Sixteen-year-old Peter Burke was jolted out of sleep by a sudden crash across the room that he usually shared with fourteen-year-old Neal Caffrey and sixteen-year-old Mozzie Jefferies. But Mozzie was still pissed at them about the prank they'd pulled with his glasses, so he’d been sleeping in the spare room down the hall for the last couple of nights.
On the other hand, Neal was hardly ever in his bed, and Peter had gotten used to the soft sounds of Neal's feet as he made his way out of or back into the room at night. Peter usually had no idea where he went or what he did, though he suspected that the younger boy often curled up in one of the overstuffed chairs in the Ellington's library and read himself into exhaustion.
Concerned by the abrupt noise, Peter leaned over and flipped on the lamp by his bed.
Neal cried out when the bright light pierced his aching head and stumbled back until he fell on his ass in the middle of the floor, surrounded by the pens and paintbrushes he'd knocked off his desk. His whole body hurt and falling had caused the walls he’d erected to keep the pain at bay to crumble into nothing.
Peter scrambled off the bed to get to Neal's side. The kid was a mess. His shirt was torn, and he was bleeding in several places, and his eyes were unfocused in a way that made Peter want to call for help immediately. “Hey, hey. What happened? Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” Neal replied crossly as he jerked away from Peter's touch and hissed at the movement.
“What happened?” Peter asked again.
Neal opened and closed his mouth a couple of times before shrugging his shoulders gingerly. His gaze darted up and to the left.
Peter frowned, catching the movement. “Don't even think about lying to me.”
“You've gotta stop watching all that truTV stuff.” Neal realized that his words were slurring, but he was helpless to stop it as his head pounded even more fiercely.
“Neal.” Peter started patting him down, searching for the worst of the injuries.
Squirming, Neal allowed the frisking. He groaned when Peter pressed too hard on busted ribs. “Couldn't sleep so I took a walk down by the river. A couple of guys from school were down there, screwing around. They saw me before I could turn back.”
Peter shook his head and pulled up Neal's shirt to check his ribs more closely. “What the hell?” The left side of Neal's chest was already deeply bruised in patterns that looked like the tips of boots. He looked back up at Neal's face and saw that blood was sluicing from a gash above his ear. Peter grabbed a t-shirt from the floor and applied pressure.
Neal cried out. “Stop! Peter!”
“What were you thinking? Going out by yourself at this time of night. Especially down by the river. You know what kinds of things happen down there after dark.” Peter's nostrils flared as he tried to get himself under control. While much of the riverfront property was peaceful during the day, some of it turned into a hotbed of drugs and other illegal activity at night. Neal had gone down there a few times before, that Peter knew of, and he'd come back once with a black eye and once with bruised ribs. Peter had agreed to keep quiet in exchange for Neal cutting back on his late night wanderings into that part of town.
“Peter,” Neal whimpered and tried to curl up against the pain.
“Here,” Peter took Neal's hand and pressed it down on the t-shirt. “I've gotta go get June and Byron.”
“No, no, please. I'm okay. Just... just give me a minute.” He was getting worked up and starting to gasp for air.
“Neal!” Peter gently slid his hands around either side of Neal's neck and forced the younger boy to look at him. “Take it easy. Breathe for a minute. In. Out. Okay?”
Neal nodded, moaning as his brain hammered the inside of his skull. He concentrated on his breathing until it was mostly under control.
“You're hurt. We can't patch this up with the first-aid kit in the bathroom. You need stitches and probably some sort of fancy scan to make sure that smarty pants mind of yours is intact.”
“Okay,” Neal whispered. He closed his eyes and slumped back on the floor with a groan.
Peter snapped his fingers by Neal's ear. “Don't go to sleep. Look at me."
His eyes popped open, and Neal scowled up at his friend. “You're bossy t’night.”
“Bet your ass I am. Stay awake. I'll be right back.”
It took June and Byron less than two minutes to call for an ambulance. Neal had gone into shock and wasn't able to respond to many of their questions. The paramedics were quick but also noisy and soon the whole house was awake.
“What happened?” Mozzie accosted Peter when the other teen was forced out of the bedroom. Diana Berrigan and Sara Ellis were standing behind Mozzie, and all three teens were craning their necks to see what was going on.
Peter shrugged, not yet sure how much of the truth he was going to reveal. “Neal got into some trouble, and he's hurt pretty badly.”
The girls and Mozzie all gasped. “Is he going to be okay?” Sara asked, concerned. Though she liked to maintain the air that she didn't care about anyone else, Neal had wormed his way under her skin in record time. He helped her with math sometimes, and she liked to argue literature with him.
“I hope so,” Peter replied quietly as the paramedics pushed the stretcher out into the hall and headed toward the stairs. Neal was strapped down under a blanket and with an oxygen mask over his face.
June followed them while Byron stayed back with the others. “Let's all try to get back to sleep. June will call when she has news on Neal.”
“I want to go with them,” Peter said, trying to push past Byron.
“Peter.” Byron put his hand out to stop Peter, but the teen tried to sidestep him. They did this dance toward the stairs until, finally, Byron grabbed his shoulders. “Peter, stop! There's nothing that you can do for Neal right now. It'll take hours for him to be assessed and treated. If he's not slated for release later today, we'll all go to the hospital at a decent hour. Now, please, go, try and get some rest.”
“C'mon,” Mozzie said, nodding down the hall toward the spare room he'd been sleeping in. He'd peeked inside Peter's room and saw the mess the paramedics had left behind. No one was in any mood to clean it up at this hour.
Peter reluctantly trailed after Mozzie and the girls until they were all inside the bedroom with the door closed. Diana perched on the desk chair in the corner while Sara took the window box seat and Mozzie and Peter sat on the bed.
“All right,” Diana said, giving her full attention to Peter. “Spill it, Burke. What happened to Neal tonight?”
He sighed and rubbed his hands over his face as exhaustion started to set in. “You know how he is. He doesn't really sleep so he kinda,” Peter waved a hand toward the house and then the window, “wanders.”
“Where, specifically, did he ‘wander’ tonight?” Sara asked and then turned to look out the window. It was a clear night with a waning moon and no discernible threats out in the streets.
“He didn't really say,” Peter hedged.
Mozzie raised an eyebrow. “I call bullshit. Just tell us already, Peter.”
He was too tired for this kind of interrogation. He could handle the girls and possibly Mozzie separately, but together, they were proving to be a challenge. “Fine, fine. I'll tell you what he told me, but it doesn't leave this room.”
Everyone agreed and Peter brought them up to speed on everything that he knew.
“I knew something like this was going to happen,” was the first thing Mozzie said.
"How could anyone do something like this? Neal's pretty well-liked and looks mostly harmless." Sara frowned, disturbed by what had happened. Neal was pretty quick to make friends, and he was younger than the other kids in his grade, so he was also quite a bit smaller. A fact that he took advantage of whenever possible. He was a good kid, if a bit skittish and unusually wary, even for a foster.
"That's probably the reason," Diana spoke up. "Did he say who did it?" Peter shook his head, and she mirrored the movement, though her jaw was tense with anger. "I bet whoever it was got quite the adrenaline rush from beating up someone smaller than them. Two against one. Assholes."
“He does like to antagonize the bullies when he thinks he can get away with it.” Peter sighed. Kid was going to get himself killed one day. He just hoped today wasn't that day.
They fell silent, all thinking about Neal and his daring ways. He was certainly unique in his approach to life and especially his approach to high school. Neal liked to keep to himself whenever possible, and he was the youngest, by far, of the freshmen class, but he'd been known to stand up for kids who were bullied or teased. He'd even gotten between Mozzie and second-time senior Matthew Keller one day at lunch when Keller had threatened Mozzie with a switchblade while the teachers were distracted by a fight across the cafeteria.
Sara cleared her throat and stood up. “Byron's right. We should get some sleep. Hopefully, they'll let us see Neal in the morning.”
Diana agreed and the girls headed out, closing the door behind them as they went.
“You take the bed,” Mozzie said, grabbing one of the pillows and a blanket out of the chest at the foot. “I'll take the floor.”
Peter was too tired to argue. He curled up under the sheets but had a hard time turning his mind off. All he could see was Neal covered in blood and gasping for breath whenever he closed his eyes. The sky was lightening with dawn's approach when he finally fell into a restless sleep.
In a dimly lit Pediatric ICU room across town, June was reading a paperback copy of Devil in a Blue Dress that she'd found in the gift shop when Neal's hand, tucked gently under her one of her own, twitched. She looked up, waiting to see if he was going to wake.
The bruises were settling into deep purples and blues on his face, and they looked like they were going to be quite painful, but that was the least of his worries. Aside from the broken ribs and the greenstick fracture in his left forearm, Neal's concussion was severe and his spleen had been lacerated. The doctors had assured her that it was in Neal's best interest to treat the laceration with non-operative management, and the nurses were running frequent tests to be sure that Neal's status remained stable.
His head rolled on the pillow, turning in her direction.
She smiled and sat forward. “Neal? Open your eyes for me.”
Silently, his eyelids fluttered until they were at half-mast. His eyes shifted, taking in the room without moving his head. “'Hospital?” he rasped.
“Yes,” she replied. “Are you in any pain?”
“Ummm...” He closed his eyes and breathed as deeply as he could, which wasn't very. “A little. It's not bad,” he finally replied, looking at her again. His hand drifted toward his nasal cannula, but June caught it and shook her own head at him.
She could see the lines on his forehead and around his eyes that spoke of a deeper level of pain than what he would admit to. She pressed the call button and was rewarded when a nurse popped through the door less than a minute later.
After going through the motions with the nurse, who upped his pain medication and refused to take off the cannula, Neal tried to relax back against his pillows. His eyes, though, remained open and focused on June.
“How's your head?” she asked. The nurse had asked him the usual questions, but he'd missed the answers to a couple, which was unlike him. June had been through her share of concussions with the kids that she and Byron fostered, but the severity of Neal's made his case unique to her. The doctor had explained that Neal would probably be confused and somewhat disoriented for a couple of days, and that there might be some memory loss and emotional symptoms as well. This was all on top of the physical headache, nausea and dizziness.
He frowned, obviously considering his answer. He finally settled on, “Sore.”
“Do you remember what happened?”
Slowly, he nodded once.
“Then, do you mind telling me where you went last night and who did this to you?” Her tone was stern but not uncaring. She had no intention of scaring the information out of Neal. In fact, she hoped that he trusted her enough to just tell her.
“I don't remember.”
She frowned and squeezed his hand. “Neal, honey, when you came to live with us, I asked you for two things. Trust and-”
“Honesty.” He sighed and started picking at the blanket with his casted but free hand. “I didn't lie. I don't remember much about last night. There were two guys that jumped me.” He explained how and why he'd ended up walking down by the river after midnight and how he'd been too late to see the two older boys. He was pretty sure he knew who they were, but he was hesitant to say their names in case he was wrong. The details got fuzzier toward the end of his story though, until he couldn't tell her anything more than he'd stumbled home and woken up in the hospital.
June gently hooked a finger under his chin and made him look her in the eye. "Neal, honey, this cannot happen again. I know you didn't go looking for trouble, but it found you, and it pains me to see you here in a hospital bed."
Tears welled abruptly, and Neal's eyes opened wide in panic at the explicit emotional display. He almost banged himself in the head with his cast when he tried to wipe them away. "I'm sorry, June."
“It's okay, Neal,” she said, easily moving from the chair to perch on the edge of his bed. She was careful to slip an arm around his back and support his head with one hand when she pulled him close. He wasn't a child who put up with physical comfort like hugs, but he clung to her now as he cried. “It's just the concussion. Shhh. Just calm down. Everything's okay. You're not in any trouble.”
By the time that Neal's sobs gave way to snuffling breaths, he was pretty much asleep. She eased him back onto the mattress, pulled the sheet and blanket up to his chin, and returned to her chair. He reached for her, grabbing a handful of her shirt before she could get far.
Gently prying his fingers away from the material to transfer his grip to her hand, she whispered, “I'm not going anywhere. Rest now.”
The next morning, Byron drove everyone to the hospital. Even though it was a Tuesday, he'd allowed all the kids to stay home from school so that they could visit Neal and make sure that he was okay. The PICU rules were that only two people could visit at a time, so Byron had been forced to leave Mozzie, Sara, and Diana in the waiting room while he took Peter back to see Neal. Technically, they were bending the rules since June was already in Neal's room, but Peter didn't care; he just wanted to see his best friend.
When Byron and Peter got to his room, Neal was sitting up and flipping through channels on a TV mounted on the opposite wall. He was bored, uncomfortable, and anxious about being confined to bed rest.
“Hey,” Peter said, shoving his hands in his pockets as he moved to stand by the left side of Neal's bed. “How are you doing?”
“I'm okay,” Neal replied, looking up at Peter for only a second before fidgeting and dropping his gaze. He was embarrassed by the commotion of the previous night, and he had disjointed memories of Peter yelling at him.
Peter took in Neal's condition – the bruises, the cast, the oxygen tube under his nose – and then snorted.
Before he could say anything though, Byron's voice startled both boys. “Neal, do you need anything?”
“No, thank you.” Neal was always polite with Byron but not having a male influence in his life before now made him wary and uncertain around his foster father.
Byron nodded and turned to the other boy. “Peter, would you stay with Neal for a few minutes? June and I will be just down the hall, meeting with Neal's doctor.”
“Of course,” Peter replied. He slipped around the bed to sit in June's vacated seat while Byron and June left the room and shut the door behind themselves.
Neal refused to look at Peter and went back to flipping through channels. “I think I saw a game on somewhere.”
“Let's not do this.” Peter gently took the remote out of Neal's hand, pressed the power button, and set it on the side table. “You can't ignore what happened, Neal. Someone hurt you. Almost killed you.”
Neal scoffed at that, finally raising his eyes to meet Peter's. “Did not.”
“It certainly doesn't look that way from where I'm sitting.”
Not knowing how to respond and aware of how much pain it would be to even shrug his shoulders, Neal asked, “What do you want me to say, Peter?”
“I want you to tell me exactly what happened. And then I want you to say that it's not going to happen again.”
“I don't remember much,” Neal replied. “And I didn't plan to get beaten up. It just...” he trailed off, not wanting to get into it with Peter. More bits and pieces of the night were coming back to him, but it was mostly just what those guys had said as they took turns punching and kicking him. They'd called him such rude and hurtful things - a pansy and a sissy and an orphan. He sniffed, horrified that he was about to start crying again.
Peter sat forward in his chair, concerned when Neal's face fell and the younger boy hid behind the hand not half-covered by a cast. “Are you okay? Do I need to get someone?”
“No!” Neal's right hand shot out and grabbed Peter's arm when the other boy stood. “I'm okay. Just give me a minute.”
Peter hesitated, glancing over at the closed door and the glass walls of the PICU room. He couldn't see anyone that was close enough to help though.
“Please,” Neal said, breath hitching through his tears.
Frowning, Peter nodded and sat down on the edge of Neal's mattress. Hesitantly, the younger boy leaned toward him. Neal's head fell on Peter's shoulder, and he relaxed slightly when Peter's arms slowly moved to embrace him.
After a few minutes, Neal snuffled and rubbed his face against Peter's shirt. He'd calmed down, but his head was stuffy now, the congestion putting pressure on his already aching brain. He hated to cry, and now it was making him feel even more wretched, but he could hardly stop the tears once they started. Neal also hated to lose control, and this concussion was wearing on him.
“Gross,” Peter muttered, not as disgusted as he would be if Neal didn't look so miserable. His eyes were puffy, red, and had to be hurting. “I'm not a tissue, man.”
Neal pulled himself away to lean back against his pillows. His nasal cannula had half fallen off during his crying jag, so he tugged it the rest of the way and threw it to the side. “Sorry,” he murmured as he blinked slowly up at his friend. He was exhausted, and the pain had started gnawing at his insides again, from his ribs and left side all the way up to the top of his head.
Peter ruffled his hair gently and eased himself off the bed so that he wouldn't jostle Neal. Taking a seat in the chair again, Peter placed his hand on Neal's arm and asked, “Will you tell me who did this to you?”
Neal opened his mouth to respond, but the sound of the door opening caught his attention. He grimaced as he turned his head to see Mozzie looking nervously over his shoulder.
“What's up with all the glass? Nurse Ratched almost caught me in the hallway.” Mozzie had gotten tired of waiting with the others but didn't want to be thrown out, so he moved to Neal's bedside and tried to hide himself behind the stand of monitors while simultaneously still being able to see Neal. “You've looked better, kid.”
“Gee, thanks.” Neal was too tired to give Mozzie the gesture that he wanted so he settled for a sarcastic tone.
Mozzie ignored him and spoke to Peter. “Is he going to be okay?”
“I'm right here,” Neal grumbled.
Peter shrugged and eyed Neal again. “I think so.” Neal defiantly met his stare until his eyes slid closed, and he had trouble opening them again. “June and Byron are talking to his doctor.”
Mozzie made a “hmmm,” sound as he checked the monitors like he knew what he was seeing. “Everything looks good.”
“Like you'd know.” Neal glared and waved clumsily at the older boy. “Get away from there before you unplug something important.”
Mozzie took a half step to the side but stayed in the vicinity in case he needed a fast hiding place.
Peter rolled his eyes and turned his attention back the boy on the hospital bed. “Neal, c'mon. Tell us who did this.”
“Just leave it, Peter. Please.”
Shaking his head, Peter tightened his grip on Neal's arm for a moment. “Could you draw them? If I brought your sketchbook and a pencil?”
“Maybe. I don't know. It was dark, and I don't really remember.” Neal was lying, but he didn't want Peter or Mozzie running off into a bad situation and getting hurt, like he had. If something happened to them, and it was his fault, he'd... He sniffed back tears again and pulled his arm away from Peter so that he could rub his eyes. “I'm so tired,” he said forlornly.
Peter held up a hand to keep Mozzie from saying anything. “Just tell us who did this, and then you can get some sleep. Please, Neal. This is important."
Neal's eyes blinked slowly as he looked into Peter's, clearly trying to decide if he should say the names.
"Neal?" Peter leaned closer to whisper the younger boy's name earnestly. He didn't want anyone else to have to go through this, and he didn't want Neal to have to fear anyone once he was back on his feet.
"It was the Fratelli brothers," the younger boy said softly.
Peter patted Neal's shoulder and nodded resolutely. "Thank you. Now, sleep. We'll see you later, okay?”
Neal nodded once and then he was out like a switch had been flipped.
“What are we going to do?” Mozzie whispered.
Shrugging, Peter looked up at him. “I don't know yet, but we'll figure something out. They have to pay for what they did. Neal didn't deserve this.”
Mozzie acknowledged Peter's words with a nod and a grim set of his lips. He wasn't much of a fighter, but he could handle himself after this many years in foster care and being bullied on the playground. He agreed that Neal didn't deserve the beating he'd gotten, and he'd do almost anything to keep it from happening again.
While the boys were keeping Neal company, June and Byron were in a meeting with Neal's doctor in one of the private family rooms down the hall.
Dr. Osman opened with, “Neal's a very lucky young man. He's conscious and alert, and his tests are all coming back with encouraging results.”
“What about his confusion?” June asked, worried that Neal still wasn't able to answer all of the nurse's questions correctly.
“That's common with the severity of his concussion. It's been less than twenty-four hours since his injuries, and his brain is still recovering. The fact that he's as awake and responsive as he is – that's a very good sign.”
Byron cleared his throat and leaned forward in his chair. He'd heard everything secondhand from June so far since he'd been with the other kids during the night and morning, and while he was sure she hadn't left anything out, he wanted to hear it from the doctor's mouth. “What about his other injuries?”
Dr. Osman nodded, having expected the question. “His left arm has a greenstick fracture, which is when the bone bows, but doesn't completely break. They often heal very fast in children, and we'll see about removing the cast in three or four weeks.” He looked down at his clipboard, thinking about what to mention next. He'd examined Neal on his morning rounds and had been concerned by his list of injuries. “We have him on some pretty strong painkillers, so he's not feeling his broken ribs too much right now, but it will take a few weeks for those to heal. I expect he'll be a pretty quiet kid for a little while.”
June couldn't help but chuckle at that. Neal was out of the woods, was able to hold a conversation, and for that she was very thankful. Now, her mind had turned to the recovery process, which she knew that the boy wouldn't take very well. He was very active, always in some sort of motion whether it be drawing or walking around town. “I'm sorry. It's not funny, but Neal doesn't do quiet very well.”
“He's not going to have much choice. Now, his spleen is swollen and has a small laceration that we're keeping an eye on right now. I've ordered Neal on strict bed rest until tomorrow morning at least so that the spleen has time to really start healing. I'm afraid that, with his medications and concussion, if he's allowed to move around, he could fall or hurt himself without realizing it.”
June and Byron exchanged looks. “I'll stay with him,” she said with a smile. “Someone has to make sure that he stays put.” She looked back over at the doctor. “Neal's known to wander at all hours.”
“That's going to be a little difficult for him to do,” Dr. Osman replied. “He's got the IV, the nasal cannula and the catheter to contend with right now.”
Byron grimaced at the thought of the catheter. “You don't know Neal very well. He'd find a way.”
Dr. Osman nodded and looked down at his notes for a moment. He was hesitant to bring up the next topic, but he felt obligated to let them, as Neal's guardians, know. “I understand that Neal is in your care as a foster child. Is that correct?”
June shot Byron a worried look, but replied, “Yes, he is. Why? Is something wrong?”
"There is a social worker here from the Office of Children and Family Services that needs to speak with you. Due to the violent nature of Neal's injuries, she'll be assessing your home and the safety of the children there, and she'll need to speak with Neal directly as well."
"We understand," Byron replied, when June found herself speechless. They were so careful to keep their home well-maintained and to do what they could to keep the children safe and happy. What had happened to Neal had been an accident, outside of their control, and she hoped that OCFS would see it that way as well.
"If you'll follow me to the conference room, I believe the social worker is waiting to speak with you." Dr. Osman stood and motioned for them to follow him.
"Doctor, Neal's clearly had a rough life, but he's been doing very well in our home. He's formed a bond with the other boys, and he's getting good marks in his school work. Last night's incident is something that we'll have to discuss with him, but I can assure you that Neal is safe and well cared for in our home.”
Dr. Osman smiled cordially. “I'm aware of your reputation, Mrs. Ellington, and I wasn't trying to imply that Neal was unsafe. I'll be making a recommendation based on my assessment of Neal's status, and so far, I don't have any reason to believe this wasn't a random act of violence.”
“Thank you.” June smiled kindly as they made their way to the conference room.
Dr. Osman shook hands with both of them outside of the designated room. “We'll be keeping him at least two more days. He'll spend the rest of today in ICU, but I'm hopeful that we can move him to a regular room by tonight or tomorrow morning at the latest. I'll speak with you soon.”
Later that day, Diana stood by the boys' bedroom door with her hands on her hips as she tried to stare down both Peter and Mozzie at the same time. “Since Neal isn't here to do it, I'm going to say that this is the most ridiculous thing you two have ever planned.”
Sara scowled. “I hate to agree with Diana, but she's right on this one. These guys are clearly not to be messed with.”
"Then it's a good thing that neither of you are integral to the plan," Peter replied, as he rummaged in the chest of drawers for his black jeans. He was wearing a pair of gray boxers and a black t-shirt, but neither Sara nor Diana were paying much attention. They were too busy glaring at both boys.
"Look," Mozzie looked up from tying his boots to give the girls his attention, "Neal's hurt pretty bad, and there's no reason that the Fratellis should get away with it. They're bullies, and they need to be taught a lesson."
"And you're planning on teaching them something besides how to run your scrawny butt up the flagpole?" Sara scowled at Mozzie, concerned but trying not to show it.
"People don't do that anymore." Mozzie glanced sideways at Peter who shook his head in agreement.
"Just cover for us with June and Byron tonight if we're a little late getting in. I told them that Mozzie's helping me work on a tractor engine at the farm." Peter had gotten a summer job the previous year at the Fenster's farm just outside of town which had extended to school year weekends when Peter proved to be great with the horses and equipment.
"We are not going to have any part of this madness," Diana said. "Come on, Sara. We have better things to do." She turned on her heel and headed down the hall toward the girls' room.
Sara raised an eyebrow but followed Diana without protest.
"They're just jealous they didn't think of the plan," Mozzie deduced. "Ready to go?"
Peter triumphantly pulled the black jeans out of the bottom drawer and quickly pulled them on, hopping on one foot and then the other. "Give me two minutes. Make sure we have the-"
"We'll grab the last night's dinner leftovers on the way out."
Peter huffed a breath out his nose and bit back the response he had for Mozzie cutting him off so many times. They were doing this for Neal. He had to remember that before he pushed Mozzie out of a moving truck.
In the hospital, Neal was feeling well enough to sit up in bed and protest his dinner of chicken-flavored broth. "If this is what I have to look forward to in the way of food flavor around here, I'm ready to go home."
June wanted to smile at his use of the word 'home' to describe her house, but she refrained because of his tone. "Don't forget why you're here, young man. You should be thankful you're able to sit up and eat."
Neal bit his lip and looked appropriately contrite. "Sorry, June, but it tastes like someone boiled a dirty sneaker in dishwater."
"It can't be that bad." June leaned closer and sniffed his bowl. She tried her damnedest to keep a straight face, but it was hard. It smelled about like Neal had described.
"It's bad, right?"
She nodded and laughed softly. "Would you like me to see if I can get you something from outside the hospital?"
Neal shook his head and pushed the tray away. "No, thank you. I think I've hit my limit for now."
He squirmed in the bed and sighed in a way that June was all too familiar with from working with teenage foster kids for so many years. "Are you uncomfortable, Neal?"
He shrugged carefully but didn't say anything.
"Neal?" June really didn't want to give him the lecture again, but she would if he didn't start talking.
He held her gaze for a moment before frowning and responding, "My chest hurts. And my arm."
June nodded and pressed the call button on the bedrail. When the nurse arrived a moment later, she asked Neal a few questions about his pain levels and administered medication into his IV.
A few minutes later, Neal pushed at the other buttons on the bedrail until the head of the bed lowered a bit. He yawned and turned his head toward June, who was reading and letting him get comfortable on his own.
Finally, she looked up and smiled at him. "Tired now?"
"Yeah." He hesitated for a moment before continuing in a rush. "Areyougoingtobeheretonight?"
"Are… are you going to be here tonight?"
He closed his eyes; it wasn't long before his breathing evened out, and he was firmly on the way to dreamland.
June waited several minutes before getting up and pulling his blanket up to his chin. She also carefully arranged his casted arm on the extra pillow the nurse had left them so that it was a little more elevated. Neal always looked so young when he slept, when his features relaxed so much that she could almost see him as a toddler, collapsed in an exhausted heap at the end of a long play day.
Meanwhile, at Monroe County High, Peter had backed the truck up to the door that was furthest away from any of the parking lot lights so that they could get on with phase one of their plan. He had met Mozzie at a particular crossroads after borrowing the truck from the Fensters, and Mozzie had been waiting there with a quartet of hogs.
Peter looked over a Mozzie and made a disgusted face. “Where did you even get pigs?” He considered his words as his friend opened his mouth, and Peter quickly threw up a hand up in the air. “Wait. No. Don’t tell me until after we get them inside.”
Mozzie laughed and shook his can of black spray paint. While Peter held them still, Mozzie haphazardly sprayed the side of each hog with a number: one, two, four, and seven. That would keep the administration busy in the morning while they implemented phase three of their plan to get even with the boys that had beaten Neal up. Phase two involved leaving incriminating evidence in the Fratelli brothers' lockers while they were inside tonight.
It took the both of them to herd the hogs down the not so wide ramp Peter had borrowed with the truck and into the school by the door that Mozzie had picked the lock on. The last one tried to make a run for it, and it took them five minutes to get it to go into the building.
Once they were inside, they spread some of the dinner leftovers in various hallways to encourage the pigs to wander all night, and made sure to leave some of the scraps, a pair of dirty gloves, and the bottle of spray paint in the lockers. Mozzie had wanted to leave some pig dung but Peter thought that would be too weird.
After they closed and re-locked the door, they dusted their hands off and grinned at each other. “Phase one and two complete,” Mozzie said.
Peter was smiling, but he shook his head. “We’re going to be in so much trouble if anyone finds out.”
“Don’t be such a worrywart. No one’s going to find out. I hacked the computer that records the surveillance camera footage and turned them all off tonight. They’ll just think it was a glitch in the system.”
“Are you sure?”
Mozzie was offended. “Has anyone ever caught me hacking into anything?”
“There was that time that Neal-“
“Wonderboy doesn’t count. I’m starting to think that his memory is better than mine, and I have-“
“An eidetic memory. Everyone knows, Moz. Stop telling us every five minutes.”
Mozzie smirked. He was proud of his official eidetic memory diagnosis, even if he hadn’t wanted to talk to the counselor about it at all. Now, he used every opportunity to remind Peter, Neal, Sara or Diana about it. Outside of their circle of foster kids, he didn’t usually say much at all, preferring to keep any information he had a secret at all times.
“Let’s get out of here before someone sees us,” Peter hopped into the driver’s seat and started the truck. Mozzie climbed into the passenger side and buckled himself in.
They were driving for several minutes before Mozzie looked over at Peter. “Neal’s going to be okay.”
Peter’s brows drew together in confusion. “I know. He’s coming home soon.”
“That’s not what I meant. I know you’ve noticed.” Mozzie held his hand out and deliberately made it shake to demonstrate what he meant.
Peter glanced away from the road long enough to mirror Mozzie’s concerned look. “I think that Neal saw himself as invincible. That he could run faster or leap higher or, when all else failed, talk his way out of anything, and then those two assholes cornered him, and he wound up really hurt and really scared. We’re going to have to keep an eye on him for a while.”
Mozzie nodded solemnly. “We can’t let him wander around alone. I don’t want to have to tie him to his bed, but I will, if I have to.”
“I don’t think that will be necessary. I don’t really see him leaving the house much until he’s fully recovered, and maybe not much after that for a while.”
“Yeah.” Mozzie agreed and then fell quiet again.
It was Peter who broke the silence the next time. “Has he ever talked about his mom or dad with you?”
“Not really. He said that his dad was gone, had been since he was two or three. He doesn’t remember him. His mom – that’s a different kind of subject. What have you heard about her?”
Peter frowned. “Not much. I know she’s still alive, but he doesn't talk about her."
“Yeah.” Mozzie, who had been with June and Byron the longest, had seen several kids come and go, but none were as tight-lipped about his or her parents as Neal. Mozzie himself had always been an orphan and had been cared for a man named Mr. Jeffries until he'd found a home for Mozzie with June and Byron. Technically, they’d asked if they could adopt him, but Mozzie had yet to be ready to commit to that, even ten years later.
“She hasn’t come back for him.” Peter said the words softly, thinking about his own parents. They'd died in a car accident three years ago, and without any other relatives, Peter had been sent into the foster care system. He was so damn grateful that he'd been placed with June and Byron, but he missed his parents every day. If they were still alive and out there somewhere, it would hurt so much that they hadn't come to get him.
“She came once,” Mozzie revealed and then snapped his mouth shut. This really wasn’t his story to tell.
“What? When?” Peter sat up straighter and risked another glance at Mozzie. It was dark outside and it was the season for deer, so he was trying to keep his eyes on the road, but Mozzie had just dropped a huge bombshell.
Mozzie sighed. “I really shouldn’t tell you this, but I know you won’t let it go. It was last summer, that week that you stayed with the Fensters to help them bale hay. We came home from the library one day, and she was there, talking to June. Neal took one look at her and bolted up to our room. He locked himself inside.”
Peter gasped at that, not having expected Neal to have such a visceral reaction to his mother’s surprise arrival. And, if he were honest, he was a bit angry that no one had told him about this before. “What happened?”
“Byron picked the lock and talked him out of the room. I don’t really know what happened after that. Byron kept the rest of us upstairs and out of earshot until she was gone, but Neal was pretty quiet and withdrawn for a couple of weeks afterwards.”
Peter remembered now that Neal had been skittish when he'd gotten back from the Fensters, but he'd been distracted by squeezing in dates with Elizabeth Mitchell around his work schedule, and he'd thought Neal had been at a point where he would pull Peter aside if he wanted to talk. "Why didn't you tell me that she'd been there?"
"I thought that Neal would talk to you, and I didn't want to upset any trust that he and I had by giving up the secret. You know what a fine line that is."
Peter nodded, and his thoughts turned to a more horrifying place. “Did his mother used to…” he trailed off, not even really sure what he was asking or if he really wanted to know the answer.
Mozzie shrugged. “I don’t think she did, but she had a lot of boyfriends, from what I gather. And none of them were very nice.”
“Bastards,” Peter muttered under his breath.
“Yeah,” Mozzie agreed. Neal was such a bright, sweet kid. It was hard to imagine anyone beating on him for the hell of it or whatever. Neal liked to test the boundaries once he was comfortable with you, but he also knew when to stay inside the lines.
“What happened to her?”
“I don’t know.”
“Fine. I snuck a peek at the files that June keeps in her locked cabinet. The social worker was waiting on Neal’s mom to have a stable home and work schedule before she would consider sending Neal back to her. That was like 5 months ago. Either something’s happened or she hasn’t gotten herself together.”
“I really hope she doesn’t show up again any time soon.”
“You and me both.”
The next day, the doctor made his rounds in the morning, waking Neal long enough to ask him a couple of routine questions. He gave the go-ahead for light activity, meaning that Neal could get out of bed to take short trips around the hallway. He got rid of the dreaded catheter too so he could also get up to go to the bathroom.
Neal, for his part, only had one question, "When can I go home?"
"It'll be another day or two," Dr. Osman replied.
Neal frowned at that and let his big blue eyes fill ever so slightly with tears. "I'm feeling much better, and June will make sure that I rest and that I'm okay at home."
She stepped forward to place her hand on his shoulder, which she squeezed briefly as a warning for him to stop trying to con the doctor into letting him out early.
"I'm sure that she will, when I release you in a day or two." Dr. Osman made a few notations in Neal's chart and then headed for the door. "Get some rest, Neal. I'll see you this evening."
Neal deflated when the doctor left the room. June's hand fell away when his shoulders drooped, and he picked at the edge of his cast with his uninjured hand. "Hate hospitals," he murmured to himself.
"Not many like them," June pointed out as she sat on the edge of the mattress. "The doctor's only looking out for you, Neal. What if something happened at home in the middle of the night? What if your spleen started bleeding inside or you fell going to the bathroom and hurt it more?"
He shrugged, keeping his eyes firmly on his hands. "I'd be careful."
June sighed softly and leaned forward to press a kiss to his forehead. "I know you will, baby, but I would feel better and more comfortable if you were here where the doctors could help you. It'll only be for another day or so, and then we'll get you home."
Neal glanced up at her when her tone softened and saw how scared she was for him, for something bad like that to happen to him. Finally, he nodded, accepting the forced hospitalization for what it was.
She smiled at him and sat back in her chair. Before she could suggest he turn on the TV, there was a knock on his door.
"Excuse me," a young woman wearing glasses opened the door and stepped inside. "Is this Neal Caffrey's room?"
Neal involuntarily leaned toward June as he looked the woman up and down. Her blonde hair was pulled back in a loose bun and her pant suit screamed counselor or social worker.
"It is." June put a hand on Neal's forearm to reassure him that she was still there. "It's nice to see you again, Ms. Nolan."
Neal glanced over at June, surprised that she knew the woman. Then again, her tone wasn't exactly welcoming, so maybe this wouldn't be so bad.
"You too, Mrs. Ellington. Do you mind if I speak with Neal alone for a few minutes?"
June shook her head and stood. "Neal, this is Rita Nolan with the Office of Children and Family Services. I'll be just outside while she talks to you, okay?"
"No," Neal surprised himself by grasping her hand and holding on tight, "please stay." He looked toward Rita but not at her and asked, "She can stay, right? If I want her to?"
"I'm sorry." She looked to June for guidance but got no help from the older woman. "I need to speak with you alone, but I promise to be fast. This is just routine."
"Everything's okay, Neal." June patted his hand and gently peeled his fingers away from hers. "I'll be right outside."
Neal hugged his arms around his chest, wincing when his broken ribs made themselves known through the painkiller haze. Then, he took a deep breath and looked up at the other woman.
"Can I call you Neal?" Rita asked as she sat down in a visitor's chair on the opposite side of the bed from where June had been sitting.
He shrugged but didn't break eye contact.
"You can call me Rita, if you want. You're not in any trouble here, Neal, and neither are the Ellingtons. You were very badly hurt the other night, and I need to know what happened for my report. Would you tell me what you remember?"
"It was stupid. I couldn't sleep, and I didn't want to wake anyone up so I took a walk outside."
"What time was this?"
"I don't know. It was dark. Anyway, we live near the river, and it's quiet out there, so I was on the riverwalk when I saw two guys messing around on the bank, throwing rocks in the water or something. I turned around, but they'd already seen me."
"Do you know who they were?"
He shrugged again and repeated, "It was dark."
"What happened then?"
"They ran up and grabbed me, threw me on the ground. I don't remember everything." He fingered the bandage on his head and winced for dramatic effect.
"I'm sorry that happened to you," she said sympathetically.
Neal refused to respond to that. She wasn't going to get on his good side or anything by acting like she cared. He was just one file in her stack and the sooner she was done with him the better.
"Do you remember anything else?"
"I stumbled into my room at June and Byron's and woke Peter up. He freaked and called for them, and that's how I wound up here."
"How do you like living with the Ellingtons?"
"They're great, really great." Neal wasn't sure how to put into words how much he liked them. "Everyone loves them."
"What about the other kids? How do you like living with them?"
"Peter and Mozzie are cool. They're my best friends, but the girls are kinda constantly PMSing."
She couldn't help but laugh at that. "I think that's all I need, Neal. Is there anything else you'd like to say?"
He nodded and leaned forward like he was going to tell her a secret. "Please don't take me or the other kids away from June and Byron. This was my fault. I was stupid, and I went out late when I shouldn't have. June and Byron are the best, and they've been really good to us. Just, please. Don't take that away."
"Neal, I don't think that this was your fault. It was the fault of those two boys. And I have no intention of removing you or anyone else from the Ellingtons' home unless I determine that there's something detrimental about any of you living there. I highly doubt that's the case based on what I've seen here today." She stood and gave him a gentle smile. "Get well soon, Neal."
He nodded once and watched her leave the room. Almost before the door shut, June was pushing it back open. Neal relaxed immediately at the sight of her but winced when his muscles protested how tensely he'd been holding himself.
"Are you okay?"
"I'm all right," he mumbled, lying back against his pillows. He moved his arms to his sides and tried to get comfortable.
June reclined the head of his bed and pulled his blankets up. "I'll have the nurse bring you some painkillers and then you can rest."
He wanted to say no to more pills, but his whole body was starting to hurt, and he wanted to sleep. When the nurse arrived a few minutes later, he dutifully took the medication with a small cup of water, and then fell asleep holding June's hand.
At school, Mozzie waited for phase three to begin while he worked his first period office aide job. It had started out as punishment for interrupting and correcting Mr. Ruiz in American History but turned into his full-time first period 'class'. Mozzie liked it because it gave him access to student records and other administrative things, and he got the best gossip hanging around the office.
In fact, he'd heard Principal Hughes yelling earlier about the hogs, which had been rounded up much faster than Mozzie thought they would be. As it turned out, they had gathered around the older Fratelli brother's locker because of the dinner scraps Mozzie and Peter had left inside. This meant that the brothers would be rounded up and escorted into the office at any minute.
Mozzie had to contain his excitement at sticking it to those jackasses as he made the morning announcements as usual: "There will be a pep rally during fourth period today. Your lunch menu is *cough*mystery*cough* meatloaf with mashed potatoes, corn and your choice of fruit cup or sorbet. Since sorbet is a palate cleanser, I strongly suggest that option. And I leave you with a quote from Albert Einstein, Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school."
He turned off the PA microphone a minute before Frank and Bobby Fratelli were led into the office by Mr. Ruiz and told unceremoniously to sit down, be quiet, and wait for Principal Hughes.
Mozzie casually turned the microphone toward them with one hand while tossing a rubber band ball with the other as a distraction. "So, what are you two in for?" he asked innocently.
"None of your business, orphan boy." Bobby, the younger brother, was always quick to respond with a verbal jab.
Mozzie ignored the insult. "No, seriously. Call it curiosity."
Frank rolled his eyes and crossed his arms over his chest. "They think we had something to do with the damn pigs."
Mozzie had to bite his tongue to keep from laughing. He kept tossing the ball up in the air as he used his other hand to flick the switch that only broadcasted the PA mic into Hughes' office and then pressed the on button. "Tell me, guys, what's the worst thing you've done this week?"
"We're not telling you anything, not-a-Momma's boy."
"C'mon, you're among non-friends," Mozzie goaded.
"You're friends with that scrawny kid, aren't you? The pansy with the fancy shirts?"
Neal often wore pressed button-downs instead of t-shirts, but that hardly classified as fancy to anyone but the Fratellis. Mozzie wanted to rip them limb from limb, but both boys outweighed him by thirty pounds and two-on-one wasn't a fair fight. "Neal. He's my best friend."
Frank smirked and leaned forward. "We caught him out by the river the other night, all alone. Without you and Burke there, he was an easy target. Practically pissed his pants and begged us to stop."
"That's not true! Neal would never do that!" Mozzie was climbing over the desk to get to them when Hughes stepped out of his office and gave the Fratellis the double finger-point.
Mozzie collapsed back into his chair and turned off the mic again. His work was done, but he felt like his whole body was vibrating with anger. Neither of those boys gave a shit whether Neal was hurt or not.
Word made it around school before the end of the day that the Fratellis had been expelled for disrespecting Principal Hughes and then arrested for assault and battery outside the school by the local police.
Peter and Mozzie exchanged triumphant smirks in the hallway later that day but maintained their usual level of distance from each other aside from that. After school, they visited Neal in the hospital but didn't mention the Fratelli brothers incident because they didn't want to upset or worry him just yet. Instead, they watched some sitcom re-runs and played five-card draw until Neal's pain medication got the best of him, and he nodded off in the middle of a winning hand.
The next afternoon, Peter and Mozzie were both excited to find Neal resting in his bed in their bedroom when they got home from school. He was listening to an audiobook on his laptop while petting the family's rotund gray tabby cat, Pickwick. Peter was, inexplicably, Pickwick's favorite human, but whenever Diana or Neal were sick or sad the cat also liked curling up with them.
"Hey," Peter greeted, tossing his books onto his own bed and sitting down by Neal's hip on the younger boy's bed. "How're you doing?"
"Better." Neal closed the lid of the laptop, silencing his book. "I have to stay in bed for the next week. You know what that means?"
"No school," Peter said at the same time that Mozzie and Neal said, "Reading time!"
The three burst into laughter until Neal grabbed his side and moaned. "No laughing, please. It hurts."
"So, the cops came by the hospital before I was released and asked me to identify my attackers. They had some photos, including the Fratelli brothers. They said they confessed over the school loudspeaker?" Neal raised an eyebrow at Mozzie and Peter but stopped short of actually calling them out on it.
"Yeah, about that…"
"It was all Peter's idea!" Mozzie jumped back from the bed and pointed at the oldest boy.
"Mozzie, pipe down!" Peter shook his head and rolled his eyes.
"What, exactly, was Peter's idea?" Neal asked.
"We got the Fratellis hauled into Hughes' office and then got them to confess over the loudspeaker but just to Hughes, not the whole school," Peter confirmed Neal's internal theory. "It really wasn't that difficult."
"You're kidding me, right?"
"Look, they hurt you, Neal. They could have killed you, and they're not going to stop beating up on younger or smaller kids, so they had to be taught a lesson." Peter wasn't going to apologize for it. He and Mozzie had done what needed to be done. "For the record, Mozzie contributed a lot to the plan. It was not all my idea."
"Pfft," Mozzie blew a raspberry and rocked back and forth on his feet. He too would not apologize for his actions.
"I really wish you guys hadn't done that." Neal frowned and fidgeted with the blanket over his legs. "When I go back to school, they're going to be even bigger terrors."
"Actually, they were expelled for the rest of the year. And they're being brought up on assault and battery charges."
Neal's eyes widened. "I didn't press charges!"
"I think June and Byron probably did, for you," Peter replied. "Look, this is going to help everyone in the long run, Neal. I know it seems bad now, but everything's going to be fine."
Mozzie cautiously sat down on the foot of the bed and put a hand over Neal's ankle. The younger boy cringed but didn't pull away. "You know how much I hate to agree with Peter, but he's right. They're getting the punishment they deserve, and the three of us have made sure that this won't happen to another kid at their hands."
Neal pressed his lips together and tried to accept that. He hated having other people fight his battles for him, but in this case, his friends – no, his brothers – had his back. And it wasn't so bad having brothers.
Abruptly, there was a knock on their bedroom door. When it swung open, Diana and Sara were on the other side.
"Hey, we heard that Neal was back and wanted to come say hi," Sara said as she moved to stand at the foot of the bed.
Neal waved and smiled at the girls. "Did you miss me?"
"Nah." Diana shook her head. "But these two have been ridiculously difficult to deal with. You're clearly the voice of reason in this room."
Neal chuckled and pressed a hand to his side again. "No laughing. Please."
Diana blushed, for maybe the first time ever. "Sorry. How are you feeling?"
Neal shrugged and winced, playing up his injuries in front of the girls. "Pretty sore. I'm stuck on bedrest for the next week."
"Oh, no." Sara looked stricken. "Should you even be out of the hospital?"
"Oh, God, yes. That place is awful."
The others laughed lightly, and Neal grinned around a yawn.
"We should let you get some rest," Diana said. "Let us know if you need anything."
"Will do. Thank you." Neal waved again as Diana and Sara headed out. He looked over at Mozzie and Peter. "They were nice to me. It was weird."
"They were worried," Peter replied, patting Neal's arm as he stood up and moved to his bed to start unpacking his backpack. "We all were."
"I know, and I'm sorry."
"It wasn't your fault," Mozzie said. "Stop feeling guilty, and just get better already. I have a science fair project due in a couple of weeks, and I need your best drawing talents to make it all come together."
Neal nodded and held up his casted left hand. "I'm right-handed, you know."
"I like your drawings better when you use your left," Mozzie replied with a shrug.
Peter laughed as he settled on his bed with his Calculus book and a notebook and a pencil. "You're so weird, Mozzie."
"I am not!"
"It's okay, Moz. I don't mind your weirdness."
"Gee, thanks." Mozzie acted like he was going to throw a pillow at Neal, but stopped when Neal jerked his hands up to protect himself and groaned in pain. "Whoa. Sorry. Are you okay?"
"Yeah, yeah." Neal hated that his body was reacting this way to his friends, but there wasn't anything he could do to stop it just yet. He had to ride it out until he felt safe again.
Mozzie eyed Neal suspiciously, but when Neal held his chin high and refused to look away, Mozzie nodded. He took a seat at his desk and pulled out his science book so that he could start working on plans for his project.
Neal continued to rub Pickwick's ears as he watched Peter and Mozzie study. Things would get back to normal soon he hoped, but until then, he knew that Peter and Mozzie, Sara and Diana, June and Byron would be there. It was an odd, but gratifying feeling to know that he had a family to watch out for him.
Thanks for reading!