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the island of conclusions

The Silver-Tongued Conman Loses His Voice (2/2)

the island of conclusions

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The Silver-Tongued Conman Loses His Voice (2/2)

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Neal
Title: The Silver-Tongued Conman Loses His Voice.
Rating: PG-13, gen, no pairings.
Word count: ~11.5K (in two parts)
Spoilers: No specific spoilers for the show, but probably set sometime at the end of S1.
Warnings: This fic is gen, but there is discussion of human trafficking and the sexual coercion of minors, and also some crude sexual language.
Disclaimer: Not mine, no profit.

a/n: This is a very, very late fic for the wonderful rabidchild who first made a generous bid for my fic in the help_japan auction, then waited months for said fic, and then read the first half of this one and gave me the key to finally finishing it. I wish this were better, bb, because you only deserve the best!
a/n: I had so much help with this one! harrigan and taste_is_sweet were kind enough to read the first half and offer extremely helpful advice. rabidchild also read the first half and set me on the path to finishing it. And then harrigan did a superfast and helpful final beta on it. Thank you all! And all remaining problems completely my own fault!
a/n: My rendition of Hmong here is my guess as to how Neal would hear it and bears no relation to the actual language.

Summary: Sometimes you have to leave the comfort for the hurt.

part one



There’d been no conversation in the cab, of course, but the silence had been easy, familiar, reminding him that in their day he and Alex pulled off many arguably more difficult things. He felt better than he had all day—his throat still burned, but his head was reasonably clear. He dared to think that the rest and drugs had actually done some good.

Giraldi was waiting for them on the sidewalk, attended by three larger, younger men, all in dark suits with the tell-tale bulges of shoulder holsters.

“Who have we here?” Giraldi growled—if a sound so oily could be called a growl—as Neal handed Alex out of the cab.

“Alex Hunter.” She extended a graceful hand. “Just helping out an old friend. Mr. Halden has unfortunately lost his voice.” She made a gently disapproving face, as if Neal foolishly mislaid it somewhere. “But I’m not here entirely altruistically—I understand you have certain commodities I may be able to help you with.”

“Alex Hunter.” Giraldi took her hand. “I’ve heard of you, of course—very glad to make your acquaintance.” Alex smiled regally. Giraldi surveyed Neal. “Laryngitis, eh? You do look like crap. Thought maybe you’d tied one on last night after dinner.” He swung a mock punch at Neal’s shoulder. It hurt. “Well, time’s a-wasting.” He snapped his fingers at his goons, one of whom moved to hold open the door of a black Town Car. “After you, Ms. Hunter.”

Neal let himself be ushered into the back seat next to Alex. Two of Giraldi’s men flanked them; the third drove, Giraldi himself riding shotgun. He kept a smile pasted on his face, but inside he was frowning. That had been too easy. He’d expected Giraldi to be more suspicious—not to take Alex’s presence on face value. He was taking them, after all, not only to see antiquities in which Alex might have a legitimate interest, but also human cargo, about which she might not be so sanguine. Neal had expected that they—well, Alex—would have to do a lot of fast talking, not the idle chit chat she was making now about the weather.

He assumed Alex had noticed the suspicious ease of the introduction as well—she was too experienced to have missed it—but if he’d had his voice, he would’ve dropped one of their old code words for trouble, just to make sure. He wished they’d had time to work out some non-verbal signals before the meet. As it was, he dug a finger into her hip.

“Poor darling.” Alex leaned into him and smoothed a hand over the back of his head, as naturally as if she’d actually been the kind of woman who did such things. “Could someone crack a window, please? It’s a bit stuffy in here.”

She did know: “crack a window” was one of their oldest alert signals.

The henchman on Neal’s right grunted and lowered his window infinitesimally. It wasn’t until the cooler air from outside hit his face that Neal realized he was sweating.

He realized something else, too. They weren’t heading south, towards the piers. They were heading north, the numbers on the street signs sliding past getting higher and higher.

He jabbed Alex again, but she must have noticed at the same time, because she asked Giraldi, voice studiously casual, “Nick said the shipment was coming in by sea.”

Giraldi twisted so he could see her, his face blank. “Arrived ahead of time—we’ve already moved it to a secure location. You can view it there. Did I forget to mention that? My apologies.”

He didn’t sound sorry at all. Neal’s conviction that something was severely amiss increased a thousand-fold. Peter and his team would be following them, but the bulk of the Bureau support would be positioned around the harbor. He tried to tap the code for “something wrong—black town car—heading north” through the button on his watch, but his hands were shaking again, and he wasn’t sure it went through. He wished for once that he was wearing the anklet, but that had been off since the meet with Giraldi last night.

He hoped Alex had thought to turn her pen to record.

“Boss,” the driver interrupted. “I think we’re being followed.”

“Fancy that.” Giraldi turned to face front again. “Well, you know what to do, Thomas.”

The driver certainly did seem to know what to do. He took a series of expert evasive actions through the city traffic, finally pulling into an alley next to a non-descript garage. Another car, this one a beige late-model Fiesta, was parked there too. Giraldi must have had the switch planned all along.

Neal’s heart slammed against his ribs. Illness seemed to be both amplifying his reactions to things and making them harder to control. He let out his breath on a count of three, and then counted to three drawing it in again. Repeated the process. He forced his watering eyes to focus on the license plate of the sedan, tapped the numbers on the watch knob as slowly and deliberately as he could.

Giraldi’s men chivvied them out of the Lincoln and toward the Ford, but Giraldi held up a hand.

“Something I should have done before we started,” he said. “Just a formality. Don’t want any unauthorized photos or nothing.”

“Where is this secret location of yours?” Alex asked, not deigning to look at the man who had started to pat her down with a bit more gusto than necessary. “Just wondering whether I should have packed an overnight bag.

“Don’t worry, sweetheart.” Giraldi himself relieved her of her purse. “Nothing like that.”

The goon tossed the contents of Alex’s pockets, including the pen Peter had given her, into a plastic bag, and moved on to Neal. He didn’t find much, but he passed Neal’s watch over to Giraldi for further inspection.

“Nice. Been meaning to get one like this myself.” Giraldi tucked it into his own pocket.

Neal cursed whatever bacteria had stolen his voice. If he could’ve spoken, he knew he would have been able to defuse whatever trouble they were in—not solve it necessarily, but at least get a sense of where they stood. Alex was trying, but Neal knew Giraldi, would have been able to soften him up, get him to reveal something: whether he knew the truth about Neal and Alex’s interest in his merchandise; who or what had tipped him off.

As it was, Neal was stuck trying to physically hold himself together while they were hurried into the new car, all pretense that they were honored guests forgotten.

“You don’t mind, do you?” Giraldi said as his men blindfolded them. “I do like to keep my secret locations secret.”

Ordinarily, Neal would have had a decent idea of where they were going even blindfolded. His knowledge of the city was excellent, and he’d taught himself how to measure distance using temporal rather than visual markers. But the new car seemed hotter than the last, and the fast, bumpy ride through darkness was making him faintly queasy.

Somewhat to his surprise, he felt Alex thread her fingers through his own and squeeze.

Forty-five minutes later, maybe less, they were pulled out of the car. Neal blinked in the sudden light when the blindfold came off, swayed a little on his feet before he could stop himself, and felt Alex’s hand close around his elbow. They were in a weed-grown vacant lot, hemmed in by brownstones with boarded-up windows. Somewhere in the Bronx, maybe Yonkers, Neal guessed, but he had no idea exactly where.

Two vans were parked in the lot as well—one large and white, the other small and black—both surrounded by more goons—these wearing muscle-tees instead of suits.

“Here we are.” Giraldi seemed satisfied, expansive, in his element. “I promised you a treat, and I’m not a man to renege on my promises. Boys.”

He pointed an impresario’s finger at the men near the white van. They swung open the rear doors. Neal gasped. There was a second barrier inside—a grille, really—and through it he could see flashes of crowded bodies: a pale face, a foot, a thin hand reaching through the narrow openings between the bars. It was nightmarish, and just as when Giraldi first had showed him the pictures, the idea of that abject confinement made him feel sick and choked. For a moment Neal thought he might be caught in a waking fever dream. But no, this was all too real.

He glanced at Alex. She stood straight, her beautiful face impassive, and anyone who didn’t know her would have thought her unmoved by the sight. But Neal could see the whites of her eyes start to show under the pupils, like a horse coming up on a fence it knew it couldn’t jump.

“Still want the one you picked out last night, Halden? I got a room in that building over there all fixed up, if you want a little privacy.” Giraldi sounded delighted with the discomfort he was causing. “But I forget—you have your lady friend with you today. You did tell her what was happening here, didn’t you? Now—how do you two usually like to work these things? Would she like her own? Or will it be one big happy threesome? Maybe she likes to watch? Or maybe—I’ve got it—you like to watch—watch some girl eat her out, watch her come. That would be my choice, I have to say.”

He leered at Alex, got just close enough to run a finger along a lock of hair. She balked—jerked away with a kind of fearful awkwardness he never saw in her. And something in Neal broke. He flung himself in between Giraldi and Alex, snarling low and ugly because it was the only sound he could make.

“Whoa, hang on there, soldier.” Giraldi laughed and backed away, hands raised mockingly. “No harm meant. Just having a bit of fun. But I do think we can drop the charade now, don’t you?”

“What do you mean?” That was Alex, sounding reasonably steady again, but still half behind Neal’s shoulder.

“What I mean, Ms. Hunter, is that you can cut the crap. What kind of fool do you think I am? Someone has been poking their fingers into my affairs—my bank accounts, my leases—since late last night. Not very gracefully, either—set off about a dozen alerts. Now, since this interest coincided so precisely with my telling Mr. Halden here about the special shipment coming in today—well, you can’t blame me for drawing my own conclusions. Sent a man after you last night, Nick, but he couldn’t find you anywhere. Interesting that you didn’t go home, though. So when you show up today, lady fair in tow, what am I supposed to think? One of you—probably both—is working for people who, shall we say, oppose my interests.”

And this would have been, should have been, the moment when Neal thought of some story—something that would placate Giraldi, convince him someone else was out to get him, not Nick Halden. He could actually think of several scenarios, a couple of Giraldi’s associates he could reasonably pin the blame on, but he couldn’t think of a way to get any of them across non-verbally. Maybe, if they’d had more time, he could have briefed Alex thoroughly enough that she could have mustered an explanation on her own. But she was working pretty much in the dark.

There was always the chance that Peter had gotten his transmission of the license plate, had managed to track the car, would swoop into rescue them at any moment. But Neal wasn’t holding his breath.

Alex, to her credit, gave it a shot. “Mr. Giraldi, I’ve known Nick a very long time. And in my experience, he’s has always played a straight game in these matters. I’m sure in your line of work—there are others who might be, shall we say, jealous of your success. Perhaps you should look to them first.”

“Others, Ms. Hunter?” Giraldi gave her a predatory look. “You perhaps? Are you just using Nick here as your stalking horse?”

Neal whirled through possibilities frantically, trying to think of some way to keep Alex in the clear. But in the end, all he could think of was the ridiculous expedient of putting himself more firmly in front of her and shaking his head and thumping his own chest. “Not her,” he mouthed. “Me.”

“Very gallant of you, Mr. Halden—but no less than I expected. And you can drop the laryngitis act now. Not very convincing.” Giraldi gave him a condescending pat on the face. And then raised his eyebrows. “Unless you really are that sick.” He grimaced and wiped his hand against his trousers, looking like he wanted to signal his boys for some Purell.

Alex chose that moment change strategy.

“Mr. Giraldi,” she said, voice striking the perfect note of affronted professional hauteur. “If you’re convinced it’s Nick here, I’m as shocked as you must be. But I assure that I only came along to help out a sick friend. And to catch glimpse of the rare antiquities I heard were on offer. I have no interest at all in these other ventures.” She gestured towards the truck. “If you do find that he has been trying to undermine you, I hope you will take whatever measures you consider appropriate.”

She smoothed her hair, pulled her clothes back into their usual flawless line, and took another step, distancing herself more decisively from Neal.

It was what he’d expected her to do. Alex had a fair amount of personal loyalty, but it took a lot to overturn her instinct for self-preservation. And there was always revenge for that time in Copenhagen to consider. He’d hoped she’d take the ticket out, he really had. But it was still a blow. Neal staggered a bit under it, feeling more alone than he had for a long time.

Giraldi peered at Alex, clearly torn between his continued suspicions and his legitimate concern about the consequences of harming Alex Hunter, a woman who had a lot of friends in this town. In the end, her reputation protected her, just as Neal had thought it would. It was one reason he’d asked for Alex in the first place—she brought her own insurance.

“My apologies, Ms. Hunter,” Giraldi said. “I will, however, need you to keep me company until I’m sure this shipment has reached its destination.”

Alex nodded her acknowledgement.

“As for you, Mr. Halden, or whatever the fuck your name is,” Giraldi’s growl turned nasty, “I’m afraid I can’t be as generous with you.”

Two of his men moved in for a more thorough search, removing his shoes and socks, his belt and tie. They weren’t gentle, and before they were done, Neal saved them the trouble of hitting him over the head by passing out, Alex’s crossed arms and unreadable face the last thing he saw before sliding into darkness.

+++

He was tossing on some horrible, churning sea. Wave after wave broke abruptly beneath him, heaving him first one way then another. He tried to reach out, to catch hold of something, anything, to steady himself, but he was bound, hand and foot, at the mercy of whatever force kept bouncing him against random surfaces, some hard, some disturbingly soft. Panic rose like burning bile in his throat. He wasn’t sure whether he would throw up first, or scream.

But he refused to do either. You’re dreaming, he told himself sternly: you’re ill. Bit by bit, he clawed his way back to consciousness. The smells came first, though he wished they hadn’t: sweat, urine, other less identifiable odors of humanity. He pulled open sticky eyes, and for a moment thought he been thrown back into his nightmare of the afternoon. He was in Giraldi’s white van; the waves had been the bumps in the road as it hurtled who knew where. A dozen faces, maybe more, peered at him out of semi-darkness: the faces from Giraldi’s phone, his special cargo.

The sight sent a fresh jolt of panic through him, and before he could stop himself he bucked and yanked hard against whatever was holding him. Nothing gave. His hands were bound behind his back and his feet were shackled at the ankle. Every movement drove the metal edge of the restraints into his flesh.

Neal forced himself to calm down, to breathe. If he had ever in his life felt worse, he couldn’t remember it. That time in Houston had been nothing to this. Everything muscle hurt and someone seemed to have driven a spike behind his right eye. His throat was a long line of shredded agony and he was shivering in a way he knew he wouldn’t be able to stop.

One of the faces detached itself from the group, and in some kind of twisted karmic irony it was the very one he had “chosen” from Giraldi’s wretched parade. Her hair was still shorn androgynously short, but in person she was more obviously female—her damp white tank top clinging to small, dark-nippled breasts. More alert, too, a sharp intelligence in her dark eyes. She squatted beside him cautiously, holding out a plastic bottle of water and said a few words in a language he couldn’t identify, much less understand: Hmong, maybe, or Laotian.

The offer was plain, though, and he nodded. The bottle was dirty and greasy-looking, clearly re-used many times, and the water in it was cloudy and brackish, but when she held it to his lips he had to force himself not to gulp it down, to take only the small sips that would make it past his swollen mess of a throat.

He felt slightly better when she took it away again, a few drops of liquid trailing down his face like cool heaven. A tiny smile appeared on her young, pinched face, and she pointed to herself.

“Mai,” she said. “Mai.” She pointed at him and raised her eyebrows.

“Neal,” he mouthed, and then tried to indicate by opening and closing his mouth that he had lost his voice.

She looked puzzled for a moment, and then like she understood. Touching his forehead with a skinny hand, she frowned and said something that clearly meant “you’re a mess, mister,” making a concerned “tsking” sound that was universal.

Neal bit down a hysterical giggle. Because, really, what were the chances that he’d land in the one situation in which laryngitis would make no difference at all? He’d have bet good money that outside of Coca Cola and Hollywood, he and these girls and boys didn’t have six shared words between them. They’d have been reduced to gestures no matter what.

He thumped his head back onto the metal floor of the truck. The thrum of the engine went right through him, merging with his own shudders. He wondered why Giraldi hadn’t killed him outright. Certainly not because he hoped to sell him on the market these kids were going to—Neal was far too long in the tooth for that. To save time? To avoid mess? Because he hoped the fever burning through Neal’s body would save him the trouble?

It might, Neal, acknowledged. And what could he do about it, chained like this? Even if Peter had gotten the license plate of the Ford, he didn’t have any information about this van, had no way of tracking it. There’d be no rescue from the FBI this time.

It came to him with hideous conviction that it was always meant to end like this, that he was always going to end up here—thrown into the back of a van with all the other nameless kids, the human flotsam of the world. He’d counted on his wits, his charm, his looks to lift him above this fate—but the minute those failed him that fate had claimed him as if it had been waiting for him this whole time.

He tried to convince himself that such thoughts were only the fever talking, seducing him into despair. But it was hard going. It seemed easier to give into exhaustion, to slide down into the dark, to stop thinking. But Mai and the other kids were talking—their young, sharp voices tethering him to consciousness, reminding him that no matter how much he wanted to give up on himself, he wasn’t quite ready to give up on them yet.

But what could he do? All he had were the clothes on his back, and precious few of those—no shoes, no belt, no tie.

Neal blinked, an idea forming slowly in his sluggish brain. He tried to piece it together. He was wearing the clothes Mozzie had brought over to Peter’s. The clothes Mozzie had brought over to Peter’s knowing that Neal was contemplating returning to a dangerous undercover mission. And if Mozzie had been anything like his usual paranoid self—and he always was—he had chosen those clothes very carefully.

The notion sparked a little burst of strength, and he twisted and bent, trying to catch the hem of his shirt in his mouth—to see if just maybe—

The movement set black spots swimming at the corners of his vision, a flare of pain down the muscles in his back, but he kept at it, willing himself closer.

“Sig to—sig to.” Mai was kneeling next to him again, hand on his shoulder, clearly telling him to calm down—probably thought he was having a febrile seizure or something.

He caught her eye and willed her to understand, gesturing at his shirt with his head, his chin.

She cocked her head at him and pursed her lips. Then she miraculously seemed to get what he was driving at, and ran her fingers along the placket of the shirt, between the buttons. Almost immediately, she stopped, her mouth a little “o” of astonishment. She pulled the broadcloth tight and held it up so he could see: a thin object, three inches long, sewn into the fabric.

Neal grinned at her and nodded. An answering smile lit up her face like sunshine and she quickly found three more—one more in the placket, two along the hem. She lifted an eyebrow in question and he nodded again. Permission granted, she bent over him, fingers, then teeth busy on the seams, until, with a little squeak of victory, she pulled the lock-picks from their hiding places.

She displayed all four of them to him, lined up on her hand, and he sent a silent hosanna of gratitude out to Mozzie.

Neal raised his eyebrows at her.

She shook her head, still smiling. “Ani,” she called, and another girl, even younger, hair in long greasy strands around her face, came forward.

Ani was sallow and grim-faced, but she picked up the tools with the deftness of a professional, and got Neal out of the cuffs around his hands almost as quickly as he could’ve done himself. That done, she passed Neal a pick so he could unlock the shackles on his feet himself, but he fumbled with it, shaking too hard for such fine work, and so she removed those too.

Liberated, Neal carefully sat up, the world rippling around him a bit as he did so. He ran a hand through his hair—and wished he hadn’t, it was matted and soaked with sweat and even he could feel how hot the skin on his scalp was. But it hardly mattered in the face of the fresh energy being free had given him.

He surveyed the interior of the van. There weren’t quite as many kids as he had thought—less than a dozen, all girls, as far as he could tell. He wondered what had happened to the boy Giraldi had shown him. The windows had been blacked out, but a little light filtered through from the front end, where a grille like the one on the back had been fitted between the body of the van and the driver’s seat. Through the front window, he could see a faceless three-lane highway speeding past. The sun was out, there were a decent number of cars on the road, and they could have been anywhere in the Northeast. Neal had no way of even knowing whether this was the same day he and Alex had met Giraldi, or whether he’d slept through to the next.

Moving hurt, and the van’s rattle and whir set his stomach roiling, but Neal got himself off the floor and closer to the front, making sure to stay out of the sight lines of the rearview mirror. One of the guys from the vacant lot drove, shoulder holster black against his grey tee; another one rode shotgun next to him, scalp showing through his bristled crew-cut, rifle slung across his knees. He was chatting and fiddling with the radio dial, paying no attention to the huddled humanity behind him, as relaxed as if he were moving furniture on a Saturday afternoon. Even if they hadn’t been armed, the two men looked more than a match for ten malnourished girls and one sick ex-conman.

Mai and Ani didn’t seem to have gotten that memo, however. Now that the tools of possible escape had been put in their hands, they were inspecting the bolts that held the grille to the van’s floor and ceiling. Maybe they didn’t realize the odds were stacked against them. Maybe they didn’t care, had decided that they’d rather go out fighting that meet the fate that awaited them at the end of the journey. He could see their point.

By the time he reached them, Mai was giving Ani a leg up so that she could dig a lock pick into the bolts holding the grille to the van’s ceiling. He put a hand on her arm and shook his head. If they were going to do this, they might as well give it their best shot. He pointed to the bolts on the floor: they should take those out first—it would be easier to hold it steady from the bottom while they worked the bolts on the top.

What would happen when and if they lowered the grille and faced the men with guns was anybody’s guess.

The girls followed his lead. The bolts were big, nothing you would ordinarily use a tiny lock to undo, but necessity is the mother of invention, and they wrenched and chiseled and pried and eventually one, then all, of the bolts came out. Their method down, they left another girls securing the grille’s corner and moved on to the other side.

When it came time to assay the top, they caught the first break Neal had had since the whole wretched adventure had begun: Crew Cut found a song he liked on the radio, some god-awful 90s power ballad, and turned it up full-blast, swaying in his seat and bellowing along to the music. The driver shook his head, but didn’t bother to turn it down. The noise masked the extra scuffling it took to reach the top bolts.

And then there they were, the grille loose, held in place only by their hands, ready to come down. But what then? They had no guns and very little strength. Neal was sure that if he had been thinking more clearly, he would have been able to devise some clever strategy, but as it was, he could think of nothing better than surprise. He tried to signal a rough plan to Mai, and she relayed something to the rest of the kids, though he had no idea to what degree it matched what he had hoped to convey.

He shrugged out his shirt and twisted it into a kind of rope, hoping he could use it as a garrote given the chance. Mai looked him, gave him a tiny vulpine smile, and did the same, standing straight and bare-breasted as an Amazon. Then Neal held out three fingers, two, one. When he closed his fist, the grille crashed to the floor of the van.

“What the fuck?” Crew Cut swung around. He sized up the situation in an instant and leveled his rifle at them. But Ani threw herself against his arm with a chilling high-pitched scream and the shot went low and wide, driving a hole through the floor of the van. Then the other kids were on him, pulling him over the seat, dragging the rifle out of his hands, and setting on him with a flurry of kicks and punches.

The driver twisted his head, eyes going wide at the sight. Keeping one hand on the wheel, he wrestled his gun out of his holster and fired into the writhing mass of the bodies on the floor. Someone screamed. But before he could get off another shot, Neal got the makeshift garrote around his neck and pulled him back hard against the seat.

Startled, the driver let of the steering wheel to scrabble at the thing around his neck with one hand. The other hand, the one holding the gun, flailed wildly, and another shot punched through the roof of the van. With no one in control, the van started to slow and list to the left, cutting across the traffic lanes. Horns blared, brakes screeched and Neal braced himself for the inevitable crash.

But before that could happen, Mai scrambled over the back of the seat, practically into the driver’s lap and grabbed the wheel. Is she old enough know how to drive? Neal wondered incongruously. Can she even reach the gas pedal? The answer to both questions was apparently yes. The van sped up again, seemed to correct its course.

Which was good, because Neal still had his hands full with the driver. With the last reserves of his strength, he hauled the man backwards over the seat, overbalancing in the process so that the man landed heavily on top of him. They rolled together on the floor, both trying to get some purchase on the gun the man was still holding. The driver was by far the stronger party, but Neal had an urgency born of desperation and finally he pried the weapon out of the man’s hand. With a feral sound he had never heard himself make, he slammed the butt of the gun into the man’s head and was rewarded by seeing him slump into unconsciousness.

Neal was just about ready to follow him there, but he forced himself up again, supporting himself heavily on the back of the seat. His vision was telescoping in and out alarmingly, but he could see Crew Cut spread-eagled unconscious on the floor, four girls sitting on him bearing the grins of triumphant warriors. Mai was clinging white-knuckled to the wheel, gunning the van forward at seventy-miles per hour, with seemingly little thought to the other drivers on the road. Neal caught a glimpse of a sign as they sped past—Fredericksburg: they were already in Northern Virginia.

With a groan dragged out of the bottom of his being, he clumsily levered himself into the front seat, thinking to take the wheel from her. But before he could do so, something else rose up in front of them. A line of backed up cars, and ahead of them, a road-block. Not just a road-block: at least four Virginia State Police cars, an EMT truck with flashing lights, and a goddamn helicopter sitting squat into the middle of the highway. Relief flooded through Neal so strongly he thought he might faint. As Mai reluctantly slowed the van, he reached across her and pressed the horn as hard and as long as he could.

+++

Something must have happened then. Maybe someone noticed the bullet hole in the roof—or maybe just that the van was being driven by a tiny, topless girl.

Neal didn’t know. It seemed to him a scant instant between his honking the horn and Peter’s face appearing in the passenger-side window, wearing a worried, heartsick expression Neal hoped never to see again in this lifetime. Peter opened the door, said his name, and reached in an arm to help him out. But Neal was too far gone for that. He fell, literally fell, towards Peter, and felt, with his last remnants of awareness, Peter’s arms under his back, his knees; Peter lifting him up.

+++

He came to again briefly to see a face he didn’t know—lean, dark-skinned, serious—leaning over him. “My name is Rakim,” the face said, “I’m going to take your vitals now, Mr. Caffrey, just relax.”

Neal nodded, or he tried to. He was lying on a gurney, he thought, still outside. He felt bad that he couldn’t explain to Peter what had happened, but as Rakim worked, he gradually became aware of voices—first Mai’s, rapid, urgent, and then an older voice, female, speaking first in the same language, and then in English. Of course. Peter, being Peter, had brought not only a helicopter and a medic, but also a translator, probably six translators, to deal with any language they might encounter.

He laughed, and Peter himself materialized next to him.

“What’s so funny?” he asked, a hand on Neal’s shoulder.

Neal wanted to tell him, he did, but it all slipped away.

+++

He surfaced again to the sound of monitors whirring and the slightly acrid smell of hospital air. Nothing hurt any more, even his throat had subsided to a vague scratchiness, but he hung there for a moment in the cool, white emptiness, struggling with the irrational conviction that he’d washed up on some desolate alien shore, utterly alone.

But no. He turned his head, fighting the massive weariness holding him down, and there was Peter, sitting in a chair by the window, hunched over some file, frowning in an inimitably Peter-like way. The sight was like a lighthouse beacon on a foggy night, and Neal said Peter’s name aloud as it were the signal that would bring him home.

Then he realized, with utter joy, that his voice worked. It sounded dreadful, like a rusty hinge over sandpaper, but it worked.

Peter looked up, a delighted grin spreading over his face. “Now there’s something I’ve missed,” he said, coming over to the bed and pouring Neal some water. “You’ll be sweet-talking the ladies in no time.”

Neal smiled back, but there were things he needed to know. “How—“ his voice caught, and he took another swallow of water. “How did you know where we were? Or did you just have road-blocks up on all the interstates?”

Peter shook his head. “Alex. She lifted Giraldi’s phone right off him—texted the license plate of that van to the Bureau hotline, along with his location. Seems he underestimated her. Maybe we all did.”

“Huh.” Neal absorbed that information. “Is she—? Did you speak to her?”

“Nah. She was long gone by the time Diana and Jones picked Giraldi up. I assume she’s alright. Who else would have sent those?” Peter gestured to a bunch of irises in a cut glass vase. Another old signal, one giving the all clear. In the center of the bouquet was a single yellow Marguerite Daisy—the national flower of Denmark.

Neal smiled ruefully. He assumed that meant he still owed her one.

“And Mai?” he asked. “The others?”

“Ah.” Neal could tell from the look on Peter’s face that he’d been as impressed with the captive girls as Neal had been. “They’re okay. A bit worse for wear from what they’d been through—physically, that is. I hate to think of what it’s done to them otherwise. But they’re okay. We got them into the system as human trafficking victims, so they can claim refugee status. They’ll be able to get some help setting up new lives here.”

“Good.” And Neal did feel a wash of relief that they were being taken care of—if anybody would take advantage of the resources offered he expected Mai and Ani and the others would. Still, to be so young and on your own in a country where you didn’t even speak the language. To be so alone. He shuddered to think of it, felt his face crumpling.

Peter seemed to take his expression as a sign of pain and exhaustion. He leaned over and laid his hand on Neal’s forehead, then pushed strong fingers through his hair. Touch Neal Caffrey Day didn’t seem to be over yet. And Neal couldn’t bring himself to mind.

“Get some rest,” Peter said. “The doctors said you were this close to septicemia.” He held two fingers close together. “You must be beat.”

Neal nodded, rendered mute by emotion now, not illness, and obediently settled himself on the pillow.

“Think I’ll stay for a bit, if you don’t mind.” Peter drew the chair closer to the bed. “About ten times quieter in here than the office—I’m actually getting some work done for once.”

He sat, opening his file again with one hand, resting the other lightly on Neal’s shin, and resumed his official work frown.

Neal watched him. Did Peter know? Know how close Neal had come to tumbling into the ancient abyss of his own fears. Probably. It was the kind of thing Peter always knew and never talked about. Not that it mattered. Peter was here now; and between them, he and Mozzie, and Mai, and even Alex, had beaten off the crawling shadows of fate for the time being.

He let the warmth of Peter’s hand anchor him as he slid back into sleep.


the end

  • Ah, perfect :)
  • A shot straight to my ID. Thanks, babe!
    • You are very welcome! Sometimes you just gotta paddle your canoe around the id vortex, y'know?

      thanks for reading--glad you enjoyed!
  • So, so beautiful, and just what I needed after kind of a crappy day at work. This really pushed all my buttons in all the right ways. I am full of love for this story. Poor Neal, though. Losing his voice must be such a pain in the neck for him. I mean, especially for Neal!

    Also, I've friended you so I don't miss any stories in the future, if that's okay.
    • Thanks for the kind words! I'm so glad you enjoyed it and that it hit the spot! I know, though--I think the only thing worse for Neal would be if his face froze and he couldn't smile--but I wanted to see what other resources he could muster.

      Friended you back! I don't post a lot of WC fic, but I'm sure there'll be more :)
  • I love the concept - how would Neal be ~Neal~ without using his talents at talking himself out of any predicament? Ahh, but there's a quick wit and a heart and perseverance underneath that pretty [hot, feverish, delightful] exterior and I loved how you explored that here.

    With Alex. And better still, Mozzie. And El! And Peter. And even the dog!

    But especially Peter. Your ending is... utter perfection! ♥ ♥ ♥
    • I'm glad you thought the new ending worked! I decided Neal needed some Peter-style TLC after all that!

      It did turn out to be an interesting concept to explore, after I finally let myself go with it. Thank you so much for all your help--couldn't have done it w/o you!

      And glad you enjoyed the finished product after all that!
  • Oh, man, this was wonderful. Thanks so much for the story!
  • Mmm, love this! I love Neal's intensity even when he's so sick.
    • I'm so glad you enjoyed it! It was kind of fun to explore Neal's determination and intensity--it's usually hidden under all that charm and ease, but it must be there, I think.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!
  • I liked this! I loved Mai! You go, girl!
    • I'm glad you liked it! Especially Mai--I really wanted to make the girls more than victims, y'know?

      Thanks for reading and commenting!
  • OK, so I'm here to dance all over your LJ version too! Wheee!

    One thing I didn't comment on was the wonderful parts where Neal and the girls all save themselves. Because, as much as I love me a good kidnapping story, it's even better when the Imperiled save themselves. Yay for Mai and Ani.
    • aw, thank you--you're awesome!

      I'm really glad you like Mai and Ani--I wanted them to be part of the rescue, and as tough as Neal must have been at that age!

      thanks again for everything!
  • (no subject) -
    • Aw, you guys are sweet to read this without watching the show (which is awesome, but, yeah, doesn't put on quite this level of h/c ;))

      I'm glad you liked those scenes--I really wanted the girls to be more than helpless victims, y'know? And for Neal to have to work with them--

      I went through a bunch of versions of that last scene, so I'm glad it worked--figured he deserved some schmoop after all that!

      (working on kink fic 4/5 right now...)
  • Great story!
  • That was wonderful. Such an interesting premise, Neal losing his voice. I loved how you explored it, how things went from bad to worse because of it but in the end it wasn't his voice that saved the day. Wonderfully done.
    • Thanks so much for the kind words--I'm glad you enjoyed it! It was interesting to write, trying to get Neal to dig that deep and come up with other resources.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!
  • Very well done. Thank you for sharing!
  • Awesome! Really, really great story.

    I'm waiting for the day when Mozzie sews a security-strip-like tracking device into Neal's underwear. Or makes a button out of a bug... I've read handcuff key in the shirt cuff, and you've got lock-pick tools in the hem. Other shit is inevitable.

    • *wishing I had a Mozzie icon*

      Thanks--I'm so glad you enjoyed the story!

      I've never read the handcuff key in the shirt cuff fic, but it stands to reason, doesn't it? Doesn't Neal say in some episode that he has six sets of lock picks on him at all times? Or am I confusing him with some other fictional character? In any case, you know Mozzie's going to make sure everything's in place :)

      thanks for reading and commenting!
  • Fantastic!

    I love that you took Neal's "weapon" from him - his voice and that he still manages to do his job and get the kids out.

    I love the Neal POV and how we experience his illness through his eyes.

    I love the "National Touch Neal Caffrey Day" and Mozzie being Mozzie and providing Neal with the means to free himself (with the help of the girls).

    Thank you very much for this fic! :)
    • Thank you so much for the lovely feedback--I'm really glad you enjoyed the fic! I was interesting to take away the tools Neal usually uses, and have him dig deep. (and I was kind of enjoying National Touch Neal Caffrey Day myself--I think I had more forehead feels in here than in any story I've ever written :))

      Thanks for reading and commenting!
  • This is just fabulous. So, so well done, and one I can tell I'll be returning to read over and over.
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