Neal looked down at his hands. He always had liked to be busy. All those years behind bars, where he only could sit and stare at the walls, waiting for the day to be over. It had almost driven him crazy.
His hands had been his tools, they had done so many things. Sketched on paper. Painted canvas. Forged Whiskey. Chiselled a block of marble. Swung swords and billiard cues. Flipped a hat around. Picked locks. Opened safes. Grabbed briefcases from pockets and watches from wrists. Slipped out of countless handcuffs. They had hugged Peter, clapped his shoulder, taught him how to mix drinks. They had taken oaths he had not intended to keep, and also a few he actually had meant to keep, until circumstances prevented it. They also had opened many wine bottles, held even more countless women, stroked them tenderly, cooked meals for them. They had typed away on a keyboard, written FBI reports, and they even had punched a face and shot a gun once or twice. And if they hadn't been busy with any of that, they liked to fiddle with a pen at least. Always keeping busy.
Even when he had been "retired" to that island – yeah, didn't last long, that – he had not just sat down and relaxed. He had still liked to paint, and maybe one day he might even have started on some original work. And his hands had sculpted that sand castle of the New York skyline. The view from his apartment window.
But now all of this was in the past. Now his fingers looked and felt like useless claws. "They" had done their best to ensure that he'd never use them again properly. Every single finger broken, some even two or three times. The doctors had done what they could, but his days as con man were officially over. His fingers were stiff now, and hurt occasionally. Some of the fractures hadn't healed properly. He was able to get by in his daily life, but ever so often he was reminded of his limitations. Every single task took twice as long as it should have.
And to this day he didn't know who "they" were. So he couldn't even plan any revenge. The man (or woman?) behind his kidnapping had been careful to never show their face. And they had known what they were doing, grabbing Neal at a time when nobody would miss him. Neal had spent months as a prisoner – again – trying to survive, doing what they wanted. Waiting for Peter to come and find him. Again. Only, Peter never came. And Neal continued to suffer.
Oh, they had been careful to not damage his eyes or his hands. They needed him to forge all kinds of stuff for them. He was valuable. The rest of his body, not so much. But they had been careful to not inflict any permanent damage. Nothing that wouldn't heal on its own. Neal had soon stopped to count all the marks on his body. He'd tried to resist, at first, hoping against hope that in a few hours some people would storm through the door, shouting "FBI! Put your weapons down!"
More than once he had wished he had told Peter about the man following him. Things might have been different then.
But the longer he waited, and the more they "insisted", the more his resistance crumbled. Especially when they got out the electric wires.
He'd tried a new tactic then, pretending to work willingly, while trying to hide hints in his work. Hints for Peter to pick up on. Sometimes they caught him doing it, which resulted in another beating, sometimes they didn't. But it made no difference, Peter still didn't come.
And they had known him so well. They had kept him in a room that had nothing he could work with, to try to get out on his own.
The room was absolutely bare. He slept on the naked concrete. He got only food that needed no cutting, no knife. Of course not. But he did not even have a bowl for his "personal needs" which he could have smashed onto the head of one of his captors. He had to wait for the few times a day when someone would accompany him to the toilet. Standing right next to him with a gun in his back actually. He'd tried to not let the humiliation get to him, acting nonchalant instead – hey, he was Neal Caffrey, always a smile on his lips!
His world also had become very quiet. Nobody ever talked to him. The only noise was the grunting of the men who beat him, and his own moans when he couldn't suppress them any longer. Sometimes, when he was alone in his cell, he talked loudly to himself, just to hear his voice.
He'd completely lost track of time. The room they kept him in had no window. He knew no day, no night. They amused themselves with startling him awake at irregular hours, which soon left him exhausted and confused. All he knew was that he had been here for a long time already, and that this was what the rest of his life would be like.
That's when he stopped doing anything at all. They beat him – he didn't care. They threatened to kill him – he didn't care. He stopped eating entirely and lost quite some weight until they realized he was serious, he wanted out of this, one way or the other.
Surprisingly, they didn't just kill him. Sometimes he wished they had. Instead they dropped him off at some street corner far away from home, almost as good as new, except for that last gift they had left him with.
They had taken the most important thing from him, the ultimate punishment. As far as Neal was concerned, his life was over.
It had been a long and excruciating walk home. He had no money, no phone, and he didn't dare ask a police officer for help, as he wasn't sure they wouldn't shoot first and ask questions later.
He had collapsed at June's front door. Having not eaten anything in days took its toll, and that's when the frenzy of activity had set in. He was poked and prodded by doctors and almost wished himself back into the quiet of his cell sometimes. He hadn't been his own man then, and he wasn't his own man now. He had to suffer countless interrogations from the FBI, even though he was not able to tell them much. He had been unconscious on the trip; he might have been in another city for all he knew. And his kidnappers had been careful to never show their faces or even talk to him to avoid him identifying their voices. All of his instructions had been in writing. And they had made sure he did not keep any of those notes.
Finally he was released from the hospital, but now he sat here in his apartment, having no idea what would happen next. The waiting was unbearable, it gave him way too much time to think about how his life had changed.
He learned to appreciate shoes with Velcro fasteners. His moccasins were not suitable for the cold and wet New York winter, and binding shoelaces with his stiff fingers was a very difficult task. Another part of the old Neal was gone, the one that wore hats and expensive suits and ties. Ties needed tying, so why bother? Practical clothes it was now. The less buttons they had, the better.
He glanced over to where his easel stood. The half finished painting on it was mocking him. He had worked on another view from his window; he would never get tired of that. When he had been in that windowless cell, he had pictured every single detail in his mind to keep himself from going insane. But now the painting would never get finished. He'd never again experience the smell of paint, the joy over a finished work, the pride when others praised his skills. Gone, gone forever.
That's when Mozzie walked into the room, good old Mozzie who felt so guilty for not realizing sooner that Neal had been taken instead of running. When the FBI had come asking about Neal's whereabouts, Mozzie had thought it was the right thing to do to cover for him, to give him time. Only when Neal failed to call him even weeks later he had realized his big mistake. By then it had been too late and the trail was cold.
Mozzie had tried anyway, of course, had reached out to Peter, but Peter's hands were tied as well. Too many things had happened recently. He was being kept out of the loop. The FBI searched for Neal in all the wrong places - train stations, airports, harbors. Mozzie had eyes everywhere on the street, he turned to everyone he thought might be able to help, but Neal had vanished, and they found no trace.
Mozzie helped himself to a glass of red wine and joined Neal on the sofa. Neal still stared at the easel, without actually seeing it. After a few minutes of uncomfortable silence Mozzie cleared his throat.
"You know, maybe you should just try it. Get back into the saddle", he said quietly. Neal looked at him sharply and Mozzie threw up his hands in self-defense. "Okay, okay, I get it. You'd rather sit here for the rest of your life, feeling miserable. Fine. But you know what? There are people who paint with their foot or their mouth. Because they want to. They need to. Don't you need to?"
"Of course I do!" Neal yelled. "But in case it had escaped your attention, I'm not the man I used to be!"
But the anger actually got him out of his seat and over to where he kept his paints. He opened a tube. Immediately the familiar smell hit him and suddenly he was eager to find out what he was still capable of doing. He grabbed a brush. It took a while till he found a way to hold it with his stiff fingers but then he set to work with anxiety but also determination.
But he wasn't as skillful as he used to be. As long as he kept to bigger areas he was fine, but as soon as he started to apply small details, his hand shook with exertion and exhaustion, and what should have been a smooth thin line looked ragged and torn. A five year old could do better than this.
In a sudden rage Neal destroyed everything. The already finished paintings leaning against the wall stood no chance against his wrath. Frames were broken, canvases were sliced, the easel merely firewood when he was finished with it.
Finally he slumped down, heavily, exhaustedly, his eyes shimmering with tears he refused to let go. Neal looked away, didn't want Moz to see the raw pain in his eyes, and also didn't want to see the pity in Mozzie's face. Pity was all he got from everyone these days. He was tired of it. He just wanted to be left alone.
And Mozzie proved that he was a good friend indeed. For once, he kept quiet and cleaned up the mess Neal had left behind. When dawn fell and June came, everything was gone.
"June, hey, come on in", Neal said while standing up and greeting her. His mood brightened considerably. He smelled another home-cooked meal, something you wouldn't expect when seeing this elegant woman, but like him she had many layers and liked to surprise people from time to time. And this was one of their small secrets, just between the two of them.
June showed compassion for him, but not pity, and for Neal that was a huge difference. Right from the beginning she had been the only one that hadn't treated him like a criminal, and she was now the only one not treating him like a disabled person. If Peter and Elizabeth were like his parents, sometimes annoying and frustrating and suffocating even, June was like a grandmother to him. She was no saint herself, but she trusted that there always was a good reason for whatever Neal did. More than once she had told him, "You have a good heart." So no questions needed and no answers given. He didn't have to hide anything from her and could just be himself. He was thankful for it. Even with Moz he couldn't be always that open.
"What do you bring me this time? It smells delicious!"
"It's called… oh, I've forgotten what it's called. It had something to do with a gemstone."
June smiled and put some of it onto a plate, then sat down opposite to him to watch him eat.
Neal eagerly examined the contents of his meal. There was rice and sausage, and beans and peas and corn, but also melted bananas. Indeed an odd combination but surprisingly, it all went well together and was really tasty. June smiled.
"I can give you the recipe", she said lightly and started to put the dishes together onto the tray. Neal intended to help but the plate fell from his weak hands and clattered back onto the table. The nice china now had a big crack. And all of a sudden there was the elephant in the room again.
He fell back into his chair and buried his face in his hands. June's "It's okay, no worries, it doesn't matter…" didn't really reach him. God, how he hated this.
June put the tray down and sat next to him. Close, but not touching. Waiting till he was ready to look into her face.
"Neal, do you know the story of Julio Iglesias?"
He was utterly confused. „Julio Iglesias? He sung „Summerwind" with Frank Sinatra, didn't he? What's he got to do with this?"
"He originally was a soccer player. He was very talented and on his way to becoming a professional player who played on the best teams. But at the age of 19 he had a terrible car accident that left him unable to walk for two years. That's when he started singing."
Neal didn't answer. He hadn't known this story. It sounded incredible.
"How do you know this?"
"There was an old movie in TV once late at night. Sometimes I don't sleep properly." June smiled apologetically. "The point is, the old cliché of opening a new door after another one was closed, is true. He's not the only sportsman that started a different career after a bad injury. Have you ever thought about singing? You have a beautiful voice; I still remember when we sang together. I could give you lessons if you like. Think about it."
And with that, she left him to think it through.
Peter came. And he brought Diana and Jones with him. The room suddenly felt very crowded.
"Feels like Grand Central Station in here." Neal wasn't in the mood for more visitors. Couldn't they just all just leave him all alone?
His scowl deepened when he noticed that Peter was actually smiling. He hadn't seen him smile once in the past weeks. Peter felt even guiltier than Mozzie did for not finding Neal in time, and as a result they hadn't seen each other very much since Neal had come back. When they did talk, their conversations were always rather awkward.
Neal had been surprised to learn Peter hadn't gone to DC like originally planned. Apparently he had missed a lot while he was "away". Peter had his own problems now, with Elizabeth being in Washington and only coming home every other weekend. The two of them had been so close, it must feel like a limb suddenly amputated.
On the few occasions Peter and he did actually meet, Neal could see how it wore him out. Neal had visited Peter once at home, but the house felt barren and empty without Elizabeth's presence. And the light seemed to have gone out in Peter's eyes.
There seemed to be an invisible wall between him and Peter now. A wall both of them were too proud to acknowledge, and too stubborn to bring down. So they pretended it didn't exist, and hoped for it to vanish on its own. And each tried to deal with their problems in private.
But somehow Neal's Grand Central Station quip had put Peter into a good mood, and Diana and Jones smiled knowingly as well. Neal became suspicious. What was this all about?
"Okay, spill. What is it?"
But Peter apparently enjoyed this, he left him hanging a little while longer
"Can't a man get a beer around here anymore?"
Neal went and got him a beer and one for Jones as well, and for himself and Diana he fetched a glass of wine. It took a while to accomplish all this, everything he did nowadays was a bit slower than he was used to, and he often would get frustrated with himself. But surprisingly, for once they just waited patiently until they were served. Nobody jumped up and tried to help him, which was the one thing he hated the most; them making him feel useless and treating him like a child. Maybe all of them had started to get used to it, maybe they would begin to act normally now. That would be great.
Finally everyone sat around the table with their beverages, and Neal could see Peter taking a deep breath. This had better be good.
But whatever he had expected while brooding earlier – Peter saying that his days with the FBI were over, that he was going back to prison – didn't happen. On the contrary.
"You remember I told you the reason the FBI didn't want to let you go was that you were too valuable for them. They just wanted you to continue to work for them forever. So they kept finding excuses for you to stay on the anklet. But there is a new FBI director now. With how things turned out…" and Peter glanced at Neal's hands there – "… he sees your case a bit differently. He has spoken to the Attorney General. They agreed that it is time to set you free. Neal, we are here to take off your anklet. For good, this time."
It took a moment for Neal to process this information. He got up and looked out of the window, turning his back to the room, trying to collect himself. When he turned again, the room had filled even more. There were also Mozzie and June, and Elizabeth even. There were his friends, his family. Everyone patted his back, they shook his hand and hugged him, and then he put his foot onto the table and Peter ceremoniously removed the anklet that had been a familiar presence over the past five years. His leg actually felt naked without it.
Mozzie started to play host and served more drinks to celebrate, and the noise in the room got considerably louder.
Amidst all this, Diana found Neal.
"Caffrey!" Her grin threatened to split her face. "So, what are you gonna do with your new freedom?"
"I haven't thought about it yet. It came rather suddenly!" Neal found himself smiling openly for the first time in weeks. It felt good. The future looked rather bright all of a sudden.
He thought back to his last conversation with Mozzie before his capture. About going to Paris. Or maybe London? The world was his oyster again.
Although, without money, he wouldn't get far.
"June suggested I should take up singing. Do you think I would be good at it?"
Diana considered that for a while and then nodded.
"Yeah. Yeah, I think you would. Why not?"
"Yeah, why not. Hey, did you know that Julio Iglesias was a professional soccer player before he had a bad car accident and couldn't play anymore?"
"Who's Julio Iglesias?" She looked confused. Neal smiled. "Never mind."
Then he looked straight into her eyes. "I'll beat this, you know." He glanced at his hands. "There was one doctor who said I could regain full usage of my hands if I worked hard with a physiotherapist."
This was the first time he mentioned this to anyone. He hadn't dared hope before but he suddenly was very determined to give his best. He wanted to be able to paint again. He was still young, it was time to get off his ass and do something. Neal suddenly remembered a similar conversation with Diana, many years ago, in that posh hotel room. Where she had shared with him how she had to get over the death of her bodyguard. Life never was easy, for no-one.
"Hey, maybe I'll even learn to play the piano! It would go well with me singing, no?"
She laughed. Then she grew serious again. "You are good at whatever you set your mind to, Neal."
She hugged him, and then they joined the others for a long night of celebration.