Crap, Neal thought as he sat in his dark cell on his hard bunk bed. He knew that wasn't the most eloquent or sophisticated of word choices, but honestly, nothing else described this situation better. Crap.
How had he been so dumb? Neal wasn't the type to rush into anything. He took calculated risks only. And foam? Really, back in prison for who knows how long for foam? If it was a Monet, or a Picasso, or even some antiquity like Alex seems to enjoy, he could justify this situation. But had he really just been thrown back in this hellhole for a piece of foam?
Neal mulled the situation in his head over and over. How did it go wrong? He made the grab, he heard Mozzie screaming, he had given Peter time to catch him. He had avoided all the cameras, and there wasn't a police office for nearly four blocks away. He hadn't seen them coming, otherwise, he could have dropped the foam and ran. He just walked right into them. And what's worse, Peter was so close. If he could have just avoided the officers for another second, the whole plan would have been golden.
"Neal," Dominick, a guard he had grown to know over his years spent in prison, called to him from outside his cell, "Someone's here to see you." Neal obediently stood up, hoping desperately it was Mozzie. If anyone could get him out of here, it was his resourceful friend, and he wasn't sure he could take the disappointment he knew Peter was harboring at the moment anyway. Metal cuffs were gently placed on his hands, a welcome deviant from the way he had been treated in the past few hours, and Dominick led him to the visiting cells. Neal kept his head down as he approached it, only risking a glance up right before he walked through the door. It was Peter. Crap. Again.
Peter didn't look at him. He didn't turn toward him. In fact, Neal wasn't even sure if Peter knew his former partner had entered the room. The senior agent only stared out the tiny excuse for a window, with his arms crossed and his jaw clenched tight. Neal sat at the table, head down, dark hair messy in his face, trying to evaporate into the air to avoid the tirade he knew Peter was sooner or later going to start. But the conman had learned a long time ago it was hard to hide in neon orange.
"Neal," Peter turned, trying so hard to keep his composure, "What…the hell…was that?" Neal wasn't sure if it was the quiver of a furiously angry voice trying to keep control or the possibility that Peter might not even want to take him back as a partner anymore that scared him, but fear was rising in his chest, and he wasn't very experienced in this emotion. He didn't know how to hide it in this moment, and so, rather than risking the wrong words, or saying too much, Neal stayed quiet.
"Four years. Four years of you hell bent on taking the crooked path and me trying to pull you back," Peter began to pace, "Four years. And here we are, right where we started. Didn't it make any difference at all?" Neal still looked down, unable to meet his friend's glare.
"Look at me, Neal," Peter tried. When the conman didn't respond, Peter walked over to the table, placing his hands in front of Neal and drawing his face in close.
"Look at me." The seriousness in Peter's voice spoke more clearly to Neal than his words, and finally, he allowed his shamed blue gaze to peek out from under its dark curtain to meet the face of the man he desperately wanted to make proud.
"Why?" Peter asked. Again, Neal stayed quiet, and when it became clear Peter was expecting an answer, he looked away.
"I'm just trying to understand, Neal," Peter coaxed, a little less 'intimidating interrogator' and a little more 'concerned friend'. But only a little. Neal opened his mouth to explain, but then shut it again. He wouldn't understand.
"I can't protect you if I don't know what was going through your head," Peter tried again. Neal looked up voluntarily for the first time, and a glimmer of hope danced across his face. Peter understood this gesture.
"I didn't arrest you," he said, "You're not my prerogative anymore. I can pull some strings, but it's not like before. I can't protect you from this." The answer deeply disappointed Neal at his very core, although it was expected. But Peter had said can't, which is very different than won't. He looked up at his old partner again, his blue eyes clearer than the sky, his face more honest and pleading and anxious than Peter had ever seen it before.
"You said can't," Neal said, shameful and quiet.
"What?" Peter returned, not understanding Neal's response.
"You—," Neal paused for a second to regain his composure, "You said can't. Does that mean you still would, if you could?" With this question, Peter was sure that his hunch about Neal's motive had been right. He returned Neal's gaze with a steady one of his own.
"You know if I could, I would do anything to protect you."
That statement from his partner did more to rebuild Neal Caffrey back into the confident man he was more than anything Peter had said or did in the past four years combined. Determination set in, and although it was a few days before he heard from Mozzie, Neal spent his hours in solitude devising an escape plan. Once he had a thorough plan, he coded it on sheets of toilet paper and hid it in a crack behind the sink, keeping it safe until his friend arrived. He would rather be locked up for life for trying to get back to Peter than spend the next four years regretting that he never tried. Finally, Mozzie came, and Neal stealthily passed the toilet paper to him, indicating with his eyes that he needed Mozzie's help. When the friends split again, Neal was left only with time to wait anxiously and the thoughts that flooded his head. He had already known the true depth of what his friendship with Peter had meant to himself, but before that moment in the visiting cell, Neal was never aware of the intensity of its reciprocation. Suddenly, box seat tickets to some ball games and an office in the best part of town didn't seem enough to repay the family that had given so much of their love and life back to Neal, and there was nothing that was going to stop him from showing them that. Two weeks later, when the day finally came that Mozzie was to help him escape, Neal slipped on his aura of confidence and charisma, ready for the last time to do the wrong thing for the right reason.
He went very calmly to recess, not showing even a hint to indicate his plans. He waited and waited, and when he saw the clock on the side of the building indicated there was only five minutes of free time left, he picked a fight with someone he was relatively sure he could beat if Mozzie didn't come through. Walking up and shoving the guy square in his chest, Neal yelled and cussed and made the biggest scene he could muster. He didn't hit the guy but received a few blows, deserved for a fight picked for no reason, and right on schedule, Mozzie stormed in the yard, yelling in a deep and commanding voice at Neal to stop. He was dressed impeccably in the same suit Neal had escaped in four years ago, and if Neal didn't know any better, he would have mistaken Mozzie for a prison guard any day.
"Hey, you, tough guy!" Mozzie yelled, shoving Neal against a wall and pinning his forearm against Neal's neck, "You're coming with me." Neal winced when his head smacked against the brick, but was grateful for the show his friend was putting on. Moz ripped Neal's hands behind his back and cuffed him, and with one hand on the cuffs and another gripped tight in Neal's dark hair, Mozzie shoved him though the side entrance to the yards. The other guards on duty nodded in approval and began the task of rounding the other inmates up to return to their cells.
The escape wasn't hard from there. Mozzie continued his prison guard act, leading Neal further into the empty cell barracks, until they came to a utility closet in a secluded hallway. Quickly picking the lock, Moz put a knife in Neal's pocket and shoved him inside. Closing the door behind him, he left the prison as easily as he had come.
Meanwhile, Neal used the knife to cut a hole in the dry-walled ceiling, and hoisting himself up onto the shelving units, climbed through. He followed the ventilation chambers until they emptied into the dirty crawl space where dust and foul smell met freedom. Quickly dislodging the metal vent from its window with the help of brute force and the knife, Neal squeezed through the small space onto the road outside the prison where Mozzie was waiting with the Pinto. The two drove off in a roaring screech of rubber tires and victory. And Neal didn't have to tell Moz where to go.
The doorbell rang in the Burke house, but this time, Satchmo didn't begin his barking parade. Instead, he stayed stoically seated at the feet of his master, who was sitting on the couch, staring at but not watching the TV. Peter still hadn't gotten over the continual paradox of disappointment and friendship that was his relationship with Neal Caffrey, and he felt that he had somehow failed the kid by not finding a way to bail him out of jail. He knew Neal was miserable, and, at the heart of it, at least this time, he didn't really belong there. He was only doing what he knew was right in the best way he knew how. Unfortunately, the government didn't share Neal's mindset.
Another two rings from the bell finally brought Elle down the stairs, her hair still wet from a recent shower. Briefly, she stole a look at her husband, and compassion flooded her eyes. She hated seeing him like this.
When Elizabeth opened the door, she had not been expecting Neal Caffrey to be standing in front of her. She let out a small gasp, and then, unsure of whether Peter would be enraged or relieved to see his partner, she stepped outside and shut the door behind her. Placing her hands on his shoulders, she brought him close to her and hugged him. Tears filled her eyes that she quickly brushed away, but when she pulled away and looked at the man standing before her again, she realized he was in the same situation.
"Elizabeth," Neal said softly, "I'm so sorry."
"Just—just stop," Elle sniffed, "Don't say anything." Neal's heart ached at this response but he knew she didn't want to have to testify against him in court, since, at this point, she was aiding a fugitive.
"Can I see Peter?" Neal asked, his eyes pleading, "I just, I need him to know that it wasn't all for nothing."
"You're going to go back in for life for this, Neal, if he can't help you."
"I know, it doesn't matter, I just need to see him."
Elle opened the door and let Neal walk in after her. Mirroring their encounter in the visiting cell, Peter did not look up, and the conman was unsure if his partner was aware of his presence. This time, Neal was unafraid to speak first.
"Peter," he said softly, "I'm sorry." At this, Peter looked up at Neal. His brown gaze showed no emotion, just weariness and confliction. Neal took a few steps toward him, and knelt down beside Satchmo, who licked Neal's hands seemingly to encourage him to keep talking.
"You asked if it had made any difference," Neal continued, "All of this. The chasing, the trusting, the partnership, it all made a difference." Peter looked away and put his hand to his face, indicating he was trying to process what Neal was saying. The younger man looked around the room for a moment, trying to give his friend a minute to respond, but the silence was deafening.
"I know I don't do the right things, Peter, but, I want to. I try to," the unresponsiveness of his friend was slowly draining Neal's confidence, and it was only under the extreme probing of a licking Satchmo that he continued to speak. A shakiness crept into Neal's voice that surprised both Peter and Neal on equal levels.
"I know I screwed it up big time here. And I know you can't protect me. That's not why I came." Still getting no response from Peter, Neal slowly got up and backed toward the door. Elle, who had been leaning against the kitchen doorframe, walked over to her husband and put her hand on his leg. Satchmo, intently watching Neal's slow departure, let out a few short distressed whines.
"I just—" Neal hesitated as he bit back his pride as well as a threatening tear, "I just wanted to tell you thank you. That you made more of a difference then I've let you know, and that I wish I could be half as good of a man as you are."
These words jarred Peter's heart, and his jaw muscle tensed as he closed his eyes. This wasn't how all this was supposed to end. Without saying another word, Neal slowly left the Burke's home. Unsure of where to go until the Marshalls found him again, he walked aimlessly across Peter's yard and down the street. He had made it a few blocks before the black Taurus pulled up along side him.
"Get in the car, Neal," Peter said gently through a rolled down window. Surprised but thoroughly ecstatic that Peter had come to find him, the conman crawled in the passenger seat. Peter drove off slowly, in no particular direction. Neal looked down at his hands, hoping his friend was finally ready to speak. Eventually, he did.
"You're worth more than what you sell yourself for," Peter began, "You're more than your next big con, or your next big escape. You're more than a smooth talker, more than a brilliant smile, more than a felon with a tracker chained to your ankle. You are going to accomplish something huge one day, Neal, you are already changing people's lives with what you do. Once you realize your own worth, you are going to be unstoppable. And don't ever say that you aren't a good man, because your heart has never been in the wrong place for as long as I have known you."
Neal was unprepared for that type of emotional speech, and he looked at Peter with a small smile.
"You mean that?" he asked.
"Don't make me say it again," Peter responded. They drove in silence for the next moment or two before Peter broke it again.
"You're under arrest, you know," he said, without looking at Neal.
"I know," Neal responded, and then a sly smile crept onto his face. "What for?"
Peter looked at him in disbelief. "Eyes on the road," Neal chastised.
"You're under arrest for escaping Super Max, for the second time, and fleeing to the wife of a Federal Agent."
Neal's smile grew wider, "Hey, Peter, what's it worth if I told you who stole that foam from the museum the other week?"
Peter stopped the car and stared blankly at his partner. "I know who stole the foam from the museum the other week, Neal."
"Is it worth a meeting?"
"It's not worth anything. I saw you steal it!"
"If I tell you who did it, right now, will you meet me in prison in one week?"
"Neal, I know who stole it!"
"It was Neal Caffrey. Look him up, he's pretty talented,"
"You are unbelievable."
"Neal, shut up."
The two drove with childlike smiles back to the prison, where Peter dropped off his convict only to pick up back up one week later, anklet back in place. Neal stepped out of the prison gates and walked suavely over to Peter.
"You remember how this works?" Peter joked.
"How could I forget," Neal said, the contentment clear in his voice. "One request, though, could we skip the sleazy hotel this time?"
Peter just shook his head, still baffled at the past few weeks' events. Neal had discovered freedom isn't about where or how far you can walk, but rather, whom you walk with. Needless to say, the agent was more than satisfied that his friend had fought to walk with him.
Inside the car, Neal began to fumble with the radio stations. Peter thought back only a few weeks, when he was stopped at a red light thinking how strange it was to not have Neal fidgeting in his passenger seat. Looking over, a small smile crept across his face. Yes, things were definitely back to normal.