sam_storyteller: (White Collar)
sam_storyteller ([personal profile] sam_storyteller) wrote2005-07-20 05:22 am
Entry tags:

Four Meals

Title: Four Meals
Summary: Neal is so very tired of saying no.
Rating: PG-13
Warnings: None.
Notes: Eros, Philios, and Agape are three Greek terms generally used to refer to romantic, familial, and spiritual love. Anam Cara is drawn from Irish Gaelic tradition, and translates roughly to "Friend of the soul".
Betas Who Put Up With Way More Crap From Me On This Story Than Anyone Should Have To: [ profile] neifile7, [ profile] tzikeh, [personal profile] girlpearl, [ profile] juniper200, [ profile] 51stcenturyfox, [ profile] gypsylady.

Originally Posted 10.15.10

Now available at AO3.



Neal hates court day.

Pretty much everyone does, but Neal hates it for a very different reason. He doesn't mind dressing up to testify; he likes his court suit that makes him look like Peter and the way the prosecutors always glare despairingly at his slightly wild hair. One of them suggested he wear glasses to seem more reputable, and he totally loves it when they let him wear glasses to seem more reputable. He has these big dork glasses that make him look like Clark Kent.

He doesn't mind the waiting, either, waiting to be called to testify or while there are sidebar delays. In a room full of people, Neal Caffrey is never going to be bored. He folds paper birds and sends them gliding low across the room; he steps out for a minute and strikes up a friendship with a security guard. He learns intimately how the court building ecosystem functions, since he already knows how the legal system works. By his fourth time testifying, he could tell you how to turn off the power to the building, what's wrong with the elevators, why an office on the south side of the building is preferable, and when the best time to get lunch in the cafeteria is.

Neal doesn't hate that it takes him away from work, either, which is Peter's big issue. All parts of this job are equally interesting to him both as a student of humanity and a con who'd like to work the system.

It's the testimony that he hates.

He's a good witness, charming and personable, oozing trust-me from every pore. He's clear, he speaks simply, and he never gets flustered by the defense. But if he were a different kind of man, he would, because there are always an excruciating five minutes that begin with the words, "Mr. Caffrey, what is your position with the FBI?"

I'm a consultant and confidential informant under the supervision of Assistant Special Agent in Charge Peter Burke of the White Collar Crime division.

"What does that position entail?"

I offer my opinions and provide information based on my areas of expertise.

"Such as?"

Theft, forgery, fraud, art history --

He never gets past art history before they're interrupting him.

"And how did you come by this knowledge, Mr. Caffrey?"

Practical application, he likes to say, because it always fucks them up for a minute. But in the end the result is the same.

"Mr. Caffrey, what is your current legal status?"

"Objection, your honor, Mr. Caffrey's legal status -- "

"Overruled. Mr. Caffrey will answer the question."

I am currently on a work-release program from prison under a conviction of felony fraud.

"So you're a criminal?"

That's correct.

"A criminal who would, if not for Mr. Burke, be incarcerated?"

Special Agent Burke is my handler, yes.

What bothers him is not that his credibility is being questioned, or that it's insinuated he's Peter's pet who would lie on the witness stand for him. (If it were necessary to protect Peter, he would. Neal can pretend to be as good, as moral as Peter, but he never, ever will be.) It's the humiliation of being one of the good guys but not, of having to relive over and over again the fact that he got caught; the injustice of having worked hard to close a case and getting no credit at all for it. Of seeing the way the jurors' faces change when really, if only they knew.

And it will never be different. Even once the tracker comes off, they'll still bring up his criminal record, his loyalty to Peter, as if Neal's the only person who has reason to be loyal to Peter Burke.

"If you can't do the time..." Peter says to him, once his testimony is over. He's standing outside the courtroom, perhaps wallowing a little in his humiliation; Peter's on a nearby bench, waiting for Neal and Diana to finish testifying so he can go back in. Normally Peter doesn't linger, but lately Peter seems to see more of the human in him and less of the con man. "They dinged you about being a felon again, didn't they?"

"Is the purpose of the criminal justice system segregative, deterrent, or punitive?" Neal asks. Peter stands up, shoves his hands in his pockets, considers it.

"Depends which politician you ask," he says. "I think it should be segregative for certain offenders. Otherwise my vote's for punitive, within limits, most of the time. Why?"

"Do you believe you do your time and then walk away?" Neal asks.

"I believe that's how it should be." Peter says.

"But that's not really how it works, is it? I'm going to be in court ten years from now and the questions are going to be different but not the angle, right? Weren't you a convict, Mr. Caffrey? If Mr. Burke rehabilitated you, you have a lot of reasons to support his assertions, don't you? How do you know all these things, Mr. Caffrey, if you claim not to have engaged in this kind of activity recently?"

"Did you correct them about my title again?" Peter asks with a small smile, and then wraps a hand around the back of Neal's neck, sudden, startling, warm. "Neal, you can't let them get to you."

"I don't!" Neal says. "I was perfect in there."

"I'm sure you were, but that's not what I mean. The people who matter know you do good work. You spend every day working to make our world safer. Anyone who's going to deny that in favor of that tracker on your ankle isn't worth your time."

Neal closes his eyes and reminds himself that he trusts Peter, because sometimes the urge to bolt gets awfully strong, even now. Peter's fingers tighten against his skin.

"Neal. Hey, Neal," he says, and Neal opens his eyes. "I wish it weren't that way, but it is," Peter says. "The best way to get revenge is to keep working. Next time, when they ask you what your legal status is, you can say that for the past three years you've been assisting the FBI to a 94% clearance rate in your division. After that, them asking you if you were ever in prison's going to look pretty fucking petty."

Neal nods.

"I should go in," Peter says. "They're calling me this afternoon. Tonight, our place. El's making split pea soup and grilled cheese. You in?"

Comfort food. Either Peter or Elizabeth or both of them knew he'd be coming home with Peter tonight, and planned this.

"Yeah," he says, because all that planning shouldn't go to waste, and it's Friday so it's not like he has to be home early, and anyway El's split-pea is amazing.

"Coming back in?"

"Nah, I'm gonna..." Neal jerks his thumb at the hallway. "Just, take a walk."

He won't be needed again today. There's a store nearby that sells boutique wines and can probably, without blinking, pair him something for the grilled cheese and split-pea. A couple of blocks further down is The Greatest Cake, which has turned out to be so much more than just a speedy escape route. It makes a tidy little profit almost completely without his supervision, and they always like to see him. He's the boss; he gives them medical and a wage they can live on, and in return he gets free cupcakes.

He returns to the courthouse with a bag containing Côtes du Rhône rosé, a mid-range bottle of Macon-Villages, and six of The Greatest Cake's special Vanilla Cream cupcakes. More than a hostess gift, maybe an extravagance, but Neal likes good wine and Elizabeth likes vanilla cream cupcakes and Peter likes it when Elizabeth is happy.

"Benny, can you watch these for me?" he asks the guard on duty, slipping him a ten and settling the bag at his feet. Benny nods.

"Go on ahead, Neal," he says with a grin. "Big date tonight?"

"Two hot bombshells," Neal replies, already on his way. "You should see them together, Benny, I swear I'm the luckiest bastard on Earth."

"Ah, youth!" Benny sighs behind him.

That night, stuffed with food and holding a wineglass with the last of the rosé in it, he's sitting on the sofa with Elizabeth, watching Peter gesture as he tells a story about one of his probies who got scammed by some second-rate con artist they once had to deal with. Neal thinks he can place the man and probably the date; he would have been in prison then, Peter making do with less interesting playmates.

Elizabeth leans her head on his shoulder, casual. The first time she did that, Neal glanced nervously at Peter, but Peter either doesn't notice these things or is so secure that he doesn't feel he has to care. Probably the latter.

Neal wonders, sometimes, what Peter would do if Neal put his arm around Elizabeth, or tipped her chin up and kissed her. Or what he would do if Neal leaned across the space between the sofa and chair and kissed Peter. He's been wondering about it for nearly a year.

This is probably unhealthy. They have therapists for people like Neal. But he wants Peter to think he's brilliant and he wants Elizabeth to touch him, all the time, not just on the nights they allow him in for dinner. He wants this to be his life, split-pea soup and Peter's stupid stories and the way Elizabeth smells. He thinks about Peter and Elizabeth together and apart -- what it must feel like to have all of Peter's muscle and skin focused on you, what Elizabeth would sound like --

He may have had a little too much wine.

He closes his eyes to listen for Peter's deep voice finishing the story, to listen for Elizabeth's laugh that will tell him when to laugh, but the next thing he knows someone's running their fingers through his hair and Peter's saying, "Neal. Neal."

"Hm?" he asks, opening his eyes. Peter's leaning over him, grinning.

"I'd like my wife back," he says. Neal straightens, realizing his head was resting on the crown of Elizabeth's. She sits up too.

"Oh man," she says, brushing hair off her face. "Sweetie, I'm sorry -- "

"I'm going to blame the wine, and pretend you aren't bored with me," Peter tells her, smiling and kissing her. "Go on up, I'll clear up down here."

"My cue to get a cab," Neal says with a smile, picking up his hat from the hall table. Peter's hand closes around his wrist, startling, and Neal turns with a question on his face.

"It's late," Peter says. "Stay if you want."

"It's not far to June's," Neal reminds him.

"You okay?" Peter asks, eyes searching Neal's.

Telling Peter he was fine stopped working about eighteen months ago if it ever worked at all. Instead he gives him a wan smile and says, "I need some sleep. Dinner helped, thanks."

Peter will accept that, and it's not untrue, even if it's not actually an answer to his question.

"You can stay," Peter repeats. Neal grins at him.

"Can I sleep at the foot of your bed?" he asks, which sounded funnier in his head. Peter's grin widens a fraction. Neal's about to pull away, somehow, when Elizabeth saves him.

"Sweetie?" she calls, halfway down the stairs, in her bathrobe and pajamas.

"Hey," Peter says, pivoting, but his hand stays on Neal's arm, so he can't quite fully turn. "Neal wants to sleep at the foot of our bed."

Elizabeth smiles. "Well, he sheds less than Satchmo."

Neal's ready to laugh it off and put his hat on, tip it over one eye and go home, when she comes down another few steps. Peter lets go of his wrist.

"Is that really where you want to be?" Elizabeth asks. There's a low throatiness to her voice that Neal recognizes only because it's the tone she uses when she's flirting with Peter.

Flirting with her husband.

They are married, and Neal is a romantic; he loves their marriage, because it's proof that people can be insanely in love with each other forever. For all his dreaming, he would never for a heartbeat do anything to endanger it. He wants what they have, desperately, but this is not something he could steal. Just about the only thing he can't.

"No," he says quietly, and it's mainly true. Even if he said yes, he knows what this would be. Comfort food. Something he can have once in a while; something he would have taken cheerfully, once, and damn the consequences. It's just...he's not that guy anymore. He's not sure what guy he is, but he's not that one. "I should go."

He glances up at them as he puts his hat on; Peter looks hurt, Elizabeth sad, but this is better. For his own sanity, for their marriage, for his partnership with Peter at work. This is best.

The cab is cold and smells like old cigarette smoke.


The next morning is Saturday, and June is having her weekly brunch buffet downstairs. Neal has a special suit for the buffet; it's store-bought new, not Byron's, and not mistakable for Byron's either, because the family will be there.

June's children didn't trust him at first. They had no reason to; he just showed up one day in their mother's house, wearing their father's suits, and none of them missed the tracker on his ankle. They know from criminals, and they thought this pretty young white man was trying to con their mother. So Neal never wears Byron's clothing to see them, and he's always on his best, most charming behavior.

June's eldest, Marcus, is Cindy's father. He's an accounts manager for an ad firm, and Neal imagines he takes after Byron most strongly -- intelligent, personable, clever, able to assemble the pieces quickly, able to charm just as well as Neal is. He's the one who took Neal aside after they met for the first time.

"I know what you are," Marcus had said, hand on Neal's arm, grip like iron. "I ran a background check on you."

Neal gave him a smile. "You could have just asked your mother. She knows everything."

"What are you to her?" Marcus asked. He didn't ease up an inch, and Neal could respect that.

"Just a guy who rents her spare room," he said.

"Make sure it stays that way," Marcus told him. "And keep the hell away from my daughter."

Neal frowned. "Cindy's a sweet kid, but I don't bite the hand that feeds me. June's good to me. The most I want for Cindy is to get her into the Neufberg Gallery."

That did catch Marcus broadside. "The Neufberg?"

"I got a pal there," Neal said, which was true. "I'm helping her put together a portfolio for them to look at. Your daughter's a talented artist. She can do a lot better than me, trust me."

"You hurt my family, I will make sure they never find the body," Marcus said, but he let go of Neal's arm. "You remember that, Caffrey."

Marcus was the longest holdout, even after their talk. April, the middle child, Samantha's mother, just sort of accepted Neal and let big brother handle him; she's never spoken much to him but the silence now is more comfortable than frosty. She's had much greater worries on her mind, between her daughter's illness and her husband's career and her three-year-old, Lily, who is a terror.

Marcus is handling Neal, and that is that.

June's younger daughter, Alissa, took to Neal much faster, perhaps because Alissa doesn't really get along with her siblings. June, Neal has reason to know, loves indiscriminately; her children could be thieves and murderers and she would still love them just as much and visit them in prison. But Marcus is very...proper, and April is married to a politician, and Alissa is an anarcho-communist vegan lesbian who has the most fantastic set of dreads Neal's ever seen. After June and Samantha (who is just so goddamn adorable it's almost unreal) Neal likes Alissa best, because he knows what it is to be out in the cold, even if it is by choice. And in her case, he's not sure it is; Alissa has a mother who adores her and a family who accepts her, but the acceptance is grudging and Neal has noticed that April never lets Samantha talk too much to her Cool Auntie.

So Neal comes down to the buffet wearing a suit that's all his, of a totally different cut and era than Byron's, and he nods to Marcus and accepts a hug from Samantha -- thank God they found the donor, Samantha's an endless ball of energy now -- and sits down with Alissa, who is picking at her vegan breakfast pastry and chatting with Cindy about representative imagery in postmodern agitprop urban murals.

"You should open a salon," he says, sitting down. "You know, like they had in pre-revolutionary France. You could be the doyennes of a new movement in Manhattan."

"I don't think salons encouraged guerrilla activism," Alissa says, but she gives him a smile. "Hiya, Neal. How's the kyriarchy?"

"Lovin' it," Neal replies, leaning back comfortably. "I oppressed all kinds of people last week. How are my favorite subversives?"

"Resentful, discontented, and your cop brothers follow us around," Alissa tells him. Cindy is laughing. "It's not funny, Cindy."

"It's a little funny, Auntie," Cindy says.

"Sorry, really," Neal says, and he's serious; Alissa's fighting a good fight, and he doesn't like to harass her about it. "Your salon could encourage guerrilla activism. It's your salon, after all."

"You just keep enforcing the racist, patriarchal laws this country was founded on, and leave the idea-having to us," Alissa says. "Cindy tells me you're inverting the classist cultural paradigm again."

Neal sighs. "It's called forgery."

"Call it what you like," Alissa replies. "What is it this time?"

"Cindy's been snooping around in my easels," Neal fixes Cindy with a disapproving look that lasts for about three seconds, because Cindy grins and Neal has no defenses against Cindy and Alissa together. "I'm just playing around with some Picassos. I'm on the straight and narrow, Alissa, I'm not going to steal anything."

"Shame," Alissa says. "You could really slap some people in the face, and the art world needs some slapping."

"I could go back to prison," Neal reminds her.

"Cry more, white boy. You'd get what, five years? If you were a little darker-toned you'd get fifteen."

"Well, I'll have to go on deconstructing the system from within, I guess," Neal tells her, as Samantha runs up and throws her arms around his neck. "Hey, Sammy."

"Come play Connect Four with Grandma and me," Samantha orders, and Neal gives Cindy and Alissa a nod as he stands.

"Don't overthrow the government while I'm gone," Neal tells them, and Alissa flips him an affectionate bird as he follows Samantha to a corner of the table, where June's setting up the game.

Samantha is the delight of the entire family, was the baby until her little sister came along, and Neal loves her without reason, reservation, or conceit. She makes him ache for the children he'll never have. He wonders sometimes what kinds of children he and Kate would have had, and hopes they would have been like Samantha: bright, sweet, energetic, artistic. June has raised a family of artists -- Alissa and Cindy most obviously, but Marcus has a keen eye for design and April, while not perhaps artistic in her own right, loves and supports the arts. Samantha is more skilled with color than coordinated with line, but she's just a kid, and she'll get there.

Neal doesn't really make a show of it, because his footing with this family is still a little precarious, but when June's looking after Samantha for a weekend he'll join them on the terrace with his oil crayons -- sometimes Cindy hangs out too -- and they can go through a whole pad of sketch paper in an afternoon. One time he and Samantha copied Sunday Afternoon On The Island Of La Grande Jatte together and afterwards he hung it up on his fridge. Peter laughed at it, asked him if he was losing his touch, and Neal snapped back that Peter was a philistine and could go to hell. It took them almost a week to get past it. Peter doesn't comment on the sometimes-childish scrawls he sees on Neal's walls or worktable anymore.

Samantha and June utterly crush him at Connect Four. If you'd told Neal Caffrey in supermax that four years later he'd be playing Connect Four on a Saturday morning with an eleven-year-old, he'd have said you were high.

After brunch, per tradition, the entire family goes to the park, ostensibly to take Bugsy for a run. Neal always pleads off; he's put in his cameo, made June happy, and usually he has stuff to do anyway. Paperwork, or Mozzie comes over and they plan perfect heist after perfect heist, or he does a little (a very little) work on the side for whatever scam of the moment Moz is running. The Picassos are part of some confidence scheme; for some reason Mozzie needs aged Polaroids of them, but there's no hurry, so they've just been screwing around for now. Screwing around with criminal fraud and lethal chemicals, true, but that's the best kind.

"You should come," June says, as the others are shrugging into their coats in the foyer. "I'd like it if you came."

"Nah, it's your thing." Neal shakes his head. Marcus claps him on the shoulder from behind.

"Come along if you want. Keep Alissa distracted," he says.

"Family time," Neal tells him. "I get it, it's important."

"You're family," June says. It hurts, because that's good, but he's not, not really. He loves them and would do anything for them and he thinks there's a lot they'd do for him, if he were in trouble -- June would, anyway -- and maybe that's family, but they're blood. He's an interloper. Well-liked, trusted, but an interloper. Neal knows his place, and his place has never, at any time, been anywhere but on the fringes. You have a lot more fun out in the wilds, but you give things up, too.

Neal glances at Marcus for confirmation of this, but Marcus just gives him a small nod. Jesus Christ, Marcus of all people.

"Go have fun. I have work to do," he says firmly, and June shrugs, pats his cheek, goes to get her coat. Bugsy skitters past Neal, wheezing excitedly. Marcus gives him a bruising squeeze on the shoulder before he lets go.

"Cindy got into the Neufberg," he says in Neal's ear. Ah; this is gratitude.

"She got in on her own merits," Neal says. "I just hooked her up with the right guy."

"Come to the opening," Marcus commands.

"I will," Neal promises. He will, too; he'll put on a tux, go to Cindy's opening, drink champagne, and take real pleasure in her triumph.

Marcus leaves him there, halfway between the dining room and the foyer, and herds his family out the door.

Neal climbs up the stairs to his loft, settles in at his easel in this big empty house, and paints for the rest of the afternoon, until his eyes hurt and his shoulder is sore.


Sunday morning, and The Greatest Cake smells like bread baking. Neal inhales, pleased, closing his eyes blissfully. The bakery is crowded with people picking up orders for receptions, late breakfasts, Sunday dinners. He stands in the back of the crowd and just breathes in bread and cake and faint underhints of fruit.

"Crowded, huh?" an elderly woman asks him. He smiles winningly at her. "It's always a nightmare."

"Well, they do have the greatest cake in town," Neal says. It never fails to amuse him, the stupidest joke ever.

"I like their butter cookies," she confides. "All the women in my church say to me, where do you get them? They just want to know my secret source, but as long as I'm in charge of the coffee and cookies after the service I tell them absolutely not. Can you imagine what this place would be like if I told them?"

"Bedlam," he says. "Complete bedlam."

"You're right, young man," she says.

"What's your church?" he asks.

"St. Brighid's," she replies. "Are you a churchgoing man, Mr...?"

"Caffrey. I was an altarboy," he says, which is mostly true. He's pretended to be one from time to time, anyway. "St. Dismas'."

"I'm not familiar with that church," she says, but Neal herds her gently up to the counter and she seems to forget what he's said in the mass of elbows and purses. He follows her up and winks at Nina, behind it, who is frantically packing orders.

"Order under the name of Wheeler," the woman says, and Nina plucks up a large white box.

"Two dozen butter cookies assorted, a dozen shortbread chocolate-dipped," she reads off.

"Thank you," Ms. Wheeler says, digging in her purse.

"Nina," Neal says, "comp Ms. Wheeler's order this week, would you?"

"Of course, Mr. Caffrey," Nina says. Ms. Wheeler looks up at him, startled, and Neal smiles gently.

"I own the bakery," he tells her. "Give my compliments to the ladies of St. Brighid's."

She's gaping at him, pleased, but other people are pushing up to the counter and he gives her a gentle shove towards the door. When he was a kid there were half a dozen women like her in the Lutheran church his mother sometimes took him to, women who were kind and brought treats to the reception after the service and between themselves competed with almost vicious focus for who had the best cookies or flower arrangements or husband's funeral. Some things never change.

St. Dismas wasn't his church. You don't find them much, except around prisons. Dismas is an old gnostic myth; the patron folk saint of thieves. Penitent thieves, Peter would correct him, but Neal's not going to split hairs. He doubts Jesus did, if the old bastard ever existed.

"We gotta get a bigger place," he says to Nina, ducking under the flip-top of the cashier's counter. "Why are you out here alone?"

"Donny's kid is sick," she says. "I got it covered."

"Let me help," he orders, and calls out the next number. "FORTY-NINE."

"Order for Allen!" someone yells. Neal dives in, dancing around Nina, not quite as fast as her but at least another pair of hands to help.

"Dozen danishes, dozen chocolate croissants, dozen palmieres?" he calls back.

"Can we add a dozen regular croissants?" 'Allen' asks.

"No problem," Neal tells him, and packs it full to bursting with croissants. Allen pays cash, thank God, because Nina's using the credit-card machine. "FIFTY-THREE!"

After about half an hour the place is totally empty, and Neal leans back against the counter, almost panting for breath.

"Thank you," Nina says, throwing an arm around his shoulders. "You didn't have to do that."

"It's good to keep my hand in," Neal tells her, rubbing little twine threads off his fingers. "So what's this about Donny's kid?"

"His two-year-old's got an ear infection," Nina sighs. Neal straightens and tosses some cash in the register for Ms. Wheeler's order. "Eric and Liam are in the back if you want to say hi."

Neal kisses her cheek, grins, and disappears into the kitchen. He will get them a bigger place; he's pretty sure the dress shop next door is shutting down (good; the dresses were hideous) and he can scoop up the narrow little store, knock out a wall, double the size of their storefront. Hire another front attendant, too. It'll make profits slim for a little while but it's not like he's living on the proceeds.

Eric is frantically frosting a cake, working so fast Neal can barely follow his movements, so he passes him with just a brief greeting and joins Liam where he's running the kneading mixer, leaning in to sniff the dough.

"How do you not just eat everything in sight?" Neal asks, and Liam laughs. Liam and Eric are both young guys, and Neal has no illusions that they'll stick around forever, but he's hoping when they go they'll know someone as good as them who can step in. "Why is Eric freaking out?"

"BPE's order for lunch," Liam says, and Neal preens a little. BPE is Burke Premiere Events; Elizabeth is one of their best catering customers. "We read the order wrong, totally our bad, but they need two more cakes than we have ready for them. It'll get done," Liam adds, cocky.

"Liam's fault!" Eric yells, without looking up from his work.

"Yeah, fuck you," Liam yells back, and goes to the stove, where fruit is bubbling in syrup in two huge pans. "Taste," he orders, and uses a clean spoon to dip out something garnet-red. Neal obediently tastes; berries, he thinks, and a little bite of spice. "Ginger-citrus strawberry," Liam announces.

"I'm inappropriately turned on," Neal tells him. Liam grins. "Pie?"

"It's cold out. People want pies," Liam says. "I'm also working on this thing," he adds, and leads Neal to the kneading board, where there's a shiny ball of dough sitting in a little skin of flour. Next to it is a bowl of soft-looking brown lumps.

"So my idea is, pumpkin bread," Liam says, getting the heel of his hand into the dough and then sprinkling the lumps over it with his other hand. He turns and kneads it, neatly, as deft with this as Neal would be with clay or paint. "People like pumpkin bread, but they don't actually buy much."

"Don't they?" Neal asks, feeling like he's being inducted into a mystery. The kitchen always makes him feel that way. Sure, he can cook, but these guys are something else again.

"It's too sweet, it's a dessert bread, nobody eats a lot at once. This is a yeast bread and these," Liam holds up one of the lumps, offering it to Neal, "are add-ins. Try it," he urges. Neal takes the little lump and pops it into his mouth. It's soft, like cookie dough, and tastes like pumpkin pie and brown sugar. "You knead these in, and what you get is a nice bread you can have with some butter or some soft cheese, and get these little pockets of flavor. I was gonna send out some loaves to our regulars," he adds, then glances at Neal almost guiltily. Neal's face must be betraying his thoughts, but Liam misreads it. "If, if that's okay," he adds uncertainly.

Neal rolls the last of the flavor around in his mouth, thoughtfully. "You're innovators," he says.

"Well, we try. I mean, we make the classics too," Liam tells him, gesturing at Eric, who has finished one cake and is starting on a second.

"No, it's good," Neal gives him a reassuring smile. "I like outside-the-box thinking."

"Told you," Eric calls. Liam rolls his eyes and goes back to kneading the bread, adding little sprinkles of the pumpkin-pie-stuff as he goes.

"You guys like it here?" Neal asks, watching him work. Liam looks up at him, then back down at the dough.

"Sure. The pay's good, you don't micromanage, we're fine," he says. "Hey, I was washing dishes before I got this job. It's hard to find a good place in Manhattan."

"But you like the work?"

Liam's smile comes easily; he smiles a lot. "I love the work. My ma taught me how to bake."

"Yeah?" Neal's mother taught him how to pick pockets. They didn't really cook a lot.

"She did the whole food-is-love thing. I think it's true, you know?" Liam puts some shoulder into the kneading, then plops the dough into a greased pan and takes another piece of dough out from under a damp towel, sprinkling flour with his left hand. "That's why we make new stuff."

Neal tilts his head.

"Because, okay, like..." Liam pauses to brush some sweat off his forehead with his arm. "You make something, and it feeds someone, and that's pretty good. But you make something out of you, your own head, and that's something special."

He gets it, kind of. Forgery is fun, and there's a sense of accomplishment in being flawless, but Neal rarely makes things that are of his own devising. Those feel more precious, because they're part of him.

"So I make this bread, totally new, and I give Mrs. Burke a loaf when we deliver the cakes, and if she likes it, then she likes something I made." Liam grunts as he kneads. "Sounds kinda dysfunctional when you say it out loud."

"No, I don't think it does," Neal says. Nobody but Liam can give someone this bread, because Liam made it, and it's unique. Everyone wants to feel unique. "I didn't think about it like that."

"You don't bake enough, then," Liam says. "You want to try?" he adds, gesturing at the dough. Neal looks down at his hands -- immaculate cuffs, elegant little cufflinks, paint in the cuticles of his fingernails. He could wash, of course, and roll his sleeves up, but Liam and Eric are professionals, and Neal knows better than to put his hand in here. He wouldn't take kindly to an amateur mixing his paints for him.

"You just keep doing good work," he says, and smiles at Liam. "I'm gonna head out. Everything good here? You need anything?"

Liam and Eric look at each other across the room, then shake their heads.

"We're good, boss," Eric says. Neal nods and heads for the front again, helping himself to a box of pastries while Nina waits on what sounds like a cranky patron. He slips out the door and leans against one of the awning-poles, eating a cookie.

"Hey, is that place any good?" a tourist asks him, as they pass.

"Best bakery in Manhattan," Neal says, and watches them walk inside to inspect the cupcakes in the display case.


He means to give June's address when he gets into the cab, but instead he hears himself give Peter and Elizabeth's.

Peter will get a call from the Marshals, but most of the operators who monitor the anklets know the route from Manhattan to Brooklyn and what it means, by now, so when his anklet bleeps briefly and the light goes red, Neal doesn't worry too much. A few minutes later his phone dings and there's a text from Peter: Our place?

He texts back, Bad time?

Never, Peter replies.

When he gets there, the door is unlocked; he doesn't stand on much ceremony, just lets himself in. Satchmo hurries up to inspect Neal, nosing at the bakery box he's carrying, licking stray flour off Neal's left shoe before Neal nudges him aside with a knee, gently. Peter's on the couch with a bowl of popcorn, legs propped up, watching television; Elizabeth is curled up against his shoulder, reading. Neal takes off his hat and jacket, setting the box on the coffee table.

"I brought cookies," he announces, and Elizabeth beams at him and undoes the twine, taking out a piece of shortbread.

"You're my favorite criminal," she says, as Neal settles on the floor with his back to the sofa, Elizabeth's knees pressed against the back of his shoulder. She strokes his hair, and Neal reaches up to steal a handful of popcorn from Peter. At least it's not basketball on the TV; on the other hand, it's golf.

"It's a very suspenseful sport," Peter says, when Neal tilts his head back to give him a skeptical look. Neal sighs, then carefully leans his shoulder against Peter's leg, propped on the coffee table. He can feel, through the denim, Peter's muscles tense briefly, then relax. Elizabeth strokes his hair again. For a while, they sit quietly, until Elizabeth speaks again.

"You came back," she says. He can see her book discarded on the sofa cushion, out of the corner of his eye. He knows he hasn't been watching the television; he suspects Peter hasn't either.

"I'm a man of contradictions," Neal says lightly. He sucks some salt from the popcorn off his finger.

"Why'd you say no?" Peter asks.

Neal's chest tightens for a moment. The questions means -- so many things. That Peter knew what he was asking. That they were asking together. And that they don't understand why Neal would protect himself from them.

That they know Neal spends all his time saying no, being the one on the outside, and maybe they even know he's tired of it. So tired.

Maybe this is more than comfort food. Even for them.

"You're perfect," he says, eyes still forward. On the television someone in a lurid neon green polo shirt sinks a putt. "Changing perfect things is...dangerous."

"Coward," Peter grunts.

"It's not about me," Neal insists, then corrects. "It's mostly not about me." He turns, folds his arm on Peter's leg, looks up at him. "It's about not ruining you."

"You think you can ruin us?" Elizabeth asks.

"It's a skill," Neal says. She strokes his hair again and against his will he leans into it, closes his eyes.

"What part is about you?" Peter pushes. Neal drops his head.

"You're married," he says.

"That still sounds like it's about us," Elizabeth points out. Not one of them has even brought up the thing they're dancing around, the real point behind the invitation.

"I don't like having something if I can't have all of it," Neal admits. "I'm not one for partial measures."

"Seems like that's what you have now," Elizabeth says. She tugs his hair to get him to raise his head again. When he opens his eyes, she offers him a little bit of the shortbread cookie. At this angle he can't lift a hand for it, and she wouldn't let him in any case, just brings it near enough to his lips for him to twist around, take it out of her fingers with his tongue.

He should run, as far and as fast as he can. But he's so very tired of saying no. He's never been much good at it, anyway.

Peter shifts, then, sets the popcorn bowl aside with one hand and reaches for Neal with the other, pulling on his arm. Neal goes with it, an incoherent yes dead in his throat because nobody's actually asked him anything, and finds himself straddling Peter's thighs, a hand on Peter's chest to keep him from pulling Neal any closer. Elizabeth's leg is pressed up against the outside of his thigh. She's looking up at him now, instead of the reverse, and she's still smiling. Neal is halfway to kissing her husband and she's just smiling.

Peter's hand closes around Neal's wrist. He lifts Neal's palm off his chest and uses the fact that he's now holding both of Neal's arms to pull him in. They're so close they share breath, Peter's head slightly tilted, mouth open.

"I'm stronger than you," Peter says, voice low and hushed. Neal shivers with the truth of it: Peter caught him, held him, and made him heel. "You can't ruin me, Neal."

He should be feeling any number of things. Fear, arousal, guilt -- not that guilt's ever been a major part of his personality. He's not terribly familiar with the sensation. But what he feels is just relief, because this is the truth. He can't fight Peter. He can't ruin Peter and Elizabeth. He is actually incapable of doing these things, and that means he doesn't have to worry that he will. They understand him and they offered him something, once, but now it's not an offer. It's a promise. Nothing he can do.

Neal closes the short distance between them, kissing Peter, harsh and desperate. Peter just takes it, leans back and lets Neal lick across his teeth and suck on his lower lip and dig his fingers into Peter's shoulders with Peter's hands still loose around his wrists. Peter takes everything Neal does to him, until the desperation passes and Neal exhales, resting his head against Peter's.

Which is when Peter kisses him. Soft, mouth closed, easy and gentle like he was waiting for the storm to pass. Neal can feel Elizabeth's hand on the back of his neck, fingers rubbing against his hairline. He turns away from Peter (Peter's noise of dismay is gratifying) and nuzzles her palm. She's been watching him kiss Peter, hasn't even kissed him yet when she slides her thumb into his mouth -- oh, Elizabeth is dirty, okay -- and Neal sucks the taste of sugar off her skin.

"You can sleep at the foot of the bed if you really want to," she says. Peter laughs, biting down the side of Neal's throat. Neal opens his eyes and smiles, running his tongue along the pad of her thumb. Elizabeth hooks it over his teeth and uses it to pull him towards her, then slides her hand away completely and kisses him.

"Stay here tonight," she murmurs.

"Yes," Neal says.

tiferet: cute girl in pink dress captioned "not all bad girls wear black" (Default)

[personal profile] tiferet 2010-10-15 09:26 pm (UTC)(link)
I love this.
macadamanaity: M*A*S*H hand making peace sign (turtle in pasta)

[personal profile] macadamanaity 2010-10-15 09:32 pm (UTC)(link)
Oh, this is now officially CANON in my head. Lovely.
onyxtwilight: (Default)

[personal profile] onyxtwilight 2010-10-16 08:26 pm (UTC)(link)
I agree -- and I keep trying to think of some way to send it to Matt Bomer. >:-)

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infelixsoror: (joker)

[personal profile] infelixsoror 2010-10-15 09:50 pm (UTC)(link)
Thank you for this. Sweet and beautiful. I'm ridiculously fond of your take on White Collar. =)
metallumai: (Default)

[personal profile] metallumai 2010-10-15 09:53 pm (UTC)(link)
ooh. I don't even watch this show, but Nicely Done, Sam!

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jooniper_pearl: (Default)

[personal profile] jooniper_pearl 2010-10-15 09:59 pm (UTC)(link)
Huh. I'm. Can I sleep at the foot of your bed? DAMN I love how you craft a story. Magic, I tell you. Simply magic. :) ::sigh:: ♥.♥
coriana: (Default)

[personal profile] coriana 2010-10-15 10:12 pm (UTC)(link)
nghuguhgunh. I am melted wordless at that conclusion.

Also, The Greatest Cake! is still so my favorite joke ever (and I love how your Neal has kept up with it, used it to do good in the world, without even realizing how much good he's doing -- also, I love how you sneak St. Dismas into stories).

~ c.
coriana: (Default)

[personal profile] coriana 2010-10-15 10:39 pm (UTC)(link)

"Hiya, Neal. How's the kyriarchy?"

"Lovin' it," Neal replies, leaning back comfortably. "I oppressed all kinds of people last week."

had me well-nigh splitting my sides with laughter. Way to bring the radicalism, there!

~ c.
existence: tj+amal from the adventures of tj and amal (dirty mouth)

[personal profile] existence 2010-10-15 10:16 pm (UTC)(link)
ooooh, fic. [adores it]

If anyone makes the bread or has made the bread, they should share links! So that more of us can make it. Because that pumpkin filling thing sounds wonderful.

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(Anonymous) 2010-10-15 10:17 pm (UTC)(link)
A treasure, as always, and a great Friday afternoon pick-me-up. I think you want philia instead of philios, but classics points +++ for kyriarchy!

(Anonymous) 2010-10-15 10:45 pm (UTC)(link)

I love how the character development events weren't corny or cliched, and I loved the imagination and variety... this played out in my head, and not because I know exactly what they look like, but because of the way you wrote it. Wonderful! :)
thette: (Default)

[personal profile] thette 2010-10-15 10:46 pm (UTC)(link)

I love the way you write them.

It's in the middle of the night, and I need a grilled cheese sandwich NOW!
thette: (Default)

[personal profile] thette 2010-10-15 11:26 pm (UTC)(link)
Life is much better after a grilled cheese sandwich.

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via_ostiense: Eun Chan eating, yellow background (Default)

[personal profile] via_ostiense 2010-10-15 10:47 pm (UTC)(link)
What a gorgeous, nuanced depiction of June's family. I liked that Neal took Alissa seriously.
clodia_risa: (Default)

[personal profile] clodia_risa 2010-10-15 11:02 pm (UTC)(link)
Man, vanilla cream cupcakes sound delicious right now. And I wasn't hungry when I read this.

Although I've only watched two or three episodes of the series, I do very much enjoy your fics. This is no exception.

And if I were of a writely bend, this comment combined with this post would make me write some fic.
ext_452734: (shinyten)

[identity profile] 2010-10-16 04:14 pm (UTC)(link)
I wrote Neal/El/Peter there, sort of, and COMPLETELY BLAME SAM FOR IT. (Okay, and the tiniest bit pocky_slash herself, but...) :)

Fab story!

[personal profile] cailinjanto 2010-10-15 11:16 pm (UTC)(link)
I had to google to find out wo the characters were and some background, but I love your writing so much (the Torchwood stuff) that it was worth the gamble and I did enjoy this.
(Just to say at your notes, you have Cara Anam written instead of Anam Cara as you have in the main text and as you obviously know, given your translation, the latter is correct).
the_afterlight: (Emo: Strength [Shirtless - Freckles])

[personal profile] the_afterlight 2010-10-15 11:17 pm (UTC)(link)
Oh. Oh, yes. <3

I have such a fondness for stories about families that aren't bound by blood; and second a fondness for stories that examine (however briefly) the role of food in human connection. I love the bit about the pumpkin bread, and the role there is there in sharing something not only that you've made yourself, but that comes from you: the new recipes, the changes, the bits that make it special.

(And I totally want to try making that pumpkin bread, omg.)
bearfairie: (Default)

[personal profile] bearfairie 2010-10-15 11:25 pm (UTC)(link)
ooh chills and sweats on this one. I *adore* your white collar fic - nothing does me in like threesome fic with love and heat. the yearning is just delicious.

I send hugs and kisses b/c every awesome writer should get those. Especially with a delicious story like this one.
trinity_clare: (white collar)

[personal profile] trinity_clare 2010-10-15 11:35 pm (UTC)(link)

Yeah, I'm definitely glad I got food before I read this. mmm, cupcakes.
annotated_em: cross-section of a lemon (Default)

[personal profile] annotated_em 2010-10-15 11:56 pm (UTC)(link)
*flaily hands* Oh, this is awesome.

[personal profile] sadams119 2010-10-16 12:07 am (UTC)(link)
Thanks for the food warning! I went downstairs and made biscuits before reading, so I go to read while eating warm buttered biscuits--delicious! I especially liked your descriptions of June's family; the dynamics seemed very real. And of course I love the bakery; As a former baker I can tell you that you got the crazy rush in the front completely right! The sense of love and giving that comes with baking is true, too--it's such a personal job. (Can you tell I miss it?)

I had a bit of confusion as to the positioning of Peter, El, and Neal on the couch in the last part, though. It took several rereads until I figured out that Neal starts out sitting on the floor, yes?
perhaps you could mention that he sits on the floor here? Just a thought.

"You're my favorite criminal," she says, as Neal settles in with his back to the sofa, her knees pressed against the back of his shoulder. She strokes his hair, and Neal reaches up to steal a handful of popcorn from Peter.
polarisnorth: a silhouetted figure sitting on the moon, watching the earthrise (Default)

[personal profile] polarisnorth 2010-10-16 12:10 am (UTC)(link)
Nnngh. This is amazing. You have fantastic OCs -- I love Neal and the way he interacts with everyone. And the Neal/Peter/Elizabeth thread is perfect -- sweet and a little sad.
derien: It's a cup of tea and a white mouse.  The mouse is offering to buy Arthur's brain and replace it with a simple computer. (Default)

[personal profile] derien 2010-10-16 12:12 am (UTC)(link)
Wow, hot/sweet/awesome. I've never watched this show, now I want to.

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iambickilometer: (fool me twice)

[personal profile] iambickilometer 2010-10-16 12:20 am (UTC)(link)
My facial expression went to so many extremes while reading this. God, I love the vignette form of this, a series of moments with a common theme and then hey, look, there was a plot! And the portraits of Neal's life are also really enjoyable. This was a great read, Sam, thanks!
yamx: (Default)

[personal profile] yamx 2010-10-16 12:24 am (UTC)(link)
This is fantastic. I love your subtle yet deft portrayal of Neal and his relationships to those around him. Lovely work!

[personal profile] octette 2010-10-16 12:29 am (UTC)(link)
this is so great.
dhara: (Default)

[personal profile] dhara 2010-10-16 12:56 am (UTC)(link)
This is simply gorgeous.
starlady: Mary, Holmes and Watson at home in Baker Street (not impressed OT3)

[personal profile] starlady 2010-10-16 01:17 am (UTC)(link)
Ah, that was great.

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