Title: Smoke on the Water

Recipient: claudiapriscus

Rating: PG13

Warnings: Show-levels of violence, stuff exploding. No gore. Outsider POV.

Disclaimer: God, what would I give to own all of these people. Especially Sam Axe. Because, you know, how awesome would it be for Bruce Campbell to be mine? Alas, I am to be eternally deprived of that particular joy.

Author's Notes: I wasn't able to include as much Sam Axe in this story as I really wanted to, which makes me sad. I hope, dear prompter, that you're able to forgive me for that. Also, do you know how confusing it is to have two main characters named Sam? Very confusing! Title is taken from the Deep Purple song of the same name.

Prompt: Burn Notice Crossover. I don't care how or why, or who is in it, except Sam Axe. Give me lots of Bruce Campbell.

Summary: Casefic. Former spy Michael Westen has enough problems of his own —not least of which is figuring out who burned him and why— without his mother accepting jobs on his behalf as well. But when he starts investigating the unsolved deaths of young people in Miami, he finds himself crossing paths with an unlikely pair of brothers. In Michael's line of work, suspicion is par for the course

Part I

Being an international spy brings you into contact with all sorts of different people. Give it enough time, and you'll find yourself rubbing shoulders with everyone from foreign dignitaries to other spies, crooks to bank tellers, afghan militants to bag ladies. Sometimes you end up running into some pretty unusual people in some pretty unusual places.

The most common meeting place for spies is in hotels, the pricier the better. Hotels offer a wide variety of cover: lobbies, private suites, and luxurious pool sides. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages. Pool sides are ideal, since they provide multiple escape routes, wide open spaces, the possibility to scout in advance, and allow you to plant as many people as you can manage in adjoining rooms to keep an eye out on the place. But lobbies and private rooms provide advantages of their own: privacy, the means to plant bugs ahead of time, and the ability to corner your target if needs be.

"Mikey, we have a problem," was the first thing I heard when I answered my cell phone. Having a contact set up a meeting in a hotel means sending in your own advance scouting party. In my case, my advance scouting party often ends up being just one guy, Sam Axe, my friend, retired Navy SEAL, and all-around 'guy who knows a guy.'

My name is Michael Westen, and I used to be a spy. That is, up until I got burned by person or persons unknown, for reasons which remain a mystery. In my line of work, you don't get fired, you get burned, and I've been trying to find out why ever since I got my burn notice. I'd received word from a friend of a friend of an acquaintance that he might have something for me concerning my situation, and a meet was set up at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, in Miami. Since I really, really hate surprises, Sam agreed to go take a quick look around for me.

"What kind of a problem, Sam?"

"A problem of the federal kind. Spotted two suits flashing badges around the hotel. Not especially subtle, either."

"Not Harris and Lane?"

Having a semi-washed-out operative as a best friend and partner has its disadvantages. One of those is that Sam started informing on me to the FBI practically the minute I landed back in Miami. The upside is that until we managed to dump them, Sam was perfectly happy to feed the FBI whatever information I wanted him to, up to a point.

"No, we should only be so lucky. I've never seen these guys before, but they're young, look like they're fresh out of Quantico. You can still see the shine on their suits."

"You can always see the shine on their suits. What are they doing?"

"Knocking on doors, asking questions about some guy who bit it here the other day."


Covert meetings are always difficult to arrange. For one thing, informants are notoriously skittish, and they hate anything that looks like it might get their cover blown. Any whiff of the authorities, and they usually take to the hills and never look back. Still, Willie was a good source, and I couldn't afford for this meet to go South.

"All right, I'm coming in anyway."

I left my perch by the poolside bar, flipped the phone shut, and made my way casually past the lobby, slipped into the elevator, and discreetly checked my watch. Sometimes you just have to take the chance that things are going to go your way, even when the unexpected has occurred. In the grand scheme of things, two unexpected FBI agents is a blip on the radar. So I went in anyway, and trusted that their investigation wasn't going to take them anywhere near my source.

Unfortunately, I didn't plan on Willie being even more squirrelly than I thought. I found him twitching and fidgeting in the hotel room, beady little eyes darting back and forth under far too much greasy hair gel. The trick with anxious sources is to make them feel as though they always have an escape route, to keep them from getting too edgy, but that also ends up providing them with said escape route.

"Take it easy, Willie," I said, closing the door behind me. "Guy your age, it's not good for your heart. They make pills for that, you know."

"Screw you, Weston," Willie was sweating bullets. "I'm thirty-nine."

I whistles. "Wow. You might want to watch your stress levels, in that case."

"Yeah, well, you ain't exactly helping with that. You alone?"

I nodded. "You know I am. You said you've got something on Carla, so let's have it."

He held up both hands. "Woah, woah, woah. Not so fast. This is the kind of thing that could get me killed —or worse. I need some sort of guarantee that this isn't going to blow up in my face."

Handling a skittish source is an art form. The problem with practising an art is that it takes time, and having someone hammer on your door in a way that just screams 'police' before you can so much as pick up your paintbrush makes it really, really difficult.

The next thing I knew Willie was in the wind, and I was facing down two very tall FBI agents. Now, I'm a pretty tall guy myself, at a whisper over six feet. The agent doing the talking could look me right in the eye, and the guy behind him? Made him look like he hadn't drunk enough milk as a kid. Out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of Sam down the hall, just a quick glimpse of his salt-and-pepper hair and bright Hawaiian shirt, and figured it was time to cut my losses.

"Can I help you gentlemen?"

The shorter one flashed me a very white-toothed smile and shoved a badge in my face with all the assurance of a fresh-faced recruit straight out of Quantico, while his partner hung back a bit, looming all while trying to look like he wasn't six-feet-four of hulking menace. It's a fine line to walk, but he was walking it with confidence. For all the Hulk was acting the wallflower, the first agent was his polar opposite: self-assured to the point of cockiness, and the smirk he threw at me suggested he was pretty sure he was better than all of humanity combined.

"FBI, sir. Doing some follow-up work on a case here. You mind answering a few questions?"

I shook my head. "I'm sorry, but I'm just here overnight. Business trip. Just stepped in today, I'll be gone again in the morning. Sorry I can't be of help, Agent—?" I let the question hang.

"Plant," the shorter agent pushed, and I let him back me into the room. No sense in attracting attention. "My partner, Agent Page. This'll only take a moment, sir. Just routine," the smile was bland, reassuring, authoritative, and utterly, utterly fake.

Whoever these two guys were, they weren't FBI. They were doing a pretty convincing imitation of Feds, but there was something about the way the two of them moved that belied the act. They moved in synch with each other, which pointed to a long-standing partnership, but if they were Bureau then they wouldn't have been together for more than a year, maybe two at most, and that wasn't nearly enough to account for the unspoken communication I could feel coming off them. Besides, the FBI isn't in the habit of pairing up new agents: it's one rookie and one experienced agent, to prevent screw-ups.

It was Page who gave them away, although I doubt anyone other than a trained operative would have spotted it. Plant was the decoy, all swagger and good looks and loud-mouthed questions, but Page was sizing up the room, sizing me up, and within about ten seconds I saw he'd planned all their escape routes and spotted the pistol I was carrying. Plant was going on about electrical problems, cold spots, stupid questions that couldn't have anything to do with a crime, and if Page's wary casing of the room hadn't already tipped me off, that would have. It was time to make a graceful exit, if I could. If not, I figured I could probably take them on long enough to get out, but the odds weren't exactly great that I'd get out of there uninjured. These two had obviously done more than basic hand-to-hand training in their day, I could see it in the way they stood, poised and relaxed, slightly on the balls of their feet; in the way they never moved so far away from each other that they might let themselves be flanked.

"No, I haven't noticed anything like that. If you'll excuse me, I have an important meeting to get to, and I'm already running late. Sorry to have wasted your time, gentlemen."

"Sure thing," Plant said, his smile turning brittle. "You got a contact number?" I handed him a fake card, which he pocketed without looking at it. "You remember anything, sir, you be sure to give us a call."

"Naturally," I accepted the card he gave me in return, held it up between my index and middle fingers, made a show of putting it in my pocket, and left them in the hotel room. The fact that they stayed behind spoke volumes as well: any FBI agents worth their salt would be moving on to the next witness by now, which told me they were more interested in the room than they were in me.

Sam was waiting for me outside, and waggled a digital voice recorder at me. "So that was hinky. I assume we're going to be giving a listen to what they have to say?"

I nodded. "Did you see where Willie scrammed to?"

"Sorry, brother. The guy's like a greased weasel. Slipped through the cracks."

"Dammit," I slid into the driver's seat of Sam's LeSabre. "All right, we'll deal with him later. In the meantime, I want to know what was up with those two. You see the way they moved?"

"I saw. Not Feds, then?"

"Nope. I don't know who they are, and I didn't get a close enough look at their I.D.s to see how good they were. Let's see what they have to say for themselves."

The secret to maintaining control of any situation is to have as much information as possible. Since I was going to be meeting a source known for being a cowardly rat, I'd hedged my bets, and placed a bug in the hotel room ahead of time, in the form of a jury-rigged cheap cell phone taped under one of the dresser drawers in the room. Willie might be a snitch, but he wasn't in the game, and it didn't even occur to him to sweep the room for hidden bugs. Good thing too.

Sam flicked on the mic, and a voice I assumed belonged to Page since I didn't recognize it filled the car, along with a high-pitched whining noise I couldn't identify. It reminded me a little of the tricorder sound effects from the Star Trek episodes I used to watch as a kid. The sound stopped a moment later, making Page's words come through loud and clear. "... not a spirit. Dean, this is a waste of time."

"Aw, c'mon Sam. We're in Miami, the sun is shining, and have you seen the women out there?" Plant let out a wolf whistle.

"Dean." You could practically hear Page's eyes rolling. The tone of fond exasperation was unmistakable, which only reinforced my theory that these two were more than newly-appointed partners.

"Sounds like they're family," Sam said to me.

"That would be my guess."

"All right, all right," Plant was saying now. "So the hotel's a bust. This doesn't explain the disappearances or the gruesome deaths. What now?"

"I for one want out of this room," Page replied. It was pretty safe to assume that his name wasn't really Page, the same way his partner's wasn't really Plant, but since the only real thing I knew about Page was that his real name was Sam, I decided to try to keep the confusion to a minimum. One Sam in my life was more than enough. "Eventually the hotel staff are going to wise up, and I don't want to attract any more attention than necessary around here. Did you see the guy who just left?"

"What, Mr. I'm-An-Important-Businessman-And-In-A-Hurry? What about him?"

"Not a businessman. He was packing. Back of his pants."

"Well well, Sammy, look at you, checking out other men's asses. You got anything you want to tell me?"

"Bite me. He wasn't alone, either. Patio door was open when we got in, and whoever he was with made a hell of a racket getting out."

I looked at Sam, and Sam looked back at me. "They're pretty good, whoever they are," Sam said.

Plant was dismissive. "Whatever, he's not our problem right now. Let's go, Sammy. The day is young, and I am really tired of wearing this stupid monkey suit."

"It's Sam," came the curt reply, accompanied shortly thereafter by the sound of the hotel door clicking shut.

I drummed my fingers against the steering wheel. "Okay. Whatever they're up to, it doesn't sound like it has anything to do with us. You think you can dig up anything on them, see what's what? Better safe than sorry, even if it's unrelated."

Sam switched off the mike. "I'll see what I can do, but I didn't get a good look at them, and with fake names like that? We're gonna get squat. I bet you they didn't leave prints behind, either, and I'm not about to go dust a whole hotel room on the off-chance we get a hit."

I tilted my head in assent. "Fair enough. We'll put that on the back burner, and if they show up again we'll dig a little deeper."

"Sounds like a plan to me. In the meantime, I think this afternoon is pretty much a bust. I don't know about you, Mikey, but I could use a mojito. Or three. Spying's a thirsty business, and in case you forgot, I had to ditch Veronica for this little outing, and Veronica doesn't like being ditched. In fact, she's kind of giving me the silent treatment. I don't suppose I can crash at your place for a while?"

I sighed. "Yeah, fine."

Sam gave my shoulder what I'm sure he meant as a manly slap. "Thanks, you're a pal."

"Michael, you need to come right now, it's an emergency!"

The other drawback to being stranded in one city —the consequence of being a burned spy— is that sometimes you're stranded in the same city in which your mother lives. Now, for some people this wouldn't be a problem, but let's just say that having a lousy childhood is practically a prerequisite for becoming a spy. For my entire adult life, ever since I lied my way into the Armed Forces, I've made it a policy to keep a minimum of 1,000 miles between me and any member of my immediate family. My father's been dead for nearly eight years, and since he was the main source of my family-related troubles, that makes being in Miami a little easier to take. However, the fact remains that my chain-smoking, hypochondriac, very high-maintenance mother is still here and kicking up a fuss.

"What wrong, Mom?"

"I just need you to come right now!" Mom snapped, and the line went dead with a faint click.

"So much for my mojito," Sam grumbled, as I put the car into gear and headed for my mother's house.

Being a spy also means that you paint a giant target on the back of any family and friends you have. You make a lot of enemies, and 'family' is a synonym for 'leverage.' So when your mother calls and says it's an emergency, you burn rubber to get there. Which is what I did. I avoided bursting through the door, since I'm not stupid enough to launch myself into an ambush, but Sam and I found ourselves unharmed in her kitchen about fifteen minutes after her call. I also found her unharmed in her kitchen, glaring daggers at me over the dismantled corpse of what looked like it had once been one of the lamps from her living room.

"Oh good, you're here," she said, one hand on her hip, a cigarette dangling from the fingers of the other. "The bulb burnt out in this lamp, but the new one I put in won't work either, and I think it's the wiring."

"Mom, are you okay?"

"Of course I'm not okay! I have a friend coming over in a few minutes, and the lamp doesn't work. Oh, hello, Sam," she said, finally noting Sam's presence behind me.

"Hi Maddie," Sam sheepishly tucked his pistol back into his belt. "We thought you were in danger."

"Because you said it was an emergency," I said, stressing the last word. My mother is hell on my blood pressure.

"Well, what do you think this is?"

"Mom, I'm in the middle of something. I don't have time to re-wire your lamp."

"See, this is your problem, Michael. You've got no follow-through."

"I can take a look at it," Sam volunteered, thus completely undermining what little credibility I had with my mother. Not that I ever had that much to begin with.

"Thank you, Sam, that's very nice of you. Help yourself to a beer from the fridge."

"Gee, thanks, Maddie!"

"Lush," I muttered.

"Michael, that's not nice at all. Besides, now that you're here, there's someone I want you to meet."

I groaned. "Mom, no!"

"Don't be like that, Michael. She's a friend, and she needs help!"

When your mother asks you to help out a friend, there's only one thing to do: hang your head, and concede defeat. "What's the problem?"

"She'll be here in a few minutes, and she'll tell you herself."

Sam was sucking on his beer bottle with far more enthusiasm than it warranted. "Hey, Mikey, you got any wire strippers?"

I rolled my eyes, and headed out into the garage to rummage around in my Dad's old tools to find the required wire strippers, screwdriver, and electrical tape. I dumped the tools on the kitchen table, and got Sam's attention by putting a hand over his beer bottle.

"Before you start going all DIY, Sam, why don't you try plugging it in with a fresh bulb?"

"I'm telling you it's broken, Michael! I checked it myself," Mom said indignantly, stubbing out her cigarette in a large green glass ash tray.

"Humour me, okay?" I started screwing the lamp back together, handed the remains to Sam, and hunted down a new lightbulb. A few minutes later the lamp was back occupying the dusty table it called home, and light was emanating from it in a sickly yellow haze. "Problem solved."

Sam looked on approvingly. "That calls for a celebration! I'll get us another round of beers."

The client perched uncomfortably on the sofa, looking dubiously from me to Sam to my mother. She was a nice-looking woman in her sixties, dressed in white linen pants and a matching jacket, and a frilly pink blouse under that with two ropes of fake pearls and earrings to match. Everything about her screamed 'white American housewife.'

"Go on, Gladys," my mother prodded her, gesturing with her cigarette. "You tell Michael what's happening."

Glady wrung her hands, the slim silver bracelets on her wrist tinkling together musically. There was no wedding ring on her left hand, but there were a couple of silver ones and one gold one with a semi-precious stone on a few fingers, which told me she there was no husband in the picture. Her tan lines were even, which meant there was no recent divorce, but beyond that, I had nothing. My money was on her being unmarried —something about the way she dressed, the kind of purse she carried, the shoes that walked the fine line between fashion and common sense.

"It's my nephew," she said, looking at my mother. "Greg. He's missing."

Now we were talking. "How old's your nephew?" If you're dealing with a runaway twelve-year-old, it's not the same thing as a missing baby, or an adult who's skipped town for a while.

"He's twenty-three. He's been gone for days. His mother is losing her mind! The police won't do anything, they think he's just run off."

Oh boy. "Why would they think that?"

She flushed. "He's a bit reckless. Fell in with a bad crowd. But Greg is a good boy: he'd never be gone so long without telling his mother where he is. He's her only son, you know. Devoted," she said earnestly, with all the conviction of a doting aunt. Sam and I exchanged a sceptical look over her head.


A moment's hesitation, then she nodded, blinking hard. "He goes to those all-night parties a lot."

"You mean raves?"

"I think beach parties, mostly. Clubs. He fell in with these kids —rich kids," she said, bitterness tingeing her tone. "More money than sense, and they goad him into trying to keep up. But he's a good boy," she repeated. "He wouldn't stay gone for this long. Something's happened to him."

"Michael can find him," Mom declared confidently. "Can't you, Michael?"

I shook my head. Finding missing kids is one thing, but a grown man known for partying a little too hard? That was another story entirely. "This really is more of a matter for the police."

"But they said they couldn't do anything?" Gladys wailed, and the waterworks began in earnest, then. She was a champion crier, Gladys was, all heaving sobs and shuddering breaths, and the next thing I knew Mom was on the sofa next to her, gathering her in her arms and patting her on the back, all the while looking at me like I was something she'd just scraped from under her shoe.

"There there, Gladys honey," she said. "Don't cry. Michael deals with this sort of thing all the time, and he will be happy to take on your case. Won't you, Michael?"

"Yeah, Mike," Sam piped up from where he was tilting the contents of a third bottle of beer into his mouth. "I'm sure you can help the lady out."

"I can pay you," Gladys hiccupped, fumbling for her purse with one hand while the other accepted a tissue from my mother. Her mascara was smeared and running, her eyes red. I put up a hand to stop her.

"That's not the issue, here, Gladys. Look, I'll do some asking around, see what I can find out about where Greg might be. But I can't make you any promises, all right?"

She nodded and mopped at her eyes with the tissue. "Thank you! Thank you so much. I know you'll find him. His mother needs him. He's a good boy," she said again, her voice breaking.

I handed her another tissue. It seemed like the thing to do. Then I left her to the tender ministrations of my mother, who was coaxing coffee out of the machine I'd just fixed for her the other day —yet another emergency. Then I pulled Sam aside.

"I don't exactly have time for an extra-curricular activity these days, Sam."

Sam made a what-can-you-do gesture with his free hand. "It sounds easy enough, Mike. Track down the delinquent kid from whatever bender he's on, clean him up, fill him full of coffee, maybe throw in some intimidation to scare him straight."

"Yeah, see, the whole wild post-college party thing isn't exactly my scene. It's going to take a lot of time and energy I don't have to infiltrate that scene."

"You're going about this all wrong," Sam assured me. "Clubs and wild beach parties? You can do those in your sleep. Besides, you won't have to do the heavy lifting on this. They key to getting in and getting information is the same as anywhere else."

"Right," I felt my heart sink a bit. "I'll call Fiona."

Part II

The problem with being emotionally involved with your team mates is that more often than not you have to watch them walk head-first into danger and deliberately not do anything to help them. In fact, sometimes you're the one sending them into danger. Granted, sending my ex-girlfriend into one of the most glamorous clubs in Miami didn't exactly qualify as dangerous, but that didn't mean I had to be happy about it. Fiona Glennane and I met years ago in Dublin, when I was working undercover there, and... let's just say that after we got involved, I had to leave town in a hurry, and Fi isn't really the forgiving type.

Tonight she was putting on a show, which I guessed was as much for my benefit as it was to get her in the club doors. She was wearing the slinkiest white dress I'd seen her wear to date, covered in sequins and shimmering nicely in the glare of the club lights. Fi is a beautiful woman, and in the spy business being a beautiful woman means you get a lot of doors opened for you. It also makes operating in secret really difficult, because every red-blooded male and not a few red-blooded females are going to be all over you in a crowded place like that.

"Remember, Fi, you're just scouting tonight," I reminded her, watching as she held a slim little silver phone to her ear.

A little asking around via some of Sam's cop buddies and other, less reputable contacts, had revealed that there had been a number of young people reported missing over the past few weeks. No one had put all the pieces together yet, but there was definitely a pattern there. All the victims fit the same profile: young, attractive, and running with a crowd whose budget didn't match their own. They'd all either disappeared, or been found dead in various parts of Miami, drowned in pools, bathtubs, and in a couple of tragic instances either in the ocean itself or the Everglades. The pattern was rough enough to be coincidental, but I've been a spy long enough not to believe in coincidences.

It had taken two labour-intensive days to track down every person the missing kids had had in common, and that was a lot of time not spent on figuring out who had issued my burn notice. Still, kids were dying, and that sort of puts things in perspective. If there was some sort of serial killer at work in Miami and no one had figured it out yet, then it was up to us to make sure that not only did our client's nephew get home safe and sound, but that no one else's kid ended up dead somewhere far from home.

We'd narrowed it down to a particular night club, one of those trendy new places that would likely fizzle out and die when the glitterati got bored with it in a couple of months but right now was making money hand over fist and didn't exactly care how the cash came in. It had then taken a few more less labour-intensive days for Fi to find the crowd that Greg had been running with, drape herself all over one of its leaders without being too flagrant about it, playing up her part as a party girl with more moxey than money. Right now, she was shimmying her way seductively past the appreciative bouncer, acting every inch the wide-eyed innocent trying to look like she fit in.

"Of course, Michael," she replied, her voice flirty and ironic, and I buried my face in my palm. Sometimes there's no talking to her. "I am going to be as good as good can be, never you worry."

I hung up with a groan, and went back to watching the place from the front seat of Sam's car.

"Burrito?" Sam offered me a paper-wrapped parcel, but I waved him off. "Suit yourself, they're delicious."

"Of all the things you could have picked to eat on a stakeout..."

"You have to learn to live a little, Mike," he said around a mouthful of food, then made an appreciative sound as he swallowed. "The only thing that would make this better is a cold one."

"Just keep your eyes on who goes in and out of the club, okay?"

"You got it. Where you going?"

I stepped out of the car, shoving my cell phone into my pocket and checking to make sure my gun was still properly concealed in the waistband of my pants. "I'm going to get a better vantage point," I jerked my head in the direction of a nearby hotel, whose balconies gave out onto the night club in question.

In my line of work, you spend a lot of time waiting and watching. Mostly waiting. You set up a trap, dangle some bait —in this case my very attractive ex-girlfriend— and hope your intended fish will bite. I couldn't see Fi from where I was, but I had a pretty good view of the club's rear door, which gave onto one of those shady alleys that constantly seem to have puddles in them even when it hasn't rained for weeks. Sam was covering the front, and there were no other exits. I spent four excruciatingly dull hours watching horny young adults make out in the back alley, share all sorts of illicit drugs, and for the most part duck right back into the club to keep dancing. The few who left did so in cars that belonged to them, and had arrived together, which didn't fit with our working theory. I took note, just in case, but my gut told me it wasn't what we were looking for.

Around two a.m. our luck took a turn for the better —or worse, depending on how you looked at it. The back door opened again, and Fi emerged, wobbling exaggeratedly on the fancy little strappy high-heeled silver sandals she'd picked to go with the dress, her earrings flashing in the glow of the emergency exit light. She giggled, hands flung out for balance, one of them clutching her tiny silver purse, and then made a show of falling against the good-looking boy who'd accompanied her outside.

"Son of a bitch," I breathed, holding the phone up to my ear as Sam answered on the other end.

"What've you got, Mike?"

"A complication."

It had taken me a moment to recognize him. Out of the cheap suit and into leather pants and a shirt that might have been painted on, clean-shaven and hair impeccably styled,,he looked a good five years younger than when I'd first met him. He was innocent-looking, fresh-faced and guileless, but there was no mistaking that Fiona was currently making out —a little too enthusiastically for my liking— with the fake Agent Plant.

"Mike," Sam's voice came over the phone like a bucket of cold water. "Don't do anything crazy, now. Fi can take care of herself."

"I know that," I snapped. "I'm going to move into position anyway. I don't like the look of this guy, and I'm not planning on letting him out of my sight until I know what his game is. Fi doesn't know who he is, and I can't let her go on no intel."

"Okay, but be careful. If he's our psycho, then he's really good at what he does."

"All the more reason not to let Fi wander off with him."

I flipped the phone shut again, trusting that Sam was going to be flanking from the other side of the alley, then vaulted over the low-hanging balcony which I'd been using as a perch all night. I landed in the grass below the balcony, narrowly missed spraining an ankle —always a risk when you're jumping from anything higher than a few feet— and loped around the hotel as quickly as I could, hoping that nothing would go down in the couple of minutes in which I didn't have a direct view of the alley.

I've always been amazed at how fast women can move in three-inch heels, and Fiona has yet to meet her match. They were already much farther than I'd anticipated by the time I got there, and there was no way to follow them down the alley without giving myself away. So I ducked back around another building, through a couple of side streets, trying to keep them within view. Fi was putting up a pretty good fight without making it look as though she was fighting, simply manoeuvring Plant against the wall, shoving her leg between his thighs and her tongue down his throat, which didn't bother me in the slightest.

Still, there's only so much that a five-foot-two girl who weighs one hundred and twenty pounds soaking wet can do against a six-foot-tall guy who's got eighty pounds on her, and even though it seemed like Plant —or whatever his name was— was mostly on board with whatever she'd been doing a moment before, he was also after something a little less carnal. A minute later their positions were reversed, and he had her pinned to the wall. I couldn't tell what they were saying, but whatever it was, it didn't look good, and the look on Fiona's face told me all I needed to know. Fi can take care of herself, and she put up a creditable defense, but he blocked her best hits, looking a little surprised at her sudden change in demeanour. He obviously hadn't expected his mark to be a trained fighter.

So much for a recon-only mission. It was time to step in, and that's what I did, moving forward and pulling the hammer back on my pistol for emphasis with a loud click.

"Back off," I said quietly.

He let go of Fiona so fast that she staggered and went to one knee. I don't care how good you are at walking in heels, keeping your balance on those things is hard. His eyes were wide, tracking from side to side as he kept his hands out to the side, in plain view.

"Woah there, easy," he said, backing up. "I don't want trouble. If I'd known the lady was with you..." he trailed off as he recognized me, but said nothing further.

"You've got a funny way of showing it," I answered, keeping the gun trained on him. "Fi, you okay?"

"I'm fine," she picked herself up, dusted herself off, as Sam came up from behind Plant, his own pistol levelled. Sensing the presence at his back Plant glanced over his shoulder and swore under his breath, raising both hands and lacing his fingers behind his head.

"Look, this is just a misunderstanding," he said, his voice betraying a hint of nervousness. That can be faked just as easily as any other emotion, of course, but then again, most people get nervous with two handguns pointed at their heads.

"Sure it is," I said agreeably. "And you can help us to understand by coming with us and explaining it all. In detail."

Sometimes, as a spy, you get caught up in the excitement of the moment. There's a lot of adrenaline flying around, and if you're not careful, you forget that every plan has its flaws. For one, if you were planning on taking out a lone target, it's easy to forget that, for instance, your target might have a partner. I had used the hammer of my pistol as a way to emphasize how serious I was, and it had worked. Still, there's nothing quite like the sound of a shotgun being racked less than six feet away from you to make a really, really impressive point.

"Yeah, that's not going to happen," a soft voice carried across the alleyway.

I turned my head to catch sight of the gigantic Agent Page aiming a very illegal sawed-off shotgun right at my head, and by extension right at Fiona as well. He'd positioned himself perfectly, too: poised behind a wall, so that Sam had no shot on him. Fiona was unarmed, and I'd have to waste a precious few seconds turning in order to fire at him. If we so much as moved a breath out of synch, one or the other of us was going to get filled full of buckshot, and at this range it might be both of us, and the results wouldn't be pretty. It was my turn to swear under my breath: dammit, I was better than that! I'd let us walk straight into an ambush. A one-man ambush, no less.

"Fantastic timing, Sammy," Plant said, cocky grin back in place, though I noted he hadn't moved.

"Uh-huh. We'll talk about that later," 'Sammy' said, and his tone promised that the talk was going to be anything but pleasant.

"Looking forward to it," the sarcasm was impossible to miss. "Looks like we've got ourselves quite the Mexican stand-off here."

"You okay?" 'Sammy' sounded anxious.

"She tried to kick me in the nuts, but apart from that? Just peachy, dude," he continued, as though he was enjoying a day on the beach rather than facing down two armed men. "I don't think this is what we were looking for, though," he added, as though as an afterthought.

His partner snorted. "No kidding. They're human, for one," he said, which made no sense at all. Okay," he addressed me, his voice flat, calm. "Here's how this is going to work. You're going to let my —partner go," there was the briefest of hesitation before the word 'partner.' "He's going to walk to where I am, and none of you are going to move until he's out of your lines of fire. Then the three of you are going to walk to the end of the alley, and you're not going to come after us. Got it?"

"Got it," I confirmed with a brief nod, while I tried to figure a way out of the situation that didn't involve us scraping our brains off the far wall.

"Dean? Hug the wall."

"Dude, I'm not an idiot."

Another snort. "Don't start. Just don't give them any reason to grab you, or shoot you, okay?"

"I didn't even—"


'Dean' rolled his eyes and subsided. "All right, jeez."

He eased himself to the side, slowly unlacing his fingers, and hugged the wall as instructed, keeping himself well away from both Sam and me, although it was obvious the instructions had been superfluous. He moved like a cat, all fluid grace and suspicious green eyes, but by now I knew better than to be surprised. These two knew how to handle themselves. Both sides had blundered tonight, but we'd —I'd made the worst of the mistakes, and now we were paying for it. The only up side was that Page, or 'Sammy,' or whoever he was, appeared to be as eager as we were not to attract attention, possibly even more so. I was still trying to figure out how to work that to our advantage when his partner reached his side, melting into the shadows of the alley: he moved faster than I'd anticipated, too. Who the hell were these guys? They were nothing like any of the special forces I'd encountered over the years, although some of the techniques they'd used were familiar, as though they'd just cobbled together some of the greatest hits of covert ops into a training manual.

I made a show of re-holstering my pistol, and Sam did the same. I kept myself between Fiona and the business end of the shotgun, and moved the both of us toward Sam. Fiona was looking over her shoulder, and when I turned to look for myself I saw Dean standing partially in the shadows, thumbs hooked into his belt loops. He tilted his head to the side in an expression that was half-smirk, half-regret.

"Too bad, sweetheart," he called out. "We could have had a great time!"

"Dean, shut up, for the love of—"

"Come on, Sam, did you see her?"

"Shut. Up."

I grabbed Fiona by the elbow and hustled her along, trying to wrap my mind around the conflicting data I was getting off the two men. She glared at me, tripping over her sandals.

"Michael, we can't just let them go! They might be our only lead!"

"Am I the only one who noticed the shotgun aimed at our heads?"

She made a disparaging noise, but didn't argue at that. Sometimes in order to attack, you have to retreat. There's no shame in running away, when you're a spy. In fact, as a spy you probably spend a lot more time engaging in strategic retreats in order to regroup, re-evaluate, and come at a situation from a different angle. There was more going on here than at first met the eye, and in those circumstances, there's only one logical thing to do: gather more intel. I couldn't do that with a scattergun pointed at me, so I kept walking, joined up with Sam at the far side of the alley. I looked at him, waited for his nod to show he'd understood what I wanted, and on a small signal we took off in opposite directions, in the hope of coming back around and flanking the two targets.

It was a long shot, and it didn't work. By the time we were able to get even remotely close to where they'd been, the two of them were long gone.

"Well, that didn't exactly go according to plan," Sam commented drily, breathing hard, both hands on his knees. Sam's good for a few things, but he hasn't been running marathons for a very long time. Years of living off mai tais, mojitos, beer and junk food will take their toll if you're not careful. It's why I stick to yoghurt.

Fiona was waiting at the car when we got back, looking annoyed. "I can't believe you let them get away!"

"What? I —you," I sputtered, floored by the accusation.

"It wasn't a total bust," Sam volunteered. "While you two were out playing 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly' in the alleyway, I found their car. Nice ride, too. A '67 Impala. Classic. They don't make 'em like that anymore."

"Sam," I interrupted his rhapsodising about the car.

"Right. Anyway, I took the liberty of sticking a bug and a tracker in there. Just on general principle."

"How'd you know it was their car?" Fi asked, sceptical to the last. She doesn't know Sam the way I do.

Sam rolled his eyes. "How do you think? I saw Gigantor there getting out of the car to go after his partner. Seemed like a reasonable enough assumption."

"Hmph," Fiona refused to look impressed, then rummaged in her tiny purse and produced a shot glass. "That's not the only thing we've got."

I could have kissed her. I didn't, because that would have been really unprofessional, but still. "Prints?" She nodded smugly. "Fi, you're the best."

"Hey!" Sam was indignant. "I risk life and limb to track down our two main leads and nothing, but she throws herself at a guy and convinces him to drink a shot and she's the best? Where's the justice?"

I gave him an encouraging clap on the arm. "Sorry, Sam. Life's just unfair that way. Think you can run the prints for me?"

Sam pulled a tissue out of his pocket and snatched the shot glass with an aggrieved look. "That's gratitude for you," he grumbled. "I've got a buddy down at Miami Dade. I'll see if I can pull a couple of strings."

"You're the best," I assured him, and even though he grumbled some more, I could tell he was mollified. The promise of a mojito went a long way toward improving his mood, too. "Okay, let's get back, see what the hell they're up to now."

We made it back to the loft that I've been calling home ever since I burned and stranded in Miami. It's over a night club, which makes it a little loud at night, what with the base making the floor vibrate, but the rent is cheap ever since I helped out my Russian landlord with the live-in drug dealer problem he had. We set ourselves up at my workbench, or, rather, Fiona and I did while Sam raided my refrigerator for beer, and settled in to listen to what our mystery men were up to.

What they were up to, it seemed, was playing Zeppelin a little too loudly for anyone's comfort. I barely made out the sound of one of them —their Sam, by the sound of it— complaining about the volume. At least we weren't the only ones suffering. Somehow I wasn't surprised that Dean was a fan of classic rock, given what I knew of him thus far, which, realistically, wasn't all that much. Then realisation struck. I barely resisted beating my head against the table in frustration.

"What?" Sam popped the cap off a beer and shot me a quizzical look.

"Agents Plant and Page?" I raised both hands in a gesture of surrender. "Even if I didn't already know they were fake, I'd know it for sure now."

"How so?"

I pointed to the mic. "Zeppelin."

"Plant and Pa —oh, Lord," Sam shook his head, then chuckled. "That's pretty clever."

"I can't believe I didn't spot it earlier."

"Don't blame yourself, Mike. It's not like you were expecting two fake FBI agents to crash your little intelligence party."

I shook my head. "I don't buy it, though. I mean, running into these guys twice in the same week, on completely unrelated cases? What are the odds? There's got to be something else there."

The music died down suddenly as the car came to a stop.

"I can't believe you want to stop now," Dean was saying, now that I could hear him.

"Look, the night's a bust. You just narrowly avoided getting your ass shot, and I just narrowly avoided having to fill two civilians full of rock salt. I say we quit while we're ahead, get some sleep, and try again in the morning. Besides, that's the second time we've run into that guy."

"What the guy from the hotel? Yeah, I noticed. And the old guy was there too."

"Hey!" Sam nearly choked on his beer in indignation. "Who's he calling old?"

Fiona snickered, and I motioned to the two of them to be quiet.

"Can't be a coincidence. We're going to have to be more careful."

"We're not giving this up."

There was a huff of exasperation. "Of course not. I said we'd see it through and we will," the declaration was followed by the creak and slam of a car door.

"Hey, watch it! You treat my baby with the respect she deserves, bitch!" Dean called out, and I heard another door open and shut, more gently.

"Jerk," came the faint reply before they moved out of range.

Sam grinned at me. "I don't know, Mikey. I kind of like them. They've got style."

Part III

Sam wasn't nearly as amused the next day when he came and pounded on my door. I'd been on the phone all morning, trying to lure Willie back out of hiding, much to Fiona's disgust. She was never entirely on board with my determination to figure out who burned me and to get my old job back. After the fourth phone call she'd finally thrown up her hands and declared that she was going back to the case and that she'd call me if she found any promising leads. She also promised that she wouldn't go anywhere near the mysterious Sam and Dean if they showed up —unlikely as that might be.

"Mike, we've got a problem," he said, shutting the door behind him.

"What?" I flipped my cell phone shut. "They found your bug, by the way. Turns out the guy is really obsessed with his car."

The conversation leading up to the bug's discovery had been entertaining but not especially informative, and they'd been confused about the bug's presence, which in turn hadn't made much sense to me. What sort of people had their training but didn't expect listening devices in their car?

"Yeah, that's not the problem. This is the problem," Sam dropped a couple of illegally-copied files into my lap. "I think these might be our guys after all. Working as a team."

"Sam and Dean Winchester," I flipped open the first file, revealing a mug short of Dean, aka Agent Plant, looking altogether far too cheeky for a mug shot. "I guess I was right about them being related."

"Having another Sam in the picture is really annoying," Sam muttered. "It's confusing for everyone."

I whistled as I looked through the file. The guy had never been convicted in a court of law, but he was wanted in half a dozen states on a list of charges as long as my arm. Fraud, impersonating an officer of the law, theft, arson, grave desecration of all random things, and, not least, murder. He was also listed as deceased, as was his younger brother Sam, purportedly killed in an explosion in early February. Sam had heretofore only been listed as a person of interest, the prevailing theory being that the older brother was the real delinquent and that the younger brother was the 'good kid,' a former Stanford student who'd let himself be dragged into a life of crime out of some sort of familial devotion. Obviously, whoever wrote the file had never seen Sam Winchester at work.

"The father was a piece of work," Sam said, looking over my shoulder. "Crazy para-military type. Ex-marine who lost his grip on reality when his wife died in a fire. Dragged the two kids across the country and back, seeing evil everywhere. Raised them like soldiers, from the reports, steeped in his delusions."

I felt my jaw tighten. My own father was a piece of work in his own way, but even if he'd smacked me around, it had never gone to such an extreme, and I had my mother to thank for that. I looked at the file in my lap again, conscious in a way I'd never been before how close I might have been to being dragged off the deep end.

"Doesn't excuse what they're doing now," I said finally.

"No," Sam sighed and shook his head. "But with a childhood like that? Ripped away from everything normal before the age of five? I'm not surprised they turned out to be sociopaths. Brother team. Wouldn't be the first time."

"I guess our friends at Miami Dade are going to be getting a tip as to the whereabouts of two of their most wanted fugitives," I flipped the files closed, unable to shake the feeling that I wasn't seeing the whole picture. "I want to find Greg, too. Preferably alive. But they haven't said a word about him or the other victims the whole time."

"They'll probably clam up as soon as they're in custody," Sam pointed out, and I couldn't help but agree. "Did they find the tracker I planted?"

I smiled. "Nope."

"So, theoretically we could track them down and ask them a few questions ourselves. Before tipping off our friends, I mean."


Sam rubbed his hands together. He has about as much love for murdering psychopaths as I do. "All right then, let's see where they are today."

I switched on the computer, brought up the tracking software, and froze. Sam's hand tightened on my shoulder. Within about a minute I had holstered my pistol and was sliding behind the steering wheel of Sam's car, Sam close on my heels, thumbing the speed-dial on my cell phone. A few heart-stopping rings later, the line picked up.

"Michael? What's wrong? Why are you calling?"

"Mom!" I tried to keep the relief out of my voice. "Are you all right?"

"I'm perfectly fine, Michael," she sounded annoyed.

"Is there anyone there with you right now?"

"As a matter of fact, there is," her voice turned warm. "Two very nice young men are here concerning an investigation. I was just showing them your father's car. It turns out one of them is quite the car lover!"

"They're not in the room with you?"

"Not right now —Michael, what is this about?"

I kept my free hand on the steering wheel, and blew through four yellow lights as I talked. "Look, Mom, if you can, get them to leave. I'm going to be there in a few minutes. If they won't leave, get out of the house, do you hear me?"

"Michael, I want you to tell me what this is about!"

"I'll explain when I get there, I promise," I said, narrowly avoiding a green Pinto that had come out of nowhere and was now blaring angrily at me.

She huffed. "Fine. Do that," she bit out, and hung up.

For the second time in a week, Sam and I entered my mother's kitchen with guns drawn, only this time it wasn't to be greeted with a dismembered lamp. The Winchester brothers were seated at her kitchen table, looking as respectable as they could be in the same cheap suits in which I'd first seen them, laughing over their cups of coffee as if they'd just stopped in for a chat. They were both out of their chairs in a hurry, though, when they found themselves staring down the barrel of my nine millimetre.

"Woah, easy there," Dean said, backing the two of them up by my mother's sink, already looking for escape routes.

"Mom, I need you to walk past me slowly, and into the living room. Don't come back in here until I tell you it's safe, okay?" I kept my voice calm, my gun trained on them, and my gaze locked with Dean's. If he was the ringleader, then he was the one I wanted to negotiate with. I'd let Sam deal with —Sam. Unfortunately, my mother had different ideas.

"Michael, what is the meaning of this? You know how I feel about you brandishing guns in my house!"

Dean nodded, and for a second there was a spark of amusement in his eyes. "I think your mother makes a valid point there, uh, Michael. Why don't you and your buddy ease up there, put the guns away, and, uh, we can sort this out without anyone getting hurt?"

"Yeah, that's not going to happen," I echoed his brother's words from the night before. "You can't threaten my mother and expect me not to take it personally. So you, your brother and I are going to have a little chat about what you did with the others. Mom, I'm serious. Go in the living room. Right now."

Deans face registered nothing but confusion. "What others? Threaten?" It was a pretty good act, I had to give him that. "What the hell, dude?"

"I am not going anywhere," Mom said stubbornly. God help me, she'd probably taken a shine to them. They were young, well-spoken, charming, but then, a lot of sociopaths are. "Don't be melodramatic, Michael. They didn't threaten me. They've been very polite."

"Look," the younger brother spoke for the first time, keeping his hands up, his tone reasonable. In the light of day he looked impossibly young, barely more than a kid. Still, at his age I'd been around the world three times already, and I'd already killed a man. "We're not here to hurt anyone, or whatever you think. We just wanted to ask a few questions. I know it looks bad, but I swear, we're not out to hurt people."

"That's not what your police file says," I said coldly.

He flinched visibly, and seemed to shrink into himself. Quite a feat for someone his height. "It's not what it seems."

"That's what they all say."

Dean bristled at that, moving a fraction of an inch to stand just that much more between the guns and his brother. Interesting, I thought, and I filed it away for future reference. "Hey, come on now. You don't want us here, I get that. I do, and in your shoes I'd react the same way. But we're not threatening anyone. So we'll just be on our way, no harm, no foul."

"Not until you've told us what you did with those kids. Mom, for the last time, get in the living room. Please. Sam?"

The younger brother's head jerked toward me in surprise just as Sam said "Yeah, Mike?"

"You want to check them over for weapons?"

"We're not carrying," Sam-the-younger said.

"And look what a great idea that turned out to be," Dean complained. "No, you said, we're interviewing civilians! We can't go in armed," he mimicked in falsetto, although I noted once again the use of the word 'civilians.' It fit better now that I knew about their background.

"Dean, this is so not the time," his brother kicked his ankle.


My Sam stepped forward, and began checking them methodically, starting with Sam. The kid threw him a curious look. "So your name is Sam too?" he shrugged when Sam didn't answer. "That's gonna get confusing."

"Keep your mouth shut for now, and we'll keep the confusion to a minimum," Sam snapped, but the kid didn't appear to be in a listening frame of mind.

"Look, I don't know what you think we did, but I promise you, it's not what you think. We're just trying to help."

"Sam," his brother warned. "This isn't the moment for the truth-is-out-there speech."

Sam rolled his eyes, but I could tell Dean had made his point, whatever it was. For a moment it seemed like things were going to go our way. Sam —my Sam, and this really was getting confusing— checked Dean over for a concealed weapon, found none, and was pulling back when I recognized the look on Dean's face. Apparently, so did his brother, because he opened his mouth to shout a warning.

"Dean, no!"

Dean was already moving, faster than a striking snake, and he had a hand on Sam's gun and was driving the other at his jugular before I so much as had time to blink, knocking him back with a fierceness even I hadn't been expecting. The trick when you're caught off-guard is to make sure your recovery time is lightning-fast. I hadn't banked on the brothers' reflexes being that good, but mine are pretty sharp, and it only took me a fraction of a second to readjust my aim and pull the trigger. The next thing I knew, the other Sam had shoved his brother out of the way in time to catch my otherwise well-placed shot in his right shoulder. He let out a muted yelp of pain and folded in on himself, knees buckling, blood already oozing between the fingers of the hand he'd clapped over the wound.


There was chaos for a few seconds, but not enough for me to regain control of the situation. Dean had kept hold of Sam's gun and was keeping it trained on me, while I kept mine trained on him.

Mom had her back against the far wall of the kitchen, one hand pressed to her mouth in shock. "Michael, what have you done?"

"Sam, you okay?" I asked, ignoring her.

"Yeah, Mike," Sam coughed, his voice hoarse, which is only to be expected after you've been hit in the throat. It must have been a glancing blow, for which I guessed we were all grateful. Well, all except Dean, maybe.

Dean was glaring at me, but he slipped gracefully to one knee and put out his free hand to check on his brother, who was slumped against the cabinets beneath the sink, leaving a smear of pink behind. "Sammy? You with me?"

His brother let out a soft groan, made an effort to sit up and failed. "D'n?" he blinked, eyes not focussing on anything in particular. "Shot me," he said, sounding faintly indignant.

"Okay, Sammy. You hang on for me, okay? I'm going to get us out of here."

Sam coughed and winced, but seemed to marshal himself. "Tol' you this was a bad plan. 's a water spirit. Water spirits don' carry guns," he said, in the tones of someone pointing out the blatantly obvious to a slightly dim-witted child. Dean's expression flickered between worry and exasperation.

"Yeah, okay, I get it. Save the I-told-you-so's for when you're not bleeding and we don't have a gun pointed at us, deal?"

"Dean," Sam's eyes fluttered for a moment. "Y'should give Sam back his gun. Gesture of good faith."

"Sam makes a very valid point," Sam nodded, still rubbing his throat. "Give it back, son."

Dean's eyes flashed. "I'm not your son," he snapped. "And right now, it's pretty much the only leverage I've got, seeing as how you're intent on killing us or worse."

"Your brother needs a hospital," I said, trying to be the voice of reason. "You're not exactly in a position to negotiate here, Dean."

His eyes flicked from me to his brother, and I could almost see the gears turning in his mind. A hospital was out of the question, even if he and his brother were the type to have insurance, which they weren't. Hospitals were required by law to report gun shot wounds, and that was a boatload of attention they couldn't risk.

"Why don't you let me worry about my brother?"

The thing with shoulder wounds, is that they're a lot nastier than the average television show would have you believe. On TV, the hero gets tagged in the shoulder and shrugs it off with a manly grunt and maybe a shot of whisky to take off the edge, because everyone knows there's nothing vital there. Except everyone is wrong. Best case scenario, the bullet is a clean in-and-out through the first intercostal area, and you come out of it with muscle damage and often enough a broken rib or clavicle. Worst case scenario, you end up with a pneumothorax and die. From the looks of it, the Winchesters were more than familiar with the potential ramifications of Sam's injury. Dean was chewing on his lip.

"Look, I just want to get my brother out of here."

"Like I said: not going to happen. For what it's worth, no one else is going to get hurt, so long as we get our questions answered."

His brother tugged weakly on his jacket. "Dean," he made an effort to speak clearly, though he was starting to have trouble catching his breath. "They think we're killers. Now... might be a good time... for a gesture of good faith. Prove we're not."

For a second I thought Dean was going to put up a fight, but a moment later he let his head drop in a clear gesture of defeat. He turned a sceptical toward me. "Okay," he breathed. "You're obviously not letting us go anywhere, so here's the deal. I'm going to give your buddy back his gun, and you're going to let me at least stop the bleeding and get my brother patched up as best I can. Then I'll answer whatever questions you've got. Sound fair?"

Fair had nothing to do with it, but I nodded. "Sounds fair. I'll even help, so long as you don't try anything else. Deal?"

He nodded, eyes back on his brother. "Deal." He spread his fingers, balancing the pistol on his thumb, and lowered it to the floor, sliding it toward Sam with a push. "Sammy, you still with me?"

He proceeded to ignore me, already pulling off his jacket and easing his brother down so that he was lying flat on the floor. The kid was pale, sweating, eyes half-closed. Shock, probably. I handed my pistol to Sam with a nod, knelt beside the kid and felt for a pulse. It was there, thready and erratic, but definitely there.

"Mom, you still got that first aid kit I left in the garage?"

"Of course," she said, her voice shaky. "Is he all right?"

"I'm working on it, Mom. Could you get the kit for me, please?" I didn't bother looking to see if she went. "Sam?" The kid jerked at the sound of his name, but I wasn't talking to him.

"Yeah, Mike?"

"We're going to need help with this."

I felt rather than saw him nod. "Okay, I'll make some calls."

In the field, temporary truces and alliances are all but inevitable. Sooner or later you're going to find yourself on the same side of a very bad situation right alongside a guy who, a minute before, was trying to kill you. Under those circumstances, you have little choice but to put aside your differences for as long as it takes to get the both of you out of there. After that, you're both free to cheerfully go back to trying to kill each other.

With Dean's help I started easing Sam's jacket off his shoulders, trying to ignore the faint moan I got in protest. The kid was tough, I had to give him that. Most men would have either screamed or passed out by then, but he was just gritting his teeth and clinging to consciousness.

"We'll have to cut the shirt off," was Dean's curt assessment when we saw the dark stain spreading on the back of Sam's shirt. "It's a through-and-through. You're gonna have a hole in your wall," he added, almost irrelevantly.

That was good news and bad news. Good news, in that there wasn't a bullet lodged somewhere in Sam's body. Bad news, because it was impossible to tell just how bad the damage was without more invasive procedures. Mom placed the first aid kit next to me, and the next few minutes passed in silence, punctuated only by the sound of laboured breathing, the occasional order from me, and the even more occasional request for clarification by Dean. Being a spy means that, sometimes, you're going to find yourself in a situation out in the field when there is no immediate access to medical assistance. As a result, you have to become your own field medic. It shouldn't have come as a surprise to me that Dean Winchester had training of his own, but it did, and the surprise must have registered on my face. He just shrugged.

"Sam's better at this sort of thing than I am," he said, as though that explained everything.

I cut away the ruined shirt, and concluded that our patient was lucky. Reasonably lucky, anyway. The bullet had caught him high on his right shoulder, had gone in at the first intercostal space, right beneath the collarbone. At that angle he'd probably broken a rib, which would hurt like hell but was unlikely to be fatal unless he did something really stupid. No spurting blood meant I hadn't nicked an artery, which was definitely good if I didn't want him bleeding out on my mother's kitchen floor, and it looked like I'd missed most of the major blood vessels. Without an X-ray it was impossible to tell if the bullet had chipped any other bones, but overall, if we could get the bleeding stopped, I was pretty sure we could keep the kid from dying.

Dean proved just as efficient at packing a wound as he was at disarming opponents —and if he'd managed to disarm Sam, that said something for him. Sam might not be at the top of his game anymore, but he was still a damned good operative.

"You should put him in the guest room," my mother said, lighting another cigarette. "He'll be more comfortable on a bed."

"Mom, you can't be serious. These men are dangerous," I started before she interrupted me with a quelling look.

"They were perfectly civilized before you came barging in, guns blazing. And you can't tell me that unconscious boy is a threat now. You're going to be fixing that wall, by the way. I won't have bullet holes in my kitchen."

"Hey, how come you never let me stay in the guest room?" Sam sounded aggrieved as he returned. "I made some calls, and a buddy of mine says he'll help us out. I knew him when he was starting out as a field medic."

"I never let you stay in the guest room because you've got a place of your own," Mom countered. "With that lady friend of yours. What's her name?"


I wasn't about to stick around and listen to Sam argue with my mother, and Dean seemed to be entirely in agreement with me on that point. He leaned over his brother, rubbing a hand on his good arm.

"Hey, Sammy, we're going to put you somewhere more comfortable than this floor. Can you stand if I help you?"

Sam's eyelids fluttered a bit before he forced them open, then he gritted his teeth and nodded. "I'm okay," he managed, voice strangled.

"You've got a crap definition of 'okay,' dude. What the hell are they teaching at Stanford these days, anyway?" Dean rolled his eyes as he propped him upright. "You ready? On three. One, two!"

He hauled his brother to his feet on two, in a move that looked altogether too practised. For a moment Sam's knees buckled and he sagged against Dean, who staggered under the unexpected weight, but they sorted themselves out and I led the way to what used to be my bedroom and now served as a guest room. I was half-expecting Dean to make a break for it at any second, but apparently I was underestimating his attachment to his little brother, because he showed no signs of going anywhere once the kid was settled on the cheap double bed, his face grey with pain, lips bloodless.

Sam's old army buddy showed up about twenty minutes later, a steel-haired guy with a ramrod-straight bearing who spared the both of us a disapproving look before kicking us out so he could 'work in peace,' as he put it. Dean looked like he was clamping down on the urge to deck the guy, but he reluctantly preceded me back into the kitchen and dropped into a chair, looking older and more tired than I'd seen up until now.

"So," he said, lips pulling into a smirk that looked forced, even to me. "What would you like to know?"

There's an art to interrogating a subject, and it's one you learn fairly early on. If your subject doesn't know you're questioning him, then your approach is going to be different than if you've got him tied to a chair. The same also applied for in-between situations, like if you've got a hostile subject sitting in your mother's kitchen, who's apparently willing to answer questions but might be just as likely to lie to your face in order to save himself. It also doesn't help if your mother is sitting with you, smoking a cigarette and butting in every two minutes.

"So you're not really conducting an investigation?" she asked, sounding as though she'd been personally hurt by the betrayal.

"No, we are," Dean assured her. "Just... not exactly the investigation we said we were conducting."

"Why were you coming after my son, then?"

"Mom, could you let me handle this, please?"

"Michael, these boys lied to my face! I expect an explanation, at the very least. And an apology," she added, stubbing out her cigarette and lighting another one.

"We're not coming after anyone," Dean said, his expression annoyed. "We ran across him twice in the course of our investigation, and anyone with a lick of sense knows that even coincidences need to be explored."

It was a fair enough explanation, but not exactly satisfactory. "So what were you doing at the hotel?"

"You wouldn't believe me if I told you."

"Try me."

Dean sighed and rubbed his eyes with the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. "We were checking for spirit activity."

"Spirit activity," I repeated flatly. I don't enjoy being messed with even on a good day, and this was definitely not a good day.

"Told you you wouldn't believe me."

I was silent for a minute, remembering the snippet of conversation between them I'd overhead at the hotel. Hadn't his brother said something about it not being a spirit?

"Okay. Let's pretend for a minute you aren't lying to my face. What sort of spirit activity?"

He looked up in surprise, apparently not expecting me to humour him. "A vengeful spirit," he leaned forward, his expression earnest. "We heard about all these kids going missing, right? In their early twenties, and all fitting the same sort of personality. It's a pattern, see?" he warmed to his subject with the kind of enthusiasm only true passion can muster. "So we figured it might be a spirit connected to the water somehow, because all the bodies were found drowned, supposedly. We had that in a case a couple of years back, a kid drowned in a lake who was drowning all the people related to the guys responsible for his death."

There aren't too many things that can catch me completely off-guard, or leave me with nothing to do except stare incredulously, but it seems as though the talk of vengeful water spirits deserves a spot on that list. I stared at him, and he shrugged.

"Whatever, man. You asked."

"You do realize that's insane, right?"

Another shrug. "If I had a nickel for all the times I've had to give the 'truth-is-out-there' speech to civilians... anyway, I get it. No one believes until they've seen it for themselves. And before you waste your saliva, I know what the police reports say: Sam and I are delusional. We were brainwashed by our crackpot Dad into believing insane things, and he turned us into killers."

"The reports also say you're dead."

"See? Can't believe anything you read," the smirk was back, but there was a tinge of sadness in the tone, too. "That was Henricksen's doing. He figured it out, right before he died. Did us a favour."

"The agent assigned to your case?" I asked, and he nodded.

"He was a good guy. Would have made a great hunter, if he'd lived."

"What happened to him?"

"Killed by a demon," came the curt reply, and I got the feeling that was all I was going to get on the subject. At least, that was it unless I decided to resort to more extreme methods of interrogation, and that wasn't the right call here. Dean Winchester might be dangerously psychotic, but right now he was cooperating, and it was impossible to tell what might set him off. Threatening his brother seemed like a good way to do that, so I avoided it.

He shifted in his seat. The movement was almost unnoticeable, as was the way his eyes tracked back toward the door, to where his brother was still being tended. Family is always tricky: even if your brother is a pain in the ass or your mother is neurotic and high-maintenance, you can't ever really bring yourself to leave them to their fate. Dean was itching to check on his Sammy, and I used his unease to my advantage.

"So tell me about these kids."

His gaze slid back to me. "I already told you, we were looking into the pattern."

"No one else saw a pattern there," I pointed out.

"No one else was looking."

"Is that what happened to Gladys' nephew?"

"Mom!" I snapped. There's nothing worse than having someone who's not trained in interrogation present during an interview. They'll often give away more than you want. Dean shot me a curious look.

"Is that why you were at the hotel?"


"You're not the police," it was a statement of fact.

"No," I confirmed. Didn't seem much point in hiding it.

"And not the FBI. No other agency that I know of looks into that sort of thing. So that means you're doing this on your own time. But you're not a hunter."

"Never cared much for hunting."

"Huh," he leaned back in his chair, tipping it back onto two legs, looking more like a delinquent school kid than anything else. He tilted his head, expression shrewd. "So you weren't at the hotel because of the case. But it was why your girlfriend was at the club last night."

"She's not my girlfriend."

"Whatever, man," he waved dismissively. "Sounds to me like we're both looking for the same thing."

Part IV

Maybe it was a way to distract himself from the knowledge that some stranger was stitching up his brother in the next room, or maybe Dean Winchester really did care that much about his work —no matter how messed-up his view of the world might be. Either way, it seemed that once he'd made up his mind to talk, he talked. It was hard to reconcile the eager attitude and the blunt, no-nonsense manner he'd adopted from the start with the reports I'd read, which described him as a cold, manipulative murderer who'd tortured and killed two women in St. Louis, Missouri and would have killed a third had the cops not showed up.

"So you think we're looking for the same guy?"

Dean made a noncommittal gesture with one hand. "I don't think it's a guy, but yeah. The pattern's there."

"You don't think it's a person," I said flatly, unable to keep the disbelief from my voice.

He quirked an eyebrow. "And you do? Really? Explain to me, then, if it's a serial killer, how they managed to be in, like, three places at once."

"How do you know that?"

Dean rubbed the back of his neck. "Sam can explain that better. I've got the files out in the car. You mind if I get them? I promise to come right back," he lifted his right hand in a parody of a boy scout salute.

"Yeah. Why don't I let Sam go with you?" I motioned to Sam, who'd been watching the proceedings from a corner of the kitchen, arms folded across his chest. He nodded, straightening, and Dean just shrugged, as though he'd been expecting something of the sort. They were gone less than five minutes, but when they returned, Dean stubbornly held onto the stack of papers and the laptop he'd apparently retrieved from the trunk of their car. Sam threw me a look that told me we had even more to discuss, but there wasn't exactly time right now.

"I want to check on Sam first. You mind?" Dean jerked his head toward the other room.

I made a 'go-ahead' motion, and followed him back to the guest bedroom, where Sam's buddy was finishing up, scrubbing his hands clean with a handful of antiseptic wipes. The other Sam was still looking like death warmed over, his eyes closed and his face grey. His breathing was better, though, and it looked like he'd been given a pretty hefty dose of painkillers, judging by the expression on his face. His chest and shoulder had been carefully bandaged, and his hand strapped to the opposite shoulder to keep it stable. He was more muscled than I'd thought, even half-hidden under the bandages. His clothes obviously served to disguise more than his identity.

"He's lucky," the medic said by way of greeting. "With proper care, he probably won't lose any mobility. Probably doesn't even need surgery. Damned lucky shot."

"Thanks, Jim," Sam clapped him on the shoulder. "I owe you one. You need anything, you let me know."

Dean dropped into a squat by the bed and took his brother's uninjured hand. "Hey, Sammy. They got you on the good stuff, or what?"

Jim snorted. "No good stuff here. Gave him some Percocet, that should keep him for now. Keep him well-hydrated, he's lost more blood than I'd like for someone who's not going to get a transfusion. I left a bottle of electrolyte solution there," he jerked his head toward the night table. "Tepid, but beggars can't be choosers. I left you the recipe to make more. Make sure he drinks a lot of it. He'd be better off in a hospital."

"If the hospital were an option, we'd have taken him."

"It's what I figured. I've written down a list of things to watch for. Any of those happen, you need to take him to a hospital, or find a coroner," Jim said drily, handing the list to Sam. "He spikes a fever of over 102, give me a call." He brushed past me. "I can see myself out."

Sam was struggling to sit up on the bed, and only managed it when his brother helped him and propped him up with the pillows that had been tossed aside so the medic could work.

"Take it easy," Dean cautioned. "You lost a lot of blood."

"Y'okay? They wouldn't tell me..."

"I'm fine, Sam," the tone of mixed fondness and exasperation was back. "You're the one who took the bullet. Which, by the way, I thought we discussed. You're not allowed to take bullets for me anymore."

The kid shook his head. "Seventy-four days."

Dean blinked, his expression about as confused as I felt. I looked over at my Sam, who just shrugged. "What?"

"I've only got you for seventy-four more days. Not letting them have you... a minute sooner," the kid said, staring so intently at Dean that I was mildly surprised he didn't bore a hole right through his skull. If I was hoping for an explanation, I was destined to be disappointed. Dean just bit his lip and smoothed the hair away from his brother's forehead.

"How many times do I have to tell you not to worry about that?"

Sam grinned faintly. "At least once more."

"God, you're such a girl. Are you quoting a Disney movie?"

"Only if you're admitting to watching it."

"Yeah, I hate to interrupt your little moment," my Sam broke in, "but we're sort of on a schedule here."

The other Sam blinked, surprised. "We've still got a couple of days before it strikes again."

"What?" It was Sam's turn to blink.

"The pattern," the kid reached for the folders that Dean had set aside, then winced as the movement jolted his shoulder. Dean pulled them over and dropped them in his lap. He flipped open the first few, and looked up at us, his eyes bright, if a little fogged over from the painkillers. "See? The bodies aren't going to turn up for at least two more days."

Sometimes when you're right in the middle of a situation, you lose your perspective. It happens even to the best operative, especially when you're in the presence of a person —or people— who are passionately convinced that their delusions are true. Sam looked like he was half-convinced already by the Winchesters' little story, and I'll admit it was tempting to believe it. The other Sam was trying clumsily to sort through the papers on his lap, hampered by the drugs in his system and the fact that he was forced to use his off-hand, and also by his brother's insistence that he drink the entire contents of the bottle of electrolyte solution he was holding for him.

"They come in clusters, you see?" he pulled out a sheet of notepad paper on which someone had scribbled the dates and times at which the bodies had been discovered in one column, and the dates on which the kids had gone missing. There were more names and dates in the second column, implying that there were a lot more victims than we'd previously thought. "The last body was found last week, which means at least two more days before... well, I don't know if they're kept alive that long, but we're hoping that's the case."

"A serial killer might get off on keeping them around," I agreed tentatively, but the kid shook his head.

"Not a serial killer. I mean, I suppose it could be, but the bodies were all discovered around the same time, and have roughly the same time of death, which rules out one person doing it. I mean, maybe it's a team, but they'd have to be really organized. Besides, there's no evidence of, umm..." he hesitated. "Serial killers usually get off on torture, or power games, or whatever. And there's no evidence of that," he finished quietly, and the look of undisguised loathing on his face went a longer way to convincing me that I wasn't dealing with stone-cold killers than the entire time I'd spent with them up until now. Psychopaths don't register that sort of emotion, it just isn't in their psychological make-up.

Dean squeezed his knee, watching him anxiously. "Keep drinking. You need a break?"

Sam shook his head. "I'm fine. It's just... something about this doesn't feel right."

"Something?" Sam snorted from where he was leaning in the doorway. "If I wasn't sober as a judge I'd swear I was too drunk for this conversation. So my new theory is that I'm too sober for this conversation."

"Okay," I shot Sam a glare, then looked back to the other Sam. "Why don't you tell me what doesn't feel right to you?"

The kid tried to shrug, flinched with pain. "I'm not sure. I was thinking about it, before," he rubbed at his eyes with his good hand, and I noticed his words starting to slur again. "The autopsy reports, I think. I can't put my finger on it, but there's something about the way they died... doesn't sound like a water spirit. Not exactly."

"How did you get your hands on autopsy reports?" Sam wanted to know. He sounded a little offended that someone apart from him was apparently able to get their hands on restricted documents.

The other Sam blushed a little. It was actually kind of endearing, and I couldn't believe I was thinking of him in those terms. "Uh, I sort of have a couple of workarounds. You know, for research."

"You mean you hacked into the police database," I supplied.

"Mostly," he leaned back against his pillows, shifting uncomfortably as the movement put added pressure on his shoulder.

To my surprise, Dean flashed a grin at me that stretched from ear to ear. "Candy the desk clerk is very partial to appletini's and a story that tugs at the heart-strings. Sammy, that stuff isn't gonna drink itself. Come on."

I was a little taken aback, but it made sense. Sam is a pretty old hand with the ladies, a tried and true method of gathering intel, and Dean looked like he could be a hell of a charmer if he put his mind to it. He certainly had my mother eating out of the palm of his hand. I kind of wished Fiona was there to help me keep some measure of perspective on the situation. At least I was aware enough to realize I'd long since lost my objectivity, but that didn't actually make me feel better about it all.

I looked back in time to see Sam's eyes flutter closed. Frankly, I was surprised the kid had lasted that long without succumbing to exhaustion and blood loss and shock. When he was sure he was out, Dean smoothed the hair from his forehead again, let his hand linger on the kid's face for maybe a fraction of a second longer than he might have otherwise.

"Idiot," he muttered under his breath, but his expression belied the word.

My mother bustled in a moment later. "I made some iced tea. You boys need to clear out so Sam there can get some rest," she announced, sounding authoritative in a way only my mother can manage.

"I'm good here," Dean said, a stubborn set to his jaw, but he'd never tried to out-stubborn my mother. She fixed him with a glare.

"Don't be ridiculous, Dean. How can the boy get any decent sleep with you hovering? You boys go have some iced tea in the kitchen. I'll be nearby if he needs anything," she forestalled his protest, and the next thing we knew the three of us were being hustled out the door.

"I need to check in with Fiona, make sure she's still doing okay," I pulled out my phone. "I'll join you guys in a minute."

Fiona was fine, and let me know in no uncertain terms that I was both annoying her and potentially messing with her cover by calling, and so my call was cut shorter than I would have liked. When I made my way back into the kitchen, Sam was quizzing Dean with the enthusiasm of a five-year-old in a candy factory. Dean was leaning back, his chair tilted onto its back legs, nursing a bottle of beer that was already beginning to sweat in the heat.

"What about vampires and werewolves?" Sam was asking.

"Yup. They're not exactly like what you see on television, but close enough. Mind you, vampires are pretty rare: up until a couple of years ago, we thought they were extinct. They're sort of making a comeback."


Dean pursed his lips and tilted his head. "Not exactly, but there are ways to raise the dead. All black magic, and it's a really crappy idea. The dead always come back psychotically violent. What's dead should stay dead," he said, with such force that I figured there had to be more behind it than a simple bad encounter. He glanced up as he caught sight of me coming in, and the cocky grin came back. "If it's any consolation, there's no such thing as unicorns or Bigfoot. Total myths."

"Consider me comforted," I said drily.

"So you're looking for a missing kid, right?" he asked, leaning forward so that his chair landed with a thunk back on its front legs. "Your mom mentioned something about a friend's nephew. Gladys?"

"That's right," I confirmed. There wasn't much point in denying it.

"How long's he been missing?"

"About three days."

"Then we've got a pretty good chance of getting him back," Dean was fiddling with the label on his beer bottle. "Alive and maybe even in one piece."

"I'm still not convinced you don't have him locked away somewhere."

"Dude," the reply was an irritated huff. "I get that you think I'm a serial killer or whatever, but you need to back off on that. The thing in St. Louis? Not me. The rest of it is all true, but I'm not a killer, and neither is Sam."

Sam took a drink from his bottle. "You're copping to arson and grave desecration?"

He got a shrug. "You want to put a vengeful spirit to rest? You gotta salt and burn the remains. That means digging up corpses and setting them on fire. Illegal in all fifty states, and we don't exactly have the luxury of explaining to the local cops that, no, really, we're just trying to help."

"And the fraud?"

He looked up, kept his eyes on Sam. "Hunting ain't exactly a pro ball career, dude. Strictly pro bono. No one pays us for this gig, and the benefits suck. So, yeah. Credit card fraud is one way of keeping ourselves afloat. Some hunters have legitimate ways of earning their keep, but that's maybe one hunter out of twenty or thirty. The rest of us get by any way we can."

I felt my eyes widen, but I let Sam keep on with the questioning. He'd established a rapport with the guy, and had the added advantage of not being the one to shoot his kid brother in the shoulder. "There are more of you?"

"Of course," there was ill-disguised scorn in his voice. "The reason most of you sleep soundly at night is because there are people like me taking care of the things that stalk the darkness," he kept his voice deceptively quiet, and in spite of myself I felt a shiver run up my spine. "So, you're not like any private detective I've ever met," he said, looking at me and changing the topic so suddenly I almost got whiplash. "You know how to handle yourself, and I nearly got my ass handed to me by your girlfriend. Sorry, not your girlfriend," he amended sarcastically. "But yeah. You're obviously ex-Navy," he said to Sam, who looked startled. "SEALs, right?"

"Observant," Sam said mildly.

"But you? You I can't figure. Sam —my brother— he's convinced you're either former CIA or maybe a private contractor. But that doesn't explain why you're looking for some random kid in L.A. whose aunt knows your mother." I shrugged, and his grin turned wolfish. "Okay, I can take a hint."

"All right. So let's say I at least believe that you believe what you're saying. What were you and your brother planning to do about it?"

"The original plan was to figure out the thing's killing pattern —or it might be a feeding pattern, since it might not be a spirit— and then stake out the next likely spot, throw out some bait, see if we got a bite."

"You were the bait, I take it?"

He batted his eyelashes exaggeratedly. "Sammy doesn't blend into party crowds well." I was pretty sure it had more to do with the fact that Dean wanted his little brother nowhere near a potential source of danger, but decided against saying anything. "Besides, wasn't that your plan with your girl, there?"


"Fiona," he agreed easily. "Problem was, she spotted me as being out of place the same way I spotted her, so we cancelled each other out. So here's my suggestion. We're working the same case, with the same overall technique, except thanks to you my partner's out of the game. The best plan now is to send us both —me and your Fiona— in to work the case together."

To say I wasn't thrilled at the idea of any of us working closely with Dean Winchester would have been an understatement. For one thing, it was a little hard to swallow his story about the killer in St. Louis being a shape-shifter who'd taken on his identity before torturing and murdering his victims. For another, I don't like working with amateurs, and I especially don't like working with people whose backgrounds and expertise I haven't yet vetted. Dean was derisive when I mentioned the word 'amateur,' though.

"Look, Michael. You're a professional... whatever-it-is. I get it. But this? This is my job. I can't in good conscience let you all go in there without knowing what you're getting into. Spirits are nasty and vicious, and they don't play by human rules. I let you go in there, one or more of you is probably going to get killed."

"You seem pretty confident of that, son," Sam said. "Mike, Fiona and I have been in the game for a long time. In my case, probably longer than you've been out of school."

"For the last time, I'm not your son," Dean said coolly. "I hear you, you're badass. I don't doubt it. Like I said, you pretty much nearly handed my ass to me. You're not listening to what I'm saying: what we're up against? Regular bullets won't work."

"Okay," I interrupted before the conversation escalated into an argument. "Before we start talking bullets, we still need to do some recon. So, Dean, if you're willing, I'll send you in with Fiona, let her know you're going to be working the case too, so she doesn't get the wrong idea. My goal is simple: find Greg, get him out safely, then take out whoever's been killing kids for kicks."

If Dean wanted to take me up on my choice of pronouns, he let it slide. "Right. The sooner we go, the better. There's been more men taken than women, which is why I was pretty sure we're looking for a female whatever-it-is. So maybe your friend Fiona will get a bite, but I think it's more likely I'll run into the thing. You think you can watch my back on this?"

The question was deadly serious. Under different circumstances, I would have been insulted at the implication that our skills weren't up to par, but the guy was so matter-of-fact about it that I didn't bother taking offence. I nodded.

"Sam and I can back you up. But I need you to shoot straight with me on this. We're already going out on a limb, trusting you when we should be turning you straight over to Miami Dade, especially with the story you're feeding us."

"I got no reason to lie to you. Yeah, okay, I got reason to lie to the cops, but you're not cops, and you've got my little brother in the other room. As far as I can tell, you're not complete douchebags, so I'm going out on a limb here too. I'm wanted in, like, six states. You can appreciate that I don't want to give you a reason to turn on me, right?"


"Okay, good. So I'm going to check on Sammy, and then we can get this show on the road."

'Sammy' was still looking pretty terrible when we looked in, but he came awake when his brother perched carefully on the edge of the bed to fill him in on what we'd talked about, and took the opportunity to make him drink more of the electrolyte stuff. The kid was visibly unhappy with the decision.

"Dean, come on. You're going to let these people use you as bait? We don't even know them. They're gonna get you killed!"

Dean looked as though he was about to say something smart, then thought better of it. "They're good, Sam. You remember what happened last night? I'll be careful, and it's better than going in without backup, right?"

His brother was already having trouble staying awake. "I should be going with you," he mumbled, and Dean gave him a reassuring pat on his good shoulder.

"It's okay, I swear. I'll have backup. Besides, I need you to use that giant geek brain of yours to research what it is we're dealing with. You think it's not a vengeful spirit, so you need to figure out what it is so we can kill it. Got it?"

"Mm," it sounded like agreement. "They got wireless here?"

"The neighbour has an unsecured network," Sam supplied helpfully, then gave me an elaborately innocent look when I glared. "What? It's not like Maddie even has a computer! How am I supposed to connect to the internet when I'm here?"

"You can always get your own," Mom said, appearing in the doorway and making Sam jump. She was brandishing a bucket and a mop, and directed a stern look in my direction. "And Michael, these are for you."


"Michael, if you are going to be shooting young men in my kitchen, you're going to clean up your own mess. Now get to it!" she thrust the mop and bucket into my hands and turned on her heel, leaving me open-mouthed in her wake. Sam choked back a snort.

"Okay, Mike. Dean and I are going to join up with Fi. It's late enough that the partying's bound to either have already started or be well on its way. You can go in," he said, looking at Dean, "and I'll set up the surveillance."

I sighed and ignored the smirk Dean was directing at me. "Fine. I'll catch you later."

As a spy, you quickly learn that it's best not to make elaborate plans, because something will always come along that inevitably scuttles them faster than the French fleet at Toulon. I managed to get Mom's floor cleaner than it had been probably in years and without getting any blood on myself, which I thought was pretty impressive, even for a spy with all my training. Blood is one of the slipperiest substances known to man —just ask any crime scene investigator— and cleaning it up is a lot harder than it sounds. I was putting the finishing touches on the floor when my cell phone went off. Not just any cell phone, of course: it was the cell phone that had been given to me by Carla's people, the one I wasn't allowed to leave behind on pain of death.


Carla clicked her tongue at me. "Now now, Michael. Didn't your mother raise you to answer the telephone politely?"

I managed not to sigh or roll my eyes or otherwise betray my impatience. Her timing always ended up being really inconvenient. "What can I do for you today, Carla?"

"You know, you really should keep up with current events. We were expecting you hours ago."

"I've been a little busy," I said, careful to keep my tone neutral. Carla et al. Were unusually fond of sending me on errands by using crossword puzzles and dead drops and the usual assortment of cloak-and-dagger means. Never mind that they had given me a really inconvenient cell phone for just that purpose too.

"So we've noticed. I guess this time I'll just spoon-feed it to you. I need you to go to this address," she rattled off a street address faster than I'd ever be able to write it, even if I'd had a pen. Luckily, I have a phenomenal memory for that sort of thing —important in the spy trade.

"What is it?"

"You'll see when you get there. And don't bother trying to argue, we both know it's useless. Just be there."

"When do you want me there?"

"Two hours ago."

"I'll be there in twenty minutes."

I advised Sam that I was delayed in the time it took me to climb into the car and switch on the ignition. He wasn't happy, but there was very little we could do about it. If Carla said 'jump,' it was all I could do not to say 'how high?' I had made her life difficult where I could, but mostly she had me by the short hairs: she knew who had burned me, and she and I had the kind of working relationship that functioned mostly on death threats. If I didn't do as I was told like a good little spy, she'd have me killed. Or she'd have a member of my family killed. Or something equally undesirable.

The address turned out to be one of those storage units you rent by the month. Avoiding the obviously-placed security cameras, I found a note directing me to a specific unit. I let myself in with a key I found concealed near the door, pulling out my 9-millimetre —mostly as a precaution. In this game, it's better to be safe than sorry, because the first time you go into an unknown situation unarmed could be your last. As it happened, I needn't have worried: what Carla had in mind wasn't part of the overall scheme she'd been carrying out. From the start she'd been sending me on errands, each more mysterious than the last, stealing software here, copying a high-level security pass there, without so much as dropping a single clue as to her end game. Today, though, it seemed as though she wasn't in an errand-sending mood.

I made my way over to the crumpled form on the ground, and nudged it with one foot. The body rolled from its side onto its back, and was greeted by the sight of Willie's glassy eyes fixed on a spot somewhere in the air between us. He hadn't been dead long, certainly not long enough for rigor mortis to set in, although there were the beginnings of livor mortis on his face and arms. I crouched by the body and wrapped a handkerchief around my hand to see whether the discolourations would blanch, and figured he'd been dead maybe a couple of hours. Possibly three or four. He'd been shot through the head, the gun clutched in the fingers of his right hand. I had no doubt that the suicide had been properly staged —these people are professionals, after all.

My cell phone rang again. Carla sounded smug. "Did you get our delivery?"

"Coming on a little strong, don't you think?"

"I don't know. Sometimes you're a little thick-headed. It takes a strong hand to keep you in line. The police are on their way, so I suggest you move quickly. We'll talk later."

The line went dead, and I was once again a free man until the next time I was called. The message had been received loud and clear, though: back off, or there would be consequences.

Part V

Normally I avoid my mother's house as much as humanly possible while still living in the same city as she does and having her call me at all hours of the day and night with mostly-imagined and sometimes-real emergencies. Today, though, I made an exception and went over, because it wasn't every day that she played hostess to two men who had faked their own death (twice, in one case) and were wanted in more states than I could count on the fingers of one hand. Again, I was working under the adage of 'better safe than sorry.'

To my surprise, I found her in my old bedroom, sitting next to Sam Winchester's sickbed. My mother has many qualities, but she's never been especially domestic, and so I was a little startled to see that she was carefully dabbing at the kid's face with a damp washcloth, holding her cigarette out to the side so the smoke wouldn't blow back in his direction.

"Oh, Michael, you're back," she said, surprising me yet again by keeping her voice to a whisper. "Is everything all right?"

"Yeah, Mom, everything's fine. I was just checking in on you. You okay?"

"I'm fine, but your friend isn't doing too well. Poor boy's been in and out all evening," she gave him a look that was almost tender. "I used to do this for you and Nate when you were kids."

I nodded. "I remember. We both had the flu over Christmas one year. Dad was out in the garage the whole time." It was one of my favourite Christmas memories, not that I'd ever tell Mom that.

"Are you going to stay a while? I could use a nap," she said. She was matter-of-fact about it, but I could see how tired she looked. It had been a long day, after all.

I kissed the top of her head. "Sure, Mom. Thank you for helping with this. I couldn't do it without you."

She patted my arm. "You're a good boy, Michael. Always have been. I think he is, too. You take care of him, all right?"

"I will, Mom."

I took her place next to the bed and gave the patient a critical once-over. He wasn't looking good, if I was honest with myself: he was sweating, face flushed with fever, lips moving soundlessly. I picked up the wash cloth that my mother had left to soak in a bowl of water, wrung it out and used it to wipe his face. He sighed quietly and shifted under my touch, eyes fluttering. For a moment I thought he would simply lapse back into unconsciousness, but he managed to rouse himself and blinked fuzzily at me. I took the opportunity to unceremoniously stick a thermometer under his tongue.

"No talking," I admonished. "Not until I know how high your fever is." I checked the reading once the thermometer beeped. "Well, it's high enough that we'll have to call Jim back if we can't get you cooled off."

Sam pushed himself up with his good arm, wincing as the movement jostled his injury. "It's okay," he said, his voice rough. "It's just an infection —it's not like the conditions here are anaerobic. We've got antibiotics in the first aid kit. Cephalexin. It's usually enough."

"This happen a lot?" I was still having trouble wrapping my mind around their supposed profession. I didn't bother pointing out that the first aid kit was gone, along with his brother and the car.

"More'n I'd like," he mumbled, eyes closing again. "I hate this place."

I snorted in amusement. "Funny, I hate Miami too."

That got a faint grin. "Hate Florida. Shitty things always happen in Florida. 's not normal. The hell's wrong with this state?"

"What isn't wrong with it?" I countered. The kid was bordering on delirium, and while it wasn't really fair of me, I decided to take advantage of the opportunity that presented itself. "Okay, Sam. I need you to level with me. What'd you do with the kids?" If there was any time that I'd get a proper confession —if confession there was to be had— it was now. I wasn't so lucky, though. Instead of a confession I got a look that wouldn't have looked out of place on a kicked puppy.

"Didn't do anything. Tryin' to help. I didn' even wanna come," he said petulantly, the fever making him slur his words. "But I can' tell Dean that, no. He doesn' wanna do anything, even though the deal's comin' due. Seventy-four days. He doesn' count the days, but I do. Runnin' out of time, an' it's like he doesn' even care. He wasn' there in Broward County," he pushed himself up onto his good elbow, fixing fever-bright eyes on me. "He doesn' wanna be saved, but I can' do it without 'im. You get it, right?"

I nudged him gently back onto the bed. "Not really. I think I'm lacking in context. I do get that you're on a timetable. You want to tell me what that's about? What's happening in seventy-four days?"

He struggled to keep his eyes open. "In seventy-four days Dean's going to die."

Interrogating a delirious witness isn't something I do often, and it has some pretty obvious drawbacks. The main drawback in this case was that I couldn't get Sam to explain himself coherently to me. Whatever it was that was on his mind, he was either too confused or else the matter was far outside my realm of experience. What I was able to decipher was that the kid was terrified of losing his brother, that something similar had already happened in Broward County a few months before—that part was even more incoherent, but I figured it was just the fever making Sam conflate near-death with actual death.

I mixed up more of the electrolyte solution and made him wash down a few aspirin with it, hoping to get his fever down a bit. He wasn't especially cooperative, and his brother's name kept coming back like a mantra, even when nothing else that came out of him made sense. I've been out in the field for a long time, and usually when things get bad, men end up calling for their mothers in their delirium. I don't know exactly what it said about Sam Winchester that he was calling for his brother instead, but it gave me a hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach. Eventually I got him to finish the entire bottle of solution, and he settled down some once the aspirin started taking effect. When it seemed like he was out for the count, I pulled out my phone and retreated to just outside the doorway to call my Sam and get an update on how things were unfolding.

"So what did Carla want?" Sam wanted to know.

"She wanted to demonstrate just how much she owns me. Willie's dead."

"Ouch," Sam hissed through his teeth. "Poor little cowardly bastard."

"So what's going on over there?" I didn't want to think about poor dead Willie and all the information he was now never going to give me.

"I gotta hand it to the kid," Sam said, referring to Dean, "he knows how to work a room. He and Fi have been at it all night. They've checked in a couple of times, sounds like they've come up with some promising leads. They think they've caught wind of a woman who looks good for our little kidnapping and killing spree. Looks to me like a team, like you said, except one of them's a woman. Dean's been going on about spirits, but Fi says she's as human as they come. You going to come out? We may have to move fast on this, if the time comes and she lures out another victim."

I checked my watch. "Yeah, I'll come down. Shouldn't take too long."

"How's the kid?"

"Sick. Feverish. He's pretty strong, though, he'll pull through. Aspirin's helping."

"Okay. I'll get there as soon as I can. Keep me posted, and none of you take any unnecessary risks, you got it?"

"Got it, Mike. I'll keep the kid from going off half-cocked."

"Fiona too."

"Fiona too," he agreed. Fiona isn't exactly well-known

When I looked back in the room, I found Sam sitting up, one leg hanging over the side of the bed. He was reaching for his laptop, but gravity wasn't exactly cooperating. With one arm strapped to his chest and the other busy holding him up by gripping the side of the bed, there wasn't much he could do to actually bring the laptop closer to him.

"You're supposed to be sleeping," I told him, but he ignored my attempts to get him to lie back.

"I'm okay," he said, but the tremor in his voice belied his words. "I have to look at the autopsy reports again."

I handed him his laptop. Sometimes you have to make a judgement call about these things, and while I figured both Winchesters were the type to keep going until they dropped, something told me that there was a reason that Sam there was suddenly obsessing about autopsy reports. He let me prop him up with some extra pillows, managing pretty well with just one arm. I pulled out the few paper copies they'd brought with them.

"What are we looking for?"

He wiped his forehead with the back of his wrist, bangs sticking to his skin with sweat. "There was something wrong about it, but I didn't have time to look over the autopsy reports properly. I was going to do that after we talked to your Mom —we were just hedging our bets with her, you know," he added, looking up at me. "Making sure you weren't a threat."

I didn't answer, and he went back to scrolling through pages and pages of medical reports at a rate that normal humans just shouldn't be able to do without going blind. Finally he tapped a finger against the screen. "There."

I slid onto the bed to look over his shoulder. "What?"

"Look at the cause of death. Remember how all the bodies were found in water?"

"Drowned, I remember."

He shook his head. "Not drowned. Asphyxiated. There wasn't any water in the lungs, on any of them. I think I know what we're dealing with, now. Where's Dean?"

"Out with Fi and Sam, remember?"

He rubbed his forehead again, scrunching up his eyes. "Right. Right, I forgot. Okay, we have to go. Feeding cycle's going to start tonight, if I'm right."

"Feeding cycle?"

He pushed the laptop aside, struggled to his feet, good hand on the bed for balance, and gave me another of those looks. "I can do it myself, but it'll go faster if you help me."

"You're serious about this? You realize you'll be a liability out there."

He shook his head. "Been out there with worse. You need me to back you up, at least until can fill Dean in on what's going on. You're going in blind otherwise. Please."

"Okay, but you're explaining on the way there."

It took longer than I would have liked to get Sam up, dressed and to the car. It wasn't his fault, of course, but the fact that he was six foot four and outweighed me by a good forty pounds or so didn't help in the slightest. In the end I had to free his arm from where the medic had strapped it so his hand would rest against his shoulder, and outfitted him with a more conventional sling so that he could move more easily. He didn't argue when I handed him another dose of Percocet, but he was able to keep his footing and make it to the car under his own power, which went a long way toward reassuring me that this whole thing wasn't a terrible idea.

What didn't reassure me was the lack of response I was getting from my Sam's cell phone. Attempting to reach Fiona had the same frustrating lack of results, and when the other Sam tried his brother's cell and got no answer, I put the car into third and floored it.

"Which club were they at?" Sam asked me, spreading a map of Miami awkwardly on his lap and using the dim light of the car to make X's on it with a red felt-tipped pen.

"New place called Flavour," I gave him the location, and he marked it down again. I decided against complaining about his scribbling on my map. Maps are cheap.

Sam shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "You know the area better than I do. There's no pattern here telling me the nest is in town, so it's got to be a large body of fresh water not too far away. Somewhere with lots of ground cover, lots of waterways."

I sped up. "There's the Everglades. Why don't you tell me what you're thinking?"

"What?" he jerked a bit, startled out of his concentration. "Oh, sorry. Uh... I think it's an undine. Two undines, actually, maybe more. But most likely two, which is surprising. Usually they're loners, really territorial, but sometimes they'll pair up for hunting."

"An undine?"

He nodded, as though he hadn't just said something completely crazy. "Water spirits. A water wraith, if you want to get specific. They feed off, uh... life energy, I guess you could say. Steal the breath from their victims. It's where the myth comes from."

"Myth?" I was beginning to feel like a really uninformed parrot, but he took my questions in stride, as though he was used to having to explain the unexplainable.

"German legend, actually. Water spirit by the name of Ondine falls in love with a mortal and marries him when he promises to be faithful to her with every waking breath. The usual. She bears his child, and that's her undoing: she loses her immortality, starts to age, and he loses interest, because apparently he's a shallow asshole," he snorted, as though taking issue with the story. "She catches him in bed with another woman, and curses him. He swore fidelity with every waking breath, so as long as he stays awake, he stays alive. When he falls asleep, he stops breathing and dies."

"Hell hath no fury?" I ventured, and he laughed.

"Yeah, something like that. So that's what they're doing: they've holed up in a nest somewhere, and are keeping the kids alive and awake to feed off them. When there's no life left in them, they dump the bodies."

"Why put them in hotels and so many different places? It attracts far too much attention," I pointed out, but I only got a shrug.

"They're not human. They don't play by the same rules. You can't look for logic there, you won't find it."

"So how do we deal with them?" I couldn't believe the words were leaving my mouth, but then, weirder things were already happening. Most likely we were looking for humans, and then we'd be deal with them the regular way. But on the off-chance they weren't...

"Fire," Sam said decisively. "Consecrated bullet to the heart, then torch the bodies and the nest. Oh, and we're going to need ear plugs."

Just when I thought things couldn't get more surreal. "Ear plugs?"

"You should stop repeating everything I say as if I've just started speaking Urdu. Hurts a guy's feelings."

"Actually, I speak Urdu."

He snorted. "Should've known."

I almost dropped my cell phone in my haste to answer it as it rang. "Sam? What the hell is happening? You okay? Where are you?"

Sam's voice was groggy on the other end of the line. "Got the drop on us," he groaned. "I may never be the same again. Kid's in better shape than me, but they slipped him something, looks like."

"How bad?"

"We'll live, but we have a problem." I felt my heart sink at the hesitation in his voice. "Mike... they got Fi."

I told Sam to rendezvous with us back at my loft, ignored the other Sam's frantic pleas to be told what was happening and whether his brother was okay. I burned through as many traffic lights as I could manage without getting us caught on any of the traffic cameras that are posted all over the city these days. The Winchesters' Impala was parked under my staircase when we arrived, the older brother in the process of popping the trunk. I barely had time to throw my own car into park before the younger brother was stumbling out of the front seat and making his way unsteadily toward him.


Startled, Dean caught his brother by the arm as he reached him. "Sammy, what the hell?"

I jogged up behind them, and caught sight of my Sam on the far side of the car where I hadn't been able to spot him before. He was sporting a bruise on one cheekbone, which promised to turn into a hell of a shiner in time. He gave me a small wave. The other Sam was checking Dean over, talking a mile a minute.

"I figured out what it is, but we couldn't reach you. Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," came the exasperated reply. "Feel kind of stupid, actually. Rookie mistake."

"It's an undine," the kid said. "The victims were all asphyxiated, not drowned."

"I kind of figured that when it whammied me," Dean grimaced, and threw a look toward my Sam. "And the girl too, by the looks of it. Sorry, man."

At my look, my Sam explained, probing gingerly at the bruise . "Our perps slipped him something, but whatever it was it can't have been a full dose. He cold-cocked me, and that's when they got Fi."

"Ear plugs," I said, making my Sam look at me as though I'd lost my mind, but the other Sam and Dean both nodded.

"I think you guys are safe enough," Dean said. "I think it needs to actually come into physical contact first before it can whammy you. Explains why it had to use me against Axe there."

"Axe?" I looked at Sam. He's never really been one to go by his last name.

"Easier than calling him the same thing as my brother," Dean shrugged.

"How long since it got the girl?" his brother asked, bringing us back on topic.

"A couple of hours, tops. We need to haul ass, but if we can find the nest, we've still got time. Might even get some of the others out too. You think you can manage a Glock?" Dean jerked his head at his brother's injured shoulder.

"I'll be fine. We got the right ammo for that?"

Dean just grinned, and that's when I caught sight of the contents of the trunk. There was a false bottom propped up with a sawed-off shotgun, revealing a spacious trunk separated into compartments. It wasn't a trunk so much as a small arsenal —one which even Fiona would be proud to have. Besides an assortment of handguns and shotguns and rifles and their respective ammunition, though, I spotted a number of far more unusual items: various canisters, a bag of rock salt, crucifixes, a battered leather journal, and more knives than most people ever saw in their lives. Dean's grin widened when he saw me examining the contents of the trunk.

"Tools of the trade," he said simply, handing over a box on which the word 'consecrated' had been nearly printed with a black Sharpie. "We've got flare guns," he said to his brother, "but we might have to improvise for torching the nest."

"That won't be necessary," I broke in. One advantage of having an ex-girlfriend who's also ex-IRA is that you pretty much always have an arsenal of things that either explode or burn or both at your disposal. "Sam and I can provide that, if it turns out we need it. You realize that it's going to attract a lot of attention, right?"

Dean shrugged. "Why do you think we're wanted for arson? Setting fire to stuff ain't exactly subtle. Mostly we try not to do it in urban areas. Sammy? How you holding up?"

His brother was leaning against the car, cradling his injured arm carefully, shivering a bit even though the night was warm. "Pretty good, considering."

"You sure you don't want to sit this one out? I can practically feel the fever from here."

Sam shook his head. "I won't take point, that's for sure, but it's not bad. You're going to need the back-up out there. Two undines, and civilians in the mix? You can use all the help you can get. We've still got the Cephalexin from last time, that'll help."

"Okay. You take anything else? Still got some Vicodin from last time too."

"I'm good for now. I'll take the bottle with me in case."

"You get a lead on where we're going?" Just like that, the conversation about whether or not the youngest Winchester was fit for duty was done. I wasn't sure whether to be reassured by the speed with which this verbal triage was done, or really really worried.

"Michael there says the Everglades is our best bet."

"How would he know?" Dean threw me a sceptical glance, and I bit my tongue, since I'd said no such thing.

"Well, he doesn't. But we're looking for fresh water with lots of cover and isolated from people, and since he knows the area, I'm going with his suggestion."

Dean looked at me. "There're houses out there? Isolated ones?"

"A few."

My Sam took me aside. "Mike, are we seriously going to do this? Doing recon with these guys is one thing, but a rescue op?"

I shared his misgivings, but I didn't like the idea of leaving Fiona out there any longer than necessary.

"I know what you mean, but at this point, we don't have much choice."

The key to a successful mission is proper preparation. When you're pressed for time, sitting down to prepare your weapons and research the terrain can feel like an incredible waste of time. We were all feeling the pull, I could tell, but the Winchesters were obviously used to this aspect of going into hostile territory too. Neither one of them tried to hurry things along, or insisted on sprinting out of there, for which I was grateful. There's nothing like having one of your allies go off half-cocked to seriously mess up a well-laid plan.

With my permission —though I suspected that was more of a formality than anything else— Dean settled his brother on my bed with their laptop, a lot of water, a dose of antibiotics from their first aid kit and some more pain pills. Then he set about double-checking their weapons, sitting cross-legged on the floor by the bed, ostensibly minding his own business, but it was pretty obvious he didn't want to let his brother out of his sight. Sam and I set ourselves up at the trestle table, putting together the supplies we'd need once we got out there. No one spoke much at first, since there wasn't much to do before the other Sam narrowed down the search to a manageable grid.

In my line of work, you need to put practical concerns above the rest a lot of the time. Survival first, other human lives second, collateral damage coming in a very distant third. Bearing that in mind, I wasn't sure whether to try to wrap my mind around the possibility that the Winchesters weren't, in fact, deluded about what was out there, or whether to just leave the whole thing be until we were in place. So far, apart from the whole "water spirit" thing, their reasoning was just fine: the markings on the map, along with a few other clues gleaned from the police and autopsy reports, all pointed to a person or small group of people working out of the Everglades. It made sense, therefore, to look for isolated buildings, abandoned structures that could be used to conceal prisoners without attracting unwanted attention from the neighbours. Even so, we were looking at hundreds of potential locations, not all of which we'd be able to locate with the cursory research we were doing.

"So just how much 'physical contact' was there?" Sam-the-younger broke the silence, looking at his brother.

"What?" Dean glanced up.

"Just brushing up against an undine shouldn't have that sort of effect. I'm guessing it was a really pretty girl?"

"Dude, we are not having this discussion."

"Look, Dean, we need to know just how much control she's going to exert over you once we're there. How much contact was there?"

Sam and I looked over at the two brothers. Dean was making a show of cleaning his gun, while his brother looked on with an expression that hovered between exasperation and amusement. I shrugged at Sam-the-older, who looked as though he understood about as much of this conversation as I did.

"Dean. Did you sleep with her?"

"What? No!" Dean looked shocked, but his brother just rolled his eyes. "Even if there was time —which there wasn't— I don't do that. Totally a professional."

"The waitress in Tampa?"

Dean shuddered, and I had the impression there was a story there I was never going to get. "Dude, don't even. Look, they were doing shots, and there was this thing she was doing with her—"

"God, no details. What sort of contact?"

Dean rubbed the back of his neck, flushing a bit. "Uh, if you want to get technical... saliva. I think that's how they got Fiona, too. I saw her with a guy earlier on, and I'm guessing they were working together on it. He was gone by the time the girl put the whammy on me and booked."

"Fiona kissed him?" the words left my mouth unbidden, and Dean shrugged.

"Sorry, dude. She must have, because she didn't even try to kick him in the junk this time. She has pointy knees, is all I'm sayin'."

His brother had turned his attention back to the computer, but was apparently more than capable of multitasking. "Okay, so in your case it looks like we might have caught a break. You got dosed with venom, but if you, umm, didn't go at it too hot and heavy, it wears off after a couple of hours if contact isn't renewed."

"I can't believe we're discussing this," Dean muttered, hand over his eyes.

"Fiona's probably good and ensorcelled, though. Give me a hand with this? I need Michael to take a look," he shoved the laptop at Dean, then carefully stood, testing his balance, before making his way over and perching on a stool next to me. Once the laptop was open to where he wanted it, he motioned at the screen. "Okay, I ran some searches, did a bunch of cross-referencing, and I've got it narrowed down to about three areas where the nest could be. Problem is, they're pretty big, so we have to pick one. That's where local knowledge would come in handy. They all look the same to me. The way the undines have been working, they need easy access by water. What do you think?"

I glanced over at the screen, but the truth is that I haven't lived in Florida for a really long time, and my knowledge of the area is pretty much limited to Miami. Sam, on the other hand, was an ex-Navy SEAL and had lived around here for years. He leaned over my shoulder and tapped a finger on the screen.

"That's where they'll be. Give me a minute to make a call. I've got a buddy who can lend us a boat. There's no way we're going to make it all the way without one."

Part VI

"Uh, aren't there, you know, alligators in here?"

I looked up from where I was trying to get the small spotlight on the prow of the boat to work. Sam's buddy may have had a boat, but it was tiny, rickety, had an outboard motor that threatened to catch in the seagrass (there's a reason that the Rangers are considering outlawing power boats in the Everglades, after all), and had sprung a very small leak that, while not dangerous, made for a pretty wet ride. There were also half a dozen empty beer bottles rattling around the bottom, adding to the nuisance factor.

The night was clear, and though the moon wasn't full by any stretch of the imagination, there was plenty of ambient light by which we could survey the water. Soon we'd left the vestiges of civilisation behind, and I was developing a whole new appreciation for the way moonlight plays off the weeds and water in the Everglades. Dean was staring dubiously at the murky water churning just beneath the boat, fingering the hilt of his Bowie knife speculatively, and I couldn't help but smile grimly at his question.

"There are, but they're not likely to give us trouble. They're supposed to be pretty shy as a rule. Just don't go jumping overboard and testing out the theory."

He snorted. "Right."

Both Sams were sitting in the stern, Sam Winchester doing a pretty creditable job of steering the crappy little boat, bad arm held close to his chest, while my Sam was playing navigator with a lot more skill than I would have thought. To say that I had misgivings about this expedition would have been putting it mildly, but Fiona was out there, and the longer we waited the more likely it was that I would never see her again. So, not for the first time and probably not for the last, I was throwing my lot in with virtual strangers with questionable backgrounds, whom I had little reason to trust but, ultimately, no choice.

The search took longer than any of us wanted. It wasn't one of their own on the line, but I could tell that the wait was taking its toll on the Winchesters: they were just as anxious as Sam and I to find the place and get this done. We got snagged twice and had to stop to untangle the motor, and once we almost grounded ourselves on an unexpected sandbar, but for the most part we chugged along quietly, the silence broken only by the sound of the outboard motor and Sam's directions, and the other Sam's even more infrequent interjections. I swept the banks with the search light, looking for abandoned huts and shacks, anything that could be used to keep a couple of adult humans alive for a few days. About an hour and ten minutes after we'd started looking, Dean reached over and tapped my arm.

"There. Don't point the light right at it. I think that's our nest," he pointed at something that was barely a blur near the water's edge.

"Kill the motor," I motioned to Sam-the-younger, and immediately the night fell eerily silent, the only audible sound that of water slopping insistently against the hull of the boat. "Dean, Sam, grab a paddle."

Sam groaned. It was obvious I was talking to him, since Sam-the-younger wasn't exactly in any shape to be paddling. After a moment of splashing on Sam's part, we had the boat moving again, this time almost completely silently, until we were drifting right up to a rickety platform that might once have served as a dock for a small boat, and was now mostly a pile of rotting wood and rope. With a nod to me Dean climbed out of the boat, careful not to capsize us, and Sam dropped his paddle with a bit too much eagerness in order to toss him a mooring line. He was next out of the boat, with Dean pulling and me giving a helpful shove. Then it was the other Sam's turn, and I was almost embarrassed for my friend, as he managed it a lot more gracefully even with his dominant arm in a sling. Dean checked him over anyway.

"You still good, Sammy?" he kept his voice low.

His brother nodded. He didn't look great, pale and sweating, but he was steady on his feet and his eyes were alert. "I'm good." He looked at me. "Give us about three minutes to get into position?"

I reached into my belt to reassure myself that my gun was there. The weapon was unfamiliar —the Winchesters had insisted that both Sam and I use their guns, which supposedly had special ammunition, and I hadn't argued— but I figured one nine-millimetre is as good as another. I've been trained to use pretty much any handgun that comes my way and so has Sam, so it wasn't likely to throw us off our game any more than everything else that had already happened in the past fort-eight hours or so.

Sam and I laid low, and watched as the two brothers made their way forward. In less than thirty seconds they'd blended in with the shadows, and crept around to the back of the ramshackle little house —barely more than a shack, if I had to give it a name. Our plan hinged on a lot of ifs and maybes, but it was the best we had. After a couple of minutes I felt Sam stir beside me, and confirmed with a glance that it was now or never. I got to my feet.

"Okay, let's do this."

The element of surprise is always your best advantage when going into a battle. I had very little idea what to expect from this situation —Sam and Dean were remarkably vague on the defensive capabilities of undine nests, which didn't really surprise me all that much— so I went with what I judged to be the most likely scenario to throw the enemy off-balance, keep them guessing long enough for us to pull the metaphorical equivalent of a sucker-punch. That's how my Sam and I ended up leaning on each other, each holding an empty beer bottle from the boat in one hand, with Sam belting out a sea shanty with filthy lyrics. I let my bottle rap loudly against the door, as if I'd struck it there accidentally.

"You've been a lovely audience, but enough is enough!" Sam bellowed, once again surprising me with his ability to stay on-key. "We'd take a drink kindly if you'd all just bugger off! So bugger off, you bastards bugger off..." as he took a deep breath to keep going, the door I'd just knocked on was yanked open, almost off its hinges.

"This isn't the place!" I said in my loudest, drunkest drawl. "I told you we shoulda taken that guide with us tonight!"

The guy who'd opened the door was a lot younger-looking than I'd expected, somehow, and handsome in a metrosexual way, as Sam would put it. Tall, slim, clean-shaven, with very bright eyes and olive-toned skin highlighted with sparkly make-up. He was in his bare feet, and wore a mesh top and form-fitting leather pants. He stuck out a full lower lip in a pretty good imitation of displeasure.

"This is private property," he said. "You will have to leave."

Sam lurched forward and slapped a meaty palm against the guy's chest, forcing him a couple of paces backward. "Aww, c'mon, don't be like that! Help a guy out, wouldja? My buddy, here, he thinks we're lost, but we're looking for Terry's party. You know Terry?"

While Sam was providing the necessary distraction, I took the opportunity to steal a glance into the structure behind our reluctant host. No electricity, just a couple of battery-operated lanterns, and not a stick of furniture. There was a door in the opposite wall, obviously leading to a separate room. So far, so good. If we could keep the subjects busy, the Winchesters would be able to go in through the back —hopefully without being detected. There was no sign of anyone else in the front room, which meant the female partner was in the back room, presumably with the victims. Supposing we even had the right place. Judging by Sam's expression, though, he'd recognized the guy from the club, and even if Sam's word wasn't enough, the guy's get-up was out of place enough in the Everglades that I was confident we were in the right place.

"I bet the party's here! Terry, you bastard, where are you hiding?" Sam bulled his way forward, and for a moment it worked, and we were standing inside the shack, the low-slung ceiling almost brushing against the top of my head. The door swung shut behind us.

The place reeked. I've been in all sorts of nasty places in my career, around bodies that have been dead for a long time, around human waste and all sorts of other waste that smells pretty damned rank. This, though? I'd never smelled anything quite like it. The air was damper inside than out, and smelled of mould and mildew, rotten straw and offal, mixed in with sweat and human waste and that indescribable odour of abject terror that only the truly hopeless have. The smell of prison camps and kidnapping victims who have despaired of ever getting out alive. I almost retched, and I could see Sam turning pale in the dim light.

"You can't be here!" the young man yelled, recovering from his initial surprise, looking nervously over his shoulder at the half-open door leading to the back room.

At the sound of his voice, a young woman with the same colouring appeared in the doorway. Like him, she was dressed to go out clubbing, in a tight-fitting black dress with sequins. She was barefoot, like her boyfriend or partner or whatever he was, and for a split-second I was really, but really tempted to just chuck the whole operation and do whatever she asked of me, possibly with the addition of whipped cream. I shook myself, saw Sam do the same, and she came forward with a very attractive undulation of hips.

"Henri," she said, using the French pronunciation of the name. Her voice was low, sultry. "You are not being very welcoming. Is it not customary to offer hospitality to unexpected guests?" She moved toward me, large brown eyes fixed on mine, and I found myself taking a half-step back, off-balance for the first time in years.

"Maryse, we cannot," Henri said, although I sensed regret in his voice, as though whatever she was proposing, he was dying to get in on the action as well. I couldn't exactly blame him. My pants felt about three sizes too small, for one thing.

'Maryse' was inches away —something I'd normally have never let happen— so close I could feel her breath on the skin of my neck. She reached up with one slender hand to touch my face, and that's when all hell broke loose.

The next thing I knew, my feet had lost contact with the ground, and I landed hard against the far wall of the shack. Two of the boards gave way under the impact with a sickening crack, and I felt the butt of my borrowed gun dig sharply into my spine. Sam was shouting, and I could hear raised voices from the back room, a garbled mix of alarmed shouts and murmurs. I sat there, dazed, just as the girl, Maryse, threw herself at me, snarling. Gone was the pretty girl from before, and I couldn't for the life of me figure out how I'd missed that she had jagged teeth that protruded from her mouth like the fangs of some horrific deep-sea monster, her eyes milky-white, as though some third eyelid had slid across the brown irises. The pretty black dress was in tatters, the olive-toned skin replaced with bluish-white flesh mottled with something that looked like mildew, her dark hair tangled and snarled, seaweed woven into the coarse tresses.

For the first time since I'd met them, I contemplated the theory that maybe the Winchesters weren't completely insane or deluded. There wasn't time to do anything except scramble away along the wall, reaching for my pistol. Across the room I could see Sam foundering under a fierce onslaught from the man Maryse had called Henri, who by the looks of it had undergone a similar transformation. I managed to pull my gun, only to have it knocked out of my hand a split-second later. She lifted me clean off the ground, holding me up by my collar with one hand, and I learned first-hand that you don't really see your life flash before your eyes right before you die —or maybe you do, and I just wasn't close enough.

"Hey!" the front door crashed open under the impact of a well-placed kick, and suddenly Sam Winchester was taking up all the available space in the cramped quarters.

Maryse turned, then tossed me aside one-handed as though I weighed not much more than a tennis ball. I landed hard on my shoulder against another wall, and scrambled to recover my bearings and get a grip on the situation again. The undine launched herself at Sam with a snarl of rage just as her partner turned his attention from my Sam and came at him from the other side. I barely had time to shout a warning, reaching for my gun where it had skidded across the floor, thankfully not too far from where I'd landed the second time. The kid barely had time to whip around, gun raised in his left hand, and shot Henri point-blank in the chest. With a look of surprise that would have been comical had it not been painted on the face of a monster, the undine stopped in his tracks, knees buckling.


It was a shriek of grief as much as rage, and in the next minute Sam Winchester had been slammed into the nearest wall. He let out a grunt of pain as his injured shoulder took the brunt of the blow, and while he didn't lose his grip on his pistol, I could tell that his recovery would be too slow to prevent the remaining undine from tearing out his throat, or whatever it is undines do when they're really pissed off at you. My Sam picked himself up from the floor, and both our guns barked at the same time. It's hard to aim properly at a moving target, especially one which has only vaguely human anatomy: one bullet caught her high in the shoulder, the other in the small of her back, and she shrieked again, writhing from the pain. Blackish ichor oozed from the wounds, and she twisted aside, leaving her prey to crumple to the floor. In a blur of movement she had raced past me and hurled herself through the newly-formed hole in the wall, intent on making her escape while she could. My Sam was helping the other to his feet, staggering a bit under the boy's weight.

"Go!" Sam Winchester said, obviously struggling to stay conscious. "Dean's got the others, they're safe. We have to make sure she's dead and torch the nest. Get her before she gets to the water!"

Nodding to my Sam, I took off through the hole in the wall, running as fast as I could through the tall weeds. I could see the retreating form of the undine about twenty yards away from the water's edge. There was no way I was going to catch up with her, not at the speed at which she moved, and in another few seconds she would hit the water and I'd lose her permanently. There's an art to precision shooting as well as a science, and I had time to apply neither except in the most rudimentary fashion. I'm not as good a shot as Fiona, but there are Olympic athletes who aren't as good shots as Fiona, and I do know how to make my shots count when the chips are down. I planted both feet as firmly as I could on the spongy ground, brought up my pistol, aimed (both eyes open —only amateurs close one eye), and fired.

The bullet caught her between the shoulder blades, and she collapsed into the tall grass. I sprinted after her, to make sure that she hadn't just pulled a disappearing act, and found the body sprawled on its side, eyes sightless, though it was a little hard to tell, given that it wasn't human. I wasn't especially keen on checking for a pulse, so I put another bullet in her heart and one more in her head, just to be on the safe side.

That was when Sam chose to detonate the C4 that the Winchesters had carefully planted all along the walls of the shack before we'd gone in.

The explosion knocked me off-balance, and I went to one knee, ears ringing from the blast. The building was mostly levelled, what was left of it flaming and smouldering in the night. Smoke billowed into the sky, and I stared, mesmerized by the swirling patterns, the stars glittering in the gaps left by the smoke, until I felt a hand on my arm. I looked up, startled, to find Dean Winchester grinning down at me, hand extended.

"That was awesome! Sam and I totally need to get our hands on some of that stuff. You okay?"

I accepted his hand and struggled to my feet. "I think so."

"Let's go, then. I got Fiona and the kid in the boat, Axe and Sam are casting off as we speak. We're just waiting on you, dude. Time's a-wastin'."

We stumbled over to the boat, which was looking a little crowded for my liking with the addition of two people, even ones as small as Fiona and Greg. Greg was wrapped in a blanket, shivering and barely conscious. He was probably a good-looking kid, when he wasn't looking like he'd spent the last few days having the life drained out of him. Which, to be fair, was exactly what had been happening. Sam Winchester, not looking too hot himself, had his good arm wrapped around the kid in an effort to stave off shock for the both of them. I crouched carefully next to them as my Sam revved the boat's engine, getting us out of the way, and shook Greg by the shoulder.

"Hey, Greg, you with us?" His eyes fluttered, and he moaned, but he didn't appear to register much. "My name is Michael, Greg," I said, slowly and clearly. "I'm a friend of your aunt's. You're safe now, and we're going to get you to a hospital. Okay?" I still didn't get an answer, and I looked over to where Dean was folding the remaining blanket around Fiona's shoulders. "Fi? How you holding up?"

She looked up, shivering a bit in the cool night air. "I'm all right, Michael," she said in a small voice.

I shifted to sit beside her, and she leaned against me, head on my shoulder, and Dean considerately relinquished his hold on her so I could have better access. I pulled her closer, trying to get the shivering to ease, smelling her perfume mingled with smoke in her hair, and stroked her head. Fiona's a strong girl, not exactly prone to hysterics, but it wasn't every day she was kidnapped by homicidal water spirits, and I couldn't exactly blame her for succumbing to shock. There was no room to move around in the boat, but I could see Dean throwing worried glances at his brother, slumped against Greg's unconscious form.

"We'll call Jim as soon as we're back," I promised him. "He took a hit to the shoulder which didn't do him any favours, but he should be okay. How about you? I didn't see what was happening back there. You hurt?" I didn't think so, but it never hurts to check.

He shook his head. "I'm fine. Undines never got near me. I would've let Sam take Greg and your girl back, but the kid there was too out of it to make it out under his own power," he glanced over at his brother again, guilt written all over his face.

"I'd have made the same call," I said, not sure why I was trying to offer reassurance. It was easier, I suppose, than trying to wrap my mind around the fact that the world in which I lived had just gotten a lot bigger, a lot more mysterious, and a whole hell of a lot scarier than I had ever suspected. And it had been plenty big, mysterious and scary before. Dean shot me a knowing look.

"So I'm guessing that right now you're freaking out about the fact that you nearly got your heart ripped out by something that looked like it belonged in a horror flick?"

"I'm saving it for when Greg is in the hospital and everyone's safe and back where they belong."

He nodded. "Good choice. By then you won't even freak out as badly as you think. You didn't freeze out there, which is more than I can say for most civilians. Looks like Sammy was right about you. How about you, Axe?" he turned to look at Sam. "You still with us?"

"Busy navigating," Sam said shortly. "And while that was weird, it doesn't beat some of the stuff I've seen humans do."

To my surprise, Dean shook his head, but in agreement. "People, man. Demons and spirits I get: they have rules, they live by them. People are just crazy."

"Amen, brother."

After that, there seemed to be very little to say.

Sam insisted on staying with Greg when it was time to take him to the hospital.

"Go on, Mike. You get Fi and these two home, and I'll handle the cops. Look, that kid," he pointed to the other Sam, "is about dead on his feet, and I'm betting Fi wants her own bed by now. I've got a buddy I can call, make sure none of this gets out of hand, and you need to stay out of the way of the officials of our good city anyway."

There's no arguing with that kind of logic. We'd taken both my car and the Winchesters' Impala to get to the Everglades, so I left my car with Sam and Greg. It was obvious that exactly two people were allowed to drive the Impala, and one of them was out of commission. Since we weren't being chased or shot at, I slid into the back seat with Fiona, who was looking a bit more lively, if still almost entirely under the effect of whatever venom or drug she'd been given. Dean eased his brother into the passenger seat, tucking a blanket from the trunk over him in a futile attempt to stave off shock. The adrenaline of the night's events had long since worn off: Sam had been drifting in and out of consciousness for the better part of thirty minutes, and wasn't making a whole lot of sense when he was awake. It seemed easier just to let him sleep until we got back to my mother's place.

Mom was awake and disapproving when we got back —we'd left without so much as a note, after all— but she's always been pretty good in a crisis, and contented herself with shooting me a look that promised that I would be explaining myself in detail once the emergency was over, and then busied herself boiling water and making coffee. I tucked Fiona under a blanket on the sofa and called the number Jim had left, while Dean half-carried his brother back into the spare bedroom, muttering under his breath about Sasquatches and putting Sam on a diet of nothing but lettuce when he was better. He peeled away his shirt, revealing a blood-soaked bandage and several popped stitches. As terrible as it might sound, Sam had gotten off relatively lightly: the bleeding didn't appear too severe, and nothing else seemed out of place.

Dean had come off without a scratch on him, although his face was smeared with soot from the explosion, and I was fairly sure that my Sam was all right for the most part. I was bruised and battered, and doubtless I was going to feel it in the morning, but I've had far worse injuries in my life. Even Fiona looked like she'd be fine after a good night's sleep. I had no way of knowing how badly off Greg was until Sam called from the hospital, but we'd pulled him out alive and in one piece, and so I was counting it as a win.

Jim didn't so much as give me even a curt greeting on his way in, simply brushed past me in order to check Fiona's vitals and pronounce her groggy but otherwise fine. "Give her as much water as she'll drink, flush whatever it is out of her system. Judging by her pupils, it's a narcotic of some kind. Maybe an opiate, but she's not overdosing or anything."

I went to fill a glass. "Thanks."

Jim snorted. "Uh-huh. This time I suggest you actually follow my instructions. The kid's in the same room as before?"

I nodded. "Through there. His brother's with him."

There was another snort. "There's nothing else you can do here. I suggest you make yourself scarce. The fewer people I've got underfoot, the easier it'll be for me to work." He didn't give me time to answer before striding off in the direction of the guest bedroom.

I considered going after him, checking in on the Winchesters, but Fiona stirred on the sofa, eyelashes fluttering. "Michael?" she murmured, her Irish brogue coming back in force under the influence of the narcotics. I perched next to her, and she curled up against me, almost in my lap. Without thinking, I planted a kiss on the top of her head.

"How you feeling, Fi?"

She moaned quietly. "Sick. He kissed me, and then it all went blurry. I don't remember anything. Is that normal?"

"I don't know," I answered honestly. "This is a little out of my league. Doctor says you're going to be fine, though."

"Take me home, please?"

"Fi, I don't think you should be at your place right now. You need someone to watch you, just until whatever this is wears off."

She shook her head against my shoulder. "No, your home. Don't leave me alone. Not tonight."

Startled, I gave her shoulders a squeeze. "Sure, Fi," I murmured. "Whatever you want."


Clean-up is always the most tedious part of any operation, but it's arguably the most important as well. Sam Winchester was out for the count, prey to the infection that had set in. He was responding well to the antibiotics, which was a relief, but he spent most of the time asleep. I'd checked in on both brothers early the next morning, and found them asleep in the double bed. It was too small too accommodate them, really, but they'd made it work: Sam was curled up on his good side, facing the wall, his back wedged against his brother, who'd wrapped an arm around his waist. Even now, when the danger was over, Dean was ever the protector, just like it said in his file. I should have been disturbed by the image, but after everything that had happened, I couldn't find it in myself to judge anything about those two. There are people who play by different rules because they're sociopaths, and there are those who play by different rules out of necessity.

Fiona, Sam and I set about doing damage control after that. There was a tearful family reunion with Greg's family —I wasn't there for the first one, but it was impossible to refuse Gladys' invitation to come visit her nephew in the hospital so they could all say thank you. Greg was expected to make a full recovery, with time, proper nutrition and a whole lot of counselling for kidnapping victims. He'd been too out of it from the effects of the undines' venom to remember anything —much like Fiona— and I thought that was probably a blessing. He would have enough to deal with without bringing supernatural creepy-crawlies that none of us could explain into the mix. I brought Sam and Fi with me to the hospital, but left the Winchesters behind. Dean refused to leave his brother, anyway, as long as he was still feverish. I did mention them, though not by name, and promised to pass along the family's thanks.

Then there were undine corpses to dispose of, which is probably the weirdest thing I've ever had to do in my life. Sam helped in exchange for a free meal and as many mojitos as he could drink in one sitting. It was messy and disgusting, but we eventually weighted down both bodies and dropped them in the middle of the swamp. They shimmered for a moment before disappearing from view. Sam and I exchanged a look, and it occurred to me that his thoughts might be running along the same lines as mine. He said nothing, though, and I was grateful for the silence. There's only so much upheaval of your universe that a person can take at a time.

Dean ruined my standing with my mother for the next ten years by fixing the hole I had inadvertently put in her kitchen wall with my nine-millimetre. He grinned unrepentantly at me when I pointed out what he'd done.

"Consider it payback for your girlfriend trying to knee me in the nuts."

I nodded, leaning against the table, holding onto a beer. "I noticed you packed up your car."

He didn't pause where he was sanding the plaster over the erstwhile hole. "Yeah. Sammy's doing better, and we've kind of got..." he hesitated, looking for words.

"A deadline?" I supplied quietly, remembering his brother's words during his delirium. It earned me a sharp look. "Your brother's in bad shape," I said, and we both knew I wasn't referring to the bullet wound.

"He'll be fine," Dean said shortly. "I'll make sure of it."

"Even if you're not around?"

"Especially if I'm not around." He stood, dusted off his jeans. "Okay, that's about as good as that wall is ever going to look without professional help. A coat of paint, and it'll be like new." He turned, extended a hand. "Thanks for helping, man. It would have been a lot harder without you, even if you did shoot my brother."

"If it helps, I was aiming for you," I shook his hand.

He snorted a laugh. "Actually, it does help. It's the only reason I didn't kill you right off."

I grinned back. "I can believe that. It's going to be hard to go back to normal after this," I said, following him as he went to fetch his brother from where he was sitting on a lawn chair in my mother's tiny yard, allowing Mom to ply him with countless glasses of iced tea.

"Well, you have our —Sam's number, if you ever need help with something like this again. Sammy, you ready to go?"

He put out a hand, and Sam let him pull him to his feet, then turned and enfolded my surprised mother into a one-armed hug. "Thank you for everything, Mrs. Westen."

She startled, then patted his back with the hand that wasn't holding a cigarette. "Well, you're very welcome, honey. You come back anytime you want, you hear?"

He nodded, and for a moment his eyes shone a little too brightly. Then he shook himself, let Dean lead him to the car, pausing only long enough to shake my hand with an uncertain smile. "It's not always bad," he said, seemingly irrelevantly, and I gave his good arm a pat.

"Take care. I suggest you avoid Florida for a while."

That got me a grin. "You don't need to tell me twice. No offense, but I hate this place."

I stood by the curb as they slid into the car, as easily as if it was a second skin. Dean flashed me one last smile, and I heard the strains of AC/DC's 'Highway to Hell' come blaring through the open window as they drove off. After a moment they rounded the corner, and when I could no longer hear the music I turned and made my way back inside the house.