I've Pushed To Get Through Rating:
Neal's gift is everything he wished for, back when he was seven years old and dirt poor. It's also the reason he's alone; why people turn on him, why people want to use him, and why people leave him.Disclaimer:
Hurt/comfort, AU, superpowers, pre-series, character origins, friendship, gen.Author's Note:
I was rereading a bunch of White Collar fic the other week, and when I came across Five White Collar AUs Sam Didn't Write
, I got grabbed so hard by the fourth one, The Comic Book Caper, that I had to expand on it. You don't have to read it to understand this, but you should. It's only a couple of hundred words, and it's the Peter angle, so you'll appreciate this better because of it.
Much thanks to tree00faery
for the lovely beta reads. You guys are awesome.
Spoilers for Season One (with specific references to 1.01 Pilot and 1.07 Free Fall) and 2.11 Forging Bonds, but goes AU thereafter for Neal's backstory. Yes, I wrote something that is already jossed, but hey, they have superpowers, so it's an AU anyway.
The references that might sound vaguely familiar are to The Pink Panther. I still don't know how Jeff Eastin & co got through an entire episode about a pink diamond, cat burglars and framing someone else for the crime without a single crack about The Pink Panther.I've pushed to get through
The crowds of twisted souls
Just to find I'm right back here
Doing what I'm toldThe Calling – Things Will Go My WayLuck consists largely of hanging on by your fingernails until things start to go your way. Aaron Allston
Neal first sees a gentleman thief on television while his mom is out scrubbing some rich lady's floor for just enough money to keep them both in oatmeal and canned soup for another week. It's the midday movie, and he's home alone, nursing himself through a weird, low-grade fever that has stuck around persistently for four days. Neal's not out in a rash, and he's lucid, more or less, so he sucks it up and sticks it out and tries not to think about how much catch-up he's going to have to play once he gets back to school.
But right now, there's a cool, smooth man on a small black and white screen that goes snowy now and again when the wind knocks the aerial about on the roof of the trailer. He's living in a mansion, and he's got a gorgeous, equally devious girl on his arm. He's smart, and he's cheeky, and he's not stealing stuff to hurt people, or to get rich. He's already rich. He's stealing things because he's bored, and it's fun, and he's clever enough to do it.
It captivates Neal, and he knows, in that moment, that that's who he wants to be, and that's what he wants to be doing. It doesn't matter that Neal's not Sir Charles Lytton, that he don't have a mansion to begin with, because he doesn't have to be. So long as he's clever and sneaky, he'll get everything he wants, and his mom won't have to scrub floors, and they won't have to stuff rags around the windows to keep the rain and bugs out.
And, Neal decides firmly, watching Clouseau bumble his way to victory, he'll be lucky enough to never, ever
Neal nods off when his fever spikes again, but by the time he wakes again to the bangs and crashes of the afternoon cartoons, his skin is cool and he feels weak, but good. He climbs out of the blanket nest on the bed he shares with his mom, and puts a big handful of dried spaghetti in a pot to boil. The tomato sauce is thin but heats without burning, and there are a few pinches of oregano left in a dusty jar in the cupboard. Everything comes together exactly at the moment his mom walks through the door, and the tired smile she gives Neal makes him glow right down to his toes.
From that day on, his life will never be the same.*
Neal doesn't realise anything's different for a while, he just thinks things are going well for a change. The bullies don't seem to notice him much any more, or the ones that do don't seem to be able to pin him down anywhere. There's always a teacher at just the right moment, or a neighbour out watering the dusty grass with a hose. He's not flunking anything. The subjects he was struggling in come a little easier than they did, and the ones he was passing... well, he knows enough to coast in those rather than drawing attention to himself. His mom seems to be getting enough work these days that the collection men don't come knocking any more, or if they do, they're inclined to take a handful of small bills as payment rather than repossessing the furniture. He hasn't had headlice in two months, and chicken pox skipped Neal over completely when the whole grade had it, one after the other. He doesn't seem to have a scab anywhere to pick at, not even on his knees.
But the other kids won't play marbles with Neal any more, because he wins, and they get pissed when he takes their best cat's-eyes. Neal never gets singled out in class, not even when he hasn't paid attention or done the work, and the kids sitting nearest to him are starting to notice. He hasn't gotten caught stealing anyone's lunch in weeks, but the kids he steals from look at Neal with hatred, even if there's no proof, not even a smudge of jelly in the corners of his mouth. When money goes missing from Neal's teacher's purse, she looks at him the same way.
Neal slips the cash into a pair of his mom's jeans that are crumpled in the basket in the corner, knowing that she'll check the pockets before she washes them. The amount turns out to be just enough to make up the difference to pay the gas bill.
Neal's lonely, but he's not hungry, and he's not cold, and the electricity stays on all through the next year, because he only skims a little money when he thinks that he can get away with it, and he always does.
For a little while, Neal wonders if God is giving him some kind of helping hand, but then he jumps off the trailer roof and breaks his arm, and Neal decides that maybe God doesn't care one way or the other.*
They discover the Xavier gene when Neal's a teenager, and for a while, the media is full of it. There's talk of segregation, of registration, of mandatory testing. Neal ignores it for the most part, because the people they're showing always have something like infrared vision, superfast healing, or the strength to punch through blocks without knowing kung fu. There's no one on Oprah who just knows
when to let it ride in poker, who can pick the right pocket, first time, every time, or who can time a jump from a freight train so that they hit the ground running rather than breaking an ankle.
Neal can do all that, but none of that stopped him from ending up on his own at fourteen. It's kept him from getting stabbed or raped, but he still sleeps rough more often than not, and there's nothing lucky about that, no matter how uncanny his avoidance of frostbite has been up till this point.*
Neal almost falls into forgery by accident, even with his so-called luck. He likes to mess around with art, he always has, so he starts out drawing pictures of people in the park for a few bucks, finding new places to set up when the cops move him along. Neal hangs out at libraries and museums when he's not scribbling portraits or picking pockets, and he sketches and paints what he likes, and sometimes what he doesn't like, just so that he can understand it a little better.
He doesn't realise that someone's been paying attention until long after he's been watched, on and off, for ages. All it takes is someone waylaying him one day between the art museum and the tiny flat he's sharing with half a dozen other miscreants, taking him to meet someone else, someone who offers Neal a job. There's a painting there, and it's lovely, and real, and he's allowed to go near it, allowed to touch it, allowed to paint it as many times as he needs until he's captured it perfectly.
When Neal goes, he leaves both paintings, his own and the original, behind, but there's more money in his pocket than he's ever seen at once in his life.*
Neal's in New York, and it's enormous. He's forging enough of the right things to get by, and not enough to get noticed by anyone in particular who might give him trouble. He always moves on whenever he starts to feel that itch of eyes watching him. His name is beginning to feel like his own, though it took a good few years to get there. It's not like using an alias; he's been doing that since before he was old enough to drive. It's shifting the person inside his skin until he feels like Neal Caffrey, not like that kid from the trailer park who stole sandwiches and dared God to catch him when he threw himself off the roof.
He punks the local 'find the lady' sharps in the park because it's easy, and because he knows they're good enough that they'll recoup the loss before sundown. He hasn't established himself yet, and he could use more liquid funds for bare necessities until he makes contacts, gets some jobs, shifts some product.
He's followed back to his apartment, despite his usual instinct for being tailed. It could be really bad, but Neal's fallen on his feet, and New York opens up for him like a flower, through Mozzie. Mozzie's got the intricate, methodical and slightly paranoid mind that makes him a great strategist, and Neal's a quick learner with the luck to balance out his inexperience, and a smooth tongue cultivated through years of following his instincts about what people want to hear. It's a combination that makes them aim up, and up, and up, until they're inches away from the kind of big score that could land Neal in that mansion in the extradition-free country of his choice.
Then there's Adler, and Kate, and Alex, in quick succession, all turning up in Neal's life bringing big complications along for the ride.
Neal's not sure exactly when Peter Burke first caught a sniff of him, but it seems right to place a pin there, to the point when his luck seemed to leave him clinging to the edge, time and time again, before it gave out altogether.*
Prison is quiet. Terrible, and quiet. Neal keeps his head down, he plays it safe, and he doesn't take any chances. He doesn't get beat up often, he doesn't get shanked, and he doesn't even get sick that much. Kate's all Neal's got left of his life with its luck and its big scores and bigger comedowns, and when he doesn't even have her left, there hardly seems a point to finishing out his sentence and getting out with a clean slate.
Escaping goes like clockwork; it's his timing that sucks, apparently.
Peter Burke finds Neal just sitting there, alone, not even trying to hold it together. Peter's composed and sympathetic, but pleased with himself. He moves through the empty space with a smooth, tightly-coiled self-control, always giving the impression that under that cheap suit, there's a body ready to sprint, if needs be. Neal wonders if he's ever jumped from a train; he thinks Peter'd be a natural.
In the force of Peter's presence, Neal's luck feels like a guttering flame. It's fibre-thin, in fact, and it's enough, just
enough, to get Neal a measure of freedom back he thought he'd lost the moment he shaved and stepped outside the gates.*
It isn't until Neal's back inside a few months later, waiting on a hearing over a jewel theft he didn't commit, that the irony hits him.
“Oh my God,” Neal gasps between giggles, “I'm not Lytton, I'm Clouseau, I'm fucking Clouseau
,” and if the hysteria tends toward sobs near the end rather than laughter, well, Neal's been framed and sent to prison, he's pretty sure that he's allowed a free pass on a breakdown for that.*
Neal throws himself out of a window, trusting his life not to God but to his own dumb luck and Mozzie's belt-and-suspenders reinforcement of the awning. Neal catches Peter's expression - knowing and a bit proud - as he spreads his hands in lieu of words and makes his escape. Peter doesn't chase him, and Neal knows deep down that his luck's got nothing to do with that.
Neal wonders later if that's when Peter worked it out, or if he guessed long before then.*
“You're on the scale,” Peter casually states, some time later.
“The what?” Neal asks, feigning ignorance.
“Have you ever been tested for the Xavier gene?” Peter presses, and his eyes on Neal are shrewd and sharp.
Neal's overt tells are pretty well locked down inside of him, he wouldn't have made it as a con for as long as he did without being able to shut them away, but he feels his heart jump a little in his chest, and his fingers go cool, like his blood's being redirected so he's ready to run. He knows Peter's interest isn't puerile, that he's not a bigot. He's heard Peter mumble out his own X-gene status to paramedics, seen him move whip-fast, take down perps half again his weight. He's felt Peter's hand around his wrist or on the nape of his neck, firm and immovable, but never bruising. Peter's proud of his status, but enhanced physiology is something the general public understands, more or less. He's nothing like Neal.
Neal demurs, Neal deflects, but Neal knows Peter knows. Neal knows Peter knows Neal knows. But not admitting is more than habit; by now, it's instinct. People resent the luck, or try to capitalise on it, and that's never worked out well for anyone in the long run, least of all Neal. *
Peter being Peter, he sneaks in a test while Neal's getting a bunch of stitches to sew up a gash that could have ended up a little bit fatal had Neal not turned just right and had Peter not slammed around the corner a moment later to taken the perp down, fifteen whole seconds ahead of the rest of the backup team.
Peter's smug, and a little bit cocky, and holding a handful of leaflets that Neal can't make out the words on from the bed. “Too damn lucky by half,” Peter says, and that's when Neal knows Peter knows for sure, because Peter's a methodical bastard that likes to check all the boxes and have all the answers.
But, luckily for Neal, the nurse gave him Vicodin, so Neal just rolls his eyes at Peter and decides it doesn't really matter right now whether Peter is going to hate or use him in the future.
Maybe Neal's not as opaque as he thought, because Peter's face goes a little still, a little serious. “Won't change a thing,” Peter says gently, and he sounds so earnest that Neal almost, almost believes him.*
It takes a long time for Neal to admit it, but Peter's right.
Tags: gen, pathos, peter&neal, pg, preseries, remix, white collar