vain_glorious: (whitecollar)
[personal profile] vain_glorious
Title: The Trouble We Make Vs. The Trouble We Take
Author: [personal profile] vain_glorious
Fandom: White Collar
Wordcount: ~9,500
Rating: PG-15
Genre: Gen
Warning(s): Mild violence
Prompt(s): I am pretty sure this came from a prompt at CollarCorner, but now I can't find it.
Notes: Set some time after Point Blank.
Disclaimer: Not mine.
Summary: El looks a lot like Kate. Kate's enemies have noticed, too.

“Heard any Soviet lullabies, lately?” Mozzie asked, the moment the door opened. He darted inside, sidestepping Neal’s feet.

Neal blinked at him. “Come on in,” he cracked, since Mozzie was already clearly over the threshold. “What? There aren’t any Soviets anymore.”

Mozzie looked around Neal’s apartment. “I thought the Suit might be here,” he said. “I was using code.”

“Right, Peter wouldn’t notice that at all.” Neal looked like he was imagining how they would have gone over.

“You remember Mikhail the mutilator?” Mozzie prompted, walked further in to the room.

Neal laughed lightly, a completely inappropriate response to the name of a psychotic Russian mobster lieutenant with a personal vendetta.

“I do remember him,” Neal said. He smiled and looked nostalgic. “How is he?”

“In charge,” Mozzie told him. “Sergei kicked it last week.”

“Bullets?”

“Vodka,” Mozzie corrected. “Liver finally gave out.”

“Do you think I should send an arrangement?” Neal made a considering face. “Lilies?”

“Is that the traditional token of gratitude for saving one’s ass?”

Neal shrugged. “He hated my ass. He was just a smart enough businessman to move on.”

“Also, you didn’t personally humiliate him.”

“Nope.” It hadn’t been Neal at all, though it had been his idea.

“How much money did you get out of that?”

“Four million.” The satisfied, reminiscent smile was back on Neal’s face.

“Four million?” Mozzie’s eyes shot wide.

“Okay, 1.7 million by the time we laundered it to Monte Carlo.” Neal shrugged. “But still.”

“What’d you do with it?”

“Blew it.” He grinned enormously.

“All of it?”

“All of it and then some. Kate and I had a great time.”

“I’m sure you did.”

“We did.” Neal’s face grew serious, and he dropped down on the couch. “So, Mikhail wants to get revenge now that he’s the boss?”

“Yeah,” Mozzie said.

“Well, Kate’s not around anymore,” Neal said, tone carefully neutral. “And I wasn’t involved.”

“Yes, you were.”

“He never saw me.” Neal smirked. “I don’t look good in a dress.”

“I heard gossip he’s looking for Kate,” Mozzie said. “He wants his first act as the boss to be showing everyone that he never forgets or forgives?”

“People think he forgets and forgives?”

“Probably not.”

“Right, with the name Mutilator,” Neal agreed.

Anyway,” Mozzie continued. “He’s looking for Kate and, I thought you should know, he might find you in the process.”

“Thanks for the heads up,” Neal said, obviously unworried. “He’s gonna be disappointed by the lack of mutilating opportunities.”

“Okay,” Mozzie said, deciding his mission was complete. “I’m going now.” He made to a move towards Neal’s wine rack. “I’ll just take some payment for my concern for your safety.”

Neal rolled his eyes and hurled a throw pillow in his direction. “I’m not your personal bar, Moz.”

Mozzie selected a Pinot Noir, dodging the pillow. “Yes, you are.”

~

Neal wasn’t worried about his own safety. Mostly because Neal was an overconfident idiot who probably hadn’t given serious thought to the violent tendencies of a Russian goon sitting on years of resentment.

There wasn’t anything to do about it, though. Neal was under the thumb of the FBI, which might scare the Russian mob away.

Maybe.

Mozzie went to the Suit’s house, because he wasn’t going to the Bureau unless he absolutely had to.

He brought his bug-sweeping equipment, which got him inside.  Peter Burke rolled his eyes so hard he might have sprained some important ocular muscles, but he actually didn’t protest all that much and let Mozzie in pretty quickly. Elizabeth was home, and that helped. She offered him tea and he accepted.

Sweeping couldn’t hurt, and Mozzie knew it was always possible Big Brother was watching and listening.

“So, Suit,” Mozzie said, awkwardly, as Burke glared at him while he swept the living room. “How goes the crime-fighting?”

“Well,” Burke said. “Despotic as always.”

“Right.” Mozzie nodded.

After an awkward silence, Burke asked: “How goes the…subversive law-breaking?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Mozzie answered immediately.

“Of course, you don’t.”

“I had really bad Borscht,” Mozzie announced, abruptly.

Burke stared at him. “What?”

“It was old, I think,” he rushed on. “I think if I get sick, that’ll be why.”

After a second of looking utterly baffled, Burke offered, “Try not to do it on the carpet?”

Elizabeth came out with tea.

“Are you not feeling well?” she asked.

“I feel fine, now,” Mozzie said, emphatically. “I don’t think I’ll get sick, because I don’t want to get sick.” He swallowed. “But bad Borscht can be really dangerous and a lot of people underestimate it.” He reached out and took the tea cup and saucer from Elizabeth.

“Okay,” Elizabeth said, just as confused as her husband. “Do you want to lie down?”

“No.” Mozzie guzzled the tea, which was a stupid idea because it was incredibly hot and he’d just scalded his throat. He gasped, felt his face flame. “I just wanted to warn you about the Borscht.”

He bundled up his equipment, swallowing painfully and coughing, and went for the door. Neither of the Burkes moved to stop him.

“That was weird,” Elizabeth said, when Mozzie was gone.  “Peter,” she paused. “I think Mozzie’s in trouble with Russians.”

Peter shook his head and scowled. “No,” he said. “But I bet Neal is.”

~

Neal had no record in Russia. No crimes, no charges, not even run-ins with Russian police. Or, more likely, no known run-ins with various Russian citizens and their particularly shiny possessions. His face wasn’t banned from the Hermitage, either.

Peter knew that, before he checked. He’d long before figured out Neal either disliked Russian winters or had a reasonable respect for the way wealthy survivors of communism defended themselves and their property.

Kate Moreau, however, had a lifetime ban from the Hermitage and Interpol sent forty documents that Peter couldn’t read without a translator.

Which meant that Neal had probably been there, as well. Being unusually sneaky about it, too. Usually, he liked to get his face out there. Stupid, but it was probably an ego thing. Cons weren’t fun unless you got to thumb your nose at someone, eventually. Peter knew that.

Peter sent Interpol’s records to get translated. He hoped there were only one or two angry Russians in there, and not twenty.

For his part, Neal wasn’t acting like there were angry Russians after him. He didn’t make any strange references to Borscht and he didn’t seem to know that Mozzie had. Peter wasn’t sure he liked the strange little dude tattling on Neal. Again. As much as the earlier time had helped.

First, he definitely didn’t like that Neal was keeping secrets, especially secrets about angry, possibly armed Russians. Second, he wasn’t sure he wanted that kind of relationship with Mozzie. He’d never agree to be a CI – he’d never be approved to be a CI, to begin with – and without any kind of arrangement like that, he was just a not-yet-convicted criminal who Peter’s wife routinely welcomed into their home without a second thought.

At least he was mostly just a criminal nuisance. Peter briefly fantasized about tagging Mozzie with an anklet, too.

Neal would find Mozzie’s little visit a huge betrayal, so Peter didn’t mention it. He just waited for his Interpol documents to come back and kept an unusually close eye on Neal.

~

Neal noticed his shadows almost immediately. At first, he thought they were FBI and that Peter had randomly acted on his continuous unnecessary paranoia and stuck surveillance on him, as if the anklet wasn’t enough. But eventually, he got close enough to size the men up – hmm, intimidating and large –  and evaluate that their dark gray suits were entirely too expensive for a federal salary.

Next, he tested which language they preferred to curse in when accidentally knocked down a flight of stairs by an errant wheeled suitcase Neal sort of shoved into their path as they followed him down to the subway.

Russian.

Neal didn’t know the language all that well. Kate had taught him a few common obscenities to use in lieu of politeness.

Neal crept through the station and went back up the entrance. The train would have taken him out of his radius, anyway. And then he would have had to explain to Peter that’d he’d been running from Russian mobsters. While true, Peter would either not believe it, or he would, and both scenarios ended badly. Neal needed to handle this on his own.

The shadows stayed with Neal for a week, which was a little odd. Usually, Russians struck quickly and got away fast. Impatience and violence generally characterized their work. Stalking Neal without even trying to shoot him in the head was not the typical game plan. Neal appreciated that they weren’t actively trying to kill him, but it also made him suspicious.

Maybe it was his current workplace. The goons following him never even tried to enter the office building. They did tail him to Peter’s house when he went over for dinner, but they were oddly gone when he left. All very strange and all very unsettling.

Neal put out a few feelers into the seedy criminal underbelly of the city, something that was fairly challenging to do because Mozzie refused to help and because Peter was keeping a particularly controlling eye on him. He didn’t think Peter knew about the Russians. As usual, Peter assumed that all Bad Things originated from Neal, not that Bad Things were almost inexplicably attracted to Neal, who often had nothing to do with provoking them.

The feelers worked and Neal got a meeting with one of the burly fellows who’d been following him around the city for a week. They met during Neal’s lunch break, mainly because Neal sort of believed Mozzie’s warning that the rendezvous had been accepted purely so they could get close enough to shoot him. And shooting a guy outside a federal building assured having to deal with a much faster law enforcement response time, so at least there was some kind of mutual assured destruction, which Neal knew Russians historically enjoyed.

The conversation was short and horrifying.

A big guy who wouldn’t give his name wore a giant stupid fur hat and big sunglasses. He looked conspicuous as hell.

“You aren’t going to kill me,” Neal stated, softly during his fake smoke break. “How about you stop following me around? I work for the FBI, and eventually they’re going to notice and get mad. Why does Mikhail want to mess with the FBI?”

“Not afraid of the FBI,” the big dude retorted, predictably.

“Okay,” Neal said, since it wasn’t worth arguing. “Are you enjoying the 2 mile radius of New York City that you get to see following me around?”

“Yes,” the guy answered, sounding honest. “It’s a nice city. I like it.”

Neal forced a smile. “I’m glad. There’s much more to see, but I can’t go there.” He lifted his pant leg to reveal the tracker. “I’m in FBI custody. If Mikhail is waiting for me to go someplace interesting, it’s going to be a while. So he should really decide if he wants to wait that long or just shoot me now.”

“Mikhail doesn’t care about you,” the guy laughed. “Not even worth a bullet.”

“That’s nice,” Neal said, since it actually was reassuring.

“Kate.”

“Kate’s dead.” It didn’t hurt all that much to say, or at least Neal had gotten better at pretending it didn’t. “She died in an explosion several months ago. It was in all the papers. I’m sorry, but there’s no vengeance to be had on a dead woman.”

The guy laughed – and rage shot through Neal so intensely he had to concentrate on keeping his face expressionless – and shook his head.

“I saw her.”

“What?” Neal stared at him. “That’s impossible. She’s dead.”

“You can tell her that marrying an FBI agent will not protect her.” The guy grinned, maybe because all the blood had just drained from Neal’s face. “We will take her soon. Mikhail is coming. You can tell her it will be slow. Very, very slow.”

“That’s not Kate,” Neal said, quickly. “She’s not Kate. You’re wrong. And Mikhail is insane to go after an FBI agent’s wife.”

“She kept her past secret from him, yes?” The guy continued. “I understand why, but he will find out. You should tell him, he will never find her body.”

“She is not Kate,” Neal repeated. He felt nauseated.

The goon dropped his cigarette and stomped on it. “She left you for police, why do you care?”

“That is not Kate. You have to believe me.”

“You still love her, yes?” An unpleasant smile with ugly, yellow teeth filled the man’s face. “You should make peace before she dies.”

The goon left then, and Neal’s phone started vibrating in his pocket. It was Peter, calling him upstairs. Neal stared at the back of the departing mobster, frozen in place. He didn’t know what to do.

“Peter,” he answered his phone. “You-”

“Get up here, Caffrey,” Peter interrupted. “I can see you out the window.”

Neal wanted to tell Peter. He did. But he couldn’t come up with the words, and then Hughes sent Peter to go brief Homicide on a case that was getting transferred and the agent vanished. Neal was supposed to be reviewing recently confiscated stolen bonds for authenticity, but he couldn’t concentrate.

Elizabeth Burke’s face appeared before his eyes. She didn’t look like Kate Moreau. She really didn’t. They had the same coloring, that was all.  Kate was younger. Had been younger.  Taller, too.  Elizabeth was older, shorter, and softer. No one would ever mistake the wedding planner for the con artist.

Except Mikhail the Mutilator, apparently.

Neal imagined what would happen when he told Peter. They’d take Elizabeth into protective custody. Keep her there until Mikhail was no longer a threat. Which would be never, or until cirrhosis of the liver claimed him, too. And Elizabeth’s entire life and career would be destroyed, all because she’d invited Neal over to dinner last week.

He couldn’t let that happen.

Quickly, Neal returned the bonds to Agent Jones. “I’m not feeling well,” he lied. “Tell Peter I went home to bed.”

He wasn’t feeling well, that was true enough. He felt awful, the thick weight in his stomach unfamiliar and heavy. It took the entire walk home for Neal to identify it: guilt.

Neal didn’t know how much time he had. The goon said Mikhail was coming ‘soon’ but who knew what that meant. And it was strange that Mikhail would come personally, instead of having his target captured and returned to Russia. But maybe smuggling a captive out of the US was harder than Neal thought. He could already be on a plane. Neal didn’t remember him having one, but he certainly had the cash.

Neal desperately needed a plan. Elizabeth needed protection. And if he couldn’t guarantee her safety, he’d have to tell Peter and put her in the hands of the federal government.

By the time Neal reached June’s, he had an idea. It was rough and patchy, pieced together with a couple question marks and assumption that Mikhail wasn’t here yet. And it required kidnapping Elizabeth before Mikhail did.

~

Neal told Peter he had the flu. Predictably, the FBI agent showed up to check. Peter brought orange juice but he also looked Neal over suspiciously. Neal tried to appear weak and pathetic, and Peter bought the heating pad-generated fever and the post-shower moistness as sweat.

“You want to go to the doctor?” Peter asked.

“I just want to stay in bed,” Neal said, feigning misery. “My fever’s only 100.”

Peter frowned, and continued to look suspicious. “Give you a couple days. If it rises or it’s not gone in three days, I’m taking you.”

“Okay,” Neal agreed, since he wasn’t going to be here in three days. “Deal.”

Peter continued to look at him, not speaking.

“What?” Neal asked, worried that Peter had developed telepathy.

“I hope you feel better soon,” Peter said, but his voice had a note of paranoia. He didn’t totally believe Neal was sick.

“Me, too,” Neal agreed. “I just want this all over with.”

~

Neal called Mozzie. And then he lied. Just a little. He had a feeling Mozzie wouldn’t like the plan. Possibly wouldn’t like the plan badly enough to try to ruin it.

“So, apparently I’m going to be mutilated,” he said, when Mozzie answered.

“I told you,” Mozzie replied, unfazed.

“I need to not be around here anymore,” Neal continued. “It’s time.”

“Really?” Mozzie sounded genuinely shocked. “Are you sure?”

“What do you mean, am I sure? You’re the one that came up with it.”

“Yeah, but you…” Mozzie trailed off.

“Do not wish to be mutilated.”

“Have you talked to the Suit about this?”

Mozzie, do you hear yourself suggesting I ask an FBI agent his opinion on whether or not I should escape his custody?”

“You seem to value his opinion,” Mozzie muttered. “More than mine, these days, you know.”

“Are we a go?” Neal asked, cutting off discussion. “I don’t want to still be talking about this when Mikhail comes to take my tongue.”

“When?” Mozzie asked, after a beat.

“Tomorrow.”

“I have plans until three, that’s a little late…” And Mozzie was definitely stalling, maybe even lying.

“Three’s good, Moz.”

~

Elizabeth Burke got an interesting voicemail that night. A gentleman with an accent she couldn’t identify – Eastern European, maybe – offering to rent his yacht out as an events venue. He invited her to tour it and to get some advice on reasonable pricing. He said he wanted to partner with someone who knew the business well.

They communicated briefly via e-mail and set up an appointment for her to check his boat out.

She put it in her planner and made out her usual list of questions. Yachts were an attractive venue, but size was almost always an issue. Unless Russian Phone Man was a billionaire on hard times, she’d already bet it was too small for all but the tiniest of weddings. The dimensions he’d given her over e-mail were definitely exaggerated.

The meeting sounded like it had potential, but she didn’t happen to mention it to her husband. His eyes glossed over when she talked about her business, except when she brought home leftover catering.

So, Peter Burke had no idea his wife was on her way to meet a strange Russian business man on the Hudson Bay.

He was a little distracted at the time, anyway, because Neal Caffrey chose that same morning to vanish.

~

Elizabeth’s first thought was that, unlike most men, the Russian captain actually hadn’t lied about the size of his ship. It was enormous and he had to be paying a small fortune to rent the slip. No wonder he wanted to use it to make some money, too.

“Captain Sergei,” she called, peering around the abandoned dock. Then, she found the post-it note taped to the hull. “INSIDE, COME ON BOARD, ELIZABETH”. Carefully, she climbed up the ladder. Lights illuminated the interior, but she couldn’t see anyone inside.

More post-it notes with scrawled arrows lead her through numerous rooms, such that she actually felt a little lost. She crossed a small kitchen and several open spaces that could probably serve as a ballroom.  Except she kind of thought a yacht this big had its own one of those.

The post-it notes were starting to get a little annoying. Seeing the ship didn’t help unless she could ask questions.

“Captain Sergei,” she said, again. “Are you here?”

“In here,” the rusty, accented-voice from the phone answered. “Down the hall.”

Elizabeth walked faster, turning a corner and entering the next room.

She walked into pitch blackness and halted, confused. In that second, a pair of hands grabbed her from the side and tried to pin her arms down while her attacker shoved her forward.

Elizabeth shrieked. She stumbled and almost fell, coming down hard on one knee. The man’s arms stayed around her and he tried to pull her up, maybe lift her up. She fought his grip with one hand, the other digging into her purse. Her fingers grasped until she found the familiar shape of her canister of mace. He was moving her forward and she couldn’t get it out. Flailing one leg up, she caught him in the groin. Not directly and not hard enough to drop him, but he did yelp and flinch. That second gave her the time.

She pulled out her mace, raised it over her head, and pressed the firing mechanism.

Her attacker grunted, then gasped. His grip loosened and she fell forward on to her knees again. Frantically, she tried to crawl away. Some of the mace spray had gotten into her own face, and her eyes were burning. She couldn’t see, but she knew she was moving away from the exit. Elizabeth had to get out of this room.

In the next second, her attacker was on her again. His arms closed around her waist, lifted, and propelled her violently forward. Elizabeth cried out as she was basically thrown, landing in a jarring heap. A metallic clang rang in her ears, followed by a strange electronic beeping noise.

A little stunned, Elizabeth tried again to dart back towards the hallway. She crashed immediately, into an obstacle that felt like bars. Freezing, Elizabeth patted with her hands. They were bars.

She was in a cage.

Her vision had started to adapt to the darkness. Squinting through her stinging, tearing eyes, she could see bars surrounding her, a strange square cage in the center of this room. And at the door, the blurry man-sized outline of her attacker, visible only from the dim light coming from the hallway.

He was rubbing his own eyes, in a ginger crouch on the floor. Elizabeth stared at him, terror sending her pulse racing so loudly it was hammering in her ears. She could barely see, and she didn’t know if her vision was blurred by tears of pain or fear.

But she could see better now, the mace washing out of her eyes. She hadn’t gotten a direct hit from it; he had.

Abruptly, her fear vanished. Confusion replaced it.

“Neal?” she demanded, finding her voice high-pitched and squeaky. “Neal!

The man by the door froze in place and then shifted towards the door, about to flee. He stayed stationary for a beat, then shrugged.

“Shit,” Neal Caffrey said.

~

Neal turned on the lights. The jig was up and sitting in blackness did nothing. The sudden brightness hurt his eyes, but they were already in so much pain it barely mattered.

Inside the cage, Elizabeth was shrieking questions and rattling the bars.

He didn’t want to ignore her, but his face was coated in burning, agonizing slime. Elizabeth didn’t just have pepper spray, she packed mace that was thick and gelatinous. It stuck to his face and hair, burning. It was getting up his nose and in his mouth. He felt like he couldn’t breathe.

Feeling his way over to the wall where he’d left extra water, Neal went about pouring a gallon over his head. Dropping to the floor, he ripped off his shirt and used it to wipe the thick fluid off his face, then rinsed again. He didn’t know how long it took, but eventually he could open his eyes. He face still stung and his eyes and nose watered uncontrollably as his body desperately tried to clean his sinuses.

When he could finally see, he stole a glance at the cage. Elizabeth knelt against the bars closest to him, glaring. Her eyes were red, too, and still watering.

“What the hell is going on?” she demanded.

Slowly, Neal got to his feet. His balls ached from when she’d nearly nailed him.

“You weren’t supposed to see me,” he said, softly.

“What the hell is going on?” Elizabeth repeated, slower.

He found a normal-sized water bottle from the floor stash and slid it through the bars. She had water in her cage, but that was for drinking.

“Wash your eyes,” he said.

Elizabeth took the bottle. And while she had it upended over her face, Neal backed instantly out of the room and closed the door behind him.

~

It was cowardly, but Neal didn’t go back for a while. His plan, impulsive and poorly formed as it had been, was not supposed to have failed this quickly. Elizabeth was never supposed to see him. He couldn’t believe he’d screwed it up. All he’d had to do was shove her in the cage.

Neal hadn’t expected the mace. The kick to the testicles, a little, but not the mace.

His face and eyes still stung in pain. Neal had no idea what to do overall, but he did know how to make that stop. He washed his face with milk, then held his breath and soaked it in soap.

It took about half an hour for pain to stop being the first thing on his mind. Even then, he took a shower in one of the staterooms, and the water hurt as it beat down on his face. When he found the mirror, his skin was pink and swollen. It looked – well, it looked like he’d tried to kidnap someone and she’d maced him.

After dressing, Neal checked on their progress, next. He’d pulled out of the slip once Elizabeth had boarded; she’d been too deep in the yacht to notice. They were already nearly two hours beyond the harbor, on autopilot.

He stayed at the helm, watching Elizabeth on the streaming video from the three security cameras monitoring the cage. He kept the sound off so he didn’t have to hear her yelling.

She looked okay, at least. He hadn’t expected her to fight back and he’d shoved her pretty hard. He could see the knees of her stockings were destroyed and she’d probably have some bruises. Neal felt terrible. Then he realized the water he’d given her for her eyes probably wasn’t helping very much.

He filled a bottle with milk and was filling a second one with a warm soapy water mix, when movement on the screens caught his attention. Elizabeth had taken off her blazer, tied its sleeve around a water bottle, and was throwing it through the bars. He blinked, confused, until he realized she was trying to use it as a fishing rod to retrieve her purse, dropped by the door.

Quickly, Neal screwed the cap on the second bottle and raced back down to the room. When he got there, Elizabeth’s purse was halfway to the cage, successfully snagged in her jacket.

Silently, he stepped on its strap, and the next pull unhooked it.

Elizabeth glared at him again. He tried to ignore it, tried to keep his expression indifferent. He walked closer, shoved the two bottles through the bars at her.

“Milk and soap,” he said. “They’ll neutralize the capsicum.”

Elizabeth snatched both from him, which meant she was still hurting, too.

“New York has some of the nation’s tightest regulations on pepper spray,” he remarked, watching her pour the milk over her face.

“You know what’s illegal,” Elizabeth retorted. “Kidnapping. Assault. Locking me in a cage.

She threw the empty bottle at him and it bounced off his chest.

“Neal, what the hell is going on?” She couldn’t keep the betrayal off her face. “I thought…I thought we were friends.”

“I’m doing this for your own good.”

“Really?” Elizabeth looked incredulous. “Run that one by me, would you?”

Neal opened his mouth, then shut it.

She shrugged, with hostility. “Fine, you can tell Peter.”

Neal had no doubt that he would, eventually. That he’d be eating a federal kidnapping charge, on top of the parole violation. And probably some fists to the face.

Still, she had to understand the situation. Silently, he lifted the leg of his pants, showing her the empty skin where the tracker usually sat around his ankle. Elizabeth stared, then raised her eyes sharply to his face.

“How-”

“Mozzie cut the power to the Marshals’ office,” he said. “And the backup generators. By the time everything was back up, it was off and I was gone.”

“Mozzie.”

“He doesn’t know anything about this,” Neal added quickly. “Don’t be mad at him. He thought I was running, and he’d probably have turned me in personally if he actually knew, so.”

Elizabeth crossed her arms and blinked at him through red eyes. “Is this about Russians?” she asked, after a pause.

“I-” Neal broke off. “How do you-”

“Mozzie told me. Told us. He came to see me and Peter a few days ago and he said you were in trouble with Russians. I mean he said it in code, but stupid code.”

“Oh.” A flash of annoyance must have crossed Neal’s face, because Elizabeth rolled her eyes, then winced at the motion.

“He knew you were going to do something stupid. Neal, why didn’t you just come to Peter? You know he’ll help you. Always. Just because he has to yell at you first?”

Neal had to tell her.

“This is about Russians, but it’s not me. It’s you.”

Elizabeth cocked her head. “Me?”

“Who they think you are. There is a very bad, very dangerous, very crazy Russian gentleman that thinks you’re Kate.”

“Your Kate.”

“Yeah.” Neal sighed. “My Kate.  You look a little like her and they saw me at your house.”

“Kate’s dead.”

“I know,” Neal said, ignoring how much that hurt, again. “And I told his envoy that. They don’t believe me, and he wants to kill her. Kill you.”

“Kill me,” Elizabeth repeated, softly. “Tell me again why you didn’t go to Peter, Neal? Because this isn’t funny.” She sounded scared, now.

So, he told her how the FBI would resolve this, how the U.S. Marshals would take her and Peter away from their life and they’d never, ever get to come back.

“I didn’t want to be responsible for that,” Neal finished.

Cross-legged on the floor of her cage, Elizabeth’s expression stayed hard and unhappy.  “Because you’d go back to prison?” she asked, not particularly accusingly. Just like she thought she’d figured out Neal’s motivation. Neal schooled his face and pretended like that didn’t hurt.

He spread his arms. “I’m going back to prison, anyway.”

Elizabeth put one hand against her forehead. “So what was your plan? Your plan that doesn’t end with me and Peter in the Witness Protection Program or me dead, preferably.”

“I had to get you to safety,” Neal said. “That’s why I lured you here, I know it was –”

“Insane, stupid, dumb, idiotic,” Elizabeth interjected.

Neal paused, dipped his head. “Impulsive,” he said, softly. “I didn’t know when they were coming.”

“Did you have a plan beyond stashing me on a boat?” Elizabeth asked. “Because that’s a lot like the Witness Protection Program, except without all the resources of the federal government, so…”

El was snarky when she was angry.

“I have some stuff that I stole from these guys a couple years ago,” Neal said. “Er, Kate did. I mean, let’s just say I have some Russian stuff.”

“You’re gonna give it back?” Elizabeth guessed.

“No,” Neal said. “But I’m going to use something shiny to distract Mikhail the Mutilator-”

“Mutilator?” Elizabeth interrupted. Her eyebrows were near her hairline. “The guy who wants to kill me calls himself ‘the mutilator,’ Neal?”

Neal didn’t say anything, just dipped his head in affirmation.

Elizabeth swallowed and stared at him. She looked less angry now, more afraid. And a lot disappointed. “I didn’t realize the kind of people you worked with, before Peter caught you.”

“I didn’t work with him,” Neal denied. “I stole from him.”

“That’s better?”

“It is,” Neal insisted. “I just took things from a bad man.”

“You pissed off a guy named ‘the Mutilator,’ Neal.”

“I did, and I’m going to make it right.”

Elizabeth looked unconvinced. “Can I have my purse, please?”

“So you can use your cell phone to call Peter?” he asked.

“Maybe I just want my purse.”

Neal walked over to it, picked it up off the floor. He didn’t look at Elizabeth while he reached inside and took out all the electronics inside. All the same, he could practically feel her glare.

“Here.” He slid it between the bars.

Elizabeth took it. “Thanks,” she muttered, sarcastically. “Can you send a text to Yvonne and tell her to handle all the appointments tomorrow?” Neal looked at her suspiciously. “It’s not a trap, I need you to do that so I don’t have several pissed off clients. Providing I’m still alive to go back to work, after this.”

“I can do that,” Neal said, picking up her cell. He found basically the same message in her sent folder, and just forwarded it. Then he turned the phone off.

“Okay,” Elizabeth said, pointedly not thanking him. “Any chance you’re going to let me out of the cage?”

“I can’t,” Neal said, and El sighed in exasperation. “No, I really can’t. Even if I wanted to. The locking mechanism is on a timer and the electronics aren’t accessible without power tools.”

Elizabeth raised an eyebrow.

“I’ve used the yacht to transfer goods. Sometimes I had to hire sailors to do it for me, and I didn’t want them taking it.”

“So,” El said, crossing her arms. “What if the boat hits an iceberg and sinks? How do I get out?”

“No icebergs in the Hudson,” Neal tried.

“Not the point.”

“Never had a problem.”

“Nothing you stole or smuggled could ever drown, Neal.”

“Because I don’t steal people!” It came out a yell, but El just shook her head at him. “This is my first time, and clearly I suck at it. Okay.” She continued to blink at him. “I promise nothing bad will happen to you. That’s why I’m doing this, Elizabeth. To keep you safe.”

“I don’t feel safe,” Elizabeth said, honestly, as she stood up. “I don’t think you have a plan and I sincerely hope you come up with one before Mikhail the Mutilator does.”

And then she deliberately turned her back on him, walked towards the wall, and sat down facing away from him.

~

Neal kept Elizabeth’s cell phone turned off. He knew Peter would be calling her – confused, then worried, then freaked and trying to track it – and he half suspected that Mozzie would be calling, too. And that maybe Peter and Mozzie had already had a conversation and figured out Neal and El were together.

Except he didn’t think either of them would ever believe he could kidnap her.

Neal had done it, and he wasn’t sure he believed it, except for Elizabeth’s rigid figure on the surveillance camera. Every time he looked at the screen, she looked angrier. And every time he looked at her, he was still stuck on what to do. He’d just wanted to get her to safety; he hadn’t actually come up with what to do next.

If El were a jewel, a painting, or an antiquity, he’d know exactly what to do. Neal had dozens of caches around the world, not to mention a couple within only a few miles. If she were an object, he’d have lovingly tucked her away by now. He’d be back at Peter’s side, fully prepared to make a really obnoxious face at those stupid Russian goons.

But he’d never been in the business of stealing people. It was a lot harder. Harder and frustrating. And if he thought about it too long, he felt like a monster.

On the surveillance screen, El had begun to pace. A couple of times she backed up and threw a wild kick at the door of her cage. The cage rattled, undamaged.

Neal didn’t have any caches to keep people in. He had a couple that he’d hidden out in, though. He could take Elizabeth there, maybe. If she didn’t try to kill him the moment he let her off the boat.

He had a nearby cache on a private island. It wouldn’t take long to get there, once he changed course, and maybe in that time Elizabeth would calm down.

~

“I need to pee.” El was not calmer. She was still angry, maybe even worse. And she was pacing in discomfort. Neal stared at her, horrified. “I know, I know,” she said. “Mona Lisa never needed to pee. But she’s a painting, I’m a person with a bladder.”

Neal stared some more, and Elizabeth moved to the front of the cage, clutching the bars.

“Get the power tools,” she ordered, and Neal nodded once before backing out of the room as fast as he could go.

Unfortunately, actually getting to the electronics that controlled the door of Elizabeth’s cage took a lot longer than retrieving the electric drill. Elizabeth watched tensely while Neal took off the first steel plate protecting the works.

“I was really hoping you were lying,” she said, bitterly.

“I wasn’t,” he said, grimacing. He looked up hopefully. “Are you?”

“No,” she retorted. “Let me out of here.”

“Hold it,” he told her. “I’m going as fast as I can.”

El rattled the cage and looked deeply unhappy. “Faster.”

The door lock slid back with a loud metal click, about the same time that the yacht’s autopilot almost grounded them on that island Neal had aimed for. The boat rocked awkwardly and El looked around in confusion. Not enough confusion to stop her from pushing the door and darting out of her cage, though.

“What’s happening?” she demanded.

“I have to get to the helm,” Neal said. He reached out to take her arm, and El shot across the room, out of reach. He put his hands up in surrender. “There’s a bathroom in the quarters across the hall,” he said. “Don’t…”

“Don’t what?” Elizabeth asked, sharply.

“Don’t do anything stupid,” Neal said, finally. “Like try to swim back to Manhattan. We’re a long way off and it’s dark.”

The ship rocked again and he took off for the helm, forcing himself not to look back at Elizabeth.

After anchoring the yacht securely and inconspicuously – or as inconspicuous as a multi-million dollar yacht got, anyway – in a small inlet, Neal had to go looking for Elizabeth. She’d had time to use the restroom and hadn’t come to find him. The yacht was big enough to get lost in, and it was also big enough to hide in. Neal didn’t want to think Elizabeth thought she needed to hide from him.

He found her quickly, using the security system that showed movement in one of the kitchens. Neal wasn’t sure what he would do if she tried to run from him, but he went down there anyway.

Elizabeth was sitting in a folding chair, drinking a bottle of water. She used her fingers to fish the fruit out of a small can of peaches she must have found in a cupboard. She glanced up when Neal entered, but didn’t move.

“I’m hungry,” she said, flatly. She sounded less angry, now. More fatigued and resigned.

“I can make you something?” Neal said, lightly. Hopefully and cheerfully, like she’d forget everything he’d done if he just made something gourmet.

El blinked at him. “Oh, what the hell,” she said.

Neal cooked them both omelets. He found eggs and some fillings in the fridge, and Elizabeth didn’t comment as he put everything in a frying pan and turned the burner on. More positively, Neal decided, she didn’t try to whale on him with the pan or shove him into the hot stove.

Both of them watched his hands as he set the ‘table’ – actually the counter top, but whatever. He gave them both butter knives and tried not think when his last tetanus shot was.

“This is really good,” Elizabeth said, automatically when they were eating. Then she stopped, and shook her head. “But this doesn’t make up for kidnapping me, Neal.”

“I know,” Neal agreed.  “But it helps, right?”

El laughed a little, shaking her head.

“Where are we?” she asked, a little later.

“Anchored off a small private island,” Neal told her, not seeing the point of lying. “It’s only occupied in the summer by some billionaire. One of my…” he trailed off.

“Your…” Elizabeth prompted.

“I have a cache of stolen goods on the grounds,” he said, finding it hard to actually say those words aloud.

“Were you going to put me in it?” Elizabeth asked, eyebrows raised.

“It had occurred to me,” Neal admitted. He raised his hands. “It’s a hidden room under the caretaker’s house. Not a box buried in the backyard.”

No.”

“You can stay on board,” Neal assured her. “But I need to get in there.”

“Why?”

“See what I have that might buy off Mikhail?” He shrugged. “And I’ve hidden out there before and always gotten out of whatever mess I was in. It’s lucky.”

Elizabeth only looked at him, suspiciously.

“I’ll stay here.” She tapped the countertop. “Right here.”

“I’m not going to try to put you back in the cage,” Neal promised. “That was stupid.”

“Yeah.” El quietly put down her fork, which she’d apparently been plotting to use on him.

“But I have to cut the power,” Neal said, softly. “So it’ll be a little dark.”

“Why do you have to do that?” El demanded.

“This yacht uses more electricity than the entire state of North Dakota,” he said, smoothly exaggerating. “And we’re supposed to be hiding.”

“From the Coast Guard,” El muttered.

Neal smiled at her.

“And if the power is off, I can’t lift anchor and leave you here,” El added.

“Or use the radio to call anyone who’ll shoot me,” Neal said. He saw El’s face darkening again. “You can have your pick of any jewelry I have in there,” he offered. “All yours.”

“You’re trying to bribe me?”

“I am so much better at that than kidnapping,” Neal said.

~

In the end, El came ashore with him. Maybe she didn’t want to be alone on the dark yacht, maybe she wanted to see the baubles he had stashed under the caretaker’s house, or maybe she’d just given up on arguing.

“Oh my God,” she said, when he helped her down the ladder under the trap door. “Does Peter know about this place?”

“No,” Neal said, folding the ladder back up to the ceiling. “That’s kind of the point.”

“Where’d you get this stuff?” she asked, unable to stop staring at the metal glimmering even under the dimly lit light bulb.

“Most of this is Russian,” he said, waving at the one wall. “But there’s some Spanish shipwreck mixed in.”

“So…is most of this Mikhail’s? Originally?”

“None of it’s his, originally.

“But you think you can give it back, in exchange for my life?”

“No.” Neal shook his head.

“Because that wouldn’t work or because you don’t want to give it back?”

“Because he’d take it back and then kill us both,” Neal said, sharply. “That kind of arrangement doesn’t work with the Russian mob.”

El looked at him hard. “What kind of arrangement does work, exactly?”

“In the past, I’ve found making friends…or at least making détente with a bigger, meaner Russian mobster turns out okay.”

“What happened?” Elizabeth asked.  She sat down on the lone wood stool surrounded by Neal’s cache. “Why don’t you tell me how this all started?” Neal hesitated. “How did you keep Mikhail from trying to kill the real Kate?”

“His boss,” Neal answered. “Sergei. He actually thought the con we pulled on Mikhail was funny and we promised we wouldn’t go after any of Sergei’s stuff. It made him look more powerful because we wouldn’t mess with him.” He met Elizabeth’s hopeful eyes. “Sergei’s dead, now. That’s why Mikhail is after Kate.”

“Oh.” She frowned. “Why isn’t Mikhail after you?”

“I was just backstage.” Neal tried not smile as he reminisced. They were good memories, even if they’d led to this. “Kate humiliated him. Everyone in Moscow and I think maybe all the way to Siberia knew she’d conned him. His underlings were laughing at him.” Neal went quiet, thinking.  “Hmm.”

“What?” Elizabeth asked.

“I think I might have thought of a bigger, badder Russian mobster.”

“Who?”

“Sergei’s little brother Alexei,” Neal said. “If he’s still alive.”

“He’d help us?” El asked, hopefully.

Neal looked at her and tilted his head. “He’d help Kate.”

~

Neal had to call Mozzie, then. He needed help. It took a few minutes to get it across that El was absolutely fine. Mozzie had indeed figured it out, though not the kidnapping part. Neal didn’t share, because right now he needed cooperation.

“The Suit is losing his mind,” Mozzie said. “He dragged me down to the FBI and threatened to have Lady Suit squish me if I tried to leave. He’s not even looking for you, by the way.”

“You’re at the FBI?” Neal said, sharply.

“I’m on my smoke break.”

“Moz, I need you to find out if Sergei’s little brother Alexei is still in the picture.”

“He’s one of Mikhail’s thugs.” Mozzie replied, instantly.

“How do you know…” Neal began, surprised.

“The Suit pulled the dossiers on every Rusky the FBI’s ever met.”

“Huh, tell Peter thanks.”

“Peter!” Elizabeth said loudly, and she was eyeing Neal’s phone.

“No,” he mouthed at her. “Don’t actually tell Peter anything, Moz.”

“Of course.”

“I need you to get a message to Alexei.”

“You want me to send a message to a Russian mobster from inside the FBI?” Moz sounded outraged.

“I’m sure you’ll manage,” Neal said confidently. “Tell him I’d like to give him a gift.”

“What kind of gift?”

“Enough bank that he won’t have to work for Mikhail anymore and he can hire his own thugs.”

“Why? What’s the angle?”

“I don’t have time to explain,” Neal said. “Just do it. If he says no, I’m going to need a backup plan for Elizabeth.”

“What kind of backup plan?”

Neal glanced over at El. “Probably the Witness Protection variety.”

“That’s a horrible plan,” Mozzie said, instantly.

“I know. That’s why I need Alexei. Give him that message and these coordinates for  a meeting.” Neal read off a location close to the island.

“Okay.”

“And keep Peter out of this,” Neal added, to which El rolled her eyes.

“I will,” Mozzie said, but he didn’t sound particularly convincing.

~

“You think I can pass for Kate?” El asked.

“You already did,” Neal reminded her. “It’s been long enough that I think Alexei will buy it. I mean, mostly he’ll buy that Sergei wants to kill Kate and everyone thinks that’s you.”

“I look that much like her?”

Neal shook his head. “Not really,” he said. “But we can help with that. She left some clothes stashed here. Sometimes the costume makes the con.”

Elizabeth raised her eyebrows. “Con?”

Neal found Kate’s duffle under a nearby shelf. He tamped down any emotion and tossed it to El. “Get changed.” There was no place for her to go, so Neal just turned around to give her privacy. He heard  her unzip it, followed by fabric rustling. “It should fit. But it’s a little out of season.”

El made an unhappy noise. “I don’t think Alexei will notice that.”

Neal turned around, unsurprised to see a lot more of Elizabeth than he usually did. “It fits,” he said, pleased.

“A little tight,” El said. She glared. “But at least I don’t look like a kidnap victim any more. Just a prostitute.”

Neal winced. “Can I declare a moratorium on yelling at me for that?”

El scowled. “No.”

“You need to get in character as Kate,” Neal said. “The dress helps, but you need to pass for her when you talk.”

“Is Alexei gay? Because the only thing about me a straight man is going to pay attention to in this dress is my tits.”

“That’s the point,” Neal agreed. “Now, do you speak any Russian?”

~

Alexei met them at the arranged coordinates. He arrived in a yacht, too, though one substantially smaller than the one Neal had. This part was a little unpredictable. Alexei could have told Mikhail and brought along goons. He could have decided that the best way to get ahead was to give Elizabeth to Mikhail, himself. Neal wanted to hide her inside the yacht, but he couldn’t. She needed to be Kate. Kate could talk Mikhail into this.

They had the conversation on the deck, yachts floating parallel. The distance demonstrated their shared mistrust, but didn’t offer either party any protection.

“Alexei,” Elizabeth said, her voice several octaves higher than usual. “It is so good to see you again.”

Alexei, of course, was staring at her cleavage. “You, as well, Katya,” he said.

“I am so sorry about your brother,” she continued. “I liked him.”

“He liked you,” Alexei answered. “But he liked vodka more. I don’t know which is more dangerous.”

“I don’t cause liver failure,” El tried to joke.

“You are as bad, for a man’s heart.”

“Oh,” El said, weakly. She was about to apologize, so Neal stepped in.

“I think we all know that,” he said, brightly. “But there’s no reason to get homicidal about it like Mikhail.”

Alexei gradually took his eyes off El. “You are heart patient, too. She left you for police.” He shook his head. “I think you’d want to help Mikhail.”

El frowned, shoving her hands behind her back so the Russian wouldn’t see her hands trembling.

“No,” Neal said, sharply. “Sportsmanship. I was beaten fair and square.” He awkwardly put his arm around El. “We’re friends, now.”

“If she dies,” Alexei said, “Policeman kill you?” He seemed to think he’d figured it out.

“Sure,” Neal said. “But also, you know…” he searched for the right words. “We’re a team.”

“I’m his boss,” El said, abruptly. “He works for me. I die, he has nothing. He doesn’t know where any of my stuff is and I’m not going to tell him.” She glanced at Neal, who nodded his praise. “That’s why he arranged for us to meet.”

“Your marriage to police,” Alexei said. “Scam?”

“Of course,” Elizabeth said, eyes a little too wide. “It’s going to be so funny. And he lets me get away with anything, because he loves me.”

Alexei laughed and shook his head. “You are the same.”

“Yep,” Neal said, enormously relieved. “She’s Kate.”

“But why do I help you?” Alexei asked.

“Because you think Mikhail is a mudak,” El stumbled over the Russian slur.

“He is,” Alexei agreed. “But he is boss now.”

“Because he gives out the paychecks,” Neal said.

“Remember everything I took from him?” El asked. “Maybe you find it.”

“Maybe you’re the one who took it from him all along,” Neal continued. “And it’s time to show everyone how stupid and vulnerable he is, so they come work for you.”

Alexei said nothing, but he was smiling slightly.

“I want something else,” he said, after a moment.

“What?” Neal asked, tensely. There wasn’t anything else to give.

Alexei smiled and tilted his head downwards. “Your yacht.”

El stuck out her bottom lip, pretending to pout. “But I like this boat,” she said, sighing.

“Give it to the nice man,” Neal whispered. “Please.”

“Okay.” She smiled. “But only because I like you.”

Alexei grinned. “We must close deal,” he said.

“Handshake?” asked Neal, hopefully.

Alexei shook his head. “Vodka.”

~

“I’m in liver failure,” Neal wheezed, hours later when he and El were alone, relocated to Alexei’s yacht after the Russian had sailed off in the larger one. “I am so, so drunk.”

“I’m a little drunk,” El said, even though she absolutely reeked of vodka.

“Hm?” Neal pointedly sniffed.

“I just started spilling it all over me after the fourth shot,” El said.

“Oh.”

“Also,” El waved her hand around, but Neal had trouble focusing on what she was holding in the dark. “I took my phone back and called Peter.” Neal frowned. “He’s on his way.”

“I told Alexei we’d stay hidden until he’d taken over.”

“Nope.” El fumbled her phone and dropped it on the deck. She swayed as she picked it back up.

“What are we going to tell Peter?”

Elizabeth shrugged, getting out of the deck chair and stumbling towards the cabin door. “I don’t lie to my husband,” she called back at him.

~

The blaring loud speaker of a Coast Guard boat woke Neal, and then ordered him to stand up and put his hands over his head. He obeyed, waiting to see Peter’s furious face emerge from the other boat.

He didn’t.

Instead, Agent Clinton Jones climbed aboard. He rudimentarily searched Neal, and didn’t even handcuff him.

“Where’s Elizabeth?” he asked.

“In a cabin,” he said. “Where’s Peter?”

“He got caught up in the mess,” Jones said. “He wanted to be here.”

“Mess?” Neal asked, tentatively.

“Anonymous tip dumped the biggest Russian mob bust in his lap last night,” Jones said. “Happened to mention the guy had kidnapped his wife and his CI and left you here.”

Other agents were entering the cabin to find Elizabeth and Neal peered after them.

“Guy?”

“Mikhail Ludyanka,” Jones said. “Don’t know what he was doing in New York. I guess he forgot he doesn’t own American cops.”

“What happened?” Neal asked, utterly confused.

“He resisted arrest,” Jones answered. “Started World War III in Brooklyn, and now he’s dead.”

“Good,” whispered Neal.

Jones leaned closer and sniffed Neal. “Want to explain what happened here?”

“They got us drunk,” Neal said. “So I’m not sure.”

The other agents brought Elizabeth out on the deck and he waited for her to order them to arrest him. She didn’t, at least not yet.

“It’s so good to see you,” she said, hugging Jones. Jones made a face, and pulled away.

“The Russian mob kidnapped you,” he said. “And got you drunk. I thought Neal was lying.”

“Not about that part,” El agreed.

Jones nodded, then took a closer look. “What are you wearing?”

~

“Alexei worked fast,” Neal explained quietly to El as they travelled back to land on the Coast Guard’s vessel. “He must have called the FBI and given them Mikhail’s location as soon as he left. Mikhail took himself out after that.”

“Hmm.” Elizabeth adjusted the blanket Jones had wrapped around her.

“So, you’re safe now.”

She nodded. “He got your yacht, your cache, and the FBI to assassinate his boss.”

“It sounds simple.” Neal shook his head.

“I think these have been, by far, the least simple days of my life,” El retorted. She paused. “By the way, the FBI thinks that the Russian mob was after you, you slipped your anklet and went to me for help, and then we both got kidnapped.”

“Close, but no cigar.”

“I’m going to tell them the truth,” El continued, and Neal’s heart sank. “Russians thought I was Kate, you made a series of incredibly stupid decisions to protect me, instead of telling Peter. You took me, then we encountered Alexei, who you bribed into giving up his boss.”

Neal waited.

“I’m not going to go into the details of the ‘taking,’ Neal.”

“Why not?” Neal asked, grateful but confused.

El poked him in the arm. “Because I don’t actually want you to go back to prison. And Peter might like you, but if I told him what you did, that’s exactly what he would do.”

“Yeah,” Neal agreed.

“But I want you to promise that you will never again steal a person.”

“Not even tempted.” Neal crossed his heart with two fingers. “Believe me.”

“And I want you to promise that the next time you get the urge to do something insane, you’re going to tell Peter before you do it. I don’t care what it is, or why, I just want you to think about how I didn’t send you to prison when you totally deserved it.”

“I can do that,” Neal said, after a pause. “Even though I always have a –”

Neal!

“Okay,” he said, placating her. “I will. I promise.” And he was telling the truth.

“Besides, Neal, this plan lost you that very nice boat.”

“It did.”

“And your shiny cache.”

“That was one of my favorites.”

El peered over the edge of the Coast Guard’s ship at the two figures standing on the dock they were approaching. One was her husband, the other shorter and balder.

“Also,” she added, “If you went to prison, you wouldn’t have to listen to Peter and Mozzie. And I think they’re going to have a lot to tell you.”

~The End~
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