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It’s been a long, brutal week of work, but Dean’s Friday officially sets in around the time he removes his bloody machete from the neck of a vampire.

                “Well, don’t Nearly-Headless Nick him,” says Jerry, the hunter with him.

                Dean rolls his eyes and brings the machete down again, finishing the job.

                Giving them about half an hour to sweep the rest of the house, making sure there’s no one else in the nest hiding, they douse the abandoned place in gasoline, fan the flames, and even put in an anonymous 911 call as they’re driving away—that’s called being an upright citizen.

                Dean doesn’t dislike Jerry, per say, but there are plenty of other hunters Ellen could have paired him up with for this job. If Dean is the alpha dog in their hunter community—him and Sam and an averted near-Apocalypse—he’s gonna take the title, shrug it off, and go back to shooting anything with fangs, black eyes, or ectoplasm. He doesn’t expect any special treatment, but he would prefer going on a vampire hunt with someone who knows how to use a goddamn blade. They can’t all be Sam, but they could at least be halfway decent.

                Ellen’s preferred way of scheduling things is giving people mini-hunts between longer cases and stakeouts. Dean just spent two and a half weeks in rural Pennsylvania with his old friend Tamara, scouring an old movie theater for some dead chick with a knack for killing janitors. Fuckin’ research and headaches, trying to find out what remained of her, even after lighting up her grave, because she still didn’t fuck off like she was supposed to after that. So this vampire nest was supposed to be a cakewalk—quick, bloody, efficient. No research, just muscle and grit. It all would have been pretty cut-and-dry if Jerry hadn’t managed to misinterpret Dean’s silent signal to fan out and search the house for one to fumble his machete out of his pants, managing to cut the slightest tip of his pinky finger off in the process.

                “Do you wanna—” Dean says in the car, gesturing vaguely to Jerry’s hand—he has chosen to wrap not just his pinky, but his whole hand and arm in gauze, and is currently cradling it against his chest.

                Jerry shakes his head. “I’m fine,” he says, slowly, deliberately, giving Dean a significant look.

                That’s something else Dean has had to deal with. Hunters are a dying breed, and there’s one less every day—not actually from dying, though. More likely, retiring, as Sam did, although he doubts most hunters go straight back to Ivy League in the hopes of becoming a lawyer. No, ever since the would-be Apocalypse, it’s been made clear that there’s a finite amount of monster in the world. Hunters are no longer fighting a losing battle. As hunts get rarer and rarer on the ground, it becomes clear who still has other priorities—phasing out because they still have families, or their golden years, or other business to look forward to. That works for Dean and the others left. They might grouch that they’re another man short, but it’s one less man taking a job away from them.

                So there are the old-timers, like Dean, who just can’t get out of the hunting mindset. And there are new guys, like Jerry, jumping on the train after all the danger’s past, and trying to prove their place. I may have somehow sliced my finger off, Dean, but I refuse to go to the hospital for it—badass!

                “Okay,” Dean says, since Jerry still is expecting something from him—approval, maybe? “That’s fine.”

                He honestly doesn’t know what’s worse. People like Jerry, losing their doughnuts when they meet Dean in the flesh, or other, seasoned hunters, with chips on their shoulders, acting like Dean’s strutting around with an ego the size of Kansas. Dean’s only ever tried to do his job, and do it well. He doesn’t need to be glorified for it, but he doesn’t need to be shit on about it, either.

                It’s a relief when they finally reach the Roadhouse the next morning. Jerry stumbles off towards the dumpy “Hunter Hotel” that got erected out back, but when he thinks Dean’s not looking, he turns around and walks towards the just-as-dumpy medical station. There’s an ex-hunter named Saul who was a doctor before his family was killed by werewolves; he tends to patch up what he can to help them all avoid the headache of hospitals and questions.  

                Dean pockets his keys and heads into the dim Roadhouse. The place is practically empty, something old and twangy playing on the jukebox. There are only a few older hunters in there now, all known to Dean, and they nod acknowledgement as he slides in next to them.

                “How’s Jerry?” One of the men snickers, showing full well that they all knew what Dean was getting into.

                “Needs to learn his way around a knife,” Dean grumbles.

                “Needs to learn how to put one foot in front of the other,” the other guy retorts.

                “Bad luck, Dean,” says the man sitting at the far end.  “Ellen says there’s some big shit going down in the Northwest, and you arrived back a day too early.”

                Dean shrugs. Keeping busy, life on the road, it’s nothing new. Not to mention he might have a chance to swing by and see Sammy while he’s out there—unless he’s paired with a real hard-ass jerk, there shouldn’t be a problem with taking a day or two to see his brother and fellow hunter hero on the way back.

                “Not because of the shit,” says Dale, the guy sitting on the end. “Because of the guy you’re paired with.”

                Dean’s not gonna lie, Ellen’s whole schtick of never letting anyone go off on a solo hunt can get pretty annoying, especially when he could do the job easier, and faster, on his own. But all the same, he gets her point. They’re in the waning days of monsters versus men. There’s no reason to get overconfident and get someone killed when they didn’t have to be. Not to mention Ellen runs the monopoly on hunting now— a hunter headquarters, of sorts (complete with a bar, a hotel, and a doctor), and access to a hunter network of advice and aid (people like  Bobby, or Ash, pretending to be federales, or hacking computers) as long as you agree to buddy-system your way through a monster mash.

                “Who’s that?” Dean says, craning his head around for Ellen. She isn’t out in the bar area, which means she must be in her small office, possibly with Ash.

                “Casti-el fuckin’ No-vak,” Dale sing-songs, and the other men shift in their seats and let out a few chuckles. Dean’s nonplussed—the hunter network is small, and it’s kind of a job requirement to be good with names, but he’s never heard of this guy before.

                “You’ve just been lucky to never cross paths with him,” Dale says darkly. “ He’s new here. They must have gotten sick of his shit in Canada and booted him out. Real pain in the ass, that one. Acts like Prince—don’t look at me, don’t directly address me,  that kind of thing. Thinks he’s the best hunter in the world.”


                “And he’s okay,” Dale admits sourly. “But he hasn’t exactly endeared himself to folks around here. He went on a hunt with Harry Sackett last week—Harry Sackett got back four days ago.”

                “Just Harry?”

                “Yeah, just Harry, because he dumped Novak’s ass in the middle of nowhere outside of Bloomington. Novak had to walk back.”

                Now that Dean’s hearing this, he realizes that he has heard about Castiel Novak. Not by name, but last time he stopped in to grab a beer and listen to chatter, some guys down the bar were laughing about an asshole hunter they kept hazing. It started when the hunter was so rude and arrogant that his partner just drove off in frustration—but now it’s become a competition, seeing the best way they could ditch him. Driving off while he used the bathroom at a gas station. Asking him to bury the body and hightailing it while the guy was knee-deep in grave dirt.

                “—claimed he swiped a deer while Novak was sleeping, so he wakes him up, pulls over, and asks him to see the damage. Kicked gravel up in his face and kept on gunnin’ down the road,” Dale’s recounting, as the other men laugh.

                Dale turns back to Dean. “Anyways, Sackett’s been here and gone, and Novak was supposed to go on a hunt with Cooper three days ago, but he hasn’t gotten back yet. So Ellen’s sticking your sorry ass on a hunt with him.”

                Dean just shrugs, which isn’t the reaction any of them wanted from him. The closest leans forward and says,

                “Mark my words, you’ll be pulling a drive-and-dash on this sonuvabitch, too. Nasty temper. Smart mouth. Know it all. Sackett says Novak shot out his back window and his taillight.”

                “Wasn’t Sackett ditching him in Bloomington at the time?” Dean asks, smirking.

                “Alright, Mr. Hard to Impress,” the man says. He leans closer. “This should get your goat. Go ask Joanna Harvelle what she thinks about Novak. Because Ellen nearly gouged his eyes out after he dipped out on Jo when they went a-hunting for ghosties a few months ago.”

                That gets Dean’s attention—Ellen’s not the only one fiercely protective of the part-time bartender and novice huntress.

                “Why’d he do that?”

                “Refused to say. Some hunter schlub in New Mexico messed up his info and told Ellen it was ectoplasm; they get caught unawares when it turns out to be sulfur. They get jumped by four demons in Albuquerque, and Novak leaves her to snuff it. Luckily, Royce and Geordie were in the area and they helped fight her way out of there.”

                “Needless to say, the guy’s still in the doghouse with Ellen,” Dale chips in. “Then Jo gets mad that Ellen’s being too mother-hen, going ballistic on Novak when that’s her job, so she walks out on Ellen and hasn’t been back in months. That’s strike two. Not that Ellen’s gonna force team-building and Boy Scouts on us, anyway, but she’s definitely looking the other way on Novak getting ditched in the wilderness every week. Probably thinks he deserves it.” Ellen’s office door squeaks open, and Dale looks up and then significantly in Dean’s direction.

                Dean knows he’s been hunting a lot lately—he can’t remember the last time he spent more than six hours at the Roadhouse—but he knows he’s talked to Jo since a few months ago. He’s a little put out that she didn’t tell him about her Southwest ghost hunt that almost went South—he’s also a lot pissed that the next hunting partner he has lined up is a coward and a selfish asshole. If he did it once, he’d do it again—no doubt, and next time Jo, or whoever else, wouldn’t be so lucky. Fuckin’ Jerry wouldn’t even turn tail and ditch a partner in a life and death situation. That’s what partners were for—you both got out, or you both didn’t.

                “Well,” Dean says. “Maybe, with my luck, Novak will do us all a favor and snuff it on our next hunt.”

                The three bastards sitting in their seats laugh uncomfortably and are suddenly deeply interested in their beers. Dean looks up and sees a dusty, ragged man with an inscrutable expression on his unshaven face.

                “Dean Winchester,” the man says flatly. “I hear you’re my partner.”