CAN'T BE BOTH
Summary: In the aftermath of Elizabeth's kidnapping, Neal has to make a life-defining choice - and then he has to face its consequences. Post 3.10 Countdown story.
Can't Be Both has been beta'd by GrayWolf84. I can't even begin to describe how much she helped me – with legal details (come later in the story), with advice, with moral support and ideas when I got stuck… So, I guess I just want to say "Thank you" - for everything.
This whole story is already finished; the following chapters will be posted in the next few days.
Also, let me state that this story has in no way been influenced by any of the teasers for the second half of Season 3 - thus, anything similar there is completely accidental. The story will also most likely become very AU in mere thirty days; but for now – please, enjoy!
When they are contacted, the phone is immediately put on the speaker. Given the fact that Peter is still far from his best, it falls to Kramer to make the negotiations.
"What do you want?" asks Kramer into the phone, while the group of FBI agents listens anxiously. Another group is in the next room, trying to track the call.
"Like I've told Burke, I want the Nazi treasure. Give it to me, together with a free way out, and I won't harm a hair on the lovely lady's head."
Kramer notices the outraged expressions in the faces around them. He also notices that Caffrey's wide-eyed face has turned a shade paler.
"I'm afraid you're asking the impossible," he says aloud. "Even if we were to negotiate, the treasure burned."
"Oh. Well, that's a real pity. In that case, I'm afraid that the lady is now of no use to me – "
Everyone turn their attention to Caffrey, who leans forward from his chair.
"I'll get you your treasure. In the meantime, you won't even as much as look ugly at Elizabeth. First we want proof that she's alive and well, and you'll give us more proof every three hours."
Hughes hisses: "Caffrey – "
"So you've finally made up your mind, Neal?" comes a chuckle from the other side of the line. "Imagine that. And here I thought you're the guy who doesn't have the guts to make tough choices. Tell me, Neal, how does Mozzie like it that you're double-crossing him?"
"Moz is gone," says Neal calmly. "So is the treasure. I will need time to get it back."
"Oh, I love that," purrs Keller. "So the little guy ran out on you? What a wonderful friendship you have with him. No honor between us thieves, eh?"
"You have no ideawhat honor is, Keller," grits Neal through his teeth, painfully obvious of all the attention the FBI agents are giving him.
"Ah, but I think I do. Unlike you, Neal, m' boy. After all, I didn't lie to my friends for months and abuse their trust for stolen loot, now did I?"
Neal realizes then with a sinking feeling that Keller isn't just after the treasure – he wants to bring Neal down, and hard.
And damn it if he isn't succeeding.
Except this isn't about Neal anymore.
"Look, I'll get you the damn treasure. Then you'll let Elizabeth go, unharmed. Do you agree?"
"Caffrey, you don't have the – "
But Neal's already grabbing a piece of paper and a pen.
"Do you agree, Keller?" asks Neal loudly, while he quickly scribbles on the paper with huge letters: MY GAME. STAY OUT OF THIS.
There's a silence on the other side of the phone. For a second, Neal is worried that he has blown it – but then Keller speaks again.
"You know, if you're telling the truth, I could just go after Mozzie. I don't need you as a middleman. Except I think you're lying, Neal. You know where it is. You're just covering your ass with your precious FBI buddy. Oh that's right. He's probably not so happy with you anymore. Are you, Agent Burke?"
"You'll never find Moz with the FBI on your back, not without resources," opposes Neal coolly.
"You might be right," replies Keller. "That's why I'm so glad you're gonna get the treasure for me, my friend. And you better be quick, because while I really love this place, the Russians still want the money you and your FBI buddy robbed me of. I'm sure you understand how much more difficult it is to move with a hostage. … Yes, very difficult indeed. One would wonder why anybody would even bother with that, especially when the hostage's friends aren't cooperative enough. … You have three hours – "
"A week," says Neal firmly, though inside he's deeply shaken. "I need time to contact Moz and get the treasure back."
He is answered by Keller's incredulous laugh. "You really think I'm that stupid, Neal? D'you think I wouldn't have planned this through and through?"
"No. Right now, you're desperate," says Neal resolutely. "You need money to pay off the Russians. Moreover, if you get caught, and the chances are enormous that you will, the FBI will lock you away for good. Admit it, Keller. You don't usually take risks this huge."
"Ah, but you forgot a few things, Caffrey. Twenty years or life behind bars? There's little difference between them. Besides, I like the challenge."
"I'm sure you do."
"The treasure's a fine prize."
"There usually isn't a six million bounty on my head either. I have to admit though, that was a nice touch on Mozzie's part. I didn't know you appreciated me that much. Of course, it's easier to part with six million when you have billions waiting elsewhere."
"Yeah," says Neal curtly. "As much as I enjoy our talk, let's get to the point."
"Time to move things along, eh?" says Keller.
Neal doesn't take the bait.
"Six hours," says Keller lazily.
"No way," rebuffs him Neal flatly. "I won't have even established contact by then. I need a week."
"In that case, I wonder whether Mrs. Burke truly needs all of her fingers. If you need a little incentive…"
"Don't you dare hurt my wife!"
Kramer gently puts his hand on Peter's shoulder to restrain him and starts speaking to him in quiet, gentle words.
"Agent Burke!" exclaims Keller in delight. "I was almost afraid that you weren't even in the room…"
"We want proof that Elizabeth's alive and unharmed," interrupts Neal sharply.
"That's nice. I always wanted to be the Queen of Denmark," replies Keller. They can all hear the smirk in his face.
"The robes wouldn't suit you," opposes Neal reasonably.
"Not everyone is as picky as you when it comes to clothes, Caffrey. You pretend to be a con mastermind, but in fact you're more of the world's greatest fashion freak."
"Perhaps," concedes Neal. "You know, I still have an associate or two who owes me a few favors. If I pull some strings, I might be able to get to Mozzie sooner. Maybe six days would truly be enough. Give me six days."
"Neal, I'm impressed. I didn't know you had that great sense of a humor!"
"I'm always impressive. I have a few new jokes, too. Learned them from the FBI. Know this one? "'What is the difference between a sinking ship and a murderer in jail?'"
"'The ship can still be bailed out.'"
"Funny. Thirty six hours."
"Glad you liked it. Five days and half."
Keller chuckles. "You drive a hard bargain, m'friend."
"We're anything but friends, Keller," replies Neal.
He feels all the impatient and anxious eyes on him. Seriously, Neal is surprised they let this go on for this long. He needs to close the deal fast– or this might all blow up, and Elizabeth's dead.
"The chess game we played," he says, thinking quickly.
"You were eleven moves away from a checkmate or seven moves from a stalemate. I'm foregoing the stalemate. You won."
"Does Neal Caffrey admit that he has been beaten at something?" asks Keller in delight.
"In this case? Yes."
Neal seriously hopes he is reading the situation right. He has played several games with Keller over the years, but none has been as deadly as this. He is sweating, and if he ever needed to prove that he has nerves of steel, it is now.
"Two days,"says Keller after a pause.
There is only one person Neal has ever hated as much as Keller right now, and that was when he thought that Fowler had killed Kate.
"I'm getting tired of this, Caffrey,"and Neal knows Keller won't budge much more. He is also running out of ideas.
Time for sacrifices.
"I know how Mozzie contacted the hitmen. I can get them off your back."
"Now that is a nice offer," says Keller thoughtfully. "In that case, maybe I could be persuaded to stay for a while longer. Three days plus six hours."
"Four days and half."
"Not good enough buddy."
"You want the treasure, Keller," says Neal. "Elizabeth means nothing to you. And I'm sure you have a good hideout. You can wait a little longer."
"Was that supposed to persuade me? Because it was downright pathetic, Neal."
Neal fully agrees.
He has played all his cards, yet he knows that it isn't enough. By now, Moz is probably far away and Keller has no doubt made insurances that the FBI won't get him easily. He needs some way to buy them at least a bit more time–
Then he realizes once more that Keller isn't just after the treasure.
"What do you want from me?"
"What do you have to offer?"
Neal grabs fistfuls of his hair and tries to think, to come up with an answer –
"In May 2003, I broke into – "
But no, Keller doesn't want confessions of his past crimes, though he will gleefully let Neal implicate himself in front of the FBI agents.
"Before Madrid – "
But the recollection of their one-time partnership won't do it either.
Although he probably isn't that far from the point – because Keller wants revenge – for Madrid, and other things, but mostly for Madrid –
Neal knows now what Keller wants.
He sees Peter's struck expression. He thinks of Elizabeth. He doesn't really have a choice.
"Kate slept with you in Amsterdam."
And somehow, the world still feels the same. Really, why should it change just because his long dead girlfriend cheated on him for a few nights with an "alleged" murderer?
"Well done, Neal," says Keller softly.
"We got over it," says Neal roughly.
"Of course you did," says Keller gently. "It obviously didn't influence you when you wouldn't apologize for trying to con her to go to Europe again with you."
"I made some stupid mistakes with Kate; so did she. It doesn't matter anymore."
"Yet you'll never know how much of it was real. That must eat at you, Caffrey."
A few months ago, Neal would have wanted to rip Keller to pieces for saying this, for knowing so damn much and for trying to plant all the doubts into his mind. Now...
"Me and Kate had what we had, Keller. It wasn't simple, it wasn't easy… but it was real, for what it was worth. Nothing you say can change that."
"You killed her, Neal. You killed Kate. It's your fault that she's dead."
Neal clutches his fist and then opens it again. "Believe what you want, Keller."
"She died because of the music box. She died for the clues to that treasure – for the loot that you took. It's been what, a year and half? … You didn't really care about her at all, did you, Neal?"
"This isn't about Kate, Keller," snaps Neal.
Elizabeth. This is about Elizabeth.
"I've said four days and half. Now it's your turn to make the offer."
"Four days. That's my last word."
"And every three hours, you'll give us proof."
"Then I accept as well," says Neal heavily.
"Expect the video of your lady friend soon. It was pleasure doing business with you, Neal."
"You better treat her well, Keller."
Then Keller hangs up.
It takes several seconds for Neal to realize that it is over. The first round with Keller – the first battle for Elizabeth's life– has ended.
Up until then he didn't even realize how badly his hands are shaking.
"Did you enjoy that?"
Neal turns to the source of the question, not even comprehending the words. "What do you – "
"Did you enjoy that, Neal?" asks Peter again, obviously seething. "Did it feel good, playing another game with your old rival?"
"Peter, what are you – it wasn't a game!" exclaims Neal, feeling completely ill at Peter's suggestions.
"Maybe it was," snaps Peter harshly. "It's always a game for you, isn't it? Did you enjoy playing a game with my wife's life?"
Neal looks directly into Peter's eyes. "I just bought Elizabeth four days," he says calmly, masking his true distress. "For the next four days, she is untouchable. You will realize that once you're thinking clearly again – "
The punch catches him completely by surprise – though it shouldn't have.
"Maybe now I'm thinking clearly for the first time in two years," says Peter icily.
The pain in Neal's jaw is nothing compared to the sick feeling after Peter's words. "Peter – "
The agent turns away from him. "I'm going to check if they tracked the call," he says and leaves the room, followed by another agent.
The silence that follows is almost suffocating.
"So," says Diana at last, breaking the tension in the room, "we have four days to find Keller and rescue Elizabeth."
"How likely is it that Keller will keep his word?" asks Agent Dawson from Organized crime division.
All attention turns to Neal again. He gives out a tired sigh and explains. "I know Keller. He is a backstabbing bastard and a killer, but there's one thing you can be sure of with him: he won't break the rules of his own game. Not unless his life or freedom are directly threatened, at least. Unless we do something stupid, he won't harm Elizabeth."
"What happens when the four days are up?" asks an agent – Harris? – another one from the Organized Crime.
That is the real question, isn't it.
"It's possible Keller doesn't know what he'll do, either," says Diana. "He has killed before, but as far as we know, the only other hostage he's ever taken was Peter, and he wasn't directly present then."
"Do we think that he will harm her?" asks Jones.
"He won't, unless we give him a reason to," says Neal. "He's not the kind of psychopath who takes pleasure in torturing people just for the kicks of it, but if he thinks harming Elizabeth will get him something…"
"You seem to know him very well," remarks Agent Kramer.
"I do," says Neal. He hesitates before revealing more. "We were… friendly associates, a long time ago. That was until I allegedly saw him shoot another man – just because he could."
"You saw him shoot someone and you never reported it." The agent isn't even trying to hide the accusation in the statement.
"No, I didn't," answers Neal. "I was twenty and in a shock, I wasn't supposed to be there and I had no proof. Besides, I wasn't ready to give up my alleged career just yet."
Really, what more is there to say?
"If we don't comply with his wishes, will he kill her?" asks Agent Harris.
"Maybe not right away, but in the end, yes." There is not even a moment of hesitation in Neal's voice.
"Let's pretend we have the treasure, agree to forget the FBI policy and give the treasure to Keller," says Kramer. "Will he release her then?"
"There's no way to tell," says Agent Dawson.
Unfortunately, he is right.
"We need to track him down," says Harris at last and stands up. He leaves the room with another group of people, leaving behind only Diana, Jones, Neal and Kramer.
"When you spoke to Keller," starts Jones, "were you bluffing? Or was that all true?"
"We need to know if you have the treasure, Neal," says Diana when Neal doesn't immediately answer.
"I don't have it," says Neal and looks up. "If I had it, I would give it up without a heartbeat. No amount of money is worth anyone's life."
"But it didn't burn," says Diana.
Which, Neal knows, is as good as admission of guilt.
And maybe he should finally take some damned responsibility for his actions.
He snaps out of the guilt and anxiety and wills himself to concentrate on the matter on hand. "I have some idea where it is," he says. "I'll make some calls – "
"So Mozzie truly has it."
Neal doesn't know how to answer to Diana's statement. "I need to speak to him," he says, neither denying nor confirming her words.
"How quickly can you reach him?" asks Jones.
"Soon. We'll get the treasure back in time."
"Did you steal it, Caffrey?" asks Kramer directly.
A day ago, Neal would have said no. After all, he didn't know when the art was being stolen; hell, he barely touched it except for the Degas he recovered. Now he realizes it's just an empty excuse.
He gets up from his chair, avoiding their eyes. He has a lot of calls to make.
A/N: For some reason, the document mannager has eaten several of the gaps in the story. That should be corrected by now. Uh.