It was nearly midnight and the other side of the bed was empty. Neal rolled over, seeking a cool spot on the pillow and trying to arrange himself comfortably, but it was no good. He sighed, grabbed the nearest robe and padded barefoot out to the open-plan living area which still smelled of ravioli and coffee from their evening meal.
Clinton was hunched over a thick case file on the dining table. Neal came up behind him and kissed his temple, just above his ear. "Come to bed, Agent Jones. You work too hard." Then he took in the file, the mug shot staring up at him (long, wavy dark hair and guileless blue eyes), the cheesy birthday cards. "Elizabeth Mitchell, huh? Should I be jealous?"
"She'd be out today," said Clinton. He sounded tired, but he covered Neal's hand where it rested on his shoulder.
"You're thinking about taking her up on the anklet deal." Neal forced himself to wake up a few more degrees and perched on the table beside the file, his calf pressed against Clinton's thigh. He let the robe gape open a little.
Clinton barely seemed to notice. "She could help us catch the Dutchman. She's got street contacts, intel. She knows how he thinks."
"She's certainly smart," agreed Neal. When Clinton raised his eyebrows, Neal explained, "She led you a merry chase for how many years? That takes brains and talent."
"I know all about brains and talent," said Clinton, making it a compliment. He turned to face Neal, shifting his chair slightly so he was sitting between Neal's knees, but he was still troubled. "I just can't figure out what angle she's working."
"Maybe she's sick of orange jumpsuits." Neal slipped Clinton's loosened tie from the collar of his shirt and bent forward to kiss him. "Come to bed," he murmured against Clinton's mouth. "Sleep on it."
He felt Clinton's smile. "Yeah, okay." Clinton stood up and pulled Neal close, the robe falling open, Clinton's belt buckle cold against Neal's bare belly. "Love you."
"You too, babe, but I've got a wedding and a product launch this week." Neal tugged him toward the bedroom. "I need my beauty sleep."
A week later, Clinton drove out to Bedford Hills Correctional. He still had reservations about the wisdom of releasing Mitchell into the wilds of Manhattan, anklet or no anklet, but time was running out on the Dutchman case -- if Clinton's team were going to catch him, it had to be before the Dutchman pulled off his current heist and relocated out of New York again -- and Hughes and Bancroft had provisionally approved the work release arrangement. It was only for a few weeks. How much trouble could Elizabeth Mitchell cause in two weeks?
She was waiting for him in jeans and a faded, over-sized red sweater, the anklet already in place. After he'd handed the paperwork to the prison authorities and signed the final documents, they went outside. Elizabeth turned her face to the sky for a few moments, nostrils flaring as she took in the world outside the walls. Clinton hustled her along impatiently, refusing to feel sorry for her. She'd got herself into this mess, breaking the law, ripping people off, deliberately and in full knowledge. She was no innocent, no soft-hearted poet.
She didn't resist his hurrying, just darted him a quick smile, feigning obedience, her eyes bright with intelligence and humor. For a disconcerting moment she reminded Clinton so much of Neal that he nearly turned around and ran.
He took a breath and got a grip on himself. Elizabeth Mitchell was a professional con artist who'd allegedly made a small fortune defrauding all and sundry, but that was why she was useful, and forewarned was forearmed. Clinton could handle her. He might find her endearing, maybe even charming in an untrustworthy kind of way, but he was immune to her flirting. He was happily settled down with a handsome, successful man. He was pretty sure that was one of the reasons Hughes had okayed the deal.
Anyway, Mitchell would have to work with the rest of the White Collar team: Diana and Burke would keep her in line.
"You know the rules," he said, as they headed out to the car.
"I do indeed." Mitchell sounded like she'd already discovered half a dozen loopholes she could exploit.
"You're going to follow them, spirit and letter," Clinton told her. "If you misbehave, you're back inside. If you run, I'll catch you. I've done it before, and I can do it again."
"Why would I run?" Mitchell widened her eyes. "Believe me, I'm just happy at the idea of a place where I get the TV remote to myself. Maybe a bath. Anyway, I told you -- the anklet's unhackable."
"Uh-huh." Clinton stopped in his tracks and leveled his gaze at her. "No hijinks. I mean it, Mitchell. The slightest hint of illegality, and nothing you or I can do will save you. Let's see if we can make this work."
"I'll be good." Mitchell lowered her gaze meekly and slid her hands into her coat pockets.
Clinton started walking again. Behind him, he heard, barely audible, "Thank you."
Elizabeth Mitchell was exactly what Peter expected: drop-dead gorgeous, irrepressibly mischievous and ten years his junior. Jones introduced her to the team and began briefing them all on the latest developments in the Dutchman case, and Elizabeth took a chair at the conference room table and listened attentively.
She sat across from Diana and himself, closer to Jones than she really needed to be, as if he were her safety blanket. Peter guessed it was unnerving for her to be in the FBI offices, like walking into the lion's den. But then, if there was one thing Mitchell had proven time and again, it was that she had nerve to spare. She'd taken some powerful men and women for some very expensive rides, and her alleged art collection read like a who's who of famous artists. And then there was the jewelry. But right now, she was working with them, asking smart questions about the case, clearly enjoying the challenge.
Peter covertly watched her, getting the lay of the land so he wouldn't fall for her charm. He had his professional pride, after all. He was no one's mark.
During a lull in the briefing, she looked around the room, and then blinked her big blue eyes up at Jones. "So, Clinton," she said, "this is a turn-up for the books. Who'd have thought it'd be the gay black guy at the head of the table, instead of the old white man?"
Diana cackled. "Ohh, you did not just call Burke old."
At the same time, Jones frowned at Mitchell. "That old white man is one of my best agents, and he out-ranks you by about ten years."
Peter bit back a smile and narrowed his eyes at Elizabeth. "I thought con artists were supposed to be charming."
She grinned, wide and generous. "I'm off-duty. Retired. Reformed, even." She folded her hands with an angelic air and then let one eyelid flicker downward in a subtle wink. "Either that, or I'm lulling you into a false sense of security with my candor and wit."
Peter couldn't help himself. He laughed.
June had gone to bed and Mozzie was sitting in the dark at the elegant oak dining table when the front door opened and closed. Familiar footsteps strode lightly across the shadowy foyer and started up the stairs.
Mozzie smiled to himself and poured wine into a second glass, judging when to stop by the sound of liquid against crystal. The footsteps hesitated and stopped.
"The secret of happiness is freedom," quoted Mozzie quietly. "The secret of freedom is courage."
A click and light flooded the room. El was standing over him, a poker dangling from her hand. "Moz?" she said, squinting against the sudden illumination. "You came."
"Of course I came," said Mozzie. "You called." He held out the second wine glass, secretly relieved when she took it. They hadn't seen each other in over four years, and he'd barely acknowledged to himself how unsure he'd been of his welcome. But her smile was warm and soft, not the shiny false front she showed to strangers and marks.
She slid into a chair with a sigh, sipped her wine and made an appreciative face. Her eyelids drooped. Then she sat bolt upright and frowned at him. "Is this June's wine? You can't just help yourself, you know. She's been--"
"Relax." Mozzie gestured soothingly. "It was offered, not purloined."
"Relax. Right." El breathed a dry laugh. "I take it you introduced yourself."
"In a manner of speaking." Mozzie kept it vague, just to tease her, then relented. "June's great."
"She is. You don't want to know the disastrous accommodations she rescued me from. It was actually a step down from prison, if you can believe it. Cockroaches the size of rats, and this incessant thumping in the air conditioning." El shook her head, seeming slightly dazed. She'd only been released on Monday. Mozzie guessed she was still acclimatizing to being out. "Have you heard from Alex?"
Mozzie shook his head. "Not in months."
"Look--" El touched his sleeve with her fingertips. "I know you're not exactly president of the Alex Hunter fanclub, but she's been a good friend to me for more than half my life. Well, a friend, anyway." El's smile twisted wryly. "I owe her. And she's in trouble. I need to find her."
"And by 'you', you mean 'me'." Mozzie sighed, already capitulating but reluctant to show it.
"Please," wheedled El. She looked at him through her long dark lashes, and her voice went low and husky. "I'll tell you a bedtime story."
"Eww." Mozzie recoiled, more by instinct than design. "Please don't mistake me for one of your sex-addled marks."
The veneer of seduction fell away instantly. "You're right. I'm sorry, Moz." El pushed her hair back and grimaced. "It's been a long day."
Mozzie waved the apology aside hastily. "I'll see what I can find out."
As if there was ever any doubt. He wasn't in thrall to Elizabeth's charms, but he didn't need to be. They were associates, long-standing and steadfast, bound by mutual respect and the shared pursuit of valuable objects. And they were friends. Mozzie knew -- had always believed -- that was a connection far more enduring than mere sex.
"While you're at it, if you can discover anything about this, it'd make my life a whole lot easier." El pulled a sheet of parchment out of her purse and dropped it on the table between them. Its velvet colors glowed in the electric light. Mozzie grabbed it and she grinned at his obvious interest. "Don't get too excited," she told him. "It's a forgery."
El slipped into Clinton's apartment building as one of the residents was leaving with his two miniature poodles, took the elevator to the sixth floor and knocked on Clinton's front door with all the insouciance she could summon. She was prepared for glowering and disapproval. What she wasn't prepared for was Clinton's boyfriend, about her age with dark hair, blue eyes and cheekbones to die for. He had a PDA in one hand and a coffee mug in the other, and he eyed her with ill-concealed curiosity. "Oh look, it's the infamous Elizabeth Mitchell."
She grinned. "I prefer 'notorious'. You must be Neal. Gotta say, I didn't expect you to be such a dish."
"I hope that wasn't a slight against Clinton," he said, with a glint of amusement. "He holds his own, you know."
"Oh, trust me, I know," said El with slightly more emphasis than she intended. She distracted him by batting her eyes. "Coffee?"
"This way." He ushered her inside. "Is Clinton expecting you? Because he's still--" He jerked his head toward the hallway, which El presumed led to bedrooms and bath.
She swept into the upmarket kitchen, with its granite countertop and shiny appliances, and poured herself a cup of joe. "Thought I'd surprise him." She leaned on the breakfast bar and sipped gratefully, looking around the living room. There were some nice pieces on the walls, modest, but tasteful. She had a feeling Clinton wasn't the collector--they didn't seem his style. "Mmm, this coffee is good. So, how did you and Clinton meet?"
"I used to work in a small art gallery downtown, someone stole a painting and Clinton was the investigating agent," said Neal. "I'm sure you can fill in the blanks."
"So you could say whoever stole that painting brought you together." El buried her nose in her coffee cup, before her grin could escape.
Neal laughed out loud. "Are you taking the credit? Because Clinton caught the thief, and if that was a wrongful arrest, I'm sure he'd want to know about it."
"Not me personally," said El. "I was merely suggesting that thieves as a class might not be all bad." She looked him up and down. "You know, you should try it some time. With your looks and my brains, we'd be unstoppable. Haven't you ever wanted a life of high adventure and--"
"Thanks, but I'm pretty happy with the way things are," said Neal, holding up a hand to stop her sales pitch.
She pouted, but she didn't get a chance to tease him further.
"Babe, have you seen my--" Clinton stopped dead in the entrance to the kitchen, his mouth falling open. "Mitchell. What are you doing here?"
"You live inside my radius," El pointed out. "Surely you didn't expect me to just pass by without dropping in to say hi."
"I expected you to stay out of my private life. Not make yourself at home in my kitchen, drinking my coffee." He looked at Neal. "Has she touched anything? Check your wallet."
"Clinton, you know I'd never be foolish enough to steal from your boyfriend. Who, wow, I did not think he'd be such a hottie."
"Husband," murmured Neal.
"Right. Sorry." El looked around. "You know, you guys should get a dog. Every home needs a dog."
"You cannot be here," said Clinton, firmly and quietly.
El put down her cup and tried very hard to look meek. He was really mad.
"Rule number one, you stay out of my house," he continued.
"I thought rule number one was 'don't run'," muttered El, and for a second, she thought he might explode, but then Neal moved in and touched Clinton's shoulder.
"She's just having a cup of coffee, babe," he said. "We were talking."
"Talking," said El, nodding fervently. She held up her hands, palm out. "I didn't touch a thing."
But it wasn't her words that were leaching the tension out of Clinton's shoulders; it was Neal, a warm, calming presence. El felt a stab of envy, for their lives, the love that was palpable between them, but she buried it quickly. She didn't have time for that. She had things to take care of.
"I know who forged the bonds," she said.
Clinton's eyes narrowed. "I'm listening."
"Exigent circumstance allows us to pursue a suspect onto private property without obtaining a warrant," recited Diana, eyes open and alert for trouble.
Jones picked up a bond and waved it in Hagan's face, and SWAT moved in and started making arrests.
Diana motioned for the few agents who weren't restraining suspects to start gathering up the evidence. The warehouse smelled of ink and grime. She phoned ERU to come and do a forensics sweep. When she hung up, she looked around for Jones.
Jones and Mitchell were talking in a small glass-walled office at the back of the warehouse. Mitchell was smoking a cigar, and they were both radiating satisfaction. Diana shook her head, frowning. She had little time for con artists -- they were too much like diplomats, only out for themselves. She hoped Jones wasn't falling for Mitchell's tricks.
But as she approached, she saw that Mitchell had a bruise forming on her cheek and her blouse was torn, and anger at Hagan's goons eclipsed Diana's reservations about having a con on the team. She noticed a small white button a few feet away, by a pile of boxes, picked it up and gave it to Mitchell. "You okay?"
Mitchell looked giddy and triumphant, and she met Diana's gaze openly. "I'm fine. Their social skills leave something to be desired, but I locked myself in here pretty quick."
Diana nodded and turned to Jones to report progress, absently aware that Mitchell was carefully tucking the button into her jeans pocket.
Jones went off to decide what evidence was needed, and Diana walked Mitchell out. "You could've been hurt."
"Nah." Mitchell shrugged and said airily, "I know jujitsu."
Diana couldn't tell if she was joking.
"Hey, you know Neal?"
"Jones' husband? We've met."
"Do you know if he prefers the symphony or the opera?" Mitchell grinned at Diana's surprise and explained, "It's their anniversary tomorrow. I thought I'd get them tickets."
Diana shook her head. "You really think that's appropriate? Listen, Mitchell, you need to--"
"Oh, I was going to get the rest of the team to chip in," interrupted Mitchell. "It's a biggie -- ten years. Where's the harm?"
Diana narrowed her eyes at her. "That depends. What's your angle?"
"Make the world a better place," said Mitchell. "Symphony or opera?"
Diana sighed, relenting. "Symphony. Neal likes both, and when Jones goes to the opera, he spends the next day scowling at everyone and saying no."
Mitchell let out a delighted, unselfconscious giggle, mischief sparking in her eyes. "That might almost be worth it."
"It's not," said Diana, shoving her gently toward the SUV, and thanking her lucky stars that Elizabeth Mitchell was Not Her Type. The girl might be entertaining, but she was trouble with a capital T.
Neal was humming as they got out of the elevator. Clinton wasn't sure if the tune was Brahms or Bartók, but he knew it meant Neal had enjoyed the symphony, and that was enough to make him smile too. He took Neal's hand, interweaving their fingers. "Happy anniversary, babe."
"It's not over yet," said Neal, raising his eyebrows at the large plastic crate on their doorstep. It was long, with air holes. And there was an envelope taped to the door.
Clinton got a sinking feeling. "What is this?"
Neal crouched down and started crooning something, wiggling his finger through one of the holes. Clinton tore the envelope open with gritted teeth. It was a Hallmark card with red roses and wedding bands on the cover, and "Happy Anniversary!" printed inside in flowing script. Under that, in Mitchell's clear block letters, it said, "All the best to you both, xoxox El" and in smaller writing, beneath that, "P.S. Stop glaring, Clinton! You'll give yourself a headache. If you really don't want him, I'll find him another home."
"She broke into our building again," said Clinton, refusing to admit he was charmed by the sheer artlessness of the card. Mitchell was already too damned likeable. She was supposed to be his CI, not his Santa Claus.
Neal took the card and glanced at it, without any sign of surprise. "At least she didn't break into the apartment."
"Because she knew I'd send her right back to prison if she did." Clinton eyed the crate as if it contained a writhing nest of snakes, even though he was pretty sure it was something a lot more domestic. "Dog?"
Neal nodded. "Labrador puppy. Cute. Shame we can't keep him."
"Even if we were in the market for a dog, with the hours we both work--"
"I know," said Neal. He unlocked the apartment door and Clinton helped him heft the crate inside. There was a soft whine, and some water slopped out through the crack under the crate's door. Clinton hoped it was water.
Neal opened the crate, and a small blond nose poked out, followed by a pair of liquid brown eyes and two velvety ears. Neal stroked his little head and showed Clinton the engraved tag on the collar: Satchmo.
"A puppy," said Clinton, shaking his head. "Is she twelve? You don't just give someone a puppy without asking!"
"You could take him to work, make him the team mascot," suggested Neal with a grin.
Clinton snorted and put his own jacket and tie and Neal's hat on the kitchen counter, safely out of the puppy's reach. Neal was apparently too endeared by the small bundle of fur to worry about his clothes, and the sight of him on the floor playing with Satchmo made Clinton's heart clench. "You don't-- I mean, we could find a way, if you want to keep him."
Neal glanced up. "Not till we get a house, remember? With an actual yard. Besides, I don't have time for puppy school right now, and you have more than enough on your plate." He gave Satchmo a pat and stood up. "But still, it was a nice gesture," he murmured, heading for the kitchen.
"Nice?" Clinton scowled. "She's out of control. Who gets their parole supervisor a puppy?"
Neal came back with a bowl of water and put it down by the crate. "Well, I think it's nice, especially considering she has a gigantic crush on you."
"She what?" Clinton stared. "You're out of your mind. What are you talking about?"
"You haven't noticed?" Neal stepped close, and he didn't look like he was joking. "You know, it might be a good thing."
"I can't even-- Are we really having this conversation?" Clinton racked his brain for any hint to confirm what Neal was saying and came up blank. "No."
"Oh yeah," said Neal softly. "I mean, I can't say I blame her. And at least she's fallen for someone who'll be a good influence."
"There is that," said Clinton. "If you're right, which I'm not saying you are." He slid his hands down Neal's back, pulling him close. "Seems a bit sad for her to be doomed to disappointment, but who knows, some disappointment might be exactly what she needs."
"Maybe she'll rebound onto someone with similar upstanding qualities. Plenty of nice young agents in the office, right?"
Clinton groaned. "That's all I need -- Elizabeth Mitchell having undue influence over my team members. No, thank you. Let's just keep the romance out of the workplace."
"An admirable goal, if you've got the choice." Neal kissed Clinton softly. "Are you going to say goodnight to the puppy, or shall I shut him back in his crate and jump you?"
Clinton traced Neal's jaw with his thumb, wondering how he'd gotten so lucky. "The second option."
Neal kissed him again, this time taking the opportunity to tug Clinton's shirt free of his pants and palm his back. Clinton groaned, tantalized and aroused. "Love you."
Neal's smile was warm and brilliant. "You too. Hold that thought."
He moved away to deal with Satchmo, and Clinton took out his cellphone and texted Elizabeth: "Start thinking of new homes."
He received a reply almost instantly: "Aw, shame. You sure? You want me to pick him up now?"
Clinton huffed a laugh. Knowing Mitchell, she could be parked around the corner in a puppy-moving van, just in case. "Tomorrow's fine," he texted. He wondered if he should check her tracking data, but then Neal was back, taking the phone out of his hands and dropping it on the counter with their things, and Clinton forgot everything else and took his husband to bed.
Five days later
El was in the van with Diana and Burke on what El was certain had to be the most tedious stakeout in the history of stakeouts. They were across the road from Midtown Mutual, waiting for the mark -- sorry, suspect -- to retrieve incriminating evidence from a deposit box. El had already volunteered to call the guy and con him into making his move, and had been met with stern disapproval from both junior agents. Now she was peering over Diana's shoulder at the monitor and fiddling with a spare pair of handcuffs, trying to ignore how much the confined space of the van reminded her of a jail cell.
She wished Clinton were there, but he was in a high-level meeting about her future, so no dice. And any time she started taking mental notes on the bank's security, she glanced across and found Burke watching her with those sharp brown eyes, as if he knew exactly what she was thinking. The third time, she grinned and blew him a kiss, then turned her attention to Diana. She might as well take advantage of their enforced inactivity and do something productive.
"--have you and Christie ever thought about getting a puppy?"
"No," said Diana. "And who told you about Christie?"
"Clinton," said El sweetly. "I think he was making sure I didn't get my hopes up."
There was a choking sound from Burke.
Diana looked unimpressed. "You still trying to off-load the anniversary puppy? I can't believe you bought the boss a dog."
"Not exactly bought," murmured El.
Burke actually pulled back one of his headphone earpieces at that. "You stole a puppy?"
"I know a breeder," said El. "It was a generous donation to a good cause."
"This 'good cause' being you?" Burke seemed more amused than critical, which was a step up from Diana, so El turned her full attention on him, disgusting sandwich and all. He was a sartorial catastrophe, but he was smart too and he had the same upright lawman schtick as Clinton. Maybe he wasn't a total lost cause.
"The good cause was making the world a better place," she explained. "Clinton and Neal should have a dog. Every home should have a dog. Except for the ones with cats -- then it's optional."
Burke's mouth twitched.
"I notice that you're not planning on keeping it," said Diana.
"My living situation is a little -- unpredictable," El pointed out, momentarily distracted. If Clinton's meeting didn't go well, she could find herself back behind bars by that afternoon. She surreptitiously crossed her fingers.
"Has the puppy had its shots?" asked Burke.
"Vaccinated, fixed and fully documented." At Burke's skeptical look, she held up her hands. "One hundred percent genuine, authentic, fully registered documentation. Why, do you know someone who might be interested?"
Burke hesitated, then gave a decisive nod. "Yeah. Me. I've been thinking about getting a dog."
Diana groaned. "Oh man, don't do it. You'll only encourage her."
El was too surprised to retort. "You?" she drawled. "Why, Agent Burke, I may have underestimated you."
Burke scowled, but he also blushed a little. It was weirdly adorable. El could hear Mozzie's voice in her head screaming, "Danger, Will Robinson! Abort! Abort!"
She grinned. "I'll bring Satchmo over this evening to check out his new home. I'm sure Clinton will waive my radius for such a good cause."
"Oh, I don't-- Do you have to--" Burke stammered. "Is that really necessary?"
"I have to make sure it's a good home for a puppy," said El, giving him her best wide-eyed and harmless look. "It's only responsible. You wouldn't want me to be irresponsible, would you?"
It was Diana's turn to choke, and when Burke shot her a reproachful glare, she just said, "Hey, don't look at me. You got yourself into this."
Burke sighed heavily. "Fine," he told El.
"I can tell we're going to get along excellently," said El, just to make him blush again. It wasn't much of a deal for Satchmo, living with strait-laced Burke, but it was something, and maybe the puppy would loosen the guy up a little. Then El sat up, all such considerations forgotten. "Hey, that's him." She pointed at the screen. "That's our mark."
"Suspect," said Burke.
"Yeah," said El. "Suspect. That's what I said."