pooh_collector: (pooh again)
[personal profile] pooh_collector
Title: A Christmas Pilot
Author: pooh_collector
Rating: G
Characters: Neal Caffrey, Peter Burke, Elizabeth Burke, June Ellington, Diana Berrigan, Clinton Jones
Pairings: Past Neal/Kate, Pre-P/E/N
Spoilers: S:1 E:1, Pilot
Warnings: Canon Character Death
Word Count: 12,370
Summary: A retelling of Pilot set during the holiday season where Neal was never a criminal, but he and Peter strike a deal (or two) nonetheless.
A/N: Thanks [livejournal.com profile] kanarek13 for all the amazing art!






Last Christmas

The snow was falling harder, swirling in the winter wind. It bit into Neal’s skin and froze onto the tips of his hair and his eyelashes. The plane was on the far side of the tarmac and Neal was just close enough to see his beautiful wife Kate though one of the cabin windows. She waved and he smiled, fighting against the tightness the cold created in the muscles of his cheeks.

He pulled his coat tighter against his body and resumed his walk to the private plane they had chartered to take them to the Cote d’Azur to celebrate the holidays and their first anniversary.

Neal heard his phone buzz inside his coat pocket. He hesitated, his sense of responsibility telling him it could be a client and he should answer it. But there was Kate, standing in the open doorway of the plane. She waved him toward her, love and excited anticipation on her face before she disappeared back into the cabin. Work could wait, he was on vacation; his wife was his only responsibility now.

His phone buzzed again and Neal was flooded by a sudden unexplainable dread. He stopped and when his cell buzzed a third time, he pulled it from his pocket. He didn’t recognize the number, but something compelled him to hit accept.

As he raised the phone to his ear, Neal saw a brilliant flash out of the corner of his eye. An instant later he heard the explosion. Before he had time to register what had just happened, he was thrown onto the icy ground his skin burning where it had been freezing just a moment ago.


This Christmas

The foremost expert on safecracking for the New York division of the FBI cracked his knuckles and leaned in against the wall of safe boxes. He placed his fingers gently on the lock wheel and began to slowly turn it clockwise.

“Drop three.”
“Drop two.”
“Drop four. All pins down, preparing to open.”

Something was tickling at Peter’s brain. Those numbers… “Three, two, four… Wait!” Peter yelled as he turned toward the vault.

An instant later there was a muffled explosion and then smoke poured from the entrance to the vault. Peter raced into the thick grey cloud. The visibility was zero inside the safe, but he found his expert when he inadvertently slammed into him. Peter grabbed the man by the sleeve of his shirt and hauled him out of the safe and back into the marble-floored vestibule.

“What happened?” The safecracker asked once he had coughed the smoke from his lungs.

“I said wait and you didn’t wait,” Peter replied, his annoyance clearly evident in the tone of his voice. “Ten thousand man hours to get this close to the Dutchman and you blow up my evidence.”

“Agent Burke, how did you know it was going to do that?” Jones was the most promising young agent on Peter’s team, but the question further irritated him nonetheless.

“Look at your phones,” Peter ordered. “Three, two, four - what does it spell?”

“Oh, FBI,” Clinton Jones replied.

“Yeah, FBI.”

“Apparently he knew we were coming,” Jones concluded.

“You think so, Copernicus?” Peter shook his head and then headed back into the vault. The smoke had mostly dissipated, but Peter still coughed from the remnants.

Inside the booby-trapped box Peter saw a rolled up piece of paper. He grabbed a pair latex gloves out of his jacket pocket and pulled them on. Then he reached inside the box and gently pulled the paper free. It was small, maybe six by ten inches. Carefully, he unrolled it; it was badly damaged from the blast and the smoke, but from what Peter could still make out it looked like a small pen and ink drawing.

He stepped back out of the vault and held the paper up carefully for his agents to see.

“Somebody wanna- wanna tell me what this is? Huh? Anybody? Nobody knows what it is. Great. Look at you. How many of you went to Harvard?”

The majority of the men and women surrounding him raised their hands.

Peter shook his head in disgust. “Don’t raise your hands, don’t.”

***



That night, Peter brought the ever-growing Dutchman file home with him. After dinner he sat at the table and stared at a photo of the damaged page that came out of the vault.

El came out of the kitchen where she had been cleaning up after dinner and wrapped her arms around him from behind, as was her habit. “Hmmmm.”

“You know what this is?” Peter asked, hopefully.

El plucked the picture from his hands and stood, examining it thoughtfully for a moment before answering. “Not specifically. But, it looks like it could be an old etching on parchment.”

“An etching?” Peter asked, turning in his chair to face his wife.

“See here and here,” El said pointing at the various places on the photo. “With an ink drawing, there is less uniformity in the density the lines. So this was probably a print made from a plate. I can’t tell for sure of course, since this whole section on the top and the left is so damaged, but if I had to guess.”

Peter sighed. “That’s the problem. I need more than a guess. I’ve spent years chasing this guy and this is the best clue I’ve had in a long time. I need to know what it is so I can use it to get him for whatever he’s up too now.”

“Then you need an art restorer, and a good one.”

“Yeah? Got one hiding upstairs in the closet that I don’t know about?”

El smiled. “No, but I might know one. His name is Neal Caffrey. He consulted for the Diarmitt while I was there. I can call the manager tomorrow and see if they have a contact number for him.”

***

Three days, and five voicemail messages later, Peter was getting tired of waiting to hear back from Neal Caffrey. Christmas was fast approaching and Peter wanted to be able celebrate not only the holiday, but the capture of the Dutchman that day.

The information El had gotten from her former manager hadn’t included an address and it took some serious digging, but Peter finally came up with a place of residence for Neal Caffrey on Riverside Drive. When he pulled up Peter couldn’t believe that an art historian and restorer could afford to live in the stately mansion that stood before him. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

He double checked the address he had written down and then approached the front door. A maid answered the bell and ushered Peter inside. The house was as palatial on the inside as it was on the exterior. From down the hallway, cast in shadow, a woman was approaching.

“I must have the wrong address.”

“You must be Peter,” the woman stated as she emerged into the light. She was a handsome older woman, dressed richly, carrying a small pug in her arms. “He’s upstairs. He’s been expecting you.”

Peter couldn’t find the words to answer. The whole experience thus far had been too surreal.

“Just take the stairs up to the fourth floor and knock on the door to the right,” the woman instructed him, pointing toward the grand staircase.

“Thank you,” Peter finally managed to say before heading up the stairs.

On the fourth floor, Peter found the door easily enough and knocked sharply. There was no response immediately, and Peter was just about to knock again when he heard someone yell out. “Who is it?”

“Agent Peter Burke, with the FBI. I left several messages.”

Peter heard some rustling and then footsteps approaching the door. The door opened, a few inches, and Peter was face to face with a man with the brightest blue eyes and the longest eyelashes he had ever seen. Even more disconcerting was the long, disheveled sweep of brown hair and the full unkempt beard on the younger man’s cheeks and chin. Through the narrow opening Peter could see that the man was barefoot and dressed in a pair of paint-stained chinos and a white tank that stretched snuggly against his lean, but muscled torso.

“What do you want?” The man who Peter assumed was Neal Caffrey asked.

Peter lifted his eyebrows. “Well, as I explained in the several messages I left, I was hoping to enlist your expertise with a damaged etching I found as part of a case.”

“What kind of etching?” Caffrey asked suspiciously.

“I’m not really sure, which is why I need your help.”

Caffrey shook his head. “I don’t think so.” He started to close the door, but then stopped. “But, thank you for the offer,” he concluded politely.

Before Peter had the chance to formulate any sort of reply, the door was shut and the lock was clicked in place.

The older woman who had greeted Peter when he first arrived was waiting for him in the foyer at the bottom of the stairs.

“When I got here you told me he was expecting me?” Peter asked as he reached the main floor.

“Yes, he assumed you would be persistent enough to come and find him. Did he agree to help you?”

“Ah, no.” Peter replied with a shake of his head.

A look of sadness flitted across the older woman’s face, “Come back tomorrow, at four, we’ll have tea.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Neal and I always take tea in the sitting room at four. Please join us tomorrow.”

Peter nodded. “Thank you…”

“June, June Ellington.”

“Thank you, Ms. Ellington.”

“Oh, please call me June.”

***

Peter spent a lot of time over the course of the day, and a fairly sleepless night, trying to decide whether or not to go to tea. He desperately wanted to catch the Dutchman, oh how he wanted to catch the Dutchman, but he wasn’t sure that dealing with someone as odd as Neal Caffrey seemed to be was worth the trouble.

The next morning, he assigned Diana, his probie, to come up with an alternative. There was a woman who lived in Los Angeles, a retired guy whose eyesight was apparently gone in New Rochelle and some guy named Curtis Hagen, who had a reputation for being one of the best in the world and also the surliest. Caffrey’s reputation had eclipsed Hagen’s by far, he seemed to have been the undisputed best, for everything from Byzantine art up to Postmodernism, until a year ago when Caffrey appeared to go to ground, taking only a few smaller jobs since.

So Peter found himself back at June Ellington’s mansion just before four, for tea and a second attempt at recruiting Neal Caffrey.

The maid took Peter’s coat and then led him down the hallway to a sitting room where June was already waiting. “Good afternoon, Peter.”

“Good afternoon.”

“Please have a seat, Neal will be here any moment.”

Peter nodded and sat in a chair next to the settee that June was occupying. He had barely settled himself when Caffrey entered the room. He looked different, better than he had just the day before. He still had the scraggly beard but his long hair was combed and slicked back. Today’s chinos were paint free and instead of the tank, the younger man wore a pressed button-down shirt and Italian leather shoes.

June stood as he entered, “Neal dear, you remember Agent Burke.”

Neal hid his surprise at finding an unexpected guest quickly; Peter was just able to catch a glimpse before he moved into the room and sat in the chair opposite Peter.

A moment later, the maid brought in a large tray with a tea service for three and an assortment of pastries. She set the tray down on the coffee table in front of the settee and then retreated from the room.

“Agent Burke, how do you take your tea?” June asked as she picked up one of the china teacups and its saucer and began to pour from the pot.

“Black is fine, and please call me Peter.”

June handed him his cup. “Please help yourself, Peter,” June said nodding toward the plate of sweets. She turned her attention toward Neal then, pouring his tea and adding a dash of milk before handing the cup to him.

“Here you are, dear.”

“Thank you,” Neal replied quietly.

Peter had just shoved an amazing chocolate butter cookie into his mouth when June turned back to him. “So Peter, I hear that you have a puzzle that you would like Neal’s help with.”

Peter nodded, unable to speak around the cookie, and grabbed the manila envelope that he had brought with him. He pulled a high-quality photo of what was left of the etching they had found in the ruined safe box and laid it next to Neal’s tea saucer.

After he swallowed, he pointed to the photo. “This is the one lead we have to catch a forger we call the Dutchman. If Neal can restore it well enough for us to determine who the artist was, and what the original image looked like, we might be able to figure out what the Dutchman, he’s a forger and thief, is up to and catch him.”

June turned to Neal. “What do you think, dear?”

Neal put down his tea cup and picked up the photo. His brow furrowed as he examined the image. “What did you say happened to this?”

Peter cringed remembering how the etching was ruined. “It’s mostly smoke damage from a small explosion.

Neal’s eyes didn’t leave the photo, but he nodded in response to Peter’s statement. He spent a couple more minutes staring at the photo before placing it back down on the coffee table. It would be an interesting challenge to clean the smoke residue from the parchment and repair the damage. And, he had to admit, if only to himself, that the idea of working for the FBI, to potentially catch a forger, was somewhat intriguing.

“I need to see the original before I can say for sure, but I can probably repair it, at least to the point of discovering the artist and the work, if it’s a previously known piece.”

“That would be wonderful,” Peter replied. “I’ll arrange for a visitor’s pass at Federal Plaza and any supplies that you need.”

Neal looked up, meeting Peter’s eyes for the first time. “No I can’t… I need to work here.” He didn’t work outside of his studio upstairs; he had barely left the mansion at all since the day that he had lost Kate. It was too hard to see the world going on blithely without her.

Peter hesitated. He couldn’t let evidence leave the FBI building, but he didn’t want to lose the kid now. Fortunately, he was saved from having to make a decision that could risk the chain of evidence when June spoke.

“Neal, dear, I’m sure Peter can provide you with a private space and I’ll have Leonard drive you.”

Neal turned to June, his expression unreadable.

“You have to admit, it will be an intriguing challenge,” she added.

As she was so remarkably capable of doing, June had echoed Neal’s own thoughts. He sighed, resigned himself to making a commitment he wasn’t sure he was ready for, and then slowly nodded.

***



Peter stood outside the small conference room that had been dedicated to Neal’s workspace, watching the young restorer. Neal’s head was bent over the table, so close that his beard was brushing the surface, as he painstakingly worked on the parchment of the etching.

Two days earlier when he had first walked through the doors and into the White Collar offices his chinos been replaced with a suit that fit him like the proverbial glove, right up to the fedora that graced his head. He was dressed like a man who owned every space he stepped into, and Peter could easily imagine Neal Caffrey as that confident and self-possessed man, but instead the younger man looked nervous, out of place and anything but confident.

But now, Neal was in his element. He radiated self-assurance in every move he made as he worked to restore the etching. It was as if there were two Neal Caffreys - one who was a consummate, confident professional and one who was afraid of his own shadow.

Peter walked into the room and cleared his throat, trying not to startle Neal.

“Peter,” Neal acknowledged without looking away from his work.

“Hey, how’s it going?”

“Good, good. The acid content in the parchment is quite high, so it absorbed a lot smoke. The time in the ozone gas chamber certainly helped, but there’s still a lot of cleaning to do.”

“Do you have an idea of when you’ll know something about the artist?”

“I already have an idea, but I’m going to keep it to myself until I can confirm.” Neal was fairly certain he knew not only the artist, but at the very least the group of works that the etching came from. He enjoyed being able to use his expertise and it was intriguing to be sharing it with the FBI.

“Neal, if you have something… I really need to hear it.”

“You will, as soon as I’m sure.”

Peter held up his hands. “Okay. In the meantime we’ve got a new lead to follow up on. Snow White... a phrase we decoded from a suspected Dutchman communique from Barcelona. We got a hit on it at JFK.”

“We? Does that mean you want me to come to the airport?” Neal asked hesitantly.

Peter hadn’t meant we, as in him and Neal, but maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea to take the kid along. Everything the Dutchman did as a forger had something to do with art. And, he liked this Neal, the self-possessed and knowledgeable man, and he really liked the idea of seeing more of him. “Yeah, I think it would be good.”

***



Diana was waiting for them in the terminal building.

“What’ve we got?” Peter asked.

“His name's Tony Field. Customs flagged him coming in from Spain in response to our Snow White BOLO,” Diana supplied.

“Customs playing nice?”

Diana shrugged. “Ah, the usual chest pounding. He's in their custody, not ours.”

Peter shrugged. “Less paperwork for me. What's he carrying?”

“Oh, you're gonna love this.” She led them through a security door and into a room in the bowels of the airport.

Littering a couple of tables in the room were two old, blue hard-backed suitcases and what looked like a couple hundred copies of the same book. “Blanca Nieves y Los Siete Enanos?” Peter asked as he picked up one of the volumes.

“Snow White and her Seven Little Men,” Neal provided.

Peter looked at him, with a raised eyebrow. Art and languages. “This is what triggered our alert? What do we know about this guy?”

Diana answered. ”Says he’s a rare book dealer.”

“Anything wrong with his paperwork?”

“Nope, he brought in the same books, in the same quantity on three previous trips. He declared them each time.”

Peter looked around him in frustration. “Are we wasting our time?”

“They’re not limited runs or special editions; can’t be worth much.” Neal offered as he inspected one of the red-covered books on the table in front of him.

“So why go to all the trouble of flying them in?” Peter asked.

Neal shrugged, he honestly couldn’t think of any reason. “Good question.”

“He sure is nervous for having all the right paperwork,” Diana chimed in.

“I want to talk to him.” Peter decided.

“I’ll set it up,” Diana replied before heading out to do just that.

Forty-five minutes and one surprising and horrible turn of events later, they were back where they started from, standing in a room with a couple hundred, more or less worthless copies of Snow White.

“We’ve got a dead book dealer, a killer ‘lawyer’ and a bunch of worthless books.” Peter turned to Neal. “All right come on, as an art expert what is the Dutchman’s interest in these?

Neal leaned over the table and flipped open the cover of one of the books. Peter could see the younger man’s wheels spinning as he tapped a pen against the pages.

“Published in 1944 in Madrid,” Neal muttered, as he tried to puzzle out why these books. He bumped it around in his brain with what he suspected about the etching and suddenly the significance dawned on him. “This is what he’s after.” Neal exclaimed, sliding the pen under the paper.

“The top sheet?”

“More than that. This is a piece of 1944 Spanish press parchment.”

“That’s what he wanted, good!” Peter asserted, as he moved toward Neal. The kid was smart and Peter did indeed like seeing this side of him. He also liked having more to go on. He was getting closer and closer to the Dutchman. “He’s going to counterfeit something that was originally printed on paper like that.”

“That’s what I would do, if I ever did anything of the sort.”

Peter smiled at the ridiculous thought of Neal Caffrey as a forger and a thief. “Tony made three prior shipments of these.”

Neal nodded. “Two blank pages per book is 600 sheets.”

“Too many for paintings, not enough for currency,” Peter theorized. “I bet our dead book dealer knew. Diana, where's that wallet?”

“It's right here,” she replied, handing the book dealer’s wallet to her boss.

Peter riled through the divides in the leather wallet until he found an entrance ticket to the National Archive and dropped it on the table. “This is where he went, the day before he left for Spain.”

***

The drive back to the city from JFK was uncomfortably quiet. Neal sat in the passenger street staring out the side window.

“Big plans for the holidays?” Peter asked, trying to break through the awkwardness.

Neal turned in his seat and looked at Peter briefly before returning his gaze out the window. “No.”

Strike one. Peter tried again.

“Of course there’s also the anniversary to deal with.”

“I’m sorry?” Neal stuttered, turning to face Peter again. Why would Peter mention his anniversary of all things? Was he being obtuse or just cruel?

“Oh, mine and my wife’s,” Peter continued. We got married on Christmas Eve so that I could never be guilty of forgetting our anniversary. I’m kind of notorious for that sort of thing.”

The inside of the car was lit only by the streetlights and the red and green glow of the decorated buildings they passed, but Peter thought he saw Neal’s face pale.

He soldiered on nonetheless. “Of course, I still manage to take it right in the teeth most years. I promised El something special this year and I still haven’t come up with anything better than a corner booth at Donatella’s and a romp in the sheets.”

Neal’s words were sharp. “Skip the dinner.”

“We’ve been married a decade. That doesn’t cut it anymore,” Peter replied, ignoring Neal’s tone.

Peter thought he heard a ‘hmph’ come from the younger man as he turned back to the window again, ending the conversation. The strange, nearly anti-social version of the art restorer was back and Peter had no idea what had caused his return.

***

“You comin’ to bed tonight?” El asked as she rounded the corner into the dining room, wearing only one of Peter’s pajama tops.

“Yeah.” Peter replied with a sigh.

El came up behind the chair Peter was sitting in and wrapped her arms around him. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.”

“Don’t tell me it’s Neal Caffrey? Of course it is, or you’d be in bed with me,” she teased. “Can he help you find the Dutchman?”

“Neal’s smart. You know how much I like smart.”

“Is he as smart as those Ivy League coeds they keep throwing at you?”

El’s smile was bright and warm and Peter suddenly remembered how lucky he was to have her as his wife. “He’s almost as brilliant as the woman I married.”

“Oh good answer! So what’s the problem?”

“There’s more to him. It’s like he’s two sides of one coin, the educated, bright art restorer and this strange guy who seems like he’s out of place wherever he is.”

“You going to figure him out tonight, here at the dining room table?”

“Unlikely,” Peter conceded.

“Then come to bed.”

***

“It’s a Goya.”

“What?” Peter asked as he entered the conference room where Neal was working.

“The etching, it’s by Francisco Goya. One of his Disasters of War pieces. It’s Plate 44, titled Yo lo vi, I saw this. Look here.” Neal pointed to the etching. Peter walked over and leaning in next to Neal.

“In all the published editions, there is this surface tone over the landscape, the sky, and the woman's dress. In the proofs printed under Goya's supervision, there is no tone. There’s no tone here. Goya witnessed this moment in the war against France, went home and created the copper plate for this image and then printed it in his own shop.” The reverence and excitement in Neal’s voice was a delight to hear.

“Are you sure?” Peter asked.

Neal looked at him, an are you really questioning me look? plain on his outrageously handsome face. “I told you I wouldn’t say anything until I was certain.”

“Okay.” Peter said with a nod. “Come on, we’re going to go to the National Archives and see if we can’t find out what our book dealer was doing there.”

***



“Yes, I do remember him. He was an odd sort of man. He came by several months ago, oh and then again last week. This is what he came to see.” The curator of the Archives carefully placed a sheet of parchment down on the table before them. “The Spanish victory bond. He took several photographs of it. Said he was going to write a book. It’s a shame he’s dead. This bond does have a fascinating history.”

Neal bent in close, looking carefully at the brightly colored page. “It’s a Goya.” All the dots were lining up and Neal felt a thrill run up his spine.

“Yes. Beautiful isn’t it?” The archivist concurred.

Peter pulled a piece of the Snow White topsheet paper from his pocket, unfolded it and held it over the bond. “Oh, look at that. A perfect fit.”

“You said it had a fascinating history.” Neal said, turning his head to look back at the curator.

“Quite it was issued during the war.”

“1944,” Neal interrupted.

“Yes. The U.S. issued it to support the Spanish underground in their battle against the Axis. Very few have ever been redeemed.”

Peter was watching Neal as the curator spoke. The younger man was glowing.

“There is speculation that entire boxes were captured and many of them are still hidden away in the caves of Altamira.”

“Whole boxes of these?” Peter asked incredulous.

“Yeah, boy that would be something, wouldn’t it?” The curator smiled at the possibility. This is the only surviving copy,” he added.

“Except it’s a forgery,” Neal stated matter-of-factly.

“That’s not possible,” the curator insisted.

“What are you talking about?” Peter asked skeptically.

“Ah, it’s the ink.” Neal replied confidently. “This is iron-gal dye mixed to match period colors but it hasn’t dried yet. You can still smell the gum Arabic.” Neal lifted the parchment up from the table for Peter and the curator’s inspection.

“No, this has been here since 1952,” the archivist insisted.

Neal shook his head. “It’s been here less than a week.”

***

“We’re confirmed the bond is counterfeit?” Peter asked as he turned away from the expansive view of the city at night that the conference room windows afforded. Sitting at the table were Clinton, Diana and Neal, his chair tilted back and his Italian leather shoes resting on the table.

“Yup, it’s a fake,” Clinton answered.

“Okay, Tony makes two trips. The first time he takes a picture of the bond. The second trip in, he steals the original and replaces it with this copy. Can we confirm that?”

Jones nodded. “The timed ink identification test puts the age of the bond at approximately six days. Which coincides with Tony’s visit.”

“We’re pulling surveillance video to back it up,” Diana added.

Peter nodded thoughtfully. “Good. So the question is why go to the trouble of making a really nice forgery, on the right kind of paper, just to stick it back in the archives?”

Neal steepled his fingers under his chin. “Is the bond still negotiable?”

“It’s a zero option so it never expires,” Peter replied. “What’s it worth?”

Clinton raised his eyebrows. “One thousand dollars at face value drawing nine percent interest.”

“Compounded over 64 years,” Diana added. She pulled up a calculator and began punching in the numbers while Clinton watched over her shoulder.

Quickly Neal did the math in his head. “Two hundred and forty-eight thousand dollars.”

“What he said,” Clinton confirmed.

“A quarter of a million. Not chump change. And he’s got six hundred sheets of this stuff,” Peter said.

Diana turned and looked at Neal expectantly instead of relying on the calculator again.

Neal took a moment to think it through. “One hundred million… give or take.”

Art, languages and now math. Peter couldn’t help but be impressed. He pulled his thoughts away from Neal and back to the Dutchman. “He’d be a rich man if he could pass them off. But it still doesn’t tell us why he would take out the real bond and put in a forgery.”

Neal turned it over in his mind. What would be the point of replacing the original? “I think it does. What if he claimed he found boxes of the original bonds?”

“Dragged them out of those caves in Spain,” Peter continued.

“Yeah, how would they be authenticated?” Neal prompted feeling a rumble of exhilaration as he pushed to get his new FBI associates to see where he was going.

Peter answered. “They would be taken to the archives and compared to the original.”

Neal nodded. “Which he has already switched out with one of his own copies.”

“So of course they’re going to match. Oh this is good. This is really good.” Neal liked the excitement in Peter’s voice. And he really liked that he had a part in putting it there. It had been harder than he had hoped it would be to step out the safe corner of the world that he had created for himself over the past year, but in the few days that he had been working within the confines of the FBI building, Neal had started to remember that there were still good things, and good people out there, if he could find a way to make the effort.

***



At home in his apartment that night, Neal was sitting at his dining room table closely examining a replica of the forged bond when he heard June’s distinctive knock on his door.

“Come in, June.”

His landlady was dressed with her usual elegance in a black pantsuit and matching heels. “Neal, how was your day?”

Neal considered the question. It had been a long time since June had felt the need to ask him that. “It was good. I was able to restore enough of the etching to determine that it was Goya’s yo lo vi. And, I helped Peter discover what the Dutchman is up to.”

June put her hand on Neal’s cheek and gently followed the curve of his smile with her thumb. “It’s so good to see you smile.”

Neal nodded against her palm. “It’s good to have a reason to feel like smiling again.”

The smile faded and Neal sighed. “I just…”

June pulled one of the dining chairs close and sat beside him. “Neal, it is not a betrayal of Kate to enjoy your life, to find fulfillment, to be the whole and happy man you were before you lost her.”

Neal nodded, because he knew that was the correct response and the one June would want.

But as usual, June read right through him. “You know she wouldn’t want this for you.”

“I know, but she was the one June, my Byron, and I miss her so much.” Tears came unbidden to the corners of his eyes, falling down his cheeks and into his beard.

June smiled, a sad, nostalgic smile, and took Neal’s hand in hers. “I will always miss him, more than words can express, but his spirit, his exuberance for life, his passion, it lives in me and so I go on and find the joy in my life for the both of us.”

“I want to June, I really do.”

“You will. Let Peter, and this FBI case help.”

Neal nodded again. “I’m trying,” he replied sincerely.

“Good.” She released his hand and patted it encouragingly. “Now, have you had dinner?”

Neal shook his head. “I’m not very hungry.”

She smiled knowingly at him. “I’ll have Cecelia bring something up.” Then she got up and left his apartment.

***



Peter got up later than he had planned, finished up in the bathroom quickly, and pulled on his dress shirt as he headed down the stairs guided by the smell of fresh coffee… to find someone who looked a lot like Neal Caffrey sitting on his couch, next to his wife.

The hair was right, too long and slicked back over his forehead. The startling blue eyes were right too. But overnight the long, shaggy beard had disappeared and now Neal Caffrey, who had been stunningly handsome with it, was Greek-god gorgeous without it, as he sat next to his equally beautiful wife in a black turtleneck sweater and grey slacks.

“Good morning honey,” El greeted him brightly.

“Peter,” Neal’s smile was warm and radiant. Peter liked it.

“You’re on my couch,” Peter noted, half in jest and half seriously, since he had no idea how Neal found out where he lived.

“I came to talk to you. And frankly Peter I have to say I’m surprised that you have such an amazing wife.”

“Yeah, I like her,” Peter deadpanned. “Get off my couch,” he added, deciding to continue with the lighthearted banter.

“Honey, we’re just chatting,” Elizabeth said, playing along.

“Chatting? How did you get here?” He asked Neal.

“Cab,” Neal answered with a small shake of his head. This was fun, he thought, he was actually having fun, and it felt - good.

“You shouldn’t even have my address, yet you’re in my house, on my couch, with my wife.” Peter tried, but he couldn’t keep the smirk off his face.

The Burkes’ lab choose that moment to worm his way between Neal’s knees. “Oh, hey Satchmo.”

“And, now you’re petting my dog,” Peter exclaimed with mock exasperation.

Neal returned his attention to the FBI agent. “Did you really put Elizabeth under surveillance before you asked her out?” He asked. “Peter, I underestimated you.”

“You told him?” Peter asked his wife.

“He said he wanted to make sure I wasn’t seeing anybody else.” El said to Neal. Then she looked to her husband. “Honey, I think it’s cute.”

“My wife would have thought so too.” Neal was caught up in the moment, enjoying the repartee and the way he felt, so at ease with Peter and El, and so the thought entered his mind and left his mouth before he had a chance to consider it. It was the first time he had mentioned Kate to anyone other than June since the funeral, nearly a year ago.

As soon as he spoke, Neal’s whole demeanor changed. His shoulders tightened, his gaze fell to his lap and the smile disappeared from his face.

Peter felt the change as much as he saw it, and he suddenly knew he had found the source of Neal’s stranger side. Something terrible had happened with his wife.

Silence prevailed in the room for a very long minute and then Neal cleared his throat and said quietly, “I know who the Dutchman is.”

“Enlighten me,” Peter’s tone was gently prodding.

Neal took a breath and continued. “Curtis Hagen. He’s an art restorer. One of the best in the business. But he’s never been able to claim the top spot.” Peter remembered the name from the list Diana had drawn up, and he knew why Hagen had never been able to claim the best in the business title; Neal had never given it up.

“He’s particularly good at Goya restorations. That’s what this is Peter. The bond is him showing off.”

Peter nodded. “Interesting theory. How do you prove it?”

“He signed it.”

“I think we might have noticed a signature in the corner.”

Elizabeth put her hand on Neal’s forearm. “Show him,” she said encouragingly.

Neal picked up a mirror and held it out to Peter. “Look at the pants on the Spanish peasant. What do you see?”

Peter leaned over the copy of the bond that sat on his coffee table, located the peasant and gazed at his yellow pants through the glass.

“I don’t know. A battleship?”

“Ah no, it’s the initials C and H.”

Peter looked up at him skeptically. “I don’t know. That’s a stretch.”

“Peter, this bond is a masterpiece. If I had ever done something like this, this well, I would have signed it. Hagen is doing a church restoration on West Eighth Street. We can stop by on our way in to the office.”

“Fine meet me in the car.”

Neal nodded, but stayed seated on the couch.

“I’m going to say goodbye to my wife.”

Neal’s eyebrows shot up in understanding and he stood. “It was nice to meet you.” Neal said politely, shaking Elizabeth’s hand.

“Nice to meet you.”

Once Neal had stepped outside, Peter put on his coat and then pulled his wife into a hug. “I’ll call you at lunch.”

“No,” she said with a smile, “You’ll lose track of time and forget.”

Peter nodded, acknowledging the truth of her statement. He thought of Neal suddenly and wished very much that it wasn’t true that he forgot to call to his wife, that he made promises to her that he didn’t keep. “See you at dinner.”

“Let’s shoot for that.” El gazed at him with a devilish twinkle in her eye. “I like him - Neal. He’s sweet and funny and smart.”

“And, you know how much I like smart.”

El nodded and kissed him. “I do.”

“Love you,” Peter said tightening his hold on his wife.

“Love you too.”

Go to Part 2



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