Critical Hour

Rated T for violence, profanity, and some suggestive dialogue.

Set in the second half of Season 2 after Power Play; spoilers for anything prior to that, especially Power Play and Payback. Any canon events after Power Play have not yet occurred in this story.

I don't own White Collar or these wonderful characters—just playing with them for a while. No copyright infringement intended. Certain aspects of this story were present in the S4 mid-season finale. This story really was written first….

If you are hesitant to read WIPs, I sympathize. I too have been burned by authors who left their readers hanging. I can only promise you that this story is finished, except for final editing, and that chapters will be posted at regular and frequent intervals.


SUMMARY: For Peter and Neal, it was an ordinary day, conducting routine FBI business. Until, suddenly, it wasn't.


Chapter 1 – The Man Who Knows All

"Your friend is the man who knows all about you, and still likes you."

— Elbert Hubbard

"Wait, we're not going back to the office?"

They were in the car once more, another (boring) witness interview on their money laundering case mercifully concluded. Neal had assumed they'd be heading back to the FBI, probably for a round of (equally mind-numbing) paperwork before the workday ended. But when he looked up from texting Mozzie, he realized Peter was heading . . . somewhere else.

"Not yet. I forgot to tell you; we got our warrant for the warehouse in the museum case," Peter said, patting his pocket. "It's not far away and we've got a little time; figured we'd take a look around."

"Mm. Who doesn't love a good warehouse? Beats doing paperwork," Neal said, distracted. A moment later, belatedly remembering something Peter had mentioned earlier, he added, "I hope this isn't going to interfere with the something special you've got planned for tonight."

"Nope." Peter glanced over to see what had Neal so absorbed and found him checking his phone. He'd noticed that Neal often did that while Peter drove.

"So you're going to . . . what?" Neal stayed focused on his phone; he had discovered it was a useful refuge from the stress of looking at the road while Peter was driving. Being in the car with Peter meant long periods of boredom interspersed with moments of heart-pounding anxiety. Finding a distraction usually helped.

"I'm taking El out to dinner."

The light they were waiting for changed to green. Peter started to turn, and then stopped abruptly to wait as a man pushing a double stroller completed his slow journey along the crosswalk. He occupied the time by first tapping his fingers on the steering wheel and then putting on his sunglasses. The afternoon sun had come out in force after a gray, threatening-looking morning.

"Can't go wrong with that," Neal said, interest piqued now. This was not the let's go grab something for dinner kind of meal that he knew was more typical for Peter and El (when they didn't feel like eating in). "Where to?"

"Le Bernardin," Peter said, feeling very satisfied with himself. Thinking about his plans for the evening was lifting his spirits; even the unusually-heavy traffic couldn't annoy him today.

"Well, well," Neal said approvingly. "I'm impressed. It's always near the top of the Zagat ratings. For good reason."

Peter nodded.

"Did Elizabeth pick it?"

"No, I did. She doesn't even know yet. I just told her we were going somewhere special and to keep her evening clear."

"Ah. The element of surprise—nice. Ever been there?" Neal would have wagered a large sum that the answer would be no.

"No," Peter answered; Neal couldn't help feeling smug that he'd been right. "Of course, I know all about it, though," Peter added.

I'll bet, Neal thought. Le Bernardin was well known as among the best in Manhattan; plus, Peter was the type to research even his restaurant choice pretty carefully. Especially when he was trying to impress his wife, as was clearly the case here. Neal was going to delicately point out that Le Bernardin was rather . . . pricey, but Peter would already know that; he was nothing if not thorough. Instead Neal remarked, "Don't take this the wrong way, Peter, but it doesn't exactly seem like your kind of place."

Peter switched his gaze away from the street so that he could give Neal a mildly irritated look. "I think I've just been insulted."

"Eyes on the road, please? Hey, I said not to take it the wrong way!" Neal protested quickly. "It's a simple observation about your culinary tastes based on . . . long experience." Long experience of you seeming to prefer hot dogs on the grill to pretty much anything else. "I'm merely making a totally innocent comment."

Peter snorted. "As if anything you do is totally innocent."

"I'll have you know that I resent that." Neal said, looking affronted. "I have my innocent moments."

"Yeah, and occasionally the blind squirrel finds a nut." He glanced over again, just in time to catch Neal rolling his eyes.

A few minutes later, they were close to the edge of the warehouse district, and traffic had thinned considerably. Finally Peter was able to pick up a little speed.

Of course, Neal noticed. When Peter got behind the wheel, Neal tended to notice everything. Even things that, in Peter's opinion, weren't really there. Like recklessness. Like speeding. Like—

"You know, Peter, you might want to slow it down," Neal said, that familiar little edge to his voice that he always got when he complained about Peter's driving. "Because you'll miss out on the opportunity to shell out hundreds of dollars for dinner at Le Bernardin tonight if we're killed in the next five minutes. I would imagine that your dying—and missing dinner—would make Elizabeth awfully angry."

"Hey, it's damned hard to get a reservation at that place; I'd hope she'd go anyway," Peter joked. Neal liked to think of himself as eternally unpredictable, but when it came to his reaction to Peter's driving habits, he was anything but. "And, by the way, your paranoia about my driving is really getting out of hand."

"So is your Juan Montoya impression," Neal shot back.

Peter chuckled. "Now that I think about it, it's almost becoming a phobia," he added, adopting a serious air and arranging his face into a concerned frown.

"A phobia?" Neal repeated, sounding amused. "I do not have phobias."

"Oh, really? Think about it. What is a phobia, but an irrational fear? Now, have I ever had an accident when you were in the car?"

"Well, you've come pretty close—"

"Yes or no, Neal."

"No," Neal admitted grudgingly.

"That's right. And have I ever had a car accident of any kind?" Peter pressed.

"The way you drive?" Neal asked, with just a hint of derision in his voice. "I would imagine you must have."

"The answer, again, is no," Peter said, sounding superior.

"Wow," Neal drawled, elongating the word in a tone of excessive wonderment. "If you're telling the truth, then miracles really do happen."

"If I'm telling the truth." Peter repeated, shaking his head. "As if I'd lie about something like that."

"You're an FBI agent. You could probably . . . cover it up, or something."

"Yes, because I am the master of the cover-up," Peter observed dryly. "You sound like Mozzie. Ask anyone else who's driven with me. Ask Elizabeth."

"Oh, please." Neal waved a dismissive hand. "She's your wife. Of course, she'd back you.'

"Well, yeah, probably," Peter admitted. "Bad example. But the fact remains: I have never had an accident."

"First time for everything," Neal retorted darkly.

Peter ignored that. "Which means that your fear about my driving is an irrational fear. Otherwise known as a phobia. You know," he added solicitously, "there's treatment for phobias, now." His face brightened as he snapped his fingers. "You don't have to live with this. We could try to cure you—get you in to see someone."

"Ha!" Neal scoffed. "How's this: I'll agree to see someone when you agree to see one of those movies they used to show teenagers just learning to drive. You know, the ones filled with twisted cars and mangled corpses?"

Peter laughed, resisting a surprisingly strong—and undeniably juvenile—urge to gun the engine, just a little bit, to provoke his consultant. "FBI agents get driver training from professionals at Quantico. It's called the Tactical and Emergency Vehicle Operations Center, and I passed with flying colors."

"Which could be exactly the problem," Neal countered. "These are the streets of New York, not the course at the FBI Academy. In all the times I've been in the car with you, no one has been chasing us, or shooting at us, or trying to run us off the road. And yet you still drive as if someone is."

"You haven't driven in so long you've probably forgotten how," Peter told him, shaking his head sadly. "As a matter of fact—the last time you drove for any significant amount of time, wasn't the car, you know . . . stolen?"

"First of all, I admit nothing," Neal told him without missing a beat. "Second of all, I would expect an FBI agent to know the difference between joyriding and grand theft auto. In any case, I fail to see how it's relevant. But let's say, hypothetically, that you were right. It is a sad commentary on your driving that even behind the wheel of a stolen car, I'm pretty sure I would still be a better driver than you."

With difficulty, Peter smothered a smile. He was endlessly entertained by the effortless way Neal could not only dodge any accusation thrown at him, but then neatly fling it right back. Peter had done it on purpose, of course; he had to admit, if only to himself, that putting Neal through his paces never got old.

That bit of amusement over with, he backtracked.

"Let's get back to the original subject, Neal. You were taking a very . . . narrow view of my culinary tastes, and I was calling you on it."

Because Neal never enjoyed contemplating his own imminent death—and because he knew Peter would never let him win any argument about his driving—he allowed himself to be diverted. "Come on, Peter. Le Bernardin? They serve at least three different kinds of caviar there. And octopus. And every dish is infused with a . . . bergamot-basil emulsion or a yuzu vinaigrette, or something equally exotic."

"Bergamot and . . . yuzu, did you say?" Peter echoed tentatively.

"See! That's what I mean. And since you were wondering, bergamot and yuzu are both—"

"I wasn't wondering. They're both fruits, grown mostly in Italy and . . . Japan, if I remember correctly. And you might want to give me a little credit for once," Peter finished, shooting a subtle sidelong glance at Neal before returning his gaze to the road, looking inordinately pleased with himself.

Taken aback for once, Neal stared at him. "Touché. You actually studied the ingredients on the menu. How very . . . meticulous of you." Was meticulous really the right word, though? Neal couldn't help wondering whether insane might be more fitting . . . .

"Well, bergamot, I already knew. Yuzu, and some of the others, I did have to look up," Peter admitted. Now he sounded a little self-conscious, as if belatedly realizing that he'd revealed too much.

Neal shook his head in amazement. Just when he thought he had Peter all figured out, the man would prove him wrong. It was a useful reminder, really, that Peter still had the capacity to surprise him. "I guess you don't need any palate education from me, then."

"Oh, I always appreciate your efforts to educate me, Neal."

"Well. Okay, then. Wouldn't want to become completely irrelevant," Neal said, pretending to look relieved.

"Yeah, I guess I'll keep you around," Peter said casually. Neal sent a wry smile Peter's way.

"Look, I know all about the menu there," he continued, unruffled. "Yes, I checked it out. Elizabeth is welcome to the caviar and the octopus, if she wants it. Me, I'll be perfectly content with duck, or lamb, or filet, or snapper. They serve those, too. It's not just off-the-wall stuff for culinary snobs."

"You do have to admit, though," Neal noted, scrutinizing him carefully, "that epicurean feasts aren't really your style."

A shrug was Peter's only response.

"Ah. Not your style. But they are Elizabeth's," Neal said after a little pause, the tiniest hint of admiration in his voice. "Definitely Elizabeth's. That's sweet." He thought for a moment. "And it's not even your anniversary. I'm familiar with the date, as you know."

That remark brought a small smile to Peter's face.

Neal knew the date of Peter and Elizabeth's anniversary like he knew the date of his own birthday. Very early on in their partnership, he and Peter had had another conversation in this very same car, dealing with that very subject. A conversation that had ended rather unpleasantly, after Neal had wondered out loud how Peter could be so clueless about his own wife.

Oh, no, Peter had retorted. You don't get to lecture me on relationships. My wife didn't change her identity and flee the country to get away from me.

It had been obvious to Neal that Peter had regretted that cutting remark about Kate almost as soon as he'd said it—but he had said it.

And it had hurt like hell.

That felt like a lifetime ago. Like he and Peter had been totally different people then, feeling each other out: how far they could probe, how much they could divulge. It was odd, Neal thought, that he should be remembering that moment now. Though it was memorable for one reason: it was the first time Peter had realized how badly he could hurt Neal—if he wanted to. And it had nothing to do with Peter's ever-present ability to lock Neal up; this was all about Peter discovering what could push Neal's emotional buttons and being able to use that knowledge to wound him. Except he didn't want to, because Peter wasn't that kind of person; in fact, he never had been.

That moment in the car had been Peter's unlooked-for discovery that he could hurt Neal. But in the months that followed, Neal had made a discovery of his own: Peter would never use what he'd learned. Not that it had been a discovery, really—it was more of a confirmation. Neal had made it a point over the years to learn more about his pursuer than just mere trivia like the date of his anniversary. No, Neal had studied Peter enough to have a pretty good idea of who he was and exactly what he was capable of. In the week that followed his recapture at Peter's hands in Kate's abandoned apartment, Neal had thought about more than just work-release precedents and tamper-proof electronic monitors. He'd thought—quite a bit—about the man who'd caught him and what it would be like to be under his supervision. If Peter had been some sort of double-dealing, power-hungry bullying martinet (in other words, what Mozzie would call a typical fed), Neal probably wouldn't have suggested their arrangement.

Or maybe that was crap. Maybe he would have done it anyway. Because being out of prison was always better than being in. And maybe the proof—Neal remembered, like it was yesterday—was his conversation with Mozzie at the end of Neal's very first day working with Peter. What was the first thing he'd asked his friend, after not seeing him for years? Neal's first question, his most important question—even before he'd asked about Kate—had been about the anklet.

Can you pick it?

Day One of his new FBI life not even over yet, and Neal was already laying the groundwork for escape.

No, if Neal were truthful with himself, he'd admit that he hadn't exactly planned on this arrangement being anything long-term. Few things in his life ever had been. His FBI deal had been an expedient means to an end: a way to get out of prison, to search for Kate and find her so they could both escape.

Somewhere along the way, that had changed, though. Of course, his dream of escaping with Kate had died when she did. Now, he was honest enough to admit that maybe it had never been realistic, anyway. Maybe it had been more of a fantasy than anything else.

But things had begun to shift even before Kate died. And that was mainly because of Peter. Peter, who knew him better than just about anyone ever had—and, paradoxically, trusted him anyway (not completely, of course; Peter was too smart for that). Peter, who knew how to hurt Neal but never would—at least not intentionally. Peter, who had facets Neal had not imagined, though he thought he'd known the man pretty well.

And if not for Peter at the airstrip, making Neal stop, making him think, Neal might have died along with Kate.

Peter was so conscious of Neal's sensibilities, in fact, that now that Kate was dead, Peter never mentioned her at all. Neal was pretty sure Peter worried that the very sound of her name would send him into some kind of fugue state.

Of course, Peter was wrong about that.

Peter kept his eyes on the road now, an air of diffidence creeping in. "It doesn't have to be our anniversary for us to . . ." his voice trailed off. He cleared his throat before resuming. "I wanted to do something nice for El. After . . . everything that's happened lately, I just want us to spend a little more time together, that's all. Do things that make her happy."

Neal knew that when Peter said after everything that's happened lately, he really meant after Keller. Elizabeth had been shaken by Peter's abduction—something Neal couldn't help but feel a bit guilty about. After all, Keller had only taken Peter as a means to manipulate Neal. And Peter felt guilty, too, that Elizabeth had had to worry about him—and would continue to worry because the slippery bastard had escaped.

Though Peter could also have meant, after the Deckard case, when he'd had to go on the run with a fugitive FBI agent to catch a corrupt marshal (ruining yet another date night with Elizabeth). Or after the Novice case, when, in the course of investigating corporate espionage, Peter had been accidentally poisoned and had spent the night in the hospital.

Yes, it had been a tough few months to be Peter Burke's wife. It was just like him to try to make up for that in whatever way he could. Buying Elizabeth an expensive dinner was conventional, but it was also very . . . Peter. And Peter was right: it would make Elizabeth happy. Not because she was a food snob, either. She enjoyed frou-frou cuisine well enough—and her job demanded that she be an expert on it—but Elizabeth was perfectly content with the pizza and beer that her husband preferred. No, what would make her happy would be knowing how hard Peter had tried to please her. That would mean everything.

Frankly, Neal was still trying to wrap his head around the notion that Peter had not merely read the Le Bernardin menu—oh, no. No, Peter had obsessed over it—to the point of actually analyzing the intricacies of each dish's preparation and poring over obscure foodstuffs on Google before going to eat there. That was really going above and beyond.

And yet, the more Neal thought about it, the more sense it made—albeit in a scary kind of way. Why had he even been surprised? Peter Burke was a man who'd taken the time to create an exhaustive file on his own wife, diligently collecting everything from her EBay bids to her credit card bills to her video rentals, in his quest to determine the perfect anniversary gift. Of course Peter Burke, Mr. Detail Oriented, would prepare for a special evening out with his wife with the same assiduous, single-minded focus he'd use when planning an FBI sting.

Neal couldn't help but wonder whether his comment to Peter during that early conversation was partially to blame for this. He'd asked what made Elizabeth feel alive and hadn't bothered to hide his disbelief when Peter had no answer. That had stung Peter, who'd responded with that biting comment about Kate (the one he'd so clearly regretted as soon as the words were out of his mouth). And presumably that had been the impetus for Peter, confronted with the unpleasant realization that he'd been ignoring his own wife, to redouble his efforts where Elizabeth was concerned.

Which apparently now had led, many months later, to Peter doing everything short of memorizing the menu at one of New York's top restaurants—just because he was that devoted to his wife.

"Researching the dishes at Le Bernardin, Peter? Studying up on yuzu? That's really going the extra mile," Neal teased. "Wait 'til Elizabeth finds out."

Peter's answer was quick. "She doesn't need to know that part."

"Oh, I beg to differ," Neal told him. "She absolutely needs to know that part. Because, come on—that's the best part."

"Now you're mocking me," Peter grumbled.

Neal looked dismayed. "Would I do that?" Peter glared at him until he added, "Okay, I would, but I'm not. Not . . . right now. Because you are just too charming for words."

Peter rolled his eyes.

Neal made a mental note to casually slip this detail into the conversation the next time he saw Elizabeth. Peter being Peter, he probably wouldn't say anything about it in a million years. But somebody ought to tell Elizabeth that her husband was so dedicated, he'd looked up yuzu (and probably fifty other oddball items, as well) just for her.

What was the old saying? It's the little things that count.



A/N Some wonderful reviewers of my last fic, "Break Everything," kindly said they'd be happy to read more of that story which (let's face it) was little more than Peter and Neal sitting around talking. I swear this story will not be that (though you'd never know it by reading this first part), but I am trying to keep the chapters to manageable lengths for the moment. This story *will* be more than just Peter and Neal chatting, I promise.