Neal had been able to see ghosts all his life.
Not just feelings or sensations, images in his 'mind's eye', or any of that other psychic crap. But there, in front of him, as real as they were in life. A whole new spin on the term 'dead man walking'. It had taken a heck of a lot of getting used to - I mean how were you supposed to tell your parents that your 'imaginary friend' was actually late Uncle Albert, or sweet old Mrs Eden from next door who'd died six months ago from a heart attack.
Ghosts had been the focus point of his childhood for as long as he could remember. His earliest memories of them were that they would be standing around his bed while he slept - which surprisingly didn't frighten him like it probably should of. Instead, it helped him overcome his fear of the dark, and since then he'd trusted them entirely. But then again, he'd always been a strange child, fascinated by the stuff people had yet to understand, things that shouldn't exist, but do.
He would see them, the ghosts, on the way to school every morning. He'd see them so often that they quickly became 'the locals' to him, and it only seemed normal to greet each one upon passing, a nod here, subtle wave there - he was only a child but even he knew there were some things others weren't meant to see. Though it took a while, with a lot of incidents he'd like to forget, he realized eventually he was the only one who could see them. Why? He was about as clueless as the next person.
He knew every one of them by name, what they'd done in life, how they'd died...
He thought it would have been rude to ask a spirit how they'd died, but they didn't seem to mind. If anything, they were just as perplexed by him as he was, them.
Unfortunately this left him with very little friends - living ones that is - and he spent most of his school life being the strange, quiet kid that people tended to avoid and didn't look at twice. Nobody wanted to be associated with the kid who talks to himself.
Needless to say, he'd had a strange and somewhat lonesome childhood. It wasn't too bad - reading book after book on ghosts, psychic abilities and other mediums left him little time for friends, so he preferred his own company. He thrived on knowledge and understanding, so spent most of his time at the library, much to the concern of the librarian who kept trying to politely suggest books more appropriate for kids his age. He told her that he wasn't a normal kid, which seemed to be a good enough answer, because she promptly gave him the space he needed.
Neal wanted to understand his ability, even if nobody would ever believe him when he told them he wasn't crazy. But nothing he read explained what he saw. No other mediums he had read about saw what he saw, as vividly as he did. He didn't just 'communicate' with the dead. He had face to face conversations with them, which was something entirely different and no amount of research could provide an explanation. He'd started to think he was slowly going insane. Maybe he was.
After all, communicating with the dead like most mediums claimed to practice wasn't really the same as spending a Sunday afternoon discussing the ups and downs of baseball in the 1930's, with the spirit of a dead baseball champion - All while you were supposed to be watching the game with your parents.
He sketched and painted the people he spoke to, which allowed him to discover he had a keen eye for detail and could work wonders with a paintbrush. He painted all the time, but made sure to keep his sketchbooks hidden away, because he didn't know how to explain who these people were other than being able to see them while other's couldn't. He didn't want his parents to ask any more questions that what they already did.
When he reached high school - when he became too old for 'imaginary friends' and 'over-active imaginations' to be acceptable, his parents grew concerned. Well, visibly concerned; he was sure they'd known something was wrong all along, but only now thought he was old enough for the subject to be brought up. They'd tried to speak to him about it, and when that didn't work they'd made him see a therapist to talk about what he saw.
But he wasn't a very talkative person.
Once they thought they had tried everything, his parents began to just ignore his unusual behavior. Turn a blind eye when they saw him in the living room, talking to a blank space in front of the door, and pretend they couldn't hear him pacing in his room and muttering quietly to himself on a night. It became something they never spoke about. Neal felt sorry for his parents, really he did, because it had to be hard having such a messed up kid.
Through all this, there was one person who'd understood him, who he could talk to about his abilities. A real, living person. Her name was Ellen, and she was psychic too, just not in the way he was. His father was a cop, and she was his partner on the force, so she'd become a familiar presence in his life, and someone he could talk to when he was doubting himself. She could understand him the way his parents couldn't. Ellen made him feel normal when everyone else didn't, and though she didn't understand his gift anymore than he did, she'd helped him to embrace and understand it. When he was with Ellen, he felt human again. He felt like a normal kid.
It didn't last. When he finally thought his life was going to work out, shit hit the fan and his whole world was turned upside down.
He was fifteen when his mother placed him into an institution - 'Sunnydale Hospital'
A name couldn't get much cheesier than that. Neal wondered if they believed picking the most uplifting, optimistic name they could think of would disguise the ugliness hidden inside. It didn't.
They called it a hospital, when in reality it was a crazy factory - a place where the people who didn't fit into 'normal' society were left to rot. He didn't blame his mother for the decision, because he'd given everyone more than enough reason to worry when he'd broke down in the hospital reception. Not Sunnydale Hospital reception, but a real hospital. A hospital where people died.
The hospital where his father and Ellen had died.
He'd awoke to the sound of hysterical crying. The kind that was loud, uncontrollable, ugly. He'd crept down the stairs to find his mother just as she'd put the phone down - she'd grabbed his arm and told him they needed to go to the hospital because daddy had been injured at work, but that everything was going to be alright. Told him that he had to stay strong because it would be alright. Neal had spent the whole car journey towards the hospital wondering why people only told you things would be okay when things were really, really bad. When you got told that, things most likely wouldn't be okay at all. You never get told that when you have a cold, or chickenpox, or any of those other times things seemed to fall apart but could still be put together again.
Neal knew that whatever had happened, he'd never be able to put the pieces back together.
They only lived ten minutes away from where his father could be dying, but it felt like they were driving forever, down a long narrow road with no end. No goal to reach, but too late to turn back.
Didn't that just sum up his life in a nutshell.
He made it three steps into the hospital reception area when he saw them. He didn't need to be told they were too late, to see the grim faces of the doctor, signalling for him and his mother to follow, most likely to someplace quiet where the rest of the waiting room couldn't see a family torn apart by grief.
They were stood in the middle of the reception. Gazing towards him with lost, broken expressions. They were still covered in the blood they'd died in, from multiple gunshot wounds on a drugs bust gone wrong. His father wouldn't meet his eyes, now knowing what his son had been tormented by his entire life. Ellen took a step forward, perhaps about to console him, but he didn't get to hear what she was going to say because the air was suddenly too thick, the lights were too bright and the room too small, and there was someone screaming, screaming, blood curdling screams that reverberated through him, until he realized it was him making all the noise.
He was shouting, screaming at them, demanding answers to things he would never understand, things nobody could ever help him understand. Oh God, he was all on his own. He dug his nails into his head, begging for them to get out, to leave him alone. There were other ghosts there, more than he'd ever seen in one place at once. Too many, all torn away from their families and loved ones. He couldn't breathe. All expecting him to pass on messages, but why should he give a shit about them when he'd just lost two people that were irreplaceable in his life, and God, he was so alone. So, so alone...
He must have caused quite a scene, because minutes later there were people surrounding him, holding him down while he kicked and fought and telling him to calm down. Telling him everything would be alright. He'd laughed, a hysterical, maniacal laugh because they too were lying - nothing was going to be okay now. Not now that he'd proved to everyone that he was insane, totally off his rocker. He felt a sharp prick in his arm and the concerned faces hovering around him began fading in his tunneling vision. Soon he was slipping down, down, into a place where nobody could tell him everything would be fine because it was all lies, lies, lies-
"Hey, mon frere?" Neal jerked back into reality at the sound of fingers clicking in front of him, trying to catch his attention.
He looked up into the face of the crazy little paranoiac that had become his only friend at Sunnydale. Looking down at the chess board between them, he knew by the concerned look on his friend's face that it was still his turn, and he'd been staring blankly at the pieces long enough to be noticed, caught like a deer in the headlights in his moment of weakness. Damn flashbacks.
The man was older than Neal, in his late twenties, with blond shaggy hair that was quickly balding, and thick rimmed glasses that kept sliding down his nose. He was probably the most paranoid person Neal had ever met, the complete definition of crazy, but a true friend nonetheless. His records said his name was Dante Havisham, but he'd told Neal his real name was 'M'. Or at least, he'd told Neal that was all he could tell him, because it was a possibility that Neal was working for a secret government organization planning on taking over the world.
"Yeah, I know, my turn."
Neal had been sectioned after the hospital reception drama for 24 hours, to ensure he wasn't a risk to himself. There, he'd been given a psych evaluation which was ultimately what lead him to being placed in Sunnydale. The psych consultant that had come to see him had been friendly, but really Neal knew he was nothing more than a patient to be given a label, and another contribution towards the man's pay check. He was only pretending to care, it was clinical interest. "Answer my questions truthfully..." he'd been told, "Everything will be okay, trust me."
But Neal hadn't trusted him, and everything wasn't okay. Another lie. He'd been diagnosed with schizophrenia - it made sense after all: the violent behavior during his breakdown, the 'hallucinations' and 'delusions', the 'voices in his head'. It made perfect sense, it just wasn't true. He was given medication he had to pretend to take, and was recommended special care and therapy. But, because his mother had turned to drink shortly after his father's death, she was unable to look after him - hell, she was unable to look after herself - so he'd been placed in the institution because the people there would be able to help him get better. Of course, they couldn't, but Neal liked to let them think they could.
Sunnydale wasn't all that bad. It didn't have white padded rooms, and straitjackets like in the movies. The people here, they weren't as crazy as people assumed - they weren't all that dangerous or incurable. They weren't even sick to begin with, just troubled. They were all normal people, who just needed to little extra help, or someone to talk to. Sure, there were a few that needed a little more help than others - the people that woke up in the middle of the night, screaming and fighting unseen monsters, or those that paced and chanted, scribbling messages on the wall that only made sense in their head. But they came few and far between. The more common cases were that of depression, insomnia, bipolar, but they were still people, just like him.
"Sure you're okay? Is it to do with them?"
M, after Ellen, was the only other person he'd told about his gift. He'd confessed everything to him during his first week at Sunnydale over a bottle of wine that had somehow come into M's possession. He'd learned M was capable of a lot more than most gave him credit for. Neal had picked the lock to the fire escape door under M's instructions and they'd climbed up onto the roof. The man had believed every word of Neal's right away, even the part where Neal had told him he was in here for the wrong reasons, that it was all a misunderstanding, which is what most of the people at Sunnydale tended to say. Sure, he'd had to spend weeks afterwards convincing the guy he wasn't an escaped alien from area 51, but M had believed in his gift instantly, and that was such a relief. Neal's talents had become a great interest of the paranoiac, and he asked all kinds of questions Neal couldn't answer - Are there other's like you? Can you turn your powers off?
Do you like being able to see ghosts?
"No, not a ghost thing. I'm fine." He moved a piece and captured one of M's knights. "You're turn."
M played every chess move as though a single mistake would cause the world to fold in on itself. He would spend ages studying the pieces, retracing his steps and working out all possible angles before even considering moving a piece. It was a reason why their games took days to complete. He said chess was a expression of your soul - that two thirds of the game was understanding your inner self while the other third was moving the pieces. He took chess way too seriously.
"Remember, mon frere, chess is more important than knowledge."
"I'm pretty sure that wasn't what Einstein said," Neal raised a quizzical eyebrow, though his friend's endless selection of quotes - and misquotes - had become the norm for him, and he was getting better at guessing the authors.
"Maybe not what he said, but only those in tune with the eternal wanderers of the spiritual plane know that's what he meant."
"You're not psychic, M," Neal said for what felt like the millionth time. Every since he had told the man about his gift, M held some belief that if he spent enough time with Neal, he would catch the gift the same way one would catch a cold.
"That's what I want you to believe."
Neal could see he was already losing this discussion, so he pointedly nodded towards the board to remind his friend of their game.
It had taken Neal ages to convince M to even come near the chess board, which belonged to the hospital, and therefore could be used by anyone fancying a game. M hadn't wanted to be in the same room as it if the board had been touched by outsiders. He said it was because it could be contaminated with poisons in a secret attempt to assassinate him, or be riddled with listening devices placed there by the government (who M had said were always watching) in an attempt to locate and terminate anyone who knew the moon landing was a fake.
That's pretty much why M was here.
While M was carefully and strategically plotting the move that could cause the end of human existence, Neal took the time to look around the large room that was the main socializing area, to see who was there, and who was there, but both the living and the dead had barely moved since the last time he'd looked away from their table.
M looked up to see Neal's gaze elsewhere. "Is there anyone here?" he asked, looking around with him. He didn't need to clarify who he was talking about.
Neal's eyes snapped back and he grinned, he would be lying if he said he didn't like showing off his talents just a tiny bit. He nodded over to the large sofa in the center of the room. "See the guy sat on the sofa over there? The one with the book? There's a woman sat next to him, roughly the same age - maybe a wife? Possibly sister...she's smiling at him. She's been to visit him twice this week, I think she's earthbound because she doesn't want to pass on until she knows he can cope with losing her..."
Earthbound spirits - as he'd pieced together from his numerous trips back and forth from the library when he was younger - were spirits that hadn't crossed over the other side and remained here because they had - as cliché as its sounds - unfinished business. And, as he'd learned himself, they also tended to hang around places or loved ones that had meant something to them in life, that they were familiar with. It made sense, they had to be afraid and uncertain, especially if they'd died suddenly and didn't know how to find that better place, how to find the light, so to speak.
Some ghosts were convinced he could bring them back to life, but unfortunately his powers fell short there. But they did always seem to have a favor to ask, something they needed him to tell someone, or that they needed his help to work out how they'd died, or who had killed them because nobody else could help them, which is why Neal tried his best to avoid most of them. Fortunately for him, ghosts didn't always know he could see them, so as long as he pretended he couldn't, he could carry on his own life mostly undisturbed.
"Over by the window, there's a young girl, teenager, staring outside. Oh wait...she's crying. I haven't seen her here before. Other than that, it's pretty quiet for once."
M blinked owlishly through his wide glasses, contemplating Neal. "I don't know how you do it."
Neal shook his head. "I don't either."
Mozzie. M's real name is Mozzie.
He'd told Neal the night they'd broke out of the institution. It was just coming up to Neal's third year. Mozzie had been there longer, but how long he wouldn't say. Throughout their stay at Sunnydale, Mozzie had taught Neal everything he knew - from simple pickpocketing to planning and executing a con. He'd taught Neal how to blend in, to be the person nobody ever thinks to look for and how to charm people, tell them what they wanted to hear. Mozzie had also helped Neal make the most of his natural abilities with paint, teaching him about the world's greatest artists, about how to perfect his own work, and even better - how to copy the work of other's. He'd taught Neal about class, and style. About the finer things in life.
Mozzie had given the kid everything he needed to make a life for himself and then unleashed him on the world. His own creation. He'd also gained a trusted friend and ally.
Neal had been able to rewrite himself, to become the person he wanted to be, and there was nothing in his way to stop him. The whole world had become his oyster. Against Mozzie's advice, Neal had kept his name. Changed his last name, enough to assume a completely new identity, but his first name was the only thing he had left to connect himself to his past. Though it had been grisly, it was still part of him and he couldn't forget that. But now, now he was Neal Caffrey, conman extraordinaire, ready to take on the world and show the world what he could do.
The first con they'd successfully pulled together, Neal had posted his cut of the profits to his mother's address in an unmarked envelope with a Canadian stamp. He'd hoped it would be enough for her to turn her life around, to stop the drink, but that was the last time he'd figuratively contacted her so whether she did, he would never find out. He and Mozzie both agreed, fresh start, no ties to the people they used to be.
Neal had been in his element, so much so that he almost forgot about his abilities.
But they couldn't keep living the high life without being grounded back into reality at some point. They were criminals, and Neal knew that would eventually have dire consequences. But Neal had almost managed a good two decades before his wild life caught up to him, and four years for bond forgery was a pretty sweet deal, considering there was nothing tying him to all his other crimes other than suspicion.
The agent that caught him, Peter Burke, couldn't have been a more worthy opponent. Neal could almost say he was proud to be beaten by him in their spectacular game of cat and mouse, despite it taking three years with many, many close encounters all across the globe. It was a good game well played, but he'd lost and was now facing the consequences of that loss.
A loss that meant four long, miserable years in a Supermax prison.