Disclaimer: I do not own White Collar or its characters.
A/N: Thanks for reading! Reviews and criticism are always appreciated.
It was a lovely afternoon for a funeral. The heat had finally broken with a thunderstorm overnight, and the light covering of grey clouds added an appropriate air of melancholy to the proceedings. In fact, Elizabeth thought, it was a nice little graveyard altogether, the kind of place she could imagine being buried herself, if she didn't plan on being cremated. Her funeral service would be shorter, though, and happier. More of a celebration. She'd have to talk to Peter about it, one of these days. It was better to plan these things, after all, even if it was a little morbid.
She suddenly realized that the graveside service was concluding, and wrenched her attention back. The funeral director was explaining that refreshments would be available in the funeral home down the street, and people were scattering back to their cars. Elizabeth turned toward her own, then reconsidered. It was a lovely afternoon. Susan would be fully occupied with her family and close friends- she wouldn't notice if it took Elizabeth a little extra time to put in an appearance. There was no reason not to go on foot, taking the opportunity to check out the graves as she went. She always liked to see what the inscriptions were, and how long people had lived. Peter thought this was morbid, too, but really, it was fascinating, what people chose to include on a gravestone.
The grass was well-watered, but firm, and her heels didn't sink into the turf as much as she had feared. She'd made the right choice, she thought. The graves nearest her now were modern and recent, mostly flat, shiny marble with names and dates and very little to inspire the imagination. It was a shame, but she really didn't want to take the time to go through the older part of the cemetery. She could come back another day, but of course she knew she never would. Still- you could make up some interesting stories about these people. Margaret Anderson, whoever she had been, had been- Elizabeth paused to calculate- 97 years old when she'd passed. She thought about all the changes Margaret must have seen, wondered if she'd been disappointed not to reach 100, or whether milestones ceased to matter at that age. Probably, she decided, everyone just wants to live a while longer, regardless of the number.
Then she saw it. The dates caught her eye first- three sets together, a family that had died together. A car accident? Then the name caught her attention, and her eyes widened. She pulled out her phone.
"Neal! Get in here."
Neal looked up. Peter couldn't possibly be expecting him to have analyzed these financial records already, so he wracked his mind, trying to consider what Peter might have found out about now. Keeping his expression serene and innocent, he casually joined Peter in his office.
"Close the door and sit down." Peter was glaring at him. Really, Neal couldn't think why that would be. He'd been good lately, he really had, or at least he'd been trying, which should count for something.
"What's up?" He asked, allowing his confusion to show in his voice and face.
"You're dead, Neal."
The confusion spread. "What? I didn't do anything!"
"Yeah, it's hard to do much when you're dead." Peter was using one of his dryer tones, one which said I'm-being-funny-but-don't-forget-I'm-mad-at you. Neal wasn't sure how to defuse the situation- wasn't sure what the situation was, exactly, but he wasn't going to incriminate himself by volunteering any possibilities. He waited.
Peter slid his phone across the desk. Elle had zoomed in on the gravestone pretty closely, so even the grainy cell phone image was clear enough to read:
Neal Caffrey February 11, 1979 – July 5, 1983
Oh. Well, that was unfortunate. Neal gave his best rueful smile. "You know, I like to think I'm unique. But Neal Caffrey isn't the most uncommon-"
"That's your birthday. Don't try to sell me on coincidence."
Neal widened his smile, shrugged apologetically. Left it at that.
Peter sighed, eyes tight on Neal's face. Then he reached across the desk and extended his hand. Neal took it, bewildered.
"Peter Burke. Nice to meet you. And you are?"
Ah. "Neal Caffrey." He said it firmly.
"That's my name," he insisted.
"Identity theft is a crime. You can go back to prison for it."
"First of all, if you're interrogating me, I should have my attorney present. Second, de facto name changes are still legal in most states," Neal countered. "You could wake up tomorrow and call yourself Dieter Von Stormburg, and that would be legal, as long as you aren't trying to steal from another Dieter Von Stormburg."
"Like you stole from Neal Caffrey?"
"What did I steal, Peter?" Neal held up a hand to forestall Peter's answer. "That kid didn't even have a social security number yet. He didn't have an identity to steal. He didn't have a life, not really, and that's sad, but I didn't kill him. Hell, I gave him a life. Someone will always remember him, now."
"And you? Who will remember you?"
Neal grinned and shrugged. "Everyone. I'm famous."
Peter rolled his eyes. "As Neal Caffrey."
"That's my name," he answered. Stating the obvious. "Why does it matter?"
Peter watched him for a moment, thoughtfully. "We're partners. I want to know who you are. I don't even know your birthday."
"October 16th," Neal answered promptly.
Peter blinked, obviously not trusting the quick reply. "What year?"
"1995," Neal admitted. Peter just looked at him, his expression slipping from frustrated amusement and anger to just... tired. Neal swallowed, trying to decide how to explain.
"I was born right there," he said, holding up Peter's phone. "In that graveyard. On October 16th, 1995. That's the day I became me. I invented myself. I know you think there's a story there, to explain how I fell into a life of crime, but I didn't fall into anything. I chose everything about my life. I created myself from scratch, right then and there... with a little help from the first Neal Caffrey."
He twisted Peter's phone in his hands, not looking at his partner. He should stop there; it's all the explanation Peter really needs, and Neal doesn't make a habit out of releasing more information than necessary to the FBI. But this is Peter, and he has a point. They are partners, and he wants Peter to understand.
Not setting down Peter's phone, he stood and walked around the desk, grabbed Peter's paperweight. Cupping it in his hand, he looked at Peter. "Erik Weisz."
Peter's brow wrinkled, briefly, as he retrieved the reference. "Houdini's real name."
"No," Neal corrected. He began to juggle the phone and the paperweight as he talked, pacing a little. "Harry Houdini was Erik Weisz' real name. He was Harry Houdini when he met his wife. His whole career, even back in his sideshow days, he was Houdini. He registered for the draft as Houdini. It's on his grave. How is that less real than the name he happened to be born with?"
Neal added his own phone to the juggling array, aware that people out on the floor were watching the show. He kept his face relaxed, as if juggling in the FBI offices was a daily, expected occurrence.
"I'm a magician, too. Every good con, it's all close-up magic. And magic... you think it's just misdirection and sleight-of-hand, and it is, but it's also really magic. You can't work a trick if you don't believe in it, just a little. And if you believe... names have power. They matter. So you can keep your name a secret, and no one knows you... but the name you use instead, if you keep it long enough, if you make it mean something, that becomes your name."
Neal made his phone disappear.
"Elizabeth, she wasn't born a Burke. But Burke is her name, now, and that choice? It matters. It's real. So yeah, I wasn't born Neal Caffrey. But Neal Caffrey? He's done a lot of things. Maybe not things you approve of, but some pretty amazing things. You spent three years tracking me as Neal Caffrey. I've traveled the world as Neal Caffrey. As other people, too, but mostly as Neal. And Kate..." he focused on the juggling for a micro-second, vanished Peter's phone and set the paperweight back on the desk. "Kate loved Neal Caffrey. That's the name she called me, so that's the name that has to be real. You can call me something else, if you want. Make it up. But my name is Neal."
And with that, ever the performer, Neal turned and opened the door, bowing toward the busy floor, the agents pretending they hadn't been watching the show.
From behind him, Peter spoke. "Not so fast, Neal..."
He turned and tossed Peter his phone. A moment later, his wallet.
"How do you do that?" Peter asked. His voice was exasperated, but the corners of his mouth twitched in a tiny smile.
"Magic," said Neal.