Characters/Pairing: Neal, Diana, June, Peter; Gen
Word count: 9000
Notes: This is my SandyAid fic for leonie_alastair, horrendously late! I really apologise, and hope you enjoy it.
I'm using this as my wild card square (smoke inhalation) in hc_bingo. Thank you helle_d and sholio for advance reading!
Summary: An FBI agent, a CI and an ex-con infiltrate a party. Only one comes out.
June was visibly enjoying herself as they swept through the party, cutting a swathe through the crowd. Neal, on her arm, was grinning too, her enthusiasm infectious. Not that he wasn't having fun in his own right; this sort of glittering company was where he was in his element.
June glittered too, her dress dark but managing to catch the many points of light in some subtle way. No, not glitter for June — she glinted, more sharp edge than ornament, however disguised.
"Thank you for getting me in here," Neal leaned in to murmur.
She laughed. "I wouldn't want to miss this. Music… champagne… a beautiful young man to escort me…"
"A surveillance team listening to our every word…"
"Oh, it just wouldn't feel right without one. Don't you agree?" She winked at him.
"I heard that," Peter said, over the radio.
"Just like old times," Neal agreed. He tried to catch Diana's eye — she was part of the tech crew, standing unobtrusively in black by the sound desk — but she steadfastly refused to look their way.
"Behave," Peter told him. Or possibly both of them. Although, as there was no way any of them would have got into an event this exclusive if not for June, he should really be cutting them some slack.
"I'm behaving," Neal said.
"Impeccably," June agreed.
The ballroom was almost full now. Neal would have distrusted Henson on general principles for having a ballroom in his house even if they didn't already know he was a criminal, and now Neal spotted him mingling among his guests. He squeezed June's arm lightly, indicating him to her.
"Hmm," June said. "He doesn't look that impressive."
"His company has stolen millions of dollars from pensions and trust funds," Peter reminded them. "Allegedly, of course."
"Bet I can find some evidence," Neal said.
"That is what you're supposed to be here for," Diana said. She was probably smiling, but he couldn't tell for sure.
June was definitely smiling. "Let's see you, then," she challenged.
Neal could practically hear Peter refraining from telling them that this wasn't a game. "Think you can keep him talking?" he asked.
June considered the people surrounding Henson. "That's Albert. He'll give me an in." She grinned at Neal. "Good luck."
"You too." Neal broke away, strolling in the direction of the bar as June appeared greeted her acquaintance cheerfully. He changed direction not suddenly at the last minute, but in a natural way that wouldn't alert anyone. It was all about sleight of hand and smooth movements.
The sounds trailed away fast as he let the ballroom door swing closed behind him and started up the nearest flight of stairs. Faux tapestry was hanging from the wall. "I'm on my way up," he whispered.
"Henson's talking to June," Peter said. "I'll keep you updated."
It was an adrenaline rush, walking openly up the stairs in a mark's house. Instincts told him to move as fast as possible, but he didn't listen to them. It was safer to stroll as if he belonged there.
Henson's whole house was decorated in a lavish, ostentatious style — not a man who was shy to let everyone know he had money. But at least the rich carpeting on the stairs did a fine job at masking the sounds of Neal's footsteps.
Henson should have spent more of his money on locks. His study door was the work of moments to open, and Neal smiled in satisfaction as he slipped inside. "Peter?" he murmured. "I'm in."
Peter's reply was garbled, and Neal winced at the bursts of static. "…ay…n…"
He moved back onto the landing. "Hear me now?"
"Loud and clear. What happened?"
"I think Henson's study has a signal-jammer in it," Neal said, quietly, looking cautiously up and down the stairs.
"Can you disable it?"
"I haven't found it yet. I'll try."
"Okay. Look for evidence, take photographs, check in every couple of minutes." Peter didn't sound happy, and Neal couldn't blame him. He wasn't thrilled about the lack of contact himself.
"Let's do this quickly," he muttered, and stepped back into the study, closing the door behind him.
Diana quite liked working the sound desk. It certainly beat waitressing, or trailing about on someone's arm acting the part of a bored trophy. She was all but invisible, and that suited her just fine. She made sure everything was working well for the pianist currently playing, and then half-listened to the continuing conversation between June and Henson. They were talking lightly, reminiscing about "back in the day". Or, mostly June was, doing a pitch-perfect performance as an elderly grande-dame who loved rambling on and would certainly become horribly offended if one tried to bring the conversation to an early close.
"Five minutes since Neal last checked in," Peter said. He sounded tense. "How are things looking?"
"Everything seems normal here," Diana told him. "Henson and his friends are enjoying the party. Well, he was until he got trapped by June."
"Neal was supposed to check in every two minutes."
"You know Caffrey," Jones said, reassuringly.
"Know what about me?" Neal's voice chimed in.
"Two-minute check-ins!" Peter snapped.
"Give me some leeway here. I've hit gold."
"Do you have pictures?" Peter asked.
"I'm about to. I thought I'd stick my head out and check you weren't worrying about me."
"No one's worrying here," Peter said.
"You guys had better not put June off," Diana warned.
"Nah, her radio's only transmitting right now," Jones assured her. "What, you don't trust me to manage the channels?"
"Children," Peter said, warningly, and Diana grinned.
Henson at long last managed to extract herself from June, who instantly attached herself to one of his friends. She was extremely good at this. It was lucky for them that she stayed inside the law these days… mostly.
The pianist continued with her set and Diana continued to keep an eye on the work which was her cover.
"Neal's overdue again," Peter noted, grumpily.
Jones sighed. "Relax."
"We should issue him with a pager."
"Right, because that wouldn't look at all suspicious."
Henson was talking to a man Diana hadn't noticed before among the guests, their heads close together. "Boss," she said, suddenly feeling distinctly uneasy, "How long has Neal been out of contact this time?"
"Nine minutes," Peter replied, instantly. He must have been watching the clock. "Why? Is something going on?"
"I'm not sure."
Henson's contact slipped out of the room. "Scratch that," Diana said, tersely. "I have a distinctly bad feeling about this."
"Movement at the back door," Jones said. He had eyes on all entrances via the traffic cameras across the street. "Shit. They're carrying something out. Long packing crate. Looks heavy."
"You think Neal's in there?" Diana asked, alarmed.
"It's the right size, and looks to be the right weight. They're putting it in a van."
"Diana —" Peter began, urgently.
"You have to follow, I know you do."
"We're your backup."
"I'll be fine —"
She stopped talking abruptly as Henson passed close by her, now speaking into a phone. "— and get him well away. So that he can't be traced back after —" The rest of the words were immediately swallowed up in the crowd.
"Did you get that?" she asked.
"Yes," Peter said, grimly.
"So. Go. June and I can take care of ourselves."
She could hear the noise or rushed preparations in her ear, before the channel switched. Peter and Jones would be calling in other backup. "June?" she said.
June took maybe half a minute to extract herself from the conversation, without at all appearing to be doing so deliberately. "What's happening?" she asked, the moment she was away.
"They've got Neal. He's been taken away from the house. Jones and Peter are following. Can you get out of here?"
She had been half-expecting June to start arguing that she was in no danger, that she might be able to gather some more leads. But it seemed that she was much better at following directions than Caffrey. "I assume you want me to go home and stay there?"
Across the room, June pulled her phone out of her purse and audibly gasped as she looked at it. She caught the arm of one of the servers. "I'm so sorry, but I need you to find my coat. My granddaughter, she fell out of a tree and they think her leg's broken…"
She was wrapped immediately in sympathy and hustled away, the story already caught by those nearby and doubtless to be passed on to the cloakroom. Diana smiled in admiration of the act — June was now the centre of attention, and it would be very hard for anyone to plausibly detain her from leaving with so many eyes on her. She would be safe.
Now she herself had to get out, and it would be much harder for her to walk away from her post without attracting the wrong sort of attention. Right now Henson and his men were likely to be very much on edge, looking for a conspirator of the man who'd broken into the study. The staff would be an obvious target.
June didn't meet any obstacles. Diana listened to her get into a taxi and keep up the story with the driver until the transmitter got to the end of its range and went silent.
She suddenly felt very much alone.
Minutes dragged past. The pianist was beginning to intensely grate on her; Diana started wondered whether she could somehow sabotage the instrument. That might mean she could leave.
One of the servers finished her shift, and headed for the exit. Henson's friend smoothly moved into intercept and engage her in conversation. It was only after a couple of minutes that she could finally leave, and Diana had no doubt that the direction she left in would be carefully monitored.
There must be a way for her to slip out without being noticed…
Two men on the staff carried a couple of black cases up to her. With no small relief she realised they contained different instruments, for the next entertainment act. "You need a hand?" she asked. It might well be an opportunity to get outside.
"We're good, darlin'," one of them drawled. "Unless you want to help set up stands?"
"Sure," she said.
The second man went on his own to get another case. He came back with it shortly, and three bottles of water which he handed out. Diana surreptitiously checked the seal before she cracked it open.
"Hey," the bearded one said, "Can you help me with this?" He was struggling to undo a catch.
She bent to examine it, and that was when the blond man abruptly pressed up against her. She could instantly recognise the cold, hard barrel of a gun jammed into her ribs. "That's right," he said, conversationally, as she froze.
"What are you doing?" she asked.
"Don't speak. We're going to walk out of this room now, all natural. If you don't, you get shot. Understand?"
She swallowed. "Yes."
Diana began walking. She had training, of course, on what to do if taken hostage. Go along with the demands, and look for an out. No escape or rescue if you're dead.
None of the party guests noticed anything as they walked briskly through the ballroom, and then out into the hall. Blond guy held his gun on her openly now. But it was the bearded man she flinched back from, as he took from his pocket a pre-loaded syringe and uncapped it.
"What's going on?" she asked, trying to sound confused and scared.
He smiled at her nastily. "We monitor radio use inside this building," he said. "We know you're with the man we caught poking around upstairs. Do you work for McKenzie?"
"I don't know what you mean," she said. "I have a company radio, you must be reading your equipment wrong."
He was done listening. "Hold still and this won't hurt," he said, clamping his hand tight enough to bruise around her upper arm. She would have been able to break away even so, but for the gun muzzle at point-blank range.
So no choice. The needle slid easily into her skin. Shit, she thought. No, no…
She might have said the last aloud. Within seconds she couldn't tell.
Peter drove. Neal would have complained incessantly about the speed and the tight turns, and at that moment Peter would have welcomed hearing him. Was Neal suffering through them in that cramped box, or was he unconscious and oblivious?
Jones was certainly not wasting time on complaints, instead making call after call from the passenger seat. Putting an APB out on the van they were chasing, and ordering other agents to the house. Peter's own phone chimed from his jacket, and he nodded at Jones to pull it out and check it on his behalf.
"It's a text from June," Jones said. "She's in a cab on her way home."
"Good," Peter said, with relief. "Have we had any updates from Diana?"
"No, but she knows what to do."
"I know," Peter said, and slammed his palm against the horn as they hit another red light. Apparent-municipal vans weren't the vehicles for high-speed chases, even the approximation of high speed that was all they could reach in the centre of daytime New York. And he couldn't really fault the other drivers for not clearing the way for him. "We need a siren on this thing," he said, frustrated.
"Agreed." Jones had apparently run out of calls to make, and instead leaned forward as if it would make them go faster. Their quarry was getting further ahead, as Peter was only too well aware.
And then it was gone. One tight turn led to another, and then another, hampered by the flood of traffic at each corner. Until the van they were chasing had managed to lose itself altogether in amongst the other cars and vehicles.
"Do you see it?" Peter demanded urgently. "Where did it go?"
"I don't know," Jones said. "Damn! We lost them."
"We can't have done."
"Dammit!" Peter hit the horn for no reason other than frustration. "Dammit, Neal." He pulled over. Much as he wanted to keep driving in the hope of stumbling back onto the trail, he knew that that would almost certainly be futile. Working out where Neal was being taken to would be a much greater help. "Okay. Back to the house. Have you got us a warrant yet?"
"It should meet us there," Jones assured him.
The drive back seemed to take hours, but finally Peter was pulling up hard against the kerb. "Get Diana on the radio," he told Jones, after a quick scan failed to find her. He had noticed already the SWAT team assembling around the corner, and the pair of agents in plain-clothes keeping the entrances in visual range.
"On it," Jones said, and slipped into the back as Peter jumped out to join the party.
The senior agent on the scene was a man Peter recognised, named Cole. "Burke," he said, not wasting time. "You get your guy?"
"No," Peter said, grimly. "What's the situation here? Have you made contact with Agent Berrigan?"
"Afraid not," Cole said, tensely. "Haven't heard or seen her. We got here as quickly as we could, but that was only a couple of minutes ago."
"You mean there's no guarantee she's safe," Peter said, grimly. "Or even still inside."
"What, you think she might not be?"
"We already know they like removing intruders from the premises."
The SWAT team was ready, and there was no need to waste more time talking. Peter hastily strapped on a vest, and followed them in.
He got a perverse satisfaction from the look on Henson's face as his party was brought to an abrupt halt. Leaving other agents to mop up the guests and staff, Peter cuffed Henson himself. "Where are my agents?" he demanded.
Henson glared and wriggled. "I don't know what you're talking about," he said.
"We know your men picked them both up." Peter resisted the urge to give Henson a shake. "So where. Are. They?"
For just a moment, Henson's eyes widened, and Peter had the sudden realisation that he hadn't known they were with the FBI. But he did know exactly who Peter was talking about. "I want my lawyer," he said, sullenly. "I'm not saying anything else to you."
Disgusted, Peter let someone else haul him away. He tapped his radio. "Jones. You found them yet?" Jones was with the team searching through the house.
"No," Jones replied. "No one's talking."
They kicked open every door they could find, all the way up to the attic, but Diana and Neal were nowhere to be found.
She had been deeply asleep, but at the sound of her name she struggled to wake. The voice sounded urgent. And familiar, and there was something she needed to do…
"Di? C'mon, wake up."
She at last succeeded in peeling her eyes open. She was lying on a surface that was cold and hard. The out-of-focus face hovering above her resolved, at length, into Neal. He remained a little blurry, and she rubbed her eyes. "Neal?"
"Yeah." She struggled up onto her elbows, accepting the help of Neal's arm underneath her shoulders as he guided her backwards to a wall and then crouched beside her. Her throat was dry and scratchy. "What happened?"
"Ah," Neal said, looking crestfallen. "I was hoping you'd be able to tell me."
Diana rubbed her eyes hard again, which finally succeeded in clearing them, and brought Neal up to speed as best she could.
"You're saying we're not even in the house anymore?" Neal asked. He looked worried; she didn't blame him. "Any idea where we might be?"
She shook her head glumly. "No. Peter and Jones went chasing after you. I was staying behind —"
"— getting kidnapped —"
"Hey, you got kidnapped first!"
Neal shrugged. "Don't get defensive. I'm just saying."
She rolled her eyes, but their bickering was reassuring in its familiarity. "Thank you for your contribution."
"Hey," Neal said, "You could try to sound sincere."
"If I wanted to," she agreed. Feeling better, she took a look around.
It wasn't promising. They were in some sort of basement; windowless, doorless. There was a wooden trapdoor set into the white-painted ceiling, and a bare bulb dangling from a cable provided light. No furnishings or supplies of any kind, although there was a covered bucket in one corner. One commodity, at least. Better than none.
"Have you tried the trapdoor?" she asked.
Neal nodded. "It won't budge. I'd guess it's bolted on top."
"Any clever ideas to get us out?"
She knew the answer already, of course. Neal was clever and resourceful, but he couldn't do everything. They were in a cell. And they were staying.
Henson's lawyer wanted to make a deal. With every hour that crept past Peter was more willing to consider taking whatever awful terms were being offered, in return for getting Diana and Neal back. Which was probably why it was the DA, not him, who had insisted on taking point.
The APB on the van they had lost was still in full effect, and technicians were combing through traffic camera footage hoping to find its destination. Other cameras near Henson's house suggested that at least two other cars had left during the brief interval of time that it hadn't been under surveillance.
Peter was trying not to be furious with himself, but his heart wasn't in it. He had left Diana alone to be abducted, and hadn't even achieved anything in return. Neal's whereabouts was equally unknown.
At least, in what could be viewed as a bizarre form of compensation from the universe, he could now study in full the documents Neal had found — a veritable mountain of paperwork had been delivered to the Bureau, and Peter was going through it all with the help of several other agents. Henson's business owned several buildings around the city, and there were almost certainly more which weren't in the official records. He hoped to find clues. Teams had already been dispatched to the obvious locations, of course, but had failed to turn anything up.
It had been eight hours.
Jones tapped on the door to the conference room, pushing it open. Peter looked up from the paper-covered table. "Anything?"
Jones shook his head. "No. Henson's lawyer is playing games. Dragging this out as long as possible."
"He knows that the sooner Neal and Diana are found, the better this looks for him, right?"
"It's been explained at great length," Jones said, wearily. "The problem is we've got too much against him. He's looking at life, and so it's almost impossible to find much we can offer. He knows he's going down."
Peter ground his teeth. "He is not going to take two of my people down with him."
The trapdoor on the ceiling was taunting them. Neal could reach it if he stretched up, but it wouldn't budge. And even the hinges were on the upper side. He had concealed picks on him, of course, but they were no use without a lock. Even access to a screw would have done.
Their phones had been taken off them, along with their earpieces and watches. Neal was briefly desperate enough to miss his tracking anklet. At least then Peter would know where they were.
"Someone has to come in at some point," Diana said. "Give us food. Water."
"Water would be good," Neal agreed. He already had a persistent headache. Dehydration wasn't something one usually had to worry about in day-to-day life — until something like this happened. They had been down there for hours already, not discounting however long they had spent unconscious.
They had expected an interrogation, but their captors seemed to have forgotten about them. Earlier there had been the faint sound of footsteps above them, but not for a long time.
Neal pushed at the trapdoor again, his hands testing for any weakness in the wood. "It must be evening by now," he said.
"Night, I should think." Diana was sitting against one of the walls, watching him idly. "I suspect no one's coming until morning. Unless they're planning on waking us up at 3 a.m. and questioning us when we're disorientated."
Neal had been thinking along much the same lines. "This would be the best time to escape."
Diana raised her eyebrows. "Is this where you tell me you've been holding back? Or are you just unnecessarily getting my hopes up?"
"The second," Neal admitted. He gave one last frustrated shove at the unmoving wood and then sat down beside her. "We should probably try and get some sleep. Seeing how there's not really much else to do."
"Shame the hospitality couldn't stretch to beds," Diana deadpanned. "Concrete's freezing."
"I can help a bit with that." Neal spread his jacket across the floor. It wasn't very large, but if they lay close together they would be able to both fit their upper bodies on it.
"Thank you." He had half expected Diana to object, but she lay down on it immediately. They had to press against each other to fit on the jacket, but with the way the floor leached heat away, having another body there to share warmth with was welcome.
"This is cosy," Neal commented.
She jabbed him with her elbow. "Watch it."
Neal grinned to himself. "You know, I really didn't think this day would end with us cuddling."
"We are not cuddling."
"I swear to god, Caffrey…" She sounded amused, though. Their captivity had long ago moved from frightening to frustrating boredom.
They might as well sleep.
The morning brought no fresh leads. Henson was still refusing to give up Neal and Diana's location. Peter had agents running down every address they could connect Henson to, but so far they had turned up no missing agents or CIs, even though they had found plenty of evidence of more illegal activity. The list of charges kept increasing.
"This will be easier if you just give us something," Peter said, across the interrogation table. "Proof that my people are okay."
Henson shrugged. "I'm stuck here," he said. "I can't get you anything."
"What is it that you want?" Peter asked.
"For you to let me walk out of here," Henson said. "Can you do that? Then I'll let you know where they are before it's too late."
It was like a bucket of icy water had been tipped down Peter's spine. "What do you mean, too late?" he demanded. "Are they in danger?" Are they even still alive?
Henson's face was set mulishly.
"Tell me where they are. Please." Peter knew he was begging, but he didn't care. If it got Neal and Diana back, he would do it. "If you do this as a show of good faith I can testify in court that you cooperated."
Henson's lawyer leaned over to murmur into his ear. She was smart, and looking increasingly frustrated with her client. But Henson shook his head irritably, pushing her away. "No," he said. "You let me go. That's what I want."
"I want to negotiate with you," Peter said, sincerely. "But you're asking for something I can't give you. It's just not possible."
"I guess you'll have to find them yourselves, then," Henson said. He crossed his arms. There was a smug expression on his face. "If you can."
"I would kill for a glass of water right now," Diana said. Her head was throbbing, her throat was sore, and her eyes felt sticky. The air in their little cell was also getting decidedly stuffy, which wasn't a pleasant addition to the dehydration.
"The human body is mostly water," Neal commented. He eyed her speculatively.
"Thinking of turning vampire?" she asked.
"We could fight. The winner gets to drink the blood of the loser."
Diana grinned. "I can't believe you're volunteering to fight me."
"I might have some tricks up my sleeve," Neal countered.
They were back to sitting opposite each other against the walls. Diana had tried to pace earlier, but the space was small enough that the repeated turning just made her dizzy. "You have no chance of taking me," she said. "I'd kick your ass right through that trapdoor."
Neal looked up at it, and sighed. "They're not even giving us a chance here," he said, and rubbed his forehead. Presumably he had a headache to match Diana's.
"I never thought I'd see you run out of ideas," Diana said. "Do you really have nothing?"
He hesitated a moment, and seemed about to offer something, but then he shook his head. "Nothing."
"You were going to say something," Diana pointed out.
He opened his mouth, but abruptly there was a creak from overhead. Diana stiffened. It was a footstep. Someone was there…
But the footsteps passed away almost instantly, and the brief hope that they would have either a chance to escape (or some water — she would take that in the meantime) was gone.
"Hey!" Neal shouted. "Have you forgotten about us?"
"Hey!" Diana called, lending her voice to his. It hurt her throat.
But whoever the footsteps belonged to, they didn't return.
"Cole found something," Jones said, and Peter was out of his seat before he'd even finished speaking, knocking over the sandwich packet someone had brought him at lunchtime and which he'd instantly forgotten about.
"Not Diana or Caffrey," Jones hastened to clarify. If that had been his news he would have lead with it, but Peter's heart sank anyway. "Let me put it up on the screen and I'll show you."
"Go ahead," Peter said, and watched Jones plug a camera's memory card into the equipment. Photographs flashed up onto the screen, and Jones flicked through them quickly.
"Do you recognise this?" he asked.
Peter looked carefully. The photograph showed a long, narrow crate. "Is that the one we saw being removed from Henson's house in that van?" he asked.
"The very one."
"What was inside it?"
"Nothing," Jones said. "It was empty. It was in one of the buildings near the docks that Henson used as storage; Cole says he and his team searched the entire place, and we're waiting for surveillance footage from every camera in the vicinity." He looked determined. "If that's where Caffrey was taken, we'll find him."
"Good work," Peter said, but his heart was sinking. The crate lying empty in the middle of the floor had the clear signature of a dead end.
"I want to go back to the house," Peter said, abruptly. "I keep feeling like we're missing something. There must be clues somewhere."
Jones didn't protest, but came with him, which told Peter that Jones shared his hunch. But Henson's house was exactly as they had left it — very large, garishly decorated, and currently deserted.
Peter walked through each room, desperate to find something he'd previously overlooked. Jones came with him. The nagging sense that he was missing something never left him, but nor did they turn up anything new or helpful.
In the end, it had just been more time wasted.
"How long do you think we've been here?" Neal asked.
Diana shrugged. She looked pale and tired — he probably looked much the same. "Dunno. Definitely over a day."
Maybe more. Neal's pounding head wasn't likely to let him forget that they were on a deadline. A very literal one, if no one came back for them.
"This is why we shouldn't take your anklet off," Diana said.
"We've been over this," Neal pointed out. His throat was dry enough that speaking was painful, but neither of them liked the silence to stretch for too long.
Neal let himself fantasise about the trapdoor suddenly opening and Peter appearing through it, here to rescue them. That would be nice. What's taking you so long?
"You asked me before whether I had any ideas," he said.
"Well, I do have one," he admitted. "But it's terrible, and could kill us."
Diana pushed herself upright. "I'm beginning to suspect we've been left here to rot," she said. "Let's hear it."
"The trapdoor's made of wood," Neal said. "You can get through wood. With the right tools."
She looked at him impatiently. "If you've been hiding a jigsaw up your sleeve…"
"Fire's a tool."
Diana's face went abruptly blank. "That's it," she said. "You've gone completely crazy. I don't even need to hear the rest of your idea to know that it's absolutely terrible."
Neal held up his hands. "Hey. I did warn you. And it's not like we have a wide array of options open to us right now."
She didn't reject his idea out of hand. He could see her thinking as she took several measured breaths. It was a quality he had always appreciated in her. "Even if it works and you can actually get it to catch, you're still talking about filling an enclosed space with smoke. We could suffocate."
"I know." There wasn't any point trying to lie to Diana either outright or by projecting false optimism.
"Henson could just be trying to soften us up. Not kill us. Someone could come back any time."
"I know. Or Peter could still find us. I know." He sighed. "I did tell you upfront it was a terrible idea."
"You did," Diana agreed. "Have you even got anything to make a fire with?"
In answer, Neal pulled out his picks and gestured at the rough concrete surrounding them. "It could take a while, but eventually I'd get a spark."
"Sometimes you scare me," Diana said. Neal grinned. He could always accept a compliment. "Right. Do it."
Neal wasn't immediately sure that she was serious. There had been far too little arguing. "Are you sure?"
"God, no. But you've only made it this far in your life by taking idiotic risks and carrying out your absolutely terrible ideas." She laughed a little, darkly. "Frankly, I'm not sure I'm in my right mind now."
He understood. "So I should get on with this before you come to your senses?"
"Right." He couldn't help wishing she had argued just a little bit more. The room suddenly seemed that much smaller, and the trapdoor extremely solid and non-flammable. "Do you have any paper?"
Both of them searching their pockets resulted in three crumpled receipts and a small pack of tissues. Neal had originally been carrying a notebook, but it had been taken off him by Henson's men. Wishing for it back wasn't going to achieve anything, however.
Diana watched without comment as he took off his shoes, and then his shirt. "Can I have some of your hair?" he asked.
She did blink at that. "My hair?"
"It's good kindling. Receipt paper is slightly glossy, so it'll be harder to light from a spark."
She began pulling out strands of hair, breaking them from near the roots and collecting them together. Neal crumpled the receipts loosely together and then twisted the hank of her hair around and around them. He bundled the cotton dress shirt into one of his leather shoes, leaving a hollow for the kindling ball. "The leather will take a long time to catch fire," he explained. "Hopefully long enough for the shirt to have a chance of setting the wood alight."
"This plan is sounding worse and worse," Diana said. "Get on with it."
He did. He scraped one of the picks repeatedly against the concrete floor to roughen it, and then he struck them together sharply, over and over. Diana crouched beside him, watching silently through the screech of metal on metal.
The spark he got was too small and fast to be seen, but suddenly a thread of smoke was trickling from the kindling ball, along with the acrid stench of burning hair. Neal pushed the ball into the prepared hollow, blowing on it gently. A glowing speck flared up into a flame, and he quickly tugged a fold of cloth over it. That caught too.
With Diana muttering swear words under her breath, Neal stood to hold the shoe up against the trapdoor. There was more smoke now, already stinging his eyes. The fire was consuming precious oxygen by the second If this killed them both he hoped it wouldn't be Peter who found him with a burned-out shoe in his hand. It would just be embarrassing.
He tugged his undershirt up over his nose and mouth, holding it there as he did his best to breathe shallowly. Catch, he silently urged the wood. His eyes were streaming now and he had to close them. He could feel the heat through his hand.
"Neal!" Diana tapped at his ankle. "The wood's caught!"
He cracked his eyes open, squinting through the smoke. Tiny flames were licking into cracks in the wood, and it glowed and charred. He tipped the remainder of the burning cloth out onto the floor, where Diana stamped it out.
Neal dropped down low, and shuffled to lie against one of the walls. Diana came with him, and he arranged his jacket over both their faces like a tent. Neither of them spoke. Smoke rose, but the room was small enough to push it quickly downwards anyway, and both of them were coughing. They could only wait, keep breathing, and hope the oxygen didn't run out before the wood could burn through.
Peter was navigating through traffic when his phone rang. He answered it on speaker. "Burke."
"Agent Burke, hi." It was Blake. "Are you still at Henson's house?"
"No, we left it about an hour ago," Peter said. "We took a look at one of his nearby bolt-holes afterwards. Why?"
"A 911 call just came in," Blake said. "A passer-by thinks he might have seen smoke coming from the house."
"Might have?" Peter glanced at Jones. "Did you leave an iron on?" He was already looking for somewhere to turn around.
"It wasn't us," Jones said.
"The fire department's dispatching someone to check it out," Blake said.
"We're on our way back," Peter said. "Might beat them there."
They had missed something. He had known they were missing something.
There was a sudden loud crackle and then a roar as the slow-burning fire chewed a hole through the wood to the other side, and the fresh supply of oxygen that awaited it there, bursting into flames. Within a few moments it was paradoxically easier to breathe, as the suffocating layer of smoke was sucked up through the gap.
"It worked," Diana breathed, sounding astonished.
"We're not out yet," Neal cautioned, trying not to show the extent to which he was sharing in her surprise. He stuck his head out from under the protection of the jacket. The hole in the trapdoor was only fist-sized, but the edges were glowing ember-hot and there was flickering visible on the other side of it. The flames were still gnawing away.
"I can get my arm through there," Diana said. "If there's a bolt I can undo it." She was still holding up the fabric of her shirt as a makeshift mask, as was he.
"You'll get burned. Wait until the hole's bigger."
Despite the increased freshness of the air, there was still more than enough smoke to painfully irritate their throats and eyes. "I don't want to wait until the whole building's on fire," Diana argued.
She was probably right. "Put the jacket on," Neal said. "It'll protect you."
"Worked that out already." She smiled swiftly at him as her shirt collar slipped from her face while she was working her arms into the too-long sleeves and bunching the cloth over her hand. She pulled it back up, and took a deep breath. "You'll lift me?"
In answer, Neal stood and locked his fingers together, bending down. Diana stepped onto them, holding his shoulder for balance. He straightened, and her fingers dug sharply into his upper arm as he lifted her towards the fire.
She took a final breath, and pushed her arm up past her elbow through the hole in the charring wood. She gasped, and swore. "Can't find the edge," she said, through clenched teeth.
"You should be able to reach it."
"I know!" She pushed her arm further out. "It's — must be hidden under the floor. Disguised."
"Feel for anything against the grain," Neal urged.
Her breath was coming in pained gasps. "Think — this — got it!" Her face was creased with grim determination. She pulled her arm most of the way down and then, with the cloth pulled down over her fingers, pushed her hand into the edges of the hole. The top half of the wood separated, and she shoved it upwards. Two trapdoors, the top one hiding the hinges and lock of the bottom one. She reached up again, and this time there was the noise of a bolt being drawn back. A second later she pushed at the lower trapdoor, and this time it lifted away. A clear square was left in the ceiling of their prison.
"I can get out," Diana said. "Boost me higher."
Neal didn't ask whether she was sure. He lifted her higher as she pulled herself onto the floor of whatever room was above them, until she had enough of a grip to roll out and vanish.
Her face appeared a moment later, streaked with soot. "Where are we?" Neal asked.
"Don't know. Hang on, I'll see if I can find something to get you out."
With no choice in the matter, Neal waited, jittery with adrenaline. The light bulb abruptly went out — the fire must have melted the wiring. "Diana!"
"Neal?" Diana was coughing. A moment later an aluminium ladder slid down.
He gave it a cursory once-over as best he could, and then climbed up it and into another windowless room even more full of smoke. Flames were tearing over the floorboards.
Diana had scouted out the door already. She grabbed his arm, pulling him along behind her as he choked. Then she actually opened the door and the flames shot out past them, digging glowing claws into the carpet running up the flight of stairs ahead of them.
Neal didn't have shoes. The soles of his feet were already painful. He could see burned and blistered skin on Diana's hand.
"Keep that over your head," Neal gasped, tugging at the jacket to make the point. She had inhaled more smoke than him.
They had to go now or they wouldn't make it.
Stepping on the burning carpet with only socks to protect his feet was more painful than he had been expecting — he couldn't catch his breath from it. Neal ran, jaw clenched from the pain, with Diana beside him. The fabric over his mouth didn't seem to do much — heat seared his lungs and smoke burned his eyes. He could recognise that they were coming up into daylight, but he could barely see.
They reached the top of the stairs and staggered forwards, not knowing where they were going in the billows of smoke spewing up from behind them. Neal was barely keeping his eyes open, and he was so dizzy he was dimly surprised he was still standing.
Wall. He pushed against it. Diana was dragging him sideways along it. Wall. Wall.
It was locked. He didn't know where his picks were, and he didn't have the dexterity to work them anyway. He slammed his body against it, Diana lending her help, and on the third attempt the lock splintered outwards.
He fell down the steps in his haste to get away from the fire; hitting every edge as he tumbled, and then landing on his back at the bottom. He was trying to breathe, but instead he was coughing so hard that he seemed likely to expel his lungs.
A hand fell on his back and he flinched sharply. But then a voice said, "Neal! It's me. It's Peter."
The impossibility of it… But he squinted, and Peter was a familiar blur above him.
"Help's coming," Peter said. "Keep breathing. Hang on, okay? Stay with me."
"Di," Neal succeeded in croaking.
"She's here," Peter said. "Jones has got her. Don't talk."
Neal tried very hard to keep breathing. Peter was squeezing his hand. Then Peter was abruptly torn away, and Neal tried to cry out, but choked helplessly instead as something was fitted over his face. He was coughing and coughing and couldn't stop. And the pain of his burns was rising, as if the flames were still searing him.
"Neal, calm down," Peter ordered. There was someone else there, also talking, but Neal couldn't focus on more than one person and he couldn't breathe. "You're both out of there, okay? I promise."
The black spots were back, crowding out Peter's face. He was sucking down breaths, but his lungs felt as empty of air as they had inside the fire. "Peter, can't… breathe!"
"Yes, I know!" Peter's voice was too loud, and he was gripping Neal's hand tightly, still urgently telling him to take slow breaths, but they were getting faster and shallower instead and Neal couldn't manage vocalisations at all.
Then there was a pinch on his arm, and things abruptly began to disintegrate, going distant and floaty. The pain went distant as well. That was a marked improvement.
"Neal?" Peter was leaning over him, his face close but his voice much further away. "I'm sorry, I know you're not fond of being sedated, but they needed to get you to stop freaking out."
He felt weird. He tried to tell Peter so, but his voice wasn't coming out right. There was a mask in the way.
Peter turned away from him. "Yeah, but he's not doing too well," he said.
Neal put forth a concerted effort and managed to roll his head to the side. Diana was lying on a gurney of her own, with an oxygen mask over her face. Her arm was cut free of cloth, red and blistered. She saw him looking, and pulled her mask down. "They drugged me too," she rasped, with an effort. "Hang in there."
"Put that back," Peter snapped, in concert with the medic hovering over her.
Neal tried to dredge up a response. It was taking a long time for each thought to form. He felt anxious, and sick, but it was all muted. Peter put a hand on his arm, squeezing tightly, and Neal tried to lean towards him in the hope that he wouldn't go.
He passed the ambulance ride in a semi-conscious haze, and was limp and pliant as he was wheeled down hospital corridors. He had lost track of both Peter and Diana, and he didn't realise it until it was already too late, but he couldn't panic about that either because the drugs still had him in their grip of enforced calm, shading into sleep.
When he woke the room he was in was full of people. His bed was tilted so that he was propped partially upright, and Diana was in the other bed, leaning against its incline and with a canula instead of a mask. Her arm and hand were swathed in bandages. Jones was there, and Peter, and Elizabeth was sitting by Neal's feet.
"Look who's awake," Peter said, noticing. He crossed over to Neal, pressing a hand over his arm. "How are you feeling?"
"Lousy," Neal croaked. His throat and lungs felt like they had been scrubbed raw with sandpaper.
Peter's mouth twisted sympathetically. "The doctors say the smoke's still clearing out of your system," he said. "You've also got some pretty bad burns on the soles of your feet, but they should heal up just fine."
"How's Diana?" Neal asked.
"Much the same," Diana answered for herself. Her voice was very hoarse. "Just swap 'feet' for 'arm' there."
"Oh, and you were both also severely dehydrated when you were brought in," Jones added. "That's pretty much fixed now, though."
"Great." Neal decided to keep pretending that his feet didn't belong to the rest of him for as long as the painkillers would let him. "Guess we should have waited for you to come find us, seeing as you were right there."
There was an abrupt stillness.
"What?" Neal asked. He was too tired and messed up to be expected to puzzle out whatever this was by himself.
"We wouldn't have," Peter said. "You were in Henson's house the whole time, and we didn't know it. We cleared the place out and went over and over it, but we didn't find you." There were deep lines on his face.
"He's feeling guilty," Diana said. "The trapdoor was hidden, I keep telling him that, but he's still blaming himself." She reached for the plastic cup of water on the stand beside her, taking several sips.
Neal looked at Peter. Peter looked away.
"What, really?" Neal demanded. "Peter, you can't possibly think…"
He had to stop and even out his breathing, because he wasn't getting enough air. "Neal, don't get worked up," El said. "You're still healing."
It was easier said than done, especially with Peter watching him anxiously.
"Obviously it was Caffrey's fault," Diana said. All the heads turned to her. "He's the one who got caught going through Henson's papers. I bet there wouldn't have been any suspicion on us at all if that hadn't happened."
"I was finding evidence!" Neal protested.
"Yeah, but they got it anyway."
"Only because you both getting kidnapped was pretty solid ground for a warrant," Jones pointed out.
"True," she conceded. "But the getting kidnapped bit was still because of Neal."
Peter was smiling reluctantly, and trying to stop himself. "You could both have died."
"Yes, but we didn't," Diana said. "Which I imagine is going to give us plenty of chances to rehash this conversation before we get out of here."
Neal perked up. "Do you know when that'll be?"
He was immediately the subject of several mock-stern looks. "Not for a day or two at least," Peter said.
"I'm sorry," Diana said, "I didn't mean to interrupt anything." She had come to visit Neal, but it was June who answered the door.
"Nonsense," June said, firmly. "Come in."
"Yes, do," Neal called. "Want anything to drink?"
"No thanks." Neal was as casually dressed as she had ever seen him, in a loose teeshirt and pants. He looked pretty much recovered at first glance, but that was almost certainly by design. His feet were up on the couch, and lying next to it on the floor were a pair of hospital-issue crutches. "Are you walking yet?" Diana asked.
Neal grimaced. "When I have to," he said. "Although it's more an undignified hobble."
Diana winced in sympathy. She was discovering for herself just how painful deep burns were, and how long they took to heal. She had been ordered to keep her arm in a sling for at least another week, and wasn't inclined to argue. "Have to say, I'm not sorry Henson didn't manage to make a deal in the end."
"Although if he had we would have gotten out faster," Neal said. "We wouldn't have had to take such drastic measures."
"True," Diana admitted. "Although they were your drastic measures."
June shook her head mock-sternly. "I don't know. Setting fires. It has a certain lack of finesse."
Neal laughed, and reached up to briefly grasp June's hand as she and Diana settled themselves into chairs. "Is Neal being a good patient?" Diana asked.
"Oh, not at all," June said, with a fond smile. She turned back to Diana. "I hope you're being a better one. Who's looking after you?"
Diana kept smiling. "I'm fine looking after myself. I can get around, and that's the main thing."
"I'm glad you're doing all right," June said, her expression disconcertingly piercing. "I'm even more glad you stopped by, though. I haven't managed to really speak to you since the party."
Before everything went wrong. They had all been bickering over the radio. Diana was surprised to find that the memory of it still brought an amused smile to her lips, despite knowing now what had been about to happen. "You were fantastic undercover."
June sighed happily. "Ah, I'm out of practice now, but I'm still used to the con."
"Undercover work," Neal corrected her. "They don't like it when we call them cons."
"Silly me, I forgot." June grinned slyly. "Must be my age."
Diana had a momentary image of the kind of havoc the two of them could work together if they put their minds to it. She tried to dispel it. It was terrifying.
"June," Neal said, quietly, "Please would you…"
June looked between them, and nodded. "I don't admire the view from your terrace often enough," she said. "I'm going to take a few minutes outside."
Neal smiled fondly as she swept gracefully away. "June's amazing."
"She is," Diana agreed. "You two are lucky to have found each other." Potential for lawbreaking aside.
Neal nodded agreement. "I'm glad she got out of Henson's place when she did," he said. "Are you really doing okay?"
Diana looked at him closely. He was pale, as was to be expected, and there were faint shadows under his eyes. She wondered if he, too, was having trouble sleeping, and being plagued by nightmares. Probably. "I'm as good as can be expected, I guess," she answered. "You?"
"Same." He paused, and shifted uncomfortably. "I'm glad I was down there with you, you know," he said. "I think I'd rather that than have anyone else there."
She was honestly surprised. "You wouldn't have preferred Peter?"
Neal flashed her a dazzling grin. "He wouldn't have gone for such a stupid plan."
"No, he probably wouldn't have," she agreed. It had been stupid. Utterly stupid. The odds had been in favour of them dying in the fire, rather than successfully managing to use it to escape.
"Has Peter decided yet whether he's feeling more mad at us for taking that risk or guilty that we had to?" Neal asked.
He had been by to see her the evening before. "I think he's still about fifty-fifty. Give him a couple more days, and then write your report accordingly."
Neal's face fell comically. "I can't believe we still have to write reports. You'd think this would count as an extenuating circumstance."
She laughed. "All part of the job, Caffrey."
June peered around the door. "Have I had enough of the view yet?" she asked.
"Yeah, I think it's good for now," Neal said. He glanced to Diana to get a confirming nod.
"Excellent." June came back over to her chair. "Do you have plans for the rest of the day?" she asked Diana.
"No, I'm free."
"Great," Neal said, enthusiastically. "Want to join us in a game?"
"And you'll stay to dinner, of course," June interjected.
Diana laughed. "Sounds like I have no choice," she said, smiling.
She wouldn't have chosen differently, after all.
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