A/N: It's finally done! FINALLY, after TEN months, it's done! I present to you all the final two drabbles/one-shots of this collection. As you can see if you scroll down, number 50 is a full-fledged one-shot. I can't even pretend that it's a drabble, since its fifteen-hundred words, haha. These two, after giving me so much trouble, turn out to be two of my favorites, so I hope you like them too! I'd like to take the moment to thank everyone who reviewed, everyone who favorited this fic, and everyone who put this fic on alert! Happy holidays to everyone, and if you're somewhere that it's snowing, like me, stay safe! Enjoy!
Disclaimer: After fifty songs and fifty drabbles, I'm firmly convinced that I do not own White Collar. Unfortunately.
49. Noise and Kisses—The Used
When Neal first meets Elizabeth Burke he pegs her as an older, lovely, gentler, more cheerful version of Kate Moreau, and looking at her makes him long for his own love and marvel at the fact that he and Peter both love shades of the same person. But the more time that he spends in El's presence, the more he begins to see the differences between his Kate and her. Maybe Kate's absence makes him pay so much attention to her, for they do markedly resemble each other with their pale skin and their dark hair and their clear eyes only minute shades away from being the same blue. He finds himself staring at her sometimes, soaking in the details of her features, sometimes superimposing Kate's features over hers, other times searching out the differences. The first couple of months when he thinks of Elizabeth he thinks first of Kate, then morphs her features into those of his partner's wife.
But as time moves on, it changes. Kate's features cloud over in his mind, and he finds himself thinking of Elizabeth's face first, reversing the process until it's her face that hardens into Kate's. And he finds himself looking deeper than physical resemblance, and once he does so he finds the true distance between the two women. Kate is beautiful and glittering and elegant…and hard, cold beneath her skin like the sharp planes of a diamond. El, though, is just as a beautiful, but she's also soft and sweet and warm. He compares the two without consciously thinking about it. El is passionate about everything, and gives all of herself to something; Kate never commits herself fully, always holds back and waits and has that calculation in the back of her eyes. (Peter and Mozzie always tell him about that cold calculation, as though he's blind to it. Just because he loves(-ed) her doesn't mean he can't see something so obvious.)
Kate's absence stretches longer and longer, and even though Neal drives himself crazy over her, he finds himself caring less and less. He's been with Kate for years, but he's also been away from her for years, separated by clear glass and steel bars, left only with the imprint of her scent and touch in his mind and an image of her that became more perfect with every day that he couldn't have her in his arms. Now, he is still separated from her, but his perfect image is disintegrating slowly under the pressure of the real world. (Who is he kidding? It's crumbling because he has El, living, breathing, flawed-perfect El there, and his fantasies of Kate can't hold up to the reality of Elizabeth Burke.)
At some point along the way, Neal realizes that he closes his eyes and dreams of Elizabeth Burke. He closes his eyes and summons her soft face and the wave of her hair over her shoulder and the curves of her body pressed against the fabric of her clothing; he has the way her lips part and the exact color of her eyes and curve of her neck all boiling inside of his head. (Kate is reduced to a dusty flower pressed between the pages of a yellowed book, something once beautiful and once loved, remembered when it is stumbled upon and forgotten the rest of the time.) If he drives himself crazy now, it is because he wants to run his hands across El's skin and memorize the smoothness, and knows that he can't. He's never been all that respectful of the sanctity of marriage, but in this case, he holds himself back. This is Peter—who is his partner, his friend, the person putting himself on the line to keep him from going back to prison—and El. El, who loves her husband, who deserves better than to be made into an adulteress. He loves her—(oh hell, he loves her)—too much to ask that of her.
But when she smiles at him and when she pats him on the shoulder, when their arms brush sitting on the couch, or that time when she loops her hand in his and skims the edge of her thumb over the heel of his palm, he feels his heart thud and jerk and try to pull a coup d'état inside of his chest. And when they kiss for the first time, he is sorry. Sorry for Kate, sorry for Peter, but not nearly sorry enough to stop when he has everything he has ever wanted snuggled in his arms.
50. Where We Went Wrong—The Hush Sound
The funny thing is, they don't even realize that they are on their first family vacation until they're lost somewhere in Vermont.
It goes like this: Neal and Peter have a case in Vermont. It's a very important case, that Neal's expertise is needed on and must be done in person, and the Bureau reluctantly allows Neal to leave the state of New York so long as he is accompanied at all times. Of course, a second "chaperone" is needed—because who in their right mind leaves Peter and Neal alone together for an extended period of time out of state? God only knows what the two of them will get into unsupervised—but Jones, Diana, and Lauren are all busy with other cases and can't take time off to babysit a wayward convict and his handler. This would probably present a major problem if not for one thing: Elizabeth Burke.
As it turns out, El needs to make a trip to New Hampshire to oversee the construction of an event for one of her VIP clients. When she hears about the case in Vermont, and the need for a second babysitter, she comes into the agency and saunters right up to Hughes's office, bearing a brilliant smile and a plate of cookies—having long ago learned that the most effective bribe is an offering of homemade baked goods. It takes her five minutes in Hughes's office before he comes out and orders Neal and Peter to start packing.
This is how the two Burkes and one Neal Caffrey end up in Peter's car, driving to Vermont. Before leaving they create a stockpile of coffee, water, chips, cookies, and CD offerings, one of which is Peter's and is immediately discarded, two of which are Neal's offerings—at which Peter squints his eyes and asks "are these CDs of illegally downloaded music?" and gets an innocent smile in reply—and El's CD case. Peter drives—after much disagreement as Neal makes snarky comments about Peter's driving skills, El fails to defend her husband, and Peter finally snipes back that Neal doesn't even have a driver's license, to which Neal's response is "are you sure?" and another innocent smile—Neal is placed in charge of the maps and GPS, and El sprawls out in the back. When they are finally on the road Neal entertains them all with stories that he has to conveniently change some of the names in, El seizes control of the music from the backseat—which involves her leaning into the front and grappling with Neal as Peter threatens to turn the car around, and Peter yells at drivers from Connecticut, drivers from Massachusetts, fellow drivers from New York, and seems firmly convinced that he is the only person in the world capable of driving, though his wife and his…Neal seem to disagree.
Around one-thirty they stop to eat at a dive off of the highway. Neal complains about the tacky décor, Elizabeth seizes both of their hands, always excited by the adventurous offerings of slightly dubious restaurants, and Peter really just wants half of a cow on a plate before he is forced to eat his own hand. After lunch, they get back on the road, playing traveling games to pass the time. Peter swears that Neal cheats at these, and Neal just laughs and tells him that he's ridiculous in response. They hit traffic around Boston, which has Peter yelling obscenities and Neal making rude gestures at the other cars, and El warning them that if they get her arrested she is going to be very upset.
And somewhere around the border of Vermont, they get lost. They don't realize it for another hour, by which point they are well and truly lost. A miserable, dreary rain moves in and the sun sets and the winding mountain-forest roads all look the same, which doesn't help matters at all. When they finally realize that they are not in the right place, a fierce argument breaks out. At this point, they are all tired, stiff, and grouchy, and of them, Neal has the longest temper and that's not really saying much. Peter blames Neal for not paying attention to the maps or the GPS. Neal snipes back about Peter's driving skills, adding in that "maybe if this map wasn't of Kentucky and your GPS had been updated in the past five years, we wouldn't be lost." El tries briefly to play peacemaker, attempting to soothe both of them, and ends up having Peter round on her for always taking Neal's side. And there goes Elizabeth Burke's temper. She yells shortly at Peter before subsiding into a sulky silence as Peter jerks them around on the winding curves and Neal punches buttons on the GPS in increasing frustration, the beeping sound filling the car until Peter finally yells at him to stop, leading to the GPS's crash to the floor of the car. Neal and Peter yell at each other and El joins into the fray just for the hell of it, and then the car hydroplanes on a curve. Peter grits his teeth, holding tight to the steering wheel, as El gives a little shriek and Neal grabs her hand, holding it tight while his other hand grips the ceiling bar. When Peter gets the car back under control there is a tense silence, all of them breathing hard, adrenaline rushing through them. Neal slowly releases his grip on El's hand, and in unison, the two of them touch Peter's shoulder gently. His knuckles are white from his grip on the steering wheel, but he relaxes just a fraction at their touch.
It's in this ensuing silence that El realizes exactly what their situation is, and when she does, she begins to laugh. Neal turns in his seat to look at her with a raised eyebrow while Peter just flicks a glance at her in the rearview mirror.
"Do you realize what we are? We're a TV sitcom family on a family vacation. The family gets into shenanigans, argues, has a near death experience to make them realize how much they all mean to each other, and then has a heart-warming tender moment before starting to squabble again."
Neal grins at her, and she knows that Peter is smiling too from the dimple on his cheek. "Most sitcom families aren't three adults, El. Who am I in this picture?"
She shrugs. "It worked for Full House."
"You're the talking dog, Caffrey." Peter says, and Neal rolls his eyes.
"Then what does that make you, Peter? The exchange student that everyone locks in a closet because he won't shut up?"
El clears her throat, still grinning. "Clearly, I'm the single mother with two troublesome boys."
The men both mock-glare at her. Peter rolls his shoulders. "All right. We're lost. The GPS is under the seat somewhere. It's raining and it's dark. Who's for stopping somewhere for the night and finding our way in the morning?" Neal and El raise their hands. "Oh good, because there's our place to stay," he says, nodding his head out the window to the building in front of them. Neal scowls at it.
"The Hi Ho Motel? Peter, you've got to be kidding."
"There aren't exactly a lot of choices around, Neal. Besides, I'm sure you've slept in worse places."
"I committed crimes so that I didn't have to sleep in places like this. I'd rather not have to get checked for an STD because I touched one of these mattresses."
Peter pulls into the parking lot and shuts off the engine. "No, you committed crimes because you're an idiot. No stop complaining and get the bags out of the trunk."
"Yes, sir!" Neal says sarcastically, as El grins in the back. Peter turns to her, smiling. "I'll help the criminal with the bags. Go get us a room, sweetie?" She leans forward and kisses his cheek.
When the three of them finally stumble through the rain with their luggage, fumble with the key in the lock, and open the door they find six month's worth of dusty, a musty smell, and one king-sized bed with a mirror over it. The men drop the bags and stare, while El just smirks. "It was all they had. We'll just have to share the bed," she says, pulling off one of Neal's innocent smiles. Peter blinks at her, and then glares at Neal.
"Stop corrupting her!" Neal gives him a bewildered look, glances at her, and grins, then pulls an identical smile on Peter. He growls, grabs her around the waist, and carries her bodily across to the bed. "Close the door, Caffrey, and get over here," he calls over his shoulder. Neal obeys. (For once.)
In the morning, when they all clamber back into the car and set themselves straight, they conclude that getting lost is a very good thing. And if it happens to happen again, say, on their return trip, well, who's complaining?
A/N 2: Just a couple of funny notes about the last one-shot here. The incident about getting lost in Vermont is inspired by the time that my mother and I got lost in Vermont, only it was a snowstorm and we pulled over for the night at a very nice little inn somewhere in the mountains. The Hi Ho Motel, however, is a real place, down by Atlantic City, and it is just as sketchy looking as it sounds, haha. Once again, thanks for reading!