Summary: Just another Friday evening at the White Collar offices.Spoiler Warning: Up to S02E14 Payback.
Author's Note: I started this awhile back but didn't finish it till now. Fluffy like bunnies. Mostly.
Yet another Friday evening saw Peter Burke and his team working late at the office. But this time, the atmosphere in the White Collar division didn't carry the urgency or fervour that most late nights entailed. After all, they had just wrapped a case, and not just any case, but one that had made the rounds of almost every senior desk in several divisions and all but plagued the New York Field Office for months. And they'd cracked it with a combination of Neal's savvy undercover work, Diana's determined eagle eye and Clinton's technological wizardry. Peter chuckled to himself as he toyed with the inclusion of his gut on that list. They could consider it a true team effort then. Peter had never been prouder of his people.
He looked up from the report he'd been meticulously writing, making sure to highlight each and every person's contributions, and turned his gaze on the last three people remaining in the bullpen with a fond glance. Everyone else had left, but his team had stayed behind to finish up the reports and a comfortable air of camaraderie had settled over the room. He couldn't hear the conversation from inside his office, but it looked like Neal and Diana were engaged in some sort of mock argument while good old Clinton appeared to be biting his lip to stop from laughing and struggling to maintain his composure as he diligently composed his own report of the past week's events. Still, Neal was grinning cheekily as he leaned back deeply in his chair, legs propped up on his desk, tossing that damn rubber-band ball in the air as he continued to tease Diana, who was growing increasingly indignant.
As he watched, Diana evidently had had enough and stalked over to Neal in a couple of strides. With the same lightning reflexes he'd seen her display in the field, she snatched Neal's beloved black fedora off the corner of his desk, placed it firmly on her own head and returned to her seat with a deviously wicked, triumphant smirk aimed straight at the guys across the way. Clinton gave up all pretence of trying to work and threw his head back laughing outright as Neal's chair flung forward and he scrambled to swing his legs off the table to scowl at Diana. Peter felt his own lips curl into a grin as Neal's scowl turned into a pout that had no right to look so endearing on a grown man. In any case, he'd been right all along and he'd even given Neal fair warning. Diana totally would rather be wearing the hat. And she didn't look half bad in it either.
Peter smiled fondly to himself as he recalled their first case together and that conversation at the JFK luggage holding room. They had all come such a very long way since then.
With those thoughts still swirling in his mind, his stomach decided to bring itself to his attention and he looked down at his watch. It wasn't that late, but late enough that only the most longsuffering significant others would still be waiting with dinner on the table. For a moment, he panicked because he hadn't called Elizabeth to say he'd be late, then suddenly remembered that she had left for San Francisco that morning and wouldn't be back till Sunday. Peter was so very glad that her business was really taking off, and heartburstingly proud of Elizabeth's achievements, but that didn't mean he didn't miss her terribly when they had to be apart. Also, and more to the point, he really wasn't feeling like reheating leftovers and didn't think he could find the energy to make dinner for his lonesome either. He looked down at his team again and chuckled. Neal and Diana were now having a face-off, circling Diana's desk like kids playing tag, with Neal's hat still firmly on Diana's head and out of Neal's reach, while Clinton cheered enthusiastically from the sidelines. He shook his head and stood up with a longsuffering, paternal sigh, smoothing out the wrinkles in his shirt and shrugging on the suit jacket over his shoulder holster. The report was mostly done and no one was going to read it till Monday anyway. He flicked the lights off in his office and stood at the railing overlooking the bullpen, trying to appear as severe as possible as he pointedly cleared his throat.
Three sheepish faces turned to look up at him.
The Stern Taskmaster had never really been his style and Peter felt his own face melt into a shit-eating grin once more.
"Come on. Pack up. We're going for dinner. I'm buying."
Cheers and pleasantly surprised faces met his spur-of-the-moment announcement.
"But the reports..." Clinton hesitantly offered.
"Can wait till Monday morning." Peter idly wondered if he should reward his team more often. "Where would you all like to go?"
"Oh, anything would be good, right about now!" Clinton said, as he hurriedly stacked folders and shut down his computer. "I'm starving!"
"I have an idea!" exclaimed Diana. "Let's go to that restaurant in Chinatown. You know. The one that you guys used for the stakeout that time. Neal keeps raving about the dumplings."
"Yeah! I'd be down with Chinese. Those are some good dumplings," Clinton enthusiastically agreed.
They still needed consensus and seeing as Neal had the most discriminating palate, Peter turned to his partner. "So how 'bout it? Dumplings at Mei Shi Lin sound good to you?"
"Sure. I was actually planning to drop by there sometime this week. Until this case took over everything."
"Yup. I brought Moz there to try the dumplings and Mr Tuan laid out such a spread but wouldn't let me pay a cent for it." Neal stuck his hands in his pockets. "So, I've got a little thank you gift for them."
Neal had a funny little look on his face that Peter was learning to interpret from his mental catalogue of Neal-faces as baffled pleasure, like he couldn't understand why people were being genuinely nice to him. He'd seen it on Neal before, when Elizabeth had mothered him the last time he'd caught the nasty flu bug that had made the rounds in the office, and when June had gone out to get them treats from Neal's favourite patisserie after the two of them had been holed up for hours in the apartment working on a case. It perplexed Peter, that Neal seemed to believe that people would only be nice to him if he conned them or actively manipulated them into it somehow, and Peter wondered for the thousandth time what had happened in Neal's young life that he should think that way. But tonight was a night for celebration and those thoughts led down a murky road so he resolutely shoved them away as he watched Neal lean down to take out a small gift bag, all pretty pastel shades and handmade, from the bottom drawer of his filing cabinet.
"So! All good to go?" he asked the room at large.
"Nearly," grinned Diana as she snuck up to stand in front of Neal, raised her hand, and placed Neal's hat back on his head, tilted at a charmingly rakish angle. Neal answered her grin with a blindingly pleased one of his own.
"All's well with the world again!" Neal turned to smirk at Peter, all trace of bewilderment gone. "We can go now!"
The restaurant was obviously doing well, as it was busy even at this late hour. Still, they were welcomed very enthusiastically by Mr Tuan who shook their hands and introduced himself to Diana. He proudly showed them to a special table around the back, reserved only for a select few patrons. He had fragrant jasmine tea brought out, took their orders and bustled back to the kitchen to prepare their meal.
Clinton was telling them a funny story about his great aunt from the last time he'd gone back to see his family when Neal spied Bai, Mr Tuan's delightful little girl, sneaking up around the low wall behind Peter, a finger to her lips. He had to work hard to stifle a grin but chuckled into his tea when two little hands closed around Peter's eyes and a little voice chirped up from behind him, "Guess who?"
"Oh I know who this is!" Peter gamely played along. "It's David Copperfield!"
They all laughed good-naturedly and Bai came round to stand between Peter and Neal's chairs, beaming with excitement at Peter. Her long, black hair swung around her in cute pigtails, finished off with pink ribbons at the ends.
"I have something to show you," she giggled, then she pulled up the trouser leg of her jeans to reveal a pair of frilly, pink and white socks with puppies all over them.
Peter groaned and leaned back in his chair, his big hands covering (the massive grin on) his face as Neal exploded in laughter. Bai ran around the other side of the table to show off her newly acquired hosiery to Clinton and Diana. Clinton shook his head as a grin split his face too and he began explaining the story to Diana, who started snickering like a schoolgirl.
"Your fashion sense is catching, Peter!" Neal gasped out in mock horror.
"And you look real good in orange!"
Neal just laughed harder as Bai came round to give him a hug. "Those socks are so pretty. Now I'm feeling left out!"
"My Baba got them for me! Do you like them?" Bai's mischievous grin was infectious.
"Peter, I think her choice in socks beats yours hands down," Clinton joined in with the teasing.
"Oh guess what you're all getting for Christmas this year," Peter rejoined, smirking at their looks of dismay.
Mr Tuan came out just then with their first course: a steaming tureen of lotus root and sea cucumber soup, the herbs and spices sending up an aroma that certainly whet their appetites.
He placed the pot in the middle of the lazy-susan and tsked at Bai as he ladled out the soup into elaborately decorated blue and white ceramic bowls. He turned to his guests and made to apologise for his daughter bothering them.
"Oh but she's no trouble! We were just discussing Peter's fashion sense," Neal piped up as he and Bai shared a conspiratorial grin.
Mr Tuan smiled diplomatically at Peter, who couldn't help the slight flush of red that bloomed on his cheeks.
"But this little one hasn't finished her chores yet and it will be bedtime soon." He chided his adorable little girl, sending a knowing look across the table that was rewarded by a ducked head and a chastened grin.
"In that case, run along then! Finish it quick and come back before bed," said Neal encouragingly. "I'll have a surprise waiting for you. Bring your doll, ok? The same one you showed me last time."
Bai ran up to her room in the apartment above the restaurant as they tucked into a splendid meal of roasted chicken, three kinds of dumplings, steamed sea bass, stirfried watercress and mushrooms, crispy egg noodles with juicy prawns and scallops, spicy crab legs and barbecued pork. They were very pleasantly sated by time the servers were clearing the plates between mains and the dessert course, when Bai reappeared by Neal's side.
"I'm back!" she happily announced to the table, where she was welcomed with warm smiles. She clutched a doll that looked just like her, with straight bangs, long black hair and warm dark eyes. "Mei says hi too!" she held out the doll for everyone to see.
"That's such a pretty name for such a pretty doll," cooed Diana. "She looks just like you."
Bai ducked her head shyly at the compliment. "I called her Mei, because it means "little sister" and I wanted a sister. And mei also means "beautiful" and so I have a beautiful little sister."
It was enough to melt anyone's heart. There had only ever been a few times that Peter regretted not having children of his own, and this was quite possibly one of them. He watched as Neal held out his hand to Bai and she went to him. He lifted her to sit on his lap with such gentle affection that Peter felt a lump grow in his throat.
"So have you been a good girl and did you finish all your chores?" Neal smiled down at her.
"Uh huh!" she nodded her little head vigorously. "I watered the plants and practiced piano and tidied up all my toys!" she reported with pride.
"Then good little girls get presents!" Neal's smile grew wider. He leant down to pick up the pastel-coloured gift bag he'd brought with him from the office and laid it on the table in front of the excited child.
"Yes. It's just for you," Neal petted her soft braids. "Go on, open it!"
She smiled up at him, placed her doll gently on the table beside her and reached into the bag, taking out the layers of tissue paper to find a pale green, handmade paper box wrapped in silver ribbons with pressed flowers decorating the lid. She looked back up at Neal and he nodded. With thrilled little fingers she pulled apart the bow and lifted off the lid. She sifted through the layers of delicate tissue wrappings and her bright, shining almond-shaped eyes widened in delight when they revealed a miniature daxiushan gown made from hand-embroidered silks in cream and pale green the same shade as the box. It was sized perfectly for the doll that lay next to her on the table. The collars and long, wide sleeves were embroidered with blue and yellow Chinese roses encircling the elaborate cuffs and there was a matching sash that knotted over the silken bodice and cascaded down in the front. The openings were held with delicate cream-coloured ribbons and miniature little buttons that did up at the sides. There was an accompanying beaded headdress that sparkled with tiny pearls and long tassels of palest green. In a separate box lay the tiniest stuffed toy rabbit with black Swarovski crystals for eyes and a pink one for a little nose.
The child sat speechless with wonder as she ran a trembling finger over the fragile silks and ribbons.
"Did I get it right? Do you like it?" Neal bit his lip, uncharacteristically insecure, uncertain whether his gift had been well received.
But he needn't have worried. Peter, Diana and Clinton watched as Bai realised she was being spoken to and turned in her seat to fling her little arms around Neal with a squeal of delight, her pure joy radiant and obvious for all to see.
Peter felt profoundly touched by Neal's exquisite, thoughtful gift.
Bai pulled away from Neal's embrace. "It's Chang'Er, isn't it? It's the princess!" she exclaimed in astonishment.
"Yes," Neal nodded. "Just like you told me in the story. Did I get it right?"
"It's...it's perfect. I'm going to have the most beautiful Mei Mei in all the world!" She flung her little arms around Neal to hug him once more before she turned to gaze at her gift again.
She lifted the delicate material out of its wrappings, showing it off to Peter, Diana and Clinton, who were all smiles of admiration and suitably amazed at the details in the tiny dress.
"Oh my god Neal, where did you get this!" exclaimed Clinton. "If I could get my nieces Barbie costumes like that, I'd be the most popular uncle there ever was!"
But Neal just blushed a becoming shade of pink as Diana put two and two together.
"He didn't buy the dress. You made it, didn't you Neal?"
Peter didn't think he could be surprised anymore by what Neal accomplished when he set his mind to it. Doll-tailoring was no exception, he thought fondly as Diana helped Bai undress her doll and put on the new gown. Of course, it fit perfectly.
"It was something to pass the time," Neal demurred. "And I had help! June gave me the beads and pearls from an old evening gown she found in storage."
They did up the last tiny little buttons and laces and sat the doll up to be admired by all. Peter thought it truly was a work of art. Mr Tuan came out of the kitchen shortly after bearing a tray laden with all kinds of desserts. There was mango pudding, custard tarts, almond jellies and red bean song gao cake dusted generously with icing sugar. He caught sight of the doll dressed in the new finery and was very moved by the gesture and effusive in his thanks. Neal assured him that the pleasure was all his.
Later as he slid into the driver's seat of the Taurus to take Neal home, Peter couldn't help but think back to that wonderful, tender moment as they were leaving the restaurant, after they had all expressed their great appreciation for the amazing meal and said their farewells, when Neal knelt down to let Bai hug him one last time and whisper a sweet "thank you" into his ear. It was a comfortable silence that descended in the car as they pulled out of the parking lot.
"Who is Chang'Er?" Peter wondered aloud after they had gone a few blocks.
Neal chuckled. "The last time I was here, Bai charmed the socks off of Moz. He was distinctly impressed that she stole your sock off your very foot without waking you."
Peter heaved a big sigh, and a half-resigned grin settled over his features as he sent a mock glare in the direction of the passenger seat. That story was never going to be lived down.
"Anyway, it was during the Mid-Autumn festival and we went out to see the lights. While Moz was fussing over her paper lantern, Bai told me the story of Chang'Er." Neal leaned back against the head rest as he recalled the legend that Bai had narrated.
"She was a beautiful girl who caught the eye of a young archer from a nearby village. One day, ten suns rose in the sky instead of one and the earth became scorched from the heat. Houyi, the archer, saved the day by shooting down nine of the suns and people were so grateful they made him king. He promptly sought his sweetheart and soon after, he and Chang'Er were married. But Houyi grew into a greedy, despotic tyrant and began searching for the elixir of immortality that would enable him to rule forever. The elixir was found and Chang'Er, despairing for the fate of her people, drank it in secret so that they might one day be free of Houyi's rule.
Houyi was furious when he discovered what she had done and chased her with his bow and arrows. She threw herself out the window and floated up to the moon to live forever, with a little white rabbit as her only companion. People remember her at mid-autumn by making special mooncakes and lighting lanterns in her honour."
"Well, that's an interesting tale," Peter mused.
"Bai said it was her favourite mid-autumn festival story. There are many versions of the legend actually, but we decided we liked that one best." Neal paused in thought. "It was kinda fun to walk around Chinatown with her and see all the kids with their bright, colourful lanterns in all kinds of shapes. We had a great time. And Mr Tuan's mother makes these awesome lotus seed mooncakes too!"
Peter looked over at Neal, drinking in his open, genuine expression as he relaxed in recollection of the happy memory. Peter wrestled with himself to find the right words.
"That ...that was a wonderful thing you did."
"What? Escort a little girl around Chinatown to see the lanterns?"
"No, well , that too. You made that little girl so happy tonight. And before that, you saved her father and her neighbourhood from the predations of a crime syndicate. You ever think about that?"
Peter desperately wanted Neal to know that he could make, and had made, a positive impact on many people during these past few years with the FBI. In his mind, all he saw was this vast amount of potential for good in Neal, but as with every time his thoughts took this turn, the same knot of tension would coil in his chest; his great fear would resurface that if he didn't do enough, it would all go to waste after Neal's time with him was done.
And yet, Neal just shrugged and made a noncommittal noise of agreement. He was looking out the window, pensive. It had started to rain earlier and the lights of the oncoming cars flared in the drops of water on the glass. Peter would never know that at that moment, Neal was thinking of Chang'Er, forever out of reach on the moon, and of his conversation with Moz at Madison Square Park, and the kids he would never have running around the playground by the fountain. Peter could only puzzle over glimpses of Neal's inner thoughts as they flashed unguarded across his features, cheeks pale and eyes bright in the shadows. He knew it was rare enough to be afforded even that. They pulled up at a traffic light and Peter sighed inwardly as Neal put his conman face back on and turned to look at Peter with Mischief written all over him.
"The outfit is still missing something though."
"I was going to knit itty bitty little doggie socks to match." Neal held his thumb and forefinger a centimetre apart, grinning like a maniac.
"Oh that one is never going to die is it?"
"Nope. It's much too good to ever go away."
"You sew. You sew doll clothes!" Peter exclaimed.
"Oh, life changing. Don't give up your day job just yet."
Neal just grinned happily and Peter couldn't help but smile too. Neal would never know just how much he meant that last sentence.
The next Monday morning saw the appearance of a small brown paper bag on Neal's desk. In it was a pair of soft cotton trouser socks, bright red and emblazoned all over with white and black Scottie dogs in tartan capes and sou'westers.
A few Mondays after that one, an envelope arrived on the 21st floor of the FBI building addressed to one "Mister Neal Caffrey" spelled out in a childish scrawl with blue crayon. It contained a letter and a photograph of Bai smiling a big, wide smile and wearing a royal blue calf-length qipao and frilly pink and white socks with puppies on them. She was holding her beloved doll in its exquisite new gown and standing at the front of a brightly lit classroom.
"Dearest Mister Neal,
I put Mei in the beutifull dress you made for me and I brought her to School for show-and-tell. I told the whole story of Chang'Er the princess and how she livs on the moon and evryone agrese that Mei is the most prettiest doll in the whole wide world. I hope you will come visit us again soon. Mei says Thank You for her new dress!
Baba (4th sound) – Daddy
Mei (4) – Little sister
Mei (3) – Beautiful
Da (4) xiu(4) shan(1) – Traditional Chinese royal dress from the Tang Dynasty
Song (1)gao (1) – Shanghainese red bean cake
Qi (2) pao(2) – Modern Chinese dress
Xie Xie (4) – Thank you