attackfish: Neal & Peter text "We may someday attain a reltationship of mutual respect/ First I will see the gods walking the earth" (Peter and Neal MWT quote)
[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 Two

"It explains a lot." Kate had her back to him, setting her ancient electric oven's preheat function.

"Stop saying that," Mozzie hissed back. "It doesn't explain anything."

"I just mean about the way he never wanted to tell me his real name, Moz, you don't have to be so..." She turned the Oung Suon she had just forged towards the light and examined it carefully, and he resisted the urge to take it from her, to check that the paint was dry enough to age right. "He knew mine."

"We knew yours because we met you before you got into the game," Mozzie told her slowly, like he couldn't believe how stupid she could be sometime, feeling sick. "I always thought it was just the one thing he had appropriate paranoia about. I guess I was wrong."

She opened the oven door and put the painting inside. "You know what? You're the wrong person to talk to."

Mozzie folded his arms sourly, and mocked her the second he thought she wasn't looking.

She narrowed her eyes, but let it pass. "So did you manage to find him yet?"

"I told you, I don't have the expertise to hack into any of the big government databases!" he yelped at her shrilly. "I've been asking around, but I haven't found anybody I trust enough to tell them what's going on who's willing to help!"

"Well you're going to have to trust someone, because it's been more than a month, and you remember what Burke said the average life expectancy was on one of those ozone building crews?"

"Six months, I know already!"

Her hands balled into fists. "That's right, six months, and let's be honest, it's Neal we're talking about here, and..." She let it hang.

"Hey, he's tougher than you think." he was trying to reassure himself as much as he was trying to reassure her, and he just knew she could tell, and it wasn't going to work on either of them.

"Come on Moz," she laughed, miserably, and sat down. "Just find him for me, okay?"

And he had a sudden, sharp, painful feeling of deja vu, of Neal pressuring him to find Kate. "Why are you so worked up?" he almost screamed. "Huh? You take off, and we don't ever hear from you, and you suddenly are about Neal after you get him dragged off to wherever-"

"I'm sorry!" she yelled. "Alright? I'm sorry!" She shot him a painful, resentful look, and he wondered angrily if she was about to start crying, and what he should do about it. "Just because I didn't see him doesn't mean I wanted him hauled off and sold."

"Well," he spat. "I'm so glad your guilt is such a good motivator."

"Just go," she said thickly. "I have a painting to finish."

"I don't know why you even bothered with that thing," he snipped, unable to help himself. "You never get enough for late twenty-first century art to make it worthwhile."

"Yeah, and it also doesn't attract a lot of attention of the law enforcement variety." She glanced back at the oven. The last thing they needed right then was attention.

o0O0o

The bathroom still smelled like unwashed man and stale food; besides which, venturing inside left him feeling boxed in, like his skin was going to crawl off his body. Neal avoided it, his eyes sliding away from the door when they landed on it, and when he had to go in, he closed his eyes against the white.

For the first few days, Neal just let himself breathe. He wandered around he house aimlessly, or combed Sara's collection of paper books. He rifled through drawers without purpose, picked through her closet, and idly flipped over the couch cushions until his heartbeat stopped thundering in his ears and he stopped straining for the sound, any sound, of another human voice, until he became bored.

When she came home in the evenings, and before she left for work, he told himself it was just another kind of con and smiled at her obsequiously and called her "Mistress" until she wanted to scream. "I think I figured it out, Caffrey." Her voice dripped with the tight, false cheerfulness she adopted whenever she saw him.

"I thought I didn't have a name," he fired back, without looking up from the book he had pilfered from her study.

"That's true," she said, inclining her head. "You know, I can't keep calling you zero zero three one whatever. I'll have to come up with something. Anyway, I figure that you're a conman. You know when you've got it made."

"Don't you have to go to work?"

She smiled widely and pulled the book out of his hands. "I can afford to be late. Anyway, I'm sure you've considered the fact that you're well fed here, it's warm you have a nice place to sleep, and you don't have to work for it."

He eyed her, masking his nervousness behind dull, obvious anger. "I don't think you really believe I want to be here."

"Doesn't matter what I believe. It matters what I'm going to do about it." She paced in front of the couch he was lying on, and stopped for a moment to throw his feet off before going back to pacing. "I could stick you back in the bathroom, but then I would have to clean up after you and I don't want that."

"You could always let me go." He twisted his lips up.

She threw his feet off the couch again and sat down where they had been. "Keep trying. That argument won't get you anywhere."

"So what are you going to do about my life of leisure?" She shot him a warning look, and he grinned a challenge. "Mistress."

"You're my slave," she smirked. "I'm putting you to work."

She stood up, waved him good bye, and locked the door behind her, leaving him to ponder that menacing proclamation. Neal stood up and hunted through the book he had stolen for his place. Holding it open with one finger, he made his way into the study and pulled open a junk drawer for something to use as a bookmark. His hand fell on an old fashioned permanent marker. A wonderful, horrible idea struck him, and when he found a pack of graphite pencils, that idea became a plan. He scooped them up and put them in his front pant pocket. She did say that if he found anything in the study, he could use it. He remembered that very clearly.

o0O0o

On her bookcase in the study, along with the fancy, bound novels, were a set of glossy, expensive art history books, with prints of important paintings by important artists. Neal flipped the book open to a certain painting by Raphael.

o0O0o

The door opened, and Sara looked around at living room walls. "Cute."

Neal turned to her from the wall with his carefully laid pencil grid and heavy black outlines of Saint George and the dragon. "Aww, you think I'm cute!"

"Like a five-year-old."

He capped the marker and waved at his work. "What do you think? I gave you the Raphael."

Her expression hardened, and then she bared her teeth. "I think there's a bathroom just waiting for you to go back to living in it again."

He swung himself around on the footstool he had found in the closet earlier and perched on it, his feet dangling to the ground. "I think you don't want to do that, Sara, because I've been thinking a lot about how to entertain myself if you stick me back in there, and I think I'd teach myself to sing. Now, I'm really bad at singing. I sing very off key, but I would have a lot of time to practice. And there's plenty of stuff in there that I can make instruments out of."

"What's your point?"

He smiled at her. "I can annoy you so much worse than you can annoy me."

"I don't think you have any idea how unpleasant I can make things for you," she snapped. "But you know what, I don't have to worry about your wall art, because I don't have to clean it up."

"Aww, you're going to have the most interesting wall in New York, why would you talk about cleaning it up?"

She put her purse down on the table, and Neal noticed she only had one takeout bag. "I'm not. If you want it cleaned up, or painted over, or finished, or whatever, you're the one who has to do it. I don't care."

"It's your apartment," he reminded her.

Se gave him an enigmatic smile. "I fired my cleaning service."

"What?"

"I have a slave," she answered. "Why should I pay someone else so that his slaves can clean my apartment instead?"

"Because I have no interest in cleaning your apartment, and you can't make me?" he shot back, going back to his mural.

"Great, then no one will clean the apartment." She unpacked her dinner and took a bite out of her gyro. "I can live with that. But can you live without eating? Because I'm not picking up food for you anymore. You want something to eat, you have to cook it. Or eat it raw, I guess."

Neal kicked his feet in the air. "What if I can't cook?"

She snorted. "I've seen surveillance video of you cooking."

"Great, I love to cook," Neal tried. "Thank you so much for giving me free reign over the kitchen."

"And you're going to cook for me, or you don't eat anything."

He glanced at her gyro. "You already bought yourself dinner."

"Then I guess you won't eat tonight." She took another bite and swallowed. "I'll wake you up for breakfast."

o0O0o

The next morning, he popped toast into the toaster, poured them both cups of coffee, dug the jelly out of the refrigerator, and planned his next move. "I'm not going to be able to cook much," he told her, seething. "Your refrigerator isn't exactly full of food."

"Taken care of," she said as if she barely noticed him. "I ordered more last night. They'll be dropping it off this evening."

"That's nice." He drank the milk mock absently, intent on her. "So do you actually know what to buy? I mean if you never cook yourself..."

"I guess you're just going to have to find out." She had her memglass open and was scrolling through the news, eyes on it instead of him. Until she looked up, and Neal found that he suddenly wasn't ready for all that focus to be turned on him, all that certainty that in the end, she was going to win, and he was going to be lucky to get out of there with the clothes he had been captured in. "By the way, you called me by my name last night."

He gulped down his coffee. "What's your point?"

"I told you what was going to happen if you didn't call me 'Mistress', didn't I?"

Neal tensed and backed up in his chair. "And I told you how I was going to keep myself busy if you stuck me back-"

"Shut up." She reached across the table and grabbed his collar.

Neal's hand closed around her wrist. He pried her hand away and held on until she yanked it out of his grasp. Snarling, she jerked her baton out of her purse, and cracked it across the top of his shoulder. Neal fell out of his chair with a thumb. "Ow!" he yelped, surprised.

She jumped down from her chair and brought down the baton across his shoulders and pushed her weight into it to hold him down as he tried to wriggle away. She grabbed his collar again, and one handed, she entered the instructions into it to to confine him to the bathroom. "You're lucky," she panted, letting him up. "I could just delete the map entirely and leave you frozen here in the middle of the floor."

"Yeah, you're so generous," he retorted, staggering to his feet and sprinting to the bathroom before the chip could freeze him in place in the middle of the floor as she had suggested.


As soon as he had crossed the threshold, he opened his mouth to start to sing. She shut the door. "Don't bother. I'm going to work."


He opened the door so that at least he had something other too look at than the plain white walls, and as she moved to the apartment's front door, he lay down and hung his head out of the bathroom door, careful to keep the chip in his back behind the invisible line over the door. She just sighed and left the apartment.

Neal crossed his feet and hummed, letting one foot bob with the beat, planning just what he was going to do when she got home. He closed his eyes.

Then the music started, high pitched, obnoxiously loud children's voices meandering their way up and down the scales, singing about addition and subtraction and the joy of math. And when it was over, there were only a few seconds of silence before it started again at the beginning.

Neal tried to throw open the drawers and the cabinets, to search frantically for cotton balls, or anything else to block the sound out of his ears, but they wouldn't open. He bit back a groan. She had programmed them closed.

The horrible, catchy, educational children's song poured in from the speakers in the walls all over the apartment, turned up so loud he spared a hope that one of the neighbors might call the police to get them to turn off the noise.

But none of them did. High-priced little apartments like Sara's were soundproof. Neal hunched in on himself and covered his ears, burying his head in his arms.

o0O0o

Sara left the music on when she came home. She stood over him where he lay in the bathroom doorway, hands over his ears.

"Alright," he tried not to shout. "You win, Mistress, just turn it off!"

She pulled out her memglass and switched the music off. The silence echoed strangely around him until she knelt down to program his collar and asked, "Which one of us is more annoying again?"

Neal didn't answer. He followed her out into the living room and sat down at the table warily. She ignored him.

When the doorbell rang a half an hour later, Neal jolted so badly he almost fell over.

"That's the groceries," Sara said brightly.

o0O0o

Neal stacked the dirty dishes on the counter. "I'm not going to wash these."

Sara looked up from where she was setting the refrigerator to open only when she touched it. "What?"

"You said nothing was going to get clean unless I cleaned it," he reminded her. "I'm not."

"Okay."

"You're not going to fight about this?" Neal questioned, feeling the wind leave his sails.

She stepped back. "I told you before, I can live with that."

"Really?" Neal said, widening his grin. "Because you strike me as a very tidy person."

"I am," she confirmed. "But I'm also very stubborn, which is also why I'm going to get that Raphael."

"What if I don't give you the Raphael, because I don't have it?" He let his frustration show.

"Funny how you knew which Raphael I was talking about so you could start drawing it on my wall."

He sighed. "Everybody was talking about it in the circles I like to run with." It wasn't even a lie. He had liked to talk about it a lot.

"Yeah, I heard the rumors," she told him seriously.

o0O0o

They were running out of dishes, which sat on the counter, growing a stinking layer of scum. Sara's shoes lay stacked in front of the door. Her suits, skirts, and dresses lay strewn throughout the apartment, along with a never ending supply of the shirts and slacks with "property of Sara Ellis" written on them. There were bags of trash tied and waiting in the corner of the kitchen and Neal was starting to feel the oppressive crush of it all. He shoved a pile of laundry off the couch and flopped down. "So what are you going to do when we run out of clothes?"

She stood in her bedroom doorway, warily glancing at the heaps of clutter. "You get to wear dirty clothes."

Neal hid a grimace. "I bet your bosses will love it when you go to work like that."

"You wear dirty clothes," she said again. "I get to go shopping. I'm going to get a lot of money very soon."

Neal scowled and pulled his feet up onto the couch, propping them up on the armrest. "Spending that Raphael commission before you even have it? Isn't there a saying about counting chickens?"

"If I don't get the painting, I get really cheap labor." She stayed in her bedroom door and leaned against the frame, arms folded. "I win either way."

"You don't have that yet either," he reminded her, irritably.

o0O0o

Sara still had half a closet full of clothes when Neal first had to pick a dirty pair of pants and shirt off the ground. He let the shirt fall over his head with a shudder.

"How did you manage to survive before you escaped?" she tried to hide an unkind laugh, and tried harder to hide a flash of real curiosity. Neal caught both. She could see the flicker in his eyes.

"Who says I escaped?" He tugged the shirt into place, keeping his body relaxed as she watched him dress, so that she wouldn't guess how much it bothered him. "Maybe I convinced the overseer to just let me walk out the front door."

"Stop being a smartass, Caffrey," she ordered. "That's still an escape."

Neal inclined his head, gratified.

But Sara continued. "I bet the poor sap got reamed out by his bosses, probably even fired for your little escape."

Neal snorted. "If you expect me to care..."

"No, I guess, not, but I do." Sara knew she should be leaving, she was going to be late, but she couldn't stop herself, couldn't squelch her need to know about him, this man she hadn't even thought about except as a target before she brought him into her home. He was a stranger, a thief, a liar, and she knew all that, but she hadn't hesitated about dragging him into the place she slept, ate, and lived, and keeping him there, because of the simple fact that he was a slave, not a person, and therefore not really a stranger. She pondered the way they were blundering through what it meant when mistress and slave lived in the same apartment, ate the same food, and could reach out and touch each other.

Because ordinary people didn't own slaves. Slaves belonged to large corporations, or the Global Federation government, or sometimes to the very very rich who didn't want to hire a company to clean for them and see inside their home, or buy food at a restaurant every time they wanted to eat, the kind of people who owned their own palatial plantation mansions in the countryside outside the world's city towers, their farmland and slave barracks splayed out around them like a blanket over the world. Slaves weren't owned by people like her.

Neal's head tilted up under her moral rebuke, the idea that he should have thought about his poor overseer before he made a break for it, eyes narrowed down, "If he were holding you captive, you wouldn't have cared either."

She walked around behind him to the door, her purse swinging, her shoulder brushing against his back. "But the thing is, you're supposed to be kept captive, Caffrey, that's the point."

o0O0o

Kate stood over Mozzie's shoulder, his face almost touching the memglass to hide the surface from her, or, she supposed, from anyone else trying to look over her shoulder. She had no idea with him anymore what was meant to annoy her, and what was just his usual paranoia. "Found anything yet?"

Mozzie pointed to a column of slave identification numbers. "These are all the slaves Aris bought in November."

"That's the company that got the contract from the government for the atmospheric ozone reconstruction project," Kate said quickly, before he could tell her that again in that oh-so-patient-Kate-is-an-idiot voice he had been using with her since Neal had been arrested.

"Very good Kate!" he got in anyway. He pointed to eight more columns. "And these are the slaves sold by the New York auction houses in November. And you don't want to know what I had to go through to get these."

"You're a wonder, Moz, you really are." She patted his shoulder. "So you cross referenced the lists?"

He pointed to a tenth, much shorter list. Seventy-three numbers winked balefully up at her from the surface of Mozzie's cracked and salvaged memglass.

"So we just have to get pictures to these numbers." Kate sat down on the table. She saw Mozzie's mouth twist and his shoulders hunch inward. "You didn't find a way to get into the database, did you?"

"But wait there's more!" he burst out, with the false exuberance of the desperately unhappy. "These are the slaves sold to the diamond mines, and these are the ones sold to the nuclear waste disposal crews, and these are the ones sold to-"

"I get it." Each column he pointed to had another towering stack of identification numbers. "Do you still have that little cloning cube?"

"Why?" he questioned dubiously.

"I think you and I need to buy a slave.

o0O0o

"Where did you get that coat?" Mozzie demanded, trying to keep his voice low.

Kate restrained herself from rubbing her face with the palm of her hand in annoyance, which would have smeared her makeup. "I took it, look, it's clean I found the security strip."

"If you get us caught," he whispered nastily and pushed the cloning cube up high in his pocket so that she could see it peaking out. "This baby is going to get both of us sent to prison for the rest of our lives!"

"Stop fussing," she said, barely moving her mouth. "Which one of us is the one who actually cons people for a living? Just concentrate on not screwing this up yourself."

The pod rumbled along its cable, down between the city levels until it pulled to a stop on the platform outside the cluster of auction houses that handled new York's slave trade. Kate draped the extremely expensive coat she had stolen over the shoulders of the extremely expensive dress Neal bought her when she still thought he was a financial wizard and future executive, and stepped out of the pod before Mozzie could try to stop her.

He trotted along beside her, trying to step in front and cut her off, but she didn't stop until she stood in front of the door to Bay Auction House. Mozzie opened the door.

"We have to open our own doors now?" she griped, her shoes clicking on the metal floor. "What's the world coming to?"

"I told you, this isn't the way people do things." He finally got ahead of him, and while he was busy ranting at her, she straightened his bow tie. "Nobody actually goes down to the auction houses except the underlings of underlings. They don't have people waiting to open doors for people like that, Pet."

"Don't be that way, Darling," she chided I'm sure there are plenty of people who prefer to take a more hands on approach to these kinds of things."

The desk clerk tried hard to wipe the look of pained astonishment off his face. "Can I help you?"

Sweeping her head back, Kate kept up her quick clip forward until she reached the reception desk and put her hands on it. She leaned in. "My husband and I-"

"My wife and I are looking to buy a few new domestic slaves," Mozzie cut in forcefully. "Pet, we should have just called in, they could have come down to the house, shown us a catalogue-"

"But I want to get a feel for these slaves," she told him with just a little petulance and a small flash of calculated, lascivious cunning. "A picture just isn't good enough. I want to see them."

The man at the desk wasn't at all practiced in hiding his expressions, and his mouth hung open just a little bit. Ma'am, we don't-"

"Look," she started threateningly. "We came all the way into the city just for this-"

"Please don't lie like that, to people, Pet!" Mozzie broke in. "You know I came for a meeting with the board."

"Okay, I came all the way into the city just for this." She could see the cogs spinning around in the brain of that man behind the desk, trying to assess her, trying to figure out what to do about the ugly rich man's, gorgeous, spoiled, obnoxious wife looking for a few good looking slaves to screw, and her besotted husband, either too stupid to see, or unable to stop her, obviously too important to insult by throwing them out, but unpleasable if he let them stay. She went in for the kill. "And I'm not used to coming away empty handed."

He grimaced and turned to Mozzie, as if hoping he would help him. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Mozzie cross his arms and scowl. Don't over play it, she wanted so badly to tell him.

"We're not really set up to receive customers, of- of your caliber here, ma'am..." he tried.

Kate glanced around at the bare, industrial concrete floor and muddy gray walls and sniffed. "That's obvious."

"I'm so sorry." He didn't sound sorry, just nervous.

"But you do hold the slaves here, don't you?"

"Some of them," he said awkwardly. "Wh-why don't I open up the catalogue of our current stock for you on the memglass, and you can browse while I bring my manager down here to speak with you?"

Kate looked back at Mozzie and sighed. "I guess that'll have to do."

His fingers hopped around on the memglass, pulling it open and typing in a passcode. When the screen cleared, he stood up and pulled out his chair for her. "I'll be right back."

As soon as the door had closed behind him, Mozzie giggled. "Don't hurry on our account."

"Shh." Kate poured over the memglass, until she found the sales records and held out her hand to Mozzie for the cloning cube. He passed it to her, and she held it over the memglass. Five seconds later, it beeped softly, and she turned it off before handing it back to Mozzie. She pulled the catalogue back up and pretended to peruse the merchandise. With a sick kind of realization, she wondered how many of the men and woman, unkempt and unconscious in the photographs were as smart and as capable as Neal, or as she was.

It was harder than she expected it to be to smile, however frostily at the desk clerk when he returned with his boss. "I'm afraid we won't be needing your services, gentlemen," she said, picking up her purse with false dignity. "Nothing in your stock sparked my interest."

o0O0o

"You think any of those auction house receptionists ever go out for drinks and compare notes?" Kate asked softly as they waited for the pod to arrive.

"Oh God, you're going to spend the next hour imagining the sordid love lives of the white collar poor." They walked into the pod with Mozzie's arm around her waist, and he waited for the doors to hum closed before he let it drop. "I thought for certain somebody was going to notice your scuffed heels."

Kate crossed her legs. "Well if you hadn't made us go running all over the city doubling back on podlines, they wouldn't be scuffed, now would they?"

Mozzie glowered at her.

"Your paranoia really gets on my nerves sometimes," she said offhandedly as he pulled the cloning cube out. "I really don't think the FBI has got it through their heads yet that the two of us can pull off jobs without Neal there to hold our hands. No one's following us. You would've noticed."

"Of course you'd think-"

"Look, I'm sorry Neal got caught. I'm sorry the FBI used me as bait, and I want him back too. But you don't have to treat me like an idiot because you miss your friend."

Mozzie didn't answer. He pressed a button on his cloning cube and reversed its setting. It streamed the accumulated sales data into his memglass, where he could filter it by date and they could see the pictures of the slaves.

"So," Kate began, breaking the sullen silence. "Have you and Neal ever pulled that trick? While I was, um... gone? I bet he made a great spoiled spouse."

Mozzie kept his eyes on the screen. "The best."

o0O0o

The trash bags sat piled together on the thin band of concrete that made up Sara Ellis's sidewalk. The laundry was stuffed into bags and set in a hamper, ready for pick up. The dishes had been cleaned and stacked back in the cabinets. Neal had swept and mopped the floors, scrubbed the bathroom until it stopped smelling, tidied until he stopped feeling like he was going to go crazy in her apartment. And there he was, sitting in the doorway of her apartment, as close to the outside as the collar and chip would let him go.

o0O0o

When she came home, she looked at the trash, and the laundry, and the clean apartment, and smiled at him instead of telling him, "I told you so."

o0O0o

The trash pod trundled between the landings and small strips of sidewalks and grass filled planters. Barb hopped off to grab the bags in front of the apartments, and hopped back on, over and over again.

One of the doors opened, and she expected another trash bag. Instead, a man with a memory glass collar and nice hair slid sideways to stand in the doorway and prop the door open with one arm. "Do you have a minute? I'd like a word with you."

"What?"

He gave her a bright smile, and he looked like a free man, with his good teeth, and his nice, clean, soft skin and hair. "I'm Neal, what's your name?" He gave his name like a free man, too.

It occurred do her that he might actually be a free man. Some people liked to do that, she'd heard, play games like that, and apartments in the city didn't have slaves in them. "I am Zero, Zero Two-"

He waved his hand to cut her off. "I don't want your number."

Barb glanced back at the pod, with the timer that told her how long she had before it would leave her and the chip in her back would freeze her in place for the overseer to tack down hours from now, and whip the skin off her back. The light was still green. "The overseers call me Button."

"And what do the other slaves call you?" he asked, then shook his head. "What do you want me to call you?"

"I don't want you to call me anything." She frowned at him. "I have to go."

He grabbed her hand. As she yanked it away, he grabbed the other one. "I bet you were a cute kid. How old are you, twelve?"

"Thirteen." She pulled hard on her arm, trying to free it, a shudder wracking her body. "Let me go."

"Your skin's broken out right now, but give it a few years for that to clear up, and you'll be a really pretty girl. I bet you're not looking forward to that at all. You got sisters that happened to? Brothers? Is your mother or father there with you? Maybe you're really lucky and your grandparents are with you too. They must be getting up there. How long do you think they're going to be able to keep working?" The man was shivering in his tee-shirt and light pants, but he didn't seem to notice. "How long do you think it's going to be before they drag them out and put a laser bolt between their eyes because it's cheaper than feeding them? I can make it so that you never have to worry about any of that again. I can free you, and anybody else you want to bring with you."

Barb stepped on his foot and ripped her hand away, backing up hurriedly. "You're crazy."

Grimacing, the man wiped the hand that had touched her smudged and dirty skin on his pants. "I was free for more than ten years before they managed to catch me. I can get you IDs, documents, I can teach you to read and write, how to act like a free person, all of that, but I need you to help me get the chips out."

"Ten years?" she whispered.

"More." He was shivering in earnest by then, and he folded his arms across his chest for warmth. "I was sixteen when I escaped."

The light on the trash pod turned yellow. "I gotta go," she said softly. glancing back at it.

"Okay." He let his hands fall to his sides. "Meet me back here next week. I'll tell you what to do."

"Okay." Her lips were cracked, and she licked them nervously. "I'm Barbra, by the way."

He smiled as she shuffled away with the trash bags. "See you, Barbra."

o0O0o

"You realize I have veto power over this list, right?" Sara told him, entering the grocery list he had written on the old fashioned whiteboard she had found for him, with the same marker he had used to sketch out the rough beginnings of the stolen Raphael she wanted so badly. "So you don't get to eat me out of house and home."

"Oh come on, I'm just trying to make the poor guys' trip down here worthwhile." Neal leaned back against the counter top, hands behind. "You know they probably have to haul themselves all the way up to this level just for you. You know they mostly deal with restaurants, right?"

She didn't even bother replying. "No caviar. Only a dozen eggs, no wines that cost more than you did, lose half the cheese at least, and no trying to cost me so much that I let you get out of cooking!"

"Aww." He showed his teeth. "You're not even mentioning the milk."

She stared at him, hard. "I've always bought milk. I can afford to buy it for you too."

"Maybe I should have put down eight liters." Milk and cheese, like eggs, were an extravagance, something that unlike meat, couldn't be grown in a vat, that still had to involve actual animals. Milk and eggs put a dent in the budget of even someone as comfortably well off as Sara, who could live in one of the apartments that still had a kitchen, that only a few decades ago had held people who really could afford to have slaves that weren't dirt cheap escapees, before such people had fled the city towers, choosing space and privacy over convenience, to build themselves palaces in the empty swaths of land that had once been America. "What makes you think I'm trying to get out of cooking?" he asked, trying not to laugh and let loose the bleakness. "Instead of this?" He waved his hands around. "All of it."

"That's your grand plan?" she eyed the floor and shook her head. "You're going to be so expensive, that after a certain point, I let you go because you've cost me more than I would ever get from recovering the Raphael?"

Neal gave a disgusted huff.

"I control the money, Zero Zero Three One whatever, Neal." She waited for him to blink. "Besides, even if you got me to that point, I still would have more to gain by getting the Raphael."

Neal gave her a brittle smile. "There's a logical fallacy in there somewhere."

"Hmm. Have fun untangling it." She leaned back against the wall, mirroring his posture. "In the meantime, why don't you just give the Raphael to me? You've given in on everything else. We already know I'm more stubborn than you. Just give in, and give me what I want, and you can go free."

"You know, even if I had the Raphael, I wouldn't be able to get it for you with this chip in my back anyway," Neal snapped, hands clenched on the counter.

"That's why you're supposed to tell me where it is," Sara said slowly. "So I can go get it."

o0O0o

Later that evening, the question Neal had been holding onto since their earlier conversation came bubbling to the surface. "You trust me not to send you into a trap? Tell you I knew where the Raphael was and then..."

She took another bite of the meal he had made for her, lamb and couscous, and plenty of spice to hide any poison he could get his hands on. "I trust myself to get out of it." And Neal, who had a lot of experience in the matter, could tell she wasn't telling him the whole truth. And he wasn't sure if it was important, if he was supposed to care.

o0O0o

Neal adjusted the stepping stool and climbed back onto it. Uncapping the pen, he drew across his pencil sketches on the wall, filling in the lines of Sara's stolen Raphael, growing the mural up and out. He would have killed for paint, but it didn't matter. When he finally managed to escape, Sara would probably have it painted it over anyway.

The door opened, but Neal didn't stop. He pressed a button on the foot stool, making it rise higher until he could reach the wall where it touched the ceiling.

"You going to do the Sistine Chapel on the ceiling next?"

"I'm saving that for the bedroom," he answered her. "Just think, you could wake up every morning to the fall of Adam and Eve and God throwing them out of the Garden."

"Just be sure you have dinner cooked first," she reminded him, unenthused.

"Yes, I've noticed a little problem with our system," Neal told her, voice laden with sarcasm as he capped the marker and stepped down from the stool.. "How can I ever have dinner on the table hot and ready for you if I can't even open the refrigerator?"

"Gotta be here to make sure you don't steal anything."

"You sure it's not so you can keep an eye on me so I don't slip a little bug spray into your meal?"

"I don't think you'd murder me," she kept her eye on him as he walked into the kitchen. "Real ringing endorsement of your character."

"Especially since you don't trust me not to steal food."

"Well, you are a thief." She pressed the refrigerator door and let it swing open. "That's why you're here."

Neal narrowed his eyes, but his voice was light. "True, if I were just an escaped slave, I'd have been sold to one of those nuclear cleanup crews or something. I'd probably be dead by now."

"If you were just an escaped slave, the FBI wouldn't have been after you," she shot back, leaning in close to him.

"Yeah, I would have done great," he sighed. "No money, no skills, no ID. What else was I supposed to do?"

Not escape in the first place, she wanted to say. It was on the tip of her tongue. "You're trying to tell me theft and forgery didn't take skill? you learned that. You should have learned something else."

Neal snorted.

"Maybe if your ancestors hadn't been thieves, you wouldn't have been a slave to begin with," she continued snidely.

"How do you know it was theft?" he challenged. "There were a lot of ways to become a slave. They needed cheap workers so badly back then. For all I know, my ancestors were all abandoned in dumpsters as babies."

"Which would mean that your ancestors just before them had left their children to die in dumpsters," she reminded him coldly, seating herself at the table as he arranged pots, pans, and ingredients.

He looked up and turned back to her. "That's exactly the logic the pro-slavery lobby used. I read a lot about it after I got out. Those babies carry the same dirty, wrong, sick genes as their parents. If we have to rescue them, might as well make them slaves. Get them and their kids out of society forever. And all the criminals, and drug addicts, and people who can't fend for themselves."

Sara nodded. It wasn't like he was telling her anything she didn't already know. There was a reason some people were slaves and some weren't.

"They thought back then that there wasn't going to be any more crime or poverty, after slavery." He started putting everything back into the refrigerator. "Look at how that worked out."

"Aren't you going to make dinner?" she demanded.

"Not hungry. Get it yourself."

o0O0o

"How can he not be in here?" Mozzie cried, holding the memglass up and gesticulating with it wildly. "We went to every auction house in the city!"

Kate jerked her gaze away from the snow falling outside the window. "But they had to sell him through one of the auction houses! How else would they have sold him?"

"You think maybe your government stooge friend lied to you?" he accused, and Kate decided to refrain from pointing out that he wasn't her friend.

"The government could have decided he was useful and bought him for themselves."

"Or he never was a slave, and that was just something he said to get you to stop looking into it."

Kate wanted to scream. "If this theory of yours ends with secret government prisons, stop right now. I don't want to hear it."

Mozzie paced back and forth. "You're afraid to listen because it might be true."

"I think we really are going to have to find someone to crack the slave database," she said despondently, instead of replying. "Or we could try breaking into Burke's office to see if he has Neal's ID number.

"Or we could just ask Burke." Mozzie's words were high and panicky.

o0O0o

He had on a woman's peacock blue coat when he opened the door, and Barb fought to hold in a giggle. "Don't knock it," he told her. "It's warm."

Barb pinched her lips together and stifled her mirth. "So just because I'm here doesn't mean I'm going to help you. I have to come to get the trash."

"Yeah, but you're just standing here. And you haven't grabbed the trash yet." Neal leaned against the door, propping it open with one foot, as if he weren't afraid somebody would see what he was doing, plotting their escape.

"Okay." Trying to stop herself from shaking, Barb wished she could be that nonchalant about it. "It's just I need to get my brother out. He's the only one, but they've got him feeding the compactors, and that's how- There're accidents with it all the time with it, and I just- I got to get him out."

"It's okay." Neal put his clean hand on the shoulder of her dirty blue jumpsuit, but his fingers were tense and stiff, and any comfort he meant by it was lost. "Can you get him into the pod with you for a day?"

"I think so." She glanced back at the pod and the green light. "Maybe not right away, but... Yeah."

The fingers on her shoulder went limp with relief, and then dropped off her shoulder. Out of the woman's coat pocket, he pulled a bundle of carefully folded, clean, white paper napkins wrapped in plastic. Through the plastic, Barb could see the small, neat ink writing and pictures. "I need you to take this to a friend of mine. That's all I need you to do. Get your brother on the pod, and take this to a friend of mine, and he will get us what we need to remove those chips. Now I need you to tell me where you go on what days."

o0O0o

Kate pulled her coat collar up higher and shrugged down deeper into her scarf. The plane that had landed in front of her opened its doors, lowering plush, carpeted steps. She hadn't seen it until it was almost on top of her, it's camouflage and cloaking technology, the very best money could buy. Probably nobody but Kate, the pilot, and the man's bodyguards even knew the person stepping off the plane had left his opulent bolthole in South America. He waved to her as he descended. "Hello Kate!"

"Hello Vincent."

He looked at her face, chapped with cold, hands balled tightly in her sleeves. "My, you are as lovely as ever."

"Stop trying to charm me, Vincent, it won't work."

"Well you're the one who contacted me." He favored her with a smug, wolfish smile. "You must want something very badly."

"True you aren't easy to get a hold of," Kate told him thoughtfully as he came down to stand next to her. "The question is what do you want? You came, didn't you?"

He looked her up and down, amused. "You said you had a problem only I could fix. How could you think I wouldn't come for you?"

She tried not to flinch away when he reached out to touch her. "It's about Neal."

"Oh yes." He put his hand on her shoulder. "I had heard you became quite the one woman crime spree since you left him. Don't tell me you went back to him."

Kate didn't react. "Neal's been arrested."

"And sold?" His smile changed, to falsely sympathetic, and even oilier than before.

She stepped back, letting his hand fall. "You knew?"

The relaxed way he he looked into her own horrified expression wasn't anything other than insulting, and she wanted him gone. She wanted to never have to think about him again. "I've known since just after he began working for me," he told her.

"Well, I need his ID number." She stared him down. "We need to find him."

"He just isn't good for you Kate." His hand was back on her shoulder in a flash. "I don't feel comfortable helping you with these self destructive impulses of yours."

"You could buy him," she cut in quickly. "Think about it. All of those skills, that great big brain of his, at your beck and call, just... Think about it."

"Really." His hand tightened around her shoulder, pressing in on her flesh underneath the layers of wool and synthetic fibers. "You wouldn't try to stop me?"

"I want him alive," she affirmed coldly. "I'll work on getting him away from you after I know he's safe."

"Once I have him, I'm not going to let him go." His smile showed a flash of teeth.

"I know."

He let his hand fall to his side, his eyes all too knowing for comfort. "As long as we understand each other.

To be continued...
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