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In a Cursed Hour

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 Newport, New Hampshire: November 5, 2005

 

 Mrs. Clark can’t stop crying.

An old building. That’s what Sam keeps saying. Say something enough and it becomes true.

“It was an old building,” Mr. Clark says, to someone. The woman puts a hand on his arm. Mr. Clark keeps shaking his head, like he’s trying to say it’s not true. “An old building, and—and the wires, I guess it was.”

“I’m so sorry,” the woman says, low and sincere. Sam braces both hands against the window sill. Looks out at the chill November twilight.

An old building, he’d said. The investigator had sat both of them down together. Just routine follow-up questions. Neither of them had slept. Sam still in his pajama pants, his clothes still reeking of smoke. The lights flickered in the bedroom sometimes, Sam had said. Dean had been silent at his side, looking down at the table. The lies came easy. All those case-files, from when they were kids. All that reading they’d had to do. The lights flickered, Sam had said, and sometimes the bedroom door stuck. It was an old building.

“A terrible accident,” Sam hears someone say, now. The funeral home is classy, dim-lit. Small. Her family fills the viewing room, the seats, and the foyer—where Sam thought he could be alone, but no. Cousins and aunts and querulous grandparents, shocked and white-faced. Friends from high school, grade school. People from college, and he recognized some but didn’t open himself, isn’t making himself available to talk about what happened. To talk about her. He leans a hip against the window sill and watches a girl he’s met at parties hold Mrs. Clark’s hands in her own, both of their eyes full of tears. Two older women nearby whisper together, and one nods his way. The other catches his eye and then, embarrassed, looks away just as fast. How is the story being told, he wonders, but then—it hardly matters, does it. The only person whose opinion mattered is gone. There’s nothing left, not here.

Dean’s back in Boston, at the motel they’d found after the police finally let them go. Sam knows the investigator wanted to ask more questions, it was in his eyes—how did you get out, and why her and not you, and where were you. They went to the motel, a cheap place near the interstate where the clerk didn’t question Sam’s red eyes or Dean’s silence, and Sam took a shower, finally, washed off the smoke-smell under the too-low sputtering lukewarm spray, and then he went out into the room and pulled his one clean change of clothes out of the duffel that had been in the trunk and he sat down on the bed and said, what can we do, and Dean had looked at him with his eyes dark and heavy in his face, and taken a slow deep breath, and said—

“Sam,” someone says, and Mr. Clark is there. Sam blinks, and turns. The pastor is standing at Mr. Clark’s side—both of them slightly balding, and paunchy, and short. “Pastor, this is Sam Winchester, Jennifer’s boyfriend,” Mr. Clark says. He still looks... stunned, kind of. Like the world’s moved a step to the left and he hasn’t caught up.

The pastor reaches for Sam’s hand and Sam lets him have it. He gets a two-handed shake, the pastor’s small hand not even close to covering his, and a tight, sympathetic smile. “I’m so sorry for your loss, Sam,” he says, and sounds like he actually means it. “A true tragedy. I’ll pray for the Clark family, and for you.”

Sam nods, but there’s nothing he can say to that. He takes his hand back. The man pats his arm, giving another of those tight smiles, and moves off, leading Mr. Clark and talking lowly in his ear, and he probably thinks he’s really helping. Maybe he is.

The wake ends at eight o’clock and the family disperses. Sam rides back to the Clarks’ house in the back of their minivan, staring out the window at the dark. Quiet little New Hampshire town, nothing’s going on at night. Small houses. A school, a church. They came up here, a few times, and she’d pointed out her elementary school, the little league field where her brothers had played and where she’d had her first kiss, under the bleachers. They’d recreated that—hopping the fence, midnight on the Fourth of July, and he’d been too tall for it and knocked his head against the underside. She’d leaned against him while he cursed and she’d laughed so hard she cried.

The house is tidy. Her brothers are with their wives at their own homes, and so it’s just Sam, with her parents, and Mr. Clark shows him quietly back up to her old bedroom before disappearing down the hall. Sam closes the door, and stands for a second there in the dark. It’s dusty in here. He takes off the suit they rented for him, hangs it neatly from the hook on the door. He’ll need to wear it again tomorrow. It’s not even nine o’clock and his stomach clenches, empty, but he ignores it. Lays down on the creaky little full mattress. The moonlight’s enough to show the Lord of the Rings posters they never took down, the little bookshelf packed with all her tattered favorites. From the hallway, there’s a burst of noise—a sob, and then a murmured voice, cut off when a door closes. Sam shuts his eyes and rolls so his face is pressed into the pillow. It doesn’t smell like anything but dust.

In the motel room they tried the rituale praedator, Dean murmuring in smooth fast Latin, incense smoke rising in a circle around him while Sam watched, his fists in a knot. They tried an invocation, a bundle of hazel burning while Dean, eyes closed, whispered biotáille, taispeáin dom an fhoinse, and the room smelled for a second of cool rain, but—no whispers came back, and when Dean opened his eyes he shook his head, and Sam had to go stand outside in the night and listen to the highway traffic and try not to scream. Herbs burned and Dean turned Sam’s smoke-ruined clothes into a fetish and the honey-scented candle melted down to the quick, and nothing. Finally, Dean said, we have to go back, and it was three in the morning but they got in the car and they drove back across the dark city with Sam’s hands clenched white-knuckled on the wheel, and they climbed up the stairs through the evacuated empty building and broke the police tape and then they stood there in the ruin of it, and Dean went down on his knees and drew a chalk circle on the sooty floor, and Sam stood behind him and stared at—nothing, at ash and ruined wet wood, not even hearing whatever spell Dean was working now, because there was the destroyed kitchen and a charred misshapen lump that was the couch they’d picked out together, and there, yawning dark, the blackened empty bedroom door—

The morning is clear, the sun bright and the air crisp and cold. A headache pulses behind Sam’s eye. He sits in the pew just behind her parents for the funeral service and keeps his eyes down, trying not to clench his fists. His blisters are nearly healed but the palms are still tender. He keeps swiping his thumb over the pink new skin. When it’s time he stands, and follows her family to the cars. He sits in the Impala, alone, and waits for her parents’ car to pull onto the road. The cemetery isn’t far.

He and her two brothers and her dad carry the coffin from the hearse. Sam’s at the front, with Mike, who’s not nearly as tall as him, and so he has to slump a little, his shoulder dropped low under the slight weight. The coffin’s a nice one, solid lid, but it’s—light, so godawful light, because there’s nothing in it. Just a few salvaged bones and pictures that her parents had picked out. Like memories will make up the weight of the person who’s lost. They put the box down and then Sam goes and stands behind the chair where Mrs. Clark is sitting hunched, leaning forward as though over a bullet-wound in the gut, and he stares at the smooth white lid of the coffin and lets the pastor’s words wash over him.

When it’s over, Sam stands in the emptying graveyard. The family is moving away, back to the cars, and Mike had squeezed Sam’s shoulder and said that they’d see him back at the house for the reception. He said, take your time. There’s a light breeze, fresh and chill with morning, and Sam lifts his face into it, closes his eyes for a few seconds. When he opens them again, the grave is still there, open, and the guys who work for the cemetery are waiting a few semi-respectful yards off for everyone to clear out so they can fill up the hole again and be done for the day. Sam crouches and looks down at the coffin, at the mounds of white roses. He has to clear his throat before he can speak. “Goodbye, baby,” he says, quiet enough that the waiting gravediggers won’t hear. She’d kick him. He stands up and nods to the diggers, and walks back to the where the Impala’s waiting. He sits there, behind the wheel, for a long time.

*

The drive out of the New Hampshire countryside is quick, but he hits traffic on the highway south, and so it’s past noon when he makes it back to the little motel in Boston. The parking lot’s close to empty, most people out and doing something with their day. Their room is right at the end of the low building and the curtains are fully drawn, the room shut up tight, with the battered ‘privacy please’ sign still dangling from the doorknob. Sam knocks twice, quick, but before there’s a chance to answer he unlocks the door and shoves his way inside, slamming it closed behind him.

Dean’s standing up from the rickety little table, startled, when Sam looks up. “I didn’t—I didn’t know it was you,” he’s saying, while Sam tosses the keys onto the bed and then drops onto his back to follow them. He’s more tired than he should be. Dean’s quiet for a few seconds, while Sam just breathes. It smells like five kinds of incense in here, the air thick with it. “How did it go,” Dean says, finally.

Sam shakes his head, staring up at the ceiling. The room is dim, with only the lamps on, and kind of cold even through his suit jacket. He wonders if Dean figured out how to work the heater under the window or if he just gave up and slept in the cold. After a long moment of silence, he sits up and braces his hands on his knees. “Please tell me you found something,” he says.

Dean’s sitting again, his arms folded on the table in front of him. “Not yet,” he says, eyes lowered. “I tried—I mean, I’ve tried a lot of things. Rituals of calling, revealing, trying to get spirits to speak to me. I tried a seance, but it’s—with just one person it’s hard.”

Sam scrubs his hands against his knees, restless. “We can try again now I’m back,” he says, but Dean’s already shaking his head.

“I don’t think it’ll work, Sammy,” he says, and he sounds like—trying to let Sam down easy, maybe. Sam stares at him. “I—I didn’t have all the stuff I needed in my go-bag, and so I called a—a taxi, and went to a supply store.”

Sam blinks. “You took a cab?”

Dean shrugs. “You had the Impala,” he says, like it’s a perfectly reasonable thing for him to have done. “I figured it can’t be all that different from the movies.” Sam smiles at that, if only briefly, and Dean rolls his eyes. “Anyway. I remembered a Wiccan-run place from the logs, back home, and so I found it and stocked up on some components, you know, jasmine and oil of abramelin, that kind of stuff. But the woman behind the counter, once she realized I was with the Letters, she—she must have been a sensitive.”

“What?” Sam says, and finds himself standing. “What do you mean? What did she say?”

He was louder than he meant to be. Dean blinks at him. “She said, she thought I must be here because of the fire,” Dean says. He’s slowly twisting his silver ring around on his finger, leaning his elbows hard on the table. “She said she knew something really bad had happened, that there had been some major—surge, is how she put it. Something big, out of the ordinary.”

“Did she know what it was?” Sam says. God, he hadn’t even thought about this. A psychic witness—that could answer everything. “Did she tell you what she saw?”

Dean shrugs, and looks at the table. “Just darkness, is what she said. Darkness, and nothing else. She said she couldn’t get more than that.”

Sam shoves a hand through his hair. “There’s got to be more,” he says. He checks his watch—it’s still early in the day, some psychic’s little woo-woo shop will still be open, it’s got to be. He’s still wearing his rented suit and he looks more like a Man of Letters than he ever has, and Dean— “Come on,” Sam says, grabbing the keys off the bed. “I want to talk to her, there’s got to be something she wasn’t telling you.”

Dean stands up, brow furrowed. “Sammy—”

“Come on!”

*

The store isn’t far, down in Brookline near Coolidge Corner. It’s a scuffed, dreary kind of street, but the shop stands out in rainbow, colorful curtains and crystals displayed in the windows. Sam smooths his hair behind his ears and shoves his way in, the little shop bell tinkling above him. There’s soft moody lighting, gentle music playing over the speakers tied inexpertly up by the ceiling. The woman behind the counter looks up with a smile from whatever book she’s reading, but it fades when she sees Dean.

“Hello, gentlemen,” she says, and marks her page and closes the book very deliberately. Her voice is crisp, formal, despite the tie-dye t-shirt she’s wearing, the messy half-dreaded tangle of her hair. She’s in her fifties, maybe, grey at the temples and dark eyes marked with crow’s feet. “Two visits from the Men of Letters in two days, that must be some kind of record.”

Sam smiles, and it feels fake. “Sam Winchester,” he says. “I think you already met my brother.”

“I did,” she says. She folds her hands together on top of her book. It’s a moment before she introduces herself. “Maritza.”

“You know something,” Sam says, and takes a few steps further into the shop. She doesn’t change expression, much, though she leans back a little. “There was a fire, a few nights ago. November second.”

“All Souls’ Day,” Maritza says, and cuts a look to Dean. “Yes, I’m aware. We talked about this.”

“Have you dealt with the Men of Letters before?” Sam says.

She stiffens, and he clears his throat, tries to calm down. “A few times,” she says. “When your agents need herbs for the magic they deign to do, or when a boy thinks it’s time to interrogate a woman because she might know something he doesn’t.”

Sam smiles, again, and then Dean’s there, putting a hand low on his forearm. He twitches away, but he takes a deep breath anyway. “Maritza,” he says. “We’re not here to put you on a list, or test you, or anything like that. We just need to ask questions about what happened that night.”

She raises her eyebrows, and glances again at Dean. “We talked about this,” she says again, but her voice isn’t as sharp. “There was—a darkness.”

“Right, but what was it,” Sam says, and her voice might have been softer but his isn’t. “What—a possession? A ghost? A demon? I need to know.”

Maritza narrows her eyes at him. “Let’s get this straight. I am no witch. Your brother and I spoke on this already. He has done his rituals—haven’t you?” Dean nods, next to him, but doesn’t speak. “I’m not gifted, not like some. All I can tell is what I feel. All I felt was…” She shakes her head and looks down at the battered counter.

“Darkness,” Sam says.

She nods, and doesn’t look up. “A thing of evil. I woke up, in the night, and it was like a nightmare I couldn’t remember. A black—nothing. Maybe someone stronger could have told what did it, or what happened, but I doubt it.”

“Why?” Dean says, unexpectedly.

She rubs her hands together, a dry rasping in the quiet of the room. “I get feelings,” she says. She picks up a big polished opal from the counter, turns it over and over. “Love pouring off a new couple. Fear and stress when I walk past a clinic. Things anyone could guess, but I feel them stronger, and they linger in the air after, sometimes for days. The thing that woke me up that night—” She closes her hands around the opal, clutching it like a talisman. Maybe it is a talisman. “That was a shock, over the whole city. But now, nothing. It’s like the air was wiped clean. Something that strong, and now it’s gone? Someone is hiding the thing that was done.”

Sam squeezes his eyes closed, pinches the bridge of his nose. “Someone.”

“Or something.” The gentle hippie music switches tracks, and a light sound of rain fills the little shop. “You can do all the rituals you want to, Mr. Winchester, but this is a thing that doesn’t want to be found.”

Sam nods, and turns around, setting his hands on his hips. He looks at the little display in front of him. Healing crystals, essential oil. Little hopes and dreams, things that never work.

Behind him, Maritza says, “I read in the paper that a girl died. I’m sorry I don’t have more to tell you, but I just don’t. You don’t need to keep coming back.”

“Sorry,” Dean says, softly, and before he can hear anything else Sam walks directly out of the shop, goes to stand on the sidewalk and breathe the cold air. Clouds have moved in, since the morning, and it’s a greyish afternoon, not many people out. He drags a hand over his face, breathes out long and slow. Nothing. He believes her, if for no other reason than that she was pissed off.

The door jingles quietly open and shut again. Sam stands still, on the empty sidewalk, his eyes closed, his hand over his mouth. All that, and for nothing. He can still see her, behind his eyes. Burning. He drops his hand and scrubs it over his hip, tries to collect himself. When he manages to look at the world again there’s the bare spindly trees, and the bookshop next door, and across the street a thrift store with cheap leftover Halloween costumes in the window, and he realizes and says in the same moment, unthinking, “God, I don’t have any clothes.”

His voice is cracked, right down the middle. Dean says, “Sam?” but Sam’s thinking of the apartment. All their laundry, piled messily together, gone now. He’s still got some cash in his account, since he didn’t end up paying his share of the rent. If he wants to keep going, this is one step forward.

“Come on,” Sam says, and jerks his head at the store across the street. Dean looks at it and back to him with a furrowed brow. “You can see how the other half lives.”

*

It’s a neat little store. Shabby around the edges, but clean, and while they’re clearly going for the hipster vibe it’s also still actually cheap, not like those ‘vintage’ stores Brandi gets her dresses from. Sam and Dean in their suits both get raised eyebrows from the bored kid at the register, but he soon goes back to his comic book, and then Sam’s piling his basket with five dollar jeans, two dollar t-shirts. Button-down, flannels, a pack of cheap undershirts someone must have forgotten and then donated.

“Is this where you get all your clothes?” Dean says, and Sam turns around from flicking through the men’s large t-shirts to see Dean holding out one in bright purple, vaguely perplexed.

It looks roughly the right size, and Sam plucks it out of his hand and drops it in the basket. “Not all, but some,” he says, and grabs another flannel, blue this time, off the rack next to them. “Not quite the same as sending away to get your suits tailored.”

Dean raises his eyebrows. “Do they also have a section for dressing the holier-than-thou?” he says. “Or is that a different store?”

Sam rolls his eyes. “Do you even own a pair of jeans?” he says.

“Why would I need them,” Dean says, and then nods over at the display near the big shop windows. “It’s getting cold, you need a coat.”

Dean’s wearing his own, the one Dad handed down, his hands shoved into the deep pockets, shadows of tiredness under his eyes. For all the mild bickering he’s still watching Sam like he’s a bomb that’s going to go off. Sam goes to the rack of coats and flicks through the worn-shiny wools and terrible windbreakers, trying to find something roughly his size.

“Try that black one,” Dean says, behind him, and so Sam puts down his basket of clothes and tugs it off the hanger, slips it on and looks at the three inches of exposed wrist, and there’s a second where he thinks, pain-bright and clear, I can’t do this. He squeezes his eyes closed, shuts out the fluorescent-bright of the store for a moment.

“Do you really think she was telling the truth,” Sam says.

There’s a long pause. “Yeah, Sammy. She didn’t have any reason to lie to us.”

Sam knows. He takes a breath, and tugs off the coat, trades it out for a brown one. “So, what then. We just—leave? There has to be something we’re missing.”

Dean’s sitting on the shoe display when Sam turns around. “I know,” he says. When Sam raises his eyebrows, he sighs. “We’ve done everything I can think of, all the rituals of calling. It’s like Maritza said, I think. It doesn’t want to be found.”

Sam shakes his head. He tugs off the coat, which fits well enough, and tosses it into his nearly-full basket. There’s a black hoodie on the rack and he grabs that, too. Winter’s coming.

“November second,” Sam says. When he looks up, Dean’s biting his lips between his teeth. “A fire, and a woman pinned to the ceiling. You know it’s the same thing.”

“I know,” Dean says. He rubs a hand over the back of his neck and sighs. “And Dad, disappearing. It’s not a coincidence.”

Sam thinks of the letter that was left with the journal. Strict instructions to keep the secrets long after it made any kind of sense, a deliberate going away, but—no. No, it’s not a coincidence. It can’t be.

“We need to find him,” Sam says. Dean’s watching him, he knows it, but he just tosses the hoodie into the basket and picks it up.

“Yeah,” Dean says, more quietly.

Sam leads the way to the register and pays no attention while the kid checks the tags on his stuff, while the cost of the meager replacements get totted up. Their father, for all his many faults, is a Warder of the Men of Letters, a legacy with years of experience in the life. He and Dean were only told the barest details of what had happened, at their home back in Lawrence—the fire, their mother pinned and burned, the house ruined and their lives left with a gaping hole that they all skirted, never speaking of it if possible. The topics of the research were secret but the fact of it wasn’t, and he’d be gone for weeks, sometimes, tracking leads, looking for answers. They can help, Sam thinks, while the kid piles his new clothes in thin brown paper bags. If Dad will just let them in, he knows they can help. If nothing else they have additional evidence to share, and there’s nothing their dad likes more than a new lead. Now the job will just be to find him, and convince him.

They’re at the Impala and Sam’s stowing the bags in the trunk when it occurs to him. “Wait,” he says, and Dean pauses, halfway through opening the passenger door. “How did you find me?”

“What?” Dean says, frowning. “When?”

Sam closes the trunk, stands there with the keys in his hand. “I should’ve asked—” before, he wants to say, but Dean’s panicky state was too distracting in the moment. He shakes his head. “You didn’t even have my phone number,” he says. “We hadn’t talked in—forever.”

Dean’s expression goes still, his eyes shuttering, but not before Sam saw the little moment of realization. He’s guilty about that silence, will be for a long time, but—right now, this is more important.

“I knew you were in Boston,” Dean says, finally. He takes a breath, and then jerks his head at the car and gets in.

There’s no one on the sidewalks, not really, but Sam rolls his eyes and gets in, too, turns the engine over. “No one to overhear now,” he says, glancing across the seat as they get moving.

Dean’s hands are in his lap and he’s turning his rings slowly, twisting them in turns. It takes him a few blocks to start talking. “After—when you stopped emailing, I thought—” He cuts off and Sam keeps his eyes on traffic, swallowing. They’re really only about ten minutes from the motel. “I used the gyrotheodolite and the silver pendulum, narrowed down on maps a few times. Didn’t take long.”

“Yeah, but—I thought that, at most, you could get to maybe a half-mile radius. You walked in the front door.” They get stuck at a red light and he looks over again. Dean’s still looking at his hands. “You narrowed it down a lot more than that, man.”

“Blood calls to blood,” Dean says, to his lap.

Sam frowns, follows traffic forward. It’s been a while, but he remembers that phrase from studying, years and years ago, but he can’t quite—wait. “Orbis cruento,” he says, and Dean winces. “You made a tracking spell? On me?”

“It’s a thaumatic compass,” Dean says, in that pedantic you should study big brother voice he’d use sometimes, but then he sighs, giving it up. “Okay, yeah, I did.”

“Dean,” Sam says, and stops, squeezing the steering wheel. “That’s just—gross. Where did you get my—how did you get the blood?” Dean gives him a pained look, and Sam waves a hand. Who knows what freaky crap is stowed away in the bunker. “Ugh, nevermind, I don’t want to know.”

There’s a long pause. “Well. Then all I had to do was tie it to the needle and add blood drawn from my life line, and it pulled me toward you. The magic doesn’t last forever, though.”

A few minutes more of driving and then Sam finally pulls into the motel lot and shoves the Impala into park. When he looks over Dean’s holding a small compass in a leather case that he pulled from his pocket, the fine crystal cover smeared with dried blood, rust-brown. He knows he’s making a face, but he can’t help it. Sure enough, though—the needle’s spinning idly, not bearing toward him.

“Can you reactivate it?” Sam says.

Dean looks at him, for a long moment. “If I needed to,” he says, finally, but then says, right away: “What’s this about? You never liked the magic before.”

“I didn’t like being forced to study it,” Sam corrects, but he’s thinking back to the bunker, to the endless storage containers and weird little cabinets, all the things Dean and their dad and all the warders before them had tucked away. He turns the car off and looks at the closed door to the room. “Can you make the same thing for Dad? Can we find him, like that?”

He expects a pause, Dean thinking things slowly through like their dad always drilled into them to do, but Dean answers immediately. “No, I can’t.”

“Why not? You’ve got reagents and rituals for everything, you’re telling me you don’t have something that can track down Dad?”

Dean stares at him, brow knotted. “Sam, don’t you think if I had something I would’ve tried it before I came halfway across the country to find you?”

Sam sits back, dragging a hand through his hair. “Yeah,” he says. God, he needs to get his head together. Of course Dean did. “I just—there’s got to be some way we can track him down.”

“I tried,” Dean says, more softly. “I even pulled out the gyrotheodolite again but it didn’t—it didn’t even move. Like he’d just… vanished.”

Sam remembers learning about that spell, the way the pendulum swung over map of the whole country. It only wouldn’t work, he remembers the adept instructing them, if the subject had hidden themselves by some magical means—or if they were dead.

“He’s alive,” Sam says. Dean’s looking down at his lap again, hands fisted closed over the bloody compass. “I know he is. We’re going to find him.”

Dean nods, but doesn’t look up.

They’re still just sitting in front of the motel. Sam swings open his door and gets out into the chilly air—warmer, now, with his new-ish coat. As he turns his head he catches a whiff of that weird musty thrift store smell, rising off the coat with the warmth of his body. Across the street from the motel and two doors down there’s a laundromat, open and empty, with a one-hour dry-cleaner attached. He takes a deep breath. Keep moving forward. It’s the only way he’ll get through the day.

He looks over the top of the car and nods at Dean’s wrinkled suit. “You look like an unmade bed,” he says.

Dean raises his eyebrows at him, but then looks down at the suit, too, and shrugs. “The room doesn’t have an iron,” he says, with a faint offended note.

Sam rolls his eyes, and goes to unlock the trunk. “Okay, let’s correct this travesty.”

*

Sam changes into the one semi-clean pair of jeans and a t-shirt that had been saved by being in his duffle in the trunk, and gathers up the rest of his dirty old clothes into the bags with the new ones. First stop is to the dry cleaner, who takes Sam’s new coat and his now-stolen suit. He hopes the rental place doesn’t charge Jenn’s parents too much for the loss. At Sam’s urging, Dean hands over his charcoal grey that got so dirty from grave-digging, and the navy blue jacket he’s wearing, and he doesn’t seem happy about it even as they’re walking into the laundromat with Sam’s bags.

“It’ll be fine,” Sam says, for the third time. It’s dingy in here, but three of the washing machines don’t have ‘out of order’ signs on them, and that’s plenty.

“I just don’t see how it can get done in an hour without them ruining something,” Dean says, arms folded under his draped peacoat. “Mr. Reeder has it ready the next day, that seems to work fine.”

Sam snorts. “Mr. Reeder has the weirdest business model of all time,” he says. He feeds his last few wrinkly dollars into the change machine. “Who runs a half-dry cleaner, half-feed store?”

“How else could he keep it open,” Dean says, reasonably, and when Sam turns around he finds Dean neatly sorting the new clothes into color-separated piles. Of course.

“I have actually done laundry before,” Sam says. Dean gives him a dubious look, going through the pants pockets, and then pulls out a crumpled receipt and a tissue and hands them over with a small smile. Sam sighs. “Okay, fine, knock yourself out.”

He picks up Dean’s ancient leather suitcase and opens it up, too, so Dean can throw them all in together. “Okay, so,” Sam says, folding his arms and leaning against the table. “What are we going to do, to find Dad?”

Dean unballs a pair of socks, shaking his head. “I don’t know what else we can do,” he says, eyes on his hands. “The chapterhouse didn’t know where he went and he’s not answering his phone, and magic—if he’s hiding from something, he knows how to ward himself so nothing bad can find him, but then neither can we.”

Sam drums his fingers on his bicep, thinking. There might be clues in the journal, something they might be able to put together from what their dad left behind. Dean pulls his own few clothes out of his suitcase: white shirt, grey shirt, light blue stripe, those terrible plain white boxers their dad bought for them when they were kids and which Dean just kept wearing. “You need more clothes,” Sam says. If they’re going to be on the road they won’t have time to stop at a laundromat every four days.

Dean frowns, looks up at him. “Why?” he says, and gathers up all their whites into a pile. “I’ve got clothes at home.”

“Right, but—” Sam shrugs. “Dad’s not—if we’re going to keep looking, we can’t look from there.”

Dean stares at him for a second, and then he sighs. “Sammy,” he starts, and he’s already shaking his head.

“You want to go back?” Sam says, standing up straight. He hadn’t thought this would be a problem. “Dean.”

Sam,” Dean retorts, immediately. Sam raises his eyebrows, and Dean throws up his hands. “I have a responsibility,” he says. He picks up the pile of whites and tosses them into the waiting, open machine. “Dad wouldn’t want things to fall apart in the bunker.” Before Sam can fire back, Dean pokes at the battered control panel on the machine. “How do you work this thing?”

Sam bites the inside of his cheek and comes over, feeds in the seventy-five cents for a wash. It’s more modern than the rickety seventies machines Dean’s had to fix over and over back in the bunker, but just barely. “You should wash that, too, it’s gonna walk off soon,” Sam says, jerking his head at Dean’s white button-down, and then says over Dean’s sigh, trying to be politic, “I know the bunker’s important, but it’s not more important than finding this thing. Not to Dad.”

Dean says, “But if he can’t be sure his position with the Letters is safe, then how can he keep hunting it,” and that’s almost reasonable, but Sam’s staring at his wrist, where he’s unbuttoned his cuff and it’s falling away while he undoes the topmost button at his collar, and Sam says, “Wait—what is that?”

“What,” Dean says, following his eyes, and then he shoves his sleeve back down. “Nothing.”

“No, you’ve got—” Sam says, and picks up Dean’s wrist, the left one, and when he peels the cuff back—there, peeking out from under the smooth leather band of their grandfather’s watch. “What the hell,” Sam says, and looks up to find Dean going red. “When did you get a tattoo?”

Dean twitches, under Sam’s grip, and Sam lets him take his hand back after a shocked still second. “I didn’t—” Dean says, and swallows. “I didn’t go get a tattoo, that’s not…”

He trails off, and Sam just stares at him. “Dean, there is ink on your wrist, and it’s not Sharpie,” he says. What on earth. As far as he knows, Dean hasn’t even left Smith County in years, and Sam knows damn well that there’s nothing as cosmopolitan as a tattoo parlor within fifty miles of Lebanon. Dean’s still flushed up to his ears, not saying anything, and Sam says, “What, did you go through a punk phase while I was gone, or something?”

Dean rolls his eyes. “Of course not.” He twitches his sleeve, shrugging his shoulders uncomfortably. “They’re functional, not for—fashion.”

“Functional,” Sam repeats, frowning. Then— “Wait, ‘they’? As in, multiple?”

Dean blinks and then says shit under his breath. “I—yeah.” He looks down at the washing machine, full now with hot water, bites his bottom lip, and then says, “Okay,” like he’s just decided something. He unbuttons his shirt all the way, shrugs it off his shoulders and tosses it into the load so he’s just left in his white undershirt, tucked neatly into his slacks. He closes the lid, so the cycle finally starts, and then takes a step back from Sam and holds out his left arm, fist clenched but his wrist turned up.

Sam stares. Dean’s skin is white, practically translucent, and the ink stands out in stark shocking black. On his wrist, the first thing Sam saw, an abstract half-sun radiates out from the cluster of veins standing out blue in the center, in a place it’d be neatly hidden as long as his cuffs were buttoned—which they always are, because Dean doesn’t do sloppy. The sun’s rays reach only a few inches up his wrist and it’s relatively small, as far as tattoos go, except—there’s another.

“Is that a sigil?” Sam says, finally.

Dean nods, stretching his arm out a little further. “In that compendium of angelic lore, the really old one in Hebrew that was sent to us from Be’er Sheva,” he says. His voice is very quiet, under the shaking hum of the washing machine. “There was old art, carvings they’d found in temples from thousands of years ago. A sigil to banish angels.”

It’s tucked up into the pit of Dean’s elbow, this ink a red so dark that Sam wouldn’t be able to tell it wasn’t black, if Dean weren’t so pale. It’s—odd-looking, almost unsettling, sharp angles and almost crude shapes, the circle spanning the width of his forearm. Sam recognizes some of them as Enochian, which is as good a sign as any that it’s a true warding, not just weird art. “There hasn’t been a confirmed sighting of an angel in—forever,” Sam says, and immediately feels stupid, but there’s just—too much. What the hell.

Dean covers the sigil with his right hand, shrugging, his thumb brushing over his bicep. His sleeve moves, just slightly, and Sam sees that there’s yet more ink further up, something he can’t yet see, and he says, “Okay, hold on.” He shoves a hand through his hair. “I don’t—get it, what—” He shakes his head, lets out an almost-laugh. “What did you do?”

There’s a moment, where Dean just looks at the floor. “Laundry,” he says, finally, and gathers up the pile of pants and dark sweaters and shoves them into another washing machine. He inputs the cycle and slots in the quarters himself, this time. Sam grabs the softer darks and fills up the third machine, and while he’s doing it Dean says, quietly, “I was doing a research project.”

Sam sits in one of the hard-backed plastic chairs, and Dean tilts his wrist up and looks at it, rubbing his thumb over the delicate lines of the sun’s rays. Slowly, the story starts to come out. How there was always work for the Letters to do, and Dean always liked digging into the lore, finding helpful spells to send on to field operatives and finding new translations, new intricacies to the knowledge the Men of Letters compiled in the bunker’s library. He had his own interests, though, and when there was time, over the years, he’d been working something out.

“We learn spells, all the time,” Dean says, and now that he’s really going there’s more life to him, his hands shaping the air as he talks. “But they’re all—you know, incantation, words of power, combining components right now. I started thinking, what if there were spells you didn’t need to cast in the moment, you know. Something you could carry with you.”

Sam rubs his jaw, trying to follow the train of thought. “Like—what, like a trueborn witch? So the power is there just by reaching for it?” It would be amazing, if that were possible—and hunting would be about fifty times easier, he thinks.

Dean shakes his head, though. “That amount of power—no, I don’t think that could be possible, not without…” He shakes his head again, and then taps the sun on his wrist. “I mean—I wondered, if you could seal the components, seal the spell, somehow. Tap the power that we all use, just that little bit when we’re casting—but all the time.”

It was a long, long project, he says, and Sam can imagine. Digging through old research, theses of Men of Letters dead and gone. There were magisterios in the branch in Buenos Aires who spent all their time studying magic, but what information the Latin American leadership was willing to share with their cousins in the States was minimal, at best, and not what Dean was looking for, besides. The European organization shared more, but their research was more to do with monsters and history than anything in the world of theory that Dean needed. There was a lot of time to kill, though, and Dean had an eye for making use of all the many, many things he’d learned over the years—teaching Sam, covering for their dad, assisting. He’d been in the heart of all their knowledge his whole life, practically, and he’d always liked figuring out how things worked—and even more, he liked building things to work better.

He pulls up the sleeve of his undershirt, after a while, shows yet another inked-in sigil covering his bicep. This one is a variation on the Aquarian star—thicker lines, sharper angles, drawn around a solid black flower in its heart. It’s cool looking, kind of, Sam thinks. Completely out of place on his nerdy brother. “First one I came up with,” Dean says, dragging a thumb over the flower. “Spent enough time drawing the damn thing, I figured it was my best chance of actually managing to do one that worked.”

He had to practice, before he did anything, though. He ordered the equipment from a website, using their dad’s personal card, the one that Dean always managed so that it looked like the warder was actually in the bunker and not haring across half the country. Working out the spells took a long time, but it was only half the battle—actually getting them onto the body, sealing them under the skin, required a different kind of work.

“Wait,” Sam says, dumping the whites into the first available dryer. “Wait, so—you did that yourself?”

Dean shrugs. “Not like there’s a tattoo parlor in the county,” he says, and it’s such an echo of Sam’s earlier thought that he has to laugh. Dean frowns. “Anyway, it’s not like I could ask some stranger to speak the incantations, or work under the full moon, or anything.”

Sam stares. “Under the full moon,” he says.

Dean picks one of Sam’s new hoodies out of the washing machine, checks the washing instructions on the label. “Well, no,” he says. “Turns out that wasn’t required, in the end. But it’d be—weird, to have someone else do it. So I learned how to do it myself.”

On old scraps of leather, it turned out, learning how to keep a steady hand. Then, carefully, with a clean needle, testing on his own skin, making sure he could manage to keep lines straight on the blank canvas of his thigh. Sam winces, at that, and Dean rubs over the thigh in question through his slacks, grimacing. “That sucked,” he admits, but he learned what he could handle. Special inks had to be formulated, and preparations made, and theoretical models worked out, dozens of notebooks full of formulas and runes, hidden in one of the long-unused rooms in the bunker. But then—

“This one was the first,” he says, tracing over the angel banishing sigil on his forearm. “It’s the simplest one, pretty much. Just a drawing, no real magic required, other than the blood.”

Sam, leaning in to examine it, looks up. “What do you mean, the blood?”

Dean rolls his eyes. “Come on, Sammy, how does any spellwork get done? It’s always about the principles of power. Promises, sacrifice, blah blah. The sigil had to be drawn in blood, that’s what the compendium said, and so—”

Sam leans back, and he knows he’s grimacing but he can’t help it. “Oh, gross.” Explains the color, at least.

“It’s not that gross,” Dean says, sighing. “It’s my blood, it’s not like I used someone else’s. Formulated with black pigment, so it’d last longer, but it won’t work without the blood. Then, to activate it, blood from a wound across the fate line, and poof.” He smiles, slightly. “No more angel.”

“And you think that would work,” Sam says, folding his arms. “Against an angel.”

“The theory’s sound,” Dean says. “Not that it’ll matter.” He’s sitting on the folding table, now, and braces his hands against the edge of it, looks down at the sigil marked into his forearm. “But that was how I knew I could do it.”

The Aquarian star with the flower, that was a design from Thelemic belief— “Technically,” Dean says, dumping their clothes from the dryers back into their original bags, “it’s just a unicursal hexagram with a pentagram flower in the middle. The symbolism is pretty obvious.” The divine, plus the pentacle’s five elements, drawn in an unbroken line while the magician chanted with constant breath, proving devotion.

“But what does it do?” Sam says.

Dean shrugs his peacoat on, over the plain white undershirt. “Basically,” he says, picking up his suitcase, “the odds will turn in my favor, sometimes. In theory.”

Sam frowns, hefting his share of the bags. “How could you ever know that’d work?”

Dean bites his lips between his teeth, but Sam can see the start of the smile. “Well,” Dean says. “Back in your apartment, that first night, when you thought I was a burglar? You couldn’t pin me, could you.”

“Wait,” Sam says, but Dean’s already leaving the laundromat, starting back across the street to the motel. It’s nearly night, and cars are starting to arrive at the motel, but the street’s still pretty quiet in this shabby little neighborhood. He stands there on the sidewalk, thinking back—Dean was slippery, but then they’d wrestled together when they were kids, and Dean usually could pin him, at least while he was still taller. Plus, Sam was out of practice, and Dean had always kept up the exercise regimen Dad had brought back from the Marines with him, so—

“Hey, buddy,” Sam hears, and the guy from the dry cleaner is leaning out the front door, frowning at him. “Are you gonna pick up these suits, or what.”

“Right,” Sam says, “sorry,” and then he’s spent nearly the last of the meager remains of his bank account, and he trudges across the nearly empty street with the plastic bags and laundry clutched awkwardly to his chest, still thinking, trying to figure it out.

The motel room is nearly dark, the curtains still drawn and just the one lamp providing any light. “Thanks for the help,” Sam says, dumping all of the bags onto his bed when he finally fumbles his way inside, and Dean smiles at him, draping his coat over the chair. “I don’t buy it, though. How could you know, if it worked? The luck? Because—I mean, that’s one of the oldest stories, always. If you rely on luck, it never comes, or it bites you in the ass. That’s, like, rule number one.”

“Dude, I know that,” Dean says. He tugs his sleeve up, rolls his thumb over the five-petaled flower. “And that’s not the point of the spell, anyway. ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law,’ it says. I’m just making my own help, so that my will is done. It can’t work all the time, and I can’t rely on it, but—sometimes, maybe. A little extra push. That’s all you need.”

Sam shakes his head, and he’s not doing much to hide how skeptical he is, because Dean rolls his eyes. “You still don’t think I know what I’m doing?” he says.

“It’s not that,” Sam says, though—okay, that’s what it sounds like.

“You always were such a nitpicker,” Dean says, and then he twists his wrist up, and while Sam watches with a frown, Dean places his middle and ring fingers in the center of the sun’s delicate outer curve, and then traces them out over the arc to the bottom line in a smooth move, and draws them back in toward the center, right against the line of his watch, and then he says, quiet, “Lux,” and swiftly draws the two fingers over the cluster of veins and out to the sun’s rays and as he does, immediately, the room fills with light.

“Shit!” Sam says, throwing a hand up in front of his eyes. It’s blinding, brilliant, a shock of pure-white that blasts out from Dean’s hand, fills the room through to the corners and blasts away the shadows. Sam squeezes his eyes shut tight, afterimages shattering all over the inside of his eyelids, and even so it’s—insanely bright.

“Sorry,” Dean says, and behind Sam’s closed eyes the light goes dimmer, and dimmer again, and when he risks looking, blinking tears away, Dean’s still holding his wrist out but it’s a lower glow—still pure white, but not something that burns. Dean shrugs one shoulder. “Didn’t mean to blind you,” he says, sort of contrite, but there’s another tiny smile in the corner of his mouth and Sam’s pretty sure he didn’t exactly not mean to, either. Never let it be said that his brother can’t be petty.

Still—“That’s—amazing,” Sam says, and he’s telling the truth. He steps forward and plays his fingers over the wash of light, looks at how his hand doesn’t start to make a shadow over Dean’s. “Can I touch?” he says, glancing up at Dean, and Dean blinks, and then nods, and so Sam carefully puts his fingers against Dean’s skin, and it just feels—normal. Plain, soft, living skin, no extra heat and nothing to indicate the magic pouring out of it. He traces his thumb over the lines of the tattoo, just barely visible now that the light’s dimmer, and then wraps his hand all the way around Dean’s wrist, covering it, and that finally covers up the light. “Wow.”

When he looks up, Dean’s slightly pink-cheeked, his teeth in his lip. Sam lets go and the soft light pours out again. “How do you change it?” Sam says, fascinated.

“Just—thinking it, basically,” Dean says, and the light gets a tiny bit brighter, and then softens almost to nothing. “Facta est lux,” he says, and the light extinguishes—the lines of the tattoo burn bright white, just for a moment, and then fade down to black again. Perfectly ordinary.

“Wow,” Sam says again, and Dean smiles at him, almost—shy, kind of. Now that the room is lit again just by the lamp in the corner, it feels very dark, and Sam flicks on the bathroom light with a hum of fluorescent tubing, lets the white light of it pour into the room and brighten it. Not nearly as much as Dean had. “Okay, you win,” Sam says, and turns to find Dean sitting on the edge of the table. “At least one out of three works, I admit it.”

Dean opens his mouth, and closes it again. “Um,” he says.

Sam frowns. “What?”

“Well,” Dean starts. He licks his lips, and then shrugs and mutters, “Screw it, I was gonna talk to you about this one anyway,” and pulls his undershirt off and over his head in a single move.

Sam sits down on the foot of the nearer bed. Dean’s shoulders are broad, have been ever since he hit that last growth spurt when he was eighteen, but he’s slender, muscles light on his frame, his skin white from always being hidden from the sun. Perfect canvas for the ink all over his torso. Over the top of his chest, scrolling in two sweeping arcs under his collarbones, is a thick line of dark Celtic knotwork. It scrolls in from fine points under the furthest edge of the collarbone, widening to about two inches thick where it stops on either side under the hollow of his throat, dipping to a tiny sharp point on both sides of his sternum. Lower, in the center of his chest right between his pecs—a pentagram of some kind, surrounded by a continuous ring of abstract flames. And then, below—

“What the hell,” Sam says.

Dean gets to his feet, turns a little toward the light from the bathroom for a better view. Maybe not slender—skinny is the word that comes to mind, now, his ribs standing out, just a little. Over them, though, under the line of his pecs, layers and layers of… flowers, bright and colorful in contrast to all the black ink. Red poppies, Sam recognizes, and green leaves of groundsel, and tiny bloodroot blossoms, their white petals standing out with their clusters of golden stamens.

“It’s for healing,” Dean says, passing his hands over the tattoo. It’s big enough that his hands don’t hide it; it covers the full bottom half of his ribcage, flowers in multiple sizes spattered over his skin, leaves winding between them. It’s split into two symmetrical pieces, like the knotwork above, a bare line of white skin separating the flowers as they spread out to frame the lower half of his stomach. Peeking out between the petals is some kind of text, black and intricate—Tamil script, Sam recognizes, after a long moment of staring. “I haven’t gotten sick,” Dean says, quietly. “Since I finished it. And, look.”

He holds out his hands, and for a second Sam doesn’t get it. “Blisters are gone,” Dean says, and—oh. He’s right. His skin is pale, and perfect, like nothing happened, when Sam’s palms are still pink and tender.

“What’s the knotwork for?” Sam says. Of the thousand questions he could ask, that one feels safest.

“Protection,” Dean says. He runs a thumb over the scroll under his left collarbone, grimaces just a little. “Took forever, had to do it in the mirror and not accidentally reverse the runes.”

Sam stands up, takes a closer look. Runes—yeah, christ, that is the design. Tiny runes, wrapped over and around each other through the knotwork, and when he squints he recognizes a repeating pattern. “Is that Norse?”

“Hey, he remembers,” Dean says, and Sam glances up to find Dean grinning at him, almost fond. “The runes are. The spell—I kind of… engineered it myself, from Scots Gaelic. ‘The bones of my fathers are my shield’.” He twists the silver ring on his right hand, the one passed down from their late grandfather, to their mom, down to Dean. “The Campbells were from Scotland, seemed appropriate. But, god, it really took forever.” He shakes his head. “Between making the ink for the flowers to infuse the spellwork with the kinds of magic I needed and etching in each link of the runes, that was a long year.”

Sam frowns. “When did you finish?”

“These two?” Dean puts a hand to his covered ribs, obviously counting back in his head. “Uh—this May, I guess. When the purple anemone finally bloomed and I finished the last piece of the healing spell.”

Sam huffs a laugh, runs a hand through his hair. “I can’t believe Dad let you do this,” he says, shaking his head. “If I’d ever even mentioned wanting a tattoo, much less a magic tattoo, he’d have taken my head off.”

Dean looks up at Sam, and then away, at the floor. “Yeah,” he says, after a weird pause. He starts to explain a little more—the inks all had to be handmade for the healing spell, each flower layered carefully on over the top of a reworked prayer to the Ashwini Kumaras—but he’s looking down, a little quieter. Sam takes a step back, takes it in, now that he’s not so surprised. The tattoos aren’t huge—there’s plenty of space left, his shoulders and pecs and belly bare, and the left arm’s ink is neatly spaced, high on the bicep to the top of the forearm to the small sun on the inside of his wrist. All of them done with clean, perfect lines, and also—completely hidden, when Dean’s wearing his normal clothes, not a trace of them peeking out at collar or cuffs.

“Dean,” Sam says, interrupting midflow while Dean rambles about the difficulty of extracting ichor from figwort. “What did Dad say, about the tattoos?”

Dean licks his lips, and opens his mouth—and closes it again.

“Oh my god,” Sam says. They’ve always known how to lie, they’ve done it their whole lives to everyone they’ve ever met, but Dean always was bad at lying to Sam, who’s grown up knowing his tells—and worse now, since he’s out of practice. “Dad doesn’t know, does he.”

In return, he gets another pause, and then a little tight shrug, Dean crossing his arms loosely over his bare chest. “It just—never came up,” he says, weakly.

Sam drops down to the bed again, the cheap mattress creaking under his weight. “Wow,” he says, but it’s for a different reason this time. “How the hell did you hide this, man? I mean—PT! Even if you just ran into each other in the shower room, you’d have to have bandages on while they were healing, right? He never noticed?”

Dean says, “Guess not,” and goes over to the bed where all their laundry’s dumped into a pile, starts sorting through it. His shoulders are hunched in a little, now, and he looks—more naked, awkward, in his belted slacks and nothing else.

A door slams, muffled, somewhere further down the building. Sam stares at Dean. “Hang on,” he says, slow. “The banishment sigil was first, you said, and that was—two years ago, nearly.” Dean shakes out one of his dress shirts, the blue, and starts folding it neatly on the mattress, his movements quick and precise. He’s not looking at Sam, but Sam can do the math on his own. “Dean. Has Dad—what the hell.”

“What?” Dean says, but he’s balling socks and not looking up and doing a really awful job of pretending like it’s no big deal, and Sam says, the thought of it still forming at the back of his mind, “Has Dad not been home? This whole time?”

“Of course not, don’t be ridiculous,” Dean says, tossing another pair of socks down onto the bed. “He needs research and supplies and stuff, Sam, he has to come back sometimes.”

“Supplies,” Sam says, and Dean glances up at his tone of voice. He takes a deep breath. “Okay. But you’ve—you’ve been working on this massive project, and it never came up, somehow, and he never noticed. Dad, of all people. Are you kidding me?”

“Okay, this is why—” Dean shakes his head and rubs a quick hand over his face. At least he’s dropping the laundry pretense. “I didn’t want to talk about this, I knew it’d just get you started.”

Sam stares. “Get me started?” he says. Dean looks up, resigned. Resigned, like it’s all so much spilled milk. “How long was he gone?”

Sure enough, Dean says, “It’s not a big deal.”

He goes over to the table and picks up his undershirt, pulls it back on in quick agitated jerks and hides all that ink. “Dean,” Sam starts, and Dean only shakes his head, grabs the dry cleaning bags and starts taking off the plastic, and Sam can only think about—all those nights in the empty bunker when they were kids. Just the two of them, growing up together and studying and training, target practice, arguing about what to have for dinner, foot races in the empty night to the end of the warding on the property, but it was the two of them. They were together, watching out for each other, and even so, even when Dad or one of the interning adepts trying to earn his next ranking was around, the corridors were long, and empty, and the rooms echoing and dark. Even with someone at his side Sam almost went crazy, underground, and to be alone—

“I can’t believe him,” Sam says. His voice is too loud, but so what. Dean puts his jacket down on the table, deliberately, starts folding it into the neat tucks that won’t let it wrinkle in his bag. “So, what, it was—phone calls? Fetch this, do that, stay put in case I need you?”

Dean doesn’t look up, rolling his blue silk tie over his unmarred palm. “At least he called,” he says.

It’s not said sharply—he just lays it in the room between them, and Sam closes his mouth. Dean shakes out Sam’s new coat, folds it in practiced motions against his chest, and Sam stands up, goes to the window and pushes the curtain open, looks out at the still night. A few more cars rolling down the street, a woman and her kid going into the laundromat hauling trash bags of clothes. The world ticking along. It always does.

There’s a sigh, behind him. “It’s not—look. It’s fine, okay.” Another rustle of plastic and cloth. Dean still tidying up, like always. “I’m twenty-six, Sam, I don’t need babysitting. The work in the bunker, it’s important.”

Sam braces his hands on the window sill. “Yeah, you keep saying that.”

“Look,” Dean says, and then: “No, really, turn around. Look.” Sam drags a hand over his face, and does, planting his ass on the sill. Dean’s lifting his undershirt, high enough that Sam can see the relatively simple pentagram tattoo, right in the center of his chest. “This one, see? It’s what I wanted to tell you about in the first place. This—I just did this, just before I left Lebanon to come find you. I took the design from some Babylonian charms we had in the vaults.” He taps the pentacle with two fingers, looking down at the design. “It’s—for hunters. For the hunt. I thought, maybe Dad would...” He shakes his head, firms his mouth. Meets Sam’s eyes. “I put it on when I knew I was going to leave the wards, and you should have it, too. Whatever did this, it’s dangerous. If it’s a demon—if what killed Mom, and Jennifer, is a demon, then it has to possess someone to work on the physical plane.”

Sam folds his arms over his chest. “I know how demons work, Dean.”

“Okay, but look—this can stop it.” Dean drops his shirt, takes a step closer. “It protects the body from possession. They can’t take the wearer to use as a vessel, can’t use them to hurt anyone else. This isn’t theory, Sam, this is historical fact. The pentagram and the flames, as long as it was touching skin, a person would be safe. This is more permanent than a charm—it can keep you safe, while you’re hunting.” He smiles, sort of, though it doesn’t reach his eyes. “Wish I’d known you were going to be hunting when you left. I’d have done the research earlier.”

“You—” Sam shakes his head. “Are you, what? Offering to give me a tattoo?”

“I just want to help,” Dean says, more quietly. “I—I get it, okay. This thing needs to pay, I understand. I’m not trying to get in your way. But this, the lore, figuring out how to use it, it’s what I’m good at. This is how I can help.”

Sam drags both hands through his hair, laces his fingers together behind his neck. “A demon, huh.” He closes his eyes. “That’s really what you think it is?”

“I don’t know.” There’s a creak, Dean sitting on the mattress. “Dad never really—he didn’t want to talk to me about it, much. But the things he’d have me look up, the rituals and stuff he’d research. I think that’s what he thinks it is. But who knows, it could be—a powerful witch with a vendetta, or something. Someone after our family.”

“What did we ever do wrong,” Sam says, dropping his hands against his thighs, and when he looks up Dean’s sitting on the end of one of the beds, watching him.

“We need to find Dad,” Dean says, after a moment. His hands sit knotted loosely in his lap, one thumb rubbing idly at his platinum ring. “One way or another. That’s the priority. But if you’re going to be out in the world, trying to track this thing down, you’ve got to be safe.”

“I was out for years,” Sam says, not that Dean needs the reminder. “Traveling, hunting. Didn’t see a single demon, didn’t even run into anything worse than a ghoul.”

“That you know of,” Dean says, and it’d be the same paranoid crap Dad always fed them, but then Dean gestures at the dingy motel room, at Sam’s pile of new secondhand clothes. Everything he owns, now. Dean licks his lips, shrugs. “Things are different.”

For the smallest moment, Sam gets an intense sense-memory of the heat, the dry scorching air rolling over his skin. The fire bursting forth. Not just a poltergeist, or a ghost. Something stronger, more dangerous, and the motel room seems for a second smaller, the night pressing in close against the glass. He stands up straight, off the sill, and presses a hand against his chest. Tries to imagine it. “Does it have to be a tattoo?” he says, finally.

Dean snorts. “It’s just one, it won’t be that bad,” he says, but the corner of his mouth is turned up. “If you’re not a wuss.”

Sam rolls his eyes. “Whatever,” he says, but the tension in his stomach eases, if only just a little. At least Dean’s willing to help. There’s so much more to discuss, so much still to plan, but this is a start. He takes a deep breath, and looks Dean in the eyes. “So. How do we do this?”

*

The shower in the motel doesn’t suck, which is a pleasant surprise. With the water on full blast he can’t hear the irritating hum of the fluorescents, and even if the showerhead isn’t tall enough—they never are—the water’s hitting him like a jet, right between the shoulderblades. Hallelujah for motels too decrepit to bother with flow restrictors, he thinks, and lets his head sink low between his shoulders, just stands there for a while. It’s been a long day.

Dean said they’d be able to use any tattoo gun for this one, no special spells or ink required, and so he’s out in the room looking up tattoo parlors in the yellow pages, looking for any that are closed on a Sunday night. Sam shakes his head, just thinking about it. His mild-mannered nerdy brother, a budding tattoo artist, planning a b&e. And Jenn thought he’d been too shy to function.

The grief hits him like a shock, low in the stomach like a punch. Fuck, Jenn. He puts a hand against the cold tile wall, the sound of the water rushing loud in his ears. God, it was only—he’s been distracting himself, all day. Cranked the radio loud when he was driving, rushing back into the investigation, filling the hours up with the stupid everyday normal crap that makes up living, and what good did it do. She’s gone, and he’s never again going to see—

He bites the inside of his cheek, deliberate, trying to stave them off but they’re rushing in on him anyway. All these memories. Stupid things, small things. Picking long strands of red hair off of their own shower walls, trying to keep her from plugging up the drain again. Arguing about where to go for dinner, because she wanted Korean and he didn’t want to go to Kimchi Time again. The little wrinkle-nosed smile she’d point at him when she wanted something, putting on the cute little girlfriend schtick when it was a lie, because she was just as sharp-tongued as ever, and he puts his hand over his eyes, hunches down into the stream of the water and feels his lips draw back, uncontrollable, heat rising up hard and fast into his sinuses. He takes in a breath, chest shaking, and forces himself not to sob. He squeezes at his temples and says, out loud, “She’s dead,” and his voice isn’t much but he still heard it.

It’s more real here in this cramped little shower than it was in the graveyard this morning. Than it was last night, among all those murmuring strangers, the box looming shiny white at the front of that weird dim room. The photograph of her smiling, propped up on the casket lid.

He breathes, in and out, slowly steadying, and then turns around and bends at the waist to stick his head under the stream of water, scrubs hard at his scalp and then his face. She’s gone, just like Mom before her, and the Winchesters have never been the type to sit around feeling sorry for themselves when there’s work to do. He’s going to get his revenge—for himself, for her. For all of them. It’s the only thing worth doing. It’s all there is left to do.

He turns off the shower, dries off. He’d avoid his eyes in the mirror but it’s fogged up, anyway. All the better. He tugs on freshly washed boxers, jeans, pulls a t-shirt over his wet hair, and he’s shrugging on the new black hoodie when he opens the bathroom door, lets the steam flood out into the colder room. “So, what’s the plan?” he says, dragging the zip up. The room’s tidied, the freshly washed clothes seemingly stowed away into their bags, and he looks up and finds Dean sitting at the small table, head in his hands as he stares down at their dad’s journal, spread open before him.

Sam stands stock-still. He forgot. Shit, he forgot, and Dean says, his voice very flat, “Found this in your bag, when I was putting away your stuff.”

“Dean,” Sam says, and then—god, what is there to say.

Dean slides a piece of paper out from below the leather cover, scuffing over the laminate table. “So, Dad did leave instructions, then,” he says. Sam bites his lips between his teeth. The letter—that stupid letter, and he’d meant to share it with Dean, he really had, but the hunt came first. Dean taps at something on the paper. “It says, do not open, but I guess that didn’t stop you, did it, Sam.”

“I needed to figure out what it was,” Sam says, and Dean closes his eyes for a second, shakes his head. “Dean, that letter—”

“When did you get it?” Dean says, and there’s a snap to his voice that makes Sam’s mouth clack shut. Dean looks up at him, and he’s flushed red, his jaw clenched square and tight. “You kept saying you were sure he was alive. What? Have you had it this whole time?”

“No! They—they gave it me at the chapterhouse, when I went back.” He gestures at the letter. “The porter gave me the package and I opened it, yeah, but—it didn’t change anything. We still needed to finish up the hunt. People were in trouble, Dean.”

“And you didn’t think to mention it,” Dean says. He’s staring at Sam, his arms folded tight over his chest. He’s in a clean button-down, again, closed up neat at throat and wrists, all his secrets re-hidden under armor. “When it was over. You thought, hey, I’ll make Dean do this, and then I’ll—what, screw around for a few days, make me think he was dead—”

“No,” Sam says again, and takes a step forward, his hands spread out. “No, Dean, I swear, I didn’t mean to—we needed to finish that hunt, that’s true. I didn’t think you’d keep going, before the body dropped at the inn. But I was going to tell you, I just—we were looking for him, we called all those places, and there was no trace, and I just couldn’t figure out a way to bring it up, not yet. I just—it slipped my mind, that’s all.”

Dean shoves up to his feet, the chair juddering across the thin carpet. “Yeah, you forgot,” he says, sarcasm dropping heavily onto the words. “You’re really good at forgetting, Sam.”

Sam sucks in a breath, his face going hot. “Something happened,” he says, his voice distant, and Dean’s expression changes.

“I know,” Dean says. He takes a step away, puts his hand on the chair back. “You had a day, though. A whole day. You couldn’t put me out of my misery?”

“And tell you what?” Dean’s eyes go narrow and Sam spreads his hands out, gesturing uselessly at the letter. “That he left, on his own? That he ditched you to go follow some lead, and still wouldn’t trust you with what it was? You would’ve left, you would’ve gone back to the bunker just like he told you, and then what? We did something good, in Portsmouth, and it’s more than any one of the Letters would’ve done.”

Dean’s face is blotchy, now—red high along his cheeks, the rest of him pale. He looks furious, more than Sam has ever seen him, and that’s fine—Sam’s mad, too. “You always do this,” Dean says, and he’s clenching his fists, his voice shaky. “You always talk like, we can’t do anything right, like we’re the—source of all evil in the world, or something. You think some random hunter would’ve put that case together, fixed everything, saved the day?”

Sam wants to hit something. “I did,” he says, almost shouting. Dean blinks, rocking back a little, and Sam—he sucks a breath in through his teeth, blows it out sharp and short. “We did, Dean. You and me. We actually did something, and who knows who might have died if we didn’t. That maid you met? The hotel manager?”

Dean shakes his head. “You should have told me,” he says. He has both hands on the chair back now, leaning against it with his shoulders high, tight. He shakes his head. “I kept thinking, he’s been out, hunting, somewhere without anyone helping him. We were going to call some morgue, and—”

He cuts himself off, there. Sam runs a hand through his hair. “But we didn’t,” he says. “He goes off alone all the time, and he’s always fine.” Dean looks at the floor, and Sam chews the inside of his cheek, breathes out slow for a second. “I was worried, okay. I was, really, because that—that letter, that’s not how I’ve ever heard Dad sound, you know? I thought something bad might have happened.”

Dean’s hands are tight on the chair, the knuckles white with tension. Sam folds his arms over his chest, lets the silence sit for a second. He didn’t mean it to happen like this, but he should—he should be honest, now that it’s out. He owes Dean that much.

“I don’t know any more than you do, man, but—we looked. We asked, all those police stations and hospitals, and we never found him. I think he’s just off hunting. Same thing we’re looking for.”

“The demon,” Dean says, to his feet.

“Or whatever it is,” Sam says. He swallows. “Dean.” Dean looks up. His jaw’s still set, his mouth a firm line, but his color has faded, at least a little. “I swear. I was going to tell you.”

Dean doesn’t say anything, doesn’t respond, beyond cutting his eyes to the open journal, splayed open on the table, open to some page filled edge to edge with dense, neat handwriting, a newspaper article taped in close against the spine. “You need that tattoo,” Dean says, unexpectedly. Sam frowns. “I haven’t had a chance to read the whole thing, but I looked at the last couple of entries. Dad knows what he’s doing, and he’s noticed portents, patterns. More and more, over the last few years.”

“You think it’s something to do with what killed Jenn?” Sam says, entirely diverted. If that’s true, if there’s a pattern—

“I don’t know,” Dean says, flatly. He grabs his coat off the other chair, shrugs into it in short, sharp movements. “You need that tattoo,” he repeats, and for a second he sounds like their dad, voice crisp and brooking absolutely no argument. Sam’s chest flinches, an argument already rising up his throat just out of reflex, except—Dean looks directly at him, face set and blank and yet—weary, almost. Expecting the squabble. Sam swallows down everything he could say. Nods. Dean nods back, and gathers up Sam’s new coat, and tosses it at his chest. Sam catches it, barely. “There’s a place close by. I called, no answer. Should be fine.”

“Fine,” Sam manages, his hands tight in the coat.

Dean picks the keys up off the table, flips the journal closed. “Okay,” he says, and shoves his hands deep into his pockets, and meets Sam’s eyes. “What are we waiting for?”

*

It’s not that late, really, not even nine o’clock, but the shop Dean picked is completely dark, just another shadowy storefront on a dark street. It’s cold, the air damp and laying thick chill on the back of Sam’s neck as they trudge along the sidewalk, the Impala parked a safe distance away. He leads the way past the shop, then down into the alley between it and the also-shuttered pet store next door, and there are no homeless people tucked back here, no witnesses, and the streetlights are dim and don’t reach back here anyway, so it’s nice and private when they come up on the tiny back door, next to the dumpster. A quick flash of Sam’s pocket flashlight finds the lines going the electric box and the old Bell box, right next to it. It’s the work of a moment to pry it open, to find and cut the outgoing line. No real security for the security, but he didn’t expect anything more—who breaks into a tattoo parlor, after all.

By the time he’s got his knife folded back into his pocket, Dean already has the door open. “Another spell?” Sam says, softly, following him into the pitch-dark interior. He didn’t hear anything.

“I can pick a lock, Sam.” Dean flicks on his own flashlight and holds his hand cupped half over the beam, just illuminating his feet as he picks his way into the narrow hallway they find themselves in.

No alarm going off, and Sam finds the cheap wall-mounted panel, its screen flashing a little ERR message but not sending out an alert. Perfect. The main room is open, the barred windows at the front big and wide and uncovered, presumably so passers-by can watch customers getting inked on the wide chairs out front. There’s a big privacy screen toward the back, though, and another chair there. Sam unfolds the screen, makes a space big enough that they won’t be seen from the street if someone randomly walks by, while Dean rustles around behind the counter. In the tiny supply closet, among the disinfectant and cleaning supplies, Sam finds a few fat candles. Should be enough to see by, and not call attention.

Three candles on the shelf right by the chair, and in the little private space made by the screen there’s a soft glow, steady and subtle. He shrugs off his coat, slings it over the foot of the chair. It’s cold in here.

“Got the ink,” Dean says. Sam turns around and Dean’s standing there in the near-dark. He holds up a little black pot, a handful of plastic packages in his other hand. He nods at the chair, voice clipped even with him being quiet. “I’ll get the gun ready. Sit down, get your shirt off.”

Sam wants to snap back. He licks his lips, bites them, and unzips his hoodie instead, tugs it off and his t-shirt over his head. Goosebumps race immediately over his back and shoulders and he shivers hard, but he sits down in the stupid chair, anyway, sinks back against the cold vinyl. Dean’s doing something next to him, sitting in the little rolling chair, but Sam just looks up at the dim ceiling. There’s art up there, and covering the walls all around, but he can’t really see it.

“Where’s it going to go?” he says, when the silence has stretched out a little too long.

“Same place as mine,” Dean says. He rolls closer, and turns Sam in his chair so that the candlelight is to his right side, Dean leaning over his left. He touches the spot right in the center of Sam’s bare torso, at the base of the sternum just before it turns into his stomach. His fingers are cold and Sam’s skin flinches, his belly clenching, and Dean glances up at him, just a gleam of his eyes in the dark before he turns away, starts fiddling with the gun. “Hard to see, hard to get at. It can go anywhere as long as it’s on unbroken skin, but this spot works as well as anywhere.”

There’s a loud jittering hum, then—the gun spinning to life. Sam takes a deep breath, tries to calm down. Dean rolls in close and lowers the angle of Sam’s chair so he’s nearly laid out flat, the candlelight flickering over his bare skin. The little pot of black ink gets set down on his chest, like he’s a table, and Dean lays a bare hand flat on his stomach, almost soothing. “Deep breath,” Dean says, meeting his eyes. “And then don’t move.”

Sam nods, breathes in, and then the gun’s making its rattling noise again and—ah, ow. “Shit,” he says, on half a breath. Dean spreads the skin tight between thumb and forefinger, steadily dragging the needles along, and it’s like—a shaving cut, a fine razor dragging just that bit too hard, a cat-scratch nagging pain. It burns, and he closes his eyes, tries to keep his breathing shallow and even so he won’t mess up the lines. “How long is this gonna take?” he says.

“An hour, maybe,” Dean says, sounding distracted. He dabs at Sam’s skin, keeps working. “This one’s not complicated, I just need to get the lines right.”

“Oh, good.” Sam folds his hands tight around the arms of the chair. How do people get addicted to this, it’s awful. “How did you stand doing this to yourself?” he says. “You didn’t mess up?” There’s no answer for a moment, just the irritating noise of the stupid gun, and Sam scrunches his eyes tighter closed, bites the inside of his lip, and then says, “Come on, man, distract me. Please.”

There’s a pause in the needles digging into him, if only briefly, and then the scratching starts again. “I practiced on my leg, I told you,” Dean says, finally. His voice isn’t quite as sharp. “No ink, but just doing lines, curves, getting used to it. Bled a lot, but it worked. My hand’s steady.” There’s another little pause, when he dips for more ink. “Gotta say, it’s easier on someone else.”

Tiny whisper of humor there, and Sam groans. “This sucks,” he says, and opens his eyes again, looks down to find Dean focused on his work, but the corner of his mouth is turned up. “You suck,” Sam amends, and drops his head back down.

“Baby,” Dean says, mild, and keeps working around the edge of the flames.

Quiet, then, but for the buzzing. Sam turns his head, looks at the candles, with their steady high flames. He breathes through the pain, which isn’t getting better in the slightest, and then says, trying not to overthink it, “I’m sorry.”

The gun lifts off his chest for a few seconds. Tap of the needles into the ink. “Let’s not, Sam,” Dean says, and it’s not sharp anymore but it is—tired, and Sam closes his eyes as the needles dig back in, the gun whining and buzzing away.

“It was important,” Sam says, anyway. The damn tattoo was Dean’s idea in the first place, he’s the one insisting; he’s not going to walk off and leave it half-finished, so Sam’s got him trapped here. For now, at least. “The hunt. People were in danger.”

“I know that,” Dean says. Sam glances down and Dean’s still working, still focused. The tiny tip of smile is gone. “I don’t know if you remember, but I agreed with you. I worked the case, too.”

“I know,” Sam says. The thrill of it is still there, when he thinks back to the graveyard—burning the bastard, saving the day with Dean at his side. There’s a bigger ache, though, in the pit of his chest. He can’t put it off, can’t turn it aside, and when he closes his eyes—the splat of blood on the wood floor. The flames leaping up, her eyes dark and shocked and empty, staring into his. The needles lift away and the buzzing cuts off, and in the sudden silence he takes a deep breath. “I have to hunt this thing, Dean. It’s—all I can think about.”

When he looks, Dean’s focused on the gun, doing something with the needles. He doesn’t respond, and Sam lifts up on his elbows, wincing as the movement pulls on the tender skin of his chest. “Dad’s been hunting it, too, you know he has,” Sam says, more urgent. “All those trips. All the research. He’s not just in libraries, at chapterhouses. We’ve got the journal, now, and he’s following some big lead, disappearing somewhere. And with—with what happened, just like what happened to Mom. Something big is coming.”

Dean pauses, licks his lip and then bites it. “Lay back down,” he says, after a few seconds. His hand presses down, framing the shape of the tattoo, and Sam lets himself be pushed. Dean pats his chest, once, and the gun starts up its buzzy hum again, a thicker cluster of needles pulsing into his skin. A different kind of sting—less painful, more burning. It’s another minute, almost, before Dean speaks again. “So, what are you picturing, here? That we’ll find Dad, and he’ll just let us join him?” He glances up at Sam’s face, back to the work he’s doing. “He wanted us safe, away from all this. That’s why he wanted us in the bunker in the first place.”

“Well, we’re not in the bunker,” Sam says. A car drives by, outside, and the room fills up with bright headlights that fade away just as quick. Dean’s biting his lip again. “We deserve to be on this hunt, too. Jenn, and Mom. I want to take out the thing that killed them just as much as he does. Don’t you?”

“Of course I do.” The gun scrapes along his skin, scratching incessantly.

A particularly sharp jab burns deep and Sam breathes through it, says, “Then let’s keep looking for him, and when we find him, we stay and hunt and we take out whatever bastard did this.”

“Dad’s been looking,” Dean says. “For decades. He hasn’t found it yet.”

“Maybe it’d go faster if he had some help, then,” Sam says, and it’s sharper than he meant it to be. He takes a breath, careful not to move his chest too much, slow and easy. “Dean. I know, the bunker is important to you, and I’m not trying to say—I know that the work you’ve been doing there, it helps.” He tries to smile. “Hell, look at this. A whole new kind of protection, that’s something.”

Dean gives him a look. “Laying it on a little thick there, Sammy,” he says, dry.

Sam shrugs, and Dean flicks him, mutters stay still, keeps working on the damn tattoo. “It’s just, there’s only so much we can do from books. Look at Dad—he’s been out, working, and we’ve been lying to the Letters for—god, as long as I can remember. The real work is out here, man. This is how we’re going to find it.”

“You keep saying that,” Dean says, an irritated edge creeping into his voice. He dips the needles into the ink again, but then lets the gun go quiet. He sits back in his chair, looks directly at Sam with a knot between his eyebrows.

Sam lifts up on one elbow, wincing. “All our lives have been about this thing,” he says. He lifts one shoulder, shaking his head. “Even when we find Dad, that won’t be the end of it. We need to finish it, together.”

Dean blinks, drops his eyes. He adjusts his grip on the gun. “Hunting,” he says. His voice is low.

“It’s better with a partner,” Sam says. He nudges Dean in the arm with his knee, makes him look up again. “Anyway, who better to watch my back than my dorky big brother. You’re practically a mother hen.”

Dean rolls his eyes at that, but Sam’s heart lifts, just a bit. The gun buzzes on again and Sam lies back without needing to be asked, his eyes fixed on Dean’s face. If he’s reading that expression right—

“If I was going to come with you,” Dean starts, and Sam closes his eyes in relief. He’s got him. “We’ve got to make preparations, do it right. I can’t just leave the bunker standing, not without covering with the Letters somehow.”

“We can figure something out,” Sam says, almost lightheaded all of a sudden. Dean’s coming with him, isn’t going to just shove himself down into the dark again. They’ll work together, hunt together, find Dad together. The buzz of the gun rattles through his skin, pinching and burning, and Sam lets his mind drift away from it, making plans, thinking of the supplies they’ll need, the money they’ll have to scrounge up. He needs to brush up on some of the old lore, and Dean needs to learn how to move in the world outside, and then, once they find Dad—

“Okay,” Dean says, and Sam’s eyes shoot open. Dean lays the gun on the tray, dabs at Sam’s skin once last time, and then flicks his flashlight on again, angling the light carefully just at Sam’s chest so they can see clearly. Sam cranes his neck. The skin’s inflamed, hurting like a son of a bitch, but there it is—a ring of flames, the pentagram star in the center.

“I don’t feel any different,” he says. The lines are clean, as far as Sam can tell, but there’s no sensation of a lock closing on his soul, or anything.

“Surface level only, like I said,” Dean says. He pats the tattoo, two gentle taps, and even that hurts, makes Sam flinch away and clap a protective hand over it. Dean smiles, briefly, and then flicks off the flashlight.  He turns back to the tray, produces a damp clean cloth and hands it to Sam, says, “Careful.”

Sam sits up straight, dabbing away the excess ink and faint dots of blood, while Dean stows the borrowed gun away. His whole chest aches, but—well, it’s not unbearable. Still. He needs a drink.

Dean returns with clean cotton and medical tape, and Sam holds the bandage flat against his chest while Dean tapes the edges down neatly against his skin. When it’s done, Dean scoots back in his chair and waits, and Sam carefully ducks back into his t-shirt, hides the evidence away. He zips up his hoodie, drags on his coat, and the warmth is a relief after so long.

Dean’s turning the roll of tape around and around, a complicated expression on his face. “You’re sure about this?” he says, finally.

There’s only one thing he could be asking about. “I have to,” Sam says, and it—well, it’s as simple and as true as that. Dean looks up at him, but that’s really all there is to say.

They wipe a little for prints, but neither of them have ever been arrested and, anyway, it’s not like they did any damage or stole anything, beyond a few ounces of plain black ink. Dean tucks a twenty under the gun he borrowed, and Sam shakes his head but doesn’t say anything. The chairs go back where they were, and Sam blows out the candles before Dean pushes the privacy screen back against the wall, and then Sam picks his way carefully back into the little hallway in the sudden dark, finds the door.

“Ready to go?” Sam says. They’ll have to hope no one moved into the alley while they were inside, but his chest is so light behind his aching skin that he’s not too worried about it.

Dean comes up beside him, and in the little gleam from the masked flashlight Sam sees him nod. “Yeah,” Dean says. “I’m with you.”

Sam grips his shoulder, just for a moment, and Dean looks up at him, searches his face. He looks down, after a second, but Sam sees the corner of his mouth lift before he turns the collar of his coat up against the coming chill. Sam cracks the door and peeks out, but the coast is clear. Dean re-locks the door behind them and when Sam jerks his head toward the mouth of the alleyway Dean follows, quiet at Sam’s side, shoulder-to-shoulder as they move out together into the night.