Elizabeth wasn't sure what woke her. She rolled over drowsily, one arm reaching automatically for Peter. He was sitting up. She yawned and switched on the lamp.
"Bad dream?" she murmured. She was tired. It had been a long week on the road and all she really wanted was to snuggle into her husband's chest and stay there for a week. She touched the side of his neck, lightly, invitingly. It was cold and sweaty. Elizabeth sat up, coming awake and focusing on Peter.
"Want to tell me about it?"
He nodded, as he always did, and pulled her against him. She leaned back, folding his arms around her. She could feel his heart pounding against her back. It had been a bad one, then.
"Who was it, this time?" she asked. He'd had this dream before. Had it about all of them, everyone who had ever been on his team. About El herself, sometimes. Those were the worst nights, when he couldn't let go of the images, couldn't talk it out.
"He got hurt?" she rubbed his forearm, encouraging him.
"Not this time," Peter said slowly, something odd in his tone. "He was doing the shooting."
El relaxed. Not so bad after all. He'd wake up a bit more, let the dream fade into the ridiculous, symbolic jumble sale it belonged in. She laughed a little, trying to nudge him in the right direction. He didn't relax.
She turned to face him. "Neal hates guns," she said.
"But he knows how to use them," Peter's voice was thoughtful. "He's good. That takes practice."
El bit her lip, thinking. "You know him better than anyone, honey. Has he ever been violent?"
Peter shook his head. "No. No, of course not. He avoids it. I would never have taken him on otherwise."
He pulled her back against him. "But El, Neal's a conman. And I don't think I know him as well as I thought I did."
"Neal's forged a lot of things," he continued. "Neal has a lot of aliases. A lot of false personas. What if Neal Caffrey is one of them?"
El frowned, confused. "Well... so what if it is? Does the name matter? A rose by any other name..."
"The name doesn't matter. The person behind it does. What if he's faking that?"
El wasn't sure what to say. "Well, yeah, he puts up a facade. We know that. But there's no malice in Neal, you know that."
"Do I?" Peter took her hand and warmed it between his. He kissed her knuckles. "Remember the boiler room case? You didn't see him with that shotgun, the way he looked at me. It was a deliberate warning. He was telling me right then that he was dangerous."
"But he thought you had Kate. And even then he only warned you. He didn't point the gun at you."
"He's careful. He knows our deal's only good because he's a non-violent offender. If I had Kate, he was putting me on notice. If I didn't, I could keep thinking of Neal as a basically gentle person."
"Peter!" El pulled her hand away, laid it on his bicep. "Neal's your friend. He likes you."
Peter nodded. "Yeah. I think he really does. But most of his victims thought the same thing. They all liked him, too. Everybody likes Neal. He makes sure of it."
He kissed her forehead, sliding gently out of bed. "I need a glass of water, you want one?"
She nodded, and followed him to the kitchen. She hoped the change of scene would snap him out of it.
In the kitchen, he automatically moved to the coffee machine, then stopped. She hid a smirk.
"How do I override the timer?" he asked.
She let the smirk show. "How long have we had this machine, four years? I can't believe you have this much trouble with it. What did you do while I was gone?" El grabbed his arm and steered him away, pouring him a glass of ice water instead. Maybe they could still get some sleep tonight. Peter looked wistfully at the machine. She sighed and began to start a pot.
"You've known Neal could shoot for a long time now," she said. "Why is it bothering you now?"
As she scooped the grounds into the filter, Peter began again. "Something he said while we were investigating that politician."
"Right. You told me that. Neal mentioned he'd never graduated from high school."
That one had startled Peter. For a guy who liked to mock the Ivy League, who firmly and loudly believed in judging people by their minds and their deeds and not by any pieces of of parchment on the wall... well, he was amusingly shocked.
"No, not that. I mean, that too- it made me realize I don't know as much about him as I'd thought. But this was something else. Later, at the end of the case. Neal told me he had never lied to me."
"And you believe him?"
Peter tilted his head, raising his hand and waggling it from side to side. "Mostly. For Neal's definition of 'lie'."
"Well, that's a good thing, isn't it?" She poured water into the top of the machine. Maybe she'd get Peter an espresso machine for his birthday. If he'd learn to use it.
"Yeah, I guess. But I know why he told me. He caught me lying to him about investigating the music box, wanted to make me feel guilty."
"Did it work?"
"You know, not as well as he'd hoped. I felt guilty, and then I knew that was what he wanted, and then I thought: and that's why. He's spent more than a year now carefully telling me literal truths so that someday, when it was to his advantage, he could play this card. He's probably been looking for an excuse to make me realize he hasn't directly lied. And the only reason to do that, the only reason Neal would do that, is so that someday, when he needs me to believe him, I will. He wants that weapon in his arsenal."
El sat at the table. "Or he wants you to trust him."
Peter shook his head. "He knows I trust him, in most areas. He wants to be sure this is one of them. And that's fine, I can see the manipulation, so I can work with it. But if he can work like that, plan that far ahead, control his reactions even when he thought he was close to getting Kate and ready to run, just in case he'd need me as some kind of fall-back? Honesty isn't Neal's instinct, El. If he's been consciously honest with me all this time, just to make sure I know he won't lie directly? Well, my next thought has to be: what other reputation is he careful to maintain? Where else is he so careful to be squeaky clean? What 'fact' does he repeat so often that he's sure everyone knows it about him?"
El wasn't sure she believed this argument, but she knew her line. "Neal doesn't like guns."
"Neal doesn't like guns." Peter ran his hands through his hair. El couldn't help but smile a little. Her husband made bed-head look good. "And he's never been linked to anything violent. But he's best friends with that little Mozzie guy."
El's jaw dropped. "Mozzie? You think Mozzie's violent? Peter, come on..."
Peter met her eyes, his face serious. "I don't trust that guy, El. You shouldn't either. Stay away from him."
El raised her eyebrows. Peter reached across the table and put his hand on hers.
"I can't get any information on the guy. Nothing official. What I do know is that he has connections to the Detroit mob. And he's pretty comfortable with guns, too. He has some combat training, and he's quick. That bumbling, paranoid demeanor? It's an act, and I don't want him around you again."
Peter doesn't give her orders, doesn't tell her who to associate with. He's warned her about Neal before, of course- that he's unreliable, that he might be scamming her, him, the both of them, that he might go back to prison and break their hearts. But he hasn't told her to stay away from anyone like that, ever. Elizabeth Burke was a modern woman, and automatically a little offended at his tone, so she stood up and moved to the cabinet. With her feet underneath her again, she relaxed, got some mugs. Watched the coffee drip into the pot. Poured. Peter doesn't tell her who she can associate with. Which meant this was really worrying him.
"What do you want me to do if he comes around?" she asked, passing him his cup. There was no anger in her tone, and she could see Peter's shoulders relax a little.
"Just call me. There's no need to make him angry. He probably won't hurt you, but... Just call me and I'll handle it."
She nodded. "Peter?"
He looked at her. He was still too serious, but coffee and conversation had begun to chase the haunted look from his eyes.
"I think you might be right about Neal... but maybe not for the reasons you think."
Peter took a sip of coffee, looked at her hopefully.
She smiled, and pulled out a chair. "Okay, Neal's manipulating you into trusting his word... but, you know, of course he is. His freedom depends on you believing him, and Neal's the kind of guy who plans for worst case scenarios and escape routes. So, yeah, he wants to maybe get away with one big lie down the road... because if he needs it, he'll really need it. It's smart, and a little cold, but it's not... evil."
Peter nodded along. This is what he wanted to hear, wanted to believe, and now that they're in their cozy kitchen, farther and farther removed from whatever he saw in his dream, he can.
She continues. "And the guns? Same thing. If you're going to be associating with violent criminals, it's safest to be the biggest threat in the room. You told me that once. And when you're the FBI, you're a big threat without having to do much, because you have the whole institution behind you. Kill an agent..." she paused for a moment, not willing to look at him.
"Kill an agent, and the whole bureau comes after you, forever. It's over. If the cops or the FBI don't shoot you, you'll get the death penalty and go that way. And that helps you stay safe out there."
El kept her head down, toward the table. She saw Peter's hand stretch quietly for hers, took it. This wasn't something they talked about much.
"Neal, though, he's been on his own, right? No implacable agency to back him up. So if he wanted to be a big threat, he'd have to be pretty ruthless, and he'd have to let everyone know he was ruthless. You have to make people fear crossing you. There's no point in being secretly scary, not in his position."
Without looking up, Elizabeth felt Peter's considering nod. She spoke quickly, thinking it out as she went.
"Or you can go the other way- be no threat at all, so the big guns never have to come out. Have a reputation for being sneaky. For following through on your deals, but weaseling out of situations where it might get bloody. No threat, so he doesn't need to be disposed of, and not easy to victimize, so he doesn't get taken advantage of. If Mozzie's dangerous... well, maybe if people think Neal has a friend who might avenge him, that gives him a little ace in the hole. And if the FBI knows he's never violent, that changes your tactics toward him, too. It's worked for him twice already. It let you go after him one on one, instead of a full SWAT team where someone might get trigger-happy."
Peter's hand relaxed in hers. She smiled at him. "If I were Neal, I'd make sure the armed agents I worked with saw me as harmless, too. Simple self-defense."
Peter smiled back. "You are a brilliant woman, El."
El looked at him. He looked relaxed, himself again, doubts soothed away for now. A flicker of unease ran down her spine for a moment, but she dismissed it. Neal was Neal. Charming and harmless.
"I'm a woman who should be asleep right now, not staying up all night talking about Neal Caffrey."
Peter raised one eyebrow, slowly, set down his coffee and pushed back his chair. "Want to stay up all night doing something else?"
Her spine tingled again, and she smiled.