Candle in the Wind
By the end, Neal slips into a coma. His heart is still beating on its own. His lungs are still drawing breaths. But he won’t wake up again.
Mozzie sits in a chair next to his bedside, trying not to think about the germs in the air he’s breathing in. Trying not to think about the germs on the chair he’s sitting in. Trying and failing, but remaining in place because Neal hates to be alone. It makes him edgy and strung out. Dangerous. He can’t leave him alone. Seeing Mozzie in that chair would make Neal smile gratefully− a slow, brilliant, genuine smile –and murmur, “Thanks, Moz.”
The idea that he’ll never see that smile again makes Mozzie feel cold. Colder than he’s ever been. And old. Older than he’s got a right to feel.
Neal doesn’t look dead. He doesn’t look alive either. He looks like he’s in between, hanging in limbo. The lines of his face are haggard. The skin is waxen. Mozzie remembers him younger – with bad hair, without his signature suit, awestruck at everything the city had to offer. Remembers the pride he felt at finding and honing all that talent. Remembers how grateful he’d been when Neal hadn’t left for things better and bigger than what Mozzie could ever offer. That he had stayed.
Neal – young, beautiful. Kate – young, beautiful. Successful cons and celebrations. Kate leaning against Neal, wine over-flowing, toasting and drinking to their success. Their immortality. Kate and Neal – so in love and Mozzie basking in it like a cat basking in the sun. They had made him smile. They had made him feel like champagne bubbles tickled his insides, making him squirm and feel warm.
Kate is gone. Neal is following. Mozzie will be the only one left. The only thing he’s got remember Kate by is a broken pearl necklace Neal asked him to fix as a surprise to her. What he has to remember Neal by is the sketches he’s made in the hospital. And the secret storage he gave Mozzie the key to. He found Caffrey originals and directions to where Neal kept his spoils. Neal’s original work is hesitant, imperfect, achingly vulnerable. Lonely. Breath-taking. Mozzie will spend the rest of his life fighting for it to be shown. Eventually it is, and it’s a success.
He plays hide and seek with the nurses, letting them think that they’ve successfully driven him out with their “visiting hours, only” policy. He hides changes of clothes in the janitor’s closets and sneaks back in between rounds. He sleeps lightly and slips away to hide when the nurses make their night rounds. But it gets exhausting. He sleeps through an entire night and wakes up with a blanket thrown over him. A cot appears in the room soon after that and he starts keeping his things in the room.
June stops by the most often. She strokes Neal’s hair back and talks to him softly. Mozzie tries not to listen, to intrude, but he can’t leave Neal. Her grief is contained and dignified. She doesn’t ask Mozzie how he’s doing. Instead she asks him about past cons and he’s glad to answer. She’s one of them. He can almost hear Neal’s voice, warming with a smile, “Yeah, I remember that,” sounding like a mischievous kid. He pauses and waits for Neal to continue with his part of the story, but it never comes. He stutters and stumbles when he catches his mistake, but June pretends not to notice.
Lauren stops by once. She gives Mozzie a look – not hostile, but not friendly either – and ignores him after that. She takes Neal’s still, limp hand and says, “Caffrey”. The sound is packed with so much meaning – apology, reproach, despair. She wanted to hate him, hate the conman, but she liked him.
When Jones comes by, he squeezes Mozzie’s shoulder and asks how he’s doing. Mozzie doesn’t reply. Jones doesn’t push or prod for an answer, but turns to Neal. What he says amounts to it having been an honour to work with Neal and that he’ll miss him. He tells Mozzie to take care.
He wakes up one morning and finds an origami flower by Neal’s head. Alex has been visiting in the middle of night, slipping out again, keeping her emotions to herself like she always does.
The very same day Diana shows up. She nods at Mozzie and sits down in the other visitor’s chair. She doesn’t touch Neal or talk to him. Just sits in the chair and appears to be in deep thought. After a while she says, “I was the one who suggested that they’d use Kate. When I watched him almost destroy himself after her death, I was so angry with him, but I also almost felt guilt. If I hadn’t said that, they would have had more time together.”
“They wouldn’t have,” Mozzie said and finds himself to be sincere. “It was only thanks to you that he found her.”
She nods. Some weight has been lifted from her when she goes back to work. She returns with newspapers for him and he reads the items Neal would have enjoyed at aloud. He thinks that Neal might hear him, somehow. At least it takes his mind off the smell of illness in the room. Take his mind off the stillness and how unnatural it is for Neal to be still. He’s constantly in motion and vibrating with life. It’s unsettling to see him still.
Second only to June, El is the one who comes by the most often. Every time, she stops in the doorway. Her eyes fill with tears and she presses a hand to her mouth. It hurts her so much to see Neal lying there. But she’ll regain her composure quickly, start fussing with the blankets and shaves him. Because Neal would hate the beard. It would remind him of prison. She makes the room less cold, fills it with warmth and life, and she makes Mozzie eat, bribing him with his favourites. After each of her visits, things are a little easier to bear.
Sara doesn’t stop by. Mozzie isn’t surprised, but is a little disappointed. Only time could have told what would have happened between her and Neal, but Neal had always brightened up after sparring with her. Neal missed her while he was awake, Moz could tell.
Between the other’s visits, Mozzie talks about the old days. He can almost hear Neal answering him and it almost feel like a dialogue, since the script is familiar. He tells him about the facts that their government will deny and can hear Neal say in disbelief, “Moz, you can’t honestly believe that.”
The Suit stops by on the last day. He nods to Mozzie and leans over Neal. Pressing a hand against the pale forehead, he says in a raw voice, “There’s no need to cowboy up. You don’t have to hold on. Let go.”
Mozzie slips out of the room. The moment feels too intimate to intrude on.
When he comes back, the Suit is gone. It’s almost as if Neal has listened to him, though, because Mozzie doesn’t sit for long in the chair before the monitors start blaring. None of the flurried activity Mozzie expected breaks out. Instead they wait until a monotone tone cuts through the air and a voice is saying the dreadful words, “time of death”, but his deep exhale drowns out the rest. He leans forward, head between his knees, hands cradling his skull.
He can feel that Neal is gone. There’s a loss of presence that can’t be explained. But it can’t be real. It just can’t be real.
The Suit is there, pulling him up, pulling him away. Somebody has covered Neal with a sheet. It is real, after all. Mozzie doesn’t feel numb.
He feels cold.