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Precious Few Heroes

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They arrested five people printing counterfeit twenties out of a warehouse in Brooklyn.

Four of them made it to booking.

"Goddammit, Neal," Peter said, hanging up his phone. Neal glanced at him and then away. "How'd you do it?"

"Do what?" Neal asked.

"Shauna Dole just escaped federal custody. I want to know how you slipped her the lock picks. I want to know where she went," Peter said. "I saw you talking to her before we left. What did you do?"

Neal sat back in his chair, still not meeting Peter's eyes. "I don't know where she went."

"That answers half my questions," Peter told him.

"I didn't slip Shauna Dole any lock picks."

"Did you slip her the keys to her cuffs?" Peter asked. Neal was mute. "Neal, I have to report this. If it comes out later that you let her go, I can't protect you. If you tell me now..."

"What, I'll only get kicked back to prison for ten years instead of life?" Neal asked.

"You abetted a fugitive in escaping from federal custody!" Peter hissed. "Who the hell is she to you? Another one of your brunettes?"

"I didn't -- " Neal stopped, snapping his mouth shut. "Fine. Go ahead. Report it."

"Neal!"

"I hate to barge in," said a voice from the doorway, and Peter looked up to see Hughes looming there. Peter swore silently to himself. Hughes didn't appear to notice. "Caffrey, my office. Now."

Neal gave Peter an apologetic look as he stood, following Hughes down the hall. Peter rubbed a hand over his face and started preparing possible defenses for Neal, none of which were going to work.

---

Neal followed Hughes into his office and shut the door behind him. Hughes crossed his arms.

"What the hell were you thinking?" he asked.

"We have to tell Peter," Neal replied.

"Is that what this was?" Hughes demanded. "Some end-run around my authority? So that I'd have to tell Burke what's going on?"

"What -- no!" Neal protested. "Look, that gang has connections. If Shauna magically disappeared from holding, they'd know something was wrong. She begged me. Begged me to help get her out of there. Now it looks like she escaped legitimately, her cover's still in place. What was I supposed to do, Reese?"

Hughes gave him a look.

"Assistant Director Hughes," Neal corrected himself. Hughes sighed and sat down.

"I'll clean it up," Hughes said. "We can make this go away. Can Burke prove you did it?"

"No, but if he smells something rotten he'll dig through it until he finds something," Neal insisted. "You know he will. If he knows the truth, he'll be pissed but he'll get over it. Look, what's the big deal? You've had my report on your desk for two months. White Collar runs a tight ship. The whole New York office is clean, even Ruiz. I'm nastier than OPR and the worst I found is that the admins steal office supplies. Everyone steals office supplies."

Hughes regarded him. "What if I sent you back out?"

"Peter would go after me. And we could play this game forever, but..." Neal shook his head. "He's pulled me through a lot. He's put his neck out for me. He deserves to know." He hesitated, but only briefly. "And maybe I don't want to go back out."

Hughes narrowed his eyes.

"This is what I wanted when I signed on," Neal said. "Yeah, maybe not immediately, and maybe this wasn't how I wanted to do it, but eventually this was always the plan. I'm getting older."

One eyebrow arched delicately.

"You know what I mean," Neal said. "I'm thirty-one years old. I thought I had a life waiting for me. Now I have to build one from scratch and...maybe it's time. You've got other ops. Give me a break. Let me tell him. If he wants to get me reassigned, you can send me back out. If he's okay with it, I want to be here."

"You're basing your future career on Peter Burke's ability to forgive?" Hughes asked, reaching into a drawer in his desk and handing Neal a small silver key. "Brave man."

Neal grinned. "Well, I am a charmer."

---

"So, am I fired?" Peter asked, only a little sardonically, when Neal returned from Hughes's office. "Are you going back to prison?"

"Why would he tell me?" Neal asked.

"Why would he call you into his office without me?" Peter countered.

Neal bowed his head. "Hughes gave us the rest of the day off. We need to talk."

"You're damn right we -- "

"Peter," Neal said, trying to keep him quiet for long enough to explain. "I need to talk to you. About Shauna Dole, and some other things. This is Hughes's orders, not some whim."

Peter looked suspicious. "I'll know if you're lying about Hughes."

Neal groaned. "I know you will. I need to make a stop at a bank, and then let's just...get some lunch and talk, okay?"

Peter gave him another long, measuring look and then stood up, taking his coat off the rack near the door and pulling it on. "This had better be good."

"You have no idea," Neal replied, leading the way.

Their first stop was a bank less than two blocks from Federal Plaza. Neal asked for access to the safety-deposit box, and noted the look of faint surprise on Peter's face when he didn't stop Peter from following him into the room.

The bank attendant brought out the box, and Neal opened it with the key Hughes had given him. Inside was a paper package, taped tightly shut. Neal slipped it into his pocket and tossed the key into the empty box, abandoning it.

"Neal, what's going on?" Peter asked, as they left the bank. Neal just shook his head and led Peter down the street, to a little diner that wasn't too busy. He took a booth in the back, settled in, and waited until their drinks had been brought out before he took the packet out again. The silence had been...awkward.

He slid his thumb under the tape holding the packet together and folded back the paper. Inside were two black leather wallets -- one a standard cash-and-cards model, containing cards he hadn't seen in years. The other was an FBI identification wallet. He opened the ID wallet and handed it to Peter.

Inside was a badge, a signed certification, and a photo ID. Smiling up from the photo ID was Neal's face: younger, a little, and with the name Elliot Donnelly underneath it.

Peter studied it.

"It's good work," he said finally. "I didn't know you had an FBI alias. That must have been useful." He tossed it back. "So you're burning Elliot Donnelly?"

Neal shook his head. "No," he said. "I'm burning Neal Caffrey."

It took Peter a second to catch on. When he did, he picked up the FBI badge again and looked more closely at it. Neal watched him, ready to duck if Peter decided to throw it at his head or try to make him eat it.

"You son of a bitch," Peter said finally, voice low and furious. "You lying son of a bitch."

"I wanted to tell you," Neal answered hurriedly. "I said right at the start we should let you in on it. My handler thought otherwise."

"Elliot Donnelly," Peter read, looking up. "That's your name."

Neal shrugged. "One of many. Just happens to be the one on my legitimate birth certificate. Which was tragically misfiled, by the way, so don't go looking for it."

"Like your high school records?" Peter asked. "Like your Quantico graduation record?"

"Actually, I'm probably still on the books at Quantico," Neal said. "I'm not in any of the photographs, though. And I didn't graduate Valedictorian from high school."

Peter looked up at him.

"Salutatorian," Neal admitted. He held up a thumb and forefinger, not very far apart. "Little white lie."

"I can't fucking believe you," Peter said, but Neal caught a note of admiration in his voice. "This is the deepest cover I've ever seen. You went out and committed crimes, Nea -- Elliot."

"Well, sort of," Neal answered.

"You sort of committed crimes," Peter echoed. Neal leaned forward.

"You ever wonder why you always got the people I ran with, but never got me?" he asked softly. "You broke some major cases trying to catch me. Come on, Peter, you're a smart guy. I wouldn't have lasted six weeks running from you if I hadn't had help. I'm good, but I'm not that good."

Peter closed the wallet and set it aside. "You had a mole. In my team, telling you where I'd be."

"Um." Neal fingered the wallet nervously.

"Your handler's on my team?" Peter asked. "Or was...?"

"Let's just say we have the same boss," Neal said.

"AD Hughes?" Peter asked, disbelieving. "Your deep cover handler is Reese Hughes?"

"He did a stint teaching at Quantico when they tried to retire him, while I was a student there. He thought I had potential. My parents were dead, I didn't have any close friends. I was perfect for a long-term deep cover job. He recruited me straight out of the academy."

Peter reached for his beer and took a long, deep drink. A waiter arrived to take their order.

"Just keep the beer coming," Peter said tiredly.

"Chicken fried steak," Neal said. "And a burger."

Peter looked at him.

"Steak's for you," Neal informed him. "We'll be here a while."

As the waiter left, Neal caught Peter frowning, the kind of frown that said he was cracking a case in his mind.

"Our first record of Neal Caffrey's existence is in 2001," Peter said. "You can't have been old enough, if the birth date on that ID is real. You'd have been twenty-one when you went into deep cover."

"I skipped a few grades," Neal said.

"Of course you did," Peter answered, rolling his eyes.

"I'm not too dumb myself, you know. I graduated when I was seventeen, went straight into law school. Quantico was panting to have me. I was a kid, I learned fast, I was flexible. Why waste potential?" Neal asked. Peter took another long drink. "How pissed are you at me right now?"

"Oh, very," Peter said. Neal cringed. "I'm more pissed at Hughes. You two played me for three years. For eight years. But at least you didn't spend all that time sitting two offices down from me while you lied to my face."

"Trust me, I wasn't exactly laughing about it. Four years undercover in the prison system isn't a picnic," Neal said. "You think I love the tracking anklet? I'm one of the good guys, I shouldn't be on a two-mile leash."

"For a good guy, you've committed a lot of crime," Peter pointed out.

"You want to make an omelet..." Neal shrugged.

"Okay. Take me through the con," Peter said. "The op. Explain to me why I wasted three years of my life chasing a deep-cover FBI agent."

"They weren't wasted. I was supposed to do one job, infiltrating a smuggling ring in Arizona. We knew it was going to take a while. By the time I called in backup to bust them, I had a network of contacts. I told the agents to let me run. Hughes said go. I got in tight with a forgery ring, I learned a lot of new skills." He laughed. "Hell, Peter, I didn't know I could paint until one of the guys asked me to help him do a van Gogh and then made me take over. I got known as a go-to guy for anyone who needed an artist. I liked the work. I had some laughs, I closed some good cases. Did a stint with Interpol for a while, that was fun. Came back to the US -- "

" -- and then Hughes gave me your file," Peter said.

"I couldn't keep calling in backup. I was running out of excuses. You were perfect, Peter," Neal said. "Hughes didn't pick you because you were a moron, he picked you because you were a force of nature. Everywhere I went you were there, busting everyone else's ass while I slipped away. You and me, we closed nineteen cases together in three years. You were like my secret partner. I didn't even have to leave breadcrumbs. I kept totally clean in front of the crooks and you just swooped in, every time."

"I could have been your actual partner," Peter pointed out. "You should have told me. That night I almost got you in Jersey, when you jumped through that window to get away -- why didn't you just tell me? I could've walked you out and let you go."

"I had orders. Keep the cover at all costs. Hughes was already setting me up to go to prison at that point, getting my ducks in a row to do a long-term investigation of the New York penal system. Besides, would you have believed me?" Neal asked.

"No, probably not," Peter said with a sigh. "So. Hughes didn't trust me."

"Hughes didn't trust the division. He thought someone at the New York office was crooked -- not you, I know, you're Mister All American," Neal said, grinning to take the sting out of his words. "You could've kept the secret but eventually there would have been a paper trail. This way -- "

"Plausible deniability," Peter said.

"That's the idea," Neal answered. He fell silent as the waiter brought their food, then leaned in again once they were alone. "You have to believe me, I didn't do anything I could avoid doing. Once in a while what you thought was a crime was a recovery. The Raphael -- "

"You stole the Raphael for justice?" Peter asked skeptically.

"The Raphael belonged to a German Jew in the 1930s. It was looted during the war. Some Nazi bigwig sold it to an American businessman who had some sketchy provenance papers drawn up, until one of the White Collar guys in Boston tracked it down." Neal gave him a grin. "They got a warrant for me to go in and recover it. I can't give it back to Sara, Peter, because I don't have it. It's hanging on the wall in the home of its original owner's heir. If he ever decides to sell it, he has the provenance papers, and she's going to get a sharp shock."

"This is just..." Peter stopped cutting into his food to gesture with his fork. "Absurd. You've done things the Bureau couldn't possibly have approved."

"I promise you, Peter, every real crime I've committed since I was twenty-one years old has been sanctioned by the FBI," Neal said. He picked up a french fry and ate it, smiling. "You think I did a lot that I didn't really do. I might have augmented my reputation a little bit, in certain circles. The name didn't hurt."

"Caffrey?" Peter asked. Neal dabbed a fry in some ketchup.

"I didn't exactly learn to pick pockets at Quantico. My ma was a con, one of the best in her day. She made a name for herself before she settled down and raised up her handsome little card-sharping law student. Her maiden name was Caffrey." Neal grinned at Peter's expression. "Caffrey's a myth, Peter, he's like some kind of...trickster legend. He's a paper man. Look too close and he makes no sense. So every time someone tried to look too close, I blew away. Until you."

Peter's hand moved, some kind of abortive reach for the ID wallet, but he picked up his beer instead, sipping it.

"Did Kate know?" he asked, after he'd swallowed.

Neal studied the grain of the table, the little whorls and streaks in the wood. "Kate was real, Peter. I loved her. Breaking out to find her was real, too -- I went against Hughes there, I left a job half-done documenting prisoner abuse in supermax. I just had to get out. She wouldn't ditch on me like that without getting word to me what the plan was, and I thought something had happened to her. Her people weren't looking for her. Not hard enough."

"Her people," Peter repeated, around a mouthful of food.

"Kate was Homeland Security. Domestic counterterrorism," Neal said. "You hear a lot, underground."

"Homeland Security. Why not?" Peter murmured.

"She did good work. We were partners -- we fell in love, it happens, but we never forgot the job. If Kate hadn't run with me...well, the skyline of San Francisco would look a lot different today," Neal said. Peter stared at him. "I don't even know her real name. She never knew mine. Homeland Security won't tell me. She kept her cover up until -- "

"The end," Peter said.

"Yeah," Neal answered. "We got in too deep. I know that. But she wasn't some con, Peter. She might not have died for her country but she did some damn good work for it."

"And the little guy?" Peter asked. "He's what, CIA? NSA?"

"Mozzie?" Neal picked up his burger and bit into it, shaking his head. "No, Mozzie's a crook. Technically I guess he's my CI. He doesn't know."

"Jesus Christ, Elliot."

Neal set his burger down, amused. "Been about eight years since anyone called me that. Even Hughes calls me Caffrey."

"So the pitch you made, with the tracking anklet." Peter obviously wasn't going to be distracted until he knew everything.

"Salvage work after I broke out and you caught me again," Neal said. "I told Hughes I wanted out, and if he didn't let me out undercover he could have my badge."

"And I played in," Peter said. "Like a sucker."

"Don't be too hard on yourself. I can be convincing, and compassion shouldn't be something to be ashamed of. What you saw was a messed up kid you could reform, and -- look, I am kind of messed up," Neal said. "Ten years of that does weird things to you. But I love this work. This is what I wanted, eventually. Kate and I were going to do a few more years and then get out of cover and live happily-ever-law-enforcement-after. Now she's dead and I'm in my thirties, and I want to have a life. My own life, not Neal Caffrey's."

"This isn't just out of the blue, though, is it?" Peter asked.

"Shauna Dole and I were at Quantico together -- well, she had a different name, then. She was doing a temporary undercover gig and she made me when we busted them. I had to get her out of there as safely as I could. I made a call. Maybe a dumb call, but she got out safe and that's what matters. I told Hughes it was time to tell you, because you'd never let that go if he made it disappear."

"You aren't a criminal," Peter said, still processing it. "You never were. We were partners for three years and I didn't even know."

"I haven't always been the FBI's favorite op," Neal said. "But the work I do for you, the person I am -- that's still me, Peter. Just...me with a badge."

"Why not tell me sooner?"

"Hughes had me investigating the office. It was easier to poke my nose in where it didn't belong if I'm some curious bored consultant, and not a fellow fed. For the record, the New York office is clean," he added, when he saw the anger building again in Peter's eyes. "And Hughes never had me investigate you. I would have said no if he'd asked, but he trusts you. He trusted you with me, after all. Now the report's done, Hughes is losing excuses to keep me undercover. I told him -- " he broke off abruptly.

"Yes?" Peter said.

"I said if you wanted me reassigned, he could send me back out. But if you'd have me as Elliot, as a fed with a badge, then I wanted that. I want -- I want to be your partner, Peter, I want you to be the guy who has my back when I come out of cover."

"So you told him I get to decide your fate," Peter said. "And you're telling me I can either send you somewhere you don't want to be or I'm stuck with you for a partner."

"Yeah, but I'm a great partner," Neal reminded him, leaning back, relaxing now. He was pretty sure Peter had already made his decision. "Ninety percent of the time I'm a totally stable, responsible member of society."

"Try seventy-five percent," Peter grumbled into his food.

"When they declassify my file, I'm going to be star material," Neal confided. "I closed a lot of cases. Think about it. Legendary Peter Burke and his partner, Elliot Donnelly the up-and-comer. We could own this burg."

Peter was silent for a while. Neal tapped his fingers on the table, growing more nervous.

"How're you going to tell Mozzie you're a Suit?" Peter asked finally.

"Is that a yes?" Neal asked. "You'll have me?"

"You are a smooth talker, Donnelly," Peter said. "Yeah, okay. But I'm still your boss. You're my probie now."

"Probie!" Neal said, offended. "I've been with the Bureau for ten years. When I lose my cover they have to give me one of those pins. Which I never knew about, by the way, until you showed me your ring. I didn't know I get a pin. Do I have to fill out a requisition for it?"

"Is that why you asked if you'd get one?" Peter asked, and Neal winced. "That was a slip, wasn't it?"

"Small one," Neal said, rueful.

"Thing is, you've never worked as an FBI agent in an FBI office," Peter said, and there was a smile playing around his lips. "You're my probie. I own you for another two years. Those are my terms."

"Eighteen months," Neal bargained.

"Two years."

"Time off for good behavior."

"That's only for felons, Elliot."

Neal grinned a little at that.

"Fine. Done. Now I want my pin," he said.

"Do I look like I pull them out of my ass?" Peter asked. "You'll get your pin. You need a new ID photo, too. And you have to promise me I get to be there when you tell Diana. Now," he added, pointing at Neal, "tell me everything from the beginning."

---

Declassifying a deep-cover agent was a more involved process than Elliot had imagined. He had to tell Diana and Jones while Peter handled the paperwork, and then a few days after that there was a mass conference with the entire New York office to discuss Neal Caffrey's transformation into Special Agent Elliot Donnelly. He had a ream of forms to fill out to get his file released, and then he had to requalify for field-agent status, including firearms. Which was fine, really. Neal Caffrey, who could sometimes be a little delicate, hated guns; Elliot sort of liked them, and didn't mind blowing off a little steam on the range.

He and Mozzie had a two-week yelling match about how he'd basically lied like a fucking Suit to Mozzie for years. It was hard and harsh and weird to be on the Burke end of a Suit-CI relationship, but Mozzie would get used to it.

Eventually.

Once he stopped calling Elliot "Agent Liar".

On the other hand, the day they took his tracker off and burned his prison record, Peter and Elizabeth took him out to dinner to celebrate and Elizabeth said she was proud of him, which was...nice to hear. He'd always known he was doing good work -- Peter had even told him so, when he still thought he was Neal Caffrey, con man -- but nobody else ever said he was, while knowing who he really was, until Elizabeth.

They were lingering over coffee and dessert when Peter shoved a little box across the table at him, roughly, like he was embarrassed.

"Open it," Elizabeth said, eyes sparkling.

Elliot pulled the top off the box and opened the smaller gray felt-covered box inside it. Sitting on the sloped interior was a gold ring, a simple band attached to what had once been an FBI ten-year pin.

"Aw, are we going steady now?" he asked Peter, because he didn't trust himself to say anything else.

"Don't think I can't kick your ass, probie," Peter answered.

The next morning, he put the ring on his right hand, took his Glock and badge out of the lock box by the bed, shrugged into the still-unfamiliar shoulder holster, and went downstairs. June was standing at the bottom, holding his hat.

"You look wonderful, Elliot," she said.

"Sure you're okay with this?" he asked.

"I feel very safe with an FBI agent living in my home," she told him, a teasing smile on her face. "Besides, some of Byron's favorite people were lawmen. So you go knock 'em dead," she added, offering him the hat. Elliot put it on, tipped it a little over one eye, and grinned.

"I'm off to keep the peace, ma'am," he told her, and went outside to where Peter was waiting in the car.

"Caught a case," Peter said, dumping a folder on his lap. "You got everything? We're going straight to the scene."

"I'm ready," Elliot said.

Ten minutes later, they were meeting with an elderly bank manager whose vault had been cleaned out late the night before.

"Mr. Conway," Peter said, offering the man his hand. "I'm Special Agent Burke, this is N -- Special Agent Elliot Donnelly."

"Mr. Conway," Elliot said, shaking the man's hand. "How can the FBI help you today, sir?"