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Fandom: White Collar
Title: I See Myself Through Glass
Rating: PG
Spoilers/Warnings: Season 3 mid-season finale. A little angsty.

Summary: It's not quite a self-portrait.


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I See Myself Through Glass

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Neal was nothing if not a man of action. He knew what he wanted and took it. He knew who he was and was unapologetic. Hell, he knew all baker's dozen of himself down to names of the dogs he doesn't own. Neal Caffrey has been simple and singularly motivated for a very long time.

Then Mozzie stole a U-boat and took Neal along for the ride without even asking.

He stalled. He stalled until Moz called his bluff and gave him an ultimatum: freedom on the lam or prison (Prison. The stint with the suit was never more than that in Moz's eyes). And in the end, he let Moz walk out the door without him.

He waited for the relief to temper the bittersweetness of their parting. And came it did—popped by for a little visit and stayed for a glass of wine. But it was short-lived as the anxiety that had been eating away at him for months transformed into doubt. He wasn't used to being unprepared. There were no next steps, no plan B's or contingencies. He wasn't used to not feeling like Neal Caffrey.

He picks up a paintbrush.

-'-

It's been a long time since Neal has drawn anything original. He doesn't remember if he had a style he could call his own. Everything he creates is a re-creation, a copy, an echo. A fake.

He tries to paint something that was him after he made the decision to stay, to play it straight, but every time he pulled the paintbrush away from the canvas it was the work of another artist: the skyscraper from his window finished with the dappled strokes of Monet, the night sky ended up swirling across the canvas like Van Gogh. Even a charcoal sketch of Kate, pulled lovingly and painfully from his memory, intimate and his alone, manifested in the soft lines of Michaelagelo. But, as El had suggested the first time he said goodbye, perhaps Kate had stopped being real a long time ago.

That night, Keller takes El.

After the dust had reasonably settled on the incident and Peter had reamed him about towing both sides of the line, Neal tried his hand at self-portraits.

He'd outline the bust, the curly-cue of his hair, fill in the background, sketch out his face. Then he'd brush in a shadow that grew and grew until the whole canvas was gray. He tried again, canvas after canvas of paintings with missing faces, a half-dozen Magrittes with invisible, opaque apples. He steeled himself to draw in the eyes, he knew they were blue and sparkling with mischief – the marks he's seduced have told him as much – but his hands instead plunged into the black pigment and hollowed out where his eyes ought to have been, a socket dark and empty.

He sat and considered the latest faceless, eyeless shade, a smoldering frustration in him flaring into anger. He's angry because even when he accepted there was an ugly truth, he still couldn't express it (He didn't think he's soulless—the dull ache in his heart too real for it not to be there). Angry because his hands, his art, the one thing he could count on, that gave him control, were letting him down. Angry because it was better than being afraid that what he was, was actually nothing at all.

-'-

(Peter stops by unannounced one Saturday and frowns at the disfigured and abandoned etchings stacked against the walls.

"Neal, do we need to talk about this?"

"I'm working through some stuff," Neal replies.

Peter's brows furrow as he considers Neal as if he was one of his cases, another piece of the puzzle bagged and tagged to be examined. "Uh-huh" is all he says on the matter and Neal aches a little where his heart ought to be.)

-'-

Twenty minutes later, Neal locks the storage room door behind him with a click.

Forget the self-portraits. Paint what you know.

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He painted Mozzie, rendered as a melon with a Mr. Potato nose and glasses.

El, her arms around Satchmo and looking out with her warm smile in a soft Gaussian blur.

Peter...distorted and ugly, angry and cunning with the sharp, stark strokes of Kirchner.

-'-

He's proud of this one, but deciding to give it to the Burkes was nothing short of terrifying. It's nearly two months before he brings it to the Burke home and if only El's there to answer the door...well...

"Neal," El breathed, "This...this is beautiful."

It's the view of Peter's office from Neal's desk, the vantage point low looking up into the office next to the bullpen.

It's night, there's no other subject in the painting, the foreground and background cast in shadow. Only the warm glow of the desk lamp and the computer monitor illuminates the center—Peter, hunched over his desk, concentrating on a case. A light reflection and sheen suggested the glass wall Peter was behind. It was lovingly rendered, a sense of reverence felt more than seen for the subject; peace, respect. Blues against the warm tones of the subject.

Framed and signed. A Neal Caffrey original.

"What do you call it?"

Neal hesitated.

"Peter, as I see him."

El's eyes glistened as she turn and locked eyes with him.

"Parenthesis around 'as I see him,'" he finished with a soft smile.

"Oh, Neal," El barely said as she embraced him. She held on for a long time and Neal remembered what it felt like to breathe again.

-'-

"El hung it in the dining room."

Neal looked up from his Chinese take-out across from Peter's desk.

"Vanity aside, I'd say it's an improvement over the other ones." It's both a thank you and an inquiry. Neal grins at Peter through dangling chow mein instead.

"Did you end up finishing them?" Peter's tone was nonchalant, but his gaze was focused.

Neal shrugged and dipped his chopsticks into the broccoli beef. "No."

Peter waited.

Patient. Peter was nothing if not patient with Neal, more patient that Neal thought he deserved, waiting to be offered something real rather than taking it. It was a fundamental difference between them that made this work, despite everything.

"I was trying to figure myself out..." Neal felt a little too vulnerable as the words left his mouth. "You know, as an artist…" he added.

Peter raised an eyebrow. "And?" he prompted.

"And." Neal shrugged, "I couldn't."

"And so you painted someone who could find you for you?" Peter quipped with a lob-sided smile.

Neal's mind stuttered for a beat, suddenly feeling very exposed as if Peter had cleared the fog and stumbled on a kernel of truth Neal hadn't been able to identify or articulate.

Neal would never tell Peter he looked up to him, a specimen behind glass, a creature from a world completely foreign to Neal's. That he thought that if he could only understand what he stayed for, who he stayed for, he can feel comfortable in his own skin again.

Neal smiles, for real this time.

"Yeah, something like that."

-'-


A/N: First White Collar fic! Comments appreciated.