sam_storyteller: (White Collar)
sam_storyteller ([personal profile] sam_storyteller) wrote2011-08-03 14:28
Entry tags:

The Art Of The Ask (White Collar)

Title: The Art Of The Ask
Rating: G
Ships: Peter/Elizabeth background
Summary: Fundraising Neal Caffrey style might be exhausting, but it's never going to be boring.
Notes: This story is a happy story with an optional depressing ending. The optional depressing ending will have a header, so you can skip it if you want to. I like people to be voluntary in their misery!
Beta Credit, JESUS: [livejournal.com profile] 51stcenturyfox and [livejournal.com profile] neifile7 helped me make this readable. [livejournal.com profile] juniper200 contributed some of the funnier dialogue :D

Also available at AO3.

***

Back when he was still working for the Bureau, Neal used to say that there was a museum for everything in New York; anyone who defied his pronouncement generally got a fifteen minute lecture on the cultural value and insightful enlightenments available at the New York Museum of Sex. If Peter was nearby, remarks might sometimes be made about Neal's categorical and extensive knowledge of the museum's collection.

When Peter's not in the field -- and he's not, now, as much as he used to be when Neal was still in the tracker -- he likes to walk the few blocks from the Federal Building to Chatham Square, on the edge of Chinatown, and have lunch in the cafeteria of the Ellington Museum of Fraud. The food is perhaps a little expensive, but the sushi is good and they know how to make a really appropriately rare burger.

The cafeteria is on the second floor with windows overlooking the street. He passes the admissions booth and little gift shop, climbing the stairs next to the glass wall that looks out over the entrance hall. At noon the cafeteria is crawling with tourists, but there's usually a seat open somewhere.

Today, there's a table by the window, occupied but with a chair available, and Peter settles in across from the table's occupant with an order of tuna cucumber maki and the baked herb-seasoned fries. Neither Neal nor El will let him eat fried food anymore, but they can take his life before they take away his potatoes. He's still fit, can still run the FBI physical qualification exams as fast as agents ten years his junior, and he doesn't want to live to seventy if he has to live to seventy on salad and wholegrain bread.

"I'm going to be sorry I asked this," he says as he sits down. Neal looks up, a jeweler's loupe still clenched in one eye, and grins. "What are you doing?"

There's a tray in front of Neal with a soft linen cloth on it and an assortment of very tiny metal gears and rods scattered over the cloth. Neal takes the loupe out of his eye and sets it aside.

"My office was too quiet to work in," Neal says, flipping an edge of the cloth over the gears carefully. "I hate my office."

"Are you having existential career angst?" Peter asks.

"Did you come here to mock me?" Neal replies, taking one of his fries. Peter stabs him in the hand with the dull point of his chopstick. "Ow!"

"Get your own," Peter says, and lifts a slice of maki roll to his mouth. "What's the project?" he adds, indicating the cloth-covered gears.

"Restoring a show piece for next month's exhibit," Neal replies. "Business or pleasure today?"

"Pleasure," Peter says, indicating his lunch. "Haven't seen you in a while."

"Sorry. It's fundraising time." Neal's expression is difficult to define, half wry grimace and half excited joy. Peter knows that Neal loves fundraising, but it takes him away from the museum, and it keeps him from having much social time for the last few months of the fiscal year. It's the same for plenty of museums and charities -- from February through mid-April Peter knows better than to expect he'll see his best friend or his wife with any regularity. It's party season for them, donation season for people who need one last tax writeoff.

"How's the donation appeal coming?" he asks.

"Almost there," Neal says confidently. "Don't suppose you could throw a couple thousand bucks our way?"

"Already made my yearly contribution," Peter reminds him. He filed their taxes in early March.

"And very grateful we are for your generous support of the museum," Neal steals another fry. Peter lets him this time, because Neal does look tired. There are faint lines beginning to show around his eyes, and his hair is greying at the temples just a little, but most of the time he doesn't look quite so gaunt.

You have to drink a lot of bad wine and always stay till closing when you're wooing the donors, Neal told him once. Peter thought fundraising was a pretty cushy job until he went to talk to Neal at the museum one morning last April and found him sleeping on the floor of his office.

He's about to say something about how Neal should come to dinner sometime, with the unspoken implication that he needs some looking-after, when a gaggle of young men and women walk by, talking cheerily and loudly, carrying trays of food in their hands and binders under their arms.

"New interns," Neal mutters. Peter watches them go. They are, to a one, remarkably attractive.

"Do you pick them based on head shots?" he asks.

"Well, I need a little joy in life," Neal replies.

"Do they know you're a pervert?"

"I would never seduce an intern, Peter," Neal says loftily. One of the interns waves at him from a nearby table, and he nods in answer.

"Of course not," Peter agrees. "No harm in looking?"

Neal shrugs. "A little youth is good for the soul. So," he adds, changing the subject, "how's the Bureau?"

"The usual," Peter answers. "Working some bank robberies you might be interested in."

"Nice try," Neal says, but he asks about them all the same, and it's a nice lunch -- talking shop, because Peter actually does love his job, and working around eventually, sidelong, to how he is and how Neal is. Touching base, without all the touchy-feely. They have a rhythm now the way they never did when they were working together, even when they were working at their best. They couldn't have, really, while Neal was still in the tracker, while Peter still didn't know if Neal would stay once it came off. The first two months of Neal's freedom did more for their friendship than the four years previous, he sometimes thinks. Not just because Neal stayed, but because Peter didn't abandon him.

"I'll let you get back to your doodads," Peter says, gesturing at Neal's work and his own empty tray.

"You'll be very impressed with these doodads soon enough," Neal answers with a smile. "Seeya, Peter."

He checks in by phone with his office on his way downstairs, but they don't need him for anything -- a sensation that's been growing, lately, as he moves away from casework and into administration. He feels the loss, but he finds he doesn't actually miss being shot at every other week, and his knees thank him for only running on a treadmill and not after fleeing perps.

He waves to the guard on the admissions booth (they all know him; he has a lifetime membership) and walks into the entrance hall. A pair of teenagers run past him towards the east gallery, and a guard nods a hello from the doorway of the sculpture gallery to the west.

The Caffrey Gallery, straight ahead, mocks him a little with its elegant, understated title plate over the column-edged entry. The museum's collection of paintings is displayed there, most of them forgeries; they have a few minor works by great masters, but only so that people can study the original and the fake side by side. Some of the paintings are Neal's, but most -- even Mozzie's -- have no artist or provenance listed, just a little placard discussing forgery technique and sometimes the history of the work, if it's a famous one. Peter likes the wall of van Meegerens, because they feel real to him; they're not copies of existing paintings.

As always, he's drawn eventually towards the set of paintings at the end of the room: Kate Moreau's rendition of Raphael's St. George And The Dragon, side by side with the original, donated to the museum by Stirling-Bosch. Only Neal would be audacious enough to return the original with one hand and ask for it for his museum with the other.

But then, the museum itself is audacity made manifest:

You can't dedicate a gallery to yourself in your own museum, Peter said, the day Neal brought the renovation blueprints into the office and spread them out on the conference table for everyone to look at.

Just for that, I'm offering Jones the security chief job instead of you, Neal replied, while Diana studied the second-floor plans.

I think he can, Jones put in.

Suddenly you're a museum expert? Peter asked, amused.

I don't like to brag, but I was recently named head of security for a prestigious local museum, Jones answered.

We could put your name on the smoking porch, Neal offered Peter, who whapped him on the back of the head and wrote a check on the spot for enough money to get his and El's name on the "Generous Benefactors" plaque near the museum entrance.

It only took Neal a year to raise the capital for the museum, which admittedly was impressive. June donated the building and thus got her name right in the title, but they still had to rip out the interior and remake it, supply office furniture and exhibits, lay out for initial publicity and start building an endowment. Peter believes that Neal probably does deserve his name on the gallery for all his hard work, but Neal did it out of vanity, not out of pride. The difference is subtle but present. Perhaps he wouldn't be Neal if he didn't retain at least a little swagger from his dishonest days.

Peter wanders through the painting gallery and then into the west gallery, with its sculptures and the counterfeit-money display and the interactive laser-measurement exhibit demonstrating how to tell an original casting from a cast-of-a-casting. He and Neal built that exhibit together, with Peter working as intermediary between the museum and the Bureau, acquiring the second-hand lasers and arranging for the little metal plate that says Provided courtesy of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI does a lot of business with the museum, mostly asking for consults from Neal or his staff on various dubious paintings or particularly twisty cons. Lately, the Secret Service has been tapping his counterfeiting expert for help as well.

Out in the entrance hall, Peter sees Neal walking up the stairs towards the second floor, where the most popular museum exhibit for school groups, Lives Of Crime, shares the floor with a gallery on police technology and forensic science. He's probably heading for the administrative offices on the third floor; Neal has a small office dominated by a huge worktable, while the Assistant Curator does most of the actual day-to-day work for the museum. Neal spends his time assembling exhibits, charming money and art out of people, arranging events, and occasionally stashing things for Mozzie in the basement, something he probably thinks Peter is unaware of.

Peter doesn't have enough proof for a warrant and isn't sure he'd try for one even if he did. The Museum is too valuable a resource for the FBI to endanger it with a scandal of that size. Besides, he doesn't know Mozzie's stash room in the basement is full of illegal things. He just suspects.

On his way out the door, he stops to study the rack of maps, exhibition ads, and tourist information nearby. The glossy recruiting pamphlets for the FBI are getting a little low; lower than the ones for the NYPD anyway, which makes him smile. Next month's exhibit, he sees, is Mechanisms Of Theft: Forged Machines And Confidence Constructions. He thinks about Victor Lustig (whose life is one of those illustrated upstairs) and his "money-producing machine" that fooled dozens of people, including at one point a county sheriff.

Next to the ad there's a stack of flyers for the Black Event that weekend, the last gasp of the fundraising calendar and the reason he hasn't seen his wife much this past week, since she's planning the Event. He's very much looking forward to Sunday, when he and Elizabeth can both sleep in and spend the day together.

***

The Black Event at the Ellington Museum of Fraud is going to be the social event of the season, at least if Neal has anything to say about it, and he does.

People who don't even know his little museum exists are attending: movie stars and rock musicians, New York's social elite, artists and models have all RSVP'd. In some cases they weren't aware they had until Neal contacted them to say how glad he was they could attend. It's rumored Lady Gaga is attending, a rumor Neal started but which might now be true. He's looking forward very eagerly to some of the outfits. Black attire only read the invitation, but that's really just an invitation to be imaginative. He knows from Elizabeth that Peter bought a black shirt for the occasion.

Elizabeth herself, however, is his secret ploy, the little extra flair that marks the event as the work of an artist.

"My God," he says, when she steps out of his office, where she's been changing into her dress and the jewelery he rented for her for the evening. "You look perfect."

Elizabeth twirls for him, her sapphire-blue dress swirling around her legs, the actual sapphires around her throat catching the light. She is a spot of color, just one, to stun the eye in the sea of black suits and dresses.

"I feel a little self-conscious," she admits.

"You'll be great. Chin up, smile like you own it," he says, and kisses her on the cheek.

"Hands off my wife," Peter calls from the doorway, laughing. He looks, if anything, even better than Elizabeth, perhaps because Neal never gets to see him dressed up; his suit is tailored, for once, and all in black he looks like a spy, or maybe a movie star.

"No jealousy, honey," Elizabeth remarks, crossing the floor to lean up, closer to his height in her heels, and kiss him.

It's been a long time since Peter took the tracker off Neal's ankle for the last time, and he couldn't have imagined when the tracker went on that this was where he'd end up. They're older, all three of them; Peter's closer than he likes to retirement, Elizabeth has confided to him that she's started dyeing her hair, and Neal has discovered that he can't do the insane stunts he could when he was twenty-three (just as well; tamps down on the temptation to break into museums and banks). But it's comfortable, and he hopes he wears it as well as they do.

Neal could have hired some young model or convinced one of his gorgeous interns to be his masterstroke, his Woman in Blue, but he wanted it to be Elizabeth. He thinks he made a wise choice; he trusts her to do this right. Besides, Peter deserves to have the most eye-catching woman in New York on his arm tonight.

"I have to go make a little speech," Neal says to them. "By then everyone who's coming fashionably late should be there, so after that you can come in anytime."

"Do us proud, sweetie," Elizabeth tells him, gently adjusting his lapel where his wireless mic is clipped.

***

It's strange and intimidating, a little, being the center of attention. Elizabeth knows Neal adores it, but she's not sure how he stands it, if this is what it's like all the time.

Her appearance seems to shock some people, the plain but vivid blue dress among the black. Peter's been at her side the whole time, but men still come up to her -- a surprising number kiss her hand -- and some women too, asking what designer did her dress, what jeweler did her sapphires. Asking her to dance. She tightens her hand around Peter's arm and declines graciously, which she realizes soon enough makes her that much more mysterious.

People take photographs.

After a while, she settles into it, once the initial shock has worn off for both her and the rest of the party. It's nice to be attending an event instead of running it, though she still worries a little that the wine might not be the right temperature, that the food is being circulated enough.

She does dance with Peter, who really enjoys dancing and isn't bad at it. She dances once with Neal, too, but Peter hands her off to him and as soon as they're done, he returns her to Peter like a debutante who needs squiring. She knows they're just making sure she's safe -- an awful lot of eyes are on her -- but she'll have to talk to them later about the fact that it's been a long time since she needed to be babysat.

It's almost midnight when Peter gently steers her towards the front of the Caffrey Gallery, where Diana has been turning down would-be dance partners for half an hour. She sees Melinda and Brian, two of Diana's best agents, pretending to flirt in the nearly empty entrance hall. She and Diana take glasses of wine from a passing tray and lean against the wall, waiting for the fun to start.

At midnight, in the middle of a toast to the museum led by Neal in front of the Raphaels (the fake and the real; Peter hates it when Neal calls them The Raphaels, but they wouldn't be Peter and Neal if they didn't needle each other sometimes), the lights go out.

There's a moment of silence and then one of panic, that much she can hear, but Neal's voice rings out soon enough -- Ladies and Gentlemen, please stay calm. We're having a little power difficulty, but the generators should have the lights back up --

No sooner has he said it than the lights come on, dim and flickering.

"There, that's better," Neal says.

"Curator," someone calls out. "Behind you!"

Neal turns.

One of the Raphaels is missing.

Elizabeth watches as Neal simply smiles and turns back to the crowd, lifting his face to look up.

Above them all -- above the paintings, the dancers, the drinkers, and most importantly, the donors -- a black-clad figure is hanging from the ceiling by a cable. The figure looks like this was not the result he expected.

Neal's voice is calm and a little amused when he speaks again.

"One of the advantages of running a museum dedicated to crime," he says, as the figure struggles and writhes, dangling in midair, "is that you get to know a little about how things get stolen. And you hear about jobs people try to pull. You notice when your museum is being cased. And I am not," he adds, his voice hardening, "about to let anyone take our Raphael away from us."

The figure goes still.

"Peter?" Neal asks, and Peter steps out into the middle of the floor, under the thief.

"Lower away," Peter says, and the FBI agent who apparently handcuffed the thief's partner and took control of his winch lowers the man slowly to the ground. Peter grabs him by the scruff of the neck before his feet touch the floor. He has the Raphael strapped to his back.

"We're not very fond of it either," Peter remarks to Neal, removing the Raphael and handing it to him. "Special Agent Peter Burke, FBI," he says to the thief. "You're under arrest."

He pulls off the hood the thief is wearing. Mozzie, in a short wig and a huge fake beard, glares up at Peter. The crowd bursts into spontaneous applause.

Peter frogmarches Mozzie out of the room while a couple of agents block anyone else from following; Neal is giving a speech in the background about security and cultural curatorship as he re-hangs the precious Raphael (actually the fake), but Elizabeth can't hear him clearly. She's slipped out after Peter and Mozzie, to find them in the men's room in the basement, Peter helping Mozzie peel his beard off.

"That was more fun than I've had on the job in months," Peter announces, as she walks in.

"Speak for yourself, Suit. I don't like dangling," Mozzie complains.

"You volunteered," Peter reminds him.

"You know very well I can't resist a con."

"It was a very nice thing you did for Neal," Elizabeth says, with a look at her husband that reminds him of the proper protocol in situations where you've just faked a robbery in order to entertain your guests and get really big donation checks.

"Thank you, Elizabeth," Mozzie says graciously. Peter rips off his wig. "Ow! That was glued on!"

"It's like a band-aid," Peter says. "Pulling it off fast is best."

"You have no soul," Mozzie tells him.

"I find I travel lighter without one," Peter responds, and Elizabeth giggles just as the door bursts open.

"Hey, great work," Neal says, leaning through. "Mozzie, you're a saint."

"Only for you would I do this," Mozzie says, still tenderly feeling his scalp.

"I know. Here." Neal tosses him a football-sized foil package full of snacks from the event. "No dairy, I checked. I have to get back. Sylvia McCormick just told me she thinks this museum's the only one secure enough to trust with her Mondrian. We're getting a Mondrian!" he says, excited as a kid, hands balled and upraised.

"Do you have a fake to hang with it?" Peter asks.

"For her Mondrian, I will make one," Neal answers scornfully. "By the way, like a dozen really hot women want your phone number."

"Tell them I'm taken," Peter says, as Neal turns to go.

"Already done!" Neal calls through the closing door. Elizabeth smiles smugly.

***

The party is breaking up by the time Peter and Elizabeth leave. Mozzie has donned a hat and dark shades and slipped out through a side door, catching a bus to wherever it is Mozzie goes when he's not helping Neal with fake thefts.

At a stoplight, Peter subtly watches from the driver's seat as Elizabeth slips off her heels and curls her toes, groaning in relief. The sapphires are already back in the safe in Neal's office, and she's put on an old sweatshirt of Peter's over her dress, against the cold of the evening. He thinks she looks even better now than she did at the party, but he's biased.

"Home?" he asks, as she begins pulling pins out of her astoundingly elaborate hairdo. She hums, indecisive.

"I really want pizza," she says.

"Hon, I'm in an all-black tuxedo," he reminds her. "You're in a ball gown."

"It's one in the morning. Who's going to judge?" she asks, and she has a point. Plus, there's a really good late-night pizza place not far away.

Neal catches up with them just as the pizza arrives at their table, which Peter thinks was probably planned -- he saw Elizabeth texting in the car. Neal slides into the booth, drinks what's left of Peter's beer, and collapses back into the vinyl seat, undoing his tie.

"We made our goal," he announces, and Elizabeth applauds. "In fact, we went about twenty thousand over. Guess I can actually pay stipends to the next batch of interns."

"And for that beer," Peter adds. Neal laughs. "Congratulations. It only took blatant chicanery to accomplish."

"You don't do much fundraising, do you?" Neal asks. "It all takes chicanery. Well, spin. Anyway, that's why I'm so good at it. Besides, who did it hurt? Nobody touched the original Raphael, you and Mozzie had fun, and everyone who came to event has a great story to tell."

"Grey moral area," Peter says.

"My favorite kind." Neal signals to the waiter. "Two more beers, whatever he had."

"So you get the Mondrian?" Elizabeth asks, rubbing Neal's arm. He looks, Peter will admit, absolutely at the end of his rope, smiles and witty banter aside.

"I'm visiting on Tuesday to discuss a conditional gift of a couple of pieces," Neal says. "She has a really nice fake Rodin too, apparently, and she'd like to unload it. It'd make a great new piece for the laser exhibit."

"No rest for the wicked," Peter murmurs.

"Yeah, but the wicked have more fun," Neal answers, as their beers arrive. He picks his up and offers it in a toast. "To the museum, and those who made it possible."

Peter can drink to that.

***

Neal is so tired he can barely keep his head up by the time they finish their meal, but he wouldn't have given up the late-night beer and pizza for a week's worth of sleep. He can get at least three hours tonight and once he's made sure the media coverage of the event is going his way, he can spend the rest of Sunday and Monday unconscious too.

He'll have to do that fake Mondrian, though, once he's seen the original, and have his assistant call the museum's lawyer about drawing up the gift papers. And there'll be a stack of thank-you letters to sign on his desk on Tuesday morning --

He's thinking about his to-do list, and not about where his feet are going; he stumbles on an uneven corner of pavement as they leave the restaurant, and nearly goes headlong into Peter.

"Hey, watch out," Peter says, catching him by the arms. "You're turning into a lightweight, you only had one beer."

"Just tired," Neal answers, smiling. Peter hasn't let go of his arms. "Thanks for the catch."

"No problem," Peter says. And, to Neal's mild surprise, pulls him into a hug. Peter's always been kind of a physical guy but he doesn't hug all that often. Neal leans into it, appreciative.

"Get some rest," Peter says in his ear, before he lets him go. "You look like you're dead on your feet."

"Promise," Neal agrees.

"You know I'm proud of you, right?" Peter asks. "We are, El and me."

Neal swallows against sudden tears. It's just exhaustion, he knows that, but he likes the feeling of being...not honest, but...respectable, in the simplest sense of the word. Deserving of respect. He likes that he can be the kind of guy people like Peter can be proud of.

"How much did El pay you to say that?" he asks, to cover the moment.

"This one's a freebie," Peter answers, a little sheepish. "Go home, Neal. Sleep."

Neal nods, even as Peter's turning to hail a cab for him. He dozes on the way home, wakes with a start when the cabbie knocks on the glass to tell him his fare, and barely manages to undress before he crawls into bed.

He's warm from the inside out, though -- happy, satisfied -- and he thinks as he drifts off that maybe it would be okay if he got five hours of sleep instead of three.

END

Or....

OPTIONAL DEPRESSING ENDING

Neal wakes in the dark, confused for a moment; he's not in a museum office or in some trendy little apartment somewhere. He's at June's.

He swings his legs out of the bed, careful not to snag the anklet on the sheets. He wonders -- he wonders this a lot -- if he'll still favor the leg after the anklet comes off. If he'll still sidestep to avoid bumping it against chairs and desks, still move carefully to keep it from catching on things. Eventually he'll readjust, surely.

When he opens the laptop at the kitchen table, the clock in the corner of the screen says it's three in the morning. He's been waking up in the night a lot, recently. Sometimes from a dream, sometimes because he's thirsty or his head hurts. It's become a habit; get up, get something to drink, spend fifteen or twenty minutes out of bed, and then go back.

The discreet login Mozzie set up for the treasure-cam is visible, cursor blinking in the password box. He taps it in, feeling the now-familiar twist in his chest: guilt, fear, joy, lust, shame, all mixed together. The first time he saw the treasure, it wasn't like that; he was so happy, and he chases that feeling, that half-hour of bliss before reality set in.

Now when he looks at it, he feels other things. He sometimes wonders if it's cursed. He's afraid of leaving New York, afraid Peter will come after him and find him, half-afraid that he wants Peter to find him. But Peter these days is like a bright, sharp blade, and lately Neal worries how easily Peter hurts him. Peter seems so careless about it, like he doesn't even notice. And even when he does, somehow it's still Neal's fault. As ashamed as he is of what he's going to do, Neal sometimes thinks it's best to leave. Before Peter goes to cut him one day and there's nothing left of him at all.

He misses Sara. He misses Kate. Even in his dreams he's alone.

But it was such a good dream, such a nice idea, that one day he could be honest and have a real job doing ordinary things and Peter and Elizabeth would be proud of him. He wouldn't mind working in a museum, maybe, not that any museum in New York would hire a high-school dropout art thief, even if Neal could run rings around most of their staff. He probably could pull off opening a museum of his own -- June would surely help -- but he can't do that. He has to leave. He can't let Mozzie down, he has few enough friends as it is, and believing Peter will ever be anything other than his keeper is, obviously, a mistake.

Neal logs out of the treasure cam, closes the laptop, and wanders back to bed. He can still see Elizabeth in the beautiful blue dress, can still feel Peter's arms around his shoulders.

Well, it's a new day, and it's not like he's leaving today. One foot in front of the other, mindful of the tracker, and he can survive until tomorrow.
aelfgyfu_mead: Aelfgyfu as a South Park-style cartoon (Default)

[personal profile] aelfgyfu_mead 2011-08-07 20:34 (UTC)(link)
I am not reading the Depressing Optional Ending!

I want to remember the characters like this. I want to believe that Neal and Mozzie and Elizabeth and Peter will all stay in New York and remain good friends even if Neal gets a life of his own.