Break me out, don't break me free.
Peter walks into the parlor escorted by a guard. Neal cannot tell with certitude what is the hardest for him to see. His best friend handcuffed and in an orange jumpsuit or Peter's brave attempt at smiling. The whole picture looks so wrong to Neal that inside he's screaming. Outside though he simply smiles back. For once using his ability to pretend for a sincere reason, sending Peter positive and comforting vibes. It seems to work. Peter's stiffness subsides a little as he sits opposite Neal at the small table.
For a moment they look at each other in an uncomfortable silence. Neal tries not being too obvious in inspecting his friend. Peter is unshaven, hair all scruffy and he looks worn-out but all in all he isn't as bad as Neal had feared. His look is sharp and he is studying Neal in return and when he finally speaks his voice is steady.
"It's good to see you Neal."
"How are you doing?"
Peter tenses a little. He looks at Neal, frowns and finally looks away. Neal knows the answer, he's been there too.
"Not good." Peter finally admits in a low voice.
Neal has to fight the urge to run around the table and wrap his arms around his friend.
"It's okay Peter," he says reassuringly. "The first days are the worst. Once you get the routine it gets a little better."
Peter snorts and doesn't answer. He keeps staring at his hands resting on the table.
Neal feels anxious. "Anything happen?"
Peter shakes his head. "No, it's just that I feel… lost. And alone. I have no one to talk to. Not much to do with my time. I miss people. I miss El. When she went to San Francisco two years ago I had trouble sleeping. I need… I need the comfort of her body against mine…" Peter stops short and shrugs. "Sorry, I'm babbling."
Neal can see Peter's hurting. More than that he knows. He knows exactly how Peter feels. Although Neal has never faced murder charges. Has never feared a lifetime sentence.
"How is the office?" Peter asks.
"Missing you," Neal says, but quickly regrets his words as he sees melancholy shadowing Peter's eyes. "You'll be back Peter."
Peter shakes his head. "You don't know that."
"Hey, look at me," Neal calls. "We'll get you out of here. That's a promise."
"Don't make promises you can't keep," Peter replies darkly.
Neal reaches out and grabs his friend's hands. They are just as warm as they always are. It's something that has always amazed Neal. How Peter's hands remain so warm even after a night-long stakeout in a freezing van in the middle of winter. Every time Peter has put a hand on his shoulder or arm even through the fabric Neal has always felt the warmth radiating from his friend and transferring through his own body. How he had missed it the last few days!
Peter looks up surprised by the contact but he doesn't retreat.
"No touching," the guard warns.
They both retreat their hands quickly. But the contact happened. Neal smiles and he sees the sparkle in Peter's eyes.
"You're rejecting it aren't you?" Neal asks softly.
"Prison. You're fighting against it."
"I feel like an alien whose ship has crashed on a hostile planet. No friends, no back-up, no way back home." Peter shrugs. "What am I supposed to do?"
"Adapt. Blend in."
"How? I'm not cut for this Neal, this is not… me."
"Peter, listen to me carefully. First, keep in mind this is temporary." Peter opens his mouth to protest but Neal raises a hand. "It is. You won't spend your life here Peter. I won't let that happen."
"How? We both know my case doesn't look good."
"Trust me." Neal says softly.
Peter can't help a faint grin. "Not sure I should."
Neal tilts his head. "Keep faith at least," he smiles. "You know that whatever I'm doing, it's for a good reason. I'm getting you out of here."
Peter frowns. "Don't do anything stupid Neal, please. I can't protect you from here."
Even locked up in prison, Peter can't stop worrying about his partner's safety. There are things so deeply ingrained that even the most hostile environment cannot erase.
Neal shakes his head. "Trust me," he repeats firmly. "I'll get you your life back. I owe you that." Peter raises an eyebrow. "You risked a lot to keep me from Kramer and Collins. What kind of friend would I be if I didn't do just the same for you?"
"But this is not the same."
"It's exactly the same. I told you it was over but you came to Cape Verde anyway."
"It was to protect you!"
Neal smiles. "Precisely. Now it's my turn to protect you. Don't argue. Just trust me."
Peter narrows his eyes and plants his gaze into Neal's. The young man felt the laser piercing through all his defences. When Peter looks at you like that there's no con, no mask you can hide behind. But Neal has nothing to hide today and he holds the gaze.
Slowly Peter nods. "All right. I trust you." Then a shy grin enlightens his face. "You rehearsed that speech didn't you?"
Neal smiles apologetically. "Maybe a little. Did it work?"
"Just tell me you're not planning on breaking me out."
Neal laughs. "No I'm not. Not yet anyway. Though you know, Mozzie still has his villa on Cape Verde and Maya's restaurant must be magnificent. Renovations should be over by now."
Peter rolls his eyes. "Neal…" he groans.
Neal stops talking but he reads in Peter's frown the usual mixture of amusement and exasperation. Falling back into a level of normalcy feels good.
"Okay fine. No escape plan. Now, while I'm working on getting you out you need to remain patient and do your best to adapt. I know it's hard for you here but I can help you with that too. So let's talk prison 101. Rule number one: be nice to the cook."
"Yes. Food, no matter how bad it is in here, is the most important thing. It's what keeps you alert and strong. You need to eat. So never get yourself in trouble with the cook because they can make your life miserable. How is your relationship with the cook?"
Peter shrugs. "I don't know. Nothing special. You were right by the way; the coffee is awful in there. You spoiled me with that Italian roast, now I can't stand bad coffee. At least the devilled ham tastes like devilled ham."
"No one can really stand prison coffee. There's bad coffee and there's prison coffee. But remember, no matter how bad the food is the cook does his best. So compliment him, be nice. Try to find out if you can do him a favour. If he likes you might get double devilled ham…"
"Good thing I kept my mouth shut until now. Second rule?"
"Make yourself respected from day one. You're a big guy Peter. Stand tall. Don't look for trouble, but if trouble finds you – and it does – show them you mean business. Find that inner bad cop in you."
"I guess I can do that."
"Of course you can. You're a tough guy. Rule number three: Keep in shape. Run around the yard, do some push-ups in your cell."
Peter nods firmly. "That I do. Mainly because it helps me sleep."
"Good, that's good," Neal says encouragingly.
"That's it? Be nice to the cook, be tough, exercise?"
"And of course, never upset a guard. They can be abusive but mostly to the rebellious inmates. Don't be that kind of inmate."
"Don't disobey orders. If I forget your influence for a while I should manage."
"I see prison has not undermined your sense of sarcasm."
"I'm doing my best," Peter smirks. "But seriously, thank you for your advice."
"You hired me for my expertise…"
Peter can't help a laugh. "I never expected to ask you about that particular aspect of your expertise."
"Me neither, believe me."
For sure, this is a situation they both didn't expect. Neal still feels sick thinking about it. But Peter looks a little better now. And if having experience means he can help Peter get through this difficult time then Neal is glad he has it. And it feels good to just be able to talk, be there. This is hard for both of them but they're still here, together. Neal doesn't know yet how they'll get Peter out, but there is no doubt he will find a way no matter what. In the meantime he'll visit him as often as he is allowed and he'll make sure Peter sticks to the rules and that prison doesn't take the best out of him.
"One last thing Peter but it's really important. I need you to make me a promise." Peter frowns. "Promise me you'll tell me everything about what's going on in there. How you feel, what's happening to you, if you get in any trouble, whatever. I want you to tell me everything."
"Because I know you Peter Burke. You'll want to protect me. You won't admit how bad things are for you. I know exactly how it is. And I know there might be certain things you won't want to tell Elizabeth. Like how bad you're missing her at night, how miserable you feel."
"She'd just be more upset. This is already hard enough on her."
"I know. But I am not Elizabeth. Besides, I know exactly how prison feels so you can't hide from me. Please, you've helped me so many times. Let me help you this time. This is what partners do."
Peter nods slowly. "Okay." he says in a low voice. He clears his throat and adds, "You have my word. In return I want you to be honest with me too. How are you doing?"
Neal's first reaction is to lie, say he is fine. But Peter is no fool. And Peter was honest so Neal decides to be too.
"Mostly I feel guilty."
Peter shakes his head. "I already told you this is not your fault. No one blames you."
Neal shrugs. "Still, I can't help it. If it weren't for me you wouldn't be here."
Peter bends forward suddenly looking strong and resolute. "I know you feel responsible for all this. I also know that because of that you'll do whatever it'll take to fix it. I'm not sure I'm totally comfortable with that. Especially since I have zero control over the situation from in here. But I know that if there's a way, no matter how convoluted, to get me out you'll find it. Even though this is not your fault you won't forgive yourself until you've fixed everything. So focus on fixing things. I know you won't give up on me no matter how long it takes. I have faith in you. Just… get me out of here."
The words flood from Peter's mouth fast and sharp. Peter catches Neal's surprised reaction. He looks a little embarrassed. "Too much time to think," he says with a shrug.
It's Neal's turn to ponder what his partner just said. And now he sees it. It's not a matter of fault; it's a matter of responsibility. Feeling guilty doesn't lead you anywhere. Giving yourself a mission does. He believes what he told Peter, that he'll get him his life back. Everything will be back to normal. It's Neal responsibility to make sure of that.
Peter still stares at him, a slight frown marking his forehead, anxious to see a sign his message got through. Neal smiles. He won't let his partner down.
"I will," he says simply.
Peter relaxes. "Good. Will you take care of Elizabeth, while I'm in there?"
"She pretends to be this strong woman, but there's a limit to what people can take. I hate that I can't be there for her."
"Don't worry, Peter. I'll be there for both of you until you can hold each other every night again."
The meeting ends too soon. They're allowed one short hug and neither of them wants to let go. Neal watches Peter walk away. As he gets to the door Peter turns to Neal again, sticks out his chest and shoots his bad cop look. He winks and disappears out of Neal's sight.