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Let's Play Ball

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It's hot. Not just put-on-shorts-instead-of-slacks hot, but where's-that-bucket-of-ice, I-need-to-drown-myself-in-it hot.

And Neal? Does not do hot. Mostly because Byron's wardrobe holds a grand total of one pair of shorts and they haven't quite stayed in style the same way his suits have - Moz says they make his ass look good, but given that they're about eight inches shorter than they should be, he decides to slip into a light-weight suit and a short-sleeved button up and pray for rain.

He doesn't even want to be at the goddamn game. He doesn't play baseball (not because he can't, he just doesn't see the point, Peter, thank you very much). He'd been planning on just watching the game with El but apparently she's an honorary member of the team - something to do with UCLA and a national championship, he hadn't really been paying attention. Moz refuses to leave the air conditioning to come with him to keep him company, and a second after stepping outside, Neal really can't blame him.

He's going to die.

"Human beings aren't meant to operate in these conditions," he moans, when Peter and Elizabeth pick him up. "Global warming’s attacking me. We should turn back before it's too late"

"Maybe if you were wearing shorts," Peter says. Neal just glares at the back of his head. Stupid Peter and his stupid FBI baseball uniform with its stupid tight sleeves and form-fitting cut.

"Fashion is pain," he says, as haughtily as he can, already dreading the sweat stains he's going to get on the fine linen.

"Are you sure you don't want to play?" El asks, before cutting across two lanes of traffic and squeezing into a parking space that was probably designed for a scooter. The Taurus squawks unhappily at them. When his heart starts beating again, he shakes his head.

"You can lead a con to the baseball field, but you can't make him into a team player." Peter steps out of the car and puts on his baseball cap. It should look ridiculous. It really, really doesn't. Peter's redefining 'ruggedly handsome' and Neal kind of wants to slap him for it. It's probably the heat stroke setting in.

"I'm a lone wolf," he says, stepping out of the car and into his own personal hell. Somehow, he's going to have to get through the afternoon without looking at either of them because if he does, he's going to pop a really inappropriate boner. El's shirt is tight enough that he can see the outline of the racerback on her sports bra and Peter looks like he's been styled for a photo shoot in Sport's Illustrated.

The baseball field's already full of FBI agents and their families and boyfriends and girlfriends and children and dogs and picnic blankets, laughing and chattering and unpacking food. The only faces Neal recognizes are the agents out on the field who are already warming up. He's already sweating and he honestly doesn't know if it's because of the heat or because he's about to enter the lion's den. On his own.

He'd thought, when Peter first told him about the game, that he'd be more embarrassed if he tried to play and sucked than if he sat out - but there are agents on the field who are well-past middle-aged, others who are out of shape - Neal might not know how to hit a ball, but at least he'd be able to run around the bases if he somehow managed to. But it's okay for the other agents to make mistakes. Everyone else on their team's cheering for them. Neal's made a lot of friends, over the past year, but there are a fair amount of people on the white collar team (not to mention Ruiz and his cronies on the opposition) who would be delighted to see him fail.

"Peter - are you one-hundred percent sure that I need to be here for this?"

Peter slaps him on the back. "It's mandatory that FBI agents attend. It builds camaraderie. Also, we're going to kick organized crime's ass. Don't you want to be here to see Ruiz get knocked down a couple dozen pegs?"

"It'll be fine," El says soothingly. "We even brought you a chair!" Peter slips the bag that the chair's held in off of his shoulder and hands it to Neal.

"I feel like a soccer mom."

"Hate to break it to you, buddy, but soccer moms are a lot tougher than you are. You look like you're wilting." Neal glares at Peter but has to stop after a second because sweat's getting in his eyes and it kind of stings.

He wishes them good luck and they jog off to the field to warm up. He lets himself stare at them as they go. Those uniforms really are tight. He sets up his folding chair on the absolute outskirts of the crowd, sits down, and puts on his game face.

Baseball is officially the most boring sport Neal has ever had the displeasure of watching. He claps when the people around him clap, he refrains from rolling his eyes when the team attempts some juvenile cheer routine, he grumbles along with everyone else when the umpire makes some call that is (for whatever reason) controversial. He is also apparently the only one (besides the six year old in the bleachers) who thinks it's hilarious whenever the umpire says 'ball.'

There's a teenager walking around with free bottles of water. Neal declines, at first, but the kid just hangs around his chair until he takes one. He figures maybe the kid's got a crush or something, but he scampers away pretty quickly after Neal thanks him for the water. It's cold, at least, and he holds it against his cheek for a while before opening it.

A breeze had started blowing at some point in the second quarter. Inning. Thing. Whatever - El had been at bat, she'd hit a double-baser. Point. Something. Christ, he was just beginning to get the hang of basketball (due to being forced to watch games when he worked at the Burke's) - there's no way he's going to figure out another sport without Peter explaining it to him.

Between the breeze and the cold water, he feels almost human again. But of course that doesn't last long - the sun comes back out from behind the clouds after a few minutes and beats down even harder than before. Ruiz, who's playing catcher (there's a dirty joke in there, but Neal's not going to be the one to make it) starts heckling Jones. It makes his stomach turn.

He unbuttons the top few buttons of his shirt and gets a wolf-whistle from Cruz. He doesn't have the energy to snark back at her, so he just flips her off. Peter shouts something at him that he can't quite understand - it feels like the heat's leeching the energy from his muscles. His heart's beating too loudly - no. Too quickly. Much too quickly, he realizes, when his breath starts coming in shallow bursts - it's not that the air's heavy it's that his throat is closing, he can't breathe, his hands are shaking and his throat's closing and he can barely hear the raspy sound of it over the sound of his heart pounding in his chest.

He drops the bottle of water because he's losing feeling in his hands and then remembers that the lid had already been cracked. He hadn't thought anything of it - off-brand bottle of water, an over-eager teenager, a setting as American as apple pie (in fact, a family of four was eating an apple pie a blanket away).

He'd dropped his guard. Distracted by Peter and Elizabeth and the fact that they were beating Ruiz, distracted by the fact that he didn't feel as left out as he'd expected (what with Agnes coming by to say hello and Jones talking to him from the dugout when things got slow) - he'd dropped his guard. And now he's paying the price.

He can see Peter. His vision's closing in but Peter's on third base, right in front of him, he'd call for help if he could but everything's getting dark and his ribs feel like they're being compressed and a second after he slumps forward in his chair everything goes dark.

*

He slides into home and people start yelling. Naturally, he assumes it's because he'd just increased their lead to 7-3 - but then he takes in the tenor of the yelling. Tense and worried - and coming from Neal's direction. He's ashamed to say that his first thought is what did Neal do now and he jogs over he sees that everyone's crowded around Neal's chair. When he pushes through he sees that Neal's gone terrifyingly pale. His lips are tinged blue.

"He's not breathing," someone says, and, no, he's not.

"Neal! Neal, goddamnit, wake up!" he pushes someone aside and kneels in front of his partner. Holds Neal's hands in his own and does his best not to panic when he realizes that Neal's cold. Practically one-hundred degrees outside and Neal's hands are clammy. El arrives behind him at the same second that Neal's eyes open. As irritating as Neal is, he almost never disobeys a direct order. "Stay with me, buddy. Just breathe, okay?"

Neal's eyes are huge, pupils dilated, he tries to breathe but he chokes before he gets any air – he’s panicking. "Breathe with me, okay?" he slows his breathing, deep and even, and presses Neal's hands against his breast so that Neal will be able to feel the rise and fall.

Behind him he can hear Jones on the phone with the EMTs while El and Cruz interrogate people to try and figure out what happened. Neal's pale and shaking and every so often he manages to get in a bit of oxygen (not enough, he's starting to fade, Peter's pretty sure he's more nervous now than he'd been last time he'd been held at gunpoint).

"It was a joke," he hears. Neal doesn't notice - his hands are fisted in the cotton jersey, Peter crouched over him to try and shield him from the crowd, there's nothing Neal hates more than being helpless. "Just a prank, I don't know why he's overreacting - "

Ruiz. Goddamn fucking Ruiz and his grudges, Ruiz and his petty revenge. Peter fights to stay calm. "The ambulance will be here in a minute," Jones says, putting one hand on Neal's shoulder and the other on Peter's. "Just keep him breathing."

"What did you give him?" It takes him a minute to recognize his wife's voice, transformed with anger.

"Just some allergy pills - it was just supposed to make him a bit loopy, I didn't know - " Neal's eyes had closed but they open when El slaps Ruiz. It's pretty loud. The second slap even louder.

"Just focus on me, Neal. You're going to be fine. The doctors are on their way, alright?" he fakes a smile. "You'll do anything to get out of the heat, won't you?" Instead of smiling back Neal just slumps back in his chair. Peter spends the next minute holding him close, listening to his heartbeat slow.

*

Neal looks young. Stupidly, beautifully young. She wants to protect him, wants to take him home, wants to erase the memory of the last few hours. The slow rasp of Neal’s breath as it slowed down and then stopped. She should have kneed Ruiz in the balls. Would have, if Jones hadn’t stopped her. Would have picked up a baseball bat and aimed for his knees if she’d known that she’d be spending the next two hours in the waiting room holding her husband’s hand and waiting for the doctor to tell them whether or not Neal was going to make it. Whether the oxygen deprivation would have any permanent side effects.

He should be fine. The odds are in his favor. Peter’d laughed, at that. Neal’s young, the doctor had said. Young and strong, and he’s got so much to live for. The doctor’d been looking at the two of them with a private, understanding expression. He’d thought they were fucking. The three of them. She’d waited for Peter to tell the man that they weren’t involved, that Neal was just his work partner, there was no funny business going on. But Peter had just sat down in the waiting room, put his head in his hands, and cried.

An hour later he’d had to leave to go assist Jones with the investigation. A few minutes after that, they’d let her into Neal’s room.

He looks young. Young and fragile and alive. She brushes his hair off of his forehead, pulls a chair up right next to his bed, and settles in to wait.

*

He wakes up in pain. His throat, mostly, a familiar burn – he’d been intubated. He’s in a hospital. It's not a new occurrence for him. Broken arm in Paris, two separate knife wounds back in September of '99, a childhood full of – full of things that don’t need remembering. Painkillers and a scratchy throat and the beep of the heart monitor, almost comforting in their familiarity.

He waits until the heart monitor evens out before he tries to move. He can't remember much of anything. Or – no. Baseball. He'd been watching baseball. Why the hell had he been watching baseball?

When he moves his arm half-expects to hear the rattle of a handcuff. Instead, there's someone holding his hand. He can't help the reflexive jerk of his arm away because that part’s not familiar, he spends a brief disoriented moment wondering if he accidentally woke up in someone else’s bed, someone else’s body. The beep of the heart monitor speeds up so he gives up on pretending that he's still asleep and opens his eyes.

White. White ceiling. White blanket spread across his lap. White uniform on El's body, oh, it's El. There’d been a picnic. Peter’d made him go, and something – a bottle of water. He’d screwed up, dropped his guard. And now he’s in the hospital, struggling for painful every breath.

“Neal? Oh, thank god, Neal – you’re awake!” El runs to the hallway to call a doctor and when she comes back she holds his hand again. He does his best to tighten his fingers around hers. He doesn’t – he doesn’t want her to let go. But everything’s a bit numb, everything’s a bit distant, his hands still feel like they belong to someone else.

“What happened?” Each word feels like sandpaper in his throat.

“You had a severe allergic reaction. You’re at the hospital now, and the doctors say you’re going to be just fine.” The door swings open and a doctor enters and he spends the next fifteen minutes answering dumbass questions, wishing Elizabeth hadn’t gone out into the hallway to call Peter, and trying really, really hard to ignore the humiliation that’s bubbling up inside of him. He’d passed out at the baseball field. In front of everyone. And now he’s in the hospital, with Peter’s wife, because he had an allergic reaction.

After the doctor leaves, he fakes sleep. Elizabeth tiptoes back in a few minutes later and the last thing he feels before he actually does drift off is her hand curling around his.

*

The next time he wakes up Peter’s drooling on his elbow. Daylight’s streaming through the window and Peter’s got his worst suit jacket on over his baseball uniform, face slack with sleep. He’s not holding Neal’s hand but he is draped over the bed and Neal can’t ever remember waking up to a better surprise. He lets the moment sink in.

Peter snores like Satchmo. His breath wuffling against Neal’s skin, Neal’s body hurts but it’s beginning to feel like his again. His hands are still tingling but he’s pretty sure it’s nerves and not his nervous system that’s to blame.

“He was out late,” El whispers, and he startles because he hadn’t seen her, sitting in a chair on his other side. “Busy arresting people.” He doesn’t try to talk, given that his throat feels like someone took a cheese grater to it, but he gives her his best question-face. “Ruiz. He slipped something into your water bottle. He might not have meant to hurt you, but he – he really could have.”

Peter shifts in his sleep and El is too far away for Neal to touch her, he would if he could. He wants to apologize for scaring her, for stressing Peter out so badly, for letting her husband fall asleep on his bed in such an intimate fashion.

“I’m so glad you’re okay,” she says.

She looks like Kate when she cries. Her nose scrunches up and her cheeks get red, she looks more angry than sad. He reaches his arm out to her and she gets out of her chair to approach the bed. He points to the switch on the bed that will turn off the weight-sensors and after she clicks it off he pulls her onto the mattress next to him. Morning’s coming and his body hurts, he’s in the hospital but he’s not alone, they may have left the baseball game half-way through but he’s going to count this one as a win.