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Worlds In Collision

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What John Winchester is feeling right now isn’t anxiety. He just barely missed running over the orange cones set up on the side of the road and crashing into the abandoned car, that’s all. With all this snow it was hard to see the wrecked sedan in the ditch, the hood and driver’s side crushed in. John wonders why nobody’s towed it yet; in this weather the car is a hazard.

He maneuvers around it and continues down the highway to Pontiac. He wishes he’s not out here driving through frozen farmland; he’d rather be back at the dry, warm motel in Chicago, looking up the next hunt with Dean while Sam reads a few books he borrowed from Jim. But when there’s a lead on the thing that killed Mary John will brave anything to find it.

The motel isn’t in the town proper but a couple minutes out at what looks like a truck stop. He pulls into the parking lot but doesn’t kill the engine; the Impala hums, warming the air inside the car, while he pulls the torn piece of paper out of his pocket and double-checks the address and room number. He then folds it up and tucks it back into his pocket, turns off the engine, and grabs the paper bag sitting next to him.

“You want him to talk? Bring Johnnie Walker Blue.”

John breathes out two clouds of steam that dissolve into the gray sky as he tucks the bottle in his coat pocket and trudges through the snow to the front door. As soon as he pushes it open hot air blasts him in the face and starts melting the white clumps on his boots.

The woman at the lobby looks at him curiously. He gives her a curt nod as he passes the desk and towards the hall of doors. Room 18. He feels the glass bottle through the paper bag, hopes Bobby’s advice will do the trick, even though Bobby hasn’t seen or heard from the man in about three years.

John stares at the gilt number on the plain door. He can’t hear anything on the other side but he does hear the family down the hall, children and wife spilling out of their room, bundled up in coats and scarves. Then the husband emerges, locks the door, and gestures towards the exit with an exaggerated sweep of his arm. They’re all smiling, faces glowing with happiness, the children bouncing off the walls and squealing over snow as their parents herd them out to the lobby.

It hurts him whenever he sees that, feels that slow yearning ache in his chest as he follows their path out the doors with his eyes. You should be here, he thinks as he turns back to the door and raises his hand to knock. We should be that family.

John raps his knuckles on the door and waits. After a moment the deadbolt slides and the door opens slowly. A chain stops it and an older black man peers out.

“Who the hell are you?”

John leans forward, notes the hard suspicious glint in the other man’s eyes as he drops his voice and asks, “Rufus Turner, right?”

“I don’t know who you’re talking about-”

“Bobby sent me.”

The man frowns. “I haven’t talked with him in years. In fact, he knows why I haven’t talked with him in years. So why the hell would he send you to me?”

John sighs. Of course he shouldn’t have hoped that Rufus would let him in without question; man’s made from the same mold as Bobby. “He said you worked a case a couple of years ago and you never solved it. The kid’s name is Elaine Evans.”

It takes a long second for Rufus to make the connection between the name and the case and once it does his weatherworn face becomes a cold hard wall.

“John Winchester.”

John nods. “That’s right.”

He’s careful to maintain eye contact and an open expression. Unlike Bobby his name won’t earn him any special favors; it’s up to Rufus to decide whether to let him in or slam the door in his face. Not that it’s going to stop John from getting what he wants but he’s getting tired of leaving behind a trail of dead hunters.

“Then you know I’m retired,” Rufus says carefully.

“Semi-retired. You’re here working a case. Look.” John pulls the paper bag out of his pocket. “This won’t take long-”

“That better be Blue Label or I have nothing more to say to you.”

John allows himself a slow knowing smile; Bobby’s right after all. “It is.”

Rufus doesn’t shut the door to pull off the chain immediately; he looks away while fishing something out of his pocket. John is then handed a warm silver flask.

“Is this really necessary?”

“Do I look like an idiot?”

He thinks about Bobby shoving holy water in his face every time he swings by either to drop the boys off or poke at his growing library. John drops his eyes to the floor and sure enough, there’s a line of salt running across the length of the door.

After he hands the flask back Rufus shuts the door to pull off the chain and then reopens it. John steps over the salt line and walks into the middle of the room. While Rufus locks the door and checks the line for breaks John walks over to the coffee table; he tilts his head at the monochromatic photocopies while setting the Scotch bottle down. Despite the variations on the same scene it looks familiar but he can’t put his finger to it. He slides out a lined piece of paper from the pile and skims its contents.

“Elaine Evans died two years ago,” Rufus suddenly says somewhere behind John. “Family got into a car crash, just like the one I’m investigating.”

“What makes this one so special?” John narrows his eyes at one of the photographs; he can almost make out the crushed hood.

“Traces of sulphur all over the hood and front seat.” Papers shuffle and John glances over his shoulder to see Rufus pulling clothes and notebooks out of one of two duffel bags on the single bed. “Accident already looked suspicious; that car didn’t flip or slide off the road, and there’s no evidence of another car on the road. Include the sulphur-”

“Demons,” John finishes as he sidles around the table to look at the notes on the wall. They’re filled with names, phone numbers, and addresses; Rufus also has a map of Pontiac and the surrounding area tacked onto the wall with various spots marked in a red pen. The one that draws his attention is the small red “x” on North East Road and the words “J NOVAK” right next to it. Now he knows why the sedan is out there on the side of the road. “You need help?”

“No.”

A Polaroid photograph shows a blood-soaked driver’s seat. Too much blood, John thinks. There’s no reason for a demon to attack a potential host before possessing it and Rufus hasn’t mentioned any victims

“So what happened to the driver?”

“Vanished. Cops went looking for his body, couldn’t find it.”

“If he’s possessed-”

“Demons don’t go through all that hassle just to possess someone. They attacked the man for a reason.”

John turns his attention back to the wall. “You haven’t found any demons here. Is this recent or does the town have a history of-”

“Are you here to do my job?” Rufus asks as he sits down at the coffee table and sets down two empty glasses. He gestures to the other chair as he takes out the Scotch, twists off the cap, and starts pouring.

There’s a battered journal on the table now, sitting on top of the photocopies of the wrecked car. John stares at leather cover while Rufus lifts his glass of whiskey and drinks; his fingers curl around the glass as he thinks about what’s written in there, wondering if Elaine’s mother died the exact same way as-

“Trail went cold years ago,” Rufus says. “Never found out what killed Sheila.”

John tilts his glass of untouched whiskey towards the journal. “What can you tell me about it?”

Rufus pours himself another glass but doesn’t touch it, stares at it with an unreadable expression. He says nothing and John feels the time crawl by, starts itching to slide the journal over and flip the cover to find out for himself.

“Sheila died in a fire in her daughter’s nursery on June 12, 1983. Her husband Harold first said he found her on the ceiling, bleeding from her stomach, but later insisted he imagined it. Elaine was six months old.” Rufus gives him a sharp look. “Sounds familiar?”

Like the back of his hand and the Impala’s engine and the weight of his rifle. “Yeah, it does.”

“You think you can find what killed her, thirteen years after the fact?”

He wakes up every morning and goes to bed every night thinking about Mary. Thirteen years later he still feels the burning need to find her killer. “Yeah.”

Rufus frowns as he glances at the journal. “I’ll give you it, but with a warning – drop it. Drop this hunt. It’s only going to kill you and your sons.”

John bristles. How many times has he heard this? How many times have they told him that he’ll never find the monster that killed his Mary and tore his family apart? It’s been a while since he gave up trying to explain his grief and rage and he’s not about to do it now. It doesn’t matter anyway, he tells himself. His hunch paid off.

What happened that night in the nursery wasn’t a fluke after all.

John lifts the journal and turns it, flips the pages; everything is written in a crisp hand and every page is dated so John easily finds what he’s looking for.

“So you have no idea what killed her,” he says as he reads a near-exact description of what he saw the night Mary died. His heart sinks; there’s nothing new here, nothing he hasn’t poured over himself night after night for years. “Found no clues? Husband didn’t notice anything strange leading up to that night?”

“Everything in there is everything that I know, and it’s not much. It wouldn’t be a cold case if I had an idea.” The table shifts as Rufus leans forward. “Whatever it is you’re hunting it’s not like anything I’ve ever come across, and I’ve seen plenty in my day.”

“I don’t care how strong it is,” John says. “When I find it I’m going to kill it.”

He’s done here; he shuts the journal, contemplates the untouched whiskey, and then rises to his feet. He sweeps his eyes over the notes, photocopies, and Polaroids on the wall before turning to the door.

“How are you going to kill it?” Rufus suddenly asks.

“I’ll think of something.”

He thinks about the drive back to Chicago, hopes the boys haven’t gone completely stir crazy being holed up in the motel room for days on end while he went around looking for a temporary job, a hunt, new information. He thinks about picking up some pizza along the way or taking them to the diner down the block, thinks about spending the night perusing Rufus’s notes with a mug of coffee while Dean and Sam sleep.

“You know Elkins?”

John stops and looks over his shoulder. “Daniel? What about him?”

Rufus hesitates. He stares at the whiskey in his glass, tilts it as if to observe the amber color in the yellowed light. “Last time I saw him he was looking for a weapon.”

John frowns; Daniel’s never mentioned a weapon to him in all the years he’s known the veteran vampire specialist. “What kind of weapon?”

Rufus sits back in the chair with a shrug and picks up the glass. “Wouldn’t say. Supposedly it can kill anything.”

* * *

John pulls over the side of the road across from the cones and the abandoned sedan. He stares at it, at the layers of snow lining the road, at the black and white landscape that stretches for miles and dissolves into the gloom. He glances at the journal on the bench next to him and then sighs, leans against the window and presses his hand to his forehead.

For the first time in years John feels relieved. There is nothing like the sense of validation and knowing his persistence and hard work is finally paying off. He always knew there was something very strange about Mary’s death, even by supernatural standards, and is grateful that Rufus felt the same about Sheila’s. Now he knows to look for a pattern when he goes to the Evans house in Trenton, New Jersey.

First he has to drive in the opposite direction. Daniel’s still living at that cabin in Manning and John has a few questions for him concerning a weapon that can kill any supernatural creature.

He pops in a tape and turns up the volume; the Band accompanies him as he steers the Impala back onto North East Road and heads up to his boys in Chicago.

~* * * * *~

Jessica Moore meets him a mile out from the third Mississippi town in a month. She’s fighting soft mud and the downpour with her shovel; the sky is the overcast gray of late afternoon and she has one hour to reach the casket before she loses light. She hates digging up dead bodies in the night.

It’s her fault she’s out here, soaked through to the bone and standing ankle deep in graveyard sludge while surrounded on all four sides by solid earth. She should’ve dug deeper into the newspaper archives, should’ve asked more questions, should’ve made up better lies to get into the police department records, should’ve done this, should’ve done that, should’ve, should’ve, should’ve. The list of things she should’ve done can go on forever. If she finishes the job with a mild cough and a sore body then it’ll be a good day.

Through the thick stew of dirt and turf her shovel hits something hard. Thank god, she thinks and starts scooping mud off the casket. She steps off the lid and hammers at the latches with the shovelhead, breaking them; she then wedges the edge under the lid and pops the coffin open. The gray light reveals a body long past the bloated stage of decay and her stomach twinges in disgust. The rain smothers the stink; all she can smell is mud, mud, and more mud.

Jessica tosses the shovel up, digs the toes of her boots into the soft earth, and hauls herself out of the hole. Her hands slide over the slick grass and she almost falls back on her face; swearing she pushes herself to her feet and staggers over to her duffel bag, looks for the lighter fluid, salt, and waterproof matches.

Her hand pockets the matches and picks up the lighter fluid and salt, and that’s when she hears a voice say, “Behind you.”

She may be a rookie at research but her father taught her well; she drops flat on the ground, letting go of the lighter fluid and salt to grab the broken iron crowbar in the bag. She leaps back to her feet swinging, and Joshua Harper screams as it cuts through his chest and banishes him.

Breathing heavily and licking rainwater and iron off her lip Jessica turns around, dragging wet hair behind her ear as she looks for the voice. She’s alone in the cemetery and the clouds are turning charcoal. The sun is betting and Joshua will be back if she doesn’t burn his bones.

“What the hell,” she mutters.

Her lip throbs from where her teeth dug in when her jaw hit the lawn and she smears red on an army green sleeve. She tucks the crowbar under her arm and picks up the salt and lighter fluid.

She gets to the edge of the grave when the voice comes back, a low growl in her ear. “To your right.”

Joshua loses his head when he’s six inches from her.

Rain-slick fingers uncap the container of lighter fluid and squirt it all over the body; liberal amounts of melting salt follow it into the hole. With a quick flick of her wrist five waterproof matches light up, glows yellow-orange and defiant. She watches the trail of light down into the earth and sighs slowly when the lighter fluid ignites. The corner of her mouth curves up as the glow rises up six feet and for once something else goes right – she doesn’t have to hear Joshua’s anguish as his ghost burns up like lit tissue paper.

She hefts the crowbar in her hands as she watches the fire devour the emaciated corpse and waits until she hears footsteps; gripping the iron tightly she whirls around on the balls of her feet and swings. She doesn’t see what’s behind her but she feels the crowbar hit something solid. The violent impact travels up her arms and she nearly drops the iron. Gasping from the numbness vibrating in her hands she staggers back and feels the crowbar slide out of her hands.

“Who are you?” she demands as she clenches and unclenches her hands, unable to pull out the hunting knife tucked snuggly behind her back.

He’s a tall slender man, shoulders slumping forward and hiding his height. His pale face is grim, shaped by a blunt jaw and an aquiline nose; his eyes are bright in the damp firelight. He’s wearing a fairly creepy trench coat over a dark suit and she feels a sudden itch to straighten out his crooked tie for him. Instead she stares at his hand, which is holding her crowbar. It’s bent.

Okay, what the hell. What are you? “Who are you?” she asks again as she slowly steps to the side and away from the fire. His eyes follow her and then he slowly turns so he’s facing her. “What do you want?”

He tilts his head while his expression goes from blank to confused. “I don’t want anything.”

He speaks in a growling monotone, revealing nothing, but his eyes tell her everything. Well, everything his body doesn’t tell her.

“You’re not from around here,” she decides to say instead of “What the hell are you?”

The man shakes his head once and then steps forward, his eyes suddenly narrowing and focusing on her. The intensity and weight behind his gaze throws her off and she feels pinned down. It takes her a long moment to realize she’s not moving towards her duffel bag.

“You’re too young to hunt alone, Jessica Moore,” he says. “Go back to your family. Your mother’s been praying for you.”

So he’s a hunter. Her parents asked someone to find her and bring her back home. Annoyance flares up in her at the thought, and promptly extinguishes itself when she stumbles over the shovel. She quickly bends over to pick it up; her hands cooperate and she hefts its weight, holds it between them as she inches towards the shotgun in her bag. Her eyes never leave him.

“I’m not going,” she says.

“I’m not forcing you,” he replies.

That’s not what she expected him to say. “What? What the hell does that mean?”

“It means if you don’t want to go back home I won’t force you to,” he says and makes a point of dropping the crowbar while taking a step back.

That’s even more bizarre than her parents asking someone to go find her. Something’s off here; the warning bells won’t stop going off in her head. Jessica considers the distance between her and the strange man as she slides her feet across the ground towards the bag, and then she starts considering the man himself. He’s not at all dressed like a proper hunter – the trench coat can get caught between his legs, snag onto obstacles, and hinder his movements, and the suit is just not proper attire for getting down and dirty.

Did her parents actually hire a private investigator and bribe him to keep his mouth shut about the actual reason for her running away? This is so not like them at all.

“I do advise you to return home,” he says quietly. “As you can already guess you’re still too inexperienced to hunt alone.”

“No need to rub it in,” she mutters as she quickly lets go of the shovel with one hand to wipe the rain out of her eyes. “If you don’t make mistakes you don’t learn.”

“You won’t learn from your mistakes if you die from them,” the man replies, and she shivers at the thought. “You’ll graduate in a year; your calling can wait until then.”

“Is that what Mom told you to tell me?”

He tilts his head again, frowning. It takes him too long to speak and she knows right there and then that no, her mother didn’t send him. Her grip on the shovel tightens and she glances quickly at her bag. Her heart drops as she wonders if the shotgun will even work in this weather.

If her parents didn’t send him, then who did? If nobody sent him how did he find her? How did he know her name?

Is he even human?

Her heart starts beating heavily as fear floods her body; she swallows and adjusts her grip on the shovel again. The man hasn’t moved in all this time; he’s a little more than a silhouette in this late hour but she can still see his face in the dying firelight, can see the line of his full lips quirk upwards in an awkward smile. There’s something absolutely eerie about him.

And beautiful and terrible, her mind whispers. You’re not human.

“Mom didn’t send you,” she says instead, clamping down on the tremor in her suddenly small voice. Play it cool. Play it safe. You know how to defend yourself. Remember what Mom and Dad taught you. Be calm, Jess. Be calm.

“Jessica,” he says and she starts. “If I didn’t find you, you’d be dead. Go home.”

She presses her lips, feels her bottom lip throb in protest. She wonders if the shovel can make a dent in him. Probably not, considering the curved crowbar by his feet.

The stark reminder prompts her to say, “What are you?”

The air suddenly hums as the clouds rumble overhead; streaks of lightning snap at the earth and she flinches. The bright flashes of electric light illuminate deep shadows stretching and spreading from the man’s shoulders; they cast themselves over the trees in this overgrown corner of the cemetery and rise so high she finds herself tipping her head back to gape at them.

They’re shaped like great feathered wings.

“My name is Castiel.”

She blinks against the rain and he’s gone.

Chapter Text

Jessica Moore is twenty-one years old and studying psychology for the hell of it at Stanford University.

Well she would be studying psychology if she didn’t have to take care of yet another vengeful spirit in a very, very long line of vengeful spirits because every six seconds someone dies and comes back with a nasty grudge or two. This weekend’s ghostly asshole is an amateur golfer who was buried in a discreet corner of a nearby country club nine years ago.

Jessica is especially annoyed that this came to her attention so soon after Friday’s Halloween party because even though Halloween’s actually on a Monday people are already breaking out the spooky spells that have the nasty habit of actually raising the dead, or at least waking up a very angry spirit.

One of the downsides to being born and raised a hunter is that no matter how much she’d like to curl up in the apartment with her textbooks while waiting for Sam to come back from his spontaneous weekend trip with his mysterious brother she has to grab her duffel bag and drive twenty-five minutes, interrogate the idiot teenagers who should have never come within five miles of the grimoire that’s now sitting in her car, and sneak onto the golf course to find the body.

The only reason why she’s hacking away at the gorgeous water-sucking green lawn with any enthusiasm is because the faster she finishes this job the faster she can get home. She had a plan involving cookies and she wants to get back to it as soon as possible.

We can always have another flour fight, she tells herself. White chocolate or raisin oatmeal? Whole Foods, then. Where’s Grandma’s recipe? Should’ve checked it before I left. Damn. What the hell kind of knife was he packing? Deer hunting my ass, there’s more to this than ‘a little family drama’. What aren’t you telling me?

Sweat beads on her brow and rolls down into her left eye; she stops digging to wipe it away and then to catch her breath. She leans on the shovel and stares up at the sky.

“Not that I was telling you the truth either,” she mutters, watching white steam curl upwards and dissolve.

Her official explanation for postponing the full ride to Stanford for a year is that she needed some time off. She actually told the Stanford people, “I need a year off. You still want me, right?”

She told Sam the same thing when they were finally moving beyond flirting and felt like sharing life stories over a few Coronas. Like everybody else he thought “a year off” meant being a lazy homebody for six months and taking road trips with her friends for the other six. What else explained the license plate key chains, gaudy magnets, and shot glasses cluttering corners of their apartment?

“Wow,” was all Sam said when he first laid eyes on the cluttered fridge door.

To her they serve as daily reminders of the life she's hoping to get back to once her four years are up. Every morning she’d rummage through the fridge and then spend ten minutes staring at a magnet thinking, That swamp monster smelled like ass, or Does Esther Lu have nightmares about her brother?

Sometimes Sam will join her, standing behind her with his chin resting on her tousled hair while he studies the magnets. Then he’ll point and ask something like, “What did you do in Louisville?”

“Wear hats to the Derby,” she had said. Which is true, but that was after she dealt with a series of horrific deaths at a horse farm in the Bluegrass. Sometimes she still has nightmares of newborn foals gutted and strung up on the cherry trees.

At least she talks more than he does. Beneath the vagueness that hovers like smog is someone on the run. He talks about growing up on the road and she catches anger at the shitty hand life dealt him, weariness at being dragged from town to town and city to city, never knowing what “friends” meant because he never stuck around long enough to have them. Once he pointed at her Flagstaff magnet and said he owned a dog for two weeks and it was the best two weeks of his life.

“And what about now?” she had asked, sliding an arm around his waist.

She felt him press his lips to the top of her head. “Now? I have you.”

“Good,” and she groped him. “Back to bed with you.”

Sam never talks about his family. He once mentioned a father named John and an older brother named Dean, but when she pressed the issue he sealed his lips. Even when drunk he wouldn’t talk about them and she eventually dropped the matter, frustrating as it was.

Jessica loves him, though. God she loves him. She’s complained about his secrets to her friends, resulting in an avalanche of advice columns telling her there should be no secrets between couples because that means a lack of trust, but in truth she loves his mystery. She loves how the longer they’re together the more secrets, quirks, and habits she uncovers like clues stashed all over the apartment. She noticed almost from the moment they met that he always took the seat facing the door wherever they are, and that whenever they visit dining halls and cafes he always kept the salt within reach - "I like my food a little salty," he told her with a guilty face as he coated cafeteria-made catfish with it. When she started visiting his on-campus apartment regularly she noticed the stacks of the Palo Alto Daily Post and the Lost Angeles Times on the coffee table and Brady confirmed that yes, Sam reads them “every goddamn morning with a giant thing of coffee”.

She’s still not sure if his regular visits to the gym can explain his reflexes, and the way he reacts to strange noises is disturbingly familiar. There was also that one time not two months ago when they were at Brady’s and he wouldn’t shut up about the firearms in the movie and how “that’s not how you hold a shotgun; the kickback can break your shoulder-”

His explanation – “Dad’s a Marine.” – did tell her something new about his father.

And then there’s his mysterious brother, Dean. Breaking into their apartment in the middle of the night, making comments about her old Smurfs shirt while checking her out, stealing Sam using the old “private family business” excuse. The most disconcerting thing was that Sam was stuffing his duffel bag and talking about deer hunting like it’s something he deals with all the time. Suddenly the father he never talks about is important enough to risk missing the interview Monday morning. Suddenly he goes from an amusing and unfinished puzzle to a stranger.

Deer hunting. Did he really think he’d get away with a lie like that?

What the hell does he have to hide?” she asks herself as she stabs the dark earth with the shovel and gives it a particularly vicious twist. It’s not like he’s a hunter or anything.

She stops digging.

“I can’t be that stupid,” she blurts out. If she stretches her imagination she can see the words tumble out in a fog of disbelief and frustration. “He can’t be a hunter. I’d have seen that coming a mile away.”

She shakes her head, brushes back curly locks that fall in her face, and slams her shovel into the dirt. The shovel, which has been with her since she followed her father to a cemetery in North Dakota and swatted away the ghosts they were roasting, hits pay dirt in the form of a large wooden chest and one Mr. Timothy Underwood swings his golf club.

* * *

Sunday morning finds her dragging herself out of the motel and sliding into the old reliable Toyota for the drive back up north. Her side is sore and she hopes that Sam will be too tired from his own adventures to get frisky later tonight because she’s not explaining the 7 iron-shaped bruise on her back.

She savors a cup of rich black coffee at a café a few blocks from their apartment and attracts too much attention devouring an egg salad sandwich. She doesn’t care about the pornographic noises; she spent a very cold October night toasting Timmy Underwood to stop him from swinging his ghostly club at unsuspecting people and she deserves a reward.

Sam’s not home when she unlocks the door. She kicks it shut and grabs clean clothes to change into, then roots around her desk for the small stack of recipes she took with her when she finally left home. After finding the one for white chocolate chip oatmeal, deciphering her grandmother’s photocopied loopy cursive, and checking the cupboards and pantry she blows out of the apartment to the car for a quick trip to the supermarket.

The problem with this particular supermarket, she decides twenty minutes later, is that they have too many choices. The recipe calls for brown sugar and she can’t decide between demerara, dark muscovado, and turbinado.

It’s while she’s considering the merits of turbinado with dark muscovado and white cane sugar that she feels it. It’s been six years but she never forgot the prickling electricity of that rainy night in Mississippi and all the things associated with it, like the smell of graveyard mud. Instead she smells the sterile cleanliness of the aisles and it snaps her back, wakes her up just in time to realize that she’s pushing the cart away from the sugars without a second glance towards the chips and sodas.

She catches a flash of tan fabric sweeping into that aisle, too loose for a jacket and too hideous to be a dress. She almost runs to the aisle and looks down it, hoping there’s a dark-haired man wearing an unfashionable trench coat and a beatific smile.

She sees a middle-aged woman in a nurse’s uniform holding up color-coded bags of kettle chips.

Jessica sighs and turns the cart around to walk back to the sugar and flour aisle. She feels hollow and drained, feels the longing and regret beat in her chest with each step. She’s had her fair share of monsters before and since that night back in 1999 but that man-that creature was so strange, so alien, so full of the otherness that she’s craved since; she spent her last days in high school wondering if she’ll ever see him again.

It took a year on the road that eventually headed west to Stanford for her to accept that she’ll never come across something that extraordinary again.

If anyone notices her storming around the floor, throwing things into her cart and then shoving it in line at the cashier’s they say nothing. Jessica almost loses the eggs in the parking lot but the heated flush she feels all over doesn’t stop her from packing everything safely into the trunk and getting home without running a red light or crashing into things. She may have missed that stop sign two blocks back, though.

Sam still isn’t home when she wrestles the bags into the apartment. Her cell phone, on the other hand, is blinking with three voicemails. She frowns as she checks their time stamps; the first was yesterday afternoon, the second was early this morning and the third was just thirty minutes ago. How did she miss all three?

A quick check reminds her that she silenced the phone before hunting down the idiot teenagers who pawned their parents' jewelry for the grimoire. It still doesn’t explain how she missed the alerts when she left messages on Sam’s phone all throughout the weekend but too late now. She pins the phone between her ear and shoulder, listens to three different versions of Sam telling her everything’s fine and he’ll be back before the interview while she unloads the groceries and sets out bowls and measuring cups.

“I had shit to do too, idiot,” she says affectionately as the most recent voicemail ends. He’s tired; it’s threaded through his voice like the trip or his brother is a strain. She hopes it’s not the brother; late at night she’ll be hunched over a massive textbook while Sam’s snoring away on the couch and he’ll suddenly call out Dean’s name like he’s lost and terrified. Like he misses the family he left two years ago.

With a sigh Jessica sets the recipe down on the counter and wonders if Dean’s allergic to walnuts.

* * *

Nine and the sky’s pitch black. The apartment reeks of cookies and Jessica’s taken refuge out on the steps, phone in hand. She thinks, not for the first time, how awesome it would be if her stomach is bottomless. Then she remembers why she made so many and hopes once again that Dean isn’t allergic to walnuts, or nuts of any kind.

Sam is twenty minutes away and all he’ll tell her is that his father is fine. Lying again, she thinks and slumps forward to rest her head on her knees. So am I. You lie, I lie. Fair enough. Maybe Dear Abby is right. We should talk over some beer. A lot of beer. Crap, we’re out of beer-

“Hey Jess, where’s your Godzilla of a boyfriend?”

She didn’t even hear him until he’s standing on the bottom step. She lifts her head and sees Brady’s disarming smile.

“What are you doing here?”

He shrugs and looks around the neighborhood. “Just thought I’d drop by and have a chat, wish him good luck with his interview tomorrow.”

She stands up and stretches. “He’ll be here in a few minutes. Come on, I made some cookies.”

* * * * *

Sam keeps giving him these nervous little looks and Dean knows it because whenever they pass under an orange streetlight Sam’s eyes dart away from him. He’s also shaking his knee and it’s just so distracting Dean wants to reach over and grab his leg to stop the jerky little movements. Instead he tightens his grip on the wheel and presses on the gas, feels the Impala spurt forward with sudden speed.

Every second he’s bringing Sam back to his apple pie life with the hot blonde girlfriend and a future in law school. In ten minutes he’s going to drop his baby brother off and wish him good luck on Monday’s interview before driving away like it's not a big deal. Dean’s left him alone for almost three years, stopped calling him after two, and it hasn’t killed him yet. So John just upped and disappeared on him, leaving him and Sam to clean up the mess he left behind, but that’s what John does and it’s nothing Dean can’t handle.

He can do this alone.

Sam sits up and clears his throat. Dean rolls his eyes but lowers the volume anyways, killing the white noise.

“Look. You know why I left. This isn’t-I never asked for this. Neither of us did. Just…call me when you find him, okay? Maybe I can meet up with you later, after you guys find out what killed Mom.”

His voice echoes off the glass windows and ring in Dean’s ears. He keeps his lips tightly sealed and his eyes on the road, hands clenched around the wheel as he looks for Sam’s apartment. Sam’s escape. Sam’s goodbye.

Dean had no idea how much he missed hunting with Sam until they were standing in John’s motel room, Dean stinking it up with mud and sewage while his nerdy giant of a brother studied the newspaper clippings on the walls and determined that they were dealing with a woman in white.

“What I said earlier, about Mom and Dad, I’m sorry.”

“No chick flick moments.”

“All right. Jerk.”

“Bitch.”

The apartment looms up, the windows dark except for the one in the back. He pulls in behind an old Toyota and shifts gears, takes his foot off the pedal. The car windows are open and it’s a cool night but the air inside is heavy with tension; his chest clenches and sucks everything in, his mind a storm as he scrambles to find a reason, any reason to keep Sam by his side. He curls his fingers around the bottom of the wheel and takes a deep breath.

“Just call me,” Sam says. They both know this is more for Dean than Sam having any real concern about their father. John’s a Marine, a survivalist; he knows what he’s doing. It’s Dean who needs the reassurance and he hates himself for that weakness, that chink in his armor.

“Yeah,” he says and does not grimace at the hoarseness in his voice.

Sam nods and gets out of the Impala. The undercarriage dips and bounces back up. Sam reaches into the back and pulls out his duffel, and shuts the door. He leans on the side of the car, head bowed while he thinks of something to say. Then he presses his lips together into a line and looks up.

“Good luck.”

“Yeah.” Dean watches him heft his bag and step up onto the sidewalk. “Sam?”

He slides over, hooking an arm over the passenger’s seat. Sam stills and turns back to him.

“You know, we made a hell of a team back-”

A gunshot cuts him off. He sits up, hands undoing his seatbelt. Sam is already unzipping and reaching into his duffel for his Taurus while Dean leans over to grab his Colt out of the glove compartment. Another one rings out and somewhere very close by glass shatters. A few of the apartments down the street are starting to light up.

“Sounds like a shotgun,” Sam says, dropping his bag and bending over to pull out his handgun. Dean gets out of the Impala, Colt in hand, and instinctively ducks when glass shatters again.

“Too close to home,” Dean says, shoulder pressed against the side of the Impala, and then hears Sam say, “Jess.”

He stands up to see Sam take off, running across the lawn and up the stairs. “Sam!”

Sam shoulders the front door, shouting her name, and then steps back and kicks it down. Dean runs after him, ready to click the safety off the Colt, and is halfway up the stairs when Sam comes barreling out, his right hand holding the Taurus and his left arm wrapped around Jessica. She’s holding a shotgun.

Dean is so taken back by the sight of her wielding one like a pro that he almost misses the bright orange glow rippling down the hall behind them. Sam's apartment is on fire.

“What the-what the hell?” Dean says as they hurriedly make their way down the stairs.

He looks to Jessica for an explanation but she seems stupefied by what just happened in the apartment; she’s shakily lowering her shotgun and clicking the safety back on while staring at the open doorway. Sam has a hand on her back, his eyes wide with shock as he gapes at the burning apartment. The glass windows towards the back explode and the roar of the fire echoes up and down the neighborhood. A crowd is gathering behind them and people are calling 911.

“Brady-” Jessica suddenly says and Sam starts.

“Brady? He’s here?”

“He-he’s…oh god…”

That’s all Dean needs to hear. He hurtles up the stairs and running straight into the fire, Sam shouting after him while more neighbors gather out on the cold street.

This is definitely going up on his list of the dumbest things he’s ever done, Dean decides when he hits a wall of heat and nearly turns back. Flames lick their way across the ceiling, slowly engulfing the refrigerator and its many magnets. Lines of fire fill in the corners where the living room walls meets the ceiling and the hallway to what must be the bedroom is simply too hot for Dean to enter. He manages a few half-steps in, an arm over his face as he strides by the counter with the untouched plate of blackened cookies, hoping the leather jacket keeps him safe while he looks for Brady.

“Brady! You here?” he shouts down the short hallway into the bedroom.

The fire roars back, sucking in all the air and leaving behind smoke and heat. Dean tries to breathe but it’s too hot; the air burns his lungs and he coughs violently as he staggers back out towards the living room. The smoke follows him, swirling around him and stinging his eyes and nostrils. He buries his face in the crook of his arm; the leather is a poor filter and smoke pours down his throat with every breath he takes. His body shakes so hard with harsh coughs that he almost falls into a burning couch; he twists himself away at the last minute and hits the floor.

Curling into himself he finally gets smokeless air and breathes deep. There’s not enough oxygen and his mind is screaming at him to get out before the fire reaches the front door and shuts him in. Roasting alive is not on Dean’s list of ways he wants to die, so he starts crawling towards the doorway. If Brady is still here there’s no hope for him; there’s no way anyone can survive fire that intense. But if Brady’s not here, how the hell did he get out without anyone noticing? And why was Jessica holding a shotgun?

He’s sure there’s a connection between the two but all he can think right now is that the pain in his chest is crippling; when another coughing fit hits him he can do no more than curl into himself under the river of smoke. His throat is painfully dry, burned from the heat he keeps breathing in, and he doesn’t have enough spit to swallow. His mind is going hazy, his limbs too heavy to pull him away from the fire that now surrounds him, and he knows he’s going to die.

He should be mad, should be freaking pissed – John’s still missing, leaving him with the coordinates of his next location, and he’d just finished up his first hunt with Sam in years – but he having trouble just thinking, Well this sucks. He can’t even lift his head, can’t open his eyes because of the stinging smoke and the blinding flames.

Dean doesn’t notice the heat slowly fade away. Drifting in a sluggish haze he can barely feel himself tip onto his back, can’t distinguish between the juxtaposed heat and chill of something touching his chin and tilting it up. Dry warmth seals around his mouth and the morning fog of the Washington coastline floods down his throat into his lungs. A searing vice grip on his left shoulder forces a cry out of his mouth, jerking his body up, and when he slumps back down his head meets a soft bundle and wet grass.

“Dean!”

Large callused hands straighten his head, and check his pulse on his neck and wrists. Something presses against his chest and somewhere above his head Jessica says, “Oh my god, his shoulder!”

A burst of sirens drown her out and footsteps hit the pavement, carrying along voices and the crackle of handheld radios. Dean takes a deep breath and fresh cold air floods his ash-coated mouth; his throat is too dry and he starts coughing violently, which only agitates the strange burning sensation on his shoulder. Then arms slide under him and he’s suddenly airborne.

“We have to get out of here.”

“His shoulder-”

“We can’t explain it, we have to get him out of here. And the fire-what were you doing with the shotgun? Where’d you even get one?”

“Are you going to talk about this now? The paramedics have an oxygen tank and they can take care of his shoulder-”

“And they’re going to have a lot of questions for us. I can take care of this, but not here. Push the seats back-”

“And what about all the smoke he breathed in? We’re taking him to a hospital; he needs help. Sam-”

His right shoulder hits metal, and then his left hits something blunt and soft, but not soft enough to prevent the explosion of agony; he cries out, some mangled horrible sound coming out of his throat, as he’s jostled into what he realizes must be the Impala’s backseat. Hands tug at and rip away the fabric around his left shoulder, and Dean dimly realizes that he’s not wearing his leather jacket.

He calls out for Sam, some horrid croaking noise he will never admit to making, and the hands stop moving.

“You’ll be fine,” Sam says, and then the Impala’s trunk slams shut. “You’ll be fine. You jerk, what the fuck were you thinking…”

Leather jacket, Dean thinks, and tries to say it but something hits his left shoulder hard and the pain drowns out every other thought.

* * *

He’s in a sunlit kitchen, a warm arm wrapped around his waist and hoisting him up while a soft voice hums the chorus to “Hey Jude”. The air fills with the sugary cinnamon apple aroma of a pie baking in the oven and he sighs, curls closer to his mother’s side, feels her long wavy hair brush over his face as she tilts her head to him and whispers, “Baby, angels are always watching over you.”

She kisses him on the forehead, and then lifts him up to press one on each of his cheeks and one on his mouth. As he takes a deep breath fingers pinch his left shoulder, and Dean opens his eyes.

The roof of the Impala stares down at him. The sky is the royal blue of the minutes before sunrise. The car runs over another bump in the road and he feels it shoot up his left arm, ending at an uncomfortable throbbing burn on the shoulder. The leather jacket has been tucked around him like a blanket and he closes his eyes, breathing in the smell of buttery leather, gun oil and cleaning solvent, and acrid smoke-

“-lucky I’m not some poor naïve innocent-”

“Hey, I have nothing against naïve people! We deal with naïve people all the time-”

“Who have no idea what they get themselves into, which is why half of them die. What is it? What is your problem with me trying to hide this-this-this life from you? You don’t think I’m angry, too? Because I am. You told me nothing. I was sharing space with a hunter and I had no idea-”

“I don’t go around telling people what I do, do you-”

“And Brady! Brady tried to kill me! Even if neither of us knew we were both hunters we should’ve noticed something! How’d we miss-”

“First of all, there’s no way Brady’s a demon-”

“His eyes turned black. I said Christo and they went shiny, beady black. And remember that Thanksgiving when he came back all fucked up and dropped out of premed? That should’ve tripped one of our wires but we both missed it. How the hell did we do that?”

“I don’t know! I don’t-you’re a hunter. I still can’t-so we blew it. We both screwed up. But I don’t-I mean, how-why-that means he was a demon for at least a year. Why didn’t he attack us then? Why was he trying to kill you now? Why you?”

“He said you were straying and he had to get you back in line or something, I don’t-”

“I was straying from what?”

“I don’t know! I shot him! You think he was gonna talk to me after that? For the record he was just as surprised as I was. I don’t know what the hell he was thinking trying to one up me-”

Dean groans inwardly – or outwardly because the loud voices up front shut up. He feels the Impala’s momentum slow and the tires crawl over gravel before coming to a full stop. The engine’s purr dies and he opens his eyes again.

Sam and Jessica are looming over him, bodies halfway over the back of the frontbench He blinks at them, not sure what to say. Sam opens his mouth but Jessica beats him to the punch.

“You want some water?”

Dean wants to say, “No, I want to know what the hell just happened,” but air hisses out of his throat instead and he ends up nodding. Jessica disappears from view while Sam leans over and slides a hand under his back to help push him up into a sitting position. Dean leans against the familiar worn leather of the backseat. He aches all over, his head is fuzz, and his tongue is thick and gross in his mouth. He doesn’t like the rattling sensation in his chest when he breathes in and out, and Sam gives him a worried look while Jessica turns back around with a half-empty bottle of water.

“Idiot here didn’t want to take you a hospital, but I told him all that smoke you breathed in can’t be good for you. So we took you to one in San Jose,” she says as Dean uncaps the bottle and tips the contents into his mouth.

Cool water swirls around his mouth, sweeping away the last traces of smoke and ash. He closes his eyes and swallows; it hurts as the water goes down but it’s the best feeling in the world. His sigh is hoarse as he sits back and regards the two people in front of him.

“And?” he asks. He sounds like shit, like a pack-a-day smoker.

“You’re fine,” Sam says slowly. “Your stupid stunt should’ve killed you but you’re fine. Like, clean bill of health fine.”

“Seriously?”

Sam gestures at his own throat. “Doctors didn’t know how it happened. They said there’s some scarring in your lungs but you’re okay. It’s just your throat that’s really fucked up. I don’t get it, though. How the hell did you get out of there? Do you remember anything?”

Dean frowns and glances down at the water bottle in his hands. There’s a faint imprint of lipstick on the plastic rim. He runs his tongue over his lips before taking another sip. What does he remember? Fire and smoke and sea fog in his lungs. He probably hallucinated the last bit.

Jessica points at his shoulder. “Your shoulder, though, nobody’s got an explanation for that.”

“What about my shoulder?” God, is this how he’s going to sound like for the rest of his life?

“Well, we found you on the lawn and your shoulder…we have no idea what did that to you.”

Dean flicks his eyes between the two, hands Sam the water bottle, grips the ends of his shirt, and pulls it up and over his head, grimaces at the painful twinge in his left shoulder. Jessica coughs and clears her throat while his head’s lost in the fabric, and when he’s finally free Sam is giving her a disgruntled look. While she regains a mostly stoic composure her face is pleasantly red, and Dean can’t help smirking at that. Then he notices her eyes flick to his left side and Dean tilts his head towards his shoulder.

A patchwork of bandages hold an enormous gauze pad in place, hiding his left shoulder completely. Dean frowns and tentatively presses down on it with his fingers. It burns uncomfortably hot and he takes his hand away. He’s been burned, which isn’t all that surprising considering he almost died in the fire, but he has a feeling that that’s not the problem

“What’s wrong with my shoulder?” he asks.

Jessica hems and haws like she can’t decide how to describe it. Dean feels his frown deepen as he reaches for the ends of one of the bandages.

“Don’t mess with it,” Sam says sternly. “You can see for yourself when we stop for the night.”

“Where are we going? And she’s coming with us?”

Jessica has settled back in her seat, propping her feet up on the dashboard. Dean almost tells her to move them off but snaps his jaw shut when she tilts her head back to give him a look.

“I want to know why Brady tried to kill me. I also want to know exactly what Sam’s been hiding from me for two years. Oh, and-” She holds up John’s journal and Dean twitches; why is she holding it? “-we’re going to Blackwater Ridge, Colorado.”

* * *

Dean insists on getting two rooms but Sam doesn’t want him out of his sight and Jessica promises not to have sex while he’s asleep. So while they’re sitting on one of the beds, either discussing or arguing over Sam’s collection of firearms and a duffel bag Dean assumes is Jessica’s, he locks himself in the bathroom and stares at himself; he looks sickly in the light, skin drawn tight over the bones and deep shadows under his eyes. Dean turns the faucet and splashes cold water on his face, then slowly pulls off his shirt again and tosses it onto the floor. He presses a hand to his sternum, breathing in deep and hearing that unnerving rattling noise, and then slides a hand to the bandages.

He pulls them off one by one until the whole mess falls to the floor at his feet. Dean stares at the mirror, and then turns his body to get a better look at the impossibly perfect raised handprint on his shoulder, tender and angry red.

Chapter Text

Dean Winchester is an experience and Jessica doesn’t say that about a lot of people. She’s pretty sure that if it weren’t for his stupid – “Heroic,” Dean corrects, and Sam almost shoves his face into the whipped cream on his pancakes – decision to run into a house fire that resulted in Sam’s mother henning he’d be pulling his red-blooded macho act. He has this whiff of an attitude that Jessica would label “asshole” if he didn’t look so shell-shocked and exhausted from his “heroic” moment; he did, however, make a show of kicking Sam out of the driver’s side and forcing a game of musical car seats that landed her in the back.

By the way, how does a guy survive in the twenty-first century with a box of cassette tapes? When she first got into the Impala to get the hell out of Palo Alto her feet kicked at a cardboard box shoved into the footwell. After they hauled Dean back into the Impala from the hospital’s ER she went through it and found cassette after cassette after goddamn cassette.

“Mullet rock,” Sam explained a bit sheepishly, so she handed him Bob Dylan.

Lunch is at a local diner at the edge of Grand Junction because, according to Sam, Dean has a hard-on for diners. Dean elbows him and they wrestle for a bit before Jessica loudly reminds them that Dean’s driving and the last thing she wants to do is die in a sad little car wreck on the side of the freeway in the middle of nowhere.

She grins into her coffee when Dean tells Sam to marry her.

Over a turkey club on rye, a Cobb salad, and a greasy bacon cheeseburger they decide what the hell they’re going to do, or rather Sam and Dean decide what the hell they’re going to do while Jessica steals Dean’s fries and studies the brothers.

“Dad disappearing and this thing showing up again after twenty years, that’s not a coincidence. He’ll have answers; he’ll know what to do.”

“It doesn’t make sense,” Sam says, stabbing through several layers of iceberg lettuce. “Why Brady? Why a demon? What does a demon have to do with any of this?”

“That’s why we’re going to Blackwater Ridge,” Dean says. “Stop stealing my fries.”

“Make me,” she says and grabs a handful before he yanks the red plastic basket away. “So what does a demon have to do with what?”

They’re giving each other yet another significant look and Jessica bristles. They spent an entire week combing through the outskirts of San Jose and Jericho and she’d come no closer to finding out what the hell’s going on than when Dean first broke into their apartment. She doesn’t expect Dean to tell her anything but she’s been with Sam for two years now and she almost died because of him, so why isn’t he telling her anything?

She takes the basket of fries back from Dean and when he glares at her she loudly says, “Let me know when you’re done eye fucking each other.”

Sam sighs heavily while Dean gapes at her.

“So.” She scoops up ketchup with a bundle of fries. “Blackwater Ridge.”

Sam pulls a folded map from his pocket and sets it on the table while Dean extracts their father’s leather-bound journal. She hadn’t seen it since the morning after they left Palo Alto; Dean demanded it back almost immediately after she told him where they were going.

“Right,” Sam says, pointing at a black “x” on the map. “The coordinates put us in the middle of the woods. There’s nothing there.” He looks at Dean. “Why would he send us to the middle of nowhere?”

Dean shrugs and flips through a couple pages in the journal before closing it. “That’s why we’re going there.” He leans over when the one waitress on duty swings by with the coffeepot. “More coffee?”

“And the check,” Sam adds. “Want my pickle?”

“No,” Dean says.

“Yes,” Jessica says.

When the waitress comes by with the check Dean thanks her with a cheeky grin and a casually drawled, “Thanks, sweetheart.” Jessica finds it fascinating how he practically glows at the blush she sends his way as she hurries off to tend to another table. She doesn’t realize she’s still staring while he counts the bills until Sam elbows her; she starts and scowls at him.

“What?”

Sam looks at her oddly and then mutters, “Nothing.”

She almost laughs at the petulant look on his face; instead she snakes her hand over his thigh while he’s staring out the window and his knees hit the table. “Holy shit!”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she says lightly and tucks her hair back behind her ear with her other hand. She notices Dean staring at them, frozen in the act of tucking his wallet back into his pocket.

“Uh…we’re definitely getting two rooms tonight,” he mutters, and ditches them.

* * *

Jessica makes sure to meet Dean’s gaze through the rearview mirror with a knowing smile every chance she gets. Sometimes he looks away and sometimes he stares back, until Sam reminds him to keep his eyes on the road.

Several minutes after they drive by the sign welcoming them to Lost Creek Sam twists around in his seat to look at her and then at Dean. “Okay, stop it. Seriously.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Dean says.

“Yeah you do. Stop sizing each other up; there’s plenty of me to go around.”

“Yeah, but I doubt he wants any part of you when you’re on your back begging for-”

Okay, that’s more information than I ever need to know,” Dean interrupts and quickly turns up the radio, drowning her out with Foreigner.

Sam covers his face as he slumps down in his seat.

They still have a ways to go to reach the ranger station; she leans against the window and tries to count the trees as they go up the winding road. It’s a hopeless endeavor, seeing as they’re surrounded by a forest, so she sighs and closes her eyes.

This isn’t exactly how she expected to meet Sam’s family. Then again she hadn’t expected Sam’s family to be this family; she knows of four Winchesters on campus, knows of five Winchesters total, but only one is a hunter and that one Winchester has a father named John.

Word along the grapevine has it that John Winchester’s a hunter born out of revenge but his obsessive nature and stubborn single-minded drive to find his wife’s killer had led to the deaths of several hunters. A group of hunters once banded together to stop him and none of them survived the encounter.

“Nothing good comes about when the Winchesters are in town,” Tamara once told her, during the yearlong road trip Jessica took across the States; Tamara and Isaac had hunted with her father on several occasions and they took her under their wing for several more. “Rule of thumb? Don’t get in their way. Bad omens always follow them.”

Just her luck that she fell in with Sam, who apparently was at Stanford to escape the life Dean just dragged him back into. Just her luck that she got caught in the middle of their father’s infamous hunt. It explains why Sam never talks about his mother, why he sometimes leaves the room when she’s on the phone with hers. She always suspected something terrible happened, but she didn’t think it would be the reason-

“…Jess? Hey, you awake?”

She blinks and stares at Sam’s face. He’s twisted around in his seat, his arm stretching across the distance to rest a warm hand on her shoulder. A second later she realizes she’d fallen asleep and her neck is beginning to complain. She ignores it and smiles, softly says, “Hey.”

“Hey,” he echoes.

There’s something sad about the look he’s giving her, a silent apology for what happened since the Halloween party; she doesn’t want to see it, so she slowly sits up, reaches over to lace her fingers together around the back of his neck, and pulls him half over the frontbench to press a soft kiss to the guilt on his lips.

“I’m fine,” she says. “Tired, and my neck’s going to kill me, but I’m fine. You?”

He presses his forehead against hers, brushing his open mouth over hers. His breath tastes minty - and later she’s going to demand gum from him - and she tilts her head to kiss him, pulling a soft moan out of him with a well-placed stroke of her tongue-

“Hey, lovebirds,” Dean says, rapping the roof of the car. “You can do that later. Right now we got business to take care of.”

“He just doesn’t want stains on his precious car,” she mutters into Sam’s mouth, and he laughs. Dean makes an odd indignant sound and walks away, muttering under his breath. Jessica turns her head to watch him stop in front of the ranger station, hands tucked into his pockets while he stares at the green mountains.

“He’s used to having just me around,” Sam explains as he slides out of her arms. “Has no idea what to do with you. We didn’t…hang around a lot of people growing up.”

“Hunters don’t hang around people in general,” she says. “He’ll just have to get used to me.”

"I'll make sure of it."

“C’mon!” Dean yells at them and hops up the steps to the cabin.

* * * * *

Dean has trouble concentrating on what Ranger Wilkinson has to say about Blackwater Ridge with Sam wandering around the station, leaning over the topographical map on the table and studying the photographs on the walls. Jessica hovers near the door, saying nothing while Wilkinson asks if they’re friends with some girl named Hailey.

Dean flicks his eyes at Sam, who’s rocking back and forth on his feet, as he says, “Actually we are, Ranger…Wilkinson.”

The man sighs and gestures at him with his mug, other hand on his belt. “Then I’ll tell you exactly what I told her – her brother filled out a backcountry permit saying he wouldn’t be back from the Ridge until the eighteenth, so he’s not exactly a missing person right now, is he?” He looks over Dean’s shoulder, presumably at Jessica. “You tell that girl to quit worrying. I’m sure her brother’s just fine.”

He thinks about making a comment about this Hailey, given the ranger’s apparent annoyance at her persistence, but he hears Sam breathe out through his nose, senses his agitation, and decides to cut it short. “Actually, we were wondering if we could have a copy of the backcountry permit to show her. Maybe if she saw the return date she’ll understand that nothing probably happened to him, unless the weather turned nasty or something.”

Ranger Wilkinson nods and walks behind his desk to the file cabinets stacked up against the wall. “Oh, sure, I can do that.”

Impatience rolls off of Sam in waves while they wait for the older man to wrestle with the old gray copy machine in the back of the building. Dean watches him return to the topographical map and trace a crooked line from one point to another, sees his eyes narrow while the cogs and gears turn in his head.

“I’ll be outside,” Sam mutters.

Dean watches him brush by Jessica on his way out of the station, hears his girlfriend call after him and follow him. The door swings shut as Wilkinson comes back with a photocopy of the backcountry permit.

“Thanks,” Dean says as he skims the details of the permit. “I’ll make sure Hailey sees this.”

“Good,” the ranger says as he picks up his mug and eases down into his chair. “If I didn’t know any better she’d go out there herself, never mind the grizzlies and the weather.”

Dean chuckles as he folds up the permit and shoves it in his pocket. “She’s quite a pistol, isn’t she?”

“That’s putting it mildly. You tell her to come back if he doesn’t show up several days after it expires, you hear?”

“Yes, sir.”

Speaking of the weather it seems that the temperature dropped several degrees. Dean keeps his hands tucked in his jacket pockets as he hops down the steps to join Sam and Jessica by the trees out front. Sam’s bitch-face is on and Dean sighs.

“Are you cruising for a hookup or something?” Sam demands as soon as he joins them. Jessica turns around to stare at him as he marches up to Dean.

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“You know what I mean. What are we waiting for? Why even talk to this girl? We have the coordinates; let’s just go find Dad.”

Dean is so taken back that he finds himself scrambling for words. The Sam he remembers is never this impatient, this eager to go straight into unknown territory. That’s not what John trained them to do. That’s not what smart hunters do. This is what stubborn one-track minded people do.

“Oh I don’t know,” Dean says as he sidesteps his brother and heads to the parking lot. “Maybe we should know what we’re walking into before we actually walk into it?”

“What is there to know?” Sam asks, following him to the middle of the lane. “It’s wilderness. There are grizzlies. It’s early November. Guy’s not due back for a week. There’s nothing here.”

Dean turns around. “Dad doesn’t just hand out coordinates unless there’s something to investigate. You know that. We’re talking to the Hailey girl and if nothing turns up, fine, we go right in and find Dad. If something does come up, we’re going to investigate, you got that?”

Dean does want to find John. It doesn’t sit right with him to be left in the dark with only a few words of warning and the prized journal to go by. At the same time he knows that John does everything with purpose; he doesn’t leave coordinates for a rendezvous in the heart of the mountains just because. Something else is going on in these woods.

He waits for Sam to nod, to say yes. He sees Jessica hover on the outskirts, her face blank as she flicks her eyes between them. There’s more Dean wants to say but he can’t do it while she’s within earshot; he doesn’t know her and he’s learned long ago not to talk about the family business while strangers are around. He wishes she wasn't here but with Sam convinced that she’ll forever be in danger just by being his girlfriend he can’t leave her in Palo Alto.

He wonders what John will say about dragging somebody else into their mess.

“Fine,” Sam finally says. “We’ll talk to her, see if anything comes up. If not we’re going back there-” He points at the mountain backdrop. “-and finding Dad. That's it.”

“Promise,” Dean says, and turns back around to walk to the Impala. “And since when were you all shoot first, ask questions later?”

He looks over his shoulder as he fishes out his key and sees Sam reaching for Jessica’s hand and lacing their fingers together. There’s a sudden lump in his throat and Dean swallows hard as he jambs the key into the door.

Things aren’t going back to normal even though they’re finally back on the road together.

* * *

Hailey Collins lives all the way back in Grand Junction so they lose two hours to the winding road. The radio doesn’t work this deep in the mountains but Dean doesn’t feel like asking Sam to push a mixtape into the cassette player. He doesn’t really feel like talking at all.

When he looks at the rearview mirror Jessica isn’t staring back; she’s watching the forest go by.

They’re driving slowly through the neighborhood the address says she’s at, looking for the street name and house number, when Sam finally breaks the long silence.

“I want Jess to go up to the house with me,” he says quietly, warily.

Dean glances at him. Sam stares back, jaw set and eyes watching, calculating his reaction. At a stop sign Dean does a quick check over his shoulder and sees Jessica frowning at the back of Sam’s head like she didn’t expect this. Neither did Dean, especially because Sam knows how he feels about trusting strangers to do the job.

“You wanna give me a good reason why?” he asks.

“Because I’ve never done this with her,” Sam says. “This is…I just want to know what it’ll be like.”

“What’s going to be like what?”

“Hunting with her.” Sam twists around in his seat to look at Jessica. “Want to know what it’s like doing this with you.”

“Well no offense to your girlfriend,” he says, glancing up at the rearview mirror, “but right now I don’t trust her to get the job done.”

He feels the weight of Sam’s glare on him but he’s not taking back his word. Getting the job done right is a matter of life and death; ask the wrong questions, give the wrong impression, and there’ll be another dead body they have to deal with, another death they could’ve prevented. He’s not willing to risk it, even if she’s a hunter and knows how it's done.

At the same time he has no idea how long Jessica is going to be with them and how soon they’re going to find John. If he establishes early on his distrust in her capabilities and they end up traveling together for much longer than a week then there are going to be problems, and he doesn't do well with these kinds of problems. Other people complicate things. This is why if Sam's not with him he'd rather hunt alone.

“You don’t even know how I go about it,” Jessica says.

She’s remarkably calm and he’s impressed. The point still stands, however. “I don’t know how you ask questions or pick up cues. Sam and I’ve been doing this together for years-”

“So when he wasn’t around what did you do? Work by yourself? Do you trust anyone?”

“In this line of work it’s real hard to have faith in anything, sweetheart,” he says as he spots the right street and turns left onto it.

“Don’t call me that. Sam, we don’t have to do this now-”

“No.” Sam is glaring at him again. “No. She’s coming with me and you’re staying in the car. If you can’t trust her, at least trust me.”

Dean clenches his jaw but he can’t argue that; if there’s one person he can trust with anything it’s Sam. He can ask the questions Jessica might miss, evaluate her competence, and let him know how good a liar she is. Then again she’s been lying to Sam for years and Sam's bullshit meter almost never fails.

They're heading for a stalemate which they don't have time for, so Dean relents. “Fine. Hailey might be more comfortable with Jessica around anyway.”

He spots the house, a plain two-story building that’s hard to pick out from the rest of the neighborhood. He pulls to the curb and shifts gears, then leans over to yank open the glove compartment and grab a small box of fake IDs.

“Been saving these in case you decided to come back,” he says, dropping them in Sam’s lap. “Hey, Jessica, you have-”

“Not as many as you,” she says, her voice right next to his ear. He jerks back and away from it; she’s leaning over the back of the frontbench, watching Sam rummage through the box of plastic and laminated paper for the right badge. “Never got a chance to take mine out of my bag, thank god.”

She left Palo Alto with a shotgun and a duffel bag of essentials. She’s zipping it open now, fishing inside for something. In the meantime Sam finds the ID he needs and sticks it in his wallet. He looks up at Dean and his expression says everything.

Let me do this, or we’re going to have problems.

Dean hands him the backcountry permit and gestures at the house. The chassis dips as Sam and Jessica get out of the car. He sits back against the door, arm on the top of the frontbench, watching them talk briefly before walking up to the door.

His throat itches and Dean holds his breath, trying to push the urge back down; he ends up coughing hard into the crook of his arm, body shaking with each convulsion. It hurts like a bitch, rubbing his throat raw, and it almost feels like he cracked a rib. Eventually they stop and he presses the side of his face to the cool glass window, catches his breath and ignores the rattling sound in his chest.

“Fuck,” he mutters, and wipes the tears out of his eyes. He glances sideways at the front of the house; Sam and Jessica are nowhere in sight.

He clamps down on the urge to get out of the car and check up on them, and instead turns the ignition; music crackles out of the radio and swells in the empty silence. He crosses his arms as he sits back, shifts to find a more comfortable position, and closes his eyes. Fire roars in his ears, scorching wind snapping at him as he stumbles through the living room. It hurts to breathe; every mouthful burns his throat and blisters his lungs. Dean feels himself crouch down, trying to avoid the worst of the heat and smoke, and looks around in vain for escape. Beyond the ring of flames he sees nothing.

“No! Sam!” he shouts and whirls around too fast; his head spins and he hits the floor, lands on his tailbone so hard the pain almost distracts him from the fire.

Dean stares at the ceiling, at the agony on his mother’s face as she burns above him. He cries out and scrambles backwards, banging his head on the window, and quickly sits up.

Sam taps on the glass again; Dean stares at him, wondering what the hell he’s doing out there. Then he sees the blonde woman standing behind Sam, looking over her shoulder at some house he’s parked in front of, and then Dean remembers that Sam and his girlfriend are-were interviewing Hailey Collins about her brother.

Dean wipes the cooling sweat off his face and unlocks the doors. The Impala groans when Sam sits down. Jessica gets into the back and tosses the backcountry permit up front.

“Tommy has a satellite phone,” Jessica says. “Or he had one until he stopped contacting Hailey and Ben.”

“Whoa, wait, hold up. Who’s Ben?”

“Hailey and Tommy’s younger brother,” Sam says. He sighs heavily. “I need to go somewhere with Wi-Fi.”

Dean can’t make himself start the car; he stares at Sam, thinking, See, this is exactly why I need to go with you. What the hell are you talking about?” “Why do you need the Internet?”

“I asked Hailey to forward me the photos and videos he sends her.” Sam shrugs. “Maybe we’ll notice something.”

“So you think there's something in the woods,” Dean says as the Impala rumbles to life. He glances over his shoulder before pulling out of the curb.

“I don’t know,” Sam says. “Maybe.”

* * *

Dean stares at the mounted bear’s head as he leaves the bar with three chilled bottles of local brew and almost collides with a shorter man in an unfashionable trench coat.

“Sorry,” he mutters as he adjusts his grip on the slick glass, moves towards the table Sam and Jessica are sitting at, and almost runs over a waitress with a tray of lowball tumblers. “Christ.”

After he catches himself he glances behind him at the bar, hoping the two bartenders didn’t see. Judging the huge grins on their faces they probably did. He shrugs it off and weaves around the pool tables, smirks at the knowledge that he has one of their phone numbers in his back pocket.

And here I am, surrounded by nerds, he thinks as he takes in the pile of photocopied newspaper clippings, an open notebook, and Sam’s laptop. He sits down and pushes two bottles towards Sam while taking a swig from his own. He lets the smooth and bitter brew slide down his throat before leaning in on Sam’s left and asking, “Find anything?”

Jessica promptly hands him a piece of paper; it’s the front page of the Lost Creek Gazette, the large bold print screaming “Grizzly Bear Attacks!”

“Find anything unusual?” he clarifies as he scoops up a few salted peanuts from a small bowl in front of him.

“Well, Blackwater Ridge doesn’t get a lot of traffic,” Sam says. “Local campers, mostly. But this past April two hikers went missing out there. They were never found. Here.”

He reaches over and takes a few more pages from the stack in front of Jessica, hands them to Dean. They’re all photocopies of the front page of the local paper, each featuring bear attacks. As he skims the print he asks, “Aren’t those mountains crawling with bears?”

Jessica sets her bottle of beer down hard. “Yeah. But that’s not the point. In 1982 eight people disappeared; authorities claimed it was a grizzly attack and shot up a few bears to prove it. But it turns out that the same thing happened in 1959 and in 1936. Every twenty-three years a bunch of people disappear up there, like clockwork. Bears don’t have a set pattern of attack.”

Sam angles the laptop screen towards Dean.

“Okay, watch this,” he says. “This is the last one Tommy sent Hailey before he stopped calling.”

Dean narrows his eyes as Tommy talks to the video camera; the video suddenly slows down, making it hard to miss the shadow flitting across the screen behind the young man. He taps on the screen and Sam bats his hand away.

“Bitch. Play it again.”

Sam rewinds and slows the video down even more. The shadow is definitely not natural.

“That’s three frames,” Sam explains as he taps on a key; it takes three taps for the silhouette to move across the side of Tommy’s tent. “That’s a fraction of a second. Whatever it is, it can move.”

Sam shuts his laptop and lifts the bottle to his lips. He chokes when Dean shoulders him and says, “Told you something weird was going on.”

Sam glares at him.

“One more thing,” Jessica suddenly says. “Someone survived an attack in 1959. Barely crawled out of the woods alive.”

“Oh yeah? Is this person still around?”

“Yeah,” Sam says. “He was just a kid when it happened. Lost both of his parents.”

Dean frowns as he stares down the bottleneck at the last mouthfuls of beer. “Well that sucks.”

“Tell me about it,” Sam says as he stuffs his laptop in the backpack sitting at his feet.

They sit in silence for a few minutes, finishing off the beer and the bowl of peanuts while soaking in the bar’s bustling warm atmosphere, listening to people laugh while clinking glass on hard surfaces and smacking pool balls across the table with cue sticks.

Something comes to mind. “Please tell me this guy lives in the area.”

Sam picks it up immediately. “Don’t tell me you already picked up someone-”

“Aw come on, Sammy,” Dean says, slapping him on the back and smirking when he winces. “Live a little.” He then nods to an amused Jessica. “Or at least let me live a little. Haven’t gotten laid since…you know.”

The glower on Sam’s face softens considerably. “Fine. Who?”

Dean tilts his head towards the bar. Sam and Jessica look over their shoulders at the two bartenders.

“Both of them?” Jessica asks.

“The chick,” Dean says quickly, although he’s pretty sure the young man is just as interested. The lingering fingers on that shot glass of quality whiskey he said was on the house were as telling as the quick kiss the woman gave Dean as she handed him the beer and her number.

“Right,” Sam says as he stacks the papers and shoves them inside his notebook. “Lucky for you, Mr. Shaw lives several minutes from here, so let’s go.”

Dean winks at the bartenders while following Sam and Jessica out the door and grins when they both flush and nod back.

* * *

It takes a bit of coaxing for Mr. Shaw to part with his memories of that awful night in 1959.

“You wouldn’t believe me,” the old man says as he sits down in an old armchair. “Nobody ever did.”

“Mr. Shaw.” Jessica crouches down in front of him, balancing on the balls of her feet. Her voice is brimming with care as she asks, “What did you see?”

Dean keeps an ear on Mr. Shaw’s words while leaning forward and tilting his head to peer out the window at the sidewalk down below, where Sam is leaning against the Impala, arms folded and bitch-face glued on.

“…moved too fast, hid too well. I heard it though. A roar like…no man or animal I ever heard.”

“And it came at night?”

Mr. Shaw nods and looks at the still-smoking cigarette in the ash tray on the small coffee table. He blinks hard and grimaces, like he’s fighting back the memories.

“And it got inside your tent?” Jessica presses on.

“It got inside our cabin,” Mr. Shaw corrects. “I was sleeping in front of the fireplace when it came in.” He hesitates before adding, “Didn’t smash a window or the door, though; it unlocked it. Do you know of a bear that can do something like that?”

Sam looks at them expectantly when they exit the apartment complex. He looks antsy, fairly bursting with questions about the interview. “Well?”

“Definitely not a bear,” Dean tells him as he gets into the Impala.

“What else?”

“It can unlock doors,” Jessica says as she shuts the car door. “It moved too fast for Mr. Shaw to see, plus he said it didn’t sound like a bear. Or a human.”

“Also left Mr. Shaw a parting gift,” Dean says, shuddering at the image of the deep claw marks gouged deep into the old man’s shoulder and down his chest. “Could be a skin walker, maybe a black dog. It’s definitely something we can kill.”

He adjusts the rearview mirror and starts the Impala.

“We can’t let Hailey go out there,” Sam says.

“What are you going to tell her? She can’t go into the woods because of a big scary monster?”

“Yeah.”

“Her brother’s out there, Sam,” Jessica says. “You saw the look on her face. She’s not gonna sit this out while he’s out there. If Dean went missing wouldn’t you go out looking for him, too?”

Sam doesn’t say anything for most of the drive to the cheapest motel in the area. It’s getting dark and the temperature’s dropping; Dean can feel the chill settling in and considers turning on the heater. Instead he turns up the volume and drowns out the silence for several long minutes.

At a red light Sam finally says, “Fine. We’ll go out there with Hailey tomorrow. We’ll keep her safe, find her brother, and kill this monster. Then we’re going after Dad.”

He directs this last statement at Dean, almost seems to challenge him with it as well as remind him. It’s not like Dean forgot why they came here in the first place. Finding John is still high on his list of priorities but right now this family needs help. If he can do something about it he will.

“Don’t worry,” Dean says as he spots the neon motel sign. “I didn’t forget.”

After getting two room keys and tossing one to Sam and Jessica he drives back to the bar. With night comes a larger crowd and Dean has to shoulder his way to the bar to ask for a finger of whiskey. The bartender he’s keen on, Susanne, is still there but her coworker is nowhere in sight; someone else is working the counter with her, and Dean gives her a nod before turning his attention to Susanne.

“Busy night?” he asks, watching her twist off the cap on the whiskey bottle.

“The usual,” she says. “What about your friends? Are they here?”

Dean shakes his head, smirks. “Nope. Just me.”

She flashes him a smile and slides him the shot glass.

Susanne gets off work in about forty-five minutes but by a stroke of luck people stop ordering drinks from her as soon as Dean comes in, leaving her to idle about and make small talk. So he spends the next half hour bullshitting his life story to her. It rolls off his tongue easily but towards the end he finds himself working to hold her interest. It’s frustrating trying to pick up where he abruptly left off a few weeks back and he ends up ordering two more shots of whiskey before Susanne’s shift ends.

“So,” she says, sidling up next to him. “My place or yours?”

Dean smirks and sets the empty shot glass down. “Mine’s closer.”

At the motel she’s all business, slamming him up against the door and tugging the layers off while he cups her face and licks off her watermelon lip gloss. She laughs throatily and leaves sticky kisses along his jaw and down his neck while her hands grab the ends of his shirt and tugs it up. His left shoulder twinges when he raises his arms to shed his shirt and then he remembers the bandages covering up the hand-shaped burn.

She stares at the patchwork of gauze while he unbuttons her shirt. After a moment he glances at his shoulder as well.

“It’s nothing,” he says. “Just a burn.”

It’s apparently the right thing to say because her eyes fairly shine and she presses her mouth to his, tongue sweeping the tang of whiskey off the roof of his mouth; she presses up against him, hips rolling forward, and he groans.

“You lead a very dangerous lifestyle,” she murmurs and presses a kiss to the gauze, leaving behind a shimmering imprint of her lips. “For luck.”

She has no idea how much he’s going to need it tomorrow, so Dean takes what he can.

The bedside clock reads 2:43:78 AM when Susanne slides off him and curls up around one of the pillows. Dean stares at the clock and then up at the ceiling where bluish moonlight clashes with the motel’s neon lights. His eyelids are heavy and he’s drifting along in a blissfully warm and drowsy state, but he doesn’t want to sleep yet.

The flash of fire is brief but searing and Dean sits up with a hoarse gasp. It’s only been five minutes and Susanne’s asleep next to him, all curves and soft skin. He watches her smile and murmur something into the pillow, then lifts his head to stare at the light glowing through the window while his hand slides under his pillow, looking for his hunting knife.

His instincts prickle, feeling the pressure of another presence in the motel room. He slowly slides his eyes around the room. Nothing's been disturbed; there’s the small round table and two chairs, a TV on a dresser, clothes strewn all over the floor, his duffel bag, the darkened corner where the door should be, and the bathroom.

His hand doesn’t find his knife and something shifts in the shadows. His body tenses, tightened muscles stretching the tender burns under the gauze, and he grimaces as he slowly maneuvers himself between whatever’s hiding there and Susanne.

“Don’t worry. She won’t wake up.”

Dean freezes at the low growl. He doesn’t dare look over his shoulder at her, keeps his eyes fixed on that dark entryway while thinking of the best way to protect her. He hears more shuffling in that direction and thinks about distracting whatever's hiding there, taking the fight outside so that Sam and Jessica can hear and come running to help.

“That’s the last thing I’m worried about,” he says carefully as he narrows his eyes and tries to see the offending presence's shape. The light just doesn’t reach that far into the room; he can’t make out anything.

“There’s nothing to fear,” the voice says. Despite the monotonous tone every syllable is laced with power, each word supercharged. As if whatever’s hiding there isn’t human. “We need to talk.”

“I don’t even know who you are,” Dean says. “How’d you get in here?”

Something’s off about the situation but he can’t put his finger on it.

“I wasn’t sure how to best present myself to you so I chose a dream-”

“What? You can’t just-I’m dreaming? The hell?”

Cold fear washes over him. He’s dreaming, and something just walked into his head. He swallows hard as his eyes dart to the duffel bag on the floor. he doesn’t know if his weapons are in there or if they’ll have any effect on the voice’s owner, but there’s no way he’s going to sit here, naked under scratchy bed sheets, weaponless. He’s heard stories about dream walkers.

“Who are you?” he demands, but he chokes on his words and they come out a hoarse whisper.

Something moves out of the corner of the motel room and into the clash of blue and neon orange-red lights. Dean raises an eyebrow.

“Seriously?”

The man frowns as he looks down at himself, touches the collar of his trench coat and unsuccessfully straightens his askew tie. “What did you expect?”

Dean has no idea, other than the fleeting memory of a drawing made of black and red crayons. He narrows his eyes – his dream eyes, what the fuck, this is so weird – and tries to catalog as many details as he can in a few seconds. The man - the dream walker's chosen image - has dark hair and eyes that seem very bright in the filtered moonlight. His jaw is blunt and unshaven, his nose sharp, and his mouth is…distracting. Dean quickly drops his eyes to the slump of his shoulders, the ill-fitting flasher coat and the crooked tie, the trousers and wingtips, and decides rather blithely that in a fist fight he’ll be easy to overpower. This soothes his mind somewhat and Dean sits back, the small of his back resting against Susanne's while his eyes slowly rise back up to the man’s piercing eyes.

“So what are you, a tax accountant?”

The man bristles; he straightens up, jutting his jaw out in defiance. “I am no such thing.”

Dean snorts at the overreaction. For a guy who’s good enough to walk into his head he sure is green about it. “Right. So, who the hell are you and what the fuck are you doing in my head?”

“I…” The man drops his head as he ponders his words. Dean frowns as he waits, flexes his hands and wonders if the pain of punching that face will wake him out of this dream. “You could say…I’m the one who gripped you tight and raised you from Perdition.”

Dean laughs. “Very funny, dude. Perdition? Yeah, right. No, really, who are you?”

The way the man tilts his head, like he doesn’t get what Dean’s asking, prompts Dean to add, “What are you?”

The man tilts his head back so he’s looking straight at him; a slow smile forms like he's been waiting for Dean to get it.

“I’m an angel of the Lord.”

Dean stares at him in disbelief for maybe one second and then he’s laughing harshly, shaking his head and saying, “Bullshit.”

Behind him Susanne stirs and then sighs, relaxes under the covers.

The man steps towards the bed and Dean freezes up. Something changes in the air; the crackle of energy makes the hairs on the back of his hands and neck stand on end while the air starts reeking of ozone. His heart pounds and he’s suddenly short on breath. Dean almost expects fire to erupt behind the man in the room but nothing happens; he just stands several inches closer, his eyes pinning Dean to the bed.

“No such thing,” he whispers.

He doesn’t believe in the Bible, in God, in Heaven and Hell. Demons exist but no one can explain why, not that he cares. And angels aren’t real. Despite conflicting lore and fairy tales about them, both within and without the Biblical context, nothing factual has ever been recorded about them. The only man who ever talked about angels was Pastor Jim, but that’s a given. Dean never found a reason to pray, never believed what he couldn’t see, what couldn't save his mother twenty-one years ago.

“I exist, Dean Winchester." The man speaks softly but his voice still manages to fill the room, humming with bridled power. He takes another step towards the bed and the lights outside start flickering; massive shadows grow from his back, cast themselves on the walls and devour the light. The wings flex, spreading its pinions. “I am an angel of the Lord. I am the one who breathed life back into you, who pulled you out of the fire and healed the scars in the lungs, who made your heart beat again-”

Dean latches onto the first sensible thing to come out of the man’s mouth. “I died?”

“Your heart had almost given out when I arrived.”

The fire. He remembers being pushed onto his back, remembers something sealing around his mouth and forcing air down his throat. He remembers something broiling his left shoulder, remembers damp grass and cold air and Sam hovering over him, calling his name.

“That was you.”

“Yes.”

Dean was saved by an angel? Is this a joke? Has he finally snapped? “But why?”

The angel hesitates, like he-it-thing didn’t expect that question. “Because we have work for you.”

“We? You mean there’s more of you?”

“Yes,” the angel says. Eyebrows furrow with irritation. “There is a Heaven, just like there’s a Hell, but I’m not here to discuss this.”

“Then what are you here for?” Dean asks. “Do you even have a name?”

For some reason this last question brings out a smile on the angel’s face. It’s awkward on the somewhat handsome face, like the angel doesn’t know how to work his-it’s mouth.

“My name is Castiel,” the angel says. “As for why I’m here…what you and Sam are doing is of great importance to us.”

Dean is dumbfounded. Never mind that he’s talking to a freaking angel of the Lord who tells him that Heaven is as real as Hell; what the hell do they want with him and Sam? “Uh, we’re just looking for our dad.”

“I know.”

No surprise there. He may have dozed off more times than not while Pastor Jim gave his Sunday sermons but he still knows a thing or two about how "omniscient" God and his angels are supposed to be.

“Okay,” Dean says, shifting positions while strategically keeping half his body hidden by the sheets. He doesn’t mind getting naked around other people, but this angel isn’t other people. “So why do you care that we’re looking for Dad? What, you know where he is?”

The angel-Castiel shakes his head. “No, we don’t.”

Omniscient, my ass. “Then what the hell do you want?”

“We want you to stop your search for John.”

Dean stares at him. “Excuse me?”

“You heard me.” The air starts humming again, charging as the angel repeats himself slowly and carefully. “Stop your search for John. Or at least put it off as long as you can. We can’t afford having you stumble in on him when it’s not yet time.”

“Are you serious? What the fuck, man? You can’t just waltz into my head and tell me to stop looking for my own damn father-”

Castiel is suddenly crouching down on the bed in front of him, his face just inches from Dean’s. Dean's heart jumps up his throat and he chokes on the rest of his words.

“Goodbye, Dean Winchester. You have a long day ahead of you.”

“What the-”

Castiel presses two fingers to his forehead and Dean opens his eyes to the cool sunlight streaming into the room. He quickly sits up and looks around; other than the occupied bathroom and the vacancy next to him on the bed nothing’s been disturbed. His clothes are still all over the floor, the duffel bag is still next to the TV stand, and none of the chairs have moved. Dean flicks his eyes at the entryway and finds nothing. There’s absolutely nothing to suggest that sometime in the night he had a conversation with a strange man who claimed to be an angel named Castiel.

“The fuck,” he mutters and falls back down on the bed. He blocks out the sun with the back of his hand and tries to sleep but he can’t; his mind is scrambling to cling onto the details of the conversation but like most dreams they slip away like sand between his fingers.

“Stop your search for John. Or at least put it off as long as you can.”

A minute later his phone rings and he knocks it to the floor trying to turn it off; it’s Sam.

“Get your ass out of bed; we have to catch Hailey before she goes to Blackwater Ridge.”

* * * * *

While they’re out in the sun hiking isn’t all that bad, although Dean keeps making a lot of dick moves that threaten to give them away. Sam clenches his hands more than once like he wants to punch his brother, but that won’t help them protect Hailey and Ben.

“Is he normally like this?” Jessica asks quietly while watching Dean have another verbal sparring match with the guide Hailey hired to help her find her brother’s camp.

“Usually,” Sam says. “But he’s never been this bad. Probably woke up on the wrong side of the bed.”

“Or he didn’t have as good a night as we did.”

The forest starts reaching for the sky all around them and suddenly November makes its presence more obvious; in the shade the temperature seems to drop ten degrees and Jessica shoves her hands into her jacket pockets, looking for warmth. She also gravitates towards Sam while up ahead Roy, the guide Hailey hired, stops and takes a look around.

“This is it,” he says. “Blackwater Ridge.”

“What’s our coordinates?” Sam asks while Dean walks past him to peer into the dense underbrush.

“35-111.”

“You hear that?” Dean asks, cocking his head to the side.

Jessica frowns. She hadn’t even noticed, probably because of the noise they made hiking through the woods, but now that they’re standing still she does.

The woods are silent.

“Not even crickets,” Sam breathes out.

Something’s definitely out there and they’re the only living things stupid enough to walk right into its territory.

“How worried should we be?” Jessica asks as Roy strides by them.

“Everything’s fine,” he says as he grips his rifle in both hands. “I’m going to take a look around.”

“You shouldn’t go off by yourself,” Sam says.

“That’s sweet. Don’t worry about me.”

“He’s a goner,” Jessica says, watching him disappear into the woods while Dean orders the others to stick together.

“Not if we do this right,” Sam says.

Not surprisingly they do everything wrong. Hailey starts screaming for Tommy as soon as they locate the shredded remains of his camp and when a voice deep in the woods wails for help they abandon their belongings to chase after it, hoping it’s Hailey’s brother.

“It seemed like it was coming from around here,” Hailey says slowly while they scan the trees and leafy undergrowth. “Didn’t it?”

Dean mutters under his breath while Sam says, “Everybody back to camp.”

Sure enough all their supplies are gone. Jessica walks around the perimeter of the camp but there are no tracks or trail left behind.

“What the hell's going on?” Hailey demands as she runs a hand through her hair. “I don’t understand.”

“It’s smart,” Sam says. “It wants to cut us off so we can’t call for help.”

Jessica looks at him sharply. He knows what it is? Dean’s looking over his shoulder at Sam, too; after a moment he walks several feet away from the campsite and waits.

“You mean some nutjob out there just stole all our gear,” Roy mutters. He crouches down and starts scanning the ground for the signs that aren't there.

“Jess,” Sam says quietly and gestures towards the trees, where Dean is waiting.

Oh. Duh. She glances over her shoulder at Hailey and Ben as she follows Sam around thick bushes and several trees. They distractedly pick through the remnants of the campsite while Roy continues tracking the "nutjob" who stole their supplies.

“Okay, college boy,” Dean says as soon as she joins them some distance away from the site. “You think you know what it is?”

“Yeah, let me see Dad’s journal.”

Dean pulls the leather-bound journal out of his jacket pocket and hands it over; Sam starts flipping through the pages.

“Okay, check this out.” He holds out the pages to Jessica and Dean. On one page are a set of protective sigils, the other a drawing of a long-limbed humanoid.

Her stomach drops. “No way.”

“What she said,” Dean says. “Come on, Wendigos are in Minnesota and northern Michigan. What the hell would one be doing all the way out here?”

“There must be tons of abandoned mines up here,” Sam says, gesturing in the general direction of the mountains. “And tons of ways for miners to get trapped in them.”

“That doesn’t mean-”

“Think about it. The victims, the claws, the way it can mimic a human voice. It all fits.”

“Yeah, but-” Dean pulls a face as Sam shuts the journal. “Great. Just great.” He pulls out the handgun tucked under his jacket. “Well then this is fucking useless.”

“What the hell are we going to do?” Jessica asks. She points at the sky, which is now tinged orange and pink. She’s already imagining the scenario – a cold November night in the forest, stalked by a lightning fast monster hungry for human flesh. “It’s getting dark and you know how they are at night.”

“What we’re going to do is get these people out of here,” Sam says and starts back to camp.

“Roy’s not gonna believe us and Hailey’s not leaving until we find Tommy. Let’s see you try talking them out of it.”

“Unless someone’s carrying a flamethrower in his pocket we’re screwed,” Dean says.

What she’d give to have one right now. Wendigos are some of the fastest, cleverest, most powerful hunters in the world. Great daytime hunters; unstoppable at night. Bullets and knives can’t bring them down, and there’s no way they can get close to one in order to set it on fire without getting ripped to shreds.

She hates hunting Wendigos.

The symbols Dean traced in the dirt that night did shit all to keep Roy from disappearing into the woods. Thankfully Hailey and Ben had more sense and stayed close to the fire while Dean and Sam went after the guide.

“What the hell is going on?” Hailey repeats herself while the brothers’ voices echo loudly in the woods.

Jessica sighs and scratches out another symbol in the dirt with a stick. “You’re not going to believe us.”

“Why?”

She looks up at Hailey. “That thing out there? It’s not human. It’s not an animal. It’s a monster, and one of the best hunters in the world.”

Hailey is utterly confused, keeps opening and closing her mouth like she doesn’t know what to say. Jessica expected as much and draws more protection sigils with the stick.

“But what is it?” Ben asks.

“A Wendigo,” Sam says breathlessly as he jogs back to camp, carefully avoiding the symbols on the ground. A thin red line marks his cheek, probably a scratch from a low-hanging tree branch. “It’s a-it’s a Native American word for ‘evil spirit’ or ‘cannibal’, which is what it is.”

“They’re hundreds of years old,” Dean adds as he crouches down by the symbols, checking for errors. “They used to be human. An Indian, a frontiersman, a miner, a hunter. During some harsh winter they get cut off from supplies or help, so they eat other members of their tribe or camp to survive.”

“Like the Donner Party,” Ben says.

“Cultures all over the world have different beliefs about eating human flesh,” Jessica says. “For some it’s obviously taboo. For others, it’s like taking on the powers of the person they’re eating. It gives them special abilities, like speed, strength, immortality. The more you eat, though, the less human you become. And you’re always hungry.”

She tosses the twig into the fire and the flames devour it.

“Okay.” Hailey presses the heels of her hands over her eyes. “Okay. Say this is true-”

“Oh it is, sweetheart,” Dean says immediately and she glares at him.

“Fine.” She takes a deep breath, looks at Ben, and then asks, “Then is it possible for Tommy to still be alive?”

Ben stiffens next to her. Dean licks his lip and glances at Sam, who shakes his head and looks away. Jessica sighs. Now that they know a Wendigo has been behind these cyclical attacks the odds of Tommy being alive are terrible to none.

“Tell me,” Hailey says in a wavering voice. “I need to know.”

“Wendigos…know how to last long winters without food,” Sam says slowly while Dean rises to his feet and goes to the pile of blood splattered supplies in front of a tent. “They hibernate for years at a time but while they’re awake they keep their victims alive, stores them somewhere so they can feed whenever they want. If, if Tommy’s alive it’s keeping him somewhere dark, hidden and safe. Only way to find out is to track it back to its lair.”

“Say he’s alive,” Hailey says, “and we find him. How do we stop the Wendigo?”

“Well,” Jessica says, picking up another branch and sticking its end into the fire. “Most hunters don’t walk into a Wendigo’s lair while it’s active.”

“But we’re not most hunters,” Dean adds somewhere behind her. She looks over her shoulder to see him standing by the pile of camping equipment Hailey and Ben salvaged, holding up a can of lighter fluid and a lighter. “So, we're gonna torch the sucker.”

* * *

A smart hunter rarely leaves a trail as obvious as the deep gouges in tree trunks and dark smears all over the rough bark. That should have warned them.

The large clearing with the broken branches and the really obvious bloodied claw marks should have told them to turn around and walk away now.

When the Wendigo growls overhead and drops Roy’s body on top of Hailey, scattering in every direction to get away is a fucking terrible idea.

Hailey’s high-pitched scream rings in her ears as Jessica stumbles over a tree root in her haste to reunite with Sam and Ben. She skids down a slight incline and propels herself into Sam’s side; they stagger into a tree while Ben looks around the woods, calling out his sister’s name.

“It has Dean,” Sam gasps as she pushes herself off of him and bends over, catching her breath. “It took Dean and Hailey.”

“Shit.” She looks up at the canopy and the cold morning sky; all she hears are her pounding heart and the crunch of dead leaves and branches as Ben paces in a tight circle. “Dean had the lighter.”

“Yep, and now the Wendigo has him,” Sam says as he starts scanning the ground and trees. They were stupid, so very stupid; why didn't anyone bother to look up? The best hunters mask their trails and the best way to do it is to jump from tree to tree, leaving nothing on the ground for anyone to follow.

“I don’t get it,” Ben says as he clutches something white in his dirtied hands. “If it keeps its victims alive, why did it kill Roy?”

“Well,” Jessica says as she pushes aside the large leaves of a bush, finding nothing but bits of dead branches. “He did shoot the Wendigo. Probably pissed it off.”

Ben frowns as he follows her and Sam through the woods. They’re not covering much ground, but Jessica is loathe to separate from the two while the Wendigo is still out here. They make a wide sweep of the area from where they last saw Dean and Hailey while the sun slowly warms up the forest.

“Come on,” Sam mutters as he steps over a rotting log. “There has to be a way to track this thing.”

Ben wanders a little ways from them and Jessica watches him, ready to call him back. He crouches down and picks something up. Then he twists around and holds up a blue M&M. “They went this way.”

Jessica laughs, remembering the yellow bag Dean passed around the fire last night, and it's full of so much relief. Sam grins as he joins Ben and studies the colorfully erratic trail dotting the green and brown landscape, beckoning them like the white pebbles and bread crumbs of Hansel and Gretel.

“It’s better than bread crumbs,” Sam says, grinning at an equally hopeful Ben.

While the teenager quickly walks ahead, tracking it through the sunlight and shadows Sam gestures to Jessica to follow. Luckily the trail doesn’t suddenly turn in another direction or disappear; the artificially colored oval buttons mark an almost perfectly straight path through the dense undergrowth before weaving through massive members of the old-growth forest. They have to shimmy between the tangled roots to continue following the M&Ms and Jessica bangs her funny bone on a knot, leaving her left arm tingling for several agonizing minutes.

The trail ends at the entrance to an abandoned mine.

They stare at the gray wood panels barricading the entrance and the moss growing around the red and white sign warning them away. While Ben looks around Sam bends down and slides through a gap between panels. Jessica looks up at the washed out sign overhead - KEEP OUT. NO ADMITTANCE. - and then walks around the teenager to follow Sam into the mine.

Jessica almost trips over the rusted tracks running through to a dim light at the end of the dank tunnel. Sam has a flashlight in hand and he’s flicking it at the solid walls as he carefully steps over the tracks. At the sound of footsteps she looks over her shoulder to see Ben quickly join them, nervous eyes flicking about and taking in the rotting wooden support system.

“Where’d you get the flashlight?” she mutters.

“Campsite.”

Underground the air is chilly and stale. She looks into a smaller tunnel branching off from the main one but can’t see anything. The deeper they go the louder her heart beats; she wonders if the Wendigo can hear it in the silence.

A growl crawls along the walls towards them and Sam throws an arm out, backs Jessica into the wall. She grabs Ben’s wrist and pulls him along, plasters herself against the side of the tunnel and holds her breath as heavy footsteps echo loudly in the narrow space. As they watch a gangly bipedal thing emerges from the smaller tunnel Jessica had looked into and walks down the main one towards them. Ben starts next to her and she quickly clamps her hand over his mouth, tilts her head to hold his gaze as the footsteps draw nearer.

The Wendigo suddenly veers off to disappear down another tunnel and she lets her hand drop; Ben takes several nervous breaths and pushes himself off the wall while Sam turns the flashlight back on.

There’s a draft somewhere, fresh air laced with the stench of rotting flesh, and she tugs at Sam’s arm. “You smell that?”

They follow the smaller set of tracks branching off from the main one into a narrower tunnel, following the smell like bloodhounds. Sam flicks his flashlight here and there, illuminating the rusted rails and the craggy walls. After several minutes her foot lands on something that creaks against her weight and she stops. Sam flicks his flashlight down and Ben falters. The floorboards groan from the combined weight; Jessica looks over her shoulder at solid ground just as the wood splinters and breaks underfoot.

She hits the cold ground on her side and sharp pain blooms from her right hip. Groaning she rolls onto her back and presses her hand against it. Sam coughs several times while Ben gasps and scrambles away from something.

“Fuck,” she hisses, feeling the bone bruise form under her hand.

“Holy shit,” Sam says.

She opens her eyes. They’re in a cavernous room; an old wooden walkway crosses the space to another tunnel leading deeper into the mountains. Sunlight streams through the cracks and holes in the ceiling, providing much needed light. She breathes out and slowly pushes herself up.

Ben stares transfixed at a considerable pile of human bones. They’ve all been picked clean.

“Wow,” she says.

“Oh my god,” Sam says somewhere behind her and she twists around to see; the painful throbbing in her hip sharpens, flares white-hot, and she freezes, clenching her teeth while waiting for it to subside.

“Hailey!” Ben shouts and Sam hushes him, reminds him of the monster still walking through these tunnels.

Then, "Dean!'

Ben scrambles to his feet and runs to the back of the room, where Dean and Hailey are strung up from the overhead beams with thick. Jessica jumps when Sam hooks his hands under her arms and haul her to her feet.

“Can you walk?” he asks as he guides her to the wall near a smaller pile of backpacks and duffel bags. Shreds of wax paper suggests that the Wendigo had been eating candy bars, an idea that almost makes her laugh inappropriately.

“In a bit.” She sits down next to Sam’s duffel bag and pulls Roy’s backpack towards her. She nods to Dean as she zips it open and starts looking for anything useful. “Get him down before his arms rip off.”

He’s already walking away, grabbing the collar of Dean’s jacket and gently shaking him awake. “Dean. Come on, wake up.”

“Hailey,” Ben says. “Wake up, wake up, please.”

Dean starts, shakes his head and mutters something under his breath. Hailey moans and rolls her head to the side.

“Ben?”

Jessica finds a switchblade in one of the billion pockets and gets back to her feet. She limps over to Hailey’s side and saws at the rope while Hailey and Ben watch.

“Where is it?” Dean asks somewhere behind her.

“Gone for now,” Sam says. “You okay?”

“I’ve had worse. Now shut up and get me down; shoulder's killing me.”

Ben catches Hailey as her feet hit the ground and she stumbles forward; he lowers her to the ground and kneels down to pull the rope off her wrists with clumsy fingers. Jessica looks around the room and spots several more ropes dangling under the wooden walkway. A severed forearm sways at the end of one while something human-shaped appears to be strung up in the deeper shadows. Jessica narrows her eyes and steps forward, unsure if it’s another body or the Wendigo itself.

“Is that…?”

“What is it?” Sam stands up from where he’s been kneeling next to Dean, checking for injuries. “Is it the-”

Hailey stops rubbing the rope burns on her wrists and gasps. “Tommy!”

She reaches for Ben, who pulls her up to her feet, and they hobble over to the body. Jessica follows them, keeping a tight grip on the switchblade. Hailey reaches up to caress her brother’s bruised and bloodied face and chokes back a sob.

“Oh Tommy, no…” she whispers as she reaches out with a dirty trembling hand.

He jerks his head with a gasp at his name; Jessica jumps and collides into Sam while Hailey screams. Tommy stares at his sister with wide eyes, then flick them to Ben and slide over to Jessica and Sam. His swallow is audible and his gaze becomes unfocused.

“I don’t under…how…” he stammers hoarsely, and the voice snaps Hailey out of her shell-shocked trance.

She looks at Jessica and says, “Cut him down.”

Sam and Ben hold him steady while Jessica saws through the rope. Tommy manages to stand for two seconds before his legs give out and he sits down heavily. Hailey and Ben swamp him, cradling him and checking for injuries, telling him that he’s going home. Someone produces a small flask and Hailey carefully tips water into Tommy's dry mouth.

There’s just one problem, though. The Wendigo is roaming this abandoned mine and Tommy is, for all intents and purposes, a dead weight; if the Wendigo picks up their trail and follows them there’s no way they can outrun it without leaving him behind, and that's if they're lucky. She looks at Sam and sees the grim line of his mouth, knows he’s thinking it, too.

“Hey,” Dean calls out behind them. “Check it out.”

He sways on his feet, grinning as he holds up two flare guns. She laughs in relief; besides a flamethrower and a Molotov they’re the next best thing against Wendigos.

“That’ll work,” she says.

“Sucker won’t know what hit it,” Dean says, twirling them in his hands. He takes a step forward and wavers, most likely from exhaustion, and Sam rushes past her to catch him. Dean flinches when Sam grabs him by the left shoulder, hisses, “I’m fine!”

“Sorry.” Sam backs up and then gestures to the packs on the ground. “Anything else?”

“Here.” He hands Sam a canteen and a satellite phone, then nods to the Collins siblings. “Let’s get them out of here.”

Hailey and Ben sling Tommy’s arms over their shoulders. Hailey quietly asks, “You ready?”

Jessica edges over to Sam and Dean, and does a sweep of the room. There are two tunnels on ground level but neither of them point the way back to the surface. “How are we getting out of here?”

Sam stops checking the flare gun in his hand. “I…”

“Left a trail,” Dean says and points at the ground.

The irregular line of artificially colored M&M buttons is just so out of place in the gloomy gray mine that she laughs. Sam clamps a dirty hand over her mouth while Dean calls the Collins siblings over.

“Stay behind me,” Sam says as he lowers his hand from her face.

“What, there isn’t another flare gun?” she asks as they walk into a tunnel, following the old wooden scaffolding that only pretends to hold the mountain above their heads.

“Nope,” Dean says as he pushes by her to join Sam up front. “Hopefully it won’t come from the back.”

“Oh that’s comforting,” Hailey mutters.

Progress is slow, mainly due to Tommy’s condition. At a junction Dean walks ahead, pulling a tiny flashlight out of his jacket pocket and scanning the ground for candy pieces, while Hailey and Ben lower Tommy to the ground and lean him against the wall. Tommy tilts his head towards Hailey and mouths something.

“Water?” Hailey says uncertainly. “I don’t think we have any left-”

“Here,” Sam says, pulling the canteen out of his pocket and handing it to her.

Jessica watches the other end of the tunnel, listening for something besides their quiet words and footsteps all over the ground. Maybe the Wendigo is outside, looking for more victims to bring underground and string up like Dean, Hailey, and Tommy. In that case they’ll be able to get out of the mine without a hitch but they're still deep in the forest and the Wendigo is still alive. If it's somewhere deeper in the mine just getting to the forest will be a problem.

“Hey,” Dean says, drawing attention to him; he gestures at the tunnel on their right. “Found it.”

Tommy groans in protest as they pull him back onto his feet but he limps along without further complaint as they go up an even steeper incline, hopefully towards the surface. It’s so dim that Jessica starts sliding her feet over the ground, looking for obstacles to avoid as she follows Sam and Dean and the pencil-thin flashlight. As the tunnel starts leveling off the stale air suddenly clashes with a cold draft and sunlight streams in from places along the wall that have been boarded up and left alone for years, maybe decades.

At another junction something else rides along the breeze from outside. A growl crawls down the tunnel towards them and everyone freezes.

“That’s not good,” Jessica says.

“Yeah,” Dean agrees. He raises the flare gun. “Looks like someone’s home for dinner.”

The growl seems to magnify as it bounces off the walls. Ben whimpers and Hailey says, “We’ll never outrun it.”

Dean glances over his shoulder at them and then flicks his eyes to Sam. “You thinking what I’m thinking?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

“No, not really,” Jessica says over another echoing growl.

“You’ll figure it out.” Dean looks around her at the others. “All right, listen up. Stay with these guys, they’re going to get you out of here.”

“What?” Hailey asks. “But-where are you going?”

Dean winks at her and glances at the ground. “Just follow the M&Ms.”

He walks away, crushing a piece of candy underfoot as he disappears around the corner at the end of the tunnel. Jessica looks down at the candy trail; the M&Ms go in a different direction. Then Dean starts shouting and she suddenly realizes what he’s doing.

“Is he nuts?” she hisses at Sam. “The Wendigo’s going to kill him!”

Sam ignores her; he gestures to the Collins siblings and points down the tunnel on their right. “This way. Hurry!”

Tommy huffs in pain as they follow the artificially colored buttons. Hailey murmurs encouragement to him while Ben keeps looking over his shoulder at Jessica and Sam.

“Come on, come on,” Sam mutters as he swings the fare gun and points it at every shadowed spot as they go from tunnel to tunnel.

“I can’t hear Dean,” she says as she flicks the switchblade in and out. It’s useless against the Wendigo but only Sam has the flare gun.

“He’s out there, he’s fine,” Sam says. “Come on, where are you?”

Jessica frowns. “What are you-”

The Wendigo growls somewhere down the dim tunnel. She freezes, her skin prickling with fear. Sam takes a slow step forward, pointing the flare gun down the tunnel.

“Get him out of here.”

Ben readjusts his grip around Tommy’s waist, his lips pressed tightly together. Hailey shakes her head. “Sam, no.”

“Go. Go!”

They stumble over the rusted tracks as they hurry off. Jessica watches them run and then feels Sam wraps his hand around her upper arm. “Sam-”

“You, too.”

“I’m not leaving you,” she says. “I don’t even know what the hell your plan is.”

“I can’t explain it right now. Just make sure they get out of here alive. I’ll catch up, I promise.”

A louder snarl punctuates the immediacy of the situation so she sighs and nods. She looks at the gun in his hand. “One shot. Make it count.”

“I know,” Sam says and gently pushes her in the direction the siblings went.

She sees him back into the wall, flare gun held tightly in anticipation, as she follows the tracks up the tunnel. She chases the echoing sounds of Tommy’s labored breathing and the crush of pebbles as they limp towards the entrance to the mine. Jessica runs after them, spots them up ahead, but spins around when she hears the flare gun discharge and the Wendigo roar.

“Sam!” she calls out after a few seconds.

The Wendigo replies and heavy footsteps start up the tunnel towards them. Her heart drops; he missed. “Sam!”

He comes hurtling out of the shadows, weaponless and wide-eyed, gesturing wildly at her. “Go, go, go!”

Behind him is the tall lanky form of the Wendigo, snorting and snarling as it follows. She gasps and then Sam grabs her by the arm and pulls her along. Up ahead Hailey and Ben are helping Tommy the best they can but they’re a step too slow; Sam lets Jessica go to push them forward. They swerve into a smaller tunnel and then Jessica notices that they’ve lost the candy trail. They’re running blind.

They’re running into a dead end. A solid wall of rock looms up before them.

“Oh no,” Jessica says as she stares up at the craggy surface.

“Get behind me,” Sam orders.

Ben grabs her arm and pulls her behind Sam, who stretches his arms out and takes a step back, pushing them all into the wall. The Wendigo approaches them slowly, mockingly, knowing that they have nowhere to run. She stares at its long limbs and ribby appearance, at the long fingers with thick sharp nails. The grotesque monster tilts its head as it steps closer, sniffs, and then roars. She jerks away, squeezing her eyes shut as she waits for its inevitable charge.

“Hey!”

She opens her eyes just in time to see Dean shoot the Wendigo with his flare gun at point-blank range. They’ve been underground for so long that the bright flash of chemical light has her flinching away, pressing the heels of her hands against her eyes. A horrible wail ricochets off the walls and her nose fills with the stench of burning flesh; she hears Ben retch while Hailey gags and coughs.

She finally opens her eyes to see the last flames on the twisted blackened body of the Wendigo die down. Dean grins down at it while Sam shakes his head; in the firelight he looks maniacal, jubilant.

“Not bad, huh?” Dean asks cheekily.

Ben vomits at Jessica’s feet.

* * *

The sun is setting when they finally reach the entrance to the mine. Jessica climbs up the thick roots of two giant trees and leans against the trunk, breathing deeply and flooding her lungs with cold mountain air. Behind her Hailey and Ben lower Tommy to the ground and Sam hands over the canteen of water. Dean tinkers with the satellite phone, cursing under his breath.

“We’re not getting out of here before dark, are we?” she asks Sam when he approaches the trees.

“Doesn’t look like it,” he says as he shoves his hands into his jacket pockets, shivering.

A cold breeze swirls around her, picking up the smoky burnt smell of the Wendigo from her bird's nest of hair. She grimaces, thinks about getting back to civilization and a functioning shower stall. She looks forward to scrubbing the stench off of her.

“Hey!” Dean calls out. “Let’s get moving; we’ll stay at the campsite tonight and get back to the ranger station tomorrow morning.”

The hike back to the abandoned campsite is agonizingly slow. They stop more and more frequently for Tommy’s sake; the toll of his ordeal is bearing down him faster and faster, making Jessica worry that they’ll end up picking their way back to the campsite long after dark. The forest around them is still quiet and every step, every sharp crack of a broken branch has her twitching and looking over her shoulder for the shadowy blur of the Wendigo.

The campsite, thankfully, has been left undisturbed and they go about preparing for the night. Sam and Dean scout the area while Jessica starts building a new fire. She watches Hailey and Ben carefully lower Tommy to the ground and sit down on either side of him; he leans against his sister’s shoulder, breathing heavily, while his fingers with the chipped nails curl around his younger brother's hand. Jessica watches him as she tosses larger branches onto the growing flames; despite being clawed and dragged about by the Wendigo, despite being subjected to ceaseless terror and the promise of a painful death, he seems to be suffering more from dehydration and starvation, the lack of contact with his family. The others take care to drink sparely from the canteen, saving most of it for him, but it won't be enough.

Sam and Dean reappear; while Sam starts going through the camping supplies Dean fishes a rolled-up bag out of his pocket and tosses it to Hailey. It’s the M&Ms, and she laughs as she opens it.

“Really?”

He shrugs as he sits down next to Jessica and pulls out the satellite phone. “It’s still something.”

Hailey smiles as she nudges Tommy awake and shows him a handful of M&Ms. Jessica watches Dean bang on the bottom of the phone with his palm several times, muttering under his breath as he tries to make it work.

Sam suddenly appears on her right, tossing something to Ben before sitting down next to her and throwing up a small cloud of dust. Ben looks quizzically at the ripped sleeping bag in his hands, and then with Hailey’s help drapes it around Tommy’s shoulders.

“Hey,” Sam says. “Let me see Dad’s journal.”

Jessica yawns and leans against him, watches he flips through the old leather-bound journal. There are pages and pages filled with notes, names, phone numbers, addresses, newspaper clippings, diagrams of basic devil’s traps, torn book pages, old Polaroids-

The fire is still burning brightly when she opens her eyes. It takes a sluggish second for her to realize that she’s lying on her side with Sam’s jacket under her head. The Collins siblings are asleep, Tommy sandwiched between Hailey and Ben; behind Jessica Sam and Dean are talking quietly. Somewhere she can hear the faint hiss and crackle of a working satellite phone over the snap and pop of burning branches.

“…the satellite phone and go find Dad,” Sam is saying. “We did our job-”

“No. We’re not leaving them until we reach the ranger station,” Dean replies firmly. “Besides, I don’t think he’s here. Even if he didn’t want to be found he would've left something for us. Would've left a message, a sign.”

“I didn’t see anything, did you?”

“Nope, nothing. To tell you the truth, I don’t think Dad’s ever been to Lost Creek. There’s nothing else for us out here.”

Sam sighs loudly while someone kicks at the earth. “Fine. So what do we do now? How are we going to find Dad?”

“Don’t know. We’ll figure something out. But listen, finding Dad’s not going to be easy. We’ll get the answers but it’s going to take time.”

The fire snaps and sprays sparks all over the ground; she manages to stop herself from flinching and therefore giving herself away. On the other side Hailey sighs and pulls Tommy closer to her.

“Sam. Sam, look. This is Dad’s single most valuable possession. Everything he knows about every evil thing out there is in this book. He left it for us back at Jericho for a reason. You know what that means - saving people, hunting things, the family business. No matter what happens we’re not leaving a hunt unfinished to go after him. That’s not what he taught us. That's not what he wants.”

It takes Sam so long to answer that she wonders if he’s still there. She doesn’t move, though; she wants to know what’s going to happen next, what they’re going to do about their situation.

“Yeah,” Sam finally says, his voice so quiet she has to concentrate to pick out his words. “You’re right.”

“Besides, she’s alive. Counts for something, doesn’t it?”

She smiles as Sam laughs, low and light despite their ordeal. “It does.”

Jessica shuts her eyes as they approach the fire.

“So…you’re okay with her traveling with us,” Sam suddenly says.

“You know how Dad is about dragging other people into our business.”

She holds her breath while her heart starts beating loudly. There’s no way Dean’s seriously considering dumping her somewhere after what she-what they had been through together in the past several hours, in the past few weeks. Didn't she at least deserve to know exactly why Brady tried to kill her?

“Are you serious?” Sam asks. “Of all the things you could say-”

“I’m saying that we don’t make it a habit of dragging other people into our fight. She almost died because she’s your girlfriend. Because she’s close to you.”

“So we’re on the same page.”

“Yeah. I want to get to the bottom of it as much as you and Jessica do, so I’m okay with her traveling with us. I think it'll keep her safe, safer than if we tried to keep her as far away from us as possible. Besides, how else are you going to get laid?”

“Oh fuck you,” Sam says.

Dean chuckles and starts moving away. “Got to piss. You taking the first shift or me?”

“Flip a coin when you get back?”

Dean makes a noncommittal noise and walks away. Sam slowly sits down next to her and sighs.

“I know you’re awake.”

Jessica opens one eye and stares at the flames; the fire is slowly dying.

“I think…” Sam sighs again and his hand lands on her arm. It’s an incredibly warm touch and she considers curling up in his lap to have more of his body heat. “Later, I swear, I’ll tell you everything.”

“About your mom?” she asks quietly.

“About everything.”

She nods slowly, rubbing her cheek on Sam’s jacket. “Okay. We can do that.”

She drifts off to the firelight in front of her and Sam gently stroking her arm.

Chapter Text

He’s standing in the middle of a firestorm in Sam’s apartment. He can’t keep his eyes open and every breath he takes is full of thick smoke. Something still compels him to force open his drying eyes and look up at the ceiling, at his mother.

The details are so vivid, like how the ugly red line on her stomach bleeds through the bleached fabric to drip burning blood on his forehead and how she’s sprawled on the ceiling like he’s the one upside down and she’s right side up. She’s the source of the flames; they spread out in writhing waves, covering the ceiling, the walls, the cheap décor and bookcases.

He tries to tell her to stop. Tells her to put it out because it burns him. Because it hurts him.

“Please,” he begs and it’s not his voice. It’s hoarse, rough with smoke, disfigured by fire. He stretches an arm out to her, swallowing scorching mouthfuls of air as he strains to reach her. “Please…please stop.”

His left shoulder burns and he doubles over. The pain brings him crashing down on his knees and Mary disappears in a thick layer of black smoke. The fire roars in his ears and the air is so hot his lungs broil. He’s going to die here.

You will not.

He curls into himself, coughing, blinded by the smoke. He might have cried out, maybe Sam, maybe Dad, maybe Mom, but the fire’s become a deafening roar and he might not have said anything at all.

Breathe, Dean Winchester. You are safe.

The heat and the fire fade; something dry and warm presses to his mouth, flooding it with heady cold mountain air that fills his lungs and lets him breathe. He sobs, reaching out instinctively for its source, trying to crush that life-giving mouth to his, and he sits up with a gasp.

The occupants of the other bed stir and Sam says, “Dean? You okay?”

He’s not. His worn t-shirt sticks to his body, soaked through with sweat; his heart pounds in his chest, his ears, and his head. He feels the adrenaline in his blood, feels his body throb with it; he curls his fingers into the mattress as he tries to ground himself in reality. When his heart starts calming down he remembers that Sam asked him something.

“I’m fine,” he says, and then clears his throat. “Just a nightmare.”

“You want to-”

“Hell no.” He turns on his side, putting his back firmly to his brother, and makes an aborted attempt to untangle himself from the bed sheets.

“Is he okay?” Jessica mumbles.

“He’s fine. Go back to sleep.” A kiss, maybe on the forehead, is followed by a deep sigh.

Dean can’t sleep. He wants to close his eyes but behind the eyelids is Mary’s serene face framed by flames and every exhale reminds him of something breathing air into him, protecting him from the corrosive smoke that destroyed his voice. He’s tempted to touch his bottom lip but he keeps his hands between his knees because it’s a dream and-

“I was the one who breathed life back into you, who pulled you out of the fire and healed the scars in the lungs, who made your heart beat again.”

He stares at the darkest corner of the motel room for the next hour and a half, hearing his lungs rattle as he tries not to panic.

That angel can’t be real. Nobody knows how he got out of the apartment but that angel can’t. Be. Real.

* * *

He reads the newspaper because he does not want to see the two hickeys on Sam’s neck. There are some things he can live without knowing, and his brother’s sex life falls into that category. It’s also a reminder of how much Sam’s changed since he took off after that last fight with John three years ago. What Dean remembers of that night are anger and frustration wearing his brother’s face, but now, when he looks at Sam despite the past few weeks, he sees someone who's both older and happier. The happiness covers him like a second skin.

Or maybe it’s just a post-coital glow, and Dean really needs to stop thinking about Sam’s sex life. Shifting uncomfortably, he crosses out another obit in the paper and turns the page.

“Be right back,” Sam suddenly says and slides off his stool.

Jessica hops one bar stool over and leans on the counter, watching him draw a circle around a back and white photograph of Sophie Carlton. “Looking for a hunt?”

“Something like that,” he says, chewing on the pen cap.

“Do you even know where that pen cap’s been?” she asks and laughs while Dean slowly removes the cap from his mouth. Then she sits up and says, “So how are we finding your dad?”

“Still working on it.”

"So other than the journal you-"

Their conversation gets cut short when their waitress suddenly leans into his space and asks, “Can I get you anything else?”

He glances up at the slow smile on her face, the long bleached hair swaying over her cleavage, and grins in return. He knows that look, revels in it, and leans forward to say-

“Just the check, please,” Sam says, sitting down heavily on Dean’s right.

The waitress’s smile turns cold and courteous; she nods and turns around walk straight to the kitchen in the back. He’s pretty sure he’s not imagining the bounce in her step, or the way her curvy ass moves in the Daisy Dukes. Apparently Jessica isn’t either because she’s laughing at him.

“You just had to, didn’t you?” Dean says, glaring at Sam. “We are allowed to have fun once in a while.”

He looks pointedly at the hickeys and Sam slaps a hand over his neck, completely missing them. Dean rolls his eyes and slides over the newspaper on top of the pile.

“Here, take a look at this. Think I got something – Lake Manitoc, Wisconsin. Last week, Sophie Carlton walks into the lake, doesn’t walk out. Authorities dredged the water, found nothing. She’s the third drowning this year. None of the other bodies were found either.”

“She went swimming in the lake in November?” Jessica asks skeptically.

“Guess the lake was still warm enough to swim in last week,” Dean says. “Or she’s part fish, I don’t know. The point is that her body’s gone missing. We should check it out.”

“But what about Dad?”

The question stops Dean cold, interrupts the momentum he'd been building for his pitch. Slowly he sits back on the stool and flicks the pen against the newspaper.

"What about him?"

Sam rubs his face, then reaches over and takes Dean's mug. He doesn't drink from it, though; he stares down at whatever's left instead and quietly, stubbornly says, "The trail for Dad's getting colder every day."

Jessica shifts uneasily but says nothing. Dean swings his leg, hits one of the stool's legs as he says, "You think I don't know that? Why, what do you want to do?"

"Go after him. There has to be something in the journal-"

"If I found something we'd already be on it. Right now we got nothing except this." Dean presses a finger on Sophie's obituary but Sam refuses to look; he leans in, bumps Sam's shoulder, and makes him look at the newspaper, at him. "Look at me. You don't think I want to find Dad as much as you do?"

"I know you do. It's just-"

"I've been with him for the past three years while you were in college going to pep rallies and making eyes at Jess." She elbows him but Dean doesn't flinch...much. "I swear, if I knew something we'd be on it, but I don't, so until we find something we're killing every evil son of a bitch between here and him. We're hunters, Sam, it's what we do. You got that?"

Sam flicks his eyes down to the newspaper and stares at it with seemingly fresh eyes, then slides it out from under Dean's index finger. Dean sits back and watches him soak in the short obit, and then glances up when an arm reaches in between them to set the receipt down next to a plate of breadcrumbs.

"Your check," the waitress says, her eyes and smile on Dean.

"Thanks, darling."

He doesn't miss the phone number scribbled in a corner of the receipt. He leans back, watches her walk away to tend to another table, and briefly contemplates swinging back here after Manitoc.

He blinks. Something slides along the corner of his eye and he jerks his head around to scan the rest of the diner.

"...Manitoc. Hey!"

Dean catches Jessica rolling her eyes as he tips forward on his seat and turns to Sam, trying to separate what Sam had been saying from a flash of tan fabric. "Huh?"

"How far's Manitoc from here?"

* * * * *

Dean has a strange fixation on little Lucas Barr, and it probably has nothing to do with his “kids are the best” line. By the way, Sam still hasn’t stopped laughing at him for it.

“Swear to god I’m putting itching powder in his underwear,” Jessica hears him mutter while the occupied bathroom echoes with Sam’s muffled laughter. Then Dean crosses the room and bangs on the door. “Alright, doofus, you done?”

“Let me find you the directions to a pickup line first,” Sam says. Jessica snorts, then collapses on one of the queens and laughs into the covers.

“After you find Jesus in the toilet bowl stains, right? Son of a bitch.”

Later, once everyone’s had their turn washing off layers of dirt collected on the way from sunny Nebraska to overcast Wisconsin – “Damn it, did you use all the conditioner again?” “That wasn’t-” “I bought my own at that gas station in Iowa, so don’t look at me.” – they parceled out jobs and hunkered down to research the drowning deaths no one in town would talk about. Jessica’s skimming the local papers but there’s no new information on the three deaths or the draining lake.

“Nothing,” she declares, tossing the papers on the bed. She turned on her side to watch the brothers at the coffee table. Dean’s hovering over Sam’s shoulder as they read the screen. She wonders if this is how they hunt when it’s just the two of them – Dean does the talking, Sam does the research. It’s their most likely modus operandi and it makes her wonder where she fits in. Is she even supposed to?

“Anything else before this year?” Dean asks.

“Uh, yeah…six more spread out over the last thirty-five years. Those bodies were never found either. If something’s out there it’s picking up its pace.”

“What, we got a lake monster on one last binge?”

Sam sighs and sits back, forcing Dean to straighten himself. “This whole lake monster thing…it bugs me.”

“Tell me about it-wait.” Dean leans in again, bumping into Sam’s head as he points at something. “Barr. Christopher Barr.”

Jessica sits up and one of the pillows falls to the floor. “Andrea Barr. That’s how she introduced herself.”

Dean looks over his shoulder at her and she sees something shift in his eyes. They harden, becoming predatory, and she freezes, waits until he turns back to the laptop. She slides off the mattress and kicks aside the pillow as she walks over to the table.

“Christopher Barr. Died in May,” Sam says slowly, clicking a link. “Oh. You’re right; he’s Andrea’s husband.”

“Lucas’s dad,” Dean says and then leans in close to peer at the photograph next to the online article. “They went swimming in the lake.”

“He was on a floating wooden platform when Chris drowned. They didn’t get to him until after two hours,” Sam says quietly. “We have an eyewitness.”

Jessica chews on her bottom lip, tying the new information to the ashen mute kid who wouldn’t meet anyone’s eyes. How else can he cope with being stuck on a floating platform in the middle of the lake, waiting for his father to surface?

“No wonder he’s so freaked out,” Dean says. “Watching one of your parents die isn’t something you just get over.”

There it is again, a shift in his tone, quiet and adrift in memory. She glances down at Sam but only sees the back of his head; his hands rest on the keyboard as though he’s thinking about it, too.

Her parents come to mind. She hasn't talked with them in half a year, and hadn't seen them in three, and suddenly feels the need to leave the suffocating room. She takes a step away from the brothers' personal bubble, turns, and grabs her cell out of her jacket pocket.

“I’ll…be right back,” she mumbles, swipes a room key from the dresser, and lets herself out.

The Impala groans in protest as she leans against it, scrolling through her contacts list, and her mouth dries as she finds "Mom". The air is humid and the world uncomfortably gray; it reminds her of many days in San Francisco and she tucks her arm in close, wishing she had grabbed her jacket, too. She stares at the three-letter word on the screen, wondering why she hasn’t asked the brothers yet. She’d put two and two together; all she needs is confirmation that everything they do is for their mother, who must've died in some horrible manner years ago that neither of them will talk about. Why else do they only talk about their father and in the present tense? Why else do they hunt?

Jessica pushes the “Talk” button and presses the cell to her ear.

“Hi, this is Julia Moore. If you haven't already noticed I’m busy at the moment. Leave your name, number, and situation, and I'll call back as soon as possible. Jess, if it’s you, we’re proud of whatever you choose to do with your life. Good luck.”

* * *

Sam gives them both weird looks on the way to the park. Dean is oddly quiet, emphasized by the silence in the radio, and Jessica just wants to stare out the window at the lakeside town. She can’t stop looping the addendum to her mother’s voicemail message and their final acceptance of her chosen path. They hadn’t seen it coming, hadn’t expected her to go to college after a year hunting alone, thought once she finished high school she’d hunt for years, carry on the family tradition without hesitance.

“Saving people, hunting things. The family business,” Dean had said. She grew up on an ethos like that, to her father showing her how to hold a handgun while quizzing her on the shtriga’s one weakness, to her mother explaining the powers of silver while cleaning the silverware, and understood it both as a way of life and a higher calling. She didn’t have much choice – even if she did turn her back on it she’ll never sleep easy knowing what’s really going on out in the world. If Sam wasn’t already a hunter how was she supposed to explain her habits and possessions to him? She wouldn’t have been able to hide her stash of now-lost firearms for long, and he’s not stupid.

Stanford was supposed to be a detour. A chance to relax, breathe, decide which life she really wants.

Mom, she wants to say, just so you know, I’m hunting again. Well, I’ve been hunting, on weekends when I tell my boyfriend I’m heading to Pat’s apartment to study, but this time’s different. I can’t tell you exactly why, because I still don’t know myself, but I’m on the road. I’m…saving people and hunting things again, just like you taught me. Tell Dad I love him. I miss you guys and hopefully I'll see you soon.

“What are you smiling about?” Sam asks, twisting in his seat to give her another look.

“Nothing,” she says and rests her head against the window, eyes closed, until they pull into the small parking lot next to the park.

They find Andrea sitting on a bench, watching the town’s children run amok at the playground. It’s easy to spot Lucas – he’s the only one kneeling by one of the benches near the sandpit, drawing instead of playing tag or climbing the jungle gym. He makes for a lonely sight and her heart aches, tries to imagine just how horrible it must’ve been for him to shut down so completely.

Dean drifts away and behind them, either unwilling to talk with Andrea again or because his eyes keep sliding over to Lucas rather than his mother, and Sam hesitates. Sighing, she steps up to the plate.

“Can we join you?” she asks as kindly as she can.

Andrea looks up at them skeptically, expression teetering towards annoyance. “I’m here with my son.”

“Oh,” Dean says, like this is news to him. “Mind if I say hi?”

Without waiting for an answer he walks away, making a beeline for the little boy. Andrea gives them a look. “Tell your friend the whole ‘Jerry Maguire’ thing’s not going to work.”

She feels embarrassed for Dean's utterly tasteless comments yesterday, but they didn't know and they're not here today just so he can try to impress her again. She hooks her thumbs on her pockets and opens her mouth but Sam beats her to the punch.

“I don’t think that’s what this is about,” he says, drawing attention away from Dean’s dubious intentions to Dean crouching down in front of Lucas. They’re a strange pair, a silent budding artist of a child and a man in a large leather jacket and torn jeans; they watch Dean wave around one of the little toy soldiers next to Lucas, and then pick up a crayon and a few papers to draw on.

“Is he…?” Jessica looks at Sam, at the confusion on his face as Dean hands Lucas his drawing, stands up, and heads back for them.

Andrea shakes her head. “He hasn’t said a word, not even to me. Not since Chris’s accident.”

“We heard,” Jessica says, resisting the urge to lean into Sam. “We're sorry for your loss.”

There's an awkward silence.

“So…did the doctors say anything?” Sam asks as Dean joins them.

“Just that it’s some kind of post-traumatic stress. That it’s how he copes with...what happened.” She kneads her temple, eyes downcast as she sighs heavily.

“That can’t be easy, for either of you.”

“We moved in with my dad. He helps out a lot, but…when I think about what Lucas went through, what he must’ve seen…” She shakes her head again; her hands tremble and her lips are a thin lipstick line, and Jessica wonders if she’s going to have a breakdown in front of them.

“Hey,” Dean says, dropping his voice to something low and personal. “Kids are strong. You’d be surprised at what they can deal with.”

He says it with such conviction and assurance that Jessica knows it’s not just pep talk. She stares at him and the way his eyes seem to bore into Andrea’s head. Andrea doesn’t notice, is saying, “He used to have such life. He used to be hard to keep up with, to tell you the truth. Now he just sits there, drawing pictures and playing with army men. I don’t even know where that came from. I just wish…he’d say something. Anything-”

Lucas suddenly appears at Dean’s elbow, head bowed, and a piece of paper clutched in his hand.

“Hey, sweetie. What is it?” Andrea says but before she can bend down to try and meet him at eye-level, he thrusts out the drawing to Dean. Startled, Dean looks at Jessica, Sam, and a shocked Andrea before taking it.

“Thanks, Lucas,” he says, turning to watch the kid walk back to the bench and his supply of crayons, papers, and soldiers. Lucas kneels down and picks up another crayon to draw something new.

“I…he never…” Andrea tries to say, stumbling over her shock, and eventually falls silent. She watches Lucas draw and then looks up at Dean with awe. He swallows visibly, embarrassed; for the first time since Jessica met him he seems to be completely out of his element.

“Maybe we’ll see you later,” Sam offers as parting words and Andrea slowly nods.

Dean keeps looking over his shoulder at Lucas as they head back to the Impala, but Jessica’s eyes are on Andrea. She seems torn between watching Lucas and watching Dean.

* * *

They see Andrea sooner than later, when they realize Lucas might've known that Will was going to die. Dean can’t stop staring at the drawing he pressed to the wheel as they drive to the sheriff’s house. Halfway there Sam has to shout to drag Deans attention away from the patchwork of crayons to swerve the Impala back into the lane, so now Jessica’s in possession of Lucas’s artwork. It’s folded and tucked into her pocket by the time they’re knocking on the door but it feels like a weight, like something that holds the answer to the strange deaths under layers of crayon.

“I’m sorry,” Andrea says as soon as she shuts the door behind them, “but I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

“I just need to talk to him,” Dean says. “Just for a few minutes.”

“He won’t say anything. What good’s it gonna do?”

“We think more people might get hurt,” Sam explains bluntly, because if their hunch is right then more people will die. Of course they might end up getting thrown out of the house instead, but they have to try. “We think something’s happening out there, and Lucas knows what it is.”

She shakes her head. “No. Chris, the others, they drowned. That’s it. That’s all that happened. They're awful, but they're accidents.”

Her resolve is breaking, shaken up by Will’s death, by all the deaths. She looks at them like they’re mad but there’s just a sliver of desperation, a suggestion that she’s teetering towards the impossible answer – the supernatural – and they’re the ones who can provide reason for the madness.

“If that’s what you really believe, then we’ll go. But,” and it’s there again, the steely determination in Dean’s voice, “if you think there’s even a possibility that something else could be going on here, please let me talk to him. Let me talk to your son. That's all I ask.”

She stares at him. Maybe she remembers his sudden fixation with her son when they first met, or the little chat, or maybe when Lucas handed him the drawing of Bill Carlton’s house, but Andrea wilts, nods, and tilts her head towards the staircase. They follow her upstairs and down the hall to one of the rooms, where Lucas is sitting on the floor with an army of toy soldiers, working the crayons down into waxy nubs.

Dean looks at Jessica and gestures with his hand. She pulls the folded drawing out of her pocket, hands it to him, and then watches as he slowly enters the room, making sure Lucas knows he’s there before he crouches down. Then he starts talking.

“Hey, Lucas. Remember me?” He takes a peek at a few drawings lying by the boy. “I, uh…I want to thank you for that last drawing, but the thing is…I need your help again.” He unfolds the drawing and shows it to Lucas. “How did you know about this? Did you know something bad was going to happen? You don’t have to say anything, just nod yes or no.”

Lucas pauses but does neither. Dean is the one who nods, licks his lips, and then says, “You’re scared. It’s okay; I understand. See, when I was your age I saw something real bad happen to my mom, and I was scared, too.”

Jessica feels Sam stiffen at the words and spares a glance at him. The look is back on his face, confused and a little lost. It’s a heartbreaking innocence she rarely sees and for some reason it reminds her of an infant, or a little boy clinging to his big brother’s every word.

“I didn’t feel like talking, just like you. But my mom…I know she wanted me to be brave for my brother. I think about that every day, and I do my best to do just that. And you know…maybe your dad wants you to be brave, too.”

Lucas drops the crayon in his hand and lifts his head up. Jessica doesn’t know what passes between them but he slides across the floor another drawing. Dean gives him a grateful smile.

“Thanks, Lucas.”

* * * * *

It burns in the back of his mind and the back of his throat. He swallows hard to push the bile back down and takes a deep breath to relieve the tightening in his chest. He grimaces when his lungs rattle.

“If Bill murdered Peter Sweeney and Peter’s spirit got its revenge, then case closed. The spirit should be at rest,” Sam insists.

Jessica sits in the back, arms crossed and frowning deeply. It’s been on her face since the sheriff shoved his finger in their faces and told them to scram. Every now and then she'd muttered something like, “I want to kick his ass,” until they reached the intersection and Dean turned back to Lake Manitoc.

“So what if we take off and this thing isn’t done,” Dean says. “What if we missed something? What if more people get hurt?”

“But why would you think that?”

He knows he’s going to sound stupid but he says it. “Because Lucas was really scared.”

He thinks there are bruises on his arm from where the kid grabbed him. He clung to that arm like a lifeline, and to be honest it scared Dean. The kid’s too young to get himself tangled up in this awful mess; he shouldn’t have to see his father drown and then spend all his time drawing images from Peter’s life. Dean just knows this isn’t over, that Peter won't surrender his hold on Lucas, and if his business is to save people then he’s going to save Lucas. The kid deserves a normal life and Dean’s going to give it to him.

Sam leans back against the window, staring at him. He feels the skepticism burrowing into the side of his head. “That’s what this is about?”

“I just…don’t want to leave town until I know he’s okay,” he says. Eyes on the road, he reminds himself. Don’t give Sam more blackmail material about him being a softy at heart. Dean raises his head and sees Jessica grinning at the back of their heads in the rearview mirror. How embarrassing. He just blew his image.

“Who are you, and what have you done with my brother?” Sam finally asks and Jessica bursts out laughing.

“Shut up,” Dean mutters. His ears burn. “Screw you both.”

Their only connection to Peter’s spirit is Lucas, so they head straight to the Sheriff Jake Devins’ house. Jessica leans over the front bench and says, “Is this really the smartest move? Going to the sheriff’s house at night?”

“Lucas is all we got left,” Dean says as they pull to the curb in front of the two-story building. There’s only one car in the driveway. “Plus it looks like the sheriff’s not home. Must be my lucky day.”

Sam snorts as they get out of the Impala. Knowing how big a risk it is they don’t waste time and run up the walkway to the door.

“It’s pretty late,” Sam says as Dean rings the doorbell.

Just as the first chime starts the door flings open and Lucas appears, panting heavily. His eyes are wide and wild, and while he says nothing Dean already knows what he’s trying to say.

“What's wrong-Lucas! Hey!”

Lucas darts back inside and Dean follows him up the stairs, two at a time, and down the hallway to a door. Light streams out along with water and something thrashes on the other side. Lucas starts pounding on the door, and then Sam looms into view from the corner of Dean's eye. Dean pushes Lucas to Sam and kicks down the door. He gets a glimpse of the overflowing tub and then grabs Lucas when he tries to run inside the bathroom.

“Hang on! Hey, it’s okay, it’s okay,” he says, holding him close, keeping him away from the scene. Sam nearly slips on the wet floor but regains his balance, lunges forward and reaches into the murky water for Andrea. Jessica appears at the top of the staircase, staring at the water coming towards her.

“Where’s Sam? What's going on?” she demands and Dean nods towards the bathroom.

Then Andrea’s head emerges from the water, sputtering and gasping, and Lucas opens his mouth in a scream. Air hisses out as he tries to twist away and escape to the bathroom. Dean just holds him tighter as Sam fights with Peter’s spirit for Lucas's mother; Sam wins and they collapse on the floor, Andrea choking and coughing up water while Sam just lies on the wet tiles and wheezes for air. Andrea curls into herself as she cries and Jessica suddenly appears in the bathroom, grabbing a large towel from a nearby rung and falling to her knees next to her.

“It’s okay,” she says, gently pulling her away from Sam and wrapping the towel around her. “You’re safe.”

Andrea nods once, and then leans over and sobs into Jessica’s shoulder. Then Dean lets Lucas go and he flings himself at his mother, wrapping his arms around her, shaking with relief. Sam sits up and slides back to give them space; he looks at Dean, breathless and stunned.

“C’mon,” Dean says, walking over on unsteady feet and holding out a hand. He doesn’t feel like bragging about his instincts right now and instead glances down at the muddy film on the floor. Sam grips his arm and the edge of the tub and pulls himself to his feet.

“Let’s clean up this mess.”

* * *

They spend the night with Andrea and Lucas. Lucas kept grabbing Dean’s hand whenever he walked near the front door and Andrea looked so small and terrified that no one could bear the thought of leaving them alone, even with the risk of the sheriff coming home and pulling his handgun on them. They take turns sitting up with them, making sure they're okay and that they'll live to see the morning. Right now Sam is sprawled out on the couch in the living room, snoring. Jessica’s sitting with Andrea in the kitchen, talking quietly, and Dean’s snooping around in the study, looking for something to tie this family to Peter.

He’s missing something. There’s a reason why Lucas’s father died, a reason why he can “commune” with Peter’s spirit, and it’s buried in this house somewhere. There’s more to the silence around the drowning deaths in the past thirty-five years, and Sheriff Devins might know something about it. It'll explain his silence, for one.

“Come on,” he mutters under his breath, pulling out notebooks and skimming the covers in the lamplight before shoving them back in or on another shelf. He’s found a few albums, a few notebooks, a few novels, a few magazines, but nothing useful, nothing to highlight and underline the connection.

The displacement of air and the strange tingling sensation on his left shoulder tells him he’s not alone. Dean doesn’t break pace, continuing his frantic search for answers to save the family, but he starts planning his move. There's no water here so it can't be Peter and if the sheriff came home he'd have heard it. Unless Sheriff Devins never left... Dean decides to find something and pretend to be interested in it, slow his pace long enough to quietly and quickly pull his handgun tucked under his-he’s unarmed. The gun’s back in the Impala’s glove compartment because they didn’t think they needed firearms for the late night visit. Shit.

He still grabs a notebook and flips through the pages, takes careful deep breaths as he prepares to get the jump on whoever's behind him. Can't be Peter. Can't be Sheriff Devins. Can't be Sam, Lucas, Andrea, or Jessica. So who-

His heart starts beating wildly as he realizes that it’s the burns on his shoulder that’s creating the sensation, not the prickle of fear and anticipation at being caught unawares and defenseless. He doesn’t want to know what it means, but he does and he almost drops the notebook.

It can’t be. It’ just can’t-no, no way. No freaking way.

Pages turn but they’re not from the notebook in his hands. He swallows, and then closes the notebook, thinking maybe he can punch whatever's behind him and make a quick getaway. The air is suddenly maple syrup thick and it takes everything in his power to turn around and face the presence in the study.

“You gotta be kidding me,” he says hoarsely. The notebook falls on his boots.

Castiel tilts his head as he shuts the old photo album in his hands. His eyes gleam in the lamplight and his mouth…Dean coughs and looks down at the album proffered to him. The yellowing label reads “Jake – 12 years old”. Then he sweeps his eyes over Castiel, at the slender frame shrouded in the large tan trench coat and the crooked tie he suddenly wants to straighten. He almost expects to see the shadowed wings but there’s none. It’s just a man from his dream materializing out of thin air with an old album in hand.

There are so many things he can say, and so many more things he can do, but he’s paralyzed by the sheer impossibility of something from his dream standing in front of him. He tries for something rational and ends up blurting out the first thing on his mind.

“You’re real.”

The man-the angel-no, the man pushes the album into his hands. His face doesn’t change from its stoic expression but his eyes seem to light up with an inner fire.

“I am,” and his voice is just as deep and rough as in the dream weeks ago. Dean shivers as he wraps his fingers around the album. “You need this.”

Dean opens the album, glances up at Castiel to make sure he's not hallucinating, and starts flipping through the thick pages. “I don’t…did he know Peter?”

Castiel doesn’t reply. He lifts his head and finds empty space. The man-the angel is gone, and Dean didn’t even notice.

“The fuck?”

No one's there. Shaking his head and deciding he's too tired and in need of a catnap before continuing the search, he looks down at a page dedicated to a Boy Scouts troop. He can’t see their faces, though, with his vision blurring; he shuts the album and leans against the bookcase, pressing his forehead against the hard cover. He takes a shaky breath and holds it in.

It wasn’t a dream walker or some fucked up post-sex dream. The man-the thing in his head who called itself an angel just showed up to hand over a photo album of the sheriff as a twelve-year-old boy. And then it disappeared before Dean could properly react, vanished before he could immobilize it and call Sam for help. Why? What the hell's going on? What does it want from him? Why does it even care?

Dean lowers the album and looks up but he’s still alone in the study. Nobody else knows. Maybe he’s hallucinating. Maybe he’s exhausted. Maybe he's going crazy.

“Later,” he tells himself out loud. He needs to hear the words. “Think about this later. We have work to do.”

He opens the album back to the photographs of a Boy Scouts troop and studies the faces, eyes tracing their lively, innocent youth. Then his eyes fall on one and he stares at it, trying to put a name to it. Then he shuts the album abruptly, coughing when it forces dust up into his breathing space. Waving it away, he leaves the study and heads to the kitchen, where Jessica and Andrea are sitting with a very sleepy Sam. They look up as he barrels over and elbows Sam aside to set the album down before Andrea. He has his thumb on the page with the troop and flips the book to it.

“Do you recognize the kids in these pictures?”

* * * * *

Later, things happen so insanely fast that Jessica is still breathless and on an adrenaline high when they roll into the nearest town not Lake Manitoc to tuck in for the night.

It starts when Lucas leaves the house and gives them a tour of the wilderness Lake Manitoc sits at the edge of, right until he stops at a patch of ground. He stares down at it, and then up at Dean as though he’s communicating telepathically with the older Winchester.

“Get back to the house and stay there, okay?” he tells the Barrs. Then, “Sam, get the shovels.”

They brush back the moss and layers of leaves covering the ground with their hands and feet until he returns with three and they start digging. Whoever buried something here did a shabby job, because despite the years it spend under the growing layers of decay Sam’s shovel hits it in five minutes. She crouches down and sinks fingers into the damp dark earth, pushing it away from metal piping. Then Sam joins her and they slowly pull out an old metal bicycle while Dean tosses aside the shovels.

“Peter’s bike,” Dean says, and then the sheriff appears, gun in hand.

“Listen to yourselves,” he says desperately, when Dean finally tells him and Andrea the truth about the lake, Peter’s death, and the sheriff’s hand in it. “You’re insane.”

“I don’t really give a fuck what you think of us,” Dean retorts, “but there’s an angry spirit out there that's been killing people and if we’re gonna bring it down we need to find the remains, salt them, and burn them to dust. That’s the only way all the drownings are going to end. Now tell me you buried Peter somewhere. Tell me you didn’t just let him go in the lake.”

The answer’s written on Sheriff Devins’ face. He’s terrified, not that his thirty-five year old secret’s finally been uncovered, but that what’s been drowning everyone connected to Peter’s death is Peter. Like Andrea he’s teetering on the edge between the ordinary and the supernatural, and he’s looking to his daughter, looking for answers in her horrified face.

“Dad,” she whispers. “Is any of this true?”

He presses his lips together, giving the four of them a nervous sweep with his eyes. His arms shake as he points the handgun between them. “No. Don’t listen to them. They’re liars and they’re dangerous and-”

“Something tried to drown me, in my bathtub. Chris died at that lake, and you know he could swim. All the Carltons…Will drowned in the kitchen sink. And all those people over the years…Dad, look at me,” she says desperately and Jessica wants to close her eyes and turn away from this. “Tell me you-you didn’t kill anyone. Tell me it wasn’t you.”

“What happened?” Sam asks, pitching his voice low, trying to be the sympathetic, understanding one.

The sheriff glances at them, eyes never resting on each face for more than a second, before flickering down to his left. “Peter was..." A deep breath, lips pressed tightly together. "He was the smallest kid in town. Billy and I always bullied him but this time…it got rough. We held him underwater like you-like you do with school toilets, and we…he drowned.”

Andrea sobs and covers her face with her hands. Sheriff Devins flinches and takes an involuntary step back from her. Jessica shifts closer, watching him carefully, but he doesn't look like he's going to run. He looks more and more tired as the years-old guilt spills out in his confession.

“We let the body go, buried the bike, and ran. We were just kids, you know? We were so scared. It was a mistake, an accident, we didn’t mean to. But I…I didn’t have anything to do with Chris and Billy and his kids and…" He looks up at them, despairing. "It's not because of some 'ghost'. It’s…it’s not rational. Not possible.”

Her heart sinks at the revelation and the enormity of what they're facing. Hunters always hope for the best and prepare for the worst, but they’re not prepared to deal with a vengeful lake that runs through the town's plumbing. The only way to protect this family is to make them leave town until the lake is drained, and even then they might not be safe. Someone might have to go back, find any remains of Pete, and burn them. This whole area might have to burn if Andrea and Lucas want to stay in Manitoc.

“Rational or not, we need to get you out of here,” Sam says, gesturing towards higher ground. “You have to leave town until that lake is gone and you have to do it right-”

Lucas!” Andrea screams and they whirl around to see him walking along the shore towards the dock yards away.

“Oh shit,” Jessica says and then Dean blows by her, running down the slope to Lake Manitoc. They chase after him, shouting at Lucas to get back – Jessica wants to yell at him to stop being so fucking stupid but barely holds it in because that won't help and he's just a kid – and sees a clammy gray hand reach out of the water and pull Lucas in.

Sheriff Devins stops somewhere behind them but they keep running, shedding jackets and added weight as they reach the dock. Dean dives in and then Sam.

“Oh my god!” Andrea starts taking off her jacket to jump in after them but Sam resurfaces quickly and waves at them.

“Stay there! Jess, make sure she doesn’t go in. We’ll find him!”

He dives under just as Dean resurfaces, spitting water and gasping as he looks at them. Andrea stands at the edge, paralyzed; the only reason why she hasn't tipped into the lake is because Jessica's holding onto her upper arm, keeping her from where Peter's spirit can take her and drag her down after her son and husband. Jessica stares at the surface, waiting for Sam and Dean to resurface; she knows Sam can hold his breath underwater for long periods of time, but he never had to do it while a spirit lurked underneath, holding Lucas prisoner.

Then Andrea cries out, trying to tug out of her grip, and Jessica sees Sheriff Devins wading into the water.

“Peter!” he calls out over Andrea’s pleas for him to turn back. “Please, not my grandson, not Lucas. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry for what I did to you. Just don’t take him. He’s just a little boy; it’s not his fault. Give him back, Peter. Take me instead-”

“Get out of the water!” Jessica shouts as Sam and Dean resurface. They turn their heads to see the sheriff disappear underwater, his “Just let it be over!” ringing out into the midmorning air.

Andrea collapses, bringing Jessica down with her while Sam and Dean dive back in. She doesn’t know if they’re going to try to save the sheriff, too, but the odds are against them; what Peter's spirit wants is the sheriff who killed him, not Lucas. She wonders if Andrea knows this is the last time she'll ever see her father, and then her heart thuds against her chest when only Sam returns to the surface, shaking his head.

“No,” she whispers. Not Lucas. Not after everything-

Then Dean erupts from the water, Lucas in his arms, and Andrea sobs in relief, crawls over Jessica in an attempt to reach her son. Dean paddles over to the dock and Jessica lets Andrea go. Sam hauls himself out of the lake and she stands up, pulls him into a wet hug.

“We’re good,” he says, his chest heaving from exertion. “We’re okay. Couldn’t…couldn’t find the sheriff.”

“Nobody will,” she says. “Peter took him. Next time, don’t go swimming where angry spirits might pull you under because if you do I will personally murder you-”

Sam laughs and kisses her.

At the house Lucas hands Sam and Dean towels while Andrea tries to set a kettle on the stove. She’s jittery, hands shaking as she fills the stainless steel pot, and Jessica tosses the towel in Sam’s face to join her in the kitchen.

“Here, let me,” she says, taking the pot from her and setting it on one of the burners while Andrea looks for teabags. Jessica glances at the table behind her; Andrea left her father’s jacket hanging off the back of one of the chairs, sand still stuck to it in patches. Somewhere in the living room Sam and Dean’s voices are joined by a third one, young and high-pitched. Lucas’s. He’s talking again.

“I don’t know how to thank you,” Andrea murmurs as she sets several mugs on the counter.

“And I don’t know how to tell you how sorry I am for your losses,” she replies, watching her drop a teabag in each mug. To lose her husband and father, and Lucas’s godfather and his family in the span of two weeks…Jessica shakes her head and crosses her arms tightly as she leans against the counter.

“You saved my son,” Andrea says quietly. “You saved Lucas.”

“We were…we were lucky Dean was able to get through to him,” Jessica says, thinking again on Dean’s persistence with Lucas after his “kids are the best” line.

“Yeah. I didn’t know what he saw. Thought he was trying to impress me.” She shakes her head. “I’m sorry, I never got to ask, not with all of...this. Are you…are you cousins? Siblings?”

“They are. Brothers, I mean. Sam’s the younger one, and my boyfriend,” she says.

“Well I was going to say, Dean’s story about their mother…is that what drives them to do this? To stop these ghosts and spirits from hurting other people?”

Jessica muses on her answer as the kettle starts to whistle. Most hunters don’t hunt because they want to. If it’s not passed down through the family it’s because of some sort of personal tragedy. She strongly suspects, knows that Sam and Dean didn’t grow up with the tradition, that they were a happily oblivious family until their mother died. The conversation in the car after Dean talked to Lucas is testament enough; Sam’s hesitance as he said he never knew this about Dean told her that the family business is a recent tradition and the Winchesters still suffer from the raw pain of losing her.

“Sometimes we hunt because it’s the right thing to do,” she says, accepting her cup of chamomile with a nod. “Sometimes it’s because we lost someone and we want revenge, or to make sure nobody else suffers the same way. I grew up with it – Mom and Dad were hunting before and after I was born.”

Andrea places the other mugs on a tray and carefully picks it up. “And you chose to follow it? To stop these spirits from hurting other people?”

“Yeah,” she says. “I know what’s out there. Why shouldn’t I do something about it?”

“I guess that's a good point.”

“If you’re worried about Lucas,” Jessica says, breathing in the aromatic steam, “don’t. He’s still young. He still has a chance at a normal life.”

“But he knows-I know what’s out there now. How am I supposed to sleep after today?”

“That’s why we hunt,” Jessica says. “So that you can sleep. So that he can have a normal life again. It’s what we do. Don’t feel so bad for us. Even revenge doesn’t make a hunter. We choose it.”

Some of the lines disappear from her face, and Andrea smiles a little more freely as they join Sam, Dean, and Lucas in the living room. Lucas is talking, albeit haltingly, but it brings out Andrea’s rosy glow as she listens to him chat with Sam and Dean – mostly Dean – about life at Lake Manitoc.

“She wasn’t lying when she said he used to be hard to keep up with,” Jessica murmurs to Sam as they watch him talk with both Dean and Andrea. She tilts her head, narrowing her eyes – they make an almost picture-perfect couple, even though Dean’s interest in Andrea has clearly passed…or maybe it was never there. She can’t tell with him.

“Kids,” Sam says, setting his mug down on the table to wrap an arm around her shoulder, pulling her close. “You can’t assume anything about them. Not even when you think you know everything.”

His eyes drift towards his brother as he speaks, looking at him like he’s a mystery.

“Hey,” Jessica says and he glances down at her. “Later on, tell me what happened.”

“What happened?” Sam echoed slowly.

“Your mother. Tell me what happened to your mother.”

He hesitates. She feels him stiffen and try to pull away but she follows him. The pain is locked up tight except in the thin red line of his mouth and the furrowed eyebrows as he mulls over this request. She’s not pushing him – the personal loss and pain that drives some people to hunt can remain buried under for years – but she wants to know if he’s ready to talk about it now, or in the near future. Brady tried to reenact their mother’s death using her, after all.

“I’ll tell you,” he finally says, “but not here.”

That’s good enough for her. She nods, tilts her head up, and kisses him, then laughs into his mouth when Lucas makes a disgusted noise at them.

* * * * *

They get two rooms. The entire drive to the next town over Jessica’s dangling her arm over the back of the front bench, her hand on Sam’s shoulder, and he’s wrapped his hand around her wrist, anchoring her. Dean knows by now what that means, and as soon as they pull into the parking lot of the nearest Motel 6 he lets them know.

“You have fun, kids,” he tells them when he returns with their room keys. He tosses one to Jessica. “Don’t keep the neighbors up.”

“Jerk,” Sam says, making a face at him while he pulls his and Jessica’s bags out of the trunk.

“Bitch,” Dean says, grabbing his bag. “Use protection.”

He laughs at the bird sent his way as they separate.

Dean needs a shower; he doesn’t like thinking about all the dead bodies in Lake Manitoc and how unclean he felt after hauling himself out of the lake. He imagines himself taking a very long, very hot shower to scrub it all off; at least he won’t have Sam waiting for his turn and banging on the door to stop using up all the shampoo. And there was that one time when Sam got so fed up he actually kicked down the door, catching Dean in an…embarrassing situation. Neither of them talked about it since, and they’re keeping it that way.

He also needs a night out to drive away all the memories threatening to surface after Lucas and Lake Manitoc, maybe at the bar he spotted as they drove to the motel. Maybe he’ll meet someone there to spend the night with. He should see if Sam and Jessica are interested in joining him at the bar. Or maybe he’ll just go it alone and let the youngsters have their fun.

After he scrubs his skin raw and towels himself off he sits on the bed in a tee and boxers, flipping through John’s journal and looking for more coordinates, more entries, more notes, more clues. He spends an hour adding a couple lines to the Wendigo entry and then a half-page entry about Lake Manitoc's angry spirit, then reads the articles pasted in the pages. He stares at the “I went to Missouri and found the truth” line for the billionth time since the journal was first bestowed to him at Jericho. Then Dean realizes he’s chewing on his pen and removes it from his mouth immediately.

“Right,” he mutters when he glances at the large cheap digital clock on the bedside table. “Time to go.”

It’s a brisk, cold evening and Dean welcomes the wave of warmth that washes over him when he walks into the bar. It’s a small, old establishment that glows orange and yellow thanks to the old light bulbs and the lacquered walls. The locals pay no attention to him beside the one or two who appraise him, size him up, and then turn back to their drink or conversation.

Dean heads for the bar, sliding onto one of the tall stools and waiting for the bartender to take his order.

“What can I get you?” he asks from behind the counter as he uncaps two bottles of beer.

“Whiskey on the rocks,” Dean says. He drums on the sticky surface and then looks left and right at the other people. On his left are two empty seats and three middle-aged men; to his right is an empty seat and four young people about Sam’s age, holding fruity cocktails. Beyond are two occupied pool tables, several booths, and a few old men playing darts.

He studies the pool tables, considers joining for a game or two, and then notices one of the four people giving him a look. She’s a round-faced redhead, nose bridge and cheeks dusted with freckles, and she’s not shy about her staring. Dean grins into his tumbler; he likes people who are upfront about what they want.

Someone slides into the stool next to him but he ignores the newcomer until the redhead suddenly raises an eyebrow and looks away. Frowning, he swallows some whiskey and turns to his left.

“The hell?”

Castiel gives his tumbler a studious look. He sits on the stool stiffly, elbows braced on the counter and fingers laced together. He looks grave and world-weary, shoulders slumped and mouth grim; Dean idly wonders if he knows how to smile.

“Hello, Dean Winchester,” Castiel says. His eyes are still on the whiskey so Dean pushes it towards him. “I do not require sustenance.”

“You’re still looking at it. You sure? Could do with some booze in you. Maybe loosen you up some.”

Castiel looks affronted and Dean shakes his head. “Never mind. So, what are you doing here? Are you even allowed in here?”

“Of course. Why wouldn’t I be allowed here?”

Dean spares a quick glance at the redheaded girl but she’s turned back to her three friends. He sighs, disappointment sinking heavily in his stomach. He leans on the counter, propping his head up as he watches the angel stare down the amber whiskey. Then Castiel looks up at him, eyes wide and unblinking. They shine in the warm smoky glow of the bar.

“So, uh.” Dean sits up, clearing his throat and glancing around, but nobody’s watching, lost in their little worlds, unaware of the supernatural creature sitting just a few feet away “There a reason why you guys don’t want Sam finding Dad?”

Castiel tilts his head to the side and Dean fights not to squirm. It’s a human-shaped body and a human-shaped face but the eyes, the weight of the gaze boring into his head, are definitely something else.

“Mary Campbell was a hunter,” Castiel says quietly.

He freezes. Something cold and paralyzing crawls through his body; his ears ring as they try to push out the impossible words. Denial. That’s not possible. Their mother has nothing to do with this life.

“Liar,” he says.

“Angels do not lie. What I am telling you is the truth. Your mother was a hunter. She wasn’t by the time she married your father, but-”

“You’re-”

“I am not. Believe me when I say this-Mary Campbell was a hunter and that is the reason for the nursery fire that killed her.”

This is Dean being knocked sideways and trying to right himself. This is Dean scrambling for something he’s familiar with. “So…that night…”

He frowns when Castiel draws back. “We don’t know for certain, but we are aware of how deeply involved your family is in this. That is why I am here. This is bigger than you think.”

His hand curls around the tumbler, shaking so hard the melting ice knocks into the glass and against each other. It’s there, the answer that they’ve been looking for. The answer to his long life on the road with his broken family sits next to him with an impassive face, and in this moment the world starts rearranging in his head.

“So you know what it was?” he finally says. His voice grates in his throat and comes out hollow. He refuses to look at him, deciding instead to focus on the play of light on the rim of the tumbler. “You know what killed my mom?”

Castiel is quiet. Dean looks up, half-expecting him to disappear again but he’s still sitting on the bar stool. He’s no longer so stiff; he leans against the counter on his left elbow, at ease with his surroundings.

Suddenly, incredibly human.

“Not exactly.”

“Then what good is it?” he grits out. “Why are you telling me this if you can’t even answer one simple question? Does Dad know? Have you seen him?”

“John Winchester will find the answers on his own terms,” Castiel says evenly, his eyes hardening as he sits up. “He is not who we want-”

“Want? What the hell does that mean?”

Castiel says nothing. Furious, Dean lifts the tumbler to his mouth and drains the whiskey. While cold and diluted it still burns hot but he shuts his eyes and swallows everything down. When the melting ice cubes hit his upper lip he lowers it and wipes his mouth on his sleeve. He glances up at Castiel, who remains expressionless, eyes stormy in the dimmed light.

“I apologize,” Castiel says. “I said too much.”

He slides off the stool and walks away. Dean stares after him, then fishes in his pocket and pulls out a small wad of bills. He slaps a twenty down on the counter and runs out after him.

Castiel is gone. Dean stares to his right, his left, behind him, in the spaces between the cars in the lot, under the lights and in the lamppost shadows, in the shade of trees, but Castiel has vanished into thin air. It’s only the bar on a mostly empty street, pedestrians on the sidewalk, a late-night shuttle pulling up at a bus stop, and an airplane flying far overhead.

“Son of a bitch,” he growls, whirling around to stalk back to the parking lot. He doesn’t like being left behind like that, fed a tantalizing bit of information that has him salivating for more by a source he can’t trust.

Mary was a hunter? His mother with the long blonde curls and the sweet scent of cinnamon apples and the tomato rice soup he hadn't eaten since? His mother who once threw his father out of the house, hummed songs by English rock bands, and told him angels were always watching over him? His mother hunted ghosts, demons, and monsters, too? She died because that life caught up to her, sending her family down the same road that she once walked?

And the only other thing that son of a bitch tells him is that this is what killed her. That this life he leads now is what ripped him away from the normal life he could’ve had. Bastard didn’t even tell him why his mother stopped hunting.

Castiel’s lucky he's an angel who can disappear and reappear whenever and wherever he wants, or else Dean would’ve shoved him against the wall and pummeled the answers out of him. As it is he settles for staring up at the sky – because isn’t that where Heaven’s at? – and swears him out before getting into the Impala, his night thoroughly ruined.

Son of a bitch.

Chapter Text

Jessica watches Dean roll up the sleeve of his gray tee to stare at the still-angry red hand print while Sam hogs all the hot water. She hasn’t crawled out from under the covers yet; it’s still warm from Sam’s residual body heat and she relishes it. She used to joke with her girlfriends that this was why she started dating him.

“Does it hurt?” she asks, pitching her voice carefully. She rarely sees the healing burns; in fact she only remembers they're there whenever something or someone hits his left shoulder and he grimaces.

He winces as he presses on the thumb print. “Not really. Dunno why it’s still so red.”

“What could do something like that?” she wonders, propping herself up on one arm.

Sam is belting out words to a tune behind the bathroom door, but she can’t recognize it. Then again, she couldn’t recognize most songs Sam sang back at their apartment in Palo Alto; it’s only when she saw Dean’s ridiculous collection of cassettes that she understood why Sam sang them.

Dean is slow in answering. “Don’t know,” he says quietly and pushes the sleeve down. “How long’s he been in there anyway?”

She rolls her eyes. “Eighteen minutes. Must be one of those mornings.”

Dean raises an eyebrow as he sits down on the edge of his bed. “Oh yeah?”

“It’s how he copes with his feelings,” she says lightly, and then feels the smile fade from her face as she remembers last night. “Woke me up in the middle of the night.”

“Who? Sam?”

“Both of you.” She flops down on her back and stares up at the ceiling. The color is red sandstone and it reminds her of Sedona and the wayward seit’aad. “He was sitting up, staring at you. I asked him what’s wrong and he just told me to go back to sleep.”

The hard spray of water on bathroom tiles fills in the somewhat awkward silence between them, and then Dean sighs. She turns her head to look at him and the amulet dangling from his neck. She narrows her eyes at it; it’s not an unfamiliar sight to her now that she’s been stuck with its wearer for weeks on end, but this morning of mornings its golden glint catches her eye and her interest. She wonders where it came from and what it means to him. It's such an odd horned bauble.

“Guess I’ll skip the shower today,” Dean finally says and gets up to shuffle over to the duffel bag next to the dresser.

“Ew, no, you’re both getting one. I am not sitting in the car with your stink,” she says.

“Not like you’re any better,” Dean retorts and she throws her pillow at him.

Ten minutes later Sam finally emerges from the bathroom, wearing gray sweats with a damp white towel wrapped around the back of his neck. He stares at the twisted bed sheets bridging the gap between mattresses and the pillows scattered all over the room. Dean bumps into his shoulder hard as he walks into the billowing steam and kicks the door shut.

“Uh, what the hell happened?” he asks as he goes through his bag for clothes.

“It’s called a pillow fight,” she says, sliding off the bed to run a hand along the curve of his spine. He shudders under her light touch and she grins. She flattens her hand against his back and slides it up to the sharp jut of his shoulder blade.

“Now?” Sam huffs, his movements stilling as she moves her hand to his shoulder and slides the towel off. It falls in a heap on his foot and she curls her fingertips against the exposed skin. He’s breathing hard and that makes her blood thrum. The room is suddenly several degrees hotter.

“Well if we have to hear him jerk off in there one more time…” she says, even though she can’t hear anything through the door besides the showerhead running. She leans against his side and kisses the back of his shoulder, pressing her tongue to the damp skin, and then Sam wraps an arm around her waist and hauls her to the nearest bed.

* * *
“Your, uh, half-caf, double vanilla latte is getting cold over here, Francis!”

Jessica laughs when Sam makes a face at them. He hangs up on the payphone and walks back to their table, weaving around other tables and ducking the giant umbrellas.

“Bite me,” he says, sitting down.

“Don’t ask me,” Dean says, tilting his head to her. Sam turns bright red and looks down at the coffee cup pushed towards him. She kicks his foot and Sam glances up at her.

“So, anything?”

Sam shakes his head. “Had them check FBI’s Missing Persons Data Bank. No John Doe’s fitting Dad’s description. Even had his plates run for traffic violations. He’s just…gone.”

Dean shifts uncomfortably, lips pressed together while struggling with what to say. “Look, I...don’t think Dad wants to be found.”

“Why, though?” Jessica asks. She tears off a corner of her croissant sandwich and studies the buttery bread before sticking it in her mouth. “What’s he got to hide?”

“Besides that voicemail?” Dean says. Jessica has no idea what he’s talking about so she looks between the two brothers.

“Dad left him a tape recorder,” Sam explains, prying the top off his coffee cup and taking a careful sip. He licks off the foam moustache before adding, “He left a message, said something big was going to happen and he had to check it out.”

“This was before I stole your boyfriend,” Dean says. “Look, he’ll tell us when he finds out. I don’t think he’s just being unreachable. If Dad’s going off the radar it has to be really big. Maybe he’s trying to hide.”

“From what?”

“I don’t know.” With a sigh Dean grabs Sam’s laptop and turns the screen to him. “So Jess and I were reading the local news. Check this out.”

Jessica leans forward as Sam mouths the words of the online article. “It’s a news item out of Plains Courier in Ankeny. About a hundred miles from here.”

Sam frowns. “‘The mutilated body was found near the victim’s car, parked on 9 Mile Road.’”

“Keep reading,” Dean says.

“‘Authorities are unable to provide a realistic description of the killer. The sole eyewitness, whose name has been withheld, is quoted as saying the attacker was invisible.’” Sam gives them a doubtful look. “Really?”

“Sounds interesting,” Jessica says.

“Or it could be nothing. One freaked out witness who didn’t see anything? Sounds pretty weak to me.”

“But what if there's something there, something nobody but the witness knows?” Dean says. He’s even keener on this than when he first found the article. “Dad would check it out.”

“Right,” Sam says skeptically as he shuts the laptop. “Dad would check it out. A gruesome murder and a terrified witness claiming it was something invisible that got him. This would definitely be on his radar.”

“Well I’m bored,” Jessica says, kicking Sam’s foot again. Except it’s Dean who says, “Ow,” and glares at her. She smiles unapologetically. “Sorry.”

“And I agree with your steel-toed girlfriend. Beats calling every police department in the country looking for someone who knows how to go off-grid for months.”

Sam sighs and takes another sip of his latte. “You’re both terrible, you know that?”

* * *
“You sure this is the right frat house?” Jessica asks, peering out the window. The neighborhood has a decidedly Norman Rockwell feel that makes her miss the Spanish houses and San Francisco’s Chinatown. She may have been spoiled by her two years on the West Coast.

“Yep,” Dean says, pulling to the curb in front of a two-story building. Several cars and motorcycles sit on the driveway, the lawn, and in front of the Impala; several people that Jessica can only assume are frat brothers are tinkering with them, but they all stop to stare at the new arrival.

“Don’t start,” Sam says as Dean kills the engine.

“Start what?”

“The car. Don’t start talking about the car,” and Sam climbs out. “So, Rich lived here.”

“Yep,” Dean says. Jessica steps up on the sidewalk next to Sam and leans against him as they survey the Middle American scene. “Listen, Jess, maybe you should wait here.”

“What, why?” She turns to Sam. “Because it’s a frat house?”

“They might have rules,” Sam says carefully while Dean wanders away to introduce himself to one of the frat brothers. “You know how it is. They might not talk if you’re around."

"And they'll talk to you?"

"We probably have a better chance by ourselves than with you. Just…divide and conquer. We’ll take the house; maybe you can get some answers out of these guys.”

“What makes you think they'll still talk to me?" she demands.

"Do what you normally do," Sam says. "Just don't bite their heads off."

She sighs. "Fine. You go unravel mysterious frat secrets; I’ll keep an eye on this baby in case someone decides to have a go at her using that screwdriver.”

She nods towards the one in a frat brother’s grasp as he bends over the hood of one of the cars. Sam leans in, cups her face with his large hands and presses a quick kiss to her forehead, and then turns around to go join Dean up the stairs into the frat house. Jessica crosses her arms and leans against the side of the Impala.

Despite being January, today is rather warm and sunny, the sky cerulean blue with smatterings of wispy clouds. She glances up and a pair of eyes flash through her mind, dark in the Mississippi storm but electric when lightning pierced the clouds. She shivers at the memory and tucks her hands under her arms more tightly despite the midday warmth.

“Hey.” One of the frat brothers is walking towards her. Jessica sighs but pulls together a friendly face. “Nice car.”

“Yeah, well…” She unfolds her arms and pats the side of the Impala. “She’s been in the family a while.”

“Oh yeah?” He has sandy hair and a wealth of freckles along with dark smudges of residue; he has a bit of muscle but is nowhere close to being as built as the Winchesters. Speaking of them, the frat brother glances over his shoulder at the house and turns back to her. “So they, uh, they family?”

Jessica thinks about it for a second, and then smiles. “Cousins. I’m a freshman here.”

“That so?” He sticks out his hand. “Rush Marshall.”

“Jessica Moore, nice to meet you,” she says. His hand is sweaty and with a hint of grease. “So I was-I was out of town last week. What happened with that Rich kid?”

Rush’s face falls at the mention of his name and the sympathy starts welling up in her. She crosses her arms again and leans forward, watching him as he takes a deep breath and says, “He was one of my rush buddies. We stuck to each other for three years.”

“I’m sorry,” she says. “Do you know how it happened?”

“Word is that some psycho with a knife did it. Cops are combing the area, looking for the killer. Sucks for his girlfriend; she was there when it happened.”

The sole eyewitness, whose name has been withheld, is quoted as saying the attacker was invisible.

“His girlfriend?”

“Yeah, Lori Sorenson. She’s a freshman, too; you might have seen her.”

“Don’t remember. Lots of new faces…” She shrugs, gives him an embarrassed smile.

“Oh, so you’re from out of town, too. Where?”

“Well I used to live in Ohio,” she says thoughtfully, “then Palo Alto, all the way in California. Then I came here.”

Rush whistles. “Wow, you went all the way to the Pacific and back? Why?”

She shrugs again. “I miss the Midwest.”

More like, she missed it until she’d been living in it for several weeks and now she’s bored out of her mind. Land, land, and more land, with the occasional Colorado mountains to break up the flatness of it. She should make Dean drive all the way to the Atlantic to get a whiff of the sea.

Heavy clomping down the stairs draw Rush’s attention away from her. He looks over his shoulder at the frat house where Sam and Dean are making their way down and towards her. Jessica narrows her eyes; why is there a long purple line on the side of Sam’s face?

“Oh look,” she says. “There’s my boys.” Then, loudly, “How do you like your new roommates?”

Dean grins at Sam, who looks very put-off by whatever happened in there. “Awesome. And purple.”

“Yeah, for the game today.” Rush suddenly and awkwardly clears his throat while she tries not to laugh. By the frat house’s driveway Sam freezes and Dean looks on in amusement. “So, uh, I was wondering, you wanna-”

“No thanks. I don’t do games. Not much into the school spirit thing. My high school didn’t have a football team.” She looks at Sam, already feeling his protective aura radiating towards her. Oh, jealousy. “Thanks for the offer, though. See you around?”

“Yeah, sure,” Rush says, nearly stumbling over himself as he suddenly notices and then backs away from Sam’s sudden looming presence.

She has to fight not to laugh as Sam slams the car door shut with more force than necessary. Dean glares at him. “Dude!”

“What?” Sam sits stiffly, probably while wearing the offended puppy face.

“Don’t take it out on the car.”

Jessica leans forward, resting her arms on top of the front bench between the two brothers as Dean starts the engine. He radiates his usual cool but the air around Sam runs hot. “Relax,” she says. “I was just asking him about Rich.”

“Yeah, but-”

“Told him I was a freshman helping my cousins move into their new frat house,” she states. “Don’t worry, Sammy; you’re still my favorite.” She presses a quick kiss to the side of his head. He turned, craning his neck around to catch her lips. It’s all she can do not to crawl over and into his lap, mostly because she doesn’t want to hit the driver on the head.

“Gross,” Dean says as he leans to his left. She pulls her tongue out of Sam’s mouth to give him a look.

“As long as we’re not first cousins we’re good. And what about all the people who think you’re life partners and Sam’s my gay best friend?”

“That’s something else,” he mutters. She laughs and sits back as they stop at an intersection.

“So what’s with the purple paint?”

* * * * *
Dean has no use for churches. It doesn’t matter that all kinds of monsters have weaknesses found in religious text; he walks inside one, stares at the stained glass and the large crucifixes, and thinks, You poor, misguided bastards.

They’d come in during a sermon. Dean suspected as much – all the cars filling the lot and crowding the curbs meant a whole lot of religious people were packed in the building – and someone really needed to fix the door. In the ringing silence following the slamming door Dean smiled at the reverend apologetically and followed Sam and Jessica into the back pews.

“…as a community, and as a family. The loss of a young person is particularly tragic. A life unlived is the saddest of passing…”

Sam elbows him and nods towards the front; a young woman is looking back at them. There’s nothing spectacular about her – she’s hot, but the distraught look on her face suddenly tells him that this is the person they’re looking for, and that’s quite a turnoff – but the redhead next to her is something else. He’s never seen such a deep rich color on anyone’s head before, like curtains of red velvet, and wonders if it’s not just a damn good dye job.

The redhead turns and leans over to speak with the other young woman, and she turns around to face the reverend.

“…let us pray. For peace, for guidance, and for the power to protect our children.”

The congregation bows in hushed whispers. Dean glances to his right; both Sam and Jessica are bowing their heads too, their hands clasped on their laps in prayer. He raises an eyebrow at the sight; he didn’t expect Sam’s girlfriend to be religious, or maybe she’s pretending like he sometimes does to blend in with the crowd.

He glances back up to the church altar, and meets the redhead’s eyes. She isn’t praying like her friend or the rest of the church. Her eyes bore into him and for a brief moment he’s reminded of Castiel. He suddenly has the burning need to talk to her, to get close and find out who she is and why she’s giving him a look like she knows him-

“I would advise keeping an eye on her,” Castiel suddenly says, hot air curling into his left ear, and Dean nearly falls off the bench.

“Holy-”

“Amen,” the reverend says, and the sermon is over.

People stand up, a few tearfully holding each other as others file out of the pews and down the center aisle towards the doors. The hustle and bustle is a dim roar to him as he stares at the angel sitting quietly on the wooden bench next to him. But when he blinks Castiel is no longer there.

“Dean?” Sam calls out. “C’mon, we have to find Lori.”

He slowly turns. Sam is up on his feet but Jessica…there’s a stricken look on her face, something akin to absolute shock. She’s staring at him-no, she’s staring beyond him, at the space where Castiel was, and he wonders if she saw him, too.

“Did you-” he says, jerking a thumb over his shoulder but she shakes her head and jumps up a little too quickly. She stumbles backwards into Sam, who wraps an arm around her to hold her up.

“Easy there,” he says. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. Just…nothing. Nothing’s wrong,” she says hastily, slipping out of his grasp. “Let’s go.”

People mill outside, talking about Rich and some school game involving weedy frat boys painted purple and other normal things church people do on Sunday. He scans the crowd, finding it incredibly easy to spot the redhead who’s standing with the girl he’s damn sure is Lori and someone else. They’re deep in conversation and don’t look like they’re leaving anytime soon so Dean gets Sam and Jessica’s attention, points at them, and slowly weave around people.

He doesn’t quite expect to run into a trench coat-clad body. He also doesn’t expect it to be like walking into a brick wall.

“Damn it, Cas, stop doing that!” he snaps when he gets his breath back. The angel’s eyes flicker to the people right behind him and Dean realizes two things – he just called Castiel “Cas”, and Sam and Jessica are with him. He turns around. “I can explain-”

“It’s you,” Jessica says and the words die in his mouth. He gets shoved aside as Jessica steps up to Castiel. Her hands are clenched so tightly that her arms shake, and she juts her chin out as she meets his gaze. Then she turns her head, ever so slightly, to avoid it. “Where the hell were you?”

“Wait, you know-” Sam starts forward but Dean throws his arm out, stopping him.

“Just hang on a-”

“I'm not here to fulfill whatever dreams you had since the first time we met, Jessica Moore,” Castiel says. “I only set you on the path that would lead you here.”

“Here? What does that mean?” she asks. “You-you told me to go back home because it wasn’t time yet. You said that I only had to wait one year and then I can leave. I can go west.”

“You did, didn’t you? You met Sam Winchester.”

Sam moves forward again, straining against Dean’s outstretched arm. “Who the hell are you and how do you know my name?”

“He’s a freaking angel, that’s why,” Dean grits out. “C’mon, don’t start threatening one in front of a church.”

Sam stiffens. “He’s an angel? Like, a real live angel of the Lord?” His voice teeters between confusion and excitement as if he can’t quite decide if the unassuming rumpled man in front of them really is a heavenly being of hope and light and good tidings - which he isn’t, but Sam doesn’t know that yet.

Then Sam turns to him. “Wait, you actually believe that? You don't believe in angels.”

“What? What are you - yeah. No. I don’t know. It’s…it’s hard to explain. I can’t shake him off, though. Keeps turning up randomly wherever I go-”

“You met him before? Several times? And you didn’t say anything?”

"Probably 'cause he thought he was going crazy," Jessica mutters. Then, to Castiel, “What are you doing here? Why are you here now? It’s been six years-”

“When did you meet him?” Dean asks, glancing between the two. He doesn’t like the strange curl of selfishness in his chest, like his run-ins and meetings with Castiel are for him and him only. But just because he was pulled out of the apartment fire by Castiel doesn’t mean he has a monopoly on the angel. Hell, he’s still not convinced this man, this creature, this thing standing toe to toe with Jessica really is one. No halos and harps in sight, no billowing white robes and blinding white wings, no Michael Landon, no naked babies and thank god for that, no pun intended. All they have is an exhausted man with a five o’clock shadow and a wrinkled trench coat.

“Mississippi, 1999,” Jessica says, her voice soft with reminiscence. “I was burning Joshua Harper’s remains, and he helped me.” Then her voice strengthened and she lifted her head to meet the angel eye to eye again. “Then you told me to go back home and wait before hitting the road again. Did you know what was going to happen years later? Did you set me up?”

The angel tips his head down, lips pressed into a line. Dean thinks it really brings out the pink in them, and then blinks and shakes his head. Where the hell did that come from? Instead he focuses on Jessica’s words; there’s something wrong about them and he thinks about asking her for the full details of what happened between the night in Mississippi during the ass-end of the boy bands decade and here in Ankeny, Iowa.

“This isn't the time,” Castiel says, unemotional and unapologetic compared to her anger. “I'm here to tell you that you should keep an eye on Lori Sorenson’s friend. She may be helpful to your hunt.”

“Wait, hang on,” Sam says, shouldering Dean aside. Unfortunately he hits the hand print squarely and Dean jerks away, resisting grabbing at his shoulder while white-hot pain shoots through his nerves. He glares at Sam but notices the angel looking at him with a frown like he knows something about it. Dean can't tell, though, because Castiel's about as readable as a book written in Russian.

Sam isn't done talking, is slowly and precisely spelling out his thoughts like Castiel is a child and not an angel. "You're an angel. A real angel of the Lord."

“Yes. You're very insistent on reaffirming this fact. For a man of faith you seem to have a difficult time believing-”

“No, I believe. I really do, you have no idea. It’s-it’s a shock, an honor, but, um… you're saying something did kill Rich. Something not human. And you're here, telling us this so can’t you help us? You know, give us more than that? You know what killed him, don't you?”

Castiel frowns as he tilts his head. He looks like a blue-eyed owl. “What you’ve been told about angels is false. We are warriors of God. We don't perch on anyone’s shoulders, or guide them when they want it. Read the Bible.”

“But you're telling us-”

“My orders are to tell you to keep an eye on the woman with Lori. Something else is brewing in this town and we believe it is connected to her.”

Dean looks at the redhead, who’s still talking with the girl they now know is Lori. The other one, the confident black girl with a smile so much like Cassie, is gone. Shame; she looks like the promise of a fun night. Then he swings his attention back to Castiel.

He’s done, reluctantly, what the angel asked for with regards to Sam and John, although truth be told he has his own motives for keeping Sam close by. While their father can make himself invisible he can’t be invisible and Dean’s traveled cross-country with him long enough to eventually pick up his trail somewhere, anywhere. But with Sam being as bullheaded as him Dean needs more than a simple “keep Sam from meeting John, it’s not time”, and since when did he start taking orders from anybody else?

Suddenly Dean feels like an idiot. He steps up to Jessica’s side and looks down at the angel. “You wanna tell us what else is going on here, or are you not allowed to talk about that, either?”

“I am told only what I need to know. Take care, Dean.”

Jessica starts forward as Castiel turns away, and then a large family cuts her off. Dean can’t see him but Sam's on his toes, adding inches to his considerable height while scanning the crowd.

“He was just there,” Sam says as the family disappears, probably into one of several soccer mom vans parked next to the sidewalk. “He was-he was just there-”

“You get used to it. Eventually,” Dean says, shoving his hands in his pockets. He’s not just baffled by Heaven’s interest in him; are they trying to use him, sending this angel with orders for him to carry out? Who do they think they are, his father?

Shaking his head he turns away and spots the reverend - Lori’s father, most likely - talking with a member of the congregation. “He does that a lot,” he says dismissively and starts moving towards the clergyman.

“So you know him,” Jessica says and he stops. Her voice is a touch green with envy. “You've been meeting him.”

“Once or twice,” Dean says carefully, with a quick glance at the reverend, Lori, and the redhead.

“Why didn’t you say anything?”

“I…” They don’t know when this officially not-human killer is going to strike again, and now’s definitely not the time for Twenty Questions. “What is this, the Spanish Inquisition?”

Jessica snorts.

“No,” Sam says, rolling his eyes, and Dean feels relieved. Then he gets a finger in his face. “But we are definitely talking about this later.”

“Yeah, whatever; look, there she is, let’s go talk to her,” Dean mutters, shoving Sam towards Lori and her friend.

* * *
He loves campus libraries, but nobody knows that. He does his research because it’s part of his job and as far as everyone can tell he has no great love for it. But campus libraries are nothing like the public ones he stops by when he’s stumped and doesn’t have access to a computer somewhere else; their databases are impossibly huge and detailed, not to mention that they’re connected to other huge databases. So he may not be as tech savvy like Sam and Jessica, but at least he still knows how to demand answers from the search engine.

Coming in here with two former college students is a different story. Dean was waiting at the Impala, having finished talking with Reverend Sorenson about campus church groups and his “doubts” about God and forgiveness at least twenty-two minutes ago; he glares at the pair when they finally appear.

“What took you so long?”

“Had a lot to talk about,” Jessica says, shoving a folded paper in his hand. “Library.”

He glances at Sam, who shrugs and shakes his head.

Sam and Jessica are all over the research as soon as the sterile air conditioning keeping the library just above freezing hits them. They commandeer a table near the periodicals and pick apart notes written in a loopy hand.

“She heard scratching on the roof,” Jessica says, jabbing at a line with a pencil she borrowed from the front desk. “Saw him hanging upside down over the car.”

That gets the cogs in his brain churning. Invisible killer, an easily missed line in the police report about gouges in the road signs besides the punctured tires and a deep jagged line carved along the side of said car, a body suspended upside down - he looks up at Sam, glee building up and up in his chest. “That sounds like-”

“The Hook Man Legend,” Sam finishes for him. There’s that look on his face like he wishes he hadn’t brought it up, but it’s too late. Dean grins.

“It's only one of the most famous urban legends ever,” he says. Everyone’s heard about it, in some way, shape, or form. Back in the days of black and white TV it was a scare tactic used to keep teenagers from staying out too late fooling around at Lovers' Lane with their dates. It did a pretty good job until the teenagers got older and newer, scarier things came along, like the Internet.

Jessica looks at them skeptically. “You don’t think we’re dealing with the Hook Man, do you?”

“Well, every urban legend has a source,” Sam says, pulling the list towards with him with a finger. “Maybe this is it.”

“So this has to be some kind of spirit,” Dean begins.

“Possibly.” Sam takes the pencil from Jessica and jots a few notes in a corner. “Anyone remember what else the legend says about the actual Hook Man?”

“Some of them say he was escaped convict or some kind of psychopath,” Dean says, plundering his memories for this legend. He read - he did read, despite what most people assume about him- stacks of scary stories and urban legends both for the hunt and for school whenever he went to one, and had a certain fondness for them that went beyond practical matters. “The hook is central to the legend; no hook, no Hook Man.”

“So we look at the arrest records,” Jessica says, half-rising to scan the library. “How far back should we go?”

They find out ten minutes later when a librarian sets a large box on the table and says, “Here you go. Arrest records going back to 1851.”

Dean blows at the layer of gray dust collected on the lid and coughs when it gets into his nose. Sam rolls his eyes and tells her, “Thanks.”

She gives all three of them a scrutinizing look and leaves. Jessica immediately moves over to Sam and Dean's side of the table, elbowing Dean aside to unpack the box.

“So this is how you guys spent three years of your life, huh?”

“Welcome to higher education; it might save your life,” Jessica says, pushing a third of the stack towards him. Sam’s already reading through his pile.

Typesets start blurring into walls of black lines set against yellowed and increasingly fragile pages. Dean almost falls asleep on top of the stack but catches himself just in time. Sam and Jessica are going through them with the same intensity as when they first started, which was… forty-five minutes ago. Really?

Dean gives one of the records a cursory glance – January 17, 1952; armed robbery; Jonathan Jones; no hooks were involved in the theft of nearly two thousand dollars in cash – and tosses it on the “not the mother of the Hook Man Legend” pile. He stretches, leaning back in his chair, arms behind his back, and spots deep velvety red. He twists around in his chair.

Sam says her name is Anna and that she’s a close friend of Lori’s. Dean thinks about it, and then about Castiel’s suggestion that they keep a close eye on her. He watches her wander down one of the aisles, a hand skimming along the book spines, and he’s suddenly overwhelmed with the need to talk to her.

“Be right back,” he says, getting up and pushing off against Sam’s shoulder. His brother merely grunts.

She’s gone when he ducks into the aisle. Frowning he walks until the towering bookcase ends and looks both ways. He catches the wispy end of red hair three aisles over and nearly runs into someone in his haste to catch up to her.

“Watch it!”

Dean waves an apology and twists into the aisle, nearly running into her. “Holy-”

She’s expecting him. Her arms are crossed and she’s giving him a scrutinizing look, her wide gray eyes sweeping over him from head to toe. Dean freezes, held by the steady, unblinking gaze, unable to stop it from peeling away the layers and exposing him.

Then she blinks and whatever hold she has on him breaks. With a shuddering breath he takes a step back, putting a respectable distance between them. She’s still giving him an unreadable look, like she’s unimpressed yet fascinated by him. It’s not an unfamiliar feeling, he realizes as he rubs back of his heated neck and tries to explain himself.

“Look, uh, I’m not… stalking you or anything-”

“Oh!” she says. “You’re the sword!”

Dean stares at her, and then stares some more. He’s hoping that’s not what she actually said. “What?”

After a very long moment she suddenly seems to come to her senses; she rubs her face with her hand, then kneads her temples with long fingers. “I’m sorry, I mean…” Her head tilts up. “You’re Dean Winchester.”

Without the breathlessness her voice is soft and grave. Through the haze of confusion Dean thinks that she fits the image of the devout churchgoer perfectly, although with red hair richer than he’d seen on any stripper - he’s derailing himself and probably looking stupid, too, standing there and gaping at her. He pushes an easy smile onto his face and is rewarded with a faint tinge of red on her cheeks.

It’s a confidence booster and he recollects himself. “Yeah, well, news travels fast among frat houses… and sororities.”

She gives him a distasteful frown and he feels incredibly small. “I didn’t hear it from anyone. Your brother introduced you to us. Even if he hadn’t I’d know you anywhere.”

That’s the last thing he expects to hear. It’s not the worst pickup line he’s ever heard, and this Anna is pretty to the point of gorgeous - Lori’s hot but sorry, Murph, have you seen her friend? - but those are the words he doesn’t expect coming out of a church girl’s shiny lips.

“Listen, sweetheart, I’d love to but-”

“You misunderstand me,” she says, but she’s smiling. “The voices talk about you.”

Then she frowns and says, “That’s too early.”

It doesn’t matter; Dean takes two more steps back because seriously, what the hell? She must be one of those people, the ones who scream their prayers to God until they’re convulsing on the hardwood floor and babbling in so-called tongues, people who are convinced that some Old Man In The Sky talks to them on a regular basis. Then again Dean’s being stalked by a man-sized creature calling itself an angel of the Lord.

Where’s his emergency flask of holy water?

She hasn’t stopped talking. Her voice is airy and her eyes adrift, lost in thought. Her head’s cocked to the side as if she’s listening to something. “Everything’s happening too early. Events aren’t going as planned, but it shouldn’t matter. The end result is what counts-”

Christo,” Dean blurts out and she stops. Her eyes are still gray. So she’s not a demon but she hears voices, or thinks she hears voices. He doesn’t know which is worse.

“You just said ‘by Christ’,” she says. “Why?”

“Uh…habit?”

She accepts the answer. “So how may I help you, Dean? Are you also going to ask me about the night Rich died?”

He scratches the back of his head. He’s actually not sure; Castiel said to keep an eye on her for some reason – which is the only reason he gets before the angel disappears to do fuck all – and while Dean would brush it off the angel did help him with Lucas. Despite his better - more suspicious - judgment he leans toward taking Castiel's advice about Anna being connected to something else happening in this otherwise sleepy college town.

Just in case.

Damn angels. If they’re anything like Castiel they’re the most unhelpful creatures in existence. Perch on shoulders my ass.

“No, actually,” he says, looking over his shoulder down the rows of books but he can’t see Sam and Jessica from here. “They have everything they need. Uh. I mean-”

“I know what you do,” Anna offers. “I heard them talk about you when you walked into the church. I saw you.”

“I noticed.”

He's pretty sure that if this were any other girl he’d be sliding into his more amorous self, all slow smiles and half-lidded eyes and suggestive poses. I’m interested, are you? But Anna is… different, and Dean is already kicking himself for thinking that because he doesn’t. And it’s really not how she looks, although he wouldn’t mind looking at her the rest of the day and maybe the entire night.

Maybe it’s the gravity in her eyes, or the oddly placed weary smile on her face. Maybe it’s the way she looks at him, a wide open stare as if she has nothing to hide. Yet while she seems to see straight into him, bypassing his mildly flustered bravado, he can’t read her. Even with her displays of emotion she’s a blank slate, the best poker face he’s ever seen since-

Since Castiel.

Weird.

He clears his throat but has a feeling she can see his pulse quicken anyway. “So, uh, Anna, right?”

“Anna Milton,” she says. “They talked about me, didn’t they?”

“If you’re worried they didn’t say anything bad about you,” he says. “So, how’d you meet Lori?”

“We’re childhood friends,” Anna says. “Grew up together at the church. Both our fathers were clergymen.”

Her voice and eyes go flat at the last sentence, and Dean frowns. He senses an undercurrent of something rather unpleasant from her. “Moved out of town while we were in high school. Came back afterwards.”

“Home sweet home, then,” Dean says. He thinks of a two-story house in Kansas, the blur of motel rooms, and the sun-kissed leather seats in the Impala.

“You could say that,” she says. She starts swaying on her feet like she’s being pulled away. Her head’s tilted again, listening for something.

Dean tries to think up a reason to keep in touch with her. “You live on campus, right?”

“In this case, yes,” she says.

“You living near Lori?”

* * * * *
“So that’s the plan,” Jessica says. “I babysit Lori while you two go catch yourselves the Hook Man.”

“You’re the only one who can get into the building without raising the alarm,” Sam explains again while Dean checks the rock salt pellets. “Come on, Jess. If the Hook Man goes for her while we’re sitting duck you’re the only one close enough to protect her.”

She sighs. She's been itching for a fight since before they picked this case up and here's an opportunity to put her skills to good use. Unfortunately Sam's right; she's the only one who can get inside the dorms without raising suspicions among the freshmen girls, including Lori.

“Fine. This blows, by the way. Next hunt I’m in and Dean can babysit whoever we’re saving next.”

“No I’m not,” he snaps. Then, “You should take a bag. Never know when you need a shotgun.”

“Because I was going to shoot the Hook Man with a Glock,” she says, pushing herself away from the side of the Impala to join him and Sam at the trunk of the car. Sam’s checking one of the rifles while Dean drops a handful of shots in a duffel bag. She spots an iron crowbar and snakes her hand in to pull it out.

“Don’t forget this,” she says and drops it in the bag.

Anna’s waiting for them when they pull up in front of the dorms. She's standing stock-still, her head cocked at an angle. Back at the library Jessica saw her just as Dean said he’d be right back; forty minutes later he’d returned to say she can hear voices but he wouldn’t elaborate. Watching her now, as Dean parks the car, Jessica wonders if it’s true and whose voices she’s hearing. And then Jessica almost laughs because her life is such that when people claim to hear voices she assumes they’re actual voices and not figments of their minds.

“What’s so funny?” Sam asks when she ends up silently giggling at the inane thought.

“Nothing, nothing,” she says, shaking her head. Then she slides forward in her seat to give him a quick kiss and Dean a stern look. “Don’t get in trouble now, and bring my boyfriend back safe and sound.”

“Yes ma’am,” Dean says mockingly and leans over to rub Sam’s head, tangling his hair. Sam returns the favor by punching his shoulder and saying, “Jerk.”

“Bitch. Fix your hair.”

She leaves them to their bickering and waves to Anna while hefting the duffel bag. The rifle, the crowbar, and the small mountain of bullets Sam ended up adding to Dean’s small handful are heavier than she thought and she ends up switching the straps to her left hand. Behind her the Impala comes to life with a roar and pulls out of the lot.

“Do you need help with that?” Anna asks, looking at the bag.

“I’m fine.” Anna – and the girls at the dorm – will have no idea what kind of firepower’s now under their roof for the rest of the night, and Jessica feels safer keeping the shotgun glued to her hip and the Glock tucked in her belt. “Lead the way. Which floor are you on?”

“Second. Lori’s on the third. She’s not here right now; she’s having dinner with her father.”

Jessica wonders when Anna’s voice drops to a flat monotone at the end of her sentence. She seems resentful of the reverend and Jessica’s sorely tempted to ask if there’s something wrong. It may not be her business, however, so she simply bookmarks this little fact and pushes it to the back of her mind.

“You have any roommates?” she asks as Anna unlocks the door.

“Yes, but they’re not here.”

“They don’t mind me spending the night?”

For the first time Anna’s odd and eerie calm cracks; her disapproval is loud and clear as she says, “They’re out. Again.”

Jessica huffs a laugh as they start up the stairs. A few people from the common room on the first floor and the rooms near the stairwell peek out to stare at her as she follows Anna up. “So you’re not the partying type.”

“I take school seriously,” Anna says firmly but there’s a little quirk in the corner of her mouth. It’s the most emotion Jessica’s seen on her face. “What about you?”

“Tried it,” she says, following Anna down the hall and past a few posters of half-naked men to a plain closed door. “I liked it.”

“Did you graduate?”

“No.”

Anna unlocks the door and elbows it open for her. “What happened?”

"Things happened," Jessica chooses to say, because even if Anna knows what they do - that's what Dean said anyway when he rejoined her and Sam to explain tonight's plan - she doesn't think "Someone tried to kill me and we're hunting him" is going to sell, even if she takes out the supernatural angle.

Either Anna knows or she has the good sense not to pry because she doesn't ask more questions. While she sits down on what’s presumably her bed Jessica carries the duffel bag over to the one near the closet and drops it at the foot of the mattress. The sheets are carelessly done and the desk next to it cluttered with miscellany.

“Hey.” A girl pops her head into the room. She’s the other one Lori was talking to after the service. “Lori home yet? I promised her a night out.”

Anna shakes her head no. “She’s still home.”

The girl sighs. “See, this is why you don’t go to college in your hometown. If you see her tell her I’ll be waiting.”

Anna nods and she ducks back out. Jessica raises an eyebrow at her and Anna says, “That’s Taylor. She’s Lori’s roommate. Always tries to get her to-”

“Party?” Jessica suggests as she opens the bag and pulls out a tee and sweatpants. She makes sure to keep the shotgun buried underneath tomorrow’s change of clothing. “She looks the type.”

The redhead shrugs and stares down at her hands. She rubs her thumb over the palm of her other hand as though she’s trying to smear off a stain. “Lori likes her…but she parties too much. It doesn’t bother me but Lori disapproves.”

Jessica can’t help laughing. “What was she expecting when she moved in here?” she asks, flopping down on the bed and staring up at the ceiling. The bed is incredibly soft and the sheets silken; it’s infinitely better than the countless motel mattresses that left her mornings sore. Now that she thinks about it, she’s better off than the boys. They’re stuck patrolling 9 Mile Road to knock off Jacob Karns while she gets a roof over her head and a comfortable bed to sleep in.

Maybe she should babysit people more often.

She stifles a yawn and listens to Anna shuffling around the room. Someone down the hall is playing classical music – Bach, maybe, or the reliable Beethoven. Somewhere outside people are hollering and whooping, and that reminds her that a game was taking place tonight, or had just ended. Maybe Eastern Iowa won.

She stretches, blinks when the stucco on the ceiling starts to blur, and it’s Mississippi rain again, thick droplets sliding down her face and blurring her vision as she digs blindingly in the mud.

“You sure the body’s right here?” Sam asks doubtfully.

“That’s what Anna said,” she says and spits water out of her mouth.

She’s sinking. The mud is too soft and she’s too heavy; Jessica tries to step out of the sludge but her legs are held fast. She stabs the ground with the shovel and pushes against it but the shovelhead starts sinking, too.

“Fuck,” she gasps as she strains to lift a foot out of the graveyard dirt. “Sam, a little help here!”

No answer. She scrubs rainwater out of her eyes and looks around; he’s not there. In fact there’s nothing in a five-foot radius; it’s raining so hard everything blurs and runs like too much water in a watercolor painting. The trees and dark hills and lonely crypts all bleed into a thick gray that swallows up her cries for help as she sinks deeper.

“Sam! Where are you?”

The mud rises to her thighs, or rather she sinks that much further down. She leans, fingers scrabbling at the short turf but can’t get a hold on solid ground. Frenzied panic sets in like a cornered dog and she stretches even further, straining against the infuriating limitations of her body.

“Somebody help me!” she screams when it reaches her waist.

An iron hand wraps around her upper arm and hauls her out.

“You worry too much, Jessica Moore,” Castiel says, dropping her on solid ground, and somebody screams. Jessica sits straight up, heart pounding, and reaches for the duffel next to her. Footsteps thump upstairs as she shoves rock salt shells into the shotgun and then Anna says, “You’re armed.”

Jessica drops it as if the metal burned her and turns to her; she’d forgotten there was someone else in this room. She quickly backs away from the bag. “I can explain-”

More screams overhead bring her up short and Anna kicks the covers back on her bed. “It doesn’t matter because it’s too late. We have to go to Lori right now.”

“Wait, what do you mean it’s too late-”

Anna’s already out the door. Jessica grabs her hunting knife and goes out after her, tucking it in behind the belt and smoothing down the wrinkles of her shirt as she hurries up the stairs. Halfway to the third floor she runs into a flood of terrified freshman girls, tears streaming down their faces as they alternate between shrieks and “Someone call 911!”

Anna cuts through the small crowd to the door at the end of the hall like a knife through water and Jessica elects to shadow her instead of forcing her own path through; she keeps a hand on the hilt of her knife as she reaches the door and looks inside.

The rooms on the top floor get great sunlight; gold streams in through the curtains and reflect off a large pool of congealing blood underneath Taylor’s bed. Lori has backed up against the headboard of hers, blankets pulled up to her chin as she stares at her roommate’s vacant eyes. Anna’s stepped towards Lori and Jessica nudges her forward, then turns around and says, “Everybody needs to leave the building now.”

“Who the hell are you?” one of the girls pipes up while Anna climbs into bed with Lori and hugs her, tucking her head into her shoulder to keep her from seeing Taylor's body.

“I’m an undercover cop, who are you?” Jessica snaps. “I’ll give you proof of ID after you clear the premises. Anna, get her out of here now.”

“Do you know what the writing on the wall means?” someone else asks as Anna carefully guides Lori off the bed towards the door.

“I will after you all leave,” Jessica says, blockading the doorway with hands on her hips and a wide stance. She levels the remaining girls with her best cold stare. “Move.”

Once there’s no one standing around or wandering about inside the dorm Jessica closes the door and takes a deep breath; the room smells of ozone, evidence of a powerful spirit. She looks down at the hideous gashes on Taylor’s body and shuts her eyes; the girl was just alive several hours ago. How could she fall asleep when she’s supposed to be watching Lori? How could have anyone slept through Taylor’s death?

Her eyes trace the silencing slash across Taylor’s exposed neck, and then she raises her head to read the bloody scratches on the wall.

Aren’t you glad you didn’t turn on the lights?

* * *
“We missed something,” Sam says vehemently, stabbing at the keys on his laptop. His other hand holds up one of several photocopies they had made of Jacob Karns’ case, this one a detailed drawing of the infamous hook. He’s circled the medallion hanging from it, an engraving of a large cross surrounded by four smaller crosses; it’s the same symbols underneath the carved words on the wall.

“Tell me something I don’t know,” Jessica says, covering her face with the motel pillow. It smells of bleach and an artificial “fresh” scent, not the lived-in musky smell of the bed she fell asleep on while Lori’s roommate died upstairs.

“It’s not your fault,” he says. “Putting you near Lori was more a guess; we didn’t think the Hook Man would actually go after her again. We're missing something, but I don't know what.”

The bathroom door opens and Dean leans out, hair sticking up in damp bunches. “I’ll take a wild guess – our little friend Lori. First her boyfriend, then her roommate. Why?”

Jessica pulls the pillow off her face and sits up. “We’ll tell you when we find out. Put some clothes on.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he says, winks at her, and shuts the door.

Someone knocks on the front door. Jessica looks at Sam, who turns over the photocopies on the table and closes his laptop, and then slides off the bed to answer it. Out of the corner of her eye Sam is leaning over to grab something out of the duffel back in the other chair. There’s no sound coming out of the bathroom.

A quick glance into the peephole is enough. “It’s Anna,” she says and Sam relaxes. Dean’s moving about in the bathroom again. “How’d she find us?”

“Dunno. Dean gave her his number but she hadn’t called back,” Sam says as she unlocks the deadbolt.

“I thought you’d be here,” Anna says by way of greeting as Jessica steps aside to let her in.

“How…?”

“A wild guess. And the frat boys wouldn’t stop talking about your car. Also this is the cheapest motel that’s also closest to the highway. With that many firearms I don’t think you’d want to be caught sleeping in the middle of town.”

Sam looks at Jessica; she scowls back. “I loaded the shotgun after Lori screamed.”

“It was too late by then,” Anna says, sitting down on the nearest bed. “What you’re looking for only strikes at night, like it’s done many times before.”

“And how do you know that?” Sam asks, opening the laptop. Jessica leans against the table, arms crossed as she watches Anna tilt her head.

“I just know,” Anna says quietly, shrugging.

The bathroom door swings open and Dean steps out. “Who are you?”

Anna stares at him, and after a long moment Jessica looks over her shoulder as well. She tries not to roll her eyes; at least he’s got his pants on.

“I don’t know,” Anna says slowly. Then, as an afterthought, “What you mean.”

Dean tosses his dirty laundry next to the bag near the bathroom door and bends over to root around for a new shirt. “You know what I mean.”

Jessica turns back to Anna when she doesn't answer. She’s still staring at Dean but now her cheeks are painted red. She’s also wringing her hands again, either from embarrassment or nervousness; she averts her eyes when Dean stands up with a shirt in hand. “I don’t. I really don’t.”

“Dean,” Sam says warningly as his hands still on the keyboard.

“I’m serious. You know next to nothing about us yet you know almost exactly what we’re looking for. You never ask us why we’re so nosy - I bet you know we’re not even students.”

You’re not. Also you’re in a motel, not a dorm or an apartment,” Anna says flatly.

“Yeah, well… do you know what we do?”

“You hunt things,” she says. “I saw her shotgun, and you were arrested at 9 Mile Road where Rich died. I don’t know how a gun can kill a ghost, but that’s what you do. Am I wrong?”

She looks at each of them carefully, gray eyes boring into Jessica’s head like she’s seeing into her before moving onto Sam and then settling on Dean. “They said I can help you, but I don’t know how. I just…know these things.”

“Help us?” Sam asks while Dean pulls his shirt on. “What does that mean? Who?”

“The voices. They’ve gotten louder since you walked into church.”

“What voices?”

She shrugs again. “I don’t know. I don’t have the answer to everything – I don’t even know why I have answers in the first place. I just came here because Lori’s in danger and you’re the only ones who know what to do.”

“Lori’s in-”

“Her boyfriend died, her roommate died, what if she’s next?” Anna asks, her voice wavering as she looks up at them. “Nobody wants to talk to her, or have anything to do with her. They think she’s cursed. I just… want her to be okay. She’s my best friend; she deserves better than this.”

She looks so small, perched on the edge of the bed with her shoulder and knees drawn together, her heart-shaped face framed with tousled red hair. You look so human, the voice in the back of Jessica’s head murmurs, because before only muted emotions highlighted Anna's face; now she looks ready to cry, although she doesn’t and just trembles as she rubs her arms.

“Anna?” Jessica says quietly, pushing off the table and slowly approaching her. She wants to reach out and touch her, draw her back to the motel room with the double queen beds and people loaded with firearms. Instead Jessica kneels down and looks up, meeting Anna’s frightened gaze. Jessica weighs the words in her mind, deciding the direction this conversation should go. Behind her Sam and Dean are silent and still, waiting. “What do you want to do?”

“Whatever you’re doing,” Anna says, hands curling into fists on her lap. She raises her head to look at the others. “Whatever you’re doing, I want in. I don’t care if guns are involved, or I have to lie to the cops to cover you. I don’t know what Rich or Taylor did, but they didn’t deserve to die. If it’s after Lori, and everybody else close to her, then I want to help.”

All she can hear is Anna’s stressed breaths and the whirl of the fans in Sam’s laptop. Dean clears his throat, says, “The last thing we want is to get you hurt-”

“I can take care of myself,” Anna retorts and suddenly rises to her feet. Jessica quickly scrambles away as she sticks her chin out at Dean. “And I’m not asking much – just tell me what to do and I’ll do it. Whatever you need, I’ll find it.”

“Yeah?” Sam asks. “Well we’re trying to find out what it is about Lori that the Hook Man’s drawn to. Think you can help us with that?”

“Hook Man? I haven't heard about that in years. The urban legend?”

“Yeah.” Dean goes over to the table and picks up the photocopies. He holds them out to her, adding, “Every urban legend has a source and we found it. Preacher named Jacob Karns, 1862; went on a killing spree and killed thirteen prostitutes. Murder weapon was a silver hook for a hand he lost in an accident.”

She looks through the pages, lips pursed and eyebrows bunched. “The medallion on the hook-”

“Yeah,” Jessica says. “Same symbols on the wall. It’s probably his signature. So, what do you think?”

“Karns committed murder because he wanted to warn against the sins of the flesh,” she says softly while still studying the detailed drawling of the hook. “He was judge, jury, and executioner when it was not his place to decide. Men always preach about immorality, but who’s to say theirs is the true definition?”

A beat. Dean says, “If you want to talk theology, there’s a day for that-”

“No, wait, I think she’s onto something,” Sam says, turning to the laptop. “What’s Reverend Sorenson like? What does he talk about on Sundays?”

The almost stony frown on Anna’s face softens at the mention of a familiar name. “The Bible.” She frowns when Dean snorts. “The word of God. The world. Good and evil. Sin and virtue. Well, he does like to rail against sin more than praise virtue. Some Sundays he just repeats what the Christian Right preaches.”

“So he likes to preach against immorality.”

“Yes.”

Sam nods and starts typing rapidly. Jessica looks at Anna, who seems a little puzzled by the questions, then walks around the table to Sam’s side to lean over his shoulder. “What’s going on in that head of yours?”

“The reason why the Hook Man’s latched onto Lori. Look.” He points at the results, then clicks one of the links. “1932, a clergyman was arrested for murder. 1967, a seminarian was held for attacking…hippies.”

“Hippies, huh?” Dean says. “So is there a pattern or are these just a bunch of random murders?”

“Both cases the suspect was a man of religion who openly preached against immorality.” Sam looks at Anna, who nods in silent agreement. “Yet neither man confessed to the killings. Each of them said they didn’t do it. Someone else did... with a sharp instrument.”

Dean still looks lost, so Jessica steps in. “A man of religion. Who openly preaches against immorality. Like Reverend Sorenson. Except maybe he’s not saving the town, just his daughter.”

The light bulb switches on in Dean's head. “So somehow either he’s summoning the Hook Man or Karns’ spirit latched onto him. Whatever he’s not saying – the boyfriend, Lori’s roommate - what was Taylor like, anyway?”

“She parties hard,” Anna supplies. “Lori always talked about it.”

“My kind of girl,” Dean says with a dreamy smile. Sam elbows him. “Ow.”

“Place and time, man,” Sam says. “So we salt and burn the bones, and that’s it.”

“You’re going grave digging?” Anna asks doubtfully.

“Yep,” Dean says, heading over to his duffel bag and searching through it. “You wanna join?”

“No thank you,” Anna says. “What happens if the Hook Man goes after Lori while you’re looking for him?”

“Sam can babysit her,” Jessica says, patting him on the shoulder. “I need a workout.”

“I’ll go with you,” Anna says quickly to Sam. “In case she’s wondering why you’re stalking her. And I’d like to talk with her. I haven’t seen her since Mr. Sorenson took her home.”

“Okay, so we got that figured out,” Dean says. “Sam, wanna tell me where he’s buried?”

“Uh…oh, you’re gonna love it. ‘After execution, Jacob Karns was laid to rest in Old North Cemetery, in an unmarked grave.;”

Jessica rolls her eyes. “Of course.”

* * * * *
It’s a cold night and Anna keeps rubbing her arms; her green jacket’s meant for breezy sunny days, not the pitch-black sky overhead. Sam drops his bag on the sidewalk and turns to her. “You want my jacket?”

“No thank you,” she says, keeping her arms tightly crossed. She then looks up at the house in front of them. “They’re arguing again.”

Her forlorn tone makes Sam turn around, following her line of sight up to the second-story window. Father and daughter are shouting at each other, their words distorted by the glass window and the distance. Anna sighs, shakes her head, and slowly sinks down onto the small brick wall lining the lawn.

“They used to never argue,” she says by way of explanation. “I was so jealous…but now they do it all the time. Sometimes she tells me she was stupid to decide to go to college so close to home. She wants the familiarity without her father’s shadow, but he’s one of the most important people in town. It was never going to happen.”

Her words strike a nerve. Sam knows that feeling all too well; he went to Stanford to get away from his father’s iron rule, purposefully chose to stay put in one place while John and Dean traveled along the network of highways crisscrossing the country.

“I know what that’s like,” he says quietly, then frowns at something Anna said earlier. “Why were you so jealous?”

“My father’s not my father,” she says simply, factually. Sam stares at her. “I wasn’t adopted, and he’s both my biological father and the one who raised me. But ever since I was little I just…felt this disconnect. He never felt like my father. Mom told me I used to scream at night about it. Said over and over again ‘You’re not my father.’ It was awful, but I couldn’t help it. I was so young and stupid..." She tilts her head back to look at the sky. "I wanted to apologize but I could never bring it up. It's too late now; he died two years ago in a car accident.”

“I’m… sorry,” Sam says awkwardly. This isn’t his favorite topic; if he can he avoids talking about his father altogether, even with Jessica. The sour memories of their last night under the same roof, the argument that grew steadily louder and louder until the windowpanes rattled, the final words that had Sam grabbing his things and storming out into the night, curl in his stomach and he suddenly feels nauseous.

“It must be hard,” Anna says, leaning over and placing her hand on top of his where it rests on the cold brick wall. He look up at her; she's so earnest, so understanding, so… knowing. It’s unnerving, and he swallows hard against a too-dry throat.

“I don’t-”

“You don’t have to,” she says and withdraws her hand just as the front door of the Sorenson home opens.

“Anna?” Lori steps out and shuts the door behind her. “I saw you from upstairs. What are you doing here? Who’s with - Sam?”

She crosses the lawn and hops down the ledge next to Anna, who promptly envelopes her in a hug. Lori gives him a quick and curious look before burying her face in the crook of her friend’s neck. Then she steps back and waits for Anna to explain.

“We’re keeping an eye on the place,” Anna admits. “After what happened…we’re worried. I’m worried.”

“Yeah,” Sam says when Lori looks at him again. “Sorry.”

Lori suddenly relaxes and the confusion on her face falls apart as a real smile replaces it. “No, it’s cool. I… thank you. You’re both so sweet. But…” She bows her head and tugs at the belt loop of her jeans. “You shouldn’t be here. You should run away from me as fast as you can.”

“Lori,” Anna says softly, placing a hand on her shoulder. “Why would you say that?”

Her eyes glisten as she quietly, shakily says, “It’s like I’m cursed or something. Everyone around me, the people I care about, they’re dying. What if you’re next? I don’t know what I’ll do.”

She sits down heavily on the wall. “You’re the only ones who talk to me now. The sheriff thinks I’m a suspect. Me, a suspect! Do I look like I can - I can hang Rich upside down from a tree? I mean... and you know what Dad says? Pray. Have faith that everything'll be all right." Lori laughs bitterly. “What does he know about faith?”

Anna says nothing. She rocks back and forth on her feet as she stands in front of Lori, eyes downcast and arms folded tightly again to ward off the cold. Sam nudges at the bag at his feet. He’s heard this before, although it wasn’t about religion.

“What happened?” Anna asks softly.

Lori laughs again. “He’s seeing a woman. A married woman.”

Anna gasps.

“I just found out. She comes to the church with her husband. I know - we know her kids. And he talks to me about faith? About religion? Morality? He told me that if you do something wrong you'll be punished. What did I do wrong? I didn't do anything to lose Rich and Taylor. But Dad's seeing someone behind her husband's back, and isn't that wrong? And he tells me to have faith? Who does he think he is, Anna? I don't - I don't know what to think, what to do....” She leans forward, arms reaching, and Anna catches her, wrapping her in another, tighter hug.

Sam feels like a voyeur watching Anna rub Lori’s back and murmur comforting words while she shakes with sobs and clings to Anna’s jacket like a lifeline. He inches away from them, giving them space, and instead stares down the dark street lit with yellowed streetlamps.

The door behind them opens and he looks over his shoulder; the reverend stands under the porch light, tired and distressed. “Lori? Come inside, please.”

He’s pleading and it sounds painfully pathetic to his ear. Sam looks at Lori, who pulls away from Anna and snaps back, “I’ll come in when I’m ready-”

A tall silhouette with a wide-brimmed hat suddenly materializes behind the reverend and a silver hook buries into his shoulder. Reverend Sorenson yells as the Hook Man jerks him back inside.

“Dad!” Lori scrambles over the wall and onto the grass, sprints for the shut door. Sam glances up at Anna as he unzips the duffel and grabs the shotgun; she exchanges a horrified look with him before running after Lori. He follows them to what's apparently a locked door and Lori's screaming that she doesn't have the key.

“Stand back,” Sam orders and kicks it open.

“You have a gun?” Lori says. Anna says something but he misses it over the reverend’s terrified cries upstairs. He runs up the steps, two at a time, and spots the Hook Man giving him a look from the room down the hall. Sam bolts for it as the door slowly swings shut, shoulders it aside and barges in to find Reverend Sorenson on the floor. His shoulder's bleeding and his shirt's stained with deep crimson gashes on his chest; the Hook Man's looming over him, the silver hook raised for the killing blow.

The Hook Man’s too close to the reverend and Sam hesitates, his mind frantically weighing the pros and cons of risking further injury to the man by shooting the spirit now instead of coaxing it away from its intended victim.

Anna suddenly bursts into the room and throws something at the Hook Man. A fine white spray hits the specter and it explodes into rapidly dissolving black smoke. Sam lowers the shotgun and turns to her as Lori rushes in past them to her father’s side.

“Salt,” Anna says, holding up a bag of it. “I’ll call 9-1-1. You’d better hide the gun.”

She leaves the room and Sam turns back to Lori, who cradles her father's head and whispers brokenly, “It’s okay, Dad. It’s okay, it’s okay…”

* * * * *
“Aw crap,” Dean says, stopping short; Jessica almost runs into his back. “It’s that sheriff again.”

She looks up, and then around him. “Friendly terms?”

“He caught us camping at 9 Mile Road,” Dean says. He looks at the two cops guarding the hall where the reverend is being kept, and then gestures at Sam and Anna to come over to them. “I’m not talking about this while he’s around.”

Jessica nods absentmindedly, keener on getting the dirt out from under her fingernails than on Dean’s hesitance at meeting the sheriff face to face again. When she looks up Sam and Anna are a few feet away and rapidly closing the gap.

“What the hell happened?” Dean asks as they all turn and walk down to an intersecting hall that leads to the lobby.

“Hook Man,” Sam says and she stops walking.

“You’re kidding.” She looks at Anna, who nods in agreement. “We toasted him. How’d he-”

“You sure it was him?” Dean interrupts.

“It looked like him,” Sam says, glancing between the two. Jessica sags her painfully sore shoulders; she’d like nothing more than a hot shower and the exit out of this town, but the job’s still not done. Her hopes that this would be a simple salt n’ burn die in the damp earth holding the preacher’s charred coffin.

“I think the Hook Man’s connected to Lori,” Anna says quietly. She looks ashen under the stark white hospital lights. “She just found out her father’s having an affair with a married woman at the church.”

“So?” Dean asks and Sam gives him a look. “What?”

“So she’s upset about it,” Sam says, gesturing as they start walking again. “She’s upset about the immorality of it. She’s raised to believe if you do something wrong you get punished.”

“Like every other religious person on the planet,” Dean says. “Okay, so she’s conflicted. If the preacher’s spirit is latching onto her it’s feeding off of her emotions, doing the punishing for her.” He turns to them as they stop in front of the elevator. "What about the others?"

“Rich came on too strong,” Jessica says while jabbing the button to go down, recalling the initial conversation outside the church. “Taylor tried to turn her into a party girl. Dad was having an affair. She disapproved of them and this is what happened.”

Their elevator arrives with an automated chime and the silver door opens; they pile in and Sam hits the button for the first floor.

“Remind me not to piss her off,” Dean says. “But we burned those bones. We didn’t forget the salt either, so why didn’t that stop him?”

“You must've missed something,” Sam suggests.

“We burned everything,” Jessica says. “What else was there?”

“When you burn the body,” Anna says, “does it have to be everything? Can someone’s spirit come back if you save something that belongs to them?”

“If it’s not part of the body it has to be something very close to them,” Jessica says. She’s dealt with spirits that drew on from something that's not a biological part of them before, like a pair of broken glasses a girl’s mother kept as a memento. She felt awful when she burned them on the kitchen stove, but Mrs. Velasquez had albums of her daughter to remember her by. It was one of her most difficult hunts pre-Stanford and this was a little detail she couldn't forget.

“Then did you burn the hook?”

* * *
“How could we be so stupid?” Jessica asks as they huddle around the yellowed papers the librarian supplied them.

“We didn’t know,” Dean says as he hands Anna another paper. Sam is quietly working through his own pile. “At least Sam and Anna were there to save the reverend.”

“That’s comforting,” Anna says blandly. “But the Hook Man’s still here.”

“Do you know what else angers Lori?” Jessica asks. She thinks the Hook Man is the Hulk to Lori’s Bruce Banner, but refrains from publicizing her observations; Jessica knows when to be appropriate. Stay classy.

“Not like this,” Anna says. “Think about the reasons for her anger with Mr. Sorenson, Taylor, and Rich. She saw them as immoral according to her and that’s why the Hook Man strikes. If she finds something else just as immoral she hasn’t told me yet. She’s probably under too much stress right now to think about it, even.”

“Found something,” Sam suddenly says and pushes a paper towards the space between Dean and Anna. “Log book, Iowa State Penitentiary.”

“Karns, Jacob,” Dean reads. “Personal effects: disposition thereof. Upon execution, all earthly items shall be remanded to the prisoner’s house of worship, St. Barnabas Church.”

“That’s our church,” Anna says. “She lives down the street from it. Every reverend of St. Barnabas Church lived there.”

“So that’s the connection to all those other murders,” Dean muses.

“But if the hook was at the church or Lori’s house, someone must’ve seen it.”

“Check the church records.”

“I think I saw them somewhere,” Jessica says, turning back to her stack of papers. “Didn’t know which church it was so I - here, St. Barnabas.” She tugs out the sheet and pushes it to her right.

“St. Barnabas donations, 1862,” Anna reads. “Received, silver-handled hook from state penitentiary.” She pauses. “Reforged.”

“Son of a bitch,” Dean mutters. “They melted it down.”

Sam presses a hand to his forehead and then rubs the bridge of his nose. He looks exhausted, and if all he’s done is fend off the Hook Man, then Jessica and Dean must look like absolute shit. At least that explains the raised eyebrow the librarian gave her when she and Anna went to the front desk to request help.

“You know what that means.”

* * *
The night is still and silent, the only sound being the Impala’s purr as it coasts down the street and turns into the church’s parking lot. Jessica glances at Anna, who sits primly at the edge of the seat; she doesn’t seem at all bothered by what they plan to do with the church’s property. Strange, because didn't Anna grow up with the church? Why didn't she put up a more vehement protest when Sam said they had to melt all of the church's silver? Though, truth be told, it’s refreshing when someone connected to the hunt takes everything into stride and doesn’t even flinch when faced with the truth about the things hiding in the dark.

That still doesn’t explain the voices that Anna claims to hear every now and then, or her uncanny knowledge about things she shouldn’t know.

Jessica wonders what Castiel meant when he said they had to keep an eye on her. His evasiveness does nothing to assuage the melancholy that still resides in her. She just got over flinching and turning to every patch of tan fabric she sees like a raven with shiny things, and now he's back, stalking Dean.

Dean parks and kills the engine and they all climb out. He pops the trunk and hands them all bags. “We can’t take any chances. Anything remotely silver goes in the fire.”

“Lori’s still at the hospital, so we’ll have to break in-”

“I have a key to her house,” Anna says and they all turn to her. “She asked me to pick up a few things for her. I forgot to give it back, though. Here.” She pulls a key ring out of her pocket and holds it up.

“All right,” Dean says. “Take your pick. Church or house?”

“I’ll take the house,” Sam says. “Jess?”

“I’m coming with you.” She holds out her hand and Anna drops the key into her palm. “You two have fun. Don’t get up to things while we’re gone; God is watching.”

Dean glares at her. “Fine. Stay out of her underwear drawer.”

Sam sighs as they split up.

They walk into the church less than fifteen minutes later, bags weighed down with silverware and a few crosses. They find Dean and Anna downstairs, feeding metal to the roaring furnace. Jessica stops halfway down the steps and Sam pauses behind her. Anna looks up at her and, shrugging, says, “It’s an old church, and it gets cold some mornings.”

Dean straightens up; there’s a candleholder in his hand. “You got everything?”

“Everything that looks silver,” Jessica says, making her way down to the floor and dropping her bag. Sam unzips his duffel, pulls out two crosses, and hands them over to Dean, who thrusts them into the fire. Anna doesn’t even flinch, although her eyes widen as they go into the flames.

Jessica grabs the last of the silverware from her bag when the floorboards above them creak, raining dust and debris on their heads. Everyone freezes and then Dean slowly pulls his handgun out from behind him. He looks at Jessica and then the forks and knives in her hand. With a nod, she feeds them to the furnace, grabs her Glock from the duffel, and quietly follows Sam and Dean up the stairs. Anna lingers by the furnace and when she makes to follow Jessica signals to her to stay.

They hear sniffling behind the wooden doors; Dean lowers his handgun and carefully elbows the door open. Lori's sitting at one of the pews, her head bowed and her shoulders shaking. Jessica taps on Sam’s shoulder and then slides past him into the main aisle; the door shuts behind her as she walks down to Lori.

She turns around. “What are you doing here?”

She shakes her head as she slides into the bench next to her. “It doesn’t matter. What is it?”

Her eyes are red but the tears are only gathering; none have escaped. She rubs at her nose and, though wary, explains. “I’ve been trying to understand what’s happening to me. Now I know so I’m praying for forgiveness.”

Jessica frowns. As far as she can tell from talking with both her and Anna, Lori's done nothing wrong to ask it. “Forgiveness for what?”

Lori turns to face her fully and a tear trickles down her face. “Don’t you see? I’m to blame for all this. I’ve read in the Bible about avenging angels-”

Jessica almost snorts at the disturbingly eager explanation. She doesn’t know about avenging angels but she’s on a first name basis with an angel and he’s not quite the avenging type. She reaches over and rests a hand on Lori’s shoulder, squeezes it. “Trust me. This guy, he’s no angel.”

“I was so angry at Dad. Part of me wanted to punish him, and then the angel came and punished him. I almost lost him because I wanted him punished. How could I think such a thing? How could I want it? So, now I know. They didn’t deserve to be punished. I do.”

Jessica goes cold. She thinks about her analogy – Jacob Karns, the Hulk; Lori Sorenson, Bruce Banner – and the moral rage directing the preacher’s spirit, fueling his. If Lori now thinks she’s the one who should be punished-

A sudden wind stirs in the building and the candles at the altar blow out. Lori freezes up next to her and Jessica knows why – there are no open windows or doors, no way for a draft that strong to get in like that. Jessica leans back, feeling the Glock press into her tailbone, but it'll do her no good; they're not loaded with iron bullets and her shotgun's back in the Impala. She quickly stands up and pulls on Lori’s arm. “Come on. We have to leave.”

The safest place is the basement, where the boys do have said shotgun and rock salt pellets to load it with. She hurries to the door and flings it open to find the preacher standing on the other side, with a wide-brimmed hat and a raised silver hook.

Lori screams.

Jessica shoves her back, and slams the door shut as the hook comes down. It gouges the wood and sends splinters flying before it disappears.

“This way!” Jessica says, pushing Lori down the main aisle and towards one of the doors on either side of the altar. They barrel through the one on the left and she kicks it shut; the glass window on it shatters. The Hook Man materializes in front of her, swinging its right arm, and Jessica ducks. She twists around it into the back room where Lori’s backed herself into the corner, sobbing. Jessica launches herself away when the Hook Man suddenly appears in front of her; its hook misses her head by a few inches. Jessica looks around the room but there’s no salt or iron here that can hold off the spirit. Movement in the corner of her eye alerts her and she ducks again. Then something digs into her shoulder, a piercing white-hot burn, and she screams as she’s hauled into the air and slammed into the bookcase.

“Jess!” Sam hollers down the hall. “Oh my god-”

Lori shrieks. Jessica crawls out from underneath the case and its books, and her hand falls on something cold – an iron sculpture. She grips it tightly as she pushes herself onto her feet. Jessica tries to think over the pain in her shoulder and back as she staggers towards the Hook Man, the sculpture – of an angel, Jessica notes humorlessly – in hand and ready to go airborne.

“Drop!” Dean orders and she does. The shotgun goes off and the Hook Man disappears.

When she pushes herself up on her knees Sam is next to her, his face grim as he takes the sculpture out of her hand. “Can you stand?”

“I was just standing,” she mutters. She looks over to where Dean is crouched down by Lori, who’s shaking so hard she seems to be convulsing. Sam grips her arm and she looks up at him.

“Damn it, I thought we got all the silver,” Sam says as Jessica grabs his upper arm and pushes herself up onto her feet. She leans on his shoulder, waiting for her knees to give out; they don't and now Sam's standing up, wrapping an arm around her waist to help her stay upright.

“So did I,” Dean mutters.

“Well obviously you missed something,” Jessica says. “We cleaned out the house; is there anywhere in the church you didn’t look?”

“Anna knows it better than me,” Dean retorts. “We even checked-”

“What does Anna have to do with this?” Lori asks, bewildered. “What does she have to do with anything?”

“She’s trying to help,” Sam says. “She’s downstairs-”

“Get her out!” Lori interrupts, almost hysterically. “Not her, too!”

“She didn’t do anything-”

Something glistens in the yellow light and it’s hanging around Lori’s neck and Jessica blurts out, “Where’d you get that?”

The others stop talking. Lori looks confused so Jessica leans forward as far as Sam’s arm will let her, pointing a shaking finger at the silver chain and the little ornament dangling from it. “Where’d you get that necklace?”

Lori’s hand flies up to it. “This? Dad gave it to me.”

Dean catches on. “Where’d he get it?”

“It’s-it’s a church heirloom. He gave it to me when I started college. Why?”

“Is it silver?” Sam asks.

“Yes! Why?”

Dean leans in and rips it off her neck. She yelps and tries to grab it back but freezes when some unseen thing gouges into drywall and wood down the hall. It’s almost as bad as fingernails on the blackboard and Jessica flinches away, gritting her teeth against the sound.

“What was that?” Lori asks. "Was that-"

“He’s coming. Sam?”

“I’m not leaving Jess,” he says. “Or Lori. Give me the gun.”

Dean tosses the rifle and several rounds, and then runs for the basement while Sam starts loading the gun. Lori is increasingly terrified as the gouging draws nearer. She looks up at Jessica and Sam. “What do we do?”

“Hope Dean gets to the furnace in time,” Sam says. “I’m gonna let you go, Jess.”

“Hurry up so you can load the damn gun,” Jessica says. He does, the warmth sliding away from her, and she abruptly sits down on the hardwood floor. The iron angel is nearby where Sam dropped it while catching the shotgun, and she grabs it, wincing when the movement pulls the wound in her shoulder. She glances at it; the bleeding’s slowed down but it's still a mess.

There’s a commotion down the hall, maybe somewhere in the main hall. Dean shouts something but she can’t hear it, and then she can’t think about it as the Hook Man looms before them. Sam swings the rifle up in time for the preacher’s spirit to knock it away.

“Shit,” Sam says before he goes flying with it, back colliding with the wall. He collapses next to the rifle and groans. Jessica crawls toward Lori, who’s backed herself into the corner again. Terrified eyes look up at the Hook Man, streaming tears as she starts begging for her life.

“Preacher!”

Anna appears at the far end of the hall, hair flying as though she’d come in with a headwind. She levels a stern gaze at the spirit; Jessica’s stunned when the Hook Man actually turns away from its intended victim.

“Anna!” Lori screams. “What are you doing? Run!”

“I'm putting him to rest. You and your immorality are no more, Preacher Jacob Karns. You are not the judge of human souls; leave before God sees fit to punish you.”

In the time it takes to blink the spirit moves from the back room to right in front of Anna, the hook raised high. Lori screams again.

“Well,” Anna says, taking a step back, “I tried.”

The silver hook, raised high above the Hook Man’s head, suddenly melts and the spirit catches fire. In seconds it’s gone like tissue set alight, a burst of golden purifying flame that implodes and disappears.

* * * * *
“We’re finding an easier job next time,” Dean declares as he lies spread-eagle on top of the motel sheets. The answers he gets are a snort and a muttered, “Hell yes.”

The sheriff will not be pleased to know they haven’t left town yet. Dean meant to, he really did, he wanted to put this place far behind him, but as they left Lori and Anna at the ambulance Jessica demanded they go back to the motel so she can crawl into bed and sleep. Which she did as soon as they walked through the door.

When Dean eventually came to someone had put him to bed, or rather dumped him on it. Sam was at the table, typing on his laptop with a bored expression. The shower was running and a few minutes later Jessica stuck her head out, asking Sam for help with the wound on her shoulder. Dean tried to make a crude joke but his tongue felt thick and clumsy and he couldn’t muster the strength to even open his jaw.

The next time he woke up it was night.

“Seriously, though,” he says as he sits up. His entire body aches even though the most he’s done is dig a grave and he did that with Jessica’s help. Damn it, he’s only twenty-six; he should not feel old. “Just a salt and burn, or a werewolf. Silver bullet to the heart, job well done. What do you think?”

He glances over at the other bed; the only part of Jessica that’s visible is her long blonde hair. Sam hasn’t moved from his seat at the table although he’s just tapping on the touchpad now.

“Think I’d really like some food right now,” Sam says, looking up. “You wanna go out or order from here?”

“Do they have any burgers?” Dean asks as he slides off the bed and shuffles over to his bag; a shower’s in order, then food and more sleep before they hit the road and put this place behind them.

“I want a grilled cheese sandwich,” Jessica says, poking her head out. “And fries and - oh my god!”

He feels the presence behind him, burning hot like a portable heater or maybe embers in a fire pit, and Dean turns around, a hand clutching a pair of socks. He immediately stands ramrod straight, leaning away from the face shoved into his.

“Whoa, hey, personal space,” he stammers as Castiel’s eyes bore into him. Distantly he thinks Anna’s gray ones have a similar effect, but that gets buried under by the distraction that is the near lack of space between them. Dean tries to take a step back but his foot lands on his bag and the wall’s right behind it.

After an agonizingly long moment where he tries to slide to the side but can’t make himself move even a centimeter Castiel seems to become aware of his surroundings and takes a very small step back. “Apologies.”

Dean exhales very slowly.

“What are you doing here?” Jessica asks, sitting up and pushing the covers back.

The angel gives her a curt nod, ignores Sam entirely, and focuses his attention on Dean again. It’s too much, too much intensity focused on a single point, and Dean doesn’t think physically pushing him back another step will help.

“I’ve come because of Anna Milton,” Castiel says, and suddenly there’s tension and pressure everywhere, a silence that rings in his ear. Then he realizes his heart’s quickening, the adrenaline flooding his system again. “She’s in danger.”

“What?” Sam blurts out. Castiel only flicks his eyes to his right as if that’s the only acknowledgement Sam gets. “But we just - we destroyed the Hook Man. How can he still be-”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Castiel says and steps back into Dean’s space, looking up and somehow looking down at him at the same time. “Demons are coming for her. You need to save her.”

“Demons?” he chokes out. “What - demons? Not just one?”

“We believe there is a… nest of them in the area. They want Anna and they can't have her.”

“Why?” Sam asks, and Castiel finally turns to him. Dean slumps against the wall, dropping the socks and crossing his arms over his chest tightly as he stares at the back of the angel’s head. “I mean, there only been about one demon sighting a year. A nest? How many’s a nest? That’s unheard of.”

“We understand, but this is an unusual situation that must be dealt with immediately. I told you," and he turns back to Dean, “that something else was going on in this town. Anna hears voices and that makes her dangerous to everyone around her.”

“Voices? Dean said she was hearing… whose voices?” Jessica asks.

“Our voices.”

“The voices are talking about you.”

Sam shakily says, “She can hear the angels talk?”

“Yes. The demons know this and that is why they’re coming for her. They can’t have her.”

Something is missing. Castiel isn’t saying something. “Cas, why can she hear your voices? Who is she?”

“I… don’t know,” he replies with great hesitance, eyes downcast, and Dean knows he’s lying. Son of a bitch. “I was not told the details.” Then he raises his head and Dean’s back hits the wall. “But you have to go to her. Now. Tonight. Take her and leave this town. We’ll take care of the rest.”

“Oh god,” Jessica groans. “We just finished a hunt-”

“Do not take the Lord’s name in vain,” Castiel says automatically. He leans in even closer, like he’s trying to drill the weight of this situation into Dean’s head. “Lives will be lost if you do not extract her from her location now. We have orders to obliterate this town if you fail.”

Everything seems to stop moving or breathing at Castiel's last words. Dean knows that's the reaction the angel wants, that's why he even bothered to say it, and it angers him. Who's he to tell them what to do and use that as leverage? Behind Castiel Sam stands up, ready to argue.

“You’re serious,” Dean says, words coming out in little huffs. “If we don’t get Anna out of here you’re wiping this town off the map? You’ve got to be kidding me!”

“I’m not.” Eyes harden as Castiel straightens his back and takes a half step forward, and suddenly the angel seems bigger than life. Dean can’t stop the flashback to the dream and the enormous shadow-cast wings. The lights in the motel room flicker as Castiel says, “Orders are orders. I understand this is coming at a bad time, but we don’t have a choice.”

Dean can’t be imagining things but Castiel seems to lean even closer until all Dean feels is heat down his front. He can’t move without touching the angel, and he doesn’t think he can, not with the unerring stare locking on him, holding him in place. He swallows hard and closes his eyes tightly to escape it, but all he feels is the angel’s burning presence and pressure everywhere.

“Good luck,” Castiel says just as he opens his eyes. The angel’s gone with a stir of wind and a rustling sound like feathers brushing against each other. Dean blinks at the empty space and it takes Sam calling his name to realize how hard he’s breathing, as if he’d just run a marathon.

“Hey! Dean! Snap out of it!” Sam says loudly. He's shutting his laptop down and Jessica's grabbing her things to shove into her bag. “Come on. If that angel’s telling the truth we have to move.”

“Right,” Dean says. “Demons. Yeah. Let’s go.”

* * *
Dean knows next to nothing about handling demons. John’s journal says little about them; he notes that there are traps that can hold one in while it’s in a body, that salt can provide a protective barrier against one like it does against ghosts, and that demons are also incapable of crossing over iron. There are no known methods of actually killing demons, though, only how to send them back to Hell. The two ways of detecting a demon are to say “Christo” or to put it in contact with holy water; the Greek word reveals its true nature via its black eyes while consecrated water burns it.

There is no such thing as dealing with a large number of demons. Demonic possession is rare; Dean only hears of one or two cases a year and they’re all isolated. To think that they can and will come together to work towards a common goal is intimidating at the very least.

“What floor’s Anna’s room again?” Dean asks as the Impala careens down the road towards the sorority houses. Sam and Jessica are in the back consecrating gallons of water they took from the motel bathroom, squirt bottles at their feet.

“Second.”

“You think rock salt rounds will stop them?” Sam asks skeptically.

Dean has no idea, but, “It’ll hurt like a bitch.”

So Anna can tune in on angel radio and hear the angels talk to one another. No wonder the demons want her, but why do they care what the angels are saying? Why do they need to hear Heavenly chat? What else isn't Castiel telling them?

The three-story building they pull up by is dimly lit; most of the lights are off except one or two windows on the second and third floor. As soon as Dean parks the Impala Sam and Jessica jump out with holy water and shotguns, and head straight for the door. Dean follows them with a shotgun tucked under his arm and shoves salt-packed shotgun shells in his jacket pocket.

“Hello?” Sam calls out as he raps the door. “Anyone home?”

The silence that greets them is unnerving. Dean can’t stop thinking about Castiel’s warning – “We have orders to obliterate this town if you fail.” – so he says, “If they don’t answer, kick it down.”

“There’s a few lights on in the second floor; maybe they can’t hear you,” Jessica suggests and Sam renews his efforts, hitting the door with his fist and repeating himself even more loudly.

“Hold your horses!” someone hollers from inside and they step back as someone fiddles with the locks. Then the door opens and a girl peeks out. “Hi. Can I help - hey, I remember you. You said you were a cop.”

She’s directing this at Jessica, who drops the shotgun by her side and out of sight. Dean frowns in confusion and feels Sam shift uncomfortably.

“Uh, well, yes,” Jessica says with false cheer. “Hi. We were just… double-checking, making sure everything’s all right.”

The sorority girl smiles. “Right. Yeah. Lori. She’s not here right now, after what happened at the church-”

“Actually, we’re looking for Anna,” Dean says. They’re wasting time; they have no idea when the demons are going to storm this building and they need to get inside and get Anna out.

Her expression changes. “Anna? Why?”

“It's confidential,” Sam says. “Is she here? We need to speak with her.”

“Well, she’s been in her room all day. I can get her if you want or do you-”

Her eyes suddenly widen and she screams before being yanked inside. The door slams shut and the lock loudly clicks into place

“Shit!”

Through the door they hear something crash and the scream suddenly cuts off. More doors start slamming inside, followed by muffled screaming.

“Get back,” Sam orders, and then kicks down the door.

The girl they were just talking to is lying on the floor at a horrific angle, blood spreading outwards from underneath. The first floor is completely dark but Dean can feel something watching them from down the halls. He hefts the shotgun, muzzle pointed at the darkness as they slide over to the stairs. Dim light on the upper stories are all they have to go by; Dean thinks about the heavy duty flashlights sitting in the trunk of the Impala.

“This is fucking creepy,” he mutters.

“Tell me about it,” Jessica asks. “Oh my god.”

Two bodies lie on the landing, unseeing eyes wide with shock. The neck of one is slashed open but the puddle underneath the other body’s small; there’s a blood trail leading up to the second floor.

“Don’t think the girl who answered the door saw this,” Sam says as they sidestep the bodies. “This is bad.”

“No shit.”

Doors on the second floor are all shut except for the one on the end; Jessica gasps and runs for it.

“That Anna’s room?” Dean asks.

“I think so - Jess!”

One of the doors opens and a young blonde woman steps out. Jessica looks over her shoulder and is suddenly thrown into the wall. The squirt bottle rolls down the hall and her shotgun slides away as she quickly sits up and shouts, “Christo!

Sam shoots the girl in the back and she turns around, eyes pitch-black. He fires again and the demon falls to the floor. Jessica steps on its chest, squirt bottle in hand, and squeezes holy water on its face. Skin sizzles as the demon howls.

Exorcizamus te, omnis immundus spiritus, omnis satanica potestas,” Jessica says slowly; the demon howls and grabs her ankle but she sprays its hands until it lets go. “Omnis incursion infernalis adversarii…

“She got this,” Sam says and kicks open another door. Three students huddle behind a makeshift barrier of desks and chairs; they scream when Sam swings the shotgun around, scanning the room. “Christo. Okay. All of you, get out of here now. Run.”

They tearfully nod and stumble over each other in their haste.

“And watch out for the bodies!” Dean shouts as they scream at the stairs, and opens another one. He doesn’t get a chance; suddenly his back hits the rail, forcing the air out of his lungs, and he falls on top of his shotgun.

“Goddamn son of a bitch,” he mutters as he pushes himself back up. Two demons stare at him disdainfully from the doorway, and then one of them makes a quick gesture; something drags him back towards the stairway. He grapples at the shotgun and fires but only hits the door. One of the demons flinch but it’s not the one moving his body. “Sam!”

His free hand grabs one of the posts at the same time the two demons start screaming and a sizzling sound fills the air.

…te rogamus, audi nos!” Jessica says and the demon under her foot howls, back arching up into the air as black smoke streams out of the woman’s mouth. Jessica quickly kneels down to check her pulse and says, “She’ll live. I’ll find Anna; if she’s not here she’s upstairs.”

“Go, go, go!” Dean shouts as he gets back on his feet. He aims the shotgun at the two demons. “Any more of you uglies on this floor?”

One of them smiles wide, flashing teeth. “You should be concerned with the third floor.”

Sam jerks back, makes an aborted move to turn and run after Jessica, and then fires when one of the demons takes a step forward. “Don’t move.”

“And you’re going to stop us how?” the other demon asks snappishly. Suddenly both demons’ heads jerk back, mouths open as thick smoke rushes out of their mouths. The two bodies collapse on the floor and Dean crouches down, hand checking their pulses. He looks up at Sam.

“They’re alive. Upstairs-”

“Guys! A little help here!” Jessica shouts. She's immediately followed by a sizzling sound and an agonized cry.

The third floor is filled with demons. The rooms are empty and all of its occupants are crowding around Lori’s door. Dean freezes as four demons turn around, and then raises the shotgun and fires. They jerk back as the rock salt hits them but quickly recover and start towards him. Then Sam nearly shoulders him into the wall as he leaps up the stairs and squirts them with holy water.

“How are we supposed to fight them all off?” Dean says.

“Mass exorcism?” Sam suggests, and abruptly flies backwards into the wall. Dean shoots the amassed demons until he's firing blanks and shoves a hand into his pocket to find more rounds. On the other side of the crowd he hears more gunfire and Jessica saying, “That’s holy water. They’re vulnerable to it.”

More sizzling and screams fill in the air.

“We just need to get her out of town, right?” Sam gasps as he gets back on his feet. “Get her out and far away.”

“Yeah,” Dean says firmly and then swings the shotgun at the nearest demon. It stumbles back but doesn’t go down. “How are you guys holding up?”

“Anna put down a salt line so we’re safe,” Jessica shouts back. “Got any ideas?”

“No.” Dean ducks and drives his elbow into a demon’s back, sending it down face first into a puddle of holy water. It screams. “Exorcizamus te, omnis immundus spiritus, omnis satanica-

He slams into the wall between two doors and collapses on the floor, but can’t get up. Something’s gluing him to the hardwood and leaving him vulnerable to the three demons approaching him with gleeful smiles on their faces.

“Sam! A little help here!” he yells as he strains against whatever’s keeping him in place.

One of the demons kneels down beside him. “Oh we’re going to have so much fun killing you.”

“That’s nice to know,” he says. “Potestas, omnis incursion infernalis adversarii, omnis-

One of the other demons kicks him in the side and he swears, black dots filling his vision. The blinding burning pain drowns out the world and he almost forgets he’s at the mercy of the demons as he fights the invisible restraints to curl into himself.

When the pain subsides to a blunt throb and he can see again he discovers several bodies on the floor and a pair of wingtips moving swiftly in and out of the dwindling group of demons. Dean slowly pushes himself up into a sitting position against the wall and then realizes he can move.

And that Castiel is here.

He watches Castiel spin a demon around and slam the heel of his hand to its forehead. Its pained cry turns into a howl as the demon is expelled. The last two demons turn to run only to find Sam spraying holy water and driving them back to the angel. Castiel darts around their flailing limbs, covers both their faces with his hands, and brings them down to the floor. Their backs arch upwards as the demons flood out of their hosts’ mouths and dissipate as they hit the ceiling. The bodies go limp and Castiel rises to his feet. He steps over one and stands in front of Dean, studying him with an unreadable expression.

Time stretches, and then Dean twitches when one of the bodies on the floor jerks and gasps. Castiel turns his head and then kneels down to gently press to fingers to the young woman’s forehead; with a sigh she goes limp again and her breathing evens out. Then Castiel turns on the balls of his feet and extends a hand to Dean.

So of course the first thing Dean says is, “So when do I get to kick some ass?”

Castiel gives him a deep frown while Sam groans and Jessica tries not to laugh. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I can tell,” he says and tries to stand up. The throbbing in his side intensifies and his breath hitches as he sits back down. “Son of a bitch!”

The angel actually sighs at him, just like Sam, leans over, grips his upper arm, and pulls him up onto his feet. The hand is incredibly warm, heat seeping through the leather and layers of clothing, and impossibly strong; Dean tries to wiggle out of the grip but it holds him fast. Castiel glowers at him until he stops moving, then raises his head to scan the third floor.

“We need to leave.”

* * *
In the history of car rides Dean ranks this one as the strangest in his life. They careen down the mostly empty freeway, silent and tense in the stuffy car. Dean doesn’t lower the window to hear the whistling wind or the tires on asphalt, nervous about snapping the impenetrable silence. He doesn’t think about anything but getting to the next town because he feels his mind is going to fly apart if he tries to think about something else. He can’t even check his rearview mirror without his mouth going dry and his heart hammering within his bruised, healing ribcage because there’s an angel in his car sitting right behind him.

“You can just…zap yourself wherever, right?” Dean had demanded as they hurried down the stairs, him a half-step slower as he could only take short breathes. “Why haven’t you disappeared yet?”

Castiel wouldn’t say until they were outside. While standing at Dean’s elbow while he unlocked the driver’s side with a trembling hand he quietly said, “I have to keep an eye on Anna.”

“You guys are that worried the demons will get her?” Dean asked. “Why do they want her so bad?”

The angel said nothing as Sam climbed into shotgun and Jessica called Anna over to get into the backseat; she had wandered a few feet away, staring up at the sorority house and the one light on the third story. Dean tried not to imagine the yellow tape tomorrow, or the horror stories that would come out of it. He didn’t want to be there when Lori returned to learn that several of her housemates were dead.

He opened the door and bent down to get in but froze, hand curling over the top of the doorframe as sharp pain flared up from his side. He thought it was just a nasty bone bruise but this felt a lot more like cracked or broken ribs. He tried to take a deep breath but it only intensified.

“Dean? You okay?” Sam called out.

“I’m fine,” he said, because of course he was. He’ll handle this later. They needed to get out of here; that was the first thing-

Heat wrapped around him from behind, pressing hard against his side. Dean flinched but he didn’t feel any pressure. Then the angel quietly said, “The demon broke three of your ribs.”

The persistent warmth was soothing; Dean sighed, eyes falling shut as he swayed backwards towards the source, the comforting solid presence behind him.

“Now drive,” Castiel ordered, let him go, and opened the door to the backseat.

Dean keeps his hands on the wheel, fingers wrapped tightly around it while he stares ahead and follows the two pairs of taillights in front of him. Sam looks at him every five seconds but Dean isn’t going to acknowledge it; he flicks his eyes up to the rearview mirror and sees Anna leaning away from Castiel towards Jessica while the angel props an arm up against the window and stares outside. He looks like he’s done this before and Dean suddenly imagines him on a bus, surrounded by people who have no idea what’s sitting in their presence.

He fights the urge to touch the newly healed ribs and sighs in relief when a sign tells them the exit to the next town is only three miles away.

Then things go straight to hell when they walk into the motel room, Castiel still with them because apparently his orders are to literally keep Anna in his sight at all times. When Dean suggested asking for a cot the angel refused, saying he didn’t sleep. He didn’t look at Dean as he spoke, so he suspected the angel would be gone by morning and shrugged it off.

Sam unlocks the door, walks in, and stops in his tracks as soon as Jessica flips the lights. “Who the hell are you?”

Dean clicks the safety off his Colt as he slides to the left, keeping the handgun trained on the large black man standing in the middle of the room. He’s wearing a suit and stands with his hands in his pockets, stance wide and confident.

Someone behind him shuts the door and locks it.

“I believe our orders were not to interfere with these monkeys,” the strange man says in a deep rich voice. He shakes his head at them disdainfully. “You were lucky I was nearby; you missed a few demons. This was why they were sent to do the work.”

Who the hell is this person and who’s he talking to? Dean glances to his right but Sam and Jessica look just as baffled.

“I intervened because the situation called for it,” Castiel suddenly says.

You intervened because you’re too fond of them. Let me ask you this: what took you so long?”

“I rode with them. I felt it prudent to keep an eye on-”

“See what I mean? You spent far too long on this dusty backwaters earth and now you've developed a fondness for these.... humans. This is clouding your judgment-”

“Somebody tell me what the fuck’s going on here?” Dean asks loudly. When the man turns on him he raises his Colt and aims it at the heart. “Who the fuck are you?”

“Uriel,” Castiel says, walking out between Sam and Jessica into the open space between them and the new person. “He is an angel of the Lord and a member of my garrison.”

“Which ceased to exist when you left; I’m with Zachariah now and he’s watching you.” Uriel paces across the floor, ignoring the Colt’s muzzle following his every stride. “Shall we get on with it?”

“We shouldn’t do this here. Not in front of them.”

“Worried you’ll offend them? What does it matter? These are our orders. The demons almost had her. This has to end now.”

Uriel’s contempt grates on Dean’s already ground nerves and his near-nonexistent reservations about mouthing off the wrong people - or, in this case, angels - disappear. “Hey Chuckles, wanna watch your language? There are humans in the room.”

Sam glares at him but he ignores it, tilts his chin up when Uriel turns to him. Then the angel starts laughing and Dean feels the prickling sensation of dread crawl up his arms and spine.

"I don’t know what they see in you,” Uriel says.

What? Dean frowns at the odd sentence.

“Why don’t you tell them why we’re here, Castiel?" Uriel continues. "Why don't you tell them what we’re going to do?”

This - whatever this is - is miles above his nonexistent pay grade. The situation's been out of his control for hours now and he still has no idea why there's a second angel here or what they plan to do. They seem to be carrying on two conversations at once, one for thee unexpected audience and one between the two of them. Then there's that odd thing Uriel just said about him-

“The voices are talking about you.”

The angels want something from him. Or they’re gossiping about him. Why? Why's he important to them? What do they want from him?

“I don’t understand,” Sam says. “What are you going to do?”

Castiel sighs, looking deeply unhappy about something. Dean’s never seen outright emotions on the angel’s face before and warning bells start going off in his head. Castiel turns to them, eyes sliding over and locking onto his.

“Anna Milton must die.”

What?” Jessica explodes and storms forward. Sam grabs her arm, holding her back. “You’re going to kill her?”

The smile on Uriel’s face is sickening and Dean wants to shoot it off; he readjusts his grip on his handgun and this time tilts the muzzle up towards the angel’s face. “Hell no,” Dean says. “You’re not touching her.”

He doesn’t look at Castiel, can’t look at the angel without feeling sick to his stomach. Instead he risks a look over his shoulder at Anna; she’s leaning against the small divider between the room and the bathroom, looking as horrified as he feels. He swallows hard and turns back to the two angels, or just Uriel.

“Get in the bathroom,” Sam says and Dean looks again to see her sidle towards the door.

“Why?” Jessica asks furiously. “Because she can hear you talk? Why not just hide her, keep her out of the demons’ reach?”

“Oh, eavesdropping on Heaven’s conversations is a small nuisance. Her crimes are far more serious than that,” Uriel says.

“We only needed you to extract her,” Castiel says impassively, cold and distant and not at all like the supernatural whirlwind that exorcised the demon nest and healed Dean's broken bones. He’s a manipulative two-faced bastard and Dean wants to punch him. “Hand her over. We don’t want to use force.”

“No,” Dean says. “You’re not getting her. Don’t know why you assholes want her dead, but she’s not going to die. Not on my watch.”

“Don’t you get it, you mud monkey?” Uriel says. “Your role in this is over. You should be lucky you’re getting out of this alive and in one piece. This isn’t your business and you’d be wise to leave.”

“We’re not repeating ourselves,” Dean says, stepping forward. Sam follows and Jessica clicks the safety off her handgun.

“Cute, but bullets can't stop us.”

“Can’t hurt to try,” Dean fires back. He knows he’s just goading them on now; he’d just seen Castiel take down at least ten demons single-handedly hours earlier. Against two immensely powerful supernatural beings they’re hopelessly outmatched, but he's not stepping aside to let them do whatever they want. He’s tired as hell but he curls his finger around the trigger, grits his teeth, braces himself, and waits for them to strike.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” Castiel says, and Dean finally looks at him. He's a man on a mission, jaw set and fists clenched, but his eyes are on Dean and they’re regretful. “But you leave me no choice. We have our orders.”

“Fuck your orders,” Dean says.

He remembers stepping forward and pulling the trigger, Uriel’s left shoulder jerking back as shreds of fabric fall on the floor. The angel just shrugs it off, reaches him in three quick strides, and throws him into the corner of the room. Two guns go off in rapid succession, followed by a crash.

Something slaps against a flat surface; a blinding light erupts from somewhere he can’t see and Dean curls into himself to block it out. When the windstorm in his ears finally dies he opens his eyes and lifts his head.

Castiel and Uriel are gone.

Breathing hard, he climbs to his feet and sags against the wall; Sam kicks shards of a broken lamp away from him and presses a hand to his bleeding lip while Jessica walks unevenly between the bed and the wall, dazed but otherwise visibly unhurt. Acoustics from the bathroom magnify high-pitched gasps.

Anna’s still here.

Dean kicks the Colt away as he follows Jessica to the bathroom, Sam a step behind; Anna’s leaning against the sink, her jacket at her feet, and a penknife balancing on the counter. Rich red dots mar the white ceramic.

“What the hell?” Sam says.

“I-I don’t know what this is,” Anna stammers as she backs away, looking terrified. Then Dean sees it.

Anna’s painted symbols on the mirror with her own blood. There’s an angry red line along the pale underside of her forearm; after a moment Jessica turns around and disappears, presumably to get the first aid kit, while Anna touches the welling blood with a red finger.

“Are they gone?” she asks.

“Yeah. I think it… sent them away or something,” Sam says wonderingly as he steps into the bathroom to get a good look at the symbols. “What did you do?”

“It’s a banishing sigil,” Anna says automatically and then frowns. “Why do I know this? I shouldn’t know these things.” She slumps against the wall, eyes unseeing as she raises a hand to cover her mouth. “I really shouldn’t.”

“Do you know why they want you dead?” Sam asks.

She shakes her head almost violently. “No. I don’t know why. Their names sound familiar, but it’s the same way I know what this is, how to draw it, what it does, and I’ve never seen it before. I don’t understand - what am I remembering?”

Didn’t Uriel say something about her? He mentioned crimes, something she did that apparently landed her on Heaven’s Most Wanted. Dean looks at her, scans her from head to toe, but can’t find anything remotely threatening about her. She isn’t physically powerful nor does she have any striking supernatural skill besides being able to tune into angel radio. A latent psychic, perhaps, but no threat to Heaven.

So why do they want her dead?

Jessica shoulders him aside and lowers the lid on the toilet before setting the first aid kit on top of it. She beckons to Anna as she pulls out ointment and a roll of bandages. Sam excuses himself and, with one last look at the bloody symbols on the mirror, steps out of the bathroom.

“So,” Sam says, “what do we do now?”

Chapter Text

Anna is still with them almost two weeks later. They’re in Nebraska now, looking for something to hunt while wondering what to do about her. The one good thing to come out of this mess is that they haven't seen a demon lurking around. Yet.

Dean’s been sleeping poorly since that night. He blames it on the cot and the couch and the floor for waking up looking and feeling like shit, and everyone accepts the excuses.

Jesus, hurry the fuck up, Dean thinks sourly as he glares at the empty coffee mug. He’d upped it to two cups of straight black in order to function for the rest of the day; so far he's had one and the waitress is taking her sweet time coming over with her pot of panacea to refill. He considers calling for her, interrupting whatever boisterous conversation she’s having with one of the tables.

A couple stands up with the check and bitter bile suddenly rises to the back of his throat; the woman is wearing a rumbled tan trench coat. He swallows hard and stares down at the laminated menu but he can’t see the words.

He shouldn’t be so disappointed. He shouldn’t feel this way about a supernatural creature sweeping into his life, taunting and tempting him with knowledge about his mother’s death - with the truth - and then manipulating him until he’s no longer needed. He’d been used by an angel and he’s furious, he really is, but he can’t find the hot driving rage underneath the bone-deep ache of betrayal.

He gives Anna a sideways glance. She’s still staring out the window, sitting ramrod straight with her hands folded perfectly in her lap; if he didn't know any better he'd say she hadn't moved an inch since they sat down twenty minutes ago. She’s still as closed off as she was in the past two weeks and he thinks again what Jessica said two days ago - Anna doesn’t want to burden them with her presence, doesn’t want to put them in danger. He hates to admit that Anna's right and her presence puts them all in danger, even if they haven’t seen so much as blacked-out eyes or a whispering rustle of feathers. Sam suggested teaching her how to fend for herself but Dean shut that down to only the most basic self-defense; they don't have that kind of time.

Yesterday, when they stopped by Goodwill after an old fashioned salt and burn, Sam suggested they find her a psychic.

“She knows something’s there that she can’t reach by herself, something the demons want and the angels want buried,” he had said while Dean looked for new shirts; his were getting threadbare, trashed, or soaked in ectoplasm and congealed blood. “She thinks something’s blocking her memories.”

“What, like suppressed memories of a shitty childhood and all that psychobabble?”

“No, she said she liked her childhood just fine.” Sam sighed. “Look, I’m gonna talk to her. If she wants to see a psychic we’re taking her to one. We could find out why the angels want her dead.”

“Right,” Dean muttered long after Sam walked to the back of the store. “Fucking angels.”

Last night he dreamt of fire but no angels and is now absolutely desperate for caffeine.

“Sorry to keep you waiting, love.” The waitress is at their table, hand on her hip while she pours a steaming stream of black gold into his mug. “Here you go. So, what’ll you be having?”

“Well my girlfriend’s in the restroom but,” Sam says, glancing at the menu, “she’ll probably want the Eggs Benedict. I’ll have the waffles.”

Dean stares at the menu but the words keep blurring. “Uh… I’ll have pancakes. And bacon. And eggs, sunny-side up. And hash browns.”

“You mean the pancake breakfast combo,” the waitress says, amused with his slow brain.

“Yeah, that.”

“…all right. And you, dear?”

Anna slides her menu over. “Just oatmeal and a side of fruit, please.”

After the waitress leaves Sam leans over the table, fingers tented together, and gives them both a serious look. “So, what’s our plan?”

Dean sighs and chooses instead to wrap his hands around the ceramic mug and let the warmth sink into his bones. He closes his eyes and breathes deep, feeling only a slight twinge where the demon broke his ribs weeks ago. The coffee smells incredible. Heavenly, even. “Dunno. Take her to Bobby, I guess.”

“Bobby? You sure?”

Dean shrugs. “Got a better idea?”

He actually hasn’t seen Bobby in over a year, but that’s only because John and Bobby got into a fight and Bobby almost filled John with buckshot. Then he wonders what his father would do if he found himself in this situation.

“Who’s Bobby?” Anna asks.

“A friend.”

“What kind of friend?”

Sam explains. “He’s a hunter likes us. He's been doing this for a long time so he might know something about what's going on.”

“Who are we talking about now?” Jessica asks as she slides onto the bench with Sam. “Move. What did you order?”

“Uh, I got you the Eggs Benedict,” Sam says.

“Really? I didn’t know today was Eggs Benedict Day,” she says a little too casually.

Sam looks vaguely terrified, and while Dean wants to hear the story behind 'Eggs Benedict Day' he decides to rescue his brother instead. “We’re talking about taking Anna to a friend of ours. His name’s Bobby Singer.”

“Really? I know a Bobby Singer. Grumpy asshole with the trucker hat, a yard full of dead cars, and a dog named Rumsfeld, right? Lives just outside Sioux Fall, South Dakota?”

“Yeah, that’s the one,” Dean says, wondering. “When’d you meet him?”

“About three years ago during my road trip before college,” she says while pulling a coffee mug to her. She tears off the top of a small half-and-half and pours it in. Sam gives her the strangest look, like he’s having some kind of epiphany. “It was only once and it was with a couple of friends. Helped us figure out what we were hunting, but we’re not ‘idjits’.”

Dean laughs. “That’s Bobby for you.”

Sam shifts, looks at Dean. “You think Anna will be safe there? We’re talking angels and demons here.”

“There has to be something in his library about angels,” Dean says. “Plus his house is salt and iron. And don’t forget the holy water. Demons don’t stand a chance.”

“I don’t know about demons,” Anna says, “but I think I can protect myself against the angels, or at least banish them long enough to get away. So don’t worry too much about me. I think I can handle it, and your friend. I can trust him, right?”

“He’s like a father to us,” Dean says, ignoring Sam’s involuntary flinch. “Or the crazy uncle who sneaks you candy when your parents say no.”

Their waitress emerges from the kitchen with several plates and slowly makes her way towards their table. Dean decides to finish up this conversation as soon as possible so that he can have his pancake breakfast combo in peace. “So, South Dakota?”

He looks directly at Anna and she gives him a curt nod.

“Hello, loves,” the waitress says as she stops by their table. “Who ordered the Eggs Benedict?”

* * *

“Don’t feel so bad,” Anna suddenly says. She speaks so quietly and so closely to his ear that he starts and slams his head against the window as he straightens up. The angle must've been awful for his neck and he grimaces through a mother of a cramp.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he grits out and he means it. He tries to spot Sam and Jessica through the gas station’s dusty windows but they’re out of sight.

“You’re a terrible liar.”

“Hey,” Dean protests, twisting around to look Anna in the eye. “I happen to be a damn good liar. It’s part of the job and everyone bought what I sold, no problem.”

“And the angry voicemails?”

He rolls his eyes. “Not my problem. I used protect - how'd you know about the voicemails?”

She cocks her head to the side and looks at him like he's an idiot. "Four days ago? Her name was Nadia?"

"That was just once-"

"Overheard you muttering a 'fucking Charles' while listening to one outside that Goodwill-"

"Okay! So I've lied my way into people's good graces - and their beds - but that was to solve the case. What's your point?"

Anna sits back, one slender hand resting carefully above the other in her lap. She sits so perfectly still that sometimes he sometimes wonders if she’s made of stone. He chalks it up to Sundays spent in church listening to Reverend Sorenson’s sermons.

“You don’t like talking about what’s really on your mind, do you?”

Either she's uncannily good at reading people or Sam’s right. They're definitely taking her to a psychic. He tries to scowl at her through the rearview mirror but ends up shifting uncomfortably under her steady gray gaze. He decides to stare out the windshield instead and almost immediately notices a very thin layer of grime coating it. Poor baby needs a wash, maybe at the next stop. “So?”

“I just want to say that you shouldn’t worry about him. Angels are made of stronger stuff, and he was only following orders.”

“Come again?” He has no idea what she’s - okay, he knows who she’s talking about, but he doesn’t know why she’s even bringing that angel up.

“You haven’t been the same since Ankeny. Maybe worry is the wrong word. It bothers you that he tried to kill me, doesn’t it?”

His hand tightens around the wheel but he keeps his voice level as he watches traffic zip by the gas station. “Like I give a crap what angels do with their time.”

Anna is so silent that he looks up at the mirror to see if she’s still there. He doesn’t know why he felt like she'd up and disappeared on him, but is relieved nonetheless to see her sitting behind him and staring out the window at another car.

What the fuck is wrong with you?

“God gave humans free will,” she says softly. “He gave none to angels. What is a creature who disobeys its very existence? You can’t expect him to judge the morality of his orders. Heaven doesn’t work that way.”

Dean shakes his head and peers out the window; Sam and Jessica are finally leaving the store, each carrying two loaded plastic bags. “I don’t care. He used us to get to you. That’s never okay in my book.”

“Fair enough,” Anna says. Then, as Sam and Jessica open their respective doors, she adds, “If that’s what you believe then you should stop thinking about him.”

“Thinking about who?” Jessica asks as she sets the bags on the floor and starts rooting through them. “Who wanted the lemonade?”

Dean ignores the Coke sitting next to him as they pull out of the gas station and continues ignoring it for the next eighty-some miles. Sam, Jessica, and Anna talk - about school, about life, about hunting, about angels - and he keeps an arm out the window, fingers brushing along the smooth and slightly dusty surface of the Impala as he stares down the endless northbound freeway.

Angels. He won't believe they exist even though one of them showed up in his head and then tried to use him to kill people. He knows the stories - who doesn't, when one of his father's earliest allies is a pastor - knows about angels descending from Heaven to tell the chosen bastards what God demands of them. They're so different from the naked winged babies and the childlike statues with beatific smiles, and he wonders where things went wrong and people started believing that they protected people, not transmit orders from some omniscient thing in the sky. It's such a shitty epiphany that makes the humiliation burn even hotter.

He still doesn't know how or why he showed up on the angels' radar. He's not a particularly religious or sinless person, which makes as much sense as Castiel pretending to be the helpful guardian angel he never claimed to be. Which he isn't, not after he turned on Dean and tried to kill Anna - he’s thinking about angels again. Dean glances up at the rearview mirror; Anna is watching him reproachfully, head tilted to the side - like Castiel, Dean thinks before he could stop himself - like she knows exactly what’s going through his head. So Dean leans over, bats Sam’s leg out of the way, and fishes a tape out of the box in the footwell. The car swerves and Sam elbows him back before yanking the tape out of his hand and shoving it in.

When the sky is dim and they’re a few miles from the Nebraska-South Dakota border, Sam, who'd been drooling against the window for an hour, suddenly bolts upright.

“You okay there?” Dean asks. It’s the first distraction in three hours and he welcomes it. Still, the shock he hears in Sam’s gasps has him worried. “Hey. You all right?”

“I - I’m good,” Sam says. “We there yet?”

“For the night? Almost.”

When Sam doesn’t answer Dean glances over to see that he’s sleeping again. Dean smiles to himself as he passes a signboard telling him the state border’s two miles away.

* * * * *

Dean tells them they should be at Bobby’s by nightfall, so he starts researching cases on Sam’s laptop.

“Nope…nope…nope…”

Anna’s in the shower and the rhythmic spray of water on the tiles almost lulls Jessica back to sleep as she lounges around on the bed, stretching while studying filtered sunlight on the ceiling.

Sam’s sitting in the other chair, scribbling away on the motel’s complementary notepad. He’s been at it all morning but isn’t saying what he’s drawing and why. They look like trees, though. At least that’s what Jessica thinks.

“All right,” Dean says. “Think I found a few candidates for our next gig after we drop Anna off. We got a fishing trawler off the coast of Cali - its crew vanished. And, uh, cow mutilations in west Texas. Could be some sick fucks looking for cheap thrills or something nastier. Hey, you listening?”

“What?” Jessica says, tilting her head back.

“I’m listening,” Sam says absently as he flips a page on his notepad and keeps drawing. “Keep going.”

Anna steps out of the bathroom at the head of a cloud of steam. She stares at Sam as she sidles by him and sits down on the other bed. “What are you doing?”

“Looking up hunts,” Jessica says. She stretches again, enjoying the feeling of unused muscles tensing and relaxing, and then sits up. “Anything else? Dean?”

“Huh? Yeah, uh, a Sacramento man shot himself in the head. Three times.” He waits a beat but Sam doesn’t stop drawing. With a sigh he leans over and taps Sam’s shoulder. “Hey, any of these blowing up your skirt?”

“Which one’s closer?” Jessica asks. She runs a hand through her hair and considers the worth of getting up and walking into the humid bathroom to find her hairbrush. “After we leave Bobby’s, that is.”

“Well as long as-”

“Wait a minute. I’ve seen this.”

Jessica glances at Sam, who’s staring at the notepad like he just drew the answer to the meaning of life. He looks up at her, then at Dean, and then gets up to go search through his duffel bag.

“Seen what?” she asks but all she hears is an unintelligible mutter. “Sam?”

When he stands up it’s with an old photo in his hand. His eyes flick between it and the pad of paper.

“I know where we have to go next.”

“Oh really?" Dean says. After a beat, "You wanna share with the-”

“We have to go back home.” Sam turns to him. “Back to Kansas.”

Well. That's unexpected. Jessica glances between the brothers while Anna continues to towel dry her hair, oblivious to the significance of Sam's words.

“Okay,” Dean says slowly, unsure. “Random. Where’d that come from?”

Sam bites his lip and then looks at Jessica regretfully, making her feel even more uneasy with the sudden left turn in this conversation. He then holds the photo out to Dean. Dean takes it and stares at it. And keeps staring.

“This was taken in front of the old house, right?” Sam asks carefully.

“Yeah.”

“And it didn’t burn down, right? I mean, not completely. Did they rebuild it after... afterwards?”

Dean sets the photograph on the table. “Maybe. So what? What does that have to do with anything?”

Sam tosses the notepad down next to the photograph and shoves his hands in his pockets, rocking back and forth on his feet while searching for the right words. Dean looks at it, then at the photograph, and then frowns. Curious, Jessica stands up to take a look. The chicken scratch tree Sam scribbled on the notepad is almost identical to the tree in front of the house in the photograph.

"I don't get it," she says. "Why do you think you need to go back to the house? Sam?"

“I… it’s going to sound crazy but… whoever's living in that house right now, I think they might be in danger.” The last bit comes out in a rush, words stumbling over each other. He looks at Dean apprehensively.

“Why would you think that?” Dean asks.

“Uh, it’s um…. ” He swallows hard, won't look Dean in the eye. He stares at a point on the ugly carpet to his left. “Just trust me on this, okay?”

Sam turns away, trying to end the conversation, but Dean stands up. "What? Trust you? That's it? That's all you're gonna tell me?"

Sam swallows. “Yeah-”

Don't." Dean takes a threatening step towards Sam. "Come on, man, that’s weak. You can't just pull this out of your ass, not when it's our house. What aren’t you saying?”

Sam grabs his sweater out of Jessica's bag but doesn’t pull it on. He holds it tightly in his hands as he sits down on the nearer bed. He stares at the fabric, refusing to meet anyone's eyes. “It's hard to - I can’t really explain it.”

“You can try,” Jessica says. She walks over to him, looks down at the giant letters on the sweater front spelling out "STANDFORD". He doesn't look at her when she sits down next to him; in fact, he flinches and shrinks away. Frowning, she slides her fingers under his chin and turns his head to face hers. He doesn't look at her. “Talk to me. What is it?.”

"I can't, not-"

"You know you can tell me. Come on, I won't judge."

He takes a deep shuddering breath and then lets it slowly. “I… have these nightmares.”

“Oh yeah?” Dean says. Jessica shushes him.

“I have these nightmares and I think… I think they come true. Or they’re supposed to.” Sam finally looks at her with scared hazel eyes. He drops the sweater on his lap and reaches for her, cupping her face with trembling hands like he can't quite believe she's sitting next to him, that she's here. Something cold twists in her chest and sinks down to the pit of her stomach. “I - I dreamed about you, Jess. You were wearing that white dress and you were… on the ceiling. There was a… you were bleeding from your stomach.”

She instinctively presses a hand to her stomach but blood doesn't seep out between her fingers.

"You were on fire. You were on fire, Jess. I dreamed about it for days but I couldn't say anything because you'd think I'm crazy. I just thought it was some fucked up nightmare, stress from the LSATs or something, but-"

"Your friend," Dean says. He looks at Jessica and clears his throat. "That's how Mom died. I bet that's how he was going to kill you."

Their mother. Sam promised to tell her the truth about his family and how his mother's death turned them into hunters, but she forgot to ask him after Lake Manitoc. Now, jarringly, she understands why they're doing this, why Sam's so desperate to find his father. The taunts and threats Brady threw at her while they circled each other - she was walking into the apartment, Brady close behind her, the living room smelling like fresh cookies, and Brady talking about their final year in Stanford and his indecision with life after graduation, about Sam's dreams of going to law school, how glad he is that they're so close because she and Sam were meant to be...

"He wanted you to start hunting again," she says. "If he - if he killed me just like whatever killed your mom, you'd take it up again, go after your dad for the truth."

It explains his restive behavior before the Halloween party so perfectly, and he couldn't tell her because they didn't know they were both hunters, because this was so agonizingly personal for him and to say anything would raise too many questions. But what is she then, a means to an end? A sacrificial lamb?

She can't imagine how her life would've ended if she wasn't a hunter. What she can recall in vivid, vindictive detail is the oily smile on Brady's face turn to shock when she muttered a suspicious "Christ" under her breath.

Why didn't you say anything? she silently asks of Sam, who looks at her with the most pathetic expression.

“But it didn't happen,” Dean suddenly says. “Jess is still alive.”

“I know," Sam says. "But I know it was supposed to. If you weren't a hunter...."

"Yeah," she agrees quietly. "If I wasn't."

She watches him twist the sweater in his hands as he continues. "It's just like the dreams I’m having of our house. I swear, Dean, I know something's going to happen there. The - the person, the woman living in our house is in danger. We have to do something. I mean, what if it’s the same thing that killed Mom?”

Dean wavers. “But your friend-”

“Brady,” Jessica supplies. "I think whatever killed your mom, Brady could be working for it. That would explain the M.O.”

“What, you mean another demon?” Dean asks. “The hell? Why? Why us?”

“Look,” Sam says. “That's why we have to find Dad. He knows something, I know he does. And if not Dad, then maybe our house has the answers. We should go there.”

“No.”

Sam stands up and stalks over to his brother. "We have to. I'm telling you, those people are in danger-"

“I heard you the first time! I just…” Dean takes a deep breath. “I promised myself that I’ll never go back home.”

He covers his face with his hand and takes another one, making an awful rattling sound that makes Jessica cringe.

“Look,” Sam says, and pauses. He raises his left hand, then drops it and places the other on Dean's right shoulder, squeezing it to make his brother look up. “I just need to make sure that whoever's living there is okay. And if it's a lead... we have to check it out. You know it's the right thing to do.”

They stare at each other for five seconds and then Dean bows his head, shrugs Sam's hand off. "Fine. Lawrence it is."

"Hang on," Jessica says. "If these are demons we're dealing with, if there's one hanging out at your house, is it safe to bring Anna with us?"

She glances at the redhead sitting silent and forgotten in the middle of the other bed.

"Shit." Dean turns to her. "You okay with the detour? It's not gonna be as safe as Bobby's house but I swear, we won't let them touch you-"

"Just do what you need to do," she says carefully. "I'll be fine."

Sam nods to her, looks Jessica square in the eye, and tells Dean, “Thank you.”

* * *

What little Jessica knows of Lawrence, Kansas is that it’s a college town - the main campus of the University of Kansas is located here - and that Sam was born in a hospital he points at while they drive by it. She learns a few new things, including a famous urban legend about Stull Cemetery being a Devil’s Gate, whatever that really means, and that when the brothers were younger they went to Kansas Jayhawks games with their father whenever the opportunity rose.

It really is a nice place, suburban and peaceful compared to what they drove through to get here. She stares out the window, taking in the scenery. Dean’s actually going at speed limit for once but she suspects it's because of his reluctance to return to what's probably his worst memory.

“You gonna be all right?” Sam asks as the Impala slowly pulls to the curb across the street from a simple two-story house, the yard full of trees and large toys. One of the trees looks almost exactly like the one Sam drew on the notepad.

This must be their house.

“Let me get back to you on that,” Dean says and they all get out of the car.

Neither Jessica nor Anna follows them across the street. Sam turns around, confused. “Aren’t you coming?”

Jessica shakes her head and leans against the side of the car, shoving her hands into her pockets. “It’s not my place.”

Sam hesitates and glances at Dean, who's standing in the middle of the road. Anna then adds, “It’ll be awkward walking into your memories.”

“But I want you to, Jess. It’s my house.”

“So it's like bringing me home to meet your parents?” Jessica says before she can stop herself. She scolds herself for the slip but Sam smiles ruefully and shrugs.

“Yeah, I guess.”

“Maybe next time, when we aren't checking it for things that go bump in the night. Just go with your brother, Sam. See if everything's all right."

He sighs. “All right. We won’t take long.”

“Take as much time as you want,” Anna says.

Jessica watches them step up onto the sidewalk and follow the concrete path to the porch, wondering how they must feel. Home for her has always been a source of fond nostalgia, warmth, and comfort; home is stability and safety, always ready to welcome her back with protective arms. She can't imagine it being the source and memory of a violent death, can't imagine a night where the safety of one's ignorance in the supernatural was ripped away in fire. She has no idea what it's like to not know about the things that go bump in the night.

Anna shifts uncomfortably beside her while she watches the front door open and a woman greet the brothers. She leans into Jessica, bumping up against her shoulder, and whispers into her ear:

“Something evil happened in that house.”

A shiver goes up Jessica's spine. Evil, not terrible. The decision to choose one word over another makes all the difference in the world. Evil suggests intent. Evil means something or someone was behind it. There was a plan. A reason to kill Sam and Dean's mother. That's why Brady said she needed to die. Unfortunately for him she had no intention of becoming someone else's sob story.

“What else can you sense?" she asks.

Anna closes her eyes and scrunches her eyebrows in concentration. Maybe Jessica's just imagining things but a chill crawls up her back and ozone tinges the air around them. A heartbeat or two later Anna shakes her head and their surroundings warm up. “I can't tell. It's too old, too ancient." She tilts her head to the side, scrutinizing the house across the blacktop from them. "It feels like I should know, though. Like I've encountered it before."

Jessica looks up at the second story window. Sam said his nursery was on that floor. “What about something recent?”

“I don't know,” Anna says. “The house feels off but that could be what happened here long ago." A beat. "Sam shouldn't be having those dreams."

“What?”

“They’re unnatural premonitions,” she says. “They feel wrong. They shouldn't be happening at all.” Anna rubs at her eyes with the heels of her hands and then straightens her back, stretching her arms up over her head. She then folds them over her chest. “That’s all they're saying. His dreams aren't psychic. Something about him's... different.”

"Something's fundamentally wrong with him?”

“Well, no,” Anna says. "I could say the same about Dean, too. And you."

Jessica starts and then points at herself. "Me?"

"Yes." Anna turns to her with heavy gray eyes that seem to bore into Jessica's head. She tries not to fidget. "More like, something guided you to this point. Something put you on this path. I'm not wrong, am I?"

"Let's just say a 'guardian' angel suggested what I should do with my life, which included nearly getting killed by said angel." She gives Anna a wry smile. "That enough to make me different?"

"Not a lot of people can say a guardian angel told them what to do with their lives," Anna points out.

"Fair enough."

Two cars pass by in the ten minutes between their conversation and the brothers emerging from the house. They're deep in conversation, both looking incredibly upset. Sam keeps gesturing at the house, trying to prove a point, and Dean looks set on hightailing it out of town.

"... scratching, flickering lights, both signs of a malevolent spirit."

"First of all, who says 'malevolent' in casual conversation-"

"This isn't casual, Dean; this is serious! And stop derailing the conversation."

"I'm not. I'm just freaked out your weirdo visions are coming true."

Sam stops abruptly and points at the house. "Forget about my dreams, okay? Whatever's in that house, you think it's the thing that killed Mom?"

Dean stops, too, and his answer sounds a little desperate. “I don’t know!”

“What if it came back? What if it was here the entire time and we didn't know because we stopped coming back here?”

“What, it decided to take a break for twenty-two years? Maybe it's something else. Maybe whoever rebuilt the house did a shitty job and she paid too much for it. ” Dean moves towards the Impala. “None of this makes sense.”

Jessica zeroes in on Sam. “So what happened?”

“Something’s off about the house,” Dean answers, shouldering by her while fishing his keys out of his pocket.

“Yeah, like Sari saying she sees a figure on fire in her bedroom at night!” Sam snaps. “We have to get them out of there.”

Dean viciously jams the key into the keyhole on the driver’s door. “We will.”

“No, I mean now.”

Dean whirls around. “And how are you gonna do that, huh? You got a story she’ll believe?”

Jessica flicks her eyes between the two brothers. This case seems to be getting a little too personal for them, which on the one hand makes sense - it is their house and their home, the site of their mother's violent death that turned them into hunters. On the other hand they're not acting like themselves at all and she considers the very real possibility of benching them while she goes back to investigate Sam's claims of a "malevolent spirit". Now that the thought's come to mind she kind of likes the idea of jacking Dean's keys and locking them inside the Impala.

“Can we do this somewhere else?” Anna asks quietly. “She’s watching us.”

Jessica glances at the house and sees the woman staring down at them from the second story window.

“Yeah,” Sam huffs, like a child. “Let’s talk about this somewhere else.”

Dean’s already in the car, slamming the door. He slumps in his seat but doesn’t start the car. Anna gets in behind him, leaving Jessica and Sam on the street.

“So you think something’s there?” she asks quietly. The woman disappears from the window and the curtains sway as they fall back into place. “Scratching in the walls and flickering lights? Heard you say something about scratching and flickering lights.”

He thinks it's bad wiring and rats. After what happened here I’m not taking any chances,” Sam says. “If it's the thing that killed Mom I want it gone. Dead. I want it to be over.” He then seems to realize that she's right there and gives her a sheepish look. "Sorry. I don't know what's gotten into - I shouldn't have dragged you into this. This isn't your family, your battle. It's mine. My mess to clean up. My-"

He gestures helplessly and she wants to whack him over the head. "First of all, I'm a hunter and raised to help others when I can. There's few enough of us out there; no point in wasting resources fighting by ourselves when we can work together. Second of all, you're my boyfriend because I actually like you. Third, a demon tried to kill me to get to you, which makes it personal. Lastly - I love you, you idiot. Even if I wasn't a hunter I wouldn't leave you."

“I’m not kidding, Jess,” Sam says quietly. “I mean it.”

“Me, too.”

The smile Sam gives her after he kisses her, hands cupping her face and lips pressed hard against hers, is almost worth getting involved in the Winchester family drama.

* * * * *

If it was up to Dean they’d be hundreds of miles away from Lawrence. He’d leave a voicemail for John saying Sam was having weird dreams about their old house and then drop Anna off at Bobby's like they originally planned. Instead he’s pulling up at a gas station deep in the heart of his hometown because he says he needs gas. The tank’s only half empty; the real excuse is that he needs to get out of the car fast and the gas station is the first thing he sees.

He swallows back the bitter bile as he kills the engine and gets out. As he shuts the door and goes through the motions of filling up the tank Jessica leans over the back of the front bench and says, “We’ll be at the store.”

He paces, not sure how to begin the conversation he thought he’d never have to have. He wants revenge for everything that was taken from him when he was four years old. He just didn’t want to find the truth about his mother's death like this - looking for his missing father with Sam, his hunter girlfriend, and a latent psychic that angels want dead. Angels, man. His mother always said angels were watching over him. Did she know they were real? Where were they that night? Why couldn’t they save her?

Around the time Dean realizes the “they” in his head has blue eyes and a stern mouth Sam interrupts his train of thought by clearing his throat loudly and saying, “Dean?”

He closes his eyes and takes as deep a breath as he can without making that awful rattling sound again. He turns and walks around the hood of the Impala to Sam’s side. “Okay. Whatever’s going on here, we gotta... gotta take a step back and assess the situation. If this was… just another job, what would we do?”

Fall back on what they know, go through the motions, solve the case, leave town. The idea comforts him even if the execution of said idea guarantees to be an unpleasant experience.

“Figure out what we’re dealing with, so we need to find out the history of the house.”

Sam wouldn't know; he was too young, he was just a baby. He doesn't know the history like Dean does. He doesn't know what it's like to grow up with "Hey Jude", tomato rice soup and homemade apple pie, kid-friendly lectures on baseball, a collection of racecars, and a green garden out back. He didn't grow up with the laughter and loud fights, the crust-less sandwiches and the hugs. He was just six months old and he had no idea what Dean carried him out of the house that night while John cried out for Mary while she burned.

“Except this time,” he says slowly, trying not to let his voice break under the weight of the memories, “we already know what happened.”

“Yeah, but how much do we know?” Sam says, crossing his arms over his chest. “I mean, how much do you actually remember?”

He says it with care and Dean manages not to flinch. “You mean that night.”

“Yeah.”

He remembers heat. A fierce orange glow behind John’s back as he knelt down with little Sammy in his arms. “Take your brother outside as fast as you can and don’t look back! Now, Dean, go!” A cold night and the warm weight of his brother. His promise as he watched the golden glow in the second story window. “It’s okay, Sammy.” John sweeping them both up and carrying them across the street, his promise as the house exploded behind them.

“I gotcha.”

“Hey.” A touch on his upper arm - Sam always avoids the scars of the handprint on his shoulder - brings Dean back. “You okay?”

His eyes burn and Dean looks elsewhere. “I remember the fire…the heat.” What to say? He swallows hard. “And then I carried you out the front door.”

Sam stares at him. “You did?”

“Yeah. What, you never knew that?”

He shakes his head. “No.”

“Well, you know Dad’s story.”

Dean doesn’t need to elaborate because they know it front and back. Unlike their father his priority was Sam from the moment he was given the responsibility of getting them both out of the house, but John's obsession has become synonymous with living. Dean knows the details so well he can imagine what it's like being in his father's shoes, making that horrifying discovery and not understanding how and why. Since learning that a demon tried to reenact Mary's death using Jessica, Dean keeps seeing his mother on the living room ceiling in the Palo Alto apartment in his dreams, dripping blood and hair aflame as the fire roars around them.

“Did he come up with a theory while I wasn't there?”

Dean almost laughs. “Nope, and if he did he’s keeping it to himself. That message was the only thing he said to me about Mom.”

“Right." Sam presses his mouth into a thin line while connecting dots in his head. "If something's going on in the house now, then where is he? He has to be thinking the same thing we are, right? It can be coincidence - him disappearing like that, Brady trying to kill Jess. Why isn't he here?

"I don't know. But right now we do what we always do with a new case."

Now the conversation's back on familiar ground. This is what the case should be - a hunt, a job, something they do for a living. It's closer to home than he'd like but it's nothing he can't handle.

The lie is so terrible that it actually hurts to breathe and he has to force out his next words because he'll otherwise choke on them. "So we should talk to Dad's friends, neighbors, anyone that was there at the time. See what they have to say, if they remember anything."

He stares at the hood of the car, trying to remember who was there for them in the days after.

“... handle this? Hey.”

Dean says nothing. His hand slides into the pocket of his jacket and bumps into his cell phone. A thought pops into his head. “I’ll be right back. Restroom.”

Sam opens his mouth to say something but Dean walks away as fast as possible, pulling the cell phone out as he rounds the corner. He stops at the bathroom door and looks over his shoulder as he dials a number.

“This is John Winchester. If this is an emergency, call my son Dean at 866-907-3235.”

Answering machine. Always.

“Dad? I know I’ve left you messages before.” And then he pauses. John’s going to hear the drastic change in his voice. Dean shakes his head; that can be explained later, when they’re facing each other again. “Anyway. I’m with Sam…and his girlfriend. Jessica Moore; she’s a hunter, a good one. They met at - not the point. We’re in Lawrence, and there’s something in our old house. I don’t know if it’s the thing that killed Mom or not, but…”

His eyes burn. He blinks rapidly and the blacktop blurs. Dean closes his eyes tightly and takes a deep breath; he doesn’t have many seconds left before the voicemail cuts him off. “Dad, I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what’s in there or where to begin, so whatever you’re doing…just. If you could get here it would be great. Please. I need your help-”

A beep interrupts him and he snaps the phone shut before the automated voice could tell him his time is up, does he want to redo the message? Dean looks up at the sky, and then slumps against the wall and slides down to the ground. The phone is a heavy weight in his hand and he turns it over before sliding it back into his pocket.

Right now he realizes he'd like to sense a hot presence at his side, to hear the swish of a trench coat in the wind and feel a tingling, prickling sensation in his left shoulder. He'd like for it to walk up to him with a cryptic answer or a physical clue, anything to point him in the right direction. And then he remembers the fight in the motel room for Anna's life.

Fuck the angels.

* * *

“A palm reader?” Jessica asks skeptically as they pull up near a payphone. “Seriously?”

“He was desperate for answers,” Anna says as she gets out of the car. “Some would pray. He went to a palm reader.”

“Yeah, but…most of them are fake. They just tell you what you want to hear for a hundred dollars a session,” Jessica says. She waits until a truck passes by before opening the door. “Do you really think this palm reader told him the truth or did he find someone else afterwards who did?”

“Well we gotta start somewhere,” Sam says as he picks up the phonebook. “Look, they have a section for psychics, palm readers, tarot…”

Dean stands off to the side, watching Sam and Jessica flip through the thick book. He can’t stop thinking about Mike Guenther’s comments about John, about how he’s a stubborn bastard who just didn't know how to lose, someone who loved his family. All this, before the fire.

Just this one he'd like to drop this case and leave town. All he sees is "what could have been" wherever he goes.

“I hate these pages. They’re so thin and they stick; flipping them’s a pain in the ass,” Jessica complains. “Move, Bigfoot, you’re hogging space.”

Dean rubs his face and sighs. And jumps when he notices their resident redhead standing next to him. “Uh…”

“They’re quiet,” Anna says. “The angels aren’t saying much.”

“Really? Nothing about Lawrence? Or me?”

She shakes her head but doesn’t elaborate. Then Dean remembers something. “Why’d you call me a sword?”

“They did. They kept calling you ‘the sword’.”

For them to use, those dicks, Dean think with no small amount of bitterness. They had to use him as their sword instead of coming down here to do the dirty deed themselves, and him of all people? Why Anna?

“Are they calling anybody else a-”

“Found it,” Sam says loudly. “There’s…someone named El Divino.”

Jessica laughs. “Mysterious Mister Fortinsky. What’s he supposed to be?”

“No idea. There's a Missouri Mosley....”

“I went to Missouri and found the truth.”

Missouri the state. Missouri the palm reader. Missouri Mosley. He turns around to Sam and Jessica, who’s now reading, “The Nile’s Secret Seek-”

“Wait, wait, back up,” he says loudly. “Missouri Mosley?”

Jessica glances down at the phonebook. “Yeah.”

“A psychic?”

“Yeah, she’s listed here. Why?”

Dean moves around Anna to the passenger side of the Impala and opens the door to get to the glove compartment. He pulls out John's journal, tugs off the fastener, and opens it to the very first page. He holds it out to the others.

“In Dad’s journal, first line, first page.” He presses a finger underneath the familiar handwriting and the sentence engraved in his heart. “I always thought he meant the state.”

“‘I went to Missouri and found the truth’,” Jessica reads slowly. “We should go visit her.”

* * *

“I’m not going in there,” Anna suddenly says.

They’re on the porch of a small house with a gorgeous garden out front, Jessica already opening the bright blue door and stepping over the threshold. Dean turns to Anna, surprised.

“Why?”

She swallows hard, her gray eyes wide. “She’s powerful and I just…don’t feel comfortable. I’ll wait in the car.”

Her eyes flick from person to person and return to Dean. He shrugs. “Suit yourself.”

He watches her make her way down the cobblestone walkway and turn left; the Impala’s parked a good distance from Missouri’s house. What the hell was that?

“That's weird,” Sam says. "I thought we were looking for a psychic to help her out."

Dean shrugs as he follows Jessica and Sam inside. He glances at the doorway, spotting a bundle of Devil’s Shoestring on the door lintel. Eyebrow raised, he scans what is presumably the waiting room but sees nothing else besides a handwritten sign that said “Have a seat. Missouri will be right with you.” Sam and Jessica have settled on a couch next to the staircase and Dean sits down on the other one. He hears murmurs through the doorway with the bead curtain but can’t pick up the words.

“…now don’t you worry about a thing,” a middle-aged black woman says as she walks out with a customer. “Your wife is crazy about you.”

The man smiles and thanks her. He exits the house, never noticing the bundle of Devil’s Shoestring overhead, but Dean’s eyes keep drawing up to it. Then the woman closes the door and turns around on them, arms akimbo.

“Poor bastard. His woman is cold-banging the gardener.”

Jessica snorts as the woman shakes her head, tsking as she walks up to them. Calm authority radiates off of her and Dean feels compelled to stand up. After a beat Sam and Jessica follow suit.

“Why didn’t you tell him?” Jessica asks.

“People don’t come here for the truth. They come for good news,” she says like they're in on the secret.

If that's her philosophy, then what did she tell their father that night?

“I told your father the truth and nothing but the truth,” Missouri suddenly says, turning on him and starting him into stepping back. He walks into the couch and ends up sitting on it. “Now where’s your friend? I sensed her walking to the door but she’s not here.”

“She, uh, she’s not feeling well,” Sam says, looking uncertainly between Dean and Missouri.

“Well tell her she should see me. She needs to know what’s going on with her. No sense doing that blind. Now come on already. I ain’t got all day.”

She turns abruptly on the heels of her feet and walks through the bead curtain. Dean looks at Sam and Jessica and finds his confusion mirrored in their faces; he didn't say anything but Missouri knew exactly what he was thinking, knew that Anna was here even though Anna went back to wait in the car. Sam shrugs and Jessica breezes by him to follow Missouri through the bead curtain.

The room on the other side is sunny and rather homey. Dean wants to relax, but Missouri doesn't waste a moment; she turns on them and gives them all blatant head-to-toe looks. She then smiles wide and shakes her head. “Oh you boys grew up handsome.” Then, she turns to Jessica. “Oh honey, I’m sorry these no-good Winchesters dragged you all the way over here-”

“Hey!”

Missouri waves off Sam’s protest. “Hush now.” She then cups the side of Jessica’s face, tilting her blushing face up, and smiles. “I can see you're more than capable of running with them. Now I know he's a handful - don't you start, boy - but he loves you very much. And if he doesn't do right by you, go ahead and kick his ass.”

Jessica laughs. “You don’t have to worry about that.”

“Seriously?” Sam says despairingly. “You’re ganging up on me?”

“Good. I like a fighter,” Missouri says, ignoring him. Then Dean suddenly gets a finger in his face. “You were one goofy kid. Sweet, too, though I bet you hide that well and tight now, don’t you?”

He swallows hard. Then Missouri takes his hand and turns it up, stroking the palm with an index finger. He shivers at the touch as Missouri looks up at him, smiling sweet and sad. “I’m sorry about the things you see at night. No one should have to relive that. Now this-” Then she lets his hand go, and abruptly places it on his left shoulder, wrapping around the scars. Dean gasps and jerks back. Missouri immediately lets him go, looking equally surprised; she stares at her palm and rubs her fingers together. “That’s the mark of something powerful. Its name is… Castiel?”

He stares at her. He’s made such an effort to keep the name out of his head; how’d she find it? How’s she doing any of this, really?

“I can read thoughts and sense energies in any room I walk into. I don’t lie about what I do,” Missouri says as she turns to Sam and takes his hand. “He kept calling you Sammy. He never let you go, not for the first few weeks.”

Dean casts Sam a sideways glance. He doesn’t remember that; after the fire everything was a dissonant blur until they were in the backseat of the Impala and John was saying they're going to New Mexico.

“Oh dear. Your father, he’s missing?”

And now they're getting closer to the reason for their visit.

“Yeah,” Sam says nervously, pressing his lips tight before pushing on. “Where is he? Is he okay?”

“I don’t know.”

“Don’t know?” Dean repeats. His rambling voicemail replays itself in his head, his voice pleading for his father to answer, to call back, to tell him what he should do. “Aren’t you supposed to be a psychic?”

Missouri tilts her head to Jessica like she's sharing some unspoken thought. “He’s got no respect. Boy, you see me sawing some bony tramp in half? You think I’m a magician? I can’t just pull facts out of thin air.” She shakes her head and points at the couch. “Sit, please.”

She gestures to the couch and pulls up a chair; Dean settles down at the near end, giving the coffee table a cursory look and wondering idly how much dirt’s caked onto his boots-

“Boy, you put your foot on my coffee table, I’m gonna whack you with a spoon!”

He recoils while Sam snorts and Jessica giggles. “I didn’t do anything!”

Missouri rolls her eyes. “But you were thinking about it. I told you-I can read your thoughts. Can’t fool me.”

So what else can’t he think about?

“Don’t even think about it,” Missouri threatens, and then turns to Sam and Jessica like they’re the adults of the trio. “Now, what do you want to ask me?”

“We want to know more about Dad,” Sam says, leaning forward, elbows on his knees. “When did you first meet him?”

At that Missouri frowns, eyes closed while she shakes her head at a memory. “He came in for a reading a few days after the fire. He couldn’t accept the police reports, kept saying that something killed your mother. So I told him what was really out there, what was lurking in the dark. I drew back the curtains for him.”

“So what he wanted to hear was the truth,” Dean says. "And since nothing else would give it to him, you did."

“That’s right. I told you - I tell people what they want to hear, and that's what your daddy wanted. He didn't believe me at first but afterwards....”

“What about the fire?” he asks. “What about our mom? Do you know what killed her?”

His voice goes scratchy and quiet while Sam shifts uncomfortably.

Missouri doesn’t answer immediately. “I know a little. Your daddy took me to your house hoping I could sense the echoes, the fingerprints of the thing that killed her.”

Sam breathes in sharply. “And could you?”

“I….” She falters and shakes her head. “I don’t know what it is. Oh, but it was evil.”

“Anna said that, too,” Jessica says.

“Your friend?” Missouri asks sharply. “Well I bet she could sense it same as me.” Then she looks at Dean. “Boy, you wanna bring her here? Afterwards we can go to your house and see what’s wrong with it.”

"She said she didn't want to be here," Jessica says.

"But she wants answers, doesn't she? How's she going to find them if she tries to run away from every psychic she meets?" Missouri turns to Dean. "Tell her I just want to talk to her, help her out after what she went through."

"Uh, sure," Dean says and rises to his feet.

At the porch he looks down the street where he parked the Impala. Anna is leaning against the hood of the car, arms crossed tightly while she concentrates on something by her feet. Dean thinks back to the conversation he had with Sam at that Goodwill about finding her a psychic. Maybe Anna is a latent psychic; that would explain why she can hear the angels speak and feel that same evil in the old house.

“Anna,” he calls out while hopping down the steps and she looks up. “Missouri wants to talk to you.”

She pales. “Why?”

“She wants to help you... figure out what's going on in there," he says, gesturing at his own head.

She hesitates. "Really?”

“Yeah. So, wanna go have a chat with her?"

“I... suppose.” Anna rubs her forehead, hems and haws while crossing her arms even more tightly over her chest. “I guess.... I don’t know if I really do want to hear the truth. Would you really want to know why Heaven wants you dead?”

He doesn’t hesitate. “Yeah, so I can kick their asses.”

“I’m not surprised.” Anna sighs and then pushes off the hood and onto her feet. “I had a normal life, you know. When I’m not screaming about my father not being my father, that my real father’s angry with me for some reason, I had a normal life. Then I started hearing voices in my head and then Rich died. You came into my life trying to find Rich's killer and… now I’m about to get some answers, an explanation for why.”

Dean doesn't know what to say to that. His life had become all about finding answers and he’d never hesitate to get them whenever the opportunities presented themselves. Why doesn’t she feel the same? She lived with these questions all her life, too; doesn't she want to know why she can hear the voices? Doesn't she want to know why the angels want to kill her?

"At least you'll know why,” he points out.

She smiles at that. "That's the difference between you and most people. If they can they’ll avoid the truth and live in denial for as long as they can allow it. But… I’m not most people."

She follows him reluctantly into the house and once past the foyer she freezes up. He nearly knocks her over as he shuts the door behind them. The murmuring behind the bead curtain stops and then Missouri says, "You got nothing to worry about, child. Come in."

Anna takes a deep breath and Dean, impulsively, reaches for her hand. Her hand's cold and he laces his fingers around hers tightly, feels them warm under his callused palm. He almost lets go when she jumps at the contact but holds on as she looks up in confusion. He swallows, embarrassed at himself; here he is, Mr. "I don't do chick flick moments", holding someone's hand when he's known her for less than three weeks.

Too late now. He shrugs as nonchalantly as possible and says, “Come on.”

He does let go as soon as she’s past the bead curtain; he rubs his hand on his jeans as he goes to sit by Sam and Jessica. Missouri is standing like she's been waiting for this very moment – knowing all ten minutes of her, he bets she does - and moves towards Anna with outstretched arms.

“Now don’t you worry about a thing,” she says, taking one of Anna’s hands in both of hers. “I just want to help - oh. I think you’d better sit down.”

She gives Dean a pointed look as she pulls Anna over to the couch and he belatedly catches on when Sam elbows him. He quickly stands up and out of the way, watching curiously as Anna sits down. Missouri studies her, rubbing her fingers like she’s remembering the feel of something.

“Something powerful’s blocking your mind, not letting it stretch out and be what it should be,” she says. “If you want, I can help you free it. Would you like that?”

“I’m here now, aren’t I?” Anna replies. “I want the truth.”

“I tell you what you want to hear,” Missouri says, “and if it’s the truth you want, it’s what you’ll get.” She places her fingertips on Anna’s temples and quietly instructs, “Now close your eyes and relax. I promise I won’t hurt you. Just relax and empty your mind. That’s it….”

“Now close your eyes and relax,” Missouri says quietly. “I promise I won’t hurt you. Just relax and empty your mind. That’s it….”

Sam and Jessica get off the couch while Anna closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. Dean looks up to meet Sam’s eyes across the room, finding the same apprehension he’s feeling now. Years of training and experience tells him that his brother’s asking the same questions – what’s powerful enough to block Anna’s mind and why? Why her, and what would happen if Missouri manages to remove it?

Anna gasps. “He’s gonna kill me.”

“Who?” Missouri asks gently but firmly. “Honey, tell me who’s going to kill you.”

“My father. My real father. He’s gonna kill me. He’s gonna kill me!”

Her voice climbs higher and higher, and her fists clench so tightly her knuckles turn white. She can’t seem to open her eyes, trapped by whatever she’s seeing in her mind. She keeps saying those four words, alternating between sobbing and screaming, but Missouri doesn’t let go of her.

All the glass objects in the room start humming with each syllable and Dean jumps back as one of them explodes. He inches into the center of the room up against Sam and Jessica as another object shatters.

“Anna,” Missouri orders. “Open your eyes. Now.”

They open immediately and the glass in the room stop humming. Her wide eyes stare straight through Missouri and then slowly move to Dean. He recoils internally; they’re not the eyes of the person nervously sitting down on the couch just minutes ago. In fact the person sitting there now is not the Anna he knew for three weeks. She sits too calmly, shoulders lax and hands folded over each other on her lap. Her face is emotionless, bleeds stoic calm as she turns her intense focus back on Missouri and quietly says, “Thank you. I understand now.”

“I don’t,” Dean blurts out.

Missouri gives him a dirty look over her shoulder. She removes her hands from Anna’s temples and pats her on the shoulder reassuringly. “I hope you know what you’re doing after this.”

“I do.”

Jessica clears her throat. “So… what happened there?”

Anna’s voice is clearer and stronger than before when she answers, “I remember now.”

“Remember what?”

“Why Heaven wants me. Who I am. What I am.”

Dread drops heavily on Dean’s shoulders and crumple up into a leaden ball in his chest. He can’t breathe and his heart races as she rises to her feet, holding herself stiffly like she doesn’t know how to use her body, like she isn’t human. When she’s not hearing voices in her head she’s a typical, not-too-devout church girl who willingly embraced the hunter’s world to save her best friend from a vengeful spirit. She can’t be – she’s not-

“I’m an angel.”

* * * * *

“I’m not like the others,” Anna continues while Jessica sits down on the couch next to her, close enough not to be rude but far enough in case… in case of something. “Just because I remember what and who I am doesn’t mean I’ll be just like them.”

She addresses Dean the entire time.

“Well, that’s…comforting,” he finally, awkwardly says.

“Don’t be daft,” Missouri says. “She’s still Anna Milton.”

She looks like Anna, fiery red hair and kind face and wide gray eyes, but no one can miss the changes in her posture, her voice, her expression. With the way she sits on the couch, back ramrod straight and shoulders set back, she looks like she could sprout wings at any second. Anna would make a gorgeous angel, if angels had giant white feathered wings, and were anything like the angels in paintings and Christmas cards.

“I don’t understand,” Sam says. “Why are you human?”

“She fell,” Missouri replies as she sits down. “Fell to earth and became human just like you and me.”

“You can do that?”

“I ripped my grace out to do it,” Anna says. She presses a hand to her chest and takes a deep breath while rubbing her sternum. “It’s… our power, our essence. I tore mine out and fell to earth. Mother always called me her little miracle.”

The way she describes it the process must be painful, if not momentous. Why would she do that? Why would she fall?

“So you left Heaven,” Jessica says. “Why?

Anna doesn’t answer her question. Instead she gives Dean an indecipherable look, like she expects him to understand. He looks just as confused as Jessica feels but neither of them breaks eye contact. Jessica glances between them as the silence grows.

“Uh, guys?” Sam says awkwardly. “What-”

“That’s what you meant,” Dean interrupts, voice trying to climb an octave higher at some mental epiphany. “That’s why you fell. But why?”

“I was a stationed here for over two thousand years,” Anna says. “Just watching, silent and invisible, out on the road and sick for home. Waiting on orders from a father I never met. I saw what you had, what you all continue to have, and decided to join you, give myself a reason for existing” She bows her head, sounding disappointed and quietly wrecked. “Just my luck I was born to a clergyman and his wife.”

Missouri reaches over and places her hand on top of Anna’s. “Oh honey, I’m so sorry.”

She looks up at Missouri with a sad but grateful smile. “It’s better than not knowing what was wrong with me. Thank you for helping me remember.” She looks at Jessica and the others. “I need… sort out a few things on my own. Why don’t I wait here while you go see what’s wrong with the old house? I won’t be much use to you guys right now anyway.”

“You sure?” Jessica asks.

Anna nods. “I’ll be fine. Go.”

* * *

Add poltergeists to the list of monsters Jessica hates dealing with. They’re supposedly mischievous spirits that enjoy making people’s lives a living hell, but there’s nothing mischievous about a poltergeist out to kill a young mother and her two children. The good thing is that while not all monsters behave as assumed based on the experiences of others the methods of killing them very rarely change. Dispatching the poltergeist won’t be a problem.

There is, however, a problem.

“There’s more than one spirit in this place,” Missouri had said while opening the closet in the little girl’s bedroom. Sari, that’s the little girl’s name. She kept saying she saw a person on fire.

“What are they doing here?” Dean asked.

“They’re here because of what happened to your family. You see, all those years ago, real evil came to you. It walked in this house and left wounds, and sometimes wounds get infected.”

Jessica didn’t look at the ceiling the entire time she was in there. She knew there wouldn’t be any scorch marks, that the room had been rebuilt and painted over many times to hide what happened, but just because she couldn’t see it doesn’t mean she could ignore it. She couldn’t shake off the eeriness of knowing her boyfriend’s mother died here and a young girl now sleeps here. Neither brother looked bothered but while Sam just followed Missouri around Dean kept to the walls of the room, never standing in the center of it.

“I don’t understand,” Sam said uncertainly.

“This place is a magnet for paranormal energy. It’s attracted a poltergeist, a nasty one, and it won’t rest until Jenny and her babies are dead.”

Jessica turned on the balls of her feet to stare at Missouri. “A poltergeist? Really?”

She nodded. “Definitely. And there’s another spirit, but I just can’t quite make it out.”

“Is that good or bad?” Dean asked.

“I don’t know. It doesn’t have the same kind of energy as the poltergeist.” She cocked her head to the side, and Jessica suddenly remembered Anna tilting her head like she’s listening for something. “It’s weaker than the poltergeist, and not the reason for all the things happening in this house.”

“Then let’s focus on the poltergeist,” Dean said. “How do we stop it?”

On the way back to Missouri’s house she used Sam’s phone to call Anna and describe what herbs, roots, and other paraphernalia to find and set out on the dining room table. Jessica felt overwhelmed by the details by just listening to one half of the conversation and she suspected Missouri would’ve said more if the person at the other end of the line wasn’t Anna.

Jessica balks just inside the foyer, her senses overwhelmed by a wall of an earthy medicinal aroma. Sam looks at her curiously while Dean scrunches up his nose like it’s the most awful thing but Missouri just shoulders them aside. They follow her to the dining room, where Anna sits in front of several piles of plant matter and powders. She looks up and smiles at Missouri’s approving nod, then looks at Dean. Dean stares back for a second too long, and then coughs like he’s clearing his throat and nonchalantly leans on the table to poke and prod at the material.

“So what is all this stuff?” he asks, holding up shreds of something while Missouri bustles around with the cabinets and shelves.

“Angelica root, van van oil, crossroad dirt, a few other odds and ends.”

Anna leans over to take a pinch from a pile of earth and add it to the one in front of her. Dean watches her with an odd expression as he drops the shreds. Jessica wonders if the revelation about her angelic past will create problems for them; he hasn’t exactly been on his A game the past few hours and that could be a serious problem when they return to the house later to remove the poltergeist.

“So what do we do with these?” Sam asks.

Missouri turns around and tosses an empty sachet at him before putting the rest on the table. “You’re putting a little bit of each in these bags and putting them inside the walls of the north, south, east, and west corners of each floor of the house.”

“So, basement, first floor, second floor,” Jessica says as she sits down next to Anna, takes an empty bag, and reaches for a pinch of what’s possibly angelica root. “That’s twelve bags.”

“Punching holes in the drywall,” Dean says. “She’d better not bill us for the damage.”

“You can work the details out later,” Missouri says and tosses Dean four empty sachets. “Now sit. We haven’t got all day.”

“So these’ll destroy the poltergeist?” Sam asks.

“They should. These bags will purify the house and drive out whatever spirits live inside it. I can deal with the basement; the four of you decide which floor you’re taking. But remember, we have to work fast. Once the poltergeist realizes what we’re up to it’ll do whatever it takes to drive us out.”

“I’ll take the second floor,” Sam says almost immediately, and Dean freezes with an arm stretched out to grab something. “That’s where it…where it all happened.”

“Second floor,” Jessica chimes in. Sam gives her a look and she almost rolls her eyes at him. “You might need me in case the poltergeist tries to jump you. Remember, only I’m allowed to jump you.”

Dean starts coughing into the crook of his elbow. Missouri leans over and smacks the back of his head.

Two hours later, Jessica reconsiders her decision while dodging Ritchie’s crib. Nothing happened while she hammered a hole into the wall of the bathroom at the end of the hall to toss in a bag but as soon as she took her hammer to the far wall in Ritchie’s room everything in there came to life with just one goal in mind: kill her. Downstairs, heavy objects drag across the floor and bang into walls, and something crashes in the study at the other side of the second floor.

The little planets dangling from the mobile above the crib snap off and shoot at her while the crib slides across the floor in her direction. Jessica darts around the bed but Saturn smashes into her left ear and Pluto the wrist of the hand clutching her second sachet.

“Ow! Fuck!” she yelps while batting Mars aside. She glances at the hammer lying on the floor near the dents in the wall and then sideways to the crib blocking the door. The hammer is too far away and it would take too much time for her to reach the hammer and take it to the wall without the bed crushing her against it so she settles on the next best option – her steel-toed boots.

She bolts for the other side of the room. The crib skids across the floor at her so she drops and slides past it to crash into the wall. She scrambles onto her feet and aims her right foot at the dents in the wall. The drywall cracks. Another kick and it gives way. Something hits the back of her head and she whirls around while rubbing the sore spot. Her eyes widen and she ducks out of the way of Jupiter. It bounces off the wall and falls to the floor, breaking in half. She quickly crushes the pieces with the heel of her boot and then kicks backwards, widening the hole in the wall.

The crib rights itself and turns to face her. She grips her sachet tightly, waiting for the poltergeist to make its move. A second passes and then she turns around to toss it into the hole in the wall while the bed shoots across the floor.

It slams into her, crushing her against the wall, but nothing drives it now, just momentum. She easily pushes it away and sags against the wall, gasping for air. She considers sitting down to give her legs a rest but decides instead to grab the hammer and check in on the others. The house is just a little too quiet considering how loudly everything was a second ago. She staggers over to pick the hammer off the ground just as Dean stomps past the room in the direction of the study.

“Sam!” Dean yells.

No. She staggers after him, hammer in hand, and bursts into the room to see Dean kicking at the wall while Sam lies on the floor, pulling at a cord wound tightly around his neck. She tosses the hammer and drops to her knees at his side, batting his hands away and working her fingers under the cord to loosen it. Sam gasps hoarsely as the cord tightens instead, giving her no room.

“Dean!” she yells as his face turns purple. “I can’t get it off, oh god-”

Drywall breaks and a sudden wind blows. She shuts her eyes tightly against it an sees a flash of white light. Then Sam gasps again and starts choking; she opens her eyes to see him scrambling to unwind the now limp power cord. She quickly helps him pull it off and tosses it aside. He smiles at her weakly and she rolls her eyes even though her heart won’t stop jack hammering out of her chest.

“Idiot,” she mutters shakily. When he tries to sit up she pushes him back down and kisses him hard.

Dean clears his throat and says, “Uh, I’ll be downstairs.”

She waves at him and waits until he’s down the hall before she lets Sam sit up. She kisses him again, nipping at his bottom lip, and brushes his hair back, says, “Don’t do that again.”

“I’ll try,” he says. His eyes slide over her shoulder at the hole in the wall. “She’s gonna hate us.”

Dean, Anna, and Missouri are in the kitchen when they come downstairs, assessing the disaster that is the kitchen. The table’s overturned and the drawers emptied of their contents; knives stick to the cabinet doors and porcelain shards litter the linoleum floor. The fridge door is hanging open and empty of everything but a few cartons of liquid; Jessica steps on something and grimaces at the squelching sound.

“Well,” Missouri says, resting her hands on her hips. “That went well.”

Dean snorts and looks at Sam. “Knives, man. Thing was throwing knives at me.”

“I got hit in the head by the solar system,” Jessica replies.

Anna toes aside a paring knife while wandering out of the kitchen into the living room. Her head’s tilted again and she stops in one spot and turns on the balls of her feet, listening for something.

“Anna?” Dean asks.

She straightens her head and gives them a look. “I thought I heard something.”

“What? You don’t think this is over?” Sam demands. He turns to Missouri. “Are you sure the poltergeist is gone?”

“I’m sure of it,” Missouri says. “Why?”

Sam clenches his right hand, searching for something to say. “What about the other spirit? You said there was more than one.”

“I did but… I can’t feel it anymore. It went when the poltergeist did. This house should be safe now.”

The lock on the front door clicks and the light in the foyer flicks on as Jenny calls out, “Hello? We’re home.”

Dean kicks aside a fork as Jenny and her two children appears in the kitchen. Jenny stops short and gapes at the mess. “What happened?”

Jessica tries not to laugh. “Hi, sorry about the mess. We’ll pay for all of it.”

“Did someone have a food fight?” Sari asks, making a face at the floor.

“We, uh-”

“Don’t you worry,” Missouri cuts in, shooting Dean a look before clapping a hand on his shoulder. “The boys’ll clean up this mess.”

Sam starts. “We are-” He falters under her stern look. “Uh, yeah, we’ll clean this up.”

“Now aren’t these two fine gentlemen-don’t cuss at me!” she snaps and Dean jumps a foot in the air. She sighs and shakes her head at Jenny, who smiles weakly in return. “Now why don’t we all step outside for a breath of fresh air?”

“So it’s over?” Jenny asks, worrying her bottom lip while watching Sam tug kitchen knives off of the cupboard doors.

“It is.”

* * * * *

“Are we still going to your friend’s house?” Anna asks.

Sam watches Dean tilt his chin up to look at the rearview mirror and then quickly drop his gaze like he got caught. He’d been acting weird around Anna ever since Missouri helped her remember, would stare at her for long intervals and drift to her side without noticing what he’s doing. Sam is so weirded out.

“That’s the idea,” Dean says, shifting in his seat. “Why? There something you wanna do now?”

“Maybe. I might need to find my grace. I can hide myself from Heaven but the only way to level the playing field is to become one again.”

“Find your grace?” Jessica echoes curiously.

“It takes… a lot of strength to rip it out,” she says. “I only had a second to see it fall from my grasp before I did. I hope it didn’t land on another continent.”

Sam twists around in his seat and braces an arm on the top of the front bench. “Why did you fall? You can’t be the only angel to wonder where – where God is, right?”

Anna laughs quietly. “Do you know why Castiel and Uriel tried to kill me?”

Dean flinches and Sam shoots him a worried look.

“Orders from Heaven. Disobedience is a death sentence for an angel, and I committed it. I disobeyed my orders, my purpose. We were made to serve Him and His will and I turned my back on Him because I didn’t want to serve someone I’d never seen or felt. I know I’m not the only one but their faith is stronger than mine. Not all angels are created equal, you know.”

“You knew they’d hunt you,” Dean says. “Why would you want that?”

“I remember what my existence was like before I fell. I remember two thousand years of human progress. That’s nothing compared to twenty years I spent in this body.” A beat. “Free will. I’m talking about free will.”

She turns her attention out the window, ending the conversation.

Dean turns on the radio and fiddles with the dials, trying to catch a good signal. The first station the tuner hits is playing the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” and Dean’s fingers twitch before he quickly scrolls past the station.

“I like that song,” Jessica says.

“No Beatles,” Dean says. “Ever.”

Sam once asked why they weren’t allowed to listen to the Beatles – he personally doesn’t feel one way or another about them and their songs – and Dean turned up the AC/DC song until he thought his eardrums would pop. Dean also didn’t talk to Sam for the rest of the day.

With four people in the Impala they don’t need to turn on the heater or add on extra layers. Jessica starts nodding off while Anna continues staring across the street. Dean fidgets before slumping against the front bench, fingers drumming a beat on the wheel. Sam sighs and presses his forehead against the cool glass, tracing the gnarly branches of the tree in front of the house across from them.

“Remind me why we’re still here and not in a motel with beds somewhere else,” Dean mutters.

He sighs. “I told you, I just have a bad feeling about this.”

“Why? Missouri did her Zelda Rubenstein thing. The house should be clean. What, did you have another nightmare while napping and forget to share with the class?”

“No, and I hope I’m wrong.” He wishes he can ignore the prickling uneasiness in the back of his mind. “I just want to make sure. Give it another hour-”

“That’s what you said last time,” Dean says, folds his arms tightly over his chest, and slumps even lower in his seat.

Sam glances over his shoulder at Jessica and Anna. Jessica’s still out like a light and Anna’s still watching the house, eyes unblinking. He stifles a yawn and thinks about sleeping for ten minutes; the day’s been long and stressful for him and Dean, and-

Anna suddenly bolts upright, rocking the car. “They’re here.”

Jessica starts and bangs her head against the window while sitting up. “Who? Then, “Oh my god. Look!”

She points at the house. Jenny bangs on the second story window, screaming for them. Fear rushes through Sam as he scrambles for the door latch, yanks it open, and tumbles out of the car. Dean yells his name as he runs across the street and up the concrete walkway to the door.

The door’s lock. Of course it is. Sam looks behind him as the others run up and orders them to stand back. He raises his foot and kicks at the door once, twice, until the hinges give and the door swings open. Dean shoulders past him and barrels up the stairs, shouting, “Grab the kids! I’ll get Jenny!”

“I’ll get Richie,” Jessica says while they run up the steps, two at a time.

The kid’s hollering something terrible down the hall but there’s nothing from Sari’s bedroom. The nursery. A figure on fire. Sam can see an orange glow under the door.

“Oh,” Anna says and draws herself up short. “I know what that is.”

“What-”

Something crashes down in another corner of the house and Jenny’s sobs come soon after. Sam steels himself and wraps his hand around the doorknob. It’s cold to the touch and he quickly twists it, pushes the door open. Sari sits huddled against the headboard of her bed, blankets drawn up to her shin while she stares wide-eyed at the burning figure in her closet. Tendrils of flame crackle and snap at Sam as he sidles along the wall, watching for sudden movements while making his way to the little girl. It doesn’t move, just stands on the hardwood floor that should’ve caught fire by now. It seems to be watching him while he draws Sari out of bed and into his arms. He tucks her face into his shoulder and murmurs, “Don’t look, don’t look.”

He can’t stop looking. He can’t feel anything malevolent about this second spirit; he should be worried about its presence the way all supernatural monsters worry him, but this one feels so… calm. Kind. Strangest of all is that it looks like it’s turning its head to watch him while he hurries out of the bedroom and down the stairs.

Anna is waiting downstairs for him, or maybe she’s not. Her eyes are transfixed on something in the air and she’s frowning deeply to herself.

“Anna?” he calls out. She stars and her eyes fall on him and Sari’s trembling form as he makes his way down. “What is it?”

“The poltergeist,” she says softly and he freezes. No. “It’s stronger than we thought. And angry. We have to get out.”

“But what about the thing in my closet?” Sari asks, clinging to Sam when he tries to set her down.

“It won’t hurt you. It’s not here to hurt anybody,” Anna says and takes her hand. He watches in surprise as Sari stops looking so terrified and lets him go. “But the other one will. We have to go.”

“Okay. Where’s Richie?”

“Outside, with your mother.”

Sam stares at Anna while she continues talking soothingly to Sari. The thing in Sari’s closet, the figure on fire, the bedroom that used to be his nursery… it can’t be. It would make sense if it was a vengeful spirit but when he thinks about it, it’s done nothing but stand in the middle of the room. Missouri didn’t worry about it. And Sari appears to be the only one unaffected by the poltergeist. Was it protecting her?

It hits him all at once what and who it could be, and then something really does hit him, throwing him to the floor.

“Sam!” Anna shouts, reaching for him. Sari screams.

He feels the poltergeist grip his ankles. “Just go!”

Then he’s sliding backwards, elbows banging into walls as the poltergeist drags him onto the linoleum floor of the kitchen he spent hours cleaning. The poltergeist throws him into the table and then the counter. He swears and it comes out garbled with pain as he curls into himself. The poltergeist pulls him up and throws him into the oven. He doesn’t fall; it pins him to the oven and lifts him off his feet. Pressure closes around his throat, not enough to choke him but enough to make him panic, and he claws at the poltergeist. His hands meet air.

Somewhere in the house glass breaks and Dean shouts his name.

“Dean!” he yells, straining against the poltergeist’s grip on his throat.

It throws him into the cabinets and then lets him go. He drops to the floor and lays there for a few precious seconds, catching his breath and getting his bearings. As soon as he stands the poltergeist shoves him into the heavy cabinet door and keeps him there. He tries to move his hand but he can’t pry it off the cabinet door more than an inch before the poltergeist slams it back down. He grits his teeth and tries again but he’s completely immobilized.

A crackling sound meets his ears and he opens his eyes to see the figure on fire standing at the divide between the kitchen and the living room. He stares and something tugs in his chest, tries to pull him to the spirit. Whispers of kindness and warmth wrap around him and despite the circumstances he feels himself relax. The poltergeist’s iron grip gives little by little as the figure approaches and he feels himself smile, thinks to himself, I’m safe.

Then Jessica slides into view, an iron crowbar in hand. She freezes at the sight of the burning figure, which turns to acknowledge her presence. Dean bursts in after her with a shotgun; his eyes dart from Sam to the fire and he raises his shotgun without hesitation.

“Don’t,” Sam blurts out. “Don’t shoot!”

“Why?” Dean demands. He holds it defensively as the figure turns to him and gestures.

Sam nods to it – to her. “I know who it is.”

Dean gave him his first image of their mother, not their father; it was a photograph of their parents and baby Dean in front of this house in Lawrence. Sam clung to that smiling, loving face whenever he was around other children, especially whenever he was temporarily enrolled in school and watched them get picked up by their mothers. He’d pretend that Mary would be there to pick him, too.

And now that face in his mind has unstuck itself. It’s a face four years older than the one in the photograph and the happy smile is wearier but still full of love. The fire dims and now he can see.

“I can see her now,” Sam breathes out.

The shotgun’s sawed off muzzle drops. Dean stares, wavers between fleeing and stepping forward as the flames extinguish and reveal Mary Campbell Winchester. She’s as beautiful as the photograph, beautiful as the way Dean used to talk about her, and while his heart hurts at the image of her in a long white nightgown, at the thought that she first came to them in the flames that killed her, he can’t stop smiling as she pads up to them.

He’s still stuck to the cupboard and can see Jessica over the top of her head. Jessica stands there, transfixed, jaw unhinged and crowbar forgotten at her feet.

Then Dean’s quiet, broken, “Mom?” shatters the silence.

“Dean.”

He chokes and looks away while her loving gaze falls on Sam.

You’re beautiful, he thinks and wishes he isn’t pinned to the wall and that she isn’t a spirit. Mary draws closer and the smell of smoke and ashes fills his nose. It hits him so much harder that this is her as she died on the ceiling of his nursery, over his crib, and he draws in a shaky breath as his eyes well up with hot tears.

“Sam,” she says softly. He feels the weight of her eyes tracing his face and following the tears. She leans even closer and he holds his breath, but she doesn’t touch him. Instead, her smile disappears and she murmurs, “I’m sorry.”

He stares. “For what?”

She draws back. Her eyes shine more than her face with the unclear apology. She then turns and walks to the middle of the kitchen. She stops when she sees Jessica.

“I won’t hurt you,” Mary says. “Thank you.”

“S-sure,” she stammers.

Mary then looks up at the ceiling. “You, get out of my house. And let go of my son.”

She bursts into a pillar of fire with little warning and Dean cries out. The fire roars upward and spreads across the ceiling to the corners. Sam shuts his eyes against the agonizing brightness and heat. A wind starts to blow even though there’s nothing to create it and then the fire vanishes. Whatever’s holding Sam up disappears and he drops to the ground. He stumbles and Jessica appears at his side, wrapping her arms around him and holding him steady. He returns the favor, holding her close while his heart hammers away. He looks up over her blonde curls at Dean.

“It’s over,” Sam says hoarsely. The wrongness at the back of his mind is gone. “Dean, she saved us.”

Mary never left the house, not until her sons came home.

* * * * *

Missouri shakes her head stepping into the foyer. She’d seen the truck on the way home and contemplated telling the boys who owns it. She didn’t say anything, though; that was not her decision to make, after all. Instead she told them all to behave and to visit her when things get better before waving them off. Judging from the knowing gleam in the fallen angel’s eyes she knew Anna sensed him, too, and hopes she has the sense to never brings it up.

With a sigh she walks through the bead curtain and sets her purse down on the table. She thinks about the best way to bring up the trouble she felt when she first held Sam’s hand but can’t think of a way to broach the topic without starting trouble.

“That boy,” she settles on saying. “He has such powerful abilities. But why couldn’t he sense you?”

She sets her hand on her hip and glares at John. To his credit he keeps his head down; instead he plays with the gold band around his left ring finger, twisting it while quietly asking, “So she never left? After all this time?”

“According to the boys, no. Not until last night.”

“She saved them. Oh, Mary…”

Missouri sighs. This won’t do at all. “John Winchester, I could just slap you. Why won’t you go talk to your sons? They were right here.”

He covers his face with his hands and draws in a long breath to steel himself before answering. “I want to. You have no idea-”

“Oh, I think I do.”

John smiles at that. “Of course you do. But I can’t see them yet. Not until I know the truth.”

“And you’re going to lead them on a wild goose chase when they could be helping you-”

“I need to know what they did to Sam. Until then I’m keeping my distance.”

She sighs but realizes she can’t bring up a solid argument against his decision. His quest to find Mary’s killer had drawn so much attention that he had to go underground to continue without distraction. She sits down across from him and looks him in the eye. “Fine. But you best talk to them soon. Dean’s not holding up too well. This hit too close to home for him.”

“He’ll be fine. He’s stronger than he thinks he is,” John says with a small, confident smile. “So, Sam and-”

“They’re very much in love,” Missouri says, “and it’s a darn shame you can’t even meet her.”

Even after that one final fight that had Sam storming out of the hunting business for several years, John kept tabs on him, tracked his progress in Stanford discreetly. She just wishes they could just meet and hash out their issues with each other. She hates unhappy people, hence her philosophy of telling fortune seekers what they want to hear, and she hasn’t met people unhappier than the Winchesters.

“I thought she could be a hunter,” John muses. “The Moores. I’ve met them before. Good people.”

“Sam’s lucky she’s one or she never would’ve survived that night,” Missouri says.

She watches him frown and feels his thoughts on the matter. His calls to her had increased as soon as he heard about the Palo Alto apartment fire and the unexplained disappearance of its occupants, like he understood what else was at stake.

Good, she thinks. John had hurt others with his single-minded determination and stubbornness. It’s about time he realized what effect his quest has on others.

“You think she’ll be all right?” he asks.

“You don’t have to worry a thing,” she says.

“That’s fine,” John says, more to himself than to her. “That’s just fine.”

His next thought bubbles to the surface and she braces herself for the inevitable. John looks straight at her with the focus of a battle-hardened Marine.

“So what do the angels want with Dean?”