He's staring down the half-empty bottle of wine as if it uncorked itself and forced its way down his throat without consent. Neal swills what's left in his glass and downs it in one swallow. He's buzzed, in that happy, light state he loves where not a lot matters. The con doesn't matter, his anklet doesn't matter, his current FBI affiliations don't matter. He's got a home and friends and everything is right. Almost.
He's home, that's for sure. Peter's made his romantic New York dreams real, subtracted the running and the looking-over-the-shoulder that New York used to be when he was here last. It's exactly what he wished it was when he was eighteen, a beautiful city wide open for him to explore. And despite the complaints of the van and the radius, he secretly loves working for the FBI. He gets to take down old enemies with new power, help out some deserving folk and best of all; he gets to do it with the only partner he's ever fully trusted.
So when he thinks of home, it's with a fluttery ache. Part of home is having somewhere to be, somewhere to go; but home also means having someone to come home to. Neal glances around his loft, and feels the marked absence of another human being; it's a dull hurt that radiates out from right down in the center of his chest, like bicycle spokes, he thinks. With the wine humming through his body, he's forgetting why he doesn't call up Peter in these moments. It's late, but that's never stopped him before and Peter's crankiness from being woken up disappears when Neal has a good reason. He tries to think of a reason beyond whispering "I'm lonely" into the phone and hoping that Peter believes him.
He decides that another glass of wine will help him to his answer and he pours, almost missing and letting the vintage pinot noir spill over his tabletop. Neal smiles at his wine, practicing his wide, adorable, fake conman grin. He hopes that the wine buys it as he drains it in his mouth. The glass is set back down when Neal finishes and he rises to his feet, stumbling a bit and laughing when he realizes that he's drunk now. He looks over at the empty bottle and pouts.
"You did this to me," he accuses, grinning at it.
The bottle doesn't reply, so he fiddles in his jacket a moment for his phone. By luck, he makes it over to the couch, almost slipping and falling into it. His legs curl up next to him as he scrolls through the names in his phone. He could call Moz, the paranoid conspiracy theorist could help him forget his loneliness with a con. Or Sara, he likes Sara but she doesn't get him and she's doesn't trust him and he doesn't blame her. His eyes hover over Peter's name and he still hasn't come up with a reasonable excuse for calling. The alcohol thrums in his body and makes him nervous, sending tingly little 'do it, do it, do it' messages to his brain.
He pushes the call button and raises the phone to his ear, panicking and hoping that Peter doesn't answer while racking his brain for a good reason to be phoning this late. The agent answers halfway through the third ring and Neal can hear the huskiness of sleep in his voice. His mind whites out and for all his fast cons and easy lies, he can't think of anything to say after Peter says, "hello."
Neal fleetingly thinks of hanging up, but Peter has caller ID and he's not sure what his awkward explanation would be tomorrow morning in the office. Besides, Peter's voice comforts him, even if he is pissed at being called so late.
Peter has started on a mini-rage, "This better be good. If Neal cut his anklet—"
"Peter." Neal says.
"Neal?" he asks, anger vanishing at Neal's tone. "What's wrong?"
Neal attempts a laugh, but it breaks and he hiccups a little, "Noth—nothing's wrong, Peter. Why d'you always think something's wrong?"
"Because it's you; something's always wrong."
The receiver is muffled, but Neal can hear Peter telling El that it's Neal and that he's trying to figure out what's wrong and guilt rips through Neal's drunken haze at having disturbed the both of them. He wants to hang up, but Peter will call right back and demand an answer.
"Neal? Neal?" Peter says, resuming his conversation and losing the sound of sleep in his voice.
Neal can hear Peter shifting, presumably getting out of bed to continue this conversation away from El so she can go back to sleep.
"Yeah, Peter," Neal says softly.
"What is it? What's the matter? Tell me you've woken me up for a good reason. Do you know what time it is?"
Neal glances over at the clock on the shelf. "Quarter to three."
"Yeah, you're right. So what's your reason for getting me up at three?"
"Quarter to three," Neal corrects.
Peter sighs heavily. He's annoyed and Neal isn't coming up with any answers to relieve that.
"I'm lonely," he utters, regretting it as soon as he hears his own soft voice say it. Peter's going to laugh and tell him that he'll see him bright and early tomorrow morning and hang up. Neal won't get the solace that he's looking for and he'll have to drain dry another bottle before passing out. He'll wake up tomorrow and if he remembers tonight, he'll be thoroughly embarrassed for calling Peter and having him bear witness to one of the many debilitating and usually well-concealed shortcomings of The Great Neal Caffrey.
"Are you drunk?" Peter asks seriously, concern colouring his voice.
Neal doesn't have it in him to lie right now. "Yes."
"On a Tuesday night?"
"Wednesday morning, actually."
Peter chuckles. Even drunk, Neal has to be a smartass.
"Because my home, home…isn't a home."
"You're losing me, Neal. Your home, the place you rent from June?"
Neal pauses. He tries to word it in a way Peter can understand, but he can't get his tongue around the drunk. "My home, Peter. My home. Isn't…isn't a home. No one is here. 's a house—loft, whatever. But…but, not a home."
Peter breathes softly and Neal knows that he understands. Through the drunkenness and incoherence, Peter understands and his chest tightens when Neal repeats his first explanation.
"I'm lonely, Peter."
"I know, Neal."
"My home has no one to come home to," his eyes slip close because he doesn't want to be drunk and crying. "Not a home," he whispers desperately.
"Don't do anything stupid," Peter says, and there's a long pause. Neal hears rustling of fabric, a soft jingle and some whispered words between El and Peter.
"Peter?" Neal asks tentatively.
"Stay put and do not open another bottle of wine," Peter commands him before hanging up.
It takes the long beep-beep-beeps before Neal realizes that Peter's no longer on the other line. He lets the phone slip from his hand and it tumbles to the ground. It falls with a soft thud on the rug and Neal curls up tighter on the couch. He's drunk and sad and Peter has bailed on him. He couldn't be more alone and the thought makes his eyes fill with tears, for the gaping hole that grows wider to remind him that there is no one in his world who stays.
Before he knows it, there are tears running down his face and he cries quietly. He hiccups once or twice, but attributes that to the alcohol consumption because this isn't getting to him, not him, not Neal Caffrey, not as bad as he thinks. His tears taste like soured wine, he thinks, when they don't stop. He wonders why he thought Peter would drop everything for him now. He's got a wife, and Neal's stopped running. Peter likes a challenge and Neal is not that anymore. He's done and much less interesting now that Peter's caught him. There are only so many times Peter will even want to catch him, anyways. Neal's not exciting now that Peter's pinned him down and there's no reason for the agent to leap to his feet to solve The Puzzle of The Great Neal Caffrey. He mumbles to himself, trying to reassure himself that he's the greatest conman that's ever lived and he's so great that he can con himself into believing that he's not alone in an empty home.
Neal drags himself to his feet. Screw Peter and his demands. He pulls another bottle from the wine rack and fumbles with the corkscrew before popping it open and pouring a healthy amount into his glass on the table. He throws the first swallow back like a shot and continues to sip as he slumps against the wall and sinks down to the floor. He sets the glass on the floor next to him and he draws his knees up close to his chest and drops his head to touch his knees. He's been in the pit of the ugliest, foulest, rat-ridden back alleys and in the lap of some of the highest-class, wonderfully luxurious mansions but right now this is the most he's felt, the worst he's felt and he hurts in places he can't name.
Alcohol is his general anesthetic and as he drinks more of his wine, resenting that its serving function isn't taste and class, his thoughts slow and his shifting world dulls the pain in his heart. He sits there for a while, drinking, refilling and drinking some more. He's a great conman, he knows he is, he lives it. He lives through the fake smiles, the airy laughter, the witty jokes. He tries to grin, tries for that easy, casual, brilliant grin that he has whenever he's in a jam. It falters, like his muscles are paralyzed and he tries again and again and again. And each time, his smile doesn't reach its full wattage. Neal coughs, tears and alcohol have made his throat feel puffy with cotton and he rasps out a sad little sob. He's a piss poor conman if he can't even get up his smile. But conmen are allowed to cry, they're allowed to be real sometimes, sometimes, even if no one sees. He should be grateful for being able to still be real, to still pull back all the layers and see who he really is. It's just that he hates who he really is—a sad, lonely con artist whose only company are lifeless paintings that can't hug him or caress him or keep him warm.
Neal grits his teeth when he pours the wine and the glass gets half-full before all the wine runs out. He swills the wine and inhales deeply, savouring this glass like how Adler taught him, or tries to. Taste doesn't much matter when you're already pretty smashed. He sets the glass down by his side and stretches out, getting ready to spin another con about happiness because this sitting around and drinking will not cut it for New York's finest conman. His happiness is his creation and he just has to start creating.
There's a knock on the door, followed by a stern: "Neal."
Neal shifts to get up and stumbles because he can't quite make it to his feet. He glares at the bottle of wine. He's not sure who's on the other side or if he wants them to see him in this state.
"Neal!" The voice is insistent.
He makes another attempt to stand, which ends up sending his glass of wine to the floor. Red drains across the hardwood and Neal groans when he sees the crystal is chipped.
"I'm coming in, Neal."
Neal can't protest. Mostly because his sentences have devolved to incoherent strings of sounds, but partly because he doesn't care who it is, as long as it's flesh and blood to remind him that he's not alone.
Peter appears from behind the door and Neal's face washes with relief, happiness and hope. He reaches up for Peter as the agent nears him.
"You came," he whispers, as he hauls him to his feet.
Peter looks to the ground where Neal's wine has spilled. "Dammit, Neal. I told you not to do anything stupid."
"Shh," he urges, "Peter will get mad 'f he knows I opened anuffer bottle. He—he said not to, and then he hung up and left. So, I guessh it doesn't really matter…maaa-tter what he said…"
"Neal. Neal, come on. Can you stand?"
Peter loosens his grip on the younger man only to see Neal wobble and then pitch forth. Peter catches Neal before he bites the ground.
"Easy there, bud." Peter says, and shifts Neal so that most of his weight is resting over Peter's shoulders. "Let's get you into bed."
Peter manoeuvers Neal to his bed and lets him fall to the mattress while he struggles to pull the suit off him. Neal stretches and nuzzles his face into his 1000-count cotton sheets, making Peter's job difficult. Peter decides to take off his shoes and let Neal sleep in his suit. He can blame the wrinkles on his hangover the next morning; Peter's not taking the fall for this one.
Once Neal is settled into bed, Peter tries to get a lucid answer out of him.
"What are you doing drinking, Neal?"
"Thur's no one tah stop me," he utters and scrabbles with the sheets as he draws his legs up to his chest, looking so much like a child to Peter.
Peter understands and Neal's slurred sentence breaks his heart. He's never realized that Neal didn't have anyone. Peter knew that he had nothing on Neal's parents and the little he had scraped up on Neal's friends told him that they weren't really friends so much as other con artists who needed Neal's help with a job. But he thought surely, Neal must have some friends stashed away, maybe even a cousin that he could always fall on. Peter wonders absently if he's the closest thing that Neal has to a friend. Neal's certainly the closest friend he's ever had. He'd always assumed that Neal, with his charming grin and dashing personality, would never be lonely. Neal would've had an endless supply of ways to remedy that, unlike Peter's abhorrent flirting and people skills.
Peter brushes back Neal's hair, his curls drifting off into his eyes as Neal moves ungracefully, trying to put himself in a position to see Peter. Neal eventually wriggles around until he's got Peter's eyes in his sight and Peter winces to see how red-rimmed they are from the alcohol and what he unwillingly figures to be tears. Neal's translucent blue eyes stare back at him, pleading silently for his understanding and company. This is a very different Neal Caffrey from the one that struts around in the office, or the one that pulled heists in Italy or even the one that sat in Kate's empty apartment staring at a drained bottle of wine. This Neal has lost hope and has no intention of ever finding it again.
Peter can't bear to look in his eyes for very long, not with that soulless, saddened shell of a man staring back at him. He gets up to look for a garbage can for Neal, in case he has to throw up, and hears a barely audible whimper from Neal. He looks back and Neal's eyes are wide, staring at him and wondering why he's leaving. Peter sits back down and puts a hand over Neal's head, fingers threading through his hair.
"I'm just getting a wastebasket. Can you sit tight while I look?"
Neal nods and Peter's heart clenches at the image that this Neal makes, a frightened boy begging for his acquiescence. He lingers a moment. How can he leave now? Neal will probably have a mental breakdown if Peter goes back home.
Peter heads to the washroom and grabs the can there. He waits a moment and phones El, to let her know that he won't be coming back tonight because Neal needs him. He waits anxiously for her reply, but she just says that she knows and she tells her husband to make sure that Neal's alright, to do whatever it takes to make that boy alright again and that she'll see both of them tomorrow for lunch, a picnic, if the weather holds up. Peter smiles, wondering how he got such a blessed wife. He turns to go back to Neal.
Neal's staring at the door that Peter went through, hoping that the agent will come back, but knowing not to be disappointed if he doesn't. Too many people have left him, too many doors that shut and never opened again for Neal to be naïve about this. Peter steps out of the washroom, having taken too long in Neal's opinion, but his sense of time is warped by the alcohol and his loneliness, so Neal writes it off. Peter goes around the other side of the bed to set the wastebasket down.
Peter then walks to the couch, unnerved by Neal's eyes tracking him the whole time. He sits down and watches Neal. Neal blinks and for once, he can't anticipate the agent's moves. Peter frowns at Neal's state and feels sorry and so stupid for not being able to see this coming. He'd always assumed that Neal had everything under control, with that suave exterior; Neal must've had even himself conned.
"You want me to stay?" Peter whispers.
Neal nods; a small movement of his head that he resents. He needs someone right now and Peter's still too far for Neal to feel comforted and not lonely and he hates that he needs Peter like this at all right now. Peter watches him a moment longer before unlacing his wingtips and kicking them off. He glances up at Neal to see the con artist watching him like he's studying a recovered painting from the Renaissance era. Neal's still got his charm, even with tear-stained cheeks and drunken incoherence, and Peter would be a very sorry man to leave his friend in this state. Neal deserves to be loved, properly—not by some insatiable woman who leaves him on a dime—but by someone who values and respects Neal as much as Peter does. Neal's made some bad choices in life, or rather; let those bad choices catch up with him. But Peter thinks, if Neal hadn't stolen that art, forged those bonds, painted those masterpieces and left him with birthday cards and memos, Peter wouldn't be here in his loft. Wouldn't be working with him now, wouldn't see him every day, and wouldn't have gotten the chance to learn just what a wonderful friend and man Neal Caffrey is. He shucks his jacket and slides his belt from his pants. It strikes Peter that perhaps, just maybe, Neal wanted to be caught. Wanted to have someone care about him and as sad as it makes him to realize that at the time, Neal must've thought, Peter, the agent chasing him down, was the only one who cared about him. It humbles Peter to know that even then, Neal's always thought of Peter as a friend.
It's what prompts Peter to gently tug the blankets from under Neal's drunken form and slide into the bed with him. Neal is startled at first; that Peter would even want to stay with him, let alone stay this close to him, but he's too lonely and drunk to care. Before Peter can cover them both, Neal's already pressing closer to Peter, wrapping his arm around the agent's midsection and burying his head into Peter's side. Peter pauses when he feels Neal's head against his ribs, he runs a careful hand through Neal's hair and tucks the blankets under Neal's chin. Neal has longed for this feeling for as long as he can remember. He feels safe and secure under Peter's arm, and loved, he realizes belatedly. How long has it been since he actually felt loved? Since someone cared enough to take his desperation and loneliness seriously enough to try to alleviate some of it. Neal melts, exhales like someone's popped a leak in a waterbed, and everything rushes out. He's overwhelmed with sensations, with the loneliness-ache dissipating, with Peter's warmth radiating into him, with his mind silencing the chattering, with his muscles tensing sharply and then relaxing for what feels like forever. Neal doesn't understand why Peter is so profoundly interested in him, but he doesn't want to question it and pull apart the layers to find a reason he doesn't like. Besides, Peter's a good man, he doesn't have ulterior motives and he can't hide anything worth his salt. Peter is here because he wants to be here and the thought comforts Neal from the inside out, renewing tired dreams. Peter cares about him and wants him to feel safe and loved.
Neal nuzzles into Peter and Peter shifts to get Neal into a more comfortable position. He wriggles his shoulder under Neal's head and threads his hand through Neal's thick hair. Neal's eyes have closed, reassured by Peter's proximity and Peter watches quietly as Neal's breathing deepens and evens out. When he's sure that Neal is fully unconscious, he presses a warm hand to Neal's cheek.
"I didn't see this coming," he says softly, brushing the pads of his fingers across Neal's temple. "That probably makes me a bad friend, doesn't it? I was too absorbed in our cases, awed by your skills. Evil, criminal skills that made me forget that you're…you're actually human, too. God, and you have so much potential, Neal."
Neal gives a little snort in his sleep and Peter smiles, brushing Neal's hair away from his face. He wraps an arm around Neal and pulls him closer; holding him tight against his body, like their presence together was a force that could take on anything from white collar criminals to an angry Hughes to Neal's inner monologue on loneliness.
"Despite all your tricks and damn, all your annoying little habits… you, you deserve more than this. Hell, if it weren't for the lying, cheating and stealing, you'd deserve the life you had before this. Probably. But no one deserves to be so lonely that they willingly let themselves get caught…"
Neal is fast asleep when Peter whispers a quiet, tentative, "I care about you, Neal."
Peter decides that tomorrow will probably be a long day dealing with a hungover Neal Caffrey and he's going to need sleep in order to tackle that. He settles in a bit lower on the pillows and his chin rests over Neal's head, buried in his hair. Peter falls asleep quickly, exhausted from the day and from his new revelations about Neal. It's when he begins to snore that Neal lifts his head and watches Peter for a few moments, eyes tracing in all the features and seeing all the many ways he could try, but fail, to capture him through art. Peter is too special to be painted perfectly. It's the one original that Neal would never be able to make a replica of and Neal is perfectly fine with this knowledge. Peter is exceptionally wonderful to him, most days, when it counts, at least, and Neal wouldn't be here without him. He moves to touch Peter's face, drawing away at the last moment and instead opting to press his lips to the agent's in a chaste, grateful kiss.
"I care about you, too, Peter."