarab. “That’s all this is about? One treasure you stole once already and couldn’t hang onto?”

“What the hell is going on?” demanded Raquel. “Is this some kind of set-up?”

“Yes, that’s exactly what it is,” said Keller. “That there’s Neal Caffrey, and his specialty these days is setting up stings for the Feds.”

“But if that were the case, you wouldn’t be here, would you?” Neal pointed out. “The Feds are far more interested in a murderer and escaped felon like yourself than they would be in a harmless Egyptologist like Raquel.”

Raquel pulled out a gun from under the lab table. “That’s enough. I don't know what's going on between you two, but I'm not sticking around to find out.” Training the gun on both men at once, she walked carefully around them to the exit.

“That's a good idea, sweetheart. This is just guy talk.” Keller smirked.

Neal set the scarab down, and leaned back on his stool while Keller picked it up, idly examining it. “Now we can get down to business. How exactly do you think I’m going to lead you to this mythical U-boat treasure?”

“We both know it’s not mythical, Caffrey. Your girlfriend already showed it to me. But I only just arrived in the city, and I don’t plan to stick around long now that I’ve got what I came for.”

“So this is what? One more gloat goodbye?”

Keller chuckled. “I would never say no to that. Always fun to see the look on your face when you realize I’ve won. But that’s not all. You’ve had your hands on the treasure long enough – you must have a way to move it. You’re gonna help me get it clear, and if you’re nice to me, I’ll share it with you.” Keller flipped the amulet over to him.

Neal stared at him. “You’re insane. Adler tried that same move on me; do you know what happened to him?”

“I ain’t Adler, and I don’t care. Move, now!” Keller threatened him with his gun.

Neal stayed where he was. “Yeah, Adler tried that one, too, and he ended up dead.”

They both heard Peter and Jones pounding on the door. “FBI! Open up!”

“Just like that.” Neal smirked.

Keller pulled the trigger. Neal ducked, crashing to the floor. Keller ran out the back door as the agents knocked down the front. Neal stood up, palms held out, the amulet in one. “Keller’s armed – he ran out the other door,” he called out, gesturing the way.

“Go, go!” Peter called to Jones and Diana, waving them on. He walked over to Neal. “You okay?”

“Yeah.” Neal held out the amulet.

“Oh, consolation prize,” said Peter. “But we’ve lost Laroque.”

“When Keller showed up, he started waving a gun around. Raquel left.”

“Smart girl.”

“Mmm.”

Jones and Diana returned to the lab, faces grim.

“We lose Keller too?” asked Peter.

“Rabbit hole,” said Diana succinctly.

Peter stood hands on hip, looking pissed.

“Relax, Peter,” said Neal. “We know where Keller’s going to be.”

Peter looked at him sharply. “Yeah? And where is that?”

Neal grinned. “Coming after me, of course.”

 

~*~o~*~

 

Mozzie was at the loft again when Neal returned home; this time he was out on the terrace, enjoying the fine evening. A bottle was well within reach, of course. Neal picked up a pad of paper and joined his friend. “Hey, Moz, can you do me a favor?”

“Sure, mon frère,” he said amiably. “How did everything go this afternoon?”

“Hmm? Oh, as expected.” Neal was distracted by the note he was writing:

 

Raquel,

It was my great pleasure to have met you. I am sorry our transformative encounter was so rudely interrupted. Unfortunately the valuable artifact was lost; however, I hope the meager offering enclosed will go some short way to restoring the trust between us.

‘Thou art my Genius, who art by me, who keeps me hale.’

– NC

 

“‘Engage people with what they expect; it confirms their projections,’” Moz was saying.

Neal flashed him a grin. “Yes, exactly.” He folded up his note and enclosed it in a reproduction of a New Kingdom jewelry box he’d picked up at a museum gift shop. “Would you fill this box with some of the ancient Egyptian gold coins from the treasure stash, and ask Hale to pass it along to Raquel?”

“Ah, to make up for losing her amulet to the Feds, I take it.”

“Yes. The coins aren’t as old and won’t be as valuable, but they’re likely to be more fungible.”

“True. Well, I will take care of this little errand for you, while we wait for the next step in our plan.”

“Thanks, Moz.” Neal gave a genuine smile. “Thanks for all your help with this.”

“Of course. I take it they have you back on your leash?”

Neal scrunched his nose and lifted his trouser leg to show the anklet with its green light. “Yes. I’ll get Peter to let me off again tomorrow.”

“Ah, yes, while our enemies are ‘settled into predictable patterns of response’.”

Neal grinned again, mischievously. He was riding the high again. With Mozzie on his side and Sara helping, he could handle Peter, and Keller seemed about to fall into place.

He’d got through their latest case without betraying Hale’s trust, and (he hoped) earned back some goodwill from Peter by returning the amulet to the Egyptians. Peter liked his arrests, but he liked keeping the State department and diplomats off his back even more.

And if all went according to plan, Peter would get to make the arrest of the year tomorrow.

 

~*~o~*~

 

Neal arrived in the office the next morning to Peter’s immediate double finger point from the mezzanine. He pointed to himself with a questioning look to make sure Peter meant him and not Clinton or Diana, who were at their desks in between them. Peter narrowed his eye and nodded sharply. He didn’t look happy.

“You don’t look happy,” Neal said upon entering Peter’s office.

“Why should I be?” Peter asked. Neal opened his mouth to answer, but Peter continued talking. “We’ve lost Laroque, Keller’s still on the loose, and now that we know for certain the Nazi treasure has survived, you are the prime suspect in its theft. Tell me, what is there to be happy about in all of that?”

Neal stared at Peter. He wasn’t sure how to react to this latest accusation, which really should not have been a surprise. He’d always been the prime suspect. He expected that a number of emotions showed fleetingly on his face: shock, anger, hurt. It didn’t matter. “Are the Egyptians not happy to get the amulet of the lost pharaoh back?”

Peter sighed and leaned back. “Technically, they haven’t got it back. It’s currently being held as evidence.”

“Oh.” Neal looked down, playing with the brim of his hat.

“But yes, they are pleased to know that it has been recovered and is in good condition. Happy?”

“Not really, but I’ll take what I can get,” he answered. They sat in uncomfortable silence for a moment. “Maybe I can help on the Laroque front,” Neal offered. “Since she left when Keller came in brandishing a gun, she missed the whole FBI connection. She contacted me last night, asking if I can help her get the amulet back from Keller.”

“She thinks he has it?”

“He did when she left – he’d taken it at gunpoint.”

Peter frowned, puzzled. “But you had it when we came in.”

“Yeah, he gave it back to me.”

Peter’s frown deepened. “Why would he do that?”

Neal took a deep breath. “Because he also believes I’m the prime suspect for stealing the treasure, and he thinks I can help him move it.”

Peter contemplated him for a time. “What did you tell Laroque?”

Neal blinked. “Nothing. Yet. Wasn’t sure what you wanted to do. I thought we could set up another meet, a sting with the amulet –”

“What did you tell Keller?”

Neal blinked again. Was Peter trying to trip him up with these quick subject changes? “I told Keller what happened to the last man who tried to get me to help him move the treasure.”

Peter nodded slowly. “Adler. Who was killed.”

“Right.”

“Has Keller contacted you since?”

“No.” Neal shook his head.

“Mmm. All right. Contact Laroque, arrange a meet to exchange the amulet. If Keller interrupted one session with Laroque, maybe he’ll do so again.”

“And this time we’ll be ready for him.”

Peter nodded, looking steadily at Neal. “We’ll be ready.”

 

~*~o~*~

 

Neal had Hale pass the word to Keller that he’d like to discuss an arrangement to their mutual benefit. He’d be off-anklet, because the Feds thought he was meeting up with Laroque – hence Hale’s involvement again. He set a meet for that afternoon, since he knew Keller wanted to limit his time in the city.

In the van, Neal felt the rush lifting him up again. Peter was still grave, but not quite so grim as that morning. Then again, he was always worried when Neal went undercover. Excessively so, in Neal’s opinion. But then, Neal had developed a habit of forgetting all the times he’d been shot at or injured – he’d had to, back in his criminal career days, or he would’ve lost his ability to pull any cons.

Perhaps Peter remembered all the times a mission went south on them, and that was why those large brown eyes were full of warmth and concern. In any case, it helped Neal relax into his role and smile with optimism. “C’mon, Peter, smile! Relax! I go in, she takes the amulet, you guys pick her up. Routine takedown.”

Peter scoffed. “There’s nothing routine when you’re involved. You said she was armed last time; there’s always danger when the suspect is armed. Not to mention if Keller does show up –”

“What, you don’t have faith in your ability to handle him? You’ve got teams covering the area –”

“Yeah, from a distance, otherwise we’ll spook Laroque, who’s already on alert thanks to Keller; and warn off Keller himself, if he shows. He’s too dangerous, Neal. We have to be on our best game.”

Neal nodded, letting his expression match Peter’s gravity, though not his worry. “We will be. We are.” He smiled again, warmly. “I trust you, Peter.”

Peter gave him a look. “Speaking of trust, give me your ankle.” He unlocked the anklet, and gave Neal the amulet, which he slipped into a pocket. “I wish we’d had time to make a forgery; the Egyptians won’t be happy if that goes missing again, right after we got it back.”

Neal rolled his eyes. “It won’t, Peter. Have a little faith.”

Peter stood arms akimbo. “I don’t like this. There’s too many variables, too much danger, too much at stake – Keller’s always a wild card and we don’t know enough about Laroque, except she’s comfortable with a gun.”

“Is that the famous Burke gut speaking?” asked Neal sympathetically.

“Yes. Yes it is.” Peter looked steadily into Neal’s eyes. “Be careful.”

“I will be.” Neal stepped out of the van.

He was dressed more casually than usual today, to match their location – an industrial area of mostly warehouses, that received moderate use. Enough that activity wasn’t automatically suspicious, but not so much that the area was busy with eyes always watching. Like the mob hangout Raquel had picked for their first meet, it was a good area for keeping one’s actions under the radar.

Neal zig-zagged a couple of short blocks and a long one to get to his destination. Like Peter said, the van had to keep its distance from the savvy Laroque and savvier Keller. Along the way, he did notice at least two agents, lounging against a wall like truckers on a smoke break. In character, one ignored him while the other gave him a wary, suspicious look. Neal ignored them. He reached the empty side street with the door to the meet’s location.

He stepped inside to darkness. He closed the door, but kept his back to the wall next to it until his eyes adjusted. “Hello?” he called, looking around.

“That’s enough,” came Raquel’s voice. Neal whipped his head towards the sound – Raquel was not supposed to be here; just Keller. Maybe they were working together? All the better for Peter, Neal mentally shrugged.

Before he could reply, he felt the muzzle of a gun dig into his back and a hand clap over his mouth. In front of him stood Keller, also armed. In his other hand he held up a recorder for Neal to see. Not Raquel here, then, just her voice. Keller smirked and slid the device into a pocket. He snagged Neal’s FBI watch to turn it off, then lifted his phone. Taking out a wand to run up and down Neal’s body, he satisfied himself that Neal had no other wires, recording devices, or GPS trackers.

“Nice place you picked to meet, Caffrey,” he said. “Very close to your stash. Convenient, eh? Come along quickly now, we haven’t got much time before your Fed buddies catch up.”

Keller took the lead, with his goon driving Neal forward with his gun. Neal strode along cooperatively. All was proceeding according to plan. They had reached the third part of Sun-Tzu’s dictum: ‘Engage people with what they expect; it confirms their projections. It settles them into predictable patterns of response.’

Neal knew where Keller was taking him, and he’d known Keller would force him along at gunpoint. Arrogant. Predictable.

The three of them crossed the wide expanse of the block-long warehouse, but instead of leaving by a door on the other side, they went down a staircase into the basement. Keller continued leading with a flashlight, and the goon behind Neal flicked on a head lamp. A hole had recently been blasted in a wall, connecting the basement to an old disused tunnel. Their underground path angled and turned, and after a few minutes they went through a door that led into another basement. Climbing the stairs, they were in the treasure room, the one that Neal hadn’t seen in person since the day Adler died and the U-boat exploded.

The room no longer looked the way it had when Neal last viewed it through the cam, however. Everything had been loaded up into a truck, now poised at one of the warehouse’s bay doors. He looked around for the camera.

“Oh, don’t worry about being spied upon, Caffrey. I took the camera down once I found this place,” said Keller. “But the internet feed still shows all that gorgeous art, for anybody’s viewing delight. After all, pretty little Sara told an Interpol agent on the street about that IP address. Who knows who else she might tell?”

“Who knows,” echoed Neal. “You’re all loaded up and ready to go; what do you need me for?”

“I need you,” said Keller, moving closer to Neal in his characteristic sidling manner, “to help me get it past the FBI. I know there’s more than just Burke and his closest pals out there.” He waved his gun, held in the hand away from Neal, in a gesture indicating the nearby streets. “The neighborhood is crawling with Feds right now.”

“And I told you before what happened to the last man who wanted my help with that,” said Neal, unintimidated. The goon was now standing by the truck, his gun professionally trained on Neal, but neither of them were going to shoot him. There was no point: even if he wasn’t exactly an asset, he definitely wasn’t a threat.

“Yeah, I remembered that, so I took a little precaution.” Keller nodded to his minion by the truck. The back doors had been open enough that Neal had seen the crates with their distinctive swastikas; now the man swung one a little wider and Keller shined his flashlight in.

Sara was sitting in the middle, tied up and gagged with duct tape. Draped on her was a vest with explosives and a timer.

The timer was counting down.

Furious, Neal turned to Keller. “Let her go! You don’t need to do this!”

Keller chuckled. “Oh, but I do. Cos it seems the treasure wasn’t motive enough, as it’s been sitting here all this time. So, I gave you a little incentive. I’m on a time limit. Now you are too.”

“If you blow her up, you won’t have any treasure, just more enemies.”

“Eh, there’s not that much explosive power on her. In an insulated truck like that, it’ll be a little noise, like a backfire. Might damage some of the art around her, but all the gold and gems will survive. Not Sara, of course. Doesn’t have to make a very big hole in her to do a lot of damage.”

“Let her go,” repeated Neal in a low, dangerous tone. “You can leave the explosives with the art. You know I wouldn’t let those masterpieces be destroyed.”

Keller chuckled again and scratched his eyebrow with the hand holding the gun. “Yeah, I thought about that. I did consider that. Woulda made my life easier, not having to bring Sara into it. But you’ve changed, Caffrey. We used to work so well together. But you got squeamish and cowardly. Maybe you like your cushy life on the leash held by your Fed buddies too much. How could I be certain? Sara here is some insurance for me.”

“You threaten my friends like this, and you wonder why we’re not partners.” Neal scoffed. “Why you have no friends of your own.”

“Once I’ve got the treasure, I can buy all the friends I need. Time’s a-wasting, Caffrey. Tick-tock.”

“Just what the hell do you expect me to do, anyway? You’re the one with the master plan, it seems. You’ve got it all figured out.”

“Yeah, yeah, I do. Don’t you forget it,” Keller warned, dead serious. He pulled out a phone, not the one he’d taken from Neal earlier. “This is Laroque’s phone. See, you thought you’d be so clever, using her phone, since you told the Feds you’d be meeting her. Now, the Feds are still tracing her phone, but you’re okay with that, cos your plan is to make all this look like her doing.” He tossed Neal the phone as he walked to the panel of light switches by the door and flicked one on. Another bay lit up, with another truck ready to drive out. “You, Caffrey, are going to drive that truck. That phone is already set up to send out some texts to a burner. The texts will look like some sort of code between you and your little comrade-in-crime, but really they’re meaningless. Don’t interfere with them, and don’t send out any other messages or make any calls. I’ll be monitoring. You start thinking you’re clever, you just remember about Sara here.”

“If I’m driving this other truck, how do I know you won’t hurt her?”

“Well, now, that’s a good question,” he answered, scratching his head. “The thing is, I guess you don’t. But you do know that she will be hurt pretty bad if you don’t cooperate.”

“Damn you, Keller!” Neal growled. He went for him, murder in his eyes.

“Easy, easy!” shouted Keller, pointing his gun at Neal’s chest. “Distance, Caffrey! Distance. Look here, do I want to hurt Sara? No, I don’t. I don’t want to damage any art; I don’t want to start a fire in the truck; I don’t want to dispose of a messy corpse, now do I? No, I don’t. You know that. I let Sara go, this all gets much easier on me than killing her or holding her hostage.”

Neal stood still, chest heaving, arms fisted down his sides.

“Take a look at your phone. Yeah. See that app there? Open it.”

A close-up of the timer on Sara’s vest displayed. “Watch,” said Keller. The timer stopped, at a little over three minutes. “See? That’s my good faith. You get in the truck, drive it away like I said, and the timer stays stopped. When I reach my next destination, I let her go, sans explosives, and she’s fine.”

“Yeah? Where’s your next destination?”

“You don’t need to know that. It’s outside the city, not too far. Sara’ll be fine, the art’ll be fine, I’ll be fine, you’ll be fine. See? Everybody wins.” Keller smiled and tapped his phone. “Don’t take too long to decide.”

The timer started counting down.

Everything up until now had been stalling. Neal needed to make a decision: keep stalling, play along, or make a move to rescue Sara immediately. He figured he could get to one man’s gun and then shoot both Keller and his goon – everyone, even Keller, underestimated him – but could he do that with enough time left to stop the timer, get the explosives disabled, or away from Sara, before the timer went off? He felt murderous now, but did he really want to kill them? (Yeah he did, especially Keller, damn him). Could he disable both men seriously enough without killing them? What if he himself ended up too badly hurt to rescue Sara? Would Keller detonate it immediately if Neal made a move?

All these thoughts flashed through his mind in an instant. “All right, I’ll drive the other truck,” he said, heading towards it. “You have a direction in mind?” he called over his shoulder.

“Good choice, Caffrey.” Keller tapped his phone again, and Neal saw the timer stop. “Take the truck to New Jersey, but ditch the phone on some vehicle headed to Long Island.”

Neal nodded once in acknowledgement, then climbed in the cab of the truck.

Chapter Text

Neal gripped the steering wheel white-knuckled. No rush of exhilaration now, just the tight knot of anxiety in his stomach. He remembered Peter listing the symptoms of fear for someone you cared about, once when Mozzie was in trouble.

He’d told Peter he trusted him, and he did. Peter needed to do his part, and he would. Neal needed to hold onto that thought.

There’d been a trucker’s hat on the seat. Neal had crammed it on his head, not that he cared about traffic cams picking up his face. He wasn’t running; he’d be back as soon as he could.

The thing was, while Keller’s argument – that he’d much prefer not to detonate any explosives while the art was still in the truck – did make sense, there was also no reason for him to let Sara go alive when they arrived at Keller’s ‘destination’. Or even keep her alive past maybe fifteen to twenty minutes of Neal playing decoy.

Neal glanced again at the phone. He could see Sara’s chest rise and fall with her breaths. He could see the jolting of the truck as it moved.

He dutifully headed toward Long Island first, to find a truck to slip the phone on. Once he tossed the phone, he’d lose all knowledge of Sara. He’d have to trust Keller, which he didn’t, not for a New York minute, not even for any kind of second. Keller would see the phone travel across the bridge to Long Island. He probably also had a GPS tracker on the truck. He’d watch for Neal to drive the truck to New Jersey. That would be two decoys, and Keller would be headed upstate, or to Connecticut. Somewhere.

After the second decoy, he wouldn’t need Neal’s cooperation. After the first decoy, he couldn’t count on Neal’s cooperation, since Neal would have lost any means of insuring Keller’s promise about Sara’s safety.

Neal could be clever. He could put the phone on a jitney headed to the Hamptons. He could pay a guy to drive the truck to Jersey, promising him that much more to get it to a specified locale. Neal could slip out of the truck at a red light, lift a stranger’s phone, and be back in the truck before the green. Then he could contact anyone he wanted.

Except none of this would help. Neal knew nothing of Keller’s plans since he’d gotten in the truck. He’d have nothing to contribute. What the hell happened to staying a step ahead of Keller? Sara wasn’t supposed to be involved. Not like this.

Please God not like this

Except he was a step ahead, he reminded himself. He was still a step ahead. It was in Peter he trusted. Peter was his step ahead. Events were in the fourth and final phase: ‘Engage people with what they expect; it confirms their projections. It settles them into predictable patterns of response, occupying their minds while you wait for the moment that they cannot anticipate.’

Sun Tzu didn’t mention how painful that wait would be.

 

~*~o~*~

 

The last turn before the bridge was approaching, and traffic was brutal. He was searching for a discreet way to slip the phone from his perch in the truck to a pickup bed or a back seat but nothing was looking suitable why was this suddenly so hard

“Caffrey!” Diana was leaning out the window of a sedan in the next lane. “Toss me the phone!”

Neal fumbled for it (since when did he fumble under pressure) glanced one last time at the still-breathing Sara (the timer was stopped it could easily be on loop what the hell had he been thinking) and lobbed it neatly onto Diana’s lap.

“I got a Cyber analyst with me,” she called. “We’ll cross to Long Island, you head to Jersey.”

He gave a thumbs up and called back his thanks.

He wished she’d flipped him a phone, though, so he could keep in touch with the rest of the team. He made the turn and checked his mirrors out of habit. Oh, a tail. Of course. He hadn’t even been concerned about one. He hadn’t been running.

Of course Peter had his back.

 

~*~o~*~

 

Traffic was murder. Heading towards Long Island then doubling back across the city to New Jersey this close to rush hour? This was a terrible plan if Keller had meant for Neal to make some tracks. He wouldn’t work as a decoy for long if the Feds simply caught up with him.

That was probably the other reason for taking Sara hostage. Once Neal was caught, any cops coming after Keller would still have to worry about her.

This was why Neal had Peter. Why Peter had a team. They had a lot of agents with a lot of experience, a lot of skills and intelligence. They had HRT’s expertise.

Neal didn’t have to do this by himself, that was the point. He had backup, he had a team.

He had Peter.

 

~*~o~*~

 

Neal was inching towards the snarl that was the GWB when he saw Blake waving from a car. “Pull over!” yelled the agent. “We got her!”

Neal moved out of traffic as soon as he could, Blake close behind. He hopped out of the truck and ran back to the sedan.

“Look, Jones texted me a photo,” said Blake, holding out his phone.

There she was, safe and sound, a shaky relieved smile on her blotchy face. Neal cradled the phone like he was holding her tenderly in his arms. He cleared his throat. “Did they get Keller?”

“Yep,” smirked Blake, smug as if he’d made the arrest himself. “He’s now on his way to lock-up so tight that – well.” He coughed. “Very secure holding. No more escapes.”

Neal nodded and looked back at the phone for a moment until Blake coughed again and held out a hand. “Oh, right. Sorry.” Neal smiled, about as shakily as Sara in the picture.

“No problem.” Blake turned to the probie who’d been driving the sedan. “Take the truck over to ERT. I’ll drive Caffrey back to the office.”

Neal murmured his thanks, but was otherwise quiet on the drive downtown. He leaned back in his seat, letting his head loll on the headrest and closing his eyes. He worked to regain his composure, the anxiety and adrenaline leaching out of him.

This, this should be the celebratory high, the victorious rush. The plan worked. Keller was arrested with the treasure. No more threats, no more suspicious Peter, no one hurt –

His eyes snapped open and he turned to Blake, whipping out an arm to get his attention. “Was anyone injured during Keller’s arrest?”

“No.” Blake shook his head, but as a conscientious driver he kept his eyes on the road. “He and his partner took a few potshots, but SWAT was well armoured.”

“Good.” Neal nodded, lying back again, eyes drifting shut. “Good.”

Chapter Text

Once back in the FBI office, Neal was feeling more himself. This was what they did. Yes, there was a hiccup, but they were prepared, they adjusted the plan as necessary. That was what they did, why they worked so well.

Then he saw Sara.

She sat huddled into a coat. Not hers. Not Peter’s either, thank goodness. Someone’s. She looked okay, still a bit shell-shocked. He noticed all this as he moved towards her as fast as he could, snaking through the busy office.

“Hi,” she said when she saw him.

“Hey.” He sat down next to her. He wanted to embrace her, but she seemed closed off, arms holding the coat closed snug around her, her expression a bit wary. “How are you doing?”

She took a breath and let it out. “I’m okay. I will be.” She nodded and tried a smile. “How are you, Caffrey?”

“Better for seeing you.” His smile came naturally. He went to put an arm around her shoulder, but she flinched, just slightly, and leaned away, just a tad. He brought his arm back to his side. “I am so, so sorry, Sara.”

“Yeah, I know.” She smiled sadly.

“Sara, please, I had no idea.”

Her expression didn’t change. “You never do.”

Diana came over to them. “Hey, Sara, I can give you a ride home now, if you like.”

“Yes, please. Thank you.” Sara stood up. It was Diana’s coat she was wearing, Neal realized.

He stood too. “Call me?” he asked, reaching out to touch her gently on the arm.

“Yeah…” she answered. “Give me some time, okay?”

“Okay. Bye.”

Sara gave him a little wave as she walked away.

 

Peter came up beside him. “You did the right thing, you know.”

“What? When?” Neal asked, confused. Well, always, but Peter didn’t usually see it that way.

“Once you learned Keller had Sara,” Peter answered. “You followed his instructions. You didn’t try to be a hero. You didn’t do anything stupid, trying to be clever.”

“I knew you would find us. I knew I could rely on the whole team to get her back safe.”

“You knew that, huh?”

“Peter. I trust you. Oh, speaking of,” Neal said, digging in his pocket. “Amulet. Still safe and sound.”

“Thanks.” Peter passed it to Blake, who was standing nearby. “Here. Make sure this gets back to Evidence.” He turned back to Neal. “And I have a present for you,” he said, taking the anklet out of his pocket.

“Ah, right.” Neal lifted his foot onto the chair. “So, how’d you catch Keller?”

Blake answered. “Oh, it was cool! We used a funneling technique, well-disguised so Keller wouldn’t catch on, and stopped him in a traffic jam that was basically a road block –” He cut himself off when he noticed the glare Peter was giving him. He cleared his throat. “We used standard procedure, modified for hostage situations.”

Neal nodded and smiled. “Excellent!”

Blake acknowledged with a single, serious nod, then took himself off to get the amulet properly secured.

Neal turned to Peter. “How did you find me?”

Peter held Neal’s gaze while he brought his phone out. He turned the display so Neal could see the text: Do you know where your CI is? followed by another IP address. “It arrived in time for us to hear about Sara and the explosives and Keller’s plan.”

“Do you know you sent it?” asked Neal.

Peter dropped his chin and gave him a Look. “It came in anonymously. But you know who sent it.”

Neal kept his face blank, expression open.

Peter sighed. “Thing is, you didn’t even blink when Diana showed up next to your truck.”

“No, I try not to blink around Diana.” At Peter’s puzzled frown Neal added, “She moves fast.”

Peter rolled his eyes. “You weren’t surprised when she knew everything that was going on – about the phone, where you had to drive.”

“When Diana shows up, I do what she tells me. She strikes fast too,” he added unnecessarily. In response to Peter’s unconvinced expression, Neal put on a confident smile.

Evidently the agent wasn’t buying it. Arms akimbo, Peter opened his mouth, seemed to think better of it, said simply, “In my office,” and turned to walk off.

Neal followed obediently.

 

~*~o~*~

 

“Have a seat,” said Peter, taking his behind his desk. Once they were settled, he opened with, “Sara was badly shaken up, but fortunately she wasn’t injured.”

“God, I know,” said Neal, running his hands through his hair. “I’m so sorry. I had no idea he’d go after Sara –”

He stopped when he saw Peter shaking his head. “That’s not what I meant. I haven’t asked yet – Were you injured? How are you?”

“Me? I’m fine.” Neal spread his arms open. “No injuries – I wasn’t abducted and tied up, jesus.”

Peter held his gaze seriously. “You were taken at gunpoint.”

“Yeah, but I’m getting used to that.” He was, too, sadly. Damn, he was in the wrong line of work.

Peter’s mouth tightened. “You were expecting that.”

“We both were expecting Keller. He showed up at Laroque’s yesterday, pointing a gun then, too. So, no, I wasn’t surprised.”

“You weren’t surprised to be taken to a different location.”

“No, not really. Keller already told me he had the treasure and he wanted help moving it –”

“And it handily turned up in the vicinity.”

Neal paused to gather his thoughts. “It was supposed to be a meet with Laroque, but she didn’t show. Keller gave me what he said was Laroque’s phone.”

“It was. We had a trace on it.”

“Right. Well, Laroque never showed – at least I never saw her. So perhaps the time I thought I was in contact with Laroque it was actually Keller. Or maybe Laroque was in on it with him, I have no idea.”

Peter sighed. “And they picked a spot with a handy underground passageway.”

“I didn’t know about that! The opening was recently created with explosives. So yeah, that’s probably why he – they – picked that location. It was pretty clever,” Neal acknowledged.

“We heard Laroque’s voice, then you went dark. We expected that, but when you didn’t come back online, we went in to find an empty building.”

Neal nodded. “Right.”

“So while we’re looking for any clues as to where you went – not on the street, we had that covered – I get this very interesting text.”

“Yes. I’m very happy with whoever sent that right now.” Neal grinned.

Pete gave him an ironic look. “I’m sure you are. Because someone had, conveniently for you and for us, placed another camera, one that Keller didn’t know about, in the room where the treasure had been stored.”

Neal kept smiling. “It’s like I have a guardian angel.”

“Uh-huh. An angel both guarding the treasure and willing to tip me off when you were in trouble. I think you know who that ‘angel’ is. I think you knew where the treasure was all this time; I think when Keller came sniffing around you had Sara leak us the first clue, and then set this whole thing up with the supposed Laroque meet and with Keller.”

Neal wasn’t smiling any more. He worked to keep his composure. “And why would I do that.” He spoke too flat for it to be a question.

Peter looked at him for a long moment. “I don’t know.”

“You don’t know because –”

“I don’t know why you didn’t share all of this with me beforehand! We could have set up the sting much more safely!”

Neal started to retort, then paused. “You were worried.”

Peter just about exploded. “Of course we were worried!” he shouted, standing and throwing his arms into the air. “You were off-grid, god knows where, and Sara was strapped with explosives, also god knows where–” Peter was pacing the small confines of his office behind his desk, still gesturing with his arms. “And I had all these agents, multiple teams, all of whom had lost you –” He cut himself off, falling back into his chair with a hand over his mouth, head shaking.

“Peter, I’m touched.”

The agent muttered something. Probably not very complimentary, so just as well Neal couldn’t hear it.

He made one more attempt at explaining. “I wish I could’ve shared more information in advance. What did you tell me at the beginning of the Laroque case? ‘Get with your crime super-friends’. I’m a CI; you use me for my criminal contacts. If I gave you all of them – burned them all – I’d run out of usefulness fast.”

Peter shook his head. “Okay, one, that’s not true; and second, I’m not asking for all of them.”

“Yeah, just this particular one in advance of my needing him. Or her. Look, Peter, I wouldn’t have expected we’d need a camera at the treasure location. I didn’t set that up. I thought – like you – that we had all the agents we needed in place. I didn’t expect any underground passageways. As for who my ‘guardian angel’ is, well, you’re right, I have criminal friends. That’s plural. I involved one in the communications with Laroque – you saw him introduce me to her. He’s a smart man and he knew Keller was involved; I don’t know what else he might have known. Then there’s Laroque. She might have been working with Keller, then been upset by his methods – kidnapping Sara, the explosives. Laroque’s certainly suspicious and wary enough to have put a camera in place. Maybe she was willing to give up the treasure to screw Keller, or maybe Keller screwed her over first, so she double-crossed him.”

Peter looked skeptical. “Or maybe you or your friends knew about the location of the treasure all along. You knew we were looking for it; why didn’t you come forward?”

It was Neal’s turn to explode. Sort of. Except he never exploded; he kept his cool. “You cut me out of the investigation, remember? You didn’t want my help. Sure, I could’ve kept my eyes open and ears out, I could have helped track down or find leads – but you were too busy trying to prove that I did it to ask me for help or involve me in any way. You can’t have it both ways, Peter.”

Peter sighed. A tense silence hung over them. “You’re right, I can’t. I like it better when we’re a team.”

“I do too.”

Peter leaned forward. “But you also need to remember that you can’t have it both ways either. You can’t be hiding things from me, playing me, then expect me to come save your hide when you’re in too deep – or you’ve dragged someone else in too deep, you got that?”

“Of course. I would never.” Neal was all wide-eyed innocence.

Peter huffed. “Go find Jones, get him to take your statement.”

 

~*~o~*~

 

Finally at home, Neal was happy to see Mozzie with a bottle already open. “You could pour me a glass while you’re at it, you know. Especially if you’re drinking my best Cognac.”

“I never know what kind of mood you’ll be in,” Moz answered.

Neal looked at his friend darkly. “These days, a drinking one.” Wait. That hadn’t come out right. “As long as I’m in good company,” he added, raising his glass to his partner.

Mozzie inclined his head and raised his glass in return. “Well, we’ve offloaded half the treasure. Are you happy? Is the Suit happy?”

Neal blinked. “Is that why you’re drinking my Cognac? Are you celebrating or mourning?”

Moz thought about it. “Both, maybe. You didn’t answer my question.”

Neal leaned forward over the table. “Moz, when did you know that Sara had been abducted?”

Mozzie’s eyes widened. “Not until Keller had you in the room! And- and was showing you and- and talking about her! By then I’d already sent the text to the Suit – he was notified as soon as I knew!”

“Okay, Moz, all right. Thanks. Great job, by the way, setting up the camera where Keller wouldn’t find it.”

“Mmm. I’ve always found the difficulty with these high-ceilinged places is adequately scanning them for bugs.”

“I expect Keller had other things on his mind, too.”

“Like blowing up innocent women? I’m sorry I ever doubted you, Neal; it was totally worth any amount of treasure to get rid of that man.” He took a swallow of the brandy. “New York still has the death penalty, doesn’t it?” he mused.

Neal was touched by Mozzie’s concern about Sara; he hadn’t thought he liked her that much. “Thanks, Moz.” He smiled. “I couldn’t have done it without you.”

Chapter Text

The next day at the office Neal wondered what sort of mood Peter would be in. Still suspicious and angry? Or would a decent night’s sleep and the knowledge that Keller was locked up and the U-boat treasure recovered and secured have settled him into a better frame of mind?

Neal himself was feeling much better. Like a great burden had been removed. Maybe half a U-boat’s worth. Sara might break up with him; he could hardly blame her. But he couldn’t be too upset about that when he was so busy being happy that she was safe.

Peter emerged from the conference room, surrounded by a number of agents and officials, all looking very important and very pleased. He escorted the group to the elevator, handshakes and smiles all around.

Well. That should answer the question about Peter’s mood. He hoped.

After the Important-Looking Personages had left, Peter turned to Neal and indicated with a head tilt to join him in Peter’s office.

“How’s Sara doing?” he asked, after Neal closed the door behind them.

“I assume she’s okay. I haven’t heard from her since we were in the office yesterday.”

Peter frowned. “Is that a bad sign? Are you on the outs with her?”

Neal took a deep breath and let it out. “I don’t know, Peter. Maybe. She said to give her some time.”

Peter was shaking his head. “What did I tell you?” he asked with a rhetorical air.

“Uh… To be careful? That I can –”

“I said I don’t like being your patsy, and you shouldn’t involve Sara in these dangerous stunts,” he scolded.

Neal huffed, shocked. So much for good moods. “Do you even know what a patsy is, Peter? He’s the fall guy, the one who loses. Not the one who makes the arrest, recovers the treasure, and saves the day. You’re far from a patsy – I was counting on you to stop Keller. That’s your job. It’s what we do. You weren’t a patsy – you were my partner.”

Peter was unmoved. “Partners keep each other informed.”

Neal shook his head and looked away, crossing his arms. “We’ve already been over this. There’s nothing left to say.”

“Isn’t there? What about Sara?”

Neal faced him again, looking him in the eye and leaning forward, arms spread on the desk. “I didn’t involve her. Keller did, because she was connected to me. Like he kidnapped you last time because you’re connected to me. Am I supposed to become a hermit, have no friends, no connections?”

“Of course not! You are deliberately misunderstanding me.”

“The you’ll have to explain yourself better, because I don’t know how else to keep Sara or anyone safe from a man like Keller. Look, Sara can handle herself as well as anyone – she sleeps with a gun! And you’ve seen her with her baton. If she’s at risk, so is anyone I date. Am I supposed to be celibate the rest of my life because someone from my past might re-appear?”

“Is there anyone else we should know about?” Peter leaned back in his chair.

Neal shook his head. “God, I hope not. There was Ryan Wilkes –”

“Still locked up.”

“Good. Adler’s dead, and now Keller’s locked up.”

“Which he should stay this time. They’ve put extra security protocols in place for him.”

“Good. I hope they work. Look, I told you why I stopped working with Keller, and I learned my lesson from Wilkes long before he reappeared. Adler ditched me before he ever became violent – that I know of. He fleeced everyone with his Ponzi scheme but I don’t know that he had killed anyone back in those days.”

“No,” said Peter. “If he did there’s no evidence. Not until Fowler’s confession about the plane.”

“Right. Well, if there are other Adlers in my past – men who weren’t violent then but might become so later… I can’t tell you. I don’t know myself.”

“And if you learn of any –”

“I will tell you first thing, Peter, I swear.”

“Don’t try to handle these things yourself, Neal. Even if you think you’ve got my backup.”

“I won’t, Peter. I don’t.”

Peter was nodding at him, looking less grim, when Diana knocked on the door and opened it. “Boss, you gotta see this.”

He and Neal exchanged puzzled glances and followed Diana into the conference room. On the screen was Keller, making a confession that was being translated into Russian.

Peter frowned in thought, then made the connection. “Keller still owes the Russian mob, doesn’t he. Something like two million dollars?”

“Yeah,” confirmed Neal.

“Russia is claiming that the treasure – or most of it – was looted by the Nazis from their museums,” Diana informed them.

“Like the amber music box,” noted Neal.

“He’s hoping that even if he can’t pay the mob off directly, they’ll be pleased enough with him to write off his debt,” Peter reasoned.

“More than that,” said Diana. “Organized Crime told us that Keller’s lawyers have ties to the Russian mob.”

“Amazing.” Peter shook his head in disbelief.

“Do you think Keller really was behind it all?” Diana asked.

She and Peter both looked at Neal, who shrugged. “Possibly? I would’ve thought we would’ve heard from him sooner if that was the case, but maybe he had contacts here he was working with while he lay low elsewhere?”

Peter was nodding. “Then came into town himself when his associates weren’t getting the job done? Could be.”

“But why all the rigamarole with Laroque and the amulet?” Diana asked. They both looked to Neal, like he was the expert on all matters criminal. Oh, right.

“The amulet should have brought him a nice payday in a small package. If he couldn’t fence or move the treasure, maybe he needed some ready cash.”

“But he handed it over to you,” Peter pointed out.

“I guess he thought my help would be worth it?”

“It wasn’t. And why would he need to lean on Sara for information if he already had it?”

“To find out what word was already out on the street? We’re going with the untrustworthy or incompetent associates theory here.”

“Or his confession is a load of crap and someone else took the treasure from Adler before the explosion.”

“Or someone else was responsible, yes,” agreed Neal. “This is all guesswork and speculation.”

“Mmm.” Peter gave him a long, considering look.

“Peter. It wasn’t me,” said Neal. “I’m not your untrustworthy associate. If all I am is your CI, so be it, but I’d much rather be your partner.”

“Partner,” echoed Peter.

“Yes.” Neal held out his hand to shake.

Peter looked from Neal’s hand up to his eyes. He reached out his own hand to clasp Neal’s. “Partners,” he stated. A smile started to grow, slowly.

“Partners,” agreed Neal, his own smile wide and brilliant.

 

~*~o~*~

 

Neal kept his head down and focused on paperwork all that day at the office. What had he been thinking about boredom earlier? That was the week after the U-boat explosion. These past couple of weeks had been a little extra on the exciting side too.

But perhaps boredom could come in smaller chunks. A whole day of paperwork was past dull and into torture.

Still, every time he looked up towards Peter in his office or roaming about the bullpen, the agent – his partner, again – appeared a little more contented, a lift in the corners of his mouth replacing the furrow between his brows.

For an equable, trusting Peter, Neal would put up with a day of torturous paperwork doldrums.

 

The evening brought even better news. Neal was relaxing in his Moz-free loft when Sara called.

“Sara! Hi, how are you?” he infused his voice with all the care and concern he’d been feeling.

“I’m… I’m good, Caffrey. How are you?” She sounded warm to him, not tentative or perfunctory.

“Oh, I’m great. Spent the day doing paperwork, always good for the soul.”

Her familiar laugh came over the line. “Caffrey… Neal, I’ve missed you.”

“I miss you, too.”

“Would you like to come over? It’s feeling a little, hmm, empty in here.”

“I’d love to,” he answered. “Shall I bring dinner?”

“Oh god, please! That’d be fantastic.”

He chuckled. “Here I thought it was my company you wanted, but turns out it was your pantry that was bare. Always the angle with you, Repo.” He was rewarded with another laugh, another quip. Meanwhile, he was already out his door and down the stairs, still talking, teasing her about her dinner preferences.

He could deal with paperwork during the day if his evenings were like this.

 

~*~o~*~

 

Still, paperwork-filled days did tend to drag on and on. And if it wasn’t the paperwork of closing a case, then it was poring over papers filled with mortgage fraud.

Neal wasn’t cut out to be a nine-to-five clock-watcher. But then he wasn’t cut out to live his days in prison either, but he had managed that for over three years. He could do this for a couple more. There were bound to be more exciting cases to come; there had been plenty in the past.



Mozzie was at his apartment when he got home. Neal looked around for the open bottle, but none was in evidence.

Moz cleared his throat. “Good evening, mon frère. How is your Su– Sara?”

He smiled. “My Sara is just fine, thank you. But I doubt you would be if she heard you call her that.”

That earned him a mild glare. “No lingering… trauma from the Keller incident?” Moz inquired.

“No lingering anger or resentment, you mean? No. She puts all the blame squarely on Keller.”

Mozzie nodded in satisfaction. “Where it belongs.”

Neal still felt something was missing. Oh, yeah. “Not to encourage you, Moz, but you don’t appear to be helping yourself to any of my wine collection this evening.”

“Ah, yes. I have my reasons. I am here for a very specific purpose.”

“Which is…?” he asked, puzzled. Moz didn’t typically make announcements. He just said whatever was on his mind.

“We still have our half of the treasure. I assume there is no reason for anyone to think the Feds didn’t recover the whole of it?”

“No.” He sat in a kitchen chair, setting his hat down on the table. “As far as I know, everyone thinks it’s all been accounted for.”

Moz beamed. “So we are free to take our portion and go, my friend! The island of our choice awaits!”

He nodded. “I wish you joy, Moz, but I’ll be staying here.”

“What? Why? Are you still hung up on the Suit? Or is it Sara?”

“It’s New York, Moz. It’s my whole life! My life is here, right now. When the anklet’s off –”

“Yes, yes, I’ve heard this all before.” He crossed his arms and looked away.

“I’m sorry, Moz. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life on the run, in exile.”

“Well, when you put it like that… I’m going to need a drink.” He stood up and got out two glasses, then looked through the bottles. “Yes! The Syrah I’ve been wanting to try.”

“Do you have plans to be leaving soon?”

Moz waved the question off. “No, no. It would be boring without y– without company.” He handed Neal a glass and raised his own. “To New York, and a glorious retirement at some future date to be specified later.”

Neal chuckled. “To New York, and glorious friends!”