sparsenicjade
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AN: As always, this is for egelantier.

WARNING: This chapter contains non-consensual sex between a 17 year old and an adult, as well as beatings and the electrical torture of teenagers. This chapter is not kidding around.

***



Home life is no more natural to us than a cage is natural to a cockatoo. –George Bernard Shaw


Ezra Paris Standish-Wilmington used words excavated from the depths of the Oxford English Dictionary, ran a floating poker game right under the school’s nose, smiled with all his teeth, and reminded Neal far too much of himself to be trusted, even just a little bit. Ezra was the kind of kid you had to play with at his level of play, or not at all. Neal knew he could manage it, but he also knew it would lead to trouble, and the last thing Neal needed was trouble. He ignored the part of himself that missed the kind of fun Ezra’s sort of trouble could bring.

Neal’s intention to resist Ezra’s siren call lasted all of two weeks after he, Eliot and Parker had begun school. In fairness to himself, his excuse for failure was pretty strong. He was checking the science lab, where Eliot liked to work on homework until they were all ready to catch the bus back home. Eliot wasn’t there, though, so Neal made his way to the recess grounds in the back. It was still warm enough out that Eliot could be found kicking around a soccer ball, or shooting hoops on the asphalt.

Instead Neal found a group of kids he didn’t recognize at all surrounding Ezra and the kid Eliot was in a specialized reading class with, Davin Tanner-Larabee, Vin. Neal thought to himself, not your problem, thought, turn around and leave, but the kids in question looked like they might be from the community college a few blocks over—considerably bigger than either Vin or Ezra—and Neal had heard the word “retard” snickered, seen Vin stiffen. It reminded him too damn much of Eliot’s quiet fragility over his illiteracy to just walk away.

Ezra’s body language was gorgeously relaxed, and though Neal couldn’t hear what he was saying, he could tell it was being said with just the right amount of charm. He could also tell—and was pretty sure Ezra knew—that it wasn’t going to deter the others from tormenting Vin, possibly more.

Neal didn’t exactly have a plan, but three on four was better than two on four, which were the odds before he arrived. He tried a simple, “Oh, hey, I’ve been looking for you. Your parents are here.”

It didn’t have the desired effect, possibly because while Ezra caught on instantly and began to say, “Right, come on, Vin,” Vin blinked at Neal, whom he’d never officially met. And in the instant of distraction, one of the older, bigger kids, shoved Vin.

Vin was maybe all of fourteen and small at that. He tried standing his ground, but the other kid had at least fifty pounds on him. Vin got right back up but before he could manage, Ezra was in between them, his calm demeanor terrifying for anyone who knew what to look for. The Neanderthals who had started this were pretty obviously not in that group, since they laughed, and by then, Neal was there, standing next to Ezra. Ezra blinked at him, maybe would have said something, but their concentration was diverted by the fact that the bigger kids were in the mood for a fight, and shoving was just an appetizer.

Neal had no idea how long it went on before Mr. Winner and Mr. Barton were out there, pulling the larger kids off of them and herding them into the school with a surprising amount of force and efficiency. Mr. Hardison was right behind them, helping the three of them up and asking, “Wanna explain what that was all about?”

So far, Mr. Hardison was Parker’s very favorite thing about this school, which recommended him to Neal, but this wasn’t Neal’s story to tell, not really, and he might not trust Ezra, but the kid had put himself between four guys bigger than him for the sake of one quiet, highly dyslexic other kid. Neal had his back on this, assuming it didn’t mean lying to Elizabeth or Peter.

Ezra, who had the start of one impressive shiner, did his best to smile—he was good at keeping it small, Neal noticed, so that it didn’t cause him to wince—and say, “They were uninterested in the finer details of special education, Mr. Hardison.”

Mr. Hardison rolled his eyes. “In other words, you have taken a vow of silence in relation to authority figures.”

Ezra gave him a look of such untainted innocence that it was all Neal could do not to snort. Mr. Hardison said, “Fine, kid, but I’m calling your parents.”

Ezra did flinch at that, but all he said was, “Mine. I started it. Vin’s got nothing to do with this.”

Vin, who hadn’t said a word this whole time, said quietly, “Shut up, Ez.” Then, to Mr. Hardison, “They started it. Over me. Ezra and Neal were just helping.”

Mr. Hardison looked over at Neal, who was starting to feel the bruising on his stomach, where one of them had gotten in a punch. “You’re Parker’s older brother, right?”

Neal never knew how to answer questions like that. He didn’t mind Parker telling people that, or anything, would have loved to have been able to say yes without feeling like he was committing some type of crime, but it wasn’t that simple. Still, he figured they were probably registered with the school that way, so he nodded. Mr. Hardison asked, “What were you doing out here?”

“Getting some fresh air,” Neal told him sincerely.

Mr. Hardison responded with an expression that said he would like to gently strangle them all to death. Neal figured that was pretty fair. Instead he ran a hand over his head and said, “C’mon. They probably put those jerks in the office, so we’ll just commandeer the nurse’s station.”

Ezra spoke up, “You’ll call Sara and Buck, though, Mr. Hardison, yes? Leave Mr. and Mrs. Larabee out of this.”

Mr. Hardison looked at Vin. “Detective Wilmington’s your dad’s partner, right?”

Vin nodded. Mr. Hardison shrugged and told Ezra, “Sure, kid. One call is better than two.”

Neal didn’t miss how Ezra put himself between Vin and Mr. Hardison on their way to getting patched up.

*


The nurse was just about done checking them all over—Ezra was the only one who needed something more than ibuprofen, and even there it was just some alcohol and antibiotic cream and a bandage—when Neal noticed Parker sneaking into the room. He rolled his eyes but didn’t bother to ask if she was supposed to be there; of course she wasn’t. Instead he asked, “Where’s Eliot?”

“On the bench outside. He’s the lookout.”

Neal bit back a sigh. “Go sit with him. I don’t want either of you coming in here when Elizabeth or Peter gets here.”

“But—“

“No buts, Parker Burke, and if I find out you’re not sitting with Eliot when they get here, I’ll tell the Burkes you want dresses for your birthday.”

Parker made a face. “You’re mean. And Burke isn’t--”

“Cruel, even,” Neal agreed, cutting her off. Burke wasn’t her official last name yet, but it would be, it would, and a single name didn’t work as well as a double one when being firm. He made a shooing motion with his hands. She huffed and flounced off.

After a second, Ezra laughed, short and sharp. “I like her.”

Neal was about to answer when the sound of Mr. Hardison saying, “Special Agent Ellis-Wilmington,” and a woman responding, “Sara, please,” filtered past the door, and Ezra’s walls, which had been at half-mast, went right back up. Vin kicked at his ankle, but Ezra ignored him, standing as the door opened.

A very attractive, very fashionable woman walked in, raked her gaze over Ezra and Vin and said, “Rough day, huh?”

Ezra was standing in front of Vin again, not obviously, but enough that Neal noticed. He thought the woman, Sara, probably did as well. Ezra gave a lazy smile and said, “My charm is world-famous.”

She stepped closer and Ezra flinched back. Neal knew it was a mistake, instinct more than anything. She backed off immediately. Ezra looked to the side. Vin stood up, pushing Ezra out of his way gently. He asked, “Chris and Buck at work?”

She tore her eyes off Ezra and nodded. “They caught a case. They’re sorry, both of them. And Mary’s—“

“At Billy’s tournament,” Vin finished.

“So you’re stuck with me,” she confirmed. Then, “What happened?”

“I got in a fight,” Ezra said casually.

“Looks to me like you lost a fight,” she said, equally casual.

Neal had to bite back a laugh. She didn’t seem mad, although Ezra was still on edge, so maybe Neal was reading her as wrongly as he’d read Ezra. Then Vin spoke up.

“They called me a retard.”

Sara’s eyes darkened. “I want their names.”

Ezra backed up a little more. Sara took a breath. “Sorry. That wasn’t-- I do want their names, but just because Mr. Hardison said they weren’t from this school, so I want to pursue their asses for trespassing and assault. I’m not mad at you, Ezra.”

Ezra didn’t seem entirely sure what to do with that. Neal could appreciate the smoothness of his, “I did not believe you were.”

Sara called him on it with a look of patent disbelief. Then she turned to Neal. “You’re one of the kids Harvey Specter’s working on helping the Burke’s adopt, right?”

Neal blinked at her. “Yes?” He hadn’t meant it to sound like a question.

Sara smiled. “Harvey used to work with my husband and his partner back when he was with the prosecutor’s office.”

Several things clicked into place at once, things that Neal should have had enough clues to figure out well before now. Neal pulled himself together and said, “Pleasure meeting you, ma’am.”

“Sara. I’ll call your parents and if they haven’t left work, I’ll drop you off.”

Neal shook his head. “There are three of us—“

“Buck decided I needed an SUV for the kid—singular—we were adopting. There could be eighty of you.”

Neal tried, “You don’t need to go out of your way, if you just walk us to the bus station we can get back. I don’t think the school’s going to let us leave without someone signing me out.”

Sara looked at him for a long moment and said, “For that, we’re all stopping for gelato. Every single last one of us.”

Vin smiled a little. “I like tangerine.”

*


It was weird, having a friend, friends, at school, like some normal kid, who left home in the morning and always knew he would be welcome to return. Neal almost tried to resist it, except that it was obvious Ezra would have let him—and Vin, with his too serious eyes and overly quiet smiles would be disappointed without ever admitting it—and Neal wasn’t one to do what was expected of him.

Of course, Eliot and Vin had already decided that they had each other’s backs, so it was almost impossible for Ezra and Neal not to hang out if they were to keep an eye on the others. It was clear not doing so wasn’t really an option for either of them, so it just came together that the four of them spent every non-class moment together, and occasionally some tutoring sessions, with Ezra and Neal helping Eliot and Vin.

More often than not, Ezra and Vin would come back to the Burke’s place and have an after school snack, hang out until Chris, Buck, Mary or Sara got off work and came to pick them up. It was weird, yeah, but it was also kind of perfect in a way that Neal didn’t like to think about, even as he kept the feeling tucked somewhere tight and safe within himself for when he needed something to remember.

Parker had joined the soccer team, which meant that three days out of every week the four of them waited for an hour and a half for her to finish up with practice before heading home. It was on one of these days when it was unusually warm for the late fall. The four of them ventured just slightly off school grounds, into the area shaded with trees outside the school’s fence.

Vin climbed one of the trees, but stayed low enough that he could ask questions without shouting. Eliot and Ezra sat with their backs to the tree, and Neal laid flat on the ground, closing his eyes for a bit. He opened them to the sound of leaves rustling, just in time to see Eliot open his mouth, his eyes wide with panic. Neal sat up, asked, “What?”

Eliot launched himself at something behind Neal; Neal turned just enough to realize it was someone, not something. Vin was scrambling down from the tree and Ezra was on his feet, shouting at Vin to stay up there, when suddenly there were other men, bigger than the one Eliot was attacking. Neal kicked at the knee of the one closest to him, but the man evaded and punched Neal in the jaw, which took Neal to the ground. He was hoisting himself back onto all fours when there was a quick shift of air behind his head and everything went dark.

*


It had been awhile since Neal had forced himself to stay utterly still, maintain the illusion of sleep upon waking, but something instinctive made him do so when he came to. He listened for anything that might give him clues as to whether he was with the others, anything. There was a soft whispering that did not sound familiar, but nothing else.

Neal was unbound. His head hurt enough that even cracking his eyes took some convincing, and he felt bruised all over, as if he’d been jolted around thoroughly, but other than the damp of the atmosphere, the cold that was working its way from the concrete he was lying on right into his very core, Neal was pretty sure he was physically fine. He made himself open his eyes the rest of the way, which caused his stomach to roll over. He took a breath to try and calm it.

Wherever he was, it was dark enough that it was hard to make out the space. After a few more breaths, he started seeing figures. At least one of them was Eliot. Neal began to push himself to a sitting position just to have Eliot come to him, help prop him up against a wall. Eliot said, “Easy, I think you have a concussion.”

“Possible,” Neal admitted. There wasn’t anything to be done about it, though, so Neal just asked, “Have any idea of where we are? And who’s your friend?”

Said “friend,” a wiry kid with startling blue eyes, grinned, but Neal noticed how it bordered on a grimace. Eliot didn’t bother to hide his own grimace. “Neal, meet Jamie Kirk.”

Despite the pain in his head, things clicked into place for Neal. “Those guys, the people holding us, they’re the ones Parker took you from.”

Eliot’s nod was tight. “Neal, I’m sorry, if I’d just—“

Neal shook his head then squeezed his eyes shut against the intense desire to throw up. When he could, he said, “No. This isn’t on you. You didn’t even ever give us your real name. Do we have any idea where the others are?”

Neal opened his eyes in time to see Eliot look to Jamie. “Who’s left?”

Jamie tossed his chin toward another corner of what Neal could only assume was their cell. He said, “You’ve seen ‘Kari and Nyota. John and Ronon were in here earlier, but they moved them out to move you in. Heero, Duo and Une are somewhere. I haven’t seen in any of them in a few days, but there’d’ve been news if something’d happened to one of them. Clint and Tasha are probably with them. Kat, Jo and Finn might have your others.”

Eliot shared a look with Jamie. “Gale? Rei? Dory? Steve? Aiden? Will?”

Jamie didn’t look away, but Neal could tell how much he wanted to. Gently, ever so gently, Eliot asked, “Pavel?”

Jamie did look away at that. When he looked back, he told Eliot, “We thought you, too. We thought-- Because you would have come, you would have helped.”

And as confused and lost as this Jamie seemed, as much as Neal knew he was missing, he couldn’t help hissing at the other boy. “Fuck you right in your self-righteous face.”

Neal wasn’t sure who looked more surprised: Jamie or Eliot. Neal supposed he didn’t use swear words all that often; other things were far more useful. Jamie started toward him, but Eliot hauled him off, and though Eliot hadn’t been fighting all these months—almost a year now—he had regular meals and sleep in beds and about a million other things on Jamie. Also, Jamie gave in the second he realized who he was fighting, the second he realized Eliot was apologizing, over and over.

Jamie said, “Why-- What—“

“I didn’t even mean to go. Parker-- They would have hurt her, because she wasn’t going to leave if I didn’t.”

“Parker?”

Eliot looked at Neal. Neal said, “Sister.”

Eliot repeated, “Sister.”

Jamie ran a hand over his face. Over in the other corner, there was a rustling, and a boy of about thirteen or so came over to them. Neal thought Jamie was about the same age, maybe even a little younger, but it was clear the other boy deferred to him, settling his chin on Jamie’s shoulder. He looked at Eliot, “We thought you were dead.”

Eliot nodded. “Hey, ‘Kari.”

“Sucks to see you again, man,” ‘Kari told him. “You should’ve stayed far away.”

Jamie sighed, but nodded in agreement. After a second, the girl who had been sleeping got to her feet and ambled over. She looked Eliot up and down. He said, “Hi, Nyota,” sounding uncertain.

She made a face and hugged Eliot. “You’re stupid,” she told him, which he seemed to accept.

When she let go, he said, “The other kids, the ones that were with us, we need to find out if they’re still here.”

“Likely,” Nyota said through a yawn. “They’ve been looking for fresh blood.”

Jamie stiffened beside her and she kicked his ankle softly, but followed it up by wrapping herself around him as best she could with ‘Kari still holding himself up with Jamie’s shoulder. She murmured, “We couldn’t’ve done anything,” but for the first time since she’d woken, Neal heard the doubt in her voice, the guilt. If he could hear it, he knew damn well Jamie could. Jamie just squeezed one of her hands, the one that didn’t look like someone had driven over it with a Hummer.

Eliot said very quietly, “Their parents are, collectively, two New York detectives, a White Collar unit FBI agent, and an investigative reporter. And there are-- People will look for me and Neal.”

He looked over at Neal and said, “They will.”

Neal thought of the limp ‘Kari had sported walking over, Nyota’s hand, and the way there was a scar down the entirety of the right side of Jamie’s face. He thought of the scars he’d seen on Eliot back when they hadn’t had rooms or much in the way of privacy. He said, “I’m not sure waiting for that to happen is the best idea.”

He was kind enough not to voice his concerns over Eliot’s belief. Eliot needed that belief. And Peter and Elizabeth were good people. If they didn’t want Neal back for themselves, or even Eliot, they wouldn’t just allow them to disappear, they hadn’t before. Then again, maybe this was a case of boys who cried wolf. How many times could Peter and Elizabeth really be expected to expend the resources to find them? Maybe if the other kids were insistent enough, but it might just be easiest to put them back in the system, now that they were all legally reregistered. Fuck, Neal should have thought about that. He stopped the train of thought, there was nothing he could do about it.

For the moment, Neal was pretty sure Eliot was dead on about Vin and Ezra’s parents moving hell and high water. Having met Chris and Mary Larabee, those were two people who didn’t often take no for an answer. And Chris clearly thought Vin was made of ponies and sugar and anything else that made life that much better. Sara was the same way. Buck was more laid back, but he was, as far as Neal could tell from the few times he’d met the man, willing to move heaven and earth for Ezra, no matter how much Ezra seemed to doubt that.

Now they just had to selfishly hope that Vin and Ezra were there with them. Sometimes, it was all Neal could do not to absolutely abhor himself.

*


Neal lost track of time fairly quickly, which made him nervous. There was no natural light in the cells; when the lights were on or off did not seem to conform to any day or night related cycle; and it was patently obvious they weren’t being fed on a regular schedule. In fact, so far as Neal could figure out, they were fed in ways meant to throw them off, and meant to allow continued health enough for the fighting, but not any sort of sustainable good condition.

That said, he was fairly certain it had been less than a couple of days before they learned that Ezra and Vin were still alive and in the same complex as them. In hindsight, Neal would have almost preferred things continuing on as they were, given the way they received the intel.

He knew something was wrong almost immediately when men with tasers and nightsticks herded them out of the cell, and every single one of the others shared a glance that clearly said, what the hell? The unknown was almost never a good thing, in Neal’s experience. Or, well, it had been, somewhat bizarrely, for about a year now, but that was overridden by the sixteen years prior, and also, the tasers and nightsticks involved.

Neal’s instinct of oh shit turned out to be dead-on, since he was placed in another cell with Jamie, ‘Kari, Nyota and a few other kids he didn’t know, and forced to watch Eliot and Vin fight until one was unconscious. At first Eliot and Vin just stood there, talking quietly, but then the announcer spoke up. “Winner wins a night of safety for a friend. Loser’s friend goes in the cage. If you chose not to fight, or give in too easily, both of your friends will be paired up with more seasoned fighters for death matches.”

Neal does his best to signal to Eliot. They need Ezra alive and they both know it. Neal cannot even imagine what Buck would do, let alone Sara, if they arrived only to find Ezra a casualty. Eliot snarled, but Vin said something, soft and most likely accepting, Vin could be so fucking accepting, and the two of them squared off.

Vin was fast and clever and willing to fight dirty. Even so, Eliot clearly should have won. He was sturdier and more accustomed to fighting. He was also, as it turned out, very, very good at throwing fights. Neal didn’t think he would have known had he not been aware Eliot was going to do it. Watching the men surrounding the cage, he suspected they knew as well, perhaps just from years of watching Eliot fight—the thought made Neal’s stomach clench, he’d only had to watch once now, and it had been one of the hardest things he’d done, in a lifetime of hard things—but the crowd clearly did not, not from the way they were swearing or cheering, depending on their placed bets.

They put Neal in the cage with a kid named Ronon, who was roughly twice the size of Neal, and whose expression reminded Neal of the feral cats he’d sometimes fed back when just he, Mikey and Gee were living in alleyways for the most part. Somewhat shockingly, when they fought, however, Ronon wasn’t vicious. Neal knew better than to think he or Ronon could get away with not fighting, any more than Eliot or Vin had been able to. Fighting wasn’t Neal’s strength, not really, he was better at the con, but like Vin, he was fast and able to think well under pressure.

Ronon was also fast, but he didn’t use the fact to taunt Neal. He was quick about the way he attacked, almost professional. During his third hit, he held Neal close enough to him to murmur, “I’m going to make this as quick as I can,” his tone flat, not threatening, if anything holding back compassion.

Neal huffed out something that probably sounded like agreement. It wasn’t disagreement. Mostly, Neal just wanted to be hit as few times as possible without getting either of them in trouble. He came up, bringing the back of his head directly into Ronon’s chin, which hurt like a bitch. Ronon kept to his word. Neal counted three more hits, and it was over.

*


Ezra was there when Neal woke up. Vin and Eliot weren’t. He coughed, then regretted it. His ribs were definitely at least bruised. Most everything felt bruised, though, so he wasn’t surprised he hadn’t noticed it first thing. “Vin? Eliot?”

Ezra said softly, “Different cell. Your new friend is over there.”

Neal followed the tilt of Ezra’s head to where Ronon was curled up on the floor, his head on another boy’s lap. A red-haired girl who couldn’t have been older than ten or eleven was all-but fused to the side of a boy who was maybe a year older than her. All three of the kids were watching Ronon with wary, tired expressions. “He looks—“

“They took a cane to him, after, for not prolonging the match to their preferences.”

Neal shivered, then bit his lip against the pain of movement. “Oh.”

“Neal—“ Ezra hesitated, which was weird, that wasn’t his style. Lying or making a joke of things, certainly, but not eliding them.

“Ez?”

“They were displeased with Eliot’s tactics to allow Vin’s win.”

Neal winced. “You noticed.”

“No, or, not entirely, although I suspected there was something not altogether right. They informed him the punishment would be meted out upon you in the morning.”

Neal took a breath, and said, “Oh,” again.

“Chris will tear down buildings with his bare hands, should that be what it takes to find Vin, but circumstances might necessitate us hastening our discovery.”

Neal similarly had the feeling that their keepers might be all too happy to get rid of them merely to punish Eliot for his disobedience, or because they thought them too big a risk. Either way, Ezra was right, they couldn’t just sit around and wait. Neal closed his eyes for a second, breathing in time with the slow throbbing of his body. He opened his eyes and said, “There was a guard watching us fight, not for the fight itself.”

Ezra nodded slowly. “No, indeed. He had other expenditures of energy on his mind.”

“He was being careful. I don’t think-- Whatever else they allow here, I think that might be frowned upon.”

“Perhaps,” Ezra agreed. “Blackmail?”

“Or charm. Maybe both,” Neal made his voice stay even.

“Very well, I’ve some experience in both areas.”

Neal shook his head sharply. “We need you with Vin, and relatively unharmed. Chris and Buck get what they come for.”

“Neal—“

Neal fixed Ezra with a sharp look. “Alternatively, I could tell Vin the plan.”

Slowly, Ezra whispered, “I loathe you.”

“Entirely mutual,” Neal said easily. “Now, mind sharing some body warmth? I don’t think the cold is working quite like an ice pack on anything left by that short little tussle I had.”

Ezra sighed, and worked so that he was in a position that meant they kept each other a little warmer, but hurt Neal as little as possible. Almost silently he told him, “I owe you.”

“No,” Neal said, and pretended to sleep as a way of avoiding a further argument.

*


Neal had been beaten with all sorts of things: belts, frying pans, hairbrushes, bare hands, even a chair, once. He’d lived through several New York winters without the benefit of what could reasonably be called shelter, and had survived food poisoning from unwise dumpster diving. Discomfort and pain were kind of the devils he knew.

Their captors didn’t beat him. They hooked the insides of his thighs, his lower back and his stomach muscles up to what looked disturbingly like a car battery, and turned it on.

It wasn’t subtle. They didn’t start at some low level of shocks, didn’t use the pain in pulses, didn’t do anything but flood Neal’s nerves with electricity. He’d promised himself he wouldn’t beg, not with the others watching, not with Eliot looking wan and miserable, the way Neal remembered him first being. Neal was begging within seconds, not even coherently, purely screaming for it to stop, please, stop.

It did, eventually. Somewhere, in the part of his brain that was always dissecting situations, keeping himself and the others safe, he knew it hadn’t been that long. His mouth was dry and his throat hurt from the screaming. He thought the bruised ribs might have cracked in his struggles, his chest hurt that much, but not quite enough to distract him from the way his stomach and thighs and back burned, as though someone had set a torch down inside them and forgotten it there. He made himself breathe, it seemed the only thing he could do.

Somebody was saying something. Neal thought he should pay attention. He blinked a few times, trying to focus. It was something about defiance, blah, blah, blah. And then the others were moving, leaving, and Neal closed his eyes. He would not panic. He had begged, but that had only made sense, really. Panicking never helped anything.

When the others were gone—he couldn’t hear them any more—someone said, “Let’s get you free, huh?”

Neal opened his eyes and almost laughed, almost. They’d left him with the one guard he most and least wanted to be alone with, particularly at this very moment. The man was looking at him with sympathetic eyes that made Neal’s stomach, already pitchy, turn over. Neal made himself swallow, made himself think about Eliot and about getting out of here. He used his most sweetly innocent, most small tone, to say, “Thanks.”

It was work. He wanted to snarl. He wanted to kick once one of his legs was free. Instead he made himself stay still, made himself let this man get him back in the thin scrub-like outfits they kept all of them in when not in the center cage. He let the man hold him a little too close as Neal limped back down the corridors of cages. Most of all, he made himself pay attention to the layout of things. It didn’t tell him much, but it was something.

The man set Neal down almost gently, but with a leer Neal did not miss. Neal laid back on the cool of the cement and looked around to see if he was in with anyone he knew. He wasn’t. In one corner sat a boy and a girl, and a third kid who might have been either. Neal wanted water, but he knew there wasn’t any to be had. He closed his eyes and let himself float, somewhere as far away from the remaining pain as he could possibly get.

*


He woke up with his head in someone’s lap, water being gently pressed along his lips. He struggled to get his eyes open. He felt as though someone had baked him, drying his insides up like a desert, leaving them to crack. He had just managed to struggle to consciousness when the kid above him smiled and said, “Hey. Try some more water, okay?”

Neal croaked, “Thanks,” and did as told. The kid had purple eyes, not deep blue, actually violet, and a braid, but he was also a guy, Neal could tell this close up. When the kid had gotten a few more sips into Neal, Neal tried turning on his side and did his best to push himself up. It left him panting and sick to his stomach, but he managed. The kid put the cup of water to Neal’s mouth and gave him a little more.

Neal swallowed. “You need some.”

“Not like you,” the other boy said, and both the girl and the boy taking care of Neal looked at him. Neal got the feeling he didn’t speak up much.

Neal heard the chill in his caretaker’s voice when he said, “Hee was the last one they did it on. A while back.”

“But Hee just refused to kill,” the girl said with an eerie calm. “Kane escaped, scared them. You’re fucked.”

“Une,” they both said, in unison.

She shrugged. “It’s true. And Dory died anyway, so you might as fucking well have spared yourself.”

Neal’s erstwhile pillow sighed and said, “That little ray of sunshine is Une, and she’s got a soul, she’s just preferred to hide it since-- Well, it’s in there somewhere. Heero over there has got too much soul for his own damn good, and I balance us all out.” The last was accompanied by a smirk that didn’t quite reach his eyes.

“I’m Neal. Is Kane, is that Eliot’s real name?”

“Duo, and yeah, but he seems to have chosen Eliot. It’s just hard to always remember.” Duo held out his hand, like they weren’t in a cell, like this was an everyday meeting between friends. Neal shook it, letting the warmth of Duo’s palm seep into him, just a bit.

“They’re going to make John and Ronon fight for Ronon’s little stunt, you know,” Une said, almost like she was continuing a conversation.

“Not the first time,” Duo said, but even without knowing him, Neal could tell he was uneasy.

“John’ll be lucky if they let either of them out of that cage without at least a couple of broken bones, just to prove a point. Poor thing, the caning almost gives him a fighting chance.” Her tone was brittle, so near to amused, but also, miles away.

“Stop,” Heero said.

She stood and walked to the far corner of the cell. “Whatever. Maybe they’ll put me in with Kat and Jo next time. A splash of reality would be welcome.”

Heero and Duo shared a look and Duo stood up to go to her, passing the cup of water to Neal. Neal tried not to watch, but he couldn’t help noticing Duo being careful with her, then pouncing, holding her despite her struggles, the way she didn’t fight as hard as she probably could, gave in after awhile, limp and somehow small in his arms.

Heero said softly, “We were supposed to protect Dory. She was the youngest.”

Neal nodded. He knew the feeling. He also knew there were some things no amount of protection from another kid could stop.

Heero told him, “Finish the water. Ka-- Eliot needs you to be okay, and the rest of us-- The rest of us need Eliot to be okay.”

Neal took another sip.

*


Une was right. Even not knowing her, Neal had the feeling she often was. They put John and Ronon in the cage together, and before it was done, before Ronon could get John to stay down, there were at least two broken bones, and Neal thought maybe three. All three were John’s, but the scabs from Ronon’s caning had opened and he was more blood than skin by the end of it. Neal swallowed back bile, breathing carefully though his nose.

They followed it up with the little redheaded girl and her blond boy. Neal was terrified, expecting the boy to have to take her to pieces, but in some ways it was worse watching her do it to the boy; Clint, Neal heard someone murmur, Clint, let go. By the time Clint did the girl was barely hanging onto consciousness, and from the look in her eyes, she didn’t seem to much care if letting go was her last act.

Neal caught the eye of His Guard—the way he would think of the man until he had a name—and let a flirtatious look come into his eyes. Not too much, he knew, not for someone like this man, who would want Neal to be both cowed by and yet hesitantly interested in him. For that matter, he probably would enjoy the actual disgust that marked Neal’s real reaction to the situation, but Neal wasn’t willing to give him that, not unless he absolutely had to.

Neal ended up back in a cell with Vin and Eliot, wondering where the hell they’d put Ezra. When Eliot asked the others, the impossibly good looking boy who was sitting between two girls on the other side of the cell said, “I think they put him in with Une and her boys.”

Eliot nodded. “Thanks, Finn.”

Neal was suddenly glad Ezra was good at fending for himself. One of the girls said, “The bosses don’t know quite what to do with that one. He doesn’t look like a good bet.”

Vin snarled. “Whatever they do, he’ll beat them at their own game.”

It was the first time Neal had heard Vin talk in a while, and one of the longest sentences he’d ever heard from him. The other girl just rolled her eyes. “Sure, new boy.”

Vin smiled, a strange, unkind smile. “Where do you come from? The streets? The circus? An actual home?”

Neal made a puzzled face at that second one and Eliot mouthed, “Clint and Tasha,” which did not clear up anything at all so far as Neal was concerned, but whatever. He’d find out later, or not, as it were.

There was silence for a bit before the second girl, the sarcastic one, answered, “Kiddie brothel, sold there, and then sold out of there. Yay, human trafficking.”

“Ez ‘n I, we got picked out from a crawlspace under the floorboards of a trafficking holding space in a police search. We’d been down there, I don’t know, we’ve never-- Over a week. The three kids we were put down there with, two died within four days, the third died around the fifth. Ez, he was the one who kept them alive that long, kept me and him going until they found us. I knew about condensation about how to stay still and conserve energy, but he knew about how to play mind tricks, keep us calm as could be in that hole.” Vin took a breath, then another. “He will beat them.”

He wasn’t going to have to, if Neal had anything to say about it. The story explained a lot. It explained the way Chris and Buck looked at Vin and Ezra, for one. And it explained why Vin never let himself get in a situation where he couldn’t see a window. Neal didn’t miss the way his breathing was always rapid now, the way he clawed into him palm, his legs, anything available.

Neal told him, “So will you.”

Vin swallowed. Neal said, “He needs that, Vin.”

“Yeah,” Vin agreed. “I-- yeah.”

Neal looked over at where the other three kids were still sitting, the first girl with her eyes closed and the second with her expression dark, thoughtful. Finn put his arms around both of them. Neal pulled Eliot into a corner and thought about how to explain the plan in a way that wouldn’t end with Eliot doing something to sabotage it. Neal sighed. This was going to be fun.

*


Neal tuned everything out. He pushed Vin’s growing desperation, the way Eliot was pulling back into himself, refused to acknowledge pain that came from being put in the cage with Jo, who growled sub-vocal apologies, but did her damn job, and kept Finn and Kat safe all the same. He ignored the marks that being pitched against Nyota left on Ezra, the fact that they put Ronon in the ring against Finn before the stitches had even come out. None of that mattered. What mattered was the game as Neal had framed it, with winning being getting out, getting word to Chris or Buck or even Sara. They’d been kidnapped, after all, right? The FBI dealt with kidnappings.

Neal was pretty certain Sara was in the White Collar unit, and that the FBI only dealt with interstate kidnappings, which, given that he had no clue where he was, didn’t necessarily cover this situation, but he didn’t doubt Sara would pull more than a few strings to get Ezra back, so he figured any of the three would work. Probably even Sara’s partner. Neal had had to think for a few seconds to actually get that information to stir; she’d only dropped the name once, but it had been in the context of, “If you need anything, make them give you to me or Agent Coulson.” Coulson, yes.

But first Neal had to get himself out of the complex. Once he set his mind on the plan, it was strangely, disconcertingly, easy, so long as he only thought in terms of the goal, leaving everything else that mattered behind. He hadn’t done this before, not exactly, not the slow mindfuck of seduction by emanating intimidation, not the mechanical aspects of opening his mouth, his throat, when all he wanted was to turn his head away.

The first time, he tried to think about Gee, how it would be easy, how they’d laugh, how Gee would never, ever pull his hair or call him a slut, not if he didn’t want it. The nightmares that caused were enough to teach Neal not to think about anything, to just do, to push out feeling. Taking a cock further down his throat than he wanted to wasn’t any worse than a kick to the kidneys, not if he didn’t let himself think about the difference.

Neal found the right favors to ask for: a visit to the infirmary, to better figure out the layout of the place; some chocolate, to make one of other kids smile and seem just that side of innocent himself; eventually, eventually, a breath of fresh air.

The guard didn’t go for it when Neal first asked, so Neal backed down, went back to the slow and steady pace he’d developed over the days. Neal thought it had been a week since he’d actively begun the game, probably two since they’d disappeared, maybe a little longer. Tracking time was still a problem. So was taking things slowly. They’d put Eliot in with Jamie and Kat for a little two-on-one action the night before. They didn’t want him dead, but they wanted him to wish he was.

Time was one of many luxuries Neal did not have. He backed down for two days, and then, when he figured out how, insinuated that getting out of the building would mean more safety for the guard to do what he really wanted without being caught. Blowjobs and handjobs were great, and all, but…

It was hard not to oversell it, not to seem eager. Eager wouldn’t do, eager wasn’t a turn on. There was a perfect balance, of needing fresh air enough to be willing to sell himself, to give the last part of himself left. It was only partially a lie, and Neal was very, very good at twisting truths and deceptions to mean what people wanted them to, what he needed them to.

Plan A was to incapacitate the guard once outside and run like hell. Plan B, barring that, was to learn the way out, and figure out how to get himself back outside later.

The guard didn’t let Neal put shoes on—he wasn’t a complete idiot—which would have made Neal lean toward Plan B, except he had fuck all idea of where he’d get shoes, and the time issue was a hell of a lot more important than the comfort of Neal’s feet.

He let the guard push him face-first into the wall outside as he took a deep breath of the first non-recycled air he’d tasted in at least two weeks. It smelled industrial, and Neal really didn’t care, he was outside. As soon as the guard got close enough, he threw an elbow, and then it was on. The guard was bigger than Neal, better fed and hadn’t been the loser in two cage fights in as many weeks. The guard also wasn’t desperate to save his family, to get the fuck away, nor was he as smart as Neal.

By the time it was over, Neal was pretty sure his dominant arm was broken and the pain in his torso made the edges of his vision go white if he allowed himself to think about anything but running. He didn’t. Gravel and broken glass and shards of the city cut into his feet, ribs that weren’t healed screamed, and Neal didn’t think, he ran, ran and ran, and then ran further, until stopped by a blur of blue and Neal fought, fought until his brain kicked back in, and he recognized the blue as a police uniform. Then he said, “Detectives Larabee and Wilmington, 8th Precinct,” over and over again, unable to remember how to stop.

*


The cop pushed something in Neal’s hands and it startled him out of the cycle. It took Neal a second to understand he was holding the officer’s radio. In a burst of static, Chris was asking, “Vin? Ezra?”

Neal said, “Chris, Chris.”

“Neal! Neal, where are you? Where are the others?”

“I—“ Neal tried looking around. He had no idea where he was.

Another burst of static, and Chris said, “Give me back to the officer, Neal.”

Neal did. Having heard Chris’ voice, knowing he would come, he would come and they would get Eliot and the others, that everyone would be safe, the cold started to hit Neal. They were on the brink of winter, and Neal was in what could only charitably be called un-seasonal clothing. Neal tried to push it back, knowing that if he was starting to feel that, the other stuff would follow. He had to get Chris back to the holding facility, he had to. Then it would be fine to let go, let nature take its course. Neal couldn’t say he’d ever really thought things would somehow end differently, that he’d really end up being someone’s kid, going to school and being real, day in and day out.

He thought of Peter’s hands, warm and steady, and Elizabeth’s laugh, the way Satchmo was forever running into him at full tilt by way of expressing love; of Parker’s magpie tendencies and Gee’s colors, Mikey’s superheroes and Brendon’s voice. For a second, the swell of Ryan’s unique silences and Spencer’s edgy smiles filled his world, the steady rhythm of Bob’s heart on a particularly cold night, Eliot’s watchful, careful eyes. It had been worth it, Neal knew, everything had been worth it.

Someone—the cop’s partner?—put a shock blanket around Neal, and then there were other cops, and Sara with Coulson, who was shorter than Neal had expected, but crisp and impeccable, with thoughtful eyes. It felt as though seconds passed, lifetimes passed—Sara was so careful when she hugged him but it was agony all the same; Neal bit his tongue and took it, kept the parts he wanted for himself—and Chris and Buck were there. Coulson said, “He’s barefoot,” and Buck made a sound and picked Neal up.

Neal couldn’t help it: at the impact on his ribs, the jolt of his stomach, his arm, he screamed. Buck apologized profusely but Neal shook his head, blinked tears back, rubbing angrily at them with the hand attached to his good arm. Neal had paid attention to the sun, asked directions while he was waiting. He said, “North. North.

Neal was placed gently in a car—Chris and Buck’s patrol car, evidently—and Buck, from behind him, said, “Take us there, kiddo.”

*


Neal stayed conscious just long enough to know he’d gotten the right place, he hadn’t somehow lost track of everything important in his run to safety. As soon as he saw Coulson carrying Clint and Tasha—one in each arm—out to the mass of ambulances that had arrived at some point, he took a breath, and everything swirled up, everything hurt. Neal blacked out.

He woke up connected to about seven or eight different machines, to the steady beep of a monitor, and to the sight of Elizabeth sipping from a travel mug, the skin around her eyes smudged a deep blue-black, and her skin somehow thin. Her hair was held back in a strangely unruly ponytail. She was watching him, so she caught the moment his eyes fluttered open, and she said, “Hey, hey, you’re awake,” but she was crying before she even finished the sentence.

Neal tried to apologize for whatever, for not being awake, for making her cry. He tried to ask about Eliot—who, when Neal looked, was in the other bed in the room, and clearly alive—but there was a tube down his throat. Elizabeth was standing, stroking his cheek, watching where his gaze went. She said, “Shh, babe, everything’s okay. Everyone’s safe. Even you, you’re going to be okay.”

Something in the way she repeated the word okay made him aware that that outcome probably hadn’t been clear. He wished he could ask questions, figure out what was going on, see Ezra and Vin for himself, have Peter there, a million things. He tried to grab Elizabeth’s hand, but she was on his right, and the casted arm was splinted in place.

She soothed his hair back and said, “Peter’s at home, making the others sleep. Eliot finally talked Parker into going home, but it meant that Gee and Mikey had to go too, since she wouldn’t, otherwise. That first day none of us went home, we were waiting to see if you were going to make it out of surgery.”

Oh. Neal blinked. Elizabeth kept talking, seeming to know what he wanted to hear. “Sara and her partner Phil have a consultant for their department who’s evidently got more money than G-d, and they were able to talk him into footing the hospital bill for all the kids without families. The little girl, Tasha, I think, and her friend Clint were in pretty bad shape, but they’re doing better, and John and the really quiet boy, Ronon, they’re recovering. All of them need long-term care. We’re trying to figure out where they come from and get them somewhere safe.”

Neal knew it wasn’t that easy, not really, knew that there was probably no way for the kids who most needed each other to stay together, to be somewhere that wouldn’t just be a further nightmare, maybe a little better than the one he’d taken them away from, maybe not. Elizabeth repeated, “They’re all doing okay, though. Some of’em are going to take a little while longer to recover than others, but they’ll all be fine.”

Neal noticed the rough edge of her reassurances, knew she was speaking somewhat to herself. He didn’t mind. He’d missed her beliefs, the way she fought for them. He fought to stay awake, listen to the rise and fall of her words until the pull of his healing body was too much to resist.

*


Eliot was missing from the other bed when Neal next woke. The tube was also gone, but Neal couldn’t feel much of anything, and trying to move his fingers proved fruitless. After a second, Neal noticed Gee and Mikey sitting on the floor across from the foot of his bed, Gee drawing something, and Mikey looking in on it over his shoulder.

Neal tried saying hi, but all that came out was coughs. Mikey and Gee both looked up, eyes widening. Then Mikey said, “Peter,” and got up, smiling at Neal and going off, presumably to find Peter.

Gee ambled over to the bed and said, “Clint and Tasha are missing. The adults went to look for them. Eliot’s helping. He says they need to find a way into the air vents. Dr. Jackson, Dr. Keller, Dr. McCoy and Dr. Po all seem like they’re about ready to quit. Well, Dr. McCoy always seems that way, but the rest of them are just hitting wit’s end. This is like the fifth time one of you guys has skipped your IVs.” He paused. “First time for those two, though. Nobody thought they could even get out of bed.”

Neal wasn’t really surprised by that, all told. He explained to Gee, “There were cages.” Then, realizing he’d actually said that aloud, blinked.

“You’re on morphine. Peter says it makes you ‘adorably earnest.’”

Neal frowned. “Have I been awake?”

Gee frowned in return. “Now and then. You don’t remember?”

Neal made himself think. It wasn’t easy, everything felt very complicated. He remembered feelings, panic and relief and guilt, but no actual conversations, or the touch of Peter’s hand. He started crying, which, what the hell? and, of course, of course, that was when Mikey made it back with Peter, who promptly rushed over and asked frantically, “What’s wrong? Are there not enough meds? Let me—“

He started reading the monitors and Neal wished he would just touch him, which in turn made him keep crying, because evidently morphine made him into a leaky faucet. Peter said, “Okay, buddy, I’ll get someone in here, you just sit tight.”

Neal somehow ended up whining and Mikey spoke up: “I think he wants a hug.”

Gee agreed by way of nodding. Neal actually said, “Traitors,” and Peter looked at least as horrified as Neal felt. Neal said, “Fuck,” and then cried harder because he just couldn’t stop.

Peter said, “Mikey, Gee, go get Dr. Keller.”

As soon as they were on their way, Peter said, “Okay kid, okay,” and sat down so that he would be on Neal’s level. He wrapped a hand around Neal’s neck and put his other hand over Neal’s hand. “Hey. Has anyone told you how amazed we are all by you?”

“Yeah, me and my whoring ways,” spilled out of Neal, and another, “oh, fuck,” because he couldn’t just shut the hell up.

One of the monitors started beeping much faster, and Peter said, “Breathe, Neal, breathe, everything’s going to be okay.”

Neal was trying, he really was, and usually it would have been so easy, the fact that it wasn’t was scaring him, which wasn’t helping. A female doctor came in the room, Mikey, Gee, Eliot, Ezra, Vin and Jamie in tow. They stayed out of the way while the doctor said, “Hey there, Neal. Let’s see what’s going on.”

Peter’s hands stayed on Neal, strong and warm and still, while the doctor slid something in Neal’s IV that made everything slip away, both the fear, and Peter’s hands.

*


The next time Neal woke up he felt like a truck had run him over, stopped, backed up, and done it a few more times. On the upside, he was capable of faking not feeling that way. On the second downside, he remembered his complete morphine-instigated meltdown.

Evidently Clint and Tasha had been found and were considered healthy enough to be let out of their beds, since they were sitting pretty much on top of each other in one chair. Clint’s face was still a patchwork of blue, purple, yellow, green and Tasha was bandaged up along her left arm. Neal wasn’t certain why they were hanging out in his room, but it was kind of reassuring having them where he could see them. He couldn’t figure out when he’d decided to care about the other kids in the facility, but never let it be said that Neal couldn’t make one stupidly emotional decision after another.

Parker was sitting on the end of the bed, with Bob standing behind her. Elizabeth was back on the other side of the bed. Eliot was crouched in the corner, Ryan, Brendon and Spencer surrounding him. Ezra and Vin were sitting with their backs against the wall.

Neal dredged up a smile for Elizabeth, figuring the only thing he could do at this point was go forward. She said, “Hey, babe. Bet you’re feeling pretty crappy.”

Neal laughed a little, which he regretted immediately. She made a noise and said, “Oh, hey, sorry, didn’t mean to make you laugh.” She stood and brought a cup with a straw to his lips. He sipped slowly, desperate for the water, but excruciatingly conscious of how bad having to breathe hard was going to hurt.

Parker told him earnestly, “You were fucked up.”

Elizabeth said, “Parker, sweets, you know how I feel about that word.”

Parker frowned. “It’s the truth.

Either Clint or Tasha snorted into the other’s shoulder. Neal suggested, “Messed up, Parks.”

Parker shrugged. Neal asked, “John? Ronon?”

Tasha peered over Clint’s shoulder at that, eyes dark and curious. Eliot said, “They’re fine. You’re the only one who was bleeding internally.”

He sounded kind of pissed. Neal would have to handle that later. That information probably meant all the kids were okay. He looked over at Ezra and Vin. “Chris and Buck?”

Ezra said, “Keep arriving when you’re in repose. They want to purchase you flowers, do you enjoy lilies?”

Neal rolled his eyes. “If I could make a face, Ezra Paris.”

“Yes, I rather enjoy taking advantage of the infirm.” All of Ezra’s words were right, but Neal could feel there was something missing.

Elizabeth was running fingers through Neal’s hair, which was about the nicest thing he’d felt in ages, and she said, “Everyone’s come to see you, kiddo. You’ve just been kinda tired.”

Neal pulled back the frown that wanted to make its appearance known. He looked over at Clint and Tasha. He said, “Hi. I’m Neal.”

Clint peered up from his knees to flash a smile. Tasha said, “That was smart, what you did,” but didn’t elaborate. Her English was a little slow, softly accented, but Neal knew she was talking about the guard, got the feeling she saw pretty much everything that went on. It was discomfiting, especially given how young she was.

Ryan stood up and walked to the side of the bed Elizabeth wasn’t on and looked carefully at Neal. Neal said, “Hey, Ry.”

Ryan said, “Mikey told me what you called yourself. He told me, and Eliot told us what you did—”

Neal looked at Eliot, doing his best for equanimity, but he knew he didn’t entirely manage, because Eliot said, “The doctors asked. What if he’d—“

Neal closed his eyes. “Okay.”

Elizabeth’s fingers never stopped in their brushing motion. When Neal opened his eyes it was to Ryan, angry and hurt. “Is that how you think of me?”

“Ryan,” Neal said, low and sharp. He glanced over at Elizabeth, who was biting her lip, the hand not in Neal’s hair clenched close to her side. He understood. He knew all about wanting to touch Ryan, and knowing it wouldn’t help, might even hurt.

Ryan looked over at her and said, conversationally, “I used to let people hurt me so we could eat. Everyone knows but you and Peter.”

Spencer had come to stand behind Ryan. Brendon, interestingly, had stayed with Eliot. Elizabeth’s eyes were wide and wet, but to her credit, she didn’t cry. She said, “Oh sweetie.”

Ryan’s frown deepened. He said, “With sex,” like she might not have understood what he had been telling her.

She nodded. “Mind telling me where, so I can set Chris and Buck on every lowlife who visits that street?”

Ryan blinked at her. Spencer smiled, small and secret, but so, so real. Ezra’s smile was sharp, approving, and Vin actually laughed a little. Parker asked, “Can I go with Chris and Buck? Can we play the sirens?”

Clint and Tasha were also looking at her, uncertainty writ large across their faces. Neal had all the sympathy in the world for them. Brendon leaned in against Eliot and yawned. “See, told you.”

Neal reached out with his good hand and wrapped it around Ryan’s wrist. “I take your point.”

Ryan covered Neal’s hand with his own and nodded. They both knew this wasn’t finished, but, to Ryan’s credit, it had at least begun, which was something. After a second, Neal asked, “Don’t any of you go to school anymore?”

It took a second, but Ryan laughed, a snicker more than anything. Then he said, “It’s Saturday, duh.”

Neal smiled back, feeling like he meant it for the first time in a while. “Oh, yeah, obviously.”

*


Chris didn’t bring flowers, but he did sneak in gelato, which Neal presumed was Ezra’s suggestion. Buck stood opposite Chris on the other side of the bed, Mary and Sara taking up position at the foot. They had gently, but firmly herded Jamie, ‘Kari, Duo, Heero and Finn out when they arrived. Neal was, admittedly, still a little concerned that Kat, Jo, Une and Nyota had evidently been left to their own devices, but Jamie had been convinced that “Bones” was watching out for them. Jamie was a little bit enamored with the orthopedist who’d set all their bones and evidently done more than one surgery correcting badly-set bones, which, in Jamie’s case, had totaled four. The kid was going to be in physical therapy for roughly forever.

Neal had met Dr. McCoy twice while actually awake at this point and was mildly convinced he could handle the girls, at least for a bit. Dr. Po, the trauma surgeon, seemed to have his back, and several of the girls appeared to look up to her, or at least not take her as an active threat, so for the moment, Neal wasn’t going to panic; at least not until he heard shouting or crashes.

Chris asked calmly, evenly, about Neal’s willingness to testify, Buck letting him know, “If you want to say no, say it. Harvey is consulting and he’s reassured us we have more than enough to nail these bastards on.”

Neal looked at Buck, who still seemed exhausted, drawn, much less ebullient than Neal was used to. Neal said, “But it would help.”

“Yes,” Buck said, no hesitation or prevarication.

Neal considered what it would be like, having to talk about the fighting, the cells, the abuse, in front of people with suits, a judge in robes. He knew he didn’t really have any leverage, but he thought maybe, with the way Chris had handed over the gelato, like it wasn’t enough, or the expression on Sara’s face, like she was still thinking about the way things could have ended, he might have some emotional leeway. He also knew he was a shit for taking advantage of that fact, but he was hard-pressed to care, not with what he was about to ask. “What’s going to happen to the others?”

Chris took a seat. “We know they can’t go back into the system, Neal.”

And yes, that was part of it, but, “What would Ez and Vin have done if they’d been separated?”

Buck ran a hand over his face, and Mary smiled, just a bit, telling Neal, “Ezra and Vin have both made that observation in their own way.”

Neal could only imagine. Sara’s smile was knowing, sharp, and she said, “Phil wants Clint and Tasha.”

Neal blinked. “He-- Uh. Your partner, Phil?”

Sara nodded. “They seem to have taken to him. He’s the only one who can get them to do anything other than Eliot and the other kids.”

That was kind of surprising. Still, “They’re-- Does he have any idea what he’s getting into?”

Something flashed in Sara’s eyes and she said, “Some. Enough. When Phil makes up his mind…” She shrugged. “He’s not wishy-washy.”

After a moment, Neal nodded. “Two down. Eleven to go.”

“Yeah, well,” Chris said. “Temporarily, though, Stark has agreed to give the remaining eleven a floor of his tower while we get them in school and figure out a permanent fix.”

“Stark?” Neal asked.

Buck laughed. “Sara’s pain-in-the-ass consultant, the one footing the hospital bill.”

Neal made himself poke around as to why the name sounded familiar. Then it struck him: Stark Tower. “Tony Stark?”

Sara grinned. “He’s less of a dick than he makes himself out to be. And Pepper probably made most of the arrangements. Tony’s just providing the financial support.”

None of that was important, not really. Neal asked, “Do you trust him not to flake? Not even if Ronon hides weapons in his hair or Jamie decides to teach select employees how to fight or Une makes random people in the hallways cry?”

“Yes,” Chris said, which was good enough for Neal, actually, but Sara asked, “Want to meet him?”

Neal frowned. “He’s probably busy.”

Mary said, “You’re gonna wanna see where the others are staying anyway,” and well, she had a point.

Neal told them, “Well, if they ever let me out of here.”

Buck ruffled his hair. “As soon as we’re certain you’re not gonna keel over, kid.”

Neal sighed.

*


As it turned out, Dr. McCoy wouldn’t even let Jamie, ‘Kari and Nyota be moved to Stark Tower, instead petitioning for emergency guardianship so they could be housed with him while he established fostership over them. Eliot told Neal, “He seemed concerned letting them out of his sight would end with Jamie falling in a hole and never being found again.”

Neal, who was down to two IVs and could stay awake for nearly five hours at a time, considered. “Well.”

Eliot smirked. “Yeah.”

Neal breathed slowly. “He’ll take care of them? He seems…” Neal broke off, considering. Dr. McCoy wasn’t mean, or anything. His touch was gentle, his check-ups careful, and his intentions clearly good. He was just, “Abrasive.”

“It seems as though James flourishes under the treatment,” Ezra said.

“Also, he sneaks all three of them treats, like candy bars and I’m pretty sure there was a kitten at some point.” Vin sounded, not jealous, but wistful. Ezra had clearly caught it as well, he looked thoughtful.

“Kittens are good at landing right side up,” Parker offered from where she was hiding under Neal’s bed. “And Bones just likes to growl. He doesn’t bite.”

Neal was going to follow up on that, but Elizabeth and Peter came in, bearing real—read, not hospital—food, with Ryan, Brendon, Spencer, Bob, Gee and Mikey trailing behind. Peter said, “Chris and Buck are going to pick you two up in an hour, but they said you could eat with us.”

Vin smiled in acknowledgment. Ezra said, “We are surely grateful, Dr. Burke.”

Peter rolled his eyes. Neal watched out of the corner of his eye as Ezra so carefully didn’t let it affect him. Neal needed to talk with Ezra, alone, or at least Vin. Ezra had been so, so much worse since they’d returned, and Neal got the feeling the only other person who even had a clue was Vin. Well, Sara and Buck seemed concerned, but unsure of what was wrong. Neal wasn’t going straight to them, though. There were still rules to be followed.

Peter and Elizabeth had brought Mexican, spicy and filling and with a smell that made Neal feel like he wasn’t stuck in this bed. Elizabeth said, “Dr. Keller thinks you can be released in a day or so. You won’t be doing much moving about or anything, but we can at least get you back with us.”

“Satchmo misses you,” Parker told him. “He keeps trying to sleep in your bed.”

“We all do,” Peter said softly. “We all miss you.”

Neal missed them, too, despite the fact he’d barely been alone since he’d first woken up, despite not being at all sure he’d be allowed to keep them, especially not as he was turning eighteen in less than a month. It was stupid, pointless, useless to miss them, miss home, but he did. He tried to say, “Me too,” but the words felt twisted and sharp in his throat. He covered by way of eating past the point of comfort.

*


The hospital released Neal in the middle of a Tuesday, ten days and two surgeries after he’d been admitted. He was still on narcotics, and even walking into the house was exhausting, but he could walk. Peter got him settled in his bed and Neal took a nap, waking up when Spencer and Bob came home, Mikey, Gee, Brendon and Ryan not far behind.

They piled into the room, Mikey carefully snuggling in next to Neal, the rest of them sitting on the other beds or the floor, as they wished. Parker and Eliot brought Ezra and Vin home with them. Ezra explained dryly, “They have a plan to alleviate the damage our absence has wrought upon our studies.”

Neal didn’t think they’d have time with him. Maybe he could see if one of the teachers would help him take a GED. That way he could maybe get a job, afford a room in a house or something. He knew he couldn’t pay Elizabeth and Peter back for the hospital bills, at least not without stealing, but at least then he wouldn’t be a continuing drain on their resources. After all, kids aged out of the system at eighteen, it was just the way it was. And since it would probably take Neal at least another two years to actually graduate from high school, well, he’d just have to adjust his plans. Thinking about it was exhausting, but he didn’t have long, so he forced himself to stay awake, and follow the thoughts through.

He knew he wouldn’t be able to afford anything in this area of town, but he thought he could maybe convince Elizabeth and Peter to let him pay room and board, or at least maybe Mr. Stark. Eliot would be coming around there, and Neal could possibly see the others regularly through that connection. He didn’t mind the thought of having to take care of himself, that was just normal, but the thought of being entirely alone made it hard for Neal to breathe. He felt stupid about it, no question. What kind of idiot foster throwaway kid gets used to having others around? But stupid or not, damage was done, and there was nothing but to go forward with it.

Neal must have lost the thread of the conversation, because Mikey poked at him and said, “Hey.”

Mikey’s expression was worried in a way it hadn’t been in so long. Neal had always been the one to take that worry away. Neal did his best to smile. He was safe in this bed, for now. Whatever else, he had a month. “Hey.”

“Eliot’s making crepes for dinner. With Mexican fillings.”

Neal blinked. “That’s…odd.”

“You like Mexican,” Parker pointed out from where she was perched on the headboard. Neal wondered for a second how the actual physics of that worked, but then gave up trying to figure out.

It was a true statement, but, “Crepes?”

Gee shrugged. “He likes to try new things. He’s been more into it since he got back. Also, you like crepes, too.”

Well, sure, but it seemed like something of an odd combo. Still, Neal wasn’t really going to quibble. If Eliot wanted to make everything into a shake, he’d probably try and choke it down at this point. He could get Eliot to talk about it later. He put that on his to-do list; it was getting long.

Brendon said, “He’s actually pretty awesome at it.”

“He’s generally awesome,” Neal murmured distractedly. Ezra snickered, but probably just at Neal’s choice of words.

Elizabeth appeared in the doorway and asked, “You think you can come sit at the table with us, babe, or do we need to make this room into a makeshift dining room?”

Neal thought about the effort it would take to get down to the table. “You really can just bring me something when you’re all done.”

Elizabeth said sternly, “It’s not dinner without everyone at that table, and it hasn’t been dinner for over a month. The choice is between places, not between joining or not.”

Neal looked at Elizabeth, the casual, tired way she leaned in the door frame, her hopeful, unexpectant expression. He admitted, “I’m going to need some help getting to the table.”

Bob was at his side no sooner than Neal had managed to stand. Elizabeth grinned. “Dinner time.”


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile