Disclaimer: I'm not USA / Jeff Eastin / etc. (White Collar) or Joss Whedon / Mutant Enemy / Fox / etc. (Buffy), so I don't claim to own them.
Genre: Gen; Crossover
Fandoms: White Collar; Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Spoilers: White Collar through Season 4
Word Count: 2,000
Written For: avamclean's January 2013 Prompt
Series: First Time for Everything
Summary: There had to be a first and his came in Sunnydale.
"Neal. I'm Neal Caffrey. Neal. Neal Caffrey."
Neal watched his reflection in the mirror as he repeated his mostly new name over and over. He couldn't be Danny anymore. Apparently, he never was Danny. The hard part was that he didn't remember a time when he wasn't Danny. Evidently, three year olds didn't remember much when they reached eighteen.
His parents had named him Neal Bennett. The Marshals had named him Danny Brooks. Now he was naming himself. When Ellen had told him his real name, Neal had actually felt right. It was like finding a piece of himself that he had never known was missing. But Bennett didn't belong to him any longer. Bennett belonged to a man who had thrown away his family and his reputation. As far as he knew, Caffrey was his mother's maiden name. She may not have been there for him, but he wanted to keep a part of her with him wherever he ended up.
So Neal Bennett had died in some city that he would never remember and Danny Brooks would become a runaway from St. Louis. Neal Caffrey was just born and could be anything he wanted to be. The one thing Neal knew he would never be was a cop. That had been Danny's dream and that dream was dead.
"Neal," he repeated out loud and to himself. It would be hard to forget his entire life as Danny, but he would do it. It was the only solution he had to escape the lies he'd been fed for years.
With a sigh, Neal left the shoddy motel room he currently called home and headed out into the sun to find anything that could make him feel whole again.
He wandered until he found a small art gallery. He might have to forget his name and many other things, but he could still retain things that held his interest. Art had been a past-time for Danny, but maybe Neal could make it something more real. He walked into the gallery and immediately felt calmed by the pureness of the space surrounding him. Pieces of art were hung along the walls and there were sculptures of various shapes and sizes gracing the floors. Maybe this could be his haven.
He was unsure how long he roamed the gallery, taking in the sights, but he finally stopped at a bench positioned in front of a painting by Edvard Munch. A painting of that caliber had seemed out of place in such a small gallery, but Neal was thankful for its presence. The painting depicted a dark haired young man sitting forlornly along a nondescript beach. The man seemed to sum up everything that Neal was feeling. It was one of the reasons that he loved art. Emotions that you couldn't even speak about out loud could be captured by the swirls of a paint brush.
"You look more melancholy than that painting of the same name," a woman's voice startled him from his introspection.
"Sorry?" he said it as more of a question.
He really hoped his mood wasn't pulling others down with him when he took in the sad expression in the woman's eyes. Danny was the calm and introspective one with an occasional wild streak. Neal needed to be something different. He needed to be happy and carefree and staring at a painting title Melancholy was definitely not cutting it.
"You've been sitting there for thirty minutes and I figured it was time for a break."
"Thanks," he said plastering on a smile for show. "Just got caught up looking at it. I'm kind of shocked to find something like it here." That garnered a smile and Neal was pleased with himself.
"I have a very good friend who works with The Bergen Art Museum. They're under renovation for the foreseeable future and instead of placing this in storage she got them to loan it out to me. It's sort of our prize piece at the moment."
Neal remained silent. It was so tempting to get lost in the painting again and not have to think about what he was going to do with his life. But the woman didn't let him.
"I'm Joyce and this is my gallery. I take it you are new to town?"
"Yeah. I've been doing the whole cross-country thing and the money's almost gone."
"You can't be much more than eighteen. Your parents okay with it?"
There was a hitch in her voice that told Neal that she was a mom who had a kid of her own to worry about. If only his mom would have gotten that tone about him over the years. But it never happened.
"It's just my mom and she's probably glad she doesn't have to worry about me anymore. I graduated a semester early and decided to take the time to travel before college," the lie rolled off his tongue and he went with it. He built the idea up in his head. He was smart enough to make it believable after all.
"What do you plan to do for money?" Joyce asked with concern.
"Figured I would stop some place for a bit and work and then move on again. So far, this town is looking nice. At least it has a bit of culture," he added with a smile and nod toward the painting.
"Just be careful at night. It's not very safe after sunset."
Neal just nodded. He wasn't much for night activities anyway. He preferred watching people and this town seemed to have the most people out during the day.
"How are you at cleaning, fixing and hanging things?" Joyce asked suddenly.
"Not too bad," Neal admitted. Danny had been the one to take care of the apartment once he was old enough to understand how.
"Then I've got a job for you," Joyce stood up and motioned for him to follow.
She led him to a set of stairs and at the top she led him into a cluttered and rundown loft apartment that sprawled the length of the gallery down below.
"I bought this place for the potential of having the apartment to rent out as extra income. But one thing led to another and I haven't had a chance to clean it up. Think you're up for the challenge?"
Neal roamed around the apartment. Mainly, everything just needed a good scrubbing and a fresh coat of paint. It was something he knew he'd be able to do and if he came across something he didn't know, he could figure it out. It would be easy money if nothing else.
"Yeah. Can I negotiate staying here while I fix it up?" he asked on a whim.
"Where are staying right now?"
"At that little motel a few blocks over," Neal said with a sigh.
Joyce's eyes went wide for a moment and she muttered something about invites. "You'll move in here tonight and we'll work out a good deal for payment. This is much safer than any of the motels Sunnydale has to offer."
They shook on it and Neal found himself retrieving his meager belongings and moving into the gallery.
A few weeks passed before he knew it and he found himself spending his free time in the gallery. With some of the money he was being paid, he had purchased some art supplies and had taken to sketching the various pieces the gallery had on display. He found it a challenge to try to copy the original artist's work, including the emotion the painting conveyed. It was a challenge and it kept his mind occupied.
On occasion, he would find Joyce lost in thought as she watched him work. She would have this sad expression on her face that she would chase away by making him something to eat or just sitting and talking with him.
They talked mainly about art. Joyce passed along her knowledge and he soaked up every word. She also loaned him her collection of art books she'd kept since college and he enjoyed reading them late into the night from the safety of the apartment. He had taken Joyce's pleadings that he not go out at night to heart. Something had her scared and he didn't want to add to that.
He had also learned through their talks about Buffy. He immediately realized that by taking care of him, Joyce was hoping that someone out in the world was doing the same for her daughter. Neal hoped that too. He knew that his own mother wouldn't be as affected by his departure like Joyce was over Buffy's.
More weeks passed and he found himself working on a detailed copy of Melancholy, complete with paints and canvas. It was tedious work to copy every swirl of the paintbrush, but he loved the challenge. And in the end, his self-challenge paid off.
"I can't tell the difference," Joyce said as she looked between the two works. "I hope you decided on art for your degree, Neal. You have the talent for it."
Neal just smiled and said, "I think art might be a thing for me."
A few days later, Joyce called to tell him that Buffy had returned home and asked him to put the closed sign on the gallery for the next few days. With the apartment cleanup complete and Joyce no longer needing a kid to look after, Neal figured it was a good time to leave Sunnydale.
As he was walking back toward the stairs through the empty gallery, he stopped again at the Melancholy painting. The painting on the wall represented his past. It represented everything he was going to do his best to lock away. The copy he made represented a future that was slowly taking shape in his mind.
The majority of artists didn't strike it rich and Neal couldn't see himself going into teaching. But he could make copies, no, forgeries. Joyce had said she couldn't tell the difference and she had a trained eye. There might not be money in original work, but Neal was sure he could find a way to make money by copying the greats.
Without much thought, he ran up the stairs and grabbed his copy of Melancholy. Then he carefully removed the original painting from its frame and put his in its place. Once his was on the wall, he took a deep and looked at his work hanging there for all to see. Everyone would think it was the real painting. Instead, it would be his work that was admired and treasured. His heart was racing from the adrenaline rush and he felt more alive than he had since Ellen had told him about his past. He wanted to keep that feeling. He wanted Neal to be alive and not wallowing like the boy in the painting.
He rolled up the original and found a tube in the storage room. Then he grabbed his bags and headed for the bus station. He wasn't sure where he was going, but he knew it needed to be as far from California as possible. If Joyce figured it out, he didn't know what would happen. In the back of his mind, he felt a pang at taking the painting from Joyce who had been nothing but kind to him. But he also knew that the painting was well insured and if it was discovered, she'd be covered.
He was taking the Melancholy with him and using it for the inspiration in his new life. He was sure he could find more paintings out there to forge. Maybe look into people that weren't on the up-and-up to begin with. He had a lot to learn and he was suddenly looking forward to it.
On the way out, he stuck a post-it note beside his forgery as a way of signing it.
I'm taking your advice and going into art and leaving my melancholy behind. Thanks. –NC
Edvard Munch (Norwegian, 1863-1944). Melancholy, 1894/96. Oil on canvas. 81 x 100.5 cm (31 7/8 x 39 5/8 in.). RMS.M.249. The Rasmus Meyer Collection, The Bergen Art Museum