Dogs and Socks
By Alone Dreaming
Rating: T or PG-13 for blood, violence, dogs and a bit of language.
Disclaimer: I don't own White Collar. If I did, this would not be under fan fiction.
Warnings: Some blood, some injury, some obsession with puppy dog socks, some unexplained case which is ultimately unimportant.
Author's Note: This was written for the help_haiti community. Thank you, Elizabeth, for your generous donation and your permission to post this story! This was inspired by a conversation had between myself and my friend Steph, while anguishing over Peter's apparent betrayal of Neil; who wasn't a little upset by that, hmm? This is not beta'd so be gentle. Enjoy.
As far as Neal Caffrey is concerned, he doesn't need a reason to hate guns. Guns cause trouble in any situation, no matter how they're applied or why they're applied. In the hands of criminals, guns mean innocents killed, or criminals killed even, because most of the people in his line of work are a little too greedy for their own good. Law enforcement kills just as many in an attempt to protect the civilians and stop the bad guys from running off. The perfect world, Neal Caffrey thinks, would be where neither side had anything more than their fists and their smarts; preferably, just their smarts.
Because if everyone in the situation only had their brains as weapons, Neal Caffrey knows that his side would win. It's not because the FBI has him, though he won't deny his intelligence; it's because the FBI has Peter and Peter is the only man to ever outsmart him. Between the two of them, they could mentally wrestle these idiots to the ground and call in Lauren and the others to drag them away. That way, no one would get hurt, no one would win due to having the bigger weapon; no, the world would be balanced, as it should be, with those who deserve to win—the smart ones—conquering those who shouldn't.
Either that, or Neal Caffrey would have the entire world divested of people and populated by dogs. Dogs are the only creatures in the world that can be trusted. Admittedly, they need to have their boundaries respected but as long as people toe the line, dogs willingly submit to obedience lessons and commands. What better creature can show what it means to be stupidly loyal and trustworthy; he can't think of one. Maybe some would argue cats but cats will eat their owners the moment they kick the bucket. Dogs tend to lie down and die with their loved ones. Yes, in the perfect, perfect world, Neal Caffrey would have everyone transformed into doe eyes and lolling, slobbering tongues; or, into exact replicas of Satchmo.
Wishing cannot get him anywhere. He currently has a gun jabbed in his back and Peter's attempting to not look desperate as he hides behind his crook façade. Neal cannot understand why they figured him out before Peter. Peter's a terrible liar—he's a good person—and his undercover personas generally hold a half-an-inch of depth, covering an uncomfortable, squirming white knight. If a criminal ever looked closely at him, he or she would notice there's no conviction in his eyes when he says things, no real belief in what he's doing. Unlike Neal, Peter can't bend the rules to suit his purposes; he's so deep in with the law that, in some ways, he cannot help the law.
"FBI snitch, huh?" the man holding him hisses. "Knew I recognized you from somewhere. Caffrey, right? Sold out, didn't ya?"
He carefully keeps his mouth shut because, even if he likes to tease, Neal Caffrey has a sense of preservation and he knows that J. D. Kin has no qualms with ending a life. The man's unhealthy obsession with weapons of all sorts and his adoration for mostly raw meat has proved this over the past two weeks. Denying that he has anything to do with law enforcement is a waste of breath. Once Kin decides someone's a snitch, that person's a snitch forever, regardless of the truth.
"Am I wrong?" The gun's digging into his kidney and he winces. "Not gonna tell me, huh?"
He didn't make his character into a weeper, a whiner; if he had, he could try pleading for his life, insisting that he was sorry, boss, so sorry, and he'll flip on them, and tell the boss everything, anything, just please, don't shoot. That person always annoyed him when he was in the business and he rarely ever took that part; he likes being suave, mysterious, and, if he hazards to say it himself, he was quite good at that role. So when Peter told him to infiltrate, that's how he did it.
"Sanderson," Kin addresses Peter, who is attempting to school his features. "You spent the most time with this ass. He look like Caffrey to you?"
He assumes Kin takes Peter's fear as fear for his own life. "Never seen Caffrey, Boss."
"Yeah, well, I have," how can Kin not see Peter's lying, "and there ain't any mistaking them baby blue eyes. Should've asked for some contacts, Caffrey. Might've helped you live longer."
He wonders if their backup's hearing this through Peter's wire and what they're planning on doing. Every scenario he plays out ends with him bleeding and an epic gun fight with the FBI's finest and Kin's gang. The most likely one, the one that doesn't blow Peter's cover and the whole operation, ends with the FBI staying put and him losing his kidney and probably his life. For them, he's an asset, not a teammate, and he respects that position. He's important, so they take good care of him, but he's not a person to them; he's just an item, something to use in a situation, but not something you worked overly hard to protect. If it's a choice between risking Peter's life and saving his life, he already knows what's going to happen.
He braces himself for the pain, for the shock, for the blood. It makes him stagger as Kin pushes him forward, towards Peter. "Since you failed to notice he was running off and ratting on us, you get to dispose of him, Sanderson."
"Boss," Peter begins and Neal wishes he wouldn't argue.
"You got some sort of problem with this?" Kin asks, threatening. "Maybe you know a little more than you're letting on, huh?"
"No," Peter says, stepping forward to take Neal's arm. "I was just going to ask where you want it to happen."
Kin grins and Neal decides he's a bad conman. Anyone can tell that Peter's almost frantic in his attempts to get out of the situation. Can't they hear the catch in his voice, or how he stumbled over a part of the sentence? Or, is Neal imagining all of it right now? His head feels a little light at the idea.
"Toss him in the lake, sleep with the fishes," Kin puts on an Italian accent for it. "Let them see what happens when they put their dogs in with the wolves. We don't put up with people betraying the pack, Caffrey. You should know that."
He knows quite a bit about that. It's part of the reason he hates guns but he refuses to touch that thought right now, refuses to let on that he's without an escape route unless Peter can manage to get them to safety. He trusts Peter implicitly, always has, because he thinks Peter's a pure man, one of those few goody goods who simply doesn't do bad things in the name of his country. Right? He tries to catch Peter's eye but Peter's not looking at him.
He cannot figure out why he doubts it all now, after years of thinking this. How can he let one criminal spotting him first ruin the beginnings of a good relationship, maybe one of the few he's ever had? Why can't he believe that maybe he slipped up more obviously than Peter has? The answer glares at him behind pride. If Kin is good enough to see through him, he should be good enough to see through Peter, unless, of course, Peter's fooling Neal as well.
Gunfire startles him and the lurch of his body startles him even more. He stumbles into Peter, who reflexively catches him, but then, for some reason, lets him go. Not very friend-like, his confused mind whines as he slips onto his knees and towards the floor, maybe he has conned you. There's no pain yet, no burning agony to drag him into dark depths, but the lack of feeling combined with growing wetness promises moments before the pain comes. His whole body is already shaking, shock growing out of surprise, instead of blood loss.
"That's a reminder for all of you," Kin calls to the room. "Now, get him out of here. And when you're done, Sanderson, come back to my place."
His mind's fixated on it now, unable to lose the feeling that, somehow, Peter's conned everyone including him. He can't gain his feet, can't move himself, can't do anything but wonder how Peter pulled this off better than he could and concluding, that Peter's tricked the world. His mind's on a constant loop of the same words, the same confusion. Someone hoists him up under the armpits causing the first stabs of pain to shoot through him and he yelps. In the distant reality of his life, he can feel someone trying to pick him up without touching his back. But then he falls back into his own head where the outside world's just a distant, unimportant place.
Maybe he let himself get sucked in. Maybe, instead of conning Peter into letting him out of prison, Peter conned him into working for the FBI. Maybe, this entire thing is a set up by the Federal Government to get rid of him. Maybe, Kate had a part in this, too, and everyone he's ever trusted has turned against him. He should've known better than to trust someone on the other side of the road; hell, he should've known better than to trust anyone. A good conman knows that everyone else is conning, too. The only difference is why.
That's why he likes Satchmo; the only reason Satchmo does anything is for food. At least he's predictable.
He's outside, cold, very cold and hurting so badly that there's tears dripping down his face. Footsteps stop, stagger; someone rearranges him so that his shoes, his nice, borrowed, handmade shoes, don't drag on the asphalt. He'd thank them if he had a spare breath, if he wasn't so wrapped up on how he'd lost. But instead, he lets out a groan and chokes as it brings a wave of pain.
"Need any help with him?" Irons, he recognizes Irons's voice because Irons isn't a bad guy. Or, maybe Irons is a bad guy. His grasp on white and black has muddled into a gloppy puddle of grey, like his suit that's currently getting soaked in his blood.
"Yeah, just be careful," Peter's voice, from above him. "Don't want him messing up the car."
Iron's doesn't say anything in reply but the grip on him changes again so that someone has his shoulders and someone has his legs. The mat of pain wrapped about him tightens its grasp, radiating out from that central place in his mid-back. He thinks he's making some pretty interesting sounds as they slide him into the car, on his good side, but it doesn't seem to bother his handlers.
"Thanks," Peter's voice is muffled. "See you in a bit."
"Nah, I'll come with you," Irons must be on his side of the car. "Get it done and over twice as fast."
"All right," Peter says, voice louder as another door opens. Is he hallucinating the reluctance there? "Get in. Let's hurry before his yelling grabs attention."
"Kate," he finds himself mumbling, his mind drifting to her beautiful face and the smell of her hair. "Kate…" Could she have been a part of this? No, no, she wouldn't. She would do things under duress but she would warn him first.
"Who'd you think Kate is?" Irons asks as the car starts to move.
"Probably his girl," Peter's voice definitely stutters but Neil's wrapped up in Kate, the way she tilts her head when she's confused and how she looks soaking wet. Her laugh when she's derisive, when she's happy, when she's conning; her laugh is filling his ears, almost drowning people out. Her face eats away at his eyes, morphing between her four years ago and her now, changing between happy and panicked.
It takes the sudden halt of the car to snap him out of it but that's only to fall into the torrent of agony as his body flips and lands on his back. He shouts, Irons shouts and there's a struggle in the front seat. A gun goes off again and he jerks, waiting for fresh pain, payment for falling into Peter's con. There's a groan that's not his and the overwhelming stench of blood and gunpowder.
The next thing he's aware of is Peter talking on a cell to either Jones or Lauren, in a fast, no-nonsense tone. He's much closer than before, his hands on Neal's back, pressing hard enough to make his ribs creak. He cannot make out the words on either side of the conversation, can't get his torpid brain to figure out what just happened. His eyes keep conjuring up images of Kate charming him, of Peter charming him, of the FBI team rolling their eyes at him; what had he been thinking, doing this?
"Hang in there, Neal," Peter may be a bit worried. Losing his favorite toy, maybe? "Easy, easy… it's going to be okay."
"Kate," he whispers, because he thinks he can hear her tread outside, her jaunty little skip when she's just executed a marvelous plan.
Someone touches his face. "Don't worry about her, Neal, we'll find her. Okay? Just focus on right here. Right now. Hey, come on, look at me." He can't because Kate's close by, haunting Peter's shadow, waiting for Neal to call the two of them on the game. "Neal, look at me."
He sees shadows, light, the interior of a stolen car, half of Iron's head splattered on the ceiling, brains, skull and blood dripping onto the seats, onto his borrowed pants. Through the front windshield, he thinks he sees a glimpse of her brown hair in the breeze and her favorite trench which she only wears when she's up to something. But then his eyes settle on Peter, who's wedged into the car awkwardly, practically cradling Neal against him.
"That's it," Peter encourages, his face a mass of hard lines. "Stay with me, all right?"
His tongue's not very helpful as it starts to wag. "G'job."
He's not sure either. "Y'fooled me."
Peter lets out a weak huff of breath, caught between an incredulous laugh and annoyance. His eyes are more than concerned. "Think I was going to actually snuff you? Trust me; there are days I want to."
"No," he manages but it's strangely hard to get words out. "S'not it at all." His eyes slip shut.
"No, Neal, you have to keep your eyes open," Peter's desperate; that's his desperate voice. "Come on, kid, only another few minutes. Damn it, where are they?" The pressure on his back's increasing. "Don't give up now. What am I going to tell, El? Huh? She likes you. If something happens, she's not going to forgive me and then the dog'll side with her because he knows who feeds him. Can't leave me all alone against that, can you?"
The dog; he remembers dogs, remembers the friendly Labrador faces and the wagging tails. He also recalls socks with dogs on them, adorning the feet of a particularly embarrassed FBI agent. There's flushing ears and a mumbled, "El bought them for me," and the strange sensation of humor. He recalls the face, the socks, the dog, the trust, all of it in a wave of color matching the trees. Little wiggling bodies surround him and his eyes part just slightly.
"Socks," he puffs out. "What…socks?"
"What about socks?" Peter asks, his face blurry.
"You wearing," he mumbles as things grey about the edges. "What," has happened to the air, "socks," would a conman wear, "are you," starting to care, "wearing?"
Peter lets out a strangled sound but replies, "Red ones with golden retrievers. El got them for me. Why? Neal?" A shake which sends lightning through him, "Neal?"
"Lying?" he whispers to himself. But why would he lie about something like that?
"Neal," and then, pressure on his throat, "Goddamn it!"
It's the last thing he hears.
He dreams about the dog that lived in his neighborhood when he was six. It was a big, black mutt with scraggly hair and long legs. It didn't belong to anyone in particular, just rooted through garbage cans and ate road kill; but, at the same time, he considered it his dog. Whenever he came home from school, the dog sat in his front yard, and whenever he played outside, the dog would follow him about. No one in the neighborhood thought of the dog more than to kick it out of the yard but he respected the dog and the dog respected him. Everyone else just warned their kids to stay away from it because it was wild, it was unpredictable, it was ugly.
He never touched the dog and the dog never touched him until later, much later, when he was nine. It was outside, it was getting dark and he and the dog were down by the river, goofing off. A few other boys were throwing rocks in the water, sometimes chucking them his way to mess with him, but just out of play, not out of maliciousness. He remembered the coldness of the water on his toes, the sting of a rock bouncing off his scalp and the yells of parents calling the other kids in. The dog sat on the bank next to him, tail wagging, tongue lolling, staring at something he couldn't see.
He didn't notice the man sneaking up on him until his arms were pinned to his sides. He kicked, he screamed, he struggled and he fell into the river. It dazed him with chill, enough that he didn't try to swim. It pulled him under towards the rocky, trash littered bottom so he could see why his mother didn't let him swim in it during the summer. For a second, his very young life seemed to be ending. Peacefulness stole over his brain and he thought he saw a light at the end of a very dark tunnel.
Then something painful grasped his shoulder and dragged him up into the open air. He wheezed and started crying as he was pulled to the shore. By the time he was on the bank, he realized that the dog had taken him to safety with its teeth and the pain was from the sharp incisors tearing through his skin. Someone had heard his cries and an adult came rushing to him once he reached the muddy shore. He was carried home and carted off to the ER where he received shots for rabies and tetanus and got three stitches. After that day, he never saw the dog again.
Later, he asked his mother what had happened to his companion and his mother had told him bluntly; the dog had bitten him and it had been put down. Dogs like that are unpredictable, she said as she cooked dinner, and therefore, they have to be either locked away or killed. When he'd tried to explain that the dog had only been protecting him, she shook her head. No one else had seen this mysterious man who'd almost kidnapped him. He must've imagined it in his shock, she insisted; eat your food before it gets cold.
He always loved dogs after that. And he always hated guns. The man who lived two streets down had shot the dog when he'd seen the blood on its muzzle. Dogs he could trust because dogs were unnecessarily loyal, damn the risks, what's best, what's wrong; dogs he could depend on. And guns could be depended on to cause pain and hurt and death. And people could be depended on to misunderstand situations, to not ask questions, to lie, to cheat and to disappoint.
He wakes up with his feet unnaturally warm. Out of everything he's sensing—the sounds of machines, the slight pressure in the crook of his elbow, the aching of his back, the dryness in his mouth, the dullness in his brain—it's the most unusual. It means he fell asleep while dressed because he never sleeps with socks on. As a child, his mother used to pull them onto his feet when he crawled into bed, but he'd always shed them in the night, feeling too hot with wool on his toes. Since then, he only ever falls asleep with socks on when he hasn't undressed and even then, he tends to toe them off unconsciously.
He tries to remove them but his legs are heavy and it hurts to move. So, he allows them to stay, curling his feet in them and savoring the softness of the material. They are not the usual socks he wears with his suits, thin and rough, but fluffy and thick. Though he dislikes having them on while he's trying to sleep, he thinks he could get used to wearing them every now and again. The cold wood floors in his room sometimes have him longing for something first thing in the morning. Of course, he will have to see how embarrassing they are before he wears them in the public eye. There are certain appearances to keep up regardless of comfort.
Looking at them requires him to open his eyes, which he does slowly so his head doesn't start spinning. Even so, everything sort of melts together in a hazy blob and he's forced to raise an exhausted arm to paw at his face. Before he reaches his eyes, someone stops him, placing his arm back at his side and keeping it there. The person doesn't exert much pressure but he can't seem to get away.
"Hey there," El, he knows El. "How are you feeling?"
"Hmm," he replies, evasively, blinking. Peter's wife comes into a bare minimum focus. "Hmm…"
"That good?" she teases but there's tension in her features. "Hurting at all?"
He can't shrug and he can't use the same sound, lest she start to confuse its meaning. His voice embarrasses him, "Not bad."
"Still feverish," she sighs, brushing his hair from his face, "but they keep saying you're over the worst of it."
It's strange to see her here, even though he likes her and she's always been willing to help him out. He expected to see Peter, maybe, once he was better, or, more likely, an agent making sure he doesn't fly the coop when he actually can move. But El's one of those side notes in his life, rather like Moz, someone available, usable, but not an immediate expectation. She's not a player in the game, just a spectator who occasionally gets involved; like Peruvians at a football game except less violent.
"Feet," he mumbles, suddenly distracted by the fuzziness. "D'jou put socks on me?"
El laughs but it sounds a lot like crying. "Yeah, well, I bought you some. Hope you don't mind."
"N'pe," he wishes he could pull back the covers and look. "Ev'rything okay? Y'look tired."
"Well, I've got this guy worrying me," she informs him. "Cute, young, brilliant; has my husband messed up, too, so any peace at home is out of the question."
He understands she's joking but he can't wrap his mind around it properly. It's the fever. Or the morphine. "S'rry. Wan' him to kick off?"
"For some reason, I think that would make matters worse," she says, moving her hand down so it's resting on top of his.
"C'n't win for losing," he's slurring his words.
She's smiling again and he's definitely seeing tears, now. He wants to assure her that things are fine, that he's fine, but even he can't con his way out of the gown and wires strapped to his chest. If he could, they'd probably have his tracker on, but he can't feel its presence. It's almost as though a near death experience has made him into a normal person, with someone who genuinely worries over him, and no criminal record. El's hand's on his forehead again and he realizes his eyes closed when he wasn't paying attention.
"I've got your coffee," Peter's on the opposite side of the room. "What's wrong? Is he okay?"
"Yeah," she whimpers it. "Yeah, he was awake for a little while. Asked about socks and offered to die if it would make things easier."
"I think he's just trying to get out of all the paperwork that's building up," Peter jokes and quickly adds. "El, it's okay. Really. He'll be all right."
"I know," it's a weak answer. "I know."
There's a moment of silence before Peter speaks again, this time on the same side Neal left El on. "Why don't you get some air? I'll sit with him for a while and then we'll call June and get some lunch."
"I think I married the world's best man," she answers. "And I won't be long."
He dozes off for only a few minutes because when his eyes are open again, Peter's sitting in El's chair, his feet propped in another seat, his coffee in his hand. He's staring off into space, not noticing the small drops leaking from the cup's bad bottom. His expression's tight, worn and his clothes look several days old. The pants are bunched up mid-calf, revealing blue socks with puppies romping about on them, little white faces with happy red tongues drooping from their mouths. He fixates on them, almost seeing them move in his dazed state.
"N'ce socks," he says, and Peter slops what little coffee is left down his front. He curses, sits up, curses some more and then beams brighter than Neal's ever see him beam, except for maybe the day Peter caught him the first time.
"You have some sort of fetish with my feet, Caffrey?" Peter inquires. "I'd be careful about the interest. El's taken it as jealousy for my collection. Once you see the socks she's picked up for you, you'll be singing another tune." He drops the coffee cup in the trash and yanks some tissues from the box on Neal's bedside table. "How're you feeling?"
No different than before so he makes the same noise he made for El and Peter frowns. "Need me to get a doctor?"
"'m good," he assures, even if he's hurting more by the second. He wants Peter to put his feet up again.
"Good, good," Peter says absently, not believing him. "Glad to hear it."
There's an awkward tension between them that he did not expect, some sort of stupid guilt radiating from Peter that he recognizes even though he's not all there. The sudden compulsion overcomes him to comfort—twice in less than an hour—and he opens his mouth to say something smart and fun, only to find his brain failing him. A glance at his monitors tells his blurry eyes that his fever's in the triple digits, which is probably impeding his processing. So, his mind trips back to the dogs and to the socks and he word vomits into the conversation.
"Thanks for saving me," it says as it pours out of his mouth. "Knew I could trust you."
He refuses to look at Peter afterwards under the pretense of dozing off again. But he feels the clasp of a hand on his shoulder and hears the soft whisper, "Sorry I didn't do a better job."
"Trust you," he says again; because, he has to face it, any man who wears puppy dog socks cannot possibly be bad.