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Rockets' Red Glare

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It was late on the 3rd of July when Neal's phone rang. He didn't pay much attention to it – reached over to pick it up, sure that it would be either Peter or Mozzie (as his social life, despite Peter's suspicions, was neither terribly varied nor storied), and only paused when he glanced at the screen and didn't see either one of their names. He let it ring for a few more seconds before he raised his eyebrows and answered. "Diana. This is ominous."

Diana made a noise of amusement on the other end of the line, which was reassuring. "Relax, the FBI isn't commandeering your holiday. I was just wondering if you had plans."

"I get a pretty good view of the fireworks from June's place," he said. June herself was visiting one of her children, and Mozzie was allergic to the holiday on principle, but that didn't bother him much. Holidays had been things that happened to other people for a long time, now. "Why, you don't have plans? I thought you'd be spending it with Christie."

"Christie and I have been sitting on reservations for the rooftop of this new restaurant in Midtown West for months," Diana said. "And then she had to go be a saint and pick up someone's ER shifts for the fourth. She's going to be dealing with alcohol poisoning and idiots with illegal fireworks burns all night. So I can either go alone and spend the entire show getting annoyed at opportunistic guys trying to charm me, or I can find someone who knows better. What do you say? Up for an evening of Mediterranean fusion and cocktails?"

Neal leaned forward, impressed despite himself. "You got reservations at Mesogeos? Okay, which of you has excellent taste, and why did I never know?"

"Is that a yes?" Diana asked.

"Tapas, meze and drinks until ten PM," Neal said. "How could I say no?"

"Thought you might like that." There was laughter in Diana's voice. "I'll meet you there?"

"It's a date," Neal said, unable to resist.

"Careful, Caffrey."

They hashed out a few more details and hung up – Diana wasn't the sort for smalltalk, and he had the impression that if she knew anyone else in the city who didn't have plans, she would have called them first. That was fine. More of his friendships had started out as arrangements of convenience than as anything else.

He didn't think much of it at the time. Then, in retrospect? It was a night out with pleasant company, good food, and a spectacular view.

This was how a lot of his trouble started.

Their reservation was at eight; they got there at seven forty because Diana was convinced that at eight-oh-one their seats would be given away. She was wearing something dark and sleeveless that hung oddly over the slacks at her hip, and Neal raised an eyebrow at her. "Are you carrying?"

"Why would I be carrying?" Diana asked. That would have been reassuring if it hadn't been the exact same answer he would have given, if he was.

It didn't look like she was wearing a pistol, but she'd manage to carry a sidearm in a quick-draw holster under the minimal dresses she'd worn when she was undercover on the Jennings campaign job. And, according to Peter, managed to draw it and put a bullet through Barrow's shoulder when Barrow's pistol had been unholstered in his lap. Neal had decided that underestimating Diana's affinity for guns was probably never a good idea.

"Right," he said, and offered the crook of his elbow. "Shall we?"

What he got for that was a smack on the shoulder and a dry "Don't push your luck," but she was smirking and not glaring at him, so he counted that as friendly joshing, and that a win.

They headed up to the balcony on the roof, where the chairs and tables and decorations still had the slightly-too-glossy feel of a place that hadn't been settled into yet. Too new. Give it another two or three years and it could be just as polished, but it would have the sense of something with history. In Neal's experience, that was one of the hardest things to forge.

Their table, when they were shown to it, was near the ornamented balustrade at the edge of the roof, meaning that the Hudson spread out beneath them, reflecting back the city's lights.

"You ever been to Morocco?" Neal asked, flipping through the menu. It was arranged by region, with patterning around the margins derived from each region's architecture – an effect rescued from kitschiness mostly by its subtlety. Diana shot him a look over her copy.

"I'll give you three guesses," she said.

"Ouch." Neal flipped the page over to Spain. "Come on; I thought it was fair. Even a diplomat can't get everywhere in the world."

"I think I've been in at least as many countries as you have," Diana said.

"Is that a challenge?"

"You want to try me?"

Neal studied her expression. Her face was still tilted down to the menu, but she'd looked up at him with the sidelong smile she usually got when she knew she was going to win. "...of course, you've read my file," he said.

The smile split into a grin.

"What makes you think the file has everything?" he asked, voice low and conspiratorial. Diana laughed.

"Is this the lead-in to some kind of carefully non-incriminating rendition of your exploits overseas?" she asked. "Because if so, you can cut to the actual story any time."

By the time that was resolved they had a dozen small plates between them, and by the time the fireworks started up they had a bottle of wine on the table coexisting uneasily with two tall glasses of Moroccan mint tea, and Diana was recounting some outrageous series of events from her time at Quantico that began with a bet someone made with one of the marines at MCB Quantico and ended with a good part of her class infiltrating Hogan's Alley one by one to set up several thousand army men in increasingly intricate formations and increasingly daring locations. ("We had an entire air-ground task force taking over a projector in one of the classrooms," she said. And then she went on to fill him in on the precise weaponry they were carrying, which, Neal had to admit, was impressive attention to detail.)

The noise of the city changed, when the first fireworks went up, red and bright against the matte-black of the sky. The usual rhythm of conversation became restrained and eager, thousands of voices on balconies and in parks and watching from charter ships all combining into one murmur in the air, making the atmosphere charged and exultant.

Neal wasn't over-impressed with the big spectacles of New York – the Times Square ball drop, the Thanksgiving parade, this – but that wasn't the same as not appreciating them. They were spectacle, and he knew the power of a good spectacle; he respected how easy it was to get carried away into it. It was never anything he hadn't seen before, but there was still something infectious about an entire city, fixed on one show. And it was a hell of a way to say, We're alive, we've made it another year; this is a landmark on the passing of time.

Given the years he'd had, recently, he'd take all the landmarks he could get.

Five minutes in, he noticed something wrong.

It was subtle, at first – something offbalance and offcenter about the composition, a hiccup in an otherwise smooth show.

"You see that?" he asked, and stood up, walking toward the railing. Diana stood, too, voice wary but not entirely following.

"See what?"

"Something isn't right," Neal said, and put his hands on the balustrade, looking down toward the fireworks barges on the illuminated river.

Just in time to see another set of fireworks fly out, but these arced to the side instead of up – fiery trails leading straight into West Manhattan.

That's when the screaming started.

More and more fireworks threw themselves into the air, too close this time when the rest of the show had been so safely different, and Neal dropped to the ground with his heartbeat screaming in his ear and every muscle taught and primed to run. One burst just above the roof two buildings away, showering sparks across the seating area; he jerked away from them without quite realizing there was nowhere to go.

In his peripheral vision, in the chaos of people pushing away from their tables, hitting the ground, scrambling for the door, seeking shelter – in the human chaos he saw Diana reach for something, and for a second he parsed that as gun before her hand emerged with a badge. "FBI!", she yelled, holding the badge high. "I need everyone to walk inside, and take the emergency stairs down to ground level. Let's get off the balcony and stay away from the windows; stay low, and do this calmly and orderly."

The surge for the door wasn't calm and orderly, but it was amazing the difference clear and simple instructions from someone nominally in charge could make. Diana caught Neal's elbow – he hadn't moved, pinned under the explosions lighting up the sky too close, like a naval barrage – and pointed across the patio.

"Neal," she said, bludgeoning her voice through the noise of the sky and the human masses below it. "Woman in a wheelchair. Help her down the stairs."

He swallowed down the adrenaline creeping up his throat, and nodded.

The air tasted acrid, sulfur and saltpeter, and he kept low behind roof wall and crossed the space. The woman Diana had pointed out was old, in her eighties at least, though Neal wouldn't be surprised if the real number was higher. She was shock-white.

Someone else was at the table, pulling her wheelchair toward the balcony doors: a strapping woman in her forties or fifties, built like a construction worker.

He could feel his first reaction coiling up like a scream in the back of his throat, and made a desperate grab for one of those trained responses he usually didn't have to break out when the sky was on fire and trying to crash down onto him. "My name's Neal Caffrey; I'm a consultant with the FBI," he said. "I'm here to help."

"The FBI," the older woman repeated, like it was a lifeline. "He's here to help, Meda."

Meda – the woman's daughter, Neal guessed – grunted. "Why aren't we taking the elevators?"

"It's just a precaution," Neal said. "There's no fire, we don't think there's going to be one, but on the unlikely chance one catches, we want everyone safe." That, and eighty-some panicked diners making a rush for two elevator cars was a recipe for disaster, and if one woman in a wheelchair and her adult daughter stepped into one, everyone else would try to follow. But fortunately he didn't have to spell all of it out; Meda said something to to her mother in some Slavic language, and then lifted her bodily from the chair.

"You take that," she said, gruffly, and for the next eight minutes Neal's life narrowed to coaxing a wheelchair that probably weighed as much as he did down five flights of stairs and trying, trying, to let that drown out (or at least give an excuse for) the way his heart was still going too fast for comfort, the way his mouth was too dry.

Diana was at the door, phone at her ear, scanning the street, and the moment he had set the wheelchair down on the ground floor and the old woman had been placed into it by her daughter Diana caught his elbow, dragging him back to the building's front desk.

"It's impossible to get anything out on cell phones," she said. "I need to find someone who works in the building, get to a landline so I can call Bancroft. You have any idea where a building manager or someone is?"

Neal looked around, looked outside, but the street was chaos – most of the people were running, and those that weren't were a motley bunch who didn't seem to know what to do. A couple of them were huddled in a doorway, staring up into the sky. The fireworks had died away – someone had evidently found an override – but fear was still palpable. "No," Neal said.

Diana cursed expansively beneath her breath, and something ticked over in Neal's mind.

"The land lines," he said. "I can get into an office." There was a distant sense of panic, like a missing limb, that it had taken even that long to remember it.

Diana gave him a sharp look, which lasted all of a second before she apparently decided that breaking into an office would be forgivable under these circumstances. "Do it."

He nodded, cased the first floor, and located a likely-looking office door. He hadn't actually brought a lockpick set with him – hadn't really thought that one would be necessary or acceptable, with Diana right there – but there was always a bobby pin or two tucked into his wallet, and the locks here had been chosen more for looks than security.

Diana went straight to the phone on the nearest desk, punched in a number, and launched into a report the instant Bancroft picked up, it seemed like. She was practically vibrating, and Neal couldn't blame her; here, the noise from the streets was cut down to an afterthought, but the uncertainty, the unsteadiness, still rolled through the air on the smell of smoke. It all smelled too much like smoke.

He swallowed, and found a phone's receiver being thrust at his face.

Diana's eyes were on him, and he had no memory at all of what she'd been saying.

"Neal," Diana said.

He took the phone. Fake it. "Yeah," he said.

On the other end, Bancroft sounded like he was going to bring Hell to bear on someone for this night. "Agent Barrigan says you were the first to notice the barge malfunction," he said.

Oh. Oh, right; his brain wasn't firing on all cylinders, but he probably should have expected a cross-examination. "I noticed that one of the barges seemed to be firing offtempo," he said.

"Did you see any activity on or near the barges?"

For a moment, the question just didn't make sense. He'd seen the fireworks, seen them sailing toward them and bursting above them, but the barges had been dark shapes in the water, blank spots in his memory. It occurred to him that Bancroft was asking, Did you see evidence of foul play?, and that hadn't been anywhere near his mind while it was happening.

"I didn't notice," was what he said. "I didn't have time to get a good look."

He could hear Bancroft exhale, exasperation or frustration or disappointment, and then he said "All right. I'd like to talk to Barrigan, again."

He handed the phone back.

Diana spoke for a minute or two longer, and he walked out of the office and faced the streets, again. There was something he was supposed to do, here – one of those breathing katas Mozzie insisted on, or a mind exercise, something to get the shuddery feeling out of his brain so he could think again, so he could function. But he couldn't seem to grasp it, and by the time Diana came out, he was standing with his back against the wall, focusing on opening and closing one hand, finger by finger, with a tension in his shoulders that refused to drain away.

"You all right?" Diana asked.

Neal blinked at her, and said, more or less automatically, "Yeah. Why wouldn't I be?"

Diana gave him a look, and she was right: the question did kinda answer itself.

"We should call Peter," Neal said. If Bancroft was involved, if this was going to end up as an FBI investigation–

"Bancroft is notifying all the department heads," she said. "NYPD is on the ground; they're covering everything tonight. We'll have a briefing first thing tomorrow on anything we need to be doing. If nothing urgent comes up tonight."

Neal let that filter through his thoughts. It seemed too little, somehow. Too distant and undramatic for what had just occurred.

Diana shook her head. "I guess there's nothing to do but go home," she said. Then, a beat or two later, "bars will probably be crowded."

Neal let out something superficially similar to a laugh.

Well, one thing was sure – they weren't going to be finishing up their nice meal. Mesogeos was probably in for a headache and a half, dealing with all the patrons who'd evacuated without paying, and Neal didn't envy them that.

But that meant that he and Diana were cut loose, left dangling from loose ends. They were in the same boat as almost everyone else in the city: Other People were handling it. And what was FBI White Collar going to do about a fireworks barge malfunction, anyway?

"You walk down?" Neal asked, and Diana nodded.

"Yeah. You?"

"Yeah." And he wasn't looking forward to walking back, but he found the thought of being stuffed into a car or crammed into a subway, with all the rest of the frightened, restless population of West Manhattan, even more intolerable. "You want me to walk you back?"

As soon as he said it he knew it was a stupid thing to say, but it was out of his mouth and there was nothing he could do about it. Diana raised her eyebrows. "Caffrey, I think I can take care of myself." She eyed him. "Probably better than you can. You want a walk back?"

"No," he said, too quickly. "I'm good."

She kept staring at him a little too long for someone who actually believed that. But, at the end of it, she just said "Okay," and put a hand on his shoulder to lead him out the door.

By the time he got back to June's house and his room he felt like he'd been up for three days and running for two of them. His hands weren't shaking, which was nice, and he'd managed not to get sucked into the knots of anxious gossip or abortive dramatics on the streets, but he had to force himself to go through the routines of pouring himself a glass of wine, drinking it like a person of refinement and not gulping it down as an act of desperation, showering, changing, and pulling the covers up over his head.

Despite the exhaustion, sleep didn't come. He lay awake, listening to the city sounds that infiltrated his little cave of sheets; every altercation, every siren, seemed to have an edge of threat and another shade of meaning, tonight. And when sleep finally did come, he almost didn't notice, just woke up and blinked and realized that Junes house probably hadn't burned down if he was waking up in it, but he wasn't sure what else in his memories he could easily designate real or not real.

But there was a text blinking at him from his phone, and he opened it on instinct to see:


Meeting at 8:00 sharp per Peter. Don't be late.

Probably not all the catastrophes of the previous night had been dreams, then.

When he walked into the office he was cleaned up and squared away, in a linen summer suit of a distressingly smoky grey. Peter caught him on his way in, dragging him a few steps down a side hall and saying "Hey. You alright?"

He had to wonder if everyone was going to ask him that. "Well, I have a few complaints about Mesogeos' ambiance."

Peter gave a sort of well, that's Caffrey humor for you snort, and dropped the subject. Thankfully. "You and Diana managed to get yourself homework over the holiday," he said. "Bancroft and Hughes both want written reports, just so nothing gets forgotten or muddled."

"Great," Neal said, with entirely unfeigned rue. Had to wonder how little detail they'd let him get away with; somehow, he doubted that There were bright lights and loud noises, what do you want from me was going to be an appropriate response.

At least it got a sympathetic look from Peter. "You could try telling Bancroft he owes you an art exhibit for your time."

"Hah," Neal said, and filed that under "things he was never planning to do".

The meeting was basic FBI pep talk and chest pounding, getting everyone up to speed on what had happened and what they knew (nothing; investigation was still ongoing, and no one wanted to go on record and say it was an accident if there was a chance that it might not be and no one wanted to go on record and say that it wasn't if it could be).

"These things have safeguards," Peter said. "They go through extensive safety reviews. No one who isn't qualified to deal with these types and volumes of pyrotechnics gets on a barge. Accidents happen, but until we can confirm beyond doubt that it was accidental, we're treating it as criminal with possible ties to terrorism. We're not taking any chances."

"How do you want us to approach this?" Jones asked. "It doesn't seem likely that there was a financial motive for this, if it was sabotage. You still want us to cover the usual channels?"

"Start there," Peter said. "Rule it out. We'll have plenty of work referred to us by other departments by the time we've made any progress on that. Neal!"

Neal jumped, then raised his eyebrows and tried to look innocent. For a second he thought that Peter either hadn't noticed or just didn't have time to deal with whatever his CI could possibly be getting up to, but then another second passed and Peter got that particular crinkle around his eyes that said, I've caught the hint of something, and if I have to sit on it for three more years, I'm still gonna track it down.

Fortunately, though, they were in the middle of a meeting. "I can't believe I'm going to say this, but talk to Mozzie. And if there's anything he's heard that doesn't sound completely insane, bring it to me."

"Will do," Neal said, and thought Like Adler? Like Adler faking his own death or coming back from the grave to sabotage a fireworks display? That would be completely insane, wouldn't it?

But no. Not all the explosions in his life had to have a common denominator. Though that... wasn't actually reassuring, if he thought about it.

Diana caught his eye midway through the morning, and leaned over her desk to say, "What are you saying in your report?"

Neal gave an exaggeratedly cautious glance around the office, then leaned over. "Are we cheating?" he asked. "Is this where I'm supposed to tell you that all the answers are 'C'?"

Diana tucked an errant wisp of hair behind her ear, quickly, decisively, as though that would camouflage the unease in the gesture. "I just don't think there's anything I can say that wouldn't be covered from one of the live newsfeeds," she said, which was more reassuring than it should have been by a factor of seven or so. A small part of Neal relaxed. A little.

"Me either," he said. "Can we just tell them that?"

"You can," Diana said. "So long as it's at least a full page, with the proper headers."

Neal groaned, and turned back to his computer.

Peter caught him again at the end of the day, and said "Hey, if you want to come over. I know your fourth can't have been particularly restful, and El is thinking we'll just pretend the holiday's today."

By which he probably meant, I called El, and mentioned I was worried about you, and El coached me on how to extend this invitation. Which was nice of her, if ultimately futile. "Thanks," he said, and "I appreciate that," which Peter correctly interpreted as, but I'd rather just go home.

Which was what he did. And he actually managed to stay there, under the light-polluted but no longer exploding sky, for about four hours.

Diana's apartment was inside his radius, just barely. And he didn't know what justified him heading there, after night had drawn itself over the city like a slow wave, leaving them drowned and underwater. He could have gone to Peter's – should have, probably, as Peter was the one who'd extended the invitation, who'd always acquiesced to Neal's visits at odd hours, who'd gone so far as to extend his radius all the way out to Brooklyn just to accommodate him.

But Peter hadn't been there on the roof with them. He hadn't seen the rockets flying so close overhead he could've reached out and let the flame sear through him. So Neal had stopped at a place and picked up a bottle of whiskey, as a hostess gift, as a bribe, as payment for entry, as a signal flare.

He went to her apartment and knocked without letting himself think twice, then rooted his feet to the floor as noise sputtered from inside. A moment later and Diana opened the door, looking drawn-out and edgy. When she saw him, her expression tightened, like this was one too many elements for her to deal with in this situation.

"Neal," she said. "What – is something wrong?"

Neal opened his mouth to say something, but movement from the couch behind Diana in the apartment caught his eye, and something crashed into his awareness. "Oh," he heard himself saying, and then mentally kicked himself. "Sorry, Diana, I didn't even think–"

"No. Wait," Christie said, unfolding herself from the couch. She had a half-full tumbler of something green in her hand, and Diana turned to look back at her, face etched in concern. "Come on in," Christie said. "You brought alcohol?"

Neal gave a dry chuckle. "Yeah." He'd thought ahead that far, at least. He raised the bottle. "You drink bourbon? Blanton's."

"He's definitely invited in," Christie said.

Neal looked at Diana, half-expecting her to say Another time, Caffrey, but she exhaled and held the door open.

"You doing okay?" she asked, voice too low for Christie to hear her, as he stepped over the threshold. That startled him, for no good reason – just an arc of light and fire into a moment he'd been planning to leave dark.

"...I brought bourbon," he said, which was an answer.

Christie was already making room on the couch among a pile of throws and throw pillows. Diana went into the kitchen to get new glasses, and Christie scooted over to make room, and Neal stared at the space for a moment with a queasy feeling in his stomach. Like he'd walked in on something he wasn't meant to see.

Then Diana came back, glasses in hand, and said "Well, you're here; might as well sit." Which his brain wanted to parse as ill grace, but there was a strangeness to the shape of her words, as well. It occurred to him: he didn't know what he was doing here, she didn't know what to do with him, but they were both fumbling in the direction of being here and doing something. He sat, and Diana put the glasses on the table and walked around it to join Christie, who leaned into her until she looped an arm around Christie's shoulders.

Neal looked away, unstoppered the bottle, and poured for all of them. It let him ignore, for a moment, the questions he wasn't looking at too closely – why he'd thought this was a good idea; why he tried not to let it bother him too much, the families that other people had.

"Diana says you carried an old woman down seven flights of stairs in a burning building," Christie said.

"I did not say that," Diana said, and Christie swatted at her hand. Neal gave both of them a surprised look. Diana had on a what do I do here? expression that she was hiding well enough to fool most of the people Neal knew, though it didn't fool him, and it evidently hadn't fooled Christie, either.

"It was a wheelchair," he said. "It was five flights, I was mostly pulling it, and the building wasn't burning."

"Mm. Stick with my version," Christie said.

"Hey, I was just doing what she told me to." Neal gestured at Diana with one of the glasses, then handed them across the couch. And maybe that was why he came here; because having a job to do and a clear set of instructions had kept him sane and together on that rooftop. Which was an awful reason, maybe, because if Diana hadn't been there to bark directions he'd have found something else to get him through.

But she had been there, and he hadn't had to.

"Nothing really burned," Christie said. "I mean, we weren't dealing with burns, mostly, either. It was all just–" she made a sot of waving, one-handed-clapping motion that Neal could not unpack into its intended meaning. "People." She looked over at Neal. "You know what compressive asphyxiation is?"

"Christie," Diana said, and gave her an urgent headshake. Christie seemed a little too tipsy to notice.

"I think I can guess," Neal said.

"People panic," Christie said. "I mean, it's the panic that kills people. Not the fireworks. I mean, I really pity the guys on the barge, you know, I think one of them had pretty bad burns, but they didn't come to our hospital. If there was just a way to take away that response, you know, make people calm when this stuff happened..."

"You'd be out of a job," Diana said.

"Calm," Christie repeated. "Calm doesn't cover stupid mistakes."

Or enemy action, Neal thought.

"Think you're going to catch who did it?" Christie asked, and looked across at Neal. He shrugged, and his mind looped through semtex – dynamite – gunpowder.

"First we have to figure out if someone did it."

"What are the odds, do you think?" Christie asked.

Diana huffed, quietly. "I think there would have been more damage."

Neal was of the opinion that there was plenty.

"You weren't standing where I was standing," Christie said.

Diana grimaced.

"But you guys are the experts," Christie said, and Diana shot Neal a look over the top of her head before looking back down at Christie.

"In white-collar crime," she said. "This isn't white-collar crime."

"Yeah, and you're totally all just about white-collar crime. Like, stolen Nazi subs? Totally white-collar crime," Christie said, and Diana winced her eyes closed. Neal just stared at her, and Christie tipped her head up to look at Diana. "I mean, baby, it took you like less than a month and a half before you had to shoot someone here. You never had to shoot a real person in DC. I think 'White Collar Crime' is just code for, you know, spies, or something." She looked to Neal again, possibly for confirmation.

"Spies and copyright infringement," Neal said, distantly. Though there was truth to it; when he'd sold Peter on the anklet, what felt like ages ago, he'd been expecting scutwork and drudgery with the occasional interesting glimpse into the lives of the other side. Not an exploding plane, an exploding warehouse, an exploding night sky, and who knew what would go up in flames tomorrow?

"I need to get some fresh air," Diana said, and extricated herself from the couch.

"I–" Neal started, half-rising, but Diana motioned him back down and left on her own. It probably said something, he thought, that he responded to that without question. Like, maybe his brain was more stuck in the other night than he'd realized. Maybe everyone's was, and layering that much more expectation onto Diana – hey, take charge of this, make this right – just wasn't fair.

He should have thought this through a bit more, before coming.

He shouldn't have come at all.

"She's worried about you," Christie said, a few seconds after the door clicked closed.

Neal swiveled around to look at her. "What? Why?"

Christie shrugged. "'cause she's Diana, and she has control issues, and your little fun dinner blew up and she feels like she put you there, and it lets her not focus on how freaked out she was." Christie sipped her bourbon, and Neal started to wonder how many drinks she'd had before he'd arrived. This sounded like privileged information.

At another time, in another circumstance, he might have pressed that advantage. Now, though, he didn't have the energy. "How long did they keep you?"

"At the hospital?" Christie asked. "God. My shift was all night. I mean, things died down, but I was still pretty dead on my feet at the end, you know? And then I came home and Diana was in at work already. This has been the shittiest Fourth of July..."

She trailed off, a look of concentration on her face.

"This has been one of the shittiest Fourths of July," she said.

Neal laughed, just a little, at that. "I've had worse holidays," he said. "I usually knew they were coming, though."

"Oh, see, I don't have that," Christie said. "I mean, you never know when you go in if it's going to be, like, fifty people who all think they're having a heart attack when they just need to lay off the sriracha or if it's going to be a ten-way pileup on I-278. There just never is any warning."

An awkward silence descended.

After a moment, Neal cast a glance back at the door. "I should go," he said.

Christie nodded. "Yeah," she said. "Hey, sorry I wasn't any fun."

Neal rattled up a rakish grin from somewhere, even though by the time it got to his face it felt more wan than anything. "We'll call a do-over sometime." Then, as Christie offered him the Blanton's, he waved it off. "You keep it. I've got plenty at home."

"Saint," Christie said.

"Walter of Pontoise," Neal agreed. "Thanks for letting me stop by."

He walked out of the building and found Diana sitting on the stoop, which should probably have surprised him but seemed like the natural course of things, tonight. She startled when the door opened, looked up at him, then looked away with her jaw set and a gallows expression, like she hadn't meant to be found here, but knew she should have hidden better if she'd been that invested in vanishing. "On your way home?"

"Are you?" Neal asked.

Diana didn't answer, so he sat down beside her.

And they sat there in silence for a little while, under the blanketing of light pollution that held the stars at a safe distance. Finally, Diana said, "I messed up."

Neal turned to stare at her. "What? How did you mess up?"

Diana made a frustrated gesture at absolutely nothing he could see. "They were fireworks," she said. "We weren't being shelled. They wouldn't have gone through a wall. I should have gotten everyone inside and away from the windows and told them not to move until the barge crew got it under control, but instead I sent them down onto the streets where people were stampeding and I don't know if any of them got hurt. I didn't even do a headcount. I wasn't thinking straight, Neal."

"You were the straightest-thinking person there," Neal pointed out.

"And that's enough, is it?" Diana asked. "What, I get a gold star, it says 'You Tried'?" She knocked the side of her fist into the stoop's railing. "I don't have an excuse. I'm FBI; I should have done better. And I didn't have a – a never-ending parade of injured coming my way, and I don't have a dark awful history of loud noises and things going 'boom'."

Neal was stunned. Didn't know what to say to that. And Diana grimaced.

"Sorry. That was – sorry."

Neal made a noise which might have fit some minimal requirement to be labelled a response. Working White Collar, he'd had plenty of time to get used to Peter's all-rough-edges-on-a-family-dog-center-ness, and occasionally forgot that Diana's version was more polished-professional-with-six-inch-thorns. Thorns which had a habit of stabbing him right when he'd let his guard down.

"I shouldn't have said that," Diana said.

"It's all right," Neal said. Not that it was, really, but he'd made it this far on acting like those explosions had meant less than they did, and he probably should have expected that if the opportunity arose, Diana would call him on that bullshit. He cleared his throat, and tried to change the subject. "Still, I don't think you're required to have prior bad experiences with explosions for something like last night to–"

He considered five or six verb phrases, and discarded almost all of them for saying more than he wanted to say.

"–get to you."

"I imagine it doesn't help, though," Diana said.

He'd been trying not to think of that all night and all day.

On impulse, he asked "You sleeping okay?"

Diana snorted. "No. Not last night. You?"

"Up until four thirty," he said. "And then of course Peter took the earliest meeting slot possible."

"If you expected anything else, you really don't know the FBI," Diana said. Neal grimaced.

"No, I expected it." And that was almost worse. "Think we're going to find anything?"

"I'm hoping there's nothing to be found," Diana said. "I didn't get into White Collar because I wanted to fight terrorists. Everyone wants to fight terrorists. Those bases are covered." The words were a bit too fast, a bit too flippant, but Neal didn't say anything about it. Diana wasn't used to deflecting things with humor because Diana usually didn't need to. She had a kind of control that Neal envied, and he doubted she envied his skills in prevarication back.

"What happens if there isn't?" he asked, instead.

Diana shrugged. "The city either bans firework shows outright or slaps another layer of safety requirements on them. And we go back to copyright infringement cases."

"Like nothing happened," Neal said.


Well, that was one way of dealing with things, Neal supposed.

There didn't seem to be anything to say after that, so they sat and watched the cars following each other down the street, their headlights painting the asphalt as they passed. After a few minutes, Diana shifted.

"I'm neglecting my girlfriend," she said, and stood up like, ready or not, she was here to face whatever she needed to. "You coming back inside?"

He stayed sitting, for the moment. "No, I – I should be getting home." He let out a wry laugh. "Getting late."

"Crime to get to?" Diana asked, but her tone was ribbing, not accusatory. "Hey," she said. "You should come over after work tomorrow."

He looked up, questioning.

"I'm serious," she said. "You can make us paella or something, Christie can flirt, I'll investigate your ingredients for contraband."

"I feel like my labor is being exploited, here," Neal said.

"Please." Diana scoffed. "Christie will enjoy it, you can preen, and we'll provide alcohol. In moderation, this time."

And a place to be, to not be alone, was what she wasn't saying, because they'd more or less used up what vulnerability they were able to offer, at this time, in this place. There were reasons he trusted Diana, and that unspoken understanding was a lot of them.

"Maybe," he said, and Diana offered him a hand up. He didn't, strictly speaking, need it.

He took it anyway.

"Tomorrow, then," he said.

"We'll have a place set." Diana reached out, clapped him on the shoulder. "Take care, Caffrey."

"You, too," he said. Then, as an afterthought, "Take care of Christie."

"Not much chance of that, is there?" Diana muttered. She gave him an odd look, then, and for a moment, Neal was afraid that she was going to hug him.

But she didn't.

"We'll get through," she said, and pulled open the door. "See you tomorrow, Neal."

Then she was gone, the door swinging shut between them. Neal stood on the stoop for a few moments more, then turned and walked back into the controlled chaos of the New York night.