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 Three

Sara's assistant was standing in her office, anxiously with a package under one arm, waiting for her when she arrived. "This showed up for you this morning, I'm sorry, I didn't see who brought it. It didn't come in with the rest of the mail. We already put it through all the scanners, but if you want somebody else to open it, just in case..."

"Thanks, Abigale," she said, dismissing her. "I'll take care of it."

Abigale fled. Sara sat down at her desk and carefully slit the packing tape with a pair of scissors. Inside was a Christmas tin. When she lifted the lid, a note was taped underneath. Ignoring the expensive cream candies inside, Sara read the handwritten note, with instructions to a small Greek restaurant a few podline stops away from her office, and a time. Who the hell even wrote handwritten notes anymore, she wondered. Only someone who didn't want to leave any trace would actually...

She ate lunch at that restaurant all the time. Checking to make sure her baton and her laser gun were in her purse where they belonged, she read the note again.

o0O0o

The restaurant was full of people when Sara arrived, and when she stepped out of the pod she had shared with a few people from the company whose names she had forgotten, she lingered in the restaurant doorway for just a moment before stepping into the line in front of the counter. As she scanned the crowd, then scanned it again, eyes flicking to anyone who might be a danger, the other patrons edged away from her nervously, but Sara didn't stop.

The table she chose had a view of the mirror against one wall, letting her see anyone behind her. She bit into her gyro, eyes glued to that mirror, tuning out the bland, poppy renditions of Christmas music, piped into the restaurant from speakers dotting the walls and ceiling.

But the woman who came to sit down with her passed in front of her, not behind. "Hello Ms. Ellis. My boss would like to make an offer for your slave."

Her suit fit her badly, and her graying blonde hair was pulled back in a short ponytail. She looked like she was used to wearing an exoskeleton and carrying a very big gun. Sara's expression hardened. "Who is your boss?"

"He wishes to remain anonymous," she said, unperturbed. "Which is why he sent me."

"He sent you to threaten me," Sara corrected impatiently. "You're a bodyguard, not a businesswoman."

"If I was going to threaten you, why would we have chosen such a public place for our meeting?" she asked calmly. "We thought it would ease your mind to meet somewhere familiar."

"Okay." Sara took another bite of her gyro and looked out over the woman's head. "You're here to intimidate me, not threaten. My mistake. Answer my question. Who is he, and what does he want with my slave?"

"Let's just say that in his previous line of work, your slave decided to relieve my boss of a lot of money. My boss would like to pay him back for his effort."

"He's not for sale." She wrapped up her gyro and stuffed it back in its bag, before standing up. "Excuse me."

"My boss knows about the Raphael he stole."

Sara stopped. "What about it?"

She folded her hands on top of the table. "He's willing to pay you double your commission to sell him the slave."

"He isn't for sale," Sara told her again, walking as quickly out of the restaurant as she could.

As soon as the pod door closed behind her, she straitened up in her seat, pretending to herself that her heart wasn't beating any faster than normal, collecting herself again for an afternoon at the office. She had phone calls to make.

o0O0o

When the doorbell rang, Neal almost toppled off the stepping stool. Cat-like, he caught himself and felt around under the stool for the button that would lower it down again. It hummed as it descended, and when it was low enough, he hopped off and padded his way over to the door.

He stopped, and took his hand off the door. The groceries had come yesterday, and nobody else had come to the apartment since Sara had bought him. Vaguely, that seemed a little sad to him, but he stood there, hand out in front of him, trying to figure out who would come to her apartment, in the middle of the day while she was at work.

"I know you're in there, Neal." Neal froze. His face froze. His arm froze, hanging in the air.

He knew that voice, even though he had never heard it say that name. He almost backed away from the door and ignored the man speaking, but if he did that, he didn't want to find out how Adler would respond. If he had flown to New York... He opened the door. "Adler."

"Hello Neal," Adler greeted him as if the last several years had never happened, and they were back in his office. "Though I suppose I might as well call you Nick; it's as much your name as anything else. Or James Bonds. That's what the FBI was calling you. Tell me, Neal, why did you, as a runaway slave, decide to pick a name that sounds the same as an act of submission?"

"It's what my mom called me," Neal asserted, almost, but not quite defiantly. "What are you doing here, Adler?"

"Aren't you going to invite me in?" he asked, instead of answering.

Neal braced himself in the doorway. "I don't think my mistress would appreciate having a fugitive in her home."

Adler gazed at Neal with a small, obnoxious smile. "What about you?"

"I'm not a fugitive anymore," Neal reminded him. "She won't get arrested for having me around. What are you doing here?"

"Kate asked me to come." He stayed on the stoop, friendly looking, and harmless, an inconspicuous man in an inconspicuous expensive suit, in a wealthy neighborhood. "She wants me to buy you. She promised me your good behavior. I'm here to see if she can deliver. I have to say, you certainly didn't give me the warmest welcome."

Neal's answering expression wasn't warm at all. He crossed his arms. "Last time I saw you, you walked away with all of my money."

"Fair's fair, Neal, you were trying to walk away with all of mine." He sidestepped Neal, slipping through the space left by Neal's crossed arms. Standing in Sara's living room, he looked like exactly what he had always pretended to be, and Neal, wrong-footed, found his mind drifting back to when he had worked for this man, and the brief time he had considered giving up the con, thinking maybe he could be like this man, and how he had tried to emulate him until in the end, Adler had conned him.

It probably wasn't worth it to be angry at someone for something he did all the time. "You said Kate..."

"Asked me to buy you," Adler finished. "Yes. It's a shame, really. There she was, starting to get her life back on track, and you waltz back in, and then get yourself sold."

Neal put on a friendly, and obvious smile, furious all over again, suddenly terrified that Adler might be right, and he was dragging Kate along again, into something she hated. So he lied. "Really? Because I'd heard she had just really gotten going forging the Renascence Masters."

"Hmm." He inclined his head. "You both do your best work when you're separate. When you're together, it's like you just don't care."

"Probably." Neal wondered whether he should be worried about the implication that Adler had been keeping tabs on him, or not. "I'm sorry you came all this way for nothing, but I think I have a better shot getting away from Sara than I've got getting away from you."

"That's fine," Adler told him, unsurprised. "You should know though, Kate's been under the impression that you had been sold to one of the ozone building crews. Now I don't have any reason to tell her otherwise unless I take you home with me. I could always tell her that I couldn't find you... or that it was to late."

Neal's mouth went dry. "How is she?"

"Oh fine," he replied lightly. "Very worried about you, suffering under the delusion that she can get you away from me, but very worried about you. You should think about that."

Neal let his head bow. "Okay. I will."

"I'll come back in a few days for your answer."

Neal nodded.

o0O0o

After Adler left, Neal waited for Sara, frustrated and impotent. If he could just talk to Kate, let her know he was okay... If he could, he would have been able to get her to break into Sterling Bosch and bring him the chip remover, and he would be gone already. If he had any way to get in touch with her that didn't involve leaving the house.

When the door opened, Neal was sitting against it, and he had to jump out of the way to let it open. It caught his foot and sent him sprawling. Sara peered down at him.

"I can't give you the Raphael because I don't have it. I sold it," he said. "But I can give you the fence."

"That's funny," said Sara pointedly. "Someone offered to buy you today, for twice my recovery fee. Your sudden openness have anything to do with this?"

"Wow, he works fast," Neal didn't bother to deny it. "When did you..."

"Lunch." She tapped her foot next to his head. "But I spoke with a woman."

Neal's throat went dry, his pulse loud in his own ears. "Did she have long, dark brown hair, blue eyes?"

"No," she told him. Neal should have anticipated just how disappointed he would feel. The thought that Adler might have lied to him about Kate nagged at him. "So you know who this is."

"He approached you before he..." Neal babbled distractedly. "That arrogant- wow."

"So you know who this is," Sara prompted again, irritably.

Neal nodded. "You aren't going to sell me to him, are you?"

"Give me a reason not to." She gave him her hand and helped him to his feet.

"I told you, I'll give you the fence," he wheedled. "But I need to talk to the FBI."

o0O0o

Mozzie rubbed his hand over his face, elbows on the table. "I can't believe you brought in Adler!"

"He found Neal, didn't he?" Kate held her hands up. "You were talking about bringing in the Mob, Moz! At least Adler isn't a killer."

"That we know of," Mozzie snapped. "Yet."

Kate let out a little puff of humorless laughter. "He's one of us, Moz. He's got money, and power. but in the end, he's just another con man.

We can play him."

Mozzie didn't lift his head. "That's what you think."

o0O0o

He kept his head up and his shoulders back, and didn't allow the glass-walled walkways that he had last walked before waking up with a chip in his back and a collar around his neck, to cow him. Sara walked ahead of him. His clothing proclaimed her ownership of him. The collar sat heavy and tight around his throat. He had to fight himself not to duck his head, and shuffle his feet. He had to fight himself to look people in the eye, and smile at them like nothing had changed and he was as free as they were. Some of them stared him down, some dropped their eyes and avoided looking in his direction, but most just didn't seem to notice him, so inured were they to the presence of people who weren't there.

Neal wasn't. Neal had never been a slave in a city full of free people before, only a slave among other slaves.

Sara went into Peter's office and closed the door behind her. He watched through the glass, left to himself, surrounded by the other agents swirling around him. Slowly, the activity around him peeled his eyes away from Sara and Peter, and the conversation he couldn't hear. Standing in the middle of the bullpen, he caught the eyes of the agent who had put the cuffs on him months ago, Jones. The man looked away quickly, and when Neal caught his eyes again to give him a friendly smile, Jones flinched back. Jones had helped cause this, helped put the collar around his neck.

There was a sharp poke between his shoulder blades. He turned his head back with a scowl for the person who had jabbed him, but the woman just pointed to Peter's office, and Peter, who was waving him inside.

That was the secret to being seen, Neal knew. Peter noticed him, so the rest of them saw him. And if he let Adler buy him, he would never be invisible ever again.

He opened the door, and Sara shoved it closed behind him.

Peter gestured to him to sit down. "Sara tells me you can give me Vincent Adler."

"That's right," Neal replied through a challenging, cocky grin. "He's in town, trying to buy me."

Agent Burke got right to the point. "What do you want?"

Neal turned the grin off. Peter tensed and pulled back without leaving his chair. "You saying you're going to give it to me?" Neal asked. Peter just looked back. "Immunity. For my associates."

"You know, you are a slave," Peter said conversationally. "You're supposed do do what your owner wants without trying to haggle, and I think Sara wants you to give me Adler."

Neal grinned again. "That's just the law. I've never been very good with the law."

Sara huffed, annoyed. "Neal and I have another arrangement anyway."

"So, your associates," Peter growled. "Would they include Kate?"

"Yes," Neal confirmed sharply. "And a friend of mine, whose name I won't give you. Look, I just don't want this to blow back on them."

"They have something to do with Adler?" Peter asked dryly.

Neal's expression didn't change. "Do you agree, or not?"

Peter put his elbows on his desk and rested his chin in his fists. "You want to give me Adler. It gets you something, something other than immunity for Kate and your friend, otherwise you wouldn't be here. I think I don't have to give you anything. You'll give me Adler anyway."

Neal's jaw clenched as his mask slipped for just a moment. "What I get isn't worth putting them in prison for, so yes, you do have to give them immunity, or I don't tell you anything." He could feel Sara watching him, considering, the thrill of having an audience again coursing through him.

"You said Adler's in town to buy you," Peter mused, eyes shining a little at Neal's nod. "Which means you don't need to tell me anything, and I don't need your permission to use you as bait."

Neal felt his eyes widen, and his mask split wide open and fall away. Excitement spilled out of him, replaced with a horrible fear, that Kate and Mozzie would be swept up with Adler and his cronies, and the actions he had undertaken to spare them would be the ones to doom them instead.

"I'm glad Sara bought you." Peter stood up and came over to put his hand on Neal's shoulder. "I mean, I'm glad you're alive. When we captured you, I thought... I'll try to keep Kate and your friend out of it."

"Wait," Sara grunted. "You need my permission."

Peter stared at her. Neal didn't blame him. He fought not to gape. "What?" Peter gasped, nonplussed

Sara's lips turned up. It looked painful. "Well, I'm the one who has to live with him if you piss him off."

Peter held out his hand, palm up in entreaty. "Do I have your permission to use your slave as bait to catch Adler?"

Sara raised an eyebrow. "Neal?"

He shrugged and tossed his head. "Yeah, fine."

Sara nodded to Peter. "Alright."

o0O0o

The late evening sky and the sun sunk below the horizon lay the shadows thick and heavy over the city towers. The pillars that held up each city level cut the sky into pieces, and the lights in front of every shop, restaurant, and apartment glimmered in a myriad of soft colors. Neal watched them fly past from the inside of the pod. "You didn't just force me to go along with Peter's plan."

The unsaid question in his words wasn't hard to hear. Sara turned to him, her face obscured by the gloom. "We don't have time to out-stubborn you on this."

"That's the whole reason," said Neal, disbelievingly.

"Yep." Sara crossed her legs. "Well. And you haven't told me who the fence was, yet."

Neal folded his hands behind his head and leaned back on them. "Well, thanks."

Sara turned back to face forward. "I'd like the name of the fence now, by the way."

Neal's teeth glinted in the shifting lights. "How do I know you aren't going to sell me down the river as soon as I give you her name?"

"Well you'll just have to trust me."

"Yeah, I don't really do that," Neal said, disappointed. Or falsely disappointed, it was hard for him to tell sometimes anymore.

"I haven't screwed you over yet," Sara reminded him.

The smile on Neal's face grew rueful as he shook his head. "It's a lot easier to trust someone when you don't have to."

Sara stood up and walked across the moving floor of the pod to face him. Bending over Neal, she tipped is chin up. "I am not going to screw you over." She held him there until his eyes focused on her "I will help you, and when this is all over, I will let you escape. I promise."

Neal let his head sink down to his chest when she let it go. "Let me think about it."

"Alright." She went back to sit next to him. "It's late. I'll buy dinner tonight, give you the night off."

o0O0o

She pulled her memglass into a wide, flat surface. Hanging it up on the wall on which he had drawn her missing Raphael, she brought up a screen with the movies that had come out that year in neat little rows. "You want to watch a movie with me?"

Neal stood in the study door. "I'm going to bed. It's late."

"Come on," Sara snorted. "It isn't that late."

"I don't really..." Neal shrugged. "Do movies."

"Why not?" Sara demanded. "You like art. There are plenty of highbrow movies here. We can watch one of them."

"I just don't like them." Neal glowered for a moment at the memglass hanging on the wall before tamping down on it and turning to Sara impassively. "I don't like the way they're art made on the backs of people who have no choice. Who can't refuse to make it, or choose to make something else. And you know, when have you ever seen a slave in a movie?"

"Heart of Silver," Sara shot back.

Neal waved her answer away. "Only so that there would be someone around to spy on Taylor Yen's character and his boyfriend."

"You can't tell me you're really some great anti-slavery revolutionary." She laughed at him over the top of the back of the couch. "You use all kinds of things made by slaves. You eat the food I buy you, grown by slave-"

"Cooked by a slave too," Neal cut in.

"You wear clothes made by slaves, the clothing you wore when you were caught was probably made by slaves..." She smirked at him. "You just don't want to be a slave yourself."

Would you?
Neal wanted to ask. "It's impossible to live without benefiting from slavery! At least the way I do it, the people who own the slaves don't get any money."

"Oh, you're going to claim you stole for a good cause," she snarled. "Don't try it. You stole for yourself."

"Because I couldn't get a job!" Neal let himself glare at her. "I didn't have any identity records. I didn't know how to do anything. My first partner had to teach me how to read."

Sara's expression grew softer. "You think you might not have been a thief if you hadn't been a slave?" she asked.

"Maybe." Neal looked down. "I don't know."

Sara stood up with a sigh and folded her memglass back up into its normal cube shape. "I'm sorry."

"Sure."

"You can make your own identity records now. You do it all the time for cons." She came over to put a hand on his shoulder. "You learned how to be a thief, you can learn how to do something else, once you're free."

Neal smiled sadly. "Sure," he said again, believing it just as much as she did.

o0O0o

When he woke up the next morning, Neal opened the study door to find the clothes he had been captured in folded and waiting for him. He picked them up and took them into the bathroom, and when he came out again, damp from his shower, he was dressed in them, the collar of his shirt pulled up to hide the glass collar as best he could. "Thanks," he said to Sara.

"We're meeting Agent Burke for lunch." She sat at the table with her memglass open, memos from work and news sites littering it. "So you and Vincent Adler, huh?"

Neal stuck four slices of bread into the toaster and dug a bottle of grape jelly out of the back of the refrigerator. "Yeah."

"What did you do to him?" she asked, failing to hold in a laugh.

"What are you talking about?" he snapped, pulling the toast out and slathering the jelly onto them. "I didn't do anything to him."

She looked at him skeptically. "The woman he sent to speak to me implied pretty strongly that he wanted to buy you to get revenge because you conned him out of a lot of money. Not that I blame you if you did, but..."

"No." He'd tried, but that was a finer distinction than he was willing to make. "He doesn't want revenge. He thinks I'd be useful. He probably wants someone good at making aliases and counterfeiting documents."

"That's all?" Sara took the plate with her toast on it when he handed it to her. "No blood, no pain? Maybe I should have sold you."

"Wait," he said, startled. "You didn't sell me because you were worried about me?"

"Eat your breakfast."

"You were," he said gleefully. "Well thanks."

"So why do you want Adler arrested?" she asked, honestly curious and not bothering to hide it. "How did you meet him, anyway?"

He didn't smile. "That really isn't any of your business."

"Fine, but Agent Burke's probably going to ask too."

He stood there while she ate. "You're going to ask me to trust you again, aren't you?"

"You should," she said. "Go on, eat. I have to get to work."

o0O0o

Peter waved them into his office and shut the door, pushing a button on a nearby wall panel. The glass walls fogged over, turning black and opaque, obscuring them from the agents milling around the bullpen below. "You said that Adler contacted you. Do you have a way of contacting him?"

"He sent me a letter to reply to if I changed my mind," Sara said, taking a seat in front of his desk.

"He said he would come back to Sara's apartment in a few days to talk to me again." Neal's expression was cold, closed off. He stood off to the side of the room, next to the door, muscles coiled, as if ready to jump away from them, if he could have. "He wanted me to promise that I would behave myself before he bought me."

Peter snorted, "How did you meet him anyway?" Sara shot her slave a wry grin.

Neal glared back. "I don't think that's really something you need to know."

"No, I think it is," Agent Burke responded heatedly.

"Then you're out of luck," Neal said.

"Remember, you're a slave." He put his hands on top of the table. It was a conman's trick, seeing someone's hands told the subconscious that the person wasn't hiding anything, and seeing the FBI agent pull it made Neal squirm inside. "It's not like you can be convicted and sent to jail. Unless you're about to tell me that you did something that we would have to put you down for, I don't know, something violent-"

"No," he interrupted. "Nothing violent."

"Then you have nothing to worry about," Peter told him mildly triumphant, sitting back.

"You can't make me tell you." Which anymore had become enough of a reason not to do anything, even without the humiliation the story held, about the time he had gotten conned, and he had been the one at he end of the day wondering how he had been left with nothing. The knowing looks, the yes-we-really-are-smarter-than-you expressions, he didn't need to see those. He didn't need to give them more confirmation for their belief that they, free people, were somehow more, that Adler was somehow better than he was. Something in him recoiled from telling the story in front of people that would ignore his every success and point to his every failure and hold them up as proof.
He had breathed free, and met free people, and the things he hadn't questioned when Keller had first found him and used him as a partner were things he couldn't stomach anymore.

"No, I can't," Peter acknowledged. "But if you don't tell me, I can't know what I'm supposed to protect your friends from. If they get caught up in this..."

Neal swallowed. "For all I know, you're working with Adler. Somebody is. Why'd you pick 'James Bonds' anyway? Fan of classic literature?"

"Or centuries old two dimensional movies," Sara cut in helpfully before giving her slave a strange look.

"He told you that?" Peter asked, voice flat with surprise. At Neal's nod, he let out a tense breath. "That's... just something we called you here until- That didn't go into any of the files. You realize that means he has someone in this department feeding him information?"

"Yeah, I figured that out," Neal returned mirthlessly.

The agent flinched. Neal turned his gaze on Sara, and her closed off, calculating expression. When she noticed him watching, her eyes flashed, and she glowered at him as if she wished he were closer so she could hit him. It was the kind of look he could smirk back at, and not be afraid of punishment to follow. It was a contradiction written on her face, a look she would give to someone who wasn't powerless, even as she would never let him forget that was just what he was, even if she sometimes did forget.

Neal let it pass without comment.

"You have my word that I won't tell Adler anything," Peter broke the silence. "I'm not the leak."

Neal cocked his head. "If your word means anything."

Peter swallowed, the muscles along his jaw jumping. "It does."

Neal stepped further away from him, his back to the closed office door. "Or you could use what I tell you to make a case against my friends instead of keeping them out of it."

Peter nodded. "Or I could do that."

"But you won't," Neal prompted, hesitating.

"But I won't."

Neal glanced at Sara, at the blank black walls. "I tried to con him," he said at last, forcing the words out. Beginning something, it always seemed to him, was the hardest part, so he supposed it was best to begin with the hardest part of all, so that after it came out, it would all be down hill and everything else would come out easily. "Back when everybody thought he was an investment genius. Instead he ran off with my money too."

And the rest of the story did come out of him easily, like water through a broken dam, the memories in sharp, clear focus. But it was the things he didn't mention that came back to him the most strongly, the way he had been when he had first met Mozzie, new in New York, back on the North American continent for the first time since he had escaped, still reeling from realizing just what kind of a man Matthew Keller really was, and only just finally getting used to seeing himself as a free man and a criminal instead of a slave. The way he had seen Adler and wanted to become him, and the way he had thought, for at least a little while that maybe he could give up the grift if Adler just taught him how. The look on Kate's face when she found out what Adler had done, and the hard knot of fear that had settled in his chest, that when he told her what he was doing there, she would look at him the same way. When it had happened, when Adler had conned all of those people, Neal felt like an idiot, furious that someone could do that to them, and that he had let him, but Kate, Kate looked like the world had just ended around her, and Neal had never loved her more than when he wanted to wrap her up and carry her away from it all.

His eyes flicked back and forth between the two of them as he spoke. When he had finished, he stretched his arms up and folded them behind his head, feeling his jaw set defiantly, feeling the muscles in his body growing taut.

"I thought you told me you didn't try to con him," Sara said slowly.

"I never said I didn't try," he shot back. "Nobody wants revenge against the con artists who don't fool them."

"So he conned you," Sara mused, recovering. "Learn anything?"

Neal forced his eyes not to narrow and smiled at her pleasantly. "Anybody can be a mark, Sara, I already knew that."

Peter hadn't spoken since Neal had begun his story. He coughed. "So he knew Kate before you met her." The other two dragged their eyes away from each other. "And she's the one who asked him to buy you."

Neal pushed himself away from the wall and stepped into the middle of the room, Mozzie's constant possessive suspicion of her ringing in his ears. "What are you suggesting?"

"If she knows how to contact him, we can use that."

"Lure him into a trap?" Sara cut in, interested.

"Like you did with me?" Neal raised his eyebrows. "You like doing that, don't you?"

"You didn't have to walk into it," the agent snapped.

"Feeling guilty about almost sending me to my death?" Neal let his charm disappear, the shadow of it lingering in the room as a warning. "Did you even tell her what you were doing, or did you just float her name around, and tell everybody where she was going to be, and hope that nobody used that information to put a laser bolt through her?"

Peter Burke flushed with guilt. "She wasn't running from anybody but you."

"You didn't know that!"

Sara stood up and walked over to Neal to put her hand on the memglass collar around his neck. Grasping it tightly, she tugged head down. "Calm down."

Neal's eyes flicked around, the irises and pupils glittering up at her through thin, furious slits.
"She'll know about it this time." Peter Burke gazed at them, trying to hide his alarm. Instead of sympathy for him, a sharp spike of resentment stole over Neal instead. Sara's uncertain way of dealing with him was nothing like the overseers on the farm he had grown up on. Next to them, her improvisations were uninventive and almost kind. If he hadn't known freedom before her, it would almost have felt like heaven. If Peter didn't want to deal with a cruelty even as mild as Sara's, he didn't have to. It was his choice. He could look away from the slavery that made his life so much easier, that brought him food and clean clothes, that paid his salary, and filled the Global Federation's treasury. And it made Neal sick.

Sara let her slave up. Neal shoved his shoulders up as if he could hide the collar, then he shrugged and straightened up. "You better tell her. I'm only helping you because it's safer than having Adler out there with his hooks in my friends. But if that changes..."

The agent heaved a sigh. "I'll let you talk to her."

o0O0o

Sara kept her hand on Neal's collar as she walked him through the door to her apartment. "Don't think helping out the FBI is going to make me forget you promised to give me the fence."

"What- oh!" Neal followed her through the doorway without stopping or flinching away, keeping his body loose, and deceptively unruffled. "Yeah."

Her fingers tapped the surface of the collar, steadily entering in the code that would shackle hi to the apartment again. "I'm waiting."

"Don't you have to go back to work?" Neal asked pointedly. "I mean, this is already a really long lunch hour-"

"If anyone asks, I'll tell them I'm running down a lead." Sara leaned back against the wall, arms folded, and smiled at him like she had all the time in the world. "It's the truth. See how that works?"

"I want to talk to them first." He told her. "I'm not inflicting you on anybody without warning them."

"Aww, and here I thought we were starting to get along," she shot back. "I don't want you tipping whoever it is off and having them head for the hills before I can talk to them. No."

Neal directed his eyes up to the ceiling in exasperation. "Look, I want to get out of here, alright? You'll get the painting. But I'm not giving you a name unless I get to talk to them first."

"Fine," Sara snapped, pulling out her memglass and powering it on. "Call them. I'll be right here listening."

"Not a chance."

"Haven't you gotten it through your head yet? I'm not stupid, Neal!" She rounded on him, backing him against the wall. "I'm not just going to let you call one of your friends up and say, 'Hey, please, break into Sterling Bosch for me and grab the slave chip deactivator out of Sara Ellis's desk!'"

"That's not-"

"Shut up," she said tiredly. "Did you even fence it, or was this all some little ploy of yours to try and trick me into letting you use the phone?"

Neal took a breath. "Okay, so I didn't fence the Raphael-"

"Ha!" she broke in. "God, you bastard."

"You'll get it. And you'll get your two percent." He felt like shouting, He wanted to shout, but instead he kept his voice low and calm, persuasive, trying for once, to sell the truth. "I'm going to call one of my associates to pick it up. You don't get to know where I've been keeping it." He reached up to touch the collar around his neck as Ellen's face flashed across the surface of his mind.

"I told you, I'm not going to mess with your stash," she said coldly.

"I wouldn't tell any of my associates where my stash was anyway," he did his best not to snarl. He might not have been any kind of anti-slavery crusader, Sara had seen that easily enough, but the thought of Ellen being captured and collared, sent to a slow, working death, as he had thought he would be, was enough for him to sentence himself to slavery for the rest of his life. "This isn't about that."

"Then you're protecting someone." Sara fired back shrewdly. "I won't drop the dime on anyone either."

"And why should I believe that?" Neal asked. Sometimes, it was like that, when all of his frustration and uselessness slammed into him at once. She couldn't see it, and there was no way for him to make her.

"Fine!" she spat, voice horribly loud in the small entrance way of her apartment. "I'll let you call your associate, but I want you to remember something. You try to run before I have the Raphael, every law enforcement agency in the world will know you're on the loose. You will be caught, your friends will go to jail for stealing you, and you'll be returned right back here to me, where I won't be letting you out of that bathroom until I have that painting!"

Neal gritted his teeth. "Just give me the memglass."

She pulled it out of her pocket and dangled it in front of him between her thumb and index finger, letting the glass stretch and flatten as it swung, like taffy. The screen shimmered and went opaque as she slid it into her palm and typed in the access code. She handed it over. "Behave yourself."

Shooting her a pained smile, Neal took it and waited for her to leave.

Her bedroom door closed with a soft click and Neal began dialing. It wasn't until the fifth number he tried that he heard a phone ringing on the other end, and at that moment, it was the best sound in the world.

The screen stayed blank when someone on the other end answered, but Neal had been expecting that. "Feathers, Fur, and Scales Pet Shoppe, we sell, food, toys, supplies, and equipment for everything from dogs and cats to exotic fish and reptiles-"

"Cut it out, Moz." He ran his hand through his hair one handed. "I need to talk to Kate, and we didn't exactly get a chance to exchange contact information before the FBI dragged me away last time. You know how I can-"

"Neal?" The screen flipped on and Kate's face swam into view. "Is that really you?"

"Yeah." He dropped the hand that he had been combing through his hair and brought the memglass closer to his face.

"Oh God." The breaths that she drew in were deep and shaky. "Thank God! So Adler bought you? You're safe? You're coming home?"

Neal shook his head, vaguely disappointed that she hadn't asked if he had escaped. Not that it really mattered. He'd have just had to tell her he hadn't managed it. "Adler didn't buy me." At her indrawn hiss, he continued, "I'm safe. I don't want him to buy me, I think I can get free on my own, but I need a favor."

o0O0o

Sara swung herself down off her bed and over to the door at his knock. Neal had the memglass in his hand, still open and blinking. Taking it from him, she folded it up and slipped it into her pocket. "So?" she said at last. "How did it go?"

He held his hands up for a second, then let them fall to his sides. "Thanks."

"What?"

"For trusting me," he said at her nonplussed expression. "Means a lot."

"Please," she snorted derisively. "People trust you all the time. It's how you're able to con people."

Neal inclined his head.

"Besides," she smirked painfully. "I'm not trusting you. We both know what would happen if you tried to run out on me. You're smart enough to give me what I want."

"It's still trust." He stood just beyond the doorway with a disarming smile, his harmlessness a complete lie, and it wasn't like they didn't both know it. She didn't know why he bothered. "It's cute."

"Like a five-year-old?" She prompted, remembering.

He smiled. "Yeah."

"I bet you were an obnoxious five-year-old."

He pretended to pout. "I was incredibly charming."

"Not mutually exclusive." She shook her head wryly. "I should get going."

He stood to the side and watched her shut the apartment door behind her.

But as soon as she had stepped into the pod, the door had closed, and it had begun to move, she pulled out her memglass and hit play on the recording it had made of Neal's call.

To be continued...

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