A/N: Beta thanks to the amazing lowriseflare, for talking me down off my ledge with this one.
But in the end Neal took him to the proof, or said that's where they were headed. He opened the lock on the warehouse door and led Peter into an empty room, with a tiny pile of trinket boxes in the middle of the floor.
"This was where the art was?" Peter asks, feeling something inside him twist, painful and slow like a muscle tearing, when Neal nods.
"I didn't steal it from the U-boat," Neal says. "But I did steal it, in a way."
Peter waits. He can hardly breathe and Neal looks almost frightened, but not as frightened as he should be.
"The string of pearls was first," Neal says. "It was the easiest."
It was taken, all its 36 inches of magnificent perfection, in a box with the owner's name and former address inscribed in the top. The name is an uncommon and famous one, the daughter of this family an accomplished stage actress in London, and Peter lets out a low whistle when Neal relays the story to him. Neal gave that one to a friend Mozzie recommended, with instructions to place it in her hands alone, and four days later got a text that makes him grin.
A gold bracelet found its way to an elderly gentleman in Malta, a ruby signet ring to the adoptive parents of a Romanian orphan boy. The tiara would have caused much more of a stir, since the girl insisted on wearing it to a gala the following week, but her husband was cleverer, and puts it out that she had a reproduction done in tribute to her dead great-grandmother.
"The art?" Peter asks, knowing it would have been harder, riskier. A piece of jewelry, even a rare stone, may have a double, but a master's brush only made so many strokes. Forgeries would have defeated Neal's purpose, so only a few made it back to those who would understand the importance of keeping things quiet.
"There was a story in the Times, two months ago, about fraudulent recreations of lost masterpieces turning up?" Neal prompts, and suddenly Peter knows it's the gallery owner, quoted liberally and flatteringly, standing before him.
"The losses happened years before the war, though ..." Peter begins, and then ends at Neal's smirk. "Except they didn't."
Peter had clipped that story out, and put it in his desk drawer, but he hadn't approached Neal about it. He kept his distance since their confrontation at the warehouse, always watching, but never speaking. He traced Neal's movements, pulled his tracking records every morning. Work, home, June's, various places he'd assumed to be Mozzie's hideouts. He could never prove anything.
But he had been watching fences, pawn shops, dealers of questionable repute, clients of questionable moral fiber. If Neal had stolen the treasure, surely he would have sold it, and used the money to continue chasing Kate's ghost. If Neal had stolen the treasure, surely he'd be using it as part of some bigger quest, some larger scheme.
He never thought to track the ownership of the items himself, to find out if the world's most accomplished forger and thief had turned post-war Robin Hood. He had been wrong, Peter had. Right, but wrong anyway.
"The shoes were actually the biggest gamble," Neal continues, talking over Peter's thoughts. "There was a fire in the library in Moscow where the records were stored, and as much as you might think it wouldn't be that hard to track down a dancer for the Bolshoi, the touring company was damn near impossible to get straight so we were forced to put them on Ebay, and that's when the grandson got a lawyer involved —"
"What are those?" Peter interrupts, gesturing towards the three small boxes in the middle of the empty room.
Neal nudges one toward him with the toe of his immaculately shined shoe, and Peter opens it carefully, parting the dried and musty packing paper. He lifts out a delicate glass figurine, of a violinist bent in ecstasy over his instrument, so wonderfully made he can almost hear the music the shining statue plays.
"These are the things that had no homes," Neal says softly, as if this is his failure. "That figurine, and a book in German we can't find a title for in any database that's been invented, and a necklace." He lifts it out of its black velvet bag. It's a simple gold circlet. It could have been made yesterday, or a thousand years ago.
"Some people never wrote down what they lost," Neal says, and the feeling that claws its way into Peter's chest is almost too raw to be love. "I hadn't decided what to do with them, these orphan things."
"Why did you give it all back?" Peter hates himself, somewhere inside, for asking, but he has to. "Was it penance?"
"I didn't think of it that way."
Peter can tell, he pretends he can't but he can tell, when Neal's telling him the truth. He knows it before Neal opens his mouth, that he didn't think of it as penance, and not just because he didn't steal the things in the first place. These things were taken, not by someone in search of money or a better life or a challenge or a thrill, but by someone seeking the extermination of a people.
Selling rich treasures to other rich thieves wasn't the same, in the end, as selling these things. As keeping them locked away, and letting the crimes that bore them fester through history.
"We could have helped you," he reminds Neal, trying, trying so very hard to be stern and proper. "We could have tracked these people down for you, made it easier --"
"It would have taken years, and some of these people aren't exactly young," Neal counters. "Once we decided not to run away with it -- "
"And that decision was when exactly?"
"Sometime around the time I found the art manifest in your wall safe."
Peter has to chuckle. Screaming would just make his incipient exasperated headache worse.
Neal falters at the hash sound. " -- Look, then we just ... If it helps, it was my idea."
Of course it was. It's romantic, at its core.
"How did you come up with it?" Peter asks.
"We sent this wooden box back to a tiny historical society in the Ukraine," Neal says, pulling out his phone and showing Peter a picture of an unremarkable-looking case with brass hinges and a missing lock. "We'd looked into it but couldn't find much about it beyond its origin, the name of the village on the label on the bottom there. It didn't seem valuable. Certainly without provenance it wouldn't sell for much. So we sent it back where it came from."
The postcard they got in return pictured what remained of the town. A memorial stone, listing the names of 200 Jews massacred by the Nazis in one night, and a two-room museum that stood on the site, dedicated to those who had been killed. The box, wrote the museum caretaker in a spidery, elderly script, had once held the local rabbi's Torah.
Neal looks at Peter for a moment, his eyes very bright, and then looks away. "We couldn't keep any of it, after that."
He should arrest Neal for the theft, and Mozzie, too. He should demand an accounting of each piece, and then contact all of the owners in order to make sure the proper ownership was verified and documented. He should expose what Neal had done and send him back to prison. But Neal had broken the law before in service to the FBI's goals, and Peter had broken the law in service to Neal. It wouldn't be the first time.
These crimes were dust and ashes, and the only people to whom they mattered had already been made reparation, or were in this room with them, right now.
"The storage space is paid up for 20 years," Neal murmurs. "No one else knows. I was just going to throw the key into the river, but I couldn't stand you always thinking I was about to run."
Peter startles them both when he pulls Neal into an embrace; it's either that or punch him. Peter's feeling like his skin might burst with pride, anger, sorrow, and something enough like love that the difference doesn't matter. He's shaking a little, and so is Neal, and they don't look at each other as they walk away, leaving the orphan boxes behind them.
Neal locks the door, and slips the key into Peter's pocket.