frith_in_thorns: Diana Berrigan in a winter coat, looking down and smiling (WC Diana)
Frith ([personal profile] frith_in_thorns) wrote2012-12-31 11:47 pm

[fic: white collar] Lies That Set You Free

Title: Lies That Set You Free
Characters/Pairing: El + team; Gen with Peter/El
Rating: T
Word count: 8100
Warnings: Spoilers through season 3.
Notes: This is what I spent a large portion of my November writing, with much encouragement from [livejournal.com profile] helle_d. It counts for the Electrocution square on my [livejournal.com profile] hc_bingo card.

This is for an absolutely awesome prompt by [livejournal.com profile] sholio on [livejournal.com profile] collarcorner.

Summary: Elizabeth gets a ransom demand for Peter and Neal. She also gets severely underestimated.

- - -

"Don't contact the police."

The mechanised voice buzzed through the phone speaker. El felt like she'd been turned to stone, standing still in the middle of the kitchen with brilliant midday sunshine coming in through the windows and Satchmo snuffling around her feet.

She didn't say, Do you know where my husband works? She asked instead, "How did you get this number?" Some detached part of herself marvelled at how calm her voice was.

"Your husband had a memo note in his pocket. Have you been listening to my instructions?"

"You want a ransom." That had been first.

"Contact the police and your husband is dead. We're not messing around. Or should we deliver his friend's body to prove to you how serious we are?"

"No! No, you don't need to do that." In the back of her mind a voice was screaming Neal's name, over and over. Why wasn't the rest of her screaming, too? It seemed like she should be.

"We've killed plenty of people, Ellen."

Ellen?

"We're prepared to keep your husband alive for a while, since he could be valuable. But the other man — he's rather more expendable."

"I'll cooperate," she promised, still in that same tone of unreal calm. "But you're making a mistake, you know."

The voice-changer translated a laugh into a bark of static. And then the call was disconnected.

Elizabeth put the phone down slowly on the worktop of the kitchen island, and stared out at the backyard. She could hear traffic noise, birdsong, the hum of the water heater. Ordinary noises. Ordinary things all around her.

There was something in her hand. She blinked down at the pen she was holding, and the pad of paper her wrist was resting on. When the phone had rung she had grabbed for them automatically, expecting a client, and there in neat script she'd transcribed the call in note form, a habit so ingrained she hadn't realised she'd been doing it. Her handwriting in black ink, same as always, as if recorded nothing more important than delivery details for glassware. It was underneath some calculations of flower costs she'd been doing earlier.

"I have to do something," she said, out loud. Her voice sounded odd. She didn't know what to do.

Something. Anything. Don't just stand there, move.

She began moving.

- - -

Not ten minutes later El was sitting in the back of a Starbucks two blocks away, dialling on her cell phone. She couldn't recall having made the decision to leave the house; she was moving on something like autopilot.

Like, but not quite — at the centre of her, beneath the muffling veils of practicality, burned not fear but rage. How dare you do this, she shouted at the unknown man who had spoken to her so carelessly. How dare you!

The call connected. "Barrigan."

"Diana, it's El."

A surprised pause. "El? Are you trying to reach Peter?"

"He's there?" El demanded, a sudden startled hope stopping her breath. She hadn't asked for proof of life — she'd been so stupid

"No, he and Neal are undercover," Diana said, and the hope caught in El's throat and became something suffocating that she had to forcibly choke down, swallowing hard.

"I need to talk to you," she said, still amazed that her voice was remaining so steady. "As a friend. And not over the phone. Right now, in person."

"I can't right now. I'm in the van with Jones, running surveillance."

She could straight-up say, Peter's been kidnapped and I just got a ransom demand. But she was too deeply afraid that she might be being watched, or monitored, that however subtly the Bureau tried to help they would arouse suspicions and she would never see Peter or Neal again.

Besides, it wasn't the nebulous Bureau that she trusted. It was Peter, and the people Peter depended on.

"I wouldn't ask if it wasn't important," El said. "This is your friend asking. Me, Ellen."

There was a quick intake of breath. "Are you safe?" Diana asked, urgently.

"Right now, yes." She hoped. "But — I need your help."

"I'm on my way," Diana said. "Just give me directions."

El's voice cracked slightly for the first time as she did so. If Diana hadn't agreed…

"The lost owl cries at noon," Mozzie muttered out of the side of his mouth, taking a seat at the adjoining table and unfolding a broadsheet.

"It can hide in the church tower," she replied.

He nodded approvingly. "You know, you're the only person who ever gives me the countersign, apart from June."

She found herself smiling at that, and wrapped her hands around the warmth of her untouched mug of coffee. "Doesn't Neal?"

"His answers tend more towards sarcasm than accuracy."

She couldn't put it off any longer, and took a deep breath. "Mozzie, Neal's in trouble. So is Peter."

He listened in uncharacteristic silence as she explained all she knew.

Finally, he burst out with, "But we have to do something!"

"Do what?" Diana asked, having approached quietly. She put her coffee down on El's table and frowned suspiciously at Mozzie. "What's he doing here? Is he in trouble again?"

"I can hear you, you know."

"Yes, I do know." She raised her eyebrows. "Eliz — El?"

It all had to be gone over again. And El was still waiting for it to all make sense, like this whole day was a mess of yarn which just had to be tugged in the right way for it all to unravel neatly.

By the time she had finished Diana was shifting restlessly in her chair, halfway already to standing up. "I need to call this in," she said. "It doesn't sound like their cover's been blown, at least, so that might buy us some time —"

"No!" Both El and Mozzie spoke at the same time, fiercely.

"You can't do that," Mozzie insisted. "If they know the authorities were called in then Neal and the Suit are as good as dead."

"We need resources," Diana argued. "There's no way I'm going to sit around and pretend nothing's wrong when we can be using all our channels to find them."

Mozzie had forgotten that he was supposed to be reading a newspaper and had his arms folded, scowling mulishly.

"I wouldn't have called you just to ask you not to do anything," El said, to Diana. "But I'm scared I'm being watched. Or listened to. I don't know what they know…"

Diana caught on instantly, which was why El had chosen her to go to in the first place. "No contact with the Bureau for you. I'm your go-between."

"Exactly," El said. "We have to get them back. And while their captors don't know what resources we've got, we have an advantage."

"You want to con them," Mozzie realised, sounding admiring.

"I want to get my husband and friend home safely," El said. "But I don't know how to do it, so I need both of you."

She kept her eyes on Diana. Mozzie, she knew with absolute certainty, had been with her from the start.

"Okay," Diana said, after moments that felt like an eternity. "But the FBI gets to know everything that's going on. And I'll make sure they keep away from you. Agreed?"

"Agreed," El said. The weight on her chest didn't exactly lift, but it eased slightly, enough to suggest that eventually she might be able to breathe freely again.

- - -

They relocated back to the house, after Mozzie had vanished and reappeared again in an improbably short length of time with a device he swore would alert him to any bug trying to transmit.

El waited until he was absolutely satisfied before turning to Diana. They had been mostly silent, neither of them in the mood to make small talk. "You need to tell me everything about who has Peter."

"We're after a small-time organisation," Diana said. "They set themselves up as a business dealing in land registry and have been scamming people out of a lot of money. With the aid of several forced relocations and mysterious disappearances. We suspect they have indirect gang ties, but we haven't been able to pin that down yet."

"Peter and Neal were looking for proof?"

"Yes — and trying to identify who's running the show. Neal managed to get hired and has been with them for a week, and he just brought in Peter as a potential investor-slash-mark. Their whole office building is signal-jammed, so the two of them just had recorders, not transmitters."

"And they're not there now?"

Diana's hands tightened on the back of a chair. She had just finished making frantic phone calls to Jones and half a dozen other people. "Shortly after you called, everyone quietly cleared out and closed up shop. Not that there were many of them there, and we couldn't risk picking them up and interrogating them, since that would just warn the boss that we're onto them. But they'd already taken Peter and Neal out from right under our noses, and we still aren't even sure when that happened."

"The government's eye is all-seeing, surely?" Mozzie asked.

"If you're asking cryptically whether we're searching all traffic cam and CCTV footage, yes were are," Diana said. "Jones will contact me with any updates. And, El, we've got your record of their ransom call. That's going to help us." She pursed her lips. "We are going to bring them home safely."

El nodded, trying to feel reassured. Diana would have said that last to her in any case. What she really wanted to know — "Do you think I should have called in the FBI openly? If I've wasted time…"

"You did the right thing," Diana said, gently. "If someone has been watching you, you've helped protect Peter and Neal." She hesitated, then came around to El's chair and hugged her. El hugged her tightly back, closing her eyes, and held onto her for as long as she thought she could without making Diana uncomfortable.

"Thank you," she said, finally, and wiped hastily at her eyes. She breathed deeply, and went to make them more coffee.

- - -

"We might have a lead," Diana said, down the phone. It was a couple of hours later, and she was liaising with the others at the office. Her voice was hurried. Urgent. And it had hope in.

"What is it?" El was gripping her cell tightly enough to leave indentations in her hand. "Do you know where they are?"

"Not yet, but we might be a step closer to knowing who has them. We need you to look at some photographs immediately. Can you meet me in midtown? Is there anyone with you?"

"Mozzie went to talk with one of her contacts," El told her. She was already pulling a jacket on one-handed. "I'm on my way."

"Okay," Diana said. She started to say something else, but then stopped.

"What?" El asked.

Diana hesitated. "I can track the GPS in your car. Peter made sure I had access to it, after Keller. Just in case." She sounded embarrassed.

El, though, surprised herself by laughing. That was just like Peter, to be over-prepared (and to misuse FBI resources on her behalf). She had always been convinced of certain similarities between him and Mozzie. "I'm surprised it never occurred to me he would have done that." She pushed her feet into a pair of shoes.

"Okay," Diana said, apparently relieved that she wasn't mad. "I'll keep an eye on the tracking data, make sure you're on your way and alright."

That made her feel safer. They agreed on a route, and El did a quick check that she hadn't forgotten anything important before she left the house.

Her car was parked on the other side of the street. She locked the front door behind her, immediately feeling exposed in the bright sunlight. It was an unpleasant sensation. This was her house, her street. She shouldn't be feeling threatened by someone who wasn't even there.

But she paused on the kerb. She had had long conversations with Mozzie about instincts, how one's brain processed things without always being consciously aware of it. Instinctively, she felt like she was being watched. So, maybe…

Her eyes swept the line of parked cars. And, just for an instant, met the eyes of the two men inside a black sedan parked several houses down.

There were plenty of reasons why they might be sitting there, of course. But in that moment she couldn't think of any.

She crossed the road towards her car quickly, her hand around the cell in her pocket. The men were getting out of their car. She almost dropped her keys, fumbling with the door handle. There was the sound of running feet. She got the door open, and —

"Don't move!" The man was out of breath from sprinting, his loose shirt coming untucked. But it was the gun in his hand that riveted her attention.

She froze, hand still around the door frame.

"Drop the cell into your car and close the door."

El did so, wanting to resist. But there was nothing she could accomplish other than get shot. And that wouldn't help. "Who are you?" she rallied herself to ask. "Who do you work for?"

The second man had caught up. "What are you doing?" he hissed.

"What does it look like?"

"We were supposed to shadow her. Not this!"

"Well, it's too late now!" The first man gestured wildly with his gun. El bit her cheek to keep from flinching at the threat of it going off accidentally. "She saw us. That's not my fault. I said we should've parked further back!"

"Please, just let me go," El said. She let her voice waver. "I won't tell anyone, I swear…"

"We could shoot her."

"Are you crazy?" The second man, for all that he seemed slightly more cool-headed, was clearly also panicking. This wasn't in their plans. But for all that she felt a flicker of obstinate pleasure at that thought, her heart seemed to stop as he continued, "We'll have to take her to the Boss, and toss her in with the others."

The idea obviously appealed to the first man, probably because it instantly absolved him of responsibility for her fate. "Move," he ordered, and jabbed her shoulder with the gun.

She moved. Mozzie, in all seriousness, had earlier offered to embed a GPS chip into the heel of her shoe. She should have taken him up on it…

She climbed into the back of the sedan. The second guy grabbed a cloth bag from the trunk and pulled it over her head, plunging her into darkness.

The engine started up. Until that moment El hadn't quite believed that this was happening. Someone was bound to open their front door, or look out of a window. Mozzie would turn up at any moment.

But none of those things happened, and she was being kidnapped.

- - -

The bag over her head was dark, but not opaque. She could tell by the momentary dimming when they drove beneath underpasses, and she was almost certain that they were going south. Lots of traffic. The road was fairly smooth, but eventually roughened.

I think I'm supposed to be panicking.

When she had been taken by Keller she had been terrified. Terrified that he would use her as leverage against her husband, and then kill her. She was frightened now, too, but it was in a more distant way. She could still feel the fear, making her sweat and her pulse pound, but while it was burrowing into her brain it had somehow pushed the coolly logical part of herself altogether outside. Detached her.

And she knew that for the sake of her loved ones she would face down demons. Her hands tightened where they were clasped in her lap.

That grim determination paled when the car juddered to a halt and she was pulled out of the opened door. But her captors couldn't see her face. They hadn't seen it scrunch in fear. She smoothed her features as best she could.

"What's going on?"

Somehow, she hadn't expected to hear a woman's voice. This one was sharp, and not pleased.

"It's that investor's wife. Ellen."

"Oh, the one I told you to follow? Do you even understand English?" Footsteps approached, forcefully. "How do you expect her to pay her husband's ransom from here?"

Her kidnapper didn't answer, which was probably his best course of action.

"She'd made us," the other man said, a trifle sulkily.

"For Heaven's sake!" An annoyed exhale. "Bring her inside, I suppose."

El tried to walk as evenly as she could, not wanting to be either pushed or dragged. Gravel crunched beneath her soles, changing abruptly to a solid, flat surface.

They eventually stopped. "Take the bag off her," the woman said. She sounded more exasperated than angry, now.

"She'll see you, though," the first man protested.

"She won't be telling anyone."

El had to bite back a small gasp at that. She dug her fingernails into her palms. You can't let them control this whole scenario. What would Neal do?

When the cloth was lifted off her head her expression was calm. She had practice, after all, in smiling sweetly at clients she occasionally felt like stabbing with a pastry fork. The lights were bright, but she didn't let herself react overmuch to them, either, although her eyes hurt as she prevented them from blinking.

"I'm afraid you're making a very big mistake," she said. "I did try to warn you, on the phone."

The woman she found herself addressing was only a little taller than her, with very short dun hair, dressed in a forgettable slacks-and-shirt outfit with sensible shoes. But she radiated command and ruthless efficiency. "I don't think you're in a position to make threats," she said.

"It's not a threat. It's a warning. You looked into my husband but you have no idea who I am, do you?" She hoped her throat wouldn't dry up. That would make it hard to sound properly authoritative.

There was a very brief flicker of doubt in the woman's face. "So, why don't you tell me."

"Why don't you tell me your name, first? I like to know who I'm dealing with."

"Kerry. And you're Ellen Stevens. You're right actually; I don't know what you do." She was watching El intently.

El resisted a sudden mad urge to giggle. What what Kerry do if she did? Order her men to shoot her? "You could call me a liaison. I work on a freelance basis for a man in Detroit you may have heard of. He's a dentist."

Kerry tried to hide her reaction, but her eyes widened. "You work for the Dentist?"

"Yes. It's quite separate from my husband's job — there's no conflict of interest, I assure you. You weren't even on my radar, until now."

Without looking at them, she was still aware of the men on either side of her shuffle slightly away, as if that would be enough to distance them from the consequences of having kidnapped one of the Dentist's agents.

"I do understand that you'll need to verify my identity, of course," she said, smoothly. "I handle his most delicate operations, so you'll have to go to the man himself. Ask him about Mrs Suit."

"Get it done," Kerry snapped to the man on El's left. He opened his mouth a couple of times, then hurried out, presumable to find someone more well-connected he could pass the buck to.

How much time would this buy her? More importantly, would it be enough of a breadcrumb trail to lead back? "Now," she said. "About my husband."

Kerry's lips twisted slightly. It was an expression which El found hard to decipher. "He's been poking around in my business," she said. "Aided by someone who actually works for me. Actually, it turns out you know him, too, which is something I find rather interesting. I take it you want them both back?"

"Yes," El said, and then swallowed hard, suddenly worried that she had tipped her hand too soon. But what else was she supposed to do? Pretend she didn't care about Neal, and let Kerry keep him in exchange for Peter? Never.

"And what are you going to give me in return?"

Her breathing hitched. She had nothing. Nothing.

"I'm not negotiating until I've seen them," she forced out. Her heart was thudding in her throat. It must be visible, surely.

But Kerry looked unsurprised, clearly having anticipated that request. "I can do that," she said. "Although, I take no responsibility for their condition. That's on them."

El managed a jerky little nod. There was no way she could speak, not with her throat constricting unbearably from fear and anger.

"This way, then," Kerry said, motioning an invitation to follow. El stumbled forward, folding her hands by her sides where their shaking wouldn't show.

Peter was tied to a chair in a small room. There was a dark reddish bruise across the left side of his face, and his eyes widened in horror as he took in the sight of her. She pursed her lips fiercely, silently begging him not to speak. Her thoughts leapt in quick succession from alarm that he was hurt, relief that he didn't look as bad as she had feared, and more alarm at the realisation that, actually, she had no idea whether that was true.

"Satisfied?" Kerry asked. "So, what's he worth to you?"

She cleared her throat. "I want to see Neal, too."

"We aren't dealing in good faith yet? I showed you your husband, now it's your turn."

El didn't need the desperate look in Peter's eyes, or the almost imperceptible shake of his head, to know that she had to stand her ground on this. "His life isn't something I'm going to take on faith. I'm sorry."

She cursed herself as that last slipped out. A weakness. But she still met Kerry's eyes, until she waved a hand in acquiescences. "Have it your way, then."

It wasn't safe to speak to Peter. More — she couldn't trust herself not to break down completely on hearing his voice. But she felt his eyes on her, his gaze so fierce that it almost burned.

"El," Peter said, even as she silently screamed at him not to talk. His voice was hoarse and cracked. What have they done to you? "El, whatever they want you to give them — don't. Just get out. Please."

Kerry raised her eyebrows at El, who looked back at her. Anywhere but at Peter. "Surely he knows about your connections."

"I think we should discuss this somewhere else," El muttered.

A surprised smile played over Kerry's mouth. "He doesn't, does he?"

"And I didn't know about what he was doing here. I'm sure you're completely transparent in your relationships," she snapped, surprising herself.

Kerry actually laughed. "Let's draw this conjugal visit to a close. Let Peter reflect a little on why you're here."

El gritted her teeth. "Since you're finding this so entertaining, maybe it should count as part-payment."

"Of course, maybe he just called your bluff. I can't be sure, can I?"

She still didn't look at Peter. She didn't want to see his reaction to that.

"You'll find out soon enough, I guess."

"Yes, I suppose I will." But Kerry seemed to have relaxed slightly at the remainder that she would have corroboration (or not) soon. El was under no illusion that it was the only thing protecting all three of them.

And what if it didn't work out? What if her bluff did fall through?

Neal was just next door. As soon as she laid eyes on him El realised why Kerry had wanted to keep them apart until after negotiations. Peter must have guessed, and El supposed she too must have known, on some level, because her surprise was dulled, overlain by an anguished acceptance.

He had been tortured.

Even she, who had no experience in this, could tell that immediately. But the electrical burns on his bare feet were unmistakable. When Peter had looked at her his face had been full of a hundred racing thoughts and questions, but all she could see in Neal's was glazed desperation.

And she couldn't hide her own reaction, the horrified gasp that gave her away.

"Interesting," Kerry said, leaning against the wall and folding her arms. If she couldn't hide Neal's condition, she was going to use it. "What's he to you, Ellen?"

"He's a friend," El said. "An old friend."

"Have mutual acquaintances, do you?" The casually-asked question was anything but.

El tried to think fast, though her wits felt like treacle. If Kerry thought she was in too deep, it would surely occur to her that her best bet might be to hide the evidence, and the bodies, and disappear. "He did a few jobs for the Dentist, but was never really an associate. Then he got himself sent to prison and, well…" She shrugged. "Records like that are a liability."

"Is he a liability to you as well?" The raised eyebrow and smirk were only too suggestive.

"Peter would never suspect me of having an affair," El said. "He's very trusting."

"Clearly. It appears to be his major flaw."

Standing like that, trying to appear coolly professional and unaffected, was threatening to choke her. Neal was blinking sluggishly, struggling to focus on her, and she was nearly frantic with her desire to go to him, comfort him. It was contemptible, that Kerry thought she must be having an affair to care deeply about a friend in pain.

"He is extremely pretty, though," Kerry continued. "I did tell my men to leave his face alone."

And his hands, El prayed. They were bound behind the chair back, and she couldn't be sure. "Very considerate."

"Entirely selfish, I assure you." She grinned.

El said nothing. It was that or scream.

"Now," Kerry said, "Shop talk. I have to say, Ellen, I like you. You understand how business works, don't you? I could see myself working with you in the future. I wouldn't want to force a conflict of interest, but maybe you'd be interested in a little freelance work?"

"What exactly is your area of business?" El asked. She had the sudden wild thought that maybe Neal's recording device, whatever it was disguised as, was still running.

"I'm a little loathe to discuss details without an agreement," Kerry said, shrugging apologetically. "But we make quite a bit of money, I assure you. And if anyone becomes a problem they're taken care of in-house." She gestured towards Neal. "I'm not going to apologise for his state — he was spying on me, and that's something I absolutely don't tolerate. The last person who tried to double-cross me I killed outright. He's lucky I was in a good mood."

Neal was ignoring Kerry altogether, frowning at El. But, unlike with Peter, she was confident that he wouldn't say anything that could ruin her play, even when he didn't know what it was.

"No one else touches him," she said.

Kerry's phone beeped. She slipped it out of her pocket and checked a text. "Hmm. Interesting. Well, I do pay my people to get information fast."

El held her gaze, resisting the urge to ask just what information Kerry had just received.

"I think I'll leave you two alone for a few minutes. Let you reassure yourself that your friend is still in once piece. How does that sound?"

Like I don't have a choice? "I'm sure you have important things to attend to."

"Exactly. Please don't untie him." She gestured El further into the room and then stepped out, closing the door with an audible click of the lock.

If her bluff had been called, neither of them would be leaving.

She didn't need the flick of Neal's eyes towards one corner to warn her about the camera attached to the ceiling. She forced herself to walk towards him calmly. "Neal? It's El."

"Hi," he said, blinking like he was having difficulty focusing. His throat sounded raw. Like he'd been shouting, or screaming.

"Are you okay?"

He smiled. "Fine. Peter?"

"He's okay," El said, quickly, hoping it was true. "In better shape than you, I think."

Neal sighed in relief, his eyes closing briefly. "How are you here?" he whispered.

"I've come to get you out."

"Alone?" It was worry, not doubt. "El, what did you say to them?"

She touched his head cautiously, afraid of hurting him, but he pressed against her hand. "I'm just using my contacts," she said.

"But what if —"

"Shush," she told him, her pulse speeding up again. "It's going to be alright."

With an effort, he nodded. "How many guards?" he whispered.

She pictured them trying to break out. Neal wouldn't be able to walk without support, if at all. "Too many."

"Ah." He nodded again, as if he had expected this, then met her eyes. "I trust you."

She blinked hard, several times. Her fingers were still unconsciously stroking his hair. He shouldn't be looking at her like that, when she had no cards —

"Listen," Neal said, suddenly, sharply. Her head jerked up. The walls muffled most sounds, but she thought she could hear shouting.

"What do you think's happening?" she asked.

Neal was smiling, exultant. "El, they're here."

"Are you sure?" Now that she was listening, she could in fact hear a regularity to the shouts. But hope was dangerous and she couldn't trust it. She moved to stand between Neal and the door.

When it slammed open she flinched, and her heart leapt at the same instant. Rescue!

No. Not rescue.

It was Kerry.

"You brought the FBI down on me!" she snarled.

El froze, riveted by the gun in Kerry's hand. There had to be a way out. Had to be…

"No!" Neal gasped, behind her. "Quick, we have to get out of here!"

"I'll work with you," El said, quickly. "Anything you want, if they don't pick us up." Anything, if you don't shoot us for being with them.

Kerry was wrong-footed. El took advantage of that to step behind Neal (but it left him exposed, vulnerable to anything) and begin tugging at the duct tape which bound his hands together. "Help me! Please!" She hadn't dared to touch the bindings before, and now there was just no time —

"Freeze! FBI!

El jerked to a halt, compelled by the shout. Diana stood right behind Kerry, gun pointed at the back of her neck. "Give me your weapon. Slowly."

The sounds of running feet, and suddenly the doorway was filled with the FBI.

Fury passed across Kerry's face, followed by a bitter acceptance. She slowly relinquished her gun to the agent who stepped forward to take it from her hand.

"Hands," Diana ordered, and cuffed her, smiling grimly. She looked past Kerry into the room. "Are you two alright?"

El nodded, almost dizzy with the shock of relief.

Kerry's lip curled. "I want to make a deal," she said. "That woman's not innocent. You've heard of the Dentist of Detroit, the mob boss? She works for him."

Diana looked between them. "Get her out of here," she ordered.

Kerry was hustled away.

"You didn't tell her," El said, a little numbly. She resumed picking at Neal's bindings.

Diana took a knife out of her pocket and sliced through them. "I didn't think you needed her dramatics right now. She can sit in a holding cell and feel smug for a bit, and Jones and I will break the news later." She finished picking the tape off Neal's wrists, and crouched down in front of him. "Caffrey, you don't look so good."

"I'm okay."

"Like hell you are. Or did you want to get up right now and walk out of here?"

He considered it for several seconds. "Maybe… not so much."

Diana rolled her eyes, but her touch on his shoulder was gentle. "Lucky for you, paramedics are on their way."

He didn't respond directly to that, but nor did he attempt to hide his relief. "Elizabeth was amazing," he said.

"I know." Diana turned to her. "Are you alright?"

El wasn't exactly sure, and didn't want to think about it. "I need to see Peter," she said. The numbness hadn't faded, and it was suddenly surprisingly hard to speak as she turned back to Neal. It felt like she was abandoning him.

But he just leaned forward, demanding, "Is he safe?" with the same desperate urgency that she felt.

"He is," Diana promised. "Jones is with him. El, you know where he is? I'll stay with Neal."

"Yes," El said, and was already moving, her feet carrying her along through a daze. Not far, not far… Peter was holding onto the door frame, apparently being blocked by Jones from tearing off in search of her and Neal. "Hon!" she called.

His head snapped towards her. "El! Oh, thank god…"

She wrapped her arms around him tightly. He was clinging to her in turn, his breaths shuddering. "El — When I saw you here, I thought —"

"It's okay. It's okay."

He pulled back abruptly. "Neal?"

"They hurt him," she said, wretchedly. "But he's going to be alright, Diana said so…" She pressed her face against his chest, because she didn't want him to see her expression.

"Good," Peter said, a little muzzily. "You're both okay. Good." And he abruptly became a dead weight, slumping in her arms.

El cried out, unable to hold him up, and then Jones was beside her, helping guide Peter down to the floor.

"What's wrong with him?" El asked, frantically, while Jones checked Peter's pulse with one hand, simultaneously radioing for help.

"I don't know. Might be a head injury." He tapped Peter's face, calling to him, while El clung to Peter's hand and felt like she was drowning. She had been so sure this nightmare was over but it wasn't, it wasn't…

Minutes passed like hours as she held Peter's hand in both of hers and implored him to wake, until the paramedics arrived. He was strapped to a board and she followed them outside, staying out of their way with a supreme effort of will.

"Elizabeth!" Mozzie came hurtling up to her, overflowing with nervous energy. "No one would tell me anything, and I —" He broke off abruptly. "Suit?" he asked, in a suddenly small voice, staring at Peter being loaded into the waiting ambulance.

Jones put a hand on her arm. "I know you want to be with Peter, but we need to give the medics space to do their jobs. I can drive you."

She glanced at Mozzie. "When we've seen that Neal's been taken care of, too."

"How bad is he?" Mozzie asked, slipping straight past, Is he okay? to the more pertinent question.

"I think they… wanted information," El said. She bit into her lip, knowing that she didn't need to elaborate.

Mozzie shocked her by suddenly squeezing her in a hug. "Thank you," he whispered, fervently, and then released her hurriedly and stepped back.

Her eyes smarted and she had to blink hard, knowing how little he usually liked touching people. "Don't thank me. You're the one who called in the cavalry, I presume."

"Yes, because you threw up a neon sign saying We Are Here," he argued. "Don't undersell yourself, or people might believe you."

They were distracted, then, by Neal finally being wheeled out on a gurney. "Hey, Moz," he said, tiredly. "What're you doing here?" He attempted to rise onto his elbows, and was pushed firmly back down by Diana. Not, El thought, that his efforts were likely to have been successful. He looked limp and exhausted, his face drawn up in pain.

"El got word out to me where you were," Mozzie said. "I hope you thanked her."

El tried to say that wasn't necessary, but Neal waved it aside. "Thank you," he said, and smiled back at her as he was taken away.

It wasn't until the ambulance Neal was in had pulled out that El began to cry. She tried to choke it back at first, Jones turning away to give her some privacy, but then Diana put her arms around her and El couldn't stop the dam-burst of tears, her whole body shaking as she sobbed. She rested her head against Diana's shoulder and Diana didn't say anything, just held her firmly.

She had been so frightened… And she had been all alone, with no one to tell her if she was doing the right thing or not. Peter and Neal's lives had been on her, and the memory-weight of that responsibility still dragged achingly at her.

"Sorry," she sobbed, when she could draw enough breath. "I'm wasting time — sorry —"

"Come on," Diana said, gently, and began guiding her towards her car, still with an arm around El's shoulders.

"I don't mean to cry, I just —"

"It's shock," Diana told her, kindly. "It's perfectly normal, you're okay. And you were brilliant." She popped open the trunk with her free hand and retrieved a blanket, which she draped around El's shoulders. "Are you cold?"

"Freezing," El realised. She pulled the blanket more tightly around herself. It was comfortingly warm.

"Are you hurt?" Diana's eyes were searching, and serious.

"No," El assured her. "No, I'm alright. We should get to the hospital."

"I suppose you want a lift, too," Diana said to Mozzie. "Hop in the back."

The drive was very quiet, as was the wait once they arrived. Mozzie fidgeted restlessly and Diana tried not to. El leaned back in her chair and just waited. She didn't know what else to do, and the momentum which had kept her going all day had snapped like over-tensioned elastic. She felt very small, and tired, and not at all like someone who had stood her ground in front of Kerry. There wasn't triumph or relief inside her now — just anxiety and a hollow exhaustion.

"El?"

She started as her shoulder was squeezed gently. Rubbing her aching eyes she realised, to her surprise, that she had fallen asleep. It was dark outside. Diana was sitting in the next chair, leaning forwards to wake her.

"What is it? Is there news?"

"They're letting you in to see Peter now," Diana said, as Mozzie passed over a cardboard cup of tea.

That had El on her feet instantly. "Is he okay?"

"He's going to be fine. He'd had a blow to the head, but he's awake and the doctor says he should be able to go home tomorrow."

Both worse and better than she'd feared. Diana led her along the corridor, Mozzie trailing them. "What about Neal?" she asked. She had expected that Mozzie would be would him.

"Also stable, but they won't let us see him," Mozzie said sounding personally offended by this.

Diana sighed. This was clearly not a new grievance. "He's sedated, and they want him to sleep as long as possible before allowing distractions in."

"I think a lack of people is going to be more distracting to him."

"If he were awake you'd have a point," Diana said. "But he isn't. And I don't know why you keep trying to argue this with me — what do you think I can do about it?"

Mozzie huffed, irritated, but he fell quiet, to El's slightly guilty relief. She was too tired to deal with her friends arguing.

A second later, Diana was opening the door to Peter's room and everything else was momentarily pushed out of the way as she saw Peter, who had his eyes open and was smiling at her.

"You're alright," he said, letting the words out like a prayer.

She might have laughed, but her own fear for him was still too close. "I'm fine," she said, taking the seat next to the bed. "How are you feeling?"

He shrugged a shoulder. "My head hurts, but it's not too bad." At El's sceptical look, he amended, "Okay, it's pretty bad. But it could have been worse, if not for you." He frowned slightly in remembrance. "El, what were you even doing there? It wasn't safe!"

She laughed, a little shakily. "I was kidnapped, I'm afraid."

"You were kidnapped, and you still persuaded the leader of a well-organised and experienced crime ring to do what you wanted?" Peter stared at her in open admiration, and she felt her cheeks warm.

"She convinced everyone that she worked for me," Mozzie said. "Me as in the Dentist. And then she actually suggested they find a way of contacting me to verify that."

"Clever," Peter said, and grinned. "I always said I liked the smart ones."

"I was so scared, though," El admitted.

"So was I," Peter said. "Until you showed up. Then I knew you'd rescue us.

El had a laugh torn out of her. "Liar," she accused.

"The first part's true." He gripped El's hand. "I love you so much, and I'm so grateful to you. And proud."

El smiled back, and realised that, all in all, she was rather proud of herself too.

- - -

A sound in the night woke her. Not a dream, this time, but she still had to check where she was, heart hammering.

Home. Safe. Peter asleep beside her, also safe.

He woke when she pulled the covers back and stood up, though. "Hon?"

"I'm just going to check on Neal — I think I heard something. Go back to sleep."

It was the second night at home. The first night hadn't been much better for actual sleep then the preceding one which had been spent in a chair by Peter's hospital bed. She had kept waking up, terrified, and so had Peter, although he had tried not to let her know.

Now they had Neal in the house, too, just released and trying to pretend that putting weight on his burned feet wasn't excruciatingly painful.

And, apparently, also not sleeping.

"Neal?" El whispered, opening his door as quietly as she could, in case she'd been mistaken.

"I'm okay," he said, from the dark.

"Never said you weren't." She didn't need to, not when he was jumping straight to defensive protestations of his okay-ness. "Do you need anything, while I'm here?"

Neal thought about it, then sighed and sat up. "Uh," he said, sounding faintly embarrassed. "I kind of need the bathroom, but…"

"I'll give you a hand getting there." She found the bedside lamp and clicked it on. "Or a shoulder."

Neal accepted her arm around him and leaned on her, making small bitten-back noises of pain as he stood. They shuffled out of the room agonisingly slowly, Neal trying to walk on the outside edges of his feet. El had seen the raw flesh under the dressings, and flinched on his behalf with every step he took.

By the time they got to the bathroom Neal was shaking, and El hastily flipped down the toilet lid so that he could sit. He leaned forwards, panting for breath, his head down. El, unsure of what exactly he wanted her to do, perched on the edge of the tub and rubbed his back gently, not speaking.

"Are you two okay?" Peter leaned against the door frame, looking worriedly in. The bruising on his face was vivid in the harsh light.

El frowned at him. "You're supposed to be resting."

"I'll go back to resting when I've seen Neal's okay. Which he isn't."

"Can look after myself," Neal muttered, without raising his head. He still hadn't got his breath back.

Peter snorted. "Don't be ridiculous."

As far as El was concerned, that was not a helpful argument. "I'm looking after you both," she said, sternly.

Neal lifted his head up, in time for both him and Peter to say, "I'm fine," simultaneously. Then they glared at each other, equally frustrated.

They were reflected in the mirror on the opposite wall. El glanced at it to see the three of them in its glass, faces white, deep shadows under their eyes. All three of them, haunted.

"We're not fine. I'm not fine," she said, and wrapped her arms around herself, shivering suddenly. There was a bag over my head, and a gun pointed at me. You two were being beaten, and tortured.

Their attention was focused on her instantly, both wearing identical expressions of how can I fix this?

"You could have died!" she said, and it came out like an accusation. "I could have died! What I did shouldn't have worked." She had held up a lie to protect them all, like a shield made out of paper, and it seemed she was still waiting for the shot which would punch through it like it wasn't even there.

"El," Peter said, a little helplessly, and dropped to his knees in front of her, holding out his arms. She leaned into him, and then one or both of them pulled Neal into the circle too, the three of them all holding onto each other.

"I was sure they were going to kill me," Neal whispered.

"So was I," Peter murmured, like it was being wrenched out of him. "And El… When I saw you…"

His breath was warm through her hair. Her instinct was to tell him to hush, to not say things like that, but she repressed it.

He didn't say anything else. There wasn't really a need to talk. They just held together while their breathing slowly synced, and smoothed.

"Sorry guys, my back's killing me in this position," Neal said, eventually.

El laughed, genuinely, and Peter was smiling as they untangled. "I think that's the longest you've ever held still voluntarily," he said.

"I once spent all night balanced on the edge of a plinth. Allegedly."

"Performance art?" Peter asked, dryly.

"Please. I have standards."

El laughed again. She couldn't help it; everything just seemed so much brighter than it had a short while ago. They weren't okay yet, but they would be. The laugh turned into an enormous yawn. "I think we should think about going back to bed," she suggested.

"I still need to pee," Neal said. "Go away."

"We'll wait outside and help you back down the hall," Peter said.

Neal muttered something inaudible, but didn't actually protest.

He kept on not protesting when they came to take an arm each, and as much of his weight as possible. They might all be feeling worlds happier, but he was in at least as much pain as before, and he was pale and sweating, his eyes scrunched shut, by the time they could let him down on the edge of the bed. El stroked his hair until he opened his eyes.

When he did, he blinked in confusion. "This is your room."

"We'll be able to know if you need anything," Peter said. He had sat down rather hastily himself, angling his face away from the light. "And maybe you'll sleep better."

"Maybe we all will," El corrected, softly, remembering Peter waking at intervals, breathing fearfully.

"Yes," Peter agreed. "But if you'd prefer —"

"No!" Neal insisted, quickly. Then, more measured, "I mean, if you don't mind."

"If we minded, we wouldn't have offered," Peter said. "Come on, get in. In the middle, since you won't be moving any time soon."

"I'm not the only one supposed to be on bed-rest," Neal pointed out.

"Caffrey, stop arguing. I want to go to sleep."

"So do I," El said. She was exhausted.

Neal held up his hands in mock surrender and slid under the covers. El waited until Peter, too, was lying down, and then turned out the lights before joining them.

Neal touched her shoulder. "Thank you," he whispered.

"You've already thanked me," she said.

"This one isn't from me. It's from Mozzie. Oh, and he says, 'the mockingbird calls at dawn'."

She actually laughed out loud. "It does? Ha."

"What, did that actually mean something?"

"Maybe."

"El!" Peter joined in. "What?"

El smiled and pretended to asleep, steadfastly, until she was.

- - -
twinchaosblade: Cat hanging from a tree branch, entitled "Hang in There!" (Hang in There)

[personal profile] twinchaosblade 2013-01-05 06:07 am (UTC)(link)
Wow, what an amazing story! Last night I planned on reading the first few paragraphs and come back later but MAN, was I hooked! I literally couldn't stop reading before I reached the end.

Excellent and suspenseful writing, wonderful characterizations and great ideas! I especially loved that El played it cool and convinced them she was an assiciate of the Dentist of Detroit, which she is actually.
schneefink: River walking among trees, from "Safe" (Default)

[personal profile] schneefink 2013-01-06 10:32 pm (UTC)(link)
BAMF!Elizabeth, yay! And Mozzie and Diana, and poor Peter and Neal, and of course Elizabeth knows the Dentist. I enjoyed this very much :)
iamshadow: Matt Bomer pulling a face captioned Dignity. Always dignity. (Dignity)

[personal profile] iamshadow 2013-01-09 11:12 am (UTC)(link)
This is wonderful. I like that Elizabeth gets to be brave and clever, but also getting to be put in a situation where she has to hold her nerve and out-bluff a foe who's not stupid. She's not reckless, but she is proactive.

And I love the Mozzie-El dynamic, with the codes. That line about her being the only one who does it, and about Neal doing it but being sarcastic, is golden.
michelel72: Garcia, happy (CM-Garcia-Joy)

[personal profile] michelel72 2013-02-03 05:56 am (UTC)(link)
Oh, excellent! Elizabeth is the best, but everyone is great here!