Guys, I honest to goodness just wanted to write a fluffy uncomplicated sick fic but of course, me being me, it had to turn into a complete emotional angst and hurt/comfort fest. I swear I haven't been traumatized, I'm actually a really happy person so idk why this always happens. Ah well, I'm not really complaining or apologizing, we all know we're suckers for it. I have an idea for another few less-emotional sick fics anyway so we'll see what happens with those...

Also, I do want to say that I am always open to prompts. I've been in a bit of a writing slump so if you want to comment or PM I'd love to hear what you want to read. Nothing too au, no slash or smut and no guarantees, but I could use some inspiration.

Set between episodes one and two of season two. This is set soon after Neal's release from prison after Kate's death and it does deal with Kate's death but it's really not meant to be a story about Neal dealing with Kate's death. This is meant to be a story about Neal dealing with hurt general and Peter learning about dealing with a hurting Neal. It may be a subtle difference but it was an important one to me.

"I'm fine."

Oh, Peter was so sick of those words—empty, deflecting, completely untruthful, and used like an iron shield to keep compassion at bay.

It was a constant refrain with Neal,

"I'm fine, don't worry about it."

First it was smaller things. Near suffocation in the comic book vault. Strapped down and drugged in the clinic.

"I'm fine."

Peter would shrug his shoulders almost entertained by Neal's need to exude a perfect image as the CI shook off the worried looks.

Neal was a grown man, if he said he was fine it was probably true.

Later on Peter figured he just needed to pick and choose his battles. Neal may not be fine with being betrayed by Agent Rice, kidnapped, and nearly killed by an old acquaintance—

"I'm fine, Peter."

—but it was his decision to make, he could ask for help if he needed it.

But now...Peter knew Neal too well now to dismiss those shallow "I'm fine's" with a shrug.

Out of prison and immediately helping close a major bank robbery case, Neal seemed pretty fine on the face of it. More than fine, in fact, the bank robbery was only the first of the cases he solved in the week or two after he got out of prison. He was coming into the office early and leaving late, tearing through mortgage frauds, cold cases, and lending helpful expertise to active cases that led to impressive leads. Arriving with coffee for the team, chatting and smiling with the agents and clerks, Peter had overheard a few probies whispering curiously about how quickly Neal had recovered from the death of his girlfriend and a stint in prison.

Any other superior or handler would have been beyond pleased by Neal's work, but Peter couldn't ignore the sour feeling in his stomach as Neal came into his office with a grin and slapped another solved case on his desk.

"It was the accountant."

His smile was a little too wide, a little too bright to be real, though few would have noticed, yet still not wide enough to hide the shadows under his eyes. Peter couldn't help looking him up and down,

"You okay, Neal?"

"I'm fine."

No you're not.

Peter's gut was calling the lie, his stomach sinking as he really looked at Neal for the first time all day and saw the subtle signs of how not fine he really was.

"Neal, you don't look very good." Peter's tone was sincere but he was unsurprised when Neal deflected lightly,

"I'm offended Peter, I wore my nicest tie—"

Peter opened his mouth to retort but Hughes strode into the room,

"Peter."

"Hughes this isn't a great—" but Neal had already made his escape.

Peter sighed heavily and turned his attention to Hughes, determined to pick up the conversation later.

But Neal, it seemed, was every bit as determined to avoid it. Slippery and sly as only a con man could be, for the next two days he avoided any interaction that could bring Peter's scrutiny, taking cabs to and from the office, staying dutifully at his desk, slipping out for coffee at opportune times, and sending various probies up with his solved files.

He seemed to be running purely on coffee and adrenaline, though where the adrenaline came from Peter had no idea.

But the piper, of course, had to be payed—the piper always had to be payed.

Payday came that Friday, two and a half days after Peter had tried to confront his CI, three weeks since Neal had left prison, and three months since Kate had died.

Peter went into the office early, far earlier than usual, hoping to get several tasks done before the business of later in the day and determined to talk with Neal once and for all.

To his shock Neal was already at his desk as Peter walked in, his head down, hard at work, alone in the big room.

Peter's stomach sank. Neal had been at work before the agent for several days, but Peter had had no idea he was hours early.

Neal looked up as the glass doors opened, surprised, but he flashed a smile.

"Morning Peter. You're here early."

Peter had to purposely keep his tone light and unconcerned as he observed the grey exhaustion that tinted Neal's skin.

"Did you stay here all night?"

"No, but I took home some files and manage to solve this, this, and this." Neal slapped three files onto his desk with a flourish and looked up with a grin.

"Neal...those are cold cases."

"Yes, they are." Neal raised an eyebrow as if to ask "what of it?" and Peter forced himself to keep his voice even,

"There was no reason to lose sleep to finish them." Neal just shrugged,

"They were interesting cases. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to get back to—"

"Neal stand up." Peter knew his tone was short but the pit in his stomach was rapidly growing larger and he needed it to go away.

"Why?" Neal's expression was wary.

"We need to have a talk and it's been a long time coming. In my office, now."

Neal stood and went pale, his knuckles turned white as he tried to casually grasp the desk for support. Peter reached toward him but the CI all but pushed his hand away.

"Neal—"

"Don't worry about it."

Peter would not be so easily brushed off,

"Neal." his tone was harder now but Neal still shook his head,

"I'm fine."

Again those empty words came down like a steel wall, closing out the concern, care, and help that Peter was almost desperate to give.

"You can ask for help, you know." Clipped, irritated, the words were sharp and harsher than Peter had intended, the frustration of Neal's constant deflection grating on him.

"I said I'm fine, Peter."

"Neal..." Peter softened his voice, "Isn't that what partners are for? If you need help you can just ask."

Neal's face grew cold and distant, and in the first moment of direct honesty in days he responded,

"No, I can't."

Peter was taken aback. The honesty was unexpected but it was the words, confusing and heartbreaking, that truly startled him.

"Neal, it's what people do."

"It's not who I am."

It wasn't who he had been since he was a child, reaching out for help from a mother who cared more about the tragedies of the past than her own son.

Asking for help put you in a position of weakness and dependence and when that plea for help is rejected it's only repeated so many times before it's silenced forever. Neal had quickly learned that help didn't come just because you asked for it and since then he had never asked for it.

The raw wound of rejection and neglect ensured the promise Neal had made to himself as he ran from home without looking back: he would never be dependent again.

Friendships, trust, and kindness were all well and good but dependence was not. He would never ask for help, not for himself. For others, maybe, as an alias, yes, to win confidence, certainly, but for Neal Caffrey? Never.

And so "I'm fine" became the answer when "I'm exhausted, sick, and my heart is hurting more than I think I can stand"—would have been closer to the truth.

But in Neal Caffrey's experience, no good would come out of that weakness or plea.

"Neal." Peter grew earnest, open concern lacing his words, "You're pushing yourself beyond what a healthy person could handle and healthy is not how I would describe you right now. I can't let this go on."

"I'm fine."

The empty phrase persisted, pushing Peter over the edge. His tone grew almost dangerous, every word measured and precise, as he met Neal's eyes directly.

"Neal. You told me you don't lie to me so I'm going to tell you this straight. Telling me that you are fine when you are not—is lying to me. I'm only going to ask you this once and I want a clear answer. Are you okay?"

"I—"

The struggle was clear as Neal paused, fighting between the lifetime of instincts ingrained to protect against weakness and the truth of the situation.

He was exhausted. He was hurting. He felt dizzy, lightheaded, and ill. He just wanted to sleep, but sleep came with fiery dreams and bringing home a stack of cold cases to work on was preferable to watching Kate die over and over, again and again.

So he stood silent, looking down at the ground and feeling the weight of Peter's gaze. He was unable to go so far as to answer honestly with his words, unable to bring himself to offer up the cry for help that he so desperately felt.

He looked up slowly, his eyes giving Peter all the truth the agent needed to know.

For the first time since he was a child, Neal Caffrey, silently and unwillingly, was pleading.

Peter's eyes gentled with a kind of understanding.

He didn't know—he couldn't know—the struggle of reaching out for help after a lifetime of looking after yourself, or why Neal was so completely unable to truly ask, but the FBI agent knew a cry for help when he saw one.

He stood and pulled Neal close, wrapping his arms around Neal's slim frame and holding steady as Neal crumpled against him in exhaustion.

"I'm tired, Peter." Low and almost choked, Neal spoke against Peter's shoulder.

It was as close as he could possibly come.

Peter felt his heart clench as he realized it. It was still not an explicit appeal but it was far closer than Neal would give to any other person on the planet.

"I know."

Peter's voice was gentle, grieving, and comforting, like the sound of a peaceful rain that soothes away the damage of a violent storm.

He rested his head on top of Neal's, stroking the dark hair in a tender gesture he would never have dreamed of using on anyone but Elizabeth, maybe his sister, or perhaps the children he never had.

But this was Neal. And Neal was hurting.

Peter held him protectively, supportively, paternal instinct taking firm hold.

"I'm taking you home."

It wasn't a suggestion and Neal didn't protest.

Thirty-six minutes later found Peter easing a drooping and exhausted Neal onto the couch. Changed out of his vintage designer suit and into a pair of Peter's pajama bottoms and Peter's sweatshirt, Neal was so far from the perfect magazine cover that he usually presented that Peter wondered fleetingly how that man and the boy on his couch could possibly be the same creature.

Neal might have been dismayed had he been lucid enough to realize, but the picture touched Peter somewhere deep in his heart—a place that had only been touched by hurt before when he had realized fatherhood would be unlikely. He laid a blanket over Neal, noticing with slight amusement but mostly unease that the CI was already nearly asleep. He found himself gently smoothing back Neal's hair, smiling softly as Neal looked up at him, eyes bleary and exhausted but still piercingly blue as they closed.

The morning wore on and Peter worked away quietly in his living room after calling in himself and Neal for an early weekend. He was unsurprised but still concerned as he watched a flush slowly darken on Neal's cheeks. The CI slept uneasily, curling in on himself and huddling beneath the blankets. Peter had expected illness to take quick hold; no man could push himself so far without severely lowering the body's defenses, but he had hoped it could be avoided. Apparently it could not.

Neal's voice was rough as he finally woke up late afternoon.

"Hey." Peter greeted him softly.

"Hey."

"Do you need anything?"

"I'm fine." Peter caught Neal's eye and the CI looked down.

"How about some water?" Peter pushed.

"Okay." The word was shy, uncertain, almost as if Neal expected Peter to rescind on the offer just when Neal accepted.

Peter patted him on the knee and returned with a glass of water, noting how hot Neal's hand felt against his as he handed him the glass.

Peter sat down next to him as he finished,

"I was going to watch the game but if there's something you'd prefer..."

"The game is fine."

Peter was close enough that he could feel the slight shaking from Neal's slim frame each time he was struck with a chill. The trembling was steadily growing more frequent, distracting the agent who hated passively watching someone suffer. Finally, in sympathetic misery, Peter opened his mouth to ask if Neal wanted another blanket or something, but stopped himself short.

"I'm fine" would be the only answer he would get, however patently untrue it was.

So, Peter just got up and unfolded the blanket from its place where it lay decoratively on the back of the armchair, and wrapped it quietly around his friend's shoulders. Neal didn't say anything, but hunched into its warmth. They went back to silently watching the game.

Despite Peter's fears, Neal did not seem terribly ill—just weary, feverish, and quietly miserable. Elizabeth looked worried as she came home later that evening and saw how listless he was, but Peter shook his head as she brought up her concerns,

"I was more worried earlier when he was trying to hide how bad he felt. I think this is a step in the right direction, El." Elizabeth smiled in understanding,

"Since when did you get so good at this?" Peter just rolled his eyes,

"Hey, you've always said I have a pretty good bedside manner."

"Sure," Elizabeth retorted with a knowing grin, "since this is definitely just an issue of illness."

But she didn't push any further and went upstairs to make up the guest bedroom.

Despite having slept most of the day, Peter and Elizabeth found themselves exchanging a glance over Neal's head as he drooped over his dinner.

"Alright buddy," Peter stood and pulled away the barely-touched plate and took the fork out of his hand. "Let's get you upstairs."

"I'm fine." Neal tried to brush him off but Peter ignored him.

"Are you going to walk or do I need to carry you?" Neal glared and stood, hiding his dizziness well, but not quite well enough. Peter didn't comment, just placed a steadying hand at his back and guided him up the stairs and into the bed.

Neal settled himself in bed as Peter took a trip to the bathroom and rummaged through the medicine cabinet. He returned to the room with a fever reducer but stood quietly in the doorway for a moment, thinking things through.

He had never really had The Talk with Neal, the one where he sat him down and told him in no uncertain terms that "I'm fine" wasn't an acceptable answer. But now, when it came down to it, he wasn't so sure about it. Between the time he had planned The Talk and now, watching as Neal curled up in his guest bed, he had learned something important, something he should have learned long before. He had finally noticed the heartbreaking struggle that he had been watching play out for months but had never truly seen. He had noticed the saddening instincts deeply ingrained in his friend and the utter inability to ask for help.

The whole situation was a failure on him, Peter Burke, as Neal's handler and friend, far more than it was on Neal.

In a moment of decision he discarded The Talk.

Neal noticed him standing in the doorway and huffed a laugh with very little amusement,

"Is this when I get the lecture about how I need to take care of myself and not push everyone away?" The question was sarcastic and bating, but Peter knew him well enough to read unease that it hid.

He didn't rise to the bate, just lowered himself down and sat on the edge of the bed, checking Neal's temperature and smoothing the hair from his forehead with his palm. His voice was quiet when he finally spoke.

"I'm not going to lecture you, Neal." Neal's eyes widened in real surprise but he answered with a glib comment,

"Are you sure you're feeling all right, Peter? Since when do you pass up a lecture?" Peter wondered if he should feel relieved that Neal was up to being sarcastic but all he felt was that this cheekiness was just another wall.

"Neal," Peter's tone was low and gentle, "you're grieving. I can't imagine the pain of what you're going through right now but if I were going through it I doubt I'd be much better than you've been this week. It's my job to take care of you just as much as yours. I'm sorry I didn't do a better job of it."

"I don't need you to take care of me."

The words were sharp, brittle, as instinctive as a recoil and gasp when a wound is touched; they were untrue, but Peter didn't dispute them. He just sat quietly, his thumb tracing absentminded patterns on the side of Neal's head where his hand had rested.

Neal swallowed hard,

"I'm sorry Peter. I should be thanking you but instead—"

"You're hurting, Neal." It was not a question, rather an acknowledgement, an explanation, and an understanding.

There was a long silence.

Neal turned his face away and picked slightly at the blanket before responding softly,

"Yes."

Peter reached for the hand toying with the blanket, stilling it with a squeeze.

"Get some rest, Neal." Call me if you need me, he would have said to El, but for Neal—"I'll check in before bed."

"Thanks, Peter." Thanks for helping me when I can't ask for help. Thanks for looking out for me even when I make it difficult. Thanks for caring.

They both knew what that thanks meant.

"I'm fine."

I'm not fine but I'm scared let myself tell you that.

They weren't empty words, Peter realized now. They were a cry for help when a true plea was impossible.

Rome wasn't built in a day and Neal Caffrey didn't change overnight, but it was okay now because Peter understood.

"Don't worry about it."

Please help me, no one else cares enough to notice I need it.

This had always been Peter's job in one way or another—to find out the truth even when Neal couldn't tell it.

Someday Neal would be able to ask for help—would trust in goodness enough to put himself in the position that had hurt him so much before—but for now Peter understood.

And it was fine. Perfectly fine.

Sometimes problems and things don't change right away, but we grow to understand them better and even though they don't go away, it's okay. I feel that often fiction (books, shows, movies, fanfic) solves things too quickly, but this resolution felt a bit more realistic to me.

Also, I've recently gotten some genuinely lovely comments that had me smiling all day. Hearing your thoughts is always amazing, thanks to every single one of you who shares them.