Title: Blythe Spirit

Author: Ursula

Rating: rating:

Genre and/or Pairing:

Notes:

Spoilers:

Warnings: No warnings to protect plot

Word Count:

Summary:

Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners including Jeff Eastin and USA television. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.

OooOooO

It wasn't even supposed to be dangerous. The case involved an older con man who was as affable as Neal. Neal had recognized the modality immediately and told Peter where to find the aging maestro. Given the age and the peaceful career of Mr. Frederick Starr, Peter didn't bring backup. He expected an easy arrest.

Arriving, Peter found Fred Starr packing his luggage. The motel room was starkly furnished, cleaner than the one in which Peter tried to dump Neal, but the coverlet was cheap and getting thread-bare. The furnishings were battered by years of use and the paint grown drab. Peter saw Neal's eyes taking it in and saw them grow dark. Starr had once been as famous as Neal, perpetuating hundreds of successful scams. Millions of dollars must have passed through his hands.

"I have a warrant for your arrest, Frederick Hale Starr," Peter said formally. "You have the right to remain silent." Peter could have read the man his rights when half asleep.

"You don't understand," Starr said. "There are some guys after me."

"Part of the risks of your job."

Peter eyed Neal who lifted his chin, refusing to take the silent rebuke. He put the cuffs on, searched him even though he knew the man did not use weapons, and then gripped the man's arm to lead him down the stairs. Neal followed. As they stepped out into the overgrown courtyard of the motel, Peter heard shouts and then there was a gun shot. He grabbed his prisoner and hurled him to safety behind the fountain. He called for back up instantly.

"Keep an eye on Starr," Peter shouted, pegging a shot at head showing from behind a car.

A few moments later, as NYPD sirens sounded, Peter heard Neal shout. His partner sprinted after Starr, taking Peter's admonition too literally. Peter tried to follow, but when he scurried after them, a fiery streak ran along his head. Peter thudded to the ground.

OooOooO

A week later, Peter pushed a stack of reports off his desk, buried his face in his hands. No Neal.

Starr had turned up. Dead. Moz found information that Starr had scammed a Russian mobster, Gregorovitch. Peter must have been one step before them when he went to arrest the elderly con man. Neal's anklet had been tossed out in the street along with Neal's fedora which was spotted with blood.

Moz's hysterical reaction was enough to tell Peter that this was not a planned disappearance.

As days went by, Peter was increasingly sure that Neal was dead.

El was inconsolable.

Satchmo had taken to wagging his tail while staring at unoccupied areas of the house, including the corner of the couch that had been Neal's favorite. Every time it happened, El burst into fresh tears.

Somehow, Peter knew Neal would break their hearts. He just didn't know how.

WIP

Two weeks had passed. June had invited Moz to occupy Neal's apartment and had called Peter twice to suggest a memorial service for Neal. Peter had to apologize the second time. He yelled no so loud that Satchmo whimpered and went to hide in his crate.

Sleep was elusive. Peter paced for hours. He plowed through clues that were not much more than wild speculations.

Peter tracked Alex down. She reported knowing nothing. Who knew...she was not an honest source, but she hit Peter and blamed him for Neal's death so perhaps she was not lying.

His head on a pile of files, Peter smiled at the gentle touch on his shoulder, the fingers carded through his hair, the soft kiss on his cheek...El should shave and when had she started using Neal's after shave?

Waking, Peter found no El. He could still smell Neal's aftershave.

OooOooO

By week number three, Hughes had given up on Neal. He didn't tell Peter to close the case, but suggested he minimize the use of FBI resources.

Peter's main efforts were spent on finding Gregorovitch, but the mobster had gone deep under. Moz popped up in odd places, haunting Peter. He was standing outside the FBI agents where he had once stealthily met Neal. He was in Time Square where Peter had to go to attend a training session. He turned up in Peter's dining room, eating El's sandwiches and moping.

"Suit, you're not trying," Moz said. "You have to find him. He's out there."

"I'm fresh out of leads."

"You're going to make me do this myself, aren't you?"

"Haversham, don't. Don't throw yourself after Neal."

"You don't get it, do you?" Moz said. "I need Neal."

Standing up, Peter shoved his chair back. It fell, clattering to the floor. "Don't you think I need him too?"

The house smothered him. Peter walked out, ignoring Satchmo's whine to go with him. He walked for hours until rain and darkness sent him home. Moz was gone. El was in bed with Satchmo in Peter's spot. He took it as a message and went to the guest room. The sheets had been less occupied by Neal, but El was a house keeping fiend. Not one trace of Neal's scent remained.

Neal was speaking. He was in a room that Peter had never seen. He was painting, but he was not in a happy state. He gazed at Peter and shook his head. The room had heavy red brocade curtains. They were open, displaying bars. Neal's mouth moved, but Peter could not hear his words no matter how much he strained. "I miss you," Peter said. "I miss you."

When Peter woke, El crowded him on the bed. Her arm was across him. Satchmo slept with his nose wedged into Peter's side, half sitting, half leaning. Neal's fedora was on Peter's pillow. He had it cleaned and repaired after evidence released it. It had been in the downstairs closet on the top shelf. He had no idea how it fell from the shelf, but it was slightly damp so Satchmo had carried it to the bed. Poor dog missed Neal terribly.

He wasn't alone.

OooOooO

The lack of sleep had taken a toll on Peter. He must have drifted off for a moment because now there was a cup of coffee sitting next to him. He took a sip and set the cup down, hands shaking. It was the Italian roast from June's place. Neal periodically brought some in and made a special pot of coffee for Peter and himself. Peter recovered. Neal must have secreted some away and Jones must have found it.

Clinton came in with a stack of reports.

"Thank you," Peter said. "I really needed the coffee. Where did you find Neal's special supply?"

"Huh?" Jones said. "We were all in a mandatory personnel meeting."

Brushing by Jones, Peter searched the break room, finding no trace of the aromatic blend nor was there one of the waxed paper bags in the trash. None of the pots contained anything more than the cheap, bitter grounds that seemed to be the only thing that the office coffee contributions could buy. On the counter, however, was an origami swan.

Peter checked the security cameras. One moment the counter held nothing more than dirty coffee cups waiting for the mothers who did not work there and the next it held the swan. Peter ignored the ice cold trail freezing his spine and told himself someone doctored the tape.

Bastards.

OooOooO

It was driving Peter mad.

He found a stack of cold files with notes in Neal's neat handwriting. Neal could have worked on them before he disappeared, but no one admitted them to putting them on Peter's desk. Peter tried to blame his mysterious opponents, but could find no explanation why they might want to help him.

It could be gas lighting, but seemed an oddly helpful technique. Peter assigned the cases, ignoring the strange looks from Jones and Diana. Both of them recognized Neal's handwriting and both of them found it disturbing that Neal was still consulting, possibly from beyond the grave.

OooOooO

Peter's job has no mercy. You couldn't stop because your heart is broken, because you were weary, because a case didn't end the way you hoped.

He was not allowed the time or grace to mourn.

El worried that his depression, his lack of sleep would throw him off. Peter thought she might be right. He'd tell her if he got out of this situation.

Peter cast a worried look at Jones, who was still unconscious, but equally tied up. Having learned his lesson, losing Neal, possibly forever by going without backup, Peter always had one of his agents with him these days. Unfortunately, the abandoned warehouse proved not to be abandoned. He and Jones were out-muscled by a trio of goons, directed by a counterfeiter who didn't mind assault on a federal agent as part of his future rap sheet. Jones had taken a blow to the head as had Peter, but as Hughes and El could tell anyone; Peter was a hard-headed man.

His stubborn nature was not overcoming the bonds on his ankles and wrists. The hired thugs knew what they were doing. They had made sure Peter's thumbs were incapacitated as well. From what Peter heard when he was feigning unconsciousness, the only reason Jones and he were alive was as hostages if other agents were in route. Unfortunately, unless Diana realized that Jones and he usually would have called in by now, that was unlikely.

Surrender was not in Peter's nature. He kept working the ropes despite the way it was chaffing his wrists bloody. He closed his eyes fighting to free himself. Neal's aftershave wafted from no where and he felt lips brush his forehead before the ropes fell away. One of his captors walked toward him menacingly, his squeaking shoes would have been amusing except for the gun in his hands.

There was a clacking sound and the plastic pipes which were stored in tall racks rolled down, some of them seemed to be moving with unnatural velocity. Next to Peter, Jones woke and said, "Geez, I'm awake, Neal. What the..."

Jones brought his wrists around and stared at them. He glanced at Peter and both of them dived for the gun which came skittering their way. Peter got it first and, an instant later, fired at another of Malone's henchmen. He actually fired at the man's chest as he was trained, but amazingly, his bullet hit the man's gun, sending it spinning away under one of the racks. The man dropped to on knee, holding his hand and swearing.

The third man was smarter and held his distance as Peter and Jones sought cover. Outside, sirens wailed.

The remaining thug must have decided that retreat was the best bet. He dodged away, but another rack of plastic pipes fell. One of the pipes seemed to aim carefully and landed on the man's head. It wedged over his head despite his attempts to fend it off.

Jones remarked, "I am not seeing this."

Moments later, Diana ran in with the rest of the team and NYPD officers. "We caught Malone. He fell over a concrete block and broke his leg. Where's Neal?"

"Neal?" Peter said, looking around. There was nothing but the first thug crawling on his hands and knees out of the mound of plastic pipes and the second unfortunate man, holding his arms high, the pipe still stuck on his head.

"Neal called to say you needed help. He gave this address and warned us that Malone was armed and would be fleeing out the back."

"Neal was not here," Peter said.

"Not in body," Jones said. He looked heavenward and said, "Thanks, buddy."

Peter could not thank Neal. To do so was to acknowledge he would never see Neal in person again, never put an arm around his shoulder or give him that first kiss which seemed inevitable.

"It must have been some good Samaritan that sounded like Neal."

"Right, boss," Dianna said.

"It could happen."

"I know."

"Because Neal's not dead so he can't be a ghost."

Jones interrupted to say, "Why couldn't he be? It's not as if Neal ever obeyed the rules."

OooOooO

Moz never looked precisely healthy. He had a greenish pallor at times and Peter remembered Uncle Fester from childhood reruns of the Addams Family when he thought about Moz too long.

Still, the dark circles had never been as exaggerated as they were now. Moz's eyes looked like a raccoon's.

The man would ordinarily not be someone who Peter found frightening. Finding Moz sitting in your own living room, his white skin fluorescing from the light was another matter.

Peter reached for the gun that even he would not have in his pajamas.

Dolefully, Moz said, "I found a lead on Gregorovitch. I'm going deep to follow it."

Recovering from his surprise and wondering how he find a better home security system, Peter said, "I can't let you do that."

"I wasn't asking. I'm only telling you because Neal lo...liked you."

Tossing Peter a cell phone, Moz walked out of the house, shoulders slumped, chin tucked.

Closing his eyes, Peter clenched his fists in the dark. He could only hope that St. Nicholas, the patron saint of thieves, would protect Moz and Neal too.

He knew he could stop Moz but he couldn't make himself. If Peter couldn't find Neal, perhaps his Moz could.

OooOooO

Jones looked up as Peter entered. "This looks like Neal's work."

Picking up the file Jones handed him, Peter scanned the few pages and said, "Yes, it does."

The theft of a Russian Icon of Saint Nicholas wasn't front page news. It was actually in the arts and cultural section of the Times. It was an elegant little piece of work. The substitution of a fake would never have been caught except that the icon fell during a cleaning. The curator noticed that there was a new inscription. It had said in Russian: St. Nicholas bless and protect us.

The new inscription invoked Saint Peter instead.

It clicked in Peter's head. Few facts were known about Gregorovitch, but the one that stood out was that the man was Russian Orthodox and was, perversely, given his occupation and history, very religious.

"Saint Nicholas was the Patron Saint of thieves."

"What now we got to contend with saints protecting these guys?" Jones complained.

"The patronage was the result of a story about the saint reforming two young thieves so he is on our side. He helps reform thieves."

"Kind of like Neal and us."

Peter shook his head, not so much because he disagreed, but because, despite being a lapsed Catholic, he found himself making silent prayers for Neal's safe return.

"Let's go have a look at the forgery."

OooOooO

The curator was a pale blond and slight man. He had an English accent, but a Russian name, Kuryakin.

"Nick Kuryakin," the man said.

"You seem familiar," Peter mused.

"Oh, you must be thinking about my father or my uncle. They were rather famous in their day."

"Hmm," Peter said, still not making the connection.

"I have the forgery in my office."

It was hanging on the wall.

At Peter's stern glance, Kuryakin shrugged, giving a diffident smile that was almost as charming as Neal's brain bombarding grin. He said, "It's still a beautiful work. I would never presume to hang the original, but this is another thing."

Putting on gloves, Peter took down the icon. There were no finger prints. That had already been checked. Peter was looking for something else.

It took a borrowed magnifying glass, but Peter found it. In the detail of Saint Nicholas's bishop's miter, there was a repeated pattern that one could imagine were the initials, NC.

Peter's hands trembled. He carefully handed the icon to Kuryakin and placed the magnifying glass on his desk, before covering his eyes with shaking hands. "Thank you. Thank you," he murmured prayerfully. He was not sure who he was thanking but it might have been Saint Nicholas into whose capable hands he placed Neal.

OooOooO

Tracing back, there had been two other icons of Saint Nicholas taken. One was from a private home, a treasured family heirloom that allegedly was looted from the Tsar's palace during the Russian revolution and carried to America during World War Two. This one was simply taken, no substitution.

The other was purloined from the Russian Orthodox Church in Saint Petersburg. The icon's loss went undiscovered for some time until one of the priests noticed that the hand folded over the scepter

Peter was granted a trip to Florida with both Diana and Jones. He was very pleased, considering the budget cuts, that he could take that much of his team. They flew on the government rate which meant that Jones and Peter felt as if they were squeezed into playground swings instead of airline seats. Diana sat between them and tried not to inhale too deeply.

The family which owned the heirloom icon was not wealthy. The owner was the wife. She wept as she showed Peter the blank space on the wall where the icon had hung. "It was not insured. The company said it was too valuable and we would have to have security systems in place. We could not afford it."

Ms. Shann had thick, graying blond hair that she kept in a thick cornet of braids. Her features were petite and still pretty. Her eyes reminded Peter of El's and Neal's, a shining electric blue. She was slender and graceful.

Mr. Shann had married up. He was thick set and burly, one of those guys who had was too manly to need a neck between his large head and massive shoulders. His nose had the telltale red of a heavy drinker. His eyes shifted when his wife sobbed. Peter's eyes roved around the room and lit on some racing forms. He moved toward them. There was a large stack, dated recently from .

"It's interesting," Peter said. He shuffled through the forms. "In all the other cases, the icon was replaced with a clever forgery."

"If I even had a copy, I would be happy," Ms. Shan said, sobbing, her gray dress bosom heaving.

"You gamble a lot," Peter directed at Mr. Shan.

"Yeah, what of it?"

"Over two thousands in bets."

"That much?" Ms. Shan said, her eyes flashing with some spirit at last. "Joe, you promised."

"I told you. I won big a couple weeks ago. It's my money. I can spend it how I like."

"I told you, Joe, you have to slow down. I didn't ask you to stop. I said don't gamble more than we can afford."

Wincing, Peter said, "There are gambling anonymous programs everywhere. The way I understand it, it's like any other addiction. You don't taper off. You quit and you stay quit."

"Getta outa my house," Joe Shan roared.

"I'm going to subpoena your bank records," Peter replied. He turned to leave.

Ms. Shan followed them out. She said, "I wanted to believe he finally won at the track. There was a small part of me that doubted. Now... I'll go with you to the bank and we can look at the records together. He doesn't like me to look at our account, but I have access."

The bank was a couple miles away. Ms. Shan drove Peter in her car, a battered Jetta. Peter left Diana and Jones behind to watch Joe harried bank manager was a large, balding black man. He looked at Ms. Shan's identification and then insisted on seeing the agents. Peter gave him points for that. There were few cases on record of people being forced to withdraw all of their money from banks under threat.

Diana called to say Joe Shan was at an ATM. Peter said, "Stall him."

"Sure, boss."

"No force," Peter reminded. Diana sometimes got a little testy with perps she thought were abusing woman.

A small sigh came over the phone. Diana said, "Okay, Boss."

Peter found a smile escaping him. He loved having Diana back. Now he needed Neal. The real Neal.

Turning back, Peter saw Ms. Shan weeping. He said, "I'm sorry."

"It's okay. I knew in my heart. He had overdrawn the account. He made a large deposit that cleared the overdraft and covered our bills. I'm going to take most of the money out and put it in another account. I can do that, can't I?"

"I'm not sure. I think you should talk to a lawyer."

The bank manager said, "There are several that rent suites on the next floor. I am sure that at least once might handle...domestic situations."

"Thanks," Ms. Shan said.

Peter stepped away to call Diana back. If Ms. Shan made her bank transfer, Peter didn't see it.

OooOooO

It was warm, silent, dark. Neal floated weightlessly. Was this heaven? Was this hell? There was no discomfort except a slight itching that disappeared. Neal opened his eyes widely, but it was still impossible to catch any glimmer of light.

The first stage was simply feeling relaxed. He was in no pain. He realized that he was naked, but felt no embarrassment. There was no one to see and besides he and Kate had often gone sun bathing on nude beaches to Moz's discomfort. Moz, of course, had refused to go.

Some time later, Neal yelled for help, to be out. He could not hear anything. The silence, the warmth, the floating were no longer comfortable. He would have scratched his own skin to have sensation but he could not move his arms more than a few inches. It was difficult to move at all. It felt as if he was drugged, but the distance feeling was not in his mind, but in his body. For the moment, other than the seeds of panic, his head seemed clear.

Hours...days went by.

Neal knew he slept at times. He was aware of times when he woke, no longer hungry. He missed being hunger. Hunger was a sensation. Hunger said you lived and felt.

The fullness led to the inevitable, but Neal was not aware of voiding, just that he would wake with his bladder and bowels empty.

Neal tried to fill his mind with memories. He heard noises, strange roaring, panting sounds that he knew were not real, but which made his heart pound anyway. He sensed evil out there...beyond the void. It crawled along his skin like a lingering offensive touch.

As the fear became overwhelming, Neal suddenly was elsewhere. He was in Peter and El's living room. They did not see him, but Satchmo did, barking his greeting and wagging his tail hard.

"Good, Satchmo! Now if you were Lassie, you would find a way to tell Peter I needed help. Come on, boy, Neal's in the well."

Satchmo wagged his tell fiercely and wiggled to be petted. Neal reached out with ethereal hands. He could feel nothing at first, but as he concentrated, he felt warm fur and the sweetness of petting a happy dog. It was something, something to help him endure.

It took less and less effort to get back to Peter's house. Neal stood over Peter, asleep, worry crease still on his forehead, and could not help reaching for him, patting his shoulder, smoothing Peter's hair with tender and yearning fingers. He had never kissed Peter before, but now he leaned down, kissed Peter's cheek. He was worried about his friend and couldn't ask him for help.

Before Neal could decide what to do next, he was dragged, sucked back into this body. Something was happening. He felt the liquid in which he was floating draining. His skin felt chilled for the first time ...in a long time.

The darkness was lifted. It probably not very bright in the room, but any light at all, hurt Neal's eyes. He lifted a hand, covered his eyes.

Brutal hands pulled Neal from his bed, which, glancing back, was shaped like a large coffin with tubes coming out of it. The lid had a divided hatch. Neal realized how his wastes were removed while he slept.

"My young friend, it is time you started earning your keep."

The oldest of the three men in the room was well dressed. He wore a Tessori Uumo suit in beige with a black shirt. No designer shirt could soften his predatory look.

"Shower."

Neal's captor's order was quickly obeyed. The hench men were identical twins, not large men, but very muscle or. They were blond, grey eyed, with very pale skin. Both had sleeves of tattoos that Neal recognized as associated with Russian mobs. Stupid to mark yourselves as criminals, but it was part of the culture, a macho flaunting of their lack of fear of the law.

Legs weak and shaky, Neal was led to the shower. One of the twins started the shower and the other guided him into the spray. The hand held nozzle scoured the slime of something salty from his skin.

The older man said, "My wife had fibromyalgia and this was a recommended treatment. She also had a weak heart which gave out on her when one of my former employees failed to get her out in time. I should have disposed of the tank, but it was very expensive and I am not a man who wastes money. How fortunate I thought of a way to use it."

Neal was allowed to dress and then was brought to a room upstairs with an easel and artistic supplies. He also saw an antique slab of wood and paints he recognized as specific to those used to create Russian icons.

"The painting is in the Russian national museum," Neal's captor said. He smiled and said, "You may call me Sir or Mr. Gregorovitch."

The painting was by Ilya Repin and pictured St. Nicholas saving three innocents from death. Repin was of the realistic school of Russian artists and the painting had a photographic feel to it.

"You will take your time with the reproduction. Meanwhile there are some icons that I need copied. The materials are ready."

Neal didn't argue. His senses were swooning with the smell of paint. His art as always was release to him. He fled to the freedom of creation.

Left alone, Neal checked to find bars and tell tales of a security system. He opened the door to find two more identical twin guards, these bearded brutes who would have looked at home in a painting of Cossacks.

Neal waved fingers at the men and said, "Just checking."

"Gregorovitch said to remind you that the tank awaits."

Neal went back to his work.

OooOooO