Title: untitled #1 (couple with dog)
Fandom: White Collar
Pairing: Gen (though it can also be read as pre-OT3)
Word Count: 4600
Summary: For a prompt at the Fall Fandom Free-For-All: Neal asks Peter and El to do a portrait of them.
Notes: Sometimes I write a story with a gen interpretation in mind, but end up with something that can easily be read as either gen or not-gen. This is one of those. Feel free to bring your own interpretation; I'm happy either way. (If authorial intent matters to you, my own take on the characters' intentions in this story is that it's mostly platonic, but not entirely: it's complicated. Like I said, though, read it in whatever way pleases you best.)
"I'd like to draw you," Neal says, out of nowhere.
They've just finished a successful case. It's late, and what Peter always thinks of as postgame elation has given way to dragged-out weariness. The only reason they're still in Peter's office is because neither of them has the energy to get up and go home.
"Haven't you?" Peter asks, genuinely curious. Neal doesn't make a habit of sketching in public, but he's always drawn a little, now and then, ever since Peter's known him -- doodling on napkins, on telephone message pads, on the edges of reports. Often Peter's encountered him in the loft with his sketchpad in his lap, or a painting in progress on the easel.
"Not really. From a distance, maybe. 'FBI agent under lamppost.'" Neal flashes a grin, and Peter wonders if Neal is serious, if somewhere out there are paintings of him, the anonymous FBI agent in pursuit of a suspect, paintings that he's never seen. It does seem like Neal's style.
Neal falls silent for a moment, and plays with his hat, spinning it in his hands. "Besides, I mean both of you -- you and El. I want to paint you."
Peter frowns, watching him, wondering what angle he's playing. Neal won't meet his eyes, and that's interesting, because usually when Neal is hiding something, it's the full-on, wide-eyed, "who me?" stare that he has to look out for. Neal being openly evasive is something new.
And maybe that's why he stops on the verge of asking why. Instead he hesitates and finally settles for, "Is this painting going to be used for anything illegal?"
Neal looks up sharply, a smile canted across his face. "Do you think I'd ask first if it was?"
"To throw me off the scent? Sure."
"No, Peter, it's not for anything illegal. It's not for me at all. I'd just like to ..." He shrugs. "To make a portrait of you and Elizabeth, for you and Elizabeth. A gift."
"A gift," Peter says, eyeing him narrowly.
Now the wide blue eyes meet his, open and honest, precisely the look that Peter's been anticipating and, perhaps, dreading.
"Yes, a gift. I can't give my friends a gift?"
"Sure, but you never do anything for just one reason."
The smile is back. "I know that look. You're curious."
Damn him. Peter fights off a smile of his own. "Why not. Knock yourself out. But I'm not giving permission on El's behalf. You'll have to ask her yourself."
"She'll say yes."
And she probably will, if only for the same reason Peter did: to find out what Neal is up to.
Neal has always been very fast with his forgeries. What sets him apart from run-of-the-mill forgers isn't just his skill, but his speed; he can do a near-perfect copy in a fraction of the time that it takes anyone else to do a mediocre one.
So Peter expects that this will be over in a few days.
But it's not.
Neal begins by sketching. He starts keeping a sketchpad in a desk drawer at work, and takes it with him to Peter and El's. When the conversation wanders to something that doesn't interest him, or when the pace of things at the White Collar division starts to lag, he picks it up and his pencil whispers quickly across the page.
El is insatiably curious, and Neal seems to bask under her attention. She likes to point out corrections to his quick studies of her -- "My ears aren't that big," she'll say, kneeling on the couch beside him, or, "I think you've got my hair wrong here."
Peter, on the other hand, finds himself oddly reluctant to look. Intruding on Neal's privacy is not something that generally bothers him -- he figures that it's turnabout and fair play for all Neal's efforts to keep things from him -- but in this case, opening the sketchbook feels like a violation. He wonders if it's just that he's afraid of what he'd see. A drawing isn't like a photograph. It's not a flat representation of the view through a camera lens. Seeing Neal's drawings means seeing himself as Neal sees him, and he isn't sure he wants to do that.
Peter can tell when Neal is drawing him, though, even without looking over to check. It's hard to put his finger on the difference, but there's something sharper than usual in the intensity of Neal's regard. Peter rarely catches him in the act, however. By the time Peter looks at him, the pencil is down and Neal is innocently working on a report or filling out a form.
Naturally, no matter how unobtrusive he is, someone at work is bound to notice eventually. They are, after all, paid to notice things. The someone in question is Diana, and soon Neal's sketches are being passed around to a mix of giggles, oohs and ahhs. As the drawings migrate around the office, Peter develops the uncomfortable suspicion that he's the only person in the office who hasn't seen Neal's drawings of him.
Curiosity finally gets the better of him, as it always does, and he leans on the edge of Neal's desk and says, "Let's see it."
Neal doesn't bother asking "See what?" He just grins in a self-satisfied kind of way, opens the sketch pad and hands it over. It's folded to the most recent drawing. Peter studies it for a moment.
He'd expect it to be weird, looking at a drawing of himself. Like seeing himself on TV, on the handful of occasions when he's been interviewed by the media after the close of a successful case -- squirm-inducingly him and not-him at the same time, with all his flaws magnified. Is my chin really that big?
But this isn't like that at all. It's his face in profile, lightly shaded behind, so that the line of his nose and the curve of his jaw pop off the page. His features are detailed but his hair is suggested with a few light strokes, fading to the blank textureless page. Rather than looking unfinished, it gives the illusion that his face is emerging from the paper: Pygmalion's chisel drawing life from raw stone.
The thought occurs to Peter, perhaps for the first time, that Neal is truly an artist: not just a virtuoso copyist, not just someone who adopts the trappings of a Parisian artiste because he likes fine things, but an artist in every sense of the word. A good one.
"Why didn't you make a career out of it?" He doesn't mean to pry, he really doesn't. And yet. Neal is like a puzzle box, and Peter can't help tilting it and pressing it and trying to find out how to get to the layers upon layers inside. The thought has occurred to him that he runs a very real risk of pressing the wrong button and crushing something, or causing the delicate, unfurling mechanisms to slam closed, never to open again. But he can't help himself.
This time, for a change, Neal doesn't pull away. Instead he laughs. "There's no money in art, Peter. Can you imagine me living the life of a starving artist in a Greenwich Village attic?"
That might be half the story. Neal likes telling half-stories. But the most interesting half is always the part he doesn't say. And Peter thinks this is another of those cases. Peter has spent his life doing the things he's best at: first as a math student, later as an FBI agent. He's not sure what could make someone turn a talent like that to forging bonds, rather than using it to fill the world with beauty and light.
Well, okay, he knows the reason why most people would have. Money. But he also knows that money isn't Neal's primary motivator and never has been. No matter what Neal wants him to believe.
"Whatever you say," he says, and carefully closes the sketchbook, resisting the temptation to leaf through it. He hands it back. Neal accepts it, but there's an odd look on his face, hesitant and a little fragile. Peter's seen that look before, just a few times. The first time he ever saw Neal look like that was the day Neal asked him, "We're partners?"
And Peter knows what he's waiting for this time, even if Neal himself doesn't.
"That's good," he says. "I like it."
Neal's wary expression morphs into one of his rare shy grins, not the smile he hands away for free, but the one that only a few people get to see.
"Not that I'm an expert on art or anything," Peter adds, turning away. "So take that with a grain of salt. Stick figures are about my style."
"Okay," Neal says, and there's a sound of quick scribbling. Peter whips around just as Neal holds up the sketchpad above his head, turned to a fresh page. The whole page is taken up with a stick figure carrying a pair of handcuffs in one line-drawing hand and what is obviously meant to be an FBI badge in the other. It has a little word balloon that says "FBI! Freeze!" And also, a tie.
"Oh, my God," Peter says, while everyone in the office behind him starts cracking up.
"Wait, I forgot something." Neal scribbles again, then holds it up for the office's perusal.
Now it has a mustache.
Neal's grinning so hard that he might be in danger of splitting his face in half. Half the office is in stitches and the other half wants to know what they're laughing at.
"Back to work, all of you," Peter snaps, trying desperately to maintain his "stern leader" expression and not start laughing himself.
Diana swoops in to tear the page off the pad of paper. "I think this would look great above the coffee machine. Huh? Show of hands?"
Hands start going up at desks all over the room until Peter sweeps his gaze over the bullpen and they drop back down again. Then Hughes' voice says from above, "What in God's name are all of you laughing at?"
"I'll be in my office," Peter says with all the dignity he can muster, and beats a strategic retreat.
Eventually the sketches give way to a detailed colored-pencil study.
"I had no idea that the process was this complicated," Peter remarks. They're in Neal's loft, him with a beer and a case file, Neal with a glass of wine and a large pad of drawing paper. There are art pencils spread all over the coffee table. "Usually you just grab a set of paints and go to work."
"This is different." Neal's voice is absent as he makes little adjustments to the drawing.
Peter gets up and comes to look over his shoulder. The study is about half done, the broad strokes of the figures sketched in, while color and value are still being applied.
But Peter can already see why Neal did all those sketches beforehand, because he's absolutely nailed the way El stands, the angle she holds her head, the curve of her wrist and the pert little hairflip that always creeps into every hairstyle she wears. Peter's not so sure about himself -- for one thing, his side of the portrait is the side that's mostly unfinished -- but even the rough sketch is eerily reflective of the man he sees in the mirror.
When Neal first suggested a portrait, Peter was expecting something stiff and old-fashioned: him and El sitting in wingback chairs with Satchmo at their feet. But this is relaxed and casual, like a candid photograph. Neither of them are looking towards the viewer. Peter has papers spread out on what appears to be the Burkes' living-room table, while El leans on his shoulder, her fingers casually entwined in his hair. She's turned to the side, her phone in hand, answering a text or checking a message. Satchmo is clearly visible in the background, curled on the couch.
It's just so oddly, disturbingly them. Peter thinks that if he saw a portrait like this in a stranger's home, he'd be a little uncomfortable looking at it. It's unnervingly intimate without a single bit of skin showing. It's a portrait that could only be painted by someone who knows both of them, and how they are with each other.
"You know, it doesn't actually make it easier to do this with you breathing down my neck," Neal says without looking up, selecting another pencil from those on the table.
Peter draws back, feeling guilty, like he's been caught in the act of something, but he's not really sure what. "You know, it's late, and it's been a hell of a day. Think I'll turn in."
He collects his case files from the table. Neal, absorbed in the drawing, waves a careless goodbye.
After all the prepwork, the production of the finished portrait turns out to be an anticlimax. Neal goes home as usual on a Friday evening, and turns up on Monday morning looking shadow-eyed and bleary. His expression sets off Peter's warning bells, because Neal only looks that way when he's been up all night, and generally Neal being up all night spells trouble. Peter hasn't heard any rumors about Alex being in town, and nothing he'd seen in the morning paper at breakfast had indicated that a high-profile property crime happened over the weekend ... but he doesn't trust that look.
Neal yawns in the morning meeting.
"Sorry, Caffrey, am I boring you?"
Neal ostentatiously yawns again, and Diana smirks behind her file folder.
The entire day, every time Neal catches Peter looking at him, he flashes his trademark "I've got a secret" grin. By evening Peter is about to explode with suppressed annoyance and curiosity, and the worst part is that he knows Neal knows it. He keeps calling up Neal's tracking data, though it keeps telling him the same thing -- that Neal stayed in June's loft all weekend. He even goes so far as to contemplate calling Mozzie, although he manages to come to his senses in time.
"You really like giving me ulcers, don't you?" he says on the drive to June's.
"Why, Peter, I have no idea what you're talking about."
"So help me, Neal, if you're planning something --"
"Don't worry, Peter." The grin is back. "Anything that I might allegedly have planned is finished. Allegedly."
"That ... is not reassuring. At all."
"Is it my fault you have a suspicious mind?"
When Peter pulls up to the curb at June's, Neal stops looking cocky and looks uncertain, which does little for Peter's peace of mind. Neal opens his door, then turns back and holds up a finger. "Wait here. I'll only be a minute."
"Neal, what --" But he's already gone.
"Ulcers," Peter says under his breath, tapping the steering wheel.
Neal is back in record-breaking time, looking cheerful and carrying a flat, wrapped package about a foot and a half square.
"Oh for -- is that stolen?"
"Really, Peter." Neal shoves it into his hands. "Here. Happy birthday, or Christmas, or May Day, or whatever."
The penny finally, finally drops, and Peter stares at Neal as the (allegedly) former (alleged) con artist quickly withdraws. "Is this the painting? Wait!" He reaches out and catches Neal's door as it starts to close, almost dropping the package, and for a moment he's desperately juggling painting and door and car keys. Neal laughs and leans back in to help him.
"Yes, it's the painting. Enjoy it. You'll have to tell me tomorrow what El thinks of it."
"Uh-huh. No." Peter pushes it back into Neal's hands, and for an instant Neal looks startled and a little hurt, before Peter says, "You're coming to dinner. Get in."
When Peter calls from the car and asks El if she minds adding a third person to her dinner plans, she laughs. "Is it Neal, or have you adopted another stray?"
"That's hardly a fair thing to say to a man who comes bearing gifts."
"Ooh, gifts. Well, that's entirely different. Also, to answer your question, I'm making lasagna, so the more the merrier."
The door opens on a house smelling pleasantly of Italian spices and apple pie. Neal hesitates in the entryway, and gets distracted -- or distracts himself on purpose -- petting Satchmo. El appears from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a dish towel. "Hi, Neal," she says, and then slips her arm around Peter's waist. "I believe there was talk of gifts?"
"I never said gifts from me," Peter says, and sets the wrapped painting in her hands.
"Oh, is this --" El looks over at Neal. Her face lights up. Neal actually blushes. "Do I open it now, or savor the suspense?"
Neal shrugs. "The paint's still a little wet..."
El grins up at Peter. "I think he wants us to open it."
"You do the honors."
The paper falls away, and Peter is caught between watching Neal's face, open in a way it so rarely is -- and watching El's to catch the moment when she sees her own reflection in canvas and oil.
"Oh, my God," El says, her eyes wide, and Peter remembers that she never saw the color study; she's only seen the initial sketches. "That's --" She holds it at arm's length, then up close, studying the details. "Neal, that's incredible. I really don't have words."
Seeing the finished version, Peter is struck by how much smaller it is than he'd expected from the colored pencil study. He had thought Neal would go for something large and ostentatious. But with Neal's typical intuition for such things, the small size turns out to be ideal for the gently intimate nature of the portrait. The details are tiny and intricate, from the embellishments on Elizabeth's earrings to the ugly antique vase that her great-aunt gave them as a wedding present, now forever immortalized on the mantel in the background.
This should be hanging in a museum somewhere, Peter thinks, with some sort of suitably pretentious title like untitled #1 (couple with dog) and a price tag in the tens of thousands. Instead it's private, it's just for the two of them -- no, the three of them, because Neal is watching them both with an expression that is curious, intrigued and a little fragile.
"It's perfect," El says, and kisses Neal on the cheek, and the uncertainty melts away to a smile of pure delight.
Neal doesn't linger after dinner, just gives El a quick hug, smiles over her head at Peter, and vanishes into the night.
Peter's in bed and drifting, with an arm slung over El's waist, when the last pieces start falling together and a picture comes together in his head: the picture he's been looking at all this time, the one he didn't want to see. He sits bolt upright, because it's wrong and it's right and it's just so -- so -- Neal.
Peter gropes his way downstairs, stumbling over Satchmo in his haste. He checks Neal's tracking detail on his laptop and finds Neal exactly where he should be, at June's. And yet, they've both seen tracking data faked before. The painting rests on the table -- he and El still haven't figured out a good place for it, but it seems to be watching him accusingly in the glow of the laptop. Peter closes the screen and sits in silence, listening to the traffic passing outside in the night.
"Honey?" El says softly from the stairs.
"I think it means goodbye," Peter says to her, helpless in the dark. "The painting is goodbye."
"Oh, honey, no." She comes to him, wraps her arms around him and pulls his head down to her shoulder. "Trust him, Peter."
"I can't," Peter whispers into her neck. He's tried, lord knows he has, but it doesn't come easy to him, and always, always, every time he's let his guard down, Neal has found a way to make him wish he hadn't. Usually for a good reason, or what Neal considers a good reason, but still -- it hurts. And he's tired of riding that emotional roller coaster.
El knows what he's thinking, because she always does, and whispers back, "But haven't you always been able to trust him, where it counts?"
He's silent, breathing against her.
By the time he gets to June's he's calmed down, and he sits in his parked car for a long time, looking up at Neal's darkened window. Neal's tracking data says that he's at home. The rational, logical part of Peter -- which used to be the dominant part, back in the pre-Neal days -- tells him to go home to his wife, go to sleep, and deal with this in the morning.
But he's here.
And if he turns around, goes home, and wakes in the morning to find Neal gone, he'll never forgive himself.
Finally he picks up his phone and selects a preset.
It rings. And rings. Finally, when it's about to go to voice mail and he's on the verge of hanging up, Neal says in a voice slurred with sleep, "I hope this is important."
"Was it goodbye?" Peter blurts out.
There's a pause on the other end. "Did I miss part of a conversation?"
He's committed now. All he can do is forge ahead. "The painting," Peter says. "Was it goodbye?"
This time the silence is longer, and he regrets like hell that he did this over the phone, without the visual cues of Neal's face and body and eyes.
"At one point, I think it was going to be," Neal says quietly.
Neal groans and Peter can hear the creaking of bedsprings as he sits up. "Do we have to have this conversation right now? Are you keeping El awake too?"
"I'm across the street from your place," Peter admitted.
Neal gives a weary but apparently genuine laugh. "Come on up, then."
Neal already has the wine poured by the time he climbs the stairs.
"Sorry about barging in on you in the middle of the night," Peter says as Neal hands him a glass. Wine isn't his favorite drink, but he really needs it tonight.
"Are you kidding? Calling before coming up -- even if it's five minutes before coming up ... Peter, for you that's the equivalent of making an appointment two weeks in advance."
Peter glances around the apartment. It's the same as it's always been: art supplies on random surfaces, primed canvas on the easel, wine bottle on the table. No sign of hasty packing.
From the entertained look on Neal's face, Peter's expression is easy enough to read.
"I'm not on the next train out of town, if that's what you're thinking."
"You said --"
"I know what I said. Let's just say it's a gift that meant different things at various points in the creation process."
Peter almost -- almost -- asks the next obvious question: What does it mean now? But he doesn't, because he still believes what he said to Neal all those weeks ago. Neal never does anything for a single reason. And if the painting, exquisite as it is, has a dozen meanings, including a few Peter doesn't want to think about -- well. That just makes it a little more Neal.
Sometimes working with Neal reminds Peter of the old story about the goose that laid the golden eggs, and the farmer who killed it to get the magic for himself. He knows that he could easily be that person, and sometimes he has to remind himself not to break down Neal's magic into quantifiable parts until there's nothing left.
Peter spends a lot of time hoping that he's managed to teach Neal a few things, but he has to admit, in his more self-reflective moments, that the learning process has been a two-way street.
"I hope you didn't abandon your wife in a panic," Neal says with dry amusement.
"No, she went back to bed. She thinks I'm getting worked up over nothing, and she said that at least one of us ought to be ready for work in the morning."
"Smart woman," Neal says, and Peter raises his mostly-empty glass. "And I believe that I have to get up for work, too, now that you have me on a semi-respectable nine-to-five."
"Plus you stayed up all weekend painting."
Neal doesn't try to deny it. "You're welcome to the couch, if you don't feel like driving all the way across town. And it'll give you the opportunity to make sure that I don't give you and the entire U.S. Marshal division the slip tonight."
Neal's voice is laden with sarcasm, but Peter reads genuine affection underneath.
"It's a hell of a job, keeping tabs on you," he says, slinging his jacket across the back of the couch, "but someone's got to do it."
"Yeah, you'll catch me wherever I run," Neal says in a bored tone, drifting back to the bedroom end of the loft. He sets his glass on the bedside table and fetches a stack of linens and blankets from the closet.
"Count on it."
Neal drops the linens on the couch, looks up and smiles. "I do."
Peter lies awake on the couch, texting El in the dark to let her know where he is. There's no immediate answering text, so she really did go back to sleep.
She trusts Neal.
Of course, she doesn't know Neal quite like Peter does. She didn't spend years pursuing him across two continents.
Or maybe she just doesn't care, because that's not the part of Neal that matters to her.
The glass doors to the balcony have no blinds, and the lights of the city stripe the room. Peter folds an arm under his head and listens to the distant sirens, the sound of a car alarm, the even rhythm of Neal breathing.
There's an odd sense of deja vu about it. The last time he slept on Neal's couch was back when his house was being rewired. It seems so long ago, and both of their younger selves appear so naive to him now, so mired in their own certainties about each other and the world. There's been a lot of water under the bridge since then, a lot of trust gained and lost and regained.
"Haven't you always been able to trust him, where it counts?"
Peter never particularly noticed before, but the room smells like art supplies -- paint and solvent and pencil shavings. The coffee table is tidy but for a single rolled sheet of paper, and Peter, ever curious, reaches out by the city's reflected glow and unrolls one corner. As he thought, it's the study for the painting.
A goodbye for me and El? Or a memento to carry along?
Or a promise?
Or a question?
Or something else entirely?
Peter wonders if even Neal knows for sure.
And maybe El's certainties are the real ones, and all else is merely ephemera, the sort of changes that don't really matter when all is said and done.
... damn it, he always gets moody and philosophical when he drinks wine.
He releases the drawing's edge, lets it roll back up, and closes his eyes.
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