They leave the cafe together, the breeze feeling cooler now than it did when they entered, and they stop together on the sidewalk outside. Only days have passed since she watched him kiss Alex, after taking those tentative first steps. It came full circle so fast.
Following through with a con is harder than she expected; he's always made it look so easy.
"So, you got what you wanted," Neal says, tucking his hands in his pockets.
This is a good look for him, she thinks, heartbroken with hurt all over his face. It's genuine, or at least passably so.
She nods. "I got the Raphael."
His smile spreads slowly, but there's no humor in it. "This was a con from the beginning."
"In the beginning," she says.
"You want me to believe you really had feelings for me. Is that why you decided to let me down easy now that your client has the painting?"
"Have feelings for you, Neal. Present tense. And yes, I do."
"I'm finding that a little hard to believe after our last conversation."
Sara smiles, as if that will help her take the edge off her words. "There's no future for us, Neal. What would that be based on? I screwed you over and you don't trust me."
"You told me not to lie to you," he says.
"I did. You should have told me the same."
"Would you have stopped lying?"
"No," Neal says, and he looks down, the brim of his hat hiding his eyes. "You wouldn't have. You needed the Raphael."
'Needed' seems like too strong a word now.
"Didn't you wonder why I let it go so easily?" she said.
Neal, just slightly, shakes his head. "I was too--"
"Self-absorbed?" she offers.
"A guy can't catch a break around you, can he?"
"You're a conman, Neal," she says. "My feelings are real, but I'm not unrealistic. I knew how it would play out."
"When did you decide to do it?" He's looking up now, has gathered himself.
"When the FAA package turned up at your place. When you told me it was about Kate."
"So you found my Achilles' heal and decided to exploit it?"
"Isn't that what a con does?"
Neal's smile is bitter, but she can see a little pride in it too. "That's exactly what a con does."
"Peter wasn't in on it. In case you're wondering."
"I guess that's good." He's still hurting from Peter's accusations, she can tell.
"I thought you might be concerned that he was lying to you."
"Like you were? It crossed my mind."
"You lie to everyone," she says. "Every day."
"Not Peter," says Neal.
"No, not Peter. Never Peter." And here a note of wistfulness slips into her voice.
"What do you mean by that?"
"You're so used to conning everyone, Neal. Don't con yourself."
"It's been nice, Neal. I enjoyed your soup." She really looks at his face one more time, his perfectly beautiful face, and she wonders how something so lovely can hide so many flaws.
Then she walks away.
Alex has been squatting in a high end foreclosure in New Jersey for four days now. It's an old habit of hers, something she does when she needs to decompress. She knows how to live low to the ground, and she does. She lets herself breathe for a while, because lately, there hasn't been enough oxygen to go around. She needs to put some distance between herself and Neal.
When she wants Mozzie to find her, he does. This isn't like the Spanish silver, she's not accidentally sending out a distress flare because she's backed into a corner. She has time to bide, but she's done waiting. It's been long enough since the explosion. She's ready to find out what went down.
"I'll let him know you're ready to talk," says Mozzie.
"Thanks," she says.
Neal is standing in the park, alone, his mind still on Sara.
"Where is it?" says Alex, suddenly right there beside him.
"Hello, Alex," says Neal. "Nice to see you, too."
She smiles. "Sorry. When you spend four days thinking about one thing..."
"Believe me, I know." Neal pulls the card with the printed address from his pocket.
"How are you?"
"Lucky, I guess," he says.
"And why would that be?"
"Considering Peter thinks I just stole billions of dollars worth of art and gold, I could be back in prison right now."
"Well, you are sitting on it," says Alex.
"Do I have you to thank for that?"
She shakes her head. "If I'd had access, Neal, I wouldn't have framed you."
"You would have framed Adler?"
"Yeah, me too."
Neal turns the card over in his hands, flicking it between his fingers and she stalks around him in a circle. He recognizes her nervous pace, knows her that well, though her steps are long and easy.
"It's in storage," he says. "I think it's secure for now. I don't know who else knows about it, though."
"What are you going to do, Neal?" Her warm breath envelops his ear and he swallows hard.
"I don't know," he says, and there's a silence between them because he's spoken honestly, and it's unfamiliar.
He turns his head to look at her, and they're close now, lips just a breath apart.
"It's yours, Alex, by rights."
"No, it's not. Finding it, that was my birthright. And it's been found."
And then she's kissing him. Softly, slowly. For a moment, he forgets that they don't have all the time in the world right now. Sweet, wild, dangerous Alex. She can make the ground shift beneath his feet, or maybe that's the adrenaline. Sometimes it's hard to tell them apart.
She pulls away and licks her lips, holding his lapels.
"There's a lot of blood on that treasure," she says.
"I don't have trouble sleeping at night, Neal. I never have. If I fenced this stuff..."
"We're talking billions, Alex."
"Do you think I don't know that? Jesus, Neal. We'd never have to pull another con again. We could buy an island somewhere and--"
"You've given this a lot of thought," he says, smiling.
"Haven't you? I think I know where every penny would go, but... It's dirty."
Neal nods. He knows all this, even if he's slow to admit to it. Blood money wouldn't have meant anything to Adler, but Neal is nothing like Adler, even though he needs occasional reminding.
He presses the card into the palm of her hand.
"I can't sit on this," he says. "Peter already thinks I'm responsible. And we don't know who's watching."
Alex presses against him for a moment, her lithe body cat-like and distracting as it slides against his. Then she moves back, straightens his tie.
"I'll take care of it," she says, and then she's gone.
It's a breezy warm day, and Alex and the papery leaves drift out of sight with equal grace.
Peter calms down eventually, just about the same time Neal starts to think that a full day at the office in the direct line of Peter's ire has to be better than sitting here at June's, waiting for the phone to ring.
But it's not a summons to work when the call finally comes. Elizabeth is making dinner. They want Neal to come. Sara's invited too, if she'd like.
When Neal shows up on the doorstep alone, Peter snorts.
"You gave her the Raphael," he says.
Neal shrugs. "I didn't have the Raphael. But it may have showed up at her office. Somehow." His smile is weak and plastic. " She told me you weren't in on it."
Peter raises an eyebrow, lets Neal inside. "She was conning you," he says, not a question. "No, Neal. I wouldn't have done that to you. But I had a feeling..." He trails off, regroups. "Ironic, isn't it? Coming clean is what ended it."
"That's one word for it. Tell me you let Elizabeth pick out the wine."
"Of course," says Peter. "Neal," here he takes Neal's arm, holds him back for the moment, "what happened with Sara, I don't want that to happen with us."
Neal's smile is suddenly genuine. "I didn't think I was your type, Peter."
Peter rolls his eyes. "You know what I mean, Neal. You're not just serving a purpose for me. There's more to this. I want you to know that."
Don't con yourself, Neal. It's Sara's voice in his head. Appropriate, he thinks, Sara lecturing him now. Neal nods and looks Peter in the eyes, until he starts to feel uncomfortable, then moves into the house.
There is a woman Neal doesn't know, old enough to be his grandmother, sitting at the table, and he pauses, hesitating a step as Elizabeth enters from the kitchen with a bottle of wine and two glasses.
"Hello, Neal!" Elizabeth's voice is as warm as ever. "This is Ana, she's... a neighbor."
"It's lovely to meet you," says Ana. She's small, gray-haired with elegantly aged hands folded on the table in front of her. She looks out of place here, and for a moment Neal wonders how many people skirt around the edges of Peter's life without his knowledge.
"A pleasure," says Neal. He pulls out his chair.
Elizabeth sets the glasses down in front of them. Wine has already been poured for the Burkes.
"Ana, I'm sure Neal won't mind if you finish your story," says Peter. "Neal's quite the history buff."
Neal, in the middle of sitting down, slows, looks up at Peter. Dammit. Peter flashes that obnoxious smirk, the one that says, I pulled one over on the con. Elizabeth pours the wine.
He wants to tell Peter this really isn't necessary, that he knows what Adler's legacy would have been, but Ana's story is important, he knows this too, and Neal listens. She is Jewish, was born in Serbia, only a few years old when the Nazi occupation began. Her family's belongings, art, furniture, hard-earned wealth, were all turned over to the state, filtered through the government and sold off somewhere. Neal wonders if any of them ended up on a U-boat rigged with dynamite. He knows that's exactly what Peter wants him to wonder. He turns his attention back to Ana. She and her mother survived the camps, but she lost a sister, several cousins, her father.
She intrigues him, and she tells a story well. In another setting, he would have listened without guilt contaminating his fascination.
Neal's wine is almost gone when Elizabeth puts dinner on the table, and she refills generously. It's late for Ana by the time they've finished eating, and she excuses herself politely, with Elizabeth offering to take her home. A look passes between Peter and Elizabeth then, and Neal wonders what kind of damage those two could have done on the other side of the law.
Elizabeth and Ana leave; now it's just Neal and Peter.
"You're subtle, Peter," Neal says, watching his hands spread over the table top.
"Funny," says Peter, "that's not how El described it."
Neal looks up from the table.
"She's not really your neighbor, is she?" he says.
Peter smiles. "'Neighbor' might have been an exaggeration. But I've known her most of my life."
Neal nods. "I didn't steal it, Peter."
"But you know who did?"
"No, I don't. I honestly don't."
"But you know where it is."
Neal's stomach winds in a knot. "Peter..."
"Neal, don't lie to me."
"I don't lie to you."
"Then tell me where it is."
"At the moment?" Neal shrugs. "I don't know."
"Who knows, Neal? Who has it? Is it Alex?"
Neal shakes his head. "I don't know where to find Alex."
"But you know how to find Alex."
Neal sighs. Peter is killing him here.
Peter snorts under his breath. "After all this time, Neal, I know which questions to ask."
"I should be impressed, Agent Burke." A hint of amusement passes over Neal's lips.
"Are you ready to do the right thing?" Peter asks.
"Do you ever give me a choice?"
"Oh, I think I give you more choices than you deserve."
"That's a matter of opinion." But Neal smiles anyway. "Would you be willing to let me promise to do the right thing, and leave it at that?"
"Yeah. Didn't think so."
"Neal, did Alex blow up the warehouse?"
Peter just watches him for a moment. "All right. And it wasn't Mozzie?"
"God, Peter, no."
"I had to ask. Do you know who it was, Neal?"
"But you know where the treasure is--you knew where it was, at one point."
Neal sighs. He doesn't intend to lie, but he has to force the truth out anyway. "Yes."
"Who told you where to find it?"
"I don't know."
Peter fixes him with one of those looks.
"Peter, really. All I had was an address."
"So someone set you up."
"I'm getting that impression."
"Someone who was able to get access to your paintings and plant them in the warehouse. Who knows where you store those things, Neal?"
"Just Mozz." And he's horrified by the accusatory look on Peter's face. "Peter, no. I told you, Mozz had nothing to do with this. He wouldn't."
"I think we should have him followed anyway," says Peter. "If Mozzie's the only one who knew, then someone else used him to figure it out."
"He'll lose his mind. You know what he's like. You put a tail on him and he'll never speak to me again."
"Not if he doesn't know there's a tail."
"Peter, this is Mozzie we're talking about."
"So it has to be someone he doesn't suspect. Someone he would never suspect."
Neal's eyes widen. He's serious. "Peter, no. No. I'm not even going to consider it. That's... wrong. No. Peter."
For two days, Neal tails Mozzie himself, and he's never felt worse about an assignment before. He thinks that Peter has finally come up with an appropriate punishment for all of Neal's omissions. It's not that he doesn't see Peter's point; Mozz could be in danger. But the idea of double crossing Mozzie, even if it means doing the right thing, doesn't settle.
"You've been awfully preoccupied for a guy sitting on a couple billion dollars worth of Nazi loot," Mozzie says, looking up from a coin he's been carefully examining. For a moment, he looks like a mad scientist, with the loupe still pinched to the bridge of a pair of goggles.
"I told you, I don't know where it is anymore."
"Ah, yes, you handed it over to Alex. You'll have to forgive me if I keep intentionally deleting that detail from my memory. I don't like the constant sense of impending disaster."
"You think she's going to fence it after all?"
"I'm just saying that Alex has been in tough situations before and reacted... impulsively. I don't know that it won't happen again. And neither do you."
"It's better that I don't know where to find it," says Neal.
"Ah, yes. To avoid questioning by the Suit. Otherwise you would have to lie."
Neal shifts from foot to foot and looks away. That his conscience gives a twitch at the idea of telling the truth doesn't bother him. What Peter would think about that does.
"I'd rather not go back to jail, Mozz."
"You would get more than four years for this," Mozzie says, turning his attention to the next coin.
Neal takes the opportunity to glance out the window, his eyes lighting on every spot that could possibly be used for surveillance.
"You know, Neal," Mozzie says, without looking up, "Time is the coin of your life. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you."
Neal turns back to the table.
"Carl Sandburg," says Mozzie, without waiting for a guess.
"I'm not sure that's even an applicable quote, Mozz."
"Ah, but quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit. Oscar Wilde." Mozzie smiles to himself, reaches for the next coin.
"Nothing," says Peter. They're sitting at Peter's table, Neal's uncomfortable assignment finally at an end.
Neal shakes his head. "Nothing. There's no one following Mozz, Peter. Not anymore."
They're both thoughtful for a moment, silent, and it hits them both at the exact same time.
Neal's phone is out first, but she's not picking up. He presses his fingertips to the bridge of his nose. Again? First Adler and now... whoever this is. He's let her wander right into a trap again.
He's still thinking about it, his mind racing over every scenario, imagining what Mozzie could find out and how fast, when he realizes that Peter's just answered his phone.
When Peter looks up, his face is solemn.
"That was Diana. Neal, they recovered part of the U-boat's contents. They found a partial print. Diana ran it. It's Alex's."
"Of course it's Alex's. She's the one who--" moved it. She wouldn't have parted with it. "Where was it found?"
"In a dumpster, behind a motel in Queens."
"That's got to rule out Alex. She'd never be that careless."
"She's being set up, Peter. Just like I am."
"What if this is the long con? What if it's Alex?" Peter rubs a hand over his face. "You need to consider that."
Neal doesn't trust people blindly. He hardly trusts Alex at all. He thinks about her proximity the last time they spoke. About her breath on his ear. He wouldn't be the first man she seduced in order to get what she wanted. But he knows when someone is trying to con him, doesn't he?
Did you know with Sara?
"I need to find her," says Neal.
"We need to find her."
"Right." Neal looks up at Peter, lost for the thousandth time. Peter, his moral compass. Tell me where to point, Peter, he wants to say. He doesn't know how to do that himself, how to find true North. But Peter always knows.
"I need to know that you're on board," says Peter. "Completely on board, Neal. You can't run your own game while we're doing this. Is that clear?"
Neal nods. "It's clear, Peter."
"Good," says Peter, then he smiles slightly. "Do you think Mozzie can find her?"
Neal returns the smile. "We'll have to find out, won't we?"
When Neal gets to the office, Peter and Jones are deep in conversation. It stops as soon as Peter sees him walk through the door. He doesn't even get the two-fingered wave, it's just a meaningful nod of Peter's head, and he knows something else has gone down.
"Is it Alex?" he says, before Peter can speak.
"No. Not yet. Neal, they found another stash. This one was upstate."
Neal shakes his head. "Either someone's trying to get caught, or the trail's going in the wrong direction, Peter."
"I figured as much."
"Either way, it doesn't sound like Alex."
"I'm not ruling her out, Neal." An uncomfortable pause, and then, "Mozzie hasn't found anything?"
"No." The word a little too sharp.
There's another pause, and Jones fidgets in the stony silence.
"You know," Jones says suddenly, "I think we're out of coffee. I should make some more coffee."
"Yeah." "You do that." Neal and Peter speak at once, but Jones is already gone.
"Last time," says Neal, now that Peter is the only one here, "I was so sure that she was all right."
"This time you're not."
"If that treasure is turning up all over the place..."
"Alex wouldn't do that," Peter finishes. "At least I know now that you don't have it."
Neal wants to be able to pretend that's funny, but he can't. He's worried. Real bad guys aren't caricatures like Adler. They don't zip tie your wrists then wait hours for you to drown. It's not as if Neal's never known anyone who got a gunshot to the head in his line of work. He's averse to guns for a reason, after all.
They both jump as Diana enters the office. She hands Peter a file.
"We have a name. We've been cross-referencing every business deal Adler ever made with truck and moving van rentals in the days before and after the warehouse exploded. We couldn't find anything. But when we cross-referenced rental company records across the city, we red flagged one name." She points out the relevant line in the file. Neal leans over Peter's shoulder to see, his eyes trailing down the page, and a red flag flashes in the back of his mind.
"George Samson. The dates match up to the timing of both thefts. Both vehicles were returned at odd hours in the morning. When we ran Samson's name, we found what we were looking for. George Samson is a suspected alias of a man named Bertram Karls, a former business associate of Vincent Adler. Karls was implicated in a huge money laundering scheme five years ago, but there was never enough evidence to warrant an arrest."
Neal's mind races to fill in all the blanks, but he comes up just a few seconds too slow.
"There's more," Diana says. "The representative from Adler's company that signed the deal with Karls? Nick Halden."
Peter's head turns so quickly that Neal is sure he hears Peter's neck crack. Neal holds up both hands, steps back.
"I vaguely, vaguely remember the name," says Neal. "I think it was a one time acquisition. I'd have to look at the details to be sure. I wasn't working an angle on that one, I know that for sure. I never even met the man."
Peter just stares at Neal for a moment, as if he's deconstructing every possible excuse Neal might employ. Finally, he nods.
"All right," he says. "I'll buy it. For now. Diana, see if you can get a phone number for Samson from one of the rental companies and pull all records for that number. Tell Jones I want everything we have on Bertram Karls. Neal, have a seat. We're going to take a little walk down memory lane."
Neal clears his throat. "Peter..."
"Oh," Peter says, memory of their last long conversation on the topic of Neal's time with Adler clearly dawning on him. "Right. Let's do this at your place."
Neal nods. "Same deal as last time?"
Peter closes the file and shoots a pointed look as he heads for the door. "We'll negotiate that on the drive."
Another evening of confessions and near-confessions and artfully-avoided confessions leaves Neal in a fog that won't even peel away beneath the jolt of June's Italian roast. But walking into the office and seeing Sara Ellis standing there, just in front of the stairs, impeccably dressed and serious, does what the coffee can't.
Neal stops in the doorway, catches her gaze. The corners of her mouth turn up so slightly that the hint of a smile barely reaches her eyes.
Then Peter is approaching and she turns away and it's gone. Neal walks to his desk, trying not to stare. He sits down and stares instead at the stack of files in front of him.
"Neal? Sara needs our help."
Neal is still watching the unopened files, and he didn't hear Peter's approach.
"What? Oh. Sure." He nods, looks up at Peter. "Why?"
"We actually found a trail for one of the pieces from the U-boat. There was a dedication on the back of the painting and we were able to trace it from there. Sara's company represents the family's other interests." Peter pauses here, waiting for Neal's response.
"And they want us to find out if anything else on the U-boat belonged to them?"
"That'll be difficult considering there are no official paper trails and we only have a fraction of the original cargo."
Neal glances upstairs. Sara is watching him through the glass.
"I don't think she's expecting a miracle," says Peter, and Neal has to wonder if he's playing for double meaning there.
Neal rises to his feet.
"You think you can handle this?" says Peter.
"Just asking. I remember what happened after Kate."
"Sara's not Kate."
Peter pauses here, holds Neal's gaze, and smirks. "No. She's not."
"You ate every possible scrap off Peter's plate, Satch," says Elizabeth. He's sitting eagerly by her side as she rinses the dishes, tail thumping on the kitchen floor.
Please, please, please, please...
Elizabeth shakes her head and points to the dog dish.
"That is what you're supposed to be eating." She turns back to the single wine glass, sighs, runs it under the warm water. Satchmo is usually good company, but tonight she's feeling a little restless. She'd had a feeling Peter would be working late. It might have been nice to call a girlfriend over in lieu of dinner alone.
Outside, something hits the house, the wall by the back door, and the wine glass jostles in her hand. Satchmo is at the door in a second, barking out in alarm, but whoever it is, they're not leaving. Elizabeth sets the glass down, moves out of sight of the windows.
"Satchmo, shhh," she hisses, straining to hear something out there in the darkness.
And then she does. Peter's name, in a woman's voice, panting and strained.
"Peter, please! Are you there?" This time the voice is louder, and Elizabeth can tell she's leaning up against the door.
"Who is it?" says Elizabeth, reaching down to take Satchmo by the collar.
"Al--" She heaves a breath. "Alex Hunter. I know Neal."
Elizabeth can hear the woman sliding down the door and she quickly unlocks it.
"Careful now," she says, pulling the door open as Alex collapses onto the floor.
Satchmo whimpers, then rushes at Alex, dragging Elizabeth down with him.
The first thing Elizabeth sees is the blood. Satchmo is nuzzling Alex's face, and absurdly, Elizabeth notices that she's beautiful, in spite of the clammy pallor of her features.
"You've been shot," Elizabeth says. "You need an ambulance."
Alex shakes her head. The blood is creeping through her jacket, the collar of the white shirt below already stained crimson.
"I need... Neal first. He told me I could come here." She grinds her teeth together. "If I ever got in trouble."
"I don't think..." Elizabeth looks down, tugs up gingerly on Alex's jacket, looks beneath at her shoulder, where the fabric is sticking to skin. "You've been shot. Let me get my phone."
Elizabeth meets her eyes, this woman bleeding on her kitchen floor, and nods. And suddenly her stunned hesitation is over. She's on her feet, moving efficiently, as if it's every day she and Satchmo are patching up gunshot wounds, calmly calling Peter at the office to let him know there may be a dying woman lying in front of the kitchen sink. She knows what to do, Peter's always made sure of that, but it's somehow unexpected to find herself doing it.
A slight tremor runs from her elbow to her wrist as she presses a towel to the hole in Alex's jacket, holds it against the wetness beneath.
"Just try to keep breathing," she says, waiting for Peter to pick up.
Alex nods slightly, one corner of her mouth curling as Satchmo licks her cheek. Elizabeth remembers how, just moments before, she'd been wishing for a girls' night in.
"Peter," says Elizabeth, relief spilling from her voice, soaking into the kitchen floor like Alex's slowly pooling blood.
Neal is leaning over the table, over four side-by-side pages of Sara's clients' inventory, an absolutely stunning collection. His brain can't parse a word of it. He's trying too hard not to focus on Sara herself. She's been kind, friendly, distant, everything he expected. She's been too professional, and so has he.
He searches the spaces between her words for the pattern, trying to decipher what she's really trying to tell him. Even though he knows she's not Kate. Even though he knows that if something were there, Sara would just say it.
Maybe it's up to him. Maybe there's a hint, a clue, anything he can leave behind in her files. She can find it tonight, when she spreads everything out on her living room floor, looking for those missing pieces. If he leaves her a message she can understand, maybe she'll call...
"Neal?" says Peter. "What do you think?"
"What? Oh." He glances up. He'll focus on Peter's face and avoid Sara's--but he's looking at her now just the same. "I--I think we should start--"
Peter's phone goes off.
"Just a minute," says Peter, "I have to take this." He leaves the room.
"You're off your game today, Caffrey," says Sara, giving him that smile she used to give him in the beginning, when she was on to his bullshit.
"Maybe just a little," he says, cautiously. "You're not."
"It's been a busy week." She licks her lips. "I think... I really think I need your help with this, Neal."
"My help how?" It's Neal's turn to be cool. He's earned it, he thinks.
"With this case. With..." She pauses for a beat. "Peter told me Alex is missing. I'm sorry. You must be worried."
Neal nods. "I am," he says. "Alex is a good friend."
And here she drops her guard, just long enough for him to see the flicker of surprise.
"You thought I went back to Alex?"
"I didn't think it was out of the realm of possibility," she says.
"Neal, you have to come with me," Peter's voice sounds out of place, even though they're at the office. "Now. That was El. There's an emergency at the house."
"Peter, we're a little--"
"It's Alex. She's been shot."
Sara rides with them back to the house. Neal had grabbed her arm as he made to follow Peter and she came. He wonders if she knows why he wants her here. Does she think he needs the support? Does she know he wasn't ready to let the conversation end? The three of them don't say a word on the drive.
Elizabeth meets them at the door.
"She wouldn't let me call the ambulance until you pulled up," she says. Neal pushes past her into the house.
"Alex. Are you out of your mind?"
Her eyes are unfocused, but she's smiling vaguely. Neal scratches Satchmo behind the ear as he kneels beside Alex. Elizabeth's tourniquet is impressive.
"His name is Karls," she says, her voice husky.
"Bertram Karls, yeah," says Neal. "We know. How did this happen?"
Her smile is more defined now. "I ran."
Neal pushes the hair from her forehead. "Good girl."
Alex closes her eyes and snorts. "Don't patronize me, jackass."
"Getting shot brings out your mean side, Alex."
"Get this guy, Neal."
"We will," Neal says, and he's sure about that. "Peter'll get him."
The ambulance arrives and Neal rises, walks into the dining room to give them room to work. Sara is there. Her eyes have been on him the entire time.
"Do you think she'll be all right?" she asks.
He nods. "Yeah. I do."
Neal is aware now that Peter is by his side, or maybe he was always standing here. He grips Neal's shoulder.
"I'm going to the hospital to get Alex's statement and keep an eye on her. We don't know that Karls didn't have her followed. I'm going to leave a couple of agents outside the house for a while. I'll call as soon as I'm done."
A wash of gratitude passes over Neal. Peter's made the decision for him. He can stay here with Sara and they can finish the conversation they began at the office.
"All right," he says, and he smiles. "Make sure they take care of her."
"I will," Peter says. "Jones is coming too." He inclines his head. "Sara."
"Goodbye, Peter," Sara says.
Elizabeth is standing by the stairs when everyone leaves.
"Satchmo has made a mess out of himself," she says affectionately. "I'm going to clean him up. You two... Make yourselves at home. I'll take care of the mess down here when I'm done."
Neal wonders if the Burkes are making this all too easy on him. Sometimes he feels like a pet project here. 'The mess', as Elizabeth referred to it, is Alex's blood plastered across the kitchen floor. Neal steps to the side so he doesn't have to see it when he looks at Sara.
"So," she says, resting her hip against the table. "I'm not sure how to follow that up."
Neal steps closer. "A real apology would be nice," he offers.
"I'll admit my timing could have been better."
"Nah," says Neal. "What could have been better than a handful of days after I was kidnapped, almost murdered, and framed for a massive heist? I was completely primed to get dumped."
"I didn't want it to drag on. It was hard enough this way."
"Then it's a good thing your painting showed up when it did."
Sara smiles, shakes her head. "Why did you choose then to return the Raphael?"
"I didn't return it," says Neal, and her smile starts to fade. He wants to catch it, to hold it there on her lips, to keep her from looking at him any other way. He can do that with words, but only the truth.
"When Peter accused me of taking the treasure," he says, "he was so angry, and betrayed. And I was defensive at first but... He was just calling me out on who I am. I thought about that. I wanted to make sure you never had a reason to feel that way about me."
The smile evaporates anyway, her head tips to the side. She's searching his eyes.
"You didn't want me to think it was a con." There is penance in her voice here, and it knots inside Neal's stomach.
"Sara, for what it's worth, I didn't steal the Raphael. There was a time when I didn't mind--when I liked taking credit for it. But I didn't take it."
"You just knew where to find it?"
"I just knew where to find it."
She straightens from the table, moves closer, the tip of her shoe butting up against his instep. And then she's pressed against him. Neal touches the small of her back, lightly, afraid that too much will remind her that she's letting him touch her again, and it will all be over.
But it's not over. She's kissing him, drawing in breath through her nose as he slides his arms around her and pulls her in.
And Neal's phone rings.
He groans, holds his lips against hers even though the moment has passed, then finally pulls away.
"It could be Peter." And it is.
"We found Karls," says Peter.
"They found Karls," Neal tells her, and he listens to Peter giving the address, but his eyes don't stray from the tip of Sara's tongue darting out to catch the memory of their kiss on her lips.
A few moments later, Elizabeth is handing her keys to Neal.
"Isn't this outside your radius?" Sara asks, following him to the car, address in hand.
"As long as I'm with Peter, it's fine," says Neal.
"Probation with perks."
He holds the door open for her, but she hesitates.
"You've been de facto FBI for weeks," says Neal. "I think you should come."
For a moment, he thinks she'll say no, but then she's getting in.
"I'm a little afraid of enjoying this too much," she says.
Neal closes the door and heads around the car, nodding at the agents watching the house. The sly grin he's been suppressing for days finally finds its way to his lips. "So am I."
They reach Karls' hotel and find themselves on the outskirts of a standoff.
"Wait in the car," says Neal, the thought that he's driven her straight into danger gnawing at him. Sara nods. He leans back in, impulsively, presses a kiss to the corner of her mouth, then hurries off to find Peter.
"What's going on?" he asks.
"Karls isn't coming out," says Peter. "He says he has reason enough to interest us in a deal, whatever that means."
"Do you think he has hostages?"
"We're trying to figure that out." Peter glances back over his shoulder. "You brought Sara?"
Neal shrugs. "We weren't finished talking."
"Neal, he could have a bomb in there. He blew up that warehouse. Take her home. You don't need to be here for this."
"Then why did you call me?"
"We didn't know someone was going to tip him off."
"Well," says Neal, "I'm here now."
Both men turn at the sudden screech of tires. A minivan peels away from the curb some distance behind them. Neal's eyes immediately light on Elizabeth's car, and it's empty, passenger door open.
"Neal!" Peter calls out, but Neal is already running toward the car. He's the one who told her to wait there. "Neal! Dammit!"
He's only peripherally aware of Peter racing after him.
Neal, he could have a bomb in there, Peter says in Neal's head, over and over and over again as Neal speeds after them. He's trying hard not to see the plane exploding in the back of his mind. Or Alex lying in a pool of blood on the floor. He gives chase for a couple of miles, and it feels like he's been driving for days.
Finally, the minivan weaves between lanes in an intersection, and Neal loses sight of it.
"No!" He pounds on the steering wheel, takes the first right on gut feeling alone.
At first, he speeds past a darkened, empty school, but something about the abandoned parking lot strikes him, and he makes a u-turn on the unlit road, heads back. He turns off the headlights as he pulls in, squinting in the darkness when he sees the minivan at the end of the parking lot, tilted at an odd angle with two wheels up on the curb.
Neal slips out of Elizabeth's car and approaches the school. One basement window is lit, and he creeps up to it, listening carefully.
"I'm goin' to make a phone call. Be good." It's a man's voice, maybe mid-forties, gruff and hearty, and Neal imagines he must be a big guy.
The window is frosted, so Neal can't see through, but when he hears the door click shut inside, he takes a chance, easily jostling the latch out of place and pushing it open. He slides through and drops to the floor.
"Neal," Sara whispers. She is standing across the room--the boiler room--arms stretched above her, handcuffed around a pipe that's anchored to the wall.
Neal presses a finger to his lips, and he's at her side in a second. He wants to just look at her, make sure she's all right, but they have to get out of here first. Out in the hallway, Sara's captor is talking loudly, trying to secure Karls' safe escape to the airport in return for the hostage.
"Did he hurt you?" says Neal, pressed up against her as he reaches for her wrists with one hand.
"No," says Sara, and she's watching the window. "Peter's with you, right?"
"Uh, no." Neal realizes that wouldn't have been a bad idea.
"So, you're the entire cavalry?" She sounds almost amused.
"Should I be offended?" Neal says, pulling a safety pin from his pocket.
"No," says Sara. "But it might have been nice if you brought a little back up with you. Preferably someone who carries a weapon?"
"I've got this thing where I tend to act on impulse."
"So I've noticed."
The pin makes quick work of the handcuffs, but before she's lowered her arms, Neal freezes with the muzzle of a handgun pressed up against the back of his head.
It takes Peter some time--too much time--to find Elizabeth's car behind the school, but once he does, the lit basement window is like a beacon. He's already on the phone with Diana as he gets out of the car.
"We've got a problem," she says. "Listen to this." And she holds his phone up so he can hear. A man, the one who's taken Sara, the one who works for Karls, is on speaker.
"We've got two of yours now," he's telling the FBI. He thinks Sara's an agent. Neal, too, for that matter. "That means I've got the leeway to start shooting hostages if shit doesn't start happening."
Peter hears the barrel of the gun crack across Neal's cheek, and Neal's hoarse cry of shock, from the phone and the window. He gives Diana his location, tells her to send back up immediately.
The long, low window tilts up to open, and Peter can't get their captor in his sights. He can, however, see Neal and Sara, each with one wrist in cuffs around a thick pipe. Neal is whispering something to her and she's listening, but her eyes never leave the gunman.
Neal turns his head away as the gun is jammed against his cheek. In the course of movement, his eyes catch Peter's. Peter watches relief and anticipation cross his face at once.
On his feet again, Peter goes for a different entrance.
Neal reaches out with his free hand, tucking Sara's hair behind her ear. She looks so calm, though he can feel the vibration of her slowly simmering anger. He'd have them out of the cuffs by now if the asshole with the gun would turn away for just a second. The safety pin is tucked away in Neal's sleeve.
His left eye is swollen nearly shut from when he was hit, and when she finally tears her eyes away from the gunman, she reaches out to touch it.
"You're bleeding," she says.
"It's not so bad," says Neal, but he's lying. His head is pounding.
"You're both gonna be bleeding if you don't shut the hell up," says the gunman.
"You don't need to threaten her," says Neal. "I'm the expendable one, remember?"
"I haven't decided which one of you's expendable yet." The gunman raises his hand and brings it down across the side of Neal's head again. This time Neal's temple smacks against the wall.
"Really, Neal, the nobility isn't necessary," Sara says.
"I said shut up." The big man jams the gun against the back of Neal's skull. "So help me God, lady, one more word and you'll be wearing his brains."
Neal tries not to flinch, but he's getting the feeling that the last bullet to come out of this gun went straight into Alex. Sara's just glaring at the gunman, and for a moment Neal wonders if she's daring him to do it, but then her eyes are on Neal again, and they're softer now, steady. Neal, when he looks closely, really reads her, can see in her eyes that she's terrified, but the gunman can't.
There's a soft shuffle out in the hall, Neal hears it first, and he starts coughing, loudly, to cover the sound of Peter's approach. The man with the gun kicks the back of Neal's knee, hard, and Neal buckles. The gun digs into the base of his neck.
Peter is standing in the doorway behind Sara, both Neal and Sara shielding the gunman from him.
"You just lost your first hostage," the gunman says, and Neal can feel the man's fingers tighten on the trigger.
In a slowly passing second, he wonders how he can keep Sara out of the way.
And then, the sound of breaking glass is everywhere, basement windows shattering to the boiler room floor amidst shouts of "FBI!" and the thunder of footsteps. The gun is gone somewhere in this chaos, and as Neal looks up, Peter is slamming their captor up against the wall, cuffing his hands behind his back.
Neal flicks the safety pin from his cuff and sets them free, rubbing his own wrist for a moment, then reaching for Sara's.
"Thank you," she says, falling back against the wall. Now she's shaking.
He turns her hand over in his, pressing his thumb against her wrist and rubbing gently.
"Are you all right?"
"I think I should be asking you," she says. "You need to get to the hospital, Neal."
Neal makes to shake his head, and the room swims all around him. He wavers on his feet, his knee giving out at the same moment his sense of balance betrays him, and Peter is there to catch him beneath the arms.
"I'm with Sara on this one," he says. "I wouldn't doubt you've got a concussion. Come on."
One arm slung over Sara's shoulders, and one over Peter's, Neal lets them take him outside.
Jones approaches them by the ambulance.
"We got Karls," he says. "SWAT went in as soon as we confirmed the hostages were safe." He dips his knees a little to look Neal in the eyes. "All right, Caffrey?"
Neal smiles listlessly. "Right as rain. Anybody else hear bells?"
Sara snorts and nudges him toward the ambulance.
Neal blinks himself awake in the hospital room, Peter's face in fuzzy focus for the first few moments.
"I guess waking up to a pretty girl and some get well soon flowers is too much to ask," he says, his throat a little dry.
Peter grins. "They want to hang on to you for observation overnight."
Neal rests his head against the pillow. "All right."
"Sara gave me a statement. I figured I'll take yours when you're not seeing double."
"Feels like that could take a while."
"I've got the time." Peter leans forward in his chair, elbows settling on his knees. "You did a stupid thing, Neal."
"There's a first."
"If it's any consolation, I think you impressed the girl."
"And all it took was a minor head injury."
Peter smiles. "Mozzie's been here, briefly. He wanted me to keep him posted."
"Tell him he can get me a bottle of Advil as a homecoming present."
"So what happened with Karls? Jones said we got him?"
"We got him," says Peter. "My phone hunch paid off. One of the thugs on Adler's crew was working for Karls all along. When Adler took me, you and Alex, Karls saw his chance and stepped in. You would have been framed for the whole thing."
"Including Alex's murder," says Neal.
Peter nods. "He's been leaving just a few pieces behind to send us on a wild goose chase while he worked on getting the big payoff out of the country."
"Not a bad plan," says Neal.
"Sorry you didn't think of it?"
Neal smiles, sleepily. "Nah. Mine would have been better. Did they recover the rest of it?"
"We'll never know. We've found at least one big stash in a storage unit rented to Adler's guy, but we never had a chance to inventory the contents of the U-boat in the first place."
"There you are!" Elizabeth is standing in the doorway, holding a pint-sized teddy bear with a potted plant embedded in the top of its head. Neal holds on to Peter's last statement, folding it away in the back of his mind for later.
"Oh, Neal," Elizabeth says. She's looking at his face with sympathetic horror, and he can picture the cuts and bruises on the surface of his throbbing head.
"I look that good?" he asks.
"You look like you've been knocked around a little bit," she says. She sets the teddy bear down beside the bed.
"It could be worse," says Neal, nodding at the bear, flowers sprouting from its head. "I could have ended up like him."
"Awful, isn't it?" says Elizabeth. "It's from Mozzie."
"Mozzie?" says Peter, and he reaches for the bear before Neal does, pulling out the little potted daisy and tipping the bear upside down, shaking it.
"Peter," says Neal, "what do you think Mozz is trying to smuggle into the hospital for me?"
"Sorry," says Peter, looking contrite under Elizabeth's glare. "Old habits."
"Come on," she says, patting his shoulder. "We're going to let Neal get some rest."
Peter is reluctant to leave, but with Neal's assurance, he rises. Elizabeth goes to wait in the hall.
"Thanks, for saving my life again," says Neal.
Quiet for a moment, Peter just looks at him; sometimes they don't need to say anything.
"I'll be back," says Peter, and then he's gone.
Neal waits, lets a few moments of distance pass, then reaches for the bear. He takes the flowerpot, sets the bear aside. With a twist, the dish is removed from the base of the pot, and Neal pulls out a scroll of paper wrapped around the inside of the pot. He smooths it on the blankets over his lap, brushing away a dusting of potting soil, and smiles.
It's the complete catalogue of all items initially found on the U-boat, and beneath, in Mozzie's scrawl, Do with this as you will.
"You look better," says Neal, leaning in the doorway of Alex's hospital room.
She tries to sit up and winces, then reaches for the bed's control and rolls her eyes. Neal has a feeling that everything about this visit has been an indignity to Alex, much like that time after the music box. Neal walks inside.
"You look like hell," she says, smiling.
"Surface wounds," says Neal. "I'm fine."
"Peter said you'd be all right."
He sits down beside the bed. "You saw Mozz?"
"He dropped by."
"You gave him that list, didn't you?"
"I thought it might give you some closure. On the case," she adds. An afterthought.
"Are we going to have a talk, Neal?" she asks, as if he's amusing her by being here at all.
"Do we need to?"
"That'll only cheapen things."
"True," says Neal. He takes her hand, presses a kiss to her knuckles.
"I see Sara's back," she says. "Couldn't stay away? I'm not surprised."
"She needs my help on a case," says Neal.
Neal shifts in his chair. "She conned me, Alex. I'm... kind of unclear on how to feel about that."
"Impressed?" Alex's smile broadens. "You want me to give you advice on your love life?"
"That would be inappropriate," said Neal.
"Just a little." Alex pushes the hair from her face. "Just don't let her become another Kate to you, all right?"
"What does that mean?"
"See her for who she is, Neal. Not for who you want her to be."
Neal thinks about that for a moment, thinks about how easy it would be to blow off Alex's advice because she's Alex. Thinks about how right she is.
"So," he says, leaning forward in his chair, "did Peter tell you all the details of Karls' game?"
"No," says Alex, humoring the change of subject. "Tell me. Please. I need something interesting to pass the time in here."
She's not the one who picks him up at the hospital. The idea tempts her, and she even lets her mind wander to what he'll look like walking out of those doors: he'll call Mozzie to bring him a suit, she imagines, and his hat. It will almost compensate for the bruises all over his face, for the bandage she can picture over his eye, where the butt of the gun broke the skin. He'll be smiling, because the sunshine and breeze will be a little more like freedom than the confines of the hospital room. His anklet will remind him that's not totally true.
She is not the one who picks him up at the hospital because she doesn't want to be that woman. Not to Neal Caffrey. As it is, she's letting herself think about him too much, trying too hard to spend time inside his head. This was all simpler when she kept her inner monologue on Neal short and sweet. Beautiful guy. Great con man. Guilty party.
It was easy to fall for Neal, even then, but even easier to walk away. Now the vernacular-of-Neal that lives inside her head has changed; he has his own lexicon up there, and the words circulate through her thoughts, her blood, her heart. Considerate and loyal and even selfless, all exist in her head now, all exist in Neal, while at the same time she knows he can be just the opposite if he chooses.
Red or black, she still doesn't know. She's never been a gambler.
Peter tells her Neal is home and she waits three hours, catches Mozzie on his way out as June leads her up the stairs.
"Hi," she says from the doorway, and Neal turns around.
He's unbuttoning his shirt. She was right; he walked out of the hospital dressed to the nines.
"You look even worse in the daylight."
Neal ghosts a smile. "You look beautiful."
Sara, not often self-conscious, suddenly is. "Thank you."
She moves closer, wanting to touch the edge of that bandage, trace its outline over the bruises beneath.
"I wasn't sure you'd come," he says.
"I thought a little breathing room was a good idea." She reaches up, touches his cheek and watches him flinch, then relax.
"Glass of wine?" he offers.
She nods. "Later." As she lowers her hand, her fingers graze his cheek, then his chest beneath his open shirt.
Neal swallows, and he's silent, and somehow his charm is even stronger like this. She wonders if it's intentional. Is she ever going to know?
"What are we to each other now, Neal?"
"I wish I knew."
"If wishes were horses, this place would smell like horse shit," she says. "My grandmother used to say that to me." She laughs. "Isn't that a horrible thing to say to a little girl?"
Neal smiles, genuine and sweet. "I think old women are allowed to get away with that sort of thing."
His hand is on the small of her back now, the movement as smooth and subtle as if he were picking her pocket. She lets him keep it there, leans in closer.
"Mmm," she says. "You're probably right."
"You just deflected your own question, you know," he says, and his voice is growing softer.
"I did. And you avoided an answer."
"How long are we going to go on like this?" she says, wondering when his mouth moved so close to hers.
"Like this is a game."
"Ah," says Neal, "but it's not. Games have rules."
"You need rules," she says.
"So do you, apparently." He smiles, and his lips are just barely brushing hers. She's watching his eyes. "Don't lie to me, Sara."
"I won't," she says. Sincerely. "I still expect the same."
"Good." And the word is hardly a word at all, because now he is kissing her, and she's kissing back, touching his face and trying not to hurt him, and his hands are everywhere at once as they stumble toward the bed.
She wraps her arms around Neal, and all his wonderful flaws, and for the first time since she can remember, lets go.