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27 September 2014 @ 08:53 pm
Fic: What Is Left Is but Ashes and Dust - Part 1  
Title: What Is Left Is but Ashes and Dust
Author: pooh_collector
Art by: angelita26, who also served as plot bunny source, beta and cheerleader. Thanks ang!
Characters and Pairings: Neal Caffrey, Peter Burke, Vincent Adler, Elizabeth Burke, Mozzie, Sara Ellis, Diana Berrigan, Clinton Jones, Gen
Rating: R
Word Count: ~26,300
Spoilers: Under the Radar, Wanted and Most Wanted
Summary: Alternative ending to Under the Radar. Alder gets everything he wants, the treasure and Neal. In return Neal loses everything he loves, New York, Mozzie, June, working with White Collar and worst of all, Peter.
Warnings: A bit of bad language. Mild non-con.




What Is Left Is but Ashes and Dust

"I'm sorry, Peter." Neal's hand was shaking as he raised the gun, aimed it at Peter, and pulled the trigger. The shot was loud, but the silence afterward was deafening.

Peter felt nothing but a strange displacement of the air when the bullet hit him, but suddenly he was on the ground, the cement warm beneath his back, the sky azure above. He lay there, strangely numb for what felt like a long time, but could have been only moments. Then he was engulfed by a raging fire that ripped from his chest outward across his body. Finally, the silence was joined by darkness as the bright blue of the sky abruptly faded away and Peter knew nothing more.

***

Neal had followed the clang of the weather buoy around the docks to an old, nondescript brick warehouse. The large, rusted roll-up door sported a brand new heavy-duty padlock and chain. He gave the padlock an ineffectual tug and then glanced around looking for another way in.

“You always were persistent Neal. One of the many qualities I admire about you."

Neal whirled at the sound of Adler's voice. His former mentor was standing just a few feet away from Neal, with two of his hired guns flanking him.

”The FBI’s closing in Adler.”

“I know," Adler replied confidently, too confidently. "There’s an eighteen wheeler just inside there loaded with a collection of art more valuable than life. You help me get past the FBI perimeter, half of it’s yours.”

“Wow, sounds like a really good deal. You must think I’m an idiot.” Despite his expertise in the art of the con, Neal couldn't hide in his expression or his voice the contempt he felt for Adler.

“I think you’re an opportunist,” Adler replied mildly.

“You took everything from me,” Neal admonished, as grief swelled in his chest.

“Only after you tried to do the same to me,” Adler countered. “All’s fair in love and war.”

There was a problem with Adler's analogy. There was a difference between money and people. It didn't really surprise Neal that Adler didn't see that. Vincent Adler only loved one thing, Vincent Adler. “Tell me why Kate had to die? If you want my help now, tell me,” Neal demanded.

“The explosives on the plane were her idea. You parachute over the ocean, the plane explodes, you live happily ever after. Then she called, said Burke had just arrived. Then as now, he threatened to ruin everything."

“So you blew up the plane early.”

“Could have waited another thirty seconds," Adler conjectured blithely, with a tilt of his head. "And you’d be dead too.”

Neal thought back to what Adler had said on the U-boat. “Okay, shoot them. Then get a mop or something.” He shook his head in disgust. “Am I supposed to be grateful?”

“You were as close to a son as I ever had.”

“No, I’m nothing like you,” Neal retorted. He would never willingly take the life of anyone, let alone someone he knew and purported to care about.

“There’s nothing sadder than a conman conning himself. Come on Neal. Let’s stop hurting the people we love. Let’s bring this thing full circle, just like old times.”

Neal shuddered inwardly at the lies that flowed so easily from Adler's tongue. “Go to hell.”

At that moment Peter walked around the corner of the warehouse, coming from the same direction that Neal had minutes earlier. Neal noted with dismay that his partner's weapon was still holstered.

"And, here he comes now, the man with the rare talent to nose his way in and ruin everything for you Neal."

"That's not true," Neal asserted, looking from Peter to Adler as he shook his head again.

"Of course it is. He chased you for years. Put you in handcuffs and got you sentenced to four years in maximum security. He kept you from Kate. He took any chance you had to have your happily ever after with the woman you loved."

Neal looked at Peter and swallowed hard. Adler had always been stellar at convincing people of anything he wanted and he was putting those skills to use now. "No."

“He took from you, now it's time for you to take from him,” Adler's voice was almost gentle as he pulled a gun from behind the hem of his suit jacket and moved slowly toward Neal.

Neal realized now that Adler's henchmen had unholstered their own weapons as some point. One of them was trained on Peter, the other on himself.

"Neal," Peter said shaking his head. Neal wasn’t sure whether it was a warning or an admonishment. "Adler, I have agents all over the area. It's only a matter of time before they get here. You can't get away."

Adler ignored Peter and focused on Neal as he took the younger man's hand and fit the gun into his grip. "Kill him Neal. Free yourself from the person who really took everything from you."

Neal shook his head and held the gun pointed at the ground. "No. I won't do your bidding," Neal spat out.

Alder's eyes turned hard, a look Neal had seen before and dreaded. "Either you kill him or I will." Adler liked to play games where he led people to believe that they had a choice, when in fact, he had already taken away all the options but the one that fulfilled his own desires. Neal had seen him do it countless times when he worked for the man, had been the subject of such ploys when he didn't even realize it, but now under a bright blue sky, with the smell of salt in the air, Neal was very aware of the corner Adler had painted him into.

"Neal, listen to me," Peter said as Neal took his eyes from Adler to look over at Peter again. "The cavalry is on its way. Just stay with me here."

"Neal," Adler chided in his most commanding tone. "We need to be on our way. Do it."

“Neal don’t do this. Don’t let him talk you into something that you know is wrong,” Peter placated.

"I'm sorry, Peter." Neal's hand was shaking as he raised the gun, aimed it at Peter, and pulled the trigger.



***

Afterward, as Peter lay on the ground and the stench of cordite filled Neal's nostrils, he let one of Adler's goons pull him away to a waiting limo and push him into the back seat. He had no idea where they were going, or why Adler didn't just leave him behind to take the fall and he honestly didn't care. The two things that had driven his life for the past year were gone, his need to find out who had killed Kate and why, and Peter.

The man followed Neal into the back of the limo and sat on the black leather upholstered seat across from him. Adler slid in and took the seat next to Neal.

As the car began to pull away, the man grasped Neal's left ankle roughly and using what looked like a large hunting knife that he had pulled from a sheath on his belt, sawed the anklet off of Neal's leg.

"Careful, Mr. Jacobs, we wouldn't want to injure our friend," Adler cautioned, when Neal jerked as the knife cut through his sock and grazed his skin.

Once the anklet was removed, Jacobs opened the window and tossed it away. Neal watched it go, seeing the life he had come to love in New York, with Peter, El, the team at White Collar, June and Mozzie go with it. With the darkly tinted windows closed again, Neal had no idea where they were headed and no idea how they managed to circumvent the perimeter the FBI had established at the docks.

They hadn't been driving for too long however when the car stopped. Jacobs opened the door and exited, followed by Adler. Neal hesitated for a moment, getting out the car meant that he was complying with Adler's wishes, which wasn't something Neal wanted to do. On the other hand, where else was he going to go? He was officially a fugitive, who had cut his anklet and shot his handler. Neal shuddered involuntarily at the memory of pulling the trigger and watching Peter crumple to the ground. Then he got out of the car.

***

The first thing to come back on line was sound. Warbled voices and tinny mechanical pings and beeps. The next was smell, antiseptic and plastic and air that was overly clean. Eventually, we was able to pry his eyes open. At first all he saw was the white haze created by his unfocused eyes. He blinked slowly a couple of times and the room around him righted itself. White curtains surrounded the bed he lay in on three sides, with a jumble of monitors gathered around the safety rails. He sighed and felt an unpleasant tug deep in his chest.

Moments later a tall woman dressed in scrubs appeared with a clipboard in her hand. She checked the readings on the various machines, checked the lines that had been inserted into various parts of his body, including what appeared to Peter to be chest drain and wrote some things down on the clipboard before looking him in the eyes.

"I'm Dr. Haywood. I performed the surgery to remove the bullet from your chest." She said it nonchalantly, as if it was every day that she pulled bullets from bodies and as if his foggy mind actually remembered what had happened to him.

"You were very lucky Agent Burke, somehow the bullet missed everything vital. You suffered only tissue and muscle damage. It's not going to be pretty for a while, but it's nothing some time and some physical therapy won't fix."

As his doctor spoke, Peter's memory returned. He remembered the look in Neal's eyes as he raised the gun with a shaking hand, he remembered the look of pain and regret reflected there. He remembered how carefully Neal aimed, despite his trembling hand, before the POP that brought the bullet to his body.

Despite the drugs flowing through his system and the pull of the lingering anesthesia, Peter was very clear on one thing. There was no luck involved. Neal could have delivered a kill shot easily, but he didn't. His partner had intended for him to live. In fact, Neal had calculated where to place that shot, for Peter to look as if he was mortally wounded, but in actuality to be as unharmed as possible under the circumstances.

Peter drifted off again with that knowledge in the forefront of his mind. When he woke next some hours later he was in a regular two-bed hospital room. The second bed was empty but the chair beside his bed was occupied. El had clearly been crying. Her eyes were red rimmed, her makeup splotchy. Peter could feel her slender hand gripping his fingers. He squeezed back.

"Peter," she said with a warm smile that belied the anxiety he knew she was feeling.

"Hi hon," he whispered, his voice scratchy and thin. "Where's Neal?"

El shook her head, either unable or unwilling to tell Peter. "El," he pressed. "Where's Neal?"

"I don't want you worrying about Neal right now, Peter. You've only been out of surgery for a few hours. Please, you need to rest."

Peter shook his head weakly against his pillow. The drugs that the IV was pumping into his system were beginning to get the better of him again, despite the fact that he'd been awake for less than five minutes. "El, I need to talk to Diana. I'm pretty sure that Neal was taken by Vincent Adler."

El startled at his statement. “Peter, Diana and Jones think Neal ran. He cut his anklet.”

“No, he… Adler took him. He was there with his flunkies. He confronted Neal and …” Peter brought himself up short before he could say the words, and then Neal shot me. No matter what may come, Peter knew he had to keep that part to himself, at least until they got Neal back. Then they could work everything else out.

Peter’s eyes were closing as his exhaustion weighed him down. “Go back to sleep, hon. I’ll call Diana and let her know.”

“Now El, please, call her now.” Peter’s words were beginning to slur, but he had to be sure that his wife understood the urgency.

As his eyes slid completely closed, Peter heard the sound of Elizabeth’s cell phone beeping as she dialed and he allowed himself to sink back into sleep.

***



Neal emerged from the limo to find himself on another pier, though very different from the last. In place of the industrial and commercial buildings and vessels, several high-end yachts were lined up in slips. Jacobs took Neal by the arm and guided him down to a sleek 80 foot motor yacht. That explained how Adler managed to evade law enforcement for so long, a false registration and the flag of Cape Verde, a country with no U.S. extradition treaty, flying from the stern.

Neal was led down to a stateroom with a double bed and one nightstand, a dresser, a narrow closet, a small desk with a chair, and a sink with a vanity on the wall outside a bathroom with a stall shower and a toilet. It was an inside stateroom with no windows.

Just after the yacht pulled away from its slip a crewman entered the room with a bundle of clothing. He swiftly and efficiently placed the items in their appropriate storage places and then left again without saying a word to Neal. So, Adler hadn’t planned on taking him, it was a spur of the moment decision. Neal noticed all of these things, the flag on the boat, the arrangement of his room, the afterthought of essentials, with a strange detachment, as if they were simply interesting facts typed on index cards in a file and not the center of his new reality.

As the yacht's engines fired up and the ship pulled away from its slip, Neal realized in some corner of his brain that he was shaking and that the dispassionate way he was viewing everything could quite possibly be chalked up to shock. He ran a trembling hand through his hair and smelled the gunshot residue that still lingered on his fingers and the sleeve of his dark grey suit. The scent brought his mind back to the pier, to Peter lying on the ground, the blood seeping from his chest wound had matched the dark red tie Peter had been wearing. Neal shuddered hard, stood up from where he had been perched on the edge of the bed and ruthlessly stripped off everything he was wearing. His four hundred dollar burgundy tie, his dark grey designer suit and hand tailored white shirt. He wadded the remains of his ensemble up as best as possible and shoved it all into the small garbage pail under the desk.

Then he made his way into the small bathroom, turned on the shower as hot as it would go and scrubbed his skin until it turned bright red. The shower helped to remove the physical remnants of the day from his body and bring the shock symptoms under control as well. Neal felt clearer and less shaky as he dried himself off. There was a plastic cup by the sink and Neal filled it with water and sipped at it as he found a pair a tan linen pants and a blue polo shirt to dress in.

There was a pair of Docksiders under the bed that fit him perfectly. Apparently, Peter wasn’t the only one who knew his shoe size. Dressed and as ready as he was going to be for whatever Adler had in store for him next, Neal sat on the bed and propped himself up against the headboard to wait.

He must have dozed off because the door to his room opening abruptly startled him awake. Jacobs loomed in the entryway. “Mr. Adler would like to see you.” Neal almost laughed at the politeness in Jacob’s tone, as if his words were a request and not a command.

Neal slid off the bed and walked past Jacobs into the narrow passageway. Jacobs closed Neal’s door and then led them up onto the deck at the stern of the ship. Neal was surprised to find that the sun was setting. He had lost more time than he thought.

Adler was sitting at a dining table, dressed elegantly but casually in white linen pants and a matching short-sleeved button down shirt. The table was dressed elegantly as well, with crystal, china and a bouquet of pink and white blossoms.

“Neal, join me please. Dinner’s just about to be served,” Adler said, beckoning Neal with a wave of his hand.

Neal hesitated, warring with himself again over what it meant or didn’t mean to comply with Adler’s ‘requests.’ He concluded that under the circumstances, somewhere in the middle of the ocean, with nowhere to escape to and no discernable advantage in not joining Adler for dinner that he would accept.

Sitting down at the table Neal felt a strange moment of déjà vu, taking him back to that first night they had met when Neal switched place cards with Adler’s date and took the first step in the long con that would eventually lead not to Adler being deceived, but Neal himself. It wouldn’t end that way this time, Neal promised himself silently. He knew Adler now, what he was capable of, what he would do to satisfy his greed.

As Neal took his seat Adler poured wine into the glass at Neal’s place setting. Then he picked up his own glass and held it out, “To a new beginning for you and me, Neal.”

Neal swallowed hard at the revulsion that churning in his stomach and picked up his glass tapping it against Adler’s.

“I wasn’t sure you had the guts to shoot Burke, Neal. I’m glad I was wrong about that. It’s opened the door for all kinds of possibilities for us.”

Neal was only prepared to play along with Adler so far. “It wasn’t a matter of fortitude Vincent. You didn’t give me any options.”

“You could have let one of my men do it.” Adler appeared to contemplate that for a moment and then asked, “Why didn’t you?”

“You really don’t know?” Neal inquired, trying to deflect Adler from the truth that his intention was to be as certain as possible that Peter would live, that Peter would find him, and save him from himself yet again.

“I have my suspicions,” Adler hedged.

“Good, I like being one up on you.”

Vincent laughed. “It’s nice to see you still have that old spark, Neal.”

At that moment their dinner arrived, lamb chops with garlic mashed potatoes and haricot vert sautéed with shallots.

It was delicious but Neal barely managed to pick at his plate, his mind and his body still too unsettled by all that happened in the last few days. He indulged his morose mood and let himself run through the litany; kidnapped, drugged, nearly blown to bits, drugged again, nearly drowned, shot at, and forced to shoot someone he cared about far more than he should. It was a wonder he could even manage to drink the wine, let alone eat the food.

If Adler noticed, he said nothing, for which Neal was grateful. He didn’t really feel up to more mind games with his former mentor and mark at the moment.

When Adler finished eating, the dinner dishes were cleared away and cups of coffee and dessert plates of New York cheesecake with raspberry sauce were set in front of them. Neal didn’t even make the attempt for the sake of appearances with the heavy confection, but he drank the coffee gladly. Anything to keep himself alert in Vincent’s presence.

Adler had kept the dinner conversation to a minimum, an inconsequential discourse on the weather and the perfection of the rareness of the lamb. But as Neal drained his coffee, Adler set his fork on the edge of his plate and turned to look Neal in the eye.

“I have plans for you Neal.”

“That’s hardly a revelation.”

Adler smirked. “No, I don’t suppose it is. But those plans could be very pleasant for you, or not.”

Again with the choices that really contained no choice at all. “There’s only one plan I’m really interested in.”

Adler raised an eyebrow. “And, that would be?”

“The plan that allows me to leave whenever I want.”

“I’m afraid that’s the one possibility I can’t grant you.”

“Can’t or won’t?” Neal pressed.

“Why get caught up in semantics?”

Neal shook his head. “What do you want from me now?” He asked.

“Nothing too onerous, Neal, I assure you,” Adler replied with a sly smirk.

Neal cringed inwardly at the thought of what Adler would find onerous. “I think your definition of that word is very different from mine.”

“Oh, I doubt that very much. You’ve never shied away from passing off your work for that of the great masters. And, now we have a whole U-Boat worth of art for you to work from. Honestly, I think you’ll relish the challenge.”

“You have the originals. Why would you want forgeries?”

“Think Neal,” Adler responded. “I do have the originals and I want to keep them, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t profit from them too.”

“We?”

“I did promise you half if you helped us get past the FBI, didn’t I?”

***

The next time Peter woke, his wife was not alone. Sara Ellis, dressed in her usual couture style, a fitted blue dress and five-inch heels, was sitting in a chair beside El. The dress color reminded Peter of the color the sky as he saw it from his back on the pier two days ago.

“Sara,” Peter said as he blinked the world back into sharper focus. “What brings you by?”

Sara smiled at him, but Peter noticed that it didn’t reach her eyes. “I just dropped by to see how you were doing and give you an update.”

“I guess it can’t be good, if Jones and Diana are too scared to come and tell me themselves.” Peter was trying to make light of everything that had happened in the past couple of days, but he was pretty sure the attempt fell short when Sara looked away from him and El squeezed his hand.

“Neal’s gone, Peter. And, so is Adler and the contents of the U-Boat. They got away.”

“No, that can’t be. We had a perimeter established at the docks.”

Sara shook her head. “They slipped through. The teams weren’t looking for a limo, so Adler just went right past one of the checkpoints and it looks like they used forged paperwork and disguised the crates containing the art to look like innocuous cartons of canned goods.”

“Damn it,” Peter muttered as the beeps emitted by the equipment that still surrounded his bed sped up.

“Peter, honey, you need to stay calm,” El entreated.

Peter took a deep breath, feeling a tightness in his chest and the haunting of pain that he knew was hidden by the drugs in his system, and let it out slowly. The last thing he wanted to do was give El any further reason to worry. “Sorry, hon.”

“Diana and Jones are following every lead, they’ll find them.”

Peter knew that Sara was trying to be reassuring, but he also knew there was something she wasn’t telling him. “What else, Sara?”

Sara hesitated. “The Justice Department believes that Neal was in league with Adler. They’ve listed him as a fugitive, not a kidnapping victim. Diana spent half the day yesterday arguing Neal’s case, but with the treasure in hand, Justice didn’t believe that Adler had any reason to take Neal.”

Peter ran a hand down his face. What a fucked up situation. If he were to admit that Neal was coerced into shooting him and that he let Adler take him, then Neal’s back in prison for the rest of his life for assault with intent to kill a federal officer, regardless of the fact that Neal did what he did to protect Peter. If he were to say nothing then Justice would continue to have no reason to believe that Neal didn’t go with Adler willingly, that he skipped on his probation and he’s back in prison. Peter only had one option, he had to find Neal first and fix this.

***

For twelve days Adler’s yacht traversed the oceans. Neal spent most of that time in his stateroom with Jacobs or one of Adler’s other flunkies guarding his door. Adler would have him brought up to the stern deck for meals. The food always looked delicious, but Neal never regained his appetite. Everything he did eat tasted like cardboard. Maybe his taste buds were somewhere being held captive against their will too, he imagined.

During their meals together Adler would go on about every conceivable topic. One morning at breakfast he ranted on endlessly about wheat futures. At lunch on another day it was the politics of medieval Italy, at dinner one night it was why Latin American countries couldn’t produce a decent Sangiovese. Neal would do his best to nod in all the right places and add a random comment or two. He had nothing to lose by remaining on Adler’s good side, at least until he had a chance in hell of escaping.

Alone in his room, without even a book to occupy his time, Neal’s mind constantly drifted to Peter. Neal imagined most often that he had failed. That his shot struck Peter’s heart and Peter died there in front of the warehouse, alone, his last thought that Neal had betrayed him. Alternately, Neal envisioned Peter surviving the bullet wound, but contracting some sort of infection in the hospital and suffering for days before finally succumbing. He imagined that no one had reached Peter on the pier in time and he suffered oxygen deprivation from the blood loss or a punctured lung and he was comatose or brain damaged. Every scenario that Neal’s fertile mind could dredge up surfaced again and again on those endless days at sea. A torment of his own making that he couldn’t find any respite from.

At night, when he managed to fall asleep for short spurts, Neal was hunted and haunted and taunted by his daydreams. He would wake with his chest heaving, his head aching and his heart broken.

Neal had only one desire as he lay sleepless in his bed for the remainder of the night, that Peter lived and would completely recover and that one day, someday, he would understand that what Neal had done, he had done to protect Peter, and that Peter wouldn’t blame him for the pain and suffering he had had to endure.


***

Peter went home from the hospital four days after that day on the pier. The location of his injury notwithstanding, the damage to his body had been minimal. Once the chest drain had been removed, the last holes in his body sewn up and the threat of infection avoided, his doctor had given Peter a prognosis of a full recovery, with time and some physical therapy.

Despite that, El couldn't help but hover the first few days that Peter spent at home recuperating. Although his right arm was in a sling and his chest still ached fiercely without the Vicodin, he was capable of being on his own. But, he didn't want El to worry, and it seemed the only way to temper her fear was to allow her to constantly be at his side, fluffing his pillows, providing him with a seemingly endless parade of snacks and drinks and meals, supporting him every time he moved from the bed to the bathroom to the living room couch. It seemed to Peter that she was most busy redefining the term Mother Hen.

On his fourth day home Diana and Jones stopped by. Peter ushered them out to the back porch hoping that if El didn't actually hear them talking shop she wouldn't give him a hard time about it.

"Any news on Neal or Adler?" Peter asked once they were seated at the small outdoor table with sweating glasses of lemonade before them.

Diana shook her head. "Nothing, boss. They're in the wind."

Peter ran his untethered hand through his hair in frustration. "Adler is number five on the FBI's most wanted list. How is it possible that he can sneak in and out of the country at will, steal billions of dollars’ worth art and not be seen by anyone? Hell, he dredged a U-Boat out the ocean and parked it on a New York City pier. If I tried to write a book using this whole thing as the plotline, no one would buy it."

"Maybe if your name was Clive Cussler," Jones mused.

Peter arched an eyebrow at his agent. "Despite all appearances this is not a Dirk Pitt novel. We need to figure out where Adler's hiding." Peter hesitated, warring with himself once again over how much to divulge about what happened on that pier. "Look, I know Justice thinks Neal ran, that he aided and abetted Adler in escaping with the art. And, I know the two of you probably have thought that there's a good possibility that they're right, but they aren't. Neal went with Adler to protect me."

"Boss, they left you lying on the ground bleeding out," Diana’s skepticism was clear in her voice.

"They left me wounded. If Adler had had his way, they would have left me dead. Neal prevented that."

"I'm withholding judgment on that until I can look Neal in the eyes when he tells me his side of the story. But, until then I'll defend him to Justice with every breath I have," Diana concluded.

Peter smiled, proud of the people he had chosen to work by his side. "Thanks, Diana."

Jones nodded in agreement. "I have my doubts as well. Neal's still a conman. But, he's our conman."

"Then let's find him."

***

Neal was surprised to find that the yacht had indeed made port at Cape Verde when he noticed the small island nation’s flag flying from the chart house at the end of the dock where they moored. He had thought that the ship's registration would have been yet another feint, another way for Adler to keep himself off law enforcement radar. Several jeeps met them at the pier and Neal was shuttled into one of them with Jacobs and the guard he had started to refer to as Shaft, for lack of anything better to call him.

They drove through Santa Maria and then turned onto a coastal road that took them south. Some ten minutes later they arrived at the black, wrought-iron gates of a Spanish-style estate. Neal noted dispassionately that the gate was guarded as they drove through into a large central courtyard.

After the jeeps parked on the cobblestones, Neal was led by Jacobs into the house and up to a second floor bedroom with an attached bath. It was well appointed with heavy, ornate furniture including a queen bed with two nightstands, a dresser, a desk and a wardrobe. A comfortable chair sat in the corner under a barred window that overlooked the courtyard. Neal wondered briefly whether the bars had been there last week or whether they were part of Adler's vision for Neal's pleasant future.

Neal didn't see Adler, or Henry Dobbs, the alias that he had discovered Adler was living under on the island, for the remainder of the day. A tray with his dinner was delivered just as the sun was setting. Despite the fact that he was glad not to have to spend any time in Adler's presence, it felt strange to eat dinner by himself, without the drone of Adler's constant, but inconsequential chatter.

The next morning, Shaft shepherded Neal from his bedroom down the hall about 200 feet to a small library where Adler was waiting for him. Shelves, filled with books, lined three walls including the one with the door through which Neal had entered. The fourth wall contained a set of large French doors that led to a Juliette balcony that overlooked the courtyard. The doors were open and early morning light spilled through them onto two easels set in the center of the room and a table next to them that contained all manner of painting supplies. On one of the easels sat a blank canvas, the one next to it held a Degas.

“Good morning, Neal. I trust you slept well.” Adler’s confidence and self-importance were out in full force this morning.

Neal nodded, but said nothing. He had no intention of sharing anything about what he was feeling or experiencing with Adler.

“As I mentioned on our voyage, I have a task for you,” Adler said waving a hand toward the easels. “Let’s begin with this Degas, shall we. I’ve provided you everything I think you’ll need, but if there is anything else, just ask.”

Neal nodded again as he moved toward the easels. The Degas, a portrait of two ballerinas preparing to dance, was exquisite and Neal couldn’t help but admire the work. As he stood there before the easels Adler’s hand came to rest on the small of Neal’s back. The gesture was far too intimate and reminded Neal far too much of Peter. Neal swayed slightly from the onslaught of emotion that even the merest thought of his former partner brought down on him.

“This is going to be a wonderful arrangement, Neal, profitable for us both, you’ll see,” Adler opined seemingly unaware of Neal's emotional state.

Neal didn’t reply, he couldn’t. This wasn’t anything like the arrangement he had made with Peter. That deal had created a partnership. That deal had led to Neal fighting the good fight and learning that there were advantages to living life on the right side of the law. This was a deal with a devil, a devil who cared only about himself and his own greed, who had manipulated and hurt hundreds of people to satisfy his lusts and who had killed people that Neal loved without a second thought or a single regret.

In the days that followed that first one on the island, Neal’s life adopted a new pattern. He woke in the morning, mostly ignored the light breakfast that was delivered to his room, except for the coffee, then he went to the library shadowed by Jacobs or whoever was the minion of the day. There he would work on recreating whatever masterwork sat on the easel, first the Degas, then a Van Dyke, a Rembrandt, a Vermeer, and a Renoir.

Neal almost enjoyed this part of his day. It helped the loneliness and the fear of what had happened to Peter at his own hand to lose himself in the act of creation. Neal would concentrate on color, and brushstrokes and the emotions of the artist and his own anxiety and tension would slip away. Just for a little while, Neal could forget that his life was essentially over and that he had no reason any longer to try to get it back. It was a fragile sort of peace forged by paint and brushes and far too easily washed away in linseed oil at the end of each afternoon.

After he finished painting for the day and cleaning up his supplies, Neal would choose a book from one of the shelves, Dostoevsky, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Marquez, Vonnegut, Camus, Faulkner, to take back to his room to while away the long hours of the night.

Most evenings, Adler would summon Neal to dinner. They would eat al fresco on one of several different patios around the luxurious estate house. At first these meals were the same as the ones on the yacht. Adler would explicate endlessly on some seemingly random topic and Neal would nod in all right places as he picked listlessly at his meal. But after a few weeks, Neal noticed a subtle shift in Adler’s behavior toward him. He started touching Neal more, pulling Neal’s chair out for him, placing a hand on the small of his back as he had done that first morning, lightly grasping Neal’s shoulder. The tone of some of their conversations changed too and Neal was certain that Adler was flirting with him.

The very idea of being intimate with Vincent Adler in any way elicited a wave of revulsion in Neal. Adler was a man who got what he wanted. Even in exile, he had wealth, power and the ability to coerce what he wanted from those he wanted it from. He had already coerced Neal into shooting Peter, leaving New York with him, accepting his own captivity and forging an unbelievable collection of masterworks. And, now it seemed he wanted Neal’s body as well.

Neal didn’t want to give this one last thing to Adler, but he wasn’t entirely certain that he could prevent it from happening anyway, considering his current position. The truth was, he didn’t really care all that much what happened to him now. With the tug of his trigger finger, he had destroyed the life he had built in New York and for that maybe he deserved to become Adler’s plaything.

***

At the end of his first full day back at work, Peter went to Neal's apartment instead of returning to Brooklyn. He pulled a chair out from the dining room table and straddled it surveying the space. June had covered all of the furniture in sheets to keep the dust at bay. Peter knew that everything underneath them was just as Neal had left it. June never doubted for a moment that Neal had been abducted by Adler and she wanted everything to be the same when her young boarder returned. As she seemed to be in all things, June was confident that he would one day. Peter desperately wished that he could share in that certainty.

But unfortunately, the sheeting held a different meaning for Peter. It brought back memories of watching old movies late into the night as a teenager, sitting alone in his family's dark living room. In the world of black and white cinema only ghosts and sad memories filled with regret lived in places with shrouded furniture. To Peter, it seemed like Neal's belongings were stuck in time, mourning an owner they knew would never return.

Despite that, it was here in Neal's home that Peter had the strongest sense of his lost partner. Neal was a lot of things, a conman, a forger, a swaggering pain in the ass, but Peter would always remember those moment on the sub, just before they cut through the hatch.

“Peter, in case this doesn’t work.”

“Yeah, me too.”


They both had meant them, those words that weren't spoken. The emotions behind them were real and true. It was still hard for Peter to believe, but he had never had a better friend than the exasperating, brilliant, ambiguously moral conman and criminal he had chased for years. In most ways they were polar opposites and yet there was no one Peter would rather have as his partner.

Eventually, after the sun had set leaving Neal's apartment cloaked in darkness and Peter's own guilt, he rose, placed the chair back under the table and made his way home. El was waiting for him, dinner still warm in the oven.

"Hon, it was your first day back. I hoped you would have been able to leave at five."

"I did," Peter replied quickly, trying to calm El's worries.

She raised a questioning eyebrow.

Peter sighed. "I stopped by Neal's on the way home."

"Why?"

"I'm not sure,” he confessed. “To feel connected to him, maybe to see if inspiration would strike."

"Are you sure he wants to be found? I know you believe he didn't go with Adler willingly, but it’s possible he's already free and if you find him, you'll have to bring him back and he'll be on the anklet again."

"I don't think Adler planned on just letting Neal walk away once they were out of the country. Adler takes what he wants and he doesn't give it up until he's done with it. I don't want to think about what condition Neal will be in when Adler decides he's done with him." Peter ran his hand through his hair, feeling the tension in his body swell. “El, he’s my responsibility. If anything were to happen to him. I don’t think I could live with it.”

El came over and wrapped her husband carefully in her arms. "You'll find him. You always do."

***

Neal had lost track of the days he had been living on Cape Verde from the monotony his existence had taken on. His only real source of time sense came from how many works of art he recreated. By his current count of eight paintings and two sculptures it was probably just over two months in real time when Adler first slipped into Neal's room in the dark of night.

Neal had been reading, as he always did, and had just put the novel aside and turned out the light beside his bed when the door to his room clicked open. Quietly the door swung in, someone entered and the door was just as quietly shut again.

Neal lay still, feigning sleep, hoping that it was just Shaft or Jacobs coming to make sure he was still in his bed. Neal cracked an eye open and in the faint light coming through his window he could see a figure approach his bed. Neal knew from the silhouette and the scent of expensive aftershave that it was Vincent leaning over him. The covers were pulled aside and Adler climbed in next to him.

Neal's body stiffened as he struggled to keep his breathing soft and even in imitation of sleep. Adler shifted lightly onto his side facing Neal, almost as if he was trying not to wake him. He placed his arm across Neal's waist, snuggled in just a bit closer, sighed and then drifted off to sleep.

For a long time Neal lay there afraid to move, afraid to breathe, wondering why Vincent Adler was in his bed, wondering more precisely why Vincent Adler was only just in his bed. Neal had never known Adler to hesitate, to wait, to finesse instead of force. Neal didn't understand the flirting, the gentle touches, the almost romantic manner in which Adler was behaving. Eventually, Neal slept and when he woke in the morning Adler was gone.

For the next three nights, the same routine played out. Not long after Neal turned out his bedroom light, his door would quietly open, Adler would steal into the room and join Neal in his bed. He would say nothing, and do nothing overt. He would simply lay down next to Neal and wrap his arm around Neal's waist.

At dinner the evening following that fourth night, Neal's curiosity won out. Vincent was droning on about fracking and the future of the oil industry when Neal interjected. "Why?"

Adler placed his fork down on the edge of his plate and looked over at Neal. "Why what, Neal?"

They were sitting on the veranda that overlooked the beach and the Atlantic Ocean. Neal could see the turquoise water as it washed in and out from the white sand shore over Adler's right shoulder. "Why the games?" Neal asked finally, setting his own fork aside.

"I'm not sure I follow," Adler replied mildly.

Neal sighed and pushed his chair away from the table. "I've never known you not to simply take what you want, Vincent. You've made it perfectly clear what you want now. Why the charade?"

"It's not a charade, Neal. You've noticed that I'm still single. I'm sure you know that I've never been married, nor have I ever dated anyone for more than a year or so."

Neal nodded curtly.

Alder looked down at his plate briefly and then met Neal's eyes. "Maybe, I've finally figured out that taking what I want, at least in this particular arena, hasn't really been working all that well."

Neal blinked. This was not the answer he had been expecting. He knew Adler didn't have a sincere bone in his body, he knew that any game was fair game in Adler's world, but he also knew that Adler's words were true. Coercion and manipulation were never valid routes in love and romance. Neal knew that from his own experiences with Kate. He had lost her because of his attempt to manipulate her into joining him in the hunt for the music box.

"Why me?"

Adler smiled. "Do you really need to ask that, Neal, or are you fishing for compliments?"

"I've never threatened to kill someone I claimed to care about."

"No, I'm sure you haven't," Adler replied as the smile left his face. "And, I won't apologize for that. I spent half my life searching for that U-Boat. I wasn't about to let you or anyone get in my way. But that's in the past. We have a future to look forward to, one that we can share together, if you're willing."

Neal had no idea how to respond to that. The future was a concept that no longer had any meaning for him. He didn't want to be with Adler. In truth he hated the man, and he was certain that he always would. But, he wasn’t going anywhere, at least not anytime soon and living life alone, with only his regrets for company, held no appeal either. "Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows." Shakespeare was profoundly correct once again.

"I don't expect you to fall into my arms, or anything so Harlequin Romance. But do think about what I'm offering you, Neal. We could be very good together." With that Adler picked up his fork and returned to his meal.

After a minute, Neal pulled his chair back up to the table, picked up his own fork and resumed his normal dinnertime activity of picking at his food while he contemplated Adler's words.

That night while Adler lay sleeping curled up against him, Neal's mind wandered back to New York once again and all the different nightmare scenarios that he had conjured since that day on the pier. As silent tears rolled down his cheeks Neal knew with certainty that there was no way he could ever find peace, no way he could keep his soul, while Adler took his body, if he didn't know if Peter had survived, if he didn't know if Peter could forgive him.

In the morning, he woke with a new sense of determination, and a plan to defy Adler, just once.

He spent several days biding his time, until he learned that Adler was leaving the island for a few days to sell some of Neal's forgeries. And, then he bided his time for another two days after Adler was gone to ensure that his jailers believed that Neal was complacent and compliant.

Despite the fact that Neal had arrived on the island with no intention of escaping, the thief in him had surveilled the entire property. He knew every entrance and exit to the estate, he knew where the guards were posted and what their habits were. He knew Jacobs and Shaft the best, including the fact that Jacobs carried a cell phone in his left jacket pocket and that neither of his guards actually spent the whole night outside his bedroom door anymore, even with Adler gone the last two nights.

The third day that Adler was gone, Neal slipped that phone carefully from Jacobs' pocket using his most advanced skills, his body never even coming close to his guard's. He had to make Jacobs believe that he had lost or misplaced the phone somehow. It was the only way his plan would succeed.

Once Neal had the phone in his possession, held tightly in the waistband of his underwear, he spent the next several hours holding his breath, and pulling off one of the best cons of his life. Being able to make this phone call meant more to him than anything had in a very long time, since he had knowingly sacrificed his freedom for the chance to be reunited with Kate at the warehouse.

That day had actually ended better than he had expected. Yes, he had walked away in handcuffs, which led to his four years in prison. But he got Kate back, for a little while at least. Neal swallowed back on his fear that today's result wouldn't be as positive. That he would call the Burke residence to find El alone and grieving for her husband. He spent the remainder of the day with his expression neutral and his mind apparently intent on the Manet he was forging. He silently counted the minutes until he could return to his room to wait in private for the opportunity to slip out of the house and into the night to make his call.

He didn't eat the dinner that was delivered to his room, nor did he sleep at all while he waited for the right time to make his move. His heart was pounding too hard from anxiety for him to concentrate on anything other than the way the sound of it reverberated in his head and the dreadful thought that soon he would know for sure that he had killed Peter.

It was nearly four in the morning by the time he felt it would be safe enough to make his attempt to leave the grounds. His room, as he knew it would be, was unguarded and he slipped into the hallway and down the stairs without incident. He chose the French doors in the main living room as his exit point from the house. They were near the gate that led out of the compound and onto the beach.

As Neal had hoped, the elderly man that Adler employed to guard the wrought iron doorway was asleep on his chair, his snores a perfect counterpoint to the sound of the waves crashing against the shoreline.

Neal slipped through the gate and then jogged a half mile or so down the beach. It was an interesting night. The sky above him was filled with stars, but not far out into the ocean a storm raged with booming thunder and lightning that reflected brightly off the water. Neal took a deep breath before pulling out the stolen phone and dialing the Burke's home number with shaking fingers.

It would be just about midnight in New York and Neal held his breath through the three rings, praying that Peter would answer. Then the line was picked up and Neal heard Peter say his name and in a rush all the dread and anxiety that Neal had been keeping locked inside of himself these past weeks flooded away with the tide.

"Peter."

"Yeah, I'm here. I'm okay, Neal."

"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry." Peter had to know that Neal never wanted to see him hurt or to cause him any pain.

"I know. I know you did what you had to. Neal, I know you saved my life."

Neal took a moment to savor those words, looking up at the stars that spilled luminously on the dark canvas of the night sky. Peter didn't blame him.

"You can come home, Neal. We can work this out."

"I shot a federal agent, Peter. I can never come home."

"No one knows that but me and you, and no one has to," Peter countered.

"And Adler and his guards. I just needed to know that you were okay."

"I am, we are."

Tears of both relief for Peter's safety, and grief for those Neal was forced to leave behind, came to Neal's eyes unbidden, blurring the points of light in the sky and reminding Neal of van Gogh's Starry Night.

"Please come home, Neal. I can make this right," Peter implored.

"I can't, Peter."

"Can't or won't?"

Neal could hear the kernel of Peter's core argument with Neal in the question. "Are you a con or a man?"

He wanted to be the man, and maybe by choosing to stay away from New York and the people who could only be hurt by his presence in their lives, he was in some way choosing to be a man. “You’re an FBI agent and I’m a conman. There were only a few ways this could have ended. This is one of the best.” Neal hesitated, breaking this connection was one of the hardest things he had ever had to do. “You understand this has to be the last time.”

The line was quiet for a long moment, though Neal was sure he could hear Peter's wheels spinning. “It was good to hear your voice,” the older man finally said.

“You too,” Neal agreed wholeheartedly, before cutting the connection.

He held the phone tightly in his hand for a long moment wishing desperately that he could call back and ask Peter to come and get him, to save him from Adler and more importantly, from himself. But in the end he did what he had to do. He walked to edge of the waterline and threw the phone as far out into the ocean as he could. There was no going back.

Part 2

 
 
 
a rearranger of the proverbial bookshelf: White Collar - Neal tropicalembroiderama on September 30th, 2014 02:26 am (UTC)
Making me all teary before bed, pooh! Not fair! Not fair!

:)
pooh_collectorpooh_collector on October 1st, 2014 07:16 pm (UTC)
I'm sorry! Bad bear is bad!
caseyf123 on September 30th, 2014 03:11 am (UTC)
What a fantastic story. You have me hanging on every word, waiting to see what happens next. I like the way you have taken parts of cannon and twisted them into this intriguing story of your making. My heart just aches for Peter and Neal.
pooh_collectorpooh_collector on October 1st, 2014 07:18 pm (UTC)
Thank you! I'm so glad you enjoyed it. It was quite a task writing this monster and at times I was afraid that I wasn't maintaining the suspense. I'm happy to hear that I was wrong.
scarym1scarym1 on October 5th, 2014 12:08 am (UTC)
What a fascinating take on the whole Alder & Cape Verde situation. I love how Peter, upon waking up in the hospital, figured out that in shooting him, Neal was actually trying to save his life. : )
pooh_collector: bb iconpooh_collector on October 8th, 2014 03:59 pm (UTC)
Thank you scary! I'm glad that you liked it. If anyone knows what's going on inside Neal's head at any given time, it's definitely Peter.
eldorah: Neal - smileeldorah on October 12th, 2014 06:36 am (UTC)
Oh wow, so masterfully written, I loved every word of this. I had started copying and pasting all the specific quotes I loved into this comment box, but I realized halfway through it would have been just about every line. I did particularly love Diana's response to Peter's plea that Neal only did what was best for Peter, among many, many other lines.

I love how beautifully you blended the canon plots and discourse with your own very creative and plausible storyline. The characters are written so well, I can almost see it all play out on the screen in front of me as I read. Your attention to detail is amazing.

I am so very much looking forward to finishing this. Thank you for sharing.
pooh_collector: bb iconpooh_collector on October 14th, 2014 02:28 pm (UTC)
Thank you for reading and commenting!

I'm glad that you're enjoying it and I hope the rest lives up to expectation.

I like to image things as actual WC episodes when I write them, sometimes they seem to work out so well and other times, not so much. LOL.