This job didn't disgust Paris often. Playing von Waffenschmidt was one time that it did, so much so that he wanted to shed his skin afterward. Once he was back in his own clothes, he bundled up the remains of his role and hurried to where he knew Herjulfsen's house would still be burning, parking far enough away not to attract attention and walking the rest of the way. Then he tossed his last ties to the Nazi scum into the inferno and watched in satisfaction as the flames claimed them.
He was halfway back to his car when he saw the Winchesters waiting for him.
Stifling his initial reaction, which was to panic, Paris continued on his way. They didn't look like they wanted to kill him, so it made more sense not to run. And indeed, neither brother made any move toward a weapon as he approached; instead, they watched him with carefully neutral faces.
As soon as he was within earshot, however, Dean asked quietly, "Your masks aren't latex, are they?"
Busted. "Sometimes," Paris replied cautiously.
"There are times when crafting a latex mask... helps. And sometimes I need one for the sake of the team."
"Look, we know about Hand. We're not here to hurt you. Just level with us."
Paris sighed. "Yes. I'm a shapeshifter. Just about all of the IMF disguise artists are."
Sam frowned. "Seriously? How—I mean—how do you..."
"Can we have this discussion somewhere else? Get coffee or something? It's kind of a long story."
Dean raised an eyebrow at Sam. Sam raised both eyebrows back. Dean looked back at Paris and shrugged. "Sure. We'll follow you."
Again, Paris wrestled down the flight response. He was on his honor, but they were also in an Impala; his Plymouth station wagon would be no match for the hunters' car if he tried to make a break for it. And they could have shot him by now if they'd intended to kill him on principle. "Sure. There's a place a few miles up the road in Teutopolis; it's right on Main Street."
Dean nodded, and he and Sam went back to their car and waited for Paris to lead. Though his palms were sweating, Paris forced himself to go the speed limit and signal any turns early, and they arrived at the coffee shop without incident. To be perfectly honest, Paris would really rather have had a few shots of tequila, but he didn't want to risk the Winchesters thinking he was trying to get them drunk. So he ordered a small coffee and a large Danish and wasn't surprised when Sam ordered a vanilla mocha latte or when Dean ordered a slice of cherry pie with his coffee.
Once the waitress left their table, Paris sighed. "I suspect Rollin and I are the only sane shifters you've ever met."
"You could say that," Sam replied.
"We've met the Alpha," Dean added, "but we didn't exactly talk much."
Paris snorted. "No, I imagine not. Well, there are some things you should know about us before I tell you my story."
Dean shrugged. "Shoot."
"Of all children of the Mother, shapeshifters are perhaps the closest to human. Shifters are sired, not turned. We don't have to kill humans for food. We have only two impulses that are difficult to control or ignore. One is the desire to shift, to mimic. Some use that impulse for crime; others of us choose professions where we can put it to legitimate use. The other is the need to breed, and even the Alpha can't ignore it forever."
Sam frowned. "So have you—"
Paris shook his head. "Not knowingly. I take precautions. I expect I'll have to sire a child sometime, but... I'd like to marry first. I'm not abandoning my child the way my father did."
Both brothers raised their eyebrows at that, but they were interrupted by the arrival of their food. Once the coast was clear again, Dean asked, "Your dad walked out on you?"
Paris raised a hand. "It's a little more complicated than that, but there's still some more background you need. All shifters have some traits in common, like silver toxicity, but others depend on the proportion of human DNA to shifter DNA. The closer a shifter is genetically to the Alpha, the greater the control over one's powers. A half-shifter, for example, can shed his skin, but he doesn't have to do so in order to shift, and it's fairly easy to keep one's own identity intact and separate from the person one shifts into. The same is true of a quarter-shifter, though a simple shift takes more effort than it does for a half-shifter. Once the balance shifts beyond that—in someone who's only an eighth shifter or less—shifting without shedding becomes impossible, and I suspect that's also the point at which the conflict between the shifter and human natures and the potential confusion of identities becomes more likely to lead to mental instability. There's also the question of upbringing. A lot of shifters prefer to breed as males so that they can do as the Alpha does."
Dean nodded. "Replace Dad, have some fun with Mom, and split before Dad comes home."
"Like a cuckoo leaving its egg in another bird's nest," Sam added.
Paris nodded. "Exactly. And that includes some who are born female; either they don't want the child or they don't want to be locked in one form for nine months. Others do want the child, and they stay female long enough to raise it. One of our female colleagues, Casey, is a quarter-shifter; her mother fell in love with a human man and raised Casey as normally as she could. That also makes a difference in helping a shifter not grow homicidal."
"So are all the IMF shifters at least quarter-shifters?"
"Yes. Keep in mind what was happening when we were born. In the '20s, there were a lot of people of both sexes looking for a good time; in the '30s, there were a lot of husbands gone looking for work and a lot of wives in need of physical comfort. There were too many opportunities to pass up, even for the Alpha—especially for the Alpha. I don't know how many shifters were born in those years. Most of them joined the military after Pearl Harbor or were drafted, for that war or Korea. Most of the mostly-human ones didn't make it back; even with conventional weapons, there are some things even we can't survive."
Sam and Dean looked at each other and each took a drink of coffee. Paris got the sense that they neither wanted nor needed to ask.
"As for me, my mother has been blind since birth. She married a man who loved her very much, but in 1930, he had to leave town for a couple of months to get what work he could as a farm hand. Mother expected him back at the end of June, and the night he was due to arrive, someone who sounded and felt like him came in and received a... very enthusiastic welcome. He was gone by morning, and that afternoon, Mother received word that her husband had been killed the night before when a drunk driver hit him head on. She was understandably confused, especially when she learned that she was pregnant, but she couldn't conclude that my father—my sire, really—hadn't been the man she married.
"I don't remember much about those early years, when I first figured out what I could do or when Mother figured out that I wasn't a normal child. I do remember that she never loved me any less. Maybe the fact that she's blind made it easier; maybe she'd love me even if she could have seen me then. But it helped. It helped a lot. No matter what happened at school, I always knew my mother loved me."
Dean took a long drink of coffee then and started picking at his pie. Paris wasn't sure what to make of that.
Sam cleared his throat. "So did you find out who your sire was?"
Paris nodded. "Eventually, after I talked with Rollin, when he recruited me for the IMF. He quizzed me about my powers and figured out that I must be a half-shifter. I don't usually need to shed, but sometimes it's cathartic."
"Yeah. I've heard that some of the less-stable shifters went Nazi just to have a chance to get their kicks without fear of hunters, but... well, you know what the SS did to the Untermenschen. You can imagine what they did to the Ungeheuer."
"And is this the form you were born with?"
Paris laughed. "No, actually, it isn't quite. My best friend in school was a boy named Leonard. We already looked somewhat alike when we met, and people were always getting us confused anyway. So, with his permission and Mother's, I... kind of became his twin. We figured it would work because people hardly ever saw us when we weren't in the same room!"
That even got a laugh out of Dean.
"We were pretty inseparable until we joined the Army. After that, we both got into acting, but Leonard went on to Hollywood, does a lot with TV and movies now. I can't, for obvious reasons, so I stuck with the stage—quick change acts and so on, nightclub circuit—and thought that was the life until Rollin came by one night to talk me into joining the IMF."
Dean swallowed the bite of pie that was in his mouth. "Now, what's the deal with Rollin? How'd he find you?"
Paris sighed. "Rollin is possibly the closest thing to a pure-blooded shifter alive now, aside from the Alpha. He's three-quarters; his mother was half."
Dean's eyebrows shot up, and he looked at Sam, who grimaced. Then Dean looked back at Paris. "Wait, wouldn't the Alpha..."
"Recognize his own daughter? I would have thought so. Rollin's mother won't tell him what happened, only that she was desperate for a child. She taught him to control his powers early, so her husband doesn't know Rollin's not his son. Rollin grew up in a stable home, tried to join the OSS right out of high school, went on the stage when they turned him down, and jumped at the chance to join the IMF when it was founded. To the best of my knowledge, he recruited all of the shifters who are on the Force now—recognized patterns in the dossiers, recognized kin when he came to talk to us."
"And you're doing it because..."
Paris shrugged. "It's our country, too."
"Wow," Sam replied, breaking into a grin. "This is awesome. I mean, we always knew it was possible in theory for shifters to live like normal humans, but we'd never met one before who was actually doing it."
Dean sat back, frowning a little. "Who else knows? I mean, besides the other shifters."
Paris shook his head. "No one. Not even the Secretary. It's too risky to let anyone else in."
"Well, Barney's about to figure it out, if he hasn't already. We caught a flash of the retina flare. He saw it and commented on it."
Sam nodded. "And if he doesn't ask us about it, or Rufus... he'll probably talk it over with Willy. They seem pretty close."
Paris sighed. "Okay. I'll talk to him. But we cannot—cannot—tell Jim. We go on way too many missions where he intentionally gets captured. He usually has some kind of hypnotic block set to trigger when he does get captured, but if something goes wrong and if his subconscious knows that I could be literally anyone even without the makeup..."
Dean's chin went up. "So that's what you meant."
"Yeah. The rest of the team knows how to recognize the edges of a mask. IMF policy, Rollin's idea. There are cases where it's far too dangerous for the others not to be sure which version of a human is real and which is their teammate. Saved Jim's life last year, matter of fact. A less stable shifter, assassin working for an unfriendly government, got the drop on Rollin, but he was in such a hurry that when he shed, the new skin didn't quite fit right on his neck and crêped like a mask edge. Jim recognized it, pulled enough loose to prove that it wasn't Rollin, and shot him—with silver bullets Rollin had loaded in Jim's gun without Jim's knowledge."
The brothers looked at each other. "Brave new world," Sam muttered.
"We sure we wanna keep doin' this?" Dean asked. "I mean, shifter assassins? Nazi witches? What's next, the head of the KGB is a dragon?"
Paris chuckled. "Honestly? Most of the unstable shifters out there would just as soon go serial in their own neighborhoods. Ventlos is the first one I'd heard of working on the other side. No, from a supernatural perspective, this job's usually a cakewalk. It's the humans you have to watch out for."
Sam's mouth quirked into a wry smile. "Like you always say, Dean."
"Demons I get," Dean replied by way of agreement, lifting his mug in salute. "People are crazy."
Paris and Sam clinked mugs with him and drank.