Neal’s heart was hammering in his chest as the music died down and he stared at Blaine from across the stage. His brother was breathing hard, but his eyes were stuck on Neal’s face. The whole moment was surreal, but Neal wasn’t willing to break the spell for anything. Blaine opened his mouth, but froze at the sound of the auditorium door crashing open. They both looked up to see a shadowed figure step into the darkened auditorium. Neal squinted up at the intruder.
Neal’s eyes widened and his breath caught in his throat. He’d know that voice anywhere. “Peter?”
A thousand different scenarios flew across his mind, and his first instinct was to flee at most of them in case Peter wasn’t alone. It had been less than a week since he’d fled New York City—fled a lifetime in prison or at Kramer’s beck and call in D.C.—at Peter’s say-so. But he glanced back at Blaine, who was frowning in confusion at the interruption and knew he had to see this through.
“What are you doing here?” Peter demanded, descending the steps two at a time, irritation flashing across his face. He was in jeans and a polo shirt, Neal noted in relief; he was off the clock, which was a good sign.
“What am I doing here?” Neal echoed in disbelief.
Behind them, Neal distantly noted the band kids beating a hasty retreat. Blaine, though, hadn’t moved an inch. In fact, he’d crossed his arms in that way that, as a kid, had meant that you’d have an easier time picking him up and carrying him than getting him to budge. A wave of nostalgia washed over Neal for a moment before Peter was hitting the stage and eating up the distance between them.
“You should be out of the country,” he growled. “You should be on some island that’s not on any map by now.”
A surge of appreciation for Peter hit Neal hard at that; he’d risked his career by giving Neal the hint to leave in the first place. And this? This was aiding and abetting a fugitive at the very least.
“Lima barely makes a map,” Neal ventured lamely when Peter didn’t back down. It wasn’t his best retort, but he was so far off-balance that he figured making any retort was impressive.
Peter’s eyes narrowed at that. “Kramer’s got the best FBI head hunters lining up to sniff out your trail, wise guy. He’s not letting this go.”
After a fleeting moment of pride that he’d garnered attention like that, dread settled heavily in his gut.
“How long?” he asked, biting his lip. He needed to get gone. But he also needed time; he’d planned on settling things with Blaine before vanishing with Mozzie, and things were far from settled with his kid brother.
“A day. Two at most.”
Neal ran a hand through his hair. “There’s no reason for them to find me here, Peter.”
“I did,” Peter countered.
A fact that Neal hadn’t quite gotten his head around yet. “Yeah, how did you find me?”
Peter opened his mouth, but Blaine chose that moment to break his silence. “Is someone going to tell me what’s going on here?” He turned to Neal. “Who is this? And why is he calling you Neal?”
Neal sighed and dropped his hand to his side. Peter blinked and turned his attention to the teenager, looking as though he’d only just realized the kid was there, which was very unlike him.
“This is my partner from the FBI. My friend,” Neal amended quickly. Because partner didn’t even begin to cover it. “Peter Burke.” Blaine’s eyebrows went sky-high at that. “Peter,” Neal added, turning to the fuming agent, “this is Blaine Anderson. My brother.”
Peter gaped like a fish gasping for air and, for a few moments, Blaine and Peter eyed each other warily. Neal briefly considered pinching himself since this whole thing didn’t seem like it could possibly be real. Maybe he’d wake up back in his prison cell and none of this had ever happened. And wouldn’t that be something?
Peter recovered his voice first. “Brother? You don’t have a brother.”
Neal smiled wanly. “I think I’d know if I had siblings, Peter.” He nodded at Blaine. “Which I do.”
“So is this part of what you’ve been up to in New York since you abandoned us?” Blaine demanded at last, gesturing at Peter. “This whole new life you created without your family?”
I have a family, Neal wanted to say as images of Peter and Elizabeth, Mozzie and June, Sara, Diana and Jones all flashed across his mind. But looking at his brother’s face, he couldn’t bring himself to say it.
“Yes,” he said instead. “And I never meant for you to find out like this.”
“Find out what?”
“Everything,” Neal replied with a shrug. There was eight years’ worth to tell, after all. “But this is not the place for that conversation.”
Blaine opened his mouth to argue—Neal knew that expression, even if the face it was on had matured so much since the last time he’d seen it—but the bell signaling the end of lunch cut him off. Blaine flinched sharply at the sound but didn’t back off. “You are not getting out of this. Not now.”
“I know.” He thought for a moment. “Remember that spot in the park, down by the water? Where—”
“You used to paint,” Blaine finished. The kid sounded a bit bitter. “I remember.”
Neal nodded. “Meet me there after school. Those benches are off the beaten path. I promise, we’ll talk.”
“How do I know you’re not going to run? Again?”
Neal shrugged uncomfortably. For all that he could con just about anyone with his charm, he just couldn’t do that to his brother. Not after everything. For once, he intended to be completely honest. Blaine deserved at least that much—especially with what was coming for Neal.
“I won’t let him,” Peter added, breaking his silence. “Because I want some answers, too. I think we’re in the same boat there, kid.”
Blaine frowned suspiciously but finally nodded. Peter had that trustworthy quality about him—one Neal couldn’t quite duplicate—that doubtless came from actually being an honest guy. Blaine strode across the stage and Neal grabbed his arm as he passed.
“After school. I mean it.”
Blaine jerked his arm out of Neal’s grasp but nodded before snatching his bag from the ground where he’d left it during the song. He headed for the back stage exit, and Neal supposed he had to take that scene for the small victory it was.
Once the stage door clanked shut, Neal’s shoulders dropped. He sat down on the edge of the stage and rubbed his face through his hands. After a moment, Peter sat down next to him, a warm and familiar presence that Neal had taken for granted over the last couple of years. He was on the verge of losing it again with Kramer bearing down, but, for the moment, Neal was happy to take in the comfort of his friend’s presence.
“You look like crap,” Peter said at last. “The v-neck is definitely not up to your usual standards.”
Neal huffed a laugh. God he was exhausted all of a sudden. He’d never meant to bring his old and new lives into a collision course by coming back to Ohio. He always seemed to get caught when he made bad decisions based on sentimentality.
“Better than an orange jumpsuit,” he retorted. Though wearing designer suits in Lima, Ohio was bound to get just as many looks. Then again, he would get looks no matter what he wore.
“Or an anklet?”
“Depends on the radius.”
Peter chuckled at that, but it was true. Neal would have been all right whether his sentence had been commuted or not before Kramer messed everything up. He had a life in New York. He had a job he liked, people he cared about, a place to come home to at night, and, for once, he didn’t feel completely hollow like one of his aliases. Though Neal Caffrey wasn’t exactly his real name, but the life? That was his.
All the years he’d been running those big cons to get Kate’s attention, the scores had been empty without someone to share them with. For the longest time, there had been a giant Kate-sized hole in his heart—first after she had left him and then again after her death—but letting people in had finally started to heal that.
“So, the kid?”
“Blaine. Your brother?”
Neal sighed at looked out over the auditorium. “You once told me that my life before my eighteenth birthday was a gaping hole for you.”
“I remember.” Peter had been endlessly frustrated about not being able to crack the puzzle that was Neal’s childhood when he’d known all about him as an adult before catching him.
“Well, this is it.”
“This?” Peter asked, gesturing at the room.
“Well, not this specifically,” Neal replied with a small eye roll. “But Lima. This is where I was born.”
“And that’s why you came back?”
Neal finally looked over at Peter, who was watching him out of the corner of his eye. “I meant to disappear. But I had to settle things with my brother first. And then Mozzie and I were headed for some island that’s not on a map.”
“So what happened that was worth risking Kramer hunting you down before you got out of the country?” Peter asked, turning to face Neal full on.
Neal sighed. There was no way he was going to get out of this, though he supposed Peter deserved to know. He pushed himself to his feet. “Let’s go get a coffee.”
“Tell me again why we’re skipping class so you can look up some random FBI agent,” Kurt said, leaning forward dramatically. He was sitting at the computer next to Blaine in the library, watching his search curiously but still sounding put-upon.
“I’m skipping class to look up an FBI agent who just showed up in the auditorium to talk to my brother,” Blaine retorted, clicking on another news article about Peter Burke of New York’s White Collar division of the FBI. “You’re here because you’re, and I quote, ‘The best boyfriend ever.’ That and you’d rather skip gym.”
It hadn’t taken Blaine long to find the agent in question. A quick search for Peter Burke brought up the FBI’s New York field office page as well as numerous links to articles about Burke’s ninety-four percent conviction rate. He was still working on his brother’s connection to him, though. Cooper had said he was Burke’s partner, but Blaine hadn’t found any indication that Burke had a partner; he led a well-respected team, yes, but nothing about a partner.
“I still don’t know why seniors have to take gym,” Kurt groaned, pulling Blaine from his thoughts. “It wasn’t required at Dalton.”
Blaine rolled his eyes at that and nudged Kurt gently with his elbow. “You could have stayed.”
“And so could you,” Kurt countered.
“I’m not the one complaining,” Blaine reminded him. There were days at McKinley when he wanted nothing more than to be back at Dalton with the Warblers, but he knew he was doing the right thing here, facing the past he’d run away from to Dalton in the first place. And he was finding a new home with New Directions.
And, of course, there was Kurt.
“Touché.” Kurt sighed. “So what have you found?”
“Just a bunch of articles about the guy’s convictions.”
“And your brother said they were partners?” Blaine nodded and Kurt frowned. “That’s so weird. He doesn’t…” He trailed off but Blaine knew what he meant.
“Seem the type?” he finished and Kurt nodded.
The Cooper Anderson that had descended on McKinley was a whirlwind. He was high-strung and egotistical, but that hadn’t been the Cooper that Blaine remembered growing up. It had been years since Cooper had left for New York, and considering he’d cut ties with his family, Blaine’s suspicions flared immediately at his return. The performance in the auditorium only cemented that. Something was going on, and Blaine was determined to get to the bottom of it before his brother disappeared again, possibly for good this time.
“He was always a good actor,” Blaine murmured, scanning an older newspaper article. It was likely the local celebrity caricature was just a front for whatever Cooper was really dealing with. And whatever that was had something to do with this Agent Peter Burke, Blaine was sure.
Kurt hummed in what could have been agreement, but Blaine could tell he’d tuned out. Kurt, like the rest of McKinley and the New Directions, had been completely star-struck the moment they laid eyes on Cooper and were happy to bask in his fame. Blaine shook his head to himself and turned his focus back to the computer screen. He frowned and clicked on an article dated six years earlier. His jaw dropped.
“Oh my god.”
Neal was slumped down in the passenger seat of Peter’s rental car in front of the Lima Bean. He had on a fedora and sunglasses and just hoped no one would look too closely as they passed by. Peter had given him an odd look when he’d refused to go into the shop but had gone in to get coffee for two anyway. Neal jumped when the driver’s side door opened but sighed in relief when Peter handed him a coffee as he slid behind the wheel.
Peter nodded and took a sip of his drink. “No one recognized you?”
Neal blinked and Peter smirked. “I know about the commercials. How do you think I found you, Cooper?”
Heat flared up in Neal’s cheeks. He probably should have been more surprised than embarrassed that Peter had seen them, but his logic wasn’t exactly firing on all cylinders at the moment. “Diana and Jones?” he asked, afraid of the answer.
“Oh, they know.”
Neal groaned and Peter laughed. “I was watching late night TV the other night—a whole nostalgia block, complete with old commercials. And guess what happened to come on?” Neal sunk deeper into his seat because there were really no words for that. “Needless to say, I was surprised. So I did a little digging and saw that ad and several others were credited to one Cooper Anderson of Lima, Ohio.”
“How’d you know I’d be here?”
Neal raised an eyebrow at that. “Gut instinct?”
Peter nodded. “Gut instinct. And the McKinley High newspaper article about how a local celebrity was visiting the school. I had no idea you had a brother that was a student, though.”
Neal turned that over in his mind and shrugged. “Fair enough.”
“Now, where are we headed?”
The drive was silent except for Neal’s directions. Neal could tell Peter was holding a lot back to give him some space to think, which was more than Neal figured he deserved, but he appreciated it anyway.
Peter finally pulled the car into an empty parking spot. The park was mercifully quiet in the middle of a weekday. Neal, coffee in hand, got out of the car and waved at Peter to follow him. His feet took him through the paths by muscle memory. Though eight years had passed, the park was largely unchanged from how he remembered it. They found the water-side benches, situated slightly off the path and snug among a copse of trees, easily enough.
Neal had loved this spot when he was younger—back when he was Cooper. He’d bring a sketchpad or an easel and draw or paint for hours. Sometimes he’d bring Blaine with him; his last few visits to the park had seen Neal painting while a young Blaine practiced the guitar he’d just started learning. Blaine didn’t know it, but Neal still had some sketches of the kid strumming, his eyes shut and a big grin on his face. They were in sketchbooks he’d held onto but managed to keep even Peter from finding.
The two men took a seat and watched the ducks and trailing ducklings glide across the pond.
“So this is a piece of Neal Caffrey’s childhood,” Peter said at last, eyeing the park as tough he might be able to solve the puzzle that was his partner if he found just the right clue.
“Cooper Anderson’s,” Neal replied with a shake of his head. “Neal Caffrey didn’t exist until I left home at eighteen.”
“I see,” Peter said thoughtfully.
“I forged a new identity and left Cooper Anderson in Ohio.”
“Why am I not surprised?” Peter muttered with a shake of his head. “Is that why your brother doesn’t seem thrilled to see you?”
Neal sighed. “It’s a long story, but yes.”
Peter glanced down at his watch. “We’ve got time before school’s out.”
Neal leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees as his arms hung loose between his legs. It was almost easy to pretend no time had passed and that there was a sketchbook at his side. Almost.
“Blaine is ten years younger than me,” Neal said at last. He glanced at Peter. “I told you my father was a dirty cop.”
“He died shortly after my mother got pregnant with Blaine. She raised us on her own.” The fact that he was actually still alive, though god-knows-where, was not something Neal was ready to get into.
Peter frowned. “I thought you said he’d died when you were two.”
Neal shrugged. “It’s been easier to think that way. Seemed a little bit less like he abandoned us, I guess.”
“So you’re trying to con yourself,” Peter deduced, raising an eyebrow.
“I guess so.”
“And how’s that working out?”
Neal snorted. “Considering it’s a lie that doesn’t even make sense? Not so well.” He took a sip of lukewarm coffee. “Anyway, I dropped out of high school at sixteen. Mom was struggling to make ends meet with two boys, and I hated school.”
“The path of the genius,” Peter murmured under his breath.
And that was somewhat true, actually. None of Neal’s classes had been challenging and McKinley offered very few advanced options at the time. He’d spent more time sleeping or skipping class than studying—except for art classes, which he’d aced. He took as many as he could, soaking up everything from history to technique and style. His very first forgery had been an art project. But eventually he’d taken all the art classes the school offered and there hadn’t been a reason to stay.
“I took on odd jobs for about a year, helping support the family,” Neal said over Peter’s commentary. “I also kept painting.”
“That, too.” He rolled his shoulders. In hindsight he knew he’d been running a major risk with those back alley jobs. But they’d also shaped the person he was now, for better or worse. “Those were some of the first cons I ever ran.”
“And your brother?” Peter asked.
“I wanted to make sure he could go to school, take guitar lessons, do whatever I couldn’t because we couldn’t afford it. But we were never close. What sixteen-year-old is close with a six-year-old, after all?” Peter nodded. “I loved him—still love him, of course. But he was so young when everything fell apart, and I was too busy with my own crap that I didn’t bother thinking about how it affected him.”
“What happened?” Peter prompted after Neal fell into a thoughtful silence, remembering.
“I joined the police academy at seventeen. I’d heard my mother’s stories and wanted to be like my dad. I wanted to make her and Blaine proud.” He took another sip, though the coffee had gone cold. “She was also in a serious relationship and I guess I thought it might make her think about my dad again.”
“And then you found out the truth.”
“After about six months in the program,” Neal confirmed with a nod. He could still remember that conversation with his dad’s old partner. He’d thought he’d actually felt his heart crack down the center that day. “I couldn’t face my mother again after it, knowing she’d been lying to me since I was nine. I pretty much cut ties with her after that. It was rash, I know, but I was a kid and stupid and hurting.”
Neal shut his eyes. “I tried to see him a few times after that, but he was eight. He didn’t understand. So... finally I cut ties all together.” He opened them again. “I even stopped being Cooper Anderson because I couldn’t face my family legacy.”
Peter considered that for a minute before asking, “Where’d ‘Neal Caffrey’ come from, anyway?”
Neal sat back on the bench. “Neal was my middle name.” Peter raised an eyebrow but didn’t say anything. “Caffrey was the name of the street I grew up on.” He tried for a smile. “The best cons have elements of truth to them, you know.”
“So I’ve heard.” Peter shook his head but there was no judgment on his face, just curiosity.
Once again Neal was struck by how lucky he was to have the man as a friend. He thought he’d known plenty about him when Peter had been hunting him, but that was nothing compared to what he’d learned working side-by-side with him, being invited into his home and his personal life. He’d never told anyone, not even Kate, the truth about his life before New York but it seemed right telling Peter.
“So you changed your name. What about the ad?”
Neal winced. “Ah, that.” As much as he hated being recognized for the damn thing, his cover for coming home had been research for a new role. He couldn’t get away from it not matter how hard he tried, but at least the flamboyant actor con was one of his favorites that he didn’t get to pull too often.
“A guy I’d met during some of those odd jobs knew a guy who was hiring. I did a few different ads—as Cooper—until I made enough money to get Neal out to New York. Took a couple of years since I was living on my own, but Cooper stayed back in Ohio.” He shrugged. “And you know the rest.”
Blaine was livid. His head was spinning as he drove toward the park. Kurt had offered to drive him instead, but Blaine had shaken him off, pleading family business. Kurt, of all people, understood that. But he was starting to regret not having a driver who was seeing the road straight.
His brother was a felon. His brother had been in prison for four years. He was an art thief. A conman.
Blaine couldn’t wrap his head around it. He knew Cooper had fallen out with their mother when he’d found out about their father being dirty—something Blaine hadn’t understood until several years later when he’d been old enough. But if he couldn’t handle having a criminal for a father, why turn criminal himself? It just didn’t make sense.
And why come back now?
He needed answers but he was very tempted to smash his fist into Cooper’s—no, Neal’s, since that was the name he was going by now—face first. Just on principle.
He pulled into the park’s parking lot, taking the turnoff faster than he should have. He slammed the car into park and grabbed his bag and the article before heading for the benches he’d planned to meet his brother at. As he got closer, he heard voices that he recognized as Cooper and the FBI agent—Burke.
“So you changed your name. What about the ad?” Burke was saying. It sounded like they’d been talking for a while then.
“Ah, that,” Cooper said, chagrined. That sounded much more like the Cooper Blaine recognized rather than the one his friends had met at the school. And now he knew why; they’d met Neal Caffrey, conman extraordinaire, not Cooper Anderson. “A guy I’d met during some of those odd jobs knew a guy who was hiring. I did a few different ads—as Cooper—until I made enough money to get Neal out to New York. Took a couple of years since I was living on my own, but Cooper stayed back in Ohio.” A pause. “And you know the rest.”
Blaine stepped up behind them at that. “But I don’t,” he interjected.
Both men started in surprise turned around look at him.
“Blaine—” Cooper started once he’d found his voice.
But Blaine needed to know. He thrust the paper into his brother’s hands. Cooper inhaled sharply when he realized what it was, which told Blaine what he needed to know.
“Want to explain this?” Blaine demanded, pointing at the article about Neal Caffrey’s arrest six years before, complete with mug shot.
Cooper’s mouth worked as he held it out so Burke could see it. The agent made a soft “Oh” sound and looked distinctly uncomfortable. Good.
“Where did you get this?” Cooper asked finally, answering his brother with his own question.
“Internet,” Blaine hissed. “Because apparently I have to find out you’re an ex-con named Neal Caffrey from a newspaper article!”
But Blaine was having none of it. He needed to know. “Does Mom know?”
“About Neal Caffrey?” Blaine nodded tightly. “No. Or at least I don’t think so. I haven’t heard from her since the day I moved out.” Cooper shook his head, voice sounding tired all of a sudden. That, more than anything, stopped Blaine’s anger in its tracks. “As far as she’s concerned, I’m probably dead.”
“You’re not,” Blaine said softly. Cooper frowned up at him and Blaine shrugged. “I told her about the cards.”
On his twelfth birthday, Blaine had received a birthday card and an expensive-looking fedora from a New York address. He hadn’t known what to make of it, so he’d shown his mother. She’d stared at the card for several silent moments before breaking down in tears. Blaine hadn’t known what was going on, but then she’d taken his hand and smiled through her tears and said, “It’s your brother, honey. That’s Cooper’s handwriting. He’s in New York…”
For the next two years, Blaine would get a postcard every few months with a little note but no signature—sometimes from New York, sometimes from other exotic locations. The postcards had stopped—which Blaine now realized coincided with his brother’s arrest—but every year he continued to receive a birthday card and a present.
“Oh.” Cooper didn’t seem to have a reply to that and fell into a thoughtful silence.
“I sent you an invitation to the wedding, you know.” Their mother had remarried when Blaine was thirteen. Blaine liked Steve well enough, but he hadn’t been very supportive when Blaine had come out. He’d even thought working on a car might straighten his stepson out. When that failed, he wasn’t outwardly cold about Blaine’s sexuality, but it was clear he wasn’t comfortable with it either.
“I know.” Cooper gave him a sad smile. “But I couldn’t come.”
“Right. Because coming when Cooper’s family needed him was the last thing on Neal Caffrey’s mind.”
Cooper flinched and Blaine felt a vindictive pleasure at the sight. He didn’t normally let himself feel so malicious, but years of pent up feelings were all threatening to boil to the surface.
“Who do you think paid for your Dalton tuition?” Cooper said quietly.
It took a moment for Blaine’s brain to catch up to his ears. “What?”
“I got your letter about being bullied. I was in the middle of… a big job,” Cooper said, choosing his words carefully with a sideways glance at Burke. “But I’d gotten a chunk of money and knew about Dalton. I got the material and filled out an application for you myself.”
Besides the wedding invitation, one of the few things Blaine had sent to his brother’s New York address was a letter after he’d come out. He was being bullied at school and Steve wasn’t helping, so he’d just needed to vent. He’d never gotten a response, but it wasn’t long after that that he’d been accepted to Dalton.
Burke pursed his lips at that but didn’t say anything. Cooper spared a sheepish look for him before turning back to Blaine.
“I asked the school to call the money I paid a scholarship so Mom wouldn’t find out.” Cooper shrugged. “It seemed like the only thing I could really do for you at that point.”
Blaine gaped at that, completely at a loss for words. Getting the letter from Dalton, complete with word that his tuition would be covered when he hadn’t even filled out an application, was the biggest and best surprise of his life.
“I thought Mom…”
But Cooper shook his head. “Look, I know I haven’t been around and that I left when you needed me. I was selfish and have made a lot of bad decisions that are still catching up with me.” He glanced at Burke, who nodded, and his voice seemed to gain strength at the show of support. “But I want you to know that I never stopped thinking about you. I came back to make sure you knew that.”
Blaine opened his mouth to ask what that was supposed to mean, but his phone rang. Cooper nodded at him to go ahead and take it. With a sigh, he pulled his phone from his pocket, ready to tell Kurt that this wasn’t a good time, but he didn’t recognize the number. He frowned and clicked the Accept button.
“Blaine Anderson?” an unfamiliar voice asked.
“My name is Agent Kramer. I’m with the FBI. You haven’t happened to see your brother in the last week, have you?”
Blaine blinked, unsure. On the one hand, he was standing across from an FBI agent that seemed to be close to his brother. But the name Kramer seemed familiar…
His eyes widened as he remembered the conversation from earlier that afternoon.
“Kramer’s got the best FBI head hunters lining up to sniff out your trail, wise guy. He’s not letting this go.”
“A day. Two at most.”
“There’s no reason for them to find me here, Peter.”
“Blaine? Are you there, son?”
Cooper and Burke frowned at his expression. What is it? Cooper mouthed.
“Yessir,” Blaine replied quickly, shaking his head at Cooper. “I’m sorry. I haven’t talked to my brother in nearly ten years. He walked out on me and my mother and never looked back. Is he in some kind of trouble?”
Cooper’s eyes went wide and he looked over at Burke, who also seemed startled.
“Oh no, son,” Kramer said with false cheeriness. “Your brother’s been a great friend of the FBI but seems to have run off. We just want to bring him back to New York safely.”
The more he listened, the more Blaine could hear the lie for what it was. “I’m sorry I can’t help you,” he said.
“No problem. It was a long-shot anyway. I’m sorry to have bothered you.”
“Please let me know if you do find him.”
Blaine swallowed and hung up the phone. He looked at Cooper, who was visibly collecting himself.
“That was Kramer, wasn’t it?” his brother asked. His voice was surprisingly calm.
Cooper looked at him like he’d never seen him before. “But you covered for me. Why?”
Blaine shrugged. “Because you’re my big brother.”
“Neal, if Kramer’s in touch with Blaine, a team won’t be far behind,” Burke said.
Cooper nodded, though he didn’t take his eyes off Blaine. “Yeah, I know.”
Burke clenched his jaw. “You need to get out.”
“What’ll happen if he catches you?” Blaine asked. “What did you do?”
Cooper shook his head, but it was Burke who spoke. “It’s a long story, but Neal’s been my CI for the last couple of years. We’ve done good work in the White Collar division together. He’s really making a difference. But Agent Kramer wants Neal as his CI. If he catches Neal, he’s going to pin a whole bunch of crimes on him and take him back to D.C. to work for him for the rest of his sentence.”
“Which would be how long?” Blaine wasn’t sure he wanted to hear the answer.
“Life, probably,” Cooper said quietly. “At least Kramer’s life, anyway.”
It took a moment for that information to process, but rather than be angry, Blaine felt surprisingly determined. “Well, we can’t let him catch you, then.”
“Blaine?” Cooper had a startlingly hopeful look on his face.
“Do you have somewhere to go?” Blaine asked instead.
Burke turned to look at him. “My question exactly.”
Cooper shrugged and glanced at Burke. “Mozzie has somewhere in mind. He’s waiting on me in Cleveland. We can leave any time.”
“Then go,” Blaine said. “But I’ll be expecting a postcard.”
The genuine smile—so different from the one from the halls of McKinley to anyone who knew—that broke out on Cooper’s face was nearly blinding and told Blaine he’d made the right call.
Neal stood with Peter and Blaine on the tarmac as he waited for Mozzie to arrive. It was nearly midnight, but the con had promised transportation to their Isle de Freedom. An approaching whirr had the unlikely trio looking up into the sky, and it took several beats for Neal to realize what he was seeing. As the helicopter descended, Mozzie’s outline behind the wheel became clear and Neal let out a relieved sigh.
“He sure knows how to make an entrance,” Peter said, trying to sound long-suffering but coming across more fond than anything.
“He sure does,” Neal agreed with a bittersweet smile.
“Is that your friend?” Blaine asked.
Neal nodded. “That’s Mozzie.”
As the helicopter set down, Neal grabbed Peter’s arm. For a moment, he didn’t know what to say. He didn’t know when—or if—he’d ever see the man again. There was just too much…
But the sound of sirens had them all whirling around to see blinking red and blue lights speeding toward them. Neal’s breath caught in his throat as he felt Kramer’s noose tightening with his approach.
“Damn, they move fast,” Peter growled. “Neal, you have to go.”
Neal’s stomach clenched but he nodded. “Please, Peter.” He swallowed and nodded toward his brother. “Give Blaine the answers about me that I can’t. You know me better than anyone. And don’t lie about it. He deserves the truth. I’ve hidden from him for long enough.”
“You got it. Just go. I’ll try to sort this out so you can come home.”
Neal nodded his thanks as the sirens sounded through the previously still night.
“Neal, hurry up!” Mozzie called, barely audible over the whirring blades of the helicopter. “Senor Suit is on the way!”
He waved at Mozzie then turned to his brother. “I’m so sorry about, well, everything, kiddo.”
Blaine shook his head. “It doesn’t matter now.”
Neal swallowed and nodded. “Peter’s going to stick around a bit, help you out when the Feds get here. And he’ll answer any questions you have about what I’ve been up to. I told him to tell you everything, all right? No more running.”
Blaine smiled but there were tears in the corners of his eyes. “Thank you. Now go,” he said, pushing Neal toward the helicopter.
Neal managed to wrap an arm around his brother’s shoulder for a short moment as the police vans sped around the corner of the air traffic control building. “Tell Mom I said hello,” he whispered into Blaine’s ear. And then he took off running for the helicopter.
“Caffrey, freeze!” Kramer yelled as he jumped from the van. “You’re under arrest!”
But Neal kept his eyes trained on the helicopter and Mozzie. “Moz, lift off!” he yelled.
The other man nodded and revved the helicopter’s engine before starting her upward. Neal heard a gun go off and the bullet whizzed past his shoulder a yard wide, but that only spurred him on. He tossed his small bag into the open side of the helicopter and jumped in as it hovered about four feet off the ground.
“Nice landing,” Mozzie called over his shoulder as the helicopter took off into the night.
“Go!” Neal yelled back.
The Feds were still firing shots at them, but the last thing Neal caught was Peter putting an arm around Blaine’s shoulders as Kramer stalked toward them. He sighed in relief as they pulled out of range and crawled into the front seat. He pulled on the headset as Mozzie gave him a look.
“That was way too close, Neal.” He shook his head. “I hope it was worth it.”
And Neal finally let himself smile. “Yeah, it was.”