Alternate Ending, part 6
(c)2000-2001 KSH/BS

Back upstairs, Steve had his gun out and was waiting at the bottom of the stairs. It had gotten a little quiet up there, and he knew they were trying to storm the place a bit at a time, flush them out. No one knew about the back way out, except Marv. All he had to do was create enough of a disturbance to make looking for Neal and Jon a second priority.

Cowboy shit.

Sooner or later, one of the younger agents would poke their heads down there, if they didn't decide to tear gas him. They'd rush the stairs.

They did; two of them, in full protective gear, looking pretty damn close to SWAT. He fired twice at the first one, knowing the idiot's vest would save him. The agent recoiled anyway, a face he didn't recognize, and brought his rifle up crosswise, intending to clothesline Steve with it. Steve ducked under and yanked the agent forward by the rifle, sending him the rest of the way down the stairs. The second agent already had his weapon trained on the singer, and Steve shot him in the arm. The agent screamed, falling back against the side of the stairwell, and Steve vaulted the rest of the way up the stairs.

He was surrounded. Five more agents had their service weapons out, two of them leveled on him. They were placed haphazardly, and firing would have created a crossfire situation. He paused and began putting his hands up as if he'd realized it was over, and the agent nearest to him reached out to snag his gun. Steve grabbed him and bodily shoved him down the stairs rather than into the other agents, and the next two nearest took his feet out from under him, pinning him to the floor, disarming him. He didn't bother to struggle while he was handcuffed.

A pair of black, highly shined dress shoes paused directly in front of his face.

"You're a pain in the ass, aren't you," a voice said above him. The tone of it was weary amusement. Anderson.

Steve snorted, kept his face turned to the carpeting. Decided he'd go with a better color when he redecorated. And he'd have to redecorate, when they were through. If he lived. "Depends on the ass, I guess," he said.

* * *

Interrogation rooms were the same no matter where they were; Steve decided they had some kind of code associated with it. They were either stark white or some sort of green that looked like a mixing disaster at the local Dutch Boy factory. The left-over, fucked up colors that only a psychotic about to tell his life story would want to look at.

But he wasn't there to look at the goddamn walls.

Corey sat across the low, scraped-up table from him, still staring at him. They'd given her ten minutes to convince him of the error of his ways, as Raff had put it, and she was trying to make the best of it. Steve had yet to say anything to her.

"Any time, now," she said.

He looked at her, finally, kept his eyes flat. "I trusted you," he said. There was nothing in his voice that gave his emotions away, no rage or pain. Just a quiet acceptance.

"I know," she whispered. "It isn't that I don't love you. It's got nothing to do with me. There's a cleanup crew for a reason, Steve."

"You guys did all this, set these guys up, just to get me out in the open? When you had a million other chances? Christ, I went out on a solo tour."

"And you were more public then. There would have been too much attention. I think you know that. You've been back underground for a little while, now, and it wouldn't seem so strange for you to disappear. After awhile, you can't tell who's a leak and who isn't. You've done all you can. But you've been out there so long, you've lost perspective."

"And this is what I get?" he said, voice still steady and devoid of emotion.

"Agents don't retire," she said. "You know that. We die in the field, or we get taken out of service when we can't tell which way is up anymore. You've been running for forty years. It's time to stop. You're dangerous even to yourself, now."

He seemed to consider the words for a long moment. "How are you gonna do it, then? Car accident? Am I gonna hang myself? Or just disappear?" He raised his head finally, watching Corey wipe tears off her face.

"You're the worst actor I ever met," he said.

"You bastard," she whispered. "I oughta just fucking kill you right here."

"You're gonna have to do it yourself, you know," he said. "Anybody else who tries will go with me."

She nodded, taking a shaky breath.

"I don't expect any less of you," he said gently, and the tone was the worst he could have done to her. She pressed a hand to her mouth. "Come on, Cor. It's not like you're surprised they're pulling all your strings, after this. You knew better, tangling with me in the first place. You gonna suffocate me in my sleep?" He leaned forward slightly, as if he meant to say something sensitive, and whispered, "I can think of one way in particular you could do that."

She looked at him in time to see a glint of something wicked before his eyes turned flat again. She put her face in her hands and said, "I hate you."

"I know. But what a way to go, huh?"

"You know stuff no one should," she said, raising her head. "Aren't you tired? Even if they could get you to stop, would you be able to handle regular life?"

"Preferable to the alternative," he said. "Who are they gonna use to chase leaks, then? You?"

"Somebody who isn't so wild," she said.

"Somebody they can control," he shot back. "That's the first mistake. What did I really do, that I'm getting pulled now? What did I stumble on? I broke some invisible rule, and you guys went through all this conspiracy bullshit and backtracked over yourselves to get me out in the open."

"Don't 'you guys' this," she said. "This wasn't me, and you goddamn well know it. We've been...friends...for too long. I didn't even get it, until last week. It wasn't all about this, either. There really is a problem, with those mob idiots. It was just...blown out of proportion." She lowered her gaze. "They knew, about the times you'd been in the system. They were counting on it. They thought this would be the thing they could use to draw you out."

He shrugged. "Why am I still alive?"

She kept her eyes down. "They need to know what you know."

Steve felt his stomach clench, steeled himself against it. "Not gonna work."

"I know. I said so." She was crying again, cursing herself for it. "Can't you just talk to them?"

"You already know I can't," he said. "I'd never know who I was talking to."

* * *

Awhile after that, Raff was next.

He eyed Steve carefully before he sat down. "You gonna be a hard ass, about this?"

Steve shrugged. "It's what I do. Little old to be softening up now."

Raff nodded. "I gotta know where Jon and Neal are."

"No, you don't. I gotta know where their wives and kids are."

"Fine. Let's trade off, Steve." When Steve didn't answer, he said, "They're not going to stay low, for long. They're civilian. Things will get a little rough if we have to route them out."

"Rough on who?" Steve said. "Let's play a game, Raff. You tell me what exactly Switek meant to do to those civilians in the desert, and why, and I'll tell you why I think you guys are screwed."

Raff shook his head. "I'm all through playing games with you, Steve."

"Aw, don't make me play with _myself_," Steve said, grinning. Most people would have known enough to back away. Raff was too dumb, or unaware. "He was jumping the gun, wasn't he? Kind of working outside the established framework? Somebody was desperate for something. You meant to have Jon and Neal in enough trouble eventually to get me to come out and play. But not like that, not that soon. Your own guys are moonlighting on you now. I don't think retiring me was the best thing to do, yet. Not when I was the best guy for cleaning house."

"You never know half what you think you do," Raff said tiredly.

"And you know only half of that," Steve shot back. "That's the problem. Your framework is collapsing. You know what would be really goddamn funny? If you guys didn't know about Switek at all before he moved." He paused to watch Raff's face, was rewarded with a raised eyebrow.

Steve howled with laughter. "Fuckin' Christ! They really _were_ supposed to get settled in the program! You guys are even more out of control than I thought." He fell silent when Raff's face didn't change. "Wasn't the mob, huh. I got a feeling the mob guys were suckers in all this, playing their part. All of 'em silent, now?" When Raff didn't answer, he said, "The ledgers really were just a laundering scam. Leroy was just a little fish with a stupid idea. Neal walking in on that by accident just handed you guys an excuse you'd been dying for. It was an accident, wasn't it. Leroy's call to Neal wasn't. But his getting sucked in the way he did, that was just dumb luck. How much of this do _you_ know, 'Raff'? You've got someone using the program to run stuff they shouldn't. What better way to find out what, then to put a couple of regular but high profile folks into the program?"

"And get you to stick your neck out," Raff said, "so someone can finally take your damn fool head off."

Steve smiled again. "But that's not all. Doesn't hurt to make it look like I've been taken down. Kind of makes all the gremlins breathe easier for a few days, go about their business again. So tell me about how you're gonna 'retire' me, when you're done getting what I know. Beat it out of me, then take me out into the back forty and plant me where someone'll find me when they finally decide to build condos on it."

"It wouldn't hurt," Raff said. "You fuck up more than you help."

"Bullshit," Steve said with a sigh, as if the whole thing bored him suddenly. "You're pissed because I don't live under your rules. Whoever you _really_ are. Someone has to stay outside them, all of them. You're jealous."

"You're lost," Raff said, and Steve clamped his jaw shut. "You really don't have a center to gravitate to. You're not good at this anymore, and you can't leave it alone, so you need someone to make this decision for you. You just get to decide how it happens." When Steve didn't say anything else, he added, "You're going to the funeral, don't worry. It might turn out to be for someone else, though."

* * *

Just as Jon and Neal flipped on the flashlights, the shots began.

"Steve!" Jon shouted, leaping for the stairs.

Neal grabbed him. "No!" he hissed. "Haven't you realized that Steve can take care of himself? Hell, he's probably the one doing the shooting. But we've got to get out of here, and hope he can keep whoever it is busy long enough."

Conflicting emotions played across Jon's face.

"Come on," Neal said softly. "Dead heroes never did anybody any good."

"But Steve..." Jon's eyes darted toward the entry again as sounds of more gunshots and a struggle reached them.

"Is giving us a chance to get out of here. We've got to take it, because it's the only chance we've got."

The two stared at each other for a long moment, until they heard Raff shouting.

"Where the hell are Cain and Schon?"

They walked as quickly and as silently as possible down the narrow corridor. It ended at a ladder mounted on the wall. Jon flipped off his flashlight.

"We'd better wait, at least a little while," he told Neal. "We don't know where this comes out, so we have no idea if someone's up there watching."

Neal nodded, turning his flashlight off as well, wishing that he was anywhere but standing in the dark and wondering what was going on upstairs.

* * *

Dina wasn't sure whether she was grateful for the long bus ride. True, she had plenty of time to plan exactly hat she was going to do once she got back to California, but she also just had _too_ much time to think. She wished she knew whether the rental car had been found, whether anyone had put two and two together and started checking buses. She had paid cash for the ticket,

and there were no pictures of her new appearance yet to show to a counter clerk, but the feds were resourceful. She didn't want to think of who else might be resourceful.

She took advantage of one of the bus' many stops to make a phone call to the San Francisco newspaper. The lady in the obituary department was quite helpful, even if she was apparently annoyed over answering questions about the same services many times.

If the bus was on time, and she was able to find a cab outside the bus station, she should make it to Steve's house in time to hitch a ride to the graveside services. If Steve wasn't home, well, she had plenty of time to work on a back up plan.

* * *

After waiting about an hour, Jon and Neal decided to find out where the tunnel led. At the top of the ladder was a trap door, like something out of the movies. Jon was surprised at how easily the bolt slid back and the door swung downward. Then again, Steve probably kept it in good working order, just in case. Above the trap door was a metal grate. Jon lifted it upward,

showering them both with dirt and leaves. He paused for a moment, making sure that no one was waiting to attack them, before cautiously raising himself out of the opening.

They were in a small wooded area almost within sight of Steve's house, not as far away as they had thought they were. Jon eased closer to the treeline, trying to see any action at the house. He couldn't quite see, but no one was in the lower part of the yard, and no sound came from the direction of the house. Apparently, whoever had been there was gone.

"We can't go back to the house," Neal whispered, shaking dirt out of his hair. "Let's get a little farther away before we call Ross."

Jon fell into step beside him as they walked away from the house. "Should we call Ross? I mean, it looks like everyone's after us. We don't know what's happened to Steve. But we've seen enough to know that someone's playing for keeps. We shouldn't put Ross in that kind of danger."

Neal stopped, looking at Jon seriously. "How do we know he's not already in that kind of danger?"

* * *

Steve was left alone to stare at the walls for an hour.

Finally, Raff stuck his head in the door. "Come on, let's go."

Steve didn't move, didn't uncross his feet on the table, didn't even look up. "I don't think so."

Raff sighed wearily, but didn't answer until Steve made eye contact.

"Look, just come on and don't give me any shit, okay?"

Something about Raff's expression and tone of voice caused Steve to comply. Raff led him out a side door, making sure that no one saw them leave. Getting into a Dodge sedan, they rode for about a mile in silence.

"If you're going to make me disappear," Steve finally said. "Your best bet would be the desert, which is that way." He thumbed over his shoulder.

"Nah, we need you alive right now," Raff answered without looking at him. "Matt."

Steve turned sharply at the name he hadn't been called in forty years.

Raff sighed, seeming to weigh his answer carefully. "No. You were right, I don't belong to the agency. I work for the federal government, kind of the granddaddy of all clean up crews. I came in to make a few...adjustments...in this region. But the whole plan has gone to hell in a handbasket. We had been waiting for an opportunity to draw you out, and the whole deal with Leroy just seemed like a gift from Heaven. But Jon and Neal were supposed to make it out alive. They're in danger now from more sources than even I know about. I'm turning you loose so you can keep an eye on them. They're civilians. They don't know how to play these games. They're good guys; I don't want to see them get hurt."

"What about their families?" Steve asked.

"Liz and her kids are safe." Raff glanced over at Steve's disbelieving look. "Wheeler is part of my team. No one knows where they are but me."

"What about Dina and Sarah?"

"Dina and Liz got a letter from Valory, a sympathy letter about Jon's and Neal's deaths. We went over it with a fine toothed comb, but we couldn't find any coded messages or anything in it. Dina ran away that night, with the baby. She's been smart. She's thrown out half a dozen trails, got us chasing rabbits every which direction. She hasn't tried to make contact with her family or Valory yet. I hope it's because she's afraid and on the run." Neither of them wanted to mention the other possibility.

Raff pulled into a gas station half a mile from Steve's house.

"Until I can get things under control, keep Cain and Schon away from the agency. And hope that Dina contacts you before anyone else finds her." Raff shook his head. "You'll still be dealt with eventually, but right now, they're more important."

Steve stared at the agent for a long moment. "Can we put them with Liz? And then I..."

"No," Raff interrupted. "You've lost perspective. You really _don't_ know which way is up anymore." He met Steve's belligerent look calmly. "I know about you. It's my job to know. I know what you had for lunch Tuesday, I know what Anderson calls you when she thinks you're alone, I know some of the things you've done to be a pain in The Family's ass, I know how often you put flowers on Michael's grave." Raff's voice softened. "I know when this stopped being about staying alive, or avenging your family. It's not just you this time, Matt. Be careful with them."

* * *

No sooner than Jon and Neal had gotten into Ross' car, the cell phone Steve had given them began to ring. The three looked at each other nervously. When Jon nodded, Neal answered the phone.

"Okay, so you got out," Steve said. "Where are you?"

"What the hell happened up there?" Neal shot back.

"Hell if I know. The light gray guys came to shake us up, wanted to know where you were. They're out of control. Where are you?" Steve repeated.

"In Ross' car. We haven't figured out where we're going from here."

"You can't go back to his house. The feds are watching it," the singer sighed. "I guess our only option is to let Ross find you a motel for tonight. Lay low. Give me a few hours to make plans about getting to the funeral tomorrow, and I'll catch up with you."

"How do we know that phone isn't tapped?" Ross asked, and Neal repeated the question to Steve.

"Trust me. It isn't in my name, and it would be hard to trace to me."

"Okay, be careful, and we'll see you in a few hours." Neal flipped the phone closed.

* * *

The night was uneventful, even though none of them really slept. They took turns keeping watch, but at the slightest sound, all three were at the door.

The morning was spent putting the final touches on their altered appearances.

Neal had a little gray added to the hair at his temples, and trimmed his beard. Jon experimented with a pair of fake glasses, and different ways of combing his hair, which he had never gotten around to having cut.

Shortly before noon, Steve began unpacking the suitcase he had brought. He dressed in what Jon described as 'the closest a rock star gets to a respectable suit.'

"Glad the weather decided to cooperate," Steve joked, gesturing toward the window. It was pouring rain. He handed Jon a yellow vinyl rain poncho. "You can keep the hood on without raising too much suspicion."

Next, Steve gave Neal a jacket he'd never seen before, and the hat Steve had worn during his 'Street Talk' days.

"I am not wearing the fucking hat," Neal said flatly.

"You really wanna be in the fucking ground?" Steve shot back, patience wearing thin. "Wear the fucking hat."

Jon, as usual, tried to head off the confrontation before it began. "You gotta admit, Neal, it's the last thing anyone would expect."

Neal glared at both of them, but in the end, he wore the hat.

* * *

Steve had arrived in a strange car. He had Jon drive him to a nearby shopping mall, where they found Steve's car. Steve got out, instructing Jon to drop Neal somewhere where he could take a bus to the cemetery, and for Jon to drive to the funeral.

"How come he gets to drive and I have to take the bus?" Neal asked.

Jon giggled. "You really have to ask?"

* * *

Steve took his expected place at the graveside with Ross and Gregg. Ross took advantage of the first moment Gregg turned to speak to someone else to whisper to Steve.

"Mugs knows something is up, and he's pretty sure that at least one of us is involved."

Steve nodded. "Be careful around him. Gregg, too. We don't need anyone _else_ involved in this."

The fans had turned out to say good-bye, but for the most part, they were extremely respectful. A crowd stood a short distance away in silence. Steve spotted Jon at one edge of the group, and Neal in another part of the group. Because of the rain, no one seemed to be looking closely at anyone else.

Steve breathed an inward sigh of relief, until he noticed the woman with dyed red hair making her way toward Neal.

Shit! Before he had time to react, two shots rang out.

* * *

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