Elliot had a catchphrase during the changeover from Neal: "I'm still me, just more federal." And it was true: Elliot was, essentially, a more law-abiding version of Neal Caffrey. Neal with a new name and a moral compass.
But there were subtle differences, and Peter found himself cataloging them and hating himself for doing it, because it felt like comparing Elliot to Neal.
Neal had hated guns, for many good reasons. Just the presence of a gun during a crime automatically elevated the seriousness of the possible sentence. Elliot had made Neal hate guns because Elliot didn't want to be in any officer-involved shootings that could blow his cover, which was also a good reason. Both Neal and Elliot knew it was better not to carry than to carry and not use.
Elliot liked guns, though; he only owned two, his service Glock and a backup Browning, but he knew a lot about them and every time they went to the range he took a new model down and worked with it until he learned it, inside and out.
Neal had hated basketball. Elliot didn't care much for it either, but he was an athlete and he liked sports in general, baseball in particular. He had an encyclopedic memory for stats and players, and he could predict the outcome of any given game with eerie accuracy (Elliot and Neal were both frighteningly good at math). Neal, Peter thought, would have tried to place a few bets; Elliot didn't seem interested, or if he was he was covering his tracks carefully. He just liked the game.
Neal and Elliot shared a love of art that was impossible to mask. Neal had been a member, either in reality or with a forged membership card, of every art museum in his radius -- but Elliot didn't go to see art as often as Neal had, didn't feel the need to study it as hard as Neal. He loved it, but he didn't live it. He let the memberships lapse and bought a new one, to the Museum of Natural History. He bought clay and armature wire and made his own art instead, sculptures that inched along incrementally towards a final product with every visit Peter made to his loft. Elliot sculpted anything he could think of. Peter didn't know what he did with them when they were done.
Elliot, greatest irony of all, was more secretive than Neal.
Neal hadn't been able to lie very well to Peter, and Elliot couldn't either, except for the gigantic, all-consuming lie of Neal Caffrey. Peter never worried that Elliot wasn't being honest with him. But Elliot kept little things close in a way Neal never had: didn't talk about his past, didn't even talk about the work he'd done undercover unless he was prompted or had to for a case. No references to parents, outside of the brief mention of his mother as a con artist. Never said where he grew up (Peter suspected central Texas, from traces he'd heard over the years in Neal's accent). Never talked about college or his time at Quantico. The little details Peter learned, the ones that were different from Neal, were secrets that Elliot let slip by accident, or told late at night when he was too tired to hold things close. They were very few.
In Neal, it would have been logical; he was a con man. In Elliot, who was a colleague, an FBI agent, and if not a normal person then at least more normal than Neal, it was unusual. Maybe unhealthy.
Peter would not, would not investigate a fellow agent. He would not look up criminal records on Elliot's mother, would not ferret out where Elliot had grown up or gone to school, would not speak to the instructors at Quantico to see if they would remember a keen young man named Donnelly.
But he wanted to.
He wrote it off as an adjustment to losing control over the man who had been Neal. Elliot, after all, didn't have a tracking anklet. Peter didn't know where he went or what he did in his off hours unless Elliot told him, and Elliot generally didn't (why would he?). There was no reason to mistrust Elliot as he had Neal -- Elliot was scrupulous in getting Bureau permission before pulling a con, and anyway Peter wasn't accountable for Elliot's actions the same way he had been for a felon in his custody.
Still, Peter had become accustomed to knowing where Neal would be. Elliot didn't say where he was going or had been; either he didn't care for Peter to know, or ten years of training had made him into a secretive man. Peter was afraid to ask which it was.
Months later, he still found himself reaching for his laptop some evenings before remembering no, he had no right to know where Elliot was, and nothing on the laptop could tell him.
It was like grief, a little.
"You know," Elliot said, leaning back and holding up his ten-year ring, peering through it at the light fixture in the ceiling, "I should just put this on my left hand and get it over with. It'd make a good joke, I think. Married? Oh, I'm married to my work."
"If that's the case, you're neglecting your wife," Peter said, bent over a stack of files at his dining room table, next to Elliot. "These reports aren't going to cross-reference themselves. If I have to neglect mine -- "
"Not feeling neglected!" Elizabeth put in from the living room, where she was stretched out with her feet up and a bowl of popcorn in her lap, watching a movie.
"Yes, dear," Peter murmured, and Elliot let his chair fall forward, laughing.
"I mean it, though," he said, taking the file Peter handed him and skimming it. "I could deal with the weird hours, the dangerous job, but how do I explain this life to someone? It's hard to get past a third date. Yeah, for the last ten years I've been posing as a criminal and a prison inmate, but I'm over it now. Oh, and my last girlfriend died in a fiery explosion, so there's that."
"Well, sweetie," El said from the couch, "it's a good acid test. Anyone who's going to dump you over that didn't deserve you in the first place."
"On a philosophical level that's very nice," Elliot said. "On several other levels, including the getting-me-laid level and the finding-a-girlfriend level, not so much."
"You telling me you couldn't make that line work?" Peter asked. "Sell yourself as some kind of romantic spy?"
"I don't want to sell myself as anything," Elliot said, leaning back and tossing his ring in the air, catching it and tossing it again. "That was the point of burning Neal Caffrey, that I could stop selling it 24/7. I like the con, but I'm tired of the long con." He sighed. "It's just...dating sucks. Everyone's conning everyone else, all the time, and yeah, I could do that, but then I'm back to selling the story, every hour of the day." He leaned forward and picked up the file once more. "I don't know. Maybe it's too soon."
Elizabeth got up from the couch and gave him a faintly popcorn-scented hug from behind, arms around his shoulders. "It's been a year and a half since Kate died, Elliot. You've been out of cover for six months. Don't move on unless you think you're ready, but..."
"You look lonely," Peter said, without looking up from his files. Elliot stared at him. Peter raised his head. "What? I can't make an observation?"
Elizabeth kissed his cheek. "I could fix you up with someone," she said. "June must have a lot of friends who have daughters about your age."
"That's pretty awkward if things don't end well," Elliot said. "Also, and this is truly sad, I checked. Most of them are married."
"You'll find someone," Elizabeth said, and patted his shoulder.
"In the meantime..." Peter reminded him, passing him another file.
"I really hate mortgage fraud," Elliot announced to no-one in particular.
"No marriage is perfect," Peter replied.