"Neal? I. This is kind of embarrassing, but I need a favor. Could you drop by the house? Soon? I'm not sure who else to call..."
Elizabeth sounds flustered enough on the phone that Neal doesn't tease her at all. He agrees without pushing for more details, even when she asks him to let himself in through the back. It’s hardly the strangest thing he’s done since going to work for the Bureau of Paranormal Investigations, and having Elizabeth owe him a favor is a good thing. So he takes a cab through the grim winter chill to the Burkes’ house.
Satchmo whines pitifully as Neal comes into the back yard. "Hey, boy," Neal murmurs, and scratches Satchmo under the chin, checking the dog’s aura with the contact. There is still snow in drifts near the fence, and it’s cold enough now that the sun has gone down that Neal's breath makes clouds in the air. But Satchmo isn’t chilled yet, just lonely. "What are you doing out here alone? I'll bet you got into something, eh?"
Satchmo looks up at him innocently, his tail thumping slowly against Neal's coat.
"Don’t worry." Neal gives Satchmo's ears a last tug and heads for the door. "I'll let you in just as soon as the coast is clear."
Elizabeth is leaning tensely against the kitchen counter when he comes in, arms folded tightly around herself and her face pinched with worry. Neal forgets about his coat and steps toward her automatically to take her hand, touch her shoulder, anything to find out what is causing her such distress. He's already smiling reassuringly, projecting confidence, when she looks up.
"Oh, no --" Elizabeth sidesteps his gesture quickly, lifting both hands in a pushing motion as if to ward him away. She's still wearing her black leather gloves, as if she just came in from outside. In fact, she's still wearing her coat, and she hurriedly starts to do up the buttons as soon as Neal stops moving. "That’s not a good idea right now."
Neal pulls back, puzzled and more than a little alarmed. Elizabeth has never been frightened by his power before. She and Peter have both made sure he knows he doesn’t have to hide with them. At times like these, he misses the range he has without the anklet. He could have read her from the door, without her even knowing, if he weren’t hobbled by the Bureau. "What happened? You know I would never hurt you --"
"Oh, no! It’s not you." Elizabeth starts to reach out, then abruptly shoves her hands into her pockets. "It’s me, actually, cliche as that sounds. I told you I need your help."
She doesn’t say anything else, but she is wound so tight that Neal nods and takes a deliberate step away from her. Elizabeth doesn’t relax until he’s well outside of touching range. Neal lets his shields down cautiously, hoping for some information to trickle through the anklet’s muffling field --
And slams his shields right back up again as the miasma of malicious energy around her reaches toward him. Neal takes another step back, and El nods grimly. "You see?"
"Yes, I think I do." Anyone touching Elizabeth -– physically or magically -– would be targeted by the spell. "Do you know when it hit?"
Elizabeth bites her lip. "Not exactly. I was fine until I came home, and then --"
Neal nods, still careful not to reach out. "Do you think the curse was left on the house?"
"No. Actually... I think it was... Peter."
Neal's eyes widen at the thought. Peter. Neal edges toward the front hall, dreading what he might see. It can't be too bad, or Elizabeth would be more upset. But still --
Neal freezes in the doorway. There's a statue in the front hall. No, not a statue. Peter, by the front door, turned to gold in the process of kissing his wife hello.
Neal closes his eyes for a moment, trying to think past the pounding in his chest. These kinds of curses were almost always temporary; break them, and everything went back to normal. In the meantime, Peter might even be aware of everything going on around him. "A midas; I haven’t seen one of those in years,” Neal says, as lightly as he can around the worry he doesn’t want to show. “I know the Bureau considers you valuable, Peter, but I don’t think 'worth your weight in gold' was meant to be taken literally."
"Stop teasing." Elizabeth follows him around the corner. "It's not fair if he can't tease back."
"Right. Sorry," Neal says briskly. "But there isn't going to be much I can do to help you, here. You need a cursebreaker, like Hughes. And the Bureau should know if someone is targeting Peter --"
Elizabeth puts up her gloved hand again, the black leather making the gesture somehow stark. "It isn't a professional, and they weren't targeting Peter. Not exactly."
Neal raises an eyebrow at her. There is more to the story here, and now he's intensely curious. Especially when Elizabeth blushes.
"It's my sister. She called up right after, trying to warn me, but..." Elizabeth shrugs a little, her smile taking on the hint of exasperation her family brings out. "She's always had more power than control."
"I didn't know your sister was a -- Special." Neal chooses the word carefully, instead of the half-dozen slang terms for people who can do various harmful forms of magic, and Elizabeth smiles at him gratefully.
"She's not on the books," she says baldly. Neal knew that, or Mozzie would have told him, but the admission is worth a lot. "And I'd like it to stay that way."
Neal nods back. "My lips are sealed."
"Can I ask -- why did your sister curse you?" At her hesitation, he goes on. "If she's as powerful as she'd have to be to catch Peter like this -- there's a good chance he won't be able to break the curse from inside, not even with my help. But these things usually have an escape clause, or something built in that you can use to stop them. If I know what the curse is about --"
"Yes, I know." Elizabeth bites her lip again, tapping her fingers against her leg briefly in indecision. "My sister... she's going through a tough time right now."
"That's not exactly helpful."
"I said it was embarrassing." Elizabeth puts her hand over her face and talks quickly, the words tumbling over themselves. "I might have been a little short with her at lunch, when she wanted sympathy for breaking up with her boyfriend. He was a loser, and I said so. And then she was thinking about me and Peter and how we never even fight, and she got --"
"Jealous." Neal nods again. It isn't hard to be jealous of these two. Both of them are gorgeous, intelligent, sexy, and perfect for each other. He's actually surprised they've never been targeted before. "You need better wards."
"I know," Elizabeth says, dropping her hand from her face. "But I hate specifically warding against family. And nothing less will keep her out."
"It's a perfectly common situation," Neal points out.
"I know," Elizabeth says again.
Neal takes a deep breath and lays a hand on Peter's shoulder. The metal is skin-warm, and when Neal opens his senses, he can feel the emotional presence inside. "He's pissed at your sister."
Elizabeth laughs sharply. "Good guess, Kreskin. Does he think he can break this?"
The negative is clear before she even finishes speaking. "Not even with my help? Okay, okay," Neal takes his hand away, the fond exasperation a little overwhelming. "We're going to have to try another way. I can call Mozzie --"
Elizabeth shakes her head sharply, and Neal stops. "I don't really want to get anyone else involved."
"You can trust Moz," Neal says, cajoling. "Especially when it comes to keeping things off the books. There's no one I'd trust more --"
"It isn't that." Elizabeth glances over at Peter, obviously uncertain, and then reaching a decision. "Ask Peter."
"He can hear you just fine," Neal points out.
"I know," Elizabeth raises an eyebrow at him. "But he can't talk, and I need his answer. Do we call Mozzie? Or do we try... the escape clause."
Neal pauses a moment to give Elizabeth a chance to explain that, but she gets the stubborn light in her eye and gestures him toward Peter. Neal shrugs and lifts his hand to Peter's shoulder again, expecting that same firm awareness of Peter’s emotions.
But it's hushed this time, muffled, as if Peter is trying to shield himself while still communicating. Neal shifts closer automatically, sliding his hand up to Peter’s neck. It isn’t skin contact, but his sense of Peter does get stronger -- but it's a confusing morass of hesitation and embarrassment and sudden determination.
"Yes," Neal says, surprised that the message is so clear after so much confusion. "He says yes, and that it's up to you. Which I wouldn't think would be necessary…"
Elizabeth shifts forward enough to touch Peter’s other arm. Neal knows she’d be taking Peter’s hand if she could. "There’s a reason why I called you, and not Hughes.”
"Really?" Neal finds himself shifting closer automatically, and has to remind himself not to try to touch her again.
"Mmm-hmm." Elizabeth is the one who closes the distance between them, placing one gloved hand on his sleeve. The three of them are standing far too close together in the hall, touching, and it takes all of Neal’s concentration not to drop his shields and reach for Elizabeth’s emotions to balance out the growing murmur from Peter. "My sister was ranting about my perfect marriage, and how I'd never cheat on my husband. Not even a little bit."
“Oh.” The principles of curses flicker through Neal’s mind, and it suddenly clicks. "You wouldn't."
"Well, no. I wouldn't cheat on Peter.” She glances over at Peter’s face, and Neal feels Peter look back at her so clearly it’s hard to believe that Peter can’t move. “And that’s not what it takes to break the curse.”
"Good.” Neal knows he should step away from them, because it is good that these two love each other. But sometimes he wants, badly enough that he has to be careful not to let his own feelings leak through.
“I just have to kiss someone.” Elizabeth smiles up at him sweetly, finger tracing a light pattern on his sleeve. "Someone Peter would be jealous about."
Neal closes his eyes briefly, but he can’t back away. Peter is right there, hearing all of this, and the anger is there. But it’s not aimed at Neal. "Your sister really likes to dig her claws in."
"She fights dirty, yes.” Elizabeth nods, gaze flicking up to Neal’s before she goes back to tracing patterns. Her hand has moved up his sleeve and is now drawing soft shapes over his heart. Neal isn’t sure what she’s writing, but the tingle of magic against his aura is distracting. “It's a family trait."
Neal doesn’t actually want her to stop, but he needs to be careful here. Peter could send him back to prison in a heartbeat, and no one would ask why. "I don't want to come between you and Peter --"
"Oh, hell." Elizabeth freezes for a moment, breath caught. Neal doesn’t know what she’s thinking, if she’s having second thoughts – and he wants to stop her if she is. He wraps his free hand around her waist, wishing he dared drop his shields again. He wouldn’t push, but he could show her just how much he wants this --
When her eyes open again, it isn't hesitation he reads in them. Her pupils are blown wide and black, and the desire in them takes his breath away.
"What if that's exactly what I want?" Her smile is mostly wistful, and just a little wicked.
Her expression sends a shiver down his spine before her words sink in. "Elizabeth, no. Peter's my friend, and you two --"
She tilts her head back and presses her body against him, the touch muffled by their coats but still dangerous until the curse is broken. "You. Coming." The emphasis on the word, clear and obvious now, crashes in. She runs her hands lightly up the lapels of his coat. Neal finds himself pushing forward, seeking contact.
"Between us." The last words are whispered, throaty, and it surprises a moan out of him. Neal lets her turn him until his back is pressed up against Peter as she slides into his arms.
It startles Neal for a moment that Peter doesn't put his arms around them, the presence is so strong. Peter's emotions are clear now, loud as a shout, and Neal gasps at the wave of desire that crashes through him. He can’t separate his own feelings from Peter’s, and this time, he doesn’t try.
Neal lets Elizabeth's leather-clad hands pull him forward into a kiss. The curse bursts around them, malice flaring and burning away like leaves in a brush fire as his lips touch hers.