The man's eyes were glowing yellow.
"Your usefulness has come to an end, little toy," he said in a voice that could never, ever in a million years be described as normal. The gun he held in his hand was a dull black metal, as cold and deadly as a snake. "Now kneel before your god!"
Neal looked at the woman who was standing beside him. She had long dark hair and skin that was as pale and luminescent as a Raphael painting. She had a classic, fragile beauty, and Neal felt a surge of protectiveness so strong it made his breath catch. "Kate?" he said.
Her eyes were as wide and blue as a summer sky. They were filled with tears.
"I'm sorry, Neal," she whispered. Gracefully she lowered herself to her knees on the rich carpet, eyes cast down.
"You will kneel for me, toy," the man said, his voice deep and vibrating like something alien. "But it matters not if it is before or after her death." He took aim.
"No!" Neal screamed and launched himself in front of Kate. The gun fired and the bullet slammed into his chest, ripping through his artificial skin and metal bones and lodging deep into his heart.
Seventeen-and-three-quarters-year old Neal Mitchell Burke woke with a start, his hand pressed tightly to his chest.
He could feel his lungs heaving under his hand, and the rapid thump, thump, thump of his heart under his palm. His real heart, under his real chest, pumping his real blood through a body that was muscle and blood and skin and bone.
"Not dead, not dead," he breathed into the quiet of the room. His dog Rabbit lifted his head from the end of Neal's bed and looked at him with a soft whine.
"I'm okay Rabs," Neal said, leaning over to scratch the dog's ears. Rabbit swiped his hand with his big tongue and lay his head back down.
Neal lay down too, his hand still on his chest. The yellow walls looked grey in the dimness of the room, hours before he'd actually have to get up and face the day.
"I'm not a robot," Neal whispered quietly into the air. His heart was still pounding, solid and steady and real underneath his hand.
"Neal!" Special Agent Peter Burke bellowed up the stairs to his son.
The only answer was the slam of the bathroom door and the muted sound of the water running. Peter checked his watch and shook his head. Only fifteen more days of high school left, and it looked like Neal was planning on being late for every single one of them.
"Neal!" Peter bellowed again, "you've got five minutes, or you won't have time for breakfast!"
"I'm not hungry," Neal called back from the upstairs. There was the sound of the bathroom door opening and closing, and then Neal's bedroom door slammed.
"Damn it!" Peter swore under his breath. "Neal!"
"Coming!" Neal called back, and after a moment he appeared at the top of the stairs. His shirt was untucked, his hair disheveled and deep rings of sleep deprivation bruised the skin under his eyes.
"You look like hell," Peter said as Neal made his way down to the main level, "didn't you sleep?"
"No," Neal said, his lips pressed together. He walked past Peter into the kitchen, his dog Rabbit trotting at his heels
"That's what you said yesterday," Peter said, following him into the other room.
"And I said that because I didn't sleep yesterday either," Neal said. "Or the night before, or the night before that. In case you're keeping track." He pulled a bowl out of the cupboard and set it on the counter, and then seemed to forget what he was doing.
"Here," Peter said, handing him the box of 'Super Sugar O's'. "You should have some fruit with that."
Neal picked up the box and then put it down like even considering eating it was a bad idea. "I'll grab an apple."
"That's not enough," Peter said. "You'll need more food than just an apple." He opened the fridge. "We got stuff for sandwiches…"
Neal made a face. "I hate that deviled ham crap. It stinks."
Peter frowned at him. "We have regular ham. And don't swear."
Neal rolled his eyes. "Crap is not swearing, Dad. And like I said, I'm not hungry." He rubbed at his forehead like it hurt.
Peter had a sudden flashback to fourteen years previously: Neal sitting at a desk in the White Collar Division, trying to turn a mathematical equation into a fractal, and rubbing his head as he was slowly dying.
"Are you getting sick?" Peter said, feeling his chest constrict from the memory. "You don't look so good. Are you sick?"
"I'm fine," Neal sighed, "I'm just not sleeping."
"Why not?" Peter frowned in concern. "You and Sara break up?"
"We're just friends," Neal narrowed his eyes. "Why do you keep thinking we're together?"
"Because you're together all the time," Peter replied. "What should I think?"
"That we're just friends?" Neal said sarcastically. "I'd tell you if I was dating."
"Oh that's reassuring." Peter frowned. "You've barely spoken to me all week!"
"Mom's been away," Neal said. He looked at the counter. "I haven't had much to talk about."
"Not sleeping might have been a topic," Peter snapped.
"My love life might not," Neal snapped back.
"Fine," Peter said. "Not dating Sara. I get it. So if it's not girl trouble keeping you awake, what is it? Boy trouble then?"
"How very open-minded of you," Neal said wryly. "But no. Not boy trouble either."
Peter put his hands on his hips. "Are you and Keller dating again?"
Neal’s lips thinned. "No. We're just friends."
"Good," Peter mumbled. Keller had never been his favourite of Neal's companions, and the few months when they'd been together had been particularly difficult to tolerate.
"Stop hating on Matthew," Neal said, as if reading Peter's thoughts. "He's my friend, okay?"
"Okay." Peter put up his hands. "Fine. No Matthew-hating."
Neal grunted in response and poked at an orange.
"So what is it?" Peter asked again. "School? Grades? Going to university? What?"
"Nothing." Neal said. "I'm fine." He picked up an apple out of the fruit bowl, seemingly giving it his full attention.
"Are you on drugs?" Peter said.
"Seriously?" Neal gaped at him. "Are you seriously asking me that?"
"Come on, Neal." Peter raised his voice. "You're late getting to school every morning, you say you can't sleep, you look like hell and you won't talk to me or your mother. If it's not drugs, then tell me what it is!"
"I do talk to mom," Neal muttered.
"So, you'd tell her if you were on drugs?" Peter asked tartly.
"Maybe." Neal shrugged. "But I'd definitely tell her before I told you."
"That's great," Peter said, fighting down a flare of anger. "Glad to know your mother's so easy to talk to. But as you just mentioned, she's in San Francisco until this evening. So it's just you and me. And I'm asking you, what the hell is going on?"
Neal put the apple down. "Maybe I don't want to answer your questions!" he shouted.
"Maybe you don't have a choice!" Peter shouted back. "I'm going to ask this just one more time. Are you on drugs?"
"You really think I'm on drugs?" Neal looked shocked.
"Give me another reason for this behaviour, Neal." Peter said, stepping into Neal's space. "Just one."
"I'm not taking drugs!" Neal yelled.
"Aren't you?" Peter yelled back, "Because you sure as hell are acting like you are!"
"I'm not lying!" Neal screamed.
"Prove it!" Peter shouted, and slammed his hand down on the counter hard enough that Rabbit jumped up and ran from the room.
"You think I'm lying?" Neal shouted. He went to the back door and started pulling on his sneakers with way more force than was necessary. "Maybe I'm not the one who's lying!"
"What are you talking about?" Peter said.
"Kate!" Neal yelled, "I'm talking about Kate! You and mom said that you've told me everything about my birth parents! Everything! Well, who's Kate, dad? Who is she?"
Peter felt like he'd been slapped. "How'd you know about Kate?"
"Because I keep dreaming about her, dad!" Neal shouted. "I dream about both of us. Dying!" Neal scooped up his backpack and ran out the door, slamming it hard behind him.
Peter stood in the kitchen, one hand over his mouth. "Oh my God," he breathed. "Neal."
Elizabeth Burke scooped her phone off the bedside table in her hotel room in San Francisco. She read the caller I.D. and her face broke into a smile. "You're calling early."
"Did I wake you?" Peter asked, his concern audible even over so much distance.
"Well, I wasn't really planning on getting up before six, but you're worth the loss of sleep." She grinned. "Miss me?"
"Yes," Peter said immediately. "But I'm calling about Neal,"
Elizabeth's smile dropped from her lips."What happened?"
She felt more than heard Peter sigh through her cell phone. "He's having dreams that are keeping him from sleeping. They're about Kate."
For a moment Elizabeth couldn't catch her breath. "He's dreaming about Kate?" she repeated stupidly.
"That's what he said this morning," Peter replied. "Well, shouted actually. It wasn't the best conversation.".
"I don't suppose it would have been," Elizabeth murmured. She got out of bed and walked to the window of her hotel room, pulling the curtain back. Her hotel was a high-rise located a short distance from the Bay, and the sunrise was coating the water in brilliant shades of yellow and orange. It should have been peaceful, but she felt anything but. "What happened?"
"He accused us of lying to him, and then demanded to know who Kate was," Peter said. "And then he ran out of the house."
"Did you tell him?" Elizabeth said, fisting the curtain in her hand.
"I didn't get the chance," Peter said. "He left before I could say anything."
"Maybe that's for the best," Elizabeth said. "Maybe it's better if he doesn't know we know."
"Oh he knows,"Peter sighed."There was no way he wouldn't have figured it out from my reaction."
"Oh," Elizabeth said. She bit her lip.
"Yeah," Peter breathed. "I don't know what to do, either."
"He has to know, Peter," Elizabeth decided. "If he has memories of her we have to tell him."
"Tell him what?" Peter's voice was tense with concern. "That he actually used to be a robot that died fourteen years ago and had its consciousness put into the cloned child’s body of an outlaw who was hanged in the 1890s? That's what you want to tell him?"
"Yes," Elizabeth said firmly. "It's the truth, isn't it?"
"It sounds ridiculous." Peter exclaimed. "You can't expect him to believe that."
"He's dreaming about Kate." Elizabeth said forcefully. "We have to say something."
"It's more than just dreaming about Kate," Peter said quietly. He's also dreaming about himself. Dying."
"Oh my God," Elizabeth clutched her hand to her chest.
"That's pretty much what I said," Peter replied. He took a breath. "I think his memories might be coming back. And this is just the tip of the iceberg."
"Oh my God," Elizabeth said again. "Peter, he's just a child!"
"I know," Peter said.
"Do you think I should come home early? I'm sure my client would understand."
"You'll be back this evening," Peter said, and Elizabeth could practically hear him shaking his head. "Finish what you're doing. I can handle it till then."
"You sure?" she asked, "I really don't mind…"
"We'll be fine," Peter said. "I've handled an upset Neal before."
"True," Elizabeth agreed. "But this is a little different, don't you think?"
"We'll be fine," Peter repeated. "I promise."
"Okay," Elizabeth sighed. "Alright. I'll see you tonight then. Call me if anything changes?"
"Of course," Peter said readily. There was a moment of dead air, and then, "Do you think I should try to contact Haversham?"
"Oh yes," Elizabeth said. "Please. As soon as you can."
Someone kicked his foot, and Neal's eyes flew open.
He was sitting with his back against his locker and his backpack resting beside him. He'd been planning on opening the locker and getting out the books he'd need for third period, but gym class had been strenuous, so he'd just sat down for a moment and closed his eyes…
"Hey sleepy-head," Sara Ellis said as she nudged his foot again, "you trying to fall asleep here?"
Neal grinned up at his best friend. "Not really."
"Bad night?" she asked, her brows creasing down in concern.
"Yeah," Neal sighed. He rubbed his forehead, trying to will away the headache that was a constant reminder of his constant lack of sleep. He grinned ruefully. "Bad dreams."
"Ew," Sara said. "Same ones?"
Neal sighed again, moving to give her room to sit beside him. Her hip pressed comfortably against his. "Yeah."
Sara turned towards him, causing her red-blond hair to shimmer in the sunshine of the skylight far above them. "That's rough."
"Tell me about it," Neal said. He closed his eyes again. "It's making sleeping really hard."
Sara picked up his hand and laced her fingers through his, squeezing gently. "Have you told your folks?"
Neal frowned, opening his eyes. "Kind of. I kind of screamed it at my Dad this morning." He squeezed her hand back, glad for her support.
"Oops," Sara grimaced sympathetically. "What did he say?"
Neal felt his heart speed up with the vestiges of the same anger and betrayal he felt that morning. "He didn't say anything. He asked how I knew about Kate."
Sara's green eyes grew wide. "Kate is real?"
"I guess," Neal said. He disentangled his hand from hers and scrubbed at his face before looking at her again. "It's so fucked up, Sara. I thought it was just a dream, but now…" He shook his head, trying to get his thoughts in order. "If Kate's real, does that mean the rest is real, too? Did I actually get shot or something?"
"I don't know," Sara mused. Then she laughed. "But it can't be real, because then you'd be a robot."
Neal picked at the cloth of his jeans. "How'd you know I'm not?"
He saw Sara blink out of the corner of his eye. "What?"
"How'd you know I'm not?" Neal repeated. "I look real, in my dream."
"Like, you're a PlayFriend, or something?" Sara made a face.
"Who's a PlayFriend?" Matthew Keller said, coming over to stand in front of them. He had his arm around Alexandra Hunter's shoulders, and she looked like she couldn't decide if she should remove it or not.
"No one," Sara said, glaring at Matthew. "And this is a private conversation?"
"Neither one of you is naked," Matthew said sitting down in front of Neal. "How private could it be?" He grinned wickedly.
Alex sat beside Matthew so that their legs were close but not touching. She flipped her long brown hair behind her neck and pulled Neal's backpack towards her. "Got any food?"
Neal shook his head. "I didn't have time to make lunch this morning."
"Get Sara to give you hers," Matthew said. "She thinks eating'll make her fat."
"Fuck off, Keller," Sara said. "I can't help it if I have a fast metabolism."
Matthew sneered. "No one's metabolism is that fast," he said. "You look like a skeleton."
"Shut the fuck up, Keller," Neal glared at him. "Sara doesn't need your shit."
"I was just joking, Burke," Matthew said. "Fucking chill, all right?"
"Next time you call me a skeleton I'm going to kick your ass," Sara said.
Matthew waggled his eyebrows at her. "Promise?"
"Can I look at this?" Alex said before Sara could respond to Matthew. She pulled Neal's sketchbook out of his bag and in the next second she'd opened it and was admiring the drawings. "Cool."
"Those are really rough," Neal said, feeling the heat of embarrassment colouring his face. "Could you maybe put it back?"
Alex ignored him. "Wow, this one's really creepy."
"Thanks," Neal muttered. He leaned forward to pull it out of her hands.
"Lay off, Burke," Matthew said, pushing his hands away. "Let the lady look."
"But they're only rough!" Neal protested, "I don't want her to see it."
"Is this the sketch for your thesis painting?" Alex asked, turning the book around to show Neal the picture.
"Yeah." Neal grimaced.
It was the sketch he'd made for his senior thesis project, based on the dreams he was having. It was a bizarre self-portrait of his face, superimposed over a metal head, like his features were a mask instead of his own. The metal head was connected to a robotic body of long, disjointed limbs, swinging in space. The robot Neal was standing on a lush carpet in a luxurious room, surrounded by heavy wooden furniture. Beside him on the carpet knelt a beautiful, dark haired woman, her eyes melting into tears down her face.
The robot's chest had been blown open, and streams of bright red were pouring from the empty hole.
"I love it and hate it at the same time," Alex said. "It reminds me of a Salvador Dali painting, but, like, more Max Ernst. You know?"
Sara leaned over Neal to take a look. "Let me see." She tilted her head to study the picture. "Wow."
"That's some crazy shit." Matthew exclaimed. "Were you high when you drew that?"
"No." Neal pulled the book out of Alex's hands, slapped it closed and shoved it deep into his backpack. "It's from a dream I had, okay?"
"You're totally messed if that's what you're dreaming about," Matthew said.
"It's really good," Alex said quietly. "You're an amazing artist, Neal."
"Thanks," Neal smiled. Alex smiled back, her brown eyes holding his.
"Get a room already," Sara said, frowning.
Alex rolled her eyes. "I am not interested in your boyfriend."
"He's not my boyfriend," Sara said.
"I'm not her boyfriend," Neal said at almost exactly the same time.
"Protest much?" Matthew laughed. He smacked Neal on the shoulder. "You know she wants it."
Neal pushed Matthew's arm. "Don't be such a dick."
"That dream really is fucked up." Alex gazed thoughtfully at Neal. "You always dream you're a robot?"
"Not until recently." Neal made a face. "But now it's pretty much all I dream about."
"Who's the girl?" Alex asked. "She in the dream too?"
"Yeah," Neal said on a breath. "Her name's Kate."
"She's pretty," Alex replied.
"She was," Neal said, "I think she's dead now."
Sara picked up his hand again. "That's sad."
"How'd you know?" Alex asked. "How'd you know she's dead?"
"My Dad recognized the name when I told him." Neal shrugged. "I'm guessing she has something to do with my adoption, and both my birth parents are dead."
"So she's your birth mother?" Matthew asked, "Weren't you adopted when you were, like, five? How would you remember?"
"I was four," Neal said. "And I don't know. I just do." He squeezed Sara's hand lightly and put it down.
Alex was still looking at him. "What's the robot got to do with anything?"
Neal licked his lips. "I don't know. I just dream I'm a robot," he repeated. "That's all."
Alex winced. "Like, all the time?"
"Yeah." Neal exhaled. "Like I said. All the time."
"You really are messed, Burke," Matthew said. He leered at Neal. "But you're definitely pretty enough to be a PlayFriend."
Neal kicked at him. "Shut up."
"Maybe the robot's a subconscious expression of your feelings about the fact that you've moved on from your mother's death," Sara said. "Like, maybe, deep down, you believe you have no emotions because you don't feel sad about your mother. Like a robot." She smiled.
Neal, Matthew and Alex all looked at her. "What're you, psychiatrist Barbie?" Matthew sneered. "What kind of bullshit was that?"
The smile fell off Sara's face. "It's just an idea."
"Well, it's a dumb one," Matthew said. "You have no idea where Neal's dreams come from, so don't pretend that you do."
"Wow," Sara said, drawing out the vowel. "Excuse me for getting in the way of your bromance."
Neal scowled at Matthew, not liking how hurt Sara sounded. "Leave Sara alone."
Matthew raised his hands in mock surrender. "So sorry. I didn't know you liked her type of bullshit."
"Look, let's all just stop talking about my dreams, okay?" Neal said. "It's almost time for class anyway."
"Fuck class. I'm skipping." Matthew stood up and eyed the group. "Any takers?"
"Sure." Alex shrugged and then climbed to her feet. "I wanna get something to eat, anyway."
"Cool," Matthew said. He turned to Neal and Sara, who were still sitting by the lockers. "Burke? Ellis?"
Neal shook his head. "It's Art History. I don't wanna skip."
"You don't need Art History," Matthew said. "The stuff you paint is way better'n the shit they make you read about. You should just quit school and paint full-time. You'd probably get rich."
"Only if I forged other people's stuff," Neal said, but he smiled at Matthew's compliment.
"So, forge it." Matthew grinned. "I could sell it for you; tell people it was the real thing. With my brains and your talent, we'd make a killing!"
"Until his dad caught you and put you in jail." Sara scowled at Matthew. "His Dad works for the FBI. Remember?"
"Yeah, being caught by Neal's Dad would really suck." Alex laughed.
"Whatever," Matthew sighed in false resignation. "Then I'll just have to be his business manager to make sure bleeding-heart Burke doesn't give his paintings away to all the widows and orphans walking into his gallery." He bent and smacked Neal on the shoulder.
"Ow," Neal muttered. He put his hand out. "Quit hitting me and help me up."
"Wuss," Matthew smirked as he helped Neal to his feet. Sara stood as well, brushing off the back of her jeans.
"You gonna skip, Sara?" Alex asked her. "We could track down the Waffles and Dingles truck." She pulled out her iPhone 17 and keyed on the holographic projection of New York City. "Waffles and Dingles truck," she commanded.
"Ooh, waffles," Sara said happily. She looked to Neal. "Could we go?"
Neal sighed, knowing he was beaten. "Okay," he said and couldn't help but grin at Sara and Alex's squeals of joy. "But I'm not skipping again this year. This is the last time. Get it?" He pointed his finger at Matthew for emphasis.
Matthew rolled his eyes. "Whatever."
"Hey," Alex said. "The truck's right by Sara's condo."
"Perfect." Matthew exclaimed, turning to Sara. "We'll grab some waffles and eat them at your place."
"Aren't your parent's home?" Neal asked her.
Sara's expression hardened. "My parents are never home."
"Waffle party at the Ellis place!" Alex laughed. "Oh! I'm gonna call my folks and tell them I'll be home late."
"My Mom doesn't give a shit where I am." Matthew shrugged. He looked at Sara. "Mind if we crash?"
She shrugged. "I don't care." She poked Neal. "You staying?" Her eyes were big and full of hope.
"Sure." Neal smiled at the way her face lightened. It made him feel good to make Sara happy. "Maybe I'll sleep better there."
"Oh you ain't sleeping, brother!" Matthew said, slapping Neal on the back. "There will be no sleeping tonight!"
"Whoo!" Alex cheered as they all went out the school doors and into the afternoon sunshine.
"Fuck," Neal muttered, looking at his phone.
"What's the matter, Burke?" Matthew said, peering over his shoulder, "you didn't get the pretty pink bicycle you wanted for your birthday?"
Neal glared at Matthew but then looked back at his phone. "It's my Dad," he said. "He knows I skipped."
"Huh?" Alex asked around her mouthful of waffle. "Aren't you too old for the school to tell him anymore?"
Neal was shaking his head before she'd finished talking. "I don't turn eighteen until next month."
"Too bad." Alex made a face. "He gonna kill you?"
"Probably," Neal sighed. He stabbed half-heartedly at the remainder of his waffle still in its take-out container.
They were sitting around the kitchen table in Sara's grand condo. Even though it was all on one floor, it easily had the same square footage of at least twice the entire Burke household. It had been tastefully and expensively decorated in the height of inoffensive styling, like a high-end hotel. Which probably suited Mr. and Mrs. Ellis just fine, since they barely lived there.
"I sent the housekeeper home for the night," Sara said, coming back into the kitchen from the marble front hall. She grinned. "Just the four of us."
"You'll have to do without me for a bit," Matthew said as he shoved the last bite of his waffle into his mouth. "I've gotta see a guy."
Alex tilted her head, a small scowl curving her lips. "You coming back?"
"Yup." Matthew winked.
"Too bad," Sara sighed.
"Fuck you." Matthew grinned at her. Sara swatted at him but he moved out of the way, laughing.
"Come back soon." Alex smiled at him as he headed for the door. She took another bite of waffle and looked at Sara. "I guess we really are crashing tonight. Neal's Dad is gonna kill him if he goes home."
Sara looked at him. "What?"
Neal showed her the phone. "The school called him."
"Oh right." Sara exclaimed, patting his cheek. "You're still a baby. Poor wittle guy."
Neal glared at her. "Shut up."
"Don't disrespect your elders," Sara said. She slapped him on the ass as she walked by, making Neal laugh. "Are you going to text back?" she asked.
"I guess," Neal sighed. "What should I say?"
Sara thought for a moment. "Tell him you're at my place. Tell him you skipped school because I had some sort of emotional break-down over –"
"Your love triangle with Keller!" Alex cackled.
"Ew," Sara said, "Keller's so not my type."
Neal shrugged, glancing up from his message to his Dad. "I think he's cute."
"Ew," Sara repeated. "His eyes are too small."
"They are not," Neal protested. "Besides, he's got a great smile."
"Uh huh." Alex nodded her agreement, "like, he's got a funny secret or something."
"Wow, total Keller love-fest here." Sara scowled. "Excuse me for not feeling it."
"Lighten up on Keller, okay?" Alex said. "I mean, Neal doesn't slam your ex-boyfriend."
Sara looked at Neal. "What?"
"Ex-boyfriend," Alex said slowly. "Didn't you hear me the first time?"
"I heard you," Sara said, still staring at Neal, a look of shock on her face.
"We had a – thing – in tenth grade," Neal said in response to Sara's intense expression. He felt his cheeks begin to flush. "It's over now."
"And you failed to mention this because?" Sara still looked like she couldn't believe what she was hearing.
"Because there was nothing to mention?" Neal said weakly.
"It was only a fling and they were practically little kids," Alex said, cutting into her waffle. "Don't stress about it."
"You knew about it too?" Sara turned to Alex.
"Yeah," Alex said with a 'well duh' expression. "I've known the boys since elementary school."
"You'd just come to Brooklyn School of the Arts in eleventh grade," Neal said apologetically, "and I would've told you if I thought it was important."
"How can you dating Keller not be important?" Sara said. Her expression changed from shock to something close to anger. She crossed her arms. "I can't believe you lied to me."
"I didn't lie to you!" Neal stated, feeling shocked himself with the vehemence of her tone. "It's not like you asked!"
"Jesus, Ellis!" Alex chimed in, "let it go already!"
"You brought it up," Sara snapped at Alex.
"You seem to have a problem with it," Alex shot back.
"I swear that there is nothing going on with me and Keller anymore," Neal said, putting his hands on her upper arms. "Like Alex said, it was just a fling."
"Okay," Sara said, sounding a bit mollified. "But no more secrets from me, okay?"
"I promise," Neal smiled. He took her hand.
"So, why'd you break up?" Sara asked, playing with Neal's fingers. "I mean, if you think he's so cute and everything."
Neal shrugged, "I decided that I kinda liked girls a little better." He grinned at her.
Sara grinned back and entwined their hand. "And do you still like girls? Better, I mean?" Neal blinked at how seductive her voice sounded. Surprised, he dropped her hand.
"Some girls," Neal said. He had no idea why Sara was asking this. She already knew about his crushes on girls at school. She was his best friend after all, and he told her everything.
"Yeah," Sara said, her voice now gone cold. "You like some girls." She turned away from him.
"Sara?" Neal asked, completely dumbfounded by her reaction.
"Uh, still sitting here," Alex said, rolling her eyes. "Can you have your breakup drama somewhere else?"
"We're not together." Sara said. She crossed to the other side of the room, where elegant French doors opened up to a roof-top garden.
Alex took another forkful of waffle. "Don't feel bad, Sara," she said, "At least you and Neal are friends."
"We're best friends," Neal said to Alex, hoping that Sara would understand how much she meant to him and get over this strange jealousy over Matthew. Sara just looked at him and then turned back to look out at the garden.
Sara's parents had bought the penthouse condo on purpose in order to have access to the garden and it was one of Neal's favourite places in the whole city. It was an oasis of greenery far above the city streets, high enough that the sound of traffic was indistinct, like a storm off in the distance. It had always felt like a safe place to Neal, somewhere where he and Sara could retreat to get away from pressure, and parents and everything.
Neal picked up Alex's empty waffle container. "Where did Keller go, anyway?" he said, desperate to change the topic.
"To see a guy," Alex quoted to Neal. "I'm sure he'll be back before your nap time."
"Oh ha ha," Neal scowled.
Alex pushed back from the table. "Man, I really love those waffles."
"Me too," Sara said, crossing back from the French doors. She looked at Neal's box, her hand out to take it, lips thinned. "Are you finished?"
Neal eyed his half-eaten waffle. Ever since the dreams had started he'd found that he'd lost his appetite. Robots don't need food or water, he thought to himself.
Sara was still looking at him, the hard lines of her expression softening with concern. "You okay?"
"Yeah," Neal said quickly, "I was just thinking about something." He picked up his container and closed it around the offending waffle, quickly dumping it into the indoor composter they had under the sink.
"Hey," Alex said with a pout. "I would've eaten that."
"I got something else for you to eat," Matthew said, coming into the kitchen. He grinned wickedly at Alex. "Wanna see?"
She frowned at him. "God Keller, you're so gross."
Matthew laughed. "Seriously," he said, pulling a clear plastic zip-lock bag out of his backpack. "Treats for everybody!"
"Oooh," Alex breathed as she took the package out of Matthew's hand and opened it, then pulled out a small, round and powdery pill. It was an unnatural pink colour, with an image of a cat embossed on the top. "I've never tried these before."
"What're they? Drugs?" Sara asked.
"Wow, you're quick," Matthew sneered. "Let's give the girl a hand!"
Sara slapped his shoulder. "Shut up."
"What kind of drugs?" Neal said, feeling his heart speed up. He'd never tried drugs before--well nothing harder than some marijuana he'd smoked with Matthew at the end of last summer. His Mom and Dad would kill him if he ever took drugs. He remembered the fight he'd had with his Dad that morning, and how he'd sworn he wasn't on anything. He took a step back. "I don't think we should."
"Why not?" Matthew said. "It's Friday and the end of the school year and we've got Sara's place all to ourselves. We should celebrate!"
"What kind?" Alex said. "They look like Foxy."
"They're Sugar Quartz," Matthew said. "They're like Foxy, only better."
"Better than Foxy?" Alex said, eying the pink tablet. "Cool."
"Wait," Neal said, looking between Matthew and Alex. "What's Foxy?"
"It's a drug," Matthew looked at him as if he were stupid. "What'd you think?"
"I know it's a drug," Neal rolled his eyes. "What does it do?"
"It gives you, like, the best high ever," Alex said dreamily. "All these pretty pictures…"
Neal turned to Matthew. "It's a hallucinogen?"
"Yeah, Mr. Technical," Matthew said. "And so's Sugar Quartz. Do you wanna know the chemical properties, too?"
"No," Neal said quickly. "I just like to know what I'm taking, okay?"
"It won't hurt you," Alex said, leaning into him. "And right after? You'll want to paint for days."
"Totally." Matthew beamed. "I got the best grades on my art projects ever after taking this shit." He took the bag from Alex. "So, who's first?"
Alex held out her hand, but Sara stepped in. "Me," she said, looking at Neal. "I wanna try."
"Sara," Neal said, a note of warning in his voice.
She scowled at him. "Don't be such a loser. If Keller says they're fine, they're fine."
"And they are fine!" Matthew said with a laugh. He slapped Neal on the back. "Trust me, you'll love it." He placed a tablet into Sara's palm. "One for you…" and then another into Alex's. "And one for you!"
"I wanna take mine in the garden," Alex said. "Flowers look amazing when I'm high on Foxy."
Neal took a deep breath and held out his hand.
"Attaboy!" Matthew crowed and put a pink pill onto it.
"Thanks," Neal said, staring down at the tablet. The cat print on the front looked like it was staring at him, its eyes tilted down in disapproval. He licked his lips. "Maybe just half."
Matthew rolled his eyes as Neal snapped the tablet into two pieces. "Jesus, Burke, you are such an asswipe."
"More for me!" Sara cried and snatched the second half of the pill off of Neal's hand. Before he could say anything she'd popped the pill-and-a-half into her mouth. "Eww." She grimaced, "chalky."
Matthew burst out laughing. "God Sara, you are so sexy when you do shit like that!"
She looked at him and smiled flirtatiously. "Eat your heart out."
"I'd rather eat out something else," Matthew said with a leer.
"Enough with the grossness!" Alex shoved at both Neal and Matthew's back. "Let's go outside already!"
"Okay, okay," Neal said, putting up his hand. The half pill nearly slipped out of his fingers and he quickly put it into his mouth before he dropped it. It tasted like fruit-flavoured glue, and he gagged a bit as he swallowed. The drug sat like a stone in his stomach, heavy and uncomfortable. He looked at Matthew, who was chewing on his pill. "Now what?"
"Now we have fun!" Alex cried, arms up in the air.
"Yeah," Neal said, trying to smile. "Of course."
"She loves you."
Neal was lying on his back, staring at the clouds in the sky and watching them turn into animals. A dragon, he thought, and smiled to himself. Then Alex's words finally permeated the gentle fog that had invaded his brain. He turned to look at her. The grass of the roof-garden's lawn tickled his cheek. "What?"
"Sara's in love with you," Alex said. Her voice was dreamy and she was sitting cross-legged beside one of the flower beds, gazing intently into the heart of a pansy. "In love," she repeated in a sing-song voice.
"She's my best friend," Neal said, turning back to watch the clouds. One looked a bit like his dog Rabbit, and as he watched the Rabbit-cloud bounded over another cloud and raced off into the distance.
"I think that I've invented a new shade of purple," Alex said, gently touching a flower petal with one finger. "The flower's given it to me." Her eyes widened. "Oh!" she breathed, "the purple is winding around my finger!"
Neal watched as a small tendril of a brilliant purple colour traced its way up Alex's finger and over the back of her hand, leaving Mehindi-like patterns in its wake. "Beautiful," he said admiringly.
"I feel this purple in my heart," Alex said, bending closer to the pansy. "Thank you little flower," she whispered to it. "I will keep this purple forever."
Alex began glowing with a soft purple light that turned her brown hair to a stunning shade of aubergine. Her eyes were a deep lavender.
"I don't love Sara," Neal said, feeling the words like cold, hard metal in his stomach. "Not like your purple." Neal did love Sara, but like a friend, a sister. "I didn't know she was in love with me."
"She knows you don't love her," Alex said, watching her hand fluttering in front of her eyes. "So why would she tell you how she felt?"
Alex's words seemed to hit somewhere deep inside him, banging against the cold metal in his stomach like a hammer on steel. He felt the coldness spreading through him, turning all his organs to metal inside. I'm a robot, he realized with sudden clarity. He sat up, feeling everything spin and tilt around him, until it finally came to rest in what he now knew was the correct version of the world.
I'm a robot, he told himself again, and looked down.
There was a gaping hole where his chest should have been, with razor-sharp shards of metal jutting out from it, like it had exploded from the inside. The shards were covered with a thick, slippery fluid, as red as paint. He had no heart.
"I have no heart," Neal said aloud, feeling the words ricochet in his head like bullets. He lurched to his feet, terrified, his hands clutched over the gaping hole. "I have no heart!"
"What?" Alex said, looking up at him. She was still glowing purple, but now it pulsated aggressively, as if the colour itself was rejecting him.
"I have to find Sara," Neal said, feeling his breath quicken. He was so scared. But how could he be scared without a heart? "I have to find Sara," he repeated. Sara was his best friend. She would make it all right.
Alex called after him, but he was already running.
"Sara!" he hollered, his non-existent heart pounding in the ruined remains of his chest, making him feel dizzy and sick with fear.
He could hear the clanking of his robotic joints as he ran; the metal of his feet made sparks where they struck the pavement of the garden path. And every time he looked down there were drops of red blood falling away from the gaping wound in his chest, landing in fat drops on the ground.
His head hurt, like the dragon from the clouds had entered his head and was clawing his skull apart from the inside. He clutched the sides of his head and squeezed his eyes shut, collapsing slowly to his knees. The pain was shocking and horrible and confusing all at once.
He was lying on a smooth white table in the basement of the FBI building, the pain throbbing through him like something alive. Everything around him was grey and faded and indistinct like he was deep underwater. Someone was calling his name, and telling him to hang on, but he knew he was dying…
"No!" Neal cried and lurched to his feet. He staggered away from the path, from the memory, until his hand contacted the stone of the high wall that surrounded the garden. The stone felt cool and rough under his palms, and he gripped it, feeling his nails break as they dug in.
He was gripping a crowbar tightly in his hand, prying open wooden crates in the belly of a submarine. He was looking for something--something that a Goa'uld would want, something so precious that it would be worth Kate's death. And then, there it was: A Zero-Point Module, glowing like a blazing orange sunset. But then his head hurt so badly that he couldn't stand anymore. "Neal!" someone yelled, and Neal looked up…
Kate was standing there looking at him. He eyes were huge, her pupils blown wide and her expression full of fear. "Neal?" she breathed, taking a stumbling step towards him. "Why do you look so strange?"
Neal stood. "Kate?" he whispered, hand extended to touch her face. Her skin was pale and luminescent as a Raphael painting.
Kate moved towards him, long brown hair floating in the breeze, swirling around her head like something alive. "Neal?" she said again. "Your eyes--it's like the sky fell out of them."
Neal touched his face, feeling the cold metal of his skin under his fingers. Soft hands touched his, gently pulling his hands down. Kate was there; close enough for him to see every fleck of gold in her large green eyes.
He blinked. "Sara?"
"What happened to the sky?" Sara said, tracing a finger lightly along his eyebrow and then over his cheekbone. "How did it break in your eyes?"
"I'm a robot," Neal choked out. "There's a hole—my chest—"
Sara's eyes grew wide and she put both her hands on his chest. "Are you metal?"
He nodded, closing his eyes against the truth of it before he spoke. "I think I always have been."
"Like the Tin Man," Sara murmured. "If I only had a heart." She traced a heart-shape on his chest while she sang. "I'd be tender, I'd be gentle, I'd be awfully sentimental…" She looked back up at his face. "Picture me a balcony?"
"What?" Neal said.
Sara looked around. "Are you searching for the Wizard?"
"The Wizard?" Neal repeated.
"The Wizard," Sara said again. She stepped away from him, clearly looking for something in the garden. "He needs to give you a heart."
"No one can give me a heart," Neal whispered, clutching at the hole in his chest.
"He made one." Sara exclaimed happily. "He made one for you."
He was in PeterandElizabethBurke's house, finishing the delicate work of making the fractal antenna. It was the final piece of the puzzle to find out what VincentAdler had been searching for. He felt happy to have completed the task, to know that he was useful to SpecialAgentPeterBurke and the FederalBureauofInvestigation. But he also knew that DoctorKateMoreau's ViperVirus was destroying his Cerebral Processor, and soon the destruction would be permanent. And the waves of pain…
Neal gave an inarticulate cry and clutched at his head. The dragon from the clouds was inside his head, trying to tear itself out, wrapping itself around his brain stem and spinal cord, turning him into a Goa'uld—
"Neal!" Sara called, and Neal looked up. He gasped.
"Picture me, a balcony," she sang, smiling beatifically at him. She twirled, her feet skirting the edge of the top of the wall. The wind blowing her hair made it glint copper in the late afternoon sunlight.
And there was absolutely nothing between her and falling to her death except the narrow ledge.
"Sara," Neal said quietly, terrified that something, anything would spook her and send her tumbling five stories down to the concrete below. "You have to get down."
She shook her head. "No, no, no, no. That's not how the song goes."
"Come down!" Neal insisted. He stood on a decorative rock that someone had placed by the wall, the same one Sara had used to get up there. He put both his hands on the ledge and looked up at her. "Come down, please!"
Sara looked down at him. "You don't know the words," she said mournfully. "You'll never find the Wizard if you don't know the words."
"You can teach me," Neal said, and levered himself up to be able to stand beside her. The ledge was just wide enough for the length of his feet, and he wobbled a bit before gaining his footing. He glanced over his shoulder at the straight drop to the condo's outdoor parking lot.
The deck of the submarine was approximately five stories high, and rising over the edge on the cherry picker was VincentAdler…
"No!" Neal breathed and grabbed Kate by her upper arms. "Adler's coming!" he cried. "You have to get down!"
"Neal!" Kate screamed as she swayed from the force of his grip.
He grabbed her and hugged her tight, holding her until they both felt steady. His heel was settled right on the edge of the wall.
"I won't let you fall," he said, stroking her back. "I promise you won't get hurt. I promise".
"I won't let you hurt her," Neal said to VincentAdler.
"How noble, toy," VincentAdler replied. "And you will be pleased that I don't plan on hurting the lovely Doctor Moreau." He pointed his Glock 21 handgun at DoctorKateMoreau. "I plan on killing her."
And as he tightened his finger on the trigger, Neal threw himself in front of her, hearing the gun go off like a bomb detonating. The bullet slammed into his chest with the force of a sledge hammer and he fell…
"No," Neal whispered, clutching Kate to him. He could feel her body, warm and alive beneath his hands. There were tears forming in his eyes and spilling over, like bits of the sky falling. He had been shot. His heart was blown into a thousand pieces. Red fluid dripped down, coloured like blood.
"Neal?" Sara said against his chest.
"I died," Neal forced past the tightness in his throat.
"Were you swept away by the tornado?" Sara asked."Did a house land on you?"
"How could I die?" he asked her. The image of Adler firing his gun kept going around and around in his mind.
"The house is going to land on us," Sara whimpered. "We have to get out of the wind."
He could feel Sara trembling under his hands and a wave of tenderness overtook him. "I promise I'll keep you safe," he whispered against the top of her head.
"Please," Sara cried against his chest. "I can't find the way down." She was shaking.
"I'm going to get you down from this ledge," Neal said. "Will you let me do that?"
He felt her nod against him. "Good," he said. "Now, I'm going to take your arms and help to lower you down to the garden." He waited for her to nod again. "You ready?"
She nodded a third time, and carefully he shifted his grip so that his hands were on her elbows. It made him have to alter his footing, and for a terrifying second he nearly lost his balance. "Now step off the ledge. I've got you."
She did. It took nearly all of his strength, but he managed to help get her footing safely back on to the decorative rock by the wall, changing his grip so that he was now holding her wrists instead of her elbows. She was balancing like that when Matthew and Alex arrived.
Matthew had his arm around Alex's shoulders, a braid of pansies in his hair. She had made herself a necklace of the purple flower and had tucked one behind her ear in a delicate contrast to her thick brown hair. She wasn't glowing purple anymore.
"Are you trying to fly?" Alex said, tilting her head to look at Neal and Sara.
"Flying monkeys!" Sara shrieked, and pulled her wrists out of Neal's grasp. She tumbled off the rock onto the grass below.
The force of her pull caused Neal's arms to jerk upwards and he lost his balance. For what felt like minutes he fought against the pull of gravity, windmilling his arms to try to get his weight forward towards the garden instead of away and down. When his feet finally found solid purchase he gasped, nearly faint with relief.
"What the fuck did you do to Sara?" Matthew bellowed. His lifted his arm from Alex's shoulder and ran at Neal.
Matthew's eyes flashed a bright yellow as he moved, showing the Goa'uld symbiote living deep within his brain. "Adler!" Neal gasped in terror as his murderer headed right for him, hand outstretched with the Kara Kesh glowing a violent orange.
And instinctively, Neal stepped back.
Peter logged off his computer and lifted up his suit jacket from the back of his chair. It was nearly a quarter past five and he'd promised himself that he would have left for the airport half-an-hour ago. He hoped that El took a bit of time in baggage claim, because otherwise he was going to be late to pick her up--again.
He shrugged into his jacket and began piling his files into his briefcase. Diana's team was working on a particularly difficult mortgage fraud case, and he wanted to review some of their data over the weekend.
He finished with the files and then picked up his cell phone to put it into his jacket pocket, but instead he stopped and pulled up the last message from Neal, eyeing it thoughtfully.
Saras :( Neal had written. gng crsh hr plc 2nte hm 2mro.
"Sara's sad," Peter mumbled under his breath as he translated the text. "I'm going to crash at her place tonight. Home tomorrow." He sighed and put the phone into his pocket, leaving the text unanswered. He was half inclined to go to the Ellis place on his way home from the airport with El and drag Neal home with them, no matter how 'sad' Sara was feeling. But the other half of him knew that El probably wouldn't like that idea, and would want to talk to Neal first.
Give him time, he could practically hear her saying. We can sort it out tomorrow.
"You can sort it out tomorrow, you mean," he muttered as he picked up his briefcase. He knew how difficult it was for him to talk to Neal without blowing up.
And somehow that reminded him: Between his phone call with Elizabeth that morning and leaving to get her at the airport, he'd forgotten to send Dr. Haversham an email asking for his help. Peter sighed and eyed his computer thoughtfully, pondering whether El would be more annoyed if he was very late to pick her up, or that he hadn't sent the email about Neal's memory returning.
"Damn." he swore under his breath as he turned back to his laptop and opened it, waiting impatiently while it booted back up and he was able to enter his passcode and scan his fingerprint.
He opened his email and wrote a quick note to Haversham, asking for his advice with the return of Neal's memories, and hit send. The whole thing had taken less than ten minutes. If he hurried, and if the baggage claim was slow, Elizabeth might not be waiting that long.
He stood, briefcase in hand.
The desk phone rang.
Peter glanced at it quickly and frowned as the call display flashed unknown number at him. He checked his watch and grimaced. If he picked up the phone he truly would be late, and he hated to keep Elizabeth waiting.
He turned towards the door, ready to let it go to voice mail, and then let out a groan as he scooped the headset out of its cradle instead.
"Burke," he said into the mouthpiece.
"Mr. Burke?" the young woman said on the other end of the phone. He could tell from her voice that she'd been crying.
"Sara?" Peter said, feeling his pulse speed up. "What's wrong?"
"It's Neal," she said, tears coating her words, "he fell—"
"What do you mean, 'he fell'?" Peter repeated harshly. "Where is he?"
"We're at Brooklyn Central," Sara said. "But he's –"
"Let me speak to Neal," Peter interrupted. "Just put him on the phone."
"I can't!" Sara wailed. "I can't put him on the phone!"
Peter went still. "Sara," he said, trying to keep his voice even. "Where's Neal?"
"He's hurt!" And now she was sobbing. "He fell off the garden wall and they've taken him to surgery. That's what I've been trying to tell you!"
"I'll be right there," Peter said. He hung up the phone. His hand was trembling.
"Boss?" Diana said as she came through the door, "don't you need to go pick up Eliz—" She took one look at his face and stopped. "What happened?"
"Neal's in the hospital," Peter said. "He fell." The words sounded strangely hollow as he spoke.
"I'll drive," Diana said immediately.
Peter nodded and started to walk towards the door. He stopped. "Elizabeth," he said. "She's at the airport. She doesn't know—"
"Clinton will get her and bring her to the hospital," Diana said decisively. "Just tell him which one."
"He's in surgery," Peter said. The strange, hollow feeling wouldn't leave. "He fell."
Diana guided him down the steps from his office to the main floor of the White Collar division. "Which hospital?"
"Brooklyn Central," Peter replied.
"Nice and close," Diana said. She said something to Clinton and a few of the other agents as she maneuvered Peter towards the elevators, but Peter couldn't hear it through the buzzing in his ears. Sara sobbing, he fell, he fell kept echoing over and over.
Neal was sinking.
He couldn't feel his arms or legs. His eyes were closed and impossible to open. The sounds around him were indistinct and muffled, as if they were far away above the surface of the water.
And he was deep underneath.
Underwater Neal thought, the word pulled slowly up from the recesses of his mind. He was sinking deep into the cold, black depths. Falling slowly through an ocean that was vast, bottomless, never ending.
He thought he heard someone telling him to 'hang on,' and the sound of his name. But I'm underwater, Neal thought, there's nothing for me to hang on to.
And then the water got colder and deeper, until even the muffled sounds faded away and everything was silent.
Peter sat in the waiting area, elbows on his knees, his hands pressed together with the edges against his face.
Diana had gotten him here with a minimum of fuss within minutes of their arrival at the hospital.
He could barely remember any of it.
At some point a nurse had spoken to him and Diana, and he'd stood and stared uncomprehendingly at her mouth as it moved. Her name was 'Bridget,' and her smile had been kind, but she had no news about Neal beyond the fact that he was in surgery, and Peter had kind of wanted to kill her.
Part of him knew this behaviour wasn't like him. He was usually so decisive, so sure when there was an emergency. He'd handled himself on numerous shoot-outs with criminals, hell, he'd even killed an alien in the same year that Neal was born.
His brain came to a shuddering halt. Neal.
His son was fighting for his life in surgery right now. His son, and it was all Peter could think about.
Please, he prayed, hands steepled against his face. Please.
Peter raised his head slowly. "Sara."
She was standing in front of him, her coppery hair a tangled mess around her face, her eyes red and swollen from crying. She looked paler than Peter remembered. Thinner too, as if Neal's accident had diminished her somehow.
Matthew Keller was standing beside her, his hands jammed into his pockets, his dark hair disheveled like he'd been running his fingers through it over and over. His eyes were red-rimmed and downcast. "Mr. Burke," he muttered.
Before he knew he was going to move, Peter had Keller pressed up against the wall with his forearm against his throat. "You did this!" he yelled at the squirming boy. "You!"
"No!" Sara shrieked. She tugged ineffectively at his arm. "It wasn't his fault! It wasn't!"
"Is that right?" Peter ground out, grinning in harsh satisfaction at the wild look in Keller's eyes. "Because I'm having a little trouble believing it."
"It's true!" Sara cried, and Peter could hear that she'd started crying again. "He never meant to hurt Neal! None of us did!"
"Peter," Elizabeth said as she strode into the room, Diana right behind her. "This isn't helping. Let Matthew go."
"He's responsible," Peter said, pressing harder against Keller's throat. "He's the reason Neal's here."
He felt Elizabeth's hand on his arm, her grip tight. "This isn't helping," she repeated. "Let him go."
Peter moved his arm and Keller slipped to the floor, coughing and rubbing at his throat. "You got a good grip there, Mr. Burke," he wheezed and tried to smile.
"Shut up," Peter snarled.
Diana stepped in front of Keller, effectively blocking him from Peter's view. "I brought you coffee," she said, holding it out to him. "Why don't you sit down and drink it?"
"Thanks," Peter said, but didn't take the cup.
"Come," Elizabeth said, taking his hand, "let's sit." Gently she led him over to one of the uncomfortable vinyl chairs and waited while he sat.
Elizabeth sat beside him, taking his hand in hers. He could feel his hand shaking, vibrating where she held it.
"Coffee," Diana repeated, and put it down beside him on the battered side table. She stood and looked at him, her expression one of taught concern. "Can I get you anything else?"
"Some water would be great," Elizabeth said, sounding completely calm. She looked towards Sara and Keller, where Sara was helping Keller get to his feet. "Do you guys want anything?" They both shook their heads and remained standing by the wall, scared and silent.
Peter swallowed, his throat suddenly rough. "Where's Clinton?" he asked Diana.
"I met him in the lobby when he brought Elizabeth," Diana replied. "I sent him back to the office."
"Ah," Peter said. He put his elbows on his knees, letting his head hang down.
"I'm going to get some water," Diana said. Peter nodded, not looking up as she left.
Elizabeth rubbed his back. "Sara," she said quietly, and Peter saw the young woman creep over.
"Yes Mrs. Burke?" Sara said, her voice high and frightened.
"Honey," Elizabeth said, taking the girl's hand. "Can you tell me what happened?"
Sara bit her lip and looked over at Keller, who had come to stand beside her.
"It's okay," Keller said. "They should know."
"Know what?" Peter said, raising his head to look at them. His hands clenched into fists. "What did you do?"
Keller put up his hands. "There was no fighting or trouble, Mr. Burke, I swear!" he said. "I'd never hurt Neal for the world. You know that!"
"What did happen?" Elizabeth said. Her voice was still totally calm and even, as if she was addressing one of her clients. She put her other hand over the one already holding Sara's. "Please tell us."
Keller huffed out a breath. "We took some drugs, and Neal had a bad trip and fell." Keller's voice cracked on the words. "I'm really sorry."
"What?" Peter roared, surging to his feet. He fisted his hands in Keller's collar, yanking him off balance.
"I gave Neal drugs!" Keller said. "But it was just for fun. It was meant to be fun! I never wanted him to get hurt!"
Peter shook Keller, rage colouring his vision until everything was washed in red. "You gave him drugs?"
"It wasn't the drugs!" Sara sobbed. She'd wrapped her skinny arms around herself. Tears ran down her face and soaked into the collar of her shirt. "It was because of me! He was on the ledge because of me! I was scared and couldn't get down, and he came up to get me. It was my fault!"
"Is this true?" Peter shouted into Keller's face. Keller nodded vehemently, and Peter shoved him away hard enough that the boy stumbled.
"I was the one with the bad trip," Sara continued, her words hitching and breaking with her sobs. "I got up on the ledge of our garden and then I got scared, and Neal came to get me and he got me down just when Keller and Alex came, and…and then he fell."
"He saved her life," Keller said softly. He ran his hand through his hair, leaving the ends sticking up in disarray. "It wasn't the drugs, Mr. Burke. I swear."
"The roof-garden?" Peter breathed. He'd never seen it, but he'd heard Neal describe it. It's beauty and serenity, and how majestic the view was.
"Yes." Sara nodded. Her eyes dropped. "It's pretty high."
Peter turned his back to the two children, his hand over his mouth. Neal took drugs. Neal fell off the roof-garden. Neal saved Sara's life. His shoulders were shaking with the tumultuous mix of emotions inside him.
"Where's Alex?" He heard Elizabeth ask. "Isn't she usually with you?"
"Her parents made her go home after she finished her report to the police," Sara sniffled. "But we wanted to stay here."
And neither one of you have parents to go home to, Peter thought uncharitably. Unlike Neal. He covered his eyes with one of his hands, the other arm wrapped tightly around his ribs. He'd be damned if he cried in front of Keller.
"Can we?" Sara asked, her voice wavering and uncertain. "Stay here with you, I mean?"
"Of course," Elizabeth said from behind Peter. He felt her hand resting comfortably on his back. "Neal's your friend."
Peter knew that Elizabeth had said that for his benefit, to remind him that Sara and Keller were Neal's friends. That, like Neal, they were just children. To remind him to be kind.
"You can stay," Peter said, hearing the rasp of unshed tears.
"The doctor's here," Elizabeth said quietly, and they all turned towards the door.
Elizabeth was breaking apart inside.
She couldn't remember the last time she'd had to hold it together like this, had to be strong and brave when all she wanted to do was curl up into a ball and sob like her heart would break.
It wasn't early in their marriage, when she had miscarried so many times. Her sister had helped her through that, supporting her when Peter had been so lost and bewildered with her pain.
Maybe it was when her mother had died? But no, she remembered crying in Peter's arms, relying on his quiet strength.
Even when their first Neal had died, his robotic body shutting down after a viral assault, she and Peter had shared their grief and they had been strong for each other.
But she had never, ever seen Peter like this before. Like something had blown apart inside him. Her stalwart champion was gone, and the Peter that was left was fragile and unfamiliar, shaken to his very core. She had seen it as soon as she'd come into the room and realized he was trying to assuage his fear by attacking Matthew. And she'd sucked up her tears and become the strong one on the outside.
But inside, she knew she was crumbling.
"…looks like we may be forced to perform an amputation of the arm." The doctor finished saying. He looked at her expectantly.
Elizabeth was sitting beside Peter on the awful hospital chairs. She was clutching his hand for dear life, and dimly she wondered if she was hurting him.
The doctor was sitting in front of her, a cute blond boy with large blue eyes behind stylish black-framed glasses. He looked almost as young as Neal was, like a teenager trying to pass as twenty-one to get into a bar. He certainly didn't look old enough to have performed surgery on their son.
The doctor licked his lips in a self-conscious gesture, and Elizabeth realized she'd been staring. "I'm sorry," she said. "I really don't know what you just said." She looked briefly at Peter, but his head was down, his eyes fixed firmly on the floor, and she realized she was alone with this.
"We may be forced to amputate his arm," the doctor repeated slowly. "The elbow was shattered in the fall--" He raised his hands and started to make some kind of complicated gesture to illustrate his point.
Elizabeth cut him off. "His arm? Which arm?"
"His right one," Sara said, fresh tears tracking down her face. The young woman was sitting beside Matthew a few seats over, and she was gripping his hand. Both of their faces were very pale.
Elizabeth blanched. "His right arm? But, he's right-handed. He's an artist, he needs his right hand."
The doctor blinked. "Did you hear what I said before, Mrs. Burke?" he said, and his tone was gentle enough that Elizabeth felt herself grow wary.
"Why?" she demanded, sitting up straighter. "What else did you say?"
"His arm is actually the least of our worries," the doctor said. "We took him to surgery for his brain, not his arm."
Elizabeth's hand went to her stomach, feeling suddenly nauseous. "His brain?" she repeated stupidly. She hadn't realized she hadn't been listening at all.
"Yes," the doctor said, his voice infinitely kind. "Neal fell five stories and hit a parked car when he landed. Most of the damage was to his right side. He lacerated his liver and badly damaged one of his kidneys. He has a pneumothorax in his right lung, and his pelvis and right hip are broken. He's fractured three ribs, and like I said, his right elbow has been shattered. He also has a traumatic brain injury, Mrs. Burke." He paused to run his hands through his hair. "The surgery we performed was just to stabilize him. We repaired the liver laceration, removed his damaged kidney, and inserted a chest tube to help with his collapsed lung." He paused again and licked his lips. "We also had to remove part of his skull," he said. "Do you remember me saying any of that?"
"No," Elizabeth breathed, and her hand was now a fist pressing into her abdomen. She was squeezing Peter's hand so hard that her fingers had gone numb. "No," she repeated. "I don't remember any of that at all."
"We're hoping removing part of his skull will give his brain enough room to swell after the injury to prevent further damage," the doctor said. "Neal's in an artificially-induced coma right now to try to keep his brain calm and to help it start to heal. We've stabilized him and stopped the bleeding from his other injuries, but we need him to have a couple of days to get better before we try to fix his hip and arm. He's too weak for more surgery right now. He's lost too much blood. But hopefully in a few days…"
"Is he dying?" Peter spoke for the first time, and his voice sounded so foreign that Elizabeth actually startled. "Is our son going to die?"
Please say 'no', Elizabeth prayed. Please.
"It's early days yet," the doctor said instead. "Neal's injuries were very grave. If he hadn't landed on the car he probably would have died at the scene. He lost a lot of blood as it was, and that head injury…" He sighed. "I won't lie to you. It could go either way."
"Either way?" Peter repeated. "What the hell does that mean?"
Elizabeth put a hand on his arm, feeling the bunching of the muscles beneath his suit jacket. She understood Peter's confusion and despair, but yelling at the doctor would get them nowhere. "Doctor," she said instead. "Please."
"He's in critical condition," the doctor said. He shrugged helplessly. "He's young and healthy, which will help, but even if he does recover, he may still have permanent brain damage. And unfortunately he most likely will need to have his arm amputated above the elbow. And then there's his hip…" He shook his head, "he's never going to be the same child you knew, Mr. and Mrs. Burke," he said. "I'm sorry."
And that's when Elizabeth started crying.
It had been two days since the accident.
It was around two a.m. and Peter was sitting in a chair by Neal's bed in the ICU. His mind was blank as he watched the monitors beep out their information onto their screens. There were so many monitors attached to Neal, so many tubes and wires that it was hard to tell where the machines ended and the human began.
Neal, young and healthy as he had been, was not doing well. He was still in a coma, his brain swelling out of the symmetrical rectangle that had been cut into his skull. One of the machines was breathing for him, another was keeping track of his pulse, and a third took his blood pressure at regular intervals. There was a sensor clipped onto one of his fingers, an IV running into the back of his left hand, and another draining slowly into a vein in his wrist. They had put yet another line directly into his artery just under his collarbone. He had tubes removing his waste products straight from his body.
And there was a bacterial infection growing deep in his lungs, causing his skin to flush and his temperature to soar, and adding unsettled, restless movements to flicker through the fingers of his left hand.
The circulation of blood to his right hand had been damaged when the elbow was destroyed. It was waxy and cold to the touch.
Like a robot, Peter thought, unwillingly bringing back memories of the first time he'd seen Neal die. It had been over fourteen years ago, in a lab in the basement of the FBI building in Manhattan. Then, Neal had actually been a robot: An adult man modeled after someone long dead. And fourteen years ago, that Neal had died. His mechanical brain destroyed by a virus made by the woman who'd originally helped create him.
Just like he was dying now as the bacteria destroyed his fragile human body, piece by piece.
Peter shuddered in a breath, his mind skittering around the truth of his thoughts. Neal was dying. His beautiful, vibrant, creative, wonderful child was dying. And there wasn't damn thing he could do about it.
He looked across Neal's damaged body to where Elizabeth was sleeping, as comfortable as possible on the small cot the hospital had moved into Neal's room for them. She was frowning as she slept, her lips creased down and her eyebrows drawn. Peter could easily guess what she was dreaming about.
He rubbed his face and picked up the coffee that Clinton had brought earlier that evening. It had long gone greasy and cold, but Peter couldn't bring himself to care. It was hard to enjoy anything at all when his son was dying. At least if it tasted bad he could drink it.
The surgery to amputate Neal's arm and repair his broken hip and pelvis was scheduled for the beginning of the week if they could get the pneumonia under control. So far it had proved frighteningly stubborn to treat, and Neal's orthopedic surgeon had not sounded hopeful the last time they'd spoken. The longer they waited to pin his hip, the more likely it was that Neal would walk with a limp for the rest of his life.
Assuming his brain injury wasn't so bad that he'd never walk again.
Assuming he lived.
And then of course, there was the looming amputation of Neal's right hand. His dominant hand. The one he used for painting and drawing and sculpting and everything that had mattered to him since he'd appeared on their doorstep at four years old. The first thing he'd wanted to do when he'd arrived had been to show Elizabeth that he knew all his colours. He'd been an artist even then.
Peter refused to think about what it would mean to cut off an artist's hand. He refused to wonder if Neal might rather die than lose that part of himself.
And so he sat in the shadowed room, staring at the floor and listening to the low beeping of the monitors, trying not to think of anything at all.
Slowly Peter raised his head, too exhausted to even be surprised that he hadn't heard anyone come into the room.
It was Keller.
Over the last two days, as word spread through the Brooklyn School of the Arts about Neal's accident, his ICU room had slowly filled up with home-made cards and stunning pictures and incredibly artistic well-wishes from both teachers and students who wanted him to 'get well soon'. Some had even come to visit, shy and uncertain, standing fearfully around the entrance to Neal's room until they'd fled.
But Sara and Keller had remained. They were always on the periphery, hovering around the corners of Neal's room or just outside in the hallway, their eyes wide and their faces impossibly young and vulnerable. Peter didn't know if they were eating, or where they went to sleep. He just knew that every time he turned around, one or both of them would be somewhere nearby. Quiet and undemanding, waiting for Neal.
Alex, on the other hand, had not been seen since.
It was Elizabeth who usually talked to them, holding their hand or giving them a hug or even embracing them while they cried.
Their despair was something else Peter didn't want to think about, so he didn't. He ignored them and they left him alone and he'd hoped it would continue that way until Neal got better.
Except Neal was dying, and Peter felt like he had no hope for anything at all.
"Yes?" he sighed, looking up at the young man.
Keller scraped his bottom lip with his teeth. "I need to tell you something."
Peter sat up, feeling every muscle and sinew in his back creaking from holding his position for so long. He crossed his arms. He couldn't imagine what Keller could say at this point that he could possibly care about. Be kind Elizabeth's voice admonished in his head. He sighed again. "What do you need to tell me?"
Keller jammed his hands into his pockets, his weight balanced on his toes like he was thinking about running. "I need to tell you about when Neal fell."
Peter shifted upright in his seat, tensing. "Go on."
"We didn't exactly tell you the whole story, Sara and me," Keller said, still intently looking at the floor.
"What part did you leave out?" Peter asked quietly.
Keller met his gaze and then quickly dropped his eyes. "That it was my fault," he said. His voice was almost inaudible.
Peter felt a surge of anger, powerful and hot, flare up in his chest. He uncrossed his arms, his hands balling into fists. "What did you do to my son?" he hissed. "What the hell did you do?"
"Alex and I had been together in the garden," Keller said, still staring at the floor. "We went to find Neal, and when we did, he was standing on the wall of the garden, helping Sara down."
"I know this part," Peter growled. "You told us already."
"There's more," Keller said, his eyes met Peter's again for a brief moment. "When we got there, Sara slipped and she fell--not far," he corrected quickly. "Just kinda off the wall and into the garden. But I was on drugs, right? And I just saw this picture of Neal, like, looming over Sara, and it was like he had hurt her or something. But Neal would never hurt Sara, right?" Keller looked imploringly at Peter. "She's like his sister. He'd never even raise a hand to her. But I couldn't see that. I didn't remember. So I ran—"
Keller's voice broke, and he stopped, scrubbing his face with his hands.
Peter stood, his arms shaking from the effort of not hitting Keller for what he had done. "You pushed him?" Peter demanded. He stalked forward. "You pushed him off the wall. You murdered him!"
"Peter?" Elizabeth muttered sleepily from the other side of the room. "Is Neal okay?"
Peter stopped. "Everything's fine," he called softly. "I'm just talking to Keller."
"Kay," she mumbled, settling back down and turning over. "Don't hurt him."
Peter glared at Keller. "Outside."
Keller fled into the hallway, Peter right on his heels.
"I didn't push him," Keller said miserably, as soon as they were outside. "I ain't lying to you, Mr. Burke. I swear!"
"He fell off the wall after you ran at him," Peter said. It was all he could do to not shove Keller up against the wall of the hallway hard enough to crack his skull.
"Yeah," Keller agreed. "But I didn't push him. He just…fell."
"How?" Peter snarled. A nurse passed and gave him a quizzical look and Peter smiled tightly at her. "How is that possible?" he said in a quieter voice. "Did you use the Force?"
Keller's mouth twisted. "I don't know."
Peter took a deep breath, trying to control his rage. "Tell me what happened," he said slowly.
"I am," Keller insisted.
"Tell me again!" Peter snapped, and Keller actually took a step back.
"Okay," Keller said. "So I thought that Neal was hurting Sara, and I ran at him and yelled at him to get him to stop, and…" Keller swallowed. "And that's when he fell."
"So you didn't touch him," Peter said, glaring at Keller like he was the worst type of felon.
"No," Keller shook his head vehemently. "I never!" He met Peter's gaze, and even in the dim light of the hallway Peter could see the boy's eyes were coated with tears. "Neal's like my brother," Keller said. "And if I could trade places with him right now, I would. You gotta believe that, Mr. Burke. I'd die for him." He wiped at his eyes with the heel of his hand.
Peter closed his eyes for a second and exhaled, feeling his anger dissipate, morphing instead into something akin to sympathy for the young man standing in front of him. "Come on," he said. "There's a coffee machine downstairs in the caf. Let me grab you one."
"Okay," Keller said, still wiping at his eyes. He followed Peter down the hallway and out of the ICU.
"I've never liked you, Keller," Mr. Burke said without preamble as soon as they sat down.
Matthew held his cup of machine-brewed coffee in both hands, resting it on the table. He stared into its dark brown depths. "I kinda figured that, Mr. Burke."
"You've been trouble since elementary school," Mr. Burke continued. "Smashing windows, stealing shit. Hell, I don't know how many times I had to pick your sorry ass up at one police station or another after another one of your little escapades." He shook his head. "I'm surprised you haven't been arrested by now."
Matthew kept peering into his cup, trying to pretend that Mr. Burke's words didn't hurt. He'd always wanted Mr. Burke to like him, but he'd never managed it. He sure as hell knew it wouldn't happen now. He shrugged and flashed a false smile. "Boys will be boys?"
Mr. Burke shook his head. "Don't give me that bullshit, Keller. You can do better than that, and we both know it." He sighed. "Look," he said. "You're bright, you're talented, and you're not even bad looking, and Lord knows that Neal loves you like a brother. But you're wasting it. Wasting your smarts, and your skill and everything you've been given. Why?"
Matthew shrugged again, still looking at the cup instead of the FBI agent across from him. "Nothing better to do, I guess."
"Bullshit," Mr. Burke barked. "Jesus, Keller, why the fuck are you throwing your life away like this? You're flunking out of school. Neal told me," he said in response to Matthew's incredulous look. "You've had run-ins with the law, and now you're dealing drugs? And to your best friends? What the hell is that, Keller? Is that all you want?"
Matthew turned his face away and took a sip of his coffee. Everything Mr. Burke had said was true, but it still stung to hear it laid out like that.Of course I want more, he wanted to scream at Mr. Burke. But I don't deserve it. That’s why my Dad hit me. I’m no damn good. I'm a fucked-up loser that should've fallen off the wall instead of Neal. "I dunno," he said instead. "Guess I never thought about it."
Mr. Burke sat back, his hand over his mouth, scrutinizing. Matthew fidgeted in his seat under the weight of his gaze.
"It's your fault that Neal fell off the wall," Mr. Burke said finally.
Matthew felt a sudden rush of tears at the words, and he blinked rapidly. "Yeah," he said. There was no point in denying it.
"I've never liked you," Mr. Burke said again, and Matthew snorted a laugh.
"Yeah, I think I got that. Thanks."
"No, I don't think you have gotten it," Mr. Burke said. "I don't think you really understand. I've never liked you, but Neal always has. Always. I think he would've adopted you if I could've stood to have you in our home for more than a few hours at a time."
"Neal loves his widows and orphans." Matthew smiled. He had always known how much Neal cared about him. Sometimes it had been the only thing that'd kept him going at all.
"No," Mr. Burke corrected. "Neal doesn't love widows and orphans, Keller. Neal loves you. He sees something in you that I just can't. Something good." If anything his gaze got even more intense. "Any idea what that is?"
Matthew shook his head. "No," he said, and maybe it was because he hadn't really slept in two nights, or maybe it was because Neal was in hospital and it was his fault, but Matthew replied honestly for once. "I have no idea what Neal sees in me."
"Well, you need to find it," Mr. Burke said with finality. "Neal's upstairs, strapped to a vent, probably dying—" and here Matthew could hear the pain in Neal's father's voice, the total loss of hope, and it was like something was squeezing all the air out of his chest.
"Neal's dying?" Matthew repeated. He could barely make his mouth form the words.
"Yes." Mr. Burke nodded. "And that's my point. Neal's dying. He's not even eighteen yet, and he'll probably be dead before his birthday—" he stopped again and took a breath, obviously composing himself before he continued. "But you're still alive, Keller. You're young, you're smart, you're strong, you're alive, and Neal saw something good in you. Really good. You need to find what that is while you still have the chance."
Matthew found himself nodding. "Yeah," he forced out through a throat gone too tight to speak. "Okay."
"I hope you do," Mr. Burke said solemnly. "Because your future might be the only legacy that Neal will ever have."
It was like the quiet room had gone completely silent around them; even the hum of the vending machines seemed muted. It was like suddenly the two of them were totally alone in the world.
"I will," Matthew said into the silence. It was a vow.
"I have faith in you," Mr. Burke smiled at him, and Matthew felt something small and warm open in his chest.
"I won't let Neal down," Matthew said, and he had never meant anything more in his entire life.
"Good," Mr. Burke said, and stood. He eyed him critically. "You look like shit, Keller. You should go home, get some sleep. I'll call you if anything changes."
"Okay," Matthew nodded. "But I think I'll just sit here for a while, if that's okay?"
"Sure," Mr. Burke said, and clapped his hand on Matthew's shoulder. "You're a good kid, Keller," he said. "Don't ever forget it." His long strides echoed in the nearly empty room as he left to return to Neal's side.
Matthew sat, thinking about Neal, and what he'd just promised, and the fact that the man he admired most in the world had just told him he was good. He thought about it for a very long time.
It was early morning on the third day after Neal's accident.
Sara leaned over Neal's still form and gently inserted the ear buds into his ears, turning them so they were resting in the right spot and wouldn't be uncomfortable.
She checked the speaker level again, and brought it down two notches. Most likely Neal listened to music louder than that, but she didn't want to hurt his ears when he was in no position to complain. She played what she knew was one of Neal's favourite songs, something fun and upbeat that required no real concentration whatsoever. Satisfied that everything was set up properly, she turned on the iPod and sat back.
It was hard to look at Neal.
The part of his face that she could see was swollen and puffy, with mottled bruising on the right side from where he hit the car. His eyes had been taped shut to help keep them moist, and his mouth was covered by the ties holding his ventilation tube in place. His head had a loose dressing on it, protecting the uncovered brain just inside. Where she could see his skin it was flushed from his fever as his body tried to fight off the infection in his lungs.
Sara let her gaze drop away from Neal's face, focusing on his left hand which had an IV in the back, the hand that still looked like his. She hadn't actually realized you could recognize someone by their hands. Gently she put out her finger and slid it along the side of his hand, down his index finger to the tip. His skin was warm and soft. There was no reaction to her touch.
"Where are you?" she whispered, feeling tears pushing at the back of her throat. Rapidly she blinked them away. She was so tired of crying.
Sighing, she looked away from Neal and rested her elbow on the counter beside the bed, where Mr. Burke had left his phone when he and Elizabeth had gone for breakfast. He wanted Sara to call if there was any change.
Sara had been humbled by their trust in her, and pleased to know that they were getting even a small amount of time together. They seemed to have a really good marriage, the type that Sara might have liked for herself one day. She stroked Neal’s finger again, and acknowledged what she had been ignoring for a long time. Even if Neal was better, she wouldn’t be marrying him.
Sara sighed again, tasting the bitterness of the truth in her mouth. Neal loved her, but he wasn’t in love with her. Not like she wanted him to be, not like she was in love with him.
At least you and Neal are friends, Alex had said the day Neal had fallen. At the time it hadn’t seemed like anything to Sara. Compared to Neal swooning at her feet, it hadn’t seemed like nearly enough.
But now, with Neal’s life hanging by a thread, she would give anything to get that easy friendship back.
A phone rang.
Sara jumped, and it took her two more rings to realize it was Mr. Burke’s cell phone.
Sara picked it up and put it to her ear. "Hello?"
"Is the Suit there?" the voice on the other line said.
Sara blinked. She cupped the phone with both hands. "I'm sorry?"
"The Suit!" the voice repeated. "The agent of the man?"
"I think you have the wrong number," Sara said slowly. It sounded like the guy was crazy.
"This is Agent Burke's number, isn't it?" the voice said.
"Yes," Sara said. She frowned. "Who is this?"
"Doctor Maurice Haversham," he replied. "But you can call me Doctor."
"Okay, Doctor," Sara said. "Um, Agent Burke isn't here right now. Can I take a message?"
"I guess if you must," the Doctor said. "Please tell the Suit I got his email about Neal and I'm sure we can do something to help."
"You can help?" Sara demanded. Her heart began to race. "Oh thank God! When can you get here?"
"Get there?" the Doctor repeated, "but—"
"Mr. and Mrs. Burke haven't really told me anything, but I know that Neal's not getting better," Sara said. She shot a quick glace towards the door to ensure that the Burkes weren't standing there, horrified at what she knew. "His head injury is really bad, and now he has pneumonia. They're going to cut off his arm, Doctor." she exclaimed, and suddenly she really was crying again. "You've got to come help him. Please."
"When did this happen?" The Doctor asked, like he had no idea what she was talking about.
"Three days ago," Sara said. "When he fell five stories from the garden wall. The pneumonia started yesterday." She paused. "Didn't Agent Burke tell you—"
"Not everything," Dr. Haversham interrupted. "I'll see what I can do."
"Oh thank you, thank you!" Sara said vehemently. She wiped her wet cheek with her sleeve.
"Give me all the details you can," the Doctor said, "including your location. He's in a hospital, right?"
"Yes," Sara said, and started telling him everything that had happened. She knew she should probably be more puzzled why he needed her to tell him about the accident if he'd already spoken to Mr. Burke, but she was too relieved to care.
"We'll be there soon," Dr. Haversham said, and then the call ended.
Sara sat on the chair looking at Neal, Mr. Burke's phone clutched to her chest; an irrational feeling of hope fluttering inside.
Elizabeth sat in the hospital cafeteria with Peter, listlessly poking at her food.
"You've got to eat, El," Peter said gently, covering her hand with his own.
She shrugged and flicked him a small smile. "I'm too tired."
Peter frowned. "Maybe you should go home today and rest? I can stay with Neal."
She shook her head. "No."
He nodded but didn't argue. They both were exactly on the same page. They'd stay with Neal until he was better or he died.
An image of Neal in his hospital bed upstairs flashed through her mind, of her and Peter holding vigil day after day after day as Neal got weaker and weaker… She put down her fork. "I can't do this," she said, rubbing her forehead. "I'm sorry."
"Can't do what?" Peter said, looking at her. She could see the fear and hopelessness as if it was painted into his dark eyes.
"Can't eat," she said, forcing herself to smile. "I'm just not hungry."
He nodded again, but his forehead was creased. "You sure?"
He wasn't asking if she was sure she wasn't hungry. I'm falling apart, was on the tip of her tongue. "I'm fine," she said instead.
"Okay," he said, and let it drop. She knew he was smart enough to not ask a question when he didn't want to deal with the answer.
"The social worker--I think Voula is her name?--Wants to speak with us sometime today," Elizabeth said. She lifted her cup and took a sip of tea. It was lukewarm and too strong but it was caffeinated and that was all that really mattered. "She said she'd come by later."
Peter wiped his mouth with his napkin and sat back, pushing his plate away. He'd only eaten a quarter of his bacon and eggs. "What she want?"
Elizabeth took another sip. "She wants to talk with us about end of life decisions, Peter." She said finally. It was impossible to hold his gaze.
"Ah," he said, and turned his head away from her.
Elizabeth drunk the rest of her tea as the silence lengthened between them. She knew what Peter was doing, but she didn't have the heart to interrupt the silence with the awfulness of what it was they had to discuss. She wasn't sure she'd have the capacity to discuss it at all, really. No matter how kind Voula was.
"We should probably get back," Peter said after a few more minutes had passed. "Sara's probably wondering where we are."
"Probably," Elizabeth agreed. She closed her eyes and braced herself. "Peter—"
"No," he said sharply. "I will not have this discussion. Not now."
"They need to know if we want heroic measures for Neal," Elizabeth said.
"I'm not talking about this," Peter said forcefully. "I won't."
"So, you're leaving the decision up to me?" Elizabeth asked, beginning to feel angry.
"You're the one with the relationship with all these people," Peter said, as if that was an answer.
"He's our son," Elizabeth started. "You can't expect me to—"
"I am not discussing it!" Peter said harshly. A few diners turned their heads to look at them, and then quickly turned away. We must give off some sort of grieving parent vibe, Elizabeth thought humorlessly. They're all afraid it's catching.
"I'm not making this decision on my own," Elizabeth said quietly. "Don't ask me to."
"What are they going to do next?" Peter continued as if she hadn't spoken. "Ask us to unplug him so they can take his organs? Do they want him to die?"
Elizabeth gasped. "Of course not! Peter, how could you say that?"
"Then why are they asking if we want them to save him? Of course we want them to save him!"
Elizabeth pinned him with her gaze. "Do we?"
Peter blinked. "What?"
"Peter," Elizabeth said, and she hadn't realized how sad his name could sound. "Our son has a terrible brain injury. He's got pneumonia because his body is slowly shutting down…" She stopped to take a breath, thinking back to the first, awful conversation they'd had with Neal's surgeon. "His injuries are grave, Peter," she said.
"Do you remember his seventh birthday?" Peter asked, seemingly out of the blue. His eyes were shining with tears even while he was smiling. "Remember how he'd been saying for months that he wanted to go see that movie with the girl with the red-hair? I forget which one. I think it had a lion in it, or something."
"There was a bear," Elizabeth corrected. "And it was called Brave." She smiled at the memory too. "Go on."
"So remember how we got him, and Keller--God he was a mess even then, that kid!--and that one boy, Sam, the one who moved away?" Elizabeth nodded. "Right," Peter grinned. "And we took them to see that movie, and half-way through Neal's crying and screaming and just losing it in the theatre? You remember that?"
"Yes." Elizabeth's smile grew wider. "I thought he was going to throw up, he was so upset."
"And we both thought it was because of the bear, right?" Peter said. "We thought our sensitive son just couldn't handle the how scary the bear was. But it wasn't the bear that had upset him. Was it?"
"No," Elizabeth said. "No it wasn't. I remember you told me afterwards."
"It was the tapestry!" Peter laughed, "Neal was horrified that the little girl had ruined her mother's artwork."
Elizabeth found herself laughing too. "He was so upset about the art, poor little thing." She smiled.
"He hated the idea of something beautiful being destroyed," Peter said, and abruptly the smile fell off his face. "Is that what we're doing, El?" he asked. "Are we letting something beautiful be destroyed if we let him die?"
"Oh Peter," Elizabeth said as she got out of her seat and knelt by his chair, wrapping her arms around him. He gripped her like a branch in a storm, hanging on for dear life, his tears seeping through her hair.
"He's so beautiful," Peter sobbed. "He's such a wonderful, beautiful boy. How can we let him die, El? How can they ask us to do that?"
"I don't know," she finally answered through her tears. "I just don't know."
It had been a really long day.
Elizabeth was sitting on the cot in the corner of Neal's room, her back against the wall. She was reading a frothy little piece of chick lit she'd picked up from the used book carousal in the hospital's gift shop: something light and fluffy that required no intelligence to read, but a strong sense of disbelief to enjoy. It concerned a tough FBI agent who was having a torrid affair with his CI, a former con-man who was as smart as he was handsome.
"What crap." Elizabeth shook her head, amazed at how the author had managed to brutalize FBI procedure and yet still get published. She turned the page, trying to get engrossed in the story. Anything to forget how difficult their day had been.
It was Monday, and all of Neal's doctors were back from the weekend. The cute blond from Neal's first day had come in to inspect Neal's stitches, and had happily declared that the incisions seemed to be healing well. He wrote orders for the chest tube to be removed and left, smiling to himself. It turned out his name was Dr. Smith, and Elizabeth was a bit surprised that she hadn't remembered it.
But that had been the last good news of the day. Voula the social worker had arrived as promised, and after Peter had shouted at her she agreed that perhaps 'it wasn't the right time' for the end-of-life discussion. Then Neal's neurosurgeon had come in. She was a tiny woman with jet black hair, a frosty demeanor and an entourage of students. She barely introduced herself to Elizabeth and Peter before turning to Neal and proclaiming that his head injury was severe enough that the likelihood of full recovery was next to nothing, but they wouldn't know his actual deficits until the swelling of his brain had fully resolved, which could take weeks.
Peter had barked his denial at her, and the doctor had sniffed as if Peter was being unreasonable. Then she'd left, students trailing behind like baby chicks
While they were still reeling from the neurosurgeon's pronouncement, the orthopedic surgeon had come in. He was a large, jolly man called Dr. Bain, who'd declared that Neal's arm should come off as soon as possible. He felt that Neal's body couldn't heal from the pneumonia as it was devoting all its energy to trying to heal the arm. He wanted to perform the surgery that afternoon.
Peter demanded how the doctor could possibly know that the arm was related to the pneumonia, considering one was a limb and the other a lung, to which the doctor had responded that perhaps his being a doctor might mean he knew a bit more about medicine than a police officer did. Then Peter started yelling about being a father who might know more about his son, and that's when Elizabeth stepped in and sent everyone out of the room, including Peter. She sent him home with orders for a shower and a nap and to not return until he had himself better under control.
To her surprise, he'd left without much of an argument. That had been nearly five hours ago, and she dearly hoped he was using that time to sleep. She knew her sleep was poor on the cot in the ICU where it was always noisy and never truly dark, but she also knew that Peter hadn't used the cot at all. He probably hadn't slept for more than a few minutes in the last seventy-two hours.
We can't go on like this, she thought, but she was looking at Neal as she said it and she knew that her thoughts were a lie. They would go on, just like that, for as long as it took.
She got off the cot and went to stand by Neal's bedside, looking down at her son.
Almost all his remaining hair was covered by the dressing that was protecting his brain, but the small amount peeking out from under was matted with grease and sweat. His forehead was smooth though--pale and untroubled by dreams or pain. Their nurse had assured them that she was monitoring Neal closely for signs of distress. She'd told them that she watched for changes in his breathing and heart rate, or for spikes in his blood pressure that could indicate that his sedation and pain medication was wearing off. He was still deeply unconscious, sick and badly injured, but at least he was blissfully unaware of any of those things.
It was a small mercy at best, but one that Elizabeth would hold on to. Neal wasn't suffering and right now that had to be good enough.
Gently, she placed her hand on his cheek, sliding it under the tube connecting him to the ventilator. She rubbed his cheekbone with her thumb, feeling the smoothness of his skin and noting how he still felt warm to the touch as his body continued to fight the pneumonia. There was the light brush of stubble on his jaw prickling her fingertips and she smiled. Her boy was becoming a man, beard and all. When his ventilator was removed, she'd have to shave him. And she knew she needed to believe she'd get that chance.
"I love you," she whispered, thumb caressing his cheek. "I love you Neal Mitchell Burke, I love you."
Someone cleared their throat by the doorway.
She smiled. "Hello Matthew," she said, straightening to look at Neal’s friend.
"Mrs. Burke," he said, coming further into the room. He had his hands jammed into his pant pockets and he looked distinctly uncomfortable to know that he’d been interrupting.
She crossed the room to him and put her arms around him, holding him until she felt him relax and return her embrace. "I’m glad you’re here."
"Thanks, " he mumbled without meeting her eyes. Elizabeth knew it was because even after all these years, Matthew still couldn’t quite believe that Elizabeth cared about him. He looked around the room. "Where’s Sara?"
"At her house, hopefully sleeping," Elizabeth said. "She’ll probably come tomorrow after school."
"Uh huh," he said, still looking around, his gaze settling on Neal and then skirting away, like he was afraid to look. He cleared his throat and gestured at Neal with his chin. "How’s he doing?"
"The same," Elizabeth forced herself to smile. "But the doctor said his chest tube can come out, so that’s a good sign."
"Yeah," Matthew smiled, but it immediately dropped off his face. He jammed his hands in his pockets again.
Elizabeth tilted her head. "Matthew, "she said. "What’s wrong?"
He scraped his bottom lip with his teeth. "’m going away, Mrs. Burke," he blurted. "I joined the Air Force and I ship out at the end of the week. I just thought you and Mr. Burke should know."
Elizabeth blinked. "You joined the Air Force?" she said. "Now?"
"Yeah," he said, looking at the floor. "It seemed like a good time."
"But what about high school? And graduation?" Elizabeth asked. She took his wrist and led him over to the two chairs in the room, and they sat down. "What about your art?"
"I kinda failed two courses this year," Matthew explained. "So I wouldn’t have been graduating anyway. But the recruiters said that there’s lotsa guys in who finish high school on-line in the forces, so I can do that and still get my diploma." He shrugged. "Seems better’n repeating the year."
"Probably," Elizabeth agreed. "But what about your art? Will you have to give that up?"
He shrugged again. "I’m an okay artist," he said. "Good enough for Brooklyn, but I don’t got talent like Neal." he gestured towards the bed. "I’d never be able to make a living out of my art like him."
"Oh," she said, and then: "The surgeon is going to amputate his arm tomorrow."
"Jesus," Matthew breathed and rubbed his face. "Jesus, that sucks Mrs. Burke. I’m so sorry."
She felt the sting of tears and blinked. "Thanks Matthew," she said. "That means a lot." She forced herself to smile again. "But what about you?" she purposely changed the subject. "You’re in the Air Force with a whole new career, and so fast! How come you’re shipping out so soon?"
Matthew shrugged. "The recruiter arranged it somehow, I guess. Normally it takes a while, but he got my name in." He glanced over at Neal and then looked away. "I asked to go as soon as I could."
"I understand," Elizabeth said, and this time her smile wasn’t forced. Matthew and Neal had been best friends since first grade. Seeing Neal like this must be slowly killing Matthew. Elizabeth knew that she’d want to run away too, if she had the chance.
"I’m going for Neal," Matthew said quietly. He was still looking at her son, his expression far away. "I wanna do something important. Something Neal would be proud of."
Elizabeth put her hand on his knee. "He’s always been proud of you, Matthew."
He turned to look at her. "I want to be a technician," he said, and there was a glimmer of excitement replacing the sadness in his eyes. "They said they can teach me to fix stuff. It sounds pretty cool."
"That does sound cool," she smiled. "But I’m sorry you’re leaving, and I know Neal will be sad that he didn’t get a chance to say good-bye."
Matthew scraped his bottom lip with his teeth again. "Could I maybe write you sometime, Mrs. Burke?" he said, uncertain. "You know, just to find out how Neal’s doing?"
"Oh absolutely, Matthew," she said, taking both his hands in hers. "But only if you promise that I can write you back, and that you’ll come stay with us when you have leave. It would mean a lot to Neal, and to me, if you did that."
"Really?" Matthew said, hope sparking in his face, "I could stay with you?"
"Of course," Elizabeth said. "You’re Neal’s best friend. That makes you one of the family."
"I’d like that," he said.
"Excellent," she smiled at him.
Abruptly he stood. "I gotta get going," he said. "I got more paperwork to fill in and some other stuff to finish before it’s all set." He glanced at Neal, and then looked at her. His eyes as dark and serious as she’d ever seen them. "He’s going to get better, Mrs. Burke," he said with conviction. " know he will."
"Thank you, Matthew," Elizabeth said. "I really hope so, too." And then, to her utter surprise, he hugged her.
"Neal’s really lucky to have you, Mrs. Burke," he said, and before she could react, he was gone.
After Matthew had left, Elizabeth had gone back to reading her novel and her attempt to lose herself in the lurid prose. She’d barely started however when there was a sudden commotion in the hallway.
A very loud male voice was arguing at high volume just outside the room. Elizabeth got up from the cot and went outside to see what was going on.
"This patient is to be transferred into the care of the United States Military immediately!" the man shouted. He was short and bald, wearing square glasses framed in black and a lab coat over a button-down shirt and corduroy pants that looked like they'd seen better days. He was waving a white piece of paper under the nose of Bridget, their nurse. "I have the orders right here!"
Elizabeth gaped. "Doctor Haversham?"
He turned to look at her. "Mrs. Suit." he exclaimed in obvious pleasure. "How wonderful to see you. I only wish it was under more pleasant circumstances." He glared at the nurse as he said the last part.
"I can't just let you come in and take the patient," Bridget said with what looked like an extraordinary amount of self-control. "His doctors –"
"Are idiots," Doctor Haversham interrupted. "And that's why I've brought our own medical personnel with us to help make the transfer." He gestured to two women standing behind him. One was pretty and blond, and the other was a lovely woman with black hair. Both were wearing military-type uniforms and pulling a stretcher between them. "May I introduce Doctor Keller and Lieutenant Hasan, RN. They will be helping transfer Neal to our more appropriate and better hospital in Colorado Springs."
"But—" Bridget spluttered. She looked to Elizabeth for help.
"It's okay," Elizabeth said, putting her hand reassuringly on Bridget's arm. She'd decided to agree to whatever Doctor Haversham wanted as soon as she'd recognized him. Doctor Haversham worked for Stargate command, after all. He was directly responsible for saving Neal's life twice over already. "I'll sign whatever papers I need to, but Neal's going."
"Excellent," Doctor Haversham said. He made a gesture at Doctor Keller and the Lieutenant. "Please go see to Neal."
"Right away," Doctor Keller said. She grinned at Elizabeth. "My name's Jennifer and this is Farah. Don't worry. We're going to take great care of your son." They went into the room and immediately got to work beginning what looked like a complicated process of transferring Neal from the bed to the stretcher.
"Do you need help?" Bridget called to them, a note of desperation in her voice. She turned to Doctor Haversham. "Where are you taking him?"
"A top-secret military location in Colorado Springs," Haversham replied. "It is a state-of-the-art hospital far more capable of dealing with Neal's injuries than your little backwater institution." He waved his hand dismissively.
Bridget narrowed her eyes but seemed to hold on to her temper. "As long as Neal gets the care he needs," she said pointedly.
"We've been incredibly grateful for all you've done here for Neal," Elizabeth said to Bridget, hoping her words would convey how much their care had meant to her and Peter.
Bridget smiled. "It was my pleasure, Elizabeth," she said. "I hope everything ends up okay."
"Of course it will," Doctor Haversham said. “We’re going to fix him." He looked around. "Where's the Suit?"
"He's at home," Elizabeth said. "I need to call him."
"Tell him he needs to get here as soon as possible. As soon as my colleagues are done, I'd like to get going." He glared at Bridget. "The faster we get out of this place, the better."
"Oh Peter will be here, don't you worry," Elizabeth said, and dialed her phone.
The ringing of the phone woke him.
When Peter had first gotten home, exiled by his wife from the hospital, he'd stormed around the house in a rage. No one was there to hear it. Even Rabbit, Neal's dog, was absent. El had arranged for him to stay with a neighbor while they were away and it was amazing how lonely the house felt without even the dog for company.
But he was too exhausted to hold on to his anger for long. Feeling upset and edgy he'd checked his work email, but Diana had performed some kind of miracle and the only message was from her, telling him everything was under control and that he shouldn't be checking his messages. Her note actually made him chuckle, which had made him feel every second of his exhaustion, and he'd gone to bed.
For a moment, he lay in bed trying to figure out what the strange noise was, and then he remembered it was his cell and it was probably El calling from the hospital.
Neal! he thought, and was immediately awake, the phone pressed tightly to his ear. "What's wrong?"
"You need to come back to the hospital," Elizabeth said. "Neal's not dead. He's not!" she responded immediately to whatever terrified, helpless noise he'd made. "Doctor Haversham is here. They're transferring him to Colorado Springs."
Peter blinked. "He's not dead?" he croaked.
"No," Elizabeth said carefully, as if he suddenly couldn't understand English. "Doctor Haversham is here from the SGC. They want to take Neal to Colorado Springs to help him. Do you understand?"
Peter blinked again. "That's over fifteen-hundred miles from here."
"They have a plane waiting," Elizabeth said. "And if you want to come for the ride you need to be here now!"
"I'll be there in twenty minutes," he said, switching the phone from one ear to the other as he started to pull off his t-shirt.
"Bring stuff for Neal," she said. "Change of clothes, shampoo, toothbrush, a razor-- oh! And his iPad. He'll want that when he wakes up."
Peter stopped, one arm still in his shirt, his heart hammering in his chest. "When he wakes up?"
"Oh I hope so," Elizabeth said, and he could hear the happiness and hope bubbling through her words. "Get here as soon as you can."
"I'm on my way," Peter said and keyed off the phone. Elizabeth hadn't asked, but he started grabbing items for them too, assuming they might be in Colorado for a while. He focused on the activity, on collecting his stuff and El's stuff, and the stuff that Neal might need.
But he couldn't stop the shaking in his hands.
Doctor Haversham didn't take them to a plane.
He actually beamed them up to a spaceship.
Peter knew that if he wasn't so anxious about Neal, he probably would be gaping in wonder at the view of Earth from the port-side window of the spaceship, and marveling at the fact that they had just beamed up into space directly from the parking lot of Brooklyn Central Medical Centre. But it was like there was no other room in his thoughts for anything but his son.
They were all on what was obviously the bridge, Neal's stretcher looking incongruous against the sleek technology around it. Jennifer and Farah were checking him thoroughly, and when they shared a relieved smile, Peter let go of a breath he hadn't realized he was holding.
"Welcome aboard," John Sheppard said with a smile. He looked older and more distinguished than Peter remembered him from when they'd met fourteen years previously. Then, Sheppard had been all lanky charm and untamed hair. Now the hair was sprinkled with grey and much less wild, but the charm was still clearly there.
"Thank you," Elizabeth said, taking his offered hand.
"Thanks," Peter muttered, also shaking Sheppard's hand in a grip that was perfunctory at best. Every nerve in his body was screaming get us to the hospital! He really couldn't care about making nice.
"They're ready, General," an officer whose name tag read 'Ford,' reported to Sheppard.
"Excellent, Major," Sheppard said to him. "Tell them our party is ready to beam down."
Major Ford nodded and said something into his head-piece.
"McKay and I will see you on the return journey," Sheppard said as the world went white again.
They'd rematerialized directly into the hospital wing of Stargate Command.
It was a state-of-the–art military hospital run by people who looked very, very prepared for any potential disaster because they knew they could handle whatever it was. It felt professional and well-controlled and Elizabeth began to relax. If Neal could get better anywhere, this was it.
Neal's stretcher was pulled into a treatment bay, and Doctor Haversham had immediately ushered Elizabeth and Peter up a flight of stairs to a room overlooking the area where Neal now was; easily visible through a wall of glass.
They'd then met General Cameron Mitchell, a tall, handsome and broad-shouldered man with a strong mid-western drawl to his speech. He was the base-commander, and Elizabeth thanked him profusely for his role in getting Neal there. Cameron had proceeded to introduce them to Vala Mal Doran. She was a lovely, slender woman with pale skin and black hair arranged in a highly-decorated bun. Both were wearing black and green military uniforms, and they seemed to have an easy familiarity with each other that Elizabeth recognized as coming from being part of a team. Peter and Diana had it, and sensing it, Elizabeth relaxed a bit further. These people trusted each other, so maybe she could, too.
Doctor Haversham explained that it was Vala who was going to heal Neal using some kind of alien device held in her palm. While Elizabeth was still trying to digest that, he'd walked Vala downstairs to where Neal was being fussed over by Jennifer and Farah. Vala had been nearly bouncing with excitement at the chance to use the device, and Doctor Haversham had left, clearly feeling his job was done.
Vala was now holding the healing device above Neal and bathing him in some kind of white light.
Elizabeth watched with one fist pressed against her mouth, the other against her stomach, trying to remember to breathe.
It was hard--impossible--to imagine that the light was doing anything. It looked too insubstantial, like sunlight on a cloudy day. But the SGC had transported them here in order for them to use this on Neal, so that meant it would work, right?
"Please work," she murmured to herself, lips hardly moving. "Please."
Cameron pressed a button by a microphone perched on the table in front of the window. "How's it going?" he said into it.
"Looking good," Jennifer said, turning towards the window and flashing him a 'thumbs up.’
Cameron smiled, lines crinkling the corner of his eyes. "That's my wife," he said to Elizabeth.
"She's lovely," she replied automatically. She couldn't take her eyes off Vala.
A few minutes went by, then a few more. The room was unnaturally quiet, allowing the alien humming of Vala's device to come through the speaker loud and clear.
Down below, Farah grimaced and said something to Jennifer too softly for the microphone to pick up.
"Vala's getting tired," Jennifer said with a frown. "We may have to stop for today."
Peter jumped on the microphone, practically shoving Cameron aside in his attempt to reach it. "Is Neal okay? Is he all right?"
"He's fine," Jennifer said. "All his vital signs are stable and there's no indication that he's in pain, but we'll be sure to monitor him overnight."
"Thank God," Peter breathed. He visibly sagged with relief.
"Okay Vala," Jennifer said, turning to her colleague. "Time to pack it—"
"I think I just regrew his kidney," Vala said. And then she fainted.
"Whoa!" Cameron shouted as he bolted for the door. Down below Jennifer and Farah were struggling to keep Vala from toppling heavily to the floor. Cameron flew down the stairs and vaulted the last few steps, running to help catch her. He scooped her up like she weighed nothing and carried her over to an empty stretcher.
Elizabeth pressed the button. "Is she okay?"
"She'll be fine," Jennifer looked up from where she'd been assessing Vala on the stretcher. "It looks like she just pushed a bit too hard. I'm sorry though. It seems that we might have to wait a bit longer before she can finish up with Neal."
"I don't think that will be necessary," Farah said from where she'd been standing by Neal's bed. "He's awake!"
There was a bright, white light drawing him up to the surface.
Neal turned his face away, trying to move deeper into the water and away from the light. There was something safe about the dark, some reason he was meant to stay there, where it was cool and soft and quiet. Away from the fear and the terrible pain.
He remembered that there had been fear and pain before: a horrible sensation of falling and then an agony so overwhelming that he'd wished he could die just to escape it. Sinking into the cold, silent water had taken him away from all of that, and he really didn't want to go back.
But the light was all around him, coursing through his right side. It twisted through his hip, wove through his ribs, and wrapped his lungs in heat. He could feel it pulsating through his right arm, swirling around his elbow and racing up his shoulder to his head.
He moaned against the strange and uncomfortable sensation. The light was warm, almost hot, and it pulled and prodded him, evaporating the water surrounding him until he was abruptly beached, like a fish that suddenly finds itself in a desert, stranded and gasping for air…
Neal's eyes flew open as he clawed at his mouth. There was something in his throat, clogging his lungs, choking him—
Peter didn't remember how he got down the stairs.
One second he was standing in the observation room, and the next he was standing at the foot of Neal's bed with his hands clenched into fists, watching his son struggle to breathe.
"You're okay," the nurse was saying to Neal. "You're on a vent and it's breathing for you. Just stop fighting it and you'll feel better. Hold on a second and I'll take it out."
"Okay," Jennifer said, cutting through the ties holding it in place. "Now I'm going to pull, and while I'm pulling I need you to cough, okay?" He nodded and then she removed it in one graceful tug that still left Neal gagging. "He's all yours." Jennifer smiled at them and stepped back.
Peter didn't remember moving to Neal's side either, but suddenly he was there, gripping his son's hand. His son's right hand, that was warm and living and responsive in his own. He squeezed it tight, probably hard enough to hurt, but Neal was squeezing it back.
"Dad?" Neal said after a moment. "Mom?" his voice was rough from the combination of the tube and days of disuse, but it was the best sound that Peter had ever heard.
"We're here," Elizabeth said, stroking back the hair from Neal's forehead. Farah had already removed the bandage from Neal's head, and his skull was completely healed. His hair was as long and messy as it had always been.
"Where am I?" Neal asked, his eyes roving around the room. He met Peter's gaze and Peter felt something let go deep inside him. He'd never thought he'd see his child's bright blue eyes again. Neal blinked. "Dad?" he said again. "Why are you crying?"
Things got a little confusing for Neal after that.
The last thing he remembered was being in the garden at Sara's place, terror flowing through him as he desperately searched for her, one hand over his missing heart.
But that had been Friday, and it was now late Monday afternoon, and he'd been moved from New York City to Colorado Springs by spaceship, and he'd just woken up with a tube down his throat and no memories of the last three days at all.
He knew he should probably be disturbed or alarmed by all of it, but right at that second it felt like the worst part was that all he was allowed to eat was blue Jell-o, even though he felt hungry enough to scarf down a cheeseburger and fries, or maybe two.
His parents were sitting with him while he ate the Jell-o, which was great until his mom started crying and his dad's eyes got red--again--and it suddenly occurred to him that maybe something really bad had happened.
He put his Jell-o down. "Mom?"
"Yes sweetheart?" she said immediately, wiping her eyes leaning forward as if he was going to tell her something really important.
"What happened?" he asked, his eyes flicking between her and his dad. "I mean, I know you said I fell, but…"
His mom and dad looked at each other. "You were dying," his dad said abruptly. "You had a severe brain injury and lots of broken bones…" he closed his eyes for a second, obviously trying to get some emotion under control. He shook his head. "We didn't think you were going to make it."
"I was dying?" Neal breathed. Now his parents' constant crying was beginning to make sense. He pushed the Jell-o farther up his table tray, suddenly feeling unwell.
"You're fine now," Elizabeth said, reading his mood like always. She picked up his hand and squeezed it. "Your father knows people in the military, and they brought you here and used a special device that healed you." She smiled even though there were tears in her eyes again.
"Did it make a yellow light?" Neal asked, remembering the brightness around him, feeling like it was pulling him back from somewhere really dark.
"Yeah," Peter said. "A woman named Vala Mal Doran used it on you." He winked. "You might want to thank her later."
Neal looked at his mom and dad and another image, much less pleasant, formed in his mind. "Did someone else use a light on me before?" he asked. "A light that hurt?"
His mom and dad looked at each other again. "Why?" Elizabeth asked. "What do you remember?"
"I remember—" Neal started but and then stopped. There were so many different images flashing through his mind, and most of them were scary and unpleasant. He shuddered.
"It's okay," his mom said, stroking his hair. "You don't have to tell us anything you don't want to.
"I remember a man," Neal said, trying to pull the images together. "He was hitting me with some kind of orange light, and it was really painful." He felt a flicker of fear at the memory. "It was in our house, wasn't it?" he said, looking at his dad. "It was in the living room of our house, and you were there."
"I was." Peter nodded seriously. "But all this happened a long time ago. Before you were born."
"Before I was born?" Neal repeated. "But that doesn't make sense! Who is this guy with the light? And how can I possibly remember something that happened before I was born?"
Elizabeth picked up Peter’s hand and gave it a supportive squeeze. "He needs to know," she said to his father.
"What?" Neal asked, looking between his parents, suddenly feeling unsure. "What do I need to know?"
"There's no easy way to say this…" Peter looked at Elizabeth with an expression of total helplessness.
His mother rolled her eyes. "I know less about it then you do."
"Oh like I know so much more!" His father protested.
"And I don't know shit about it." Neal shouted.
Both his parents turned to look at him. "Don't swear," they both said at once.
"Sorry," Neal muttered. "But come on. I have memories of things I couldn't possibly know about. You need to tell me."
"You used to be a robot," his dad said, then started as his mom shot him a poisonous glare. "What? He wanted to know."
"I used to be a robot?" Neal repeated faintly. Suddenly his mind was a kaleidoscope of images: Waking up on a desk in an ornate office, DoctorKateMoreau and DoctorMauriceHaversham looking down on him; being hit by VincentAdler hard enough for his artificial skin to split and bleed fluid as red as blood; Seeing DoctorKateMoreau kneel gracefully on the thick, expensive carpet and knowing that neither of them would leave the mansion alive; waking up again in the laboratory of the offices of the FederalBureauofInvestigation and meeting SpecialAgentPeterBurke; playing catch; going to the zoo; jumping five stories off the top of a WWII submarine and taking VincentAdler with him…
"I used to be a robot," Neal repeated in a whisper. He felt like the truth was too big to fit inside him, like it was going to explode out through his chest and leave shards of metal in its wake. He wrapped his arms around himself, trying to physically hold himself together. It was impossible, horrifying, and yet he knew it was true.
"Your robot consciousness was somehow put into the body of a four-year old," his mother said, reaching to stroke his hair. He jerked his head away.
"What four-year old?" Neal asked dully. "Did he die too?"
"What?" His dad sounded shocked. "No, no! Of course not! It was a cloned body. A child made from the DNA of a man named Neal Caffrey."
"Neal," Neal smirked. "See you got really original with my name."
"It was your name," his mother said. "When we met the robot you, your name was Neal. There was no reason to change it."
"And who is this Neal Caffrey guy?" Neal demanded. "Does he know I exist?"
"He's dead," his dad said flatly. "He died over one-hundred years ago. The military were the ones who took his DNA for cloning."
Neal shook his head. "That doesn't make any sense. How could I have been a robot and then cloned from a dead guy from a hundred years ago? And what does the military have to do with anything? I don't understand any of this!" Irrationally, he felt the prick of tears under his eyelids.
"Oh honey." His mom reached out to touch him again. He jerked away again and glared at her. "It isn't really that hard to understand," she said softly. "We loved you when you were a robot, and when you died as a robot, we were devastated. When we got the chance to have you come back to us as a child, we jumped on it immediately. You're our son, Neal. Robot or boy, you've always been our son."
"But you lied to me!" Neal cried. Angrily he swiped at the tears that were escaping from his eyes. "You told me that my birth parents were dead!"
Peter raised his hands. "Did you expect us to tell you this?" he said. "You said it yourself that it doesn't make any sense."
"But my dreams…" Neal said, and then he remembered something else. "Who is Kate? I dream about her--I remember her! Who is she? Is she dead?"
"She's the woman who made you," Peter said gently. "Along with a man called Maurice Haversham—"
"Mozzie," Neal said. "I remember him."
His dad nodded, "He helped fix you the first time we met, and he arranged to bring you here. He's helped you a lot."
"But Kate?" Neal prodded. "What happened to her?"
"She died." His dad sighed. "She was murdered by a man called—"
"Vincent Adler," Neal said along with his dad, feeling an intense flare of anger. "I remember him, too."
"He wasn't very nice to you," his dad said mildly, though his expression was murderous. "I would kill him a hundred times over for what he did to you."
"I remember he hit me," Neal said. "A lot. And he used that orange light…"
Peter nodded. "It's a really good thing that he's dead."
"He killed Kate," Neal whispered, and it felt like his heart was breaking.
"He did," his father confirmed, stroking Neal's neck. "And it was a really terrible thing to have done."
Neal lifted his head to look at his dad, feeling his eyes burn with tears. "Did she suffer?"
"No," his father answered immediately. "We found your robot body and hers together in the study of Adler's mansion. It was obvious that he'd killed you both quickly."
"And then Doctor Haversham repaired you," his mother said, running her hands down his back. "And then Peter took you home. And even then we knew you were meant to be ours."
"I was a robot," Neal rubbed at the tears in his eyes. He lay back down on his pillow, feeling totally worn-out. "I don't even know how to think about that."
"Then don't," Elizabeth said, stroking his face. "Just sleep. We'll answer your questions in the morning."
"Okay," he murmured. It was suddenly really hard to keep his eyes open.
"I love you," his mother whispered against his ear. "I love you, Neal Mitchell Burke." He felt the press of her lips against his cheek, soft and achingly familiar.
"Love you, too," he said. He felt his father squeeze his hand and he squeezed back. He opened his eyes. "Hey," he said, looking at his dad, "I'm glad--no matter how it happened, I'm glad I'm your son."
"Us, too," his dad said. He leaned over and kissed Neal on the forehead. "Now go to sleep."
And he did.
Neal woke slowly, as if his body was reluctant to leave its easy cocoon of sleep.
The first thing he was aware of was that his body hurt. He ached in all the places he had injured. His right hip was sore, his elbow was throbbing dully and his chest felt tender and bruised where his ribs had been broken. His head hurt too: a low-level headache that made him wince in the overhead light of the room.
The second thing he was aware of was that he wasn't alone.
"Good morning," the young woman said as she gracefully uncurled her feet from where they'd been tucked up under her legs. "How are you feeling?"
She was small and lithe, wearing green military pants and a long-sleeved black t-shirt that was just tight enough to show the curves of muscle in her arms. Her skin was light brown, almost golden, and her hair was a deep shade of chestnut. Her eyes were dark green and shone with intelligence and humour.
Neal ran his fingers through his hair, feeling how greasy it was. He was wearing a pair of white hospital scrubs, he hadn't shaved in four days, and couldn't remember the last time he'd brushed his teeth. But here he was with this incredibly beautiful woman and not a bar of soap in sight. He sighed, and then grinned to himself. He'd have to make the best of it.
"I'm sore," Neal replied honestly, trying to figure out if he knew her or not, and hoping that it wasn't obvious how he was staring. He smirked. "It feels like I fell off a building or something."
She laughed, a charming sound that broadened Neal's smile. "No way," she said, "it must have been something else."
"Like getting hit by a truck?" Neal grinned at her, getting into the spirit of the game.
"Maybe you were a gladiator, thrown in with the lions?" she suggested with a lift of one elegant reddish-brown eyebrow.
"Or the other gladiators," Neal said. He hoisted himself up into a sitting position with a wince. "I won, of course."
"You lost badly," she contradicted. "And were dragged out by your ankles a bleeding mess."
"Nice." He laughed. "But at least I was spared the thumbs down from the emperor!"
"Because his lovely daughter felt sorry for you, and begged for your life!" she said dramatically with her wrist against her forehead.
"To be her champion?" Neal grinned at her.
She smirked. "Her slave, of course." She got up and went to the sink by his bed. "Water?"
"Please," he said. He realized he was unbelievably thirsty. She handed him the cup and he drank it in large, greedy gulps. When he was done, she took it again and refilled it, repeating the kindness three times until he felt better. "Thanks," he said, propping himself against his pillows. "Being a gladiator seems to take a lot out of a guy."
She laughed again. "And so does the Goa'uld healing device. People are always thirsty and sore after they've been treated with it."
"So, you work for the SGC?" Neal asked, hoping the question sounded worldly.
"Of course not!" She smiled, "I'm too young. I'm Charin, daughter of Teyla Emmagan of the Athosians. My father is General Evan Lorne of the City of Atlantis. I'm here doing an independent study project with Doctor Daniel Jackson."
Neal blinked. "What?"
Charin blinked back at him. "What?" she repeated.
"I didn't understand anything that you just said," Neal said. "Did you say your name was Charming?"
"Charin," she grinned. "But everyone calls me Cherry."
"Charin," Neal tried the foreign-sounding name on his tongue. It felt exotic and seemed to suit her perfectly. "Your name is lovely."
"That's a compliment for my mother," she said. "I didn't choose my name."
"Babies usually don't," Neal agreed. He frowned as he tried to make sense of what she'd said before. "So where did you say you were from again?"
"The City of Atlantis," she said, obviously watching his expression. "You don't know about Atlantis, do you?" she asked after a moment when his face stayed blank.
"I know it's a legend that we learn about in school," Neal said. He smiled, wondering if she were making a joke and he just wasn't getting it.
"It's not a legend," she said with certainty. "It's one of the great Cities built by the Ancients, who are the beings who originally populated your galaxy."
"Oh," Neal said. Then he laughed. "You’re joking!"
Charin's green eyes narrowed, making her look dangerous and a bit sexy at the same time. "As much of a joke as the fact that your consciousness originally belonged to a robot."
Neal stared at her."How the hell'd you know that?"
"Where do you think your body was cloned?" she said, spreading her hands to indicate the hospital. "Here?"
"Since I only learned about it last night," Neal said pointedly, "I haven't had much time to think about it." He looked around the area he was in. "But now that you mention it, yeah."
"Well, it wasn't here," she said loftily. "And I know about it because it was my dad who was one of the people who arranged for you to be born." She crossed her arms.
He was running down a hallway in a huge city bathed in sunlight and surrounded by an ocean.
"Neal!" a man called, and Neal giggled and ran towards a handsome, dark-haired man in a military uniform, who lifted him up and swooped him around…
"I think I remember him," Neal said, smiling. "I remember I was running down the hallway in this huge city that floated on the water, and this man picked me up—"
"That would be my dad." Charin smiled as well. "He loves children. He always said you were a great little kid."
"So, you grew up there?" Neal said, leaning forward. "In that huge city built by…what did you call them? Ancients?"
"Yes." She nodded. "And it really is in another galaxy, in case you thought I was joking about that, too."
"And I was cloned there?" Neal said. He shook his head. "Wow. That sounds crazy when I say it out loud."
"There's a device there that creates clones out of samples of DNA," Charin explained. "Doctor Rodney McKay programmed the machine to make you using some DNA that my dad's military had found around ten years before. But it was old, so they patched it up with some DNA from your mom." Charin grinned at him. "My dad said that's where you got your beautiful blue eyes."
"I have DNA from my mother?" Neal said, incredulous. "She's my mother, like, for real?"
Charin looked at him like he'd just grown another head. "Hasn't she always been your mother for real?"
Neal Shrugged. "I guess. It's just hard, you know?" He continued. "To realize that everything I thought about my life was kind of a lie."
Charin looked confused. "What part was a lie?"
"Oh, the fact that I wasn't cloned?" Neal said.
"We're all clones in a way," Charin said matter-of-factly. "Everyone tells me I'm the exact image of my mother."
"She must be beautiful," Neal blurted, and then blushed.
"She is." Charin smiled at him. "And that's another compliment for her."
"But wouldn't it bother you?" he tried again. "To learn that the way you were born, the people you thought gave birth to you, didn't really exist? I mean, I was a robot for God's sake! Wouldn't that faze you at all?"
"I can understand why this might be really strange for you," Charin said, "but let me put it this way--you're not the only robot-turned-human where I come from. So actually, your birth story seems kind of, well, ordinary."
Neal blinked. "I’m not the only one?"
"Not even close," Charin said, and while Neal was digesting that, she continued: "Try not to let the fact that you used to be a robot be more important than it is. It matters more what you do with your life than how you were born into it."
"Wow," Neal said, impressed. "You're smart."
"And that I'll take as a compliment for myself." She winked at him. "You have quite the smooth tongue, Mr. Burke."
"And that's also a compliment for me." Neal grinned at her. "Because there is no way I would've inherited being a smooth talker from my dad. Speaking of which," he said, only really noticing that his parents weren't there for the first time, "where are my folks?"
"They returned early this morning while you were asleep," she said. "And since you stayed asleep, General Mitchell and Doctor Keller decided to take them out for breakfast. I stayed here to keep you company in case you woke up."
"Sorry you missed breakfast just to watch me sleep," Neal said. "That can't have been fun."
"You'd be surprised how easy it is to watch you sleep," she said with a curve of her lips.
"And you're welcome to do it anytime." Neal grinned back, enjoying their flirtation. "So," he said in what he hoped was a casual manner. "You ever been to New York?"
Charin gazed at him with those incredible green eyes. "I might be persuaded."
"Fantastic." Neal beamed. "Because there's this awesome display on at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that I'd bet you'd love, and as soon as I get out of here, we—"
"Neal?" his mother said from the doorway. She was holding one of his gym bags and beaming at him.
Charin stood as regally as a princess. "It's lovely to see you again, Mrs. Burke."
"Thank you for keeping Neal company," Elizabeth said with a smile.
"I think I'll go see if Doctor Jackson needs my help," Charin said to Neal. She passed by his bed on her way out, caressing his arm from shoulder to hand. "Shall I come back in half an hour to take you for breakfast?" she asked, eyebrow lifted and her lips smiling. "I can promise you the best mess hall food the SGC can offer."
He laughed. "Looking forward to it." he squeezed her hand. She squeezed back holding his gaze for a moment, then left.
"Wow," Neal breathed, still watching the door after she'd gone. His arm was tingling from her touch.
"She's really pretty," his mom agreed, coming to sit in the chair Charin had just vacated.
"Yeah," Neal sighed, then grinned at his mother. "I think I like it here."
"I bet you do." Elizabeth laughed. She put the bag on the side of his bed. "Your father packed you some toiletries and a change of clothes." She gave him a teasing smile. "You may want to shower before Charin comes back."
"Shower!" Neal cried happily. He looked around. "Where's dad?"
"I sent him back to bed," Elizabeth said. "He hasn't slept much in the last few days."
"Oh," Neal said, knowing why that was and not wanting to think about it. He opened the bag instead and pulled out the small item on the top, smiling widely. "You packed my iPad!"
"It was your dad," Elizabeth said. "But I thought you might like it to tell your friends where you are."
"Totally," he agreed, already pulling up his email account. He frowned. "Alex is in Copenhagen," he read. "She says she's going to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris next year." He looked up at his mother. "What the heck?"
"She sent me a text to say that her parents had taken her to Europe the day you got injured," she said with a sympathetic smile. "I think the fact she was using drugs disturbed them and they wanted her away from the States for a while." She gave a small shrug. "You know the Hunters."
"Yeah." Neal scowled. "Appearance is everything to them. But I was really looking forward to going to NYU with her."
"I know honey," Elizabeth said. "It must be very disappointing."
"Uh huh." Neal sighed. He turned to his next email. "What the fuck?"
"Don’t swear." His mother said. She leaned forward. "What’s wrong?"
"Matthew joined the Air Force," he exclaimed, pointing to the message on his screen.
"He told me," his mom said, stroking his shoulder. "He said he wanted to do something that would make you proud."
"I don't understand," Neal said, studying the message as if it would help him figure it out. "Why would he care about making me proud?"
"You were dying," his mother said quietly. "And it affected Matthew a lot. I think it made him want to be the type of person you'd always wanted him to be."
"Wow," Neal said quietly. He looked at Elizabeth, suddenly feeling very young. "Will I ever see them again?"
"Oh honey," she said, moving her hand to run it through his hair, greasy as it was. "I'm sure you will. Matthew has already promised me he'll stay with us when he's on leave, and Alex being in Paris will be a great excuse to go visit. It will work out. You'll see."
"Okay," Neal said, slightly mollified. He opened the next message:
Subject: I'm not sure how to say this…
Sent: Mon 06/19/2023, 04:47
It's really early as I'm writing this. The sun is just beginning to lighten the Eastern sky in shades of pink and the palest yellow. It's a beautiful sunrise, and I'm watching it while I'm sitting on our bench in the garden. The one where we always went to talk, or study or just be together without saying anything at all.
But I hate it here now. All I can see when I look at this garden is the image of you five stories down, lying broken and bleeding on the roof of that car, looking like you were already dead.
Your mom sent me a message late yesterday, saying that you were going to a special hospital in Colorado where there was some new technology that could save your life. I'm praying really hard that it's true, and you'll actually read this message one day. I don't know what I'd do if you died.
The idea of you being hurt in hospital breaks my heart. But it was already broken when I realized that I was in love with you, and you were never going to love me the same way. I want you whole and healthy, and in my life forever, but I can't be where you are anymore. I need to fall out of love with you, Neal, before I can fall in love with someone else.
So I've decided I'm not going to go to NYU with you and Alex and Keller anymore. I'm going to get my B.F.A. from Yale, if they'll accept me. And if not? Well, I'll find somewhere else to go. But I know it's not going to be in New York, and it's not going to be with you.
Please don't hate me for this letter. I want you to get better more than anything in the world, and I promise that I'll always be your best friend. But I can't do this anymore. I hope you'll understand.
Please write me as soon as you can, to let me know that you're okay. I really need you to be okay.
Love, your friend, Sara.
It felt like he'd been sucker-punched, and now he was lying in the dirt, trying to remember how to breathe.
"Neal?" his mother said, hand on his shoulder. "Neal, what's wrong?"
"It's Sara," he choked out. "She's—" he had to stop and wipe the tears out of his eyes. The movement caused his ribs to hurt, but it was nothing compared to the way his heart felt.
Gently, his mother took the iPad out of his hand. "May I?"
He nodded and gestured that she could read Sara's letter. She sat back down on the chair and bent her head to read it while Neal managed to get his emotions under control.
"Wow," she said after a few minutes. "I bet that hurt."
Neal nodded again. "Like a kick to the head."
"I'm so sorry," Elizabeth said. "All three of your friends gone, just like that. I can't imagine what you're feeling right now."
"Pretty bad, actually," Neal said. He shook his head. "I was only out for three days."
"But you were dying," his mother said, and her voice caught on the word. "And I think that it made Sara and Matthew do some pretty hard thinking about what they wanted, and maybe even who they were."
"But I was the one in hospital." Neal heard the whine in his voice. "It wasn't like they were the ones who got hurt."
"I think seeing you like that did hurt them," Elizabeth replied, "I think it hurt them so bad that they realized that they couldn't go on without you. I think that this is their attempt to find a life for themselves without you being the centre of it. You matter so much to them Neal, that they had to find a way to live without you."
"But now I have to live without them!" Neal cried.
"And that really sucks," his mother said. "It's not fair."
"No, it’s not." Neal agreed. "I mean, Matthew's been talking on and off about joining the military for years, so I guess I'm happy for him. But Sara?" He looked at his mother. "I thought we were best friends! Why would she do that?"
"Sara's loved you since the moment she met you," his mom said. "It's true," she said when Neal stared at her. "I could see it on her face every time she was with you, and how much it affected her that you didn’t feel the same way. I know you’re hurting, but this is what Sara needs to do."
Neal rubbed his chest, remembering how in the garden he'd seen it blown open with no heart inside, only shards of metal bursting out and coated in red. "Mom?"
He plucked at the blanket covering his legs. "Do you think there's something wrong with me for not falling in love with Sara?"
Her eyebrows drew down. "What do you mean?"
Neal sighed, trying to explain. "Sara's smart and funny, and caring and beautiful. She's got everything a guy could ever want, and I guess she's been in love with me for forever, but…" he looked at his mother. "Is it because I was a robot? Do you think that's the reason I can't love Sara the way she wants?"
Elizabeth shook her head. "No, Honey," she said. "That's not it at all." She smiled. "Look at it this way--how many women do you think your dad dated before me?"
"What?" Neal made a face.
"Stay with me here." Elizabeth grinned. "How many?"
Neal shrugged. "I dunno. Ten?"
His mom laughed. "Way too high. Try three."
Neal blinked. "Three? Seriously?"
"Oh yeah," Elizabeth said. "I'm lucky number four." She looked thoughtful. "Although, he only had sex with two of them. So maybe I am number three after all."
"Mom!" Neal protested. "Don't tell me that!"
"Sorry," she smirked, clearly anything but. "Your dad did love those three other women," she continued. "But obviously not enough to marry them. He waited, bided his time, and then once he met me, he was done."
"Done?" Neal repeated.
"Yup," Elizabeth said. "Your dad didn't waste time dating, and he certainly wasn't interested in playing the field. And even though he was handsome enough and charming enough to get any girl he wanted, he waited until the right one came along." She grinned at him. "And that was me."
Neal's eyebrows rose. "I thought dad didn't date all that much because he's horrible at flirting."
Elizabeth laughed again. "Well, that might have had a little to do with it. But that's clearly not your problem if your conversation with Charin was any indication."
Neal smiled self-consciously. "She's really nice."
"Yes, she is," his mother agreed. "And smart, and funny and caring and very beautiful. In fact, she's everything a guy could want. Don't you think?"
Neal tilted his head. "What?"
"I could see the spark between the two of you," Elizabeth said. She raised her hands. "Now I know that you probably hate the fact that I noticed, but I did. But the question is -- did you notice that spark?"
"Yeah," Neal said, feeling awkward to be discussing this with his mother.
"Have you ever felt that with Sara?"
"No," he said mournfully. "I guess I haven't."
"That spark you felt?" She said. "Sometimes it grows into a bonfire." Elizabeth smiled at him, kind and warm and full of affection. "And that bonfire, well, that's love."
"Is that what you have with dad?" Neal asked. "A bonfire?"
"Sometimes." she grinned. "Sometimes it doesn't flare quite so hot, but it's always warm"
"Huh," Neal said, thinking.
"Exactly," his mother said. "And I would guess that if you can feel a spark with Charin, then you're probably not a robot."
Neal chuckled, relieved. "Probably not."
"Your dad is a one-woman man," Elizabeth said. "And you, Neal, are cut from exactly the same cloth. You don't fall in love easily, but when you do, you'll fall fast, and hard. And it will be the type of flame that burns forever. I promise you that."
"Thanks, mom." He smiled.
"I meant every word," she said and ruffled his hair. "Now go take a shower before Charin gets back. Your hair is gross!" She bent and gave him a kiss on the cheek.
"I love you, mom," he said.
"I love you too, Neal Mitchell Burke," Elizabeth smoothed her hand down his face.
"Now go so I can get washed." He gently pushed at her.
She laughed, kissed him again and left.
Neal sat back on his bed, grimacing as his body protested the movement. He hurt, but he was alive and well and almost completely healed thanks to the kindness of people like Vala Mal Doran and Doctor Haversham.
He thought about how it felt to know he'd once been a robot, and realized that maybe it didn't matter as much as he'd thought. it matters more what you do with your life, than how you were born into it, Charin had said, and that made a lot of sense. And really, if you fell off of a wall five-stories up and lived, maybe it was a bit like being born again, with all the new chances that represented. At least his friends were treating it like that; all of them making new lives for themselves out in the world.
He planned on emailing Matthew and Alex as soon as he could, to tell them he loved them, and that they both sucked for not saying good-bye in person.
And he was going to cross his fingers for Sara getting into Yale, even though the idea of being away from her hurt worse than his healing ribs. But if she needed it to be happy, then he'd be happy for her. And hopefully she'd come back to New York in love with someone else, and they could be together again.
He thought about his parents, and how they'd seen something in him to love when he was still just a robot; before he even became a person. And really, how cool was that?
"You are one lucky bastard," Neal said as he stood, wincing a bit at the pain in his hip. He had caring parents, and friends who loved him, and a pretty girl who lived in a floating city who had invited him to breakfast. Charin, Neal thought to himself, and grinned, thinking about sparks and bonfires and being a one-woman man.
And if he was lucky, he'd be able to take a shower and shave and put on some real clothes before she came back. He knew he looked good when he was well-groomed, and who knew? Maybe that would help add fuel to the sparks he felt between him and Charin, maybe turning it into a fire of its own. And that wouldn't be a bad thing at all.