Paper Pumpkins and Contemplations

Author's Note: Finally, there is time enough in my schedule to allow for a new story. I have certainly longed for the thrill and pleasure of writing White Collar fics these past several weeks, so I am very pleased to be presenting this ficlet to the readers. I may be a bit rusty after the hiatus, but I hope that you all enjoy this one-shot, filled with plenty of bromance and fluffiness, nonetheless. Thank you, Wondo, for the inspiration. Also, I realize that I am posting this story very much in advance of Halloween, but inspiration strikes at unexpected moments and I cannot be certain as to when I will have time to write another piece.

For those who have read Bittersweet and for those who have not, this story follows the same timeline, namely that the events of Out of the Box occurred in November. Ergo, this story is set less than one month prior, in October. Please R&R! As always, constructive criticism is greatly appreciated and more than welcomed.

Disclaimer: I claim no rights to anything White Collar. Today, I am simply attempting to soothe my withdrawals by delving into the world of fanfiction.

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Saturday, October 31st, dawned cool, crisp, and clear, much to Neal Caffrey's delight. Halloween was a particular favorite with Neal – for two disparate and equally important reasons – and this year, he would be celebrating the holiday with the most important people in his life. He crossed his arms beneath his head and gazed at the ceiling from his comfortably nestled position in bed. Glancing at the clock, he huffed in exasperation.

Unfortunately, even autumn Saturdays as special as this one couldn't afford to spare Neal from the FBI's clutches. First, there was a case to be solved. Then, he could indulge himself to his heart's content.

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"Peter, time to get up! Aren't you supposed to be at the office by nine today?"

Peter Burke mumbled incoherently in his half-awake state of being, rolled over to face the direction from whence the voice came, and opened his eyes to watch his wife getting dressed in front of their bureau. He smiled. "Morning, Elle."

Elizabeth turned around, hands occupied with disentangling a cluster of necklaces. She beamed at him. "Good morning, honey. Happy Halloween!"

Peter groaned, rolling his eyes. "Don't remind me. I can't believe what I agreed to wear tonight." He swung his feet off the bed and stood up, stretching and checking his phone for new messages.

Elizabeth grinned, shooing him to the bathroom for a shower. "I think it'll be cute, Peter. Besides, you wouldn't want to disappoint Neal, would you?" She laughed heartily at his responding grumblings.

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Upon entering the White Collar Crime Unit, Peter was forced to admit that although few people wanted to spend their Saturday at the office with a stack of case files and unmentionable coffee, the cheery décor of the entire floor did much to instill a person with a happier disposition.

Each desk was adorned with a miniature pumpkin, a large bowl of candies and chocolates sat next to the coffee maker, and shiny orange streamers were strung about the windows and staircase.

Peter's eye was immediately drawn to Neal's desk – and its occupant – as he was in the habit of doing every morning. These last few days, however, he was more interested in the things sitting on Neal's desk than with whatever shenanigans its owner was concocting.

Neal looked up from the thin sheet of black paper he had been fiddling with, methodically folding and unfolding it as he greeted his partner. "Good morning, Peter! Happy Halloween!"

"Oh, not you, too," Peter retorted. He attempted to discreetly scrutinize the collection of objects that had made its home amongst Neal's pen holders and folder dividers: several three-dimensional pumpkins of varying detail and all roughly the size of a ping pong ball, silvery ghosts with smoothly-cut eyeholes, and a pitchfork constructed from red toothpicks.

Secretly pleased with Peter's interest in his desk's inhabitants, Neal grinned. "You like them, Peter? You can have the pitchfork, if you want it." He tried to hold back a snicker as Peter abruptly tore his gaze from the creations.

"Neal, stop wasting paper and time that should be spent on these." He jabbed a finger at the alarmingly thick stack of files on the corner of the desk to emphasize his annoyance.

Feigning a hurt look, Neal grimaced. "Sure thing, Peter."

Nodding and still marveling at Neal's chosen pastime, Peter strode away toward his office. Only after he had turned on his computer and taken off his suit jacket did he notice a finely crafted black bat, complete with fangs, tucked into the breast pocket.

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Five-o-clock rolled around with surprising quickness. In a buoyant mood and forgetting about the night's festivities entirely, Peter shut off the lights in his office and made his way downstairs, wondering if Neal had finished his work for the day. To his credit, he did not panic at not seeing his consultant flipping through files at his desk. Peter headed to the glass doors, spotting a candy corn-shaped sticky note posted at eye-level, lips twitching as he read it.

Batman,

Went home to change for tonight. Will bring June and Samantha with me. Haversham might make an appearance, too.

See you at six.

XOXO

Neal

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DING-DONG!

"Elle, will you get the door? I'm still changing," Peter called from their bedroom. He heard his wife respond in the affirmative and the sound of their front door opening, the laughter and chatter of the neighborhood children filling their home.

Standing before the mirror, Peter frowned in dismay while adjusting his tie. He looked absolutely ridiculous and failed to understand why Elizabeth would turn traitor and side with Neal on this of all matters. The two of them were obviously co-conspiring behind his back and it puzzled him that he found himself rather amused with their antics.

Sighing and pulling on his shoes, Peter braced himself for a night of teasing and embarrassment, but he couldn't help the smile that crossed his face as he listened to a little girl compliment Elizabeth's dazzling witch costume.

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"Hurry up, Samantha. We need to leave in a few minutes if we want to make it to Peter and Elizabeth's on time," June announced, climbing the stairs to her granddaughter's room. Finding the door ajar, she stepped inside, heart warming at the sight before her.

"Grandma June, Neal's helping me with my costume," Samantha declared, turning her head to speak with her grandmother while standing still for Neal, who was kneeling on the floor, tying the ribbons at the hems of the young girl's pants.

He tied off the last knot with a flourish, standing up and smiling at Samantha. "All done. And may I say, you are one fierce pirate, madam." He winked at her.

Samantha bounced with excitement, running across the room to grasp her grandmother's hand. "Let's go, Grandma June! I want to start trick-or-treating!"

June ushered her energetic granddaughter down the staircase ahead of her, waiting for Neal to slip into his suit jacket. Taking his proffered arm at the doorway, she laid her hand atop his affectionately. "Thank you, Neal."

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For the twelfth time that night, Elizabeth hurried to answer the door. Expecting another bunch of trick-or-treaters, she was momentarily startled by Mozzie standing on her front step. Though he hadn't donned a costume for the night, he was wearing a peculiar neckerchief, a dark green piece of cloth patterned with purple Chinese characters.

Mozzie hurried inside the Burkes' home. "Good evening, Mrs. Suit. Thank you for the invitation. I take it Mr. Suit is upstairs?"

"I'm right here, Mozzie." Peter walked downstairs, awkwardly shifting from one foot to the other, apprehensive of a derisive comment, but Mr. Haversham merely widened his eyes before diverting his attention to the hors d'oeuvres set out on the coffee table.

"Ooh, pâté again? This looks delicious, Elle, but I doubt that you've checked it for poison. Allow me…"

Peter appealed to his wife. "Who invited him again?"

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Neal, June, and Samantha arrived not long afterward, and as the women busied themselves with getting ready to go out trick-or-treating and Mozzie sipped at a glass of wine while immersed in A.B. Tattersall's newest mystery novel, Peter and Neal sized each other up and inspected one another's attire.

"Why are we dressed like this, Neal? Why did you go and give Elle this crazy idea?" Peter ranted, throwing his hands up in frustration.

Neal crossed his arms indignantly. "For the record, this was all Elizabeth's idea. Do you honestly believe that I would be willing to share my clothes without her persuasion? And this suit is itching me to no end, Peter. How do you wear this day in, day out?"

Peter smirked. "It's better than an orange jumpsuit, isn't it? Besides, you shouldn't complain. What I wear is classic, but thanks to you, Elle hasn't let me near the food all night. She doesn't want me to stain your expensive floss."

"At least I didn't have to sacrifice my fedora. Who knows what sort of abuse you'd put it through?"

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By seven-o-clock, the steady stream of trick-or-treaters had yet to diminish. Elizabeth, June, and Samantha had left the men in charge while they visited every house in the neighborhood and since Neal refused to be seen in such hideous garments, Peter found himself continually making the trip between couch and front door every few minutes or so to serve princesses, ghosts, ninjas, and zombies from a heavy black cauldron of candy.

Neal, on the other hand, occupied himself with building a fortress out of Kit Kat and Snickers at the Burkes' dining table, although his progress was impeded every time he unwrapped a candy bar to eat instead of relegating it to the castle-like structure growing before him. He appreciated fine wine, dinners at four-star French restaurants, and the world's most aromatic Italian roast, but Neal's sweet tooth was as insatiable as any child's, and this was one reason why he looked forward to this day every year.

The other, weightier reason resided between the realm of imagination and the expanse of unexplored possibilities. It is tradition to wear a costume for Halloween, to pretend to be someone or something else for a day. For a child, this means transforming from an ordinary human being into an angel or a grotesque monster or the devil – but only for a few hours' time. For Neal, switching between representations of himself implies temporarily existing as a different person, whether that alter-ego should be Nick Halden or George Devore or Leonard Parker. He took pride and immense satisfaction in his capacity for maneuvering amongst art thieves and art collectors, between being a confidence man and a consultant for the FBI.

Sometimes, though, it was exhausting to remember everything he had been and everything he could be.

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Neal was startled out of his thoughts when he suddenly heard the unmistakable beginnings of a tantrum. Waltzing to the front door, he hid his chuckle at Peter's misfortune. A young girl, dressed adorably as a ballerina, stood angrily in the doorway, looking defiantly up at Peter, eyebrows scrunched together in a frown. "I want M&Ms! Not Skittles!"

Bending down on one knee, Neal addressed the pouting girl. "Hi, sweetheart. What's wrong?"

Softening her glare at Neal's sincere expression, the ballerina replied, "I want M&Ms. I don't like Skittles!"

"Do we have any M&Ms, Peter?"

"No. Don't you think I'd have given them to her by now?"

Neal masked a sigh at Peter's lack of tact. Thinking quickly, he withdrew a deck of cards from his pants pocket, expertly shuffling them for the growing audience on the Burkes' front step. "Who wants to see a magic trick?"

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Relieved to no longer be the target of the little girl's accusations, Peter changed his focus to Neal, who was now standing in the doorway and performing a slew of card tricks, earning the children's and parents' awe and applause. The young ballerina had long given up on maintaining an aggressive stance and was now clinging to the hem of Neal's suit jacket, gazing up at him in a starstruck fashion.

As though a lightbulb had lit in his mind, Peter was confronted with a cocktail of thoughts about his partner. This – the effortless charm, the natural ability to win over his allies and adversaries, the talent of transitioning seamlessly between one persona and another – this is the essence of Neal Caffrey. For all that Peter knew about Neal, studying his exploits on paper was only one dimension to the enigma. Watching Neal employ his skill and tactics was an altogether different, more fascinating experience.

"Again, Neal! Make it disappear again!"

Impressed against his will at Neal's adept sleight-of-hand, Peter reluctantly whispered in his friend's ear that it was time to end the show and allow the children to be on their way. Undeterred, Neal performed one final trick, drawing a delicate pink tulip from his sleeve and handing it to the young girl, then waving everyone off to the next house, freeing the spectators from his enchantments.

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Peter opened the door for Elizabeth, June, and Samantha, each of whom was holding a bag bulging with goodies. "Had a good time, ladies?"

"You should've come with us, Peter!" Elizabeth stated happily, leaning up to give him a quick kiss. "That young couple at the end of the block put up amazing decorations on their front lawn."

"And they gave me a lot of candy!" Samantha exclaimed, plopping onto the couch next to Mozzie, who looked up briefly from his novel to study the contents of her bag.

June removed her coat, hanging it up by the front door before sitting down next to her granddaughter. "We had a lovely time. Your neighbors are very nice people, Peter, Elizabeth."

Elizabeth smiled. "Where's Neal, honey?"

Peter shrugged. "He went into the kitchen about a half an hour ago. Hasn't come out since." He spoke to the swinging door, "Neal, what are you doing in there?"

"Just a few more minutes, Peter. Don't let anyone come in here!" Neal was excited and the sound of running water could be heard. "I'm almost done!"

Good to his word, Neal appeared from the kitchen less than five minutes later, carrying something in his hands, and beheld the warmest sight he had happened upon in a long time. June and Mozzie were conversing together on the couch, heads bent over Mozzie's open book, speaking animatedly. Peter and Elizabeth were seated on the floor with Samantha, sorting through her candy and occasionally throwing out an unsavory piece, most of which Satchmo eyed with distrust. His heart filling with an indefinable lightness, Neal cleared his throat and held up his masterpiece. "What do you guys think?"

The large pumpkin was perfectly round, its complexion unblemished. On one side, Neal had carved the silhouettes of every person in the room with meticulous detail, including a faint outline of Mozzie's glasses. On the opposite side, the pumpkin was graced with an image of a home situated beneath a full moon and innumerable stars.

Flattered by Elizabeth and June's audible gasps of delight, Neal met Peter's gaze across the top of the pumpkin. Without a word, Peter took the pumpkin from his hands. He grabbed a candle from the mantle and stuck it inside the pumpkin, lighting the wick with a match. Carefully moving the fiery sphere across the room, he placed it on the windowsill for all the world to admire.

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"Thank you so much for having us, Elizabeth, dear," June said, helping Samantha into her coat. It was late and it was time to turn in for the night. Mozzie had hailed a cab minutes before and June, Samantha, and Neal were waiting for June's driver to arrive. "Why don't you, Peter, and Satchmo come over to our home for Thanksgiving? We have more than enough room for everyone."

"It would be our pleasure, June." Elizabeth hugged the older woman and her granddaughter, walking with them down the steps to the sidewalk.

Neal turned to Peter. "Thank you, Peter. I had a good time." He flashed a mega-watt smile.

Giving in to the urge to ruffle Neal's hair, Peter replied in kind. "Anytime, Neal. See you on Monday." The car pulled up to the curb and the three guests climbed inside amidst a chorus of goodbyes.

Standing together with their arms wrapped around each other, Peter and Elizabeth waved to their retreating friends. Behind them, the flame from the brightly illuminated pumpkin sparked and danced about merrily, casting its brilliant glow in the glittering moonlight.

Thank you for reading! Remember, an author is hard-pressed to improve her writing if she doesn't know what it is that needs improving upon. ^_^