Present Day… New York…
As costumed vigilantes across the world and beyond it talked about their recently found brother, son, and friend, the troubled man at the heart of their conversations was still sitting alone in his secluded corner of the FBI conference room. Dawn was hours away, but as tired as he felt, Neal simply could not sleep. There was too much to worry about. Part of it was from the earlier attempt on his life at his home. The other part was from the fact that Peter was even considering sending him back to prison.
The very idea of being sent back to Supermax made Neal feel sick. That was the absolute last place he ever wanted to be again. Didn’t Peter understand that? He glared at the tracking anklet that now felt more like a ball and chain attached to his leg. How much longer did he have before his (granted limited) freedom was stripped from him again “for his own safety?” That’s one of the things that galled him the most about this new looming threat of re-incarceration. He hadn’t even done anything wrong! He would be going back into lock down because someone else was trying to kill him!
Neal buried his face in his arms. He was trying so hard to do the right things now. When was the world going to stop taking things from him? Wasn’t stripping Kate away from him enough? How much more would he have to lose before the fates were satisfied? More of his friends? His own life?
There was a knocking at the door.
“Go away!” Neal said.
He grimaced when he heard a key being turned in the lock.
“You know, Peter? Traditionally, locked doors are seen as a kind of barrier, usually meant to keep people out.” Neal lifted his head from his arms with an exasperated sigh.
Peter paused a few steps through the door and looked at Neal incredulously. “This coming from you?”
He shrugged. “Well, I’ve been known to enjoy bucking tradition on occasion.” Neal attempted a sarcastic smile with his quip, but it failed to materialize. “What do you want?”
“Just wanted to let you know that there’s a cot set up in that empty office at the end of the hall. Someplace a little more private and quieter if you wanted to get some sleep.” Peter looked genuinely sympathetic as he offered the room.
“Let’s see. Small windowless space. Bare bones bed. Surrounded by people in law enforcement, even as I sleep. Yeah, I should probably start getting used to that feeling again. Not like it’ll be anything new for me, right? Supposedly it’s better than being shot.”
Neal might’ve felt guilty about the hurt expression that flashed across Peter’s face if he still wasn’t so frustrated.
“I just want to make sure you’re safe,” Peter said in a tone that sounded far too fatherly for the former con’s own tastes. Too familiar… Though he couldn’t place exactly why. “Someone out there is trying to get to you. Manipulate you. Possibly kill you.”
“And the only safe place you can think to put me is back in prison?”
Frustration slowly bloomed on Peter’s face. “I’m just trying to protect you!”
“I never asked for your protection!” Neal yelled back. “All I want is to find the person responsible for murdering Kate!”
“Even if it means you might die in the process?”
The heavy silence that greeted Peter spoke volumes as Neal averted his eyes, unable to meet the agent’s gaze.
“Neal,” Peter said, his voice tense but even. “Ask yourself this. Would Kate really want you to throw your life away searching for her killer? Do you honestly think she would want you to die while seeking revenge for her murder?”
“I want justice!”
Peter’s eyes narrowed. “If what you really want is justice, if that really is all you want, that’s all well and good. I’ll support you every step of the way. We’ll find out what happened to Kate together and get at least that much for her. However, if your definition of justice involves hurting or killing anyone in retribution, then you’re just conning yourself.” He took a deep breath and ran his fingers through his hair. “It’s late, Neal, and it’s been a very long night for everyone. You should get some sleep. In the morning, we’ll go over everything regarding the shooting with the rest of the team and figure out what to do next. If you need me, I’ll be in my office.”
Once Peter had left, Neal finally lifted his head to look at the closed door. As he did so, his thoughts turned inward. Did he really want justice, or was he really only searching for revenge? Would dying for either really be worth it? Would Kate have wanted that?
He missed her so much…
As much as Neal intended to get up and migrate to the cot Peter had prepared in the other office, the exhausted man still ended up dozing off in his secluded corner of the conference room. About two hours later, he was woken up by the insistent vibration of his cell phone. He groggily fumbled for the device in his inner jacket pocket and managed to answer it without accidentally disconnecting the call.
“Hullo?” he mumbled as he tried unsuccessfully to will his heavy-lidded eyes to open.
“Neal? Is that you?”
That voice! Neal’s eyes snapped open in shock. “Who is this?” he asked warily.
There was a small sob of relief on the other end of the line before the voice returned in excited, but hushed tones. “It’s you! Oh thank god! It’s me, Neal! It’s Kate!”
He got to his feet immediately as his mind whirled. This couldn’t be real. Had the stress of everything tonight finally made him snap? “No… No, you can’t be Kate. Kate’s dead. Who is this? Who the hell are you?”
“Neal?” the too-familiar woman’s voice on the other end of the line sounded hurt. “What are you talking about?”
“Stop lying! The plane exploded right in front of me!” It was hard to keep his voice down while he spoke with the stranger on the phone, but he did his best. Last thing he needed was for Peter to come in watching him arguing with a figment of his imagination.
“Plane? What plane? I don’t know what you’re talking about. Fowler’s had me on a short leash for most of the year. I haven’t been anywhere near an airport in a months.”
“Fowler…” There was doubt creeping up in his voice as Neal felt a tightness in his chest. That bastard… The one who’d been pulling so many strings in everything that led up to Kate’s death… Could he, or the person he was working for, have been devious enough to fake a person’s death? But for what purpose? Something didn’t sound right about any of this, but the fact that someone who sounded like the woman he loved was talking to him on his phone was proving too big a distraction to ignore.
“If you really are my Kate,” Neal whispered. “You need to prove it to me. I need to hear something only she and I would know. Something personal.”
There was only a short moment of silence. “At the end of every visit while you were in prison, we exchanged letters folded into origami. What the officials there didn’t know was that we’d put in hidden messages in the letters. On the last visit before Fowler forced me to break up with you, there was a question hidden in the letter you gave me.”
Neal’s mouth went dry. “If you could’ve answered me?”
“The answer would’ve been yes.”
He leaned against the wall and closed his eyes, his heart thudding loudly in his chest. “Kate… You’re really alive? How did you get my number?”
“Fowler thought he threw away this burn phone, but I grabbed it when he wasn’t looking. Your number was the only one on it. Oh god Neal. I’m scared. He keeps me locked in hotels, and we’re on the road all the time. I need help! I want to get away, but I can’t on my own.”
Neal’s mind was working furiously as he listened to Kate’s trembling, desperate voice. “Where are you? How can I find you?”
There was the sound of movement over the phone and the rustling of window blinds being parted. “We’re in Gotham City for now,” she said. “I can see Wayne Tower from my room.”
“What about where you’re at? What hotel? An address? Anything?”
Neal could tell Kate was now searching the room. He could hear drawers being opened and closed. “I can’t find anything. Fowler usually cleans the rooms before he locks me-” Her words stopped suddenly.
Kate’s whisper was even quieter and more frantic now. “Someone’s at the door. They’re using the key! Oh God, it’s him! It’s him!”
The fear in her voice cut straight through Neal like a dagger. He forced himself to remain calm, though, for her sake. “Don’t panic,” he said. “Everything will be alright. I’m coming for you. Hide the phone. Call me again when you feel safe to do so. I’m on my way.”
“I love you.”
Neal swallowed hard. “I love you, too.”
When the call was disconnected, Neal immediately moved into action. Without even thinking about it, his feet carried him swiftly out of the conference room and straight to Peter’s office. He got as far as the door, but froze when his hands touched the doorknob.
“He won’t believe me,” was the thought that ran through Neal’s mind as he looked through the glass at Peter, who was fast asleep at his desk, leaning as far back as his chair allowed. “He’ll think I was just dreaming or hallucinating.” He grimaced at his own thoughts. “Even if he did believe me, he’d never let me leave New York to go to Gotham City, especially after what happened tonight. He’s too hell bent on protecting me.” Slowly, Neal retracted his hand and took a step back from the door.
“I’m sorry, Peter,” Neal whispered. Then he turned and walked away, dialing up a number on his cell as he made his way to the private office where his unused cot was waiting for him.
“Neal, to put it as eloquently as I can, you are out of your mind!” Mozzie said as he stared at his Neal as if the guy had completely lost his marbles. The two of them were walking side by side along the sidewalk, heading quickly away from the FBI office building. “How did you get the suit to take his eyes off of you, anyways?”
“I accidentally spilled a cup of coffee on him,” Neal explained. “Wasn’t too hard to make it look legit considering how tired both of us were this morning. Even a workaholic like him couldn’t stand the idea of smelling like stale coffee all day. On top of it, he didn’t have a spare suit at the office.” It was shortly after 7am and the moment Peter stepped out to get a shower and change of clothes from home, Neal slipped out unnoticed as well. Anyone who saw him leaving the building had just assumed he was trailing behind Peter. He’d called Mozzie up late last night and made a very urgent request. The contents of the request were now collected in a backpack that Moz had slung over his shoulder.
“Are you a hundred percent sure that you weren’t dreaming last night?”
“It was no dream, Moz,” Neal reassured. “She called me last night. It was Kate. She’s alive, in trouble, and I’m going to find her.”
The smaller man sighed. “You know this sounds an awful lot like a trap. A late night call from a woman who just happened to sound like the dead love of your life, who just happened to get a hold of a phone her kidnapper just happened to throw away?”
“I know. In fact, I’d bet my bottom dollar that it is a trap.”
Mozzie stopped walking and stared at Neal. “Then why are you leaping out of the frying pan and straight into hell’s furnace?”
Neal stopped walking as well and turned to glance at Mozzie behind him. “Because she needs me.”
“Jesus Christ, Neal! How do you know that the woman you talked to last night was even Kate?”
Neal looked at Moz with a heartsick expression. “Because she knew things, things only Kate would’ve known. If there’s even a sliver of a chance that she’s alive, I have to pursue it.”
“As much as it physically sickens me to say this, I think you really ought to talk to the suit about this,” Moz muttered. “Whoever is pulling the strings in this twisted web of lies and deceit, they are not people to be faced either lightly or alone. Especially not in THAT city. Gotham City devours people alive.”
“If everything works out, I won’t be alone for very long there,” Neal said as he flashed Moz a knowing, confident grin. “As soon as I get to the city, I’ll turn off the jamming device-“
“If it even works. It’s never been tested before.”
“-and Peter will know exactly where to find me.”
“Why don’t you just tell him now?”
Neal sighed. “Because Peter’s in over-protective, mother-hen mode. The shooting last night has him completely freaked out. He told me he’s considering sending me back to prison for my own safety. If I tell him I want to go to Gotham City to rescue Kate from Fowler, he’d have me locked up and the key thrown away before lunch.”
“You know this is going to totally screw up your deal with the feds,” Mozzie reminded Neal solemnly.
“I know… But if sacrificing the deal means Kate gets her freedom, then it’s a price I’m willing to pay.”
Mozzie shook his head. “Being deeply loved by someone gives one strength, while loving someone deeply gives one courage. However, Neal, don’t forget that rashness is the faithful, but unhappy parent of misfortune.”
Neal gave Mozzie a melancholy smile. “I know you’re worried, but everything will be alright, you’ll see.”
They came to a stop at the entrance to an alley where a motorcycle that had clearly seen better was waiting for them. “It’s the best I can do on short notice,” Moz said despondently as Neal inspected the machine. “I can’t guarantee you can outrun the cops or the feds on it, but I’m relatively sure that it’ll get you to Gotham in one piece.”
Neal nodded as he swung a leg over the bike and settled himself on it experimentally. “It’ll do.”
With a grimace, Moz offered the backpack to Neal, who promptly took it put it on his own back. Then he reached into his pocket and pulled out what looked like a modified iPod Nano. “All you gotta do to jam the signal on the tracker, theoretically, is to start the program that I loaded up and stick this onto the anklet. Again, this hasn’t been tested, so I can’t say for certain if it’ll work at all.”
“Maybe if I get enough of a head start, it won’t matter,” Neal contemplated. Then he looked at Mozzie gratefully. “Thank you for everything, Moz. I couldn’t have done this without you.”
Moz shook his head. “Don’t thank me for anything, Neal. I’ve got enough sense to know I’m not doing you any favors by encouraging this. It’s just… I know that I can’t stop you. Even if I decided not to help, you’d just go running off anyways, completely unprepared.”
Neal still gave his old friend one last smile before slipping on his helmet. “Take care of yourself, Moz. Hopefully I’ll see you again soon.”
And with that, Neal attached the jamming device to his tracking anklet, started up the motorcycle, and tore out of the alley, weaving in and out of the morning rush hour traffic.
As Peter Burke was taking a quick shower at his home, his wife, Elizabeth, was laying out a fresh suit for her husband, along with an extra in case he needed to pull another all-nighter at the office. She was distracted from contemplating his ties when a series of warning beeps suddenly erupted from her husband’s phone. All it took was one look at the screen, and Elle went bursting into the bathroom unannounced.
“Peter!” she yelled with alarm, startling her husband so badly that he nearly slipped in the shower. She winced as she heard him clamor for footing behind the fogged up glass panels.
“Elle?” Peter said as he opened the shower door and poked his head out. At the expression on his wife’s face, his own became more serious. “What’s wrong?”
“This!” She thrust the phone at him, knowing he wouldn’t want to grab it with his wet hands.
Once Peter read the alert on the screen, though, any concerns for how waterproof his phone was went out the window. “No… No, no, no, no, no…” he repeated as he tied a towel around his waist, grabbed his phone, and stormed out of the bathroom, still sopping wet. He went straight to his laptop on the dining room table and flipped it open. The screensaver blinked away and the last program left running, the one monitoring Neal’s tracking anklet, filled the screen. On top of the open window, a single alert message was flashing in bright crimson letters.
We return focus to Neal and Peter in this chapter. I know these last few chapters have been taking longer to write and release than the previous ones. I believe it’s because as I’m starting to near the end of the story, I’m finding myself taking more time to make sure that I’m keeping all the story lines in order, fact-checking various little canon details for the characters of both Batman and White Collar, and make sure that any dialog actually sounds like something the characters speaking would say.
The introduction of Kate into this story is one I’ve been planning from near the very beginning, once the overarching plotline involving Tim/Neal’s past and present began to reveal itself. One thing that still bugs me today when I watch White Collar is the ambiguous nature of Kate’s death. At the end of Season 1, Kate is supposedly killed when the plane she’s waiting on explodes. However, throughout the entire run of Season 2, there’s no mention of Kate’s body being buried. There’s no scene of Neal visiting a tombstone with her name on it. It has always left a question in my mind about whether or not she’s actually dead. There’s also always been a question in my mind about whether or not Kate actually loved Neal at all, or was only using him for her own ends.
I will definitely be exploring those views as this story progresses towards its inevitable conclusion.