attackfish: Yshre girl wearing a kippah, text "Attackfish" (Default)
[personal profile] attackfish
Disclaimer: I don't own White Collar. I am writing this fic under the fair use exemption for transformative works.

Summary: When the FBI captures Neal Caffrey, infamous thief and con artist, they discover that he is a runaway slave. Now recaptured and sold to recoup his owners' financial losses, Neal schemes and waits for his chance. After all he escaped once. But Neal isn't the only one plotting his escape, and not all of his fellow schemers have his best interests at heart.

Author's Note: Written as a prompt fill on livejournal for thetammyjo. Only took me five years to finish it. Thank you to duckie-duckduck on tumblr for the beta.

00316618525: Part Four

The woman who answered the apartment door smiled at Kate the way a person usually smiled at strangers, distantly. So Kate folded her hands behind her back. "Neal sent me."

The woman pulled the door open wide. "Come inside."

"My name's Kate." She felt her lips shaping themselves into the smile Neal had taught her, in her first fumbling days as a con artist. But this woman knew Neal. She would know the smile. Kate let it drop. "I'm supposed to pick up something?"

"Yes, of course." She shut the door behind both of them, and looked at Kate. "You know, I always kind of hoped he would come for it himself. I'm Ellen, by the way."

"Pleasure." But Ellen had walked off down the hallway. Kate followed. As the other woman shuffled through the boxes on the top shelf of a hall linen closet, Kate ran her hand through her hair nervously. "So you knew Neal from... before?"

Spinning around with a poster box in one hand, Ellen's eyes thinned into pinched, anxious slits. "What do you mean by that?"

Kate held her hands up with a reassuring smile. "I'm not going to turn you in. I'm a friend."

"Neal wouldn't tell anyone," she growled. "He knows better."

Kate stayed back, voice soothing, "He didn't tell me. He got caught. I'm going to help him bust out, but I need what he's been hiding here..."

But Ellen had sagged heavily against the wall. "How?"

Kate's stomach twisted as her mind went to how the FBI had found Neal, how they had used her to do it. "Doesn't matter. What matters is I'm going to get him out."

Ellen held the poster tube up and looked at it dubiously. "And you need this."

Kate shrugged. "Neal said so."

"Any idea what's inside?"

Shrugging again, she held her hand out for it. "Something he-" She stopped, uncertain as to how much she should say.

"Something he stole?" Ellen supplied, making no move to give it to her. "I know what he does for a living."

Kate nodded. "They arrested him. And when they ran his prints..."

Holding out the poster tube, Ellen met her eyes. "Yes, I knew Neal from before. I watched him grow up, and I helped him escape, and if you aren't planning to help him, I will find you."

Kate grimaced. "I'll tell him to visit after he gets out."

o0O0o

The pod sped along one of the steel lines, hung between the five city towers like the thin, sticky strands of a spider web. Kate kept one arm snugly around the cardboard poster tube as she stretched out her memglass and called the memglass Neal had called her from. A woman answered, mouth set with suspicion, and Kate gathered up her courage. "I want to speak to Neal."

"I suppose you must be Kate Moreau," the woman said, without softening her expression. "Agent Burke told me about you."

"I want to speak to Neal," Kate repeated, undeterred. "I have business."

The woman snorted. "He's a slave. I own him. Any business you have with him, you have with me." Kate moved to fold up the memglass, but the woman held up a hand to stop her. "Just tell me you picked it up?"

"Picked what up?" Kate widened her eyes in a parody of innocence, then glanced at the poster tube and tilted the memglass until it was in view. "Oh, you mean this?"

"Well I can't tell from the outside of the box." The woman sighed. "But if that is what it's supposed to be, you give it to me, Neal goes free."

"So what is this thing, anyway?" Kate asked, picking it back up. "Neal was a little light on the details."

The woman on the other end of the memglass tucked her reddish hair behind her ear. "Why don't you just open it and find out?"

"You don't mind?" Kate asked carefully. It isn't going to fall into dust, or start rotting, or anything, if I expose it to air?"

"Would I have suggested it if anything like that was going to happen?" she asked with exaggerated patience.

Kate's mouth twitched. "You want me to open it, don't you? You want to make sure this package is what Neal told you it was. You aren't afraid I'll decide to steal it?"

"If you want to open it, just open it." The woman shot her a peevish look.

Kate popped the top off the poster tube. The rolled up canvas inside slid out with a faint whoosh. Tentatively, she unrolled the bottom of the canvas, terrified the oil from her hands, or the dirt from the pod cushion would ruin its delicate structure. With the edge of her nail, she held it open just far enough to see the flowers and leaves on the painted ground, the white hoof of a horse, and the black claws of a dying beast.
"Raphael's Saint George and the Dragon," Kate said, trying to sound calm as she turned the memglass so that the woman on the other end of the line could see the partially unrolled painting. "The real one?"

The woman swallowed audibly. "So he says."

"He never told me he-" Kate banged her head back against the outer wall of the pod. "Damn it, Neal!" She picked the memglass back up and smiled politely at the woman in the screen. "I have to go now. You'll get your painting when Neal's free."

"That's not-" but Kate had already hit end, and the woman's face vanished.

"Neal, you shit!" Kate hissed into the empty pod.

o0O0o

All that time she had spent, planning out the theft of that Raphael, and the frustrated fury she had felt when someone else stole it first, and it had been her miserable stalker ex-boyfriend, who had known she had wanted to go after that painting anyway, who had stolen it out from under her. And he put it in a poster tube. He knew better than that. It was a priceless painting, not a forged movie poster they planned to pretend they found in the attic for some quick cash.

She rolled it up and slipped it back into the poster tube with a harsh breath dragging its way out of her throat.

o0O0o

He was waiting for her in the doorway when she came home from work that evening. "Bad day?" she asked?
Neal's eyebrows knit together. "No, why?"

It really, thought Sara, should have been harder for her to read him, and see through the great Neal Caffrey, and she wondered if it were her, if living with him, and seeing him day in and day out had taught her what was real about him and what wasn't. Or if his pretense, his clever facade, was finally showing the cracks. He kept his eyebrows high, his face serious as he waited for her to answer, and seeing him barely try, was worse than if he hadn't tried at all. Sara lifted her own eyebrow. "No reason, Caffrey, you're just waiting at my door like a puppy."
Neal scowled.

"Your girlfriend called me today."

"What did she say?" Neal's false serious expression froze and then cracked, leaving behind a disquieting intensity, a thousand emotions coiled together. "How did she look?"

"You know what she looks like, Caffrey, you saw her yesterday." She slipped her memglass out of her purse and into her pocket. "It's not like she looked any different today. She has the Raphael." She looked at him slyly. "And now she knows what the painting is."

Neal blanched. "Great, thanks for telling her."

She gave him a slow smile. "Afraid she's going to run off with it and leave you here?"

"And you aren't?" he challenged. "You're the one who wants the Raphael so badly.

"Oh please, you saw her, she's guilt..." Sara realized almost as soon as she stopped that the words weren't incriminating by themselves, but it was too late. "She's guilty, and anything she does to screw you over, she'll wait to do after she's gotten you out."

"You watched our conversation from yesterday." He said it mildly, which didn't reassure Sara at all.

"What did you think I was going to do?" she retorted. "For all I knew, you were you were planning your escape. I wanted to be prepared."

"Of course," he said through gritted teeth. "You're too smart not to be. Of course. You're the one with all the power, listening in on my conversations, spying on me, but you can' trust me."

"You're a con artist!" She threw up her hands. "You lie for a living, Neal, God damn it, of course I don't trust you. Look, I'm not going to do anything with that address. I already deleted the conversation from my memglass. Whoever your friend is, she's safe, but I'm not going to trust you, and you're just going to have to deal with that for as long as you have to be here."

For a heartbeat, he looked like he was going to cry. "And why should I trust you?"

"Fine, don't trust me." She snapped. "Be afraid." It wasn't like there was anything he could do about it, and it didn't matter to her, really.

Neal put his head back against the wall to her apartment and sighed, resting his weight against it, fighting down a scream of frustration. She wasn't going to get it, and it didn't matter anyway, because once he was out of there, he never planned to see her again. It wasn't his habit to go around trying to convince everyone he met that the whole bedrock of their society was wrong and rotten to its core. Most of the time, he did his best not to bring it up at all. "You called me a con artist," he said at last. "This is progress."

He watched her face freeze and slowly shift into absolute bewilderment, as if she just couldn't connect the two, as if what he just said bore no relation at all to the conversation, and like every time she thought she had a handle on the way his brain worked, he did this to her. "What?"

"You called me a con artist instead of a slave." He smiled. "It's improvement. Someday you might actually have to acknowledge that I'm a human being."

She closed her eyes for a long moment, before ducking into the kitchen to unlock the refrigerator for him. "I'm going to be setting you free as soon as your mess with Adler's straightened out, and I have that Raphael," she called from inside. "I'm just getting myself used to it. Oh God, the thought of you loose on the world again."

Neal trailed behind her. "Why wait for the Adler thing to be done with? I thought all you wanted was the painting."

Sara stopped, her hands ridged and tense over the refrigerator handle, waves of heat and cold chasing each other over her body. "I wouldn't do that to you."

Neal's lips quirked up in a small smile of acknowledgment.

"Is that what you wanted to hear?" Sara heard herself demand, so furious that she could barely feel her lips move. "How do you do that?"

"What are you talking about?" Neal nearly yelled in shock and sudden frustration.

And abruptly, Sara felt very, very stupid. "Never mind. Make dinner. I'll be in the living room."

As she left the kitchen, his baffled gaze following her made the hairs on the nape of her neck bristle.

o0O0o

Neal set a plate with seared salmon and steamed asparagus in vinaigrette in front of her on the coffee table. "I didn't make you start thinking of me as human, but it was nice to hear you say it."

She shot him a halfhearted look of irritation. "Not even you're that good."

"No, I'm not."

She looked back to her food, but the couch shifted under his weight as he sat down, and if she wanted to, she knew she could have moved a couple of inches and be touching him. "You can't be all that different from other slaves."

His hand made an abortive move to touch the collar around his neck. He was a thief, and a liar, cleverness and charm didn't change that. He was a criminal, descended from criminals, and exactly why people like him were enslaved in the first place.

Mouth twisted in a tight grimace, Neal glanced away, as if he knew what she was thinking. "I am what my owners made me."

"Don't blame them. I told you, you had to learn how to be a thief, you could have picked something else," she sighed with exhaustion, cutting the asparagus into pieces and eating one. "A cook for instance. These aren't bad."

They were perfect, and she knew it, and Neal barely restrained himself from telling her so. "I was owned by Atlantic Securities."

"The company whose bonds you were arrested for forging." Sara raised an eyebrow. He wondered if she had already known. It should have been on the contract she signed when she bought him.

"Oh, so that's what I was arrested for."

She snorted. "Revenge was probably the best idea you've ever had, Caffrey."

"Well anyway," he cut in. "When I as thirteen, they shuffled a bunch of us around, and I ended up at a factory, making those bonds I was arrested for forging."

"Peter had been wondering about those." She took another bite. "Hardly anybody bothers to forge the paper ones."

"I don't know why." Spreading his arms wide, Neal leaned back against the couch. "All you have to to is pretend you found a couple of them that your grandparents got you for graduation, and you'd forgotten about. Nobody ever questions them."

"Because anybody who can program the chips on those things can just hack in and put the extra money right into any account they wanted to?"

Neal gave her another wide eyed smile. "People start getting curious when money just shows up in your account."

Sara shot him a sideways glance, mouth full of salmon.

Propping his own plate up on his knees, Neal shoved hard against the memories, of the bonds he had made and stolen, and Keller, finding him trying to trade them for an identity. Keller must have thought he had hit the jackpot, Neal realized now, but he had thought Keller was being so kind. He caught Sara's eye for a second, and looked away, letting the silence stretch thin before he spoke. "I know only one other escaped slave, and she, aside from escaping and living under false papers, has never broken a law in her life."

"Aside from that." Shaking her head, she picked up a forkful of fish, and then stopped, the fork halfway to her mouth. "The woman you sent Moreau to."

A brief, wry smile flashed across his face and was gone.

"Don't forget receiving stolen property."

"Not that she knew." At her look, he conceded, "She probably guessed."

"How do you know her anyway?" Sara busied herself with her food and shot him a quick, covert glance. "Since you said she's the only one you know, I'm guessing there's no secret underground network of escaped slaves."

Neal stared pointedly away from her. "Were you hoping there was one, and maybe some of them would have been insured by Sterling Bosch?"

She bristled. "I'm not asking so I can score a commission!"

"I'm kidding." He flashed her a tight, false smile.

"Yeah, I believe that," she shot back, and put her face in one hand. "Honestly, what do you think I'm trying to do? Round up all the slaves in the world and save my company a few bucks? All I want is that painting, and then once I get it, I'm letting you go! I'm protecting you from Adler, and he offered me a lot of money for you, so if that was all I cared about-"

The salmon shredded under the prongs of his fork. "Then what do you care about?"

The hand came away from her face, and tightened into a fist before unclenching. "I'm not the monster here!"

So who is, Neal wanted to ask. All the really awful things were still done, with no one to take the blame. "No, you aren't."

The lines on Sara's forehead deepened and pressed together, and she shook her head as if it hurt. "Then why do you treat me like one?"

"I'm not." Neal took refuge in his dinner and swallowed bite after bite of the fish he had mangled. The silence spun and stretched between them like a wire spring. He clutched tight to it and tried to pretend it wasn't there. "But you would think I was being really pushy if I asked all about your childhood, so do you get to ask about mine?"

"So you met her when you were a child," Sara said, and Neal winced. "Good to know."

He watched her swallow down her questions, unsure if he was supposed to be happy, because she was trying, or furious that trying that little bit was the most he could ask of her.

o0O0o

Agent Burke looked up as she came into his office and sat down across from him. "Hello, Kate."

"Peter." She used his first name carefully, since he was going to use hers. "Neal said you needed to talk to me."

"So you are in contact." His face lit up before he could cover.

She smiled tightly. "If we had been in contact before, I wouldn't have to be here now."

"Then he told you what this is about?" the agent prompted.

"My old boss?" she asked in a parody of wide-eyed innocence.

Agent Burke didn't bother to acknowledge that, and Kate had trouble keeping the corners of her mouth from twitching upwards. It hadn't been a shining moment for the FBI when no one in the entire FBI had noticed the presence of Neal Caffrey and Kate Moreau in the file of one of the biggest financial crimes in the Global Federation's history, she knew. Nor had it been a shining moment in Agent Peter Burke's career, she was sure. "And he told you we're not after you, that whatever help you give us will not be used against you?"

"You don't have to sell me on it." She let out a soft, amused huff. "I wouldn't have come in if I weren't going to help."

"How did you contact Adler?" Kate wondered if Neal had actually told him Kate had contacted the man, or if he was fishing.

Kate decided it didn't matter. It wasn't like she minded him knowing. "Not since he left the continent. I went poking around in some of his old business accounts and addresses, and hoped for the best. He called me. Said he'd been watching Neal and me both for a while." She leaned forward. "I would really like you to arrest him."

Peter folded his hands on top of the desk, making pixelated shadows, like ink blots flutter on the surface of the memglass stretched over the surface of the desk. "I need you to square with me. No games, my people's lives could be at stake, not to mention yours. Do you think Adler is a violent man?"

"I don't know. I've never seen him be violent." She heaved a sigh. "But I never thought he was stealing all that money either. I have no idea what he's going to do. Never have."

"He scares you."

She acknowledged that with a tilt of her head.

"But you're the one who brought him in."

"What was I supposed to do?" Kate felt her eyes slam closed and her teeth clench in her open mouth. and the words kept coming. "I thought- you know what I thought. We couldn't find him anywhere, and I never would have brought Adler in if I'd known Neal managed to land himself in a nice little uptown apartment. I thought he was going to die if I didn't!"

Agent Burke's arm began its tentative journey towards her, to offer some kind of clumsy attempt at comfort, but Kate flinched back, and it froze midair above the desk before retreating. "Do you love him?"

"I don't know, maybe? I think so?" She didn't know why he had asked. He didn't look like he knew why he had asked, and now that she was talking, he just looked uncomfortable. And she had no idea why she was telling him any of this, except who else was she supposed to tell? Not Mozzie, for whom she had to be the perfect loyal, loving girlfriend to Neal, or else endure his secrecy and plots that would just end with all of them in more trouble. Not Neal, with whom honesty had no value. "I think I love him just enough for us to be really really bad for each other, but I wasn't going to let him die. I wasn't going to let it be my fault. I don't have to be in love with him for that, right?"

"Well I guess not, um-"

Kate raised her hands up beside her shoulder, fingers spread wide. "We were going to get him free, and then that was it, I was-"
"We?" Agent Burke drew her up short.

'What?"

"You said we. Just now, and earlier. You're working with someone else, aren't you?" He let out a soft groan. "Of course. Of course you're working with someone else. Damn it, Kate."

Kate didn't answer.

"Just-" He didn't even bother rolling his eyes, or putting his head in his hand, or any of the other things he clearly wanted to do right then. "Whoever they are, keep them away from this. Don't let hem interfere. I don't need anyone getting hurt, or Adler getting away because of them."

"Don't worry." Kate's expression turned brittle. "I don't have a single associate who wants anything to do with Adler or the FBI."
"No, I didn't think you did." He sighed, tiredly.

"Just tell me what you want me to do, and I'll do it." She gulped down her irritation. "I'm not going to get anybody killed."

"You won't be there when this goes down," he told her reassuringly. "You won't be in any danger if you do what you're supposed to."

o0O0o

Kate's hands were still shaking as she gathered up the Raphael from its hiding place behind the broken panel of her dresser that Mozzie still hadn't found. She sagged with relief when she unrolled it and it was just as she had left it, and it was funny, but she hadn't even noticed she was worrying about it until then, because she was so worried about so many things all at once. The sun outside was setting, and Kate pulled on her coat and gloves to step out into the flurries of snow circling between her and the podline. She set the painting in its carrying case down on the seat beside her, and as the pod began to move, and lifted on its cable to fly through the lacework of the tower's outer walls, Kate swallowed. The pod bobbed on its line, and slid into the Manhattan tower, and Kate tried to think about everything in the world except what she was about to do for a man she never wanted to see again. Or wanted to see again very badly and needed never to see him again. Either way.

The pod shuddered to a stop in front of the apartment she had told it to, and the door opened with a faint click. Kate grabbed the painting. There was no reason to delay, not really, just her own purposeless reticence. The air outside the pod stung her face, and she let it shake her free of her own thoughts as her feet ate away the space between her and the apartment door. The doorbell rang inside, muffled through the door.

"What are you doing here?" Sara Ellis, the woman who had bought Neal Caffrey stood on the other side of the threshold, drumming her fingers on the doorway like she really expected her to answer.

"Aren't you going to invite me inside?" Kate heard her voice, but the words hung in the air, disconnected from her. She held up the painting.
Sara's eyes, her whole face, narrowed with suspicion. "Okay, come on in and show it to me."

Kate smiled at the challenge and stepped inside.

"Who's at the..." Neal turned around. "Kate."

He had been stirring something in a pot on the stove, and Kate felt herself overcome with the memory of him at their table, getting something ready for the battered oven or stove-top that he had bought for aging paintings and other criminal activities, but which he had used so much more often to make food, one more art form that he just hadn't been able to bear not knowing for himself. Kate stared.
He didn't look like himself, with messy hair, and that glass collar sitting above that ridiculous tee-shirt. He didn't look like Neal Caffrey, or Nick Halden, or Steve Tabernacle, or any of the rest, who were slick and smooth, without blemishes, and imperfections to catch on to. But he looked a little bit like just Neal, and it hurt. He still held the spoon he had been using on one hand as he came forward, and stopped in front of her.

Kate grabbed him, pulled him into her, wrapping her arms tight around him. The painting's carrying case thumped into his back, and when his arms came up, halfway around her, cheese and cream flew off the spoon onto both of them, and she didn't care at all. "I still can't believe you're alive," she whispered, just hanging onto him.

"You're here," he said, not really in response, voice blank with shock. "You're here."

"Yes," she just said, feeling stupid.

"So," Neal began, collecting his thoughts after a long moment, "Adler said you went to him for me."

"M- We couldn't find you," She whispered, the awareness of Sara Ellis in the room with her almost a palpable thing. "And I didn't know who else to go to... I'm sorry."

He didn't say anything, leaving Kate to wonder if he could. It was like he had been struck mute. His mouth would occasionally open, but then it would close again without anything emerging from it. And she thought about Mozzie's name, which she had almost said in front of someone who could use it against them, and about the priceless Raphael, Saint George and the Dragon, that Neal was willing to pay to get rid of the man she had brought in to help, and about the FBI, who he was willing to tangle them all up with to get them untangled from Adler. And she thought about Neal, who wasn't dying somewhere far away, but safe in her arms in some anonymous little apartment, and who probably had been full of his own plans to escape from here before she had forced his hand. When he regained his voice, it was rough, and strangely quiet. "You don't have to be sorry." He shook his head jerkily. "I just almost didn't believe it when he told me."

Which made her feel worse. A small part of her wondered dimly if that was Neal's goal. He was a con artist, wasn't he, and a born manipulator. But he had never wanted to hurt her before, she didn't think. "I love you, I do, but you're going to get me killed." Then Adler flashed across her mind once more. "Or I'm going to get you killed. Either way."

He grimaced. "You say that like we aren't perfectly capable of getting ourselves killed."

The sound that escaped her was more air than mirth. "You say that like it's a good thing."

Behind them, Sara tugged the painting out of her unresisting fingers and cradled it. She lifted the top off and let the painting slide out into her waiting cotton gloved palm. Delicately, she unrolled a few centimeters of the canvas before rolling it back up, sliding it back into its case, and stripping off her gloves. "So," she cut in testily. "I hate to spoil the moment, but why did you bring me this now?"

Kate felt a nearly overpowering urge to snatch the painting out of her hands as she broke away from Neal. "You need to get it authenticated don't you? You know, if you don't want it, I can always take it back."

Glancing between the two of them, Neal turned and sauntered into the kitchen to turn off the burners on the stove and pour the noodles into a colander in the sink. Kate watched him, holding in a flash of envy at Sara Ellis's nice apartment with her nice kitchen, with all of the things Neal had tried to give her, and all of the things she wished she could give both of them. As he spun around on his heels and leaned back on the counter, he folded his arms, eyes glinting. He left her feeling as if he had put the two of them, her and Sara Ellis, on display.
"Look," she said, doing her best to ignore him. "It's just not as safe at my place as I'd like. I've got friends with sticky fingers."
Sara hugged the painting to her chest. "Well, lie down with dogs, I guess."

"Play nice, children," Neal broke in.

Sara ignored him. "So that means you trust a near total stranger over your own associates."

It was hard at that moment to remember that this woman was helping them, with Adler, and with the FBI. She smiled frostily at her. "How is that being nice?"

Sara snorted and Neal laughed. He looked down at the noodles like he had thought of something. "Hey, look," he said conspiratorially. "There's enough here for three."

Sara shifted closer to him and glanced over his shoulder. "That's supposed to be my lunch for tomorrow, isn't it?"

His eyes crinkled up when he grinned, and it was a real grin, that hurt for her to see. The good kind of hurt, Kate told herself, the hurt that came from happiness. "Yeah, I guess it is," he said, but he scooped out three bowls of pasta and strips of chicken breast, and poured alfredo sauce over each of them.

Capitulating gracefully, Sara turned to Kate. "Would you like to stay for dinner?"

Before Kate could answer, Neal slipped one of the bowls into her hands and put a hand on her back to guide her to a seat.

o0O0o

A heavy, contented lassitude filled him, and Neal knew he was probably drunk. Nudging his legs out of the way, Sara sank down next to him on the couch. "So that's Kate." She said wryly. "Nice girl."

"What's that supposed to mean?" He was too tired and feeling too good to fight, which he bet she knew, damn her.

"Nothing." Which meant something, he knew it. "She just reminds me of you."

"Hmm."

"And she's willing to give up the Raphael for you. Nice girl." Sara closed her eyes and settled down into the couch. "Why did she leave you again?"

"Go away."

She snickered at him.

He sighed. "You have your painting, you know. You don't have to annoy me into giving in now."

"That's true." She kept her eyes closed, head craned back to rest on the top of the couch. It didn't look particularly comfortable, to him. "You know I still have to get it authenticated."

"Yeah."

Sara opened her eyes and sat up straight. "It's little weird, seeing you with her. You're a lot alike. But she's a middle class art school grad, right?"

"Yeah." He waited for the other shoe to drop. It wasn't like he didn't know he'd made Kate into a crook.

"And you were a slave. It's just you're a lot alike, and it's weird."

Instead of answering, Neal glanced at her, then stared up at the ceiling.

"So what about little Neal Caffrey?" Sara asked. "What made you into the man Kate Moreau met?"

"Little Neal Caffrey wasn't," he pointed out. "And you know it."

"You know what I mean."

"You going to tell me about your childhood?" he asked her mildly.

Something flashed across her face, something strange and haunted, and there and gone, something that told him that what came out of her mouth next was a lie. "My childhood was boring."

"Oh, sure," he said. "You only say that because you lived it."

"So come tell me about the kid who grew up to be you."

Neal shrugged. "My childhood was boring too. No toys, no time to play, lots of rules and hard work, you know, slavery."

"No, I don't know," she murmured pensively. "It's not like I've ever been a slave."

And abruptly, he couldn't seem to stop himself from thinking about the way people looked through him when he was a slave, or looked at him but didn't see him, as if he didn't even register. "I was born on a produce farm. My mother was a slave, my father was an overseer. He left when I was three. I remember he used to carry me around on his shoulders and give me candy, and when he was on duty, I didn't have to work."

"Oh, so that's where it all went wrong," Sara said strangely, as if she didn't believe a word of it. "He spoiled you, and now you think you shouldn't be a slave."

"Yeah, because giving a kid a piece of candy every now and then, and giving him a break from working sixteen hour days picking worms of broccoli plants is spoiling him." The words came out bitter, and much more cutting than they had sounded in his head, and he knew he was probably too drunk to be talking about any of this. But of course, he never would have talked about any of this while sober. What a bind.

"I know," She put a hand on his shoulder, and waited for him to push it off.

He didn't. "So he went easy on us, my mom and me, and when he left, the other slaves were uh, jealous. It stayed that way right until I left. I don't think they even remembered why they were being mean to us after a while, just that they were. And Mom wasn't really, uh, all there, and when they transferred me and not her, it was almost a relief. I guess it shouldn't be."

Her hand gripped his shoulder, closed around it like a cage. "How old were you?"

"When they sent me to the print factory? Thirteen."

"Wow," Sara said quietly. She sat there for a moment, without speaking, and Neal found himself unable to break the silence for her. At last, she asked, "And the woman you left the Raphael with? Who is she?"

"So I said my mom wasn't all there, right?" at Sara's nod, he went on. "Ellen took care of us. The overseers had deputies, I guess, slaves who had special privileges, that were supposed to help them keep the rest of us in line. Ellen was one of those."

"You escaped with her?" Sara prompted. He nodded, and then she thought of something. "But you said you were transferred."

"She was transferred with me, along with a couple of others. They told everybody about how she had worked for the overseers. Nobody trusted her after that. I guess I started taking care of her instead." After he finished, the silence lingered between them again like a nervous animal. And this time, he was the one who punctured it. "I don't know why. It's not like she chose to work for the overseers like that. They just picked her. That's the point."

"I'm sorry," she told him.

"I told you it was boring."

"You only say that because you lived it," Sara echoed.

"Oh no," he laughed bleakly. "It was boring. Hell, but boring. The same things that were wrong and making you unhappy one day were wrong and making you unhappy the next. And the next, and the next."

o0O0o

Angelo tugged on his sister's arm and whispered, "Can I stop pretending to be sick now?"

Barb sucked in a breath and prayed that the pod's microphone wasn't strong enough to pick up his words. She bent low over him and put her hand to his head, pretending to take his temperature. "Stop asking. I'll tell you when it's time."

The pod around them jerked and jostled through the levels of the city, and within its dark interior, it would have been easy for her to imagine that they were cut off from the world, alone. But they were never alone.

Each time the door opened, Barb held her breath, and each time she looked out on the wrong building, she gritted her teeth and trotted out of the pod for the bags of garbage left for her. When the door closed again behind her, she counted to herself, no, it's three stops after this, two stops after this, one more stop.

And when the pod door finally opened onto the address Neal had given her, she didn't even give herself time to draw a deep breath before she grabbed Angelo's hand and bolted out. "Okay, you can stop pretending to be sick now," she panted. She could feel him looking up at her like she was being stupid again, but she didn't care.

It was a warehouse, with nothing but locked metal doors and narrow walk ways as far as she could see. There was a dumpster tucked behind a low wall, she knew, but for the first time in her life, she ignored it. In her mind, she held the picture of the numbers Neal had drawn for her (maybe someday, if this worked, she could learn how to read numbers and letters like he he did) and ran down the walk ways, her brother's hand clenched tightly in her own.

Her heart pounded, and with it, she could feel the time on the timer ticking away inside her, ready to freeze her and her brother in place, to be found, and taken back, and sold off as runaways. Please, she begged, please let it still be green.

And then, she rounded a corner, and saw the numbers Neal had drawn for her hanging on the wall next to one of the metal overhead doors. With a last burst of speed, she lifted Angelo up into her arms and ran for it. She skidded to a halt in front of it, and banged on it with her fist as if her life depended on it, because it did, her life and Angelo's, and please God, let this work.

The door slid open, and a short, balding man lowered his eyebrows at them. "What the-"

"Are you Mozzie?" Barb cut in breathlessly.

"Who's asking?" he snapped reflexively.

Barb figured that meant yes. She reached inside her filthy jumpsuit and pulled out the packet of napkins the strange slave who had sent her here had given her. "Neal told me to give you this."

Angelo stared up at her with wide, terrified eyes. "What are you doing?"

"I told you," she hissed. "We're escaping."

Mozzie's eyes flicked up from the napkins to her. "Get inside."

After he had closed the door behind them, Barb swallowed and looked around. It was small, with mismatched, broken furniture, and a bed shoved into the corner. An air of disrepair hung over everything. It... wasn't what she expected a free person's home to look like, but then what did she know about the homes of free people? They might as well have lived on the moon.

"Barb," Angelo asked uncertainly. "Who is this guy?"

"Hush," Barb told him.

The man read quickly, but Barb's heart hammered inside her, and time had slowed to a crawl. She could feel inside her the timer run out and the paralysis creep into her limbs, into her hands and feet, into her face, until she couldn't even blink her eyes. Her brother's hand was still in hers, his eyes shut tight.

The man, Mozzie, reached into a chest of drawers and pulled out a gray plastic contraption. "I can't believe he thought I wouldn't have one of these already," he grumbled. He glanced at Barb for a moment, perplexed by something, then bent over and unzipped her jumpsuit. She inhaled sharply. It was the only thing she could do, even as he pulled the jumpsuit off one arm, and tugged her hand out of her brother's so he could pull it off the other. As he raised the bottom of her threadbare gray undershirt, she wished she could scream, or throw up, or anything but just stand there and wait for him to do it.

Then, he just pressed the prongs of the gray thing to her chip and pushed a button. The skin around her chip prickled and stung. It made a soft tinkling sound as it landed on the concrete floor of Mozzie's home. All at once, she could move again, and she shivered and shook like a kitten in a thunderstorm. Her collar clicked open, and she yanked it off.

Angelo grabbed his collar and flung it down onto the concrete floor of Mozzie's home with a cheer.

"Not so fast, kid," Mozzie said, grabbing a bag and shoving things into it as fast as he could. "They're going to know where you were last. We got to get out of here."

o0O0o

Even though Mozzie had assured them that this was the last pod ride, Barb still couldn't make herself relax into the if not clean, than certainly cleaner than she was, seat in the public pod. Before today, she had never ridden in a public pod, and now this was her seventh time zipping along beside her brother and the strange little man who had rescued them at his friend's behest. Her seventh time because every time the pod doors beeped and slid open, he would lead them out of one pod, and down the nearest sidewalk, between the buildings, to another pod. Fleetingly, she wondered what they must have looked like to anybody looking out their windows, a twitchy man trailed so closely by a dirty girl and boy in ragged sweatpants and sleeveless undershirts, their breath rising in front of them like clouds in the cold air. But Mozzie was smart, and he must have done this before, because the streets he took them to had been deserted, and the walls that lined the alleyways he led them through, bare of windows. Barb wrapped her arms around herself and tried to rub away the goose bumps and the shivers that ran through her.

Angelo couldn't settle either. He bounced up and down on the balls of his feet excitedly, and Barb grabbed the back of his undershirt to pull him down next to her.

When the pod door beeped, Barb's breath rushed out of her. She jerked to her feet, hand still clawed tight around her brother's shirt. "Where is this place, anyway? she demanded suspiciously.

Mozzie eyed her exasperatedly. "Friend of Neal's place."

Angelo's eyes were stretched wide to take in the enormous edifice in front of him. "Do they own... all this?"

"Shh," Barb told him. I'm sorry, she wanted to say. He doesn't know any better. He's never been away from the plant before. All he knows is that free people own things. Owned things like the two of them. Barb felt cold, in the winter afternoon, and inside herself. It was funny, how little she knew, and how much more she knew than her brother, from just walking where free people had walked, if only for a few moments, to haul away the things they had thrown away.

"She doesn't own any of it. She just rents a couple rooms." He opened the door and held it for them, and Barb stared at him, uncertain. "Come on. Don't touch anything. When we get upstairs, you're going straight into the shower. Ugh."

o0O0o

By the time Barb stepped out of the shower, a fluffy fleece bathrobe had been left on the counter along with towels. Barb swallowed hard. Mozzie must have come in while she was washing. He had come in while she was washing and he hadn't peeked in on her. She wondered if this was how all free men treated free girls.

She lifted the corner of the shower curtain. "Come on, Angelo, get out."

"But it's warm!" he whined.

Barb groped around inside the shower for the button she had used to turn it on in the first place. The water cut off in an instant. "Now it isn't anything. Get out."

He scowled at her as he got out and she wrapped him in a towel. Together, they padded into the main room of the apartment, Barb shifted a pile of art supplies off the couch so they could sit down. Mozzie was sitting on a chair in the corner, fiddling with his memglass.

"Mozzie," she began, uncertain if she was supposed to call him something else. "What are we supposed to wear if you threw away our clothes?"

He looked up and blinked owlishly at her. "I'm working on it.

o0O0o

There was sound coming from inside her apartment as Kate juggled a takeout box one handed and opened the door. "I didn't think you were coming over today, Moz-" She stopped and stared at the boy wrapped in a towel and the tangle haired girl sitting in her apartment in Kate's own bathrobe. "Mozzie, who are they?"

"That doesn't matter right now," he said excitedly. "I know where Neal is!"

"So do I!" the words spilled out before Kate knew what she was saying. "I don't see how-"

"You do?" Mozzie's expression grew suddenly sharp, and every word he spoke grew higher and higher. "How did you find out? Why didn't you tell me? You can't keep that kind of thing from m-"

"Mozzie!" Kate yelled. In the silence that followed, she drew an unsteady breath. "He called me. And I don't have to tell you anything." She knew him. She knew he wouldn't let it rest. She knew he would try to get clever, convinced he could have everything, the painting, Neal, their safety, no contact with the authorities... He was just like Neal. But Neal had given up the Raphael and gone to the FBI. The world was upside down. "Now, are you going to introduce me to the kids sitting my apartment, wearing my clothes?"

Mozzie shot the children a pointed look. The girl swallowed. "Barbra." she nodded at her brother. "Angelo."

"And, um." Kate smiled her con artist smile at them. "Why are you in my home?"

The girl and the boy looked at each other, and then, by some unspoken signal that wasn't given for her to read, they looked as one at Mozzie.
"Mozzie." Kate took the hint, drawing his name out. "Why did you bring them here?"

"Neal sent them," he said grudgingly. "They're escaped slaves. I didn't know what to do with them." The last part slipped out soft and unhappy, and Kate supposed none of them were supposed to hear it.

"And they don't have clothes," she said blankly. They had nothing. It was so plain. They had nothing and no one, except maybe, if they were lucky, each other, as if they had just come into the world. Kate's head felt heavy, and for a moment, she couldn't even begin to contemplate the process by which normal people acquired things, and people, and pieces of their lives, and absorbing those bits and pieces into themselves, without ever realizing what they were doing or had.

"I have already arranged for the delivery of suitable clothing to an undisclosed location." Mozzie held his hands up as if to fend off an attack. "You will not be permitted to follow me when I go to pick them up."

Kate wondered briefly what Mozzie thought of as suitable clothing. "I'm not after your secrets, Moz."

"Good, because you have just proven yourself to be unworthy of-"

Kate sighed. "Oh Mozzie."

"We don't have to stay!" The girl's eyes were huge with panic in her pinched face. "If you don't want us here, we can go-"

"Where?" Kate asked, horrified. There was a sharp, broken feeling, like glass shards caught in her heart at the idea that perhaps, a long time ago, Neal had looked like that, underfed and unwanted, and absolutely terrified, with no way to hide it. And she wondered who had seen him like that, before her, before Mozzie, before Adler, and what they had done with it. "Where would you go?"

The girl looked at the little boy wrapped in a towel. "I don't know."

"I'm not kicking you out," Kate told her. "You're staying here. I just..." Wasn't expecting any of this? Wasn't expecting the heavy dragging weight of responsibility for the two children that Neal had somehow propelled into her life, in some stomach twisting parody of their dreams and conversations about starting a family. Wasn't expecting any of it. She put her hands up in surrender. "Okay. Mozzie will get you your clothes, I'll get you something to eat, and we'll talk about where to go from there, okay?"

o0O0o

"I told my boss that you're here telling us where you hid everything you stole," Agent Burke told him, leaning out of his office door.

Neal looked up from the memglass he had been reading as he drummed his foot against the glass wall to Peter's office. "Huh?"

"If you're that bored, you can always actually do that."

Neal snorted.

"You gave Sara Ellis the Raphael she was after," Agent Burke reminded him irritably.

"Wow, news travels fast around here," Neal said. "No."

"Why not? It's not like you're ever going to use-" His eyes fell on the memglass in Neal's hand. "Hey, where did you get that?"

With a smirk, Neal lifted his other hand and wiggled all five of his fingers at the agent.

Agent Burke glanced up at the ceiling for strength. "Who did you steal it from?"

Neal had to think about it for a moment. "Big guy," he said, making a show of nonchalance as he went back to reading the file. "Put the handcuffs on when you arrested me."

"Give me that." The agent grabbed for the memglass, and Neal held it out of his reach. But he was sitting on the floor, tucked up against a wall and the side of the desk, and there really wasn't anything he could do when Agent Burke bent down and snatched it out of his grasp. He looked down at the screen, and if the agent was surprised by what he saw there, he didn't show it. With a flick of his finger, the memglass went blank and he pushed it shut, shouting, "Jones!"

The other agent's head snapped around, and when his eyes eyes bulged at the sight of the memglass in Peter's hand, Neal stretched his face into a grin and waved at him.

o0O0o

Peter closed the door to his office, trying not to let his exhaustion show, but he must not have succeeded, because Sara gave him a pained smile. "And that's the man you want me to keep around for the rest of my life. What was he reading?"

He sat down at his desk and rested his forehead in his hand. "His own file."

"Little narcissist."

"Look, you bought him," he said. "I'm just telling you not to free him."

"Where did you get the idea I was going to free him?" she demanded, which he noticed wasn't a denial.

"Oh come on," he snapped, rapidly losing patience. "He gave you the Raphael you were so desperate to find. You had to give him something for it. I'm not stupid, Sara."

Sara looked like she was on the edge of laughing in his face. "For all you know, I've had him in a shipping crate somewhere, torturing it out of him."

"Oh please."

"And what if I did promise him his freedom?" she asked. "I bought him. He's my slave."

"It's illegal," he said, utterly irrelevantly.

Sara shot him a strange look. "Would you arrest me?"

Shaking his head, Peter could feel the creeping prickles of helplessness behind his eyes. "He's just going to get caught again."

"And I'll free him again, I guess." Sara shrugged it off with a quirk of her lips. "He lucked out this time. I know that must gall you."

"No, it doesn't. It doesn't gall me." He scowled at her, headache building. "God Sara. It's only going to work once."

"What?" She had the nerve to look puzzled, and it was all he could do not to throw up.

"Okay, so you free him, and he lies low for a little while, then he pulls a heist, and he gets away with it, and another, and another, and eventually he gets caught. You get him back, you free him again." Peter gritted his teeth into a sad, painful smile. "Okay, people will believe he ran. He's escaped twice before. He's a thief. They don't know why you don't have a sell on capture order on him, but oh well. We catch him again. Lo and behold, you have him for less than a day before he escapes again. He's a thief, you're an insurance investigator. You bought him knowing he's a thief. You've even recovered some of the things he's stolen. The FBI starts getting suspicious. Maybe he's stealing for you, they think. They arrest you. Somebody catches Neal. Now, he's escaped four times. Maybe he had his owner's help, maybe not, but he's been committing some big crimes. He's a nuisance. It's just not worth it to keep him alive. They have him put down. You're in jail, and he's dead."

Throughout his little hypothetical, he had been watching her face, watching the muscles of her jaw tighten and twitch, watching her expression shift from amusement to apprehension, and then to dread, and then at last back again to a panicked sort of amusement. "Oh God," she groaned. "You're worried about him."

"And you," he assured her unsteadily. "You're a friend, Sara, I don't want to have to arrest you because of something like this." Not that he ever wanted to have to arrest her under any circumstances, or any other person with whom he had traded information over bad bureau coffee and takeout. It had to be against some kind of rule.

"Yeah, I..." She stopped, and her lips parted unwillingly into a painful kind of grin. "You're worried about me, I get that, but you're also worried about him, and I don't know how he does that to everybody, as soon as they meet him."

An echo of the realization and sick kind of hopelessness he had felt when he had learned that Neal had already been sold, and there was no way Peter could stop him from dying stole over him. "There's a little bit of a difference, arresting somebody knowing they're going to prison, and arresting somebody knowing they're going to die," he insisted, and when the words emerged from him as more a squeak than a growl, he set his jaw and refused to walk away from them. Even when he could see in his mind, a man, a kid really, cocky and smirking, and handing him a green sucker. The man was a con artist. That was all it was. He was good at his job, and his job was to make people like him.

"Do you actually arrest slaves? I thought they were retrieved." Like a lost puppy, or a misplaced necklace.

Peter watched her smile, and try to distract, and felt a little sorry for her. "That's not the point."

"No, I know." Sara heaved a sigh. "God, Peter, what do you want me to do, keep him? I don't think that's even possible, now that Kate knows where he is, and besides what do I do with him? I don't really want him living in my apartment for the rest of his life. when I bought him, I didn't expect to be stuck with him forever."

"Sara..." He hesitated over how to put into words what he wanted to say, and when he thought he had finally found the words, they slipped away.

"Don't 'Sara' me." Her mouth twisted. "You're the one who just told me why all of my carefully constructed plans won't work."

"Sell Neal to me," he blurted.

For a few seconds, she didn't react. "What?"

"Sell Neal to me," he repeated, the words coming a little easier now that he had started. "I'll figure out how to keep him from escaping. I can put him to work here. He'll be useful, I could even convince him to give up the rest of what he's stolen."

Her expression told him she didn't buy it. "I guess I'm not the only one with carefully constructed plans."

That fear that had clenched inside him since he had first thought Neal had been sold away gnawed at his insides, and he could almost bring himself to hate her for the way that fear didn't seem to touch her. "Sara..."

"I told you not to 'Sara' me," she said with an undercurrent of strange, unsettling laughter. "It's-"

"Sara." The word came out of him too sharp, and too angry, but they brought her up short, and Peter couldn't help feeling a little too satisfied about that. "This isn't a joke!"

"I know that! God, Peter, just give me some time to think. You drop this on me, and..." An echo of his own fear flashed across her face, and disappeared again behind a pained grin. "I'll think about it, okay?"

To be continued...

Profile

attackfish: Yshre girl wearing a kippah, text "Attackfish" (Default)
attackfish

August 2017

S M T W T F S
  12345
6789101112
13141516171819
20212223242526
2728293031  

Avatar: the Last Airbender

Most Popular Tags

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags
Page generated Aug. 16th, 2017 05:25 pm
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios