The plane exploded. Chunks of metal (metal on fire, how can that be) landed around them, on them, burned them. Peter didn't look at any of it too closely - it might have just been seat cushions, it hopefully was just luggage - but the smell of jet fuel would have covered the scent of flesh.
The plane burned and he held on. Held on while Neal screamed her name, screamed Kate and tried to run to her, tried to save her. Held him while Neal bent over with coughing, and hung on when he tried (breathless, hoarse, hurting) to run again.
Neal got loose, out of his mind with terror and grief and anger. The plane wasn't recognizable anymore and he was sprinting towards it like maybe Kate was somehow, magically, impossibly alive and just waiting for her Prince Charming to come and save her. Peter tackled him to the tarmac and stayed on top of him. "It's over," he said, and Neal stopped screaming Kate to whisper no. Peter could see the flames reflected in his eyes, it looked like fire on water. "There's nothing you can do. She's dead. It's over."
The ash was thick and heavy in the air. It coated them like snow, like paint, until they were both the same shade of grey.
Neal stopped fighting. Stopped screaming. And was just - still. Motionless in Peter's arms as sirens started blaring and the airport personnel yelled and ran around (it's too late he would have told them if he was still an agent, still had his badge. It's too late, he would have said if Neal hadn't been within earshot and already crying).
Diana was there within minutes. She'd been close behind Peter when they left the garage, and she pulled up onto the pavement next to them, siren wailing. She ran over, her gun drawn (her other gun, her backup, the one that wasn't missing two bullets and tucked into Peter's belt). "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," he said, even though Neal had given him a bloody nose with a particularly violent attempt to run to his death, to run after Kate. His torso was bruised and he might have twisted an ankle, but he was - comparatively - fine. "Neal?" He eased off of him but Neal just lay there. The only part of him that was moving was a muscle clenching in his jaw, the convulsive twitch of his lips. "Neal?"
Diana showed her credentials to the airport personnel and firefighters who were pouring onto the scene and Peter pulled Neal up into a sitting position, turned his head so he would stop - stop staring at it. Stop waiting for her to appear like a magician from the smoke.
When Diana came back she helped him pick Neal up, slipping underneath one of his arms so that they could carry him over to the car and slide him into the backseat. Diana called in to the office and made sure they'd have EMTs waiting - they couldn't risk bringing Neal to the hospital, not when someone might try to finish the job they'd started at the airport and come after him again. Peter got in the backseat and let Neal lean against his side. He put his arm over his shoulders and took comfort in every rise and fall, in the simple fact that Neal was breathing, Neal was still alive.
The debriefing took hours. They asked him the same questions and he repeated the same answers. They wouldn't let him go check on Neal, but Diana popped her head in and told him he was okay - not talking, but responsive. They were taking good care of him, she said, and promised to come get him if anything changed. When they were finished Hughes warned him that OPR would be conducting an investigation into the shooting but there was so much evidence piled up around Fowler, damning him, that Peter would likely escape unscathed.
"And what about Neal? Is he being charged with anything? Or is whatever paperwork Fowler filed actually legit?"
"From what I know about it, he doesn't officially work for you - or me - anymore. He's undercover for OPR."
"Can I take him home?"
"Peter. I know you're fond of him, but he broke a lot of laws today. He's lucky as hell that his tracker wasn't working and Fowler helped cover his tracks." Hughes sighed. "You can't get too attached to him."
"His girlfriend was just murdered in front of him. I'm not leaving him alone. Say it's because he's a flight risk, if anyone asks." He took a deep breath. "I'm not leaving him alone, Reece. And I'm currently suspended, and Neal doesn't work for you anymore, so I'm going to take him home."
"I can't approve of it," Hughes said with a sigh. "But you're right about one thing - currently, neither of you are under my supervision. Jones is waiting with the car to take you - both of you - home."
Neal was sitting in the bullpen when Peter came back, hunched over at his desk. He was filthy - they both were, Peter realized, catching a glimpse of himself in a window. The only part of Neal's face not dirty with ash were the tracks of tears down his face, and the skin they revealed was too pale. Diana was sitting next to him, talking quietly, and she looked relieved to see him. He let her know what was happening and she promised to keep him in the loop.
"Come on Neal," he beckoned. "Let's go."
The clink of Neal's handcuffs hit him like a slap on the face. "Stop. Why in hell are you wearing those." Neal just looked down at them like he wasn't sure himself, and Diana sighed.
"His tracker's off," she said.
"I could give a crap," he growled, and opened his mouth to keep arguing - but Neal just stood up and started walking for the door, hands held in front of him. That was twice Fowler had been responsible for putting Neal in handcuffs in front of the whole office. "Keys!" Diana handed them over and he stalked out the door after Neal. "I'll let you out when we're in the car," he said in the elevator. Neal nodded and said nothing, and Peter realized how tired he was. How long their day had been. How close it was to being over, he was so close to being home, with El - but he looked at Neal's pale, dirty face, the slump to his shoulders, and realized how very far they had to go before this day would stop haunting them.
Jones was standing next to the car and gave him a brief slap on the back before opening the back door for Neal. Peter slid in the backseat after him and unlocked the handcuffs. As soon as he was done Neal scooted to the far side and pressed himself against the door, watching the city through tinted windows. "You vetted the agents watching the house, right? These bastards have gone after El before to get to us." Jones didn't raise an eyebrow at Peter's poor choice of pronoun but Neal did. Neal laughed - the first sound he'd made in hours.
"Our little soft spots," he said, like it was a new nickname he was trying out. "The plane exploded," he continued eventually, just when Peter thought maybe they'd make it all the way home (to Elizabeth) without having to talk about it.
"Yeah, it did," he said gently.
"Kate was in that plane," Neal said, in a matter-of-fact tone, like perhaps Peter had overlooked the event. Peter moved towards him but Neal flinched away and he stayed on his side of the seat, hands folded in his lap, still holding the cuffs.
"Yes," he said. "She was." He'd thought it was El, for a second. Saw the hair and the smile before she slipped back into the plane. El would have come out, he thought, to see them. (Kate should have run out, he thought, to Neal.)
"Maybe she escaped," Neal said, pathetically, stupidly hopeful. "Maybe this was all part of her scheme - and she didn't love me, she was working with Fowler, that's why she went back in the plane - because she had some sort of escape planned, and she's fine." He went white, suddenly. "So - so either she was just caught in Fowler's trap or - " and he looked nauseous, he looked like he was going to be sick, right then in the back of the car. "Or she was trying to kill me.
"She was either trying to save me or murder me, Peter, and I love her but I don't even know - which choice - " Peter closed his eyes and thought about how he would feel if Elizabeth had been - if Fowler had dangled her in front of him the way he had with Neal. If the brunette woman he'd seen through the plane window had actually been his wife. He needed to see her so badly it hurt. He'd never been so happy to not be Neal before.
"We'll find out the truth," Peter said, as if it mattered anymore.
"I don't want to know," Neal replied, and they pulled up in front of the house.
El was waiting inside. And she grabbed them both and hugged them and started crying, pulling them in tight like she was trying to make them all the same person, like she was so used to hugging Peter that when she had both of them in front of her she couldn't figure out how to widen the circle of her arms, and both of them stood there and breathed into the vice-like grip around their ribs. Peter wrapped his arms around her and somehow Neal escaped them, ducking underneath their embrace and as worried as Peter was about him, he needed El more. He needed the familiar scent of her perfume, the smooth texture of her hair, the way she grabbed his suit jacket to pull him down, pull him against her, keep him close.
"I was so worried," she said. "They wouldn't tell me what happened - but you're both okay," and she looked him over and he shook his head.
"Kate," he said, and Neal made a choked little noise and slid down from where he'd been leaning against the wall, and buried his face between his knees, wrapped his arms around his legs, he looked so small.
"Oh, no," she murmured. "Oh, Neal."
And they got on their knees next to him and held him while he shook like he was falling apart. El kissed him, his lips and cheek and shoulder and whatever part of him was in front of her, getting dirt all over her clothes, her face - and Peter just held onto him like they were still on the tarmac and the world was full of missiles and he wrapped himself around Neal, sheltering him, the smell of smoke filling their house. Neal shook and El kissed him and Peter, Peter held on.
That night Neal slept on the couch and Peter had his first nightmare. He woke up to the sound of a gunshot and realized after he'd jumped out of bed and grabbed his firearm that he was just remembering the scene in the parking garage, there was no one in his house - Satchmo would have been barking his head off, the agents posted outside would have been bursting in - it was just a dream. El rolled over and continued sleeping, oblivious to Peter's panic.
He went downstairs to check that all the doors were locked and the agents were still outside. Neal was curled up against the arm of the couch, watching the TV on mute. He was wearing Peter's sweats and t-shirt, and they hung off his lean frame. June had sent over some clothes, but apparently Byron hadn't been one for comfortable pajamas. He looked so young in the flickering light. Young and tired. Satchmo was sitting next to him on the couch - where he was not supposed to be. The dog at least had the good sense to look guilty when Peter walked over, Neal was unrepentant.
Neal shrugged. "I napped in the office."
"You weren't napping, you were in shock." Neal shrugged again, like there was no difference, and Peter snapped his fingers at Satch to take his place next to Neal.
"Why aren't you in bed?"
"Nightmares," Peter replied. Neal blinked at him and Peter thought of all the kinds of fire he'd seen shine in Neal's eyes. And then compared those memories to how dull they were now. "I shot Fowler," he said.
"Is he dead?"
"You're not going to try and finish the job, are you?" Neal didn't answer. He fell asleep waiting for Neal to reassure him, and when he woke up El was curled on the floor at his feet and Neal was snoring softly, his head in Peter's lap.
Neal was too quiet. He sat on the couch and read their books, ate whatever they put in front of him, smiled when they touched him, brushed his teeth and showered and played with the dog. He was like a Stepford husband. El worked from home - apparently Neal had gotten her some huge job as a goodbye present, an apology for Fowler trying to ruin their lives. He helped El with the dishes and brought her tea when she started yelling at people on the phone, and when Peter starting pacing through the house - checking the locks on the windows and doors - Neal turned on the TV and asked Peter to explain what exactly a linebacker was. None of them were allowed to leave the house, and every time either of them left his sight, Pete worried.
He'd almost thought that Neal would cover up all of his grief and mourning and hide it behind some mask, keep it all inside until he was alone - but when they got ready for bed the third day, Neal appeared in the door of their bedroom.
Peter, who was shirtless and not expecting Neal to be there, was a bit flustered. "Yes?"
"I just - I wondered if - they're going to bury her, right? The parts they can find?"
And Peter couldn't tell from his voice but when he stepped closer he saw that Neal was crying. His knuckles were white, he was gripping the door frame so tightly, and when Peter unwrapped his hands from the wood he clutched at Peter's wrists instead. "I think so. I mean, of course they will."
"They'll give her a funeral? I don't want to go, I know it's not safe, just - she doesn't have family, but she deserves - a gravestone, Peter, to let people know she was alive. Otherwise no one's going to remember her."
"You'll remember her," Peter said, and brought Neal to their bed. El sat up and touched Neal's arm, gently. He didn't let go of Peter.
"I was supposed to take care of her," Neal said, and his words were hollow, he sounded like a hollow child, reciting something he'd heard his whole life but never understood and only now realized what it meant. "I was supposed to take care of her," he said again but this time he was looking at Peter who had never felt so helpless, not ever. "And I failed."
And El hugged him which was good because Peter never knew what to do when people started crying. She was sitting next to him and pulled him against her side, his head into the crook of her shoulder. He let go of Peter and she rocked him back and forth, He was crying, quietly, but the lines of his shoulders were rigid under El's hand, his neck stiff - El looked at him and mouthed 'hug him,' so Peter moved even closer. He didn't - he didn't know quite what to do. He didn't know how to touch Neal without offending him, or startling him, or - or revealing more than he meant to. Because Neal had never not felt perfect (Peter had never touched him and wanted to let go).
"I'm sorry," he said, and they were maybe the most useless words he'd ever said, they tasted like ash in his mouth, like ash and jet fuel. He and El maneuvered him up the bed and under the covers, shushing Neal's protests, and they lay there in a tangled pile. "I'm sorry," he said again and Neal sobbed like it was all hitting him, all of it right in the same second. Terrible hoarse cries like he couldn't breathe, muffled into Peter's chest, barely soothed by El's whispers. He could feel the damp spots of Neal's tears, a warm place against his sternum where Neal's breath was shuddering against him, and he held on.
"I'm sorry," he repeated, because he was - he knew what it felt like to fail. Because Peter had grown up taking care of people, too. His mom who needed him to bring her drinks and nurse her hangovers, his dad who needed someone to blame and fight and leave. "I'm so sorry." Because he'd failed them, like Neal thought he'd failed Kate. Because they'd trusted themselves into their hands - Peter's hands which were strong but not strong enough (his hand holding a gun shooting Fowler he should have done it sooner), Neal's hands so long and elegant but in handcuffs - "so, so sorry."
And he didn't know he was crying too until El started petting him, reaching awkwardly from where she was wrapped around Neal. "It's okay," she told them both. "I'm here. I've got you."
And Neal cried until he fell asleep, and Peter held him until he did, and El watched over both of them well into the night.
The next morning he woke up to the scent of bacon and coffee. He went downstairs to find breakfast laid out on the table, and Neal sitting on the couch. "Moz called," Neal said.
"And good morning to you, too." He sipped his coffee and tried the bacon - crisp, juicy. It crunched under his teeth. "Havisham knows that all the phone lines are tapped, right? He must have a hell of a scrambling system to risk it, as paranoid as he is..."
"He called to let me know that the coroner's report was finalized." And suddenly the taste of meat and the smell of food couldn't have been less appetizing. "It was her," Neal said. "On the plane. She was there." He put down the cordless phone he'd been clutching to his chest, moved to the end of the couch to make room for Peter, and turned on the TV. When El came down and Peter told her what had happened, she fed Satchmo their breakfast, turned off her phone, and joined them. They spent the day curled up together on the couch, watching ESPN Classic and eating cereal from the box.
Peter's the one who got nightmares. And because El slept like the dead and Neal was on a hair-trigger, it was usually Neal's tired voice talking him out of it, Neal's cool hands gently shaking his shoulder.
In his nightmares Fowler wasn't wearing a vest. And Peter stood less than ten feet away from the man and pulled the trigger, twice, a one, two so habitual he didn't even register both shots until he saw two bullets embedded in the jacket. In his dreams Fowler was just wearing a suit, shirt, and skin. In his dreams he watched the blood bloom through the fabric and saw him fall and watched while the blood pooled on the floor until he was standing in it.
And Diana started clapping and Fowler said his name, Peter, like he was confused. I'm not the one you want to shoot, he said, and his mouth was bloody again and Peter knew the whole time that Fowler was a puppet for someone else - someone more powerful, more evil, more deserving of one, two bullets in the chest.
Again and again. Taking the gun from Diana's holster. Enough time for one quick crazy thought about metaphors and sexuality and then she had her back-up gun out too. Peter was always the one to pull the trigger. It was like the Matrix, time slowed down and his finger on the trigger took minutes, hours, time enough for Fowler to say Peter, I'm not wearing a vest, Peter - the blood always moved at the same speed. Down his shirt and pants and onto the cement, spreading out.
Peter had never killed a man before. Had never come so close. Or wanted to so very, very badly.
When Neal woke him up - quietly whispering "Peter, Peter, you're okay - " in those seconds stretched between the garage and the bedroom, he saw the blood on Fowler's lips his teeth bared and Neal's voice would come out of his mouth, why'd you kill me? Peter.
June couldn't come over to visit due to the increased security, but the bottles of whiskey she sent over more than made up for her absence. They ate a dinner of spaghetti and tomato sauce - none of them had the energy to do anything more, no bread or salad or wine. They ate and drank until they were full and drunk, warm and reckless and only hungry for each other.
Neal poured the last of the bottle into their cups and raised his in a toast. "To still being here," he said, and it was maudlin but he lifted his cup high and smiled when Peter clinked their glasses together.
"Hear, hear," Elizabeth echoed, and they stumbled upstairs to bed.
Neal sighed. "At least," he said with a rallying tone, sliding into the middle of the mattress. "If this is it and I go back to prison - at least I went out with a bang. I did get the music box out of the embassy. And with style. You would have been very impressed."
"You're not going back to prison," Peter said (but quietly, because maybe if Neal couldn't hear him clearly he wouldn't be able to tell Peter wasn't sure).
"I don't know," El said. "Going out with a bang's all nice and good, but I think I'd have enjoyed hearing you whimper." Then she froze and covered her mouth with her hand.
"You - you want to hear me whimper?" And Peter wasn't sure if Neal was slurring because of the alcohol or because he was turned on.
El just squeaked and kept her hand clamped over her mouth. Peter wanted to say something about locking the barn door after all the horses had escaped but instead he just raised an eyebrow.
"You want to make me whimper?" Neal asked, his eyes on El like maybe he'd forgotten that Peter her husband was still in the goddamn room. And they were both dressed for bed so when Neal crawled over to her and kissed her, it was Peter's button-up shirt he was caressing her through - Peter's t-shirt Elizabeth slid her hands underneath, to pull Neal closer.
He wouldn't have picked us, he forced himself to remember. If Kate were still alive, he'd be with her, and not in our bed. In our bed and kissing my wife.
He'd had his one chance, back in the hangar, to convince Neal to stay and he'd - he'd almost succeeded. Stalled him long enough that Neal hadn't made it to the plane, in any case. Neal. I gave you a better life. Neal I saved your life, Neal, Neal, look at me.
"Are you pretending she's Kate?" He asked, and they froze, like they'd forgotten he was there, and that the whole situation was too fucked up for that kind of tenderness.
It was El who told him to shut up, though. "Don't be cruel."
"It's been four and a half years," Neal said, his hands still on Elizabeth's shoulders. "Since anyone touched me like this." He closed his eyes and El kissed him.
"Don't be cruel," El said again, pulling back and both of their lips were wet with saliva and they'd all taste the same, like tomato sauce and whiskey and each other. What choice were you going to make, he doesn't ask, because they're both looking at him - and Neal looks just as desperate as he did in the hangar. Bag on his shoulder a new identity in his pocket a new life waiting for him on the plane.
"This isn't healthy," Peter said.
Elizabeth looked up at him imploringly, still kissing Neal's shoulder. "Healthy is for people in other professions," Neal replied. "Or did you only want me because I was chasing someone else? Because you knew you couldn't have me?"
"How do you know I wanted you at all?"
"Because he's not stupid, honey." He tried to glare at El but she just licked her lips and bit down on Neal's neck.
"This doesn't have to mean anything if you don't want it t-to." He stuttered as El sucked a hickey under his ear. "We can write it off as just - as a near-death experience reaction, or a - I don't know, a pity fuck, okay?"
"What if I want - need - more than that?" Because it wasn't that he didn't want Neal. It was that he wanted too much of him. I gave you a chance at a better life, he doesn't say because at some point he needs to stop competing with a dead woman for Neal's attention. I saved your life, and he doesn't want to be Neal's rebound, his second choice, just a pity fuck.
"You said you trusted me to make my own decisions. Remember that?"
"Yes," Peter said, and he hadn't been thinking of this but he was a man of his word. And he did trust Neal.
"I would have come back to you. Maybe not right then, not when Kate was waiting for me and needed me but - Peter?" Peter looked at him, his flushed cheeks and dark hair and wide eyes. "You may not have convinced me to stay. But you convinced me to come back."
Peter hadn't given much thought to kissing Neal. He'd thought about his hands, watching him sketch and fold paper and forge Peter's signature - but for some reason kissing had seemed too real. Like he was a middle-school girl nursing an impossible crush. Sure, he'd had an idle fantasy or two about what Neal might look like kissing El (it didn't even hold a candle to the real thing). The reality of Neal in his bed, eager under his tongue, hot and smooth and hard under his hands - he couldn't have imagined this. Not the way Neal smiled at El every time she touched him, or the small line of concentration on his forehead when he got overwhelmed, the gentleness of his lips kissing down Peter's chest. Neal tasted like whiskey and tomato sauce, he tasted like El. Peter stripped them out of his shirts and brought them close and did his best not to think of how fragile they were. How easily (one, two) they could be hurt.
He kissed Neal and touched him and Neal arched under his hands, moaned into El's mouth, cried out when Peter crawled between his thighs. Four years, he thought, and was inexplicably grateful to Kate. For visiting Neal every week when all that stood between them was a promise and a bulletproof partition, thanked her for loving Neal all those years before when they'd been stupid and young and careless. For trying to take care of him. He kissed Neal and then his wife and when they finished Neal was back in the middle of the bed, curled up against Peter's chest, El spooning him from behind - and Peter forgave Kate for not wanting to let Neal go.
He held onto them both (it was what he did best) and dreamed (one, two) of his partners, warm and safe and in his arms.
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