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 Five

As the elevator door rumbled closed, shutting out the bright sunlit office, Sara collapsed against the side of the elevator like a sapling used to leaning on a stake that had been suddenly torn away. "Let's get some paint."

Neal stared at her nonplussed. "What?"

"I have the line art for a certain Raphael on my wall," she said without looking at him. "Don't you want to finish it before you go?"

Neal cracked his knuckles and rested the back of his head in his palms. "That depends. Are you going to paint it over as soon as I'm gone?"

"Nah. I think I'm going to like having it there. Every time I look at it, it'll remind me that I made you give me the real one." She stuck her tongue out at him. "I beat you."

"Oh come on," he groaned. "If Adler hadn't shown up, you'd have nothing."

"You would have gotten bored of my apartment eventually."

"Yeah, you're right." His eyes finally managed to find hers and latched on. "Which was why I'd already started working on escaping."

Sara's skin prickled, and all at once, the elevator seemed to be too small, too hot, and drained of air, but the wall behind her burned with cold. "Was it working?"

Neal's shoulders rose and fell with disinterested shrug. "Don't know. It's a moot point anyway." He looked away from her, far away from her. "Once this is all over, I have to ask a certain friend of mine if he got my message." Then, he glanced back at her, eyes bright and sharp, his faraway look gone without a trace. "But it's not like I would have stopped if I had failed. I'd just try something different next time."

Sara felt as if the air itself were pinning her down. It didn't matter if she sold him to Peter or not. None of them could hold him, no one could, not if he didn't want to be. And why would he want to be? Why would anybody? And he was going to keep escaping until they killed him, and if Agent Burke thought he could stop that from happening, she didn't want to hang around to watch him try. She didn't want to see it happen. "So do you want to finish the mural before you go?"

He nodded.

"Then let's go get you some paint."

o0O0o

There wasn't a whole lot Neal wouldn't have done right about then for some good scaffolding. The footstool had worked much better when he had been working with just the marker, but now that he had his paint, it was a little crowded up-

The doorbell let out a loud, raucous peal, starling him, and causing him to jerk back, sending his can of paint spinning off the footstool and dragging his computerized paintbrush on its little plastic tube down with it. He watched it fall. When it landed, the paintbrush let out a small squirt of greenish paint onto the drop cloth.

Neal swore, like a free man and not like a slave, with all the strange and colorful words he had ever learned from Keller, Kate, and Mozzie, and a host of marks over the years. And Adler. Because that was who was at the door. There was no one else who would come to the door like that. The grocery delivery came Tuesday evenings after Sara got off work, and no one else had ever come to her home. No one.

And if he felt a jab of sympathy for Sara and her lonely little life, he would never tell her, because she had been willing to drag him into it by force.

And if, after all this time, a slave's curses were still the ones waiting on the tip of his tongue, it didn't matter so long as he never let them loose, as long as he kept up appearances.

Pressing the button that made the footstool retract back down to the floor, Neal stared at the door and waited, and as soon as his feet hit drop cloth, he padded around the wet paint to answer it. "Hello, Vincent," he said, gathering up all of his false cheer, "What brings you here today?"

"Hello Neal." This time, he had flowers, a nice, if not spectacular bouquet, and with his sharp clothes and neat hair, he looked like a man who had come home to surprise his lover for a lunch date, not at all like someone who would make the hairs on the back of Neal's neck rise.

He had always made the hair on the back of Neal's neck rise, but once, he had attributed it to the thrill of the con.

"What are you doing here?" He let his voice grow just a little chill. "I told you the last time that Sara Ellis wouldn't let a fugitive from justice into her home."

"Ah, but Neal, that was before she agreed to my little business proposal. Clearly she can't find me that repugnant if she's willing to entangle her affairs in mine?" He chuckled. "However briefly."

For Neal, the easiest way to fake an emotion, had always been to make himself feel it, so Neal felt himself go cold. "Business proposal?"
Adler's lips curved up. "Your sale."

Neal let his mouth drop open just a little and his hand fall away from the door frame. "What?"

"Oh, she didn't tell you?" Adler clapped his hands together with delight. Neal's eyes took in the sight of the man's fingers, folding over each other, and his stomach writhed. "We agreed on a price this morning."

Neal's face felt hot and cold, as if Adler had struck him there instead of spoken. "But-"

"You know, my sources tell me Sterling Bosch has the Raphael she was charged with retrieving. I suppose you must have given it to her." He swept past Neal into the apartment and turned back to him, as if he had just thought of something, instead of having prepared the blow hours before. "Did she promise you your freedom for it?"

It was easy, just then, to imagine that Sara really had sold him out, and Adler was going to take him away somewhere he could never escape from, and he let the betrayal wash over and through him, leaving him shaking and gasping, and burying the knowledge that he was safe, and he was working with Sara, and everything was going according to plan. "I don't believe it," he whispered.

"Now really Neal." Adler's smile filled with a false, hateful condescending kindness as he puttered around Sara's kitchen. "You know better than anyone that just because someone has nice clothes, a nice job, and a squeaky clean name doesn't make them honest. Is there a vase around here for the flowers?"

Neal shut the door and shoved himself away from it, shaking. "I don't think she has any."

Smug satisfaction radiated off him. "Oh, I'm sure you'll manage, Neal, you always do."

Neal's whole body vibrated with the knowledge that this man thought he was going to own him. He... Before Sara, when it had been a corporation that had held title to him, there had been no one person he could point to and say this person thinks they can own me. All over the world, there were more than a billion slaves, owned by corporations, owned by the Global Federation, a few thousand, a handful, owned by the extraordinarily wealthy to take care of their oversized estates. So many people owned, and so few ready to say they did the owning.
And Adler was a man willing to say he did the owning. This was the man who thought he could buy and sell Neal and keep him as property. He was one of those extraordinarily wealthy people, and he might have lived outside the law, but he insisted others follow it when it put them into his power. And even if he hadn't been, Neal remembered how accustomed Adler was to seeing other people, slaves and free, as possessions.

Neal grabbed a glass out of the cabinet and thunked it down onto the counter.

"What are you going to do with that?" Adler had a gift for making his voice pleasant and cruel all at once.

"Manage." Neal plucked the flowers out of his hands and arranged them in the glass, then filled it with water from the sink. "Good thing you didn't get a nice big bouquet that wouldn't fit in a kitchen glass."

Adler let out a puff of surprised laughter. "I think this is going to be fun, don't you?"

Neal tamped down on his disgust. "A blast."

"Don't sulk, Neal," he scolded. "This doesn't have to be so terrible. I know it's not what you were planning, but I have a compound on the Western Mediterranean where I could put you. I think you would like it there, blue water, nice weather, perfect light for painting..." He trailed off, favoring Neal with a small smile. "You're very fortunate to be so talented in something you enjoy. Oh, you'll have to give up the con, of course, but your artistic and technical skills will be extremely useful to my little operation."

Neal wondered if that was supposed to sound appealing, or if the revoltion running down his spine was exactly the reaction Adler was aiming for. He didn't know. If he could just read Adler like a normal person, they wouldn't even be here.

"It's close enough to Paris and Rome, you could take my plane for day trips if you ask nicely." Adler said, as if he didn't notice the pause he had left, and the way Neal hadn't filled the silence. "That collar of yours, doesn't need to be a collar. No one would have to see it. We can fit it around your wrist or your ankle. It wouldn't even ruin the line of your suits."

Neal sucked air in through his nose, trying desperately to keep his roiling stomach from emptying itself onto Sara's kitchen counter. "Well, as long as it doesn't even ruin the line of my suits."

Adler's face grew sharp, transfiguring in an instant from covertly to overtly menacing. "Careful, Neal. With an attitude like that, I might start to worry that you're going to fight me, and your life could become very unpleasant. And that would be entirely your fault, would it?"

"Yes, Vincent," Neal assured him. "Of course."

o0O0o

As soon as the door closed behind Adler, Neal bolted to the drop cloth and snatched his paintbrush and paint up into his arms. With his feet on the footstool, and his hand around the paintbrush, his nose a foot away from the multicolored swirls of paint, it was easier to steady himself and breathe, and remind himself that Adler was never going to own him. It was a con like any other, and in a week's time, maybe a little more, maybe a little less, he would be free. There, as he painted the mural he had once used to taunt Sara, but that she was buying him the supplies to paint, it was easier to remind himself that she had already taken him to the FBI. He had proof of her good intentions, even if he didn't understand them, and Adler's cold assertions about her could evaporate and float away. As he rushed to finish the mural that Sara could paint over the moment he was out her door if she chose, it was easier to remind himself of the world outside Sara's apartment walls, and that Kate and Mozzie, and probably that kid Barbra and her brother, if Mozzie was the softie Neal knew him secretly to be, would be waiting for him there. It was easier to remember that he would be out of there, with them, gone like leaves in the wind.
But what he wanted right then, his stomach twisting into knots, was a memglass, or an old style phone, or a carrier pigeon, or a crystal ball, to call Sara and tell her that Adler had been in her home again.

o0O0o

"You can't just keep them off the grid, Moz," Kate groaned in frustration, rubbing her face with one hand.

"Why not?" he squawked. "I went off the grid when I was their age, never did me any harm!"

Barbra glanced over at her brother, sitting on the other side of the room, his arms wrapped around a stuffed dinosaur, covered in clean, bright, fuzzy white and brown fake feathers. A few months ago, he had told her he was too big for stuffed animals, and abandoned the grimy, filthy, almost unrecognizable stuffed bunny she had rescued for him when she was first old enough to work the compactors. A brand new stuffed animal of his very own was just too much to resist, she supposed. She didn't blame him, since she was definitely too old for stuffed animals, too old for toys at all, old enough for acne and for the overseers to make comments on her growing breasts, old enough according to the slave women to take care of her brother alone, and she wouldn't have said no to her own soft, fluffy, clean stuffed animal.

Kate's lips stretched into a grimace. "Yeah, no harm at all," she bit out.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Mozzie's voice rose high and squeaky, and Barbra's eyes locked onto her brother's. It was all she could do not to run to him, or at least open her arms and let him run to her as his eyes darted back and forth between the man who had taken the chips out of their backs and the woman who had fed them, clothed them, and given them a bed to sleep in. She found her eyes following his, and all she could do was try to remind him silently to keep still and not draw attention to the two of them, because these were free people, and they could always just turn them in if they were trouble.

"Forget it, Moz." Kate sat down next to Angelo with a sigh. "Look, what if they grow up and don't want to be crooks like us?"

"You know, I've been saying since I met you, that you're just not committed to this lifest-"

Kate's face flushed red. "This isn't a noble crusade against the system, Moz, it's a life of crime. It's making our living by stealing things from other people. If I get caught, and they charge me with half of what I've done, I'm going to jail for the rest of my life, same as you. Don't you dare play the 'who's more of a con' game with me." And she dropped her voice so that Barbra had to struggle to hear her. "What if they get caught, Moz? If they do want to be crooks like us, I want the worst thing that can happen to them be that they go to jail, not that they die in slavery, so let's just find a way to get them scrubbed out of the slave database and get them new identities now."

Barbra felt frozen. Slowly, almost against her will, she stood up and crossed the room to stand next to her brother, trying not to stare at Kate. "You don't have to do anything for us, I mean we could just go," she said, but the prospect filled her with dread.

"There you see?" Mozzie shouted triumphantly. "They don't want to be on the grid, you're just trying to force everybody to do what society wants!"

"Oh for crying out loud, Moz, just shut-"

And that's when Kate's memglass started singing opera from inside her pocket.

o0O0o

Kate darted into the bathroom and closed the door before answering the call. Adler's face gazed back at her. "Hello, Vincent, she whispered, forcing away her hesitation.

"Hello, Kate," he replied cheerfully. "How do I find you this fine afternoon?"

"Very well, Vincent, and you?" The pleasantries rolled off her tongue automatically, even as her stomach churned.

"Can't complain," Adler chuckled. "Anyway, I've made arrangements to pick up your boy tomorrow, and I know how important it would be to the both of you for you to come along." Kate tried to speak. "I won't take no for an answer."

"Thank you, Vincent," she said, giving voice to the only option left to her.

"Excellent." He clapped his hands together. "I'll send someone to retrieve you tomorrow, around eight. Sweet dreams, Kate."

He didn't wait for her to say goodbye before the connection ended.

Shaking, Kate rose from the lip of the tub and grasped the bathroom doorknob. Her hand, slick with sweat and worry almost slid off of it before she managed to turn it. It swung open. Queasy, Kate set the memglass on the counter and walked out, shutting the door behind her. With calm deliberance, she strode into her bedroom and palmed the pen and pad of paper from her night table, the ones Mozzie had once upon a time insisted she use until it became so much of a habit that after Neal, she had kept using them. She carried them back with her into the kitchen and sitting room.

Mozzie was waiting for her, bouncing up and down a little on his toes, irate. "Was that a hacker?"

"No," she said, brow furrowed.

"Don't lie to me!" he yelled shrilly. "You're planning to get them paperwork no matter what I say, and put us all back on the grid, aren't you?"
"Not now, Moz," she hissed, and scrawled "I need your help," on the paper before passing it to him. The kids watched her curiously, sitting on the couch stiffly, and Kate knew they were probably terrified to draw her attention. She caught their eyes and pointed at the bedroom, and the girl, Barbra, grabbed her brother and sped out of the room with him. It wasn't normal. It should probably worry her, that level of compliance, but right then, she was too relieved to be anything but grateful. "It was just Adler," she said to Mozzie. "He's made the deal. We're picking up Neal together tomorrow."

"Oh, that's nice," Mozzie grumbled. "I'd been trying to forget about your little deal with the devil. I guess there's no point in staying off the grid anyway if you've got us all working for Adler." He passed the paper back to her expectantly, and Kate held in a sigh of relief to hear false irritation overtake the anger he had felt before.

"Oh come on, Moz, are we really going to go over that again? Let's just have a nice, quiet night and watch a movie. Look, we can watch Tiles of Fire Seven, okay?" She looked over at the man who had taught her how to hold a pen, and wrote, "It's a sting. The FBI's going to be at the exchange to arrest Adler."

She watched his face turn purple, and his hand shake around the pen. She snatched it away from him, to quickly write, "Neal called them in, not me, I swear!"

Swallowing, Mozzie took back the pen. "But you knew!"

"I'm not supposed to be there tomorrow! The FBI doesn't know." Kate ignored his outrage and glanced at the remote, and Mozzie took the hint, turning the movie on. The hologram sprang up around them.

"Call them, then. I don't see why you need my help."

"He's probably tracing my calls. I can't risk it."

"That's what burner glasses are for. If you think he's bugged your place, call from somewhere else."

She grimaced. "He just called one of my burners. I don't know how he traced it, but if he has one... And Adler's got to be watching me. If I leave, he'll know something's up."

Mozzie looked at her for a long, long time before plucking the pen out of her hand and writing what had to be the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. "What do you need?"

"When you leave tonight, I need you to take the kids and go to a safehouse that I have never been to, and I need you to call Peter Burke and tell him I'm going to be at the exchange tomorrow."

"Neal's pet fed? That's who's in on this?"

Kate looked at him wryly. "You willing to call him and sacrifice a memglass for me?"

He nodded.

Kate could have hugged him. Instead, she kept writing. "Once this is over, we'll lie low at your safehouse for a little while, and then we're getting the hell out of New York. How's Cairo sound?"

He grabbed her hand and kissed it, before drawing her into a one-armed hug and sitting back with her to watch the movie.

o0O0o

After the credits had rolled, Kate sat on the couch and watched numbly as Mozzie fetched the kids out of her room and bundled them out the door. They said their goodbyes by rote for anyone listening in, and she had never been so grateful as she was then for Mozzie's paranoia. If he never went anywhere by straight route, if he always switched pods and doubled back to throw people off his trail, it wouldn't look suspicious when he did it tonight. And if they all made it through this okay, she was never going to say another word about it.

As soon as they were gone, she went into her bedroom, probably for the last time, and stared out the window until she could finally bring herself to fall into an exhausted sleep.

o0O0o

Peter drummed his fingers against his arm as the tech slid a needle under the skin of Neal's hip. "We figure Adler will want to put his own collar and chip on you As soon as possible," he told him. "This ensures that once your old one's off, we can still track you. It can't paralyze you like a normal chip, it won't, I don't know, explode, it'll just tell us where you are."

Neal gritted his teeth as the tracker spread and thinned under his skin, until there was no discernible sign of its presence except the set of his jaw as he made a poor attempt at his usual blinding grin. "Okay."

Peter waited for the tech to pack away the syringe and leave, before continuing. "I got a call last night from someone who I'm going to guess was," he paused. "One of your associates telling me that Adler is sending Kate Moreau to pick you up."

Neal's head whipped up. "What?"

"It shouldn't be a problem," Peter rushed to reassure him, uncrossing his arms and holding his palms open to Caffrey. "We anticipated that Adler would want her to be with him when he met you, so we already have plans to get her to safety if we have to. Her coming to meet you will actually make it easier."

Neal took a breath to steady himself, and for an instant, fear flitted across his face before he flashed a strained smile. Peter allowed himself to curse inwardly. There Neal was, off his game and being obvious, and that was the last thing Peter needed. "So this is an FBI pep talk, huh?" Neal said, smile becoming sharper, and more natural, if no more pleasant. "I guess that means I'm a real boy today."

Still pouring over the disaster that a less than perfect Neal Caffrey could mean for the operation, Peter found himself caught off guard. His eyes squinted down into a confused scowl. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"You're giving me explanations, reassurances, telling me your plans..." All of a sudden, there it was, the blinding, flawless Neal Caffrey grin. "This isn't how you're supposed to treat slaves you know. This is how you treat people." Neal wagged his finger. "I don't think you're supposed to be thinking of me that way, Agent Burke, naughty naughty."

A piece of Peter, unmoored and floating free from the rest of him was too busy heaving a sigh of relief that Neal was with it enough to catch him off guard to be as infuriated as the rest of him with the net of deceptive vulnerabilities and vicious, swirling innuendos that forced Peter to confirm, "As a person."

"That's right," Caffrey sang.

"Caffrey-"

"That's not my name," Neal cut him off.

"What?" And as Peter said it, he wondered if he was ever going to get used to the way conversations twisted and turned around Neal, until they were talking about exactly what he wanted to.

"It's not my name. I don't have a name," Neal said brightly. "I have a number."

"Oh for the love of..." There was a headache brewing jest between Peter's eyes. "Caffrey, I need to talk to you about something."

"I'm all ears, Agent Burke." He kept smiling, but the muscles in his jaw jumped, and Peter would have loved just to know if that inkling of emotion was real, or something else Neal had learned to fake.

Peter gave him a weak scowl. "I know you gave Sara the Raphael. I know that when this is over, I know Sara plans to let you go, and you're going to run. Don't."

"Peter, I-"

Peter lifted his hand to forestall the rest of what he was going to say. "I asked Sara to sell you to me instead."

"Wow," Neal whispered. "I take back what I said about you acting like I'm a human being."

Peter could feel any chance he had to convince the man slipping through his fingers like water off an ice cube, and with it, he could feel a thin thread of anger, because why should he have to convince Caffrey to do what was best for himself? "You're going to get yourself killed," he snapped quietly, shaking. "Eventually, they're going to put you down."

Neal didn't blink. "Everybody dies someday, Peter."

"Yeah, but-" most people put some effort into holding it off for as long as they could.

"Peter," Neal cut in, voice packed full of steely charm. "If you're really concerned about improving my life expectancy, maybe you should concentrate on getting me through today."

Peter scowled, that feeling of thwarted fear floating distantly in his mind. He opened his mouth, an it stayed hanging that way for a few long seconds, before he remembered how to launch himself into his plan rundown. Neal nodded as he spoke, and asked questions, and in the back of Peter's mind, he thought to himself that Neal would have made the ideal student, if ever he'd had the chance to go to school, at least until the teachers turned their backs. "The important thing to remember," Peter said at last, "Is that once you get to Adler, press the skin over your tracker. It has pressure sensors in it, and as soon as you give the signal, we move in. After that, it's Kate and your jobs to get out of the way. Just put your hands up and get behind the FBI line." His skin prickled with apprehension. "Neal, whatever you're planning, save it until after."

The grin was cocky and too bright, with a razor edge when he said, "Sure, Peter."

"Just don't do anything to compromise the operation. You want Adler arrested, let us do that. Don't do anything until the people with guns are gone." Peter tried not to sigh, or let his exasperation, or the way he wanted to shake Neal until his brain rattled around in his skull and maybe, possibly fell back into place so he didn't keep trying to get himself killed, show. "After that, I don't care."

"Aww, you do care," Neal said knowingly, a new grin beginning to spread across his face. "And not just because it's a crime and I'm a very naughty boy. You actually care."

"Okay, fine." It felt as if the words had exploded out of him, but it must have been a very small explosion, because nobody else seemed to notice. "I care and I don't want you to get yourself kill-"

Shaking his head, Neal cut him off. "Could you do it?"

Peter massaged his forehead in frustration. "Do what?" he demanded.

"Be a slave." Neal gave a soft snort, and locked eyes with him. When he started speaking again, his eyes bored into Peter's like surgical knives. "Give up everything you've ever done, leave your wife, and your friends, because somebody thinks they get to own you.

"It wouldn't be a bad life, working for me. Better than prison, which is where you'd be right now if you weren't a slave."

"That's not what I'm asking," Neal retorted, deceptively gentle. "Could you do it? You're asking me to, so could you?"

Peter glanced down, just for a moment. And Neal... When he looked up, Neal was smiling, but there was no triumph in it. It was a sad smile, as if he didn't think he had really won, or if there wasn't any winning to be done. It looked so real, and Peter wished, hoped, it was. It would have been dangerous if he let himself think he could tell.

o0O0o

Kate stepped out of the door before the two goons who had come to pick her up could ring the bell. She smiled at them carefully and held out her hand. "Shall we, gentlemen?"

When neither of them took her offered arm, she pulled it back, only long practice giving the gesture the poise to imply that they were the ones who had made the misjudgment, not her. She followed them to the three small airplanes, perched delicately on the walkway in front of her apartment.

Adler opened the door to one with a gracious smile, amusement flickering in his eyes.

"Good morning, Vincent," she said in her best con voice. She hoped he didn't recognize it. He'd never actually seen her pulling a con before.
"You look lovely this morning, my dear," he answered as she slid into the airplane, tucking her feet beneath her, under the seat. She smiled back at him, and didn't mention that none of it was for him.

As he closed the door behind her goons and walked away, a spark of unease flared within her, but she did her best to ignore it in favor of enjoying a little more time without him in it. It was simply unexpected. It only made her nervous because the unexpected just reminded her that this was Adler's show, not hers. That was all.

To be continued...

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