Disclaimer: I don't own White Collar
Summary: Somewhere along the line, Elizabeth came to like the man her husband was chasing.
The first that Elizabeth Burke heard of Neal Caffrey was at the dinner table, catching up on some much needed alone time with her busy husband and eating takeout Italian.
"He's a ghost, El. Never in the same place twice, and no pattern to where he's going next," he had said tiredly. Elizabeth had draped her arms around his shoulders and squeezed reassuringly.
"You will," she said, meaning it. But he didn't, not for another three years.
During that time she learnt all she needed to know about the infamous Neal Caffrey and then some. Elizabeth was not a stupid woman, and considered herself lucky to be married to a man who appreciated her intellect. He would discuss his cases with her, and she would offer her a fresh perspective. The slippery conman's case was no exception, and Elizabeth found herself admiring and exasperated all at once at the lengths that Neal Caffrey went to in order to elude his pursuers.
His file was an inch thick, stuffed full of previous heists and other alleged criminal activities that he had supposedly been involved in. What surprised Elizabeth was that nowhere in his vast repertoire of habits and traits was any sign that the man had ever hurt more than a mosquito. Even Peter remarked on it, that he was the most non-violent criminal he had ever encountered, using only charm, trickery and good looks to get what he wanted, and a marked distaste for guns.
Looking at his photograph, which made her somewhat jealous as the man looked better than anyone in a custom mug shot had a right to, Elizabeth did not find it hard to imagine how he had been so successful. A smile like that, and people would give him whatever he wanted. She would, but chose not to share this with Peter.
He had a sense of humour, and a peculiar conscience with regards to the teams assigned to stakeout whatever residence where he was purported to be at any given moment. She laughed herself nearly to tears at Peter's tales of champagne sent to the van, the celebration being his own successful escape from right under their noses. On freezing nights he would make sure that coffee made its way to them, and something warm to tide the hunger pangs over until dawn broke. Once he had even tipped them off to a predator stalking women in the area they were staking out. Peter trusted his coded note enough to watch out for the man fitting his description and had three agents with guns trained on as they caught him in the act of dragging a young woman into an alley.
He was not a bad man, just a misguided one. Which was why Elizabeth's smile and congratulations when Peter came home one day to tell her he had been caught felt a little forced. Peter seemed to feel the same way, that Caffrey had wasted his talents and was now going to waste four years of his life in prison before he got out. He had no doubt that he would be a repeat offender, beyond the profit of his thefts, he enjoyed the thrill and the chase too much to settle down into a routine lifestyle of any kind.
A few months after that, a birthday card arrived for Peter. Neither of them were surprised at his seeming lack of malice, or when it happened the next year.
When he broke out, Elizabeth was puzzled to find herself trying to explain his motives to Peter. Neal Caffrey was a romantic, in her mind, and the idea that he had broken out of prison to see this Kate one last time did not astonish her nearly as much as it did Peter. It did not surprise her when he allowed himself to be caught again, when he asked to make a deal with Peter, and she hid a smile when Peter, lamenting his own waning sanity, told her he had agreed to take him on as a consultant.
The day she met him for the first time, she had left Peter asleep in bed and was feeding Satchmo when the doorbell rang. Elizabeth answered to find someone she had never met but felt like she already hovering on their doorstep. The smile was there, bright and carefree, the eyes were as blue as she had imagined and the overall air of sophistication so complete that she almost missed the very slight wringing of the hands that he couldn't quite distract from. She wasn't a FBI agent's wife for nothing.
They shared a loaded glance, and behind the veneer of confidence, a flicker of anxiety had revealed itself. Neal Caffrey was no one but himself, no alias to cover him this time. She wondered how vulnerable this must make him feel. Elizabeth was the wife of the man who had caught him, and he clearly had speculated on what she had been told about him, and how much she resented him for taking away so much of her husbands time.
There was a humble bone in that well dressed body, and she could work with that.
"Mr. Caffrey, I assume?" she asked politely, and held back a giggle as he doffed his hat to her.
"That would be me. Mrs. Burke?" he returned, all good manners and placatory demeanour.
She considered this for a moment, as though it were a question. "Elizabeth," she amended. A wide, genuine smile took him by surprise before he could wrestle it back and she had to smile too.
"Neal, then," he said flippantly, but no less sincerely for its casual delivery. And she knows they will be alright.
Behind every good man is a better woman, and Elizabeth is comforted to know that someone will be there to guard Peter's back when she cannot.