A creak in the floorboard got Peter's attention and he let the newspaper fall to the table as he looked up, hoping to hear more movement. But after listening for a couple of minutes all was quiet and still upstairs, the only sounds coming from the kitchen as El worked on a recipe she was testing.
With a sigh he picked up the newspaper again and tried to remember where he had been reading. And then, with another sigh, he put the paper down and used his now-free hands to rub his temples. It's not like he had actually been comprehending anything on the page anyway.
It had been five days since the explosion. Since he had stood in that hangar, pleading with Neal to… what? To stay, to not throw away what they had built, to continue to provide the stellar help that had closed so many cases. To make a difference.
To not leave and open up a huge, gaping hole in Peter's life.
Five days since the plane exploded, taking Kate, and Neal's fragile dreams, with it. Since Peter had grabbed the younger man, holding on for all he was worth, first to stop Neal from trying to race into a raging inferno of jet fuel. And then to keep the younger man from falling apart altogether as shock set in.
Two days now since they had buried Kate – or at least what little the medical examiner had been able to identify as human remains from that seat by the door. El had made all the arrangements, never knowing Kate Moreau herself, but knowing what Kate, or at least the ideal of Kate, had meant to Neal.
To their friend.
That was worth another sigh, and Peter made it a big one. Life had been much simpler PNC – pre-Neal Caffrey.
The man in question was upstairs now, had been staying with them since… since it happened. Especially with June out of town, El had insisted. Not knowing how else to help his partner… friend… Peter had agreed.
He just wished he knew if it was helping.
Neal simply wasn't… Neal. Not that Peter would have expected the happy-go-lucky banter that defined Neal at his best. And in many ways, the younger man was being the perfect houseguest. He stayed out of the way, picked up after himself, helped with dishes after meals, didn't try to hog the TV remote. He answered when spoken to and didn't try to hog any conversations.
And that, simply, was not Neal.
Peter, on the other hand, was practically climbing the walls, chafing at the enforced inactivity brought on by his suspension. What he wouldn't give for a spirited argument with Neal over the merits of watching a game versus some old movie. Not that Peter would win, of course – not with El and Neal both voting against him. But the bickering would be welcome. Even some discussion about alleged crimes and hypothetical situations the younger man may or may not have found himself in would be a good change.
Part of that, Peter knew, was selfishness on his part. It would ease the boredom that was threatening to drive him crazy. But more than that, it would be a sign that Neal was recovering. Unfortunately, there was no such sign forthcoming so far…
A knock on the front door interrupted Peter's train of thought and he got up, making his way slowly to the door and open it.
"Yeah, hey, Peter."
Peter stepped back to let the younger agent in, easily noting the nervous way the other man was holding himself. So, probably not good news. "What's wrong?"
Jones was staring fixedly at a spot on the floor near Peter's feet. "Is Neal here?"
"Yeah, he's here," Peter answered slowly, suspiciously. "Why?"
"Hughes sent me. He…"
"Neal has to go back." Jones all but whispered the words.
"Back? What…" Realization hit Peter and he shook his head. "Not back to prison."
Jones nodded glumly. "Yeah."
Peter was still shaking his head. "No. I've seen the papers from OPR. Neal did everything they asked, and he's free from that."
"They're saying Fowler didn't have the authority to offer that. "
"But he presented that he could. Neal relied on that in good faith." Under other circumstances Peter might have found the idea of talking about Neal and 'good faith' in the same sentence humorous, but he was too angry right now. "No, they can't do this."
"Peter, it's been done."
"No." Peter took a deep breath, trying to gather his thoughts. "Okay, if the OPR agreement is negated, then Neal's old arrangement should kick in again."
Jones sighed, obviously reluctant to be the bearer of the news. "They're saying Neal broke that by negotiating with OPR."
"I'm calling Hughes." Peter started for the phone, but Jones' hand on his arm stopped him.
"Peter, this is coming from way above Hughes," Jones said. "He was on the phone most of yesterday and this morning trying to work this out. I mean, really, Peter, you should have heard him. We could pretty much all hear him the way he was yelling..."
"But… this isn't right."
"No, it's not," Jones agreed. "And I'm not happy about being the one standing here. But if I didn't go, they were going to send someone from OPR, and I just figured that Neal might prefer someone he knows. Someone who cares… even if there's nothing I can do!"
"You're right, I would."
Peter and Jones both spun to look at the speaker. Neal stood on stairs, halfway down. Peter couldn't help but think that he looked small, standing there in jeans and one of Peter's old sweaters, which hung loose.
"It's all right, Peter," Neal said, coming down the rest of the stairs. He reached for his shoes, set neatly by the door. "I was kind of expecting it."
"No, it's not right, and you're not…"
Elizabeth walked into the front room, looking puzzled. "Jones," she greeted. "What's going on?"
For a long moment no one spoke. Neal finally broke the silence. "They're sending me back to prison," he said simply as he sat down on the couch to put on his shoes.
"What? No!" Elizabeth looked between her husband and Jones, hoping to see denial, or at least some glimmer of hope. "Peter, you can't let this happen!"
Peter threw up his arms in a gesture of helplessness. "I don't have a badge, El. I may not even have a job when this is all over. I don't know what I can do."
Neal finished tying his laces and stood up, stepping in front of her. "Elizabeth, it's all right."
"No, Neal, it's not." She pounded a fist weakly against his chest before grabbing a handful of the sweater. "It's not."
Neal put his hand over hers, holding it to his chest. "Peter wouldn't be in this mess if it wasn't for me."
"We wouldn't be in this mess if it wasn't for Fowler," Peter all but growled.
Neal didn't take his hand off of Elizabeth's, but he turned to look over his shoulder at Jones. "Tell me Fowler isn't just walking away from this clean."
Jones shook his head. "He's been suspended. But OPR is claiming no one knows where he is."
"Well, suspended is something," Neal said. He disentangled his hand from Elizabeth's and wrapped his arms around her. "Thank you, for everything."
She hugged him back, burying her face against his shoulder. "Oh, Neal."
"Hey," he said, trying a smile that no one in the room bought. "Once Peter's off suspension, he'll be home more. On time for dinner more often, not running off in the middle of the night to see what I'm up to. And he won't be so grumpy in the morning if he doesn't have to share his cereal."
The attempted humor just made Elizabeth sob and hold him tighter, her tears dampening the sweater. Neal let her cry for a minute and then leaned down to kiss her forehead. Gently moving her arms, he stepped back. "It'll be all right," he whispered, using his thumb to wipe away a tear.
Neal turned away only to find Peter right in front of him. "This isn't over, Neal," the agent vowed.
"Let it go, Peter," Neal suggested quietly. "Really, I appreciate everything you've done. But I also know I've caused you a lot of trouble. Cut your losses, and just worry about getting your job back."
Peter could feel the lump in his throat as he tried to answer. "I'm not sure I can do my job without my partner."
Neal tried another smile. "Of course you can. You're the great Peter Burke! I hear you even caught the greatest con artist, art thief, and forger ever."
"Twice," Peter managed to croak.
"Well, there you go," Neal said, holding out his hand. "Peter, really, thanks."
Peter took the proffered hand, and then pulled Neal into a hug. "This is not over," he insisted. "I need to play it low-key for a little while, get reinstated. But I will find out who's doing this, and what's going on."
"I know you will," Neal said, stepping back. He pointed at the sweater. "Look, I don't have anything warm of my own over here."
"No problem." Like Peter would worry about an old sweater at a time like this…
"I can send it back with Jones."
Peter just shook his head and waved that off.
Neal just nodded, still trying to portray a sense of calm. He turned to Jones. "All right, let's go."
Jones started to reach for his handcuffs, and then stopped and shook his head. "Are you going to run on me?"
Neal shook his head. "No."
Jones nodded and opened the door. "I'll be at the car," he said, stepping outside.
Neal turned back, finding Peter and Elizabeth holding onto each other, almost as if letting go would cause them to fall. He knew if he tried to speak his careful façade would crack completely, so he just nodded his thanks, and then followed Jones out the door.
"Look, is there any place you want to stop?" Jones asked.
Neal shook his head. "June's still out of town. Mozzie will take care of clearing out my stuff, bring me anything I can have. He is my attorney, after all."
"Does he really have a law degree?"
Neal shrugged, letting a small smile touch his lips. "Believe it or not, yes."
Jones accepted that with a nod. "Ummm, you want to stop and get a drink or anything?"
"I don't think that would make things any easier."
Jones slammed his hand against the steering wheel. "I really do not want to be doing this!"
"I know. But I appreciate that you are. "
"Look, believe me, I wish we were headed for a movie, or a weekend at the beach, or hey, even one of Peter's basketball games. But since that's not going to happen, and I'm going back to prison, I'd really rather be making the drive with a friend than with a stranger."
Jones could only nod and swallow hard.
The high walls and fences were already looming in the distance when Jones pulled the car over onto the shoulder. "Look, if you want to run, I'll give you a head start before I call it in."
"I wouldn't do that to you."
"I can take the heat!"
"I'm sure you could," Neal said softly, his heart racing. It wasn't as though the temptation wasn't there… "But I gave you my word. And contrary to what Fowler and certain others might think, that does mean something."
"Running might sound easy, but it really isn't. It's a lot of work. Right now, after everything, I couldn't do it."
"Well, I'm not sure I can drive up to that gate," Jones admitted.
"Want me to drive?"
Jones just stared at him. "You'd drive yourself back to prison?"
"Well, it would make a certain statement."
Jones shook his head in disbelief. "Only you."
Neal shrugged. "I should get in the back, and you can put the cuffs on." He reached for the door handle, but was stopped by Jones' hand on his arm.
"No. You came this far on your own."
"Well, you do have a gun."
"I'm a bad shot. I probably would have missed if you had escaped."
"You shoot expert level on the range, Jones," Neal said. "I've seen your file."
Jones sighed. "Somehow, I'm not surprised."
"You scored better than Peter on the last qualification round," Neal offered.
"You know he's not going to give up on this, on you."
"Maybe he should."
"But he won't."
Neal sighed. "I know. But you need to be there to keep him from getting in too deep over me. There's something bigger going on here."
There was silence in the car for a long moment, and then Neal reached over and turned the key, restarting the engine. "Let's go," he said softly. "Before I lose my nerve and do something rash and impulsive that will just get me in more trouble."
Jones nodded silently and put the car into gear, pulling back onto the road. "We'll figure this out," he said firmly. "Peter, me, Diana, now that she's back. Even Hughes. Honest, Neal, he's pissed as hell that someone's going over his head on this."
"Then maybe I'll be seeing you again before too long," Neal said, his voice barely above a whisper. Because he couldn't really let himself believe that right now…
Jones pulled up to the entrance, showed his ID, and the massive gate started to open.
Neal just stared straight ahead, willing himself to appear calm. He let a mask of indifference settle over him as they passed the second gate and guards came toward the car.
He was Neal Caffrey, con artist extraordinaire. He would not let them see him break…
No matter how much his heart was breaking on the inside.