Title: The Ghost of a Chance
Genre: Gen, angst, h/c
Characters: Mainly Neal and Peter
Summary: When Neal disappears, Peter will stop at nothing to find him... as usual.
A/N: Written for Ferryboat George's prompt over on Livejournal's Collarcorner community *grin*
Neal took a deep breath of river air as he walked along the pier. The Monday evening sun was sinking behind a horizon obscured by buildings, painting the sky a myriad shades of orange and deep purple. His hair was ruffled by the chilled spring breeze which was slowly beginning to give over to the warmth of the oncoming summer. He indulged himself in a small smile.
But Neal Caffrey didn't walk anywhere without purpose and he was on his way to an exclusive wine retailer a little off the beaten track, right at the edge of his radius and near the pier that currently had his attention.
Peter had asked him about his trips once, seeing him skirting the edge of the radius on the tracker map, seeming to be looking wistfully out on the forbidden land beyond, but it was all above board. What Neal hadn't said was that he liked the walk, especially on evenings such as the one unfolding around him.
The gulls flying overhead taunted him with their freedom as much as the edge of his radius nearby. One day he would be as free as them and it wasn't exactly a badlife he was living anyway. Although he liked to complain about it, the radius at least gave him a better outlook than the three concrete walls and metal bars of his previous life.
Neal sighed contentedly. It was one of the quietest places outside Central Park where there was little traffic or noise other than the gentle swish of the waves lapping the pier and walls of the docks. A buoy nearby clanged as it bobbed.
"Time to go," Neal said long after the orange sky had faded to a dark purple as the night approached.
The wooden boards creaked under his feet as Neal walked back towards the road around the dock warehouses. He was a few metres away from the road when the boards groaned in deeper annoyance at his weight on them, then there was a loud crack and Neal fell through.
It got to half past eight on Tuesday morning before Peter started getting a little worried about Neal's whereabouts. He kept expecting to see the man walk out of the lift looking a little dishevelled at his lateness, but with a cocky smile on his face, but he hadn't arrived yet. Neal hadn't said anything the previous day about being in late or that he was going to have a heavy night.
Peter checked the tracking data for Neal's anklet and alarm bells immediately started sounding even louder than before. There was no signal from the anklet. There hadn't been an alert that Neal had gone beyond his radius or cut it. Something was definitely wrong.
Peter called the Marshals first and they suggested that it was merely an equipment malfunction. It happened sometimes, they said, the battery ran out or there was a bad tracker supplied. What they said did nothing to allay Peter's growing anxiety.
Peter called Neal next. The number went straight to voicemail. He left a message then dialled Moz and left him a message too.
Then an unpleasant thought entered Peter's mind - Moz and Neal were both unaccounted for. The two men had a habit of getting up to no good, especially when together. Maybe they had finally found a way to pick the anklet without alerting anyone? Maybe they had run? If they had, Neal could be halfway to China by now.
Diana entered Peter's office with a stack of case files. "Did Caffrey call in sick?"
"No. I can't get hold of him and his tracking data stopped last night at 8.27."
"You think he ran?"
Peter sighed. "I'm not sure what to think. But Neal seems to have made a lot of enemies in his time. I only hope none of them have tracked him down under our noses."
Diana frowned in concern. "I'll gather the troops."
"Swing by Neal's apartment and I'll take a team to check the place where the signal cut out last night. Let's see if we can get to the bottom of this."
Neal woke up with a groan. Someone was tapping him repeatedly on the temple with their finger. "I'm up. I'm up," he mumbled. He realised that it wasn't an alarm clock that had woken him and his mind immediately went to the worst conclusion. "Am I late for work?" Peter would send him straight back to prison for sure.
Neal frowned and opened his eyes. It was dark and now that he was waking up and thinking more lucidly, he realised that what he was lying on wasn't a soft bed and the tapping wasn't a finger. His leg hurt a lot too.
Then he remembered - the pier, the oncoming night and the boards giving way under him. He had expected to hit freezing water, but instead he had landed on a pebble beach underneath the pier, his leg had twisted awkwardly and he had blacked out from the pain only moments later.
He tried to move, but something was pinning him down and his leg protested even more. Trying to sit up was as futile as trying to move as there was something lying over his chest too. It wasn't crushing him, but he was well and truly trapped.
"Peter," he said quietly. The tapping on his temple hadn't stopped, only moved to his forehead as he turned his head, then it started hitting his nose. It was irritating.
Neal reached into his suit jacket pocket to get his phone, but his hand closed on nothing but air. The phone, his only lifeline to the outside work (aside from the tracker) was gone.
The tapping continued and something ran down his face and into his mouth. It was a foul tasting liquid and he struggled not to gag on it.
Neal started to panic a little, his heart fluttering rapidly in his chest and his whole body vibrating from the hammering. It was dark and he was trapped. He gasped into the darkness and it didn't echo. He could hear the sound of the river water lapping the shore nearby and the quiet clanging of the buoy and his anxiety increased. Were there tides? Was the tide in or out? Was it about to come in and drown him?
Neal pushed and pulled against the beam on him and winced. Pain radiated in waves from his left leg, spreading out from the focal point until it shook his whole body. He struggled and writhed and eventually the darkness and the pain claimed him and he passed out.
Diana met Peter at the pier. He watched her as she approached from her car and when she caught his gaze she shook her head. "Sorry, boss. There was no one there. It looked like he left all his stuff behind too."
"We found something!" an agent called out from the road.
Peter all but ran over to the agent as he bagged a phone that had been lying in the road a few metres from the edge of the pier. He passed it to Peter and Peter frowned.
"Caffrey's phone?" Diana asked.
Peter gave her a tight nod and pressed his lips together in a thin line.
"He wouldn't leave his phone behind if he ran," Diana said.
"I'm not sure." Peter turned to the agents investigating the scene and taking photos. He called out to them, "Anything?"
A lot of blank faces peered back at him.
"You think he might have been taken?" Diana asked quietly.
Peter's phone rang. He didn't recognise the number and his heart plummeted. "Agent Burke."
"Where's Neal, Suit?"
"Mozzie…" Peter knew then that Neal hadn't run. He would never go without his friend. Maybe he would've done a year or so ago, but that was before Kate had been killed. Now, aside from the FBI and June (who wasn't going anywhere), Mozzie was all Neal had. They would go together, or not at all.
"Have you forced him to go on one of your out of hours injustice missions again without telling me? We were supposed to meet up this morning and then arrange lunch at an as yet undisclosed location. But he won't answer his phone."
"Mozzie." Peter lowered his voice, thinking it better not to meet panic and suspicion in kind. "Moz.Neal's missing."
"What have you done to him this time?"
Peter might have mistaken Moz's tone for outrage if he hadn't had dealings with the man before, but he heard the concern underlaced in the words. "Nothing. I've got the whole team trying to find him. I'll let you know as soon as we have something." Peter ended the call, not wanting to hear any more of Moz's recriminations when there was work to be done to find his missing CI.
Peter crouched down at the edge of where the pier started. "Where did you go, Neal?" He frowned do at the crack in the wooden boarding. One had rotted through, leaving a gap a few centimetres in width. Not big enough for a man to fall through, even one as lithe as Neal. Besides, there was nothing but water under the pier and if Neal had fallen through somehow, he would've been able to swim to one of the ladders on the docks and have been fine and laughing about it now (or most likely not even mentioning it in case it ruined his cool).
Neal woke up to the muffled sound of gulls calling overhead. The tapping was incessant and he thought it must have woken him up from his fearful dreams.
There was little light now and Neal glanced at his watch. The face was smashed and the time was fixed at 8.27. It taunted him, not letting him know how long he had been there. Fortunately, or perhaps not so fortunately, his leg had stopped hurting and was now numb.
The light allowed him to finally see his predicament. As he had suspected, the weight over his chest was a heavy wooden beam from the underside of the pier a few metres above. His 'bed' was made up of lots of uneven and very hard pebbles. The thing hitting him over and over in the head wasn't a hammer, but the slow dripping of water from a broken pipe above.
Neal gritted his teeth and pushed at the beam on his chest with all his might. The accursed thing shifted about a centimetre, then settled back over him with a quiet creak.
How long would it be before the others realised he was missing? Mozzie was due to meet him in the morning. Whether that was now or in a few hours, Neal had no idea.
The water drops tapping on his temple were getting annoying again and he moved his head and let it hammer the bridge of his nose. A few minutes of that and a headache started to form. Neal closed his eyes and grimaced. It was bad enough being trapped and helpless, now he had giants jumping up and down on his head. It was relentless and no matter where Neal moved his head, it felt like the water was burrowing through skin and bone and right inside him. It was agony.
After minutes or hours or days of lying there, Neal heard something that wasn't the sound of gulls or water or the off key clashing tones of the buoy. "Voices," he whispered hoarsely. He licked his lips and tasted the horrid water again and tried not to gag. How many rotten beams and mouldy concrete pipes has the water passed through to reach him?
"Help!" he tried to call. "I'm down here!" But the foul tasting water sent him into a coughing fit and the resultant jarring of his body woke up his numb leg from its slumber and he soon passed out again.
It was with a heavy heart that Peter returned to the office a few hours later. Diana had had to drag him away from the pier eventually and he hadn't been satisfied until he had been round to Neal's apartment to see for himself. Forensics were going over the apartment too, but hadn't found anything untoward.
Moz had called insistently until Peter had had to answer and admit that his investigations so far had revealed nothing. None of Neal's known enemies or previous colleagues in crime were in town as far as Moz knew. Neal had never made it to the wine seller that he frequented.
"Did he run?" Peter asked.
"I'm serious, Moz. Did he?"
There was a pause and Moz came back with a quieter voice, "He wouldn't. He would've told me."
Peter heard his own doubt reflected back at him in Moz's voice.
When Neal woke up again, he was freezing cold, hungry and thirsty. "I thought that being surrounded by water..." he slurred. His leg stayed numb and he didn't dare to try and move it for fear that it would start hurting again and send him back into oblivion. "Might be better there," he mumbled.
It was dark again and he was feeling worn out and miserable. Why hadn't Peter and the others come to rescue him yet? Why would they leave him to die like this? Didn't they care at all?
He shivered and turned his face from the constant drip drip drip smashing him in the head. He clothes were soaked through from it and the smell was almost as bad as the taste.
Then Neal realised that it was his left leg hurting him and he put two and two together. It was the leg with the anklet - the one thing he had been counting on to save his life. With that realisation his situation became dire and his chest tightened in terror. His anklet must've been damaged along with his leg, and if that was the case, he was alone. He could already feel himself weakening from either his injuries or hypothermia and starvation and the longer he lay there, the less likely it was that they would find him in time.
As disgusting as it was, Neal tilted his head back and let the dripping water land on his tongue. He held his nose with a shaking hand so that the taste was lessened. His sore chest hitched and his walnut sized hollow stomach rebelled, but Neal screwed his eyes tightly closed and swallowed. It barely did anything against the dehydration and he knew it was hopeless and that he was only prolonging his own suffering if he held out as long as he could.
Animalistic instincts overrode his human compulsions and logical thoughts and told him to do one thing: survive.
Dawn broke on the second day since Neal had vanished. Peter poured over the last few hours of Neal's tracking data once more, hoping that it would give him some clue as to what had happened.
It made no sense for Neal to run. When he had tried to run before, it was with Kate - his one true weakness, he had said goodbye to everyone but Peter. But the people that had last seen Neal, himself included, hadn't noticed anything different. Not that Neal wasn't excellent at hiding things, but when it came to those closest to him, he was a little more open.
Mozzie had checked Neal's apartment and confirmed that everything was in place except for the man himself. He was taking it hard as he must have had the same suspicion as Peter – that Neal had run and not said a word, just upped and gone. There wasn't even so much as a spinning hat on the floor to signal his rapid departure from all of their lives.
The White Collar Unit was quiet and subdued as Peter walked round to see if anyone had any leads. No one had dared to touch Neal's empty desk, leaving all things in place as they were.
When Neal had been back to prison for 2 months during his time as the White Collar Unit CI, he had left a deep hole. Despite his criminal record and less than orthodox methods, Neal had a certain way of lightening the mood - even early on a dull rainy Monday morning after an all nighter in the van. His smile was infectious and his manner left smiles mirrored on the faces of the people he left in his wake.
At least then they had known he was alive and safe. But now the doubt hung in the air like a spectre, a cloud weighing down on all of them. Smiling seemed wrong, an affront to the ghost in their midst, any laughter was quickly stifled.
Peter was under pressure from his boss to hand the investigation over to the Marshals and resume white collar crime solving operations. The uncertainty was what was getting to him the most. He refused to believe that Neal had run. But if he gave into that refusal, there was only one other option and the outcome was far worse: Neal had been kidnapped. If Neal had been taken, it was likely that the kidnapper had a history with Caffrey and had taken him to use or hurt or kill him... or even all three.
"I've been in worse situations," Neal said shakily. Although when he'd been trapped or hiding out before, he'd remembered at least having access to food and water and not being in so much pain.
It was dark again and he had lost track of time completely. He had no idea how many days he'd lain there or if the alternating light and darkness was even the cycle of days anymore.
He fended off the maddening water dripping on his face with his hand, but his arm felt heavy and insubstantial like jelly. The muscle weakness from lack of food and water for so long was starting to claim him. The offending limb soon gave out and collapsed down onto his upper chest like over cooked spaghetti and just as useless.
He breathed deeply as his eyes filled with water that wasn't coming from above. He wasn't going to cry, even though no one was around to see him. He needed to save as much water as possible. He closed his eyes tightly, trapping the few tears he had shed on his eyelashes and keeping the rest within. It was no use crying when he was alone and dying.
The buoy clanging its two tone melody in the background was almost as annoying as the water and the sound followed him into his nightmares as he succumbed to the darkness.
Peter came into work early the next day. His boss had called an end to the operation at close of business the previous day. Peter had stayed behind as the clock struck 48 hours since Neal had vanished but there was nothing anywhere. He had gone home late, exhausted, downcast and despondent. He had sat on the couch and held onto El in silence and she held him back.
"How can a man just disappear like this?" Peter asked the picture of Neal grinning up at him from the casefile he had on his desk. The early morning sunlight reflected off the glass windows of the buildings behind him. How dare the sun shine when Peter's hope at finding his CI alive and well had faded to practically nothing.
Neal was good at evading capture, as Peter had learned well in his time tracking the man. But things were different now. At least he had thought they were.
Peter sighed and rubbed his face. He hadn't had a lot of sleep since this had started. There was a Caffrey shaped hole in his life and he didn't think he would ever be able to fill it. No one else was quite like Neal and it was unlikely anyone ever would be – he was as irreplaceable as he was annoying at times.
Who would've thought a cocky, over-bearing CI would become such a huge part of their lives and leave such gaping chasm by not being there?
It was still an hour before anyone was due in and Peter grabbed his jacket and left the office. He had a niggling feeling in his gut that he was missing something and it couldn't be ignored, not when the stakes were so high and Neal's survival depended on it.
The chilled breeze blew off the surface of the river and buffeted Peter as he stood at the pier as he had done so two long, harrowing days before. As his hope and despair had gradually faded, they had given way to grief. He didn't know whether Neal was dead or alive, but either way, Neal was still gone.
Peter walked over to the railing of the pier with a heavy heart. The sun had decided to hide its face and the sky was now dull grey, casting the world in shadow. The only living things in sight were the ever circling gulls overhead and men on the boats out in the river. How could no one have seen anything at all?
Peter walked across the pier and stumbled when his foot caught on something. He stepped back and glanced down the wooden boards. It was the same hole he had seen the other day which had just caught his foot and tried to trip him. He tentatively tested the boards with his right foot, keeping his left on the sturdy boards behind him. Nothing happened at first, but as he altered the pressure and turned his foot, the boards bent down. When he lifted his foot, the rotted, warped boards sprung back up into place, soft from years of damp air.
Peter nearly cried out in triumph, but caught himself when he realised how long it had been. If Neal had fallen through... was it too late? Had he been injured in the fall? Had he died from his injuries?
Peter ran back to the car and grabbed a flashlight. His hands shook as he ran back to the hole and dropped to his knees.
"Neal?" he called down the hole. There was no answer. He hadn't really been expecting one, but the hope that had kindled inside him like a lit flare made him do it. He wasn't strong enough to pull the boards up with his bare hands, but he was able to flash the light down the hole and peer in. He was shocked to see that the wooden boards weren't over water or the concrete of the dock as he had assumed, but underneath was a drop of about 2 metres and a pebbled beach.
The beach was a mess of flotsam and jetsam, bottles, bits of unidentifiable plastic, and smooth wooden pieces battered by the sea that had finally found their way to shore. Then the light caught on a couple of beams that clearly hadn't spent months at sea. A pair of pale hands clung to one of the beams and Peter swallowed the bile down as a lump of horror formed in his throat.
"Neal!" Peter called, but there was no movement. At this distance and in the dull lighting, Peter couldn't see Neal's face or see whether he was still alive or not.
He quickly dialled 911 and called for help.
It took only a few minutes for help to arrive, but the time felt like it stretched out into infinity, the memories of the hours they had spent searching for Neal in vain crashed down over Peter while he waited. Two days of wasted time, pointlessness, false hopes and fear, when all the while Neal had been dying, maybe already dead, right in front of them the whole time. The first place they had looked! Peter felt himself being pulled away from the hole as the fire brigade took over.
"He fell down through the boards," Peter said shakily as a blanket was draped over his shoulders and he was guided to sit on the step of an ambulance. "He's been down there for over two days."
They pulled up the boards and one called out: "He's alive!"
Peter's chest loosened a little, but didn't ease completely, not even when Neal was lifted from the hole on a stretcher and loaded into the back of the ambulance. He was in a full head and neck brace and securely strapped down to a backboard, his pale, grubby, stubbled face obscured by an oxygen mask. The EMTs worked on him for a few minutes in the back of the ambulance, cutting away clothes and wrapping him in blankets, inserting IV lines in both of his arms. There was something wrong with Neal's leg.
Neal remained frighteningly still while they worked and only the slow rise and fall of his chest showed that he was alive. Peter half expected Neal to wake up and tear off the mask with a grin and say it was just another one of his elaborate cons, but he didn't move.
Peter called Diana with shaking hands, grateful for speed dial. "I found him."
And that was all he needed to say, all he felt he couldsay without breaking.
The EMTs took Peter to hospital in the ambulance with Neal. He wouldn't have trusted himself to drive in his tired and shocked state. Now that his mission was finally over, the exhaustion he had been fighting was catching up with him.
He called Diana again and asked her to send someone over to pick up his car, told her which hospital they were going to and asked her to tell the others: Neal is alive. Hurt, but alive.
"It's okay, boss... Peter.I'll let them know."
El met up with Peter in the hospital a little less than half an hour later and wrapped her arms around her husband.
She said, "I knew you'd find him."
"I always do."
El gave him a small smile. "Any news?"
"They said they needed to stabilise him before he can go into surgery. His leg is broken. The tracker got smashed along with his leg when he fell." El furrowed her brow while Peter grimaced and continued, "He was lying there for two and a half days, trapped with a broken leg..." Peter sighed sadly and El hugged him tightly.
"Am I dead?" a weak voice croaked.
Moz fed Neal some ice chips, carefully hiding his discomfort at tending his injured friend. "I like to imagine that there are better drugs in the afterlife."
"And less pain." Neal opened his eyes and blinked blearily. His face was pale and there were dark circles under his eyes.
Moz continued, "Also no need for buildings filled with sick and injured people."
"Thanks for coming to see me. It means a lot."
"I felt it was apt after your disappearing trick."
Neal hummed in agreement and his eyes slid shut as he fell unconscious again.
Neal was discharged a few days later, still incredibly weak and pale and hobbling along on crutches, but a lot better than he had been. They had had to rebreak and pin his leg to set it where it had started to heal on its own. The initial physical injury coupled with two days of borderline hypothermia, starvation and with dehydration only just staved off by the water drips and he was feeling pretty lousy. He was also battered and bruised in other places, but slowly on the mend.
He sat on the couch at the Burkes' house with his cast wrapped broken leg up on the footrest El had pushed over for him.
"How are you feeling?" she asked.
He flashed her a dazzling smile. "Better, thanks."
"Can I get you anything? More cushions? Painkillers? Water?"
Neal furrowed his brow, "Do you have any of those little chocolates left?"
She smiled down at him kindly. "I'll see what I can find."
"You're worse than my mother," Peter said to El in good humour as he walked past on the way to sit with Neal.
Peter had a beer in his hand and Neal looked at it longingly. "No alcohol for you. Not until you're better."
Neal gave him a tight smile. "Soon then."
"I hope so."
They sat quietly for a few minutes while El fussed out in the kitchen.
At length Peter spoke, "I didn't realise you were that thin."
Neal frowned in confusion.
"To fit through the boards like you did."
"Oh, well, it makes it easier to slip out of the grip of pursuing FBI agents."
Peter took a long pull from the beer bottle, then looked away. "I should've made them check the hole when I first found it, then you wouldn't have been stuck down there for half as long as you were."
Neal laid a hand on Peter's arm, which felt odd as it surely should have been the other way round – with Peter offering comfort to Neal as he was the one who had been through a far worse trauma.
"It's okay," Neal said. "Don't blame yourself. I was the one who fell through the boards and got stuck. Besides, I'm getting better now."
Then Neal realised that Peter and the others really cared about him. Peter had never stopped looking for him, just like old times. Honing in and not stopping until Neal had been found and recaptured. Peter needed some comfort too - what had he been through when Neal had vanished and in the days following when they had been trying to find him?
Neal continued, "I'm glad you never give up until you found me."
"I'm like a dog that clamps down and can't let go."
El brought in a tray with Neal's painkillers, some water and a few handmade chocolates on a plate.
"Oh," Peter said. "Are they those ones from the exhibition yesterday?"
Peter reached out, but El swatted his hand away. "Guests first."
Peter resisted the urge to roll his eyes as Neal put on the kicked puppy expression that had El waiting on him hand and foot. Peter laughed instead, glad that he once more knew Neal's exact whereabouts and that his friend was safe.