Disclaimer: I own nothing of this show.
Summary: And that was what my choices meant. It meant the third path which Mozzie claimed was inaccessible. AU from "As You Were". Neal/Sara.
Author's Note: This idea came to mind due to clues I see in the show regarding Neal's conflicted feelings. He's torn between two possibilities with the Nazi treasure—either he goes on the run again, or Peter will catch him. While wondering which of these could happen, I realized there was a third option. It's one I hoped the writers would go for, because as a choice I think it says more about Neal's character.
In addition, there's the question of his relationship with Sara. I was re-watching the pilot episode and Elizabeth's line about Neal being a romantic struck me: he escaped from prison for and because of Kate. If he was falling for Sara (and I believe he's headed in that direction), what are the lengths he'd go to for her? I know this was posted after "As You Were" (and I'm hoping for them to reunite), but I started writing this just before "Scott Free" aired.
The title is the name of a song by the Beatles.
Here Comes the Sun
There were clouds in the sky that morning.
The city spread before me as I stepped out of my cab. The skyscrapers of the New York horizon glimmered dull silver, cream and slate gray. Vague hints of color came from signs and the occasional painted wall. Filtered through dense clouds, sunlight cast the world in a pale gray glow. (Beautiful).
Mozzie would say the weather was foreboding, that it meant something when today (the day I would face the backlash) dawned ominous, bleak and dark. In fact, my phone woke me up when he made a last attempt to get me to call it off.
But what he wasn't paying attention to was the temperature.
The clouds may have covered the sun, but the day was still warm. No wind or rain, just calm clouds and a light, pleasant breeze twisting through the streets. Though it didn't look it, the feeling in the air was less ominous than a kitten playing with a ball of yarn.
My thoughts swirled too much—accounting for my silence during the cab ride. My mind was full, and I was going to have to play for the rest of the day. I needed to unwind a little with some human interaction that wasn't about a con. I was full of nervous energy that I would have to suppress in the office.
Peter couldn't see anything unusual in my behavior today. (Mask on).
I tried to think of possible reactions—but I never had been the best at thinking of consequences. My talent lay in reading people in the moment; the split seconds that it took for a person to react gave me time to think of my next move. Although I could play them like a chess master, I was always on my toes because people are never wholly predictable. They went off-script, surprised those who knew them best. Success in drawing out the reactions I wanted was the rush.
Today was all about one goal. It could be a fool's hope. I might be digging a pit out of which I couldn't climb.
But it was one I wanted. I never thought I would want it again, with someone else. (Not after—)
Reaching out, I grasped the handle of the doors and entered the FBI building. My fingers played on the rim of the hat in my hands while in the elevator, offering only polite smiles rather than trying to engage in a conversation.
The glass doors of the White Collar division were almost intimidating. I never thought so before. The difference was that today, I was well aware the next hours were central to my future.
If anything went wrong, I wasn't sure I could salvage it.
Jones nodded to me as I walked to my desk. Diana was making herself a cup of coffee. The other familiar agents, ones I knew by face and name, by joke and laugh (but not by wit, not by pitting my brains against theirs) offered various greetings. Overlooking the bullpen, Hughes' head was bent over a stack of papers while he wrote.
And, sequestered in his own office, Peter's eyes stayed on his computer screen. He typed without noticing my presence.
I didn't try to draw his attention. (Not today.)
That morning was about going through the motions. It was slow, all paperwork.
My mind picked up the slack and kept itself occupied. I thought about what I had done. Wondered how quickly word would spread. How many of my coworkers would look to my desk when they heard, or think my name incredulously. What the word of mouth on the street would be, and how I would be painted among the criminals to whom I still had ties. What June would think of it. How Elizabeth would feel about it. What Mozzie would do when it was done. What Peter would say about it. How Sara might react…
I almost never thought of the consequences. Reactions were different.
At lunchtime, Peter finally left his office and came down to my desk. "Staying out of trouble?" he asked.
I leaned back in my chair, pulling out the smile. "Please have something interesting."
"You're out of luck." His grin widened. "Finish that up and maybe I'll let you have a mortgage fraud after lunch." Peter's eyes were calculating, cataloging. I could feel his eyes on me—a mouse under a cat's curious gaze—as I righted the chair, as I stood, as I settled my hat on my head. Only Peter would have noticed my tension as I hid it from everyone else.
I did my best to keep up the façade on our way out of the office, complaining about the boring assignments for the day. Peter played along by reminding me I wasn't supposed to like the tracking anklet.
The elevator ride was full of the back and forth banter that was now habit. Conversation swung to lunch. It was a rare occasion that I could talk him into something that wasn't bought from a cart, and today wasn't one of those days.
Following him out the front doors of the FBI building, I asked, "Why is it that the person I'm stuck eating lunch with the most is the one person who has no appreciation for the finer things in life?"
His eyes narrowed; he caught something (I hadn't intended). "I still have that honor?" he asked. "What about Sara? Or is her workload still keeping her busy?"
I struggled not to let him see that his curiosity made me tense. I didn't intend to insinuate anything, to slip a reference into our conversation—a fact that worried me, because Peter caught on to my thoughts anyway. It was getting harder to hide things from him. But in this instance, it wasn't that much of a surprise. She had been on my mind for days.
Ever since a day two weeks ago. (When she said—)
The thought still sent my nerves tingling. I was to the point of panic the first two days as I worked through my options. She told me to calm down on the third, obviously knowing that there was a weight on my mind—which in itself was scary. Like Peter, her eyes were sharp enough to start seeing through the con's smile. But I also felt her distance, saw her poorly-hidden confusion and hurt.
And that was when I decided.
Now, though, I looked Peter with a calm I didn't feel (mask hiding what it could). "She's still pretty busy. Hopefully she'll be able to make it tomorrow." Sara avoided lunch plans for the past week and a half in a subtle, resigned effort to save face.
Unaware of the underlying reasons, Peter merely accepted the excuse. "That's good. I've started to feel like a parent supervising your diet."
The jab had a good dose of teasing behind it. "I'll have you know that my taste is much more mature than yours." Our conversation then turned to safer waters as we steered through the pedestrians to the nearest hot dog cart, and wandered around the square for a little to get some air.
The weather hadn't changed. Although Peter glared at the clouds half-heartedly, I found myself looking up and hoping they would stay.
When lunch was almost over I told him to go on into the office; I had a phone call to make and would be back to finish paperwork soon enough. I watched him head into the building before pulling my cell phone out and dialing the number.
It rang twice. I fidgeted, picturing her as she debated whether to pick up or not. My stomach felt tight until I heard her say, "Hello?"
"Sara," I said, looking up at the clouds. "I was wondering if you had dinner plans tonight."
My heart beat twice before she said, "I have a lot of work that I should finish."
Sounded like she'd been taking lessons from me. Instead of an outright lie, she mixed the truth with my assumptions. The longing in her voice was enough, though. It told me she wanted to come.
"Should means you have time to finish it. Please come. I haven't seen you in a while," I said. "And I have something I wanted to talk to you about. Nothing bad, I promise." Hopefully not bad. At least, I hoped she wouldn't react badly.
I counted one beat before she answered. "It'll probably have to be later in the evening."
"That's fine. I'll cook dinner, you bring the wine?"
This time, she didn't pause. "Mozzie raided your supply again?"
I laughed. She knew me so well. "Doesn't he always?"
"Wine it is. I'll be there around seven," she said.
"See you then." I hesitated, but she hung up right away. Just a little too quickly. I sighed, lowering my cell. She'd pressed the red button before she gave into the temptation.
After tonight, she wouldn't do that anymore. One way or another.
The way back up to my desk felt longer than it should have. I was both anticipating and dreading, and that combination would never work in my favor when it came to my perception of time passing.
This day was more stressful than most of my heists.
When I reached my desk, no one stared at me. Predictably, the news went to the superiors first. Glancing up, I saw an unfamiliar intern in Hughes' office. The man in charge looked like someone had stuck his hand in an electric socket. He held a thick folder in his hands, and my eyes went to Peter's office. He obviously hadn't received the news yet, or I would already have been called to him. Instead, he was typing at his computer as if nothing was different and his world wasn't about to change.
Careful to keep up the casual front, I bent over the folder on my desk and got back to work. Really, it was more pretense than real; paperwork was easy to complete with half my mind focused. I put the rest of my concentration into my outward shell, trying to make calm seep from my pores.
I looked up immediately at the call, seeing the double-finger point from Hughes. My heart thudded painfully in my chest when he proceeded to point at others as well. "Jones, Barrigan. Conference room." Then he headed towards Peter's office, dropping a folder on his desk and effectively capturing his attention.
The three of us walked up the stairs, the other two clueless while I feigned it. When we were passing Peter's office, Hughes lifted his arm without looking at me and said, "You, in here."
Jones and Diana paused, but he waved them on. Making every effort to keep my body in check, I entered Peter's office and took a seat in one of the chairs. My back felt too stiff when I leaned back.
Peter rose to his feet when Hughes closed the door to the office. "What's this about?" he asked. His expression was a combination of curious, mutinous, and afraid; his gaze ping-ponged back and forth between me and Hughes. He thought I'd done, or was accused of, something. His worry was kind of touching.
I would have been worried too, if I hadn't already known what was coming.
"Take a seat, Peter." Obviously knowing his agent as well as I did, Hughes added, "Caffrey's not in trouble." As if to betray his words, his eyes shot to my face with an unidentifiable expression.
I wasn't sure how he'd feel; that was under the category of unknowns that were out of my control.
Peter glared at me, and I put effort into the 'what, me?' expression and hiding every ounce of adrenaline that was pumping through my veins.
Standing tall before us, Hughes slapped the thick folder on the table with one hand. "This morning, the Metropolitan Museum of Art found a semi-truck parked outside. No one knew why it was there so they called the police. An hour later NYPD opened it to find a sizeable amount of artwork inside."
Peter stared at Hughes. "Someone left a truckload of art at a museum?"
Hughes nodded. "The NYPD doesn't know where it originated. Before it becomes part of the museum's collection—where it seems to have been intended to go—the curators and PD want to be sure that the art is neither stolen nor forged. It was bumped to us. We have the first round of pictures," he indicated the file, "but here's where it gets interesting."
"This isn't already interesting?" Peter asked.
I risked a glance at him. He was thinking, feeling something about this situation that screamed out at him. My gaze went back to Hughes. This time, he didn't bother to be subtle about staring. "The pieces match a certain German U-boat treasure that we thought blew up almost a year ago."
And there it was.
The silence that fell after that one was full of all kinds of tension. It was almost difficult to keep my mask in place, and nearly as hard to think fast enough to keep the right ones going. I didn't move, didn't let them see anything but perfect control. Pulling up 'surprise', I said, "Really?"
Hughes stared hard at me. I refused to look away. All kinds of emotions crossed his face, but I couldn't tell what he was thinking. My heart beat four times before he finally said, "Since that was your case, I decided your team should, officially, 'finish' it so OPR doesn't come looking for answers. The rest of the details are in the file." He paused. "Oh, and somebody tipped the press off this morning. They were waiting when the truck was opened and footage is already being processed for the evening news. We've got a lot of eyes on this case already. Everything goes by the book."
He let himself out of the office without another word.
As if this were any other case, as if I had nothing to do with it, I let out a low whistle and grabbed the file. "That's new. And a shame, really—would have been nice to know last year."
"Stop it." I'd never heard Peter's voice so quiet—not cold, or heated. No emotion at all. It was unnerving, and I tried my hardest to pretend it rolled off my shoulders.
I made my eyes as wide as possible, still holding the file in front of me. "What?"
I couldn't make myself look at him. And that was my mistake.
There was a shuffle of feet, and then the folder was tugged right out of my hands. "Neal."
I waited for only a moment—enough to gain control over my shaky knees—before I stood up, brushing past Peter. There was no talking my way out of this one, and both of us knew it.
What remained was for Peter to figure out what he wanted to say, and for me to dance on my toes through the coming conversation.
The silence was thick with unspoken tension. I could have tried to bluff. Instead, I moved toward the windows, looking out at the streets below. At the gray clouds, and the day that felt wonderful on my skin. (It really was a nice day.)
In the reflection of the glass, I saw that Peter was on the other side of the room. He stared into the bullpen as if it would give him answers. Knowing Peter, he was staring at my desk and recalling how I had acted all day. Trying to see a clue, a hint, something to indicate what he suspected (and I knew) I did.
It had gone off without a hitch. The treasure was all out there now, belonged to the museums and the world.
No other thief could understand what I couldn't deny: that art had no place being locked up somewhere. It was meant to be seen and admired. Valued for its aesthetic appearance, not the money that so ruled every other aspect of the world. As an art thief, I knew that it would come as a complete surprise I thought that way. But I wasn't a hoarder; I was someone born with flight in my blood.
The thrill of the hunt, the scheme, the chase—that had been a drug, addicting. When I won, locking up my prize felt like such a waste. That was why I favored forgeries: using my own artistic talents to their fullest extent. I might have the original piece, but people see what they want to see. Everyone could value the real one while seeing a duplicate, appreciate the beauty of what was considered it a fake, praise the artist while I was the one who copied their brush strokes.
And now I didn't have to choose between hiding this treasure forever, and running. The chase was exhilarating, I readily admitted that. But the chases I was involved in now, they were just as exciting. Pitting my skills against Peter's was fun, and still I got to do that—even when I worked alongside him. And working with him created a totally different thrill.
Running for the rest of my life, looking over my shoulder all the time—that was no life, either. An airtight alias could only do so much, especially when it was very likely I would fall back into old habits to achieve that adrenaline rush again. Leaving New York with the treasure meant running for life, no matter what safeties Mozzie put in place.
It took me a while to come to that conclusion. For the longest time I fought it, but circumstances changed—and I changed. I realized that the picket fence of my dreams wasn't possible—there never would be "the last heist" that brought me happiness. I would never be happy if I were to stop, because I was a junkie. I was addicted to the thrill of the chase. The setup I had here got me my fix; it was different from what I made for myself, but there were things here more valuable. People here that I didn't want to say goodbye to, lie to.
So I made my choice.
Mozzie professed his disappointment in me for turning to the Suit Side, confused about what could make a man turn in a treasure like that. But he didn't have a choice in the matter, not when I took it out of his hands by telling him I couldn't do it. Not when I told him that I didn't want to run for the rest of my life.
Not when I told him that I had to do this if I wanted the third path.
He patted me on the shoulder and wished me well in what he viewed as a doomed endeavour. Said he feared it would collapse like a house of cards. And I saw a strange little surge of respect in his eyes, respect that was reflected when he only took a few of the pieces, leaving me the rest. He would let me do this with most of it because he wasn't just my business partner: he was my friend. That trumped all else. And so he helped me.
Now the ball was in Agent Burke's court, and I waited. Either the agent would speak, or my friend would.
His voice broke the silence. "They could all be forgeries."
A sharp stab of disappointment shot through me. I opened my mouth to protest, almost turning around in my indignant rebuttal, even as I reminded myself that I knew this reaction was possible. The agent, rather than my friend.
To my surprise, he went on. "But there were pieces of that treasure that would take months to complete. Just a couple of those would have been too much for one person to accomplish in a year. Unless they were contracted out somehow—but there would have been buzz in the underground networks for months." So he was theorizing. I felt a spark of hope. "As many other possibilities as there are, I can't think of any logical reason this con would be pulled, why any man would think he could pull it off. What he could possibly be after. Unless it's not one."
I remained silent, waiting.
"The thing is, I can't figure out why now. The thief pulled off a heist I couldn't pin on him. He had all these pieces he could have fenced off. It was a real treasure and he knew the value, that it was so prized people lost their lives over it. And in the end, it was left in front of a museum. Given back to the world." He stopped. "Why do you think he would do that?"
He knew I'd block and evade if he went at me head-on with accusations.
So I honored his silent request. He deserved that from me. I turned my head, catching sight of him from the corner of my eye. His back was to the bullpen. "Maybe it took him this long to decide what to do with it."
"He thought about it that long." There was surprise in his voice, and I smiled despite myself.
"It probably wasn't an easy decision to make." I hesitated only for a second before admitting, "The temptation would have been strong."
Peter moved and I turned my head more. His hands were on his hips as he looked squarely at me. He took another step forward. "What made him hesitate? What made him decide not to take it and run?"
I raised an eyebrow at him. "Disappearing with a treasure like that? He'd never be able to stop running." I struggled to pull up a smile, but I could feel it fail as I allowed myself to admit something I knew was a risk, but that I also knew Peter deserved to hear. "And maybe there were more important things where he was—not to steal, though he doesn't have the self-control to kick old habits." He actually smiled at that. I turned back to the window when I added, "There were places. People."
His line of questioning came to an end and silence fell between us. I sensed, more than saw, when he came to a stop beside me in front of the window. I didn't tear my eyes away from the streets, allowing my eyes to follow random people and vehicles.
Peter's hand was solid and firm when he placed it on my shoulder. "You took a long, roundabout path, but in the end you did something good, Neal."
And I, having expected him to drop the pretense, turned to him with wide eyes. "Wait, what do I have to do with this?"
He rolled his eyes, but patted my shoulder one more time and turned away. "Come on, we should get to work. We're going to have to put in an effort, especially when we have media eyes on us." He paused and turned, hand on the door handle. His eyes were narrow as he assessed me.
I smiled innocently. Peter always did dislike media interference in an investigation, which was more than enough reason for me to throw it in the mix. That, and the publicity would ensure that the pieces were safe from thieves for a while. All the hype would make people invested in the art super-vigilant—only the most amateur thief would ever consider stealing something that was so new and so brilliantly in the public eye. A professional would wait for the hype to die down before making a move; the owners would become complacent, sure that they could never be stolen from.
Tempted to share this information with him, I found myself unable to when he snorted and cut me off. "Never mind about the media. I care about ensuring that every piece of this treasure is genuine."
I followed him out of his office, keeping a smiling mask in place while inside I breathed deeply in relief. "There would really be no point to forging anything. The mysterious benefactor would know that suspicion aimed at any piece of the collection would ruin the value of the rest, and make everyone unsure about the authenticity of those declared genuine."
Peter snorted as we entered the conference room, causing Jones and Diana to look up from the pictures and papers spread over the table. "Really? That's what you're going to call yourself?"
"This again? I didn't know I had anything to do with it." I smiled when Jones and Diana exchanged an exasperated look.
Peter poked one of the pictures on the table, one that showed the opened back of the truck and all the art stored inside. "Fine. Then the alleged thief—"
"Hey." I raised my hands. "Mysterious benefactor. He didn't steal, he made a donation."
"He didn't steal from the museum—probably, not that I know for sure—"
"Why would he do that?"
"—but," Peter continued, louder, eyes narrowed, "he did steal them before he gave them away."
Since so much was already out there, I shrugged and said, "Hypothetically, what if his friend did it, kept him out of the loop, then told him about it afterwards? Because his friend knew the suits would go to him after the explosion, and so he had plausible deniability?"
Peter actually had to think about that one for a minute, but I saw when it clicked. He had that cat-ate-the-canary grin he gets after putting together a puzzle. He waved a finger in my direction. "I guess the joke's on the little guy. Seems like the suits did get to him, more than they thought."
I shrugged and reached for some of the photos. "So, this is different," I said. Not at all a subtle subject change, but it would do. "Usually we're trying to find what someone took, and prove that they did it."
"We still have to prove someone did this," Jones said. He raised an eyebrow at me. "Shouldn't we be keeping Neal out?"
I opened my mouth to speak; Diana beat me to it. "He could mislead our investigation." I shot her a betrayed look, and she just grinned at me.
Peter shrugged. "It's not going to make much difference. I doubt he'll actually go that far. I also doubt that we'll actually find a way to connect him to this. And if we don't want the higher-ups to know, we have to at least pretend he's working on it."
Tossing the photographs on the table, I collapsed in a chair and leaned back. Pulling a perfect sulky expression on my face, I told them, "I do not appreciate your insinuations." It was difficult to fight against the grin that wanted to come to my face. Peter's insistence that I stay involved for my reputation's sake was the most solid proof that this was my friend, not the agent. He was protecting me (again). I felt a little happy surge that I stamped down as I tried to keep my sulky face.
Diana muttered under her breath, "Give it up, Neal." Jones nodded, looking torn between sympathy and amusement. Peter was fighting off a smile.
I leaned back with a sigh and placed my hat over my face. "You're all so suspicious."
I had to force myself not to peek and see if they were rolling their eyes.
The table was covered with a black tablecloth. The plates and silverware shone in the candlelight, and through the wide window the light of the setting sun dimmed the gray day to an even grayer twilight. I placed the carefully covered platter on the warmer just as a knock sounded on my door.
I double-checked the table, but there was nothing more I had to do. It seemed like I had finished just in time.
Running my hand over my shirt to smooth it, I opened the door and felt that familiar gush as I smiled at Sara. We smiled at each other for just a moment, each taking the other in. I could see right away that she wasn't wearing what she had all day. Her dark dress was still neatly pressed. And her hair never stayed perfect through the entire day. She'd fixed it before coming over.
A hint of my nerves were soothed. She may have been trying to draw away and not care, but her own actions betrayed her. That said more to me than anything else that may come out of her mouth.
I just hoped that she could see the same in me—my actions, saying what she couldn't trust in my words.
To my surprise, she didn't lean in for a greeting kiss. Instead, she placed her hand on my chest as if checking my heartbeat and looked at me with an expression more serious and confused than I had ever seen from her. "What?" I asked.
"I saw the news."
I breathed in slowly and nodded. It had been a risk, that she'd see it before I could tell her myself. But it didn't seem like she was going to react unfavorably. And as expected, she continued when I didn't say anything. "This is what you wanted to talk to me about, isn't it?"
My smile was only part-con. "That would mean I had something to do with it."
She dropped her hand and stepped forward, pressing me back and nudged the door closed behind her. I could tell that she was using her proximity to put me off-guard, distracting as she studied my expression. I did my best to keep cool under the pressure. "Do you remember that conversation we had right at the start of this?" she asked, gesturing between us. I nodded; I had a feeling about where she was going with that. "At the time, I let you get away with not answering my question about the art. But you deflected one too many times and I got...suspicious."
She wasn't berating me for keeping secrets, as I thought—she was off the map and I didn't know where she was headed. My heart stuttered in my chest, thumping unevenly.
As if she could hear it, her eyes flickered down, one shoulder shrugging up self-consciously. "I looked at your laptop." Shimmering green eyes lifted back to mine. "I saw the password reflected on that guitar while we sat at the table, and you were…testing me." I didn't deny her claim; I had been, in a way. Her hands folded calmly in front of her, she admitted quietly, "What I saw there, I didn't know what to do with—so…"
"The accident with the wine bottle," I murmured, finally piecing together the puzzle.
I remembered so well walking into June's with Moz at my side, to find her cursing up a blue streak and rooting through the cabinet. A few books were knocked to the ground, frantically kicked aside as red wine dripped over the edge of the table. And the bottle, neck broken, lying over the laptop and chugging wine out slowly. An empty glass lay shattered on the floor.
She had turned around, eyes wide and apologetic, with an unopened roll of paper towels in one hand and a dishcloth wrapped around the other. At the time, I was more startled and concerned than anything else. Later on, Moz grumbling about coincidences, I felt a small surge of suspicion—but tossed it aside. She said she tripped, accounting for the broken bottle with a bloody gash on her hand. And everything matched up perfectly with her story—her ruined clothes, wounded hand, wide-eyed apologies and delicate blush.
But now…now I noticed what I never had before. There were little things that were different—she'd look at me in a slightly different way in bed, she was a little more accepting of the necessity of secrets between us due to our jobs, there was the slightest distance between us that hadn't been there before.
She protected me. Let me keep my secret and destroyed the evidence she came across.
On the night that spurred my decision, I thought the distance was something else. That she started to realize, all those months past, what she said in my arms at night a few weeks ago. And with this new information, I saw that my assumption was true—just not in the way I expected.
I bit my lip. Appreciation for her confession warred with my discomfort. And with Sara standing before me with wide eyes, I knew she wanted me to tell her what I hadn't then.
I also knew that I had to if I wanted to keep her. Kate and I broke apart when I tried to con her, when I lied to her, and I knew I didn't want to make the same mistake—especially with all it led to. But I also knew Sara still felt the wire-thin, sharp edge of distrust because I was a conman. My sincerity was a double-edged blade when a part of her worried that she couldn't trust it.
But I had to know something more. "You didn't tell me?"
She shifted her weight from one foot to the other. "Something June said." Her voice was incredibly soft. "Neal, I need you not to deflect right now."
Understanding, I sucked in a breath and resigned myself to telling the truth. "I didn't set up the heist. I found out about it after the explosion, and everything went down with Peter so I didn't think he'd believe me. And then I—" I cut myself off, looking down at the ground before looking back into her eyes. "I thought about running."
Passively accepting the confession—which she must have known, she'd asked when she found the passport—she reached for my hand and I let our fingers twine. She tilted her head to the side, silent indication. I said, "It took me a long time to decide what to do."
Her eyes fluttered closed and she seemed to debate something in her head. I shifted from one foot to the other, and when she opened her eyes again the faintest smile came to her lips. "I'm not going to lie and say it doesn't bother me that you kept this secret. I do appreciate your honesty now, and it's better because you did the right thing in the end."
"But it's not done and over with?" One of my eyebrows rose expectantly. She nodded, her free hand coming up to cup my cheek. Our eyes fluttered closed as she pulled me down for a chaste kiss—a signal that we would return to it later.
Most likely, she wanted time and distance from it, to think and approach again when she was ready. But I wasn't done with the real thing, and there was no getting around it if I wanted everything to start off on the right track. Stepping back, I tilted my head toward the table. "Dinner's ready, but I didn't really call about a date. I wanted to give you something."
Selfishly, I wanted to eat first, have a last evening… But that was too selfish of me, too much to expect from her.
I had to do this the right way.
Her eyebrows rose in surprise, but she followed my lead when I gestured for her to sit. I took the seat opposite of hers, across the table. Leaning on my elbows, I angled my body forward. Her hands rested in her lap, face openly curious.
I leapt into it with caution to make the words sound less rehearsed. "Do you remember last week, when I was acting strange and you called me out on it?" Her face closed off just slightly, and she nodded once. "I told you it was nothing. But I lied."
She shut down even more of her expression. "I know. I could tell."
I took a breath—I knew that was coming. I just had to press it. "It wasn't bad. I didn't want to hurt you. I just needed to think of how to say it and fell on old habits to give myself time. And then I realized that—that we don't really trust each other."
"Well, you are a con-artist," she said. I smiled at her attempt to insert humor; she felt the need to regain a bit of control.
"I know." She seemed taken-aback. "I know it's got a lot to do with our respective life paths. But in this relationship, I want you to be able to trust me the way I know you're hesitant to do."
She opened her mouth and I reached out, unthinkingly, to grasp her hand. "Just—let me talk, okay?" Sara nodded, but her lips were pressed firmly enough that I knew she wasn't happy. Well, she'd be even less so in a minute. "The reason I was acting strangely is because last week, you thought I was asleep and said something to me." Her face abruptly paled, then flushed; I nodded when I saw that she knew exactly what I was talking about. "And the thing is, I wanted to reply the same. Because it's true."
Sara didn't seem to know what to think. I could see it all on her face—that she was shocked, that she was giddily pleased, and that a part of her was wondering if I was playing a game. So I only pressed her to listen to me for a little longer. "And I know that it's hard for you to trust my words. So I have to show you." Confusion was added to the mix of emotions that played out on her face.
Then I let go of her hand and inclined my head toward the easel that stood in its usual place at the head of the table, in front of the mantel mirror. "There's something for you on the easel."
She sat for a long minute, staring at me. There was a calculating look in her eye. She came to the conclusion that the only thing she could do was what I had told her, and stood up.
I didn't look at her as she stopped abruptly, the canvas in her line of sight. I breathed slowly as I heard her muffle a choked gasp. And I waited for her to say something, knowing that the ball was in her court and she had to be the one to break our stalemate.
I looked at her, finally, but she was staring at the painting hidden from my line of sight as if it were a ghost. I waited two heartbeats before telling her, "I don't want to lie to you."
Sara's eyes were full of conflicting emotion. She cleared her throat, reaching a hand out before drawing back. She tilted her head down, letting her hair cascade forward, before tossing her head back and running her hands through the strands.
I worried that she would glare, snatch the painting, and storm out the door. I feared that she would tell me she had to turn me in—maybe tearfully, maybe not. But what I had not hoped for, certain that it wouldn't happen, was for her to look at me.
Really look at me.
She looked at me as if she understood something that no one else could see. She looked at me as if she knew what I was thinking. She looked at me like she never had before, before closing her face off with a mask of calm that didn't cover the understanding in her eyes.
And I felt relief.
Sara walked slowly around the easel, over to my side of the table. "Why did you give me the painting?"
I turned my chair a little to face her as I leaned back. "You know why," I said. She raised an eyebrow. "I hoped that you would believe action more than words."
"More than what words?" Sara stopped right in front of me, her knees touching mine. One of her hands drifted to my shoulder, my own reaching out to rest on her waist.
Looking down, her face hovering over mine, I saw that she did understand. She knew what I was saying, my offer clearer to her than any words could have been. My grin became real, instead of a mask. "You want me to say it."
She pressed even closer to me, surprising me by swinging one of her legs over both of mine. My hands lifted to her back as she leaned in and her hands tilted my head back. She smiled. "Hey, I said it first. Come on, Caffrey—indulge me."
I pulled her body down closer, saying it just before pulling her lips down to mine.
"I love you."
She tasted sweet, like sugar-covered strawberries she must have had as a snack when she got home from work. Her fingers threaded through my hair and I groaned when her body pressed fully into mine. One of her hands was already working on the buttons of my shirt and I returned the favor by tugging on the zipper of her dress. She let out a breathy laugh as the top of her dress fell slack around her front and cool air touched her back. "Not at the table," she whispered in my ear, pressing a hot, wet kiss on the side of my neck.
I honored her request, though it wasn't easy.
The sun was down and the candles were halfway burned when Sara and I were wrapped up in my sheets. She shifted, resting her weight on one elbow and her cheek in her palm. Her eyes roved over my face and mine traced the sleek line of her side as the material settled along her reclining body.
My eyes went directly to hers when she said, "I have to return the painting." There was a kind of patience in her expression; she was waiting for something. Probably for me to ask her not to, because then there was the question of where she found it.
I smiled, genuinely. "I know." When she blinked, I reached up to graze her cheek with my thumb. "That was the plan. I don't want you to lie for me, not about that."
"I have to tell them where I got it, Neal." Her own hand caressed my cheek. Like a punch in my stomach, I saw a faint glimmer of tears and anger in her eyes.
This was why consequences were troublesome. I hadn't considered the obvious: she didn't know the rest of the story.
I rolled over, cupping her face between my palms as I rested on my elbows and angled my body over hers. One of her hands fell to cover mine, and the other rested on my arm. "I know it's hard for you to trust what I say," I told her quietly, looking intently into her eyes. "But I promise, you can honestly tell them that I found it through a criminal contact of mine and bought it from him. Besides, what's it matter how you got it back? You recovered it in the end."
Her surprise made me laugh, and she smacked my shoulder. Then she pushed me back and planted her hands on either side of the pillow under my head. "And the detail you're leaving out?"
"I may have known he had it for a while now."
She nodded, releasing a huff of air through her nose. Her smile was rueful as she relaxed, her legs sliding down along the outside of mine. "The little guy?"
I bit my lip. "I can't tell you that," I said, running my hand up her back. Irrationally, I hoped that my hand there would keep her from jumping away. She wouldn't like that I didn't confirm or deny.
But to my surprise, she smiled. And as if she could tell I was confused, although I had tried my hardest to keep it hidden, she said, "I've been known to bend more rules than I'd like to admit." Her eyes held a teasing glint as she reminded me that we had this conversation before. "I can work with this."
I couldn't exactly hide my relief, and she laughed as she leaned down for a kiss. "Were you worried?" she murmured.
"Just a little." She let out a small shriek as I abruptly flipped us over again. "Didn't want all that effort I put in to go to waste," I said, running my lips down her throat.
She let out a little hum. "Then we should do something about that food on the table."
Her breath left in a gasp as one of my wandering hands skimmed over a sensitive erogenous zone. "It'll still be there later."
"So will that," she giggled, hooking her leg over me to switch our positions and slipping to the side of the bed. I followed after her, pressing my front against her back as she sat up with my shirt in her grasp. She batted my hands away as she slipped the shirt on. I gave in, helping her button up the front. She turned her head to the side and pressed a soft kiss to my cheek.
For a moment, we stared at each other, completely serious. "Thank you," she said, a faint blush on her cheeks. "Not just for the painting. It's going to take a while, you know. To really trust what you say." I nodded, having anticipated that result. She placed her hands on either side of my face, holding me in place as she looked straight into my eyes. There was a bubbly light behind the serious glint. "But you should know I believe you on this." I felt a smile that was completely genuine come to my lips. "I love you, too."
And that was what my choices meant. It meant the third path which Mozzie claimed was inaccessible. It meant the places that I had grown accustomed to, that I had grown to love. It meant the people who had faith in me, who trusted me, who I didn't want to con and valued for reasons other than what they could do for me. It was real connections, a real life.
It wasn't perfect, and I wasn't perfect. There were no picket fences, but what I had here was something with more value than I had ever expected to find. And more than I could ever hope to steal, if it were even possible to forge something like it.
I couldn't reform; I was who I was. But here, I was with people who knew and wouldn't expect anything else.