Elizabeth stepped into DC, and caught herself on a low railing while she took a couple of deep breaths. Then she took off at a brisk pace, forcing her unwilling body to move as fast as she could. No more interacting. No more. She still felt sick from the memory of the brick hitting Peter's skull.
She shouldn't have let herself be seen. Ever.
So stupid of her…
She stumbled, but kept going even though she was almost ready to just drop down onto the paving slabs and rest wherever she fell. She just had to get somewhere out of sight, that was all.
She caught sight of Neal just as she came upon a green space thick with well-pruned trees and ornamental hedges. He was walking hand in hand with Sara, who looked… yes, she was definitely pregnant.
Elizabeth got out of sight behind one of the hedges before they could spot her. She wouldn't ruin things for them with her out-of-place presence. She refused.
It was getting to the point where she wasn't sure how many more transitions she physically had energy for. But the right Neal wasn't here, and so she had to keep moving as quickly as possible.
The effort of tearing a hole left her gasping. But it was too late now to rest, so she stepped through, and ignored the call button for the hotel elevator right in front of her. She was certain that when the elevator car arrived it would contain someone she knew, so instead she turned hastily to follow the signs for the stairs instead.
On the deserted stairwell she allowed herself to slump. She rested her arms on her knees, leaning forward to let her head drop as she took deep breaths. Every muscle ached with fatigue, and her bones were too heavy to move.
It was no sort of time to let sleep claim her, but she was sorely tempted nonetheless. Just let go, leave Neal to fend for himself a little longer in whatever universe he had washed up into. But that was what she couldn't do.
Summoning what felt like everything she had, she forced herself back to her feet. The air was like tar, clutching at her hands as she pulled them through it. In the moment after the tear had opened she heard loud voices as someone opened the stairwell door a floor or two below her. She couldn't resist the urge to eavesdrop just for a second — it was Peter, Diana and Neal, all sounding furious, although she couldn't make out any content. She could hear them begin to climb, so it was time for her to go.
As soon as her shoes crunched over gravel, she knew she'd made a mistake. Her knees buckled, no longer having the strength to hold her up, and her hands were grazed and scraped as she tried to catch herself. She had no idea where she was — some sort of warehouse district? — and everything was spinning too much for her to be able to catch any details.
She wasn't going to be able to stay conscious any longer. She realised it with a dim sense of resignation. She had got too far beyond her endurance, and she hadn't been able to find Neal, and she was lying totally exposed on the gravel, and she had failed.
She closed her eyes, and might have cried if she hadn't been too tired for that, too.
In her last moment of awareness, she faintly heard someone say, "Elizabeth?"
Not the one you're after, she thought, and was gone.
The crowds around him were overwhelmingly noisy, and the sun stabbed down into Neal's skull. He could only open his eyes to slits against its glare, but it was still enough to be certain about where he was. Venice, on a sweltering summer's day, at the edge of a square so packed with tourists that no one glanced at him twice as he half-fell against the nearest wall, swaying on his feet as he clung to the hot stone.
The pain in his head was worse than a migraine now, pounding harshly, and he felt dizzy and weak. It would be something of a miracle if he managed not to faint.
He tried not to move. But he risked squinting his eyes open again, and in that moment he saw Peter elbowing his way towards him from the other side of the square, dressed appropriately for the weather (unlike Neal himself). Neal sighed in resignation. He was beyond evasive manoeuvring, and just gave a little wave instead.
Peter answered with a scowl. He was temporarily blocked, however, by a loud tour group pushing its way past. In that instant Neal began to fall again, everything going white, and despite everything he couldn't help grinning as he imagined Peter's confusion at losing him from right there.
The grin was wiped from his face as he hit ground again, a fresh wave of pain piercing his head. He couldn't take much more of this, he knew. Would he still keep moving if he passed out, his unconscious body continually dragged onwards by whatever was happening to him?
He was in a narrow corridor, next to a bolted door with a small grille set into it. He pushed himself over to look through, purely because it was there. After the way his thoughts had turned he wasn't even terribly surprised to see himself lying, unmoving, in the small room beyond. He'd been beaten, and had at one point presumably been bound by the shackles now lying open near him on the floor.
"Hey!" Neal hissed, hoarsely. "Wake up!" His other self stirred very slightly, but didn't open his eyes.
With shaking fingers, he slid open the bolt. The other Neal stirred some more, looking this time like he was beginning to wake up.
Before he could do anything more to help, he was swallowed up again.
And fell, tumbling down a flight of steps. He was barely able to break his fall at all and lay, groaning, at the bottom.
"Are you all right?" someone asked. An unfamiliar voice. That was a change. He blinked up at the blue-and-white sky dazedly.
"He's with me," someone else called. This time definitely familiar. A hand was slipped under his arm. "Neal, what are you doing?"
"Hi, Moz," Neal groaned.
Mozzie, hovering upside down above him, scowled. "I know you have a flair for the dramatic, but that was a bit much even for you. Are you okay?"
"Yeah," Neal said, probably unconvincingly, and tried to lever himself up. It didn't really work, mostly because his head was spinning.
"Should I call an ambulance?" the first voice asked.
"No," both Neal and Mozzie said, in unison.
With Mozzie's assistance, Neal finally managed to sit up. Great — he was in one of the public squares, near a fountain, and several people were standing nearby watching him. Apparently his tumble had had an audience. "I'm fine," he said. To Mozzie he hissed, "Get me out of here."
"Get up then," Mozzie hissed back.
Somehow, they managed to get him onto his feet and they got away, Neal leaning heavily on Mozzie's shoulder. "I need a safehouse," he mumbled, trying to keep walking in a straight line. "Anything close?"
There turned out to be one a short cab ride away. Neal realised as soon as he climbed into the backseat that what he should actually have done was make an excuse to send Mozzie away, quickly, before he felt out of the world again. But it was too late now.
Also, it seemed vaguely unfair to deprive Mozzie of seeing that. No one would believe him, anyway.
However, Neal managed to complete the cab journey, and again with Mozzie's help he stumbled as far as the safehouse. He didn't get much of a look at it — it contained at least one thing he could lie on, and in short order he was horizontal.
"You look like hell," Mozzie said, standing over him. Neal had his eyes closed, but he knew anyway the frown that would be on Mozzie's face. "Maybe you do need a doctor. A properly vetted one, I mean."
"One you found would just as likely be an actual vet," Neal muttered. He forced himself to look up. "No doctors. Moz, you can't tell anyone I'm here. Not even me."
The blur of Mozzie's face frowned some more. "What do you mean, not even you?"
Neal groped for an explanation, and then thought, screw it. "I'm not the Neal you know," he said. "I'm from a parallel universe."
"What's the code?" Mozzie asked, immediately.
Neal squinted at him. "What?"
"To prove it," Mozzie explained. "If you know me there, surely I would have given you a passphrase to convince me that you're telling the truth. What is it?"
Neal groaned. His head hurt too much for that sort of thing. "You didn't know I was coming," he said. "Going. Whatever. It was sort of an accident. I lost Elizabeth."
"Mrs Suit's from a parallel universe?" Mozzie asked. He sounded positively gleeful, like a child on Christmas morning.
Neal resisted the urge to try and find a pillow to put over his face. "A different Elizabeth. She was bringing me somewhere else. It's complicated, and right now I think I'm about to either faint or throw up."
Mozzie took a hasty step backwards. "I'd prefer it if you didn't," he said.
So would Neal, but he was pretty certain that at least the first was about to happen. "Don't tell anyone," he begged. "Please."
"Of course I won't!" Mozzie exclaimed, sounding offended. "Not even you. The other you. Even if you ask." He hesitated. "You promise you're telling the truth?"
"I promise, Moz," Neal mumbled, and then he couldn't stay awake any longer.
Elizabeth woke with the dragging, blurry feeling of having slept for far longer than was usual. And even before looking she knew that she was somewhere unfamiliar.
She was lying on some sort of mattress, and there was a distant, irregular noise of machinery. Cautiously, she opened her eyes onto a white wall, the paint cracking from age.
She turned her head towards the speaker, and sat up. Her body ached, but it was only the lingering remnants of the deep fatigue that remained. "Did you bring me here?"
"I found you just outside," Mozzie said. He was sitting cross-legged on a floor cushion across from the bedding-covered mattress she had been sleeping on. He looked uncomfortable, forehead creased in a frown. "How did you know about this place?"
"I didn't; I just ended up here by accident," Elizabeth told him, with complete honesty. She twisted around to match his posture.
"I telephoned your house," Mozzie said, confessionally. "You were unconscious. I thought the Suit would need to know where you were."
Oh, no. "What did you say?" she asked. If Peter was on his way, how on earth was she going to explain this to him?
"Nothing," Mozzie said. "You answered the phone."
Elizabeth winced. "I suppose you want an explanation," she hedged.
To her surprise, Mozzie shook his head rather smugly. "Oh, I've already worked out what it is," he said. "You're a different Elizabeth from a parallel universe, come to secretly infiltrate ours. Well, I won't let you!" His glare was abrupt and surprisingly fierce.
Elizabeth blinked a couple of times. "That's… actually right," she admitted. "I mean, not the secretly infiltrating bit! I really did end up here completely by accident."
"But you don't deny you are from a parallel universe?"
"I knew it," Mozzie said, and sat back. He now looked completely at ease. "I knew there had to be a reasonable explanation."
Elizabeth nearly asked him for his personal definition of reasonable, but remembered who she was talking to just in time. "So does anyone else know I'm here?" she asked.
Mozzie shook his head. "I hung up on you."
"Oh, good," she said. At Mozzie's enquiring look, she elaborated, "It gets really… complicated otherwise." That was one way to describe it.
Mozzie nodded sagely. "You can count on my discretion," he assured her.
It wasn't a promise that would prevent him from posting an account of this anonymously to the internet, but Elizabeth thought that prospect was unlikely to do any harm. "Thank you."
"Can you tell me how you do it?" Mozzie asked, leaning forward eagerly He had clearly been heroically suppressing his burning curiosity so far, and now it was beginning to burst out.
Elizabeth rubbed her eyes. "Only if you can provide something to eat and drink. Preferably coffee to drink, but I'm not picky about the food."
Mozzie bounced to his feet. "Follow me," he said. "You're lucky you came to February; it has the best stocked larder of all my safehouses."
Elizabeth dutifully followed, and let him have the whole (and only slightly edited) story while eating breakfast in what had once been the operations room of a tiny factory, now sequester to far more dubious ends. Mozzie was an impeccably attentive audience, listening to the entire thing in rapt fascination.
"So you still haven't been able to find the Neal you're after," he said, finally. "But you can tell for certain where he isn't?"
Elizabeth nodded. "He isn't here, definitely. But I can feel the presence of him when I move through a tear. I just can't chase it down. And like I said, something's gone wrong with my abilities. I can't control where I end up."
"But it's always been near someone you know," Mozzie said, thoughtfully. "The same people, really."
"People who are important to me," Elizabeth agreed. "Neal, Peter, now you too."
"Like you're being pulled there?"
She nodded again. "Exactly like that."
Mozzie looked excited. "You're probably doing it subconsciously," he said. "There are loads of theories supporting that, you know. You badly want something, so you find a way to make it happen whether you know what you're doing or not."
Obviously Mozzie followed theories explaining something that didn't exist (outside of her and her mother). And he was speaking the sort of logic Elizabeth shouldn't have found at all surprising from him, except that she did — possibly because it actually made some kind of sense. Even though, again, it probably shouldn't have.
"So what you're saying is that I'm not concentrating enough on finding the particular Neal I'm after, and am therefore just sort of being drawn to everyone who's important to me?"
"Basically, yes," Mozzie said.
She shook her head definitely. "That's ridiculous. That's not how it works."
He shrugged. "You said something went wrong. Maybe that's how it works temporarily, because of that."
"Right," she sighed, and pushed her hair back. "I guess I've got nothing to lose by going along with your idea. So I should just focus really really hard on ending up where Neal is." It still sounded kind of stupid, but… there was that sense of presence from him, some sort of connection. Maybe she could use it after all.
She stood up. Mozzie rose with her, practically vibrating with excitement. "Do you need to do any preparations?" he asked. "Should I fetch you anything?"
"No, just watch." She raised her hand, but this time she didn't reach for a weak spot right away. She closed her eyes instead, concentrating on that weak sense of Neal. Following its location, through some twisting hidden dimension, until it she had a place. And she bunched the air in her fist, and ripped it open.
It seemed a minor miracle to Neal that he woke up in the same place that he remembered passing out in, with Mozzie watching him worriedly. Every moment he still expected to be suddenly torn away.
In the meantime, he'd managed to drink some water and give Mozzie as much of an explanation as he could himself make sense of. It sounded more unbelievable the more he thought about it, so it was a good thing he had such an appreciative audience or he might have been doubting himself too much to finish the story.
"So you're stuck," Mozzie said, finally.
"For now," Neal said. "I'm sure I'll be somewhere new and delightful soon, though." He had woken to find his headache hugely reduced, but there was still more than enough left to drive him to mild sarcasm.
Mozzie ignored his tone. "Do you know how many people would kill to be able to talk to you right now?"
"I'm not doing a Q&A for your conspirator friends on the internet," Neal said.
"Well, obviously," Mozzie said, managing to sound nearly sincere.
Neal went to refill his glass from one of the multi-gallon bottles of water. The sink next to it had a sign proclaiming that the tap water was drinkable, but the presence of the water bottles stacked on the counter made him disinclined to trust it.
He had just taken his sip when he felt the floor under his feet begin to shift towards not-reality. "Moz!" he called, alarmed.
"What is it?" Mozzie was on his feet and next to him in a moment.
"It's happening again," Neal said, tightly. His vision was beginning to flicker. He set the glass down hastily. "Thanks for — well, looking after me."
"You're welcome," Mozzie said. He looked like he was hardly breathing, waiting to see what happened next.
The white-out was happening much more slowly and hesitantly than any time previously. Neal could still see all his surroundings, even as they were greying and speckled with static.
And then, quite unexpectedly, the air in front of him seemed to stretch, as if someone was pulling on the seams, and then abruptly tore. He could see through the ragged hole into a room beyond — a room which also contained Mozzie, craning to see over Elizabeth's shoulder.
Elizabeth was right in front of the tear. "Neal?" she said, her voice slightly crackly, as if from a radio slightly out of tune. There was naked relief on her face as her eyes roamed over him.
"Elizabeth?" Finally, this was the right Elizabeth.
"Oh, thank god." She reached out a hand. "Come on, quickly."
The two Mozzies were having what looked like a furious conversation in sign language, presumably because they were afraid that either Neal or Elizabeth was about to censor them. Elizabeth had also clearly noticed, but she was just grinning.
Neal reached a hand into the gap, taking a step forward as Elizabeth grabbed hold of him. And the edges of the tear opened up around him as he stepped into it, blotting out the worlds on either side, and then everything was white and he was falling again.
But he wasn't alone this time. Elizabeth had a firm grip on his arm, her fingers warm and solid, and her other hand was held up and trailing through the white air.
He didn't know what she did. But her fingers suddenly stiffened, and somehow he could feel her grab at the weak place, forcing it open.
His feet hit ground an instant later. This time, it didn't hurt.
"You can open your eyes," Elizabeth said, sounding slightly shaky, but also amused.
Neal opened eyes that had been screwed tightly shut in anticipation. The ground didn't slide from under him, and there was no spike of pain from his head. "Where are we?" he asked, cautiously, not ready to let his guard down just yet. It looked like they were tucked into a small nook in the side of a large building which could have been in New York… or just about anywhere.
Elizabeth was beaming. "We're where I started from," she said. "My New York. The grounds of the Angel of Mercy Hospital, if you want to be precise."
"I'm becoming a definite fan of knowing precisely where I am," Neal said. Although the ground remained steady, his voice wasn't doing quite so well.
To his surprise, Elizabeth pulled him into a fierce hug. She drew back abruptly as he reflexively stiffened. "Sorry. I'm just glad I found you."
"I'm pretty glad too," Neal said. He ventured a slightly shaky laugh. "That was… an experience."
Elizabeth replied with a lop-sided smile. Then she drew herself together, tensing. "Neal. I'm so sorry about what happened, but… there's a reason I came to find you in the first place."
Neal had all but forgotten that, in the chaos. "What you meed my help with must be pretty important, to justify all that."
"It is." She inhaled. "Neal, there's someone I want you to meet."
It was unsettling, seeing himself lying still in a hospital bed hooked up to tubes and monitors. Even though Elizabeth had told him what to expect, Neal still found the actual fact of it… difficult. He hesitated just inside the door.
"He's asleep a lot," Elizabeth said, quietly, at his shoulder.
"Does he know about…" Neal made an encompassing gesture at himself.
"Yes," Elizabeth said. "So do a couple of our close friends. I still don't think Peter really approves, but he wants Neal to live more. So he didn't really argue."
Neal-in-the-bed stirred. Elizabeth crossed to him and rested a hand on his arm as he slowly blinked his eyes open. "Hey," he murmured, tiredly.
"Hey, sweetie." Elizabeth bent to kiss his cheek. "Guess who I brought to see you."
Neal met his own eyes, and forced himself to step closer to the bed. "Hello."
"Hi," his counterpart said, sounding every bit as awkward. He cleared his throat. "So you're my twin brother now, huh?"
Neal glanced at Elizabeth. "Mozzie's already done your paperwork," she said. "You're called Nick."
He raised an eyebrow at this foresightedness. "What would you have done if I'd said no? Kept hunting for a Neal who would agree?"
"Yes," Elizabeth said, simply, and took the other Neal's hand.
Bone marrow donation was a relatively simple procedure. Relatively. Knowing that didn't make sitting and waiting any easier.
"It's going to be okay," Peter said. He sat next to Elizabeth on the plasticky couch, the two of them picking at the bag of pastries he'd brought. On the wall opposite, one poster implored the reader to keep a positive outlook, and the other carried dire warnings about skin cancer.
She nodded absently. "He works with you on a tracking anklet," she said.
Peter half-smiled, not needing to ask what she was talking about. Or whom. "So he's reformed?"
They shared a grin.
"I can never decide whether I would be happier not knowing all the other things that could have happened to me," Peter said. He brushed pastry crumbs from his jeans. "All those universes where I'm still an FBI agent, or even still in baseball…"
"Where we're married," Elizabeth said, with another half-smile.
"And where you're not a thief."
"If I'm a thief, maybe you should arrest me." The back-and-forth was a long-running joke between them.
"Sure, if anyone could charge you. Or hold you." He smiled wryly, and nudged her foot with the tip of his cane.
Elizabeth smiled back, and leaned sideways to bump shoulders with him. "Thanks for being here."
Peter shrugged. "Perks of freelance consulting. I don't have to ask for time off." His expression turned into something more serious. "And you're both important to me. You know that."
"I do," Elizabeth promised him. They formed a strange little family unit, her and Neal, and Peter. Two more-or-less retired thieves and a disabled ex-FBI agent whom Neal had insisted they hunt down when he realised that Peter had abruptly stopped chasing him.
Not that she had ever expected her life to be normal. Her mother had raised her better than that.
She contemplated silently for a while, Peter a reassuring presence beside her. It seemed like hours before the doors at the end of the waiting room opened and a doctor appeared.
Elizabeth was on her feet immediately. But he was smiling.
"It's all right, Ms DeWitt," he said. "The procedure went well. Your partner's very lucky you were able to find his brother, you know."
"So… Neal's going to be okay?" she asked, almost breathless with hope. "And Nick?"
"Nick's resting, but he's fine," the doctor said. "As for Neal, you have to understand that leukaemia doesn't have any miracle cures, but with donor marrow that's an identical genetic match… the odds are good."
"Neal's good with odds," Elizabeth said. She was smiling.
Peter put an arm around her. "And you're good at making them better," he said.
She couldn't not think about the cost that other lives, other people, had paid to improve the odds for her Neal. But she also couldn't pretend to herself that she didn't consider it worth it. Whatever sort of person that made her, she was willing to live with it.
Neal still found himself expecting to fall out of the world at any moment, although he did his best to quash the fear when he noticed it. It had been Elizabeth who had realised the pattern — the connection the flood of energy had forged between them that had pulled Neal along in her wake whenever she had jumped. She assured him that it had been broken when they had both found their way onto the same plane again, and he believed her, but that didn't mean he could stop himself from subconsciously worrying.
And it was incredibly strange meeting people he didn't-quite-know — Peter, and Diana, as well as the other Neal. It made him feel better that it had been just as awkward for all parties. (Although Mozzie didn't seem to care — he just grilled Neal for every detail of his universe that he could think of to ask, apparently delighted how much more forthcoming Neal was with this sort of information than Elizabeth.)
He especially wasn't sure how to deal with the fact that in this universe he was dating Elizabeth, and Peter… wasn't, but good-as lived with them anyway. And even Peter himself was different — he was more relaxed, somehow, less intense. He walked with a cane after a long-ago bullet had caused irreparable nerve and muscle damage to his leg. He was more willing to live in grey areas, too — his Peter wouldn't be able to reconcile with the inter-dimensional art crimes that may or may not have been ongoing. (Neal had quizzed both Elizabeth and the other Neal about the actual status of these, but hadn't really expected to receive anything other than the grinning deflections he got.)
The other Neal… He was asleep much of the time, as Elizabeth had forewarned him. Neal sat by him a bit, unable to get over the strangeness of watching himself sleep. It was even stranger than watching himself when he was awake.
Elizabeth found him there. "What are you thinking about?" she asked.
Neal shrugged. (He actually found the gesture slightly annoying now he could see it mirrored, but that hadn't cured him of it yet.) "Am I ever going to find out whether he lives?" he asked.
"I don't know," Elizabeth said. Out of ingrained habit, she checked the monitors surrounding her Neal, and brushed a wisp of hair from his forehead. Then she looked up, with a measuring expression on her face. "You know, you don't have to go back," she said.
"What do you mean?"
She walked closer to him, putting a hand on his chair back. "You could stay. I had to watch you for a while, you know, while I made arrangements to —"
"— to have me kidnapped?" Neal supplied.
"Yes, that," she said, unrepentantly. "You seemed pretty unhappy, being bounced around the FBI like something they could use and nothing more. Working behind Peter's back. If you stayed here, you'd be free."
Neal stared at her. "You're serious."
"Perfectly serious," she agreed. "You've got an identity set up already. You could go anywhere — or you could stay here." Her smile turned suddenly impish. "You must have seen that there are plenty of universes where you and Peter…"
Neal laughed quietly. "But what would happen back in my universe?" he asked. "Would I just sort of disappear from having existed?"
Elizabeth shook her head. "You can't alter there from here. You'd just have… vanished. Untraceably."
He remembered his angry desire to run, to scrub himself away entirely and start anew somewhere else. Only, he hadn't envisioned being able to get away this far, this cleanly.
Neal turned it over and over as he walked back to the house he didn't live in — but could. He hung up the light coat he was borrowing (it was a perfect fit, of course), and poured himself a glass of wine in the kitchen. Technically, he was supposed to be avoiding alcohol for another couple of days, whilst he was still having check-ups to make sure he wasn't suffering any adverse effects from the bone marrow donation, but — well.
Peter was watching a game, but switched the TV off when Neal came into the room. "Elizabeth asked you to stay, then?"
"You can tell by my face?" Neal asked.
"I've had practice reading your expressions," Peter said. "Grab me a beer?"
Neal did so, and leaned on the back of the couch. "What do you think?" he asked.
Peter pursed his lips for a moment, and then shook his head. "No. This is your decision. I'm not going to help you make it."
Neal raised an eyebrow. "Really? I'm used to the Peter I know never stopping trying to help me make my decisions."
"Well, I'm not him," Peter pointed out.
He was right, of course. Peter wasn't the same person as the Peter whom Neal knew, and nor was Elizabeth, or — well, Mozzie probably was the same, but he was a special case.
And the Neal who lived in this house definitely wasn't the same as him. They would probably get on very well, though, judging from the (admittedly brief) conversations they'd shared. So far, he'd gotten on well with everyone.
He could make a life here. Free from the FBI tugging on his leash. Free from people using his status to blackmail and manipulate him. Free from Peter's well-intentioned meddling in his life, trying to mold him into someone he wasn't. Free from his entire criminal record, even. He really could do anything.
Except… his Peter would never know what had become of him. Whether he thought Neal had cut his anklet and run or deduced that he'd been abducted would make no difference to the fact that they'd never see each other again. Mozzie would probably embroil himself in conspiracy theories which would lead nowhere. June, Elizabeth — they'd grieve for him and be unable to do a thing.
He climbed the stairs slowly, and found himself standing in the doorway of the room the other Neal shared with Elizabeth. It looked so him, like a place where he'd lived and just forgotten about. But there were traces of medications and medical apparatus to remind him that no, this all belonged to someone else's life.
And, despite the tumult, he had been happy in his own life. With Peter; with their partnership; with friends who loved him. He didn't want to inflict that much pain on them.
He didn't want to never see them again. The thought of that tore at him deep inside, the intensity of it shocking him. When had he set down such deep roots?
When Elizabeth arrived home much later that night, Neal was sitting on her bed waiting for her. He had found the other Neal's sketchbook and was turning the pages slowly, studying each drawing. The faces sketched over and over were familiar, yet the style was not.
"Thank you for your offer," he said, "But I want to go home."
Sometimes it was hard to retrace passageways back to a particular world. Not this time, though. When Elizabeth reached for it, the place she'd brought Neal from seemed to pulse in her awareness, like light shining though ripped paper.
"Are you sure?" she asked him. Again.
Neal nodded. He was back in the clothes he'd arrived in, which she'd prudently left unwashed so that they still showed how rough his first journey had been. But they would hopefully help to persuade Agent Peter Burke and the rest of the FBI that Neal had been kidnapped instead of having run away. Which was perfectly true, after all.
Still, Elizabeth hesitated. She liked this Neal — she'd liked every Neal she'd met, really — and she knew how uncertain the life she was sending him back into was. It didn't seem fair.
But he couldn't be persuaded otherwise.
"I don't know when we'll come out," she cautioned him. "I hardly know how we managed to bounce around in time so much in the first place. Everything went so wrong."
He half-grinned. "Tell you what, if I find I'm a hundred years too late to take up my FBI deal, I'll reconsider and stick around here."
She laughed. "Done." And opened the way through.
The warehouse was dimly lit by the afternoon sun filtering in through the high windows, and the sound of running feet had Elizabeth quickly casting about for anything she could use as a weapon. But they were running away, and followed a moment later by a door banging shut.
The tear sealed itself smoothly. A second later there was the clink of something small and metallic hitting the floor.
Neal bent down, and laughed. When he straightened up he was holding a flattened brass disk on his palm. Just the size to have once been a bullet. "Is this yours?" he asked, offering it out.
"Keep it," she said, and closed his hand over it. She hugged him tightly. "A memento."
"I won't be forgetting any of this in a hurry," he assured her, arms tight around her in turn. He finally pulled away, expression wistful. "You could visit, couldn't you?"
"Maybe," she said, knowing she almost certainly wouldn't. It would be a mistake, forming too-strong ties with another universe. The one you lived in had to be the most important, or how could she justify any of the choices she made? "Take care of yourself. You really think you'll be okay?"
He shrugged nonchalantly. "I got kidnapped, and got away. I can call Peter to be rescued and even lead the FBI right back here."
He certainly seemed to believe it would be as easy as that, but there always had been times when she found it hard to tell what he was really thinking. "Well then. Good luck. And thank you."
She had said it before, but it still wasn't enough. It would be impossible to ever say it enough.
"Thank you too," he said. He smiled again, and this time it fully lit up his face. "What you've shown me — thank you so much for that. Just knowing that what you do is possible… it's incredible." He threw a quick look at the placid air beside her. "You can get home again?"
"I can always find my way home," she promised.
He raised a hand in a gesture of farewell. He didn't look back as he walked away, and she waited until his steps had vanished behind the outside door as it swung shut once more. Then she felt for home. She knew instinctively where it was, just as he did.
She reached out, and let it pull her back.
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