Peter was knocking, but no one was answering the door.
Peter frowned. Neal was supposed to be here. Even if his tracking data hadn't confirmed it, June had told him that Neal was home when he arrived. Cautiously, he turned the knob and pushed the door open, hoping against hope that he wasn't about to find Neal Caffrey mid-coitus, or something else equally horrifying.
What he found was Neal, barefoot, dressed in grey pajama pants and an undershirt. He was standing in front of a painting, holding a palette in his left hand and a brush in his right, his hand frozen in front of the canvas.
"Neal!" Peter barked.
Neal startled. "Peter!" he said, a little guiltily. "What brings you here so late?" he asked, smiling that Neal sort of smile. His jaw had a streak of blue across it that should have made him look goofy. Irritatingly, it just made him look artfully dishevelled.
"Just dropping off those files," Peter said, tossing said files onto the table. "Is that anything I need to be concerned about?" he asked, nodding to the painting.
Neal turned and glanced at the painting. "You're so suspicious," he said. "Not everything I paint is a forgery, you know. I was just trying to clear my mind."
Peter looked at it, closely. It was busy and dark. Not really his taste, but even he could see the care and the control in the brush strokes. Each one looked casually but perfectly placed. It was very Neal. "It's good," he said, nodding. "You ever considered selling your own? You know, instead of forging other people's art and selling those?"
"Other people's art is actually worth money," Neal pointed out, grinning.
Peter shrugged. "Someone would probably pay something for that. Probably."
Neal laughed. "You don't really like it," he said.
"No, it's... good," Peter said, awkwardly. He waved a finger at the painting. "The brushstrokes are good."
Neal laughed again, setting down his palette and brush carefully. He picked up a paint-smeared wineglass from the table and sipped at it. "Do you know why art is art, Peter?" he asked.
"Enlighten me," Peter said, folding his arms.
"Art is all about perspective," he said. "Point of view, I mean. Monet, Degas, Renoir- all the greats- they were all teaching us to see things in a new way. The best artists, the ones who matter, they have exquisite technique- but more importantly, they have vision. They're teaching us to see through their eyes." Neal smiled, tilting his head. "That's why I'm such a good forger," he said. "It's what I do. I get into people's heads; I make them see what I want them to see. I make them see what the original artist saw. I'm a con-man with paint."
Peter snorted. "I think that technique might have a little more to do with why you're a good forger," he said, skeptically. "That, and more knowledge about period paints and canvases than is good for you."
Neal smiled, his eyes twinkling. "Aw, Peter," he said. "Is that a compliment? I think it is."
Peter stepped closer to the painting, squinting at it again. "I know it seems like forever now, but someday your sentence will be up. You'll have to find a life for yourself."
"What, trying to get rid of me already?" Neal said. Peter noticed the way that he subtly leaned into the leg with the anklet.
"I'm serious," Peter protested.
"I was being serious," Neal said. "I'm a good forger. The best. And part of the reason for that is that I can look at a painting-" He walked over to a bookshelf and pulled off one of his huge art books. He flipped to a page. "Olivé's Pescadors," he said, pointing to a brownish-orange painting showing boats in the distance. "If I were going to forge it-" He paused, throwing Peter a grin. "If, don't get nervous- I would start by thinking about what he meant by this- the boats, the men, the way it's all framed by stone and distance. Do you see how the barrels are as important to him as the men? They're more detailed. It's like the place is the thing that matters-" He broke off, shrugging. "I've got no vision," he said, looking at the painting. "Art tells a story, but I don't have one to tell." He smiled, like it didn't matter. Like he doesn't matter, a voice in the back of Peter's mind commented.
"Whose vision is that, then?" Peter said gruffly, pointing at the canvas.
Neal shook his head. "I'll show you what I mean," he said. He pulled the canvas off the easel and set it to the side. "I'm going to forge a painting."
"Neal-" Peter warned.
Neal smiled, brilliantly. He took another canvas from the stack against the wall. "An original Peter Burke," he said.
"I don't paint," Peter said, smiling warily.
"We're both very aware of that," Neal said, but it didn't stop him. He pushed his palette and brush out of the way and grabbed a new one. "Peter Burke doesn't like oils," he told Peter. "They're too fussy. He likes painting with acrylics better. Bright colors and easy cleanup; no messing around with turps or linseed."
"Is that an insult?" Peter asked.
Neal shrugged, smiling, his eyes twinkling. "Burke doesn't like to mix paints, either," he said, pulling tubes out. "The colors that come out of the tubes are fine by him, and if he wants something else, he can mix it on the canvas." He began squeezing paint out onto his palette in deft, even lines. "Burke likes color," Neal said, hand hovering over the rack of paints. "But not too much of it. He likes to savor it. He believes that if you use only a little color, it pops better. It makes you really appreciate what you have."
Peter shrugged. "Okay," he said, unsure where this was going. "What kinds of things do I paint?"
Neal shook his head. "One of the things about Burke," he said, raising a brush, "is that he barely sketches on the canvas. He doesn't have to. When he goes to the canvas, he already has the painting clear in his mind, and what he hasn't prepared for, he can figure out when he's in the middle of the painting. He's quick on his feet." Neal dipped a brush in brown paint and brought it across the canvas. "If you met the artist," he continued, "you'd think he liked realism."
"I do like realism," Peter argued.
Neal shook his head again. "If you met Burke, you'd think he liked straight lines. And he likes to play with those things in his paintings; he knows what people expect from him. He doesn't mind that. But that's not really what he's all about. That's not really the way his mind works."
"How does my mind work, then?" Peter asked, dryly.
Neal glanced back at him, his lips curled up into a half-smile. The brush swept across the canvas, forming paint into... Peter wasn't sure what. "His brushwork is meticulous," he said. "He starts small and precise at the edges, especially when he's painting the parts that are most realistic. But by the time the painting has really gotten going, he's opened up a little. His colors are mixing, and he's painting in broad strokes. He's all about the contrast of the expected and the unexpected. The mundane and the fantastic. You never know what a Burke means the first time you look at it."
"I'm glad my brushwork is good," Peter commented, putting his hands in his pockets as he watched.
"But the thing that makes a Burke so remarkable," Neal continued, conversationally, "Is how he makes you look at the world. How he makes you look at the things that he cares about the most." He stopped, looking closely at the painting. He flicked the brush over the canvas, a long, broad stroke, and suddenly Peter couldn't help but think of El- the curve of her hip. The color of her skin. "That's Burke's secret," Neal said, reaching for a new brush. He cocked his head. "The way he sees, really sees what's going on around him. He's okay with letting everyone think he's a schmuck in a suit, because he knows better."
"Hey!" Peter protested. "No one thinks I'm a schmuck in a suit."
Neal just grinned. "Burke really only loves two things: his wife, and the law." He paused, glancing back at Peter. "No, not the law, exactly. Justice. He loves making things right." He painted furiously, the canvas filling with color and shape. "He helps people. That's what the law means to him."
Peter stood and watched, feeling uncomfortably naked. Or maybe uncomfortably as though Neal was naked.
Neal stopped. He put down his brush and picked a smaller one out of the jar. He dipped it in black paint, and then painted Peter's signature- impeccably- on the lower right corner of the painting. "There," he said. "Burke's El #1. It's a perfect forgery. No one will ever be able to tell the difference."
Peter stared at the painting. It seemed to be set in his living room. He was pretty sure that he recognized his couch; he knew he recognized the coffee table, strewn with files. And there, that was his hand, reaching for a file folder. Most of the painting was in neutral tones- beiges and greys and charcoal black. But the files were a riot of clear FBI blue.
Most of the painting, though was taken up by the woman who was lounging on the couch. It wasn't really El; it was abstract. The suggestion of a woman; the implication of a couch. All the same, it was exactly El. The fall of her dark hair. The shape of her smile. The soft and perfect curves of her body, comfortable against him.
Peter swallowed, his throat dry. "Neal," he said, and then wasn't sure what else to say.
"Burke's really unoriginal with titles," Neal said. "They're practically all named El."
"It's-" Peter started, and then stopped, entranced by the image on the canvas.
"You can have it if you want. It'll be dry tomorrow." Neal grinned. "Or you could submit it to a gallery. Make a name for yourself as an artist."
"It's not my work," Peter said.
"It's not mine," Neal replied, smiling. "I'm just a forger."
It hurt a little, looking at the painting. Because it was good. Peter could imagine that if he could paint, if he cared about art, he might paint something like that. And there was Neal, with all that talent and all that brilliance wasted, because he could never manage to get his head on straight. "That's not a forgery," Peter said. "Well, except the signature. I wish you weren't quite so good at forging my signature."
"Old habits," Neal allowed. He turned away, tidying brushes and tubes of paint.
"I think you see just fine," Peter told him.
Neal smiled, glancing back at Peter. "I'll look over those files tonight," he said.
A/N: Well, that's my first foray into the world of White Collar. I hope you enjoyed it. :)