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Running Backwards

Chapter Text

Chapter 1

If he were anyone else, he wouldn’t have noticed the way the man three rows of tables down and two across was looking up at the back of his head every three point two seconds before glancing back down at his drink. If he hadn’t been raised to be incredibly suspicious, he wouldn’t have thought anything about the way the man’s shadow seemed to move by itself, as if it were a separate entity. If the world were different, without superheroes and villains and meta humans and multiverses, he would finish his drink, pay the bartender, find Mozzie and leave, possibly making plans to move on from their villa for a while.

But the world is what it is, and Neal is what he is, and even though it has been fifteen years, he still keeps track of his former enemies and their current whereabouts.

Neal downs his drink, gives a nod of his head to the bartender and leaves some cash on the bar. He bumps into a random man -- not so random, because he is pretty sure that that man is in league with the other man -- lifts the contents of the man’s pockets, and leaves the bar swiftly.

Forget “possibly” making plans -- he and Mozzie need to leave.


“Moz, the ferret’s in the henhouse.” He calls his oldest friend as Neal Caffrey, dodging pedestrians as he hurries along the harbor to get into their boat. Mozzie protests, of course, but Neal won’t hear it. “No, Moz, I mean it. We have to leave now.” He counters the man’s complaints. “It’s big trouble, Moz. And no, it’s not Interpol. Or the FBI. It’s the other team, and they’re after me.”

He doesn’t dare say much. Their island isn’t very far from the tourist trap that holds the bar, and Neal figures he’ll be home within the hour. Luckily, he doesn’t have much of a presence on that island, learning from the best about when it was better to observe than to participate, and getting a feel for things before diving in head first. The pity is, until that day, he was about to declare the island safe, a place that he and Mozzie could go without a bunch of different escape tactics and disguises.


But seeing a man who matches the description -- including the superpowers -- of a man on not just Interpol’s but also the Justice League’s most wanted list changes things. Neal runs a hand over his face, acknowledges the fact that he really needs to shave and that his “vacation” has come to the end. This isn’t the way he imagined it -- in his dreams it’s always Peter tracking him down, or maybe an angry Kramer, though that’s more a nightmare and ludicrous, because Peter is the only man that has ever been able to catch him (as Neal, a pesky voice in his head adds), and somehow at the end they all get to go back to New York and things can be normal again. He’ll get to go back to June’s. He’ll get to start things over with Sara. He can pet Satchmo and tease Peter with El’s help and maybe he’ll pull a few small cons to keep things interesting and they’ll bust some money launderers or mortgage scam artists or do something that isn’t completely boring like sitting on a desert island and doing absolutely nothing.

It was never his fantasy, not really. Sure, the first days were nice. And the sweet bartender is hot and whispers invitations into his ear until he takes her up on it and they had a nice time together. He thought it might last a bit longer, though he knows he has been longing for a change, for some excitement, other than pick-pocketing rich tourists who are too indulgent and unobservant with moves he perfected as a three year-old. Maybe it’s good he’s leaving the island.

He would have really preferred it be on his own terms, though.

He docks the boat at their private dock, and Mozzie is already waiting for him with a suitcase. “You look like a bat out of hell, Neal.” Mozzie didn’t call him Vic, which is telling as the man has been after him since they’ve been there to embrace the name Neal doesn’t feel quite fits him, as if he’s trying on his older brother’s clothes.

“We need to stock up, Mozzie. I’ve got to grab some things. Then we high-tail it out of here -- we’ve probably only got a couple of hours. If they can track me to the bar, they can certainly track me here. I’m just hoping they don’t know I’ve made them.” Neal leaps out of the boat, rushes into the house.

The house is gorgeous, and Neal feels a bit guilty leaving it, but that can’t be helped and he learned long ago not to dwell on things that couldn’t be helped. Otherwise, well -- he’d still be in his father’s shadow and he’d still be pining for parents he didn’t have. He has a mission now, just like he did back then, and there is no time to waste. He grabs a suitcase and packs it with mainly the trinkets he brought from New York, along with some others he has acquired in the meantime. He takes a look around and wonders if from now on he’s always going to be running.

He closes the suitcase and turns on his heel and doesn’t think about what he’s leaving behind, because he isn’t really leaving anything behind there. Not at the majestic villa on the private island in the middle of the sea. There was nothing for him there in the first place.

Mozzie has prepared the boat for a longer journey, and they take off without prolonged goodbyes. It isn’t until the island has disappeared from view that the man turns to Neal and says, “Begin.”

But Neal can’t. At least, not all the way. “Moz…” He tries, scrambles for a way to explain things. “I -- at the bar there were two guys, and one of them had this shadow.”

“Shadow.” Mozzie raises a brow. “And I thought I was the suspicious one.”

“A shadow that moved on its own, Moz. Not real noticeable unless you were looking for it, but I was and I saw it. He matches a villain on watch lists for the JLA and Interpol; he’s known as a fairly minor but still powerful meta human and villain and as a suspected member of the League of Assassins.”

“They’re bad news, Neal. Very bad news.” If they weren’t on a speed boat in the middle of the ocean, Neal would offer him a glass of wine or tea. This was the kind of conversation that really needed a beverage to go with it, something to take the mind off of, something that allowed you to take time and drink before coming up with an answer.

“I know, Mozzie. Believe me, I know. But that’s got to be him, and he seemed to be communicating with another guy. Two members of the League of Assassins -- both of which who happen to be watching me? It was time to go.” Neal fiddles with some dials on the boat, checking gas levels and radar and making sure they’re not being followed.

“And here we are,” Mozzie raises his hand to the open sea. “But, mon frère, tell me -- why would they be after you? And do they know who you are?”

The question is double-edged, and Neal hates not knowing the answer. “I don’t know. Maybe they think I’m an easy mark --” “Doubtful,” Mozzie interjects, “-- or maybe they connected Victor Moreau with Neal Caffrey.” He leaves out the other connection, the one he feels is far more likely and twice as troublesome. “In any case, we have to investigate. We have to figure out what they want, and stop it before something happens.”

“You’re a world renowned art thief, forger and con man. Maybe they want your skills.” Mozzie looks pensive. “Maybe this isn’t such a bad thing. They could get the FBI off your back for good, Neal. Off our backs, that is.”

And this is what separates Mozzie from Neal, because Neal will never go back to what he once was. Neal will never betray himself again like that, or anyone else, and he of all people knows the trouble the League brings.

“The League of Assassins isn’t interested in art or general scams, Moz. They’re hard-core. There’s a reason it’s called the League of Assassins, and I am not going to have anything to do with them.”

“Okay.” At Neal’s glower, Mozzie wilts. “Okay. No League of Assassins for us. And you’re right, they’re probably after something bigger, something we don’t want to be involved in. So then what are they up to?”

“I have no idea.” Neal bites out, his eyes on the horizon. “But I’m going to find out.”


Chapter Text

It’s been two months since Neal left and Peter still watches the door, expecting the conman to stroll through it with that easy-going grin and a swag to his stride.  Except he never does, and Peter isn’t sure if he should be relieved or disappointed.


He settles for both.  


Telling Neal to run was the hardest thing he’s ever done.  Rescuing El, dealing with Keller or Adler, being kidnapped and having to escape -- none of it was easy.  But he had Neal at his back, and he realizes that he has come to rely on the man more than he would have ever expected…or possibly wanted.


It’s too late now.


Neal’s cakes are still in the freezer.  Tracking down Ellen Parker was a dead-end; not only were the Marshals stonewalling them, but she had disappeared without a trace.  Mozzie has disappeared as well, and Peter knows they must be together. Kramer is still lobbying to go after Neal, but he too has been “put in place.”  The job belongs to the US Marshalls, and the FBI has clearly shown its inability to keep track of the man.


Peter is lucky he still has a job.  


A reputation.  


But he’s missing a friend.


A brother.


A son.


He closes the latest mortgage fraud file and leans back in his chair.  The case can wait until tomorrow. He can’t concentrate now. Neal has always been intrusive, but it’s amazing how intrusive the man is through his absence.   I could really use a new view , he thinks to himself.  Neal was always good with numbers and mortgage fraud, even though he loved to complain about the cases.  They weren’t his passion, but like everything else Neal attempted -- including escape -- he did with a finesse that was singular to him.  


Peter bids good-bye to his team, shaking his head when Diana raises a questioning brow, and waving off Jones, who makes to follow after him.  They are worried about him, have been since the day Neal left. And Peter also knows they are worried about Neal, dropping hints here and there.  But Peter has nothing to give them, and he doesn’t know if he would give them anything if he could.


The ride home is long, but El is waiting for him and dinner is excellent as usual.  Satchmo curls up by their feet as they watch a performance of The Magic Flute on PBS, and even though opera really isn’t Peter’s thing, he nods his head when Elizabeth comments on it, and tries to pay attention.  


Then the doorbell rings.


“It’s nearly eleven,” Peter mutters, as he untangles himself from the El’s legs and the blanket.  He steps over Satchmo, who is so content he doesn’t seem to care that there’s someone at the door.  


“Be careful, hon,” El says, turning to watch the door.  Peter nods and slowly walks over, opening the door just a crack.  


“Hello?”  There is a boy on the corner, late teens.  He’s wearing a courier’s uniform and holds out a package and a clipboard.  “Mr. Satchmo? I’ll need you to sign.”


Peter blinks.  Who on earth would not only send him a file by courier late at night, but also ask for his dog ?


And then it hits him, a memory of an undercover operation when he and Neal had only first started to work together.   “That’s me. Do you know who sent this?” He reaches for the clipboard and package, scrawling a name that is illegible but vaguely looks like it starts with an “S” and possibly ends with an “O”.  


“Short guy.  Bald. With a moustache.  Wearing a Hawaiian shirt and sandals.  Just dropped it off and left. Didn’t leave a name.”  The courier shrugs. “Is there a problem?”


“Oh no,” Peter hands the clipboard back and looks over the package.  “Just a game with friends. Have a good night.”


“You too.”  The courier hops on his bike and rides off.  Peter waits until he is gone, watching the street and wondering if Neal or Mozzie will appear.  It would be so stupid of them, yet brilliant at the same time, because it has just been a week since surveillance was pulled off of the Burke residence, and only Neal would be so bold as to stroll up to the Burke’s front door.  When a few minutes have passed and nothing has happened, Peter closes the door and opens the package.


He can hear a soprano belting out an aria, but doesn’t know which it is.  El has turned back to the performance, and Peter walks in holding a blank DVD.  “Elizabeth.” He waits until she has muted the TV and turns toward him. “We need to watch this.”


“Is it…?”  She doesn’t speak his name, but Peter knows what she means and nods.  


“I think so.”  He places it in the machine and presses “play,” before sitting back on the couch.  In a few seconds Neal appears, dressed in casual, yet classy and definitely expensive beach wear.  He looks good -- there’s color in his cheeks, but there’s something about his eyes that makes Peter worry, and clearly El too, as she grips his hand tightly.


“Hey, Peter.  Elizabeth.” Neal nods to the camera.  The background is a white sheet, and the camera is close enough to Neal that Peter can’t make out any other details in the room.  “You’ll have to excuse my decorating -- I have to be sure that if this falls into the wrong hands, I can’t be found.” He clears his throat.  “Mozzie and I have been…traveling, as I’m sure you know. At an undisclosed location without an extradition policy with the US, I ran into two men.”  He holds up two photographs, and Peter recognizes them as being pulled from the Justice League website. “These are two men from the League of Assassins, and they seem to be after me.”  Neal pauses, and Peter’s heart pounds.


Neal has never shown any connection to the cape and tights crowd, be it on either side.  He’s seen the man’s bloodwork -- he was tested for any trace of meta abilities when he was arrested and sent to prison, since many of his “alleged” feats made certain people wonder.  Nothing was found, and after some digging and even direct inquiries to the Justice League, it was deemed that Neal was human: brilliant, and incredibly lucky, but had no powers to speak of.


After that, Peter let all inquiries and suspicions go.  He, like most law enforcement agencies, was more than content to stick with the human population, and let the superhero crowd deal with the super villains.  Peter had never met a superhero, besides a cursory glance at a vigilante once, one he couldn’t even recognize, and was perfectly happy to leave it that way.


The League of Assassins being after Neal was a huge problem, and one he was distinctly uncomfortable with.


“I’m not worried about me, Peter.” Neal continues after a moment of silence.  “But if they were able to track me down, then they’re desperate to find me. And that means they might just be desperate enough to try to flush me out.  You and Elizabeth need to leave now .  I don’t think they’ll go after June, though I’m also sending her a DVD.  I sent one to Sarah as well, and Diana and Jones. But you, Peter -- you need to get out now.  Your DVD is the only that has this message: Thursday.”


The screen goes blank.


El grips his hand so hard he can barely feel it. “Peter,” she whispers.  “What --?”


“Neal isn’t a hero -- or a villain.  He’s perfectly human. So why would the League of Assassins want him?”  Peter grinds his teeth. “And if they’re going to come after us… damn it, Neal.”  He stands up.  El looks frightened and Peter isn’t sure who he wants to hurt more at this point, Neal or the League of Assassins.  Not that he would have the slightest chance at bringing down the organization, but it’s the principal of the thing. And Neal, once again, has managed to drag both Elizabeth and himself into some dangerous situation.  Even if the con never actually means to.


“What are we going to do?”  Elizabeth stands up, and Satchmo, sensing the disturbance, gets up as well.  “Are we going to leave?”


Peter purses his lips. “Yes.  Thursday -- it’s a Tuesday and I can’t imagine Neal wanting us to wait around so long, so I bet it’s a hideout.  And I know exactly which one it is.” He sighs, leaning his forehead into a hand. “We need to get packed. And find a place for Satchmo; I don’t think we can bring him with us.”


Half an hour later, a pet sitter has been set up and Peter and El are ready to leave.  Peter grabs a prepaid cell phone, one Neal had given to him as a gift months ago, joking that having a burn phone was always handy, one Peter had tried to throw out many times but never succeeded.  He and El each have a small bag with clothing and some mementos, and he closes his eyes as he shuts and locks the door.


Hopefully they will be back.


Then they take off across the street and walk two blocks before calling a cab.


“This is…nice.”  Elizabeth looks at the furnishings.  The loft has been refurnished, but with cheap chairs, a table, a bed, and a couch from a nearby thrift store instead of luxurious furnishings it once held.  


“Hmm.”  Peter walks around.  There is no trace of Neal or Mozzie, and for a moment Peter wonders if he misunderstood.  But this has to be right, he decides eventually. There is no other connection to “Thursday” he can think of.


Then the elevator hums.  


Peter pulls his weapon from its holster, and motions Elizabeth to duck down and hide behind one of the cement columns.  He crouches down behind the couch, holding the elevator in his direct sights. The elevator opens and --


“Miss me?”


For a split second, Peter considers shooting the man before holstering his weapon.  “Damn it, Neal. Now is not the time for games.”


Neal grins, but it doesn’t quite meet his eyes.  “Hello, Peter. Nice to see you too. You’re very welcome for the ‘heads up,’ because someone already tried to blow up Jones’ place.  I guess they thought they’d start their way at the bottom of the list and work their way up? Where’s Elizabeth?”


Elizabeth peeks her head out and gasps.  “Neal! My God, what happened? Is Jones okay?”


“He’s fine.”  Neal speaks into his watch.  “It’s okay, Moz. Come on up.”  The elevator hums again and Neal turns back to her.  “He got out with about five minutes to spare. There was some structural damage, but the rest of the building’s occupants are going to be fine.”


“Why is the League after you?”  Peter jumps to the point, unwilling to play games with Neal when lives are on the line.  “What the hell have you gotten yourself -- and us -- into, Neal?”


Neal turns to him, and for a second, his eyes are full of fury, his fists are clenched, and Neal looks like a…a killer , even though Peter knows his dislike of guns and firearms is legendary. But it is only there shortly before Neal calms and bows his head.  “I didn’t do anything, Peter. I don’t know why the League chose to come after me, especially now. But they did, and they are ruthless killers who don’t care about casualties, and are more than willing to do anything in their mission if it will bring me to them.  And…I can’t let that happen to you.”


“Neal, I can’t say I understand, but…” Elizabeth reaches out and draws him into a hug.  “At least you’re here and safe right now.”


“But not for long.”  The elevator has arrived and with it, Mozzie.  The shorter man steps out, holding a laptop computer out in front of him.  “We’ve got to leave now. Someone just pinged on my electronic trail and if it were anyone else, I wouldn’t worry since I have it routed about a thousand ways.  But with the League? I’m not going to underestimate super villains, not if I want to stay alive.”


“How much time?”  Peter asks, surveying the room.  The only way out seems to be the elevators, though he wouldn’t be surprised if there was another entrance -- or two, knowing Mozzie and his suspicious mind.


“Um, forty-three seconds.”  Mozzie slams the computer shut.  “Let’s go.” He runs to a column and presses against it in two places, and a trap door opens in front of it.  “We have to get out of here now .”

In a flash, Neal is pulling Elizabeth towards the door.  Mozzie motions for Peter, who grabs the two bags they had thankfully not gotten around to unpacking.  El disappears down the hole first, followed by Neal. Peter ducks down into the dark staircase and hears Mozzie enter behind him and close the panel above their heads.  “Come on!” Neal yells ahead of him. The staircase is lit with LD lights on the steps, and Peter rushes as fast as he can, though he doesn’t dare take the stairs more than one at a time.  He has no idea how far they have gone when the ground starts to shake and he drops the suitcases to brace himself against the walls.


“Elizabeth!”  He shouts, but Mozzie pushes against him.  


“Suit!  Don’t worry, Neal has her.  Move!”


Peter nods and picks up the bags again, nearly running down the stairs.  Finally he gets to the end of the staircase where Neal is waiting with Elizabeth in front of another concealed door Neal has opened a crack.  “We’re in the sewers, but I know where we’re going. Follow me.”


Peter nods, but doesn’t dare say anything.  He wants to -- he wants to yell, he wants to scream, he wants to ask what the hell Neal is playing at , but he knows that they need to be silent.  Whatever is going on, it’s big.


They walk maybe a mile in the sewer, before Neal reaches a ladder built into the wall and pulls himself up, unscrewing a metal plate and heaving himself up, reaching for Elizabeth.  She looks back to Peter, who nods. Whatever is going on, he knows, somehow, that he can trust Neal.


After Elizabeth disappears into the hole, it is Peter’s turn.  He reaches the first bag up, having slung the second one over his back.  El reaches down and grabs it, while Peter starts to climb. Soon he too is in the darkened room, while Neal is helping Mozzie up.


Just in time for another explosion to rock them backwards.  


“Shit.”  Neal swears, not something he is normally prone to doing.  Peter whips his head up in shock. He can barely see the man, but his gut tells him that something went wrong.


“Everyone okay?”  He calls out. Everyone answers in the affirmative, except for Neal who winces.  


“I fell face first into the wall and cut my head, but I will be fine.”  Peter can hear him moving, getting up. “And it doesn’t matter, because we need to move.   Now .  I don’t know how the League is tracking us so well, but we’ve got to go.”


“Right.”  Peter grabs the other suitcase and reaches for El.  “Let’s go.”

Chapter Text

Neal lied to Peter.


It’s something he has never done before.  He has never outright lied to the man, and he had hoped he would never have to.   Stretch the truth, sure. Leave information out, sure. Try to distract the man, sure.  But he once said he would never lie to Peter, and he meant it.


That the League of Assassins has forced him to lie infuriates him.  Because Neal isn’t all right. His head is pounding, but he’s definitely had worse.  Much worse, including at the hand of his own family. He was trained to fight through the pain, to fight not only to the point of exhaustion but beyond that.  But even beyond the considerable pain in his head, he suffers a deep emotional pain.


He’s not going to get through this alone.


Mozzie manages to guide them through the subway tunnels until they get out onto the streets.  Peter, thankfully, keeps his mouth silent and follows all orders, herding Elizabeth along as well.  They are both dirty and look exhausted -- it’s the middle of the night after all -- but he can’t do anything about it.  They need to get some distance quickly.


When Mozzie hot-wires a car, Peter doesn’t even say anything.  He just slides into the back seat with Elizabeth. Neal frowns to himself and rummages in the glove compartment for some napkins, wiping the blood away from his temple.  “Moz, get driving.”


“I’m on it,”  His friend replies, and they merge into the traffic of the city that never sleeps, heading northwest until they hit I95 and head out of Manhattan into the greater state of New York.  It isn’t until they hit the junction of the 4 and the 208 that anyone speaks again.


“Take the 208 until it hits Wyckoff.  We’ll stop there -- it’s not a big place, but we can ditch the car, maybe lift a new one there.  And at the very least, we can get some food and coffee,” Neal tells Mozzie, trying his best to stay awake as the scenery flashes by them.  Mozzie nods, taking the ramp. Neal leans back, sighing. It took them over a day to get to New York, counting the time it took to fly off of their island and get into the continental US.  Then they had to make the DVD, make contingency plans, and here they are, once again running for their lives.


He managed to sleep a little bit on the plane, but most of the time he meditated instead, trying to work through the barrage of emotions.  Now he is both mentally and physically exhausted but doesn’t dare sleep. For one thing, he can’t rule out a concussion. For another, he can’t relinquish control of the situation.  He’s been pushed farther, gone days on end without sleep. His body can handle it to a point, and even though he’s out of practice, he needs to continue to push himself.


There is no other option.


He realizes now that he can’t do this alone.  If it were just him, if he were a free agent without any friends -- any family , his mind substitutes, then he would let things go.  He might even confront the League himself, ask them what the hell they wanted after all these years.  Fifteen long years -- and eight before that where he had been on his own, relatively left alone. Drawn in on various plots, but never outright approached -- or hunted.  What had changed things? Why now? He was useless to the League. He hadn’t really kept up his skills, at least not the skills the League would be interested in. After all, he was a forger and thief, a white collar criminal.  He didn’t assassinate people and his disgust of guns was well-known to both the police and the criminal element.


He can’t fight off the League alone.  He can’t continue on and ignore them -- not when they’re actively tracking down his friends.  This has evolved from just his fight, and as much as he hated it as an adolescent and teenager, he had learned that there was a time and a place to ask for help.


This is one of them.


And that acknowledgement brings on an entirely new pain.


He jolts as they turn onto Russell Ave.  Elizabeth is asleep on Peter’s shoulder, and Peter is staring out of the window.  Mozzie yawns, but keeps driving.


“What are we going to do?”  Peter asks, and Neal knows he isn’t asking about their next meal.  


“I don’t know.”  Neal twists toward him.  “We need to get rid of the car.  Unfortunately, it’s got our prints and,” he winces, “my blood on it, so we’re going to have to trash it.  Then we’re going to find a place to stay.” He pauses, tries to collect himself. “And then we’re going to get something to eat and I’m going to…call someone.”  Admitting this to Peter is a challenge, but he knows he has to make that call. He can’t avoid it any longer.


“Who are you going to call?”  Peter asks, his voice steady. “The US Marshals are looking for you.  And any US -- or international -- law enforcement agency is going to report you to them.  Plus, as much as I hate to admit it, the FBI, local police, the Marshals -- no one is capable of dealing with the League of Assassins.  The JLA is going to have to deal with them, and while any LEA around is going to call them up once they get an idea of what’s going on, you’ll be in custody and easy pickings for the League.”


“I know.”  And Neal does know this, has known it for years.  He could directly call the Justice League, and he thought about doing it while they were traveling through the US on a train, trying to reach New York.  But the JLA wouldn’t take his call without him outing himself, and even then they’d call his family, and that would create a whole new mess. Plus Neal doesn’t want everyone to know he’s back, and as much as he tolerated the Supers (and had even been close friends with one of them), news like this wouldn’t stay hidden long.  Neal’s family is known for its discretion and secretive nature. They would keep things on the down-low until the absolute last minute.


He can trust them.


And it burns, this knowledge.  Because he can trust them -- at least some of them.  And he will have to, after all this time.  It’s better to take the JLA out of the equation and directly call his family.  They will know how to deal with the situation. They will work things out for him.  And sure, it will be painful to go back, to look…certain people in the eye again, Neal will do it -- not for himself, but for Peter and El and Mozzie.


Peter is still watching him, waiting for an answer, an explanation.  Neal takes a breath and sighs, closing his eyes. “Right now, we need a place to stay, somewhere off of the radar.  Some place no one will look for us. And then we can formulate a plan of what to do.”


“And we’re heading to that place now?”  Peter leans forwards. “And just what are you going to do, give yourself up?  The League isn’t known for giving up on its quarry. Even if you manage to run, you’ll be running your entire life.  And you know that, Neal.  The League -- they make Matthew Keller look like a boy scout.  You can’t seriously be thinking of going after them by yourself or making a deal or whatever.”


“I’m not, Peter.”  Neal shakes his head and resolves never to do that again because it makes it hurt that much more.  “I am not going to go after the League alone. I will admit that my plan is still in the works.”


“Neal speak for ‘I’m coming up with a plan out of my ass,’” Mozzie snarks, and Neal scowls at him.


“I have some ideas,” Neal corrects.  “But you’re right: going at this alone isn’t going to work.  And no, where we’re going now is not where we’ll be holing up for the rest of the time.  It’s a…meeting point. Once we get there I’m going to make a call and we’ll get picked up and moved.”


“This is sounding like a spy novel,” El speaks up, yawning.  She lifts her head off of Peter’s shoulder and rubs her eyes.  “Clandestine meetings, the League of Assassins…are we going to meet Batman next?”


Neal forces a laugh.  “Haha…no, this is not a spy novel and the Bat is not going to meet us.”


“You too prefer the Dark Knight to America’s Golden Boy?” Mozzie asks, merging onto the 202/206.  “I always thought Superman was too light-hearted to really show what America is like.”


“I like how Batman seems more human -- is human.”  El smiles. “I used to pretend to be Batgirl, and I even dressed up as her for Halloween once.  I thought it would be so fun to run around rooftops like that, though I realized eventually that it was extremely dangerous.”


“Hmm, yes, well if we could get off the subject of Batman and Batgirl, maybe we could talk about what we’re going to do next.”  Neal segues into another topic. Peter gives him a Look, but Neal ignores it. Not wanting to talk about superheroes is nothing strange -- for all the hero-worshippers and hero-despisers, there’s a healthy population of citizens who just don’t care and Neal would like to consider himself part of this bunch -- at least for the last decade and a half.  Caring too much, either way, is what causes problems, he knows. It’s way too easy to become a super villain, what with his particular talents, and that would just make things…messy.


Neal doesn’t do messy.


Well, unless it has to do with his art.


“You’ve already said we’re going to some tiny town and wait there for a contact.  What I want to know,” Peter leans forward, “is who your ‘contact’ is, and how we can be sure he’s trustworthy.  You still haven’t told us why the League is after you -- and no,” he adds before Neal can protest, “I don’t believe that you don’t have any idea.  Surely you can at least hazard a guess why the most notorious group of super villains is after an admittedly gifted con man, thief and forger, but with no powers -- and yes, you know your DNA was tested thoroughly before you went to prison,” Peter again cuts Neal off, “and no apparent ties to any of the super villains associated with the League.   I want answers, Neal.”


“And you’ll get them, Peter.”  Neal runs a hand through his hair.  His hair crusted with blood and he winces, resolving to shower as soon as they get to a hotel room.  “Just…give me time.”


“You said you’d tell me everything, back when we were waiting during your computation hearing.  You promised , Neal, and I am getting real tired of being chased by assassins and getting kidnapped and blown up and putting my career and family at risk because you won’t tell the damn truth if it kills you!”  Neal reels backwards at Peter’s onslaught of words and even the man himself seems taken aback by his fury.  


“I’ll tell you, Peter.” Neal dips his head.  “I promised you and I will honor that promise.  But I wasn’t kidding when I said even Mozzie doesn’t know the whole truth of it all, and it’s very…challenging to face my past.  This wasn’t exactly what I had planned,” he forces a trace of a smile onto his lips. “But fine. I’ll tell you…the person I need to contact?  Happens to be my brother.”

Mozzie turns the silent car onto a county road.  They’ve passed Raritan Township, and now is the time to ditch this car and find a new one, just for the ride back to town.  As much as Neal wants to leave Peter and Elizabeth at some hotel while he and Mozzie complete this errand, he knows it’s safer to keep them with him.  Alone, neither Peter nor El will have any chance against the League, and though they don’t know much of his plans, Neal can’t let them let the little knowledge they have slip if it came down to it.   They don’t know who his brother is, but the League certainly does.


“I really don’t like this.”  Peter speaks up for the first time since Neal’s admission of a brother, and Neal closes his eyes.  At least it isn’t accusations.


“It’s not my favorite thing either, Peter.  But if it makes you feel better, I have the license plate of this car and when we get back to New York, I’ll see what I can do about apologizing or replacing it.”  Mozzie stops the car next to a darkened strip of road with a lone car, and Neal gets out. “Come on, you two.”


He manages to get into the car easily -- it’s an older car, and the window isn’t even shut all the way, which makes it easy to jimmy the door open.  Hot-wiring it takes a few more seconds and soon it’s started. He waits for Peter and El to have a quick conversation, knowing it goes something like Peter being worried about getting into a stolen car and El standing up for him, because what else are they to do, and Peter going on again about how he’s against the idea, but El manages to give him that Look and Peter finally gives in.  Neal hates how they have been drawn into this, but besides Mozzie, they’re his closest friends, and easy targets for the League.


The League of Assassins doesn’t just assassinate people; it murders hopes and dreams and relationships as well.


Peter climbs in the front seat with him, taking in the blood smeared on his temple and in his hair, the splatters on his once-expensive shirt.  He opens his mouth to say something before apparently changing his mind, turning away. Neal pushes the gas pedal and follows after Mozzie, stopping once they pass over railroad tracks.  Mozzie continues on and comes back several minutes later, a shadowy figure walking the road.


“It’s done,” he simply states, and climbs in the back.  


“Great,” Neal says, but he doesn’t know if he means it or not.  “Let’s go.”


It occurs to him a mile later that driving with a concussion really isn’t the wisest move.  What’s worse is that Peter notices too. “That’s it,” he heaves a sigh. “Switch with me. Just tell me where we’re going.”


“Continue on the 31, then turn into Flemington and find some kind of hotel,” Neal mutters, closing his eyes.  


“What about an all-night dinner instead?”  Peter asks and Neal is suddenly jerked awake.   Shit .  He certainly hadn’t meant to fall asleep.  Maybe it isn’t a concussion after all, but a horrible migraine.  He looks out of the car into a sparsely populated parking lot next to a diner with a blinking sign advertising all-you-can-eat pancakes all day long.  


“Whatever,” Neal mumbles, wincing as he opens the car door.  


“Go inside,” Mozzie waves everyone away.  “ I will sterilize this car.”  


Neal forces himself to stand up right and take a few steps.  Peter is there instantly, putting his arm around his shoulders and half-supporting him until they reach the diner.  Elizabeth looks concerned and starts rooting through her purse. “I thought I had -- here, Neal. Take two of these with some water as soon as we get inside.”  She hands him the Aleve bottle, and he takes it from her, mumbling a thanks.


Peter steers him towards the restroom in the alcove by the hostess desk, while Elizabeth chats with the hostess, explaining how Neal had fainted earlier and hit his head hard on a wall while they were at a rest stop before the waitress could gasp in horror at his condition.  The water in the restroom is cold and he manages to clean off the blood in his hair and on his face, though his shirt is a lost cause. He downs the pills with a handful of water, staring into the mirror as if it’s the last time he’s going to see himself in it.


And it might be, if he finally sheds Neal Caffrey.


“Feeling better?”  Peter asks him with concern instead of judgment, and Neal feels hope.  By all rights, Peter should be furious at him for drawing El and himself into his mess.  And Neal knows Peter is still waiting for answers. But instead of yelling at him, or forcing him, his friend is worried about him.  It helps, helps a lot, to know that someone’s got your back. Neal’s friends like that have been few and far between since his eighteenth birthday.


He’s thankful he’s got Peter.


Now, if he can keep him once Peter finds out the truth…


“A bit, yeah.”  Neal takes a sodden paper towel and lays it across his forehead.  “I really need to wait for the pills to kick in.”


“Well, let’s try some food.  It’s been awhile since dinner and I don’t think our night is over yet.”  Peter glances at Neal, who nods. No, the night is definitely not over.


By the time they make it back to the booth, Mozzie is seated at the table with a cup of tea, while Elizabeth pursues the menu.  “Hey hon, Neal. How are you feeling?”


Neal tries his charming smile.  “Better. Thanks for the pills. Good thinking with the story.”


“Well,” El shrugs, still concerned, “you did look a mess.  I assume we don’t want to attract a lot of attention, so I came up with a simple excuse.  Try to eat something; you might feel better with some food in your stomach.”


“I will, thanks.”  Neal scans the menu in front of him, though he keeps an eye on the diner at large.  It’s after two in the morning, but there are still a few patrons: a group of young adults, a few truck drivers, a couple dressed in scrubs.  There’s a waitress behind the bar, and he can make out a figure in the kitchen -- likely the cook. A bus boy wipes down a table. The diner is clearly a product of several decades ago, but it is clean and welcoming and Neal tries to relax some tension from his shoulders.  First he’s going to order. Then he’s going to make that call.


He can do this.


The waitress appears again and everyone orders.  Peter goes with the pancakes while El gets a soup, salad and sandwich.  Mozzie finally goes with the rib and Neal can’t make up his mind if he should fill up or not -- if his stomach can take it.  He finally decides on the soup and figures he can always order more later. It isn’t until the waitress departs again that Peter takes a sip of his water and says, “Well?”


Neal closes his eyes, grabbing his own water, but instead takes the straw and stirs the ice around.  “I need to call my…brother.” The tabletop is chipped Formica and the placemats are light-weight paper perfect for drawing on.  His fingers itch for a pen. “He’ll come get us.”


“I didn’t know you had a brother.”  Peter says slowly.


“You don’t know a lot about me, Peter.”  Neal shrugs. “You’ve said it yourself -- I’m a mystery before I turned eighteen.  And this…well, this is your introduction into my childhood.” He finally sips some of his water.  “I don’t know where to begin. I…haven’t been in contact with my family since I walked out when I was eighteen.”


“Oh hon.” El reaches across the table and puts her hand on his.  It’s cold from her water and he has to smile, remembering the trick he taught Peter when they were going after that black-widow.  It seems ages ago, even though it’s only been several months, and Neal wonders how this is all going to end. He can’t see himself just being able to go back to New York like nothing happened, even if the League weren’t after him.  


Too bad that’s the one thing he wants.


And yet, at the same time, he is thankful that Peter told him to go.  Because if he hadn’t, things would be a lot different. He wouldn’t have survived being with Kramer -- figuratively or literally, assuming the League still came after him.  And though he’s known heroes who have gone back in time, and tales of timelines getting reset, Neal knows that it isn’t an option for him.  He’s made his choices and he will have to live with them.


Even if it’s a drain on his soul.


He’s suffered worse.


“I don’t see how your brother can help, Neal.”  Mozzie speaks up finally. “This mysterious brother… your father is a dead dirty-cop, and you said you were an only child and that your mother had issues, even though she tried.  But you couldn’t take it anymore and you left.” Mozzie frowns. “I wonder if they have wine here.”


“No wine.”  Peter scolds.  “So you have a brother…what about your mother?  Why did you leave?”


And instantly Neal’s charade shatters like glass.


He can’t take it anymore.


“I -- ” He bites his lip, forcing the tears in his eyes to stop welling up.  He will not do this, come undone like this, in the middle of a second-class diner in the middle of the night in a small town in the boondocks of New Jersey, in front of the three people he has considered his family the last two years -- or longer, in Mozzie’s case.  But the only way out is forwards, and that means confronting the last vestiges of his former life.


“I’m ready.  Let me make that call.”


He pulls the phone from his pocket, checks it over.  It’s a simple pre-paid phone he bought at a gas station on the way to New York, and it’s the now the most important object he owns.  He unlocks the keypad and takes a deep breath. Peter reaches over the table and puts his hand on his shoulder and it’s a powerful weight that somehow helps , because he finds his fingers dialing a familiar number, one he will never forget.  It takes all his willpower to press the “send” button, but the call connects as the phone starts to ring.  It doesn’t take long for the phone to be answered -- this has always been an emergency number and he knows his brother won’t have changed it, not while he’s been gone.  But the seconds pass like an eternity until there’s an oddly-awake greeting from the other side of the line.


Hello ?” The voice that answers is so familiar that he aches and it takes him a second to catch his breath.   


“Dick?”  He forces out, trying to sound as collected as possible even though it’s been fifteen years since he’s heard that voice, said that name, and his hands shake so slightly you wouldn’t notice it, but Peter does and squeezes his shoulder and he’s ready as he will ever be.  “I need your help.”


Who…who is this?”  The tone could be accusing, but it’s not.  It’s like Dick knows who he is, but can’t believe it and he certainly doesn’t blame his older brother because it’s been fifteen years since he left with no trace and honestly had no plans to ever go back.  Unless it was the end of the world. Maybe.


“It’s --”  This is almost as hard as cutting the anklet, as leaving his life in New York behind, because instead of leaving one life, he’s returning to another.  “Dick,” he says, forcing the quiver out of his voice, “it’s Damian.”