Actions

Work Header

In a Cursed Hour

Chapter Text

 

Boston, Massachusetts: October 30, 2005

 

“Jenn?” Sam says, finishing his tie in the mirror. He steps back, grinning at the effect of the way-too-big suit jacket. “Are you ready? We’re gonna be late if we don’t hurry, baby.”

Jenn pops her head into the bedroom, scowling at him. “Okay, first of all, we were late fifteen minutes ago,” she says, through a mouthful of bobby pins. “Second, if you call me baby again when you’re forcing me to go to this dumb day-before-Halloween party, I will kick you. I don’t care if you’re a mountain, or if I break a toe. You will be kicked.”

Sam laughs and follows her into their tiny bathroom, stepping over the spilled wreck of the laundry basket. She’s craned around, one eye on the mirror as she tries to tame the long red waterfall of her hair into a what she’s calling a ‘nineties bun.’

“Agent Scully, I’m sure that’s no way to speak to your partner,” he says, deepening his voice a little. She rolls her eyes and he smiles, bending down to press a kiss against the fine pale skin on her temple.

She tucks in the last messy strand of red hair and runs slim fingers through her bangs. “Should’ve made you be Scully,” she says, with a huff, but she’s smiling back at him in the mirror.

He wraps his hands around her tiny waist, pulls her back so that he can rest his chin on her head—she’s wearing those oh-so-sensible flats, so he has to bend a little to do it, but it's not like he minds. She squirms against him, comfortably, and then her gaze goes a little critical, tracking over both of their reflections. “You think we look good?”

He smiles and presses another kiss to the top of her head, speaks into the soft sweet-smelling mass of her hair. “You always look good,” he says, and picks up his head again with a grin. “Baby.”

He gets a quick backwards kick to the shin, as promised, but she’s grinning, too, so he figures it was worth it.

*

Brandi’s apartment is crammed full with college kids—some of them Sam knows from the cafe, but most of them are classmates of hers and Jenn’s at BU that he really only sees at these things. Brandi’s got the music turned up loud and he’s surrounded by costumed English majors and someone’s definitely smoking pot, by the smell, and he loses Jenn in about five minutes. That’s pretty typical—he tells her it’s like trying to keep track of a toddler in a crowd. She usually climbs him in retaliation.

He’s grabbing two cups of what looks like truly vile punch when a slight weight rams into him from behind and there’s a shout of, “Samwise! You made it!”

He barely saves the cups and turns around to find Brandi grinning up at him, barely dressed in a slutty devil costume with sparkly red horns, one arm slung around the waist of a pretty girl in a short toga-style white dress with knocked-askew angel wings. “Hey,” he shouts back, and accepts the group hug he’s smushed into. “I don’t think we’ve met?” he says to the angel-girl, leaning down a little so he can be heard.

Brandi nods enthusiastically—already had a few cups of whatever’s in the punch bowl, Sam’s guessing—and squeezes the girl closer. “This is Miranda, she’s pre-Med at Hahvahd,” she says, with an exaggerated accent, and then knocks a sloppy kiss against the girl’s flushed, smiling face. “She’s super hot and divine in the sack and you can’t have her, she’s mine.”

“Brandi!” Miranda squeals, knocking her hip into Brandi’s in protest, but she doesn’t actually look upset.

Brandi grins at her wolfishly and Sam rolls his eyes. “I feel like I should apologize on her behalf,” he says to Miranda, and flicks one of Brandi’s red horns. “You’re feral, we can’t take you anywhere. I’m amazed that Benson hasn’t fired you.”

“Benson loves me,” she shoots back, and he grins, shaking his head. It’s a familiar argument.

A little hand slides around his waist and he looks down to find Jenn leaning into his side, and he offers her one of his punch cups with a kiss. “Benson thinks it’s trendy to have a pretty lesbian serving coffee to the Cantabridgians,” Jenn says, though her smile at Miranda is polite.

Brandi leans in to give Jenn a kiss on the cheek in greeting—it leaves a smear of dark red lipstick, which she thumbs familiarly away. “What can I say,” she says, grinning. “I was in drama in high school, I’m fine with playing my role. Better than dimpling up at the cougars for tips, right, Sam?”

“Hey,” he says, mildly. “I give away the dimples for free.”

“Don’t I know it,” Jenn says, reaching up to tug at his hair, and then one of their fellow baristas from the cafe crashes into the group and a fun, fast song comes on and Jenn drags him out into the crowd to dance, and time passes pretty quickly after that.

It’s much later, nearly midnight, when they’re sprawled around the wreck of the coffee table. Most of the other kids are gone, but the music’s still playing low—the Monster Mash, yet again—and Brandi’s covered all the lamps with scarves so the room’s full of murky red light. Sam’s feeling pretty mellow, half a j and four or five cups of toxic punch under his belt, Jenn’s bare pretty feet in his lap. Miranda’s passed out in the bedroom and Brandi’s across from him slung over her ratty third-hand armchair, kicking her long legs in the air while she pours the last of her bottle of wine into a coffee mug.

“Here’s to Sammy,” Brandi says, toasting him with the mug. “The very best barista in Cambridge, and the best cocktail-slinger those Harvard snobs could hope for, and—and probably the best man-meat this side of the Charles River, though of course I will let you be the judge of that, Jenn-baby.”

“Don’t call me Sammy,” Sam says, and tips his head back against the back of the couch.

Jenn’s giggling, hands over her face. He wiggles one of her little feet, and she manages to get out, “Man-meat,” half-choked with laughter. He tips a glare at Brandi, who shrugs, unrepentant.

“Seriously, though—seriously, Sam,” Jenn says, hauling herself a little more upright by the sleeve of his crappy Goodwill Mulder jacket. She fixes him with one of her earnest looks,  “You’re just—you’re so good, you know? You’re working two jobs and you’re amazing, I’m so proud and grateful for you, sweetheart, but—you’re so smart, honey. Isn’t he smart, B?”

Brandi props her head on one hand, grinning at Sam’s discomfort. “He is very smart, J.”

“I know!” Jenn struggles up a little more, her hair half-undone and darkened almost to black in the dim light. Sam tucks a wing of it behind her ear, smiling at how heartfelt her expression is, even if he’s heard this a dozen times before. “Your SAT score was better than mine. You could get in, easy—to any of the schools in this town, even with those Harvard assholes. You could get into anywhere you wanted to go.”

He sighs, and picks up her hand from his jacket, kissing the palm of it. “She’s right, you know,” Brandi says. He glances over—she tips her mug at him in another little toast, red mouth curled up on one side. “You can be anything you want to be, Sam Winchester.”

“You’re an instigator,” he says to Brandi, and then scoops Jenn into his lap. He tips her chin up with a finger. “I promise, baby, I’m exactly where I want to be. I don’t want to be stuck in a library, always studying instead of meeting people, seeing the world. That’s how I got to meet you, remember?”

“Yeah,” she says, soft, but she’s not going to let it go—only brought it up so baldly because she’s tipsy, and tired, and probably not going to make it to her nine a.m. class tomorrow. He kisses her, and she just blinks sleepily, fingers toying with his fake FBI badge that says Fox Mulder.

“Come on, Scully,” he says, standing up with her still in his arms, her weight curled in against his chest. “Time to get home.”

*

It’s a windy, wet night, the trees bare of the last of their leaves and rattling as October comes to its chilly end. That’s not what woke Sam, though, and he blinks away his dream's bright afterimages of fire, scrubs a hand over his eyes, Jenn breathing slow and low and pressed up against his back. The wind soughs past their windows, and the trees across the street creak with it, but it’s near-silent otherwise. It’s just past three in the morning, by the bedside clock. He’s supposed to be up in two hours to get to work at the cafe, and he sighs, eyes slipping closed again—but then there’s another rattle, not from the wind or the trees or the old building but from inside the apartment, and his eyes fly wide, heart suddenly pounding in his chest.

He rolls out of bed and is at the bedroom door immediately, on near-silent feet. There’s a creak, and that’s—that’s the hinges on the front door, which Jenn keeps meaning to oil and then forgetting, and then the door squeaks back shut and that means—there’s someone in their living room. Sam takes a deep breath, trying to stay quiet, and peeks around the doorframe.

There’s hardly any light coming through the windows. Just enough to see some black shape, some fucking guy, hovering in the space between the kitchenette and the couch, and he starts to turn toward the bedroom and Sam bunches himself and then explodes forward through the open door, catching the guy around the middle and shoving him into the wall next to the fridge. The impact jars the breath out of Sam but the guy eels out of his grip, rolling into the counter and sending the clean silverware in the drainer rattling back into the sink. Sam grabs at his arm but the guy slips him, wool coat sliding under his fingers as he staggers back, back toward the bedroom door, toward Jenn, and Sam flat out tackles him, hitting him in the chest with his shoulder and bearing them both down to the floor, and the guy’s breathing hard, shoving against Sam’s bigger body, and Sam sits up on his knees and tries to grab the guy’s hands, to bear him down and get him still and call for the police, and then the guy twists his hips hard and Sam’s tossed off, onto his side somehow, and the guy scrambles away back toward the kitchen, skidding backwards across the floor, and Sam shoves himself to his feet and reaches, ready to haul the prick back and knock him out if he has to, when silvery light spills into the room as the moon comes out from behind the clouds and—what, what the fuck

“Sam, Sammy, it’s me, it’s me,” Dean says, panting hard, pressed up tight against the oven door.

Sam freezes in place, staring. “You—you haven’t shaved,” he says.

Dean blinks at him, chest heaving, and Sam shakes his head, says, “God, Dean, sorry—here,” and grabs Dean’s hands, pulls him up to his feet, fast enough that Dean staggers a little and Sam has to set a hand on his shoulder to steady him. He flicks on the kitchen light and just—stares, for a second.

It’s been—what, four years, a little more, and somehow Dean’s shorter than him now. Dad’s old navy peacoat hangs off his shoulders, a little too big on him, and his hair’s a little longer than it used to be, the usually neatly parted sweep of it disheveled from their fight. He’s skinnier than Sam remembers, and he hasn’t shaved in a week by the look of it, and he’s milk-pale with his freckles standing out harshly in the bright kitchen light, and he’s staring at Sam, eyes wide, like—Sam drags him into a hug, wraps his arms tight around Dean’s shoulders and squeezes. It’s been so long. Dean hitches in a surprised breath, but hugs him right back—clings hard, his face buried in against Sam’s shoulder. Sam puts a hand over the back of his head, on the soft muss of his hair, and Dean shudders, his hands clawing into Sam’s t-shirt, tight.

“Dean,” Sam says, and goes to pull back but Dean doesn’t let go. “Hey, Dean, what’s—”

“Sam?” Jenn says, sharply. Dean does jerk away at that, lurches back from Sam and fetches up against the counter. Jenn’s standing in the doorway to the bedroom with her cell tight in one hand, sloppily-tied bathrobe falling off one bare shoulder, eyes darting back and forth between him and Dean. “What’s going on? Do I need to call the cops, or what?”

“No!” He grabs Dean’s arm and pulls him back to Sam’s side, shaking his head at Jenn. “No, baby. Sorry, I just didn’t realize—this is my brother. This is Dean.”

Her eyes pop wide, and Sam turns back to Dean, whose expression is shuttered, but he’s looking straight back at Sam. “Jennifer’s my girlfriend, Dean, we—this is our apartment.”

“Sorry,” Dean says, after a second. “I have to talk to you, Sammy.” He flicks a glance at Jenn, and then looks down at the floor, flushing a little.

Sam meets Jenn’s confused look with a shrug. “I—of course, man,” he says, and nudges Dean’s shoulder, tries a smile. “But couldn't you have called first?”

Dean shoves his hands into his coat pockets and doesn’t look up from the floor. “I emailed you,” he says, quiet like Dean always is around strangers. “But, uh, you didn’t get back to me, and I never got your number, so—” He finally does look up, and shrugs, but Sam’s seeing it, now—his eyes are a little too wide, his face too pale. “Sammy, I need to talk to you. About, um. Family business.”

Something’s wrong, here. Sam nods, immediately, puts a hand on Dean’s shoulder and squeezes. “Okay, yeah,” he says. “Okay.”

Jenn’s still standing there, just inside the doorway, and he smiles at her apologetically. “Jenn, can you give us a minute? I'm sorry, it's kind of a… private family thing.”

She’s frowning, a little, but she also says, “Sure,” with a small smile at Dean that he won’t see because he still isn’t looking at her. She ties her bathrobe a little more securely and steps over to give Sam a peck on the cheek. He squeezes her hand, grateful. “I’m going back to bed. I’d love to talk to you in the morning, Dean,” she says, polite, and then slips into their bedroom and closes the door softly behind her.

“She’s the best,” Sam tries, but Dean’s still—he’s still so pale, and he nods but he’s not moving, silent and immobile and for a moment utterly alien in their half-clean, bright kitchen. “Dean?”

“Dad’s gone,” he blurts out, and then it’s Sam’s turn to freeze. Dean grabs at him, curls cold fingers tight into Sam’s bare forearm like he’s got to keep Sam from getting away. “He’s missing and I haven’t heard from him in weeks, Sam, and I don’t—I don’t know what to do. Something’s wrong, I know it, and I just—we have to find him, okay, because—”

“Okay,” Sam says, again, but really it’s just to stop the increasing speed of Dean’s voice. “Here, come here—” and he takes Dean’s wrist, pulls him as gently as he can over to the couch and sits him down. Dean’s shaking, just a little, and this is freaking Sam out. Dean’s never like this, never this panicked about anything. He settles a hand on Dean’s knee, heavy, so the heat and weight will seep in through the fine dark wool. Hopefully it’ll ground him, a little. “Okay, tell me. Why do you think he’s missing? He’s been out of touch before, but he always comes back.”

Dean swallows, hard. His coat’s fallen open, just enough that Sam can see his grey jacket’s a little rumpled, his tie askew.

“He called me,” Dean starts, voice low and rough. He scrubs his hand over his mouth, and it scrapes audibly over that unexpected stubble. “He called after his last research trip was supposed to be over and said he was going to the chapterhouse up in Portsmouth to check out a possible lead on whatever killed Mom, and he wanted me to finish up a translation of the Cor Cordium into Enochian so he’d have it for the Warder there.”

“Still having you do the grunt work, isn’t he,” Sam says, pulling back, and Dean flashes a warning look at him. “Sorry. Just—this isn’t sounding all that out of the ordinary, Dean.”

“He called on the seventh, Sam. Said he was going to call back on the ninth, and to have it ready by then, and for the first few days, I thought I was missing his calls somehow.” Dean hunches forward, puts his elbows on his knees, so he’s staring at the bare wood between his shoes. “God, I started—I was practically sitting on top of phone, for days, and he never called, and he never called, and I haven’t gotten an alert from Portsmouth, and I just—something’s wrong, Sammy. Something’s just—I can feel it.”

Sam frowns. “But—don’t you think he’s just wrapped up in whatever research he’s doing? He was gone all the time, I just don’t get—”

“He always calls,” Dean interrupts. He folds his hands together so his knuckles stand out, white. “He always calls me, he’s never late on that, because it’s the job. It’s important. If he didn’t call, then something’s wrong. If he’s not dead already, he needs our help.”

There’s a little, shivery tremor in those last few words. Sam runs a hand through his hair, blows out a sigh. “Dean… It’s not that I don’t believe you. It’s just—I kind of doubt Dad wants our help.”

Dean looks up sharply at that, eyes wide. “Sammy—you know he’s not still mad at you.”

Sam snorts at that, can’t help it. “Come on. Dad? He hangs onto a grudge longer than anyone on the planet. I told him I couldn’t stand to be buried down there anymore, that I didn’t want to live my whole life in a bunker. That I needed to see the world, at least a little. He’s the one who said that if I was going to leave, I’d better stay gone.”

Dean looks away, at that. Bites his lips between his teeth. In the half-light from the kitchen he’s still so pale, bruised-looking shadows under his eyes. “I know you wanted something more, and I—I get it,” he says, after a few seconds of silence. “I know you’re not coming back to Lebanon. But Dad’s in trouble, Sam. I’m sorry to invade your life like this, but I don’t think I can do this by myself.”

He looks so tired. “Yeah,” Sam says. He puts a hand on Dean’s shoulder, lean but too bony, even through the layers of shirt, suit jacket, coat. “Yeah, of course I’ll help.”

*

Sam’s sure that Dean needs to sleep, and his suspicions are proved correct when it turns out that Dean drove straight here from Lebanon—almost a thirty hour trip, the way Dean drives, and he’s been running that whole time on coffee and adrenaline and fear. Sam convinces him to take off the peacoat and close his eyes, just for a few minutes, and it’s only seconds before Dean’s curled up on their lumpy couch, passed out with his forehead pressed up against the threadbare upholstery.

He drums his fingers on the side of his thigh for a minute, looking off into the distance at nothing at all, and then leans over and drags Jenn’s laptop across the coffee table. He checks his BU email account, the one he got when he audited that psych class with Jenn, but there’s nothing there other than the invite to Brandi’s party, the usual spam from the bookstore, the syllabi that Jenn forwards to him in a vain attempt to get him to take more classes. No email from Dean. But then—oh. Oh, shit.

He Googles it to make sure it’s still active and—yeah, there it is. That old as hell website that Dean used to host their email when Dad got approval to install the bunker’s dial-up internet. It takes him a minute to figure out where they’ve moved the email link to, and then another minute to remember his password, and then he’s in, and—there are a dozen unread messages. He scrolls down a little, clicks on the oldest—this one from April 2003.

     TO: swinch8128@juno.com

     FROM: deanw1915@juno.com

     SUBJECT: RE: RE: RE: FW: Top 10 best road trip destinations

     So, Niagara must be pretty amazing if you haven't left yet—I'm still waiting for my postcard, dude. Have you decided where you'll head next? I'm voting for that shoe house place—not sure I believe it's actually real.

     Things are still pretty quiet here. Took me a week, but I think I finally have room 37 properly inventoried—there were seven boxes just labeled 'collected bric-a-brac', which turned out to be mostly full of cursed objects. Could've really caused a mess.

     Anyway, just checking to see how you're doing.

     —D

Sam puts his hands over his face. April was when he’d used the last of his cash reserves to take a Greyhound from Niagara to Boston; when he’d found himself staying in a youth hostel for a few days, walking around the Harvard campus in spring, and he’d stopped a few times into this one cafe because it was close, and cool, and this nice girl called Brandi had sort of fake-flirted with him and offered him a job, and he’d taken it, because—because he didn’t know why. Because he’d been almost across the whole country and he didn’t want to settle, exactly, but he needed cash and he liked Boston. Because just leaving the bunker and the Men of Letters behind hadn’t meant that he’d found his purpose in life, and he wasn’t any more likely to find it on the road than he was here. And then Brandi introduced him to Jenn, from one of her English classes, and then it was just… time. Doing what it did. His emails back and forth to Dean had been getting less frequent, even then, because he was doing things that Dean didn’t want to know about. Things Dean probably wouldn’t understand, locked down underground as he was. Jenn convinced him to audit that one class, and he’d been required to use the new email from the school to communicate with his classmates, and then he’d been so swept up in it all—the new job and the new town and the new girl, the friends that suddenly erupted out of the woodwork, this new life that seemed like it had just been waiting for him to show up. Somehow, in all that, he’d forgotten to check his old email—forgotten to do the most basic thing, the thing he promised Dean he’d do, standing out at the end of the driveway that terrible night after all the fighting and threats were through.

It happens. He knows that. Time moves on, and long-distance relationships fray and falter as daily communication turns into weeks, into months. He just can’t believe—he never realized that he’d be the one guilty of doing that to Dean. To Dean, of all people.

He clicks through the messages. Can’t not, at this point. Wow, Niagara must really be something special, Dean writes, a few weeks later. Only news around here is that the corn harvest is finally coming in—got some really good sweet corn on the last supply run, although I bought too much and wound up eating it for two days straight. Keep forgetting I don't have to feed your hollow leg anymore.

And then, a month later: Still no postcard—maybe it got lost in the mail. Postal service really isn't what it used to be. Been practicing my knife-throwing recently, finally starting to get the hang of doing it blindfolded.

A few more short notes, unanswered still. Dean never mentions Dad, doesn’t talk too much about the work he does for the Letters. He talks instead about the fall harvest, how he tried a new pumpkin pie recipe and it worked pretty well. He tells Sam about how the tiny Lebanon Community Library finally got a new librarian, and how they’re going to order some more modern novels (Thank God, he writes, I think I’ve read everything in there twice since we started going by ourselves. Remember, Sammy?)

And then, in November, not long after the anniversary of Mom’s death:

     Haven't heard from you in a while, brat. Did you meet a pretty girl or something? I worry about you sometimes, out there with no one to watch your back. You'd let me know if anything was wrong, right?

Sam’s chest is tight. This is—much worse than he’d imagined. There’s a longer gap, after that one—the next email’s from January 2004, just after Dean’s birthday, and there’s no subject line.

     You remember how we used to pretend there were pepole hiding in the bedroomss when the doors were closed? and we'd try to catch them by opening the doors real fast? it's weird but sometimes it's like i can hear them if i m not doing something that make s noise. started leaving the tv on most of the time, helps a little. its just so quiet down here

     you know, dads been gone a lot i bet you could come viist if you wanted. you ould stay for a couple days and he d never know. still got your room like you like it and im keeping it clean. changes the sheets last month and everything. Promise i wouldnt tell dad if you came

     even just a phone call would be nice though itd have to be short in case dad called. but you could just this once. let me know okay? I miss

It cuts off, there. Sam sits on his end of the couch with his hand over his mouth, and doesn’t know if Dean meant to delete it, or if he sent it that way on purpose. If he even knows that he sent it. Dean never, ever gets drunk. They always had fine scotch and good bourbon around for guests, because the bunker was in a lot of ways a gentleman’s club, but Dean never touched it, for the most part. Dad would. Not all the time, not like he could have, but there were always those hard few days around November second when it would get bad, and Dean would take Sam and they’d hide in one of the bedrooms, playing Monopoly or cribbage, Dean reading aloud to Sam over the top of any sounds that might come down the long hallways from the library.

How bad it must have been for Dean to get that far gone, Sam thinks, and looks over to where Dean’s still sleeping, hands tucked up against his chest, shoulders hunched in like he’s cold. Sam rubs his fingertips hard over his mouth, then drags his knuckles harshly over both eyes. Dean didn’t write again, after that, until this last email, the one from last week.

     SUBJECT: Dad

     Sam—

     Dad was supposed to check in two weeks ago, and I haven't heard anything. I know we haven't talked in a long time, but I think I might need your help on this. Please respond if you get this.

     —Dean

He closes the laptop lid, and sits there looking out the dark windows. He runs his hands through his hair and locks his fingers tight over the back of his neck, thinking of logistics. He took the night off from the bar to go to Brandi’s party, and he’s supposed to be at work in—he checks—god, three hours at the cafe, and their rent is due in two days.

The lights are off when he slips into the bedroom, but when he sits on the edge of the bed Jenn turns right over and looks up at him. “Everything okay?” she whispers.

“Yeah,” Sam says, and then pauses. He fumbles for Jenn’s hand in the sheets and grabs it, tight. “No,” he says, instead. “Not really, baby.”

She turns on the lamp and sits up, but lets him keep hold of her hand. She’s stripped down to her nightie again, one strap falling off her shoulder, and her hair’s an absolute wreck in its half-undone bun, and she’s obviously pretty hungover, but she’s still looking straight at him, steady and calm. Has been waiting for him to come to bed, to make sure everything’s all right. He doesn’t know what he did to deserve this girl.

She searches his face. “Is your brother okay?” she says, eventually, keeping her voice low.

He shakes his head. “It’s—our dad,” he says, and closes his eyes. He’s never told her. Not anything that counts, about what’s really behind him. “He gets really low, this time of year. Because of our mom, you know? He’s up at a family cabin, up in New Hampshire. We’ve just got to go get him and make sure he’s okay.”

“Okay,” she says. She squeezes his hand back. “Can I do anything?”

He huffs a laugh. “No—you’re the greatest, but no. We’ll take care of it.” He clears his throat and rubs the back of her hand with his thumb, tries to figure out what to say. “But, uh. I’m gonna miss a few shifts, at the cafe and the bar, and with rent due—”

Jenn smacks his shoulder and is shaking her head before he’s even halfway through the sentence. “Don’t think about that right now,” she says. “This is your family, Sam. You never see them, and now they’re here and they need you, so that comes first. We’ll figure out the rent. I can ask my dad for a loan if I have to, it’s okay.”

He nods, biting his lip, and then he pulls her in by the back of her neck and kisses her, hard, and again more softly. “I love you,” he says, against her mouth, and she smiles and tugs his hair.

“Yeah, same here,” she says back, but her voice is soft.

He breathes her in for a second, the sleep-stale warmth of her, and then stands up to start throwing some clothes into a bag.

“You’re leaving right now?” she says.

He shrugs, digging through their haphazardly arranged laundry. “I’m awake,” he says, “and it’s not that far. I’m hoping we’ll be able to dig him out and be back in a day or two. Back by the first, hopefully.”

She makes a little hmm noise, and watches as he pulls together a pair of boots, a few button-downs, jeans and khakis. She frowns a little at the tie he chucks into the bag, and he shrugs, and she rolls her eyes and grins, snuggling back down into the pillow.

“You know,” she says, as he’s closing up his old, battered duffle. “You never let anyone call you Sammy.”

He zips it closed and shrugs, looking up at her. “He’s my brother.”

She nods, looking thoughtful. “Yeah.”

He leans over her and kisses her, on the eyebrow and nose and lips. “See you soon, baby. Get some sleep.”

“You, too, if you can,” she says, and pulls the blankets up to her shoulder. She gives him a little smile, eyes half-closed. “Don’t worry, Sam. Everything’s going to work out okay.”

*

After Sam gets off the phone with both of his managers, pleading family emergency to secure a few days off, it takes him a minute to summon up enough cruelty to wake Dean—not that he actually looks comfortable. He’s rolled over a little, enough so that Sam can study his face. The circles under his eyes are so dark, and the light coming in from the kitchen casts a shadow off his cheekbone, knife-sharp. When Sam finally does lean in to shake his shoulder, he’s close enough to see Dean’s eyes, when they shoot open. They’re bleary and bloodshot, the green standing out like a shock even in the dim of four a.m.

Dean doesn’t say anything, just stares blankly at Sam like he’s not actually awake. “You up for the drive to Portsmouth?” Sam tries. Dean’s silent, just looking at him, and a weird panic starts to flutter against the back of Sam’s throat as they stare at each other. What if he’s actually—what if something’s, like really wrong—

But then Dean’s eyes go wide and he swallows, shifting back into the tight-lipped expression from before. “Yeah. Yeah, okay,” he says, pushing himself up on one elbow. He scrubs at his face with the other hand. “Where’d you put my coat?”

Sam hands it over, pointedly taking the car keys out of the pocket as he does. He gets a quick grimace for that, but no real protest. Dean puts his coat on one sleeve at a time, clumsy as a little kid with the arm holes, and then Sam’s chivvying him down the stairs to the ground floor and out onto the street. The Impala’s half a block up, parked at an awkward angle that would’ve earned Dean a ticket any other time of day, gleaming and glossy in the light from the streetlamps filtering through the bare trees. It’s weird, the sudden rush of childhood memories that come pouring in at the sight, at the creak in the doors that Dean never oiled out. He settles behind the wheel and the surge of memory is even stronger when the engine rumbles throatily to life. Okay. He can admit that he missed the car.

The Dean who'd taught Sam to drive had all but hovered on top of him every time they made the five minute run to and from town, warning him to be mindful of the shocks and to go slow over the gravel patches. By the time Sam eases out of their neighborhood and angles them toward the highway out of town, this Dean's passed out in the passenger seat, curled in on himself like he was on the couch, head leaned up against the window. The headlights of a passing car catch over his pale skin, across the engraving on the dark platinum ring on his left hand, where he’s holding his coat closed against the cold, like a shield.

Sam swallows, but then the light turns green and he has to pay attention to driving, to the road, and not just worry over his brother.

Maybe it's the early-morning darkness, or the hard winds that have stripped the trees of their last autumn leaves, but the road seems more desolate than he remembers from the handful of times he's made the trip out of town with Jenn. A few cars pass as he’s leaving Boston, but it’s nothing like what the traffic will be like in an hour. Dean breathes steadily beside him and it’s only half-familiar. He blinks hard at the road, trying not to get hypnotized by the dotted line disappearing under the car. He’s used to being up at this hour, but usually he's the one curled up in the corner of a seat, dozing on the bus. Dean starts to snore, just a little. No help there. He leans over and fumbles in the glovebox—and, yeah, their parents’ few old tapes are still there. He picks a cassette at random and slots it in, just to have something to keep himself awake. Quiet guitar, familiar voice from when he and Dean would camp out in the garage, listening to music and pretending like they were on a road trip, like from the movies. This will work. Homeward Bound carries him north, volume on low so it won’t disturb Dean.

Signs for Portsmouth start showing up after an hour on the highway, and he pulls off toward a McDonald’s with relief. He needs caffeine. He shuts off the engine and scrubs his hands through his hair, sighing into the sudden silence. Dean’s still slumped against the door, but he’s relaxed, finally—his arm loose in his lap, his fingers lax and open.

“Hey,” Sam says, quiet, and nudges Dean’s elbow. Dean sucks in a sharp breath, straightening up, and then he’s blinking in confusion at their surroundings. He looks across the bench seat to Sam, who tries a smile. “We’re just outside Portsmouth, but I was thinking—coffee?”

Dean rubs a hand over his face, and doesn’t say anything, but he nods. Sam opens his door and grimaces against the flood of cold air, getting out and stretching a little. The air’s damp, and it’ll probably be a foggy day once the sun actually comes up. He nudges the driver’s door closed with his hip and waits, hands shoved into his pockets. After a few seconds, there’s an answering creak from the passenger door, and Dean gets out with a groan, wrapping his coat tightly around himself.

It’s almost blinding inside after the haze of dark morning without, but it’s warm. Sam moves to the back of the short line, Dean following close behind. There’s a semi-pleasant fug in here of salt and grease and, most importantly, coffee—and then it’s their turn, the big trucker ahead of them moving off to the side, and he urges Dean ahead of him, to the register.

“Morning, welcome to McDonald’s, what can I get you today,” the girl rattles off, bored, and Sam looks to Dean, who’s frowning up at the glossy-bright menu.

“Um,” Dean says, after a second. “Coffee?”

“Yeah,” the girl says, punching it in. “That it?”

Dean opens his mouth, and closes it, his eyes flicking back up to the crowded menu, and a moment passes before Sam’s brain kicks back online and he realizes—”Oh, sorry,” he cuts in, with a hand on Dean’s arm. “We’re a little—two sausage McMuffins, four hash browns, two coffees,” he says, in a rush, and the girl rolls her eyes and puts her hand out for the money, and he hates her for a second, but it’s not like she could be expected to deal with an adult who’s only ever seen a fast food place in the commercials, and has never stepped inside one.

He stuffs his change into his jacket pocket and pulls Dean along by the elbow to one of the shiny plastic booths. “Here, sit,” Sam says. “I’ll grab the stuff when it’s done.”

Dean does, slipping into the booth with his face turned away, toward the dark window. Sam leans one hip up against the edge of the table and watches the red-uniformed workers bustling away in the kitchen, thoughts far away. God, he needs coffee. When one of the kids calls their order he grabs the tray as quickly as he can without spilling, hustling the few yards back to where Dean’s waiting. The trucker gives him an odd look as he passes, glancing between him and Dean, and there’s a weird shock in his belly before he gives his blandest smile in response, makes sure his eyes slide smoothly away to the tray so he’ll look nonchalant. He puts the tray in the center of their table and drops onto his side of the booth; when he glances back towards the counter, the trucker's lost interest, and Sam blows out a long breath of relief. He hopes he isn’t visibly flushed. He’s been out of the game so long that he forgot the most basic rule Dad drilled into them: don’t be noticed, ever. Blend in.

First step of that is to mimic the normal people all around, the ones he’s been mimicking for the last four years, so he keeps his head down and focuses on dumping as much creamer into his coffee as the cup allows, just to bring the temperature down so he can drink it immediately. His three a.m. wake up call has settled its weight into his joints and bones and he’s not going to be able to think well enough to get them both through to lunchtime, let alone well enough to help Dean find Dad.

A few gulps down and he feels like he might be able to face Dean’s desperate-eyed blankness again. When he looks, though, Dean’s not freaking out, or too-still, or wearing that unfamiliar pale strangeness. Instead, he’s frowning down at the food in front of him. “I thought you ordered hash browns,” he says after a moment, baffled, and finally, there’s a trace of the brother Sam remembers.

“Yeah, that’s what we got,” he says, and takes a bite of his own. It mostly tastes like salt and fried, and burns his tongue, but it’s enough to remind his stomach of how empty it is and he winds up eating the whole thing in two bites.

Dean looks between Sam and his breakfast, clearly dubious. Sam scoots the little paper bag closer to him. “It’s edible, I promise,” he says. “Eat up. I want to get out of here and over to the chapterhouse—we need to go in and figure out the last time they've seen him. Hell, he might still be there.”

"Yeah," Dean says, prodding the hash brown with one finger and frowning, before he slides it away from him again. "But—um, I'm not supposed to be here."

That’s enough to stop Sam with his McMuffin halfway to his mouth. "What do you mean?"

Dean shrugs, not looking up at him, and fiddles with the wrapper on his own sandwich. "There's always supposed to be someone in the bunker. I'm the second. With Dad gone—"

Sam drags a hand over his face. "So, they can't see you. Which means I have to go in alone. Great."

Dean shrugs again. He wraps both hands around his coffee and finally looks at Sam, eyes still heavy but his mouth quirked into a little attempt at a smile. “Don’t suppose you thought to bring a tie?”

*

The sky’s just barely beginning to lighten when Sam turns left at the synagogue and pulls up opposite a featureless brick building, the back half of which is gradually being engulfed by dying bushes and ivy. “You sure this is it?” he asks, killing the engine. “There isn’t even a house number.”

“Pretty sure I would’ve heard from Dad if the directions I gave him were wrong,” Dean says, and he has a point, though he’s putting it mildly. “See the door in the ivy? That’s where you’re going.”

Sam squints through the windshield, but the streetlight’s too far away, and the shadows are heavy. “I guess,” he says, and he knows he sounds dubious but—well, Dean will just have to deal. “The knock’s the same as the bunker?”

“Home and all the chapterhouses.” Dean sounds confident, at least about this, so Sam tries to draw on that to settle his own nerves. Dean passes over the neatly sealed manila envelope. “You remember the passphrase?”

The temptation to say no and buy a few more minutes is pretty strong, but—“Yeah,” he says instead, and tosses the keys to Dean before getting out. The creak and slam of the car door echoes off the surrounding brick, makes Sam’s pulse jump in his throat. He closes his eyes for a second. Tries to slow his breathing.

“Sammy,” Dean says, behind him, and he turns to find Dean with one elbow out on the rolled-down window, biting his lip, brows tight and worried as he looks up at Sam. “You—you can’t let them know Dad’s missing. If they start to think that he’s gone again—if they think it’s unguarded—”

“I know, Dean,” he says, and he’d feel bad about the edge of impatience in his voice, but he needs to get his game-face on. Dean’s eyes flick down, away, his expression shuttering just that fast, and Sam sighs. He’s out of practice. “Why don’t you drive down the street, get yourself more coffee. I shouldn’t be more than ten minutes, and then I’ll meet you right back here.”

Dean nods, but doesn’t say anything. Sam turns back to the facade of the alleged chapterhouse. After a second the Impala rumbles back to life and pulls away, leaving Sam alone on the dark sidewalk. He checks that his tie is straight and tries to smooth the wrinkles in his button-down before giving up and just zipping his hoodie up a little higher. It’s not exactly formalwear, not with the cuffs starting to fray and the hole in one armpit. At least it’s just a plain, somber grey—and he’s dithering, again. He takes a deep breath and crosses the empty street, forcing himself to look confident as he trots up the neatly-swept brick steps.

There’s a bronze Aquarian star inlaid into the dark mahogany of the door—discreet, but there if you know what you’re looking for, which at least means he won’t be faced with an irate homeowner when he knocks. One-two. One. One-two-three. There’s a long minute of silence, and he shivers a little as a breeze whips up the street, wishing he’d put on another layer—or had a real coat, like Dean’s. Not that he could afford it.

The door opens as silently as the doors in the bunker always had, catching him a little off-guard, and he’s faced with a man who might be a Roman statue come to life—close-cropped hair, strong nose, heavy brow. “Yes?” the man says, tone even.

“Sorry to bother you, but is this the home of Edward Kelley?” He almost expects his voice to crack like he’s fourteen, but it holds steady.

The man doesn’t change expression. “How do you know him?”

“His cousin Mr. Dee sent me,” Sam answers, and is rewarded by the barest flicker of a smile before the porter steps back to let him in.

“And your name, sir?” the porter asks once the door is closed again behind them.

“Sam Winchester.” It’s hard not to stare around at the intricately-carved, dark wood paneling lining the foyer. The bunker, despite the fine craftsmanship that went into making it, is still a bunker. This is like stepping into a different world altogether.

“Mr. Winchester. If you’ll make yourself comfortable, I’ll ask if the Warder can see you.” Sam’s ushered into a small room with yet more wood paneling, opulent rugs, and heavy leather-and-mahogany furniture, as masculine and comfortable-looking as what he grew up with. The air smells of linseed oil. The door closes silently behind the porter, the only sound the click of the latch—which Sam tests, after a moment, and finds locked.

Which—well, it isn’t unexpected, but his pulse still kicks up again. He can’t hear a thing past the door, no matter how he strains, and after a few moments he steps away. He distracts himself by studying the details of the room. The carvings in the paneling conceal pentagram devil’s traps, sigils from a few different magical traditions, and long strings of script he thinks might be Enochian. He really is out of practice. When he looks up he finds an immaculate copy of the full heptagram Key of Solomon, inlaid into the ceiling with painstaking attention to detail. He shakes his head, huffing out a little laugh, and looks back down at the carpet. He’s probably the safest he’s been since he left home, but he’d far rather be out in the Impala again with Dean, or curled up in bed with Jenn, far away from all of this.

He makes himself sit down, in one of the plush leather armchairs so that he’s facing the door. The envelope’s getting damp in his hands and he puts it on the low coffee table so he can scrub his palms dry over his thighs. His knee keeps jumping without his permission and he forces himself still, folding his hands into a neat knot in his lap. He’s supposed to be projecting confidence.

“Mr. Winchester?” He jumps a little at the porter’s voice, at the suddenly open door, and hides it by standing, more or less smoothly. “Warder Haight.”

The warder is a few inches shorter than Dean, his hair iron-grey, his eyes watchful. Despite that the sun’s not even up yet, he’s fully dressed and ready for the day, wearing a suit of such obvious quality that Sam’s made excruciatingly aware of the grease spot that’s never come out of his own khakis.

“That’ll be all, James, thank you,” Haight says, and the porter leaves without another sound, the door closing quietly behind him. Haight offers Sam an extended, ink-stained hand. “I assume you’re one of John Winchester’s boys?”

Sam returns the handshake, firmly, as he was taught. “Yes, sir.” Sam steps back to the coffee table and scoops up Dean’s folder, their flimsy pretext. “We prepared the translation as your chapterhouse requested, but we ended up playing phone tag with our father a few times, and I just thought it'd end up being faster to bring it to you directly rather than trying to get it to him first.”

Hopefully it doesn’t sound as ridiculous as he thinks it does. Haight takes the folder from him and breaks the wax seal to flip through Dean’s work. After a moment, he nods and looks back up at Sam. “Outstanding. Fine work, as always. This will make an excellent addition to our library.” He tucks the folder under one arm and gives Sam a brief smile. “Anything else?”

It’s exactly the opening he needed, but his lips are so dry that he has to lick them before he can get out the real reason he’s here. “I was hoping to catch my father for a cup of coffee before I left—is he here right now, by any chance?”

Haight raises his eyebrows. “Winchester? No, he left… oh, just about three weeks ago. Off on another one of his field trips, I expect. Didn't he call back to the bunker?”

It’s what he expected, mostly, but he still has to breathe in slowly to mask the blow to the gut. “Oh, I—I see,” he says, and forces a rueful smile. “I was on a trip of my own, so I might’ve missed it. I’ll have to check my messages. Sorry about the confusion, sir.”

Haight waves a hand, dismissing the apology. “You’re welcome, of course, to stay a little while, peruse the library,” he says. “James has recently perfected his flat white, which I’m told is some kind of coffee.”

Sam bites the inside of his cheek against a hysterical laugh. “No, thank you, sir,” he says, and his voice wavers only a little. Haight nods, but before he can be dismissed Sam takes a chance, says, “I don’t suppose—my father didn’t leave any messages, before he left?”

Haight frowns, a little, but then shakes his head. “I don’t mean to denigrate your family, son, but your father’s not exactly the most forthcoming man I’ve ever met. You should call back home to your brother, I’m sure he has your father’s itinerary. At least there’s one organized Winchester, hm?”

Sam forces another smile. “Yes, sir,” he says, and Haight shakes his hand again, and then the door’s open and the porter is ushering Sam through warm foyer, hoping that he’ll have a good day, and then the chapterhouse’s door closes behind him and he’s standing out on the cold bricks, empty-handed. It’s no more than he expected, but his stomach’s still sour with worry.

The Impala’s waiting, a gleaming-dark shadow parked across the dark street, and he buries his hands in his hoodie pockets as he walks back toward Dean, trying to think how he’s going to break it to him—and then Dean gets out of the driver’s side, and Sam forgets what he was going to say, because Dean looks—his eyes are wild, and wet, and he’s got a newspaper half-crumpled in his hand, and he says, “Sammy—I don’t—” and Sam grabs his shoulder, hard, because Dean looks like he’s about to pass out.

“What is it?” Sam says, but instead of answering Dean shoves the paper into Sam's hands and sort of collapses back against the car, pulling away from Sam’s grip. He opens his mouth, but closes it again with a shudder, clutching white-knuckled at the car’s door frame.

Baffled, Sam squints down at the paper, tilting it to catch the edge of the streetlight’s glow—there’s nothing there, nothing he can see beyond the usual political stuff, and below that some debate about contaminated water, and a football report, and Dean’s still not saying anything, still looks like he might faint. Sam flips the paper over to check below the fold, and there it is: Police still seeking information related to mysterious death. He skims through the article, catching at the relevant details: body found almost three weeks ago, in his fifties, Caucasian, over six feet tall, dark hair, but the spokesman said the precinct will not release the name until the victim’s family may be found and informed. Anyone with further information—

"I'm sure it's not him, Dean." He says it almost without thinking, realizing a moment later it’s true. And—and it is, but Dean just closes his eyes and sinks down to the Impala’s bench seat, white-faced, his hand still clenched so hard around the steel frame that it looks like it hurts. The dread settles in Sam’s stomach, no matter that he’s sure.

“It’s not him,” Sam repeats, because it’s impossible for John Winchester to be dead. They would know, somehow. Dean shakes his head, takes a deep shuddery breath and buries his face in his free hand, hunches over, and Sam—his gut twists, but he looks away, back down at the article, because Dean’s so—so raw-edged, his grief too vivid. Sam steps back, newspaper crumpling in his hands. It’s impossible that Dad is dead. Not like this, not now. “It’s not,” he says, again, more firmly, but Dean doesn’t look up, doesn’t acknowledge Sam at all. Sam bites his lips between his teeth and turns away, looks down the desolate street. Off to the east, behind the old brick buildings, dawn is slowly lightening the sky to grey, and the first hints of fog are rising under the corner streetlight, and Dean’s breathing is audible, and wet, and Sam closes his eyes, feels the dread harden to a rock in his gut. It can’t be him, he thinks to himself, but he doesn’t again say it out loud.

*

Dr. Mueller is the attendant on duty at the Portsmouth Regional morgue, and he’s older than Dean, though not by much. What’s more, he’s easily impressed by the FBI badge belonging to Agent Robert Darrin that Dean produces, which gets them in past the desk while Mueller opens the big glass door into the bright, chilly autopsy room.

“I’m not all that surprised you boys have come up, if I’m honest,” Mueller (“call me Phil”) is saying, but Sam isn’t paying much attention. He shivers into Dean’s borrowed coat as they enter the blast of air conditioning, a step behind his suddenly-confident brother. Dean, in his third-day suit with his heavy stubble and the dark hollows under his eyes, is walking around like he owns the place, bluffing his way into Phil’s confidence with sharp, practiced-sounding lies. Sam wraps Dean’s coat more tightly around himself, hiding his hoodie, the stain on the thigh of his khakis, but it doesn’t look like the guy plans on asking many more questions. Phil’s chattering away, marking something down on a clipboard. Sam can’t imagine what it’s like to spend your days surrounded by dead bodies, mostly alone.

Dean stands next to the autopsy table, under the barrage of Phil’s commentary about the weather and the cold and how it’s Halloween, and doesn’t that always bring out the crazies, and he doesn’t say a word. He’s laser-focused, slightly wide-eyed and white around the lips, tension clear in his straight back, his rigid shoulders. Sam doesn’t know where all this is coming from, but they’re in, and if Phil would just shut up already—

Portsmouth being the size it is, the morgue’s not huge; just a dozen of the huge metal drawers line the far wall of the autopsy room, clipboards hung next to each one. Finally, Phil stops writing whatever the hell he’s been writing and goes to the drawer labeled number eight, on the far right of the middle row, checking its clipboard for a second. “Yeah, here we are,” he says, but hesitates before pulling the drawer open, looking back to the two of them with a friendly grimace.

"I’ve got to warn you gentlemen,” he says, nose wrinkled. “It's not a pleasant sight. Still haven't figured out how it was done, but it's the first thing to turn my stomach in at least five years."

“Just show us,” Dean says, a snap in his voice.

Phil shrugs, warning made. He beckons Dean a step closer, slides the drawer out, and folds the sheet back in a practiced, almost delicate flip.

Dean's standing in front of Sam, blocking his view so he can’t actually see the corpse’s face when it’s revealed. Sam's staring at Dean's back and knows it isn't their dad because all the tension drains away, in an instant—so fast that Dean actually sways just a little before finding his equilibrium again.

“See what I mean?” Phil says, shaking his head. “Not looking forward to having to show the family, if they ever come out of the woodwork.”

Sam takes a step forward to stand at Dean’s side. Relief’s making him lightheaded, but they’re still playing their parts, and Phil clearly wants to share. He’s never seen a fresh dead body before, although he's seen a few decayed down to skin and bone and hair. There’s no smell, with the corpse being kept as cold as it is, but—god, Phil’s right, this is nasty.

The autopsy has been done, so the man’s covered in Frankenstein stitches, an alien black against his waxy-sallow skin. Much worse are the gaping, rust-red hollows where his eyes should have been, and Sam’s gorge rises, fast enough that he has to swallow a few times before he can speak.

“What happened?” he says, finally.

“No idea,” Phil says, cheerfully enough. “Police said he was alone in the room when he was found, and it was locked from the inside. Window was locked, too, so nobody came in and stabbed his eyes out unless they could go through walls. I cracked him open and he was pretty healthy—standard bad diet, probably, but his ticker was in pretty good shape for a guy in his fifties.”

Dean shifts his weight a little, and Sam glances over but Dean’s just staring into the distance, lack of tension leaving his expression blank. “So…?” Sam says.

Phil shrugs, leaning casually on the extended drawer. “All signs point to an overdose on some kind of opiate, but there are no traces of unusual medication in the bloodstream, none of the usual stuff I’d expect to see. Bleeding from the ears, nose, mouth, not really consistent with the OD. Plus there’s the eye thing.” He folds his arms over his chest, looking down at the corpse’s slack, ruined face. “No obvious break in, plus blood under the fingernails and those gouges may indicate that he scratched his own eyes out—cops have been arguing about that one, I can tell you.”

“I bet,” Sam says, frowning. When he shoves his revulsion aside, he can see the marks Phil’s talking about—gashes under the empty eye sockets, which could easily be made by fingernails. This is actually… very strange.

Dean stirs, finally, and clears his throat. “Thank you for your help,” he says, voice a little formal, and turns on his heel to go. Sam, caught off guard, stands frozen for a second, and he’s about to call for Dean to wait a second when Phil says, “Wait, Agent, didn’t you want to look at the other body?”

“What?” Sam blurts out.

“Yeah, I thought that’s why—isn’t that why you guys came today?” Phil says, looking between the two of them with a furrowed brow. “Second body dropped, at the inn, I figured that was why—”

“Yes,” Sam interrupts, trying to sound authoritative. “Sorry, I thought you were talking about something—yes, tell us about the second body.”

“Right,” Phil says, relaxing, and goes to drawer six, pulling it out with a clang. “This one died just last night, so I haven’t actually gotten to do the full work-up yet, but we’re probably looking at something similar.”

This time, when the sheet’s flipped back, it reveals an older woman—maybe in her sixties or seventies, grey hair clipped close to her head with the ugly line of the coroner’s stitch-work bisecting her sagging face. She still has her eyes, at least.

“No obvious physical trauma, but she had some of the same bleeding—ears, mouth, et cetera. Doesn’t look like a junkie, but if the tests come back like I expect them to, then we’re gonna be looking at a second overdose without any signs of a drug being taken.”

Sam rubs a hand over his mouth, staring down at the dead woman’s face. “Weird,” he says, absently.

Phil snorts. “Just a bit.” He flips the sheets back over the corpses, slides their drawers closed and locks them back up. “So, any assistance you can give to the good old boys at the Portsmouth PD for Grandma and dead Fred over there would be greatly appreciated, I bet.”

“Yeah,” Sam says, thinking, and then says, “Hey, Phil, can you remind us, what’s the name of the lead detective for—”

“We’ve got it,” Dean cuts in. Sam glances back to find Dean giving him a direct, almost irritated look, before he looks back at Phil and gives a false-looking smile. “Thank you for your help,” he says, again, in that weird formal voice, and this time he really does head out the door, immediately, so that Sam has no choice but to follow.

“Thanks,” Sam says over his shoulder, and Phil waves a hand, looking puzzled, but not as puzzled as Sam is right now.

He follows Dean up the stairs out of the hospital basement, out of the beige waiting room and to the parking lot, but when Dean’s about to unlock the car, Sam says, “Wait a second.”

Dean stops, and drops his head for a second, with a sigh, before turning around. The sun’s up, finally, and though it’s a grey misty morning he can still see how drained Dean is, how drawn, his face still tight with worry. It’s not the deep, untenable grief of before, at least, but now—even if their dad’s not in the morgue, he’s still missing, and Sam runs a hand through his neatly-combed fake FBI hairstyle, mussing it irretrievably. Which reminds him—

“Hey, how’d you do all that, in there?” he says, instead of the question he wants to ask. Dean frowns, not understanding. “I mean, all the—FBI stuff. You were pretty convincing.”

Dean’s frown clears up, and he leans back against the Impala’s sidepanel. “Oh, uh. Dad taught me. After you left.”

Sam raises his eyebrows. “Dad taught you how to... fake being FBI.”

Dean pulls the fake badge out of his jacket’s interior pocket, just where Sam had kept his Mulder badge—god, that was just last night. “Part of Letters training,” Dean says, smoothing a thumb over the tiny laminated picture of himself. “Making IDs, imitating authority, in case we need to take over a case to divert it to hunters in the area. FBI’s easiest, I guess. Dad taught me how to—how to sound right.”

Sam bites the inside of his cheek. How to sound like an FBI agent, but not how to order breakfast. “He teach you anything about whatever that was?” Sam says, jabbing a thumb over his shoulder at the hospital entrance.

His voice maybe came out a little sharper than he intended, because Dean sighs again, looking up from his homemade badge. “Yeah,” he says, and he’s not arguing, but it’s flat, defeated. “To leave it to the experts. If it turns out to be something, the chapterhouse will catch wind of it and farm it out to someone.”

Sam shakes his head, cutting a hand through the air. “No, they won’t,” he says, and it’s hard to keep the bitter edge out of his voice. “They’ll wait, and wait, and if a pattern establishes itself they’ll eventually call the one hunter they trust and hope he’s in the area, and in the meantime, people are going to die.”

Dean tucks the fake badge back into his pocket, going for the driver’s door. “It’s not our problem, Sam,” he says, fumbling the keys out of his pocket and keeping his eyes on his hands. “We’re beholders.”

It’s an old argument, one Sam had with their dad a few dozen times before the last, disastrous one, but it’s still galling to have Dean take the man’s side even when he’s not here. “That’s bull,” Sam says, and slaps a hand down on the Impala’s door before Dean can pull it open. Dean falls back a little, doesn’t look up. “It’s bull,” Sam says, more loudly, “and you know it. Dad’s been going out in the world as long as I can remember, and I’m damn sure he’s doing more than beholding.”

Dean’s still. After a second, he clears his throat. “Whatever he does, he’s missing now,” he says, face turned away like he’s talking to the car. “And I’m out of leads, and I—I’ve been away from the bunker. What if he’s gone back there, or if he’s been trying to call—”

Sam grabs his wrist, and Dean crashes to a halt, eyes shooting up to Sam’s in shock. “Dean, it’s been weeks, you said it yourself,” he says. Dean’s eyes flick away and Sam shakes his wrist a little, drags his attention right back. “Weeks. If he didn’t call for that long, he didn’t call in the two days you’ve been gone. And, Dean—you saw those bodies. That wasn’t an overdose. The guy died three weeks ago, but that woman was just last night. What if the next one is coming, and we could’ve stopped it?”

“We can tell the Warder,” Dean says, after a moment.

“Dean—” Sam starts, and then sighs. He lets go of Dean’s wrist and backs off. “This is happening now. It’s not in a book, it’s not research to be done as an—an intellectual exercise, or something.”

Dean rubs the back of his neck. “It’s protocol, Sam,” he says, but it’s said a little weakly, and—there. That’s the in Sam was hoping for—that’s the brother who he could convince to let him slip out of the bunker sometimes, who didn’t force him to drill his Greek vocabulary when he wanted to watch cartoons, instead. This situation’s a bit different, sure, but he’ll take it.

“Look,” Sam says, and grabs the discarded newspaper out of the backseat. He puts the paper against Dean’s chest, taps at the article that started this. “It said the guy was found at the Sise Inn, right? And—Dr. Mueller said that the old lady was found at the inn, too. There’s obviously something going on there.”

Dean takes the paper, slowly, dropping his eyes to the newsprint. He’s frowning, but it’s not protest—he’s scanning the article, obviously thinking.

Sam licks his lips. “Tell you what,” he says, after a second. “I’ll go back to the chapterhouse. I’ll talk to the Warder about it. But it can’t hurt anything for you to check out the inn.” Dean glances up from the paper, brows pinched together, and Sam puts up his hands, placating. “I’m not saying you have to do anything, it’s just—you know what to look for, Dean. You know the signs—cold spots, weird noises, sulfur. If it turns out to be nothing, then okay, it’s nothing. But if it turns out to be something, at least we can get the Warder some information. And if he won’t do anything…” He shrugs. “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it, I guess.”

Dean’s silent, looking at him. “It’s the Warder’s decision to make,” he says, eventually. He tosses the paper into the backseat, then folds his arms over his chest. “I’m not even supposed to be here. Actually, neither of us are. And you never wanted anything to do with this, so why are you so gung-ho about the supernatural, all of a sudden?”

He doesn’t sound angry, or bitter. Just tired. He always sounded tired, after these arguments, and Sam swallows hard. He meets Dean’s eyes, and doesn’t back down. "We know what's out there. We should help, when we can. Save people, when we can."

Dean searches his face for a moment. Sam shrugs, tucking his hands into the pockets of his borrowed coat, and for some reason that makes the tiniest hint of a smile flicker at the corner of Dean’s mouth.

“Okay,” Dean says. He shakes his head a little, but his face has relaxed at last. He jerks his head toward the car. “Let’s go, then. But you’re giving my coat back, brat.”

“Fine, nerd,” Sam says, on automatic, and Dean gives him a real—if small—smile, and it’s like a dislocated bone slipping back into place. It feels easy, between them, at last. He shrugs off the coat and tosses it into Dean’s chest so Dean has to fumble to catch it before it hits the ground. “But it’s your turn to drive.”

*

Sam knocks on the chapterhouse door for the second time that morning—one-two, one, one-two-three—and his smile is fixed at ‘rueful’ when James opens the door, and blinks at him.

“Mr. Winchester,” he says, after the barest pause. “Please, come in.”

He’s once again ushered into the warm, dark-panelled foyer, the chilly October morning cut out behind him when James relocks the door.

“How may I help you, Mr. Winchester?” James says, evenly.

“You know, I was wondering if I could take you up on that coffee,” Sam says. He’d worked out how he was going to play this on the drive over, dredging up every memory he has of the majority of Letters who’d interned at the bunker: relaxed, confident, smug. He shifts his eyes away from James and glances around the foyer, diffident, like all this is no more than he expects. Hopefully smoother than last time. “I tried a diner down the way and what they were serving—well, dishwater might be a better term.”

“Of course,” James says, nodding, like this is totally normal, and Sam tucks his hands into the pockets of his khakis, follows the man through the left-hand door opposite the heavily warded receiving room into a small, well-lit library. “If you’ll wait here a moment.”

“Of course,” Sam says, biting the inside of his cheek against letting his smile get any wider, and then he’s alone again, and he blows out a short breath. It’s less than a minute of looking around at the subtle spellwork scrolling through the bookcases, running a fingertip down the spine of a leather-bound collection of Vanir warsongs, before the door opens again, and Haight says, “Didn’t expect to see you again so soon, young Winchester.”

The porter ran straight to his Warder to inform him of a visitor: Letters protocol, coming through exactly as Dean said it would. Sam turns, small smile in place, and finds the Warder relaxed in the doorway, some book tucked under his arm and a china cup in hand. “Yes, sir,” Sam says, all ease. “Well, I thought I’d take up your offer on that coffee, and I thought, since I don’t have to be getting back right away, maybe I could take a look around the house. If it’s alright with you, of course.”

“Certainly, certainly,” Haight says, though he’s giving Sam an inscrutable look. “Come, have breakfast. James was just about to lay it out. No initiates in the house today, so it’ll just be you and me.”

Sam opens his mouth, and closes it. That wasn’t quite— “I wouldn’t want to put you to any trouble, sir,” he says, but Haight just shakes his head and says, “Nonsense, come up,” and then there’s nothing Sam can do but follow him out of the library, up the wide wooden staircase to the second floor, through a door warded so strongly that Sam feels the press of magic against his skin as he walks through it, and then he’s in the Warder’s beautiful, richly appointed apartment, where James is already laying a second place at the dining table at the far end of the parlor.

The tablecloth is a snowy white; the settings are china; the breakfast is laid under sterling silver. James removes the covers from the dishes to reveal eggs and sausage, fat black grapes, a warmer of perfectly made toast.

“Sit, sit,” Haight says, and so Sam sits, and James serves him neat portions of everything in silence while Haight says something inane about the fog, and Sam automatically says something inane back, and for some reason this is making him feel like a much worse impostor than he did earlier this morning. Haight is utterly at ease, of course, and so Sam mimics him—that old lesson coming through again when James comes back into the room after a moment of them eating in silence and places a flat white neatly at Sam’s right hand, and Sam has to bite back a surge of hilarity at being served his own damn specialty with such solemnity.

“How is it?” Haight says, nodding at the cup.

Sam takes a sip. It’s actually— “Perfect,” he says, setting the little cup on its china plate. Better than his, not that he can admit that out loud.

Haight shakes his head. “Can’t understand it myself,” he says, with a one-shouldered shrug. He’s leaned back in his chair, his own black coffee in hand, watching Sam. Inscrutable, again. “Sam Winchester. Your family has quite the legacy built up, son.”

That’s not what Sam was expecting, and his "I suppose we do," slips out a little more bitterly than he’d intended.

Haight's eyes narrow at his tone for a second, but it’s impossible to tell what he’s thinking. “What level are you now?” he asks after a long moment of excruciating scrutiny. Sam takes a large mouthful of the coffee to buy himself time to come up with a response that’s true. He doesn’t know what kind of spellwork the room is under, but a curse against liars isn’t out of the question.

He finally settles on, “I’m still at school, sir, in Boston.”

Haight brightens a little. “And how do you find Harvard at this time of year? The campus is spectacular when the trees are in full autumnal color.”

Sam imagines Jenn or Brandi’s faces, at this guy just assuming he’d be wearing the crimson. He smiles, politely. “I’m actually at Boston University, sir.”

There’s a moment where Sam can almost see the mental dissonance. “Ah. Well, that’s fine.” Haight leans back in his chair. “Once you graduate, I’m sure you’ll be initiated as soon as possible. Any idea where you’d like to end up?”—and there’s the opening Sam’s been looking for, so he sets his coffee down and sits up a bit straighter.

“No, sir, though I don’t expect to return to the Kansas location. My brother’s always been more suited to looking after the bunker—and working under our father.” Too much truth, maybe, but it has Haight nodding, so Sam keeps going. “I’ve been looking around, and was actually thinking about here, if you don’t mind my saying. I’ve read quite a bit about the hauntings. All these inns—any truth to that?”

Haight lets out an immediate sharp bark of laughter, shaking his head. “Sorry to disappoint you, but no.”

Which—Sam had expected, but there’d been a small hope that the chapterhouse would’ve already been on top of the matter. Just once, it would have been nice to be proven wrong by the Letters. He selects a piece of toast, focuses on buttering it to help hide his disappointment. “None, really? I thought I read something about the Sise Inn, how the ghosts had killed a guest.”

Haight smiles, rueful. “Easy to blame the ghosts, isn’t it. No, we cleared all these so-called hauntings years ago.” Coffee in one hand, he waves the other dismissively. “The Sise haunting, for example, probably the town’s best-known—nothing more than the imaginings of a madman.”

Sam raises his eyebrows. “Really?”

“Oh, yes. I was here when we investigated it.” Haight runs a finger around the rim of his coffee cup in slow circles, frowning in recollection. “That would’ve been in sixty-seven or sixty-eight—not long after I’d passed my rites and been assigned here. There’d been rumors of ghosts at the Sise House for a decade or so, but all so nebulous that the warder at the time—Warder Coughlin, one of the finest men I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing—had quite reasonably dismissed them all out of hand.”

He pauses, and Sam says “Of course,” because Haight seems to expect agreement. “What changed his mind?”

“There was a seemingly credible witness. A young man a year or so returned from the Second Indochina War, a guest of the house, made repeated, detailed, and consistent reports of interactions with and sightings of the supposed ghosts. When the reports eventually reached Warder Coughlin’s ears, he decided it finally provided enough grounds for the chapter to a make a thorough inquiry.” Haight falls silent again, eyes distant.

“So there was an investigation?” Sam asks before the silence can stretch too long.

Haight’s gaze snaps back into focus on Sam. “A team investigated, yes, to ascertain whether there was any truth to the matter. But there was none, of course. Just the vivid imaginings of a disturbed mind.”

“Of course,” Sam echoes. “Were you part of the team?”

Haight laughs again. “Oh no, no—I’d finished up my initiation by then and was buried in research. Something dreadfully important, I’m sure. At any rate, there was no need for me to prove myself at that point. We had—and still have—operatives on retainer to do the legwork as needed.” He gives Sam a vaguely paternal smile, folding his hands over his slight paunch. “Our work is to record any incidents deemed noteworthy and provide guidance as seems fit. Barring emergency, once accepted as a full member, you will never need to set foot in the field ever again.”

"Oh, of course," Sam says again, and hides the bitterness better, this time. He smiles, and places his coffee cup on its saucer, with a clink. "That's just what I expected."

Haight asks about his preferences for study, then—history, Sam answers semi-honestly, and psychology, which leads Haight into telling him about some treatise one of his initiates had written a dozen years ago on the behavior of the female werewolf during colonial expansion. Before the small talk can get excruciating, Sam starts to make his excuses.

“Midterms coming up,” he says, with an apologetic smile, folding his napkin beside his half-cleared plate.

Haight nods. “I’m sure it’ll go swimmingly,” he says, and Sam’s sure that for Jenn they will, but before he can think of a response Haight knocks on the table, sharply. “Ah, I almost forgot. James! Bring the package for Mr. Winchester, please.”

Sam pauses, half-braced against the table. “I—didn’t expect a package, sir,” he says, cautious, and Haight waves a hand at him, keeping him in his seat. James enters a few seconds later with a binder-sized box, sealed and nondescript in brown paper. “What’s this?”

“That’s for you to find out, I believe,” Haight says. He taps the address once James sets it on the table between them and Sam recognizes the post office box number in their dad’s neat copperplate handwriting, with a lurch in his stomach. “It was meant to be sent to the bunker, but your father didn’t leave the clearest instructions. I know you’ll be surprised.”

Sam forces a smile. “Shocked.”

“At any rate, there it is. You can forward it along to your brother, if necessary.”

“I’ll take care of it,” Sam says, and at Haight’s nod he stands, and folds the package under his arm. It’s not that heavy, and though he’s intensely curious he has to keep it together. “Thank you, sir.”

Haight nods at James, and Sam’s dismissed. James precedes him to the apartment door, opens it for him, but before he can walk out Haight says, “Sam.” He swallows, but turns, his blandest polite expression in place.

One corner of his mouth turned up, Haight leans comfortably back in his chair. At the head of the table, surrounded by richness, he looks like a king. “When you graduate, if you’d like, you may pursue your initiation here. You’re obviously bright. I think you could accomplish great things, with your legacy.”

Sam takes a deep breath. “I appreciate that, sir,” he says, after a moment. A legacy—indolence, wealth. Stasis. "I'll think about it."

Haight lifts his coffee cup in a little toast, and Sam turns away, steps through the door and out from under the weight of the magic, before he can say anything else.

He follows James down the stairs to the front door. His hand is making the edge of the package damp, where he’s holding the box too hard; his other hand trails along the mahogany balustrade, fingertips glancing over the bas-relief of angels and demons at war carved intricately into its side. The chandelier hanging in the center of the foyer is filling the room with clear cool light and he takes a last look at all the antique affluence around—but James pauses, one hand on the door, turning to look back at Sam before he opens it.

“On behalf of the chapterhouse, please allow me to apologize for the delay in delivering the parcel,” James says, utterly formal. “Warder Winchester left it with young Mr. Cartwright to give to me to have it posted, but Mr. Cartwright is—working on his memory skills."

There’s a long pause. “Um, apology accepted,” Sam says, eventually, as it becomes clear that James is waiting motionless for his reply. “And I have it now, so no harm done.”

No harm except Dean stranded without a word from their father, working himself into a panic. He can’t break trust with Dean and lay into James about that, unfortunately, so instead he nods politely as he exits. The cold air hits his face like a shock as he walks back down the steps and the door closes solidly behind him, hopefully for the last time. He forces himself to continue at a calm pace until he’s back inside the car, where he has a semblance of protection against curious eyes.

The package really isn’t much bigger than a standard three-ring binder. He tears off the brown paper and tosses it over onto the passenger side of the seat and—it’s a cardboard box, plain, but a plain envelope’s stuck to it. He tears it off, tears it open, and inside there’s a single sheet of thick, cream-colored paper, an Aquarian star embossed in the center, and there’s Dad’s neat handwriting, again:

Dean, it reads. I’ve picked up a lead. It will be dangerous, but it is necessary for the work I’ve been doing. This package contains all the information you will need to continue, if I don’t succeed. Do not open this unless you receive confirmation of my death. If that happens, you know what you have to do.

It’s signed with a terse JW, along with a shape that Sam’s pretty sure is the Phoenician aleph, though who knows why.

Sam stares at the letter, for a minute. He knew he was leaving—knew he was going to disappear, for god knows how long, and he couldn’t pick up the damn phone. Sam doesn’t crumple the letter, though it’s tempting. He stuffs it back in its envelope, his throat tight, and turns to the box. No obvious warding on it, no magic sealing it tight—just plain packing tape, and Sam doesn’t really think about it. He flips the keys in his hand and uses one as a makeshift boxcutter, slicing the damn thing open in a quick move, because he wants to see what was so important that John Winchester would bother sending it along to his son.

Cardboard flaps peeled back—something wrapped in more brown paper. He pulls that away, and—and it’s Dad’s journal. It’s Dad’s journal, and Sam just stares at the box in his lap, shocked into stillness. Whenever their dad bothered to come home, when Sam was little, all he got was, that’s Dad’s, don’t touch it, from Dean—and it was serious, a rule, harder and stronger than practicing Latin declensions and recognizing the signs of a banshee roosting. Sam touches the black leather of the cover, made soft with the years. He’d asked, once, what their dad was always writing, and Dean had shaken his head, steered Sam away into a game of find-the-ghost. Don’t worry about it, Sammy, he’d been told, and he hadn’t, but now—

He lifts the journal out of its box. It’s thick, ruffled with tucked-in newspaper clippings, post-its and random notes jutting out between the pages. A glance out the driver’s window proves that no one’s watching—and of course, of course they aren’t, but he still feels like he’s under surveillance as he props the spine of the thing against the steering wheel and finally folds the cover back.

Embossed inside the front cover: J. WINCHESTER, in thick raised letters. The first page is in an unfamiliar hand. To John, it says, in a wide looping cursive. Aspicio praeteritum, tueor futurum. Sam traces a finger over the words, wondering, and then flips to the first few pages.

It starts, Today I am a Man. January 4, 1973. This is really it. This is their dad, starting out as an initiate. Sam flicks through the pages. Brief details of research, lists of omens and monsters, articles taped in with notes spidering off the newsprint, all laid out neatly in their dad’s well-practiced hand. Drawings, of shadows and monsters, going on and on through the years, and he flips to the end to find another little list addressed to Dean—instructions on where to go, who to talk to, how to continue the work, with no indication as to what the work actually is. Impersonal and businesslike and just like a Warder, giving orders to a subordinate without giving too much away.

The man’s spent so much time hiding his research into whatever killed Mom that he can’t even talk about it here, not outside of code, even though his son’s the only one likely to read it. There’s no real letter. Nothing personal if he actually does die—and how on earth would Dean ever hear about that? It's not like Dad ever carries his real ID when he's out on a "research trip." How long would it take, once he actually bit it, for the Letters to hear about it, and then for someone to think to call Dean? How long would Dean have waited to open the damn journal, if he’d actually gotten this stupid package—and how like Dad that is, not to pick up the phone and just call, just talk to his kid like a normal person.

Sam slams the journal closed, throws it onto the bench seat beside him. Screw it. Screw him. His all-important research into Mom's death, so important he wouldn't just let them help—keeping secrets, keeping everything to himself, as always, and then just assuming that Dean would pick it up where he left off. Well, Mom’s dead, and she’s not coming back. There are people who are dying now who need help, and Dad and the Letters can sit around and catalog the supernatural, can stay locked in the library thinking great thoughts, but right now Sam is going to actually do something.

He shoves the Impala’s door open with a shriek of hinges and grabs all evidence of the package up with him. The journal and its stupid fucking letter are buried in his duffel, in the trunk. He slams it closed and locks the car back up and throws the empty box with its wrapping into the trashcan on the corner, and then he stuffs his hands into his hoodie pockets and strides off down the street, following the route Dean had set off on less than an hour ago.

It’s still cold, though the fog has dissipated a little with the wind that’s whipping in off the Atlantic. He keeps his head down, paying just enough attention to the sidewalk that he doesn’t trip over something, but his gut’s tight with resentment, his hands clenched into fists in his pockets. Year after year, growing up cramped and discontented down in the dark, he’d asked—why don’t we go to school like the kids on TV, Dean? Why don’t we have a mom? Why aren’t we ever allowed to go anywhere? Why, why, why. Dean had deflected, pacified, told him that they were legacies, that this was the duty they owed their dad, and his dad before him, and that it was amazing—their dad was like a wizard, from the stories, and they were gonna grow up to be just like him. Dean sticking up for their dad, even when he was gone all the time—even if, a lot of the time, he barely counted as a father. Just someone who’d show up and make sure they had grocery money, who’d make sure they were studying, make sure they were filling the mold he expected them to fit into.

Sam moves neatly around a woman walking her fat little dog, doesn’t look up from the sidewalk. The thing was, Dean fit. Sam didn’t. Sam never did. He learned what he had to—he memorized basic spells and sigils, he read the histories of monsters and ghosts and demons and angels, he drilled the Rituale Romanum until he could rattle it off in his dreams—but. It wasn’t fair. Their dad would be gone for days and weeks at a time. When he and Dean were done with their studying for the day Sam would watch their three channels on the ancient crackling TV, he’d read books Dean brought back from Lebanon’s little library, and he’d see other worlds. Worlds with—mountains, with normal houses, people with regular jobs and wants, who did things, who didn’t just study and interpret and translate with no goal, no purpose, no end in sight. People with fathers who weren’t some awful combination of headmaster and drill sergeant. People with families who meant something more than a legacy.

Haight had been so sure. So certain that Sam would want to follow in the footsteps of his fathers. Sam drags a hand through his hair, turns the corner to the street the inn’s supposed to be on. The chapterhouse had been so still, so hushed. So separate from the world—a damned porter making sure it would stay separate, in fact. What he remembers from being little is just endless, unchanging days, only Dean’s presence making the inflexible stasis of the bunker at all bearable. It was like being suffocated, a perfectly safe concrete cage.

He’ll give the journal to Dean, when this is done, if he has to. But he’s going to read it first. He wants to know exactly what happened, wants to decipher Dad’s code and see how exactly their lives got ruined. He has to see whether all of this was worth it.

*

Growing up the way they did, Sam had never so much as seen a cop car in real life until he'd gotten away. He'd become used to them after being on the road, after seeing a little more of the world than cornfields and a washed-up, backwater town, but he still comes to an abrupt halt when he turns the last corner to get to the inn and finds the street awash in flashing lights and men in uniform.

There’s a spill of bystanders across the sidewalk and into the road, pushed just barely back from the cop cars and ambulance, from the fire truck that’s blocking Sam’s path. The sparse mid-morning traffic’s totally jammed, not that most of the drivers are doing anything but gawking. Sam wends between the few stopped cars, craning his neck to see into the crowd—and there’s Dean, standing at the back of the milling group with his coat collar pulled up high, his arms folded over his chest. It only takes a second before he meets Sam’s eyes—and then he’s moving, peeling away from the crowd to head straight for Sam, moving fast and jerky like he’s only just restraining himself from running.

They meet in the middle, and Sam says, “What the hell happened?” but now that he’s close he sees that Dean’s eyes are wide and shocky, his face bone-pale, and Dean grabs him once he’s close enough, his fingers biting hard into Sam’s forearm. He’s just as freaked as he was earlier this morning, distressed and brittle in Sam’s kitchen, and then he’s dragging Sam away from whatever crime scene is going on at the Sise Inn. Sam lets him do it, moves up close so it doesn’t look weird to anyone who might turn their way, and before he knows it Dean has dragged him around to the other side of the Baptist church next door.

“What—” Sam starts, again, but Dean pulls him a little further back, out of sight of the inn completely, and blurts out, “There’s another body.”

The story comes out low and fast and almost monotone. He went into the Inn, like they’d agreed, and introduced himself as Agent Darrin to the hotel manager—who was confused but willing to work with the FBI, of course he was. Questions asked, answered with bewilderment—why, yes, sometimes it was cold in the inn, but it was an old building, after all. Oh, very famous for the hauntings, of course. Would the agent like a tour—no, thank you, but any history of trouble, of violent death—there had been trouble, certainly, but just tragic accidents, the manager assured.

“I was trying to figure out how to ask about the old woman,” Dean says, shoulders hunched in tight against the cold. “But then there was—this girl started screaming.”

Sam leans back against the bricks of the church, running a hand through his hair. The maid, it turned out. She half-fell down the stairs, incoherent, and the manager ran up and Dean followed, of course, and—

“Room 204.” Dean swallows, hard, and glances at Sam. “Same room the first guy was found in, and the old woman who had a heart attack.”

Sam wraps his arms around himself. “Who was it this time?”

Dean shrugs, briefly, his hands tucked into his pockets. “Contractor there for the remodel, the manager said. I didn’t—I couldn’t ask much, he was too freaked out, trying to talk and take care of the maid and call the police all at the same time.”

More pedestrians are trickling along the sidewalk past them, joining the crowd outside the inn and paying them no attention. Sam drums his fingers on his bicep, thinking.

“Sammy,” Dean says, after a moment. He’s looking down at the dead grass, frowning. “He was—it was the same.” He clears his throat. “Blood all over. He’d clawed his eyes out. Same as the other guy.”

“You saw?” Sam says. He hadn’t thought—

Dean looks up at him, mouth set, that dimple appearing briefly in his cheek as it does whenever he’s frustrated. “Yeah,” he says, shortly. He blows out a long breath, looking up at the greyish cloudy sky for a moment. “It was… bad.”

Sam bites his lip. He has no idea what to say to that, but he opens his mouth anyway—and then there’s the brief loud whoop of a siren flipping on and off. The ambulance moves slowly along the street past the church. He watches it go. It’s worse, somehow, when they’re not in a hurry.

“What did the warder say?” Dean asks, after a few seconds.

“He said there’s nothing here.” Sam looks back and Dean’s watching his face. He shrugs. “Said they cleared the inn and that there’s nothing worth looking into, at least not yet.”

He’d kept his voice calm, keeping the bitterness out of it, but Dean’s mouth twists. “Yeah,” he says. He shakes his head. “You were right, Sammy. It’s speeding up, whatever it is.”

He sounds—Sam stands up straight, not quite sure what he’s hearing. “So—?”

“Yeah,” Dean says again, and sighs, but then sets his jaw. He meets Sam’s eyes again and he smiles, briefly, without humor. “You’re right. We’ve got to do something.”

*

The Portsmouth public library is as familiarly beige and impersonal as most of the others Sam used on his trip around the country. Midmorning on a Monday, the place is silent, no one in the lobby or at the study tables, so Sam bypasses the empty reference desk and heads straight for the little bank of computers. They’re new, which is a nice surprise—matches the reek of new paint, the surprisingly unstained institutional carpet underfoot.

“Wow,” Dean says, quiet behind his shoulder. Sam hums a question, typing in the familiar queries for real estate history, local legends, periodicals. “These computers are—oh, that’s really fast.”

Sam glances back. Dean’s looking at the library’s user interface, their relatively quick processing and search times, with undisguised avarice—comparing them no doubt with the dinosaur of a computer their dad deigned to buy, back when the internet proved that it wasn’t just a fad. “Yeah, they’ve gotten a lot quicker than old Betsy,” Sam says, and starts clicking through the results, scanning as fast as he can. “Hey—awesome, look at this. They’ve got copies of a lot of this stuff already, let’s see what we can get.”

A few rings of the bell at the circulation desk unearths a frowsy, cardiganed lady, who seems frankly shocked to see them, though she’s pleasant enough when Sam asks for any information related to the Sise family and their ancestral house. They’re ushered into the little special collections room to wait. Sam drums his fingers on the study table, thinking of all the things they’ll have to check, and finds himself staring at the shelf nearest him, at its elderly, leather-bound sets of books. “History of Portsmouth,” he reads aloud, and pulls out the fat volume one of the set nearest him. “Well, that’s one place to start.”

He turns to the end, but—ugh, of course. Old book, terrible index. “I don’t know why so many of these places can’t get an index inserted,” he says, flicking through the pages to try to find chapter headings. “It wouldn’t be that hard, and then they’d actually be usable.”

Dean lets out a quiet huff of a laugh. When Sam looks up, Dean’s smiling, kind of—he’s standing on the other side of the study table with his arms folded, his coat collar still tugged up high on his neck, and he looks as uncomfortable as a Man of Letters can be in a library, but he’s still looking at Sam with his eyes soft, a little curve to his mouth.

“What?” Sam says, pausing with his fingers stuck in the pages.

“Nothing,” Dean says, and then he shrugs. “Just—looks like some of the stuff I taught you stuck, that’s all.” He nods at the book in Sam’s hand. “From all the crap you said to Dad when you left, I expected you to break into hives as soon as you picked up a book, much less at the idea of coming into a library.”

Dean’s still got that sort-of smile on, and so Sam says, “Ha,” dry, but—he looks down, puts the book down on the table. “I used libraries all the time, when I was on my roadtrip. That’s how I emailed you, remember.”

But that’s—that’s not it, and Dean just shrugs again, still looking at Sam all fond and proud, and Sam clears his throat, looks down again like he’s actually reading the pages he’s got spread out before him. “Actually,” he starts, and then he has to swallow. It’s been too long, all these little lies of omission racking up, and if he doesn’t want to be a hypocrite when he thinks about their dad he has to say it, now, with Dean standing in front of him. “Actually, I took on a few hunts, back before I got to Boston.”

Dean says, “Oh.” There’s a pause. “You never told me that.” Low, but a little questioning tilt, like maybe Sam had and somehow Dean had forgotten, and Sam closes his eyes.

“No,” Sam starts, but—what is there to say, other than that. He was out, he was in the real world and he had all this knowledge that had been crammed into him against his will, and he’d railed so long against the Letters’ inaction that when he’d been sitting in that diner in Idaho Falls and he’d seen the obvious signs of a ghost’s interference in some article in the paper—what was he supposed to do? What was the point of running, if it wasn’t toward something?

“You weren’t—” Dean hesitates. Sam looks up to find him biting his lip, his frown deep. “You didn’t—not alone. Right, Sammy? You know what happens to hunters who work alone.”

Sam closes the History, leans against the table with both his hands flat on the wide leather cover. “I’ve got someone with me now,” he says, with an attempt at a grin, and Dean turns completely around, puts his back to Sam with his head bowed low, and the grin falls right off of Sam’s face.

“Look,” he starts, but Dean stands right where he is, doesn’t turn around. Sam scrubs a hand through his hair. “I know, I know it’s dangerous. I know that. But I—there’s so much out there, so many things that need to be taken care of, Dean. It’s not enough to just make a phone call, or hope that a hunter might notice, or that a Warder will take care of it.” Dean’s shaking his head, now, and Sam throws up his hands, not that Dean will see it. “I mean, what are we doing here? You agreed, we’ve got to take care of this. How is this different?”

Dean does actually turn around, at that, and his hands are shoved into his coat pockets, his expression unreadable, and Sam opens his mouth to say—something, just to get that look off Dean’s face, but then the door’s pushed open and the librarian backs into the room, pulling a loaded cart.

“Here you are!” she says, cheerful. “Pulled all the Sise information I could find, so I hope the paper you boys are working on is supposed to be real long.”

“Thanks,” Sam says, eyes on Dean while she bustles out.

Dean looks down at the pile of archive boxes, file folders bristling out of the top, and he says, “Guess we’ve got some reading to do,” voice low and even, and Sam sighs, but it’s not like it’s not true. They settle in their separate chairs, the table a solid oak barrier between them, and slowly they begin to bury themselves in records of people and events long gone and done.

There’s a lot of history in Portsmouth. Even confined to the one family, there are folders upon folders of articles, notices, birth announcements and weddings and deaths. A town as small as this, it’s almost harder than in a big city—all these sleepy little lives made large in the town paper. It’s interesting, in its way, but it makes it harder to separate the charming from the meaningful.

Sam's mouth and nose and eyes gradually go dry from the climate control; he catches a few paper cuts across his right thumb; his back and shoulders start to cramp from how he's hunched over his slowly shifting stacks of articles. It’s quiet enough that he can hear the hand on his watch ticking over, the sound of Dean turning pages loud in the still room, and he’s trying his damnedest to ignore both, but it’s a struggle.

He’s gotten nowhere and his eyes are aching by the time someone’s stomach growls. It turns out they’ve been in here for four hours, so he says, “Lunch?”

Dean doesn't respond. Sam gets up—can't suppress a groan when all of his cramped muscles protest—to see what he’s so focused on, assuming that Dean’s not just ignoring him. “Find something good?” he tries instead, coming around and leaning over Dean's shoulder to see.

Dean startles back against him as though he'd forgotten he wasn't alone, his shoulder brushing Sam’s chest. “Maybe,” he says, a moment later. He flips back to the beginning of what looks like an article cut from a glossy magazine—Sam would've automatically discounted it as a puff piece, from the looks of it, but Dean seems to think it’s something.

“You want to make a copy of that?” Sam asks. “I'll go ask the librarian if we can leave everything here while we grab some lunch, and we can keep working while we eat.” For a moment it looks like Dean's going to balk, but then he sort of tucks himself in around his find and nods, not looking up.

“But it better be real food this time,” he says, with a shadow of humor, and Sam grins.

“Sure,” he agrees, and wonders if the librarian can point him to any diners nearby.

*

The best she can offer Sam is a Friendly's, which is at least better than going back to McDonald's; this time Dean manages to successfully fake familiarity with the arcane rite of ordering off a menu, though he just repeats Sam's order of grilled cheese and tomato soup.

Sam’s got print-outs on the inn from a couple 'haunted house' sites, but he's barely had the chance to start making notes on the last one when he has to shove it aside so the waitress can get their plates onto the table. The soup has a weird aftertaste, and the sandwich is a lot less crisp and not nearly as hot as he’d hoped—but it's edible, and filling, and easy to eat while he keeps reading the last poorly written account of ghostly activity at the inn, and it's not until he's licking the last grease from the sandwich off his thumb that he finishes the last pseudo-article, and looks up.

Dean's tapping a pen on his stack of copies, reading with that intensely concentrated expression Sam remembers from so many projects Dean did on their dad's behalf. The fool's still not eating.

“Come on, man,” Sam says, and nudges Dean’s foot with his own. “How are you going to dig if you don’t eat?”

Dean startles again at the contact, eyes flying up to meet Sam’s, and then he frowns down at his sandwich where it’s congealing on the plate. “Here,” Sam says, and reaches across to confiscate what Dean's been reading. “Let me take a look at that while you eat, and then we can compare notes.”

There’s a flash of some emotion Sam can’t identify, but then Dean says, “Fine,” short. The look’s gone almost before Sam can register it was there in the first place.

While Dean grimly makes his way through his now-cold lunch, Sam skims over the article—and finds himself actually engrossed in the story of this woman's drive to help mental patients seeking to rejoin the rest of society. She’d bought the old Sise family home and revamped it, created a safe harbor for the people she’d hoped to serve despite opposition from all sides—zoning, neighbors, the patients’ own families. It’s a great piece of history, but nothing that seems applicable to their case until the very end, when the interviewer asked her about any regrets she had.

Sam reads: ”Just one, really,” she says. “Our famous failure, Laurence Grenz. Such a tragedy. Even with all the guests we hosted at the house, I wish we could have helped him more.” When I asked for further details, she shook her head and smiled. “Out of respect for the family I won’t say any more. It’s a sad story, but—I hope Laurence doesn’t think too badly of us, wherever he is now.”

Sam looks up to find Dean watching him, his napkin balled up and covering his half-eaten lunch. “Worth a look, don’t you think?” Dean says, and Sam stands up too fast, his chair scooting back over the cheap linoleum with a screech.

*

The librarian—Marjorie, it turns out—is unfazed by Sam’s request for her to look Grenz up in the database of obituaries. Sam waits, tapping his fingers on the wooden counter while Dean stands just behind, and then she comes back with a spool of microfilm: “December 1967,” Marjorie says, with a smile, and then it’s finding the microfiche machines in their weird corner of the stacks, settling into the creaky chairs in front of them—and remembering, again, that Dean’s never had to deal with these, has he. Endless scrolling through the spotty, elderly scans of cramped newsprint, squinting at the yellowed screen until, finally, the obituary: Laurence Grenz, beloved son. Cause of death unspecified, flowers may be sent to—but the exact date gives them another week or two to look through, and then it’s back to Marjorie for more microfilm, and then it’s showing Dean how to use the machine, and then it’s scrolling, again, in the Herald and the Hampton Union and the New Hampshire Gazette, scanning for any mention of Grenz or the inn, sitting hunched over and side-by-side while the afternoon grinds away, the light coming in through the small windows overhead getting greyer and greyer.

It’s almost five o’clock and there’s a headache pulsing behind Sam’s right eye before Dean says, “Got it,” the abruptness of his voice making Sam jump.

“You sure?” Sam says, leaning over so he can see the screen.

Dean nods, taps at the article he’s zoomed in on, and lets Sam jostle into his space to read it.

Tragic accident, it says, and Sam reads about a Vietnam veteran, disturbed and aching and trying anything to get away from the flashbacks, self-medicating, fragile, brought to the Sise House to get him back on his feet—but there were the ghost stories, the old silly folktales that got passed down in a town like this, in old buildings and old families, and when they were passed to Laurence he clutched them close. Something to focus on, to love. Then there was hurting himself to prove it, and hurting some of the other inmates, trying anything to convince people of what he saw, of the truth of spirits that could haunt a person, that could hold their hand in the dark when the nightmares got to be too much—and then the threat of the move to an asylum—and then the suicide, bloody and violent.

“He clawed his own eyes out,” Sam reads, under his breath.

“This has got to be the guy the Warder told you about,” Dean says, and Sam pulls back from the machine to find Dean looking right at him, all traces of his earlier irritation wiped away. “The other ghosts really weren’t real, he just believed that they were—and once he believed it strong enough, once he was certain that they were his—his friends, or whatever, then he killed himself so he could stay with them.”

Sam sits back in the creaky little chair, thinking. “Makes sense, I guess,” he says. “But why now? There haven’t been incidents for years—we couldn’t find anything that out of the ordinary in the history of the house.”

Dean taps the grainy, black-and-white picture of the house in the scanned-in article. “Remodeling, Sammy,” he says, like it’s obvious. Sam frowns, and Dean sighs. “Room 204. When I went up there, the dead guy was working on the remodel of the upper floor. They’re going to change Grenz’s room—the room where he fell in love with the ghosts, where he lives. If you were an insane spirit who wants nothing more than to stay with your imaginary friends, in the place where you think you met them, what would you do?”

It fits. Sam runs his knuckles over the stubble coming in sharp on his jaw. “We still don’t know why the other two got killed, though.”

Dean pauses, but then shrugs. “If I were writing a treatise on the Sise Inn that would be a problem,” he says, his eyes sharp on Sam. “But this is a hunt, and we’ve figured out a motive and a method, and from what I understand hunters don’t seem to need much else, right?”

Low blow, and Sam sucks in a breath to respond—and then shakes his head, letting it go. He’s not going to convince Dean otherwise, not by arguing, not right now.

A trip back to the bank of computers reveals that Grenz’s grave isn’t famous or loved enough that someone has bothered to mark it on Sam’s go-to site, and he drums his fingers on the keyboard for a second, thinking. “This would be the time to start… wandering around graveyards, right?” Dean says, a little wryly, and then Sam catches Marjorie watching them out of the corner of his eye.

“For our paper,” he says, leaning on the counter and giving a smile that will make his dimples pop. “We’re supposed to get some information on the whole ‘ghost’ thing, and we were thinking it’d be great if we could get some pictures of famous gravestones associated with—”

Marjorie’s nodding even before he finishes, smiling right back at him while she comes around the counter and leads them directly to the special collections room where they’d left all their research spread out before. “You boys are so thorough,” she says, with a weird affection in her voice—and brings them to a set of old wooden filing cabinets. She pats the nearest one, beaming at Sam. “Grave site index. Any grave in Portsmouth can be found right here.”

She bustles out again when someone rings the bell at the desk, and Sam finds himself smiling genuinely after her. “You know, if every town were this organized, every hunt would take like half an hour,” he says, and Dean huffs a little laugh.

“Three cheers for librarians,” Dean says, dry, and hauls open the first file drawer.

*

It gets dark early, this time of year, but Halloween means the streets are crowded even as the sun’s going down. Sam huddles into his hoodie, arms folded over his chest, and wishes that they had a blanket or something to lay down on the Impala’s trunk—because it is freezing.

“Want my coat?” Dean says, and Sam shakes his head. The headache is still there, though it’s diffuse. A slow throb rather than sharp pain. Which is better, he guesses.

They’re sitting side-by-side on the trunk, parked on the street on the far side of the cemetery from where Laurence Grenz’s bones are waiting to be burned. It’s barely six o’clock, which isn’t exactly the ideal grave-digging hour, and so they’ve got yet more time to kill. A little group of trick-or-treaters passes by them on the sidewalk, herded by their parents, and one little boy dressed as Spiderman peels off and prods Dean familiarly in the knee with his pumpkin bucket, saying, “Trick-or-treat!” in a piping voice.

He’s so earnest, blinking up at Dean with his little mask shoved up on top of his head, and Sam gets a weird pang in his gut. “Sorry,” Dean says, after a second. “We don’t have any candy, Spiderman.”

“Oh,” the boy says, frowning, and then his dad turns and—”Skylar! Sorry, sorry, he doesn’t really get it yet,” the dad says, collecting his son by the hand and pulling him back to the rest of the milling children. “Buddy, we knock on doors at houses, we don’t just ask random people, okay—”

Sam watches them go down the street, the kids all tumbling up the steps to a big old house on the other side of the cemetery. There’s a chorus of screeches, trick-or-treat, warm light spilling out onto the shadowy porch. He pulls his heels up onto the bumper so he can lean his elbows on his knees, and rubs at his temples. He really wishes he had a beer.

The kids collect their candy and wander off. Dean shifts his weight, and blows out a long, slow breath. “So,” he says, after a few seconds. “Boston, huh?”

Sam threads his fingers through his hair, lets his eyes slide closed. “Yeah.”

“Do you—” There’s another pause, and then another one of those little huffs of self-deprecating laughter that Sam doesn’t remember from when they were kids. “I don’t know. What do you do?”

The headache pulses behind Sam’s eye and he squeezes his eyes more tightly shut. “I work.” There’s a long pause, and at last Dean just makes a small hm but doesn’t say anything else. Sam pulls his hands out of his hair and sits up a little more, sighing as he looks back out along the street, talking to the air in front of him so he doesn’t have to see Dean’s expression. “I work, Dean. I make coffee at this place right next to Harvard’s campus, and I’m a bartender at night, and I get enough tips that I can help Jenn pay the rent on our place. It’s expensive, living out in the world without a secret society paying your bills.”

It came out maybe a little sharper than it should have, and he shakes his head—at himself, at Dean, doesn’t matter. Answering Haight’s questions with careful lies was a lot easier than this.

After a while, Dean clears his throat. “Does Jenn know?”

That makes Sam turn his head. Dean’s wearing another expression he can’t really read, and he doesn’t know when that happened. Used to be he knew everything about his brother. Dean’s just watching him, though, a barely-there frown puckering his eyebrows. “Does Jenn know what?” Sam says, finally.

Dean shifts his weight. “Well, the hunting, for a start,” he says, with a tight shrug. “And about—did you tell her about the Men of Letters?”

Sam twists around fully, one foot hitting the damp asphalt. It’s a weird shock in his belly, Dean saying it right out in the open like that, when anyone could walk by. “What? Of course not.”

Dean’s expression doesn’t change, though, and he hunches up a little, shoulders high and tense. “When you left, you told Dad—”

Sam’s shaking his head, again, and he says, “Dean,” but Dean just talks right over the top of him, says, “You told Dad that you’d talk if we ever tried to pull you back, and I didn’t know if you’d already told about us, since—”

“No,” Sam says, loud, and he finds himself standing, towering over Dean where he’s leaning against the car. Dean stops talking but he’s still looking at Sam like he’s a stranger. “I wouldn’t, Dean. And I’d never tell Jenn. As far as she knows, I just have a bad relationship with my dad, and I haven’t talked to my family in a while. Lots of people can say the same. She thinks we’re just… normal.”

Dean’s eyebrows go high and he purses his lips for a second. “Huh,” he says, with a nod. He looks over at the tall cemetery fence, his profile lit up by the streetlight. “So. Hunting counts as normal, now?”

There’s a bitter twist to his tone. Sam folds his arms over his chest. “No, of course not,” he says. He doesn’t know what to do with Dean, like this.

“No,” Dean echoes. He shifts his weight again, slouches down further on the trunk. When he looks back up at Sam he doesn’t look angry, or bitter. He presses his lips together for a second, corners of his mouth turned down, and then shrugs, again. “If you just went out one night to hunt and never came back, she’d never know what happened.”

The sentence sits there between them for a long moment. Sam holds Dean’s eyes and has no idea what to say, and after the moment passes Dean drops his head, folds his hands together between his knees. Sam watches the way he twists his rings, one after the other—a gesture that’s familiar, at last, from year after year of sitting and watching Dean take calls from their dad in the war room, from watching him read grimoires, from when Dean would sit to the side of Sam and their dad’s arguments, nervous and waiting to step in—and Sam sighs, feeling suddenly very tired. His head hurts.

“I only went on a few hunts,” he says. Another family walks past them, a mom and two kids, and he offers them a fake smile when the mom waves. Dean’s still twisting the platinum ring on his left hand. “A few ghosts, a ghoul once. Maybe six or seven cases.” It was more than a dozen, but this is more truth than he’s told in years and he’s doing what he can, here. “Nothing happened, other than a twisted ankle once, a bunch of bruises, and some blisters digging up graves. When I got to Boston I stopped, and I haven’t been since. She never has to know.”

Sam’s telling the truth—at last, after years, and he doesn’t know how else to sell it, how to make Dean believe him. Dean looks up at him, and searches his face. “Okay,” he says. He bites his lower lip and takes in a breath, but then he just looks down and away, shaking his head, and he says, “Okay,” again, low, like Sam’s not meant to hear it.

Sam sits back down on the trunk, the cold metal seeping right back through his thin jeans. That’s all he gets, apparently—okay, his brother clearly unhappy but unwilling to argue, and if Sam didn’t have this headache, if he weren’t tired and cold and if it were any other situation, then he would’ve pressed, he would’ve demanded something more, but—as it is, no. He wraps his arms more tightly around himself, jaw clenched hard enough that his teeth are aching, and shivers there in the silence while the traffic on the streets gets lighter, families thinning out and heading back home as evening slips into night, the good decent people of this sleepy little town bundling themselves back into their homes, where it’s warm, and safe, and there’s nothing to worry about.

Finally, there’s a clang and an echo of hooting laughter that carries over the still, quiet cemetery—the teenagers they overheard jumping the fence earlier going home from whatever Halloween stupidity they’d been up to. Sam tilts his watch to catch the streetlight and, yeah, it’s almost ten thirty, and they’ve waited long enough. He stands up, crams his groan back where it belongs when his legs ache at so long sitting still in the cold, and jerks his head at Dean.

The moon is high and bright and the fog’s thick, white and nearly impenetrable at thirty paces. Aside from the temperature they’re not going to get much better conditions than this. Dean unlocks the trunk and Sam pulls out the gleaming new shovels they’d bought earlier at the hardware store. He slips the little bottle of lighter fluid into his pocket, grabs the giant plastic canister of salt, and then zips his hoodie as high as it’ll go, shivering. He really needs to get a new coat.

Dean slams the trunk closed after another minute, shoving something into his pockets, and Sam hands him the shovels and then they’re off, moving quietly down away from the streetlamp into the fog, and then there’s the bit of wall that Sam scoped out earlier where a brick crumbled away, making an easy foothold. It’s the work of a few seconds to haul himself up and over, to hold the shovels close and quiet while Dean drops down beside him, a dark shadow against the dark fence. Dean produces a small, ancient flashlight and holds it between his teeth while he orients himself with the blurry copy of the graveyard map they’d made with Marjorie’s help, and then it’s moving as silently as they can through the stones and statues, squinting for names in the moonlight, dead grass and leaves crunching under their feet.

Grenz’s headstone is right where the map said he’d be—northwest corner, near the family plot, full of elderly graves that obviously aren’t well-tended. Dean flicks on his little flashlight again and by its flickering beam brushes away enough dead moss so they can see the broken flower carved into the marble, the inch-high Beloved Son above the dates. Dean flicks a glance up at Sam and Sam nods, and then—well, there’s nothing for it but to dig.

It’s been a long, long time since Sam’s had to dig a grave. It’s surprisingly easy to fall back into the rhythm. He takes the end closer to the headstone and Dean starts five feet or so further along, facing the other way so they won’t jostle each other, and then it’s just the steady swing of it, crunching through the cold crust of earth, making the hole. The effort warms Sam up, at least. The last time was—Texas, wasn’t it, that April two years ago, when he’d run into that pool where three little kids had drowned and he’d had to burn the bones of the ten year-old who just wanted friends. Grim, but the hunt had been easy, and he’d dug up the little coffin on a warm spring night, his hands calloused enough that his stolen shovel hadn’t even raised a blister. His hands are killing him, now, too used to the espresso machine and tapping kegs, and yet—it’s good. They get far enough down that only one of them really fits and Sam nudges Dean but Dean just shakes his head, mutters “I’m fine,” and fine, if he wants to keep going that’s up to him, so Sam hops out of the hole and sits on the big headstone memorializing Grenz’s neighbor, rolling his sore, warm shoulders.

Dean’s keeping a steady pace, even though he’s never done this before. Sam rubs his hands lightly together, cautious of the newly forming blisters, watching his brother. He’s still got on their dad’s coat, still in a suit because that’s all he’s got—still wearing his tie, even. Sam finds himself smiling, a little, at the thought of what Haight would say, if he could see this. Two legacies, blistered hands and filth up to their knees, doing the dirty work in the cold and the dark, where no Man of Letters would deign to tread. A little wisp of freezing air blows by and Sam shivers as it catches where the sweat’s dampened his hair, the center of his back, but he’s in a pretty good mood, suddenly, and he just tucks his hands into his pockets and settles in to wait for his turn in the grave to come again.

They trade off twice after that, the shovel handles going slightly sticky from their torn-up hands—they’ll have to get some band-aids and bactine before they head home. Sam’s back in the hole and shoulder-deep when the wind starts to really kick up and the temperature drops so fast it hurts when he inhales. He jerks his head up but Dean’s already on his feet, his breath pluming in the moonlight and this is the bad part, this is the part that’s nothing like what they used to read about, and Sam says, “Dean—” and then Grenz is there, a silver-white shadow illuminated from within, and even the ghost of him bleeds from the holes where there used to be eyes.

Sam freezes, just for a second of shock—it’s always a shock, every time—but then Grenz sucks in a rattling breath that’s loud, so much louder than it should be, and swings his eyeless face Dean’s way, and that jolts Sam, he stabs the shovel into the dirt and goes to scramble out of the grave, but Dean’s already moving, ripping a hand out of his pocket and flinging salt that shreds the flimsy body until the ghost disappears with a thin high wail.

“Keep digging,” Dean says, breathing hard, and Sam blinks up at him. Dean glances down and all Sam can see is the gleam of his eyes, his teeth, no details or expression with Dean’s body blocking the moonlight, but Dean says, “Come on, keep going, I’ve got this,” and Sam grabs up his shovel and puts his back into it.

It’s cold, colder still now that there’s something dead in the air with them, and it hurts to breathe but that just becomes part of the rush—stab down, stomp the blade, heave dirt away, suck in ice-sharp air, over and over. Dean’s muttering something in one of the Gaelics, talking fast and low and not meant for Sam to hear, and he doesn’t know what it is but then there’s another bloom of white light off in his periphery and a shriek, and now Grenz knows what they’re doing, now he’s angry. Sam risks a glance as he shovels another pile of dirt over his shoulder and Dean’s got his fingers wrapped up in cloth and he flings a handful of salt and Grenz disappears, again, frustrated wail echoing through the graveyard, but Dean doesn’t stop talking and so Sam doesn’t stop digging. Stab, stomp, heave, inhale, and his lungs are burning, his hands are numb, and then the shovel scrapes sharp against metal and, that’s it, that’s the coffin lid.

Sam drops to his knees, shoves at the dirt with his hands to see—yeah, it’s metal, but please, let them be lucky—yes, it’s split lid, thank god, and he shoves himself backward on his knees in the dirt, finds the hinges and jams his shovel into the dirt on the opposite side while Grenz screams again, piercing, up above. Scrabbling with the shovel edge, putting his shoulder into it and heaving and Sam’s able to lever the lid open—something snaps, but it doesn’t matter, not right now, because there’s the body, old enough that the flesh has disappeared into nothing, just the skeleton and the frayed decaying remains of a funeral suit, and Sam tosses the shovel up over the lip of the grave and scrambles to follow it, heaves himself over the edge of the hole and kicks off the opposite side to roll himself free. Dean’s chanting louder, hoarse and fast and barely pausing for breath, and Sam drags the lighter fluid out of his pocket while he’s still on his back, leans over and squirts half the bottle directly into the hole. Grenz shrieks, so close and loud Sam’s certain that he’s right on top of them, but when he scrambles up to his knees Grenz is—he’s floating close, he’s right there, but there’s some sort of gauzy filmy light that’s keeping him contained, some force in the air that he’s scratching his long awful bloodied nails against, but he can’t get out, and Sam doesn’t know what’s going on but there’s no time to lose. He fumbles in the dirt for the canister of salt, careful not to distract Dean from whatever spell he’s working—and winds up dumping in almost the whole thing, covering the bottom of the grave and the coffin lid and the skeleton in white. It takes him three tries to get the stupid cheap matches from the convenience store to strike and then the whole book’s on fire and he drops it in, right onto Grenz’s skull, and then there’s the immediate whump of light, and heat, fire racing through the dry fabric and dust of the coffin, and Dean stops talking with a gasp as Grenz’s ghostly face lights up in pain, and then a moment later he shrieks for the last time, and is gone.

He heaves himself to his feet, staggering away from the flaming grave. “Are you okay?” he says, and—Dean’s swaying, slightly, turned away from the fire so that he’s haloed in red-orange light. Sam frowns, steps closer. “Dean?”

Dean shakes his head, frowning, and he’s drawn and absolutely white in the face but he shakes his head, again, when Sam gets close enough to touch him. “I’m fine,” he says, voice scratched-up and rough. He coughs, but he picks his head up, and then he grabs Sam by the arms, looks him up and down. “Sammy, are you alright?”

Sam nods, finds himself grinning. “Yeah, man, I’m fine—didn’t get scratch on me, I swear,” he says, but Dean hauls him into a hug anyway, pulls him down with a tight grip, and Sam lets him, because—holy shit, he just went on a hunt, with his brother, the one person in the world he ever wanted to share this with, and he hugs Dean back, finds himself laughing into the fine dark wool of Dean’s coat.

“It’s not funny,” Dean says, muffled, and pushes him back, but he’s got a reluctant smile tugging at his mouth.

Sam shakes his head. “Seriously,” he says, squeezing Dean’s shoulders. “Easiest hunt I’ve ever been on. Wish I’d had you along in Texas. What was that?”

Dean shrugs, but the smile’s still playing over his face. “Variation on a circle of protection, from the Highland Scots,” he says, like it’s nothing, and reaches down to unwind the cloth from his hand—a scarlet ribbon, Sam sees now, in the firelight. “Didn’t know if it’d be useful or not, but figured it couldn’t hurt.”

He peels the last end of the ribbon off his hand with a wince and Sam takes his wrist, tilts his hand toward the light so he can see—Dean’s blisters have burst, the ribbon tacky with blood.

“Dean, I mean it,” Sam says, and Dean looks back up at him. “This would’ve been so much harder.”

He gets another shrug, but Dean’s smile tucks in, goes small and pleased before he ducks his head down, focuses on winding the ribbon back into a neat ball that he slips back into his pocket. “What now?” Dean says, and Sam blinks, remembering where they are—and this is the part that sucks.

“We’ve gotta get out of here,” he says, and Dean frowns at him but even as he says it they hear a siren pick up, way off in the distance but Sam knows it’s coming closer. Dean’s eyes go wide and Sam shrugs, grins. “Cops don’t appreciate our hard work.”

He grabs their shovels, and shoves the canister of salt into Dean’s hands, drops the bottle of lighter fluid into the fire so that it roars up higher, warmth washing over Sam like a wave, and then he leads Dean at a half-run out of the cemetery, dodging headstones by the firelight until they’re too far from the grave and they have to pick their way out by moonlight, again, knocking into each other and half-tripping over headstones three times until Sam has to muffle his giggling into the sleeve of his hoodie, Dean shoving at his shoulder and whispering, “What’s wrong with you, shut up,” but there’s a shiver of laughter in his voice, too. It’s not until they’re up and over the wall, Sam catching the shovels when Dean hands them down and then giving Dean a hand so he doesn’t fall over when he hits the pavement, that the fizz of hysteria in Sam’s chest dissipates. Drained, he leans against the Impala’s smooth, freezing flank, just catching his breath.

Dean stows the shovels in the trunk and closes it back up as quietly as he can. The siren’s close, but the actual cemetery gates are all the way on the other side, locked, and the cops won’t be in too much of a hurry—expecting those kids from earlier, probably some kind of Halloween prank, not a full-blown grave desecration.

“You look exhausted,” he hears, and opens his eyes to find Dean watching him. Dean’s voice is still scream-hoarse and even in the distant glow from the streetlamp Sam can see the circles cutting deep under his eyes.

“You’re one to talk,” Sam says. He flexes his hands, lets the blisters pull against his tender skin, then rolls his head carefully, trying to stretch his shoulders without wincing.

Dean comes close, straight-backed despite the fight and their long day, the corner of his mouth curled up a little. He looks up at Sam, steady in a way he hasn’t been since he first showed up on Sam’s door. “Yeah, well, I'm older. Means I need less sleep.” Sam can’t help laughing at that, and there’s just enough light for him to pick out the sudden creases at the corners of Dean’s eyes—though he isn’t quite smiling, anymore. He reaches up and scrubs through Sam’s hair, like he used to when they were younger, makes Sam duck away on reflex even as he grins. “Come on, short stuff, get in the car,” and when he pushes Sam towards the passenger door Sam goes willingly because he's—happy, and it's familiar. Something he didn't realize he was missing until now, now that he has it back.

Dean turns the car over and it purrs to life, and they ease slowly away from the curb, moving off down the deserted street into the night. Sam closes his eyes, but he’s not going to fall asleep. There’s a click and then the whir of the tape-deck, and then it’s that old tape again, with the sound on so low he can just barely hear it. He settles into the seat and listens to the rattle of the heating vents, the so-familiar rumble of the engine, and despite his aching shoulders and the sting of his hands it’s like the years fall away and he’s right back home, where he belongs. Dean starts to sing along, a soft whisper-voice murmuring the lyrics Sam’s heard a thousand times before, and Sam curls an arm under his head, hides a smile in the sleeve of his hoodie, while the air in the car grows warmer.

*

He hears, “Sammy,” and he comes awake all at once, blinking away the scorch-red behind his eyes and finding Dean shaking his shoulder, frowning and drawn in the streetlight glow.

“What, I’m awake, I’m awake,” he says, dragging a hand over his eyes. Goddamn, his shoulders hurt.

Dean leans one elbow on the steering wheel. “Need to tell me where to go from here,” he says, tilting his head at the road. They’re idling in a parking lot outside a lumber store and Sam sits up a bit more, cranes around.

Turns out they haven’t crossed the Mystic and Sam knuckles sleep out of his eyes, gives directions to the bridge, on how to navigate off the freeway and down into the little neighborhoods on Cambridge’s side of the river. Dean’s driving careful and too-slow and sticking to his lane, because Boston traffic’s waking up for rush hour and this is about as far from the dirt roads outside Lebanon as it’s possible to get. He manages, though, and they coast up into nearly the same parking spot he got—what, not much more than a day ago, less than half a block from their apartment building.

There are a lot of days Sam regrets their lease on the third floor and this is one of them, and his thighs and back are screaming by the time he makes the landing, fumbling his keys out of his pocket and easing the door open. The lights are all off and he glances at his watch—not even six in the morning, yet, and because this is Tuesday Jenn’s probably still asleep, doesn’t have to get to class until nine o’clock.

They changed in a gas station bathroom just outside the Portsmouth city limits, didn’t want to make it easy to connect the burning grave with how filthy they looked in case they saw anyone, but Sam still feels grimy, dirt caked into his aching hands, in his hair. He drops his keys into the bowl on the table by the door. “Think I’m gonna shower,” he says, trying to keep quiet through a huge yawn. “I smell like a gym bag, Jenn’s gonna throw me out of bed.”

There’s a little huff behind him. “Yeah,” Dean says, quiet, and Sam turns around to find Dean hovering in the doorway, his coat collar pulled up high and his eyes wrecked with tiredness.

Sam shakes his head. “Come on, man,” he says, and catches Dean’s elbow, light, pulls him in and closes the door behind him. “Come in, you look like you’re gonna pass out.”

Dean goes with it, doesn’t even stiffen up, but he glances toward the closed bedroom door and his voice is soft when he says, “I shouldn’t, Sammy.” He rubs his fingers over his mouth, looks down at the floor. “I’ll go get your bag, bring it up for you, but—but I should go, I should start checking places around town. Dad’s still out there, we still haven’t figured out what happened.”

Sam sighs. He doesn’t want to have to talk about the journal, yet. “Look,” he says, and Dean does actually look up at him, then, in the dim of Sam’s living room, and he looks raw and unhappy and Sam’s too tired for this. “I know you want to keep looking for him, and I’ll help, I promise, but—god, I’m exhausted, Dean, and I know you’re worse off than me. Can’t do anything until you get at least a few hours of sleep, right?”

He’s not at his best—this isn’t close to the amount of whining he used to be able to slather on when he wanted something from Dean when he was little—but Dean softens, anyway, glances toward the couch. “I—yeah,” Dean says, and Sam shakes his shoulder, gently, says, “You can use the laptop, call some places in the morning. Hang out here for a while, okay?” and Dean nods, all of the tension draining out of him like water circling down a drain.

There’s a spare blanket in the closet for when one of their friends crashes here after a night of drinking, and Sam fetches it out for Dean, moving quiet through the apartment so they won’t wake Jenn. When he’s sure Dean won’t just bolt out the door as soon as Sam turns his back, he heads for the bathroom, eases the door to the bedroom closed so it’ll be as quiet as possible, and then turns the water on as hot as it’ll go, strips off the fresh change of clothes and stands under the water, letting the blast of heat hit him right in the back of the neck and erode the tension slowly away. It’s a while before he dredges up the energy to wash, to rinse out his hair, but the ache of weariness is still there, dragging at his eyes. He shuts off the water and dries off as best he can, wraps the towel around his hips and peeks out the door to the living room. Dean’s asleep. He’s taken off his shoes, lined them up neatly next to the couch, and he’s spread out on his side, Dad’s coat balled up under his head and the blanket tugged up over his shoulder, and he’s pale and too skinny and tense-looking even when he’s sleeping, but he’s there. Sam runs a hand through his wet hair, looking at his brother safe and close in the thin morning light, and there’s a weird feeling in his chest, like relief maybe, like something slotting into place, but he’s too tired to examine it. He slips back through the bathroom, turns off the lights before he opens the bedroom door, and there’s Jenn, curled up and sound asleep. He drops the towel to the floor and slips on the pajama pants he’d been wearing when Dean broke in, eases down onto the mattress behind her. She makes a soft, still-asleep sound, doesn’t stir. He soaks in the warmth of their bed, the smell of her, and then he turns over and presses his face into the pillow and thinks of nothing at all.

*

He’s overwarm and the room is bright, way too bright, when he wakes up. He stares into the tangle of sheets and blanket and has absolutely no idea where he is for a few seconds, and then he sits up fast, looks at the clock with a sick wrench of certainty that he’s going to be late, it’s quarter to noon and he’s gonna be fired—but then the world comes back to him. He scrapes his tender hands through his hair. He’s still got the day off and Jenn’s long-gone, away at class all day. Sam wishes she’d woken him up before she left, just so he could kiss her, if nothing else. He swings his legs over the side of the bed and the universe reassembles itself, slowly. Ah, god—his shoulders are a wreck. He stretches, carefully, groaning out loud when something pops in his back. His hands are hot-stiff, tender, and he wonders how Dean’s doing, and then—Dean.

He stumbles out of bed, pushes the bedroom door open, and—he’s still there. Sam leans against the doorjamb, unaccountably grateful. Dean’s rolled over onto his belly, spread out flat on the couch with the blanket twisted around him, and Sam wants to just let him sleep forever, but he knows he’s pushing his luck with just having him stay in the first place.

“Hey, Dean,” he says, quiet, and sits on the coffee table. No response, and he sets his knuckles against Dean’s shoulder, jostles him easy, and that gets him a low, protesting moan, and he can’t help but smile. Dean never was a morning person. “I know, I know, I’m the worst.”

“You are the worst,” Dean mumbles, a hoarse rasp into the pillow of his coat, but then he turns his head and Sam’s treated to his bedhead, a sleep-blurred green eye, lines creased sharp into his cheek above the line of his stubble. He squints at Sam, frowning, then says, “Time is it.”

“Noon, almost,” Sam says, and Dean’s eyes go wide, he shoves up onto his bandaged hands, but Sam’s shaking his head, already. “Dude, don’t freak out.”

“I never—” Dean coughs, clears his throat, and Sam takes advantage of the pause to push him back into the couch cushions.

“I know. Up at seven, working at eight,” Sam says. Dean’s mouth goes tight and Sam sighs, but he smiles a little to take the sting out of it. “This isn’t the bunker, we don’t have to be on a schedule. We were up all night, taking out a ghost, remember?”

Dean stares at him, for a few seconds, and then digs the heel of his hand into his right eye. “Yeah, Sam, I remember,” he says, bone-dry.

“Yeah.” Sam nudges Dean’s knee with his own. “So, maybe cut yourself a little slack. We’re gonna look for Dad, we’ll start making calls and stuff, but first things first. I’m starving, and I’m guessing you could use a cup of coffee.” Dean nods, into his hand, and Sam grins. “I’ll make you one, but you’ve got to shower, first.”

Dean pops his head up, frowning, and then his face changes as he takes a deep breath. “Uh—yeah, good point,” he says, and Sam claps him on the shoulder, grabs him a clean towel. This is going to work.

*

It’s less than half an hour before Dean comes out of the bathroom again, damp and clean and looking relatively refreshed, even in clothes he slept in. He left his jacket on the couch and it’s a weird little blast from the past to see him in shirt-sleeves, no tie, padding out into the living room on socked feet, finger-combing his damp hair back from his forehead. Sam’s dressed and he got the coffee made, the last of the loaf of bread made into peanut butter sandwiches for breakfast—or lunch, now—and he’s sitting there with Jenn’s laptop on his knees, the beginnings of research started, but really—he’s been thinking.

“You owe me coffee,” Dean says, buckling his watch into place. He tugs his shirt-cuff back over it, gives Sam expectant eyebrows over his less-dim eyes, and Sam smiles at him, nods at the counter where he’s left a cup next to their ancient Mr. Coffee. He watches Dean pour out a mugful, watches him cup both hands around the warmth of it and suck in caffeinated air, closing his eyes. It’s strange, having him here, still. His jacket may be off but he’s still buttoned-up, plain white shirt closed at his wrists and throat, tucked into his slacks, and it’s like two worlds colliding. Sam’s past and his present, smashed together as Dean takes a gulp of coffee, as he comes and sits next to Sam on the terrible cheap couch Sam and his girlfriend picked out together.

“So?” Dean says, voice a rough burr. Sam blinks at him, and Dean raises his eyebrows again. “Earth to Sammy.”

“Sorry,” Sam says, and straightens up. They’ve got work to do, and he promised, after all. “Okay, here’s what I think we should do.”

It’s an afternoon’s worth of work. It’s way more than that. Dean makes a sandwich disappear, sucks down a mug of coffee, and then they’re off. Sam gives him the Boston phone book—Dean boggles a little, seeing it so much bigger than the one they have for Smith County back home, and Sam grins at him long enough that Dean nudges him hard in the ribs—but then it’s finding the phone numbers, the names of the people to call. Hospital, police station. Morgue. They sit shoulder to shoulder, and Dean uses his false strong FBI voice, asking, a man in his fifties, may answer to the name of John Winchester, dialing the apartment’s cordless again and again. The battered atlas Sam used on his road trip spread out between them. Finding towns, spreading out from New Hampshire through southern Maine, through Vermont, down into Massachusetts, finding sleepy towns that might’ve harbored their wayward, infuriating father. Sam scribbles down numbers on the legal pad, hands it back to Dean with their elbows and hands jostling each other. It’s slow. The afternoon light slants golden across the bare wooden floor, the only sound the scritch of pen on paper, the muted beeps of the phone as Dean dials, again, the scratch of Dean’s hoarse voice as he asks, again, as he says any information you might have, as he says, a caucasian male, dark hair, as he says, no, no, that’s all right, thank you very much for your time. Slow, but Sam’s faster than Dean, has the easier job—just finding and regurgitating information, googling over and over, jotting down what he thinks Dean might be able to use. So much like when they were younger.

He sits back, eventually. Dean’s got another twenty numbers to call, and they’re about to work their way south through the atlas to Suffolk County, and still nothing. No word. Sam licks his lips in sympathy as Dean’s voice cracks, talking to some deputy in Salem. Nothing, and the journal’s still sitting hidden in Sam’s duffel, down in the Impala’s trunk. He could say something. He should. Say, Dean, he wanted to go. Say, he disappeared, because that’s what he does. Yet—a year and a half on the road taught Sam how many ways there are for things to go wrong. He always suspected that their dad hunted, that he was doing more than he let on, and he’s good, Sam knows it. All the damn gun training down in the range, the drilling on exorcisms and monster weaknesses, they’re hard to forget. Still. Dean’s right. He knows what happens to hunters who work alone. Something always gets them, in the end.

He bites his lips between his teeth and pulls up his old email, again, sitting back far enough that Dean can’t see what’s on the laptop screen. While Dean talks to a morgue attendant in Marblehead Sam rereads the emails. The proof’s there between the lines. Dean asking about Sam, asking about the world he’d never expected to see, because he’s the good son, the one who did exactly as their father asked and stayed safe down in the dark, where nothing could hurt him. Where he’d never be anything more, either. Dad’s not in there anywhere, and Sam wonders how long would go between visits. Dean hangs up with the morgue in Marblehead, clears his throat like cloth tearing, starts dialing dutifully again. Maybe a month, Sam thinks, crossing his arm loosely over his stomach. Maybe longer. Dean down in the empty, researching, doing what he was told because that was all he knew how to do, following his routine like a good disciple, and it makes Sam want to still his blistered hands, quiet his wrecked voice, wrap him down into a blanket and make him just stop.

“Thanks,” Dean says, and hits end on the call. He crosses a line through the last note on the legal pad they’ve been using and stares at the scribbled-over paper for a few seconds. “Who’s next?”

His shoulders are hunched in, tired. Sam scrapes his teeth over his bottom lip and closes the laptop lid, makes a decision.

“Hey, maybe we should take a break,” he says. Dean sits up a little more, slants Sam a furrowed-brow look over his shoulder. “It’s been like four hours, dude.”

“I’m fine,” Dean says, in a voice raspy as a smoker’s, and Sam raises his eyebrows. Dean clears his throat, frowning. “Doesn’t matter, we should keep going.”

“We will, I promise,” Sam says, and he doesn’t know if he’s telling the truth right then or not, but— “We’ve just got to take a break. Come on, it’s almost five. Jenn’s gonna be home soon.”

Dean sits up straight, glancing at his watch. “Oh,” he says. “You want—should I—”

Already gathering his feet under himself, like he’s got to run out right away, and Sam could just murder himself for the years of silence, for letting Dean turn himself into a stranger. “You should stay,” he says, firm. “I still have tomorrow off, we can keep working then, okay. But, you know, for now, just stay for dinner.”

Dean licks his lips, looks down at the cluttered notepad. There’s a pause. “Dinner,” he says, playing with the edge of one of his band-aids.

“Yeah,” Sam says. “We—I don’t know, we can cook something. Like when we were kids.”

He gets a side-eyed look for that. “Sammy, you’ve never cooked a day in your life.”

“Hey!” Sam says, shoving at Dean’s shoulder. “That’s not true, okay. I make a damn good grilled cheese.”

“And a passable PB&J,” Dean says, dry, but the corner of his mouth’s turned up.

“Yeah, laugh it up,” Sam says, rolling his eyes, but Dean just snorts, gets up and heads into the kitchen. He’s still sort of unfamiliar with the unshaven jaw, the pale skin and the stillness, but padding through Sam’s apartment in his socks, he just—he’s reminding Sam of so much that he missed. Running around the bunker, play fighting, setting up blanket forts in the Impala, late nights staring up at the stars within the parameter of the boundary spells. He’s had a lot of good, since he left, and he’s not sorry that he did, but some things just can’t be replaced.

“Sam,” Dean says, jolting him. He’s got the fridge door open, looking into the depths of it. “You don’t actually have any... food.”

“Ah.” Sam stands up, puts his hands on his hips. Right. He and Jenn don’t exactly set records for housekeeping. Dean gives him the you’re hopeless look over the door, and Sam rolls his eyes. “Okay, so, we’re going to the store. Then we’ll have dinner.”

“You mean, ‘then I’ll cook dinner’,” Dean says, closing the fridge, and Sam says back, “Um, no, you’re going to cook dinner,” and while Dean starts up a whole who’s on first, no, that’s what I said, Sam tugs on his sneakers and watches Dean lace up his shoes and Sam, he just can’t stop grinning.

*

When they come back up the stairs an hour and a half later, loaded down with bags because Sam wasn’t actually sure if they owned any of the ingredients Dean kept listing off, and Dean was buying, anyway, so he insisted on bringing home half the store—Jenn’s home. She’s working on the couch, laptop balanced on her knees, and she gives Sam very high eyebrows when he dumps his armload onto the counter. “Hey, baby,” he says, and ignores her little fake hiss of annoyance. “We picked up groceries.”

“I can see that,” she says, and then lifts her face up for a kiss when Sam comes over. Mm. She tastes like the weird fruity tea she drinks, sometimes, and Sam sucks another little kiss against her lower lip before he pulls back. She smiles at him, and then turns a more-polite smile on Dean, where he’s hovering awkwardly in the kitchen, not looking at them. “You have a plan for all of this stuff?”

Sam tucks a loose tendril of hair behind her ear. “You’re in for a treat,” he promises, and goes to help Dean unload.

*

As far back as Sam can remember, the kitchen was Dean's territory. Sam used to hang out while Dean would assemble dinner, that Carmen Sandiego show playing fuzzily on the TV on the back edge of the table. Even when their dad was around, and the rest of the bunker turned back into a functional office instead of a home, the kitchen was a haven. For Sam, it still kind of equals home, but mostly it means Dean, and it's nice to have him actually here in their kitchen, grumbling about crappy knives and not enough counter space.

Sam can tell he’s grumbling, at least, even from over here on the couch. He’d been banished pretty much immediately upon the knives coming out, which he thinks is unfair, but Dean just reminded him of that time when Sam was eleven and tried to cook himself dinner and ended up needing six stitches, and, okay. He hasn’t forgotten how Dean’s a tyrant in the kitchen. Dean’s too polite to stop Jenn from helping, though, and so Sam gets to watch Dean carefully try to work around her, trying to give instructions while talking as little as possible. If Sam were nicer he’d be smoothing the way, but—hell, it’s what Dean gets. Maybe next time he’ll let Sam help.

He watches over the top of his book, instead. Dean took his jacket and tie off, at least, but he’s still buttoned down and prim next to Jenn in her slouchy tank-top and pajama shorts, her hair done up in a messy bun. She’s chatty, probably making a hash of chopping up the mushrooms, explaining about her class on Chaucer and how she just can’t stand the Canterbury tales, but her professor is encouraging and so she wants to do a good job, “even though if I hear one more rimming joke about the stupid Wife of stupid Bath, I am going to scream.” Dean keeps his eyes down, doesn’t smile, his shoulders tense as he cracks open the lobster, and Sam just puts his book down and doesn’t try to pretend he’s not staring.

He wishes they’d been able to beat Jenn home, if only to give Dean time to recover from the apparently overwhelming experience of a modern city grocery store. They couldn’t get much further from tiny little Ladow’s Market and its empty aisles if they tried. Dean had been wide-eyed and quiet the whole time, sticking close to Sam’s side and flinching when he got bumped, staring at all the choices, and the stupid lobster tank, unexpectedly, had ended up being the saving point of the whole thing. Thank god Dean had enough cash to cover it, because he’d lit up, surprised. They’re so—gross, he’d said, almost delighted, watching them skitter slowly along the bottom of the tank, and then, slow, does—does Jenn like lobster? Sam said, Jenn likes anything she doesn’t have to cook, and Dean had bitten into his lower lip but couldn’t stop his grin, and Sam had thought, clear as a bell: he couldn't let him go back to the bunker.

Dean’s doing something to the oven when Jenn jolts Sam out of his jumbled thoughts, says, “Hey, lazy, can you get plates or something?” She grins at him, eyes crinkling, as she whisks something in one of their few battered cooking bowls, and Sam tweaks her bun as he moves into the kitchen, easing carefully around Dean in the little space while he peeks into the broiler. They’ve got a half-dozen mismatched plates, some silverware he’s pretty sure Jenn stole from the student union, and he gathers up what he needs, sticking a finger into whatever Jenn’s stirring up—grinning and scooting away when she smacks his ass and says, “If you get salmonella, I’m not visiting you in the hospital.” He makes an attempt at place settings, drags the coffee table a little closer to the couch and snags the little side chair from their bedroom, and—okay, it’s kind of crappy. Nothing like what Dean’s used to, but Sam likes this a hell of a lot more than the impersonal luxury of the chapterhouse, or the almost institutional bunker.

When Dean pulls the lobster out of the oven, a stack of legal pads has to serve as a trivet on the coffee table, but it smells amazing and Dean looks pleased. He’s a little pink-cheeked from the heat of the kitchen, carefully serving out the shells. Jenn brings three beers over and kisses Sam on the cheek, sits close enough beside him on the couch that their knees bump, and it’s she who takes the first bite, and groans, and says, “Holy shit, Dean, when did you learn to cook like this?”

Dean’s still pink, though Sam doesn’t know if it’s still from the broiler or if it’s embarrassment, and he shrugs. “Just practice,” he says, quiet, and takes his own first bite. Sam copies him, and—okay, yeah. Goddamn. He catches Dean’s eye and gives him a thumbs-up, and Dean looks down at his own plate, but not before Sam sees the smile tucked into the corner of his mouth.

Jenn actually makes a mmm sound, eyes closed. “Seriously. Amazing. I can’t imagine how many tries it must’ve taken to get right.”

Dean shrugs, swallows his bite. “First try on this one, actually,” he says, not looking up. “Saw it on Julia Child, always wanted to give it a shot.”

Jenn’s eyebrows go high and Sam tries to hide his grin with a swig of beer. If he can get Dean to stay, he’s betting that he’ll get that expression out of Jenn at least once a day.

They eat and Sam asks Jenn more about her day, about the paper she’s working on—something about themes of betrayal in medieval literature, which he does actually think is interesting—but there’s a problem, which Sam really hadn’t anticipated, and that’s that Jenn is—nice. She doesn’t pry, really, but it’s antithetical to her nature to just let someone sit silently outside  a conversation, and so she tries constantly to bring Dean in. She tells Sam about a meeting she has coming up with her advisor, who’s overworked and therefore always curt and kind of an asshole, and then turns and says, “So, Dean, where’d you go to school,” and it’s a question that would be innocuous, for anyone else, except for all of the years of secrets Dean holds tight in his chest. When he wipes his mouth, neatly, and says, “Kansas,” barely audible, Jenn just rolls right along and asks what he majored in, and it’s left to Sam to jump up and interrupt, ask Jenn if she wants another beer, to give Dean the space to drag up a lie, since he can’t tell anything close to the truth.

“I always wanted to study English, ever since freshman year of high school,” Jenn’s saying, and when Sam hands her a second beer he can see that she’s studying Dean, as he nods carefully and still doesn’t look up. “I just like—digging in, prying open what the words mean, you know?” Dean just nods, again, and Jenn taps her fingernails on the bottle. “You like reading?”

Dean looks up, at that, and glances at Sam. “Yeah.” It’s almost questioning, and Sam nods encouragingly at him as he takes another helping of the lobster. “I even like Chaucer,” he says, soft, but with a tiny bit of his real personality coming through, and Sam grins down at his plate when Jenn groans, all theatrical.

They start talking about books, then—Sam’s reading a Roald Dahl omnibus, which gives the opportunity for Jenn to tell the story about calling him the BFG on their first date—and Dean doesn’t really open up much more, but he’s paying a little more attention. He looks to Sam half the time before answering any questions and he’s still shy, still stilted way beyond what Sam remembers, but—he’s here. He’s here, and he’s trying, and even if Jenn clearly freaks him out and they’re so far outside his frame of reference he might as well be on Mars, it’s okay. He’s making it work.

Sam washes the dishes, when they finish up, and Dean sits and proofreads Jenn’s essay, as she’d made him promise to do before she went to take her shower. It’s quiet, the rush of the water through the wall a solid undercurrent to the gentle racket Sam’s making. He didn’t even know they owned some of the things Dean managed to use. Jenn comes out in pajamas, her wet hair a dark red river down her back, and flicks on the TV, finds something that’s only just started on the local channel. They end up all in a row on the couch, Jen tucked in against Sam’s left side and Dean sitting still and stiff on the other, watching some action movie from the nineties Sam doesn’t recognize as the evening drifts along into night, and it’s not perfect, but—it’s pretty damn close.

Dean falls asleep, well before the end of the movie. Even awkward as the situation is, he’s clearly exhausted. Sam covers him up with the blanket slung over the back of the couch, while Jenn gathers up the beer bottles for recycling. Dean’s is untouched, which Sam pretty much expected. He brushes his teeth, flexes his hands to feel the pull of his aching blisters, and Jenn shuts off the lights in the apartment, moving quiet so she won’t wake Dean. She’s already sitting in bed, crosslegged under the blanket, when Sam comes into the bedroom, a little fuzzy-headed from tiredness, and so it’s a surprise when she fixes him with a direct look and says, “Is he okay?”

Sam freezes for a second, stuck in the middle of tugging on his pajama pants. “What do you mean?” he says. Like there’s any question.

One of the many things he loves about Jenn is that she’s not stupid, and she doesn’t beat around the bush. Enough years of lies and misdirection gave him an appreciation for sincerity. She licks her lips, shakes her head. “He’s—he’s not like you, okay. I know that things with your family are sort of weird,” she says, though Sam’s never told her the half of it. “But he…”

She shakes her head again, looks down at her lap. Sam sits down on the edge of the bed. He rubs his fingers over his mouth, scraping over the little stubble he’s got.

“I’ve never asked,” she says. “You never wanted to talk about it and I figured, you know, it’s your business. Lots of people don’t talk to their families.” She looks up, then, looks at him straight on, her face set. “But then I think about… he’s obviously really smart, but—I mean, he could barely talk to me. And, okay, some people are shy. So what. But the two of you, it’s like night and day, and then I think about how you told me, way back, how you ran away from home. Like you were joking. Only, maybe you weren’t, after all.”

Jenn doesn’t sound pitying, and she’s not prying, because she doesn’t. Never has. He remembers that conversation—their second date, maybe, starting to talk about family because that’s what normal people did, after all. He hadn’t been joking. He’d never wanted her to know that.

“So, I haven’t asked about this, either—this little side trip, I mean,” she says. She shrugs. “I figured you’d tell me when you got back, but all night it didn’t come up. You know, the two of you, you didn’t mention your dad once? After your brother shows up in the middle of the night freaking out about him, and the two of you disappear to who knows where, and you come back with your hands all cut up?” Sam looks down at his band-aided palms, folds his hands into a knotted fist in his lap. Jenn sighs. “So. I guess I’m asking.”

Sam nods, bites his lips between his teeth. She has been remarkably patient. He owes her something. Only— “I guess I don’t know where to start,” he says, which is true. “What do you want to know?”

Jenn folds her arms over her belly, shrugging again. “I don’t know. I mean—like, I don’t even really know how you grew up. Could you—I mean, did your dad let you talk to people, even, because from what I’m seeing—”

Sam scoffs, cutting her off. “Of course we—yes, we talked to people, god. It wasn’t a cult.”

His voice was harder than he meant, but still quiet, at least. They’ve barely been talking above a whisper, but he hopes to God that Dean’s still sound asleep. He can’t imagine him overhearing this.

Jenn’s face goes softer. “I’m sorry,” she says, and sounds like she means it. “But—what, then?”

“It was weird,” he says, and when she raises her eyebrows he kind of laughs, unexpectedly. It’s an understatement. He’s still not going to tell the truth, but he can—maybe he can get close to it.

“It was a really small town and we lived far out, isolated even from that. Kansas farm country, nothing around but fields. Dad traveled a lot, for work, and sometimes we’d have relatives come and stay with us when we were younger, but it was mostly just… me and him.” Long years of playing in the bunker under the variously indulgent eyes of visiting Men of Letters, those chosen few who interned at the center of all their knowledge, but they never really got close. They always left, and then it was Sam and Dean, alone again. When Sam was little he’d never understood that it was strange. He picks at one of the band-aids, coming loose. “You know we were home-schooled—and I’d go out, you know. Hung out with some of the kids from town, played pick-up baseball. Farm kid stuff, sneaking beers in the loft of somebody’s barn, that kind of thing. Dean never did. Dad was really—protective, you know, always worried about something bad happening to us, because of what happened with our mom. He always wanted us safe, wanted us to stay close, and Dean was the good kid. Never did anything Dad might disapprove of. So, he stayed home, he studied. Looked after me. Never left. He just—never got the chance to be normal.”

A small hand appears on his wrist and he looks up to find Jenn biting her lip, eyes concerned. There’s a weird sad ache behind his breastbone and he covers her hand with his, because he—god. Dean.

“So, what happened?” she says. “This time.”

Sam takes a deep breath. “Dean lost contact with Dad,” he says, which is also true, though he won’t be truthful as to why. “With the anniversary of our mom’s death, and everything, he just—went off. I guess Dean wasn’t doing well on his own and he needed my help. We got it sorted out, Dad’s going to be fine, but—I don’t know. I’m just worried about Dean.”

Jenn squeezes his arm. “You think he could stay, a few days?” she says, her voice soft.

Sam nods, clears his throat. “I want him to.” He wants him to stay a lot longer than that. One day at a time, though. He picks her hand off his arm and kisses her knuckles. “Thanks, baby,” he says, lips brushing her soft sweet skin.

She flicks him on the chin, though gently. “Don’t call me that,” she says, and then leans in and kisses him, on the mouth and then on the forehead, lingering. He closes his eyes, breathes her in. “We’ll work it out, Sam. Everything will be okay.”

*

It’s windy, the trees rattling, and Sam wakes up with a start. His dream tucks back behind his eyes, unsettling and bright, and he blinks against the pillow, dry-mouthed and tired. The clock says it’s around one and he’s only been asleep for a few hours. He turns onto his back. Jenn’s still asleep, of course, hogging the blanket on her side of the bed. Sam tucks a hand behind his head, blinks up at the dim ceiling. There’s still planning to do, still all kinds of arguments he needs to formulate. It won’t be easy, convincing Dean, but—it’ll be worth it, and it’s for the best. For everyone’s sake.

He’s drifting again when there’s a rustle, under the wind from outside. His chest jumps—but it’s only Dean. Sam smiles, lets his eyes settle closed. It’s nice. Their bedrooms used to be right next to each other, back then, and for years he’d fallen asleep to the quiet little noises that would drift through the wall between them—Dean humming or even singing, sometimes, or reciting Latin declensions into the night. Like a bedtime story, even once he got too old to ask for one. Sam’s almost asleep again, exhaustion and memory pulling him back down into the dark, when there’s a creak, and a solid click, cutting clean through the night, and he opens his eyes and blinks up at the ceiling and—the door. The front door.

He nearly falls out of bed. Feet shoved into sneakers and his hoodie grabbed up off the floor, just enough that he’s halfway decent—and then he’s out of the apartment, running down the stairs in the dead of night, hissing, “Dean, don’t you dare—” even as he hears the door down in the lobby creak open and shut. He jumps down the last half-flight and stumbles through the empty lobby, flings himself out into the night, and—yes, there’s Dean, damn it, a dark shadow already almost to the car, trying to leave, again, and Sam’s across the street in what feels like an instant, grabs Dean by the elbow and says, “Dean,” breathless, his chest tight.

“Sam,” Dean says, dropping his head a little, and then he turns around. The streetlight down at the corner illuminates the paleness of his face, but leaves his eyes dark.

Sam lets go of his arm, after a silent second. “You weren’t even going to say goodbye?”

Dean sighs. “I needed to bring your bag upstairs for you,” he says, finally. “I was going to leave a note.”

“A note,” Sam says. Overhead, the wind quiets a little, though the bare twigs and branches still shiver together. He zips his hoodie up, folds his arms against the cold. “Seriously? That’s it?”

“Sammy,” Dean says. Shakes his head. His face is drawn, from what Sam can see. “I need to go home. There’s work I need to do. Dad’s still gone, and I—”

“But we—Dean, I’m going to help you with that,” Sam says. Dean’s not really looking at him and Sam puts a hand on his shoulder. “I swear, Dean. I really am. But—you can’t do anything more from the bunker. We—you can stay here, with us.”

Dean shakes his head, again, and shoves his hands into his pockets. “I’m not going to get in the way of you and your girlfriend. You wanted a life, Sam, and you got it. I don’t want to ruin that.”

“You’re not,” Sam says. A gust of wind whips down the street, cuts through his thin pajama bottoms, but he ignores it. “Dean, come on. You’re my brother. And we made a pretty great team back there, didn’t we?”

He shakes Dean’s shoulder, a little, and finally Dean looks up at him. After a second the corner of his mouth quirks. “Yeah,” he says, quiet. “Yeah, we did.”

“Yeah,” Sam says, smiling back. He hasn’t thought of all the arguments, hasn’t figured out what he’ll need to keep Dean, but he’s got this, at least. Dean never did have much of a defense against Sam just asking for something, outright. “So, listen,” he says, “we’ll—”

“Sam,” Dean says, sharp. His eyes have drifted, past Sam’s face, and he’s looking—up. “Third floor.”

“What?” Sam says, and turns, follows Dean’s eyeline. Third floor, their window, and—a shadow passes through in the dark, unfamiliar and tall and—and not Jenn, and Dean says Sam but Sam’s heart is already in his throat, and he’s running, because—he didn’t lock the door, did he even close it all the way, he doesn’t know, he doesn’t know and he’s through the lobby, he’s vaulting up three stairs at a time and somewhere behind him someone’s calling his name but he can’t, he can’t because Jennifer’s—he slams up to the third floor and crashes into the apartment and it’s silent. It’s silent and dark and he can’t see anything, he says, “Jenn,” with his breath a faint wisp in his empty lungs, and he pushes open the bedroom door and the bed is—is empty. He stands there and stares, and then there’s a flat wet splat and a thin little gasp. He looks, he looks up, and—she’s there, her hair falling dark all around her pale white face, pinned up to the ceiling like a butterfly stuck to a mounting board, arms immobile and her legs an odd twist, and even as he stares, struck for a second dumb, in the space between her pajama shorts and her little tank a dark spot widens on the soft pale skin of her belly, and widens further, and it takes a moment for his brain to compute, that—that’s blood, and there’s another spatter on the wood floor and she says, “Sam,” her voice a weird faint twist, and it’s only when his heart decides to keep beating and his muscles unfreeze, it’s only then that the fire blooms out from behind the very core of her.

“No!” He says it and doesn’t know he’s saying it, he lunges forward—and he’s caught, around the middle, arrested even as the fire licks unnaturally fast over the ceiling. No something says, but he has to—she’s there, she’s staring at him and he can save her, he knows he can, there’s probably some kind of spell or a ritual to stop the fire, to bring her down—and he wrestles at the arms around his waist, fights back, because he can save her—

He doesn’t quite remember the next few minutes. He sits on the cold asphalt with his back straight against the curve of the Impala’s side, looks at nothing. The fire truck comes. People spill out into the night. There’s chatter. What happened? Where did it start? Electrical fire, maybe? Was anyone hurt? The wind keeps blowing. It smells like it did when they burned the body.

Through it all, Dean stands at his side, watching the firemen work. He’s close enough that Sam can feel a hint of warmth. It would feel like protection, any other day.

Finally, the firemen stop spraying water. The fire’s out, and now the night’s back to darkness interrupted only by the red-blue strobe of their lights. Dean shifts, at his side, his leg pressed up now against Sam’s shoulder. Sam closes his eyes. Behind them he can still see—the fire. Her face. Her shocked-open eyes.

Hands pull him away from the car and warm surrounds his shoulders. He looks, and Dean’s crouched next to him, settling his coat around Sam’s body. “You’re shaking, Sammy,” he says, quiet, and his voice sounds weird until Sam sees that his face is wet. Sam fists one hand in the wool, warm from Dean’s body. He is shaking. Doesn’t know how to stop. A hand settles on his shoulder. He looks up at the ruined front of the apartment building, at the broken-open window. He pulls the old peacoat tighter around himself. There was a shadowy figure. He blinks, swallows. There was a fire, and a woman died.

“November second,” he says, out loud, his voice rough with the smoke.

“What?” Dean says, but Sam knows that Dean heard him.

He stands up, slowly. His legs feel steady, at last. A fire. That’s how it started. He rubs a hand over his face, smears away at the wet and the grit. He shrugs the coat off his shoulders and hands it to Dean, who takes it with both hands, his eyes watchful. Sam takes a deep breath. “We’ve got to find Dad,” he says. “We’ve got work to do.”