Disclaimers: I do not own White Collar or its characters. I do not own the poems quoted near the end, either. I am also nota trained parachute instructor. Nothing in this fic should be taken as actual instructions for how to jump out of a plane.
Author's Note: Huge thanks to everyone involved in helping me with this. Soteriophobe read an early draft and provided many helpful and encouraging comments; Sholio made wonderful art; Kernezelda and LC both provided fabulous betaing and encouragement; LC also provided invaluable information on how parachutes actually work, as well as offering advice on when to just handwave and make stuff up. *hugs to everyone*
"We should buy a bakery."
Neal leans forward, hands open and resting on his knees, with an increasingly brittle version of that grin that used to make Kate's heart jump and flip over like a startled bird.
Now it makes her chest ache. She shifts on the bench to block the light from the window, slanting in through dusty blinds to cast a glare on the glass, blurring his face. "A bakery?"
"Downtown Paris." He has the light of a plan in his eyes, now, and it wins an answering smile from her. Neal isn't Neal unless he's planning something. "Little tables on the sidewalk, fresh croissants and a really good espresso …" He trails off at this last, with a look on his face that's almost indecent.
"Scones and tea with jam and clotted cream …" And she thinks that's an English thing, actually, but the details aren't what matter. Once it was a villa in the Cote d'Azur, vineyards and olive orchards, walking hand in hand along a quiet path above the seashore.
They paint dreams in the play of light and shifting shadows across the glass; neat pictures precise as architectural drawings, at first, as the plans Neal drew up before a heist; gorgeously detailed landscapes, after that; impressionistic scenes followed, washes of color meant only to suggest a view; still lifes as Neal rhapsodizes about small pleasures. They have come, now, to the modern and abstract; what they paint bears little relation to any conception of concrete reality, but points only to some meaning behind it.
"Right in the heart of the city." They weave possible futures between them, out of an unspooling skein of idle, ragged thoughts and lonely speculation.
"Walking distance from the Louvre. Let's do it." She catches the shuttle with the grace of long practice, throws the thread back to him.
Now their plans for a life of distant luxury and fine coffee serve the present, not the future. She imagines they weave a net, each time she comes, to catch him when he might fall without her.
"You'd like France," he says, and stops. A shadow there; she's never been to France. He went without her. She refused to go; she left. He ducks his head, physically backing away from it.
"We'll go." She smiles, reassuring. The past is past. We don't need to talk about that, now."Soon as …"
Five months, three weeks, four days and fifteen hours. She doesn't have to say it; the number beats in the back of his mind, too. Fourteen and a quarter hours. This week's visit is almost over.
Her dreams are simpler, now; she knows his are, too, though they don't speak of them aloud. Taking him back to the motel that's home this week, listening to him breathe all night above the knocks and creaks of the aging radiator; sitting beside him on the sagging mattress, his hands in hers, an intimate moment not recorded or watched by anyone.
After nearly two hundred hours on camera, she can't remember the last time she spoke to him and said exactly what she meant. Even when they don't speak in code, they do. He goes on about Paris and she hears every time I think the food can't get any worse, it does; she hears I just might kill someone for a decent cup of coffee; she hears I want you; she hears I can't believe you're still here, I can't believe you still want me; she hears I can't do this without you and five months three weeks four days fourteen hours and GodIneedyousomuch.
She dreams of waking to the smell of brewing coffee, the sizzling of frying eggs, the curve of his back, the line of his shoulders as he stands over the stove, stirring hollandaise sauce with all the intensity of concentration he devotes to forging Monet. Kate never had the patience to learn, but she loves to watch Neal cook.
She thinks they're going to spend the entire first week he's out in the kitchen. They've planned at least six weeks' worth of first meals in almost pornographic detail. And after that …
The last three and a half years have sanded down their dreams to brittle things, like pages of aged manuscripts they have to shield from light and air. "The good life" can be painted in many different colors, but the only meaning left behind fits in three words: together, free, safe.
Anything else is stalling in place, always stalling; weaving plans by day and unpicking them by night; weaving a net each week and waiting for the next time, when it will be all unraveled and they must start again. She's always loved the classics, but she thinks she makes a very poor Penelope.
She nods, and suggests a few of her favorite pastries their bakery might serve but she's saying find me a bulldozer and I'll knock the damn walls down; she's saying I want you, too; she's saying five months three weeks four days fourteen hours and I'm not going anywhere I'm right here it'sallrightI'vegotyouI'mrighthere.
A sharp knock from the guard startles her: five more minutes. She kisses her fingers, presses her hand flat against the glass and she's saying I love you. He mirrors the gesture. I love you too.
She doesn't tell him about the way the guards who used to leer at her now look at her only with pity, like she's something faintly pathetic. She doesn't tell him her storage unit got broken into two days ago, or that she wakes up in the middle of the night with an itch under her skin and the dull, ever present fear gnawing her, the fear that she's been in one place too long.
There is never enough time, and nothing he could do but worry.
"I love you," she says, when the guard opens the door, and it means I'm still here.
"I love you, too." It means then nothing else matters.
She doesn't cry when she leaves; she won't leave him on a sad note, not when this visit is the only bright spot to carry him through the week. She won't give anyone else here the satisfaction. Walking out without hurrying, she passes other visitors waiting; a few young women her age, dressed in professional clothes and wearing their uncertainty like armor, eyeing the rest of the room and trying not to look overwhelmed. A pair of teenage boys slouched against the window, trying with all the desperation of teenagers everywhere to pretend they don't care.
She nods a greeting toward the cluster of older women by the far wall. Sometime around the beginning of the seventh month of Neal's sentence, they began to acknowledge her existence. Now they move over and save a space for her, give a stern mother's glare to anyone who tries to harass her, bring her burnt coffee from the guard station down the hall. They don't speak, much, which suits Kate fine. But they've accepted that she's one of them, in this for the long haul.
On her way home she stops at a coffee shop, sipping a tiny mug of espresso because she can and Neal can't and someone should. It seems a crime not to appreciate such things; she sits outside despite the late October chill, draws her coat around her and soaks in the scene. She'll describe it to him next time, the late afternoon shadows stretching across the street, the lonely tree beside the sidewalk, brown leaves still clinging in patches.
The black sedan with government plates parked across the street.
She sits up, decides to order another espresso (it's not like she'll be sleeping tonight, anyway) and wait to see if it goes away. When it's still there an hour later, she memorizes the plate and decides it's time to move again.
More for her own peace of mind than anything else; if the FBI wants to find her they don't need to know where she lives. All they have to do is wait for her in the prison parking lot any Wednesday afternoon. She can move every other month, and she does, but she is still locked in a steady orbit around that place, dragged in by its inevitable gravity.
A narrow alley runs toward the back of the coffee shop; ducking into it, she sees the sedan's front door open in the reflection from the shop window. At the other end, past an overflowing dumpster, a brick-paved courtyard opens up, dotted with fountains and struggling late autumn flowerboxes. She walks quickly past a line of glass storefronts, eyes turned sideways to watch the reflections behind her, scanning for anyone following.
He's hardly an inconspicuous tail; tall, broad shoulders, pale ginger hair and a dark trench coat that screams "fed" from half a mile off. So they're watching her. It's not the first time, and if they had anything on her they'd have arrested her already.
She stops, and he stops some fifty paces behind her, feigning unconvincing interest in a display of designer handbags in the nearest window. Either he's not very good at this, or he's meant to be the obvious one.
Ducking into the subway, she glances behind and sees him dropping back; he knows he's been made. Most likely he's got backup down here somewhere. She gets on the southbound train. It's another few hours till rush hour, but the car is still crowded. She notes the people getting on after her; a woman with a green scarf covering her hair, a fortyish man in a battered brown leather jacket, a slightly younger guy with a bad eighties mullet and thick glasses.
Six others get on after, and she picks out some distinguishing feature to remember each of them. The lights overhead flicker briefly as the train lurches forward, accelerating.
She gets off at the first stop, leans again a pillar and pulls out her phone, keys in a few lines of poetry, pretending to text someone while watching who exits after her. Green Scarf and Leather Jacket both get off; she recognizes none of the others.
When she hears the clattering rumble of another train approaching from the other direction, she crosses quickly toward the northbound track. She recognizes Leather Jacket among the passengers squeezing aboard behind her.
All right, she thinks, you're on. Let's do this.
She knows how to play this game.
She loses him in Grand Central Station; five transfers later, she's satisfied no one else is following and switches to the line past her motel. None of the cars in the parking lot are shiny enough to be feds. But just as she's settling into her tiny kitchen nook with a glass of wine and Cary Grant on her laptop, she glances out the window in the fading light and sees a dark car parked halfway up the block.
Calm down, she tells herself. What would Neal do?
He'd probably order pizza delivered to the car. Well, that's no help, except to make her laugh.
They're going to be out there all night, he'd say. Poor bastards. He'd once sent a bottle of very expensive champagne to an FBI surveillance van outside their apartment on New Year's Eve. But she has to be frugal, these days, and if she's going to splurge on pizza (or champagne) she'd rather enjoy it herself.
Yes, it's definitely time to move again. She'll call Mozzie tomorrow.
She can't figure out why she's being followed now. Neal's already in prison, and she's been careful. She's nearly certain they don't have anything on her. She's kept her head down, living off Neal's cash reserves and Mozzie's help and whatever occasional "honest" job she can find where they're willing to pay her under the table and not look too closely at her work history, legal and otherwise.
She'd had brief thoughts of going completely (temporarily) straight while Neal was inside. But her work history from before Neal is still more of a liability than her suspected criminal connections, when it comes to finding a use for the finance degree that was supposed to save her from life as a starving artist. New Yorkers have long memories, and no one wants to hire Vincent Adler's personal assistant.
Vincent Adler had hired her as a favor, at the start of her third year at City College; a good deed for a friend with two years to live and a wayward daughter with five figures' worth of student loan debt, half a useless art degree, no marketable skills and no future prospects. So her father had told it. Though he'd left out the first part until it was closer to two weeks.
She'd been prepared to hate Adler. She'd been furious with her father for his high-handed "rescue". It had started with an irate phone call from her boss at her crappy waitressing job, telling her good riddance and what did she think she was doing, quitting with half a day's notice and that given by her father, couldn't she have had the guts to tell him herself, and he'd hung up on her before she could protest that she had no clue what he was talking about.
Fifteen minutes later her father appeared at the studio loft she shared with three other art majors, telling her pack her things, they were going downtown to buy her a professional wardrobe before he dropped her off at her new apartment, hurry up now, we have to get this done before it gets too late, you start your new job at eight o'clock tomorrow and you want to get a good night's sleep, and by the way I called the registrar and you've switched your major to finance. This, after she'd asked to borrow money for rent for the first time after two years' scraping by asking for nothing.
When she's being honest with herself, she can admit she wouldn't have lasted much longer as a starving artist anyway. And Adler didn't make anything easy for her. He made it clear from that first summer he expected her to learn quickly.
She bit back a chilly response, the first time he turned the conversation toward art, accustomed to her father's fond exasperation at her naivete or her former classmates' frozen contempt for a sellout. But Adler talked about art like it was an exciting and interesting topic of conversation, a subject on which all civilized people ought to have at least some opinion. He didn't bring it up to humor the poor silly girl who wasted half her college career on a useless major, nor did he treat it like something that had to be your whole life or you were unworthy of it. He treated her like an adult capable of doing a difficult job well, and consulted her opinion on aesthetic taste like it was something that mattered.
It took her a few months to stop feeling guilty about the realization that she didn't want to live in a freezing garret and drink instant coffee and die young of some wasting disease like the Victorian poets her classmates imagined themselves to be. She'd been ashamed of her own relief at not dreading the end of the month, of picking out what she wanted to eat at the store instead of only what was cheapest. Of treating herself to an expensive latte simply because she'd had a hard day.
She hardly spoke to her father, after she started working for Adler, aside from three or four awkward phone calls. A few more months, she knew, and she would have come around to his point of view on her own, if he hadn't forced the issue; then it would have been her decision.
I wanted to see you settled and on your feet while I could, he'd said near the end, and her tears were real but she'd gritted her teeth and lied when she told him all was forgiven. Thinking, you bastard, you couldn't have told me a year ago that you were sick, two years ago, given me time enough to understand and to process, to forgive you for real?
(This is another thing she and Neal have in common; they don't talk about their parents unless they're both very, very drunk. She can count the occasions they've been that drunk on one hand and have more than three fingers left over.)
Adler drove her home from the hospital, the night her father died. That was in late October of 2000. He left her at her door without any useless words of sympathy, only an offer to help with funeral arrangements. (There was no one else.)
Kate's mother is an artist; she left when Kate was six and hasn't been heard from since.
(My mother is a liar, Neal will say. I come by it honestly, he'll say with a wrecked little smile, and it really isn't funny at all.)
One night three years later, three months after she learned his real name and what was left of her safe world fell apart, she and Neal drank five bottles of wine that cost more than she wants to think about and she told him the whole story; more like she ranted wildly at him until the neighbor started pounding on the wall and Neal caught her in his arms and didn't let go, not when she fought him, not when she started shrieking curses into his chest, and they'd ended up in a tangled huddle on the floor in front of the couch and he'd held her on his lap until the room stopped spinning and she was too exhausted to cry anymore.
Sometime later, after her leg had fallen asleep and her ass gone to pins and needles and her neck ached where her head was tucked under his chin, he'd started to talk. In a soft, dead voice, without raising his head, the words muffled, his lips never leaving her hair, his arms squeezing her tighter.
(Neal's father killed a man; he drove his partner and his family into witness protection. Neal's father left the pistol he used behind when he disappeared; Neal spent his teenage years training with it, while his mother spun lies about a hero's death.)
The next evening they'd left a basket of homemade cookies and a bottle of expensive port on the neighbor's doorstep in apology, and never spoke of any of it again.
(Neal hates guns. Kate doesn't blame him.)
In February 2001, Adler sent her to negotiate a price for a Matisse he wanted to buy. He gave her his calendar and expected her to stay on top of his schedule; he trusted her to screen calls, to deal tactfully with investors, many with large accounts and larger egos, competing for a piece of his time. In July he was there at her graduation, proud and affectionate while maintaining a proper distance. In September he found her a hotel room half a block from the office, while her entire street was closed off and smothered under a blanket of ash, and through some connections she never understood sent someone to get her laptop and her sketchbook and an overnight bag from her apartment more than a week before anyone else was allowed near the building.
In 2003, he gave her his warm congratulations and a list of business contacts in Chicago when she turned in her resignation, with the promise of a glowing reference; less than a week later, when she told him she and Michael had split up and she wasn't moving after all, he gave her back her old job without question.
Three months after that he disappeared with over a billion dollars of his clients' money, including all her savings, while his investment firm, revealed as a giant Ponzi scheme, folded in on itself like the house of cards it had always been.
Neal told her his real name, that day. He told her they'd be all right, they'd get it all back, everything they'd lost. Not long after that, Kate decided there were two kinds of people in the world, and she was done being one of the marks.
Halfway through the next morning's first cup of coffee, she hears a knock at the door. She opens it cautiously, half expecting to see Leather Jacket on her doorstep. Instead, it's Captain Obvious in the trench coat.
"What do you want?"
"Kate Moreau?" When she only inclines her head without answering, he pulls a badge and flips it open. "Garrett Fowler, FBI. Can I come in?"
She leans forward to squint at the badge, when he would have put it away. "Do you have a warrant?"
"Why? You got something to hide?"
He's easily half a head taller than her, and he's leaning into her personal space in a way that's meant to force her to step back or look up to meet his eyes. She decides to go with the latter. "You didn't answer my question."
A faint smirk plays around the corners of his mouth. "You talked to Neal Caffrey lately?"
"What, you can't pull visitor logs from Sing Sing?" When he doesn't respond, she shrugs. "I was there yesterday. As I'm guessing you already know."
"I need to ask you some questions."
She pulls the key from the hook by the door, grabs her coat and steps onto the landing, locking the room behind her. "We'll talk outside."
Weak sunlight shows through the low white ceiling of clouds; soon they'll see snow. Out back there's a swimming pool, drained for the winter with a crumpled tarp in a heap on the floor at the shallow end. A green hose curves across the concrete deck and drops over the side; the sloping floor is splashed with algae stains, rust-brown water and dead leaves pooling by the wall. A sudden gust of wind scours the cracked parking lot, slaps at the tarp, rattles the chain link fence.
They sit on white plastic chairs at a plastic table that tilts toward her when she leans on it. "Should I be talking to a lawyer?"
"I don't know, should you?"
"You're almost as good as Neal, evading a direct question."
His eyebrows go up, then down, again with that little smirk. "You and Caffrey have been close for a while."
She doesn't respond, waiting for a question, or for something she doesn't know.
"He got four years for bond forgery, but we both know a lot of thefts attributed to him were never resolved. A substantial number of paintings and manuscripts and other artifacts connected with him have never turned up for sale, have simply dropped out of sight."
Kate pulls on her gloves, crossing her arms and shoving her fists into her armpits. "I'm still waiting for a question."
He leans forward, and the table lurches away from her, scraping the concrete. "Where are they?"
She blinks and huffs a laughs, breath condensing in a swirl of frost. "Are you serious?"
"He's got it all hidden somewhere. If he told anyone, I'm guessing it would be you."
"That's a fascinating theory, Agent Fowler." They can't know about the cache in San Diego. He'd have said something, if they did. "But I can't imagine why you think I'd confirm any of it, even if it were true."
He gives her a chilly little smile. "It'll go better for Caffrey if you help us."
She leans forward, elbows on the table as it tips back in her direction. "Do I look like an idiot?"
"We're just trying to return what's been stolen to the rightful owners. And we will find what we're looking for." He flips a business card across the table toward her. "If you happen to think of anything, call me."
She squints at the card. "Office of Professional Responsibility? That's like FBI internal affairs." She frowns at him. "Wait, are you investigating Burke? How is this even your case?"
"Think about it," is all he says, standing at last. "I'll be in touch."
Mozzie answers on the third ring.
"This isn't a good time."
"Tough. I need to see you." Silence. She stows the laptop in her go bag, jams the phone between her ear and shoulder and pulls out a knife. Unlocking the bland oceanscape from the wall above the bed, she retrieves an envelope with a thousand in cash from the back of the frame. "Can I come by tomorrow?"
An outlet cover behind the nightstand comes loose to reveal four fake passports and associated credit cards; she tucks these and the cash into a flat belt pouch and pulls a loose sweater on over everything.
"Tomorrow's no good," Mozzie says. "Saturday at five."
"Oh, come on, Moz." Tomorrow is Friday, and Friday is luxurious as clandestine bolt holes go; Saturday is an unheated storage unit by the water and smells like dead fish. When he doesn't relent, she sighs. "Fine, I'll see you then."
She hangs up and pulls the battery out of the phone, slipping it into her coat pocket. A quick walkthrough of the room reveals nothing incriminating left behind, before she locks the door behind her.
"Someone was in your unit last night." Mozzie opens the door before she can knock, doesn't bother with a greeting. He's a reassuring sight, bundled in a faded coat with that battered tweed cap with the ear flaps pulled down.
"I know." She doesn't ask how he knows. Mozzie knows things; it's part of what makes him Mozzie. "I was over there day before yesterday, on my way to the park."
"Not that one." Mozzie gestures sharply, get in here already. "The one in Queens." He frowns. "Wait, somebody got into the other one, too?"
He's got it all hidden somewhere. She ducks inside the room, folding her arms against a sudden chill. There's nothing in the one in Queens. Not anymore. But two break-ins within a week, two different units on opposite sides of the city? This isn't random.
This is the FBI, and they're looking for something.
"I brought dinner," she says, setting down a paper bag with Chinese takeout on the long cardboard box sitting, coffee-table-like, in front of the couch. Mozzie's wine selection is reliably superb, but he stocks his safe houses with the sort of food that would survive a nuclear apocalypse.
"Excellent," Mozzie says, temporarily distracted. Then, "You really should think about moving."
"That's why I'm here. I need a new place." She considers telling him about this morning's visitor, then decides she doesn't need to fuel his paranoia. Not yet, at least.
"There's a whole row of empty units on the other side."
"A new place with running water, Moz."
"Bathroom's in the office next door. They keep it locked at night, but I'm assuming you brought your tools. I disabled the security camera."
"Please." The smell of dead fish is slightly less pervasive with the door closed, but the temperature is still dropping as the sun sinks outside. It's hardly more than a large closet, one of hundreds in this cavernous warehouse, with walls of bare particle board and a single lightbulb hanging from the corrugated iron roof. A stack of crates in one corner forms an improvised wine rack; another stack serves as a bookshelf.
This is an old safe house; there are three sleeping bags piled against the far wall. All of them rated down to fifty below, if she remembers right, and a good thing, too. She doesn't take off her coat.
"Fine, I'll ask around in the morning. But you'd better stay here until I have a chance to sweep it."
Some days, Mozzie's paranoia is amusing; some days it's frustrating as hell. And then there are times like this, when she's comforted to know Mozzie is here to go over every inch of her new place with his collection of Russian military surplus scanners to make sure no one's bugged it.
She wouldn't put it past Fowler.
She sits on the couch as he opens a bottle of good Cabernet, moves to prop her boots on the cardboard box then decides against it - for all she knows, it's full of something explosive - and folds her legs up beside her instead. Aging springs sag toward the center.
It's not the old couch they used to fight over. Back when she first met Neal Caffrey - some six months after she first met Nick Halden - and moved in to the apartment he shared with Mozzie, they'd staked competing claims on the couch. Whichever of them got home first would stretch out on it, or pile things - notebooks, half-finished canvases, boxes of paints for her, or various items of spiky and dangerous-looking Soviet-era spy gear for him - on the other end so no one else could sit there.
"Let it breathe," he says, setting the bottle aside. And then, "How's he doing?"
She lets out a slow breath, watches it condense and dissipate in the cold air, resists the urge to say he's living in a concrete box with no windows, how do you think he's doing?This hasn't been easy for Mozzie, either. They are a tripod, unbalanced and wobbling on only two legs.
"He says the food sucks."
"He always says the food sucks."
"Well, I'll make sure to tell him next time I see him that he's boring you." That comes out with more of an edge than she'd intended. She sighs, and gestures at the paper bag, offering him first pick of what's inside; a peace offering, of sorts.
When Neal's sentence first came down, they'd all decided they'd be safer if one of them stayed out of the system, under the radar and off the cameras. According to every FBI file, Neal Caffrey works alone. He has a girlfriend of decidedly suspicious character, but he's never had a partner. Mozzie is their ace in the hole; the feds don't even know he exists.
Mozzie hasn't seen or heard from his best friend in three and a half years.
"Did you tell him about the break-in?"
"No." Her voice rises, sharper. "What's he gonna do, Moz? I'm not -"
She stops herself, fists clenched on her knees, staring at the polished concrete floor for a breath, then two.
Mozzie says, quietly, "Do you really want to do this tonight?"
"No." She looks up, then, and she knows the weary lines in his face from her own mirror. They've had this fight a hundred times and they both know how it goes; it starts with Copenhagen and she left and Burke used her to catch Neal, and goes on through Mozzie never visits and so Mozzie doesn't know what it's like and how could Mozzie have let him walk into such an obvious trap, and ends up on since when can anyone stop Neal doing anything. It never really ends; like art, some fights are never finished, only abandoned.
"I don't care if she followed you home. You can't keep her," Mozzie had said the day she moved in with them, as she and Neal staggered up the stairs hauling boxes from her old place.
"I'm not a puppy," she'd said, stung.
"I know," he'd said. "A puppy might grow up to be useful someday."
"Moz, Kate. Kate, Mozzie." Neal had only shot his friend an exasperated look as he squeezed past the end of the couch into his bedroom, dropping the boxes by the narrow bed. "He doesn't mean that." Then, after a pause, "Okay, he probably does, but he'll get over it."
He had, to a degree, eventually. And she had mostly stopped taking his lingering distrust personally. Mozzie doesn't trust anyone. It's no longer about jealousy or distrust; they're both past the point of trying to push the other out of his life, both past the point of wanting to. But three and a half years have not reconciled either of them to being helpless.
Some days they both just need to fight for him, and there's nothing and no one to fight but each other.
"He said thank you," she says, abruptly, after they've finished eating.
"He said that to Burke. When they caught him." She looks up, her hands resting loose and helpless on her knees. She's never told him this. She's never told anyone. The next words come out sharp and breathless, like ripping a band-aid off. Or reducing a dislocated thumb. "He said 'thank you, I never would have found her without you'."
It falls in the silence with all the weight of a confession. She tries, twice, to swallow past the sudden hard knot in her throat.
Mozzie doesn't move, doesn't speak for more than a minute. When he does, the words are gentle, undone. "Wasn't your fault."
The weight doesn't lift, exactly, but something in her chest loosens a fraction; she looks away, fist against her mouth, until she's sure she's not going to cry. "Feels like it is."
"I know." He pats her shoulder awkwardly, before getting up to pour the wine. "Here." Leaning back to rummage behind the couch, he pulls out three DVDs and drops them in her lap. "Your turn to pick the movie, before we both freeze to death."
She sets up the laptop with The Princess Bride, setting aside Snakes on a Plane and Moon Landing: Fact or Fiction?for later viewing. Mozzie turns off the light and only then she lets the tears come, silently.
He unrolls two sleeping bags, which she decides must have been stolen from Russian Special Forces or a museum exhibit on the Shackleton expedition. Knowing Mozzie, it could be either.
They clink glasses in silence before she hits "play". Absent friends.
He takes one earbud and she takes the other; she props herself on her elbows and burrows into the bag, and they can both quote all the lines and Mozzie does the voices perfectly and the only thing missing is Neal.
Mozzie is gone when she wakes. Not long ago; he's left a tall mug of still-warm coffee beside the now-closed laptop. She turns over, lying on her back and breathing puffs of white at the ceiling.
She makes herself sit up before the coffee gets cold, drinking it down quickly and shivering. Something is banging next door.
A quick glance around shows Mozzie didn't leave breakfast, or any note saying where he'd gone. With Mozzie, one never knew. The banging stops, then starts again. Faintly, she hears a voice calling; the tone is enough to blast any lingering fatigue and push her out of the sleeping bag, even before she can make out the words: "FBI! Open up!"
She pulls on her sweater and her coat. The laptop goes into her bag; she hadn't taken anything else out of it. She touches her belt; the cash and passports are still there. She's out the door and halfway down the row, heading for the office at the back of the warehouse, before she realizes she's still got The Princess Bridein her DVD drive.
Sorry, Moz.She'll replace it later.
By the sound of it, they're at the warehouse next door. This building is still deserted, and the overhead lights are off; the only light comes from the bright lines of sunlight around the edges of the main front door. They'll be watching that exit.
She picks the office door lock with practiced speed, locking it behind her again once she's inside. There's another door to the outside, and she takes it. Outside, she smells fish and frost; voices drift from the next building, over the faint echoing slap of water along the underside of the pier.
Fowler is easy to pick out, half a head taller than any of the rest of the agents at the door. Will you look at that? she thinks, pressing herself against the side of the building and stepping softly toward the opposite corner. I've got a pet fed of my very own. I'll have to tell Neal, next time I see him.
She hugs the shadows until she's put three buildings between her and them, then walks at an unhurried pace down the cracked sidewalk, reassembling her phone long enough to text Mozzie: BURN SATURDAY.
He doesn't respond. She didn't expect him to; she hadn't sent the code for distress, or requested contact. Mozzie knows how to go to ground.
She can only hope they didn't make him last night. She has no idea how they followed her here; she'd been careful.
The sun soon chases away all friendly shadows, but brings no warmth to replace them. She can't see any clouds, but she can smell snow on the way.
A fleet of black cars blocks the lot at her motel, light bars flashing.
She drops behind a low hedge across the street before she registers it's her door open, her room they're going in and out of, carrying her things in clear plastic evidence bags. At first there's only a quiet, frozen calm, a still voice saying I guess it's time to go now.
Then she's moving before she can consciously think, following the line of bushes to the end of the street, her heart thumping hard in her throat as she makes for the nearest subway entrance.
She buys a bus ticket to Chicago under an alias she's pretty sure the feds cracked two years ago. At a rest stop somewhere on the New Jersey Turnpike, she drops her cell phone into the open handbag of the woman dozing in the seat beside her. When the driver announces they're staying long enough for a smoke break, she gets off and doesn't get back on.
It's three in the afternoon and she's had nothing but Mozzie's coffee for breakfast; she lets herself claim that as the reason she's still more than a little shaky. There's a diner on the other side of the onramp, trying for a nostalgic fifties feel with booths of cracked faux leather and a dark jukebox in one corner that doesn't appear to work. She orders waffles with ice cream and fried apples, sits in the corner facing the back entrance, where she can watch the reflection from the front door in the gleaming chrome trim along the walls.
She sips cautiously at hot coffee, shoving aside the bowl of creamers and setting the cup on the table. Pulling the lemon wedge from her water glass, she squeezes it carefully into the saucer.
She can't call Mozzie for help.
Mozzie is Neal's ace in the hole. Neal is vulnerable enough where he is; she won't risk the feds following her to Mozzie again and blowing his cover. Not when she still can't figure out how they followed her to Saturday last night. Once she leaves, Mozzie will be the only backup Neal's got.
Kate can take care of herself for five and a half months.
She spreads out a pocket map of the New York subway system, shifting the menu stand and the salt and pepper shakers and the long-necked glass ketchup bottles out of the way. Studies it for a moment before coming to a decision.
The first thing they need is a way to find each other when Neal's out.
They should have planned for this.
Kate smiles at the waitress as waffles appear, along with a tiny pitcher of real maple syrup. Another regular feature in their first breakfast of freedom plans. She can't think about that now.
She can't think about him waking up alone next Wednesday, knowing she won't be coming. Can't think about promises that never should have been made and all the things she can't fight, nets broken and dreams unraveled.
She can't think how five and a half months suddenly seems much longer than it did two days ago.
"Can I get you anything else?"
If Fowler is taking her place apart in broad daylight, it means he's got a warrant. Most likely he's also got a warrant for her arrest. And he knows she's been visiting Neal every Wednesday.
"Could I get some more lemons?"
With everything they've both done, everything the feds haven't yet but might still find, they should have known her visits were a luxury that couldn't last.
"Sure thing, hon."
Her go bag holds the laptop, cash and makeup and three changes of clothes, three days worth of Power Bars and a water bottle. It also holds a hairbrush and a collection of hotel shampoos, two more burner phones, her lockpicks and various other tools, including a set of tiny paintbrushes, and the few small, lightweight sentimental objects she's not willing to leave behind.
She carries fewer of those now than she used to. It's been a part of learning this life, shedding what she doesn't need, redefining need until she's stripped her possessions and herself down to a hard and solid core.
She pulls out the Bordeaux bottle as the waitress sets down another saucer with three lemon wedges. Opens up the thin case holding her paintbrushes, squeezing more lemon juice into the first saucer with her other hand. That bottle held a dream, once, right after they'd lost everything but each other. It had promised wealth and refinement and security, a place to stop running and savor the pleasures of life with no one chasing them.
The message she weaves into the bottle's label now promises none of these, only a meeting place.
The tip of the smallest brush is as fine as a lockpick. She dips it into the saucer and starts with the X, going over it and turning it into elegant calligraphy. One hand steadies the neck of the bottle so it won't roll, and then she brushes in a branching array of lines, sprouting out of the X.
She has learned keep her dreams small, lightweight and easy to carry on the run, and over the past few years she has shed dreams faster than she's shed keepsakes. Together. Safe. Free.She will promise nothing more; she can hope for nothing more than this. She brushes with a light touch, watercolor in invisible ink, not wanting to get the label wet enough to warp it.
And everyone said her art classes had been a waste of time.
She thinks about Penelope, and the kind of cold steel nerve it takes to wait, in one place and under the constant eyes of your enemies and his, fighting the lonely rearguard action while your resources dwindle and your escape routes close off; she thinks about what happens when the loom comes unstrung and the suitors won't take no for an answer anymore and he's not back and waiting is no longer an option.
What she weaves now will have to hold them both together for the next five months.
The waitress refills her coffee cup without asking, asks with a friendly smile if she needs anything else and doesn't comment on the empty wine bottle, the paintbrushes or the pile of squashed lemon peels bleeding juice into the paper placemat. Kate makes a mental note to leave her a generous tip.
She works quickly; no time for hesitation once she's started. The lines at the top of the label are fading, drying into invisibility by the time she reaches the bottom.
Place it next to a heat source and they'll reappear: a map of the New York subway system, with a flourished X over Grand Central Station.
There's a space behind one of the girders near the terminal entrance where she'd stashed an extra emergency passport, years ago, right next to a payphone. She'd kept the passport there for years, and it hadn't disappeared; she can leave a note there and trust no one will find it either, unless they're looking for it.
Next comes the hard part.
She leaves the cash and the passports with her note in the pocket of the girder. She'll get them on her way out. Stops beside the payphone and memorizes the number.
The note, once cracked, is simple: Here. Friday. Noon.He'll get out on a Monday. That should give him time to find the bottle and the map; if not, she'll keep calling that phone every week until he picks up.
She changes into her "visiting clothes" in the station restroom, applying makeup in the smudged mirror and brushing out her hair. She leaves it loose, drapes a scarf around her neck. This next part will be the hardest, and the most dangerous.
Visiting days for inmates are divided according to last names; M through R have visitors on Wednesday. If she's lucky, Fowler won't expect her until then. If she's really lucky, he thinks she's skipped town already, and is still tracking her cell phone on its way to Chicago.
Or he could have the prison staked out 24/7, could be waiting for her there right now. She doesn't know Fowler half as well as Neal knew Burke, by the end of it, but she knows she can't afford to assume he's stupid. She could be walking into a trap.
It would give their story a certain symmetry.
That's a risk she'll have to take. Sometimes they hold Neal's letters for weeks, looking for codes. Now that she's wanted by the FBI, it's unlikely any letter from her will get through at all. If she disappears without a word, Neal will think (will know) she's in trouble.
He'll try to come after her, and an attempted escape (or a successful one - supermax or not, she wouldn't put it past him) would add years to his sentence or make them both wanted fugitives for the rest of their lives.
"Your boy don't get visitors on weekends. You know that."
She knows which guards find her attractive; you notice things, running cons long enough. She knows who might be bought with money, who she might sway if she flirts the right way, and who she'd actually have to sleep with. This one's eyes undress her every time she walks in here, and every few weeks he brings her coffee while she waits for them to bring Neal in.
She accepts it maybe half the time. She knows better than to burn an asset she might need one day.
Like today. "I need to see him." He frowns, and she leans toward him. "Please."
"Look, miss -"
"Kate," she says, and wonders: a hand on his arm? No, too much. She looks down and sniffs. "I'm here to break up with him." Looks up, blinking rapidly; the tears aren't faked. (The best lies are mostly true, Neal says.) "I have to do this now, or I won't - I can't -"
"Kate -" He glances over his shoulder, and she knows she's got him. "Look, the warden'll have my ass if -"
"Five minutes. Please."
"All right. Five minutes." He looks at his watch. "Hey, if you - my shift's up in an hour. You want to wait around, I can drive you home."
She gives him a watery smile; let him read whatever promises he wants to in it. If she's still here in an hour, she'll have bigger problems than him to deal with.
He clasps her arm, possessive, tugging her toward the visiting room.
"Kate." Neal's face lights when he sees her, and her heart seizes. He can still read her; his eyes sharpen at her expression, concerned and alert. "What's wrong?"
She holds his eyes. Make this convincing for the cameras, okay?She suspects he won't have to act much, any more than she will.
Pressing her hand against the glass, she adds her fingerprints to the smudges on its surface; scars and echoes, painting a portrait of futility. She lets it all bleed through, the grinding frustration of three and a half years; every time she comes to this dingy little room, it feels like she's never left.
"I can't do this anymore."
The weak winter sun slips through the blinds, goes through the glass like water to touch his face, throwing stripes across his hair, along his arms. They have five minutes, to last five months.
She waits for the light to click on behind his eyes, for him to hear what she's not saying: I can't visit anymore.
I have to run. I have to hide.
"What - ?" He leans forward, searching her face; his goes suddenly still, but his eyes dart to the cameras at the corners of the room. Then back to her face, very serious, questioning. Are you saying what I think you're saying?"Kate, it's only five months. Let's think about this, all right …"
Oh, God, he thinks she's asking him to break out.
Houston, we have a telepathy malfunction. He'll do it, too, if she asks him. If she gives the slightest signal yes right now. If she says I can't deal with this place, I need you with me now,he'll do it, all the risks and long-term consequences be damned.
She shakes her head sharply, unambiguous. No, that wasn't the message. Try again.
She's suddenly acutely aware of the cameras covering every angle of this place. Assuming Fowler isn't coming down the hallway to arrest her right now, he'll dissect their parting at his leisure, watching the security tape over and over looking for a coded message.
"I want to break up," she says. We have to split up for now."I'm leaving, Neal."
She sees the moment it hits him. His mouth opens, then closes, but any sound he makes doesn't reach the microphone. His face is still, eyes soft and blank and devastated. It's not an act, and he's taking it harder than she expected.
There's no way to soften this.
You're on your own for the next five months.
"Why?" One word, wrenched loose like it hurts, and she'd give anything for ten seconds of true privacy, five seconds; long enough to say all the things she has to trust him to remember, the things she can't say again until he's out.
"I'm sorry." She stands up, keeps her face and her voice cold for the cameras.
"What? God, Kate, please -" He stands, reaching for her in a panicked, involuntary motion. The glass blocks his hand; in her dreams that glass ripples like water, and she's watching him slowly drown. The words are hoarse. "Can we talk about this?"
There's no time. She lifts her right hand, like she's about to reach for his; his eyes follow the motion, and she thinks: Now.
However she does this, it has to be clear enough that Neal can read it after seeing it only once, and subtle enough Fowler won't understand it after watching it a hundred times. A single word, to point to a future beyond all this. His eyes follow her hand as it drops to her thigh, index finger shifting to spell a single word in Morse code.
Bottle.It will have to be enough. But he looks up halfway through; his eyes fasten on her face again, as she taps out the last letter.
He didn't see it.
She freezes, in a brief moment of oh shit what do I do now?And then it hits her like a sledgehammer to the throat.
He thinks she's leaving him for real.
The guard is knocking. Something's wrong; it hasn't even been five minutes. She can't repeat the message. Neal wouldn't see it; he's not even looking for a hidden message, staring at her face, stunned and pleading.
Oh God Neal you idiot.
He thinks she's leaving him and never coming back. For a moment her brain locks up completely and she can't move, can't think.
She steps back, fighting the fluttery panicked adrenaline and the sudden drop in the pit of her stomach. In one last effort, she flicks her eyes up, left and right, to the cameras at the corners of the ceiling - we're being watched, none of this is real, I can't say what I'm trying to tell you- but his don't follow.
Anything clear enough to reach him, to reassure him right now would tip Fowler off. She's blown her one chance to set up the message drop, and there's no time and no plan B and Neal is still staring at her like he's been shot and Fowler could be in the parking lot right nowif he's not already inside the building.
"Kate," the guard says, and she flips her scarf over her shoulder and it means damn you how could you think I'd leave like this?
"Adios, Neal." Her voice has to be cold, her face too, but she glances back and it means I love you I'm sorry oh God please be safe."It's been real."
Please don't do anything stupid.
Retrieving her bag at the entrance, she bursts out into the sunlight and blinks, momentarily blinded. Three black cars are parked at the other end of the lot. She pulls her scarf up over her hair and makes for the gate with her head down.
He didn't see it. He didn't hear it - he didn't hear her.
They should have planned for this. But Neal doesn't do plans, he's always said. He says they make you complacent, unable to improvise; not being able to improvise in the heat of the moment gets you arrested or shot.
Making backup plans on the fly undercover, you have to trust that your partner will be ready to read and react to the two and three layers of meaning you have to braid into any attempt at communication. It never occurred to her he'd think she's really leaving him.
It should have; it's not like she hasn't left before.
The wind pulls at her skirt, pushes dead leaves and a discarded candy wrapper across the cracked asphalt. Scanning the parking lot for feds, she can't afford to replay the whole conversation in her head, every look, every gesture, every word she might have used differently.
He thinks this was goodbye.
The bottle and the map and the note and the payphone are all in place, and all useless if he doesn't know to look for them.
She takes a deep breath, forces herself to a brisk but steady pace as the gate nears.
He's Neal. Message drop or no message drop, he'll find her. He won't take goodbye for an answer; he didn't the last time. Five and a half months and he'll be out, and he'll come looking for her.
If only he waits that long.
The wind snaps the cable against the flagpole, sings through glittering razor wire. She's at the gate now; she doesn't look up, at the towers further down along the outer wall. They're too far away to see, but she knows they've got guards with shotguns up there; it's too easy to picture Neal running across the yard in the dark, to picture searchlight beams catching him, searchlight beams and then a bullet.
Please let him wait that long.
She makes it to the bus shelter without being stopped. Sitting on the bench, she tucks her feet up beside her so that from behind, the shelter looks empty. A swirl of leaves starts up from the curb, chased in a circle; from the corner of her eye, she thinks she sees snow.
Someone approaches; an older woman, dressed with careful dignity, a wide-brimmed hat and a faded shawl over her dress. She's holding out a styrofoam cup.
"You looked like you could use it."
Kate takes the coffee, gulps quickly; a bitter, burnt taste before her tongue is too scalded to taste anything. "Thanks."
"You're usually here Wednesdays."
There's a paper taped to the wall that once told the bus schedule, long since bleached blank by the sun. But she knows it will be only a few minutes. Messages scrawled in marker and carved with sharp metal cover the inside of the shelter. Initials framed in hearts, curses scarred into the walls.
"I got two boys in there. I see the older one on Wednesdays." And Kate remembers her; she's sat beside her, waiting for Neal. They've never talked. "You've been coming here a while."
"I guessed." The bus is approaching, a barely felt rumble from the other end of the street; in Kate's head a tiny little voice is chanting run, over and over. "I ain't here to judge, girl. Not just them doing time, in there. It's us, too."
Kate stands, looking back at the walls, the guard towers, the heavy scrolls of razor wire, and realizes abruptly she'll never have to pass under those walls again.
It's the relief she's unprepared for, sudden and overwhelming, a weight lifted with no warning so she staggers, feeling she might float away with no anchor. Half a second later she thinks the guilt might choke her.
"Name's Alice," the woman says, as the bus pulls up. She's holding out a folded slip of paper; Kate takes it, uncomprehending. "Nobody knows how hard this is, unless they been here. Not my place to tell you when enough's enough. But if you ever want to talk -"
It's a phone number. Kate blinks, the numbers blurring into unreadability. Tries to speak and finds she can't. Alice hesitates, then pulls her into a brief, fierce hug.
"I'll pray for you," she says.
"Pray for him," Kate says. Not that she expects it will help; Kate stopped believing in miracles when her mother left, and she hasn't believed in any higher force for justice since Adler pulled everything out from under her and got away clean.
She buys a floppy hat from a vendor outside Grand Central Station, retrieves her cash and passports. She leaves the note, wondering if he'll ever see it, and takes the subway to the Port Authority terminal. Sitting at a bench along the wall, she opens the laptop, buys four bus tickets under four older aliases to four different cities. Then she closes the laptop, pays cash for a ticket at the automated NJ Transit kiosk and gets on the train.
She leans her head against the window as the train sways past Newark and Camden and Elizabeth, grey steel and industrial smoke. She needs to think, but all she can see is Neal's face in the courtroom, almost four years ago now. She remembers watching him, cocky and grinning in a silk suit; she remembers how his face changed when he saw her.
He hadn't expected her to show. She'd blown him a kiss across the room, watched his face crumple for half a second; his eyes followed her as she found a seat toward the front.
She remembers Peter Burke catching the shift in Neal's face, turning to follow his eyes; she remembers smoothing her face blank when Burke saw her.
They should have planned for this.
Neal tried not to show her he was afraid, but after almost a year apart she could still read him too well. They should have made plans, but facing the reality of his sentence for the first time they'd both been unable to consider those plans might be needed. They'd had little enough time to talk in semi-privacy, before they took him away, and those moments were saved for finishing the reunion Burke had interrupted. For I still love you, for I'm sorry, for I'll wait for you, I'm not going anywhere.
She couldn't talk about leaving, then. Every time she thought of it, of all the reasons she might have to run, she heard his words to Burke in her mind: thank you I never would have found her without you.
She couldn't talk about leaving, when he needed so desperately to hear her promise she would stay.
Now they're both paying the price.
Please, she thinks, as the wheels beat a steady rhythm, rocking along the track. Please please please don't do anything stupid.