A/N: I found this half finished ficlet-y thing in my poor neglected White Collar folder, read it over and liked it enough to fix it up and give some kind of a point to it. Bear in mind that it's old and I'm not quite caught up with canon...
Neal knew that people are touched with the medusa's stare at some point in their life. His mother had told him, after his father had...left. That's how they always said it when they talked about him, if they ever talked about him. That he had...left.
Neal had known it was a lie though, long before he had reached the age of eight. He'd always been good at reading people. And he'd known one day, with that clarity that only children seem to have, that they were lying. His father hadn't...left. He hadn't gone to a different place. He was dead. And when people were dead, they didn't leave. They were simply gone.
The medusa stare wasn't a lie though. At the age of ten, he'd been walking home after delivering newspapers. The cold chilled him, and he shivered and tried to use his too-large jacket to cover up more of him. He scowled after he realized that it wasn't going to work. He wished he were shorter.
There was a light on in the small house they lived in. He frowned. His mother was never up this early. A dark shape moved by the window, and then another.
His heart froze for a moment, and then he broke into a run, knowing that he was going to be too late. Late for what he didn't know yet, but he didn't want to find out. Didn't want to find out with a desperation he had never felt before.
He was sobbing for breath by the time he reached his house. Flinging open the door, he stopped short at the sight of the masked man heading down the hallway to where he thought his mother was hiding behind the closed door. The shelves in their living room looked like they had been rifled through.
"Leave her alone," Neal said. He felt proud that his voice only held the slightest quaver.
The man swung around at the sound of his voice, and then Neal could see the object in his hands clearly. He'd seen some in movies and pictures before, knew that the small, seemingly harmless thing could spit death. He knew that it was the reason his father had...left. He didn't want his mother to leave either.
"Leave her alone," he repeated, trying to take a threatening step forward like how he had seen a cowboy do in a film once. His legs refused to move though, so he gave up the attempt.
"I'm not tryin' to hurt nobody, kid," the man said, sounding amused. Neal hated that. Hated when grown-ups used that special voice that said he had done something that they were surprised at. They used the same voice at the circus when an animal did an interesting trick—"Look at how that lion jumped through the hoop!" Neal wasn't a lion, and he didn't think he could jump through any hoops. Especially if they were flaming.
"Leave us alone," he said.
The man laughed at that—he laughed! Neal hated him.
"Nope. Came for something, I did, and I'm not leavin' 'till I got it."
Neal thought about all the things they owned that he man might want and came up empty. "We don't have anything," he informed him.
The man laughed again. "I'll be the judge of that won't I?" He started opening the door.
"No! Don't!" Neal shouted shrilly. "I'll...I'll call the police."
The man turned slowly to look at him. Neal gulped. He should have grabbed the phone before saying that. They never included that step in the safety assemblies they held at the school every year.
"No you won't kid," the man said softly, all traces of amusement gone.
Another masked man walked into the room from where he had apparently been in Neal's bedroom.
"Is there a problem here?" he asked, and his voice was dry and scratchy, what Neal thought that sandpaper should sound like if it had a voice. He chanced a glance up and gasped. The man's eyes were completely dead. Neal had never seen anyone's eyes so devoid of emotion before. He had, however, seen a corpse like that. Neal felt terror grip him and he backed up against the wall.
"Hey calm down, alright?" the first man said when the dead one pointed his gun at Neal. He sounded wary. Maybe he knew that his partner was dead too? If he didn't though, should Neal warn him?
The sound of sirens decided for him. The men looked at each other and the first said, "Shit."
The dead one growled softly and took a step toward Neal, but the other one grabbed his arm. "Leave him. Let's just get outta here." he disappeared into Neal's room and then probably out the window without a second glance back.
The dead one stared at Neal before he followed, and that look was burned into him forever after. The look of a man who'd been turned to stone.
When Neal had gone out into the world to make his fortune, he'd met plenty of these "dead" men and women. Oh, he knows they're not actually the living dead now, but their cold, emotionless stare still frightens him, though he would never admit it. They both fascinate and repulse him; he can't understand why there were people like that. Don't they realize what a joy it is to live? Neal loves living, loves it like he loves nothing else. He loves the thrill of a chase, the triumph of a successful heist, the warmth of the sun on golden-tanned skin.
Then there are those who aren't quite stone yet, but in a way worse, for they could still feel, but choose not to. They choose not to see the beauty and vibrancy of their lives, are hunched over from the weights they feel on their shoulders, from the chains of their responsibilities dragging them back until they drowned in monotone. Neal doesn't fear those people; he pities them.
He'd thought this Agent Burke is one of them, perhaps not by choice but by career. It can't be easy to hold on to life when confronted with the dregs of society day after day. And when he becomes a consultant, he realizes that it's true. It's not easy, yet Peter is one of the happiest people Neal has ever met.
And he realizes that he hasn't been happy, not in the way he wants. He's been skirting the edge of joy, enjoying the thrill of surfing the waves and never sinking into the depths to see the beauty of true happiness.