It's not so much a blur as a series of disconnected scenes - the time before he wakes up in what he knows immediately is a hospital bed.
The first time he comes around, that's all he can manage to process before he's under again, but each time he gets a little more. He hurts all over because he's cold, lying on snow and watching new flakes fall and settle on the hand in front of his face that's too cold for him to feel. He flexes his fingers and watches them move, blunt nails scraping into the top layer of snow and leaving welts like claws.
The next time, he thinks that he should try to move; he's got no idea how long he was out but the light is different, and he knows the day is fading toward evening. He knows he won't make a night out here, but it's hard to make himself care much. Even the thought of movement is exhausting so he lets himself rest for a moment, just a brief slow blink of his eyelids that drops the sun even lower in the sky.
Pain rips through him when he does move, radiating up out of his right leg along with an intuitively sickening grating noise. He's aware of retching, dry heaves that pull right through his body and worsen the pain, as he slips gratefully back into darkness.
There's someone with him the next time: a knee next to his face, a hand scooping a space in the snow for him to breathe into. He tries to turn to look at whoever it is, half-afraid of what he might see.
"Oh, thank God," a voice says from somewhere above the knee. It's a female voice, anxious but not panicky. "Don't try to move, okay? The ambulance is on its way."
She pets his face, the side that isn't pressed against the ground, and talks. Her fingers are cold and wet from digging in the snow around his mouth and nose, and nothing she says makes any sense to him, but he doesn't want her to stop. By the time the snow starts whipping up off the ground like icy needles, she's told him he's going to be all right just often enough that he lets himself believe it.
He recognizes the sound of the helicopter as a distant, unimportant thing until he realizes it's the ambulance she was talking about. By that time they've already got him strapped on his back to a board, his grating leg immobilized along with his neck and head, so his panic is mostly contained. He hears the word 'combative' and wonders if he's a soldier before another voice, male this time and less convincing, tells him it's all going to be all right. Then he feels himself slip out of consciousness again, into warm, drugged nothingness.
He's gone over his story at least fifty times. Granted it doesn't take very long to tell, given that it consists mainly of 'I don't know' and 'I can't remember,' but being asked again makes him want to punch something. Do they think he's pretending that he doesn't even know his own name?
He only realizes he asked out loud when his doctor, his neurosurgeon for crying out loud, gets to her feet holding her hands out placatingly, and the police officers stand as well.
"I think that's enough for now," the neurosurgeon says, and her tone is quiet but not to be argued with. She ushers the police out of the room, and turns back to the bed. "They're only trying to help," she says. "Someone's probably looking for you, worried about you." There's a long beat of silence, presumably in case memories of people who might be worried come flooding back, but they don't, and the doctor moves on. "You need a name," she says. "We can't keep calling you 'the amnesiac.'"
"I don't know. I think it's kind of cool. Better than that other thing they're calling me."
"John Doe?" she asks, sitting on the edge of his bed in a way he knows is supposed to make him feel at ease. "That bothers you?"
"Makes me feel like a corpse, dead man walking, you know? A revenant." He has no idea where that word came from but it feels comfortable in his mouth, even if the doctor looks surprised to hear it.
"We use the name for unknown patients too, you know."
"Yeah." He shrugs. "I know."
There's more to it than that, not least because most of the time he just gets called 'John' anyway, and that's worse. He has no idea how to explain that John doesn't feel right, that he doesn't feel worthy of it. It's a stupid thing to think, he knows that, but he still thinks it.
Another pause, longer this time, less comfortable, and then Dr. Harris pats his ankle through the blankets that cover it and gets to her feet. She takes a deep breath, clearly readying herself to say something, but she's waylaid by a knock on the open door to his room.
"Are you...oh I'm sorry, Dr. Harris, I didn't realize you were-"
"I'm just leaving," she says, interrupting the bright friendly tones of the nurse, Tina.
He already knows more about Tina than he does about himself, including the fact that, sadly, she's married.
He salutes the doctor lazily as she leaves; she's doing her best for him, based on what little he's given her, and he knows that. Then he turns his most brilliant smile on Tina and beckons her into the room. She's got another woman with her, a petite brunette who looks over him with a complicated expression.
"I don't want to bother you," the woman says, and he feels the smile fall from his face.
"Do I know you?" he asks, urgently, hitching across the bed as far as he can with his right leg still in traction. "Do you know me?"
She frowns and shakes her head. "No," she says, apologetically and too late he realizes how desperate he sounded. Really not cool. "No, I'm sorry. Not really."
"It's just...your voice, it's familiar." In a way that nothing else has been since he woke up in this damn bed, although technically he supposes it was actually a different bed, but one hospital bed is pretty much the same as another.
He gets a tight little smile from her. "I found you," she explains. "I talked to you then; I thought you weren't really conscious, but maybe that's where you remember my voice from."
"Yeah," he says, feeling crushed and struggling to make himself smile at her. "Thanks for that, by the way. They tell me I wouldn't have made another day out there."
Her expression tells him that she hasn't come here for gratitude - it's a confused frown that suggests she doesn't know what she's doing here any more than he does.
"Well," she says, not quite meeting his eyes. "This is awkward. I just...well you looked so sick, and I wanted to see for myself that you're getting well, and I have now so I guess I'll just...." She hooks a thumb over her shoulder and smiles ruefully. "Sorry to have disturbed you, I just...never mind."
"No, no it's fine, I get it," he says, patting the side of his bed in invitation. He's not expecting her to sit there but the traction equipment severely limits his ability to lean over and pat the chair next to the bed instead.
She steps into the room more fully, and Tina disappears in search of a call bell that's started ringing somewhere else on the floor. "I guess I just feel...." Another shrug.
He smiles at her, a genuine smile that feels good instead of forced. "Well you are," he agrees. "Save a man's life, you're responsible for it."
She looks at him for just long enough that he figures maybe he guessed wrong about what she was going to say. "Damn," she says. "I suppose it's too late to put you back?"
"Afraid so." His smile widens as she perches on the chair by the bed. At least she's unlikely to start asking him complicated questions about his memory, or to quiz him about his bodily functions. It makes a nice change. "'Racking up one heck of a medical bill here. They need me to get well and get working to pay it off. Can't go after my family for it, after all."
He can tell she's not buying his attempt at levity, but she doesn't press the matter, which is a relief.
"Actually that's the other reason I thought I'd come," she says brightly. "Who knows if you have anyone to visit with you, and hospitals can be boring places to spend your time."
He feels the corner of his mouth curve up in another smile, short-lived and surprised out of him, as he recalls looking forward to the med students' teaching round yesterday. Even though they ask him all the same questions as everyone else, just less artfully, and stare at him like he's an especially fascinating bug in a jar. This feels different though, like she's pleased to see him looking better just for itself, and not because he's an unusual case of total amnesia.
There's a long and awkward silence though, because they're strangers, with really no common ground that he knows of. He has a feeling he ought to be better at this, that he used to be better at this, but he's not completely sure what he means by 'this.'
"So," they both say at once.
"I didn't catch your name," he says after they've done the requisite 'after you; no, no, after you' gestures that even amnesia hasn't robbed him of.
Her answer catches him in his gut.
"Sammy?" he repeats, too quickly, too intense.
She shakes her head. "No. Sally." Gives him another half-frowned smile. "Sorry."
"No," he says, no idea what she's apologizing for but grateful for the salve of it anyway. "I'm sorry. I should listen better."
"Sammy," she says finally, tentatively. "Is that...you, do you think? Are you Sammy?"
"No." He's sure about that. Not him, but someone he knows, someone important. "Not me...someone else. Someone...."
She lets him sort through his thoughts, frustrating as that is given that he can't find who Sammy is in his head. His mind's a blank space, with facts like Sammy, and his own name, dancing just out of reach of his desperately grasping mental fingertips. He's grateful for the time and silence to try and grasp, though. Dr. Harris and the med students always rush on to the next question; it leaves him feeling bewildered and incompetent.
"Next time I should bring something," she says eventually, and it's perfectly timed, coming just as he accepts he isn't going to remember Sammy any more than he can remember anything else. "A pack of cards or something?"
"Next time," he parrots, like a moron, because he wants her to come back, he just can't see why she would. Her expression changes and he rushes on, even though he knows she probably wouldn't actually mind him giving her an out, telling her she doesn't need to come back. "I'd like that."
She raises an eyebrow and fixes him with an incredulous glare. It's cute. "Really?"
"Yes, really," he says, and he's grinning but he hopes she'll see the truth in it. She makes him feel almost human. He's more grateful for that than the whole pulling-him-out-of-certain-death-in-the-snow thing. "Don't know if I can remember how to play cards, but...." He shrugs.
"Well, we'll start off with something simple."
She's not kidding. A few days later she turns up with a foil-wrapped bundle of cookies and a worn deck of cards, and threatens him with playing War all afternoon until he convinces her he's lost his memory not his entire higher brain function. They play Gin and Blackjack, and she explains the rules she plays by without ever making him feel stupid for not knowing them.
"This is dreadful," she opines halfway into her cup of hospital coffee, pushing it across the table that stretches over his bed. He's inclined to agree, but he doesn't let the orderly clear the cup away until much later that night.
Watching her stare at her cards and wrinkle her nose while she takes forever to decide whether to hit or stay, he forgets how much his leg itches under the cast, or how the traction, helpful as it is to his broken bone, makes the rest of him restless. She hasn't asked him anything about his memories, or lack thereof, and it makes him want to talk to her about how weird it is to have no past. He has a vague and gathering fear that he's like Geena Davis in The Long Kiss Goodnight - suffering from classic Hollywood amnesia, having done something terrible that his mind won't let him remember - but he can't bring himself to voice it to anyone yet. He thinks Sally would just give him another one of her disbelieving frowns, but he doesn't want to risk losing the only visitor he's got, so he keeps quiet.
The following week she brings muffins, and a flask of coffee that's so damn good it just points up how awful the hospital stuff is, so he's not sure whether to be grateful or not. That's the first thing he tells her at her next visit - on a Tuesday, as always, and now that he has her visits to set his week by, the days don't get so jumbled. It's a relief not to have to watch the med students frown and pretend they aren't when they ask him their barrage of orientation to time place and person questions. He always fails anyway because knowing it's Tuesday, October 12th and sixteen hundred hours doesn't cut it when he has no idea of his own name or date of birth.
They don't call it failure, but he can read it in their faces anyway.
He teaches her five-card draw the following week, feeling his way through the rules and more than a little irritated that he can remember that a full house beats a straight but not where he was born. He can read practically every card in her hand on her face, and after two hours she's cleaned out of the tongue depressors Tina let them have to bet with. She takes it well though, frowning with concentration, which only makes her tells more obvious.
"Are you sure you're not cheating?" she grumbles as she roots around in her purse for something inconsequential to throw into the middle of the pile rather than accept defeat gracefully. Her eyes widen as soon as she says it, fingers clutching hard at a piece of paper. "Oh God, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to imply-"
"You should wonder," he says, with a sage nod. "I could be."
She raises an eyebrow in his direction. "You could?"
He shrugs, and they've changed his traction from a setup that runs from a pin in his ankle to one that runs off his cast and so the movement doesn't pull through him like it used to, but her expression tugs on something in him anyway. He means that she shouldn't trust him, shouldn't trust anyone, but he doesn't know where that paranoia comes from. It's different from the odd flashes of 'someone's doing this to me, keeping me like this; maybe I'm an experiment, a prisoner of the government or the military-industrial complex' that he gets. This paranoia feels solid and sensible and real, like it's a tenet of his life. He doesn't like that idea much, and he wants Sally to trust him, so he doesn't say anything, just shrugs.
He can feel that he could cheat too, that he knows how to, his hands know how to vary their dealing from the top to the bottom of the deck, or to the second card. It's another thing he wishes he didn't know about himself.
"Okay," he says, reaching out to snag the crumpled slip of paper - an old shopping list, apparently - from Sally's hand. "Pretend this is, I don't know, the deed to your house."
"I wouldn't be stupid enough to bet something like that."
"Well that's good, but still." She nods her agreement. "Now, your hand's pretty bad right?"
"Hey, how do you-"
"Not important," he says, but it is. "I'm not cheating by the way. I just want to make that clear. Okay, so bet me the deed to your house, look me in the eye and bluff that your hand is so great you just can't wait to take my tongue depressor stash, impressive as it is."
She's smiling at him, and she reaches over to pluck up one of the wooden strips; she puts down her cards to write something on it. "If I'm betting my house, you're betting your car."
"Cool, okay. So, look me in the eye and-"
"Yeah, I got it."
She frowns, tugs the paper out of his hand and throws it and the tongue depressor labeled 'Ferrari' onto the pile, and picks up her cards. He tries to school the smile off his face as she visibly collects herself before looking at him. She may just as well have taken the pen with which she just made him the owner of a sports car and written 'bluffing' on her own forehead.
She holds eye contact for a long time, long enough that it starts to feel uncomfortable, not that he wants her to stop. Then she gives him another one of her complicated frowning smiles and throws her cards into the middle, face up. "You know what?" she says, "I don't think I want to learn how to lie to you after all."
"Could save your life one day," he says, and that feels like something old too, something from before, but she just raises her eyebrows disbelievingly and the afternoon moves on.
When she leaves, he realizes she's left her book behind; she must have taken it out of her purse when she was looking for the shopping list. It's a well-thumbed copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. He can't remember if he's read it or not, and it's not like he has anything else to do with his time between physical therapy and ward rounds. Daytime TV pretty much sucks out loud. Even the med students are bored with him now, because he hasn't magically recovered his memory, and there's a new patient down the hall who's apparently got something called Brown-Secquard syndrome. He uses the Ferrari tongue depressor as a bookmark, and, just to be sure, the shopping list, too, and tells himself he's probably always hated losing his place.
She doesn't come the following Tuesday, which is okay because he knew she wasn't going to. She warned him last week that she had some work thing or other, and he's fine about it. It's probably for the best anyway, because he's out of the traction and having to learn how to be upright again. Crutches seem to be something he's done before, because he takes to them easily, but he's lost a lot of muscle mass lying in bed watching bad soaps, and he sleeps more than usual. Some days are worse than others, and the weekends are worst of all because everyone else gets visitors and he feels invisible.
He pushes himself extra hard in his physical therapy on the Saturday morning after the Tuesday when she doesn't come. He's finished To Kill a Mockingbird and has little to look forward to besides listening to the sounds of other people having a better weekend than he is, and he wants to be tired enough to sleep through the afternoon. Sure enough, when he gets back to his room the stream of happy visitors has already started and the nurses are all busy. It occurs to him as he strips out of his sweat-soaked tee-shirt and washes up as best he can around the cast that Sally never actually said she was coming back next week. She was careful to let him know about last Tuesday, and he took it as unspoken that she'd be back. He's aware that he's sort of been holding onto her book as a talisman, kidding himself that she'll have to come back because she left a book she can pick up another copy of for all of six bucks.
So he's irritable and off kilter when he forces himself to get into bed and take a nap. Part of him wants to head back to the gym and work off some more of his bad mood, but his muscles are already shaky with fatigue, and besides, he doesn't enjoy the idea of running the gauntlet of visitors. He's safe enough holed up in his room; he'll just lie down and rest.
When he wakes up, unrefreshed, from a light sleep filled with nightmares he can't remember, Sally's sitting in the chair by his bed, shoes kicked off and feet tucked up under her. She's reading, and for a brief terrifying moment he thinks maybe she can't see that he's there, that he's awake. It passes almost as quickly as it comes, leaving the same oily taste on the back of his tongue as the nightmares do, and he resists the urge to call out to her, ask her if she can hear him.
"Hey," she says, before he can break and prove himself to be a total whackjob. "You're awake."
"Yeah," he replies, voice dry and cracking with the remnants of his stupid fear. What's he possibly got to be afraid of? "So I am."
Something in his tone makes her brow crease and she starts to get up. "Sorry, I guess I should have just left a message when they told me you were sleeping. I can-"
"No, really, it's fine, please." He sounds more like himself again, they can both hear it, and she settles back into the chair. She doesn't look as comfortable though. "It's not Tuesday already is it?"
"Saturday," she says with a shake of her head that he might have called sheepish if that wasn't crazy.
"Just missed me that much, huh?" he asks, and her fond exasperated smile is answer enough.
"Something like that. Actually, I had something I wanted to show you." It's on the tip of his tongue to make a joke about showing her his if she'll show him hers when she holds up a finger in stern but not unamused admonition. "Don't."
"Does anyone fall for that innocent look?" she asks and then seems to realize he doesn't know.
"I guess not," he says with a smirk.
She pulls her bag up onto her lap then, and instead of her usual purse she's got a little backpack. There doesn't seem to be much in it, and he watches her grab hold of something and then just sit there for a moment, both arms up to her elbows in the bag. "This may be nothing."
But it isn't.
It's a small battered metal box that probably used to be black. The top hinges away from a keyed lock. He knows already, even before he takes it from her with hands that are shaking a little, that the left hinge has a bit of give in it.
"No key?" he says, even though he can think of other, better questions, like where and how and what's in it?
"Sorry." She sounds like she means it. "I found it this morning...well, my dog found it this morning." He looks at her out of the corner of his eye, reluctant to look away from the box, like it might disappear if he takes his eye off it. He lets the silence run on a little because he has no idea what to say, and Sally fills it. "We were walking, not far from where I found you. Not all that close either, but same sort of area, so I thought....We haven't had any fresh snowfall and the days have been warm, and suddenly there was this patch of snow that was melted right through to the ground. The dog dug that out of the corner of the hole in the snow."
He sees her shrug out at the edge of his visual field. He wants the fact that he knows this is his to unlock the rest of his memory, but it's just like the poker and the name Sammy, and there's nothing, no flood of memory, not even a clue as to who he is. He's tempted to throw the box across the room just to watch it make a dent in the wall, but he doesn't want to add to his hospital bill any more than he has to, and he knows it would be kind of an ungrateful way to behave anyway.
"I think it's mine," he says. "I have no idea what's in it or why I took it halfway up a mountain, but I think it's mine."
"Well, that's something, right?" Sally says, as brightly as she can probably manage. He can hear the disappointment in her tone, and he feels bad for putting it there, even though he's pretty sure she's disappointed on his behalf. "Maybe I could take it to a locksmith or-"
"No." He doesn't want her to see what's in it. He doesn't know what it is, and it's possible this is just his post-brain-injury paranoia talking again, but he's got a bad feeling about it. He also doesn't think it will take him more than a few seconds to get the box open, and he'll be damned if he's letting someone make money out of such a non-job. "It's fine. I think I want to just...."
He isn't sure what he even means, but Sally gets to her feet in the ensuing silence and squeezes his shoulder. "I'll go," she says, and he's torn. "See you Tuesday."
"Yeah, okay." He remembers his manners just as she reaches the door. "Thanks, for bringing this."
"Not a problem."
"Oh, and you left a book here last time."
She smiles at him, like he's an idiot but she likes him anyway. "I know," she says with a shrug. "I left it for you. Figured you'd need something to do with no chance to corrupt me into the world of high-stakes gambling this week."
"I finished it and, well, thanks."
"I could leave you another one, but I think maybe you have enough to keep you out of mischief with your box of delights there."
"More like Pandora's box," he says before he can stop himself. "Don't think I don't know that you left that book here so you'd have an excuse to come back, either."
"I don't need an excuse," Sally counters, but there's just the faintest pretty blush coloring her cheeks to tell him he's right, and he can't help but smile. "It's a free country."
She stalks out of the door at that and he lets her, happy enough to watch her walk down the hall. She turns just before she moves out of sight, and he gives her a little wave. Then he turns his attention back to the black box.
He's tempted not to open it, to just drop it into one of the clinical waste bins to get incinerated. He knows that's just the remnants of the funk he was in earlier, the nightmare and that weird feeling of being invisible and inaudible, but he can't shake the feeling that he might not want to know who he really is. It doesn't last long, and he shakes his head at his own stupidity. It's not like he's expecting to find anything gruesome in the box, but he might find a name for himself at least. Having other people call him something he knows isn't him is weird, but understandable; not having any idea what to call himself is just freaky.
He appropriated a knife off his first dinner tray in this room, hid it in his bedside table with the shaving kit and toothbrush he persuaded one of the orderlies to buy for him. He starts to retrieve it from its admittedly far from ideal hiding place, before deciding to close the door to his room first. The police are still dropping by occasionally, mainly to tell him they've got nothing, and just in case the box contains the still-beating heart of his first true love or some similar crazy shit, he wants a warning if he's going to get an audience. By the time he's struggled over to the door on his crutches, closed it, and gotten back to the bed, he's convinced that he's just trying to protect himself. All this 'maybe it would be better not to know' crap is just a way for his brain to protect him against the possibility that there aren't going to be any answers in the box.
And he's not about to be outsmarted by his own brain.
He jimmies the box, wiggling the blade of the knife into the gap left by the loose hinge and cracking it open every bit as easily as he'd known he would. He still has no idea how he'd known, but he had, and he'd been right. He hesitates just once more before really looking inside, because so far the identities that seem to be open to him are card sharp and burglar, and he must have had a pretty crappy guidance counselor to get those as his options.
He has no idea what he's expecting to find, but he's damn sure what he does find isn't it.
The first thing that strikes him is that he's looking at a photo of himself, on an ID badge that proclaims him to be Agent Doug Clifford of the FBI. And it's weird because it's an ID badge, so surely that must be who he is, but, while the name tickles his spidey sense just a little, he doesn't get the sense of yes that he got with the box. Apart from anything else, he's been here for weeks now; if he were FBI, the bureau would have found him, memory or no memory. He puts a finger under the ID, half afraid it might bite him, and flips it up to reveal another ID badge. It's practically the same photo, but in this one he's a US Marshall. He flips through a few more ID badges - plumber, locksmith, sociologist for the Cooperative Resources Management Division of the Department of Agriculture.
Then he gets to the credit cards. There are six; all with different names, and none of them repeated from the ID badges. None of them strikes him as being his own name, a name that rings true. There are other bits of documentation for some of the names: a driver's license, and a couple of scraps of paper with numbers scrawled on them that he thinks are the right length for social security numbers. Tucked into the corner of the box is a tightly bound roll of cash, maybe a couple of hundred bucks at a guess. He drops everything back into the box and runs a hand over his face. His heart's pounding so loud in his ears he's surprised none of the nurses has heard it and come to investigate, and he thinks he might throw up.
So he's what? A conman? A spy?
The thought surprises a bark of bitter laughter out of him.
"Guess I found myself a name then," he mutters to himself as he closes the box and tucks it away with the rest of this things, between two tee-shirts, until he can find a better place to hide it. "Just call me Jason Bourne."
Even out of sight, the box full of identities isn't out of his mind for even a second the rest of that day. He turns it over and over in his mind, distracted enough for his physical therapist and the orderly who brings his evening meal to comment on it. He gives them the closest thing to a smile he can manage, but they've both worked in healthcare a long time and apparently his sudden moodiness is nothing all that unusual. He's bothered not only by the multiple personalities, the almost certain illegality of everything in that box - up to and including the cash, probably - but also the way it was found. Buried in snow doesn't sound like really much of an attempt to conceal it. And the patch of snow that had melted, that drew Sally to it, like a patch of unholy ground. And that - right there - is another stupid, crazy-person thing to think.
He eats enough of his food not to draw attention to his lack of appetite, takes his evening meds like a good boy, and pretends to settle in for an early night of watching crappy game shows on TV. He's discounted the spy idea, because it just seems so ridiculously farfetched, which really only leaves him with con artist. He's not all that happy with it, but he's noticed how easy it is to persuade people to do things for him. He's got a locker full of clothes that people have gotten for him at, now that he thinks about it, improbably low prices, not to mention a woman he doesn't know who visits him every week and presumably drove down from the mountains to give him what turned out to be something of a mixed blessing.
Okay, okay so fine: he was a conman. Maybe this is his chance at redemption, time to put all that behind him and move forward. Maybe it isn't a turning point he's necessarily invited, but that doesn't mean he can't use it. People offering to do things for him, that's hardly his fault, is it? It isn't as if he's consciously set out to influence them and where there is no intent, there is no crime.
He tucks his hand into the box and stirs the cards around before extracting three, which he lays on his table in a three-card Tarot spread. Past, present, future. The past is a credit card in the name of Hector Aframian; he doesn't turn over the present card; and the future card is an ID. A mechanic, Dean Richardson.
He tries it out, doesn't hate it as much as John. Or Hector, come to that.
Yeah, he can live with that. It's a good name, solid and dependable. A responsible name, appropriate for taking him away from a life of crime and into a life of something else. He tucks the cards back into the box, arranges the tee-shirts over it, resolves not to even try and sweet talk the breakfast orderly into a second cup of coffee in the morning, and goes to sleep.
When Sally comes the following week she approves of his new name, and he finds he likes the sound of it on her tongue. When she suggests putting an ad in a few national newspapers advertising his existence in case anyone's looking for him he rejects the idea; he's pretty sure he doesn't want to be found by anyone who might be looking for the old him.
He gets a little stronger, more proficient with his crutches, and the day he manages to get down a flight of stairs with them he gets a social worker. Her name's Karyn - she was very clear about the spelling - and she's a whirlwind of efficiency. It's kind of a surprise, because he's got a very different idea of social workers in his head, not that he knows where he got it.
"Right, then, Dean," she says, sliding into the seat opposite him in her miniscule office, which he's pretty sure was a cupboard in its former life. She's the only person who doesn't still stall for the briefest of moments before she says his name, probably because she's never known him as anything else. If he wasn't slightly scared of her, he thinks he'd like her. "So, discharge on Wednesday. How are you feeling about that?"
He shrugs, like he's not terrified at all, because it's not like he has any choice in the matter. He's well enough now that he doesn't need a hospital bed, and the ever-resourceful Karyn has found him a place in transitional housing just until he gets on his feet. "Can't wait," he offers when it become clear that she's not going to take shrug for an answer.
"I thought maybe we could take a drive out to Project Hope today, if you'd like, get a look at the place. I know the thought of leaving the hospital must be a little worrying for you."
He wants to tell her she doesn't know shit about how he feels, and that he knows there isn't any damn point to driving out to see the place because even if he hates it, he's still getting discharged. But she's probably cleared some of her schedule to do this, and at least it will take one of the unknowns out of Wednesday. Besides, a trip out of the hospital is not to be sneezed at.
"Sure," he says, with another shrug, and he can see she's not buying the act, but he's not in a sharing kind of mood.
"Then we need to talk about employment opportunities for you," Karyn says as they walk out to her car. It's a classic soccer-mom minivan, which is good because it's relatively easy for him to get his cast into, with the passenger seat pushed as far back as it will go. "Do you have any thoughts, any ideas what you might like to do?"
He's been thinking about this exact question for some time now, because if he ends up working for minimum wage it's going to take him the rest of his life to pay off his hospital bills. That said, he has no idea what he can do; he's not stupid, he knows that, but whether he has any qualifications is anybody's guess. He's almost tempted to suggest the FBI to her, but he doesn't feel quite up to dealing with her at her most sympathetic. She's far too good at it.
"We'll have to think about it," she says as she starts the car and pulls out of the parking lot. "There are various courses and job-retraining grants available that we can look at."
"Mmm," Dean grunts, and he's listening, sort of, but there's something else taking most of his attention, and after a moment he rolls down his window to be able to hear it better. "Your belt's loose."
"My...I'm not wearing a belt."
He shoots her a frown. "No, your camshaft belt." Nods his head towards the hood of the car. "You can't hear it? Your engine?"
"Seriously?" She sounds crushed which doesn't make any sense until she continues. "It's a new car, well, not new new obviously, not on my salary."
He wishes he was as good at sympathetic as Karyn is as the silence spins out. The more he listens the more sure he is that that high whine above the normal engine noise is incorrect tension in the belt. He grimaces; he was kind of looking forward to flying the coop for a half hour or so. "I wouldn't drive it like that," he says, with an apologetic shrug.
She parks back in the same spot - they haven't been gone long enough for someone else to take it - and takes a deep breath. Apparently cars are Karyn's kryptonite, judging by the look on her face. "Probably serves me right," she says. "I bought it from a friend of my ex-husband. Dean, I'm so sorry; I guess I should get this taken care of."
He waves off her apology. "I can fix it for you, I think." She looks at him, and he laughs, because yeah, he wouldn't let a man who can't remember his own name anywhere near his car, either. She joins in after a moment, and it's the kind of laughing that's because it's either that or cry, but it's better than the slightly stricken expression she had up until then, so he's counting it as a win. "You know, if I had the right tools."
Karyn stops laughing; her expression is still amused, but it's calculating too now. "You mean that?"
He nods. "Yeah," he says. "I know it doesn't make any sense, but when I know I know something, I'm usually right."
"Okay," she says, leaning back behind her to snag her briefcase from where it's wedged between the two child booster seats in the back. She rifles through it and pulls out a couple of flyers, which she hands to him. "Take a look at these for me and let me know what you think. I'm going to see if I can get you some time in the psych unit's workshop."
He doesn't even bother to tell her he's not crazy; he's reasonably sure that's not the point, and besides, there may only be another few days left before he's out on his ear, but he'd rather spend them doing something. He's getting cabin fever caged up in his room.
"That would be great," he says, and means it.
He calls Sally later that day. She gave him her number ages ago, and berates him fondly every time she sees him for never calling, but he's worried about leaning too heavily on her. He knows now that she's friends with Tina, and as his discharge date gets closer he's aware that Tina is looking at him differently. It's not exactly unfriendly, more that 'looking out for each other' thing women do that means they can't visit a bathroom in anything less than a pair. It may not be exactly unfriendly but it still pisses him off, and it's Tina who gives him the final contrary push to call Sally, although he doesn't do it without promising himself that if she sounds even the tiniest bit hesitant, he'll call a cab instead.
"Of course I'll help you move," Sally says before he's even finished asking the question. "So what kind of household stuff do you need?"
"Need? I don't need anything."
"Uh-huh." He can hear her tucking the phone under her chin and hunting around for a pen and paper; it makes him wish he knew what her house looked like so he could picture her properly. "Bedding, I'd guess, towels. Are you all right for toiletries?"
"I'm all right for everything, seriously. I can do some shopping once I'm moved in. I don't want to be any trouble."
"Well then, you won't want me awake all night worrying about the fact that you don't have sheets for your bed, or about how on earth you're going to dry yourself after a shower, do you?"
"You think about me in the shower, huh?" he says, and can only hope she can hear the gratitude he can't voice.
He's not surprised when Tina invites herself along, and he guesses it's reasonable enough that she brings her husband, Lee. Ostensibly he's there to carry the heavy stuff because with his leg still out of commission it's beyond Dean. There isn't actually any heavy stuff, because what Dean owns fits in one small duffle, but the fact that Sally's clearly none too impressed with her bodyguards either has taken enough of the sting away that Dean's happy to roll with it.
At least until they pull up outside Project Hope.
Dean's pretty sure he's the least horrified person in the car, which he figures is just as well, since he's the one who has to live here. Sally looks the most upset, which shouldn't be as pleasing as it is. He gives her a quick smile, just to reassure her that she doesn't need to be worried on his account, and she returns it with one half of her mouth like that's all she can manage. Then she gets out of the car in a hurry, and Dean can't get out of his seatbelt fast enough to make it before Lee, who gives him a curt 'stay there' as he throws himself out after Sally.
Tina's hand on his arm stops Dean from following.
"Just let him get it off his chest," she suggests, sheepishly. "He's not going to change Sally's mind about anything."
He's not sure what to make of that; the idea that he's clearly been a subject of conversation makes him feel hot and cold. Which is probably stupid. Sally's all he thinks about, when he's not wondering if he's crazy and if maybe his memory was jolted out of him by some funky electroshock therapy gone wrong or something. He just figured Sally probably has a million and one other things to think about. Something about the way she and Lee are going at it behind the car - Dean's adjusted the rearview mirror so he can see better, although he's not a good enough lip-reader to make out actual words - makes it clear this is old ground. Sally looks more angry than actually upset, so Dean turns the mirror back and gives Tina a quick, awkward smile in it.
She returns the smile, which he guesses is something, but before he can say anything, Sally yanks the passenger door open and leans in to point a finger over his shoulder at Tina.
"You," she says to her friend, "please take your husband out of my sight. Find a bar or something and we'll come join you when we're done here." She stands back up and points at Dean, speaking loudly and enunciating clearly in a manner that makes him realize her next words are for Lee's benefit, not his. "And you. If you're concealing any homicidal tendencies, please refrain from acting on them till I leave, okay? Great."
Tina's reflection is wide-eyed as he clambers out of the car, and Lee immediately approaches him, hands held wide in an attempt at placation.
"I never-" he starts. "Just for the record, I never said you were homicidal."
Dean nods, gives Lee his scariest smile. "Just said I might be, huh?"
"You're right. I might be."
"Might have been," Sally corrects, from where she's digging in the trunk.
"I might be," Dean repeats, lower, just for Lee. "But I would never hurt Sally, you understand me? Never." He gets himself righted on his crutches and starts round to the back of the car, pausing just after he passes Lee. "You, on the other hand...."
He can feel it as he says it, can feel that he can be every bit as dangerous as Lee's worried about. He also knows he means it about Sally, and that eases his mind. It feels like a victory when Tina offers him a hand with getting his things to his room and accepts his refusal easily. It's not even a victory he's fought for, but it feels good anyway, buoys him up a little and makes dealing with the shelter director bearable. Sally apologizes as they walk along a dimly lit corridor in desperate need of a paint job, but he shrugs her off. As much as Lee rubs him the wrong way, Dean's glad Sally has people looking out for her.
His room is on the ground floor, although he'll be expected to move once the cast is off his leg. It's tiny, sparsely furnished, and newly and badly repainted. By a blind man by the look of it, or possibly his seeing-eye dog. There's a sink with a scratched plastic attempt at a mirror over it, a narrow bed that he's pretty sure he's too tall for, and a single chair.
He never would have imagined looking back at his hospital room with a rosy nostalgia.
"Oh, Dean," Sally says, lowering the box she's carrying onto the chair and supporting it with her hip so it won't fall off. "This is...."
"Actually, you know what? I don't think this is the worst place I've ever lived."
He can practically hear her eyebrow rise. "The only place I can imagine worse than this would be prison," she says, and she won't look him in the eye so he knows she's rethinking her rebuttal of Lee's opinions.
"I think that's a failure of imagination on your part rather than that I've ever been to prison. I can't be sure though, so...." He can't make himself say he'll understand if she wants to leave. He will understand, but he really doesn't want to have to. "And it's only a temporary thing anyway, right?"
"Of course it is. You'll get a job, get rid of that cast." The 'get your memory back' hangs between them like a tangible thing.
"Come on, let's go reassure your friends that I haven't killed you," he says, and she looks so forlorn that he pulls her in for a one-armed hug before he even realizes he's going to. "It'll be fine," he says into the top of her head, and then he releases her. "And hey, everything looks better after a couple of beers."
The look she gives him eloquently expresses that there isn't enough beer in the world to make this place look better, and they head out to the bar Tina and Lee have found. This is not the best part of town but it's not a bad place, and it actually only takes one beer before Dean's feeling mellow enough to be able to ignore the awkward stiltedness of the conversation. He's wondering if he's always been such a cheap date, or if he's just lost a lot of alcohol tolerance, when he realizes he's been asked a question.
"Sorry," he says, waving his beer in an appeasing gesture. "Just kind of zoned out there for a second."
There's silence for a long moment, and he looks around the table from one person to the next. It's pretty obvious Lee gets a kick under the table from at least one of the girls, and possibly both, before he repeats his question.
"I said, would you like to join us for Thanksgiving?"
He's not sure if it's because he can tell Lee's been harassed into asking, because he recognizes the olive branch the invite is, or just because he's a contrary bastard, but Dean gives Lee the broadest grin he can dredge up.
"Sure," he says. "Thanks."
Lee nods at him curtly, but Tina seems genuinely pleased and, more importantly, so does Sally.
"So, Dean," Tina asks, "what does Thanksgiving mean to you?"
He frowns pleasantly and waits for her to realize, then says, "I have no idea," with a shrug. Conversation's pretty hard with a guy who has no past, he's discovered. Aside from the interested professional parties, very few people bother to try and chat with him beyond a few niceties. "Turkey, I guess. That seems to be a big part of it for most people."
Truth be told, he's kind of hoping that the whole steeped-in-tradition-thing will jump-start some sort of memories for him. The doctors estimate he's somewhere around thirty, so he's had somewhere around thirty of these days of turkey dinners and family get-togethers and all the other stuff that the TV has been going on about for weeks. Surely something will spark. He searches around in the black hole of his mind for some tiny ember of recognition while the other three make plans for the holiday. He's gotten kind of used to having his life organized for him, so when Sally says she'll come pick him up Thanksgiving morning, he just smiles and nods.
It's snowing when he wakes up on Thanksgiving. His alarm's not due to go off for another half hour, but his next-door neighbor is apparently pretty damned excited about the holiday and there's a limit to what Dean can sleep through. He finally got his cast off last week, although he's still having to use one crutch because his right leg is weak and wasted and alien, so he uses the extra time to run through a couple of sets of the exercises he's been given. He's still ready a good forty-five minutes before Sally's supposed to show up.
The snow's heavier by the time she does pull up outside the shelter, settling in a thin sheen of white over the sidewalk. God help him, but it's kind of pretty. As is the smile Sally gives him when he joins her. He always tries to be ready when she turns up, rather than have to invite her in, because while it feels as much like home as anything he can remember now, she still clearly hates the place.
"Hi," she says, her good mood infectious as she leans up and gives him a quick friendly kiss on his cheek. "Happy Thanksgiving."
It turns out that the gathering is being held at Lee's brother's place, which is up in the mountains not far from Sally's. Dean's pretty sure he doesn't remember enough about what happened before he woke up in the hospital to have any kind of flashbacky freak-out, but he's still a little on edge by the time they pull up outside Gardner's Automotive Repair.
"I'm going to park up the street a little," Sally says, "so I don't get blocked in."
"Securing your getaway?" Dean asks with a laugh, more relieved than he wants to admit to himself, because it's only Thanksgiving, but he feels like he needs to know his escape routes are clear.
"Never hurts to be prepared. You want to get out here and wait?"
It's on the tip of his tongue to point out that he's not a damn invalid, but the snow's really thick, and he's not an idiot either. The parking spaces in front of the garage are already choked with cars, parked as close to one another as possible to fit, and there's a clear strip of blacktop visible along the side and behind the workshop. Some of the snow's been shoveled up into banks on each side of it, but while he waits for Sally to park and walk carefully back down to him, Dean can't help but notice that the snow doesn't settle on the cleared pathway.
He ignores the shiver of something walking over his grave, because it's stupid. The pathway's clearly been salted, that's all. He's pretty much shaken off the jitters, though not his irritation at himself for getting them, by the time Sally reaches him. She's got a six-pack in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other, and shit, has he always been this bad at sociable?
"Was I supposed to bring something?" he asks, already fully aware the answer is going to be yes.
Sally's expression is even more unpromising than he'd have expected for the surely minor misdemeanor of failing to bring a bottle. She tucks the wine under her arm so she can pat his elbow.
"You brought yourself," she says apologetically. "You're the entertainment."
He really needs to remember that when she says things like that, she's often not actually joking.
He spends the next few hours saying things along the lines of 'no really, nothing at all' and 'yeah, it is pretty weird, I guess' and smiling a smile that hurts the corners of his mouth but doesn't even attempt to reach his eyes. Sally runs interference for him as much as she can, but even that's not without its problems. He's grateful when the dinner-eating part of the festivities are concluded and the house splits almost precisely into gendered factions. Most of the guys are far more interested in football than they are in him and his wacky memory, and so far not a single one of them has asked him how he feels about anything whatsoever.
He ends up wedged between Lee's brother Rick and cousin Tommy - who's snoring long before kick-off, but then it has to take a lot out of a man to have to digest that much turkey. Dean's mind's not really on the game, although he follows it enough to be able to join in the loudest group exclamations. It doesn't remind him of anything, doesn't feel remotely familiar even though he knows the rules, and that's an ache of disappointment that sours the afternoon.
He's trying very hard not to feel abandoned by Sally taking him at his word when he told her he was fine with the boys and to go look at the baby photos if she wants. He was sort of hoping she wouldn't want, although he'd rather be torn apart by wild animals than admit that, even in the privacy of his own head.
"So, Lee tells me you're a mechanic," Rick says as the halftime show begins, and Dean can see Lee glaring daggers at his brother from the other side of the room like it was a family secret, never to be told.
"I know my way around an engine," Dean agrees.
"I might have a job for you. If you could see yourself living up here in the mountains."
Dean makes a kind of noncommittal noise, like he's not desperate to say 'yes, yes please,' and 'when can I start?' He's bored out of his mind with the workshop classes he's taking; he already knows how to do everything they're teaching, and breaking down the same engine over and over without being allowed to improve it is killing him.
"Just can't resist the charity cases, my brother," Lee opines snidely, just barely loud enough for Dean to hear, but not loudly enough for him to know if he was supposed to.
Rick obviously heard it too, because he shrugs; Dean can feel it more than see it. "Don't see any harm in helping out my fellow man," Rick says, and there's a smile in his tone of voice. "I reckon you might be more likely to stick around than the city boys I've taken on before too."
Dean doesn't need to hear Lee's irritated huff of a response to know that that's exactly the problem, and he can't resist. "You know, Rick, I think you're right. I like it around here; everyone's been so downright friendly."
Rick explains a little more of the job until halftime is over. Dean, only barely following the game as it was, can't make himself pay any attention to the second half. He knows he's more than capable of the mechanic side of it. The roadside recovery part, which means he'll have to live up here - something he hadn't even realized he was looking for an excuse to do until it was given to him - will make him useful, valuable. He wonders what he used to do if being able to help people, even if they are mostly random strangers who should keep their cars better maintained, is like having some important part of himself returned. He briefly entertains the thought that he might have been a park ranger, but the clothes that were returned to him, the ones he was wearing when he was found, were jeans and a pair of biker boots - hardly ranger attire.
By the end of the game he's pretty sure he has a job if he wants it, and if he can find some way to get himself a driver's license. His thoughts flicker back to the metal box for a moment. Nobody seems to have any idea what will happen if he doesn't get his memory back, how he'll make himself legally tangible, get the things that make him exist, like a social security number, passport, bank account. It's starting to seem like it might be easier just to assume one of the identities in his box of delights. It's not like a brand-new person would really fit right either, even if he does feel like he's constantly reinventing himself.
The end of the football game seems to signal the break-up of the party, various women coming through to claim their menfolk, make long goodbyes, and head off into what is almost a white-out of a snowstorm now.
Dean stands at the front door and looks out, conflicted. He has no right to ask Sally, or anyone else, to drive him home in this, but he's really tired of socializing now.
"If you set off right away you might be all right; once you get down the mountain, the roads will probably be clearer," Lee suggests as he and Sally join Dean on the threshold.
Anger flares through Dean at the suggestion, but Sally beats him to verbalizing a response.
"Don't be ridiculous," she says coldly. "If you seriously want me to drive down to Denver in this then maybe you're the one whose homicidal tendencies we should worry about."
Lee grunts, and Dean's grin widens.
"You could stay here," Lee says.
"Oh, I think we'll make it up the road to my place without too much trouble," Sally says. Dean's pretty sure she's just pretending she didn't hear the concern, almost a warning, in Lee's tone. "Maybe Rick would give us a lift." She turns to Dean and smiles. "If you want, that is," she says to him. "You don't have to stay with me, but I can offer you a bed that you won't have to share with Tommy."
He accepts her kind offer - Cousin Tommy looks like the kind of guy who hogs the covers - and goes to ask Rick if they can get a ride in his snowplow. When he gets back, he can see Sally and Lee are coming to the end of another debate.
"-didn't know better I'd say you planned this," Lee is saying, and Sally snorts at him, rolling her eyes.
"Yeah, because I control the snow, Lee. I'm a weather witch."
Dean shakes off the frisson of unease that she might mean it, if only because he's seen X-Men - one, two and the unforgivable three - and if she could control the weather they wouldn't need a snowplow to get home in.
"What the hell is his problem?" he asks when they're settled in the truck's jumpseats. It's noisy enough that if he puts his mouth close to Sally's ear he doesn't think Rick will hear him badmouthing his brother. "He sweet on you or something?" Sally's reply is just a beat too quick for Dean's liking, and far too emphatically negative. "Uh-huh," he says skeptically.
"He's not. He and Tina are solid."
"Doesn't mean he's not looking. And she told me they only got married a couple of years ago, so maybe you and he had a...a thing, before that. You can tell me. I promise not to mock."
"Uh-huh," Sally parrots, and it's enough to make him believe she's not carrying any kind of torch for Lee, but he's less convinced about the reverse. Girl doesn't seem to see what's right under her nose in that department; he's got proof of that. "He worries about me is all. Fragile little woman like me all alone out here in the big bad mountains." There's a hint of irritation in her tone, and Dean relaxes a little more. He makes a mental note never to patronize Sally, and another to maybe try and goad Lee into doing so more often. "He means well, and he was good to me when I first moved here."
"I'll just bet he was."
Sally gives him an exasperated but still amused glare. "He was just worried. He had a - what was it you called it - a thing once, with a girl who lived in my house before me."
"And he figured he'd move from one occupant to the next? Nice."
"He was just...she disappeared, okay? Annie and Lee were high-school sweethearts and one morning, in their senior year, he was expecting her to show up at the diner for lunch, and she never did. He went up to her place and she was gone. Her and her entire family."
"Well, frankly I can't say I blame-"
"Not packed their bags and left gone, just gone, Dean." Sally runs a hand through her hair and sighs. "Her dad's car was still parked outside, the previous night's dishes still piled up ready for the dishwasher. There was a rifle missing from the gun cabinet, but apart from that, it was like the Marie Celeste."
"Yeah. They never found them, or any clue as to what happened except for a few footprints in the snow. There was a big investigation, and Lee was even a suspect for a little while, not that they ever charged him."
"But everyone knows he did it really?" She hits him, none too gently, on the arm for that.
"I really don't think he did."
"So what do you think?"
Sally shrugs. "I don't know. Bear, I guess, like the police said."
He can't tell if she's not completely convinced or if she's just not that interested in rehashing a second-hand tale from years ago, but they pull onto the drive of an A-frame house, and the next ten minutes or so are spent on saying goodbye to Rick and on the guided tour. Strictly speaking it's not so much a tour as Sally pointing in various directions from the living area and explaining where everything is, but Dean's pretty much exhausted and apparently not an architecture or interior design geek, so he's happy with that. He props himself up on the kitchen counter while she makes coffee for them both, and tries to pay attention to the conversation. His brain is more interested in pointing out, repeatedly, that she definitely said 'the bedroom' not 'the bedrooms' or 'a bedroom.' And okay, maybe it's not his upstairs brain, but he was in that hospital for a long time.
Sally leads him back through to the living area, cradling her hand around her coffee cup and sinking into what's clearly her favorite chair with a sigh. He sits on the couch, since it's the only option, and tells himself he's not disappointed.
"Thank God that's over for another year," she says, then grins at him over her cup.
"I'm not sure that's the kind of thanks you're supposed to be giving."
"It's just a little intense for me. I never had that big a family, and Thanksgiving was never that big a deal."
She doesn't do what everyone else has done, all day, and slip and ask him about Thanksgiving when he was growing up, and he wants to kiss her just for that. "Well, maybe you shouldn't go."
Sally laughs. "Yeah, I tried that. First year I was here. I ended up having people 'just stopping by' to make sure I was okay and to wish me Happy Thanksgiving. I guess they were just being neighborly, but I was tempted to shoot someone by the end of the day."
"Easier to just suck it up and go?"
"Definitely. At least I should get some peace for the rest of the long weekend."
He's not sure what to say to that, because it's not like he can go home in this weather, and he doesn't think that's what she's hinting at anyway. "They're only worried about you on the third Thursday of November, then?" he asks and her face twists into a frown.
"That's when it happened," she says. "Lee went up to the house to get her when she didn't show for lunch the next day. Found the place empty."
Ghost of a pissed off turkey, he thinks before he can help it. "You'd think he'd be happier I'm here with you then," he says, because he doesn't know where the thought of spirit poultry came from, but it doesn't feel enough like a normal-person joke to share.
"Oh, Dean. You going to protect me from the big bad bogeyman?"
Damn straight, he thinks, and it's definitely not a joke. "Thought it was a bear."
"Well, the police thought it was a bear...."
"But Lee thinks...?"
He can see in her expression that she's sizing him up, trying to decide if she should change the subject. "Lee thinks they were murdered," she says.
"Even though they never found the bodies."
"Even though. Annie'd called him, the previous weekend, when her parents were away. Said there was someone prowling around outside the house, that she'd seen a face at the window. A blue-eyed man peering in at the kitchen." Sally shrugs, a reflex warding off of the shivers Dean felt too, climbing up the back of his neck in something like evolutionary memory. "Lee drove up here and got her, took her home to his house, and she didn't feel brave enough to come back until her parents were home. The police were called, and found some snowed over tracks outside the kitchen window, but not human ones."
"Let me guess, bear tracks?"
"That's what they said. And Annie's family knew bears. They grew up in these mountains; bears weren't going to scare them away from their home." The silence is thick and heavy, and Dean finds himself straining his ears to hear...what? Prowlers in the undergrowth? Grizzlies? He shakes his head at himself, and Sally smiles at him again. "Yeah, I really should know better than to choose today for this story."
"You don't get scared? It is pretty lonely up here."
"I like it. I'm kind of antisocial a lot of the time, and it happened ages ago. Bears are bears, and if there was a prowler, he's long gone." She shrugs. "A life lived in fear, and all that."
"Yeah, I guess." Dean glances around, not fearful so much as watchful, but the house is very open-plan, and he can't see that there's anywhere in it that a body could remain hidden for years. He's not sure why that's a reassuring thought. "You get a lot of bear attacks round here?"
"Not really. There were a couple earlier this year. In fact, you were probably lucky not to become a nice frozen dinner for a bear."
And he had been. He knew that. Lying out there like that, incapacitated and bleeding into the snow, it was pretty much like wearing an 'eat me' sign written in bear language. He doesn't really want to think about what a close call he had.
In the silence that follows he spots the piles of schoolbooks stacked up next to Sally's chair and he nods in their direction. "I've really screwed up your plans for this weekend, haven't I?" he asks, and the smile he gets in response is playful and full of promise.
"Such exciting plans they were, too," she agrees ruefully. "Essays to grade and lesson plans to write. I can't say I'm heartbroken to have an excuse to postpone them."
"Make a start on it, if you want," he says, aware that he sounds like someone else but without knowing who that someone is. "I'd like to borrow your internet for a while, if that's okay."
He's as certain as he can be that he's onto a sure thing here, and there's things he wants to do, to know, before he takes up the relaxed offer Sally's giving him.
"Ego surfing, huh?" Sally says, getting up to get him her laptop.
"Right," he counters. "How would that work exactly?"
She's not wrong though. He fully intends to look himself up, or what he thinks is himself. He likes Sally, likes her a lot, and more to the point, he wants to be sure Lee isn't right about him before he lets this get any further. He loads up Google and checks the names from the box. The fear he has that he might be a serial killer, that the box might be his mementos, vanishes with each name he checks. Dean Richardson's the head of surgery at the George D. Widener Hospital for Large Animals at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Centre, or a Scottish soccer player. Hector Aframian doesn't exist as far as the internet is concerned. Doug Clifford is Creedence Clearwater Revival's drummer and not a federal agent at all, and okay, that opens more questions than it answers, but at least none of these people are missing or murder victims or anything that suggests Dean's more than a conman. He runs the names through a bunch of other search engines, too, then he wipes the history and cache before he even realizes he's doing it.
"I check the missing person websites, you know," Sally says, almost apologetically, when he looks up. "And the major newspapers. In case someone's looking for you."
"Why?" He doesn't think she means law enforcement, and he knows she knows he doesn't want to be found.
She smiles at him, getting up from her chair to join him on the couch. She takes the laptop and closes it, setting it aside with a deliberation that telegraphs intent and makes anticipation settle warm in his gut. "Because if I lost you," she says, kneeling next to him, thigh pressed all along his. "I would never stop looking for you."
That sparks something in his memory - 'other people just stop looking for them' - but then Sally leans in and kisses him.
"This is so weird," Dean mutters later as he unsnaps her bra with one hand, and not even his dominant hand at that. He has no memory of ever having even seen a bra up close before.
"You say the most romantic things," Sally counters, and he backpedals furiously for a moment before he realizes she's teasing him. He revisits the subject, after, when she's curled around him and his body just wants to sleep but his mind won't shut down.
"I just mean," he says, against her hair, because she's the only person he can talk to about this stuff. He always ends up tying himself in knots when he tries with his doctors, or his social worker. "I've done this before, right? I must have."
Sally pushes her head back onto the pillow next to his so she can treat him to the full glory of her skeptical look. "You're not seriously asking me to grade your performance, are you?" she asks, and her incredulity at the very idea that he might be insecure would be answer enough, if that were the issue.
"No," he laughs, unable to resist sneaking a quick kiss and pulling her back against his chest. She comes easily, spreading her fingers across the skin over his heart. "It's just...."
"Weird," she fills in.
"I like it," she all but whispers, like she's only half-joking, and she's ashamed of that fact. "I get all the benefit of your experience, and none of the anxiety about measuring up to past notches."
He waits until her breathing evens out into sleep.
"You're not a notch," he says into the darkness before he joins her. It's another of those things he knows without knowing how he knows.
It takes him about four months to realize he hasn't done this before. That it isn't familiar. That he's awed by it. Not the sex; he's got no qualms there, and even if he did he's pretty damn sure Sally's not faking it anyway. If she is, she should be on the stage. It's everything else that feels shiny and new. Little things.
Like how hard he tries not to wake her when he has to get up for work and she doesn't, and how when he gets out of the shower there's always a fresh cup of coffee on his bedside table anyway.
Like the fact that, when he goes to exchange Dean Richardson's Texas driver's license for a Colorado one, he knows, even as he's sizing up which of the clerks will respond best to his flirting, that there's no chance whatsoever that he'll follow through on it. He's got a feeling he might have, before. It all comes so naturally to him, leaning his hip against the counter, the smile, the words. He has her eating out of his hand within minutes, and she barely glances at his paperwork - which is a relief, because he doesn't think it would stand up to close scrutiny. The only thing she's interested in examining, though, is him, and by the time he turns her down he's got a Colorado license and a date for his commercial driving test. As he drives home he ponders what it says about him that fidelity feels novel. He hopes it's because he's never had anyone to be faithful to before, but he's aware that may be self-delusion.
He gets his commercial driver's license with just as much ease as he exchanged his out-of-state one. Not by flirting this time, not that he'd balk if he thought it'd help, but because he knows what he's doing behind a wheel, any wheel, just as much as he does under a hood. It helps that his examiner has the Zeppelin IV symbols tattooed down his left arm, so they talk mainly about the album and the band, and little about Dean's previous driving experience.
Rick's got him working his own jobs within days of starting, even though officially he's on probation. He moves into the tiny apartment above the garage, but it's pretty much at the same time as Sally gives him a key to her place, so he doesn't spend much of his time there. He spends the nights he's on call for tows there, because he comes home a little buzzed from the call-outs and he can't ever get back to sleep. It's stupid; usually he's called out to people who can't change a flat on their own, or who thought there'd be a twenty-four-hour gas station halfway up the damn Rockies, but he likes it anyway. He's got one heck of a knight-in-shining-armor complex, but he enjoys it too much to care, even if it doesn't stop him from bitching about the idiots to Rick and Sally next day.
He thinks it might be a little weird if he just moved right on in with Sally; something about the way she asked him made him think she wasn't expecting him to say yes. Doesn't mean he doesn't hate every night he spends away from her, doesn't stop him worrying when he's not there to look out for her. He sleeps with a knife under his pillow when he sleeps at the garage, but he's pretty sure Sally would find that odd, so he just wakes up grasping for nothing under the pastel cotton at her house. As soon as the place feels like his home too, he puts a hunting knife in the nightstand on his side of the bed; he sleeps better for knowing it's there.
He talks to his shrink about it eventually. He doesn't really mean to, but he guesses people get to be shrinks because they're good at making people spill their secrets. He gets an interested frown in return.
"I think that's quite understandable actually," the doctor says nodding. "She saved your life, and you've become close during your convalescence. She was really the only person you knew for a while, apart from health care professionals. An attachment was bound to form."
Dean doesn't need to hear the 'unhealthy' that prefixes 'attachment.' "Like a Stockholm syndrome kind of thing?" he asks.
"Nightingale syndrome," the doctor corrects and Dean wants to punch him. Repeatedly.
Sally calls him at lunchtime, tells him she's got to work late unexpectedly, and it's probably just cosmic bad timing or something but it feels like rejection. They usually spend Tuesday afternoons together in town, after his psych appointment and before she teaches her adult-ed lit class. "Fine," is all he can manage to say in response, because it's not fine.
"Is everything all right, sweetheart?"
He can't answer for a long time, because he knows he should say yes, everything's fine, but it isn't true. He doesn't want to lie to her. "Just, you know, stuff. I hate seeing that damn psychiatrist." She does know, just like he knows that's why Tuesday afternoons are always spent doing fun stuff, so it can't just be him with the unnatural attachment issues, can it? "I'll be all right," he says, when the silence drags a little and he's worried she might offer to cancel whatever's come up, worried he might not be able to refuse if she does. "I'll get dinner ready for when you get home."
"Okay," Sally says, not a trace of the hesitation he didn't even realize he fears. "That sounds great. And we'll talk later, okay? Maybe you should get a new psychiatrist."
"Yeah," he says, already feeling better even though he still feels like maybe he should do the decent thing and let her find a guy who isn't with her because he has no other choice and is sick in the head. "Maybe."
She gets home earlier than she'd originally said she would, and he feels guilty for that. Guiltier still that he feels better once she's there. He's got dinner started, but the majority of the groceries are still in their bags on the floor. The dog's rummaged around and helped herself to the toy he got her, taking it proudly to Sally. Sally looks at him from where she's playing tug of war with the dog, and he can practically see her reading him, deciding not to push yet. It's yet another thing he's grateful for. She unpacks the groceries he didn't get to, filling the silence with chatter about her day at work. When she stops halfway through a sentence in the middle of a long and amusing rant about one of the children in her class, he turns away from the stove to find she's got the huge-ass catering pack of table salt he bought in her hand and a quizzical expression on her face. He can feel himself blush.
"Yeah," he says, scrubbing a hand over his face. "I don't know, it seemed like a good idea at the time."
They don't use salt much when they cook - they only really add it to popcorn - and it will take them easily twenty years to use up the canister, but he'd added it to the cart automatically. He hadn't even realized he had until he got to the checkout. "Okay," Sally says, stowing it at the back of the pantry and he knows his reprieve is over.
"My shrink thinks I have Nightingale syndrome," he says, and watches for her reaction, which is a 'huh' that he can't interpret.
The silence stretches out, and she shrugs. "I don't know what that is," she says eventually. "Is it bad?"
"It's like Stockholm syndrome," he says before he can let himself downplay it.
Sally frowns. "So who's the kidnapper in this?" She gets it before he can answer, and her frown deepens. "Me?"
"Like Stockholm syndrome, that's all. An...attachment that might not have formed in other circumstances, to someone who's taken good care of you." He can hear the 'inappropriate' that he can't voice, and he's pretty sure she can too. It makes him wish he'd never said anything.
"Do you agree?" she asks, and what can he say when he can't remember what kind of women he's been attached to before? Except he knows this isn't his usual thing, this easy comfortable meshing of his life with hers, and okay, maybe this wouldn't ever have happened if it weren't for the accident and the funky memory thing, but he wants it. Desperately.
"I don't know," he lies. "It just shook me up a little."
"You know I wouldn't-"
"Yeah," he says, cutting her off because he doesn't want to hear her letting him go, not even for his own good, because he might feel like he has to. Time to change the subject. "We should eat."
He can tell the subject's not closed by the careful way Sally watches him and pretends she's not. The rest of the evening passes uneventfully. They eat, Dean watches a rerun of "The Simpsons" on TV that he must have seen before but doesn't remember, while Sally checks her email.
"Your psychiatrist's an ass," Sally announces as she climbs into bed that night and wraps herself around him. She smells of toothpaste and Sally and home. "Nightingale syndrome's an unrequited thing."
In the summer, Dean comes home unexpectedly early from work and finds Lee in the kitchen. He takes a moment to feel proud of himself for not being even remotely jealous, and raises an eyebrow at Sally, who rolls her eyes in response.
"It's that time of year," she says, which doesn't mean anything to Dean but clearly does to Lee because he gets to his feet in a hurried scrape of his chair over the tile floor.
"I should get going," he says, and Dean frowns, because he and Lee have buried the hatchet, or he thought they had.
"Don't go on my account," he says, crossing the kitchen and helping himself to a beer.
He offers one to Sally, which she declines, and to Lee, which he takes like Dean's calling him a pussy and failing to accept the drink will just prove him right. "That time of year?" he queries when Lee's got a mouthful.
"Guns and ammo time," Sally says, amused.
"I wish you'd take this more seriously," Lee counters, pissily. "It could save your life."
Sally's expression flattens out into something more solemn, she reaches out and pats Lee's arm. "I know. Come on then."
Lee doesn't move, but his eyes cut to Dean and then back to Sally. It reminds Dean that Lee's known her a lot longer than he has, especially when Sally can interpret the gesture so easily.
"He lives here, Lee. If I need to know how to shoot bears, so does he."
Dean already knows about the gun cabinet; it was included on the more in-depth tour of the house he got when he moved in. It was a throwaway thing, Sally clearly not an aficionado. He's not sure how he feels about that. There's a voice in the back of his head that says it's safer not to have guns at all unless they're going to be used and maintained, but he doesn't want to voice that thought while Lee's here. He doesn't know if it's something he thinks, or something he's been taught. He's never opened the cabinet, even though he knows where the key's kept, but it's not because he's uncomfortable with guns. On the contrary, he has a nasty feeling he's very comfortable indeed with them and he doesn't like what that says about him.
Sure enough the smell of gun metal and oil is achingly familiar. It makes him feel what he'd call homesick if that didn't make him sound like a sick fuck. He knows how they'll feel in his hands, how his skin will smell afterwards, how to break them down and clean them and put them back together. Sally's got a shotgun and two handguns, and Dean's pleased to see she knows what she's doing with them, too; it releases a constriction in his chest that he hadn't realized was there. She obviously does this more often than the twice a year Lee insists on and the grin she quirks at Dean behind Lee's back sets everything right again.
At least until Lee huffs out an irritated breath when Dean's faster and slicker at getting the shotgun loaded than he is. Dean can read a lot into that single sigh, but the main message is that Lee just knew Dean would be good at this, on account of his being a homicidal maniac in waiting.
They go out back and Lee sets up targets for Sally, and then Dean, to hit. Sally's not bad, she hits more than she misses and gripes about the fact that a bear is a hell of a lot bigger target than a beer can. Dean hits the first three dead centre before he realizes showing off may not be his best idea ever.
"Beginner's luck," he shrugs, with a self-deprecating smirk and misses the next few intentionally, not badly enough to be obvious, just sufficient to take the sour look off Lee's face.
After Lee's gone he goes back out, bitter taste at the back of his mouth, and hits every target dead on. He sets them up again and tries holding the gun in one hand, tries hitting them while running across the narrow strip of land, and backwards over his shoulder, and then with one eye shut. It makes no difference - his aim is as good as perfect every time. He's not sure what to make of it. Sally could probably hit a bear; Dean's pretty sure he could hit a bear's heart or head or possibly its left eyeball. He's sort of proud of himself even while he's nauseated with the implications of this fact on his former life.
The next time Sally's away for the day and he's home, he buys himself a bulletin board, just a cheap thing, thin cork in a frame. He draws targets on it with a magic marker, and carries it and the cutlery drawer outside. Turns out he's as good with knives as he is with guns; they feel just as familiar in his hands, like an extension of himself, of his will almost. He's not sure what to make of this new information about himself. He's skilled, and even though he doesn't know why, he doesn't think he's only skilled at hitting inanimate targets. He doesn't tend to lose his temper - he gets irritated, sure, but it's a slow burn - but he thinks he's quite capable of hurting people, things, his mind kindly supplies. He has no idea what that means. He's damn sure it doesn't mean he's one of those sick fucks who tortures animals or anything.
Maybe he's an assassin. All that controlled deadliness has to have been used for something, right?
He's got the kitchen back to normal, all the knives where they belong and the cork board smashed up and burned, by the time Sally gets home from work. Part of him wants to mention his new theory, mostly because he thinks she'll roll her eyes at him and say something reassuring like 'yeah sure, Dean, you're an assassin, of course you are.' He's still leery of giving her reasons not to trust him though, so he doesn't say anything.
Sally borrows his truck one day when her car breaks down, and he spends the day under the hood of the Bronco feeling useful and indestructibly happy. It lasts until Sally gets home. She greets him like she always does, but her smile is brittle, like she's holding something back, pretending things are fine when they're not. He wipes his hands on a rag - the last remaining scrap of the shirt he was wearing when he was found on the mountainside nearly a year ago - and follows her into the house.
There's a silence he doesn't know how to fill, because he doesn't want to ask if everything's all right and find that it isn't.
Then he sees the sheaf of paper, some flimsy and some more card-like, but all of them bright with promises, in her hand and thinks maybe he understands.
"Should I be worried about this?" she asks, waving the handful of incriminating evidence at him.
"No," he says first, automatic. "Worried how?"
"Fifteen different credit card applications, Dean," she says, like he's one of her slowest students and she's disappointed in him. "None of them in your...well I guess one of them might be your real name, but somehow I doubt it."
He doesn't know what to say, and he can't really understand why she's so upset anyway. So he likes to keep the credit card offers that come stuffed between the pages of her magazines, and maybe he keeps the junk mail ones, and yes, okay maybe he fills them in with made-up names and dates of birth, the more ridiculous the better, like he's trying to see how far he can push the idiot minions of the companies that send them out. It's not like he sends them off. Well, apart from that one time, just to see what would happen, and he'd recognized what it was when the envelope arrived, two plastic rectangles palpable through the paper. One for Adolfo Hoogaboom and a spare for his devoted wife. He hadn't even opened it, just scrawled 'return to sender, not at this address' on it and left it in the mailbox.
"Are you...." Sally starts again when it's clear Dean isn't going to say anything. She frowns at him, looking tired and lost and Dean hates himself for it because he never meant to make her feel like that; it's just a stupid habit. He doesn't even know why he keeps them. "Are you...."she tries again. "Is this what you do? Make up a new identity and move on when you get bored."
Apparently something in his tone, or the speed of his reply, is at least a little reassuring because her expression softens. "You're not building a fund of defrauded money then?"
"Not planning to run out on me?"
And God, that's what she thinks? He moves across the kitchen to her and gives her his most genuine smile. "God, no," he says, searching her face to make sure she understands he's sincere. "Absolutely not." She frowns at him, gently, an expression he recognizes as 'damn but you're weird.' "I don't know," he shrugs. "I guess it's like the salt and stuff."
It's not fair of him really, because he knows damn well what bringing up his idiosyncrasies and looking sheepish will do. True enough, Sally drops it. She doesn't even bother to point out that the massive salt surplus Dean's accumulating through automatic shopping is only one of many weird habits. Nine times out of ten when it's his turn to get the groceries in he returns with salt, candy and jerky. The dog loves it when it's Dean's turn to shop, because he usually tries to destroy the evidence of his own craziness by feeding the dried meat products to her before Sally finds them. He can only assume he's been hungry in the past, and that his hindbrain is determined to prevent that ever occurring again by making him lay in a supply of long-shelf-life food. He's tried pointing out to his hindbrain that jerky's a survival food because only the truly desperately hungry would eat it, and only if cannibalism wasn't an option. He's got what Sally calls his Armageddon preparedness kit - bottles he's picked up but never filled with anything, a set of rosary beads, a 'make your own bullets' kit of preprimered casings, powder and a funnel set that he couldn't resist out of the back of a magazine. Sally had raised an eyebrow and put her foot down on that last one, but he'd kept it anyway, hidden away safe and secure in the garage. He still has no explanation for the salt, but come the revolution when credit cards and cash are worthless and there's a return to the Ancient Roman use of salt as currency, he and Sally are going to be set.
"How'd you find them, anyway?" he asks, leaning across her shoulder to pluck up the pile of forms and tear them up. It's not like he thought they were well hidden, stuffed in the glove box of his truck, but he's worried Sally might have been looking for signs of his untrustworthiness.
Instead of the unimpressed glare he's expecting he gets an awkward smile and another long silence.
"I'm late," Sally says eventually, with a strange half-grimace, half-smile twisting her mouth.
"Not for anything."
"Oh," Dean says, none the wiser, but Sally seems to take it as an invitation to tell the whole story anyway.
"I'm never late," she continues, and that's true but Dean's not sure what she's driving at. She's still holding herself awkwardly and she looks, for the first time in Dean's experience of her barring her very first visit at the hospital, nervous. "So I stopped off at the drugstore on the way home, but I didn't have any cash and I didn't want to have to use my card just to get a pregnancy test."
Dean's pretty sure she's still talking, something about helping herself to the twenty dollar bill he keeps in the glove box for emergencies, but his brain's kind of stuck on pregnancy and finally, finally he gets it.
"Oh," he says. "That kind of late."
Sally gives him a complicated glance. "Yeah," she says. "I'm guessing you didn't grow up around a lot of women. What did you think I meant?"
"I had no clue," he confesses.
She shakes her head and looks at him searchingly. "So," she says. "Um."
Anxiety's creasing her forehead and it occurs to Dean that he needs to tread carefully, but he can't help it, a smile breaks out over his face before he can school it away. "You do the test then?" he asks, impressed with himself for his neutrality.
"I thought maybe we should talk about it first. What we'll do if it's positive."
"Have a baby?" Dean deadpans. "That's my understanding, although you may well be right about my upbringing."
"You're okay with this? Because I, well, I didn't exactly plan it, and we've never talked about starting a family, and-"
"Hey," he interrupts, sliding an arm round her waist and leaning in to kiss her. "Takes two to...tango." Somehow 'have hard-core sex' doesn't seem like quite the appropriate way to end that sentence just now. "And I am more than okay. I'm...slightly freaked, but it's a good kind of freaked."
"Okay, cool. Me, too."
She grins widely then, reaching up to drag him down for another kiss that's more an excited pressing together of their smiles than anything more.
The test is positive and the next few weeks pass so slowly it's almost unbearable, but finally it's time for the first ultrasound. Rick lets Dean leave work even earlier than is strictly necessary, although lets is maybe not so much the right term as forces him out of the garage before he can do any damage because he's so hyped up. It crosses his mind as they drive down to the clinic, and he thinks it has probably crossed Sally's as well, that he might have children already somewhere. The first sight of the tiny flickering gray dot that's his baby's heartbeat nixes that idea. There's no way on earth he could ever have felt like this and forgotten about it.
Sally blooms during her pregnancy, or Dean thinks so anyway. Sally thinks she spends the first few months solid in the bathroom either peeing or throwing up and she looks like the side of a house and her feet ache and her back aches and she hasn't stopped feeling hungry for the stupidest things since the morning sickness stopped. Luckily one of those things is beef jerky, and they have a stockpile of that so Dean doesn't even have to go out on two a.m. supply runs like he does in the week of the urgent need for sauerkraut. She spends most of the nine months complaining that Dean has no idea how much of a trial it all is, but she doesn't mean it, he can tell from the way she talks to her bump, and how she smiles at him when she thinks he's not looking.
They convert the downstairs office into a bedroom, or Dean does while Sally supervises from the living room, feet up on the couch and a bowl of artichoke hearts resting on her belly. They don't call it a nursery, not after the first time Sally gets halfway through the word before Dean stops her, heart hammering in his chest and no idea why. It's just a room that the baby might use. Sally takes this latest superstition with as good humor as she has all the rest, and luckily she hates clowns, finds them creepy as all get out, so he doesn't have to fight that battle over the décor.
Dean's son arrives at four in the morning, pink and wrinkled and angry and flawless. Sally's hoarse from screaming abuse at him, and Dean has the crescent imprints of her nails in the back of his hand that he hopes will scar. He likes the idea of having at least one set of scars he knows the origin of, and he's proud of these in a way he doesn't know if he can be of his others. He has no idea how he knows, but Dean doesn't think he's ever felt peace like he does sitting with his baby sleeping so trustingly in his arms.
"He all right?" Sally asks, when she wakes from a much-needed sleep to find Dean sitting in the baby's room watching him breathe.
"He's perfect," Dean counters, and he is. Dean wonders if anyone ever felt like this about him, if that anyone might maybe have been looking for him after all, worried about him, grieving for him. To try and find them now might be to give this up though, this frightening, exhilarating happiness, for someone who just stopped looking for him. "I sort of can't really believe I had anything to do with him, he's so perfect."
"I do hope you're not insinuating anything, Dean," Sally counters archly and he can tell from her tone that she knows what he means, that she understands. He thinks maybe there's a little bit of 'of course he's perfect, he's ours,' in her tone too, and he loves her for that.
He doesn't answer, not really, because it's not necessary.
"He needs a name," Sally says, letting herself be drawn down onto Dean's lap and held tight like the precious thing she is to him.
"John," Dean says. It's not a suggestion. It just fits.
Sally twists in his lap to look at him, quizzical expression on her tired features. "Huh," she says, tangling her fingers in Dean's. "I thought you'd say Sammy, but yes, okay, John it is."
They call him Jack, because he's far too little for a big serious grown-up name like John, and within three years Sally's apparently forgotten all about the feeling as big as a house thing, and the nausea, and how Dean was never coming anywhere near her ever ever again. "I don't think he should be an only child," she announces one day when Dean's almost asleep. "It's not good for children to have no siblings."
"You're an only child," Dean counters sleepily.
And apparently that seals the argument.
Jack's sister is born at a similarly ungodly hour as Jack, but she's quiet and floppy and even before the doctor is humming worriedly to himself Dean knows something's wrong. Sally does too, he thinks, because she's gripping his hand again, fingers pressing perfectly into the scars they left last time. They're not happy with Emily's breathing, and she's whisked away to the neonatal unit in what seems both a flash and an interminable length of time. Dean's never been so terrified but he tries his best to hold it together for Sally, tells himself over and over that demanding answers from the staff isn't actually going to help. By the time breakfast rolls around they're happier with her - she's no longer grunting, whatever the fuck that means - but they want her and Sally to stay for another couple of days anyway. Just for observation. Nothing to worry about.
"She's fine, Dean," Sally says, and he has to reassess who exactly is leaning on whom here.
But okay, yeah, she does look better, more baby-colored, and not so floppy. "Why can't we take her home then?"
"Because I've paid them a lot of money so that you have to spend the next couple of days answering Jack's questions all on your own," Sally says, smiling despite her obvious weariness.
He picks Jack up from Tina's, and takes him to the hospital to meet his sister and give her, with great ceremony, the picture he's drawn for her and the stuffed octopus he picked out at Grandrabbit's. Jack stares at the sleeping Emily for almost a full minute, which is the longest he's been silent since he first learned to speak except for when he's asleep. Sally agrees with Dean that Emily's bound to love Jack's painting of a fire engine just as soon as she's awake to see it. Just to prove it, look at that, Emily's got him a present too, and it's a model fire engine Dean has to confiscate after twenty minutes for fear of Jack annoying the entire maternity ward.
They've let Emily back onto the general postnatal floor, and Dean's chest unclenches a little at that. He relaxes a little more when he holds her and watches her breathing normally, clutching his finger and not really focusing on his face on the rare occasion she opens her eyes. It's really hard to leave her and Sally at the hospital, but Jack's getting cranky and overtired, and it's been a really long day. Dean wonders, when they get to the parking lot, if maybe he ought to get the fire engine surgically removed from Jack's grasp while they're still here among the conveniently located surgeons. Sally's not going to be home to frown at the idea of Jack sleeping with the toy truck, and Dean figures experience is a great teacher, and Jack'll only roll over onto it a couple of times in the night before he realizes it's not as comfortable as his bear anyway.
Jack's asleep by the time they get home, and Dean gets him all the way to the front door before he rouses enough to rub his face against Dean's shirt with a sleepy grunt.
"Did Emily really get this for me?" he asks, lifting the truck in a wild arc that speaks volumes of his fatigue and almost clocking himself in the nose with it.
"When did she go shopping?"
Dean thinks there should possibly have been less encouraging of innate intelligence and a little more speak-when-you're-spoken-to in Jack's upbringing, but only for a fraction of a second. "Mail order," he answers, juggling Jack onto one hip so he can open the door and get them inside.
Jack either accepts that answer, or he's too tired to find the flaws in it for now and has merely set it aside to interrogate his father about later, because he falls silent again. Dean leads him through an abbreviated version of his usual bedtime routine, consisting really only of a slightly half-hearted swipe of a toothbrush and a change of clothes. He puts his son to bed in the room he will soon share with his sister, gets about half a paragraph into the bedtime story Jack insists he's not too tired for, and then wanders back through to the living area.
He's dozing through an Animal Planet special on giraffes when he realizes Jack's standing by the couch, teddy clutched in one hand and the fire engine clasped firmly under his other arm. His posture is tense, but he's still half-asleep.
"Hey, kiddo," Dean says, rubbing a hand over his eyes and reaching out to pull Jack onto his lap. "What's up?"
"There's a monster in my closet," Jack says in a deadly serious tone, and the unspoken trust that Dean will banish it, and protect him, is firm and devastating.
"Yeah?" Dean's pretty sure he knows what this is; he's read every scrap of parenting advice he can lay eyes on, wishing over and over that either he or Sally had parents to ask about this stuff. This is sibling rivalry, some sort of Freudian battle for love, most likely, Jack's place in the family threatened by the new arrival. "What kind of monster?"
"What kind of monster?" Jack parrots, clearly unimpressed with such a stupid question.
"Yep. Got to know what you're dealing with," Dean says, figuring he'll rescue himself by digging a deeper hole. "Always do your research."
"Okay, okay, here's what we'll do," Dean says, casting around desperately for ideas. He gets to his feet, setting Jack down on tottering feet, and taking his hand. They walk through to the kitchen and Dean gets four canisters of salt out of the pantry. Jack raises an eyebrow in a perfect imitation of Dean that he really should be too young for, surely. "Monsters can't step over salt," Dean says solemnly. "Salt represents purity; nothing impure can cross it."
Jack seems to buy that, which presumably has a lot more to do with the sincerity Dean's managed to force into his inflection and the fact that Jack's practically asleep on his feet, than any truth in it. They go through to Jack's bedroom and Dean makes a great show of lining the salt up along the outside of the closet door. Secretly he thinks it would probably work better out of the containers but he might forget to vacuum it up before Sally and the baby come home, and then he'll have to explain why he didn't just tell Jack there's no such thing as monsters.
Dean puts Jack back to bed, and finishes up the bedtime story, but he can't ignore the way Jack's eyes dart to the closet more frequently the closer he gets to the end of The Paperbag Princess.
"Tell you what, kiddo," he says as he closes the book. "Seeing as Mommy and Emily aren't here, you could keep me company tonight."
Jack gives him a wide-eyed and grateful nod and they go upstairs. Dean leaves the salt where it is, just in case. The next day he takes Jack to kindergarten because the books all say routine is important, visits Sally and Emily, does a little research and a little shopping. Then he purifies the house according to what he's learned, feeling sheepish as he does because it's not like Jack's even here to see him do it. Dean barely slept at all last night; he kept the drawer of his nightstand open in case he needed his knife in a hurry, and mostly passed the time watching Jack sleep. Nothing happens when he makes holes in the drywall of the house, when he places the little bundles of herbs and dirt in the gaps he's made. No strange drafts, no eerie noises, no bright lights. Nothing tries to stop him, and he tells himself, as he's patching up the holes, that he really wasn't expecting anything to.
Monsters aren't real.
He still sleeps more soundly that night, feels less guilty for putting Jack in his own bed, feels happier the next day when he brings his new baby home.
The dog dies when Emily's about three months old. Just old age. It's a good death; peaceful, at home, surrounded by her family. Sally's devastated, and Jack makes up a cheery song about burying the poor old doggy and skips round the house singing it over and over until Dean snaps and shouts at him.
"It's all right, sweetie," Sally says, giving him a wan tear-stained smile. "He just doesn't understand."
Sure enough, when Dean's through with the funereal duties, including planting an apple tree over the grave as a marker, Jack finally gets that the dog's gone, really gone, and it's not a game. She's not coming back. He goes from lively elegy to inconsolable in the blink of an eye and Dean's never felt more useless. He's filthy from digging the grave, dirt under his fingernails and sweat drying itchy between his shoulder-blades, but Jack's Daddy's boy and always has been and it's Dean he goes to for what meager comfort he can get. Dean hoists him up and holds him close, walking the living room like he used to when Jack was just a tiny colicky baby. Eventually the tears stop, and Jack's asleep, still hitching in half-sobs against Dean's neck, but Dean keeps pacing, not ready to relinquish the burden of his son's grief just yet. Sally will want another dog, at some point in the future - she's always had a dog - but Dean is never doing this again. He never wants to have to watch his baby break his heart like this ever again. Maybe an ant farm, but nothing Jack can get attached to; the boy's too loving, and Dean can't bear it.
Dean wakes easily, going straight from unconscious to fully awake in the time it takes the phone to ring twice or Sally to grumble in her sleep and burrow under the covers. It's winter, so he's expecting the usual stuck in the snow call, or possibly the year-round options of ran out of gas or flat tire or just don't keep the car maintained like it should be. What he gets is a woman on the verge of full blown panic, and he's in his jeans and boots and halfway to the front door before he can even get her to calm down enough to tell him where she is.
"There was something," she says, as he struggles into a tee-shirt and jacket without losing the phone. "Something out there. It startled me, I swerved to avoid it and I went off the road and I'm down a ditch and I think it's still out there and oh God I think it's going to kill me."
Dean rolls his eyes and tries to be reassuring. It was probably a raccoon or something. "I'll be right there, ma'am," he says.
"What if it comes back?" She sounds terrified and he wonders why the hell she's driving around in the dark if she's this easily freaked by the odd sighting of indigenous wildlife. "What will I do?"
He's tempted to offer a dry 'try not to look too appetizing' but he doesn't think it would go over well. "Is the car damaged?" he asks, as he starts up the recovery truck and Christ, but it's cold. He can see his own breath fogging in the light of the bare bulb in the garage. "Then stay in it until I get there, and wrap up warm."
He goes back to the house for the shotgun before he leaves, just in case, and it's not that he thinks there's actually likely to be anything that bad out there, but this is bear country and it's always better to be prepared. The conditions aren't too bad, considering; there are patches of icy road, but he makes it in good time. She calls him again before he gets there, and if he thought she sounded terrified before it's nothing on how she sounds now. Luckily as she's screaming 'he looked in the window, oh my God I can see it, it's here' at him down the phone to the accompaniment of the sickening screech of tearing metal he can see her brake lights. Whatever that is prowling around the wrecked car, it sure as hell ain't a raccoon.
He leans on the truck's horn to try and scare it off, reaching for the gun as he drives up. He loads and shoots at the thing as he gets out of the cab, and he's equally satisfied and unnerved by the fact that even in this high-stress situation, his aim is true. The creature tears off into the trees with a blood-chilling scream and Dean runs across to the car, half afraid the driver is already dead.
She's not, although she's pale enough that she might be. She's breathing hard and wide-eyed in the driver's seat. It takes Dean a couple of tries to wrench the door open because it's buckled and torn by what looks to him like claw marks, and when he finally does she just sits there staring at him, too frozen by fear to move. He leans in and drags her out because he hit that thing, he knows he did, but it didn't run away like a wounded animal. It ran like it was going away to regroup, and Dean doesn't plan on still being here when it comes back.
"Okay," he says, as he manhandles her back to the tow-truck. "You're okay, come on. Let's get you somewhere safe."
He takes her into town, wakes up the owner of the motel on the outskirts, even though it's off season and the no-vacancy sign is lit. Dean figures it's pretty doubtful the motel is full and far more likely that Charlie just isn't betting on the off-chance of a stray traveler at this unprofitable time of year. Charlie likes Dean though, and the woman he's rescued - her name is Antonia, he learns once she's calmed down enough to answer his questions - is so clearly on the verge of a total breakdown that it would take a really hard-hearted bastard to turn her away. Charlie's a hard-hearted bastard, but he's also a sucker for Dean at his most persuasive.
Antonia insists on the police being called, and the park rangers, and hell, if she thought it would do any good, Dean thinks she'd probably be insisting on the Justice League of America too. Now that she's gotten beyond 'oh my God, it's going to kill me' and 'oh my God my purse is still in the car,' she's turning out to be quite a formidable lady. Dean went back for her purse once he'd gotten her to promise she'd stay in the cab of the tow truck, no matter what, because it's got the first baby tooth her daughter lost in it, and Dean doesn't think that kind of thing should be left lying around.
"I just threw it in my purse," Antonia explains, the hysteria now only a ghost in her expression. "She woke up as I was leaving her bedroom, got in late from work, you know how it is, and I just threw it in quick, pretended I'd just gotten in, which was actually true, and asked her about it."
Dean can imagine what happened next. Jack's first tooth money is still sitting on the top of his dresser, too valuable to waste on mere commodities like candy. He gets back to the tow truck, purse in one hand, shotgun in the other, just as the creature comes tearing back out of the trees. It throws itself at the truck as he slams the door shut, so close that it's almost like he can feel its teeth in his leg, an echo from an alternate reality where he wasn't quick enough. Maybe one where he listened to Lee and Rick, and occasionally Sally, telling him he didn't need to work so hard at keeping fit. It lopes off afterwards, and the whole thing is far too quick for Dean to get a really good look at it. Whatever it is, he's fairly sure he's never seen one before, at least since the accident.
The police question him, and Antonia, for what feels like hours but is actually only about forty minutes, before deciding they can probably carry out the rest of their investigation at a more reasonable hour. The sun's already coming up when Dean gets home; Sally's feeding Emily a messy breakfast, her face tight with worry until he walks in, and Jack's reciting his spelling list out loud, and it's like stepping into another world. A warm, calm, safe world.
The police put it down to a bear attack, maybe a mountain lion when both Dean and Antonia insist that it wasn't a bear, and the park rangers issue new safety warnings. They offer Antonia a lot of advice on dealing with wildlife, advice that Dean suspects she's never going to need. The closest she's ever going to come to anything wild again will be spiders in the bathtub she tells him after she thanks him, repeatedly and effusively. He waves off her offer of money, and she makes a donation to the local volunteer firemen on his behalf.
He spends the day at the library, running the microfiche - which is another skill he wasn't expecting to have - and discovering that there have been peculiar animal sightings in the area on an almost six-yearly cycle. All the reports claim bear attacks, and all mention witnesses insisting it wasn't a bear. Every time there've been these sightings, people have gone missing. People like Lee's girlfriend, completely vanishing, never to be seen or heard of again. As far as he can tell the attacks run back to the early seventies.
The next evening, in the kitchen over a cup of coffee, he tells Sally about rescuing Antonia. He's working his way up to discussing his research findings, his suspicion that there's a cycle playing out up here in the mountains but just as he gets to the good part, where he saves the day, Emily starts yelling blue murder from her room. It's not like her; she usually sleeps well, and is a placid, happy baby, most likely because she has her older brother and her parents wrapped around her tiny fingers, and wants for nothing.
Sure enough when Dean and Sally get into the room, at a run, Jack's already there, lifting her out of her crib and soothing her as best he can, rocking her in his arms and crooning at her in a way Dean recognizes all too easily as an impersonation of him.
"I think the man frightened her," Jack says as Dean sweeps them both up into his arms, unable to even breathe until he's sure they're both okay.
"What man?" he demands, too harshly. He watches his son's eyes go wide in surprise. Dean's not one for yelling at his kids. He paces the length of the room and back, half to placate the now merely sobbing Emily, and half because he's too full of nervous energy to keep still.
"The man with the blue eyes," Jack continues. "He looks in the window sometimes. I don't like him."
Dean doesn't like him either. Dean's going to find him, and hurt him. He hands the baby to Sally and clutches Jack tight, pressing a kiss to his too-long hair. Jack squirms in his grasp and Dean lets his grip relax a little. He holds Jack away from him.
"He talk to you?" he asks, firm but quiet. "This man."
"No, sir," Jack answers, equally serious and faintly affronted that Dean's insulting him by suggesting he'd be stupid enough to talk to strangers. "I don't think he can talk, Daddy," he continues after a moment because he's been brought up to be honest. "He's got too many teeth."
"Take the baby upstairs," Dean says to Sally, already shouldering past her out of the room with Jack.
He carries his son up to the bedroom two stairs at a time, and sits him on the side of the bed. "I want you to stay here," he says, "take care of your sister and your mom for me, okay?"
"What are you going to do?" Sally asks. "We should call 911."
"Good idea," Dean shoots back, but he's already halfway down the stairs. He suspects the blue-eyed thing has long gone but he's not going to sit with his thumb up his ass waiting for the police until he's sure.
He gets the Colt out of the gun safe and tucks it into the back of his waistband, then takes one of the shotguns and a flashlight, and kicks open the back door. He cases the outside of the house, but there's no sign of the prowler. There's a set of animal tracks outside the kids' bedroom window. It's not reassuring.
He joins the rest of his family once he's happy there isn't anything he can do outside; he's getting cold and he doesn't want his hands too numb to fire accurately, and besides he feels antsy away from Sally and the children, because he's all too aware that he can't cover both doors to the house on his own from outside. The police get there inside twenty minutes, take statements, do their own sweep of the outside of the house. They agree that the tracks outside the window aren't typical of bear prints, but they don't have a better suggestion, so they put it down as a possible bear sighting anyway, give the usual advice and leave.
Emily's asleep in Sally's arms before the police even get there, apparently oblivious to the high tension in the atmosphere, and once the officers leave, Jack starts to flag, too, leaning heavily against his mom and blinking owlishly. Dean gets the crib from the kids' room and carries it upstairs to the master bedroom. For the first time since Jack was born he's glad the house is loft-style because there is no way anything can get to the bed, which Sally's now tucking Jack into the center of, without coming past Dean first.
"You go on to sleep," he says, dropping a kiss onto the top of Sally's head. "I'm going to stay up and take care of this."
Sally flashes him a look he can't really read beyond that she's worried. She climbs into the bed, on Dean's side, and sits up against the headboard. Dean gets it. She's not sleeping either, and anything that gets past Dean will have to go through her to get to their children.
He spends some of the night on the internet, researching. He wishes he'd spent more time downtown, in the library, maybe seen if he could scare up any intel, but he didn't want to leave Sally or the kids, and there was a possibility that he'd get cut off downtown if the snowstorm that was threatening arrived. Sally watches him all night, not even bothering to be subtle about it. He goes downstairs eventually, once the sun comes up, armed with limited knowledge and deadly purpose.
"Look after your sister for me," he hears Sally say after a while. "I need to talk to Daddy."
"Sure thing, Mommy," Jack says, and Dean trusts him, and evidently so does Sally because she joins him in the kitchen, where Dean's rifling through the cutlery drawer. He's pretty sure he's not going to find what he wants, but he's never actually checked whether Sally has any silver cutlery at all, and he wants to be sure. He can feel the weight of Sally's gaze on him, and he raises an eyebrow, defiant as much as questioning.
"Dean," Sally starts, and he knows from her tone that he's not going to like what she's about to say. He slams the drawer shut - silverless - and turns to face her. "Honey, are you...are you okay?"
Of course he's not okay, there's something threatening his family and he's not sure what it is, and he's not sure how to kill it. The only thing he is sure of is that he's going to kill it. That's not negotiable.
He grunts a response, and Sally crosses the kitchen and lays a hand on his arm. He looks up into her face and sees nothing but concern. "You're frightening me," she says.
"What?" Because seriously, what? He's trying to keep them all safe. There's plenty for her to be frightened of, and Dean is not it, not by a long shot.
"I think we should talk about this," she says, motioning with her other hand to the kitchen. Then she pauses, clearly searching for how to go on. "What are you doing?"
Dean hesitates. It's a fair question, but he knows that to answer it will make him sound crazy. "I think that thing might come back," he says, "and I intend to be ready for it."
"Okay, that's...okay, I understand that," Sally counters, tone soft and gentle, and she's
humoring him, he can tell. "But...."
She waves at the stovetop, where he's got her smallest saucepan, with a brick sitting next to it and then at the table where he's put his toolkit and bullet-loading gear, liberated from the garage. He's started hollowing a shape into the side of the brick, repeated several times over. It's a pretty damn crude mold, but he thinks it'll do, and it's not like he has time to find the kind of specialist munitions dealer he needs.
"I'm just covering all the bases," he explains, and he knows he's lying because there's bound to be hundreds of things he's not doing, but his research has suggested a few common things, and he's at least going to do what he can.
"Is that Jack's christening photo?" Sally asks, walking across to the stovetop and picking up the item in question. "Dean, what on earth do you need with this?"
"I don't need the photo." In fact he's planning to take the photo out and keep it very safe. "Just the frame."
"Oh well, that's okay then." Sally's pissed now, and that makes Dean look at her.
"I know this seems a little...." He rubs a hand over his face, unable to articulate what he means. "I don't think this thing is a bear."
"Neither do I, neither do the police really," Sally counters. "Maybe a mountain-"
"It's not a mountain lion either. Not an animal of any sort, at least not a natural one."
He watches her carefully for her response; it's a frown and he can see her putting pieces together in her mind, adding up two and two and coming to the same freaky four that he already did. "So you're what? Melting down Jack's christening photo to make bullets. You think it's a werewolf?"
He knows it's crazy, hearing her say it just drives that home even harder, but he also knows he's not that far wrong. "No," he says. "I don't think it's a werewolf." Sally's relief is palpable, and he feels like an asshole for spoiling it by adding. "Lunar cycle's not right for a werewolf, but some sort of shapeshifter. Same method of killing them so it makes no difference."
"Some sort of.... Okay, Dean, that's enough." She crosses the kitchen to the phone, and she's halfway through dialing when he realizes and joins her. He reaches over her and cuts off the call, and she stares at him. There's fear in her eyes, and it cuts right through him. "Dean," she says, half-question, half-plea. "Sweetie please, let me call the doctor, get you some help."
"I don't need a doctor. I need more silver."
Sally swallows, her eyes are bright with unshed tears, and that's better than the fear, but not by much. "Dean."
He lets go of the phone and clutches her arms, hands tight around her biceps as if he can convey his certainty, his sanity, to her through the steadfastness of his touch. "I mean it," he says. "I promise I'm not crazy."
He can hear how stupid he sounds as he speaks, and he wants her to say something flip - 'oh well if you promise' or something - but she just blinks at him, slow and careful and a single tear falls from her eye and splashes on her shirt. She ignores it; he can't.
"I know how I sound," he says after a moment. "And I promise to go see Dr. Harper tomorrow if you want," and if we survive, he thinks but doesn't add. "I just, I need to do this tonight."
In the silence that follows Sally glances toward the bedroom, and Dean gets it suddenly, like a punch in the gut. She's worried about him, sure, but she's worried about the children too, worried about them more.
"I'm not," he says, no idea how to make her comprehend how sincere he is. "I'm not...I'd never hurt you - you or the kids - you know that, right?"
She looks like she wants to believe it, and somehow that's worse than if she just didn't. "I know you don't want to," she says. "It's just...."
"That I've gone all 'all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy' on you, huh?" He forces himself to sound casual, even though he knows Sally's not buying it. She tries though; he can see her trying to smile. "Let me do this," Dean says, looking her in the eye and forcing his expression to be open, to hold nothing back. "Take the kids down to Lee and Tina's, and let me just...please."
"I'm not leaving you up here on your own like this," Sally says, reaching up to smooth a hand over his face like she's trying to imprint it into her memory. "I'll call Tina and ask her to come get the children."
Dean nods, watches her dial, slowly and carefully so he can see each number. It's apparent almost immediately that she gets the answering machine; she leaves a short, falsely cheery message and hangs up.
"Rick?" Sally suggests, but Dean shakes his head.
"He's out of town." Which is true, and why Dean's been pulling double recovery shifts; he's not really that convinced that Rick's place is far enough out of this thing's hunting ground anyway, and if he can't get Sally and the kids far enough away, he wants them close enough that he can protect them himself.
He lets Sally watch him again, while he wracks his brain for places to get silver from and works on his mold, digging brick dust out with a screwdriver.
"Okay," she says finally, and most of the fear is gone from her tone, or no, not gone, but put aside as unimportant right now. "Do you want to tell me what you think we're dealing with then? Tell me what I can do to help."
He suspects she's humoring him again, but he's willing to ride with it. This whole thing will be easier without her chafing against every order. He nods and gestures to the sheaf of photocopies and handwritten notes he took at the library. "I don't really know what we're dealing with," he says, "but it seems to attack every six years; people vanish or see the thing I saw, the thing that's been looking in the kids' window."
He can hear the cold fury in his own voice, and can only hope it isn't going to freak Sally out too much. "And you think it's like a werewolf?" she asks.
It should probably feel weirder to be having this conversation stone-cold sober and straight-faced. "I think it might be." He scrubs a hand over his face. "I really don't know."
He's as happy as he's going to be with his bullet-mold, so he empties Jack's photo frame of its contents, setting the glass carefully out of reach of the children, and puts the metal part into the saucepan. He's going to have to be a damn good shot, because he estimates he'll get maybe four bullets worth of silver at most. He twists the thick band of his ring off his finger - he's pretty sure that's silver - but Sally stops him, closing her hand over his before he can drop it in the saucepan. She shakes her head at him.
"No. Not that."
"It's silver, I think."
"I think so too, but it's also pretty much all you have from before."
Dean looks at her for a moment, unable to believe she's seriously putting his forgotten past in front of the kids' futures, but she's turning away. She runs upstairs, taking two at a time, and returns with her jewelry box and a pair of short heavy candlesticks. She hands them over, pulling chains and pendants out of the box and putting them in a pile next to the saucepan.
Dean picks up the candlesticks and hefts them; they're fairly ugly but solid. "Where'd you get these?"
"My parents. I inherited them."
Dean has a moment to wonder why she's kept them hidden away all these years, but that doesn't seem the most important thing right now. "So they're all you've got left too."
"No they're not. I have memories. You don't, and besides you'll get a whole lot more bullets from them than you will from your ring." She offers him a tight smile. "And they're hideous."
He can't really argue with that, and time's wasting, so he throws them in the pan and moves to the wood-burning stove. He looked up a little on silversmithing earlier, but that doesn't entirely explain how much like second nature it feels to melt down the items and pour the liquid silver into the bullet-molds, cool them down in a bucket of water, and tip them out. He gives a handful to Sally and takes a handful himself, and they file the rough edges off. It feels almost habitual, which he figures must just be one of those adrenaline-fuelled déjà vu things. He makes up the bullets, loads his favored handgun, pleased when everything slides easily into place, and opens the back door to fire a practice shot. He'd rather run a few rounds, but they don't have that many bullets, even with the candlesticks, and he's not prepared to waste any. He thinks they need a touch more powder, but there isn't time and at least his aim's not off. He loads and fires Sally's gun too, then reloads the empty chamber and hands it back to her. He motions her through to the stairs, tucking his own gun into the back of his waistband where it sits warm against his skin, heavy and familiar.
Before he follows Sally up the stairs, he detours to the pantry, takes two of the catering packs of salt and carries them up. Jack and Emily are both still asleep in the big bed, Jack curled around his sister protectively. He lifts his son, wrapped in the comforter, and carries him over to the closet. He kicks the door open and sets Jack down, then gives Emily to him.
"Take care of your sister," he says, kneeling down and running a hand down Jack's face. "I'm going to close the door, and I want you to stay here and be quiet as a mouse, okay?"
Jack looks at him with wide, serious eyes, and that's the image that burns into Dean's brain, that gives him strength to fight whatever this godforsaken thing is.
"Okay," Dean says to Sally, ripping one of the cans of salt open. "Get on the bed."
Sally does as she's told, but slowly, like she still thinks he's probably crazy and isn't sure whether she should be humoring him or not. He takes hold of the footboard and yanks, pulling the bed into the center of the room and wedging it up against the closet. He pours a thick ring of salt around both, running it up to the balcony and along the edge to give them a gallery overlooking the main room of the house. The sources he read advised pouring a line in front of the windows, which he does, and the door, which the bedroom doesn't really have. To be on the safe side he pours a line on the last stair, from one banister to the other. When he turns, Sally's watching him carefully.
"Is that why you bought it, do you think?" she asks. "All that salt."
He looks at her for a long moment, in case she's testing him for insanity, then shrugs. "Maybe."
Sally frowns, but whether it's at him, or herself, he can't tell. Their attention is drawn away by a noise outside, something he would have said was probably a raccoon on any other night. He draws the gun and starts toward the stairs, spinning on his heel when he realizes Sally is following.
"Stay here," he orders.
"Stay in the circle."
"You think I'm going to just sit here while you go up against that thing alone?"
"I think you're the last line of defense for our kids."
That stops her and she blinks at him, serious and wide-eyed. She nods, steps back over the salt line and draws her gun. "Okay," she says, reluctant but resigned. "Be careful."
"Always," he promises, flashing her a quick smile. He thinks he should probably be afraid, but he feels only a steely resolve. If he has to die to keep his family safe, it will be worth it. "Aim for its heart."
He races down the stairs, gun drawn and supported by his flashlight in a way he thinks he must have picked up from TV. The flashlight was a last-second thought because it's better to be prepared than to spend precious minutes fumbling around if the lights go out. His booted footsteps are almost silent, and he skips the squeaky fourth stair from the bottom without so much as a thought. The noises from outside have continued, only now they're less 'curious raccoon' and more 'determined monster.' As he rounds the stairwell to move into the kitchen, he catches the very briefest glimpse of a face at the glass panel of the door. The glare of the flashlight bleaches its hideous features, but he gets a definite impression of blue eyes, though that may just be his imagination running in overdrive. He's half-tempted to just barricade the doors and sit the night out. Two things stop him. For one, he can't be certain his family is out of harm's way until he's equally certain the thing is dead. And for another, he's sure he couldn't live with himself if someone else's family suffered because he was too chickenshit to put the damn thing down once and for all. He glances up once, to find Sally watching him. She gives him a tight smile which could mean anything from 'you're a crazy person and I'm already plotting to have you committed' to 'you're my hero.' He's hoping for the latter.
He sidles carefully up to the back door and shines the flashlight out, but there's nothing out of the ordinary there. No blue-eyed creature, nothing but the snowy expanse of the driveway and the dense black of the cloud-bound night sky. He flicks on the security floodlight and opens the door, keeping his line of sight high so as not to be blinded by the reflected glare from the snow. There's nothing within the circle of lighting, but he can see tracks round the door; something's been pacing back and forth here, packing the fresher snow down. He knows, even though the tracks are too numerous to be distinguishable, that it's the same thing as has been pacing outside the kids' window, and the heavy weight of his resolve settles deeper into his gut.
It occurs to him, in a rush of anger at himself, that turning the floodlights on wasn't such a great idea after all because it's left him blind to the terrain beyond. Hot on the heels of that comes the realization that he really ought to lay some salt lines downstairs as well. He wants to curse his stupidity, promises himself he will later, but he doesn't know if his voice will draw the creature in. He shakes his head tersely instead, switching the security lighting off and crossing to the pantry to get another canister of salt while his eyes adjust.
He's got a line in front of the kitchen window, and another at the back door when glass shatters over him like a shower of diamonds and something catches him hard in the chest. It doesn't hurt, but he knows it will, because he can feel something warm soaking into the cotton of his shirt and turning cold. He knows it's blood, the sensation of bleeding apparently second nature to him, but he has more pressing concerns right now. He lifts the gun, ignoring the throbbing protest of his torn muscles in doing so, but whatever hit him has long gone. There's a trail of splintered glass off into the living area, and beyond that to the children's room, and before he's even fully processed that thought Dean's up and running, glass crunching underfoot.
Sure enough, it's in Jack and Emily's room, sniffing at Jack's bed, and Dean gets one shot off before the creature - and it is a sort of big cat, he guesses - spots him. It's too fast though, and his bullet slams into its shoulder, not its heart. It's barely checked by the injury, but the revolver's kick hurts Dean enough that his hand feels numb, useless, and in the fragment of time it takes him to change the gun to the other hand, the creature's on him again. It bats him away like an inconvenience, like he's nothing but a large and inconsequential ball of yarn, then turns for the stairs. Dean's flight sideways is checked by the sharp edge of the coffee table, the copper scent of blood bursts through his head on impact, and the world goes black.
Sally's voice wakes him, and he swims up from the depths of unconsciousness. His head is throbbing in time with the runnels in his chest, which are bleeding more sluggishly now. He can't quite work out what's happened, why he's lying on the floor, one leg on the sofa, unable to breathe through his nose. His first, terrified, thought is that he's snapped, gone psycho, and Sally's had to hit him with something. The last thing he really remembers is her threatening to call his shrink. It takes him a moment for the sound of Sally's voice to become words, become sense.
"Not another step," she says.
He hasn't even taken a first step, hasn't even got both feet on the floor, so why she's using such a warning tone, he can't understand.
"I'm not going to hurt you," another voice, a man's voice, answers, and Dean jerks his head up to try and see what's going on, only to regret it as his vision swims and darkness threatens. "I'm here to help you."
"Well, you can help me from over there," Sally says, and Dean smiles. It pulls all through his face, bruised muscles and blood-caked skin. "You get any closer and I'll shoot you," she pauses for a moment, and when she next speaks, she sounds as if her words are against her better judgment. "And just in case it matters to you, you should know that this gun is loaded with silver bullets."
The man sounds amused. "Duly noted." Dean can almost see his smile, and he sits up, more carefully, to see a huge guy - he's got to be six-four at least and built - standing back from the foot of the stairs. He's staring up at the balcony and holding his freakishly huge hands out placatingly. He's got a gun in one of them. "If it were a shapeshifter, the salt wouldn't protect you, you know."
"Better safe than sorry," Sally shoots back, and Dean falls in love with her all over again for being smart enough not to give anything away. There's something about this guy, with his easy weapon-handling and his 'trust me' tone that makes Dean feel on edge.
"Okay," the tall guy says, running the hand not holding the gun through his hair; the gesture does little to move his too long bangs out of his eyes, and Dean wonders irritably what the point is of being so clearly comfortable with a firearm if he can't see what he's shooting at. "Okay. I'm just going to write something on your stairs, okay? It's a blessing, in Farsi. To go with the salt, to protect you."
"You think it's still out there then?" Sally asks, sounding less wary, more trusting, and Dean's torn. He decides not to draw attention to himself. He doesn't think the guy knows he's there or, if he is a shapeshifter and he knows because he knocked Dean there, he may not be aware that Dean's conscious.
"Yes. I do," the man says, and Dean uses the cover of his speaking to move, getting to a crouch behind the sofa. "I caught it, but not enough to put it down, even with it already being injured."
"You know what it is?" Sally asks, and dammit, she shouldn't be trusting him, he could be the creature for all she knows, but Dean sort of trusts him too, sort of wants to hear what he thinks.
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you," the guy says, amused but with a low thread of melancholy and regret threading though his tone.
"I'm standing in a ring of salt, holding a gun loaded with the melted-down remnants of my son's christening gifts," Sally says. "Try me."
"I think it's a manticore."
"Okay. So you're as crazy as my husband. A manticore?"
Dean knows he's right, even though he doesn't know what a manticore is. It's fucking frustrating to still have so much of his brain locked away from himself even after all these years, but it's mostly a low grade irritation now, an acknowledged fact.
"Yeah, it's, um, like a chimera, I guess. A lion but with a scorpion's tail and a man's face. Three rows of teeth like a shark, according to some sources."
"Blue eyes?" Sally asks but before she gets an answer the creature - manticore - is back.
The guy moves from where he's bent over the stairs, writing , and gets one shot into the animal's chest before he's knocked sideways by its tail. He hits the wall hard and crumples as Dean stands from his crouch and pumps three rounds into the creature's head. He glances up when he's sure it's dead, but with his gun still trained on the corpse just in case, to find Sally staring down. There's smoke rising from the barrel of her own gun, and she's still gripping it hard, looking shocked and scared.
He keeps the manticore in his sights, and advances toward it, kicking it gingerly from as far away as he can reach. It shifts woodenly with the impact of his boot, thick blood pooling out from its body over the polished hardwood and heirloom rugs of the living area. It was ugly enough in flashes as it attacked; in death it's hideous. Matted fur and huge paws with vicious-looking claws, its face is nightmarishly human, even caved in by Dean's bullets.
Dean shoots it again, just to be sure, but the only movement is recoil from the impact; there's not so much as a flinch to suggest it's still alive. He crosses the room to check on the tall guy, relieved to find the strong steady thrum of a pulse in his neck, then bounds up the stairs to Sally. She's still leaning over the banister, gun pointing at the dead monster, but when he gets closer he can see she's shaking. He takes the gun from her unresisting hands and sets it down before pulling her into an embrace. She claws at his back, holding him tight to her like she can't believe anything is real, and he lets her, even though the wound in his chest objects bitterly.
She pulls herself together after a moment; he can feel the change in her posture against him, and they both move the bed away from the closet. Before they can open it though, there's a noise from downstairs, a low, pained groan. Without so much as a word shared, they're both back at the balcony, leaning down, guns trained on the manticore.
It hasn't moved.
The man has, though; he's getting to shaky feet as they watch, and Dean motions Sally down the stairs, following behind with his gun trained on the tall guy. It doesn't hurt to expect the worst.
The first thing the man does, once he's fully conscious, is cross over to the manticore's corpse and kick it, his own gun trained on its head as he does. Then he runs a bloody hand through his hair, scraping those ridiculous bangs back off his forehead in a stripe of gore, and collapses back to the ground like his legs have given out. He sits for a moment, long legs drawn up and arms resting on his knees, but Dean can see his guard's not down, his gun's ready.
Sally reaches him first. She crouches next to him and touches a careful hand to his shoulder.
"Thank you," she says, and the guy shakes his head, a wry smile on his blood-spattered face.
"No, really, thank you," he says. "You and the guy behind the sofa."
He turns a little, to look at Dean, and frowns. Then his face drops, like someone's cut the strings that hold his expression in place.
"Dean?" he asks, low and awed.
Dean takes a beat to consider, but he's pretty damn sure he's never seen this guy before. Maybe he fixed his car up some time or something. He shrugs.
"Oh my God," the guy says, voice breaking on the meaningless words. He sounds young, none of the bravery of before audible in his tone, like Dean's more frightening, more shocking, than a half-lion, half-scorpion, shark-toothed creature could ever be. "Is that...is that really you?"
And okay, this is really weirding Dean out now. "Yeah," he repeats, as the guy struggles to his feet and advances. Dean takes a step back. "Do I know you?"
"Do you...? Are you serious?"
Whether Dean is or not, this guy seems to be. He really seems to sincerely believe Dean should know who he is. Try as he might though, there's no spark of recognition.
"Look, man, I'm sorry. I've got some funky amnesia thing, I don't remember my own name even, so no offence, okay, but I don't have any idea who you are."
The guy frowns, purses his lips, like Dean might be making this shit up for some twisted reason. He takes another step closer and this time Dean stands his ground. He's not threatened by this man, despite his superior height and reach and the fact that he's still holding a gun that's at least half-loaded.
"I'm your brother, Dean."
It's like a fist to the gut. Dean's first thought is that it can't be true, that he wants it too badly for it to be true, but why would anyone lie about something like this? The man, his brother, just stands there, letting him adjust to the news, or maybe coming to terms with it himself - it has been six years after all.
"Oh, hey," Sally says, quiet and awed. "You're Sammy."
"Actually, it's Sam," Sam says, and he's possibly trying for annoyed, but he's also grinning, wide and bright, like he didn't think he'd ever get to complain about the stupid baby name again. He shrugs. "But yeah, yeah I am."
There's another beat of silence. Dean can't think of a single thing to say, and Sally squeezes his shoulder before going upstairs to liberate the kids from the closet. Sam watches him, frowning and smiling. "I thought you were dead," Sam says eventually, yanking Dean into a bear hug that's all strength and muscle. He holds on for a mere fraction of a second, barely even long enough for Dean to join in, to wrap his arms around Sam and think brother, my brother, my family before Sam's pushing him away. Sam wipes one hand over his eyes, smearing tear trails into the dirt of the fight with the manticore and sniffs. "Sorry," he says, "sorry, I know you hate...but I thought you were dead."
"Know I hate...?" Dean parrots, mind going a mile a minute. He reaches a hand out, touches Sam's shoulder where it curves into his neck; he still can't really believe this is real. "You thought I was dead?"
Sam's face colors and he rushes to explain. It takes Dean a moment to realize Sam's defending himself, that it's guilt staining his voice when he speaks. "You just took off," he says, "and let me tell you, I was kinda pissed because we'd talked about you going up against the demon on your own and I thought we'd agreed, but anyway, not the point. So, you left me this." He reaches into his back pocket and pulls out his wallet, extracts an old tattered bar napkin with a row of numbers in Dean's handwriting on it. The folds of it are worn almost completely through so it's like a paper doll chain, just barely clinging together. There's a name and phone number crossed through underneath it, in a different hand. It makes more sense than the numbers do. "I knew you weren't there, but I couldn't get anyone to tell me where you had actually gone. Guess they were all more scared of you than they were of me. So I went there."
"The Lone Star Saloon?" Dean asks, confused and Sam frowns at him.
"No, Tularosa," Sam says jabbing one long finger at the row of numbers. "New Mexico."
"That says New Mexico?"
"Coordinates, date and time," Sam says, frown intensifying into a pair of deep furrows between his eyebrows. "You don't remember that, huh? Dad's ex-Marine crap?"
Dean swallows, unsure where to start with the idea that the fact his dad was apparently a Marine should be more of a sticking point than oh, say demon, or the idea that anyone would be more afraid of him than they were of the scary Gigantor man here. "The demon?" he asks eventually, raising a skeptical eyebrow, because seriously? Even with the giant half-breed lion corpse at the foot of his stairs, the thought of a demon is hard to swallow.
"Yeah," Sam says sympathetically. "That's kind of a long story."
"You got somewhere to be?" Dean asks, half afraid the answer's going to be yes, and half angry. Both bleed into his tone, and for some reason that makes Sam smile at him, expression softening.
"No," he says, like Dean's an idiot, and maybe he is. This guy, his brother, has been carrying around an old bar napkin for six years, he's hardly likely to run out on Dean now. "Of course not." There's a moment's silence, mostly because Dean has no clue how to ask all the things he wants to know. "I guess I can tell it while we deal with that," Sam says, with a nod at the corpse.
And okay, Dean hadn't really thought all that far beyond killing the creature that was threatening his family, but now he's got a few hundred pounds of carcass to get rid of. "And how do we?" he asks. "Deal with that?"
Sam stares at him for just the tiniest fraction of a second, like he might be joking, pretending not to know what to do, then his face creases into something a little like grief, and he shrugs. "We should salt and burn it, I guess," he says.
Getting the manticore fully onto the rug so they can roll it up and half-drag, half-carry it out into the back yard is pretty much the most unpleasant thing Dean can remember doing. Having met Sam, he's starting to think it probably isn't actually the most unpleasant thing he has ever done, but the thing stinks and it's leaving a trail of gore through the house. He likes that rug - it was one of the first things Sally and he bought together - even if it is basically only a cheap old thing, but not enough to want to keep it after it's been soaked in manticore blood, so he's a little surprised when Sam unrolls it from around the corpse once they're out in the paddock.
"Just burn it," Dean says. "Seriously. It's just a carpet."
Sam smiles at him, but he doesn't stop. "Trust me. We want to be sure the corpse is destroyed. Nothing left. You taught me that. Well, Dad told me it, over and over and over again, but you made me understand why it was important." Sam smiles again, but this one's private, not meant for Dean he doesn't think. "I was never all that good at 'because I said so.' Come on."
The last is a command accompanied by a nod of his head, and where Sam goes Dean is disconcertingly willing to follow. They trudge round the side of the house in the snow; it's biting cold, not that Sam seems to be feeling it at all. Parked in the driveway is an immaculate black '67 Chevy Impala and Dean makes a low appreciative noise before he can help himself. Sam laughs.
"Yeah, man, that was the other reason I figured you had to be dead," he says, clapping a hand on Dean's shoulder in another too-brief touch before popping the trunk. "Six years and you never came for your car."
"This is my car?" Dean asks. "Sweet."
"Should have left it another year," Sam grumbles good-naturedly. "Could have declared you legally dead again and kept the car myself."
Dean wants to comment on 'again,' but his attention is taken by the arsenal in the trunk of the car. Under a not-very-concealed false bottom there's enough firepower to start a small war. Sam hands him a canister of rock salt that's really not all that different to the stockpile in the pantry, and grabs a can of lighter fluid, a book of matches and a shovel. He closes the trunk with a practiced reverence and they go back to the manticore.
"I stayed in Tularosa about four months," Sam says, and Dean lets him because this is clearly more important to him than telling the long story of the demon. "Waited, asked around. I kept in touch with everyone we know, everyone who's left anyway, but no one heard from you. Eventually Ash figured out a shortlist of places you might have gone when you left, so I visited each of them." As he speaks Sam sprinkles the corpse liberally with salt, then accelerant, lights the entire book of matches and sets the impromptu pyre aflame. The heat is welcome; the smell less so. "Finally, in Montana, I got lucky, someone remembered you, but over a year had passed by then and your trail was cold."
Dean's got his arms wrapped around himself against the freezing wind, but Sam's gesticulating, telling his story with his body and his face as much as his words. It takes Dean a moment to realize that it doesn't mean Sam's not feeling the biting cold every bit as much as Dean is; it's just that he's used to it, and Dean hates that, hates even more that he wasn't there for six years of Sam getting acclimatized to discomfort.
"Speaking of cold," he says, as nonchalantly as he can. "I could hear this tale from indoors, right?"
"I don't know that it's going to be much warmer given the gaping hole in your back door, but sure."
"Smartass," Dean mutters with a grin, motioning Sam back into the house.
He gets them each a beer, strips his filthy overshirt and replaces it with a clean one from the laundry pile, grabbing a sweatshirt that's probably the only thing big enough to fit Sam. It's several years old, huge and saggy from being stretched over both of Sally's pregnancies and the lettering is cracked and peeling off where it's been through the wash too many times, but it's warm. Sam takes it with a grateful nod, stripping the first and filthiest of his layers of shirts. He slips the sweatshirt over his head and Dean watches him, desperately trying to spark a memory, any memory, in his mind. He almost misses the heavy careful footsteps of his son down the stairs until he's reached the bottom step but some part of Dean's brain is always listening out and he turns in time to see Jack see Sam and come to a dead halt, wide-eyed at the foot of the stairs.
"Mommy said it was okay to come out of the circle," Jack says glancing anxiously at Sam from time to time. "It is okay, right, Daddy?"
Dean nods, and Jack relaxes a little, then a little more when Dean holds out a hand for him to grab and hoists him up onto one hip. He takes a moment to just enjoy the feel of his son in his arms, enjoy the warm just-woke-up scent of him chasing away burning monster, and to relish the fact that his family is safe now.
"Daddy?" Sam asks, sounding amused, and when Dean turns back to him he's got his eyebrows raised in what must be a family trait.
Dean doesn't answer the question directly. "Jack," he says instead, shifting his son a little from where he's burrowed into Dean's neck. "I want you to meet someone. This here is your Uncle Sammy."
Jack considers for a long moment, brow furrowed in concentration, then extends one serious hand towards Sam. "Pleased to meet you," he says.
Sam grins and shakes his hand, insists that the pleasure is all his with a little glance at Dean to make sure Dean knows he means it. "So that's," Sam continues waving a hand in the direction Sally left in, "your wife?"
He sounds surprised, which after all these years feels strange to Dean, although when he thinks about it, he can still remember how he felt when he first moved in here. "Yeah, well, strictly speaking we never actually got married," Dean explains, realizing suddenly that he can finally know. "I didn't know if I was already. Didn't want to be a bigamist."
"You're not," Sam says, quietly. "To my knowledge you never even came close. We had-" He frowns then laughs. "-an unusual lifestyle I guess."
"And this is what we do?" Dean asks, gesturing to the back door, the still-burning monster beyond it.
Sam nods. "It was kind of the family business. And then the family was just you and me after Dad died, but we carried on. And then I was the family, or at least I thought so."
Dean can tell that there's gaps in the story he's being told from the way Sam hesitates minutely over certain parts of it. Dean's good at reading people, less good at knowing what to do with what he knows about them. He feels guilty suddenly, rushes to explain his actions in the same way Sam had earlier.
"I woke up half-dead of hypothermia," he says, keeping eye contact with Sam. "I had all these...skills, with guns and knives and dangerous stuff, and a box full of IDs and credit cards that clearly weren't mine, and no idea how I got them. I was...." He almost doesn't want to say it, admit to weakness, but he feels he owes Sam the truth. He'd left his brother to deal with their dangerous, unusual, lonely life all on his own because Dean wasn't man enough to face himself. "I was scared of what they might mean. I didn't remember you. I would never have.... If I'd remembered."
"I know that, Dean," Sam says, clasping a hand onto the shoulder Jack's not resting against. The absolute conviction in his tone, the firm belief that Dean would never have knowingly abandoned him releases a knot of fear Dean had barely realized he was still carrying around.
"My name really is Dean, huh?"
"It really is."
"Winchester," Sam says, grinning. "Like the rifle."
There's magic in naming things and Dean had all but given up on ever knowing his real name. He's pretty sure there's a million other questions he should have for Sam, but before he can ask any there's a loud bang from the front of the house and Lee storms in, behind a shotgun. Dean hands Jack to Sam without even thinking about it, putting himself between Lee and his brother and child, arms out placatingly, cursing himself for setting his gun down out of reach.
"Where's Sally?" Lee demands.
"Where. Is Sally?"
"I don't know," Dean says, which is true, and another failure. He doesn't dare turn his head to look at the stairs.
"Jack, my boy," Lee says, gun still trained on Dean and damn but Dean hates it when Lee calls Jack that; he's Dean's boy and one day he's going to make sure Lee understands that. "Where's your mommy?"
"Changing Emily," Jack says, his tone implying that it's obvious. "She's stinky."
Dean holds his hands out a little wider, nods at Lee as if he's confiding. "Okay, Lee?" he says. "You want to lower the gun before someone gets hurt?"
Lee starts to, lets the muzzle dip like he's under Dean's command for a moment then seems to recall his mission, and lifts it again. He jabs the gun at Dean as he speaks.
"Not until I see Sally."
Thank God for open-plan housing, because Sally's clearly heard him, and she leans over the balcony slowly and cautiously. "I'm fine, Lee," she says carefully. "We're all fine."
"You left that crazy message on our answering machine," Lee explains. "I was worried about you."
Dean almost laughs; there wasn't anything crazy about the message at all, he can remember it word for word, but Sally doesn't call people just for a chat so he can see how it might have sounded out of character, maybe even like a coded call for help. He's torn, as usual, between wanting to punch Lee and being grateful that he's such a good friend to Sally that he'd drive up into the mountains to make sure she's okay just because she's been, as Lee puts it 'scarily sociable for a change.'
"Well, I'm fine," Sally reiterates coming downstairs and taking her son from Sam. "I didn't mean to scare you."
"I wasn't...." Lee starts, then tails off, setting the gun down on the kitchen counter and giving Dean a sheepish grin. "Sorry."
"Don't worry about it," Dean says, but Lee's attention's already off him, drawn by the flames flickering in the facets of broken glass still hanging in the back door.
Lee takes a wary step toward the door. "What the hell is that?" he asks, glancing from the fire to Dean and then, belatedly, as if he's just realized he's there, at Sam.
Dean looks to Sam too; Sam just raises his eyebrows, his meaning obvious. Dean's friend, Dean's going to have to explain.
"I'm pretty sure it's what killed Annie and her family," Dean says, and earns himself another frown from Lee.
"That was nearly twenty years ago," he says. "What the hell is it?"
"It's a manticore," Dean says, at exactly the same time as Sam says 'it's a lion' so he amends. "A kind of lion."
"Bigger'n any lion I've ever seen in these parts," Lee says skeptically, eyeing both men like he knows they're lying to him.
"It's Persian," Sam says. "Manticore means 'eater of people,' a man-eating lion. There used to be a family lived near here, the Bradfords."
"Yeah," Lee cautiously agrees. "Whole family pulled up stakes and left in the early seventies."
"Anyone ever see them again?"
"It's a little before my time, I'd have to ask Dad to be sure, but no, I don't think so. They weren't real neighborly anyway, never fit in around here." He throws a brief glance at Dean which might mean 'like you don't fit in' or 'unlike you, God damn you to hell.'
"I don't think they left," Sam says simply. "I couldn't find any trace of them anywhere after 1974."
"You think that thing ate them?" Sally asks, and Dean's pretty sure he knows the answer.
"I think the youngest son brought it over here as a pet. He traveled a lot, while he was waiting to take over the family business, including a trip along the Euphrates river in 1972. I think it's been living up in the ruins of that house, hibernating, coming down the mountains to feed every six years or so."
There's a beat of silence before Lee lets out a low whistle of breath and runs a hand through his thinning hair. "You're crazy," he says to Sam, who just quirks an apologetic half-smile. Dean would stand up for his brother but he doesn't think Sam would appreciate it, and he doesn't think Lee really thinks Sam's crazy, just that he might be himself and he needs a way of sorting through the idea that a man-eating creature has been terrorizing his home town for almost as long as he's been alive. "But if you're right, and that thing did kill my Annie, then thank you, I guess." He holds out a hand to Sam, who accepts and shakes it, then turns to frown at Dean. There's a wordless apology in his expression, and Dean holds his own hand out to Lee before he can say anything too sickeningly heartwarming. "Thanks," Lee says, taking Dean's hand in a sweaty clasp and shaking it like he can atone for all his wrong impressions of Dean in that one gesture.
"Don't mention it," Dean insists. He throws a look at Sally who, in a perfectly timed moment of understanding what Dean wants without him having to say anything, draws Lee away and to the front door, talking soothingly to him about going home and getting some rest. He's left his shotgun lying on the kitchen counter, but Dean's not going to risk running after them when he can easily return it tomorrow. "Does he have a key?" he demands once Sally returns, and to his surprise it's Sam, not Sally, who answers.
"Oh, yeah," Sam says sheepishly. "I kind of kicked your front door in."
"Well then I guess you better stick around so you can help fix it tomorrow," Sally grins, turning to the stairs. "I'll make up the sofa bed for you."
"I have a motel room in town," Sam says, moving closer to Dean and lowering his voice. "I don't want to impose."
It takes Dean a moment to get what he's driving at, and then he grins and claps Sam on the shoulder. "She wouldn't have invited you if she wasn't happy for you stay," he says, but he checks with Sally later, gets a frown in answer, like she's offended that he thinks she'd throw his brother out. He and Sam get the back door boarded up, the glass all swept away, while Sally puts Jack back to bed. He's reluctant to go, staring at Sam over Sally's shoulder all the way to his bedroom and complaining bitterly.
"I promise I'll still be here when you wake up," Sam offers as Jack and Sally reach the doorway, and Dean knows it's partly for his benefit too, but he's too happy to make much of an objection.
Sally comes back with linen for the sofa bed, a spare toothbrush and a clean towel. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Sam," she says as she hands them over. She brushes a hand over Dean's shoulder as she walks past him on her way to the stairs and he catches her by it, pulling her in for a proper kiss, relief and love and adrenaline singing through him. "Goodnight," she grins as she pulls away. "Don't you boys stay up all night gossiping now."
They listen to her footsteps as she climbs the stairs. Dean doesn't want to break the silence, the moment of calm happiness. He has a million questions and no desire whatsoever to break the comfortable quiet by asking them, so he helps Sam make up the sofa bed instead, amused by the fact that they do their hospital corners the same. Sam yawns, tries to pretend he hasn't, apologizes.
"You meant it, right?" Dean asks, because he can't not. He needs to know.
Sam gives him a crooked smile. "Of course I meant it. Go on up to bed with your wife, Dean."
Dean's affronted for a fraction of a second, that Sam's so clearly amused by even the thought that Dean's got Sally, but he lets it go, because Sam hasn't had the last six years to get used to the idea.
"Okay then," he says, smiling back. "G'night, Sammy."
Sure enough Sam's still there in the morning. Dean wakes with Emily, sneaking downstairs to warm her bottle, holding her tucked against his chest as he pads through the living area. Sam's awake as soon as Dean's foot hits the last step, no heavier a sleeper than Dean is apparently.
"Hey," Dean says, starting up the coffee and feeding Emily while it drips. He's not sure how to follow it up; what do you say to a brother you'd forgotten you had? "Sleep well?"
Sam just stares at him, perplexed frown between his eyebrows that leaves Dean wondering just how not like himself he's being. "Yeah, thanks, I did," Sam says eventually, evidently recalling his manners. "I'm going to go up to the Bradford House, make sure there's no manticore cubs or anything, destroy the lair."
Dean's pretty sure there's an invitation in there, a cautious and unspoken one. "Need someone to carry your pitchfork?"
Maybe he was wrong, because Sam's face folds, forehead creasing further. "I don't want...." he starts and it feels like he's punched Dean in the gut. "I don't want to drag you back into hunting." He gestures to the baby, the kitchen, Sally sleeping upstairs, Jack snuggled right down under his covers until only the very tips of his hair are visible. "I want you to have this. I've always wanted-"
"Dude," Dean cuts him off. "You're going to burn down a derelict building. I'm not missing that."
He hands Sam a mug of coffee and the baby, trying not to laugh at Sam's stricken expression at the latter, and starts breakfast - pancakes and bacon because it's the weekend. As usual Jack stumbles, still half asleep, into the kitchen exactly on time for the first stack of pancakes. He stares at Sam for the first ten minutes or so but by the time Dean sits down to his own breakfast, which he eats around Emily on his lap making random grabs for everything within reach, Sam and Jack are getting along like a house on fire. Well, mostly Jack is talking Sam's ear off, but Sam doesn't seem to mind.
Once Sally's up, Dean and Sam drive up as close to the Bradford house as they can get in the Impala. She's as gorgeous to drive as she is to look at, and Dean thinks it's pretty goddamn nice of Sam to slide into the passenger seat and hand Dean the keys. He updates his 'most disgusting thing I have ever done' list to include searching a manticore's lair but they don't find much other than a new respect for zookeepers. Then they burn the place down. It's a good thing it's winter and there's a blanket of snow to stop it spreading to a forest fire, and Sam pulls him away far sooner than he wants to go, but he's still riding the adrenaline rush all the way home, the rush of having done something really good, really worthwhile, even if no one will ever know.
"You know some hunters do work out of a particular geographic area," Sam says apropos of nothing as they pull up outside the house. "There was a guy lived not far from here even: Daniel Elkins. He was a vampire specialist."
Dean crooks an eyebrow at 'vampire.' He's pretty sure Sam has to be kidding him, doing a damn good job of it too, keeping an incredibly straight face. "What happened to him?"
"He, um, yeah, he was killed," Sam says.
"Guess we'll have to be better than him then, right?"
And that's what they do. Sam moves in, more or less. They convert the space above the garage into a tiny bedroom with a sink and a shower that Sam can barely stand up in. Lee's clearly told Rick something about the manticore, and Dean's other job, because whenever he needs time off at short notice he gets it, and they work mainly as far as they can drive in one day from the house. Sam sometimes works further afield, but only ever on jobs they both agree only need one man, and he calls in every evening at seven to say goodnight to the kids and to assure Dean and Sally that he's okay. Every so often Dean feels guilty for leaving Sam alone on a hunt, usually the ones where Sam comes home injured, and offers to join him full time. Sam raises an eloquent eyebrow to say 'and leave your family unprotected?' to which Dean scowls an unspoken 'you're my family too.'
They go through a difficult patch when every picture Emily draws at school is of her daddy and her uncle fighting monsters, mommy in the corner bent over a huge book and a cauldron. Another when she insists that she hasn't asked Dean to tell her class about being a mechanic on bring your parents to school day. Luckily Emily's teacher is a friend of theirs, and has a bit of a crush on Sam, so she lets it go with an 'all children think their parents are heroes,' which leads to Emily sulking for the rest of the day. Sam takes him on a road trip to meet the few people still alive from their childhood, they visit their mom's empty grave and the spot where they cremated Dad. Dean's pretty damn sure he doesn't want his kids mixing with most of the people they meet on the trip. He also knows he's going to have a fight to keep either of them from the hunt, just like he knows Sam's teaching them stuff, wards and sigils and hand to hand, but only after they've done their homework so Dean lets it go.
As family businesses go, it's not a bad one after all.