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A Case at the Zoo

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Neal was practically bouncing as he and Peter approached the crime scene. The consultant turned in a full circle, taking in the sights and sounds, even smells, of the Bronx Zoo.

“Calm down, Tigger,” Peter admonished. He showed his badge to the officer guarding the crime scene tape, who then held it up for both Peter and Neal to duck under.

“C'mon, Peter, it's the zoo. I haven't been here in years. Do you think we'll have time to see the lemurs? I think they're that way.” He pointed to the left, but he hadn't had a chance to get a good look at the zoo map at the entrance. The FBI agent had been walking too fast.

Peter suppressed his eye roll just in time for the lead NYPD detective to approach them. He introduced himself as Sean O'Connor and brought them up to speed. A painting was on loan from the Louvre for the opening of the zoo's new tiger habitat, but it had gone missing sometime the previous night. Security didn't seem to have the thief on camera, and the guards hadn't noticed anything out of the ordinary.

Neal stepped in to share his knowledge of the painting, A Young Tiger Playing with its Mother, by Eugène Delacroix, which had been completed in 1830 or 31. It depicted a cub playfully pawing at its mother, while she watched over it. Delacroix had used the animals to display human emotions and had even written in his journal that "Men are tigers and wolves driven to destroy one another". While animal paintings weren't usually his forte, Neal was fascinated by Delacroix and his works.

“So, what do you think?” Peter waited until Detective O'Connor left them alone to pick Neal's brain on the more criminal side of this investigation.

“Well, this is the perfect place to swipe pretty much anything except the animals. There aren't that many cameras, and the security guards are constantly in motion. With an area this big, they can't possibly be everywhere at once. If you time it right, you're in and out in fifteen minutes.”

Peter nodded. He'd pretty much deduced the same thing. “Put out some feelers. See if anyone's fencing a tiger painting.”

“Peter, Peter, Peter. It's so much more than a 'tiger painting'. The play of light, the jungle scene, the expressions on the mother's and cub's faces, it's all very telling of Delacroix's inner thoughts.” As he spoke, Neal flipped his hat toward his head. Unfortunately, one of the NYPD officers bumped into him at the same moment, and the hat fell to the ground near a clump of bushes.

“Sorry,” the rookie threw over his shoulder as he hurried around them to stop a bystander from walking through the scene.

Neal grumbled something under his breath about vintage Borsalinos and dirty zoo sidewalks while he reached down to grab it. There was movement from the bushes, a confusing growl, and a sudden, sharp pain in his hand. “Ow!”

“Neal?” Peter stepped toward the younger man, but Neal threw up a hand and motioned for Peter to stay back.

“Find someone from the zoo. Hurry!” Neal didn't take his eyes off the thin, but long young snake that had just sunk its fangs into his right hand. It was practically standing up like a cobra for a snake charmer. From the fiery agony running up his arm from the wound, he was sure that it wasn't a dry bite. Damn, this was going to ruin his day.

“What...” Peter caught a glimpse of the snake and called out to the surrounding officers, “Go and find any zoo employee. Tell them there's a snake on the lose, but don't panic the civilians.” Then, he gently tugged on the back of Neal's suit jacket, not really fighting the desperate need to get his partner away from the danger.

Making slow movements, Neal clutched his right hand to his opposite shoulder, positioning it higher than his heart to slow the spread of the poison. He blinked furiously as his vision blurred and wavered, vertigo nauseating him almost immediately.

“Easy,” Peter murmured, getting his shoulder under Neal's arm as the younger man's knees buckled. He lowered Neal to sit with his back to the wall where the painting was supposed to be and helped him remove his suit jacket and tie. They both kept their eyes on the snake, which was sitting where they'd left it fifty feet away, waiting for any other threats to attack.

“Peter?” Neal moaned. The world was spinning too fast, about to drop off its axis. He panted, trying to catch his breath amid his rising panic.

Peter squeezed his shoulder but didn't get a chance to respond. An officer came running around the corner, followed by several zoo employees.

“Where is it?” one of the employees asked. He was brandishing some sort of stick with a noose and a bag, which Peter assumed he would use to catch the creature.

“Over there. It's small, but it got my partner.”

“Sir, did you say he was bitten?” The zoo employee looked frightened, which Peter was sure wasn't a good look on someone who knew what kind of snake that was.

“Yes,” Peter snapped, worry getting the better of him. He put two fingers to Neal's neck, easily finding the rapid pulse. His chest was heaving too, but Peter couldn't tell if that was from the fear or the bite.

The snake wrangler turned to the cops and shouted, “Get an ambulance! Now!”

“Peter?” Intellectually, Neal knew that he needed to calm down. The poison would only circulate faster the more worked up he got, but he couldn't help it. It burned and ached and throbbed all at the same time.

“Take it easy. Deep breaths.” Peter demonstrated this by taking Neal's left hand and placing it over his own chest. He dictated his breathing, watching anxiously as Neal tried to follow the instructions. “In... out... in... and then out. Good. That's good.”

There was a lot of activity over by the bushes as a team moved in to catch the snake, but Peter was too busy trying to keep Neal focused and awake.

“Hel... me...” Neal's eyes were rolling around so quickly that Peter was getting dizzy just watching him. He started repeating a variation of the same thing, which boiled down to 'Peter, help me'.

When Neal's eyes closed and didn't re-open, Peter shook him. “Stay with me, Caffrey. Now's not the time to check out.”

Neal sluggishly opened his eyes for a moment, but they quickly slipped shut again.

“Neal, Goddamit, look at me!” Peter shook him again.

Neal's left hand flopped for a moment, trying to reach out to the older man, but Neal's control of his own body was negligible at the moment. He whimpered, caught in a hell of pain and panic and a spreading paralysis that was never a good sign.

Paramedics descended a moment later, pushing Peter out of the way. They had Neal loaded on a stretcher and were running toward the zoo entrance and the waiting ambulance before Peter fully registered their arrival. He ran after them, catching up just before they slammed the back doors shut.

“I'm riding with him,” he said in a tone that left no room for argument.

The paramedic leaning over Neal gave a short, clipped nod. “Get in and shut those doors behind you.” She mostly ignored him them, busy starting an IV in Neal's left arm and splinting his right to immobilize it. Neal cried out breathily at that, but the sound muffled when she placed an oxygen mask over his face.

Peter reached out and gripped Neal's left hand, hoping to offer some comfort. Neal squeezed back weakly. He continued to cling until they were forced to part ways at the ER doors.

~~!!~~

In the hours before he was allowed to see Neal again, Peter learned that the snake was a juvenile king cobra. A quick Wikipedia search on his phone told him that they were deadly from birth. The pictures attached to the article were sure to give him nightmares for weeks. No one was sure how it had gotten lose, but the zoo was closed while they made sure that all snakes were accounted for.

He also discovered that king cobra anti-venom was rare outside of Thailand or India. The zoo had a few vials on hand, which had to be rushed over to the hospital. Peter was sure that the delay hadn't done Neal any favors, but the nurse assured him that Neal would have been placed on a ventilator anyway until he could be stabilized.

Elizabeth joined him in the waiting room twenty minutes after he called her. All he'd had to say over a slightly static-y connection was her name, and she'd demanded to know where he was. He filled her in when she arrived, and she sat down beside him, took his hand, and refused to let go.

Diana, Jones, and several of the probies from the office made it a point to check in throughout the rest of the afternoon, bringing Peter and Elizabeth coffee and snacks. Hughes returned a voicemail Peter barely remembered leaving and made him promise to keep the office updated on Caffrey's status while taking a few days to make sure the consultant would be okay.

The parade of people were good for a distraction, but the only person Peter wanted to see now was Neal's doctor. No one had been out to tell them again except a nurse about an hour after Neal had disappeared into the ER. She'd promised that they were doing all they could, and that Neal was hanging in there. That was hours ago. Anything could have happened to him by now.

~~!!~~

Around 8:30 that night, Andrea, Neal's nurse lead Peter and Elizabeth into the ICU. Elizabeth squeezed Peter's hand as they passed room after room of gravely injured patients, some missing limbs, some with bloody bandages, one with a full body cast. “Don't be alarmed by the ventilator or the monitors. We're keeping a close eye on him, but he's doing well. He's triggering the vent himself, so if it makes a noise, it's just him trying to breathe over it.”

“If he's breathing on his own, why can't you remove it?” Elizabeth asked, thinking it was an obvious question.

“His body's been through a lot in the last few hours,” Andrea replied with a soft, but reassuring smile. “We have to be sure that he won't have a reaction to the anti-venom before we can remove the ventilator.”

“Is he awake?” Peter hoped not but wasn't sure.

“We're keeping him sedated for now. He needs to rest, and the bite is too painful right now.”

Andrea stopped at one of the glass-doored cubicles, and they saw the name Neal Caffrey written on the white board on the wall above a medical chart. “Visiting hours end in about half an hour. You can come back tomorrow morning at 9 to see him.”

“We'll be staying the night,” Peter said, pulling out his badge to show the nurse.

“I'm sorry,” Andrea said, “but that's not possible. Visiting hours are not negotiable, even for federal agents.”

“I'd like to speak to your supervisor.”

“I'll send her over.” Andrea left them to head toward the nurses' station in the center of the unit.

Peter gripped Elizabeth's hand tighter when they stepped into the room and saw their friend. He was indeed hooked up to a ventilator, as well as several monitors and a fair number of IVs. However, the worst part was seeing his right arm. His hand was swollen to at least twice it's normal size, and there were large, dark blisters on his forearm. Most of the rest of his arm was covered by a rash that was tinged an alarming shade of crimson.

“Oh, Peter,” Elizabeth whispered and pressed her free hand to her mouth.

“He's going to be okay.” Peter parroted the words of Dr. Jackson, the intensivist they'd met in the waiting room earlier. He'd been optimistic, explaining that Neal was young and in great shape, but he was looking at a few days in the hospital and a few weeks of recovery. Barring an infection, the doctor expected Neal to regain at least 90%, if not more, of the function in his hand. There would be scarring, but Neal could cross that bridge with a plastic surgeon once he was better, if he wanted to.

They stayed until Andrea and her supervisor, Nurse Ratched, kicked them out, but Neal was none the wiser. The trauma and the drugs keeping him oblivious to their vigil.

~~!!~~

On the third day, Neal was moved to a semi-private room with less constant medical supervision. That didn't stop his friends from stopping by at all hours of the day and night. It was odd to have so many people so concerned about his well-being. For years, it had only been Mozzie and Kate who looked after him when he was sick or hurt enough for them to notice.

He was sitting up, sketchpad propped on his knee, left hand drawing, when the door opened to admit Mozzie.

“Mon frere,” was the older man's choice greeting tonight. It was after ten, and Neal's roommate, an octogenarian who recently went under the knife to remove his gall bladder, was snoring already.

Neal didn't respond or look up from the pad. After a moment, he twisted the pencil so that it was clutched in his fist and viciously attacked the paper.

“Whoa! Calm down! Neal!” Mozzie exclaimed, concerned. He looked torn between calling for a nurse and waiting Neal out. He chose the latter and settled in the empty chair by the bed.

It took a minute, but the conman finally threw the sketchpad and pencil against the far wall and drew both knees toward his chest. The movement was awkward, and Neal couldn't curl up nearly as much as he wanted with the sling in the way.

Mozzie braved the silence. “You okay?”

“What if it doesn't get better? What if my hand is completely useless now?” Neal's voice was soft, quiet, and not lacking in despondency.

This was territory where even Mozzie feared to tread. He wished Mrs. Suit were here; she was much better at this than he was. “It's only been a few days. The swelling hasn't gone down much, and the doctors are optimistic that the damage is minimal.”

Neal scowled. “Optimistic? Really? And since when do you listen to doctors?”

Mozzie had to shrug at that. “They were right about me. I recovered remarkably from a gunshot wound that should have killed me, Neal. You'll recover from this.”

“Or you can try to squash the rumor before it gets around that a baby snake took Neal Caffrey out of the forgery business for good. That should be a fun game for a while.”

He held his tongue on commenting about the FBI mostly taking Neal out of the game already. Instead, Mozzie focused on the more current problem. “It was a baby king cobra. Not exactly a garter snake.”

Neal sighed and pulled his right arm out of the sling. Despite the oral painkillers, he hissed at the movement, and nearly broke out into tears when he tried to flex his inflamed fingers.

“You're not doing yourself any favors,” Mozzie pointed out while reaching for the brown paper bag he'd brought with him. “And if you keep doing that, then I'm not going to share any of Mrs. Suit's beef Wellington.”

Neal's mouth watered instantly despite himself. He carefully replaced the sling and looked over at Mozzie. “I don't know what to do here, Moz.”

“Just be patient. I know it's not your strong suit.”

“That's not true. Remember that nook on the roof of the Guggenheim.”

“So, you can sit on your heels for five hours waiting out the departure of a dignitary, but you've never been good at listening to your own body. Remember the fever you neglected to tell me about before scaling the side of the Rijksmuseum. Where you not-so-conveniently almost fell to your death.”

“Alright, alright.” Neal put his hand up in surrender. “You might have a point there.”

Mozzie raised an eyebrow and grabbed the tray table beside Neal's bed. He moved it across the younger man's lap, and then handed over a couple of Tupperware containers and a fork.

“Rosemary mashed potatoes too? Elizabeth's outdone herself.” Just the smell of the homemade meal was putting Neal in a better mood. His stomach growled, betraying the fact that he'd mostly skipped the hospital meal hours earlier.

“Just wait until you see dessert.”

“There's dessert? Is it cake? Tell me it's cake.”

Mozzie laughed then, pleased to have distracted his friend from his misery for a little while. He merely shrugged his shoulders and didn't confirm or deny the existence of the carrot cake with cream cheese icing sitting in the bottom of the bag. Neal would get through this, just like he got through everything else that had been thrown at him over the years. And, at least there were more people around now to help keep him on the path to recovery. Mozzie hated playing both good nursemaid and bad doctor when Neal was sick and refusing to cooperate with his meds or his rest or his sling.

~TBC

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