A/N: It was a long time ago, when I made the promise to write a sequel to my earlier story. Since then, events interfered; my life has become much busier, the show has moved on. And yet, I've decided to post this.
Inevitable is a work in progress. It picks up where Can't Be Both ended, and it goes completely AU after Countdown.
This chapter has been beta-ed by the amazing Mam711. I also have to thank my friend and cheerleader November Leaving – for everything. Finally, thank to all of you who have reviewed my original story and asked me about the sequel.
I hope you'll enjoy it.
CHAPTER 1 – OUT OF MIND
"Please fasten your seatbelt, sir," says a woman's voice. "We'll be landing in several minutes."
Philip Kramer blinks when the flight attendant wakes him from his half-sleep. He smiles at her. "Thank you, miss." Then he stretches his arms and back before he follows her instructions.
He's looking forward to being home, with his own team.
On impulse, Kramer pulls out his keys and looks at one of the two most recent additions.
'Out of my mind. Back in five minutes.'
Kramer gently touches the new keychain that he noticed and bought during his stay in New York. He examines the rest of them and becomes lost in memories – with a hint of melancholy, he looks at the old, small lucky fish charm that his late wife Rebecca got him as a Valentine's Day gift when they were young. Next to the fish hangs a small roundel with the logo of his favorite hockey team. There is also a miniature flashlight; a chess-figure bishop; a small, chromium-plated ace card; a dark, metal sphinx; and finally the "FBI", Female Body Inspector keychain that – according to Rebecca – was "the perfect joke and cover all at once," as she explained to him between chuckles when she persuaded him to add it to his keys.
Rebecca had always loved jokes, both good and bad, as long as they gave her an excuse to laugh.
Kramer takes a deep breath and moves on. His fingers stop when he comes to the other addition to his keys – a square, electronic key to a GPS tracking anklet.
It is a key to one man's freedom, and also the thing that holds the potential to largely change Philip's life for the next half a decade.
Suddenly, Kramer feels Caffrey's eyes on him. However, when he looks at Caffrey, Neal seems to be fully absorbed in a journal and paying no attention to his surroundings.
Kramer returns to his ruminations on days gone by. He runs his finger over the rough surface of the mini-sphinx, fleetingly remembering his and Rebecca's plans to visit Egypt someday; plans that never came to be. But even as his fingers caress the cold piece of metal, he can still intensely feel Neal's presence next to him.
Philip once again looks at Caffrey. Then he cuts his memory trip short and hides the keys in the palm of his hand.
He fights the urge to shake his head – it's been less than four hours, and already Caffrey's presence is influencing his life in a way he didn't expect, by interfering with the habit that he picked up several years ago. Kramer wonders how many similar occurrences will happen in the next few weeks and months.
He almost laughs at that thought. Taking on a consultant? Of course there'll be changes and complications. Kramer would be a fool to think otherwise.
He opens his palm and looks at the keys again. What would Rebecca have said if he told her that he was bringing another convicted felon into their house? Would she have thought that—
There it was again!
This time, Kramer almost catches Caffrey as Neal quickly looks away the moment Philip turns in his direction. A wave of irritation rises in him. This? Seriously?
Is Neal trying to con him already? This was Philip's private moment to reflect on his loved ones – on his wife – with each cherished trinket. Not that he can expect Caffrey to understand family, friendship or love—
And that's where Kramer's miff dies out.
Because that's far from the truth. Philip doesn't trust Neal's criminal impulses, but this is one point he can't deny. Neal cares about people – about Peter and Elizabeth, about his former team, about that cute but sharp insurance investigator who seemed more than capable of handling him. He gave up the treasure, implicated himself and risked his life – all for the people back in New York. Even in his confession, when Caffrey withheld the name of the person who told him about the manifest, Kramer believes it was done in an attempt to protect someone.
And that's the essence of all of it, isn't it? Thief and con man or not – Neal Caffrey cares about people. That's one of the things that had made Philip consider taking him on as his consultant in the first place.
He reluctantly looks down at the keys in his hands.
Maybe the core of this is actually simple. Maybe seeing Kramer holding Neal's freedom literally in his hands is truly putting him on edge. Given the power imbalance of their relationship, it would be completely understandable.
Philip can't think that every single one of Caffrey's moves is a con, or they will drive each other crazy within a week.
They are supposed to work together. If nothing else, Kramer would like Neal to help him solve his cases. To fully utilize the con man's potential, it would be better if their working environment remained clear and focused. Making Caffrey hate him and creating useless antagonism won't help.
With one last glimpse at the man next to him, Kramer puts the keys away.
He wonders how he has gotten himself into this predicament.
Really, this should have been a simple, if extremely important, work trip. And while Philip had been curious (and very wary) about Peter's consultant, never, not for a second, had he imagined that weeks later, he would take Neal as his own CI.
And yet, here they are, on a plane on their way to DC.
It all started with a rather spectacular fiasco concerning one Nazi treasure and a certain stolen Degas painting. Because of his involvement, Neal Caffrey, a con man extraordinaire and a former consultant for the New York White Collar Division, has been sentenced to five years in prison, running concurrently with the remainder of the four years that he got for a prison escape that preceded his first deal with Agent Peter Burke, Kramer's old student and friend.
When Kramer first met Caffrey and learned that Peter suspected him of stealing the treasure, he was ready to write him off as a bold, shameless confidence man. That opinion was only reinforced when Elizabeth was kidnapped, Neal's involvement confirmed, and it appeared that he had run. Philip reckoned that Neal had been offered the sweetest deal by the FBI – and then he had taken advantage of it, thrown it all back in their faces and disappeared when the results of his deceits came back to bite him.
At that time, Kramer's perception of the situation seemed obvious and logical.
It had also been completely wrong.
When they got Elizabeth back, Kramer was reluctantly forced to correct his opinion about Neal. Judging by the daring rescue, it was clear that Caffrey liked Elizabeth and Peter. Yet, when Caffrey later gave them his teary confession, Kramer felt little sympathy for him. Neal might not have stolen the treasure, but his other actions were more than enough. And although Caffrey had told them that he had eventually made the right decision, to stay, given that he was facing decades in prison, Philip could hardly take those words at face value.
When Reese Hughes decided to allow Neal to remain under house arrest before his hearings, Kramer honestly thought he was crazy.
"What makes you think he won't run?" asked Kramer skeptically.
"He's on his anklet, and I'll have someone watching him," replied Hughes. "Besides, Caffrey knows we would catch him. He gave me his word he wouldn't do anything stupid."
"And you're willing to trust that?" asked Kramer in disbelief.
"Up to a point – yes."
Looking back, this was one of the first things that truly gave Kramer pause. Or more exactly, it was the fact that Reese had been right. As days went by, there was no news about Caffrey trying to pull an escape attempt.
Still, Neal hadn't been Kramer's problem anymore. Philip's new assignment in New York had been to oversee and aid the White Collar Unit during the events following the recovery of the Nazi treasure, to take care of the preliminary cataloguing of the treasure, and to make sure that this didn't end in an international incident. Kramer called several members of his team to come and help, and they turned their attention to examining the paintings, statues, jewelry and other things from the treasure. Unless Peter decided that he wanted to talk about Neal, Kramer was content to forget about the former consultant.
The cataloguing was proceeding quite well. In the meantime, Kramer tried to reconnect with Peter and help the Burkes as much as he could after Elizabeth's kidnapping.
And then they revoked Caffrey's work-release program and sent him to jail to await his preliminary hearing and trial.
Philip wondered at that. According to the hushed talk between the White Collar agents, Neal had freely admitted to the numerous violations of his agreement, without making excuses for himself. What was that about? He had to know that doing so would land him back in prison. With a confidence man and escape artist of Neal's reputation, this wasn't what Philip had expected to happen.
If it was a con, then Kramer simply failed to see the angle.
When Peter later confided in him that – despite everything – he still believed in Neal, Philip reluctantly began to consider that he might need to look at the situation in a different light.
Was it possible that Caffrey's remorse was genuine? Could it be that this wasn't just a scheme, but that he had actually told them the truth?
Kramer couldn't deny that Neal had piqued his interest.
And so after his talk with Peter and two days after Caffrey's revocation, instead of making arrangements for the treasure's transportation, he found himself examining the contents of Neal's old deal and some of his and Peter's cases.
At first, Philip rationalized that it was because of Neal's upcoming trial, that since the trial was something of a main topic of talk in the New York White Collar division, he wanted to know what was going on. Then, when Caffrey was sentenced, Kramer told himself that since Neal was connected to the treasure case (and Peter), it made complete sense that he wanted to find out more about him. But as he talked to Neal's former colleagues and read the statements that Caffrey's attorney had used in his defense at Neal's hearing, said rationalizations started to wear thin.
The more Philip learned, the more he couldn't help but feel grains of sympathy towards the other man.
And with sympathy came memories.
With a mixture of regret and bitterness, Kramer thought about George – about the young CI he had once loved as his own blood. Initially, his own son Evan had even felt a bit miffed and jealous about it, until he and George settled into a weird older sibling-younger sibling relationship. Philip remembered all the shared moments; remembered the first time that he had introduced George to Rebecca and Evan; remembered George using his charms to help their colleague get tickets for an art exhibition for his daughter; remembered the mixture of fondness and exasperation when he had noticed George drawing flawless replicas of American money during one of the FBI meetings ("Phil, it's not counterfeit – it's in pen, and it's not even on the right paper. Hypothetically, if I wanted to do something like that, don't you think I would have found better tools?"). With a rueful smile, Kramer thought about George teaching Evan card tricks to impress Evan's girlfriend; about Philip, George, and Evan watching a hockey game together; and finally, he thought about making more and more allowances for the young con man, until one day it all crashed down around him and he found himself locking the handcuffs around George's wrists with his own shaking hands.
He hated himself for it. He kept telling himself he should have found a way – any way to fix it….
How naive he had been back then.
Kramer had seen the same signs in Peter's own home – the picture of Neal Peter kept in his living room, the way Peter talked about Neal, the fact that Neal had his own favorite coffee mug at the Burkes. He had tried to tell Peter to distance himself while he still could.
When Elizabeth was kidnapped, he realized he had been too late. When Caffrey disappeared, Kramer could think of him with nothing but contempt and anger. He wasn't surprised, though. The betrayal should have been expected. That was what people like Neal were best at.
When Neal reappeared – with Elizabeth – and turned himself in, Kramer's beliefs were shaken to the core.
Even after Elizabeth's rescue, Philip badly wanted to view Neal in the same light as George – because deep down, every word of Neal's heartfelt confession felt like a slap. Kramer wanted to ignore him, to dislike him, despise him even, because Neal's mere presence raised questions that had plagued Kramer's mind for years, and that he still hadn't found answers for.
He was wrong.
Philip wasn't sure when the revelation came. At one point, though, he realized he couldn't judge Caffrey based merely on his own experience with his own CI.
When they were trying to recover the Degas, Kramer had held healthy respect for Neal's abilities. But watching Neal in the aftermath of Elizabeth's kidnapping.… Philip thought about his brilliance and sheer determination as he negotiated with Keller for Elizabeth's release, about the hours Neal spent in the sewer tunnels and narrow pipes with no guarantee that he would find a way out, about Neal's confession, his bravery and surprising moral integrity during the following events … and the more he thought about it, the more Kramer couldn't help becoming carefully impressed.
The realization caught him completely by surprise.
There had always been a place for a truly skilled consultant in Kramer's division back in DC. Caffrey had a lot of talent; leaving him to rot in prison would be a waste. It would be much better to use his skills. Kramer also considered Peter and Neal's apparent friendship, the way many of Neal's colleagues stood by him even after learning the details of the treasure heist, and Neal's seemingly genuine regret for his part in the whole fiasco.
Philip knew that Peter had made a few inquiries about whether it would be possible to reinstate Neal's deal, and that he had been shot down rather forcefully as incapable of supervising the con man. What was more, Reese Hughes had made it clear that he didn't want Caffrey in his division anymore. But maybe there was a way around that.
When he finally acknowledged the course of action he was considering, Kramer immediately realized that this wasn't time for rash decisions. He looked up more of Peter's cases from the last two years – discovering some really interesting reports that looked a damn lot like cover-ups, but also others that showed that when it mattered, Caffrey could be trusted to have his co-workers' backs. He re-watched the tape containing Neal's confession, twice, and he briefly talked to Peter's wife during one of his visits to their home. Then he talked to Reese Hughes and to Agent Rice from the Kidnapping and Missing Person division. Finally, he discussed things over the phone with Thomas, Kramer's most trusted agent and friend, who he'd left in charge of things back in DC.
In the end, after more thinking and after once more admiring Neal's forgery of the Degas (which was truly the best he had ever seen), Kramer made his decision: to try to use his pull to get Neal to work for the FBI again.
That raised another question, though. If he succeeded – what would be the best way to handle Caffrey as a person? How much leeway should he give him?
He had to be careful, thought Philip. Give Caffrey very tight restrictions, but not to the point that they would suffocate him. Always keep an eye on him, but don't rub in it, otherwise that could do more harm than good. He was sure that he and Neal could reach a reasonable balance that would allow them to do their jobs and live their lives without too much antagonism.
At least that was the theory.
And so Kramer started making calls and drafting the first and second versions of the paperwork for Neal's new deal, while keeping it somewhat quiet in case things didn't work out. When he was done, he visited Neal in prison, and later he suffered through several hours of exhausting talks with the DOJ and all the other agencies involved.
In the end, Neal's work-release program had been approved once again, and Kramer got himself a new consultant.
Still, even now, as he looks sideways at the man on the seat next to him on the plane back to DC, a part of Kramer wonders if he is out of his mind for taking on a notorious thief, con man and world-class forger of Caffrey's ilk.
No, he corrects himself, taking on Caffrey isn't the problem; it wasn't that rare for the Bureau to use questionable resources in the past. The problem is—
The core of the problem is, that at some point in the future, Kramer might begin to trust him.
That wouldn't be good.
No, that wouldn't be good at all. That would be dangerous.
Philip knows better now than to fall into a con man's trap.
Kramer isn't blind. He watched Neal when they were trying to recover the Degas; he has read the files, and because of that, he knows that Neal is one of the best criminals he has ever encountered. But he also watched him during his confession; he saw Neal's acceptance when it came to his hearing and sentence, and he observed him tonight at Peter's house. Despite the crimes the con man has so recently committed, Kramer is now inclined to believe him that Neal indeed wants to turn a new leaf.
However, he's not sure how long Neal's resolution will last … and neither does he know if Caffrey is even capable of going straight.
Some people believe that the life of crime slowly becomes an addiction, a statement that Kramer finds easy to believe. Philip also knows that if he's not careful and things go wrong with Caffrey, this could end up in an amazing disaster that would not only doom Neal to a lifelong prison stay, but it could also – unlike in Peter's case – completely kill Kramer's own career. If Neal messes up even remotely close to the treasure level again, Kramer will become known as the guy who fell for a con of his for the second time; more than three decades of hard work and painfully gained reputation thrown out the window with one bad decision.
Since the death of his wife, his job has basically become Kramer's life. And now he is willing to risk it – for what? To solve a few cases? As a favor to a friend? To give a second chance to a man he first met a mere six or seven weeks earlier?
One thing is sure – Kramer's life is about to become much more interesting.
o – o – o
"Here we are," says Kramer when he finally finds the key to his house and unlocks the door.
"Nice house," answers Neal politely, while stifling a yawn.
It is a nice house, notices Neal as Kramer turns on the light and he hesitantly follows him inside.
"Take off your shoes here," says Kramer while he puts on his slippers. "And you can hang your coat over there," he adds after a moment. "I'll put away my suitcase and then I'll show you to your apartment."
"Okay," says Neal and follows Kramer's example.
When the agent leaves him, Neal tiredly falls into the chair there and puts his head into his hands. Because of a delay at the airport, it's already well past two a.m., and right now, Neal wants nothing more than to just find a quiet place to sleep.
He sighs before he looks up. Taking in his surroundings, he considers the place that might become his home for the next five years.
He and Kramer had already talked about this in prison. Because of Neal's new restricted radius and because of difficulties in finding housing in DC (especially for $700 per month), the possibilities for Neal's living arrangements were … limited. Then Kramer came up with a solution – and offered Neal the attic apartment in his own house.
The thought of living in an FBI agent's house – his supervisor's, no less – left Neal far from thrilled. At first, he almost rejected the option outright.
"If you have a problem with that, then naturally, I can talk you through the alternatives," Kramer suggested then.
Neal immediately imagined something along the lines of the fleabag hotel Peter had dumped him in the first time, or possibly a holding cell. Then he considered the probabilities of finding another June given a 200 foot radius, which was ... unlikely. For a fleeting moment, he hesitated about whether this arrangement was truly that much better than prison.
Unfortunately, the answer was – yes. It was bad, but still better than spending five years in a six by eight cage with a constant fear of being shivved in the ribs if someone discovered what he'd been. And there was no way that he would let himself be put in segregation or solitary.
"No, sir. That won't be necessary." Neal swallowed his complaints – and accepted.
"All right," says Kramer when he returns to the hall. "Let's show you to your apartment."
Neal picks up his suitcase. "All right."
They climb the stairs. Then Kramer unlocks the door to the attic, turns on the light and lets Neal in.
They enter into a miniature hallway – it just holds one big wardrobe, and then there is a second door. While Neal looks around, Kramer steps into the next room.
"The kitchen is connected to the dining room," explains Kramer while Neal follows him. "A bathroom's on the left, and this door leads to your bedroom."
"That's nice," answers Neal awkwardly as he looks around his new establishment.
It's … an apartment. The kitchen is painted and furnished in pale pastel colors. Everything is covered with a thin layer of dust, indicating that the rooms have been empty for quite some time.
The whole place feels so lifeless, so … empty. Neal almost wants to open the kitchen cupboard to check that there's not a dead body hidden somewhere.
Maybe there's a zombie in his bedroom.
He quickly stops that train of thought and focuses on Kramer.
The agent opens the door to the bedroom and peeks in. "The sheets are there. Do you need something else?"
"No, I don't think so," replies Neal.
"Good," says Kramer curtly. "Tomorrow morning, we'll talk some basic rules. Then you can have a look around, we'll eat lunch, and afterwards, we'll go to the office."
"Sounds pretty clear." Neal stifles a yawn.
Kramer notices it. "I think you should go to sleep now. We can talk and discuss things in the morning."
Is Kramer sending him to bed? Really?
Neal sharply bites his tongue before he says something stupid.
"Yes, sir.… Good night."
"You too," says Kramer.
They stare at each other for a while, before Kramer shakes his head and leaves.
Neal is alone.
After a moment of hesitation, he makes a quick exploration of his new "home".
Not surprisingly, the bathroom has a shower, a sink and a toilet.
The kitchen is well equipped and looks completely functional, with a fridge, a double hot plate, a sink, a coffee maker – there's even a convection oven/microwave on the counter. Dishes are hidden in a cupboard.
And finally, there's the matter of Neal's bedroom, with a big bed, a desk, several closets and a small bookcase.
All in all, while it can't hold a candle to June's, it's not a bad place, admits Neal in the end. He doesn't fully unpack, just opens his garment bag, hangs up his suits and takes out his nightclothes and the toiletries. When he's done in the bathroom, he puts on the nightclothes, turns off the light and climbs into the unfamiliar, foreign bed.
And that's when it truly hits him fully.
Twenty-four hours ago, he had still been in prison. Since then, he'd gotten out, painted a picture, tried to mend his friendship with Peter, had a parting dinner with his friends – and finally, he'd left New York and flown to DC, as per the conditions of his new arrangement.
Neal shifts in the bed. The sheets feel nice, so much better than the prison sheets – it's weird how quickly he had forgotten that the first time around—
This is all wrong.
When he was in prison, he had to be extremely careful and constantly watch his back – the obvious consequence of being considered a snitch. But now that the threat was gone, when everything has stilled and Neal has the time to truly think—
He's not supposed to be here.
He should be in New York, playing a game with Mozzie.
(Mozzie, who is on the run.)
He should be in his apartment, reading a book, drinking wine and knowing that June was sleeping downstairs.
He should be solving cases with Peter.
He should be home, with his family and friends.
Suddenly, Neal is angry – because he had given up the treasure, and he had risked and given them so much, and he still lost so many things (Mozzie, Peter) that mattered to him.
No, Neal won't deny that he messed up with the treasure and the Degas. Tomorrow, he'll smile, and he'll do his job, and he'll charm the hell out of DC, Kramer and the Arts Crime Unit. But right now he thinks he has earned the right to feel a little sorry for himself, at least for an hour or two.
Yeah, he's out of prison, and that's nice – but – but—
Mozzie. Peter. Elizabeth. Sara, June, Diana, Jones – his desk at the Bureau, his apartment, his canvases and brushes, even his other hats—
He clutches his pillow and uses his other hand to wipe away a stray tear. God, it's only been a few hours, and he already misses everyone; he misses them so much that it hurts—
Is it too snobbish to say that he misses June's view and her perfectly soft bedsheets?
If he ran, he'd never be able to come back to New York, and all the people that he loves – Peter, El, Sara, June, even Diana, Jones and the rest of the team – would be lost to him forever. So unless he chooses to go back to prison, this is his only chance. And it's just five years. He survived four years in prison for Kate; he can survive five years in DC with Kramer. Besides, he's reasonably sure that he'll soon find a way to influence some of the circumstances to suit himself.
It will be better in the morning. Neal wipes away another tear, determined that it will be the last.
He's tethered now – and so what? He can make it work.
He will make this work.
They promised him that there would be phone calls, emails and visits. Sara and the Burkes promised that they would visit him as much as they could.
Plus there will be other people in Washington. Neal needs to stop thinking about this as a long stop on his way to freedom, but follow Christie's advice and try to make the most of it.
This is an opportunity. He can make new friends, contacts – with the slight change in his specialization with the FBI, he might be able to meet some of the best art experts of this time. He'll familiarize himself with the workings of the Art Crime Unit ("Know thine enemy," Mozzie would have said). He might finally be able to visit the Smithsonian museums, or check out some restaurants (according to his source, D'Acqua is supposed to be quite good). And there probably won't be any more mortgage fraud cases – though right now, Neal would forego use of his left hand for a week if he could just hunch over a file with Peter and try to figure out the scheme.
Neal stops before he goes overboard with his plans or dives into self-pity again. There will be time for that later, when he and Kramer have finished their discussion and "talked rules" – whatever that means.
Speaking of which.…
Tomorrow is an important day. He'll meet his new colleagues for the first time, and Neal wouldn't be a world-class con man if he ever underestimated the importance of first impressions. He already has lots of things stacked against him; he needs to be at his best for the introductions.
With that thought, Neal grabs his pillow and closes his eyes.
A few minutes later, he finally falls asleep.
A/N: Reviews are very appreciated.