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In The Shadow of Your Heart

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Light in his eyes wakes Dean. He scrunches his face and turns away from it, but the light seems to follow him, warm on his cheek and too bright to be ignored. He blinks his eyes open slowly and squints around his room, the blue of his walls almost white from the bright light falling on them. Momma didn't close the curtains last night, so the sun's pouring in from outside, big and happy, and Dean thinks now is as good a time as any to get up.

He pushes himself up to his feet and gives the bars around his bed an annoyed look and tilts his head, listening for the sound of either of his parents. They don't like it when Dean climbs out of bed by himself, but Dean's three and a half, he doesn't need help getting out of bed anymore. He sets his face into the same determined expression he's seen on both of his parents, and climbs up the bars of his crib.

Dean's told his parents that he should be sleeping in a big boy bed, but all his insistence does is make them smile. He figured out how to climb out of his bed ages ago, after all.

His window's open, and Dean can hear the bird that lives outside his window singing 'cause it's morning. Dean wants to sing, too, but he thinks he'd rather wake his parents up as a tiger instead of a bird. He opens his door real slow, so that it won't make a noise, and tiptoes— prowls, tigers prowl— out of his room, down the hall to his Momma and Daddy's room. He jumps to the other side so they don't see him and then pokes his head through the crack of the door to see if they're awake.

The room is empty, and Dean blinks, because usually when he wakes up on his own that just means he beat his parents to getting up. He can't smell the usual morning-smells that mean his Momma or Daddy's in the kitchen, either. Dean lets his hands fall out of their claw shapes and puts them on his hips, huffing in annoyance. His parents should definitely have to tell him if they're going to be going someplace in the morning so Dean doesn't have to waste his tiger stalk on them.

His tummy grumbles, and Dean decides that even if his parents forgot to wake him up this morning they definitely wouldn't forget to feed him, and perks up. He runs down the stairs as fast as he can, stomping loud like a T-Rex, and bursts into the kitchen with a roar.

Daddy's sitting at the kitchen table with his head cradled in his hands, pulled together like he's trying to hide. He doesn't react when Dean comes in, but his hand tightens on a piece of paper gripped in one hand.

"Morning, Daddy," Dean says timidly, not sure why his Daddy looks so— small. "Is it breakfast time?"

Daddy doesn't answer for a few long seconds, then rubs his hand over his face and looks at Dean. His eyes are red like he's been crying, which doesn't make sense because Daddy's all grown up and grownups don't cry, crying's for babies. Dean almost never cries anymore. Dean steps closer and lays a hand on Daddy's knee. "Daddy?" he says again. "Are you okay?"

Daddy makes a sound like he stubbed his toe and his arms snap around Dean in a hug so tight Dean's lifted off the ground, onto his Daddy's lap. Dean squirms to escape, and when that doesn't work he wraps his own arms around his Daddy's neck. "Where's Momma?" Dean asks, because Daddy only gets funny like this when they've been fighting.

Daddy ducks his head down into Dean's neck and Dean can just make out the words he rasps out. "She's— she wouldn't have left you," he says. He doesn't answer any more of Dean's questions, and when he eventually lets go, Dean's arms are tender where Daddy hugged him too hard.

People come and go through the day, but Momma is never one of them.

Dean watches them, men who talk to Daddy and women who try to pet Dean's hair, which makes him scowl and duck away. His grandparents stop by, which makes him perk up because Momma never misses dinner when the whole family is here, but she still doesn't come home.

Dean sits himself down on the stairs facing the door and refuses to budge, because all these people in their house might scare Momma away when she comes back, so Dean wants to be the first thing she sees. Daddy moves between the living room and the kitchen like he can't decide where he wants to be, and Dean can hear him sometimes when he's talking to people.

"She left a note," Dean hears Daddy say from the living room, where he's talking to a police officer. "She left a note, but Mary, she was— she was happy, she wouldn't have left us." His voice breaks. "She wouldn't have left Dean, not willingly."

The police officer says, gently, "The trouble the two of you've been having is no secret in this town, John. Few months ago, you were the one who walked out the door. If you want, we can fill out a report, but everything here points to Mary... well, to Mary leaving on her own." He quiets, and it hurts Dean's chest to breath, him talking that way like Momma won't come back. He remembers the weeks from last winter when Daddy left, remembers how sad Momma was. She wouldn't do that. She wouldn't.

"She might come back," the officer adds, and Dean can make out the quiet sound of Daddy crying.

Momma never comes back.

***

"Your dad's gonna get fired today," Jesse Thompson says.

Dean puts down his workbook and sends the other boy a dark look. "You're dumb," he says after a long moment of consideration.

Jesse scowls as the girls laugh, then smirks. "I'm not dumb. I heard my dad talking about it this morning— said he's gonna fire John Winchester 'cause he's 'drunk as a fish more often than not'." He throws his jaw out when he talks like his dad, so his jaw looks bigger than it is.

Dean dumps his paste down Jesse's short in arts and crafts and gets a time out, and figures that's the end of it.

He's gotten used to ignoring the other children, their parents so interested in his family that it trickles down to the next generation. He can't defend against the taunts that his face was so ugly not even his mom could love it, since for all he knows that's true, can't say a word when they talk about her slutting around town as though anyone's seen her since the night she walked out on him and his dad. His fists say all that needs to be said, and he gets in trouble for it at school, but his dad never says a word, just looks at Dean like he can't find the energy to reprimand him.

He does a good job of not thinking about it until he steps onto the bus home and every head swivels to look at him before they all duck down and start whispering. Dean scowls and sits down right behind the driver where he knows no one else will want to sit, and ignores the rustle of whispers that surround him.

When they get to his street, Dean jumps off and breaks into a run. The other kids get brave now that's he's left and call out after him through the bus's open windows, but Dean doesn't hear. If he runs fast enough, the sound of his feet slapping against the ground and his breath take up his whole world, and he can pretend they aren't saying anything at all. He likes running, so he runs hard and fast, even once the bus drives away.

Dean goes flat out, sneakers slapping wetly against the cement of the sidewalk, until he hits the edge of his driveway. Dad's car is there, all big and black and cool, and Dean perks up at the thought of his father being home from work early. It makes him nervous, considering what Jesse was saying, but he shoves the feeling down. Dad does come home early sometimes, even if it isn't regular. His dad works really hard to make sure they've got everything they need, and if he goes to the bar sometimes after work instead of coming home, so what? Dean's not so little he can't take care of making himself Spaghetti-Os, and Dad needs the time to relax.

Doesn't mean Dean isn't excited his Dad is home early, though. He's bouncing on his feet as he cuts across the grass to their front door. It's still locked, so Dean flips his backpack around to his front and digs around for his keys. The door opens on an empty house like usual, and Dean frowns at the feel of it. The walls are bare as ever, stripped of all photos three years ago and never replaced, but this is a feeling that goes beyond the minimalist decorating his dad said was his preference.

Dean stops by the kitchen and chugs a glass of water, smirking to himself when it makes him give a long, loud burp. He peeks out the kitchen window but doesn't see his dad in the backyard, doesn't hear him upstairs. He leaves his cup on the counter and turns his head toward the door to the garage.

It's the one part of the house Dean isn't supposed to go, since Dad keeps his power tools in there and says Dean isn't old enough to learn to use them, yet. Dean usually manages to keep his urge to sneak in under wraps, but his dad is home. Dean curls his hand around the doorknob, just below eye level, and can't help but hesitate. He thinks about what Jesse Thompson sang at him in class, and the shivery, unsure place down in his guts his mom left twists inside him, worried Jesse was right. He bites his lip and opens the door.

It opens quietly, the hinges kept well-oiled and soft. The garage is dark, no windows, lights off. The light from the kitchen follows Dean through the door, a long, bright rectangle broken by his shadow. The garage smells of stale air and the hard liquor Dad only drinks in the house after a bad day. He can see his dad's back, hunched over, just outside the reach of the light.

"Dad?" Dean says, but his words don't make it far, drowned out by a sudden explosion of sound that rips through the room. Wetness splatters on Dean's face, warm and shocking, and he freezes, like the sound short circuited the connection between his brain and his legs.

His eyes must have adjusted to the dark, because he can see in crystal clear detail as his dad leans sideways and falls to the ground, the back of his head broken open like an egg. His ears have gone deaf, but he sees every detail as his dad's body splays out over the ground in a growing puddle of dark. When it hits the shaft of light Dean's let in, the puddle is red.

Dean takes a deep breath, and screams. He can't hear it, so he keeps screaming. He doesn't stop for a long, long time.

***

The night is cold enough that, if Dean weren't working, he'd have his hands shoved into his armpits for warmth. But he is working, and he needs the cash if he's going to eat tomorrow, and the persistent weakness that dogs his steps is enough to let him know he'd better eat soon or else he's gonna have to sign over the last bits of pride he has and join up with Jimmy and his girls. He's talked to the girls a few times; they don't have much good to say about Jimmy, but they always have a roof over their heads and they get two square meals a day more often than not. Dean doesn't value his pride more than his life, but to keep both he's got to stand on the corner and look pretty even if he can't keep the shivers under control.

It's not a good night.

The girls have drifted away over the hours Dean's been standing here, some into cars and some back to the relative safety of doorways. Dean was the only one who came back out after the cop car took a crawl down the street, interrupting business and scarring away the Johns. Dean hasn't seen a car in almost twenty minutes, and it's been longer than that since one slowed down to look at him. Jimmy's house isn't even on this block, but Dean swears he can feel the man's eyes tracing down the small of his back. He casts a look over his shoulder, but the alley is still empty. He’s alone.

Dean moves back so he's standing against the wall instead of out in the open. No point leaving his back open if there's nobody there to look at it and pay for the pleasure. He presses himself against the dirty brick of the old building and watches a whole lot of nothing drive by. The wind blows hard, and Dean gives in and wraps his arms around himself to try to stay warm. His t-shirt’s thin and doesn’t do much of anything to keep him warm. If he sees a car he'll leave the wall behind and show off, but there's no point showing off to the cloudy sky. The stars aren't even out to look at him.

He stays on high alert as he waits, hunger twisting his insides to sickness as he waits for last call to spill a willing barfly his way, when the skin on the back of his neck stands straight up. Dean's always had good instincts, and he's seen for himself the monsters that hide in the dark, nodded along to the ramblings of a man who smelled of rotting potatoes that most people called crazy, 'cause he's seen the things that hide in the shadows, knows people aren't crazy just 'cause they see things that aren't supposed to be real in the dark. The corner he's chosen is bare, missing any sort of cover, and there's no way Dean's hiding in an alley if there's some kind of creeper hiding in the dark. You don't go down alleys to hide from them like you do from cops; Dean figures creepers like alleys best, 'cause they know there's maybe witnesses out in the open. Dean bends down and pulls his knife out of his boot and holds it close, keeps his eyes open. Bad feelings don't always mean something's after him; it just means something out there is hungry.

Dean keeps quiet and small against the wall, and between one flicker of the street light and the next, something’s out there in the street. It's a creeper alright, and an ugly one at that. It’s crawling on all fours, but its arms are too short for its legs, like it's a man that forgot to stand up straight. It's got the same long, pointless hair on its body as a pig, and it moves around the edge of the light like it thinks that'll keep it hidden. Dean's breathe hitches in his throat and he takes the opportunity to hold it; his heart might be loud enough for the monster to hear, might not, but his breath always sounds too loud in the dark.

The creeper's limping, a little, like a dog with a bad leg. Dean presses his back hard against the brick and wishes he had somewhere he could run back to for safety. Even Jimmy’s place has to be safer than this. Dean keeps his eyes open so long they start to water, the cold air harsh against his too-wide eyes, but he still misses it when the man stalks out of the dark.

The man looks like a cowboy. He's dressed like a dock worker, strong, cheap clothes, and he's got a gun clutched in one hand down by his side. His boots don't make any noise as he circles the creeper, but the thing notices him anyway. Its body coils up, ready to jump, and before Dean can shout a warning the man's gun is up and two shots explode out of it and hit the monster in the chest before it gets halfway to airborne. Dean's breath falls out of him with a gasp, and the man's gun is up and pointed at him before he can blink.

"Don't shoot," Dean gasps. He clears his throat and pushes away from the wall, knife poking into the small of his back. "I'm not a creeper, so don't— shoot." He steps away from the wall and holds his hands up so the man can see he's got nothing in 'em.

The man blinks and lowers the gun back down to his side. He's tall, and when he moves into the light Dean can see he's got blond hair, cropped close to his head like the army boys that come prowling through sometimes. "What the hell are you doing out here, kid?" he asks. He keeps his gun out instead of putting it away, and Dean can't help but respect that. This man doesn't know Dean from Adam, and Dean hasn't put his knife away, either.

"Minding my own business," Dean says, and he means it. He doesn't want no trouble, and he knows enough to know that, creeper-killer or no, men waving guns around this late at night are always trouble.

The man narrows his eyes and he rakes his eyes down Dean's body, and for a moment Dean thinks maybe he's found his meal ticket after all. "You hustling?" the man asks, and Dean can't tell if it's disbelief or disapproval that paints his voice.

Dean takes a risk and bites his lip so it swells, angles his hips and flexes his arms so his slender form is on full display. "I could be," he says, voice husky.

The man cringes at the words, and it just figures Dean was wrong. "You can't be eighteen," he says, like he wants Dean to prove him wrong.

Dean falls out of the angles that show him off and crosses his hands over his chest. "I am if anyone asks," he says, and he knows he sounds like a petulant teenager, but he can't help it. He can charge extra because he's so young, and more because he’ll say he’s eighteen when he’s two years shy of it.

The man rubs a hand over his face like Dean's words are a physical pain, and the gaze he turns on Dean is the same assessing look Dean's only seen on Johns' faces before. "You hungry?" he asks eventually, and Dean's stomach growls his agreement before he can claim lie. The man laughs, and holds his hand out for Dean to take.

Dean steps forward and slides his palm into the man's grip, where it's pumped once, firmly, before it's released. "My name's Bill Harvelle," he says, like Dean's someone worth a full name, a real name. "I'm a hunter." Bill's hand is warm, and Dean finds himself wishing, just for a second, that Bill weren't such a good man, because he's never that warm on his own.

"I'm Dean," he says, rubbing his chill hand over the leg of his jeans. He forces himself to stare at Bill instead of looking away. "A hunter— you hunt creepers?"

Bill smiles like Dean's said something charming, and nods. "All manner of creatures." His eyes sharpen all of a sudden, catch Dean's. "You see a lot of 'creepers' in your line of work?"

Dean shifts his weight from foot to foot. "People see all sorts of things on the street," he says non-committedly. Questions like that don't deserve an answer.

Bill studies him with kind, too-knowing eyes, and then sighs. "You're hungry," he declares firmly, like it's a call to action. "I haven't eaten since I started tracking that thing and I wouldn't mind some company." He says it like the offer it is, and Dean wants to take him at his word.

"Twenty bucks up front for my time," Dean says, because he needs the money, and the fish aren't biting but he doesn't trust easily.

Bill's eyes harden, and he straightens up so tall Dean realizes fully just how much bigger than him Bill is, and Dean's not a small guy, young as he is. "I'll feed you if you come with me," he says, "But I won't pay you. I've never paid for company in my life, and I ain't about to start now."

Dean doesn't back down for the long moment Bill holds his eye, but when the hunter sighs and turns away, Dean can't keep quiet. "Wait!" he says, and ducks his head down, blushing, when Bill looks back over his shoulder. "I'll come," he says. There's a feeling in his chest he barely recognizes, but when he realizes what it is— realizes it's the urge to be someone worthy of respect— he can't force himself to hide away from it. It's the exact opposite of swallowing his pride, and all the harder for how often Dean has done just that.

Bill takes him to a diner just two blocks away. They walk, though Bill stops by an old pickup truck on the way and unloads his gun, which Dean takes as an opportunity to put away his knife.

Dean doesn't know what to say, and Bill— well, who knows what's going on in Bill's head. "You got a light?" Dean asks, desperate to break the silence. The cigarette he pulls from his pocket is slightly squashed but intact, and he flips it between his fingers nervously.

Bill doesn't reply, just pulls out a silver zippo from his pocket. There's a symbol printed on the side, an overly decorated star in a circle. Dean lights up and hands it back, and the silence between them continues, but he can pretend it's not awkward as he sucks down the toxic smoke.

A bell on the door rings when they walk in and Bill nods to the waitress behind the counter like he knows her, then slides into a booth, taking the side that faces the door. Dean hunched his shoulders against the naked feeling of the door at his back and slides into the booth across from Bill, and keeps his eyes on the table when the waitress swings over, coffee pot already in hand. She pours them both a cup without asking and Bill nods his head in thanks. Dean can feel the heat of his gaze when she makes her way back toward the counter.

"You keep acting like that, people are gonna think I'm paying for more than your food," Bill says, and his eyes are sad when Dean meets them.

"'M not acting like anything," Dean mutters as he grabs a menu from the condiments box and pretends he isn't hiding behind it. Bill says nothing, just takes a long sip on his coffee and stares at Dean over the rim of his cup. It's only a few minutes before Dean lowers the menu and glares. "Look, what do you want from me? I'm just here for the free meal." His voice breaks at the end and he clears his throat in an attempt to distract from that fact.

Bill taps his fingers on the side of his mug and leans back so he's pressed against the back of the booth. For a long moment he says nothing and then he closes his eyes and breathes in deep, through his nose, then releases it in a puff from his mouth. He opens his eyes and says "I want to take you home with me."

All the muscles in Dean's body tense and he darts his eyes around the diner. Nothing's changed, he can still leave at a moment's notice, but Dean feels trapped and wants out. "You're fucked in the head if you think I'd do that," he says, voice tight through the invisible fist which has clenched down on his throat.

Bill smiles at that and ducks his head, but Dean sees the bashful smile on his face. "My wife says I've taken too many hits to the head to think straight." He laughs, lightly, but when he stops his attention focuses back on Dean, sharp as the blade of a knife. "We live in a hard world," he says. "You know that better than most, but there's more monsters lurking in the dark than your Johns. Your creepers— they're in every city, every state, everywhere. You come with me, you'll be living in my world. You'll be a hunter."

His words should be scary. They should make Dean want to make a break for it and get out before the crazy spreads and infects him, too. But Dean's seen for himself some of the things that lurk in dark alleys, but they're nowhere near as bad as some of the monsters that drive by on the road. "That doesn't tell me much," he settles on eventually.

Bill makes a small sound of agreement. "It's a hard life. But you'll be helping people, like I helped you. Saving them."

"Sounds too good to be true," Dean says, but even he can tell his voice is more considering than doubtful.

A slow smile crawls over Bill's face. "You won't be saying that for long," he promises.

"I haven't agreed yet," Dean says, but he smiles back at Bill helplessly, full to busting with the kind of hope only idiots feel. He doesn’t quite trust Bill, but what’s being offered sounds better than the nothing he has to go back to after this; he doesn’t even have enough money on him to cover their food, let alone to bribe himself into a bed.

"Course not," Bill replies placidly. He waves the waitress over. "But we both know you're going to."

He orders two plates of bacon and eggs, and somewhere between stealing Bill's toast and his cup of fruit, Dean proves him right.

***

Ellen takes Dean under his wing in a way that he's immediately suspicious of. She rests her hands on Dean's shoulders, but never for long enough to make him shrug her off. She cooks for him, but she never bakes— says she hasn't got the talent for it. The front of the Roadhouse smells of beer and hard bodies at night, but the part none but family gets to see always smells of old, good spices.

It sets Dean on edge. If it weren't for Jo, he'd probably have smuggled himself out in the back of a truck before even a month went by.

But Jo is there, all blonde hair and dark eyes, a shy little girl that smacks Dean in the face the first time he talks back to her Momma. She's the first of the Harvelles to offer him anything more than kind words and soft hands, and it loosens the tight, anxious place in his chest where Dean can't help but wait for the other shoe to drop.

Jo hitting him means they’re only human— means their offer of kindness isn't some ploy to make him let down his guard. They're just good, hardworking people that fight the monsters that haunt the dark.

Bill's gone more often than not, which Dean likes, 'cause it means he doesn't have to deal with yet another over-bearing wishes-he-were-my-father figure. He also hates it, because he likes Bill, likes him like respect and the shameful knowledge that without him Dean'd probably be ass-up in an alley somewhere, half-starved and wasting his money on drugs.

It gives him a point of contact with Jo, that they both miss Bill when he's gone. Jo always throws a fit when he goes, and Dean gets to spend his attention calming her down instead of thinking about how Bill's probably never coming back.

Ellen's a kind, patient woman, who doesn't say a word about how much older than Jo Dean is when they're both learning to shoot a gun for the first time. She lets him gather up the tattered edges of a pride he thought long left behind. She doesn't say a thing when Dean freaks out the first shift he takes on the floor, the eyes of so many dark, hardened men sending shockwaves through Dean he thought he'd gotten over a long time ago. She just sticks him behind the bar and teaches him the difference between how to serve a man who asks for a beer and one who orders a shot and tells Dean to leave the bottle.

It's all a muddle of laws and don't-drink-no-not-even-if-they're-buyin

g, but when Dean turns eighteen she relaxes, and the tension is gone from her shoulders for the first time since Dean met her.

"I was worried you'd get picked up by some no-good do-gooder and taken away," she admits when Dean asks, and a shiver of unease works its way down his spine at the thought of just how easy it would have been for someone like Mr. Foster to get their hands on him again.

Bill's gone again, chasing after some spirit that needs chasing, the night one of the Campbell boys comes in.

He's a tall, blond shadow of a figure against the bright light of day outside, and for a heart stopping moment Dean thinks it might be Bill, back early and safe again. The man steps inside and the illusion shatters, the young features and the shifty eyes of a seasoned hunter nothing like Bill's.

None of the barflies notice and the hunters just give the new comer a cursory glance, but Ellen straightens up and puts her hand down behind the bar where she keeps her shotgun. Dean moves out from behind the bar without batting a lash and busses a table in front of the door to their home, two seconds and a roll away from being armed himself.

The new guy doesn't pay them any mind, just sits himself down on a barstool and taps two fingers on the counter and waits. Ellen stays in place long enough to make a point, then takes her hands out from under the counter and walks over.

"Whiskey," the man says, then knocks back the shot Ellen pours like it's water. Dean watches, unsure, as Ellen serves him another with hooded eyes and a smile so cold it makes Dean want to clean the kitchen and pacify the beast.

"What're you doing here, Christian?" she asks eventually, voice just adding to the tension. Her hand keeps drifting under the bar, like the cold feeling of wood and potential pain is a comfort.

The man—Christian— tips his shot glasses upside down on the bar. "A man can't just stop in for a drink?" he asks, and it's such an obviously lie Dean barely smothers his scoff.

"You Campbells don't turn up anywhere without a reason." Ellen fills up a fresh shot and thrusts it Christian's way. "Especially not alone."

"Even the best armies have scouts," Christian says, and sips his whiskey slow through his smirk.

Ellen's hand goes under the counter and stays there. "You trying to make a point?" Ellen says coldly, but there's an edge of fear under there, past the anger. Dean tucks his cloth into his back pocket and walks over to lean against the end of the bar, one step from arm's reach. He doesn't say anything but Christian rolls his head around, assessing Dean with a look that starts out cold and ends hot, unfortunately familiar.

"You serving more than just drinks, Ellen?" he asks as his eyes track down Dean's body again, and he shoots Dean a smirk before he turns away, right into the slap of Ellen's hand.

For just a moment the bar stops as all the hunters take notice, but Ellen's eyes scream a warning to mind her business like she minds theirs, and the soft background chatter begins again. Ellen nods, and presses her hands deliberately flat against the bar as she leans over it toward Christian. "You need to watch your mouth, Campbell. That's my son you're talking about." Ellen straightens and leans back against the counter behind the bar, message delivered. "You got something to say, you say it. Then you get out."

Christian's eyes flick toward Dean and then back to Ellen, guilt and puzzlement warring on his features before the same cocky smirk takes over his face. "No message," he says mildly. "We just wanted to touch base— see if you've heard anything we haven't."

Ellen snorts, but her shoulders loosen, business first as always. "Nothing any more out of the ordinary than usual," she says, and then bites her lip. "Bill's in Oklahoma right now, tracking down a haunt. You say hello to your Aunt from him, he'll be sad to have missed you."

Christian nods, eyes hooded, and digs an old leather wallet out of his pocket, puts a few bills down flat on the counter. "You know he and Mary have never—"

Ellen steps forward and slammed her hand down on the money. "I don’t much care to hear what Mary Campbell has ever done. I know what Bill’s done and what he hasn’t. Doesn't mean I have to like them being friends, though, does it?"

Christian nods, stands. "It was good seeing you, Ellen," he says, and tips an invisible hat at her.

Ellen closes her eyes and then reaches under the bar and pulls out a high ball glass. She fills it with water and hands it to Christian. "You're gonna be on the road, you'll need it. But you watch your mouth, hear me?"

Christian shoots another look at Dean and bobs his head in agreement. "I'm sorry," he says, facing Dean but eyes on Ellen.

Dean rolls his eyes and steps back out to the floor. "Whatever." He ignores the bar as he finishes his earlier round, and by the time he circles back to the bar Christian's stepped into the washroom. Ellen’s watching the floor with dark eyes, and Dean shoots her a little smile, knowing she’s always watching out for him.

"I don't like him coming here," Ellen says to Dean as he unloads his tray.

"Who is he?" Dean asks, voice pitched low to match her. Ellen says hunters are worse than old women when it comes to gossip, and Dean's taken that truth to heart.

"Christian Campbell. He's not so bad— none of the Campbells are bad people, really. They're a family of hunters, one of the oldest. But they don't do anything by halves, and they always move in groups. If they're sending people out as feelers, that means something's up."

Dean frowns at the door the men's room. "I don't like him," he says firmly, then looks at Ellen. "Who's the Mary Campbell he mentioned?"

Ellen snorts and reaches out a hand to smack the back of Dean's head. "She's one of Bill's hunting partners."

"And that's it," Dean says, absolutely sure. Bill's good, and he doesn't like that some punk Campbell would even think to imply otherwise.

"'Course it is," Ellen says, but there's a thread of doubt in her voice.

Dean raised a hand and touches Ellen on the shoulder, awkward as ever at the casual intimacy Ellen seemed so fond of. "Bill loves you," he says. There's no doubt in his voice, and even less in his mind. He quirks his lips in a grin for her. "And he’s smart, and knows how good you are with a shotgun."

Ellen's smile goes all the way up to her eyes and she lays a hand gently over the one Dean has on her shoulder. "You're a good boy, Dean." Heat rushes to Dean's cheeks and he tries to draw his hand back, but Ellen just holds on tighter. "No, you listen to me. I meant what I said— you're my son, or good as. We might not have blood, but we've still got each other. You hear me?"

Dean clears his throat and blinks, wishing they weren't in the bar. "I know." He can’t tell her that they're the only real family he's ever had, but it's true. He’d kill to protect them; has learned to kill to protect them.

Ellen lets go of his hand and then touches Dean's cheek just once, under his eye, and wipes away the wetness there. "You go take your break," she says. Dean hates that his first thought is still that she doesn't want him around looking like a weakling in her bar, but at least he knows by now it's not true. She's protecting his pride, not her own. Dean doesn't remember his mother, but there's no way she was anywhere near as good as Ellen.

Dean ducks out the back door and takes a deep breath of the cold night air, winter so close he should probably be wearing a jacket. His hands itch for the pack of cigarettes he's got stashed out back, but he hasn't smoked in almost two months, and Ellen will smell it on him if he does. He leans against the wall of the Roadhouse and stares up at the stars and lets the calm seep in.

"What's your name?" a voice says from his left, and Dean spins, caught off guard. Christian is standing at the edge of the parking lot, staring into the shadow Dean's hidden himself in. His expression is all barely-banked curiosity, the strange hostility from inside completely gone.

Dean pushes himself off the wall but doesn't step any closer. Christian does, a slow hunter's glide. "Dean," he says shortly.

Christian falters, then stops with a good five feet of distance between them. He tilts his head at Dean, his eyes narrowing. "Dean Harvelle?"

Dean wants to say yes. Ellen would love it if he did, and Bill would probably burst with pride to hear Dean take his name. But Dean's no Harvelle, and he doesn't like lying to himself. "Dean Winchester.”

Even with the distance between them, Dean can see it when Christian's breath hitches and he swallows once, and his expression shifts, just enough that Dean can't tell what it means. "I'm sorry for what I said inside," he says, like the words have been forced out of him.

Dean waves it off. "Ellen already got you for that." The silence stretches between them. "You're a hunter?" he asks, to fill the silence.

Christian puffs up, and it makes him look young, and Dean realizes that Christian can't be that much older than him. "I'm a Campbell," he says, and his expression gets even stranger. "All the Campbells are hunters."

Dean rolls his eyes. "I just got back from my first hunt," he says. A non-violent haunting, and Bill didn't take him when he went for the bigger game in Oklahoma, but that'll change. Dean didn't grow up hunting, and maybe part of him is jealous, wishes he hadn't started on this game so late, but he's not about to talk about that.

Christian nods, turns his body away from Dean, out into the night. "Maybe I'll see you around," he offers, but it sounds insincere. The interest that Dean felt earlier is gone, and— that's for the best, really. Dean doesn't need some hot shot chasing after him, even if he's never met another hunter under thirty.

"Yeah," Dean says. Christian doesn't reply, just turns away and hops into one of the many trucks on the lot.

By the time Dean goes back inside, he stinks of tar and smoke.

***

In the fall of 1999, Bill leaves on a hunting trip. Dean doesn't think much of it when Bill tells him to stay home with Jo; she's hit the ground running on teenage angst when it comes to being left behind, and the only thing that keeps her quiet is if Dean has to stay home, too. Ellen doesn't like it either way; her whole family out on a hunt or Bill out on his own are not options that make for an easy sleep. This time, there's an edge to her insomnia that Dean can't help but notice, and when questioned, Ellen admits that Bill's on a hunt with the Campbell woman again.

Dean's no fan of the Campbells; in the years since his introduction to them, Bill's gone on two hunts in their company and come back with the gleam of near-fanaticism in his eyes and wrapped up in bandages. On his return he'd take Dean and Jo out behind the bar and teach them something new, be it a new way to make a hex bag or an improvement on the devil's trap. Jo sucks the information up like a sponge and peppers Bill with questions, but Bill just smiles and ruffles her hair; Dean’s a bit slower, bothered by the pained exhaustion edging into Bill's face.

"You're just like Mom," Jo says when Dean tells her about his concerns as he braids her hair. Dean's sitting on her bed, Jo cross-legged on the floor of front of him, both of them facing the full-length mirror on her wall. "All you do is worry— Dad's fine, he's working with some of the best hunters in the world and getting better because of it. I've heard the talk: everyone wants to hunt with the Campbells, they're like celebrities."

Dean pulls the strands of hair tight against Jo's head, tightening the braid, ignoring her squawk at the brief pain. "I still don't like it."

Jo rolls her eyes at him in the mirror, the motion deliberately exaggerated. "You'll see."

She's changed her tune by the time a week goes by with no word.

Ellen gets quiet as the days go by with no word from Bill. Jo's turned into her ever present shadow in the bar, watchful and quiet, their usual quarrels forgotten. Dean's glad Jo's there; he can't bring himself to work in the bar, hope clogging his throat every time the door swings open. Instead, he spends most of his time out back with his gun, shooting bottles so he doesn't shoot himself. He knows this stillness, knows it, deep in his bones where everyone he's ever loved used to be. Ellen doesn't comment on him skipping out on his shifts, because she recognizes the anger boiling Dean's blood would start more fights in the bar than their repair bill could afford.

After two weeks of silence, a letter arrives in the mail. Another fucking letter, and though this one bulges with something inside its sealed envelope, Dean doesn't need to read it to know what it says. He sticks around long enough to see the blood drain from Ellen's face, for Bill's lighter to clatter out onto the table, and then he runs out of the house and doesn't look back. Jo's high, clear voice chases him out, and the only word he can make out is "Daddy", but that's more than enough.

He goes out the back, through long empty fields, and only stops when he hits the line of old wooden barrels Bill used for Dean and Jo's target practice. They're the only feature around the Roadhouse in any direction, the rest kept deliberately bare in case of attack, and there's a burn in Dean's chest that has nothing to do with being out of breath and everything to do with having another piece of his heart ripped out. He sits down with his back against the rotting wood and tilts his head back. There's a thin layer of frost on the ground, the grass cool and crunchy beneath his weight. The sun is just edging beginning its creep across the sky, melting the frost, but Dean sits in the shadow cast by the barrel and breathes, reveling in the cold burn of the air, and tries not to think for a little while.

On one level, he expected this. The only time good things happen to Dean is when they’ve got a time limit, and this just proves that even if people don’t want to leave him, they’ll do it anyway. Dean’s toxic.

He drifts, eyes unfocused, and it seems like between one blink and the next the sun has climbed high into the sky and there's the soft tread of someone coming up from behind him. At some point Dean's curled up, and he knows he should get up, just fucking stand up and face the truth, but he feels like he's been frozen in place, too stiff to move.

"Dean," Ellen's there, crouched beside him, one too-warm hand resting on his shoulder. "Come inside." Her voice is harsh, worn as ragged as Dean feels, and a wave of self-loathing washes through him. He's only known Bill for a handful of years, and here he is, running away when Ellen has lost her husband and Jo her father. Her strength puts him to shame, but he still can't make his limbs co-operate and stand.

"He's dead," someone says, and some part of Dean recognizes it as his own. "Isn't he?"

Ellen's breath hitches, and she falls to her knees beside him and pulls Dean into her breast, so his head is tucked in close against her neck. The touch of her skin burns where it's pressed against Dean's. "Come inside," she says again, and Dean closes his eyes again and pretends he's not crying. Ellen's trembling, so faintly he wouldn't notice if he weren't pressed up against her, and he wraps his hands around her waist and just— hangs on. Just for a minute.

Eventually he stops shaking, and Ellen runs a hand gently through the short hairs at the back of his neck and then stands, pulling Dean up with her. Dean's stiff and standing sends pain shooting through his joints. He blinks the last, clinging tears out of his eyes and hunches his shoulders, realizing suddenly that he isn't wearing a jacket. He sucks in a long breath and draws the tattered edges of himself together. "How's Jo?" he asks.

The skin around Ellen's eyes tighten, pain and worry aging her right before Dean's eyes. "Not good. She swears up and down she’s going to go after the Campbells."

It doesn't sound like such a bad idea to Dean. "What did the letter say?" he asks, and he can tell his tone worries Ellen.

"Not much," she admits, and she keeps her eyes on Dean as she turns them toward the house. "'Hurt on a hunt, couldn't save him.' Mary never was one to mince words."

Dean doesn't answer, just ducks his head and keeps walking. Anger churns in his guts like nausea, and his hands itch with the sudden urge to lash out and find someone to make them pay. He's got a half-formed plan rolling around in his head, him and Jo and the road to justice, but Ellen stops them just outside the door with a hand on his arm.

"Dean," she says, intent. "I want you to promise me you aren't going to do something stupid because of this." When Dean doesn't reply and makes a move for the door, Ellen grabs his arm and jerks him back, hard. He can feel his eyes widen at the hard look on his face. "I'm not kidding, Dean. We're hunters. There aren't enough of us to spread ourselves thin by infighting. I've seen more friends die than I like to think about, and the only thing you can do is go out there and find as many sons-of-bitches you can and try to stop anyone else from getting killed. If we start turning on each other then we're doing their work for them."

Dean knows she's right. That doesn’t put out the fire burning in his guts, though. "Bill shouldn't have died."

Ellen's face breaks open and she swallows once and nods, hard. "You're right. But that's the life."

Dean looks away from her. "What are you going to do about Jo?" he asks quietly.

She laughs. "Keep her close. Train her up right for when she won't listen to an old woman like me anymore. Make sure she's ready."

Pain lances through his heart at that. "Bill wasn't ready." He feels crippled by his anger, by his helplessness.

Ellen's eyes are sad, but she nods. "No one ever is, really. But we still try."

Dean nods, and they go inside together. The kitchen is directly below Jo's room, and the silence from above is conspicuous. "You should talk to her," Ellen says, and flicks her eyes up toward the ceiling.

Dean follows her gaze and then looks back down to meet her eyes. He doesn't reply, but she must see how uncomfortable the thought makes him, because she rests her hand on his arm squeezes it, comforting. "She said she doesn't want to talk to me. She's upset." She smiles at him. "You always forget, but Jo thinks of you as a brother. So go do your job, big brother. Make our girl feel better."

It gives Dean a direction to go in, something to do, and he bobs his head gratefully. About to go, he turns back to Ellen and looks at her. "You sure you don't need me to talk to you, too?" he asks, unsure.

She smiles at him. "No. I get to be strong for you, here. I've got my own shoulders to cry on."

Dean can't help but feel that he's not doing enough, but he bites his lip and nods. It's quiet as he walks up the stairs, but when he lays the pads of his fingers against the wood of Jo's door he can just make out the quiet sound of muffled crying. The hallway is cold. "Jo?" he calls, "It's me. Can I come in?"

A muffled "yeah" emerges from the room and Dean twists the knob and steps inside. Light pours in from Jo's windows, bright and cheery on the mix of pink frill and silver steel that decorates her room. Dean steps inside and closes the door behind himself but hesitates before he goes in further, studying Jo's prone form huddled under her blankets.

"Jo?" he asks, and then can't help but smile when she pokes her head out, head still covered by her pink comforter. She sticks her arm out from the blankets and waves him over, and Dean steps forward and then sits down on her bed. He doesn't say anything, and after a few awkward moments of silence Jo pushes her blanket off and sits up, facing him with her legs crossed. He stared at her, awkward, until she throws herself forward and wraps herself around him in a tight, smothering hug. "I've got you," he whispers, and swallows past the sudden resurgence of tears. Jo's shaking in the circle of his arms but she's silent, even as she squeezes him so hard it hurts.

She pushes herself back once she calms, and takes the time to drag Dean more firmly onto her bed, so their knees are touching. "You have to leave," she says seriously, and Dean freezes. Before his thoughts even have time to really take that the wrong way, she continues, "You have to go out there and find out what happened to him." She laughs, and it's bitter. "I would go, but Mom will never let me go, not now. But you've been hunting for years, now— she can't stop you."

"Ellen says—"

"I know what Mom says," Jo scowls, waving his words away. "But there's no harm in making sure, right?"

Dean says nothing for a moment, then shakes his head. "No. Ellen's right. I won't— we can't get divided like that." Jo looks shocked, betrayed, so he reaches forward and grips her hand between his. "He wouldn't want us fighting, right? Well, the Campbells," and here he can't keep the light grimace off his face, "were his friends. You think he'd be friends with someone who'd do that to him?" It hurts him to say it, when everything in him knows that Ellen and Jo would be better off without him, safe where he can’t love them. But he promised Ellen to talk sense into Jo, and sense doesn’t involve revenge.

Jo scowls and pulls against his grip, but he holds on tight and she eventually gives up. "No," she admits grudgingly. A shudder tears through her and suddenly tears are trickling down her round cheeks again. "I just— it's not right. I miss him already. How can he just be gone?" She hiccupped. "And she— we didn't even get to say goodbye. There's no body, no nothing, just this stupid letter and his lighter, like that's supposed to be enough!" She draws the letter from that morning out from her bed sheets and clenches her hand hard around it, crumpling the paper further. Dean stares at it and catches his breath, but doesn't reach for it. He doesn't want to read it. He’s read enough letters that fail to say goodbye.

To distract himself, Dean brings Jo close in another hug. She's hot against him, or maybe he's just cold, but he loves her so fiercely it makes him afraid, because the things he loves always die. "I can find him," he says to her quietly. "I can find where he was— were the pyre was." That’s not going too far. It’s the smart thing to do, really.

Jo is tense in his arms and shakes her head. "No," she says, voice muffled in his shirt. "No, that's— You don't have to. But I still say you should find Mary Campbell, and you ask her— you ask her what really happened." She sniffs, and Dean spares a brief moment to be grossed out that his shirt is probably covered in her snot, but he doesn't push her away. She pulls back and takes Bill's lighter out from the folds of her blankets and offers it to Dean. "He called it lucky," she offers in explanation when Dean doesn't take it. "And if you're hunting— by yourself no less— you'll need all the luck you can get."

Dean takes the lighter hesitantly and flicks it open, the edge of the wheel rough against his thumb. He closes it with a snick. "It should be yours," he says quietly.

Jo smacks him, hard. "Don't be an idiot, Dean. Idiots just get killed." Her eyes are filled with pain but she doesn't take her words back, just keeps staring at him intently.

Dean clears his throat. "Thanks." He's always awkward in these moments, but he forces himself to say, "He'd be proud of you, you know."

Jo shoves him hard in the shoulder. "I know that. He'd be proud of you, too." She smiles at him, and it's a delicate thing, but real. "Now go talk to Mom. Might as well get that heart attack over with, huh?"

Dread fills Dean at her words, but he nods. "You think she'll be mad?"

"Maybe," Jo hedges. "But she'll let you go. She loves you like crazy, you know?"

Dean ducks his head, blushing. He knows. That’s the problem. "I'll miss you," he says quietly, like he’s saying it to himself. When he looks up Jo's smiling again, wider this time.

"I'll miss you too. But I'll be eighteen in a few years and Mom won't be able to keep me here, and we'll hunt together. All you need to do is stay safe until then, you hear?" Her words are teasing, but worry lurks in the back of her eyes— Dean knows that worry. It's the kind of feeling you get when someone you love dies and all you want is for the ones left to be safe. He’s felt it all his life.

He clears his throat. "I'll call," he promises, standing.

"And write," she counters, and wraps the blankets back over her shoulders and tucks them in close, so it's wrapped around her like a cape.

Dean nods, and leans down to give her a quick kiss to the cheek. "You stay safe, too. I've seen the way your little "not-boyfriends" have started looking at you, and if they think I won't come back if I hear anything, you tell them they're wrong."

Jo just rolls her eyes at him, but she's smiling again. She's still got the letter in one hand, the corner of it just peeking out from between the gap in the blanket. Bill's lighter feels heavy in Dean's grip.

His feet tread heavily down the stairs, overly loud in the silence of their home. The bar won't be open for hours, and the air feels oppressive without its ebb and flow, even though it never has before. The house feels emptier than it ever has, even though Bill has been physically gone for more than just the last few hours. Dean shivers and stops at the bottom of the stairs, listening for some sign of Ellen.

The TV is on in the living room, but Ellen's not there; Dean finds her in the kitchen, standing at the sink with a white-knuckled grip on the counter, staring out the window with blind eyes. Dean pulls out one of the chairs at the table, deliberately scraping it along the ground, and consumes himself in the act of sitting as Ellen wipes at her eyes and faces him with a small smile.

"How was it?" she asks, sitting down across from him. The table is small, and Ellen deliberately taps her foot once against Dean's boot, a small, familiar motion.

Dean puts the lighter down on the table between them and lays his palms flat against the smooth wooden top. "She gave me this," he says quietly.

Ellen nods, like she expected it. "Bill would have wanted you to have it."

Dean frowns and palms the lighter, leaning back in his seat. When Ellen doesn't say anything else, he sucks in a deep breath and blurts out, "I'm leaving."

Ellen's brows crinkle. "You have a hunt?" she asks, and Dean knows that this is going to hurt her, losing both the men in her life at once.

"No, I— I'm going to go on the road. Permanently. Follow the hunts." The words feel torn out of him, like he's deliberately ripping out what's left of his heart. It's stupid; he's not abandoning his family, he's protecting them. "I'll come back sometimes," he adds, weakly.

Ellen looks at him with an indecipherable expression on her face and slides her hands forward to grip onto Dean's wrists. She's strong, and Dean hopes he bruises. "You aren't going after the Campbells," she says.

Dean smiles, small and painful, and shakes his head. "No, I. I do want to find them. But just to ask for myself what happened." He locks his gaze with hers. "I won't go after them, but we deserve to know."

Ellen's eyes dart back and forth between Dean's, but she licks her lips and eventually nods. "You can take my car," she offers eventually. "And my address book. There's a man in South Dakota, Bobby Singer— he'll set you up with plates, might even sell you a car if you're nice about it." She shifts her hands to grip Dean's fingers. "Stick to ghosts, listen to what other hunters tell you. Call, if you have any questions." She hesitates. "And when you find Mary Campbell, you tell her I want Bill's journal. It's not right that she kept it; it wasn't hers to keep."

Dean's heard most of this before, but his hands tighten in Ellen's when she mentions the journal. He can feel his path taking shape in his mind. He's going to find out the truth, get some real answers.

He's going to find the Campbells.