Neal trudged up the steps to his apartment with heavy feet after another long day at the office. The last several weeks had seen the FBI investigating an influx of high-end arms deals involving national and international players—including various branches of the mob, which had pulled in agents from Organized Crime—and some private security firms. The White Collar division had been involved because of the high price tags of the products and stolen items used as currency.
The CIA and NSA had also gotten involved, meaning long days at the Bureau and in the field for Neal, as he was working both on the cases and to make sure none of their guests recognized him. That was another life that he’d left behind three years before. And with his commutation hearing coming up, Neal had been on his best behavior, trying not to rock the boat. But mixing his old and new lives would definitely do that.
His past was messy—far messier than anything Neal Caffrey had ever been involved in or would know how to deal with. It was also filled with death, betrayals, danger, and broken relationships that remained jagged to the touch if he ever let the shield that was Neal Caffrey’s skin fall for even the slightest moment. He’d gotten better at becoming his alias over the years, though. And he’d unexpectedly found something good in New York, even if it was in a two-mile radius.
He shook his head as he hit the top of the steps; he must be more exhausted than he thought if his thoughts were wandering there. At the moment, he wanted nothing more than to take a hot shower, drink a tall glass (or two) of wine, and collapse face-first into bed—and not necessarily in that order. He opened the unlocked door, expecting to find Mozzie inside drinking his wine and not replenishing the supply. But it wasn’t Mozzie sitting at the table when Neal stepped inside. Neal froze with one hand still on the door knob. His eyes widened and he was pretty sure his heart skipped a beat.
Chuck Bartowski pushed himself to his feet, eyeing Neal with his own wide eyes, looking just as surprised to see Neal as Neal was to see him. Only Chuck wasn’t seeing Neal Caffrey. He was seeing the dead man with the jagged past; he, after all, was one of those sharp edges that cut deep on those nights it wasn’t Neal Caffrey sitting on June’s balcony.
“Oh my god,” Chuck breathed. “Bryce.” He shook his head in disbelief. “It’s true. You’re really alive.”
The sound of Chuck’s voice seemed to break whatever spell Neal was under, and he shut the door behind him quickly, not needing anyone—especially June—to hear this conversation. He shed his hat and jacket on the sofa arm before turning back to look at his ex-best friend. It had been three years since he’d seen Chuck, and he’d never actually thought he’d see him again either.
“And what if I wasn’t and you’d broken into an innocent stranger’s apartment?” he retorted, surprised at how even his voice came out.
Chuck laughed sheepishly and it was as though Neal was 19 again, sitting in the Stanford library with Chuck, talking about video games and girls instead of studying for midterms. And just like that, the second skin that was Neal Caffrey fell to the floor like a cheap suit, revealing the original: Bryce Larkin, CIA agent.
“Well,” Chuck said, “I was pretty sure it was you.”
“Pretty sure?” Bryce echoed, raising an eyebrow. Chuck shrugged self-consciously. “Whatever,” Bryce said, waving off the point. “What are you even doing here? How did you find me?”
No one should know he was alive, especially Chuck. He’d made a lot of sacrifices, including his life—twice—for his old friend’s sake. Only General Beckman should know he was back in New York living as Neal Caffrey; it had been her idea for Bryce Larkin to officially remain dead and for him to disappear in New York as the infamous conman and art thief. She’d also approved the decision for him to become Peter Burke’s CI, giving him access to the FBI in case an inside man was needed, especially considering the various internal splinter groups they’d been dealing with at the time.
But Bryce had never been activated and, honestly, he hoped it stayed that way. Neal Caffrey’s life was one he’d come to enjoy. He had people he cared about and, surprisingly, cared about him—something he’d never thought he’d ever find again after being recruited into the CIA in college. And he wasn’t sure he was ready to let go now that he’d found it again.
“What am I doing here?” Chuck repeated in disbelief. “What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be dead, Bryce. I watched you die in that Intersect room three years ago.” He shook his head. “I mourned you. Sarah mourned you.”
Bryce’s stomach twisted, but he shoved it aside. Sarah was another jagged edge he couldn’t afford to think about. “Clearly the reports of my death were greatly exaggerated,” he said at last.
Chuck glared at him. “Bryce.”
“Fine. You’re right. I did die. Again.” He rolled his shoulders to cover the shudder that ran down his spine at the memory. The pain from the gunshot and the cold encroaching as the life bled from him still haunted his nightmares. “But a CIA team found my body and revived me. I was never told how. I guess they were able to improve on Fulcrum’s technology since I’d been dead for several minutes this time.”
“And you didn’t think it would be a good idea to let anyone know?” Chuck demanded.
Bryce shook his head and crossed into the kitchen. He grabbed a glass from the counter and poured himself some wine. “It was Beckman’s idea. My recovery took longer than expected and we both figured it would be safer if Bryce Larkin stayed dead. There were traitors inside the CIA and the NSA who would still be looking for me if word got out that I was still alive.” He smiled without any humor before taking a sip from his glass. “I had a lot of enemies and wasn’t in any position to protect myself for a while there.”
Chuck sighed. He was familiar with Bryce’s laundry list of enemies, having dealt with a number of them in his time. “So you’ve been here this whole time?”
“Living,” Bryce replied simply. He poured a second glass wine and handed it to Chuck. He nodded to the table and they took seats across from one another. “Neal Caffrey was the alias from my first undercover mission,” he said by way of explanation. “God, it must have been about nine years ago now.”
Chuck’s eyes went wide. “Nine years? We—well, you—still would’ve been at Stanford.”
Bryce nodded, though he felt a twinge of guilt; he’d been the one to get Chuck kicked out of school for cheating when the guy’d done nothing but test well. But the CIA had had their eyes on him, and as his best friend and a spy himself, Bryce wasn’t going to let the CIA destroy the boyish innocence that Chuck still carried with him. Becoming a spy had fundamentally changed Bryce, and he didn’t want to see that happen to his best friend. So, with the help of Chuck’s father, he’d set Chuck up to protect him. He’d just never imagined his actions would have ruined Chuck’s life in a completely different way. Chuck was smart and kind and should have been able to have any job he wanted. Instead, he ended up working at the Nerd Herd at the Burbank Buy More before the spy life found him again anyway.
“It was my senior year. I did an ‘exchange program’ with NYU, which was just a cover to give me a chance to move to New York and set up my undercover op,” Bryce said. He didn’t know why he was telling Chuck this, but it felt good to get it off his chest after all this time. If Peter ever found out… He shook off the thought. That was never going to happen. “I created the Neal Caffrey alias and lived on it for several years. I never burned it either, so was able to come back to it years later.”
“That’s dangerous. You could have been recognized by someone dangerous. Neal Caffrey is an internationally known art thief and forger, after all,” Chuck pointed out. Bryce blinked and Chuck smirked. “We looked into the name you were going by.”
“Clearly, since you recognized me,” Bryce replied with a grimace. “So how did you find me?” If Chuck could find him, then that meant he’d slipped up somewhere and other enemies could be bearing down on him at this very moment. Somehow he’d put his loved ones here in danger. Not good.
“Casey,” Chuck replied.
Bryce’s eyes widened. John Casey had been the one to kill him the first time, right after he’s sent the original Intersect to Chuck rather than hand it off to Fulcrum. It also meant Chuck was still in touch with the NSA agent and, as a result, the spy game.
“You’re still spying,” he said flatly.
Chuck took a sip of wine and fidgeted. “Yeah, about that…”
A thought hit Bryce and it wasn’t a pleasant one. “You didn’t download the Intersect 2.0 when I told you to destroy it, did you?”
“I didn’t see another option. You were dead and the Fulcrum agents would have killed me, Casey, and Sarah,” Chuck retorted. “It was the only way out.”
“You were out,” Bryce said, running a hand through his hair. He’d wanted nothing more than to help Chuck remove the Intersect that he’d stuck his friend with in the first place. He knew what a burden it had placed on him; it had brought him in contact with the life Bryce had been trying to protect him from in the first place. And it seemed the life had stuck its claws into Chuck and hadn’t let go since. It was not something he’d ever wanted for Chuck and made him unbearably sad to think about.
“I don’t think there was ever going to be an ‘out’ for me, Bryce,” Chuck replied in that infuriatingly calm way he had about him. “My dad was Orion. My mother was a spy as well, working undercover to take down Alexei Volkoff.”
Bryce’s eyes widened as he connected the dots. He’d heard whispers about a spy who’d gone rogue nearly twenty years earlier and joined the Russians. But if that were true, Chuck would truly be spy royalty. “Your mother was Frost?”
Chuck nodded. “We took down Volkoff with her help, you know. She’s free.”
That… Well, that was damn impressive. Volkoff Industries had been an empire, ruling the underworld with an iron fist. Alexei Volkoff had been a tyrant in control of most of the world’s arms deals for decades, and his men had been everywhere, from the CIA to the NSA and FBI to Fulcrum and The Ring. But it explained why his group was not visible in any of the deals currently going on in the city.
Bryce shook his head, trying to process all this information. After leaving the spy life behind for three years, it was all coming back at him at once. And his brain wasn’t exactly a super computer like someone else’s in the room. Finally, though, his thoughts circled back to his original question.
“How did Casey find me?” he asked.
“Oh, that.” Chuck took another sip of wine. “He’s working with Verbanski on security for the arms deals. He and Gertrude have a thing, you know.”
“That makes a disturbing amount of sense,” Bryce replied, considering what he knew about the woman—basically a female John Casey by reputation.
Chuck laughed. “I know, right? Anyway, he saw you with the FBI about a week ago so did some digging.”
“You mean he spied on me,” Bryce said with a hint of a smile.
“You could say that,” Chuck hedged, though Bryce could read him like no time had passed since they’d been roommates. Casey must have followed him and confirmed his identity. Maybe Chuck had even flashed on it, considering his file was probably in the Intersect.
“Did you take this to Beckman?” Bryce asked at last.
Chuck shook his head. “No. I wanted to confirm it first. So here I am.”
“Here you are,” Bryce agreed. “So now what? You have to understand that I have a life here, Chuck.”
“It’s not a real life,” Chuck argued. “It’s the life of an alias. That’s why we came. We wanted— Well, we hoped you might come back with us. You could be you again. We’ve gone private though Beckman still has jobs for us sometimes. We’ve got our own company and everything. Carmichael Industries.”
Bryce had heard that name before. It had been in one of the files about the various private security firms caught up in the arms brokering going on.
“Of course you do,” Bryce said, shaking his head. It was better than selling his soul to the government at least. “Look, I appreciate that. I really do. But that guy? The Bryce Larkin you came to find?” Chuck nodded. “That’s not me anymore. I left that life behind three years ago. I’m happy here.”
“Happy?” Chuck squeaked. “You have a tracking anklet with a two mile radius! If you asked Beckman, she could—”
But Bryce cut him off. “It’s okay. I’ve done enough traveling in my life.” He had a lot of enemies around the world, both as Bryce and as Neal. Honestly, he was safer in New York than he’d been in years. “It might not be the glamorous life of a spy, but there are people here I care about.”
“That Neal cares about.”
“I am Neal.”
Chuck shook his head. “Neal Caffrey is like one of those nice suits you’re wearing—looks real good and gets you a lot of attention, but you eventually have to change it out it for something more comfortable.”
Bryce blinked. “That didn’t even make sense.”
“I thought it was pretty good.”
“So I’ve been told.”
They fell into silence after that, the witty banter having come back so naturally that Bryce couldn’t help but think that maybe, just maybe, his Nerd Herder of a friend might have a point. Maybe Bryce Larkin was that something more comfortable.
Chuck drained his wine and rose. “Look, Sarah’s in town too and she wants to see you.”
Bryce balked. “I—”
“Just have dinner with us tomorrow night. We’ll find a place inside your radius. Don’t make up your mind until then. Please?”
There was just something about Chuck Bartowski that Bryce couldn’t say no to. “Okay.”
Chuck beamed. “Awesome. And no canceling because of work.”
“Aye, aye, Agent Bartowski.”
Chuck gave him a Look as he pulled his jacket back on. “I’m serious, Bryce. I’m glad you’re okay. And so is Sarah. I think Casey might be too, though he’d never admit it.”
Bryce huffed a weak laugh. “He probably just wants another crack at me.”
Chuck smiled as they walked to the door. “You might be surprised. He’s changed from the guy you knew.”
“Hard to believe.”
“It’s been a long time.”
“I guess it has.”
“Tomorrow night,” Chuck said as he headed out the door.
“Tomorrow night,” Bryce agreed.
Chuck nodded and headed down the stairs. Bryce waited until he heard the front door shut behind the other man and then closed his own door. He sank onto his bed and rubbed his face through his hands. Those jagged edges were starting to cut again and he knew he wasn’t going to get much sleep.
It was proving to be a long day for Peter. Jones and Diana had gone undercover as potential buyers into one of the arms negotiations, and the two agents been stuck in a warehouse for several hours now as the meeting droned on. They were getting a lot of intel, but that didn’t make the process any less boring for the ones in the van. They had no warrant for the warehouse and they were vastly unprepared, both in terms of manpower and information, so couldn’t just charge in and arrest everyone on sight and sort things out later. That left Peter and Neal behind, and Neal never missed an opportunity to complain about how much he hated the van.
Though, Peter thought with a frown, Neal’s complaints had died down to a dull roar a couple of hours before. He hazarded a glance at the conman; Neal was leaning back in his seat, legs outstretched as far as they could go in tight quarters, and his arms were crossed against his chest. He had a headset on, but his eyes were staring at the roof of the van.
No, past the roof of the van.
He’d seen that distracted look on Neal’s face before; the root of said distraction usually ended up messy for everyone. But, Peter supposed, that wasn’t entirely fair. Since Keller had gone to prison after kidnapping El and nearly killing Neal, Neal had been on remarkably good behavior. He was still Neal Caffrey, pulling stunts worthy of his legend, but he was also more focused on his job. It was as if losing the treasure had taken a load off his shoulders and given him the chance to really commit to a life in New York.
Because of that newfound commitment, Peter could only hope that whatever was on the younger man’s mind now wouldn’t damage all the progress he’d made—hell, the progress they’d made as partners and friends.
Neal started when his phone buzzed, and Peter immediately averted his gaze back to the monitors to give his friend what little privacy he could in the van. Neal, though, hesitated for a couple more buzzes before answering. Interesting.
He had a frown on his face as he listened to the person on the other end of the line. “Yeah.”
Pause. “Sure, I know the place.”
Another pause. “Eight sounds perfect. See you then.”
When he hung up, Peter looked back at him, raising an eyebrow. “Got a date?”
Neal smiled, though it didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Something like that.”
Peter considered that for a moment before a thought struck him that would go a long way to explain Neal’s odd behavior today. “Sara?” he asked.
Neal shrugged, but didn’t reply one way or another. It was curious, Peter thought, the way Neal had tried to play down the relationship he and Sara had had before the treasure fiasco blew up even though they made a good couple. Neal had never been shy about his relationship with Kate—that was what had led Peter to him in the first place and spurred his escape from prison with only a few months left on his sentence. Whenever Peter thought he had the conman figured out, Neal would do something to completely surprise him. Their partnership was never boring, that was for sure.
“I hope you two can work things out,” Peter told him. Even if this mystery dinner wasn’t with her, he still meant it. “You two seemed good together.”
“Yeah,” Neal agreed absently. “Are you going to need me for the rest of the night or can I head out pretty soon so I’m not late?”
“You can go,” Peter said. If nothing else, it was good to see Neal getting back into things; he’d been keeping to himself more since El’s kidnapping, which Peter knew Neal still blamed himself for, though neither Elizabeth nor Peter held any lingering anger toward him over it.
Peter blinked in surprise at that, but Neal just shrugged so he let it go. Something was definitely going on here, though. “No problem.”
Sarah Walker was nervous. It wasn’t a state she often found herself in. She could face enemy operatives, a hailstorm of bullets, even a computer program that erased her memories without hesitation, but this was something else entirely. Sitting in a fancy Italian restaurant waiting for her apparently not-so-dead-after-all ex-partner and lover was a little (a lot) out of her comfort zone.
Her feelings for Bryce Larkin had been confused even when he’d been alive, but after his second death, she’d been able to shove them aside and had thrown herself into her work—and eventually into Chuck’s arms—rather than work through her feelings and mourn properly.
And after everything with Shaw, Volkoff, and then Quinn and the faulty Intersect, there just hadn’t been any time. She’d spent the last few months with Chuck dealing with the aftermath of her memory loss and their sudden return on the beach that fateful day. It hadn’t been easy reconciling the woman she’d reverted into with the woman she was with her memories, but Chuck had been with her every step of the way as she worked through everything. She’d never felt luckier to have him in her life.
But the moment Casey had reported seeing someone identical to Bryce Larkin walking around the FBI’s White Collar division in New York, those feelings Sarah had managed to shove aside for three years had rushed back to the surface. She loved Chuck with all of her being and wouldn’t trade her life with him for anything, but she’d also had feelings for Bryce; they had a lot of history, facing countless life and death scenarios together. There was a bond that partners forged when working in the field together. The bonds she shared with Chuck and Casey were equally strong but less confused in so many ways. After Bryce’s first death, she’d allowed her grief take the form of anger since she’d thought he’d been a traitor. It was easier to feel betrayed than the heartbreak that came with his second death when she’d known that he’d been loyal and heroic all along.
Casey had done some digging on this Bryce Larkin doppelganger and Chuck had flashed on his name: Neal Caffrey was one of Bryce’s aliases, last used in a classified op almost a decade earlier. An infamous forger and art thief, Caffrey had been arrested seven years before—meaning extraction from the mission—and, after an ill-fated escape from a Supermax worthy of one of the CIA’s best agents, was released into the FBI’s custody as a CI; an event that coincided conveniently with Bryce’s latest death.
But rather than go to General Beckman, Chuck and Sarah had taken the first flight to New York, leaving Morgan in charge of Castle. After meeting with Casey and Gertrude, Chuck had gone to see Bryce—or to see Neal. And he’d come back to the hotel and confirmed what they knew: Neal Caffrey was indeed a miraculously revived Bryce Larkin.
So now, as she waited for Bryce to walk through the doors, Sarah felt antsy. She wasn’t sure she was ready for this anymore. Personal relationships had never been her strong suit, and with years of unresolved feelings toward the man she was waiting on, her instincts were telling her to flee. But she tamped down on her instincts and waited.
Chuck seemed to sense her nerves and slid his right hand atop her left and entwined their fingers. He squeezed and Sarah squeezed back gratefully. Chuck was her anchor in all this chaos—he always had been, but it had taken her a long time to see it. Chuck, though, was practically giddy that Bryce was still alive. He’d known a Bryce that Sarah had only ever seen the tiniest of hints off during their time together—a Bryce that seemed antithetical to spy she’d been partnered with for years.
Bryce Larkin was a puzzle that they each only held a piece to and did not know how to fit together.
But none of them knew Neal Caffrey. And that was the man the maître d’ was escorting from the front of the restaurant at the stroke of eight.
Sarah recognized the tall, lithe form moving in their direction. Having known Bryce intimately, Sarah noticed the differences between the man and his alias immediately. He moved differently, with a con artist’s swagger rather than a spy’s fluidity. He looked more like a successful businessman or lawyer than a spy or even an FBI consultant. Outside of a mission, Bryce wouldn’t have given the designer suits and fedora that were apparently Neal’s wardrobe staples a second thought. A more traditional spy, Bryce had been partial to a good leather jacket, jeans, and sunglasses.
At first, Sarah might have been fooled into thinking Neal Caffrey was a regular guy—as regular as a world-renowned art thief and forger could be, anyway—who just happened to look like Bryce Larkin.
But, on a second glance, Sarah recognized the cover for what it was. As someone who made a living changing identities like most people changed clothes, Sarah knew where to look to find the man. Neal was clearly like a second skin to Bryce, fitting expertly like his well-tailored suit, but it was almost too perfect a fit. His movements weren’t quite unconscious, like he had to check himself occasionally to make sure he was still Neal. She saw him briefly canvas the room for possible threats and exits, a habit drilled into agents until it was unconscious during spy school.
But his eyes were the most telling once he looked up and made eye contact with her. Bryce’s pale blue eyes were one of his most striking features—topping an admittedly long list. While everything else might have changed, there was an inherently Bryce spark behind his eyes, one tinged with mischief, intelligence, compassion, and strength—a look Sarah hadn’t realized she’d missed being thrown in her direction until she’d seen it again.
Tonight, though, that spark was dimmed by uncertainty. While Neal looked like he belonged in this restaurant more than the other members of their party, he also looked the least comfortable. And somehow, that made Sarah feel better.
“Your party, Mr. Caffrey,” the maître d’ said as they walked up to the table.
“Thank you,” Bryce said with a polite nod and the other man walked off. He turned back to the table, glancing from Gertrude and Casey on his left to Sarah and Chuck on his right. Finally, he took the open seat and glanced at Chuck.
“I’m glad you could make it,” Chuck said with a smile. He was nearly humming in excitement to see his old friend.
“My pleasure, Mr. Carmichael. I never turn down an opportunity for fine dining and even finer company,” Bryce—no, Neal—said, winking at Sarah.
In public, they had to stick with cover names; using the wrong one could ruin Bryce’s cover and get him killed, for good this time. He still had a lot of enemies that would not hesitate to come to New York to take him out, even if he was more or less out of the spy game. Sarah had reminded Chuck of that before dinner, but Bryce’s comment seemed to have snapped him back to reality.
“Please, call me Charles,” he said, voice deepening with his alter ego. “Let me introduce my wife, Sarah Walker,” Chuck added with a nod to Sarah.
The surprise—and was that hurt?—that flashed across Bryce’s face was schooled so quickly that Sarah wasn’t sure if she’d imagined it. Bryce, though, ever the gentleman, kissed the back of her hand. “Mademoiselle,” he said. “It’s a pleasure.”
“The pleasure is all mine, Mr. Caffrey,” Sarah replied. If Bryce noticed that her pulse was racing, he didn’t react.
“Please, call me Neal.”
“Sarah.” Sarah nodded toward the others. “This is Colonel John Casey and Gertrude Verbanksi.”
“Of Verbanski Corp.?” Bryce asked, playing his part well.
“You’re well-informed, Mr. Caffrey,” Getrude said with a knowing smile. “But I suppose that comes from working with the FBI.”
“Or having underworld contacts,” Casey added. His dislike of Bryce had softened over the years, especially with Bryce dying for his country—a sacrifice Casey considered to be the noblest of all—but it was still an inherent dislike between the two of them, even when they were undercover; Casey had been the one to kill Bryce the first time, after all.
“It’s amazing what one can learn from those of… less savory character than yourself, Colonel,” Bryce replied easily. Neal Caffrey was known for his silver tongue, Sarah remembered from his file, which was a perfect identity for the charismatic Bryce. “We can’t all honorably serve our country.”
Casey grunted and the waiter arrived, holding out the wine list. Chuck took it and glanced over it, but looked rather startled by all the entries. “Oh, uh…”
Bryce reached a hand out. “May I?”
Chuck nodded gratefully and handed the menu over. This was Neal’s area of expertise. Time to keep up appearances.
“Please, order whatever you’d like,” Gertrude spoke up. “Tonight’s meal is on Verbanski Corp.”
“That’s very kind of you,” Bryce said with a nod. After looking over the menu for a few more moments, he ordered a bottle of red that cost more than Sarah’s dress.
Gertrude nodded approvingly as the waiter left. “I’ve heard rumors, Mr. Caffrey, that you attempted to forge the infamous Ben Franklin bottle,” she said.
Bryce raised an eyebrow at that, but he looked pleased. “You seem to be well-informed as well, madam.”
“Ben Franklin bottle?” Chuck asked in confusion.
“Marie Antoinette gave Franklin a bottle of Château Du Munn,” Bryce explained, eyes lighting up. He looked genuinely excited about the topic, which was a startling look on him, Sarah thought, but definitely not a bad one. “It was rumored to be in private hands for decades but never went up for auction. An old rival and I had a challenge going of seeing who could make a forgery of that bottle.”
“So you forged it?” Sarah asked. She wondered for a moment when he’d had the time to pick up rivals on an alias but put the thought aside since this was Bryce and he was very good at his job. He was always thorough when creating an alias. It had used to annoy Sarah since mission prep took longer with him, but it did often make things go more smoothly so she’d gotten used to it.
But Bryce shook his head. “The Franklin bottle can’t be forged. I was able to forge everything but the wine itself.”
“Why?” Chuck asked.
“When the atomic bomb detonated in 1945, it spread Cesium 137 around the world,” Gertrude said. “It’s doesn’t exist naturally but would be found in any wine bottled after 1945.”
“Like the Franklin bottle,” Bryce confirmed. “The lady knows her wine.”
Gertrude winked and Casey groaned.
“So what happened with you and your rival?” Chuck asked.
Bryce shrugged. “He had the real bottle so when the auction house ran a cesium test, mine failed. But the goal was just to get the bottle into the auction anyway since we were after him for murder. He wanted to drive up the price of the real bottle with some controversy, like a cesium test, to make enough money to pay off a debt to the Russian mob.”
“Did you get him?”
“Of course,” Bryce said with a smirk. “My partner is very good at what he does.”
From what they dug up on Neal’s partner, Peter Burke, that assessment seemed true enough. Since starting their unconventional partnership, Burke and Caffrey boasted a ninety-four percent conviction rate, a number unheard of in law enforcement circles. Sarah had a great deal of respect for Peter Burke, since she knew that Bryce did not work well with people he didn’t respect. He’d gone through several partners before being matched up with Sarah, and because Sarah had immediately asserted herself by knocking him flat on his ass the day they’d met, they’d been on equal grounds through their partnership—at least until he’d shed all his contacts for Fulcrum—and had been damn good as a result.
The waiter returned, and once everyone had ordered dinner, they fell into casual conversation. Bryce was all warm smiles and easy charm, as expected from Neal Caffrey’s reputation. But, Sarah noticed, his posture never relaxed through the meal.
And when Gertrude suggested they continue the evening at Neal’s since they were so close—code for going somewhere they could speak freely—Sarah knew she wasn’t imagining the discomfort that crossed Bryce’s face before the smile was back up and he agreed, just as long as they picked up some wine on the way since a friend of his had a tendency to pilfer his supply and not replenish it.
It was half after eight when Peter realized he’d been staring at the same piece of paper for the last twenty minutes. He shook his head and signed the report. Diana and Jones had finished up their recon mission shortly after Neal had left and they’d headed back to the Bureau for a quick debrief before the younger agents headed home, leaving Peter alone in the office. He usually liked catching up on some accumulated paperwork on nights like this. Elizabeth was on a work trip in Chicago, so he had no one but Satchmo to get home to, but he was still distracted.
Finally he pulled up Neal’s tracking information out of curiosity. He blinked in surprise at seeing the dot at one of the most exclusive Italian restaurants in the city. It was a little hole-in-the-wall in Neal’s neighborhood, but it usually took months to get a reservation, and even then, an appetizer cost what Peter made in a week. Whoever Neal had agreed to meet tonight had some deep pockets—and while Sara Ellis was doing well for herself at Sterling Bosch, he didn’t think she was doing that well.
He knew El would make a face and tell him to mind his own business; Neal’s private life was his own as long as he was within his radius. Chastised by the thought of his wife’s reaction, Peter turned back to the next report in his pile and read the first line. And then proceeded to read the same line again. And again.
Five minutes later, he grabbed his coat and headed toward Neal’s. He just wanted to check up on his friend with his commutation hearing coming up, he told himself. And if he happened to catch a glimpse of him through a window at a nice Italian restaurant, well, that would just be a coincidence.
He slowed his pace once he reached the block the restaurant was on. He’d passed it many times on the way to Neal’s but had never given it more than a cursory glance. It was out of his league—even Neal had only eaten there once by his own admission, having gone with June. He said later that it was too expensive for the proportionally meager stores he had left to his name after his arrest.
Peter stopped dead in his tracks as he glanced through the window. Neal was sitting at a table visible from the front. He was smiling and gesturing as he spoke, putting on that Caffrey charm that entangled so many women and men alike and got him into deep trouble. Peter couldn’t hear what he was saying from the street, but that wasn’t what surprised him.
He really wished Neal had been meeting Sara.
Instead, Peter was left trying to figure out why Neal was having dinner with the heads of Verbanksi Corp. and Carmichael Industries and their dates.
Neal held the door to his apartment open as the group filed in ahead of him. June and Mozzie were having one of their outings tonight—as per Neal’s suggestion—so he didn’t have to worry about anyone overhearing what came next. Casey whistled lowly as Neal stepped into the apartment and shut the door behind him. He loosened his tie and pulled his jacket off. Neal went with it, leaving Bryce standing with several of the jagged pieces of his messy past.
“Living pretty good for a dead guy,” Casey said, eyeing the apartment.
“Beats the alternative,” Bryce replied, folding his coat over the sofa arm.
He headed into the kitchen and grabbed wine glasses from the cabinet. He pulled the bottle they’d picked up on the way from the restaurant from its bag and poured five glasses. He handed them around as Chuck and Sarah took seats on the sofa. Verbanski took a seat at the table while Casey chose to remain standing behind her and look as imposing as possible. Bryce, for his part, retreated back into the kitchen and leaned back against the counter. He swirled the glass of wine in his hand, not quite ready to make eye contact with the others. Dinner as Neal Caffrey was one thing, as he had his alias to hold up as a shield from the shrapnel from his previous life.
But this was the moment he’d been dreading since Chuck left his apartment the night before.
“So now what?” he asked at last.
“We kick your ass and take you back to Burbank with us,” Casey said with a smirk. He looked like he’d be more than happy to be the one to do it, too.
Bryce raised an eyebrow while Chuck sputtered, “Casey! C’mon, man!”
“Now we make our offer,” Gertrude said over the boys, as though they weren’t even present.
“Offer?” Bryce asked.
“What Casey said, minus the violence,” Chuck said, throwing a final glare in Casey’s direction before straightening his collar and leaning back into his seat. He had his wine in one hand and the other arm resting across the back of the sofa behind Sarah. “What we talked about last night. Come back with us, buddy. Back to your old life—well, minus the selling your soul to the government part,” he added.
But Bryce shook his head. “We’ve been over this, Chuck. I can’t just leave.”
“Why not?” Casey retorted. “Wouldn’t be the first time.”
It was a low blow, but he wasn’t wrong. Bryce ran a hand through his hair. “I have a life here,” he said.
“Neal Caffrey has a life here,” Sarah countered with a shake of her head. “It’s not real when you’re living someone else’s life.”
“Speaking from experience, Sarah Walker?” Bryce retorted bitterly. For a moment, he felt a sense of vindictive pleasure at that—who were these people to tell him that he should give up the life he’d found that finally made him happy after giving up everything for his loved ones and his country, including his life?—but the way Sarah’s face closed off made him regret it almost immediately. “I’m sorry. That was low. I shouldn’t have said it.”
But Sarah shook her head, her voice a little strained when she spoke. “No, you’re right.”
Chuck frowned at her in concern. “Hey—”
Sarah forced a smile, and the look made Bryce’s skin crawl. He hated that he’d been the one to put it on her face, but he was nothing if not stubborn so wasn’t going to back down from the point. Sarah had married Chuck on a name she’d taken while undercover. He’d known her by several names over the course of their partnership and vice versa. He briefly wondered if she’d ever told Chuck her birth name before shoving the thought aside; that wasn’t his life anymore. If he could get through this meeting without anyone getting shot, then he could pretend it had never happened and go back to being Neal Caffrey, a con artist whose only experience with the CIA was being hunted by them for bond forgery and art theft.
“That’s the hazard of a spy’s life,” Sarah said, taking a deep sip of wine. “You can lose yourself so easily.”
There was something more to that comment, Bryce was sure, considering the way Chuck’s frown deepened as he leaned in toward Sarah, but he didn’t comment.
“Is that what you think I’ve done?” he asked instead. “Get lost in Neal Caffrey’s life?”
“That’s exactly what you’ve done, Larkin,” Casey said. “You served your country with honor only to disappear and resurface as an ex-con. Cowardice is what it is.”
Bryce clenched his jaw and his grip tightened around his wine glass. He might be a lot of things—many of them unpleasant—but a coward was not one of them. He opened his mouth to snap a retort, but then noticed the way Casey’s eyes had lit up. He was being baited. And he’d almost fell for it, dammit. He needed to get better control of himself.
He took a breath and shrugged. “Call it what you want, Colonel. I call it retirement.”
“A spy never really retires,” Gertrude said with a wan smile. “You know that, Bryce. We wouldn’t even be having this conversation otherwise.”
“I’m not a spy anymore.” His lips quirked. “I’m a conman.”
“And aren’t spies just a government-sanctioned conmen in the end?” Gertrude countered.
“Old conmen never die. Their smiles just fade away,” Bryce said softly, thinking about Mozzie and Ford. About June and Byron. And Peter and Elizabeth. He shook his head. “Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t leave,” he said.
“Why not?” Chuck demanded.
Bryce lifted up his pant leg to reveal the tracking anklet and shook his foot for good measure. So maybe he was feeling slightly petulant at the moment. He figured he’d earned that right with the way his life had been upended in the last two days.
“Two mile radius for one.”
“You know General Beckman would make that go away if you wanted,” Sarah replied.
“And don’t you have a commutation hearing coming up, Neal?” Verbanski added.
Bryce blinked. “How did you—”
She smirked. “My people did their homework on Neal Caffrey. We’re very thorough.”
“Commutation?” Chuck asked, looking between Bryce and Gertrude.
“My sentence could be cut short,” Bryce explained. “I was supposed to work for the FBI for the four years left on my sentence. It’s been three.”
“But a favorable ruling on the hearing would get his anklet off early,” Gertrude chimed in. “He’d be a free man.”
“For being a good little boy,” Casey added helpfully. Bryce ignored him.
Chuck’s eyes widened at that. “Then what’s stopping you?”
“If your sentence was commuted, you wouldn’t even have to burn your alias,” Sarah pointed out. “You’d be free to do what you want.”
“Like work for Carmichael Industries?”
“Or Verbanksi Corp.”
Bryce sighed. “It wouldn’t matter. Even if my sentence is commuted, and there’s no guarantee that it will be, I’m staying.”
Gertrude took a deliberate sip of wine. “Who says you have to leave?”
Bryce frowned, taken off-guard by the comment. “What?”
“Do you really think that if you get your sentence commuted and you continue working at the FBI, they’re going to pay enough to support Neal Caffrey’s expensive tastes?” Gertrude snorted. “You know what FBI agents can afford and it’s not a multi-million dollar view of Manhattan or a closetful of Devores.”
“So what are you getting at?”
“Yeah,” Chuck interjected, “what are you getting at?”
“What I’m getting at is that you stay in New York, be Neal Caffrey during the week. Play with your little FBI friends. But on the weekends, take cases with us,” Gertrude said, nodding between her and Chuck. “Catch some a white collar crook on Thursday and be in Monaco on Friday with Chuck or Rio on Saturday with me.”
“A freelance spy.” He had to admit, the idea was somewhat appealing. He hadn’t been out of the city in years. But at the same time, he’d made the choice to remain stationary for a reason.
“Exactly.” Verbanski shrugged. “You get to travel, have some fun, and you won’t be breaking any laws. No anklet to tell anyone where you are. We pay well, too.”
Chuck perked up at that. Despite being involved in the spy life, it seemed like his boyish excitement that Bryce had been so fond of in college was still there. “Yeah! It’s the best of both worlds, isn’t it?”
But despite that relief on his friend’s behalf, Bryce took a long draught of wine and shook his head. As tempting as the idea might be, there was too much at stake otherwise. “I still can’t.”
“Now you’re just being stubborn,” Chuck grumbled. “You always did dig your heels in when you thought you were right about something.”
Bryce allowed himself a brief smile at the thought of those pre-CIA college years before his expression faded into something grimmer. “I can’t leave—but it’s not for the reasons you’re thinking.”
“Then why?” Sarah pressed. “You’ve always been the best. You can’t tell me you don’t miss it. At least a little.”
He shrugged. “I get plenty of excitement working with Peter.” Casey grunted disparagingly and Bryce rolled his eyes. “But it’s not about me.”
Chuck frowned. “What are you talking about?”
Bryce put his empty wine glass down on the counter and rolled his shoulders. “I’ve got a lot of enemies—both as Bryce and as Neal. If I got back into the spy game, any of Bryce Larkin’s enemies could easily make the connection between me and my alias. They wouldn’t hesitate to come to New York.”
“You’re not scared, are you, Larkin?” Casey sneered.
“Not for myself,” Bryce retorted coolly, which shut Casey up. “I can watch my own back. But any of my enemies from my spy days could come to New York and hurt someone I care about to get to me. And I can’t take that chance. I have to be here keep an eye on them.” He shook his head. “If you found me, they could, too. And I would never forgive myself if something happened.”
“Bryce—” Sarah started.
But Bryce cut her off. “Remember my rival? The one who had the original Franklin bottle?”
“What about him?” Chuck asked.
“His name is Matthew Keller.”
Chuck’s eyes rolled back in his head and Bryce knew his gamble had paid off as Chuck flashed. Keller was dangerous enough that Bryce would have been surprised if he wasn’t in the Intersect.
“Chuck?” Sarah asked, grabbing Chuck’s knee as he came back to himself. “Did you flash?”
“Yeah,” he said, frowning at Bryce. “Matthew Keller is a dangerous dude.”
Bryce nodded. “He had Peter kidnapped right in front of me a year ago. An FBI agent. And he orchestrated the whole thing from prison. To get to me.” He shook his head. “And a couple of months ago…” He swallowed against the bitter guilt rising in his throat. Just thinking about it still made him sick. “He took Peter’s wife, Elizabeth. From her house while she was cooking dinner. All because I had something he wanted.”
It had been weeks before he’d been able to look El in the face again, and he’d nearly fled the Burke house when she’d smiled and wrapped her arms around him and told him that she didn’t blame him.
“My point is,” Bryce said, cutting Chuck off, “Keller is Neal’s deadliest rival. He might be in prison now, but any of my spy enemies are just as—if not more—dangerous. And there are a lot of them.” He made eye contact with each spy in the room before continuing. “Bryce Larkin has to stay dead—if not for me, for the people I care about.”
There was a long silent moment before Casey broke it. “That’s disgustingly noble of you, Larkin.”
Bryce flashed him a wan smile. “We all have our moments, I guess.” He winked. “I’m sure yours will come in time, Casey.”
Casey growled, but Gertrude turned and put a hand on his arm. Calling off her dog, Bryce thought with a smirk to himself. Even though the world had gone crazy around him, it was nice to know some things would always stay the same.
Once Casey reined himself in, Gertrude took a last drink of her wine and rose. “I can see we won’t change your mind on the matter. It’s a shame, letting those skills go unused, but we won’t push you.”
“Thank you,” Bryce said with a relieved nod.
“But nothing says you have to stay isolated, you know,” Chuck added, pushing himself to his feet.
“Chuck—” But Chuck gave him that soft, understanding smile that had always managed to stop Bryce in his tracks in college. And it still seemed to have the same effect now.
“We don’t want to put your friends at risk, but if you need help…”
“I’ll know who to call.”
“And even if you don’t need help…” Chuck said, trailing off.
Bryce nodded, wondering not for the first time what he’d done to deserve a friend like Chuck—even after he’d done everything he could to keep him out of his life.
“Are we all done feeling our feelings or what?” Casey grumbled.
“Hang on,” Sarah said, rising. “Bryce, can I have a minute?”
Bryce raised an eyebrow at that but nodded. Sarah gave Chuck a peck on the cheek before heading for the privacy the balcony afforded and Bryce followed. She walked over to the wall and looked over the New York skyline for a few moments before turning back to Bryce.
“It’s beautiful here.”
“It is,” he agreed neutrally. He wasn’t sure what this was about—or where the two of them stood.
“I’m glad,” she said. “You deserve some beauty in your life after everything we’ve seen.”
“And done,” she agreed.
“Sarah, about what I said—” Bryce started, but Sarah shook her head.
“No, it’s fine. You were right.” She drummed her fingers on the stone, looking back over the cityscape. “I think for people like us, it can take a few identities before we find out who we were really meant to be. I was a lot of people before Sarah Walker, but none of them fit like she does. It’s who I am now.” She glanced back at the apartment, where Chuck was saying something and Casey was nodding.
“Sometimes I envy people who were born as the people they were meant to be,” she said.
She nodded. “He’s been through a lot but has always been Chuck. It must be so… stable.”
“But now you’ve got that,” Bryce pointed out.
“And so do you,” Sarah said, looking him in the eye. It was a surprisingly intense look.
“You think I was meant to be Neal Caffrey?”
Sarah smiled; it was soft and a little sad, but it was genuine. “You think so.” She laughed then.
Bryce blinked. “What?”
“It’s just… my father’s a con artist. I grew up in that life. And now you’re one. We can’t seem to get away from it, can we?”
Bryce glanced back toward the apartment. “I think Verbanski was onto something. Spies are just government-sanctioned conmen when it comes down to it.” He’d been using a lot of his CIA skills to function in the underworld as Neal, after all—minus the violence whenever possible.
“You should probably get back to your husband,” Bryce said after a quiet moment.
Sarah started and blushed. It was rather endearing that she could still blush after everything she’d seen and done, Bryce thought idly.
“I’m sorry we sprung that on you during an undercover dinner,” she said, glancing at her ring.
But Bryce shrugged. It had been like a slap in the face when he realized that it wasn’t just a cover story, but he’d come to terms with it pretty quickly. The last time he’d seen Sarah, she’d already made her choice. And Chuck was a great guy. He couldn’t blame her for the choice. They both deserved happiness.
Sarah shook her head. “No, it’s not.” She sighed, glancing back toward the group inside. “You know, Chuck was thinking about you a lot before the wedding.”
“He was?” That took Bryce aback.
“Besides Morgan, you were his best friend,” Sarah said. “And he wanted everyone he loved to be there. And so did I.”
“I wasn’t a very good friend.” He looked back over the city, suddenly unable to meet Sarah’s eyes. “To either of you.”
“You always do that,” Sarah said with a sigh. She followed his gaze over the balcony and slid her hand on top of his.
“Make yourself into the bad guy when you’re not.” She squeezed his hand and Bryce felt a current run up his arm. He swallowed but didn’t say anything. “You sacrificed Chuck’s friendship for his safety.”
“I got him kicked out of Stanford so he could work at a Buy More,” Bryce retorted. The latter hadn’t been intentional, but intent didn’t change the result.
“To protect him from the spy life.”
“Which he ended up in anyway. Because of me.” Chuck had been the only one Bryce knew he could trust the night he fled Fulcrum with the Intersect. He’d been out of options so had sent the program to his ex-best friend when he’d been trying to keep him away from the CIA in the first place.
“He was going to get involved one way or another and you know it,” Sarah said gently. “If not because of the Intersect, then because of his parents. You gave him a weapon he could defend himself with.”
And I brought the two of you together, he thought.
“You let everyone think you’d gone rogue to protect the country,” she added. “You let me think that.”
“Well, technically I had gone rogue,” Bryce retorted with a wry smile, covering the way his insides clenched at the memory of leaving her behind. “Fulcrum wasn’t on the up-and-up as you’ll recall.”
“But you didn’t know that. And as soon as you found out, you left.”
But Sarah grabbed Bryce’s chin so that he had to look at her. He was so startled by the move that he didn’t try to shake her off.
“Don’t think I don’t know what this is, Bryce Larkin. Whenever you think you’ve screwed up, you isolate yourself in some twisted sense of penance. If a mission went south, you’d disappear for a month and go on nonstop solo missions until you thought you’d made up for it. And it’s crap.” She shook her head. “It was then and it is now. You don’t have to be by yourself, you know. You weren’t wrong.” She grinned then and reminded Bryce of Chuck. “You might be an arrogant, stubborn ass, but you did the best you could.”
Bryce huffed a laugh as Sarah dropped her hand from his face. “Which time?”
“Any of them.” Her expression softened at that. “So just… you don’t have to keep punishing yourself like this. You can let people in.”
For a moment, Bryce didn’t know what to say. But he considered her words before speaking. “I’m not.”
She blinked. “What?”
“I’m not as isolated as you think,” he clarified. “I told you, I have here people that I care about. And for some remarkable reason, they put up with me.”
“It’s not so remarkable,” she said gently.
She cut him off. “Just remember that we’re a phone call away, okay?”
Bryce smiled. “You really are amazing,” he told her. “I never told you that enough, Mrs. Anderson.”
Sarah laughed at that. “You’re not so bad yourself, Mr. Anderson.”
“I really am happy for you and Chuck,” he said. “I want you both to know that.”
She smiled and leaned forward, giving him a chaste kiss on the lips. “Thank you,” she whispered.
And then she was gone, walking back into the apartment. Bryce remained where he was while Casey groused about taking so long. Soon the group was heading out the door, their business done.
“What was that?” Chuck asked as he held the door open for her.
“Closure,” she replied, stepping into the hallway.
Chuck glanced back at Bryce once more, and Bryce nodded. Chuck looked like he wanted to say something but finally just nodded in return and then was gone as well, the door clicking shut behind him. Bryce sighed and dropped into the closest chair. He rubbed his face through his hands.
It was Neal Caffrey who walked back into the apartment an hour later.
The next morning, Neal walked into the office and dropped his coat off at his desk before heading up the steps to Peter’s office. Peter, pen in hand, was looking over some paperwork. Neal knocked on the open door before stepping in.
“Hey,” he said as Peter looked up.
“Morning,” Peter replied. “How was dinner last night?”
Neal slid into his usual seat. “It was fine.” He raised an eyebrow at Peter, who was watching him curiously. “What? I stayed within my radius.”
“I never said you didn’t.”
“I didn’t steal anything.”
“I never said you did.”
Neal eyed Peter curiously. “Then why are you giving me that Look?”
“What look?” Peter asked innocently.
“The ‘What Kind of Trouble Has Neal Gotten into Now?’ Look.”
Peter snorted. “In contrast to what, my ‘Neal Is a Perfect Boy Scout’ Look? Because that one doesn’t get nearly enough use if you ask me.”
Neal stuck out his bottom lip. “You wound me, Peter.”
Peter rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I’m sure.”
Neal opened his mouth to retort when Diana knocked on the door. Peter looked up and Neal glanced behind him at the agent and grinned a greeting. She rolled her eyes at him.
“Yeah, Diana?” Peter said.
“Charles Carmichael and Gertrude Verbanski are here to see you, Boss,” she said.