Title: Yellow and Warm in the City of Gray
Genre and/or Pairing: Gen
Notes: For Elhiarhodan as an odd angsty birthday present. This was requested on White Collar Prompt Fest and although a very sad story is a gift.
Spoilers: for finale
Warnings: references to 9-11 with realistic details
Summary: Peter tells Neal about his role in 9-11 and about going on after tragedy with some help from Satchmo
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners including Jeff Eastin and USA television. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
Neal drifted down the stairs, looking on the surface as if it was any other day. He was burnished, hair combed, clothing tugged and smoothed into place.
"We're taking the day," Peter said.
"But I wanted...I need to try to find out what's happening."
"Diana, Lauren, and Jones are on it," Peter said. "We're taking a walk."
At his favorite word, next to dinner and treat, Satchmo woke from a snooze, tail wagging, eager to go. He bumped his head under Neal's hand to be petted. Peter smiled at the memory of his first obedience trainer, telling him that he shouldn't tolerate that behavior from Satchmo, that it was a sign of dominance seeking.
The woman, Jean, was a great trainer, a dog rescuer, and a great search and rescue worker. She was wrong about Satchmo. He was a perfect dog even at the six month crazy stage when most labs were intolerable engines of destruction. No little wonder. Breeding would tell. Satchmo was the descendent of generations of service dogs. He had failed in only one respect; he was larger than the type they preferred. Smaller guide dogs were required. It was easier to fit them under desks. The public tolerated them better and they stayed useful longer as bigger dogs aged faster. It was normally difficult to get a flunked out guide dog, but Peter had recommendations from the director of the program. Even so he had waited five years. He had nearly refused when they made the offer. The momentum that made him put in his application had faded. The flood of returning memories made him say 'yes'.
"You're my pal, Satchmo," Neal whispered, kneeling, his grooming forgotten as he put his fine wool-sleeved arms around the dog.
If Neal's face rested in Satchmo's fur a moment too long, Peter understood.
Peter understood all the colors of grief.
"I'm not a child and I don't need a babysitter," Neal grumbled. He craned his head and looked at Satchmo in his dog safety harness. "Doesn't he mind being confined in that? He's supposed to be free, not all tied up like that. Shouldn't he be flapping his ears out the window?"
"El and I had to take puppy and dog care when we adopted Satchmo. They recommended the dog be confined in a crate or that we purchase a dog seat belt. Proper dog care is required for failed service dogs."
"Satchmo failed being a service dog? How? He's a great dog," Neal said. Neal scowled. "They must have ridiculous standards."
"He was too big," Peter explained. "It wasn't his personality or intelligence. El has him certified as a therapy dog. We just haven't had time to do much volunteering since El's business took off. I brought him out a few times while you were in prison."
"When you had more time in your life, not chasing me..."
"Not worrying about you either. You were doing okay in prison. Yes, I did check," Peter said gently.
"I was miserable."
"But safe enough."
"Peter, how am I supposed to live now? I waited four years. I thought we would start a new life. I would go clean. Kate and I would have a life. Then I thought all I had to do was find her...and now."
"It's ashes. I do know."
"You have El."
"I almost lost her. I lost two good friends that day, but, yes, El survived. Neal, she was in the twin towers that day."
They had arrived at the site of the twin towers. It looked so ordinary now, a construction site with tall fences to keep out the gawkers. Peter only had to blink to see it the way he had that week he had spent here.
Peter unfastened Satchmo's harness and took the dog out. Neal reached for the leash. "This is where you bring me to cheer me up?"
"No, this is where I bring you to talk to you about how you start to live again after you feel as if you have lost your world."
They hadn't even had the first anniversary. It was a few weeks off. It was before Neal. Neal must have been in college when the towers fell. Peter was young, ambitious, a ball of fire. Sure, people thought his devotion to the white collar crime division was odd. It was not the division where most agents expected to make their chops. Peter loved it from the moment he entered the doors as a probie.
It suited Peter. He liked matching wits with the brightest criminals. He liked the intellectual chase more than the physical. He didn't care for the politics of terrorism even before the dirt flew in the days after 9-11.
Sure there were rumors flying in the days before the attack. A big target, an unprecedented event was what people whispered. Peter and El minimized the shop talk in those days so he did not mention why he insisted they check with each other at least twice a day. She thought it was adorable. They had breakfast together, parting with a kiss. El, her catering business more of a dream than a reality in those days, had a pitch for an accounting firm in the twin towers. She looked very capable in her one designer suit, her blue eyes sparkling.
"You'll knock 'em dead," Peter swore.
El checked her brief case one more time. She squared her shoulders and said, "If I don't get this one, I'm going to start looking for another management job, Peter."
"You'll get it and, if you don't, we can make it for however long it takes for your business to grow wings."
They were poor in those days. They lived in a very small apartment for which they paid enough to own a two story house with a half acre of lawn in Seattle where Peter's sister lived. Peter took the subway to work every day and used a bureau car when he needed to drive on the job. El shopped the consignment shops and still looked fabulous every day. They were very happy.
Both of them started their days early. El usually worked from home, her catering supplies crowding the minimal space of their apartment, but she insisted on dressing as if in an office even if she had no appointments. She loved to play and loved luxury, but she had an iron core of self discipline.
Peter went in early every day. He liked the quiet of the first hour, as long as someone made the morning coffee. He felt as if his head expanded in the silence and often his best work was rooted before eight am. He was on his way to Hughes' office when the report came in. At first, there was an odd silence then as if in a rehearsed chorus, voices rose in disbelief. Ellen Mitchell grabbed Peter's arm and said, "A plane hit the north tower."
Like everyone else, Peter turned to the news monitors. It was eight forty eight am. The news reporter sounded stressed, not smooth. He babbled about a plane hitting the north tower, reporting it as an accident.
Peter remembered grabbing his cell phone and calling El. Her choked voice said, "Peter, something terrible has happened. The building is shaking."
"Get out. A plane hit the north tower. Get out now."
"They said to stay, Peter. They said debris might..."
Peter's gut feelings had always been good. "Get out now. Don't listen. Get out. Get as far from there at possible. Go now and call me when you're safe."
"I will. I love you. I love you."
Twenty minutes later, El called again. She said, "I'm out. Oh, Peter, there's another plane. I can't believe it. What's happening? "
"Keep going. Go home, El. Call me when you get there."
By this time, like every other policing or emergency service, the FBI office was mobilizing. Most of the energy went into trying to determine further risk. Peter insisted on going to the site along with other FBI personnel not needed for the investigation into the attacks. He had recently updated his urban disaster training; training he took more as a hobby than anything else. He had taken his core training in 1993 after the world trade center bombing and had been serious. He had never been called out and was thinking about withdrawing from the program as his work load increased at the FBI. He enjoyed the scenarios and the physical challenges of the work, but he hated to take the time away from El and work.
El called as Peter struggled into disaster gear. "There are no cabs. The subway isn't running. I'm walking. My heel is broken. I can hardly see. The air is full of dust. Peter, are we at war?"
"I don't know, El. Break the other heel off, El so you can walk. Cover your face. Keep going. Don't lose your phone."
Peter didn't tell El he was going in.
The next hours were a nightmare. Peter was deployed into managing evacuation outside the towers. He guided survivors toward safe areas so they could be bussed away. He did triage with the wounded, taking them to medics. He was guided a badly burned woman. He remembered her sleeve crumpling in his hand, her skin sloughing away. He finally grabbed her waist and slung her over his shoulder to carry her. He was leaning into the ambulance when the first tower fell.
It felt like an earthquake. The ground shook and there was a cry, not human, an inhuman, loud groan as if the city was mourning its dead. His ears rang and he was thrown to the ground. He had just seen a wave of fire fighters bravely running into the building. He had seen two of his friends who also were on the urban disaster team; Ed Mulligan from the fire department and smart, funny Tom Jennings from the NYPD were inside.
Peter worked until the grey almost night of the disaster yielded to true night. Massive search lights made mockery of the dark. Peter was choking despite his rescue gear. His gloves, his tough disaster gear, was covered with ash, caked with blood and skin. He was a mummy made of debris. He couldn't remember how many bottles of water he had consumed. He couldn't remember anything but digging. At first, there were burst of manic cheering when live victims were found. The cheering grew less by the hour.
Peter did not remember falling to his knees, but someone saw. Arguing, he was sent home. The city was not itself. It was the city who never slept, but now it was silent. Flags were hung everywhere. Peter could not figure out where they came from. It was part of the multitude of strange things in that first day. El and he lived far from the towers. Their apartment was unaffected. Peter had taken his gear off, put it in a sack, and given it to the crew with whom he had been working. El fell into his arms and they held each other. They clung to each other. He could still smell soot and jet fuel in her hair. He reeked of death. Even after, he showered; Peter could still smell burnt flesh. He thought he would always smell it.
Because of his training, Peter was allowed to return to the disaster area rather than participate in the chaos of the investigation. Business as usual did not exist for his office. The FBI, along with every other intelligence agency in the US, was focused on the disaster. Peter's skills might have been helpful in his office, but his disaster training was essential the day after the disaster. Three hundred and forty three fire fighters, including three paramedics, died in the explosion and aftermath. Peter had already heard that also dead were twenty three NYPD officers and thirty seven Port Authority officers. With the city's emergency resources reeling, people like Peter who were trained were desperately needed. Certainly, resources were already pouring in from neighboring areas and from all over the country, but it would take a while to get them organized.
To Peter, it was beyond everything he had been trained to expect. Yes, he had been schooled to deal with death, but not like this, not digging through and constantly finding body parts. He felt like a butcher instead of like a rescuer as he bagged hands, feet, slabs of meat. From time to time, a survivor was found. Again cheers broke out each time one was rescued. There were so few though.
There were so many dogs now. Peter heard there were four hundred. He had always liked dogs and their presence was a comfort in the middle of the unmitigated disaster. Peter's training led to his working directly in the twisted, blackened beams that reached from the rubble like fingers stretching to the sky for mercy. He was continually surprised by watching agile Border Collies, mutts, and even one that appeared to be a small pit bull scramble over and under the agonized steel skeleton, searching areas where no human searcher could go.
By the fifth day, Peter faced going back with numb terror. He was not sleeping, could barely eat, and was fighting dehydration. He wheezed by the time he left the site after a nine to twelve-hour shift and El was worried about him.
Sitting, slumped, his body exhausted, his heart wounded, his mind breaking, Peter could not imagine going back in there to 'Pile' as his fellow rescuers referred to the site. He knew it was no longer a race to save lives. No more living had been found after the second day. His helmet dangled from his hand. His mask was caked with dust and he knew he should replace it, but could not raise a hand. He removed his goggles. He wanted to weep, but no tears could fall.
Something nudged his hand. Peter looked up into warm brown eyes, the laughing mouth of a big yellow dog. A strongly built woman handed Peter a fresh mask, a bottle of water, and a wet wipe. He used the wipe; the disposable cloth coming away dark with grime.
"I'm Charlotte, this is Ella Fitzgerald, my therapy dog."
Ella wiggled at him, forcing him to pet her. She pushed her blocky head into his chest. Somehow Peter ended up with his arms around the dog, his face in the fur, and he could weep. He talked to Ella about his lost friends, his fear, his horror. He talked to the yellow ray of sunshine about his disappointment in himself. How he should be stronger, more willing to go back in there. Charlotte didn't appear to listen. Ella was the therapist, the only one Peter could have accepted at the time.
"I'd like a dog like this," Peter said. "A pup?"
"I breed dogs for The Seeing Eye," Charlotte said. "Give me your information. I'll sign you up in case one of my dogs flunks out. Not that I hope one does, but you never know when a recessive gene will show up."
Charlotte and Ella gave Peter the strength to work another day. Hughes ordered him back to work the next day. It was a mercy. Peter could not have lasted longer.
The city seemed wrapped in funeral colors. His friends, Ed and Tom, were among the confirmed dead. Nearly everyone lost someone. There were over three thousand children who would grow up without a parent. There were widow and widowers. There were parents left to mourn the children who should have been the comfort of their old age.
Peter walked around with the weight of his survival and El's miraculous escape on his shoulders. He still called her two or three times a day for months after the attacks.
After the funerals, after the memorials, after the sun could penetrate the gray haze, life did go on.
It would never be the same. Nothing could ever fill the void of those lost, but you went on.
If you were lucky, you would find new friends or even a new love.
"So you're telling me that I should count myself lucky?" Neal said.
"I'm telling you that you mourn. I'm telling you that it hurts and it will always be painful. You survived by a fluke, because you turned back to me. You did not know what was going to happen."
"You saved El though. You went with your gut and told her to get out."
"But I had some knowledge." Peter shook his head. "You didn't know. You could not have known."
Neal caressed Satchmo's head. He reached for Peter and his friend reached back.
"You have El and me. You will always have us."
Neal swallowed. On the way back, he sat with Satchmo and Peter did not listen to what Neal told the dog just as Charlotte had let Ella comfort Peter.
Satchmo's yellow fur was the color of sunshine. His heart was the heart of his mother, Ella.