"The house is still standing, anyway,"
Peter put away the key and pulled the door closed behind them. It was just past eleven and all was quiet at the Burke house.
Dinner had been as much about the atmosphere as food and he'd enjoyed both immensely. More surprisingly, he'd even enjoyed the broadway show they'd caught afterward. Neal had given them the tickets but had failed to mention they were VIP passes. The performance had been excellent, and they'd had the best seats in the house, but truth be told, it was Elizabeth, a vision of elegant beauty, watching the production with rapt enjoyment that had held his attention. It had been a wonderful evening, and he was looking forward to continuing it in a more private setting with an exceptionally expensive bottle of wine.
"Do you smell that?" Elizabeth asked, shedding her wrap.
In a house with a dog and a three-year-old, that question was asked more than one would think. He sniffed. "Smell what?"
"Clean," she replied.
Satchmo padded over to greet them, and Peter scruffed his head affectionately. Not only was there a faint whiff of lemon-scented cleaner in the air, but there was also smoothness to Satchmo's fur that was only this marked after a recent bath. One he'd needed but hadn't yet been given when they'd left for dinner six hours earlier. Before Peter could consider or comment upon it, Elizabeth let out a soft gasp.
"Oh, Peter." Her voice had softened, and he followed her gaze. Leaned against the back of a dining room chair, a colorful canvas had caught her attention. "They painted."
Tossing his coat over the back of the chair, he followed Elizabeth into the dining room. As he passed the hall, he glanced towards the bathroom, but there was no sign of their babysitter. Arriving at his wife's side, he eyed the surprising large canvas. "So they did."
"This is the most-" Elizabeth's voice hitched with emotion as her fingers reached out tentatively to touch a flower. It's his little handprints, Peter."
Neal had impressed him many times over the years, but this, he had to admit, ranked way up there. The painting depicted a field of flowers, with long, tall stems and grasses. The colorful blooms in the foreground were handprints, and those in the back appeared to be fingerprints.
"Feet too," he said, nodding at the two clouds floating in the blue sky.
"I can't believe they did this," Elizabeth continued in amazement. "All these prints, the grass. It must have taken them..." Her words trailed off. "I guess that explains it." He glanced down, and she met his gaze. "The cleaning." Her tone was one of amusement. "Remember when we made cards for Christmas?" There had been two of them, and it has still been an unmitigated disaster. "And that was just one handprint." Her eyes returned to the painting. "Can you imagine them doing this? The mess?"
Peter chuckled, imagining quite well. "Satchmo's had a bath, too."
The revelation elicited a ripple of laughter from his wife. "It must have been a sight, then," she said. "I hope they had fun."
"I'm sure Little Neal did," Peter mused, eyes searching for the gift bag and bottle of wine he'd left on the now clear table. He spotted them on the kitchen counter. "Not so sure about the other one; he might have bitten off more than he could chew."
"He'd never admit to it if he did," Elizabeth pointed out. "But I do hope he enjoyed the evening." The merriment from the moment before had left her voice. "He's doing better, though, isn't he?" A frown marred her face as she searched his eyes. "Connecting? Letting people in?"
Elizabeth, like him, had worried about how Neal was adjusting to life in the City; had worried he'd eventually return his emotional safe place and stay there.
"He's making an effort, El," Peter answered. "I just think it's going to take time for him to feel..." His words trailed off, wondering what it was that kept holding Neal back.
"Like we accept him?" Elizabeth offered, "Like he belongs here?" He could hear the strain in her voice. "What if he never feels that way, Peter? What if he's stays caught between Paris and New York, never feeling like he belongs in either place?"
As much as he'd tried to steer them clear of the I'm worried about Neal topic, they still hadn't been able to avoid it. He let out a sigh.
"He's said from the start he needs time," he reminded her. "And we've promised to give it to him. Now," he continued, eager to move the conversation to a more appropriate subject, "let's go up and let him know he's relieved of duty so we can resume..." he leaned down to kiss the soft skin beneath her ear, "our evening."
Less than a minute later, after stopping in their tracks, the two of them stood outside their son's bedroom door.
"I wish I had my phone," Peter murmured.
Unfortunately, he'd left it in his jacket pocket, but even without a photo, he knew that the scene before him would be permanently etched in his mind.
A book lay open on the bed, and both Neal's, the elder and younger, appeared to be sound asleep. His son, nestled close with his head resting on his Uncle's shoulder, had his small arm draped across the elder Neal's chest. The elder's head was bend toward's his namesake, his face tucked against the small, dark head. The pure sweetness of the sight-the protective, nurturing aspect of one and the accepting, trusting of the other-caused an odd, squeezing feeling in his chest. He stood there, unable to move or even speak. It was Elizabeth who broke the silence but not the spell that had settled about them.
"How can he think he doesn't belong here?" she whispered.
How indeed? Sadly, it wasn't much of a mystery. Neal had been on his own most of his life; he'd had no family to speak of, no lasting connections or place of his own. It had taken a while to see past the well-crafted facade, but once he did, Peter had realized Neal desperately wanted those things. The young man wanted to impress him, to earn his respect and friendship, but Peter had held them just out of his reach. He'd told himself it was a management tactic, a way to keep his CI in line, but in retrospect, he'd seen it for what it was; cruelty. Neal wanted to belong, wanted to be loved and accepted, but after years of trying to meet ever-changing expectations, he'd simply given up and let Neal Caffrey die.
Peter's mind clicked back to when Neal had admitted he hadn't originally intended to let him know he was alive. When he'd asked when he'd made the need-to-know list, Neal hadn't been able to meet his eyes.
"When I decided that for the most part, you'd like who I was."
Stung by his words, he'd countered by saying he'd always like him, but Neal had challenged that assertion.
"I always wanted you to, and I know you tried, but you are FBI and Neal Caffrey will always be a criminal."
It had been painful to have his words cited back to him like that and to realize the damage they had done. It had been even more painful to hear the bitterness in Neal's voice and to know it was his rejection that had put it there. "That friendship was doomed from the start." His throat tightened at the memory.
It was a miracle Neal had come back, but he had. Because, as much as he'd changed as Nathan Clay, some things hadn't changed at all. Elizabeth had been right; he still wanted people to love and accept him, and he still wanted to belong. And looking at him now, it was clear he had those things. But he was still hesitant, wary even, about accepting them.
"Because he's afraid," he answered softly, as understanding dawned. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Elizabeth give a small nod of agreement. "Afraid to believe its real. Afraid to get too close. Afraid..."
"Of getting hurt," she finished for him.
Yes, in a nutshell, that was it. But like he'd told Elizabeth earlier, Neal was trying, he was making an effort. He'd spent his afternoon in their home, caring for their son. He'd painted with him, read with him, watched over him, and kept him safe. Seeing him now, so present and unguarded, caused a protective feeling to sweep over Peter that clogged his throat. Paris might be Neal's emotional safe space, but New York City was his home. He did belong here, and, in time, he'd learn to believe it.
"Yeah." Emotion deepened his voice, and the sound traveled across the room, disturbing the elder's Neal's peaceful repose.
Blue eyes snapped open, and after a moment, the expression of sleep-induced confusion changed to one of mild chagrin. A slight blush of color crept into Neal's cheeks as he tried to extricate himself from the bed without waking the still sleeping boy. He gently repositioned Little Neal's arm, then retrieved the book, closed it, and placed it on the bedside table. It was titled A Beatrix Potter Treasury and Peter hadn't seen it before. It must be new; doubtless one of the presents eluded to earlier. For some reason, he found it difficult to see Neal Caffrey, AKA Nathan Clay, as a Peter Rabbit fan.
"Must have fallen asleep," Neal said gruffly as he moved towards the door. "How was the show?"
"Wonderful," Elizabeth responded softly before bending and placing a gentle kiss on her's son's cheek. She moved from the bed to join them in the hallway. "Thanks for the tickets," she continued. "You didn't tell us they were VIP passes."
Neal shrugged at her playful scolding. "I get Comp tickets all the time," he explained. "I'm just glad it was a good show."
"It was," Peter admitted, leading them down the stairs to the living room. "Even I enjoyed it. How about you?" he asked, glancing at him when they'd reached the living room. "Have a good night? Any problems?'
"Nothing I couldn't handle," Neal answered easily. He didn't deny problems, but he didn't admit to them either. So typically Neal. "He didn't even pee on the dog."
Peter couldn't help but laugh. "Then it was definitely a successful evening. I've got to admit," he added, waving a hand at the painting resting on the dining room chair, "that's pretty impressive. Little Neal and paint?" He shook his head. "I've seen the aftermath." He again looked at Neal and tried not to grin when he saw there was more than just dishevelment marring his usually pristine appearance. "I'm surprised you'd even attempt something like that."
"But we are so glad you did," Elizabeth said appreciatively. "And I'm sure Little Neal had a wonderful time. Thank you for doing it; we will treasure it always."
Again, there was a pink twinge in Neal's face. "Your son did it," he corrected. "I just provided the tools."
"You are too modest," Elizabeth chided, moving towards the kitchen counter. "I've painted with him before, and it's always... Oh," she stopped, picking up the small wrapped parcel that lay beside the bottle of wine.
She turned to him, brow raised. "What do we have here?"
The package had caused Neal to blush earlier and it did so again. "N..nothing really," he stammered. "Just a-."
"It feels like a canvas," Elizabeth interrupted, fingers prodding carefully. "Is it a painting?" She asked, her eyes and voice rising in expectancy. "One of yours?"
"It's just a little thing," Neal insisted, his discomfort clearly growing. "A token, really. Please," his voice dropped. "Open it later. Tomorrow. After-"
"You leave?" Peter laughed, joining his wife. "That's not happening."
Neal actually looked pained when the sound of ripping paper pierced the room.
"Oh," Elizabeth breathed, letting the brown paper flutter to the floor and staring at the small item in her hand. "This is..." she stopped, her eyes quickly raising to meet Neal's. Whatever it was, it had deeply moved her and Peter looked down to see.
It reminded him immediately of the little paintings he'd received during the years he'd pursued Neal Caffrey. But where those had always been a rendition of a famous work of art, this was entirely original. Peter had always appreciated Neal's artist talent, more so since he'd debuted as Nathan Clay, and he'd marveled at the large painting he'd sent June. But the skill level between that piece and this one was unmistakable. This painting depicted Little Neal and Satchmo, the boy's small hand on the dog's head, standing on the front steps of their house. The detail in that tiny face-no more than the size of a half dollar-was remarkable but even more so was how the expression of mischief the young boy so often wore had been captured with brush and paint.
"Exquisite," Elizabeth finally managed, her voice just above a whisper. "I don't even know what to say." She'd wanted a Nathan Clay Original for months and now she had one. Not a landscape or skyscape or New York park scene, but a perfectly crafted image of her son. No wonder she was so affected by it. So was he.
When he spoke, his voice was low with both sentiment and stark appreciation.
"She's right," he agreed, eyes searching the small painting for the signature NC that was sure to be hidden somewhere within the scene. There it was, in the curling fur of Satch's hind leg. "This is..." he shook his head, unable to find words. "I've never seen anything like it. It's... amazing." He looked up. "Thank you."
Neal shifted uncomfortably as the heartfelt words of gratitude hung in the air. It took a moment for him to meet his eyes but when he did, Peter understood why he'd not wanted to be there when the gift was opened. Neal poured his emotions into his art, it was doubtless the only place he felt safe to do so, and every Nathan Clay Original was an expression of sorts. But this one, small though it was, expressed something so profound and deeply personal it left its creator feeling exposed and vulnerable. Neal had put his heart into this and had handed it to them, both literally and figurative, and Peter could see the uncertainty in his eyes.
"I'm glad you like it," Neal mumbled, looking from his face to Elizabeth's and back again. "Like I said," he began with a tone of self-deprecation, "it's not anything big, its just..."
"Wonderful!" Elizabeth finished, closing the distance between them and planting a kiss firmly on Neal's cheek. "Thank you."
The color that had begun to dissipate from Neal's face resurged with a vengeance.
"Stop with the modesty, already," Peter chided lighthearted, hoping to ease Neal's discomfort. "The proper response to Thank you is You're welcome," he grinned. "Now say it and go home so I can enjoy the rest of the evening with my wife and that $1500 bottle of wine you brought us."
His teasing broke the tension and Neal gave a small, self-conscious laugh before dragging his hand through his already mussed hair. "You're welcome."
"That's better," Peter chortled, clapping his hand on his friend's shoulder. "Thanks for watching Little Neal for us. We had a great time."
"I did too," Neal replied, moving into the living room and picking up his backpack. "We'll have to do it again sometime."
They agreed and walked Neal to the door and said their goodbyes. After Neal left, Peter secured the door and turned back to find Elizabeth studying the small painting.
"He was so uncomfortable with us seeing this," she mused. "He was practically coming out of his skin. I wonder why?"
Peter shrugged. "Because he'd put his heart into it and he wanted us to like it."
"Of course we'd like it," she retorted impatiently. "It's of our son and its perfect. No, it was more than that." She looked up at him thoughtfully. "He kept trying to downplay everything he did-the tickets, painting with Little Neal, this," she held the rendition up. "Pretending it wasn't a big deal but it was; not just to us, but to him."
"It's like you said earlier," he replied. "It's about connecting. I think that's what that painting was for him, what coming here tonight was; him giving a little of himself. I think this was a big step for him."
"So do I," she agreed with a smile. She stepped over to the mantle, rearranged its contents, and placed the painting. "I can't wait to hear what Little Neal has to say about it."
Peter was on a mission to find two wine glasses. "Oh, I'm sure he and Uncle Nate had a grand adventure."
"Should we have told him he had paint on his neck?" He could hear the amusement in her voice.
Neal had cleaned up Little Neal, cleaned the house, and even washed the dog but somehow missed the two swipes of green paint just below his left ear, their dimensions unsurprisingly similar to two small fingers.
"No," Peter chuckled, imaging Neal's face as peered into the mirror and realized he'd missed a piece of evidence. "He'll figure it out for himself soon enough."
Sneak Peek...want more of Nathan Clay? This is currently one of my Works In Progress...Chapter One
"You look fine," Elizabeth said, impatiently tugging his hand from his collar. "And very handsome. So stop fidgeting."
"Only if very handsome includes a blue skin tone," he muttered as his fingers returned to pull at his black tie. "This thing is choking the life outta me."
"It's never choked you before," Elizabeth mused. She cut him a look. "Nervous?"
"Of course not," he scoffed, dropping his hand as added proof. "It's just art."
Elizabeth smiled at his denial. "It's Nathan Clay's art," she pointed out. "And the first time you're meeting him in his world and not your own."
The him was Neal Caffrey, aka Nathan Clay, his long time best friend and one time CI. His world these days, split between two continents, was the Nathan Clay Gallery.
The Paris Gallery had been open just over three years and was thriving; the New York branch they were now entering, had been in operation just under a year. Located off the Henry Hudson Parkway on the north end of Riverside Park, it was a small but tasteful gallery known for showcasing works from a mix of known and unknown artists. According to its owner, and El, it had been a well-received addition to the New York Art scene. Elizabeth had been here before, albeit as the owner of Burke's Premier Events, but this was her first visit as a guest. It was his first visit period.
He was here as Peter Burke, appreciator of fine art and not Peter Burke, Federal Agent. In perfect Elizabeth fashion, his wife had cut through to the heart of the matter.
This was not his world. He let out a sigh.
"Maybe just a little."