Title: Living in Interesting Times

Author: Tearsofamiko

Rating: K

Disclaimer: I own nothing about the White Collar series, its characters or plotlines, including any recognizable dialogue. Why rub it in?

Spoilers: Hard Sell

Summary: He's not even sure until it happens, but he can't say he's surprised.

A/N: Argh! They took down this episode!! Grrr! Well. . . If any of the dialogue is out of place, wrong, or missing (I know there's some missing, but I figure it doesn't hinder the story that much), I apologize. I couldn't really start this story until I finished the last one. Grrrrr....

This story is complete.

.:::.

Neal's incredibly silent, Mozzie notices as he moves his knight to seize a bronze pawn. Has been all evening and Moz is more than a little unnerved by the uncustomary silence. Even after his worst fights with Kate, it was harder to shut Neal up than to get him to talk. Though he detests the idea of meddling where Neal hasn't invited him, Mozzie decides to bite the figurative bullet.

"What's with you?" he asks offhandedly and, for the first time since they started their game, Neal raises his eyes from the board, revealing a turbulent gaze darkened to near steel-gray with emotion.

"I found the ring. It's Peter," he answers with a nod, his tone empty, his eyes wide and his expression almost unconcerned. But Mozzie knows him too well, has spent too many years talking him into and out of schemes, not to recognize the signs.

It's in the way his shoulders are set, the tic in his cheek as he glances back down at the board, the way he still refuses to speak. Somehow (and he's never quite sure until after it happens) he's not surprised when Neal's composure completely shatters. He's not sure if it was how those clear eyes suddenly turned as hard as diamonds and as cold as ice or the way his face contorted into a frustrated, angry, hurt scowl; whatever it was, he sits back away from the table just in time, as Neal lashes out and sends the chess pieces flying.

Mozzie blinks in reaction and, when he opens his eyes again, Neal's slumped in his chair, staring blankly into the distance as the chess pieces chatter softly across the floor. Watching for a second, it's easy to see how much this is hurting his friend, how hard this is for the younger man to deal with. Mozzie knows that, despite their shared past, Neal was starting to trust the Suit, to want and value his good opinion. To have that trust so grossly violated...

"I'm so sorry, man," is all the comfort he can offer and it doesn't even penetrate the gloom hovering over the other man.

"Why, Moz? Why would he do this?" The tone is so broken, it's hard to recognize it as belonging to Neal.

"He's a Suit. It's what they do," Mozzie offers, knowing even as he says it it's cold comfort. He's tried to warn his friend, tried to point out the faults in this unusual relationship. He's practically been waiting for this to happen; no one in the government can ever be expected to play by anyone's rules but their own and this is just further proof of that theory. He feels surprisingly vindicated. "Are you going to play it out?" He's genuinely curious about how Neal will handle this.

"What choice do I have?" He sounds lost, trapped. It's unfamiliar, unsettling, and upsetting. Before this deal with the FBI, Mozzie never heard Neal sound anything but optimistic, confident, even when the FBI was breathing down his neck four years ago. And never before has Mozzie had to point out the obvious.

"Well," he drawls, taking off his glasses and studying his partner, "they've got you off your leash for this one."

Slowly, the realization dawns in Neal's eyes and, for a second, Mozzie's afraid he'll refuse, beg off using his work-release deal as an explanation. The moment passes without an excuse and he feels the first stirrings of adrenaline in his blood. He loves this moment, right before Neal decides that a con is worth the risk, worth whatever sacrifices and deals they'll have to make. He finds himself holding his breath until Neal finally meets his eyes and speaks.

"I'll need some cash." Yes! That's it! That's the man Mozzie knew for years, the man that stayed tantalizingly out of reach of hundreds of law enforcement agencies, the man the FBI and Peter Burke has been trying so hard to cage, to domesticate, to tame. This is the real Neal Caffrey.

"We can get cash," he responds, barely containing his enthusiasm over this triumphant reawakening.

He can tell Neal's still hesitant, still wanting to believe in the Suit's innocence and motives. Mozzie doesn't say anything, doesn't want to be blamed later if this goes south, but he can't help the twitch he feels start in his foot. He won't influence his friend's decision this time, he won't influence his friend's decision this time, he won't --

"Do it."

Ah, he can already taste the clear, open, Suit-free air...