Title: Picture Perfect
Pairing: Referenced Neal/Kate. Character focus on Neal and Peter. El and Moz make an appearance.
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
“Kate,” he whispered into her hair.
Kate felt her eyes begin to water and she rapidly blinked her eyes. It felt right, like it meant she was home. She collected herself and gently pulled away to stare at Neal.
“It’s been a while, Neal,” Kate finally replied.
Neal chuckled weakly, still in disbelief over seeing Kate alive. It was something they needed to talk about, but neither Neal nor Kate wanted to talk about at the moment. It made everything too real.
“Kate,” Neal mumbled into her shoulder as he pulled her close again.
Finally collecting himself, Neal reluctantly released her and wearily backed up until he found the couch. With a heavy sigh, he plopped into the plush cushions with little grace. He brought his hands up and rubbed his face. Suddenly, he started laughing, almost manically, and could not stop. Kate watched him; feeling like she too needed to laugh at their circumstance, but a sickening lump settled itself in the pit of her stomach, preventing her from going to Neal.
By now, Neal had settled down and was currently trying to sink into the couch. Kate tucked a leg under her so she could sit and face him. They sat in silence again, mirroring the silence from earlier, but instead of the joyful silence prior, this one was filled with awkward tension. In a manner uncharacteristic for both them, Neal and Kate were at a loss of words, neither wanted to admit to anything. Staring blankly at the city outside the windows, Neal glanced at Kate.
“How?” he suddenly asked.
The question was simple, and really, the answer was simple enough as well. In spite of this simplicity, Kate did not know how to answer. Prior to coming to Neal, Kate had their conversation laid out in her mind. But of course, that was before she actually saw him. Neal sensed her distress over the question and he felt his chest tighten. Hesitating only for a fraction of a second, Neal extended an arm towards Kate, to which she happily obliged and scooted in close to Neal.
His arm wrapped around her shoulders, pulling Kate close and gently rubbing up and down her arm. Their position and the comforting gestures were old habits easy to fall into to. While Neal used to draw comfort by holding onto Kate, he no longer did so. Effort he had never needed to use with Kate before, was draining and he was sure the tightness in his chest was going to suffocate him. There was no reason he could think of to be feeling this way. He had always dreamed of Kate returning, but now his dream was reality, and he was unhappy.
As much as he tried to hide his turmoil, Kate was not oblivious to it. She schooled her features into calm happiness, but as she sat wrapped in his arms, Kate felt distances away and lonely. Everything she had done was for Neal and to arrange their escape towards freedom. It was a long con she played, keeping it from both Neal and their friend, Moz, and up until now, every person fell right into place. The scale of the con, and the scope of all the players made the risk so high, but the rewards higher. She wanted Neal to be proud of what she had managed to do. And while Neal could still appreciate the complexity and execution of the con, Kate knew he would be the ultimate downfall of the con. The irony was not lost on her, nor was it lost on Neal as everything fell into place in his mind. He never felt more ashamed and proud.
“What’s the endgame?” Neal asked, changing the original question.
Through their silence and mutually distant comfort, Neal’s mind worked into a frenzy as he pieced each bit of Kate’s puzzle until all he could see was a long con ultimately leading to Neal and Kate escaping and resuming their life of carefree crime.
“Fowler really was planning on letting us go,” Kate suddenly began. “But the man behind him had other plans. I knew somebody had o be pulling his strings, so I kept n escape route open.”
She removed herself from Neal’s embrace and unbuttoned her jacket. Neal watched her curiously as she removed her jacket and carefully rolled the sleeve up on her arm. When most of her arm was exposed, Neal was having difficulty breathing. Splatters of scars covered her arm in almost puddle-like shapes with an occasion crisscross of scars. With an almost tentative touch, Neal reached out and gently ran his hand over her arm. The skin was still smooth and he could see they would continue to fade with time. Kate placed her hand over Neal’s and smiled ruefully.
“It was a bit closer than I thought,” she admitted. “But it really just looked a lot worse than it really was. I was still able to get up and disappear.”
From the way Neal was frowning and staring at her, Kate had rushed to try and reassure him she was fine. However, Neal was not reassured. He actually could not figure out how he felt. He was angry that she had to put herself in that much danger, sad that she was injured, happy she was healthy, pride at how she skillfully manipulated her situation, and a heavy guilt because he had not been there with her or for her. The last one churned his gut and it took every ounce of effort to settle the contents of his stomach.
“And you came back,” Neal stated softly. He idly stroked her exposed arm in a vain attempt to slow and calm his rapidly beating heart. “What are your plans now?”
Pursing his lips and watching Neal’s hand move soothingly over her arm, Kate controlled her breathing and her expression. She shifted her gaze to Neal’s face, trying to catch his eyes. When he returned her stare, Kate used a hopeful smile to hide her discomfort and gnawing fear of the response she would receive.
“My plans involve running away with you and starting over again,” she said, a purposefully hopeful tone in her voice, and false excitement influencing her posture.
She stared with wide-eyes while Neal subtly chewed the inside of his cheek. He held her gaze, his eyes carefully hiding the turmoil in his mind. Despite himself, Neal offered a small smile, neither confirming nor denying anything. For now, Kate accepted such an answer.
“So, what are your plans for right now?” Neal asked, small smile still in place.
Kate casually shrugged and smiled.
“I don’t know, I didn’t really plan for ‘right now,’” she admitted.
They stared at each other a few moments before both broke into a grin. Neal tilted his head towards the balcony, to which Kate eagerly nodded her head. She stood up and walked towards the glass doors leading outside. Lingering just a moment to admire the surreal nature of her surroundings, Kate opened the door and stepped outside. Neal watched her walk the perimeter of the balcony slowly while he collected two glasses and a bottle of wine off the counter. He carefully poured the wine in the glasses and carried them over to the door left slightly ajar. Kate smiled as she accepted a glass and began examining it. She studied the colors, smell, and texture as she softly swished the liquid. It was not the finest wine she had sampled, but it was painfully familiar. Neal was nothing if not subtly dramatic.
“You always know how to pick them,” Kate mused. “I remember. This was the wine we drank after pulling off our very first con together.”
It had been a step up from their previous, cheap wine transferred into an empty bottle, and it had tasted all the sweeter, even though they initially hated the flavor.
“It proved we could be successful and make something for ourselves,” replied Neal. He took a sip from his glass and smiled at how he still could care less for it. “And we always had it even after our biggest heists.”
Taking a slightly larger sip from her glass, Kate could not completely hide the flinch as the wine hit her taste buds. Even though she desperately wanted to get rid of the flavor, she took another drink from the glass, all the while grinning from all the memories. Her smile, in turn, caused Neal to smile, and soon, they were both laughing. They recounted tales of their past deeds, admiring their job well done or laughing embarrassedly at how wrong a con went. The bottle between them slowly emptied, and they were both beginning to feel light and lethargic. For a while, it was just the two of them and the towering buildings of
“I still can’t believe you keep this,” Kate said as she motioned vaguely at the wine bottle.
Neal grinned and tilted his head to look up at the darkening sky.
“What can I say,” he muttered airily. “I’m a sucker for the classics.”
Head still tilted upward, Neal looked out of the corner of his eye and soaked in the sight of Kate, alive and well, standing next to him. She smiled, softer now, and leaned forward so she could see over the short wall.
“You know, since everything with Fowler, OPR, and whatnot, I think we should try a different wine,” Kate suddenly said. She continued to study the city. “You should pick one out. You were always the best at choosing the right wine.”
Neal opened his mouth to reply, but suddenly, his eyes widened as he quickly studied his watch. He frowned at the time. Kate furrowed her brows as she attempted to discern what had suddenly shocked Neal. Her concern was placated by a rueful smile from Neal. Fishing around in his pocket, he pulled out his cell phone and waved it gently.
“Sorry, I just remembered I was supposed to call someone,” Neal explained. “I’ll be right back.”
She gave a quick nod and turned her attention back to the cityscape while Neal stole inside and hit the speed dial. The line rang three times before someone answered.
Even though she was focused on the streets below, Kate could not resist her ingrained instinct to listen to the conversation. When she heard the name, “
“Hey, I’m sorry to do this, but something just came up, and I won’t be able to make it to dinner tonight,” Neal explained, genuine regret coloring his voice.
It was impossible to miss the shocked and confused expression on Kate’s face when she looked at him over her shoulder. Neal offered her an ambiguous shrug and a weak smile. Kate arched an eyebrow in question, but remained silent and resumed staring out over the city.
“What? No, everything’s fine,” Neal reassured
Kate snorted into her hand in a vain attempt to hide her amusement. She shook her head as she remembered when Peter had given her and Neal a lecture about keeping out of trouble. They had just pulled off an art heist, and Peter had been snooping around town for the culprits. While hiding from the authorities in a local café, Peter had just happened in for a break and ran into Neal, literally. Kate recalled the horror she had felt when Peter began talking with Neal, and then walked over to their table. Neal had introduced him and Kate had politely smiled and recited their fabricated backgrounds perfectly. Peter had questioned them a little bit, and then said his goodbyes in the format of a pep talk about keeping up with their studies and staying out of trouble. Of course, shortly after meeting Neal and Kate, he had quickly learned that his advice was a bit too late.
“A rain check? Perfect. I’ll see Peter on Monday,” Neal promised. “Enjoy the rest of your weekend.”
He hung up, a tiny smile playing on his lips. Glancing over at Kate, his smile faltered a bit. Neal tucked his phone away and walked over to Kate, his hand extended. Kate did not hesitate to grab and hold the offered hand. She gave it a squeeze. Neal sighed.
“I need to figure out what I’m going to tell Peter on Monday,” Neal mumbled. “I can probably keep this from Peter, maybe two days if we’re busy with a case.”
Kate hummed in agreement as she tugged Neal so she could wrap her arms around his waist.
“What if you didn’t have to tell him ever?” Kate asked quietly.
Neal heaved a long sigh and swallowed the lump that seemed to be forming in his throat. After making sure his voice was steady, Neal maneuvered in Kate’s arms so he was face to face with her.
“Is everything in place?” Neal asked in turn.
“I wouldn’t suggest it otherwise,” she replied.
A car alarm went off in the distance and Neal frowned in concentration. Kate relaxed in his grip and began reciting all the details for him. There was no detail left unnoted or unexamined. Neal was impressed. He was also becoming more and more convinced her plan would work.
“Let’s run it by Mozzie,” Neal finally said. “He deserves to know.”
For the first time since she arrived at Neal’s apartment, Kate allowed herself a genuine smile. If Neal wanted to consult Moz, it meant he was seriously considering running. Moz, while amusingly paranoid at times, would be able to find the faults and possibilities in any of their best laid plans.
“Tomorrow?” asked Kate.
Smiling, Neal softly bumped his forehead against Kate’s.
“Tomorrow then,” he replied.
They stood together, simply enjoying the presence of the other, but were suddenly interrupted by a sharp rapping on the door. The door swung open and Neal grinned ruefully.
“Neal, you really need to talk to your suit about questioning me,” the voice called out in indignation. “The whole point of a secret identity is to keep it a secret!”
“Sorry, Moz,” Neal responded, still grinning. “I’m sure it was important.”
Kate pulled back from Neal a little bit and stared at him expectantly. Moz was freely talking with a federal agent and happily complaining about it. The last time Kate was with Moz, such an occurrence would have been absurd.
“It doesn’t matter if it was important, Neal,” Moz complained. “The point is, a suit actively seeks me out. And I’ll have you know I…tell me I’m imagining this.”
Moz stopped in his tracks as he gaped wide-eyed at the woman standing in Neal’s arms. Kate offered him a smile, as if nothing was out of the ordinary, while Neal gave a half shrug. Slowly taking off his glasses, Moz squeezed his eyes shut before snapping them open again.
“Okay, I’m not hallucinating, right? Kate’s right there, isn’t she, Neal?” Moz asked almost frantically.
Slipping out from Neal’s arms, Kate flung her arms around Moz’ neck. Spluttering in surprise, Moz slowly grinned and returned her hug. When she did not disappear, Moz laughed, still in shock, and spun her around.
“How is this even possible?” he wondered.
Once again, Neal shrugged as he walked over to join Moz and Kate.
“How about you ask her?” Neal suggested. “Something to drink?”
“Sure, something strong would be nice,” answered
While Kate recounted everything leading up to her arrival, Neal listened with half an ear. Every detail of her story was already memorized and he did not want to dwell on the recent past to much. When she began telling Moz about the endgame in her con, Neal swallowed a stressed sigh and discretely studied
“And then you two would disappear and live your fairytale life out in some exotic location?” Moz asked, though it sounded more like a statement than a question.
“It’s as fairytale as people as us get, right, Moz?” Neal commented.
Moz hummed in agreement, but was still reluctant to fully support it. They both noticed it and waited impatiently for him to tell them what he did not like about it. Unfortunately, his reasons appealed to Neal far more than Kate. Moz wished he had more explanations for Kate.
“Fairytale indeed,” he agreed. “But you fail to take into account how persistent your keeper is.”
“But Peter wouldn’t be able to find us,” Kate insisted. “Nobody will be able to find us.”
Neal ran his hand through his hair and finally let out a sigh.
“We’ll do something that will eventually get his attention,” he argued. “I know us. There will be that one thing we want to go after and it will be that one thing that puts us back on the radar.”
“Then we run like we always do,” Kate stated simply.
She did not like the quick, shared look between Moz and Neal. At one point, she would have known what they were thinking. Now, she had no idea what that look meant and she felt as if she was missing something important. The realization struck her and took her breath away. Regardless of all her mental preparation for such a situation, Kate was sorely unprepared for the feeling. Neal moved on, and he did not even realize it.
“Neal, her plan is foolproof,” Moz finally said. “You could run tonight and nobody would be the wiser.”
That was as much as a blessing as he would ever give the pair of them, but it was easy to notice the lack of enthusiasm in his words. Neal and Kate frowned at him, both for different reasons. Moz held his hands up in a sign of surrender and backed away from Neal and Kate.
“Let me know if you need funds,” ordered
As he left the apartment, Moz’ last words hung in the air. Despite his apparent blessing, something about the way he said it did not settle well with Neal or Kate. They stared blankly at the door as they both tried to find words to describe what they were feeling. Kate finally turned her gaze towards Neal who was trying not to make eye contact.
“You don’t want to leave,” Kate stated softly. “Why? What does this life offer you that we can’t have if we run?”
Neal closed his eyes and focused on breathing. For once in his life, Neal did not know what to say to Kate. Swallowing her own insecurities and fears, Kate walked slowly over to Neal and wrapper her arms around him. Ever so slowly, he began to relax. Opening his eyes, he could not help but smile at the blue eyes staring straight through him.
“Maybe we should get some rest. Sleep on it a little bit?” she suggested.
“Sleep, would be great,” Neal agreed. “We’ll figure everything out tomorrow then?”
Kate nodded and smiled. She dragged a willing Neal over to the bed and they both collapsed onto the soft down comforter. They crawled and wiggled around until they could both lay comfortably side by side, their heads resting against each other. Lying there, the moon just beginning to rise over the city horizon, Neal and Kate could at least pretend everything was alright; that they would wake up in the morning and their life had never been any different.