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St. Lois is Just a Memory

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Sarah stood at the edge of the terrace, hair blowing slightly in the breeze. She wrapped her open cardigan around her tighter, leaning her hip against the edge of the wall. It was still summer, though just barely, and yesterday it was even hot out. But today the weather was cooler and the sky was littered with dark storm clouds, swirling around the tops of New York buildings ominously. The cool air stung her eyes, made her skin feel oddly electric, but it was refreshing.
She could go inside, maybe borrow one of Neal’s books from a shelf, pour a glass of wine. She knew he wouldn’t mind. But it was peaceful and dreary out here, which was just what she wanted. Neal’s apartment was too homey, too cozy for right now. Neither of them had seen each other since the whole treasure thing, and it had been nearly a week since Elizabeth had returned safely after an entire day of being held hostage by Keller. Neal wasn’t in prison so she wondered what exactly had happened, if Neal had told Peter about the art. She was curious, but that wasn’t why she was here.
She glanced back inside at the warm glow of the kitchen lights, the paint-stained easel sitting next to the table, holding up a half finished canvas with a painting Sarah didn’t recognize (and was possibly an original Caffrey), and while she had been in his apartment just last month, something about it made her feel foreign. Maybe it was just because Neal wasn’t here and without him it just wasn’t entirely . . . his, but something different.
She turned back around, staring at the dark silhouette of the skyline. Right now, the distant, industrial feel of it suited her, better than the empty apartment. She idly traced the outline of the Chrysler Building with her finger, then sighed and let her hand drop back down to her waist.
She closed her eyes against the wind and tried to pretend they were watery because of the bite in the air. She tried to imagine what she was going to say to him, tried to rehearse it in her head. But her own selfish questions swirled around, untamed.
Was the Raphael a gift? Did you steal it for her? Was it her favorite? Who was she? Why did you give it to her? Did you love her? You must have.
He probably already knew. She hoped he did, anyways. He had ways of knowing things before anyone else and she hoped this was one of them. How was she going to tell him, anyways? Hell, she shouldn’t even be telling him. She signed the confidentiality agreement. This was going against her job, her boss, the law—but she didn’t even think twice about it. As soon as she had changed into something less professional, she went straight to his apartment.
Still, she wished she were here for another reason.
“Sarah?”
She opened her eyes, turning halfway to see him standing by the open door of the terrace, still dressed fully in work clothes, his suit and that stupid, little (cute, on no one but him) hat of his.
“Neal.”
He grinned, so stupidly happy that she was here. She suppressed the urge to roll her eyes.
Neal held his arm out towards her. “You don’t have to wait out here, you know. It’s supposed to rain.”
“I like the rain, Caffrey,” she said, but turned away from the skyline and walked towards him, taking his hand. His skin was warm, shockingly so, almost like it were burning. She hadn’t realized she was that cold.
“You’re freezing,” he said, pulling her close.
“It’s not that bad outside,” she said, pulling away to sit at the table.
Neal nodded, turning away to grab two glasses from the cupboard. He set them down on the table, tossing his hat down and pulling his jacket off, leaving on the vest and shirt and tie. “Wine?”
“Please.”
“June’s maid—Lois—is sending up hot chocolate, too. She told me I had a very lovely, beautiful guest.”
Sarah, despite herself, grinned. “Hot chocolate in the summer?”
“Doesn’t really feel like summer, does it?”
He popped the cork out of the bottle and poured her a glass, passing it to her before pouring some for himself.
“True.” She took a sip, nodding in approval. And then she took another sip, stalling. “How’s tricks, Neal?”
“Good. Better now, actually. We just got a case a few days ago and I’m back undercover.”
There was a small knock on the door, forcing Neal to pause what he was about to say. He stood up to open the door, revealing Lois, carrying a small tray cluttered with two steaming mugs, complete with whip cream and a tiny pile of marshmallows off to the side. Neal took the tray from her, smiling gratefully.
“Thank you, Lois. This smells amazing.”
Lois, nearly forty years old with short, black hair and light brown eyes, smiled back, a little shyly. She glanced inside the room to see Sarah and her grin widened. “Of course. Have a good night.”
“You too. Thank you.”
Neal handed her back the tray and she took it before closing the door. Sarah leaned across the table and grabbed Neal’s wine, standing up with both glasses and walking towards the couch. He followed her, carrying both mugs, and set them both down on the coffee table before sitting down next to her.
“So,” he said, taking his wine from her, “What brings you here, Sarah?”
Sarah hesitated, taking another pretty big sip of her wine to both stall and prepare herself.
Just rip it off. Like a band aid.
But this didn’t feel like ripping off a band aid. It felt like tearing open someone’s stitches on a wound they didn’t even know they had.
She swallowed, and glanced away from his piercing gaze before turning her body to face him directly, legs curled up on the couch. “We recovered the Raphael this morning,” she said, studying his face for a reaction.
His eyebrows raised and his eyes widened in surprise. “I had nothing to do with that.”
“I know.” She leaned over, set her wine down on the table next to both cups of hot chocolate. She took his hand in hers, locking their fingers together firmly. He squeezed back, unsure of what she was going to say. “It was found in the apartment of a woman who was in Witness Protection. The Marshals found it when they were cleaning her apartment . . . after she died.”
She watched as his face fell. He closed his eyes, let his entire face smooth out, slack as if he were exhausted and about to fall asleep. But he didn’t look away from her or turn his face. His grip on her hand weakened, so she squeezed tighter, worried. She brought his hand up to her lips, pressing firm kisses into his knuckles.
“I’m sorry, Neal.”
“Thank you for telling me,” he whispered, eyes still closed. “Thank you. Sarah.”
He turned on the couch, so he was facing slightly sideways, like her, his back leaned up against the corner of it in a position that was probably slightly uncomfortable. She turned around, facing the bookcase, and leaned into his chest, with his arms folded across her stomach, her own arms tangled with his. After a few seconds, when his breathing evened out a little, she broke the silence.
“Who was she?”
He was quiet—too quiet, nothing like himself—and she wasn’t sure he was going to answer. But then he did, and his voice was surprisingly clear, as if he were just discussing any other everyday event.
“Ellen. She raised me. Well, kind of. But she was always there for me.” He cleared his throat. “It’s kind of a long story.”
“I’m listening, if you want to tell me.”
“No, you don’t have to.”
“Neal. It’s okay. I didn’t just come here to tell you that someone close to you died and then leave.”
He laughed lightly, then, but it sounded slightly strangled in his throat. He cleared it again, shrugging. “Right. Sorry.” He paused again, thinking, absentmindedly rubbing his thumb back and forth on her stomach. “Remember when you asked me if my real name is Neal?”
“And you told me it was a long story. Is this that story?”
“Yes. Mozzie is the only person who’s ever heard this story, not even Peter knows.”
“Okay. I won’t tell anyone.”
Neal took a deep breath, nodding slowly. She let herself relax into him, and focused on the feel of his chest rising as he breathed and vibrating as he talked. She focused on the calming sound of his voice, deep and slightly rough, candy coated in nostalgia and a little bit of sadness. “I was born in D.C, as Neal Bennet. My mom stayed home with me after I was born, and I’m not sure what she did before that, if anything. My dad was a cop.”
Sarah was glad Neal couldn’t see the shock or disbelief on her face. “A cop?”
“I know. Ironic?”
Sarah shrugged into him. “Unexpected. What happened?”
He paused and Sarah squeezed his hand to reassure and encourage him. “Ellen was his partner on the force. But she was Kathryn, then, Ellen didn’t exist.”
Sarah drew in a slow breath, and turned to face Neal. She knew the woman was in the Program, but she had assumed Neal met her after she was already in it. But no, he knew her before. Which meant . . . “You were in Witness Protection.”
“I was. My name was Danny.” He smiled sadly, eyes fogged over and obviously in the past. “Ellen was my dad’s partner. She’s also the one who arrested him. He . . . was stealing money, warning suspects before they would go to arrest them . . . and he killed someone. Murdered him.”
Neal turned his face away slightly, eyes still staring off into something in the distance only he could see. Sarah settled back up against his chest and quietly hummed thoughtfully.
“Why?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know much about it. I was shocked when I found out, and I didn’t really want anything to do with it.” He paused, taking a sip of hot chocolate, apparently deciding that wine was not a good idea right now. “The Marshals took us away when I was three. My mom, Ellen, and me. They told me my name was Danny and my dad died a hero. I grew up wanting to be just like him.”
“And when you found out . . .”
“I ran away. Took my name back, adopted my mother’s maiden name.”
“And became a criminal.”
“And became a criminal,” he said, nodding. “Although, that wasn’t necessarily part of the plan, back then. I didn’t really have a plan, actually. But Ellen was always there for me. No matter what I did, she was always there. She wrote letters to me in prison—sent me music tapes, charcoals, even food. If it was allowed, she sent it. Not that anyone ever knew it was her, really. We couldn’t talk without a middleman—Kate or Mozzie—because of the Marshals. But she always wrote to me, every week.” He frowned. “I haven’t seen her since I was eighteen.”
“I’m sorry.”
“No. Thank you for telling me. Otherwise, I probably would have had to read about it online.”
“Thanks for talking to me about it.” Sarah frowned, twisting her neck and looking up to see him. “What were you like? When you were a kid?”
He smiled with a spark of mischief in his eyes, but they were still red and slightly watery. “When I was Danny?”
“When you were Danny,” she agreed, lying her head back on his chest to hear his heartbeat.
They talked through the night, ordering a late dinner from an Indian place down the road. He told her about the friends he had in school, the first time he realized he loved painting and art, the two times his mother grounded him (and the times he snuck out), the three times Ellen grounded him (and the times he snuck out) and what happened when he ran away.
Sarah fell asleep sometime after midnight, still listening to Neal tell her about his life.