Mozzie was practically bouncing up and down with excitement. "I can't believe it's taken this long for us to pull a heist," he said.
"It's not a heist," Neal said automatically, checking his outfit in the mirror of the hotel room. Dark tan pants and a faded-out orange polo shirt. He perched a pair of aviators on his head, completing his tourist look.
"A job, then. A big one. Finally."
Neal sighed. "If you say so."
"I do say so." Mozzie was wearing a loud floral shirt with green beach shorts and ergonomic sandals. "Try to look less like you're being sent to your execution."
Neal rolled his eyes and didn't bother replying. This felt wrong. He had been trying to put off returning to running jobs for as long as possible in the face of Mozzie's increasing impatience. It wasn't like they needed the income — even as slowly and cautiously as they were selling off the treasure they always had enough to live on. Live well on, even.
But. They were addicts, both of them, and Mozzie saw no reason why he should fight against the urge as long as they didn't leave a trail. And Neal had to admit that even if he was trying to keep himself clean in some desperate bid to maintain the faint and fading connection to Peter, there was no real reason why Mozzie should feel himself obligated to do the same.
The trouble was, Mozzie doing jobs meant Mozzie making friends, which led to Neal making friends. And occasionally that led to him hearing about situations where he could help, where sitting back and doing nothing wasn't even an option, really, once he'd heard the whole story.
Such as this one.
"I'm ready," Neal said. "Where are we meeting Cal?"
"She should be waiting outside," Mozzie said, checking his watch.
Sure enough, Cal was lounging against a low wall just across the street from the small hotel. She was all in blue today — teeshirt, jeans, even the wide kerchief she tied her dreads back with. Neal and Mozzie set off down towards the harbour and she fell into step.
"The plan's still good?" she asked.
"Still good," Mozzie confirmed. "You get Victor here in, he finds the books, you both get out. Basically. Think you can remember that?"
"He insults people when he's nervous," Neal commented.
Mozzie scoffed. "I'm not nervous. Just — cautious."
"This was your idea," Neal reminded him. Well, the germ had come from Cal, but Moz was the one who had jumped on it, seeing it among other things as a way to ease Neal back into the game.
"We'll be fine," Cal said. "You guys can be out of here while the police are still working out what we dropped into their laps. I'll cut my hair off and stop matching my colours and none of those rich idiots would be able to pick me out of an exclusive party."
"And you'll be considerably richer," Mozzie reminded her.
"Yeah, that too."
They left Mozzie on one of the benches where tourists clustered to watch the boats sailing out to sea and returning with catch. It also had an excellent view of the large white house which was their target. "Don't forget the signal," he said.
Neal nodded. "Easy signal. We get a text, we get the hell out of there."
"So long as you remember." He pulled a paperback out of his back pocket.
Cal gave the cover a glance and raised her eyebrows. "You're reading about how the US government is hiding the early stages of a zombie uprising? Really?"
Neal rolled his eyes. "Don't ask. Seriously."
Mozzie gave them both a jaunty wave as they began walking.
"He's insane," Cal said.
"And yet you made friends with him. And you're the one who came to us with this job."
"Okay, point taken. Guess we're all insane."
"No arguments there," Neal muttered, as they finally approached the house.
True to her word, none of the staff stopped Cal as she guided Neal in through the back entrance. It was impressive, really, how the few people they encountered acted as if the two of them were invisible. Neal wondered whether they'd been paid off, or talked around. He actually hoped for the former — it was a motive that would probably get them in less trouble if this all went south.
He tried to head off that line of thought. If this went wrong the two of them would be in enough trouble themselves without worrying about bystanders.
They slipped up a flight of stairs and caught a burst of voices from some other room. That would be the party where Neal would supposedly be a guest if he were questioned.
"Study's this way," Cal whispered.
So far this was going off perfectly, without a single hitch. Neal gloried in the heightened reflexes and reactions the adrenaline was giving him. He had really, really been missing this. It was so damn long since he had gone undercover.
No, since he had pulled a job. That was what he had meant, of course.
He sauntered along the corridor, hands in his pockets, glancing appreciatively at the artwork displayed on the walls. There was a really very nice Monet which he thought might be his own work.
The study was empty. Cal gestured him inside and then pulled the door mostly shut behind them, using a folding mirror to keep watch through the crack. They didn't speak — she'd briefed him very throughly already on where to find everything, and also she couldn't be sure that the room wasn't bugged.
Neal worked fast. The safe was a secure model, but also one which was very familiar to him. He had it open in a matter of minutes. Cal kept shooting glances at him, the tension in her body practically begging him to hurry up. But he was used to pressure.
And then it was open, and he could check the contents. A bunch of ledgers, and also stacks of cash. Neal flipped open the book on top. Yep, there they were, long lists of money payments in and out, and names of the kids Grafen and his buddies were using as their drug mules. With little black marks next to the ones who were dead now.
"Is it enough?" Cal asked tersely. She wasn't supposed to be speaking, but Neal couldn't blame her.
"Definitely." Grafen had his own name written neatly inside the covers. Once an accountant, always an accountant. Neal knew time was ticking by, but he found the dates they'd been looking for in the second volume down. "Your sister's in here," he said."It — there's no payment to her, but it doesn't have the mark that she's dead."
Cal made a sound which was like a sob, but when Neal turned towards her she was as clear-eyed and determined as ever. "Let's go."
Neal pulled a folded cloth bag from his pocket and loaded it with the most recent ledgers. He also added a good deal of the cash, which would mostly go to Cal. He itched to boot up the computer in the corner of the room and see what was on that, but it would require more time than they had.
They went out the same way they had got in, Neal holding the cloth bag carelessly, as if it contained no more than groceries or local souvenirs. Again they seemed invisible.
Everything had gone almost unnervingly smoothly.
They blended easily into the busy flow of people in the streets, largely tourists. Neal spotted Mozzie and they did the bag-swap flawlessly without once looking at each other.
Neal touched Cal's arm. "Hey, how about you show me a good place to eat around here?"
She smiled. "I know just the place."
They strolled carelessly along narrow streets in the older part of the town, taking turn after turn. It was over-cautious, but. There was no backup here, no Peter and Jones and Diana in the van.
And then they rounded a corner and found a dark-clothed man there waiting for them, with a large knife glinting nakedly in his hand. "Give me the bag," he said, before Neal could even open his mouth.
Neal handed it over. Please let this just be a random mugging… "We've got money," he said. "We're just on holiday, we're not looking for trouble."
The man glanced inside the bag, and up-ended the pile of trashy paperbacks onto the cracked tarmac with a look of disgust. "Where are they?" he demanded.
"Run," Neal snapped, and Cal did. The man struck out at Neal, shoving him back with surprising force, and then took off after her.
This wasn't part of the plan.
Neal stumbled backwards, and felt mild consternation when his legs suddenly gave out and he was lying in the road. That… shouldn't be happening.
He was supposed to be running, wasn't he? But it was very hard to get up. He was near the edge of some sort of park, he saw, and he managed to crawl on hands and knees as far as a row of low-reaching trees with wide, shading branches, before his body gave out on him.
It was cold, now. Odd, for such a bright evening, but the sky was growing darker even as he watched. And he was getting colder and colder, ice creeping into him just below his ribs.
That wasn't right.
There was a roaring in his ears which sounded like the ocean, which would explain the dampness he found when he touched his hand to the place where he was coldest.
Night must be falling very fast. He could already hardly see.
And he was tired. Time to sleep… He closed his eyes.
Before long he didn't feel cold, either.
- o -
Neal got maybe five seconds of consciousness before the pain hit. And it was bad. He squeezed his eyes shut and couldn't prevent himself from moaning.
What he had managed to glimpse of his surroundings was enough to let him know that he was somewhere unfamiliar, and not in a hospital. He tried to take stock of his recent memories.
Grafen's people had been chasing him. They'd caught him, hadn't they?
He saw an image of Cal running, a blue-clad image. She had to have gotten away.
Resolutely, Neal opened his eyes again. He was in a small room with pale green walls. Not quite what he had expected captivity to look like, but still.
There was a firm mattress under him, on some sort of cot. Neal took a deep breath, gritted his teeth, and planted his hands down so that he could lever himself upright. It hurt every bit as much as he had been expecting and then some, and he had to stay very still, holding his breath, until he could be sure that he wasn't going to pass out right away. His vision was swimming already, and he was only sitting.
But he had to get out. Neal thought for a horrible second that he had been completely undressed, but it was only his shirt which was gone. Someone had bandaged his abdomen, which presumably meant he was destined for some sort of interrogation, since he hadn't been killed straight out. Of course. They would want to know what he had done with the ledgers.
And he didn't intend to tell them. He shifted, slowly and carefully, until he could slide his legs down over the side of the cot. He gritted his teeth and pushed himself upright all at once, grabbing for the support of the wall as his vision momentarily blacked out completely. But he managed not to go down, even though he couldn't stop another low moan from forcing its way out of his throat.
Waking up had been a bad, bad decision.
He was still working up the energy to take more than a couple of steps along the wall towards the doorway when he heard footsteps. Someone ascending a flight of stairs, towards him. Neal looked around desperately for anything he could use as a weapon (and why hadn't he thought of that before?) but there seemed to be nothing in the room apart from medical supplies.
He tried taking a step back towards the bed — maybe he could pretend to still be unconscious — but his knees nearly buckled and it was all he could do to keep himself from collapsing to the floor. He clung onto the wall. He couldn't think, he couldn't think —
The door opened. Neal jerked back reflexively, and Mozzie yelped loudly.
"Jesus, Neal, what are you doing?"
"What are you doing here?" Neal asked, stupidly. It didn't make the least bit of sense — Mozzie wouldn't work for Grafen…
"You should be lying down," Mozzie snapped. He grabbed Neal's arm and forcibly guided him back to the cot, although not forcibly enough to cause any more pain than the inevitable.
Neal submitted to it, not that he had much of a choice. And lying down really was an incredible relief. "Moz —" he tried.
Mozzie poured out a glass of water from a bottle. "Shut up and drink this. It's been hard keeping you hydrated, now it's your turn to do the work." He saved Neal the struggle of trying to sit up again by perching next to his shoulders and propping him up.
Neal groaned a bit more at the movement, but he'd also just realised how thirsty he was. He forced himself not to gulp at the water, but drank it as fast as he judged was sensible to do so. "More, please?" he asked.
Mozzie obliged. "As long as you don't puke it up on me," he muttered darkly.
Neal finished that glass too and then Mozzie let him lie down again, and tested the back of his hand against Neal's forehead. Neal was beginning to feel a bit steadier now, and was also realising that he had misjudged the situation. "Grafen didn't catch me?" he asked, cautiously.
"Depends how technical you're being," Mozzie said, and then apparently realised that as an answer that wasn't terribly helpful. "Oh, right. You thought you were a prisoner?"
Mozzie for some reason looked faintly relieved. "Oh, well, that explains what you were doing wandering around. I was afraid you were delirious or something. No, luckily for both of us I found you before the thug who tried to run you through realised you weren't dead and came back to finish the job. This house belongs to a pair of guys, names of Joe and Seb. Seb stitched you up."
"Oh," Neal said. It was quite a bit to take in. "How long have I been out?"
"Just under two days. Seb thought it would be best if you couldn't move until you'd started healing up a bit."
"Thanks," Neal said, automatically. He swallowed. "It was bad, then?"
Mozzie's face went grim and closed-off. "Bad enough."
"Thank you," Neal said, again, with feeling. He had vague recollections now of bleeding out under a low green canopy, shock making the images captured strange and jerky. And now that he was remembering — "You made the drop?"
"Of course I did," Mozzie said. "The ledgers have been given over to Interpol." He leaned forward, suddenly looking worried, biting his lower lip. "Neal, there's something you should know."
"What, the evidence wasn't good enough for them?" Neal asked disbelievingly.
"No! I don't know if they've even looked at them yet. Neal, listen to me."
"What is it?"
Mozzie sighed, and scrubbed a hand across his face. "It's Cal. I think Grafen's man caught her. No one's seen or heard from her since, but someone who could well have been her was carried into the house just after dark."
"Carried," Neal said flatly.
"I'm afraid so."
Neal felt nausea well up. His expression must have changed, or perhaps his colour did, because Mozzie produced a bowl just in time for him to start retching. At least it was mostly water.
"I told you not to puke that back up," Mozzie grumbled.
Neal groaned, and wiped his mouth. "We need to get her out of there," he said.
Mozzie arched his eyebrows. "I hate to say this, but our best option may be to wait for the authorities. As soon as they realise what we've given them they'll be getting search warrants and kicking down doors, you can bet on it."
Neal pushed himself upright, trying to ignore the tearing pain. "Moz, they've had her for two days already. She won't have much more time."
"If she's even still alive."
Neal looked at him. "I know you. There's no way you aren't desperate to find some way to get her out."
Mozzie frowned, his expression pained. "There's nothing I can do!" He looked up at Neal, and his eyes narrowed. "Oh, no. I saw you trying to walk just a minute ago. No way are you in a fit state to try anything."
Neal grabbed the bottle of water and drank straight from it, being careful to take small sips. "Am I on painkillers?" he asked. "Right now?"
"Not much," Mozzie admitted. "It's kind of hard getting you to take them while you're unconscious, even crushed up. Since you're awake, you're definitely due for another dose."
Neal managed one of his dazzling grins, which Mozzie looked distinctly unimpressed by. "There you are," he said. "Get me some which don't knock me out completely and I'll be able to do this."
"You're completely insane," Mozzie said.
Neal shrugged. "We have to save Cal," he said. "You know that by the time Interpol makes a move it'll be too late. Do you have a better idea?"
Mozzie looked at him for long moments, clearly struggling to come to a decision. Finally he sighed. "I'll go talk to Seb," he said. "Please don't make me regret this."
"I'll do my best," Neal promised.
- o -
Seb apparently was in possession of some non-incapacitating prescription-strength painkillers. An hour later Neal was downstairs sitting at the battered kitchen table with Mozzie fussing around him unhappily.
"Come on," Neal said, "It's not all that bad." He was aiming for a joke, but it apparently fell flat.
Mozzie scowled. "I'd like to know what you consider bad to be," he said.
"We've been in worse straits," Neal pointed out.
"True, although not especially reassuring. Not many of those situations turned out well."
Neal waved away the protestations with a movement which he instantly regretted. "Let's just take your objections as read and come up with an actual plan."
Seb came back in then with a small pile of medical supplies. "Since you're up I thought I might as well change the dressing," he said.
"You don't seem very bothered by his plan to run off," Mozzie accused.
Neal sighed impatiently, but Seb just gave a half-shrug. "I'm used to it. Not many of the people I patch up want to stick around for long. And Cal's our friend. She was there when Joe and I got married last year. Her little sister was our flower-girl."
Neal leant back obediently in response to Seb's gesture. Despite the narcotics his whole side throbbed with a heavy, dull ache. He felt dizzy and exhausted, and if Peter could see him he'd have a fit and then order Neal back to bed immediately. It was a not at all unappealing thought. He swallowed as Seb peeled off the dirty gauze and he could see for the first time the line of neat stitches which skittered across the line of his ribs. "I wonder why Grafen's man didn't just take me instead," he said. "Not like I could have stopped him."
Seb leaned forward to inspect the stitching. "He probably thought he'd killed you," he said. "He very nearly did — your ribcage stopped the blade. You lost a lot of blood, but you managed to get away with just that."
"And Cal was a lower-risk target for kidnapping," Mozzie noted.
"Yeah," Seb agreed. "Any drugged-up street kid could have knifed you in a mugging, happens all the time, but you look the type to have friends who'd want answers if you disappeared." He frowned very slightly. "You've clearly got money, you're American, you're white. Whereas he probably figured that even if Cal was missed, the authorities would be unlikely to care enough to do much. Of course, he's right."
Neal felt anger boiling up inside him. "They aren't going to get away with this," he said.
Mozzie leant forward and steepled his fingers on the table. "So, let's plan."
Neal had been thinking about that already. "We might have to try for a prisoner exchange," he said. "Convince them that Cal doesn't know anything. She'll be able to tell you details about where they keep captives in the event that I'm not able to get myself out."
Mozzie looked even less impressed with Neal than he had previously. "Too dangerous and really, really stupid," he said. "Try telling them that if they release Cal we'll give the ledgers back."
"They'll want proof that we still have them, and since we don't, that will be a problem. And you know I can't make a forgery without the originals."
Mozzie looked at him.
Neal grinned suddenly. "You kept one back, didn't you? You anticipated this scenario."
Mozzie seemed torn between pride and disapproval. "Yes, sadly I actually did anticipate you coming up with this sort of idiotic plan. I'm not sure what that says about you. Or me."
"You'd have made a good boy scout," Neal said, as Seb finished re-bandaging him. "Am I good to go?" he asked.
"As close as you're going to get," Seb told him. "I'll give you some more of the good drugs right before you leave."
"Thank you," Neal said. He barely knew Seb, certainly not well enough for it to be polite to ask him why he was willing to patch up people who were unable or unwilling to seek legitimate medical attention in his spare bedroom. He thought he'd probably like to get to know him better, sometime.
Seb patted him gently on the shoulder. "Get Cal back, yeah?" he said. "Then we'll be quits."
- o -
A couple of hours after that — enough time to lay out endless contingency plans, and contingencies for those plans — Neal was leaning carefully against the side of a cafe not too far from Grafen's house. Mozzie had fetched him a change of clothes from the hotel, and a small satchel which had the ledger in.
He glanced at his watch. Showtime.
It was just too bad about the gun barrel suddenly jamming into his spine.
"Move," the voice behind him demanded.
As he walked, Neal was swearing bitterly at himself. He had been waiting, watching the crowd, trying to keep alert for an ambush. But it had happened anyway, and he had failed to notice it.
And he knew why. Yes, he definitely knew why. It was because he had become so used to being a part of a team that he had taken for granted just how much work the others in the team actually did while he, the visible one, swanned and smooth-talked around the mark. Peter would have had agents all over the square, would have seen this coming a mile off and been able to take action.
He stumbled over a curb and it sent a fiery jolt of pain through him. He bit down on the hiss which tried to escape. He couldn't afford to show weakness, not now.
Mozzie would be watching, safely out of reach. Neal wasn't just disappearing into thin air, at least.
He tripped again, and was rewarded by being jabbed forcefully by the gun. It was a fast pace. He wasn't sure how long he could maintain it for. Wasn't sure how long the drugs in his system would last. Well, they had probably been contributing to him not spotting the man with the gun until it was too late, but, again, there hadn't been any other options.
He had felt lonely since leaving New York, sure, had spent night after night trying to drown or hide from that loneliness, but he hadn't up to this point felt his lack of allies so completely and acutely.
The steps up to Grafen's front door loomed, and Neal actually found himself taking a breath of relief because at least this signalled the end of the walking. Still, climbing them took far too many of his dwindling resources, each step tugging and pulling at his stitches. He was panting despite all efforts to control his breathing by the time he reached the top.
At his approach the door opened inwards. He clenched his teeth, fought to regain his composure, and stepped inside.
Grafen was waiting for him. "Mr Moreau, I assume?" he said. His voice was as cultured in person as it had sounded on the telephone.
"We had a deal," Neal said. "You were supposed to give me the girl."
Grafen shrugged. "I don't trust you," he said, bluntly. "And I've no inclination to let someone who managed to steal from my private safe continue to walk around. I have no idea who you are, Mr Moreau, but you're dangerous."
He gestured, and one of his men pulled the satchel away from Neal and passed it over.
Grafen glanced inside. "Where are the others?"
"Let the girl go," Neal said. "Then I'll consider telling you."
"You'll tell me whether you like it or not," Grafen said. Calmly. Stating a fact. "Alex?"
Neal felt his eyes widen, his heart hammer — but of course it wasn't her who stepped forwards. It was the man who had stabbed him. "Fancy running into you again," Neal said.
Alex glanced at Grafen, who nodded.
The punch Alex threw landed right, right on the knife-wound. There was no numbing cushion of shock this time. Just blinding pain, instant and immediate, blotting out the world. Neal shrieked — he couldn't contain it — and curled inward instinctively, losing his footing, tumbling to the floor as his vision blurred to a haze of lights and shadows. Then someone kicked him and he yelled again, unable to move, unable to do anything, paralysed by sheer and overwhelming agony.
He could dimly hear Grafen's voice, though he couldn't distinguish any words, couldn't even form any coherent thoughts other than a desperate urge for this to be over, please.
There was another blast of pain, and he squeezed his eyes shut, and it was.
- o -
"Hey. Victor. Victor"
The voice sounded as if it had been speaking for a while. Possibly it had, dripping gradually into his awareness.
"Come on, talk. Victor. Hey."
Neal thought about it for a while. There didn't seem any great incentive to open his eyes. He had a feeling that there was a great deal of unpleasantness waiting for him if he did.
The voice was familiar. Recognition of it was accompanied by the edges of pain, and also swirling fragments of memory. Apparently he was waking up whether he liked it or not.
"Cal?" he asked. "That you?" His voice sounded rusty and strained.
"Yes! Seriously, I've been trying to get you to wake up for hours."
Neal pried open his eyes reluctantly. Wavering into focus was a ceiling of thick bare concrete, with a bare filament bulb hanging just above him. It was a ridiculous cliche, but effective for all that. It instantly communicated trapped and in trouble. Saved him the effort and time of having to draw those conclusions for himself, which was a good thing right now. His head felt thick and heavy, aching along with the rest of him.
He turned his neck, every muscle stiff and sore. He was lying on the floor, which was apparently made of the same concrete as the walls and ceiling. Maybe Grafen was planning on using this place as a nuclear bunker in an emergency.
Cal was chained up, across the room. Her face was swollen and bruised. Her cheek had split and the trail of dried blood she had been unable to wipe away ran down her neck and soaked darkly into the light blue of her shirt. She sat against the wall, arms secured behind her. A short length of chain allowed her to fold her knees up against her chest, her ankles shackled.
Neal blinked at her slowly. "Are you okay?"
She let out a short, harsh laugh. "I would have said no, before they brought you down here."
Neal groaned. "Happy to help."
"They wanted me to tell them where the books were," Cal told him. "They kept saying you were just using me, that I had no idea what you'd stolen."
Neal managed a smile. "You did say they were stupid."
"Arrogant pricks." She snorted.
"How —" Neal coughed, and had to swallow, his throat too dry — "How much did they hurt you?" he asked, quietly.
She shrugged slightly, and winced, and he remembered that she, too, was used to hiding herself behind masks. "The one called Alex beat me up a bit. Well, a lot." She cleared her throat. "Mostly they were more concerned about you. They started believing I didn't know anything pretty quickly, really. Probably they were considering where to dump my corpse when you reappeared." She sighed. "How did they find you, anyway?"
"I was trying to bargain for your release," Neal said.
Cal half-smiled. "Nice job."
"No need for sarcasm," Neal muttered, and got a full grin in return.
He realised that it was long past time he worked out what his situation was, and wondered why that had only just occurred to him. So far he had just been keeping his eyes fixed on Cal, and trying to ignore the messages from various parts of his body.
His wrists were locked together with thick metal cuffs — the same sort that Cal had on her ankles and probably her wrists too — and chained to a ring on the wall with just enough slack to let them lie on his chest. While he couldn't see his ankles, trying to move them suggested that they were secured in much the same way. Overall, not nearly as bad as it could have been — and another reason he was very grateful that Grafen knew nothing about him.
For instance, that he and Mozzie had planned very carefully, and had found several places in his clothing to hide various picks. It was just a shame that reaching them would require movement. And possibly coherency, which he thought he might be in slightly short supply of.
But before he could do more than cautiously flex his arms (and he had rarely been more conscious of how his body was connected, every muscle seemed to tug directly on his torso) there was the sound of a door banging.
"They're coming," Cal whispered. She shrank back against the wall.
Neal considered faking unconsciousness, but if they wanted him awake they were unlikely to be gentle in trying to rouse him. So he just lay still, and waited, as the footsteps came down and down the stairs.
It was Alex, and another man whose clothing was distinctly more expensive.
"Are you from the embassy?" Neal asked him.
Neither of the men looked at all impressed. At least their focus was firmly on him, and away from Cal. She'd taken enough already.
"You know who I am," Alex said.
"Who's your friend?"
"I'm Robert," the second man said. "You're going to tell me some things, Mr Moreau."
Neal met his eyes. "Am I."
"Alex will make sure of it," Robert said, simply. He stopped in the centre of the room. Not one to get his hands dirty, clearly. "Although, if you're especially uncooperative, we can question the girl some more instead."
Neal breathed in hard, fast; Cal glared at him.
"We should try him first," Alex said. "Who knows, she might suddenly remember something she'd forgotten."
He glanced over to Robert, who shrugged. "Well, I don't care. Whatever works."
Alex walked towards Neal very slowly, until he was standing over him. "Where are the books?" he asked.
Neal looked up at him, and swallowed. "Nowhere you're going to find them."
Alex braced a hand against the wall, and lowered one booted foot down slowly onto Neal's ribcage, eliciting an involuntary gasp even with a barely-there amount of pressure. "Where?"
The imagination that presented almost endless varieties of pain in Neal's very close future also showed him the possibility of surrendering. Telling the truth, that the books had gone to Interpol. Out of Grafen's grasp, certainly.
But that would give Grafen and his friends time to run before the police closed in (although that would happen soon, it had to). They could start new lives in another jurisdiction, another continent, and they wouldn't face justice for what they had done to Cal, and Cal's sister, and too many others.
Not to mention, there would be no reason to keep Neal and Cal alive. At least this — this was buying time. It will be alright in the end. It always is.
Alex's heel pressed down harder, and Neal screamed.
- o -
It was almost becoming familiar, this slow dragging of himself into consciousness. This time he just got it over with and opened his eyes.
Ceiling. Light bulb. It danced and shimmered as he watched.
Nothing new, apart from an added level of pain. But he hadn't talked. He was proud of that.
"Victor? You awake?"
It took him a few seconds to remember yes, that's me, and for him to turn his head.
"You look like absolute crap," Cal told him. "What happened to you? I thought before they threw you in here you just got kicked around and knocked out, but I was wrong, wasn't I?"
Neal noted with no amusement at all how perfectly correct the 'just' in there was. "Alex stabbed me. Before he caught you," he said, wanting to tell her about Seb, and everything else which had happened, but it hurt to talk, and was exhausting. He was suddenly grateful for the dark navy of his new shirt. He wondered how much blood it was hiding.
Cal spat out a few curses. She too looked absolutely exhausted, worn down. "What's your name?" she suddenly asked.
"Oh, come on. Give me a first name, whatever, as long as you respond to it better than you do to Victor."
Neal thought about it. Finally he told her, "Neal."
She sighed, and then looked at him very seriously. "Neal, I'm really sorry."
"For getting you into this. It wasn't anything which affected you at all."
The words That's what we do died on Neal's tongue. After all, he wasn't with the FBI anymore. Why had he felt such a need to rush in and play hero once he'd heard Cal's story?
Because it's what Peter would do.
"I wanted to help," Neal said, and shivered. It was freezing in the cellar.
"I never meant for you to get hurt," Cal said. "I thought, once I'd found someone like you to help me it would be easy." She pulled her knees closer to her chest. They'd taken her sneakers, Neal noticed. Her socks were blue as well.
"We're going to be okay," Neal said.
She stared at him. "We're chained up in a fucking dungeon, Neal. We aren't going to be okay." She shook her head. "Thank you for trying, but… I think I'm just about done with false hope."
Neal had a sudden jolt of realisation. The picks. He'd completely forgotten about them again. He lifted his hands, grabbing on to the length of chain, and pulled. Things buzzed and spun around him and he felt like he was tearing in half but then he was sitting, leaning against the wall, trying to breathe.
"Neal?" Cal's voice seemed to come from a very long way away. "What are you doing?"
"I'm not done with —" he had to pause to take a breath — "False hope. Not yet. We're — getting out."
"Sure we are," she said. "And then you'll find Sapphire for me and we'll live happily ever after."
Neal grinned. He felt lightheaded now; daring. "Yup. That too."
She stared at him and he wondered if she really had given up. Then, "Show me," she said, hardly above a whisper. Tears she couldn't wipe away rolled down her cheeks and spotted dark on the light blue of her shirt. Blue. Sapphire. She had worn that colour that day as a silent prayer for her sister.
And Neal was determined.
He managed to ease the two picks out of the waistband of his pants. Then there were the two in the seams against the inner side of his shins, which required leaning forwards. Which. It took every ounce of willpower not to shriek at the feeling that a red-hot piece of metal was being inserted in between his ribs, and every breath he pulled in seared like fire.
He couldn't straighten up. He couldn't bear any more movement, this was it, he didn't want to give up but he couldn't do this.
His fingers touched a slight lump in the bottom hem. When he remembered what it was he was tempted to just break down with relief, but he managed to focus enough to ease out the plastic-wrapped painkillers. Thank god for Mozzie and Seb. He dry-swallowed them, and by the time he had got the picks out of the seams the pain was very slightly blunted.
Since he was in the right position already he did his ankle shackles first, the thin picks jarring alarmingly in his shaking hands. He couldn't steady them, no matter what he did, and it took an age before the lock finally clicked open.
Then he had to do his wrists, and whereas the unusual angle would not normally have slowed him down unduly, right then it was hellish. Neal's entire body was trembling with the concentration required by the time he was finally free.
Cal remained silent while he worked, staring fixedly at him but biting her lips as if she thought that speaking might break some sort of spell. Nor did she say a word as he very slowly turned himself over and began crawling towards her. Only when he reached her did she let go a breath she'd been holding.
He felt that he shouldn't stop, but he wanted to so badly. He leaned forwards, dropping his head to rest on her shoulder. It was an oddly intimate position, and an infinitely comforting one.
Her skin was cool, and when she spoke he felt it vibrate through him. "Neal, you're burning up."
Neal frowned. He still felt cold. Then she realised she was telling him he was feverish, and he wondered why he hadn't noticed that himself. Although it would probably explain some of how out of it he felt.
And it would also explain why his wound was hurting so much. He hoped Seb wouldn't be annoyed, or think it was any slight to him that Neal had managed to develop an infection despite his care.
"I'll unlock you now," Neal said, and did so, tortuously slowly.
Cal stood up immediately, and promptly crashed back down again. "Shit," she said, and tried more slowly, shaking out her legs until they seemed to work better. "Okay," she said finally. "I'm good to go."
Neal thought that, considering everything, he should probably tell her to leave him, but he shuddered at the idea.
"You are coming with me," Cal said, as if reading his mind, and he smiled gratefully.
"I just need to rest a minute longer," he said, and leaned against the wall.
Cal took hold of his shoulder firmly. "No, we don't have time."
Neal blinked at her, wanting her to understand that he would be fine in just a moment, he just needed to stop moving so that the walls would stop spinning and wavering, rippling like they were made of some elasticated material. Something soft, that couldn't hold them.
She put a hand on his forehead, and swore again. "Neal, you need to do as I say. The men could be coming back at any minute."
Crap. Yes, she was right, of course. Neal tried to pull himself together, alarmed to realise how quickly he seemed to be deteriorating. He blamed it on moving. Moving was bad.
Cal had clearly run out of patience. She hauled him to his feet, an action which rather prevented Neal from any sort of coherent thought for a time. When he came back to himself he recognised the little sounds she was making as suppressed whimpers, from her own pain.
"I've got it," he assured her, rather shakily, and hoped that she wasn't taking as much of his weight as he suspected as they limped across the room. He had been dreading the stairs, but apparently his pain receptors were already overwhelmed or the tablets were kicking in because they didn't seem to make that much difference. He was aware that Cal was muttering encouragements to him, a steady stream of them, and he imagined them wrapping around him and helping to pull him up.
A door barred their way, heavy steel. "What do we do?" Cal asked.
There was a bolt on their side. "Lock it," Neal mumbled. He couldn't breathe properly. "Wait for Peter. He'll find us."
"Peter? Is that another of Mozzie's names?"
Neal shook his head. "No, Peter. W' the FBI. He'll come."
"Neal!" Cal smacked his face. "Concentrate! No one from the FBI's coming, why would they?"
"He will," Neal said obstinately, because the idea of Peter not coming when he was in trouble was ludicrous.
Cal sucked in a short breath. "I'm not waiting here for you to finish dying," she said. "We're going to make a run for it."
No, Neal tried to say, because once you were in this bad a shape and had a place where you could hole up you took advantage of it, and waited for backup. But if Cal heard him she ignored it. And when Neal forced his muzzy brain to actually think, he remembered that when you operated on your own, all that you would achieve by holing up in a known location was to box yourself in. She was right.
The door wasn't locked from the other side. An oversight, or overconfidence. Cal pushed Neal up against the wall so that he could lean there and then slowly eased the door open. Neal knew that he should be watching, should really be helping, but he was so dizzy that all he could really do was close his eyes, press his face against the cool concrete, and concentrate on not falling over.
There was a brief noise. A scuffle. Neal straightened up in alarm, but before he could react further Cal was back. "We need to move," she whispered.
Neal leaned heavily on her. She was holding a pistol, now, and on the other side of the door a man was lying face-down on the carpet. "Dead?" Neal whispered.
She shook her head, pointing towards an exit. Through a curtain not fully drawn the night sky was visible. "I elbow-choked him. He'll wake up."
Neal staggered along with her arm around him. "Could be guards outside."
"So?" she whispered back, desperation in her voice now, and Neal had to agree. So there might be — what were they going to do about it? They were already doing all they could. Or, all that Cal could — she was firmly in charge of the rescue at this point, really.
The outer door was locked. "Let me," Neal muttered, and slipped his picks out of his pocket as Cal remained close for him to lean against. His hands were shaking, tremors which he couldn't control, much less stop. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, imagining Peter's calming voice. I know you can do it, Caffrey.
The lock clicked and Neal tugged on the handle. The door opened. He grinned giddily.
Coming down the stairs, quickening to a run as he recognised them, was Alex.
Cal didn't. She aimed her gun at Alex and fired. Again. Again. Again. He went down, stayed down, twitching and jerking and moaning, and then she shot him again and he went still and silent, limbs sprawling limply as blood began to drip down the steps.
"Run," Cal hissed, and did so, dragging Neal with her. He clutched on to her tightly and forced his feet to keep moving. He had no idea where they were going, or what was happening around them. His eyes were squeezed shut, because keeping them open required effort that he couldn't spare.
On and on, and then someone slipped under his other arm and it was a bit easier although not much, he was barely aware beyond the need to keep moving, and then eventually, there wasn't even that.
- o -
He was cold, drifting, with no fix or focus. In motion, random motion.
Mozzie was there above him, unfocused, his face peering down anxiously. Neal blinked at him. All the surroundings he could see were metal, which made him think of prison, except Mozzie didn't get sent to prison.
"Where are we?" he asked, except it was a mumble, and even his own ears had difficulty distinguishing words in it. He could barely move. His body was too heavy.
"A boat," Mozzie said. "In a cargo hold. It was too dangerous to stay."
Mozzie sighed, and looked upset. "I don't have any more blankets, I'm sorry."
The scratchy fabric rubbed against Neal's skin as he shivered. They weren't enough. Maybe that should be their next job.
"How are you feeling?" Mozzie asked, and touched his hand to Neal's forehead. Neal gave a little yelp, because Mozzie's fingers were freezing. "Neal?"
"Cold," Neal repeated, because it was still true.
Mozzie sighed, slightly impatiently. "Yes, okay, how about apart from that?"
Neal tried to wriggle himself tighter into the blankets wrapped around him. He couldn't really think of a way to describe the aching pain throughout his entire body, how he felt so cold and miserable and wasn't really sure what was going on except that it was horrible, he felt entirely horrible. "Moz," he tried, and it turned into a low moan.
Apparently that was successful at getting the message across, because the frown on Mozzie's forehead deepened. "You should drink something," he said, and uncapped a water bottle.
Neal managed to lift his head enough to take a couple of sips, and then his chest and throat started hurting and he gagged on it. "No more."
Mozzie wouldn't take the plastic bottle away. "You have to drink it," he said.
The sigh this time was slightly exasperated. "Neal, shut up and drink. We're not arguing about this."
Neal was too tired to argue. He choked down more mouthfuls of the tepid water, until Moz finally relented and took it away. He let his head drop back down, exhausted.
"You should probably go back to sleep," Mozzie said.
Neal shivered again. "Where're we?" he asked.
"We're in the cargo hold of a boat. Remember?"
That seemed odd. "Why?"
"Don't worry about it, Neal. Just get some rest. We'll dock soon."
There were some important things he needed to ask about. He just couldn't remember them, and he was so tired, and so cold.
He went back to sleep.
- o -
A few times, he woke, or at least emerged into a state resembling wakefulness in some respects. Through a sort of haze he saw Mozzie leaning over him, his lips forming shapes which failed to resolve into words. Neal squinted up at him, and tried to talk, but his attempts were just as unsuccessful.
Then he was being moved and he shut his eyes tight and tried to curl into himself to keep everything away but that hurt, it hurt, and everything was unreal and unsettling and painful.
After that he was in a bed, he thought, and Mozzie was hovering around him again, distorted by a shimmering fever haze, his figure and face wavering and shifting as Neal tried to make anything make sense.
Then Peter was there too, bending over him, looking concerned, and Neal almost couldn't breathe because oh, oh, Peter had come for him just as Neal had known he would, just as he had told Cal, who hadn't believed him. "Peter," Neal said, and then he was gone and Mozzie was there pressing him back into the bed. Neal struggled against him but the effort exhausted him, and he had to let his eyelids fall closed again.
When he next blinked awake Kate was perched on the bed beside him, smoothing down the covers and smiling at him with that smile which had only, only been his, and he started to smile back before he remembered, the images harsh and too-bright and merciless. "You're dead," he told her. "You can't be here, you're dead."
"Of course I'm here," she said, but he knew that she was lying even though she wasn't showing any of her tells.
That was how he knew that Peter wasn't there either, and somehow that hurt more than anything because he had been so sure that he would be there, Neal had been waiting for him all that time.
Kate moved to a chair and smiled at him sadly and Peter leant against the wall behind her with his arms crossed and watched, just watched, until Kate told him to fetch her some coffee.
Sometime later Cal was there, with a young girl who looked exactly as she had in her photograph, even wearing the same clothes, her hair braided into cornrows. Neal was too tired to speak to them, but he smiled until they were gone and then he thought he might cry because he had told Cal they'd find Sapphire, and he'd meant it, and now he had to remember that it still might not come true.
"Neal," Peter said, leaning forward in his chair, and since Neal was drifting in a haze where he could barely feel his body, when Peter laid his hand on Neal's arm the ghostly touch could even be mistaken for being real. "I'm here. It's alright."
"Knew you'd come," Neal said, and the wave of relief and safety which washed over him at hearing Peter's voice was beyond words.
"Of course I did," Peter told him.
"Peter —" Neal began, and then his voice cracked and he was crying, crying. Elizabeth was crying too, and wiped his tears away.
He tried again. "You would've —"
"I know what you did," Peter said. His face was serious. "I'm proud of you." He patted Neal's hand again.
Neal was so tired. But he didn't want to close his eyes because he didn't want Peter to be gone. He wasn't really there, Neal knew that, but he'd missed him so much that it didn't really matter, even a Peter who was a product of his fevered brain was better than nothing.
Elizabeth stroked his hair. "Sweetie, you're very sick," she murmured.
"Sorry," Neal whispered.
She shushed him. "There's nothing you need to apologise for. But you do need to keep fighting. For us, okay? You need to get better."
"Don't go," Neal begged. "Please, don't go."
"We're not going anywhere," Elizabeth promised him, and Peter murmured agreement, and if Neal listened hard enough he could hear Kate's soft tones overlaid with theirs. And it wasn't real, but.
"I knew you'd find me," Neal whispered. And he couldn't stop himself from fading, falling into sleep.
He dreamed that they were on a beach, all of them together. Mozzie was building a sand-castle and Peter was trying to advise him about security systems, while Neal and El sat on a rock and ate bright blue ice cream.
The tide came in all at once and he started to drown, choking and thrashing in the sea that was too warm, far too warm, heavy and thick all around him, crushing him tight. But then there were hands holding him, steadying and safe, and although he was still underwater he could breathe, with them there. They floated around him, pale like ghosts, but they held him safe.
And then the water grew cold, beautiful and cold, and he opened his eyes to see Mozzie leaning over him.
"Oh, thank god," Mozzie said. "I think your fever just broke."
Neal just watched him, not really understanding.
"Go back to sleep," Mozzie said, and Neal closed his eyes.
- o -
Neal drowsed, not quite asleep, not quite ready to wake up. He couldn't remember where he was, had lost track of all the myriad similar hotel rooms they had stayed in recently, but that was okay.
Then he finally opened his eyes and realised that he had been wrong. The walls were too stark, and too close. He started to move, and aborted it as he recognised the tug of an IV line in his arm. Hospital then. His recent memories were fuzzy and confused. He started trying to sort through them.
"Neal? Are you awake?"
He turned his head, and there was Peter, sitting in a chair.
"Oh," was all that Neal could think to say at first. And then, "But you weren't real."
Peter looked mildly bemused. "Well, I am." He proved it by reaching over to squeeze Neal's forearm. The way he had before.
"You were here all the time?" Neal asked, slowly.
"You were talking to me. Don't you remember?"
"I didn't think you were actually here," Neal said, and to his dismay found that his eyes were threatening to water. He blinked hard, several times, trying to make them stop.
"Oh," Peter said, and now he seemed to be the one who didn't quite know what to do.
"I wanted you to be, though," Neal said.
Peter patted his arm gently, and Neal looked around properly for the first time. Definitely a hospital, albeit an obviously small one. His room was tiny, and the monitoring equipment was clearly old. It didn't look like Peter had arrested him and taken him back to New York.
"What are you doing here?" he asked. "I mean, how did you know?"
Peter smiled wryly. "Mozzie phoned El and told her your situation, and within the hour she was springing a 'surprise vacation' on me. She only told me what was actually going on once we reached the airport."
Neal started to laugh, imagining what Peter's face must have looked like. It tugged at the re-done stitches, although it hurt less than he would have expected. Still, he stopped with a small wince.
"Take it easy," Peter said, quickly.
"Yeah," Neal said. He felt tired, and wrung-out, but happy. "Thanks for the advice."
Peter chuffed. "So this is your luxurious life of crime, then?"
Neal scowled a bit, for the form of the thing. "It usually has fewer periods of unconsciousness. And more actual gain." He hesitated, and then his words stumbled forwards. "But I'm not living whatever life of crime you think I am. Really."
Peter stilled him. "I know," he said. "I know what you were doing. Mozzie told us."
"Really?" Neal asked, a little sceptically.
"Well, probably about eighty per cent," Peter corrected, smiling wryly.
Neal laughed again. "Does this bed let me sit up?" he asked. He was tired of lying flat, but wasn't confident in his body supporting him for long.
"I think so," Peter hazarded. He examined the back of the bed and grinned triumphantly when he managed to tilt it upright. "But if you're going to ask about getting up, the answer is very firmly no."
Neal pulled a face. "After the last few days, I think I'm perfectly happy to stay in bed for a while. Possibly for the next couple of months."
"Suits me," Peter said. "You may actually stay out of trouble for once."
"Honey, don't tease him," Elizabeth called, pushing open the door at that moment, with Mozzie right behind her. She looked Neal up and down. "You're so much better! We were so worried…" She trailed off.
"It was that bad?" Neal asked. Sure, it had felt bad, but being injured and sick was something it was hard to be objective about.
"Why do you think I risked your freedom to call the Suits?" Mozzie demanded. "I thought you were dying. I can't believe I let you do something so stupid."
"I had to, though," Neal reminded him. "Because of —" He stopped himself, realising that he didn't know if Peter knew about Cal or not.
"They know," Mozzie said. "And she's fine, don't worry. Our mutual friend patched her up."
Neal sighed in relief. He hadn't realised how heavy the worry he had been carrying on her behalf was until right then, when he could let it go. "Grafen?"
"Interpol raided his house yesterday," Peter said. "They found lots of interesting things. Everyone in that place will be spending some quality time in prison."
"Except one guy who had been shot to death," Mozzie interjected. "His body was in a freezer unit, probably while they decided where to dump him. Interpol are thinking he was the mole who sent him the ledgers, and Grafen realised and had him killed."
"Oh," said Neal, eventually, realising that everyone seemed to be waiting for him to comment. "That's… a good theory."
"That does seem to be the most likely scenario," Peter agreed, carefully. "You know, from the evidence they had."
"How do you know all these details, anyway?" Neal asked, feeling that it was a good time to be changing the subject.
Peter smiled. "I rang Diana, told her that I'd seen some of the raid going down and wanted to know if I could be of any assistance."
Neal raised his eyebrows. "Yes, because that doesn't sound suspicious at all."
Peter lifted his hands. "What can I say? I have an excellent team of very non-suspicious people." He sobered. "She's also getting in touch with the appropriate agencies to see if the FBI resources can help in the search for the kids Grafen used who've gone missing."
"Thank you," Neal said, sincerely. "And — thank you for coming out here."
"You're very welcome," El said, and bent to kiss his cheek. "You were in trouble — of course we would."
"Speak for yourself," Peter grumbled lightly. "I'm only here under coercion and false pretences."
"Peter," El said reprovingly, and put her hand on Neal's shoulder protectively.
"Yes, Suit," Mozzie added. "Especially since you've barely left this room during the past thirty hours."
Neal chuckled, and made a what-can-I-say? face at Peter, who rolled his eyes.
It felt like being home.
- o -
A few days later, they did go to the beach, Neal having been discharged that morning. He wasn't yet up to much moving around, still sore from his injuries and weak from the fever, but he had adamantly refused to go straight to the latest hotel and rest. As a compromise he was half-lying in a deckchair, in the shade of a beach umbrella, with Peter lounging nearby and keeping a careful eye on him.
Mozzie had offered to take El sightseeing. Peter had grumbled at length at his refusal to divulge exactly which sights, and even more so when El had immediately and cheerfully accepted.
"You aren't going to get in trouble for being out here, are you?" Neal asked, having been worried about it for some time.
Peter shook his head. "I doubt it. No reason to suspect we'd run into each other like this — especially since I didn't even know beforehand. The whole thing with your hearing has pretty much blown over within the Bureau now."
"But they're still trying to catch me."
"Of course we are, you're a criminal. And a fugitive from justice."
"You say that far too happily," Neal complained.
Peter took off his sunglasses and rubbed his eyes. "I'm working on it. We want to find a way for you to come home, Neal."
"Yeah," Neal said. "So do I. Back to a life where I don't get beaten up every ten minutes."
"Yes, yes, you were very heroic. You can stop going on about it now."
Neal grinned. "Peter," he began, since they were apparently being blunt. Then he stopped, because he wasn't quite sure how to thank him enough for flying halfway around the world just because he was in trouble. The only ways he could think of framing it were too large and permanent for right now, when the future was so uncertain.
"It's okay," Peter said quickly. "I'm just glad that —"
"Yeah," Neal said, when Peter trailed off himself. He knew.
But there was another question he badly wanted to know the answer to, had been wishing for months for the chance to ask. "Peter," he said, again and something in his tone made Peter sit up and pay attention — he had been checking his phone again, probably worried that something desperately important was taking place in the city while he was gone.
Neal fixed his eyes on the cloudless horizon, where blue sea segued into blue sky at a point which could be infinitely far away. "When I ran," he said, choosing his words carefully, "That was what you wanted me to do, wasn't it? I wasn't letting you down?"
"Look at me," Peter said, and waited until Neal did so. "To your first question, yes," he said, firmly. "Yes. I think that was… the right thing to do. And you haven't let me down at all. Except possibly in the matter of trying not to get yourself killed."
Neal let more of his worries drain out of him with a sigh. "I'm glad," he said. "Really. I'm very glad."
Peter patted his knee, slightly awkwardly, and then his phone buzzed. He checked it and then turned his head, searching through the passers-by.
"Is El back?" Neal asked.
"There they are," Peter said, and pointed.
Neal looked over, expecting El and Mozzie. But it was Cal walking towards them, a sunburst in yellow, and a fourteen-year-old was with her, light glinting off the blue beads braided into her hair. They were holding hands as if they never intended to let go of each other, ever.
Cal waved and broke into a jog, Sapphire matching her pace. "You found her!" she called across the distance, laughing and breathless.
Neal was smiling and laughing, delighted. "I told you we would," he shouted back.
Then they had reached them, and Cal was hugging him, and hugging Peter, while Sapphire hung back a little shyly.
"Thank you," Cal said, her eyes shining. "Thank you both."
"I think the two of you did the heavy lifting here," Peter said. He clapped Neal on the shoulder. "Way to go, partner."