"It's like a movie," Nicole says, and then to Elizabeth's chagrin she adds, "a thriller. And I have to tell you this, El: you die at the end."
Elizabeth is twenty-four. She has a double-degree in art history and interior design, which is how she got the internship that led to the sales position that led to becoming Assistant Manager at the Blakely Gallery, a title she wears with possibly more pride than she should. She's taken self-defense courses and she knows New York is safer than people think but she still carries mace in her purse. And last week she had a gun pointed at her.
The problem is --
"You get robbed, you're vulnerable and traumatized, and the cop swaggers in and for a while you feel safe, until he starts stalking you, he won't leave you alone, and gradually you discover you're trapped. The law is on his side, nobody can help you. He comes after you -- you run, you reach a dead end. You turn and fight, and he kills you and two minutes after he kills you the cavalry arrives. Pan away from his arrest to your dead, glassy-eyed body, credits roll."
-- Nicole might be right. She's probably not, but she might be.
"You're being ridiculous," Elizabeth tells her. "He's cute. He wouldn't hurt a fly."
"I guess that gun is ornamental?" Nicole asks blandly. Elizabeth spares a brief second to hate Nicole, then decides it's not worth it and lets it go. "He has you under surveillance."
"Okay, so maybe it's unorthodox," Elizabeth replies. She and Nicole both have salads because it's the trendy thing to do, get little salads from the bistro, while Elizabeth casts longing looks at the hot sandwiches in the deli nearby.
Down the street, across from the gallery, there's a utility van that's been parked in the same spot for nearly a week. They're not fooling anyone.
Special Agent Burke is tall and good looking, he wears suits and he's painfully awkward when he's not frighteningly efficient, and he's probably sitting in that van right now eating a giant sandwich from the deli. She saw one of the other agents do a sandwich run.
Their first conversation was not exactly romantic.
"Elizabeth Ellerton," the man said, consulting a notebook someone had given him. He looked up at her and tipped his head slightly, as if the name was a question.
"I know," she said, still feeling a little shocky from the adrenaline. "El Ellerton, everyone makes the joke, my parents have a weird sense of humor."
"I think it's nice. Trips off the tongue," he replied. Then he looked like he knew he'd said something weird (it wasn't that weird, she immediately liked him better for it) and cleared his throat. He studied her -- arms crossed around her ribcage, fingers clenched to hide the shaking, and frowned. "Do you want some water? Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," she said.
"Says here you were the one in front of the gun," he continued, still frowning. "Hey! Jackson!"
"Yeah?" someone called, from the other end of the gallery.
"Get me a V-Kit," he said, and then turned back to her.
"What's a V-Kit?" she asked, wondering if he was going to fingerprint her or take her picture or something humiliating.
"Something I cooked up," he answered, holding out his hand for the bundle Jackson brought to him. "Is there a place we can sit and talk?"
He didn't touch her or try to push her anywhere, just let her lead him to a bench in the back. He unfolded the bundle and offered it to her -- a soft thick blanket, a bottle of water and an energy bar in the middle. She realized she was cold, and the blanket felt safe when she wrapped it around her shoulders.
"My name's Peter Burke," he said quietly, opening the bottle of water and offering it to her. "I'm the agent in charge here. The guy who did this has been knocking over places all over town, so he's my problem now. Trust me, you're better off with me than the NYPD."
"Bet they don't have fluffy blankets," she said, and he smiled at her.
"Just take a minute," he answered, low and soothing. "When you're ready, walk me through it."
It took her a while to get her head around the morning's events -- a man with a gun, a gun pointed at her, the humiliated, powerless feeling as she handed over the gallery's cash -- but Agent Burke just sat there, still and calm, and suddenly she realized half an hour had passed. The guys in blue coats who were going over evidence and even the other agents were gone, and the gallery was empty, just the two of them. She didn't know where anyone was.
She'd never felt so relieved in her life.
Agent Burke took a pen out of his pocket. "Ready?" he asked quietly.
He took her statement and asked a couple of questions and answered a couple too, handed her his business card and gave her a smile. She noticed for the first time that he was cute -- she'd noticed he was tall from the first, or, really she'd noticed he was huge -- not just tall but broad-shouldered, muscular. She could tell, even though he looked like he was trying to hide it with his suit. Now she also noticed that he was young, and his hair was kind of a mess, and he had a coffee stain on the edge of his tie.
"I'm sorry I kept you waiting -- you probably have a million things to do," she said, as she walked him to the door.
"Nope. This is my job," he replied.
"Here -- " she pulled the blanket off her shoulders, but he grinned and shook his head.
"Keep it, compliments of the FBI. I'll be in touch if I have any questions." He hesitated. "You live with anyone?"
She shook her head. She had a cheap, ugly little studio, but it was worth it for the privacy.
"Friend you can stay with?" he asked, and looked like he wanted to ask another question, but he just waited instead.
"Do you think..." she frowned.
"No, there's no history of this guy coming after people he's robbed. I don't think he wants them to get a second look. Still, never hurts to be cautious. At least set up to call and check in with someone every couple of hours for the next few days. Makes people feel safer."
"Oh...okay, I'll do that," she told him. He gave her a nod and put his hand on the door, pushed..."Agent Burke!"
"Hm?" he turned, eyebrows raised.
"Thanks," she said, and put out her hand. He shook it without any hint he thought she was being weird, smiled again, and left.
"Elizabeth?" Nicole asks. "Hey, seriously, what are you going to do about this guy? Do you think you can swear out a complaint?"
"He's not doing anything," Elizabeth says. In an odd way she feels defensive about Agent Burke. "He's just...watching."
"That's not creepy at all," Nicole points out.
Elizabeth looks down the street at the van. "Just let it go, Nicole."
"Your funeral," Nicole says pointedly, but she moves on to other topics -- the wrangle with the insurance company, which doesn't want to pay out for the cash robbery, and the new show coming in, and the purse she bought last night.
Their second conversation wasn't romantic either, but it came closer. Agent Burke showed up at their gallery, the day after the robbery, in the early afternoon. Elizabeth was with a customer, but she saw him walk in; he gave her a quiet headshake and shoved his hands in his pockets, ostentatiously examining the art nearby. She put her attention back on the customer, but she watched him wander around out of the corner of her eye. He seemed to keep circling a sculpture near the back wall.
"Agent Burke," she said, when she'd finally gotten rid of the customer. He looked up from the statue and smiled. "I hope this is a social call."
"A -- whuh?" he asked, looking startled. "Oh, I guess -- I was in the neighborhood, wanted to check up."
"Standard procedure?" she asked lightly.
"More or less," he answered, studying the sculpture.
"Do you like it?"
"The sculpture," she said. "What do you think of it?"
He peered at it, brow furrowing. "What's it supposed to be?"
"Well, it's called Dancing Nude," she said, pointing to the little sign. "So I assume..."
"Huh," he wrinkled his nose. "I thought it looked like a penguin."
Elizabeth laughed, and he looked up and smiled at her before he continued.
"It's a little nostalgically modernist, I think," he said. "Sort of a weird maudlin Henry Moore."
That stopped her in her tracks. She hadn't expected an educated analysis, coming on the heels of It looks like a penguin. He looked at her through a gap in the sculpture, still smiling.
"I didn't think they taught Art Appreciation at the FBI," she said.
"Ballroom dancing too," he answered, straightening. "Nah, I deal with a lot of art, actually. You pick things up. I work in fraud, mostly -- tell you what, I know more about fake Manolos than I'm comfortable with."
"Well, this is definitely real," she said.
"Hm. Doesn't make it something I'd want on my bookshelf," he replied, then coughed. "I mean, not that I think the gallery has bad taste..."
"I don't pick what we sell," she assured him. "It does look like a penguin, doesn't it?"
"Little bit." He rubbed the back of his head, an oddly shy gesture. It was like talking to a different person, almost; none of the patient, coiled lawman from the day before, just a goofy guy out of place among all the expensive art. It occurred to her he was flirting. Which was absolutely adorable, and sort of sad, because he was so dreadful at it.
"Actually I was in the area because -- have you heard of this new Italian place, Donatella's?" he asked.
"I think we got a flyer. Are they any good?"
"I dunno, I haven't tried it yet. They're supposed to be. I like a nice plate of lasagne," he said. She actually saw the desire to smack himself in the forehead pass through his eyes. "So you haven't tried it?"
"Not yet. We're a salad and Perrier crowd around here," she added.
"Oh. Yeah, I can see how that'd be the thing," he replied. "Anyway, I hear it's good. You should try it sometime."
"Thanks, I'll do that," she agreed. She could practically hear him trying to ask her out, but he got even more adorable when teased, and she found she couldn't resist.
"So...yeah. I'm going to have some lunch. Good to see you again, everything looks..." he looked around him, "...secure."
"Stop by anytime," she said. He gave her a nod and hurried out. Elizabeth waited until he was gone before she caught the eye of Antoine, who had been lurking in the background, and broke down in giggles.
"Was he hitting on you?" Antoine asked. Elizabeth nodded through her mirth. "You want me to kneecap him?"
"No! He was sweet," she said. "He said he came to check up on us."
"Don't date a cop," Antoine advised. "My sister says they're all philandering horndogs."
"He didn't ask me out," she said. "Five bucks says he comes back and does, though."
The van is, of course, still there that afternoon when Elizabeth and Nicole come back from lunch; she considers knocking on the back door and asking for cute Agent Burke, but that's probably a felony of some kind. The van showed up the day after Agent Burke came back to visit; he's been back a third time, but it was her day off and he left the most unintentionally funny note ever with Antoine, asking if she'd tried Donatella's yet and informing her they were close to catching the guy who robbed them. He has nice handwriting, though, very legible, very businesslike.
"Your amore is still watching us," Antoine says, when they walk back inside.
"I told you he's creepy," Nicole says.
"Oh my god, stage an intervention or get off my ass," Elizabeth replies, tired of this, tired of pretending she should be upset when really she finds the whole situation funny and sweet. Maybe that makes her messed up, but she thinks it's nice that Agent Burke is looking after them. She feels safe knowing someone sees her leave the gallery every day. "I like him. I think he's cute."
"So go bang on his door and ask him out," Antoine says. "I don't know if you've noticed but my dealer won't deliver while there's a Fed van out front."
"You smoke too much pot anyway," Elizabeth answers. "I'm not asking him out, that's going too easy on him."
"I swear if the van is still there tomorrow I'm making a complaint," Nicole insists.
Elizabeth throws up her hands. "Fine, okay, I'll give him a nudge. Find me some markers, I need to fix my makeup."
Even Nicole can't find fault with the sign. It's pretty funny. Elizabeth walks out of the gallery and waves to get the attention of whoever's in the van, and then holds the sign up. She is, admittedly, half-hoping that this is a movie, only it's a romantic comedy and Agent Burke's going to jump out of the van and come kiss her and random people in the street will applaud. Instead she just waves the sign, smiles, and walks back inside.
The next morning, the van is gone, but Agent Burke shows up in person at a quarter to noon. He walks up to the desk, where she's going over the sales numbers for the week, and he holds up a photograph. It's her, waving the sign. Behind the photo, his expression is a mixture of exasperation and fear. It's kind of fascinating.
"I just got my butt kicked all over the office because of this," he says. "Apparently it's a misappropriation of FBI funds to stalk witnesses."
Elizabeth shrugs. "You gave me no choice, my staff was freaked out."
"Were you?" he asks, but there's real anxiety in his voice, though he's trying to be all badass-cop.
"No," she says. "A little impatient, maybe."
He blows air through his lips, an almost frustrated sigh. "Look, I swear I'm not a creep, I'm just really bad at this. You can tell me to go to hell and I'll knock it off. Otherwise, you want to get some Italian?"
The last couple of words come out in a rush.
"Are you free now?" she asks, reaching for her coat.
"I -- what?" he asks.
"Italian. Are you free for lunch?" she repeats.
"But...the photograph -- " he visibly cuts himself off. "Yes. Yes I am."
"Great! Let's go," she says, and he hurries to help her on with her coat.
They're walking down the steps when his phone rings. This is sort of how the rest of their life will go, but she doesn't know that yet.
"Burke," he barks, clearly annoyed at the interruption. "Look, Hughes told me..."
Elizabeth watches. The transition happens right in front of her. His eyes get sharp and his lips press together, jaw tightening -- it's like watching a dog go on point.
"Yeah. No, great. I'll be there. Don't let anyone talk to him until I get there. Is he going to -- hah, no, cocky assh -- " he glances at her and winces. "Cocky. Okay. Yeah," he finishes, and hangs up. "Listen, you don't know how incredibly sorry I am, but we just caught the guy that robbed you and they need me -- "
"That's great!" she says. "You caught him?"
"We think so. I have to go," he says, real regret on his face. "But, um, I'll call you?"
"Bad guys beats lasagne," she answers. "Go on, it'll keep. Let me know what happens."
"Thank you," he tells her, and literally takes off running down the street.
Elizabeth glances around to see if Nicole or Antoine saw him go, then slips down the sidewalk to the deli and gets herself a giant sandwich.
He does call her that afternoon, all awkward and shy again, stumbling over himself as he explains that he wants to take her to dinner, he hates that he blew her off, but they're processing the thief and he's going to be stuck doing paperwork until god knows how late --
"Agent Burke -- Peter," she interrupts finally, and he falls silent. "It's okay. Donatella's isn't going anywhere. Call me when you're free, okay?"
"I'm really sorry," he says.
"Don't be. I can't wait to hear this guy's in prison."
"For a very long time," Peter answers.
It's five o'clock when he calls. Elizabeth hangs up the phone and taps a finger thoughtfully on the counter. She has Peter Burke's business card, which gives the address of his office and the floor he works on.
Donatella's does carry-out. It definitely smells amazing. Getting into the building isn't easy, but Elizabeth knows the way this city works; she goes to the loading dock and says she has a delivery. They give her a visitor's badge, search her briefly, and let her up. (It's not yet 2001. Another few years and she'd never make it past the dock.)
The twenty-first floor of the Federal Building is all glass and beige, imposing, institutional. It's dimly lit, but she can see Peter sitting at a desk, one hand ruffling his already disorderly hair as he works. While she watches from the darkened elevator vestibule, another agent walks past him and makes some remark; Peter lifts his head and gives the man a rueful expression. She can just barely hear him -- "I had a date."
When the other man walks away, she opens the door and tries not to look as intimidated as she feels by this cavernous place. He doesn't look up again until she's standing at the edge of his desk. Then, he stares.
"Elizabeth!" he says, jumping out of his chair. "How did you...you're -- "
"I brought dinner," she says brightly. "Donatella's."
He looks at the bag in her hands, back at her, back at the bag. She sets it on the edge of his desk, opening it and offering him a plastic fork. They're all alone in the office. He's still staring at the bag.
"I'm pretty sure you're not supposed to be here," he says.
She smiles at him. "Break a rule."
When he finally sits down and opens the box she hands him, it feels like a little victory. They sit and talk, and it's remarkably easy to talk, given that Peter seems to get tongue-tied around her and she's not sure what it's okay to ask about his work, the case, the arrest. But the conversation drifts to the gallery and then to a funny story about one of her weirder customers, and another about an arrest he once made.
"I should get back to work," he says regretfully, surveying the files in front of him and the empty take-away box, an hour later. "Thank you for this. You didn't have to."
"It's by far the most interesting first date I've ever had," she answers.
"Oh, that's...good?" he asks.
"Very good, yes."
"Good. Um. Look, let me walk you down, or security's going to have a heart attack."
Once they're outside the building, she turns and sees him opening his mouth and decides to kiss him before he can say anything. He stiffens for a second but then leans in, one hand on her hip, the other cupping her cheek. He's a surprisingly good kisser. Who'd have thought?
When she leans back, his eyes are closed.
"Can I see you again?" he asks breathlessly.
"Tomorrow for lunch?" she suggests.
"Yeah." He opens his eyes and they're warm, so warm. "Meet you at the gallery?"
"It's a date," she tells him. She sashays away, well aware he is 90% likely watching her ass as she goes and 10% likely having a coronary.
Peter is perfect, she decides.
For one thing, despite the whole overprotective surveillance thing, he seems completely happy to be ignored when she has errands to run or business to do or she's just plain too tired to go out. He doesn't apparently care that he's her excuse to go to the deli instead of eating one more damn salad, and he is definitely impressed by her ability to eat an entire Italian Beef on her own. There's always this awkward ten-minute why is she going out with me? dance he does at the start of each date, but then he calms down and is interesting and interested in her. And he caught the guy who put a gun in her face, which even impresses her parents. Not that she's told him this, she suspects knowing she talks about him to her parents would freak him out.
But god damn, the man moves slowly. It's been three weeks, and they meet for lunch or dinner nearly every day now, and she still hasn't seen him naked, which must be remedied.
So she convinces him to go to Donatella's on a Friday night -- it's like their spot, the waiters know them now -- and they eat and have wine and she says, "Why don't you come back to my place?" despite the fact that her place is a terrible little sixth-floor walkup with intermittent heating. Well, it's Manhattan.
He gives her this wide curving smile and his eyes light up, and he kisses her and rests a hand on her thigh, as if it's very daring. She curls her fingers around his, thumb rubbing his knuckles.
"I'll get the check," he murmurs.
Maybe there is something to this leisurely pace, because there's a slow burn in her body while he pays for the food (she paid last time) and while they neck in the cab. Even six flights of stairs later when she lets him into her apartment he doesn't even look around, just wraps an arm around her waist and kisses her.
"Nice place," he says, as she walks him back towards the couch.
"Thanks, I decorated it myself," she answers, pushing him down and straddling him. He pulls her close, one broad hand spread on her back. She tugs off his tie.
Peter is...solid. He feels like he has weight, like he bends the world slightly around him, something she hasn't encountered in many men her age. Physically too; they've made out enough for her to know that. But when she pushes his shirt off his shoulders, he's surprisingly sleek: smooth-skinned, not bulky anywhere, just built on thick-muscled lines. He blushes, which is cute, even as he's fumbling for the zipper on her skirt.
"What do you like?" he asks into her mouth, hands suddenly possessive, deft and sure.
"I like you," she answers. She settles a little closer to him once the skirt comes off, and he traces a finger up her thigh.
"I like you too," he says. There's something so damn earnest about it -- she just meant it as a joke, but he really means it, and he's really thrilled she likes him. She nips his earlobe to hide her face, because her sudden affection for him is almost overwhelming. He grunts in surprise.
"You like that?" she asks in his ear. He responds by tugging her underwear down her hips.
Their first time is that way, a combination of sweet and surprising, on her couch -- actually on the blanket he gave her, the day the gallery was robbed. Peter is awestruck by her, and she wonders if it's possible to fall in love in three weeks.
Three months in, he calls to cancel one day; not that unusual, sometimes he has a case that takes him on surveillance or keeps him in the office doing paper work. Today's different, though. He doesn't tell her why, he just says there's something at work and he sounds evasive, like he hopes she won't ask.
"Rain check?" he adds, too lightly.
"Sure. How about lunch tomorrow?" she asks, and he says yes without even doing the little stop-what-am-I-doing-tomorrow pause he always does.
She should leave him alone and let him do whatever it is he needs to do. She should trust him. She tells herself it's okay because she doesn't even for a second suspect him of running around on her -- she's more concerned he's in some kind of trouble. But she's nosy and a little worried, so she goes back and forth about it and then decides to go over to his place and at least see him. She's pretty sure he's not at work.
She runs into the delivery guy for the local Chinese food place on his doorstep; he holds the door for her, then remarks that his order is for her and Mr. Burke, while they're waiting for the elevator.
"You know what, why don't I just pay you," she says, digging some cash out of her pocket. "I'll take it up."
Peter opens the door in a t-shirt and jeans. She registers first that he looks terrible -- weary and worn -- and second that he's staring at her.
"Delivery for Peter Burke?" she asks, dangling the bag from one hand. She expects some quip, like you must stop doing this or I should tip better but he just beckons her inside, takes the bag out of her hands. "Lot of food for one person," she says, as he begins to unpack it on the coffee table. The TV's not on, though she knows there's a game on tonight.
"Delivery minimum," he says absently, opening one and offering it to her. It's her favorite. "I figured, you know, next time you were over, leftovers..." he waves a hand distractedly. She takes the carton and sits down next to the rest of the food on the table, looks at him. He won't meet her eye.
"What's going on?" she asks softly.
"Just a long day," he replies. "I didn't think I'd be very good company."
This is such a blatant, visible lie that she almost laughs. God, he's sweet, her boy, and very bad at deception. Bodes well for a future together, though that's something to think about later.
"Bullshit," she says, and his head snaps up, and he does look at her now. "Peter, tell me what's wrong."
There's a second where she thinks he'll balk, pick a fight, but instead he seems to collapse in on himself. His shoulders slump, and he brings his arms up, presses on his eyes with the heels of his hands.
"It was a really long day," he says, in a broken kind of voice, and she shifts across to the couch to lean up against him, arm around his waist.
"How much can you tell me?" she asks, still a little wary of what he can and can't say about the FBI.
"I saw a dead kid," he answers. He's shaking, minutely, little intermittent tremors. He lowers his hands and she takes one in hers, leaning into his shoulder. "I saw a dead kid and I shot someone."
Elizabeth wonders if she should be shocked. She's seen him wearing a gun enough times, even seen him handling it -- she asked to see it, but he won't let her touch it without training. He showed it to her instead, capable fingers ejecting the magazine, pulling the slide, avoiding the trigger. Still, she should be shocked, shouldn't she?
Peter seems like he's falling to pieces in front of her. She'll examine her own feelings later.
"You want to talk about it?" she asks, and he shakes his head. He pulls her in closer to him, pressing his lips to her hair, curling against her in a strange intimacy. She lets him, and they stay there for a while, but it's a little awkward and he can't be comfortable. She pulls gently away and picks up the food, offering it to him. They eat in silence.
"She was twelve years old," Peter says eventually, pushing bits of pork around with his chopsticks. "That's how the day started. Dead twelve year old. We found her in a warehouse, base of operations for some counterfeiting scam. They...people do that, you know, they use kids as runners, lookouts. They use girls because a male cop can't strip-search a female suspect. They knew we were getting close and she was a liability so they just shot her. Like she was garbage."
"Sweetheart," she says softly. She's never seen him this upset; Peter's usually even-tempered.
"And we finally caught up with them, and all I could see was this dead girl. One of the guys went for his piece and I just -- right...right through the head," he says. "I shot him in the head. I don't know if I did it because that's what I'm supposed to do, or because of that girl."
It's like confession, she thinks; Peter was raised Catholic. He's said the thing out loud, and with the words his whole body seems to slump, drained of tension. He sets down the food and pulls her close, tucking her head under his chin.
"I'm sorry, I'm a fucking mess, this is why I bailed on our date," he says.
"It's okay," she soothes. She leans back to look him in the eye -- he's not even crying, but he looks destroyed. "If it's any consolation -- you're the most moral person I know. You've been trained with your gun, and you don't like hurting people. So even if you don't know whether you did the right thing, I do."
He looks at her like she's a revelation.
"You think?" he says. She nods. He digests this slowly, then sits back and kisses her forehead. "Thank you."
"What happens now?" she asks.
"Paperwork," he says quietly. "There'll be an inquiry, it probably won't take long. Desk duty until it's over, and I'll have to do some sessions with the staff psych." He shakes his head. "Look, tell me what you did today."
He's warm, and not trembling anymore; she feels oddly strong. So she sits on the couch with him, the two of them curled up together against the world, and tells him about her day.
Four months in, her parents are tired of hearing about Peter without having met him, so they come out to Manhattan and she drags him out to dinner with them and her sister and her sister's husband. It's not that he doesn't want to meet them, she suspects, just that he's worried he'll be found wanting. Which is ridiculous, they already love him for the whole "caught the robber" thing, but try telling Peter that.
He's quiet at dinner, doesn't eat much, but under the table he rests his hand on her leg. When he does talk he's articulate, smart, charming. He's not like her family -- he's mathematical where they're artistic, and her parents were hippie enough to be wary of a Fed dating their daughter -- but there's no fighting, no sniping. Peter is secure in his outlook on life and he doesn't have to defend himself to them. (Or possibly he's just scared to, but she's pretty sure it's the former.)
"So?" she asks him, later that night, after her family have gone their separate ways and they themselves have gone out for ice cream, cramming side-by-side into one of the booths in the little ice cream parlor. She knows Peter finds her fondness for late-night ice cream dates cute, even if he'd never admit it. "What do you think, do they pass?"
"Do they pass?" he asks.
"Sure. They're eyeballing you, you're eyeballing them. I'll get phone calls tomorrow to dissect your performance, you get to grade theirs."
"Oh," he says thoughtfully. "Sure. They seem nice. I mean." He's clearly thinking hard. "I'd put up with a lot worse, for your sake."
"Thanks!" She punches him in the shoulder and he elbows her back, laughing.
"Sorry, no, I didn't mean that. I'm just saying, they could have been awful people and it wouldn't matter," he says. "If you love them, that's enough for me."
She kisses him, sweet and cold from the ice cream. "Well, I love you too."
"Mm. Do love you," he answers, and they sit in comfortable silence for a while. Eventually he clears his throat, toying with his spoon. "Actually, I was thinking. You want to take some weekend and go upstate? Leaves are changing, might be nice. You could meet my dad."
"Sure, I'd love that," she answers.
Peter is like a young copy of his father. It's a little eerie watching them interact, and she can tell that when she looks at Tom Burke, she's seeing what Peter will be in thirty years -- perhaps a little more polished around the edges, but the same in the essentials. It's not a bad thing -- Tom is nice. It's just strange.
Peter has told her it was just him and his dad growing up, which makes for a very different dynamic than between her and her parents. He's tried to articulate how that works for them, but the closest he's come is saying, "Well, when it's just you and someone, you walk into a room, you talk, you go away again. It's uncomplicated. Or more complicated, maybe."
She thinks it can't have been easy, two men so alike sharing a home, but on the other hand Peter seems at home with his father, and Tom is visibly proud of his son. Peter never did the rebellious teenager thing, really; there's a weird link between them she doesn't understand. Maybe she doesn't need to. Tom is boisterously pleased with her, tells her so, grills her about the art the gallery sells. The only tension she senses, the afternoon they arrive, is when Tom asks if Peter's been to church, and Peter says, "Dad, you know about all that."
Peter is lapsed. His father is very much not, but they seem to have a don't-talk-about-it clause.
They spend the night -- they drove down early Friday, and they'll drive back late Saturday. Possibly to avoid the whole "church" thing, she doesn't ask. There's not even any discussion of them sharing a room for the night, but Peter makes apologetic eyes at her as he shows her his old bedroom, where she'll be sleeping. No nostalgia for the Burkes: it's a den now, television in the corner, leather chair, some electronic thing his dad is building on the desk. There's a twin bed in the corner, made up and piled with blankets.
"Where do you sleep?" she asks, looping her arms around his waist.
"Camp bed in the living room," he answers ruefully.
"Peter -- "
"Nope, you're the guest," he says, and kisses her.
Late that night, she lies in Peter's bed and thinks about childhood -- Peter sleeping in this room, baseball posters on the wall, the moonlight coming in through the window. She thinks about her own bedroom, the bunk beds she and her sister had, the utter comfort of knowing Susannah was always nearby. She and Susannah shared a room until Sue went to college, their dolls and makeup and clothing mingling in a comfortable chaos with Sue's chemistry textbooks and El's softball uniform, usually hung on the giant robot they built together out of lego blocks.
She hears a soft knock on the door; when it opens, Peter puts his head through and grins at her.
"How's the bed?" he asks in a whisper.
"Cold," she answers, and Peter slinks through the room silently, padding on bare feet, climbing in with her when she lifts the blankets. They kiss and keep telling each other they have to be quiet, while she tugs at his pajama pants and he cups her breasts through the thin nightshirt she's wearing. It's slow and secret, almost illicit, and though he's gone in the morning he stays until she sleeps, murmuring nonsense in her ear.
She comes down the stairs the next morning and hears voices in the kitchen. Peter and his father are already awake, and she can smell coffee. She stops just shy of the open doorway and listens. She wants to gather up Peter's secrets like treasures.
" -- afraid of?" his father asks, and there's the clatter of metal on metal, a pan on the stove perhaps.
"I'm not afraid," Peter replies. He sounds defensive.
"It's been four months, Dad. That's not long enough."
"Why not? If I were a few years younger I'd -- "
"Well, what do you think you'll know in another year or two years or ten years that you don't know now?"
She hears Peter sigh. "Plenty."
"Nothin' that matters," his father tells him. "I am telling you, Peter, don't let this one go."
"I'm not planning to." Peter definitely sounds angry, but she can't figure out why. It's good, isn't it? That his father likes her. "I just don't want to scare her, I did that once already."
His father laughs. "Told you to cowboy up and ask, instead of fancy-pantsing around with cameras and microphones."
"Yeah, thanks," Peter answers dourly. "Look, you know I'm not -- I've never been that kind of guy. She says she loves me."
"So marry the woman already."
Elizabeth catches her breath even as Peter says, "Four months!"
"That doesn't matter! Son, I don't care about grandkids and I know you have a steady job but for God's sake -- "
"Just let it go," Peter interrupts, and there's a hint of warning there. She's never heard him use that tone with her, but she's heard him use it. It's an unmistakable sign to back off. "I'm not proposing to a woman I've only known four months. If we do get married, it's not going to be a Catholic wedding, either. So just don't even start."
There's a silence after that, except for the hiss of bacon in a pan, and she can't decide whether it's ominous or sad.
"I love her. I do," Peter says finally. "And we'll get married one day, if she says yes. But all this religious stuff -- "
"I know," his father says. He sounds grieved. "I just want..."
"It's not like that for me, Dad. I know what's right and what's wrong. I don't need a priest to tell me. And I don't need to be forgiven my sins, they're mine." He exhales.
"You don't think it'd be a little easier on your soul?" his father asks quietly. "It's a troubling thing, knowing you might have to shoot a man."
"I have shot people."
"I know that too. Righteously, in the service of your country. Isn't that what they say in all those brochures you brought home?"
"Well, they didn't say the righteous part," Peter answers, a little humor creeping back into his voice.
"I just think if you knew -- "
"I know I'm loved, Dad. You, Elizabeth. I don't see why I should trust that less than some guy I don't know who thinks he talks to God."
She thinks, for a second, that Peter has sighed again, until she realizes it's his father.
"You raised me to do what's right, that's better than Sunday school, anyway," Peter says. "You want to keep an eye on the pancakes? I'm going to go get Elizabeth."
She's so intent on listening she almost doesn't react in time; she runs into him in the doorway, and he laughs and catches her around the waist, pulling her into the warm kitchen that smells like bacon.
"Your ears must be burning, he was about to come fetch you," Tom says. "Pull up a chair."
That kind of fight, she thinks, between any other two people, it wouldn't be about love and faith -- it'd be about who was dumber than whom, who was a godless sinner. She gets it now: Tom wants his son to know he's cared for, not to suffer when he has to do the things he doesn't want to do. He's not afraid Peter will go to hell. He just wants him to be happy.
She wonders if that's where Tom found comfort when Peter's mother died, in the church. But Peter has his father and her, he said so himself. And he might be like Tom, but he isn't Tom.
That afternoon, as they drive back to Manhattan, she turns to him impulsively and says, "Your dad thinks you should marry me."
He smiles, doesn't take his eyes off the road. "So you heard that, huh?"
"Do you want to?"
He adjusts his grip on the steering wheel. "I think four months is moving awfully fast."
She grins at him. "That's not what I asked. Do you want to? Marry me?"
He's quiet for a while, jaw working, hands a little tense now. "Sure. Yeah, I do," he says finally. "I think you're the person I want to spend the rest of my life with. I can't believe my luck. But I don't want to come on strong."
"Or give your dad the satisfaction of being right?" she says slyly.
"Yeah, that too."
"What if I want you to come on strong?" she asks.
"Ask and find out."
"El..." he sounds frustrated.
"Come on, Peter," she says, amused. "Break a rule."
"You -- you are not allowed to use that against me ever again!"
"I think maybe it's a little bit of a sign, you know," she continues contemplatively. "Because I've been wondering how long I should wait so it doesn't seem mercenary of me to start dropping hints."
"This is more of an anvil than a hint."
"I don't want to land a husband," she says. "I just want you."
"And I'm not afraid you're going to get away if I don't put a ring on your finger," he replies.
"Fine." He hesitates. "Wait, are we fighting?"
"No, sweetheart," she assures him. "I think we just got engaged."
He pulls the car over, not quite sharp but quick enough that she's surprised.
"No," he says firmly, and unbuckles his seatbelt, climbing out of the car.
"No?" she calls after him, really worried now. Maybe she's inadvertently given him some kind of breakdown. But as she watches he circles around the front of the car and she barely fumbles her own seatbelt off by the time he's opening the door.
"Come on," he insists, taking her hand as she gets out, guiding her off the shoulder of the road, into the trees. He's walking backwards, leading her along, until they're in the middle of huge piles of red and gold leaves, the trees above them just starting to show sky through the branches. "I'm not marrying you to spite social convention," he says, and holds both her hands, kissing her.
"Good to know," she says, still just a little worried.
Then he gets on one knee, and the breath is knocked right out of her. It's a silly gesture and oddly out of character for him -- but maybe not, because Peter believes in doing things the way they ought to be done.
"Will you marry me?" he asks, looking up at her, and the whole world is red leaves, yellow leaves, and Peter's brown eyes.
"No," she says.
Peter looks -- more confused than crushed. "What?"
"You don't have a ring," she points out.
His jaw drops and he surges up and tackles her, wrestling her down into the leaves, and they tussle until they're both covered in bits of dried leaf and probably bugs and twigs and other things she doesn't want to think about too much. It ends with him on his back, her straddling his hips and kissing him.
"So?" he asks softly. "How about it?"
She nuzzles his cheek, inhales. Wet leaves and Peter. "Yes," she says.
"We can't tell my dad," he adds, as they get up off the ground. "He'll smirk forever."
Ten years seem to pass in the blink of an eye.
It felt like forever before they agreed to tell everyone, and then another forever before they actually got married. But after that, time flew by -- pot roast and deviled ham, Satchmo, their new house, her new business, his ten-year pin with the Bureau, days she comes home frustrated because Burke Premiere Events is barely breaking even, days he comes home weary because he didn't catch this bad guy or he did catch that one and it didn't go well.
The day he catches Neal Caffrey. The day she has her first really big event and her client tells her they want four more that year. Birthday cards from Caffrey. Anniversaries. Missed dinners, each one carefully amended, none of them all that important. A car crash, and the way his hands shook when he got to the hospital and saw she was okay (he wouldn't believe it until he saw her). The new Taurus. Peter's ridiculously proud of that car.
Ten years. Until she finds herself on a beach in Belize, the most gorgeous sunset turning the sand pink. Peter's sitting on a beach chair and she's mostly sitting on Peter, head against his shoulder, his arms around her. She can hear the gears turning in his head, knows he's still fretting a little about this whole Caffrey thing, but she has no room to talk. She's spent a fair few minutes worrying about whether Yvonne got the bids in on time, even though she knows she did. Peter knows they'd call if Caffrey took off, and she thinks he also knows Caffrey won't.
Neal's far too fascinated by her husband to run, and anyway Peter would just catch him again. She knows how Neal feels. She's pretty fascinated with Peter herself.
"You know what?" she says, settling a little more into his arms. "I'm happy."
"Oh?" He nips her just under her ear, then kisses it. "Good."
"So," she adds, "you still think four months was too soon?"
"El!" he groans, letting his head fall back.
They have grown into themselves, and into each other -- she's her own woman, with a beautiful home and a successful business and a good life. Peter's confident in ways he wasn't when they met, and his hair finally behaves, so there's that. They know each other, down to the bone, the rhythms and moods, the pulse of their hearts.
"Honestly?" he says, after a while. "I was willing to propose the minute you walked into the FBI with dinner."
"That's okay. I would have said yes when you called that stupid sculpture a penguin."
"Up for another ten?" he asks, lifting one hand, studying his fingers. His gift to her was this beach, that sunset; hers was an anniversary ring, and he hasn't taken it off since he opened the box. She's caught him toying with it half a dozen times, twisting it on his finger, covertly admiring the inset diamonds. She worried he'd think it was gaudy -- true, it's a man's ring, but Peter's never worn much jewelery. Honestly, she's not sure if he's even noticed. It was from her, and that's all that matters to him.
"No, I think not," she says. "How about another thirty or forty?"
"Deal." He shifts, lifting her up, rising with her still in his arms, and sets her lightly on the sand, kisses her. "Dinner? I'm starving."
She laughs and leans against him as they walk back up to the villa. In another week they'll be back in New York, working, negotiating meals, sleeping in their own bed and living their lives. This is good, but that'll be good too: her and the shy FBI agent who gave her a blanket, who thinks she's the best part of his day.