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.
"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?"
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
The next morning, Neal meant to wash the tattoo off in the showers; he'd let the guys on his cellblock see, then wash it clean. Word would get around.
And it worked, right up until he saw Peter standing at the door to the communal shower, keeping watch while the other guard did random cavity searches. Oh, the joys of prison life.
Neal had almost forgotten his face until he saw Peter standing there, two shadows behind him. When Peter caught his eye, one of the shadows jerked and flickered. Peter's face would have been priceless on the outside, but the shadow was an unknown quantity and Neal didn't know what this Peter, in his guard uniform and with his mace and baton, would do.
Peter's eyes tracked him all the way into the shower. Neal could feel the shock and turmoil in Peter's stomach; it was like the nausea was his own.
He lifted his face as the showers came on, sharply cold at first before the warm water hit. He could hear Noel's cry of pain as Neal ducked under the spray, rubbing his face. His hands came away black and red with ink. The water washed it down his arms. He rubbed again, and came away with less this time. By the time he was using soap, Noel was no longer in pain (he could see the lines of his body straighten, his movements less hesitant) and the ink was long gone.
When he walked back out, Peter stared openly. Neal kept his eyes lowered, and only caught the flickering edge of Peter's second shadow. He could feel Peter grow calmer, but not by much.
The guards never understood. They might ignore it, because they had to, but that didn't mean they understood it. Even Peter couldn't understand.
That day, he got a call to the visitor's room, which was weird; he couldn't think of anyone who would be visiting him. Anyone who knew he was here knew he was in cover.
It turned out to be Diana, immaculately put together in one of her best FBI Badass suits, looking not a little out of place, scowling on the other side of the double-paned glass. When she saw him, her eyes flicked over his face. Peter must have mentioned something to her, no telling what.
"Di," he said, and she gave him a narrow look. "Good to see you, sweetheart."
"Wish I could say the same," she answered. Neal leaned forward.
"Bring me any treats?" he asked with a grin.
"You're in prison. Prisoners don't get treats," she told him.
"Aw, don't be a hardass."
She smiled. "I'm here from Dad," she said. Neal almost laughed. Peter had seen the tattoo and seen it disappear and sent Diana to what, check up on him? Awfully sweet. "He wants to know how prison's treating you."
"Tell him I've become a good listener," Neal replied. "Got some advice for the family business."
"Yeah?" Diana leaned forward.
"Yeah. Tell Dad that Ward's not the guy for the job, and if he were working the night shift, he'd know that," Neal said. He could see Diana processing it: the warden wasn't the one they were after. Someone working nights was doing the heavy lifting. She nodded.
"I'll give him your message," she said, and she left.
All business, the FBI.
He'd been in prison for seven days before Keller actually saw him. Word must have got around by then that Suicide Caffrey was back, and Keller would have heard it. But as long as Keller didn't see him -- and the only time he would was at meals -- then everything was all right. Neal and Gutierrez were moving around the subject of Keller now, circling it because neither wanted to admit what they'd have to do.
He was in the dinner line when Keller saw him, and prison had made Keller fast. He was over the prep table behind the line and vaulting the service table almost before Neal could blink. Neal ducked back instinctively, felt a blade whistle through the air in front of him, and saw the rest of the inmates scatter away. Keller lunged again, and Neal could see the blade more clearly now: so cliché, a sharpened bit of metal shoved into the broken end of a broom handle.
"Come on, kitchen boy, couldn't find a real knife?" he taunted, backing slowly away.
"You son of a bitch," Keller growled. He had to know he didn't have the time to dance with Neal, should be pressing his advantage; the guards were already converging, Neal could feel it, and he was sure Keller could too. Gutierrez was right, Keller acted like a man possessed, but Neal could see there wasn't an inch of him that wasn't his own. And he could see, in flashes of Keller's eyes, what was going to happen. One of those inevitabilities, he supposed, as Keller pushed in, too close for Neal to dodge --
Suddenly there was a sweep of cold across Neal's face, a dimness in the room, and Peter was there, between them, taking the impact of the knife in his stab vest. Neal watched Peter's hand flick the baton out with perfect skill -- skill Peter couldn't possibly possess, couldn't have had time to learn in seven days -- and it sang in the air and landed with a sharp whipcrack of noise. Keller collapsed.
Neal realized he was standing in Peter's second shadow. It was cool; almost placid. It felt powerful.
Then it swept away and the humid warmth and light of the dining hall rushed back, as Peter turned and grabbed Neal by the front of his uniform, shoving him into another guard who pinned his wrists behind him. Neal watched, helpless, as Peter knelt and pulled Keller to his feet, Keller groaning in pain. Sounded like cracked ribs. Peter pushed Keller into another guard, who hauled him away, and then holstered his baton.
He turned to the guard holding Neal and gave him a sharp nod; Neal felt his arms released. The whole thing, from Peter's arrival to Keller's disappearance, had happened without Peter speaking a word. Neal could see the rips in his shirt and stab vest where Keller's knife had landed.
The inmates formed slowly back up into a line, watched over by the guards. Peter left the room, and Neal could feel every footstep as Peter walked down the hallway towards the guardroom to make a report.
"Nobody ever landed a hit on Keller before," one of the inmates whispered to Neal.
"That one did," Neal whispered back.
"He got two shadows. I dunno, man."
"Me neither," Neal said. He didn't. The shadow hadn't felt malevolent. If anything, it felt like being with Peter. Calm assurance, tranquility, absolute confidence in Peter's power. And Peter had managed to hit Keller, which was apparently a first.
When he sat down, the Italians crowded around him.
"So," Vincenzio said. "You want us to take Keller down?"
"Everybody knows that's not going to happen," Gutierrez replied, seating himself next to Neal. "Buzz off, Vincenzio."
"Yessir," Vincenzio said, sliding down the table. Neal glanced at Gutierrez.
"I got 'em thinkin' I'm a saint," Gutierrez said with a grin. "Pretty cool, huh?"
"No saints in prison," Neal said.
"Hell no," Gutierrez agreed. He leaned in close. "So what'd you see, Suicide?"
"We gotta do it," Neal said. "And it's gotta be soon. One way or another I'm not here much longer."
"Okay then," Gutierrez said. "Can you get into his block?"
Neal shook his head. "Not after lights out. He'll be in seg, anyway."
"Might've been the plan all along. He knows we're after him, he gets locked down alone in seg, keeps him safe." Gutierrez shrugged.
"Do we even need to get to him? For what we're planning?" Neal asked, around a mouthful of chicken that tasted like metal.
"I don't know," Gutierrez said. "I think we gotta get our hands on him."
"I can't do that," Neal said.
"But you know someone who can," Gutierrez said with a grin. "Okay, no more right now. Think quietly. I have some people to talk to."
At the end of dinner, a handful of names were called, Neal's among them; random drug test, lucky him. On the other hand, when he trooped into the secure infirmary cell with the others, Peter was standing at the door to the toilet. When he went inside to piss in the cup, Peter came in with him.
"We have about five minutes," Peter said. "Piss. Talk fast. Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," Neal replied, lowering his uniform pants as Peter turned away politely. "You all right? He nicked your vest."
"Bruised, nothing major. You want out?" Peter asked. "Keller can't be your only enemy, and I can't follow you everywhere. That was dumb luck today. Another guard would have let you get stabbed."
"It's fine. Keller was the only one going after me. The others know better," Neal said.
"I can pull you. The lead you passed through Diana was good. I'm on swing shift now, and there's definitely something going on."
"Seriously, I'm okay," Neal said, screwing the cap on the cup and pulling his pants up again. "Hey, off the central guardroom there's an office, right?"
"Captain's office, yeah," Peter said, looking intrigued. "You think there's a ledger?"
"If there is, that's where it is. The captain might not even know it. You guys have a couple of master keys floating around to the outside offices."
"I'll see what I can find," Peter said. Neal held out the cup, and Peter took it, sighing. "You were right, you know."
"About what?" Neal asked, washing his hands.
"I don't understand what goes on in here," Peter told him. He sounded a little lost, which was more lost than Neal had ever heard him. "I swore, on your face a few days ago..."
"Try not to think about it," Neal said, but he hesitated. "Peter, look behind you."
Peter, perplexed, twisted to look at the blank wall. "What?"
"How many shadows do you see?" Neal asked. Peter looked back at him.
"Just mine. Why?" he asked. Neal shook his head.
"Never mind. Hey, can you get me word when Keller goes into seg?"
"Is that important? Are you planning something?"
"I'm not going to break into seg, I'm not insane," Neal said. "Why, is he there already?"
Peter glanced away. "He has a couple of bruised ribs. They treated him and sent him down."
"Good," Neal said, and went to leave. Peter stopped him, a hand on his chest.
"The guards call you Cat," he said quietly. "The inmates call you Suicide. Should I worry?"
Neal wished he could risk a quick kiss, but there were cameras everywhere in the public areas, and someone was bound to be watching. "No. Come on, they're going to wonder what happened in a minute."
That night, he and Noel sat on Noel's bunk, side by side -- Noel crosslegged, Neal with his knees pulled up to his chest, arms crossed on top of them. Noel was fiddling with an ink pot, twisting the cap on and off again.
"You and Gutierrez are moving on Keller, right?" Noel asked finally.
"Yeah," Neal said. "I don't know what we're doing yet. Gutierrez doesn't either."
"He's a lifer, you know. Gutierrez."
"I know," Neal sighed. "He won't leave, anyway. I offered last time."
"He'd miss God," Noel said. "Besides, nobody messes with him. Like us. Gutierrez been here twenty years. I think he's afraid of the outside."
"Sometimes I am," Neal admitted. "Things are so...different there. But it's good, too."
"What do you do on the outside, Neal?" Noel asked. Neal tilted his head back.
"I live in this big open place on the fourth floor of a mansion," he said. It sounded like a fairy tale. "June owns it. She's a widow. She gave me all these old suits her husband owned, really nice suits. You should see me on the outside," he added, and Noel turned to give him a smile. "I got style, Noel."
"Bet you do," Noel agreed. "What about the husband? He don't mind?"
"Byron? No. When I got there I talked to him once or twice. Nice guy. He's not really there there, not like DeLong," Neal said. DeLong was an inmate who'd died in Block C and hung around; inmates in that block said he was harmless as long as you left out a little bit of food for him once in a while. "The house has some powerful protection though. Byron was one of us," he added, waving at the cell. "He knew. When he got out he made sure nobody would hurt them. Anyway, there's pieces of him here and there, but he's pretty much moved on. He's just waiting for June, I think."
"Love story," Noel said. "Nice."
"Yep. So, I paint, or I sculpt sometimes, when I'm there. In the mornings Peter picks me up and we go do cop shit. I'm on a work release, I help them out."
"Snitch," Noel said, but he was grinning.
"Nah, I just explain how things work. We bust guys like me."
"Gotta be weird."
"Not so weird," Neal mused. "It's all a con. This is just the other side of the coin. Sometimes we go out for lunch, summertime we sit outside and have a beer," he said, because Noel seemed hungry for the little details, the sensual pleasures he couldn't get inside. "I can come and go, you know? I'm on a two-mile radius, but if I want to leave the room I can just get up and leave. If someone picks a fight with me I can walk away. Nobody telling me when to eat, when to shower. If I need something I just go out and buy it."
Noel nodded. "You forget what it's like, after a while."
"I know," Neal said. "So, then, end of the day, he takes me home, most of the time. Sometimes I go home with him. He's got a wife, man, Noel, she's unbelievable."
"You fuck?" Noel asked. Neal laughed. "What? You want me to frill it up?"
"No, it's -- yeah, we do," he said. "Not often. It's good though."
"What about your girl? Saint Kate?" Noel asked.
"She died," Neal said. Noel looked at him. "It was a while ago now."
"You seen her since?" Noel asked. Neal shook his head.
"She's not waiting for me," Neal said quietly. "I can't find her."
"Doesn't matter." Neal shrugged. Noel turned and rested his chin on Neal's shoulder, thoughtfully.
"What you want tonight?" he asked. "I could do Saint Kate for you. Maybe inside your skin, she'd talk to you?"
Neal shook his head.
"I need protection," he said. "I need power. You have anything like that?"
Noel nodded, chin digging into Neal's shoulder. "On your back," he said, standing up. Neal stretched out on the cot and Noel went to the little desk to prep his tools. When he came back he swung a leg over him, sitting comfortably on his stomach, and spread a hand over Neal's chest, pressing down, feeling for something. Then he went to work.
"You talk to God?" Neal asked Gutierrez in the yard, on the eighth day. There were a couple of other inmates around, watching Neal do tricks with a lit cigarette, but they were mostly paying attention to the ember, not to Neal.
"Sure, I did. I do every night," Gutierrez told him.
"So? What'd God say about Keller?"
"He said to ask you," Gutierrez said. Neal fixed him with a level look, but Gutierrez wasn't kidding this time.
"You ever think maybe God's fucking with you?" he asked. Gutierrez smiled.
"Little bit. But man, God's got more important things to worry about than us," he said.
Neal sat and thought about it, twirling the cigarette, blowing on it occasionally to make the ember flare, flipping it and catching it. Finally, when it was almost to a stub, he put it between his lips, inhaled once, blew out the smoke and stubbed the cigarette on the pock-scarred surface of the table.
"I think we should bring him to us," Gutierrez said. "Not in the block, though. Somewhere neutral."
"Infirmary?" Neal said.
"Dangerous. Lots could go wrong." Gutierrez considered the matter. "Can you get in?"
"Sure. I go in today, I can be there three-four days. What about you?"
"Looks suspicious if we both get sick at once. You go. I'll figure out a way."
"You sure?" Neal asked.
Gutierrez nodded. "No problem."
"So, come tomorrow night." Neal tapped his finger in the still-warm soot where the cigarette lay. He sighed. "Coulda used Marlow for this," he added, and smeared the black residue into a streak, then rubbed a few stray lines in it with his thumb. Gutierrez watched.
"Enough," Gutierrez said finally, after the third or fourth line. "That's enough."
"Yeah, probably," Neal agreed. He licked his fingers -- ugh, what a taste -- and stood up. The crowd of men around them were stock still. Neal snapped his fingers and they broke out of it; a couple of them looked annoyed, like they knew what Neal had done, but they let him walk away.
By the time he got called for a cell search that afternoon, Neal was pale, a cough lodging uncomfortably in his throat. He stood at the bars of his cell, wrists cuffed, and sniffled indecorously while Peter tossed his room. He'd acquired a lot of stuff in just eight days: gifts from inmates, some things he'd bartered for, some things he'd quietly stolen that nobody would miss. Peter talked as he worked, obviously not looking for anything or expecting to find anything, just going over the new details he'd been able to dig up about the case. Neal nodded and offered opinions once in a while in a voice that was scratchier by the minute.
Finally, Peter unlocked the cuffs and hauled Neal into his cell, putting himself between Neal and the still-open door.
"Take your shirt off," he ordered. Neal, reluctantly, pulled the uniform shirt over his head, shivering in the chill.
The tattoo Noel had given him was pure, flat green, starting on his pectoral, sliding down his sternum. It was an abstract pattern so far as Neal could make out, but Noel said it was powerful. Peter looked at it, then put out a hand without even bothering to ask permission and touched the dip where his chest muscles met. His skin was still red and swollen; Neal flinched, not from pain but because he knew somewhere in the yard Noel was feeling it. Peter took his hand away and held it up to study it; there were smears of green on his palm. He looked at Neal, who shrugged.
"You're planning something," Peter said, wiping the ink off on his black uniform trousers. "Don't."
"You think I'm going to hit Keller," Neal replied.
"It's not revenge," Neal said.
"Oh, hit him before he hits you, is that it?" Peter asked, crossing his arms. Behind him, the second shadow flickered.
"No, that's not it." Neal shook his head. "It's -- protection. Not for me," he insisted, when Peter's skepticism deepened. "I'll be out soon, it doesn't matter to me, but Keller poisons the food. He'll do worse if he can. He has to be stopped."
"By you?" Peter asked. Neal raised his wrist to his mouth to cover a cough.
"Someone has to," Neal said. Peter gripped his arm before he could lower it, pulled him in close. Neal couldn't see the second shadow now, and he couldn't see anything in Peter's eyes but flat brown, like any ordinary person.
"You're going to the infirmary," Peter said. "You're going to get that cough checked. You're not going to put a hand on Keller. You understand me?"
Neal nodded. Peter was so warm, and he was freezing. He swayed into the warmth and Peter let him, but he didn't give an inch.
"Promise me you won't touch Keller," he said.
"Promise," Neal groaned, his other hand gripping Peter's belt. Peter's fingers slid up his arm, around the muscles of his neck, twining in his hair.
"How are you?" Peter asked quietly, as Neal's shivering subsided. Neal crowded closer, turning them so that Peter's shoulders hit the cinderblock wall. He kissed him -- not on the mouth, not where Peter would taste the ash and sickness, but down his jaw, sucking over his pulse point. Peter groaned.
"You're sick, and we don't have the time -- " he started. Neal bit down. Peter's body jerked.
"I want it. Nobody will see," Neal promised, against Peter's collar. "And if they do, so what? You think this is the first time it's happened?"
Peter's grip tightened. "You -- "
Neal leaned back a little, managed a smile. "Not me. Others, sure. Helps to have a guard on your side," he added, sliding down Peter's body, working at the buckle of his uniform pants, pressing up against the solid heat of his thighs. Peter's head thudded back against the cinderblock.
"They'll look away," Neal said, easing open his belt, tugging his pants and briefs down around his thighs. Peter caught his breath. "They always do. Even if they watched, they wouldn't tell anyone."
"Prisoner abuses..." Peter's thoughts, he could tell, were straying and shattering. Neal was impressed with his self-control. "We should -- report..."
It'll always be the same, he wanted to say, but his mouth was busy -- licking down Peter's cock, sucking the tip in, smiling and trying not to cough as Peter groaned and bucked under his hands. He was so warm, and there was so much power here, even more power than the tattoo running off his chest. Peter was practically glowing, the second shadow dancing madly along the wall. Neal groaned and tried to breathe and suck and curl up into Peter's heat all at the same time.
Peter caught his head and held him, steadying him, hips canting slow and smooth. Neal wished, momentarily, for Elizabeth, for that sense of a circuit closing when he was with them both, like he was conducting them through himself. Still, this was good, power surging into him, Peter struggling to hold on and struggling not to make a noise. As if anyone cared when a guard took advantage. Somewhere, sometime on the outside, he'd make Peter tie him up and he'd torment Peter into letting go, really for once taking what he wanted. He'd court the shade.
The thought made him inhale sharply, and Peter finally moaned, full and deep, and came breathing his name: "Neal, Neal -- "
Neal swallowed, wiped his mouth, and rested his face in Peter's bare thigh, waiting to catch his breath. Finally, with a little laugh, Peter tugged him to his feet, his other hand pulling his pants back up.
"You're a piece of work," Peter said to him, kissing him, forcing his lips open. He liked that, tasting himself in Neal's mouth. Neal clung to his shirt, let Peter run his hands down his bare chest and cup his soft cock. Peter made a surprised, interrogatory noise.
"M'sick," Neal said, pulling back reluctantly. He gave Peter his best grin. "You can owe me."
"Mm," Peter said, afterglow fading, a frown forming on his face as he buckled his belt. "Infirmary. I don't like the way you sound."
"Liar," Neal said, but he let go of Peter's shirtfront and picked up his own shirt. The tattoo was barely even visible at all now, just green traces here and there. Neal put his hands behind his back, anticipating the cuffs, and let Peter fasten them around his wrists. Peter gave him one last, proprietary caress, fingers drifting down the nape of his neck, and then closed Neal's cell door, walking behind him down the hallway.
After Peter checked him in, the infirmary doctor diagnosed the flu, and Neal was given a bed in the ward with wrist and ankle restraints. Charming. Still, it was hard to blame the infirmary; there were a lot of sharp items floating around, even if they were locked up, and prison medical staff didn't get to carry batons.
They buckled the ankle restraints but left his wrists free; as he watched, the orderly rubbed his hands together and then pressed them over Neal's left thigh. He considered a couple of smart remarks, but it paid to be nice to the staff, so he just kept an eye on the guy as he repeated the process on the right. When the orderly stepped back, Neal's legs wouldn't move.
Clever. Neal could pick a lot of locks, but what did you pick when there was no lock to start with?
Still, at least this way he had his hands free.
"Be a good boy," the orderly said, "and I'll let you up to pee."
"What would I do, cough my way to freedom?" he asked. His throat felt like it was full of pinpricks.
"I heard about you, Caffrey. We hear what the inmates say."
"Yeah?" Neal asked, leaning close. "What do they say?"
"Like you don't know," he said.
"Maybe I do," Neal said with a grin. "Hey, you treat Keller in here yesterday?"
"That punk," the orderly rolled his eyes. "He a buddy of yours too?"
"Not exactly," Neal murmured, coughing. He glanced up at the long tempered-glass window between admissions and the infirmary, and saw Peter watching carefully. Neal gave a little shake of his head and Peter nodded, hurrying away.
He spent most of the afternoon bored out of his mind, coughing and mildly feverish, uninterested in dinner (despite the fact that it looked like the most palatable meal he'd had since coming here) and restlessly tracking Peter, who was not only as bored as Neal but also worried. Neal closed his eyes and tried to disappear, but that had never worked on Peter, and it wasn't going to work now.
He slept fitfully. Keller laughed his way through Neal's dreams.
Neal woke up with a headache, no voice, and the very clear warning in his head: Coming for you, Neal.
The next morning, Neal was eating breakfast when Diana was shown into the ward. She looked concerned, especially when she saw how washed-out his skin was in the white infirmary pajamas.
"Sweetheart," Neal managed, but it was mostly breath; the noise didn't carry very far. Diana waited for the orderly and the guard to leave; the guard just stepped back, up against the far wall.
"We're taking you out of here," she said quietly, face and voice both so serious. "Peter made the call last night. He wants you out by noon."
"Why?" Neal asked. Diana gave him a look.
"You're sick and there are people waiting to come after you, and you're in a prison infirmary," she said. "You can get better care outside."
"It's the flu, I'm not dying," Neal croaked. "And I'm not sure that's true, anyway."
"You're not useful here, Neal -- "
"That's definitely not true," he breathed.
"Your job was to listen," Diana continued, soft, intense. "Who are you listening to here, Neal?"
"The staff," he said, flailing desperately for a convenient lie. They couldn't take him out, not before he and Gutierrez took care of Keller. "The orderlies. One of them might be in on it. Trying to find out now."
Diana raised an eyebrow. "So this was convenient, wasn't it? Getting the flu?"
Neal gave her his most level look, which probably wasn't as impressive as it would have been if his eyes weren't rimmed with red. Diana didn't fall for most of his crap and she was difficult to manipulate at the best of times.
"I'm staying in," he said. "Try to take me out and I'll blow cover."
"No you won't," Diana replied. "You wouldn't sabotage a case."
"Try me," Neal challenged. It hurt to talk. And Diana was right, but once you were in a bluff you had to see it through.
Diana leaned forward a little more. "You're lying, Neal. You wouldn't kill the case out of petulance."
Neal gave her a sullen look.
"Peter's going after the ledger tonight," she continued.
"So pull me tomorrow morning. If he finds it, great. If he doesn't, I've done all I can," Neal managed, ending the offer with a coughing fit. Diana rubbed his back; Neal pretended it was because she liked him and not for show in front of the guard against the wall.
"You are a pain in my ass," she said in his ear.
"Love you too, Di," he grunted, reaching for his water. The guard cleared his throat and Diana gave him a discontented look, but she stood up followed him out. Neal, done with trying to cram reconstituted applesauce and dry toast down his throat, lay back and concentrated on walking the fine line between 'too sick to go back to gen pop' and 'not quite sick enough to vomit'.
"You let him do what?" Peter demanded, and saw Elizabeth wince at his volume. He made an apologetic face at her and rose to step outside as Diana explained her discussion with Neal in the infirmary.
"I think he has a point," she said. "He believes some of the infirmary staff might be in on it. If they are -- "
" -- if they are -- "
" -- then Neal can get it out of them. So I held the paperwork."
Peter closed the door behind him and rubbed his eyes. Working swing shift was already taking its toll; as nice as it was to be around the house in the daytime, he wasn't used to routinely getting home at midnight or sleeping past five in the morning.
"I asked you to get him out of there, not argue with him," Peter said.
"Neal wants to stay in. I respected his wishes," Diana replied.
Peter sighed. "How'd he look?"
"Sick. Not too bad. He was eating." He could practically hear the shrug in Diana's tone. She was probably right; Peter was too close to this to make the call to keep Neal in or force him out.
"Fine. Everything goes according to plan, he'll be out tomorrow anyway," Peter said. "You ready for tonight?"
"Jones is standing by," Diana said, sounding amused. "He's thrilled about going undercover as a pizza guy, by the way."
"Just have him ready to show up when I text," Peter replied. "I'm not going to have a ton of time to get the ledger out of there during my shift. Warrant come through for the office?"
"Judge signed it this morning. Stop by the office and I'll have it ready for you."
"Then we're good to go," Peter said. Out of the corner of his eye he thought he saw something, a flicker of movement across the patio; when he turned, all he saw was his shadow.
He thought longingly of his suits and ties, his wing-tip shoes and his shoulder holster, his plain brown belt that didn't have a baton and a can of mace and a radio weighing it down. It was...well, it was interesting, working with the guards. Educational, maybe, a very different life and a very different set of men from what he was used to. It was oddly pleasing to walk down the patrol alley and see the prisoners duck their heads or look away. But it didn't feel like it should be. It stirred up something dangerous that Peter wasn't sure he liked about himself, and it made the baton easy in his hands.
When he'd taken Keller down, he hadn't felt the knife hit the stab vest, and he hadn't even really been thinking about Neal. Without the slightest consideration he had seen a target, and his hand had gone to his holster, flicked outwards and landed a blow across Keller's torso. No hesitation, like with a gun; no stand-off. Just a swift, sure swing with a twenty-one inch Smith & Wesson tac-grade baton. The shock on Keller's face had been gratifying, and that frightened Peter.
He had to get the ledger tonight and get the hell out of supermax before it got to him. And get Neal out before Keller got to Neal. There was something creepy and bewildering about Neal as a prisoner. His eyes were paler, and he held a frightening amount of sway over the other inmates.
When Neal had gone in the first time, gone in because Peter had caught him, Peter had flagged his prisoner file. He'd expected, with some dread, to see Neal in the infirmary -- for fighting, for worse things. Pursuit aside, Peter had liked Neal, who was just a kid and beyond that a likeable guy. He didn't want to see him hurt. The first flag that came up was over a year in, though, and it was only for food poisoning.
Now Peter understood why. Neal, as he always did, had made himself useful, and he had the devil's own luck.
Peter remembered Neal, fresh from prison: raw, grasping, sneaking, heedless, headstrong. He had few redeeming features, just the ability to close cases and the inability to lie to Peter. Peter had tried to make him into something better, the kind of person Neal could have been; he'd rechanneled all that brilliance into something good, or at least mostly on the right side of the law. He thought he'd done pretty well.
Starting over again now would be impossible, but if he didn't get Neal out soon he worried that was where they'd end up.
"Sweetie?" Elizabeth asked, leaning out the door. Peter turned to look at her, startled. It seemed like, this past week, her eyes often drifted past his face, like she was looking for something behind him.
"Sorry, just thinking," he said, and came back inside, kissing her on the way.
He can turn himself into a stranger
Well they broke a lot of canes on his hide
He was born away in a cornfield
A fever beats in his head like a drum inside
When Neal was born, in an overcrowded charity ward on Chicago's south side, his mother had already chosen his name: Niall. Niall was a king of Ireland, the cast-off fifth son of the king by a second wife. Neal's mother had been something of a romantic, and he knew she'd felt it fitting for the son her married boyfriend wouldn't admit was his. Niall, youngest son, unwanted by his father, father himself of twenty-six generations of Irish kings.
Niall Caffrey was what it said on his birth certificate, but there was some kind of problem with the spelling on his vaccination records. It was easier to enter him into school as Neal, the name on his medical file and his social security card. He was arrested and tried and convicted under the name Neal, as if the rightful spelling of his name was simply an embarrassing error on a slip of paper he didn't even know the location of anymore. If he needed a birth certificate for whatever reason, he just forged one, and it was easier to put Neal and save himself some time. Or to put some other name entirely.
Nobody living knew his name was Niall. Kate had; he'd told her the story, but Kate had been discreet and now was dead. He'd suspect Peter of knowing, but if Peter had known he would have insisted Neal's records be changed, that he be tried under his real name. Most of the time it didn't even occur to him to think about it. He'd been called Neal his whole life.
Niall was his last line of defense, the place he went when he had no other resource left. It had got him through the first few weeks in New York as a teen, a really bad bout with pneumonia about a year before Peter caught him, a couple of hard times in prison, and through Kate's death a year after he got out on work-release. Niall wasn't strong, but if he went there then Neal could be a shield, when his other defenses failed him.
He spent the day thinking about that. There wasn't much else to do on the ward.
Around eleven at night, just after bed check, Gutierrez edged along the wall and appeared at Neal's bedside with a grin. Neal didn't ask how he'd got there, just grinned and gripped his hand tightly when Gutierrez took it.
"Man, you look like shit," Gutierrez said. "Sure you're up to this?"
"It looks worse than it is," Neal answered. He'd been consciously letting go of his throat all afternoon, willing the rawness to fade. "Listen, though, there's a problem."
"Isn't there always?" Gutierrez asked.
"I promised my guard I wouldn't touch Keller. I can't put a hand on him."
"Make me do all the hard work, I see how it is," Gutierrez teased. He pulled up a chair like he was just settling in for a visit instead of an unauthorized break-in.
"Do we actually know what we're doing?" Neal asked. It had gnawed at him, the sense that they were about to perform a fairly complex task with absolutely no plan whatsoever.
"I got a few ideas," Gutierrez said. He pulled up his sleeve to show Neal a tattoo on his arm -- new, the skin red and angry, the ink starkly black.
"That's pretty permanent for a one-time party," Neal said.
"Big party," Gutierrez answered, rolling his sleeve back down. "You think Keller can get out of seg?"
"As long as he knows I'm here," Neal said.
"Pretty sure he knows."
"Wouldn't surprise me," Neal answered, and scrubbed his face with his hands. "So, no plan? No divine wisdom from God?"
"God thinks I'm a fucking idiot," Gutierrez replied. Neal laughed. "We can do it. Let Keller make the first move."
"Can't steal first base," Neal murmured in agreement. "Gutierrez. You ever exorcised an entire prison before?"
"I've never done an exorcism at all before," Gutierrez replied. "Hell, man, I was an atheist when I was sent inside. But if it gets rid of Keller, I'm for it. You think he's possessing the place?"
"You got a better idea?"
Gutierrez shook his head. "Nothing comes to mind."
"Okay then," Neal said, and settled in to wait. "We'll make it up as we go along."
Peter was alone in the guard captain's office -- warrant in his pocket, lockpicks raking away at the pins in the top locked desk drawer -- when the power went out.
The office was dark, and he was trying to play it as low-profile as possible, but he could see the crack of light under the door die, and he heard the sharp whirr of the captain's computer powering down. There were exclamations from the guards on break. Peter waited, unmoving, for the emergency backup generator to kick in. Most of the locks weren't electronic, and those that were had failsafes that auto-bolted when the power died, but a prison was a micro-community, and a power outage was not only a major inconvenience but a safety hazard for everyone.
Nothing happened. No blink of light under the door, no sign that the generators even existed. Peter had a decision to make: join the squads that were mustering (they would know if he didn't show up) or get the ledger and try to either hide it somewhere or get it out to Jones.
He worked frantically at the lock as the shouts outside increased. Stupid fiddly little things, small simple locks were sometimes harder than big complex ones, and his skills were rusty...
There was a click that sounded overly loud in the quiet dark room, and Peter sighed in relief. He tugged the drawer open, rifled blindly through the office supplies it contained, found nothing big enough, and took out his flashlight, holding it inside the hollow where the drawer had been. He shone it down into the second drawer, lifting up a file folder, a book on prison management, a half-empty flask bottle of scotch --
There. A plain cheap accounting book, no title or name on the outside. He opened it with the very tips of his fingers and hit the jackpot.
Inside were scrawled columns of accounts, debits and credits, names, times, divided overages, payments in cash to prison suppliers, and on the inside cover a list of what had to be shell companies the prison was making deposits to. They couldn't have done better if they'd gift-wrapped it for him.
He pulled an evidence bag out of his pocket, slid it up over the ledger, and sealed it, scrawling his initials and date on the seal out of habit. The noise outside now was approaching riot levels, and Peter tucked the slim book up under his stab vest, securing it with one folded edge of the bag hooked over a shirt button. Too late now to make a run out to the guardhouse and pass it to Jones.
He slipped out of the captain's office into an empty breakroom and ran for the yard, the shouts of prisoners clanging in his ears. There was no reason for them to riot, and no particular reason the guards should feel unsafe, but prisoners would take any excuse to make some noise. The monitor cameras were out, there were no corridor lights, and some of the blocks had to be plunged into deep darkness. Without any electricity, some of the infirmary patients might --
Peter skidded to a stop. Neal was in the infirmary. The lights were out. Keller had it in for Neal and Peter had heard murmurs that he thought were just hyperbole, metaphor, exaggeration, about how Matthew Keller couldn't be caught, how Peter was the only guard who'd ever managed to hit him.
With the lights out, the cell doors were shut but the block doors were open. Including the block doors to the isolated seg cells.
He turned sharply and sprinted back down the hall, one hand on his vest to keep the ledger secure, following the fastest route to the infirmary. If Keller got out, Neal would be next to defenseless. If he had to, he'd take Neal out now, haul him out under the cover of darkness, and damn the release paperwork.
As he barreled down the corridor towards the open, gaping infirmary doors, someone began to scream.
When the lights went out, right around midnight, Neal sat up further in the bed. He couldn't leave it -- the orderly's bindings were in place -- but there should be no reason he'd have to. He couldn't touch Keller, he'd promised Peter, and there was no point in running from him. After all, the whole idea of Neal going into the infirmary was to lure Keller into a neutral place.
"How's your mojo?" he asked Gutierrez, as their eyes adjusted. The infirmary had merely been dark, dimly lit; now, with the office and hallway lights off, it was pitch black. Neal imagined he could feel his pupils dilating.
"Not this good," Gutierrez answered in the darkness, and there was the sound of a chair scraping backwards. "Got a light?" he asked, humorlessly.
"Don't look at me," Neal said, and Gutierrez laughed. "Pun unintentional."
"It's fine," Gutierrez said. "Hey, don't suppose you could call your amante, huh?"
Neal closed his eyes. There was a hum of power rising, most of it normally obscured by the electric lights and machines, now a loud whine in the darkness. It was hard to push through the thick, cloying air to find Peter, but he managed; Peter was crouched behind a desk in the guard captain's office, his emotions spiking high on triumph and concern. Must've found something, then.
"With the power out they'll be squadding in the yard," Neal said. "They'll get guards here eventually. Not soon enough, and no guarantee it'll be him."
"Just us, then," Gutierrez said. "Keller better show himself."
"This is nice," said a third voice, and Neal widened his eyes, for all the good it would do him. Keller's voice, the nasal twang unmistakable. "Very literary. Big showdown," he added, sarcastic. Neal heard him snap his fingers, and the lamp above them exploded in sparks that scattered around the floor and kept burning long after they should have winked out. Keller stood in their shattered-glass glow, arms crossed, looking smug. "Hiya, Neal."
"Keller," Neal growled. Gutierrez was moving, subtly, putting himself between Neal and Keller. Keller waved a hand and the little shards of light flared bright. Gutierrez froze.
"You always were afraid of taking power," Keller said to Neal. "You," he added to Gutierrez, "you, I don't know."
"Leonel Gutierrez," he replied.
"Aha. The saint who talks to God," Keller replied.
"No saints in prison," Gutierrez murmured.
"Nice scam you're running with this one, Neal," Keller added.
"It's not a scam. If it were, it wouldn't be mine," Neal answered warily. "Why'd you come, Keller?"
"I got word you're gunning for me. Which is okay, I'm gunning for you, too. Now we could be civilized about this; we ain't in the same block. No reason to go messing each other up."
"Except you poison the food," Gutierrez said.
"You keep out of this."
"It's my food too."
Keller glared at him; Gutierrez stood his ground.
"It's true, though," Neal said. "You stop rotting the fruit, Keller, and we can talk about this."
"Fuck you, Caffrey," Keller snarled.
Neal sighed, as if this could not be more tedious, even as he was filing Keller's defensiveness away in his mind -- he didn't think the man could control the power he had, didn't think Keller could stop if he wanted to. Which made it the perfect taunt. "Keller, what do you get out of it? What do you want?"
"I want you to get out of bed and face me like a fucking man!" Keller yelled. Neal felt a jolt of something, some sharp strong emotion, and identified it as Peter.
"Gutierrez?" he said.
"Yeah?" Gutierrez answered.
"Mi amante viene de prisa."
"I'm not gonna warn you again, Neal," Keller said, and uncrossed his arms. He raised his left hand and the little glowing shards of very sharp glass lifted up off the floor. The light shifted over Keller's face as they rose, and Neal reached for the heavy bottle of disinfectant on the table next to his bed.
Before he could throw it, before Keller could make another move, Gutierrez charged forward, darting around one of the little glowing shards, and shoved bodily into Keller. The impact pushed him back into some of the glass and tumbled both of them to the ground. Keller screamed in pain. Gutierrez pinned him with his knees across Keller's shoulders and got his hands flat on the linoleum floor.
"In the name of God I cast you out," Gutierrez said. "In the name of God I cast you out!"
"Exorcism?" Keller demanded breathlessly, screaming again when Gutierrez ground him down into the glass shards. "Seriously, you think I'm possessed?"
Neal struggled against the restraints, trying to see clearly what was going on.
"No," Gutierrez said. "We're exorcising you from the prison. You are the evil. In the name of God, I cast you out -- "
A third scream was cut off by a new voice. Peter, bellowing Neal's name as he burst into the ward, distracted both Neal and Gutierrez for just long enough. Keller flipped the smaller, older man off his shoulders with a manic twist, rolling through glass to his feet while Gutierrez gasped for breath, the wind knocked out of him. Keller turned to face the new threat; Peter's baton was already in his hand, almost two feet of wicked black steel alloy, cocked at an angle from his body.
"Hands up, Keller," Peter barked. Behind Keller, Gutierrez was struggling to get upright.
"Duck!" Neal yelled, because a smug grin was crossing Keller's face as he raised his hands. The glowing glass shards orbiting around him lifted in sync with his hands and when Keller twisted a little they hurled themselves at Peter. Gutierrez grunted and moaned as one passed right through his half-prone body.
Peter didn't duck, didn't move at all. A dozen pinpricks of light should have shredded him to nothing, but as Neal watched each of them winked out a few inches from Peter's body. Peter's body, which was dim and grey -- protected by the shadow.
Gutierrez saw his chance and lunged, but this time his arms passed right through Keller's throat. Neal made a frustrated, aggressive noise and tried to roll out of the bed again, but it held him fast.
Keller and Peter were circling each other now, the room dimmed almost to darkness, only a few shards of glass still lit.
"Mijo, I don't think the classics are going to work," Gutierrez called, without taking his eyes off Keller. "If you wanted to come up with a plan now would be a really good time."
"I'll let you know," Neal answered. "Peter, be careful -- "
Peter swung and managed a hit on Keller's upper arm; Keller swore and danced backwards, cradling it against his chest. Peter grinned, teeth bared. Neal leaned out over the bed, reaching -- he could almost touch one of the madly vibrating shards of glass --
"Give up now, Keller," Peter insisted, as if this was an ordinary out-of-bounds prisoner recapture. Neal was so close to the glass, but it slipped through his fingers, leaving them bloody.
"Your boys came after me first," Keller snarled back. "This is between me and them."
"That's not what it looked like when you went after Neal," Peter said, and swung again. The baton passed through part of Keller's chest and lodged there; Neal watched, horrified, as Keller jerked his body back and took Peter, still holding the baton, with him. There was no blood, and it didn't look like there was any pain. Peter wouldn't let go of the baton, but he telescoped it in, shoving it so that the blunt ends of the segments slammed into Keller's body. Keller staggered, right into Gutierrez, who caught him in a bear hug. Neal struggled harder and finally one of the shards danced right into his fingers; he brought it down in a slash, cutting the bed open, and threw his body sideways, tumbling to the ground.
Gutierrez was struggling with Keller. Peter kept trying to get a hand on him, but his fists passed straight through Keller every time. Neal ran forward, through broken glass, and bent in a swift motion to grasp at Peter's second shadow. The blood on his hand caught it, tugged it free; he yelled, "Gutierrez!" and shoved it into one open, grasping hand. Peter stiffened and his whole body jerked; Gutierrez caught the shadow and pulled it up, across Keller's face like he wanted to smother him.
Neal became aware of the pain in his hand, the slick blood under his feet, and of a ringing silence in the room. Peter grasped the baton again and yanked up, hard; it jerked through Keller's ribcage. Keller screamed against the shadow on his face as Gutierrez pulled it tight against his mouth, over his head. They went backwards together and when Keller hit the ground he shattered into a million pieces.
White crystals scattered over Gutierrez's legs, over Peter's shoes, bounced off Neal's bare ankles. Glass and salt poured down. Gutierrez scrambled away, horror on his face, and thrust the shadow up, into Peter's chest. Peter gasped on a long inhale and then bent over, dry hacking coughs shaking his body. He dropped to his knees in the middle of the white spray on the floor, doubled over. All Neal could hear were Gutierrez's harsh breaths and Peter's choking gasps.
He crouched, shuffling forward a little, and held tightly to Peter's chest until the wracking coughs had passed.
One by one, the corridor lights flickered back to life.
Gutierrez had a hole in his side that needed stitches and a dozen shallow cuts in his legs, and they said he was dangerously dehydrated. Neal watched them run an IV into his arm, while one of the orderlies bandaged Neal's feet and fingers and another quietly, without comment, swept the glass and salt into a dustpan. Peter, once he'd stopped coughing, had all but thrown Neal back onto his bed and then helped Gutierrez out from the minefield of broken glass. He'd left his baton lying in the middle of the mess, ripped off his radio belt with something like terror, and run out of the infirmary. Neal could feel him now, walking back down the road from the guardhouse at the prison walls, a heavy exhaustion weighing on his shoulders but the ledger finally in safe hands.
"That was interesting," Gutierrez said conversationally, from the next bed over. Neal laughed. "I think we won."
"Yeah, I think so," Neal agreed. The orderlies carefully ignored them.
"You getting out of here now, Suicide?"
Neal nodded. "Tell Noel goodbye for me."
"Ah man, he knew he wouldn't see you again. He said to tell you he'd find you on the outside."
"Good," Neal said. He glanced at Gutierrez. "You'll be okay?"
"Oh, yeah, no problem here. Couple of days of Club Med Ward, I'll be good. Hey, have a beer for me on the outside."
Neal grinned. "Sure. You know anytime you want to leave, say the word."
"After this? I'll be like a national hero or something. Hell, I can't wait to have a banana that doesn't taste like it fermented on the boat ride over."
Neal looked up as Peter elbowed his way through the door. The lines on his face looked deeper than usual; he seemed about twenty years older, but he stopped at Gutierrez's bed and spoke softly with him before coming around to Neal. Neal could see salt and glass in his pant cuffs.
"Can you walk?" Peter asked.
"It's one in the morning," Neal pointed out.
"Jones is bringing a car. Can you get there from here or do I carry you?" Peter asked. Neal groaned and pulled his legs around to the side of the bed, testing his feet gingerly. It hurt, but not badly enough to keep him here for a minute longer than necessary. He slung an arm around Peter's shoulders and limped past Gutierrez, through the infirmary door. Outside, the orderly was dumping the dustpan into a trash can.
"What happened here?" Peter asked Neal softly, as they walked down the hall.
"You really want to know that?" Neal asked, by way of reply. Peter seemed to think about it; as they drew close to the exit gate, he shook his head.
"Maybe not," he agreed. The guard at the gate nodded at Neal. Peter dug in his pocket and shoved a wad of paperwork through the bars. "FBI. He's in my custody."
The guard studied the papers and then looked up, seemingly about to object. Neal glanced sidelong and saw Peter's eyes almost black with the shade. The door swung open.
They passed through two more checkpoints -- a guard station and the exterior door -- before they made it outside. A dark sedan was waiting for them; Jones was in the passenger's seat, still in a pizza deliveryman's uniform, a blue-coated field agent behind the wheel. Peter helped Neal into the back and then tore off his stab vest, tossing it on the ground before he climbed in after.
"Jones, get us the fuck out of here," Peter said, and Jones nodded to the driver, who pulled away. Peter put his hand up between the front seats and Jones pressed his ID wallet into it.
Neal felt sharp pinpricks all over as they passed the guardhouse, got their paperwork checked again, and rolled out onto the backroad that serviced the prison. He coughed hard into his hands, twice, and felt something rise in his throat; after he spat it out he lowered his palms and studied the little dry origami crane he'd coughed up.
He offered it to Peter, who flattened it carefully and tucked it under his FBI identification, closing the wallet. Neal leaned against him, heavily, suddenly so tired.
"What happened?" Jones asked.
"A lot," Peter answered. "Let's get Neal to a hospital, get him checked out. I'll write my report in the morning. You taking care of the ledger?"
"Handed it off to a tech, he's taking it to Diana."
"Good," Peter said. Neal yawned into his shoulder. Behind him, the bright spotlights of the prison yard receded and sleep ran over him like a shadow.
Morning found Neal released from the hospital with a clean bill of health, aside from cuts and bruises, and waking alone in the Burkes' bed, wearing a pair of Peter's pajamas. He pushed himself upright, groaning, and drew his feet up, bandages rasping against the sheets. There was a weight on his left ankle. He reached down and found the comforting plastic bulk of his tracker, breathed a sigh of relief.
He could hear Peter moving around downstairs but he couldn't reach out and find him anymore, had no sense of where he was or what he was feeling. He could hear Elizabeth too, climbing the stairs, her tread a little lighter than Peter's. She came into the room carrying a cup of tea -- all his senses still felt sharp, and he could smell it from the doorway.
"You're up," she said, looking pleased. "You look awful, sweetie."
"Thank you," he said, accepting the tea. She sat on the edge of the bed while he blew on the surface of the tea to cool it, sipping cautiously.
"Peter won't talk about it," she said. He set the cup aside and she offered him a little plastic bowl. In the bottom was a small pile of white crystal. "This came out of his shoes."
Neal studied it. "Salt?"
"I think so." Elizabeth leaned in close. "The second shadow's gone. Thank God."
"It's okay. It wasn't...bad," Neal said, stirring the salt with a finger. It was cold. "Throw this out. Far from the house. My prison clothes too. Get rid of them."
She nodded. "Are you okay? Really?"
"I will be," he said, and then on impulse added, "I need to tell you about my name."
"Your name?" she asked, curious.
"It's not Neal," he said, lifting one of her hands and tracing his bandaged thumb along her palm. "I mean -- my mother named me Niall. You need to know and tell Peter. Niall. N-I-A-L-L."
"Sweetie, why -- "
"I'll tell you sometime, just, someone needs to know," he said, and shivered. "I'm not going back to prison again. It's too much. Don't let Peter send me back there, ever."
She stroked his hair with her free hand. "I don't think he could. Whatever he knows, it scares him. Not you," she added, because she could obviously see Neal panicking. "Whatever it did -- to him, to you -- he wouldn't. But I'll make sure," she added, and Neal nodded and let go of her hand. "Peter said to tell you the ledger is going to blow the ring wide open."
"Good," Neal said. "Does he need me?"
"No. Sleep a little, if you want," she added, and picked up the bowl of salt from the blankets. He eased back down against the pillow, but he didn't close his eyes.
"Niall," he said.
"Niall," she repeated, and kissed him. "Sleep."
He waited until she was gone, listening for a while to the sounds of them downstairs -- Elizabeth's footsteps, the slam of a door, Peter's voice on the phone. Satchmo came up to the bed, whuffed at the hand he let fall, and then hoisted himself up onto the blankets, curling up in the crook of Neal's legs.
They said a lot of things about Neal Caffrey, after he disappeared from supermax. That his name wasn't really Neal Caffrey at all. That he and Gutierrez once killed a man in the infirmary. They said he had a guardian angel. They said he was more dangerous than you could ever believe. He disappeared in the night, but nobody looked for him. None of the guards would talk about it. One of the orderlies would, if you caught him at the right moment, but he wouldn't say much.
They said he left because he could do real magic, prison magic, but he couldn't control it. They said that on the outside he was an exorcist, or that the priest who owned his shadow made him do it. They said his cop lover carried his freedom in his pocket.
At the moment, however, Niall Caffrey was sitting at the dining room table in the yellow morning light, eating a poached egg and casually stealing extra bacon from Peter's plate.
Never leave a trace or forget a face
Of any man at the table.
Tom Waits - Black Wings
This story was eventually adapted into an original novel, Trace, which you can check out here.