Neal never calls. One terrible night, Sara has to dig out the paper with his number to make sure it really exists and that it wasn't just a dream. She sends him a terrified text and blinks away angry tears when she gets a reply. Damn Neal Caffrey. Damn him for all of this.
Two days later, the first postcard arrives, and they keep coming steadily like clockwork, one card each week, never signed but always with a drawing tucked somewhere in the corner. Sara treasures the cards and reads over Neal's brief sentences; she replies with the occasional text and keeps the postcards in her sock drawer. She goes back to work and continues to shine; she takes photos and goes out with friends and chases bad guys even though she can't have her baton.
Life goes on.
As the weeks pass, the hurt starts dissipating and Sara finds herself looking forward to Neal's cards. They start texting each other regularly, and when she smiles secretly for the third time in a row after reading one of Neal's texts, Sara realizes how much she's missed his humor.
Things get better after that. She closes several big cases at Sterling&Bosch and receives an obscenely big bonus; in her free time, she begins looking for a bigger apartment that she can call her own. She keeps meeting with Alice and looks into language classes – she hesitates over French before picking advanced Spanish instead.
Everything is good until one Saturday afternoon three months later, when Neal knocks on the door of her apartment wearing just a thin coat over a wet dive skin; shaking with cold, his hair dripping with water, smelling of river and clutching something in his hand.
o - o - o
"Caffrey?!" Sara exclaims in shock when she sees him.
Neal gives her a tired smile. "May I come in?"
She stares at him, taking in his chattering teeth and the dirt around his fingers. "Neal, what the – are you crazy?! … Get in the shower before you catch pneumonia."
"You don't have to–"
"Don't be an idiot," says Sara with a sigh. "Do you have anything to change into?"
"Err, not really…? Thanks," he breathes out gratefully as she ushers him in. "Umm, the bathroom…?"
"Over there," says Sara. She takes his coat and points him to the right door.
"Thanks," says Neal again and closes the door behind himself. A few moments later, Sara hears the sound of the shower starting. She shakes her head and hangs the coat on the coat rack. Then she tries to figure if she has anything that could fit Neal in his current state of undress.
After rummaging through her stuff, she finds a large T-shirt that she occasionally wears around the apartment. Discarding all her jogging pants as too small, she then adds a pair of her pale yellow sleeping pants that might just be loose enough to fit.
Knocking on the bathroom door, she opens it and puts the clothes on the floor. "There are bath towels in the top drawer," she says loud enough to be heard over the sound of the shower.
What is he doing here anyway?
Shaking her head, she makes them a kettle of tea and waits for Neal to come out.
Five minutes later, he finally emerges, still looking a bit ridiculous in the shirt and the too-small pants. Noticing the goosebumps on Neal's skin, Sara hands him a blanket before settling them both at the sofa by the small table in her living room. She pours them two mugs of tea and pushes one into Neal's direction. "Okay, Caffrey. Now spill."
Picking up the mug, Neal takes a careful sip before putting it down again. Then he opens his palm and places something on the table. Sara's heart stops.
It's the rings.
Their shine has dimmed a bit and there's a little dirt on them, but otherwise, they look exactly the same as the engagement rings she bought them two years ago.
She can't breathe.
Neal is looking at her with that hesitant smile, and Sara has never wanted to slap him as much as she does now. She stares at the accursed pieces of gold before stumbling to her feet. "You – how dare you."
His smile disappears. "Sara–"
"A year, Neal. And then you just waltz in here, flash a smile and you think you've fixed everything? How did you find them?"
He swallows. "I didn't."
"I tried. I found the right bridge; I spent two weeks searching for them; I couldn't…" He takes a deep breath. "I couldn't find them. They were gone."
"Gone?" echoes Sara, her anger momentarily fading. "Well, that's the sort of thing that happens when you disappear for a year."
Neal winces. "I think I got that, thank you."
Sara nods; he's finally heard her. "So what are these?" she asks at last, staring at the familiar rings on the table.
"I copied them?" says Neal with a hint of a question. "I thought – I figured – I couldn't find the originals, so I found out how they looked–"
"Yeah? How did you do that?"
"I have my sources," says Neal lightly. Sara glares at him. "Okay, I may have asked Mozzie to dig into your finances–"
"You did what?!"
"- so I could track down the shop where you bought them," Neal finishes quickly. "The shopkeeper told me how they looked and I had him make a similar pair. After that, I had to age them–"
"I'm sorry, how does one age a ring?"
"Perfume sprays, bleach, scrubbing… I boiled them with some of the mud and grit from under the bridge, and… well, this sort of stuff. Then I put on the dive skin, took the rings, took a swim in the river–"
"–and came here," Sara finishes the story.
Dressed in nothing but the dive skin and a coat, with only the rings and the knowledge that she might not let him in. And… Sara doesn't know what she's supposed to feel now.
Looking from the rings back at Neal, Sara sees his sadness and regret. "I really don't know what to say, Caffrey."
Neal nods. "I suppose I deserve that…"
"No, you were right. I didn't even realize how much I hurt you – all of you – before you pointed it out. And this," he points at the rings, "I know it's not enough. I know I can't take it back. And I'm sorry for all I put you through, but… I guess it's the best I've got."
In the end, Neal stands up. "Anyway, thanks for the tea. I'll see myself out…"
"You still have my clothes," Sara points out when she finds her voice.
Neal looks down at the pajama bottoms. "Right. I can send them back to you…"
"You said Mozzie helped you with this?" asks Sara curiously.
Neal cracks a smile. "We're talking again. Though he probably hoped that you'd toss me out in the coat and swim suit…"
"Of course," says Sara, cracking a smile of her own. She remembers Mozzie and wonders how he is doing, suddenly missing the little man and remembering the other things that Neal brought into her life.
Caffrey is standing there in her T-shirt and the tight yellow sleeping pants that don't even reach his ankles; uncertain, barefoot and vulnerable. And the thing is, Sara knows that she is being manipulated, she knows how he planned all this, and yet…
"You haven't finished your tea," she says and points to his mug.
Neal hesitates. "You sure? I can go if you want…"
Honestly? No, she's not sure of anything, and especially not this. "Finish the damn tea," she says, more roughly than she intended.
Sara watches him curl back on the sofa, watches as Neal's fingers hesitate next to the rings on the table when he picks up his mug again, watches as he sips his tea and plays with the edge of the blanket.
"You forged the rings," she says suddenly.
Neal looks startled. "That's not – I didn't–"
"But you did. You figured out how they looked, you aged them – you forged them, Caffrey."
And then Sara has to look away to hide her budding smile.
Because he forged them. Neal forged the rings – he forged the engagement rings that she dropped from the bridge. It's so ridiculous, so stupidly Caffrey that she wants to laugh. Of course Neal would do this – he was the guy who tried to impress his ex-girlfriend by committing crimes and stealing the Raphael. Sara has to grin despite herself, even though a part of her still wants to slap Neal for what he's done.
When he faked his death, he broke them; he might just as well have taken a sledgehammer to their relationship. And yet Sara recognizes that some of the cracks were her own doing; when she left him for London; when she didn't let him in, suspecting (rightly) that he would hurt her; when she let him deal with Pratt, Hagen and everything else all alone.
She takes a deep breath before she turns around to face him. "You're right, you hurt me… You know how they say that the third time is the charm? This is actually the fourth time we've left each other."
"If you want to, I'm not above cheating fate," says Neal with a small smile before he turns serious. "I'm sorry, Sara. Look, if you want me to leave…" He hesitates before pointing at the table. "Do you want to keep these?"
The rings are still there. For a moment, it's almost tempting, but then Sara shakes her head. "No, you should keep them."
She sees as Neal nods in acceptance. "Okay."
She knows then that he will walk out of the door and they will never speak about this again. They will be friends, there will be postcards and texts and Christmas wishes, and Neal will never bring it up again because he'll respect her wishes and let her go.
"You know, you could ask me out to a dinner," says Sara before Neal collects his coat.
He stills. "Dinner?"
She bites her lip. "What if I'm not above cheating fate? I always liked skirting the line between the black and white…"
o - o - o
Two days later, they're at Neal's place, talking, laughing in between awkward pauses and eating spaghetti.
When Neal goes to get them more wine, Sara contemplates her decision. Even under the best of circumstances, this would be complicated. She lives in London, Neal lives in Paris… Maybe she made a mistake. Or maybe they can fix themselves; rebuild themselves better than they once were. Either way, Sara is confident enough in herself to take that risk.
To another time, another us…
She can't trust Neal to never hurt her or even to never leave again, but she can trust him to be Neal. And maybe she doesn't need him to be anyone else; maybe this, what they have, is enough.
It's a con, but it's also real, so Sara takes a leap of faith and dares to reach for the sky.