Frith (frith_in_thorns) wrote,

[fic: white collar] if you hurry you can still catch the tide

Title: if you hurry you can still catch the tide
Characters/Pairing: Kate, Adler, Neal, Fowler; Kate/Neal but mostly gen
Rating: T
Word count: 2,500
Content Notes: Coercion/blackmail (non-sexual). Season 1 AU.
Other Notes: Written for [personal profile] magibrain's prompt on collarcorner. Title from a Seanan McGuire song.
Claiming as the "caught in a robbery" square for my hc_bingo card.

Summary: Kate is a selkie. Adler stole her skin.


When her sealskin is taken from her it feels like being bound and gagged, like having wax forced into her ears and nostrils, like having bleary film plastered over her eyes. As if the clear sea she's been swimming in is suddenly thick with pollutants, too murky to properly breathe or see through.

It's her connection to Faerie being stripped away.

Her illusion is stripped with it — her magic is all bound in her skin, without it she has nothing — and she makes a horrified noise in her throat because of how vulnerable that leaves her. Revealed.

But without her skin, there is no trace of webbing between her fingers. And she catches sight of herself in one of the mirrors in the room to see that her eyes, too, are human now. Not black from edge to edge, like a seal's.

Without her skin, she's human.


It's not too awful, working for Adler. In many ways he's a brilliant man, with a focused energy to him that draws her. He's a good boss, and she's good at her job.

But she can't leave it.

Well, she could. When the wind blows from the east, carrying the sea-salt into the city, she fantasises about just walking away. There are communities of selkies both up and down the east coast, and one might take her in if she could bear to live that close to the sea while never being able to return to it. (If they wouldn't cast her out and curse her for being so careless, so easily deceived.) Or she could go inland, like her father had done after he'd passed his skin to her, so as to dilute with distance the longing in her blood. Live the rest of her life mortal, ageing and dying.

Not much of a choice.


She works for Adler for two years before she meets Nick.

The first time she sees him, he's tricking himself close to Adler, somehow getting his way when by rights he should have been thrown out. This is a man who's clearly practised at getting into places where she shouldn't be; good at getting what he wants.

She watches him.

She could use a skilled ally.


Kate grew up in a selkie clan on the west coast, longer ago than a mortal observer would think to look at her. She brought her study books onto the beach, accepting the gentle teasing of her cousins. It was a distraction while they waited, as all selkie-children waited, to be granted a skin so that they could follow their parents into the sea.

But after she'd finally had a skin passed to her, after she'd learned her place in the waves, that drive to accumulate knowledge didn't leave her. She moved to New York to study, and through that she found herself introduced to the men who sought to rule the mortal world with numbers and finance dreams.

No one should have known she wasn't human like they were — she still didn't know how Adler had found out, or how he had known how to take advantage of it. But only a day after her graduation he had her skin taken from her, leaving the rest of her like flotsam, like driftwood, and his was the only beach for her to run aground on.


"Your eyes are beautiful," Nick says, and she smiles even though it pains her. They're a child's eyes, an illusion's eyes. A startling blue, like sunlight on clear water.

Her fiance compliments them too. She didn't mean to end up with Michael; she doesn't think she loves him, but he loves her, and he's kind, and right now that seems like all she can hope for. Most of the time she feels half asleep, treading water dutifully only because it takes more effort to drown.

But Nick makes her come awake.

It seems an inevitability that they end up together. And all the time he's lying to Adler, working his own angle. She can sense it, even if she can't tell any of the details. She holds her tongue, and watches him, and waits.


Adler wins.

He takes their money — everyone's money — and he escapes. With her skin.

For these past years, her only solace has been that she at least knows where it is. Who has it. She never had a plan to get it back, but maybe she could have come up with one, if she'd only had a little bit longer…

Now it's all gone.


If she was adrift before, now she is truly lost.

With Neal she travels the world, and the world is beautiful, but they spend too much time by the sea and it grates on her heart. Selkies who live to give up their skins of their own accord move inland or end up drowning, when they can't resist the pull of the tides any longer. She has Neal as an anchor, tying her to the land, but her strength to resist the sea ebbs and flows.

When she gets to pick jobs she chooses ones as far from the coast as they can get.

A dozen times she nearly tells him what she is, but the need for secrecy is too deeply ingrained.

Still, somehow Mozzie knows, instinctively, that there's something not right about her.


When she leaves Neal, it's with true regret. But she can't face running from country to country with him anymore. The call of the sea is too strong so she refuses Copenhagen and heads inland, to hide. To keep herself safe.

She's giving up a dream at the same time. A dream of revenge they'd shared, and the deeper keel beneath it. Neal can help me steal my skin back.


The next few months are very bad.

She understands now why selkies drown rather than live like this.


Agent Burke catches Neal, using her as bait. A masterful piece of fishing.

Somehow, he becomes her anchor line again. She can't go to the sea because she has to visit him next week, and then the next, and the next. The years wax and wane with the moons and the tides. Grey water flowing past the city.

She hates how they've surrounded Neal with iron. Not that it hurts him, of course, nor her. They're both human.


"Are you Kate Moreau?"

She looks up, startled, ready to bolt. She doesn't know the big man who's cornered her in the grocery aisle.

"I have something of yours," he says, before she's had time to do more than take a sharp breath. "A sealskin."

An icy wave seems to break over her. "Who are you?" she demands.

He glances around, shakes his head. "Not here."

She follows him; of course she does. It could be a trap but she doesn't care — the risk is worth it for the chance to have her skin again.

His name is Garrett Fowler. He's blackmailing her. In turn, he's almost certainly being blackmailed by Adler — the animosity in his tone when he mentions my employer is unmistakable. Her own, reflected.

"What is it you want?" she asks.

"Something Caffrey stole," he says. "A music box."

Of course she knows the one he means.


Neal lied to her. The location where he told her his cache was stored is empty. There is a dull shock of hurt inside her — he lied. Even though he made a career of lying, even though she never told him her secrets, she feels betrayed.

And afraid. Because Fowler doesn't give up her skin, and so she can't leave him now, either.


Then Neal breaks out of prison — didn't you know I didn't mean what I said? — and is recaptured by Agent Burke, and then somehow he's out again on an ankle leash and working as a consultant.

"That's good for us," Fowler points out. "You can persuade him he needs to help you."

He lied to her first, didn't he?

She isn't sure.


Secrecy is almost a religion for the Fae, instilled into children almost before they're old enough to talk. The fact that Fowler knows enough to be assured that the promise of a sealskin is sufficient leverage for Kate to betray Neal's trust in her is… horrifying. Even if Adler didn't share many details. Most humans are aware of selkie legends even though they don't believe in them, and Fowler's not stupid.

Still, when he finally says, "I know what you are," her throat closes tight and her heart hammers hard enough to break her ribs.

"I don't know what you mean," she says, fighting to keep her voice steady.

Fowler just shakes his head. "Yeah, you do," he says. "My employer told me. I asked, why on earth would a sealskin be so important to her?"

They are in a dingy, leased apartment room. She's spent the last few months in apartments like this one, or in hotels. Usually full of surveillance equipment, for keeping tabs on Neal and Agent Burke.

"And what's he got on you?" she asks. It's not that she's more daring than she's been — it's just that she's tired. Tired of living with the stress of coercion and blackmail hanging over her. Now the knife-stroke she's been waiting for has come down, and… nothing's changed.

Fowler sighs a little. Maybe he's just as tired. "Murder," he says, and that's all.

She doesn't even have the energy to be properly shocked.


After that day, though, something's changed between them. Without meaning to, they're now uneasily drifting towards being allies. Kate uses the dead-drop she set up at Grand Central, and meets reluctantly with Burke, and it feels like she's slowly, slowly moving towards getting the music box.

Neal still trusts her. He's doing everything for her. And she's doing everything for her, too, isn't she? The knowledge hurts her but then the tide comes in and she feels it turn and tug in her blood and it's the only thing that matters.

(She still loves him.)


"Neal's going to deliver the music box," she reports to Fowler. "But your employer has to make a deal for it, for more than just my skin."

"What do you want?"

She's had too much time to think about this. "A plane. New lives, for me and Neal. A clean start."

Later, she tells him the rest of her plan. Parachutes. An escape over water.

"That's suicide," Fowler says, bluntly. "Jumping into the ocean — even with a boat waiting, neither of you will make it."

She can't help smiling. "I thought you knew what I am."

He had — she can see in his eyes that she startled him. After all, it's one thing to accuse someone of being a selkie. It's another to believe it.

"Why do you need new identities for both of you, though?" he asks. "Won't you be able to… I mean…"

She almost screams, then. "I care about Neal," she snaps. "What is it about FBI agents that makes it so hard for you to realise that?"


An airstrip. Snow in the knifing wind.

It's waiting for her on the plane. Inside a flat box, wrapped in tissue, it's packaged like some expensive shirt. But it's worlds more precious than that. Her skin.

She touches it almost hesitantly. And it's as if an electric current is rushing into her, the feel of Fae, making her more alive and awake than she has been in years. She hugs it to herself, touches it to her face and lips, aware that she's making some wordless sound but unable to stop.

My skin. Myself. She longs to wrap herself in it immediately, to go running back to the cold waves that can at last welcome her home.

But she restrains herself. Looks up from the soft grey fur, finally. She's going with Neal. She has to wait for him.

And it will all be different after this. No more hiding the truth from him — she can't. She won't. He can know her as she really is.

It takes too long for him to appear and she's jittery with nervousness when he finally walks out of the hanger. She returns his wave, beaming, and then stops short as Agent Burke appears behind him.

Neal, hurry…

Her phone rings. Only Fowler should have her number, but it's someone unknown calling her. "Hello?"

It is Fowler, after all. "Kate, you need to get out of there!"

"What? Why?" Neal and Burke are talking, gesturing.

"Adler. He knows your plan, and he doesn't want you to get away. He's going to kill you both!"

"Where are you?" she demands.

"In his offices. Please, get out of there —"

She pulls the spell around herself automatically, a fear impulse. She has magic again; she can do that. An illusion, to hide her newly-woken inhumanity. And she runs for the plane door, leaping down the steps, running.

On the tarmac, Neal turns back towards Burke. She opens her mouth to scream, get away —

And the plane explodes.

The concussive blast catches her, throws her. She's tossed against the tarmac, pummelled, lungs full of smoke.

She lies there.

Nobody comes.

The ringing in her ears clears, finally. She shifts, and can see Neal, slumped against Burke. His face is contorted with pain. There are FBI surrounding them, and medical personnel.

They can't see me.

She realises it slowly. The illusion she threw was too good — she had forgotten how to moderate her efforts. No one can see her. Not even Neal.

They think she's dead.

She lies on the cold tarmac for a long time, clutching her skin to her for comfort. It hurts to breathe. They take Neal away, and a fire crew extinguishes the flames, and eventually everyone leaves.

If she were human, being that close to the blast would have killed her.

Adler tried to murder her, and she should probably care about that more, but she's so tired.


In the end, the river isn't so far away. She pays in pain for every yard, but compared to the years it took her to get there, it isn't so far.

If she were a better person, she would stay on land and fight Adler. Make him pay for what he's done.

(Neal would have.)

Not many months ago, she would have too. But she's worn down now by betrayal upon betrayal. It hurts her that she's doing the same now to Neal, leaving him behind to mourn her, but it doesn't hurt enough to make her stop. Not with the sea so close, calling her home.

She wraps her skin around her, and slips into the waves.


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Tags: au, fanfic, fic: white collar, hc_bingo, white collar
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