Rescuing a Picasso was, it was true, not entirely within the realm of Avengers business. When it was stolen, however, Steve was appalled and personally offended, and he somehow wrangled permission from the FBI to work the case. Clint got sent along as his minder, which was okay, since it turned out one of the FBI guys had a friend named Mozzie who was the best entertainment ever.
Still, it wasn’t all laughs; what Neal thought would be an easy recovery turned south fast when it became evident that the thief, who had been a normal human being when Neal knew him, had joined Hydra sometime in the last few years and was starting a stockpile of “degenerate” art he was planning to publicly burn.
“You know, I genuinely did not expect supervillains,” Neal said, crouched behind a crate containing a priceless granite sculpture, which was currently being shot at by Hydra’s art division, for the love of God.
“THIS IS A BRANCUSI, YOU MONSTERS,” Steve yelled, and threw his shield. There were two grunts and a clang.
“As battle cries go, I’ve heard worse,” Neal allowed, as Steve stood up to catch the shield before crouching again. “How many more are there?”
“Goddamn Nazis and their goddamn art looting, does this look like a salt mine to you,” Steve muttered to himself. “There’s two more hiding behind what looks like a Klee nude in the corner.”
“Oh, that’s a fake,” Neal said.
“For sure?” Steve asked.
“Yep, painted it myself, I recognized it.”
“Good,” Steve said grimly, and threw the shield again. There was the sound of tearing canvas, then a gurgling scream. Steve put out an arm and caught the shield, then bounced to his feet.
“All clear,” he said to Neal, who stood and dusted himself off just as the roll door of the warehouse opened.
“Neal?” Peter called. “Captain Rogers?”
“All good here!” Neal said, as Steve stowed the shield on his back. “Just Nazi art loot.”
Peter looked around, sighed, and then said, in an aggrieved tone, “Again?”
“Oh, so this is the girlfriend I’ve heard so much about,” Peter commented, glancing at you when Neal opened his door.
“Friend,” both you and Neal corrected at the same time.
“She’s here so early, I thought-“ Peter started.
“You thought wrong, she had an early flight in,” Neal quickly stated. Was he embarrassed? You laughed a little.
“Well, don’t let Neal corrupt you. He’s gotten into some bad habits lately,” Peter warned you as Neal shooed him out the door.
“Got to get to work?” you asked Neal once the door was shut.
“Unfortunately, that’s what Peter’s presence usually means,” Neal said. “June will be back soon with that coffee she promised, and hopefully you and her can get the couch turned into a bed for until you can find a cheap place.”
“Thanks, Neal,” you said as he started out the door.
“You do realize Peter won’t be the last person to assume we’re a couple,” Neal warned.
“We might need to get matching ‘Not my boyfriend-slash-girlfriend’ shirts,” you joked with a sigh.
After Neal was off work, he decided to take you walking around the couple blocks he was allowed to go with his anklet, just so you could get to know the area.
“Hey, Peter, and Sa-you’re not Sarah,” someone called over. Neal stopped to turn and look, smiling at the new person. You gave a shy wave.
“Mozzie, meet Y/N. Y/N, my best friend here, Mozzie,” Neal introduced. “She’s going to be staying with me for a bit, so no barging in like you usually do.”
“Don’t want me walking in on any fun?” Mozzie asked with a smirk.
“FRIEND, Mozzie, just like you,” Neal corrected as you laughed. “I don’t want you walking in on her changing while I’m off at work or something.”
“Sounds like we need those shirts as soon as we can get them,” you commented to Neal.
Neal's Last-Minute Changes to Perfect Your Wedding Would Include...
You’d chosen rings together, but Neal waited until he knew you weren’t going to check them again before the wedding to secretly inscribe a lovely promise on the inside of yours.
You had agreed that Mozzie was going to be the best man, but the night before, at the bachelor’s party Peter insisted on throwing, Neal came to the conclusion that he wanted to change that. It was very shocking to you that Mozzie was actually at the front of the aisle, officiating, while Peter stood by Neal. (But it was a welcome change.)
Only hours before the ceremony, Neal decided the colors had to change. They needed to be blue and Y/F/C, because he knew how much you loved the color of his eyes. Elizabeth (your planner) damn near stabbed him with the pins from her bridesmaid dress.
Mozzie had been planning on releasing pigeons, but Neal wanted doves because they’re prettier and more picturesque. To appease his best friend, Neal pretended not to notice when Mozzie snuck several carrier pigeons in with the doves.
To your confusion, Neal asked you not to wear the veil that went with your dress. He didn’t want to miss a single expression on your face.
He wrote his own vows. This had always been the plan, because Neal’s such a romantic that he could never let someone else’s words tell you how he felt, but he kept anxiously tweaking them in the days, hours, and even minutes leading up to the ceremony. Peter solemnly threatened to arrest him if he didn’t stop.
Elizabeth had chosen the flower arrangements, but, at risk of being bludgeoned with her clipboard, he switched out his with a bouquet of gorgeous red roses with the thorns removed. After all, they’re the flowers that mean true love. He handed them to you when you joined him at the altar.
Neal insisted that the music be changed, because the very first song he wanted to dance with you to just had to be the song you’d sleepily slow-danced to in the kitchen mere days ago.
He didn’t have to pretend to be surprised when, after the birds were released, the pigeons flew towards you and Neal, dropping off little scrolls of well-wishes. You’d laughed and beamed, and Neal hadn’t been able to speak for a long several minutes. The gesture caught him off-guard, but he realized that he shouldn’t have expected anything less from Moz.
Knowing how Neal had planned to retire to an island, you’d scheduled your honeymoon in the Caribbean. Neal changed your travel plans so he was taking you on a tour through Europe. He wanted to settle down with you, wherever you wanted to be; but first, he wanted to show you all the places in the world he’d loved.
Summary: A charity
gala brings you and Neal closer together, but misunderstandings running both
ways threaten to end something before it can even start.
Word Count: 5,561
Your history with romance was… not
stellar. Had you a little more musical talent, you might’ve been the next
Taylor Swift. The best, and longest-lasting, relationship you’d had was with
Dairy Queen. So it stood to reason that the best decision for you was to be
single for a while… and your next date should be with someone nice, sensitive,
Nowhere on your list of ‘qualities
to look for’ did you find ‘convicted conman,’ so, of course, that’s obviously
exactly the kind of person you had to go and get a crush on.
From the day you’d joined Peter’s
team, it seemed like you had Neal’s attention. At first, you thought his level
of interest in you was just that he was friendly, but you watched what he did
with other people. The only person in the office who Neal gravitated towards as
much as he did you was Peter (completely understandable; they were partners,
and they had a long history). Diana assured you that Neal’s interest would fade
once you weren’t a stranger to him, but that didn’t happen. If anything, he
sought you out even more.
You thought the two of you were
pretty close. He brought you coffee, you brought him lunch; when one of you had
a lot of work, the other pulled up a chair and stayed late; when your best
friend had to be rushed to the emergency room for an appendectomy, Neal was the
one you called, and he was also the one who took your hand and distracted you
from the sterile smell and the bustle of doctors. You spent as much time with
him as you did with your aforementioned best friend. He even introduced you to
It was impossible for you not to
realize that Neal was nice, sensitive, and considerate, but there were so many
reasons why you shouldn’t be
interested that you tried very hard not to be, and chalked up the butterflies
when he hugged you to being lonely.
El jokingly said that her husband
kept bringing home strays, but it wasn’t too far from the truth. Like Neal, you
didn’t have many ties in New York, and the Burkes took to you like ducks to water.
Before you really knew what was happening, you had a standing dinner date with
Neal, Peter, and El every week.
You all sat around a square-shaped
dining table. Elizabeth and Neal were sitting on adjacent sides, and they were
discussing the qualities of a caterer for an event she was managing on the
coming weekend. Regrettably, you did not have the credentials to be on this
specialized catering consulting board, so you and Peter were carrying on a
quiet, alternative conversation.
“Well, I’ve never really been a
baseball fan, but I can get into team spirit.” You smiled. Neither El nor Neal
were sports buffs, and admittedly, neither were you; but you liked watching
games, even if you weren’t entirely sure what was happening, and baseball was
more fun than basketball or football to be a spectator of.
“Oh, it’s amazing.” Peter beamed.
“That’s what’s on my bucket list: seeing another game at Yankee Stadium.”
At first, it had been strange to
talk about these things with your coworkers, and especially with Peter, your
boss. You’d been so eager to join the bureau that you wanted to be adult,
professional, mature, and you thought that to have an adult working
relationship, you needed to check the personal stuff at the door. Maybe that
was true with some teams, but Peter, Neal, Diana, and Jones were all very
friendly, and they welcomed your friendship and your company, even off the
“Maybe we should take him to the
parking lot and let him listen,” Neal said to El pointedly, grinning across the
table at Peter, who scowled reproachfully.
Peter looked back to you, rolling
his eyes. “He’s still pouting because we met a suspect at some boutique, but I
wouldn’t let him go in.”
“It’s like taking you to a game and
making you listen from outside!” Neal argued.
From opposite sides of the table, El
caught your eyes. She mouthed the word boys
and shook her head. You giggled, then hurried to cover your mouth when both
men looked at you with raised eyebrows, asking what was so funny. You quickly
got busy looking at your drink, which was suddenly very fascinating.
The brunette saved you. “The charity
hosting the gala has been so happy with the spreads I’ve made,” she said,
smiling proudly. Her hair was still in its shape from her meetings; cute
ringlets danced by her face, and a floral white headband peeked out from under
the neat swell of her hair. “Their Head of PR says they’re going to book me for
their annual fundraiser, and they said I can bring some pluses on Sunday.” She
cocked her head. “I know Peter will be delighted to come,” she said cheerfully.
Peter, at that point, had been
looking concerned and a little worried. When she decreed that he would
definitely be attending, he made a sarcastic oh, surprise expression at you very quickly and then turned a sweet
smile to El before he was caught, leaning across the table to peck her lips.
“Of course, hon.”
She smirked, knowing full well that
Peter was faking. “Y/N, Neal,” she continued, and Peter turned his triumphant,
playful look of victory on you. You were sure he’d have preferred to direct it
to Neal, but the conman would actually enjoy going to a gala, so it would’ve
been pointless. “You both are more than welcome to come, too. I’d love to have
You were good at telling people no.
In fact, it was one of your favorite things to do; exercising your rights to
disappoint people who annoyed you was something you took great pleasure in at
university. No, I won’t give you the
answers; no, I won’t cover for you with the RA. Saying no to Elizabeth, however, was something you
sincerely doubted was even possible, and even if you could’ve, you didn’t
really want to. After the appendicitis scare, your roommate from college had
gone home to recover, and then decided to move back to her hometown. El was
probably the closest female friend you had within five hundred miles, and you
were a believer in paying it forward.
“I’d love to!” Neal answered,
looking tauntingly across the table at Peter. “Someone has to be able to make
small talk.” Peter grimaced. He knew his flaws.
“Me, too,” you promised warmly.
“Thanks, El. You’re the best.”
She settled back in her chair,
radiating content and confident vibes. You suspected she was holding Peter’s
hand under the table now, because he had a dumb, lovestruck smile on his face
that he only ever got when Elizabeth was involved. It was really adorable.
“Oh, it’s a black-tie event,” she
added as an afterthought, on a more serious vein. “So wear something nice.
Dress like you’re going on a very classy date.”
“Hey, Neal, good news, you can just
dress normally.” You snickered, tongue-in-cheek, while Neal looked down at
himself and smoothed his suit jacket.
“There’s nothing wrong with being
well-prepared,” he responded mouthily. There was a quirk of amusement to his
lips. “Looks are everything.” Peter scoffed; Neal amended, “Well, perception is everything, and looks
“Easy for you to say, Casanova,”
El cooed and pet her husband’s
shoulder. Neal put a hand over his heart and feigned innocence before laughing
heartily when you nodded seriously, agreeing with Peter.
Peter had long since added the
direct route to his residence to the allowed locations on Neal’s tracker, but
when taking taxis, especially in the greater Manhattan area, the most direct
route wasn’t always the one that was taken, so on your dinner nights, Peter
didn’t tell the Marshals to lock down on the radius until after you assured him
Neal was already back within his. It wasn’t fair to sound the alarms on Neal
when he was legitimately going home, just screwed over by the public
“Did you have any plans before El
commandeered your afternoon?” You asked Neal jokingly. El was sometimes a
steamroller in dictating who was going to be where – you were going to have lunch with her, Peter was going to walk the dog, Neal will
be consulting at her office – but truthfully, you all knew she’d back down
gracefully if you had other obligations, and she did it with the best
intentions, so you were always happy to comply.
“She saved me from a long evening of
Chinese indie films on government corruption,” Neal replied, looking
uncomfortable just at the thought.
“Mozzie?” You guessed.
The cab pulled up along the sidewalk
outside of June’s manor. Neal unclipped his seatbelt while you leaned forward
to tell the driver your own address, paying a glance to the meter. A hand
touching yours made you turn back around.
“Y/N,” Neal said slowly, picking up
your hand and holding it over your thigh. He turned as much as he could in the
seat to face you. “I really enjoy having your company.” You smiled, feeling
heat rise to your face, as it always did when Neal complimented you. “Would it
be alright to ask you to be my black-tie date?”
You smiled and squeezed his hand.
“Sure,” you said, mentally questioning where all that confidence from earlier
had gone. “I’d be delighted.”
His face lit up, his blue eyes
bright and excited, his expression happy and relieved. “Until then, mademoiselle.”
You laughed. You were going to see
him at work way before the gala. Drawing on your limited high school French,
you responded dramatically in kind. “Jusqu’à,
Neal lifted your hand and pulled
your arm across the small space in the taxi. Holding your hand up, he pressed
his lips to your knuckles. He was certainly a charmer.
He got out of the taxi with a spring
in his step. You shook your head, charmed and rosy-faced. Neal certainly knew
how to make a girl feel flattered. The driver waited until Neal had started up
the walkway towards June’s porch, then pulled the car away from the sidewalk in
the next available traffic gap.
“Sounds like you’ve got yourself a
keeper,” he commented with a slight smile, glancing at you in the rearview
mirror. He tapped his fingers on the steering wheel.
You looked down to your shoes in the
footwell. There was no point in explaining the context to a stranger. What did
it matter if your taxi driver thought you were dating Neal, the most romantic
person you’d ever met? The date was just for the occasion. You had no trouble
being on his arm, but at the end of the night, you knew you and Neal were just
Besides, you’d seen him make out
with suspects just to distract them. In comparison, being a little touchy or
cute with friends was no shocker. He flirted like he breathed. A respectful
proposition and a kiss to your hand translated to an invitation, and that was
Neal was special. You’d have to be blind not to see it. You covered the
back of your right hand, still feeling the press of his warm lips. “You have no
idea,” you told the driver wistfully, staring back out the window and watching
as the city slowly passed.
The gala was a hit. You knew it
would be, with El in charge, but still, you were happy for her. Peter was
practically blowing pride out of his ears when she was approached in person by
the highest-ranking rung of the food chain to be specifically thanked and
You had fun being Neal’s date. It
was unlike any date you’d ever been on before (but then, the date was more for
show than for a date, so you weren’t surprised). Neal looked right at home,
chatting up anyone who he thought should be talked to, and it helped him look
credible and elite to have a woman there with him. A few times you knew that
they talked about you, but you didn’t mind too much; even if you were being
used for objectification, you sincerely doubted Neal was the one to instigate
such a conversation, and either way, you got to glow happily as you casually
mentioned that your date was the hottest man in the room. The wives,
girlfriends, and sisters of the older men all told you how lucky you were.
Neal made sure you were never
lonely, but he flitted around like a butterfly. Sometimes he escorted you with
him to keep you from feeling left out. You appreciated the sentiment, but you’d
have preferred being a wallflower to being carted around. You felt like a
trophy girl with the way a few of the others talked about you. Neal was careful
not to spend too much time with those, but the fact was that this gala was for
the one percent of Manhattan, and you were very obviously middle-class. El had
to dress up and look the part to be respected by the people that hired her,
Peter was a man and so he was excluded from the blatant sexism, and while Neal
was also male, he had the nice suits from June’s late husband, anyway.
Overall, though, you enjoyed
yourself. When you started to feel like you were looking pathetically alone,
you went and politely joined one of the Burkes. Neal never left you alone for
too long, and he was very attuned to your mood, holding your hand when you were
bothered by something and wrapping his arm around you when you started to get a
little bored. There may not have been much for you to actually do, but having
Neal’s attention made up for it.
Neal walked you towards your
apartment afterwards. Manhattan was usually a little cool at nights, but
luckily, you’d had the foresight to bring a long-sleeved shrug. You pulled it
on while walking side by side with your date.
“Thanks for not letting me make a
fool of myself,” you sighed, holding a hand to your mouth as you yawned.
Neal chuckled, smiling. “I would
never,” he promised, turning around at the door of your building. You stood
facing each other beside the entry, and Neal reached for your hands. He stroked
his thumbs over your knuckles and you felt your face flush. “Thank you for
coming with me. I mean it, Y/N.”
“Well…” Kiss me, you thought, actively trying to keep your eyes on his.
Part of you wanted to step up closer to him and lean up to touch your lips; the
other part wanted him to go sooner rather than later, preferably before you
gave in and made yourself look clingy or stupid. “We’ve been shot at together.
A gala seemed less hazardous in comparison.”
He nodded. “True… true.” Neal’s eyes
seemed to soften as he looked at you. His gaze left your eyes. You could’ve
sworn he looked to your mouth for a second before he met your stare again.
He had been a perfect gentleman to
you all night, and you knew that that wouldn’t change… but you couldn’t promise
yourself that you wouldn’t do
something to jeopardize your relationship. You couldn’t just pretend you didn’t
feel anything anymore. You knew for a fact you wanted to kiss him. You liked
introducing him as yours. You felt good about being called his.
You needed to get away before you
would do something that crossed boundaries.
Leaning back and pulling your hands
out of his, you announced briskly, “I’m beat, and we both have to be at the
office in the morning.”
You thought he seemed shocked. His
hands fell down to his sides and he quickly clasped them together in front of
him. Neal’s eyes followed you, quizzical, a little confused. “Yeah,” he agreed,
understanding what you were saying. “Of course. I’ll bring you coffee.”
“Don’t worry about it,” you said
quickly, smiling nervously and shaking your head so rapidly that your hair
bounced. “It’s okay.” You didn’t want the artist to go buying you coffee. The
last thing you needed was for him to do something nice; you were already in
enough trouble as it was. You had to stay away until you could get your head
around the situation. “I’ll just, um… be safe.”
“You, too,” he said, frowning
slightly, definitely more confused than serene.
You practically fled into your
In the next few days, things felt
like they were coming apart. You started to resent the butterflies you felt
whenever you saw Neal. You wished you’d never agreed to go to the gala. You
especially wished Neal had never phrased it as though he was asking you out
when you both knew it was just for the event.
Things were fractured, and you
didn’t know if they could be fixed. Neal didn’t bring you coffee. You didn’t
bring him lunch. You left the office even though you knew he was still working,
and when you hadn’t been as productive as you’d liked, you took your things
home with you just to avoid him, in case he pulled up his chair. You kept your
head down in the conference room on the off chance that Neal would speak to
you, scared that someone might assign the two of you to work together.
Even your teammates were beginning
to notice. Peter pulled you aside after a debriefing.
“Hey, Y/N,” he said in concern,
sitting on the end of the table. “Did Neal-“ he started to say, but then
decided against it. In place of asking about the conman in particular, he
queried with forced nonchalance, “Is everything okay?”
“Of course,” you said, crossing your
arms. “Why do you ask?”
“Just… checking in,” he lied
It occurred to you while you were
struggling to fall asleep that maybe ignoring the problem – and Neal, by
extension – was doing more harm than good. You had done this to preserve your
friendship, and now you were watching it rapidly deteriorate. It was your fault
that it was happening. Neal hadn’t done anything wrong, but you were punishing
him for your own emotions. Doing your best to get out of interacting with him
didn’t make the butterflies or the affection go away. It just made you feel bad
on top of that, and so your wishes of a hand to hold or a partner to
commiserate with were laced with guilt. In addition to pushing away a crush
that crept up on you, you were pushing away a close friend.
Not to mention that your behavior
was hurting other people, not just yourself. Your weekly dinner at Chez Burke
was an awkward catastrophe, what with Peter obviously trying to reconcile
something he didn’t understand and El on the opposite side of the war, trying
to keep you from having to interact when you clearly didn’t want to. Neal
didn’t try to engage with you personally, but you caught him looking a little
downcast several times, and it made your heartstrings twist. His cheer was
contagious. It appeared that so was his sadness.
Finally, you decided that you needed
to get over yourself. You couldn’t pretend Neal didn’t exist anymore. It wasn’t
fair to anyone, and it wasn’t helping at all.
Your doorbell rang as you were
getting ready for work on Thursday morning, almost two weeks after the
Incident. (You used to refer to it as the Almost-Kiss-Incident but then told
yourself firmly that there was not to be kissing of any kind, not even the
When you pulled open the door, you
half-expected Diana or El, but instead saw a complete stranger in a blue mail
uniform. He had a clipboard. “Miss Y/N Y/L/N?” He checked, looking up and
scrutinizing your face.
You glanced down at your outfit. You
had on your pants and shirt, but your sleeves were unbuttoned and your shoes
were off. Your hair, damp and stringy, was dripping water on your shoulders
every so often. “Yeah. Hi.”
He handed the clipboard over to you.
“Sign at the X,” he instructed. “Got some stuff for you.”
Although bewildered, you didn’t see
the harm. You hadn’t ordered anything, so mostly you were curious what you
could be getting. You made your signature quickly, leaving it a little messy
and only somewhat legible, and then passed it back.
The man moved to the side and pulled
a cart after him. It looked like he was doing his deliveries to several people
within the building, which explained why you had never seen him before. You
picked your mail up from the post office, so you’d never had to have it
delivered to your door.
First, he handed you a plain white
cardboard box. From the looks of it, you expected for it to be light. Once you
took it, your eyes widened. It wasn’t heavy, but it weighed more than you
expected. The Greatest Cake logo was
on the top. Chewing on your lip, you stepped out of the way to set it on your
table, then went back to the door.
The guy was already waiting, looking
bored and impatient. He pushed a bouquet of flowers at you. “Take ‘em,” he
commanded, wrinkling his nose. “Last thing I need is my wife freaking out that
I smell like a perfumery.”
“Yes, sir,” you agreed dryly,
deciding not to comment on how his job was probably to hand people their
deliveries politely, not with rude shoving and comments about his personal
He left, leaving you to kick your
door closed and survey the flowers. They were gorgeous. Instead of the usual
cliched roses, your bouquet was made of pink and purple flowers, and to make up
for that the flowers themselves didn’t click perfectly, they were cushioned and
accessorized with thick strands of leafy ivy. You knew the purples were
hyacinths, but didn’t recognize the pinks.
Ivy meant friendship, you knew, and when you couldn’t find a card, you bit
the inside of your cheek. Maybe the ivy was
the message, if you were supposed to know who they were from without a
card. What about the others?
A quick Google reverse image search
on your phone found that the pinks were camellias, and according to a Victorian
website, those meant romantic longing. The hyacinths were supposed to represent
apology and sorrow.
You put the flowers in water, moving
as if weighted down with lead. You knew exactly who they’d come from. The only
person you knew who would pair flowers together based on language rather than
appearance was Neal. Incidentally, he was also the only person you knew who was
the proprietor of any Manhattan bakery. When you opened the box from The Greatest Cake, you uncovered a set
of cupcakes frosted in your favorite colors. You moved it into the fridge.
The sorrow and the friendship, you
understood. You’d been seriously neglecting your bond with Neal in the process
of trying to starve out your unwanted crush. You just had to wonder if the pink
camellias were thrown in for the appearance, or if their meaning was
While you finished preparing for
work, you wondered how you were supposed to fix what you had broken without
having to explain why you’d broken it. In the end, you took the cupcakes out of
the fridge and took them with you.
Thankfully, Peter and Neal were out
in the field by the time you arrived (late) for work, but no one else said
anything to you about your timing. They didn’t arrive back until the office was
starting to empty out, and although Peter glanced at you sympathetically,
neither of them said anything while they were walking up to Peter’s office.
You stretched your limbs with a walk
to the kitchenette, where you prepared two cups of coffee. By the time you had
returned to the bullpen, Neal was at his desk, Peter’s office light was off,
and you were practically the only ones left in the division.
You wordlessly carried the coffees
to Neal’s desk, then turned back to yours. The sound of pen moving over paper
ceased, so you knew you had his attention. Trying not to feel his eyes on your
back, you bent over to take the box of cupcakes out of your drawer, piled on
some of your own paperwork, and carried everything in your arms to his desk.
“So,” you started to break the
silence, propping the box open and going to claim the nearest chair. You
dragged it up to the side of the desk and sat down, smiling apologetically at
Neal. “I figured you’d want executive tax.”
You gave the box of cupcakes a nudge
in his direction.
Neal started to slowly grin,
dropping his hands to his lap. His teeth pulled on his lower lip when he looked
at you, and you both started to laugh.
The next week passed by quickly.
Time was much more enjoyable when you were actually talking with your friends.
Dinner at Casa de Burke was pleasant, you had three lunches with Neal, and
you’d stayed late together twice. Although you were still a little frustrated
that you wanted to kiss his cheek goodbye, you were mostly just glad that your
friendship pulled through your internal crisis.
It was after that that things
started to get a little odd again. Neal had always been the kind of friend that
did thoughtful things on occasion, but they’d never been this… cute, for lack of a better word, and you
weren’t sure how to respond to their increasing frequency.
A small army of origami cranes on
your desk one morning.
Greatest Cake delivered more cupcakes to your apartment. You were beginning
to wonder if the chefs questioned why their special orders kept getting
delivered to the same address.
A small bouquet of ivy, this time
with white flowers mixed in with the leaves. You blushed and pretended not to
know what it meant. (Affection.) Your building’s delivery man had convinced
himself that your ex was trying to win you back.
You found a jewelry set that you
certainly hadn’t bought yourself in your bag after work one day. You knew
exactly who’d planted it there. Although you had never had a problem with wearing
the fedora Neal jokingly gave you on your birthday, or the bracelet with your
name on it that he’d given you for helping him through a cold, you hesitated to
don any of these. They looked more expensive than something you’d buy for
yourself, and combined with everything else you were receiving, you were
starting to feel uncomfortable with how much money Neal was spending on you.
Though you didn’t want to send the wrong message by not wearing them (you knew he’d notice), you decided that there was
a line, and hopefully he’d realize he’d crossed it, however unintentionally.
It wasn’t just that things were
being given to you, however. Neal was acting a little differently. He held
doors for you, he offered you his hand more often. He made a point of sitting
beside you in the conference room. He locked eyes with you when he poured you
your wine to go with El’s lovely cuisine. Neal complimented you at least once
daily, sometimes on how he thought you were beautiful but more typically on
your intelligence or your ideas.
He was just being so nice. Diana was starting to rib on him
for it. You were worried he still felt like he was the one at fault for you
ignoring him for so long, so you decided to go talk to him about it, as
delicately as you could, one night when you’d been left alone to catch up on
work. Neal had just gotten back with refills of coffee when you shored up your
“Neal?” You said his name evenly. It
came out more confident than you felt. He moved a coffee cup in front of you
and sat back down, smiling curiously over the desk. “I’m sorry about – about
everything. You can stop all of this now.” You gestured to the coffee. It was
the second one he’d gotten you in an hour.
He canted his head. You tried to
stay focused on how important it was that you handled this conversation in the
right way, rather than on how his attention made you certain you were going to
fumble over your words.
“You don’t have to apologize for
anything, Y/N.” Neal exhaled, long and slow, and looked down at his hands as he
held them on the table. When he dragged them off and into his lap, his
expression had turned wry. “I didn’t know what I did. I thought if I made it up
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” you
promised, now a little bemused yourself. You thought it had been obvious that
nothing needed to be made up. You’d started ignoring him because he was too good. You were the one who’d just
started distancing themselves with no explanation. “That was all on me, okay?
So everything else, it can stop now.”
Neal looked at you closely. You
couldn’t see his hands anymore, but you thought you could see his arms tensing
through his sleeves. “If that’s what you want.”
It sounded like he was relenting,
but that didn’t make any sense. If he wanted you not to be mad, he was getting
what he wanted. “What did you think you’d done?” You asked, just out of
curiosity. You wanted to set some things straight, understand what was
He shrugged, looking away from you.
“I don’t know. I thought our date had gone well, but then you wouldn’t have
anything to do with me. I thought I must’ve done something to upset you. I’ve
been trying to show you I didn’t mean to. If I knew what it was, I wouldn’t do
Things started to, impossibly, come together. The romantic gestures, the
pink camellias… “Date?” You repeated skeptically. “You mean, El’s gala was a
“What did you think it was?” He
returned, his eyes flashing with something like poorly concealed hurt.
Because you knew him, and you were
familiar with his skills, you knew the only reason you could see he was upset
was because he was letting you. You appreciated that more than you could say.
It made you feel less vulnerable to know you weren’t the only one having
emotional reactions. It made you feel better about talking when you could
understand how he was really reacting.
“A gala,” you replied. “I mean, you
heard El. It was a black-tie event. And then when we got there, all the snobs
in New York had congregated to brag about their businesses and their wives and
girlfriends. I thought you were using me to play up a role and fit in.” Before
he could say anything, you realized how that sounded. You threw your hands up
as he opened his mouth to object, shocked by the accusation. “Not that I
minded!” You hurriedly promised. “I was happy to go. I knew it would help El,
and I knew you would never treat me that way.”
Neal lifted his hands to cover his
face and leaned over his desk, elbows on the table. You fidgeted in your seat,
realizing that you had gotten something seriously
wrong. Normally you’d have been delighted, if a little apprehensive, but
now, knowing how badly you’d screwed it up – you hadn’t just started avoiding
him, you’d led him to think he was being rejected in the coldest way possible.
You were surprised he’d even bothered talking to you again.
“I’m so sorry,” you mumbled, looking
down at your lap. “I got freaked out by how much I liked being there with you.
I thought if I stopped spending so much time with you, I’d get over it and I
wouldn’t do something dumb.”
The laughter that came from him made
you look up suddenly. You had been sitting with your head down, expecting to be
told to go away, or scolded, or something else that would’ve been out of
character for Neal but simultaneously hurtful and understandable to you. He
lifted his head and dropped his hands, then reached towards you, settling a
hand warmly on your knee.
“I suppose we both had some crossed
wires,” he chuckled mirthfully, rubbing your leg. “Would it be alright with you
if we tried again?”
Without thinking about it, you
covered his hand with your own, holding his palm against your leg. “I’d like it
if we did.”
“Great.” He kept his hand on you,
just where you wanted it, and leaned over the table, his lips pulled into a charismatic
and unfairly kissable smirk. “Would you do me the honor of going on a date with
me? And, for the sake of clarity, I do mean
Giggling, you leaned in, too,
matching his challenge with a smirk of your own. “If you think you can stay
interested in a fed, I’d be privileged.”
“Staying interested won’t be a
problem,” Neal swore, his eyes mischievously sparkling.