Sorry about the longer wait for this update. I'll save my excuses, and just say that this is here earlier than it would have been because guest reader Macy asked for an update before this story's third year anniversary.. which is...tomorrow?! Gosh, how can it be three years already?! Especially because I initially posted chapter 1 thinking it would stay a oneshot! xD Thank you for pointing that out, Macy! Here's your next chapter:)
Thanks again to everyone reading! Hope you guys like this next one!
Peter released him, clapping a hand onto Neal's shoulder, leaving it there. Almost as if it was just because he could. "Damn good to have you back, Neal."
Neal blinked, willing away the burning behind his eyes. When it was under control as best as he could get it, he forced a smile. "You, uh," Neal cleared his throat, "you said we have a case?"
If Peter sensed Neal's redirect he didn't let on. He hesitated a moment, as if he wasn't sure how Neal felt about that. "We do," he said, releasing Neal's shoulder and nodded to the car. "Get in."
Neal pulled open the door, sat down in the passenger seat. Pulled the door shut, and put on his seat belt. He couldn't help the sigh that escaped him.
Something he did himself.
Something as normal as getting into a car was something he could miss, even after eight weeks.
What it had felt like after four years…
Neal blinked fast.
Best not to think about it too much.
Peter turned the car on and drove them out of the gates, and out of the facility. But it was only when he was pulling into the street, filled with traffic of people of all walks of life, a businessman on the phone in the car to their right, a taxi cutting them off ahead of them, the people walking the streets in all forms of urgency…
Neal shut his eyes briefly, listening to the chorus of car horns and city sounds. It was then Neal realized Peter was saying something.
"Hmm?" asked Neal, opening his eyes.
Peter was looking at him more than he was the road. "You okay, Neal?"
Neal shook himself a little. "Yeah, fine. What did you say?"
Peter didn't look like he fully believed him, but he said anyway, "I'm sorry we have a case so quick, Hughes is… insistent, and they're not sure when this guy is gonna strike next." Neal translated that easily enough in his head: Hughes needs a win from us, and fast. "I think you'll like your part in it, though," said Peter with half a grin. "They need someone to test security of a bank."
Neal felt a familiar sense of thrill light up somewhere beyond the numbness. He did like the sound of that. "You want me to rob a bank?"
"I want you to rob a bank under government sanction and with permission of the bank manager," clarified Peter.
"Potato, po-tah-to," said Neal.
"But first," said Peter, changing lanes abruptly enough to send Neal into the door, and cause the car he cut off to lay on their horn, "we have a quick stop to make."
"For what?" asked Neal, righting himself in the seat, glad his ribs had healed, or that would have hurt.
Peter pulled swiftly into a parking space, making Neal look out the window to see where they were. And when he did, he looked back to find Peter grinning at him.
The moment they walked inside the coffeeshop, the aroma of freshly brewed drinks of all kinds enveloped them.
Neal couldn't help a smile.
People bustled about, workers rushing behind the counters to fulfill orders, calling out drinks that were ready. A line of a few people stood before the cashier, and a light chorus of conversation from the seated patrons was nearly as warm as the aroma.
It felt good.
It felt so damn good.
Neal caught the scent of something Italian, and it began to take him back to Italy, but he stopped that train of thought instantly, yanking himself away. He had a long road of grieving ahead.
He was going to enjoy his first day back to his life.
Neal blinked, turning to see Peter a few feet ahead of him. Neal joined him, not having realized the line moved. Neal chastised himself; he's zoned out more than once in the past twenty minutes. You need to be on your game unless you want to end up back in prison.
For the love of… Peter must have asked him something else. "Yeah?" asked Neal.
Peter looked like he was going to ask something feelings-related, but then aborted his plan. They were suddenly next in line and Peter gestured for Neal to go first. "Whatever you want," he said, briefly clasping Neal's shoulder.
Neal hid a smile at that, and said, "Just a cup of your Italian roast with some cream, please."
No more instant coffee.
No more sludge.
Peter ordered his own coffee, and as they waited for them, Neal took in the normalness of the people, the life around. It was always interesting to think how his life had been paused for four years, four whole years, while this continued to go on in the world. And though two months was far less than four years, it sure as hell felt nearly as long.
Coffee in hand, Peter and Neal left the shop, getting back into Peter's car. And once again, Neal felt himself appreciating the ability - the gift of walking without handcuffs or shackles, without eyes boring into his back, judgement boring into his soul. Here, he was just another person. At the moment, he didn't even have the anklet, making it feel like the first time in five years that he felt at least the facsimile of freedom.
Back in the car, Neal took a sip of the coffee.
Closed his eyes.
June's was better for sure, but to be able to get it himself, drinking it for all to see, this was most certainly his best cup in a very long time.
Peter pulled back into traffic, and as he did, he reached an arm behind him to grab something, making the car swerve a little and Neal nearly spilled the coffee over himself. "You couldn't have gotten that when we were parked?" he found himself saying as he carefully tried to keep the coffee inside the cup.
Finding what he needed, Peter pulled his arm back, grinning.
Neal's never seen him smile after a quip on his driving.
Neal's never seen him smile this much in such a short amount of time… ever.
"Here," said Peter, holding a file out for Neal to take, which he did. "Everything you need to know about the bank is in that file, and the FBI has set you up as a new employee under your alias Nick Halden through the only hole in their security we found. We'll be there in twenty. Is that enough time for you to plan something?"
Neal placed his coffee in the holder and opened the file, trained eyes following the specs of the building. He knew of the building already; it was Midtown Mutual, and wasn't too far from the FBI building. Without even bothering to have read the file Neal would already know of three ways in. He would have been even more thorough if he could have cased the inside and outside beforehand, but Neal was very used to wrenches thrown into plans. He'd make do.
Neal knew that Peter knew that, too. Which meant that question on Neal's ability to do so was more of a concern for… other things.
In an attempt to avoid having any sort of conversation about Peter's concern, Neal thought quick. "We'll be there in twenty seconds?" asked Neal, turning a page, knowing full well that Peter had meant minutes. "Plenty of time and then some."
Peter looked a little relieved at Neal's false confidence, and shook his head a little to himself. "Should have guessed."
The drive was fairly quiet as Neal read the rest of the file. The job he was being asked to do wasn't to just break in any which way, it was to gage every way it could be broken into or compromised. Halfway through reading it, Neal had to squint as Peter drove over some bumpy patch of road that made the file shake in his hands. It was only when Neal looked up to see the road smooth as ever, that he realized it was him shaking the paper. With slight annoyance, he dropped the file to his lap and read from there, clasping his hands together as the tremor ran its course.
It didn't take Peter and Neal a full twenty minutes to get to the bank, thanks to Peter's reckless driving. Neal briefly wondered if his life were more at risk here than it had been in prison.
Peter parked at least two blocks away. The file Peter had given him explained the "in" that the FBI had managed to find, which was an unguarded basement entrance. From there, Neal would be able to feed his new employee welcome badge and packet.
It really wasn't a bad plan, though Neal himself probably would have chosen a plan that was a little more challenging, maybe something that involved the roof, an area he already knew was another possible way in from simply reading the file. But this needed to go as smoothly as possible, so simple and easy was just fine with him.
Handing Neal a set of clothes for his cover, Peter said, "You can change in the basement. You won't run into anyone until you head upstairs. Keep an eye out for any other holes in their security."
Neal nodded, taking the clothes and putting them into the briefcase Peter also supplied him with, that would soon be filled with cash stolen from the vault. "I meet you back here then?"
"Yeah. Jones is on his way."
Neal nodded again.
"All right," said Peter with mock- exasperation. "Go rob a bank."
Neal gave him a half-grin of his own, and took the briefcase, straightened his tie and got out of the car.
As he began to walk away, Peter watched him like a parent sending their kid off to their first day of school; a clash of fondness and nervousness. Neal turned the comer, out of sight from Peter as he headed to the basement entrance.
It wasn't lost on him that he wasn't wearing the anklet. So, walking down the crowded New York street, passing vendors and people on their own daily missions, Neal reveled in the small joy of feeling just like them. A normal person, having to answer to no one, living life on his own. He knew it was only temporary, but the feeling would never cease to be comforting. Especially after having grown up in witness protection, someone monitoring his every move, telling him who to be… then to the life of a criminal with someone always chasing or hunting him down, to this life. The one of a prisoner, living life in the real world, though it felt and was only as real as a child playing house in their parents' home. An illusion. A dream, more than anything at all.
So he took a breath in the temporary freedom, however much of an illusion it was.
"Something doesn't have to be real for you to love it."
Neal smiled, feeling as if Elizabeth's words were a motto to more in his life than just his past love.
So if he walked a little slower than normal to the bank, he claimed that to be an illusion as well.
The con, or sting, as Peter would have called it, felt like going through the motions. The more fake smiles he gave the staff, the more movements he made seemed only to remind him how exhausted he truly was. But this wasn't a time he could be sloppy, so he held desperately onto the caffeine the coffee provided and hoped it would get him through the next hour.
Soon enough, he was back outside, briefcase in hand, weighed down by the money taken from the vault. Stealing it was far too easy, and Neal briefly wondered why he and Mozzie hadn't robbed banks more often when they'd been very strapped for cash.
Any idiot can rob a bank, Mozzie's voice floated into his mind, and Neal cracked the smallest smile. He did always prefer a challenge.
Neal again reveled in his temporary freedom, walking with the other New Yorkers. One of them. Just a regular person.
Which he almost had been.
The Mentor operation would have granted him a new name, a new life. A regular life. He, for the first time in his entire life, could have finally stopped running. He could have even stopped conning if he wanted to. Could have settled down, in a quiet life with the woman he—
"Planning on walking with that?"
Neal blinked, stopping on the sidewalk at Peter's voice. His heart beat fast as his mind wandered into scarred emotional territory and he was just able to make out Jones standing next to Peter, a few yards behind him. Hell, he walked right by them.
Not wanting to admit he'd zoned out, because he needed to be on his A-game for this, Neal quickly found a response. "No law against thinking about it."
Peter smirked and Jones reached for the briefcase with a slight roll of his eyes. "Looks like it's all here," said Jones, looking at the cash. Neal raised a brow, wondering how smart it was to open the case here in the open, Feds or not.
"Let's go tell the bank manager their bank isn't secure," said Peter, clapping Neal on the shoulder.
Neal turned to get into the car when Peter cleared his throat, and Jones lifted his hand, and the object in it.
But complete freedom for an hour and a half was still more than he's had in the past two months, and Neal was frankly too tired to mind when Jones clicked it into place.