Disclaimer: White Collar belongs to Jeff Eastin, USA Network et al. This is for fun, no copyright infringement is intended.
It was an uneasy truce, this silence between them.
Neal was very and uncomfortably aware of Burke's hand at his elbow as he carefully peered out in the corridor running directly behind the shops. He was also very and uncomfortably aware of the fact that Burke was completely at his mercy; he could do as he pleased, be it leading him to safety or changing his mind and abandoning him to his fate. And it made his stomach churn sickeningly. Neal had never longed for that kind of power over another human being. Oh, he might gloat over a successful con, might enjoy outsmarting his mark and the system; might love winning the upper hand after pitting wit against wit or simply duping someone he considered stupid or ignorant. But that was always a contest, a game; with high stakes but nevertheless no more than that – a game, a rush of adrenalin. This – here, now, right this moment – was different. This was not the power to win, to triumph but to dominate, to shame. Not once had Burke asked for his cellphone after he had helped him to his feet.
Drawing a deep breath Neal decided on going right but hesitated before moving and glanced back over his shoulder. Burke's lips were pressed so tightly together they were white. Neal felt an overwhelming urge to apologize for his behavior but … he didn't know how. He still didn't want to get arrested. So he only whispered "It's clear" and took extra care to give Burke fair time around the corner.
The drill had stopped for a little while, now starting up again and swallowing the sound of their steps. Unfortunately it would also hide any sign of approach from the robbers. They moved past another side corridor leading through the offices after carefully checking it out. The noise of the drill was slowly growing more distant when ahead Neal finally spotted an exit sign and inwardly sighed with relief. Now it would be only a matter of minutes. As soon as they got out Burke could have his cellphone back, the criminals could get arrested with their hands in the cookie jar – well, the safe – and Neal could slip away quietly and stop feeling guilty. Maybe he would send Burke some I'm-sorry card later.
Indeed it looked like their luck would hold. The stairwell was obviously built against the exterior wall of the building and, like the wall separating them from the public part of the mall, of solid concrete. Due to the layout of the complex there was some open space just in front of it where their corridor turned sharply to provide access to the few fortunate offices with actual windows, and the door to the stairs was on the far side of that. To their left, nestled in the corner formed by the wall to the public part and the stairwell itself, was a second steel door. It stood slightly ajar and coming closer Neal immediately noticed that someone had picked the lock the brutal way – with a drill. Then he got his first look in the corridor right after it turned and what he saw brought him so such a sudden stop, Burke actually bumped into him.
"Caffrey?" Burke inquired after several long moments.
Mutely Neal fished the man's cellphone out of his pocket and pressed it in his hands. Burke's expression betrayed his confusion.
"Bodies," Neal finally got out, averting his eyes from the gruesome sight, "Two men, three women. Employees of the shops, judging by their clothes. You know, I kind of wondered how they cleared this area with the fire alarm cut..."
He trailed off, heard Burke exhale slowly, darkly before he turned on his cell. There was the pinging of more than a dozen missed calls when it came online, no doubt a testament to the fear and anxiety of his wife. Yet the former agent never hesitated over which speed-dial he hit.
"Check for life signs," he ordered shortly as it was ringing.
"I recognize fatal gunshot wounds! There's no –"
Neal swallowed hard and complied without another word. In his back Burke started talking quickly but quietly.
"Jones. It's Peter. You need to listen, don't interrupt. I'm at the Montgomery Mall in Brooklyn. There were explosions but I have proof that it was distraction for a robbery still in progress. The criminals are dressed as firefighters, at least three men, probably more. They are obviously trying to break into a safe in the office and storage area on the first floor..."
"Left side of the complex as you stand in front, behind the department store," Neal supplied quietly, raising shakily from his crouch.
"… behind the department store on the left side of the complex, seen from the main entrance," Burke continued without missing a beat, "They have killed at least five people. Gunshot wounds, no telling how heavily they are armed. I strongly recommend sending in a SWAT unit."
He listened briefly as the agent he had called drew the obvious conclusions.
"Yes, that's where I am. Jones... Clinton... No, Elizabeth is not with me I – I hope she's safely outside..." – there his tight self-control cracked for the first time – "… no, I've got help. We –"
And he jerked instinctively to the side, ducking, reacting to a sound behind him but not fast enough to avoid the barrel of a gun swung at his neck. Neal yelled as he saw him go down, started forward, came to a screeching stop as the gun swung in his direction and pushed out both hands.
"Whoa, easy! Easy there! Hey, hey, hey, hey, it's okay, no problem, no, NO" – as Burke tried woozily to climb back to his feet and the man in the fireman's costume pointed his weapon back at him – "He's blind, he's blind! He can't do anything, Peter stay where you are, stay, he's got a gun –"
"Shut up!" the man barked as Burke froze in place. He made a long step and grabbed the former agent by the scruff of his neck, jerking him roughly upright. For a second he stared rudely at Burke's tightly closed eyes then he forced him in front of him and aimed the gun past his shoulder at Neal's head. "Where the devil have you come from?"
Counting it a plus that he had not shot them yet Neal put on his best innocent expression. "Ah, excuse me – am I allowed to talk now, then?"
"Don't get funny with me!" The man's ruddy face grew darker then his eyes flickered down to the spot where Burke's cellphone had spilled its innards across the floor. "You've got a cell? Throw it down! Now!"
"All right, no need to shout like that." Neal slowly reached in his pocket and let his own cell drop with a clatter. Holding both hands up again he risked one of his brilliant smiles. "Listen, we're sorry to have stumbled on your little operation. Had we known something was going down we would have kept away, just not our style to mess up another one's plan. But I'm sure we can come to an understanding anyway, right?"
The man looked taken aback. "What?"
"Oh, come on." Neal let his smile widen and gave a tiny, complicated shrug as if they were sharing a secret. "Such an opportunity? Too good to miss."
"You know about the money?" the man fairly gasped.
Of course Neal had no clue what money they were talking about so he just posed smugly. The man's eyes abruptly narrowed and he tugged Burke a little closer as he aimed more firmly at Neal's head.
"Fine, you explain to Harry himself how you know about Tomson's speed. Step forward. Slowly."
Speed. They were talking about drug money probably laundered through some shop in the mall. Neal's heard plummeted in his chest. The last thing he needed was meeting the rest of the gang members – who would probably be less scrupulous about just killing them than this guy. He desperately wished he had not lost his hat in the crowd, at least then he would have had something to throw as distraction.
"Sure," he agreed nevertheless with fake confidence, following as the man started dragging Burke roughly backwards into the by now well-known corridor. Not that he had much choice with the gun still pointing threateningly past Burke's shoulder. "Bring us to Harry. Wanted to meet him anyway. You know, we..."
"Neal?" Burke suddenly asked very politely, speaking up for the first time, "Is the wall on my right more or less than two feet away?"
"Ah..." Neal looked about as confused as the guy with the gun, the latter unfortunately without loosing his aim, "… a little bit more?"
"Thank you," Burke answered, still eerily calm. "And now … DUCK!"
His hands shot up, closed around the arm reaching past his right side and jerking hard he got his shoulder under the man's armpit and rammed him bodily into the wall. Swinging left he drove his elbow hard into the other one's solar plexus, pivoted further and jerking up his knee slammed his opponent's head down on it for good measure before tripping him up, twisting him an arm neatly behind the back as he landed on top of him.
"Where did the gun go?" he demanded harshly, knee firmly in the small of the downed man's back.
"Gun," Neal muttered, almost literally peeling his jaw off the floor, "Right – WATCH OUT!"
Because another man had just rounded the far corner, snapping up a large gun at the sight that greeted him. Neal lunged forward, flattening Burke on top of the unfortunate first robber as a bullet whizzed over their heads. They rolled, scrambled together towards the stairwell as more shots missed them only by inches and realizing they would never make it Neal clamped a hand around Burke's arm and propelled him through the door with the ruined lock, jumping after him.
"Here, here, here, push, PUSH...!"
Together they threw themselves against the door, slamming it shut only seconds before it was hit heavily from the other side. They scrabbled madly, the door shuddered with a second attack, then a third but their combined weight kept it in place. Then silence.
Neal slowly raised his head. The door under his shoulder was still. Turning he dropped heavily to sit with his back against it as Burke was already doing.
"Think so. You?"
For a moment they simply sat side by side, the silence only broken by their harsh breathing. Then Neal glanced at the other man.
"That was … rather impressive, out there."
Burke indicated a shrug. "If you can't avoid a confrontation you should know what you're doing."
"Uh-huh." Neal pursed his lips thoughtfully, his next words more a statement than a question. "You'd have had me flat on my face the moment we stepped outside, wouldn't you?"
The corner of Burke's mouth twitched up in a quick, crooked smile.
"You bet I'd have."
Neal shook his head, laughing softly. Sobering he hesitated, studying Burke's profile.
"How did it happen?" he finally asked quietly, "I mean, you know, … your eyes?"
Burke didn't respond for some seconds, face closed off and distant. Then he sighed.
"Ironically … as I was on my way to arrest you. Some guy was answering his cell and walked into traffic without looking. Car on the first lane swerved to avoid him, truck driver on the second involuntarily did the same and crossed the middle – hit me directly at the driver's door and bulldozed me in the vehicles coming behind. Other things aside, hearing about it also really screwed up my team's timing so you and Kate were able to slip through their fingers."
"Wow," Neal muttered after a moment.
"Yeah," Burke answered. "Wow."
Neal took a breath and half turned to him but whatever he wanted to say was lost in a startled yelp because the door suddenly slammed into their backs, driving them almost a foot forward. Burke shouted as well reflexively as they both dug in their heels, throwing their weight backwards but the door only jerked a few inches to before being pushed back at them in a renewed attack. There was yelling from the other side as their opponents doubled their effort forcing Neal and Burke to scramble desperately for purchase on the slick floor, hollering at each other. The door almost shut, cracked open again, closed a bit, yielded into the room, slammed shut, was again forced open, a mad back and forth like a reverse tug of war as each side fought frantically. At one point an arm wrenched through the crack and Neal hammered blindly on it until it was jerked back, the door crashed shut again, there was a last blow from outside and … nothing.
"Lock it! Lock it!"
"Then barricade it!"
"I can't! There's no furniture not even a flimsy table!"
"Damn!" Burke slammed his fist against the wall in frustration. "Where the heck are we anyway? This does not echo like a stairwell."
"Technical room for this floor, I guess." Neal glanced across cable channels, breaker boxes, unidentifiable boxes and a fair amount of cut wires dangling around. "Looks like they broke in to silence the fire alarm for this area. No second exit and you would never fit through the air ducts but at least the walls are solid concrete. Had we landed in one of those offices they would have just hacked a hole in the drywall."
"Can they shoot through the door?"
Neal threw a critical look up the object in question. "Looks and feels pretty solid too, so hopefully not."
"Great. Just great." Burke dropped his head back with a clunk.
For what felt like a long time they sat pressed against the door, shoulders squashed together, heels dug in in anticipation of another attack. Adrenalin faded slowly as it didn't come. They were so close together they could feel the rise and fall of the other one's chest as their lungs calmed down. Neal's gaze started wandering to his former hunter, traveled away again, was drawn back. He chuckled. Cleared his throat to get a grip. Chuckled again and longer.
"What?" Burke demanded crankily.
"Nothing, just … would you have ever expected to find yourself sitting here with me like that?"
Burke's lips twitched.
"No," he admitted.
Neal bit down on another chuckle. Burke aborted a snort but his shoulders trembled suspiciously. The next moment they both burst out laughing. After howling like fools for several seconds they finally calmed down again with much coughing and huffing.
"Ah, dear..." Burke eventually ran a hand over his hair and continued almost conversationally, "So. What have you and Kate been up to? Since you slipped our trap?"
"Oh, you know," Neal replied in the same tone, "Traveling. Seeing the world. Meeting new people..."
"Hmm, hm. Stealing a Picasso from a private collection in Berlin and replacing it with a fake... Conning a shaikh out of a better unknown amount of US dollars with a hotel scam... Pulling a fast one on the Midnight Casino in Macao..."
Neal drew up his brows with a smile. "What? You still keeping tabs on me? That is – if I had actually committed these shocking crimes."
"Sure I do, you are the one that got away." Burke grinned again crookedly then his face abruptly turned serious. "But honestly, Neal. How long do you think you can keep getting away with schemes like that?"
"With alleged schemes..."
"Oh, come on!" Burke snapped a finger at Neal's sleeve. "That fabric you don't get off the rack. Tailor-made suit, I'd bet on handmade shoes as well. That outfit costs probably more than many employees earn a year."
"You sound very well informed, fashion wise. I'm surprised."
"One picks up some pretty weird things working white collar crimes. You should hear what I know about a Prada bag sometime. And stop looking like that."
"How do you –?" started Neal, who had indeed looked.
"Guys always look like that when I mention this. But back to my point, Neal, you can't expect your something-for-nothing schemes to go well indefinitely. One day the lead agent of your case won't get under a truck when he's about to arrest you and when that happens, and it will happen, do you really think that suit of yours was worth it?"
"Oh, I don't know. I really like this suit."
Burke made an angry, deeply galled sound and turned his head away.
"Look, Peter," Neal said soothingly, he hadn't aimed to upset the other man so much with his flippant remark, "I've seen you with your wife. If with a little … creative thinking you'd have the chance to give her whatever she wanted, wouldn't you take it?"
"My wife is probably pretty much out of her mind with worry right now, so, bad example, and no, I wouldn't."
"Because it wouldn't be right! In the real world the work you do equals certain things. That might not always be what you want, there might be dreams you can not fulfill but you don't take shortcuts at the expense of others!"
"So what?" Neal regarded Burke in confused disbelief. "A wife, a house, a garden and that's it?"
"It can be more than enough. Admittedly, our garden is rather on the tiny side. We've got a dog, though."
"Really? What kind?"
"A golden Lab. Satchmo."
"Nice. Is he … well, trained?"
"Only in wagging and licking."
Neal grinned. Then he thought about what Kate would think of such a style of living and … realized he didn't know.
"A friend of mine would say that picket fences are not for people like us," he said more to say anything.
Burke turned his face to him as if he could still see.
"Anybody has a choice," he answered gently. "To do what's right. Or what's wrong."
And Neal dropped his gaze.
Again they sat in silence. But somehow it did not feel uncomfortable. Neal caught himself running a thump over his sleeve and quickly tucked it into a fist. There should be no reason for Burke's words to keep running through his head... Life was good, right? He liked his life as it was. And honestly, he could not see himself as anything else but what he was. Still... Had things gone just a tiny bit differently two years ago, had that man with the cellphone not received this call right that moment chances were more than good the FBI would have caught him. He would have gone to prison. He would have –
Neal was abruptly shaken out of his thoughts by a sudden commotion outside the room and Burke's hand grabbing his arm. There were muffled shouts of Police and NYPD and Drop your weapons as well as the unmistakable sound of shots fired. The next second someone tried to kick open the door but since they had braced themselves as soon as the noise started he or she only succeeded in dealing them a hard blow.
"THIS IS FORMER SPECIAL AGENT PETER BURKE OF THE FBI!" Burke hollered that Neal thought his eardrum's would burst. "IDENTIFY YOURSELF!"
"New York Police!" came the immediate reply, "Open this door! Hands where we can see them!"
Neal looked at Burke who was nodding in confirmation but stopped him as he started to get up.
"Stay low. Just in case."
"Right." Neal grimaced.
They shifted away from the door and he cracked it open. Two big, menacing guns quickly adjusted to point at him but the officers in full combat gear behind them were actually a reassuring sight, strange as it might seem. A man in a fireman's costume was writhing on the floor by the killed employees, holding his bloody thigh.
"Yep, cavalry is here, ESU," he reported over his shoulder then raised his voice, "We come out, don't shoot!"
"Hands where we can see them! Slowly! Step back! Agent Burke?"
"I'm Peter Burke," Burke confirmed as some black-clad men quickly checked the room while others were already moving down the corridor, "And this is Neal Caffrey."
Neal's eyes shot to his face, the feeling of betrayal sharp and unexpected. He had not realized how much the odd camaraderie of the last hour or so had led him to believe...
"Right. Any of you hurt? Do you know about any other possible hostages in the building? No?" The man in charge clicked his radio. "Two men coming down. Two men coming down. Sirs, I want you to move downstairs as quickly as possible. Someone will expect you at the exit and escort you safely outside."
The were ushered hastily into the stairwell, the door shut with a solid, reassuring bang and Neal finally got it that the man had had no idea who Neal Caffrey was...
"You overestimate your general importance in our most wanted lists," Burke commented mildly while once more taking Neal's elbow, accurately reading his mind.
"So it would seem..." Neal muttered as he carefully guided him to the first step. "But still. Bastard."
Burke only grinned. "I know."
They navigated the stairs slowly but successfully, the heavily armed police officers at the bottom very professionally hiding any curiosity about their ruffled appearance or Burke's blindness, only deftly getting them outside. The young officer they were handed off to to lead them around the building … not so much. In fact she was staring so openly in Burke's face that Neal found it rather offensive and pointedly cleared his throat. Meeting his narrowed eyes the young woman blushed to the roots of her hair and did not dare look at them for the rest of the entire trek to the corner.
The open space in front of the mall was a sea of flashing lights, milling people in various uniforms and crime scene tape. Fire trucks were squeezed in the parking lot, police cars scattered around, uncountable ambulances rowed up; wherever one turned, paramedics were still treating victims injured in the panic as fast as possible. Behind the tape a crowd of reporters, spectators and desperate relatives was blocking the streets, the chain of police officers holding them back looking rather inadequate in comparison. A police helicopter (and those of at least three TV stations) was circling overhead.
An energetic little man – Neal was actually not sure what unit or department he belonged to – took over from the police officer as they were past the corner of the complex and herded them brusquely towards the next ambulance. They had made it halfway there when a sudden scream rent the air.
Burke's head swiveled round like a compass needle.
Neal looked as well, saw a shock of brown hair tussle briefly with a firefighter trying to hold her back; the next second Burke's wife had dodged the obstacle and was running towards them, tears of past fear and relief streaming down her face.
"Oh, Peter, Peter!"
Stepping neatly aside as she threw her arms around her husband Neal just kept walking, gave a friendly smile to the paramedics, lifted a hand as if acknowledging a call and sidled through the parked vehicles. Straightening his suit surreptitiously he allowed his face to become grave and nodded shortly at the police officers in front of the crowd before ducking under the tape. Then he paused for a heartbeat and glanced back.
Through a gap he could just see the Burkes had finished their first kissing and hugging session and had drawn slightly apart, still holding on to each other. A young dark-skinned, suit-clad man had joint them. Burke was asking something and Neal could easily guess what it was because Peter's wife and the young man were looking around, clearly at a loss, before shaking their heads no. And for a fleeting moment Burke's mouth twitched up again in this crooked yet oddly endearing smile.
Neal slowly smiled as well, brilliant as the sun, and turning finally away he smoothly vanished in the crowd.
About four weeks later...
"Mail's here, honey..."
Peter felt Satchmo brush past his legs then heard the front door slam as El came back into their living room, obviously sorting through the envelopes as she walked.
"Finally that check, I thought we would never get it. Lot's of advertizing mail and… Wow."
"What is it?" At the change in her voice Peter closed his book on the dining table.
"Someone was very patient." The shadow of her presence appeared at his side. "Here, see for yourself."
Holding up a hand Peter closed his fingers around the flat object she gave him. Small and rectangular, one surface very smooth the other rougher and papery it was not hard to identify the thing as a picture postcard, especially since it had come with the mail. Yet there was something very unusual about it and frowning he turned it in his searching fingers. The smooth picture side seemed covered with little holes or indentations, really hard to feel, while the paper side was a matching landscape of little raised dots. Much like a page covered in Braille only sometimes the card seemed to have been completely penetrated.
Intrigued now Peter located the stamp and placed the postcard the right way up on the table, picture side down. But what his fingertips brushed over did not seem to be handmade braille letters, rather the raised dots seemed to form chains outlining irregular bubbles of different sizes – no, not bubbles, something else, vaguely round in parts but then again oddly spiked or even straight and also open at one side. And there were other chains as well reminding of normal letters only they were lying on their side... Which meant, of course, he was still looking at this the wrong way, darn it.
He considered briefly and then turned the card so a short side was pointing at him, stamp still at the top. Now all "bubbles" opened at the bottom but the letters still didn't make sense. Though if they were following something printed on the front the script would naturally be a mirror image and then it would read C … A … S … A … B … L … A…
Peter threw back his head and laughed.
Because what he had under his hands at was a picture postcard of a Casablanca movie poster, the one with the many heads, and someone had painstakingly pricked the outline of each face and the writing with a thick needle, adding more details for Rick and Louis than the rest.
"I take it, this is something good?" El's voice commented dryly from somewhere above his shoulder and still chuckling he reached up and pulled her close.
"Good?" he repeated, the fingertips of his other hand lingering on the teeny tiny NC pricked into a bottom corner. He cocked his head.
"Well, yeah, I guess one might call this the beginning of a beautiful friendship..."