Title: The Truth That Is Given Us
Author: Jedi Buttercup
Disclaimer: The words are mine; the worlds are not.
Summary: The young woman Neal was approaching checked off several boxes on the boring list without even opening her mouth: 'blonde from a bottle', 'dress from a knockoff boutique', 'California tan', and 'can't possibly run in those heels'. 2000 words.
Spoilers: Post-Chosen; late S2/early S3 for White Collar (post-Kate).
Notes: For xgirl2222, for Day 23 in Wishlist 2011, for the prompt: "Neal never thought he could truly love anyone other then Kate, after being run over by Buffy Summers (literally), he's about to change his mind." Also for day two of the TtH August Ficathon. Title from Picasso: "Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand." The story of the painting is borrowed from the Elizabeth Lowell novel "Blue Smoke and Murder", and the British artist referenced via quote is Roy Adzak.
The second time Neal Caffrey met Buffy Summers, he was fully in his element, trailing after Peter through yet another of New York's museums with full encouragement to drift around and dip a hand in all of the other guests' business. Someone there had to have seen something, or known something, given that all indications were the thief was either a member of the staff or a patron with special access, and Neal had yet to meet the person capable of seeing past his conman's charm at first meeting.
Well, except perhaps for a few outliers like Agent Peter Burke; but his 'handler' pretty much represented the exception that proved the rule. And at least with Peter, he had the excuse of sharply observational mind honed by FBI training to excuse it. The blonde woman who'd been sitting a bench in front of a single painting in the Western art room for the last half hour in full sight of one of the staff access doors, though? It didn't even occur to Neal to worry as he swept in to question her, apologetic smile on his face and a friendly, inquisitive comment ready on his tongue.
And for once, he wouldn't even have to pretend to be intrigued; the painters of the Great American West were hardly his forte, but he kept abreast of major developments in the overall art scene, and the recent revelation that the gloriously untamed, vivid works formerly attributed to Thomas Dunstan had actually been painted by his lover, one Justine Breck, had sent shock waves through that rather insular world. Especially when the Dunstan family had gone as far as arson and murder to try to keep the secret from coming out, after several additional canvasses had been discovered decades after the woman's death by her granddaughter. The valuation of the works had oscillated dramatically since the revelation, of course- but the scandal only made the paintings themselves all the more fascinating to Neal.
It was a pity most of the action had happened on the other side of the country. He'd have loved to have been a part of the authentication team on that case. But alas, he was chained to New York for the time being, barring unforeseen alterations to his circumstances; and the cases he was allowed to 'consult' on for the FBI were often very nearly as interesting.
He only wished he could say the same about most of the people he encountered in the course of those investigations. The young woman he was approaching that evening checked off several boxes on the boring list without even opening her mouth: blonde from a bottle, dress from a knockoff boutique, California tan, and can't possibly run in those heels. He suppressed a sigh as he extended a hand, approaching at just the right angle to neither block her view nor startle her.
She looked up at that, a matching expression of bland, automatic interest on her face... and then Neal's eyes met hers with a nearly electric shock. They were a knowing, slightly mocking hazel green, as vivid and arresting as the landscape she'd been lost in, and the words momentarily froze in his throat. He recognized the woman. In absolutely the last context he'd ever expected to see her in.
It only took him a second to get over the surprise and deliver his line as if he'd merely been stricken dumb by her beauty. By the time he did, though, the answering spark was completely gone from her gaze as well, replaced by a Barbie-like glassiness and a smile as put-on as her bubble-gum pink fingernails. But he knew what he'd seen. And he knew she'd recognized him, too. He had to fight not to let the burning curiosity show on his face as he spoke.
"This is a Breck, isn't it? Beautiful work; and an even more intriguing story behind it, don't you think?"
He wasn't sure, for a moment, if she'd bother to reply. His pulse rate had already picked up, like it did on all the most exciting cons, when he had no idea how he was going to get out in one piece with what he'd come for but was nevertheless completely certain that he would. The closest he'd ever come to that feeling around another person before had been during the years of cat and mouse with Peter, or the time he'd spent showing Kate the ropes of his world. Alex and Sara teased at that degree of interest from time to time, but the flame hadn't yet caught with either one. He'd never felt it flare so swiftly before, especially when he didn't even know his newest metaphorical sparring partner's name.
She glanced briefly toward the painting, then back to him, forehead furrowed in an obviously calculated, adorably confused way. "Breck? I don't know what you mean. I thought the artist's name was Dunstan?" she asked, tilting her head to present a three-quarter profile, honey toned skin reflecting the light just so. "Mom used to have a little section of Western art reprints in her gallery, and his were always the ones that caught my eye. It's like- they capture the idea of freedom, you know?"
Her tone was light and airy; but Neal had seen behind the mask, and heard both deliberate misleading and genuine emotion underlying the words. His own automatic smile slipped just a little as he glanced back toward the artwork, trying to tease the two apart. It had been her reaction to the art that had been the truthful part, he decided; there was a power to the vast sweep of earth and sky caught in its oils that snared the eye, and a little something extra to the slight, female form captured in the foreground. She was dwarfed by the majesty of the land around her, but not diminished; he got the sense of an enduring spirit expanding to fit the available space, rather than bowing under its immensity.
"I know what you mean," he said, reflectively. "It was a pity the artist never lived to see her work sold under her own name, but then, some of the best artists never do. Your mother had good taste."
A shrewd look flickered into place for a moment, mostly notable in the narrowing of her eyes, then drifted back into wide-eyed innocence; he'd never have seen it if he hadn't already been on full alert. "Now you've got me curious," she replied, brightly. "What's the story on Dunstan and Breck?"
Neal would have whistled to himself if he'd been alone; damn, she was good. Perfecting a false face that responsive took a lot of effort, and even more practice. Fielding her babbling questions as he spun out the story for her, he would never have guessed that just a week before, she'd been fighting for her life up on the rooftops of the city, literally battling something out of a nightmare. She'd spat orders at Neal, then, with an easy assumption of command that had sat just as effortlessly on her shoulders as the airhead routine did under the bright lights of the museum.
He'd mentally compared her then to an unsheathed blade: all lean lines, every movement slicing through the air in pursuit of her deadly purpose, sharp enough to cut even when she was standing still. She'd eyed his black jeans, sweater, and knit cap when it was all over in a way that perfectly expressed her opinion of his apparent occupation without her ever having to say it aloud.
She was the one who'd run right over him, though, bounding over the gap between the next building and the one he stood on as if she was on springs, while he'd been idly minding his own business. Of course, he had been taking the opportunity of his tracking anklet having been removed for undercover work to sneak out and catch a glimpse of a particular objet d'art he would prefer the government not know he had an interest in, but how could she have known that? She'd tumbled over him headlong, knocking him flat on the dirty surface, sprawled full length over his body; and for just a moment, he'd seen surprise and pure female appreciation as the strange woman stared into his eyes. Then something in her had perceptibly hardened, and she'd pushed off him, bouncing up to sweep a graceful, spinning kick at a guy who'd charged them out of nowhere.
Neal didn't like violence, but he couldn't lay still and watch a slender young woman, however suspicious her arrival, get slaughtered in front of him. He'd sprung up to join the fray- then froze as the attacker's forehead wrinkled up like something out of a horror movie, leering at Neal and his companion with golden eyes and fanged teeth. The guy's strength had quickly proven to be as unnatural as his appearance, and he'd lifted Neal off the rooftop by the throat until she swept in and jabbed him in the chest with something sharp and wooden.
If it had stopped there, he'd have been tempted to write the encounter off as a bad dream, or a complex illusion. But the bad guy hadn't been alone. Several minutes of chaos later, Neal had felt like several miles of bad road, but he'd still been alive- all thanks to his pocket-sized, impossible rescuer.
He had no doubt that the creatures- he still had trouble thinking of them as vampires- would have killed him if she hadn't been there. The question was, why had she been there? And who- or what- was she? The bad guys had called her Slayer, but she hadn't bothered to introduce herself, by that or any other name. Neal wasn't even certain he'd have recognized her again if it hadn't been for those intense green eyes. She'd been dressed as darkly as he'd been, if more stylishly, golden hair bound up under a navy blue scarf and no flashy jewelry or makeup in evidence.
Had she really recognized Neal, or had he been imagining it? Was she aware that he'd recognized her in return? She had to know. There was no way the mere substitution of one of Byron's suits for his cat burgler's gear had fooled her. Had she seen him enter with Peter? Did she think he was actually FBI, too? Was she some kind of clandestine LEO, maintaining the fiction that they'd never met before as a courtesy?
She smiled sadly when he finished the tale, glancing back at the painting. "Mom would have loved that story," she said softly. "I wish I'd kept one of the prints after she died. But I didn't think of it, and then the gallery was sold to pay the bills, and then that salt dome swallowed the town- I can't even go look at them anymore. So when I saw this one here, I just..." She shrugged, slight shoulders shifting under her pale silk blouse, looking nearly tragic for a moment: as ethereal and fragile as a spun-crystal bauble.
Or was she even playing a role? How many facets did the woman have? Neal knew, with immediate conviction, that he wouldn't be satisfied until he'd learned the answer to that question- no matter how long it took.
And she'd just provided him with a clue. Salt dome, California accent... the only town she could be referring to was Sunnydale. Current favorite of document forgers everywhere, given that the city's paper records and most of its electronic backups had been destroyed in the collapse. The details about the gallery were a nice touch, though- particularly if they turned out to be true.
"I completely understand," he said, smile warming with sympathy. "A British artist once said, 'Good art is not what it looks like, but what it does to us.' For you, Breck paintings will always be masterpieces, because they remind you of your lost home."
"Yeah. I think you're right." Something softened in her at that, another crack in the Valley Girl façade. "So what kind of art do you turn to, for comfort?"
He almost- almost- missed the buried barb in the casual question. She did know what he'd been doing on that rooftop. How? Had she- or the vampires- been chasing the same thing? Did she know there were other works by the same artist in the building?
...Was her presence actually connected to Neal and Peter's case?
Of course that was the moment Peter chose to activate his earbud again, reminding Neal that he was supposed to be asking questions about suspicious movements in the museum, not 'flirting with every pretty face he saw'. If he only knew.
Neal made his excuses, and bowed out- but made sure to slip a card with his name and number at June's into her hand as he left. And gleaned her name in exchange: Buffy Summers. The perfect match for her glamour and sunshine exterior.
Only time would tell if it was any more authentic than Neal's. But he'd seen the glint in her eyes when she'd given it to him. He was very much looking forward to her call.