A/N: This is AU and set when Neal's in prison the first time around. I wrote this in an attempt to overcome my writers block (yes, I am still focused on the Whistlers Whistle if any of you guys are reading that) and it worked! Sort of. Kate won't be in this story, simply because I don't like her.
Warning: Some adult language and my own very wrong interpretation of the American prison system. They do have wardens, don't they?
Disclaimer: I own absolutely nothing!
"And I did wonder - because it's now three years ago since I left prison - whether there would come a time when I would forget it, or it would be in the past as anything else might be - no, it's there every day of my life." – Jeffrey Archer.
It was unexpected, to say the least.
No, it was astonishing, bewildering and completely out of the blue and if Agent Peter Burke hadn't chased Neal Caffrey around the whole damn world for three years and come to know everything he could about the impossibly smart con man, then he wouldn't have believed it.
Except, he knew Neal Caffrey.
So he knew how stubborn the man could be.
And just how stupid.
Peter hadn't seen or heard from Caffrey in over three years. Being locked in the Supermax had a way of cancelling out their odd relationship and besides, Peter moved on. He had a life, a wife, a dog, a career.
Neal Caffrey was just a name, another gold star on his resume.
Well, he would have been to any other agent but Burke found himself oddly…..concerned about the young man. He actually cared about him a small, slightly sceptical way.
That in itself was weird to most people. Neal was a notorious liar. He stole and conned and flaunted his genius like he was God's gift to the planet but he wasn't a bad person.
Peter could see that and that was why he didn't feel quite as satisfied as he should have felt when he saw Neal get sent down for four years. It shouldn't have come to that.
It was a Saturday afternoon on a warm summer day when the call came. Peter should have spent the day sipping cold beer on the lawn with Elizabeth, throwing the mangled tennis ball at Satchmo whenever the dog could be bothered to get up and laughing until the sun reached its peak and then sank below the horizon again.
But life never seemed to go how it should have.
Elizabeth had run inside to grab the phone when it rang and the moment he'd seen the slightly worrisome look on her face, he had got up from the blanket and abandoned his beer.
"Hello?" He pressed the receiver against his ear and exchanged a glance with his wife.
Hello Peter, it's Reese.
"Reese, it's Saturday." Peter frowned deeply and in slight annoyance. One day off a week. Was it really too much to ask? "What's up?"
It's Neal Caffrey.
Peter was listening now. There couldn't be many reasons why he'd get a call about that young man except either a) he'd escaped prison or b) he'd been beaten to a pulp by a member of the Italian mob sick of his pearly white smiles.
Peter wasn't sure which one he'd have preferred.
"What about Neal?"
Reese had never been one for beating around the bush, so he cut straight to the point. It was a quality in his boss that Peter admired. Sure, it seemed harsh sometimes but it was usually kinder not to sugar coat everything.
He's somehow got onto the roof of the prison and is threatening to throw himself off.
That was the last thing Peter had expected to hear. But one could never be surprised by Neal Caffrey, could they?
Peter wasn't sure he'd ever put a suit on in such a short amount of time but Elle didn't protest at being abandoned for a criminal. Neither could explain exactly why Neal mattered quite so much to the agent, only that he did and Peter drove rapidly to the Supermax as soon as he located his car keys.
Maybe it was because Neal was young and talented. He was a free spirit, the kind you couldn't tame and Peter yearned for the chance to see Caffrey channel that spirit into something legal. There's no doubt he could make quite a name for himself in the art world. Burke had to wonder what made Caffrey choose crime over everything he could have had.
It couldn't just be the buzz of the con because that wore off quickly and soon not even the most extravagant scam would be as thrilling. Peter had tried for six years to understand.
He still wasn't any closer to figuring it out.
He was met at the gate by a Mr Forrest Kirk who was just a hunk of pure muscle, his suit bursting at the seams and when he introduced himself as one of the prison wardens in control of Caffrey, Peter couldn't help but hope Neal hadn't got on his wrong side.
Kirk certainly didn't look as worried as he looked furious.
"Agent Burke, I would say good afternoon, but Caffrey's ruined my day once again." The man had a beefy handshake and Peter resisted the impulse to pull his hand out of the iron grip before his index finger snapped. "Just when I thought he was finally learning his place, he goes and does this."
"Do you know how he did it?" Peter asked as they walked away from the gate and skirted around the inside of the fencing, guards behind them as they passed the yard where some of the prisoners should have been. But what with Neal's stunt, they'd all been locked away inside.
It was grim looking place, all grey concrete and electric fences but then again, it was a prison. It was supposed to look uninviting.
"No, not yet. He somehow managed to bypass the guards and get into one of the staff kitchens. There's an air vent system and he climbed through it and got on to the roof. He ain't coming back from the edge, he's made that clear."
"Do you know why he's doing this?"
"He's a con, what else is there to know?" Kirk said it like it was the most obvious thing in the whole world. "He's doing it to stir up some trouble. You know what they're like."
"How long has he been up there?" Peter checked his watch, aching to still be lounging on the grass with all thoughts of Neal Caffrey banished from his mind.
Still, duty called.
"About five hours, since nine this morning." Kirk tugged at his collar, beads of sweat trickling down his forehead and gathering on the bridge of his flat nose.
Peter hadn't realised just how hot it had gotten over the last hour.
After a few more minutes, they rounded a corner and that's when Peter saw Neal.
He wasn't surprised to see that the kid had chosen the tallest and most perilous part of the building to balance on but from where Peter was, the young man was just a tiny orange figure against the cloudless summer sky.
"I need to get up there, Kirk."
"Look, I don't know why you're here. I mean, you're just the guy who caught him right? If he ain't gonna listen to me, he ain't gonna listen to you, man." Kirk looped his thumbs through his belt and slouched smugly, lips pursed in a thin line.
Peter decided then and there that he didn't like Forrest Kirk too much.
Agent Burke put on his best, most dangerous glare.
It was then ten minutes later that he found himself scrabbling over the edge of the roof on the opposite side from Caffrey as the young man had boarded up the vent he came through with boxes.
The suns penetrating gaze hit Peter in a quick succession and he winced, hand over his eyes as he clung onto the roof tiles and heaved himself onto the flat surface of the roof.
The radio in his pocket buzzed loudly, reminding him that he had a time limit.
Either he talked Neal down or Neal was going to get made to come down.
That's as long as he didn't jump first.
"Hello, Peter." Neal's voice was as calm and collected as it had always been but he kept his back turned towards Peter, his feet dangling off the side of the roof.
He swung his legs like a child in a tree, back and forth, back and forth as he leaned back on his hands, the gently warm breeze messing with his hair.
"Neal." Peter responded after a moment of admiring the view. Once you looked past the prison, New York looked quite spectacular in the summer heat from such a height.
A city bathed in gold.
"You're looking dashing, as ever." Peter swore he could hear Neal smirking.
"You too, Caffrey. Orange suits you."
Neal had unbuttoned his jumpsuit so it lay around his waist but he had kept his white vest top on because it was simply too hot up there on the tiles. Every now and then, he'd have to move his hands around to stop them getting burnt on the slate.
There was a moments silence as Peter straightened and dusted himself off, waiting for a signal that he could come closer without Neal jumping.
Peter didn't believe that Caffrey would actually go ahead with it, but he didn't want to test the theory.
"What are you doing, Neal?" It was a simple question that meant everything to the convict. There were so many reasons for his little exhibition that day, so many things he would rather have been doing.
Neal didn't answer immediately. In fact, about six minutes went by before he looked over his shoulder just enough for Peter to see his face and with an inclined nod of his head, he gestured for the older man to approach.
Peter grinned as he imagined Kirk's expression when the agent sat beside the con man on the roof edge like old friends, legs swinging back and forth together.
Burke let himself truly look at Caffrey and what he saw wouldn't have been noticeable or important to most people.
Neal looked dull.
Don't get it wrong, he looked as pristine and picture-perfect as he always had but his eyes had lost that brightness they once held and had deepened into a darker, more ominous shade of azure blue and his skin didn't seem to glow with life like it did. His cheeks were flushed a bright pink as the heat finally reached Caffrey through his bubble and his long, delicate fingers picked at the tiles with broken finger nails.
There was the echo of a bruise on one eye socket, the purples blending in with the deep rings beneath his eyes from lack of sleep.
Neal quite simply looked tired and very bored.
"Just enjoying the weather, Peter. It's nice, isn't it?" Neal didn't look at the FBI agent.
Agent Burke sighed deeply and looked out across New York, the many cars and buildings seemed to sparkle and glimmer like tiny gems scattered across the tarmac.
A little bit of colour in a grey world.
"So, how's prison?"
Neal actually grinned at that, his smile having lost none of its spark at least.
"Oh, it's quite lovely actually. I share a cell with a rapist, get a hot meal now and then and sometimes, I get to shower with about twenty other guys." Neal's toned was laced with sarcasm, "these have been an awesome three years."
Peter rolled his eyes, but he'd expected nothing less. In fact, that kind of retort was exactly what he'd been hoping for.
"You had it coming Caffrey."
They lapsed into silence again but it wasn't awkward. They were simply two men thinking together, one about life in general and the other about the life itself.
Neal continued to stare off into the far distance, seemingly oblivious to the armed guards on the ground below. He didn't care too much and while that was part of the problem, Peter knew the con man well enough to know he was complicated.
There was something a lot more important at play than pissing off Forrest Kirk.
"Are you okay, Neal?" Peter was as surprised at the other at just how genuine his voice sounded. It was incredible and while Neal looked a little shocked at first, Peter swore he could actually see some of the barriers disintegrate into nothing.
Maybe that's all Neal wanted; someone to care.
"Define 'okay'." Neal sighed from deep within his chest and glanced at the older man from under his thick, dark bangs.
Peter didn't think it was an appropriate time to point out that the kid needed a haircut.
"Let's start with this Neal. What on Earth persuaded you to pull a stunt like this?" Peter let his voice rise slightly, but not in anger so much. Neal couldn't actually identify the emotion, but whatever it was, it made a warm, bubbly feeling ignite inside.
"I don't know." The con man sounded honest, as hard as that was to believe. "Everything. Nothing."
"Why don't you explain everything for me? I'm fining it kind of hard to understand here, kid."
"You've never been to prison, Peter. You could never understand what it's like." Neal clenched his jaw and flexed his fingers, hating the fact that the conversation was taking a drastic turn towards his feelings.
Neal had never been good at confronting his real emotions and Peter knew that. He could see that. He took advantage of that.
"Oh, come on." Peter chuckled, punching him very lightly on the shoulder. "I'm not senile just yet, so give me a chance."
Neal breathed through his nose, the air too hot for his raw throat.
Man, he was thirsty.
"Do you remember when you were a kid and you were put in the group with all the jocks? The ones that hated you and stole your lunch money?" Neal's voice had taken on a different tone, a sad one and as much as Peter hated it and noted how foreign it sounded on him, he let Neal continue.
The agent nodded glumly. "Hell yeah. But I always imagined you were the high school jock-type, Neal."
Caffrey grinned again, but it vanished as quickly as it came.
"I wish. But anyway, the guys in here…they're not exactly…..they're…."
Peter wasn't sure he'd ever seen Neal Caffrey tongue tied. It was a marvelling sight.
"They don't like you very much?"
Peter could see it clearly. On the outside world, Neal was a charmer, a romancer straight out of a novel but he wasn't violent or hurtful and it was no surprise that a lot of the cons in the Supermax weren't too fond of the cocky young man. He had a way of making enemies when he wasn't trying too.
"That's an understatement. Don't get me wrong, I don't like them either. But that's not it. I can handle them….." He trailed off, one hand drifting up towards his face where he traced the line of his bruised eye socket with a pale finger. "most of them. But I can't….."
Peter didn't want to pester and he felt strangely guilty for seeing the con man so exposed. Neal wasn't meant to look so vulnerable, so damn young and the guilt only intensified when he saw Neal blink rapidly and look away in the opposite direction.
He was embarrassed. Upset.
Peter wasn't sure what the appropriate thing to do was. Clap him on the shoulder? Tell him prison wasn't that bad and he had it all coming? The agent found himself at loss so he settled for waiting patiently until Neal was ready to talk again.
It was obvious the young man was desperate to.
"I can't breathe….in here. It's worse than-" Neal deliberately cut off that time and swiped the back of his hand across his eyes. "I just want out of here, Peter."
Agent Burke forced himself to look into the wavering blue gaze of Neal Caffrey and he hated what he saw there. Neal hadn't ever looked so weak, so very pained and lost and grieving.
He grieved for his freedom like every con did.
He ached for his art, his talent, the passion he'd once had for life.
He missed the excitement of it.
But more than anything, he missed having a friend.
Or at least anyone he could talk too. What did it say for a convict to actually want to talk to the guy who'd stuck him inside? It was a sad day when that agent was the only person Neal had left.
Kate was gone.
Mozzie was ….well, one could never know.
Neal was all alone in the world, or the very small prison that had become his world.
"I know, Neal." Peter let his hand settle on one of the others quaking shoulder, grip tight, reassuring, grounding. "You weren't really going to jump were you, Neal?"
"No," Neal answered very quickly, "I just wanted…..I don't know what I wanted."
"You've only got another year left Neal and then you're free." Peter gestured with an arm to the city lying all around them, the life just waiting. "Free."
"Another whole year."
"You've made it through three." Peter nudged him with his own shoulder and was surprised to find the con man lean closer towards him. "If you were gonna run or jump, what was the point in waiting that long?"
Neal didn't have an answer for that but the crackling of Peter's walkie-talking interrupted them anyway.
Is everything okay up there, Agent Burke?
One look from a con man who let the corners of his lips twist up into a small smile was the only answer Peter found and the only answer he truly needed.
"Yeah, it is now."
Peter pulled himself off the ground, his joints creaking, his back hunched at being sat down for so long.
He reached one hand back down towards the younger man.
Neal Caffrey took it smiling and without a moment's hesitation.
"But I certainly made mistakes, for which I regret, I think most human beings in their lifetime make mistakes, mine ended up in two years prison - two very remarkable years from which I learnt a lot." – Jeffrey Archer.
I hope you enjoyed this. Reviews are very welcome but flames aren't.