asimaiyat: If you're in trouble, and no one else can help, and you can find them, maybe you can hire Leverage! (w/ whole team) (Default)
[personal profile] asimaiyat
Title: "Love Walked In (or, five things that didn't work, and one that did)"
Fandom: White Collar
Pairing: Neal/Peter/Elizabeth
Rating: PG-13
Summary: The one where Neal tries really, really hard to impress the Burkes.

AN: This story was inspired by the Celtic myth of Lugh at the Gate. Thanks to [personal profile] joy_shines for inspiration!


Neal Caffrey (con man, thief, financial wizard, escapist, practical joker, traveler, appreciator of everything beautiful and clever, and, first and foremost, artist) was good at a lot of things, but he would have to say that his specialty was the skill set involved in always knowing what he wanted, and always getting it. So when he noticed that his fondness for Peter and Elizabeth Burke, not just as a matched pair of individuals but as a single, perfectly wrapped package, had gone from the sort of indulgence one naturally feels toward the quaint and cute, straight through the territory of admiration and into (to be frank) full-fledged desire, he did not think it would be terribly difficult to persuade them to let him be part of that package himself. After all, he was good at so many things, and he had so much that he could offer them. Surely they would come to realize that without him, they were simply missing out.

On a Friday afternoon, Neal casually mentioned to Peter that he was quite the accomplished cook, and maybe he could fix dinner for him and Elizabeth sometime. Peter cocked his head in that oh, yeah? sort of way: "Uh oh. You trying to butter me up for something?"

"Maybe, maybe not." Neal flashed what he was pretty sure was a disarming smile. "You guys like Southern Italian, right?"

After consulting with Elizabeth, they planned dinner for the following Thursday night. Neal knocked at the door weighed down by grocery bags overflowing with specialty ingredients, the frilly tips of fennel stalks protruding at odd angles, a loaf of bread threatening to topple out. Elizabeth helped him carry them to the kitchen, and he got to work, paying almost as much attention to the show he was putting on as to the final product. He chopped vegetables in syncopated rhythm, emulsified salad dressing in a martini shaker, dropped rounds of eggplant into bubbling hot oil and fished them out with perfect timing, and poured white wine into the seafood risotto from a couple of feet up just to watch the little splash -- all the while keeping up a steady patter about the summer he spent in Sicily, and the fabulous free-spirited earth-mother type who had taken him in and taught him everything he knew about cooking, and really it was a shame that his fortune had reversed itself so quickly and he'd had to leave without saying goodbye.

"You do that a lot?" Elizabeth looked vaguely concerned.

"What, mince onions? When I have to."

"Leave without saying goodbye."

"When I have to." Neal's eyes flickered between Peter's calculating expression (probably trying to line up when Neal had been in Sicily with a stack of unsolved case files) and Elizabeth's wistful one and the eggplant rounds sizzling in oil. It struck him that he probably should have said something different. "I mean, when I had to. It's, you know, an on-the-run-from-the-law thing."

When they sat down to eat, everything was perfect. The salad was crisp and bright, the shrimp and scallops in the risotto cooked to just the right texture, the wine perfectly matched to every course. Somewhere between entrees and dessert, Peter surreptitiously unfastened his belt under the table -- that had to be a good sign. When they were finally left sitting around a completely empty table, Elizabeth turned to Neal, eyes bright.

"That was really amazing. You think you could give me the recipe for those eggplant appetizers?"

"Sure, I can write it down for you. The technique's a little tricky, though, you have to work fast before they get soggy --"

"So it's basically like making rollatinis?"

"... Yeah."

"That's what I thought!" She smiled. "The salad was great, too, with those little olives and the Meyer lemon juice --"

"It's one of my favorites."

"I'm just curious, have you ever tried making it with a blue cheese? Like maybe a cabrales? Not very Italian, but --"

"But it would work better with the brine-cured olives, and wouldn't add as much salt as the ricotta salata. Why have I never thought of that?"

Peter, whom Neal had assumed was in a state of food-induced catatonia, started laughing at Neal's bewildered look. "Don't let her burst your bubble. El's been taking gourmet cooking classes since before we met -- I think they're using her as a free teaching assistant by now."

"Guilty as charged. Sorry." Elizabeth bit her lower lip. "That really was the best dinner I've had in ages."

"Thanks; it's always nice to get an expert opinion." He smiled and reminded himself that he had plenty more to offer, and there was no point in getting discouraged. When the Sinatra album Elizabeth had put on the stereo came to an end, he thanked them for having him over, promised that they'd do it again sometime, and took off.


"Hey, Jones. Can I get your help with something?"

Incredibly, Agent Jones actually glanced over both shoulders before replying. "Is it going to get me in trouble?"

"What? No! I was just wondering if you knew if Peter had any old cases that he'd struggled with -- anything he might still be frustrated over."

Jones frowned. "You're sure this is a good idea? The boss doesn't like people getting in his stuff."

"I'm sure. Thought I might be able to lend a hand."

"Well, if you're sure... if I were Burke, I might keep 'em in the back of the file room, on top of the last shelf in the right-hand corner, in a big blue box. Hypothetically, I mean. You owe me one, man."

"I won't forget it," Neal promised with a handshake.

As soon as he managed to get some time without any busy-work to do, he went back to the file room to look through the box. Unsurprisingly, it was -- well, it must have been very well-organized, just... according to a system that was known only to Peter. Luckily, he'd learned to decrypt Peter's shorthand by now, but managing to piece together a file in an order that could begin to make sense to him took an implausible amount of time. And once he'd dug out the actual incident report under a pile of shorthand notes, witness interviews and photos that looked oddly familiar...

"Damn it!" he hissed. He could have made this one a lot easier to solve. A lot easier. If his sense of self-preservation hadn't gotten in the way. He had to laugh when he noticed that Peter had underlined a detail in the incident report and scrawled "classic Caffrey" in the margin.

The next one wasn't him, at least. Worse. A whole shipment of rare 18th-century manuscripts on loan from a library in Washington, DC, mysteriously replaced -- that one was Mozzie; he'd gloated about it for weeks. Neal put the folder back in its place; he hoped somebody'd put him out of his misery before he was desperate enough to sell out his best friend.

He got into the habit of sneaking back into the file room whenever he had a free hour or so. Eventually, he had the files sorted into three piles -- one for him, one for his close friends and lovers... and the one thick, banged-up folder that didn't fit in either category. Just one. Oh well, it was something.

He called Mozz that night and went over the details of the case.

"A run-of-the-mill securities fraud from three years ago? This is what you're obsessing over? I didn't think you'd get boring so quickly."

"I'm not obsessing. Peter is. I'm just hoping I can give him a hand."

"It's worse than I thought. You're infatuated."

"Can we talk about the case, now? What've you got?"

"I've got three suspects, and a hunch."

Three days later, Neal called back. "Your hunch was right. D'Amato and MacMullan both have solid alibis. Archer, not so much."

"Yeah, about that."

"It's never a good sign when you say that."

"Our friend Herbert Archer was arrested in Sao Paulo and sent to prison on an unrelated charge last month." His tone turned philosophical. "Under the name 'Henry Martinez,' which apparently is the name on his birth certificate."

"Oh well, I guess that's -- really? I met that guy a couple of times. He really seemed like a Herbert."

"I just report the news, man."

Neal settled for leaving a note on the folder in question, explaining Martinez's story. He didn't get any response until about a week later, when on their way back from lunch, Peter flashed him a rueful grin. "By the way, I knew Archer was behind that one."


"Right, Martinez. Thanks for the confirmation, anyway. Too bad about all the --" He waved a hand in an elaborate way.

"Yeah, it really is."

"So, was that the only file in there you looked at?"

Neal flashed his best who, me? look. "Yeah, I just grabbed the first one I saw."

"Good man." Peter pushed open the door and led them into the office.


Tonight, nobody was cooking -- Peter and Neal had stopped for Thai take-out on the way home from work. El was waiting for them with a bottle of wine on the kitchen table, looking like she'd just gotten home herself, still wearing her red slingback pumps and everything. Neal offered to take Satchmo out for his walk, and El thanked him like he'd just saved her from falling off a cliff. The dog looked pretty enthusiastic about it, too; Neal suspected that Peter wasn't quite as likely as Neal was to let him stop and smell the roses, preferring to get in a little extra exercise when he could.

It was a warm night for February, and Neal was more than happy to let Satchmo sniff along the sidewalk while he looked up at the stars and considered his situation. To be perfectly honest with himself, he thought he'd be in by now. He had never put this much effort into seducing anyone in his life. But really, it was understandable. They had a good thing going with just the two of them, and they were cautious about adding any new variables that might screw things up. Plus, of course, the circumstances of his meeting them had been... not ideal... at that thought he could have sworn Satchmo gave him the "no kidding" look. It would just take a little more time, that's all. He'd have to keep an eye out for opportunities as they appeared; he was good at that.

He came in just as the subject seemed to be changing in the kitchen-table conversation.

"Ellen said it was a lot of fun, yeah. They have couples' nights five days a week, with a half-hour lesson first, and then open dancing with a live band. I know we're both pretty busy, but I thought it would be nice..."

"Aw, I'm sorry, El, but I don't know if I can commit the time right now. You know how work's been --"

"Are we talking about dancing?" Neal leaned on the kitchen door for a minute, letting Satch run in ahead of him. "Sounds like a good time."

El flashed him a flirtatious smile. "I was just telling Peter about place where my friend Ellen and her husband are taking ballroom dancing classes. I haven't done ballroom since, I don't know, college? What about you?"

"It's been a while for me, too," Neal replied with a raised eyebrow at Peter. "But what's not to love? Hey, if you want, I could go to the class with you."

"Aw, that's sweet, Neal. I might have to take you up on it."

Neal grinned. "Any time. What's your favorite dance?"

"Hmm... Argentine Tango." El crossed her legs, letting her wrap dress fall away from her curvy legs. She was definitely flirting with him. Maybe this was the opportunity he'd been waiting for.

"Let's see what I've got," Neal said half to himself, looking through the music files on his smartphone until he found the one tango song he had, an Astor Piazzola piece on the playlist he'd labeled "Suspense." He turned the volume up and hit "Play," hoping that the tinny sound from the little phone speakers wouldn't kill the mood. He put the phone down on the kitchen counter, crossed the room, and held out a hand to help her up. "May I have this dance?"

"You're a hopeless romantic, aren't you?" She laughed as she stood and stepped closer to him, placing a hand on his shoulder. It always surprised him how tiny her hands were. As the music picked up, he led her out from the table, making the best of the tiny space with the most precise footwork he could manage. She moved in closer than he'd been expecting, until he could feel her hips swiveling back and forth as her toes traced figure eights on the floor behind her. Her wide eyes met his, and she murmured, "Come on, show me what you've got."

"If the lady insists," he half-whispered back, before waiting for the appropriate moment in the music to support her neck with his hand and dip her low against his knee. Her hair spilled out behind her, and -- wow, she was more flexible than he would have guessed. In a long, snakey movement, she pulled herself back up against his chest, snapping right back into the rhythm of the fast part of the song. He raised his eyebrows at her, and she laughed out loud, letting her legs weave in and out of his with practiced precision. His eyes widened when she wrapped one strong leg around his thigh and turned them in an elegant, slow spin. "You weren't kidding!" he exclaimed under his breath as they moved toward the end of the song, finishing by lunging into a deep, forward-leaning dip, her forearms wrapped around his neck, his eyes still locked on her smiling face. She winked at him, and he realized with a slightly sinking feeling that the look on her face was less flirtatious and more... conspiratorial. The smile of a plan coming together -- he'd recognize it anywhere.

The song ended with a round of applause from Piazzola's live audience, and both of them turned to look at Peter, still leaning back in his chair at the kitchen table. "On second thought," he said, sounding maybe a little choked, "Tuesday nights are looking pretty clear for me."

"We'll have to get you some better shoes," she remarked, after one last little grateful squeeze of Neal's hand and a quick, mouthed thank you. He gave her a little shrug that could be interpreted as it's the least I can do. Because it really, really was.


A week or so later, Peter was in an especially bad mood at work -- grumbling, yelling at interns, and on his fourth cup of coffee so far. Neal waited until they had a moment to themselves before putting a hand on his arm.

"You okay, Peter? You seem a little... you aren't at your best."

"It's the damn taxes -- I was up until two going through piles of reciepts. I'm proud of El running her own business, but I've got to tell you, it doesn't make this stuff easy."

Suddenly Neal was more interested in the conversation. "Are you using TurboTax?"

"Trying to, anyway. It worked okay last year."

"TurboTax is deeply overrated. It misses all kinds of things. Why don't you let me come over and help you? Give me an hour with your records; I bet I can find deductions you never would have thought of."

Maybe it was just the lack of sleep and excessive caffeine consumption, but Peter looked like he was suffering from vertigo. "Oh, for the love of God, tell me I did not just hear you say that."

"Me? I didn't say anything."


Elizabeth had been puzzling for a while now over what to do with the bare wall in the second-floor hallway -- a couple of oddly-placed closet doors left no room for decoration, but without anything there, it just looked... blank. It wasn't an obsession or anything, but she'd mentioned it a couple of times, and shown Neal the offending wall once to see if he had any ideas. Peter had remarked that redecorating was less of an event and more of a state of mind for El, and Neal could see what he meant -- she saw her space as a work in progress, constantly adapting to new ideas and momentary whims. It was something he liked about her.

So after running the idea by Peter to avoid having to add a count of trespassing to his record, he came over one day when Elizabeth was out visiting her sister. Peter raised an eyebrow when he peeled off his sweater to reveal an old t-shirt over carpenter pants.

"Art," said Neal, "is a messy business."

"If I've learned one thing from you, that would be it," Peter replied, and invited him upstairs before returning to the basketball game on TV.

Neal set up shop in the upstairs hallway, covering the floor in newspapers and marking the edges of the closet doors with blue painters' tape. He then laid a fresh coat of white on the wall around the first door, and began work on a fresco of stylized grape vines, wrapping around the corners of the doors in elaborate art nouveau curves. He needed a stepladder to finish the highest parts, but luckily Peter had one in the garage, on hand for home-improvement projects. Mural painting is hard physical work -- you always end up getting your back into it more than you expect -- and when it was finally finished, he leaned against the opposite wall, sweaty and aching and with paint drying on his hands and, he was pretty sure, in his hair.

"She's gonna love it," said a voice from the stairway, and if he weren't so tired he would have jumped. There was Peter, leaning on the railing at the top of the stairs, observing his work.

"How long have you been there?"

"Oh, just a few minutes. It was a boring game -- the Hornets aren't worth watching when Chris Paul's injured."

"Right." Neal nodded like he knew exactly what Peter was talking about. He turned his attention back to his work, wondering how long it was going to take before the paint dried and the colors showed true.

It was a little fussier than what he'd want for his own place -- if he had his own place -- but it was right for Elizabeth, sophisticated but whimsical. And the colors provided a nice bridge between the stairway and the bedroom. Not his best work ever, but for one afternoon, not bad at all.

"Neal, we're watching paint dry." Peter looked amused.

"Hey, you said the game was boring."

"You want to stick around until El comes home? You can use the shower if you want -- you've got a little, uh --"

"No, it's okay." Neal had considered this possibility, and decided that it made the most sense, strategically, to give them a chance to talk about things between themselves -- preferably about how wonderful Neal was and how much they liked having him around. If he knew Elizabeth, she'd call as soon as she could to thank him, and he could get a sense of how she felt over the phone. "I've got to get back to June's; I'm supposed to be seeing a friend tonight. But thanks for letting me come over. I can get all this stuff out of your way now, if you want."

They chatted idly about work while Neal took down the painting tape and Peter picked up the newspaper pages. When they were on their way back to the garage with the stepladder, though, Peter gave Neal a funny look.

"So, how'd you know that El's an Art Nouveau fan?"

"I didn't," said Neal, knowing too much by now to be surprised that Peter recognized the style. "Just a feeling I had. Lucky guess?"

"Yeah. When we first met, she had this poster of the Four Seasons in her apartment that took up pretty much the whole wall. I think it's still in here, somewhere."

Peter unlocked the door to reveal a garage that had no room in it for a car. A couple of things had to be Peter's -- an oversized punching bag; a whole row of blue file boxes to match the one in the office (Neal had to wonder if they, too, were full of incident reports with his name scrawled in the margins) -- but the vast majority were obviously Elizabeth's: garment bags stuffed with old clothes, a few vintage-looking table lamps, all kinds of smart flea market finds that probably fit right in in one apartment of hers of another. And sure enough, behind a table that was not quite Arts and Crafts but close enough at a distance, a huge framed poster of Mucha's Four Seasons.

"Looks like she held onto it."

Peter gave him a look that was hard to read -- it made it difficult to say whether the next thing out of his mouth was a statement or a question. "Yeah. El likes to hold onto things."

As he headed home, showered and changed, Neal went over the afternoon in his head. It had definitely gone well. He thought about Peter standing there watching him paint, frozen at the top of the stairs. Obviously there was some sexual tension there. He whistled to himself as he settled in with a book to wait for the phone to ring, and after a couple of hours, it did. The display read Elizabeth.

"Hi, Elizabeth."

"Oh, hi, Neal. Thank you for the beautiful mural. It's exactly what I wanted, it's perfect."

"Are you okay? You sound a little --"

"Oh, I'm fine." She paused. "I was just mincing onions."

Neal caught everything she meant by that, the lie to save her dignity on top of the telling reference to the conversation they'd had so long ago. But he couldn't say all of the things he wanted to say to that, so instead he said "You should soak them in cold water first."

"I've tried that. It doesn't help." Dead air. "Oh, Neal."

"I don't get it. What's wrong? What did I do?"

"You didn't -- you just keep doing things for us. It's very sweet. It's just... confusing. You're asking for a lot of feelings, you know. You're making it very difficult not to -- to make things difficult. For Peter, I mean. Especially for Peter."

"Elizabeth." He made his voice warm and soft, like he was right there resting his hand on her hair, because it was hard to have this conversation over the phone. "I promise, I wouldn't make anything more difficult for either of you than it already is for me. I'm not asking for anything I'm not going to return." He wanted to keep talking, but he had to stop there, because the obvious next line was I haven't given you anything more than you've both given me. Admitting that meant admitting a lot, and the words got stuck somewhere in his throat.

"I know. You've got good intentions."

"The best."

"I know, and I'm sorry. But you just can't, Neal. It's just too much. You have to stop."

"Okay," he said, even though it was the last thing he wanted to say. "I'm sorry. It'll stop."

"Thank you."

It took all of Neal's self-control to hang up the phone without throwing it across the room.

This had never happened to him before. He was at a loss. He said to himself for the millionth time, there must be something they want.

and 1.

The next week was more normal than Neal had expected it to be. Peter never said anything to indicate that he knew about Elizabeth's phone call, and Neal never asked about it. They bickered and brainstormed and clapped each other on the back the same way they always did, and they arrested a guy who'd faked his own death in an attempt to get away with a staggering number of counts of insurance fraud -- when Cruz asked Neal casually if he'd ever faked his own death, Neal grinned and said no, he just liked being alive too much to make it convincing. He didn't ask to go home with Peter, and Peter didn't offer. One week stretched easily into two, and Neal never mentioned the phone call, and never stopped thinking about it.

When he finally decided to do something about it, it wasn't really any kind of decision at all. He didn't feel like he'd solved the puzzle; he didn't have a plan. But it was a perfect spring evening and he was miserable, and he didn't think he could put up with that for any longer. So he showed up on their doorstep, wrapped in a light trenchcoat and feeling kind of naked without flowers or a bottle of wine or anything else in his hands to give them, and knocked on the door.

When Elizabeth opened it, her eyes widened, but she didn't say anything for a minute. Something passed between them, maybe some kind of understanding.

"El? Who's at the door?" Peter's voice came from somewhere inside the house.

"It's me," he called back. "Neal Caffrey." He tried not to say his name the way he usually said it, the way you'd say Me, James Bond or Me, Batman.

Peter appeared at the door behind his wife, looking over her shoulder. He looked a little skeptical.

Neal spread his hands to show that he wasn't hiding anything. "It's just me. No presents, no surprises. No showing off. Just here to say that I'm in love with you. Both of you. And I hate to admit it, but I've been scared to death that you might not feel the same way." Half a second of silence felt like too much. "So... here I am. Admitting it."

"I told you he'd get it eventually," said Peter, grinning.

Elizabeth furrowed her brows at him. "Don't make it sound like we had a bet!"

It was adorable when they bickered, but this was really not the time. "Well? What do you think?"

Neal held out one hand, and Elizabeth took him by the wrist and tugged. "Well, I think you'd better come inside."

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asimaiyat: If you're in trouble, and no one else can help, and you can find them, maybe you can hire Leverage! (w/ whole team) (Default)

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