Peter really should have told Neal about his current con (or "operation," as Peter called it) instead of leaving him a dull stack of files for the whole morning. Neal had finished his notes on the files in little over an hour, so he had earned the right to check up on Peter. Peter would do the same for him! Well, when Peter checked, he was sometimes making sure that Neal wasn't breaking any laws, and Neal wouldn't dream of doing that to Peter. No, he was watching Peter's back as a good partner does.
Any last hesitation Neal might have had about approaching the surveillance van disappeared when he turned the corner. They'd finally taken his advice and traded in the old van for—well, not a new van, but a different old van! Neal kept telling Peter that half the criminals in New York must know the old one, but Peter muttered things like, "The half who are behind bars," or "Fine—you buy us a new van," or "Then why do we keep catching them?"
This van had dents in different places, more mud on the tires but a cleaner windshield, and a cover for the steering wheel. Jones and Diana would be listening to Peter, who should be finishing his meeting any time now. Their surveillance would be trained on the hotel, so Neal approached from the street side. It wouldn't be much of a surprise if they saw him coming. He wondered whether Hughes had gone to the van. Peter and Neal had confidence in Diana and Jones, but Hughes liked to oversee the big operations himself sometimes. On those rare occasions when Neal wasn't the one undercover, though, Peter always told him, "Wait in the van." How could he get in trouble for doing what Peter told him? They usually appreciated his help in the van, although sometimes not right away.
Neal opened the back and jumped in with enthusiasm, pulling off his hat. "About time you got a new va...."
An unfamiliar, gawky figure turned so suddenly in his swivel chair that he almost fell out of it. The man sat by a bank of monitors that looked far nicer than the grainy ones the FBI had, though his headset resembled the one Jones usually wore.
Neal had to make a quick decision: get out fast before things got more exciting, see what he could do here before things got more exciting, or just wait for things to get more exciting?
"Sarah?" gulped the man with the curly dark hair and the worried look. He then pressed a button to transmit. "Sarah?"
Since Neal obviously couldn't be mistaken for Sarah, he decided the fast exit was the best choice. He would have other opportunities for excitement soon enough. He backed away while the other man babbled to someone unseen.
"Sorry!" he exclaimed. "Wrong van." He smiled, tossed off a little wave as he put his hat back on, and stepped back onto the asphalt. He turned and found himself staring at the rather large barrel of a rather large handgun before he could even close the van door.
"Bryce Larkin," growled a large man in coveralls who made the gun look slightly less large by comparison. The man looked very angry.
Neal had used a number of aliases in his time, but 'Bryce Larkin' wasn't one of them. Surely Peter wouldn't have given him a new one without telling him?
Neal held his smile firmly on his face. "I'm sorry. You seem to have the wrong person, and I seem to have the wrong van. Call it even?"
"But, but...." sputtered a voice behind him. "Bryce is dead."
"Yeah, that's the problem. 'Course, we thought he was dead once before," the angry man continued.
"Obviously, I'm not dead," Neal said, trying not to add "yet" even mentally, "so I must not be the person you want. I was just looking for my friend's van. Sorry to bother you."
"He can't be Bryce," the voice from the van continued. "Bryce wouldn't have left the van. He'd be in here telling me...."
The voice continued, but Neal stopped paying attention to it as a beautiful woman dressed as an expensive escort came into view and pulled her gun at once. Neal thought she was about as likely to be a hooker as the angry man was to work for Municipal Utilities.
"Bryce?" she exclaimed. She frowned too, but she looked more troubled than angry. Sadly, she continued to point the gun at him.
"For you?" Neal asked, his smile widening effortlessly. "I wish I were!"
The monologue behind him ceased and a quiet moan came from the van. Neal was becoming very curious about the man in there, but he didn't want to take his eyes from the people pointing deadly weapons at him.
"Sure looks that way," Angry Man said. "Can't keep him away, can you, Walker?"
"Bryce was dead," Walker said, coming a little closer. "He was dead for minutes this time. We saw him. All three of us. Right, Chuck?"
"Right" floated weakly from the van. "I was just trying to tell—"
"I'm very sorry to disappoint you," Neal said to Walker, with whom he surely stood the best chance. "But I'm afraid I'm not your friend—or enemy"—he flicked his eyes briefly to Angry Man—"and this is all just a misunderstanding. See, I was going to my friend's van—"
"Shut up," said Angry Man. "Chuck, you got anything on this guy?"
"Let me get a better look," came the disembodied voice, with an audible gulp, and Neal heard a couple of footsteps before Angry Man raised his left hand to stop Chuck.
Neal could see some emotion behind Walker's eyes. He wasn't sure what it was, but he thought he could work with it. "My friend is expecting me," he said to her in an apologetic tone, almost convincing himself.
Angry Man tensed still further. "I said shut—"
Neal talked faster. "My friend is with the FBI, and he gets upset when people point guns at me."
"FBI?" came from close behind him. "Do you guys have something going with the FBI? Though why not? I mean, NSA—"
"I don't think he's Bryce," said Walker.
"Exactly! I'm not Bryce."
"Bryce would have disarmed you already," Walker continued, lowering her gun to point at the ground but not putting it away. She looked at Angry Man. "He doesn't dress like Bryce, he doesn't talk like Bryce—"
Angry Man smirked. "And you'd know, wouldn't you, Walker."
Walker flushed slightly.
"I would certainly remember if I'd ever seen you before," Neal told her honestly.
Angry Man snorted this time. "No, he does talk like Bryce."
"Guys, I don't think he's Bryce," Chuck said, his voice bouncing around the truck a little. "If he were Bryce, I'd just... I'd know. Trust me on this."
Angry Man's eyes flicked over Neal's shoulder to Chuck, but the gun didn't waver.
Then someone else stepped into view. Peter didn't draw quite as fast as Walker, but he was still damned good. If he could just lighten his touch, he might make a respectable dip. Neal relaxed a little.
"Freeze! FBI!" Peter sounded angry. Possibly furious. Neal hoped the ire was at Angry Man and Walker and maybe even Chuck, though he knew part of it must be for him too. Neal was embarrassed to have gone to the wrong van. Mozzie would never let Neal hear the end of this.
Angry Man and Walker turned their heads without otherwise moving. Angry Man growled.
"I think we're on the same side here. Show me some ID," Walker said calmly.
Peter fumbled a little getting out his ID with his left hand, but the gun in his right didn't waver. He tossed Walker his identification, and she caught it in the air. Peter's gun never left Angry Man. Walker took a long moment to examine the badge.
"Happy?" Peter almost snarled at them. Angry Man must be annoying him. Peter couldn't be that furious at Neal.
"Looks legit," she said at last, drawing her short dress aside blindingly fast to holster her small weapon. Neal wouldn't mind seeing an instant replay of that. She gave Peter back his badge.
"Good. Now you," Peter said to Angry Man. "And I want whoever is in the van to step out."
Angry Man growled. "FBI doesn't belong here. This is our case."
Chuck stepped out and stood next to Neal with his hands in the air too.
"Not your hands, Bartowski!" Angry Man spat.
Chuck looked at Angry Man, then at Walker, then at Peter, and finally at Neal, whose hands were still up. He shuffled two steps to the left, farther from Neal and closer to Walker, and put his hands down.
"Is that everybody in the van?" Peter asked.
"Yes," Neal answered, together with Chuck and Walker.
Angry Man growled.
"Casey, just put down the gun!" Walker snapped.
Casey rolled his eyes but put it away.
"Can we do introductions in the van in case anyone has managed not to see us?" Walker asked, somehow spreading a glare among all of them.
"Can I see some ID first?" Peter shot back.
Walker's lips thinned, but she pulled something from her clutch. Peter examined it closely. Meanwhile, Chuck sighed and got back in the van. Peter returned the ID with a nod, so Neal lowered his hands and followed Chuck, who plopped himself down in the same swivel chair he'd occupied when Neal had inauspiciously entered. Neal chose a seat near Chuck, who seemed the least dangerous. Walker came after, and Casey and Peter stood outside for a long moment staring at each other before Casey stepped into the truck. He might have growled again. Neither he nor Walker sat.
Peter came in, took off his sunglasses, and stood just inside the doors with his arms folded across his chest. "Fine. Now that we're all here.... Neal, what did you do this time?"
Neal felt wounded. Between the fact that he'd kind of crashed the surveillance party and the fact that he'd crashed the wrong surveillance party, wounded might be difficult to pull off. Neal loved a challenge.
"Peter, what makes you think I did anything?" He became the personification of Innocence Wronged. "We have here a simple case of mistaken identity."
Did Peter and Casey just snort at the same time? Neal found that a little frightening.
"Why don't we start with introductions?" asked Chuck, his voice steady now that the guns were away. "Hi. I'm—"
"Shut up!" Casey roared at Chuck before turning to Peter. It seemed silly, given that Casey had already called him both "Chuck" and "Bartowski." "Ignore him. I'm Colonel John Casey, NSA."
"And as you've seen, Sarah Walker, CIA." Sarah smiled at Neal but turned to shake Peter's hand. Peter even gave her something that would have resembled a smile more if he hadn't looked so constipated. Maybe he needed more fiber in his diet? Neal should consult with Elizabeth about it.
"Peter Burke, FBI." He glared at Neal. So he still thought this misunderstanding was Neal's fault? That was not fair. Not entirely, anyway.
"This is Neal Caffrey. He's a ... consultant." Neal could see from the gleam in Peter's eye that Peter was thinking about throwing in "felon" or "convict." Peter liked to do that. Neal thought it was mean. He appreciated Peter not saying it in front of Colonel John Angry Man Casey at this time.
"Is that like an asset?" Chuck asked.
"Yes! Yes, Mr. Bartowski, I think it's probably a lot like an asset," Neal answered with one eye on Chuck and the other on Casey. Sure enough, Casey stiffened noticeably though it was his fault Neal knew Chuck Bartowski's full name.
"Neal, I think everyone in this van but you has a gun," Peter said in a calm voice Neal knew held danger.
"I don't have a gun," Chuck interjected.
"So why don't you stop trying to piss everybody off?" Peter demanded, never even glancing at Chuck.
Peter did have a point (even if Chuck didn't have a gun).
"So why is the FBI dealing with international terrorists?" Sarah asked. "That's not normally your territory."
"And what are you doing with Bryce Larkin or his double here?" asked Casey.
Peter glared at Neal yet again. "Bryce Larkin?" he demanded.
Neal considered. He enjoyed having people think he'd pulled off more jobs than he actually had, but when that backfired, it backfired really badly.
He held up his hands and shook his head. "Peter, I swear to you. I've never used that name. I don't think I've ever heard it before today."
"Looks just like him," commented Casey. "Of course, I'm not the most qualified to comment on that." Casey looked at Sarah.
Chuck and Sarah both looked at Neal. Neal gave them his most winning, most innocent smile.
"Oh, God," said Chuck, putting his hands to his face in a belated attempt to hide a grimace. "He doesn't even have to be Bryce Larkin to get me into trouble, does he? He looks like Bryce Larkin, and you know what happens to me every time Bryce is around. Things get downloaded—"
"Bartowski!" Casey bellowed.
"It's not him," insisted Sarah. "He doesn't ... doesn't move the same way. And, Casey, you've gone up against him. You know Bryce wouldn't have just stood there while you held a gun on him."
"And tried to chat you up," Chuck said into the palms of his hands. "Bryce did plenty of talking, but usually after he had the gun. Or the hypodermic, or the elevator...."
"The elevator?" Sarah asked.
Chuck lowered his head, hands still attached. "Never mind."
"Well, I'm pretty sure this isn't your Bryce Larkin," Peter said. "I've never seen Neal disarm anybody—except with his mouth. And he's surprisingly good at that."
Neal beamed. Casey rolled his eyes. Well, Neal couldn't charm everyone. Just nearly everyone.
"I've also never known him to use that name," Peter added.
"Neal Caffrey. Benjamin Cooper. Charles Fairweather." Names tumbled from Chuck's mouth as his hands went to his knees. The man's eyelids fluttered and his eyes rolled back even as he kept talking. Neal inched his chair back in case Chuck started spewing more than names. "George Danvary. George Donnelly. George Devore. Nicholas Halden."
"What?" Casey frowned again.
Chuck reeled off a few more aliases, but fortunately none that Peter didn't know (as far as Neal knew). "Aliases," he said, blinking rapidly before making eye contact with his teammates. "I... I've seen files on this guy. He's...." He suddenly looked at Neal, then at Peter, then back at Neal. "You're a convicted felon?"
Neal was impressed. He must have an eidetic memory like Mozzie, though apparently it had taken him a few minutes to retrieve the right memories.
"Ankle tracker, left leg. Two-mile radius. Unless he's undercover right now," Chuck added.
Peter fielded the implied query. "No, I'm undercover right now, and he's supposed to be in the office going through files for a different case."
Neal raised his hands. "I finished! I solved your case already!" He didn't even say "your boring case" or "the case so easy that Blake could have solved it."
"I still think he looks just like Larkin. Stand up," Casey barked.
Peter gave him a little nod, so Neal stood.
"Might be taller than Larkin."
"No, I think that's the hat," Chuck said, standing as well and looking him up and down. "But Sarah's right. He's not Bryce." He added in an undertone that no one but Neal seemed to hear, "Can't be—he hasn't ruined my life again yet."
Neal removed his hat with a flourish.
"Yeah," said Casey. "Little guy like Larkin."
"What?" said Neal with real surprise. "I'm not...." He looked at Chuck, Casey, and Peter. He'd thought that Chuck was his height, but he realized that Chuck hunched. He was bent over as if he were in the back of a much smaller van, not a Municipal Utilities truck. When he stood straight, Chuck must be as tall as Casey—even taller than Peter. Peter smirked at Neal. Just for that, Neal would forget to warn Peter next time they encountered a low ceiling.
"We could use this, couldn't we, Walker?" Casey asked the CIA woman.
"Wait—what? Use what?" Peter demanded, the smile vanishing from his face. Neal didn't like the sound of it either.
"I don't know if that's a good idea," Sarah said, frowning deeply.
"No! No, it's not a good idea," Chuck said fervently. "Bad things always happen—"
"How many people could we use him to flush out?" Casey asked. "Leftover Fulcrum. The Ring—"
"No. No one does any flushing with Neal except me!" Peter said. "I mean—"
"I think we should call the boss." Casey went to control panel and flicked a couple of switches.
Peter stepped forward. "No. No one's boss is getting involved. Caffrey belongs to the FBI. He's mine—"
Neal considered several possible responses to what Peter had just said, but a dark screen suddenly came to life. A slightly surprised looking military woman looked at them. "Colonel Casey?"
Neal tried to step back out of range, but he was too slow.
"Agent Larkin?" the woman demanded. She shifted in her seat as if to get a better view of the van. Neal made it to the corner of the van where he couldn't see the screen at all, and therefore it couldn't see him (assuming the camera was aligned with the screen, which wasn't a safe assumption).
"See? Fooled her," Casey said.
"General," Walker took over, "we've got ... we've had an unexpected development. We were returning to the surveillance van when we found a man who looks like Bryce Larkin, but whom we believe is not."
"Right," said Neal quietly. "Not."
Peter stepped forward. "Agent Peter Burke. I'm an FBI agent, and Neal Caffrey, whom your people misidentified as Bryce Larkin—"
"Initially misidentified," Sarah corrected with a glance at Casey.
Chuck said, "Briefly. It was an understandable mistake!"
Casey said, "Huh."
Good. If they annoyed Peter enough, he'd forget to be angry at Neal. His partner told the general, "Neal Caffrey is a confidential informant for the FBI, and we do not want him involved with the NSA or the CIA."
"What were you doing at my agents' operation?"
"Good question," growled Casey.
Peter threw him a look. "I was about to ask you the same thing. I'm from the White Collar division. We're investigating a money laundering case."
"We're fighting terrorists," Casey announced, "and we thought you were laundering money for them, until you turned out to be FBI." He somehow made "FBI" sound like an insult. Neal was intrigued.
"Terrorists? Really?" Peter sounded skeptical.
"Yes, Agent Burke," the woman on the big screen said. "This organization represents a significant threat to national security."
"We only knew they were trying to launder some cash," Peter said. Even Neal knew this was no ordinary money laundering case, though he wasn't officially on this one. Peter lied well. Neal liked to think he was a good role model that way.
Peter went on, "We're White Collar, not Counterterrorism. We'll need to confer." He thought for a moment, then shook his head. "We may have transfer the case to our Counterterrorism division. I'd better get my boss in on this. He's in our van, if you can wait just a minute or two."
Oops. Hughes was in the van. Neal made a mental note to check his whereabouts next time he planned to crash the van. And so much for "no one's boss is getting involved."
The general frowned at Peter, but he whipped out his phone. "Agent Hughes? We've got a bit of a situation here." He paused. "I was walking away from the hotel, deliberately avoiding our van, when I found Caffrey standing behind a different van with two people pointing guns at him." He glared at Neal.
Neal did his best to melt into the metal of the van walls.
"Long story short, I'm in the back of another surveillance van with a CIA agent, an NSA agent, a... somebody they won't even tell me what he does, and Neal. Oh, and a general is teleconferencing with us. So I thought I'd invite you over." Peter's mouth twitched as he fought back a smile. Peter often accused Neal of being an adrenaline junkie, of enjoying defying authority just for the sake of it, and several other things that were probably not exactly relevant at the moment. Hypocrite!
Neal stayed melted into his corner anyway. Peter finished the phone call and said it would be just a minute.
They stayed silent for a long moment before Chuck threw an anxious grin at Neal. "So! They say everybody has a double, but what are the odds...?"
He stumbled to a halt as the general looked down her nose at him, aided by the screen's position high on the van's wall. Casey added a grunt to the rebuke, and Chuck closed his mouth and looked at his hands.
Neal felt a little bad for the man. Chuck hadn't held a gun on him, making him the only person in the van who never had. He decided to further the conversation himself.
"You mentioned terrorism?" he asked, valiantly separating himself from the wall. "What kind?"
Everyone in the van except Chuck glared at him. Chuck looked like he might faint.
"Well, we—all kinds, really. We're up for anything!" Chuck said.
Sarah closed her eyes for just a moment.
"Agent Bartowski!" the general snapped.
"I thought we could exchange some useful information. In the name of inter-agency cooperation?" Neal tried.
Of course, Peter rolled his eyes as he usually did at that phrase, but no one argued. Chuck made a few noises, but no more words emerged. Neal moved out of his corner and palmed a flash drive that lay on the console where Chuck was seated. If he couldn't get answers by asking, he could get them in other ways. Peter would appreciate it later.
"Now this is top-notch equipment, Peter," Neal said as he ran his fingers just above but not actually touching anything on the console. Everyone leaned towards this motion and watched his right hand, freeing his left from scrutiny. "We could really use—"
"So this really isn't Bryce Larkin? He looks amazingly like him," the general said, fixing him with a stare Neal could almost feel. He smiled and did a little finger wave as he moved around Chuck.
"Enough that even Agent Walker wasn't sure for a moment," Casey said.
"Neal Caffrey," Neal said with a smile. He thought of adding "at your service," but he was afraid that she might take him up on it. "And you are?"
"None of your concern, Mr. Caffrey," the severe woman told him.
"I think it might be my concern," said Peter, tossing Neal a look he couldn't interpret. He decided it meant to keep doing what he was doing, so he helped himself to Chuck's wallet, which was not made easier by the fact that Chuck was sitting on it.
Hughes showed up a moment later, removing his own sunglasses in the gloom of the van. Everyone had to shuffle around to let him into the van and near the screen, giving Neal a chance to get next to Casey.
Hughes glared at Neal. Apparently it was Glare at Neal Caffrey Day. They had a lot of those at the Bureau. Hughes then introduced himself to the general, who went so far as to give him her name. Beckman. Neal could run it later—or get Blake to do it. Mozzie would certainly want to know as well.
"We could put this guy out there as Larkin, see who bites," Casey proposed to the screen. "I guess he's on some kind of work-release program? For the FBI?" His face went through odd contortions as he spoke, and he sounded pained.
Hughes sighed. "Yes, he's working for us while he serves out his term. For us, the FBI, White Collar Division. His agreement is solely with us. We do not lend Mr. Caffrey to other agencies."
Beckman was not impressed. "Agent Hughes. I have under my purview matters of the gravest concern to national security. We lost an invaluable agent when Bryce Larkin died. If we could borrow your asset, just—"
"I don't think that's a good idea," Sarah said while Peter said, "No. No!" Even Hughes shook his head. Next thing Neal knew, four of them were all talking at once, and Casey put in a few words here and there.
Neal shut out most of the barrage of argument and made mental notes of what appeared on each of the screens in the van, to what frequency Chuck's headset was tuned, and all the other equipment in the vehicle. Then he pushed in next to Sarah, smiled an apology for bumping her, and switched Chuck's wallet for the contents of her clutch so that he could examine them without her noticing the difference in weight. She'd probably realize in a moment that something had changed, but he could do this in about half a moment.
He didn't couldn't stay out of the conversation entirely, of course. He'd paid enough attention to know that Beckman and Casey wanted him to pretend to be this Bryce Larkin, that Chuck and Sarah didn't think that was safe, and Peter and Hughes valued him more than they usually said (though Neal already knew that).
"Does my opinion count?" Neal finally asked. "Because—"
Neal wasn't sure if everyone in the van said it, or if Casey only snorted. Hughes and Beckman began shushing everyone else and took over the discussion. Neal put most of the contents back in Sarah's clutch and replaced Chuck's wallet. The argument didn't continue long, which was a shame, because Neal hadn't had a chance to see if Chuck had anything besides the wallet in his pockets. God alone knew what else the man might hold. Chuck had retrieved all Neal's known aliases from memory and was the one supervising from the van while the other agents ran the ops. (When did he start to think in Peter's terms?) Chuck must be much more interesting than he looked.
Peter and Hughes refused to entertain any offers for Neal, of course. At least, Neal hoped that was an "of course". Peter took a moment when everyone else was arguing to mouth "I'd just as soon get rid of you" to Neal, and Hughes wouldn't look at him at all. Neal knew Peter didn't mean it, any more than he meant all those little jokes about sending Neal back to prison if Neal did his sudoku or drank his coffee.
At last General Beckman seemed to realize that nothing she could say would make Peter and Hughes transfer Neal, even temporarily, to her team. "Should you ever change your mind, of course...."
Hughes and Peter exchanged a glance. "How would we get in touch with you?" Peter's boss asked the general.
She smiled. "You don't need to worry about that. If you change your minds, we'll know."
Hughes kept his face impassive. He and the general spent a little time arranging to transfer the case from White Collar to Counterterrorism within the FBI. Neal used the opportunity to clone Sarah's phone with a hand-me-down gizmo from Mozzie. The general and Hughes then had to make nice about the FBI, the CIA, and the NSA working together. Neal bit back his urge to add "EIEIO" because of the looks he'd already received. The general signed off abruptly, apparently relieved to be going, which Neal thought unfair to him and his friends.
Hughes and Peter both fixed Neal with a look as soon as the screen went dead.
"What?" Neal smiled with gratitude. "I have to say, guys, it's gratifying to hear how valuable I am to the FBI."
Hughes's lips narrowed to a thin line. Peter smiled a little. The combination was nearly as frightening as Casey with a gun. Well, no, not really.
"Can you drive this thing?" Hughes asked the two non-FBI agents. "In case anyone in New York missed all the comings and goings, I'd like to get away from the hotel before we step out again. My car is about three and a half blocks from here."
Neal couldn't hide his disappointment. "But I wanted to say hi to Jones and Diana."
"Caffrey! Shut it!" Peter yelled.
Casey growled and climbed into the front of the van while everyone found somewhere to sit.
Neal figured a little conversation couldn't hurt. "So, do you put this hotel under surveillance often?"
"Neal!" and "Caffrey!" erupted from either side of him, but a surprised grin escaped Chuck for a moment.
After a pause, Neal tried again: "How well did you know Bryce Larkin?"
Peter whacked him on the arm.
In spite of that, Chuck answered, "He was my best friend, for a while. And he died... for me."
Sarah shook her head. "It's not your fault, Chuck. He died to protect... all of us." She would clearly have said something else if it had just been the two of them, but Neal had no idea what.
Chuck nodded. He looked closely at Neal with big, sad brown eyes, as if searching for his dead friend in Neal's face. Neal felt a pang for him. He doubted Chuck would find anything there to make him feel better.
"I... Bryce and I hadn't been friends since... since he ruined my life. Or I thought he did. Repeatedly, in fact." Chuck looked at the floor, but then back at Neal. "He really just... gave me a different one. It wasn't the one I thought I wanted, but it's not a bad one. And I wish I could... thank him. Maybe be friends with him again."
Sarah looked at Chuck with untempered sadness. She must be grieving for Larkin as well.
"I'm sorry I can't help you," Neal said, meaning it, at least a little. "Now I wish I had met him."
"Oh, please!" shouted Casey from the front. "That's the last thing we'd need. Two Larkins." He must have an intercom to the back.
Sarah and Chuck looked at each other and smiled a little.
"Two Bryce Larkins would be too much for the world," Chuck said to Neal. "One was more than enough for me."
"Then why would you want a ringer for him?" Peter asked.
"Thank you for not saying 'dead ringer,'" Neal said.
"That's what he'd be if we used him as bait," Chuck said gloomily.
Sarah shot Chuck a look.
"It's true!" Chuck exclaimed. "Bryce got out of places no one else could—"
"Hey!" Neal defended his honor. "I have gotten out of many impossible places! When I—"
Hughes and Peter leaned towards him. Neal shut his mouth again.
Then he decided to try a new question. "So, what are your favorite restaurants around here?"
Sarah looked amused but didn't answer. Chuck gaped.
Neal thought he should help them out. "I really like a little place just two blocks from the hotel. It's called—"
"Next stop: sunglasses and cheap suits!" called Casey.
"I think you've just been insulted," Neal told his colleagues, because clearly Casey couldn't mean him.
"Well, I'm sorry we couldn't talk more," he said to the other two. "Maybe next time we meet?" He shook Chuck's hand and offered his hand to Sarah.
"Oh, no. We usually don't operate in this area at all," she said, grasping his hand for a moment. She had a great handshake, firm and warm.
"Not at all," Chuck agreed hastily.
"Thank God" came from the front of the truck.
"Where do you operate?" Neal asked, but Peter grabbed his arm and started tugging on him.
"Playtime's over, Neal. And when we get out of here, you're going to tell me what the hell you were doing."
"I finished my work, Peter, and you always tell me to wait in the van," Neal said, giving a last smile to his new friends while Hughes tried simultaneously to ignore him and say goodbye to them.
"They tell you that, too?" Chuck asked with a little smile. "They tell me that all the time!" Huh. Apparently he hadn't been supervising the other two.
"He never stays," came from the front.
"He manages to get in trouble even in the van," Sarah said with a smile. Momentarily uncertain whether the smile was for him or for Chuck, Neal decided it must be for him.
"Sounds familiar. Out!" Peter tugged him out of the van.
"'Bye!" Neal waved to the other two as Hughes climbed past him.
"Wait a minute!" Peter suddenly pushed him back into the van. "In the name of inter-agency cooperation, Neal, give back everything."
Neal gave Peter the big eyes that worked on most other people, but Peter wasn't in the mood. Really, he never was. Neal took out the flash drive and handed it to Chuck, who gulped visibly and pocketed it. He'd already given Chuck back his wallet and all its contents, having memorized Chuck's address and a few other facts. Sarah opened her clutch while Neal produced the things that looked like makeup but probably weren't, plus a few pieces of ID. He'd returned the cell phone earlier.
"That's all of mine," she said after examining everything.
Peter hit him in the elbow.
"Careful, Peter!" Neal said. "I need my hands and arms to keep us both in business!"
Peter leaned in to hiss in his ear, "You're not going to be in business much longer if you don't give back whatever you took from that NSA... guy!" Ape. Neal was pretty sure Peter had been going to say "ape" before he settled on "guy."
Neal handed Casey's ID and security cards to Sarah, who fought a smile valiantly.
"Is that everything?" Peter demanded.
"Everything?" Peter asked again.
"Yes! Everything I took from them."
"Wow," said Chuck.
"What's going on back there?" Casey shouted.
"Nothing," Chuck and Sarah returned.
Peter shoved him back out of the van.
"Careful, big step!" Neal reminded Peter. "Are you upset that they're taking our case? You seem to have a lot of misplaced anger."
Sarah smiled as she shut the van door behind them, so this adventure definitely went in the 'win' column.
"If you have anything else of theirs, Caffrey," Hughes said quietly.
"Physically? No. In my head?"
Hughes raised and lowered his eyebrows. "Hmm. We'll debrief back at the FBI." He unlocked the car.
"You sit in back with the perp locks," Peter said, opening the door for him. Neal managed to duck under the hand that would have pushed down on his head as he climbed in. "Grown-ups sit in front."
Neal endured a long, tag-team lecture on the way back to the FBI office, but it was worth it. He had addresses for Chuck Bartowski, John Casey, and Sarah Walker—and at least Chuck's might be real. He had cloned Sarah's phone. The debrief should be entertaining, if nothing else.
Best of all, if he ever went to Los Angeles, he could look up Chuck. He wasn't sure why, but he felt certain that they could have some real fun together.FIN