I'm getting out today…
As he was led down the long, grey hallway by two armed guards, Neal Caffrey tried to focus on that one, reassuring thought, and ignore the lewd, jeering voices of his fellow inmates as they passed. The promise of that thought played through his mind, like a favorite song on repeat, heard so many times that he'd ceased to think about the words. They'd become empty, meaningless – surreal.
Because as many times as he told himself, as much as he tried to cling to those words – after so long, he couldn't quite make himself believe it.
But it's true. Peter told me, last week. He finally did it. I'm getting out of here. I'm getting out today…
Neal's gait was slow and shuffling, impeded by the irons that bound his ankles, as much as by the ever-present ache in his body. He tried not to think about either, just to obediently walk along as he was led, just to get through these next few moments…
… because once I do, this will all be over. The pain will fade, the chains will be gone, and I'll be able to move on and forget I was ever in this place…
A bitter laugh bubbled up in his chest, almost escaping his lips at that thought.
Yeah. That last part's a bit of a reach.
He suppressed the dark amusement he felt at that thought, unwilling to draw the attention of his captors, especially not in any way that might lead them to believe he was laughing at them – not now, not so close to freedom, with so much riding on these last few moments. Of all the cons he'd pulled, this one was perhaps the most important.
Just give them what they want… give him what he wants… just one last time, for a little while… and then he'll never be able to touch you again. You'll be free, and home, and with Peter, and… everything's going to be okay…
Those weak reassurances fled his mind in an instant as one of the guards used his key to unlock the main entrance into the area where the prisoners were housed, and the drab gray and dimly lit halls of unyielding concrete gave way to bright fluorescent lights and plain, practical carpet underfoot. His heart began to race, and he felt a cold, damp chill trickle down his spine as they drew to a stop outside a solid, wooden door at the end of the hall, and the guard leading him knocked quietly, politely on the door.
You're about to go home… can't do anything to you… can't, because you're supposed to go home today…
He can't do anything to you today…
That familiar voice, quiet and calm, made Neal's heart stutter in his chest, and he closed his eyes for a moment, swallowing hard, though his mouth felt like sandpaper. He only realized that he'd stopped still, unmoving, when the guard ahead of him tugged rather ungently on the end of the chain about his waist, jerking him a couple of steps forward, across the threshold and into the familiar room.
You'll never have to see it again, he reminded himself with an almost fierce desperation. Just get through the next few minutes… just do whatever you have to do to get past this point… and you'll never have to walk through this door again… never have to see him…
The man behind the desk was a good fifteen years older than Neal, at least – maybe more – with dark hair that was beginning to gray at the temples, over a face that was sharp and angular, more striking than handsome. His dark, piercing eyes rose from the paper on which he was writing to take in his visitors, and he nodded slightly.
"Have a seat, Caffrey."
Neal hesitated, eyes darted toward the chair a couple of feet away, across the desk from where the man sat. In all the many times he'd been here, he'd never been invited to sit down. He wasn't sure why he was being invited – or ordered – to now, and that uncertainty made him hesitate. The soft scratch of the man's pen against the paper on his desk gave way to silence, and Neal didn't dare look up, not wanting to see the expression on the man's face – the expression that no doubt matched the soft, vaguely warning question in his voice.
Neal kept his eyes down, face flushing slightly as he shuffled forward, ahead of the two guards who'd brought him here. He'd never been more acutely aware of the distinctive orange he wore, or the bonds that held his ankles together with barely a foot of space between them and his wrists close together and at his waist – or the status denoted by all of those things.
Cautiously, stiffly, he sank down into the chair, focusing his gaze on the pen in the man's hand, poised but unmoving over the papers he'd been working on. As he did so, the pen began to move again, and the man's voice returned to its previous calm, almost bored tone as he addressed the guards.
"Dismissed. I'll call you when we've finished our discussion."
The guards left without a word, quietly closing the door behind them. The man behind the desk didn't speak, just finished writing whatever he was writing – casually, in no hurry – before laying aside the pen with deliberate care, and then rising from his seat to go to the door. Neal heard the quiet click of the lock as it fell into place, and tried not to flinch at the slow, measured footsteps that brought the man back to the place where he sat. A strong, firm hand fell on his shoulder, thumb stroking slowly over his shoulder blade with an unsettling familiarity.
"Just a couple of hours left now," the man observed softly. "And you'll be a free man again." The smirk was audible in his voice as he shrugged and amended, "More or less. Isn't that right?"
Neal hesitated, his nerves too on edge, his thoughts too frayed to focus enough to figure out what the game was this time, what would be the correct answer in this scenario. He settled on the simplest, safest answer, the one most often required of him in this room, with this man, spoken in a quiet, deferent tone.
"I wanted to speak with you before you left, Neal," the man explained, something resembling gentleness in his voice. "I wanted to make sure that you understand… just how important discretion is, for anyone in your situation."
Neal wasn't sure anyone else had ever been in his particular situation – but the reason for this meeting, and what was expected of him, was beginning to become clear. He nodded, resisting the urge to shrug off the man's hand, fighting back the frustrated anger that rose up within him, and forcing himself to answer again, quiet and subdued.
"Yes, sir. I-I understand."
"There are things that go on here – means of survival, really – that people outside these walls wouldn't be likely to understand." The man laughed softly, his hand tightening on Neal's shoulder as he crouched behind him slightly, adding in a hushed, conspiratorial tone, "Wouldn't be likely to even believe, I dare say. Wouldn't you?"
Someone would believe me… Peter would believe me…
His world's not so black and white that he couldn't at least consider that I was telling him the truth… if I told him…
… not that I ever would…
Neal repeated the same words again, numbly, his voice barely over a whisper. His stomach lurched uneasily as the man's other hand came to rest high on his other shoulder, at the base of his throat, thumb sliding along the side of his neck with the ease of far too much familiarity. An edge of panic began to creep up his spine, his stomach churning with the sudden, relentless fear that he wouldn't be going home today, after all.
Who are you kidding? his inner voice taunted him for his naivety and pointless hope. You were never going anywhere. Don't you get that yet? Did you really think he'd just let you walk away? He's never going to let you go…
"So… it's just best for all concerned," the man continued softly, "if we just don't speak of such things after today. Isn't it?"
"Yes, sir," Neal whispered, nodding. His breath caught over the words as he added in a voice of quiet desperation, "I-I won't say anything."
"It'd be a shame if anything happened to change your plans today, Neal," the man continued as if he hadn't spoken, finally moving his hands from Neal's shoulders, only to move around to stand very close in front of him instead. "After you've been waiting so long. It'd be a shame if you decided to take a swing at me, or something stupid like that – and ended up having to wait a few months longer."
Neal shook his head rapidly, struggling to maintain the fragile control he was barely hanging on to over his emotions, closing his eyes in a vain attempt to shut out the man's barely veiled threats. His heart was sinking, his hopes slipping away, with the realization that this man could definitely make good on his words. All he had to do was file a report stating what he'd just said – that Neal had been stupid enough to strike out at him, to attempt something as reckless as to physically attack the prison warden, on the very day he was supposed to be released – and his sentence would be extended, and there'd be nothing Peter could do to help him, no matter how badly he wanted to.
And if you screw it up again… if you keep making his life more and more difficult… how long is it going to be before he gets tired of trying?
"No," he said softly, his eyes focused somewhere around the man's waist, still unable to bring himself to meet his eyes. "No, I – I swear I won't say anything. Don't – don't do that." He swallowed hard, his next word a shamed, desperate whisper. "Please."
Abruptly the warden crouched down in front of him, bringing himself to eye level with Neal, and Neal automatically turned his face away, unwilling to meet his eyes. A strong, firm hand caught his chin, turning his head back and tilting his face upward in a silent command that Neal couldn't bring himself to disobey. He finally met the warden's cool, steely gaze, his heart racing at the malicious smile that twisted the man's lips as he leaned in close, his words hushed and vicious.
"If you say anything to anyone, Caffrey, it won't help you. No one would ever believe such a wild story. Nothing will come of it – nothing will happen to me – but I'll have you locked away for the rest of your life. Don't think I can't do it. I have connections outside these walls that can make just about anything happen – and don't think they can't set you up to look guilty of any number of illegal activities. What was it Agent Burke told you when your arrangement first came into existence? One more slip up, one violation of your work release agreement – and you'd be back in for good. Is that what you want, Neal? To be back here and at my mercy for years to come?"
Neal shook his head as best he could within the warden's harsh grasp, his hands twitching slightly in their bonds, and he was momentarily grateful that the chains kept him from the temptation he felt to shove the man away.
Keep it together, Caffrey… it's just another con… just have to convince him he's won, convince him you're beaten, just long enough to get out of here…
He closed his eyes, his entire body shaking as the man finally released his grip on his face and instead ran a hand slowly, suggestively down his side.
The sick tremor in the pit of his stomach, the mind-numbing fear that stole over him with every gently invasive touch, made Neal suddenly wonder just who exactly he was conning – the warden into believing Neal was beaten – or himself, into believing that he wasn't.
"I won't," Neal insisted in a hoarse, pleading whisper. "I won't say anything. I won't tell anyone. Just – please don't…"
"Shhh," the warden soothed him, though the touch of his hands – one on Neal's knee and moving upward, the other sliding up under the hem of Neal's shirt – was anything but soothing. "It's all right. I'm not going to ruin this for you, Neal. Remember – the only one that can take your freedom from you now… is you." He laughed softly, a dark, cruel sound, before adding with a smirk, "And I'll be right here waiting for the next time you screw it up."
He withdrew slowly with visible reluctance, rising to his feet and finally, to Neal's immense relief, taking his hands off of him. But then, his hand fisted harshly in Neal's hair, and he jerked him forward on the seat.
"For now, though, Caffrey," he said with quiet satisfaction, "what do you say? One more for the road?"
Neal's heart sank as he watched the warden's hands move to his belt, swiftly unfastening it – and he knew there was only one thing he could do.
It'll be over fast… Just… do what you have to do…
He rose from the chair in which he was seated – just enough to drop awkwardly to his knees before his captor.
Just one last time… he reminded himself, his chest burning with shame. Just this one last time… and then you'll be free…