Disclaimer: I don't own White Collar and am not making any money off of this.
Pairing: Neal/Peter Not Slash
Rated M for some foul language, violence and off screen abuse
Warning: This is unbetaed. A lot of gross, disgusting, gory stuff that would make any sane person sick and even I was losing my lunch writing it, but it's all off screen. (References to sexual and physical abuse of children.)
Please see the author's note at the end of the story.
Summary – When Neal is playing a con, pulling a heist or creating a forgery, he has all the confidence in the world. But when these tools are not an option the only thing he has to save himself and the lives of others is something he's not too sure of at all, his own self worth.
Grace in the con fidence of others
They hung in almost every office, were tacked on nearly all the peg boards and some having been enthusiastically signed with a flourish by the grinning artist were framed and brought home and displayed in places of honor. There were few in the F.B.I.'s White Collar Crime Division who had not yet felt graced with a Neal Caffery original sketch.
It was the easiest con he'd every pulled, even if it was totally unintentional, and nothing to be proud of. As far as Neal was concerned if they were foolish enough to think his creations were any good he'd brag about his talent and play along. Then maybe he would not be the first one people looked to when something went missing in the office. Maybe he could get through a day feeling like his honest work meant something.
Even when he put his life on the line, something that happened with increasing frequency it seemed, it was not his word people trusted, it was his tracking anklet and the ever present threat of prison for the slightest infraction of what he felt were arbitrary and inconvenient rules, just begging to be broken for a good or even not so good cause.
The thing was, while it was rare for Neal to find any task difficult, when he did face difficulty, he did not have the experience to work it through. Fitting in, being accepted; playing by the rules eluded him, frustrated him and turned every day into a struggle to achieve what seemed to come so easily to others.
Gaining people's respect and trust in a persona for a con, for a heist, for the space of no more than a few weeks, was easy, especially for a man of Neal's brilliance. But earning the trust of others with nothing to show for his life but a list of alleged crimes, one conviction and a prison term was a greater challenge than he'd ever faced.
None but Neal's handler, partner and friend, F.B.I. Special Agent Peter Burke, could see through the armor of his fashionable suits, his charming veneer, his eagerness to be helpful, his know it all (because he did) attitude and his wit and puppy dog eyes to the troubled, childlike soul, the person who thought of himself as worth less than his doodles.
Now, just months since his girlfriend, Kate, had been killed, Neal's self-confidence was at an all time low. As far as Neal was concerned, the murder of his lady love, had been the final blow showing him that no matter what he did, what he accomplished, he was worth nothing, just some tool to be used by whoever needed his considerable criminal talents.
If trading his life for a hostage was needed it was no problem, and good riddance if said trade ended in his death. Thievery and coercion were against the law except if some mysterious uber-leader wanted to maneuver Neal into steeling something that supposedly didn't exist from a foreign government. But once Neal accomplished the deed, blowing him up was a convenient way to get rid of his inconvenient presence. And just for fun, pining a crime on him to cover up someone else's misdeeds was no big deal. As far as everyone was concerned, Neal deserved to be in prison, or dead.
Fine, he got the message. He was free as long as they could use him and his choices were prison or death and Neal did not want to go back to prison. Maybe this early morning meeting with Peter would lead to a means to an end. His experience as a consultant for the F.B.I. showed him how easy it was to step in front of a bullet even when he wasn't trying.
Having arrived early, Neal took out his small sketch pad he always kept with him to occupy his time. As usual, his thoughts drifted off to Kate and flashes of their life together, always ending with the explosion that took her from him. It was just that burst of brightness, this time from the sun angling its rays against a building and reflecting suddenly onto his face that he became aware he was staring out at the clear day, the tall glass monoliths sparkling in the morning light. He was halfway done before he even realized he was sketching the cityscape, somehow, even in black and white, capturing the brilliance of sparkling buildings, giving them a vitality unseen by passersby. His back to the door, Neal was so focused on his work that he did not notice the two men, one carrying a file, who walked into the room until one of them gasped.
"Oh my G-d, Peter!"
Neal practically jumped out of his seat dropping his pad and pencil on the table at the exclamation.
Peter smiled, almost like a proud father as he guided the other man forward. As tall as Peter if not as muscular, sporting blond, nearly white close cropped hair and a neatly trimmed beard, the stranger could not take his eyes off of Neal's sketch. "Neal, this is an old friend of mine, Raleigh Elliott." Turning towards the other man, Peter completed the introductions, "Raleigh, I have the pleasure of introducing you to our art consultant and my friend, Neal Caffery. You can see for yourself, I did not exaggerate."
Elliott asked permission to pick up the sketch, which Neal gave with a gracious wave of his hand and a nod. "This is an amazing technique. You're use of space seems presents almost like another color yet its black and white. The strokes and angle of the lines are unique. Mr. Caffery, I am awed.
Neal reached out his hand to Elliott who took Neal's hand in a warm two fisted grip and shook it so firmly Neal's entire body vibrated with the force. "Peter's praise of your work barely does it justice. It's an extreme honor to meet you." Now it was Neal's turn to be dumbfounded. His eyes left Elliott and went straight to Peter.
Not since he studied art had Neal ever been praised for his work by someone who actually understood the difference between an original and a copy or had any understanding of what he created. Even those who had flattered his art on this side of the law had ever before thought it was an honor to meet him.
"Pleased to meet you," he smiled, too charmed himself by the man's manner to be anything less than honest in his greeting. "You've got quite a grip there Mr. Elliott," he winced and finally got his hand back and surreptitiously rubbed circulation back into his fingers. He graced the man with his usual brilliant smile. "Please call me Neal. Ah, how do you know Peter, if I may ask?"
"Neal, Raleigh and I went to Yale Law School and through training at Quantico together. He's my opposite number at the Civil Rights Division dealing primarily with Color of Law crimes."
"Peter," Neal motioned him to step away for a moment and grabbed his arm to follow. "Color of Law?" Neal repeated in a whisper with a touch of panic, "Peter, law has a color?"
Peter chortled and led him back, "And you were supposed to be a master forger?"
Neal's eyes widened, "I don't know what color law is,"
"I'm not surprised."
"Peter, if I don't know what it is how could I possibly copy it.?"
Peter took pity, "Relax Neal, he's not here to talk to you about any,'' and he emphasized the word, "alleged crime, or a case for that matter. But I guarantee you; he's got you dead to rights for what he does want to talk to you about."
"Peter, no, I…"he waved his hands signaling.
Peter cut him off, "Why don't we all sit? This might take a while."
Neal was more puzzled than ever and just a touch panicked, as per his musings, going back to prison was not a viable choice. As Peter moved to get coffee for everyone, Elliott opened the file and took out photos of murals which were done of fairytales, famous historic events and family life scenes, all of them aimed for a child's interest.
"Have you ever heard of Victor Trent?" asked Elliott.
Surprised at the direction this was going, Neal spread the photos out on the table, examining the scenes. "Uh, yeah, sure, he was an Austrian born artist who immigrated to the United States around a century ago." Seeing the approving expression on Elliott's face he continued in his usual self assured style whenever he had knowledge to impart. "He did quite a few murals in municipal buildings and government structures during the 1930s and forties. These look like they could have been his work but the colors are all off, faded and somehow stained. There's definitely some damage, actually a lot of damage."
"I told you," Peter smiled putting steaming mugs of coffee in front of both men and turning back to get his own.
"Neal I live in a hamlet about 15 miles northwest of Manhattan. There's a state psychiatric hospital there, which also houses a children's hospital and an institute for the study and treatment of the criminally insane. The state down sized the property about 20 years ago and sold the excess land, including the buildings on it to the town. It had been a vast complex and many of the buildings were abandoned for years before the sale. They've all fallen into disrepair and most are due to be demolished.
"Two of those buildings are architecturally unique. One, the former children's dormitory and school for the long term patients and the other a children's hospital, have several rooms that were decorated by Trent. Those photos were taken by a community group that I chair. We've been working to save the buildings by having them restored and put to use again. One would be to house children who have been removed from their parents' custody by the courts, and are in need of specialized treatment. The other would be for a school for the children. However we've run into a problem."
Neal looked from Elliott to Peter, who nodded and back to Elliott. Peter knew that Neal had always been a charitable man, even if it had at times been with other people's money. He also knew why such a project would touch Neal personally so he wasn't surprised to hear Neal ask what he could do.
"As you can imagine, Trent's murals had suffered from the exposure to the elements, among other things. They were painted directly onto the surface of the ceilings and walls so we can't remove them without removing the supporting structures. We tried to save them but even if we had the funds to remove and restore them, there would be no place to store them or display them. When remediation work began six months ago, reluctantly the murals were destroyed.
"We want to have original murals painted in those buildings which recreate the themes in a contemporary style but reminiscent of Trent. We need an art expert, art historian and artist who could guide us as to what settings, stories and activities would be appropriate, the best style to use and then ultimately do the work. I was telling Peter about this and he suggested I speak to you."
Neal could barely believe that Elliott was interested in his artistic skills, and not for forging or coping but for something original. Neal knew that only artists of national renown ever got commissions like this. He was awestruck. "I, I don't know what to say," Neal looked questioningly at Peter. "You must know that there are some, ah, complications."
Though he'd been offered freedom by OPR the work required of him would not only take him from the life he'd been building for himself, but sounded too much like the life that had gotten him thrown in prison in the first place. Peter kept talking about it as going over to the dark side, and selling his soul. It sounded exactly like Mozzie's description of his present position. Mozzie called it jumping from the fire into the furnace.
Until he made a decision, there was still a question about the level of restriction he had to suffer. For all intents and purposes, Neal was still on probation. Though Fowler had gotten him legally released, as long as he worked in the White Collar Division, he still had to wear the tracking anklet, restricting him to a two mile radius of his loft unless he was working with Peter.
"If you agree, I believe we can deal with any complications," Peter said as if reading Neal's mind.
"There is just one thing," Elliott looked even more nervous, if that were possible. "We have been able to obtain a small amount of federal grant money but according to the terms of the funding, it can only be used for materials, not labor. We don't have the money to pay you for your work, but Peter made a suggestion that he said you'd appreciate more than money and it's something that I think I can arrange."
There was only one thing Neal had ever wanted more than cash, and she was gone forever.
"What would that be?" he eyed Peter.
Peter's grin got wider, if that were possible, "Seeing as your consultant work here would take priority, the project, which would have to be done in your spare time, could take you up to a year and a half to complete. We've already spoken to Hughes. He's agreed that since this project is federally funded, this work could be considered part of your work release contract. With certain reasonable conditions," Peter eyed him knowingly, "we could get the government to agree that once you finish the project, you will have completed your obligation to the people. You'd be off probation and free."
"Free. I'd be free?" Now Neal's eyes were suddenly shiny and wide.
Peter walked over and placed his hands on Neal's shoulders drawing his attention to him, "Neal, the work will be highly publicized, a public relations win for the F.B.I., Raleigh's Committee and especially you. It could lead to other government and private commissions and could start you on a legitimate career in the art world. Isn't that something you've always wanted?"
Neal just stared at him wide eyed barely able to catch his breath. He couldn't believe what was happening. "How, you can do that? I mean, I don't know what to say. I…"
Peter slapped Raleigh on the back, "Now that's a miracle. Neal Caffery lost for words."
Neal had never dreamed, never considered that his artwork would ever bring him such an opportunity, such a legitimate chance to paint and to help others, doing something that brought him such joy. All he could do was gasp in wonder.
Peter, smiled, "Raleigh, I think that means yes."
Just so you all know, this story is completely written. If you want more, please let me know and there will be another chapter posted every few days.