Rating: T

Characters: Neal, Peter

Warnings: Some language, vomiting

Dislaimer: No own White Collar.

Summary: This is not the first time Peter had seen a sick Neal, but this is the first time he's had to deal with a sick Neal. Also posted over yonder on LJ under my other handle, Kriadydragon. Beta'd by the ever wonderful WriterJC.

Sick Day

by

Stealth Dragon

The first time Peter had the honor of witnessing Neal not at the peak of health was while Caffrey had been in prison. It was the flu. Not a bad case but it had left Neal tired, pale and a practical mute. The warden had requested (more like begged) Peter's presence during the exam just in case Neal was up to something. Peter had figured out long before the doctor that Neal wasn't faking, or Caffrey would have been a lot more chipper over being able to make the warden ithat/inervous. Peter had learned something new about Neal that day. A quiet Neal was an unhappy Neal. A really quiet Neal was a sick Neal.

But at some point during the first two months of taking Neal on as an informant, Peter had forgotten all about it.

Neal was quiet, had been since arriving at the office sans his usual perky greetings and sunny grin. Peter's immediate reaction was to chalk it up to some internalized emotional issue (i.e. Neal was pouting), and therefore it was none of Peter's concern (an unhappy Neal was a Neal who wasn't up to something). But all the same Peter tried to do the polite thing, asking Neal more than once what was wrong, then letting him be to wallow in his petulance after the tenth snitty, "I'm fine." If the guy wanted to brood, that was his prerogative.

Up until, "Peter, your tie sucks. You need to burn that damn thing all ready."

Peter kicked Neal out of the office with the order to get his head together, to call Peter when he was ready to talk, and to pour over the files of their latest case while taking the brooding outside of Peter's line of sight. There was a good chance that Peter had been a little on the harsh side but, damn it, a man should only have to put up with so much, and the tie had been a gift from his mom.

It should have been a clue, though. Neal was as much a connoisseur of words as he was of clothes and wine. He rarely cussed, and Peter was pretty sure Neal saying "sucks" was one of the lesser signs of the Apocalypse. But Peter was tired, cranky, and wanted nothing more than to get home to his wife, his dog and a warm dinner. Neal could wait.

-oOo-

They say you learn something new everyday. As much as Peter wanted to think he had the nuances of Neal Caffrey nailed, Neal managed to find ways of proving him wrong. Yesterday, Peter learned that when sick, Neal was really quiet and low on common courtesy.

Today, Peter learned that Neal slept shirtless. A far cry from sleeping naked (thankfully), and not really a surprise, but still skirting the edge of too much information in Peter's book.

Getting past it, Peter ended up more taken back by Neal as the picture of helpless innocence; curled up on his side on top of the covers, hair a mess, one arm curled under the pillow and the other sprawled limp across the scattered pile of files. Crap, Neal was such a kid. Were Elizabeth here, she'd probably think him adorable, like a child or lost puppy that they needed to bring home and take care of.

Peter wanted to be annoyed. Tried to be annoyed, but it fell short. Caffrey could still surprise him, but one thing Peter knew for certain about the kid was that Neal's idea of sleeping in was staying in bed until nine. It was almost eleven. Neal was also a light sleeper. Call him, knock on his door, and you only had to wait seconds for an answer. Today, Neal had neither answered the phone nor the door, not after five calls nor ten knocks. Neal was also shivering, nothing major, mostly in the shoulders, and not a shocker – he was sleeping on top of the covers. But, still... he was also looking kind of pale.

Neal coughed, long and wet and painful, making him to curl tighter and knocking a few files onto the floor in the process.

Peter sighed. "Damn it," and tapped on the heel of Neal's bare foot. "Hey, sleepy head."

Neal groaned, yanking his foot away. Heaving another sigh, Peter tapped harder, this time on the knob of ankle bone just under the anklet. He said, "Caffrey," loud and forceful.

Which might have been a mistake. Neal scrambled awake, flopping onto his back while struggling upright, arms flailing, glassy eyes rolling around in his sockets to a litany of "Crap, damn it, crap!" When his gaze finally locked on Peter he shrank back, and Peter could have sworn his face drained of all remaining color.

"Don't take me back to jail," Neal blurted, his voice hoarse and pinched with congestion. And, damn, if Peter wasn't suddenly channeling El's sentiments. Neal looked frightened, honest to goodness scared out of his wits. Then he blinked four times, a twitchy flutter of his eyelids, clearing his brain enough of the combination ailment and whatever he'd been dreaming about until he was less scared and more confused. He scrubbed the side of his face with his hand, then ran his fingers through his hair, making it stick up in every possible direction.

"I slept in, I take it," he said, nonchalant, matter-of-fact, while leaning subtly to the side, watching Peter out of the corner of his eye as though waiting for him to break out the cuffs.

Peter smiled tightly. "Yes, you did." He moved to the head of the bed and reached for Neal's forehead. Neal flinched, Peter mostly ignored it except to think poor kid, which he wasn't supposed to think, because Neal was a liar and a thief and for all Peter knew this was some elaborate con.

Except Peter knew Neal, knew that if Neal was going to show raw fear around anyone it wouldn't be Peter. Fear was the loss of self-control, and Neal did love flaunting his self-control. Neal's forehead was also uncomfortably warm.

"But considering the circumstances," Peter said, softening his expression and tone, "it's understandable. Why didn't you tell me you felt like crap?"

Neal took a moment to cough into his fist before answering. "Didn't know I was. Just thought I was tired." He then waved Peter off, while at the same time started the painful climb from the bed to his feet, slipping on the floored folders. "Just give me a sec. I'll be ready."

Peter had to move fast around the bed to grab Neal and steady him, kicking a clear path through the folders as he did so. "No, you're going to get back in bed and continue sleeping in. You're sick, Neal."

"No," Neal said, groggy, rough and irritable. "I'm thirsty." But rather than shuffle his stiff and weary way to the sink he made a slight detour for the bathroom.

Peter passed his hand over his face, letting it linger at his mouth, stifling the sudden urge to chuckle. He made himself useful by heading into the kitchenette and getting Neal a glass of water. He was about to transfer it to the nightstand when Neal emerged and made a bee-line for the table. Rolling his eyes, Peter set the glass down in front of Neal as Neal sat.

Neal stared at the glass, bug-eyed. "This isn't coffee."

"No, it's water. You said you were thirsty."

"Oh, right." Neal drank as though it had been days since his last glass of water. When he was done, he said, "I want coffee."

"Like hell you're getting coffee." Peter took the glass to refill it. "No coffee. Water or orange juice, but no coffee. Now where are your cold pills?" He turned back to see Neal looking over his shoulder, glaring at him.

"Who died and made you my doctor? And I don't have any damn cold pills." Neal scraped his hand over his pale face. "Never needed any."

"Well you do now. I'll see if I can borrow some from June." He set the water in front of Neal. "And see if she has any oatmeal or Cream of Wheat."

"Not hungry," Neal croaked. He furrowed his brow. "And how do you 'borrow' pills? It's not like she's ever gonna see them again." He then eyed Peter up and down with disdain. "That tie's even worse than the one you had on yesterday."

"Damn it, Neal!" Peter barked, tossing his hands up. He forced himself to calm by tearing his hand through his scalp and, for a moment, looking everywhere except Caffrey.

When Neal was really sick, he was not only quiet but out of his damn mind and a complete pain in the ass.

Peter said, with forced calm, "Leave my ties out of this."

"They deserve it." Neal swallowed, grimacing. "They suck." Suddenly, he was up, knocking the chair over in his bolt to the bathroom. Not seconds after, Peter could hear even from where he stood the wet, choking sounds of retching. Peter stayed where he was, because life was hard enough when you felt like several miles of bad road, making any fragment of dignity as precious as diamonds.

Then Peter heard Neal whimper, a short, high, broken sound. The kind of sound one might make when in pain, or frightened, and for some reason that Peter couldn't explain, it scared him. He rushed over to the bathroom, the door still open. Neal was on the floor, hunched and shaking over the toilet, back and rib muscles slack one minute then coiled and knotted the next when he dry heaved.

Peter couldn't make a claim to having any kind of a bedside manner. He wasn't a comfort kind of guy. A reassurance kind of guy, maybe, but the best he could do to alleviate anyone's suffering was try, and most of the time he was sure he sucked at it. El was the one who did the comforting thing. So Peter he asked himself, what would El do? Channeling her once again, he crouched on the immaculately tiled floor of the bathroom then, hesitantly, awkwardly, placed his hand on Neal's back and rubbed.

Neal tensed, his head shooting up, nearly clipping Peter on the chin. Peter recoiled, hands in the air.

"Whoa, whoa, it's okay, Neal, it's okay. I'm sorry, okay?"

Neal stared at him, his bloodshot eyes wide and wary, as if he was wondering what the hell Peter was up to, and Peter thought in all sincerity "poor kid."

He knew a lot of about Neal, because most of what he didn't know he could easily imagine. Being sick was nobody's happy place, but for a guy like Neal, a guy who had spent most of his life teetering on the edge, being sick had to be scary as hell. You couldn't get more vulnerable than having your own body betray you, and four years in prison obviously wasn't enough to break Neal of old habits, old reactions.

"I'll leave if you want," Peter said. "Just say the word and I'll back off."

Exhaustion drained Neal of his suspicion. His eyes grew heavy as he turned his head away, laying it back on his arm still wrapped around the toilet.

"S'okay," he said, then he returned to his dry heaving.

Peter tried again to place his hand on Neal's back. Neal, too busy purging water, didn't react. So Peter rubbed, his movements stiff, uncomfortable and no doubt completely unhelpful. Peter could feel the muscles moving, sliding beneath Neal's hot, clammy skin. Neal was fit, toned, but he wasn't a big guy. Beneath both skin and muscle Peter also felt ribs, the bumps of Neal's spine, and the fine tremors easily missed to the naked eye, replaced by heavier shakes in between purges. But Peter forced himself to ignore it all, rubbing up and down then side to side across Neal's shoulder blades. The heaves dragged on, making Peter nervous that they might never end. When they did, Neal slumped boneless onto the toilet, too spent to notice Peter's ministrations or too spent to give a damn.

"Don't usually get sick," Neal said.

Peter snorted. "Everyone thinks that."

"But when I do," Neal went on as though he hadn't heard Peter. "When I do... it's always bad."

Peter stopped rubbing.

"Like it's getting revenge that I don't get sick enough or something."

Peter felt Neal's body deflate on a long exhale, the muscles go slack, and the fine tremors decline into twitches and periodic shakes. He slid his hand up to Neal's shoulder and squeezed.

"I'd bet good money you get sick, but you ignore it until it goes away or gets so bad you can't ignore it," Peter said.

A shudder rippled through Neal. "Can't get sick," he said, whimpered, like he was begging, like any moment he would tack on a "please."

"It's okay, Neal," Peter said. Reassurances he could do.

"No. S'not."

"Yeah, it is. This time it is. You'll be okay, okay? Everything will be all right." He pulled at Neal's arm trapped under his head. "Come on. I think you're done. Let's get you up and back to bed."

Neal lifted his unsteady head off his arm and stared at Peter.

"It'll be all right. I promise," Peter said. He took Neal's now free arm and pulled it across his shoulders. Neal wasn't so weakened that he couldn't help, but Peter was supporting a lot of the kid's weight. He helped him to the sink, giving him something to lean on as he rinsed and spit, then he shuffled him to the bed.

"What if I puke again?" Neal asked as Peter got him under the covers. Peter grabbed the nearest solid wastebasket and moved it within Neal's reach. He got Neal a glass of water.

"I'm going to beg some medicine off June." Peter grinned. "Be warned that she might come up and try to mother you. She's totally the type."

Neal smiled sleepily back.

Peter patted Neal's shoulder. Just when he was about to turn away to go fetch those pills, Neal grabbed the cuff of his sleeve.

Neal slurred, "Your ties don't suck that bad."

Peter smirked, catching Neal's wrist and placing in gently back on the bed.

"You're welcome, kid."

The End

A/N: Feedback is always appreciated. You like, let me know. Telling me how to spell is not appreciated. I know how to spell.