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Title: Dance Around the Flames (Part I)
Author: sheenianni
Fandom: White Collar

Characters/Pairings: Sara Ellis, Neal Caffrey; minor appearances of Peter Burke, Diana Berrigan and a bunch of OCs
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Adventure, Angst, Romance, Drama, friendship, H/C (more H than C)
Spoilers: None
Word Count: 13,300
Beta-credit: Many thanks to the awesome reve_silencieux
Summary: Sara is a PI. Neal is a thief. Between crimes, pretense and trust issues, there is no way things between them could ever develop into something more…
Pre-series AU, very Sara-centric, written for wcpairings for sapphire2309. Set in the same universe as my Dangerous ficlet.

A/N: If you squint a bit, this fills “Partership” on my Gen Bingo card.

___________________________________


Part I

It has been easy to gain access to the private viewing at the gallery. Still, standing here in her tight black dress and high heels, sipping champagne and laughing at her companion’s dumb jokes, Sara decides that next time, she will call in a favor with one of her contacts and get herself her own invitation.

She is many things, but trophy girlfriend material clearly isn’t on of them.

Her companion pulls her closer and Sara’s smile gets even wider with teeth. Unfortunately she has left her gun at home. Not that she would shoot her companion in plain sight – she has some self control. Maybe. She still has the baton in her purse. Surely she wouldn’t cause that much of a scene if she broke his hand and kneed him in the nuts for good measure? Wait – was he now groping her ass?!

Still smiling, she brushes her lips over his ear. “Unhand me this instance or I’ll smash both your feet with my heel.”

“What?”

Some people just couldn’t take a hint.

* * *


That went well.

Already feeling better, Sara allows herself a smile. She has successfully ditched her date (she doubts there will be any further interest from that direction), and now she is free to focus on her job.

It’s moments like this that make her feel alive.

Pretending to be checking her phone, she turns her attention to the man about fifteen paces from her. Her client was concerned that Damien Ross might be looking to betray their company. Turning on the photo app, Sara starts taking pictures of Ross and some unknown woman. The new advances in technology were really making her PI business that much simpler.

Her target soon abandons the conversation and starts moving across the room.

A waiter with glasses of champagne almost bumps into her, giving Sara the perfect opportunity to turn and get a better angle on Ross between mumbled apologies and more fake giggles. Putting her phone away for the moment, she follows him across the room. If Ross is smart, he won’t meet with anyone important here, but maybe she’ll luck out. Some people are known to be blatantly arrogant or stupid.

She could – Whoa.

Sara freezes when she realizes that someone else is watching her.

Has she been made? She smiles politely at the man across the room, her pulse racing when he grins back and gives her a small salute with his glass. Who the hell is the guy?

She raises her eyebrows at him and then subtly changes the direction of her steps. The last thing she needs is someone realizing who she is or why she is really here.

She ends up standing in front of a bizarre abstract painting of colored splotches. For a moment, Sara focuses on very intently staring the picture until she feels she has successfully lost the man’s attention. Mentally, she recounts Damien Ross’s behavior tonight. If he is smart, he will discuss business after the gallery viewing. Sara’s proper camera along with the rest of her tech equipment was left in the car she has parked nearby. She would have to slip the gallery just before Ross, get changed, pick her stuff up and be quick enough that he didn’t disappear in the process.

She grins. Should be fun.

“Do you like the painting?” says someone behind her.

She turns around in a whirl. “Excuse me?”

It is the same guy who has been staring at her earlier. “You’ve been looking at it for a while. Do you like it?”

Sara blinks before plastering on a fake smile. “Oh, you mean the painting! Yes, I simply love it. It’s so…” Green? “It has… character.”

“Character?”

Screw it. “It’s a mix of green and yellow splotches,” says Sara flatly. “Are you stalking me?”

The man grins. “After how I saw your date hobble to the bathroom, hell no. I value my limbs too much.”

“Good for you,” says Sara. “Now if you’ll excuse me, Mr…”

“Nicholas Halden. Call me Nick.”

“Halden…” Where has she heard that name? “Wait a second. You work for Vincent Adler.”

“As a member of his Acquisitions team. You’re well informed.” Nick’s smile widens before he lowers his voice. “And you don’t belong here. Who are you? NYPD, FBI?”

Damn. “My name’s Sara, and I’d appreciate if you kept your theories to yourself.”

“Of course,” says Nick mildly. “So, Sara. Are you investigating any of these fine people beside Mr. Ross over there?”

“Should I be? How about you? Does “Nicholas Halden” have any interesting secrets?”

“Sadly, I’m an honest man. No secrets to be worth telling.”

“I very much doubt that,” says Sara dryly.

She gives Halden a second look, this time actually studying him more closely. He is charming and handsome in a sort of boyish way. A hint of intelligence in the twinkling blue eyes; a suit that fits well enough but isn’t custom made; boldness, daring and mischief – if Halden has no secrets, she’ll eat her hat.

Sara is intrigued.

Unfortunately, she also has a job to do.

“Well, I’d love to chat, but…”

“If I tell you right now what Damien Ross has been up to, will you have dinner with me?”

Sara coughs. “Excuse me?”

“May I?” Picking two champagne glasses off a nearby tray, Nick gives one to Sara before taking a sip from his own. “Ross has been peeved by being passed over for a promotion and approached several rival companies. He seems to have hit the jackpot with that guy, Andre Lester.”

“And?”

“And that’s all I know,” says Nick with a shrug. “My boss’s company has no business with Ross or Lester and their people. We could have tried to dig up more, but… I think I’ll rather lose a favor with one of them if the price is a dinner with you.”

Whoa, slow down. Are you this presumptuous by nature or do you have to practice?”

“Part of my charm,” says Halden with a winning smile. “So. If you’re not a cop, nor FBI, are you in the private business?”

“Maybe,” says Sara noncommittally. “How about you? You’re rather young, how did you get a job like yours at Adler’s company?”

“I saw an opportunity and I took it.”

“Really. Well, Nick, unlike you, I have a job to do tonight, so you’ll excuse me if I have to cut this fascinating conversation short.”

“Of course. … Just – wait for a moment.”

She stops and raises her eyebrows at him.

For a second, she thinks she sees a flash of uncertainty. She must be wrong though, or if it was ever there, it disappears when Halden reaches into his jacket and pulls out a business card. “I’m right about Ross and Lester. And I was serious about the date.”

“The date?

He hands her the card, his confidence back in place. “My number. I’ve got plenty of other good intel in case you change your mind.”

“Yeah, don’t count on it,” says Sara flatly.

Nick gives her a small nod. “Of course. Good luck with Ross, Sara. It’s been a pleasure meeting you.”

Should she say it was a pleasure meeting him?

“Thanks for the tip,” she replies instead.

Nick smiles at her. “You’re welcome.”

She almost tosses the card. In the end, she buries it in her purse.

If Nick turned out to be right, she could think about his offer later. For now, she has a job to do.

* * *


Three days later, Damien Ross has been sacked by his company and Sara collects a generous payment from her client. In the aftermath, she is in a good enough mood that she decides to give Nick Halden a call.

The dinner is surprisingly entertaining. The sex afterwards is even better.

She thinks that will be the end of it. Instead, Nick texts her the next day, except Sara has not given him her number.

She could politely tell him off and wait to see if he’d stop. Or she could meet with him again, and in the meantime, find as much as she could about him. If Halden is a stalker or worse, someone should expose him before people got hurt.

But their third meeting goes well enough, and before the next one, Sara has found all the information she needs on her new contact. ‘Nick’ is indeed working for Vincent Adler, but a deeper look reveals that that is not his real identity.

A thief. A forger. A con man.

Neal Caffrey.

A criminal maybe, but by all accounts not violent, and there isn’t anyone paying her to investigate Caffrey.

She could approach Vincent Adler and potentially win herself a powerful ally in the future. The question is, is it worth it?

Sara smiles in glee at the revelation. Mr. Caffrey has just become that more entertaining.

* * *


A few months pass.

There is nothing between them, just a mutually advantageous acquaintance with some very enjoyable side benefits. They meet from time to time, usually at some anonymous café or diner where they exchange small favors and bits of information. Sometimes there is sex after they meet (sometimes they skip the meeting and go right to the sex part); however, Sara isn’t fooling herself that Caffrey sees her as anything more than a fling.

Caffrey is always good company; amusing, funny and challenging. He is also great in bed and he doesn’t demand exclusivity or even a relationship, which suits her just fine.

She never approaches Adler or the FBI with her knowledge of him.

Then one day, she turns on the morning news and it changes everything.

* * *


“Vincent Adler has disappeared, and with him hundreds of millions of dollars of his clients' money. A preliminary investigation indicates his investment firm may have been built on a giant house of cards. Securities regulators now claim Adler never traded any shares for client accounts. If true, Adler's disappearance could prove to be the brilliant exit strategy for one of the greatest financial frauds of our time.”

Sara feels as if she’s been hit by a sledgehammer.

Was Caffrey involved? Could she have stopped it?

She packs the file she has on Caffrey and calls a taxi to take her to the White Collar office of the FBI.

She reads the news on her way to the FBI building. Vincent Adler has disappeared; his clients, his employees, everyone has been robbed by the man. And Neal Caffrey has been right in the middle of it all the whole time.

So many people who have trusted him. Charities have been robbed, some of which might not even survive after this.

And Caffrey…

Sara pauses.

If he was also behind this… If it turns out she knew he was a con man and did nothing, that she could have stopped him and instead kept dealing with him, she could very well say goodbye to her PI business – she’ll lose everything. And really she deserves that, but if there is some infinitesimal chance that he wasn’t involved…

A few streets before the FBI building, she tells the cab driver to pull over and wait for her. Once she’s alone, she dials Caffrey’s number, praying that he will pick up, knowing he has most likely tossed the phone long ago and is now thousands of miles away somewhere on a Mediterranean island.

“…Sara? Hey…”

“Don’t even try it, “Nick”. Were you in on it?”

There is a pause. “I take it you’ve seen the news.”

Her heart sinks. “And what is your cut, ten percent? Twenty? You know how many people have lost their life savings, what will happen to them now? Do you even care if they end up on the streets or–”

“I didn’t know,” Caffrey interrupts her forcefully. “I swear, I didn’t. I got screwed like everyone else, I’m out of money, out of a job–”

“I think I may cry,” says Sara flatly. She hesitates. “I’m coming to your place.”

“It’s not a good time –”

“Bye, Nick,” says Sara and hangs up.

She returns to the waiting cab. “I need you to take me to a FedEx store or to Walgreen. Then we have two more stops to make.”

* * *


She buys a big envelope and puts the Caffrey file inside. Then she visits Elijah at the tech shop, one of the very few acquaintances she sort of trusts.

“If I don’t call you by tomorrow, take this to the FBI.”

She doesn’t really think Caffrey is the type for violence, but if she’s wrong, then she’ll make damn sure he doesn’t get away with it.

Finally, Sara has the cabbie take her within two streets of Caffrey’s apartment. She adds a generous tip on the top of his fee before saying her goodbye.

As she knocks on Caffrey’s door, she hopes she’s not making a huge mistake.

* * *


He pours her a glass of wine. She refuses to touch it even as she sees him take a drink himself.

“You think I owe you an explanation,” states “Nick” blankly after he takes a sip from his glass.

“I’d like to hear one, yes.”

She doesn’t threaten or mention the fact that she’s a PI, because she’s pretty sure Caffrey already knows that about her. The fact that he’s still there has already halfway convinced her that he wasn’t in on it, but she has to be sure.

Caffrey hesitates. “Are you recording this?”

“What do you think, Nick?” asks Sara mildly, though behind the threads of anger she also feels curious.

He considers her for a moment. “You’re not wearing a wire,” he states at last. “You’re here for yourself, not the FBI or anyone else. You came here to talk.”

“You’re right.” It’s close enough to the truth, anyway. “So, are you going to tell me the truth?”

“My real name is Neal Caffrey,” he says at last. “Some may have called me a con man in the past, allegedly. But I think you already knew that.”

“Con man and thief,” says Sara. “All slander of course.”

“Of course.” Caffrey grins at her. Then he turns serious. “I didn’t know about Adler’s Ponzi scheme.”

“But you had your own game running,” Sara suggests.

“Maybe. A long con, allegedly. Didn’t work out.”

“Do you want to elaborate on that?”

“Not particularly, no. My turn. Do you intend to turn me in?”

Does she?

“If you weren’t in on it, why should I turn you in?”

Before this, they used to exchange information for information. They had a good thing going.

Still, there are some lines Sara’s not willing to cross, and stealing from charities is one of them.

“Tell me a story,” she says at last.

* * *


She doesn’t turn him in.

She tells Caffrey not to contact her again. She believes him already, but she checks out his story anyway, and it fits. She calls him herself just a week after that.

When she sees Neal’s genuine smile at meeting her again, she tells herself it means nothing. Caffrey is a self-centered thief, a con man and a liar; childish, impulsive and unreliable in just about every way you could imagine.

She likes him a little, maybe. She smiles more, and there’s more banter between them now that she knows and he knows that she knows. The sex is pretty good too.

All of that pales to the fact that their association helps Sara close cases.

She quickly finds that there are lines she will cross if need be when Neal’s insight helps her uncover an embezzling scheme run by the husband of one of her clients. For all the times the bastard escaped charges of domestic violence, Sara would like to see him get out of that, now that the FBI has her very enlightening file on the abusive fucker.

If in turn she gives Caffrey a tip how to infiltrate some rich guy’s party, it is their fault that they didn’t use better security when their jewelry got stolen. She considers it a fair trade.

She knows she could end up in prison if someone found out about her association with Caffrey, though it’s unlikely they would be able to prove her involvement. And Sara knows not to stray too much into the gray areas – if she messes up, she will lose her PI license, and she genuinely loves her job. But when it comes to certain subjects like abuse or family, Sara would always feel the familiar stab of pain and rage that years have yet to dull down, and that feeling would obliterate most of the boundaries that usually restrict her.

Then all bets are off.


Part II

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