Ambulances, fire trucks, and law enforcement descend on the smoldering plane with sirens and lights. Neal struggles in Peter’s grasp until he takes him down with a hip throw and an armlock, putting his entire body weight behind it. Neal stops thrashing, but keeps his face turned to the plane, choking on Kate’s name. Peter has to get up and deal with this cluster-fuck, but first he needs to keep Neal from running off in search of her. That damn woman is the Neal Caffrey version of crack cocaine. Was.
He gets to his knees, yanks the duffle bag off Neal and tosses it to the side. After a moment’s thought he takes off his gloves and handcuffs Neal’s right hand to Peter’s left. Awkward and annoying, but easier to keep track of him than if he put the cuffs just on Neal. Probably. He wouldn’t put it past Neal to pick the lock out of sheer spinal reflex.
He wearily gets to his feet, already feeling the adrenaline draining away and fatigue moving in. It’s hard to believe that shooting a fellow agent has been bumped from the top spot of today's Things That Suck list.
The wind has picked up and snow is swirling in heavier gusts. The cuff chafes his wrist and his knees are scraped from struggling with Neal on the icy runway. He’s selfishly glad he landed on Neal as they went down. He’s no lightweight himself, so Neal’s going to have his very own matching set of aches and bruises. “Neal,” he says, with a little jerk on the wrist to get his attention. “Neal, come on. Get up.” With Neal limp on the ground, their cuffed hands keep him bent over. Someone is headed their way, and without his badge there’s going to be enough trouble and explanations; he doesn’t need to meet them looking like Quasimodo. Neal staggers up, eyes and face oddly blank.
He feels a spurt of relief when he sees it’s Diana. Her eyes flick to their wrists, but she just asks “You OK, Boss? Neal?”
“Yeah,” he says, and then, more truthfully, “We will be. What’s the situation?” She looks at him ruefully. “Hughes wants Neal secured and you kept out of trouble. The police want to talk to you as a witness. We’re stalling them, but the jurisdictional hair-pulling is getting ugly. You need to get out of here.”
He stretches his shoulders and reflexively tries to put his hands on his hips, is brought up short again by the cuff. Neal is oblivious to his hand being jerked around, face still turned to the blackened husk in puddling foam. “Right.” He sighs and rubs his forehead with his free hand. “Right. We’ll go home. My house,” he clarifies. He pulls out his cell to call Elle, but stops when Diana looks uncomfortable and shakes her head.
“Hughes wants Neal turned over to the Marshals. He’s an escape risk, and they’re pretty pissed about the anklet being hacked.”
He mentally apologizes to Elle, hoping she hasn’t heard about the plane blowing up, or at least doesn’t connect it to him before he can reassure her. He dials Hughes, glancing uneasily at Neal. A passive Caffrey is just wrong, somehow. He doesn’t have much leverage, but maybe he can buy a little time. He asks to keep Neal at his house for a few days, but Hughes will only give him one night, with a detail out front.
He puts the phone in his pocket and grabs Neal’s bag. Diana walks them off the scene, flashing her badge and throwing federal weight around as necessary. When they get to his car, he throws the bag in the back seat and hesitates a moment before unlocking the handcuffs. It’s not like Neal has any initiative right now, but he’d still feel better with some kind of tangible restraint. He tells himself he’s being ridiculous, and thanks Diana.
She smiles wryly and says, “I’m following you home”. Hughes either doesn’t trust him or thinks they might be in danger. He chooses to believe the latter and to feel comforted by the back up. He guides Neal into the passenger seat and realizes afterwards that he’d done it, complete with a hand on the head, as if he were a perp. He mentally shrugs. Old habits die hard, and Neal’s not in any condition to take offense.
Neal is hunched over, shivering, but Peter doesn’t know if he’s chilled or in shock. Well, one of them he can fix. He starts the engine and turns on the heater, reaching over to fasten Neal’s seatbelt while he’s at it. He calls home and gets the answering machine, calls Elle’s cell and gets her voice mail. He leaves the same message both times. “Hi honey. We’ve had some excitement. I’m bringing Neal home. We’re OK. Love you.”
At the front door he turns and waves off Diana, and nods to Jones, sitting in another car out front. Jones lifts his styrofoam cup in salute, and Peter goes in, grateful for their loyalty and diligence.
Elle is home and has interpreted both his message and the news reports correctly. She turns off the TV as they come in. Neal slumps against the wall and closes his eyes, tucking his chin down, his face bloodless. Elle frames Peter’s face with her hands and gently kisses him, ending with her forehead pressed against his shoulder for a moment. Peter gratefully takes her weight, wrapping his arms around her shoulders and waist and breathing in the scent of her hair with no hint of aviation fuel in it. “Kate was on the plane,” he murmurs. She squeezes him tighter, and releases. She looks over at Neal and must decide he’s the worst off, because she takes his hand and gently tugs him away from the wall. She unbuttons his coat and pulls it off over his shoulders; he accepts her ministrations passively. “Neal,” she says, “go take a shower. There’s clothes in the bathroom for you. And I’ve made up the spare bedroom.”
Neal says, “Thank you” mechanically, without a trace of his usual charm, but slowly climbs the stairs when she lets go and gives him a little push in the right direction. At least he’s stopped shaking.
Peter sits on the sofa with an arm around Elle. “He’s going back to prison tomorrow.”
“For how long?” she asks.
“I don’t know,” he says helplessly. “At least until I get through the hearing and come off suspension. I don’t even know whose jurisdiction he’s under, if Fowler’s deal is on or off. Without my badge I’ve got no authority over him. ”
Elle taps a finger on his chest for emphasis. “Yes, you do, and both of you know it.”
“Yeah, well…” He trails off, uncomfortably aware that the kind of help Neal needs right now is probably spiritual and legal. Not whatever an exhausted FBI agent can cobble together in one evening.
Elle sits back and looks at him soberly. She seems to know what he’s thinking, as usual. “He trusts you,” she reminds him. “Whether he wants to or not. And I think that’s rarer than pink diamonds, in Neal Caffrey’s world.”
She stands and he accepts her offered hands to help him up. She gives him a push toward the stairs and he tries to work up some indignation at being treated like Neal, in his own house by his own wife, but he’s cold and tired and aching, so it’s easier just to obey. Maybe he does have that in common with Neal. The bathroom door is open; the thought of being warm and clean lures him in.
He pulls on a t-shirt and sweatpants, and goes into the bedroom to rummage in the laundry basket for some clean socks. He pads down the hall, where dim light is spilling out of the doorway, and looks in. Elle left a night light on, and he can see Neal laying face down, fists clenched and his body tense. Elle is sitting on the side of the bed, gently stroking his hair, and his face is pressed tightly against her hip. He steps into the room and she meets his eyes. “Go,” she mouths, or maybe “No”. She’s probably right. It’s hard work keeping one step ahead of Neal, and his experience is more in the line of thwarting than comforting, but he comes forward and rests his hand on Neal’s back. There’s no hitch in his breathing, no audible sobs, but where his face rests against Elle there’s a large damp spot darkening her jeans. Elle glares at him and points vigorously toward the hall. Reluctantly he lifts his hand and leaves. In the hallway he looks back for a moment at the protective curve of Elle’s body as she watches over Neal in the shadowed room.
He goes downstairs to watch the explosion repeating in slow motion on every TV channel.
He wakes up as Elle gets out of bed, moving quietly down the hall to check on Neal. He glances at the clock. 3:17. When she comes back he asks softly, “Well?”
“Still dead to the world,” she says, crawling under the covers he’s lifted for her and resting her head on his shoulder. “What’s going to happen to him in prison?” He doesn’t pretend to misunderstand.
“Word will get around he was working with us. Given his escapes in the past, I have to hope the guards will be watching him very carefully. Elle, I can’t protect him there.” She sighs and nods, her hair brushing his jaw. “I have to get my badge back to do anything.” She hums agreement and rests her hand on his stomach. A minute later she’s asleep. He whispers to her hair, “Maybe it’ll give him time to get over the bitch.” Peter stares at the ceiling for a while, sorting through all he knows of Neal Caffrey. He gropes for his phone with his left hand and sets his alarm on vibrate for 5:30. He tucks it under the pillow and makes himself go to sleep.
When his phone buzzes, he turns it off and eases himself out from under Elle. He takes the phone downstairs to sit on the sofa. He texts Jones,
what time are you taking Neal? and gets a return text a minute later, 7:00. He sighs and rubs his face, grimacing at the chafed area on his wrist from that damn handcuff yesterday. He slumps back and closes his eyes and gives himself 15 minutes to think about anything except today’s problems. He’s still debating the pros and cons of refinishing the kitchen floor, when his time is up. He starts the coffee machine and goes upstairs to shave, then quietly dresses in jeans and a rumpled t-shirt pulled from the laundry basket again. It’s been a couple of weeks since there was time to spend an evening watching a game with Elle, sitting on the couch, folding shirts and sorting socks. He pulls on a sweatshirt because the house is a little cool, and socks and shoes. Just in case. He gently closes the bedroom door and walks down the hall.
Neal is sleeping on his back, the borrowed sweatpants and t-shirt twisted around his body, the covers tangled at the foot of the bed, and one arm stretched across it, hand dangling off the edge. He doesn’t look peaceful, just limp from exhaustion. He stands in the doorway and calls, “Neal.” He sees Neal wake and try to figure out where he is without moving. “Time to get up.” He opens his eyes and Peter can see the moment he remembers yesterday. His expression is studiously neutral, but it’s the blankness of Neal thinking furiously, not shutting down. He sits up without taking his eyes off Peter. “Peter,” he says cautiously.
“You need a shave,” he tells Neal. “Your scruffiness is bringing down the standards of the house.” He waves him into the hall and follows him to the bathroom, handing over a disposable razor and a toothbrush, and his clothes that Elle washed and dried last night. Neal thanks him with a good facsimile of his usual manner, and shuts the door. He waits patiently outside until Neal is done, then leads him into the kitchen. He pours two mugs of coffee, handing one to Neal, along with a carton of eggs, and points to the frying pan on the stove. “Sunny side up. Two for me.” He pulls out a loaf of bread and starts slicing. “Toast?”
Neal quirks an eyebrow at him, but obediently turns on the stove and opens the carton. “Please.” He appears to be concentrating fiercely on cracking each egg with a precise amount of pressure in just the right spot. “Peter? Why am I cooking you eggs at some obscenely early hour?”
This is exactly as hard as he expected it to be. But he’s a rip-the-bandaid-off kind of guy, so he sighs and says, “Diana and Jones are taking you to the Marshals at 7:00.” Peter’s not surprised when Neal’s eyes immediately flick to the window and doors. Even in better circumstances he’s seen him reflexively note the exits of every room.
He won’t say, “I’m sorry”, because he’s doing his job and he’s not in the wrong. But Neal is owed an explanation. “I tried to get you a few more days, but I’m on suspension, OPR is stonewalling, and nobody knows what to do with you. While the bureaucrats figure it out, they want you where they can find you again.”
He’s not fooled by Neal’s casual lean. Peter is at the end of the counter, blocking the most direct route to the back door, the same way the bathroom windows were painted shut, and he carefully hadn’t given Neal back his shoes. The key to handling Neal is to close off all the options except the ones you’re willing for him to take. The hard part (and, if he’s being honest with himself, the fun) is anticipating what devious options a very smart mind with flexible morals can create for itself. “Don’t do anything stupid, Neal.”
Neal laughs bitterly, hand clenched on a spatula, watching the eggs cook. “Too late. I trusted you. I wanted to believe Fowler.”
“Don’t you dare equate the two of us. If you trusted me you wouldn’t have gotten involved with Fowler!”
“You never wanted me to find Kate!”
“Maybe you never directly lied to me, but you omitted some damn pertinent details. Why are you complaining if I treat you the same way? I never promised you Kate. I promised you a chance to change your life.” He stops himself before he says more. Kate died only yesterday, and Neal never saw the calculation in her eyes. Now he never will, and his version of her will live forever: perfect, elusive, a martyr in memory.
If Neal runs now, he’s lost beyond saving. Peter silently curses Kate, and Neal’s fucking romantic obsession. He still wants to save Neal, to salvage the life and friendship that had developed as they worked together. He’d come so close to convincing him yesterday. If nothing else, he’d made Neal hesitate long enough to miss the explosion. Pointing that out wouldn’t be productive today, though. “I shot Fowler for you – don’t I get any credit for that?”
Neal stares at the pan a moment longer, jaw tight, then some internal switch flips, and his lazy-looking stance eases to become more genuine. He looks over at Peter and says with gentle irony, “Peter! You shot Fowler? For me? Were you defending my honor?”
Neal is allowing himself to be distracted, and Peter can breathe again. Now he can say lightly, “Well. In your honor, maybe, for some value of the word. He was really pissing me off and I needed to know where you were.”
“Was he wearing a vest?”
“No points for that, then.”
“But I didn’t know that until after I shot him.”
Neal picks up the spatula again and pokes at the eggs as he concedes, “OK, one point.”
“For each shot? And I should get extra credit: It wasn’t even my gun – I borrowed Diana’s. Technically I’m a civilian.”
“Fine. Two points.” He divides the eggs and takes a slice of toast, handing the other plate to Peter. “Two eggs.”
Neal’s looking down at his cuffed hands. Peter keeps an eye on him as he pulls Jones and Diana aside for a last reminder about taking Neal straight to the Marshals, do not pass go, do not collect $200, do not stop for coffee, bathrooms, bank robberies, damsels in distress, or carrier pigeons. While he’s doing that, Elle puts a hand on Neal’s arm and leans over to kiss his cheek. He takes her hands and raises them to gently press his lips to her fingers. He murmurs something in French, and she smiles and says, “Au revoir, I hope.” She says something else very quietly, and the only word Peter catches is “trust”. Neal shrugs and releases her hands.
There’s many things to say, but this isn’t the place, even if Neal was ready to hear them. In the end he settles for pleading, “Neal. Just…be smart.” Neal meets his eyes guilelessly as he says deliberately, “Goodbye, Peter.” He turns to the front door, with Jones and Diana alert on either side of him. He doesn’t look back as they walk to the car. Peter watches from the doorway until it’s blocks away and out of sight.
Diana calls him an hour later, with a subdued. “All set, Boss.”
He says “Thanks” and hangs up the phone. He’s relieved that Neal didn’t try to escape. Is he relying on Peter or working some angle of his own? He can’t worry about that right now; the best help he can give Neal is to fix his own situation.
Flipping through his notes, he wonders what motivates a man like Fowler. He thinks about Kate and Neal, how they used Elizabeth to baulk him, and remembers that Fowler’s wife reportedly died just before he joined OPR. Hmm. He pulls out everything he has on Operation Mentor, and starts reading.