Pairing: Peter/Neal, Peter/El, OT3
Rating: very mild R
Warnings: AU, vague allusions to m/m sex, angst, schmoop, clichés abound
Word count: ~4800
Summary: office building AU. Peter’s just the payroll guy, but all that bad luck on his first day might turn out to not be so bad after all.
A/N: Written for the whitecollarhc 2012 advent calendar! I’m a few days late but things happened, so… here tis anyway ^^ Written in a slightly different style than my usual fare.
It’s only Peter’s first day, yet still he manages to showcase his complete ineptitude before he even gets to the elevator, bumping into another man in the bustling, marble-floored expanse of the lobby. At least he has the decency to spill his coffee on his own shirt – his unfortunate victim is wearing a silvery-grey suit that looks like it costs about as much as Peter’s apartment, if not the entire building, but he thankfully escapes with nothing more than a little black notebook slipping to the ground.
He’s really pretty good about it, Peter thinks, while he continues to apologise and the man waves it off and bends down to scoop up the book. Peter’s about ready for the guy to turn and give him a terse word before he struts off, but he simply slips the book into his pocket and retrieves a handkerchief at the same time, offering it to him to dab at the coffee stain. Peter nearly misses the gesture completely thanks to the stunning sight of the man’s eyes, shining pools of blue that threaten to whisk him off into daydream-land, but he manages to right himself quickly enough, thanking the younger man profusely. It’s a good thing he wore a dark-coloured suit today, he’ll just have to keep the button done up to hide his soiled shirt.
Another moment passes with the man just standing there, watching with mild amusement as Peter wipes uselessly at the ugly brown blotch, and eventually Peter gives up, heaving a sigh with how exhausted he already feels. He mumbles something about it being a bad sign that his luck is so terrible on his first day on the job, and the man shrugs in sympathy, replying that he’d offer a spare shirt if he thought it would fit. Peter merely laughs that it’s not like anyone’s going to be looking at him anyway, and the man looks at him oddly but doesn’t reply. Next thing Peter knows the guy has excused himself and is heading off in the opposite direction. He makes to call out about the forgotten handkerchief but the man has already disappeared into the crowd.
And that’s the last he sees of him, the smartly dressed man with the distracting, Mediterranean-blue eyes. He remains as little more than a memorable glimmer in Peter’s thoughts, but the handkerchief stays clean and pressed in his pocket, waiting for an opportunity to be returned.
Every morning for two straight weeks Peter arrives slightly early and waits in the lobby, searching amongst the throng of people for a particular combination of impeccable suit and vibrant eyes, but no one he sees ever quite meets the criteria.
Another week later his world is upturned for the second time in as many months when he meets Elizabeth. She grins back at him from the other side of the photocopier and Peter feels his knees go a little weak and his tongue get a little tied. She seems to find it endearing though, giggling at his awkwardness yet never truly laughing at him. He asks why he’s never seen her around before, since he’s good with faces and hers isn’t one he’s likely to miss. She confesses that she’s actually from up on the top floor – the eighty-third – but their photocopier is busted and she had to come down to the twenty-first to deliver a document anyway. Peter nearly chokes and feels his heart sink in his chest at the realisation of just how far she is out of his league, but somehow, in the few minutes that pass before she heads back to the elevator, he ends up with one extra number in his phone and the offer of a prospective coffee-date all the same.
For the rest of the day he can’t stop grinning, his colleague Jones indelicately teasing him about ‘getting some’ on more than one occasion. It isn’t until his hand slips absently into his pocket and he’s reminded of the handkerchief still sitting there that the smile slips from his face. He’s going to be haunted by visions of dark-haired, blue-eyed beauties for the rest of his life, he just knows it.
It takes another week, but he finally manages to grab that promised coffee with Elizabeth – her schedule is hectic, which isn’t surprising all things considered, but Peter’s just the payroll guy so luckily his lunch hour is pretty flexible. They talk about everything and nothing – work, relationships, likes and dislikes. They both have an interest in art, though Elizabeth – who insists Peter call her ‘El’ – has a much more in-depth knowledge, enough so that he doesn’t know whether to be envious or admiring. The subject then turns to their work after El mentions that she would have liked to work in an art gallery. Peter thinks she would genuinely suit such a profession, and El pats his cheek affectionately when he says as much, but she informs him that she does what she does as a favour to a close friend.
Peter doesn’t know how to respond to that – he has friends, sure, but no one he’d really alter his life or career for – so he simply makes comment that he’d started training to be in the FBI once-upon-a-time, but had needed to pull out for personal reasons before he’d had the chance to finish. El seems to think that it’s a pretty neat story despite him leaving halfway through, and says that she could imagine him making a good agent, chasing down the bad guys with his brain instead of a gun.
They part ways soon after, El giving him a brief peck on the cheek on her way out. He practically floats back to his cosy little cubicle on the twenty-first floor, and once Jones spies the hint of smudged lipstick on his face he never hears the end of it.
It’s lunch hour on what is, quite sadly, an El-free day, but Peter accepts that she has more important obligations sometimes, and he’s more than capable of taking himself out for lunch, thank-you-very-much. They’ve been going out for ‘coffee-dates’ for a few weeks already, and had even progressed to a proper dinner date two nights prior, so he hardly has cause for complaint.
Crossing the road, milling about with the thousands of other pedestrians out seeking lunchtime fare, Peter finally decides to give the bakery a go, having put it off thus far because of the intimidatingly long queue that usually winds its way out through the doors. The line doesn’t seem too bad today however, and Jones will have no further reason to talk his ear off about the ‘greatest bakery ever’ once he’s gone there himself, so he veers to the right and reaches his hand for the door when it suddenly flings outward, the metal handle colliding audibly with his knuckles. A few choice words escape Peter’s mouth as he clutches at his hand, but any rage he may have held towards the offender is extinguished in an instant once he finds a pair of eyes the colour of the sky looking straight at him.
The man apologises sincerely for his negligence and takes Peter’s still-throbbing hand into his own, massaging gently around the injury and soothing the ache. In the space of a few seconds Peter’s world literally shrinks down to about a three-foot radius, and he can barely breathe for the proximity of this striking creature who happens to be holding his hand. He takes in as many details as he can while he has the chance, noting the textured navy suit he’s in which Peter could probably trade-in for a new car, the shiny watch, the polished shoes, the clean-shaven skin of his face. And then Peter is forced to wonder how much you can really tell from a person’s hands, since the pair wrapped around his right are completely at odds with the rest of the man they’re attached to. Not that they look unkempt, because they aren’t, but there’s at least three blotches of blue ink splattered on one hand, a smudge of what looks like charcoal on the other, and the remnants of some kind of paint are buried in the crevices around his fingernails.
As if Peter wasn’t already intrigued enough.
“I’m Neal, by the way,” the man says, his voice smooth and rich.
Peter offers his own name in return, and Neal’s smile is his reward, the butterflies in his stomach doing a little dance all the while.
Once Peter has retrieved a ham sandwich for himself, the two of them head to the park and find themselves a bench to sit on. Their lunch almost gets forgotten once they start talking, the chatter flowing easily as if they’ve known each other for years. Peter doesn’t even notice the time passing until he’s already nearly an hour late for getting back to work, and he regretfully leaves Neal still sitting placidly on the bench while he hurries back to his cubicle on the twenty-first floor. His late arrival doesn’t go unnoticed by his colleagues, but his supervisor, Hughes – usually the one to watch out for – oddly enough barely even blinks an eye. And then when it’s time to go and Peter has intentions of staying late to make up for his long lunch, Hughes appears and pats him on the shoulder, telling him not to overdo it and sending him on his way.
All in all it makes for a strange but mostly satisfying day. It doesn’t even occur to him until he gets home that the handkerchief is still sitting there in his pocket, right where it’s been for the past two months.
As days and weeks pass, Peter develops a schedule of alternating ‘lunches-with-El’ and ‘lunches-with-Neal’. His colleagues have given up trying to convince him to go with them to a sushi bar or food hall in the hour break, but he chats with them often enough in the office that he doesn’t feel bad about brushing them off. That is, he’d much rather be spending his time with the two most interesting people in his life, and while he does tend to be a bit of a people-pleaser, he’s not getting any younger so why shouldn’t he spend as much time with them as he likes?
Peter quietly cherishes the little things he picks up about Neal, bit-by-bit - a favourite wine, a frequented gallery, a preferred spot to stand on the south Brooklyn shore and look out to sea. He’s clearly a very private man, so despite the length at which they talk, Peter feels he still knows very little about him. He doesn’t mind so much, since he likes the mystery and he wants to keep learning about Neal for as long as he can, but there are occasional moments when Peter thinks his friend looks somehow inherently sad, and he wishes he did know Neal better if only so he knew what to say to put the light back behind his smile.
The next time they do lunch, Peter is carrying a large Japanese bento box to share as they head into the park, following a lesser used path to their favourite spot. They’re both brought to a standstill however, when they find their usual bench is already occupied, and Neal stands frozen, looking impossibly forlorn. Far from content, but not about to let something as pitiful as a park bench get in his way, Peter grabs Neal’s hand and drags him further north to the lake, sitting them down on a dry patch of grass instead. He sets their lunch down and moves to pull away, but Neal’s hand clenches down on his own and refuses to let go.
They remain that way - their fingers interwoven - until they wander to the front gate and have to part ways. Peter’s learnt something new about Neal today - that he can use chopsticks with his left hand - and he ponders over thoughts of how appealing ambidextrousness is all the way back to his cubicle. Jones immediately spots his especially contented mood and begins teasing him about his ‘pretty lady friend’, but Peter is stopped in his tracks at the mention of El and can’t quite find the right words to correct him.
Once he’s back at his desk he takes the handkerchief from his pocket, flattens it out then refolds it before putting it away again. He can’t put his finger on exactly why he’s held onto the thing all this time.
Elizabeth edges her way toward the office, peeking through the cracked-open door with one eye. Neal sits in the almost dark, lit only by the glow of his computer screen, and stares off into space, an empty look on his face. She leans against the wall at her side and sighs, wondering what she can do to rectify the situation. Her friend’s contempt for his own life – his job and position, his faceless renown, the expectations that weigh on his shoulders and the scrutiny of those waiting for him to fail – it can be almost debilitating at times, and it’s no less hard for her to watch him have to deal with it. But they do, together. It’s her job now, her duty, and so far they’ve made it through.
Now though, because of one man – one unassumingly handsome and impossibly nice man threatens to bring down their already shaky foundations. She’s never seen Neal look quite this lost.
She’s about to push her way inside when Neal breaks from his stupor, looking up and spotting her at the door. It only takes a second for him to slide his ‘face’ on, the face with all the poise and charisma in the world, with a great big fake smile smack-bang in the centre of it. He opens his mouth to speak but she moves further inside the room and beats him to it.
“You don’t have to do that with me. You know you don’t.”
And as quickly as it appeared, it’s gone again, leaving that vacant look in its wake.
“We held hands today,” is all he says, looking down to where his fingers are fiddling idly with a cufflink, and El knows that if he were any lesser a man he’d probably be bawling his eyes out right now. But Neal’s forged himself stronger than that, by now he’s too used to having things taken away from him.
El despairs, knowing that she has only been playing the part she was asked to, but still paying the price for it.
“We can’t do this anymore.”
Neal glances up at her, the ‘what do you mean?’ doesn’t need to be said, the question is clear in his eyes.
“We’re only going to hurt ourselves, and more importantly we’re going to hurt him, which is surely the last thing we want to do. We’ve both been romancing him in our own way, but, what, are we just waiting for him to choose? I’m… I think I’m falling for him, Neal. I feel like a bad person because you wanted him first, and it should be you--”
A tug on her shirt-sleeve is all the warning she gets when she’s suddenly pulled into a hug, Neal’s arms wrapping sturdily around her. She lets herself drift for a moment, allowing Neal’s strength to calm her, before she eventually pulls back with a tired sigh. Neal assures her that they’ll work it out somehow, even if they have to back away for a while, take their time to sort out what they want and come up with a plan. His hands rise to her face and begin combing through her hair, gently stroking the slope of her neck and collarbone.
“My life is like a medieval fortress,” he says, the analogy oddly appropriate, “And I don’t know how to bring him inside without opening the door to enemies as well. I got lucky with you, you know, I was able to bring you in before the walls even went up.”
She smiles, grateful, and presses her lips to his. They'll figure it out, they always do.
For two weeks Peter doesn’t see hide nor hair of Neal. It’s the first time he regrets not swapping phone numbers with the other man, because while he’s probably just on a business trip or something, Peter tends to be a bit of a worrier and would just like to know he’s okay. He thinks his little anxieties are even causing him to see things when he returns from lunch one day to see an immaculately dressed man with a mop of luxurious brown hair moving out the front of his office building – he looks exactly like Neal from behind, but he can’t see the man’s face so he can’t be sure, especially when there are so many people around him, camera flashes going off and microphones being waved round overhead. He’s being ushered towards a black SUV by a team of bodyguards and other attendants and Peter pities whoever the man is, having to deal with all that meaningless fuss.
The more he thinks about it, the more he’s convinced that he just wanted to see Neal so badly that anyone who looked remotely like him would cause his heart to leap in his chest. Not to mention that of all the times they had lunch together, not once were they followed or bothered by others, which Peter is enormously thankful for – he’s not really sure how well he’d be able to deal with that sort of thing, so it’s a good thing he doesn’t know any famous people.
The other matter that plagues his thoughts over those two Neal-less weeks is his ongoing dates with El. They start getting more and more irregular, El calling and rescheduling numerous times, and then when she does turn up she’s tired and distracted and for the first time ever, making conversation seems like an effort.
Slumped over his paper-laden desk in his cramped little cubicle on the twenty-first floor, Peter wonders what he’s done wrong for the universe to suddenly turn against him.
It’s a Tuesday when Peter gets the memo that one of the bigwigs upstairs wants a word with him at the end of the day. Unfortunately several of his colleagues are close enough to overhear, so for the rest of the afternoon all he hears is the speculative gossip that torpedoes through the office – is he getting promoted? Fired? Did he fuck up the payroll? Did he get caught with his pants down with his pretty lady-friend?
All Peter can think is that maybe he did mess up his calculations somewhere, but he’s always been good with numbers and rarely makes errors – one of the reasons he got the job in the first place – so he’s left completely at a loss as the day slowly winds down.
A bunch of people pat him on the back encouragingly as they leave for the day, but Peter just wants to turn around and bite their hands off. Resigned, he gets up off his chair and makes for the elevators, heading up to the eighty-third floor. He wonders if El will still be up there, and as soon as the thought crosses his mind his heart skips a beat – he doesn’t know what’s been up with her lately but she wouldn’t have said something about him, would she? No, no, he quashes the notion immediately, blaming his usual anxiety which has been no less than erratic of late.
When the doors open he thinks he sees El out the corner of his eye but when he turns his head she’s nowhere to be found, so he strides down the deserted hallway to the room he was instructed to go to, finding it labelled with the name plaque: N.C., Chief Executive Officer. Peter feels his legs get a little watery at that, wondering what in the hell he’s done so wrong to get sent to see this man. This man who everyone seems to pitch rumours about since he’s apparently a recluse who rarely shows his face, will readily chew out anyone who irritates him in front of a room full of people, and wears a demonic smile when he fires you and tears up your employment contract. Peter doesn’t really know what’s fact and fiction about this man – he can’t make himself believe any of the b.s. his workmates come up with – but even if his CEO is about to chew him out, he’ll be damned if he goes cowering away in a corner.
He knocks firmly on the door and is about to turn the knob when it suddenly opens in front of him, revealing a very dishevelled head of coffee-brown hair, and two very red-looking sapphire eyes.
“Hey, Peter,” Neal rasps, sounding as if he’s been smoking too many cigars.
Peter attempts to start a sentence about five times before he gives up, his shoulders drooping despondently. He’s still standing outside the office until Neal finally grabs his wrist and leads him inside, shutting the door and then pulling up an armchair for Peter to sit in. He looks around at the state of the room which is very un-Neal-like - there’s papers arranged in no immediately recognisable order on the floor, his jacket is thrown haphazardly over the back of another chair, and there’s a pillow and blanket on the sofa that’s pushed up against the opposite wall, which explains the stuffy smell that lingers in the air – Neal’s been sleeping there. There is one area that peaks his interest however, where over in the corner several still-drying canvasses are propped on a plastic tarp, oil paints and brushes spilling out from a small box - somehow it explains a lot.
“I need to apologise. And explain,” Neal starts, pacing anxiously behind his desk. And Peter remains silent as he apologises pitifully for lying and being so secretive, and goes on to explain how pretending to not be ‘Mr. Caffrey’ is the only way he can live any sort of normal life, since he’s always being watched and waited-on and endlessly scrutinised.
“It was you,” Peter mutters, interrupting the other man’s reasoning. And then it’s his turn to explain how he saw Neal being shepherded into his car the previous week, and felt terrible that he had to shield himself away from the world like that.
“You-” Neal hesitates, “You’re not angry?”
“No. But I wish you’d told me.”
Neal looks as though he’s about to implode with relief so he reaches out and grabs the other man’s hand, feeling him squeeze in return. Peter wants to hold more of Neal but he decides now isn’t the time, and he finds he’s right when there’s a tap at the door and in comes Elizabeth, looking like a vision.
“There’s a little more to it than that,” she says, re-introducing herself as Neal’s personal assistant and best friend since high school. She makes light of Neal’s reservations, and proceeds to tell Peter of her intrigue after Neal had come to work one day gushing about a man he’d bumped into in the lobby, who’d spilt coffee all over himself and was ‘adorably awkward’ about it. She then explains that at Neal’s request she’d made a point of getting to know him, but hadn’t banked on their personalities being so compatible and the feelings she’d developed.
Peter continues to sit quietly, more than a little stunned about all he’s learned, but neither of his companions seems in a rush to make him talk. El eventually pats his cheek, giving him a quick peck, before she excuses herself to finish her work, leaving Neal and Peter to stare to each other blankly.
After a long few minutes Neal speaks up, presenting him with an offer.
“If you want one of us, you have to want the other too. We’ve decided we’re a package deal. On Friday I’m going to invite you up here again – if you come, you agree, if you don’t, then we won’t bother each other again and we’ll go on with our lives.”
Fifteen minutes later Peter’s in his car heading home. He comes to a stop at a traffic light as he’s leaving Manhattan, and when he looks back toward the city he can just make out the top-most levels of his building. There’s a singular light left illuminated on the very top floor - the eighty-third – and the yearning starts to bloom in his chest.
The rest of the week moves more slowly than Peter ever thought possible. His colleagues seem to sense his agitation and mercifully leave him alone, though Jones does ask if he’s okay on Thursday, when he’s feeling particularly irritable – though he attributes that to having seen an article in one of the papers that morning about Mr Caffrey Senior rebuking Mr Caffrey Junior in front of the Board of Directors, criticising some of his ‘life choices’ and threatening his control of the company. He realises later that there’s something similar printed in nearly all the tabloids, and suddenly he gets a better clue about what Neal has to deal with and why he does what he does. Peter realises he couldn’t blame him even if he wanted to, and of course, it only makes him love El more that she would stick by her friend to protect him.
When Friday afternoon finally rolls around, Peter can’t get to the eighty-third fast enough, and Neal’s smile is bright enough to blind him. El isn’t present however, and he’s disappointed to learn that she’s been called away to deal with an urgent business matter – he wonders if it has anything to do with the slanderous newspaper articles, but he doesn’t say anything for fear of ruining the moment.
Instead, he closes the door behind him and edges into Neal’s personal space, framing his face with his hands. They both inhale, eyelids dropping closed, and inch forward at the same time. Peter hears Neal gasp when they finally make contact, their lips sliding together and impelling them into kiss after kiss.
After that first wall is knocked down Peter lets go, lets himself be picked up and carried away by the whirlwind spinning around him, lets his body give in to the impulses Neal is coaxing out of him. He presses closer, pulling Neal harder against him, but Peter doesn’t fully come back to himself until he and Neal are lying entangled on the sofa, their breaths coming fast and heavy, and their clothes still on but in complete disarray.
He’s just starting to get restless, his shirt and trousers feeling sticky and uncomfortable, when Neal laughs, muttering some comment into Peter’s ear about how they’re both so hopelessly desperate that they couldn’t even get their ties off or undo a few buttons before they lost it.
Peter joins in the laughter, and agrees readily when Neal suggests a ‘sleepover’, tugging them both back onto their feet. Neal grabs his satchel and Peter picks his discarded jacket up from the floor and they head down to the parking garage, jumping into Peter’s crappy old Corolla. Neal giggles like a kid as they speed along the expressway, mumbling something about feeling like a fugitive escaped from prison.
It’s a couple of hours after he and Neal finally collapsed exhaustedly on the bed, that he hears a door open outside followed by the clacking of high-heels on the floorboards. Minutes later the bedroom door is pushed ajar and Peter smiles when he sees the familiar voluptuous silhouette projected onto the wall by the light out in the hallway.
He nudges Neal awake and nips at his earlobe to get his attention.
“Remember how I said there was only one thing that could make this any better?”
“Well, we don’t have to wonder about it anymore.”
Elizabeth hops onto the bed and crawls in between them, wiggling around until she finds a comfortable position. She makes a point of commenting on how busy they appear to have been, and Peter slides his arms around her naked waist and reassures her that they promise to make it up to her in the morning.
“Hey Neal?” El prods, amusement present in her tone, “You play a dangerous game sending me naughty photos when I’m in the middle of an emergency fix-it meeting. I never pegged you for being so cruel.”
Peter flails and immediately sits up, demanding to know what photos she’s talking about. El and Neal only laugh, pulling him back down to the pillows and peppering him with kisses. Neal pinches his chin and asks if he recalls taking a quick nap after round-two once they’d returned to the house. Peter’s about to confirm that of course he does when it finally clicks, and he finds that he has no words – he had no idea that this so-called ‘recluse’ would be such a cunning rogue.
Also, that handkerchief? He's definitely not giving it back.