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Picture Perfect 1/4 - Swirly Stars

About Picture Perfect 1/4

Previous Entry Picture Perfect 1/4 Sep. 10th, 2010 @ 01:07 am Next Entry
Title: Picture Perfect
Pairing: Referenced Neal/Kate. Character focus on Neal and Peter. El and Moz make an appearance.
Rating: PG-13
Word Count: 13,146
Spoilers: Season 1 finale. A brief mention of a single conversation in season 2
Warnings: General angst. Neal being Neal.
Summary: Neal gets over Kate, only for her to show up again. Peter wants him to stay, Kate wants him to leave, and Neal is stuck somewhere in the middle
Author's Note: I do not own White Collar or its characters. And the artwork for my story was done by the talented and wonderfully creative aruna7 


Empty tables, the occasional family, the poorly lit restaurant crawled through the late lunch patrons. The midday rush had already passed leaving large empty spaces punctuated by the handful of stragglers still talking, their meals long since over. Though sunlight poured through the window, the restaurant remained in a shadowed ambiance. A patron here and there tapped their foot to the jaunty pop music, oblivious to the dichotomy between the music and the décor attempting to mimic a Chinese museum.


Sitting alone in a corner booth, a young gentleman studied the faces around him without seeing them. Habit, more than hobby, kept his mind in constant motion; studying his surroundings subconsciously while consciously thinking about what he was going to do this weekend. A waiter passed by, briefly asking if he would like a refill while he waited. Declining with a small smile, he studied the way the waiter smoothly asked the same question a table over. As the waiter walked away, his eyes caught those of two finely dressed young women giggling and smiling at him none too subtly. He offered them a quick wink and bright smile causing them to quickly turn away with a blush. It felt nice to be noticed, but not remembered.


“Afternoon, Peter,” he suddenly said, eyes still scanning the dining room.


“Neal,” Peter greeted. “Were you waiting long?”


Shaking his head, Neal finally turned his attention to his companion who slid into the seat across from him.


“I just got here a few minutes ago,” Neal answered.


In actuality, he had been sitting there for nine minutes and thirty-seven seconds. Peter guessed Neal was just answering politely. An empty glass of water on the table meant he had been here for a little while, but Peter did not point it out; they both knew it.


“It was the investor, you know,” Neal explained without preamble. “Classic case of fraud; he would have made a small fortune had he succeeded.”


Peter nodded his head. It was Saturday. Whatever cases he sent Neal home with were usually solved by Saturday. It was almost a ritual for them; meet somewhere, share case work, and get something to eat. Sometimes, even Elizabeth would join them. Peter always enjoyed his wife’s company, Neal did as well, but it was Elizabeth who enjoyed it most. She was able to be involved with the two most prominent men in her life, with the added bonus of ganging up with Neal to annoy Peter into buying something nice for himself. He always protested, but enjoyed their teasing nonetheless.


“How long did it take to figure it out?” Peter asked.


“However long it took me to read the filed report,” responded Neal. “Do you guys really write so much and say so little?”


“It’s all part of the game,” Peter said as he accepted the glass of water from the waiter.


Everything was as it should be, except it was not. Peter had the faintest tingling of a nagging feeling that something was off. However, Neal gave no indication of anything being out of the ordinary.


“Sounds like a pretty tedious and boring game,” Neal scoffed. “So what’s Elizabeth up to today?”


With a brief shrug, Peter crossed his arms and studied Neal a bit more openly.


“She’s with a client looking at centerpieces or something,” replied Peter.


He took a moment to enjoy the fact that Neal was a bit absentminded enough to not notice Peter’s scrutiny. Of course, that blessed moment of freedom was short lived. Neal suddenly cocked his head to the side with a curious grin.


“You’re staring at me,” Neal declared.


“No, I’m making eye contact,” Peter argued. “It’s this polite thing people to when their conversing with somebody.”


Neal softly shook his head and leaned back into his seat with a smug grin.


“No, you were definitely staring,” he said, pointing to at Peter’s face. “Now, you’re making eye contact. But before, you were staring.”


Peter was about to deny it again, even though he knew he had been, but he was interrupted by the waiter asking for their orders. Both men ordered their usual. They had barely tried anything else on the menu, but they often insisted they would try something new net time. But, when next time rolled around again, they continued to order their usual. Why change something that works?”


The waiter unnecessarily praised their choices and collected the unused menus at the edge of the table. Neal watched him walk away out of the corner of his eye, and then mentally tracked his progress as he disappeared behind him. When Peter asked Neal when he was going to order something different, Neal knew the waiter was at the computer, trying to input their order. Neal answered that he would order something different when Peter did. The waiter finished putting the order into the computer, and Neal glanced towards the table twenty-two feet away, waiting for the waiter to ask them if they wanted refills.


“Honestly, what I ordered is what I feel like,” “Neal elaborated.


The waiter politely approached the table across the way and asked the couple of they wanted refills. Neal watched with bored interest while Peter surreptitiously glanced at him, wondering what Neal was doing. He had an idea as to what, but he was a little less sure about the why. Then again, he always wondered why with Neal. It was simply his nature to wonder.


“Are you okay?” Peter asked, not quite sure why he felt the need to ask in the first place


Neal arched an eyebrow, amused and yet confused as to why Peter was asking about him. As far as he could tell, he had given no indication anything was wrong. He quickly assessed his previous actions and found nothing out of the ordinary.


“I’m fine,” Neal assured him. He blithely leaned forward and rested his elbows on the tabletop. “You’re the one acting strange; what with all the staring and all.”


Peter sighed in annoyance.


“I wasn’t staring, Neal. I was politely giving you my attention,” he huffed.


Neal responded with an amused and vague sound of agreement. It was comfortable, this bantering, and it never led to anything else. It was safe.


“So, what are your plans for the rest of the weekend?” Peter suddenly asked.


“Oh, you know, the usual,” Neal replied easily. “Case the second floor of the Met, paint a few forgeries, and maybe watch a special on Frank Sinatra.”


His glib response was enough assurance for Peter that he really was not going to do anything illegal. Neal resumed his relaxed position, reclining back in his seat and grinned at the discerning look Peter was giving him. There was just enough of a smile to leave a small niggling of doubt. But in the end, they both knew Neal was not going to get into too much trouble before Monday.


Meeting on the weekends was the best way either of them could think of to maintain the status quo. At first, Peter used it as an excuse to keep an eye on Neal after the incident with Kate and OPR. It was no secret Neal was devastated by the sudden and unexpected loss of Kate. Everything he had done since jail was for her sake, and when he was finally close to his dream, it was all taken away in a single explosion of flame. People handled grief differently, and Peter had been anxious about how Neal would react. There was nothing in his history that Peter could use to predict Neal’s behavior.


However, his fears had been proven to be just that, fears. Neal grieved like anybody else who had lost someone they loved; he never attempted to do anything drastic. It took a bit of time for him to accept what had happened to Kate, but when he did, he was more than happy to team up with Peter and the FBI again. If anything, Peter had been thrown off balance by the anti-climatic reaction.


Neal had been given time off to rest and process what had happened, but even though he was grieving, it was not in his nature to sit idly by while Peter, Diana, and all the other agents tried to investigate the explosion and OPR’s involvement. At first, Peter had been a bit more flexible with Neal due to recent events, but that lasted only a couple of days before Neal did something particularly stupid and Peter snapped at him. The moment he told Neal he had been an idiot and needed to follow some semblance of the law, Peter had regretted snapping at him. Though, instead of shying away, or looking hurt by the words, Neal simply smirked at Peter. And for the first time since Kate’s death, Neal had been happy.


Walking on eggshells had made Neal jumpy and unsure as to how he should behave. When Peter had allowed Neal to start working again, Neal had been determined to be treated the same as before everything. It took a few extra tried, but he had been able to get a rise out of Peter. From the way Peter snapped at him, then looked horrified, and finally rolled his eyes, they both understood Neal had been pushing for it. He needed normalcy, and when Peter admitted it to himself, he did too. So, they settled to try and keep moving forward.


“So help me, Neal, if I get even one word that you approached the Met,” Peter threatened. “I will put you on a two foot radius.”


With an arched eyebrow implying he thought it a challenge, Neal grabbed the napkin on the table and set it on his lap right as the waiter appeared with the food. Peter grumbled half-heartedly as he allowed the waiter to arrange their food.


“Fine, fine. I won’t get near it,” Neal acquiesced.


Peter resisted the urge to roll his eyes. He would not be surprised to get a memo on Monday about a suspicious individual stalking the Met. Everybody would claim it was not Neal, but they both would know that was not true.


“No more out of you,” he pointed at Neal with a pair of chopsticks.” Now eat your food.”


Neal hummed his agreement as he picked up his own pair of chopsticks and began eating. They ate slowly, sharing stories about the week, and bantering back and forth. Peter enjoyed the way Neal made something banal like writing a report on mortgage fraud and make it sound like a sweeping tale out of a novel. For Neal, he appreciated Peter’s more pragmatic approach towards life and was a trustworthy moral compass. They fit together with perfected ease, each one relying on the other. Peter and Neal could appreciate the work and time put in to making their partnership work, because now, there was no way to go without it.


“No, seriously, I should be nominated for sainthood with all the things I put up with,” Peter explained.


Neal rolled his eyes, a good natured grin on his face and shook his head.


“Sorry, but I think I qualify,” Neal argued. “Besides, I also have to put up with your clothes.”


It was Peter’s turn to roll his eyes. He mock frowned and pointed Neal.


“You are such a peacock,” he said.


“Why yes,” Neal agreed with a brilliant grin. “Yes, I am.”


With a quick snap of his wrist, a finely fashioned fedora flipped lightly onto his head. Peter tried, but failed to control his amused grin. The flashy article of clothing was never far from hand.


“That’s not supposed to be a compliment,” Peter pointed out, however vain of an attempt it was to do so. “But regardless, I extend an invitation to dinner at my place.”


Elizabeth?” Neal asked; eyebrow arched.


Peter answered with a grin of his own.


“Who else?”


They shared a quick laugh while Neal made a waving motion over shoulder. The waiter lounging against the wall, chatting with a colleague, noticed the gesture and hurried over to Peter and Neal’s table. Peter grinned to himself. Even though Neal had been giving him his whole attention, that he much he was sure of, Neal still tracked the waiter. It was a useful and ingrained technique Neal used without thinking about it, and it always impressed Peter.


“Oh, and Elizabeth said she wouldn’t be opposed to you picking out a wine,” Peter informed him as he pulled out the money for the bill.


“I’ll call her later and see what we’re eating,” responded Neal.


Peter snorted in disbelief, causing Neal to grin more so than before their conversation.


“Honestly, wine shouldn’t be that big of a deal,” he commented.


“Well, to those of use who appreciate good wine,’ Neal said, standing up from his seat in one smooth motion. “It really isn’t a big deal. It’s natural.”


The expression on Peter’s face showed his disbelief some more and also some amusement at Neal’s answer. Neal ignored it and walked to the exit while continuing his lecture.


“Besides, I’m showing a certain level of respect to the food and the chef by carefully choosing a wine that best accentuates the flavor of the food.”


Pausing outside the restaurant with his arms crossed, Peter stood unimpressed.


“You are so full of bull, it’s astounding,” he marveled.


Neal responded with mock indignation, hand poised dramatically over his heart.


“I am not,” Neal declared. “And I bet Elizabeth would agree with me.”


“Yeah, which by the way, why does she always take your side?” questioned Peter. Holding up his hand to cut Neal off, he continued, “I really don’t want to hear your explanation. Seven o’clock work for you?”


Nodding his head, Neal answered in the affirmative. Peter happily declared it settled and shooed Neal off with the usual warnings. By now, the admonitions and warnings were a sure sign of normalcy, rather than actual admonitions and warnings. Neal was there to push buttons and boundaries of legality while Peter was still there to push right back. Push and pull in equal measure; a precarious and balanced stability was maintained.


Neal held his hands up in a gesture telling Peter he reluctantly agreed to the warnings as he walked away from him. Pulling out his phone, he was going to call Elizabeth, but hesitated before hitting her speed dial. Neal did not know when she would be finished meeting with her clients and he did not want to interrupt. So instead, Neal tucked his phone away and decided he would check in later that day. Peter was right when he said wine was simply wine in their household, but Neal always had the urge to add something just a little bit more. The Burkes appreciated the thought and Neal knew Elizabeth did not mind enjoying a well-picked wine.


He glanced through display windows as he passed them, even though he knew what each one looked like. A couple of men and women waved at Neal when he passed by their shop, having seen him frequently passing by and even looking around their shops. As he crossed a street, Neal pulled out some spare change and dropped it in the upturned hat of a street musician that performed there every Saturday.


When he finally entered the uptown neighborhood he lived in, the few neighbors who were walking pets or playing with their children, stopped to wave or say a quick greeting. They would sometimes even pause long enough to talk about current news, traffic, and weather. Neal remembered who liked what, and what had been occurring in the finely tuned machine that was their neighborhood. It made him friendly and approachable. He liked it when people wanted to talk and be nice to him for no reason other than he was just a friendly neighbor. They were not trying to con him, and more importantly, he was not conning them.


Approaching the front door to the corner mansion he called home, Neal practically bumped into June who was heading for her car. She greeted Neal with her customary smile and understanding gaze.


“Oh, Neal,” June called out as she paused in front of the open car door. “There’s a lovely visitor waiting in your room.”


He had no idea who would be visiting him this time, but Neal guessed he or she was safe, or as safe as his visitors tended to be, since June gave no indication of anything being off. Neal trusted June’s judgment and assessment of people. She was rarely wrong.


The door at the top of the staircase was slightly ajar, and Neal could hear soft footsteps lazily walking the length of the flat. Pulling off his hat, Neal carefully, and slowly, nudged the door open and studied his visitor. Rich, brown hair hung loose over shoulders, resting against her high fashioned jacket. Neal remained rooted to his spot at the threshold. The smell of soft perfume caused his muscles to tense. Against his will, Neal’s heartbeat began to speed up until it was racing and he could practically hear the blood rushing through his veins. Hope welled up painfully in his stomach as he took a hesitant step forward as quietly as he could. He continued to stare blankly at the visitor’s back, afraid of believing and learning the truth.


For a painfully slow handful of seconds, Neal’s mind was blank. It was not until he heard the antique grandfather clock ring downstairs that Neal was spurred into action. Taking a deep breath he did not realize he needed, Neal shut the door so it creaked and clicked shut, alerting the visitor of his presence.


“Hi, can I help you with something?” Neal asked, his voice deceptively light and at ease.


The visitor was surprised at the sound of his voice. Her head whipped around to face him. They stared at each other, wide-eyed and tense. She imagined their meeting to be different from the awkward and confused situation they suddenly found themselves. Neal stared at her with an expression reminiscent of abject horror. It was supposed to be so much different than it really was.


By the time Neal could move again, he found himself being squeezed around the neck by her. The physical contact triggered Neal’s reaction. His arms flew up and wrapped protectively around her waist. There were no exclamations or tearful exaltations; only silence. Neither spoke, they just held each other in the center of the room until it felt safe to let go again. When they pulled apart, Neal stared into her eyes and saw the same bright blue eyes that drew him in all those years ago when they first met.


Finally, after re-memorizing each other, Neal broke into a wide grin. His bright smile, in turn, caused her to suddenly grin and laugh. Neal tightened his grip, lifted her up, and spun around; no longer able to stay still. After it felt like he could breathe again, he set her down and drew her close again. He breathed in her familiar shampoo and could almost believe she was there with him.


Leave a comment
Date:September 10th, 2010 11:17 am (UTC)
*does happy dance and hugs you*
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Date:September 13th, 2010 12:20 am (UTC)
Yay! I'm so happy this all worked out so well. :D Thanks again, so much.
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Date:September 12th, 2010 03:48 pm (UTC)
Neal's very emotionless hyper intelligence is so well foiled by Peter’s gut instinct.
I love this juxtaposition and characterization ‘bored interest.’ It sums up Neal’s view on what he’s doing so nicely.
The pacing of the last scene of this chapter was impressive.
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Date:September 13th, 2010 12:25 am (UTC)
It's a relief to hear that I managed to do that. It's always a concern that I don't convey what's going on in my head in a way that makes sense to everybody else. :P
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