On the sixth day of the seventh month of the third year of the reign of Queen Christie, Neal Caffrey stole the crown jewels of the kingdom of New York. It was, all agreed, a most daring feat.
Especially for someone who didn't actually exist.
"Look," Peter said, "this guy - he's good, all right? Good, but also arrogant. Cocky. He left us a note." Fowler opened his mouth, so Peter plowed on. "A fake note, with a fake name and probably written in a different hand than his usual one, but it's still something we can trace back to him."
"You seem very convinced our thief is a man, Agent Burke." Fowler looked smug, but then, Fowler always looked smug. He'd probably been born looking smug, like he'd pulled one over on the universe by managing to get this far. Rightly so, if you asked Peter. "How come?"
Peter shrugged. "Intuition? Plus, Neal's a guy."
Fowler smiled a smug little smile. "Correction, Agent Burke - Neal Caffrey is a fictional character. The hero, if you can call him such, of several quite popular books written by one Mrs. E. Burke. Your wife."
"You're trying to imply my wife did this?" Peter asked incredulously.
Hughes cleared his throat. Peter turned to him gratefully, glad that someone with the authority to shut Fowler up was about to do so. "Agent Fowler isn't trying to implicate your wife, Peter."
"Good," Peter said, glaring at Fowler, who failed to look any less smug, "because - "
"Peter," Hughes said. "He's trying to implicate you."
Which was just the perfect ending to a really rotten day.
Neal Caffrey, meanwhile, wasn't having a very good day either. He'd escaped from the evil clutches of the nefarious Empress of Darkness, narrowly avoided getting eaten by the sacred crocodiles, lost his pants in a rigged gambling game with his former best friend and was currently in the process of considering whether it would be better to be recaptured by Her Imperial Majesty's guards, or to jump off the tower upon which they had him trapped, thus buying himself a quick death.
"O-kay," Lauren said. "Tell me how this guy is your favorite character again. Because I'm not seeing it."
Elizabeth waved dismissively. "Oh, it's just harmless fun. It's not as if I'm going to let anything happen to him. He's only, you know, running around. Having adventures. Being a guy."
"With no pants on."
"See? Just harmless fun."
The cell was damp and half the size of their living room and only a little bit smelly. Peter supposed it could have been worse, but then again, it could have been better, too.
"Sir, with all respect, but this is ridiculous. I should be out there, tracking down the guy who - "
"You think it's going to be just this one theft?" Hughes asked. He didn't actually say: 'stop freaking out and start thinking, damn it' but it came pretty close.
Peter took a deep breath, wished he'd thought of doing so outside of the cell, and sat down.
"You said it yourself: this guy's cocky. Arrogant," Hughes said. "He'll be back."
"He's already got the crown jewels," Peter pointed out. "What's he going to do for an encore?"
"I don't know. I've got people I'm paying to figure that sort of thing out for me. One of them may be stuck in a cell right now, but that doesn't mean I'm not expecting him to do his job."
Peter sighed and shook his head. The crown jewels - well, what were you going to steal to top that? What could you steal to top that? The throne? Not even worth a tenth of the crown jewels, and too heavy to move besides. The royal library? Supposedly, there were some quite valuable volumes, and it would certainly be a feat to pull off, but it wasn't exactly very glamorous.
Neal Caffrey wouldn't first steal the crown jewels and then a couple of books. Neal Caffrey would steal the crown jewels and then - and then -
"Can I talk to my wife down here?"
Diana Barrigan was not having a good day.
The crown jewels were missing, her lover was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and she'd just received word that one of her best friends had been tossed into a cell for a crime she was fairly certain he hadn't commited. Also, it appeared someone had forgotten to put on a pair of pants this morning.
"Um," Diana said. "Lost something?"
The guy was - well, if she'd been straight, she'd have considered his state of pantslessness a bright spot in an otherwise rather gloomy day. As it was, she spent perhaps ten seconds wishing he'd been a she, before reminding herself that, really, she was perfectly happy with Christie.
A woman could still look, of course.
"Yes?" the guy said.
Pity the pretty ones always had to open their mouths and reveal themselves as idiots. "Like, pants?"
"Yes, please?" the guy said with an expression on his face that reminded her of a puppy. Rather cute, in a 'look at me, all helpless and stupid' kind of way. Not Diana's type at all, really.
"All right, mister, let's get you some pants."
"You're right," Elizabeth said. "Neal would take the crown jewels last, not first."
"Exactly." Peter got up and paced down the length of his cell. It was a short walk, but at least it let him stretch his legs a little. "So what does it mean that he didn't? What's he after?"
Elizabeth sighed. "Look, honey. That guy out there - whoever he is, he's not Neal, all right? Neal isn't real. I made him up. I write stories about him. Other people write stories about him. That's it."
Peter shook his head. "You're a thief. You pull off the biggest heist in the history of New York. You leave a note, and you sign it with the name of the most famous thief who never lived. You're going to follow it up. You don't just quit. You use that name once, you plan on using it again."
"For what? What's he going to steal next, Peter? What could be more valuable than the crown jewels?"
"Thank you. Thank you so much."
"You're welcome," Diana said, feeling only slightly guilty. Peter wouldn't mind lending some poor guy a pair of pants, she was fairly sure - although she still wondered why the guy hadn't been wearing any in the first place. Kicked out by a disgruntled lover, perhaps? "I'm Diana, by the way. Diana Barrigan."
She'd grown used to people recognizing her name, and reacting to it. "Nice to meet you, Diana." This time, nothing. Not even a blink. "Nick. Nick Halden."
"You're sure it's not Neal Caffrey?" Diana grinned. "Sorry, you must get that a lot. Do you know Elizabeth?"
That got a blink, she noticed. Two, even. "Yeah," Nick said at last, slowly. "I mean, no, I don't know Elizabeth, but the Neal Caffrey thing? All the time."
Diana nodded sympathetically. "It is one of his more famous alibis. Lucky you."
"Yeah," Nick said. "Lucky me."
Elizabeth was beyond appalled. Beyond scared, too, which was good news for her, but bad news for Fowler and whatever flunkies he had brought along to vandalize her study room.
"Mrs. Burke." The slimeball actually had the guts to smile at her.
"Explain what you're doing here. At once. And don't touch that."
Fowler still didn't seem to understand that he was in trouble. "Gathering evidence. Don't worry, we won't be long."
"What you will be, is leaving. Right now." Elizabeth considered making a grab for the manuscript she'd been working on, then decided it was below her dignity. Besides, Neal probably hadn't liked it ver much on top of that tower anyway. If worst came to worst, she could just rewrite that bit.
"Now, Mrs. Burke - "
"Peter?" Diana'd forgotten how dark it was down here. "I brought a visitor."
"A visitor?" Peter looked well, considering. His hair was a bit mussed, as if he'd been taking a nap.
"Calls himself Nick Halden."
Peter's expression didn't change one bit. "You're sure it's not Neal Caffrey?"
Diana grinned, showing teeth. Peter wondered if it could really be so easy, if their suspect really could be so clueless as to just walk straight into their arms. It didn't seem like something a master criminal would do, and yet ... and yet it seemed exactly like something Neal Caffrey would do.
That was the thing about Neal that had always bothered Peter, really; he was this brilliant, genius, charming, smart guy, and yet more often than not, he was up to his neck in trouble.
"Okay, so where is he?"
Diana frowned. Turned around. "He was right behind me."
"You heard the lady," someone said, and Elizabeth sighed in relief, because whoever it was clearly expected to be obeyed, which hopefully meant he had the authority to toss Fowler out on his ass.
Fowler frowned at the newcomer. "Who are you?"
Tall, dark hair, very blue eyes. Extremely good-looking - not that Peter had anything to worry about, obviously, but, well, a woman could look, couldn't she?
"Neal Caffrey," the man formerly known as Nick Halden said.
He looked like Neal, Elizabeth thought. He'd gotten Fowler and his flunkies out of the door - well, not exactly the way Neal would've, but he'd still done it. Because they'd been bothering a lady.
He grinned like Neal, too. Dazzlingly. "No problem."
"Um. You do realize they've probably just gone to get a warrant for your arrest, right?"
"Ah," Neal - Neal? - said. "That might be a bit of a problem, yes."
"He calls himself Halden - Nick Halden," Peter said. "It's one of Neal Caffrey's alibis."
"Hardly proof this is our guy, sir," Fowler said.
Peter managed not to hit him. Barely. "A note with Caffrey's name on it was enough proof for you to make me a suspect, but now someone walking around using one of Caffrey's alibis for his name isn't?"
"Who should I be making out the warrant for, anyway?" Hughes asked, sounding slightly annoyed. "Nick Halden or Neal Caffrey?"
"Okay, and here I thought I was close to having a break-down," Christie said.
Diana groaned. "He was there. He was real. He was - "
"Not wearing any pants," Lauren said. "Exactly like Neal in Elizabeth's last story. The one she's working on right now and hasn't let anyone else read yet."
"So what - we've got a fictional character running around the castle? And he's stolen my crown jewels, but, being a gentleman, he's going to give them back if I ask nicely?"
"Yes, probably," Lauren said, shrugging. Diana glared at her. "What? If you rule out the impossible - and so on."
"Are those my pants?" Peter asked, blinking.
"Maybe?" Neal replied. "I got them from this very nice woman - Diana? She said you probably wouldn't mind."
"You're wearing my pants."
"Happy to trade them for another pair. No offense, but your fashion sense is kind of ... stuck, isn't it?"
Hughes sighed. "Can you just arrest the guy already, Peter?"
"They're classic pants," Peter said. "And you're under arrest."
Neal grinned. "Got to catch me first."
"I'm just saying: you take away a guy's pants, he might get offended."
Elizabeth shook her head. "I had him seduce nearly two dozen women and at least six men. That wasn't offensive?"
"Hey, the guy's a looker," Lauren said. "But yeah, that bit with the fluffy bunnies of doom?"
"Rabid rabbits," Diana said.
"Definitely kind of offensive, too. I mean, if I'd been a guy, I'd have been pretty offended."
"Neal isn't just a guy; he's ... Neal," Elizabeth said.
"Pants," Christie repeated.
"Wars have been started over less, I'm sure," Neal said. "Your Majesty."
"So maybe tune down the charm a little? And give me my fucking crown jewels back. Please."
Neal coughed. "You know, they're sort of fake."
"You know, that's sort of not the point."
"Well, I would give them back - happy to, in fact, but there's just a tiny bit of a problem. You see, there's this guy who used to be my best friend ... "
"I don't believe this," Peter said.
Elizabeth smiled at him, then turned to Neal and smiled at him. It was a good thing Peter wasn't the jealous type, he decided, because really, when a man's wife smiled at another guy like that, he -
Neal smiled back. Peter remembered that he (Neal, not him) was supposed to be bisexual. So. Good thing Elizabeth wasn't the jealous type, either.
"Why, Peter, you're just going to help me win back the crown jewels from my former best friend."
"In a book."
"This will be fun," Elizabeth said.
("Can I at least have my pants back now?")
("Can I buy you new ones after we've pulled this off?")