Title: My Life is Not a Romance Novel
Characters: Alex, Neal
Pairings: Neal/Alex (vaguely implied past)
Summary: Alex left the music box in the past but it still haunts her wherever she goes.
Spoilers: Up to "Forging Bonds" in season 2
Notes: For Day Five of Women Fest.
Alex seated herself on the easy chair with a silly smut book she'd been indulging in the past few days, and took a sip of her coffee with a contented sigh. The past few days had been rough, what with the deal she'd been trying to pull off going pear-shaped. Something (or someone) had spooked her buyer, and she'd barely managed to pull off the sale. Things had not been going well lately, even though the music box had been returned, and it was beginning to feel like she was running out of places to go. Her contacts were slowly but surely being driven away from her. Soon she'd have to come up with a new plan to make money.
But for today, she was going to relax. She had some money in her pockets. She had an excellent cup of coffee, and her not-so-excellent book called to her. Serge and Veronica were just getting started with their first time together in Veronica's drawing room, while her evil jackass husband Duke Reginald Baldwin Esquire the Third was away in London for a business trip. Alex had just gotten to the part where Serge hiked up Veronica's skirt when her phone rang.
She was going to ignore it, but then she glanced at the screen and saw a very welcome name. She put her bookmark in place and answered on the fourth ring. "Hello, Neal," Alex said, genuinely happy to hear from him.
"Alex!" Neal's voice warmed her and chased away some of the shadows in her mind. "How are you?"
They made idle chitchat for a few minutes, but Alex knew something was up. There was an edge to his voice, and a few times he seemed to be segueing into a new topic before changing his mind. Deciding to take pity on him, Alex interrupted Neal's good-natured complaints about Mozzie drinking all his favorite wines. Alex idly rubbed a thumb over the creases on the spine of her book as she listened to Neal prattle on about nothing. He definitely wanted something, but he seemed reluctant to talk about it.
"Do you need something, Neal?" Alex asked when he finally ran out of things to say.
"Is it that obvious?" Neal sounded wounded. Alex grinned even though he couldn't see her.
"Just a lucky guess," Alex replied graciously. "What's up?"
Neal paused. That was never a good sign, and her good mood started to fizzle away. What could be wrong now? "Why don't you come over? I'd rather talk to you in person anyway," Neal suggested.
"Fine. I'll bring lunch. Be there in an hour," she promised, and hung up the phone. She tapped the phone lightly and sighed. Neal hadn't sounded upset or worried. Just cautious. Alex looked at her book with sad longing. She was sure the loathsome Duke was going to return early and catch the happy couple in the act. It was terribly predictable, but sometimes that it was nice to know what was going to show up ahead of time. She set the book down and patted the cover. Serge and Veronica were just going to have to wait a little longer.
True to her word, she was at Neal's within the hour. Neal greeted her with a kiss to the cheek and helped her carry her bags into his apartment. "What did you bring, the entire store?" he asked with a grin. He got some dishes and retrieved the silverware while she unpacked all her goodies.
She'd brought mostly healthy stuff, except the dessert, which was a lovely chocolate torte. If they were going to end up talking about Serious Business, this would at least be something they could enjoy. "Do you want to talk now, or eat first?" Alex asked as Neal handed her the plates.
"We can talk later. Let's just relax. It's important, but not that important," Neal assured her, and the knot of fear in her stomach loosened. Important, but not an emergency. It was a relief to not have a huge complication to worry about.
Half-way through lunch Neal started to explain what Mozzie had deciphered from the code. "He didn't have a lot to do, and he was restricted on activity, so he began to decipher the code and figure out the meaning," Neal said with a boyish enthusiasm that made Alex smile in spite of how her heart was beginning to pound with dread.
She had wanted to leave the music box behind her, but it seemed destined to remain in her life just a little longer. Interest warred with weariness; Alex was very curious about the code she hadn't been able to crack herself. On the other hand, she would have been very happy if she never heard another word about the box and its mysteries. It had caused her nothing but grief.
After they finished their lunch, Alex idly folded the receipt from their lunch into a paper crane while Neal amused her with the tale of 'Burke's Seven'. It had been quite an adventure, and the lonely part of her wondered why Neal hadn't bothered to call her for help. She would have come; she cared about Mozzie and Neal, and she owed Peter. With effort, Alex pushed the thoughts aside. Her life was not a romance novel, adventurous as it might be. Daring and romantic adventures with the handsome hero were things of the past for her. It was time to move on. Someday she might even convince herself, but it wasn't going to be today.
"Do you want to see what Mozzie figured out?" Neal asked. Alex nodded and smiled in what she hoped was a convincing manner. Neal was too wrapped up in his story telling to notice her lack of enthusiasm. He didn't know what her true connection to the box was, and she wanted to keep it that way.
Neal brought a tray over with a bendy straws taped to it. Alex stared at the odd formation and before she could stop herself, she said, "It's a fractal!" Of course that made sense. Neal looked surprised. He set the tray down and sat beside her.
"What do you know about these?" he asked. He was looking at her with that wide-eyed, earnest look that always got to her. It was pointless to pretend ignorance when she'd already blurted out that she knew what it was.
"Fractals are found everywhere," Alex said, repeating the lessons her grandfather had drummed into her from an early age. "Nature has them, but humans have figured out how to use them for almost everything; microwaves and medical research to the cell phones we use...fractals can increase the signal of a normal antenna signal."
Neal looked impressed. "So what do you think?" he pressed. "Is this for a radio frequency?"
"Maybe," Alex hedged. She wanted to ask Neal why he couldn't let this go, but she knew why, deep down. It all had to do with Kate and her murder. He wanted to stop whoever had killed her from getting their hands on where the antenna would lead them. "It's a good bet it would be for an antenna, but keep in mind that this would have been very new technology - and probably not very good. The signal, if it exists, will probably be very weak."
"How do you know so much about fractals?" Neal asked with interest. He was watching her with sharp blue eyes. He knew her too well for him to not realize she hadn't fully disclosed all her knowledge. Alex tried to keep her face carefully neutral as she responded.
"It was an interest of my grandfather and father," she couldn't quite keep the wistfulness from her voice as she spoke. "My father especially was interested in them. He was an engineer, you know."
"No, I didn't know," Neal said quietly. His gaze had softened when she mentioned her family. He didn't know much, but he did know that aside from her uncle who lived in the Philippines, she had no family left. "Listen, Alex..." Neal took a breath and reached for her hand. He held it tightly. "Be careful. The man hunting for the music box is Adler."
At that news, Alex stiffened. "Vincent Adler? Your former boss? The guy who ran off with billions of dollars?" The man who had used her twice to connect with people of certain skills. She didn't say that part aloud. Neal didn't need to know how badly Adler had used her in the first few months after she'd been to the bastard's office.
"The same," Neal said gravely. "He either figured out you'd been looking for the music box, or he's after you because you're connected to me. Promise me you'll be careful."
"I'm always careful," Alex said. She tried to smile at Neal as she stood. "Is that everything?"
"It is," Neal confirmed. He looked concerned. "Will you be all right?"
"I'll be fine," she promised. "I think I might head out of town for a little while. Just to be on the safe side."
Neal didn't look convinced. "Are you sure that's a good idea? We can keep you safe." He walked her downstairs, his hand on the small of her back. It made her feel safe, but she knew that it was an illusion when someone like Adler would be looking for her. He'd killed Kate, he'd almost killed Mozzie. Neal couldn't keep her safe, but she appreciated that he cared.
"I'll be fine," Alex repeated. She pressed a kiss to his cheek and handed him the crane she'd folded. "Take care of yourself, Neal. I'll see you around."
She left before he could change her mind.
The Duke did interrupt Serge and Veronica, just as Alex predicted. And he died a horrible death. That was predictable too. It would be nice if her life could be that easy and predictable, with a happily ever after just around the corner, but it wasn't. Alex closed her novel and looked out at the scenery rushing by her window. Every second that passed took her farther away from New York. She didn't feel any safer with the distance. Her future was so uncertain that she couldn't even imagine what she'd be doing in a few hours, let alone a few days.
For the first time in many years, Alex had no plan, and it terrified her. Adler's cold, cruel eyes flashed through her mind and she shivered. All she knew was that she never wanted to be in that man's clutches ever again. She had to fight for every moment now.
She just hoped it was a battle she could win.