Frith (frith_in_thorns) wrote,
Frith
frith_in_thorns

[fic: white collar] Laws of Gravity (1/2)

This fic requires a little explanation. The mechanic used within is adapted from the computer game Bioshock Infinite, purely for my own amusement. Absolutely no knowledge of Bioshock is required to read this fic, and no actual game character or settings are used "on-screen" (this being set some 50-odd years after the canon), but the fic does spoil a couple of the key reveals of the game. If you want a quick overview (and to see the inspiration for this fairly bizarre crossover), I can't recommend this fanvid by [personal profile] violace highly enough.


Title: Laws of Gravity
Characters/Pairings: Neal, Elizabeth, Peter, Mozzie; mostly gen but with various alt-pairings in different sections.
Rating: T
Word count: 15,000
Content Notes: Spoilers up to the end of season 5. Acts of violence with ambiguous results. Mentions of cancer.
Other Notes: Beta-read by sholio, and also written for her prompt at collarcorner. This fills the "magical trouble" square on my hc_bingo card.
The absolutely STUNNING art is by the amazingly talented kanarek13. Thank you so much! ♥ (Tell her how awesome it is!)

Summary: When the hood comes off, Neal learns that his kidnapping was masterminded in a different universe altogether, by someone utterly unexpected. And then an accident sends him tumbling between worlds, lost and in freefall…



~

Over the dull growl of the van's engine, the rasp of Neal's own quick breathing was amplified by the hood covering his head. His trapped breath pressed hot and stale against his face. His wrists were zip-tied tightly behind his back, and the hard lines of the plastic dug into his skin as his twisted muscles cramped.

He kept very still. There were at least two men in the back of the van with him, the ones who had grabbed him, and they were stronger than he was. No sense in acting stupidly, however frightened he might be.

He could feel that there would be bruising on his leg from where they had cut the tracker off. The lack of weight there kept jarring him. Usually he relished the times when it was removed.

The van pulled to a stop, the engine cutting out and startling Neal to attention. They had barely been driving for half an hour, if that. They were still in New York. Somehow, he had expected the journey to be longer.

He heard the van door open, and then he was being hustled out, still with the hood firmly over his head. He could feel the heat of the afternoon sun, and then the coolness as he was guided into a building. His footsteps against the hard floor echoed slightly. A warehouse?

"Here's your payment," a cool female voice said. Neal frowned beneath the layer of black cloth, barely keeping himself from exclaiming aloud. He knew who was speaking. But it didn't make any sense

"You want us to stick around?" That was the voice of the man who'd been trailing him, the one with the cowboy boots.

"No."

"You sure you can manage him on your own? No offense, but…"

"I'm very sure. You can go now." The woman's firm voice had irritation in this time.

Neal stood stock-still while several sets of footsteps faded, and a door banged shut. He was straining his ears, and could just about make out the sound of the woman breathing. Was it just her now? Could he make a run for it?

He had to be mistaken about who she was. But her voice…

Then the hood was pulled abruptly from his head, and Neal found himself face-to-face with Elizabeth Burke.

She smiled slightly. "Hi, Neal," she said.

He was sure his expression must be a picture. "El?" he asked. Undoubtedly it was her, but he still felt like he needed confirmation.

Although… she was wrong. There was something about the way her hair was brushed back, for utility rather for display. Some sharper set to her mouth. And she was wearing a style of clothing he'd never seen her in before — sturdy-looking dark grey pants and a jacket, both with numerous zipped pockets.

"I'm going to cut your hands free," she said. "Promise me you won't do anything, though, until you've heard me out."

"I promise," he said, and she pulled a knife from one of her many pockets, unfolding the blade to slice through the plastic ties.

She frowned at the red marks left on his skin as he rubbed at them. "I told them not to hurt you," she said, sounding annoyed.

"I've had worse kidnappings," Neal assured her. But his mind was racing. Why would Elizabeth have had him grabbed like that? What was going on?

Elizabeth took a breath. "I'm not the Elizabeth you know," she said. "We've never met."

Neal frowned, uncomprehending. "You're her… twin?"

"No, I am Elizabeth, but… Elizabeth from another place. Another universe." She pursed her lips, but her expression remained calm. Neal had seen a similar expression on her face a hundred times before. "I know this is a lot to believe."

"Is this a leaving prank you and Mozzie cooked up?" Neal asked.

"No." She still looked calm. "I can travel between universes. It's a talent I inherited from my mother. I came to fetch you because we need your help."

This definitely had the hallmarks of one of Mozzie's more insane ideas written all over it. "What do you need my help with?" Neal asked, playing along. "And who's we?"

Elizabeth pushed her hands into her pockets. "Neal — my Neal — is dying," she said, bluntly. "I need your help to save him." She looked sad and determined at the same time, her expression making Neal uneasy. Elizabeth was a very good actress, he knew that, but this good?

"It took me a while to find you," she continued. "I wanted you to already know me, and I'm not in many universes. It's… complicated, but most versions of my mother stopped existing after an event when she was younger. She used to be called Elizabeth too — like the ones who were destroyed — but when she was the only one to escape from the people trying to exploit her powers she became Anna instead, to hide. The remaining versions of her were the ones already called Anna. Like Elizabeth Burke's mother."

"Uh, okay," Neal said. Most of Elizabeth's explanation had gone over his head, but he thought he had caught her main point. "So you needed to find a version of me who would listen to you?"

"Exactly," she said, with a pleased smile. "I know you still don't believe me, but that's okay. There'll be time for longer explanations on the other side."

"I don't believe you," Neal agreed, amiably.

Elizabeth just nodded in response. And then she reached up her hands and… tore the air.

It rent like cloth, the edges jagged and fraying, bleeding white light. Through the tear Neal could see another empty warehouse — and it was a different one. He knew it instinctively. The view of it swam slightly — the colours were muted and the lines and angles flickered, disrupted by static.

"You're telling the truth," Neal whispered. His throat seemed to have locked tight, his breaths coming rapidly. Elizabeth had ripped a hole in the air, and it led somewhere else.

She was watching him seriously now, although there was the hint of a smile playing on her lips. And he was hit by the abrupt realisation and acceptance that she wasn't the Elizabeth he knew. She was someone else. Someone he didn't know, with her own hairstyle and dress sense. "Are you going to come with me?" she asked. "I promise to bring you back safely."

Another time Neal might have stalled, and demanded more answers first. But it was still only hours after he'd had freedom dangled in front of him just to have it immediately snatched away. And this — this was freedom of a sort he'd never imagined. A whole new universe. Try and find me there. There was bitter anger boiling away inside him, and it was enough to make him reckless. "All right," he said, and grinned.

Let the FBI spin their wheels for a day or two. That was fine by him.

Elizabeth grinned back at him, pleased and excited. "Take my hand," she said, and interlocked her fingers with his.

There was a sudden shouted exclamation from behind them.

Neal turned, immediately recognising the man with the boots. The one who Elizabeth had hired to kidnap him. He was advancing across the expanse of the warehouse.

"What are you doing, Mike?" Elizabeth demanded. "We're done. I told you."

Mike had a gun in his hand. "What is that?" he demanded in response. He was staring wide-eyed at the tear that Elizabeth had made. "How are you —"

"We're going," Elizabeth muttered to Neal, urgently. He nodded agreement.

"Don't move!" Mike shouted.

Elizabeth pulled at Neal's hand, and he stepped with her into the rip in the air.

At the same time, Mike fired the gun.

The shot struck the edge of the tear, and Neal felt the blast of energy throw him sideways as everything went blindingly white. There was nothing solid around him or under his feet. Elizabeth was shouting his name, and he tried to cling onto her, but their hands were being wrenched apart as they were falling, terrifyingly fast, in opposite directions.

Then she was gone, and he was alone, and in freefall.

~

Elizabeth had first torn a hole between worlds when she was thirteen. It hadn't been an accident; she had grown up knowing what her mother could do, and striving to copy her.

It had always been a deadly secret that only the two of them shared. Elizabeth had learned that she could never tell anyone else before she could remember learning anything else. The wonderousness of it had been at first rendered mundane by her child-self's lack of realisation that what her mother showed her regularly was impossible. Even when she knew better, it was still something that she could take for granted.

And then she had found that she could do it, too.

Her mother had been proud, and delighted. And afraid. In the years which had passed since then Elizabeth had managed to put together many of her mother's idly-dropped phrases and hints, enough to realise something of the danger they would both be in if anyone found out what they could do. She still didn't know exactly what had happened that meant Anna DeWitt never dared to return to the world she had been born in (or grew up in — it was unclear), and even then had gone so far as to change her name. But she'd felt safe enough to give her daughter the name which had used to be hers…

And, like her mother, Elizabeth had been unable to resist using her power. Walking through worlds was exhilarating, breathtaking. Anna hadn't tried to stop her; only warned her, always, to keep what she could do a secret.

Elizabeth had done so successfully for years. Until she had met Neal Caffrey.

Which had led eventually to — now.

Falling.

As she tumbled through the bottomless white energy which was the between-spaces that the gun-blast had thrown them into, Neal was the only real thing she could see. She barely knew this Neal but it didn't matter — he was reaching for her, screaming to her, and her fingertips brushed his, her arms outstretched, as she fought to hold onto him.

And then he was torn away from her, the two of them tossed apart like leaves in a hurricane. White light blinded her and she closed her eyes, clawing her fingers as if they could bite into the fabric of somewhere, anywhere, just let this stop

She recognised the slight weakness that meant she could tear through and ripped it open purely on instinct, before her consciousness had fully caught up. She fell through with enough force to drive her to her knees on the other side, all the breath knocked out of her. It was a moment before she could gather herself enough to look up.

She was on a bustling city street. No one spared her more than a glance as she pulled herself to her feet, feeling the bruises that the sidewalk had raised on her knees. If anyone had noticed her fall out of thin air they hadn't stuck around.

Street signs confirmed that she was in New York. But moving actual distances was usually much harder than slipping through into roughly the same physical place in a different dimension. It needed focus, and concerted effort, neither of which she'd even been attempting. She had no idea how she'd managed to slip sideways like this.

A further scan of her surroundings confirmed that Neal was nowhere in sight. Unlikely as it was, she had been hoping

"Elizabeth?"

He was there! She turned, immeasurably relieved. "Neal, are you okay?"

Neal cocked his head, face wearing an expression of confusion above an elegant suit. "I'm fine," he said, puzzled. "Why, did something happen?"

It was the wrong Neal. Not hers, nor the one she'd lost between dimensions. And she'd been utterly stupid, to assume — she was usually far more careful. "Sorry, never mind," she said, shaking her head quickly and slipping on a smile. "I wasn't thinking properly."

At least she hadn't given herself away. He clearly knew her, and when she looked more closely she could see the breeze pulling the cuff of his pant leg against the shape of the tracker beneath.

She could deal with this setup. It was surprisingly common — he and Peter and her had often been drawn together, like moths around a candle. It was a configuration which seemed stable, and normal, and to work.

"I'm afraid I have to be terribly rude and run off without even speaking to you," she said, doing her best to look harried — not currently difficult. "Last minute bridal panics. You know."

Neal raised his hands. "Don't let me get in your way," he said. He sounded mildly confused, and perhaps a little offended — but her main need was to get out of the conversation as quickly as possible. She had always tried to avoid interacting with people who knew her alternate selves, and mostly managed it.

"Catch you later," she said, and retreated hastily around the nearest corner, not properly letting out her anxious breath until she had crossed a couple of streets and checked to make sure that Neal hadn't followed in the same direction.

Of course, with that problem solved, she was back to her original one. Finding the Neal she'd lost.

The more she thought about it, the more she became convinced that he wasn't on the same plane as her. It was something she seemed to just know, in a way she couldn't explain. There was a certainty in her mind, radiating the same crackly almost-static energy of a tear. Some sort of connection had been forged, maybe from the unexpected, unprecedented surge of energy the bullet had provided.

That made her task slightly easier. She just had to keep moving between worlds, and wait in each until she was able to register Neal's presence or absence.

That's all, is it?

By this time, she had walked far enough to find an empty construction yard, with its gate wide open. She slipped behind the fence, out of sight of traffic and passers-by, and reached for a weakness in the air. She tore it open, and stepped through.

~

Neal hit the ground with an impact that knocked all the breath from him. His throat was sore; he might well have been screaming for all the time that he'd been falling through that bright white void. For long moments he kept his palms pressed against the cold grit he could feel beneath them, unwilling to even open his eyes.

When he did, it was something of an anticlimax. He was on an empty New York street — he recognised the Brooklyn skyline instantly.

There was an ache between his temples. He lifted his hand hesitantly towards it. Had he been hit over the head, and suffered a bizarre hallucination? It seemed the most likely explanation…

He pushed himself to his feet. There was no blurriness of vision, or any other symptoms of a concussion. He still steadied himself against the nearest wall, just for the feel of something solid.

Across the street, Peter and Elizabeth appeared around a corner. Elizabeth was dressed casually, and holding Satchmo's lead, but Peter was still in work clothes.

Neal felt himself flood with relief. "Peter!" he called, waving to make sure they spotted him, and couldn't help grinning when Peter visibly started as he looked up. He turned his steps quickly towards them.

"Neal Caffrey?" Peter demanded, as Neal got closer.

"Well, yeah," Neal said. "Look —"

He got no further. "Don't move," Peter ordered, and grabbed his gun from his holster. "Hon, get behind me."

Neal's first thought was that Peter was aiming it at someone behind him — but no, he was aiming at him. "Peter?" he asked. "What's going on?"

Elizabeth backed up a step, her hand pressed over her mouth.

"You're under arrest," Peter said. "On suspicion of — no, actually, I can't be bothered to feed your ego by listing everything off. Just turn around slowly."

"Peter, please, listen," Neal begged. "I'm not sure exactly what happened, but I didn't run. There was a man — he black-bagged me —"

"What are you getting at here?" Peter demanded.

"I didn't cut my anklet," Neal said. Peter looked so unforgiving it was downright frightening.

"What anklet?"

"What?" Neal asked, momentarily baffled. "I only had the one."

Peter stared at him. "What on earth are you talking about?"

Neal stared right back. He glanced over at Elizabeth, who was watching him nervously with absolutely no recognition in her eyes.

Parallel universes.

For a moment it was hard to breathe. He was looking at a Peter who hadn't worked with him for more than three years, who wasn't his friend.

"Turn around," Peter ordered, for the second time.

Moving slowly, Neal obeyed. He wasn't sure what else to do, and he didn't want to get shot. But Elizabeth — the one who'd dragged him into this — would come for him, wouldn't she?

The cold bite of steel locked around his wrists with a click. "I'm going to make a call," Peter said. "Don't try anything, or you'll regret it. And I mean that."

Neal nodded. He was already trying to work out a way to play this scenario to his advantage. There was always something.

But while he was thinking, suddenly everything went white. He faintly heard Peter give a shocked exclamation, and then he was falling again.

~

Elizabeth confirmed as she stepped through the tear that something had gone very wrong. She felt a weird tug in her mind which made her think Neal, and then her stomach dropped briefly as if she was falling and she stepped out onto a dark empty street, which was not what she had been expecting at all.

It had taken barely a second, but she was badly shaken. She had always had control. But something had happened when Neal had been forcibly torn away from her, and now she was entirely off balance.

The strange mind-feeling of Neal's presence had vanished again. So he isn't here, Elizabeth thought, and then immediately began to doubt. What if it was only a reaction to the way her passage between worlds had somehow been wounded, and not a way to find him at all?

Still, she couldn't shake the instinctive feeling that when she finally ended up in the same world as the Neal she was trying to find, she would know.

Her surroundings were rather ambiguous, but she was sure that this time she wasn't in New York, despite being mostly hemmed in by expensive-looking buildings that blocked her view of the skyline. The style of them was all wrong — they were French, maybe. That realisation had barely formed when a window on the third storey of one of the buildings was thrown open, and an black-clad figure came skimming down a rope using a harness.

A second person followed. They unclipped themselves quickly from the rope, and someone unseen in the room they'd exited pulled the rope up and closed the window. An inside job, apparently, and smoothly done.

Then one of the abseilers looked around, straight at Elizabeth.

She could have run — but she didn't. She instead let the one who had led the way out of the window catch up to her and grab her arm. It was a woman, and Elizabeth knew her. Alex Hunter. A cat-burglar in all universes, it appeared.

"I'm not going to call the police," Elizabeth said, before Alex could speak.

Alex's partner was, as she had half-suspected, Neal. "We should get out of here," he muttered to Alex.

"Not without knowing who she is," Alex said. "In case we have to teach her a lesson later." She was almost certainly bluffing — people were usually basically the same whichever universe you met them in. "What's your name?" she demanded.

"Elizabeth DeWitt." Telling the truth didn't seem like it would do any harm.

"Where are you from?"

"Here and there," Elizabeth said, calmly.

"Leave her," Neal said. "She obviously doesn't care about us." His voice sounded tense. Elizabeth took a closer look at him, and realised that he was cradling one arm carefully against his side.

"Are you hurt?" she asked, concern getting the better of her.

"This is ridiculous," Alex snapped. She moved protectively close to Neal. "I don't know who you are, but stay away from us. I warn you."

"All right," Elizabeth said. She held up her hands slightly. "You'll never see me again. I promise."

She was certain now. The Neal she needed wasn't here.

Alex kept throwing her suspicious glances over her shoulder as they walked quickly away (not fast enough to attract undue attention, of course).

Elizabeth waited until they had turned the corner. And then she tore the air, and stepped through again.

~

Neal didn't fall over this time, but only because his staggering step forward smacked him against a solid wall. His fingers found a crack in the stonework and he clung to it, breathing through the pain behind his eyes before he could bring himself to open them.

He had been falling again, through that blinding white. For seconds or for hours — he had no idea. He wasn't sure he wanted to know.

He opened his eyes. Still in New York. Different street.

And there was Peter, hurrying towards him. Their eyes met.

Neal jerked involuntarily. Then he pushed himself away from the wall and began striding hastily in the opposite direction, trying to lose himself in the flood of traffic. Maybe Peter hadn't seen him.

(Maybe he was even supposed to be on-anklet. But Neal didn't want to risk it — and, surely, the universes where he hadn't been caught must outnumber the ones where he had? Surely.)

"Caffrey!" The call was close enough to his ear that Neal couldn't possibly have failed to hear it, and a moment later a hand closed around his upper arm. No escape.

Neal drew in a quick breath, and turned around. "Peter. Didn't see you there."

"No worries," Peter said, which seemed to veto Neal currently being a fugitive. "Lost in thought? I hope it's good news for our case."

Another universe where he was a CI, then? "Want to grab some coffee?" Neal asked, stalling for time.

Peter glanced at his watch. "Good idea. We've got time to kill before the briefing."

Oh, good, Neal thought, surreptitiously glancing around as they made their way down the street in case his counterpart was about to appear. "So do you have any new leads?" he asked, to distract Peter from doing the same thing.

Peter shook his head. "Janson's still in hiding," he said. "It's on you people to get someone who knows him to talk, as I understand it. But my technical people are working the electronic side, so we might be able to smoke him out that way."

Neal desperately wanted to know who he meant by you people. Him and Mozzie? Surely not. But he had had the unwelcome realisation that if he blew his cover, so to speak, it could cause a huge amount of trouble for the Neal who already lived in this universe. He was mildly surprised to realise the extent to which he cared about that.

"We'll keep digging," he assured Peter.

"Great." They had reached the coffee cart; Peter ordered black coffees for both of them. "I must say, it's a pleasure to work with you, Caffrey. Joint operations with the NYPD aren't always this smooth."

There was a small blank moment where his thoughts seemed to stutter. "What?" Neal said, stupidly.

"Lots of turf wars," Peter explained, blithely oblivious to Neal's slip. "I imagine you haven't heard some of the truly infamous stories, since you've just transferred here."

"Yeah, you should catch me up sometime," Neal agreed automatically, still reeling. In a flash of inspiration, he pulled out his phone and glanced at it. "Sorry, just got a message I need to reply to. It's one of my informants. I'll see you at the briefing?"

"Go, go," Peter said, waving his hand understandingly.

Neal escaped around the corner and leaned heavily against the nearest wall. Dammit. He had managed that deception, but only just. He hadn't been expecting to be a cop; hadn't even considered it as a possibility. Am I a good one? he wondered. Or will I turn into a criminal like my father, no matter my intentions?

He had to remember that this wasn't his life. It was ridiculous to be shaken so badly by it.

He was still agonising over it when the white between-spaces opened up around him again, and beneath his feet, swallowing him.

~

Elizabeth was face-to-face with herself.

She froze, which was the same thing the other Elizabeth was doing. Just standing perfectly still, with her mouth half-open, ready to either relax or scream as the situation demanded.

"It's okay," she said, quickly. "I'm not — this isn't what you think."

"Who are you?" the other Elizabeth demanded. "You look —"

Elizabeth swallowed. This hadn't ever happened to her before. Shouldn't have happened. It just confirmed her loss of control. And again, she wasn't in a place anywhere like the street she'd left. This was a kitchen, someplace cosy and domestic.

Truth seemed the best — the only — option. She was, after all, talking to herself.

"I'm you," she said. "A version of you from another universe. I'm sort of lost."

"That's ridiculous," the other Elizabeth said, tensely.

"I know it sounds it. But I'm Elizabeth, like you."

"What's my last name, then?"

Elizabeth hesitated. "I don't know where I am. But your maiden name's Mitchell, and now you're —" it seemed like a house in which more than one person lived — "Burke, or Caffrey?"

"Caffrey?" the other Elizabeth said, incredulously, and then started laughing. "As in Neal Caffrey? You think I might have married him?"

Elizabeth hoped she wasn't blushing. "There are other versions of us, you know."

The other Elizabeth shook her head, not quite convinced but definitely amused. "Well, my husband probably wouldn't be happy to hear that. Especially when he's working himself to death trying to find a way to get Neal back from DC."

"Kramer has him?" She had encountered this situation before, from a much greater distance.

There was a sudden hope in Other Elizabeth's eyes. "If you're telling the truth, and you have weird powers or whatever, can you help us?"

She didn't want to disappoint her other self, but she had to. "I'm sorry, but I can't. Like I said, I'm sort of lost right now. Something went wrong, and I'm trying to get back."

The disappointment was quickly hidden, but not fast enough for someone who already knew that face's palette of expressions. "Do you need any help, then? You look tired…"

She was tired; more than she had realised until that moment. She hadn't done a long string of world-jumping in such quick succession before. (But she had never been lost like this before.) "So you believe me?"

"I shouldn't," Other Elizabeth said. "But you are me. I… Well, to be honest, I'm trying my hardest not to actually think about any of this in case I start freaking out. None of this makes the slightest bit of sense, and possibly the chocolates Mozzie gave me yesterday had some sort of hallucinogenic drug in them. But in case you actually are telling the truth, I might as well be polite."

Elizabeth couldn't help a slight laugh. "Then if you don't mind, I'd love a glass of water or something."

"Certainly," Other Elizabeth said. She reached for a glass, and filled it from the tap, before her attention was suddenly caught by something beyond the kitchen window. "Oh, Satchmo, no! Sorry, can you wait a moment?"

A golden lab was scratching at the edge of a flowerbed. Other Elizabeth slid over the glass of water and hurried out of the back door.

It had barely closed when there was the sound of footsteps coming down the stairs. "Hon?" Peter Burke leaned around the door.

Elizabeth overrode her reflexive freeze, forcing herself to smile. Hopefully it didn't look too strained. "Oh, hi Peter."

"I need to go into the office, I'm afraid," Peter said, apologetically. "Jones thinks he might have something."

"Sure, of course," Elizabeth said, thinking desperately, Please don't look out the window.

Peter didn't notice anything amiss — he seemed distracted, already at the Bureau in spirit. "I'll make it up to you," he promised, and slipped his arms easily around her, pulling her into a kiss. She awkwardly kissed him back, more out of reflex than anything else, her eyes still wide open in mild panic.

Fortunately, it was brief. Elizabeth knew she wouldn't be able to pass as his wife for more than a minute or so, but Peter was in too much of a hurry to stay and talk, or lengthen the kiss into anything more. "I'll be back for supper," he said. "Definitely."

"I'll hold you to that," she said, smiling as best she could.

Elizabeth didn't feel that she could really take a breath until she heard the front door close. Turning to the kitchen window, she was in time to see Other Elizabeth straightening up from beneath the sill where she had been hiding. "That went well," she said, brightly, as she stepped back inside with Satchmo in tow.

"I see why I married him so often," Elizabeth said without thinking, and then mentally kicked herself. But Other Elizabeth cracked up laughing. Elizabeth joined her, tension forcing its way out through the unexpected pressure valve. She sipped the water, still smiling.

"I guess I do believe you, even though I probably shouldn't," Other Elizabeth said. She looked thoughtful. "The things you could do with that power, though. Wow. How do you resist the temptation to use it for Neal's brand of thievery?"

Elizabeth grinned, a trifle wryly. "Actually, that's how I met him," she admitted.

Other Elizabeth put a hand over her mouth, and giggled. "I wish I could tell Peter that," she said. "Don't worry, I won't."

"It probably wouldn't matter — he wouldn't believe you."

"True." She absently took the empty glass Elizabeth had set down and rinsed it out. "So, will I see you again, or will this be one of the things where I spend the rest of my life wondering whether it really happened or not?"

"Probably the second option," Elizabeth admitted. It took deliberate effort to find a place more than once, even when she knew where she was going. She had been in this world long enough to know for certain there was no trace of Neal's presence here, and she doubted she would be back. "It was nice to meet you, though."

"Likewise." She hesitated. "If you're going, can I watch how you do whatever you actually do?"

"Of course," Elizabeth said. With no more ceremony, she reached up and ripped through the air, noting with a tinge of worry that it took more effort than usual. The fascinated gasp of her counterpart followed her as she stepped through.

~

Neal's knees folded as his feet impacted the ground. He let himself drop, hoping to soften the fall, but then something sharp cracked into his shins. The blow forced his scrunched-up eyes open, and he grabbed at the edge of the steps only just in time not to smack his head against them as well.

It might not have made that much difference. As the shock of the fall drained away he realised that the pain behind his eyes had only increased, and his entire head throbbed as if from built-up pressure. He twisted into a sitting position, and pressed his forehead hard into his palms.

Somewhere nearby, he heard a door open. Just what he didn't need — someone wanting an explanation for why he was sitting on their steps. And then he heard Peter's unmistakable voice say, "Neal?" in worried tones, and he realised he still hadn't come to terms with how horribly wrong everything seemed to be going.

Cautiously, he raised his head, slitting his eyes open. Even that narrow field of view was enough to let him know he was on the Burkes' front steps. He'd expected when Elizabeth had made her offer (and that seemed like a long time ago, now) that they would stay in the same place geographically as they moved between worlds, planes, whatever. But he'd arrived at a different place each time — and always near Peter. No way that was a coincidence, but he certainly didn't have a way to explain it.

"Neal, are you okay?" Peter had bounded down the steps, and crouched anxiously next to him, a hand on his shoulder. "What happened?"

"Tripped," Neal ground out, realising just in time that Nothing would just increase Peter's suspicions.

Of course, plausible as that explanation was, it didn't make Peter back away. Instead he put his other hand against Neal's cheek, tilting his face upwards. "Are you all right? Did you hit your head?"

Peter had always been slightly hands-on, but right now he seemed way too… touchy. Neal squirmed slightly, managing to shift away from Peter's grip without being too obvious about it. "I'm not concussed, don't worry. Just banged up my shin a bit. It's fine."

"Not sure I'm going to take your word for that," Peter said, and pushed up Neal's pant leg without asking permission. Neal experienced a brief flood of horror — he wasn't wearing his anklet, Peter would have to notice that — but the sharp comment he was expecting didn't come. Again, this seemed to be an anklet-less universe. Instead, Peter just winced. "Yeah, you'll have a nice bruise. Let's get you inside."

"I'm fine, really," Neal protested, but Peter was already half-lifting him to his feet, arranging matters so that Neal's arm was around Peter's shoulders. Resiting didn't seem to be an option, so Neal let himself be led up the steps and into the house, where he was deposited on the couch while Peter went to fuss around in the kitchen looking for an icepack.

He used the time to make a quick study of his surroundings. There were the familiar photos on the walls of Peter and Elizabeth as a couple, and even a few with Neal in as well. Some of them he recognised, like the old "prom photo" of him and Peter. So this universe couldn't be too different to the one he was used to…

Peter came back before he had time for any more observations, and sat beside him on the couch. "You look like you hurt your head," he said, pushing the ice pack into Neal's hand. "We agreed to be better at telling each other this kind of thing, remember?"

Neal sighed. "It's a headache I had anyway," he admitted, and pressed the bag against his forehead. It felt wonderfully cool, and eased the pain a little. "It really was just my shin I cracked on your step."

"You still could have told me that before," Peter chided. He leaned back, and unexpectedly slipped an arm around behind Neal's shoulders. Then, even more unexpectedly, he leaned in and kissed Neal on the lips.

Neal jerked involuntarily. Peter, kissing him — it didn't compute on any level.

"Sorry, am I hurting you?" Peter asked quickly, drawing back.

Neal wasn't sure how to reply. It wasn't that he minded kissing Peter (and it would be a lie to say that the idea had never crossed his mind before), but it actually happening was, well, weird. Not least because it wasn't actually him Peter thought he was kissing — it was some other Neal, one who had presumably finished out his sentence and then stuck around.

And where was El in all this?

Fortunately, Peter must have interpreted Neal's pause as a headache-spike or similar, because he stopped trying to kiss him and instead pulled Neal slightly backwards to rest against his shoulder. It was a surprisingly comfortable position, and Neal closed his eyes as Peter began to fill the silence with quiet chatter. It enabled Neal to grasp fairly quickly that El had gone ahead with the move to DC, a year or so ago, while Peter had stayed in New York. They shared turns at weekend commuting, and El would be up to the city that weekend.

"It's your turn to cook on Saturday night," Peter reminded him. "I hope you weren't coming over to try and shirk that."

"And be subjected to your attempts twice running?" Neal retorted, making a guess. Peter laughed, which told him he'd gotten it right.

It would be easy to relax in Peter's arms. But Neal couldn't, because he knew that at any moment he could fall away again. "I was actually just stopping by to check we were still on for Saturday," he said, not really faking his regret. "I should really be going. Stuff to do." He waved a hand vaguely.

Peter sighed. "You should slow down more," he said, proving that in any universe he was a massive hypocrite. "Fine, but don't you dare be late, or El'll have your hide."

"I don't doubt it," Neal said, and levered himself up with a grin. His leg hurt when he stood on it, but as he'd already assured Peter, it was superficial. The headache was less so, but not bad enough to actually impede him. "Have fun with your FBI stuff."

"Have fun with your hopefully-not-criminal stuff," Peter retorted, following him to the door. He pulled Neal in for another quick kiss and this time Neal didn't resist. Just for the sake of the con. (Definitely.)

He barely made it around the corner before everything went white.

~

A wave of fatigue washed over Elizabeth as she stepped through into another version of twilit New York, and she stumbled before recovering herself. Either her last transition had taken far more out of her than had ever happened before, or the effect of making all these distance-travelling tears was finally catching up to her. She strongly suspected the second, and it worried her.

For a minute or so she kept on walking, hoping that the tiredness would wear off, but when she came upon a cafe with tables spilling out onto the sidewalk she gave in and dropped with some relief into a chair. Her instincts were telling her to keep moving, but she was no closer to finding Neal than she had been at the beginning, and a brief rest could only help her work out what to do.

But no matter how she turned the problem over in her mind (a waitress appeared and she placed a coffee order entirely on automatic) she couldn't see a solution other than to keep on opening tears until she found the universe which contained Neal. The one universe among an infinity of them. On the face of it, those seemed utterly insurmountable odds.

The only hope she could find to cling to was, perversely, how out-of-control her movements currently were. She kept being pulled towards something, even if she hadn't yet figured out what it was. And there was that fleeting sense of Neal's presence she had felt at every transition. He was somewhere out there, and she had to trust that she would eventually find him.

Her coffee arrived and she sipped without really tasting it. Now that she had concluded that the places she was ending up in weren't actually random, she had to work out why here?

As if in answer to her question, her drifting gaze snagged on Peter, on the other side of the street. He was standing perfectly still in the flow of pedestrian traffic, staring at her.

She didn't allow her eyes to lock onto him. With forced casualness she turned back to her cup of coffee, while still watching him out of the corner of her eyes. He wouldn't be able to tell whether or not she had noticed him. Meanwhile, she was racing through possibilities. He obviously knew her, to be staring like that, but what had happened? Why wasn't he coming over? Maybe he and El were divorced. Maybe he was chasing her along with Neal.

But then he did start walking towards her with slow, almost reluctant steps. She took note of her escape routes, and waited for him.

He hesitated next to her table, not sitting down. "Elizabeth?" he asked. His voice was soft, almost pleading.

"Hi," she said, quiet herself in response to his tone. She couldn't pretend not to know him when he was staring at her so intensely, but she needed more clues to get a proper handle on the situation.

He half-whispered, "But you're dead."

Shit, she thought, as the ground seemed to fall away beneath her — but it was only a feeling, she couldn't escape that easily.

"Keller killed you," Peter said. "I saw your — I couldn't —" He almost choked, swallowing hard. "But you're here."

"You know that's not possible," Elizabeth said, quietly. Hating herself for the idea she was grasping at. But what else was she supposed to do; tell him his wife had faked her own death, before disappearing again? What would that do to him? Her heart was clenching.

It was all very well to tell herself that she didn't know this Peter; had only just met him and would never see him again. She did know him. She had seen pieces of his life over and over, just like she'd seen pieces of Neal's, and of her own. She was already hurting him, and she wouldn't be able to forgive herself if she didn't at least try to minimise the harm she was causing.

"What do you mean?" Peter asked. He reached out towards her, but she pushed herself back out of the way.

"Don't try to touch me," she said. "Please."

Peter's eyes were sad and bewildered, and he was staring at her as if he could drink her in and make the sight of her last forever. "I don't understand," he said, his voice pleading.

So far no one else in the cafe seemed to have noticed them, and Elizabeth wanted it to stay that way. She stood up, with the table between them. It took a lot more effort than she had expected — exhaustion had sneaked up on her while she had been sitting, and now her knees were unsteady while the rest of her body felt like a lead weight. She tried not to show it. "Not here," she said, and began walking.

Peter followed her — he couldn't help it. Back around corners, into streets where nobody was watching. "Where are we going?" he asked.

"You shouldn't sit and talk to yourself in a cafe," Elizabeth said, with a faked kindness in her voice. (She was being cruel; so incredibly cruel, and it hurt.) "It looks odd to other people."

"What do you mean?"

She smiled at him, hoping he couldn't look through her eyes to how she truly felt. "Peter, you have to know I'm not here."

"I can see you."

She stepped closer to the nearest wall. It was in disrepair. Bricks had come loose and been slotted inexpertly back into place.

"Do something for me?" she asked. "And then I'll explain everything."

"What?"

"Close your eyes," she said, softly. "Just for a moment."

He had to be fighting against his instincts. But she was, unquestionably, herself. He trusted her — trusted who he thought she was. He closed his eyes.

"I love you," she murmured, and hit him in the back of his head with a brick.

The noise it made as it cracked against his skull was horrible. She nearly shrieked, and she flung the brick away from her at the same instant as he crumpled, landing on his side. His face was an ugly white colour, but she could see that he was breathing.

Quickly, and as gently as she could, she turned his pockets inside out. Make it look like a mugging, and hopefully the concussion would leave him confused about what had happened beforehand, and what he had dreamt. Hopefully…

It was horrible, and so cruel, but it would be crueler to leave him thinking forever that his dead wife was still alive.

She took his cash (she had to make it look realistic, after all), and wiped her fingerprints from his wallet, his badge and his phone before dropping them against the wall at the edge of the alley, where he should be able to find them again. After a moment's thought she picked up the phone again and dialled 911 on it, leaving the line open as she dropped it once more.

Time for her to go. Still, she had to steady herself against the wall for several seconds as she straightened up, breathing heavily. Just shock, she tried to tell herself. I can keep going, no problem…

The air was thick, and fought her as she ripped against it. But she made it through, because she had to.

~

I can't keep doing this, Neal thought, desperately. He had fallen against the ground by a park bench this time, and sank onto it gratefully. Now he held his aching head in his hands, wondering if it would be safer to just sit there and hope no one noticed him until he was inevitably swallowed up again. There seemed no way to escape it.

However, sitting and waiting had never been something he'd been terribly good at, and after only a short time he found himself straightening up and looking around him, squinting against the morning brightness. He was in a park (he had already known that), but trees blocked him from working out which one from his current position.

If he didn't need to, he wasn't going to get up. His headache was under control for now, but still lurking there strongly enough to make moving not seem like a good idea.

And he was waiting for Peter to appear. That was how it worked, wasn't it? So far, he had been drawn towards that universe's version of Peter in every place he'd been.

But when someone called, "Caffrey?" it wasn't Peter at all.

"Hi, Diana," he called in response, twisting around and trying not to wince at the sunlight behind her. He pulled up his normal self, plastering on a mask of cheerfulness. "What are you doing here?"

She came to him, as he made no motion to leave the bench. "Meeting someone," she said. "What are you doing?"

"Casing the park," Neal said. "I think that sycamore would look lovely in June's loft, don't you?"

She rolled her eyes. "Hilarious."

"So who're you meeting?" Neal asked. Off his game or not, he could recognise an evasion when he heard one.

Her mouth twisted in mild reluctance, before she sighed and gave up. "I'm meeting my new girlfriend, okay? This was supposed to be a place where we wouldn't encounter you."

"I'm thrilled you consider me when arranging your dates," Neal said, and grinned. "No, really, I'm very happy for you. What's she like?"

Diana's smile briefly became — well, sappy wasn't a word Neal would ever dare use to describe her, but he couldn't think of anything that fit better. "She's kind of shy," she said. "Really smart, though, and funny. We actually met on one of my recent cases, when someone robbed the gallery where she works."

"Oh?" Neal said. "I approve of the sound of her so far."

He was amused to see that his teasing was rolling right off Diana's clear happiness. "Well, I guess you're about to meet her," she said. "She's just heading our way."

Neal craned his neck around. And a moment later he was on his feet with no memory of standing, his blood roaring in his ears as adrenaline spiked through him. But there was no trace of recognition in the face of Diana's new girlfriend. Not that that meant anything.

"Neal, this is Rebecca," Diana said. "Rebecca, Neal."

"Neal Caffrey, right? Wow it's great to meet you!" The held-out hand was accompanied by a cheerful friendly smile. "I've heard about you."

Neal seemed to have forgotten how to breathe. Numbly, he shook Rachel's hand. The pounding in his head had intensified again, momentarily replacing all thought. "Nice to meet you too," he said, his mouth running on autopilot.

She made some small, self-deprecating comment — he barely registered it.

"We should probably get going," Diana said. "We don't want to miss our lunch reservations."

"I thought we were going over to your place," Rachel said.

"Sshh," Diana hissed through her teeth, with a sideways glance at Neal. Probably worried that he'd try to invite himself along.

But what he couldn't do now was let her go. Not to be on her own with Rachel. And Neal abruptly noticed a spot of baby-spit on Diana's collar that she must not have noticed — Theo would be at her home, too. He felt almost sick with sudden fear for them both. "Diana, I need to talk to you for a minute," he said. "FBI stuff."

"What, now?" Diana said, disgruntled. "This had better not be you trying to prolong playing third wheel."

"I promise," Neal said.

"Fine," she sighed. "Becca, sorry —"

"It's okay," Rachel said, understandingly. She put a hand on Diana's arm for a moment. "I'll just wait over there."

"We won't be long," Diana said, with a sideways glance at Neal that dared him to argue.

He waited until he was sure Rachel was out of earshot. "Your girlfriend's name isn't Rebecca," he said, speaking fast. "I recognise her. She's not who she says she is."

Diana stiffened. "What?" But she didn't shut him immediately down, and nor did she turn to look at Rachel. She was too good an agent to do either of those things.

"Her real name's Rachel Turner," Neal said, gambling everything on getting the information out as fast as possible. "She's never seen me, but I've run across her before. She's ex-MI5, gone rogue."

Diana's face hardened. "Caffrey, you had better be damn sure about this accusation," she said.

"I am." Neal didn't break eye contact. "Is this the sort of thing I'd do if I wasn't certain?"

"No," Diana admitted. She had paled, and her whole body had gone tense. "So she's dangerous."

"Very."

"You need to stay back here, then," she said. "I'll convince her we need to stop off at the Bureau. Once we're inside, we'll hold her and see if your story checks out." She took a deep breath, and held it for a second. "She was going to meet Theo today," she whispered. "Oh, my god."

Rachel was still waiting by the willow tree, fiddling with her hair. "You shouldn't be alone with her," Neal said. "I'll come with you."

Diana gave an almost silent laugh. "Yes, what I want to do is put a civilian in danger. No. But you can help by calling ahead and telling Peter or whoever's in the building what to expect. They can meet us in the lobby."

"I will," Neal said. He remembered his resolution not to cause problems for the other versions of himself — but faced with a situation like this it didn't really seem important.

"Right," Diana said, and resolutely turned away from him, smiling as if their conversation had never happened. "Hang on, Becca, I'm coming!" she called, and started walking quickly towards her.

Rachel stopped fussing with her hair, letting her hand fall. It was a smooth motion, and triggered a replay in Neal's memory of her hand brushing along Diana's arm, the way one might surreptitiously drop a bug into someone's pocket…

"Diana!" he shouted, and maybe that distracted Rachel, made her jerk her hand accidentally even as she fired the pistol which had so quickly appeared in her hand —

Diana was knocked backwards by the bullet's impact. A red stain was soaking across her chest even as she hit the ground, and Neal had to have seen Rachel's hand jerk as she'd fired, because otherwise Diana would be dead, shot through the heart. But if there was a chance that Rachel might have missed…

He was already running as she opened fire at him. That and luck saved him from the first two shots. Then things went white around him and he would have shouted from relief, except that he still didn't know if Diana was alive or not.

She had to be. It was his fault.

Part 2 // AO3

Posted at http://frith-in-thorns.dreamwidth.org/122950.html with comment count unavailable comments.
Tags: au, fanfic, fic: white collar, gen, gen-ish, hc_bingo, white collar
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