American soil. After three flights, over ten hours of layovers and the worse airplane food Peter had ever eaten, finally they had reached their destination. Neither man had more than a carryon bag so it didn't take long to get through customs and find Peter's car.
He was relieved to be home; though he wasn't so sure about the man seated next to him. Their fates were still in question and Hughes had insisted they come to the office immediately.
"Neal, are you alright?"
The younger man mumbled something incoherent and Peter took it as a what do you think. Neal returned though he knew jail was a possibility. But in the end, with Peter's persuasion, he realized that jail was a better option than being a marked man, something he had Kramer to thank for.
Peter wished he could say something, anything to ensure Neal that things would work out but Hughes had been tight lipped over the phone and Peter wasn't sure he would have a job at the end of the day. He was on administrative leave with the stipulation that if Neal returned, he might be reinstated.
Peter had made that clear to Neal the day he found him and he knew that had something to do with Neal agreeing to go back to New York.
"Neal, are you hungry? We could stop first." Neal hadn't eaten during the trip home.
"I'm good" Neal responded and they both knew that was far from the truth.
"It's going to be alright" Peter insisted, though he couldn't muster up any conviction with his hollow words.
He heard Neal sigh beside him and turned the radio on to drown out the silence.
"Neal, are you ready?" They had been sitting in the bureau parking lot for five minutes but the younger man made no effort to get out.
"Hey." Peter reached over and grasped Neal's shoulder. "If things don't go right in there, I promise I will fight until I get you out." He couldn't promise it would happen but he would fight to the end, that he was sure of. "Come on. Delaying this isn't going to make it better."
Peter got out and walked around the car, and opened the passenger door. Neal stood begrudgingly, refusing to look Peter in the eyes.
Side by side they walked into the bureau, something they had done many times in the past. But this time it was different; both were wearing jeans and t-shirts and Peter was well aware that all eyes were on them the minute they opened the doors.
"Hey boss." Diana rushed to greet them. Peter smiled without saying the obvious; at the moment he didn't have a badge. "Good to have you back."
"Hopefully" Peter quietly retorted, keeping a guiding hand on Neal's shoulder.
"He wants you in the conference room" Jones piped in.
Peter's smile faded as he searched his former co-worker's eyes. Both looked away as Peter gently pushed Neal ahead, towards the intended room.
Hughes was seated at the table when they walked in.
"Caffrey, it's good to see you back in one piece." He studied the younger man. "Sit, both of you."
Hughes took a breath as he eyed both men. Only Peter would look at him; both looked worn out, not surprising after the long trip.
He liked Caffrey. As much of a pain in the ass that the consultant could be, his work was phenomenal and he had a good heart...even if he kept them all on alert with his slightly illegal antics.
"Caffrey, look at me." Neal obeyed but his movements were slow. Hughes noticed the protective hand that suddenly appeared above the ex-con's shoulder. He tried not to smile. The relationship his best agent had with his consultant was well known; not that Hughes totally approved. They worked well together but Hughes did worry about Peter getting in trouble; and times like this only justified the nights he stayed up worrying.
But this wasn't Neal's fault and after learning what Kramer did and the extremes he went to in order to secure Neal for his own benefits, Hughes knew he had to get involved and fight for both men who sat before him.
"I won't drag this out" Hughes quietly said as he reached beneath the table and produced Neal's old anklet. "Put this on before you leave here." He slid it across the table and it stopped in front of Neal, who seemed frozen as he stared at it.
"That's great" Peter whooped loudly as he clapped Neal's back; his reactions more from relief than anything. "Is the deal the same?" he finally had the clarity to ask.
"Exactly" Hughes answered as he took Peter's badge from his pocket and tossed it towards the agent. Peter took a deep breath as he fingered the badge, momentarily closing his eyes as the realization hit that this was finally over.
"I will warn you both" Hughes said with all eyes on him. "I put my neck so far out that it's hanging in a noose right now." He pointed a finger. "You two better be boy scouts until his sentence is over. Understand?"
"Completely" Peter answered as he glanced at the silent man beside him. Neal was either in a complete state of shock or trying his best not to breakdown. Peter assumed the latter and he glanced at Hughes who nodded in understanding.
"Go home and get some rest. Come back Monday and we'll all put this behind us." Hughes stood. "Go out the back way...I'll let everyone know what happened."
Peter nodded gratefully and waited for his boss to leave before returning his attention to Neal.
"Hey buddy, it's over." Peter grabbed the tracking device and placed it on Neal's ankle. "How about I take you home?"
"No!" Neal grabbed Peter's arm. "I can't face June" he whispered, swiping at a few tears that managed to escape. "I just...need a safe place to sleep. Please."
Understanding hit Peter like a slap in the face. How awful the last few months had been; the freedom that Neal longed for had turned into a nightmare. A quick look at the younger man's face revealed how much he had aged during his time away; and how little sleep he had gotten.
"Casa Burke it is" Peter said as he stood and hauled Neal to his feet. "Can you make it to the car?"
Neal nodded though he didn't protest the arm that held him upright and guided him out of the building.
He managed to hold everything in until the car pulled into the street and he knew he wasn't going back to jail. Scrunched down in the seat and with his face pressed against the door the tears flowed freely along with the occasional muffled sob. He could feel Peter's unease next to him and wasn't surprised that the radio was turned up.
At the first red light he felt a hand on his head rubbing gently. The tears that continued to flow belied the relief he finally felt and the security he hadn't felt since the day he left. All those months he longed for his life back in New York but never dared to dream that it was possible.
The car hitched forward and the hand left his head. Neal sighed as he tried to calm down and slowly drifted off.
"Come on Neal, help me here." As thankful as Peter was that Neal fell asleep he was having a hard time getting the younger man into the house. It took him several minutes to wake him and longer to get him out of the car and walking towards the house. More like dragging Peter surmised as he carefully toted his partner up the stairs.
"Down boy" Peter ordered as the excited dog jumped all over them.
"Let me get the bed ready" Peter said as he planted Neal against the wall.
"No" Neal mumbled as he staggered over to the sofa and managed to toe his shoes off before plopping down and curling up with his back to the agent.
"OK then" Peter muttered before grabbing the throw blanket and covering Neal.
"Hey boy" Peter greeted as he turned his attention to Satch. "I missed you" he said as he allowed the dog to slobber all over him.
Several hours later Peter heard the front door opening and jumped up as his wife entered. He had talked to her several times during the day but it wasn't the same as he pulled her close and hugged tightly.
"Hey hon" he whispered.
"Hon" Elizabeth managed to squeak out before her mouth was occupied.
She pulled away first and just stared at him. "You look tired" she noted and then glanced towards the sofa.
"Has he moved?"
"No." Peter chuckled quietly. "He has to make up for months of not sleeping."
"He's not the only one" Elizabeth countered, taking in the dark circles under Peter's eyes.
"We'll rest this weekend. Do you mind him staying?" Peter pointed towards Neal.
"No." Elizabeth smiled knowingly. "As long as he's here I know you won't worry." She eyed the clock. "I'll go make dinner while you try to get him up."
Peter tried not to laugh while they ate. Zombie Neal was rather amusing; although even in a state of utter disarray he managed to engage Elizabeth with his tales on the run.
"Neal, the faster you eat the sooner you get back to sleep." Neal eyed the agent briefly before stabbing a piece of chicken with his fork.
When the food was gone, Peter shadowed Neal up the stairs and waited while the younger man cleaned up and used the bathroom. Again Neal refused the offered guest room, so Peter helped him settle back on the sofa and sat with him until he fell asleep.
"I'm glad you're back" Peter whispered in the silent air.
"And you owe me a story" he added as he remembered the mysterious lady and the promise Neal made to tell all. But for now, that would wait.
Slowly he stood. Ordering the dog to stay with Neal, Peter went upstairs to where his wife and his bed waited.