Summary: Neal takes a day off to paint a painting. Thanks to photoash who gave me this prompt and cheerleaded wonderfully :)

A blank canvas is a gift or a torture, depending on the day.

Today, Neal insisted, it would be a gift.

He was taking the day off for himself - really for himself, not just visiting contacts to maintain key relationships.

Just him and his brushes.

He wanted to do something different than what he usually did. Something hard.

Neal was a fan of all kinds of art, all periods, but he especially loved conceptual art, abstract art, and anything that is - or was at one point - avant garde. He loves it when an artist makes him see things differently: not just provoking the viewer into new ways to see the subject matter, but into new ideas about the properties of paint, the way the mind processes line and color, or the way abstraction refuses to settle into fixed form. Neal loves art that makes him feel like no matter how much he knows, he still has so much to learn. Art that pushes at the boundaries, and occasionally demolishes them.

He loves art that feels like a knife kissing at his throat, daring him to think about some gorgeously difficult question.

The art Neal, produces, however...

Is decidedly not that.

It is usually literal. A realistic depiction of something Neal is looking at or something he remembers. Usually sentimentalized in some way that would make it too heartfelt and bland for any gallery to want to show. It's a tribute to something, usually, not a revolution.

Which was fine. Neal knew that the very skills that made him one of the best forgers in the world (if he did say so himself - and he did, frequently) were the same ones that made him such a mediocre artist.

The problem was that fine dotted line between creating art and mere mimicry, that boundary between making something and pretending to make something (between being an artist and being a convincing imitation of one).

Great, innovative artists left that line in the dust; great, innovative forgers pretty much lived on that line.

Neal knew it was a lesser skill. Forging - and its performative counterpart, conning - is all about becoming what the world wants (desperately) to see. You figure out the lie the world wants and give it to them.

Art is all about originality, of having a truth so new the world doesn't have a place for it yet, and so you (again, desperately) try to get the world to see with different eyes.

Someone who can do a perfect forgery can't also do the perfect work of art. It's just the nature of the beast.

But Neal could dabble. He could paint, and love it, and be less than a great artist but still make something. Here, in June's apartment, with Mozzie busy for the day and Peter with Elizabeth and June out of town, Neal could paint whatever he wanted and, if necessary, decide he didn't like it and paint over his work with something new. As many times as he wanted. It might be trite or cloying or lacking in coherence, and it wouldn't matter. It would just be for him. It was the time spent painting that would matter today, pushing himself into seeing with different eyes than he used to plan a heist or to stop one.

He started by running his brush through a pool of beige, the thick and earthy tone shining wet with light. Then he added little flecks of red and umber and black to the brush, so there would be variety. Depth.

When he brought the brush up to the canvas, he stopped, unsure, then decided it didn't matter and just slid the brush in a short wide curve. Just a shape. Just some color to catalyze some ideas.

It looked a bit like a person. A person curled up like a pupa, waiting to emerge when it was safe and ready.

It was just a splotch on white, of course. But this was Neal's problem. He made a mark and then it was a person, a face or a body, or it was a place he had been to, a thing he had touched. His hands could make abstract shapes all day, but his eyes would always see something real.

But he decided to work with it.

He could try something inspired by surrealism maybe, since the person looked like he - or she - was in some sleeping state, suspended in some cocoon. He could do surreal; he would paint real things and then simply introduce elements that represented less literal things. Dreams or desires or distant hints of encroaching figures.

He thought, then added slender legs to the person, to the splash of color, and the legs were curled up to the person's chest. Arms around the knees, then, folded tight in on themselves.

Just a hint of a profile. Hair, long and dark, wrapping around the body like a scarf.

Neal decided it was a woman. Waiting for something.

He sketched in a sac around her, a cocoon since she looked like she was waiting for her transformation. A tear-shaped bag hanging by a fragile thread.

He pondered how to support the thread - it didn't feel right to leave it floating, surrealism-inspired or not. So he drew a branch that the wispy thread could hang from, gray, very dark. But then he worried that it looked like a dead tree, too brittle to hold, so he added more chestnut-colored paint.

He drew leaves so it would be a living tree, and not in winter. And just because he felt like it, he made each leaf a rectangle with rough edges, looking like someone scattered the pages of a tiny green book across the top of the painting. Neal took the similarity as inspiration, and instead of knifing black paint in to mark the veining of the leaves, he made each leaf look like it had lines of writing on it.

He filled in the background sparsely, with light gray clouds, or mist possibly - it could be mist - then little bundles of yellow dots, muted in tone but scattered all over the place. Like seeds poking out of the centers of wilted flowers, spots of color here and there to make everything seem overgrown.

He colored in the rest of the cocoon black, so she could hide in the dark until it was time to come out.

He thought about adding wings to her back: cottony moth wings in tan and gray, heavy and dark and stale looking. But he decided not to take the butterfly metaphor that far.

Then he looked at the painting and tried to figure out what else he needed to add. It didn't look done yet.

But already, Neal could tell that it was different than any painting, forged or not,that he had done before. Not better - in fact, not very good at all. But he had let go enough to try something new, something hard, and he was satisfied with himself.

But the painting obviously needed another little touch, some splatter of paint in the corner, some object thrown in to make the picture's narrative complete.

Neal stared at the painting. He thought about her, about this woman, waiting to become something free and unpredictable, squeezed into a darkness that wouldn't hold her for long. Waiting, hovering, clinging by a thread to a tree. Biding her time in silence beneath the rustle of a thousand coded messages...

The unreadable woman surrounded by unreadable leaves.

She needed something, Neal could tell. The painting wouldn't be complete until he figured out what to add.

But he knew, all of a sudden, that he wouldn't be able to figure it out that day. He felt a pull, a clench in his abdomen, and for some reason he no longer needed to finish in one sitting. There was something like dread flickering in his belly; he didn't want to see the last piece of the painting, the end of the story his brush was telling.

He let the paint dry and then moved the painting - the work-in-progress - to his hiding place in the library wall to finish it later. But he never actually did, never even took it out of its niche. It sat there for months, and then for years.

For a while, Neal told himself that he would finish it any day now, as soon as work let up or Mozzie didn't need him for anything or he didn't want to spend time with June. But eventually he realized it would sit there, out of sight but still in his mind, as he kept coming up blank trying to imagine that elusive last piece.

He didn't like having it there, necessarily, a figure trapped in plaster, never getting what Neal was supposed to give her.

Whatever that was.

But he couldn't bring himself to finish. To add that final stroke and see the picture as a whole. The totality of it, staring back at him.

It was too much to ask of him.