Peter knew there was more to Neal Caffrey that met the eye.
He knew it every time they stumbled upon a young child, whether they were on their way to a crime scene or it was someone's kid turning up to the office for babysitting. He knew it in the fond smile that he gave them, calloused hands that he joked were from lock-picking reaching out with an odd gentleness, a carefulness he did not display even when handling the most precious of jewels.
He knew it in the way the man would joke about his “Old Man” teaching him the ways of the con, and how he commented that his father used to smoke, as if they were two different people. Where his eyes turned fond talking about the “Old Man”, but something dark lurked under his cheerful demeanour when speaking of his father.
Peter respected his CI-turned-partner too much to try prying into his life pre-eighteen-years-old. Not that he would find anything, anyway. Even when Neal Caffrey was still on the run, there were no records of the man before his eighteenth birthday. It was why he debated more than once that Neal was not his real name - that despite how real he was as a person, Neal Caffrey could just be an alias.
Today was one of those days that the thoughts came to a head.
“Please,” Neal rolled his eyes, propping his feet up on the desk of the stakeout van, “Troia would beat down Kid Flash without a problem. There’s nothing to debate.”
“But Kid Flash has been around for such a long time!” Jones protested, “What makes you so sure that Troia will win?”
“Firstly, Amazons are much cooler than you’re giving them credit for, excuse you,” Diana snorted at his comment, causing Neal’s grin to widen, “And secondly, if we’re talking about the first Kid Flash, then I’ll admit that maybe there’s a chance he’d be able to win - but Kid Flash is another person, now.”
Neal raised his eyebrows at the incredulous yells. “Oh, c’mon, it’s obvious if you know what to look for,” Neal rolled his eyes, typing quickly into his phone. He turned it back around to show a side-by-side comparison of the two Kid Flashes, with their respective teams beside them.
The van was silent for a moment, before Peter gave a begrudging nod. “I didn’t peg you for a superhero fan, Neal,” he teased.
At that, Neal smirked, something like mirth glowing in his eyes. “Oh, it’s one of many things I know a little too much about,” he winked.
Neal gave a low whistle as he walked into the room. Rows of confiscated guns lay on the table, taken from a suspicious apartment using a warrant. “These things are vintage,” he commented, getting an eyebrow raise from Peter.
“What? Just because I refuse to use a gun doesn’t mean that I don’t know what they are,” Neal shrugged dismissively.
“Alright, then, what are these guns?” Jones questioned with a bored expression. To everyone’s surprise, Neal pointed and listed off the names of each gun, along with estimations of how old they were, and how much they would cost.
“You know all that just by looking at them?” Jones frowned skeptically.
“As an ex-conman, nothing is outside the range of possibilities. Mozzie knows as much as I do,” Neal grinned. He neglected to mention that he was the one who educated Mozzie on all the gun knowledge one would need to know, plus extra things that the average non-violent criminal should not be aware of. The Red Hood had long since crossed the border from anti-hero to vigilante, his red bat an allegiance instead of a mockery.
Still, Neal - no, Jason - worried about the day that Peter eventually found out more about himself. Whether he was more worried he would make the connection between a long-dead adopted son or a gun-toting timebomb was hard to tell. On one hand, he would think of a Gothamite billionaire, and how their kid could end up in New York. On the other hand, knowing the rumours of the crimelord-turned-hero, he might just turn Jason in, even if Neal Caffrey had been cleared of all his charges.
Jason loved being Neal, working an actual job and helping a team solve cases all while never needing to hold a weapon. It had been a challenge at first, to not twitch a hand towards his side whenever he felt threatened, to reason and con with wit and misdirection instead of direct intimidation and confrontation.
He almost blew it all that time ago, when he had a gun in his hands and that gun was pressed against that man’s head. It was a testimony to how far he had come from Pit Madness, and how attached he had become to the White Collar team, that he let Peter talk him out of it.
At first he had not told his family where he disappeared to, only telling his Outlaws that he was going under the radar for a while, an unknown length of time. Eventually he thought he should at least let them know he was alive, and Neal Caffrey not-so-subtly grinned and waved at the surveillance camera positioned just outside Wayne Enterprises’ New York branch. That was back when he still had the anklet, so he dare not walk into the building. It would have given Peter too big of a hint, too strong of a suspicion to let slide.
It was not long before he walked into his apartment to find a darker shadow than was strictly normal lurking in the corner of the room. Bruce was just there to talk, surprisingly enough, and simply allowed himself to be caught up with Jason’s recent escapades before clasping his shoulder and informing him that he was always welcome in Gotham, whenever he pleased. That assurance warmed his heart more than he gave it credit for.
“This is Kryptonite,” Neal declared, an uncharacteristic frown marring his features. Peter blinked. “Kryptonite,” he repeated in disbelief, “A Kryptonite necklace?”
“Seems like it,” Neal sighed. All at once he was smiling again, although this smile was tighter than usual. “What do we do? Is there a procedure for these kinds of things, or…?”
Diana shook her head. “This hasn’t happened before. Peter, go get Hughes, or something.”
“I can go,” Neal offered, and left before anyone could question it. He let himself into Hughes’ office in a flourish, grinning his conman smile and watching as the man’s shoulders’ tensed. Neal knew what he was doing - he had toned down the conman personality significantly since his commutation, and any indication that he was switching back to his old ways was a silent message that whatever the topic was, it was enough to unsettle Neal himself.
“Hughes,” Neal grinned, “I got a favour to ask you.”
“I’m not agreeing to anything until I hear what you have to say,” Hughes sighed, shuffling his paperwork off to the side and gesturing for Neal to have a seat.
Neal sat down, and his demeanour changed drastically, grin falling into a small frown. “There’s a Kryptonite necklace downstairs, and I’ve been told that you’ve never seen anything like that before,” Neal started stoically. Hughes raised an eyebrow, but kept silent, and Neal continued, “I have some people who can look into this whole case, and who have the expertise to deal with it.”
“But,” Neal sighed, “They’re not- legal. They’re not illegal, either. At least, they do good. They just use unconventional means to do good.”
He was keeping himself vague, and he cursed the man’s emotionless expression. He had no gauge for how he was taking it, whether his brain had grinded to a stop or whether he was surreptitiously connecting all the dots, all the signs of Neal Caffrey being more than the criminal he painted himself as. Neal ducked his head down, fiddling with his hands.
“Alright,” Hughes agreed. Neal looked up in shock and bewilderment. “Alright to what, exactly?” Neal stammered out, and Hughes sighed, but it sounded fond.
“Alright, go get these contacts of yours informed. Meet up with them, fill them in on what we know. As far as I’m concerned, there was no necklace, only bracelets and rings,” Hughes stated.
“You- you’re sure?” Neal gaped, “I mean, I’ll need to give them the necklace, and ‘they’ could be anyone, heck, I could be giving this to Mozzie!” The real question he was trying to convey was, why do you trust me?
Hughes seemed to understand well enough, because he huffed and leant back in his chair.
“Neal,” Hughes gruffed, “You’re part of Peter’s team. You’re not the CI, anymore, you’re one of us. You might think you’re still a criminal, but you’re not. That being said, the moment we catch you in a crime, we’d arrest you immediately.” He emphasised ‘catch’, and something was warm in Neal’s chest. He grinned, and this time the grin was genuine. “I’ll tell them you’re taking this case to someone else, and I’m getting the necklace for you,” he stated, before swinging open the door with a “Thanks, Hughes!” called behind him.
This was not how the warrant was supposed to go.
They were just investigating the place due to the filed complaints and concerns. Voices at night, too many to be anything but suspicious. They were thinking more along the lines of “deal-making” warehouse, not “child-smuggling” warehouse.
Most of the children were from around New York, and most of them were homeless or ran away from home. Only a few were actually snatched away from caring families, and those were quickly whisked back to their worried parents. The rest were sent to a children’s home, and while it seemed too little, it was all they could do.
There was one that stood out from the rest. A young girl with ratty clothing three sizes too big and with shoes that were duck-taped over. She was staying far away from the group, abnormal if only for the fact that the kids seemed to be clustering together for comfort after their kidnapping trauma. No, this girl kept hissing like a wild animal whenever someone was too close. She looked like she might actually attack.
That was until Neal crouched down a short distance away, just outside some perceived border, and spoke up in an accent Peter had never heard him use. It was scratchy and raw, and so unlike Neal’s polished quips that he had to do a double-take.
“What’s yer name, pixie?” Neal asked, and the girl’s eyes widened, taking an aborted half-step towards him. Neal paused for a moment, before speaking again, “M’name’s Neal. What’s yer’s?”
Peter shared a look with Jones, who shrugged, and looked to Diane, who shook her head.
Silence for a long moment. Then, the girl shifted, and quietly, in the same accent Neal was using. “Jacky. Ev’ryone calls me Jacky.”
Neal smiled then, soft and tentative, “A’ight, Jacky. Where ya from?”
Jacky squinted at Neal, as if the answer was obvious. Neal continued to stare expectantly. “M’from the Narrows,” Jacky answered finally.
“Ay,” Neal’s grin looked more crooked, more jagged, “Yer a long way from home, ya know that?”
Jacky nodded, turning her nose up at Peter, Jones and Diane, who were standing with the other kids, but were not-so-discreetly watching their interaction. “Who’s’em? Cops?” Jacky spat out the word like it was venom, “‘Cause I ain’t goin’ away with more cops. Was brought here by one, m’sure.”
Neal’s expression flickered to something darker, before lightening up with a sigh. “A’ight. They’re the FBI, but they’re wit’ me,” Neal stated, “An’ I ain’t letting them do anythin’ to you, got that?”
“Neal, ask her about her parents,” Peter whisper-yelled, “She didn’t answer that, just now.”
Neal rolled his eyes while Jacky swerved towards Peter with a glare. “I can hear’ya, ya-” Jacky swore at him, and Peter’s eyebrows rose high. Neal laughed at his expense.
“Ey,” Neal called, and Jacky’s attention was back on him, “Yer in New York, now, kiddo. We just needa know what you want,” Neal stated. Jacky stilled.
“This ain’t Gotham?” Jacky questioned, and Peter’s mind screeched to a halt. Neal refused to make eye contact, opting to shake his head slowly at the now-shocked girl, “No, we ain’t in Gotham, pixie,” he stated softly.
Neal’s suspicion that Jacky was a street kid was proven right when the young girl shifted and whispered, “M’dad’s in jail. Havn’ seen mom in two years. She ain’t gonna take me in.”
Neal nodded. Then, “Ya know, New York’s much better than Gotham. Both the streets and the system. Give the system a try, then if ya hate it, well,” he flashed another crooked grin, and Peter’s mind was racing.
When Jacky and the other kids were sent off, when it was time to call it a day, Peter ambushed Neal in the car.
“You’re from Gotham?” Peter questioned, glancing Neal’s way for a reaction. There was none, save for an almost imperceptible sigh. “Yeah, born and raised,” he chuckled, “Penny for your thoughts, Suit?”
“You know you’re basically a Suit now, too,” Peter quipped, but he accepted the opening to speak.
“I wouldn’t have realised it, honestly, not by the accent alone. When I think of Gotham, I think of dark and corrupt, not-” he looked at Neal, “Well, not you. You seem too good for Gotham, somehow. You’ve always been non-violent, and your knowledge on guns could just be a hobby. You don’t intimidate, you negotiate. You don’t seem like a Gothamite, to me, at least.”
Neal hummed. “Neal Caffrey has not been to Gotham,” he admitted, “That doesn’t mean I couldn’t blend in, if I wanted to. Once a Gothamite, always a Gothamite. We’re just really good at covering up our crazy when we’re out of the city.”
“Why didn’t Jacky trust us? I mean, I know that Gotham’s corrupt, but-”
“-When she said that she must have been brought here by a cop, she’s not joking,” Neal cut him off, “There are still some corrupt cops in the GCPD. More than there should be, even after all the hardwork and effort that Gordon does to weed them out. It’s always the street kids that are picked on. You have to watch your steps, and have a knife behind your back, just in case you need it.”
Peter rolled up at June’s apartment. “And why did Jacky trust you?” Peter questioned finally.
Neal turned to him with a smile, and Peter noted that this one lacked the crooked edge he had seen earlier in the day. “Street kids stick together. Especially street kids from Gotham,” he stated, then hopped out of the car with a wave.
The computer at Neal’s desk lit up on its own accord. Neal glanced up, then back down at his paperwork, then blinked. His eyes snapped back to the screen, Oracle’s logo blinking at the corner even as text appeared on the screen’s surface.
Alien invasion. All hands on deck. Head to Titans Tower ASAP.
Great. Just what he needed.
“I’m going for a coffee run,” Neal announced with a long stretch, “Anyone want anything?”
A few dismissive grumbles later, Neal was out the door and running. It was a wonder that the news of aliens took so long to reach social media, or news outlets, for that matter. Then again, this seemed to be an early warning, probably directly from the Watchtower. With most of the League’s big-hitters off-world, Jason hoped that this would be quick.
Disclaimer: it was not quick.
By the time the aliens beat a hasty retreat from Earth, and all the major post-battle clean-up was done, and one Neal Caffrey stumbled back to June’s apartment, his phone was exploding with miscalls and concerned texts, from Mozzie, from Peter, from El, from everyone, really.
Neal sighed and dialed Mozzie’s number, first. He would make less of a fuss about him going off-radar. At least, that was what he hoped. “Neal!” his friend shouted, relieved and angry all at once, “Where have you been?”
“Hiding from the alien invasion, what else?” Neal snarked, making sure to sound exhausted and exasperated, “I had to sit tight in the cafe for hours, give me a break!”
“And what cafe would this be?” Peter’s voice suddenly butted into the conversation. Neal, despite the dread churning in his gut at the lies he would have to weave to get past this, was relieved that Peter was alright. “Peter! Is El there? How’s everyone, did anyone get hurt?” Neal fired off before he could stop himself. He frowned at himself. He sounded like Dick.
“Yes, and everyone’s fine, and no,” Peter deadpanned, “Now what happened to that coffee run, and how on earth did you manage to barge into an alien invasion?”
Neal spun a tale about getting trapped in the collapsed cafe, naming off the one outlet that had indeed been semi-crushed in the chaos, that had indeed left some people trapped for a few hours. “I’m coming over,” Peter declared, with Mozzie saying he would bring wine, and El’s voice was the last one he heard, saying “see you soon!” before the line went dead. Neal sighed, running a hand through his hair. He was fine, he really was - just tired. He had been returning to Gotham over the weekends for patrol, but he still felt weary to the bone, and that was testimony to how out of practice he was.
He was thankful that he had left his suit at the Tower as Mozzie went around checking for bugs, claiming that the aliens could be spying on them, you never knew. Peter seemed to be appeased by the fact that Neal was uninjured, if a little ruffled, and all was well and good, until El went to the bathroom and commented off-handedly that there was hair dye in the cupboard, and Neal had to suppress a sigh.
“Oh, c’mon, Peter,” he grinned impishly, “I can’t have white hairs appearing just because I’m getting old! It’ll ruin my youthful masculinity!”
Peter rolled his eyes, but he did wonder. Neal was way too young for white hair. Genetics, perhaps? He also noted with curiosity that Neal was muscular in the way that one would be from hard labour, even though Neal was always lounging around or just not doing any heavy-lifting, much less going to the gym.
Mozzie narrowed his eyes. “Now that you mention it, you did have a clump of white hair above your eyes, the first time we met,” Mozzie commented, “I thought it was foolish to make yourself so identifiable. You must agree, then?”
Neal did, but not for the same reasons. After all, the Red Hood was seen enough times with a white lock of hair in the same place to make it too much of a coincidence to ignore. The first time he had met Mozzie, it was just a mission with the Outlaws, and he was not planning on making Neal Caffrey as solid as it was now.
“Well, I guess I can’t blame you, that your first instinct is to run and hide,” Peter admitted, “I mean, you’ve probably seen worse in Gotham, haven’t you?”
Neal took it in his stride, even as Mozzie narrowed his eyes at him. “Oh, yeah. There’s a rogue attack every week or so, and an Arkham breakout every few months. People bring Joker Toxin antidote around in their purses, and Fear Gas masks in their pockets. It’s a way of life,” he shrugged, trying to play it coolly. Mozzie begged to differ.
“Gotham!” he exclaimed, “You’re from that monster of a city?”
“Hey,” Neal quickly rose to his city’s defense, “Gotham’s a disaster, but it’s home. And believe it or not, I only started forgery after I moved out of Gotham. Only a fool sets themselves up in that place.”
Only fools dressed up as birds and bats and fought crime at night, he mused.
“So you were never a thug for any of the Rogues?” Mozzie nodded in approval, “You were smart about that, at least.” A pause. “Have you met Catwoman?”
“Don’t give the man any ideas,” Peter warned, at the same time Neal quipped, “I could have walked into her on the street, and I would have been none the wiser.”
Of course, that was a blatant lie. It just distracted from the fact that, yes, Neal had met Catwoman, and was closer to her than an average civilian should be.
Peter frowned, then turned to his wife. “I don’t like that response,” he mumbled, to which El laughed and patted his shoulder, “You should be used to that, by now.” He should be, but he was nowhere near it.
Peter pinched the bridge of his nose with a sigh. “So you’re saying that you know Neal? And you’re not going to leave until you’ve said hi?”
“Eeyup!” the young man chirped, popping the ‘p’. He was younger than Neal, but was much shorter and leaner, wearing a red hoodie and jeans and speaking in a strong drawl. He was also chewing gum. Peter got the feeling that if he removed his sunglasses, his eyes would be twinkling with mirth.
Neal ambled in soon after, took one look at the person sitting at his desk, and made a smooth turn to walk back outside. “Hey!” the man’s voice was almost a whine, “Not even a hello?”
Neal paused at the door to the office, heaving a deep sigh that caused his shoulders to rise and fall, and swirled with his conman smile. “Alvin!” he greeted, “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
Peter regarded Neal’s response with a curious gaze. Neal obviously knew who this was, and somehow the smile was not as fake as he had expected it to be - it was almost warm, past the polite pleasantries.
“Aye, just here to visit,” Alvin replied innocently, and the smile he gave was almost a mirror of Neal’s. Peter wondered if he should be concerned, even as he checked for his wallet. Still there. Huh. If anything, the motion caused Alvin’s smile to blow into a full grin.
Neal was giving an impressively disappointed stare, complete with the one raised eyebrow. Alvin sagged in Neal’s office chair. “I’m escaping my roommates,” he admitted, “I love them, but I can’t stand them, sometimes.”
Neal smirked, “What did they do?”
“Blew up the kitchen. I mean it. They blew up the kitchen.”
Neal laughed at his - friend’s? - expense, a loud, brazen bark. Peter blinked, filing away that this Alvin character was likely to be a Gothamite. Neal seemed… Gotham-like, talking to him.
“Who did it? Redhead junior?” Neal questioned. Alvin shook his head. “Boy Scout senior,” he corrected drily, nose wrinkling in distaste. Neal laughed again, loud and bright.
“How long will you be here, then? Long enough for you to do my mortgage fraud for me?”
“Neal,” Peter scolded, even as Alvin nodded, “Oh, anything to get away from those idiots.”
True to his word, Alvin did help Neal in his paperwork for the day. Peter was surprised that he was unable to tell the difference between people, the manner that they fill out the casefile almost identical, save for the difference in handwriting and tidiness. Neal complained about Alvin’s “chicken scrawl”, and Alvin retorted with what sounded suspiciously like a Shakespeare quote. Neal snorted and shook his head with a quiet smile.
“Officer Grayson?” Peter questioned, extending a hand for the man before him to shake. Grayson flashed a bright smile and shook his hand firmly. “Peter Burke? Nice to meet you,” he states sincerely, “On behalf of my team, we’re thankful for your help.”
Peter nodded warily. While this particular team was known for being clean cops, Peter knew the reputation that came with operating in Gotham City. He cast a wayward glance towards Neal, who had an oddly neutral expression, almost like he was trying not to laugh.
Something was going on between them. As he watched, the two shuffled over to the side, which was odd in itself. Neal always tended to avoid cops, even if he was on the right side of the law nowadays. They had a soft, muted conversation, bordering on friendly, maybe even more. Grayson was shorter, but he still reached up to ruffle Neal’s hair, to which he grunted and pulled back from, hands flying up to fix the damage.
Peter blinked. Were they… brothers?
“Neal, care to introduce me?” Peter strolled over casually. Neal grinned, and Peter noted that it was genuine. “You already know him,” he nodded at the bright-eyed man, “Officer Grayson. Or, as his friends call him, Dick.” Neal’s eyes held undisguised mirth.
Before Peter could reprimand him, Grayson laughed heartily. “He’s serious, don’t worry. I usually go by Grayson to avoid it all, but outside of work, everyone knows me as Dick. I grew up using that instead of Richard,” he smiled fondly at Neal, and more pieces clicked together, coupled with more confusion.
“What does the eldest son of Bruce Wayne have to do with a con-man like Neal Caffrey?” Jones wondered, having overheard the conversation, with Diana close behind. “I thought you said you started your more illegal actions outside of Gotham,” Peter tried to keep his tone neutral instead of accusatory.
Neal raised his hands placatingly, “Neal Caffrey was born when I left Gotham, I can assure you of that.” Peter narrowed his eyes. That was not necessarily a no. All Officer Grayson did was laugh and clap a hand on his shoulder.
“Well, I’m going to have a blast working with your team,” he chuckled, eyes twinkling like stars, “Maybe we could even go for a meal - you live at a fancy mansion, don’t you?” The man nudged Neal playfully, to which he responded in kind.
Peter found himself looking into the Wayne family that night, more specifically, the people most associated with the Wayne family. He found nothing of note, really - the only dark-haired, blue-eyed young men to really take note of were Richard Grayson and Tim Drake, who on closer inspection looked suspiciously similar to “Alvin”.
Peter skimmed the family’s background and came across something interesting. One Jason Peter Todd, who for years had been dead without question. Recently, however, rumours had spread about a man who matched how Jason would look at his current age, hanging out with the Waynes. The pictures taken were blurred and unclear, but the profile was identifiable: a broad and muscular frame, raven black hair, and blue eyes. In some photos, a white lock of hair above the man’s eyes.