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From Cold Water

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“Look, I know what I saw,” Sam was saying over a beer.

Fiona rolled her eyes at Michael, who gave her a miniscule shrug. “And you’ve seen what, Bigfoot?”

“It wasn’t Bigfoot. Bigfoot don’t swim.” Sam wagged his bottle at her. “It was something else.” Even a couple of hours later, his face looked pale and strained, and the fact he was still on his first beer was more telling than anything.

“Something else like what?” Michael asked.

“Like I’m not sure what. Something out of a horror movie, maybe.” Sam shuddered.

“I’m sure it was just an alcohol-induced hallucination, Sam,” Fiona said, getting to her feet and opening the refrigerator, plucking a yogurt out. She found a spoon, opening the cup and stirring the contents while she watched Sam.

Sam protested. “I wasn’t drinking, Fi. I don’t drink when I’m on a stakeout. You know that. Booze comes before or after a mission, not during.” The bottle in his hand bore silent witness to that statement. The liquid inside barely looked touched.

“All right,” Michael cut in before either of them could really start sniping at each other. “Sam, you were down at the docks last night doing surveillance. You were watching that trawler.”

Nodding, Sam gestured with his bottle. “The trawler was part of the problem.”

“Of course it was,” Fiona said, not quite sotto voce. She ignored Michael’s glance in her direction.

“Go on, Sam.”

He didn’t pay attention to Fiona, proof he really was upset. “Well, I’m watching the trawler, and this…thing…crawled out of the water. At first I thought it was a frogman, you know, until I realized there wasn’t an air tank. And then I got it in focus, and.” Sam shook his head and actually took a swig of beer. “In my binoculars, it…it wasn’t anything I’ve ever seen before.”

Curious in spite of herself, Fiona asked what Michael wasn’t sure he could. “What was it, Sam?”

He met her eyes, then Michael’s, and said, “Some kind of monster. I know that sounds crazy, but you didn’t see what it did to that guy on the trawler.” Sam leaned back, shaking his head. “Brother, whatever that thing is, there are more problems here than our usual job. That thing, it wasn’t human.”

X X X

“All right,” Xander said, clapping his hands together. “What do we know?”

Faith tried not to roll her eyes. “Well,” she said, “according to the intel that Andrew got from Willow, there’s supposed to be a Stravaniak demon in the area.” She touched the tablet screen, bringing up an image of something that looked like the bastard love child of a kelp bed and the Creature from the Black Lagoon – only with a lot more teeth.

“And this is bad because?”

She wondered if he’d done anything but slept on his flight to Miami, or maybe flirted with some girl. Or guy. Faith wasn’t sure what Xander might be interested in. She’d gotten a message to meet him in Miami, and grabbed the first red-eye to the wang of the United States. At any rate, Xander was either testing her, or he really hadn’t looked at any of the information Willow had emailed to them. “Because the Stravaniak are interested in kids – they catch them and sell them on the demon black market. If the kids are lucky.”

Xander reached under the patch to rub his eye socket. With a sigh, he sat down on the bed across from Faith. “So basically, we have a nasty thing.”

Faith nodded slowly. “That takes kids.”

“On a very popular beach.”

She considered. “Is it popular with kids? I haven’t seen that many.”

“We haven’t been out in the daytime yet.” Xander reached for his tablet. “Does it matter? We need to get the Stravaniaks out of Miami.” Tapping on the screen to make it light up, he scrolled through whatever messages he had available, and then found whatever he was looking for. Faith guessed it was the email Willow sent. Or maybe that was just hope on her part. She rose to her feet, starting to pace, and changed her path to the balcony, opening the sliding glass door and stepping outside. The smell was different from anywhere she’d been in the past, a bit salty, a bit floral. Sunlight splashed over her, and Faith rolled her shoulders, tilting her face toward the sky to bask for a few seconds. As long as the sun was beaming down, not everything could be bad, right?

“I didn’t know the Slayers could afford a place this nice,” she said over her shoulder.

Xander grunted in return, and Faith leaned her elbows on the railing, staring down toward the ground, so far below. Moistening her lips, she wondered if she spat, if it would dry up before it hit the ground.

“Aha!”

Turning, Faith peered back through the open door. “Find something?”

Xander made a face. “Not really. I just felt like sounding like I had, maybe to inspire myself.”

“Well, we could always check the docks. They’d have to come on shore some way that’s less crazy than just walking out of the water.”

Pointing at her, Xander said, “That is a good idea. Let’s get working on it.”

X X X

Night time in Miami is always a party. Even if you don’t mean to get involved, there are times when you just can’t help it. Tonight, though, Michael and Fiona sat in the Charger, watching the little trawler as it bobbed slightly on the ripples of the bay.

The trawler had been in their sights for the past few days, ever since Mrs. Elizabeth Thiry hired them to help find her niece. The girl had gone missing on her way home from violin lessons. She feared white slavers – her niece, Poppy, was a beautiful girl, in that stage somewhere between coltish legs and arms, and the poise she’d evidence as an adult. Her red hair sprang in soft curls around her freckled face, and Fiona’s mouth had crimped slightly at the sight of the photograph Mrs. Thiry had given them.

Michael knew about Fiona’s sister. Sam wouldn’t stand by and let an innocent get hurt, not without trying to take a big chunk out of the person doing the hurting. There wasn’t any real discussion between them when they decided to take the case. It wasn’t necessary to talk about it, just to dig in and start trying to solve the problem.

So far, the information they’d dug up on the trawler wasn’t a lot to go on. Sam’s connections with the Coast Guard linked the boat to a pair of brothers with no real ties to either side of the law. Neither Michael nor Fiona had seen the monster thing Sam described, though they’d kept their eyes peeled for anything unusual. Instead, what they saw was normal for a mostly abandoned dock: a couple of cats, a lot of rust, walls with graffiti from budding street Picassos, a few storage crates and the rusting out trawler, bobbing lightly on the waves.

“No kids,” Fiona said, after they’d watched the trawler for a couple of hours.

“No people in general,” Michael said, then reversed that thought. “Hold up.” He nodded at a couple, walking along the pier. The woman moved like she knew what she was doing; the guy was craning around like a tourist.

Fiona focused her attention on them. “What do you think?”

“I think,” Michael didn’t turn to look at her, “we keep an eye on them.”

“Do you think they’re armed?”

Taking in the woman’s stance, Michael dipped his chin in a nod. “Oh, yeah. At least, she is.”

Fiona tipped her glasses down as the pair glanced around, with the woman climbing on board the trawler. “Hmm, interesting. Do you think we should take a closer look, Michael?”

He opened the Charger’s door. “Oh, I think we should.”

“I like how you think, Michael.” Fiona climbed out the car, striding along with him as they approached the man.

“Hey!” Michael fixed a smile on his face. “Buddy, how’re you doin’?”

The guy turned, frowning, giving them both a long look. A patch covered one eye, and the familiarity struck Michael at the same time Fiona muttered, “Good god, Sam had a son we didn’t know about.”

“Hello?” Sam’s long-lost son said, cocking his head. His eye narrowed. “Do I know you?”

“No, man,” Michael smiled easily, “we’re just down here, takin’ in the sights. You know anything about these boats? My girl an’ me, we’re thinkin’, maybe buy one of these tubs, fix it up, an’ sail the world.”

Fiona laughed, a high-pitched ululation completely unlike her normal laugh. “It just sounds like such fun!” Clutching at Michael’s arm as if she was tottery on her heels, she beamed at the younger man. “Don’t you think?”

Sam’s son licked his lips, glancing toward the trawler. “I don’t know anything about boats except they go on water,” he said.

“Really?” Michael gestured toward the eye patch. “I’d think you’d know lots about boats!”

“Yeah, you look like a real pirate!” Fiona chimed in.

His remaining eye narrowed more. “I’m not,” he said shortly. “Look, this place, it could be dangerous for you. You ought to go looking for someone who actually sells boats, if you’re interested in one. Or taking a sailing class.”

“Something wrong, Xan?” The husky voice came from the trawler, and the brunette hopped down onto the dock, making the six foot drop seem like nothing by the way she strolled up to the eye patch guy, shaking her hair back out of her face. Her dark eyes scraped them up and down, and Michael felt somewhat taken aback by the feeling he’d been found wanting. Beside him, he could feel Fiona bristle up, and he took her wrist in warning. There was something about the woman that made him want to think twice about pulling a scam on her.

“No, no, these nice people,” Xan gave them both a long look, “are looking to buy a boat.”

“This one?” The brunette tossed a hand at the trawler.

“This one!” Michael laughed. “This one? No, no, not this one. Unless, of course, it’s for sale.”

“Is it?” Fiona popped her eyes. “Honey, it’d be perfect!”

The brunette shoved her hands in her back pockets. “It’s not for sale,” she said.

“In fact, it’s really dangerous,” Xan said. “Needs more work than you’d really want to put into it.” His mouth thinned as he nodded. “You probably ought to - ”

“Move along,” the brunette purred.

“Well!” Fiona tilted her chin up, for all the world appearing like an affronted wanna-be socialite. “Honey, we should go.” She twisted her hand around to grab for Michael’s, giving it a squeeze that said, ‘We need to get out of here.’

Michael was all for that, at least, for now. “Thanks for your help!” he said, and let Fiona tug him away. “They seemed nice, huh, baby? Really nice.”

Fiona glared at him out of the corner of her eye but put an extra wiggle in her hips as they walked back to the Charger. “Really nice,” she agreed, getting into the car.

“And kinda weird,” Michael said, turning the engine over.

X X X

“They weren’t the Stravaniaks, were they?” Xander watched the pair walking away, well, Faith guessed he was watching the pair, though she thought he was pretty much focused on the woman’s ass.

Okay, so she was secure enough in her sexuality to agree that it was a nice ass.

“Don’t Stravaniaks have those tattoos?” Faith traced a circle on her forearm. “Or what looks like tattoos. At least when they’re in their human form.”

Xander made a face. “Yeah, okay. No tattoos.” Faith mouthed it as he said it, “Not that I saw any on the girl, at least.”

“I didn’t see any tattoos on him, either.” Of course, he was wearing pants, though his long-sleeved shirt was rolled up to his elbows. Faith wondered if the rest of him was as well-built as those arms made him look.

“So, a pair of normal human beings, wandering around this dock, where this boat is.” Xander turned around to it, his hands on his hips. “What’re the odds?”

“I’m not a gambler,” Faith said.

“Neither am I,” Xander said thoughtfully. “But maybe we can figure out what’s going on if we keep an eye on this boat.” He shot Faith a look. “No pun intended.”

The corners of her mouth quirked up. “None taken.”

X X X

When you’re a spy, you learn to roll with the punches. If you take a hit, it’s very likely you’ll be able to get one in yourself. Of course, some hits strike home harder than others.

“What do you mean, do I have a son?” Sam asked, looking between Michael and Fiona.

“Well, Sam,” Michael said, stirring his yogurt, “when a man and woman love each other very much.”

Fiona interrupted, leaning across the kitchen bar. “He looked just like you. But with an eye patch.”

Sam Axe did a lot of questionable things, Michael knew, but lying to his friends wasn’t one of them. “I don’t have any sons,” he said, picking up his bottle and taking a drink. “At least, none that I know of. And I’m pretty sure if I did have one, someone would be looking for me to pay child support. The Navy wants its people to take care of their own, you know.” He leaned across the bar, getting into Fiona’s space. “So he’s not mine.”

Fiona pouted but withdrew. Michael rinsed his yogurt cup in the sink, turning back to them both. “He does look like you, Sam.” He tugged at his own chin in emphasis.

“A man has to have a defining characteristic, Mikey,” Sam said, spreading his arms.

“Back to the trawler,” Fiona said, obviously bored with the way this conversation was going. She plumped her elbows on the bar. “We need to keep watching it.”

Michael nodded. “Agreed. Let’s head back around dusk.”

Sam raised his eyebrows. “Dusk, Mikey?”

“Sounds like a good time to be snooping around, to me.” Fiona grinned at Sam.

“All right. But let’s make sure we’re ready for it, this time.” Michael wagged a finger between them.

“So,” Sam asked, “just what do we use to stop the Creature from the Black Lagoon?”

Fiona smiled. “C-4 works on just about anything.”

“Kids, Fi,” Sam reminded her.

“I’m careful,” she said.

“Let’s just get everything ready for any possibility,” Michael said, wanting to forestall another argument. “And flashlights, too. And, Sam, we’re taking your car this time.”

“Right, Mikey.” Sam hesitated. “What do you mean, my car?”

“Bigger trunk space.” Michael smiled brightly as Sam’s face fell.

X X X

“So, we need to get back there. Those Stravaniaks aren’t going to wait around.” Xander paced back and forth across the room.

“No, but they don’t normally come out during day, either. Their eyes can’t stand the light.” Faith almost knew how the demons felt. Miami had a hella lot more sun than Boston. Maybe even more than California.

Xander let out a snort that might’ve been agreement, or maybe not, from the expression on his face. “So,” he said in a totally different tone of voice, “what do you think about that couple wanting to buy the boat?”

Her shoulders rolled into a shrug. “Not sure. They could be what they say they are,” her mouth tightened a bit at that, “but they don’t feel that way.”

“You got that, too? Like they were watching the boat a little too closely.” Xander shot her a look.

“Or you.” Faith considered, replaying their reactions in her mind. “They stared at you.”

“I am a dashing guy,” Xander said, smirking.

Faith sucked her lower lip to keep from saying anything about that immediately. “Yeah,” she managed to get out with only a hint of a smile in her voice. “Just like you were back in high school.” She bumped him with her hip as she walked by.

“Hey, yeah, I was pretty,” blinking, Xander interrupted himself. “Are you mocking me?”

“You were pretty,” Faith reassured him, patting his cheek.

Xander frowned at the pat. “Faith.”

“Stravaniaks?”

He nodded. “Stravaniaks. And the boat.” His mouth tightened. “Before any more kids go missing.”

Faith agreed. “Then let’s get our game faces on, and take care of this problem.”

X X X

The sun was going down, painting the bay in outrageous colors. Even the trawler looked better slapped with a coat of orange sunset. A couple moved around it, a somewhat gawky looking guy, and a curvy woman. Sam spotted them right away. “Damn.”

“Told you,” Fiona smirked.

“Told me that there’s a hot woman? I don’t remember anything about that.” Sam let out a low whistle. “Mikey, hey, why didn’t you,” he glanced at Fiona and said, “right,” and shifted his weight uncomfortably.

Before Fiona could take revenge, Michael said, “Play nicely, and remember, they’ve spoken to Fi and me.”

“Gotcha,” Sam said.

Fiona huffed her annoyance. “We could just storm the trawler. I have enough firepower.”

“You always have enough firepower,” Sam said.

That earned him an impish grin. “Why, thank you, Sam. It’s good for a woman to have a defining characteristic.”

Michael interrupted as Sam opened his mouth to respond. “Head’s up,” he said, as the woman sauntered over, her hands tucked into the back pockets of her jeans.

“She has to be sweltering,” Fiona said of the woman’s leather jacket.

“If that’s another word for ‘hot’, you’re absolutely right, sister,” Sam said, peering over the top of his sunglasses.

Fiona leaned over the seat back, craning her head sideways. “She’s a little young for you, isn’t she, Sam?”

“There’re no laws against looking,” Sam answered her readily.

Michael opened the car door and climbed out. “Hey, hon,” he said, smiling broadly.

Tossing her brunette hair back over her shoulder, she drew nearer. “Back to look at that boat?”

“We was in the neighborhood,” Michael said, waving a hand at the car. Fiona and Sam both raised their hands in greeting.

“Why?”

The blunt question almost caught Michael flatfooted. “‘Tol’ your boyfriend we wanna fix up a boat, sail the world!”

Her mouth quirked then smoothed out. “I don’t have a boyfriend.” She raked him with her eyes. “And I told you, that boat’s not for sale.”

“Everything’s for sale, baby,” Sam said, offering a hand to Fiona to help her out of the car. “You just gotta flash the right amount of cash.”

“Not this boat.” The brunette gave them a long look, one that conveyed pity more than anything. Just that quickly, her eyes narrowed. “Hey,” she said, jerking her chin at Michael, “do you have a license to carry that thing?”

His gun was tucked into the small of his back, covered by his shirt, and Michael’s eyebrows shot up in reaction, since he was facing the brunette. From the hard glint in her eyes, he knew he couldn’t lie to her about the gun. “Why, darlin’, maybe that’s not a question you oughtta be askin’.”

She gave him a curling smile. “Why, darlin’,” she mocked, “maybe it’s my duty to ask.”

“Are you a cop?” Fiona asked bluntly.

“Not really,” the brunette said, “I answer to a higher power.”

“God?” Sam asked then said, “God,” in a completely different tone of voice.

“Told you,” Fiona gloated as Sam’s missing son sauntered up.

“He,” Sam looked between Michael and Fiona. “He!”

“You’re back,” Xan, Sam’s missing son, said with a frown. “They’re back,” he told the brunette.

“I said I thought they’d come back,” she said. “And they’ve got weapons.” She gestured at Michael, including Sam and Fiona in the wave.

“Weapons? Us?” Sam tried to bluff.

“Weapons? What kind?” Xan asked.

“Just a few odds and ends,” Fiona shrugged, frowning when Michael hissed at her. “What? She spotted us. Why do we need to carry on a charade when the game’s already been played, Michael?”

“So, what are you guys doing here, anyway?” Xan asked.

“Trying to find some missing kids,” Fiona said, taking a step closer and tossing her hair out of her eyes.

Xan gave her a lingering look. “Are you?”

“We do…jobs,” Michael said, “jobs that the police can’t handle.”

“Funny,” the brunette said, “so do we.”

“Um,” Sam said.

“Really? What kinds of jobs?” Fiona gave the brunette a lingering look.

“Kinds that make most people wet their pants,” Xan assured them with a nod.

“Is that so?” Fiona turned her attention to him now. “How do you know we’re not above average?”

“Um, Mikey?” Sam said.

“What is it, Sam?” Michael asked as the brunette turned away from them, her hands coming up into fists. Michael spotted it not a second later, something that looked like a cross between –

“Stravaniaks,” Xan said.

“Get back,” the brunette said, pushing Michael out of the way, with a shove that nearly sent him sprawling. What kind of muscles was she hiding under that leather jacket, anyway? Shaking his head, Michael caught a glimpse of the Stravaniaks? A wave of foul odor swept off the bay, like rotting fish and worse, as the creatures glided over the dock.

“What the hell?” Fiona asked.

“Told you,” Sam said, reaching for the gun he had secreted in the small of his back. “Didn’t I tell you?”

“Stravaniaks,” Xan said, “water demons, prone to kidnapping children.”

“Children?” Fiona’s voice came out rough and sharp. Michael didn’t want to know where she’d hidden that gun of hers, even though he’d seen her hide it in some amazing places in the past. Instead, he focused his attention on the creatures as they moved along the deck. Fiona raised her gun, taking aim.

“Guns don’t work!” Xan shouted, “put that down.” He waved at Fiona, pulling something out of his pocket. It looked like a baggy full of weed.

“Mikey,” Sam said.

There were three of them, another one rising out of the water like an inverse Venus, its black skin trailing water behind. Greenish teeth glittered in the faint light coming in from the city; eyes shone like oil slicks. The things had too many fingers and moved like ghosts, real ghosts, not military Green Berets or even ex-spies. Michael wondered just how the hell they were going to fight if they couldn’t use guns. “What does work?” he shouted.

“Just stay out of the way!” Xan yelled back as the brunette stepped up to one of the gliding things. “We know what we’re doing!” She hauled off and cold-cocked one of the Stravaniaks while Xan threw some of the weedy stuff on top of it. The creature squealed and hissed, steam rising out of its hide where the weed fell on it. “Damn it, there’s a chant we should be chanting,” Xan snapped. “What was it?”

“Hey, I’m the Slayer,” the brunette said, “I hit, you chant.”

“Brother, when I signed on for this gig, I didn’t know there’d be monsters.” Sam shook his head. “Well, not this kind of monster!”

“If guns don’t work, what do we use?” Fiona asked.

“Maybe a chain saw?” Sam asked. Fiona and Michael both shot him a look. “It’s an option and I don’t see either of you offering up anything else!”

“Here, here!” Xan jerked something else out of his pocket, flinging it at them. The piece of paper fluttered and drifted, caught in the breeze coming off the bay. “Read the words on there!”

“How?” Fiona jumped for it and missed. Michael leaped after, snatching it out of the air as another of the Stravaniaks crawled up onto the dock.

“Chain saw,” Sam growled, grabbing for a boat hook and smashing it down onto the creature’s slimy arm. It shrieked and snatched at Sam with its other hand. “Damn!” Sam hopped backward and over-balanced, nearly falling but managing to catch himself before he kissed wood. The Stravaniak caught his pants leg and Fiona ran in, stomping on its wrist.

“No guns!” Xan shouted as she aimed her gun, firing.

The explosion threw them all back, bouncing Michael off the hood of the car. He shook his head, trying to pick himself up, his vision wavering. His vision doubled, he watched two Stravaniaks moving in on two brunettes. “Fi? Sam?” Michael shouted, pressing his fingers into his ears to try and stop the ringing. A shrill ululation filled the air and he guessed it came from the Stravaniaks. How many were there, really? At the second, he couldn’t trust his vision. “Sam! Fi!”

“I’m good, Mike,” Sam shouted from somewhere off to Michael’s left.

“No guns!” Xan reminded.

“Next time, explain why!” Fiona shrieked and something inside Michael sagged in relief at the sound of her furious voice.

“A little help, here?” the brunette yelled and Michael stumbled in her direction. At least she and the Stravaniak didn’t have twins any more.

“No guns means no guns!” Xan screamed back. “Where’s that piece of paper?”

Michael blinked a few times, trying to remember where he’d seen it last. He’d been reaching for the paper as the world exploded. What kind of biological make up did those things have, that they combusted when they got shot?

“Got it!” Sam yelled, waving something over his head.

“Great! Read from it!” Xan hollered, throwing more of the weed around.

Fiona appeared in the corner of Michael’s eye, sprinting toward the brunette. Her hair flared out behind her as she planted her hands on a storage crate, using that to vault over it. Michael saw her drive her feet into the Stravaniak attacking the brunette. The brunette elbowed the Stravaniak then punched it so it stumbled toward Xan. He flung the weeds on the creature, making it wail.

“What the hell language is this?” Sam shouted.

“Just read it!” Xan and the brunette yelled at the same time.

Sam shook his head, holding the paper in both hands. “Kiyon taIf, evodnemi i.”

Michael turned to the third Stravaniak. “Sorry, buddy,” he said, cocking his fist back.

The greenish teeth flashed as it charged. Michael grabbed its arm, spinning it around and using its momentum to fling it toward the two women. “Heads up!” he shouted, and Fiona smiled.

“About time you decided to be helpful, Michael!”

“Gwar premshoy, gwar premhura,” Sam chanted as if it was a nursery rhyme. Michael recognized the rhythm of ‘Ring a Ring of Roses’. “Emic holla, thrInktel, sh’moob, sh’moob.”

The brunette snatched the wrist of the Stravaniak Michael sent her way, spinning it around behind the creature’s back. She held it as Xan threw weed her way, sneezing hard. “Xander, careful with that stuff!”

“I’m doing the best I can. I’m not magic guy, remember?”

“Rigib, ez’erel,” Sam said, his voice rising. Michael figured he had to be getting close to the end of the page. “Shkifitam ebla n’kip, twieg’ht, twieg’ht, twieg’ht!”

The light poured out of nowhere, neon blue and blinding. The Stravaniaks squealed, the frequency of their screams enough to destroy hidden microphones. The light continued to brighten, nearly overwhelming Michael’s vision, even when he tossed his arm up. “The kids!” he shouted. “What about the missing kids?”

The look the brunette shot over her shoulder told a story Michael didn’t want to hear. “No,” he said, “there has to be a way to get them back.” The light began to fade and Michael could see the Stravaniaks beginning to crisp, their coloring bleaching to an ugly battleship grey. “Damn it, there are little kids involved!”

The light winked out, leaving a pile of charred bodies, a stench like nothing Michael had ever smelled drifting on the bayside breeze. “Well,” Xan said, wiping his forehead and leaving behind bits of weed, “that’s that.”

“No it’s not,” Michael said, grabbing his shoulders. “There are missing children. I was hired to find them.” He gave Xan a shake. “I need to bring those kids back home.”

A hard hand caught him from behind and the brunette’s raspy voice came over his shoulder. “Let him go,” she said, and from the pressure in her hand, he knew she’d pull him off if he didn’t.

Raising his hands sharply, Michael took a step back. “Don’t you get it?” he asked.

The brunette’s expression was tired maybe, but even more than that, sympathetic. “You don’t know how well,” she said.

“We’ve lost friends and family to this sort of thing,” Xan said, waving a hand at the bodies. “And it’s a day-to-day fight over us living to protect someone else, or dying.”

“There are more things like that out there?” Sam shook his head. “Guess that explains that Navy base up in Pensacola.”

“There isn’t any way to get the kids back?” Fiona asked. “Are they,” she glanced down, stirring closest ashy body with her toe, her nose wrinkling fastidiously.

“Dead?” Xan took a deep breath and spread his hands. “If they’re lucky.”

“So there is a chance they’re alive?” That was something Michael could work with. “How do we find out?”

Xan exchanged looks with the brunette. “Well,” he said, licking his lips, a sign, Michael knew, of nervousness and sometimes a cue to a partner. “You might not like the ways to go about finding out.”

“We’ve been through a hell of a lot of stuff,” Sam said, “you don’t know.”

“I’d believe it.” The brunette’s mouth curled up a little bit. “Look, Xander, we ought to give them at least a chance.”

“We’ll need to check in with Will, see if she can do a tracking spell.”

Sam held up his hand. “Whoa, tracking spell?”

“Did you think you could just go up to a bar and ask about these guys? It doesn’t work that way,” Xan said. “And while we’re at it, I hate doing business with people when I don’t know their names.”

“Michael,” he pointed, “Fiona and Sam.”

“Hi,” Fiona said, nodding.

“Hey,” Sam added with a short wave. “Spell?”

“Xander,” he ignored Sam, hooking a thumb at himself then turning it sideways, “Faith.”

“Hey,” Faith said, giving Sam an appraising look.

He arched a brow at her. “See something you like, sister?”

“Just shocked at the similarities,” she said, grinning.

“The kids?” Fiona reminded before Michael could.

“Willow,” Xander said, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a cell phone. He stepped a little way from them, plugging his other ear with his finger. “Hey, Will. Yes, I know what time it is. It’s around eight o’clock – what? No, I don’t know what time it is where you are. Are you even on this planet…?”

Faith turned back to them. “How many kids are missing?” she asked.

“Three, that we’re aware of,” Fiona said. “There might be some immigrant kids we don’t know about.” She tossed her hair back.

“You think you can help us find them?” Michael asked, looking away from Xander to Faith.

She smiled again, a certain sexiness inherent in that quirk of her mouth. “If anyone can, it’ll be the Scoobies. It might be a hard road, though.”

“We’re used to hard roads,” Michael told her with a jerky nod.

“Good to hear it.” Faith slapped his arm. “We’ll all need it.”

When you’re a spy, you learn to take certain things at face value. It doesn’t mean you don’t look any deeper, but you do keep your mouth shut and take the advantage given to you at that moment. There are two people willing to help you find a trio of kids, maybe more, and get them back to the homes waiting for them.

If that means going to hell to get them back, well, you, Fi, Sam; you’ve all been there at least once. And there are people you’re not going to let down. If those kids are alive, you’re going to find them, and do what you can to bring them home.

Xander turned around, waving his cell. “Will says she can track the Stravaniaks back, but we’re gonna need some weapons to take with us.”

“Road trip?” Faith asked him, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.

He grinned, beckoning to Fiona, Michael and Sam, wondering why Sam looked so familiar. Weird. “Something like. Hope you three are cool with this kind of travel.” Fishing in his pocket, Xander pulled out a piece of chalk and drew a big circle, away from the bodies. Quickly inscribing the symbols Willow was texting to him, he said, “Whatever you do, don’t smudge the chalk. But get into the ring, okay?”

“What is this?” Sam asked, eyeing the circle mistrustfully.

“Magic,” Faith said with a wink, hopping into the circle.

“You heard the lady,” Xander said, gesturing at them. “Okay, Will, we’re all inside.” He bobbed his head and ended the call, tucking the phone back in his pocket. “She said it’d be best if we hold hands, make a circle inside the circle.”

“What’s going to happen?” Fiona asked, shooting a look at Xander.

He held out his hand to her. “We’re going bye-bye.”

The chalk outline began to flare with the same blue light that had surrounded the Strevaniaks. “Whoa,” Sam began to say, and they winked out, almost as if they’d never been there in the first place.

The breeze off the bay caught the last of the ashes, sweeping them off into the dock, where they sank into the water, erasing everything that happened that night.

X X X