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Her Boss's Keeper

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Diana has been working for the White Collar division for all of a week before she figures out that her new boss is, in fact, a thin shell of grouch over a marshmallow center.

This is in contrast to the weeks leading up to her assignment, when all her friends from the Academy regaled her with horror stories about the notoriously demanding, hardassed Special Agent Peter Burke. She's lost count of how many times she's heard that the White Collar division has one of the highest turnovers rates in the Bureau among newly minted agents.

And yes, she has to admit that Burke comes on a bit harsh. The first thing he does is snap at her for bringing him the wrong file. She can tell from the outset that he has high expectations and little patience for rookie mistakes. But she hasn't been at her new job for more than a couple of days before she starts to suspect that he's all bark and no bite. Maybe it's because growing up, she spent a whole lot more time around her bodyguard Charlie and his friends than with the children of diplomats and governors that her parents wanted her to meet, and Charlie was exactly that kind of person: all rough edges on the surface, total soft touch underneath.

And she knows it for sure when, one week into her new job, he saves her life.

This isn't supposed to be a dangerous assignment. For the most part, the White Collar investigations aren't. They go after shady investment bankers, not crime bosses, thugs and kidnappers. And this particular meet'n'greet is supposed to be a walk in the park. Literally. Until one of the higher-ups of the whistle-blower they're meeting takes a swipe at Diana with his car.

Burke's put her in the background, hanging around and staying alert for possible trouble on foot. She's watching the crowd, not the street, and never expects the fast-moving BMW to veer out of traffic, lurch onto the sidewalk and bear down on her.

The first sign she has that something's gone wrong is Peter Burke vaulting over a four-foot hedge, catching hold of her jacket in a double-fisted grip and flinging her into a flowerbed as the car misses both of them by inches.

Diana picks herself up, gasping, her shell-shocked brain snapping the pieces into place as fast as possible. "You okay?" Burke asks her, and when she looks up she sees that his face is chalk-white.

She nods. Past his shoulder, she sees that the BMW has gone nose-first into a fountain, and the rest of Burke's people are all over the driver as he tries to clamber out. "We've got it, boss!" one of them -- she thinks his name is Jones -- shouts over the roof of the car. "You guys okay?"

Burke nods, and steers Diana onto a park bench -- it's the first time she realizes that he's still holding onto her arm. "Stay here," he tells her, which she's more than happy to do, and disappears around the end of the hedge.

Diana is still trying to figure out whether she ought to get up and help -- her legs have almost stopped trembling -- when Burke reappears with two cups of coffee and pushes one into her hands. His fingers are cold and shaking a little, which prompts her to look up and see that the color is only starting to seep back into his face. He was just as freaked out as I was, she thinks, startled.

He sits down next to her. "Crenshaw headed for the hills at the first sign of trouble." That's the guy they were meeting, Diana recalls, as more bits of her brain come back online. "On the other hand, we've got something better." He nods towards the fountain, where Jones has the driver of the car down on the ground and someone else is running the plates off the BMW. "Nothing says 'The FBI is on the right track' like an attempt on an agent's life, right?"

"Glad to be useful, sir," Diana says, and manages a shaky laugh.

Burke flashes her a warm, sideways grin. "Just don't make a habit of it, Agent --" There's the briefest of pauses as he searches for her name.

"Barrigan, sir. Diana Barrigan."

"Yeah. You're the one who put us on Caffrey's trail again."

Diana suspects that he's only humoring her -- in the years they've been chasing the guy, no one ever thought to stake out his girlfriend before? Still, it was the first time she'd managed to speak up in one of Burke's war-room meetings, and getting a positive response -- being listened to, being praised -- makes her want to offer more opinions in the future. Which, she realizes later, was probably the point.

And he never forgets her name again.

 


 

So that's Peter Burke: not a superagent, not the terror of the White Collar division, but a man. A man who risked his life to save hers; a man who gets weak in the knees after a near brush with death, and who brought a cup of coffee to a probie still struggling to wrap her head around the fact that someone just tried to kill her. And that's what wins Diana, in the end -- that he gets scared and does brave things anyway, and still takes the time to buy a cup of coffee for a girl in need, and to go out of his way to make her feel appreciated the first time she gets up the nerve to speak up in a meeting. She respects him a lot for his brains and his bulldog tenacity, but she likes him because he's a nice guy.

And she feels protective of him, for reasons she can't quite figure out. It's certainly not a sexual thing; Peter is not her type on any axis. It's not even rational, because Peter has almost twenty years in the Bureau -- he's been taking care of himself just fine for a long time without a probie watching his back. She'd feel a little more self-conscious about it if she didn't get the feeling that nearly everyone in the White Collar unit who's been there more than a few months feels likewise. Peter's not perfect, far from it, but there's something about the whole stubborn, irascible, Type A package that is really difficult not to like over the long term.

And her first reaction when Caffrey starts working for the Bureau is a surge of that same protectiveness. He's conning Burke. He has to be. She likes Caffrey a lot -- though a part of her keeps nudging her with small reminders: that's what he wants you to think; that's how he operates -- but she's nervous about the way that he's gotten under Peter's skin.

But then the transfer comes through, and for awhile she's too busy with a new job in D.C. and a blossoming romance to worry about whether or not Peter and the White Collar division are getting themselves into a whole boatload of trouble where Caffrey is concerned.

 


 

After Fowler, after everything -- after Peter shoots a man point-blank in the chest to save her life, when she's never seen him fire his gun at a human being in all the time they worked together -- she finds herself on a rain-slick runway at dawn, ducking under crime-scene tape to walk carefully around the perimeter of the charred and torn remains of what used to be a private aircraft.

This is a homicide, possibly organized-crime-related, so it's not a White Collar unit investigation. But she called in a few favors to get this look at the crime scene. She's not sure what she hopes to gain; she only knows that she wasn't able to be there afterwards, not really, not with a million kinds of shit hitting the fan back at FBI headquarters, and somehow this feels like it's making up for it, a little bit. She's only seen Peter very briefly since the bombing, glimpsed in Hughes' office, presumably still on administrative leave -- but she recognized all the gestures of his full-fledged agitated crime-solving mode, and she only hopes that he doesn't torpedo his career before all the flying shit settles.

She'd also passed a very quiet, very still Neal Caffrey in the hall. In handcuffs. And maybe that's part of why she's here now, too.

But there's nothing to be seen, of course. Nothing the bomb squad didn't find, nothing useful that hasn't been bagged and tagged and carted off to Forensics. Any human remains will be long gone, and the charred, twisted shell of the plane will probably end up in an insurance company's warehouse somewhere.

Diana stands in the rain and looks out across the gray Hudson.

She can't stay out here all day. She still has the illegally-obtained data from Fowler's hard drive to sift through, and no promises that Peter is going to be able to get himself reinstated in time to protect her from anything that might fall down on her from above, as the full truth of the Fowler situation comes to light over the next few days.

It's going to be a hell of a time.

But then, working for Peter always has been.

And later, when Peter offers her to make her informal position permanent, she knows she'll say yes without even having to think about it. She's going to need some sweet talking to get Christie on board with another move so soon -- especially since most of Christie's family is in the D.C. and Baltimore area -- but she knows that if she doesn't take the job, she'll regret it for the rest of her life.

 


 

Which doesn't entirely explain what she's doing in a burning building that's falling down around her ears, rather than doing the sensible thing and waiting for the firefighters.

"Peter!" she shouts, but she can barely hear herself over the roar of flames in the stairwell. Somewhere a wall blows out with a sound like the muffled thump of a grenade. Diana covers her face with her sleeve. The ceiling groans, and she thinks, I have to get out, get out now --

But she can't, she won't -- not without --

"Peter!"

The smoke is so dense she can hardly see, hardly breathe. Diana bends over, trying to get below the worst of it to the relatively clean air near the floor. Got to get out. It's hopeless; all she can do is die in here, and she doesn't want to imagine the look on Christie's face, on her mother's.

But wait -- something's moving ahead of her, in the smoke and the lurid glow of the flames. Diana holds her breath and breaks into a run. Rubble tries to tangle her feet in the gloom; she stumbles, recovers and slides into a crouch that would have impressed everyone on the FBI league softball team.

"Peter!"

He's moving, at least, but half buried in rubble. She starts digging him out, while he weakly tries to help. His jacket is a charred mess. She only hopes that it took the brunt of whatever hit him.

"Neal," he begins, and breaks off in a coughing fit.

"Caffrey's out. Everyone's out, except you."

"And you," he points out between bouts of coughing.

"Semantics." She throws his arm over her shoulder and hauls him up, hears a gasp of pain, but there's no time to figure out where he's hurt or how bad.

The next few minutes are a blur. On some level she knows she's getting hazy from lack of oxygen. She can feel her pulse pounding in her throat, beating a steady tattoo of Get out, get out, get out. Peter is growing heavier against her, a dead weight bearing her down.

And then there are other hands on her: firefighters in full protective suits, taking Peter from her, holding an oxygen mask to her face. She staggers out into the blessedly cool air of the night -- with the heat of the fire baking her back, chances are it'd feel like an oven if she hadn't just come from the fires of Hell itself. "Sit down," someone is saying, "sit down," and she lets them take her, help her slump onto something soft that turns out to be a paramedic's coat spread out next to an ambulance.

Neal's sitting in the back of the ambulance, legs dangling, with a blanket around his shoulders -- well, actually, now he's trying to get up, and struggling with the paramedic who's trying to keep the oxygen mask on him. "Peter?"

"Sit down, sir," the paramedic snaps, exasperated.

Diana pulls down her oxygen mask long enough to say, "Sit down, Neal, he's all right." Actually, she's not at all certain that's true, but from here she can see two more paramedics making Peter lie down on a gurney, and he seems to be giving them some trouble about it, which is a good sign.

Neal bats away the paramedic who's trying to get him to put his mask back on. "What about you?"

"Me too," she says. The paramedic gives her a pointed look. She rolls her eyes, flashes a quick grin and holds the mask against her face again. Her hand hurts -- she looks down and sees the pale streaks of blisters on the skin of her hand and arm. She hadn't even felt it happen at the time.

Neal slides off the ambulance's tailgate and sits next to her on the sidewalk. He looks mostly okay, as far as she can tell -- just filthy and rumpled in a most un-Caffrey-like way, with a bandage standing out stark white against his soot-streaked forehead. Both of them watch the paramedics cutting away Peter's shirt from the burned skin of his side and chest. He looks limp and out of it, but they're taking the time to do first aid rather than rushing for the ambulance, which she supposes is probably a good sign.

Neal leans his shoulder against hers. She leans back, and holds out her arm obediently to get the burns salved and dressed.

"You should visit the ER for antibiotics and a lung scan," the paramedic tells both of them. "As long as you're feeling clear-headed, you can drive yourself or ride in the ambulance if you'd prefer."

Peter is being wheeled over now, still and quiet with an IV in his arm. "Ambulance," she says immediately.

It's a little crowded in the back of the ambulance with herself, Neal, Peter on the gurney and the paramedics, but no one tries to kick them out. It helps a lot that no one is panicking or rushing around. Peter seems to be resting quietly, and one of the paramedics slips up front to sit with the driver, while the other checks his IV and then starts reading a magazine.

Diana slips her fingers into Peter's mostly unburnt ones. Neal looks a little lost, so Diana moves over to make room and carefully doesn't look at him until Neal sidles up and puts his hand a bit awkwardly over hers.

Dealing with Neal, she's found, is a lot like dealing with a friendly but shy stray cat. She remembers her misgivings about him in the beginning. She'd been worried about Peter falling for the Caffrey charm, but the opposite seems to have occurred. Or maybe it's gone both ways. Like Diana already found out, it's hard not to like Peter Burke when he turns the full force of his irrepressible Burke-ness on you.

Speaking of which, he's rousing a little, blinking and looking blearily at them both. After a moment, he starts making feeble but very emphatic gestures at his oxygen mask until Diana, with a sidelong glance at the paramedic who's still buried in his magazine, slides it down. Peter wets his lips, and whispers hoarsely, "The counterfeit --"

"Jones has them," Neal says.

"The stolen --"

"Safely on its way to FBI headquarters," Diana says.

Peter clears his throat, and thinks for a moment. "The interview with --"

"I'll handle it in the morning," Diana says, "along with the reports. Anything else, boss?"

Peter gazes at the roof of the ambulance for a moment. He's grinning a little. "Sounds like you guys got it covered."

The paramedic glances up and clears his throat. Diana reaches up quickly and slides the mask back into place. Through the mask, Peter mouths, "Thank you." And he tries to say something else, but neither of them can figure out what it is, which is obviously frustrating for him.

"Shockingly enough, Agent Burke," Neal says dryly, "the criminals of the city will still be there in the morning." He squeezes their hands a little, the warmth of his hand covering both of theirs.

Peter responds with a playful, sleepy scowl. And no one says anything about it, then or ever, but the three of them hold hands all the way to the hospital.