Neal's loft. Monday evening. March 8, 2004.
Not long after Peter called, Neal's cell phone rang again. This time it was his aunt Noelle.
"Hey, I'm sorry about the dinner plans," Neal said. "I guess Graham decided Henry needed to get back to Baltimore."
"Yes, I spoke to Graham when he returned from the hospital and I agreed it was best for Henry to go home. While we were packing he filled me in on the events at the airstrip." She sounded stuffy, as if she had a cold. Or…
"Have you been crying? You know Henry's ok, right? It was just a dye pack." Neal glanced at the shirt Henry had left behind when he'd packed up this afternoon, the red dye now dried in place. It should probably go in the trash, unless he'd need it to pull off a con someday where he pretended he'd been shot.
"Graham said things didn't go according to plan."
It was tempting to mention there hadn't been much of a plan, but Neal only said, "Once things fell apart and Peter got there, I thought the best way out was to make the pilot and Gil believe I was dead. Then they could leave without fear that I'd tell the FBI what I'd learned about their plans. The person in all of this who most wanted to kill me was Robert, so we had Peter impersonate him. It was all a con. Fake Robert, fake gun, fake bullets, fake death."
"Do you have any idea what that plan did to your psyche? Not to mention Peter's? You set up a scenario where your father figure had to shoot you. Peter must have hated that."
Recalling what Peter had to say immediately afterward, Neal said, "Yeah, I got that. He went through with it, but he let me know he wasn't thrilled about it. But I think we're ok now."
"We'll see. You may have set yourself up for another round of nightmares." She paused. "And Henry made it worse."
"I think he decided to spare me the physical and emotional stress of being shot by Peter. I didn't know Henry was going to jump in front of me. It was probably a last-minute decision."
"And a poor decision. It makes me even more worried about him. Normally Henry would have realized that scenario was too close to what happened when you were a child, when the abuser who was supposed to be your father figure shot the man who was trying to rescue you."
Neal hadn't thought of it that way, but Noelle was right. Henry at his best would have considered the similarities and avoided making Neal relive that experience. It was another sign that Henry wasn't holding things together. "Good thing we've already covered those memories, huh? It shouldn't be as bad, now."
"Unfortunately I'm still too upset by it all to think like a therapist. I can't get into that mindset right now to tell you what to expect. And I came back to Baltimore before I realized how all of this might hit you."
"Have you talked to Henry?" Neal asked.
"A little louder than talking," Noelle said. "Fortunately airports are loud places. He took a painkiller before boarding the plane and slept most of the way home, so I had to stop yelling at him."
"He's still smart, even with everything going on. Are you going to yell at me?"
"Graham assured me that Peter took care of that."
"Yeah, but Peter was too shaken by almost shooting me to give it his best effort. C'mon. You don't want me to be jealous of Henry, do you?"
There was a sharp intake of breath on the other end of the call. "Neal, are you teasing me?"
"Mmm. Teasing, taunting, whatever."
"The first time you talked to me as an adult, it was a phone call in January after Henry had been released from a hospital. You sounded terrified of me."
Neal decided not to mention the call earlier that same day, when he had impersonated Henry. He'd been nervous then, too. "Yeah, but then you went and convinced me you love me. The terror is gone."
"A little terror might be nice right now. I was very upset, you know."
He grinned. "You were, but not anymore. You're smiling. I can hear it in your voice."
She chuckled. "Did you manipulate your mother like this?"
"I didn't suddenly wake up one day as a con artist after I ran away from home. It takes practice. Like you said, we both inherited Dressa's acting talent." He shrugged. "You sounded stressed when we first started talking tonight, and I thought I could get you to smile."
"You did pick up quite a bit when you studied psychology with Henry. Well, let's see if I can return the favor. Please sit down, Neal."
Neal plopped down on the sofa as ordered but said, "I thought you couldn't get into therapist mode right now."
"I can't, but I haven't forgotten everything I learned. And Mom mode is a powerful thing, too. Now, take a deep breath and relax. Think back to when we were at the cabin. You had been sledding, and then you and Henry were having a snowball fight. Remember that?"
"Yeah. I was winning until he snuck around behind me."
"You were happy."
"Hold on to that. Not just now, but in the future. When you're stressed or worried, remember that time, that joy and the trust that you were surrounded by people who loved you. Will you do that?"
"Good. Now I want to add to that memory. While you were at the bottom of the hill, Elizabeth and I joined Peter. He was at the top of the hill, watching you and pleased to see you being happy. Peter asked my advice about what he should be doing, as your father figure. And then he spoke about something related to the time you were at Jacobi hospital. When you arrived you weren't breathing on your own, and the doctor gave you a 50/50 chance of making it through the night. We took turns sitting with you in the ICU. And when we were talking at the top of that hill a few days ago, Peter described a recurring dream about that experience at Jacobi."
"What was the dream?" Neal asked, expecting to hear a nightmare and wondering why Noelle wanted to add that to his memories.
"Peter said he dreams about the moment he noticed something had changed. Before he could understand what was happening to you, a nurse came in and told him you were starting to breathe on your own. And then he recalls how ecstatic he felt. And that's all. He described it as a very short, but intense dream. He wondered what it meant, and I told him what I thought his subconscious was trying to tell him. What do you think it was telling him, Neal?"
"Well…" Neal thought back to the psychology texts and classes. This was like being in school again, and he realized he was experiencing Noelle the professor. He thought he knew the answer, but was almost afraid to say it out loud. "Being there for my first breaths, that was like witnessing a rebirth."
"That's right. And who is typically present for someone's birth and first breaths?"
"Umm. The doctor. And the parents." Neal felt his heart speeding up. He took a deep breath to calm down. "So Peter feels like my dad. But we already knew that."
"Yes, we did. But you could say that at Jacobi, his mind caught up with his heart. He doesn't simply feel like your father. Now he's starting to think like a dad, too." She paused. "I know it's a subtle distinction, and mind versus heart isn't standard psychological terminology, but let me put it this way: When Peter was faced with an influx of your family at Jacobi, he started to question his role in your life. He wondered if he belonged as your father figure when your biological family had arrived and embraced you. His dream is a declaration from his subconscious that he does belong in that role. And I noticed at your birthday party he didn't seem at all uncomfortable taking part in a family event. He not only feels like a father figure, but is willing to claim that right. He doesn't feel threatened in the role."
Neal nodded. He could see the difference in his relationship with Peter. In January, Peter panicked and threatened to fire him for being reckless. Today, a more secure Peter had again been upset, but was more rational in his reaction.
"And how do you feel about that, Neal?"
"I… I'm glad he thinks of me that way, glad you told me. It feels good. Better than good." He cleared his throat as the competing emotions threatened to swamp him. "And I'm sorry his only option today was to try to shoot me. I know he hated that. But it was the best plan I could think of."
"I'm pleased to hear you're sorry for putting him in that position. Did you tell Peter you're sorry?"
Neal thought back over his recent conversations with Peter. "I guess not. He wasn't exactly in listening mode at first, you know?"
"Yes, based on my conversation with Henry today I know exactly how challenging it was to get into listening mode. But Peter still needs to hear it. Will you tell him?"
"Yeah," said Neal. "When I see him tomorrow I'll apologize."
Peter called Neal early Tuesday morning to say he'd give him a ride to the Federal Building. He didn't wait for Neal to accept the offer. When he arrived at the mansion he could tell that the staff had returned, but the maid who opened the door said June wouldn't be back for a few more days.
Peter went upstairs, knocking on Neal's door. When he answered he was missing shoes and jacket, and his shirt sleeves were rolled up. No dishwasher, Peter realized. Breakfast dishes had been rinsed and set to dry on a towel. "You ok?" Peter asked. "Any nightmares?"
Neal turned away to rinse a juice glass. "One, but nothing like the stuff I experienced when my memories were returning. I didn't have any trouble getting back to sleep."
"Good," said Peter. He glanced around the kitchen once more. "Don't you normally have that cappuccino stuff in the morning?"
Neal chuckled. "Downstairs. We'll grab some on the way out." He put on his shoes and jacket. "Ready?"
"Actually, before we head out, we should talk."
"Ok." Neal sat at the dining table. "There's something I wanted to say. I should have told you yesterday, and I hope you already know, but I'm sorry, Peter. I wish I could have thought of a better plan than asking you to shoot me. Even with the dye pack, I know it looked and felt a lot like a real shooting. If I could go back and do it over, I'd have thought things through more before going into that hangar in the first place."
"You mean you wouldn't have blindly followed Henry's lead."
"It wasn't all his fault," Neal insisted.
"Neal, I listened to the full recording, including the part after Henry said the watch wasn't broadcasting. That was true, but it was still recording and he knew it. It was clear that most of the blame was his. You're right that you should have asked more questions, but I should have, too. I jumped into the classic parental mistake of blaming the wrong kid." Peter shook his head. "But I get the feeling that even if I had asked for your side of the story first, you'd have protected your big brother and let me think it was your fault." Peter noticed Neal was distracted. "Neal, you with me?"
"It was still recording? Even when…" Neal trailed off.
"Even when you warned him about 'next time'?" When Neal simply stared at him, Peter said, "So there's something Henry has planned you don't want me to know about. Truth is, he cut off the recording in the middle of your comment, but I wish you'd tell me what's going on."
Neal shook his head. "Peter, I promised."
"You told me back at the cabin that you thought Henry was getting in over his head. I want to help, but you know I can't if you keep me in the dark. The sooner you let me in on whatever he has going on, the better for all of us." Seeing Neal wasn't ready for that yet, Peter said, "But it was something else I wanted to tell you this morning. Thanks to the tracking device Henry left in the plane, we were able to trace its path over New York and lock onto it with satellite. It took the course Mozzie had described. It was over a remote area in Argentina when it exploded. There were witnesses on the ground who saw the explosion, but they were too far away to tell if there were parachutes. All we have are the accounts from an Argentinian news feed. And to convince Adler that we aren't onto him, we can't have any government agents poking around to see if Kate survived."
"She survived," Neal insisted.
Peter wasn't so sure of that, but didn't want to douse Neal's hopes. The kid had been through enough recently. He changed the subject. "You remember Jones' friend, George Knightley?"
"Yeah, hard to forget someone who saved my life."
"Turns out that Highbury came through for him. He's got an interview at the Donwell Institute. Jones says it looks like he'll have a chance to help other people who've lost limbs."
"A happy ending," said Neal. "I hope it works out. He deserves it."
Tuesday was the most normal day Neal had spent at the FBI since he'd gone undercover at Enscombe. He was mentally on top of his game again, and easily eluded the poor agent assigned to him for Tuesday Tails. The paperwork on everything related to Highbury was wrapping up, and it was good to think about picking up a new case tomorrow.
On the drive back home that evening, Peter said, "Remember yesterday I said there'd be consequences?"
"I was starting to hope you'd forgotten about that."
"No, it's just that this isn't an FBI-sanctioned consequence. This is a… Well, it's a dad thing, I guess."
Neal glanced at Peter. He didn't look angry. But he did look smug, which was almost as bad. "You're imposing a punishment as a dad?"
"I think of it as more of a life lesson, rather than a punishment."
Neal braced himself. "What is it?"
"The next four Saturdays, you're going to spend at least four hours volunteering at a runaway shelter." Peter named a shelter and its address. It wasn't too far from the arts district, where Neal normally went on weekends.
Neal didn't particularly care for the reminder of his own time as a runaway. "Would you consider another suggestion?"
"No," said Peter. "We need this."
"We?" Neal repeated.
"Yeah, I'm volunteering, too. Henry said it would help me understand how desperate you were as a teen, so I can recognize the signs if you get desperate again."
"I should have known this is Henry's fault," Neal said. "What's his punishment?"
"He said he lost his company car."
That seemed harsh, but perhaps not unexpected if he planned to take a leave of absence. Benefits and other pieces of corporate life were still a foreign language to Neal. Which reminded him… "You said we're going to set goals for me soon?"
"Next week," Peter confirmed as he made the turn onto Riverside Drive.
"I've done a good job with the Tuesday Tails. Everyone says they're better at tailing suspects now than they were before I joined the team."
"That's true. We can definitely recognize your contribution there. You deserve credit for improving the team's skills."
"Improving everyone's skills but mine," Neal said. "Shouldn't everyone on your team know how to tail suspects?"
"What are you getting at?"
"I'd like to reverse Tuesday Tails once each month. Give me a chance to practice tailing someone."
"And let the team learn how to avoid a tail. That's good." Peter parked in front of the mansion. "I mean it, that's really good. Wanting to master the skills for this job, and thinking of creative ways to do it… I'm proud of you, Neal."
June returned home on Thursday, and that evening she presented Neal with a box and a key. The box was about twice the size of a shoe box, made of dark polished wood and adorned with elaborate brass fittings. The key was ornamental. It would have been easy to break into the box without it.
In fact, he raised a brow when June handed him the key, and she smiled. "Yes, I know. I can't tell you how many times I was tempted to break into that box, but it was important to Byron and I left it alone."
"And now?" Neal asked.
"He explained in his will what the box was for. I don't need to open it now. He wanted you to have it, and he left you a message." June handed him a CD. "He said there are many tracks, with messages for different occasions, and the first one is to tell you about the box."
Neal stayed downstairs, talking to June about how she had spent the last two weeks, and making a vague reference to the fact that he'd spent a few days at a cabin in upstate New York. He gave more detail about his birthday party, thanking June for the storage space for his art.
She nodded and said, "I thought housing your art nearby would convince you I truly want you to stay here."
June was still sad, and tired from the weight of grief. Neal soon went upstairs so she could rest, and he listened to the first track of the CD. Hearing Byron's voice again brought on a wave of grief. He had missed their conversations, and it still hurt to be reminded that he wouldn't be able to ask Byron's advice or opinion again.
"It's January 16," Byron said. "Something happened at the FBI. You're home early and doing a good job of hiding how upset you are. Could be anything, but it reminds me that I want to record some thoughts for you while I still can. I know how hard it can be, giving up the life. You probably think you'll have it easier than I did, while you're surrounded by FBI agents. But you're also dealing with criminals and using your old skills against them. It could be a constant reminder of where you came from and what you gave up. Like I said, the con is a rush. It isn't easy to give up, and sometimes the craving hits you when you least expect it."
Neal would have preferred to hear that it had been easy for Byron, and would be easy for himself, too. But he appreciated the honesty and the time and effort Byron had put into leaving Neal this message.
"Fact is," Byron continued, "there were plenty of times I thought about going back to my old ways, times when it seemed easier or more fun. I'd think about what I was risking if I ran another con, how I might spend years in prison and miss out on my girls growing up. But still I kept being tempted, and I wondered if I was making any progress at all. One day I was in a bar, trying to talk myself out of signing up for what a friend had described as the score of a lifetime… amazing how many times in a lifetime you hear that description, but each one got my heart racing… well, who should sit down beside me in that bar but a cop. Well, a PI actually, but the guy used to be a cop. Must be close to 30 years ago now. We got to talking about regrets. He said his wife had died nearly a decade ago, and he still had times he wondered how he was going to go on without her, or had a sudden, consuming wish he'd done something different while she was still alive. I couldn't imagine life without June, and I asked him how he kept going. He said in the first year he started to keep track of the things he'd gotten through, to remind him that life went on. It started as a list, but then he'd make a note as something occurred to him, on a business card or a cocktail napkin or whatever, some kind of reminder of something he was glad he'd been alive to do, or proud he'd gotten through. He kept them in a box and sometimes, when he was feeling low, he'd open up that box and remind himself that he was doing good things, and that he was doing better than getting by."
Neal unlocked the box as he listened, and it was filled with scraps of paper.
"I thought it was worth a try, and gave it a shot. I used a shoe box at first, but I decided my collection deserved something a little fancier. And that's the box I asked June to give you. Take a look at the things I wrote down if you want. You'll see a lot of it seems small now, but at the time they seemed like big steps. Then toss 'em out. The box is yours now. Fill it with the things you're getting through without resorting to crime. Let 'em pile up and make you proud. They should remind you that you have the strength to keep on your new path. Wish I'd kept up with that PI. He gave me his business card. Years later I thought I should thank him, but figured he'd think I was crazy if I just called him out of the blue. I tossed the card into the box when I first got it. I don't even remember the guy's name anymore, but if you find the card maybe someday you can look him up and thank him for me. He might have some good advice for you, too."
That was the end of the track. Neal stopped the CD and filled a glass of wine. Then he started reading the scraps of paper. Some seemed minor, some were touching, and some probably wouldn't make sense to anyone other than Byron. Toward the bottom of the box, Neal found a business card, and assumed it was the one Byron had mentioned. "Graham Winslow. Investigator. Winston-Winslow." Neal finished his wine and smiled. "You should have called him, Byron. He probably would have tried to recruit you."
In the morning, Neal added the key for the box to his key chain. Throughout the day, when he saw or felt the key, it reminded him of Byron. There was comfort in knowing someone had succeeded at what Neal was just starting to do. Byron had turned his life around and thrived. The key seemed like a talisman to give Neal strength when he wondered if he could make it at the FBI, when he wondered if Kate was right to assume that he was a criminal at heart. With the recording of Kate saying that Neal hadn't been in on Adler's scheme, the team was accepting Neal again, but there could be more setbacks. As Peter had said when he recruited Neal, FBI agents were suspicious by nature. It wasn't easy to gain their trust.
And being a good employee wasn't always fun. Going into goal setting next week, he was going to need all the strength he could get. It didn't sound fun at all.
March 13, 2004.
On Saturday, Neal met Peter at the shelter. The son of a bricklayer, Peter had picked up carpentry skills growing up, and he was given a list of repairs needed throughout the building. Neal was assigned kitchen duty, starting a stew that would be served that evening, and helping put together sandwiches for kids who wandered in for lunch. He listened to their stories if they wanted to talk, but didn't push them if they preferred silence.
After almost three hours, he heard a series of thumps and shouts from the room next door, and he rushed over to see what was happening. A redheaded woman about his age was giving the girls self-defense lessons. She seemed to have things under control, and he returned to the kitchen to serve another round of sandwiches. He'd forgotten how voraciously hungry teenagers could be. But some of the kids weren't there to eat. They'd discovered a friendly ear and wanted to talk to a non-judgmental adult. He answered their questions about having run away from home himself, and how he'd ended up in a hospital when he didn't take care of himself.
Soon other volunteers arrived for kitchen duty, and Neal moved upstairs to a bedroom that had been cleared for repainting. He opened a window and then started rolling a base coat of white primer onto the walls. It wasn't like the painting he was used to doing, but it made him think about what it would be like to paint a mural. He wondered what his subject might be if he had a full wall to fill with a single work, and he was absorbed in considering options when a voice broke into his train of thought. A woman had said, "Henry?"
Neal turned around to see the redhead again. She had a brilliant smile, and looked and sounded excited to see Henry. Beneath the gray sweats she seemed attractive, but not familiar. In old jeans and a DePaul sweatshirt from the time Henry was getting his master's in psychology, Neal wasn't exactly looking his usual suave self. "Sorry. Not Henry."
She stepped into the room. "Neal, right?"
Neal placed the paint roller down. "Have we met?"
"I guess that's debatable. I stopped by Henry's hotel about a week and a half ago. You were there, but you seemed out of it." She held out a hand. "Sara Ellis."
Neal shook her hand. "Neal Caffrey. How do you know Henry?"
"I work for him. Well, I did. Yesterday was my last day at Win-Win. I'm starting a job at Sterling-Bosch next week." She looked around the room. One of the four walls was primed. "Do you have another roller?"
"I only found one. But if you have time I could use help taping off the trim before I start the other walls."
Sara picked up the blue painter's tape meant to cover the trim along the floor, window and door. "Are you sure you want to cover the trim? It looks like it needs painting as badly as the walls do."
"Mmm," Neal said absently as he picked up the roller again. "They have a different paint for the trim."
"Ok." Sara started working around the door. "You know you do look a lot like Henry. When I first saw you I'd have guessed you're brothers, but everyone at Win-Win knows Henry's an only child."
"Right." Neal stepped back from the wall to see if he'd missed any spots. "Did he send you here, too?"
Sara paused with a strip of blue tape in her hands. "Yes, that's why I thought he might be here when I saw you. He knows about my obsession with runaways, and before I left Win-Win he suggested I come here when I had a free Saturday."
"Why are you obsessed with runaways?" Neal asked.
"When I was 13 my older sister ran away. I've always been filled with questions about that. Why did she go? Where did she go? Is she ok?"
"Win-Win couldn't find the answers for you?"
"They traced her to New York City, but then nothing. It was 12 years ago. I know the chances of finding her are slim-to-none, but volunteering with current runaways… It makes me feel less helpless. I can hope that someone was here to help when Emily needed them." She put the tape in place and tore off another strip. "You said too. Henry sent you here?"
"You could say he caused me to be sent here." They fell into silence while Neal finished the second wall and Sara completed taping around the trim of the third wall. When Neal stepped away from the second wall and decided it was good, he looked back at Sara. "You probably noticed that Henry's a multitasker. He probably had more in mind than doing you a favor and annoying me when he sent us here."
Sara turned around to face Neal. "You think he meant for us to meet?"
Neal nodded. "I wouldn't be surprised. He might think I could help with your obsession. Not with finding your sister – if Win-Win couldn't find her I don't think I could. But he might have wanted you to meet someone who ran away and… Well, someone who couldn't go home but had a happy ending."
"You were a runaway?" Sara sounded surprised. "And now you're an FBI agent?"
"Consultant," Neal corrected. He dipped the roller in the paint pan and got to work on the third wall. "If you don't get busy I'm going to be ready to prime that last wall before you have it taped."
Sara worked in silence, and Neal guessed she was deciding whether to ask first about his experiences as a runaway or at the FBI. She surprised him by saying, "You're right about Henry. And I have to say, if he went to the trouble to arrange for us to meet here, he probably thought I could help you with something, too."
"Yeah, I thought of that, but I think he's off base there."
"How about you let me have a say in that?"
Neal turned around to face her, placing the roller on the pan so his hands were free. "It's a little embarrassing, to be honest. I think you'd be happier not knowing."
Sara stood up to be at his level. "That only makes me more curious about what you think he has in mind." Neal raised his hands and was moments away from running them through his hair when Sara grabbed his wrists. "You have some paint, right here." She ran a finger along his thumb. "Unless you're going for a Pepe Le Pew look, you'd better stop."
Neal wiped his hands on his jeans, which bore splashes of paint from his previous painting endeavors. "Thanks. The thing is, I've been kind of hung up on someone. My ex. She's gone now. Seriously gone. Fled the country and faked-her-death-to-escape-the-authorities gone."
"As in FBI authorities?"
"Yeah. It was complicated. I met her under an alias and it turned out the alias was her type and I wasn't. The whole fleeing the country thing was a few days ago. Henry knows I'm hurting over that. But he never really liked her and I'm sure he wants me to move on. But that's not… I mean you're not…"
"I'm not your type?" Sara asked.
"No. I'm not your type. I mean, I heard your voice when you thought I was Henry. He doesn't date anyone at Win-Win, but now that you've left the company you could have a shot with him, and… It sounded like that's what you want."
Sara studied him a moment. "That's very noble of you," she said, and then returned to taping the fourth wall.
"He's my best friend, and you… well, you seem like a great person. I wouldn't want him to lose out on someone like you, just because he doesn't know you're into him." He picked up the roller again to finish priming the third wall. Working around the window required concentration and he took his time.
After working in silence a few minutes, Sara said, "I'm flattered you think Henry meant for us to get involved romantically, but I think you're overlooking the obvious."
Neal stopped painting. "What's that?"
"I sounded happy to see Henry because I'm new to an enormous, amazing city where I know almost no one. And it sounds like you could use a sympathetic ear right now. What if he thought we could each use a friend?"
After hours of repairing and building shelves in the basement, Peter went upstairs to the kitchen in search of Neal. The volunteers there said he'd gone upstairs, and Peter went up two more levels before he finally found Neal and a stunning redhead laughing in a bedroom whose walls glistened with wet paint. Neal was closing a paint can, and the redhead was picking up other painting supplies.
"Alright, hotshot," said the redhead. "You think you could come up with something better than a collage of Warner Brothers' cartoons? What would you give these kids as a mural?"
"I spent some time upstate recently and was blown away by the views, so I'd start with a mountain landscape." Neal looked up at the largest blank wall, and gestured broadly with his hands. Peter could almost imagine the sweeping brush strokes as he spoke. "Not dark greens and browns. A subtle forest, draped in snow and ice so that it doesn't jump out at you the moment you enter the room. Instead it should draw you in, making you hunt for the details. And then you'd notice that hidden in the woods is a city. The tree trunks that first appear to be covered in ice, are actually silver skyscrapers. And a constellation and moon in the sky would actually be an outline of the Statue of Liberty and her torch. Think a faerie version of New York. Edmund Spenser meets the modern era. I'd call it Best of Both Worlds." He trailed off, seeming lost in his vision.
Peter stepped into the room. "Hi, I'm Peter Burke. I work with Neal."
The redhead stood up to shake his hand. "Sara Ellis." She glanced toward Neal. "He said he works at the FBI, but I have to say he sounds more like an artist."
"We work in the White Collar Crimes Division. If we were in DC, I'd steer Neal toward Art Crimes."
Neal shook his head and stood up. "Wow. It's been a while since I got that absorbed in an idea. Heading out, Peter?"
Peter nodded. "I was checking to see if you wanted a ride. But if you're busy," he glanced meaningfully at Sara, "that's fine."
"Just let me get cleaned up." Neal turned to Sara, holding up his paint-splattered arms. "You probably don't want to touch me right now, but we'll catch up later."
"Nice meeting you, Neal."
In his car a few minutes later, Peter shook his head at Neal. "I'm sorry I interrupted you up there."
Neal looked surprised. "What do you mean?"
"I mean you were getting to know Sara. You could have said you'd catch a cab, you know. You didn't have to leave because I was on my way out."
"You don't think… I'm really not…"
"She seemed nice," Peter said, determined to get through this even though it felt awkward. "I know you weren't dating while you hoped things might work out with Kate, and you're probably out of practice, but you need to open your eyes, Neal. Sara was having fun with you there, today. You should spend some time with her, get to know her. Start small. Ask her out for coffee."
"Is that what you'd do?" Neal asked.
Peter thought back to when he'd finally asked Elizabeth out, and how long he'd danced around it before finally letting her know he was interested. It had been painful, but well worth it. And he liked the glimpse he'd seen of Neal with Sara today: happy, laughing, letting his guard down. This wasn't the distant worship of a vision of a too-good-to-be-true Kate, but a give-and-take with a real woman. It reminded Peter of what he had with El, and he'd like to see Neal have something similar. "Yeah, that's what I'd do."
"Well, I guess I could call her and change our plans, if you think coffee is best. We were going to meet for lunch tomorrow. But I don't want to move too fast."
Peter looked over to see Neal grinning. "You couldn't have told me that before I started giving you dating advice?"
Neal laughed. "It was such a dad moment. I had to hear where you'd take it. Anyway, it isn't really a date. Sara knows I'm still getting over someone. We're friends, for now. We'll see where it goes."
March 14, 2004.
It wasn't a date, but Neal spent longer than usual picking out exactly what to wear. He finally decided the fedora wasn't too much, and met Sara in front of the building that housed Highbury Professional Connections. She wore a peacock blue dress that looked great on her.
"This looks upscale for not-a-date," Sara said.
"Are you up for an adventure?" Neal asked. "Because I can get us both a free lunch if you're willing to play along. All you have to do is call me Nick Halden."
"And who is Nick Halden?"
"He's a job seeker who joined Highbury and paid for a month's membership. And that membership comes with one free lunch per month for a member and his guest." Neal opened the door to the building. "The FBI paid for the membership, and I went undercover as Nick to catch a blackmailer. Might as well get that free lunch, right?"
Sara was pensive as they entered the lobby. After Neal pressed the up button for the elevator she said, "I wasn't going to mention Henry today because I want to make sure you're clear I'm not fixated on him, and I'm not using you as a substitute for him, but I have to ask: are you related? I know you aren't his brother, but sometimes you look and sound so much like him. I could easily imagine him saying what you did about the free lunch."
"We're cousins. Our moms were identical twins."
"So biologically you're almost like half-brothers."
The elevator arrived and they stepped inside. Neal selected the floor for Highbury. "I guess so. Turns out our dads had a lot in common, too."
"Robert was a piece of work, wasn't he? Have they determined if he's the one who placed the bomb in Henry's car?"
Sara looked up at Neal. "You didn't know? God, I'm so sorry. He's fine, Neal. His car was parked at a marina in Delaware, and it exploded Monday morning when a windstorm rocked the car. No one was inside, and no one was hurt."
"That's what he meant when he said he lost the company car." He hated that Henry hadn't told him about this. Neal would definitely ask Peter what they could find out about that explosion. The elevator stopped and they got out at Highbury. "No one's found Robert yet. But he can't hide forever."
"And now you look as grim as I would expect an FBI agent… consultant," she corrected before Neal could speak, "to look. I'm sorry, Neal. I promise, Win-Win is off the table for lunch today. All conversation will remain light and trivial."
They were shown to a quiet alcove where they enjoyed an exquisite lunch and light banter. They were reviewing a dessert menu and negotiating what they might be willing to share when career counselor Wendy Bates approached the table. "Mr. Halden! Mr. Halden, yes, so good to see you again. Things have been in such an uproar. You know Mr. Dixon and Mr. Churchill were arrested? Well of course you do, you were scheduled to be at Enscombe when the FBI raided the offices. So shocking. We're being reorganized, and it's been very disconcerting. When I learned you were here I looked up your file and realized no one told you." She handed Neal a folded sheet of paper. "We matched your resume and the feedback from our counselors to our career database. We found a very promising match." She fluttered away when the waitress arrived to take their dessert order, and Neal put the paper aside.
"Aren't you going to look?" Sara asked.
"This is a match for Nick Halden. His resume was a work of fiction. And the FBI is where I belong."
"Oh, come on. This is like ignoring a fortune cookie. I can't take it." Sara unfolded the paper and read it. Her look of surprise melted into a mysterious smile.
"Did you by any chance base Nick Halden on the cousin we agreed we wouldn't talk about?"
Neal shrugged. "I didn't think so. Why?" He took the paper when Sara handed it over. The top recommendation was that he should contact Winston-Winslow. The contact number listed was one he recognized: Graham Winslow's personal cell phone. Neal shook his head. "Graham knew I was undercover as Nick. This has his fingerprints all over it, metaphorically speaking."
"It's good to be wanted," Sara said.
Neal smiled, thinking of the time not too long ago when he'd been wanted as a criminal. What he had now was a big improvement over those days. He raised his glass. "Here's to being wanted."
A/N: Last weekend when I posted chapter 31, it was the one-year anniversary of when I posted my first story about White Collar. It's hard to believe the resulting AU has exceeded 250K words and that we have now reached the end of Flashback. Thank you so much for reading! I hope you've enjoyed it as much as I have. Seeing your feedback for new chapters on Mondays and throughout each week has certainly brightened my days the last few months.
FYI, I'm not planning to bring back Kate. I'll leave it up to each individual reader to decide whether or not she escaped the plane before the explosion. You can imagine the fate you want her to have. Also, Mozzie took the passports Adler had made for Neal when he left the hangar. I don't know yet what he'll do with them, but a passport and fake ID could certainly come in handy someday…
I'm going to take a few weeks off to refresh my mind and then will outline my next big story in this AU, tentatively titled Caffrey Disclosure. The plan is to start posting chapters around the end of November or early December. Among other things, that story will include the hunt for Robert Winslow, and further disclosures by Neal to Peter about how he and Henry stayed off the radar when they were younger and trying to hide from Robert. The main case will involve a corrupt executive in the music industry. If you have suggestions or requests, let me know. No promises to fit everything into the next story, but I'd like to hear what you want. You never know when a request might inspire a scene or even a one-shot individual story.
Meanwhile, my magnificent beta reader Silbrith has been writing stories in this AU and will start posting on October 23. She has several stories already completed and will be posting on Thursdays. I hope you'll check out her stories, starting with Complications, which sets up a fascinating direction for Neal. It's so much fun that I'm barely restraining myself from giving spoilers.