Chapter 1: Prologue
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.
Chapter 2: Sara
"Good morning," Elliot sang out, as he walked into the office on Monday. He tossed his hat on the corner of his computer monitor, presented Diana with a cup of fresh coffee as she passed, and bowed to Jones while offering him the bakery bag in his hand.
"What's got into you?" Jones asked, pretending to be sour because it was a Monday, but smiling a little as he took an apple danish from the bag.
"I had a great weekend," Elliot said, tossing the bag to Rhonda, their new file clerk. "Got your favorite, Ronnie!"
"Thank you, Elliot," she called. Ronnie was nice; she'd never known Neal Caffrey and had a totally different context from which to work. As much as the others tried to be ordinary about it, once in a while he could see they were looking at Elliot Donnelly but thinking Neal Caffrey.
"Yeah?" Jones prompted, leaning against his desk. "Great weekend, huh?"
"I sold a piece," Elliot said. "That interpretation of the Karyatid Portico. My first sale. It's gorgeous out -- "
Nadya, their probie, passed just as he was about to continue, and instead he caught her and pulled her into a waltz, singing. "I love New York in the springtime..."
A hand fell on his shoulder. Elliot stopped waltzing and grinned at Peter.
"Have I warned you enough about being an impending sexual harassment suit?" Peter asked. "Release the Probie, partner."
"Nadya doesn't mind," Elliot said, but he let her go. "Nadya, didn't I ask if you minded?"
"Yes, Agent Donnelly," she said with a smile.
"And didn't I say if you did mind Peter would kick my ass from here to Brooklyn on your behalf?"
"Yes, Agent Donnelly," Nadya repeated, just a little too sober not to be teasing Peter. Elliot loved it when the Probies played along.
"See? I have permission to waltz Agent Gould whenever I want, and if she doesn't like it I promise I'll stop," Elliot said. Peter was opening his mouth to retort when a strident yell cut across the bullpen.
Elliot, startled, looked up. A gorgeous redhead was standing outside the conference room, arms crossed, looking impatient.
"Holy shit, it's Sara," he said, turning to Peter. Peter sighed and nodded.
"And you never told me you didn't tell her," Peter said. Elliot got a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. "Yeah. You're busted."
"Did you tell her?" Elliot hissed. "Please tell me you told her."
"I didn't tell her! I haven't had the chance."
"Stall her, I'll make a run for it," Elliot said. Peter threw an arm around his shoulders, effectively imprisoning him, and marched him towards the stairs.
"You are going to be a good little agent and tell her everything or so help me she will be the least of your worries," Peter said in an undertone. He shoved Elliot up the stairs.
"Sara," Elliot said, straightening his sleeves as he reached the top. "Always a pleasure to see you."
"Neal," Sara said, and left it at that.
"Social call?" Elliot tried, as Peter guided him unsubtly into the conference room.
"Art theft," Sara answered, arms crossed, following him in.
"Didn't do it," Elliot said immediately, then winced. Old habits died hard, especially when faced with someone who didn't know they were old habits. Sara wasn't looking at his face, however; she was looking at the shoulder holster visible under his jacket.
"They let you carry firearms now?" she asked, a slight waver of anger in her voice. She turned to Peter. "Are you nuts?"
"Not exactly let," Elliot said, taking his ID out of his pocket. This was always easiest; give them the ID, let them figure it out. Also it gave him a head start if he needed to run. Sara looked down at it, eyes narrowed.
"Undercover?" she asked Peter. As if Elliot still weren't quite a complete person she could speak directly to, just an accessory Peter kept around.
"Sara Ellis, meet Elliot Donnelly, Special Agent for the FBI," Peter said. Sara flipped the ID closed, sharply.
"If this is some kind of joke..." she started, but Elliot shook his head.
"Nope. I'm not undercover right now. But I was when we met," he told her.
"So where's the real Neal Caffrey?" she asked. Elliot frowned, confused. "If you were replacing the real Neal Caffrey, the art thief, where is he?"
"Ohhh," Elliot said, glancing at Peter. "No. I was always Neal Caffrey."
Sara tossed the wallet on the table. "I don't understand."
"Neal was a deep cover alias," Elliot said. "Man, telling this story gets old fast," he added to Peter. "I was recruited out of Quantico, given the name Neal Caffrey, and sent in undercover to help break up various fraud and forgery rings."
Even when shocked, Sara was elegant; she lowered herself into one of the conference room chairs, wallet still held in one hand. "You stole things. Paintings, documents..."
"I recovered items the FBI had classified as stolen property," Elliot said carefully. "Including the Raphael."
"The Raphael hasn't been recovered," Sara snapped.
"It has for its rightful owners," Elliot answered, and Peter stepped in before they could get into it.
"Talk about the god damned Raphael later," he said, holding out his hand for Elliot's wallet. Sara returned it, glowering, and Peter handed it to Elliot, who tucked it back in his pocket. "We have bigger problems."
"I can explain everything," Elliot said in an undertone, seating himself next to Sara as Peter began presenting the case to the gathering agents. "Gimme a chance. Dinner? Tonight?"
"Go to hell," Sara said, without turning around.
"Been there, it's called supermax," he murmured. "Come on, Sara, don't tell me you don't want this story."
She turned and glared at him, which caught Peter's eye.
"Am I going to have to separate you two?" he asked. Elliot sat back, and Sara returned her attention to Peter. "Okay then..."
"You're paying," she whispered.
"Naturally," Elliot whispered back, but he risked a grin when she wasn't looking.
What actually happened was this: the bust went bad, Elliot charged in, and Elliot and Sara ended up handcuffed to a railing in an abandoned train station while half the goon squad who'd captured them went off to find the guy Elliot said had double-crossed them and stole the antique lamp Sara had been chasing.
"You're really good at this Special Agent thing," Sara said, tugging on the cuffs, which pulled Elliot's hand up against the bar. He gritted his teeth.
"Look, they think I know where their guy is, it's going to take them an hour to get there and there's no cell reception, so we have at least an hour and twenty minutes before our remaining guards get wind of the fact that I sent the others on a wild goose chase," Elliot said. "By that time, Peter will have found us."
"You have a lot of faith in Peter Burke," she snarled.
"Well, he hasn't let me down yet," Elliot said placidly.
"Pick the cuffs," Sara ordered.
"And do what, exactly?" Elliot asked. "There's two of us, three of them, and five guns, all on their side. What should I do, glare them to death? If I see an opening I'll pick it and we'll run but in the meantime stop fuming at me."
"I'll fume if I want to," she retorted.
"Just calm down," Elliot said. "Peter'll find us. I'll keep you safe."
"Great. Neal Caffrey is keeping me safe."
"Elliot Donnelly is keeping you safe," Elliot reminded her.
"A distinction without a difference," she said, thudding her head back against the wall. Elliot inched closer.
"So, that's a no on dinner, then," he said, and she laughed.
"Yeah, Elliot, that's a no on dinner. Why, planning to order Chinese? Just deliver it to the abandoned train station, don't mind the guys with guns, promise I'll tip big," she said sardonically.
"Well, it's not the romantic table for two I was envisioning, but I've done more with less," he said. "And you can't throw your drink in my face, this way."
"Were you expecting I would?" she asked. Elliot studied her profile.
"The FBI had me in deep cover for ten years," he said. "Five on the outside, a little under four in prison, a year and a half in the anklet. And yeah, one of the things I recovered in those ten years was the Raphael."
"You stole a Raphael."
"Let me tell you a little story," Elliot said. "It's about this guy named Stein, who owned a beautiful painting of St. George slaying the dragon. Now, he bought this painting for his wife on a trip to Venice, and he brought it home to Germany in 1928. For years it was the pride of their home, until the Nazis started sharpening their knives. Herr Stein, he was a Jew, but he had friends in Switzerland, so he sent his very young daughter off to see his friends, and he and his wife made plans to follow her. With me so far?"
Sara sighed and nodded.
"Good. Then one day, a few days before they were supposed to leave, Herr Stein and Fraulein Stein were arrested. Where they went..." Elliot shrugged. "The Nazis kept good records, but not that good. And this beautiful Raphael was confiscated and auctioned off to support the war effort. A man named Jackson, from America, bought the painting. Jackson..." Elliot shook his head and clicked his tongue. "Not a very nice man. He brought the Raphael back to America and insured it for a whole boatload of money, and hung it on his wall."
"That might have been his name," Elliot nodded. "Now, fast-forward sixty years. Nick Jackson Jr. inherits the painting from his father. He's actually a pretty nice guy, doesn't know what his dad did to get the painting, thinks it's just part of the art collection. Shows it off to a pal, who happens to have a pal in the FBI, and someone says...wait a minute. That Raphael? Word gets passed around. Turns out Herr Stein's daughter is still alive and she has kids, and she can prove Herr Stein was the rightful owner of the painting. And she says, I don't want to make a fuss. And the FBI says, who can we call who will take care of this for us without making a fuss?"
He pointed a finger at himself and grinned. Sara, he could tell, was fighting a smile. Elliot prided himself on being a good storyteller.
"My handler calls me and says, hey, how would Neal Caffrey like to recover a looted Raphael? And Neal Caffrey says, it's practically a sworn duty. He swoops in, takes the painting, hand-delivers it to Fraulein Gusberg, nee Stein, and flies back to the US, all in a weekend. Now, granted, one or two little accidents happen along the way. This FBI agent named Burke, who has no idea Neal Caffrey's an alias, he's closing in on Caffrey. And out of the blue comes a beautiful insurance recovery agent named Sara Ellis, who teams up with Agent Burke. When Agent Burke finally takes Caffrey to trial, she gets him to try Caffrey for the theft of the Raphael as well."
"You're so smug about it," Sara hissed.
"Yeah, that's what Peter said at first," Elliot agreed gravely. "Here's the thing, Sara. Neal Caffrey gets four years. He goes inside. And he gets moved around from prison to prison, mostly off the books. Everywhere he goes, seems like eventually the FBI comes in and make busts for prisoner abuse, for drug smuggling rings, for embezzlement of government funds meant to feed and house prisoners. For three years and change he's a good little undercover FBI agent, and then one day his girlfriend disappears."
Sara sucked in a breath. Elliot hushed her gently.
"So this undercover agent breaks out, but he keeps his cover, and so does his girlfriend, who happens to also be an undercover agent. But a year later she's dead. Another six months, and Elliot Donnelly has to explain to Peter Burke how he's not really Neal Caffrey at all. And he keeps having to explain it. To Peter's wife, to all the agents in the White Collar division, to the entire New York branch of the FBI. To his best friend, to his landlady, the explaining, Sara, it just never stops," Elliot said. Sara was watching him now, her face a fraction more sympathetic than it had been. "He runs into the beautiful insurance recovery agent, and she's pissed at him, and he knows it. But this FBI agent thinks Sara Ellis is...amazing. And he'd like her to like him, because they're on the same side. And," he added, when Sara leaned forward to speak, "he thinks maybe someone should be auditing the insurance company Sara works for, because obviously there are some gaps in their reporting."
Sara hesitated. Elliot watched her.
"Right then? That's when I would have thrown my drink in your face," she said.
"Told you," Elliot sighed.
Which was when Peter burst into the train station with a SWAT team. As soon as he heard gunfire, Elliot swung a leg up and over Sara, straddling her, getting his body between her and the rest of the room. And, while her face was pressed to his chest, he took a bullet in the back.
Elliot woke to the smell of hospital overlaid with the smell of sesame chicken, and the sound of people talking in the low, hushed, worried tones people always used in sickrooms. He was lying on his stomach, which was weird, face carefully propped sideways on a pillow. He lay still, his old instincts kicking in, and listened. Elizabeth; Peter; Sara.
"...can't believe it," Sara said. "I mean, you'd think I'd be over the shock by now. It's not the first time I've been shot at."
"It takes a while," Peter replied.
"It's just, if he hadn't done that, I'd..."
"Be dead?" Peter asked. "Probably."
"Honey," El said, in her best shut up, you're scaring people voice.
"Hey, the man got shot, he deserves some credit," Peter said. Elliot decided Peter was his favorite FBI agent ever.
"Why'd he do it?" Sara asked. She must really be blown away by this.
"He's an FBI agent," Elizabeth said. "It's his job."
"How do you..." Sara said, and Elliot wasn't sure who she was talking to until Elizabeth replied.
"I try not to think about it," she answered. Peter coughed guiltily.
Good entry point. Elliot groaned theatrically and opened his eyes; the room was blindingly bright.
"He's up," Peter said in an undertone. There was a rustle of movement and then Elizabeth was there, smiling at him, leaning down to be on his level.
"Hey," she said softly, brushing some hair off his forehead. She scratched right at the hairline, just up against the pillow, and Elliot groaned again, not even aware it had been itchy until she did it. "How're you feeling?"
"Drugged," he said, becoming aware that he should probably hurt worse than he did. He lifted his near hand and found a bandage around his wrist. "Mm, the cuffs?"
"The EMTs weren't gentle," Peter's voice. Peter reached around Elizabeth and put a hand on his arm, lowering it.
"Is Sara okay?" Elliot asked, well aware Sara was probably off to his left somewhere.
"Yeah, she's here," Elizabeth said, and turned, gesturing just out of his field of vision. Sara appeared in a hospital scrub shirt, hitching her hip against his bed.
"Don't think I don't know you just did that to impress me," she told him.
"Did it work?" Elliot asked. He caught Peter and Elizabeth exchanging an annoyed look.
"Little bit," Sara admitted.
"So," Elliot said with false cheer, "shot in the back. Am I paralyzed?"
"No," Peter said. "You're a lucky son of a bitch, though."
He held up Elliot's shoulder holster and poked his finger through a bullethole in the leather patch at the back, where the two loops met.
"Holster slowed down the impact," he said. "They pulled the bullet out just to the right of your spine. Couple of weeks, you'll be good as new."
Elliot went for a dry smile but suspected he was closer to a dopey grin. "You hear that, Sara? I'm all heroic and stuff."
"Don't get comfortable with it," she told him. "I have it on good authority it's your job."
"It's my awesome job," Elliot replied, rubbing his cheek against the pillow. He kept his one open eye on Peter. "Do I smell Chinese?"
"Want some?" Peter asked. Elizabeth looked vaguely disapproving, but Elliot let himself be rolled onto his side and then eased up to sitting, Peter's hands on his shoulders, carefully avoiding the bit of his back which felt like it should hurt but didn't. Elliot accepted a carton of food, tried to get clumsy fingers around the chopsticks, then gave up and gave them a pleading look. Sara held up a plastic fork.
"Thanks," he said, eating carefully. It tasted like the best thing ever. "Look, we still got dinner," he added, gesturing between him and Sara with the fork.
"And I don't even have to throw a drink in your face this time," Sara said brightly. Elliot saw Peter give them both a perplexed look.
"Sweetie, why don't we go see about...outside..." Elizabeth said, taking Peter's arm and tugging him out the door. Elliot and Sara watched them go, and then Sara turned back to him with a grin.
"She's the nicest person I know, but subtle isn't always her strong point," Elliot said, around a mouthful of chicken. He poked at the food in the carton, thoughtfully. "You really okay?"
Sara held up her arm; there were light bandages around the wrist. "That's the worst of it. They couldn't get you stable until they cut us loose."
"Can't have been pleasant, being stuck under a guy bleeding out," Elliot observed.
"Believe it or not, it's not the worst way I've ever ended a case," she said.
"Sounds like a story," Elliot said. "You should tell me about it sometime."
Sara raised an eyebrow. "Over drinks, maybe?"
Elliot gave her a grin, still digging around in the food carton.
"You saved my life," Sara continued.
"S'my job," Elliot reminded her.
"You really think, with all our baggage, a second date would be wise?" she asked.
"Well, our first date's going okay," Elliot said. "I got you out of your shirt, so I'm claiming second base."
"Neal!" she said, outraged.
"Elliot," he reminded her gently. She flushed. "Hey, it's fine, it took everyone a while to get used to it. Look, Sara," he said, setting the food down on some...machine or other. "I'm not pissed about the Raphael, I'd have done the same in your shoes. I do think you need to investigate your company, but I don't think you acted in bad faith. And I think you're beautiful, and you get where I'm coming from. What's the harm in giving it a shot?"
Sara smoothed an errant wrinkle in the blanket on his hospital bed. "I wouldn't trust Neal Caffrey as far as I could throw him. I don't even know how to get my head around you, and the new parts I can trust, and the new parts I can't."
"Kind of like dating someone you just met, huh?" Elliot asked. At her startled look, he smiled. "Did you know I have a law degree?"
She groaned. "That explains a lot."
"I was captain of the debate team in high school, too. Come on, Sara," he added, taking her hand, holding it loosely. "I'm going to have a long time off once I get out of here. Help me break up the monotony, let me cook you dinner."
She tapped his hand with her other, free hand. "When you get out, after you've had a few days, and I get to choose the wine."
Elliot beamed. "Done. Now, let's figure out how to pitch investigating your insurance firm to Peter..."
Elliot was out of the hospital a couple of days later but his body was spending most of its energy on healing, and he didn't exactly feel up to much hosting for about a week after he'd been shot. Oh, Mozzie was there frequently, and Peter came by with a six pack and watched ball games while Elliot slept or sketched; Elizabeth brought soup, and joined him and Mozzie for a Tiles Of Fire marathon that Elliot mostly spent laughing, out of his head on the painkillers they'd given him. After that he started splitting the pills, because he preferred a little pain and a sharp mind to numb euphoria.
He was off them entirely by the time he called Sara, who sounded like she was surprised to hear from him, but did happen to have Saturday night open if he was serious about cooking dinner. He asked her how she liked her steaks. He wasn't surprised when she replied bleeding.
It was good, though. She sat at his dining room table and they bickered while he cooked; he put on some of Byron's old blues records and pulled her up for a dance; they had wine and talked about art and he consciously let details slip about his life, what it had been and what he wanted it to be. She liked his cooking. He even got her to laugh a couple of times.
At the end of the evening she went to kiss him goodnight, and he caught her around the waist and held her there, not pushing the kiss itself but just reminding her he was a person, not a file. She ended the kiss, but she didn't move either.
"Can I see you again?" he asked.
"That's not the offer I was expecting," she said, smiling.
"Well, I'm an old-fashioned kind of guy," he said.
"Waiting until the third date?" she asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Letting the lady make the first move," he answered. She pulled away, just a little, and he let her go.
"Drinks. When you're on your feet for more than an hour or two," she said.
"Dancing?" Elliot offered.
"Sure, if you think you can keep up with me," she said, and shouldered her purse. "It's been fun, Elliot," she added. She kissed him again, briefly, and sauntered out. Elliot closed the door behind her and exhaled heavily, leaning his forehead against the door. Then he grinned and went to do the dishes in good spirits.
Peter, from the vantage point of a happily married man, thought Elliot and Sara's relationship looked stressful. Elliot had come back from his enforced medical leave cheerful and satisfied, but he and Sara were always texting or emailing or some damn thing to reschedule each other as Sara went out of town on a chase or Elliot had a long stakeout or there was some other reason interfering with their dates. Married life was just plain easier; sure, he and El had to compare calendars sometimes, but at the end of the day they went home to the same place, petted the same dog, and slept in the same bed. There were pretty good odds that he'd see her for at least a little while every twelve hours or so. Elliot, on the other hand, seemed to have to scramble for every minute he spent with Sara.
"Hey, that's the way it works," he said. "It's worth it."
"Is it?" Peter asked. From what he'd seen, they spent most of their time having sarcasm competitions.
"We get each other," Elliot said with a grin. "Come on, Peter, you know me."
"I do. That's what's so terrifying," Peter sighed.
Elliot did seem thrilled to see Sara whenever they met. He always came in the morning after a date looking smug, and Peter told himself that the anxiety he felt about Elliot and Sara was just the result of still seeing Sara as someone who wanted to either shoot Neal Caffrey or interrogate the crap out of him. If Sara and Elliot enjoyed a certain level of hostility in their relationship, well, it wasn't like Peter had to be a part of it.
They made it through Elliot's recuperation, a formal investigation of Sara's company by their division, and a case of art smuggling that kept Elliot on long hours; four months, a good run all things considered.
Then Elliot fell off a roof.
More accurately, he was shot off a roof. The bullet barely touched him, but it overbalanced him and the fall (broken by a brief crash into a fire escape and a pile of boxes below that) bruised him up pretty well, including a concussion. Peter tried to be annoyed by it, because Elliot wasn't usually accident prone and two major injuries within six months was a pain in the ass. He tried hard to be annoyed, because otherwise he would be worried, really worried about Elliot, and he couldn't afford that.
By the time Elliot was lucid, Peter had called Elizabeth to let her know he'd be home late and called Sara to let her know that Elliot was in the hospital again. He stood outside Elliot's room and drank terrible hospital coffee, watching through the windowed door as Elliot and Sara spoke together. He was fighting the bitterness of no longer being first-in-line for bedside duty when he realized what he was seeing. He'd seen it often enough in other people to recognize it, but never once had it happened to his partner.
Elliot was being dumped.
He wandered far enough down the hall that Sara wouldn't see him when she left; after he heard Elliot's door open and close, he took his time finishing his coffee and making his way back to Elliot's room. Elliot was lying in bed, staring up at the ceiling, hands in loose fists at his sides.
Peter knew he was bad at this, so he didn't bother trying for anything gentle. "That looked awkward," he said.
"Worse for her," Elliot answered. "I mean, it can't be easy, breaking up with someone while they're in the hospital. I'd give her points for guts if I didn't know brutal honesty was a lifestyle choice for Sara."
"You okay?" Peter asked.
"Sure. I probably should have seen it coming when I fell off the roof," Elliot said. He sighed and tried to sit up a little; Peter put a hand on his shoulder, holding him in place, and pressed the raise-body option on the bed instead. "Thanks."
"What, she dumped you because you're concussed? I get waiting for the right moment, but that seems extreme," Peter remarked. Elliot shook his head, then clutched it and groaned. Peter awkwardly patted his arm.
"She's fine with risking her life for her work," Elliot said. "I'm fine with her taking risks too. I'm used to it. But...you know, she's not...she's not fine with me risking myself. She..." he gave a bitter little laugh. "We're in love, see, and she can't deal with worrying all the time that I'm out there getting killed. So before she gets in any deeper, she's walking away. Because she loves me. I got dumped because she loves me."
Peter had very little context for this. "Tough break," he tried. Elliot snorted.
"Yeah, tough break," he repeated. He lifted one hand and rubbed the back of it against Peter's arm, closing his eyes. "You're a comfort in times of crisis, Burke."
"If you're going to be a dick about it, I can go," Peter said, and Elliot laughed.
"Sorry," he said, opening his eyes. "Look, I know this is uncomfortable for you. Just let me be bitter about it for like, five minutes, then we can talk about the game, okay?"
"Here's the thing," Peter sighed, because he might as well say this now -- it wasn't going to get any easier. "She might have a point, Elliot."
"About what?" Elliot asked, looking suspicious.
"Most federal agents go years between major on-job injuries, even active field agents," Peter said. "I've been in the hospital four times in thirteen years. You can't go six months without getting shot. So maybe some of the problem is with you."
"What, you think I like getting shot?" Elliot asked, outraged.
"I think you're impulsive and improvisational, because for a long time you had to be," Peter said, holding up a hand. "And I think maybe you're an adrenaline junkie."
"I do my job," Elliot insisted. "I know the regs, I'm a trained agent. I go off book when I have to, because sometimes people's lives are at risk."
"You do a good job," Peter said quietly. "But you're part of an institution, Elliot. You don't save the world all by yourself. Just -- think about it, okay?" he added, when Elliot opened his mouth to protest again. "You're not on your own out in the wilds anymore, just you and Kate. You're allowed to protect yourself, and the FBI will back you. You're not cannon fodder."
Elliot gave him a sullen look. "I do my job," he repeated.
Peter patted his arm. "I'll be back tomorrow. You're on mandatory leave once they let you outta here. Take some time, get your head together."
Elliot nodded, and Peter left, feeling like the first time he'd walked out on Neal Caffrey, years ago when he'd left him in prison.
Chapter 3: Martin
Elliot walked into Peter's office a couple of months after Sara dumped him and said, "So, we-don't-ask, we-don't-care, how realistic is that?"
Peter looked up from his work, surprised. "How do you mean?"
"Well, I've read the official diversity statements and all the fine print and that's great. And obviously it functions here, because you actually don't care. But in the Bureau, as a whole, how well does the diversity tolerance policy work?"
Peter tilted his head to one side. "Pretty well, I think. Hughes wouldn't take any bullshit about it, anyway, and he wouldn't stand for anyone giving his people bullshit. Diana could probably give you a better scoop on the Bureau as a whole than I could. Why?"
Elliot settled himself in the guest chair, stretched out, folded his hands over his stomach, and said, "I'm seeing someone."
Peter raised an eyebrow.
"He's an artist, we met at a gallery show. It's not serious," Elliot added. "Not yet."
"Yeah, I think so. Interesting, anyway." Elliot eyed him carefully.
"Then the rest doesn't matter. Anyone gives you shit, let me know," Peter said, and went back to his work.
"That's it," Peter told him. He glanced up. "What, did you think I didn't know about Sanderson?"
"You knew about Sanderson?" Elliot asked, startled.
"Sure. When we caught him -- while I was chasing you -- he told me all about you," Peter said, grinning.
"All about me?" Elliot asked.
"I didn't press for the intimate details," Peter said. "He provided a few without me asking, but I always figured he was just trying to freak out the feds, so I never knew how seriously to take what he said. But obviously there was something between the two of you. Talk about a bitter ex."
"What details exactly did he provide?" Elliot asked. "Because I gotta tell you, some of the stuff Sanderson and I got up to was for the job, and not because of my personal tastes."
"Relax," Peter said. "It's not like I'm publishing a Penthouse Forum letter here. I'm just saying, it's not a big deal. And if someone makes it a big deal, let me help you handle it."
Elliot sat thoughtfully for a while. "Okay," he said, and stood. "Thanks."
"No problem," Peter replied. Elliot was on the threshold before Peter thought to ask, "Hey -- what does this guy do? What kind of art?"
"Oh, um. Postmodern exploration of spatial juxtaposition," Elliot said. Peter stared at him. "Yeah, you'd hate it. Don't worry about it."
Elliot and Martin -- who Peter only met once, when Elliot brought him to lunch one day -- didn't last very long. Instead, one night about three weeks after their conversation, Elliot called Peter at home, late. He could hear cars in the background, people talking.
"What's going on?" Peter asked, easing out of bed.
"I just called in a bust on Martin," Elliot said. "Things got a little hairy. I wanted to let you know before the NYPD tipped you or something."
"You -- what the hell was he doing?" Peter demanded. "Are you okay?"
"Apparently cocaine pays better than art." Elliot sounded amused. "You know, honestly, I probably wouldn't have turned him in, but he had a bargain family-sized pallet of the stuff. Who uses coke anymore? So 1980's. Anyway, if you can get the file from NYPD in the morning you can probably get a few good names out of him."
"Elliot, are you hurt?" Peter repeated.
"I'm fine. Bruised ego, but that'll heal. It's a little awkward explaining my relationship to the suspect, but nobody's giving me too much shit."
"What happened?" Peter asked, sitting down in the chair by the bed. Elizabeth stirred, propping herself on her elbow, giving him a questioning look.
"I found the coke, I put it back before he saw me, I told him I was going to run downstairs for a bottle of wine, and I called in a team," Elliot recited. His voice was just the tiniest bit shaky. "I guess this is why feds don't date artistic types."
"You need me to come get you?"
"Nah, I'll wrap up here, get a cab back to June's place -- "
"Elliot," Peter said, and Elliot fell silent. "Let me rephrase. Can I come get you?"
More silence. Finally Elliot said, "Yeah, are you okay with that?"
"I'll be there soon."
He found Elliot sitting on the back of a cop car outside of Martin's apartment building, shooting the breeze with a couple of uniforms. He'd done everything right: called in a team from the NYPD, recused himself from the investigation, and given a preliminary statement. When he saw Peter he hopped down, clapped one of the cops on the back, and strolled up to Peter's car.
"Going my way?" he asked with a grin. Peter leaned across the seat and opened the door for him. Elliot was out of his usual slim-tie-and-suit getup; his shirt was black and skintight, open at the throat.
"Nice shirt," Peter said.
"We went clubbing," Elliot explained, still grinning. And that was the thing -- unless you knew Elliot, inside and out, and unless you'd known him as Neal, the grin would look completely real. It wasn't fake-looking or plastered on, and it reached his eyes. But it was a con nonetheless.
"You okay?" Peter asked, as they pulled away from the cop cars, which one by one were pulling away themselves.
"Told you, I'm fine. I should have seen it coming," Elliot answered. Peter glanced at him.
"How the hell were you supposed to see that coming?" he asked.
"Well, I am a federal agent, and I have some experience spotting crooks," Elliot said. "Plus, he was cool with the whole Neal thing. Maybe a little too cool. He asked a lot of personal questions." He turned to stare out the window. "Nice to talk about it though. I never really get to talk about it."
Peter suppressed the urge to point out that he did have a partner who had known Neal and would be happy to talk about it, because the last thing Elliot needed tonight was another guilt trip.
"I liked him," Elliot said, after a while. "Maybe I shouldn't have NARCed."
"You like him enough to risk your job for him?" Peter asked. Elliot turned to him, Neal Caffrey's smile on his face.
"Don't tell me a jury wouldn't believe this face when I said I didn't know about the coke," he answered.
"A jury didn't believe that face when they put Neal away for bond forgery," Peter reminded him.
"Give me some credit! I'm always improving my skills."
"You're deflecting the discussion," Peter said.
"Oooh. You've been reading psychology books again," Elliot retorted.
"Well, when I work with a mess like you..." Peter said, and turned to grin at him. Elliot made an eyes-on-the-road gesture. "Look, if he had that much, he was selling. That only ends two ways, prison or murder, and you know that."
"I could've just dumped him."
"You're a federal agent, Elliot."
"Not when I'm off the clock," Elliot protested. Peter adjusted his grip on the steering wheel. "What?"
"You out of everyone should know we never really go off the clock," Peter said. "The badge is for life, not just nine to five. You lived that for ten years."
"I thought maybe it would be different," Elliot said quietly.
Peter chewed on his lip, thoughtfully. "You could quit," he said. Elliot went tense in the seat next to him. "Any security consulting firm in the world would hire you in a heartbeat. Sara could probably hook you up with an insurance recovery job. You have a law degree, you could take the Bar and go into practice."
"I don't want to quit," Elliot said.
"I'm just saying, it's an option."
"No, it's not," Elliot replied. "I love this job. I'd have had to turn Martin in anyway, I wasn't going to spend the night in an apartment with that much cocaine in it. I don't care how good an artist he is. If whoever I'm with can't handle the job then that's their problem, not mine."
"Okay," Peter said. "Listen, I'm not going to try to talk you into it, I don't want you to quit. I just want you to...explore your options."
"I like the options I have just fine," Elliot answered. He thudded his head against the window. "This sucks, Peter. I can't believe I made you come rescue me from my boyfriend's crime scene at midnight."
"I don't look at it as rescuing," Peter said. "I'm going to call it emergency joint taskforce advising."
"Joint taskforce?" Elliot asked. Peter nodded.
"I bring you home, Elizabeth makes you something to eat. Joint taskforce. Then, we all go to bed," he said, and then backpedaled sharply. "Uh, if you want the guest room."
Elliot looked faintly amused. "Sure. Can Satchmo sleep on my bed?"
"What are you, nine?"
"I like Satchmo," Elliot replied, unruffled. Peter pulled the car up in front of the house -- thankfully nobody had poached his parking spot at half past midnight on a Tuesday -- and turned off the engine.
"Hey, Elliot," he said, as Elliot was climbing out. He turned and looked back in at Peter, curious. "You did the right thing."
"I know that," Elliot said.
"Consider it independent confirmation from your joint taskforce, then," Peter replied. Elliot grinned. Behind him, the front door of the house opened and Elizabeth leaned in the doorway, waiting for them.
El, who was a better woman than Peter often felt he deserved, had made sandwiches. Elliot told them both the more extended version of the story between bites, unsubtly slipping his crusts to Satchmo, who just as unsubtly slurped them up. By the time they were finished it was nearly two in the morning, and Elliot looked exhausted.
"I should have just gone home," he said. "I didn't mean to keep you up this late."
"An advantage of being a successful entrepreneur is that once in a while I get to sleep in when I want to," El said, patting his arm. "I'm glad you called. We are. Aren't we, honey?" she said significantly.
"Yup," Peter agreed, collecting up the plates. "Diana and Jones can handle whatever comes in tomorrow morning. Get some rest."
"Nah, gotta be up early, I want to look in on the case," Elliot said, even as he yawned. "I won't wake you."
"Am I gonna have to take your phone?" Peter asked.
"Like to see you try," Elliot replied, grinning. "It's okay. I'll put in a half day, go home early unless we catch a case."
Peter just grunted, carrying the plates into the kitchen. He could hear Elliot and Elizabeth on the stairs, and Satchmo's solid thump-thump-thump as he followed. He checked the locks, a long habit especially when their night had been disturbed, and turned out all the lights before heading up.
Light was spilling out of the guest room that overlooked the street, and Peter put his head around the doorway to see if Elliot needed anything. Instead he saw his partner, standing in the middle of the floor, holding tightly to Elizabeth. His face was pressed against her hair.
It only made sense. Neal's romanticism had its roots in Elliot's chivalry, and it was probably easier for Elliot to seek comfort from a woman -- especially from Elizabeth, who had always been more comfortable with emotion than Peter was. And maybe Elliot thought Peter would be weirded out if he was broken up over a guy. Still...
They did look -- interesting, together, his wife and his partner, and stirred up something in him that he probably shouldn't admit to. Elliot had been through hell the last couple of years, and the fact that he trusted them at all was a huge thing. Peter wasn't going to ruin that with half-felt notions and some weird conversion of his feelings over losing possession of Neal and gaining an occasionally unsteady partnership with Elliot.
He leaned in the door and cleared his throat. "You don't get to keep her tonight," he said. Elliot released Elizabeth and gave him a grin.
"Not even if I behave?" he asked, and Elizabeth kissed his cheek. Satchmo, Peter saw, was already curled up on the bed.
"Get some rest," Peter said. "Don't worry about the case, it'll handle itself."
"Sir, yes sir," Elliot replied, throwing him a salute. He was already stripping off his shirt as Elizabeth brushed past Peter, heading for their own bed.
"You need pajamas?" Peter asked. Elliot held up a pair of Peter's jogging pants.
"Sexy," Elliot remarked.
"They get the job done," Peter replied. "Night, Elliot."
"Peter -- " Elliot stopped him, turning fully towards the doorway. "Listen, thank you."
"No big deal," Peter replied. He left Elliot to change, listening down the hall for the creak as Elliot joined Satchmo on the bed, and then ducked into their bedroom, where Elizabeth was already under the blankets.
"It's really hard for him," she said, as Peter slid in next to her. He turned and wrapped his arms around her, pulling her close.
"He'll figure it out. He's just a little behind everyone else," he said.
"That's not what I meant," she sighed, but she didn't elaborate. Peter kissed the nape of her neck and closed his eyes. "You got lucky, you know."
"I remember that every day," he said. "He'll be fine. I'll keep him distracted."
Unaccountably, Elizabeth laughed. "Okay. You do that."
Chapter 4: Alice
"This?" Elliot said, a few weeks later. "This is why I didn't go into standard FBI work after Quantico. Well, that and the ugly blue jackets."
"Would you relax?" Peter replied. "Even the great Elliot Donnelly has to do the gruntwork sometimes. Don't tell me you never did anything distasteful as Neal Caffrey."
"No, that's true. Those carrier pigeons were obnoxious," Elliot admitted. "Seriously, though, I'm not mentally built for stakeouts."
Peter, who wasn't mentally built for stakeouts either but had amassed a superhuman amount of patience over the years spent chasing Caffrey (Donnelly), just sighed. Elliot watched from the passenger's seat, through the half-open window of the second-story apartment, as a gorgeous blonde woman tried out different ways of styling her damp hair.
"I can't count the number of times I've met some woman on the job and thought she deserves better than him," Elliot said.
"Everyone deserves better than the asshole we're waiting on," Peter answered, fiddling with the radio.
"Well, being fair, sometimes the guy they deserved better than was me," Elliot said absently. "It's not pleasant to find your new kept man stole your Rodin out of your living room."
"Mm. Where was that, Ohio?" Peter asked. He sounded...careful, like he was fishing, and Elliot almost clammed up just to tease him, but -- sometimes Peter looked at him like he missed Neal, and Elliot could give him a little bit, at least.
"No, Kentucky, that one never made it to you," Elliot said. "At least, I think not."
"Kentucky," Peter said, thoughtfully. "No, we never got word of you in Kentucky. Recovery job?"
"Yeah. She knew it was stolen when she bought it, so she didn't report the theft when I took it. And that was fine, I have no regrets," Elliot glanced at him with a grin before turning back to his surveillance. "But it's pretty cruel, seducing someone and then stealing their Rodin."
"Only you." Peter shook his head. Elliot chuckled.
"Wild life," he said, still watching the window. "Few regrets in general, really. She was an animal."
"You actually...?" Peter asked, question hanging in the air with more delicacy than one would expect from a pair of FBI agents.
"Yeah, this was before Kate," Elliot answered. "You know. I was what, twenty-two, she was hot, not exactly a hardship."
"That's a little outside the boundaries of what the FBI requires," Peter said cautiously.
"I pretty much spent my life outside the boundaries of what the FBI requires," Elliot answered. When Peter was silent, he glanced at him again. "What -- are you worried about me? Seriously, Peter, I didn't do anything I didn't want to do. That was the beauty of being Neal. If I hadn't wanted to sleep with her, I'd've found some other way," he said, watching the window once more. "I can sell it with the best of them. Very few things I can't get if I want them. I can go anywhere, have anything. Legally, even. It's not hard to be a legal con man."
"Why don't you?" Peter asked.
Elliot smiled. "Because none of it's real," he said. "Why do you think I came to you in the end? You're...incredibly real. Keeps me honest."
"Good to know," Peter said. They were silent for a while, watching.
"Had a date last night," Elliot ventured.
"Yeah?" Peter asked, with the tone of voice he got every time Elliot said anything personal -- like he approved, but didn't want Elliot to think it mattered.
"She's nice enough."
"Very enthusiastic," Peter observed.
"I don't know, I felt like she was kicking my tires," Elliot said.
"Not interested in selling that, huh?" Peter asked.
"No, but basically everyone else is," Elliot replied. "Maybe I should, just to fit in. My two attempts at honesty haven't exactly gone to spec."
"Selling it, that's pretty standard," Peter said. "I mean, that's how these things happen, a lot of the time."
"Hence the high divorce rate?" Elliot asked.
"Maybe. But everyone does it at first. I did it to Elizabeth, extremely badly. She did it to me, too. You perform for a while, you sell it, then you start to break down and sooner or later you get a real moment of honesty. That's when you know," he added, and Elliot thought about Elizabeth, who had once answered Neal Caffrey's How did you know? with a remark about loving a person, and not the idea of a person. Elliot had been the idea of a person for ten years.
"That sounds like a lot of work," he said dubiously. "Especially if you don't like the moment of honesty and you have to start all over with someone else."
"Yeah, that's why most people don't start over," Peter said. "That's what the high divorce rate is about."
"Great," Elliot sighed, thudding his head against the window once. "So I'm ten years behind and benched by my sense of integrity."
"Deeply, deeply ironic," Peter remarked. "But it's worth it, you know. When you find someone who fits."
"Rub it in, Burke."
"Sorry." Peter gave him a shrug. "I can't help that I got lucky."
Elliot nodded and leaned back a little. "So when was it? For you and Elizabeth."
Peter laughed. "About a year in. I moved in with her. We had a fight."
"You had a fight?"
"It does happen sometimes," Peter said. "She didn't like the gun. I told her, I can't leave the gun at work, if I get a call at two in the morning I can't swing by the office and grab my piece."
"Very mature," Peter said. "I said I had a lockbox, I locked it up every night when I got home, what was the big deal? And we got into it about feelings and respect and...I don't know, all kinds of crap I don't do well with now, let alone then. And then I said, what's your real problem with my gun? And she said, It reminds me of what you do."
"Like she didn't know you were an FBI agent?" Elliot asked, confused.
"On some level, she really didn't. I never talked about it. For all she knew I was going out getting shot at every day. I didn't get how much it worried her, that she didn't know anything about what I really did. I thought I was protecting her. She was talking about how I had this whole other life, she didn't know my friends or who I worked with, and I was just standing there, staring at her," Peter said, voice low and even. "I thought, Jesus, I'm not worth this woman. And I thought, I want to marry her."
"What'd you do?" Elliot asked.
"I said I was sorry," Peter continued, sounding almost amused. "I started talking to her. About, you know, my life. So she felt all right talking about hers, and yeah, it wasn't perfect, but we worked on it and just...clicked. Now we tell the truth, because it's always better. The gun wasn't ever really the problem. It was everything behind the gun."
Elliot was silent for a while. "Huh."
The first thing Alice DeSalle did when she met Elliot Donnelly was tase him unconscious and tape his hands together behind his back.
After he regained consciousness, Elliot fell for her hard.
It started with vandalism. The Brooklyn Museum of Art had received credible threats against one of its collections, and they'd come to the FBI for help in shoring up their security. Elliot, who took their request as carte blanche, had decided to break into the museum as a trial run, the day before he and Peter were scheduled for a walk-through.
He'd made it to the fourth floor, taking mental notes the whole way, and stopped to treat himself to a stroll around the Contemporary gallery. He was thinking about doubling back to Japanese Art and taking some small item that he could show off to the museum brass the next day when suddenly there was a crackle and a burning sensation that heralded unconsciousness.
When he woke up he was sitting in an office chair, hands taped together behind the chair's back, and a beautiful brunette was going through his wallet.
"If you try to escape I'll tase you again," she said calmly.
"Security's gone casual since the last time I was here," he said, taking in the jeans and smock she wore.
"The floor plan must have changed too," she answered. "Islamic Art's on the third floor."
"I wasn't here to vandalize," he protested.
"Then how do you know we've had threats against the Islamic collection?" she asked. "Mr...Donnelly?" she held up his driver's license.
"Agent Donnelly," he corrected. "FBI. My partner and I are handling the vandalism case."
"And what, you thought you'd just take a stroll after hours?" she said. "How'd you get in?"
"That's a really complicated story," he replied. "Look in the cash pocket, you'll find a business card for Special Agent Peter Burke. He's my get out of jail free card. Call him and -- if you could not tell him you tied me up..."
She was already dialing.
"Peter Burke?" she asked, while Elliot subtly began stretching the tape around his wrists. "My name is Alice DeSalle, I work for the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Do you know an Elliot Donnelly?"
There was a pause while she made a complicated reaction face.
"He was taking a stroll after closing in our Contemporary Art gallery," she said. "No, he's fine. Oh, I tased him."
Elliot dropped his head, sighing.
"No, at the moment he's taped to my office chair. No, no gag. How do I know this is really the FBI?"
She looked at the phone and then hung up. After a second, it rang. She checked the caller ID and then answered.
"Okay, I'm mostly convinced," she said. "Hang on."
She brought the phone forward and held it up to Elliot's ear.
"Hi, Peter," Elliot said cheerfully.
"If you hadn't already been tased tonight, I'd strangle you myself," Peter said.
"Aww, I love you too."
"You're lucky I was still at the office. I'm coming over there to give DeSalle your bona fides. You owe me lunch for a week." There was a pause. "So she tied you up, huh?"
"Duct tape," Elliot said. "It's not funny."
"Everyone in the office tomorrow will beg to differ. See you in a few."
He hung up, and Alice snapped the phone shut very close to Elliot's ear.
"So, you gonna cut me loose?" Elliot asked.
"No," she replied, and she made the mistake of turning away as she walked back to put the phone on what looked like a worktable. The rest of the room was pretty dark, but he could see an easel in a corner, another table covered in shards of pottery. He slipped his hands through the loose tape loops and rested them on the arms of the chair, leaning back. When it squeaked, she turned.
"Escape artistry's kind of a hobby of mine," he said, waving his hands. "Don't worry, I'm not going anywhere. I'm one of the good guys."
"I'll wait to confirm that with Agent Burke," she said.
"Suit yourself. Hey, this is a nice place, are you an artist in residence?" he asked, looking around.
"I'm an art restorer for the museum," she answered. "Not that it's any of your business. I was working late."
"Well, when I'm being tied up I usually like to know the name of the person doing it," he said. "Alice, right? Alice the art restorer."
"Elliot the policeman?" she replied.
"Federal Agent. That's Federal as in the government."
"Ooh, I'm impressed," she said, giving him a sarcastic look. "So what's a federal agent doing casing the joint after dark?"
Elliot gave her his best Trust Me, I'm Neal Caffrey grin. "Casing the joint. Looking for security loopholes. I guess I found a few, huh? I mean, we can't depend on you being here all night every night to protect the art. Is that a Korean pedestal bowl?" he added, nodding at a heap of ceramics on the table. The bowl itself was cracked in half, the lid in several pieces; the rest of the debris probably composed what was left of the pedestal.
She gave him a curious look. "Yes, why?"
"Are you some kind of art savant, too?" she asked.
"Actually?" Elliot gave her a grin. "I am."
When Peter arrived, twenty minutes later, he found Elliot with the sleeves of his black turtleneck rolled up, sitting at the work desk of the Brooklyn Art Museum's restoration expert, carefully assembling something out of bits of stone.
"Hiya, Peter," he said, when Peter knocked on the door frame, accompanied by one of the security guards.
"Elliot, you want to tell me why you broke into the Brooklyn Museum of Art?" he asked.
"It was there," Elliot said, beaming. "Come meet Alice. We're restoring a Korean pedestal bowl that apparently someone dropped while it was being moved out of storage."
Peter glanced from Elliot to Alice and back to Elliot. "Of course you are. Why wouldn't you be?"
By the end of the official inspection the next day, Elliot and Alice had a lunch date. Peter gave him a raised eyebrow.
"What?" Elliot asked. "At least she didn't have to wave an I Heart Italian sign at me."
"You -- are you seriously throwing Elizabeth in my face?" Peter asked. It was Elliot's turn to raise an eyebrow. "That's not what I meant!"
"Alice is nice. You know I have a thing for brunettes."
"Your standards are high," Peter drawled.
"What's wrong with her?" Elliot demanded. Peter glanced away, hands on his hips like he was about to lecture him, but then he shook his head.
"Nothing. It's good, it's good for you," he said, uncharacteristically quiet. "I should have known you couldn't do anything the normal way, that's all."
"Well, look at it like this," Elliot coaxed. "When you're the best man at our wedding you can tell everyone the story of how we met when she tased me and tied me up."
Peter snorted derisively, but he also looked pleased. Elliot spun the ten-year ring around his finger, thoughtfully.
"Are you okay with this?" he asked, as they walked to the car.
"You know, technically, whether I'm okay with it or not doesn't matter," Peter pointed out. "You're not my felon anymore."
"You're my best friend. Your opinion still matters to me," Elliot replied.
"Best friend and best man all in one afternoon. You're making me blush," Peter deadpanned.
"But it matters," Elliot insisted.
Peter let out a breath, slow and measured. "Why? What if I said no, I don't like her?"
"Do you?" Elliot asked.
"I trust your judgment," Elliot said, climbing into the passenger's seat. Peter slid into the driver's seat and started the car. "If you said you didn't like her, I'd think twice about it."
"This is dangerously co-dependent," Peter told him.
"Well, I'm a dysfunctional kind of guy," Elliot smirked.
"No argument there," Peter muttered. "No, it's fine, she seems great. I think you need a little normality in your life. Take her out, talk art with her. When you come around to the part where she tied you up, use that to segue into the whole..." he waved a hand, and Elliot yelped Hands on the wheel! "...Caffrey thing. Be honest. Believe it or not, you do that best. In the meantime, you have a report to write on the museum's security system."
"Two words: what security?" Elliot replied, and they spent the rest of the drive discussing the abysmal security, Elliot's innovative if somewhat unrealistic ideas for bolstering it, and whether the sandwich place near Federal Plaza or the one six blocks away with no parking was the better option for a late lunch.
"So," Alice said to him on their third date, a really nice date, a date at an expensive restaurant he'd wrangled to make up for rescheduling due to a bust gone awry. "Who's Neal Caffrey?"
Elliot looked up sharply from his pasta. "Who?"
"Neal Caffrey," she said, resting her chin on her hands.
"How do you know that name?" he asked warily.
"Remember when you met Marie when you came to the museum to pick me up last time?" she asked, and he did -- Marie had been oddly hostile for no reason he could understand. "She recognized you. Or thought she did. She said you looked like a jewel thief who'd been on the front page of the paper after escaping police custody."
Elliot sat back, slowly. "Technically it was federal custody."
"You look like the guy in the mug shots," Alice told him.
"Yeah..." Elliot chewed on his lip, thinking fast. "Listen, this is something I meant to tell you."
"Neal Caffrey's a felon," Alice replied.
"Neal Caffrey was an alias," Elliot said. "I used to do a lot of undercover work. Neal was my cover."
"A cover that robs jewelery stores?" Alice raised an eyebrow.
"Allegedly. I was found innocent," Elliot replied. "Neal. Neal was found innocent."
"And the felony?"
Elliot leaned forward again, trying on a little slick Caffrey charm. "Listen, I can tell you the whole story, but it's long, and it's unpleasant. Do we have to do it over dinner?"
Alice gave him a long, measured look. "Yeah. We do."
Chapter 5: Everything Behind The Gun
Peter wasn't expecting a knock on his door at half past nine on a Friday night.
"Hi," Elliot said, when he answered it. Peter exhaled and stood aside, gesturing him in.
"This is very Neal Caffrey of you," he said, as Elliot walked in and tossed his hat on a hook near the door. "Glad you assumed El and I have no social life."
"Sweetie?" Elizabeth called from upstairs. "Is that Elliot?"
"Who else?" Peter called back, and only then noticed that Elliot was --
It wasn't any one thing, actually. He wasn't pale or shaking or even agitated, but there was something off about him. Something bare and hidden was up on the surface and that wasn't like Elliot, not at all. Peter guided him warily to the couch, pushed him gently to get him to sit, and leaned over. "Beer?"
"Please," Elliot said. He was tense, perched on the edge of the cushion, hands clasped between his knees. Peter turned and went to the kitchen, grabbing two beers -- then, after a thought, got a third as well. When he returned, Elizabeth was sitting next to Elliot, arm around his shoulders. Peter set the drinks down on the table and sat across from them. Elliot reached out, snagged one, took a sip.
"Guessing the date didn't go well," Elizabeth said. Elliot gave her the most bitter look Peter had ever seen on him. Peter didn't even know he'd had a date.
"Alice?" Peter asked. Elliot nodded.
"The first twenty minutes went great," Elliot said. "Then I dumped her before she could politely, gently, and oh so kindly dump me."
"Elliot," Peter sighed.
"No, really. I know what a person's face looks like when they realize there is no way they're having another date with someone," Elliot continued. "She made me from that mug shot of Neal you plastered everywhere during the Tulane case. She asked me who Neal was."
"You were going to tell her anyway," Peter said.
"I don't think I actually was," Elliot replied. Peter leaned forward. "I don't think I could have. But I did, I told her everything. All the stealing and you chasing me and prison, and Kate dying. And I looked at her face and I could see..." Elliot rubbed his forehead, first with his fingers and then with the back of his hand, knuckles curled against it. "I could see ten thousand times, doing this, trying to explain, but you can't, because nobody who wasn't there will ever understand. From the outside I do look like a mess. Maybe I am. So it came down to. It -- it was what you said. The moment of honesty."
"On a third date?" Peter asked, skeptical.
"It wasn't about her," Elliot said, and he lifted his face. "It was about you. It was everything behind the gun, you know?"
Peter caught Elizabeth's questioning look and gave a brief shake of his head. He'd explain later; she'd probably laugh.
"I'm not just Elliot," he continued. "I thought I could shake Neal off, but I can't. We're tangled up together. Neal was in love with Kate and Neal was the one you got out of prison and the past isn't -- it won't stay in the past. I just want to do a good job and be that guy, the normal guy, but I'm not. I spent five years being a crook and four being a felon and a year and a half in the tracker and -- " his voice cracked and he bowed his head again. "That's who I am and nobody gets that."
Elizabeth kept rubbing his back, but she was looking at Peter like it was his job to fix this. Probably in some twisted way it was, but Peter had basically one technique for this kind of thing and if he told Elliot to cowboy up right now, Elizabeth would take his head off.
Elliot just stayed there, still, quiet, head down, the only sign he wasn't a statue the faint inhale-exhale of his breath.
"The point is I don't know where he ends and I begin, and I tried to tell Alice about who I was. That was the gun, and this is everything behind it," Elliot said. "What's behind the gun is that I could have someone, but I won't, because you're the only ones who understand, and I'm in love with you."
Peter watched him raise his head, slowly. Elliot turned to Elizabeth. "Both of you. This is where I want to be. If I can't have...if all I get to be is a dinner guest, that's okay, but I had to tell the truth. Everything in me that made up Neal is telling me I shouldn't, but I have to. I'm Elliot. I love you." He looked at Peter. "I don't want anyone else."
Peter set his beer down and stood up, reaching out to pull Elliot up by the collar of his shirt. Elliot kept looking away, but that was fine; Peter just wrapped his arms around his shoulders and held him there until Elliot broke. He could feel the moment happen, when the good FBI agent with the ten year ring snapped and then the con man gave way too. Elliot clutched at Peter's back, face buried in his shoulder. He looked at Elizabeth over Elliot's bent head, questioning. She made a go on motion.
"You don't talk to me," Peter said, because it was all he could think of. Elliot leaned back, staring at him in shock. Peter kept his hands on Elliot's shoulders. "You tell people things, but not me."
Elliot looked away. "Yeah, well. Maybe I didn't want to be obvious about being hung up on you."
"And Elizabeth?" Peter asked.
"If I had the balls to try and steal her or if I thought she'd go..." Elliot shook his head. Elizabeth snickered, standing up from the couch to put a hand on his arm. She rested her cheek against his shoulder and Elliot looked down, then back up at Peter.
"Relationships with me don't end well. Kate...died, I don't even know her real name, and she died. I'm too dangerous for Sara, too moral for Martin, too messed up for Alice. I get it. I do."
He shrugged. Peter let go of his shoulders.
"Everyone's messed up," Peter said. "Sometimes I think about how to get you back in a tracker just so I'll know where the hell you are."
Elliot's look was sharp and curious, suddenly tightly focused.
"And you're probably not going to find a couple of pounds of cocaine in the house," Elizabeth added, propping her chin against Elliot's shoulder.
"She's used to someone who carries a gun," Peter said.
"I don't think he wants you with anyone else," Elizabeth whispered, grinning at Peter from where she was now pressed very close to Elliot's arm.
"I get possessive," Peter admitted.
"Just so we're clear," Elliot said slowly, "I'm talking about actually being in love. Not dysfunctional co-dependent friendship. The kind of love where I want to bring you shiny things and seduce you."
Peter glanced at Elizabeth, who beamed at him. He put his hands on his hips and exhaled.
"Do you really think it would take much seducing?" he asked thoughtfully, as if he were considering what new case file to take. Elliot's jaw dropped and he turned to look down at Elizabeth.
"Sweetie, did you seriously think we'd say no?" she asked.
"I wasn't thinking much past I'm messed up," Elliot said. He looked back at Peter. "Have you even ever, with a guy...?"
"No, but I'm a fast learner," Peter said. "And sexual identity crises bore me."
"So glad that's sorted out," Elliot said weakly. Elizabeth, to both their surprises, elbowed Elliot sharply in the side and he stumbled forward. Peter caught him, one hand on his chest, one on his hip.
"Moment of honesty," Peter said. "If you were still Neal I'd ask if this was a con."
"If I were still Neal, I'd have this under control a little better," Elliot said. "I'm not Neal. Mostly not Neal."
"I know that," Peter said, and kissed him -- easy and slow, half because this was uncharted territory and half because he didn't want to spook the mess in front of him.
The mess, who was suddenly all pressed up against him, solid and warm and strange. Different. Hooking his hands in Peter's belt -- no, just the one hand, because the other was pressing against his stomach, an oddly intimate touch.
Peter held out one hand for Elizabeth, relieved when he felt her take it, felt her pressed up against his arm this time.
"This is good," Elliot mumbled into his mouth. His body was taut, shifting, never quite still. "This is really -- "
He pulled back suddenly and turned to Elizabeth, though he still looked up at Peter. "Can I...?"
"Don't ask me, ask her," Peter said, nodding at his wife. Elliot turned a little and the fool was actually going to ask her if he could kiss her, but Elizabeth leaned up and kissed him before he could. Peter couldn't help the hitch in his breath.
All the nights Elliot had spent in their guest room, all the stakeouts and lunches and dinners, all those hours he'd spent coaxing Elliot through the difficult process of leaving Neal Caffrey behind him -- how far back had this gone? Neal's favorite thing to do had been to lean over Peter during a case, making whatever observations he had to make into his ear, quiet and somehow unsettling, more in Peter's reaction than Neal's behavior.
Elliot had stopped doing that, and Peter had never asked him why. When you were yourself, he supposed what started as a game could get serious fast.
Elliot's hand reached out -- Elliot was still kissing Elizabeth, who liked to kiss and could do it a lot -- and he twisted his fingers in Peter's shirt. Peter covered Elliot's hand with his own and used his other hand to pull Elliot around, away from Elizabeth, fingers on his jaw. Elliot went with it, nuzzling up against his cheek, nipping at his lower lip.
"This is moving fast," Peter said.
"Not fast enough," Elliot replied, and Elizabeth laughed.
"I think we need ground rules," Peter insisted, and Elliot leaned back and looked discontented. "I know you like to go off book, Elliot, but this is important. I'm trying not to screw things up here."
Elliot glanced from him to Elizabeth, thoughtfully.
"Yeah. We have a lot more to lose than you do," Peter said. "Professionally," he added, crowding into Elliot's space, Elizabeth holding Elliot in place with an arm around his hips, "the Bureau would see this as interdepartmental fraternization at best."
"Do they need to know?" Elliot asked. "I'm very good at being discreet," he said, and Peter laughed and wrapped his fingers tighter around Elliot's, wrinkling his shirt.
"You'd better be," he said. "No shenanigans in the office. I mean it, Elliot," he said, when Elliot grinned. "Besides, we're not leaving Elizabeth out of this."
"Better not," Elizabeth added, though it was muffled a little by Elliot's shoulder.
"Do I get to make up rules?" Elliot asked.
"Do you want to?" Peter asked.
"Depends. Will it help us get naked faster?" Elliot asked hopefully. Elizabeth laughed. Peter gave him an exasperated look. "I want..." he trailed off, swallowing, and kissed Peter. It was a blatant move to get Peter to close his eyes, and it worked. Elliot slid his lips along Peter's jaw and started murmuring in his ear -- still loud enough for Elizabeth to hear -- things he wanted, things he wanted to do to them. Fantasies that Peter began to realize Elliot must have spent considerable time and effort forming.
"Can we write the rulebook later?" Elliot asked eventually. Peter could feel his own hands shaking, and Elizabeth looked like she was ready to tie one or both of them to the bed if they didn't make a move soon. It was intense, almost overwhelming, and perhaps too much at once. He eased Elliot's fingers out of his shirt and stepped back, taking a breath. Elliot looked suddenly cautious.
"Are you sure?" Peter asked Elizabeth. She nodded.
"I'm sure too," Elliot said. "In case you were wondering."
"I wasn't," Peter replied, and Elliot smiled.
"Are you sure?" Elliot asked.
Peter tipped his head at the stairs. "Go up. I'll be there soon."
Elliot's eyes narrowed slightly, but he let Elizabeth tug him to the stairs, lead him up them slowly. Peter checked the front door, made sure Satchmo's water bowl was full and Satch himself was sacked out on his cushion, then followed them up.
Later -- when Elliot was finally still, when Elizabeth was almost asleep and Peter was watching them both, curled together next to him -- he caught sight of Elliot's ring on the nightstand, on the far side of the bed from him, next to his watch. Somehow he'd ended up on Elizabeth's side of the bed, but he wasn't going to try and wake her, and if he'd wanted to Elliot might have stopped him. Elliot was holding to her more tightly than even Peter had for years, not since they were young and Peter hadn't yet started trusting his senses -- before he knew in his bones that Elizabeth was really there, that she'd really said yes to him. He supposed Elliot was feeling the same.
He reached across Elliot and Elizabeth, only meaning to pick up his watch, but his fingers touched the ring instead, and he gathered it into his palm. Elliot stirred and caught him studying it in the dim light of the single lamp.
"Wish my ma could've seen it," Elliot said, quietly. Peter looked down at him. "I would've given it to her."
"You said your mother was a con artist," Peter answered.
"You would know," Elliot replied. Peter shook his head.
"No, I don't know," he said. "Just what you've told me."
Elliot frowned. "You never looked her up?"
"It was private. I don't do background checks on my friends," Peter said.
Elliot seemed to be considering this. "I thought you knew."
"I was waiting for you to tell me."
Elliot laughed quietly. One hand was rubbing Elizabeth's hair, idle and light; with his right hand he took the ring from Peter and deftly slipped his finger into it. A con man's trick, that.
"We're going to be bad at this," Elliot said.
"We'll get better." Peter shrugged one shoulder. Elliot pressed his thumb against the ring, turning it around and around on his finger.
"Ma said I come from a long line of Irish horse thieves," he said, smiling. "I don't know how true it is. Never knew her parents. Never knew my dad, I don't even know if she did. She used to tell me she picked me from a rich man's pocket."
"Charming," Peter drawled.
"It was! But that was Ma. When I was a baby -- she says this, anyway -- she used to go up into the wealthy neighborhoods wherever we happened to be and knock on doors with me in her arms. She'd say she was looking for the husband -- get their names off the mailboxes -- and half the time the wife who answered the door would give her money to go away. Classic delusion scam; she never even had to say why she was there. The women just assumed their husbands were having affairs, that I was some kid out of wedlock they never wanted to see again."
"That didn't bother you?" Peter asked.
"Why should it? I don't remember it, and it kept me fed. When I got a little older she taught me to throw tantrums on cue, and I'd distract the cashiers while she robbed the cash drawers at the supermarket. It put a roof over our heads. Me and Ma, we did all right. Learned how to pick pockets from her. Learned a lot from her," Elliot said, still smiling. It sounded painfully lonely to Peter, but Elliot seemed to think it had been an idyllic childhood. "When I was eight, this guy Donnelly fell for Ma and she was going to scam him for all he was worth, but I guess she liked the look of him and thought I probably could use some regular schooling. We'd been living under aliases my whole life, so when they signed me up for school they just gave me his name. By then it was her name anyway."
Peter watched and listened, trying not to stare at the open expressions on Elliot's face, in case he scared him into silence again.
"Archie was a pretty good dad. He took care of Ma, took care of me. He was a cop, you believe that?" Elliot grinned up at Peter. "Captain of the force, before he went out on his own as a PI. He didn't care what she'd done, just said all that money she'd been saving could pay for my college, and he didn't want to know where she got it. They figured out I was a lot smarter than I was pretending to be, at least at school, and he kicked my ass every night over homework until I stopped slacking and picked up the pace. Ma was so proud when I graduated early."
Elliot had been smiling; now his face darkened a little, and he cut his eyes away.
"What happened?" Peter asked, because something had -- by the time Elliot was leaving Quantico, he had nobody, and that meant --
"They died my second year in law school," Elliot said quietly. "Car crash. I joined the FBI because of Archie. Wish they'd known."
"I'm sorry," Peter said quietly. Elliot turned a little, pressing his forehead to Peter's arm.
"When Hughes picked me up at Quantico, it wasn't like I had anything to lose," he said. "And then I had Kate, and we had some good years together."
He inhaled sharply. Peter kept still.
"People I love tend to die young," Elliot said. "You have to promise me that's not going to happen."
"You watch my back, I'll watch yours," Peter said.
"Don't tell her I said this, but we'll both look out for her," Peter said. Elliot rolled onto his back again and grinned up at Peter.
"Married to my work," he said with a satisfied sigh, admiring his ring in the lamplight. "This could work out well for me."
"Sleep," Peter ordered. "If we're going to start lying to the FBI, we'll need it."
"Aw, don't think of it as lying. Think of it as selectively withholding non-relevant information," Elliot said.
"You're a con man, Donnelly," Peter said, turning out the lamp.
"The very best," Elliot replied. "You mind much?"
"Nah," Peter answered. "Don't care."
"Is there other stuff you want to know?" Elliot asked. "I just thought you probably already looked it all up."
"I'll let you know," Peter said, eyes slipping shut.
"Because I don't want you to think -- "
"Elliot," Peter mumbled.
"Shut up and sleep."
Peter fell asleep to Elliot's laughter.