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White Collar Fic - Learning How to Bend
Matt TNH 1
doctor_fangeek
Written for wcpairings. Kudos once again to rabidchild67 and elrhiarhodan for running such a great exchange!

Title: Learning How to Bend
Rating: PG-13
Characters/Pairing: P/E/N
Length: ~3715
Spoilers: None
Warnings: None
Summary: The three of them are still learning what it takes to make this relationship work, but there's no question it's worth the effort.  Luckily for Peter and Neal, they have El.  And ice cream.

AN: Written for amy1705fl, who wanted OT3 (of the domestic sort).  She had plenty of good, very broad/general prompts.  This is mainly for the last of the prompts on her list (cooking of any sort), with a side-dish of prompts 8 & 9 (chocolate and caramel).  There were a couple of other ones I thought might get worked in there, but the story went in a slightly different direction than I initially anticipated.  Takes place in a post-anklet, OT3 future.  Title from the song of the same name by Gary Allen.  Major thanks to my good buddy rabidchild, for a super helpful, under-the-gun-last-minute beta.  You're the best, RC!  ETA: Additional thanks to RC for the helpful food-related suggestions while I was working on this. :-)



Elizabeth was pleasantly surprised when she spotted an open space just a couple of blocks from the house. Her day had turned out even longer than anticipated when the picky bride and indecisive groom she’d been expecting had been joined – unexpectedly – by the groom’s mother, and it was good to be home. Gathering up her purse and laptop bag, she smiled as she made her way to the front door. She’d called Peter partway through the afternoon to let him know she’d be late, and he’d offered to take care of dinner. That almost surely meant he’d order take-out once he got home, but that was fine with Elizabeth. There was a decent Chinese place, and some very good Thai as well as Indian not far from the house, and any of the above sounded just fine right about now. Especially since Peter had called her back a little later to report that he was taking Neal to the doctor. He assured her that Neal was okay, hopefully just a sprained ankle, and promised more information later. She’d offered to pick up food on her way home, but Peter had assured her that it was fine.

And so it was a surprise when Elizabeth opened her front door and smelled…onions? Mushrooms maybe, and some garlic? Whatever it was, it smelled delicious. Things became a bit clearer a moment later when she heard two voices coming from the direction of the kitchen, apparently in the middle of an argument.

“I’m fine,” Neal said, sounding just this side of petulant.

“You’re supposed to be taking it easy!” Peter snapped back, clearly frustrated.

“It’s just a sprained ankle,” Neal answered, and Elizabeth could almost see him bristling as he said the words. “It’s not as if I’m incapacitated.”

“No, but you are supposed to be doing the whole rest, elevation, ice thing. The ER doctor was pretty clear on that, I thought. Were you even listening to her?”

“Were you listening when she said it was a mild sprain?”

Elizabeth sighed as she set her bags down on the coffee table and made her way to the kitchen. Better to try to diffuse the situation before it got any worse. Neal was standing in front of the stove, a long wooden spoon in one hand and a dark look on his face. She could see a large pot sitting on one of the burners, and identified it as the likely source of the wonderful smell permeating the room. Peter stood a few feet away, hands on his hips, looking exasperated. A pair of crutches was leaning up against the kitchen island.

“Hi, Honey, I’m home,” Elizabeth said brightly. They both turned to her in surprise – apparently they’d been too caught up in their bickering to hear her come in.

“Oh, good,” Peter said, “Maybe you can talk some sense into him.”

Possibly, she thought, but she also suspected that that wasn’t the only thing that the situation called for at the moment.

“He’s a grown man, hon,” she said. “And he’s not your CI anymore. You don’t get to order him around. At least not in the kitchen, and not unless he asks you to.”

Peter blushed adorably. Neal looked smug…right up until Elizabeth turned her attention to him.

“And Neal, sweetie, you have to admit that you don’t always make the best decisions when it comes to taking care of yourself.”

Neal looked momentarily embarrassed before he turned his gaze to the floor.

Elizabeth stifled another sigh. She had two wonderful men in her life, and she loved them both dearly, but they – the three of them – were still a work in progress, and old habits could be hard to break.

She crossed the room, pausing to grab Neal’s crutches, and stopped in front of him. He was still looking down, as if there were something unusually fascinating about the kitchen tiles. As confident as Neal was in so many aspects of his life, his relationship with Peter and Elizabeth was something that he was still just that little bit uncertain about. It was actually rather endearing, if frustrating. Then again, Neal had only been a free man for a few months, so Elizabeth supposed it was to be expected that he would still have some adjusting to do.

She reached out, used a finger under his chin to tip his head up so she could look him in the eye, then gently pulled him in for a kiss. “I know it’s hard,” she said. “We’re all still learning. But you can let us take care of you, you know.”

“I was bored,” Neal grumbled.

“Fair enough. And?” Elizabeth didn’t doubt that what Neal said was true, but it wasn’t the whole story.

Neal frowned at her. She just smiled serenely back. “And,” he relented, “I wanted to do something nice for you.”

She carded a hand through his hair, loving the way he leaned ever so slightly into the touch. “And I appreciate it.” She glanced over at the stove, then at the counter, to figure out what he’d been working on. Really? Risotto? “But how about you let us take it from here? You know Peter makes a mean garlic bread.”

Neal nodded. Elizabeth gestured with the crutches. “I’m guessing the doctor didn’t give these to you so you could leave them lying around the house.” He gave her a put-upon look. She waited. He sighed, and reached to take them from her.

They made their way to the living room, and she cleared her things off of the table and made sure that Neal was settled on the sofa, his foot propped up. She brought him an ice pack and a glass of wine (there had been a nice Chardonnay sitting on the counter next to the stove), leaned in to drop a quick kiss on his forehead, and then headed upstairs to change her clothes.

When Elizabeth came down the stairs a few minutes later, Neal's wine glass was on the table and he was leaning into the corner of the sofa with his head tipped back and his eyes closed. Satchmo had come over to sit next to him, and Neal had one hand on Satch’s head, absently scratching him behind the ears.

“Good boy, Satch,” Elizabeth thought to herself as she quietly made her way past them to join her husband in the kitchen.

Peter was just putting a foil-wrapped bundle in the oven. He shut the oven door and turned around just as Elizabeth made her way across the room. She stopped in front of him, leaning in for a quick kiss. Peter took her hands in his and offered a somewhat sheepish smile.

“Thanks, Hon,” he said. “What would we do without you?”

Elizabeth felt herself smiling at that.

“You’d figure things out for yourselves.” Peter gave her a questioning look. “Eventually,” she added.

Peter was still looking a bit skeptical. “It’s easier for me,” Elizabeth continued after a brief pause. “My relationship with Neal doesn’t come with all the baggage the two of you have. But what I said to Neal goes for all of us. We’re still learning. Now…why don’t you start on the salad while I take care of the mushrooms for the risotto?”

Peter accepted the change of subject – that in itself was progress, Elizabeth thought – and soon the two of them were working easily together, Peter slicing the tomato and cucumber and Elizabeth first sautéing the mushrooms, then putting together a light vinaigrette.

“So…you want to tell me how Neal ended up in the emergency room today?” Elizabeth said after a few minutes of companionable quiet. Neal had signed on to continue working as a consultant for the White Collar unit – paid this time – though he was also starting to look into doing some private security consulting. Peter and Neal had been working an art theft case, with Neal posing as a potential buyer for several of the pieces. Apparently the takedown had not gone as smoothly as expected, their heretofore non-violent suspect had at some point drawn a gun – which Peter tried, unsuccessfully, to gloss over in his retelling of the story, there had been a chase, and some stairs, and by the end of it all the suspect had ended up on the ground with Diana’s knee in his back, and Neal had ended up in a heap at the bottom of the stairs.

And there it was, Elizabeth thought. Peter would probably always worry about Neal a little more than he needed to, or than Neal might be comfortable with, but add to that a bit of guilt?

“Oh, hon,” she thought to herself.

“Did you have any reason to suspect this man would even be carrying a gun?” she said aloud.

“No, but….”

“Did anyone have any idea things were going to go badly?”

“No.” There was no, “but,” this time.

“Did Neal think there was any danger?”

“No. But Neal’s not an agent.”

“True, but he knows a lot about art theft. Allegedly.” She actually got a smile out of Peter with that. “And he knew this man better than any of your agents, right?”

“Right,” Peter admitted

They had both stopped their work by now, and she took the couple of steps needed to close the distance between them. “I know how you are, hon, and I know you feel responsible for everyone on your team. It’s part of who you are, and I wouldn’t change it,” she said. “But I also know what happens when you’re feeling guilty. I know I came in in the middle of things just now, but do you think you might have been just a little bit hard on Neal?”

Peter sighed. “Maybe,” he allowed. After a moment, though, he added, “But he should be taking it easy.”

“Yes, he should. So how about we finish making him dinner?”

A few minutes later Elizabeth left Peter to finish putting together the salad and went to check on Neal. He was slumped in his seat, his arm now hanging down over the arm of the couch. Satchmo, apparently having given up on getting any more attention, was curled up on the floor at the end of the sofa. Both of them were asleep.

“Neal?” she said, gently nudging his shoulder. Sleepy blue eyes blinked open and turned to look at her.

Neal pushed himself into a more upright position and scrubbed at his face with one hand. “Elizabeth?”

“How are you feeling, sweetie? Do you need some ibuprofen?”

“I’m fine.”

“Are you sure?” she said, looking him in the eye but keeping her tone intentionally light.

Neal shrugged and gave a rueful half-smile. “Hurts a bit.”

“Define ‘a bit’.”

“It’s not that bad.” He paused. “Honestly. But maybe I should take something before it gets worse.”

“You think?” she replied with a smile. “Stay here. I’ll be right back.”

When she returned a moment later, Elizabeth handed Neal a glass of water and a couple of Advil, which he dutifully took.

“Go easy on Peter,” she said as he handed her back the glass. “He told me what happened at work today. You know he was worried about you.”

Neal nodded in understanding. “I get it, Elizabeth. I do. But….”

“I know.”

Neal looked relieved. She really did understand where he was coming from.

“You could help things out, though, you know.”

“I…” he started to protest, but Elizabeth held up a hand and he fell silent.

“He wouldn’t have gotten so worked up if you’d just done what the doctor told you. I assume you were supposed to stay off your feet, and not, say, be standing in the kitchen for an hour making risotto.”

Neal didn’t reply, and Elizabeth didn't press.

“Dinner in about fifteen minutes, okay?” was all she said.

“Sounds good,” Neal replied, looking grateful to have been let off the hook for the moment.

Elizabeth leaned in and gave him a peck on the cheek, pointed at his crutches and said, “Use them,” and headed back to the kitchen to help Peter.


Everything was just about set. Elizabeth brought out the salad dressing. Peter came out of the kitchen and put the bread down, just as Neal finished making his way over to join them. The two men looked at each other across the table.

“Look, Neal,” Peter started. “I know I can be….”

“Peter, I,” Neal said at the same time.

They both stopped.

“Or, you could just kiss and make up,” Elizabeth said into the ensuing silence.

The two of them turned toward her then, matching looks of surprise on their faces.

Neal recovered first, a sly grin appearing on his face. “I think you just want to watch, Mrs. Burke,” he said.

“Can you blame a girl?” she replied with a shrug, looking him up and down then turning the same appraising gaze on Peter. She’d given them an out and Neal was, thankfully, running with it. The two of them needed to talk, and they would. But right now, she thought, what they needed more was to just “be.”

Peter looked from Neal to Elizabeth and back to Neal again, his brow furrowed in that “I’m working out a puzzle” way of his. Elizabeth usually found that look endearing, but this time she was glad when Peter gave in, when he shook his head and a fond smile found its way onto his face instead.

“I think,” Peter said after a moment, “that we should give the lady what she wants.” He looked at Neal. “Any problem with that, Caffrey?” he said, the grin now on his face belying any harshness in the words.

“Whatever you say, Agent Burke,” Neal replied with a smile that Elizabeth was gratified to see reached all the way to his eyes. He started to turn, shifting his grip on his crutches.

“Caffrey. Stay."

And, somewhat miraculously, he did. Peter practically stalked around the table. Neal set his crutches aside and turned toward Peter who reached out to put a hand on Neal’s hip to steady him. He lifted his other hand to Neal’s face, buried his fingers in Neal’s hair, and ran the pad of his thumb lightly along the line of his cheekbone. Neal drew in a deep, slightly shaky breath. Peter dropped his hand down to cup the back of Neal’s head, and Neal’s eyes slid closed as Peter pulled him into a kiss.

Elizabeth had to admit that yes, she enjoyed watching (but really, who could blame her?). And not just because they were beautiful – which they were – but because they were beautiful together, and because they were hers, and she loved them. And really, the way Neal went sort of boneless, relaxing in a way he so rarely did…. So she watched. And they took their time, the kiss a long, leisurely exploration, and when they finally broke apart Neal glanced over at her with a sly smile, and she knew that as much as this had been for them – and it had – it had also been for her. Yes, they were hers and she loved them.


Dinner, when they sat down to it a few minutes later, was relaxed and enjoyable. Elizabeth assured Neal that it hadn’t been any trouble to finish up the preparations, and let him promise to make her something really special once he was back on his feet, so to speak. She also made him promise that he would wait until then. Peter actually apologized for the fact that Hughes had given Neal the next day off, had insisted, in fact, that he take it. Neal grumbled a bit, but it was coming from Hughes, after all, so there was really no point in arguing about it. And though Neal assured Peter that he didn’t need to stay home as well, he acquiesced with unusually good grace when Peter simply said that he wanted to.

“And since you were so keen on going into the office,” Peter said with a smirk, “You can help me get started on the new case files.”

“Whatever you say, Peter,” Neal said with a smile that suggested he would be doing no such thing, before pointedly turning his attention to Elizabeth and offering her more wine. Peter said nothing, just watched with fond amusement.

When they finished eating, Elizabeth sent Neal back to the sofa, Peter trailing after him, while she started loading the dishwasher. She grabbed the re-chilled ice pack and made her way back to the living room. Peter and Neal were both on the sofa, and Peter was holding the cable remote, his arm stretched up above his head.

“Seriously, Peter, you’re playing keep-away with a one-legged man?”

“It’s just a sprained ankle. You’re not incapacitated,” Peter replied, shamelessly using Neal’s earlier words against him.

“That was low.”

Peter just shrugged.

“You’re really going with that?”

“It’s Yankees-Red Sox!”

“It’s game one of a three-game series!”

Peter just looked at Neal for a moment, surprised, then shook his head and smiled, a look on his face that Elizabeth recognized and interpreted to mean, “Of course, Neal would know that.”

“Fine,” Peter said. Neal smiled smugly and held out his hand and Peter put the remote into it.

Elizabeth gave Peter a peck on the cheek. “I’m sure he’ll let you check on the score during commercials.”

She turned to Neal, handing him the ice pack. “Can I get you anything else?”

“I’m good,” Neal replied, but either Elizabeth was getting better at reading him, or Neal wasn’t at his best, because she caught the slightest hesitation in his response.

“Neal?”

His only response was to carefully rearrange the pillow under his foot.

“Neal.”

“It’s silly,” Neal said, studying his lap.

“Why don’t you let me be the judge of that?”

Neal continued to hesitate, and he still wasn’t looking at her.

“Neal, sweetie, please look at me?” she cajoled gently, and he complied.

I want to do something nice for you,” Elizabeth said, trying a slightly different tack. “Do you think you can let me do that?”

Neal actually smiled at that and let out a little sigh of defeat, apparently unable to resist her any longer. “I really want a sundae from Daisy’s,” he said, half under his breath.

“Not silly at all,” Elizabeth replied. It was comfort food, after all. She smiled to herself at that. For all that Neal was suave, sophisticated and worldly (and he was all of those things), and for all that he had a sophisticated palate (and he certainly did), his favorite dessert was not crème brulee or a fancy Napoleon or Opera Cake, or tiramisu (though crème brulee was probably a very close second), but the unexpectedly mundane vanilla ice cream sundae, though ideally it had to have both chocolate and caramel sauce, and sprinkles (preferably multi-colored). Elizabeth had a feeling there was a story behind this particular preference, but Neal would tell them if and when he was ready.

“I don’t know that I can make it back from the diner without it at least starting to turn into ice cream soup,” she said, “but I think I can get you the next best thing.”

The smile she got in return was sweet and open, and it warmed her heart.

“Thanks,” Neal said simply.

“You’re welcome,” she replied, then moved to pull on her shoes and gather up her purse and keys. As she passed by on her way to the door she saw Neal aiming the remote and a moment later she heard the opening voiceover of “Storage Wars” coming on. Neal had some somewhat surprising TV-watching tendencies as well, though he blamed his addiction to that particular show on Mozzie.


When Elizabeth arrived back home after her quick trip to the store she found the two of them still on the sofa and Neal animatedly explaining why the expert appraiser on the TV was all wrong about how much the couple who’d bought it could get for what looked like an antique map of some sort.

“Dessert?” she said brightly, holding up the grocery bags. Peter got up to get out bowls and utensils, while she pulled out a couple of tray tables to set out the ice cream and toppings. Soon enough Neal was grinning like a kid as he surveyed his bowl of vanilla with fudge and caramel sauces, whipped cream, and sprinkles (multicolored, or course). Although Elizabeth was usually more of a “scoop or two, no toppings” girl, Neal had cajoled her into indulging a bit, and she savored the taste of her chocolate ice cream with fudge and walnuts. Peter, as usual, had covered his vanilla ice cream and fudge sauce with what seemed like half the can of whipped cream.

They ate together on the sofa, Neal providing commentary on what was going on on the TV – a new episode had started, and this time there was, “No way” that painting was worth what Barry the buyer’s so-called expert said. When they were finished Elizabeth managed to convince Neal to stay put while she gathered up and washed their dishes, put shoes back on to take Satchmo for a last quick walk, and sent Peter upstairs to get a change of clothes for him.

She was only gone for maybe ten or fifteen minutes, but when she got back Neal was leaning heavily against Peter, his head on his shoulder, apparently asleep. Neal was dressed in his burgundy sleep pants and a white short-sleeve t-shirt, and Peter was in a pair of sweats and an old college t-shirt. Neal must have been out almost as soon as they’d sat down after changing their clothes. Peter had turned on the end of the ball game, the volume turned down low, but at the moment he was watching Neal more than the game. One hand carded through Neal’s hair, gently massaging his scalp, as Peter looked down at him with such love and affection. Yes, Elizabeth thought, this relationship they shared was still a work in progress, and they were all still learning, but they were learning, and whatever bumps might be in the road ahead, they were more than worth it for moments like these.


Awww, I really enjoyed this. I love how they still have things to work through yet so obviously fit together. Thanks for writing.

P.S. your link at wcpairings is broken!

Thanks for commenting, and for the heads up on the link. I'm pretty sure it was working when I previewed the post - not sure what happened.

ETA: Link fixed! Thanks again for pointing it out (I noticed the problem just before your comment notification popped up, but I appreciate you mentioning it anyway).

Edited at 2012-07-24 11:55 pm (UTC)

This is really lovely and sweet. ♥

Oh this is lovely and sweet. I especially like the ending, when she comes back and they are already in their PJs and Peter is watching Neal sleep. <3 <3

Thanks for commenting, and also for letting me know what you especially enjoyed. I was actually struggling a bit with where the story would end until I got the image of Neal sleeping with his head on Peter's shoulder.

This is great--I love that their relationship feels very real and that they clearly all have so much affection for each other even when they get frustrated. ♥

Thanks so much. I'm glad the relationship felt real.

Awww, this is so cute. It has all the right warm and fuzzy feelings. :D

Hurray for warm fuzzies! :-) Thanks for commenting and I'm glad you liked it.

This is great. I love the kiss so much. The whole thing was sweet and sensual and hit just the right note of familiarity combined with exploration. And I love that Peter is a bit exasperating when he feels bad or guilty and that El and Neal both know it.

And I love this comment so much. :-) Thanks for the thoughtful feedback, and I'm really pleased that the story worked for you as both sweet and sensual. ::does happy dance::

Awwwww--this is adorable and awesome. I loved it. I hope they complimented Neal lavishly on the food--poor guy, he worked hard for dinner!--and I loved the sweetness and affection throughout :-) Wonderful fic.

Awwww. Thanks so much for the sweet comment. So glad you enjoyed. And, pssst, now maybe I can finish my kid!Neal sequel. ;)

So glad. Thanks for taking the time to comment!

I just got home from a very busy day and this sweet confection was waiting for me.!!!

thank you so much!! I love it.

And the keep away from a one-legged man line had me laughing. it's my favorite line of the story.

Hurray! I'm so glad you like it, and that it gave you a nice treat at the end of your long day. Feedback is always much appreciated, but it's especially good to know the person I was writing for liked their gift. Thanks for your kind comments.

I loved that kiss, and the last paragraph is beautiful. Also, I definitely should not have read this hungry. Damn it! LOL!

Thanks so much for the lovely feedback. As I mentioned to another commenter, I was having a little bit of trouble working out the ending of the story, so I'm very glad that you liked the last paragraph so much. I got the image in my head of Peter and Neal on the sofa, with Neal having fallen asleep, and it worked for me. Glad it worked for you, too. :-)

Meanwhile I will push part of the blame, or maybe I should say give part of the credit, for making you hungrier to rabidchild, whose food-related suggestions were a great help. :-)

Edited at 2012-07-26 05:06 pm (UTC)

Ahhhh...non-angst fluffy,no tension, just sweet banter. Liked the comfort food craving..mmm..is Dilly's still open? (summer food/ice cream shop).

Hurray for comfort food. Glad you liked the banter. Don't know Dilly's, though Daisy's is an actual diner in Brooklyn (oh the joys of Google). :-)

So very nice! I need more domestic fics in this fandom and yours hit the spot perfectly :)

Thanks! Glad to hear that I helped satisfy your need for domestic fic. Thanks for commenting.

OH, MAN, MY HEART JUST GREW THREE SIZES

I LOVE ALL OF THIS

ESPECIALLY NEAL NOT BEING ABLE TO VERBALIZE WHAT HE WANTS, AND THEN HE WANTS COMFORT FOOD, AND HE WATCHES STORAGE WARS, AND PETER IS PLAYING WITH HIS HAIR, AND

ELIZABETH IS A BAMF

This is fantastic.

OH, MAN, I AM ALL FLAILY HANDS RIGHT NOW.

:-)

Seriously, though, thank you so much for the terrific feedback - it is making me all warm and fuzzy, and I'm so pleased that you liked the story so much.

Also, I have been epic failing to properly comment on everyone else's fics, so I totes owe you a comment on yours (which I loved).

Thanks again for commenting!

This makes my heart melt all in the nice way. Love it!

Awwww! Glad you liked it, glad I could provoke the (nice) heart melting, and thanks so much for your comment.

Wow! How right you turned out to be about Mozzie and Storage Wars! (I am so not surprised that he got Neal into the show too.)

I love this scene of learning to live together and get past the rough spots. I especially loved the kiss, which revealed so much of all the characters of all three. And that last paragraph, with Neal falling asleep on Peter and Peter paying more attention to him than to the game . . . just gorgeous!

You know, I'm not sure anymore if my deciding to put Storage Wars in this story wasn't due to my subconscious remembering some mention of a Mozzie/Storage Wars reference in the upcoming season, or if it preceded that. :-) Mainly I wasn't finding myself able to work "unusual hobby" into the story (which was another one of the prompts), but "unexpected TV watching habit" just fit with the rest of what I was doing and I settled on Storage Wars as the show.

Thanks so much for your feedback! This is my first actual OT3 (I've written a bit of pre-OT3), and probably the most I've edged past gen in my writing, so I'm very pleased that it worked for you.

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