A/N: My Christmas story was posted 2 months after Christmas, this one is only 1 month after Valentine's Day. I should be all caught up by the fourth of July.
Neal always loved joining Peter and El for dinner at their house. Today, however, was proving to be an exception. After dinner, Peter had taken Satchmo out for a run while Neal was helping El with the dishes. Once she saw that Peter was out the door, El cornered Neal in the kitchen.
"Good, I've got you alone finally. Neal, I want you to do something for me, and it has to be kept a secret from Peter."
Neal was not liking this already. "Okay…what did you have in mind?" he responded cautiously.
"I want to give Peter a special Valentine's Day gift, and I need you to create it for me. I want you to do a portrait of me—an original Neal Caffrey oil painting. Peter will love it!"
Frankly somewhat relieved, Neal tried to let her down easy. "El, I don't do originals. I make copies of originals."
"Nonsense! I know you are just being modest," she smiled, "as strange as that may sound."
"El, I can't do this. I don't have the talent to create great art from scratch—only to imitate it. I wouldn't be able to do you justice."
"Neal, I have confidence in you. Whatever you do will be wonderful. And I am not expecting the Mona Lisa. I want to give Peter a gift that he'll treasure forever. I want him to receive a portrait of his beloved wife created by his dear friend and partner. He'll be thrilled!"
Neal tried to pose another objection, but El wouldn't hear of it. She was forging onward, and he was powerless to slow her down.
"Besides, it's about time you gave more thought to another career path. You can look on this as a practice exercise. You might want to become a legitimate artist one day taking commissions. This can give you a taste of what that would be like. But most of all, Neal, I want you to create something you can openly sign your name to."
He had to admit, she had caught his interest with that last argument about taking credit for his work. So, bowing to the inevitable, Neal agreed to meet with her at his apartment on Saturday, still secretly hoping he would be able to talk her out of the idea. But the tiny twinge of pain behind his eyes didn't bode well for his success at derailing this project.
Peter and the dog returned from their run then, and any further discussion was postponed.
Saturday morning came around and so did El. Neal was ready for her, having marshaled a list of objections, arguments and obstacles to her plan. Of course, he had a sinking feeling that all would be swept aside by the relentless determination that was El. And he was right. He finally capitulated and started listening to her plans.
"So, what do you think I should wear? Little black dress? Angora sweater? Something low cut and filmy?" At Neal's lack of response she tossed in, "Maybe nothing at all? Neal! I need to know what you think."
Neal was envisioning El in each of the outfits she was listing and with each item, that little twinge behind his eyes was intensifying. El was going to be alone with him for hours in his apartment with her dressed in something, what did she call it—"low cut and filmy?" This was very dangerous ground. How did he get himself into this?
"And when can I come here for sittings? Is there a best time of day for you to have enough light? Can you get away at lunch and come home? My schedule is pretty loose now, so I can be here whenever you need me. I'm sure I'll have an easier time dodging Peter than you will."
Neal did some preliminary sketches of El. She tried to sit still despite rambling on about how wonderful this was going to be and how much she appreciated Neal's offer to paint the portrait. Neal's pencil froze on the paper. He thought "Offered to do this? I didn't offer to do this. I was bulldozed into it by a five foot nothing Sherman tank. She should have been the FBI agent, not Peter."
His sketches started to reflect his thoughts. In his drawing El's eyes had taken on a hard look to them—he started imagining her commanding a squad of chain gang ex-con artists. Sighing, he crumpled that sketch and started again. That little pain behind his eyes was growing.
"Neal!" Peter called across the bull pen at the FBI office. Caffrey stopped on his way out the door and, cursing his timing, turned back to talk to his partner. "Lunch?" Peter asked.
Neal responded, "Sorry Peter, I have to run some personal errands. Er..I was going to tell you I might be a little late getting back."
"Personal errands, Neal?"
"Nothing illegal, I swear." Neal answered trying to deflect Peter's curiosity with a joke. It wasn't working. "Dentist appointment. Have to keep my smile looking good, you know." As he was talking, he was backing towards the door. "But I'm late, so I have to run. I'll be back as soon as I can." With that he flew out the door and slid into the elevator. "God! What is the matter with me?" he thought as he made his escape. He had no problem calmly lying to Peter about illegal activities, but here he was stumbling over his words trying to cover up something perfectly legal. Legal? Yes. Wise? Definitely not! He was lying so he could rush off to meet his partner's wife in secret at his apartment. This was going from bad to worse.
Back in the office Peter carefully considered Neal's attitude and actions. Something was going on here. This was the third time this week Neal has been conspicuously absent at lunch. With his limited stipend from the FBI, Neal was usually glad to go to lunch with Peter, who invariably picked up the tab. Three days of errands? Not likely.
Peter hesitated to dig into this. He was trying to give Neal some space in his personal life and to accord him a measure of trust. But he was worried. He decided that doing some checking might be protecting Neal from himself. "Cruz! Bring up Caffrey's anklet history for this week." He stood behind her looking at the screen on her computer. He had her go back to the beginning of the week. Lunchtime. Two days of "errands" all of which seemed to have been done at home. Neal had gone straight from work to home and back to work both days.
Peter decided to wait and talk to Neal when he returned after lunch. In the meantime, he called Elizabeth to see if she was free for lunch. When she answered Peter asked, "Honey, how about meeting me for lunch? I got stood up again by our favorite conman."
"Oh, Peter, I'm sorry," El answered. "I really don't have the time today. Maybe tomorrow?"
"You have an event planned? I thought you were in a lull."
"No, no event. Just a lot of errands I need to get done." Here El's voice was drowned out by the ringing of church bells near her. "Sorry Peter, I can't hear you. I'll see you at home tonight. Have a good day." With that she hung up.
"Errands. There seems to be a special on errands today," mused Peter as he decided to order food to be delivered. He suddenly didn't feel like going out.
The day wasn't going much better for Neal. He and El were at his apartment, again, and he still hadn't found the style in which to paint her. He saw her in many different lights. She was a friend, maybe a big sister, but mostly the wife of his partner and strictly off-limits. Even when Peter had been chasing him all those years ago, Neal had always maintained an attitude of strict courtesy and respect for Elizabeth. He felt no passion towards her—and that was what was needed to summon inspiration.
Right now she was primarily a thorn in his side. He had agreed to do this—rather had been bullied into agreeing—and he was stuck. This was turning into total frustration. That nagging pain (the one in his head, not the one chatting away to him when she was supposed to be quietly posing) was growing worse. He was at a loss. Valentine's Day was rapidly approaching, and she was expecting an "original Caffrey." Right now, there was not a single original idea in his brain except maybe how he could plan his escape.
Back at the FBI offices, Peter was watching the clock. An hour and a half had gone by since Caffrey had left for his "errands." Hughes called Peter and told him to bring Caffrey to the conference room. Informing Hughes of the dentist appointment, Peter offered to locate Neal. A phone call to Neal's cell went straight to voicemail. So Peter called the detention tracking unit for a current location on Neal: 5026 Riverside Drive. Neal's apartment. So unless he had found a dentist who made house calls, Neal had lied to him.
He decided to go get Neal himself. Driving to the apartment, Peter rehearsed what he planned on saying to his truant consultant. He didn't want to destroy what trust had been built up between them, but he couldn't let the lies stand unchallenged. Caffrey was, after all, still on parole and still accountable to Peter for his actions.
Peter arrived at the door just as June was leaving. She told him to go right on up to Neal's apartment. He knocked and heard Neal approach the door and call, "Did you forget something?" Here Neal opened the door. Peter watched the expression on Neal's face flash from friendliness to guilt to caution. "Peter, what are you doing here?" he asked, his voice wavering just a hint.
"Hughes asked me to find you. There's a case he wants you on. So, how was the dentist?" Peter studied his partner and realized that he had changed clothes. His elegant suit of the morning had been replaced by a tee shirt and jeans.
"Peter, I'm sorry. I got caught up in something and lost track of time. Wait for me downstairs—I'll just need a minute to change." Neal pushed him out the door.
Peter leaned against the car thinking about how to phrase his questions to Neal. It was obvious Neal had had someone in his apartment. It was equally obvious that Neal was hiding something. Peter was actually pleased that Neal might have found someone to take the place of Kate, but stealing time away from the job was not acceptable. While he was waiting, Peter called in to the office. "Cruz, let Hughes know I have Caffrey and that we'll be there shortly." He couldn't hear her response as the church carillon started playing. "Cruz, I can't hear over these church bells. Call me back if you need me." He pocketed the phone and turned to watch Neal hurrying towards him.
Then he made the connection. That was the second time today he had heard the carillon. El had been here outside Neal's apartment when he spoke to her on the phone. No, she would have told him. And Neal…, Neal would never…no, he couldn't even think it. But a tiny doubt persisted. He felt disloyal to both his wife and his partner for even considering such a thing.
He decided he needed to observe the two of them together. He would notice if there were any changes in their demeanor towards one another. Dinner. A nice family dinner with the three of them, and all his doubts would disappear. That was the best way.
The next day on the way out of the FBI building, Peter stayed close to Neal. When they got to the outside, Peter put his hand on Neal's back and more or less propelled him to the car. "You're coming home with me to dinner." Not an invitation, a command.
Neal considered refusing, but that in itself would look suspicious. He never refused an invitation to dine with Peter and El. So he resigned himself to an evening of trying to look like nothing was wrong.
El kept giving Neal conspiratorial looks, but he ignored them as best he could. In general, things were going well, almost like before the whole "let's paint an impossible portrait and deceive Peter at the same time" game had begun. But during dinner Neal's gaze kept resting on El's face. He was trying to pin down the expression, the character, the feeling that would lead him to the inspiration he needed. He lost track of his surroundings and stared at her intently, both dinner and Peter's presence forgotten.
He jumped when he felt Peter's hand on his shoulder and heard him ask if he was done. Snapping back to reality, Neal handed his plate to Peter, no longer hungry. Neal offered to help with the dishes, but El refused and sailed off to the kitchen, the rest of the plates in hand.
Peter retrieved his gun and a gun cleaning kit from the buffet drawer. He sat back down at the dining room table and started to disassemble the weapon.
Neal could hear El laughing quietly to herself in the kitchen. There was a tiny mean streak in that woman. Neal briefly imagined grabbing Peter's gun and shooting her. If he didn't hate guns (which he did.) And if he hated El (which he didn't). He did hate being trapped like this with the weight of his partner's suspicions bearing down on him. Plus his guilt about his inability to produce the "original Caffrey" she expected from him. He buried his face in his hands and sighed. At the sound of Peter's pulling back the chamber slide on the gun, Neal jerked to attention. The pain behind Neal's eyes kicked up a notch.
"I noticed that you've been staring at El tonight. She is beautiful, don't you think?" Peter began.
"Uh, yes Peter, she is. You know, I really should be getting home."
In a friendly, conversational tone, Peter said, "Neal, did you know that El and I have been married for over a decade now? And I plan on being married to her for the rest of my life." Here he held the gun up and looked over it at Neal. Didn't point it at him, but in Neal's mind the implication was clear. "I don't know what I'd do if I thought someone was coming between us."
Neal stood up and started to back towards the front door. "Well, thanks for having me, Peter. But I should go and leave you two alone."
"That might be best," agreed Peter, nodding slowly and deliberately.
El came out of the kitchen and saw Neal was trying to leave. She stopped him by taking his arm and started telling him he couldn't leave yet—she hadn't had a chance to be close to him. Neal almost leaped away from her—she looked like she was going to hug him! Mumbling excuses, he found the doorknob, turned it and fled. El was grinning ear to ear watching him escape. Maybe that mean streak wasn't so tiny.
At Neal's apartment following that disastrous, dangerous dinner, Mozzie watched Neal work at his easel. Mozzie casually inquired "Do you think it is wise to be privately entertaining your keeper's beloved wife? You do know the man can send you back to prison anytime he wants."
Neal answered dryly, "Yeah, right after he shoots me."
Mozzie asked "So? Why are you doing this?"
Neal aimed a look at Moz. "You tried to say no to Elizabeth. How did that work for you?"
"I see your point. So paint quickly."
"It's not so easy, Moz."
"What do you mean—you copied the Haustenburg in one day!"
"Copying is easy. You could copy a Shakespeare sonnet in a few minutes, but that doesn't mean you could write an original one. I want this to be good, but I can't find feeling enough to make this come to life. It's like birthing a child. It's harder than anything I've done." Neal sighed in frustration and looked at Mozzie. "Plus I'm nervous about being here with her behind Peter's back. I know he suspects something."
"Probably. The Suit doesn't strike me as a trusting individual. Well, you only have a couple more days to do or die, so to speak." Mozzie walked to the door, turned and, in parting, added, "Watch your back, my man."
"No need, Moz, I'm pretty sure when Peter shoots me, he'll do it face to face."
"I have a stop to make before we go back to the office," Peter announced to Neal as they drove back from interviewing a witness the next afternoon. The atmosphere between them had been strained all day. Neal was preoccupied and kept rubbing his forehead trying to ease a headache. Peter was tense. They pulled up in front of a jewelry store and Peter parked. He got out and motioned to Neal to follow him into the store.
"Was there a robbery here?" Neal inquired wondering if he had missed some case information while he brooded about the painting.
"No, I am picking up my Valentine's Day gift for El." Peter was observing Neal's reaction to this statement, looking for a sign of, well, anything that shouldn't be there. A flash of pain crossed Neal's face, and his shoulders sagged as if he had been reminded of some heartache. Maybe it was the fact that Kate was nowhere to be found, and there would be no Valentine's celebration for Neal. Maybe something else. Peter couldn't tell.
The clerk recognized Peter and brought out a dark blue velvet box. Peter took it from him, opened it and held up an exquisite silver pendant. Delicate, spidery, filigree robes surrounded a slender figure of an angel. Silver wings poised for flight reached above the body of the pendant. Each wing was edged in small brilliant cut sapphires winking as the piece rotated. It hung from a twisted diamond-cut chain sparkling as it caught and reflected the lights. It looked fragile and ethereal, yet had the substantial strength of sterling.
"Were you able to do the engraving I wanted?" Peter asked.
"Of course, Mr. Burke. As you can see, we fit it nicely on the hem of the robes."
Neal reached out his hand towards the pendant and looked at Peter. "May I?"
Peter offered the necklace to Neal. Neal read the inscription. It simply said 'My life, My heart, My angel."
Neal felt a rush of exhilaration. This was it! This was how he was to portray Elizabeth. It wasn't what he felt for El that mattered. The passion that had eluded him came from Peter. Elizabeth was Peter's angel, and that was how Neal was going to paint her. He could see the painting blossoming in his mind now. He had his inspiration.
"What do you think of it?" Peter asked.
'It's perfect Peter. She is going to love it. It's just…perfect." Neal's face was alight with excitement and something Peter couldn't quite read. Quite a mood swing from that of the nervous, almost morose man he'd arrived here with.
"Peter, I have to go home. Make up any excuse for me you want, but I have to go home now."
"Neal, I want to have a talk with you." Peter sounded so serious. And so sad.
"No you don't, Peter. Trust me." Here Neal put his hand on Peter's shoulder, looked into his eyes and repeated, "Trust me. You can, you know. And I need you to now." With that he dashed out to the street, and before Peter could follow, Neal had hailed a cab, jumped in and disappeared in traffic.
Neal had been up all night furiously painting, retouching and, all in all, marveling at just how good the portrait had turned out. That nagging pain had disappeared.
Near dawn he opened a bottle of wine and toasted his success. He was so pleased and yet so worried that it wasn't as good as he thought. He dearly wanted to show it off and, at the same time, keep it safely hidden.
One last task remained to make it complete. He selected a slender brush and added the final touch to the portrait—his name. Proudly, openly and in full view. His creation.
Working for the FBI, for Peter Burke--it was full of surprises. He had begun it simply as a means to get to Kate. And that still was the ultimate goal. But along the path to finding Kate, there were some unexpected turns, things he couldn't have foreseen. Like his deepening friendship with the FBI agent. Like his affection for the agent's wife. Like finding that he could produce a painting such as this. Full of surprises.
Exhaustion finally claimed him and he tumbled into bed. That was where Mozzie found him hours later and shook him awake.
"Neal, your phone's been going straight to voicemail all night. You were supposed to call me. Are you all right? What's up?"
"Moz, I'm fine. I'm better than fine. I finished the portrait," he grinned. Neal padded over to where he had left the painting and turned it towards Mozzie. Expectation, nervous anticipation, suspense, fear, excitement all crowded in. Neal watched his friend's face for any reaction. Not an easy thing with Mozzie—he kept his expression carefully neutral at all times. "Secrets are safer" was his motto.
Mozzie stared silently at the painting, transfixed for a long minute. He spoke quietly, "Breathtaking, man. Truly."
The painting showed El's face in a soft pastel halo. The love in her luminous eyes shone in shades of blue and silver. Strength, compassion and the fire to command armies radiated from her face.
A web of silver threads glimmered through her flowing white gown, and a twisted silver chain adorned her neck. The sapphire sky behind her swirled into a subtle suggestion of wings.
Mozzie tore his gaze from the painting and smiled at Neal. "You never cease to amaze."
Neal returned the smile with relief and gratitude.
"So, when is the unveiling?"
"I'm delivering it tonight—if I can get past Peter."
As planned, Neal showed up at Peter and Elizabeth's home promptly at 7:00 p.m. He had the portrait carefully shielded in a protective box.
Opening the door, Peter felt a rush of annoyance bordering on anger at the intruder standing on his doorstep.
"Hello, Peter," Neal began. "Now don't be mad. I'm just here to deliver this to El."
At that point El came into the room and promptly pulled Neal into the house. She was practically bouncing up and down with anticipation at seeing him holding the box.
Peter could feel his stomach tightening and his blood pressure rising. He did not want Caffrey anywhere near his wife, especially on Valentine's Day.
El pushed Peter and Neal into the living room. She moved a dining room chair in front of the fireplace and looked expectantly at Neal.
"What is going on, El?" asked Peter. He had had enough of the excited smiles flashing between his wife and Neal.
"This, my dear husband, is your Valentine's Day present. And I haven't even seen it yet. Neal, please open it—I can't stand waiting any more!" Peter moved to stand behind his wife.
Neal opened the box and carefully extracted the portrait and set it up on the chair. He stepped back and turned to watch Peter and El's reactions. Gripped with the same trepidation as when he had shown it to Mozzie, Neal tensed and hoped. If these two people didn't like it, didn't recognize how much he had put into this, it would devastate him.
Peter's eyes softened as he stared at the portrait, and a smile lit his face. There was just a suggestion of tears in his eyes as he put his arms around El and hugged her close. Peter, the career FBI agent was deeply touched by Neal's art. Elizabeth was speechless—not a common occurrence. Neal's spirits soared as he watched two of the most important people in his life appreciate and validate his art. These last few weeks of frustration, guilt, and self-doubt had been worth it after all.
Peter tore his gaze away from the painting and faced Neal. "I thought I knew everything about you. Then I turn around, and it's like I'm looking at a whole new person. I'm blown away. Neal, this is…exquisite."
With a troubled look on her face El hesitantly said, "Peter, maybe we shouldn't keep this to ourselves. I think it might really belong in a museum."
Peter kissed the top of her head and smiling replied, "No, honey. It's a masterpiece. Someone would steal it." They all laughed, and the tension was broken.
El gathered Neal into a long hug and whispered her heartfelt thanks. She kissed him briefly on the lips. Smiling down at her he reminded her, "You know, your husband does have a gun."
Peter crossed the room, put his hand on Neal's shoulder, and their gazes locked. "I am so proud of you, Neal. Thank you. This is an incredible gift." He gave Neal a quick hug that was both gratitude and apology for having doubted him. Then Peter moved back to put his arm around his wife.
Floating on air, but strangely embarrassed for once at being the center of attention, Neal took his leave to let Peter and El enjoy their romantic dinner.
Peter led El over to the couch and pulled her down to sit next to him. Taking the blue velvet box from his pocket, he smiled and offered it to her. She opened it and caught her breath. Marveling at the striking beauty of the pendant, El lifted it to watch the light reflect off the gems and the sparkling silver. "Oh, Peter, this is lovely. Put it on me!" He obliged, and she walked over to look at her reflection in the mirror over the fireplace. Peter moved to stand behind her. El realized it first—the influence of the pendant that Neal has woven into the portrait. It was just perfect. Her gift to Peter, Neal's talent and Peter's gift to her—all entwined. She would never forget this Valentine's Day.
Peter hugged her and then decided he couldn't hide his doubts from her. "El, I have to tell you something I'm not proud of."
El looked up at him questioningly. "Okay. You've built up a lot of credit tonight, so tell me your worst." She was smiling.
Peter sighed and plunged in. "El, I knew that Neal was lying to me about where he had been, and I knew that you were somehow involved. I understand now, but I admit it, I half suspected that you and Neal…Well, I thought you and he…"
El took pity on him then. "You suspected that I might have fallen for that Neal Caffrey charm." Peter nodded sheepishly in agreement. "In the first place, you know in your heart that Neal would never betray you. And secondly, Peter, don't you realize that Neal is definitely not my type?"
Peter snorted, "What? Charming, handsome, and talented is not your type?"
"No, honey, I much prefer grumpy, dependable, jealous types who have loved me unfailingly for the last 10 years." Peter gathered her gently into his arms, his fingers entwined in her hair and thoroughly kissed her. Pulling away for a moment, El looked up at him breathless. "Yup, definitely my type." Then she was lost again in the deepening kiss.