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The Right Way to Fall

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Neal was hanging head-down from the top of the Metropolitan Museum of Art when his safety line snapped.

"Oh shit," he said, in a seemingly endless moment in which he hung weightless, and then he was falling, the wind screaming past his ears.

Mozzie had told him not to do it. Mozzie would probably say "I told you so" at his funeral. The roof of the Met wasn't really that high -- if he was lucky, the fall might not kill him, it might just leave him in a coma, or maybe paralyzed --

Neal shut his eyes, which was why he didn't see exactly what happened, just that it happened very fast: he slammed into something that resisted, strong arms closed around him and then he was on his feet and stumbling, going to his knees with painful force as momentum carried him forward, catching himself with his hands. He opened his eyes. He was on his hands and knees on the sidewalk. His palms stung where he'd scuffed them on the concrete.

"Reckless idiot," said Peter's gruff voice, above his head.

Neal looked up quickly, but Peter was already gone.

 


 

Neal had first met Peter when he was three and a half. Left unattended for a few minutes in the backyard of the mobile home where they were currently living, he'd crawled under the fence, through a hole he'd already scoped out during other backyard excursions, and wandered down to the road. The traffic looked interesting. He watched it for a while and then, catching sight of even more interesting-looking stuff on the other side of the road, decided to dash through a gap in the flow of traffic. He wasn't stupid; he knew that fast-moving cars were dangerous. But he planned to be even faster.

Someone adult-sized scooped him up before he'd made it more than a few feet, lifting him off the ground into the air. Neal looked down, too startled to make a sound, as he was whisked back to the gravel shoulder of the road and deposited there.

"You okay, kid?" the stranger asked.

Neal looked up at him. His mother always said not to speak to strangers, but Neal had never understood why. Strangers were interesting. "Yep," Neal said. "Let's do it again!"

"Let's not," the stranger said. He knelt down so that he could look Neal in the face. There was something vaguely familiar about him, like Neal had known him all his life. He was wearing a long, rumpled overcoat that spread out around him in the gravel, like wings. He looked worried. "Do you realize you could have been killed?"

"I knew what I was doing," Neal said. The stranger blinked at him, as grown-ups usually did when Neal spoke to them in his precise, complete sentences. He was small for his age, but his mother always said that he had a precocious vocabulary.

"Uh-huh. Just don't do it again, okay?"

"Okay," Neal said. He wasn't going to do it exactly like that again, in any case. Neal never tried something the same way twice if it didn't work the first time. It made it too easy for the adults to anticipate him, for one thing. "I'm Neal," he added, because sometimes it helped head off a scolding if he could distract the adults before they got around to it. And he stuck out his small hand.

The stranger stared at it, then took his hand and shook it. Neal's little hand vanished into the stranger's big one. "I'm Peter," the stranger said, and just like that, he wasn't a stranger anymore.

As soon as the words left his mouth, Peter winced. "Except I'm not supposed to tell you that," he said, and straightened up but kept Neal's hand in his, kindly but somewhat awkwardly, like he wasn't used to kids. Or maybe not used to kids like Neal. "Let's go back to your yard and block up that hole under the fence, why don't we?"

"Okay," Neal said agreeably. He wasn't worried; he knew of a half-dozen other holes, or weak places that could be enlarged into holes. Also, he was pretty sure that if he grew a little bit more, he'd be big enough to climb over the fence, and that would be even more awesome.

"You're going to be a handful, aren't you?" Peter said.

 


 

Until he started school, Neal thought that everyone had a Peter. After that first time -- which he had a vague idea might not be the first time, but it was the first time he remembered -- he saw Peter about a half-dozen more times. One time he fell into a flooded culvert while trying to look into it. Another time he climbed up on the roof of their mobile home during a lightning storm and couldn't get down. Then there was the time he got chased by the neighbor's Doberman ...

A Peter was a very useful thing to have around.

His mother didn't like him to talk about Peter, but mothers were like that. Also, his mother was busy and distracted with her boyfriends and her different jobs. She left Neal with the neighbors a lot, which usually meant he got to play on his own, or with Peter.

"Jumping off the roof in the hopes that I'll catch you isn't a game," Peter snapped, after setting Neal on the ground.

"But you did catch me."

He didn't really like making Peter upset, though. He liked Peter and wanted Peter to like him. But it made Peter upset when Neal did dangerous things, and those were also the only times that he ever saw Peter, so Peter was upset at him a lot. Neal thought Peter probably liked him anyway, though, or Peter wouldn't keep catching him when he fell (or jumped) off things. Sort of like his mom.

Then he started school, and began to figure out that no one else had a Peter of their own, or at least, no one talked about it if they did. School was a miserable experience all the way around -- Neal was small and precociously smart, a deadly combination on the recess yard, and his mother still moved around a lot, so he was always the new kid.

Mostly he could avoid the worst of it because he was small and fast and, when all else failed, sneaky. And he had Peter to fall back on. Or he thought he did. When a bunch of bigger kids cornered him against the fence during recess, he thought Peter would rescue him.

Peter didn't.

Furious, and hurting from more than his bruises, Neal skipped school for the rest of the day -- he was six -- and deliberately walked in front of a cement truck. Next thing he knew he was thumping down behind a hedge next to the road, while the shriek of the truck's brakes squealed in his ears, and Peter shook him.

"What's wrong with you, kid? You could have killed not only yourself, but the driver of that truck, too. You're a smart kid, Neal. Stop and think for a change."

Neal pulled away and crossed his arms, meeting Peter's stormcloud glower with one of his own. Peter's eyes went to the bruises on his face, his mussed-up school clothes -- the only good clothes he had -- and the anger melted away as if it had never been. Peter went down on one knee and put a hand on Neal's arm. "Awww, Neal," he said.

Neal shook him off. "I thought you'd be there," Neal said furiously. "You're always there."

"Not for things like that." Peter looked uncomfortable. "You have to get through that stuff on your own."

Hurt broke through the anger. Neal was, after all, only six, precocious or not. "I thought we were friends."

Peter stared at him helplessly. "Neal, I'm not even supposed to be talking to you right now. You aren't supposed to see me at all, or if you do, it'd be once in a lifetime -- enough to write off as the trauma of a near-death experience. You're a lot more accident-prone than most kids your age."

Neal had a finely honed adult-bullshit detector, enough to cut through everything Peter was saying to what he wasn't saying. "We're not friends," he said, hesitant, trying it out.

"I'm not allowed to be."

Neal turned his back. When he looked around again, Peter was gone. He tried to tell himself that it didn't hurt.

He started being more careful after that. Well, a little bit.

 


 

Later in life, Neal was (mostly) convinced that Peter had been a figment of his imagination. Most kids have imaginary friends, right? Maybe his had been a little more ... tangible than most, but it wasn't like he had a good sanity baseline to compare it to. His best friend was named after a childhood teddy bear, for pete's sake.

And, okay, yes, maybe he had a few more close calls and narrow escapes than most people, but he figured it was nothing more than the line of work he was in and the fact that, so far, he'd been a lucky guy. He miscalculated the timer on a smoke grenade, and it almost went off in his hand, but fortuitously stopped working. A security guard who was about to shoot him tripped over, of all the ironic things, a no-slip safety mat in the slippery museum foyer that had somehow gotten rucked up. And then there was that time he and Alex got away from a car full of furious mafia guys because the mobsters blew a tire ... He was just lucky, that's all.

Or so he believed, until he found himself on a sidewalk below the Met at three a.m., the knees of his expensive suit ripped and his palms full of gravel, staring up at the city's glow on the bellies of the clouds. There was no way to write that off to luck.

Not that he didn't try, over the next few days. Adrenaline, maybe? He'd had a really fortunate landing, and rolled, and his brain had conjured a random memory from his childhood ...

Mild head trauma, perhaps?

It had to be something like that, no matter how unlikely, because the alternative was that his childhood imaginary friend was real, and he had a real-life guardian angel, a tired-looking guy in a wrinkled overcoat who could fly.

 


 

Six months later, he and Alex were robbing a minor count's estate in northern Italy when it happened again.

In all fairness, parachuting into the estate hadn't been the best idea. But it was the only thing they could think of, because the defenses were good, and while Alex had a decent plan for getting out through the water main for the estate's self-contained hydroelectric power generator, it wouldn't work the other way without sucking them into the turbines. So, one bribable pilot later, here he was ...

... a thousand feet above the flanks of the Alps with a parachute that didn't work.

"Oh, you've got to be kidding me," he muttered, yanking the cord with increasing desperation. He caught sight of the glimmer of Alex's chute off to his left, though the wind was carrying her away from the estate, not towards it. Irony was having a field day with them this time. At least she and Moz wouldn't have to worry about breaking into the estate to remove his remains, because at this height and this speed, there wouldn't be enough left of him to bother.

Then he stopped falling with a jerk as someone's hands caught his own. At this speed, both their arms should have been dislocated, but all he felt was a sharp wrenching and then he staggered forward, grass under his feet, falling against --

"Peter," Neal said, and hung onto Peter's hands, not letting him vanish off to wherever it was that Peter went when he wasn't saving Neal's life.

Peter stepped backwards. Even by the light of the moon, he looked like Neal remembered: rumpled and tired and annoyed.

"You do remember me," Peter said. "You're not supposed to. Of course, no one is supposed to almost die as often as you do, either."

"If I let go, will you stay?" Neal asked. That came out a bit desperate, so he amended it quickly. "To talk a minute. I want to ask some questions."

"I'll just bet you do," Peter said with a sigh. He crossed his arms. "Since it looks like this is going to keep happening, we may as well. Ask away."

Neal grinned inwardly, but managed to keep it on the inside. He usually got his way sooner or later. "Let's go somewhere that we can sit down, at least." When Peter did nothing, Neal said, "Come on, a minute ago I was a thousand feet in the air and now I'm standing on the ground. I don't know if you want to call it teleportation or something else, but I know you can do it."

Peter heaved a sigh. "This," he said, "this is why we don't talk to you people, because you aren't supposed to know things like that," and he took Neal by the elbow, and suddenly they were standing in the middle of Neal's sumptuous hotel suite. "Better?"

Neal staggered, caught off guard by the sudden change of scenery, but hastily slapped the smiling, slightly bored mask back on his face. "Perfect." Alex was going to be furious, but she could take care of herself and he'd probably never get a better opportunity to ask the questions that had plagued him all his life. He crossed to the bar and poured himself a shot of Ketel One. "What are you drinking?"

"Beer, if you've got it."

Neal turned and looked at him. "Angels drink beer?"

"This one does."

It was expensive beer, at least. Neal opened one and handed it over. "So are you an angel?"

Peter sighed and sat on the arm of one of the spare, sleek-looking couches in the hotel suite's lounge. "More or less. Close enough to count, I suppose. I was human once, a long time ago."

"Really?" Neal said curiously.

Peter shrugged and sipped the beer. "They recruit from those of us who were lawmen in life. The guardian angel gig is a pretty big deal, actually." He turned the beer around to read the label. "Mmm. That's good beer."

"Lawmen, huh?" It just figured that he'd have a guardian angel that was a cop. This was precisely the kind of irony that life loved throwing at him. "What were you? Police? FBI?"

"It was a little before the FBI," Peter said with a slight grin.

"Seriously? How old are you?"

"Why don't we talk about you," Peter said, gesturing to him with the beer. "The point of having a guardian angel isn't so you can pull stupid stunts while fleecing other people of their money, you know. The vast majority of people don't have or need a guardian angel once they're past the age of, oh, twenty or so. The whole point to my department is to make sure that the human race survives the years when they haven't yet figured out that fire is hot, strange dogs bite, and following black-clad men into alleyways isn't a good idea. Then most people develop some common sense, and what happens after that is on their heads, and not the business of the guardian angel division."

Neal grinned brightly. "I'm special, am I?"

"You certainly are," Peter said gloomily. "Do you know how many times I've saved your life in the last year alone?"

"Really? How many?"

"Classified," Peter snapped. "Too many to count off the top of my head, anyway."

Neal thought back on it. "I only saw you the once."

"That's because I'm good at my job. We're not supposed to be seen at all. Sometimes there's not enough advance warning to come up with an unobtrusive way of saving your life, though." He set down the empty bottle, crossed to the bar and opened another one.

"Hey, slow down or they'll confiscate your wings for drunken flying." Peter scowled at him; Neal grinned, unrepentant. "Does alcohol even affect you?" he asked, curious.

"Sure. When I'm here, that is, physically present as I am at the moment, I'm just as solid and real as you are. I can get drunk. I can eat. If I'm careless enough, I can even die. Well," Peter added, "I wouldn't die, technically. I'd most likely be reassigned. Getting killed in the line of duty is a definite screw-up for a guardian angel; they don't tend to give us second chances."

"Taking a bullet for me isn't in your job description?"

"No," Peter said flatly. "My job as your guardian angel is to make sure that I never have to. If it does come down to a situation where there really is no other choice -- either you die, or I die saving you -- then the rule is that I let you go." His eyes were distant, and Neal wondered if he was thinking back to a time that he'd done exactly that, on some previous assignment.

"That's a bit harsh, especially if you're talking about a five-year-old."

"Life is harsh," Peter pointed out. "Kids die. We try to make sure they don't, but there's only so much we can do. In fact, I wasn't supposed to expose myself to you --" He paused, blinked, as Neal snorted quiet laughter. "-- reveal myself in the first place."

"That's not any better."

"No comments from the peanut gallery." But Peter was clearly struggling to suppress his own amusement. Neal got the impression that his guardian angel was really feeling that beer-and-a-half; presumably they didn't drink much in the heavenly cafeteria or wherever he hung out when he wasn't saving Neal from plummeting to his death. "My supervisor wrote me up for that, you know. According to procedure, I should've let the car hit you, or diverted it some other way. And you saw why -- I'm sure you remember how you reacted when you believed that you couldn't die. Can you imagine a world in which every five-year-old child knew that he or she could be as reckless as humanly possible, with no ill effects?"

Neal thought back to his childhood spree of roof-jumping. "I'm not getting why that's bad, though, except it'd keep you guys busy. Better than one of those five-year-olds being flattened by a bus, certainly."

"It's bad because you have to grow up and become a responsible human being. Pain and an understanding of consequences is part of that process." Peter frowned, went for another gulp of the beer only to discover that this one, too, was empty. "I wonder if you're the way you are now because you never really got that understanding hammered into you as a kid."

"I'd say it was hammered pretty hard," Neal said, remembering the bullies in the schoolyard, all those years ago. The sense of betrayal was attenuated by time and maturity, though, into something softer and more like regret.

"Not like it would have been if you hadn't known I was there. Maybe there's some kind of critical period for figuring these things out. Maybe you were already past it when I finally did the right thing and stopped interacting with you. Maybe everything you've stolen in the last fifteen years is on my head ..." Peter reached for another beer, then sighed and stopped himself. "Look, I'm almost certainly going to get yet another demerit when I write up this conversation in my daily report, so I think this is about as far as we ought to go. If I'm not even supposed to show myself to you -- shut up, Neal -- then having long conversations with you is definitely out."

Neal had a vision of a heavenly bureaucracy, angels with little fluttery wings carrying stacks of files, clipboards, Blackberrys ... "So don't report it, then."

Peter stared at him. "You realize I'm an angel, right? And you want me to lie to my superiors?"

"It's what I would do."

Peter stared at him a moment longer, then shook his head. "Yeah. You probably would." And he vanished without another word.

Neal gazed at the empty air. "You still there?" he asked, but the air, of course, did not reply. He collected the beer bottles and dropped them in the trash. At least there was some tangible evidence that he hadn't imagined the whole thing.

Alex turned up on his doorstep ten hours later, covered with mud and grass stains, and furious. Neal told her he'd missed the landing zone, too. He didn't mention the rest of it.

 


 

Neal wished he'd taken better advantage of his one opportunity to talk to Peter, because in the following weeks, he kept thinking of questions he really should have asked. Like, was Peter watching him all the time? He didn't want to get too paranoid -- he already had Mozzie as an excellent cautionary tale -- but he had to resist the temptation to shower without turning the bathroom lights on. This also had the potential to put a major crimp in his sex life, not that there was much of that at the moment, since Kate was still incommunicado.

He and Alex went their separate ways in the wake of the botched heist, and Neal moved back to New York for a while. The attraction of Europe was wearing off again, and he missed the city he called home, inasmuch as he called anyplace home. He missed Mozzie. And he'd like to see if he could find Kate.

"You know, you could make your angel self useful and help me find her," Neal said to the empty air in his new apartment. It was a nice place, and dirt cheap for the location. He'd run into the nice older lady who owned the house by pure chance, and it turned out she was open to the idea of having a tenant around the place, so here he was and he paid next to nothing for it. Neal had started out thinking that he was conning her, and was left wondering if he'd actually been taken for a ride instead, or perhaps they'd met in the middle. He had not mentioned what he did for a living, but some of his oblique conversations with June gave him the impression that she knew a whole lot more about him than she let on.

But Peter didn't make himself useful, and Kate had gone underground so thoroughly that even Moz's contacts didn't know where she was, so Neal turned his attention to playing the tourist for a while. He didn't want for money, and New York was relatively safe for him at the moment, with Interpol still combing Europe. So he was temporarily content to spend his days wandering the city's many attractions and art galleries, planning fantasy heists that he never intended to pull off. Peter probably appreciated the time off, Neal thought.

He found his next job at the DeArmitt Gallery. By New York standards, it wasn't a particularly large or famous gallery, but it tended to attract an extremely high quality of work, including some quite expensive pieces. Neal enjoyed most of their shows, and on one of his trips there, he picked up a postcard from a stack at the front desk advertising their upcoming Kleinfeld exhibit.

"Most of Kleinfeld's work was destroyed during the second world war and the years leading up to it," he told Moz over a glass of wine in June's loft. "There are only a handful of pieces in the world, and most of them are going to be in New York in a couple of weeks."

"It's not worth that much," Mozzie objected. "Not even compared to most midlist 20th-century painters. Also, every Kleinfeld I've ever seen was so ugly it hurt the eyes, and these eyes have seen a lot, man."

"That's not the point." Neal was starting to get excited, the more he thought about it. "The point is that this guy was a collage artist, one of the Berlin Dadaists. His art would be next to impossible to forge, not only because of the modern-day scarcity of the materials he used, but also --"

"-- because no one wants to?"

"Because he's obscure enough that it's not easy to find copies or slides of his work at a high enough resolution to work from." Neal grinned and rubbed his hands together. He could feel himself coming alive. "Collage isn't my preferred medium, but that's what makes it a challenge."

"What's security at the gallery like?" Mozzie asked.

"Let's find out."

"Excellent. I'll break out my extensive collection of disguises."

Neal shook his head. "I have a better idea. We'll just ask."

 


 

One advantage to the DeArmitt Gallery being rather small was that it wasn't hard to get a lunch appointment with the gallery's assistant manager, whose name was Elizabeth Hart. She sounded nice on the phone, and turned out to be even nicer in person, which almost made Neal feel guilty that they were about to rob her blind.

Almost.

He assumed a cover identity that he and Moz had concocted for a previous job and then never used: artist and sculptor Nick Winters. They still had the old website and all the fake newspaper clippings that they'd thrown together, and the time gap just made it more plausible, since his cover story was that he'd been out of the public eye for a couple of years working on a new collection of paintings. He wasn't quite ready to put on a show yet, but he was looking for a gallery to display them. On his way to the meeting with Elizabeth, he stopped by the storage unit where he kept most of his own art, and used his phone to snap a few pictures of his favorite pieces for demonstration purposes.

"Yes, I've seen you at our openings a few times," Elizabeth said. He had to mask a look of surprise. This woman paid a whole lot more attention to the gallery's daily goings-on than he'd expected.

In fact, she turned out to be a very hands-on manager. The gallery couldn't afford a large staff, and she often ended up doing everything from hanging paintings to making flyers when their in-house artist was on vacation. She was willing to answer Neal's paranoid-artist questions about security, mostly to his satisfaction, and he only had to drop a couple of hints before she invited him to come by the following day and tour their facilities. "And bring a portfolio with you," she added. "Obviously I can't make promises until my boss and I review your work, but I believe one of the functions of an art gallery is to showcase the work of upcoming local artists from the community as well as the internationally known. We like to show a mix of different artists and styles, so we'll also be considering how your work fits into our show calendar as a whole. In the upcoming month, for example, we have a Kleinfeld exhibit and a show of Tang Dynasty sculpture opening together."

"The postmodern and the traditional, juxtaposed," Neal said. "Very smart." He'd been drawn to the forgery challenge of the Kleinfelds, but he wondered if it would be possible to walk off with a bit of Tang sculpture while he was at it. Just a small sculpture ...

He took his leave from her after making an appointment to tour the gallery tomorrow afternoon, and went back to June's loft to prepare a portfolio of some sort. He'd been as vague as possible about "Nick's" show, which would give him leeway to look through his existing original work and come up with a suitably commercial-sounding theme that fit a subset of it. He still had time to create a few new pieces if he needed to, and it wasn't like any of it was going to hang in the gallery anyway; once the robbery occurred, or on some other pretext if necessary, "Nick" would get cold feet and pull out --

"Do you realize what you'll be doing to Elizabeth Hart's career?" said Peter's voice behind him, and Neal jumped a foot in the air.

"Sneak up on a person, why don't you," he said when his heart rate calmed down.

"I wasn't sneaking, I was already here," Peter said, and while Neal tried to figure out how to point out that this was not actually any better, he went on: "She's responsible for the security of the exhibit. She'll probably be fired at the very least, and she may even end up being charged as an accessory if you go through with this."

Neal firmly tamped down guilt. "I'm an art thief, Peter; it's what I do. Elizabeth Hart will be just fine. She may never even realize that a theft took place at all, if Moz and I do a thorough job." He frowned, as the realization crept upon him that this was the first time he'd seen Peter when his life wasn't at risk. That he knew about ... "Is something lethal about to happen to me?"

"What? Not that I'm aware of. The future isn't in my jurisdiction," Peter said. "No, I came to talk you out of this idiocy."

"This idiocy is my life's work," Neal said. He retrieved a wine glass from the cabinet above the sink and held it out. "Wine? No beer, sorry."

"I don't want a drink, I want to convince you not to steal the painting," Peter said.

"You've never tried to stop me before."

"I never realized that your entire criminal career might be my fault before," Peter said with a very un-angelic air of gloom, then drew himself together. "So, if I did break you somehow, it's my responsibility to get you back on the path that you should have been on in the first place, if I hadn't messed up all those years ago by revealing myself when I rescued you."

"And what path would that be?" Neal asked, amused.

"I'm not sure. But clearly it isn't this. Neal, you're smart, you're talented, and you are, even if you like to deny it, a decent person. You're better than this."

"That's your setting-my-life-straight pep talk?" Neal said, and laughed. "Come on, Peter. Regardless of why things turned out this way, and personally I think you're giving yourself way too much credit -- I like my life. There's nothing I'd want to change about it."

"You make your living by destroying other people's lives."

"That's a bit of a stretch, don't you think? I take things from faceless corporations or from people who have so much money they don't know what to do with it. I'm hardly Robin Hood, I must admit, but I'm not a --" He floundered for some kind of suitable insult. "I'm not a common street thief, and I never take anything from people who can't afford to lose it."

"Fine. I hoped I wouldn't have to do this, but ..." Peter held out a hand, which was now holding a stack of neat, color-coded file folders that Neal was pretty sure had been nowhere on his person a minute ago.

"What's that?" Neal asked, eyeing them with trepidation.

"With you behaving like a sane adult for the last few weeks, I've been able to afford the time to do a little research." Peter flipped open the top file folder. "Do you remember Frank Kozlowski?"

Neal ran the name around his brain. "Can't say it rings a bell, no."

"He was one of the security guards at the bank that you and your little buddy robbed in 2003. Remember that? Cleaned out the safe deposit boxes."

"Yes, I do remember that, and I also remember that not a single person was hurt. Mozzie and I didn't lay a finger on anybody; we didn't even see anybody. We were in and out, and no one was the wiser until the next morning."

"Until next morning, that's right," Peter said, flipping through the file. "By which time you two were long gone. But you didn't think the bank manager was simply going to roll over and accept the loss of several million dollars in deposit-box contents, and the resulting loss of business from some of their wealthiest clients, did you? They had to pin the blame on someone. Both Kozlowski and his partner were fired, and it took him eight months to find another job. He and his wife lost their house."

"Listen, it's not like we planned --"

"Or this," Peter said, opening the file underneath. "What about Lydia Drummond? Does that one ring a bell?"

Neal sighed and sat down at the table, resigned to the fact that this guilt trip was probably going to continue for a while. "I'm not going to like this, am I?"

"Lydia Drummond was one of the bank customers whose jewelry you stole. Diamond necklace, matching earrings and bracelet?"

"I think I remember the jewelry," Neal said cautiously. "But that doesn't mean -- Look, everyone we stole from had more money than they knew what to do with. I don't remember Lydia Drummond specifically, you're right, but there wasn't a single person we stole from in that heist who couldn't have afforded to replace the things we took a dozen times over."

"Some things can't be replaced," Peter said. "That diamond necklace had been a gift from her first husband when he was courting her. He died ten years later, but she never stopped loving him. She only took it out on the anniversary of his death. Until you stole and fenced it, of course."

"Tell me she didn't kill herself or anything like that."

"Does it matter to you?" Peter asked gently.

"Of course it matters! Come on, Peter, you know me; you've been watching me since I was a kid. You know I don't get my rocks off by hurting people."

Peter sighed. He closed the folder. "I know you don't intend to. But I've just listed two people who were directly hurt by your actions, two people whose names you didn't even bother to learn. One was rich, one wasn't, but they're both human beings, just like you." He set the stack of files on the edge of the table. "Here are more. I'm going to leave this here for you to read."

"Wait --" Neal began, but Peter vanished as soon as his fingertips left the stack of files.

Neal groaned. Morbidly curious, he slid a random file out of the stack, then put it back without opening it.

"You're my guardian angel, not my conscience," he said aloud to the empty room. "My conscience works just fine, thanks. I don't need you looking over my shoulder, let alone trying to run my life."

There was no response, and the emptiness felt very ... empty. Neal dialed Moz's number; he could use some help going through and collating his art for "Nick Winters'" portfolio.

 


 

He was right on time for his tour of the gallery, and Elizabeth came down to meet him at the front desk. He'd expected to be pawned off on an underling, but he wasn't unhappy to see her again.

"Most of our smaller temporary exhibits end up in either the Sato Room or the Whitney Room," she said, leading him across the gallery's spotless white floor with brisk taps of her high heels. "The Sato is bigger, with more floor space, but the Whitney has better light."

The Whitney Room, Neal recalled, was where the Kleinfeld exhibit was going to be. He tried not to show undue interest in it, instead guiding Elizabeth into a discussion of the possibility for setting up refreshment tables offering wine and hors d'ouevres in the larger room.

There was a stepladder half-hidden in an alcove in the Sato Room; he probably wouldn't have noticed it except that he was checking all the corners, entrances, exits, locations of cameras and so forth. Peeking around the corner, he saw that a panel was stripped off the wall. "Renovations?"

"Of a sort," Elizabeth said, coolly herding him away. "We're actually upgrading our security cameras in this room for the Tang exhibit. It was overdue anyway."

He couldn't really fish too much more on that topic without looking suspicious, but before he left he got a look at the "This premises protected by ..." security sticker on one of the cameras, and made a mental note of the company name, Diamond Security. Slipping Mozzie onto the team upgrading the cameras would give them a perfect opportunity to plant a little hardware of their own ...

Feeling cheerful and confident, he opened the door to June's loft and stopped dead at the sight of Peter sitting at his table with a brand-new stack of file folders.

"Oh, come on, now what?"

"Some more reading material for you," Peter said, holding them up. "You said you don't like hurting people. Excellent. Prove it. These are dossiers on everyone who works at the DeArmitt Gallery, starting with Elizabeth Hart. Reading about them years after the theft, when there's nothing you can do to change it, is one thing. Can you go through with it if they all have names, faces, lives? If they're not just an abstract idea to you, but fellow human beings?"

"You're really becoming a pain, you know that?" Neal uncorked a bottle of wine, trying to ignore his unwelcome houseguest.

Peter flipped open the top folder. "Let's start with Elizabeth, why don't we, since you've been seeing so much of her lately. Elizabeth Frances Hart, born January 23, 1974 in Syracuse, New York. One sister, three years younger --"

"Let me make myself clear. This isn't funny anymore, Peter. I want you to leave. Now."

"It was never meant to be funny," Peter said quietly, and he disappeared, leaving the stack of files behind. The top one was still open.

Neal crossed to the table, reluctantly, and reached to close the file, then hesitated, arrested by Elizabeth's smiling photo pinned neatly to the edge. Where had that photo come from? It looked recent; she was still wearing her hair the same way, at least. He had an amusing but vaguely creepy mental image of his guardian angel sneaking around invisibly taking photographs. Skimming the first page of the dossier, he started reading a paragraph at random: Hobbies: cooking, reading novels (prefers literary fiction, with a weakness for military adventure fiction: Tom Clancy, etc). Captain of roller derby team in college, still plays occasionally --

He snapped it shut. If Peter wanted to play angel stalker with the staff of the DeArmitt Gallery, that was his business. Neal didn't have to join in. In two weeks he'd never see any of these people again, anyway.

 


 

Over the next week, things fell into place, one piece at a time. Mozzie was able to get a close look at the security cameras and plant some of their own hardware under the guise of a Diamond Security consultant, though he wasn't forthcoming with the exact details -- "Better you don't know," was all he'd had to say. Neal threw himself into forging a picture-perfect Kleinfeld, and tuned out the world, cheerfully immersed in his favorite pastime. Well, one of his favorite pastimes, anyway.

Four days after Neal's meeting with Elizabeth at the gallery, Peter popped into existence in June's apartment, causing Neal to fling his handful of carefully prepared bits of 1920s German newspapers all over the floor. At least he didn't drop the glue pot, which would have been a worse disaster. "You enjoy doing that, don't you?"

"It does give me some pleasure, yes." Peter frowned at the partly completed collage on the easel. "I see you're still determined to persist in this insanity."

"This insanity is my job, my calling, my reason for getting up in the morning -- so yes. I do." He straightened up with a handful of newspaper scraps, and reached for his glue pot.

"If appealing to your better nature isn't having any effect," Peter said, "perhaps your sense of self-preservation might work, assuming you have one. You and Mozzie aren't the only people casing the gallery."

Neal laid the glue pot back down, intrigued. "Really? Someone else wants the Kleinfelds? I'm going to love telling Moz that."

"I don't think they're after the Kleinfelds," Peter said. "Based on their surveillance, my guess would be it's the Tang Dynasty art they want."

He might have known he'd have some competition if he wanted to go after those. "Who are they? Do you know?"

"I'm not sure," Peter said, sounding frustrated. "At a guess, I'd say the Russian mafia, because I'm fairly sure that's the language they've been speaking when I've managed to eavesdrop on them. And Russian, at least modern Russian, happens to be one of the languages I don't understand."

"Let me get this straight," Neal said. "You've spent the last four days lurking around the gallery?"

"Not the entire four days, and I don't think lurking is the most accurate --"

"How in the world do you justify all of this in your reports, if you aren't even supposed to talk to me? I'd think steering me onto a new career path is blowing your non-interference policy all to hell, so to speak."

Peter's evasive expression was answer enough. Neal laughed in sheer delight. "You're falsifying reports, aren't you?"

"I wouldn't say falsifying," Peter said stiffly. "I may have left a few things out."

"Like everything you've done in the last week?"

Peter disappeared without another word. Once he stopped laughing, Neal did feel a little guilty. Just a little. Maybe the corruption was going both ways and Peter was successfully managing to infect Neal with his angelic guilt complex.

A little guilt, Neal thought, was probably a good thing: it would keep him on his toes. He needed to stop listening to Peter, though, before it got worse. And he'd have to ask Moz if there was any word on the street about an upcoming heist at the DeArmitt. He was pretty sure that Peter wasn't far enough gone yet to lie just to keep him away from the gallery, which meant there really was a rival group casing it, and that could be trouble.

 


 

Between forging the Kleinfeld and planning the actual art swap, Neal was so engrossed that it came as a total surprise when Elizabeth called him to set up another meeting to talk about the scheduling of his imaginary art show. He'd completely forgotten about it -- so completely, in fact, that he almost answered the phone as "Neal" rather than "Nick" even when her name came up on the caller ID. Sloppy.

They arranged to meet in Central Park. It was a gorgeous day -- brilliantly sunny, but with the slight undercurrent of coolness that heralded the approach of fall. They bought lunch from a sidewalk vendor and strolled in the dappled sun and shade while they ate.

"I'm afraid we don't have any openings on our show calendar until next summer," Elizabeth said, balling up her napkin and tossing it into a nearby trash bin. "We're definitely interested in showing your work, though, Nick. The manager and I both thought your Chicago show was excellent, although your recent work is in a very different style."

She'd been looking at the website, then. The fake images from the Chicago show were actually a number of charcoal nude studies Neal had done while sitting in on a couple of art classes, photoshopped into some pictures he'd taken on an entirely unrelated visit to the Art Institute of Chicago.

"I've been experimenting with new techniques," Neal said. "I don't want to get stale, get stuck in a --" He had to force himself not to stop with his mouth hanging open, but just keep moving, keep talking. "-- rut. Creatively and personally. You know how it is."

His mouth rambled on, but his eyes kept roaming, because he'd just seen Peter, fully corporeal and visible, sitting on one of the park benches watching them. A bench they were about to pass shortly. Still babbling about creative technique, Neal steered Elizabeth back into the shade of the trees and down a different path.

He'd figured it wouldn't help, and he was right. They ran into Peter another hundred yards or so along the path: they rounded a turn and there he was, stepping forward. "Hi, Neal," he said with sardonic cheer.

Neal froze on the verge of answering, as he realized that it wouldn't help his cover to make Elizabeth think that Nick Winters had conversations with himself. He glanced sideways at her, saw her uncertain but friendly smile in Peter's direction, and the question was answered: he wasn't the only person who could see Peter. Unfortunately the delay meant that Elizabeth had an opportunity to speak first. "I'm afraid you've mistaken us for someone else," she said.

"Nope," Peter said. "Regardless of what he's told you, his name is Neal Caffrey." Neal was making frantic throat-cutting gestures out of Elizabeth's line of sight, which his meddlesome guardian angel ignored. "He's a con artist and art thief. He's planning to rob your gallery. I'm sorry," he added softly, as Elizabeth stared at him with wide, baffled blue eyes.

"Excuse me, we need to have a talk right now." Neal grabbed Peter by the arm -- he was still dressed just the same as every other time Neal had seen him, in the long camel-colored overcoat. "Old frat buddy, thinks he's a lot funnier than he is," he said over his shoulder, and towed Peter a few yards away so that they could speak without being overheard. "What are you doing?" he demanded through a pasted-on smile for Elizabeth's benefit.

"Saving you from yourself," Peter retorted.

"Destroying everything Mozzie and I have worked for, you mean."

"Keeping you from being shot by Russian mobsters is more like it."

"Peter," Neal said between his teeth. "I'm an adult, remember? I've been an adult for years. What happened to letting me make my own mistakes so that I can learn from them? Or do your rules only apply when they're convenient for you?"

Neal shut up, as Elizabeth was approaching them. "I really feel like I've missed a few key pieces of this conversation," she said, looking back and forth between the two of them. Her tone was polite bafflement with steel underneath, and Neal suddenly, for the first time, got the impression that underneath all of her sweet smiles, Elizabeth Hart might be a force to be reckoned with.

Peter opened his mouth, looked at Neal, and shut it again. He was clearly in the throes of a major moral dilemma. "Like I said," Neal said, "it's a running joke between us that got a little out of hand this time. Elizabeth, this is Peter, a very old friend. Peter, meet Elizabeth, the manager of the gallery where I plan to show my work next year, which I believe we've already talked about."

He said all of this as fast as possible, in the hopes that Peter wouldn't be able to squeeze a word in until he'd already gotten his version of the story into Elizabeth's ears. Peter glared at him, and then shifted gears, giving Elizabeth a flustered smile. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to get you involved in this," he said, which was certainly ambiguous enough to apply to either Neal's version of events or his own.

Elizabeth looked politely confused, but held out her hand, which Peter, looking even more flustered, accepted. "I'm happy to meet a friend of Nick's," she said. "We were going to get ice cream -- would you like to join us?"

Peter's look of frozen terror was, Neal thought, probably matched or exceeded by his own. Unfortunately Peter caught Neal's expression, firmed up and managed to say, "Okay," in a somewhat faint voice.

 


 

Neal expected the whole experience to be excruciating, but actually it was ... fun: himself and the guardian angel he'd known all his life and a pretty, intelligent lady who liked to talk about art, all strolling in the park in the sunshine eating ice cream. Peter's attempts to sabotage Neal's heist had gone underground, in the form of small barbs or verbal feints that Neal was able to head off before they veered into dangerous territory. Peter didn't talk much at all, though, because he couldn't exactly talk about himself, so Elizabeth talked about herself -- mostly information that had been in the dossier, though it wasn't like Neal could bring that up -- or she and Neal talked about art.

"Oh, goodness," Elizabeth said, checking her watch. "I was supposed to be back to the gallery half an hour ago. It was very nice meeting you, Peter."

Peter blushed to the roots of his hair, and Neal thought Oh crap as the penny suddenly dropped. He hadn't seen this particular complication coming, though he realized in retrospect that he should have.

Elizabeth hesitated a moment longer, as if she wanted to say something but couldn't quite get the words out. Asking for a phone number? Good luck with that one, Neal thought. Then she said a hasty goodbye to both of them and hurried off.

Neal said, "So all that lurking around the gallery wasn't just to keep an eye on the Russians, huh?"

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Peter snapped.

"Yeah, you do."

He expected Peter to just vanish, his usual way of avoiding awkward conversations, but instead Peter took him by the arm and hauled him behind the nearest tree. An instant later they were in Neal's apartment.

Neal staggered and caught the edge of the table. "I wish you'd warn me before you do that."

Peter ignored him, sank down at the table and buried his face in his hands. "I'm in so much trouble," he said, muffled.

"You really do fail at the whole non-interference thing," Neal pointed out. "Beer?" After the last time the angel had showed up unannounced in his apartment, he'd decided that it was just going to keep happening. He might as well resign himself to it and lay in appropriate supplies.

Peter took it and downed a third of the bottle in one long swallow. "It's never gonna go anywhere, you know," he said. "It couldn't. I'm an angel. She's a human. It wouldn't work."

"I don't see what the problem is," Neal said, pouring himself a glass of wine. "You were human once, right?"

"Yeah, two thousand years ago. The dating scene has changed a bit since then."

"Really? That long?" Neal tried to imagine Peter as a Roman centurion. The image of Peter in a toga was disturbing enough that he shook his head to get rid of it. "Look, the details might change, but people have been figuring out this dating thing for a lot longer than two thousand years. If you want it and she wants it, and I can tell you, she certainly didn't look unwilling -- what's the problem?"

"The problem is it's against the rules. Fraternizing with a human? They'd do a whole lot more than take my wings for that."

"You do have wings! I knew it." Neal glanced at the air above Peter's shoulders. "Why can't I see them?"

"Because you're human," Peter said snappishly. "You don't have eyes that can see. But anyway, even leaving aside the fact that it's highly illegal for an angel to even think about doing anything like that with a human, there's also the fact that whenever you become capable of surviving on your own -- not that you appear to be in any danger of that yet --"

"Hey."

"-- I'll be reassigned Heaven only knows where ... and I mean that literally. My next assignment could be in Nairobi, in rural Mongolia, in a tiny sheepherding town in the Pyrenees. What would I do, ask Elizabeth to move there? Write letters to her?" He tilted the bottle and found it empty.

Neal set the whole six-pack on the table in front of him. Lending a sympathetic ear to an angel having a romantic crisis wasn't exactly how he'd planned to spend his evening, but, well, they were ahead of schedule on the heist, so he had time. And he'd always wondered what would happen if he got Peter drunk.

The answer, come to find out, was that Peter drunk was very much the same as Peter sober, except a little more talkative and relaxed. They veered off the topic of Elizabeth and somehow started talking about Kate -- not that there was much about the Kate situation that Peter didn't know, since he'd been there for all of it, but it was oddly nice to be able to talk about Kate to someone who would just listen. Mozzie had very definite opinions on the Kate situation, and Alex ... well, talking to Alex about any part of his romantic life got too awkward.

Once Peter got a few beers in him, Neal managed to get him to talk about the world he'd grown up in, just a little bit. He was still vague about where it had been -- Neal thought maybe Britain around the time of the Roman occupation, if he were going to guess. Wherever it had been, Peter had several hilarious and risque stories about the other guys he'd served with in the army or clan peacekeeping force or whatever branch of service he'd been in. A lawman, Neal thought. He was a cop in 200 A.D. and he's still a cop now, he's just an invisible cop with wings.

But he was also good company, which was something Neal had never suspected, or at least hadn't consciously realized. And there was another thing he'd never realized, but he found himself thinking about it, as he poured himself another glass of wine and looked at the tired, rumpled, now slightly drunken man across the table from him. He really liked Peter. When the inevitable reassignment came, as Peter kept assuring him that it would, Neal was going to miss him. And not just because he'd have to be a little more careful about checking his safety harness before climbing tall buildings.

Although, well, that too. But it wasn't the most important reason. Not at all. It wasn't Peter the angel that he'd miss; it was Peter the human being.

 


 

Elizabeth called him the next day. "Nick, I'm sorry to bother you. I really feel very silly for asking you this."

"Hey, you're the lady who's offering me a gallery show; you can ask me anything." He was almost done with the forged Kleinfeld, and feeling on top of the world; making a pretty woman smile would be the icing on the cake.

"It's not a big thing," she said, and hesitated. "Your friend Peter. I don't even know his last name, so I can't look him up, and I was just wondering if you might have his number."

Crud. The thought occurred to him that it would serve Peter right for all his guardian-angel meddling if Neal went and did the same thing back to him. He entertained the amusing fantasy of matchmaking Peter and Elizabeth for a few seconds before realizing that it wouldn't be fair to Elizabeth, who seemed like a nice person, to jerk her around like that. "Just a minute," he said, and covered the phone with his hand. "Peter?" he said to the empty air in the apartment. No answer. Peter was probably over at the gallery stalking her in person, anyway. "Sorry, I can't find it. Why don't I look around and text it to you later?"

"Thank you; I appreciate that." She laughed. "Before I go, can I ask you a personal question, Nick?"

"Um, sure?" Of course, the answer to most personal questions for "Nick" wouldn't be the same as for Neal; he mentally prepared himself to come up with a lie on the spot.

"I know this is terribly silly, and I never believed in anything of the sort before, but when I met your friend Peter yesterday -- I don't know, Nick, I've heard of love at first sight and always thought it was a myth, but I really did feel something. Do you believe that you can look at a person and know they're the one, even before you speak to them?"

He thought instantly of Kate -- looking across a crowded room, seeing her face, her eyes, and just knowing. "Yes," he said quietly. "I do believe that. I don't know if Peter is the one for you" -- for both your sakes, I really hope not -- "but I do believe it can happen."

"Thank you, Nick," she said, and something inside him twinged. He didn't figure out what was bothering him until he'd said goodbye and disconnected the call; then it came to him, as he stood gazing at the forgery on his easel. He liked Elizabeth, and there was a part of him -- a tiny, perverse, stubborn part -- that wanted to blurt it all out to her: his real name, his real identity, his real reason for contacting the gallery. As Peter had done yesterday, he thought, and though he'd never admit it to Peter, there was a tiny little corner of himself that had actually been relieved. Let Elizabeth see him as he really was ...

... a thief, a liar, and a man whose only purpose in talking to her was to rob her gallery, he thought, seeing himself for an uncomfortable instant through her eyes, as she surely must see him if she ever learned the truth.

His phone buzzed: Mozzie. Saved by the bell, he thought.

"I don't know where you got your tip from, but your mystery informant was right," Mozzie said. "The Russian mob's been sniffing around the DeArmitt Gallery. Well, actually not the mob as a whole; the mobster in question is a very minor player in their power games named Vladimir Dimikov. He's known on the street as Vlad the Impaler."

"Do I want to know how he got the nickname?"

"Not really, no."

"Think they're here for the Tang sculptures?"

"I would make an educated guess that they're not after the Kleinfelds," Mozzie said. "We could pull the plug on this one, man. Dimikov's not a guy you want to mess with."

Neal thought about it, then said, "No. This could work to our advantage, actually." His mind began to spin the possibilities, and he felt the rising excitement of a successful heist in the making. "Another robbery at the same time, especially if it's a more high-profile one, will keep the cops busy and confuse everyone. We might even be able to openly throw suspicion on Dimikov's bunch, give the police someone to chase after, while we sip wine back at June's."

And for that matter, he thought as he hung up, Elizabeth and Peter's mutual attraction couldn't have come at a better time. Elizabeth probably would have followed up on Peter's suspicious comments about Neal the previous day -- hell, suspicious nothing; he'd blown the whole charade -- if she hadn't been too distracted by Peter himself, and Peter was too busy mooning after Elizabeth to keep a close eye on Neal.

As long as he's still paying enough attention to do his job when the time comes.

Close on the heels of this thought came another one, even more unwelcome: Would I have been quite so willing to take on Dimikov's goons if I didn't know there was a guardian angel hovering over my shoulder, ready to snatch me away if anything does go wrong?

But Mozzie had no such guarantee. Neither, for that matter, did Elizabeth, or anyone else who worked at the gallery.

Maybe Peter's right; maybe it does make me behave more recklessly, knowing he's there. And other people get caught in the crossfire.

He'd just have to be careful, he thought, and more than usually prepared to back out if things started going wrong.

 


 

As the days passed, the tension cranked up -- not just for Neal and Mozzie, but for Elizabeth as well. She was working long hours overseeing the installation of the Kleinfeld and Tang Dynasty exhibits, and didn't have time for walks in the park, or hunting down phone numbers of elusive angel paramours. If she'd noticed that Neal had not called her back, she didn't keep pushing. He hoped she'd taken the hint.

Peter was snappy and withdrawn, on the infrequent occasions when Neal saw him. He was obviously trying to reassert the formal distance that was supposed to go along with their roles as guardian angel and charge, but it wasn't working, based on his tendency to show up in Neal's apartment at odd hours. "I should call the police," he said, beer in hand, staring over Neal's balcony at the lights of the city. "Anonymous tip. Get both of you arrested before you wreck your life even more than you already have. Or get someone killed."

"I'm not in any real danger; you'll be there," Neal pointed out through the open glass doors. He studied the completed, aged Kleinfeld from a distance, then up close. Mozzie was right, it was ugly and it wasn't going to net them much money, but everyone said it couldn't be done, and that was why he had to do it.

"I shouldn't be, though. We shouldn't even be having this discussion, because you shouldn't be -- this." He waved a hand to encompass Neal, the apartment, the forged painting. "There's no telling what you'd be today if I'd done my job properly. A painter, a corporate executive --"

"Dead at the age of three, is what I'd be," Neal said. "Will you stop it, seriously? I'm tired of being your excuse to wallow in misguided guilt. I am who I am, Peter. I like who I am. Maybe I'd be different and maybe I wouldn't be, but what's done is done, and I'm not sorry you saved my life all those years ago. Are you?"

Peter was silent for so long that Neal had to look up to make sure he hadn't disappeared again. He was still there, though. "No," he said at last, gently. "No, I'm not. And I don't regret this assignment, though I have to say that it's probably a good thing we don't pick our assignments -- no guardian angel in his right mind would ask to be assigned to you."

"Gee, thanks," Neal said, but he smiled.

"But you're right. If I had it to do over, I wouldn't change a thing. It's had its ups and downs, but --" He raised his beer in a semi-ironic salute. "Being your guardian angel was never boring."

"You're speaking in the past tense," Neal said, suddenly wary. "Do you know something I don't?"

Peter set the beer on the railing, and studied the view for a couple of minutes before he replied. "After this is all over, after I've seen you through yet another needlessly dangerous and avoidable crisis -- I'm putting in for reassignment. This is another reason why we don't usually keep an assignment for more than fifteen or twenty years: it messes with your head. I mean, look at me. I'm standing here in your apartment --"

"Outside it, you mean," Neal said flippantly, to cover the sinking sensation in his stomach, like the bottom had just dropped out of the world.

"Outside it, okay, but I'm still here, having a beer with someone who isn't even supposed to know I exist. I'm wanting -- things I'm not supposed to want --" He waved a hand at the city skyline in the general direction of the DeArmitt Gallery and Elizabeth. "It's a slippery slope. This is why the rules exist in the first place. You have a two-minute conversation with a three-year-old kid, and the next thing you know, you're fantasizing about a wife and a dog and a house in the suburbs, and -- Damn it, Neal," he burst out. Neal had never heard him swear before. "This isn't who I am."

"How do you know who you are?" Neal countered. "Maybe your mistake wasn't letting the rules slide just once, but letting them define you for so long." He tried to keep his voice normal and light, though he still felt like he'd been sucker-punched.

"Look who's talking," Peter shot back at him. "You never met a rule you didn't want to break."

"Okay, maybe I'm a bad example, but can you meet me in the middle, at least? If I can admit that I might have bent the rules too much in my life, can you return the favor by granting that maybe some rules need to be bent a little?"

"Are you admitting that?" Peter said, in a tone that was part hope, part challenge. "Does this mean you're thinking about calling off the DeArmitt heist?"

"No, damn it!"

They stood staring at each other, both of them breathing hard, tense with futile, frustrated anger.

The door opened behind Neal. "I think I've come up with a foolproof getaway plan --" Mozzie began, then broke off. "On second thought, it looks like I'm interrupting something --"

"No," Neal said. "Stay." He wasn't sure which of them he was talking to. He'd taken his eyes off Peter, and when he looked back he expected Peter to be gone, only to find him still on the balcony. Perhaps vanishing in full view of a mortal was too blatant a violation of his angelic code.

"I was just leaving anyway," Peter said. He set the beer bottle on the table. Glancing at Mozzie, he left via the door, closing it behind him. Neal didn't hear his footfalls on the stairs, though. He'd probably vanished as soon as he was out of sight.

"I'm guessing that was your mystery source," Mozzie said, eyes narrowed speculatively.

"Yes." Neal offered nothing more. "You said you had an improvement to the getaway plan?"

He could see that Mozzie wanted to ask, but they both had a history of respecting each other's privacy that was too well established. "There's a laundry on the next street over from the gallery, and every night at 12:15 a truck goes out," Mozzie began, and just like that, they were off and running.

 


 

Neal wasn't sure what rebellious urge made him call Elizabeth and invite her out to dinner the night before the double show opening. "I'm sure you're running around in fifteen directions with the opening tomorrow," he said, "but you work hard, Elizabeth. For once, you can delegate. Have a relaxing evening and be unstressed and unwound for the show's opening tomorrow."

"Oh, Nick," she said, after a moment's silence. "Nick, you're a very nice man, and I've enjoyed our talks, but I don't think --"

Now it was his turn to be startled. "No, I didn't mean it like that. I just meant --"

He hesitated. Up until that moment, he'd only meant to ask her to a friendly dinner, like their lunch date in the park, and enjoy one more conversation about art. It was his last chance; in twenty-four hours he'd be out of her life for good.

But what emerged instead was, "-- meant to ask you on behalf of Peter, actually. You know, the friend of mine that you met in the park --"

"Yes, I remember him," she said a little too quickly.

Neal didn't look around the apartment, but, though he hadn't heard a sound, he could actually feel the disapproval radiated by one seriously pissed-off guardian angel. It was like being in the same room with an angry cat. "He's too shy to ask you himself," he said. "But he's interested, believe me. There's an excellent restaurant on the edge of Little Italy called L'Amora -- have you been there?"

"I've heard of it," she said.

And he knew she liked Italian food; it was in her file. Score one for Peter's stalker tendencies. "There's a reservation for two in my name at seven p.m. tonight." Originally it had been for Neal and her, but she didn't need to know that.

"Nick," Elizabeth said cautiously, "if this is some kind of practical joke --"

"It's not a joke," Neal said. "He'll be there. It's a ..." He hesitated. He wasn't sure what it was, really. "A thank you, I guess," he said, and hung up.

When he looked over his shoulder, he found that his mental picture of Peter's glower was pretty close to the reality. If looks could kill, he'd be a smoking pile of ash on the carpet. "What are you doing?" Peter demanded.

"What you won't. If you're going to take the fall for breaking the rules, shouldn't you have some fun along the way?"

"Give me your phone. I'm calling her and telling her it's a mistake."

Neal hid the phone behind his back. "Live a little, Peter. What I've done is set you up for a pleasant evening with a pretty girl who likes you. There are worse fates."

"Yeah? Like pretending to be something I'm not, and leading her on? What am I supposed to tell her when she asks for a second date?"

"Why are you thinking second date when you haven't even had the first one?" Neal asked. "Go to the restaurant, Peter. Eat good food. Enjoy her company. If she asks, you can tell her that you're going away on business and won't be back for a long time. That lends you a very romantic air of mystique. It's not even technically lying."

"I'd be breaking every rule in the handbook." But he looked tempted nonetheless.

Neal gave him a little shove towards the door. "Peter, go. Have fun. You've been watching my back for thirty-two years. When was the last time you did something for yourself, something fun, something that makes you happy?"

Peter resisted Neal's efforts to push him on, and looked at him steadily with that too-penetrating gaze. "You're up to something. I know you are."

"What I'm up to is making sure that you have one night of fun for the first time in two thousand years. And you're going to be keeping a pretty girl waiting if you don't get a move on, so go."

"I can get there instantly," Peter pointed out. Then he looked down at himself, at the rumpled folds of the draped coat, and looked back at Neal with panic in his eyes. "I have no idea what to wear."

"Wear what you've got on. Elizabeth doesn't strike me as a woman who cares about clothes. She likes you." Neal made little shooing motions. "Go!"

Peter gave him one last look of pure panic, and vanished.

Neal waited to see if he came back. He didn't. The apartment had the emptier-than-usual feeling that he'd started to recognize which meant that Peter was really and truly gone. Neal drank a half-glass of wine and examined the Kleinfeld from every possible angle. It was as perfect a copy of Kleinfeld's untitled #9 as he knew how to make. He checked his watch: 7:15. Peter's date should be underway, and Neal sent well-wishes in the direction of the angel and Elizabeth: he genuinely hoped that they were having fun and enjoying each other's company. Then he called Mozzie.

"Hey, Moz. You busy tonight?"

"I have an excellent alibi, if that's what you're asking."

"What I'm asking is whether you'd be free to break into the DeArmitt Gallery tonight."

There was a very long pause. Then Mozzie said, "We've been planning this for weeks. And the plan, all along, was that we attend the opening, let every art appraiser and amateur enthusiast in the city take a good look at the paintings and make sure they're authentic, and then, after everyone's left, all tired and full of wine and canapes, we come back and swap the art. As opposed to doing it right before the spotlight's about to shine on it, when everyone is in a state of heightened security and paranoia. Which would be insane."

He said all of this in one breath.

"Moz, Moz, I know what the plan was," Neal said when Mozzie had to stop for air. "And this is very last-minute, I know. But the more I think about it -- the point is to prove that we can do it, right? That we can forge a supposedly unforgeable piece of art, and pass it off as the real thing right under the noses of the city's art intelligentsia and critics. How much do we prove by taking the real element of risk out of the equation: the opening of the show?"

And Peter's busy tonight, he thought. This is when I show him, when I show ME, that I can do this on my own, without the safety net. If he really means to reassign himself, I have to learn to do it sooner or later. Plus, he's got Elizabeth busy on the other side of Manhattan, so I know she's out of harm's way if things go wrong.

The silence on the other end of the line was becoming ominous. "Come on, Moz," Neal said. "I can't do this without you."

Mozzie heaved a huge sigh. "Well, you're the one who's taking the actual risk, the breaking and entering and whatnot. I'm just the wheelman."

"Is that a yes?"

"It's your funeral," Mozzie said, and despite his burgeoning relief -- he'd been worried that Moz wouldn't go for it at all -- Neal couldn't help wishing that his friend had chosen a slightly less ominous turn of phrase.

 


 

If only all their heists went so well.

Between the two of them, Neal and Mozzie had the guards' shifts worked out to the minute. Mozzie's little gizmos in the ceiling worked perfectly, feeding a taped loop to the cameras. The motion sensors and the door alarms were a snap. Neal was in and out in record time. There was no sign of Russian mobsters or anyone else. They didn't even have to use their emergency laundry-truck method of escape.

While he was in the darkened gallery, Neal couldn't help taking a long, covetous look at the Tang Dynasty sculptures, all arranged neatly and awaiting the curious eyes of the public in the morning. It was so very tempting to swipe one of them, just a very small one -- but, no; when it was discovered missing, the gallery would erupt in chaos, greatly heightening the chances of the Kleinfeld being discovered. And Elizabeth's opening would be ruined, which Neal wouldn't wish upon her.

Back in June's loft, Neal poured two glasses of wine -- one of June's best vintages. "To every job being as smooth as this one."

"And to us," Mozzie added. "Because we are the bomb, my friend."

"Hear, hear," Neal murmured, and drank.

They both looked at the real Kleinfeld, sitting in place of the fake one. Even to Neal's eye, the two of them were identical, in all their glorious postmodern homeliness. It wasn't his own eye that he had to fool, of course; the question was whether anyone at the gallery would detect it. If so, well, he'd tried. And if not, then he'd pulled off the coup everyone said was impossible.

Neal grinned. It was ironic that in order to "win", he had to make sure that no one found out what they'd done.

"You don't have to attend the opening, you know," Mozzie said. "Really, there's no point."

"Of course I do, and of course there is. What's the use of passing off a fake under the noses of half the art experts in the city if I'm not there to watch?"

"I could get you a feed from the cameras."

"It's not the same as actually be -- being there." The source of the interruption in his thought processes was Peter, who had appeared in the apartment with his usual sudden silence. At least he had, by pure chance, appeared behind Mozzie, not in front of him.

"Yeah, looking forward to that show opening," Neal said hastily, to cover any noise that Peter might be about to make. He saw Peter open his mouth -- he was grinning, his hair was mussed, presumably the date had been a hit -- and then, noticing Mozzie, Peter snapped his mouth shut and went silent. "Actually, if all goes well, I haven't ruled out the idea of being Nick Winters for awhile longer. The DeArmitt Gallery wants to show my work. If I have a real show as Nick, in a respected gallery, it'll make Nick Winters pretty nearly bulletproof."

Neal had been hoping Peter would vanish again, but he showed no signs of doing so. Instead he crossed to the fridge and opened it, which was the point at which Mozzie noticed him.

"Gah!" Moz nearly spilled his wine. "And I thought I was ninja-silent. I didn't hear you come in."

"He does that," Neal said, and gave Peter a steady look that was not quite a scowl. He was curious how the date had gone, but not right now, while he and Moz were still coming down off the high of a successful con that he couldn't admit to Peter he'd pulled off. He wanted to settle in with a glass of wine and enjoy the afterglow for a while.

Luckily, as much social obtuseness as Mozzie could occasionally display, he did understand the value of discretion when discussing criminal activity in the presence of unknown parties. "Yes, so," he said, glancing back and forth between the two of them. "The night is young. Places to go, things to do. I'll, uh, be in touch."

"Wait --" Neal began, but Moz was already out the door, though not without mouthing "Tell me later" and jabbing a quick finger at Peter.

Neal sighed and topped off his glass of wine. "Help yourself," he said wryly, when Peter turned back from the fridge with a bottle of beer in hand.

"Thanks. Just did." Peter flopped in the chair that Mozzie had just vacated. "That was -- she is -- Neal, that woman's amazing. Just -- amazing."

A little of Neal's stolen buzz began to sneak back. He'd never seen Peter so animated, so obviously happy. He was a little jealous -- a brief longing for Kate skipped across his heart -- but it would take a far more hard-hearted man than Neal Caffrey to remain unaffected by Peter's obvious joy. "I take it the date went well."

"Yes. Yes, it did. Well, beyond a little understandable awkwardness at the beginning."

Neal grinned; he could imagine that, both of them flustered and tongue-tied and blushing at each other. He wished he'd been a fly on the wall to see it.

"But after that ... I don't know, I thought it would be hard to find something to talk about, but it wasn't. It was just ... relaxing. Easy." He blushed a little. "She invited me up to her place for drinks."

"You dog, you."

Now the blush was flaming. "We didn't -- I'm not -- Nothing happened. Just a good-night kiss. She said she hasn't met anyone like me before." Peter sighed, and his elation deflated like a leaky balloon. "She doesn't know the half of it. I can't believe I did that, Neal. I just spent the entire evening lying to her."

"Did you lie, really?" Neal asked. "Knowing you, I'm guessing you just danced around it. You haven't said anything to her yet that you can't come back from, have you?"

"What am I supposed to say?" Peter said. Bitterness laced his words. "If I told her the truth, she'd think I was insane. And I'm leaving anyway, after --" He paused. Looked at Neal. Looked closely.

Uh-oh, Neal thought. Peter was too damn perceptive sometimes.

"You look ... satisfied," Peter said after a moment. "I know why I'm satisfied. What did you do tonight that's making you look so cheerful?"

Neal tried to wipe any traces of cheerfulness off his face. "Aren't I normally cheerful? I'm a cheerful person, Peter."

The temperature in the apartment seemed to plummet.

"You robbed the gallery tonight, didn't you?" Peter said. "The dinner with Elizabeth -- you planned that just to get me out of the way."

"It was not planned to get you out of the way," Neal protested. It was a completely spontaneous excuse to get you out of the way. Totally different. "You enjoyed yourself, right? You and Elizabeth both did."

Peter stood up, leaving his untouched beer on the table, and circled to look at the Kleinfeld. "Is this the real one?"

There was no way Neal could answer that question that wouldn't be either a direct lie or an admission of guilt, so he stayed silent.

"Neal," Peter said wearily.

Neal's temper flared. "So what if I did? You know who I am, Peter, and what I am. Yes, that's the real Kleinfeld. And the whole thing went off without a hitch."

"Behind my back!"

"Yes, so? You're the one who keeps telling me I need to learn to get along without you. So I did. Moz and I did the whole thing without the usual guardian-angel safety net, and you know what? It went fine. Better than fine. Not a single hair on any of these people's heads was harmed in any way." Neal slapped his hand on the pile of file folders that still graced the edge of the table. "Go ahead and put in for reassignment, Peter, because I'm doing just fine without you." And possibly doing even BETTER when you're not nagging me, he thought, but managed, with a heroic effort, not to add. Some words were impossible to take back.

"I don't believe this," Peter said. He looked exhausted, suddenly -- crumpled in his overcoat. "I thought we were getting somewhere, but you haven't changed at all, have you?"

He vanished.

"The only person who ever wanted me to change was you," Neal told the empty air bitterly, hoping Peter was still listening.

He took his glass of wine, and then, on reflection, the whole bottle, and went to bed. So much for enjoying the moment. The moment was pretty well ruined now.

 


 

By mid-afternoon Neal had managed to shake a lingering hangover, with generous applications of vitamins and coffee, and he headed down to the DeArmitt Gallery. It wouldn't be his first look at the show -- that had been last night, of course -- but it would be his first look in daylight, as it was meant to be seen. The reception was scheduled for 6 p.m., but the show was already open to the public. Neal wandered through, taking a special look at "his" Kleinfeld, and then enjoyed the Tang Dynasty exhibit for a while. Around him, tuxedo-clad caterers had begun setting up long white-draped tables for the opening refreshments.

"Isn't it lovely?" said a voice at his elbow, and he turned to see Elizabeth. Neal had heard of people looking radiant, but this was the first time he'd actually seen what it meant: it was like a warm glow lit her from within, spilling out in beauty and light to strike joy from everyone who came in contact with her. She was dressed for the occasion in a sweeping black gown, with her hair piled on her head in a simple yet striking updo, and Neal could recognize in her the same excitement that he felt in the buildup to a con. It wasn't just the adrenaline and endorphins of the big day, though. She was happy right down to her toes. Happiness practically spilled off her, the way it had off Peter last night.

I did this, Neal thought, and wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry.

"I just have to thank you, Nick," she said, and tucked her hand through his arm. "For introducing me to Peter, and setting up the date last night. You're right, he's so shy that I don't think he would ever have asked me on his own, but we had a wonderful time."

"Thank you," he managed to say. "I mean, you're welcome. It was my pleasure, really."

And what happens now? he thought bleakly. When he chooses duty over her, and the days and then the weeks go by and he never calls, and all that joy drains right back out of her.

But -- no. Of all the decisions in his life that Neal had questioned afterwards, he couldn't believe that this one had been a mistake. Seize the day had always been his motto, and he'd seized one beautiful, perfect evening for Peter and Elizabeth. No matter what happened tonight or evermore, he had no regrets about that.

And there was something else that he needed to do. Maybe he should wait until the end of the evening, in case it produced awkward questions; he'd hate to have to duck out early to avoid a situation of his own making. But this felt like the right time.

"My name isn't Nick," he said, looking down into her eyes. "That's just a pseudonym that I use for my work." Which was entirely true, as far as it went. "My name's Neal Caffrey. I don't plan to tell everyone, but I wanted you to know."

She looked surprised for a moment, then she blinked and laughed. "Well, you're hardly the first artist to use a professional name. Though in your case, I think your real name has quite a lot of charm. I could understand if it was, say, Edwin Dweezilbaum ..."

Neal laughed, the coiled tension easing out of him. Peter was right, there was something about this woman that set you at ease, no matter what. "Let's just say I like to keep my professional and private life separate."

"I understand. I think it's a wise decision." She looked at him with a clear-eyed, speculative gaze. "So at least that part of what Peter said about you in the park was true," she began, and just as Neal started to think that he might not like where this was going, something over at the refreshment tables got her attention and she hurried off with a hasty, "Oh dear, no, you can't set that table up there, it's blocking a fire exit --"

Released for the moment, Neal resumed his wandering in and out of the sculpture. He texted Mozzie: SHOW IS GOOD, YOU SHOULD BE HERE.

The reply came back almost immediately: SECURITY NIGHTMARE, NOT MY SCENE.

Neal grinned and tucked away the phone. Moz was right, this sort of group event was a paranoiac's worst nightmare. Neal enjoyed it, though. He thrived on the electric atmosphere of a social gathering, especially when the topic at hand was one that was near and dear to his heart.

And so far, no one seemed to have tumbled to the forged Kleinfeld. Of course, with the ugly-duckling Kleinfelds right next to the beautiful Tang sculptures, the Kleinfeld room was showing a definite lack of patronage compared to the buzz of conversation surrounding the Tang exhibit.

The Russian mafia was here, though. Neal wasn't sure if Dimikov was among them, but he'd spotted three guys that he pegged immediately as "muscle", and unobtrusively swung close enough to one of them to hear him having a quiet conversation on his cell phone in a language with a distinctly Slavic sound.

They were almost certainly planning something. The question on Neal's mind was how far he should let them go with it. "Honor among thieves" might be a laughably naive myth, but there was still some truth to it, at least to the extent that it was considered bad form to mess with someone else's operation for no reason. Screwing the other guy if you were both after the same jewels? Perfectly fine, an accepted part of the chase. Narcing on the other guy just for the warm glow of helping out the cops and returning the family jewels to their rightful owner ... well, if word of that sort of thing got around on the street, Neal figured a lot of doors would slam shut for him.

"Peter?" he murmured, barely moving his lips. There was nowhere to be alone in the gallery, even in the less-populated Kleinfeld exhibit, and thus no opportunity to get Peter's attention. If Peter was here. As he wandered the exhibit, his mind going in circles, fear began to crawl up his spine: Peter might have pulled out for good this time. He'd said he planned to leave after the Kleinfeld job, and Neal had pulled that one off -- without him, as he'd taken pains to point out. And Peter had been pretty freaked about his date with Elizabeth.

Would he just pull up stakes and leave without saying goodbye? It seemed uncharacteristically spontaneous for a guy who'd spent thirty-two years watching Neal's every move. On the other hand, given Peter's crisis of conscience about breaking the rules, and the fact that he'd done almost nothing but break rules over the last couple of weeks ...

Maybe he'd broken down, decided to be a good law-abiding angel, and left. But maybe it was even worse, and he'd been pulled off Neal-watching duty by his superiors.

Neal circled the room aimlessly, while his thoughts went in circles as well. Then he sighed -- at himself, at the whole messed-up situation, he wasn't sure -- and looked around for Elizabeth. He finally found her at the refreshment tables, directing a rearrangement of canapes. "Elizabeth," Neal said, and touched her elbow. "Can I talk to you for a minute?"

"I'm a little busy," she began. Then she looked at him, and whatever she saw on his face must have convinced her, because she gave a last instruction to the caterer ("Please do keep the shrimp ones separate from the others; some people are allergic") and let Neal draw her away. "What's wrong?"

"I think we're about to have trouble," Neal began, and that was the moment when the door slammed with a very final crash, and several men carrying assault rifles and wearing ski masks burst into the room.

"Hands in the air!" one of them bellowed over the sound of startled screaming. "Everyone on the floor!"

Neal had been over the gallery plans dozens of times during his Kleinfeld theft prep, with a special eye for alcoves, back doors and places to hide. As soon as the trouble he'd anticipated began to materialize, he seized Elizabeth's arm and pulled her behind a pillar at the back of the Sato Room. There was a fire exit staircase that went to the offices upstairs. He wasn't sure where to go from there, since the office area hadn't been part of his careful memorizing of the plans, but anywhere had to be better than here, and Elizabeth would know the layout much better than he did.

Neal drew Elizabeth into the stairwell and closed the door quietly. The harsh voices of the gunmen, ordering their hostages to take off jewelry and throw away cell phones, went soft and muffled as the door thunked gently into place.

"I have to get out there --" Elizabeth gasped. "My friends -- my show --"

"There's nothing you can do. What we need to do" -- much as it pains me to admit it, he added inwardly -- "is call the police."

He took out his cell, shook it, held it up. "No signal?" he muttered in the phone's direction. "What do you mean, no signal?" Could the stairwell be blocking him that much? "Try your phone," he said, but with little hope that it would work. The mobsters were probably using some kind of jammer -- sophisticated equipment, if it was covering the entire building.

"I can't get a signal," Elizabeth said. "Maybe we need to get higher?"

"I doubt it'll help. What we need to do is get to a landline."

What I need to do is get out of here, Neal thought. This would be an excellent time for Peter to show up, except he hadn't, which meant that Peter was really and truly gone, and Neal was on his own.

A paralyzing shiver worked its way through him. No Peter, but lots of men with guns downstairs. He could die.

But then, so could Elizabeth, and she was quiet beside him, pale but composed. She'd wanted to go back and help her friends. Elizabeth might have a guardian angel of her own -- but no, Peter would have mentioned it, and besides, from what little he'd seen of Elizabeth so far, she'd probably been born rational and sensible; her guardian angel had probably been shuffled off to deal with more troublesome children when she was still in grade school.

Face it, Neal told himself grimly. This is what most people feel like ALL THE TIME. Don't like it? Too bad. Things need to be done, and you and Elizabeth need to do them.

The stairs ended at a fire door. Neal tested it cautiously -- not locked, but he pushed the bar in very slowly so as not to make noise. There was a carpeted hallway and a row of wooden office doors with small, frosted windows.

"This is where most of the regular business-office work is handled," Elizabeth whispered in his ear. "The gallery manager's office is upstairs, but mine is just to our left."

Below them, Neal heard the clunk of another door being opened into the stairwell. Elizabeth's eyes went round with fear. She and Neal slipped through the door and he tried to close it quietly enough not to make noise. Elizabeth, without being prompted, took out a large ring of keys and used one to unlock her office door. The two of them ducked inside. The office was considerably bigger than Neal had expected from its modest door, with a large desk, walls lined with filing cabinets, and a window with closed blinds.

Elizabeth reached for the light switch, but Neal shook his head. He crossed to the window and cracked the blinds to give them a bit of light, peeking out as he did so. The window overlooked a narrow slip of an employee parking area and a dumpster. They were on the third floor. It would be possible to go out this way, if he had to, but not comfortable. Also, he glimpsed at least one gunman moving around down there, too.

"This is Elizabeth Hart, assistant manager of the DeArmitt Gallery," Elizabeth said quietly, and Neal looked around to see her on the phone. "We're being robbed by a group of men with guns and masks. They have the entire gallery locked down, and they've taken hostages."

Neal leaned on the edge of the desk and murmured in her ear, "Russian mobsters. Tell them that. The name of the man in charge is Dimikov. They'll probably know him."

Elizabeth's eyes went large, but she passed the information along, and explained that she and one of the gallery's patrons were holed up in her office. Then she hung up the phone and turned to Neal.

"Long story," he said, holding up his hands.

"You're not -- with them," Elizabeth said cautiously.

"No. God, no." But I knew they were planning to rob your gallery, he thought, with a powerful twist of guilt. I just didn't realize they planned to pull off something this public and stupid. "Let's just say I've heard a few things, and put the pieces together."

Elizabeth's wary look promised that there would be discussion later. For now, though, she smoothed her hands down her long black skirt and tiptoed to the door. "It doesn't feel right to sit up here while people are in danger downstairs."

"As long as they cooperate, they'll probably be all right. The fact that the gang are wearing masks is a good sign; it means that they expect to leave witnesses alive. Anyway, I can't imagine that Dimikov plans to kill a whole room full of rich people. There's no profit in it for him." Although once the police showed up, it might be a different story ... Neal suddenly wondered if his brief foray on the legal side of the law was going to end in a bloodbath. Damn it, this was exactly the kind of situation that he wished he could talk to Peter about.

"I still can't just stay here." Elizabeth began to pace, rubbing her bare arms nervously. "There are a lot of my friends down there, not to mention old people with pacemakers, parents of little kids ... There has to be something we can do."

"What if there was something we could do?" Neal mused. "We're free, and Dimikov doesn't know about us." He conjured a mental image of the layout of the building. "Maybe we could help the police somehow, do something to take Dimikov and his men out of commission. They've probably got the surveillance room under control, but what about shutting off the power? There's a breaker box in the basement, right?" Mozzie would know; Mozzie had been handling the electrical and technical end of the heist. But Neal didn't want to drag him into this too.

Elizabeth brightened. "Oh, that's an excellent idea. Yes, it's in the basement."

"The fire escape goes all the way down to the basement?" he asked, and Elizabeth nodded. "Good, that way we won't have to cut through the Sato Room. They're probably focusing their attention on the main staircase anyway, since it's the most obvious way up or down." He was thinking out loud now, spinning possibilities as he normally did in his brainstorming sessions with Moz. "The outer door locks are electronic, so killing the power will disengage them, make it easier for the SWAT team to get in, as well as taking out the surveillance cameras."

Elizabeth turned to him with a frown. "You certainly know a lot about the layout of the gallery."

Oops. "You give good tours," he said, smiling. But the urge to smile deserted him as he thought about the mobsters suddenly plunged into darkness, people panicking and running around, maybe some of them trying to escape -- Damn it, consequences were a real pain. "We need to make sure that we time this correctly. We want to give the police an advantage, but we don't want to get anyone hurt. And if we move too early, or move too late and let both sides get set up for a long standoff, things could end very badly."

Elizabeth nodded. She opened a drawer of her desk, took out two small flashlights and handed one to him. "I was a Girl Scout," she said, smiling. "'Be Prepared' isn't just the Boy Scout motto, you know. This is my Be Prepared drawer."

"Anything else useful in there?" Neal asked, peering over her shoulder.

"Granola bars, $20 for pizza money or cab fare, stamps, a backup disk for my home computer's hard drive, a screwdriver --"

"I'll take the screwdriver."

Armed with flashlight and screwdriver, but still feeling badly outnumbered and outgunned, Neal cracked the door open and peeked out into the hall. It was still deserted, though he could hear footsteps on the floor above.

"They're probably coming and going using the front staircase, but they might have a guard on the fire stair as well," Neal whispered.

"What do we do then?" Elizabeth whispered back.

Get shot? Not a good answer. "We'll figure that out when we get there," he whispered. Then he pointed to her feet. "No heels. Too much noise, and you can't run."

Elizabeth nodded and slipped off her shoes.

Neal wished he could convince her to stay here. If his hare-brained plan got Elizabeth shot, he'd never forgive himself. But he was going to need her help in the basement. His original art-heist plan had never involved going anywhere near it, and he had no idea how big it was, or how much time he'd waste looking for the breaker box when Elizabeth knew exactly where it was.

He glanced out the window for flashing lights. Nothing. Well, time to get into position anyway.

The two of them left the refuge of Elizabeth's office and tiptoed to the fire door. Elizabeth held her fat ring of keys in her hand to keep it from rattling. She pushed open the fire door with the same slow caution that Neal had used, and they both peeked into the stairwell. Voices could be distantly heard, but there seemed to be no one on the stairs, up or down.

"All the way down," Neal whispered, and Elizabeth nodded.

They crept down the stairs as quickly as possible. Elizabeth hesitated at the door to the main gallery level, but Neal tugged her arm, drawing her away. "You can do a lot more free than as a hostage."

At the ground floor, Neal risked a peek outside through the small window in the door, and then drew back hastily when he caught sight of a shoulder and the muzzle of a gun. They did have a guard on this door, then -- on the outside, to catch anyone attempting to escape. The idea of someone using the stairwell to come and go within the building apparently had not occurred to them, or maybe they just didn't realize that anyone had escaped their initial sweep of the building.

There was no window in the door at the bottom of the stairs. They'd have to go in blind. Neal found that he'd moved automatically to block Elizabeth's body with his own, so that anyone they might encounter on the other side would shoot him first, not her. Stupid, he reminded himself, remember you don't have a guardian angel anymore, but he still kept himself between Elizabeth and the danger on the other side as he cracked open the door.

He saw a large, dim space, lit by a handful of naked bulbs and broken up into corridors by rows of heavy, utilitarian shelving. The shelves contained boxes, crates, wrapped pieces of artwork by the dozens, the hundreds. Damn, when he'd planned his heist of the upstairs gallery, he'd missed the motherlode down here -- no telling what was in all those packages. It was like thief Christmas. His fingers itched to unwrap some of them and see what was under there. Probably nothing worth any money, just a bunch of artwork the gallery had acquired on consignment or bought outright and then couldn't sell, but it tantalized him with the promise of the unknown --

"Is anyone there?" Elizabeth whispered, her breath stirring his hair, and he was jolted back to the mission at hand. Masked gunmen and lots of hostages in danger. Right.

"No --" he began, then hushed and held up a hand. He'd heard something, somewhere in that maze of shelves. A clatter. Then the distinct sound of a footstep. Rats. Whoever it was seemed to be making no attempt to keep quiet, so Neal guessed he or she wasn't on their side.

"There's someone down here. Hopefully just one person." Dimikov was thorough, it seemed. Neal hoped that the guard hadn't been specifically posted on the breaker box; was it possible they could have thought that far ahead?

"What do we do?" Elizabeth whispered back. "Wait for them to leave?"

Neal checked his watch. The police would be here any minute. They might already be surrounding the building. And letting Dimikov and his men get entrenched, he suspected, would be very bad indeed.

"No. If they do leave, it might be through here anyway." There was also, he recalled, a maintenance entrance to the basement from the other side of the building, but he didn't want to play the odds. "Where are we going?"

Elizabeth pointed. "To the right, back along the wall. The generator is there too."

Well, the footsteps weren't coming from that direction, so maybe they could do it. "Go," Neal whispered.

He had to hand it to her: Elizabeth looked terrified, but she was a natural at this sneaking-around business. Too bad she'd gone into the straight life, because she might have made a darned good burglar. The walls were bare concrete, with conduits that Neal made mental note of: electrical power here, water there ... no telling when he might need that information.

In moments they'd reached the circuit box. Elizabeth brought out another key from her big key ring, and unlocked the box. "Now?" she whispered.

Neal shook his head. He checked his cell: still no reception, though he might not have had it in the basement anyway. "I'm gonna go check things topside. If he comes this way, Elizabeth, hide -- it's not worth your life. Otherwise, wait for my signal."

"What signal?"

"You'll know it when it happens," Neal said dryly, and headed back the way they'd come with as much speed as he could manage.

He still didn't have a plan, really, so much as a cobbled-together bundle of mismatched possibilities. But that was how a lot of his plans went, so this was hardly different.

Except normally, you have an angel watching your back, ready to grab you and snatch you out of danger.

He checked the area around the stairwell again, and then darted inside. A quick peek out the ground-floor window netted him a glimpse of blue and red flashing lights. Excellent. New York's finest.

A door slammed open on one of the levels of the stairwell above him. Shit shit shit! With only an instant to decide which way to go, Neal went down, ducking underneath the first-floor landing. He heard feet pounding on the stairs, and then another door opening. For a minute he heard a babble of voices, and someone yelling at the hostages to get back on the floor or they were going to get shot, and then the door slammed.

If we're doing anything to help, we gotta do it now, he thought, and pushed open the basement door --

-- bringing himself face to face (or face-to-ski-mask) with one of Dimikov's men.

For an instant they just stared at each other. Then Neal dodged sideways, out the door and behind the nearest set of shelves. He didn't even catch up with his own thought processes until he was already in motion, because ducking back into the stairwell would have trapped him, and also, he couldn't leave Elizabeth alone with a gunman in the basement.

The rattle of gunfire was deafening in the enclosed space, reverberating off the walls. The guy couldn't see him, but bullets perforated the canvas wrappings just above his head.

The smart thing to do would be to lose the gunman in the maze of shelves. Making any noise would draw attention right to him. But if he and Elizabeth were going to be any use at all, they had to get the power off.

Neal drew a deep breath, hoping it wouldn't be his last. "Elizabeth!" he yelled. "Now!"

The whole room was plunged immediately into inky, Stygian blackness, lit an instant later by a series of muzzle flashes like lightning during a thunderstorm. Neal was already in motion; he knew there was open space between the shelves for at least twenty feet or so in front of him, and he went that way, half-running, half-crawling. A chip of something stung his face -- plaster or stone, no doubt a piece of some one-of-a-kind, irreplaceable sculpture. He winced.

In the darkness, he hesitated, listening. He heard running footsteps off to his left, then a loud crash, and a male voice cursing in what was probably Russian. Neal grinned to himself. Hopefully things were as chaotic and confusing upstairs as they were down here. And hopefully no hostages were getting shot in the chaos.

Other footsteps, quick and light, from a different direction. Elizabeth. Come on, Elizabeth, stay still, Neal thought. As if responding to his thought, the footsteps stopped, but the other ones were on the move again, closing on the first, punctuated by an occasional crash or clatter as various items were knocked off the crowded shelves.

Determined to get the mobster's attention before something happened to Elizabeth, Neal shoved the contents of the shelf nearest to him. Something hit the floor with a very expensive-sounding crunch. He winced, and then took off for the far side of the basement, groping his way along, trying not to knock over anything that wasn't on purpose.

His fingers touched the wall. All those conduits, right on the surface of the concrete -- surely there was something he could use. Electricity, water ... he could flood the basement, but that didn't seem like it would help anyone, particularly the two of them.

He felt his way back to the door to the stairwell, and cracked it open very quietly, only to hear the sound of footsteps within. And fast, angry voices speaking Russian. Crud -- they were coming down to get the lights back on. He shut the door and jammed the screwdriver under it -- that wouldn't hold them for long, but could buy them a little time, at least. Come on, NYPD, where are you? And I never thought I'd say that ...

There was a startling thump and a low rumble from somewhere else in the basement. Okay, now what? But he found out an instant later, when a few of the lights came back on, dimly, turning the basement into a patchwork of shadows. The emergency generator. And here he was, exposed in the open, right by the stairwell. Neal spun around and flung himself behind the nearest set of shelves when he glimpsed a black-clad figure down by the breaker box and the generator, pointing a gun at him.

The shot missed. In the stairwell, someone was pounding on the door.

"Neal!" Elizabeth grabbed his arm. He almost jumped out of his skin.

"You okay?" he whispered, leading her quickly back down the row of shelves. Damn it, they couldn't hide for long with the lights on. Where were those cops?

"He found the generator. I tried to lead him away, but he must've seen it earlier."

Neal had to hand it to Dimikov and his gang: they were good. Unfortunately, now they were trapped along with a lot of hostages. Hopefully he and Elizabeth had given the cops a window to get the jump on them without things going haywire upstairs. They'd never know until they got back upstairs, and they had problems enough of their own right now --

-- problems that had suddenly become acute. He heard a shriek of metal and a snap, as the screwdriver gave way and the fire door came open.

"Company," he hissed at Elizabeth. "You go that way, I'll go this --" But rounding the end of the shelves, they found themselves not ten feet away from the gunman. Or a different one.

"Finally," he snapped, pointing his gun at Neal's chest. "You two are a real pain."

"Are those the saboteurs? Shoot them!" a different voice bellowed from the direction of the stairwell. Dimikov, Neal guessed. He put an arm around Elizabeth, not that it would help. There had to be something that he could do, but his mind was a blank. His entire world had contracted to the cold black muzzle of the gun.

The gunman fired.

And Peter appeared out of nowhere: he wasn't there, and then he was, blinking into sight, blocking Neal's view of the gunman.

Neal saw Peter flinch from the bullet's impact. And for an instant, he glimpsed the wings that he'd always known Peter must have: huge and gray, hawks' wings, spreading to block Neal and Elizabeth from the danger in front of them.

Then Peter went down, went down hard in a spray of blood.

There were other things going on around him, though Neal was only half-aware of them: a voice yelled, "Police, freeze!" and the gunman, stunned and terrified by Peter's appearance out of thin air plus the arrival of the cops, turned and ran. But Neal's attention was riveted on Peter, a crumpled shape in a pool of blood. Elizabeth gave a strangled cry and started to lunge forward, when Peter snapped out of existence like a popped soap bubble.

Neal caught his breath. He can't die. Not like that. He told you so. And he trusted Peter not to lie to him. He'd just be -- reassigned, wasn't it? There was a pool of blood where he had been, dark and glistening. It looked just like regular human blood. On the spur of the moment, Neal seized the edge of the nearest shelf, dragging its contents down in a shattering cascade (what's another few pieces of irreplaceable art at this point, he thought numbly) and covering up the bloodstain. It would be one less thing to explain. Enough stuff was knocked down around the basement that no one ought to notice until the gallery got around to cleaning it up, and there was no body, anyway.

"What happened?" Elizabeth cried, gripping Neal's arm so hard it hurt. Her eyes were huge in her stark-white face. "I saw Peter, and then he -- Neal, what happened!"

"I'll explain later," Neal said, and then fully geared SWAT members surrounded them, pointing guns and then relaxing, sort of, when they saw that Neal and Elizabeth were both in evening dress and clearly misplaced members of the art show crowd from upstairs.

Elizabeth went off with a couple of cops to turn the power back on, and Neal found himself being shepherded upstairs. The scene in the gallery upstairs was one of controlled chaos. There were several members of Dimikov's gang being led out in handcuffs, and paramedics ministering to the confused, frightened hostages. Neal could see no sign that anyone was badly injured, though, and his stomach unknotted -- well, partly.

There was still Peter.

He's fine, Neal thought. Just ... elsewhere.

And almost certainly not coming back this time, a thought that he couldn't quite wrap his mind around. There had never been a time in his life when Peter wasn't looking over his shoulder, invisible and unheard, but there all the same. Even suspecting that he was gone wasn't the same as knowing it for certain. His absence left a sudden, gaping hole in Neal's life.

Why couldn't you have come back and talked to me, Peter, damn it? I never got to say goodbye.

He gave his statement several times to several different detectives. He was as honest as possible, and hoped that "Nick Winters" was a bulletproof enough alias to stand up to the investigation. Across the room he glimpsed Elizabeth having her own debriefing, and remembered with a sinking sensation that he'd told her his real name. Would she stick to the alias? He hoped so.

As the room began to clear out, Elizabeth came to his side, pale and tired-looking, but calm. "Would you like some coffee?" she asked him quietly.

Neal nodded.

They climbed the front stairs to Elizabeth's office. He noticed that she locked the door behind them so that they would not be disturbed. She plugged in a coffeepot and then took a small hairbrush from her "Be Prepared" drawer and began fixing her messed-up hair.

"What name did you give the police?" Neal asked. "Mine, I mean."

Elizabeth raised her head and met his eyes. "Nick Winters," she said. "That's who you are as far as the gallery is concerned. But there's more to it than that, isn't there?"

"There are a few things I need to tell you," Neal admitted.

"Start with Peter, please," Elizabeth said firmly, pouring coffee for both of them.

There in the pool of light from her desk lamp, Neal told her about the first time he met Peter, and the second, and, in general overview at least, all the times since.

"I shouldn't believe you," Elizabeth said. She clasped the coffee cup between her hands like a talisman. "It's too impossible. And yet -- there was always something about him, something not quite like the other guys I've dated. I can't say exactly what; a sort of inner stillness, I guess. And I certainly don't have a rational explanation for what happened down there." She looked up, hope blooming in her face. "You said he's all right, wherever he is?"

"As far as I know," Neal reminded her. "All I know about the whole guardian angel thing is what Peter's told me, and that isn't a lot." He took a deep breath. "And you're right, there are things you need to know about me, too."

He didn't hold back. Without going into details, he sketched the broad strokes of his career for her, including the merciless truth about his interest in the DeArmitt Gallery.

Elizabeth listened in silence. "You came here to rob us," she said very quietly when he was done.

"I did rob you," Neal reminded her. "The real Kleinfeld is ... in a safe place." He'd almost said in my apartment, but there was only so far that he was willing to go with his newborn honesty. "I wasn't planning to sell it -- it's not really worth a whole lot -- and I already did what I wanted to do, which was prove that I could forge a fake Dadaist collage that would pass inspection from the city's experts. I can return it tomorrow."

Elizabeth didn't say anything. Her face, in the shadows cast by the lamp, looked older than he remembered.

"The police are still downstairs," Neal said. He swallowed hard. "I'd understand, you know, if you wanted to go down and get them. Of course, I reserve the right to go out the window, in that case ..." He quickly judged the distance from himself to the window. It would be a hair-raising climb without safety equipment -- or angelic air support, he reminded himself; that was going to be hard to get used to -- but in a pinch, he was pretty sure he could make it.

Elizabeth dropped her gaze to her coffee again, then looked up at him. "Actually," she said, "I'd like to hire you."

This threw him for a loop. "Say what?"

"I'd like to hire you as a security consultant," Elizabeth said. "Counting your attempt, we've had two different robberies in two days. I would like to hire you as a consultant to help me fix our security gaps so that this doesn't happen again."

"I just told you that I stole from you," Neal said in disbelief. "And you trust me to handle your security?"

"Yes." She met his eyes. "Can I trust you, Neal?"

He sighed, and looked away. "Yeah," he said, sounding even to his own ears like a kid admitting an indiscretion. "You can." Glancing back at her a bit impishly, he asked, "How are you going to justify this to your boss, in terms of my, er, qualifications?"

A smile flickered around the corners of her mouth, though it was tinged with sadness. "That's my problem. You worry about bringing back that Kleinfeld. And fixing my gallery."

 


 

Two days later, Neal was crouching in the front doorway of the DeArmitt Gallery, running his fingers along the edge of the door, pondering what sort of physical reinforcements it might need, not to mention upgrades to the alarm system. It was downright weird looking at a heist from this side -- not viewing it in terms of getting into a building, but keeping people like himself out. Strangely enough, though, he'd found that it exercised the same part of his brain: it was very much like planning a theft or a con, except ... in reverse. He supposed that the novelty would wear off eventually, but in the meantime, it was an interesting new thing to do. He still hadn't admitted to Mozzie that he'd returned the Kleinfeld -- the original looked just like the forgery; it wasn't as if his friend could tell at a glance -- let alone that he had an actual job, sort of, temporary though it might be.

Am I conning Elizabeth? he thought uneasily. She clearly thought he was someone he wasn't. Maybe she didn't believe most of what he'd told her. But she'd appeared to believe it...

A shadow fell over him. "I'm sorry, the gallery's closed," he said, and then looked up, and did a double take. "Peter!"

He scrambled to his feet. Peter looked exactly like he always did -- long coat, a little rumpled ... well, okay, a lot rumpled today. He also looked exhausted.

"Are you all right?" was the first thing Peter said. "Is Elizabeth?"

"I'm fine," Neal said. "She's fine. You, uh --" He hesitated. His memory of Peter bleeding to death on the concrete basement floor was still painfully vivid. "Are you?"

"If you're asking about the bullet wound, it was temporary; I'm not hurt." Though Peter winced involuntarily; Neal guessed that it had hurt quite a lot at the time. "I'm sorry I didn't show up sooner the other night. Though I suppose my timing could have been worse."

Neal choked on a dry laugh. "Yeah. That's an understatement."

"I really did mean to go away," Peter said, his tone introspective. "From you, from Elizabeth -- I think I was doing more harm than good to both of you, simply by existing in your lives. But I couldn't bring myself to leave for good without coming back to say goodbye ..." His smile was small and rueful. "The timing was too tight to be coincidental, I suspect."

Neal decided not to touch that one. "You couldn't have done something other than jump in front of a bullet?"

"I wasn't thinking clearly," Peter said. He sounded embarrassed. "Believe me, I thought of quite a few less drastic solutions later, but at the time -- angelic reflexes aren't any faster than human ones, you know. I can't outrun a bullet. Blocking it was the only thing that came to mind." The worried look returned. "Elizabeth is really okay?"

Neal laughed. "She's fine, Rambo. She's upstairs. I can guarantee she'd be delighted to see you." He hesitated; he got the feeling that there was something Peter hadn't said yet, and that it was going to be a doozy when he got around to it. "So, uh -- you said they'd reassign you, or demote you. They didn't do that?"

"Oh, yes," Peter said. "They did. They demoted me about as far down as they could ... well, they gave me a few choices, and I took what seemed the least unappealing of the options. I sometimes wondered, you know, what happened to a disgraced guardian angel, but I never knew for sure."

Neal eyed him nervously. "You look fine. Well, really tired and stressed, but you kinda always did." Mostly, he was now aware, because of him. "What did they do to you?" But even before Peter said it, he'd begun to guess where this conversation might be going.

"They made me human," Peter said. "Not the proper starting-over kind, where you get a whole new life to work with -- as you can see, I'm still me, still the same age I was when I died and all of that."

Neal had to stifle a number of reactions that probably weren't what Peter was hoping for at all. "I'm not sure that sounds like a punishment to me, really," he managed at last in a neutral voice.

"Really? Well, you haven't been an angel for two thousand years. Also ..." He heaved a sigh. "You weren't dropped on a streetcorner in Queens and left to fend for yourself. At least I got to keep my clothes."

"Wait a minute," Neal said. "They didn't set you up with the angelic version of Witness Protection, or whatever? Papers, a job, a place to stay ..."

Peter shook his head. "No, I've spent the last, oh, twenty-four hours or so just figuring out how to find my way around New York without being able to fly." He looked suddenly very tired, and old. "There was a lot of walking involved."

"You don't have money, ID, nothing?"

Peter shook his head.

"Have you even eaten?"

"I found a soup kitchen by accident," Peter said. "Yesterday. I think it might have been in Brooklyn somewhere."

"Okay, that's it, get in here. Elizabeth and I are taking you to lunch." Neal steered him through the door; Peter, bemused, let him. "And after that ..." Neal grinned. "I know a guy who knows a guy who can help you with your ID problem."

"I thought you might."

 

~ The Beginning ~