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sam_storyteller ([personal profile] sam_storyteller) wrote2011-12-12 01:50 pm

End Of Year Works No Longer Actually In Progress

Title: Works No Longer Actually In Progress
Summary: A series of WIPs that I've decided to close the book on. None of these are complete! Don't read them if you don't like WIPs, for God's sake.
Fandoms: White Collar, Suits, Torchwood, Supernatural, Chuck, some Pretender.
Rating: Mostly PG, some R.

And now for some Torchwood Make It Better AU.

Homeward Bound Again

Oh the sun it shone, and the wind it blew, and the ship sailed out to sea
When she caught the eye of a soldier lad who was standing on the quay
Standing on the quay, me boys, standing on the quay
She caught the eye of a soldier lad who was standing on the quay --


"DO IT! FLIP THE SWITCH! NOW NOW NO -- "

***

Jones landed on the grass from about ten feet in the air, and it knocked the wind out of him for a moment.

While he was trying to catch his breath, he catalogued his injuries: one had to account for the pain-free bliss of adrenaline, but he couldn't feel anything stiff enough to be broken, and he'd come down on soft enough turf that he probably hadn't taken too hard of a header (good old thick Welsh skulls). Maybe a bruised rib or two. He still had his rifle, at least; he could feel the warm metal under his fingers. The sky above was grey and tinged with yellow -- either sunrise or sunset, probably sunrise. When he felt he could breathe again, he sat up and pulled his beret off, tucking it neatly under his epaulette and looking around.

In the dim light he could see one body face down, two face up, and four more slumped in a heap. There was a groan from the man lying face down, and Jones scrambled across to him.

"Don't move," he ordered, running his hands down the man's neck, across his shoulders, and then sweeping briefly over his ribs. "Jenkins?"

"I think I broke my nose," Jenkins said thickly. Jones helped him turn over, lifting his rifle strap when he got tangled in it. Jenkins's face was a mess, covered in blood, but his eyes were clear and he looked all right. "We're alive. Brilliant."

"Unexpected bonus," Jones said, helping him up. "Fix yourself up, I'll see to the others."

"Sir," Jenkins said, and sat back, digging in his pockets for a rag to stop the blood now flowing freely from his nose down his face.

Jones moved among the others, checking pulses; Wright and Jordan were both out cold, but they seemed okay. Kucherenko was breathing, but the three bodies on top of her weren't: Soweta, Smith, and Parker. Jones dragged them off and laid them out shoulder-to-shoulder, then popped the magazines from their rifles and took their sidearms and identification, stuffing it all in Jordan's pack.

"Any idea where we are, Captain?" Jenkins asked. He'd managed to clean himself up, sluicing water over his face from his waterpak. Jones looked around and only then did it hit him that they weren't in the countryside, despite the grass and trees. Ten meters away was a park bench. In the distance there was a dark shadow against the sky, a suspiciously familiar one.

"Yes," he said, surprised he could answer. "Bute Park."

"Where?" Jenkins asked.

"Bute Park. Cardiff. Blow me," Jones said. "How'd we end up here?"

"Last I remember was you shouting to set off the bomb," Jenkins replied. "Reckon we took care of the 456, sir?"

"Reckon we did," Jones replied. "And if we didn't it's too late to worry about it now. Your satnav working?"

Jenkins checked it, frowning. "Says no-service."

Jones reached into his breast pocket and took out his UNIT-issued mobile. It was registering the same. He looked around, sighted off the tower of the Castle, and turned north. The light was on his right; sunrise. Felt like summer. At this latitude, say, six in the morning or so. It'd been afternoon in early fall in London, twenty minutes ago.

"Right," he said, turning back to Jenkins. "We're displaced."

Jenkins groaned. "Brilliant."

"It's not so bad. If time and space are concordant, we're not relatively that far from London, so temporally we're probably not far either. We've only gone back a few months or ahead half a year. Wright!" Jones called, because Wright was sitting up, shaking her head.

"Sir!" she replied, getting unsteadily to her feet.

"Help Jordan and Kucherenko. We've lost Soweta, Smith, and Parker. Lively," Jones ordered. Wright saluted, winced, and went to get a groaning Kucherenko on her feet.

Jones considered the situation. They were in unfamiliar territory (well, relatively) and they had limited resources. There were three dead bodies that he wanted out of civilian sight, and his people needed medical attention. Kucherenko was limping badly and clutching her ribs; Jordan didn't seem quite all there. Jones jerked his head at Jenkins, and they formed a little huddle with the others.

"I'm taking command," he said, and the others nodded. "Jordan and Kucherenko will stay here. Cover up the bodies as best you can and cordon off the area. Wright, I want you to go to the nearest police station, flag a car if you have to, and report the bodies; supervise collection and then you three get yourselves to the hospital. Don't leave those bodies until they're locked up in a police morgue."

Kucherenko nodded. Jordan did his best, but he looked like he was still unsteady on his feet.

"Jenkins, you're with me," Jones said. "Kucherenko's in charge in our absence. I know," he said, holding up a hand to forestall Jordan's objection. "I know you outrank her but you're in no position to make command decisions. Stay here, guard the bodies, don't budge. Wright, if you bear south out of the park and turn left, there should be a police station about a mile away. We'll go with you as far as the entrance to the park, then break off. Follow the signs to the rail station, the police station's next to it."

"Where are you going, sir?" Kucherenko asked.

"Torchwood has a local branch," Jones replied. "They can provide immediate support and get in touch with UNIT to get us some backup."

"Is that safe?" Wright asked. She'd been at Canary Wharf, he recalled.

"I don't see we have much choice. Safer than the alternative," Jones replied. "Come on. Quick-trot."

Jones led the way at a gentle jog until they reached Castle street; Wright broke off and went left, turning briefly to throw another salute. Jenkins came up alongside of him and they ran in silence for a while.

"Sir," Jenkins said, as they passed the roundabout where Penarth road ended and turned towards Lloyd George Avenue. It was about three miles to the quay; Jones was keeping an eye out for a cab, but at this time of day they probably wouldn't have much luck. Still, three miles wasn't such a bad run, and it would give the others time to get the bodies sorted and get some medical care.

"Yes, lieutenant?" Jones asked.

"I can't think of more than one reason our satnav and mobiles would be down," Jenkins said.

"Forgot to pay the bill?" Jones asked lightly.

"No, sir."

"Well then?"

"Think we've crossed worlds, sir."

Jones picked up the pace a little. "It's likely," he admitted.

"Is that why we're not calling for backup from the eight or nine phone boxes we've passed?"

"That," Jones nodded. "Plus Torchwood has experience in dealing with this sort of thing. Cardiff's on a rift, you know."

"Think that's why we ended up here?"

"Could be."

"Well," Jenkins mused, "it beats being dead."

"Not by much," Jones replied. Jenkins glanced at him. "I grew up round here."

Jenkins didn't talk much the rest of the way; Jones slowed them a little as the Millenium Centre came into view. When they came up on it, they dropped to a walk.

"The briefings I've read say there's an entrance on the quay, past the Plass," Jones told him, rounding the corner. "I think I can -- "

He stopped dead, gaping at the view before him -- the sun was just touching the edge of the Roald Dahl Plass, or what once had been the Roald Dahl Plass. Even with a rickety chain-link fence barring the way, the damage was evident: a huge, gaping crater took up most of the open space. A pair of backhoes and a small crane were parked to one side of it, and there was a portable trailer on the other side. Two men in police uniforms were standing guard at the entrance to the trailer.

"I'm sure I'd remember if Torchwood had got itself blown up again," Jenkins said. Jones dug in his tac-vest for his identification and strolled up to the police, holding out his badge.

"Captain Ianto Jones, UNIT," he said, when he was close enough to be seen easily. The police nodded and stepped aside, which wasn't actually what he'd wanted. Apparently UNIT had a presence in Cardiff, in this world. "Is this the Torchwood site?"

The men looked at each other.

"Are you new?" one of them asked.

"Something like that," Jones said, putting his identification away. "I'm looking for the head of Torchwood Three."

"That'd be Cooper," the other one said. "Should be here soon."

"Can you tell me what's happened here?" Jones asked.

"You really are new," the cop on the right said. "Terrorists."

"Well, they say terrorists," the other one retorted. "Some of us know better, don't we, Captain?"

"I'm as in the dark as you are," Jones told him smoothly. Behind him, there was a crunch of car tyres on pavement, and he and Jenkins turned to see a silver-coloured car pull up onto the Plass.

A woman climbed out of the passenger's seat -- long dark hair, pretty pale face, a sidearm on one hip under a short leather jacket. Jones waited patiently for her to finish speaking to someone else in the car, who nodded and then backed off the Plass again when she closed the door. She turned and looked up, squinted, and came forward.

"New UNIT blokes for you, Gwen," one of the cops said. "This one says he's Captain Ianto Jones. Sounds like a local."

Cooper had stopped dead as soon as the officer said his name; she looked almost...disbelieving.

"Agent Cooper," Jones said, stepping up and offering his hand. She drew her sidearm so fast he almost didn't have time to react; he jerked his arms up in the air, a gesture of surrender, but Jenkins behind him had his own sidearm out and trained on her.

"Who are you?" Cooper asked.

"Captain Ianto Jones," Jones said slowly. "ID's in my vest, top left pocket."

She brought the gun closer. "Who are you?"

"Put it down, miss," Jenkins said.

"It's all right, Jenkins," Jones told him. "For god's sake put the gun away. That's an order, Lieutenant," he barked, and Jenkins complied reluctantly. Jones eyed Cooper warily. "Agent Cooper, if you check the top left pocket of my vest, my identification and certification are in the leather wallet there. This is my second in command, Lieutenant Ross Jenkins. We've had a brief encounter with your special tourist attraction here in Cardiff and we need your help."

She kept the gun on him as she dug in his pocket and yanked out the ID; her eyes darted back and forth from it to his face, wary.

"Fell through the rift," he said, too softly for the police to hear. "We need your help. I swear we're not here to cause any trouble."

She lowered her gun, and Jones breathed again.

"Inside," she said. Jones turned and gestured for Jenkins to take point.

"We have two more in Bute Park and one on her way to the police station to get assistance," he said, as Jenkins opened the door. "There are some bodies we'd like collected. You can call the station to verify, she should be there by now."

"Don't think I won't," Cooper told him, as she took both their sidearms.

The inside of the trailer looked like the comic book drawings of the Batcave that Jones had read about as a child, if the Batcave was compressed into a space about eight by fifteen feet. Computer monitors were lit up everywhere, and there was more tech than a research lab at UNIT HQ.

As he turned, Cooper snapped a metal bracelet around his wrist, and another around Jenkins's.

"These are location-placed cuffs," she informed them. "Move more than ten feet in any direction and they'll set you on fire. Sit down. Don't touch anything."

Jones sat, perplexed, and waved Jenkins into another chair. Cooper moved to the far end of the trailer and took out a mobile, making a quick call, her eyes never leaving them. When she was done, she snapped the mobile shut and came to stand in front of them.

"There's a car on the way to collect your soldiers," she said. "They'll be detained in police custody."

"They probably need to see a doctor," Jones told her.

"They'll have to wait."

"Do you trust the police?" Jenkins asked.

"I have a mate who'll keep an eye on them. Now, tell me why you're here."

Jenkins glanced at him. Jones cleared his throat.

"We detonated a dimensional charge during combat. There were several of us within blast radius," he said. "We believe it may have sent us here, via your rift. What happened to -- "

"Be quiet," she ordered. "Are you telling me you've crossed dimensions?"

"It's possible," Jones said. "Why? Is that especially unlikely?"

"For Cardiff? Nothing's unlikely anymore," she said.

Just then the door opened and a woman walked in, carrying a brown-wrapped package under one arm.

"Morning, Gwen," she called, giving Jones and Jenkins a curious look before setting the package down. "New UNIT boys? I'm Lois," she said, offering Jenkins her hand. Jenkins glanced down at the cuff on his wrist, worried. The woman followed his gaze and then looked back at Gwen. "Or...?"

"That's Lieutenant Ross Jenkins," Cooper said. Jones mentally gave her points for retention. "And that's Captain Ianto Jones."

Lois bent over and studied Jones's face, rather closer than he was comfortable with. "Oh my god, it is!"

"Do we know each other?" Jones asked.

"Lois," Gwen gestured urgently for her to back off. They retreated to the far end of the trailer again and had a quick conference.

"What do we do, sir?" Jenkins asked in an undertone.

"Obey orders," Jones answered. "I think she believes us, but something's off. Do what they say."

"Sir..." Jenkins rattled his bracelet gently against the chair.

"I know," Jones retorted. "Keep your nerve, Lieutenant."

"Yes, sir," Jenkins replied unhappily.

"Right," Cooper said, coming back to stand in front of them. She took a small metal cartridge out of her pocket and pressed a button. Jenkins' bracelet popped off. "One of our officers is coming to collect you. You'll be detained at the police station with the others. Don't try anything," she added. Jenkins looked at Jones, and he gave the other man a slight nod as the woman called Lois took him by the arm and led him outside. Cooper crossed her arms, considered Jones for a minute, and then pressed another button. He caught the bracelet before it could fall to the floor and offered it to her.

"Thank you, ma'am," he said. Cooper frowned and jerked her head at the door.

She followed him out and then took the lead, walking around the chain-link fence, taking him down to the rails that blocked off the pavement from the waterfront. When they were a good distance from the trailer and the wreckage behind it, she leaned on the railing, facing him. He stood to attention, arms behind his back.

"I'm going to ask you some questions," she said. "We've had shapeshifters in these parts before."

He nodded.

"Do you have any siblings?"

Jones frowned. "One sister. Rhiannon."

"Do you know the name Lisa Hallett?"

His heart clenched a little in his chest; he tried not to let it show on his face. "Yes."

"Who -- " she hesitated, minutely, but that told him all he needed to know. " -- is she?"

"She was my girlfriend. She worked for Torchwood in London. She died in the battle of Canary Wharf, little over two years ago now," he said.

"That's confirmed?"

Heartless bitch. "She was one of the ones they found, yes. I assume the same happened -- "

"I'm asking the questions," Cooper snapped.

"Yes, ma'am," he replied immediately.

"Do you know the name Jack Harkness?"

Jones hesitated. "That's above my clearance level, ma'am."

"But?" Cooper prompted.

"You hear things," he said, ducking his head a little. "He was supposed to be the head of your branch of Torchwood, ma'am."

She nodded, and seemed to be considering matters. "So you never met him."

"No, ma'am."

To his surprise, she rubbed her face as if in frustration, and then let out a sigh. "Tell me how you came to be in UNIT, Captain Jones."

He paused. "With all due respect, that doesn't seem to be relevant to establishing my identity."

"Humour me, Captain."

"First I'd like assurances my people will be safe."

She waved a hand. "Torchwood doesn't care about UNIT, they'll be fine."

He nodded and took a breath. "Got into some trouble when I was a kid. Dad packed me off to the military when I was sixteen. I qualified for special ops and UNIT recruited me when I was nineteen. Been in service ever since."

"How old are you now?"

"Twenty-seven." He gave her a small smile. "Bit young to be a Captain, but UNIT promotes on merit."

She returned his smile. "I'm not surprised."

"May I ask a question, ma'am?" he said, emboldened by her sudden humanity. She gave him a nod. "Am I here? In this universe, I mean. You seemed to know me, but not Jenkins."

She looked out to sea. "No. You're dead."

"How do you know, ma'am?" he asked.

"Because you used to work for Torchwood, and Torchwood kills its own," she said. Bitterness practically flooded her voice. Jones took a second to digest his own mortality, but he'd been expecting to die a few hours ago at any rate, so it wasn't all that shocking.

"And Lisa?" he asked carefully, though he already knew the answer.

"Dead," she said. He nodded.

"My sister...?"

"Will be very surprised to see you," Cooper replied. A tight knot in his chest loosened slightly. Rhiannon was alive; that was something.

"Ma'am, what happened back there?" he nodded towards the wrecked Plass. "Is that how I died?"

"More or less," she said, still looking out at the water. "It was the start of things."

***

When they returned to the trailer, Lois was pulling paper off a printer, fanning it out to study the text.

"I called Andy and got all the names," she said to Cooper, as they entered. "And UNIT's just sent over their records."

"That was fast," Cooper said. "Captain Ianto Jones, Agent Lois Habiba."

"Ma'am," Jones said, seating himself obediently in the chair Cooper gestured to.

"I have a friend in Records," Habiba said to Cooper, smiling slightly.

"Agent Habiba, my people -- " Jones began.

"Being seen to," Habiba said absently, studying the printouts again. "They'll all recover. Looks like the Rift knew what it was doing, at any rate."

"How so?" Cooper asked.

"Well, have a look," Habiba offered her the papers. "They've got records for Jenkins, Jordan, and Kucherenko; all killed in the line of duty. No records on Jones or Wright, but we know..." she broke off, then started again. "The three dead officers are all currently serving with UNIT, and very much alive. It looks...I mean, it looks like it only let through people who weren't already here."

Cooper bit her lip as she studied the printouts.

"UNIT would like to debrief them all," Habiba added.

"I bet they would," Cooper said. "Fine, but we'll keep them in Cardiff. Tell them if they want to talk to anyone they'll need to come here. How's Andy doing?"

"Keeping it all under wraps. The bodies are unidentified and being held pending investigation; the UNIT people are being kept away from the rest of the station. They've got that doctor, what's her name, Keil? The one who patched you up last month?"

"Keil, yes."

"She's treating them. She's been informed of the situation, she'll be discreet."

Jones watched in fascination. For a two-person operation running out of a trailer, they were very efficient. Cooper seemed to be looking for something in the records; perhaps something that wasn't even there. Both of them looked like they were avoiding talking to him, or admitting he was in the room. Finally, Cooper sighed.

"Call UNIT, tell them their people will be at the police station. I'll let Andy know they're coming. Iant -- Captain Jones, I'll take you there, you'll be UNIT's problem soon enough anyway," she said, taking a set of keys off a hook near the door. Jones stood and followed; Habiba dropped him a wink as they left, though he couldn't parse what it meant.

The keys apparently belonged to a car parked in a nearby lot, a black monster of an SUV with TORCHWOOD cut into the metal along the bonnet and a couple thousand dollars' worth of computer tech mounted inside. He climbed into the passenger's seat and sat with his hands on his thighs, carefully unthreatening, while she pulled out of the lot and onto the Cardiff streets. Morning traffic was beginning to clog them up.

"We appreciate your help, ma'am," he said, as they prowled along towards the police station.

"Well, it's not like we can let you run around unsupervised," she answered, eyes on the road.

"Hopefully UNIT can reabsorb us," he said, to fill the awkward silence.

"Hopefully," she agreed.

"I'm sorry to have upset you," he added.

"Upset me?" she asked, glancing at him as they stopped at a red light.

"Well, like you say. You knew me, I'm dead. Can't be very pleasant for you."

A shrug was all he got in reply. He wondered whether to push it, but he had to know --

"Did I at least die usefully?" he asked.

"That's what's important, is it?" she retorted, as they pulled forward. "Dying usefully? Doesn't it matter that you're dead?"

"Well, I'm a soldier, ma'am. Comes with the job."

"No," she snapped. "You died so someone else could make a point. A lot of people died so someone else could make a point, and then a little boy died, and I'd rather not talk about it."

Jones ducked his head. "Sorry, ma'am."

"Would you stop calling me -- "

She didn't get a chance to finish; up ahead there was a sudden burst of light in the air, and three or four cars in front of them swerved wildly. The SUV stopped suddenly and instinct kicked in; as soon as he saw Cooper go for the door he was following, on his feet in the street, running towards the source of the explosion.

One car that hadn't swerved quickly enough was skewed in the middle of an intersection, its bonnet crushed inwards by a huge hunk of twisted, charred metal. People were staring; some were running, a few screaming. Jones went for the driver, pulling the unconscious, bloody-headed woman out of the car and dragging her carefully to safety.

"Call emergency services!" Cooper yelled.

"I can't!" he replied. "No service. You call, I'll handle the crowd."

He managed to get the most obtrusive onlookers back onto the pavement, and helped shove a car off it so that its driver could continue on his way, which did take a little shouting at first. By the time sirens could be heard in the distance, he'd cleared a space around the car; with nothing else to do, and Cooper tending the injured woman, he pulled off his tac vest and then his uniform shirt, draping the latter over the still-steaming metal on the car's hood.

"Just an accident, nothing to see here," he said, trying to shoo people onwards.

"Right, you lot, on you go," another voice said, and a uniformed policeman joined in. A second one, he saw, was putting up yellow tape around the car and waving traffic around it. An ambulance pulled up a few seconds later.

He left the police to do their job and walked back to the damaged car, waiting for Cooper to return. When she did, she looked him up and down, and he wished he'd tucked his dog tags inside his undershirt.

"Quick work," she said, indicating the wreckage.

"Torchwood's not the only agency trained for quick concealment," he replied. She lifted one corner of his uniform shirt, studying the mess underneath.

"You can't get a bloody break, can you?" a new voice asked, and a young-looking man in a police sergeant's uniform joined them at the wreckage. "Ooh," he added, catching sight of Jones. "I mean, you told me it was him and all, but it's a bit uncanny, isn't it?"

Cooper sighed. "This is Andy," she told Jones. Andy bristled.

"Sergeant Andrew Davidson," he corrected, offering his hand.

"Captain Ianto Jones," Jones said, shaking it. "So you're the one looking after my people?"

"Well, I was, till the bat-signal went," Davidson said, not bothering to elaborate. "Want us to haul it off to the precinct, Gwen?"

"Yeah, might as well," Cooper said, as if she were resigned to something she didn't like. "Call it falling debris from a construction site. Can you handle the driver and towing and all?"

"No problem," Davidson agreed.

"You're a love, Andy."

Jones saw Davidson blush slightly. "No problem, Gwen," he repeated, and whistled sharply. One of the officers trotted up. As Davidson began giving orders, Cooper took Jones by the arm and led him back towards the SUV.

"That's not debris," Jones said, as if this needed pointing out.

"No," Cooper agreed.

"Actually I think I know what it is," he added. She turned to him. "Looks like the remains of our bomb. Sorry about that."

"Is there anything else likely to fall out of the sky on account of you lot?" she asked.

"Well. No. I don't think so," he said, rubbing the back of his head. He tossed his tac vest into the backseat of the SUV and climbed in. Cooper eased them into gear again and backed carefully, enough to turn the SUV and take a detour around the intersection.

***

At the police station, everyone seemed to know Cooper; nobody stopped or challenged them as they walked through the halls, heading for what seemed to be the furthest point of the building. They eventually came to a door with a keycard lock; Cooper swiped a card, and they continued down half a flight of stairs, into a dimly-lit hallway with solid metal doors on both sides. Each door had a peep-hole; all were closed tightly.

To his surprise, however, his people weren't being kept in what were obviously high-security cells. Instead, they were sitting in what looked like a disused canteen, drinking coffee from disposable cups and eating out of styrofoam take-away containers. They stood to attention when he entered, except for Jordan, who was still being examined by a woman in a white doctor's lab coat.

"At ease," he said, and they took their seats again. The woman in the lab coat straightened and hung her stethoscope around her neck, tucking a penlight into her pocket.

"You must be Captain Jones," she said, coming forward. "Your soldiers have been worried about you. I'm Dr. Keil, I've been patching them up. Couple of bruised ribs, one twisted ankle, and a concussion; I don't know what you lot were up to but you seem to have escaped the worst of whatever it was. Have a seat."

He found himself pressed into a chair before he could speak or object, forced to look up slightly as she held his face still and looked into his eyes. The penlight came out again; the stethoscope was warm on his chest through his shirt.

"I'm fine," he managed. She pressed hard on the back of his skull and he bit down on a yelp of pain.

"No concussion," she pronounced. "Mind your head. No alcohol or heavy machinery for a day or two."

"I'm not overly worried about that," he drawled. Jenkins and Kucherenko snickered.

"I appreciate you coming out to do this," Cooper said to Dr. Keil, as she left him alone and Jenkins slid a take-away container over to him. It had half of a breakfast in it. He picked up a plastic fork and ate, realising he was starving.

"Always glad to lend a hand to the Knights of Cardiff," Dr. Keil said, which was apparently a joke between the two women.

"Yeah, I wanted to talk to you about that," Cooper remarked, then seemed to remember where she was. "You lot stay put. UNIT'll be on its way to debrief you. If you need anything, push the buzzer near the door and someone will come along."

"Thank you, Agent Cooper," Jones said. She gave him a brief, sad smile and turned to leave, following the doctor out the door. When they were gone, everyone seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief.

"We thought Torchwood'd done something to you," Wright said. "Jenkins said that Cooper woman flipped out on you."

"That's Agent Cooper," Jones corrected, "and she didn't flip out. She followed very good protocol."

"Learn anything?" Kucherenko asked.

"Yeah," Jones answered around a mouthful of egg. "We're in an alternate dimension. None of us are alive in this reality."

The others exchanged uneasy looks.

"Look, I'm sure UNIT has a protocol for this," Jones continued, hoping it was true; he'd never seen one, but UNIT had levels within levels. "So we're establishing one here, too. You tell the truth during the debriefing. I'm giving you orders to ask about your loved ones, if they get smart with you then you tell them it's orders. Stick together as much as you can. Do not let them pull any bullshit on you. We have rights."

"Then what?" Jenkins asked.

Jones sighed. "Then we hope UNIT reabsorbs us. They'll probably want us to requalify. Worst case scenario, UNIT won't take us and we're mustered out. I'll look after you," he added, because none of them seemed comfortable with this. "I'm Captain. I'll make sure we survive. Trust me, ok?"

One by one, they nodded. He felt a small flood of relief -- they would obey, they would trust, and all he had to do was make sure they stayed safe in this brave new world where he was dead.

***

UNIT, to his surprise, didn't send anyone from the legal wing or a superior officer to debrief them. Instead it sent two men from ICI -- Integrity and Code Investigation, UNIT's version of Internal Affairs. They had a little bit of warning, at least; Sergeant Davidson put his head in halfway through the afternoon, when they were playing poker with ammo from Jenkins' tac vest for chips.

"Heads up, you lot," he called through the doorway. "Men in Black approaching. Reckon they're for you."

"Thanks," Jones replied, as Jenkins swept the bullets away and Wright tidied the cards into her pocket. There were a few seconds of general chaos as vests were re-donned, shoes checked, and hair flattened; when the ICI officers arrived, Jones was standing in direct view of the door, his little platoon at attention behind him.

The ICI men looked startled.

"At ease," one of them said. Jones gave a sidelong nod, and the others fell back to parade rest. "Captain Jones, I assume," he added.

"Sir," Jones replied.

"I'm Mr. Smith, this is Mr. Johnson," Mr. Smith said. "I assume you understand we're from ICI. You can address us as Mister or Sir. We're here to listen," he added, with a terrible fake kindness. "Once we have all the information, we'll determine what action to take. I understand you've been in contact with Torchwood?"

"Yes, sir," Jones said.

"They treat you boys all right?"

Jones could practically feel the annoyance radiating off Wright and Kucherenko. "Yes, sir."

"Good. Torchwood is very important to UNIT," Mr. Johnson put in. There was a certain something in his voice that spoke to debt, or possibly fear. Torchwood wasn't important to Jones's UNIT, except when they needed help getting out of a jam. Not anymore. This Torchwood obviously had greater sway.

"Yes, well. Let's get to it, shall we?" Mr. Smith said, with a remonstrating glance at Mr. Johnson.

They took Jordan and Kucherenko first, then Wright and Jenkins; when none of them returned, Jones assumed they were holding them somewhere else, not wanting those who'd been debriefed to speak with those waiting. When Mr. Johnson summoned him across the hall to a holding cell where the interviews were apparently taking place, Mr. Smith was already there.

"Captain Jones," he said, waving to the single piece of furniture in the room, a benchlike bed. "Please, have a seat."

Jones sat and watched them watch him. Finally, Mr. Smith spoke.

"Saved the best for last," he said, crossing his arms. "You're unique among our new problems, Captain Jones."

There didn't seem to be any way to respond to that, so he kept quiet.

"Jenkins, Kucherenko, and Jordan are all on record with UNIT," Mr. Smith continued. "Ms. Wright -- "

"Corporal Wright," Jones corrected. Mr. Smith raised an eyebrow.

"Well, she's Ms. Wright in this universe," he said. "Or rather she was. She was a legal attache to Her Majesty's Navy. Nothing to do with UNIT. And you..." he added, slowly, "are a special case, Captain."

"Because I worked for Torchwood," Jones guessed.

"In one. Now, we have a fairly thorough, reasonably accurate look at what happened to you lot, so let's hear yours and then we'll discuss what's to be done with you."

Jones gave them the bare facts, as quickly as possible; the 456 had arrived to threaten the Earth's children and population, UNIT had been mobilised, and the only viable plan of action had been to activate the special transport projects. A small group of volunteers were to transport up to the 456 ship and set off a dimensionality bomb, with the understanding that there was a fair chance it would be a one way trip. Jones had volunteered, and his 2IC had stepped up behind him; the others weren't from his division, but he knew them well enough to know they'd keep their nerve. The bomb had gone off, and the rest was history.

He told them about asking Torchwood for help and gave them a heavily edited version of his interactions with Cooper and Habiba. When he was finished, Mr. Smith nodded and fingered something in his pocket; Mr. Johnson disappeared out the door, presumably to round up the others and return them to the abandoned canteen. They were waiting there for him when he and Mr. Smith returned, anyway. The pair of ICI men conferred in the hallway outside for a minute.

"Keep your cool," Jenkins told the others.

"Naval attache my ass," Wright muttered. "Captain, what is there to talk about? UNIT'll take us, won't it?"

"I hope so," Jones said, no longer certain at all that this was the case. Through the doorway he could see Mr. Smith talking on a mobile. Mr. Johnson edged his way back inside and smiled at them. Nobody smiled back.

"O-kay," he said. "Jordan, Kucherenko, and Jenkins, we'll be taking you with us. Once you requalify you'll be established with UNIT at your current pay grade and rank. Jones and Wright, Mr. Smith wants to talk to you."

Jones nodded at them; Kucherenko mouthed Sorry, sir as she gathered up her vest and pack. Mr. Johnson was almost at the door again before Jenkins spoke up.

"Sir?" he said. Mr. Johnson turned.

"Yes, Lieutenant?"

"Request permission to remain with Captain Jones, sir."

Mr. Johnson looked surprised. Jones winced inwardly. "Why?"

"He's my CO, sir. Doesn't seem right."

"Lieutenant, your CO is whoever UNIT tells you is your CO," Mr. Johnson snapped.

"That's true, sir, but I haven't heard differently, sir. If I'm to be reassigned I request a full board review, which I think is my right," Jenkins said. Jones rubbed the bridge of his nose. Mr. Johnson looked like he'd like to do the same.

"Kucherenko, Jordan, follow Mr. Smith," he said, as the two soldiers passed him on their way out the door. "Tell him Lieutenant Jenkins is requesting review."

Jordan gave them a little wave as he left. After a few minutes, Mr. Smith returned.

"Well, this is interesting," he said, rubbing his hands together. "Captain, Corporal. I'm afraid UNIT has orders to discharge you. Your services are no longer required by the military."

"Sir -- !" Wright protested, but Jenkins elbowed her sharply.

"You have no records with us, and there are other issues at stake," Mr. Smith said sharply. "This isn't a request, Corporal."

"But I'm qualified!" Wright said.

"You won't be left twisting, not to worry," Mr. Smith told her. "A courier is on his way with new identification papers for the two of you, and you'll have any military benefits that would have come with an honourable discharge. A pension is involved, I understand."

"Captain," Wright appealed. "They're paying us off!"

"Shut up, Wright!" Jenkins hissed. Jones held up a hand to quiet them both.

"With all due respect, sir, I've been in the military since I was sixteen," he said quietly. "This isn't exactly gratitude."

"With all due respect in return, Captain, we don't need you," Mr. Smith replied. "Now, the good news is, I've made arrangements with Agent Cooper for Torchwood to take you on. Agent Cooper is also willing to review Corporal Wright's files."

Wright made another halfhearted sound of protest, but Jones knew the feeling of hitting a brick wall as well as she did. UNIT had spoken; UNIT's word was law.

"Which leaves you, Lieutenant," Mr. Smith continued, turning to Jenkins. "Mr. Johnson informs me you're refusing UNIT's...invitation to return to service."

Jenkins lifted his chin. "Captain Jones is my CO. If you won't have him, you can't have me."

"Don't be an arse, Jenkins," Jones said. "Take the job."

"No, thank you, sir," Jenkins replied.

"We don't offer twice," Mr. Smith pointed out.

"Fine, then make me attache to Torchwood, with Captain Jones," Jenkins challenged. "I saw what they're running down there, they need the people anyhow. I don't want reassignment, thanks, I like my CO just fine."

"Even if you were to take a position with Torchwood as a UNIT liaison, Mr. Jones would not be your CO," Mr. Smith said. "You would not take orders from Torchwood nor would you be allowed to disobey orders issued by UNIT."

"I'll take my chances, sir," Jenkins said.

Mr. Smith sighed. "Let me make a call," he said, and went back out into the hallway.

"You're an idiot," Jones told him, furious. "Go back to UNIT, you've got the option."

"And do what? It's fine for Kucherenko and Jordan, but I don't fancy being the only Lieutenant in UNIT who dropped in from another world," Jenkins said under his breath. "What, are you trying to get rid of me?"

"I'm thinking about your future!"

"Why don't you let me do that, Captain, and think about your own instead?"

If Jenkins had said that to him at any other time, Jones would have had him on punitive duties for a month. Here, it wasn't like he had the option. Before he could retort, Mr. Smith was back.

"UNIT's agreed," he said, looking sullen. "If Agent Cooper is willing to go along with this stunt, you'll be seconded to Torchwood officially. Otherwise you'll be officially discharged."

Jenkins looked triumphant. Jones felt a headache coming on. "Yes, sir, thank you sir."

***

Agent Cooper had, apparently, washed her hands of them for the day. It was Sergeant Davidson who brought in the courier with their new papers; the papers included cards for bank accounts they didn't know they had, and contact sheets and protocol lists for how to get in touch with family members and what to say. Apparently there had never really been much question that Jones and Wright were No Longer Required.

"This is bollocks," Wright said from the backseat of the police car, as Sergeant Davidson drove them through the streets of Cardiff, apparently to some Torchwood-issue safehouse. "I don't want to work for Torchwood. I want to be a soldier."

"Well, it has its perks," Sergeant Davidson said. "It's probably the same, I mean, I've never been in the military but it's a lot like coppering, anyway."

"Huh, coppering," Wright sniffed disdainfully.

"Oi, watch it," Sergeant Davidson said. "Technically at the moment I outrank you."

"You work for Torchwood, then, Sergeant?" Jones asked, as Jenkins glared Wright into silence.

"Yeah, well, ad hoc. I deal with the police end, right? Call me Andy," he added, turning a corner. "I make the call when there's spooky-do's, and make sure emergency services knows how to handle...the things we handle. And I do shifts when Gwen and Lois can't cover it all."

So many first names. He'd have to get used to thinking of himself as Ianto Jones again, not Captain Jones. He wasn't really very fond of Ianto Jones, but maybe in eleven years Ianto had grown up a little.

"You know, I mean about Torchwood, right?" Andy asked.

"Yeah," Jones said, tensing. He knew what Torchwood had done to his girlfriend.

"I don't," Wright announced.

Andy sounded like he was reciting a catechism. "Cardiff sits on a rift in time and space. It's our job to collect up anything that falls through the Rift, protect victims of the Rift, and defend Cardiff against any threats it produces. Torchwood operates 24/7 for the protection of the public. While we answer to no specific local or international government, we were founded and are primarily funded by the Crown."

"Oh," Wright said, apparently a little cowed by the recitation.

"Any of you any good with technology?" Andy asked. Silence. "Got any medical training?"

"Wright's a sharpshooter," Jenkins put in.

"Great," Andy muttered under his breath. "Trainees. And here we are," he said, pulling up in front of a small house with an overgrown yard. "Home from home." He passed Jones a ring of keys as they climbed out. "There's linens and probably some food. Gwen wants to see you tomorrow at nine on the Quay. Enjoy tonight, it'll probably be the last good night's sleep you get for yonks. Oh, and buy yourselves some clothes. Gwen says no uniforms. Cept maybe you," he added, nodding at Jenkins. Jenkins looked torn as to whether to be pleased he'd be allowed to keep his uniform or dismayed that he'd be rubbing their noses in his retained rank.

"Thank you," Jones said, swinging the keys on his finger thoughtfully. Wright and Jenkins were picking their way up to the door.

"Part of the job," Andy replied. "Hey, Ianto..."

Jones turned. "Yes?"

"Good to have you back," Andy said. He pressed a box into his hands and climbed back into the car.

Inside, Jenkins took stock of the kitchen, while Wright explored the house. Ianto stood in the lounge, between the two of them, and looked around idly.

"Just one bedroom," Wright called. "You boys'll have to kip together. There's an office though. I'll bunk in there."

"Cold cereal, flour, sugar, coffee, and very moldy bread," Jenkins responded. "Captain, you know the area?"

"Not Cathays," Ianto replied. "We drove past some shops a few blocks away, though."

"I'll run out and get us something fancy then, eh?" Jenkins said, coming back into the lounge. "Celebrate our decommission?"

"My decommission, Wright's discharge, your...secondment," Ianto amended. "And don't call me Captain."

Jenkins looked perplexed. "I can't call you Ianto, sir."

Ianto took his dog tags off, setting them on the coffee table. "You're going to have to figure out something, then. Go on, get food. Oi, wait," he added, opening the box he'd forgotten he was holding. "Mobile," he said, holding one up. There were only two in the box, but they were top-of-the-line smartphones. There were a pair of bluetooths, too.

"Right," Jenkins took the phone and gave Ianto a long hard stare. Ianto returned it calmly. "Back in a bit."

While Jenkins ran out to get food, Ianto sat on the couch and went through his papers again. He supposed he was lucky he had only one person to call; still, he'd no idea how he and Rhiannon got on in this universe, and it seemed like cruelty to phone her. She might not even believe him. In his own world, they hadn't spoken for five or six years. He hadn't really had anything to say.

"Wright, anyone you need to call?" he asked, reading through the protocol. Relatives and friends were to be told there had been a misidentification of the body, and that the individual in question was being returned from being held as a prisoner of war. Not the most brilliant cover, but it would work.

"Yeah, they said my dad was still alive, the old bastard," Wright said, but there was an affectionate note in her voice as she emerged. "You?"

"Sister. Might wait till I can go round in person, though," he said. Wright sighed. "What?"

"Dunno, it's just a mess, isn't it, s -- isn't it?" she asked, stopping herself from appending sir onto the end. "One minute you're bombing the shit out of an alien spaceship, the next minute it's thanks-but-no-thanks, have a consolation prize."

Ianto shrugged. "Consider it a new set of orders."

"Bollocks orders."

"Well, nobody joins the military to have fun," Ianto remarked, sitting back and stretching. "Beats being dead, is what Jenkins said."

"Easy for you, you're from around here, aren't you?"

"A long time ago," Ianto said, closing his eyes. "Not been back for years. I didn't care much for Cardiff. Can't say I do now, either."

***

They were all knackered enough that evening; they ate quietly, washed what clothing they could so as to at least be presentable for Cooper the following morning, and went to bed as soon as it seemed reasonable. Ianto lay in the dark for some time, his back pressed up against Jenkins's in the narrow bed, and tried not to think about how his life had, essentially, just ended.

He was a good soldier, and a good Captain; UNIT had valued him highly. He'd been decorated for his valour at Canary Wharf, though he hadn't managed to attend the ceremony, too entrenched in grief over Lisa's death. He still missed her, but the grief had faded to a low throb, and he'd got on with life. If perhaps he volunteered for more dangerous duties than was proper, nobody ever said anything about it. He'd had a future with UNIT, anyway, including hinted promises from his superior officers that he was high-rank material.

Now here he was, in a house owned by someone else, sacked summarily, with the clothes on his back and a tac-vest to his name. He supposed it was like boot camp, a bit; god, that first night he'd been terrified, swearing that if he could just get out of there he'd go straight and do whatever Dad told him to do.

And the military had turned out to be the best thing to happen to him in his life, so perhaps he shouldn't worry so much about Torchwood. But he didn't want to work for Torchwood; Torchwood had killed Lisa. He wanted to be Captain Ianto Jones of UNIT.

"Captain," Jenkins said, into the silence of the room.

"Yes?" Ianto asked.

"Thought you might be awake."

"Well, I am."

"What's going to happen tomorrow?" Jenkins asked. He sounded more like a child than a soldier.

"Agent Cooper will interview us. If she thinks Wright's qualified, she'll take her on; if she thinks she can work with you, she'll talk to UNIT about your secondment."

"What if she doesn't?" Jenkins asked.

"Then she doesn't. Doesn't matter. I'll take care of you." Ianto promised. "You have to trust me, Jenkins, otherwise this is going to fall apart anyway."

"Course I trust you, sir," Jenkins said reproachfully.

"Then don't worry about tomorrow. That's my job."

Jenkins shifted, shoulderblade bumping against him. "D'you think Cooper pulled some strings?"

"Why would she bother?" Ianto asked.

"Well, she knew you, sort of, eh? Maybe she thinks she's...getting you back."

Ianto squeezed his eyes shut. "Christ, I hope not."

***

I think I was going to put the literary equivalent of a training montage here.

***

Their first week at Torchwood had been long -- exhausting, exhilarating, and boring by turns. But with Wright and Lois on weekend duty, and Jenkins on standby, Gwen told Ianto in no uncertain terms that he wasn't needed for the weekend, and she wouldn't be coming in either. She had a husband and baby who were feeling neglected.

And really it was past time he tidied up the last of this mess.

He knew what the place was like; he didn't even bother asking for the loan of a car, just took a cab out and optimistically hoped he'd be able to catch one going back. Rhiannon's address was in the paperwork, but he knew the house -- they'd lived down the road from it when he was a kid.

He didn't even try to sort out his thoughts, being back on the Estate. You learned to do that, in UNIT, just put the irrelevancies out of your mind and focus on the mission. When he got to the door, he knocked without hesitation. Rhiannon answered it.

"Look, we're not interested in -- " she began, before she saw him, and when she did her eyes went wide and scared.

"Hi, Rhiannon," he said.

"Oh my god," she replied, backing away, leaving the door open -- stupid, if she thought he was there to harm her, but Rhiannon had never been long on common sense. "Oh my god -- "

"It's all right, it's me," he told her, not moving forward. "I'm sorry, I didn't want to phone..."

She was halfway down the entry hall, staring at him, one hand over her mouth.

"It's a long story," he added.

"They said you were dead," she said.

"Yeah, I know." He shifted uncomfortably. "Can I come in?"

Rhiannon edged forwards again, taking him in, studying his face. When she reached the doorway, she touched his arm with one hand as if to make sure he was real.

Then she punched him in the shoulder.

"They said you were dead!" she shouted, as Ianto stumbled backwards. "You were dead!" she repeated, shoving him. "You were dead, you were dead -- "

"Rhi!" he yelled, grabbing her wrists to stop her attack. "Rhi, calm down. No, stop it!" he ordered, as she struggled against him. Time was she could have kicked his arse round the block, but he was bigger than her and significantly stronger than he'd been when he left the last time. "Stop!"

She stopped struggling and just stared at him, face red and eyes filling with tears.

"You were dead," she repeated -- almost as if she wanted him to be dead.

"Yeah, I know, but now I'm here, and we're making a scene," he hissed. "You can shout inside. Let's get off the pavement, yeah?"

He let go of her wrists warily, but she didn't resume her assault -- just turned and ran inside, leaving him to follow. When he ducked into the house and closed the door she was standing at the sink, crying.

"If this is some sick Torchwood joke -- " she began, but couldn't seem to continue.

"It's not," he answered, standing uneasily near the table, sweeping the room. He was half-worried she'd come at him with a knife, but instead she turned and wiped her eyes. "It's just -- "

" -- a long story," she finished. "You said."

She seemed to be casting around for something to do, something to say; finally her eyes lit on the kettle, and she scrambled for it. "Well, I'll put on some tea then," she announced, suddenly bright and false. "And you can tell me about it. Sit down. Sit."

He sat, watching her. "Rhiannon, I don't need tea."

"Well, I do," she replied, plugging the kettle in and fumbling for mugs from the drying rack next to the sink.

"Rhi, for god's sake -- "

"No, you listen to me," she said, turning to face him. "You died and some strange woman had to tell me about it and she didn't even know anything about you, and then you show up on my doorstep and scare the living fuck out of me and you will have some tea or so help me I will take your head off myself."

Wow.

"Okay," he said, because he figured she could probably do it.

"Right then." She took a deep breath. "So," she added, "was she a liar or are you?"

Ianto looked down at the table. "It's complicated."

Rhi burst out laughing. "Yeah, what isn't, around you? Stupid, complicated...stupid..." she came forward and wrapped him in a hug, nearly suffocating him against her stomach, both hands on his head. He reached up to touch her arm, pulling away gently.

"There's a lot to talk about," he said.

Gwen had told him that Rhiannon wouldn't swallow the official UNIT story; that she knew about Torchwood and what it did, and that he should just tell her the truth. So he did, hoping that she understood, because she was quiet while he talked about alternate universes and dimensionality bombs and how he knew he'd been killed, but he was stuck here now. When he was done, she tapped her fingers against the table, clearly sorting her thoughts.

"So you're not my Ianto," she said. Which hurt, even with the years of distance between them.

"No," he admitted. "It doesn't seem like we were...much alike. But I am Ianto, you know," he added. "I mean, I wanted you to know. And we never did talk much -- "

" -- some things never change -- "

"So if you want me to just...let you alone..." he shrugged.

"My brother died, and now I've got him back, and I should tell you to fuck off?" she asked. "No."

"Okay."

"Unless that's what you want."

He shrugged again. "Up to you." She smacked the back of his head. "Ow!"

"Prat," she said. "Don't be stupid. I'll take any brother I can get."

He gave her an uncertain smile. "Good."

"So?" she asked, after a while. "You need anything? You have a place to stay? Johnny knows of some work going if you need a job."

"No, they gave me a place, and a job," he said, still uncertain. Did normal people do this, talk like this?

"You've gone back to Torchwood, haven't you," she asked. He nodded. "You really are an idiot. They got you killed last time."

"Well, then they can't do worse this time, can they?"

"Yes, don't think of us or anything."

"Sorry." He ducked his head. "Not like there's anything better on offer. I mean, what do I put on a CV? Eleven years' military experience in an alternate universe?"

"God, Dad always threatened to send you up, I didn't think he'd really do it," she said. "But you must've been good at it, yeah? Eleven years? Captain Ianto Jones?"

"Yeah, I did all right," he admitted.

"You look malnourished," she told him, touching his hand. "Stay for dinner? We'll do a spread."

He looked at her, wondering what it must seem like through her eyes. One dead brother, resurrected, but he'd seen photos of the other Ianto Jones and could tell the subtle differences in posture, in gaze, in -- well, clothing. He didn't know if he acted like the brother she'd lost. He didn't really know anything about her. Outside of UNIT he wasn't sure he knew much about himself.

"Yeah, all right," he said, which was right when two young children burst noisily into the house, and didn't seem at all surprised to see Uncle Ianto. Then again, they were young, and more interested in whether he'd brought them sweets or money. He handed out two five-pound notes, bewildered, and was promptly left alone.

"Greedy little buggers," Rhiannon said affectionately. "Kids don't really get death."

"Lucky them," Ianto murmured.




In the files I called this one "Neal Caffrey, Rogue Archaeologist". I probably should not have wasted as much time as I did on the map. It involves Neal decoding some secret treasure map that actually exists but probably isn't real, and finding buried treasure on Oak Island.

Map It

Neal Caffrey was a multitasker, and a good one. He also had excellent timing, or else Peter would have noticed sooner. He was sure he would have.

He was distracted that entire month by several things -- not just the cases they were working but having to testify for Neal at his parole hearing, and all the paperwork that came with an FBI agent being declared a felon's parole officer, and Neal's (unsuccessful) tries at getting his felony expunged. Not to mention having Legal draw up the paperwork for Neal to be signed on as an official consultant, and the following sigh of relief Peter suppressed when they showed up on his desk with Neal's signature on them. And, cheekily, pre-signed with Neal's flawless forgery of Peter's, as well.

Neal was staying, and that seemed to be all that mattered. Three years of consulting, a parole, the tracking anklet coming off (he also had to negotiate through the red tape with the Marshals for that) and Neal was going to be a gainfully employed member of Peter's team, official and legal and good. Elizabeth was arranging a party and the FBI had a million more papers to sign and inbetween all of that...Peter's usually observant eye missed things.

He missed the casefile that went straight from White Collar to cryptography, and missed Neal grabbing it when it came back. He missed the calls Neal was getting at his desk and the strange collection of books in his apartment whenever Peter came over. He missed the hand-drawn map Neal kept working on -- or, rather, he saw it but paid it no mind. He very nearly missed the request for time off Neal put straight through to Hughes (who granted it; after all, the kid deserved a week's vacation after three years). And he almost missed Neal's formal request of Peter, as his parole officer, to approve interstate travel.

Even when he caught that before signing it, he didn't give it much thought.

"Paris?" he asked, leaning back in his chair as Neal watched and waited for him to sign off on it.

"Better," Neal said with a grin.

"South America?"

"Better, but I can't tell you. Yet," Neal added, and Peter narrowed his eyes.

"If you're screwing me and you're running away to steal something..." he let the threat hang in the air. Neal just kept smiling.

"Promise I'm not," Neal said lightly, and hell, Peter had to start trusting him with the anklet off sometime. So he approved the permit and didn't even give Hughes shit about giving Neal a week off.

Two days after the tracker came off, Neal was gone.

Permissibly gone, he reminded himself. Gone with some private purpose in mind and now that he was paroled, that was allowed. He'd paid his debt to society -- a couple of times over, really -- and his anklet was off, so where he went was none of Peter's business.

It was the longest damn day of the last three years. No more Neal Paperwork, and no pending cases at the moment. Just a quiet day in the office, wondering where the hell Neal went. He ate dinner with Elizabeth, was chided twice for not listening to her, paid her his full attention for the rest of the meal, and then settled in with his laptop to finish up some work.

Around nine-thirty, an email popped up in Peter's inbox from Neal's private address. It was titled Treasure Hunt, and for a moment Peter's heart stopped.

Then he clicked it open.


To: Peter Burke
From: Artful Dodger
Subject: Treasure Hunt

http://tinyurl.com/24nmuj9

--
Neal G. Caffrey
I never painted dreams, I only painted my own reality. -- Picasso



Peter, cautiously, clicked on the link.

A Google Map popped up on his screen. He stared at it for a second and then burst out laughing.

"What is it?" Elizabeth asked, joining him on the sofa.

"It's Neal," he said, grinning at her. "He sent me a tracker map."

"Aww. Puppy misses his leash," she replied, leaning on his shoulder. He kissed her hair and then zoomed in, following the line of transit from June's house in Manhattan northeast, until he reached Boston, where Neal had apparently had lunch downtown and then paid a visit to a museum on the Harvard campus.

"Troublemaker," he murmured, wondering if he should call them -- no, nobody would be at the museum this late, but he would in the morning. Elizabeth shoved his hand over and scrolled further north, eventually zooming in tight on Portland, Maine. Neal had stopped there at some swanky hotel, and by the looks of it had gone to dinner, visited the public library for some reason, gotten himself a coffee, and strolled along the waterfront. The trail ended back at the hotel.

"Where are you going?" Peter asked the computer. No reply, naturally. Elizabeth kissed his cheek. "He must be going to Canada."

"You sound dismayed," she said.

"Well, I thought he'd go somewhere more...exotic," Peter admitted. "Not that Canada's not nice, but..."

"Not exactly Venice," she finished.

"Yeah," Peter said, and closed out of the map.

"You think he'll send you another one tomorrow?" she asked, as he shut the laptop and set it aside. He grinned at her and pulled her over, across his lap.

"Don't know," he said. "I've been told by several good sources I shouldn't care."

"Hmm," she answered, against his lips. "Need some relaxation?"

"I never say no to that," Peter replied.

***

The next morning, he called the museum as soon as he figured they were open. A desk attendant answered and, when he gave his name, transferred him to the curator.

"Agent Burke," she said warmly. "Mr. Caffrey said you'd call."

"I have a bad feeling about this," Peter replied. "You aren't missing any valuable art, are you?"

She laughed. "No. Mr. Caffrey did ask me to pass on a message for him, though. He said to tell you to check the file folder in the rack on his desk. Any idea what he means?"

"Not a clue," Peter said, glancing up through the bullpen to Neal's desk. "I can see the folder from here."

"Well, he showed up with a funny little man and took two of my best research assistants and three archaeology graduate students and beat it for Maine," she said. "If you figure out what they're up to, let me know, won't you?"

"It's Neal. You'll probably hear about it sooner or later," he said. "Thank you."

"Any time," she replied, and hung up. Peter left his office and strolled casually down to Neal's desk, plucking out the only file folder in the rack. It was a report from Cryptology, which was weird enough; inside were two photographs, a sketch, and a long report.

The photographs were of a large chunk of stone -- one of them had a ruler next to it for scale, and looked to be about eighteen inches square. It seemed to be carved with some inscription he couldn't make out, but the sketch made it clear he wasn't supposed to. The inscription was made up of what seemed to be random symbols.

He lifted the sketch and studied the report from Cryptography. It was detailed and intense. They'd spent a week solid trying to crack it, using every technique the FBI had, and offered only a partial translation in the end:

Here [][]eth The Body Of
[Indecipherable]
E[]ec[][]ed (Probable: Executed) - Frog [][][]and
[Indecipherable; Date perhaps]
[]Now [][] G[]ard[] The Go[]d[]

A headstone, it looked like. Peter frowned at it.

On the last page was a note in Neal's handwriting: Figure it out yet, Peter?

Peter scowled. He didn't have time to play chase with Neal Caffrey.

But he did tuck the folder under his arm, and when he returned to his office he locked it in the top drawer, where he kept his current casefiles.

***

I was going to have a bunch more maps; this is from later in the story, after Peter follows Neal's maps.

On the fourth day, instead of a map, a video file was attached to the email. Peter opened it as soon as it arrived.

It was obviously taken with some kind of cheap digital video recorder and hand-held; the picture dipped and shimmered occasionally but it was clear enough. Neal, in a thick dark sweater and dirt-smeared khakis, grinned out from the video. Behind him, Peter could see a stretch of greenery, but mostly he saw cloudy sky and water.

"Hi, Peter," he said, waving a little at the camera. "Sorry we couldn't get this to you before now. It's been a busy couple of days. But we just turned up something I think you'll appreciate..."

He gestured off-camera to someone, reaching one arm out of the frame, and came back with something in his hands. The camera moved in close, and Peter could see Neal was wearing white cotton art-handling gloves. He was so distracted by this incongruity that it took him a second to realise what was in Neal's hand. It was a gold necklace, set with huge gemstones.

"Neal..." Peter murmured.

"Pulled this up this morning," Neal said, voice muffled slightly now that he was speaking offscreen. The camera zoomed in closer on his hand, holding the necklace. "I've examined the stones. It's French, eighteenth century at our best guess. We have some debris surrounding the site that I'm sure some lab somewhere can help out with. Those are genuine emeralds, Peter."

Neal was holding easily a couple of hundred thousand dollars in his hand. Well, wouldn't be the first time. The camera zoomed out and whoever was holding it leaned back, refocusing on Neal's face. Neal tipped his head to the right -- well, his left -- and the camera swung around to reveal a square pit, lined with string and small wooden stakes.

"Excavation's going pretty well," Neal said, just at the edge of the screen. "Now that we've hit pay dirt we probably won't be here much longer -- we'll tarp it up and let the real archaeologists come in. Couldn't resist going on a little chase for myself," he added, grinning. "Anyway. There's more where this came from and I'll be bringing it down to Boston with me. Meet me at Harvard, you know where. See ya in a few, Peter," he added, and the film ended abruptly.




This is, I suppose, a story complete in itself, but I thought it was stupid, so I didn't post it. It's White Collar, in case that doesn't become obvious early on.

The Article

We can't show you their faces. We can't even tell you their names.

The two men in business suits, sipping coffee on a sunny New York morning, have more than a dozen active aliases between them, most with rap sheets. The man known as "C" conservatively puts his at ten. His partner, "B", has three known alter egos. And B's the good guy.

Both B and C work for the FBI.

B, the older of the two, is a clean-cut All American type, the boy next door, the kind of guy you'd expect to find coaching Little League. He's the embodiment of the heroic G-man, and he's visibly proud of being an FBI agent, if a little anxious-seeming about talking to the press. C looks like a day trader or a marketing executive, younger than B and more deliberately styled, a relaxed City Boy with an air of arrogant confidence about him. Though he works for the FBI, C isn't an agent; he's a criminal.

B is C's 'handler', a term for a law enforcement agent who works with witnesses and informants. The pair have emerged recently as unlikely poster boys for the FBI's Confidential Informant program, which pays informers, frequently criminals, for tips and assistance in catching bigger fish. In past eras the program came under fire for a number of irregularities in the way the Bureau operates: missing paperwork, informants paid for information that was never received, and in one case the death of an informant who was mis-handled by his Bureau contact. In light of that, it's no wonder B's not comfortable being interviewed.

"I'm not ashamed of the FBI," B protests. "I think there's been some misrepresentation -- "

" -- and interviews aren't really his thing," C adds, smooth and smiling. C, a nonviolent white-collar offender, spent years making his living by fooling people into seeing things his way. It's clear he's very good at it. It's one of the reasons the FBI keeps him around.

And B may have a point about misrepresentation. The FBI isn't a playground, and it isn't safe. It's a branch of federal law enforcement which handles everything from organized crime and kidnapping to email scams and art theft. B wears a jacket to cover his shoulder holster, and the Glock in the holster isn't decorative. C doesn't carry a gun, but he's clearly someone used to using his wits to get out of perilous situations. Informants, just like agents, sometimes have to think on their feet and -- unlike agents -- act before the paperwork is filed.

"I do think there's a culture, when it comes to handling CIs, of acting first and worrying about the paperwork later," B admits, when pressed about the Bureau's policies. "Sometimes that's necessary, to protect the informant or preserve a case. The problem comes in when an agent decides that worrying about the paperwork is something that doesn't have to happen. Then you get to trial time, something's not filed right, someone didn't get permission, and it goes to hell."

B should know. In recent months, he's been working within the Bureau as a reformer, giving seminars about informant handling, lobbying the head office to streamline its policies. It's no secret that one recent scandal -- the payment of money to a known con artist for information that was never provided -- has made the FBI wary of giving their agents more slack when it comes to the way they interact with the criminal underworld.

C is obviously amused by the very idea of 'the criminal underworld'. "You say that and people think of the Godfather, or they think of big tattooed guys in nightclubs plotting to rob little old ladies of their pension checks," he says. "That's not the way it really is. Sometimes the crooks look like me."

C is no longer an active criminal, except for petty crimes occasionally committed to keep his contacts fresh, all approved by the FBI and most with paperwork filed beforehand by B. Part of the key to their success -- internally presented to other agents as an ideal handler-informant relationship -- is the scrupulous attention to detail B insists on. He is nothing if not thorough, a trait C tolerates like a sibling chafing mildly against big brother's refusal to indulge his whims.

B seems willing to play the role: C has a standing weekly invitation to dinner with B and his wife, who is apparently sanguine about her husband bringing felons home for the occasional meal. B often has breakfast at C's apartment while they go over new cases. C gently, subtly teases his handler about his working-class tastes (baseball and beer) but a look or a word from B quickly brings the younger man to heel. It's a working relationship founded on friendship, despite their different circumstances and backgrounds.

"He's a Fed," C says, when asked how their partnership works. "You are," he insists to B, who is rolling his eyes. "I'm not saying anything anyone doesn't know. It's like control and chaos."

"Controlled chaos," B adds, looking pointedly at C.

"If you want to call it that, sure," C agrees, before turning back with a serious expression. "Without him, there's no partnership. I'm just a guy with certain talents going to waste. Working for the Feds, I get to use those legally. He can break cases without me. I can't break cases without him. So." He shrugs, as if a summary is as good as an explanation.

B is more contemplative in his own answer. "We're trained to treat CIs as assets, and protect those assets," he says, slow and measured. C looks indignant at being described as an asset, an inanimate object -- fair enough, since the charming, affable C might be the most animate person in the entire FBI. "But you can't treat a person like a thing you can switch on and off. [C] needs structure to function usefully. I don't just aim him at the bad guys; he gets guidance and help from me."

But what's at root of their partnership? Why do they work together so much more smoothly than most?

"Trust," C says.

"In measured amounts," B replies. It's clear that, while B might be fond of his informant, he never forgets who the criminal is in this situation.

Perhaps their partnership is ideal because it's unique: C is contracted to the FBI, not just someone B uses but someone who works daily with him and his team. B might not approve of how C acquired his expertise in criminal matters, but he values it as much as C's underground contacts, and possibly uses that more than anything else. Despite the teasing, despite the occasional scolding by B, these are two men who fundamentally respect each other. That kind of relationship takes time and effort to build.

It's the kind of relationship that might have prevented Bartholomew Jackson's death.

'Little Bart' Jackson was, like C, a paid informant. Unlike C, he wasn't under contract; a part-time drug dealer, Little Bart occasionally provided information to the FBI on an ad-hoc basis, and is listed in FBI records and on payment reciepts simply as 'Jacks'. The only time he met with his handler, FBI Agent Mark Shea, was to provide information or to pick up a paycheck.

According to witness accounts, Little Bart began to suspect that his supplier was having him followed, but Shea refused to provide protection. On the night of January 12th, 2011, Little Bart called Shea in a panic, convinced the meet he was supposed to attend later that evening was a trick to lure him into a dangerous situation. Shea allegedly told him to stop worrying and go to the meet.

Little Bart was found dead the next morning, apparently executed, his body left where it fell. The death was allegedly hushed up, and has emerged only after an FBI internal investigation was inadvertently made public. Specific details are still unclear, but Shea has been placed on unpaid leave pending a full discovery of facts.

Both B and C are clearly familiar with the case and wary of discussing it. B seems worried and sad when the topic comes up, as if the fall of a fellow FBI agent, a professional colleague, is a personal betrayal. Perhaps, for him, it is.

C, who is occasionally called on to work with other informants who need to be kept calm or on-track, looks to B -- handler and friend, but above all his protector -- for cues on how to act. B, with a nod, gives him permission to speak freely.

"I didn't know Shea, and neither of us knew Little Bart, so I can only speak in hypotheticals," he says. For the first time he seems less than perfect, less than confident, studying the dregs of his coffee as he talks. "I think part of being an informant is knowing when to listen and when to use your common sense. The choice to risk a life to keep a case going should be in the hands of the person taking the risks. Our decision, not theirs."

Would C torch an investigation to protect himself?

"Depends on the investigation," he says, with a sly look at B. "The point is, I'm given the option. No one ever puts a case over my life."

"Except him," B adds, with enough annoyance to indicate there's a story behind C's refusal to play it safe. C's daredevil grin says there's probably more than one.

"Handlers can exert a lot of influence," he continues. "I've seen -- " he stops, as if deciding how to be delicate about it, or perhaps how to say what he means without attacking the FBI. C, for all his swagger and in spite of his personal history, is fiercely protective of B's work and reputation. "I've seen what can happen when there's misuse of power," he says, satisfied with his wording. "I don't think Little Bart is at fault for what happened. I think he probably didn't want to disappoint his handler."

Both men are silent for a while after this statement, but C seems pleased when B places a hand on his shoulder, paternal, brief but reassuring. C obviously doesn't want to disappoint his handler either.

"We're supposed to understand the authority we've been given," B says after a while. "It's a lot of power. It's easy to get into the habit of thinking that's something we're entitled to, instead of something we have to earn. The stakes are pretty high, though. You can't make that kind of mistake. Most who do, don't last long at the Bureau."

The FBI is an institution famed for being slow to change, resisting new ideas and battling reform. VIPs in the Bureau point to rising arrest-and-conviction rates as proof the FBI doesn't need to change. But it seems like this time change may be coming from the ground up, from individual field agents like B who are willing to assume the burden of responsibility for the power the institution wields.

After the interview, B is eager to move on, to get back to his office and start the day's work. C lingers, as if he has something more to say.

"Listen, the FBI's not perfect, but these people do the best they can," he says, nodding in B's direction. "Don't screw us on this article. [B] wants people to be able to trust us."

And C?

Well, C has a cocky smile and a wink in answer. "I just want to do my job," he says, and briskly joins B at the door when summoned.




This is just an awesome little scene I couldn't get out of my head.

Insinuation

"Agent Burke, do you understand the purpose of this discussion?"

Peter understands the purpose of this interrogation all too well. Neal is six months from getting his tracker off, and OPR has decided to do a full-scale investigation of their partnership, ostensibly to see if it's a viable system for work-release in other white collar convicts. In reality, someone at the Marshal's office got mad when Peter stole the march on one of their cases, and tipped off OPR to Neal's frequent presence at Peter and Elizabeth's house.

"Yes," he says shortly.

"We'd like to talk about your personal relationship with the criminal," one of them says. Neal is 'the criminal' to them, or grudgingly, Mr. Caffrey. Peter doesn't volunteer anything. "We understand you're very close to him."

"That's correct."

"And your wife, how does she feel about that?"

Peter smiles. "She's fond of Neal."

"How fond?"

"Excuse me?" Peter asks.

"Agent Burke, Mr. Caffrey spends an awful lot of time at your home," one of them informs him.

"Yes," Peter agrees.

"Would you care to elaborate on that?"

Peter hesitates.

"Agent Burke?"

"As I said, Elizabeth is fond of Neal."

"And you're fine with that?"

"Well, I guess it's better than her not liking him," Peter offers.

"This criminal is in your custody. That gives you, and by extension your wife, a lot of authority over him."

"I..." Peter gives them a confused look.

"Can you explain the frequency of his visits to your home? Are you aware of these visits?" one agent presses.

"Well, yes, I monitor his anklet."

"So you're aware he sometimes spends all night at your house."

They've got him on the ropes.

"Yes," he says, looking anxious.

"Can you explain to us why a criminal in your custody would sleep at your house?"

Peter hesitates again.

"Agent Burke, please answer the question."

"It's the big screen," Peter blurts.

There's a long pause.

"Come again?" one of them asks.

"I have a big screen television," Peter says, brow wrinkling in worry. "Full sports package. I know it's not strictly procedure, but when Neal behaves himself it's -- a reward, you know, beer and a Knicks game."

"Knicks game," one repeats.

"Yeah, or the Yankees, sometimes the Giants. But Neal really loves the Knicks," Peter says, defensive. "And Elizabeth doesn't have the heart to kick him out if the game runs late, it's hard to get a cab from our place, so...there's no actual rule against it in the procedure book," he adds. He doesn't mention that he wrote many of the new procedure memos for handling felons in extended custody. "Sometimes I DVR a game for him. If he's been insubordinate, he doesn't get to see the game."

One of the OPR agents leans forward. "Just so we're clear...he's at your house for sports?"

"Yeah, what did you -- " Peter pauses and gives them a horrified look. "You thought he was sleeping with my wife, didn't you?"

"Agent Burke, we just wanted -- "

"You thought he was sleeping with my wife?" Peter demands. "What kind of people are you?"

"Agent Burke, let's remain calm," one says, holding up her hands placatingly.

"Calm? You just called my wife an adulterer," Peter replies. He hopes the bug Neal dropped in the room earlier is picking this up, because he's pretty impressive if he says so himself, and he wants Elizabeth and Neal to hear his performance. "That's where your minds go? I'm genuinely appalled."

"We meant no disrespect," interrupts another agent -- this one's been sitting silently throughout the interrogation.

"How exactly is implying that my custodial responsibility is sleeping with my wife of fourteen years not disrespectful?" Peter asks. This is definitely going to keep them from trying to ask if he's sleeping with Neal. Neal's plan was brilliant. "If you have any other questions you can submit them in writing to my Assistant Director so he and my union rep can see what you're insinuating about my marriage. This 'discussion' is over."

Threatening them with the Federal Employees' Union was Peter's idea; the DoJ hates the union, and the union really, really hates OPR.

When he walks out of the conference room, Neal is sitting at his desk, looking for all the world like he's listening to music on his phone while he works. Peter can see the little muscle twitching in his neck, though, the one that means he's trying not to laugh.

He plucks the file out of Neal's hands and studies it. "You get all that?"

"Yep," Neal answers, taking the headphones out. "That was almost unbearably hot, by the way."

"You record it?"

"Oh yeah."

"Good. Bring it home with you tonight so El can hear it."

"If I'm very good, do I get to watch the Knicks game?" Neal asks, eyes bright with mischief.

"That depends. Are you sleeping with my wife?"

Neal's mouth curls a little. "I'll never tell."




Supernatural! This was written at the end of S4, which I think makes it much older than the others. I always liked the idea though. I hear Castiel really became an old school God of Vengeance, but by then I'd stopped watching. Called it, yo.

Castiel, Lord Of Heaven

Heaven had no true dawn and no true evening, but the great watchmaker or father or whatever one wanted to call him had made the Earth and Man in his own image, or at any rate in images with which he was familiar. Though time was not really measured here, the light regularly dimmed to darkness, and burst forth again as well.

The sky, such as it was, had just begun to dim when Castiel heard a gentle cough behind him.

"Yes, Ridwan," he said, still gazing out over the valley spread below him. Just at the far edge -- the view was clear from here -- he could see the border of his holdings, some of the first of Heaven's land he'd conquered on his return.

"May I sit?" Ridwan asked. Castiel turned back to smile at him and gestured at the grass next to where he himself sat. Ridwan dropped carelessly down, wings furling into nothingness, hands propping him up as he turned his face to the fading light.

Ridwan was Islamic, a tribe of angel that Castiel hadn't encountered much before -- well, before. He had turned out to be an undeniable asset. He was once the angel in charge of maintaining Paradise, never an easy task, and his detail-oriented mind was a -- well, haha, a godsend. In Castiel's troop he was quartermaster and sometimes a spy, but Castiel knew he yearned for more peaceful days when he could return to his duties as a sort of celestial manager. He was useful, easily the smartest of any of them, and he truly believed in the cause of a unified Heaven. If Castiel ever fell in this endeavour, he was confident Ridwan would take up his sword.

"Soon we'll be back where I started," Castiel said, brooding on the valley. "Down there is some of the first land I conquered. Strange to see it from here. You know, I think the demons are better off."

"Oh?" Ridwan asked, fingers drumming idly. "I shouldn't think so. Lakes of fire, screams of the damned, et cetera."

"Yes, but -- well, Hell has a king again."

"Impotent and furious, I imagine."

"Still." Castiel tilted his head, shrugged, sighed. "Heaven has no lord, just the knowledge that two little mortals did what none of us could."

"Heaven has you," Ridwan replied loyally. Castiel snorted.

"I'm not even an archangel."

"No, but you will be. When we return -- there -- " Ridwan pointed down to the valley, " -- you'll hold a quarter of Heaven, and you'll have locked away another quarter of it within the loop of your holdings. You can take Michael's place in the host. You'll have enough power to end the civil war."

"Interesting term for it," Castiel grunted. "Brother fighting every single other brother. And that's without even starting on the sisters."

Ridwan laughed. "Maybe. But I think with half of Heaven in your grasp you can call yourself an archangel and very few would object."

Castiel nodded. He was legitimately proud of his accomplishment; he had come to Heaven after Lucifer's imprisonment and scraped together handfuls of angels who were either afraid of him or too stupid to defend their own patch or rare idealists like Ridwan, enough to build up some semblance of an army. Admittedly most of them had been starving and frightened at first, but the starving and frightened had the strength of desperation on their side.

He was proud of how little blood (metaphorically; angels, of course, did not bleed in Heaven) he'd shed. Strategic deployment, he'd learned that on Earth, using aggression only as a key to gain entrance through certain doors. Walking into the territories of the stronger, cleverer angels, he'd brought them to their knees one at a time, either by sophistry or strength, with a swagger reminiscent of Dean Winchester. Each region conquered, he left behind a small garrison of angels, some older, some younger, never his cleverest but neither entirely composed of the stupid. He developed powerful allies, and those he subjugated by force tended to stay that way.

He was looking forward to seeing friendly faces again, and someplace he could rest for a while.

"You know, when I joined this outfit, I had no idea we lay so close to Hell," Ridwan said, easing himself down so that his head rested in the grass. "You'd think the caretaker would know where the garden walls end, but -- "

"Maybe we weren't, before," Castiel finished for him. "Heaven and Hell are on opposite poles, if you're on the Earth."

"Yes, well, I've never been to Earth. All I know is, seems like if you put a foot wrong near the border...or over it..." Ridwan shot him a grin. Castiel matched it. They'd sent a few raiding parties into Hell, where it pressed up against Heaven, and reclaimed some of it with purifying fire. Many souls who suffered were set free. Castiel had no interest in punishment; having tasted revenge, he found forgiveness took much less energy. And anyway those who might truly deserve to burn were far from the borders. He could afford to free petty thieves and hypocrites from eternal torment.

"And tomorrow we march on the valley. Do you know who holds it?" he asked.

Ridwan shrugged. "Nobody. It seems empty to me. Abandoned, maybe."

"Unlikely."

"Perhaps it's not as innocent as it appears. Doesn't matter; we'll take it anyway," Ridwan said, his careless faith in Castiel's skills rather touching, if perhaps a little overly brash to be the truth.

Castiel was opening his mouth to respond when he felt, rather than heard, the newcomers enter his encampment. He stood quickly, took his sword out of the ground where he'd thrust it, and walked back to where his soldiers were trying to stop a band of lesser angels from forcing their way through. They were small in number and in stature but strong and clearly desperate, and Castiel could respect that. After a few amused seconds he held up a hand to still his soldiers, and let the intruders pass up to him. He spread his wings, rustling with curiousity, and let his sword hang casually in one hand.

"You've come from Earth," he said, as they approached. Four angels and a saint; the remains of an Earthly garrison. The saint spoke for them.

"Yes, Castiel," she said, eyes cast away from his face. He touched her very carefully, lifting her chin; her gaze darted away, then slowly drifted to his eyes.

"I have much more important affairs to attend to than Earth. You're in no danger from me. Why are you here?" he asked. She was silent. "Answer, it's all right."

"You say you have more important affairs," she said.

"That doesn't make Earth unimportant."

"But you haven't been there, not lately, have you?" she asked. "You used to be stationed there. You rebelled there."

"And...?" Castiel waited.

"And now it needs you. You're powerful in Heaven. You can help -- us, you can help them," she said, gaining in strength and conviction. The angels behind her closed ranks, so that all he saw was the radiant face of the saint and the wide inky feathers of her angels' wings.

"Who are 'them'?" he asked. "I have holdings in Heaven I must see to. The battle is by no means won. The outliers are still fighting and dying minute by minute, and some of the other new lords aren't what you'd call friendly. Heaven is not at peace."

"The hunters," she said, agonised. "We've tried to help them, but Hell is bleeding over and they are very few."

Castiel's lips twitched before he could school his face into impassivity. "The hunters."

"The cage is weakening," she told him. "So much we've heard. And there are demons -- many of them, and they will find Dean Winchester sooner or later."

Castiel's wings snapped shut before he thought about it and then spread wide, fury crackling over his arms and shoulders like a righteous cloak. The saint wailed and hid her face.

"Forgive me, I intercede on his behalf, I'm only a messenger," she cried, sheltering in the protective circle of her angels' wings. Castiel forced himself to be calm.

"Ambriel," he called. His second-in-command in the field -- an angel who manifested as duality, two bodies with one mind -- appeared at his left hand.

"Yes, Castiel," they replied.

"Take Saint Canna away and give her and her garrison anything they require," he said. "Also, summon the soldiers and bring me a guidecounter."

"Of course, Castiel," they said, and laid a hand on Saint Canna's arm, withdrawing. One of him returned shortly with a small brass device, and when Castiel took it from him, angels began to appear. His faithful; by now, the cleverest of those who followed him, too valuable to be left behind to guard his Heavenly lands. Each of them was keen or vicious or both, and some needed a strong guiding hand, but Castiel had learned that from Dean Winchester, too.

He held up the guidecounter, turning and turning the little dial on the side until the ornate spiral on the face of it began to spin, and then swinging it wide. It came to rest in the metaphysical direction of Hell -- at least, a specific portion of Hell.

"In that direction, two days through friendly land, there's a borderland to Hell," he said. "Haruvatat, you've been closest."

Haruvatat, like Ridwan, was not native to these regions; Zoroastrian originally, she was old and extremely powerful. She'd joined him on a different kind of border, that between Christianity and the Old Religions. She and her sister Vahishta had come with him; the other four Zoroastrian angels, the Divine Sparks of the Creator, had made treaties and agreed to guard the lands of the Sparks who chose to follow Castiel.

"I've seen it," she said. "We could take it."

"How far in? Three days through Hell there's a demon I need to speak to."

"Speak to?" Gupat asked, looking skeptical. Castiel knew Gupat was tired of this war already; he had left important duties behind him, the recording of all mens' secret deeds, and he probably missed his brother Chitar, who recorded mens' visible deeds (tedious work, but Castiel supposed someone had to do it). Sooner or later Castiel would need to manufacture an excuse to send him home.

"Well, either speak to or destroy. Most demons are sensible, they'll negotiate first," Castiel said. This earned a roll of quiet laughter from his listeners. "Haruvatat, take a major detachment and start towards Hell. Ambriel, you decide on a small force to stay and defend the border here, make sure nobody tries to claim what we just took. Ridwan!"

"Yes, Castiel," said Ridwan with a small smile.

"We -- I -- have neglected responsibilities on Earth," Castiel said. "I'd like you to come with me."

"To Earth?" Ridwan asked, looking shocked.

"Unless you're allergic to humans?" Castiel asked. Another quiet murmur of laughter.

"It wasn't an honor I thought of, that's all," Ridwan said.

"Will you come?"

"Well, you know me," Ridwan said. "If Earth is where you're going..."

"Good. We'll rejoin Haruvatat's forces at the border of Hell and help press through. Until then we'll be on Earth. Any questions?" Castiel asked. The angels exchanged glances, but none of them seemed outright mutinous.

"Where are you going on Earth?" Nuriel asked. "Just curious," he added, when the others looked reproachfully at him.

"We have...counterparts there," Castiel said. "Humans working in our interest."

"Hunters?" Gupat queried.

"Yes, among others," Castiel agreed. "I've been made aware that Hell is bleeding through on Earth. I'd like to see what can be done to stop it."

"This is about the Winchester boy, isn't it?" Nuriel asked.

"I just had a saint intervene for him, with me," Castiel said. "He needs me."

"He's only a mortal, Castiel."

"He's important," Castiel insisted. "This isn't a debate. Go and ready yourself to march on Hell."

***

Ridwan took much less time than Castiel had, to find a devout disciple and convince them to let him inhabit their body. Castiel wondered about this, and what it said about his own ancestry, but mostly he was pleased they could proceed with little delay.

Haruvatat would summon him when they reached the border of Hell; in the meantime he had to find Dean Winchester, not only to make him safe but to discover what he knew. Dean had held the rings that had thrown Lucifer -- and his own brother -- into Hell; if the cage was weakening, perhaps Dean would be aware of it, in the keen way the Winchester brothers had sometimes seemed to smell divinity (or sin) in the air.

It would be good to see Dean again.

Unfortunately, Dean had turned off his cellphone.

"There's a little voice that lives in the phone," Castiel said to Ridwan, as they walked along a back-country road. "It warns you when you're running out of time. It says Dean's number has been disconnected."

"Is he dead?" Ridwan asked, concerned.

"I don't think so."

"Can't you simply find him?" Ridwan said. Castiel rubbed the back of his head. "You made them untraceable, didn't you."

"It seemed like a good idea at the time," Castiel told him. "I had to keep our brethren from finding them."

"You didn't think maybe you could add some kind of except Castiel, he's okay clause?" Ridwan pushed.

"I was improvising," Castiel muttered. They walked on in silence for a while.

"Earth's quite pretty," Ridwan remarked. "I was expecting something more industrial."

"You should see Detroit," Castiel said.

"Why, what's in Detroit?" Ridwan asked.

Castiel wondered how to explain Detroit, and for perhaps the first time he understood how Dean must have sometimes felt. He settled for "It's just very urban," and Ridwan seemed satisfied with that.

In the end, of course, they went where they should have started: Bobby's place.

"See, this is what I expected!" Ridwan said, as they passed through the junkyard. "Who is this Bobby, anyway?"

"A friend of the Winchesters. A very..." Castiel groped for a word that would describe Bobby without making either one of them sound insane. "A very unusual man," he settled on finally. "If anyone knows where Dean is, he will."

"He's a hunter, isn't he?"

"Indeed," Castiel said, and knocked on the door. A few seconds later, Bobby opened it. He looked unchanged; same fraying t-shirt, same ragged baseball cap (actually, no, it was a new ragged baseball cap; perhaps he bought them that way).

"You again," Bobby said.

"Bobby, this is Ridwan," Castiel said, because he knew that this was considered good manners on Earth. "Ridwan, this is Bobby Singer. Ridwan's an angel," he added, sotto voce.

"You don't say," Bobby drawled.

"I thought mortals cowered before us," Ridwan said.

"Do you want him to cower?" Castiel asked, turning back to him.

"No, I just thought it was the done thing."

"Not this mortal," Bobby interjected. "Is he new or something?"

"Relatively speaking," Castiel sighed. "May we come in?"

"Nope," Bobby said cheerfully. Castiel hesitated. "First you tell me what you want."

"Easily done," Ridwan said. "We want Dean Winchester."

Bobby raised an eyebrow at Castiel, who sighed.

"We would like to know where Dean is," Castiel said. "Please," he added belatedly. Please was not a word that he'd had much use for lately.

"Why?" Bobby asked.

"Maybe I would prefer cowering," Ridwan said thoughtfully.

"I have business to discuss with him," Castiel said. "If you'd like to call him first, be my guest. The number I have has been disconnected."

Bobby gave them a narrow look. "Dean's been out of the game for more'n half a year."

"I have not," Castiel said, simply, patiently. Bobby sighed.

"You better come in," he said reluctantly, and left the door open as he walked away. Castiel stepped inside; Ridwan followed, looking around interestedly. Bobby went to the fridge. "Beer?"

"Please," Castiel said, because it was polite, and because it was something to do with his hands. One thing about being a noncorporeal being, you never had to find something to do with your hands.

"Ridwan?" Bobby asked.

"I don't drink alcohol, thank you," Ridwan said. Castiel settled himself at Bobby's kitchen table, gesturing for Ridwan to take a seat. Bobby uncapped the two beers and brought them over. Castiel sipped his, ignoring the taste.

"I need to explain somethin' to you boys," Bobby said, sitting back. He took his cap off, rubbed his arm across his forehead, put it back on. "Dean Winchester's out of the game. Now it took a lot of work to get him out of the game, believe you me; I had to threaten to kneecap half a dozen folks who wanted to go fetch him. It ain't been easy since we put Lucifer back in the pit."

"We've had word," Ridwan said.

"So you know we got our hands full down here," Bobby said. Ridwan nodded. "And I won't say we couldn't use him, but the boy gave up half a life and all his remaining blood kin to save the world and he deserves a little happiness. I wouldn't give him up to them, and I won't give him up to you, angels notwithstanding. So I'd like to know why you want him."

Ridwan glanced at Castiel, who sipped his beer again.

"Earlier today," Castiel said, using words a human could understand, "I had a saint intervene with me on Dean's behalf. It hasn't been much easier in Heaven; I left important business to come here. There are demons bleeding through to Earth."

"You're tellin' me," Bobby drawled.

"They're looking for Dean. It's good you haven't told anyone where he is."

Bobby drummed his fingers on the table. Castiel could practically taste his uncertainty.

"Two hunters I know of been tortured to death," Bobby said. "Don't know why. You think someone thought they knew where Dean was?"

Castiel glanced at Ridwan. "It's surprising they haven't come after you, Bobby."

"Well, I don't get out much and I got some powerful wards around here," Bobby sighed. "Great. So now you're after Dean again too."

"There may be a reason," Castiel said.

"Other than he's the sumbitch who put Satan back in the pit?"

"News is," Ridwan said, "the cage is weakening."

"The cage?" Bobby asked, leaning forward.

"Yes," Ridwan said.

"Dean is familiar with Hell," Castiel added. "And it's his brother's soul in the cage with Lucifer. The connection seems obvious."

"If a little vague," Bobby agreed.

"So you see, he needs our protection," Ridwan said. "If we don't find him, sooner or later, they will. Maybe not immediately, but eventually."

"If the cage is weakened enough, Satan will undoubtedly use Sam to lure Dean out," Castiel said.

"And if we're to find out how the cage can be secured..." Ridwan spread his hands.

"I'm sorry, but who is this guy?" Bobby asked Castiel.

Castiel glanced at Ridwan, who seemed to be waiting for his answer. He inhaled -- another advantage to the mortal world, so many bodily functions gave one time to think.

"I have been attempting to bring order to Heaven," he said. "It isn't easy. Ridwan is my spy, my lieutenant. My successor, if need be."

"So you trust him."

"Implicitly," Castiel told him. "If my sword falls, he will take it up. But we must find Dean, Bobby."

Bobby sighed. "Here's the problem: I don't know where the hell he is."

***

Bobby had a stack of postcards shoved carelessly in one of his books, but he knew right where the book was, went to it unerringly.

"Shouldn't he keep them somewhere safe?" Ridwan whispered to Castiel. "Like...a safe?"

"The first place demons would look?" Castiel asked. It occurred to him this was probably very human deviousness.

"This is the best I got," Bobby said, spreading out the postcards on his desk. Each was different; some of them were obviously old, and one or two looked handmade. Bobby began flipping them over. Castiel picked one up and studied the postmark.

"First thing I thought of," Bobby said. "They're from a couple'a different cities in Indiana. Guess he's probably somewhere around there, or driving down from Illinois to mail 'em."

"Dear Bobby, Lisa kicked my ass into getting a job," Castiel read aloud. "I'm working construction (more like destruction right now, ha ha ha) and making good wage. Hope you are well. Dean."

He glanced at Bobby, who shrugged.

"She and Ben are the stars of the show," he said, offering Castiel another one. "Sometimes Ben makes the postcards."

Castiel studied it, sniffed it, licked it --

"Hey, man, come on," Bobby reproached.

***

And a bit from later on:

"Ridwan," Bobby said, seating himself on the couch. "Islamic, right?"

"Yes," Castiel replied. He let his fingers drift over the photograph on the bookshelf, the one of all of them -- Bobby, Jo and Ellen, Dean and Sam -- and himself.

"You're recruitin' from the Nation of Islam now?"

"Don't pretend ignorance," Castiel told him. "That's incorrect, and you know it."

"I ain't sure what I know," Bobby said. "So what, you got Allah on your side?"

"Ridwan is my brother," Castiel said. "Allah is the god of Isaac and Abraham; his Father is my Father. Humanity provides the doctrinal differences."

"Your brothers..." Bobby shook his head.

"I trust him. He's valuable to me. He's a good soldier," Castiel said, and realized his mistake when Bobby pounced.

"When you say you're bringing order to Heaven, what exactly does that mean?" he asked. "You're talking soldiers and swords an awful lot."

"Heaven was in chaos. There was no guiding hand. Our Father refuses to rule. Someone had to stop the fighting. Conquest was the inevitable result," Castiel said.

"So you're conquering Heaven? how's that working out for you?"

Castiel gave him a smile. "I've taken a quarter. I control fully half, by some means or other, through force of arms and persuasion."

"You control half of Heaven," Bobby said.

"Would you prefer someone else?" Castiel asked, honestly interested.

"Castiel, are you makin' a bid for God?"

"What -- no!" Castiel said. "You can't just declare yourself God, Bobby, that's not how it works. I just wanted to stop the fighting."




I honestly don't remember where this was going. It's possible I never knew. But it was fun to write Harvey Specter in the middle of an existential crisis.

Eight Of Diamonds

There's this morning, and it's not any particular morning, nothing special happens. Except that Harvey wakes up and calls in sick.

Well, maybe a few things happen. Or rather, had happened.

There was this get-together the night before, not really a party, but a bunch of the senior partners and Jessica and a few junior partners, out at a bar, celebrating a big win for Louis. Harvey doesn't like the man but a win for Louis is a win for Pearson Hardman, and he can be courteous for one evening, which mainly meant avoiding Louis at all costs.

And at one point he was outside, avoiding Louis, keeping Rick Dowler company -- a fellow Senior Partner, though really a senior Senior Partner -- while Rick smoked a cigar, and the man put his arm around Harvey's shoulders and asked, with tobacco scented breath, "So what's next for you, Specter?"

Harvey gave him a look of polite query, because in the short term he was thinking maybe the bartender.

"You got your sights set on Managing Partner?" Rick asked. "Or are you thinking of building a stable portfolio now that you're up here with us?"

A stable portfolio is the goal of most lawyers at their level, Harvey knows that; low-maintenance clients who bring in the billable hours and never do anything very interesting.

A long time ago he set his sights on Senior Partner, and thought from there the sky was the limit.

"Christ, I wish I had your opportunities," Rick added. But Harvey didn't see many opportunities; he liked his unstable, wild-ride, unpredictable portfolio, and Managing Partner had seemed a lot more glamorous before he saw Jessica doing a lot of Managing. Suddenly the future shut down sharply, and Harvey stared for a moment into a frightening abyss.

"You're young, at the top of your game, you have decades ahead of you. So what's it gonna be?"

Harvey gave him a smile. "You never know, Rick," he replied, and Rick let him go, slapped him on the back like it was the funniest joke he'd heard in weeks.

He didn't pick up the bartender. He didn't even stay to close the place down with Jessica, like he usually did. He stayed long enough that he wasn't the first to leave, then pled an early morning the next day and disappeared. Jessica probably thought he'd found a hot cocktail waitress.

But this morning, the morning Harvey wakes up and calls in sick, everything seems better. It's just turning light outside, there are no awkward morning-after conversations because he didn't bring anyone home, and --

There's someone knocking on his door.

The list of people who could be knocking on his door at five in the morning on a Friday is short. Jessica would summon him, Donna would text him, his brother would call. Pretty much the only people he can expect on the other side of the door are the police, if there's been some kind of terrible accident, or Mike, who is a sort of walking terrible accident.

"Hey!" Mike says, when Harvey opens the door. "Wow, do you just roll out of bed looking awesome?"

Harvey, still in his pajamas and probably with bed-head, squints sleepily at him, but he makes the dangerous mistake of not blocking the entryway with his body. Mike breezes past him, chattering a mile a minute. He probably never went to sleep last night.

"So I found this gap in the contract and I think if we don't fix it before they sign today at noon there's going to be some kind of litigation issue, and I thought I'd bring it here and we can get it hammered out and call opposing counsel and make sure they're on board and can sell it to their guy -- "

Mike continues, but Harvey isn't listening. He's looking at Mike the way Rick must have looked at him, with envy for his freedom. Mike is a third-year associate now, and he's brilliant; most of his rough edges have been polished down, and Harvey can take care of the remaining ones with relative ease. From here, Mike could take a million different roads in his life.

Harvey feels suddenly hemmed in.

He has only three options, really. He can retire, except guys like him don't retire just because they're rich, and he'd miss the thrill, the game. He can aim for Managing Partner, not as much of a certainty as Senior Partner was, and hope that a better game awaits him there. Or he can go out on his own, and build a firm from scratch, which is exhausting just to think about and would, obscurely, be a betrayal of Jessica's faith in him.

He feels the narrowness of these choices, and he feels old, and he wonders if this is his mid-life crisis coming early, or if his quarter-life crisis is hitting him really late.

"Harvey?" Mike asks, turning to him. "Dude, are you listening like, at all?"

"Don't call me dude," Harvey says on autopilot, already picking up his cellphone.

"What are you doing? Because I want to go over the stuff I wrote up before -- "

"Donna, it's Harvey," he says, when Donna's work voicemail beeps. "Clear my calendar for the day. I'm briefing Mike on how to handle anything that can't wait. I'll be checking email."

"Seriously, what are you doing?" Mike asks, voice rising in a combination of worry and fear.

"Calling in sick," Harvey replies, tossing the phone down. He turns to Mike. "I want you to handle the signing today. Shoot the new clause over to opposing counsel, negotiate something that works, get the paperwork signed."

Mike takes a hesitant step forward. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine. Why are you still here? You have paperwork to do."

"Harvey, are you sure you want me to -- "

"If you think you're fucking it up, have Donna look it over. Otherwise there's nothing there you can't handle. Close them. You're ready. So go." Harvey gestures at the door.

Mike looks worried, but Harvey can see that he can't help the smile that breaks over his face, too. "Thanks! Thank you, I won't fuck it up. Awesome. Okay."

"And shave!" Harvey calls after him, as Mike runs for the door. Just because he's having a moment is no reason not to make sure Mike looks decent when he meets the clients at noon.

Then he goes to find a deck of playing cards.

His father was a compulsive gambler, but he was also a card counter, a hustler, and a con-man. He liked to win, and Harvey inherited that trait from him, whether genetic or conditioned, who can tell. And who cares?

Dad also taught him a thing or two about mind tricks, those to play on others and those to play on yourself. Harvey hasn't done this in years, but he doesn't know what else to do.

Back when he first found out what Cameron Dennis was doing, back when Donna gave him proof, he saw only two roads for himself: collude with Cameron's suppression of evidence, or take his story to the ethics board and testify against his mentor. He'd dug out the King and Queen of Clubs, named collusion queen and testifying king, and then turned over a third card off the top of the deck.

Always turn over one more card, his dad had told him. And that last card is the option you didn't think you had.

Queen of diamonds, that time. It had seemed like a clear enough sign; Jessica. So he'd asked Donna how she'd like to work in the private sector, and they'd run away. Running had never felt so good.

He flips out spades this time: King, Queen, Jack. Managing Partner, Retirement, or Independence. Then he cuts the deck, and turns up another card.

Eight of diamonds.

The point isn't the card, Harvey knows that; the point is what he free-associates with it, what he really wants and will attach to this card because subconsciously he always has all the answers.

Eight of diamonds. The hell is the eight of diamonds?

He sits back on the couch, rubbing his face, then leans forward again and picks up the Queen of Spades, flipping it face-down. Retirement is not an option. What would he do?

Slowly, carefully, he flips the Jack of Diamonds over as well. There's no doubt he could build his own firm, no doubt he could build a prestigious and elite firm, especially if Mike came along -- and he would, Mike would follow him anywhere, even now when Mike stands so much of the time on his own two feet. But just the idea of starting over, of investing in a new firm and building it and leaving Jessica...well, he doesn't want to.

And now he has narrowed his path even further. The seen and the unseen; Managing Partner or the eight of diamonds.

His phone beeps.

Contract signed. Clause is in your inbox.
Signed a new client. Details also in your inbox.
Dude.
Chicken soup y/n?


Harvey glances from his phone to the two cards still face-up on the table. Managing Partner. Eight of Diamonds.

Huh.

He sits and studies the phone for a while, after that, scrolling up through past text conversations with Mike. Finally the scroll is forced down again by a second text from Mike.

Seriously, give me a sign you're still conscious.




More Suits fic. I have a weird thing for Harvey/Donna.

Not That Girl

Donna is not That Girl.

She is not the woman who sleeps with her boss because she's attracted to power. She's certainly not the woman who sleeps with her boss because she wants perks.

After all, the only place to go from her current position is to office administrative manager, which is a terrible job, and she likes being the executive assistant to a senior partner. When Harvey's star rises, so does hers. Harvey's a good boss; he lets her arrange things to her satisfaction, aware that she has a work ethic and takes pride in it. It's not like she wants to sleep with someone in order to work less. She likes the work.

She's not the woman who sleeps with her boss for ulterior motives.

Donna sleeps with Harvey because he's adorable.

She doesn't know why Harvey has chosen to cut himself off from most regular human intimacy. Presumably he has a reason, but some things should be private. She prides herself on being one of the few exceptions. So when she lets Harvey know that she is, as it were, available for the evening (Harvey never asks; he waits like a good boy for her to tell him) the light of vague awe in his eyes and the small curl of his lips never fails to be...a little exciting.

"Fuck!" Harvey bucks underneath her, head tipped back, straining -- straining too hard, he's been tense since she came over. Usually Harvey's slick and relaxed, anticipating strings-free fun with someone who won't be clingy in the morning, but lately he's always tense. "Fuck, Donna -- "

So she leans forward, hips still moving in little circular thrusts, and bites him hard on the collarbone. Which, as usual, does the trick. He comes twisting and silent underneath her.

Even with all those nice chemicals flooding through him right now, Harvey's stressed out, trying to catch his breath, hands tangled in his hair; she's already come twice, so instead of insisting he pay attention to her she drops down into his amazing bed with its fantastic pillows and enjoys her own afterglow. After a while, because Harvey likes to cultivate the illusion that he is of another era, he rolls over and kisses her, breathes thank you into her throat. She catches him by the hair, a little harder than he probably likes, and holds him there. After a few minutes he relaxes into his new position, and she can feel his eyelashes brush her skin.

"So we can talk about it," she says, releasing his hair, "but I'll charge you my therapy rate."

"I'm the only lawyer not in analysis in New York," Harvey answers. "I'd hate to break my streak now." He pushes himself up on an elbow. "Food?"

She nods and stretches. Harvey pulls a robe around himself as he rolls off the bed; he's back in a couple of minutes with a plate of food, by which time she's pulled on her underwear and Harvey's t-shirt. He settles into the nest of blankets, crosslegged, facing her, and offers her the plate -- cheese, fruit, crackers. She takes a melon ball and pops it in her mouth.

"The doctor is in," she tells him, and Harvey drops his eyes. When he was just a baby lawyer, he used to frown or twist his lips up or make faces; now, when he's feeling any emotion that could signify weakness, he keeps his expression carefully bland. But the eyes are always going to give him away to Jessica, and to her.

"This is why I didn't want an associate," he says finally. Donna, mid-cheese-nibble, frowns.

"What's wrong with Mike?" she asks.

"Everything," Harvey replies, which is kind of true. Donna thinks Mike is nice, but he's a massive fuck-up most of the time. Still, that's the point of being an associate. They're all massive fuck-ups. Mike is at least respectful of her, and he seems to want to please Harvey out of genuine admiration and not because eventually Harvey will be one of the people deciding the fate of Mike Ross's career.

But then Harvey adds, "And I can't fix him," and all becomes clear.

Donna offers him a cracker with stilton on it. Harvey leans forward, takes it out of her fingers with his tongue. She waits for him to finish it and swallow, head cocked in that keep talking, even though I think you're a dumbass way which shouldn't work as well on lawyers as it does.

"I'm not a mentor," Harvey says. "I'm not into the whole molding-young-minds gig."

"You're not Jessica," Donna surmises. Harvey glances up at her.

"Well?" he says.

"No, you're really not," she confirms.

"So, I'm screwing the kid up. I tried leaving him alone and I tried dragging him around with me and making him shut up and listen, except he never shuts up," Harvey waves a hand expressively, "so I tried letting him talk, but he's kind of an idiot, have you noticed? There's twenty minutes of total idiocy and then he'll say something that's incredibly brilliant and then go back to the idiocy."

"Interesting idiocy, though," Donna points out.

"What, you're differentiating?"

"Baby, when you spend as much time dealing with idiots as I do, you learn a whole new classification system," she says, and Harvey catches on too fast.

"What classification do I fall under?"

"Sexy idiot who controls my paycheck," she replies, unruffled. "It's a very specific subset. You're like a platypus."

Harvey eats a grape, contemplatively.

"It's hard to know," he says, speaking remarkably clearly given he's taking with his mouth full. "You don't know if all the bullshit you go through when you're starting out is a rite of passage, or just corporatised sadism, or if the guy dicking around with your life actually knows what he's doing. Clearly I don't."

"You wanted a challenge," she reminds him.

"I didn't want a challenge, I just didn't want some cookie-cutter douche from Harvard."

"Can't have it both ways."

"Gee, thanks, Donna," he drawls.

"Do I look like the maternal type to you?" she asks. "If you wanted a cuddle, you should have gone somewhere else."

"Point taken."

Donna knows everything. That's not an exaggeration, really; she knows how the office runs, who to call in an emergency, where the best places to eat are, how to give driving directions to the office even though she doesn't drive, what the associates are up to, how often the paralegals need pencils ordered, and the insecurities and secrets of every junior partner in the firm (and most of the senior partners). But she isn't paid to wipe Harvey's nose for him.

There are plenty of reasons to sleep with Harvey Specter but the only reason she lets him get naked and horizontal with her on a semi-monthly basis is that Harvey is the one person she can trust not to let it change their working relationship. Because Harvey compartmentalizes extremely well, and because he wants so desperately not to ever connect in a meaningful way with another person.

"You're a sociopath," she tells him. "That's your problem."

Harvey ponders this in the semi-serious spirit it was given.

"If I were, I wouldn't care that I'm screwing him up."

"Technically, given that you're a perfectionist, you'd care about screwing this up. Given that you said screwing him up, I guess the question is: do you care?"

Harvey covers his face with his hand.




THE REQUISITE WHITE COLLAR/SUITS CROSSOVER OF JOY.

Follow The Money
Now in Russian!

"I never liked Vincent Adler," Harvey said that morning, when Mike walked into his office. He had a newspaper, which wasn't like Harvey; if he wanted the news he called up a feed off the internet, or asked Donna to do a research folder.

The headline was glaring, stark white-on-black: FBI COLLARS CROOKED MONEY MAN. The infamous face of Vincent Adler, the biggest Ponzi conman since Ponzi himself, squinted up from an inset photograph.

"You knew him?" Mike asked, dropping his bag inside the door and settling into one of the chairs.

"He was our client," Harvey said. "He had a whole Pearson Hardman team. Never knew why he didn't just hire in-house lawyers, until he disappeared. Then it made sense. He didn't want anyone seeing most of what he was doing. I was point man for his firm."

"Seriously?"

"He picked me because I was young and stupid. I'm not proud of it," Harvey replied.

"Is there going to be fallout for the firm from his death?" Mike asked, as Harvey tossed the paper down.

"Yep," Harvey said briefly. "It's outside right now."

Mike looked up. Two men were approaching Donna's desk; an older man, short brown hair and conservative suit, something that to Mike's wary eye screamed cop, and a younger one in a more expensive-looking, better-fitted suit, carrying a hat.

"Who are they?" he asked.

"Trouble with a badge," Harvey replied, and as the men stopped outside Harvey's office, Mike could see the slight bulge of a shoulder-holster under the older man's jacket. The man looked up, gave Harvey a tired smile, and nodded to Donna, opening the office door.

"Peter," Harvey said, standing. "It's been a while."

"Harvey," Peter, the older man, offered his hand and Harvey shook it warmly. "You're moving up in the world."

"I'm not the only one. I heard you're heading the taskforce now," Harvey said.

"Herding cats," Peter replied. Mike watched as the two exchanged some kind of here we go again look, and then Harvey gestured to Mike.

"This is Mike Ross, my associate," he said, and Mike stood hurriedly. "Mike, Special Agent Peter Burke, head of the FBI's White Collar taskforce."

The younger man coughed politely. Mike saw Peter roll his eyes.

"And this is -- " he began, but Harvey interrupted.

"Nicholas Halden," he said. "Vincent Adler's protege. Or are you actually going by Neal Caffrey now?"

"Should have known you'd make me," Neal said ruefully.

"Your face was all over the front page when you did that four-story jump from a judge's chambers," Harvey said. "I did some simple adding."

"Of course you've met," Peter sighed.

"I'm living the honest life now," Caffrey informed Harvey, solemnly.

"Mostly," Peter added.

"Keeps me young. Hi," Neal said to Mike, offering his hand. He had a charming smile, an easier manner than Peter, and Mike liked him immediately.

"Neal's working with the FBI," Peter said, settling into a chair across from Harvey's desk. "Primarily, at the moment, on the Adler case. I thought it would be useful to get both of you in a room together. Not wise, but useful," he added, when Neal opened his mouth to say something.

"When Adler ran, we turned over our files to the FBI voluntarily," Harvey pointed out. "I supervised the transfer personally."

"Adler was your client."

"And I swore under oath that I wasn't aware of his illegal activities," Harvey said. "Handily, now there's someone who can corroborate that."

"Well, I never witnessed anything illegal," Neal said. "Doesn't mean it didn't happen."

"Trust me. If he didn't tell you, he didn't tell me," Harvey said. "You two were joined at the hip."

"Not so much in the end," Neal murmured.

"So why are we here?" Harvey asked, settling his hands over his stomach, thumbs spread questioningly. "Deposition? Interrogation? Adler's dead, right? That story's not an FBI plant?"

"Adler's dead," Peter said smoothly. "But the money's still missing. We think a significant portion of it may be in South America."

"So? Put the Bureau's lawyers on it."

"It's outside of our jurisdiction," Peter said. "The Argentinian government has already sent us an unsolicited declaration that they won't cooperate with FBI investigations into Adler's banking practices."

"And you think Pearson Hardman can rattle the right cages," Harvey surmised. "With a few nudges in the proper direction from Neal?"

"Look, the Bureau can make a lot of trouble for any lawyer, and my boss would love to go after Pearson Hardman," Peter said, sounding relaxed, like he was talking baseball or something. "I don't want that, and you don't either. You were helpful then and I appreciate the solid you did us. But we need to find the money or this case just flaps in the breeze, Harvey. Adler's dead, he can't tell us."

"I don't suppose I'd be allowed to bill the federal government."

"No, but you could put it towards your pro bono quota," Peter said with a grin. "Come on, Harvard boy. I know you want to nail this down just as much as I do. He screwed you out of, what, a couple million in billables?"

"He hurt our reputation. You can't put a price on reputation."

"So? Go over the numbers with me. Just like old times."

"You, and Neal."

"Neal becomes relevant in a little while," Peter said.

"I think that's my cue to let the big kids play," Neal said, standing up.

"Mike, show Neal where to get a decent cup of coffee," Harvey said. "Take your time."




This is my insane White Collar/Chuck crossover fusion with The Pretender. That's right, you heard me.

The Twins

There are Pretenders among us. Geniuses with the ability to become anyone they want to be.

In 1983, a corporation known as the Centre isolated a pair of young Pretenders and exploited their genius for Centre research.

Then one day, their Pretenders ran away...

***

Leon and John were separated by the Centre when they were three. They were given separate handlers and, while the Centre occasionally experimented to see how close their connection was, they didn't actually meet again until they were ten. A pair of bright young blue-eyed boys, they stared at each other for a couple of minutes without speaking, while their Centre handlers stood nearby and watched.

"Ne daha dginya?" Leon asked, finally. Other their heads, their handlers exchanged a curious look.

"Ke, de dginya," John answered. A grin broke over Leon's face and he surged forward, tackling John into a fierce hug. John laughed and pounded on his back.

"Ke, ke ke," he said.

"Twin language," one of the handlers murmured to the other. "Amazing they've retained it."

John pulled back first, ruffling Leon's bristling crew-cut hair. John's was much longer, almost to his shoulders, but the familial resemblance was obvious even so.

"What did you say, Leon?" his handler asked.

"None of your business," John answered for him. Leon looked at his brother, stunned. "So do we have a job to do or what?"

The simulation that Leon's handler wanted to run required too much for one boy alone, and he'd suggested that perhaps it was time to reunite the boys. John's handler disagreed; she knew John was a handful and wasn't likely to be a good influence on his brother. Still, the Centre's decree was final, and now here they were.

Watching the boys together was like magic. They anticipated each other, finished each other's sentences, and spent hours talking in their strange, obscure language that the adult cryptographers who eventually listened to the tapes couldn't even begin to decode. Leon turned out to be a stabilizing influence on John; he even got him to cut his hair, something his handler had been trying to do for ages. The boys worked together frequently after that, and their abilities seemed to increase exponentially.

Two years later, at five in the morning, John and Leon vanished from their cells.

***

They made it to Manhattan before the boys realized they were too conspicuous together. One kid on the streets was just another kid; two identical kids on the streets were remarkable, highly visible.

"Look," John said, opening the wallet Leon had just stolen from a businessman eating lunch. "Two hundred bucks. How far you think you can get?"

"Me?" Leon asked. "I'm not going anywhere. You should make a run for it, I'll stay here and draw them off if they get close."

"That's the dumbest plan ever," John insisted. "You should go, I'll stay."

"We flip for it," Leon said, taking a quarter out of his pocket. "Heads you go, Tails I go."

"Fine," John answered, discontented. Leon flipped the coin, catching it and flicking it down onto the back of his hand. Heads.

Leon never told John he'd pulled a quick sleight-of-hand trick to make sure John went.

***

Eventually, both boys left Manhattan. John went first, and ended up in rural Connecticut; Leon left Manhattan two years later, but never really ended up anywhere, at least not for a while. By the time John's wealthy and influential benefactors, who found him breaking into their mansion, pushed the adoption papers through, his name was no longer John. He was legally (well, semi-legally) Bryce Larkin.

Leon changed his name the second time he passed through Texas, when he'd finally shaken the Centre off his tail for good. He figured Neal was pretty good, as names went, and picked the last name, Caffrey, off a sign for Caffrey's Bar outside Fort Worth.

It wasn't that either of them didn't go looking for the other. They did. But they were Pretenders, and good at covering their tracks from the Centre -- which meant covering them from each other. After Bryce finished at Stanford he was classified by the CIA, which kept him pretty safe. While he was training as a CIA assassin, Neal was being chased by the FBI.

Well, it beat being chased by the Centre. Even Supermax was better than going back to That Place.

Neal Caffrey broke out of Supermax the same month Bryce Larkin "died" for the second time. With Fulcrum in ruins and a second bullet scar in his chest, Bryce decided it was time to go underground. He built an identity, got himself a nice quiet job, and didn't cause any problems for nearly two years.

Until he moved to Manhattan.

He set himself up in an abandoned squat on the third floor of a condemned building, billed himself as a photographer, and spent a lot of time a) hacking banks for money to live on and b) walking around New York, retracing the steps he and his brother had made when they'd first arrived. All of which were out of Neal's radius, but he couldn't know that.

The thing about New York was, people were always meeting other people they knew there.

***

"Okay," Peter said, strapping on a flak vest. "Everyone clear? The press is on the second floor. We go in fast, we sweep the place, pick up anyone we find, and shut down the counterfeiters. Neal?"

"Stay in the van until the all-clear," Neal said. "Yeah, I know."

"Fine. Let's go," Peter said. SWAT and FBI agents swarmed around him as they headed for the fire escapes, the front and back entrances, and the window exits into the alley.

When they burst into the second floor of the abandoned building, they collared three guys without incident, and Peter breathed a sigh of relief as he shut down the press. He was about to radio in the all-clear when he saw a shadow in the stairwell and took off running on instinct. Whoever he was, he was fast, but Peter was fast too, and armed, and even when the guy backflipped over the railing (what the hell?) and practically bounced through a window, Peter simply reached out an arm and caught him by the back of his shirt. One sharp tug and the guy was on the floor, Peter's knees on his chest --

"Neal?" Peter asked, confused, looking past the sight of his gun at the dark-haired man beneath him.

"What?" Neal's voice asked in his earbud. Peter shook his head and blocked a swing when the guy beneath him tried to get free. "Peter, are you okay?" Neal repeated in his ear.

"You got the wrong guy, man, I was just coming down to see what was going on," the man under him said, in Neal's voice.

"Who is that?" Neal asked in his ear. Peter thought he might be going crazy, but he pulled his cuffs and secured the squirming man beneath him, who was still protesting (in Neal's voice, Jesus) that he hadn't done anything.

"Peter, Peter," Neal said in his earbud. "Peter -- "

"Not now," Peter growled. "Neal, I got a guy in cuffs here who looks creepily -- "

"Yes, now," Neal insisted. "Listen, repeat after me. Ne daha dginya?"

"What?" Peter asked.

"Who are you talking to?" the man in cuffs demanded.

"Just repeat it. Ne daha dginya? It's a password," Neal said.

Peter, disbelieving, looked down at the man. "Ne daha dginya?" he said.

The man beneath him went still and wide-eyed.

"What's he doing?" Neal demanded breathlessly.

"Staring at me," Peter replied.

"Ke," the man said slowly. "Ke de dginya."

"Did you get that?" Peter asked, but there was no reply; after a second Jones came on the mic.

"Neal just tore off the headset and ran out," he said. "You want me to go after him?"

"I think I know where he's going," Peter answered. He slid off the man beneath him and hauled him upright. "You want to tell me what's going on?" he asked him, and the man shook his head.

"I don't know," he said.

"What does ke de dginya mean?" Peter asked, hauling him into the counterfeiter's lair on the second floor.

"Something I haven't heard in a long time," the man murmured.

"Is your name Caffrey?" Peter demanded, still pulling him along. He could hear running in the stairwell opposite them.

"No -- why?" the man asked. Peter stopped short as Neal appeared in the doorway. He glanced back and forth between them -- identical, down to the short shock of black hair that on Neal was looking a little tidier at the moment.

"John?" Neal asked, coming forward slowly.

"Leon?" the man said.

"Leon?" Peter demanded. Neal reached out and touched John's chest, sliding his hand up his throat, over his jaw.

"Ke?" John said.

"Elo, ena," Neal answered, and then wrapped his arms around John, who staggered backwards. "John."

"Hey, brother," John said. He couldn't hug him back, but he pressed his face into Neal's shoulder. Peter felt almost awkward, witnessing it. Neal finally released him, looked him in the eye carefully, and then turned to Peter.

"Peter, this is my brother John," he said. "John, this is Peter Burke."

***

A condemned building (and a crime scene) wasn't really the place for long explanations, and Neal and John both seemed nervous about saying anything. Peter gave John a narrow look, but he unlocked his cuffs when Neal asked.

"Look, this is going to cause a lot of questions if you perp walk him out," Neal said in a low undertone, leaning into Peter's space. "Let me take him out the back, we'll meet you at June's place."

"He's potentially a criminal and the obviously twin brother you never told me you had," Peter hissed.

"Well, I'm definitely a criminal and he's not going anywhere without me," Neal hissed back. "Trust me, Peter, this is not a story you want circulating in the Bureau."

"I swear to God if you're not at June's place in an hour, I will personally track you both down and throttle you," Peter said.

"Thank you," Neal told him, and hustled John back the way they'd come.

***

When Peter arrived at June's place, he didn't really think they'd be there. He thought either he'd had some kind of bizarre hallucination or, if it were real, they'd have cut and run.

Instead, he found Neal Caffrey and his carbon copy sitting at Neal's table, drinking coffee.

"Told you we'd be here," Neal said, pouring him a cup. Peter sat down at the head of the table, between them, and looked from one to the other.

"Okay, you, be quiet," he said to John, who held up both hands placatingly and looked to Neal. Peter did too. "You, explain to me what's going on here. Starting with why he called you Leon."

Neal swallowed a sip of coffee.

"Truth is," he said, glancing at John, "we don't know what our names are."

"Oh, this is going to be good," Peter said.

"We're still comparing notes. When we split up, I was Leon and he was John," Neal continued.

"My legal name is Bryce," John said. Peter felt a headache coming on. "Bryce Larkin."

"I forged papers for Neal Caffrey when I was thirteen," Neal said.

"Thirteen?" Peter asked. The two men exchanged looks. "Jesus, don't do that, it's creepy."

"What you need to understand," Neal said, "is that when we tell you the truth you're possibly going to think we're both crazy."

"I already think you're crazy," Peter pointed out.

"There's a research facility called the Centre," Neal said. "They have a habit of...recruiting children with special abilities. We were -- how old?" he asked Bryce, who shook his head.

"Three, maybe four," he said. "They took us from our family, separated us -- maybe renamed us. Trained us to run simulations."

"Simulations," Peter repeated.

"We're called Pretenders," Neal said. "People who can absorb and retain a lot of knowledge quickly."

"We can literally become whatever we want to become," Bryce added.

"Gee, I'm shocked," Peter drawled. Both of them looked surprised. "Listen, I don't know you," he said to Bryce, "but I spent three years studying Neal. It's not exactly startling that you're...unusual."

"He's taking this really well," Bryce said to Neal.

"Told you," Neal answered.

"So this Centre was what, a school?" Peter asked. Neal shook his head.

"No. More like a prison. We lived there, ate what they fed us, did what they told us. They trained us for their own use. When we were ten, we were reintroduced. We figured out they were using us, and..." he grinned. "You know how much I like being conned, Peter. So we broke out, when we were twelve."

"We got as far as Manhattan before we split up," Bryce said. "I ran north. The Larkins adopted me."

"You know what happened to me," Neal said quietly, to Peter.

"I don't," Bryce said.

The two men looked every inch the identical twins they had to be, but Peter was already noticing differences -- Neal smiled easier, and Bryce's face was oddly closed-off, even more so than Neal's could be.

"How about I tell this?" Peter said, and Neal opened his mouth to protest before Peter cut him off. "Neal Caffrey landed on the FBI's radar in 2001, as the perpetrator or hired help for a museum heist in California. For three years he continued to commit crimes, mostly unprovable, involving fraud, theft, forgery, and possibly racketeering. Almost six years ago he was arrested and imprisoned. Two years ago he was put in my custody on a work-release consultancy program."

"The anklet," Bryce said.

"Nother two years and I'm a free man," Neal grinned.

"You're a free ex-felon on parole," Peter reminded him. Neal rolled his eyes. "So...Bryce," he said, turning to the other man. "Your turn."

Bryce looked uncomfortable. "I went to Stanford," he offered.

"Seriously?" Neal asked. "My little brother went to Stanford?"

"We never confirmed you're the older one," Bryce said -- clearly an old grievance.

"We flipped a coin for who would be older brother," Neal told Peter. "I won."

"Suspiciously, you always won," Bryce retorted.

"Naa, nagata," Neal drawled. Bryce laughed. Peter raised an eyebrow and Neal flushed slightly. "We made up a language," he said.

"That's what all that Ke stuff was about?" Peter asked. Both men nodded. "So, after Stanford?" he prompted, turning back to Bryce.

"CIA," Bryce said shortly.

"And?" Peter said.

"And now I'm not." Bryce glanced away. "I mostly...freelance."

"Again, I'm shocked," Peter said. Neal cracked a smile.

"Here's the problem," Neal said, spreading one hand on the surface of the table. "We ran away from the Centre. They chased me for at least a year before I could shake them. I think if they could get us back today, they still would. I was lucky they never got wind of me in the prison system. If they find out the two of us are here -- "

" -- we're toast," Bryce finished. "Neal says you're a Fed but the FBI can't protect us."

"So what do we do?" Neal asked.

Peter rubbed his forehead. "For a start, we open a file on the -- "

"Oh, hell no," Bryce said. "You don't want to wade into those waters. The Centre is powerful."

"Nobody's that powerful," Peter assured him.

"The Centre is," Neal said, and Peter saw real fear in his eyes, mirrored in Bryce's. He rubbed his forehead again.

"For tonight, you're safe here," he said. "We'll worry about this after we've all had some sleep."

"June's got a guestroom you can have," Neal said.

"June's got about fifteen guestrooms, from the look of it," Bryce replied with a grin. He held out his hand. "Nice to meet you, Agent Burke."

"Go anywhere outside this house and I'll hunt you down," Peter replied with a smile.




HAVE SOME CHUCK AU FANFIC. Where Chuck was recruited by the CIA at the same time Bryce was, or rather shortly thereafter.

Recruit

"You infiltrated a secret CIA training camp. Chuck, I don't believe you."

"I'm sorry, Bryce! I didn't mean to do it!"

"How?"

"I've...got a face people trust?"

Wait, rewind.

Hi, I'm Chuck. At least, I was Chuck. Once.

Here are some things you really shouldn't know about me. They're classified.

***

The sun was setting over Stanford by the time Chuck and Bryce reached the roof and collapsed, laughing.

"Told you we could do the run in under thirty," Bryce gasped, propping himself on his elbows and reaching for his backpack.

"I'm gonna die," Chuck panted. "I'm gonna die. Do you know CPR? I'm gonna have a cardiac infarction."

Bryce reached over, pressed a cold beer from the backpack into Chuck's palm, and then rested a hand on his wrist. "Your pulse is fine."

"You don't know CPR," Chuck groaned. Behind them, there was a soft click as the security alarms on the door re-engaged.

"Time to spare," Bryce said. He sat up and opened his beer. Chuck struggled up and pressed his own beer to his forehead, tongue lolling out. Then he reached over and socked Bryce in the arm. "Ow!"

"You are a crazy person!" Chuck told him. "Why did I agree to do this again?"

Bryce pulled Chuck's backpack over and unzipped it, pulling out a model rocket. "Because from here, we are going to be the first men to launch a Klingon dictionary into low Earth orbit."

"HoS puv, voqmoH paq*," Chuck sighed, as Bryce rolled up his copy of the Klingon Dictionary. He'd had it since high school at least, and didn't really need it -- and anyway Bryce had a copy -- but letting go was hard to do. Bryce stuffed it into the rocket's cargo pod and beamed at him.

* Fly strong, faithful book

"qeng veH ghaH Quch*," Bryce responded. "Now are you gonna help me set up the launchpad or what?"

* Suffering is freedom

Chuck groaned, rolled over, pushed himself to his feet, and staggered to the center of the roof. They needed to be as high up as possible in order to get the rocket into low orbit, and the winds had to be right plus all the meteorological conditions. It had to be within the next half an hour, or not at all.

"Here," he said, and scuffed the dusty concrete of the roof. Bryce brought the launchpad over and began assembling it. Chuck went back for the rocket (and the beer) and began loading up the multi-stage engine with home brewed fuel packs.

They worked in companionable silence, Bryce occasionally swearing as he adjusted the guidance rod. By the time they were done they had ten minutes remaining on their window. Chuck very, very carefully fixed the rocket to the guidance rod and clipped the ignitions on. They backed away slowly.

"Are you positive you did the math right?" Bryce asked, while Chuck activated the remote wireless ignition box and eased the safeties off.

"It's a little late now if I didn't," Chuck replied. "Ready?"

"taghta'*," Bryce growled.

* Begin!

"We are the biggest nerds at Stanford, you know that, right?" Chuck said. "And by extrapolation the biggest nerds on the entire west coast."

"Hey, I've met guys from MIT, we're the biggest nerds in the country," Bryce said with a grin. "Possibly the planet. I can't be sure, I've never been to Japan. Come on, man, you gonna push the button or what?"

"If this blows, we are going to get so expelled. Like, more expelled than anyone who has ever been expelled."

"So make sure it doesn't blow," Bryce said, crowding up against Chuck's shoulder. Chuck glanced at him.

"Together?" Chuck asked.

Bryce put his thumb over Chuck's.

"Three...two..." Chuck was just opening his mouth to say "One" when Bryce pushed down.

There was a soft beep as the ignition box registered the command, and then a split second later a god-awful roar as the first-stage engine on the rocket activated. The rocket disappeared so fast Chuck thought for a minute it had blown up, until Bryce tugged his head back to point out the contrail it had left behind.

"Holy mother of Aldrin," Chuck breathed. Then he stiffened and turned to Bryce. "One, that was a totally asshole move you just pulled. Two, is the telemetry working?"

Bryce grinned and ran for the laptop sitting on his backpack, pulling up the tracker they'd set on the rocket.

"Stage two engines just went," he confirmed, looking up at Chuck with impossibly bright eyes. "We're up, Chuck."

"Up Chuck? You've been waiting how long for that pun?" Chuck demanded, but he slid down next to Bryce and watched as their rocket hit two hundred kilometers. Official low orbit and going strong. Five hundred, a thousand kilometers, fifteen hundred kilometers and the third stage fired --

"Holy shit, we're going to hit intermediate," he breathed.

"Dude, I'm not sure the Klingon Dictionary is rated for that kind of use," Bryce said.

"You shut your mouth, Klingons never say die," Chuck retorted. He sat back and took another sip from his beer.

The rocket peaked -- or at least, the telemetry died -- at twenty-nine thousand kilometers, well into intermediate circular orbit. Somewhere, up there, if it survived, the Klingon Dictionary was orbiting Earth. It was a nice thought.

And then there were sandwiches.

They couldn't go back in until the building locked down for the night, at which point it would be another hell-for-leather run, but at least that one would be down the stairs, not up. In the meantime, Chuck had brought a picnic.

"So," Chuck said, as he unwrapped his sandwich, "you figure out what you're doing for the summer yet? The oh-so-elegant dormitory accommodation the lab gave me for the summer has two beds."

"Nah, my folks signed me up for this wilderness survival thing," Bryce said, rolling his eyes. "Two months in the mountains eating weeds and drinking rainwater."

"Sounds like fun," Chuck groaned.

"It'll suck, but it won't be forever. And at the end I'm promised a hot shower," Bryce answered.

"Hey, you want me to come along? Moral support kind of thing?" Chuck offered, because that was what friends did. He prayed, silently, that Bryce would a) not laugh and b) tell him unconditionally not.

Bryce clapped him on the shoulder, but he didn't laugh. "It's full, and you wouldn't last two days. It'd be like Deliverance."

"I do not like banjos," Chuck said thoughtfully.

"Nah, you'll have a good time doing analytics here while I'm learning how to build a laptop PC from twigs." Bryce grinned.

"Well, send up a smoke signal or something if you want me to bring you back to the land of drive-through service and lattes," Chuck ordered.

"Promise. I'll see you back here in September, we'll trade horror stories, and then we'll kick some ass our entire senior year. Agreed?"

Chuck grinned. "Qochbe'ghach.*"

* Agreed

***

The thing was, Bryce was supposed to be going off to spend two unwashed months in the Appalachians, Jill was interning at a tech firm in Japan, for God's sake, and Chuck was supposed to be staying at Stanford to work in the analytics lab over the summer. Chuck could do the job in his sleep and use the network videoconference system to talk to Jill every few days, but pretty soon he started thinking of imaginative ways to get in touch with Bryce. He could hack the local phone network and set up a touchpoint on the nearest cell tower that would tell everyone with a cellphone to "say hi to Bryce Larkin". Or he could pull some strings with the fraternity and arrange for a local courier to deliver Bryce something funny, like a can of baked beans.

He eventually decided that before all else he should hijack a satellite and use it to locate Bryce's campground. If Bryce were anyone but Bryce he'd probably find this super-stalkery, but Bryce appreciated a fine piece of craftsmanship and the point wasn't really to find his best friend. The point was to hijack a freakin' satellite.

First, however, he needed a starting point for his search. The webpage for Lead Survival Adventures, who were running the camp, was remarkably uninformative. In fact, they were kind of freaky; lots of smiling, clean-cut people wearing backpacks, talking about how it had changed their life. It smelled a little cult-y to Chuck, who had once spent an afternoon pretending to be recruited by the Jehova's Witnesses for some psych study or other.

After clicking around for a while, Chuck decided to hack it out of sheer boredom. There wasn't much -- except for one page, super-basic HTML, nothing more than a couple of PRE tags, no text on it except a pair of coordinates.

35.66268,-116.185284

Which were, according to the internet, in the middle of Death Valley.

Which was not anywhere near the Appalachians, last time Chuck checked.

The whole thing smelled funny and Chuck didn't like the idea of Bryce packing for the Appalachians only to end up in Death Valley. Bryce sunburned easily. Anyway, it had been months since he'd seen Ellie, and Burbank wasn't much of a detour. He wrote a program that would make it look like he was spending Friday doing work he'd already done, just in case anyone checked, and then packed up Thursday night and drove down to Burbank.

"Weekend camping trip with Bryce," he said, when Ellie (a little past midnight, after he'd arrived) asked him what he was doing going to Death Valley. "He's meeting me there."

"You're going camping," Ellie said.

"Yeah?" Chuck replied, setting up some blankets and a pillow on her couch.

"In the desert."

"Well, you know, it's good to try new things," Chuck said.

"Supremely awesome, bro," said Captain Awesome, from the kitchen. Chuck, for Ellie's sake, pointedly didn't roll his eyes. "How hardcore are we talking here?"

"Well, I'm taking the car, so not that hardcore," Chuck said. "Any words of awesome wisdom for me?"

Ellie subtly punched him in the arm.

"Check your shoes," Captain Awesome replied gravely. Chuck could not wait for Ellie to dump this guy, and not just because Captain Awesome emasculated any other man he stood near.

"I worry about you out in the desert," Ellie said.

"Bryce'll be there. And I promise not to kill him and eat him in the event we become lost," Chuck said, flopping onto the couch.

"Are you sure this is a good idea?" Ellie asked.

"Good night, sis, I love you," Chuck said pointedly.

***

Friday morning, Captain Awesome woke him at five am with a blender.

"Hey," he yelled over the blender, when Chuck bolted upright off the couch and looked around wildly. "You want a power berry smoothie?"

Chuck just stared at him for a while.

"Keep you on your toes out in the wilderness!" Awesome added, turning off the blender.

"No. No, I'm good, thanks," Chuck said weakly, and went to get a shower.

He made good time, because traffic going into Death Valley was generally pretty light, it being a valley of Death and all. He wished he had a Global Positioning unit, but it wasn't like you could pick one up at the corner grocery store. Instead he made do, stopping every once in a while to orient himself and figure out his positioning by the time and the location of the sun in the sky.

Around ten in the morning, he pulled the car off the road. Around eleven, there was a shimmer on the horizon.

At eleven-seventeen am, Chuck pulled past a sand-scoured jeep, up to a guardhouse, and began to freak out. There was a guardhouse. There were men with guns. Big, big guns. Men in uniforms with guns. Really big guns.

He concentrated on thoughts of rescuing Bryce as one of the men opened the window of the guardhouse and a blast of air-conditioning shot through Chuck's window. Bryce was clearly in deep deep trouble. Chuck might be in deep deep trouble too, but he had to get Bryce out.

"Name?" the man barked.

"Bartowski," Chuck said, without thinking, and then could have slapped himself. Fake name! A fake name, he needed -- "Steven Bartowski," he blurted, giving his father's name, the first one that popped into his head.

The guards looked at each other. One of them checked a computer, then shrugged.

"Purpose of your visit, Mr. Bartowski?" the guard said slowly.

"I. Uh." Chuck thought fast. "I hear you guys were having some telecom difficulties."

The guards laughed. Chuck was sure he was about to be summarily executed, but then (with a chorus of angelic voices, in his head) the barrier in front of the car began to rise.

"You're cleared to go, Mr. Bartowski," he said. Chuck rolled through, hands gripping the wheel so they wouldn't be visibly shaking.

There was a parking lot just inside the compound, mostly filled with jeeps but with a few normal cars too. He parked as far away from the guardhouse as he could, stepped out into the stifling heat of mid-day Death Valley, and then ducked quickly behind the hood of the car as a troop of men and women ran past in a formation of some kind. They were sweating like crazy, all dressed in the same uniform -- a sort of loose pocketless olive-drab, like pyjamas had suddenly gone militant.

Chuck crept around the car and ran for the nearest building, first taking shelter in the shade and then peering through the grimy dust-covered window. Nobody was moving inside, so he risked opening the door --

Supply room. Jackpot.

Fifteen minutes later, wearing the ridiculous fatigue pyjamas, a pair of combat boots, a weird Fidel Castro lookin' hat, and a lot of sunblock, Chuck left the supply room and strolled, trying his best to look confident and capable and like he belonged, down the central street of the camp.

There were low one-story buildings on either side, utilitarian things poured out of concrete and roofed with tar tiles. Some looked like they might be barracks; others looked like school buildings that had fallen into disrepair. Down one side-street, two of the buildings were burned out, smoke stains around their empty gaping windows. As he stared, a woman in black spandex slunk out of a second-floor window and dropped to the ground deftly. It looked like some kind of training exercise.

Bryce had clearly been brainwashed by some kind of survivalist militia. Chuck had to get him out of here and take him to Ellie's and Captain Awesome would probably know how to de-program cult members, that was the kind of thing he'd know, and if they caught Chuck they'd probably make Bryce shoot him as a test of his faith in whatever Glorious Cause these freaks were fighting for.

"COMIN' THROUGH," someone yelled, and Chuck leapt aside just in time to avoid being stampeded by another troop of recruits. He held onto his hat as they ran past in a cloud of dust, and in the last rank --

There. Bryce. Eyes ahead, determination on his face, hair slicked back with sweat. Chuck stared after him. Bryce didn't even notice he was there.

After a few shocked seconds, Chuck turned and ran after the recruits, hoping they weren't embarking on some kind of masochistic marathon in the desert. He managed to catch up just as they stopped; he whipped off his hat and followed them into one of the low buildings, which turned out to be an air-conditioned classroom, maybe some kind of lecture hall. He took a seat in the back, in the shadows, as close to Bryce as he could get without giving himself away.

He started badly when someone slapped a test booklet and a ballpoint pen down in front of him. Okay, this was just weird.

There was a woman standing at the front of the classroom with a remote in one hand.

"The film will begin shortly," she announced. "You may not turn over your testing booklets until the film is completed. You will be prompted when we wish you to begin the test."

Chuck toyed with the idea of creeping down the row and begging Bryce to come home with him, but the guard or sergeant or whatever who had been leading the run was now standing at the edge of Bryce's row, and he'd see them if not hear them. He'd just have to sit here and watch some bizarre propaganda film and take a test about it before he could get his hands on Bryce.

Actually, the film was pretty neat. It was a documentary about sand dunes. At least, it seemed that way to Chuck later. He didn't really remember much of it, or any of the questions on the test once he'd closed his testing booklet after filling it out.

The rest of the students looked just as dazed as he felt, listlessly dropping their booklets into a box the instructor held as they left. Chuck glanced down; randomly, he'd given himself the name Charles Carmichael.

He dropped the booklet into the box and stepped out of the classroom into the high-afternoon heat of Death Valley.

Heat, and sudden sirens.

All the recruits in the area tensed and looked around alertly as sirens began to wail; after a few seconds a voice came over the loudspeaker.

"Base security has been breached," it announced, and Chuck realized they meant him. "Base security has been breached. There is an intruder on the base campus. Instructors and recruits will return to housing."

Bryce, he had to stick with Bryce. He almost lost him; the recruits were scattering to their barracks and it was easy to lose one man in the crowd. Chuck barely kept a tail on him until they reached Bryce's barracks; he bolted inside after him, followed him down the hall, and just before Bryce opened a doorway near the end he turned and gave Chuck a sharp karate-chop to the throat.

Chuck gurgled and for a second his vision went grey. He slammed back against the opposite wall.

"Chuck?" Bryce asked, eyes widening.

"Hi," Chuck managed, clutching his throat. "You -- !"

"Chuck, what the hell are you doing here?" Bryce hissed. "You're supposed to be at Stanford!"

"You -- you karate'd me!" Chuck rasped, going for indignant. "You're supposed to be in the Appalachians!"

Bryce's head whipped around and his nostrils flared; a second later there were footsteps nearby.

"Not now," Bryce said, hauling Chuck up bodily by his collar and unlocking a door by, apparently, staring at it. He pulled Chuck inside and slammed the door, leaning against it and exhaling. Chuck saw a bed, and decided to collapse on it.

"I'm totally getting you out of here," he assured Bryce. "Soon as I can breathe again."

"How did you even find this place?" Bryce asked.

"Hacked the website," Chuck replied.

"You are in so much trouble," Bryce informed him, and then he smacked himself in the forehead. "Chuck, you're the intruder. You're the security breach!"

"I might be," Chuck said, pushing himself up on his elbows. "But I'll get us out, I promise. You know any escape routes?"

"Why would I want to escape?" Bryce asked. "They're going to be searching our rooms soon enough, Chuck, this is serious!"

"I'm not leaving you in the clutches of some terrifyingly well-armed and well-funded militia!" Chuck said, and Bryce --

Bryce slid down the door until he was sitting at the foot of it, and then he burst out laughing.

"It's not funny!" Chuck insisted.

"You thought I'd joined a cult?" Bryce asked, laughing harder. "Oh my god, Chuck, you came to rescue me from a cult? I never give you enough credit. I never do. How do you sit down with balls as big as yours?"

Chuck sensed he was missing something. He kept quiet.

"You broke into a military base," Bryce said, wiping his eyes. "A federally-funded, government-sanctioned top-secret military base. I didn't join a cult, Chuck, I joined the CIA."

Chuck stared at him. "You're a college junior!"

Bryce just grinned his shit-eating grin and shrugged. "You infiltrated a secret CIA training camp. Chuck, I don't believe you."

"I'm sorry, Bryce! I didn't mean to do it!" Chuck said.

"How?" Bryce asked, settling in against the door with his legs crossed.

"I've...got a face people trust?" Chuck ventured. Bryce sighed.

"Okay, take me through it," he said. Chuck recounted hacking the website, finding the base, pulling through security, and sneaking around until he'd found him. Bryce seemed faintly impressed.

"So you just...gave a fake name and they let you in?" he asked. "I mean, it's gutsy, but it's not exactly stealth. Did you really think they weren't going to figure it out?"

"I just wanted to find you," Chuck said. Bryce's face, all edges and angles, softened a little.

There was a click as a loudspeaker was activated.

"Bunk inspection," someone announced briefly. Bryce shot to his feet.

"They're searching the dorms," he said.

"What do I do?" Chuck asked.

"Um. Um." Bryce looked around. There were few places to hide; under the desk or under the bed, basically. Bryce grabbed his arm. "Okay, I need you to be brave," he said, and tugged Chuck back out into the hallway.

"Guy across from me washed out yesterday," Bryce hissed in his ear, pushing him up against the opposite wall from his own door. "All his stuff's still there. When they come to search your room tell them the lock's malfunctioning and ask them to open it manually. You got that?"

"Lock's broken, open it manually," Chuck repeated.

"And for God's sake don't tell them you're Bartowski," Bryce added, then snapped back to his own side of the hallway and stood to attention. Chuck tried to emulate it.

The -- officer, Chuck decided to go with officer -- who inspected their quarters was an enormous broad-shouldered man.

"Name?" he asked Bryce.

"Bryce Larkin," Bryce replied.

"Open it," the man ordered. Bryce bent over slightly, eyes on level with a scanner, and the door swung open. The man looked around, grunted, poked the mattress, and then emerged, walking up to Chuck.

"Name?" he asked.

"Charles Carmichael," Chuck blithered.

"Open it," he said. Chuck saw Bryce watching warily over his shoulder.

"Lock's broken," Chuck managed, his voice about half an octave higher than usual. "You'll need to unlock it manually."

The officer grunted again and took out a key, shoving it into a small slot above what had to be a retinal scanner. The door swung open. Chuck held his breath. The man looked around, grunted, gave them both a nod, and moved on. As the door closed, Chuck tipped his heel back and blocked it from latching. Bryce exhaled and gave him a ready grin.

"That was perfect," he whispered across the hallway.

"I'm going to die," Chuck whispered back.

"Come back in my room," Bryce hissed.

"Gimme something to prop the door with," Chuck said. Bryce glanced at the door, saw Chuck's heel propping it open, and ducked into his own room, returning with a strip of black tape. Lock successfully taped, just in case, Chuck let Bryce herd him back into his own room. He settled on the bed again, Bryce sitting next to him.

"They'll have tracked down your car by now. Probably put it in impound," Bryce said. "Anything incriminating in it?"

"Like what, my collection of impressive firearms?" Chuck asked. Bryce smiled gently.

"Well, you can't just go over the fence tonight and walk home. This is the desert, if you don't freeze to death tonight you'll die of heatstroke tomorrow morning," Bryce said. "So here's the plan."

"I can't wait to hear the plan," Chuck drawled.

"Stay here tonight. Tomorrow I'll find out where your car is or where there's one you can steal. Tomorrow night we'll get you some wheels. During shift change, you drive out. You floor it across the desert and out of Death Valley. As soon as you can, ditch it and steal another car."

"Bryce, I can't just steal a car."

"Well, you're gonna have to if you want to get out of this with your freedom," Bryce said.

"Okay, here's a thought, can we not just tell them it was a mistake?" Chuck asked. "You know, like, this is the government, right? My tax dollars at work. I'll say I'm sorry, I was worried about my friend, I won't tell anyone about the secret CIA training camp."

Bryce's face went hard and sharp. "You don't know what these people are capable of."

"These people?" Chuck asked, annoyance getting the better of him. "The people teaching you to be like them, you mean?"

Bryce sighed and let his head drop. "It's complicated."

"Yeah, sounds like it," Chuck said. "Look, whatever. Are they feeding us anytime soon?"

Bryce got up and went to the desk, pulling a handful of plain black-wrapped objects out of the drawer. "Ration bars. Closest thing to a snack we get around here. Until they find you or assume you left the compound, we're on lockdown, so it's probably all we'll get."

"Taste okay?" Chuck asked, opening one and biting into it. "Huh. Raspberry."

"Your tax dollars at work," Bryce said. He scooted back on the bed until he was propped against the wall, then bumped his knee against Chuck's shoulder. Chuck joined him, looking around the bare little room.

"So did they recruit you or what?" Chuck asked finally.

"I can't really talk about it," Bryce said. "It's for your own protection."

"Bryce, I broke into the CIA, I think I can take care of myself," Chuck said. He paused. "Weird how they just let me in, though."

"Did you say you were, what, Charles Carmichael?" Bryce asked.

"No, I said I was Bartowski. Then I figured that was dumb, so I said Steven Bartowski," Chuck said.

"And that name was on the list," Bryce observed, very carefully.

"Lucky, I guess," Chuck said.

"Yeah, I guess," Bryce echoed.

***

They lifted the lockdown in time for dinner, and Chuck spent a very uncomfortable hour falling in with the other CIA recruits, shuffling through the food line, and eating quietly with his head bent, trying not to be recognized. He couldn't believe it worked, but Bryce said ballsy was the way to go with the government, so Chuck followed his lead. The food was good, anyway.

He could have spent the night in the room across from Bryce, Charles Carmichael's room, but after dinner he went and stood in it for a while, and Bryce leaned in the doorway after him.

"Are you creeped out in here?" he asked.

"Really really creeped out," Chuck answered.

"Want to bunk in my room? Bed's narrow, but I promise to be a gentleman," Bryce said, flashing that stupid grin. Chuck glanced at him sidelong.

"You're okay with that?" he asked.

"Yeah, sure," Bryce said, a little more serious now. "It's you, Chuck."

They sat up talking most of the evening, carefully dancing around the subject of Bryce's involvement in the CIA, the damn CIA of all things. Anything other than that -- video games, the lab Chuck was working in, Captain Awesome's advice on desert camping. At lights out, they just lay down facing each other and kept talking. It was super-weird, but kind of nice, too.

In the morning, they were woken by someone yelling at the door across the hall.

"CARMICHAEL!"

Chuck sat up, panicking, and Bryce clapped a hand over his mouth.

"They found you," he said softly. "Shit, Chuck, I'm sorry. Get under the bed."

"CARMICHAEL, UP AND AT 'EM."

Chuck scurried quietly under the bed, which was cleaner than any bed he'd ever been under before. There weren't even any dustbunnies. Not that he'd been under many beds -- okay, not helping. He heard Bryce open the door.

"What the hell's the racket?" Bryce asked, feigning sleepiness. "It's four in the morning, muster isn't for another hour and a half."

"Boss wants Carmichael," the man said. "HEY! CARMICHAEL!" he continued, and thumped on the door. Which, having been taped, swung open.

"He's been having trouble with his lock," Chuck heard Bryce say.

"He's gonna be in a whole mess worse trouble," the man replied. "You know where he is, Larkin?"

"No clue. Gone AWOL?" Bryce suggested.

There was a thud, and then feet appeared in front of Bryce's bed. Feet in boots. Chuck closed his eyes tightly and tried not to breathe.

That worked right up until a hand grabbed him and hauled him out by his shirt. Chuck found himself held on his feet by the enormous officer from the day before.

"Carmichael," he snarled. "Fraternizing with your hallmate?"

"Thought I dropped a contact," Chuck heard himself say. The snarl deepened.

"With me," the man said, and frogmarched him out of the room. He caught Bryce's eye and shook his head -- don't get yourself mixed up any more than you are -- and Bryce nodded, looking guilty.

He was walked, barefoot, out into the chilly desert morning and across the compound, past half a dozen identical buildings until they reached one marked "COMMAND" with a small sign. Chuck prepared to be executed or mind-wiped or whatever they did to spies who weren't actually spies but were pretending to be spies.

"Look, this is all a huge misunderstanding -- " he tried, but he was shoved through the door and past an empty reception desk and into a small, empty office. It had a desk, two chairs, and a huge video screen. The officer stood behind him and said, "General."

A woman in a uniform appeared on the screen. Chuck blanched.

"Thank you, Agent. You may go," she said. The huge man left. The tiny woman eyed Chuck through the television.

"Charles Carmichael?" she asked.

"Y - yes ma'am," Chuck said.

"That's funny," she replied. "You gave your name on entry as Steven Bartowski."

"Look, I can explain -- "

"Did you use the name Carmichael on an exam yesterday?" she asked, ignoring him. Chuck slumped down in the seat.

"Yes, ma'am."

"This test?" she asked. Onscreen, his handwritten test appeared for a second.

"Yes, ma'am," he said.

"What is your real name, young man?"

Chuck bowed his head. "Charles Bartowski, ma'am."

"Not Steven or Carmichael?"

"No," Chuck murmured.

"So, I'd like to be sure I understand this," she said. "You broke into a high security CIA training facility and then...took an exam?"

"I was looking for someone," Chuck said.

"Someone in particular?"

"A friend of mine. I thought he'd joined a cult."

Her lips quirked slightly. "Does this friend have a name?"

"I respectfully plead the fifth," Chuck said.

"The fifth amendment only prevents you from incriminating yourself," she told him. "You were found in the quarters of trainee Bryce Larkin."

"I plead the fifth," Chuck repeated.

"Mr. Bartowski, this is not a police station where you have been brought on charges of minor vandalism. This is the CIA. Were you or were you not sent here on a mission to recover Bryce Larkin?"

"Uh." Chuck blinked. "I sent myself."

"You what?"

"I sent myself, ma'am. I just thought he was in trouble."

"You weren't briefed by anyone? Ordered by anyone to perform this task?"

"No," Chuck said. "Look, I was stupid, okay, I acknowledge that -- "

"Mr. Bartowski, are you afiliated with any government agency or sponsored intelligence group, domestic or abroad?"

"Wha -- no!"

"Are you sure?" she asked, and Chuck wanted to laugh.

"I'm a senior at Stanford," he said. "That's all."

She pursed her lips and pressed a button. A different person came into the room; the instructor who had given them the exam yesterday. Chuck eyeballed her.

"Thank you, general," the woman said, and the videoscreen switched off. She turned to Chuck.

"Welcome to Camp Death, Mr. Bartowski," she said.

"That's a really charming name," Chuck said faintly.

"Apt, too." She gave him a sharklike grin. "Mr. Bartowski, you broke into a secure facility and took an exam on which you scored a ninety-eight percent. Most of our agents score somewhere in the fifties. Your friend trainee Larkin, who was specially recruited for his abilities, scored a ninety-three."

"I'm very good at standardized tests," Chuck told her.

"You're in the computer engineering program with trainee Larkin at Stanford?"

Chuck nodded.

"When you gave the name Steven Bartowski yesterday -- why did you do that?"

"First name I thought of," Chuck said. "It's my dad's name."

"I see," she said. "Mr. Bartowski, how would you like to join the CIA?"

Chuck blinked at her. "Is this like a, I don't know, is this a join or die kind of thing? I've seen too much, haven't I?"

She smiled. "Mr. Bartowski, honestly, it isn't that you've seen too much. And before you ask, your friend won't be disciplined for hiding you. We value loyalty to fellow agents very highly in the CIA. This test," she continued, "was designed to ferret out young men and women with...specific abilities. You're capable of absorbing a large amount of subliminal information and retaining it after the fact. We've been looking for a man like you, Mr. Bartowski. And the CIA doesn't let go easily, once it finds what it's looking for. So no, you won't be executed. But you will find life very difficult, if you choose to say no."

Chuck gaped at her.

"Besides, doesn't every little kid dream of being a spy?" she asked, still smiling.

***

When Chuck came back to the dormitory, Bryce was pacing in the hallway, chewing on a thumbnail. He saw Chuck and ran forward, eyes wide.

"What happened?" he asked, as Chuck walked dazedly to the room opposite Bryce's. "Chuck, come on, what -- "

Chuck bent over and presented his eye to the retinal scanner. The door clicked open and the name CHARLES CARMICHAEL scrolled across the top of the scanner.

"I got recruited," Chuck said.

"You what?" Bryce demanded.

"I scored really high on some test, and they said I could join the CIA or they would, and I quote, make life very difficult if I choose to say no," Chuck said. He stood in the middle of the room and stared around at the walls. "They're calling Stanford now to explain that I've taken a job at a government lab in Pasadena. I get one five minute monitored phone call to Ellie tonight. My code name is Charles Carmichael. I am screwed for life, Bryce."

Bryce just stared at him.

"Okay, dude, you have to help me out here because this is like starting a new high school halfway through freshman year," Chuck said urgently. "What the hell do I do? Uncle Sam wants me and Uncle Sam is terrifying."

"You got recruited?" Bryce asked, his voice high and nervous.

"Oh, and they said you weren't busted, because I'm magical," Chuck added.

"Not -- you think I care about that?" Bryce asked. "Chuck, this is seriously dangerous work, this is hardcore big time spy stuff."

"I know that! Thank you!" Chuck said. "But they said they'd make life very difficult! I'm not an idiot! They said so!"




This is actually an outtake from The Hired Man, when I thought about going in a different direction for the reason Peter was reticent.

Peter set down his food and stood up, a determined look on his face. Neal frowned, confused, as he pulled his shirt-tails out of his pants and began unbuttoning his shirt.

"Um, we don't have to have sex now -- "

"Shut up," Peter said, shrugging out of his shirt. He tugged up his undershirt and pulled it over his head, dropping it next to his chair.

Neal realized two things in quick succession; one, Peter was breathing so hard he was probably about to hyperventilate, and two, he'd never seen Peter without a shirt on before. It was strange, he thought, with a sort of dizzy unreality, but at first he'd thought Peter was just obsessively modest, and after a while he'd stopped thinking about it entirely. Clearly that hadn't been the reason, but he clung to his lack of focus because the shock of Peter's body was hard to process.

"I enjoy sex," Peter said. "Generally, the other person is the problem."

There were three small red marks just below Peter's right pectoral, which looked like healed gunshot wounds. Below that, however, was a mass of scar tissue, white in some places and dark brown in others, impossible to make sense of, like an abstract painting. The scars wrapped from the side of his ribcage down across his abdomen, gouges and ridges, ending just above his waist.

"You want to know why I left the FBI?" Peter asked. "When your partner screws you and leaves you to be set on fire by the bad guy, it makes you rethink your life choices."

Neal stood, eyes still on the mass of scars, which shifted subtly with every breath Peter took.

"I'd show you the knife wounds, but I don't want to take off my pants," Peter added.

Neal looked up at his face. Defiant anger sharpened his features, made him look bitter.

"Can I...?" he asked, flexing a hand, tacitly asking to touch.

"No," Peter said sharply.

"You can't think I'd care about this," Neal said. "Peter, you can't. I don't."

"Everyone says that, the first time," Peter said, looking away.

"I'm not everyone," Neal said. For a second he thought about abandoning Elizabeth's plan, but Peter inhaled again and Neal realised it was probably wiser now than ever.

Just tell him the truth.

"I talked with Elizabeth today," he said, hand still hovering over the mottled scars. "I kissed her."

Peter's chest heaved, the scars stretching and undulating, but he didn't reply.

"I wanted to see if she and I could get along. We both know this is about you," Neal continued. Peter turned back to study him, the bitter look still on his face. "I want you to be happy. She wants to be special to you, but she wants you to be happy too. You can't just be with her -- that's unfair to her. But you like her. And I like her. So you could be with us. Because we care about you."

"Be with you," Peter repeated, dully.

"Together. Us. You know," Neal said, and gave him a grin. "I mean, she thinks it might all end in tears, but we'd have a lot of fun in the meantime, right?"

Peter blinked at him.

"I do not care about this," Neal said quietly, glancing down and then back up. "And if she does, she's not the woman we think she is, and you'll still have me."

Peter glanced down at where Neal's hand hovered over the wide swath of scars. He took Neal's wrist, pressing his palm to the uneven skin. It was warm, and startlingly smooth; the discoloration made the ridges look deeper than they were. He ran a thumb across one of them, thoughtfully, and Peter inhaled.

"Sometime, I want to hear what happened, if you want to tell me," Neal said. "If only so I can find the guys who did this -- "

"They're dead," Peter said, his voice still flat, a strange contrast to his face.

"You kill them?"

"Yes. The Bureau couldn't touch them. So I left. And I did."

"Good," Neal said softly, and kissed Peter's jaw, hand spreading possessively over the scars. "Nobody hurts the people I care about and gets away with it."

Peter turned sharply and caught his mouth full-on, that same dirty, I-own-you kiss from the night before. Neal's other arm snaked around his waist, pulling him in. Peter walked them backwards, pushy now, with a sort of desperate edge Neal wasn't sure he really liked --

"Stop, Peter, hang on," he mumbled, jerking back. Peter looked destroyed. "No! It's not that, it's just, Elizabeth's in the coffee shop across the street."

Peter stared at him. "What?"

"I told her if things went well I'd call her. And if they didn't she'd probably see you storming out of the building," Neal said, going for levity. Peter kept staring. "Can I call her?"

"She won't -- " Peter closed his eyes, hands clenching. "It won't be okay, Neal, you think it will but it won't."

"It will, I swear, it'll be okay. Let me call her," Neal said.

"So that the three of us..." Peter gestured towards the hallway to the bedrooms.

"Well, yeah," Neal said.

Peter slowly sat down on the sofa again. Carefully, he leaned forward and laced his fingers behind his neck, elbows resting on his knees.

"You'll see," he said. "Call her and you'll see."

Neal backed towards the kitchen, but Peter didn't move. He picked up his phone from the table and dialled.

"That was fast," Elizabeth said.

"Okay you need to come up here," Neal told her, hurried and hushed, hoping Peter couldn't hear. "And I'm going to tell you now that if you want to back out once you're here that's fine, but if you freak out on Peter I will personally make you regret it."

"Why would I -- "

"Just -- remember I said this when you see him," Neal said, and hung up. He walked back into the living room and sidled up to Peter, stroking his hair, pulling his head gently against his stomach.

"It'll be okay," he said, hoping, really hoping, that it would.

They stayed there until Elizabeth knocked on the door. Neal started towards it, but Peter caught him by the arm and shook his head, standing up.

"It's easier if they never get in the door," he said, and went to answer it. Neal watched him open the door, heard Elizabeth say "Peter! Hi! You're -- " and then stop sharply.

"Yeah," Peter said. "I'm."

"Shirtless," he heard Elizabeth say, and then hesitantly, "Can I come in?"

Peter stepped aside. Neal saw Elizabeth walk in, turning a little to keep Peter in her line of sight, and then turn the other way to find him.

"Peter thinks you're going to prove him right about never having sex with anyone because someone once set him on fire," Neal said. Peter glared at him.

"Someone set you on fire?" Elizabeth asked, turning back to Peter.

"It happens," Peter said tonelessly. He tipped his head at the door. "You want to leave, it's okay."

Neal watched Elizabeth give Peter the most measured look he'd ever seen, and then she walked up to him and, unlike Neal, didn't ask permission before resting one hand on the scars and the other on his arm and kissing him. Peter's whole body jerked. Neal was faintly impressed.




And the other requisite White Collar/Leverage crossover.

Con Meet Con
Now in Russian!

"Ohhh, shit," Hardison said, when the Feds showed up.

"No, this is cool, we got this," Nate said soothingly, because Hardison was always so high-strung around Feds.

"No, man, you don't understand," Hardison replied. "That's Peter Burke."

On the video screen, Nate watched a middle-aged man in a rumpled suit walk into the storefront they'd set up for a job. The storefront where Eliot was, against all logic and reason, selling someone a hat.

"Burke's here?" Sophie asked, leaning over Hardison's shoulder.

"Who's this Burke guy?" Nate asked. "He's a Fed, you con Feds all the time."

"Burke's like...superfed," Hardison said.

"He's like if we were pretending to be Feds only we were actually Feds," Parker put in, looking anxious. On the video feed, Eliot looked anxious too. Eliot never looked anxious.

"Then how come I've never heard of him?" Nate demanded.

"He's like a shadow," Sophie said softly, a faraway look on her face. "He doesn't get his picture in the papers. He just swoops in and destroys you."

Nate knew that look. It was her misty, romantic look. He started to truly worry.

"Someone with him," Hardison said, and Nate turned back to the feed. A younger man, in a sharp suit, with a snappy hat, clocking the place and turning to --

"Ohhh shit," Nate said. "What the hell is he doing with Caffrey?"

"Neal Caffrey?" Parker asked, perking up.

"No, Tallulah Caffrey. Yes, Neal Caffrey!" Nate replied, just as Caffrey gave their hidden camera a tiny, almost shy wave.

"You think Burke changed sides?" Hardison asked, as Caffrey walked up to Eliot with what was clearly a very vital question about hats.

"No, look," Sophie said. "He's running interference. Keeping Burke away from Eliot. Does Burke know Eliot?"

"How the hell should I know?" Hardison asked.

Parker was watching the feed, squeaking occasionally.

"Can I go in?" she asked. "I want his autograph."

"No, Parker, you cannot put our job at risk to get Neal Caffrey's autograph," Nate snapped.

"Why not?" Parker pouted.

"Wow," Hardison breathed. "Check it out. He just totally cleared Burke out of the store."

Eliot, alone now in the storefront, leaned back against a case of men's watches and looked up at the camera.

That was awesome, he mouthed.

***

"Neal, what are you -- " Peter turned on Neal as soon as they were out of eyeline of the shop. "What the hell was that?"

"Okay seriously we had to get out of there," Neal said in a low, urgent voice. "Do you know who just tried to sell me a hat?"

"What?" Peter asked, confused.

"That's Eliot Spencer," Neal said. "He could have killed us both with a hatband. The same hatband."

"You know him?"

"Only by reputation. As a person who can kill you with a hatband!" Neal hissed. "And that means that Nate Ford's here, somewhere, and I really, really don't want to run into Nate Ford."

"What can he do, kill me with a sock?" Peter drawled.

"No, he's Eliot's boss," Neal said. "Like you're my boss. Now can we go call SWAT or run away and hide or something?"

"Wait -- Nathan Ford? The recovery guy?" Peter asked.

"You know Nate Ford?" Neal said, surprised.

"Guy's a legend. Also your girlfriend's ex-boss," Peter said.

"Sara knows Nate Ford?"

"Since when does he run with embezzlers, anyway?" Peter said thoughtfully. Neal just stared at him. "What?"

"Ford runs the tightest crew in the country," he said. "He's infamous. He switched sides. And they will crush us if we get in their way. Like little bugs."

"I'm not accustomed to being crushed like a bug," Peter informed him. "Come on."

"We're hiding, good," Neal said.

"We're going back to the Bureau, and you're going to tell me everything you know about Nathan Ford and his crew," Peter informed him.

Neal just sighed. At least it would put some distance between him and Ford.

***

Parker knew she wasn't really supposed to go running around without supervision, despite the fact that she had totally done that for like, decades, before Nate came along. She figured if Nate didn't have a right to tell her where to go, she didn't have an obligation to obey him when he did.

Which was how she ended up asking (okay, maybe conning, a little) Hardison into helping her find Neal Caffrey, and then running off to see him and find out if he'd autograph some portion of her body. Didn't really matter which part.

When she climbed over the edge of the balcony where Hardison said Caffrey lived, she found out he was waiting for her.

"Hi," Caffrey said, as she slid over the stone and landed silently on her feet. His back was to her, but she must have made some noise, or maybe he really was magic.

He looked over his shoulder and grinned at her. There was a bottle of wine on the table in front of him, and two glasses.

"Have a drink," he said. "You want some help with that harness?"

"No, thank you," she answered, stiff and surprised, unbuckled her climbing harness with less than her usual grace.

"I figured Ford would send someone to look in on me," he continued, as she circled warily and sat on the edge of the chair across from him. "It's Parker, right? I heard about the job you pulled in Glasgow."

"Nate didn't send me," she said, aware she wasn't really holding a linear conversation. She wasn't good at those.

"Came to sneak a peek?"




I gave up on this one I think because I got the sense we were going to learn more about Neal's past, and partly because it was so damn sad.

Andrew, Alexander

It took Peter a while to find what he was looking for. He was, per usual, meticulous, but that hardly mattered; Peter liked being meticulous. It gave him pleasure, putting each piece deliberately in its place.

Neal really shouldn't have told him about his father, and Peter really shouldn't be looking into it, because Neal was his partner and his friend. But Neal was also in his custody, and the urge to pursue had never really died. They were the men they were: Neal couldn't resist taunting, and Peter couldn't resist the chase.

He trawled through law enforcement databases, and when those turned up nothing he looked for death announcements, and when those were equally bare of any Officer Caffreys he looked for any death announcements at all. It was depressing work, scrolling through death after death of good cops and bad cops and old cops, but it got him that first piece: four policemen dead over the course of two years, when Neal would have been a toddler. Two of them were really too old and one was unmarried, but he chased down the children of the old men and made sure the unmarried one didn't have any kids on the wrong side of the blanket. Which left him with Andrew O'Brien, his wife Clara, and their son, Andrew Junior.

Chasing down Clara and Andrew Junior wasn't easy either. They disappeared after Andrew O'Brien went up for murdering a drug dealer.

The story formed very slowly, because nobody in the little town of Los Arroyos, Arizona, wanted to talk about it. Eventually, he found a journalist who would, when even the cops wouldn't.

Officer Andrew O'Brien and Mr. Albert Johnson (age nineteen; Jesus Christ) were running some kind of drug smuggling operation. Officer O'Brien, so rumor had it, screwed their dealers out of a million dollars, and Johnson was going to snitch, so O'Brien killed him.

"What happened to the family?" Peter asked casually, on his second phone call to the journalist, now an English teacher in California. "Drugrunners generally don't just let a million dollars walk away."

"Hell if I know," the man replied. "O'Brien went to prison, his wife and kid just disappeared. If man or wife had the million, they never found it. You're a Fed, ask Witness Protection if they know."

All the puzzle pieces slotted into place after that, because nothing else explained the fact that Neal Caffrey burst into life fully-formed at the age of eighteen. WitSec. Children in Witness Protection could leave the program when they turned eighteen, if they wanted. New legal identity, new paperwork, no record of their past.

Clara O'Brien and Andrew O'Brien Junior had a WitSec file, though it took another month of careful negotiating with the US Marshals to get it. It arrived by courier at five o'clock on a Friday.

"Please say that's not a case," Neal told him, when he saw Peter signing for it. "Do you even have a heart? It's Friday."

"Cold case," Peter said, without looking up, because it wasn't easy to lie but it was at least more convincing if he didn't have to look Neal in the face. "You get Friday afternoons off in prison?"

"No, Peter," Neal sighed obediently.

"Then I don't want to hear you complaining. Go, get out of my bullpen, be someone else's problem for a couple of days," Peter told him, and Neal went with a grin and a doff of his hat.

Peter took the file home, found a sticky-note on the fridge reminding him El wouldn't be home until nine, put dinner on, and settled in with the casefile and a beer.

The file didn't mention Clara or Andrew Junior. They wouldn't, naturally; there had to be no paper connection between their old lives and their new ones. This was a file about Cynthia and Alexander Oberhausen, who had once been Clara and Andrew O'Brien. Copies of their new birth certificates and a death certificate for Cynthia's husband, Cynthia's driver's license, social security cards, immunization records, Cynthia's new high school diploma.

Past that, though, were page after page of handwritten notes, the records kept by their case agent. They began impersonally enough, with half-yearly visits; Cynthia and Alexander seemed to settle into their new life easily.

Turning the pages, though, Peter began to frown. The US Marshal assigned to monitor them should only have needed to check in once a year, or if he had notification they were moving; instead he seemed to increase his visits, until he was stopping by every few months. His notes were personal:

***

Cynthia is so proud of her new Associate's Degree.

Alexander is a bright, precocious boy who loves art class.

***

I wonder sometimes how Cynthia became involved in all this. She tells me her husband was intensely charismatic. By the time she realized she was in trouble, she had no resources with which to leave. The murder was probably the best thing to ever happen to this little family.

***

Alexander struggles in school. Not because he can't keep up, or because he doesn't have friends -- everyone seems to adore him, and he's a charming kid so I can see why they would. He tells me he's just not interested. But on his own he reads his mother's business administration textbooks. I think he's bored.

***

Find attached Alex's latest drawing, a very lifelike if completely imagined police badge. He said it was for me. His mother has told him I knew his father. I don't think she's filled his head with stories of some heroic lawman, exactly, but she told him his father was a hero and that vivid imagination of his filled in the blanks. He knows I'm a cop of some kind, but I don't think he really comprehends why I visit.

Then again, that's become a little complicated itself lately.

***

Alex is fourteen now, though it seems like that much time can't have passed. He's a fine young man, if a little wild. Not a lawbreaker, just not interested in conforming to anything he sees as useless or illogical.

This kid is a bona-fide genius, a polymath. He's way past high-school reading level, he understands a lot more than I do about physics and business math, and his art -- while Cynthia tells me his teachers say it's not original -- is amazing. I've been trying to steer him away from being a cop because he'd be wasted in a uniform, but he's read more history than I have and he says he's not sure he'd trust the FBI to let him actually catch any bad guys. Hell, the kid doesn't even know I'm a Marshal and he gave me a pretty chilling history of my own branch.

Cynthia sometimes says she just doesn't know what to do with him, so she leaves him alone as long as he's not hurting himself.

I asked her if she was happy, the last time I visited, and she said she was content. She has a good job and she loves her boy. They're very close-knit. I still feel like an outsider when the two of them are in the room.

***

It's Cynthia's decision whether or not to tell Alex about his father and about the WitSec program, but it won't be once Alex turns eighteen, and I hope to God she tells him before then. We've fought about it, sort of -- not real fighting, just the same old argument. The older he is when he finds out, the more difficult it'll be for him.

Alex is a wild boy. But how do you stop a sixteen-year-old who knows the law as well as any cop, better than most? He's just so independent. I've been pushing Cynthia to put him in some local college classes, but it's what she's been saying since I told her she should skip him a grade in elementary school. She thinks it's more important for him to be well-socialized, to have friends and girlfriends and to get some of his wild oats sown early. Maybe she's right, hell, I don't know.

***

Alex called me last night to tell me that his mother had died. I don't know whether he divined that I was the person who needed to know, or whether he just wanted someone to hold onto. When he found her on the kitchen floor he called EMS, rode with her to the hospital, and called me while they were admitting her. I got down there as fast as I could, but she was gone by the time he found her. DOA. They think she had a massive stroke of some kind.

He looks like his world is falling apart. He's almost eighteen. What the hell is he going to do?

He's staying with friends for now. I'm meeting with him tomorrow. It's time he found out who he is.

***

"Honey?"

Peter didn't know how long he'd been staring at that particular report when Elizabeth's arrival snapped him out of it. He looked up from his warm, flat beer and what was clearly the most devastating moment of Neal's life.

"Hey," he said, rising to kiss her hello, to wrap her up in his arms. She laughed against his chest.

"What's going on?" she asked, leaning back a little. "Miss me?"

"Very much," he said.

"Working late?" she asked, nodding at the folder on the table.

"No, just -- " Peter went to close it, to conceal it, then stopped himself. "You want some dinner?"

"Love some. You need to unload?"

"I'll heat up some of that lasagne," he told her, and went into the kitchen to microwave some dinner. When he returned, she was shamelessly reading the file.

"Who's Alex Oberhausen?" she asked, as he set the plates down and poured some wine.

"Complicated answer," he told her.

"Sad life," she pointed to the entry on his mother's death. "Is he a witness?"

"No," he said. "I think it's Neal."

She looked down at the file, eyes widening.

"I don't know for sure," Peter added hastily. "But the timing fits. It explains why I never found Neal's family, anything about his childhood. If he was in WitSec, he'd be able to acquire a new name, legal ID -- wipe away his old life completely."

"Poor Neal," she murmured, finger tracing the first line of the report -- Alex called me last night to tell me that his mother had died. "Did he tell you this?"

Peter glanced away. "No. I dug it up."

"Oh, honey, that's not good."

"I know."

"You going to tell him?"

"I have to be sure first," Peter said. "I have to know it's him."

Elizabeth lifted the page. "Honey, that's the last report."

Peter studied the final page of the file. "Alexander Oberhausen left WitSec on his eighteenth birthday."

"And?"

"And that's all. They'd have started a new file for his new identity, wouldn't link it to this file just in case. The case agent might know, but probably not. They're supposed to dissociate with any change of identity."

"So how do you find out if it's Neal?"

Peter shook his head. "I can call the case agent, see what happened. Show him a picture and see if he recognizes Neal."

"And if he does?"

Peter was silent.

***

Tom Holbrook was easy to find. He'd served his whole career with the US Marshals' office in Dallas, and they still had a contact number for him on file.

"Yelloh," said a voice, when Peter called the number on Sunday afternoon.

"Tom Holbrook?" Peter asked.

"Speaking...?"

"Mr. Holbrook -- "

"Tom, I'm retired."

"Tom," Peter agreed. "This is Special Agent Peter Burke, out of the New York FBI office," he added, hoping he sounded less nervous than he felt.

"FBI, huh? Guess you must be in Cold Cases, if you're calling me."

"Not ordinarily, but I had a few questions about one of your old files," Peter replied. "Do you remember Alexander Oberhausen?"

There was a pause down the line.

"Been waiting for this call," Tom said slowly. "Well. Maybe hoping. Maybe not. What do you know about Alex Oberhausen?"

"I know he was in the WitSec program. I'm holding his file with your reports in it," Peter said. "It's a little incomplete."

"He asked to be moved out of the program. They took me off the case." Tom swallowed audibly. "Is he dead?"

"I don't think so. I think he might be here in New York, but I need to get a positive ID from you."

"From me, huh?" and now the man's voice was suspicious. "Peter -- can I call you Peter?"

"I think it'd be best," Peter said.

"Yeah, I think it might be, if you're into what I think you're into. You want an ID on a man answering Alex Oberhausen's description, you'd be going through the WitSec program, not cold-calling a retiree on a Sunday. This off the record?"

"You okay with that?"

"I might be. Depends on what you need, other than an ID. You want to give me some detail, here? I'm not supposed to have contact with witnesses who leave the program, we both know that."

Peter rubbed his eyes. Across the table, Elizabeth gave him an encouraging smile.

"I'm trying to confirm that a man I know and work with was the same man who left WitSec after Cynthia Oberhausen died."

"Peter, I know a lot about Alex, but I don't know his birth name, and I don't know what his daddy did other than murder someone. For all I know the bastard's sitting in a cell somewhere. Just as well I didn't know, or I'd have visited the sumbitch myself and probably killed him."

"His father's in isolated protective custody in federal prison," Peter said.

"Well, you have done your homework."

"I need to know what happened after Cynthia died, and I need you to tell me if I've got the right guy, here."

Tom sighed down the line. "Look, the two of them, that was one of my first cases. If you've read my reports you know I thought the world of that woman."

"That's not hard to see," Peter agreed.

"I was in love with her. But she didn't love me, and it's not exactly good for the career, you know? I visited as often as possible, given everything, and I was a damn good friend to her. I did what I could for Alex. You say he's an FBI agent now? No, don't answer, I'm not supposed to know," he interrupted, before Peter could frame an appropriate response. "Couple of days after she died I told him what I knew, gave him some information on who he could contact to learn more. Next thing I knew he was gone and I was off the case."

"That must have been hard," Peter said quietly.

"Little bit like having your heart ripped out, yeah," Tom said. "You know how it is, though. You get past the bad cases, you move on."

"If I sent you a picture of the man I know -- "

"Sure, I could say he looked like Alex, but it's been eight, nine years now." Tom paused. "I can't speak with him. I can't have any contact. Shouldn't even be speaking with you. For his own safety."

"I'm sorry to stir this up for you," Peter said.

"Me too, but it sounds like Alex went and did what he always did -- wrapped everyone around his little finger," Tom said. "Listen, just tell me this. Is he happy?"

He sounded like -- well, like a father, asking about an estranged son. Peter bowed his head.

"Honestly?" he said. "I wish I knew, sometimes."

"Is he safe?"

"As safe as I can make him."

"You're looking out for him, then?"

"I try."

"Still a wild one, huh?"

"He's getting better," Peter said truthfully. "You have an email address, maybe a fax number...?"

"Sure, I have an email. For the love of God don't email me from the FBI, wouldya? Just send me his photo, I'll tell you what I know."

Peter jotted down the address that Tom reeled off, thanked him, and hung up.

"Well?" Elizabeth said.

"If it is Neal, Holbrook's got his number," Peter said drily. "I need to go make up a fake Gmail account and send an email," he continued, kissing her as he stood up. "I guess we'll know soon."

***

That's Alex. He always did have his mama's eyes.

My God, what is he wearing? He looks like a cartoon.


***

On Monday, Peter called Neal into the conference room.

"You're going to want to punch me in the face in about ten seconds," he said, and Neal frowned. "When you do, I want you to remember that everyone's watching us, and you can punch me later in private so you don't get arrested for assaulting me."

"Wow, what did you do?" Neal asked.

Peter tossed the file across the table to him. Neal opened it, then shut it and looked up at him.

"Did Tom give you this?" he asked.

"No. Holbrook's not involved. I found it on my own."

"Because I told you -- " Neal's face was composed, but his voice betrayed sudden rage. "I told you that as a friend, Peter. I didn't tell you so you could dig up my -- so you could -- "

"I know," Peter said quietly. "I'm sorry."

"I told you that because you pestered it out of me, because I didn't think you'd use it to find my mother," Neal said. "Are you happy now? You have the whole stupid tragedy? You're right, I've never wanted to punch you in the face so badly in my life."

"Did they tell you who your father is?" Peter asked, which stopped Neal in his tracks.

"Was," Neal said, careful, neutral. "No. They offered. I didn't want to know." He looked down at the file, fingers tapping nervously on it. "He killed someone."

"You know the whole story?"

"He killed someone, stole a lot of money. Someone thought we had it, so..." Neal brushed a hand through the air, like he was shooing a fly away.

"You were never curious?"

"Unlike you, I don't need to exhume the past," Neal snapped.

"You mean you don't want to know."

"Go to hell."

"Your father's alive."

Neal went still.

"Your birth name is Andrew O'Brien Junior. Your mother's name was Clara."

"Clara," Neal repeated in a murmur.

"Andrew O'Brien is in a federal penitentiary in Texas." Peter offered him a fax that had come in early that morning. Neal took it without looking at it. "He's serving life without parole for murder."

"You're worse than Tom," Neal said, but he didn't sound angry. Bitter, perhaps. "At least he gave me the option of not knowing."

"And look where that got you," Peter said.

"Andrew O'Brien can be serving time in hell for all I care," Neal replied. "My name is Neal Caffrey. Legally. I don't know anyone named O'Brien."

"I thought you should know," Peter said.

"Yeah, well, you think a lot of things," Neal answered, shoving the folder and the fax back across the table. "Are we done here?"

"With this," Peter said. "You're not excused from work."

"Of course not, Agent Burke," Neal said, in his best easy manner. "I'll be at my desk if you need me. Thank you for the briefing."




A bit of Sherlock, because why not?

Complicated

Sara would never do for John.

Sherlock knows this, because it is his business to know people. If he were another kind of man he would be the world's greatest psychologist. If he had not dedicated himself to the study of crime rather than its practice, he could be a great liar -- politician or criminal, the boundary is very thin. So he knows immediately what it will take John some time to understand.

"I don't think I'm going to get anywhere with her," John says. He's in the chair that by silent agreement they've designated 'his', knees pulled up and bare heels hooked on the edge, a sudoku book propped in his lap.

"No, I don't think you will," Sherlock replies. He, on the other hand, is stretched out languidly, far enough that his feet brush the legs of John's chair. John for once is quiet, Sherlock for once is contented; they've wrapped up a case and are tired, but there was curry at the end of it and soon there will be sleep. Peace, for a little while. It is, after all, one of the reasons he took up this life. Nothing else gives him respite.

John had texted Sara, asking if she fancied a night out; Sara had texted back to decline politely. Sherlock didn't have to see this to know it.

Sara would not do for John, never, and Sherlock will credit her with enough wisdom to be aware of it, whatever motive she herself ascribes to her recalcitrance. She is too ordinary, too grounded, too socialised. When the unexpected happens -- not the ordinary unexpected, after all she is capable, but when the truly unexpected happens, she reacts in outrage, as if the universe ought to have better manners. It's not a blot on her character. Nearly everyone does.

John does not. John is as close to feral as it is possible to come while still owning a tea kettle. He is like Sherlock. When the universe offends him, he doesn't bother objecting; he just snarls back.

Sherlock would do for John, were John inclined that way, and perhaps he is despite all his denials -- but Sherlock suspects he would never do in a permanent sense. He is too self-sufficient for John.

The problem is a knotty one, but there is no urgency to a solution. For now, John is his, in every way that matters.




This was going to be a story about Neal being an absolute unrepentant, unreconstructed crook who decides to charm Peter into freeing him, and then can't go through with it, and finds out that Peter knew what he was doing and let him do it so he'd see the error of his ways. Sometimes I get ambitious.

The Thing Is

The thing is.

The thing is, Neal thinks, a bottle and a half into the evening, Kate's dead. Alex hates him. Mozzie comes around a lot less since the shooting, and Neal can understand that. Peter's still pissed at him, and Elizabeth gives him these apologetic looks and says he has to work it out with Peter. June is just disappointed in him, which is almost worse. He has wrecked everything he loved about this life.

But there are other lives.

Some of the happiest moments of Neal's existence were spent running from Peter Burke. He enjoyed the chase, as nerve-wracking as it was, and he liked the work he did. Painting. Forging. Stealing. It was the one place in the world where he had all the power. Still is; the FBI only keeps him on because he knows how to paint and forge and steal. He lost his chance for the white-sided house and the beautiful blue-eyed brunette and the yellow lab when Kate died. Kate was the one. There will not be another, not now, not ever.

So what's the point in staying?

He could run. There's a hundred grand in his desk at the FBI office. There are other less visible sources of money and goods hidden around New York. It's not actually that hard to leave the country. He knows the penalty for running: the rest of his life always looking over his shoulder, the rest of his life in prison if he's caught. But he'd be looking over his shoulder at Peter, who was always his best playmate; better Peter chasing him than a Peter who will barely speak to him.

And if he spends the rest of his life in prison, well. Thirty years in a small, private room with his art supplies, could be worse. The food was bad, but lately it's not like he can taste food anyway. It all tastes like smoke and gunpowder. And there are always ways to shorten a life one no longer wants to live.

Almost as soon as he thinks about running, he dismisses it; he knows he's drunk, that was the point of all the wine, and he knows he won't think this way in the morning. Peter will stop being angry, sooner or later, and June and Mozzie still love him even if they're not very forthcoming about it right now, and if he's going to spend the rest of his life alone it might as well be on the outside of the prison walls, instead of the inside.

He stands up, a little unsteadily, and with deliberate care he does his evening checks. Puts the bottles in the recycling, makes sure everything's locked down, tidies away a few graphite pencils and his sketchpad, plugs in his phone, checks his alarm. He doesn't need the alarm, especially; he's an early riser by nature. And he doesn't need to rise early on a Saturday morning anyway. But the alarm is the baseline of his morning, the first point of concrete data in his day: Now it is six-thirty. Judge your timing from here forward.

Even if all he does when it goes off on a Saturday morning is check his phone to make sure nobody's called and then go back to bed. Especially a Saturday morning after this much wine.

Once he's in bed, though, he can't sleep; the room tips and spins just enough to make relaxation dangerous, and he needs something to focus his mind on. Back when he was pulling jobs it sometimes got like this, and he'd run through paintings in his head (top ten I'd like to steal, top ten I've stolen, top ten I'd never steal, ten ugliest, ten most overrated, ten most beloved). He could close his eyes and watch the painting go down on a canvas the way he'd do a forgery, or mentally walk through the halls of a museum, a mansion, a bank where he was going to pull a job. Or he could tell himself stories: places he was going to go, jobs he'd pull, the aftermath of the jobs.




I really like this one and am kind of sad I fizzed on it. I was inspired by Peter mentioning that he still had active aliases.

Maintenance

Mozzie called it "Keeping up appearances". The FBI, more pragmatically, referred to it as "Maintenance".

"The thing is," Neal said, leaning back in his chair and expounding to the rookies and probies clustered around his desk, "once you build someone, you have to keep them current, or get rid of them. There's no middle ground. You can't just invent an alias and then let it drop for a couple of years and expect to pick it back up again."

"Can't you just say you were out of the country or something?" one of them asked. Neal smiled. He liked having an audience, and he liked that sometimes Peter got that really annoyed look when he saw a group of people at Neal's desk.

"Crooks are slicker than you think," he said. "If you say you were gone, they want to know where. If they think they know where, they might call a buddy of theirs and check up. You think we move in circles, but really it's one big web. Everyone knows everyone else, at least by name. Everyone owes everyone else a favor."

"So how does it work?" another agent asked.

"There are a few ways. A digital trail is pretty good, it's efficient," Neal said. "One of my aliases has a blog. A pal of mine kept it up for me while I was...otherwise engaged," he said. One of the agents muttered prison. "I heard that."

"Well?" the agent challenged. Neal met his eyes evenly, and waited just a beat too long before turning back to the crowd and continuing.

"You can run gossip, try and make people believe you were behind some heist or job or other. Even the screwups, especially the screwups, because nobody else wants to admit they ran a bad job. And then I have two aliases in prison, but both in Europe, because prisoners talk too much to each other. If you have the spare time and the freedom to pop up as the alias in question, that's even better. You know. Nick Halden, seen having lunch with a well-known fence in a fashionable dining establishment. Make a little scene, maybe do a job or two. End of the day, you still end up with the cash no matter what name you're wearing. Hey, Peter," he added, as Peter walked into the office from his lunch break.

Peter swept the assembled agents with a look.

"Neal, are you corrupting my people again?" he asked.

"Sharing the benefit of my experience," Neal told him.

"In...?" Peter prompted.

"Keeping up an alias."

"Hm." Peter didn't seem to be able to find anything to actually disapprove of. "Maintenance. You want to know how the FBI does it, legally, ask Diana or Jones or come talk to me. Clear out, I need to talk to Caffrey without his fan club."

Neal didn't really connect Peter's mention of Maintenance to the three-day vacation he took about a week later. All he knew was that with Peter out of the office, he was going to be very bored.

***

"Hey, Blick's in town," Mozzie said to him, as Neal was relaxing with a glass of wine and contemplating three days benched -- well, desked -- while Peter was gone. There was no reason Diana couldn't take him out if they had a case, but Peter could be territorial that way.

"Blick, Blick...the art appraiser?" Neal asked. "Is he the one you kept wanting to try my Pieta study on?"

"Yeah, is that still around?" Mozzie asked.

"It cracked in storage," Neal said.

"Sounds like authenticity to me."

"Yeah, until the interior of the clay says I did it in 2004, not 1499," Neal said.

"Details, details," Mozzie grinned and waved a hand. "Don't tell me you don't want to try and slip a forgery past an expert sculpture appraiser."

"Sure, I want to try, I just want to make sure I succeed," Neal said. "That's a long con, gaining his trust, getting him in on the job, figuring out where his weak points are. I'm not gonna risk the FBI's wrath for a vanity project."

"You should still check him out," Mozzie said. Neal glanced at him suspiciously.

"What did you have in mind?" he asked. Mozzie held up a narrow strip of glossy paper.

"Reception at MOMA," he said. "I have it on good authority Blick will be in attendance."

"You're too good to me, Mozzie," Neal said with a grin.

"Yeah, I know," Mozzie replied.

***

Like most museum receptions, the one that night was classy, subdued, understated, and incredibly crowded.

Neal didn't mind the crowds; they allowed him to blend in, one more wealthy donor drinking weak cocktails and pretending to admire the art. He didn't know what Blick looked like; he'd heard a lot about him but never actually seen him. So he circulated and listened and looked for the tell-tale crowd that was likely to gather, especially near the handful of glassed-in statues in the reception room. Blick specialized in sculpture, and would probably end up giving an impromptu lecture sooner or later.

He was on his fourth circuit of the room when he saw Peter, and for a second he thought he was hallucinating. Peter was supposed to be at some three-day retreat upstate with Elizabeth, going walking in the woods or stargazing or whatever it was people did who were unfortunate enough not to be in Manhattan. He was not supposed to be standing by the bar, drink in hand, in an expensive suit, talking to a pair of middle-aged philanthropists. His hair was different, too, slicked back in a stark departure from his usual dry-and-go style. He almost didn't look like Peter at all.

Neal ducked away before Peter could see him, darting into the protective curve of the baby grand piano in the corner.

He probably shouldn't have bothered. Peter was totally absorbed in the people he was talking to, and even when he moved away he never lacked for company. If someone left him alone for a minute he drifted into a new group of people and was instantly accepted into the circle. It was just...bizarre.

He must have been watching him for almost an hour, slowly circling him throughout the room, when he heard a voice at his elbow.

"Sorry, honey. I think he's probably out of your league."

Neal turned around to find an elegantly-dressed older woman standing nearby. He gave her a big grin, a con grin.

"I don't know what you're talking about," he said, and offered a hand. "Nick Halden."

"Doris Ledeux," she replied. "You were watching that man there," she added, nodding in Peter's direction. "Do you know who he is?"

Neal decided discretion was probably best. "No, who?"

"That's Paul Blick," she said. "He's -- "

"An art appraiser," Neal finished for her. "That's Blick?"

She sipped her drink. "Mmhm. And you're very pretty, definitely his type, but he doesn't talk to anyone who doesn't own at least a handful of priceless works of statuary."

"How do you know I don't?" he asked, still smiling.

"Your suit's nice, dear, but not that nice," she replied. Ouch.

"Well, maybe he'd make an exception, given that I'm his type," Neal said.

"You can try your luck, but don't say I didn't warn you," she told him. She patted him on the arm and drifted away.

He glanced back at Peter, who was pulling a pair of glasses out of his pocket and settling them on his nose, peering at a book one of his current conversation partners was holding. Jesus, glasses.

Neal decided he should probably leave, before the urge to get drunk on the museum's tab won out over the urge not to blow his cover.

"So? You meet Blick?" Mozzie asked, when he got back from the reception.

"He's a busy man," Neal said.

"So that's a no."

"Some other time, maybe," Neal mumbled, and went to bed.

***

The next time, he was more well-prepared. It couldn't be a coincidence that the criminal network he prided himself on still belonging to (in some sense) was whispering about Cyrus Milligan, the croooked book-cooker, at the same time Peter had a series of seminars to give at Quantico.

Sure enough, when Neal strolled casually past the storefront where Milligan was supposedly set up for the week, he could hear Peter's voice through the open door. He ducked back around into the alley and watched as Peter emerged -- Peter in a bow-tie and a tweed coat, complaining about being given enough time to fix the numbers. And something about a boyfriend.

Seriously, though, a bow tie. Neal wished he had a camera.

***

It wasn't that he thought Peter was doing anything wrong. Or that he felt personally wronged. Sure, maybe a little betrayed that Peter didn't trust him enough to tell him about his aliases, but then again Neal had never told Peter about any of his.

That was different, though. Some of his aliases were wanted men. One of them could no longer enter Guam with any assurance of safety.

Maybe it was that Peter seemed really good at his aliases. Which shouldn't be a surprise either, but Neal had usually helped build them, whenever Peter went undercover, and none of them were permanent. Paul Blick and Cyrus Milligan were both established enough that Peter had to have been maintaining them for years.

No, he didn't get truly annoyed until Peter suspiciously came down with the flu the same week Eric O'Brien was rumored to be smuggling a shipment of illegal goods through New York, and looking for people who wanted to smuggle equally illegal goods out of New York.

Which was how Neal found himself standing outside a warehouse at ten o'clock at night, arguing with a heavily-muscled man through the door.

"Look, just tell him George DeVore is here," he said.

"Password."

"Man, I don't have the password. Tell him George DeVore, he'll want to see me, I swear to god."

"Password," the man said, sounding bored. Neal inhaled slowly and tried another tactic.

"You don't know who I am, do you?" he asked, and continued before he could say Password again. "I am a very special friend of Mr. O'Brien. You know what kind of special friend I'm talking about?"

The man blinked through the spy-slot. He looked Neal up and down, as much as he could.

"I'll check with Mr. O'Brien," he said, and slid the little window shut. Neal shoved his hands in his pockets and whistled, self-satisfied. Five minutes later, the door swung open and a hand in the darkness gestured at an office, halfway across the warehouse.

Peter was sitting in the office with another well-muscled man on his left and a young woman on his right; the woman had a laptop and was apparently updating some kind of shipping database. He didn't look surprised to see Neal; he did look like he expected Neal to be surprised to see him.

"Mr. O'Brien," Neal said, holding out his hand. Peter rose and shook it, glaring daggers at him. "George DeVore. We met a few years ago...?"

"I remember," Peter growled. "Have a seat."

"Thank you," Neal said, seating himself and leaning back casually. "I understand you have some space on a boat bound for Hungary."

"Filling up fast," Peter said. Neal could see a vein jumping in his forehead. It was funny, really. "You have some items you need to ship to Hungary?"

"Discreetly," Neal said, smoothing his tie. He jerked his head at the bodyguard on Peter's left. "You think we could talk alone?"

"Go on," Peter said to them, and the woman closed her laptop and left. The bodyguard gave Peter a second look; Peter nodded and he left too, closing the door behind him.

"Neal," Peter hissed, as soon as it was shut. "What the hell do you think you're doing here?"

"You know, 'tucked up in bed with chicken soup' looks a lot like an abandoned warehouse," Neal said, glancing around.

"Did you come here tonight to hire Eric O'Brien?" Peter asked.

"I mean, Elizabeth must have a really long drive to bring you your soup -- "

"Neal!"

"Yeah, I'm putting my entire life situation in jeopardy to smuggle a couple of paintings to Hungary," Neal snapped sarcastically. "No, I didn't come here tonight to hire Eric O'Brien."

"Then why are you here?"

"Curiosity," Neal said. "I wanted to see how you do it. Maintenance, huh? How old is Eric O'Brien?"

Peter rubbed his eyes. "Eight years. Every once in a while I run a quick sting to keep him current."

"Like with Cyrus Milligan and Paul Blick?" Neal asked.

"How did you -- never mind. You know what? I don't want to know," Peter said. "Neal, these are dangerous people with a lot of firepower. You need to go home."

"I'm hurt, Peter. You should bring me along on these things. Which reminds me," Neal said, grinning, "I'm fascinated. Does Elizabeth know all your aliases are gay?"

"I'm going to kill you," Peter said.

"Cyrus Milligan has a boyfriend, I'm sure she'd be interested in meeting him."

"Look, you've seen me flirt."

"I've seen you fail to flirt."

"It makes things easier if I'm not expected to be good with women," Peter said. "I know you can be anyone you want but this is easier for me. We're not all perfect chameleons."

There was an odd bitterness in his voice. Neal tilted his head, considering things. Peter was confined by so many rules and beliefs in his life, bone-deep things that couldn't just be shrugged off.

Peter was envious of him.

"Seriously," Neal said, holding his gaze. "You should bring me along. I could help, Peter."

"Your idea of helping in the past has been pretty close to my idea of making trouble," Peter said. "You don't have to be a part of every single damn thing I do, Neal."

"George," Neal corrected, smiling. "George DeVore. On that note, as long as you're pissed, I told the guy outside I was your boyfriend."

Peter buried his face in his hands. "I must have owed money in a previous life."

"What, you wouldn't want me as a boyfriend?" Neal asked. "I'm incredibly good-looking, even if I've been told Paul Blick is out of my league."

"Neal -- "

"George," Neal repeated, getting up and circling to lean on the desk next to Peter's arm. "George DeVore. And you're Eric O'Brien. You're really bad at this undercover stuff."

"You know that's not true," Peter said, voice softer now.

"And you're not even happy about it, are you?" Neal asked. "You don't like that you're such a good liar. You don't like that you want to be a better one, like me."

"My job is to find the truth of things," Peter said.

"Sometimes you have to lie a little to get the truth," Neal said, looking down at him. "So here's my lie: George DeVore. And there's yours, Eric O'Brien."

"And what truth are we getting?" Peter asked.

"You know what truth," Neal said. "These are fake men with fake lives. What they do isn't what we do."

"At the end of the day I'm still responsible," Peter said. "For both of us."

"So next time, take me with you. You could use a little arm candy," Neal said, and clapped Peter on the shoulder. "Have fun, Eric."

"Go home, George," Peter replied, as Neal walked out.
tiferet: cute girl in pink dress captioned "not all bad girls wear black" (Default)

[personal profile] tiferet 2011-12-13 06:44 pm (UTC)(link)
In that Chuck fic, are they actually speaking Klingon?
tiferet: cute girl in pink dress captioned "not all bad girls wear black" (Default)

[personal profile] tiferet 2011-12-14 05:58 pm (UTC)(link)
Ha! Glad I can recognise it even if I never did learn it! :)