Neal Island

Of Rhythm and Blues, Part Three

Title: Of Rhythm and Blues
Author: eldorah
Artist: embroiderama
Beta(s): rose_of_sharon1
Rating: PG13
Characters/Pairings: Peter Burke/Elizabeth Mitchell, June Ellington, Neal Caffrey, Mozzie, Matthew Keller, Reese Hughes
Warnings: None
Spoilers: Through the end of Season 5 (This AU contains canon elements of Neal’s family history, which we receive various bits of info about throughout different episodes and seasons.)

Summary: When Peter Burke, well-to-do talent agent of both his billboard topping wife, Elizabeth Mitchell, and the legendary soul singer, June Ellington, finds raw talent unlike any other in the form of a young man recently relocated from the Midwest, he must find a way to gain the young man’s trust while helping him share his talent with the world.

Art Post | Master Post | Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four

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Peter was napping on his couch, not expecting Mozzie to arrive with his ‘prodigy’ for at least another few hours. Suddenly, an alarming bark from Satchmo proved him otherwise.

Jolting awake, Peter looked at the clock. 12:01. He should have known better than to be so vague as “afternoon” with Mozzie. Sighing, he got up and opened the door.

“Suit,” Mozzie acknowledged curtly before pushing past him without waiting for an invitation. Stunned, Peter turned to watch him in disbelief.

“Hi, Moz,” Elizabeth said sweetly, coming in from the kitchen and planting a kiss on Mozzie’s cheek, “It’s good to see you again.”

“And it’s always good to see you, El. June sends her regards.”

Shaking his head at Mozzie, Peter turned to the young man still standing on his doorstep. He looked like he stepped out of a photo shoot of the Rat Pack, dressed crisply in a sleek grey Devore complete with a fedora. Long, dark wisps of hair peeked out from around his hat. He was a lot younger than Peter had expected, but something in his baby blue eyes told him that this young man wasn’t as innocent as he appeared to be.

“Hi, I’m Neal,” the boy said, extending a hand.

“Hi, Neal, I’m Peter. Would you like to come in?”

“Sure, thank you,” Neal said, stepping past Peter into the humble Brooklyn townhome. He was immediately greeted by the Burkes’ yellow Labrador, and Neal fell to his knees to pet the dog.

“He likes you,” Elizabeth said, smiling, and Neal looked up, surprised to recognize the voice. For the second time in a few hours, he was struck speechless by who was standing before him. He looked wordlessly from Mozzie to Elizabeth to Peter, and finally said the only thing he could.

“Are you kidding me?”

Elizabeth, Peter, and Mozzie all laughed in unison.

“I take it he’s met June, then?” El said.

“Yes, this morning,” Mozzie said, “Peter, Elizabeth, this is Neal. Neal, this is Peter Burke and Elizabeth Mitchell.”

“Hi,” Neal said, extending his hand to Elizabeth, “It’s so nice to meet you. I’m such a fan.”

“Oh sweetie, stop,” El said, “Can I get you anything? Coffee? Tea? Water?”

“No, I’m fine for now, but thank you,” Neal replied, still in awe.

“So, I hear you are quite the musician,” Peter probed, shooting an annoyed look in Mozzie’s direction.

“I dabble here and there,” Neal replied with a small smile.

“Well, shall we play, then?” Peter asked abruptly, leading him upstairs to the second floor. He guided them into a small guest bedroom housing an old upright piano.

“I’m sorry it is so small,” Elizabeth said, “But make yourself comfortable.”

Hesitantly, Neal walked over to the piano and sat down. This whole thing was awkward at best, and he had no clue what to play. He barely knew these people, and it was absolutely absurd to think that two days ago, he was sitting on the steps of the St. Louis Arch, his whole word in shambles around him. But music had always been an outlet for all of the tough situations in his life, and he was no stranger to the ivory keys of the instrument before him.

So, Neal took a deep breath, and for the second time in less than a day, and began to improvise a melody, letting his emotions create the rhythm.
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Peter hated when Mozzie was right. Actually, hate didn’t seem like a strong enough word – he loathed, maybe even abhorred, when Mozzie was right.

But, as much as he hated, loathed, or abhorred the idea, he had been correct about this. Neal, in fact, had turned out to be an amazing musician.

The young man played a few original songs and then did a cover of one of Elizabeth’s, singing in perfect harmony with his wife and revealing he had the vocals to back up his musical chops as well.

Peter sat there astounded as his wife and Mozzie looked expectantly back and forth at the pair.  Neal just sat there smiling a big, white-toothed, dazzling grin that melted Peter’s heart in a second, and in the end, he didn’t really have a choice.

“I’ll take you in to the studio and we can record a demo Monday morning,” Peter said stoically, “No promises, just a chance for my boss, Reese Hughes, to hear you out.”

“Thank you, Peter,” the young boy said, standing up from the piano and reaching out to shake the talent agent’s hand, “Thank you so much. I appreciate the opportunity.” He was beaming from ear to ear.

“No promises,” Peter reminded, “You impress Hughes with this chance, maybe we can make this deal something permanent.”

“He will impress him,” Mozzie said confidently and then produced a bottle of wine of and four glasses, “Don’t worry about that. Now, let’s celebrate.”

“Where did you get that?” Peter asked, bewildered, “Aren’t those glasses mine?

“From the kitchen,” Mozzie said matter-of-factly, as if it was obvious, and Peter looked desperately at Elizabeth for help. But his wife just took the glass Mozzie offered her.

“To Neal,” she said, raising the glass in a toast before taking a sip.

“To Neal,” Mozzie repeated and did the same.

And Neal, accepting his own glass of wine despite his age, just smiled.

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One Week Later

“Neal,” Mozzie said, sipping the vintage red Elizabeth had brought over on her most recent visit, “How’s the new song coming along?”

It had been about a week since Peter had taken Neal to record a demo and play it for Hughes. The company owner had absolutely loved it and had given the go ahead for Peter to offer Neal a tentative deal. If he wrote a few original songs, he would set him up with a chance to try them out in front of a crowd. If that went well, a record deal was possible in his future.

The dark-haired boy shot an exacerbated look in Mozzie’s direction as he straightened out his skinny tie in the full-length mirror. “You can’t rush perfection, Moz. Besides, I’ve been busy at Adler’s. Keller and I have been working together.”

“You and Keller?” Mozzie exclaimed, nearly choking on his wine, “What did I tell you about him? He is a conniving, back-stabbing, talentless excuse for a –“

“Easy, Moz. It’s not a big deal. We are staging some sets together. You know, coming up with set lists that will really get the crowd moving,” Neal said, and then added with his million-dollar smile and a wink, “And paying.”

“Neal, you know that is against the rules.”

“And since when have you been the epitome of a rule follower?”

“What, you’ve known me a week and you have my personality all mapped out?”

“No, I’ve known you a week, and I can recognize a fellow conman when I see one. You’re not the straight and narrow you make yourself out to be in front of Peter and Elizabeth, are you?”

Mozzie subtly smiled. “I knew you weren’t as innocent as you pretended to be either, kid. Listen, just be careful around Keller. He’s been in the business long enough to have a reputation, and his is not a good one. You don’t want your name tied to his.”

“Dually noted,” Neal said, playfully flipping on his fedora, “Besides, I always give the crowd a good show. We don’t do anything more than throw a few song names around beforehand. But now, I must be off. My fans await me.”

“That hat isn’t going to fit on your head anymore if you keep this up,” Mozzie teased, but Neal just smiled as he walked out the apartment door.
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Neal grinned as the familiar sound of applause and hollering filled the fancy coffeehouse. Looking over at Keller, he nodded just before placing his fingers to the piano. They duo had left room in their sets for Neal to test out one of his new original songs he planned to present to Peter this week, and he was hoping for a good reception. Technically that was against the rules, but Keller had promised that no word would ever get back to Peter or Reese, so Neal had agreed.

The song was a relatively somber one, so the two musicians had built up the energy in each of their first two pieces. This was Neal’s last song, and Keller had agreed to respond with something of the same tempo, so as not to overshadow the young man’s slower choice.

Like many of songs Neal had written in his life, this one had flairs of blues and jazz and featured a syncopated beat. What truly connected him to this piece, though, were the words. He frequently wrote lyrics to his songs but seldom shared them; they were often too personal for him to risk rejection. However, for this particular piece, it had been deeply therapeutic to write, and he could only hope it would be as salutary to share with a crowd as well.


The song told the story of a young boy growing up in a big city with very little money. Each evening, the young boy went to the pool halls downtown to hustle a table and earn cash to bring back home to his mother. Throughout the song, the boy grows up, and one day, a storm hits and the boy has to decide whether or not he was leaving town. It ended with the boy watching his city skyline fade into the distance as he drove away, moving on to his next phase in life. He hadn’t titled the song just yet, but he knew that the lyrics would never change, for they bared his soul in a way that he wasn’t quite ready to admit in any other way.

As first, Neal stole quick glances in between notes to gaze out over the crowd, trying to gage whether or not they liked it. But soon, the song threw Neal back into a sea of memories from his former life he had recently left behind. Every time he pounded on the keys he could hear the sharp snap of a pool stick against the cue ball, or the rowdy cheers from the burly men way too old to be hanging out with a young teenager like Neal. The haze from the stage lights danced in the air like the smoke from the men’s cigars, and if Neal concentrated hard enough, he could almost make out their faces in the crowd. As he sung the chorus, he could see Ellen’s face, soft, concerned and empathetic as she told Neal news that would change his life. And as the song ended, he could vividly picture the last sunset he had watched before he left, in all of its brilliance sinking lower behind the arch, silhouetting it against the sky in the perfect photo. These memories were still raw and painful, and it hurt to revisit them.

Slowly, he pulled himself from the memories, taking a moment to compose himself before he stood to acknowledge the crowd. Silently, he hoped that those memories, as painful as they might be, would never let him go. They were his childhood.

The crowd remained silent for a painfully long second before responding, and Neal thought momentarily that his song had indeed been a failure. But slowly, one by one, the classily dressed members of the audience before him rose, until the whole room was cheering in a standing ovation.

“I think your song is a winner,” Keller whispered from across the stage, his eyes wild and fiery with envy, “You should give it a name, so they remember it.” The young man shook his head slightly, indicating that it didn’t have a title just yet, before taking a bow. When he straightened up, however, he found Keller standing next to him with a microphone.

“Neal, Neal, Neal,” his nasally voice slithered through the air, “You’ve outdone yourself this time. And what is your new hit called?”

The young man turned to Keller, shooting him a resentful look just in time to catch the fire in Matthew’s eyes. Suddenly, everything Mozzie had told him about Keller was blatantly, obviously apparent, and Neal got the sinking feeling that maybe he shouldn’t have hung around him at all. Narrowing his eyes, he took the microphone and turned back to the crowd.

“Of Rhythm and Blues,” Neal answered, smiling as the small crowd applauded. He wasn’t sure why Keller had put him on the spot like that, but the new title seemed like the perfect fit. As Keller began to play his final round, a song way too quick to be any he and Neal had agreed upon beforehand, the young man sat down. He was elated that his new song had been received so well, but he hoped that he hadn’t made a mistake by sharing it in front of Keller.
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“I heard you have been hanging around Matthew Keller a lot lately,” Peter said as he handed Neal a coffee on the busy New York street. It had become customary for Peter to pick Neal up at June’s on the mornings they were set to record something in the studio, and Neal had grown rather fond of this new habit. In fact, he had grown rather fond of Peter’s company.

“Good morning to you, too,” Neal responded, a hint of annoyance in his voice to mask the apprehension he had felt about Keller last night, “We both play at Adler’s in the evenings. It gives us both some extra spending cash.”

“Well, he isn’t exactly the upstanding type,” Peter warned, “He doesn’t have the best reputation.”

“I keep hearing this, but no one has told me exactly what he’s done.”

“Staging sets at Adler’s, for starters,” Peter said, looking disapprovingly at Neal.

“We don’t stage the sets, we just throw around some ideas beforehand.”

“Regardless, those are supposed to be impromptu performances. Vincent Adler is a powerful man who could end your career before it even starts if he finds out you are rigging duels. And besides, you could do for a better partner than Keller. Intellectual property laws were never his cup of tea.”

“You mean stealing?”

“Yeah, you should read up on copyright laws sometime,” Peter said just as the two reached the door to the studio, “I have a guide in my office I could pass along to you.”

Before Neal could respond, he felt his phone vibrate in his pocket. Instinctively, he checked the missed call, and his face paled when he saw the number.

“I gotta’ take this, Peter. I’ll meet you inside?”

“Sure,” the talent agent responded, eyeing Neal inquisitively, “I’ll tell the secretary to let you in.”

Neal nodded and then walked a few steps away from the building where he could get some privacy. He had been keeping his phone off since he got to New York, but last night, after his song’s debut, he couldn’t resist the urge to check it.

When he turned it on, he had found six voicemails and twelve texts from Ellen, five voicemails from the Marshalls, a few texts from various friends from school, and one automated voicemail suggesting he call back to claim his prize vacation.

However, there had been not a single word from his mother.

Now, as he looked at his missed call from a few seconds prior, he was surprised to see that he didn’t recognize the number. However, the 314 area code hinted that it had come from his home city of St. Louis.

Hesitantly, he redialed the number. He only had to wait two rings until he heard Ellen’s voice.

“Danny?” she said, but he remained quiet.

“Danny, is that you?” Still, Neal did not speak a word.

“Maybe you prefer Neal now,” Ellen said gently, “I just want to know you listening. Please.”

“I’m listening,” Neal choked out, his voice sounding nothing like his own.

“Oh thank goodness,” Ellen said, deftly avoiding calling him by name again, “I just wanted to know you were alright.”

Again, Neal chose to stay silent. He wasn’t sure why he was treating Ellen this way. It wouldn’t have killed him to return one of her calls or even just a text. Part of him was scared she was mad at him, and part of him was scared she would make him come back home.

He didn’t want to do that. He couldn’t just pick up and become Danny again. He was Neal now, but Neal didn’t have a home to go back to. Neal didn’t have a family.

Ellen, slowly realizing that this conversation was going to be rather one-sided, continued.

“I know you probably don’t want to talk to me. I gave you some pretty tough news the last time we talked. But I thought you needed to know, please understand that. There is so much more to this story that you don’t know and that I can’t share with you right now. But the Marshalls are relocating your mother and I since you left. They don’t know I’m trying to contact you. I figured if you wanted to be found you would have let them find you.”

She paused again to allow Neal a chance to respond, but he stayed quiet. He wasn’t sure what she wanted to hear, and after a pause, she continued.

“I don’t know where we will end up, but I’m always going to be here for you. I promise. If you ever need anything, please reach out. You are like a son to me, and I just want to see that you are okay.”

“I’m okay,” Neal said softly, too quickly. Even if he wasn’t, he didn’t want to worry Ellen anymore. She had done too much for him in the past eighteen years. “And you can call me Neal.”

“Good, good,” she said gently, her voice clearly fighting through tears, “How have you been?”

“I’ve gotta’ go, Ellen,” Neal said, a hint of the Midwestern accent creeping into the words. He had been careful to avoid that since he’d arrived in New York, but talking to Ellen, just hearing her voice, made it so easy to slip back into what still felt so natural. It made it too easy to slip back into Danny. “Thank you, for everything.”

“Oh, honey,” the woman said, disappointed, “Take care of yourself, Neal.”

“You too, Ellen,” Neal finished. With that, he quickly ended the call and threw his phone in the nearest garbage. He would have to pick a new one up later, but he couldn’t risk keeping his old one around. It would be too easy to trace as it is.

Neal took a moment to compose himself before heading into the office building. He had largely been able to suppress his emotions throughout this past week and a half, carefully channeling them into song lyrics and not allowing them to escape into conversation. After all, he had just met these people and they didn’t need to be bothered with all of the baggage that was his childhood. However, hearing Ellen’s voice brought all of his repressed feelings to the surface, and he still wasn’t ready to deal with them.

“Hey, everything okay?” a voice suddenly spoke, and Neal registered that Peter had come to find him outside the studio.

“Oh, yeah,” Neal said, playing it off, “I was just coming inside.”

Peter wasn’t fooled. There was something wrong and he knew it, but he seemed to let it go for now.

“Okay. Well, I’m here if you ever need to, you know, talk or anything.”

“Thanks, Peter,” Neal said sincerely.

“No problem. Now, let’s head inside. Hughes wants to talk to you about some possible dates to showcase your new work,” Peter replied with a smile.

“You lead the way,” Neal responded, flashing a convincing smile before following Peter with a heavy heart, leaving the only connection to his former life in a trashcan along the city street.
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The first gift Neal ever remembered getting was a violin. He was maybe five or six years old, and it had been wrapped in stunning gold, glittering paper and decorated with a silver bow. He had ripped the paper off to reveal a hard, black leather case, with the inside lined with a velvet cushion that was soft to the touch.

The violin itself had been older, refurbished by its previous owner, but Neal did not mind. It was a ¼ size, and at only five he would have time to grow into it. He was euphoric the day he opened it, euphoric the first time he played it, euphoric during every music lesson and recital and practice session. It was what he loved to do every minute of every day. It made him feel alive.

At first, he had thought that Santa had brought him that first violin, but as he grew up he came to realize it had been a gift from Ellen. She had seen the natural talent in him early, and knew he was going to be an excellent musician. He got that from his father, she would say. His father had played the guitar, a Gibson, to be specific.

“What do you think of that, Neal?” Neal heard Reese Hughes, the studio owner, ask him in a voice full of forced patience. He looked at Peter standing beside him. In all honesty, he had been so lost in the thoughts and memories triggered by his phone call from Ellen that he hadn’t heard a word the man had said.

“Do you think you could come up with three songs by Friday?” Peter questioned, his eyebrows raised in confusion at Neal’s lack of comprehension, “So that you could play them after Matthew and before the title band at the Beacon?”

“Yeah,” Neal stammered,  “Yeah. I already have one written and one in the works. I think I could do that.”

“Alright, then it’s settled,” Hughes said, hesitantly, “You’ll go on after Matthew.”

“Thank you, sir,” Peter said, shaking his boss’s hand, “We appreciate it.”

Neal nodded in agreement and let Peter lead him out of Reese’s office.

What the hell was that?” Peter hissed under his breath as soon as they were out of earshot of Reese, “Is this a joke to you?”

“No, no,” Neal stuttered, “I just got lost in thought, that’s all.”

“Are you sure nothing is wrong?” Peter asked after a short pause, his eyes now wide in concern, “Is this really what you want?”

Neal thought for a moment. Suddenly, everything seemed to be moving so quickly. He wasn’t really sure what he wanted anymore. But as a kid alone in New York City, what other choice did he have?

“I’m thankful for this opportunity,” Neal said with a small smile, easily skirting around answering Peter’s question directly.

The talent agent narrowed his eyes, not missing the evasion, but did not push further.

“Good, then go get to work. You have a lot of songwriting to do before Friday.”
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Sitting out on Mozzie’s balcony, Neal could admire perhaps the most perfect view he had ever seen in his life. It was stunning and surreal, and Neal could not believe this all wasn’t a dream.

Tomorrow was Friday, the day he was making his big entry into the music world. He was still conflicted and unsure of whether or not this was the path he truly wanted, but he was caught somewhere between exuberant that he even had this choice and stuck because it was his only choice. He had originally thought that, if all else failed, he could cut ties and move on again, starting over in a new city this time. However, he was starting to like his new life here, or more so, the people in it. Running away wasn’t something he wanted to do again.

“Working on a new hit?” June asked, sauntering onto the terrace with a plate full of lady fingers and a pot of freshly brewed coffee. She was the absolute picture of grace and elegance, and she still left Neal star-struck.

“I am,” Neal responded, standing to take her tray, “I don’t want to disappoint Peter or Reese.”

“Oh honey, with those good looks and that crooning voice, nobody is going to be able to look away.”

At this, Neal smiled, and his cheeks flushed ever so slightly.

“Did you know?” Neal asked, looking up at the legend, “Did you know this was what you wanted to do? Did you know the first time you wrote a hit that it was going to succeed?”

June smiled and sat down next to him at the table, leaning in and placing her hand over his.

“I knew I wanted to do something extraordinary,” she said smoothly, “I knew I had a story, and I wanted to write it. I wanted to tell it to the whole world so that they could realize they had a story too.”

“And your songs?” Neal probed, “Did you know how successful they’d be the moment you wrote them?”

June sat back in her chair, contemplating. “I don’t think I ever knew if a song was going to go over well or not. That’s part of this game, Neal. It’s part of the rush. You never really know. But if you write from your heart, and tell your own story, you are going to be successful. That is the root of good music.”

A silence settled between the two for a moment before June broke it again, her eyes softening.

“I was there the other night at Adler’s, when you played your song for the first time.  It was one in a million, a true hit. You have the talent, Neal. Now you just need to decide if this is what you want to do.”

With this, the legend stood up and exited the terrace, leaving behind the cookies, coffee, and the greatest complement Neal had ever received. Continue to Part Four!