A/N: This is a continuation of my previous multi-chapter fic "I'd Drive All Night Just to Get Back Home" and all the little fics that followed it. This one is based on an idea courtesy of neonchica; thank you!
Claire has just stuffed a gigantic bite of vegan oatmeal muffin into her mouth when the doorbell rings. She chews as fast as she can, hurriedly tries to swallow, chokes on the dry crumbs just as she pulls open the door in a rush of damp, chilly air.
For a moment she's coughing too hard to take stock of her visitors, but she feels a big hand settle on her back, hears an unfamiliar male voice say, "Jesus, are you okay?"
"Fine," she gasps, squinting up through streaming eyes.
"You need some water?" A silver flask is pressed into her hand and she looks at it with suspicion, awareness returning with her breath. Water in a flask? Sketchy.
"Dean," hisses one of the men at her door, "that's holy—"
"Thanks, but no thanks," she says, passing the flask back, gulps air, takes control. "How can I help you guys?"
They're both wearing identical black suits underneath their jackets, and stern expressions, both taller than she, broad shouldered. The shorter one – who's not really very short, but the other guy is huge – is leaning on a pair of crutches that wrap around his forearm, the kind she associates with the group of disabled seniors who meet once a week at her favorite coffee shop. She briefly wonders if maybe they're here to take up some kind of collection, but they really don't look the type. They look like… feds.
"Agent Thomson, FBI," the taller one says. "This is my partner, Agent Martinez." They both flash their I.D.s.
"May we come in?" the shorter one – Martinez – asks, and she bites her lip nervously as she steps back to let them in the house, heart going a mile a minute. Who ratted her out? Only a few people know about the hydroponics operation she's got going on in her basement, and she trusts them with her life – or at least, she thought she did.
"What is this about?" she demands, practicing indignation. God, she's going to jail for life. Oh, shit. Fuck. She can't afford a lawyer.
"Claire Morelli, correct?" Agent Thomson asks.
"We have a few questions about the recent deaths that have occurred in the cabin you're renovating. The cabin you plan to convert into –" he checks his notes.
"Into Copper Coppice Art Colony," Agent Martinez supplies, and is he? He is. He's smirking.
"It's a working title," she says, drawing herself up to her full height of six feet and tossing back her long brown hair. If this is about the deaths of the construction workers then she can relax a little, but she's still got to stay on her guard, because you can never trust the fucking feds.
"Yeah," Agent Thomson says, glances at his partner. "Mind if we sit down?"
She leads them into her kitchen and settles them at the low yellow table by the window, moves the vase of flowers out of the way because she doesn't want the bad government energy to kill them. Agent Martinez gets tangled in his crutches as he tries to shake his wrists free, and she hears a muttered "Goddammit" as one falls to the floor with a clatter.
Agent Thomson gives his partner a pained look of disgust as he leans forward the pick the crutch up and prop it against the table.
"What?" Martinez says. "These things are fucking complicated."
"Yeah, if you're retarded," Thomson snaps, then shoots Claire a nervous glance.
"Sorry," Martinez says, offers her a surprisingly warm grin, and fed or no fed, she'd tap that in a heartbeat. "Just getting used to 'em."
"What happened?" she asks, because it seems polite.
"Mobster," Martinez says. "Shot."
"Shit," she says.
"So, Miss Morelli," Thomson begins, clears his throat as the kettle behind her begins to whistle.
"You guys want some tea?" she asks, because she's trying not to be prejudiced, though it's difficult when it comes to Republicans or government agents. It's a flaw of character, something she's still working on through meditation.
"I would love a cup," Martinez announces. "And so would Agent Thomson."
"Thanks," Thomson says weakly.
"Muffin?" she asks, gesturing to the pan still cooling on the stove. "Made them myself. Theyre vegan."
"Vegan?" asks Martinez. "Is that some kind of fruit?"
"It means that no animal products were used," Thomson explains, in a tone of voice that suggests he might do a lot explaining. "No eggs, or butter, no milk."
"Uh, I'll pass," Martinez says, wrinkling his nose.
"I'll take one," Thomson says, and hello dimples. Who knew? She begins to feel like she's in a bad porn movie, except without the porn. Just the sexy agents. Begone, anti-feminist thoughts!
She shakes her head, pours the tea, drops the muffin onto a ceramic plate her best friend Sky made last week, pulls up a chair for herself.
"Begin your questioning," she says.
"You were left the deed to the cabin by your late father, Nick Morelli, correct?" Martinez asks, and his casual demeanor suddenly melts away, all business.
"Yes," Claire says, snorts. "Only nice thing the asshole ever did for me."
The two men exchange a glance. "Would you say your father had many enemies?" Thomson asks.
"Uh, yeah. He owed money to half the people in this town when he died."
"He was a drinker, is that right?"
"He was a drunk." Claire fixes them each with a glare, because it's taken her a while to get to this place, to be able to say something like that out loud without feeling guilty or embarrassed, and she doesn't want anyone to sugar coat anything. She's done with sugar coating.
"Do you know how often your father went to the cabin?" Thomson asks.
"Not often. Couple times a month, tops. I mean, the place is falling down. It's not safe yet. He just went every so often with his drinking buddies, for a change of pace."
"But he was alone when he died."
"Autopsy lists his cause of death as having fallen down the porch stairs. Is that how you understand it?"
"Yeah, but," she shakes her head, "what does all this have to do with," she hesitates, because it hurts to say it, "those guys who died."
"Everything is connected, Miss Morelli," Martinez says grandly. "We're getting to that."
"We'll get to it right now," Thomson says. "One man died from a power surge through a wire he thought was dead, yes?"
"That's what they tell me."
"And then another accidentally," Thomson winces, "put a power drill through his skull?"
"I don't really get the logistics of that one, but again, it's what I've been told."
"And the third man was decapitated by his own chain saw," Thomson states.
"That's just fuckin' nasty," Martinez shudders.
"Yeah," Claire says. They all sip their tea simultaneously, wipe their mouths.
"Are you planning on continuing the renovations?" Martinez asks.
"Well, yeah, I guess, I mean, I don't know," Claire says. "It's been my dream since I was sixteen, to have an artists colony. I graduated from school two years ago and I've just been fucking around. I want to get my life started, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. But…" she trails off, swallows. It's all so fresh, the guilt, the sorrow. "I don't know. I don't know if I can… I feel like it's my fault, you know? Those guys. I sent them to their death. I don't know if I can do that again." She shrugs convulsively. "I don't know what I'm going to do, to be honest."
They nod, and she's surprised to see that they actually do look sympathetic.
"By the time our investigation is over, the house should be safe," Thomson says gently. "And you can get back to your… colony."
"Safe?" she says. "Why are the feds involved, anyway?"
"Following orders, ma'am," Martinez says, finishes his tea with a gulp. "Well. Thank you very much. We may have further questions for you in the next few days."
"Okay," she says, looks away somewhat uncomfortably as he struggles to his feet and gets himself situated on the crutches. She wonders for a moment this is a front, if Martinez is acting to gain her sympathy, but then she catches Thomson watching him with a worried look on his face, and she knows neither of them are faking. Not this anyway; there's something about them that seems a bit off, and she always trusts her psychic instincts.
It strikes her all of a sudden that they're both awfully young; Thomson, especially, looks even younger than she is. She walks them to the door, notices how Thomson kind of hovers at Martinez's elbow, thinks maybe they're not just agent partners, but partners partners. Such a porno. God.
"We'd like to check out the cabin," Thomson says. "It's through the woods down in back of the house, right?"
"Yeah," she says, trying not to be creeped out by the fact that they knew that. Feds know everything. She gives Martinez and his crutches a doubtful look and adds, "It's like two miles, though. And kind of muddy. You might have some trouble."
"Don't worry about me, sweetheart," Martinez says, but his cocky grin fades a little under her glare. No agent in a suit gets to call her sweetheart, even if he has a gunshot wound and is gay for his partner.
"Two miles?" Thomson asks.
"Yeah." She hesitates, then says, "Listen, I could take you down there on the golf cart, if you wanted." What the hell. These guys seem like real people, even if they are meat-eating corporate whores.
"We're fine, thanks," Martinez says at the same time Thomson says, "Golf cart?"
"Yeah," she says. "That's what the construction workers use to get down there. I got it cheap on Ebay."
"We're fine," Martinez says again, but Thomson says, "That would be great!"
"Let me just get the keys," she says, hopes no one sees her aiding and abetting the government. She'd never live it down.
As soon as she's disappeared into the house, Dean turns and wacks Sam with one of his crutches.
"Dude! What were you thinking? How the hell are we supposed to look into this place if that crazy hippie chick is standing right there? We're just gonna pull out the salt and the EMF and tell her it's all part and parcel of covert ops?"
"She's not gonna stay there with us," Sam says. "She'll just drop us off. I think. Besides, two miles, Dean? Admit it, that would take us an hour and half."
"That's why we bought the hiking gear!" Dean says, lifting his arms and letting the crutches dangle from his wrists.
"We bought those because your acupuncturist suggested it," Sam says. "And if you don't pipe down and accept the ride, I'm telling Claire you're the biggest fan of Chinese medicine she'll ever meet. See how you like that conversation."
"You're a conniving son of a bitch," Dean says, shuts his mouth as Claire appears at the door, wrapped in a thick, sky blue wool sweater and jingling a pair of keys.
Sam is never ever in a million years going to say this out loud, but he thinks Claire is kind of cute. In a crunchy, probably-doesn't-shave-her-pits kind of way.
"Come on," she says, and the brothers follow dutifully.
The golf cart in the back of the house isn't like any golf cart Dean's ever seen; it's more of a bizarre, cart-contraption with big, tractioned wheels, two seats in front and a little stool-like thing in back, all tucked under a lime green metal roof. The color is bright and cheerful against the monotonous grey of the air. It's been drizzling for the past few days, cold and steady, but it's a hell of a lot better than the snow they just drove out of, even if the dampness does make Dean's leg ache. Pretty much any weather makes his leg ache, except warm and dry. If he lives to retirement age, he's going to Texas. Hot, sunny, and armadillos. Awesome.
"Agent Thomson, you'll have to sit in the back. Sorry if it's a little cramped. Agent Martinez, you sit up front with me, where it's more comfortable," Claire says, climbing into the driver's seat and sweeping her long skirt underneath. Dean catches a glimpse of biker boots and feels a grudging twinge of respect.
He stares at the peculiar cart for a moment, mapping out how he's gonna do this, and Claire holds out her hand.
"I got it," he says, but she shakes her head impatiently.
"Your crutches," she says.
"Oh," he says, hands them to her one by way, wavers a little on his good leg before grabbing the seat and the roof and hoisting himself up, settles himself into the front seat with a thump and a wince.
Claire's watching him out of the corner of her eye, like she's assessing him, and he thinks that this chick might be too sharp for her own good, even if she is kind of a wack job. She constantly has the expression Sam gets when he's doing research: shrewd and searching and not a little disturbing.
Sam has folded himself onto the little stool in the rear, knees practically to his chin, and he grips the back of Dean's seat as Claire starts the cart with a growl of the engine.
"Bio-diesel," she says proudly, as the smell of French fries fills the air.
Dean has no idea what she's talking about, but Sam says "Cool!" and Claire beams at him. Dean suddenly feels left out. Fuckin' college kids. Though Sam was always kind of a closet hippie.
Even though the trees are mostly bare, and the air is pretty fucking cold, the drive through the woods is kind of nice. The vegetation is clearly thick, and the dark branches of the trees stand out in relief against the white sky. Dean bets it would be beautiful in the summer, and, okay, not like he knows anything about artists, but if he were an artist he could see the appeal of coming to a place like this to work.
They hit a bump and he lets out a hiss of pain before he can stop himself, grips the sides of the cart.
"You okay?" Claire sends him a sideways glance that's almost mocking.
He nods tightly, adjusts his tie. "Fine."
"Where were you hit?" she asks, and it takes him a moment to remember what she's talking about.
"Uh, knee," he says, then realizes that he's sitting hip-shot, leaning on his good side, and adds, "and my hip."
"You say the construction workers used this cart?" Sam asks from the back.
"What hours did they work?"
"Eight to four, usually," Claire says. "There's only about a week's worth of work done. The porch is all finished, the plumbing's been put in, but it's still kind of a piece of shit. Picture it fixed up, a huge garden, shutters painted yellow… that kind of thing." She snorts. "Don't know why I bother mentioning gardens to the FBI."
"Hey," Sam protests. "We garden."
"Speak for yourself," Dean says, starts to say something else but falls silent as they break out of the trees and into a large clearing, the cabin nestled in the middle, looking completely derelict with it's broken, sagging roof and dilapidated walls of old, crumbling wood.
Sam glances at his brother, expecting him to make some crack about starving artists or something, but is stunned to see that the color is draining from Dean's face, his cheeks paling so quickly it looks like they're being painted. He watches Dean's adam's apple bob as he swallows, sees his hands shake as he tugs at his tie like it's suddenly choking him.
"Hey," Sam says, grips his brother's shoulder. "You all right?"
Dean opens his mouth, closes it, tries again, but can't seem to get the words out. Claire's staring at them now, but Sam can't be bothered to care, just shakes Dean hard, says, "Hey," again, really worried now, "Dean, talk to me, man! Dean!"
But Dean just lets out a little gasp like he's having trouble breathing, folds an arm over his chest, and passes out.
To be continued…