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A Beginner's Guide to Communing with the Dead

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“The court calls Detective Dean Winchester to the witness stand for questioning.”

Relax. He’s done this how many times by now? Dozens, sure. Armed robbery, riots, curses, home invasions—murder, even. Rape. Black magic. Some real nasty stuff. Things that have left him with nightmares. It’s an occupational hazard. And this? The trial? Boring, mostly. He says his bit, what he saw and what he did, and then the lawyers hash things out, all in their fancy clothes with their fancy words in this big fancy room. This part might not be fun, but it’s supposed to be easy.

He steps up to the stand, and finds a slight tremor developing in his legs. Not enough sleep, probably. Too much coffee. Something like that.

Yeah.

“Detective Dean Winchester?” asks the judge. Missouri. She’s fair. Not that it matters a whole lot, here, but right now it’s easier to deal with her than a stranger.

“Yes, ma’am.” He takes his badge out of his jacket pocket and nearly drops it, the sweat from his hands making the plastic slippery. No one laughs, but he can feel his face starting to itch with heat.

“You were the detective in charge of the Harvelle case, correct?”

Are. You are the detective in charge of the Harvelle case.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You found the body?”

There’s no—fuck, he can’t breathe, there’s no fucking air in here, and his heart is hammering fast enough to spin him dizzy just from standing—not here, not now, this is a court case, he needs to breathe, okay—

“Detective Winchester,” Missouri says sharply. “Did you hear the question?”

“Yes, ma’am, sorry. I—yeah, yes, I found her.”

“How?”

“I—we’d been looking for, for about a week, I think. There wasn’t much to go on. We had someone working with—with her old bear, you know, like a stuffed bear. Doing a tracking spell—”

Missouri raises her eyebrows. “It took you a week to do a tracking spell?”

“Yes, ma’am. It was a strong signal, but we were getting a lot of interference.”

“Interference? From what?”

“Hard to say, ma’am. It wasn’t too long after All Souls’ Night, though. I figured it was probably just residual magic getting in the way.”

“Hmm. Well, carry on.”

“I, uh.” His head’s going all fuzzy. Just the hangover, probably, and yeah, it’s not exactly professional to show up to a hearing feeling like you’ve been punched in the face by a fist made of whisky, but it was either that or—right, okay, the tracking. The case. “This spell, it was sending us all over the place—and finally it, uh, it locked on this house. Ellington Street, north of Caldwell. Belonged to a Mr. and Mrs. Remington, both retired, both away on vacation since the sixth of November. I went to check it out—”

“Just you?” Missouri cuts in. “Isn’t that against police protocol?”

“Technically, ma’am, but the neighbourhood was a good twenty minutes away from where the—where the child was last seen, and there was no personal connection between the families. The chances of finding anything seemed, uh, pretty low. So I went to check it out, and the doors were locked, no signs of forced entry, and none of the windows were broken. But I had to check anyways, so went over and got the spare key from one of the neighbours, just like Mrs. Remington had said to when we called their hotel, and I unlocked the door and I—and she—”

“We’ve all seen the pictures, Detective,” Missouri says. Kindly? But Missouri’s a judge, this is her job, and he’s a police witness, that’s his job, and this is a goddamned court proceeding, they’re not supposed to be nice—Christ, though, he thinks he might be sick—

“Could you identify the cause of death?” Missouri asks.

“No ma’am. Not till I got the coroner’s report. There was, uh. There was a lot of damage.”

“Were there, in your opinion, any signs of the use of black magic?”

How to describe it? No sigils, no candles, no animal bones. No bowl. The closest thing to a skull was on the mantle, one of those garish plastic souvenirs tourists picked up in places where hoodoo was still big.

But there was a feeling. An energy, sort of, that made his skin prickle until he wanted to scratch it right off and set a ringing in his ears so loud he could barely hear a thing Bobby said when he radioed the station for backup.

You can’t say that in court, though. It felt weird doesn’t count as viable evidence. Hell, even his friends—even Victor, even Bobby, even Sam—said it was probably nothing, just stress and shock and maybe you just need a few days off, hey?

So he just says, “No, ma’am. No signs of any magic. Nothing recognizable to me, anyways.”

And that’s it, basically. A few more questions, pretty mundane stuff, and then Missouri says he’s free to go, for now. Of course he can be called back at any time, if anyone else has questions—but this isn’t exactly a normal case. No defense, for one thing, mostly because there’s no one to defend, which leaves the prosecution kind of half-hearted. It’s just going through the details. Clearing things up for the sake of clearing them up.

Sam’s waiting for him outside the courtroom, sitting on one of the benches with his fingers flying across the keyboard of his phone, though he jams it in his pocket and rises to his feet as soon as he sees Dean.

“How’d it go?” he asks.

Dean shrugs. “Fine. The usual, I guess.”

“Uh huh,” says Sam, raising his eyebrows. He probably wants them to Talk It Out, maybe have some emotional hugging after Dean breaks down and starts sobbing into Sam’s shoulder; but that’s dumb, this is just another case and it’s his job. He’s fine.

He’s fine, but the trial? That’s not fine. Not right now. Maybe it’s been months, maybe they’ve hit dead end after dead end, but it was a little girl. Eight years old. You can’t just stop investigating. You can’t just let people get away with stuff like that.

“You got half an hour?”

“Sure.”

“Good. I need a drink.”

Sam looks pointedly at his watch, which at a guess reads eleven a.m. seeing as it is, in fact, eleven a.m., but since this constitutes extenuating circumstances he refrains from commenting. Instead he says, “Fine, but a drink, okay? I’ve got an interspecies divorce case at noon, and the soon-to-be-ex wife has a tendency to start breathing fire when she gets annoyed.”

“Sounds like a fun marriage,” says Dean, snorting.

“Yeah, well, not for much longer. I can drop you off at your place after—”

“Nah, the station’d be better.”

His brother sighs, though his face doesn’t register much surprise. “Dean, you’re allowed to take a day off once in a while, you know.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t get paid to sit around at home all day.” Besides, Sam might mean well but the fact of the matter is that being alone in his house with nothing but the insides of his own mind to fill up the empty space is not exactly what he needs right now. Work—there’ll be something for him to do there, something to keep him busy until his thoughts have settled down again. Anything. It doesn’t have to be a new case. He’ll be happy with paperwork, even. There’s always mountains of the stuff lying around, thanks to his habitual procrastination. “Look, tell you what—I’ll leave early next Friday and you and Jess can come over for dinner, yeah? Now let’s go get that drink, my head’s pounding.”

Sam mutters something about aspirin and a nap being a far better solution to the problem than adding wood to the flames, but a few minutes later and they’re out of the courthouse, climbing into Sam’s vaguely beat-up, vaguely ancient car that requires a mysterious ritual of swearing and hitting things and praying to get it to start.

“Dude,” says Dean, shaking his head, as it finally sputters into what can only be called life in the loosest sense of the word. “You seriously need a new car.”

“Oh, it still works fine,” Sam says optimistically. Despite being labeled nearly from birth as the brains of the Winchester outfit and having mastered beginners’ witchcraft in approximately the same time it took Dean to learn how to tie his shoes, Sam seems to cling resolutely to the belief that if he says something enough times with enough determination, it’s bound to become true sooner or later.

Then he adds, somewhat mysteriously, “Besides, I’ve got bigger things to save for at the moment.”

“Like what, a haircut?”

“Ha ha. No. Do you want that drink or not?”

Thirty minutes later they’re pulling up in front of the station, Dean muttering a half-hearted thanks for the ride to his brother and sliding a stick of gum between his teeth in an effort to cover up the lingering smell of alcohol on his breath. Drinking on the job is, ah, discouraged, but it’s not like anyone’s actually going to notice. That idiot corporate witch getting hit with another misuse of magic charge is all anyone’s been talking about lately. Celebrity gossip, basically. All the guy did was party a little too hard and start messing around with his petunias, as if that actually matters

“Hey,” says Victor, stepping into Dean’s office before he’s had a chance to take his coat off. His eyes rake Dean in a quick once-over, which, if the way he crosses his arms is any indication, doesn’t exactly leave a favourable impression. “You look like shit, man.”

“No flirting in the workplace, Vic,” Dean shoots back. “Now piss off, I’ve got stuff to do.”

“You don’t, actually, because Bobby wants to see you in his office. Like, now.”

Shit.

So he spits his gum out in the garbage beside his desk and then it’s off down the hall to the door marked Chief Superintendent. Well, he asked for things to do, right? Looks like some god or other is in a prayer-granting kind of mood today. He loosens his tie, though, because this is Bobby, not the municipal courthouse judge. Kind of tough to look professional around a guy who’s known you since you were two years old and running around the backyard with no pants on.

He knocks, but doesn’t bother waiting for an answer before stepping inside with a brusque, “What’s up?”

Bobby huffs in annoyance, and Dean sighs and amends it to, “Sorry, what’s up, sir?”

“Sit down.” Oh, this looks serious. He hasn’t gotten a sit down since that whole thing with the banshee—which, by the way, was so not his fault; as if he were supposed to know she was in the mayor’s book-club. And before that, it was—well, the point is, the chair in front of Bobby’s desk has something of a reputation. But it’s not at if he can just walk right back out again, since having your oldest family friend as your boss doesn’t change the fact that he’s still your boss, so Dean sighs and heaves himself into the seat.

“Coffee?” Bobby asks.

Yeah, because the two-and-a-half cups it took to get his eyes open this morning definitely didn’t shoot him up with enough caffeine. “I’m good, thanks.”

There’s a long moment of Bobby just staring at Dean with his eyes narrowed in a way that could be a deep, soul-searching look or, equally likely, could just be the scowl that Bobby’s face tends to default to. Dean tries not to fidget, with limited success.

“How’re you doing?” Bobby asks abruptly.

Fucking hell. Why does everyone keep asking that? It’s just some dark circles under his eyes—he didn’t walk in missing a fucking limb or anything. So he didn’t sleep well—it happens. And as far as excuses go, standing as witness to the legal proceedings of a murdered child has to be pretty damn legitimate.

“I’m fine, okay?” he says, rolling his eyes. “And if that’s all you called me in for, well, I appreciate your concern, but—”

“I’ve reviewed your request.”

Ah. Okay. The chair’s starting to make sense now.

“And?” he says, trying to sound casual.

“And,” says Bobby, whose face has settled itself into a full-blown scowl by now, “I declined it.”

“Goddamnit, Bobby—”

“If you actually kidded yourself into thinking I might approve it then you need your head examined,” Bobby snaps. “I’m not going to re-open a case that’s in court right now.”

“But everyone knows the verdict’s going to be—“

“Abducted and killed by person or persons unknown, yeah, yeah, you don’t need to tell me. Look, Dean, you’ve been running yourself into the ground for months over this goddamned case, and you haven’t made a shred of progress.” Dean opens his mouth, protest already on the tip of his tongue, but Bobby holds up a hand for silence. “Not that I’m blaming you, okay? No one is. God knows you tried, but whatever son-of-a-bitch did this covered their tracks better than anything I’ve ever seen.”

“If you just give me a few more weeks—”

“Cut it out, Winchester,” says Bobby, and the glower he’s giving Dean over the desk is definitely more Chief Superintendent Singer than Uncle Bobby. “If new evidence comes up I’ll consider it, but until then my decision is final. Got it?”

Dean glares right back at him, teeth clenched so tight his jaw is starting to grind painfully. Chief Super he may be, but this isn’t right. There’s someone out there with a body bathed in big crimson stripes of a little girl’s blood, and maybe it’ll weigh their soul down when it comes to Judgment–that’s what’s meant to happen, anyways, and everyone says what the living call justice is just an echo of an archetype older than the stars—but sitting back and letting karma run its course has never really been Dean’s thing.

Got it?” Bobby repeats.

Dean drops his gaze and mutters, “Yeah, I got it.”

“Good. Now, I’ve got a new case for you. Some idiot’s been screwing with the Wall again. Just a bunch of kids messing around, I bet, but I need the damage repaired as soon as possible and the culprits tracked—”

“You’re putting me on the Wall? Seriously?”

“It ain’t gonna fix itself,” Bobby points out.

“Yeah, well, someone else can fix it,” Dean says. Taking him off the Harvelle case is one thing, but the Wall? That’s beginner’s stuff. Sure, it’s important to maintain and all, but a working that ancient, that enormous always has something going wrong with it. Another shingle sliding off the metaphorical roof, and when you’ve got a bunch of skittish new recruits it’s the perfect way to ease them into the job. “Give it to Victor. Charlie. I don’t care, anyone.”

“Victor’s tracking down that rogue skinwalker, and Charlie may be a whiz with a keyboard but she’s an even worse witch than you are,” says Bobby. “Besides, what if the printer breaks again? I need her on hand.”

It takes a great deal of effort not to bang his head against the edge of Bobby’s desk. “Bobby. It’s the paper tray. It’s always the goddamned paper tray. You just can’t fit that much paper in it, okay? So stop trying.”

“Whatever.” Bobby waves away his advice, and despite his own irritation Dean can’t help feeling a surge of sympathy for his co-worker. It’s a wonder she’s stuck around this long, messing around with crime under a boss who needs help to open the Internet when she could be making millions programming or, failing that, working elaborate hacking scams. “Anyways, quit your whining. You’re doing the Wall. Corner of Duke and Ursula, and you’ll need this”—he hands Dean a signed-and-stamped summoning form, which Dean accepts grudgingly—“a Grade C elemental, okay, nothing higher. Now get out of here, take the rest of the day off. Do the summoning tonight and I’ll expect you to start the case tomorrow. That’s an order, Winchester.”

“Yeah, well, you know what? Your beard is stupid,” says Dean, and he storms out of the office without bothering to turn back and watch Bobby roll his eyes.

The Wall. The Wall. Bobby’s put him on the Wall. Fucking fantastic. No need for a demotion—no need for a get your shit together, boy, because that pretty much says it all. Bobby doesn’t think he’s fit for regular detective duty. But how, exactly, is he supposed to prove otherwise when the old man won’t let him finish his stupid case?

Back at home, Dean sinks down onto his sofa and contemplates turning on the TV; but the remote is just beyond the reach of his fingertips so he ends up resting his head in his hands instead, pressing his palms into his eyes until supernovas start to pop in the darkness. She’ll be here soon, probably. Maybe not, but probably. It’s nice to have something reliable in his life. Only not really.

Bobby doesn’t think he’s fit for regular detective duty? Well, maybe he’s right.

The thing is, Dean’s going crazy.

Oh, sure, he’s a witch-detective and his brother’s a witch-lawyer and his best friend is—was a vampire. He even dated a selkie once—and no, he didn’t have to hide Lisa’s skin to get her to go out with him, okay? But all that, that’s normal around here. Species integration is, like, last century’s news. And yeah, he eats hummus on his hot-dogs and he does most of his spells in ancient Greek instead of Latin, but that’s eccentric, not crazy. Everyone’s got a few little quirks. Whereas not everyone is, not to put too fine a point on it, teetering on the verge of insanity.

“I haven’t given up, okay?” he says, without raising his head. He never looks, just in case he sees her—or, even worse, in case he doesn’t—but he can feel her beside him. That weird heaviness in the air, the half-imagined someone’s-in-the-room-with-you prickling at the back of his neck. “This is just a minor setback. I’m still trying.”

Right. Because if he couldn’t crack it with the full power of the police force at his disposal, he’s definitely going to be able to do it on his own behind everyone’s back.

If only he could—but he can’t, obviously. Even if it’s for a good cause, it’s still illegal, because who gets to decide what constitutes good? No, the law’s there for a reason. He’s a policeman. He of all people should know that.

But if—

No. Okay? No. Besides, even if he could pull it off without getting either himself or the rest of the world horribly killed—well, he’d never get away with it. It wouldn’t just mean the end of his career, it would mean a charge even Sam couldn’t get him out of. At best an enormous fine, which he wouldn’t be able to pay; at worst, prison. You can’t just go around doing inter-dimensional summonings left and right. Things get crowded, and messy, and sooner or later people start getting hurt. The law’s there for a reason, and so is the ridiculously complicated application process. Someone would notice within about five seconds.

Which leaves him with good old-fashioned detective work. And that’s a good method, deduction and all that, only it’s not working because there’s nothing to deduct.

“I’m working on it, I swear,” Dean insists. Then he gets up and goes to the kitchen to start making himself a sandwich, carefully not looking at space to left of the couch, and also carefully not wondering whether solving this awful case will even make a difference.

Now that he thinks on it it’s kind of insulting, actually, that Bobby already had the application approved and ready to go. The amount of ink-and-paper hoops you need to drag yourself through to get it all done officially means it can take a whole week for even priority to get processed; which means, of course, that Bobby’s been planning this for a while. Probably just waiting for something appropriate to come up—big enough to keep Dean busy for a while, but not so big it’ll be a challenge. Asshole. Dean might be crazy, but he doesn’t need to be babysat.

He puts the form on the kitchen counter, right beside his plate, and stares at it resentfully. Summonings—he hates summonings. Equal parts stressful and boring, and with his stupidly feeble magic even a grade C elemental is enough bring on a pounding headache. Maybe Sam should have become the policeman; this sort of thing is way more up his—

The knife he’s using to spread the mayo clatters to the floor.

It’s probably a dusty and gross down there, he really needs to vacuum, and in the meantime he should definitely pick it up and rinse it off; except instead he just sinks down to the floor beside it, staring unseeingly at the face of the stove across from him.

There’s no metaphorical light-bulb going off over his head. More like one of those industrial-strength fireworks ricocheting around inside his skull, shooting off enough sparks to temporarily fry a good half of his brain. It’s not having an idea, it’s an idea having him. It’s an idea sneaking up behind him in a dark alley and bashing his head in with a lead pipe before rifling through his pockets for loose change. It’s—

Crazy. Stupid. There’s no way he could pull it off.

Except…

But it’s dangerous. Never mind getting caught—if he gets something wrong—

He could ward the room, though. Keep everything contained. That way if he messes up, he’s the only one who’ll burn.

People will notice. There’s a difference between an elemental, any grade, and a—only would they, though? If Dean says it’s a grade C elemental, if he’s got the form approved and all, who’s going to question it? They say curiosity is a part of human nature, but if he’s learned anything from his years on the force it’s that accepting things that more-or-less make sense at face value is a part of human nature as well. And the Department of Interdimensional Affairs is strict, but Dean knows (because Bobby’s told him, off-the-record) that they’ve only figured out how to monitor fluctuation and convergence patterns between dimensions, not the stuff that actually comes through the breach…

Okay. So maybe it could work. Maybe. But he’s been skirting around the big question. The deciding question. The no-going-back-once-it’s-answered question.

Is it worth it?

Logically no. It’s one case. It’s not worth losing his job, his reputation, his life over one case. There’s just no way to balance this equation properly.

But someone killed a little girl. So what if they haven’t done it again? She was eight years old, she was eight years old and probably scared out of her mind, she had a family and friends and an upcoming decade of teenage angst to look forward to, and really he knew the answer even before he asked the question.

He sits for another few minutes, thinking.

This might not be the right choice, but it is my choice. I accept responsibility.

It’s not a spell, except inside his own head, but it gets him to heave himself up off the ground. His fingers seem to have developed a slight quiver, just like this morning—nerves, right? He’s fucking terrified. Determined, but terrified. Nerves. Not excitement. Not even a little bit of excitement.

Well. No time like the present, or whatever. Off to the attic. And possibly to his death. But it’s probably best not to think too hard about that part. Or about what’ll happen if Bobby finds out. Or if the binding breaks. Or any of the other million-and-one things that could go wrong here. Or what Sam would say, or Benny, or Mom or Dad. Actually, it might be best just to stop thinking altogether, for the time being.