Author's note: So this is the end, and that makes me very sad, because I've had so much fun with this.
Thank you, first and foremost, to Susan who betaed this when she really didn't have the time. That was all the more remarkable because this is twice as long as my last story. You are wonderful, my friend.
Thank you to my husband, also known as 'my doting fan' who has supported me throughout the story, and actually likes the show!
Thank you also to everyone who took the time to let me know what they enjoyed about the story or to encourage me to write more. One of the reasons I'm sorry this story is over is because I have really enjoyed talking with so many of you. To Mary, who has been a constant source of delight with her wonderful comments and letters, Judith, Pam, Kim, Vanessa, Peggy, Canadiansanget, Deb and Ultrascape, all of whom have engaged in fascinating personal correspondence with me.
Just a quick warning. The next thing I post will be my Supernatural story, which has been mildewing in an abandoned folder for over 3 years. However, I have started writing a new White Collar, but it will be a while before I post since I never start posting until the story is complete.
There are so many others I want to thank who diligently reviewed, but this is already sounding like an Oscar acceptance speech, so without further ado, here is the completion of Scapegoat.
Regaining consciousness was like rising up from the murky depths of a turbulent ocean, the currents dragging heavily on his water-logged clothes and exhausted muscles as he struggled and kicked to the surface. It was entirely too bright up there, and it was hard to force his eyes open, but there was a Siren voice calling his name; - soft, feminine and insistent.
His first blurry, pain-sparkled impression was of bright blue eyes and dark, glossy hair. His immediate hazy assumption of 'Kate' faded with a grieved pang as memory and eyesight improved. Identification of the raven-haired beauty rippled in, gently flooding him with almost as much comfort as Kate's presence would have brought.
"Elizabeth," he whispered hoarsely. He squeezed the hand he hadn't realised was holding his, and she graced him with her special smile - sweet, empathic, with a touch of mischief, but at that moment, it also held an uncharacteristic edge of weariness and worry. That observation triggered a flash of memory, and he bolted upright. "Peter!" It was a horrified gasp and a query.
El's smile quirked a little. It was an odd reaction and strangely reassuring. She nodded to the other bed in the room. "He's over there."
There was a rhythmic throbbing in his skull, and movement created waves of dizziness, but, despite that, Neal shifted to get a better view. The quarter profile he was offered amidst the pillows was unmistakably Peter, but it was hard to reconcile that peaceful pose with his memories of violence. "How bad?" he asked urgently.
"Slight concussion and bruising and thirty seven stitches in his arm," El recited dutifully. There was something patient and repetitive about her response, and it clued Neal in to another realisation.
"I've asked you this before," he said slowly.
The quirk returned. "It's only the fourth time. You've been drifting in and out for a day or two, and it's always the first thing you ask. The doctors say your memory might be spotty for a while." She pushed an unruly lock of hair off his forehead. There was a touch of curiosity and an even deeper worry in her expression as if she realised that there was more to the story, that there was a good reason for the emphasis that Neal was placing on Peter's state of health.
Neal had no intention of sharing the memory that inspired his apparently reoccurring anxiety. The image of the knife descending to stick quivering in Peter's unprotected back was seared into his mind seemingly indelibly, since that was the one thing he remembered clearly. Yet apparently it was also inaccurate; no mention had been made about a knife injury to Peter's back.
"I don't remember," he murmured vaguely, allowing her to interpret that as referring to his previous inquiries. He glanced over at Peter again, and now that stillness seemed ominous. There was a strange sense of compression in his chest, as if breathing were unnatural.
"If he's not badly hurt, why is he..." Neal waved a hand vaguely to indicate either Peter's state of unconsciousness or his presence in the hospital bed.
El gave a little huff and a downward purse of the lips. "The doctors said blood loss and exhaustion mostly. And I don't know when he last ate," she added more maternally.
As if talking about her husband created a magnetic pull, she stood up and padded the few steps over to the other bed. Her expression was soft as she stared down, checking on Peter. Reassured, she resumed her seat next to Neal.
"He just...he couldn't..." Her voice held a perceptible wobble. "He just couldn't allow himself to properly relax until we knew you were out of the woods. The doctors were worried about you for a while. You were unresponsive, and there was talk about the possibility of brain damage, a cerebral edema." There was a tear balanced on the edge of her lashes, and he reached out to prevent it streaking down her cheek.
He didn't know if was for himself or Peter, but he hated to see it on a face that was made for smiling. "I'm sorry," he said uselessly.
He took her hand and squeezed it comfortingly, then on impulse, pulled it towards himself and placed a kiss on the back of her fingers. It wasn't his usual flirting gallantry, but a genuine attempt to show the respect and love he felt for this remarkable woman.
There had to be an explanation for the stabbing he believed he'd witnessed, but El would surely know if her husband had a hole in his back, and there'd be a lot more by way of monitoring machines and medical paraphernalia if Peter had suffered a serious injury, so for now, he had to let it go.
"The last thing I remember," Neal said thoughtfully, events still fuzzy in his head, "I was doing my best impression of Santa Claus in the home of a Russian mobster. How did I get from there to here?"
"Peter went in after you...well, not down the chimney. At least, I don't think so."
They both sat there and contemplated the mental image of Peter diving down a flue to extract his missing partner. El shook her head to dispel the picture. "He wasn't exactly informative on the issue. I think his exact words were, 'so I went in and got him out.'"
Neal didn't shake his head because he was afraid it might fall off if he attempted such strenuous gymnastics. "Hardly enlightening. Somehow, I don't think a flash of a badge and a stern look would make much of an impression on the Russian mob. Besides, it lacks a certain subtlety." Catching her expression, he quickly added, "But it was definitely successful. Genius in its simplicity."
His hasty backtracking did nothing to abate the worried frown on her face, and that reawoke his own sense of unease. "What is it? There's something wrong, isn't there?"
Seeing the renewed apprehension written clearly in his expression, El quickly reassured him. "Nothing like that. Peter's going to be fine, I promise."
The fingers twisting her wedding ring round and round told a different story. Neal reached out to grasp her hand, stilling the nervous movement. "Please tell me. I want to help."
EL rested her head momentarily on their joined hands and exhaled slowly. "It's probably nothing. It's just that Reese seemed ..."
"Hughes has been here?" Neal interrupted with some trepidation, remembering his own illegal activities over the past few days.
"Yes, and he looked really grim."
"How could you tell?" Neal responded immediately, with just the right touch of incredulity.
El pressed her fingertips to her mouth to suppress a smile. "Neal," she said with mock severity.
"Grim is his default expression," he elaborated meekly.
"Well, that has certainly been true this last few days." El grimaced. "He's been wanting to talk to Peter, but the first time he was here, the doctors refused to let him in, since they were working on Peter's arm. The second time, Peter was asleep. Reese came in here, glared at Peter, muttered something about you being a bad influence, and left."
"El, I'm sure there's no reason to worry. This is Peter we're talking about. He's the Bureau's golden boy, by-the-book-Burke. How much trouble could he be in?"
"He's changed." They both could hear the subtext - you changed him. "He takes more risks now, bends the rules at least in a way he never did before."
At first, these words caused Neal to feel a sense of selfish gratification, a relief that he wasn't the only one transformed by this partnership. His time working with Peter had matured him, forcing him to face the repercussions of his past actions and consider the consequences of future activities, not the least of which was disappointing Peter himself. But that satisfaction quickly soured in his stomach, and he rubbed the heel of his palm into his eye as a delaying tactic, unsure what he wanted to say. Despite his flippant response about Peter's conventionality, he knew that his partner had covered for him any number of times when official rules would have dictated otherwise. Even after the whole diamond debacle, he had offered Neal the benefit of the doubt. Having identified Neal as the thief, he hadn't come storming in with a warrant, but had given his friend the chance to explain his actions first. Furthermore, he hadn't reported the bullet wound as he was legally bound to do.
Peter had gone to great lengths to protect Neal, but it was a two-way street, because Neal was determined that no harm was going to come to Peter on his watch again.
Finally he sucked in a shaky breath. "I'm sorry," he offered inadequately.
To his surprise, El shook her head immediately with a soft smile. "There's no need for an apology. Peter has always been passionately dedicated to his work, but now he..." she paused, clearly rooting around for the right word, "...enjoys it. And your phenomenal closure rate hasn't hurt his reputation any. You're good for each other," she concluded.
"If there's a problem, I'll fix it." Neal's promise was spoilt by a yawn.
El smiled sweetly at him. "Go to sleep, hon. I'm sure it'll work out." She checked her watch. "Visiting hours are nearly over, and I'll need to leave soon."
Neal initially tried to fight the pull of sleep, afraid the memories of the conversation would again be swept away by the interval of unconsciousness, but the drag of exhaustion was inexorable, and he finally surrendered.
The next time he roused from sleep, it didn't take him long to reorient himself. It was dark outside, but that didn't translate to being particularly dark inside. There was too much ambient light from the various machines in the room and from the miscellany of emergency lights that glowed relentlessly.
He remembered his conversation with El and was congratulating himself on his recovered amnesiac status when a familiar voice cut through his deliberations.
"So, you were telling me about the Musee d'Orsay heist."
"No I wasn't!" It was an automatic, slightly panicked denial because he had apparently had several conversations that his memory failed to recall. Belatedly, he realised that was probably the wrong denial and hastily added, "No, I didn't...have anything to do with that."
Levering himself upright, he turned to look at his best friend and partner who was sitting facing him on the side of the second bed, legs dangling over the edge like an overgrown school kid. Peter was pale and drawn, with a three-day growth of stubble. He looked terrible, and was the most wonderful sight Neal had seen in days.
"Are you trying to take advantage of an injured man, Agent Burke?" he complained playfully.
Peter grinned mischievously. "You are just so adorably talkative when you're dopey. I never know what interesting anecdotes I might hear."
Neal slumped back against his pillows. "I can tell you a bedtime story if you want. Match the theme of this little sleepover."
"Hey, this was El's idea, not mine. She said she wanted us both where she could see us."
As Neal rubbed at his temples to erase the persistent ache in his head, Peter watched him intently, taking in the sleepless nights painted like bruises under his eyes, fatigue drawing his cheekbones sharper.
"How're you doing?" he asked, without much expectation of a straight answer.
As expected, his concern was deflected. "You don't get to ask me that." Neal pointed at Peter accusingly. "I have a very persistent memory of you dead. So I'm the one who gets to ask."
Peter rolled his eyes good humouredly. "Neal, for the 54th time..."
"Don't exaggerate. El said it was only 4 or 5."
"She wasn't here for the first 50. So for the 55th time, I'm fine."
Neal sucked in a breath and suppressed the cough that rattled in his lungs. Apparently being stuck in a chimney wasn't good for the respiratory system. Who knew? "37 stitches and a concussion is not fine. You're as far from fine as a person can get and still be so annoying."
Peter arched an eyebrow. "What does that mean? I don't even know what that means."
"It means why do I remember you with a knife in your back?" Neal was proud of the way his voice didn't waver.
"SInce words are obviously insufficient in your weakened mental state, perhaps a visual aid will help." Peter leaned over and plucked something from the back of a chair, before tossing it in Neal's direction.
Neal caught it by blind instinct, his still-hazy vision not up to tracking a flying object. After a moment's confusion, he identified the leather contraption he was holding as Peter's holster. At the sturdiest part, where the two straps crossed, his fingers found the gash.
His heart thumped roughly against the inside of his ribs, and he met his friend's gaze soberly. "It was too close, Peter."
Peter shrugged nonchalantly. "It wasn't as dangerous as it probably looked. I was going down anyway, and that preempted much of the force behind the blow. Anyway, whether it was good luck or good management, everything's fine."
"It's not fine. Damn it, Peter, I thought you were dead." This wasn't a conversation Neal wanted to have while lying in bed. He felt the urge to run, his muscles spasming in anticipation of movement, wanting to feel nothing but the wind in his face and the pounding of feet. He pulled his legs out from under the covers and swung them over the side, needing at least some motion, but a wave of dizziness washed away his ability to even pace, leaving him stranded on the side of the bed in a mirror position to Peter's.
He forced himself to meet his friend's gaze, allowing his friend to read what that belief, mistaken as it was, had meant to him. The honest pain and devastation in his expression forced Peter to look away and clear his throat uncomfortably.
"Look, Neal. I'm fine." He held out both arms in a demonstration of health that was spoilt as the movement forced out a wince.
"This time," was Neal's ominous addendum.
The square jaw of the man opposite him ground audibly. "What are you trying to say?"
Neal was silent for a long moment. He could feel Peter's full attention on him like a physical weight, simultaneously oppressive and comforting. Peter had always exuded a gravity that tugged Neal off course from his own erratic orbit into a more stable path. Yet what Neal needed to say might alter that, and suddenly everything felt precarious, as if his life were a card house built on the edge of a cliff and the wind was picking up.
"This partnership thing - it isn't fair on you." When that elicited no reaction, Neal added defiantly, "And it isn't fair on El." The latter was dirty pool, a below-the-belt hit which provoked the flinch he'd been aiming for.
"Are you trying to ditch me, Caffrey?" Peter appeared to have reigned himself in, his voice controlled and devoid of inflection.
"Who wouldn't?" Neal tried for a lighter touch.
Peter huffed out a small, annoyed breath. "I guess that concussion addled your brains more than I thought."
"All other FBI agents have partners with a gun and training, someone who can back them up in a dangerous situation," Neal persisted, needing to get his point across.
"We work in the White Collar unit, Neal, not the OK Corral. Ninety-nine percent of the time, we have warning going into a potentially dangerous situation, and we have Diana, Jones, or maybe the whole SWAT team as back up."
Neal wanted to stop, but somewhere inside him a fuse had blown, a breaker tripped, and his worst fears gushed out in an unstoppable torrent. He hated being this open, but either he was on drugs that were screwing with his mind, or the shift from danger to safety had tumbled his emotional defenses like dominoes. "I know that. But I'm still a liability, and when you focus on protecting me, you're not going to see the bad guy coming up behind you."
Neal's emotions seemed unusually volatile, so Peter did his best to settle him down, soothing his fears while keeping the mood casual. "Catching bad guys is my job, remember. I'm trained to serve and protect."
"I thought the motto of the FBI was Fidelity, Bravery, Integrity," Neal frowned with feigned perplexity.
"You're missing the point - which is that I can rub my stomach and pat my head at the same time." Peter's arm objected to an effort to give a demonstration, so he desisted.
"One of your many spellbinding talents, but maybe the point is that you shouldn't have to."
Peter gave a sigh of long-suffering patience. Mentally running down the list of concussion symptoms, he skidded to a halt at depression. Neal had blanked out his expression, but the hunch in his shoulders communicated his misery. "Neal, I know you have an IQ higher than the national debt of most developing countries, so stop being an idiot."
Neal tipped his head on one side contemplatively. "I think there was a compliment in there somewhere, but it got lost in the abuse."
"Well I had to get your attention. Now be quiet and listen. First and foremost, in case you had any delusions, you're not getting a gun. You'll always be my unarmed partner, no getting around that one."
"That..." Peter held up a finger in restraint, and Neal closed his mouth again.
"The best weapon you possess, after your mouth fails, is your quite amazingly fast legs. Run like hell and trust me to have your back."
"And trust me to look after myself." Peter quickly overrode the next objection. "Next, I'm not going to partner you with anyone else."
"No," This time it took a whole hand raised for Neal to subside a trifle sulkily. "And what part of 'be quiet' don't you understand?"
'The part where you actually think I'll stop talking.' Neal bit his lip to stop himself from actually saying that, but he wasn't surprised when Peter retorted.
"I heard that."
"I didn't say a word.
"You didn't have to; I know what you were thinking."
Neal drew in a deep breath, but it caught in his throat, a tickle moving quickly through a series of grating coughs into a paroxysm. His lungs just refused to function, so he couldn't seem to get anything even vaguely resembling a scrap of oxygen. He curled over protectively, clutching at his side and drawing up his knees in pain.
The bed dipped, then a voice in his ear commanded, "Breathe, Neal, breathe!" He felt a hand on his back, not moving, just grounding him as the world slowly and painfully came back into focus, and he managed a hitching breath. A glass was thrust into his hand with the order to drink and, as he managed to comply, the liquid soothed the irritation in his throat. Cautiously, he straightened out, striving to keep each breath slow and shallow.
Peter gave him time to recover, noting the clamped-down tension that still resided in the muscles under his fingers. It was becoming clear that Neal was feeling responsible for Peter's close call, and, unaccustomed to that feeling, wasn't dealing with it very well.
Although he was all for encouraging emotional growth in his young friend, it wasn't fair to allow him to continue to feel culpable. As soon as he felt Neal would be receptive, Peter steered him around until they were facing again. "Let's make this perfectly clear. This was not your fault. My getting hurt was not your fault. My getting involved was not your fault."
Peter could tell he had hit the nail on the head because Neal now shut his mouth firmly and sat back, but his eyes were wide and conflicted, doing the talking for him.
"Neal, this was an OPR mess, not one you created. I'd have got pulled in sooner or later anyway. That Condron got the jump on you was my fault. I should never have left you alone. I wanted to call El and also give you the chance to rest, but that was my mistake. Besides, I'm pretty sure it's thanks to you that they didn't finish me off. They can't have intended to leave me there as a witness, so it's a good bet you led them away from me. I didn't have to be conscious to know that."
Guilt had turned to confusion and pensiveness in Neal's expressive eyes. Peter decided it was time to nip this uncharacteristic insecurity in the bud. "I don't want anyone else as my partner. We work well together and...I trust you to have my back, weapon or not. Oh don't let it go to your head," he growled seeing the smug expression resurface on Neal's face.
The young man put up a hand like an obedient child in class. Peter gestured wearily. "Yes, you can talk now. What?"
"Did that hurt?"
"Little bit, yes."
After grinning in mutual understanding, they both sat for a while in silence. The beds were high, and Neal's feet didn't touch the ground, and he swung them gently to and fro in a soothing rhythm. It was easier to breathe now; the tight constriction binding his chest had loosened with Peter's supportive sentiments. He hadn't even realised how paralysing the weight of his guilt and fears had been until they had been lifted. He wanted to bask in the relief, but remembering El's concerns, he realised it was premature to consider the matter closed. He decided to approach the problem obliquely.
"Anyway." He stretched the word out for several syllables to signal a change in the subject. "How much trouble am I in?"
Peter glanced up from his perusal of the floor. "None at all, I've got it covered. There's nothing to worry about."
"Then how much trouble are you in?"
"What makes you think I'm in any trouble?" Peter countered.
"What makes El think I'm in any trouble?"
"Well, what makes Hughes...oh, okay, fine." Peter threw up his hands in capitulation. He started to speak, then reconsidered, shutting his mouth with a snap before trying again with a rueful expression. "I'll admit, I'm not going to be Hughes' favourite person for a while."
When Neal just stared at him expectantly, Peter continued unwillingly, "Okay, it's just possible I might draw an official reprimand, but nothing terrible."
A frown overrode the concern on Neal's face. "This isn't right. I'm going to Hughes to tell him what really happened, that none of this is your fault."
Peter gazed upwards as if imploring the heavens to give him strength. "I can't believe I'm going to say this. Far be it for me to discourage this fit of excessive honesty, but you're exhibiting it at the worst possible time. You are not to mention the diamond heist. Just let me handle this."
Eyes round with innocence, Neal asked, "So, you're not going to be honest with Hughes."
"Of course I am," Peter snapped. "I'm going to tell him the truth. Just..." he added with palpable reluctance, "Just not the whole truth. Oh, take that look off your face."
"But I'm so proud, young Padawan."
That drew a reluctant smirk, before Peter admonished, "Don't be. It's not like you invented prevarication."
"So what are you going to tell him?"
Peter hopped off Neal's bed to find a glass of water for himself. He needed a moment to pull his thoughts together. They needed to have their stories straight, but it went against the grain to encourage Neal's tendency to equivocate, so he wanted to keep this as genuine as possible.
"You told me you weren't feeling well, so I went over to check on you and found you in the midst of being kidnapped by rogue OPR agents for their own nefarious purposes. When I tried heroically to interfere, I got stabbed for my trouble. The OPR agents left me for dead and took you outside where their past caught up with them, and they died in some kind of gun battle. You, of course, have little memory of this because of your unfortunate concussion. You were staggering around in confusion on the streets when Shorovosky's men found you and out of the greatest goodness of their hearts took you in to get medical attention."
"They did?" Neal interrupted, surprised for the first time in the narration.
"Yep, good Samaritans, the lot of 'em. They stuck you in a bed to sleep it off. You woke up confused and for some inexplicable reason decided to go chimney diving."
Neal assessed the tale, mentally probing for weak spots, and it didn't take long to find one. "Peter, it's a good story, but what about the diamonds? The Bureau will continue to look for them and the thief that took them."
Peter's confidence didn't falter. "Shorovosky bought the diamonds in good faith from the OPR agents. Upon finding out they were stolen, he immediately handed them over to a representative of the law - me."
"He did?" Neal shook his head ruefully. "It's amazing what you miss when you're stuck in a chimney."
"Yes, the diamonds are back where they belong, so the case is more or less closed. No one is really looking for the thief."
"Peter," Neal said with the greatest admiration. "That's brilliant. The Padawan has become the Master."
"Just remember that your role in this is innocent victim." Peter cautioned him, knowing his friend's tendency to improvise when he became embroiled in chicanery.
"Innocent victim, got it." Neal nodded enthusiastically, then stopped abruptly as his brains seemed to roll queasily with the movement.
"Any awkward questions and you plead concussive amnesia. Just so we're clear on this, I'm not condoning diamond heists or heists of any kind. I'm just not having you take the fall for something that's not your fault.
Peter glanced at his watch on the bedside table. "It's nearly four o'clock in the morning. They'll be coming to wake us up for breakfast shortly. We need to get some sleep."
"I'm not tired," Neal protested.
"That's what happens when you sleep all day. It screws up your internal clock."
Neal didn't put up much resistance as Peter helped him back under the covers. The agent then turned off a light that reduced the illumination to a more crepuscular level before climbing in to his own bed. However, he seemed no more inclined to actually sleep than Neal, and the two of them fell into a desultory conversation which ebbed and flowed into the morning hours.
During a lull, Neal was contemplating the ceiling, comparing the chiaroscuro patterns he found there to his favourite abstract art, when a pensive voice came from the other bed. "If you had to make a guess, what would you say it was all about - the music box, the nesting dolls? You must have a theory."
Neal could tell that the agent wasn't fishing; he was genuinely curious and interested in his friend's opinion. "There must be a link. I have no real idea, but I'll give you my best guess. The connection appears to be Russia. When the Nazi's invaded Russia in World War Two, the Russians hid their artwork and precious items to protect them from the looting they knew would come. I think it's possible that the Music Box and the Matryoshka held clues as to the whereabouts of one of those stashes." He scratched his nose thoughtfully. "However, I could be totally wrong, and maybe it holds the identity of a cold war spy."
"A James Bond era espionage caper? That would be a nice change of pace." Yeah, Neal certainly had the daring and panache to be James Bond, but Peter had no intention of sharing that nugget of information with his partner. He heard a yawn from across the room and smiled fondly, hoping it meant the young man was finally drifting off. No such luck. Only a minute later, Neal's voice piped up once more.
"So why are you in Hughes' bad books?" Neal ignored the quelling glance from the opposite bed. "Go on, tell me. You know you're going to, or I'll just have to ask Diana or Jones. Or maybe I'll ask Hughes himself."
That surprised a snort of laughter from Peter, but knowing how relentless Neal could be in pursuit of desired information, he gave in. "Fine. I may have disobeyed an order when I went to Shorovosky's."
Neal nearly bounced on the bed in glee. "That's shocking. Such flouting of authority."
"Said the freakishly well-dressed pot calling the kettle black."
"Also, have I taught you nothing? Where was the stealth, the elegance, the subtlety of approach? You just went and knocked on the door of the Russian mob like a flat-footed pavement pounder. I can't believe that you went in waving a badge, announcing to all and sundry that you are an FBI agent."
Peter looked simultaneously annoyed and entertained. "We can't all have multiple identities and fake IDs to back them up."
Seeing Neal stare at the ceiling with casual innocence, Peter sighed in resignation. "How many do I have, Neal?"
"Just one or two, you know, for emergencies - if you had to go on the run again."
It was the Caffrey way of watching his back, so Peter didn't press the issue. "Well, it's a good thing for you that I did so, or you would have ended up smoked and crispy. Seriously, you could have been stuck in that chimney forever. It's funny how you've got everyone convinced you're so smart. I've met lemmings with better survival instincts."
"I knew you'd find me." There was a drowsy quality to Neal's voice that told Peter his roommate was finally succumbing to sleep.
He couldn't help pointing out with light skepticism, "You thought I was dead!"
"Still knew you'd find me." It was an unguarded comment, all the more truthful for its illogic, and the unquestioning trust explicitly revealed in it caused Peter to choke on the lump that rose in his throat.
He couldn't roll over on his side because of his injured arm, so he sat up again to peer over at the other bed. He watched for several minutes, but Neal didn't move, curled up in a loose ball.
"I'll always find you, Neal," he stated softly.
Once that might have been a threat, but there was no smugness or superiority in the statement. It was a promise that someone would always have his back, cared enough to come looking even when Neal himself didn't know he was lost. Neal's eyes were too heavy to open and acknowledge the words, but he wrapped the warmth and security of that assurance around himself like a blanket and fell asleep.