Muffled sounds greeted him as he bobbed to the surface of consciousness. He couldn't really make out any of them except for the beeping. It was too slow for a bomb timer though and too fast for a clock.
Smell came to him next, and it was... unpleasant. Stale, arid oxygen was forcing itself up his nose by two uncomfortable plastic prongs. So, he was in a hospital. That explained so much and yet not enough.
“Sir? Sir, can you hear me?” a female voice with a bit of a southern drawl said from his left. A hand then gripped his wrist, and he assumed it belonged to her and that she was nurse. Or a doctor. He didn't want to assume.
“Mmm.” He tried to respond, but no charming pick-up lines were coming to him.
“That's good,” the woman encouraged him. “Can you open your eyes for me?”
His eyelids fluttered once, twice, and then hazy blue eyes gazed up at her. Muted shapes blended into something sort of close to his usual 20/20. “Pretty,” he murmured when he could finally see the brunette nurse in her twenties with smoky grey eyes.
She blushed for a moment, surprised by his lucidity. “Thank you. How are you feeling? Any pain?”
“Head.” It demanded the most attention right now. He couldn't even put the pain into words.
“That's to be expected,” she replied. “Anything else?”
“Side.” He lifted his hand to point out the space between his ribs and his hip, but she guided it back down to the scratchy sheets.
“You probably don't want to do that.”
“Why not?” Two words this time. He would have been proud if she didn't distract him with another question.
“Do you remember what happened?”
He blinked; his gaze drifted away as he tried to come up with a memory of anything before he woke two minutes ago. There was nothing but a very disturbing blank slate.
“No, I don't... I don't know. I...” He shifted anxiously, starting to panic. It was hard to breath, hard to think past the spikes of agony in his head.
“Hey, hey,” the nurse grabbed hold of his wrists to keep him from disturbing his IV, the nasal cannula or the bandages. “Calm down. Take slow even breaths. You're okay.”
“No! No! I don't know! Please! No!”
The nurse called for help, but he couldn't follow what happened after that. They must have given him something because the scene abruptly stilled and went dark.
Special Agent Peter Burke slammed his hand down on the conference room table and stared down each of the agents around him. “Dammit, think people. Caffrey's been out of touch for over twenty-four hours. Where would he go?”
“All due respect, Sir,” Hardy, one of the junior agents, spoke up against his own better judgement. However, it was after 2 a.m., and they'd been sitting here listening to Peter shout at them all night. “Aren't you the one who can usually answer that question?”
Peter's eyes narrowed. “Get out! Get your things and get out of my sight, right now!”
“All right.” Diana stepped closer to her boss and placed a restraining hand on his shoulder. “Let's all take a break. Go and get some coffee everyone.” She nodded at Jones to go deal with the loudmouth ass while she tried to appease Peter.
Peter cracked his neck while he waited for everyone to scatter. Then, he looked over at Diana. “He didn't run. He knows what's at stake tomorrow. We only have one shot to get Caruso.” This particular crook, Joey Caruso, was known for buying and selling vintage, seemingly unattainable items, such as the stolen '73 Porsche 911 that Neal had been negotiating for on this operation. He was also known for his paranoia, which meant that he wouldn't deal with anyone except Nick Halden since they had already had a face-to-face.
“I know, boss,” she responded, “but yelling at the kids isn't going to help us find him any faster. They're exhausted, and Caffrey's good at being a ghost.”
“I shouldn't have cut his anklet for this case. At least, not until tomorrow night.”
“You mean tonight. It's almost three, and you need to get some sleep.” When he started to protest, she cut him off with a look. “No arguments. I've already booked you into the FBI's finest hotel suite.” Then, she smiled. “There's a cot in the empty office down the hall. Do not stop in the break room and drink any coffee on your way there.”
Peter sighed and trudged off. He trusted Diana to deal with the other agents and to let him know if anything came up during his nap – if he was even able to fall asleep.
Neal had disappeared off the radar after setting up tomorrow, er, tonight's meeting with Caruso. While that wasn't particularly unusual, Neal hadn't answered his cell either. When they tracked its GPS, they found it laying in an alley not far from where he had met Caruso to set up tonight's meeting. There were no signs of a struggle, but the recent rain might have washed that away.
Most everyone had assumed that Caffrey had run, and the Marshals were pursuing that angle, but this whole thing twisted Peter's gut in a way that made him uncharacteristically uneasy. Something was wrong, but he had no way of figuring out what it was until he found Neal.
Things came into focus a little quicker the next time he woke. He was alone, but that didn't last long. His heart monitor must have given him away. Sneaky bastard.
The same brunette nurse with the grey eyes walked into the room and began taking his vitals. “How are you feeling?”
“Okay,” he replied. It was easier than explaining all his aches and pains.
“That's good.” She smiled as she made notes in his chart. “Listen, when you were admitted you were unconscious, and there wasn't any ID on you. Can you tell me your name?”
He opened his mouth but was alarmed to discover that he didn't have anything to say. It should be the easiest question to answer. “I don't... uh...”
“It's okay,” she said, hoping to keep him calm. “You had quite the knock to the head.”
“Hurts,” was his only response.
“What hurts? Your head?”
“Yeah.” He was distracted, trying to shuffle through his mental files and find anything that might give him a clue about his name or his past. All that he could remember was this nurse and this hospital room.
“How's the pain on a scale of 1 to 10?”
“Um, seven?” He wasn't really sure. He wasn't curling up in agony, but he wasn't comfortable either. What a weird thing to try and determine.
“Okay. I'll get something to help with that.” She stepped out of the room but returned quickly with a syringe. She injected the contents into his IV port, but the relief wasn't immediate. She was mostly quiet while she worked but couldn't stop herself from saying, “Your tie bar had a B engraved on it. Could your name start with a B?”
He considered that before repeating, “B? B...enjamin?”
“Benjamin? Is that it?” The nurse looked hopeful, and the name was familiar on his tongue.
He shrugged, which caused pain to light up around his chest. He grunted and hunched in on himself to hug his ribs. Something was definitely wrong there.
“Breathe,” the nurse coached. “In and out. Nice and slow. You have a couple of broken ribs, so moving is going to be uncomfortable. The medication should kick in soon.”
He couldn't do much more than lay there until numbness started to spread across his body. When he was finally able to relax, he tried to run his fingers through his hair, but the nurse caught his hand.
“Be careful. There's some swelling around your eye from a cracked cheekbone.” She indicated the right side of his face without touching it, and he was surprised to discover that the vision in that eye was a bit obstructed. “Don't worry. There's no permanent damage.” She had meant to his face, but he was still stuck on his brain.
“Except my memory,” he replied, feeling more than a little despondent. Though he was pretty sure he should be alarmed by the growing list of injuries, his body was refusing to actually panic. It was a strange sensation, but he was sure it was due to the drugs.
“The doctor will be ordering some tests. There's a good chance it'll return over the next few days or weeks.” She smiled again but was distracted by the beeper at her side. “I've got to check on another patient, but I'll let the doctor know you've been awake, and he'll come to take a look at you.”
“Wait.” He tried to grab her sleeve but his reflexes were too slow. “I didn't... get your name.”
“It's Nikki. I'll be back to check on you soon, okay?”
She was gone before his brain worked up an acknowledgment. He was distracted anyway. “Nick? Nick... Benjamin...” Neither of these names seemed right, but they sounded so authentic to him. His brain hurt too much to dwell on it for long. Within a few minutes, medication and exhaustion won out over curiosity, and he drifted back off.
Diana decided to play a hunch, which she could only hope panned out. After this, she was completely out of ideas.
She had gone over all the information they had on Caffrey's last known whereabouts and kept circling back around to the alley and cell phone. If Neal was going to ditch the phone, he would have thrown it into a dumpster or a trash can. Neither of which were in the immediate vicinity of where it was found. In fact, there wasn't much there at all, just a couple of recessed doorways several feet away that led to abandoned shops.
In fact, Neal had no reason to be in this alleyway at all unless he had found trouble after the meeting. She rolled her eyes; he was practically the poster child for trouble on a good day.
She spent an hour calling all the local hospitals and giving out Neal's description. She finally got a hit at Mount Sinai. A John Doe had been admitted within the last day with brown hair, blue eyes, and no more than 5% body fat. It didn't hurt that he had been wearing an expensive suit with a blue tie, which was pretty much the official Caffrey dress code. The man appeared to have been mugged, but he hadn't been able to give them details due to his state of unconsciousness at the time of arrival.
She woke Peter and Jones, who'd been napping in his own desk chair and using hers as a footstool, and insisted that she be the one to drive them all to the hospital. They were all cautiously optimistic that this nightmare was over. Neal had become an important part of their team, and no one really wanted to go back to working cases without him.
Nikki led the FBI agents to the end of the hall where their John Doe was resting in a semi-private room. Due to it being a slow week on the Neurology floor, he had the room to himself for now. “He's regained consciousness a few times, but he's been a bit agitated. His loss of memory seems to be the most concerning to him, but he's responded to the name Benjamin. Is that his name?”
Peter, Jones and Diana all exchanged the same look of hope tinged with fear. They'd given Neal the Benjamin alias while taking down corrupt politician Gary Jennings not so long ago.
“No,” Diana answered when the neither Jones nor Peter spoke up. “If it's our guy, his name is Neal.”
Peter tuned out what the nurse was saying and held his breath as they stepped through the door and finally got to see the patient. Despite the swelling around his right eye marring his usually handsome face, it was unmistakably Caffrey. “Neal?” Peter was by his side in a second without knowing how he got there.
Neal shifted on the bed, waking at the sound of voices in his room. Someone was squeezing his hand a little too hard, and the desperation of it confused him. He blinked away the lingering fog of sleep and stared at the man holding his hand.
“Hey, Neal,” the man said, anxious relief showing through his thin smile. “How are you doing?”
Neal's soft response might as well have been a physical blow. “Who are you?”
Peter's knees nearly buckled, and Jones stepped forward to quickly and silently guide Peter into the visitor's chair next to the bed. Everyone's heart sunk at those three short words, at the confusion and query.
Diana waited for someone to say something. Peter had let go of Neal and was sitting bent over with his head in his hands. Jones was standing behind him, one hand on Peter's shoulder while he averted his eyes from Caffrey's face. Neither of them looked like they were going to step up and say anything, so she once again took matters into her own hands.
“Your name is Neal Caffrey, and you work for the FBI. That's Special Agent Peter Burke, our boss. Behind him is Special Agent Clinton Jones, and I'm Special Agent Diana Berrigan.”
“Am I an agent?” Neal asked. He had so many questions. This was the first one to pop into his mind.
She almost laughed. “No, you're a consultant.”
“Oh.” He was disappointed by this and wasn't sure why. Nor did he know what else to say. He glanced at the two men, but neither would even look at him.
“You've been missing for more than twenty-four hours, so you'll have to forgive us. It's been a long day.”
“I'm sorry.” He offered the apology without thought. It seemed like the right thing to say to placate them. The misery in the room was weighing down on him, trying to smother him despite the oxygen still forcing itself up his nose.
“It's okay.” Diana moved to the side of his bed opposite Peter and Jones. “It's not your fault. Do you remember what happened?”
“No. I tried, but I just can't.”
Neal sounded so forlorn that she almost leaned over and gave him a hug. However, she wasn't the hugging type, and she doubted that he would take too kindly to it either. “That's okay,” she assured him. “Do you mind if we sit with you for a little bit?”
“I don't...” Neal sought out Nikki, who was standing by the door, waiting to see if their presence would upset him. “Is that okay?”
Unexpectedly, Diana had to blink back tears. The question was so wrong coming from his lips. Caffrey never asked permission or worried about the rules. In fact, the only reason he ever knew the rules was to break them.
“Visiting hours technically ended about eight hours ago, but they're due to start back up in a few, so I don't see the harm in letting them stay. Unless you're too tired.” Nikki was giving him an out, which he appreciated immensely. However, these three people were his only link to the life that he couldn't recall, and if he was going to get any answers, he had to keep them close.
“They can stay,” he finally decided, clocking everyone's reactions to his words. Mostly, they all appeared to be relieved.
“All right.” Nikki turned her attention to the FBI agents. “Don't tire him out too much. I'll be back to check on him shortly.”
The room fell into silence after she left. Neal's gaze wavered between the three of them, but he didn't say anything. Questions were tumbling around in his mind, each one more important than the last, but he had no idea where to start.
Jones was the first to move. “I'm going to go make some calls. Let the office and Elizabeth and the little guy know that we found him. I'll bring back coffee.”
“Coffee,” Neal murmured, latching onto the word. An image rose in his mind of himself sitting on a patio with a breathtaking view of the city and a cup of amazing coffee. “Cream, no sugar.”
Jones looked surprised. “I'll ask if you can have some.”
Neal nodded, groaning as pain knifed through his head.
The sound pulled Peter out of his funk, and he jumped toward the bedridden man. “Hey, you okay? You need the nurse?”
“No.” Neal squeezed his eyes shut and rode out the pain. “No moving. Gotta remember that.”
“Take it easy,” Peter said, patting Neal's shoulder. He was unsure of the action, but relaxed a little when Neal accepted the gesture by leaning into it unconsciously.
The conman was still working on pushing the pain away when Jones returned. His eyes opened, and he frowned when he only saw three cups of coffee.
“Sorry, Caffrey. The pretty nurse said you're restricted to ice chips for the time being.”
“What'd El say?” Peter asked after downing more than half the cup in one gulp.
Neal sulked silently in his bed while Jones caught Peter up on the calls. Elizabeth was on her way, with Mozzie, who was willing brave the hospital and the germs to check on his best friend. He had only told them that Neal had a pretty nasty concussion and that he was having trouble remembering things. Otherwise, the calls to both the FBI office and Marshals had gone as well as could be expected.
When Nikki walked in a few minutes later with Neal's ice chips, he'd given up on following the conversation and had fallen back to sleep.
Just before dawn, Dr. Richard Reade kicked everyone out so that he could assess his patient in private. He needed to have a good sense of Neal's neurological status before he could move forward with any course of treatment.
The exam took almost an hour. Everyone nearly jumped him when he finally stepped out of the room.
“How is he? And don't give us any of your vague doctorly platitudes. We want answers.” Mozzie was surprisingly the loudest voice over the chorus of 'is he okay' and 'what's going on' from the others.
Dr. Reade motioned for them to sit, but it took a moment for everyone to comply. “He's doing very well compared to his condition yesterday. He's awake, alert, and responding to questions.”
“What about his memory?” Peter interrupted, needing to know if they were going to get their Neal back. This whole thing was crazy – straight out of some bad straight-to-video movie. He had no idea what to do if Neal never regained his memories – he couldn't consult for the FBI, but could they throw him back into prison for crimes he didn't know he committed?
“The brain is a very tricky organ. It's easily injured but remarkably resilient. However, I can't tell you if or when Mr. Caffrey will get his memories back. That's up to his brain.” He let that sink in for a minute. “I've got him scheduled for another MRI shortly. So far, we're seeing signs that the hematoma is diminishing. That should help.”
“Hematoma?” This time it was Elizabeth asking the question that they were all thinking.
“Mr. Caffrey has a bruise on his brain right around here,” the doctor indicated his own temple. “Some long-term memory is stored here, so the swelling and pressure are inhibiting his ability to access that information. Any other symptoms of the concussion are minor for now. He's complained most often of a headache.”
“What about his other injuries?” Peter asked. He put his arm around his wife, who was sniffing back tears.
Dr. Reade ran down the list of injuries – cracked cheekbone, broken ribs, knife wound to his right flank, sprained ankle. Most of the injuries were to his right side, which Peter, Diana, and Jones all made mental note of. That likely meant that Neal's attacker was left-handed.
The final word was that Neal would be uncomfortable for a while, but he would heal. The only uncertainty was his memory, and no one had any inkling of a prediction for that.
The doctor tried to restrict Neal's visitors to two at a time, but that didn't work out so well. Peter sent Diana and Jones home to get some rest, and then he, El, and Mozzie found chairs in Neal's room where they could keep an eye on him and be out of the way of the medical personnel at the same time.
The night nurse Nikki went off shift while Neal was sleeping, which caused a mild panic attack when he woke to find a red-head pinching the side of his neck to check his reaction to painful stimulus. She was brusque with him when he asked for Nikki, and Peter quickly threw her out, demanding a new nurse with an actual bedside manner.
Neal was cautious in his interactions with the people that called themselves his friends, but Peter's treatment of the nurse went a long way toward establishing a new trust between them. He listened as Peter talked about the Yankees and a case that they had worked together at the stadium, and Peter let him ask questions about their consultant arrangement. Though Peter and the others had agreed to keep quiet about Neal's less than honest lifestyle choices, they did have to tell him something, and lies of omission were better than nothing at all.
He liked Mozzie, who entertained him with all manner of strange stories and didn't seem to expect any specific reaction from him, unlike the Burkes, which put him at ease with the eccentric man. Mozzie also had a deck of cards, and they played a few slow games of five-card draw. Neal was too concussed to keep an accurate count, but Peter or Elizabeth slipped him some cards to keep the game interesting.
Elizabeth went into full mother-hen mode. She fed him ice chips and adjusted his blankets and gently smacked his hand away every time he tried to take off the nasal cannula. She was the only one who touched him with any regularity, whether it be to run her fingers through his hair when he woke from a mostly unremembered nightmare or to hold his hand when the drugs started to wear off. He'd even caught her singing softly to him when she thought he'd been asleep. While he was grateful for the concern, the contact didn't quite feel right, and he spent as much of his time pulling away as he did leaning into it.
All of the vigilance and uncertainty wore him out, and he slept much of the day away. The dreams that he could recall started out being too dim and fuzzy to make sense of, but as the day wore on, and he spent more time with people that clearly were his friends, they started to sharpen and focus.
Thank you for reading!