Peter looked up from his desk as Neal walked into the office below, wearing his hat and carrying his morning coffee. He went back to his file, knowing it would take Neal a few minutes to stop trying to charm the Harvard crew before he made his way upstairs. Something niggled in Peter’s brain until he looked down at Neal again and realized that instead of his usual smooth stride he was not quite limping, but walking with a hitch in his step. Peter had a brief uncharitable thought about Neal spraining his ankle climbing through somebody’s basement window but then shook it off as Neal walked up the stairs looking no more, or less, guilty than usual.
“Good morning, Peter.” He smiled that easy grin that made Peter like him and distrust him in equal measure.
Peter motioned Neal to sit on one of the chairs in front of his desk “So, what did you do to yourself?”
“You were looking a little less Fred Astaire, a little more Hopalong Cassidy down there. What did you do, go out for a jog and turn your ankle?” Peter shook his head. “Do you even own sneakers.”
“Nothing so athletic. I was drinking my coffee on the terrace this morning and got stung by a wasp. It’s just a little sore.”
“Ah, the dangers of the good life. Get some ice from the break room if you need it, but I left a few files on your desk, I have a meeting with Hughes in half an hour so I probably won’t catch up with you until lunch.”
“I’m sure I can keep myself busy.”
“Just make sure you mostly keep busy with the files rather than with chatting up the interns. I don’t want Agent Cruz telling me tales when I get out of the meeting.”
“Big Sister is watching, got it.” Neal smirked. “I’ll keep my nose to the grindstone.”
Neal left then, that slight limp still throwing off the rhythm of his steps.
Less than an hour later, Peter’s meeting was just starting to get productive when he heard a knock on the door and turned around to see Neal standing at the door with an odd, uncomfortable look on his face. Peter sighed heavily, gestured to Hughes that he’d be right back and walked out to meet Neal in the hallway.
“You better have a damn good lead, Neal.”
“Well, no.” Neal grimaced. “I just--" His mouth tightened and he tugged up his pant leg.
“Jesus.” Peter didn’t need to get any closer to see that Neal’s whole calf was pink and swollen enough to hide the bones underneath, his skin red and raw-looking where it bulged over the edges of the anklet. “Come on.”
There was nothing subtle about Neal’s limp as Peter guided him to his office. “Sit down,” Peter said as he picked up his phone and dialed the Marshals. He gave his identifying information to the officer on the other end and then grabbed his keys and knelt down by Neal’s feet.
“I’m unlocking Caffrey’s anklet. Just long enough to switch it to the other ankle.” Putting words to action, he unlocked the anklet and saw Neal relax then tense again as blood rushed back into his ankle and it swelled to match the rest of his leg. “Yes, I already unlocked it--he’s injured,” Peter bit out before checking the anklet for damage and locking it onto Neal’s other ankle. “You should show it activated again, correct? Yeah, next time, okay. Thank you.”
Peter hung up, shaking his head at officious Marshals who resented Peter making a move without their go-ahead. He stood up and looked down at Neal. “Better?”
“Much.” Neal’s smile was genuine but still tense. “Thank you.”
“It’s not a problem. Let’s go down to medical and see what they can do for you.”
“Really, I think it’ll be okay now.”
“Nope, no getting out of it. Can you walk?”
“Yes, Peter.” Neal didn’t roll his eyes but it was a close thing.
Peter called Hughes and explained while he walked Neal to the elevator and then down to the medical department on the second floor. The nurse practitioner winced when she saw Neal’s leg and took him into a cubicle. When he walked out half an hour later Neal was moving slowly but with less of a limp.
“What’s the verdict?” Peter asked her. “He going to be able to keep the leg?”
“Very funny, Agent Burke. Yes, he’ll be fine. It was a nasty reaction but entirely localized. I gave him some ibuprofen and a shot of Benadryl to help with the pain and inflammation.”
Peter heard a small thunk and looked over to see that Neal was leaning against the wall and had let his head fall back.
The nurse raised her eyebrows. “I think he’s not going to have much choice but to go home and sleep it off, but he should be fine by this evening.”
“Thank you.” Peter nodded to her then went to Neal and took his arm. “You ready to go?”
“Ready to snow,” Neal replied vaguely then looked at Peter and yawned. “I can sleep right here, really, it’s okay.”
“I think a bed would be a better idea. Let’s go.” Peter gave Neal’s arm a tug and started walking. “You think you can stay on your feet?”
“Oooooh, yeah.” Neal’s shoulder bumped the door frame and he stumbled slightly before catching himself. “Prob’ly,” he amended.
Neal managed to stay mostly vertical as they walked to Peter’s car and then sat placidly in the passenger seat with his head tilted against the window. “My hat,” he said out of nowhere six blocks from June’s house.
“I left it on my desk,” Neal responded mournfully, and the worst part was that Peter could hear the pout without even looking away from traffic.
“I’ll hang it up in my office when I get back. It’ll be waiting for you.”
“My hat,” Neal repeated, sounding all of four years old.
Peter continued driving uptown and parked in front of the house, glad he’d gotten Neal home before he completely passed out. Neal was groggy but biddable, getting out of the car when Peter opened the door and trudging up the stairs when Peter nudged him forward. He fell face-first onto his bed, fully dressed, then snuffled once and fell asleep.
Peter watched him for a moment--it was strange to see Neal’s face so soft and unguarded. He looked younger and ridiculously innocent; even in his sleep he was a con. Peter pulled Neal’s shiny wing-tips off his feet, covered him with a blanket from the sofa and locked the door behind himself.
June greeted Peter in the foyer as he came down the stairs. “Agent Burke! Nothing wrong, I hope?”
“Oh, Neal just had a little reaction to a wasp sting, and he needs to sleep it off.”
June sighed in exasperation. “I don’t know where those horrible things came from. Yesterday, nothing. Today, they’ve made themselves a nest on my terrace.” She shook her head. “But I’ve already had the pest control man come out so there should be no more wasps to interfere with FBI business.”
“Well, that’s good.”
“And Neal, he’s okay?”
“He just got knocked out by the antihistamines.”
“Poor boy. I don’t suppose I can convince you to join me for an early lunch?”
“I’d love to, June, but unfortunately I have to do some actual work now that I’m done driving Neal around.” Peter smiled politely and moved toward the door.
“Your work is never done,” she sympathized in her way that made Peter certain she was mocking him but left him utterly incapable of responding in kind.”
“Have a lovely day, June.” Peter nodded, feeling like he should have a hat to doff, and took his exit while he could.
The next morning, Neal arrived in Peter’s office to collect his hat and show off his mostly-recovered leg. “Maybe I should get stung once a month or so, just so I can spend the day lounging in bed,” Neal quipped.
“I’m sure I could arrange for you to have plenty of time to sleep in prison.”
“On second thought, who wants to sleep their life away?”
“I’m glad you said that because as it happens we’re on stake-out tonight.”
“Not the devilled ham, Peter. Please, I don’t think I’m recovered enough to sit in a van with your devilled ham.”
Peter just laughed and led the way to the conference room. It was good to have Neal back in the office.
Peter felt like an idiot, walking around in the late morning sun looking at sculpted shrubbery and pretending to sip wine while listening to the information Jones was feeding into his earbud from the van. Neal, of course, was in his element. He managed to pull off wearing a pair of Byron's linen pants and a short-sleeve button-down without looking like somebody's grandfather, and he was flirting shamelessly with women in their seventies and eighties while somehow managing to avoid getting particularly entangled with any one of them.
They had evidence that one of the women in the prestigious gardening club was responsible for a series of thefts so Peter and Neal were attending their fundraising event under the guise of being potential donors to their charitable activities. Charming older women was far more a part of Neal's skill-set than Peter's so he didn't mind letting Neal take the lead while Jones gave him information about each of the potential suspects.
Neal finally peeled himself from the side of Mrs. Dr. Herbert Somebody and was headed toward another clutch of women when he abruptly stopped and veered over toward Peter. "They're stalking me," he said as he stepped closer, his eyes a little wild which seemed ridiculous given their present company.
"What, the old ladies?"
"No, wasps!" Neal turned his head sharply and moved around to Peter's other side. "They're out to get me."
Peter restrained himself from making a joke about all the WASPs around them being old ladies anyway when he heard a buzz go past his ear and saw that a wasp was indeed making lazy circles around them. "Just don't move around too much and I'm sure it'll move on. It doesn't seem likely you'd get stung twice in what? Just over a month?"
"I hope--" The wasp dove in closer, and Neal danced away. "No-no-no."
Peter stepped in to try to shoo the wasp away, but then it disappeared from sight and--
"Shit!" Neal seldom swore, but now he was clutching his left hand to the back of his right arm. "Shit," he whispered, sounding frantic.
Peter patted Neal on the shoulder. "Okay, we'll make our excuses and get out of here, go get you some Benadryl."
"It hurts," Neal complained, his voice tight.
"Come on, cowboy up. Just be grateful you don't have a tracking bracelet to go with that anklet." Peter started walking in the direction of the park lot, and Neal fell in beside him after a step.
"Grateful, sure." Neal walked quietly beside Peter for a minute. "Um, Peter?"
"What?" Peter looked around the garden distractedly, focused on finding the event organizer so that their disappearance wouldn't look suspicious.
"Somethin' doesn't feel right."
Neal's voice didn't sound right, and Peter turned to see his eyes wide in his pale face, his arm covered in hives, bright pink against the white of his shirt sleeve. "This is fast," Peter said, trying to figure out what he could do to help Neal. "It took hours last time, didn't it?"
Neal nodded shallowly then opened his mouth as if to say something but all that came out was a strangled wheeze. Neal put a hand on his chest and before Peter could grab him he swayed forward and landed on his knees. Peter had a brief, errant thought of grass stains on the white linen of Neal's pants then crouched down, pulling his phone out of his pocket at the same time. He didn't bother dialing, but the crowd was starting to notice them and he didn't want to blow the whole operation or attract the wrong kind of attention if he didn't have to.
"We need an ambulance here!" He knew that Jones would be able to get paramedics to the scene faster than Peter could. "Wasp sting! Allergic reaction!"
Ambulance is on the way, Peter. Jones' voice in his earbud made Peter feel steadier, and he dropped the phone from his sweaty hand. ETA six minutes.
Neal was still kneeling in the grass, his shoulders tense and his face milk-pale as he wheezed, his eyes closed in concentration. "Hey, Neal?" He patted the side of Neal's face until his eyes opened. "Help is on the way, but I want you to lie down, okay?"
Neal shook his head, his eyes wide and anxious, bright with tears.
"Yes," Peter barked and then stopped himself before continuing in a steadier tone. "You're going into shock, you'll feel better on your back. Come on." Peter wrapped his arm around Neal's back and guided him down, turning him so that his head would be just slightly downhill from his feet, and then stretched his legs out straight. He could feel the pressure of a small crowd starting to form around them, which was the last thing Neal needed.
Peter looked up to the woman who was hosting the event standing just a few steps away. "An ambulance is on the way. I need a blanket, I need somebody to direct the EMTs here as quickly as possible, and I need all of these people out of my way."
She looked like she was going to argue, but then she just nodded and the crowd started to disperse. Peter turned back to Neal and took his hand. It was cold and damp against Peter's but Neal tightened his grip around Peter's hand as he drew in another long, tight breath. "You just need to keep breathing, you understand?"
Neal nodded then coughed on his exhale and Peter saw a worrying shade of blue tinting his lips. The ambulance needed to arrive now. "Come on, Neal. No closing your eyes, look at me. Good, now just breathe."
Peter felt somebody standing close by and looked up to see a girl in a caterer's uniform holding out a pair of thick tablecloths. "Thank you." He nodded at her and took the bundle with his free hand. It was awkward, spreading the fabric over Neal one-handed, but he wasn't about to let go of Neal's hand and he didn't want anybody getting close enough to make Neal nervous unless they were paramedics.
Neal's next breath took too long to come, and Peter felt a sick weight in his stomach, worry that help wasn't going to be fast enough. He squeezed Neal's hand. "Breathe in, Neal. Nice and slow, you can do it. Come on."
His back starting to arch up from the ground, Neal drew in another loud, tortured breath and let it out just as slowly. Peter kept coaching him and Neal kept struggling until Peter wished he could just let him stop, let him stop and do it for him because the effort was clearly exhausting him. Peter heard the tone of the crowd change and looked up to see paramedics jogging over. The ambulance was parked on the grass not far away, and Peter suspected that Jones had something to do with that. The medics moved in and took Neal's vital signs while Peter kept coaxing him to breathe, then one of them stuck a needle into Neal's thigh and the next breath came mercifully easier.
Neal's fingers were trembling against Peter's but he was forced to let go as the paramedics pushed Peter to the side. They put an oxygen mask on Neal's face, moved him to a gurney and were on the move toward the ambulance more quickly than Peter expected. He pushed himself up from the ground, his knees sore and not entirely steady, and hurried to follow them. If either of them complained about him climbing up into the back of the ambulance he didn't pay attention; he knew that Jones would've made the situation clear so that he wouldn't have to flash his badge.
The paramedic who stayed in the back of the ambulance started an IV in Neal's arm and covered him up with a thick red blanket that seemed to settle some of his shivering. Neal opened his eyes when the blood pressure sleeve tightened around his unaffected arm and looked around for a moment before locking his eyes on Peter.
He pushed the mask off his face with a clumsy hand while the paramedic was occupied with the IV. "Thank you," Neal said, his voice a bare rasp.
"All you have to do to thank me is keep breathing, okay? You have no idea how much paperwork I'd have to fill out otherwise." Peter nudged the mask back into place and took Neal's hand again--to keep him from interrupting his oxygen flow, to keep Neal calm, to keep Peter's own hands from starting to shake at how close it had been.
At the hospital, Peter followed the paramedics inside, only to be intercepted by Jones as soon as he got through the doors.
"Boss! What the hell happened out there?"
Peter turned back to see where they were taking Neal, but he was already out of sight, and Peter gave up on following him where the medical personnel wouldn't want him to go anyway. "Caffrey got stung by a wasp, and apparently he's allergic. Very allergic."
Jones shook his head. "That's not good. Is he going to be okay?"
Peter ran a hand over his face and sighed. "I think so. Help got there on time, barely. Thank you for that, by the way."
"Not a problem. I had them on the line as soon as I heard Caffrey start slurring his words."
"Thank you," Peter repeated heavily and made a mental note to put Jones in for some kind of commendation.
Since the situation was stabilized, Jones went back to the office and Peter made his way to the waiting room. When the doctor finally came to get him, she told Peter what he already knew--that it had been an anaphylactic reaction to the wasp sting.
"He was stung about a month ago and nothing like this happened."
"That's what Mr. Caffrey told us as well. Sometimes it happens that way and a systemic allergy develops after a severe localized reaction. In any case, he's certainly allergic now. I'll prescribe an epi-pen, and he should make sure to have one available at all times, especially during the warm months when he's more likely to be exposed to wasp stings."
"I'll make sure he does that. But he's okay now?"
"He's pretty worn out from the reaction, but he should be fine. We'll be keeping him for a few more hours just to make sure there's no secondary reaction but if nothing else happens we'll release him at--" She looked at her watch. "Seven this evening. If you're going to be his ride home, I suggest you leave and come back then."
"I need to see him first."
The doctor arched one eyebrow and looked ready to argue but then tilted her head. "Are you the one who rode in with him in the ambulance?"
"Yes." Peter didn't want to explain how much he wanted to see with his own eyes that Neal was still breathing, even without anybody telling him to keep breathing.
"Okay, just for a minute though."
"Fine." Peter followed the doctor through a heavy set of doors and then down a hallway lined with small rooms. She shouldered her way through a door, and Peter walked in behind her to see Neal on a gurney under a white blanket, his head elevated just enough for Peter to see that his eyes were closed. When the door swung closed behind Peter, Neal opened his eyes and smiled weakly.
"Hey," Neal said, his voice still rough.
"Hey, you look better."
Neal rolled his eyes, as if he knew he looked like crap. "Sorry for all the drama out there."
Peter shook his head. "Only you, Caffrey." But he reached out and put his hand on Neal's shoulder. "I already told you what you need to do to make it up to me."
Neal nodded, looking exhausted, and the doctor interrupted the moment. "Okay, Mr. Caffrey? Agent Burke is going to come back and pick you up this evening. Correct, Agent Burke?"
"Right. I'll be back. Get some rest, Neal."
Obeying Peter's command far more readily than usual, Neal closed his eyes and slipped off to sleep, his breathing deep and regular, a gentle rise and fall under Peter's hand.
"Time to go, Agent Burke."
Peter sighed as he turned away from Neal and followed her back out into the hallway. "If you'll give me that prescription I'll get it filled this afternoon."
"I'm sure it can wait until he's discharged."
"I don't think so. With Caffrey?" Peter shook his head and let his shoulders drop from the tense knot they'd been in since Neal's first wheeze. "I'm not taking any chances."