Actions

Work Header

Never Leave A Trace

Chapter Text

They said a lot of things about Neal Caffrey in prison, once he was no longer there.

They said that he was a con man, that he could make cigarettes and scraps of paper disappear and reappear stage-magic style. They said that he once walked out of supermax cool as you please in a prison guard's uniform, and then gave himself up on the outside a few hours later. They said he was a snitch, that he had a cop on the outside who was his lover (that this lover was a woman; that this lover was a man). They said he had never been touched in prison, couldn't be touched because someone was always looking out for him. They said he was in tight with the Irish, or the Italians, or the Aryans. He once shanked a prison guard so stealthily that the guard didn't even know until ten minutes later and they never did figure out it was him.

He could get you anything you wanted. He knew what you wanted when you didn't. He'd show it to you, and you'd know, and then he'd ask his price.

He had nicknames on the inside: the guards called him Cat, the inmates called him Suicide.

In dark corners, in quiet voices, at other times they said this: that he could do magic, real magic, prison magic. He'd once drawn a bird so real it flew off the page. He couldn't be tattooed; the ink ran right out of his skin while he slept. On the outside, he'd jumped off a ledge four floors above ground and walked away unhurt. He could walk through prison bars. He could tell your fortune in the color of your eyes. If you gave him a lit cigarette, he could hypnotize a man just by flicking it back and forth. He could steal your soul if you let him draw you, but he wouldn't (but he had once). His name wasn't even Neal Caffrey. They said there was a priest on the outside who owned his shadow. They said that he was a ghost who'd just disappeared one day straight out of his cell. They said he'd come back. Some people believed it; some didn't.

All of it was true. More or less.

At the moment, however, Neal Caffrey was on the outside, having a beer.

***

When Peter found him, Neal had his legs stretched out, feet propped on the rail of the outdoor dining area of a cafe half a block from Federal Plaza. The ankle monitor was a steady green against the metal. Neal had a sketchpad in his lap and a bottle of microbrew on the table to his right; he was drawing with his left hand, an intricate pattern of circles.

Half a dozen agents had walked right past him.

Peter leaned on the railing and wrapped a hand around Neal's ankle, above the tracker.

"You want to explain this?" he said. Neal looked up.

"Explain what?" he asked.

"How every other agent in the FBI is currently looking for your ass across the street?" Peter said, indicating the crowd of field agents spread out along the storefronts nearby. Neal's tracker was accurate to the yard. He shouldn't have been this hard to find.

Neal shrugged. "Maybe my GPS is better than theirs."

Peter sighed. "You okay?"

Neal spread his arms. "I'm great. I'm sitting right here, not hiding. I have a drink and a sketchpad. It's sunny out. Life's perfect."

There were certain things Peter didn't know about Neal, though at least he knew he didn't know them. How Neal slipped cuffs without dislocating his thumbs or wrists. How Neal could pick a pocket without ever getting close enough to touch. How sometimes, if someone was looking for him, even with the tracker, they wouldn't see him. How he wore those suits and still blended into a crowd, and how none of this worked on Peter Burke. You could tell Neal to stand on a street corner and hide, and Jones and Diana and even Hughes would seem to look through him while Peter stood there and wondered what everyone was missing.

With Peter's hand on his ankle, the agents across the street suddenly seemed to notice they were doing something wrong. Jones caught on first; he turned and found Neal and Peter unerringly. Peter waved.

"Head on back," he said, as Jones trooped across the street, glaring at Neal. "Caffrey and I need to have a chat."

"I swear, Peter, I've been right here the whole time," Neal said. Peter took his hand off Neal's ankle and slid over the railing, stealing Neal's beer and sitting down opposite him. He sipped, stretching his own legs under the table.

"You're pretty slick," Peter said, as Neal closed his sketchbook and set it aside. "Twenty minutes in a briefing, you're all smiles and yes-sirs. Five minutes later, you disappear."

"What're you going to do, throw me back?" Neal asked, his smile showing all his teeth and not friendly in the least.

"That depends on you," Peter said, taking another sip of the beer. "This is an optional job."

"Hughes didn't make it sound that optional," Neal said. "Hughes made it sound like I could go back to prison undercover, or I could just go back to prison."

Peter just smiled, and his smile wasn't much nicer than Neal's, he knew.

***

Neal didn't know how Peter caught him, how he caught him every single time. It unnerved him. In prison the guards had called him Cat because they thought he walked softly, but the truth was that when Neal didn't want to be seen, he wasn't seen. Except by Peter. He wasn't sure if Peter always saw him because Peter had caught him that first time, or if it was that Peter had caught him the first time because he had seen him.

"You want to say no, say no. I'll keep you out of trouble," Peter told him, when Neal taunted him with the choice Hughes had seemed to be presenting.

Peter's word was good; the shade was flitting in his eyes. Neal peered at him, watching it dance. Nobody else saw it, except Elizabeth, and she didn't see it very often because she didn't see this very often: Peter Burke drawing up all his authority, all that beautiful dominance, just anticipating Neal saying the word. Neal had never seen the shade in Peter's eyes before supermax, but supermax had changed so many things about the world. The shade had always been there; Neal's ability to see it had simply been lacking.

You can see it, Elizabeth had said to him after the first time they met, because they both had -- that moment Peter came down the stairs and found Neal in his house with his wife, not two days after Neal was taken from prison. They'd seen the shade flit across his vision when he found an intruder in his home, and he'd been ready to attack until he'd seen it was Neal. It had been two weeks before they'd been able to talk alone about it, but Elizabeth had known and she'd waited. You see it?

Do you? he'd asked, not bothering to wonder what she meant, just surprised that she knew. How do you?

She'd smiled, then. I'm his wife.

Neal, who had been free for two and a half weeks and still didn't trust Peter Burke or the shade in his eyes, went home that night and raided June's fridge. You never got whole eggs in prison; they arrived powdered, or pre-mixed in buckets. Whole raw eggs were powerful. He took one up to his room and burned it for Elizabeth Burke, so she'd never be hurt.

Well, it worked in prison. Who knew if it would work on the outside, but his prison on the outside was still only a two-mile radius and he thought that was enough enclosure.

Aside from Mozzie, who was more brother than friend, and June, who was at the end of the day still his landlord, Elizabeth was his first friend on the outside. Even before Peter was. Because they both saw the shade in Peter and knew what it meant, and better -- Elizabeth controlled it. He could use a friend like that.

Now, though Neal still couldn't control the shade, it was his friend too. Most of the time, anyway.

"What?" Peter asked.

"Nothing," Neal said, wondering how it was that Peter didn't even know about the shade. "Can't a guy take a lunch break without the entire FBI firing up a manhunt?"

"Not when that guy just got told he's going back to prison," Peter answered.

"For two weeks," Neal said with a shrug.

"Maybe more."

"You think I can't crack a money-laundering scheme being run through a prison in two weeks?" Neal asked. "It only took me six to break out."

"I think you going back inside when some of your fellow prisoners are there because of you is a little perilous," Peter said.

"So make sure I'm in a different block. Nobody messed with me the first time. Nobody ever messes with me," Neal said.

"Nobody at all." Peter looked skeptical.

Neal grinned. "I got the mojo," he told him. "Look, Peter, seriously. It only makes sense. I know the way the prison works, I don't smell like cop, and I have a rep. I'll be fine."

"Then why'd you disappear?" Peter asked, and that was a damn good question.

***

Neal Caffrey, as he was before prison, escaped from federal custody three times between Peter arresting him and the door to supermax slamming behind him. He never got further than twenty feet before Peter recaptured him.

The first time he slipped his cuffs and was running for the door. Right up until Peter stepped into the doorway.

The second time, he ducked out of the courtroom to have a piss and was halfway out the window when Peter grasped the back of his shirt and hauled him back in.

The third time, he was being transferred and he bolted. Peter turned out to be on the other side of the prisoner transfer bus.

So he hadn't gone into prison with high hopes. He was in supermax because he was a high-escape-risk prisoner, but he believed he didn't belong with what he thought were murderers and thugs. Back then he wasn't anything special, but he was fast enough to keep out of the way and smart enough to watch the yard and rethink his opinion of his fellow inmates. Sure, some of them were murderers and thugs, but murderer did not always mean dangerous and thug did not always mean dumb. On his fifth day in prison he calmly pickpocketed the cigarettes out of a guy's shirtsleeve and sat down across from him, announcing what he'd done. Said guy happened to be king of the yard and told him he must be suicidal.

Neal pointed out what his skills could get, before anyone threw a punch -- what a pickpocket and a con man could achieve for his protectors, in prison -- and the king of the yard grinned at him.

"That a fact, Suicide?" he asked.

"Try me," Neal said.

Which was how he got his nickname, and his reputation. He did solid work; he was reliable, and word got around.

The power didn't come until later, not until the solitude of a single-bunk cell and the unimaginative routine of prison drove him inwards and inwards and painfully inwards until he pushed back out again and --

It wasn't strictly true what they said, that he could draw things that would come to life, though he could draw pretty lifelike things. Prison wasn't about that kind of power.

It was true that he once stole a soul. When he heard what the new guy McGall was in for, he held a conference with the others like him in the prison: Marlow, who could curse men; Gutierrez, who talked to God (and God talked back); Noel the ex-Aryan who took away pain. They agreed that this was a special case and Gutierrez said God would choose the executioner. Marlow and Neal flipped for it and it came up heads for Neal.

Two days later, Neal asked McGall to sit for a sketch and nobody told McGall what a really bad idea that was. While he was drawing, Neal stole his soul. It was a tattery, oily little thing, and he folded it up inside a red, red origami heart and burned it. McGall's eyes went dull and he moved like a sleepwalker, and he died two weeks later. Neal felt not the least bit sorry; God or Gutierrez picked him for it, which meant it was a duty, merely an act committed through him.

Very few of the guys in prison had ever messed with Neal once the king of the yard took Neal under his wing. After he stole McGall's soul, nobody messed with him. Neal didn't crow about it; the power was only good as long as you didn't brag.

It also wasn't accurate that Neal could walk through prison bars. Oh, he could walk through the bars of his cell or someone else's, that was hardly a parlor trick; Marlow could do that. But Neal couldn't get through the solid steel door of his cell block.

He used to spend hours after lights-out in Noel's cell down the corridor from his, stretched on the bed, letting Noel tattoo him (Noel had been a very skilled and very misguided tattoo artist on the outside). Noel's gift -- or curse, depending on how you looked at it -- was that he could feel the pain he inflicted on others. The tattooing never hurt; Noel felt the pain instead. Noel thought he deserved this penance, welcomed and embraced it, so of course Neal was his perfect subject. Noel could cut beautiful epic art into Neal's back or chest or arms and in the morning the ink would wash right off Neal's unblemished skin and he could do it all over again.

Neal was an artist, and could appreciate Noel's handiwork in the mirror for a little while, anyway. Gutierrez said that God said Noel would suffer for twenty years. Neal figured the least he could do was make his four years inside interesting for Noel. When he got out he sometimes missed him.

He never told Kate about any of it. She wouldn't have believed him, and he didn't want the dark little things inside the walls to touch her. He used them, of course, because he'd be a fool not to, but they weren't good things. Good and Powerful were very different. People could be both -- Peter was. But one didn't guarantee the other.

***

The job was simple. Someone was cleaning dirty money through the prison. Neal would go in as a prisoner; Peter would go in as a guard. Between the pair of them, they could find out what was going on and maybe make an arrest. Peter would watch Neal's back (like he needed watching), and Neal would listen to the prison underground, a much more powerful source of information than the best search warrant.

The night before they went in, Peter took Neal home with him, and they sat in the kitchen at the little table, waiting for Elizabeth to come home. Peter took his gun out of its holster and popped the chambered bullet, passing it to Neal. While Peter cleaned his gun, Neal folded the bullet up inside a little balloon of origami paper and set it on the windowsill. There was one there for each night he'd stayed with them -- not very many, but they were good protection. In prison, he'd had a line of paper balloons strung over the door to his cell; he didn't like the bullets that he put in them for Peter and Elizabeth, but he couldn't deny bullets were powerful too. This house would not be violated -- or if it was, the perpetrator would be punished severely. He had learned a few things from Marlow the curse-maker.

Elizabeth came in just as Peter was putting his gun and magazines in the lock box, and she helped him off with his holster and kissed him.

"How are my undercover boys?" she asked.

"Just finishing up some details," Neal said. "I don't like Peter going under without a disguise."

"Sweetie?" Elizabeth glanced at Peter.

"The uniform does a lot. I think it'll be enough, if it has to be," Peter said confidently. "You two stop harassing me, go bother each other."

Elizabeth grinned and bent to kiss Neal, too, and he leaned into it until she pulled back, laughing.

"You're up to cook," she told him, pulling on his arm. He let himself be tugged out of the chair and went to the fridge to rummage around in it, while Elizabeth took his seat and toed her high heels off with a sigh of pleasure.

He thought about cutting himself, as he took out bottles of spice and vegetables and meat; nothing serious, just enough to bleed on the counter, binding him more closely to this so-ordinary house with its row of bullet charms in the window. A promise: My blood is here, and I will come back for it.

But faith was a greater sort of working, and he tried to trust that he would be safe without relying on tricks to make it so.

They drank wine with dinner. It was a little dangerous, Neal always thought, for Peter to drink wine; no wonder he preferred beer, because wine made the shade rise in his eyes. Elizabeth loved to watch it, could stare at her husband's eyes forever, Neal thought, but Peter didn't understand his power, and sometimes it made him uneasy. Neal just trusted to Peter's self-control and Elizabeth's protection.

At the end of the meal, Peter offered Neal the tip of his finger, dipped in wine; Neal leaned forward and bit it, then pulled back.

"When we go in, you won't understand what you see," Neal said.

"Try me," Peter answered, voice dry and skeptical.

"You'll see what I mean," Neal insisted.

Elizabeth stroked hair back from Neal's face, smiling. "Will you remember us?"

"I'll be there," Peter reminded them.

"I'll remember you," Neal told her. Men talked about having a woman on the outside. Hell, Neal had done it. A good woman, a woman waiting on the outside. Kate, once.

They said inside that Suicide Caffrey had a lover who was a cop; they said a priest owned his shadow. The truth was a little more complicated, and both were essentially correct: both were Peter. But they didn't know about Elizabeth -- or, if they did, it was only whispers. Neal knew full well Elizabeth could protect herself, but as long as she was a secret she would stay protected, and it was a voluntary joy to guard her, a gift she sometimes let him have.

He followed her upstairs when she led, Peter straying away from them to check the locks on the house: the front door, back door, the windows, and the row of Neal's charms on the kitchen windowsill. He never failed to check any of them.

Neal took advantage of the brief absence, kissing Elizabeth deeply as he undressed her, keeping her as close to his body as he could, just because he could. This was too rare to spend on decorum, and by the time Peter came upstairs Neal had Elizabeth kneeling on the bed, his arms around her from behind, coaxing little moans out of her with one hand and half-supporting her with the other. He had his face pressed to the nape of her neck, eyes closed, when he heard Peter clear his throat.

"What have I told you about starting without me?" Peter asked. Neal raised his head and opened his eyes. Peter was leaning against the door frame, arms crossed, tie loose.

Neal grinned; Elizabeth writhed against his hands. "I'm really terrible at following directions."

"I noticed," Peter said, but he came forward and leaned over his wife's bowed head to kiss Neal, then sat down and tipped her chin up, kissing her too. Neal's fingers twitched; Elizabeth moaned into Peter's mouth. Peter kept kissing her even when Neal lifted her up a little to slide inside her; kissed her through her orgasm, and helped Neal ease her down onto the bed. When he looked back at Neal, his eyes were dark with the shade. Sometimes Neal wanted to steal Peter's soul, not out of spite but just so he could hold it close and see what it was.

He settled for easing backwards, under Peter's hands, and taking Peter's weight as they kissed.

This was enough. More than he'd hoped for. It would see him through prison, and it would tie him to them strongly enough to bring him back out again. He had to have faith in that.

***

On the day Neal went back to supermax, all grins and jokes about finally pulling a big one and getting caught by the heel by the FBI, Gutierrez gave him a tight one-armed hug and slapped him on the back and told him Marlow had died.

"Holy shit, no kidding?" Neal asked. He'd sent Gutierrez packages every week, with stuff for everyone in the block, and he'd always included some chalk for Marlow.

"Yeah, man," Gutierrez said. "He's with God now."

"God tell you that?" Neal asked, grinning. Gutierrez gave him a solemn nod. Neal had forgotten what it was like, being back; the air was thick with power, eddying currents drifting across it.

"That's a hell of a thing," Neal said. "What happened?"

"Heart attack."

They sat in silence for a while, but Gutierrez had never really liked Marlow and even Neal hadn't been his friend, just a co-conspirator.

"What'd you do on the outside?" Gutierrez asked, finally, and Neal shrugged.

"Bit of this, bit of that."

"I heard you were a snitch," Gutierrez said.

"Who'd you hear that from?" Neal inquired.

Gutierrez pointed upwards, and Neal gaped; after all, knowing God was just sort of in the area was one thing, but he didn't think God had been paying that much attention to one impenitent sinner.

Gutierrez burst out laughing and Neal punched him in the arm.

"Nah, I heard it from a guy who got it from this asshole named Keller," Gutierrez said. "Keller's a son of a bitch. He turns the food bad. Nobody believes him."

"I'll take care of him," Neal said.

"We'll do it together," Gutierrez suggested.

"Yeah, we could," Neal said thoughtfully. "You seen Noel?"

"He's around," Gutierrez answered. Neal, looking up, saw Peter walking the rounds with a couple of other guards. He had the biggest fucking gun Neal had ever seen Peter carry. He dropped his eyes before one of the guards caught him staring.

"You got un hermano in the guards, yeah?" Gutierrez said.

"Not un hermano," Neal replied. "Un amante."

"Oh, de veras?" Gutierrez elbowed him. "Nice work. The Italians want a word with you, by the way."

"They always do," Neal answered, pushing away from the wall they'd been leaning on. "You see Noel, tell him I'm looking for him."

The Italians liked Neal, because he was smart and knew his business, and never tried to horn in on theirs. He hurried across the yard at a half-jog to see what Leoni wanted from him, and then he got Leoni's right-hand guy to show him around to all the fresh meat, and by the time that was done it was time for dinner. Neal looked in vain for Noel in the dinner line. He saw Keller, back in the kitchen, and ducked aside. He didn't need to get in a stab fight with Keller on his first day in.

The fruit on his plate was half-rotten, and the packaged white bread nonetheless had sandy grit in it. Neal narrowed his eyes at the kitchen and reminded himself to talk to Gutierrez and see what he had in mind.

And then it was time for lockdown, and he was back in a bare little cell like the one in which he'd spent nearly four years. It was empty; no art on the walls, nothing to make it home. He hadn't been allowed to bring anything in with him. He wouldn't be here long, but three walls and some bars got boring pretty fast.

Neal waited until well after lights out, between shifts, and then stood up quietly, stretching his arms. He put out a hand, curious to see if it still worked, and smiled. He stepped through the bars of his cell, shook off the little iron filings that always clung to his clothes afterward, and went looking for Noel.

Noel was in the same cell, though he'd redecorated. There were fewer sketches and more photographs on the walls now. He was sitting crosslegged on his bed, like he was waiting. Neal stepped through the bars and stood there, uneasy.

Noel nodded, stood up, and jerked his head at the bed. Neal pulled his uniform shirt off and folded it, lying down on his stomach, head pillowed on his arms. The cool prison air prickled on his skin. Noel straddled the backs of his thighs, bending over him.

Without any pain, Noel's tattoo work felt like gentle pressure, a warm point everywhere he cut and rubbed. Neal felt a drop of sweat land on his shoulder; he could hear Noel's harsh breath, knew he was feeling the pain Neal should feel. He'd missed this more than he realized, the way his muscles unknotted under Noel's touch, the way the more relaxed he grew, the sharper Noel's movements were though the pain. Noel didn't like pain, didn't get off on it, but he wanted it all the same. His penance. Neal closed his eyes and dozed while Noel worked.

When it was finished, Noel dropped down next to him on the narrow bed, body pressed up against Neal's, a palm resting on his back.

"I missed you," Noel said quietly.

"I missed you too," Neal mumbled, half-asleep.

"How long you in for this time?"

Neal turned his head a little, eyes still closed. His cover was that he was back to serve out a long sentence. He couldn't tell Noel that, couldn't raise his hopes; he'd be here weeks, at most. He considered telling Noel to ask Gutierrez, who would tell him the truth, but that was a coward's option.

"I don't know," he said, finally, which was still cowardly, but not so bad, and not so untrue.

"Ah," Noel answered. "It's like that."

Neal nodded against his arms. Noel's thumb pressed down into the muscle of his back, and Neal heard Noel's breath hitch as the pain hit him.

"How much longer you got?" Neal asked. Noel exhaled, thinking.

"Fifteen years, sent inside six years ago...nine for my full sentence. Four, with good behavior and if I get a good public defender at the parole hearing," he said.

"I could bust you out, Noel," Neal murmured. "It'd take some time, but I could do it."

Noel shook his head. "Gotta serve my time till the law says I can go."

"Have it your way," Neal sighed. "Show me?"

Noel pointed over his shoulder, up the wall to where a drawing was taped to the cinderblock. A pair of rough, sketchy wings on a man's back -- not feathered but leathery, with spines and scales, with sharp claws. "Been saving it in case you ever came back."

Neal imagined he could feel the wings cut into his shoulders, the long bones terminating in claws brushing his spine. He was silent for a while.

"We gotta take care of Keller," he said finally. Noel chuckled.

"Can't help you there," he said. "That's Gutierrez's show. I ain't got the mojo. You do. You knew Keller?"

"Outside, yeah," Neal said. "He's a nasty piece of work."

"Don't have to tell me." Noel settled a little deeper into the thin cot. "You should go."

Neal nodded and pushed himself up. Noel groaned.

"Sorry, sorry," Neal said softly, moving with care.

"Come back when it's gone," Noel grunted.

"Yeah. See you in the yard," Neal told him, and started the cautious journey back to his own cell.

***

Neal woke the next morning to a faint hint of soreness but no real pain. When he craned his head to look down the edge of his back, he could see ink still there; sometimes it bled off him in the night and stained the sheets, but Noel had probably wanted to fix this one as long as possible. It'd wash off in the shower this morning, or rub away onto his uniform during the day. In the meantime, he should move slowly; his uniform would rub on the raw skin, and Noel would feel that.

For three days, Neal did very little except talk and listen, mostly listen. He ran a few errands for the Italians and he ate his meals with Gutierrez and Noel, but other than that he circulated constantly. Prisoners were not supposed to look at guards, which developed in them a sense of where the guards were, always; some of them could tell where guards were even through thick walls, and Neal wanted the gossip they could provide. What were the routines? Who went where? Once he had known every movement in this prison from top to bottom, but he'd been on the outside for a while.

The tattoo stayed on his back until the second night, when it ran off his skin in his sleep. Neal thought perhaps he was less powerful than he had been. Older, or more used to the outside. But on the second day he felt whispers of power along his skin, and on the third day he could look into any man's eyes and see his fortune if he tried. That had been a novelty for a while, back when it first happened, but the fortunes of supermax prisoners were much of a grey sameness. Death in a prison infirmary; death on the yard; release to the outside and a menial job, or no job, or crime and a return to prison -- and death in the prison infirmary, or death on the yard.

The future was not carved in stone, Neal knew that. He had seen fortunes that had not come true, through work or happenstance. Noel's future had been unbearably violent and brutal, and Neal had been sick after seeing it, but that would not come about now that Noel had his penance to perform. That was good. Most men were not so lucky. Still, he spent the morning telling and warning, and sometimes lying with flair. He sat and shuffled cards and played for cigarettes, joked, laughed, looked people in the eye. It was good; prison might be a hell, but there were small pleasures even in hell.

On that third day, in the afternoon, he became conscious of Peter; not just that he was nearby, but where he was and how he moved. This was new. Neal had never felt the guards before like others did. He looked up -- and there was Peter, patrolling.

Neal's eyes widened. The shade was not in Peter's face, not anymore. It followed him like a second shadow -- it was a second shadow -- Peter had two shadows.

He didn't know what this meant. Only that Peter had two shadows and that was not ordinary. Not wrong or right yet, but --

"Head down, mijo," Gutierrez warned, ducking Neal's head for him before anyone could notice Neal staring so openly at a guard. Neal darted his eyes back but kept his head lowered until Peter had passed.

"New pig," one of the prisoners said. "What's up with him? Hey, Suicide, you know?"

"No," Neal lied. He could still feel Peter on the edge of his consciousness, excited and satisfied. He must have found something. "No, I dunno about him. So," he said brightly, turning to Gutierrez. "Keller. Let's fuck him up."

"Hell yeah, man," another inmate said. "I'm tired of rotten food."

"You got an idea?" Neal asked.

"Keller's got mojo," someone said. "He's a fucking weasel. Can't get a hand on him, he just slips the fuck away."

"You tried?" Neal asked.

"I know a guy in his block who did," the inmate confirmed. "Went after him on the yard, Keller just -- " he waved his fingers. "Poof. Gone, man. Went after him in the shower, he turned into steam and ran away."

Neal chewed on his lip. That was serious power. Inasmuch as they had rules, he knew the first rule was that fire against fire didn't work in prison. Nobody could curse Marlow; he was the cursemaker. Gutierrez was protected by God. You couldn't fight Keller by sneaking up on him.

Gutierrez was already nodding. "It's okay though, I have a plan."

Neal looked around them at the expectant faces.

"Clear out, boys," he drawled, grinning. They melted away, slowly, until it was just him and Gutierrez. At the back of his mind, Peter was walking out of the patrol alley and into the cool air conditioning of the guards' break room.

"What're you thinking?" Neal asked.

"Keller's got something nasty in him," Gutierrez said. "I think...maybe an exorcism. Or you could steal his soul."

"I'm not sure he has one," Neal said honestly. He couldn't imagine himself drawing Keller, couldn't see his face clearly even if he wanted to do it from memory.

"You got a better idea?" Gutierrez challenged. Neal considered it.

"Maybe we think bigger," he said.

"Bigger than exorcism?" Gutierrez was skeptical.

"Bigger exorcism," Neal murmured. He was almost afraid to say the words aloud. Gutierrez sat back, considering it.

"Don't say it," he said finally. "You put that in the air, Keller will hear it. Hell, the warden'll hear that."

"Think about it," Neal said.

"I am, and it's scaring the fuck out of me, Suicide."

"Me too. Let it go for now."

That night, Neal went back to Noel's cell and sat down on his bunk, while Noel fiddled with pots of ink on the little table near the bars.

"How do you feel about faces?" he asked. Noel looked anxious. Faces had a lot of nerve endings. But, on the other hand, the point was the pain, and Neal knew Noel liked to be challenged. So few inmates were willing to go there -- and those who were willing generally weren't the kind of men Noel wanted to touch, let alone draw blood from.

Noel came over to him and cupped his palms around Neal's cheekbones, thumbs smoothing over the skin -- testing its elasticity, finding the shape of the skull beneath.

"Sit back. Head against the cinderblock," he said, and Neal scooted until his back and head were supported by the cold concrete.

Noel took up the needle and razor, sterilized black in the flame of a contraband candle, and set out the pots of ink next to Neal's hip -- an assortment of cups with home-made pigments, artist's inks in commercial bottles, little squeezy bottles of food dye. He washed his hands, scrubbing thoroughly with lye soap -- not that it mattered, not with Neal, but with other prisoners whose tattoos would be permanent it did matter, and Noel didn't like to break habit.

Neal closed his eyes as Noel straddled his thighs and swabbed his face with a scrap of rag dipped in alcohol (also contraband). Noel set to work -- Neal could feel the pressure of the pinpricks and the rub of an inked thumb against his skin, and he could hear Noel whimpering in pain whenever he came close to the eyes, worked directly over the zygomatic arch or in the sensitive hollow just at the corner of the lower lip. Neal tried to keep still.

"Your man in the guards, they're talking about him," Noel said raspily, obviously trying to push through the pain with talk. "He's got two shadows. Ain't never seen nothing like that. Don't talk," he added, when Neal's lips almost parted to ask what the inmates thought. "They say he's a'right, for a guard. Don't harass nobody too much."

He sunk the needle too deep and Neal felt it, not painfully, just present; Noel leaned back and panted for a minute, trying to get the pain under control.

"Sorry," Neal murmured, not moving more than his lips.

"Not your fault," Noel answered. He leaned forward again, began working once more. Neal opened his eyes and watched Noel's as they swept over his face, focused on small patches of skin. He saw Noel's parole -- not as soon as Noel hoped, but sooner than his sentence was up. Noel worked his way up Neal's temple.

"You can talk now," Noel said, as if he understood Neal wanted to. "Just don't make no faces."

"When you get out," Neal told him, "look me up."

Noel laughed, then hitched a breath as the razor flicked through Neal's skin. "That's what they all say, man."

"I mean it. I have resources. I'll set you up."

Noel paused and met his eyes, then went back to work. "You, set me up."

"Yeah. Get you a little place in Manhattan. On the outside you could really -- " Neal stopped as Noel hissed, waited for him to work through it. "You could have a good studio outside. I'll be there when you get out, look me up."

"Nah, Suicide, you run around too much."

"Not anymore," Neal said. "I'll be in Manhattan. You'll find me."

Noel was silent for a few minutes, examining Neal's face, not for hints of emotion or truth but just to see if his work was complete. Finally he leaned back and eased off the bed, staggering to the sink like a drunk, fetching up the little shaving mirror to toss it to Neal.

Neal studied himself in the mirror, resisting the urge to make faces. The tattoo started in points on either side of his forehead, sweeping down over his temples in black and curling under his eyes, little red tendrils stretched across his cheekbones. They continued into curlicues down the sides of his face, terminating in tight black spirals at the corners of his mouth. The effect was a little like some kind of baroque decoration, and made him look like he was wearing his face as a mask, with something harder and infinitely more dangerous underneath.

"Thank you," he told Noel, easing off the bed, careful not to upset the ink pots.

"Enjoy it while it lasts," Noel rasped. Neal let himself out through the bars.

***

Well he once killed a man with a guitar string
He's been seen at the table with kings
Well he once saved a baby from drowning
There are those who say beneath his coat there are wings