Disclaimer: White Collar belongs to USA Network and Jeff Eastin.

Many thanks to mam711 for graciously agreeing to beta this work. I really appreciate your patience in wading through my grammatical quagmire and for keeping me on point with characterization.


As Elizabeth exited the elevator and walked through the glass doors into the White Collar Crimes Unit, the silence hit her immediately. Although not a total silence, as it turned out; the scritch-scratching of pencils across paper could be heard throughout the room. Neal, Jones and Diana were all hunched over their desks, writing diligently. As she glanced up to Peter's office, Elizabeth noticed that he too seemed occupied in penning something.

Neal, his desk being closest to the doors, was the first to notice Elizabeth, and as he looked up at her she noticed that he was red-faced. He gave her a wary look and mumbled, "Elizabeth" before immediately lowering his head back down and continuing with his writing.

"That's odd," she thought to herself.

As she moved past his desk, Elizabeth saw that Neal had written the same thing over and over, down the length of the page. She couldn't make out what it said, upside down. She knew that Neal sometimes had to forge handwriting as part of an FBI undercover operation, and assumed he must be practicing for such an occasion.

However, as she went forward through the bullpen, she realized that both Jones and Diana were engaged in similar tasks, although they each seemed to be writing something different. Jones's appeared longer while Diana's looked like a simple statement of only four or five words.

Jones gave her a somewhat resigned smile as she greeted him, and Diana raised her head only long enough for a curt nod before resuming her task.

"Curiouser and curiouser!" Elizabeth exclaimed inwardly as she started to climb the stairs leading up to Peter's office.

She glanced at her husband through the open door, and saw that he was completely absorbed in his writing, apparently unaware of her presence. Peter was clearly upset, as evidenced by the huffing and puffing he was doing while writing. After having stood there for nearly a minute without Peter giving the slightest indication of his being conscious of her, Elizabeth started to feel more than a little disconcerted.

She heard Hughes moving around in his office next to Peter's and, turning on her heel, headed in to see her husband's boss instead. He smiled at her warmly as she entered and motioned for her to sit on the couch near his desk. As Elizabeth sat down Hughes got up from his desk and moved to join her, although not before closing the door softly behind them.

"What on earth is going on, Reese?" Elizabeth asked. "It's quiet as a tomb out there."

"They're busy writing their lines," Hughes replied casually. "They can't go to lunch until they're turned in."

Elizabeth looked confused.

"Lines?" she questioned, having no idea what Hughes was talking about.

"Yes, lines," he replied. "As in, I must not talk in class," Hughes added enigmatically.

Elizabeth stared at him a moment further, until, finally, the penny dropped.

"Oh my goodness!" she exclaimed. "You have them all doing lines because they are in trouble for being naughty?" she questioned with a laugh.

"Exactly," Hughes replied. "Although, I would say naughty doesn't begin to cover it," he added with a rueful smile.

"Even … Peter?" Elizabeth questioned, unable to believe he would do anything to warrant such a childish punishment.

"Even Peter." Hughes left the statement hanging.

As no further explanation seemed to be forthcoming, Elizabeth let the matter drop. Although she hoped that she was correct in assuming that, as Hughes was smiling, events could not have been quite as dramatic as they were sounding so far. She smiled at Hughes as he offered her the bowl of candy sitting on the coffee table in front of the couch.

"Oh, no, thank you, Reese," she replied, "I don't want to spoil my appetite. I'm joining Peter for lunch."

"How nice," Hughes replied.

"After he's done with his lines, that is," Elizabeth hastily added.

"Of course." Hughes grinned at her as he replaced the bowl on the table.

Luckily, Jones saved her from further bewilderment as he knocked on Hughes's office door and strode in without awaiting a response.

"Here you are, sir," Jones said, somewhat gruffly, as he thrust his hand toward Hughes. Hughes rose and took the sheets of paper from Jones, ignoring his insubordinate tone.

"All fifty?" he asked the agent.

"Yes, sir … all fifty," Jones replied, a little less gruffly.

As Hughes was looking over the papers, Jones added, "I just don't see why I should get more than Diana or Neal. I wasn't throwing any punches!"

That got Elizabeth's instant attention. She had been tactfully looking down at the candy bowl but at the mention of 'punches' her eyes snapped up and locked on Jones.

"Jones!" Hughes said sharply. He held the papers behind his back while addressing the agent in a terse manner.

"You are both older and wiser than Diana and Neal, and should have known better than to encourage them. You should have gotten him out of there long before blood was shed!"

Elizabeth's eyes widened in horror.

"Yes, sir. I'm sorry." Jones hung his head, chagrined. "It's just that, well, Caffrey had been pressing my buttons all morning too. And, you have to admit, when Diana goes for a take-down, she's pretty spectacular. It was like watching a cheetah take out a gazelle!" Jones added, getting more enthusiastic as he went on. "And to use Neal's own tie, well, that was inspired!"

"Okay, thank you, Jones," Hughes cut in. "I am well aware of Diana's prowess when it comes to executing a collar."

He knew that Elizabeth was fond of Neal and didn't want to alarm her further than she clearly already was. Elizabeth, now on tenterhooks, moved to the edge of the couch.

"What in god's name had gone on this morning?" she wondered, anxiously.

Although, if she were being completely honest with herself, Elizabeth had to admit, part of her was more than a little amused at the idea of Neal and Diana going toe-to-toe. She harbored no delusions as to who would come out on top; Diana could, quite literally, wipe the floor with Neal should she so choose.

Apparently, this morning had been the morning she had so chosen.

"Despite her size, Diana is a deceptively strong girl," Jones added, admiringly.

"Strong woman," Hughes corrected sharply. "Please, let's not go there again."

"Yes, of course, sir, strong woman," Jones hastily replied.

"Okay, Jones. You may go; enjoy your lunch," Hughes said good-naturedly.

"Thank you, sir," Jones said, sounding relieved. He turned to acknowledge Elizabeth and wished her goodbye.

Elizabeth, somewhat at a loss for words, stumbled out a goodbye in response. She had managed to get a good look at what was on the pages while the exchange between Jones and Hughes had been going on:

A good colleague acts as peace-maker.

As Jones left, Hughes turned to the shredder beside his desk and fed in the papers before resuming his place beside Elizabeth. As their eyes met, Elizabeth raised her eyebrows at him.

"How the White Collar Unit manages to achieve a 97% success rate is a mystery to me, Elizabeth. Some days it's like a kindergarten in here!"

Before Elizabeth had the opportunity to respond, Neal entered the room, paper in hand. He kept his eyes firmly rooted to the floor while Hughes was checking the paper.

For the first time, Elizabeth realized just how disheveled Neal was. She hadn't noticed the kinks in his tie when she'd seen him downstairs, nor the crusted blood around his nose. Come to think of it, he was a complete mess; his hair was mussed up and his shirt was missing two buttons, and while she had thought he was blushing when she had first seen him, now she saw that only one side of his face was red, and that was in the very clear shape of a hand-print.

"Oh, Neal!" she whispered in sympathy, bringing her hand to her mouth.

He raised his eyes to meet hers sheepishly and tried to shrug. However, the gesture clearly caused him pain and he winced while quickly dropping his eyes back to the floor.

Apparently satisfied with Neal's work, Hughes fed the paper into the shredder. It seemed he had let Neal off somewhat lighter than Jones, as he only had written one page, presumably because he had already endured enough punishment from Diana. As the page slowly disappeared into the shredder, Elizabeth read it. Neal's beautiful handwriting flowed across the neatly numbered lines from 1 to 25:

Teasing in the workplace is a form of bullying and will not be tolerated.

As the sound of the shredder ceased, Hughes put his hand on Neal's shoulder.

"How's your hearing, Neal?" he asked in a concerned voice. "Has the ringing stopped yet?"

"Yes, sir," Neal replied, this time blushing for real. "Everything is back to normal."

"Poor baby." Elizabeth couldn't help herself. "You look so crushed!"

"Okay, not the best choice of words," Elizabeth thought; perhaps crushed was too accurate a description, given that Neal probably had been.

Neal looked up at Hughes, horrified. This was all just too humiliating for the normally-cool con man. Hughes, sympathetic to Neal's obvious discomfort at being referred to as a baby, made no further mention of his injuries at Diana's hands.

"And tell me, Neal, what did you learn from this … encounter?" Hughes asked neutrally.

Neal narrowed his eyes, which was hard to do, given that they appeared somewhat puffy. A sly smile played on his lips.

"Don't refer to Diana as Agent Barbie."

"Caffrey!" Hughes barked.

A snort of laughter escaped Elizabeth before she managed to check herself.

"Seriously, Neal?" Hughes continued, "This is exactly what got you into this mess. Political correctness is a required part of office etiquette. You chose to be here instead of lingering in some super-max facility. We all appreciate that you are unique and like to do things your own way, but you are part of this team now, so start acting like it. Trust me, Diana went lightly on you this time. Try that out in the field and next time she may just shoot you!"

Neal looked at Hughes, aghast. "Would she … would she … really do that?" he stammered.

"No, of course not, Neal." Hughes responded, exasperated. "But you have to know when to stop, before you go too far. I appreciate that not knowing when to stop is what got you into our organization in the first place, but for goodness sake, if only for self-preservation, get with the program!"

Despite his tirade, Hughes was glad to see that Diana hadn't knocked Neal's stuffing out so much that he couldn't manage the smart comeback. And so he wasn't too perturbed when Neal dropped his chin to his chest and started fumbling awkwardly with his hands. Hughes noticed that the red welts around Neal's wrists were still all too noticeable.

"Please, Elizabeth, say nothing more," Hughes prayed inwardly.

"How about you take the rest of the day off and we all start fresh tomorrow?" Hughes asked in a tone usually reserved for use with his grandchildren.

"Okay, sir," Neal replied, a little mournfully. "I'm sorry. I'll try harder to think things through before I speak, or act in the future."

"Fine, fine," Hughes fussed, clearly ready to end the conversation and get Neal out of the room, and away from Elizabeth's solicitous gaze. "Off you go now." He ushered Neal out the door.

If Hughes had thought for just one minute that Neal was going to appreciate his learning moment, he was rudely awakened as Neal passed Diana on his way down the stairs and whispered to her, "You're up next, wifey!"

"Are you kidding me, Caffrey?" Diana could be heard to yell.

Hughes lurched for door. "Diana!"

Neal was high-tailing it across the bullpen as Hughes reached Diana. Elizabeth couldn't resist getting up and looking out from Hughes' office. She watched incredulously as Neal grabbed his hat from his desk, rolled it up his arm and onto his head, and zipped through the glass doors. As he pushed the button for the elevator he turned and smiled, waving his left ring-finger at a furious Diana.

Hughes wasted no time in latching onto Diana and dragging her into his office. Elizabeth stumbled back onto the couch as they came through the door.

"Did you see that, boss?" Diana exclaimed. "That's what I have to deal with every day!"

"I know, I know, Diana," Hughes comforted. "We all know how irksome Neal can be. And I appreciate the restraint you normally practice around him. Believe me, no one is taking sides here. Please, calm down."

Diana shook her arm free of Hughes' grip and stood for a few seconds trying to calm her breathing.

"He—" she started, but Hughes cut her off before she could get going.

"Shush now, please." It sounded dangerously close to begging. "Let's face it, you had the man hog-tied and crying like a three-year old who'd just got stung by a bee. And as for putting your foot on him, I am sure you were well aware where the heel of your shoe was. You reduced one of the greatest … possibly the greatest con man of our times to calling out for his mommy while you laid into him. Let him try to save some face."

Diana huffed, somewhat appeased. She was standing with her hands on her hips, her chin stuck out, her lips pursed. She looked for all the world like a thinner, prettier Peter Burke. Elizabeth had a hard time not commenting on it. While she had been pitying Neal just minutes earlier, having witnessed his cheeky display by the elevator, Elizabeth was now firmly behind Diana. He had not taken one iota of Hughes' advice. He was … incorrigible.

As Elizabeth mused over Neal's seemingly incorrectable character flaws she caught sight of the ring on Diana's left hand.

"Wow!" was the first thing that went through her mind, "That is one gigantic rock!" "Oh, Diana! I only just noticed your ring; congratulations. It's … stupendous!" Elizabeth enthused.

Diana spun around to face Elizabeth. Hughes immediately flung his arm around Diana and started speaking before she had a chance to respond to Elizabeth's comments.

"Yes, Elizabeth. Agent Berrigan is engaged! We are all very pleased for her. As I am sure you are, too!" Hughes gushed, in a manner completely uncharacteristic for him. "As you can see, Christie got her this delightful ring. A pink diamond, I believe she told us it is." He continued so effusively that Elizabeth unconsciously pushed herself back into the couch.

"Okay, Diana! We are done here. Your lines look great!" Hughes gushed, "I am sure you appreciate that you got the least number and the shortest, despite you being the only one to actually draw blood during the whole incident. 'I must not smack Neal' barely begins to cover all that you did to him; be grateful that I'm letting you off so lightly. Now, off you go. Meet up with Jones; tell him lunch is on him, my orders!"

Hughes all but pushed Diana out of the office, shutting the door hastily behind her. He leaned against his desk and took out his handkerchief to mop his brow, before letting out a low whistle and shredding Diana's paper.

"Reese?" Elizabeth asked cautiously, "What was that all about?"

"The ring, Elizabeth. The ring is what started this whole sorry affair," Hughes replied, looking exhausted. "A ring, which I hasten to add, Diana had no choice in. She was getting nervous at the speed at which things were progressing and had postponed ring shopping with Christie more than once. Christie's mother, thinking it might be because of the expense, very generously gave her Christie's grandmother's ring, which is, as you so graciously commented, 'stupendous'. It is far too showy for Diana's taste but she couldn't see a way of turning down such a sentimental gift. It seems the ring is destined to remain as a lasting representation of their love and fidelity.

"Neal got it into his head that it would be fun to tease her. After comparing the stone to Barbara Hutton's famous Pasha diamond, he dubbed it the Berrigan Pink and treated the entire office to a show-stopping rendition of Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend. Then when she went for coffee he switched her screensaver to The Pink Panther and changed her cell phone ring tone. While she was in a teleconference with Peter and his counterpart from D.C. Art Crimes, it went off."

"What was it?" Elizabeth knew she ought not to be laughing at Diana's expense but she couldn't resist asking.

"I'm A Barbie Girl, In A Barbie World."

"Oh, Reese!" Elizabeth managed to get out before doubling up in laughter. "I can only imagine how that went down."

"Yes, Diana was on her way down to confront Neal when he called upstairs, suggesting that she leave the physical work involved in tomorrow's sting operation to Jones and himself now that she had 'gone girlie'. It was at that point that Diana sprung at him."

"Oh no! Neal, couldn't fight his way out of a paper bag, let alone take on Diana with all her training."

"That, my dear, was immediately apparent." Hughes nodded in agreement. "Well, there you have it, Elizabeth. Just another morning in the White Collar Unit." Hughes sighed as he sat down next to Elizabeth, patting her back as she shook. Having succeeded in removing the three main characters from the office, and certain that Neal's demise had at least been postponed for the time being, he allowed himself to relax, and joined in Elizabeth's laughter.

"So what part did Jones play in all this?" Elizabeth asked, once she had calmed herself.

"Let's just say, Jones found the whole thing entirely too amusing and instead of trying to diffuse the situation, he may have been instrumental in Diana taking it as far as she did. I believe at one point he was on his desk, cheering her along."

"Oh my god!" Elizabeth gasped, unable to visualize the normally stoic agent getting so carried away.

"Please tell me Peter had nothing to do with it?" Elizabeth asked, suddenly remembering that Peter too was sitting in his office writing lines.

"Good grief, no," Hughes quickly assured her. "Peter was not in the least amused. It was he, of course, who put a stop to it. I am sure you are aware that patience is not Peter's strongest virtue. This incident was the proverbial straw that broke your dear camel's back."

"Oh, poor Peter!" Elizabeth said quietly. "Was he really irate?"

"Yes, my dear. This time he well and truly lost it."

"Oh dear," was all Elizabeth could muster.

"Well, come now. It's all good and done. I'm sure a nice lunch with you is just what he needs right now," Hughes said kindly as he helped Elizabeth up from the couch and escorted her to the door.

"Oh, Elizabeth?" he whispered as she was about to leave.

"Yes?" she replied quietly.

"About that lunch, better make it a long one," Hughes added conspiratorially.

As Elizabeth entered Peter's office, he was just putting down his pencil. Despite her laughter in Hughes's room Peter had not realized that Elizabeth was in the White Collar Unit. He looked surprised, mildly shocked even, and hastily stuffed his papers into the nearest file. He all but ran around his desk to draw her into a quick hug. He seemed especially anxious to leave the office and started walking her out before she had even had a chance to say hello. Elizabeth did her utmost to restrain from laughing.

Reaching the top of the stairs, they heard Hughes cough discreetly from his office.

"Peter, I believe you have a case file for me to review."

Peter reddened and rushed back to his desk, grabbing up the folder he had secreted his lines in.

"Yes, here it is, sir. Everything is inside," he said nervously, going in to hand the file to Hughes.

"Thank you, Peter. Enjoy your lunch; you've certainly earned it today."

Peter quickened back to Elizabeth and started down the stairs so rapidly that she had to hold onto the handrail, for fear of tripping. As they reached the bottom, the tell-tale sound of Reese's shredder could be heard upstairs. Peter looked back anxiously.

"Anything wrong, hon?" Elizabeth asked innocently.

"No, no," Peter tried to sound casual but his breath hitched, and he sounded as though he were sucking through an empty straw.

"What did Hughes mean by, 'You've certainly earned it today'?" she continued.

"Oh, you know, just the same-old, same-old," Peter replied, unconvincingly.

It was totally endearing to Elizabeth just how incapable Peter was of lying to her. She should have taken the high road and let him off, but this was all too good to let drop. As they stood waiting for the elevator, she put her arms around his waist and snuggled into his chest.

"Tough morning, hon?" she asked, solicitously.

"Yes," Peter all but moaned back. He sounded close to tears.

Fortunately the elevator doors opened to save him from further questioning. It was packed and they only just managed to squeeze in front. Elizabeth slipped her hand into Peter's as they turned to face the closing doors and she gave him an encouraging squeeze. He looked down and smiled, returning her squeeze and despite the company, let out a relaxed sigh.

"Free and clear!" Peter thought to himself, "This must be what Neal feels like when he pulls off a successful con."

A couple of floors down, the entire crowd exited, leaving Peter and Elizabeth alone. She snuggled back up to him.

"I thought we could try that new tapas bar around the corner," Elizabeth suggested.

"Hmmm. Or there's the deli across the street."

Peter's lack of culinary adventure had been one of the few thorns in Elizabeth's side during their otherwise idyllic marriage. She rarely got to have lunch with him as it was and the idea of spending their precious semi-date splitting a deviled ham on rye did not appeal. A gentle nudge would be all that he needed.

"So.…" Elizabeth gazed up at him, her smile the smile of woman who knew that in less than fifteen minutes she would be sampling the fresh gazpacho at Manuel's.

After more than ten years of marriage, her tone was frighteningly familiar.

"This must be what Neal feels like when he realizes he just tripped the intruder alarm," Peter thought, as his stomach dropped.

"So.…" he echoed back, "Tapas it is then!" His voice was a combination of breezy and desperate.

Redirection, redirection.

As the elevator dinged floor by floor Elizabeth leaned back into Peter's chest.

"So … what did your lines say?"

Peter knew when it was time to throw in the towel. Better to concede now and at least enjoy lunch. He let out a long sigh, relieved that, given the difference in their statures he could at least avoid eye contact with his darling wife.

"Swearing at subordinates is never appropriate."

Elizabeth bit her lip.

"Fifty?" she asked gently.

"One hundred," Peter replied, morosely.

Elizabeth bit her tongue.

"I know you're laughing," Peter said, sullenly. "I can feel you jiggling."

"I'm sorry, Peter. Really, I'm sorry!" Elizabeth released a great gale of laughter just as the doors opened. Peter grabbed her hand and all but frog-marched her past the startled security guard and out of the building.

"Knock it off," he begged, stealing a sidewise glance at his wife, who now had tears streaming down her face. Unable to resist her infectious laughter, he started to laugh along with her.

"I was sorely provoked," he gasped, as he handed Elizabeth his handkerchief to wipe her ruined mascara.

"It sounds like it," Elizabeth replied. "Hughes gave me the highlights."

"Oh." Peter sounded surprised. "So you talked with him before you came into my office?"

"Yes, for about ten minutes. You were too engrossed in your writing to notice me when I arrived."

"So when you were asking about my morning...?" Peter held open the door to Manuel's for Elizabeth.

"Yes, I already knew. I'm sorry, hon. It was a low blow, considering all you'd been through already."

"That's okay. You can make it up to me tonight." Peter winked at her lasciviously.

Elizabeth laughed, smacking Peter on the arm as she sat down.

She did, however, sidle up to him so they could peruse the tapas list together and he snuck a quick kiss on her cheek; his chances of some post-drama comfort Elizabeth-style decidedly improving.

"Did Neal really call out for his mommy?"


The approaching waiter rolled his eyes and swiftly redirected his route to another table, as they collapsed behind the menu like a couple of giggling teenagers.

The End

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