Neal was bored, terribly bored. He didn’t know why Peter was even bothering with this briefing. The case wasn’t even that exciting. It was your run-of-the-mill mortgage fraud and Neal had solved it twenty minutes ago at the start of this meeting. But seeing that Peter enjoyed these little conferences, he let him go ahead and have his fun. He was now starting to regret that decision.
Neal doodled on a napkin he had obtained along with his coffee. He mindlessly let his pen do what it wanted, zoning out most of what Peter was saying. Over time, the stray marks formed an image that suspiciously looked a lot like Peter, if Peter was wearing a cowboy hat and pointing a disappointing finger at someone off screen. He was also sporting that disgustingly hilarious mustache that Neal loved to bring up every five minutes to his chagrin. Neal snorted at the caricature. Something was missing from the drawing, though.
He added ropes of smoke rising from his ears which only enhanced his livid expression. Neal couldn’t help letting out another chuckle. Unfortunately, his mirth did not go unnoticed.
“Care to share with the class what you find so funny, Neal?” Peter eyed him, eyebrow raised.
Neal cleared his throat, suddenly aware of all eyes on him. “Uh, nothing, Peter.”
“Because if there was something else you’d rather be doing--”
“Actually,” said Neal, rising from his seat, “if you don’t mind me interrupting, I’ve solved the case.”
Peter balked. “How?”
Neal grinned cheekily. “Elementary, my dear Peter.”
The other agents choked on their laughter as Peter gave him his famous “you’re up to something” look. After a few seconds of an uninterrupted staring contest, Peter acquiesced, sighing and gesturing with his hand for Neal to take over.
“Wow us with your prowess,” Peter grumbled, taking a seat.
Neal ran a hand through his hair. “Gladly.”
“I appreciate that you managed to keep your doodling contained on a napkin this time, instead of a case report,” Peter quipped, catching sight of Neal’s drawing.
“Oh, come on, you know you enjoy my doodles,” Neal teased. “They add pizzazz.”
“Neal, important documents do not need pizzazz,” he scolded, tapping Neal’s head with a folder and conveniently messing up his hair.
What Peter didn’t say was that he rather enjoyed the satiric commentary accompanied with spot on caricatures of the offenders. He got a big kick out of the messy sketches and scribbled notes in the margins. Of course, the higher ups would not appreciate their paperwork not being taken seriously, so he usually edited them out. But sometimes, he made copies of the ones he found particularly humorous and kept them in the bottom of his desk drawer. However, Neal didn’t need to know this as it would only inflate his ego even more than it already was.
Neal huffed, fixing his hair. “You’re such a killjoy.”
Peter smirked. “Well at least I’m not an art snob like you.”
Peter exited the boardroom with an offended consultant in tow.
Peter bounded up the stairs to Neal’s apartment two steps at a time. They had made a breakthrough in the case and he was eager to share the news. He knocked on the door and when no one answered, he entered the room, calling out for his CI.
“I’ll be out in a minute!” came a call from the bathroom.
Peter checked the time on his watch. OK, maybe he was a bit earlier than expected, but he had been really excited. While he waited, he scanned the room for any suspicious activity. He didn’t really suspect Neal was up to something; in fact, he had been on his best behavior lately. It was more out of habit than anything else.
Seeing the easel set up in the center of the room, Peter approached, expecting to find a forged Rembrandt in progress. Instead, he was met with an impressionistic painting of what looked like a lighthouse at dawn. It was unfinished, the sketch lines underneath the thin washes of color still showing through. He could see the area Neal had been working on as it was more detailed than the rest. His brushstrokes were clearly seen in the drying paint, a criss-cross pattern from blending where the sky and the sea met. It almost seemed like he left it rough on purpose, something he rarely did when working on forgeries. Those were made with precision and steady hands, stark contrast to the seemingly haphazard strokes of the painting before him. There was something beautifully organic in the tiny imperfections that even Peter, someone who sometimes failed to see the appeal in art, could see.
Peter shook his head in disbelief. Not for the first time, he wondered how someone with so much talent could use their skills to con people out of their money and possessions. Maybe in a different life Neal could have been someone, some famous artist with his art hung in galleries across the world, art that was of his own originality and taste that spoke of the incredible mind that painted it, instead of illegal imitations. He supposed there was a little bit of Caffrey flair in each of the renditions he had done over the years, but Peter was interested in something one hundred percent Neal Caffrey, something authentic and unique, something the world had yet to see. Perhaps it wasn’t too late for Neal to change careers. With his skills, he could make it as an artist; Peter was sure of it. He just had to be willing to take that leap.
Peter turned and caught sight of a sketchbook laying open on the dining table. He glanced around, making sure he was alone, before peering at the displayed pages. The spread was filled with concepts and thumbnails of a various nature. Peter spotted one that matched the painting Neal was currently working on. Actually, he noticed several, each with a different color scheme, the lighthouse at different times of the day. One thumbnail was circled, clearly the one he had chosen to go with. Peter was intrigued by this insight into Neal’s thought process. He wondered what made him choose one composition over the other, what colors went where, and what medium to use. He bet Elizabeth would know, being an art connoisseur herself. To him it was like some foreign language, some code he couldn’t decipher.
He was so engrossed in what he was looking at that he missed the approaching footsteps.
“Don’t you know it’s bad manners to look at an artist’s sketchbook?”
Peter startled and turned around to face a freshly washed Neal. He looked younger standing there, hair tousled from drying with a towel, dressed in his undershirt and sweats.
“You should know better than to leave stuff open around an FBI agent,” Peter shot back with a smirk.
“Didn’t know you were coming.” Neal reached for a mug. “Coffee?”
“Don’t mind if I do.”
Peter sat down at the table, still transfixed by what he had seen. He barely noticed when Neal set his coffee before him.
“Neal, this is amazing.” Peter gestured to the painting behind him.
Neal snorted. “It’s not even finished.”
“Still! The fact that you can do that...” Peter shook his head. “That’s something special.”
Neal rolled his mug between his hands, expression indecipherable. Most people complimented him on how well he could replicate an artist’s style, their way of setting down the paint and mixing the colors around to form something meaningful. He supposed that’s what clients in his line of work were looking for; it’s what he did best. Nobody appreciated what he was capable of on his own with nothing to copy or forge. They only looked at what they could gain from him.
“Thanks, Peter,” he said, softly and honestly.
Peter tilted his head, peering at him. He was aware that he had stumbled upon something huge, something raw and real. But he decided to put a pin in that and focus on the task at hand.
“So, about our case...”
Neal was up to something. Oh nothing nefarious, Peter was sure. They were past that now. But he was definitely planning something, Peter just didn’t know what. And it was driving him crazy. For weeks now, Neal had been acting shifty. He kept glancing up at Peter from the bull pin and scribbling something down on a piece of paper. He’d volunteer to sit in the van for hours on a stakeout with Peter, something he usually whined about, all the while doodling in his pocket sketchbook. And when he’d come over for dinner, Peter found him inspecting family photos on the wall and taking photos of Satchmo.
It was all very suspicious; and Peter was going to get to the bottom of this.
“Honey, maybe it’s not what you think.” Elizabeth said over a pot of coffee. “It could be something innocent.”
Peter shook his head. “This is Neal we’re talking about. He’s always got something up his sleeve. I just don’t want to get caught up in one of his shenanigans.”
“Oh, please, don’t act like you’re not enjoying this.”
“Enjoying what?” Peter’s face wrinkled in confusion.
El passed by, leaning close to his ear. “The chase.”
Neal was nervous. Extremely nervous, and he didn’t know why. He’d worked under pressure before, had stayed up to the early hours of the morning to finish his forgeries, had worked in less suitable conditions with unsavory people. But this was different. This was important in the way his con artistry wasn’t. This was real. He was putting himself out there for people—two very special people—to see. There was something vulnerable and nerve whacking about this; and it added a shake to his hands.
He wiped sweat off his brow and forced himself to take a deep breath. He reminded himself this was for a good cause. It wasn’t for just anyone; it was for Peter and Elizabeth. And that’s exactly why he had to get it right, why it had to be perfect. Their opinions mattered the most to him. He knew logically they would love it,
as the doting parents they were. And yet, he couldn’t shake this anxious feeling in his gut. But he had to if he was going to have a shot at finishing this.
A knock on the door startled him out of his concentration. He sighed, wondering if it was Mozzie. He had said he would be unavailable for a few weeks, not wanting any unnecessary distractions. He crossed the room to open the door and was surprised to find Peter on the other side.
Uh oh. This wasn’t good.
Neal put on his best winning smile, the one that made most women swoon. “Peter, what brings you here to my humble abode at….eight o’clock at night?”
“Oh well, I was in the neighborhood and thought I’d stop by for a beer,” Peter said, craning his neck to try to catch a glimpse of the room behind Neal. If he was trying to be subtle, he was failing.
Neal inwardly groaned. He needed to get rid of Peter immediately. He couldn't risk him seeing his unfinished project. The whole surprise would be ruined. And if Neal was going to be honest with himself, he was secretly worried that Peter would find the whole thing cheesy and embarrassing and laugh at him. Neal knew Peter would never do that but it was still a reasonable possibility, in his mind at least.
“I’m actually kind of in the middle of something.” Neal opted for honesty. It worked best with Peter.
“Oh? Nothing illegal I hope,” Peter teased.
Neal rolled his eyes. “Come on, Peter. Are you still making that joke? Because it’s getting kind of stale.”
Peter chuckled. “Alright, alright. Fine. I’ll leave you be. Don’t you stay up too late though. I need you up and running first thing in the morning.”
“I won’t, Dad.” That’ll throw him off his rhythm thought Neal.
Sure enough, Peter visibly blushed and scratched the back of his neck. “Goodnight, Neal.”
Neal closed the door behind him and exhaled sharply. That was too close. Peter was more suspicious than he thought. He’d have to be more careful from now on.
Today was the day. Neal spent most of the morning jittery with nerves. All of his hard work, weeks of spending whatever free time he had at his easel painting until his hands cramped, all of it led to this moment. He just barely added the finishing touches the night before, just in time before Peter and Elizabeth went on their vacation, one that he had suggested to Peter as an anniversary getaway. He knew that they needed time together after everything that had happened, time alone and away from him.
That brought a pang to his chest. Things were no longer rocky between him and Peter like they had been before, but still Neal blamed himself for breaking them and putting a strain on Peter’s marriage. He vowed to never betray Peter’s trust like that again, never wanting to see that look of hurt and disappointment on his face, never wanting to feel that hollowness inside from when Peter had tried to separate all ties with him. Peter had profusely apologized on multiple occasions and Neal had forgiven him and just like that they were fine again. However, the bitter sting of rejection clung to Neal like a bad habit. If having a couple weeks off away from him kept their relationship healthy and strong than so be it. Although, he would miss him terribly. But he had Mozzie to keep him company, so he wasn’t that depressed. Really.
Steeling himself, he entered Peter’s office.
“Hey, Peter? I was wondering if I could stop by your place before you guys leave tomorrow. I know you still have some packing to do, but I promise it’ll only take a minute.”
Peter frowned, thoughtfully. Neal looked more fidgety than usual, and that was saying something considering how the younger man could not stay still to save his life. Well, except for pulling off the occasional con that is.
“Sure, that’ll be fine.”
“Great! See you then.”
He was halfway out the door when Peter called him back.
Neal flashed him that dazzling grin of his. “Never better.”
Peter almost believed it. Almost.
Neal arrived at the Burkes’ house carrying a bulky item under wraps. He struggled to hold it while knocking on the door.
“Neal! Come on in.” El opened the door wide for him, eyebrow raised slightly at his package. “Do you need help with that?”
“No thanks, I got it.” Neal shuffled forward into the living room, sidestepping an excited Satchmo.
Peter bounded down the stairs a minute later. “What’s all this?”
Neal rocked on his heels, expelling nervous energy. “A gift.”
“A gift?” Peter and El shared a look.
“For your anniversary.”
Neal smiled sheepishly. Now that he was here in front of them, he realized how grand his present seemed. He hoped it wasn’t too much, but he just had to show his appreciation for the couple that had come into his life and had given him a home and a family, something he hadn’t experienced in a long time. They had saved him, and he could never pay them back for their kindness. This was the best he could do.
“Well, open it!” Neal bounced on his feet, looking like a child on Christmas Day. You’d think he was getting a present, not the other way around.
Peter supported the package while El carefully pulled away the wrapping. Neal held his breath in anticipation.
“Oh, Neal,” was the first thing El said, her hand pressed to her chest.
Peter whistled low and long. “Well I’ll be...”
It was a family portrait, not one of those stiff ones you’d see in museums, but more lively and vibrant. Peter and Elizabeth were sitting casually on their couch. Peter was smirking like he had just said something clever, one hand resting on his wife’s knee, the other placed on a happy Satchmo. Elizabeth herself had her legs thrown over Peter’s lap, curling against him and gazing adoringly at her husband. Their likenesses were uncanny, their expressions real and soft. The lighting fit the peaceful mood, sunlight spilling in through the window behind them, illuminating them in a soft glow. Dust motes in the air added a nice touch of realism and magic to the painting, bringing it all together.
Neal wrung his hands. “...Do you like it?”
“Do I like it?” Elizabeth asked incredulously. “Neal, I love it!” She ran forward to give him a hug.
“Neal, this is spectacular! It must have taken you weeks to do this. When did you find the time?” Peter prompted, his eyes still glued to the painting.
“Any chance I got,” he shrugged. El hadn’t let go and seemed intent on staying there for the foreseeable future.
Peter looked up then, realization dawning on him. “So that’s what you were up to that night! I thought you had a girl over.”
Neal flushed, a certain redhead coming to mind. “No, no girl, I’m afraid.”
“You sly dog, you kept this hidden from me this whole time?”
“Well, I couldn’t exactly give it away, could I? It would have ruined the surprise.”
“And what a lovely surprise it was.” El peered up at him, tears in her eyes. “Thank you, Neal.”
He didn’t need the validation, didn’t need the pat on the back. He knew what he was capable of. But it felt nice to hear anyway.
Neal coughed, his own eyes watering against his will. “It’s the least I could do after...after everything you’ve done for me.”
Peter gave him that look, the look that meant he was proud and pleased with him. “Neal...”
Neal shrugged again, determined to keep his composure.
Finally, El pealed herself away from him. “I’m going to find a place for this.” She carefully picked up the painting, almost reverently, and headed up the stairs.
Peter walked over to Neal, shaking his head and smiling. He was still giving Neal that look; and Neal didn’t know what to do with the emotions it was making him feel.
“What? Why are you looking at me like that?” He tried for a jovial tone but it fell flat.
“I was just thinking...Have you thought about what you wanted to do after you’re a free man?”
“All the time.”
Peter nodded, pondering. “Ever thought of giving this a try?”
“What, making art for a living?”
Neal paused, letting the idea float around in his mind. Art had always been a hobby to him, something he did to pass the time when his mother was absent, which was almost always. He didn’t expect to become good at it and would have thought nothing of it had it not been for Ellen encouraging him. She saw his predilection for art and encouraged him to keep it up, hanging up every drawing he had ever given her, which was more than he could say for his own mother, who only glanced at it, said “That’s nice, honey”, and went back to sleep. It shouldn’t have hurt him as much as it did. But it had.
And then it was high school and his art teacher kept raving about him and forcing him to enter into these art contests, which he always seemed to win first place for. He thought his teacher seemed to care more about the medals than he did. His teacher had said that he had real talent, that he could make it as a successful artist if he tried, but Neal had already decided at the age of four that he was going to be a cop and he was sticking to his plan. And then it was his eighteenth birthday and everything changed.
Now, he used his skills for nefarious purposes and the only praise he got was from fellow cons expressing their envy at his knack for replicating things, whether it was a painting, a forged bond, or something else. The dream of being a cop or an artist had died long ago, but here, Peter was breathing new life into it. Maybe he could make this work. Maybe it was time he started using his skills for good.
“You think I could do it?” he asked, quietly.
“I know there’s plenty of people out there who would pay a pretty penny for an original Neal Caffrey.”
“Like you?” Neal joked.
“Hey, I thought this was a gift out of the kindness of your heart!” Peter ruffled his hair, aggressively.
“Ow, hey! Quit it!” Neal pushed his hand away, laughing.
He grew somber again a minute later.
“Do you really mean it?” He looked up at Peter through his lashes, his heart beating painfully in his chest.
Peter placed a hand on his shoulder, gave it a squeeze. “I really mean it. I’ll support you every step of the way. I’ll brag about you like those annoying soccer moms on the PTA board.”
Neal snorted wetly and dabbed at his eyes. It felt nice to have someone believing in him again, believing that he was destined to do great things. More and more, he was realizing he liked being on this side of the law, the side that helped people, saved them, made them happy. He could get used to this selfless feeling. Mozzie would moan about how he had been brainwashed and had bought into the governmental and societal propaganda, but he knew he would come around and help him get his name out there the right way, the legal way.
Peter grinned and slung an arm around Neal, pulling him in close, once again feeling that sense of pride he sometimes got when Neal chose the right path to walk on. He had helped cultivate the goodness that he had seen in Neal from the beginning. It had always been there, hiding behind layers and layers of trauma and deceit. Neal was so good at fooling everybody else, including himself, but he could never fool Peter.
Is this what it’s like to be a parent? wondered Peter. He shook his head to dispel that uncomfortable thought. He wasn’t ready to have that conversation. Yet.
“Boys, get up here!” called El from the landing.
Peter turned to Neal with eyes twinkling mischievously, a joke resting easy on his tongue. “Let’s go see what your mother wants from us.”
Neal’s eyes widened to saucers before narrowing to a point. “Lead the way, Dad.”
Peter threw back his head and laughed boisterously, dragging a grumbling Neal with him. Neal was pretending to struggle, grinning like a loon the entire time. He could get used to this feeling, this feeling of warmth, of safety, of love. His heart was full of it, ready to burst. And by the softness in Peter’s eyes, he could tell he was feeling it to.
And when they joined El in the master bedroom, the painting displayed above their headboard for them to look at every night before they went to bed, Neal felt something settle into place. That thing he had been missing for so long, had been chasing ever since he left home all those years ago, was right here in front of him. And he wasn’t going to let it go ever again. He was going to hold onto it for as long as he lived.