Peter's focus was to get Neal inside the hangar, away from the blazing fire.
"Neal! There's nothing you can do! Listen to me!"
He never thought he would have to fight Neal. The kid had never, ever made resistance. Until now. As flames went from explosion to burning fuel and material they also became less chaotic and more real. Diana had joined them and she got the picture fast enough.
Sirens were heard and Peter managed at last to guide a stunned and chocked Neal back inside the hangar. Firetrucks arrived in plenty, together with an ambulance. Diana took charge as the communication center. A police car came last.
"Can you just stand still and stay here?" Peter asked Neal. "Just stand still, okay?"
Neal stared at the burning plane, leaning against one of the airplanes in the hangar.
"You know when the last time I touched her was?" the kid asked, tears running down his cheeks.
"No." It was not true. He did. Or at least he thought so. But he did not want to think about it.
"When you arrested me. Four years and six months ago. I just wanted to pick it up where we left off then. Like those years never happened."
Peter noted that Neal did not blame him. There was no hate or bitterness in his voice. Just sorrow. Like when he told about the wine bottle, just a hundred times worse.
"Just stand there, will you? I'll be here. I just need to call Hughes, okay?"
Neal nodded. Peter got eye-contact with Diana and she nodded. She would keep an eye on the kid. Peter walked away a bit. He called his boss and told him what happened.
"Is Caffrey unharmed?" Hughes asked.
"And he's without anklet because he cut it?"
"You know what that means, Peter," he heard Hughes' voice of reason in the other end.
It made sense. And yet not. Because he knew Neal and knew about the deal with Fowler.
"Hughes, he wasn't running. It was legal."
"Perhaps. And he may not have anything to do with the bomb on that plane either. But until we know…"
"We have to see him as a fleeing felon and a murder suspect," Peter filled in. He glanced back at Neal. "As soon as he's ready for it, I'll take him back to prison."
"I'm sorry, Peter, but you're still under suspension, and Caffrey is an inmate of a maximum-security prison. I'll call the marshals. Let them handle it. They're no animals."
"Reese…" Peter began, "I…" He was about to tell he gave the kid a promise. But it would not help. He searched for words for a protest he knew would be in vain. He would not even need to put ordinary handcuffs on Neal. No one would need more than that as long as they treated him fair. Diana? No, for her Neal was just another villain. And she would never agree to transport him in just cuffs, and Peter could not blame her.
"I'll keep an eye on him until they arrive." He ended the call.
He watched Neal where he stood, like a wreck. Peter felt helpless. The kid was going through the worst moment of his life right then, and would soon be taken away in chains as if he was the cause of the disaster.
He returned to Neal's side, wondering how he would be able to tell him.
The kid watched him.
"What aren't you telling me, Peter?" Observant as always.
"I wish this could be done differently," Peter started. "I made you a promise. But as it is, I don't have a badge."
"I'm going back to prison, aren't I?"
"While all this is investigated, yes. I'm sorry, Neal."
The kid nodded in acceptance.
Peter's eyes wandered away.
"Neal... " He forced himself to meet the kid's eyes. "You're considered a high-risk transport."
"Leg-irons and black-box, I know the drill, Peter."
Neal's assurance sent a shiver through Peter. He had always seen them as something needed in extreme cases for violent people. Neal had faced them as standard procedure in prison without being violent. When he had arrested Neal for that necklace he did not steal, Fowler had called the marshals for the transport. Then he had seen it as a provocative gesture from Fowler, but it was standard procedure.
"You can stay here as long as you need to. There's no one who wishes to drag you away in chains until you're capable of handling it."
"Could you put them on me?" Neal asked. Peter stared. "Please?"
What was it with this guy?
"I'll be having them on for quite a while before I'm back in prison. Believe it or not, but those things aren't very comfortable in the first place. I know you wouldn't pull them tighter than needed."
Peter sighed. Putting him in restraints of that kind was nothing he wanted to do at any time but Neal would be far more uncomfortable than him, no matter who put them on. And it was as close as keeping his promise as he could.
"Alright, I'll talk to them, see what I can do. But it's not my call."
They both saw the marshals coming. Four men, one holding the chains. They pinpointed Neal quickly enough and approached. Diana sent him an eye as if to ask what to do. He shook his head.
"I'll talk to them," Peter said. "And tell them to wait until your ready."
"I'm ready." Neal looked far from ready.
"Are you sure?"
"A distraction would suit me fine right now. This will at least be familiar grounds. Yes, Peter, I'm ready." He even sent Peter an assuring smile. "Go ahead."
Peter walked to meet them.
"Agent Burke, FBI," he introduced himself. He still was, even if he was suspended.
"U.S. Marshal Sam North," their leader said. They shook hands. "Does he know?" He nodded in Neal's direction.
"Yes. He'll follow with you without any fuss, but he has one request."
"Which is?" asked North.
"That I pat him down and put those restraints on."
The man's eyebrows went up in surprise.
"I've no problem with that, but you're a civilian at the moment, Agent Burke. I'll have to supervise it."
Peter nodded. He was not going to argue against it.
The marshal followed him back to Neal with a handful of chains in his hand. Neal stood as a composed wreck, leaning against the airplane, exposed and harmless.
"Neal Caffrey, I'm U.S. Marshal Sam North. I'm going to supervise your transport back to Sing Sing. Agent Burke here tells me you want him to restrain you. Is that correct?"
Neal nodded. The marshal explained to Neal why he had to supervise it. Neal nodded again.
"Well then, Mr. Caffrey, I think you know the drill."
The marshal said it gently and gave a safe impression. Yet, Peter saw Neal's shoulders tense as he stepped away from the plane with a blank face. He took off his shoulder-bag and his jacket and held out his arms. The Marshal gave Peter a nod that the kid was all his.
Peter started with Neal's hair, dusty from the explosion. The collar, the sleeves. Since he had no jacket, there were few places to hide anything. Peter did not expect to find anything, but he did it correctly. Neal did not expect him to do anything less.
The marshal handed him the restrains.
Neal continued to hold his arms out until Peter had locked the belly-chain around his waist. The cuffs around the ankles were not uncomfortable in themselves at least. It was the chain that restricted the length of the step that constituted the restraint. Peter rose to lock the final cuffs around his friend's wrists. He knew he was supposed to do this before the legs, but no matter how correct he was with this, it would be unpleasant for Neal.
Neal already stood with his hands in position.
"Want to put your jacket on?" Peter asked. Neal shook his head.
The cuffs were directly linked to the belly-chain which forced the hands and arms in a fixed position which in the long run could become painful. The black box on top of that removed every option to move the hands. Neal did not flinch once. Not even when Peter put that box on top of it all.
Peter remembered when he had cuffed Neal in the interview room for the transport to the detonation center four and a half years ago. Neal had tried not to flinch when the cuffs closed around his wrists. Peter had cuffed him front with ordinary cuffs. More of a psychological restraint. What he put on Neal now was the opposite, and his CI had not moved a muscle in his face. Prison-time had made its mark, and Peter was not sure if that system created better citizens. It felt healthier to flinch than be used to leg-irons and black boxes.
Neal was restrained, and there was nothing more for Peter to do.
"See you, Peter?"
A question? Did he have to ask?
"Any time, kiddo" he assured Neal. "And I'll do my best to get you out as soon as I can, alright."
"Ready to go?" the marshal asked. Peter watched Neal's face transform into one of smiles and playfulness. An imitation of his normal state. Neal turned to face the marshal.
"Can't wait" he replied with a grin.
Peter picked up Neal's jacket and searched its pockets. He hung it over his friend's shoulders. It was December and cold outside. Then he stepped aside, and the marshal took over. With a grip around Neal's upper arm, he led him out of the hangar in the pace the chains allowed, followed by the other three.
Neal knew Peter would have kept his promise if he could. He did not blame him for being transported back to prison in chains. It was not something he enjoyed and Peter's promise not to use those methods had been a greater comfort than his handler probably understood. Even if it was included in the FBI training to try leg-irons and belly-chains, it was not the same thing as being treated as a violent criminal.
Right now he had never felt less eager to escape. He felt deflated. It was if someone pulled the carpet under his feet and there was nothing under it.
They reached the marshal's van. He was guided to the middle row of seats, but each time he lifted his foot to get inside he swayed and he was afraid to lose balance and fall.
"Don't worry, we'll hold you," U.S. Marshal Sam North said beside him and another of them took hold of his other arm. When he lifted his foot again he felt their steady hands helping him and he got inside. He sat down by the window on the door-less side and North fastened his seatbelt and took a seat beside him. One sat down on the seat behind him and the other two in the front.
Four men and a set of chains to bring him back.
And Kate was gone.
He fought the feeling of unreality and focused on the chains, his cuffed and fixed hands, the sound when he moved. He leaned his head against the window, sensed its coolness. He did not want to break down and cry. Not now. Not when he could not even dry his tears. He did not want to arrive back to prison like that.
What had gone wrong? It was as if he was punished for doubting and swaying from his goal, as some said God smote you with lightning when you sinned. But he was not superstitious. Someone had killed Kate with a bomb. A bomb that might have been intended for him as well. Kate! Had he caused her death? Should he just stop searching as both Peter and Mozzie suggested, more than once?
He straightened up in his seat and pushed the thoughts away.
"Are you okay?" Marshal North asked beside him.
Neal glanced in his direction. What should he answer to that? He did not want to sound like a cocky smart-ass.
"I'll live," he said.
"Why did you want that Agent to put those on?" the marshal asked and pointed at the chains.
"He's a friend."
"A hell of a thing to put a friend through."
"I guess," Neal sighed. "But he'll live too. He's caught me twice. And cuffed me ever more times."
"And you said you're friends?"
"Yeah." Neal found that life was easier to handle when he was thinking of Peter and his six months with the FBI. "What to hear the story?"
And so he found himself entertain the four marshals with the story of how they first met in the bank, how Peter set a trap that he walked right into - leaving Kate out of the story - and the escape that led to him working for the FBI.
Late at night, when he has back in prison and locked up in a cell, he cried.
Peter walked around in Neal's empty apartment without an actual aim. He just wanted to understand, to make things make sense. Neal had been about to leave, and all he brought was one bag with nothing more than a passport, some cash, and a minimal amount of clothes.
Was that the way he had been living before he got arrested? A life with no ties, always ready to leave. In Peter's world that was not a healthy life. A good life was a settled one. It did not seem as that was what Neal wanted. Or did he want it on his own terms? Had Peter pushed him into a situation where he felt he needed to escape?
Now Neal was in prison, and Kate was dead. Nothing had turned out as any of them hoped.
June stood in the open doorway.
"I thought I heard someone moving upstairs. I hoped it was Neal…"
"I'm sorry." Peter forced to keep his face from reddening. "I just…" He did not find the words to describe what he was doing there.
"You're Neal's handler" June replied with a crisp edge. "You have the right to search his home."
"That's not why I came. I just wanted to understand what was going on in his head. June, Neal is back in prison."
June's stoic pose sank. She pulled out a chair and sat down.
"Oh, Neal. What did he do?"
"Nothing, as far as I know," Peter admitted, feeling guilty, being a part of the system that forced Neal back in chains.
"Then you didn't put him there?"
"It was not my call." He sighed. "Neal was about to leave with Kate after a deal with... It was all legal. Then the plane exploded on the ground, with Kate inside. Neal was there. And no one understands what happened."
"Neal would never kill Kate," June protested.
"No. He wouldn't."
"And you said it was legal for him to leave?"
"Yes. I did some research to check what he was doing. It was all legal." 'Was' Peter thought. He had seen it. Neal had had an official release from his sentence and had been a free man. Bought with a bribe consisting of a music box, but that was beside the point.
"Then why is he in prison? Because of the explosion?"
"That's one reason. The other is that his deal has vanished. For everyone else, it looks like Neal was about to escape. And that alone is a valid reason to put him back."
Peter had the Mentor-files but the actual deal was probably in the encrypted file.
"Can you get him out again?"
"I don't know," Peter admitted. "I still haven't got my badge back. I probably will get it back, but…"
"You're not sure if you want Neal back out?"
"No, I do. I do. He is a valuable asset. And a friend. I just… I can't figure out if I'm doing him a favor or not. June, he left all this. For a dream. For a woman he didn't actually know. A woman that hid from him." Peter had never liked Kate. She had never made the impression to care for anyone but herself. "Before I arrested him the first time, he left for Europe without Kate. We kept eyes on her with the hope to catch Neal. When he got back, he didn't come near her. Do you know why? Because she was hiding from him. And not once have I heard him question why she did that. Because Neal sees what he wants to see."
"Or he sees the good in people" June pointed out. Peter nodded. Perhaps. Or Neal was just plain naïve when it came to women and Kate in particular. "But why do you think Neal would do better in prison?" June persisted. Peter sighed, searching for words.
"I wonder how much my behavior caused him to feel he had to leave. When he has served his time, he is free. Free from me. Free to make his own choices. If he's in prison, I can't…" Peter did not want to see Neal in prison, but this was not about what he wanted but what would be best for Neal. And he wanted June to understand that. "He once expressively said he didn't want the life I offered. Maybe I made him feel trapped, instead of helped."
And a trapped Neal is a Neal that runs. And a Neal that escapes his sentence ends up in prison for good. That was the last thing Peter wanted.
He had been walking back and forth. Now he pulled out a chair and sat down, facing June.
"Since he started working for me, I've cuffed him twice without him being guilty of anything. He's a con-man. And to con a con-man so he becomes a prime suspect… He gets the blame for things he didn't do. And he gets the blame just because he works for the FBI, for me. We keep him under a close watch which seems to make it twice as fun to frame him. He's Neal Caffrey, the greatest con-man ever lived. A challenge for the whole con-man-world out there. And I put him in a position where he cannot defend himself."
"But you proved him innocent the first time" June pointed out. "And I'm sure you can prove him innocent this time too. And that I think is most important; to prove he is innocent when he is. To fight for him. To show him that you're there for him, that you have faith in him."
Peter nodded. It would not be the last time Neal ended up as a suspect. And Neal could use the situation to commit his own crimes and claim he was framed. Peter could not trust him not to. How many times would he hurt the kid by not trusting him when Neal in return trusted him completely? But he did trust Neal, in a peculiar way. Not as unconditional as Neal probably trusted him, but he did trust him with his life and the work he was doing for the FBI. And he had faith in the kid.
"Your husband…" he began, looking at June. "Did he ever… stop?"
"And became an honest citizen?" June clarified the question. Peter nodded. "Yes, he did. For most the part at least."
"What made him quit?"
"Something you cannot control." June smiled. "Kids. A desire to be with them when they grew up and not meet them in an orange jumpsuit on the other side of a glass wall."
Through Peter's mind rushed images of single women he could introduce in Neal's life. He dismissed the idea at once. The kid had to figure things out himself, make his own choices. All Peter could do was to show him what life could be like, give him reasons to stay, and show that he had faith in Neal and would be there for him.