Mozzie was twelve years old the day he first learned home and family were things that happened to other people.
Neal watched his first happy ending blow up in his face the day he turned eighteen. Three dreams gone up in smoke later, Mozzie is thinking those extra six years made all the difference.
Some lessons have to sink in early or they never sink in at all.
Mozzie pours a thin stream of milk into his mug and stirs carefully. He’s supposed to be happy. Neal thought he was finally happy, the day that plane touched down in Paris. Out of New York, away from the feds, on the run. As if he could be happy when Neal was so clearly devastated.
What he felt, instead, as they got off the plane and disappeared into the crowds at the terminal, was safe. For the first time in almost a year; for the first time since he’d been shot.
He’d almost forgotten what that felt like.
The feeling didn’t last long.
It’s been nearly a month, now, and they’re sitting on the porch at some farmhouse bed-and-breakfast just south of Hadrian’s Wall. Mozzie spreads clotted cream and raspberry jam on a warm scone studded with currants and watches pale rose sunlight filter through grey mist while Neal rustles a newspaper and nearly knocks over his tea.
“Lionel Adams got away last month,” Neal says, sounding intrigued. “Supposed to be hiding out in London.”
The outlines of dark hedges appear as the mist rolls back, burning silver and melting in the sun. Somewhere across the muddy fields, a dog barks, high and sharp.
Neal doesn’t brood over what he’s lost for long; Mozzie’s life might be easier if he did. No, when Neal knows what he wants it’s only so long before he comes up with a plan to get it.
Neal being Neal, that plan will doubtless be the sort likely to get him arrested, if not killed.
“Good for him,” Mozzie says. “I always liked Adams. He had style.”
Neal gives him a look over the top of the newspaper; some days Mozzie wonders why he bothers trying to be the voice of reason.
“I’m serious.” His mind elsewhere, he doesn’t realize he’s dumped three spoonfuls of sugar in his tea until he tastes it, grimacing. “Maybe we should let this one get away.”
Adams is an art thief; Mozzie doesn’t have to read the sidebar in the paper to know he stole a piece somewhere in New York and then managed to flee the country before the FBI caught up to him.
“So how are you gonna nail this one?” he asks after breakfast is over, as the gate closes behind them and they start walking down the rutted lane. The early morning is quiet, no sound but a few sheep bleating and a distant bird call.
Most likely, this one will be the same as the first two; he’ll get in touch with Adams and make up some convincing excuse for him to go back to New York - a lead on a job, with a big payoff. Neal can be very convincing; he even forged a clean passport for the last thief they sent back.
Then once he’s on the plane, Peter’s office will get a carefully anonymous tip.
If Mozzie were an optimist, he’d think Neal was bored. That he missed the challenge of solving crimes, or even that he’d developed some strange quirk of conscience about people taking things that didn’t belong to them.
(Mozzie wonders if the suit has figured out who’s behind these tips, yet.)
One is a whim; two could even be dismissed as a coincidence.
Lionel Adams will be the third, and three is a pattern.
Somehow, Neal has got the idea into his head that if he helps track down enough criminals who have evaded the FBI, someday the FBI will forgive him and let him come home.
Mozzie could tell him the system does not forgive. The suit might; already has, if Neal is right and Peter deliberately warned him off. But the suit comes attached to a whole raft of dangerous ideas and a sworn duty to a system that wants to take his friend from him and bury him alive in a cell somewhere and so Mozzie can only trust him so far.
“Come on, Moz.” Neal’s grin would be reassuring, if Mozzie didn’t know the bright, reckless edge behind it only too well. “We hurry and catch the next train, we’ll be there in time for Sunday tea at Harrod’s.”
If Mozzie were an optimist, he’d say Neal imagined that little shake of Peter’s head; he’d say somewhere inside Neal’s mind is a part of him that knows running is the only safe option, and that part was what had saved him.
Mozzie has not kept both of them alive this long by being an optimist.
Six months later they’re in Tuscany and going after number fourteen; Neal’s excitement grows along with Mozzie’s quiet dread.
They are losing friends the longer they keep doing this; fugitives as hot as they are can’t afford to burn the bridges they’ve burned. Alex is this close to never speaking to either of them again.
They’re staying at a run-down villa while they plot their next catch, with large airy rooms and an ash-clogged fireplace and plumbing that only works half the time. Tiny green lizards run up cracked stucco walls, and the sloping veranda looks out on vineyards run wild and half-choked with weeds. A few neglected olive trees line the drive up; no one has tended them in years.
The house is Neal’s fault; Neal thought it was adorable, when they saw the “for rent” sign at the end of the drive almost a month ago. It had character, he said. It could have style. And Mozzie was so happy to see Neal briefly excited about something other than the tenuous prospect of an immunity deal that he squashed his own doubts.
The house is Neal’s fault, as are the lizards in the shower, the one that gave only a dribble of cold water this morning. But Mozzie knows he has only himself to blame for the cats.
George sits in a fall of light on the windowsill, blinking sea-green eyes and watching Mozzie with the kind of self-satisfied look only a wise old cat can achieve; this one says I’m sitting in the best sunbeam in the room and you’re not.
Neal named them all after his and Kate’s old aliases.
Maria is playing some kind of tag with Steve and Brunhilde, Countess von Orttenburg, the three of them chasing their own and each other’s tails up and down the room, in between wrapping themselves around Neal’s legs where he stands at the stove. The others are outside stalking the tall weeds.
Neal and Mozzie are in the kitchen, listening to garlic sizzle in the bottom of a cast-iron pot while they chop tomatoes; a warm breeze blows through the open windows, doing little to dissipate the stove’s heat.
The place had rats when they first arrived. Mozzie complained one too many times and Neal suggested they get a cat; the neighbors up the road had four kids who’d love to adopt it when they had to leave. And Mozzie could have let it drop; he could have gone out and chosen a cat himself.
But no, he only said, “There’s a shelter in town; you go get one if you think that’ll help,” and went back to his book.
Neal shrugged, and walked into town the next morning. He came back in a taxi with seven mewing cardboard cat carriers and a tight, closed look on his face.
“I don’t like cages,” was all he said.
Now he says, “You know she’s trying to con you,” as Brunhilde stands on her hind legs, front paws on Mozzie’s knee and amber eyes blinking affectionately.
“We’ll make a proper thief of her yet,” Mozzie says, dropping a pile of chopped tomatoes into the pot and wiping juice from his hands.
Like any good con, the cats do their hunting at night; Mozzie never sees any of them do anything except nap or play or beg him and Neal for attention, but the rats are gone in the first week, and they’ve started leaving lizards and small birds at the back door by the end of the second. Mozzie could have started adopting them out, one by one, to the kids up the road; still he half suspects if he did that Neal would head back to the shelter to free seven more.
And something eases in Neal’s face when Maria butts her head against his leg, when Brunhilde purrs and kneads his leg with her little razor claws.
Moving toward the end of the counter, Mozzie leafs through the pile of messages from the latest mail drop. A familiar name, in a familiar hand, catches his eye.
“The suit’s sending you these?” he demands. It’s the name of their latest target, and Mozzie would know Peter’s handwriting anywhere.
“Only the last two,” Neal says.
“Were you going to tell me?”
In the beginning, they’d been gifts, rather like the half-killed field mouse Nick or Steve had left on Mozzie’s pillow only this morning; they’re trying to teach you how to hunt, Neal said, amused. He imagines Neal doing the same thing, as feline as the housemates he’s named for his other selves: affectionate and loyal but still half-wild, tracking down prey and depositing them on the doorstep of the suits who mistakenly imagine that they own him, half-caught and half-killed, in an attempt at teaching these kittens how to hunt for themselves.
“Eventually.” And Neal somehow manages to combine vulnerable and apologetic hurt-puppy eyes with a look of laser-focused determination, I’m sorry but I have to do this and you’re not going to stop me. “Would you have approved?”
Something bad is about to happen; Mozzie can feel it. Neal isn’t sleeping. He looks at Mozzie with that strained, desperate look he had before he got caught the first time, the look that said each day without Kate was one day too many; each day without Kate his need for her wore away further at what was left of his caution and good sense, until he finally caught up with her. And by then he was so far gone he walked into a trap with his eyes open, just to see her face one more time.
New York and the suits have replaced his dream of settling down with Kate, but the wild, desperate edge and his increased risk-taking are the same.
Neal does not handle loss well, and he’s never learned how to let go.
“Do you even have to ask?” Mozzie peers into the pot, then steps back as it starts spitting tomato sauce; Neal stirs rapidly and turns the heat down. “Does the suit know Lorenzo is the same guy who pulled the Oslo job?”
“Of course not.” And he’s probably right; Lorenzo killed three hostages during a bank heist in Oslo, but that information is not widely known. The suit would never put Neal on Lorenzo’s trail without backup if he knew how dangerous the man was. “But he escaped after pulling a twenty-million-dollar insurance scam in New York last month, and Peter thinks if I help nail him I can get some kind of deal.” Neal licks the spoon, testing, then tears another handful of basil leaves and drops them into the pot. “They find out he was behind Oslo, the deal should be even better.”
“This is all assuming he doesn’t shoot us.”
Mozzie would feel more satisfaction in catching a killer, as opposed to perfectly harmless art thieves on the run like themselves. But the art thieves are a lot less likely to point guns at you when they realize they’ve been played.
Predictably, it all goes to hell in a handbasket over the next three weeks.
They pack up the villa and get the cats settled in with the neighbors and then head north. Norway in July makes the cat burglar in Mozzie decidedly twitchy; the sun doesn’t set for more than an hour. They’ve hardly slept since they got here, between the chase and the lack of anything resembling night to remind them.
Lorenzo is captured by Interpol in Bergen, courtesy of a carefully anonymous tip; this, after Neal and Mozzie spent nine hours on stakeout, watching the sky fade from white to pale rose and finally to ash grey, sometime near midnight. But three of his guys get away with his account books, and without those there’s nothing to link him to the scam. Two days after that they get a message from the suit.
The deal fell through. DOJ doesn’t care that they both almost got shot three times in the past week, going after a killer on their own. It’s not safe, the suit says, don’t come home.
Neal still thinks they can find the guys with the ledger; someone near the ferry launch thinks he remembers them, says he heard them talking about an island hideout somewhere. The next thing Mozzie knows they’re hitching a ride on the little boat that delivers mail to the small islands off the coast; the postman is a genial sort, deeply tanned, eyes creased with sun and wind and smiles.
The boat bobs steadily along, engine purring, bow slicing through green water and spilling white feathered spray along the sides, spreading a wide train of foam churned in their wake. There’s room for all three of them on deck, standing at the railing; Neal has the binoculars, scanning the shore of each island as they approach.
They pull up to the third dock some four miles out, rocking to a halt alongside a tethered speedboat, nudging up against wood weathered silver-grey above the tide-line, dark and wet below. Three green-painted mailboxes hang nailed to the support posts.
Neal sees them first, three men and something vaguely book-sized wrapped in newspaper sitting on a bench at the end of the dock; Mozzie just has time to catch the sudden, frantic hope in his face as he steps on the railing and vaults over.
Someone yells; the boat leans again as Mozzie jumps out after him. Neal runs toward them, though with what in mind Mozzie can’t imagine; there’s a brief struggle and Neal falls backward, arms flailing as he hits the water. Then all Mozzie can see is someone’s fist headed for his face, pain and stars and the taste of blood; by the time he’s recovered Neal is hauling himself up with help from the alarmed postman, and the speedboat is accelerating toward a mist-shrouded green lump on the far horizon.
Neal watches it go, something so fragile and hurt and lost in his eyes, water streaming off his jacket onto the rough wood.
Then he sees blood on Mozzie’s face.
“What were you thinking?” Shaking off the postman’s help, he flings an arm violently in the direction of the retreating speedboat. “They could have had guns!”
“Are you trying to get yourself killed?” Neal’s voice rises, high and ragged; gulls startle up from the near shore in a cloud of grey feathers.
And Mozzie could point out Neal was the one who rushed the dock in the first place and what the hell was Mozzie supposed to do? He could ask what Neal had been thinking, if he’d been thinking at all. But he knows that’s not what this is about. Neal’s face has gone ghost-pale with frightening speed; he’s clutching Mozzie’s shoulders and shaking him, now, his fingers clamping tight enough to bruise.
The postman is climbing back on board for a blanket and a first aid kit; Neal seizes on the latter and ignores the former entirely. He’s shivering violently, now; he’s barely managed to open a pack of gauze pads and he’s fumbling at the cap of a bottle of rubbing alcohol when Mozzie grabs his hands, takes the bottle before he can spill it.
He picks up the blanket and wraps it around Neal’s shoulders, steers Neal toward the other end of the dock, forces him onto the bench and holds him in place when he tries to stand.
“Neal. For God’s sake. Breathe, okay?”
And then Neal raises his head, and his eyes are dark as slate against the grey waves, water running down his neck and plastering his hair to his forehead. They look at each other, Neal breathing harshly, and Mozzie knows it’s finally sunk in.
He’s not going home. There won’t be a deal. New York and June and the suits are as lost to him as Kate is, now; of all the people he’s ever loved, Mozzie is the only one left.
Mozzie sits quietly on the bench and lets Neal dab at his split lip, at the cut above his eye; he doesn’t protest when Neal shines a penlight in his eyes. He’s not hurt that badly, and it’s nothing he hasn’t ignored for hours and patched up later himself dozens of times before. But he lets Neal help him over the railing into the boat and doesn’t protest (much) when Neal shrugs off the blanket and tucks it around Mozzie’s shoulders instead, settling him against a bulkhead toward the stern, out of the wind.
He’s perfectly fine, but Neal isn’t, at all. And it seems to calm Neal, carefully applying iodine and butterfly bandages to Mozzie’s forehead. They’re halfway back to shore before Mozzie can convince Neal to sit beside him and share the blanket; the day is warm, but there’s a stiff breeze on the water and Neal’s clothes are still wet. He lets Neal hold an icepack against his jaw and watches the tense, suffocating fear slowly fade from his eyes, replaced by a dull weariness.
This is what losing hope looks like, on Neal, and much as Mozzie thinks it will be easier to keep Neal alive, dammit, if he stops chasing this impossible dream, he never imagined how much it would hurt, seeing that look on his face.
“I saw a mockingbird in the park.”
The suit looks up from where he’s staring at his hands on the wet railing; Mozzie suppresses a smile of reluctant affection at his exasperated look.
Peter Burke isn’t bad, for a fed. Mozzie can admit that, can even acknowledge that he owes the man, several times over. The real Peter Burke - the one Mozzie sees - is a decent man who genuinely cares about Neal. And he somehow managed to attract a woman like Elizabeth, which says something about his character.
“Are we seriously doing this?” Peter looks left and right, back along the wet concrete walkway over Niagara Falls, back toward the gift shop, at the few tourists who haven’t read the warning in the lowering grey ceiling of the sky. “Where’s Neal?”
The Peter Burke Neal sees is an older dream even than Kate, a fantasy painted by his mother when he was six years old; Neal looks at Peter and sees the man he used to think his father was.
Peter isn’t that man; no one is. No one human can be. But Neal looks at Peter and once again he’s the kid who used to believe the heroes were real.
Neal can’t possibly be objective, here. It’s up to Mozzie to make a realistic assessment of the situation.
“My client will not be attending this meeting.” Affection for the suit or for his wife has no place here; Mozzie, at least, knows in this life you can’t look back.
They drifted, after Norway. Neal hovered for a full week, in a way he hadn’t since Mozzie was shot; after that he seemed to sink into his own thoughts, although he still got twitchy if Mozzie wasn’t somewhere nearby. It’s been nearly a month, now; they’re at the Canadian border and Mozzie wants to head north. They would’ve been heading north yesterday, if not for the suit’s message.
“He sent his lawyer to talk to me?” Disbelief and anger flash across Peter’s face, settling at last into a weary suspicion. “He doesn’t know I’m here.”
Mozzie shakes his head.
“Did he even see my message?”
Neal came out to paint the play of rainbows below the falls two days ago, without Mozzie prompting him. He spent a few hours out here, with the mist soaking into his hair and his jacket, bent over his watercolors with an intent look; it’s a small step forward. Only a tiny, encouraging glimpse of something like his old joy in his art, but Mozzie has learned to take the small victories where he can find them.
And he’s not about to risk what little peace Neal has finally gained.
“No.” Mozzie turns to watch the water leaping, reckless, over the cliffs; the sun has fled behind the clouds, taking the glittering fractured rainbows with it. The water holds no color today, falling in folds of grey lace, faded dreams under a threatening sky. Then he looks the suit in the eye and says what he came here to say: “Leave Neal alone.”
Peter blinks, waiting for him to go on. “I’m not trying to put him away, here,” he says finally. “I’m trying to find a way for him to come home.”
“And how’s that working out so far?” He shakes his head again, staring through the spray toward the American side. “Do you know who the last guy was you sent us after?”
“I do now.” Peter’s face darkens. “That’s why I’m here. I’ve got some vacation days. You two aren’t going after this next lead on your own.”
Mozzie blinks, surprised. Touched, even, in spite of himself. He could say it’s about time; he could point out this is highly irregular and outside Peter’s jurisdiction. But he only says, “We’re not going after any more of your leads, suit.”
“Look.” Peter fixes him with a frustrated glare, twisting his hands on the railing. “He wants to stop running, Mozzie. He wants to come home. And I know we don’t agree on what’s best for him -”
“We don’t agree on what’s possible,” Mozzie snaps. “You think I don’t know what he wants? This is like watching him chase after Kate all over again. He’s taking stupid risks, suit. And I’m tired of watching him tear himself apart trying to be good enough for you people to take him back. It’s never going to happen.” And they’ve played this game long enough, chasing flickering shadows and faded hopes and impossible dreams. “Let him go.”
“You’re saying we should give up?” Now Peter's voice rises, frustration shifting into real anger.
“I’m saying stop giving him false hope,” Mozzie says, quiet but no less angry. “I don’t think he can take any more.”
“You’re so sure it’s false.”
“Give me a reason to believe it's not.” And that’s a mistake; he should just say yes, I am. Instead he goes on, “I want signed papers in my hands, guaranteeing full immunity, before my client receives any further communication from you.”
Peter stares at him. “You’re seriously not going to let me talk to him?” The silence stretches. Then his face settles into a familiar, determined look that makes something in Mozzie’s chest ache. “I’m gonna get those papers.”
“I don’t want to hear from you again until you do.”
Peter says, “This isn’t over yet.”
Mozzie says nothing, only watches Peter turn; the wind drapes a curtain of mist across the shoulders of Peter's coat, mingling with the first drops of rain. He thinks, yes, it is.
But some part of him still wants to be wrong.