Softer Landings

Summary: Neal has never before considered the idea of confessing to a crime he didn't commit, but he'd gladly do it now if only it could mean Peter would go free. Another tag to In the Wind.

Here's the thing: Neal has never before considered the idea of confessing to a crime he didn't commit. He rarely admits to the crimes he's been convicted of, much less the ones that are merely alleged, and so taking the fall for someone else has never even crossed his mind. He hated prison, the way the walls and the routines closed in on him, nearly breaking him. The only thing that got him through his first sentence was the assurance of Kate, visiting him every week and counting down the days for him. And Kate was there until she wasn't, and that was the breaking point for Neal.

He can't really fathom going back now when there's no promises waiting for him and keeping him from cracking, but for the first time ever...for the first time ever, he would gladly confess to anything, everything. He'd resign himself to spending the rest of his life behind bars if it meant Peter could go free.

Of course, that's just a fantasy – Neal knows it isn't an actual, viable option. Confessing wouldn't make any difference for Peter, because this is the real world where evidence speaks louder and clearer than the words of a conman obviously covering for a friend. Neal wasn't even in the room at the time the gun was fired, and no one has any doubt about that. James Bennett is the only other real suspect because of Peter's claim, and the man is gone with the wind, a ghost.

Ghosts don't face interrogations and trials and prison. People like Peter do.

It isn't until after his father is gone that Neal has the presence of mind to think of all he should have done to stop him. He could have fought, could have slowed him down at least, but the threat of violence from James had shaken him to his core. It shattered every hope inside him and left a bitter memory of an old goodbye on repeat, and an even more bitter one in the making.

That shouldn't have gotten in the way, though, not with Peter's career and freedom at stake. Neal knows he failed and Peter's paying the price. Over and over again, it seems, Peter pays the price for Neal's crimes, his failures, his brokenness.

He tries to think instead of feel. There's a lot to be done, and he doesn't know which way it'll all play out. Part of him is already planning Prison Break, the Sequel, and part of him is thinking on how to track his father, and part of him never wants to look at that man again.

And another, deeper part just wants to give in. He wants to put this all behind him, confess to crimes that aren't his, take Peter's place, and beg him to leave him there and forget they ever knew each other.

Maybe it's just hitting him harder now that he knows where he comes from, where he gets the blue in his eyes. Some things are written in the blood, and if James is where he comes from, then he knows Peter and El deserve better. Because in all this time, Neal can't honestly say what he's added to Peter's life besides destruction. He knows what his partner has given him, and it is no short list. A home, a purpose, someone to believe in him – someone to believe that he could be more, that he could live beyond a lie, a con, a charming smile.

And what has he given back? He's caused Peter and El to both be thrown in harm's way, with people like Keller and Addler and Fowler and all the other 'ers.' He's gambled Peter's career and reputation again and again.

But I'm not a killer like them. I'm not a killer like my father, he thinks.

It's a hollow victory, because another voice whispers that he may not be his father, but perhaps he's just as selfish. He's a man who has cheated his way through life and legally deserves prison, but Peter doesn't. Peter has been a good man, kind and respectable, and he's only ever deserved a wonderful life, with Elizabeth and Satchmo and a job at the FBI with no complications.

Neal has brought nothing but complications.

He's trying not to think about it.

It's an entire 24 hours before Neal convinces them to let him see Peter, and a lot happens in that time. El's been notified of all that's happened and when Neal saw her...well, it wasn't good. She was a mixture of wrathful and upset, with no single outlet to focus her anger. He hates knowing that another of her beautiful dinners with her husband has been ruined because of him.

Neal also gets interrogated and there's a thousand questions and he tells the truth to everyone that asks, and to some people that don't. They hear him, but they don't listen. It was my father, not Peter. James Bennett. Find him. Let Peter go.

Words fall on deaf ears, and they shake their heads and he understands. Someone is going down and if they can't find James –

The visitation room is square, derelict, and nearly empty save for a table, a guard in the corner, and Peter. The sight of Peter still in handcuffs chafes against Neal's heart, and he nearly loses it right there. Still, the mask of calm is a reflex, and he attempts to think of a clever remark. Something about the irony of this meeting, maybe, but one look in Peter's eyes and it dies in his throat. Instead, other words tumble out in a broken voice neither of them are used to. "I'm so sorry, Peter."

Peter blinks once, and looks calm, far calmer than he should, far calmer than Neal feels inside. "This isn't your fault, Neal," he says.

"He's my fa-, my problem. You shouldn't have even been involved with this. And I never should have trusted him." It comes out like a swear word, hard edges of rage seeping off him, and he isn't sure if it's for James or himself, but thinks it probably doesn't matter.

"Hey." Peter's voice is strong and certain, and Neal clings to the sound of its warm familiarity. In so many ways, he feels like a child still waiting for Peter to make it better, even though it's Peter who needs him now. "James blindsided me too, and I made a choice to help, and you have nothing to apologize for this time. Alright? That's not what matters now – what matters now is -"

"Finding him. Getting you out of here, I know," Neal interrupts, but Peter shakes his head.

"El. She's pretty shaken up and I need you and Mozzie to reassure her. These charges aren't going to hold, but for now – I need you to do what I can't while I'm here. And then we can focus on getting James."

And it's just so Peter, to be behind bars and still thinking of the people he loves first. Neal has never wished as hard as he does now that Peter truly was his father, or that he himself could be that type of man. Short of that, he can at least do this for his partner. "I will. We will. Mozzie's with her now."

"Good. That's good. Now about James -" he says, and he has that determined get-the-bad-guy look in his eyes, and Neal's heart surges with hope. Peter will have a plan and it'll work. They, the two of them and Mozzie, they'll come up with something to find James and bring him in. They've pulled off bigger stings than this, they just need figure it out, maybe put the Burke Seven back together and -

But before Neal can get any insight from Peter, he's being tapped on the shoulder by the guard. Time is up, he says, and Neal feels his throat closing as he looks at Peter. It's too soon, they need to plan; he's not ready to leave Peter to a lonely holding cell. And the need to apologize surges again, but Peter's already assured him it's unnecessary, and he doesn't want to waste any time or breath on it.

The guard is nudging him now, and he has to stand, but he catches Peter's gaze and he needs him to know. What he says instead of an apology catches even him by surprise, but it doesn't make it any less true. "I'd take the fall for you if I could, Peter."

In this moment, it is a thousand things. It's a promise to Peter, that all of this will turn out right because Neal will make sure it does, no matter what. And it's a reassurance to himself that he is not his father's son. Because unlike James, he'd take the fall a thousand times for Peter, because he owes it to him – no, not even that. Because he loves him, as family, as a friend, as everything he never knew he needed in his life. And it's proof that family can be the one you make, the one you choose, and that blood doesn't mean destiny.

Neal's nearly out the door when Peter's voice catches him. His tone is one of faith and compassion, and the words settle warmly in Neal's heart, let him believe that maybe, just maybe he's given Peter something other than devastation, after all.

"Neal," Peter says, gaze steady and sure, "I'd never want you to."