Moderator: "There has to be immense trust between you two..."
Peter: "Usually. But when there isn't, there's always faith... Faith that whatever the other is doing, it's for a good reason." —"Vested Interest"
Peter's phone ringing at 7am on a Saturday was rarely a good thing. He glanced at the screen. It was Hughes—definitely not a good thing.
Hughes didn't bother with small talk. "Peter, did you mention that art auction to Neal?" Peter's heart sank. The White Collar division had been preparing to raid an auction of stolen art. It was rumored to be planned for next week, but they had kept the building under surveillance until then anyway. They had deliberately left Neal out of the loop on the grounds that it would be extremely tempting for him and too hard for them to keep a close enough eye on him.
"No, I haven't mentioned a thing. Like we agreed." Peter didn't want to ask the next question, but knew he had to. "Why do you ask?"
"Jones and Barrington just picked him up walking out of the building with a carrying tube. They're bringing him back to White Collar now."
"I'm on my way."
Peter sighed and rested his head in his hands. How stupid was he to think Neal wouldn't find out about the auction just because Peter didn't tell him? And why did Neal have to be an idiot and take the risk? If the painting in that case was stolen or forged, Neal would go back to prison. Even if the tube turned out to be empty, he could still go back to prison unless he convinced Hughes that he wasn't there for the auction.
El walked into the room and stopped dead. "Honey, what's wrong?"
Peter took a deep breath. "You know that illegal art auction I told you about?" She nodded. "We've been keeping the building under surveillance, and apparently Neal just walked out with a painting. They're taking him back to White Collar now."
"Oh, honey." El walked over to give him a hug. "Maybe he was there for something else?" she asked hopefully.
"Neal just happened to take a painting for a walk to the one building within his radius that's hosting an auction of stolen art? I wish it were true, El."
Neal, Hughes, Diana, and Jones were already in the conference room when he arrived. He could hear Neal talking as he approached.
"Agent Hughes, please. I can explain everything if you just let me show you the painting before you call Peter in."
"Or you could explain after Peter gets here, and then you won't have to repeat yourself."
"Hughes, please!" Neal sounded desperate. "Just look at the painting and hear me out! I wasn't there for any auction. If you still have doubts, you can always call Peter in. Just give me a chance first!"
Peter could see Diana where she was leaning against the wall. She looked torn, as if one part of her scoffed at the idea of playing along with Neal's tricks and the other part couldn't help believing him. Peter couldn't blame her. He couldn't come up with any legitimate reason why Neal wouldn't want him involved, but still, this didn't sound like suave Neal Caffrey pulling a con. He sounded sincere. Actually, he sounded close to tears, which wasn't like Neal at all.
Hughes had opened his mouth to respond when he saw Peter. He waved him into the room. Neal's shoulders slumped, all hope of avoiding Peter's involvement dashed. He looked down at the table and fidgeted with one of the buttons on his shirt cuff to avoid meeting Peter's gaze.
Hughes turned to fill him in. "So, Peter, Neal tells us he can explain why he was in the building by showing us the painting he was carrying. But he doesn't want you present. What are your thoughts on that?" Hughes taut smile didn't reach his eyes.
Peter hesitated. He wished Neal would look at him. Neal had fooled him many times, but he knew his CI well enough to pick up some clues, especially when he was genuinely upset. He frowned. If Neal was truly on the up-and-up, why wasn't he trying to convince Peter, or even looking at him? Finally, he answered.
"I think Neal's smart enough to know that if there's a stolen or forged painting in that case I will end up involved. And also smart enough to know that you, Diana, and Jones are just as qualified as I am to recognize a stolen painting or forgery...So, I'm going to assume he has a good reason for that request." Neal looked up. He looked startled and also incredibly relieved. Peter gave him a slight smile. Don't make me regret that, Neal. He glanced back to Hughes. "You want me to wait outside?"
Hughes looked surprised. After a moment, he nodded. Peter stepped out of the room. "All right, Caffrey. Show me the painting and convince me you're innocent."
Neal reached for the tube and slid the rolled-up painting out of it. He kept his eyes on what he was doing as he carefully unrolled it on the table. It was an impressionist style painting of a small bridge over a pond, surrounded by water lilies and other flowers. Just from the style and subject matter, it looked like a Monet, and yet—
"Is that Central Park?" said Diana.
And in the bottom corner was a prominent, clear signature: "Neal Caffrey."
The three agents studied the painting for a few moments longer before looking at Neal for an explanation. He shrugged, "As you can see, it's not stolen; it's not a forgery; it's nothing that anyone at an illegal art auction would want. I swear, I didn't even know there was an auction. I was there to see a guy who's really good at mixing paint. I wanted to see if he could help me figure out how to get the shade of yellow I wanted to finish it off." He gestured to a group of flowers that looked just a little less finished than the others, lacking some highlights. He glanced from face to face, trying to figure out if they believed him.
Diana slowly began to smile. She thought she was starting to understand what was going on here. Hughes and Jones still looked puzzled.
"If all you were doing was going to get advice on one of your own paintings, clearly labeled as your own work, then what was all that fuss about not letting Peter see it?"
Diana smirked and waited to see if she was right. Neal shifted nervously, not sure how this was going to be received.
"Because it's his birthday present."
Several weeks later, a small group gathered at the Burke household for Peter's party. El had provided a lavish spread of Peter's favorites as well as "fancy stuff," and Satchmo was making the rounds getting petted by everyone in attendance. By the time the cake was served, Peter's coworkers from the White Collar division were trying not to laugh at the sight of Neal, impeccably dressed in his suit and hat as always, sitting on the floor happily wrestling with the dog.
Most of Peter's birthday presents were small items: interesting books, a new coffee mug, etc. When Neal pulled out a large, flat wooden crate topped with a bow, Peter glanced over at his coworkers in shock. Diana and her girlfriend were grinning. Jones and Hughes looked amused.
No one had ever told Peter what Neal had shown them after he left the room. Hughes had simply walked out and commented "You were right. I've told him next time he should try to have his 'good reasons' somewhere we're not conducting a sting." He hadn't been told anything else about Neal's "good reason" for being in that building, but Peter had the feeling he was about to find out.
He opened the crate. He stomach lurched slightly when he took in the distinctive, famous painting style, even though he knew Neal wouldn't give him a forged painting in front of his boss and coworkers. A moment later, he recognized the scene, and finally he saw the bold signature in the corner. He was smiling as he picked up the card tucked inside.
"Happy birthday, Peter. You seemed to like the Monet-style painting you saw before, so I hope you'll like this scene. I didn't mean to give you a Saturday-morning heart attack to go with it—Sorry! Thanks for trusting me. —Neal"
Peter turned to his wife. "El, weren't you saying the other day that you thought we should put something new over the mantel?" He picked up the painting and turned it to face her, smiling, "How do you feel about a Neal Caffrey original?"