She didn’t look like one of the crazy ones, just a quiet, dark-skinned, white-haired lady with an unexpectedly knowing smile and an iPhone full of pictures of the garden she spent all her time in. She wasn’t even part of a case--they met her at a doctor’s office, true enough, but they were only there because Sam had gashed his forearm on the sharp edge of a window frame at the latest excuse for a motel, and Dean hadn’t felt like stitching it up.
Maybe he really was getting old.
So they were sitting around the waiting room, Sammy being all stoic and manly--at least until Dean hit on the perfect level of obnoxious commentary, when he’d snap and hiss and set his jaw in that you are such a jerk attitude (and yeah, Dean wasn’t talking about how goddamn happy and grateful he was that Sam could do that again rather than sit there and dig his fingers into the cut just to know what was real, except it was a lot) and Dean got to talking, like he almost always did, with Miss Ella, as she introduced herself.
She wasn’t there for any kind of an emergency; it was just that it was a small town and the only doctor took care of everything that wasn’t life-threatening (and a little of that, too, because it was forty miles to the nearest hospital.) She was there, she said, more because she came in every month to have a little check-up and to bring flowers from the garden to the staff. She out-stubborned the both of them and insisted Sam go in before her, and then tracked them down at the pharmacy (it was three doors down and it was the only store in town so it wasn't like she’d gone all stalker on them, at least Dean didn’t think so, not then) and insisted they come to dinner.
“You’ll be doing me a favor,” she said. “I’m about to be smothered under all the tomatoes and cucumbers.”
Dean wasn’t all that excited about a dinner of vegetables, but Sam had that Be nice to the locals glint in his eye, and hey, they could always stop off at the diner and top off with some grease and sugar if they needed to. So he agreed and they went back to the room and showered and found clean clothes. At the gas station, Dean grabbed a box of not-too-old looking chocolates from next to the cashier’s booth, and they were pulling up to the neat little cottage promptly at six, just like she’d told them to.
Miss Ella met them on the porch and was maybe a little flustered at the chocolates. She recovered quickly though, and led them through the small house, every room filled to the brim with bits and pieces, back to the kitchen. Dean honestly couldn’t help the little happy noise that escaped him when the smells resolved themselves into not just vegetables, but chicken and meatloaf and a giant ham. Sam glared at him, but Miss Ella patted him on the shoulder and said she liked a man who liked his food.
“Yes, ma’am,” Dean said. Sam rolled his eyes at him, but otherwise didn’t run up the score in their never-ending game. They’d be cheap, easy points, Dean freely admitted that, but Sam didn't bite. Dean took that to mean Sam was as excited about actual food as Dean was--well, not as excited, because Dean was about moved to tears, and Sam only got that way in libraries, but Dean would grant that Sam was probably close.
It was a good dinner, and not just the food. Miss Ella had a knack for drawing things out of people; Dean heard Sam talking about stuff he was pretty sure Sam had never said to anyone other than Dean or maybe Bobby. Dean wasn’t any less chatty, and for a couple of minutes, he gave serious thought to spells and potions but nothing felt off or weird. Everything they said, Dean thought, they meant to say it, and they didn’t mind sharing.
Miss Ella had had a sister, she said. “Una was her name.” Neither one of them had ever married, and they’d lived here in this house all their adult lives, until Una had passed a year before.
“I miss her, of course,” Miss Ella said, taking Dean’s arm and walking him into one of the front rooms so she could show them her pictures. She had a ton of them, each one with two girls or babies or young women, both with the same bright smile. “Well, not all the time--it is right nice to not have someone hanging over my shoulder, telling me how I’m not making Great-Aunt Celeste’s biscuits properly.” She nodded significantly at Sam. “Una was the oldest, you see, and you know how they can be.”
“I do,” Sam agreed gravely, and sidestepped Dean’s headsmack.
Dessert was one thing after another: chocolate cake and strawberry shortcake and a lemon icebox pie, whatever that was. Dean ate one of everything, while Sam did some serious damage to the chocolate cake and Miss Ella sat and sipped daintily at her lemonade. Dean tried to suss out if there was anything she needed help with around the house--any loose boards or a sagging gutter or hell, even any windows that needed washed--but she shook her head and smiled.
“No, my pretty little house is all taken care of,” she said. “It’s always been my comfort and joy; I wouldn’t let it fall into disrepair.” Dean couldn’t see anything that was obviously out of whack, so he and Sam let her wrap up the leftovers for them. (“Now, what would I do with a half-chicken,” she said, laughing. “I might eat two bites of it.” Dean actually thought that was generous; he didn’t think he’d seen her eat anything.)
“The next time you two boys are around here again, you make sure you stop by,” she said. “This is the prettiest time, though, so if you’re anywhere near next year, you come right on over and see me.”
Dean let Sam take care of the niceties while he cleared out space in the trunk for the shopping bags of food they’d ended up with, and they both waved at the tiny figure on the front porch as Dean pulled away and down the street.
“Dude,” Dean said. “That was. Weird.”
“Good, though,” Sam said, and Dean grunted in agreement. “But yeah. Weird.”
Dean didn’t mention that it was pretty sad that somebody being nice was what was so weird; he figured Mr. Foreshadowing-and-Hidden-Meaning already had that figured out.
They stopped and bought a cooler at the next Wal-Mart they saw, and the food lasted nearly a week. The days slipped by, the usual mix of salt-and-burns broken up with a black dog in Nebraska and what looked to be pixies (seriously, Dean hated those little fucks and the way their laughter was like needles straight into his brain) in Iowa. They drifted down to New Orleans to miss the worst of the winter weather and then drove out to LA on what was left of Route 66 just for the hell of it. There was another damn report of dragons that had them high-tailing it back east, but that turned out to be nothing but a combination of drunk high school kids and over-ambitious engineering project at the local state university.
Dean was a little worried at how the days were fading into one another; having nothing world-ending to hunt and kill was supposed to mean they'd be living the good life, not roaming aimlessly and fighting over who took the bed next to the cranky heating unit in whatever shit motel they were living out of at the time.
The morning Dean found ten--jesuschrist, ten--silver hairs at his temples was it. Years were passing. Years. Dean had not survived Hell and losing Sam and every other goddamned thing that had happened just to turn into a sad, pathetic old man. With gray hair. There wasn’t anything he could do about the hair--Grecian Formula was not an option--but he could deal with the sad and pathetic part. Action was what was called for.
“Up and at ‘em, Sammy,” he barked, throwing the towel from his shower at where Sam was still burrowed under the hideous motel bedspread. “Enough of this shit.”
Interestingly enough, Sam only rolled over and said, “Did you have a plan?”
Not having to argue with Sam knocked Dean a little off-stride, but hey, in the end, not having to drag a pissy and annoyed princess along behind him was worth a little sidestepping in the beginning.
Sam, as it turned out, did have a plan. Or, at least an idea of something to do, which was a damn sight better than the aimless driving around in circles they’d been filling their days with. Dean even tossed him the keys and let him drive. He figured out Sam was heading toward Miss Ella’s after about twenty minutes but played dumb and let Sam act all casual and feel him out about it.
“She did say this was the best time of year.”
“And we’re only two, three hundred miles away,” Dean pointed out, not bothering to keep the You are such a sap out of his voice.
Sam gave him the finger, but otherwise didn’t react, so Dean figured he heard the good stuff under the insult, which was enough sharing and caring for Dean. It was the best time of the year; warm but not hot, flowers blooming and trees full and leafy. Good driving weather, but even better napping-while-being-driven weather. Dean took full advantage of it.
Sam poked him awake as they came into the edge of town; Dean shook off the last few remnants of sleep as they made the final turn onto her street. The little house looked the same as it had the year before: neat and tidy and all but surrounded with flowers and shrubs and bushes and trees. There was another car parked in front; Sam pulled up behind it and before they could decide whether they should interrupt, a figure popped up from the front porch glider where he’d been sitting and hurried down the steps.
“Hello!” the old guy called. “Hello--my goodness, I don’t think I actually believed that you would come, but here you are.” He was dressed in, well, Dean wasn’t exactly sure what the hell it was, but there were blue stripes on a white suit, coat and pants and all, with a light blue shirt and a yellow tie. He carried a straw hat with a matching yellow band around it and used it to fan his face when he wasn’t mopping it with the biggest handkerchief Dean had ever seen. Seriously, he’d slept in beds that’d had smaller sheets. It, too, was pale yellow. The total effect was pretty blinding, but the guy rushed up to them and shook their hands and Dean decided he was probably harmless.
“Here you are, here you are, just like Miss Ella said you’d be.” Ice-Cream-Suit Dude beamed at them. “And you look exactly as she described, too. Very handsome. Miss Ella always had an eye for the good-looking young men, even if she never gave one of them her heart.”
“Had?” Sam asked, and Dean saw a little of the light go out of the old guy’s eyes.
“Oh, my,” he said. “Oh, my, I had no idea you hadn’t heard.” He looked back and forth between Sam and Dean and mopped at his forehead with the handkerchief. “I am sorry to have to break the news, but Miss Ella... Well, as I’m sure you must have guessed by now, she passed.”
“We’re sorry to hear that,” Dean said, and yeah, fine, he could admit that a little of the lightness he’d been feeling faded. Sam nodded soberly and the old guy shook their hands again, using both hands like he was trying to comfort them.
“When,” Dean started, and had to clear his throat. “When did it happen?” The house looked to be in great shape; it couldn’t have been all that long ago. He couldn’t believe they’d dicked around doing nothing for so long, and then the first thing they thought to do ended up like this. Well, he could believe it; it was pretty much typical, but that didn’t mean he wanted to believe it.
“Oh, let me see,” the old guy said. “It’s been four, no, five years now.”
“Five years?” Sam said, his head whipping around to meet Dean’s eyes, and fucking hell, Dean thought. Here we go again.
The old guy turned out to be Mr. Gene, the lawyer Miss Ella and Miss Una had used for all their modest legal needs, and the executor of their combined estate. He took the looks shooting back and forth between Sam and Dean as shock and grief, which wasn’t entirely false, just not for the innocent reasons he supposed. Dean figured it was as good an excuse as any to start trying to figure out what the hell was going on, so he nodded to Sam and let the old guy take them up onto the porch.
“You understand my surprise that you hadn’t heard,” Mr. Gene said. “I simply assumed--”
“No, of course,” Sam said. “I--can’t believe it’s been that long. The house looks--just like it always did.”
“It is a lovely place,” Mr. Gene said, nodding. “Their pride and joy.”
Sam let the silence draw out, but the old guy just sat on the glider and rocked and nodded his head, lost in memories.
Finally, Dean said, “You were expecting us?”
“Oh, yes,” he said. “Yes, of course--Miss Ella, she said you’d be here sometime in June. She said it was the best time of the year and it would be when you’d come home.”
“Home,” Sam said, and Dean knew he was trying to trying to keep his voice neutral but he wasn’t quite making it.
“Well, that was what Miss Ella always said,” Mr. Gene admitted. “I don’t know that you feel that way, but she was quite certain about it, even in the final codicil to her will. I was somewhat hesitant since she didn’t have an address at which I could reach you, but she was adamant. ‘Stop fussing, Eugene,’ she said. ‘Those boys will be home, don’t you worry.’”
“Codicil?” Sam said, and this time he didn’t even try for neutral. “We’re named in the codicil? To her last will and testament. Executed before her death.”
“Five years ago,” Dean added, just in case anyone had forgotten.
“Exactly, yes, you have it right.” Old Mr. Gene nodded along happily. “She came to me not long after Miss Una passed and said she had a few bequests and such to make, so we sat down one afternoon and she fussed at me until we got it exactly the way she wanted it. My secretary and our paralegal witnessed it, so it’s all quite in perfect order.” He picked up a thick, old-fashioned brown accordion file and tried to hand it to Dean, but seemed just as happy to let Sam take it..
“Miss Ella was very specific,” Mr. Gene said, as Sam loosened the shoestring ties on the file and spilled the contents out onto his lap. “The house and the acreage behind it are in both your names--”
“Both our names?” Dean sounded like an idiot, but what the hell else was he supposed to say? “You’re sure.”
“Dean Michael and Samuel John Winchester,” Sam said, reading from the file, sounding about as stupid as Dean.
“There,” Mr. Gene said. “You see? All in order.” He stood up and patted at his pockets and eventually came up with, jesuschrist, keys on a ring. “Now, this,” he held up a brass deadbolt key, “this is the lock in the front door and it is a mite sticky, so don’t be surprised if you have to put some muscle into it. This is the back door, and this is for the storage shed aways on back at the edge of the property. I don’t know that there’s much there other than rakes and trowels, but I wouldn’t want you to think I’d forgotten anything.”
He held the keyring out to Dean, putting it into his hand and folding his fingers over it when Dean didn’t quite react quickly enough.
“The electricity and water are on, but I’m afraid there’s not any food in the house. You’ll forgive me; I had begun to doubt Miss Ella’s certainty that you would indeed come and stopped stocking the refrigerator several years ago. But I can certainly send someone over with a few things to tide you--”
“No,” Sam said. “No, that’s--we’re fine. Thank you.”
“Then I’ll leave you to get settled, and call tomorrow to see when it might be convenient for you to stop by my offices--there are, of course, the necessary papers to sign and so forth.”
“Of course,” Sam echoed, still with his hands full of papers.
“You, ah, couldn’t tell us if Miss Ella said why she, you know,” Dean waved his hand at the house and at Sam and himself.
“Oh, yes, we talked about it quite extensively,” Mr. Gene said, pausing on the top step. “There was no family, you understand, just Una and Ella. They never spoke of it, but I had the feeling they had been on their own for quite some time. They were the best of friends, those two, and Miss Ella said it was their wish that the house go to someone who understood that. She and Una had discussed it for years, apparently, but hadn’t quite finalized the details before Una passed. Miss Ella, well, she was a mite aggravated that Una had gotten out of all the legal shenanigans, as she phrased it, but she was bound and determined that she not be caught unawares again.”
“And this was five years ago,” Dean said, which, yeah, he was sounding like a broken record, but damn. The old girl had seemed so... not their kind of an issue.
“Well, closer to six; it was just a few months after Una’s passing.”
Dean opened his mouth but really, what the hell was he supposed to say? Sam looked up from the papers, finally, and hurriedly thanked Mr. Gene and sent him on his way before either one of them said something they couldn’t explain. Mr. Gene paused and waved before he got into his car, and then it took him three tries to get her started but finally he was turning the corner and out of sight.
Dean counted to ten just to be sure, and then he and Sam broke for the car at the same time. “EMF meter?” Sam asked, as he fumbled open the trunk.
“Back left corner,” Dean said, digging under the front seat for the stash of holy water. “Better get some salt, too. And that iron poker.”
“Okay,” Sam said, stuffing things in his pockets and squaring his shoulders. “Let’s go figure out what the hell is going on.”
“Nothing,” Dean said, shaking the meter. “Not one goddamned blip.” He stared around the attic and shook his head. “Come on, let’s try this one--”
“Dude,” Sam said. “We’ve been through the entire house five times. Give it a rest.”
“I just mean,” Sam said, “whatever’s going on isn’t registering, so can we think for a minute or two and stop crawling around the attic and basement just because?”
“You got any better ideas, let’s hear ‘em,” Dean snapped.
“Goddamnit, Dean, I don’t know,” Sam snapped back. “I’m just saying, I think we’ve covered our bases with the meter.”
“Yeah,” Dean sighed. “Yeah, sorry, man.”
“‘sokay,” Sam said, shrugging. “So, we’re sure we haven’t lost five years?”
“uh,” Dean said, because honestly, the days had been slipping by, and as weird as that might be, he wouldn’t not take it for an answer. They checked, though, turned on the old-fashioned console TV and flipped around until they found the evening news and confirmed that it was the date they thought it was. Then Sam went and got his journal and verified the date when they’d had dinner and it was not quite a year earlier. They couldn’t totally rely on that, of course, but it didn’t seem like they’d lost a bunch of time.
They went back out by the highway and found a place to eat; neither of them said anything about it, but Dean thought it was pretty telling that they went for the predictability of a chain. It sure as hell wasn’t for the stellar menu, he thought, biting into his over-done burger without much enthusiasm.
Sam poked at his own burger with about the same level of disinterest. “I think my tastebuds were gearing up for some of that chicken,” he said when Dean cocked an eyebrow at him.
“Or the ham,” Dean said, a little dreamily, but then pulled himself together. “Both of which were apparently cooked by a friggin' ghost.”
Sam opened his mouth, and then closed it again and shrugged. “You got me,” he said. “I’ve never heard of anything like that.” He pushed his soggy fries around on his plate. “It was really good chicken, though.”
“And pie,” Dean added, with a sigh. He couldn’t even bring himself to look at what they had on the dessert menu.
“Now what?” Sam asked.
“We go back,” Dean said. “Stake the place out, see what happens overnight.”
Sam didn’t look very happy about the prospect of spending the night in the Impala, but that’s what he got for being a ginormous freak. Maybe something would happen and they could call it a night before too long, Dean thought, but he didn’t really believe it. Sam probably wouldn’t either
Nothing happened during the night. Or the following day, or that night either. The EMF meter remained stubbornly dark; the new one that Dean built didn’t show anything different. The house was peaceful and quiet no matter when they were there; Sam found nothing in the town’s records and newspapers other than the occasional mention of the Ladies’ Auxiliary holding their annual summer fete there. After two weeks, they took to sitting out on the porch during the day, though they still slept in shifts in the car during the night, at least until Sam’s back pitched a fit and it came down to sleeping in the house or abandoning the whole thing and getting out of town.
“We can sleep in shifts, still,” Dean said, as though Sam was arguing with him. He wasn’t; he was happy to be in a bed that was big enough to stretch out on, but Dean felt like he was letting his guard down too easy.
“Sure,” Sam mumbled, already half-gone. “Wake me up whenever.”
Dean sat and watched him for a long time, and then wandered around the house, shotgun and silver knife at the ready, holy water in a bottle at his belt. It was quiet, like it always was, and for the thousandth time, Dean wished he knew what was going on. It was harder and harder not to want to stay, and seeing Sam sacked out on a proper bed, with sheets that hadn’t been slept in by a thousand other people and pillows that were fresh and soft--well, Dean wasn’t doing very well in fighting off the feeling that they were, as old Mr. Gene kept telling them, home.
He walked around the house for another hour, and then went and sat on the top step of the porch and listened to the quiet sounds of the night until he was almost falling over with exhaustion. Sam woke easily, and Dean fell into the bed and slept long and dreamless through the rest of the night.
Somewhere in the first month, Sam settled into the second bedroom, leaving Dean with the room they’d shared initially and more and more of their stuff crept into the house. The coffee maker was old; it seemed stupid to keep fighting with it, or to drive all the way back to the highway to get their morning fix, so Dean stopped one day and Sam ran into the little hardware store and came out with a new 10-cup Mr. Coffee. It was, Dean realized, the first appliance they’d ever actually bought, not just borrowed or found or that came with whatever place they were staying at. It made pretty good coffee.
Mr. Gene came by with papers for them to sign, the deed to the house, county tax records, stuff Dean had no idea about, but even when he didn’t have anything more, he still stopped by every week. After a couple of months, he said, “You boys, you don’t have to keep the house like a museum. You can change things to suit you. Miss Ella wouldn’t mind.”
Dean had gotten to be kind of fond of the old guy--his suits were pretty entertaining right off the bat, and he was a goldmine of gossip besides. “Maybe we like the frills and the ruffles and the--hey, what are the lacy things again, Sam?”
“Antimacassars,” Sam-the-egghead said, not looking up from where he’d been going through Miss Ella’s little office.
“They do seem to add a certain style to the place,” Mr. Gene said with the most pathetic attempt at a deadpan Dean had ever seen. Dean played along with him a little more and waved him off when he left. Sam was still going page by page through the file cabinet, so Dean went and got the book of plants and pulled anything that didn’t match a picture that he could find of an actual flower or vegetable.
“Dean,” Sam called. “Dean.”
Before Dean could even get up the steps, Sam was out on the porch, waving a long, slender envelope at him.
“It. Has our names on it,” Sam said, and sure enough, Dean and Sam was written across the front in a spidery, but still firm-looking script. Without saying anything, Dean pushed Sam back into the house, because he wasn’t reading whatever was inside out where the whole neighborhood could watch.
Sam took a deep breath and worked the envelope open with careful fingers. A letter fell out, and a picture fluttered to the floor. Dean scrabbled for it, flipping it over and then almost dropping it again.
“Holy shit,” he managed, thrusting the small black-and-white photo at Sam. It was Una and Ella--the house still had a hundred pictures of them; Dean knew them almost as well as he knew his own parents.
“They were hunters?” Sam said in a shaky voice, and Dean could only nod. The picture showed the two of them, barely grown women, outside a small graveyard, shotguns at the ready, a bag of salt at their feet. Dean squinted and thought the necklaces they both wore reminded him of the charm bracelet he’d seen on his mother’s wrist when Cas had first sent him back in time.
“What’s the letter say?” Dean’s voice was tight and thick, but Sam didn’t mention it, only smoothed the paper out and let Dean read it with him.
We waited as long as we could for you, and then when we ran out of time, Ella stayed back until you could find us. The house is in our name, and now should be in yours, but it belongs to itself. Una looked for years and years, and the best she could describe it is that it is Sanctuary. It came to us when we were tired and disheartened. It nourished our souls, and in return we cared for it. If it is not what you need, we ask only that you pass it to someone who does. Peace + Blessings, Una and Ella Robertson
“Okay,” Dean said. “Sanctuary. There’s not something you run across every day.” Or ever, if you’re us, he thought, but didn’t add. Sam nodded like he had, and they both went back to read the letter again.
Sam pulled an all-nighter with the research; Dean went through the rest of the file cabinets and all the drawers and cupboards in the house. Neither one of them came up with anything more. They sat on the top step, watching the sun rise, and drinking yet another pot of coffee.
“I don’t know,” Sam was saying. “I--it could be okay, or...”
“Not,” Dean finished for him. Sam nodded.
“They lived here,” Dean added after a while.
“For a lot of years,” Sam said. “We do know that.”
“They were happy.” Dean said it softly, but with conviction. The pictures in the house--that’s what they showed, he wasn’t just kidding himself.
“It took care of them,” Sam said.
“They took care of it.”
“Is that--would you want that?” Sam asked in a rush. “Would--this,” he gestured out to the garden and the yard. “Would it be enough?”
“I don’t--” Dean stopped and took a deep breath. “I don’t know,” he said. “For a while, I think--yeah.” Sam nodded, and Dean said, “What about you? Is it enough?”
Sam shrugged; Dean didn’t have a clue what he was thinking.
“We could stay,” Sam said finally, and his voice sounded a little wondering, as though he was little out of his depth. “It’s ours to safeguard, for as long as we want.”
“I can work with that, Sammy,” Dean said.
Sam nodded, and looked around at the little hallway, at the flowered wallpaper and the braided rugs on the floor. Dean looked with him.
“But the antima--the antic--the lace things have got to go.”