1 - hopelessness is the darkness in your heart
His sentence is handed down. Neal knows he is a lucky man.
Four years for the single count he is convicted on – bond forgery, or technically, the negotiation of forged financial instruments. And it was his own arrogance that got him convicted. He just had to check out Peter Burke as up close and personal as possible. Which means that the agent could put him at that branch of Midtown Mutual at the time the Atlantic Partners bond was cashed in. Bingo – Neal George Caffrey, you just won yourself a criminal conviction.
The seven months Neal spends as a guest of the Manhattan Correctional Center pending trial are easy. Kate comes almost every day, and it’s sort of like their early days of courting. The guard at the door could be Adler, watching out for his assistant’s virtue (which assistant has yet to be determined). He goes back to his cell, her perfume still in his nose, her blue eyes all he can see.
And until that verdict is read, he still has hope that he’ll get out of this mess.
Had the AUSA offered him a deal, he would have rolled. On Keller, on Wilkes, on Adler (most certainly). He would have given up anyone but Mozzie or Kate. But a deal is never offered and Neal wonders if that red-headed firecracker of an insurance investigator has anything to do with that. She visits him a few times, to ask him about the Raphael, and of course he denies and deflects. It is like a game and Neal enjoys himself immensely. He knows she’ll never find it, and there is nothing to link him to the actual theft.
But his hopes are destroyed when the verdict is read. The AUSA tells his lawyer that the Government is going to push for hard time. Double digits, in fact. She says they are going to request that he be sentenced to fifteen to twenty years. Neal’s blood runs cold. He almost loses it – his composure, his sanity – when the bailiff puts the cuffs on him with those words - fifteen to twenty - still hanging in the air. He turns, trying to find Kate, to say goodbye – when he sees Agent Burke.
There is something about him, about his expression that calms Neal. There is no look of triumph – though if he were in Burke’s shoes – it might well have been. A three year chase ends in a courtroom victory. He’d damn well be triumphant. But not Peter Burke; there’s a little bit of sadness and oddly, a whole lot of concern. Neal straightens his shoulders and dons his best smile, nodding just a bit, before the bailiff puts a hand on his shoulder and takes him away.
Like Lot’s wife, Neal takes one last look back. It isn’t Kate he’s seeing, but Peter Burke talking to the AUSA, his face stern and set and angry.
Two weeks later, and he’s back in front of the judge, shaking inside, waiting to hear that he’ll be in jail for almost as long as he had been alive. But the AUSA has a sour look on her face, and Peter Burke is sitting behind her, arms crossed and expression unreadable. Kate isn’t here – Neal told her not to come. She listened.
“Neal George Caffrey, you are hereby sentences to a term of four years for …”
Four years. The relief is incredible, almost like orgasm. Now he understands the US Attorney’s annoyance. She wants to lock him up for life, but for some reason, the judge refuses to accept the sentencing recommendation.
Neal can do four years standing on his head.
There is one more night in the Manhattan Correctional Center, one last visit from Kate. One more day when Moz doesn’t show. But then, Moz doesn’t do goodbyes.
Ossining is a two hour drive north in a rattling bus filled not with school children, but with fellow convicts, all crueler and more prone to violence than Neal would ever be. At least the scenery is nice, the sharp reds and golds, all the colors of autumn dress the trees and gentle rise of the Catskills that will always remain in the distance. If he cranes his head at just the right angle, Neal can see the passage of the Hudson River.
Neal’s cockiness evaporates when the bus pulls into maximum security facility, the gates clanking shut with terrifying finality.
He makes it through in-processing – the strip search, the cavity search, the gray underwear and orange jumpsuit. He holds on until the guards began escorting the new prisoners to their cells. The lascivious catcalls, the hands reaching out to grab him, the stink of fear and power and lust terrify him. He is not prepared for this new reality – nothing could prepare him for this.
Neal says a small prayer to his mother’s gentle, ineffectual god and tries to steel himself for what is to come. But it never does. He is the last inmate to receive his cell assignment. He’s taken down a long corridor, with mostly empty cells. Still, the guards hover around him, rifles at the ready. They stop in front of a cell near the end of a row, across from a window. A big guard with kind eyes, opens the door.
“Here you go.”
Neal blinks – there is no one else in the cell. No one in the cells adjacent, either. He’s alone.
“Go on, we don’t have all day, your highness.”
Neal takes one step, and another, crossing the threshold.
The door shuts behind him, a true finality.
“Hold out your hands.”
Neal rests them on the small gap in the bars and the guard, “Bobby” by his name tag, removes the handcuffs.
“You’ll be okay, Caffrey.”
Neal swallowed and gives him a small nod, barely agreeing,.
Bobby lingers, looking right and left before telling him, “You’ve got some powerful friends looking out for you. We’ve been paid well to watch your back. Don’t do anything stupid, and you’ll be fine.”
Neal nods again, shocked.
The guards leave and Neal sits down on the bed – a sagging cot with a broken mattress and sheets as gray as the walls. He sits there for hours, until his ass goes numb. This is his life now, for the next 1460 days. He refuses to let his brain do the rest of the math, but the math was too easy not to do.
And yes, 126,144,000 seconds. Give or take.
That’s how long it will be before the next time someone touches him with affection, with care and concern and maybe even love. Palm to palm as holy palmers kiss does not count when there is two-inch thick Lexan between you and the one you love.
Neal tried not to think about it, tried to remember that he is the world’s greatest con artist. That there is no one he can’t charm, nothing he can’t get with a smile and a wink and …
He is in prison, with murders and rapists, and for the next four years, he has no one and nothing.
He is alone.
2 – a hunger that’s hard to fill
The wine is rich and complex on his tongue, much like Peter. Neal drinks and finds no solace. There is no room for Kate in this bottle of Bordeaux. Only Peter and a set of ill-defined and semi-reluctant feelings.
He contemplates the silence and the wine and thinks about Peter Burke. Or tries not to think about him and fails miserably. He’s tied himself to this man for the next 1460 days, give or take.
What is it that Peter said? As if he’d ever forget?
“I own you for the next four years.”
As if it’s that simple.
It could have been, though. It could have been as simple as the judge reading his sentence. But it isn’t. Because the next sentence out of Peter’s mouth destroys all pretense that he’s being swept along by forces greater than his own will.
“You okay with that?”
He’s given a choice. Peter or prison. He’s done prison and he’ll do it again if he has to. Peter’s something new, something dangerous; something that he never thought he wanted but now knows he has to have. Thinking back, Neal wonders if he actually gave it some consideration, if Kate wasn’t out there and in danger, would he have taken that deal.
Who knows? It’s not like he can turn back time.
The apartment’s too quiet, especially after this past week. Moz goes, but Alex arrives. She walks away when Peter comes in. Sweaty, noisy, nosy, consume-all-your-space-and-leave-you-no-room-to-breathe-Peter. Still, Neal wonders if it was a mistake to send Peter to that hotel with his ratty sweats and stinking sneakers, his basketball game and his down-market beer.
Because it’s been so damn long since Neal spent an evening with someone he could relax with. Moz is great company, but Moz is never off. He’s a challenge and he doesn’t give Neal any quarter. That’s okay for most of the time – Neal likes being on the game. Except when he’s too tired to do anything but close his eyes and try to remember the feel of Kate’s lips on his and realizes that it’s been five years.
The math is almost too easy. He remembers the moment to the date and hour and minute. That chilly storage facility with the blue doors and weak lighting. The smell of her – Chanel and linseed oil and just a hint of lavender. Or that could be his dream and not the real Kate.
Neal knows he’s fooling himself, he knows that Peter’s presence is the one true thing that will keep him from thinking about Kate.
Peter overwhelms him, conquers him, makes him weak. And he makes him strong too. Peter makes him want to fight and win, but only at his side. Not Lancelot to Arthur. That is a story of betrayal. He’s more Sundance to Peter’s Butch Cassidy.
Or perhaps David to Jonathan. A holy love of friends in peace and in battle.
Neal shivers, in memory of Peter’s touch. A hand on his arm, tugging him this way and that and Neal resisting, if just to have a few seconds more contact. Or maybe it’s a heavy arm slung across his shoulders – comradely, coercive.
And his favorite – the palm at the small of his back. Just about the curve of his ass.
Neal closes his eyes and tries to will away his arousal. It’s powerful and it’s desperate; for all that it’s reluctant. He can feel the ghost of Peter’s hand. He feels it more than the memory of Kate’s touch and he knows that he’ll be dead before the memory of that heat leaves him.
The terrace beckons with its pre-winter chill and Neal walks outside. He escapes the walls but not the memories and he shivers again. He wants that touch; he can admit that here beneath the drowned starlight. He aches for it, he needs it. He takes the memory and goes back inside; the sudden warmth a welcome blanket and he can pretend he’s not alone.
3 – trying to find the place where I belong
He watches them and emotions course like a river after a heavy rain. Relief, of course. And other feelings he’s not prepared to name.
He knows it will never be Peter-and-Elizabeth-and-Neal or even Peter-and-Neal. Not the way he wants it.
It’s more than simply loneliness now. More than the need to know that there’s someone who’ll hold him in the dark night.
He didn’t want this. He doesn’t want this - Peter’s love and attention. He has that, in some small (or not so small) measure. On a regular basis, Peter risks his life, his career, his well-being to keep him safe. And that should be enough.
But it’s not. Neal’s body is still tingling from where Peter had wrapped his arms around him, hugging him, holding him close, and letting him know he’s all right. Peter’s heart beat against his for a few precious seconds and he thinks that he’ll never feel as safe as he did at that moment.
It will have to be enough.
He watches them reunite, coming together with a decade and then some of love and familiarity. They can communicate without words; they know each other that well. He never had that with Kate – their love was never given a chance to mellow into something deeper, more lasting. They never had the chance to have cute little shortcuts – a simple “hon” to express the wealth of emotion that “I love you” conveys.
He’s never been one to settle – to take what he’s been given and not want more. Contentment is for cows in the pasture, not for Neal Caffrey. There’s always the next con, the next sting. There’s always something else to go after. In the darkness, he wonders if his feelings were not so much love, but the obsession with having the unobtainable. That might explain why he messed up so badly with Kate – he chased her when she belonged to someone else, and then he had her. She embraced their life together, and of course he wrecked it.
His cell phone rings, a welcome distraction. Or maybe not. It’s Keller calling to taunt him. Neal doesn’t mind that Keller tells him he’s sounding like a lawman. He doesn’t know how much Neal had once wanted to be just that – until he found out about the evil in his blood.
Peter and El are put into a black sedan that screams “FBI” and whisked off for the inevitable debriefing. Neal thinks about going back to the Bureau, if just to keep an eye on Peter. Yes – that’s what he’ll do. He’s sort of a lawman, and definitely part of a team of people who support and care and watch out for each other. Even if he sits at his desk and does nothing but keep an eye on the conference room, it will be enough to hold back loneliness, the knives that cut at him in the dark, for a few hours longer.
Hughes waves him over and they get into one of the other cars for the ride back downtown. He gives Neal a critical look.
Neal smiles brightly, as false a grin as he’s ever donned. “I’ve never been better, sir.”
In the dim light of the vehicle’s interior, he can’t quite read the old man’s expression.
“You did well today, Neal. Despite going around the rules.”
Neal remembers the feel of Hughes’ hand as he squeezed his shoulder, the joy of the moment breaking down the barriers between them. That unexpected, unlooked for touch was like a small shot of lightning. He drops his head, gazes at his hands and tries to think of something more intelligent to say than simply “Thank you.”
Hughes continues, in a more confessional mode. “This debacle is my fault. I was the one who insisted that Peter look into Keller’s claims.”
Neal is startled. Hughes is really not the type to admit fault – especially not to someone he considers a dubious asset at best, a conniving criminal the rest of the time. “Sir – no. You had a job to do, the evidence was credible.”
Hughes laughs – or at least makes a sound that Neal interprets as a humorous reaction. “Since when have you become an expert on what constitutes ‘credible evidence’?”
Keller’s words echo – he is indeed sounding like a lawman. Neal shrugs. “Maybe we shouldn’t have separated – maybe Peter’s kidnapping is my fault.”
“No, it’s not.” Hughes replies, as matter of fact as if he’s telling Neal the time of day. He pulls around a double parked box truck, makes a right on Mott Street and cuts across lower Manhattan. The pungent smells of Chinatown remind Neal that he hasn’t eaten since breakfast. Not even a cup of coffee.
His stomach rumbles and Hughes makes that laugh-like noise again. “Feel like doing me a favor, Caffrey?”
“What ever you want, sir.”
“First, stop with the ‘sir.’ And second – ” He pulls into a space along the curb. It’s in front of a fire hydrant. “Get me an order of Kung Po Chicken with brown rice. And whatever Peter and Elizabeth would like.” He hands Neal his personal credit card. “And whatever you would like too.”
Neal feels the ‘sir’ stirring on his tongue. “Thank you, Agent Hughes.” He takes the card, flipping it over to memorize the pattern of loops that form the signature.
The man sighs. “And while you’re at it, get an assortment of everything you think is will feed the rest of the office. Tip well and tell them we’re in a rush. You do speak Chinese, don’t you?”
Neal smiles. It’s genuine this time. “Cantonese and Mandarin, naturally.” The warmth he feels has nothing to do with the late afternoon sunshine and everything to do with this unexpected moment of camaraderie.
Neal catches himself looking yet again. Peter’s wearing his tuxedo, El’s in a pretty pink suit; the flowers she’s holding are wild and elegant at the same time. The fairy lights and decorations strung through the apartment and out the terrace give the scene a touch of unreality.
It’s almost as if he’s walked into a play at the end of the final act. The actors have recited all but their final lines and it’s clearly the happily ever after that everyone’s been waiting for.
Moz, in a fresh pair of glasses, a Nehru jacket that is probably more authentic than his authority to perform this ceremony, pronounces them “Suit and Mrs. Suit,” waits for one dramatic breath and mutters “Again.”
They kiss and Neal’s heart breaks from the beauty of it. He swallows and pretends not to wonder how it would feel if Peter cupped his cheek, touched him with such affection, such enduring and bottomless love. What it would be like t o be adored like that.
He really doesn’t have to think too hard, because it would be wonderful. To walk into a room and have someone’s eyes light up just at the sight of you. To be able to trust and let your guard down. To know that you’re safe.
They all troop downstairs, to June’s elegant living room. There is champagne and finger food and the happy couple poses for photographs.
Diana and Clinton are here. So is June, who’s presiding over the event like the queen of happiness. Sara, too and Neal wonders if she could be the one who …
He shakes his head, dispelling the thought. Sara is beautiful and sexy and smart, but he’d be fooling himself if he thought they were built for the long term. He knows that he will ultimately make her unhappy. They are both too alike and too different. Not opposites, but competitors. He’ll corrupt her and she’ll resent him. Or he’ll lie – like he did with Kate. But Sara won’t walk, she’ll have her revenge and it will be just and creative.
Neal’s lost in thought and he doesn’t realize he’s scowling until Diana enters his field of vision.
“Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to make a face like that, it could freeze that way.”
Neal blinks and focuses. Diana’s smiling but he can see the concern in her eyes. He smiles back, not the full-Caffrey – the grin as fake as a three dollar bill – but something that requires some actual effort. “I was hatched from an egg, I had no mother to give me such sage advice.”
Diana chuckles and shakes her head. “Seriously, Neal – this is a wedding. You’re supposed to be happy for the happy couple.”
“I am, Di. I couldn’t be happier.” She gives him a doubtful look and walks over to June.
Sara joins him, tucking herself into the curve of his body. She’s in a towering set of heels and he has to tilt his head up just the tiniest bit to kiss her.
Neal tries to keep the exasperation out of his voice, but he fails. “Why does everyone keep asking me that?”
“Because you look like someone just knocked your ice cream cone to the sidewalk.”
“I’m fine – just missing you.”
“You’re lying, Neal.” She softens the accusation. “But it’s a lovely lie, nevertheless.”
Neal ignores Sara’s comment. Instead, he turns his head and presses a kiss against the strong bone of her jaw. “Moz has a thing tonight – I can guarantee you a completely uninterrupted evening.”
Her green eyes glow and he could feel her body practically thrum with excitement. Sex is good with Sara, she is creative and venturesome and he never feels the need to hold back. Physically, that is. Emotionally, he always holds back.
And it’s pretty clear that she knows it. She slips away, and Neal doesn’t follow her with his eyes.
Peter and El PeterandEl come over, champagne flutes nearly empty, and Neal can read the mild buzz on both their faces. El leans up and kisses his cheek. There’s no reservation in her warmth and regard for him tonight. Things - everything - has been so difficult lately. Not only between him and Peter, but with Elizabeth too. She’ll always be his friend, but she’s not been his biggest fan lately.
And whose fault is that?.
The lies weigh heavily on him. He can lie with ease to everyone else, but even the half-truths bite at him when it comes to Peter. The mistrust is like a punch in the face, or a knife in the belly. And yet, Peter’s approval is almost worse – it’s like pressing on a bruise, or twisting that knife. Neal knows what he’s doing is wrong; he looks at Peter, at Elizabeth. At Sara and June. The agents and staff he works with every day, the people who have his back, who trust him to have theirs.
And then he looks at Moz – his oldest friend, his comrade in arms. The one person who accepts him for what he is. Moz never tries to change him; he simply understands that Neal is flawed and weak.
It’s a pity that Moz can’t give him what he needs.
He doesn’t get the chance to say anything before Elizabeth hugs him, her body warm and a little too enticing. He hugs her back with deliberate care. She whispers “Thank you” and melts away. She goes just as far as Peter’s arms, but it’s as if she’s swallowed by shadows. Neal thinks chiaroscuro and there is a pang of worry, a touch of foreboding. But it’s forgotten when Peter comes into focus. He’s sharper than reality, over-saturated like some badly processed photo; for all that he’s a study in black and white. Neal almost can’t breathe. He shoves his hands in his pockets; Peter’s not his to touch.
He thinks of all the times Peter has puts his hands on him, and how those times have dwindled down to almost nothing over the past few months. The breach between them is like the Grand Canyon and he only has a child’s sand pail to fill it. It’s all so hopeless, so pointless. He’s never going to be able to fix this.
But tonight, here, now, Peter’s reaching for him. He stands there, unmoving, as those arms wrap around him, and like his wife, he says “Thank you.” Peter’s taller, his head bends down, his lips brush his ear and Neal hopes that Peter doesn’t feel his heart race, his body (ever the betrayer), thrill to that infinitesimal contact.
As he lets Neal go, Sara comes back into view, champagne glasses in hand. Peter steps back and looks at the two of them with approval. If the thought wasn’t so revolting, Neal would say Peter’s attitude is quite paternal. He takes a glass and toasts Peter and Elizabeth. The words flow from his lips but Neal has no idea what he’s said, except that it makes both Peter and Elizabeth happy. They beam at him, their joy radiating like heat from a well-tended fire.
Neal hates himself; he hates the neediness, the inability to accept what he has with grace and gratitude. Sara is here now, and she’ll be here later, when it’s dark and quiet and there are monsters hiding in the corners. She’ll be here, a warm and welcome presence next to him; someone to hold onto when those monsters smile and their teeth glimmer like knives.
The engines of the 747 send a vibration through the cabin. Lolanna dances on table, a faint hula that becomes more pronounced as the plane hits a pocket of turbulence.
Moz remains silent for much of the trip. For all that he’s a self-absorbed, more than mildly paranoid genius with delusions of larceny, when it comes to Neal; he’s as perceptive about his friend’s distress as the most loyal and affectionate of dogs. He knows that Neal didn’t want this, he didn’t want to run. As much as it galls him, Moz knows that staying in New York, working with Peter, is the best thing for Neal. It keeps Neal grounded – not because he gets to be a law abiding citizen. No, it’s because it makes Neal happy. The work fulfills the long-lost dreams of a young man betrayed by those he had most trusted.
And maybe it’s more than that. Moz isn’t blind and he’s not stupid. Peter Burke has always been a most dangerous attraction for Neal. It was more than cat and mouse for those three years that Peter was chasing him. Neal might say that his most daring escapades were to get Kate’s attention, but Moz can see (even without his glasses) that that they were as much for the Suit’s benefit, too.
He has always seen Neal’s relationship with Peter quite clearly, even though he pretends otherwise. He knows that Neal’s feelings for the Suit extend beyond what is proper (in the quaint, Victorian sense) and legal (according to various penal codes). He’s heard Neal call out for Peter in the night; he’s stood by his friend’s bed, longing to give comfort, too afraid to be rejected.
The sunlight bites through the window, there are no tears on Neal’s face and his pupils are almost swallowed by the blueness. There’s no expression there, other than a tight smile. Moz looks at Neal’s hands; they are loose on the arm rests. Then he looks again and sees the small tremor. It could be the vibrations from the engines or it could be the only outward sign of Neal’s emotions.
He has to say something. What comes out of his mouth surprises him. “This is only temporary. Peter – ” Moz sees Neal flinch at the name. “Will figure out how to fix this.”
Neal speaks for the first time. “I don’t think he can.”
“You’ve been in worse situations before.” Moz doesn’t need to enumerate those, but he tries not to think about exploding planes, rogue FBI agents and antique guns, and half of the cargo recovered from a sunken German submarine that’s now on display at Tsarkoe Selo in St. Petersburg.
“Peter will probably lose his badge. He needs to help himself first.” Neal’s voice is devoid of any emotion. That worries Moz. It’s like he’s given up already.
“He’s not going to let you go so easily. You’re too important too him. Trust him.” Neal is on the tip of his tongue, but there is the tacit agreement not to use their own names anymore, and he just can’t bring himself to call Neal “Victor.”
Something shifts behind Neal’s eyes. Moz knows what it is – just hearing those words, that Neal matters to Peter (even though Neal must certainly know that he does), releases just a little of the terrible tension, maybe gives him that needed spark.
The plane banks, and the sun is behind them now, falling past the terminator of day into night. The cabin is dark, warm and surprisingly womb like. Moz would prefer to be at the helm, separated from the masses, taking control of his destiny and direction. But that’s not happening. A cabin attendant comes by with a bowl of warmed nuts and a selection of complimentary beverages. One of the perks of flying first class. He takes the bowl, a bottle of water and a glass of ice. Neal waves off the attendant with a nod and a smile.
Moz digs through the bowl and picks out the pecans and filberts and cashews. Three of each, all the rest are peanuts. He leaves those for Neal.
His fellow traveler stares out the window. It’s completely dark and Moz wonders what Neal sees.
“This isn’t forever; you’ll be able to go back. Sooner than later.”
“I wish I could believe you.” Neal’s tone is bleak. “I never got to say goodbye to anyone.” Now he sounds like he’s on the verge of tears.
Moz thinks long and hard about revenge. Philip Kramer will pay for the damage he’s caused. He has contacts, and there’s still the six million sitting in a conveniently accessible off-shore account. He’s not going buy Agent Kramer’s death, he’s learned his lesson about doing that. No, he’s just going to make the man’s life a living hell.
He reaches across, setting Lolanna into an enthusiastic hula. He hesitates for a moment, because contact like this isn’t easy for him, and sets his hand down on top of Neal’s. Neal freezes for a second and then turns his hand, gripping it tight. Moz squeezes back.
It will be all right. It has to be.