Summary: All he wanted was a little peppermint schnapps. He got a little bit more than he asked for.

A/N: Hello! This is my first attempt at a White Collar fic that I started last November and it turned out a little bit bigger than I was expecting. Not only that, but the amazing enigma called Neal Caffrey was something that my poor brain could not compute so I had to summon a savior of a woman, the most amazing beta reader, Kiki Cabou! She deserves so much credit for making sure this story saw the light of day. Also, wanted to mention just how much my friends, especially jxnrs for listening to my mini rants and ravings about this story, and using them as a sounding board and guinea pigs. :)

Disclaimer: If I owned White Collar, I would make sure it played 24 episode seasons. *lightbulb goes off* I'd also own Neal. Which means, I could meet Matt Bomer. And that… hasn't happened yet. So… there ya go. Please don't sue; I don't think you want the lint that is in my wallet.

Spoilers: This takes place early season two.

Ratings: K+ for a few choice words along the way. References of violence. This is not a romance fic, there is no sex, slash, or otherwise. This is simply a borrowing of characters for an episode, and I will try to return them in one piece. :)

The sun had set two hours ago, and sheets of icy rain had driven every sensible living thing indoors. Bundled up against nature's fury and finally on his way home after a day of mind-numbing paperwork at the FBI, Neal ducked into a little bar just as the wind got really bad. The green neon sign said Allegretto, and the ambiance had promise, so he looked around. The place was decently full but hardly crowded, which meant he could kill an hour people-watching, give things a chance to ease up outside, and head for June's. He slipped out of his overcoat and neatly folded it over a corner chair to stake his claim. For good measure, he set his fedora on the table. The drinks menu was a paper sheet pinned down under the glass tabletop, and it was hard to read in the dim light, so he glanced over at the bar, checking to see if they had a decent keep. A woman in a black apron was on duty, drying a cleaned glass as she scanned the crowd. Plunking it down on the counter, she grabbed a bottle of some micro-brew, popped the top and gracefully poured out a glassful of something amber-colored with a nice, thick head on it. Neal was impressed. It wasn't just the way she poured; it was the way she sauntered around behind the bar with that easy swing of her generous hips, like she knew her place, and this was it. She wasn't just some kid working her way through college. He wondered how long she'd been at this.

Attention caught and decision made, Neal strolled over to the marbled countertop to order a drink. He studied the woman as he approached. Her hair was pulled partway up, but the look was feminine enough to get the guys to tip well. Her white shirt was pressed military-style, not a wrinkle other than the wear of the night. His blue eyes scanned downward. Slacks, no skirt. With most girl tenders he got free drinks, no problem. Tonight, he'd probably pay full price.

"Evening," he said with a charming smile, his voice light.

"Hello," she responded. Her smile stopped just short of her steel gray eyes. "What can I do for you tonight?"

"Kinda need something to warm me up. Chilly out there." He rubbed his hands together as he watched her gaze flick outside before back at him.

She considered him for a moment. "Hot chocolate with peppermint schnapps should do the trick," she said. "I put chocolate shavings on the whipped cream. It's my signature drink in the winter. No fancy name, but it takes the chill out." The arch in her back eased slightly, the years of experience in customer service coming to the fore.

"Sounds delightful," Neal agreed. "Could you spare a little extra schnapps? Long day at the office." He sat down at the bar.

"Of course." She turned around and started to steam some milk. Neal glanced around the restaurant. One woman sat alone in the window, a few seats down from his claimed table, all wrapped up in her coat despite the warmth of the room. She kept checking her watch and was looking increasingly unhappy.

"Stood up," the bartender said.

Neal whipped around to look at her. "Scuse me?"

"Stood up. Her name's Angela, she's a regular, and she's been stood up. And as for you, mister, what kind of office job requires their employees to wear an ankle monitor?" There it was – a glimmer of a smile in those light-catching gray eyes.

"One where they try to keep me honest." He answered without really answering, and gauged her reaction. She seemed like the kind of girl who liked answers. "Aren't you a little young to be so good at this? You've gotta have at least five years under your belt, but you barely look over 23."

She cocked an eyebrow as she flicked a dollop of whipped cream onto his cocoa and added the shavings she'd promised. "I'm 26, but you're right, I have five years. I've been working here since I was 21. My uncle owns the place; he offered me a job. I liked the pay, I liked the people, and here I am." Her gaze bored into him without apology. She oozed confidence, not the self built charisma of a con artist, but the confidence of a woman who knew exactly what she wanted out of life.

"You still in school, then?" he asked as he took a sip of the warm liquid, noting the perfect balance of the flavors.

"No, I dropped out of college. It wasn't for me." The arch in her back was up again.

"Hey, sorry," Neal backpedaled. "I didn't mean to pry."

"Don't worry about it." She turned away from him, cleaning up the couple dishes she had dirtied.

Trying to restart the conversation, he looked back over at the few patrons. "Are any of them regulars?" he raised his eyebrows questioningly. "Besides Angela?"

"Most of them." She answered, a lock of reddish hair slipping from her clip and falling into her face. Neal resisted the urge to point it out, or worse, reach across the bar and push it behind her ear. In all fairness, she was attractive, and she probably wouldn't want her hair anywhere near the drinks she was serving. All right, fine, she was ... pretty. There. He'd thought it. Milky Irish skin, speckled with fading freckles - summer souvenirs. She probably had a fiery temper to match that ruddy complexion, and her posture was one of proper upbringing. Just as he was trying to parse together where she might be from, his phone buzzed in his pocket.

"Excuse me." He got up from the stool, and walked towards the bathroom. "Hey, Peter."

"Hey, I'm just making sure you got home OK. It's nasty out there."

Neal was amused. "Uh huh. Did El make you call?"

Peter's voice got that hoarse sound when he tried to lie. "No. Why would she?"

"Because you worry, but you don't call."

Peter sighed on the other end, clearly throwing in the towel, and Neal smirked. "Alright, yes, she's a little worried. She wanted to make sure you have enough food and warm clothes. This ice storm is supposed to last awhile." He covered the mike, but Neal still heard him. "Yes, El, don't worry, I'm picking him up for work tomorrow. He's not going to walk." He got back on the mike and finished, "Anyway, Neal, bright and early tomorrow. Be ready."

"Always."

There was a click as the line went dead and Neal headed back out to the bar. Two guys were sitting at his place, even though there was plenty of room, and his cup had been moved over to the side. He covered his annoyance smoothly, as usual, and slid onto a cold stool.

"Hey, excuse me, miss. I don't think I got your name," he said as he finished the last bit of his drink.

She just smiled at him. "Care for another?" She was clearly distracted by waiting on the two men, and Neal sneaked a glance at them. They had menus in their hands, and seemed interested in the appetizers.

"Nah. I gotta stay awake until I get home, and you probably want to close up shop sometime tonight. What's the damage?"

"It's on the house. Call it the new customer special." She smiled at him, a real smile this time, and tucked her hair behind her ear.

He pulled a ten out of his wallet anyway. "Here's to good work. See you another night."

"See you," she said quietly, and her steel-colored eyes were shuttered.

Warm from the cocoa and pleasantly fizzy from the schnapps, Neal slid off the stool and put on his pea coat, tugging the collar closer to his neck and carefully winding his wool scarf. He nodded at her one last time, and she nodded back stiffly. He secured his fedora, pulled on his leather gloves, left the restaurant and stepped out into the icy night to hail a cab. It had stopped raining, but it was still ice cold as he scanned the street for a taxi, and even through the pleasant warmth coursing through his veins, he couldn't shake the bizarre feeling that leaving the restaurant right now was the wrong thing to do. Neal had learned to never doubt his gut, but he ignored the faint feeling until he reached June's, when the nagging, vaporous fear suddenly condensed into something very cold and very real in his stomach.

Just as he was about to use his key and let himself in, he realized what he'd missed, and what was making him nervous. The bartender had seemed stiff when he left. Unusual, given that she was starting to open up around him. Those two men had come in and taken his seat, which, taken by itself was just rude, but paired with the bulge he'd seen in one of their pockets ... something was up. Something was very wrong, and he had to get back there. His taxi was starting to peel away, but he flagged it down before it got very far, and to the slight amusement of the driver, he ordered to be taken back to Allegretto.

Peter sat on the couch, wrapped in his wife's arms, watching the fire crackle and pop away the cold, long day at the office. Paperwork was never fun, and he seemed to have more of it these days, especially since Caffrey had started partnering with him.

"What's bugging you?" Elizabeth said.

"Nothing. Just tired."

"That's new. Neal's not skirting danger for once?"

"No. I guess that's what has me worried. But don't you worry, I'm going to accept this peace and quiet as a reprieve." He kissed her head, and then yelped as his phone went off loudly in his pocket. Satchmo started barking as El leaned back. "It's Neal. Hello? Satchmo, shush."

The voice on the other end was breathless and scared. "Peter, you gotta come. There's so much blood."

Peter's heart leaped into his throat, but he kept calm. "Where are you?"

"I'm..." There was a crackle on the other end. "I'm at the ... damn." Neal's voice was shaking.

Peter hadn't heard him this upset since Kate. "Never mind. I'll track your anklet."

"I'm calling 911. Get over here as fast as you can."

The line went dead, and Peter shot up from the couch. "El, I gotta go. Something's happened to Neal. Where's the computer?"

"Over on the dining table. What happened?"

"I don't know," Peter answered as he opened his trusty laptop and moved the mouse around to wake it up. He double clicked on one of the desktop shortcuts and immediately a map came up. He saw Neal's little flashing light. "All right. I don't think this involved Bureau business, but..."

"Lock the doors. I know." She smiled tightly. "Bundle up tight and be careful on the road, okay? It's slippery out there."

Peter pulled up to the scene about fifteen minutes later. Red flashing lights from a few emergency vehicles lit up the area as he scanned for Neal. He finally spotted his CI attempting to climb into the back of an ambulance.

"Neal."

The young man spun around. "Peter! Thank God you're here. I can't..." Peter had only seen this man without his mask in place a few times. Usually, the word "Kate" got it off, but it seemed something else was in play right now.

"What happened?"

"I gotta ride with her. She's…"

"We'll follow. I've got sirens. Come on, I need a debriefing right now." He didn't mean to snap so hard, but it got Neal's attention. "Get in the car. Let's go." Neal climbed in obediently.

Peter hit the sirens and they followed the ambulance as it sped through the streets.

"I didn't do anything. Illegal that is," Neal said after about a minute of silence. "I was freezing and I stopped for a hot drink to warm up." His mask had reengaged. "I went up to the bar to order and I chatted a little bit with the bartender, because she was nice, and then you called, so I stepped away. When I came back, there were these two guys sitting there. One of them had a bulge in his pocket, but I thought it was a scarf. I left, but something kept nagging at me, so I took a taxi and came back. As I was walking up the street, I saw the two guys drag the bartender into an alley. She kicked one of them in the shin, and the other pulled a gun out and shot her a couple times point blank in the chest. They both ran, and I called you and 911."

"Ok, so this has nothing to do with Kate?"

Neal didn't even have the energy to get angry at Peter's assumption. He just shook his head. "No. I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Peter believed the kid; he was too shook up to lie. At least, Peter hoped that was the case. He pulled into the hospital parking lot; in the course of listening to Neal and piecing together the situation, they'd fallen well behind the ambulance. Neal bolted from the car and ran in. Peter let him go and got out at a more sedate pace to follow him into the ER. He knew at least some of this behavior was coming from guilt over Kate's death ... he just didn't know what to do about it. Following Neal, he walked up to the triage nurse, a middle-aged woman more interested in her computer screen than the two people in front of her.

Peter got her attention. "Excuse me. We're here about the GSW that just arrived. I'm Special Agent Peter Burke with the FBI."

She looked over at the badge, then back at him. "You go right on in sir, but Twitchy here stays in the waiting room."

"Alright," Peter agreed calmly, and then turned to speak to Neal, who had apparently overheard the nurse's description of him. He wasn't pleased, if the determined stare and clenched jaw were any indication, and he opened his mouth to protest. Peter cut him off at the pass. "No. Stay here, and let me find some stuff out. You can't see her anyway, not until she's out of surgery."

His answer was nothing more than a stare from the young con man. Shaking his head, he chided Neal, "You can't have your way all the time."

"But…"

"No." He held a finger up. "Forget it. Stay here. I'll be back with news as soon as I have some. Meantime, have a seat and read a magazine." Peter turned and went for the ER doors. The nurse buzzed him in and he left a very distraught Neal behind.

A/N: this will be posted every other day as I have some last couple edits to do on this story. I will mention that is not a hard fast rule, and that reviews do spawn excitement for the nervous author sitting here. Thank you for reading!