November drags along with the days getting colder and the sky greyer, rain turning into sleet and the trees steadily losing all their leaves. They’ve been driving in ever-increasing circles for almost two weeks, leaving Boston and eventually Massachusetts behind. Sam and Dean take turns at the wheel, take turns in small-town libraries with checking local newspapers, police blotters. Their dad is—well. Sam would say he’s a ghost, but he knows better.
It’s slow, and frustrating, but it’s something to at least be moving, with a clear and direct goal: find Dad, and then kill the bad thing. When one of them is driving the other is reading their dad’s journal, and it’s becoming more and more clear that whatever took their mom from them, whatever killed Jennifer, was either a demon or in the employ of a demon. The journal is dense, their dad’s academic scrawl a puzzle, but it’s the biggest window into his head Sam has ever had. He doesn’t know if it’s exactly the same for Dean, but it’s not like Dean’s whiling away his turns in the passenger seat by staring out the window.
There’s no hint of their dad, still, and they’ve gone through whole counties in Connecticut and western New York by the time Dean insists that they start to head back across the country. "We’ve got to get back to the bunker," he says, while they’re fueling up after another fruitless search in Albany. Sam gives him a warning look, but Dean shakes his head, folded up tight into his coat and looking out at the view of the Hudson. "We should regroup, and there’re things I need to do. We’re going to keep looking."
A long, long drive, then, hugging the northern border down past the Great Lakes, heading back toward the heart of the country. Dean sleeps, a little, when Sam’s driving; when it’s Dean’s turn, Sam doesn’t want to. Every time he closes his eyes there’s just—fire. The dreams won’t go away, no matter how exhausted he is, no matter how many miles they get from Boston and what he lost there. Dean tells him to take the back seat and Sam does, just to pacify him, but instead of sleeping all he does is read. The journal is a lot to take in. They duck past Cleveland and hit the I-80, and while Dean’s getting more comfortable with actually going the speed limit Sam works his way backwards through the clues carefully written into pseudo-code, the hints dropped about what their dad has been hunting, the work he’s done since taking over the bunker when they were both small. Sam’s looking for the big secret, trying to figure out how John Winchester’s mind really works in order to figure out where he’s gone, and he’s so focused that it takes him a while to realize—it’s not only the search for their mom’s murderer that’s in here.
In a speedbump of a town on the near side of Indianapolis, they make a real stop. There’s a shady no-tell that rents them a room for four hours, and Sam can see Dean’s skin practically crawling with disgust but they need a shower, and a real bed, at least for a little while. Sam stares at the ceiling, for too long, but eventually he does get some shut-eye, because he wakes to Dean joggling his socked foot where it’s hanging off the bed. "I’m starving," Dean says, doing a bad job of pretending to ignore the sweat at Sam’s temples, his fast breathing, but Sam’s grateful for it anyway.
"Me, too," Sam says. He sits up and tries to scrub his hair into any semblance of normal, and from how high Dean’s eyebrows get he’s pretty sure it didn’t work. They passed a Walmart on the way into town; Sam stares at the journal where it’s lying on the foot of his still-made bed. He’s been doing some thinking. "We should run a quick errand first," he says to Dean.
Dean makes a pained face, laying a hand exaggeratedly on his stomach. "If I die of hunger, it’s on you," he says, and that makes Sam smile before he holds his hand out for the keys.
It’s only an hour before they’re installed at a diner, exceptionally clean and bright, to make up for the vague grime of the motel and the warehouse feel of the Walmart. The food looks good, and it’s cheap, too, which is a lucky thing because Sam has now officially drained his bank account down to the dregs on two burner cell phones and a cheap but serviceable laptop, which he’s got plugged in under their table as he downloads updates through the diner’s sluggish wifi.
"I don’t know why you need that thing," Dean says, again, as he reads over his menu. "Not like you’re writing treatises or anything."
"Hush," Sam says, absently. Ah—finally, updates finished, and the plain interface loads up enough for him to open the browser and start digging. "Betsy’s got internet, Dean, don’t act like you’re still in 1987."
"Eighty-seven was a good year," Dean says, but before they can start to bicker the plump little waitress appears at their table, smiling professionally even though it’s well after the lunch rush, and that gives Sam the cover to start running a couple of searches, while Dean’s distracted by all of his options.
With the practice over the last few weeks Dean does a decent job of ordering like a normal person—patty melt, salad. Ranch dressing. Sam absent-mindedly copies him as he goes through news websites in the area, searching for anything that looks wrong. Dean’s got an issue of the Indianapolis Star on his side of the table and, when Sam glances up, he’s reading some story with a frown. The waitress drops off their iced teas with a smile and an especially warm there you go, sir, for Dean, but he doesn’t seem to notice.
"When we get home," Dean says, when she’s gone, "there are a couple of things I need to check on. Before I left I finished a few projects for the chapterhouses in St. Louis and Vancouver, but they might have sent back questions. I need to make sure there aren’t loose ends."
He’s stirring fake sugar from the packets into his iced tea, still skimming news stories. Sam raises his eyebrows. "How long do you think that’ll take?" he says.
Dean shrugs. "Depends on what the questions are—could be nothing, but it might be a day or two’s work."
Sam bites his lips between his teeth. This is exactly what he thought would happen. He looks out the window for a long moment of breathing, trying to be calm. Watches the lazy small-town afternoon on the street outside, sturdy Midwestern people going about their day despite the cold weather. Short squat buildings and bare trees, little fading stores just waiting to be replaced by shinier chains. He doesn’t know the name of this town. It’s a lot busier than Lebanon has ever been, but Sam recognizes the look—and the look on Dean’s face, too. Abstracted, thinking about the bunker. Home. About the work, always, nearly the same look their dad would have those times he’d randomly come back to provide a little haphazard instruction, to ask how their studies were and if they were behaving, being safe, before he’d strike out into the world again. Sam looks back across the table at Dean, watches him scratch at his freshly-shaved jaw as he reads some story, and thinks: no.
It takes another few minutes of digging through websites, threading his way around the country by newspapers and obituary sections, before he finds it, and it’s perfect. "Huh," he says, just for effect. "I think this is a case."
In his periphery, Dean looks up from the newspaper. "A case?"
He highlights the section of obituary, under the girl’s smiling high school photo. "Sophie Carlton," he says, and turns the laptop around so Dean can see. "Read it, it doesn’t sound like natural causes to me."
Dean’s frowning at him, though, and doesn’t even glance at the monitor. "You want to go on a hunt," he says. "Now. We’re looking for Dad, Sam."
Sam huffs. "You think I forgot?"
The waitress arrives with their plates before Dean can say anything. "Patty melts!" she says, brightly. She levels another charming smile at Dean, but he’s ducked his head and is just staring at the plate, and the smile fades a little as she looks to Sam. "Anything else I can get you gentlemen?"
"No, thanks," Sam says, letting his tone go dismissive. She disappears, and he watches Dean across the table for a few seconds. The only other diners are an old guy drinking coffee at the counter, and a mom with her toddler on the other side of the restaurant, so there’s no one around to hear. "This girl, she went swimming in the local lake, and she disappeared without a trace. No body, nothing. They’re saying she drowned, but I’m betting it was something else."
"Okay," Dean says, dragging it out, and finally looks up from his plate to frown at Sam. "That’s sad. We’re a little busy with other things right now, though."
"We’re going to keep looking for Dad," Sam says, a little louder than he meant to from how Dean leans back. He takes a deep breath. "We are. You think there’s anything in the world I want more than finding the thing that killed Jenn?" Dean shakes his head, eyes dropping down to his plate again. "It’s going to be a fight, though, man. A long, long fight. We’re going to run into stuff, while we’re looking, and we’ve got to be ready."
"Stuff," Dean says. He picks up the cheap, lightweight fork and starts poking around the iceberg and carrot shreds of his salad, stirring in the dressing. "Monsters, you mean."
"And ghosts, and witches, and everything else we ever read about." Sam knocks the still-open laptop, jolts it awake so the obituary’s visible again. "Things like this? Cases we run into, while we’re looking? We should be saving people, anyway, but getting some practice in can’t hurt. Hell, we have to."
Dean looks at him, eyes a little narrow. "I did fine with that hunt back in Portsmouth," he says.
Sam sits back on his side of the booth and smacks a hand onto the laptop bag, where their dad’s journal is tucked close and safe. "You’ve been reading Dad’s stuff, same as me," he says. "I know you noticed. He was going on hunts, just like I said, the whole time. He didn’t just catch one little ghost and call it good."
He gets an eyeroll for that. The door behind Dean jingles open and an older guy comes in, sits at the counter close enough to their booth that he could hear their conversation. Sam leans in closer, lowers his voice. "We are going back to the bunker," he says. "But look. This is a case, a real case. People dying, three this year alone. We go, we stop it, we save people, and we finally get some real-world experience after all those years of studying."
Dean raises his eyebrows, but finally shakes his head a little and picks up his patty melt. "Fine," he says, squinting at the sandwich. "But if we don’t head back to Lebanon after this, I’m knocking you out and taking my car back and going there myself."
Sam raises his eyebrows. "How’ll you do that, shorty," he says, and pushes the laptop out of the way so he can finally eat his own lunch.
"I know fifteen different spells that’d do it, don’t push me," Dean says, and then mutters, "real-world experience, please," before he takes a bite.
Sam takes a bite, too, and it’s good, grilled onions and great buttery rye. Not as good as that place on Hampshire in Boston they go to—used to go to—but Dean groans a little and closes his eyes, chewing happily. Sam grins, holding his fist in front of his mouth so he doesn’t gross out the waitress coming back to check on them. If a half-decent patty melt in Who-Cares, Indiana, is exciting for Dean, Sam can’t imagine what the rest of the country might do.
It’s a late and chilly morning the next day as they close in on Lake Manitoc, just an hour northwest of Madison. They stopped in Bloomington the night before to take advantage of the university library—and it was entertaining to watch Dean’s eyes go wide at that sheer volume of books, no matter that ninety percent of them wouldn’t hold a drop of information that they could use—and Sam’s been going through the print-outs they made the whole drive up.
"I don’t get it," Sam says. He wishes they’d gotten another cup of coffee when they fueled up in Waunakee. "The pattern just doesn’t make any sense. Three deaths this year—the Carlton girl, the Barr guy, this ice-fishing competition death—but then the other six deaths spread out over three decades?"
"Four decades, technically," Dean says. He’s more-or-less comfortable on the highway, now, but he’s still got his hands at ten-and-two, checking the rearview more than he needs to. "Thirty-five years since the first death. Whatever’s taking the victims is speeding up its timeline."
Sam flips through the black-and-white pictures on their copies from the microfiche, the blurry faces of people long-gone. "Could be some kind of water monster, I guess," he says, but it doesn’t feel right.
"What?" Dean says, glancing over the seat before he makes the turn towards the town. "The Dobhar-chú? Monstro?"
Sam smacks him in the arm with the print-outs and Dean smiles, just a little, and points the Impala down the narrow road into Manitoc. It’s quiet out here, the trees closing in tight all around. They pass an older truck and the guy waves at them, not fake-friendly but just companionable, acknowledgment of the unlikelihood of seeing someone else on the road. Sam waves back. Dean doesn’t, of course. One day, Sam thinks.
Manitoc’s a tourist town, most of the year, but in the last dregs of November there isn’t much going on. They coast along, sedately following the speed limit through the minimal traffic, and Sam tries to get the lay of the land, as much as he can. Motel, bed and breakfast, a few chintzy woodcarving and hunting trophy shops still open. A cafe advertising fried fish sandwiches, a plump lady putting up cling-film turkey decals in the window, and Sam stares at that until they pull away from the stop sign and he realizes, oh. It’s almost Thanksgiving.
"Should we ask for directions?" Dean says.
Sam startles to attention, but shakes his head. "No, these little towns are all set up the same way—the station will be right here in the middle of everything, right up against the little town hall and the square." He sits up, tucks his hair behind his ears and keeps an eye out while Dean trundles slowly along. "You sure about this student thing? FBI worked fine back in Portsmouth."
"How did you ever do this alone," Dean says, not quite under his breath. Sam gives him a look, and he sighs, making another turn down a little street. "FBI requires a federal jurisdiction. What could some drowning deaths in a lake possibly have to do with major crimes or terrorism or interstate organizations? Anyway, we’re going to be talking to a sheriff, and if we claim some kind of jurisdiction he’s going to want to check up on it."
"Okay, okay, you win," Sam says, rolling his eyes, and then there’s the station, finally. Once they’re parked he gets out and stretches, ignoring the cold air for a second just to work out that cramped feeling of sitting forever in a car. He’d forgotten how bad it could get to him, when he was on his road trip. The sun’s barely peeking through the grey layer of clouds, but at least there’s no wind. He shrugs his shoulders, stretching his neck a little, and looks around: bare trees, spindly grey naked bushes, just two sheriff’s squad cars parked in the lot. Not quite a one-horse town, but close.
Dean’s standing on the other side of the car looking at his new cell phone, squinting down at the little screen, and Sam grins. "You’ll get used to it eventually," he says, and Dean sends him another look over the hood. Sam looks at him more closely, then, and sighs. "Okay, hold on. If we’re going with the PhD premise, you can’t wear a tie."
Dean looks down at himself. "Why not? The adepts at the bunker all had degrees, and they wore ties."
"Trust me," Sam says, and glances at the blank face of the sheriff’s station before he comes around the car to block Dean from view. "I met plenty of students, graduate and otherwise, over the last couple of years—they’re lucky if they shave and shower, much less get into professional wear. Loosen it up a little."
He tugs Dean’s tie loose, and Dean bats gently at his hand to get him off. "They’re going to be academics, they should have standards," he complains, but he does tug off his tie, unraveling it and looping it swiftly around his hand.
Sam stands back a little, squinting at him, and really there’s no help for the polished Oxfords and the suit, though at least it’s kind of old-fashioned. Makes Dean look like maybe he’s a student who borrowed his dad’s suit. Not untrue, really. In comparison Sam looks like the broke younger co-author, jeans and sneakers and a secondhand coat, and—well, also not untrue. Another old truck drives by, with another wave from the guy behind the wheel, and Sam smile and waves back and takes a deep breath when Dean frowns and looks at where he’s waving. "Okay," he says. "Ready?"
The office is dim, brown, wood-paneled everything. The bell jingles behind them, like a diner, and Sam scans the place while the woman behind the desk looks up from her computer and says, "What can I do you for?"
"Hi," Sam says, smiling politely. Dean stands just behind him, being no help, but of course Sam didn’t expect anything. "We’re graduate students from Madison working on a paper about watershed management, and we’ve heard that there have been some deaths on the lake—we were hoping to talk to someone about that."
The woman blinks at them. "Watershed management?" she says, the Wisconsin thick in her voice. She exchanges a glance with the officer behind the desk with her, a balding guy who doesn’t look like he’s been running many wind-sprints. "What does the sheriff’s office have to do with all that?"
The blinds in the office behind them are closed. Sam licks his lips, glancing at Dean. "We’re concerned about environmental impacts on animal behavior," he says, reciting the bullshit they’d worked up back in the library in Bloomington. Dean’s wearing his impassive public face, blank and looking at the floor. "Ecosystem changes can lead to animals acting differently and sometimes attacking humans, even if they hadn’t before. We just wanted to get any information we could about what’s been going on up here."
The officer stands up and rests his hands on his gun belt, bottom lip pushed out as he shakes his head. "Boys, I don’t think you got the right story here," he says, a little condescending. "Those poor folks who died up at the lake, that was drownings. Not animal attacks."
Sam tilts his head. "Oh!" he says, loading on the confusion. Dean shifts, in his periphery. "I thought—didn’t we read that there weren’t any bodies recovered?"
When he turns, Dean looks at him wide-eyed and then at the other two. "That’s what I thought," he manages, after a second. "The lake was dragged, and no bodies."
Awkward, but then half of the grad students Sam has met have been barely capable of human speech, so at least it’s in character. The officer frowns, again, and Sam butts in before he can say anything: "Is there any way we can talk to the sheriff, sir? We just want to get accurate information for our paper."
The glass door to the internal office says Sheriff Jacob Devins in bronze stuck-on letters. There wasn’t much information about him when they searched back in Bloomington—just a few news stories, where he talked about people who’d drowned. When he’d won his election, a dozen years ago. The officer glances at the secretary, who shrugs, and then says, "Well, I don’t know if it’s something to bother Jake with," but he raps on the door anyway, and goes in, and shuts it behind him.
There are two little plastic chairs in the tiny lobby and Sam and Dean take them, Dean sitting rigid until Sam elbows him, lightly. The woman stares at them for a minute until she shakes her head and starts typing. Sam doesn’t know what she might be working on—other than the drownings, it didn’t seem like this county had much in the way of crime or even anything interesting happening for the last six months. Above their heads, the wooden clock starts to chime. Noon. Sam rubs his palms on his thighs, looking around at the old hunting and fishing magazines, the stuffed fish on the wall. If they don’t get anything from this, they’ll have to figure out where else to look—the sheriff’s office would have the most updated version of the deaths, with all the evidence these people would collect, but they can pry details out of the rest of the town. It’ll just take some time, maybe more time than Dean will afford, when Sam needs to make sure he doesn’t go back to ground in the bunker.
Dean’s shifting in his seat and Sam’s drumming his fingers on the side of his thigh when the door to the station swings open again and a slender woman enters, followed by a little boy. "Come on, sweetie," she’s saying, gently, her hand on his back, under the secretary’s greeting.
"Andrea, honey!" she says, and Andrea glances over at them but then smiles, turning to the woman.
"Hi, Deb," she says. Her voice is a little tired, her shoulders slumped under her warm coat. "Is my dad with anyone?"
"Just Roger," the secretary—Deb, apparently—says, with a warm smile at Andrea. "Hang on, I’ll grab him for you."
Andrea nods, and crouches by her kid, and Sam watches them both. Deb opens the door into the sheriff’s inner sanctum without knocking, leaning in to talk, and Andrea smooths her hands over the little boy’s head, tucking his long hair behind his ears. He’s maybe seven or eight, looking at the floor. "You’re going to stay with Grandpa and Deb and Roger for a while, okay, sweetie?" she says.
Sam licks his lips and stands. "Hi," he says, with a smile, and Andrea looks up at him. "Are you from around here?"
"Born and raised," she says, smiling back, and stands up. Her hand stays protectively on the boy’s shoulder. "You boys in trouble?"
She’s maybe two or three years older than Dean, young and pretty. Sam bites his lip and shakes his head. "No, ma’am," he says, with a touch of emphasis, and she raises her eyebrows at him for it. Before he can say anything more, though, Deb comes back to the front desk, followed by Roger and then by another man who must be Sheriff Devins: late forties, a touch of grey at the temples but still fit.
"Honey," Devins says, coming around the counter. Andrea accepts the kiss on her cheek with a smile.
"Sir?" Sam says, interrupting, and Devins and Andrea and Deb and Roger all look at him, startled. Dean’s still watching the floor; so is the kid. He puts on another smile. The sheriff’s out of his office and they’re probably not going to get another opportunity. "Sir, I was hoping—we were hoping you might be able to share some information, for our project."
Devins gives him a tight-lipped smile back, but shakes his head. "That’s what I heard, son," he says. "I’m afraid there’s not much more I can tell you beyond what you’ll get in the paper." Sam opens his mouth and Devins cuts him off. "Good luck with your research, boys."
Sam closes his mouth. Devins turns away, dismissal done, and Andrea gives them a brief look before she turns back. "I’ll be back around three?" she says, and Devins drops another kiss on her head before he goes back into his office and closes the door.
Sam props his hands on his hips and looks at the closed door for a second. Andrea’s talking to Deb, something about heating up lunch, and Sam looks down at Dean. "Now what?" he says, quietly.
Dean shrugs, looking uncomfortable, and Sam sighs. Not a lot of help, but maybe that’s not such a surprise.
"What are you guys doing here?" Andrea says. She’s come over to their dusty end of the little lobby, arms folded loosely over her stomach. "You have a research project?"
She looks genuinely curious, looking back and forth between the two of them. "Yeah," Sam says, shrugging. "We were hoping to get some information from the sheriff—I guess he must be your dad?"
She smiles. "I’m afraid you won’t be able to get to him through me, if that’s what you’re hoping," she says, and Sam ducks his head a little. Caught. "He’s pretty hard to budge once he’s made up his mind."
"Well, it was good to meet you, anyway—Andrea?" Sam holds out his hand.
"Andrea Barr," she says, shaking it, her hand tiny in his grip but firm enough, a solid policeman’s daughter handshake.
He blinks for a second, her name catching his attention, but then Dean shifts in his seat next to where they’re standing and he says, "Hi," quietly, and Sam looks over to find Dean sitting forward a little, eyes on the boy. "What’s your name, bud?"
The boy’s just staring at the ground—has been, the whole time. Andrea takes her hand back and turns, and with three sets of eyes on him the boy ducks behind the counter, to an empty seat at the far end from where Deb and Roger are working, and Andrea sighs. "Nice to meet you," she says, and follows her son to where he’s now staring at the bare desk. She says, "Here you go, Lucas, honey," just barely loud enough to hear, producing crayons from her bag, and Lucas immediately takes them and starts scrawling out a drawing on a blank notepad. Andrea pets his hair back from his face, kissing the top of his head again with zero acknowledgment, and Sam looks down at Dean and jerks his head, not wanting to interfere any more.
Past noon and the day’s not much warmer, though the sun’s doing its best to burn away the cloud cover. Sam shoves his hands into his pockets, glad of his coat as they head back to the car. "So, that was a dead end," he says. Dean’s spinning the car keys between his hands, watching his feet as he follows Sam, and he doesn’t respond. Sam frowns. "What?"
Dean glances up, finally, and then shakes his head. "Just—thinking." He runs his fingers through his hair, mussing its neat part. "Okay. What now?"
"Motel," Sam says, as they get into the car, "and then see if we can dig up someone else to talk to. Maybe we should’ve tried a different tack with the sheriff."
They pull out onto the road, and Sam checks the oncoming traffic out of habit in time to see Dean roll his eyes. "What, Homeland Security? We don’t have anyone fielding calls to back us up." They hit the stoplight where the town’s two biggest roads converge and Dean hits his blinker, drumming his fingers on the wheel while he waits for the few cars to pass by. "I’m wondering about the Barrs."
Sam frowns. "Andrea?"
"And Lucas." The motel they passed on the way in is just another block south and Dean pulls into the parking lot while Sam’s still thinking about the two of them. Skinny Andrea, tired but kind, and her uncommunicative, silent kid.
Dean turns the engine off and reaches past Sam into the glovebox for his envelope of cash, pulling out a few bills and handing them over. Sam sighs. "I guess I’m getting the room," he says, and unfolds himself from the car and goes to talk to the bored guy in the office, who’s flat-out shocked to be getting business this late in the season. "Just passing through," Sam says, smiling flatly, and gets their keys. Eventually he’s going to make Dean do this part.
The room’s big, in the way small-town motel rooms so often are, and Sam takes the bed closer to the door. "Barr," Dean says, again. Sam turns around to find Dean stalled at the little table, bags dropped on either side of him as he rifles through their pile of print-outs. He finds one and spins it around on the wooden tabletop so Sam can look. "Christopher Barr. He was the last drowning death, before Sophie Carlton."
The article they found was just a simple one, a short statement from Sheriff Devins and not much else. Sam skims it again in the dim light coming through the blinds, reads: survived by his wife and son, and says, "Oh, god," the weight of dread dropping into the pit of his stomach.
The motel has wifi, sluggish though it is, and it only takes a few minutes to find a better article in the area’s local paper from May. Local Man in Tragic Accident. Sam sighs, pushing his laptop back, and Dean comes around the table and leans over his shoulder to read. Christopher Barr, dead at thirty-two, drowned in the lake where he grew up swimming. Six months gone. The picture with the article is awful, the little boy wet-rat soaked and pale, staring ghoul-eyed out of the page with Roger’s arm around his blanketed shoulders. The local hack writer doesn’t spare details, clearly trying to drag out as much salacious information as possible, laying it on thick about the young wife left behind and the child robbed of a father.
"Two hours," Dean says, quiet beside his ear. "God."
Sam can’t imagine. A little kid floating out there, alone, frightened, waiting for rescue. Did Andrea get worried and call someone, he wonders. Was it just some random passerby, seeing a boy alone on a little raft, saving him from the same fate as his dad.
"If it’s a creature, something that lives in the lake," Dean says, standing up and walking to the window, "why would it take Christopher, but not Lucas?"
Sam minimizes the article, so that little face isn’t staring out at him. Dean’s looking out over the quiet town, the trees that separate them from a view of the water. "Maybe it only takes adults, for some reason?" Sam says, but even as it’s coming out of his mouth it doesn’t sound true. "And why these victims? There’s got to be a ton of people in and out of that lake, especially in the busy season. Sophie was probably the only one swimming in November, but all summer it only picked Christopher? Why?"
Dean shakes his head. He turns around, arms folded tight over his chest. "We should check out the lake," he says. "See if we can get any clue about what it might be. If it’s a real monster, it has to leave sign of some kind—bones, or tracks, something that might be mistaken for a normal animal."
Sam nods and closes the laptop. "I’ll ask the manager for a hiking map of the area, that might give us an idea of where to start," he says, and pulls his coat back on. Dean picks up his handed-down case of supplies, cracking open the lid to rummage through reagents. He’s still in his peacoat, his blue suit and Oxfords, and Sam shakes his head on the way out the door. "We’ve got to get you some boots," he says, and closes the door on Dean’s eyeroll, and heads down the little sidewalk across the parking lot back to the office. He’s betting it only takes a mile of walking through muddy woods for Dean to admit Sam’s right.
Despite looking at the area on the map before they came out, despite the trail guide the guy at the Lakefront Motel gave them, Sam’s still kind of shocked by the size of the lake. It stretches out into the distance, a sullen grey under the dim sky, surrounded on all sides by tall, silent woods. Dean gives Sam a long-bladed silver knife with the shrugged explanation of, "Silver usually works," and Sam takes it carefully by the mother-of-pearl handle, shaking his head. Dean has his own, a little less ostentatious, and together they make their way carefully through the forest, ten feet between them but always in sight of each other. On the way over to the trailhead, Dean had run through some of the kinds of monster-tracks they might be looking for, not that Sam needed the reminder. Studying creatures, how they operated and how to take them out, was one of the kinds of homework he’d never needed to be reminded to do—even as a kid, he’d wondered about hunting, about getting out and saving the day, for real. He’d even imagined something like this: the quiet under still, dark trees, moving slow and cautious, a blade in hand as he hunted evil. Like something out of a story.
Of course, not finding anything after two hours of trudging through mud, leaves in his hair and water from nowhere trickling unexpectedly under his collar, that wasn’t exactly storybook. Still, at least there’s some upside.
"You didn’t tell me hunting was this boring," Dean says off to his right, sour.
Sam grins. "How are your feet?" he says, and looks over in time to catch a death-glare.
"Absolutely fine," Dean says, and to prove it he stalks off, ducking under a tree-branch and stepping over a fallen log, his polished shoes hopelessly scuffed up and dirty, mud on the hems of his trousers, a slight limp in his step from miles and miles of walking. Sam wrinkles his nose, feels only a little bad. He did tell him, after all.
They’ve covered the ground alongside the lake loop trail, and come back the long way along the shoreline, past the dozens of private residences that dot the lake’s circumference. Most of them are empty, from what Sam can tell—probably summer cabins, unused this far out of season, and so no one has called them out for trespassing as they examine the rocky shore and the thick verge where the trees crowd in close against people’s fences, looking for any kind of sign. They haven’t found a thing over five miles of woods and shore; Sam’s starting to wonder if they will. Maybe the creature, if there is one at all, lives exclusively in the water—somewhere deep, far enough down that the sun doesn’t penetrate the cold and dark. He can imagine it: some kind of lair, full of gnawed-clean bones and old forgotten things. If that’s the case, he doesn’t know what he and Dean will do. He can’t imagine Dean leaping at the chance to scuba dive down there; he can imagine Dean’s face at the suggestion that Sam go alone.
Dean’s sitting on a largish rock set up where the trail reappears when Sam comes around from behind a few thick trees, looking at the trail map to cover the attempt to rest his feet. Sam licks his lips, hiding a smile, but comes over and sits on the edge of the rock, anyway. Five miles is kind of a lot. "Scoot," he says, and Dean sighs but gives up a few more inches, their shoulders crushed in close together, the silver knives laid safely in the grass at their feet. Sam traces the trail they’ve made and then looks up, through the thinner foliage to the dark water. The woods on the far shore are blurry with distance, a solid wall of dark impenetrable green, and there are more trails over there, more places to hide, more miles to cover. "We could look for weeks," he says.
They’re sitting close enough that he feels the deep breath Dean takes. "We’re missing something," Dean says. "The temperature up here is all wrong for a nereid. Naiads drag their victims into the water from the shore, so we’d see the marks. Grindylows have that distinct four-clawed mark, and we’d see that on the shoreline, too."
"Well, maybe it’s not a creature, then," Sam says, getting up again to pace along the trail. "A water wraith could lure someone in to drown."
Dean tilts his head, letting the map drop down crumpled against his calf. "Maybe," he says, but he sounds skeptical. "You don’t think someone might have said something, though, if a ghostly woman was haunting these waters? That’s the kind of thing that fills up cheesy tourist websites."
Sam puts his hands on his hips. "Since when are you going to cheesy tourist websites?"
Dean opens his mouth, and closes it, and then busies himself with neatly folding the map into neat, re-creased lines. Before Sam can say anything else, there’s a crunch of gravel further along the trail, and they both turn their heads to see a guy come around the bend in the woods and stop short, staring at the sight of them.
"Hi," Sam says, smiling automatically.
The guy’s Sam’s age, maybe, dark-haired and thick-necked but a little chubby, like a former football player running to fat. He’s wearing a too-big plaid coat and looks completely at home in the woods, and not exactly happy to see them. "What are you guys doing here?" he says.
Not completely rude, but close. Sam takes a few steps closer, tucking his hands into his pockets and hunching in his shoulders with his long experience of easing his own intimidation factor. Jocks aren’t good tippers at the best of times. "We’re grad students from Madison, working on a research project about the watershed," he says, the lie a little smoother now that he’s had some practice. "I’m Sam, this is Dean. Are you from around here?"
He looks between them. "Born and raised," he says, echoing Andrea exactly. "Will Carlton."
Sam blinks. "You’re—" he starts, before he can catch himself.
"Sophie Carlton," Dean says, quietly, and stands up.
Will’s eyes drop. Not rude, then. Grieving. "She’s my—she was—" he says, and stumbles to a halt, and shakes his head.
"I’m sorry," Sam says, and means it.
It’s quiet out here, birds long flown south for the winter and no one else on the trails, so it’s easy to hear the ragged breath Will pulls in. From his age, Sophie must have been his sister. Sam glances over at Dean, watches him watch Will with a tight, unhappy expression. He can’t imagine.
"So, uh," Will says, shaking his head. "The watershed? What are you doing here?"
Sam gestures at the water, through the trees. "We read about what’s been happening on the lake in the last few months," he says, with an apologetic grimace. "We wondered if there might be something affecting the local wildlife, if there had been more attacks."
Will frowns. "Attacks?"
"Our professor," Dean puts in, quietly. "He suggested that it might have been animal attacks."
He’s got his coat pulled closed against the chilly breeze off the lake, at least hiding his suit jacket, but he still looks completely out of place here in the woods. Luckily, Will doesn’t really seem to notice, just looking at Dean and then turning his frown out on the trees. Sam takes a breath, and then gambles. "But, you know, we didn’t have all the facts, then. With how cold it’s been lately, I guess it must just have been hypothermia or something."
Will shakes his head, immediately. "No," he says, fast, like it’s not the first time. "No, no way." He goes to the far edge of the trail and pushes one of the lower branches aside, ducking under to get closer to the shore. Sam glances at Dean and follows, matching Will’s pace as he steps through the dark undergrowth down to where the soil gives way to the water-smoothed pebbles of the shore. He gets close to the edge of the water, but doesn’t touch it, and points. "See that?"
Maybe another mile along the shoreline—a dock, off in the distance, and behind it a red-roofed house. Footsteps crunch up alongside Sam and he and Dean look at each other, then back to Will. "That’s our house," Will says. "We grew up there, and Sophie practically lived in the water, her whole life. Swam varsity for the school and won a bunch of meets, because she trained all the time."
"Even in November?" Sam says.
Will shrugs, folding his arms over his chest. "She was a freak for it," he says, and it’s so fond and sad that Sam’s throat closes, for a second. "Said she wanted to get in all the swimming she could before the lake disappears."
"What?" Dean says. Will looks up at him, surprised. "Disappears?"
"Oh," Will says, frowning. "Yeah, because of the dam… thing. It’s breaking down, and my dad said they were opening up the spillway, so." He shrugs. "No more lake."
"When did this start?" Sam says, mentally ticking back through the articles they read. "For our research."
Will shrugs again. "I don’t know, maybe back in February?" he says, and then shakes his head. "I don’t know, maybe it’s—animals, or something, like you said. They never found any—but she just went down." He clears his throat, and stops. He looks over at the dock and sighs, eyes closing for a moment, before his shoulders square. "Look, I better get back to my dad. Good luck with your paper, or whatever."
"Thanks, Will," Sam says, and Will just nods and trudges back across the rocks, disappearing again into the trees.
Sam blows out a long sigh and drags a hand through his hair. The people left behind, they’re the other thing he didn’t miss about hunting. All that pain, and nothing to be done but to stop it happening to someone else, and what good did that do the families already suffering a gaping wound?
"Okay?" Dean says. When Sam looks up Dean’s watching him, concern all over his face.
"I’m fine," Sam says, and even if he doesn’t mean it—well, what are they going to do about it on the side of a lake.
Dean holds his eyes for a moment, then jerks his head back at the trail. "Come on," he says. "Let’s rescue my silver blades before some raccoon carries them off to its nest, and then let’s dig up some details about the dam. Maybe there’s a connection there, somehow."
Sam nods, and heads back up to the trail, letting the quiet of the woods close around them again once the trees are blocking them from the shore. "Raccoons?" he says, after a few seconds.
"Dude, I don’t know," Dean says, shoving another tree branch out of his way. He’s sounding irritable again, and Sam smiles, despite everything. "Eagles? Badgers? Whatever’s dumb enough to live in the woods."
"I should take you camping, sometime," Sam says, scooping up the long knives from where they’d been half-hidden in the dying grass. A little damp, but undamaged, and he hands Dean’s over.
"I’ll hex you if you try," Dean says, flatly, and turns up the trail to make it back to where they left the car. With the way the trail loops, it’s only about another mile away, but Dean sighs anyway. "I need the biggest cup of coffee in Wisconsin."
For the briefest moment, Sam’s hit with a craving for his own coffee—the espresso he’d grind out of the shop’s cheapest beans, a splash of steamed milk and a little too much sugar. Sitting down after his shift at the table in the corner too close to the bathroom so no one wanted it, waiting for Jenn to finish her morning class so she could come and have a cup of coffee with him. He closes his eyes and wants it so badly that it hurts.
"I’m sure they have coffee at that cafe we passed," Sam says, after a pause that went on too long. "If they don’t, you can hex them, too."
"Oh, no," Dean says, "you’re still the one getting hexed, trust me," but he walks a little faster at the promise of coffee, anyway. Sam takes a deep breath, and follows.
At the car, Dean demands that they take off their shoes and scrape off as much mud as possible, and with the mild bickering over that and the delay it’s almost half past three by the time they make it back down from the trailhead to the motel. A quick change out of muddy jeans for Sam, and into his second still-clean suit for Dean, and they’re walking again, in search of lunch and a spot to do some research. Dean’s limping again, just a little, and Sam can’t decide what would be more satisfying: the gigantic told-you-so he deserves, or nobly not saying anything in such a way that Dean knows exactly what he’s thinking. They come around the corner onto the main drag and Dean winces, obviously agitating a blister, and Sam shakes his head and decides not to say anything, after all. Dean’s gotten the point, by now.
The cafe they passed that morning is just another block down, but Dean stops in his tracks when they’re halfway there. "Dude," Sam says, "coffee," but then follows Dean’s eyeline and—oh.
There’s a little park on the other side of the street. Swings, slides, jungle gym. There are a few kids playing on the swings, half-shouting to each other and laughing. At a little bench, far away from the other children, sits Lucas, with Andrea standing and watching a little distance away, her arms folded protectively over her chest.
"Poor woman," Sam says, quietly.
"Poor kid," Dean says, eyes fixed on Lucas. He seems to be coloring, again, working intently and not paying any attention to the world around him. Dean rubs his fingers over his mouth. "Two hours," he says, and glances at Sam. "He’s the only living witness we’ve heard about."
Sam frowns. "Yeah, but—" He shakes his head. "It won’t do any good if he doesn’t talk."
Dean licks his lips, and suddenly steps out into the street, buttoning his coat against the cold. A mumbled curse and Sam follows, glad that this town is so sleepy. He’s got to get Dean into the habit of actually looking when he crosses the road.
Andrea glances up when they approach and gives them a small smile. She's pretty, Sam thinks, despite how thin she is and the dark, sleepless shadows below her eyes. It’s sadder, now he can guess why they’re there. "Hi again," she says, when they’re close enough. "Any luck with the watershed?" Sam raises his eyebrows and she shrugs, smile deepening. "Deb told me. I don’t think she quite got it."
Sam smiles back. "We’re pretty used to that," he says, truthfully enough, and Andrea laughs. Small, but it’s a laugh.
The other kids on the playground shriek with laughter over something and Andrea glances over—some other little boy fallen off the swings, a girl clapping, the other parents on the far side of the park unconcerned. Just a few families around, but it’s an idyllic small-town scene. Mothers and fathers, their kids. Andrea’s separate from them, just as Lucas is. He’s trying to come up with some kind of small talk, something to lead in to the questions they need to ask when, quietly, Dean says, "May I go and say hi to Lucas?" and it’s so unexpected that Sam doesn’t quite get it, at first.
He schools his expression in time, when Andrea turns back with a frown. "Lucas?" she says, and it’s just confused. "Why?"
Dean takes a deep breath, but he holds her eyes, without a glance at Sam. "He just looks like he could use some company," Dean says.
Her lips part and she glances at her son, and back, studying Dean’s face for a moment before she nods. Dean doesn’t smile, just walks slowly along the sparse and dying grass to the bench where Lucas sits with his drawing. Sam and Andrea watch while he says something, the boy not reacting at all, and then Dean sits down on the bench next to where Lucas works, looking off into the distance. He doesn’t look as out of place as Sam thought he would.
"That’s a kind gesture from your friend," Andrea says, soft. "Most people don’t want to deal with him."
Sam tucks his hands into his pockets, watches Dean say something unheard. "Do you mind if I ask?" he says. "Has he always…"
Andrea’s shaking her head before he finishes. "He used to be a complete chatterbox." She looks at the ground and smiles, tight-lipped. "Ran me off my feet, some days, the little troublemaker."
There’s a fondness in her voice, faint and frail. She looks up, and her eyes are dry when she meets Sam’s. "There was an accident, a few months ago," she says, clear and direct. Sam doesn’t know how she does it. "My husband passed and Lucas—well. He hasn’t spoken. Not since then."
An accident. Like it wasn’t a big deal, like it was sad but just the sort of thing that happens. Just a fire, he thinks. Tragic. "I’m sorry," Sam says. He means it. Dean’s still talking to Lucas, it seems, and Sam can’t imagine what he’s saying. He doesn’t know what to say here, either. So many platitudes thrown at him, so recently, and he can’t seem to remember one that he can work past the sudden lump in his throat. Andrea nods, watching Dean and Lucas with steady eyes, slim and upright with her arms folded over her stomach, and Sam says, finally, "How are you?"
She smiles, and looks up at him. He can almost see the I’m fine forming on her lips before she pauses. "I’m getting by," she says, after a moment. She nods at Lucas. "Anyway, I’ve got to be here for him. He’s what matters."
Sam bites the inside of his cheek. Six months. He wonders what she was like, before. He closes his eyes for a few seconds and the fire roars back, that vision of the blood spilling forth and the pale limbs twisted on the ceiling. Dreams coming to life and turning into a worse nightmare. He drags a hand over his face and then folds the strap of the laptop bag into a tight grip, his knuckles hard and grounding against his chest. There’s something to be said for having a focus, a purpose, to drag the eyes open every morning and force the body upright. "I hope it gets better," he says.
At the bench, Dean stands up and says one last thing to Lucas, head bent, before starts back across to them, his hands deep in his pockets. Andrea blinks at Sam. "People usually tell me it will," she says. He shrugs. "Thanks," she says, and then when Dean comes close she turns to him and says, warm, "Thanks to you, too."
He glances at Sam, frowning, and licks his lips. "I don’t know what good it did," he says. He makes eye contact with her, briefly, then looks right back at the ground.
"It’s good to have someone talking to him besides me and my dad and the therapist," she says, watching as Lucas scribbles fiercely with his crayons. She sighs, tucking her hair behind her ears, and turns to face them both. "We moved into my dad’s house, a few months ago. Maybe you guys can come to dinner tomorrow, if you’re still in town."
Sam raises his eyebrows, exchanging a glance with Dean. "Really? The sheriff didn’t exactly seem thrilled to help us out."
She shrugs. "I was going to go to school for environmental studies, before we had Lucas," she says, and smiles. "I don’t mind trying to help out the science geeks."
Sam huffs a laugh. Dean sends him a sidelong look, but manages, "Thank you," polite as can be, and Sam can tell he can think of about fifty things he’d rather do than struggle through family dinner with the sheriff and his kind daughter. He’ll have to suck it up, if that’s the only way they can get the information they need.
Andrea’s focus snaps away, then, and Sam follows to see Lucas approaching. "Hi, sweetie," she says, soft. "Are you ready to go?"
Lucas doesn’t look at her, eyes on the ground looking off to something they can’t see. He has a big piece of paper in his hands and Sam expects him to give it to Andrea, but instead he holds it up for Dean to take, long hair flopping into his face. Dean catches Sam’s eyes, startled, but takes the paper. When he unfolds it, it’s a drawing: a house, red roof and brown wood, done in childish bold strokes and bright colors.
"Thank you," Dean says, slowly. "Thanks, Lucas."
Andrea stares, mouth open, and Lucas just—walks off, back to his bench. Her hand’s still outstretched toward his shoulder, and she closes it, lets it hang in the air for a moment. "What did you say?" she says, at last, not looking at Dean.
He shakes his head. "I just talked to him," he says, holding the picture out in front of him. It’s incongruous in his hands, and for the boy who drew it, and for the grey cold day they’re standing in. "I told him I liked his art."
He’s lying. Sam knows it, immediately. Andrea might or might not, but she only frowns and watches Lucas settle down next to the bench again, dragging his crayons closer and going to town on some new paper.
"Do you—want it?" Dean says, holding the picture out for Andrea.
She startles, and looks at him, and studies his face. Sam bites the inside of his cheek again. "He gave it to you," she says, shrugging. Her smile this time takes obvious effort. "It’d be rude to re-gift it."
Sam says their goodbyes, and Andrea nods, distracted. He jerks his head at Dean and they cross out of the park again. Almost four o’clock and some of the parents on the playground are gathering their kids, starting to go home with the day dimming, a chilly wind starting up. Soon, it’ll just be the Barrs left. They hit the sidewalk and, when Sam’s sure they’re out of hearing distance, he nudges Dean with an elbow. "Seriously," he says. "What was that?"
Dean’s rolling the drawing into a scroll as they walk, fidgeting with the paper, and he keeps his eyes on it. "Really, I talked to him about the art," Dean says. "I wanted to see if he could communicate through drawing, if that could be a way to get him to talk about the accident without actually having to talk about it."
Sam chews the inside of his lip, thinking. "That’s a therapy trick, right, with little kids? Get them to draw what they’re worried about?" Dean shrugs, eyes still pinned to the sidewalk and his face cast to grim, and Sam frowns. "Maybe his therapist tried it, too. We might be able to get into the office, wherever it is, read the notes."
He reaches the door of the cafe first and holds it open, the bell jingling. Dean’s just standing in the middle of the sidewalk, staring at him. "You want to read Lucas’s therapy notes?" he says.
Inside, the guy behind the counter smiles at them, and Sam jerks his head to get Dean moving. They’re weird enough for this town, no need to call more attention to it. "Only if it’ll get us the answers we need," he says, much more quietly as Dean passes him, and gets just a head-shake for his trouble. He sighs, and follows as they’re pointed to a booth by the huge glass window, with a view of the almost-empty streets. The Letters have never been shy about espionage, trickery, and outright theft, when it suits their purposes; if Dean’s not aware that hunting will involve the same casual acquaintance with the law, he’s got another thing coming.
Ralph who runs the cafe is friendly without being annoying and points out the wifi password as soon as he sees the laptop, so he’s good in Sam’s book. They’re quickly supplied with coffee mugs and there’s fried walleye and potato pancakes headed their way. They’re the only customers and Ralph heads back into the kitchen to get stuff started. Solitude, at least for a little while. Sam stretches his legs out as much as he can under the booth, the low ache of the morning’s hike starting to take hold now that they’ve slowed down. "So," he says, while the laptop boots up.
"The dam," Dean says. He pulls his coat off, awkward between the booth and the table, so he’s in his crumpled suit-jacket, the unbuttoned collar and lack of tie making him look almost informal. "What Will said, about the lake disappearing. If the dates match, that would be a classic presentation of habitat loss-response."
Sam rolls his eyes, but luckily the laptop chimes at him just then. "Sometimes you sound like a Letters thesis on legs, you know that?" he says, and starts typing—Lake Manitoc dam, looking for any press releases or news items he can find.
"This coming from the kid who used to try to trash-talk in Latin," Dean says, nose nearly buried in his coffee mug. Sam scoffs, and Dean shakes his head, eyes closed. "Don’t even, Virgil."
He sighs, and ignores the little smile Dean aims into his mug, and keeps looking. The dam, fracturing and leaking and falling apart, and infrastructure budgets drained down to the last pennies as always and no hope of fixing it. A failed public hearing and a petition with too-few signatures, and a town with too small a population to bother saving. Their food arrives and Sam shoves the laptop away.
"There’s your habitat loss-response," he says, and demolishes his potato pancakes as he explains.
When Sam's done Dean has finished his fish and stolen Sam's extra tartar sauce, and he licks the side of his thumb, thinking. "Time’s running out, for whatever’s doing this," he says. "But that means that whatever’s doing it knows. That definitely points to a more metaphysical cause than a monster. No mermaid has a psychic connection that strong, not even to her home waters."
Sam drums his fingers on the table. Ralph comes by and refills their mugs, and Sam adds a little tub of creamer to take down the bitterness of long-burnt percolated diner coffee, and watches out the window while he stirs. It’s close to five and the streets are a little busier, the few regular businesses closing up shop as the normal people here head to their homes and families. A youngish couple comes into the cafe and Ralph greets them like old friends, seats them right at the counter, and Sam imagines Andrea and her husband, moving through their life, raising their kid and sneaking off to dates, not knowing what was coming.
"There’s this, too," Dean says. Sam refocuses to find him digging into the coat draped over his side of the booth. He takes out the scroll of Lucas’s drawing and unfurls it over the table, spreading it flat between their two half-empty plates. "What does that look like to you?"
Sam frowns. "Kid’s drawing," he says, shrugging. "House, grass. 2D. Why?"
"This morning," Dean says, tapping the red roof. Sam frowns. "Behind the dock."
The dock. Sam squints at Dean, then at the drawing, and thinks—oh. "Oh, holy crap," he says, blinking.
"Yeah," Dean says. "Carlton house, right?"
"Yeah, it is," Sam says, spreading his hands over the drawing. It’s waxy under his hands, Lucas’s scrawling lines thick and the color laid on heavily. "You think he’s… drawing what he saw? Back then?"
Dean shakes his head. "I don’t know," he says, but slowly. He leans back into the booth, curling his coffee in close to his chest. "Maybe. But—didn’t the article say that Chris and Lucas were on the west shore? They wouldn’t have seen the Carlton house from that angle."
Sam closes his eyes, trying to imagine it. The shore, and the trees, and the way the lake curved and dipped in the forested valley. "So—" he says, and when he opens his eyes Dean’s watching him. "What, then? Lucas is trying to tell us… what? And how?"
He gets another headshake, and then Dean drains his coffee and puts the mug down. Ralph bustles over almost immediately, fills the mug back up to the brim, and Sam smiles thanks. Dean taps his finger on the drawing, the simple triangle roof and the little chimney. "There are cases," Dean says, slowly. "Traumatic experiences can awake latent talents in psychometry, telepathy, clairvoyance, clairsentience."
Sam stares at the picture. "And you think—Lucas? Really?"
"The organization keeps track of individual practitioners," Dean says, matter-of-fact. "But if it’s small-time enough, if other people aren’t affected and there’s no constructive interference in the psychic wave-field, then… I don’t know. But it’s possible."
Sam thinks of Maritza, back in Boston, desperate not to be categorized by the Letters. She and little Lucas don’t have much in common, and yet. Will Carlton, standing there, thinking about his little sister and his father, with the red-roofed house behind him in the distance. Even as a kid’s drawing, it’s unmistakable. "If it’s true," Sam says. "If Lucas is somehow getting some kind of psychic information after what happened, then what does the house have to do with it?"
"I don’t know," Dean says, again. He pushes his mostly-eaten fish off to the side and takes his coffee cup in both hands, again. "But if there is some kind of psionic ripple, then we know there must be spirit energy present in the area."
"Makes sense, with unnatural deaths," Sam says. "What do you think we should do?"
"Here’s the thing I don’t get," Sam says. Dean gives him a look, the implication clear, and Sam could push him over but it’s uneven footing the woods and he chooses, nobly, to ignore it. "Why these people?"
"What do you mean," Dean says, shoving a branch out of the way. There’s a moon out tonight but not much of one, and here under the trees there’s no light beyond the inadequate circles of their flashlights. Dean keeps almost falling over rocks and his mood isn’t great.
Sam ducks another branch. "Monsters, they’re just looking for easy food, right," he says, and then cuts himself off. Abruptly they’ve run into a fence—finally, the property line of one of the empty fishing cabins they passed on their earlier hike. It’s a low fence and he hops it easily, and holds Dean’s bag while he scrambles over, too. "Then there’s the territorial stuff, and the retribution stuff. Woman killed by an abusive husband, so her spirit turns into a ghost who hates abusive husbands. I get it." Dean makes a little affirmative hum, taking his bag back and leading the way down through the semi-cleared yard past the dark house. "But whatever this is, there just doesn’t seem to be a pattern."
"Well," Dean says, and as he does they push through the last of the encircling woods and come out onto the lake’s rocky shore, the water gleaming black in the inadequate moonlight. He looks back at Sam and pats the side of his bag. "That’s what we’re here to find out."
Sam pulls a pine needle out of his hair. "Nice timing."
Dean shakes his head, starts to get set up. Sam rubs his hands together, chafing them against the cold. Not quite freezing yet, but it’s close, their breath coming foggy and thick in the air, and it’s even colder in the open, by the water’s edge. The moon phase isn’t quite right: an almost-quarter slowly waxing, no real magical aid there at all. Dean says he can make it work, and Sam’s got no choice but to believe him. Maybe he’ll rely on one of those tattoos for help, who knows. Sam puts his hand over the nearly-healed one on his own chest, watching Dean mark out a square on the smooth pebbles of the shore.
They had to wait for hours for the right conditions to call up Sophie’s spirit. They went back to the motel, past the now-empty park, and then it was just working, drinking coffee from the tiny machine in the room and reading about the area. Only one laptop between them, so it was left to Sam to read up on the other drowning deaths in the lake. Some bodies had been recovered; some not. He found as much as he could on Chris Barr and Sophie Carlton, too, hoping to find any kind of connection, but there was nothing he could see—and why would there be, really. An eighteen year old swimmer and a thirty-one year old construction foreman, with nothing in common but where they died.
When Sam’s watch says it’s five minutes to midnight, Dean nods at Sam and he takes the ball of twine when it’s tossed at his chest, making a face at the sogginess. While he’d been reading, Dean had been prepping the reagents for his spell—and soaking the twine in salt water mixed with blood had been part of it. Still, he knows the drill: it’s easy enough to find nine largish stones, and he walks around the square Dean’s already marked out, ringing the ritual area with a binding circle, wrapping the twine around the stones at the prescribed points. A breeze drifts randomly across the water, icy at the back of Sam’s neck, and his hands are freezing under the wet twine. Hopefully the ritual will be quick and Sophie will give them something useful. If she’s even still lingering, here in the lake.
On his knees, Dean pulls out the silver bowl, the black oil, the dried petals of white anemone. His measurements are precise, practiced. Sam stands by his side, watches him grind the petals to grey-black. The water laps gently against the shore and it’s so quiet out here, the stone pestle loud against the bowl. When it’s done he murmurs over it, so low Sam can barely hear, but he knows the gist of the Greek: o lost, o unquiet, tell me the truth you have unwilling been shown. He doesn’t look up, but Sam holds out his hand anyway, and Dean takes it after only a moment of hesitation. They’d argued over this, but Sam held firm—Dean could use his own blood for the binding, but that meant it was Sam’s turn for the calling, and so Dean pulls out his silver ritual-knife and slices a neat line into Sam’s ring-finger, holding his wrist hard so he doesn’t flinch away, and lets the blood spill down into the bowl for five painful, throbbing seconds. Dean repeats the spell-line over the trickle of Sam’s blood, and Sam thinks of that scene, the one Jenn had written a ten-page essay about—from whose bourn no traveler returns—and then Dean unfolds off his knees and swirls the bowl of the oil and crushed flowers and blood and then starts to pour it out, a slow dribble from the center of the ritual space out to the edge of the square, and then out over the keystone in the circle Sam made, and then right up to the lake’s edge, the last drops splashing into the slow-lapping water.
Immediately a bloom of light spills under the lake’s surface, a shine like daylight purling backwards as the waves retreat. Dean crouches and fills the bowl to the rim with water and it gleams black in the moonlight, splashing up against the sides of the bowl but unable to spill over as Dean carries it back into the square and hovers, holding it right over the center. He looks up at the moon, his eyes a faint unreadable sheen in its light, and Sam checks his watch again and—okay, midnight—"Now," Sam whispers, and Dean drops the bowl, and takes a quick step back.
Light races down the black trail, pooling under the lake’s surface and diffusing out in a quick bright flash, bright enough that Sam hopes none of the neighbors were awake to notice. He wraps his bloody hand in the handkerchief Dean gave him and watches the light slowly gather and come back, crowding up against the shoreline and drawing closer, brighter, heading for the line Dean made on the rocks. It’s so odd—silvery-white, bluish from the lake, coalescing slowly until it surges back along the bloodline, the trail steaming under the light’s movement and letting off a smell of saltwater and rot. The light finally reaches the bowl, completes the loop, and the water in it starts to roll, like boiling. Dean sucks in a deep breath, meeting Sam’s eyes across the circle. Sam sets his feet more carefully, mirroring Dean on the opposite side, and then—oh, it worked, the light fills the bowl and the water rises up in a column, so much more than the bowl could contain, towering over even Sam. A glow in the center is held, trapped, like a light seen through too many layers of thick glass.
oh god Sam hears. His teeth hurt intensely for a second, the voice bypassing his ears to vibrate straight into his bones. He sucks in a breath and regrets it immediately, the stench cloying deep into the back of his throat. oh god it says again, where—where is he, where’s my boy, Lucas, Lucas!
Panic hits Sam in the gut but it’s—muted, somehow, and he shakes his head, trying to throw it off. They read about this, growing up, and he’s felt it a few times hunting: a spirit’s energy so strong that the emotions bleed into the living. He frowns, then, but Dean speaks up first.
"Lucas?" he says, and looks at Sam past the roiling column of light. With the spell active it’s brighter between them now than a bonfire. "Is this—are you Christopher Barr?"
A shape, almost, fledgling in the clear water and then dissolving in the constant roil of the column. it’s dark they hear, and across the circle Dean puts his hand over his nose and mouth, his eyes squeezing shut. where—I can’t see him, please, I can’t—
"Christopher," Sam says, and then falters. The panic, the fear, it’s pulsing in the air, and they expected that in a way but he didn’t expect—this. They’d been trying to call Sophie, as the more recent death, just wanted to know from her what she’d seen, if she’d perhaps been trying to communicate, and he doesn’t know what went wrong from Dean’s spellwork, but—well, this is what they have to deal with, now. "Chris," he says, instead, more gently. "Can you hear me?"
"Yeah, it is," Sam says. "But Lucas is safe. Lucas is okay." A wind surges up over the lake, freezing air sinking straight through Sam’s jeans and making his face ache with cold. "Can you hear me?"
there’s—there’s something here the voice says, and Dean looks up, then behind him at the lake, folding his arms over his chest. I can’t see, I can’t—we’re swimming, we’re swimming and he says Aquaman never had to wear a lifejacket and there’s, there’s something—
"There’s something in the water?" Sam says. Aquaman, christ. He bites the inside of his cheek, tries to keep his mental footing.
nothing in the water the voice says—Chris, the scattered remnants of him, says—but then immediately the boy, the boy, he was crying and he couldn’t—I put Lucas on—it grabbed me, nothing’s grabbing me and it’s freezing, I can’t see
"Lucas was crying?" Sam says. Dean’s watching the bowl at the base of the column, frowning.
The light flares and the haze of panic intensifies, fear setting Sam’s own pulse to pounding, and for the briefest moment—a band of furious, breath-stopping cold, wrapping tight around his wrist and then his ankle, so tight he gasps before it lets go and Chris is saying he’s just a little boy, he can’t— and Sam drags his coat sleeve up to see white finger-prints fading around his wrist. Small, like a little kid’s. On the other side of the circle Dean holds up his own wrist, nodding, while Chris pours terror into them, his moments of death and anguish scattered through the water.
"Chris," Sam says, and finds his voice gone thick and clogged. He scrubs his hand over his face, smearing sudden tears. "We promise, Lucas is safe, but was there another boy? A boy, in the water?"
there’s nothing I can—Andrea, I’m so—
The light dims and Sam glances up to see a cloud drifting in front of the moon. The gleam inside the column of water cracks and fades. Immediately the water falls, splashing down to crash and spill out of the bowl, spattering Sam’s legs and Dean’s and flowing out of the circle binding, sinking into the rocky beach. All at once the feeling fades, panic and desperation draining unnaturally away as the spell breaks, but Sam’s pulse still hammers in his throat for a few long seconds while he takes deep, grounding breaths. Andrea. All that anguish.
"You okay?" Dean says.
Sam wipes a hand over his face. "Yeah," he says, and sniffs. "Yeah, I’m fine."
Dean’s looking at him, he knows it, but now with the spell-light gone and the moon mostly hidden his expression isn’t anything Sam can see. Sam picks up the silver bowl, wet and cold and heavy. "Do you want to try calling Sophie?" he says.
A brief pause, and then Dean says, "No." He stoops—picking up the twine, breaking the ritual circle and recovering the bloody reagents. Never leave yourself behind, that’s what their dad always says. What he used to say. Dean unwraps the twine from the nine stones, winding it around his hand. "The ritual’s unstable without the half-moon and we probably wouldn’t get anything more coherent from her. Anyway, I think we got what we needed to know."
"A spirit," Sam says. "A ghost."
"Without a doubt," Dean says. He drops the twine into his bag and takes the bowl from Sam’s unresisting hands, then buckles the old case and hefts it. He looks out at the water, once again gone black and ordinary, and then claps Sam gently on the shoulder, squeezing the top of his arm for just a moment. "Come on, Sammy, let’s head back."
A quiet trek back through the woods to the trailhead where they parked, moving by low flashlights with barely a word spared between them. Sam can’t get the fear out of his head. Not a fear for his own life, but for his child. For his wife. He doesn’t know what spiritual revenge could merit eliciting that terror, that destruction. When they get back to the car Dean drops his bag in the backseat and takes the wheel, and Sam watches out the window as the silent, sleeping town unfolds around them.
Warm, in the motel. Sam kicks off his wet sneakers in front of the radiator, strips off his soggy socks and jeans, and sits in his boxers and t-shirt on the creaky mattress of the bed he claimed, his skin cold and clammy in the open air. Dean disappears into the bathroom to change, shy like he seems to be, now. Sam doesn’t know why—after the tattoos, it’s not like there’s anything he hasn’t seen.
With just the one lamp on the room’s full of shadows, but the radiator’s rumbling and he can hear Dean splashing in the sink. Life, movement. It’s dark. He knows the supernatural, knows the way it can reach up inside and wrench normality apart, but it’s still a shock, every time. He chafes his hands over his bare thighs, his calves. Almost one in the morning. Normally he wouldn’t drink coffee this late, but he doubts he’s going to sleep, anyway.
He’s got the little pot burbling, leaning up against the tiny kitchenette counter, when Dean finally comes out of the bathroom. He’s down to a white undershirt and a pair of Sam’s recently-purchased khakis, dragging just a little on the thin carpet. Sam shakes his head—he’s really got to convince Dean to buy more clothes—but before he can say anything Dean plops down onto the closer bed and folds his hands between his knees.
"A ghost, then," Dean says. He sounds tired. "Probably a little kid."
"Yeah," Sam says. There’s no mark left on his wrist, or Dean’s, but he remembers. An iron grip, but so small, straight from Christopher’s conjured-up memory. He drags his hands through his hair, trying to think. "I don’t remember any children from the list of deaths in the lake, do you?"
Dean shakes his head. "All that means is that it’s not on the record, though." His shoulders slump, his mouth tight.
Running into deaths like this—it’s one thing to read about in the Letters’ records, in monographs on juvenile pain producing restless spirits, and quite another to have it punched right under the breastbone. The coffee beeps and Sam pours it out into the last two paper cups they’ve got. Dean’s looking down at his bare feet and he startles when Sam holds out his cup, but then takes it in both hands. Sam sits down next to him on the bed, not quite touching but close enough that he can feel the heat of his body, and they take a sip in unison. Sam makes a face at the bitterness, but he can’t really expect much from a ten year old Mr. Coffee.
Dean’s running one thumb along the thin folded rim of the cup. "Taking his son out for a swim," he says, finally.
Aquaman, Sam thinks, again. "We’ll do some more research in the morning," he says. "There’s got to be something that connects all this together. We’ll squat in the sheriff’s office if we have to."
He gets a sidelong look for that, but he sees Dean’s lips twitch, anyway. He takes a gulp of the crappy coffee, appreciating the heat as it slides down to his gut. Sometimes he wishes he’d never learned how good coffee can be; it just created problems where there never was one before. They drank pots and pots of it, back in the bunker, going off of their dad’s recipe: stronger is always better. He smiles, briefly, thinking back. "Hey," he says, nudging Dean’s knee with his own. "Remember when Dad took us out, taught us to swim?"
Dean glances at him, clearly surprised. After a second, he says, "I’m amazed you remember that. What were you, four?"
"I was six, thank you very much," Sam says, nudging him a little harder. Dean wobbles, then nudges back, and Sam has to dart a hand under his cup to make sure he doesn’t spill. "At the reservoir in the next county over, and there was that weird green slime up against the shore."
"Pretty sure that’s called algae," Dean says, dry, but the corner of his mouth is turned up.
Just that one day, their dad teaching them the basics and even laughing, a little, not minding when they started to horse around in the shallow water. Dean had gotten it faster, of course, bigger and older as he was, but Sam remembers loving it. He wonders if Lucas will ever swim again, and he feels the smile drain off his face.
"Nice work, earlier, by the way," he says, after a moment of quiet. "I forgot about that ritual."
Dean shrugs, looking down into his coffee. "I always liked the Greek methods," he says, effacing as always. "How’s your hand?"
The mention makes the cut throb again and Sam checks the bandage they’d worked up before they got in the car—still holding, just a little blot of red. "It’s fine," he says. If they need to give it a stitch or two it can wait ‘til morning. For the binding Dean had cut himself high on the inside of the elbow, above the angel-banishing tattoo, and Sam takes his arm and twists it so he can see. He’d never get a real answer if he asked. It looks fine, though, already scabbed closed and the skin around it healthy-pink and new. "Guess that healing spell’s working out for you," he says, and gives Dean his arm back.
Dean shrugs again, pointlessly tugging his sleeve down to cover the edge of his luck tattoo where it had been peeking out. "It was enough work, it better," he says, and then hesitates, and takes another swallow of coffee.
Sam frowns. "What?"
"Nothing," Dean says, shaking his head. He glances at Sam and must read his expression right, because he licks his lips and takes a breath. "It’s just—I learned all this theory, all these spells and rituals and methodologies. All that studying. It’s kind of cool to see it actually pay off."
He looks embarrassed, almost. Sam smiles and claps him gently on the back. "See," he says. "Hunting’s not all bad, right?"
Dean snorts. "I could do without the hiking," he says, and Sam laughs.
Even with Dean’s insistence on early rising, they’re late getting started the next morning. Sam’s up first, his annoying internal clock pinging at him, and he blinks up at the shadowy ceiling for a while before he scrubs his eyes with the back of his wrists and swings off the mattress. Dean's completely buried in pillows in the other bed. He takes a slow, hot shower, careful of the cut on his finger. He’s surprised he slept at all, really, but it always catches up to him. His nearly-nightly dream of Jenn was odd, maybe because of all the caffeine and the weird night before it. Her, burning, as at the surface of a deep and dark lake, while Sam thrashed and kicked and tried futilely to reach her. He scrubs his hair back under the water, shakes his head and turns off the tap. Not hard to see the connection, there.
His jeans and shoes are dry and he dresses up warm, pushing his wet hair behind his ears. They need gas and he needs to stretch a little, see some sunlight and push the night out of his head. "Hey," he says, and Dean makes a muffled grunt into his nest. Sam thwacks the lump in the blankets roughly where he thinks a foot might be, and Dean groans but turns over enough to peer at Sam, irritable. "I know, it’s terrible. I’m heading out, but I’ll bring back coffee. You don’t get any unless you’re upright when I get back."
Dean stares at him, narrow-eyed. After a long moment he says, voice all gravel, "Who do you think is the big brother around here?"
Sam grins at him, and whacks his leg again, and grabs the keys and goes.
It’s colder this morning than it was yesterday. There are a few people out and about on the streets, a few trucks with more drivers who wave politely when Sam rumbles past them in the Impala. There's a co-op gas station just like Lebanon’s, on the outskirts of town, and Sam takes the long way back to the motel, checking things out now that he knows the lay of the land. He passes the little school and it must be recess, since kids are all over the attached playground, running around in their bright coats. He pauses at the stop sign and watches for a second, but Lucas isn’t there. No surprise, really. The parking lot at the cop shop is empty but for a slightly rusty sedan, and not much is happening on the main street. He parks again at the motel and walks down to the cafe, hands in his pockets, taking in the sunlight, and when he comes in Ralph smiles at him distractedly, but he’s deep in gossip with—oh. The guy from the motel.
"It’s just a shame," motel-guy says, shaking his head. He’s heavyset, about Ralph’s age. "Poor Bill. Soph, and now this?"
Ralph sighs, but motel-guy notices Sam standing rigid behind him and says, "Oh, Mr. Winchester! Sorry, Ralph, you got a customer," and he grabs his paper and coffee and gives Sam a weak smile as he sidles out, back to actually run his own office, and Ralph says, "Hello again, son, you can sit wherever you like," but Sam shakes his head, stepping up to the counter.
"Just getting coffee and some of those muffins," Sam says, tapping the glass case. Ralph nods and starts to bag them up and Sam drags over the other newspaper on the counter, but there’s nothing remarkable on the front page. "What was that you were talking about, if you don’t mind my asking? Was that Bill as in Bill Carlton?"
"Oh, do you know him?" Ralph says, setting the paper bag on the counter. He sighs, shaking his head. "Poor old Bill. We all went to school together. It’s just terrible what he’s going through."
The hair on the back of Sam’s neck rises and he pulls the two big cups Ralph pours close, but doesn’t take out his wallet. "Ralph," he says. "What else happened?"
It’s nearly eleven by the time Sam gets back to their room, with the coffee only lukewarm in the carrier Ralph gave him. Dean looks up from the laptop and says, "I was about to go looking for you," which would almost be a joke if Sam didn’t know him better—but then, looking at Sam’s face, immediately asks, "What’s the matter?"
Sam sets the carrier on the table and drops heavily into the other chair. "There’s been—Will Carlton is dead," he says, his stomach sour and twisted-up, and Dean blinks at him and sits up straight.
Ralph had told him the story, and then the motel manager—Carl, it turns out—had given him nearly the same version, when Sam went to pay for another day and asked careful questions. The police scrambling across town to the Carlton house, last night while Sam and Dean were holed up prepping the ritual, because Bill’s son had had a terrible accident.
"Drowned in the sink?" Dean says. He sinks back in his chair. He’s fully-dressed, in his grey suit with the red tie, and he loosens the knot a little, thinking. "But—how does a civilian even believe that?"
Sam shakes his head. "They’ll say he—had a seizure, or something, that he hit his head and passed out and it was just a terrible freak accident. Most people don’t jump to ghosts as the cause of death." He drags his hair out of his face, leaning hard on his elbows. "Gives us a bigger problem, though."
"The spirit can move," Dean says, slowly. "He can travel, in the water, one way or another. Any water that comes from the lake, at least in theory."
"Yeah," Sam says, "and more than that: it’s got some connection to Bill Carlton. Killed both his kids. That can’t be a coincidence, especially when it’s traveling through the pipes to do it."
Dean’s eyes narrow and drop to the laptop. "Hang on, I read something—" He clicks through a few things and then takes a deep breath. "I was looking up things about Chris Barr’s family, and then the Carlton family, just to see if there was any connection, and found this."
He turns the laptop around on the table and scooches it closer to Sam, careful of their coffee cups. A page from the newspaper, another obituary, but this one a decade old: Marie Carlton, 36. There’s a small, smiling picture, a woman still fit and healthy, happy and gone. A fall in the shower. An unfortunate accident, two children and a loving husband left behind.
"She drowned?" Sam says, looking up.
"It doesn’t say—maybe we could get a police report, from somewhere." Dean licks his lips, drumming his fingers on the side of his paper cup. "Maybe it’s not connected, but now that we know how the spirit can move, and now that Bill’s lost both his kids, it doesn’t seem like it."
"Yeah," Sam says. He tries to imagine. A woman with Marie’s face, standing in the shower and relaxing under the spray, and suddenly the water just—turning, going freezing cold and wrapping all around her like something corporeal, gagging and choking her so she couldn’t scream. Thinking of her kids, her husband, just like Chris. He rubs a hand over his mouth, that sick feeling from before doubling down. It doesn’t matter that there’s no way he could’ve stopped what happened, and that there’s no way they could have known about Will as it was happening. They know now, and stopping more people from dying is the only thing that matters.
"Sam," Dean says, and Sam drags his hand down his chin and lets it drop empty to the table. Dean pushes the laptop lid down between them. "Is there anything else we know about Bill Carlton?"
Sam folds his arms. "Actually, yeah," he says. "Carl, from the office here. I guess he went to high school with Bill. He told me that Chris Barr was Bill’s godson."
Dean takes a deep breath, and blows it out slow. "Okay," he mutters, under his breath. He taps his thumb on the table a few times, looking off out the open window, and then fishes out the pen in his inside jacket pocket and flips one of the printouts over to use the blank side, pushing the unopened bag of muffins out of the way. While Sam watches he makes a little list—Bill Carlton at the head, and then Marie, Chris, Sophie, Will, ticked neatly off with their dates of death beside them. He taps the pen on the paper. "Is there anyone we’re missing?"
Sam shakes his head, staring down at the list of the dead. "I don’t know. I don’t think so. The way it’s going, everyone that Bill Carlton could care about has died, and he might be next."
"Or it will just leave him to stew in his misery." Dean draws a box around Bill’s name, running the pen over and over the same lines so he’s surrounded by thick black. "Being the one left behind can be the absolute worst punishment."
Andrea’s smile flashes through Sam’s head. "Yeah," he says, and then shakes his head. "We don’t know, though. We still don’t have any idea what’s doing this to him. Maybe if we talked to him—"
Dean’s shaking his head, though. "What would we say?" he says. "We’re PhD students studying the watershed, and we think all of your misery is connected to changing habitats? He’s not going to talk to us."
"Should’ve gone with the FBI pretext," Sam says, and Dean just rolls his eyes at him. He’s still doodling on the edges of the list, black boxes and triangles and thick dark lines, just like he used to do on his notes when they used to study back at the bunker. He always had to write a clean copy, if they were going to get work reviewed by their dad or one of the adepts, but all of his drafts were a complete mess, bad drawings and spidery graphs and ink spattered all over. He starts to draw a spiral, looping around and back, blacker and blacker, and Sam blinks. "Lucas."
Dean looks up, frowns. "What about him?"
"He knows something," Sam says. "He’s connected, somehow. He drew the Carlton house, specifically, and he gave it to you. If it’s some kind of psychic connection, or if he saw something and this is the only way he can communicate—either way, we have to figure out what he knows."
There's a county phonebook, on the kitchenette counter, next to the restaurant menu for the café. Sam stands and grabs it, starts paging through for the Devins listing. Town this small, Sam’s pretty sure the sheriff isn’t hiding his address.
"Why would Andrea talk to us?" Dean says. "We’re in the same situation there as we are with Bill."
The listing found, Sam sticks his finger on it and looks up. "Dude," Sam says, but Dean looks genuinely lost and Sam swallows back his first, more sarcastic response. "The way you got him to respond, even if it was just to give you a drawing. That’s not nothing. Whatever you were saying to him, it must have worked. You just need to keep going."
Dean still doesn’t look convinced, but Sam’s not that worried. He scribbles the address down on the notepad by the phone and shoves the whole pad into his coat pocket. "Come on," Sam says, wheedling. "We can eat in the car. We already kind of have an invitation to the house."
"For dinner," Dean mutters, but he stands up, and grabs his coat off the back of his chair. Sam blows out a quick short breath, triumphant, and grabs the muffin bag before tossing Dean the keys. Whatever weird connection Dean has with the kid, he’s happy to exploit it—they need to stop this thing, before it decides to go after anyone else. No matter what the spirit went through, no other family should have to face that desperate fear, nor the wrench of loss that comes after.
The Devins house is on the lake, too, set back a little on the slope behind a broad stand of trees. The sheriff’s car isn’t there, probably because he’s dealing with the mess of Will’s death; there is a smallish blue truck, well cared for but getting on in years. Dean pulls in sedately a few feet back from the mailbox and turns off the car, and without the Impala’s rumble it’s very, very quiet.
"Do you think she’ll even let us in?" Dean says.
Sam rubs his hand over his mouth, looking up at the house. It’s nice, though he bets it’s nicer when the surrounding trees aren’t bare and dead. They finished their coffee and wolfed down the muffins on the drive; he wishes he’d thought to bring something to give a reason for her to let them in. Still— "She’s a nice woman," he says. "She’ll at least let us talk."
"I’m glad you’re confident," Dean says, half under his breath.
Sam rolls his eyes and gets out of the car, the creak of the doors loud in the still air. "Tie," he says, and Dean sighs and tugs it off over his head, tossing it into the backseat before they walk up the driveway. There are one or two chalk drawings out here on the concrete, worn away like they’ve been there a long time without being washed. A sailboat; a bicycle; another version of Bill Carlton’s house. He nudges Dean, pointing that one out, and then they’re at the door under the wide wooden awning. He rings the doorbell, and brushes down his coat and hoodie to make sure there aren’t any stray crumbs left over, and then the door opens and Andrea’s standing there, blinking at them in surprise before she smiles and invites them in.
The house is comfortable on the inside—lived in, a little cluttered, but homey and warm despite the circumstances. "I’m surprised to see you two so early," she says, bringing them into the living room, and Sam responds, "We’ve just hit a roadblock on our research, thought we might come to see a friendly face," but he’s looking around, looking for Lucas. Army men on the coffee table and a few more scattered pages of thick crayon art, but no kid, and she’s offering them coffee or tea, pleasant as can be, but he has to interrupt.
"Look, Andrea," he says. She blinks at him, derailed. He takes a deep breath. "I don’t want to impose on your hospitality, or mislead you at all. We’re actually here to talk to Lucas."
Andrea straightens up, taking a half-step back. "Lucas," she says, and glances at Dean. She folds her arms over her chest, slender fingers crumpling the loose sleeves of her sweater. "He doesn’t have a lot to say."
Sam shakes his head. "I know, it’s just—he’s the only one who might know what’s going on in the lake. The only witness to what might have happened."
He gets a frown for that and Andrea shakes her head, looking at the floor. "Nothing happened," she says. "Chris, the others. They just drowned. That’s all."
"It’s more than that," Dean says, quiet. His hands are buried in his coat pockets, his shoulders hunched, but he’s looking right at her, and keeps looking when her eyes lift off the carpet. "Something’s going on, with the lake. There’s something happening here. All we want to do is help."
She stares at him, her eyes wide and dark. "He won’t say anything," she finally says, but it’s weaker, and that means they’ve won.
Sam takes a step closer. "We just want to try, just for a few minutes," he says. She closes her eyes for a second, and nods.
Lucas’s room is upstairs, one of three doors in a neat little line. "Dad moved downstairs to the old den," she says, quietly, while they creak up the stairs. "It’s kind of like our little apartment up here, now."
She pushes at the nearer door, left ajar, and it swings open to reveal a little boy’s bedroom: car posters, a narrow bed with a blue blanket, toys piled in a bin in the far corner. Lucas sits on the floor, hair hanging in his face while he works on yet another picture, doggedly coloring in a dark blue scene. The lake, maybe. Andrea gestures for them to go in and then folds her sweater more tightly across her chest, still not wholly comfortable but trusting them, somehow. Dean blows out a long breath, and steps inside.
"Hi, Lucas," he says, quietly. Sam hangs back in the doorway, with Andrea. Dean steps carefully around a little regiment of army men, set up with their tiny guns pointed at the door, coming close to where Lucas has planted himself in the center of the room. "I wanted to thank you, for the drawing you gave me yesterday."
Lucas scribbles on, not acknowledging Dean at all, and Andrea shakes her head. Sam touches her shoulder, very lightly, and mouths two minutes when she looks at him. She sighs, but nods, her mouth a straight tight line.
Dean has gone down to one knee, and he touches one of the pictures in the cast-aside finished pile. Another bicycle, bright red and simple, and another under that. Sam can’t quite see Dean’s face from this angle, but he can catch enough of his profile to see that he’s watching Lucas. Dean’s never been around children, really, or at least none besides Sam when they were little. By rights he shouldn’t be able to make any headway at all with a mute traumatized kid—and yet, he’d managed to get the drawing, earlier, and so Sam nominated him to do the talking when they’d been planning out their play. If it doesn’t work, they have to hope Andrea doesn’t toss them out, because then they really will be at square one.
From his jacket pocket, Dean pulls out the folded picture of the Carlton house. "It’s great work," he says, spreading it open on top of the pile of bicycle pictures. "I knew what it was meant to be, right away. It helped us a lot." Dean leans his elbow on his knee, folding his hands loosely in front of him. "Did you mean to draw Will and Sophie’s house? Is there something you wanted us to see, before anything else happened?"
Lucas grabs another crayon, this one black, and starts making his lake picture darker, and doesn’t speak. Dean settles back on his heel, watching, and for a good five seconds he doesn’t say a thing. Sam shifts his weight, folding his arms over his chest. Maybe it really will all be for nothing.
"It’s scary, I know," Dean says, softly enough that Sam can barely hear him under the hum of the central heating. "The bad dreams, and not being able to say anything about them, because you just can’t figure out how to explain. I remember what that was like. When I was your age I saw something really scary, too."
Sam frowns, and from the corner of his eye he knows Andrea’s looking at him. Dean’s hands squeeze tighter together and he drags his thumb along the side of his palm, but his voice is steady.
"Something happened to my mom," he says, quiet, and under Sam’s heart something turns over. "I saw it happen. I didn’t want to talk for a while, either. For a long time. She used to talk to me every night before I went to sleep, though, and she used to tell me about all the things she wanted for me, all the things I could be. Most of all, she wanted me to be brave. I finally had to try, for her. It’s hard. Sometimes it’s really hard, but I do everything I can to be brave, like she wanted me to be."
He ducks his head, quiet for a second, and Sam has to take a deep silent breath, heat rimming his eyes. Beside him, Andrea’s fingers are covering her lips, and Lucas is still silently coloring.
"I know it’s scary," Dean says. He puts one hand down, fingers just touching the red roof on the drawing of the house. "But maybe, if you think about your dad, and what he might want for you. Maybe he wants you to be brave, too."
The endlessly scribbling crayon pauses. Andrea sucks in an audible breath. Lucas looks up, right at Dean, making eye contact. His expression is still blank but his eyes are focused and it’s amazing, the difference it makes. He blinks once, and then again, and then shuffles through the pile of his drawings, pushing aside bikes and lakes and deep worrying black swirls until he finds a slightly bigger one, dragging it out of the mess and holding it out for Dean to take, making eye contact again.
Dean takes it with both hands, like it’s something precious. "Thank you," he says, looking right back into Lucas’s face—and Lucas’s lips firm for a second, almost like he might say something, before he goes back to his picture, picking up the black crayon and continuing to cover the blue lake with darkness. Dean watches him for another second and then stands up, stepping carefully again around the army men with his eyes pinned to the floor.
"I can’t believe it," Andrea says, almost a whisper.
Dean’s not looking up. Sam swallows, hard, and then has to clear his throat anyway. He touches Andrea’s elbow, and she drags her eyes away from where Lucas sits coloring, shakes her head. She takes a few steps back, into the hall, but she doesn’t lead the way down the stairs again.
"What did he give you?" she says.
Dean holds out the picture. The red bike, again—but another house, yellow this time, a white church big in the background. There’s a little boy standing next to the bike, a smile wide on his crayoned face, and Sam’s stomach twists. Andrea squints at it, but shakes her head. "I don’t get it," she says. "How is this supposed to help? What does this have to do with—with animal attacks, or the ecosystem, or whatever you’re studying?"
"I don’t know," Sam says, and the honesty must shine through because Andrea looks at him, bewildered but not upset. "We just don’t want the situation to get worse. Maybe, somehow, Lucas saw something, and maybe this is part of it."
"A kid on a bike," Andrea says, almost skeptical but for the way her eyes keep skipping back to watch Lucas, through the open doorway.
"Bikes and the lake," Sam says. He wonders how many identical drawings are scattered all over this house. Dark water and houses with who knows what kind of secrets. Andrea shakes her head, but doesn’t say anything, and he wonders if she’s thinking the same thing. "Do you want us to let you know, if we find anything?"
"My dad will want to know," she says. She puts her hand to her head, curled knuckles dragging hard along her forehead before she sighs. "I just want my son to be okay."
"He will be," Dean says. He bites his lip, like he didn’t mean to say it, and rolls the picture into another scroll, eyes on his hands. Andrea watches him, expression almost hungry. "It might take a while, but it’ll come. It just takes time."
It doesn’t sound as much like a platitude, from Dean’s mouth. Andrea folds her lips between her teeth, and after a minute she nods, and looks back at Lucas. Between the little soldiers and the stacks of crayon art around him, he’s hemmed in on all sides.
They let themselves out of the house, and out into the thin sunlight of midday. A few clouds gather over the forested hills around the lake, but it’s a clear day, probably about as warm as it’ll get for the next few months. Dean hands over the furled picture and heads for the driver’s side and Sam follows, quietly, mind back in that dim little bedroom.
Fire, when he closes his eyes. Her empty hands, the blood on her belly. That shock and terror that lands hard in his gut, every time he wakes up. The way she’s just—gone. Less than a month and he can walk around, he can be normal, but every day is hard. The Impala rumbles to life under Dean’s hands and he pulls away from the curb, rolling smoothly down the empty lake road, and Sam watches him for a few seconds and then has to turn away, staring out the window, because somehow he’d just never—thought about this. Not really. When he was a kid it was always the bunker, the obligation, the long trapped years and the way their dad expected obedience without question, and Dean had seemed… awkward, nerdy. Sad, really, in ways Sam alternately pitied and wanted fiercely to fix. He’d laid the blame for it entirely at their dad’s feet, and he’d never had a reason to change his mind.
They pull into town. Dean seems to be pointing them back toward the motel, though they didn’t discuss it. Sam watches a woman walking down the sidewalk with her toddler tugging at her hand and babbling something that’s making her smile, and all he can think of is Lucas, silent, and now—Dean. Sam had been a baby when they moved into the bunker and he doesn’t really know anything about that time. There aren’t any stories, like the ones Jenn’s parents would tell from when their kids were growing up. They have a few pictures, from when they were little, so Sam knows what Dean looked like back then. Tiny, big-eyed, blond-haired, sitting solemnly for the camera with Sam a miniature bundle clutched in Dean’s lap, the two of them so little in one of the big leather armchairs in the bunker. I didn’t want to talk, Dean said, and it’s all too easy to imagine. Robbed of everything familiar, dropped suddenly into a darker world. Something scary. Like it was as simple as that. He presses the back of his hand to his mouth, closes his eyes. It’s not fair. It’s just—not remotely, remotely fair.
They pull to a stop, in front of their room. Dean turns off the engine and sighs. "We need more coffee."
Sam presses his knuckles tight against his teeth for a second, then drags his hand through his hair and opens his eyes. "We need a drink," he says, and Dean gives him a startled look across the seat. Sam amends, "Okay, both," but neither of them move to get out of the car.
There are only two other cars in the lot and no signs of life in the other rooms. They could eat something substantial, but the muffins from earlier are sitting like lead in the pit of Sam’s belly. There’s got to be a bar, somewhere in town, although maybe they’d get some looks if they showed up at one o’clock in the afternoon.
Dean picks up the drawing, unrolling it again and spreading it out over the steering wheel. "You think this is the spirit?"
There aren’t really details, of course. Just that smile, the mysterious red bike that crops up in so many of the pictures. "Probably," Sam says, and searches the picture. Yellow house, church. "We should check it out, either way. He gave it to you for a reason." Dean nods, clearly thinking, and Sam says, "Dean."
Dean looks at him. He seems tired, but they’ve both been tired for a month and that’s nothing new. There are so many questions Sam could ask, but the way to say them—how to get them out without hurting both of them, dredging up things they’ve left so long unsaid—it’s not coming to him. He drops his eyes to the drawing. "What did you say," he finally says, "to get Lucas to communicate, that first time?"
It’s chickening out, sort of. He actually does want to know, especially now. Dean raises his eyebrows. "I drew him a picture," he says, and smiles a little. "Impressed him with beautiful art of my annoying baby brother."
Sam rolls his eyes and shoves Dean’s elbow, grabbing the picture when Dean moves to fend him off. His brother thinks he’s funny. In a lot of ways, Sam thinks, shoving out of the car, that’s the saddest thing about him.
The phonebook in their room provides a list of churches in the county; they take down the addresses and move slowly through each one with their map as a guide. They eat in the car, sandwiches wrapped up from the ever-friendly Ralph, and with a Stones tape from the glovebox on low it’s not that bad a drive.
They find the subject of Lucas’s picture at the fourth address on their list. Sam puts the car in park and they get out into the chilly breeze, Dean holding up the paper so they both can see. St. Ambrose Catholic Church quiet in the background and just across the street the little yellow house, battered and less cheerful than in the simple colorful drawing, but still being cared for. The fence needs repainting and there’s no bright red bike leaned up against the gate. Sam wonder how long it’s been.
"What’s the pretext here?" Dean says, under his breath, and Sam shakes his head. The watershed isn’t going to work, for this one. He holds out his hand for the picture and squares his shoulders, taking a deep breath. There’s an echo here, of hunts in the past. He’s pretty sure of what they’ll find.
The doorbell gongs lowly, somewhere deep in the house, when he presses the buzzer; it’s less than two minutes before the door creaks open, and an old lady blinks at them behind her old-fashioned mesh screen door. "Hello there," she says, voice thin, and yeah. Sam knows how this is going to go.
"Hello, ma’am," he says. It’s not hard to make it gentle. "This might seem a little strange, but we found this drawing and we were wondering—is this your house?"
She opens up the screen door, easy as that, and reaches out a blue-veined hand for the picture. He hands it over, holding the door for her so it doesn’t swing closed on the spring, and watches her frown down at the paper. She puts her hand to her mouth, after a moment, and he bites the inside of his cheek. "Why, what a thing," she says, soft, and blinks up at Sam in amazement.
They’re brought inside. She gestures at the seats in her dim, frowsy parlor, but her eyes are locked onto the drawing and neither of them sit, hovering awkwardly while she stares down at it. "What a thing," she says again, and places the picture carefully on the sideboard next to the crystal bowl of dusty cellophane-wrapped candies, spreading her hands out over it like she can hold the image in them.
"We recognized the house," Sam says. Unnecessarily, maybe. She’s seems like she’s barely paying them attention and he exchanges a glance with Dean. "Ma’am, do you know that little boy?"
She nods, jerkily. "That’s—that’s Peter," she says, softly. "That’s my boy."
Pieces lock into place, immediately, and Sam swallows hard. He puts a careful hand on her shoulder and she blinks at him again with swimming eyes, but she takes a seat on the flowery sofa, the picture still gripped hard in her hand, and tells a story.
Her son. A sweet boy, quiet, but he sure could get up to trouble with those little friends of his. In 1970 he was twelve years old, tiptoeing his way toward being independent, but he knew he had to come straight home after school. Straight home, to do his homework, and then he could explore anywhere he wanted on that bike of his, as long as he was home again by the time the streetlights started to come on. That day, she’d made a cobbler with the last of the summer blackberries as an after-school surprise and she’d been waiting for him to get home, but he never came. She’d had a lashing planned, but the hours dragged on and he still never came, and then the streetlights came on, and he never came, and then she worried. She called around to Jolene Robertson, and Connie Barr, and Roberta, and Millie, but no one had seen him. Peter’s father came home and she sent him right back out to drive the streets, calling out the window, and with her heart a thumping strange weight in her chest she finally dialed the police and told them that she didn’t know where her boy was, and could anyone come and help, please. She was sure he was just lost, but what if he were hurt, she thought. What if he’d fallen down on that damned bike of his and broken his leg, and he was stuck on some lonely dirt lane with no one to help him.
"We never found him," she says. No tears are falling but she’s holding a tissue crumpled up, close to her mouth. "He—just disappeared. Like a hole opened up and swallowed him."
Dean’s sitting on the armchair across from them, his elbows leaned hard onto his knees while he stares down at the carpet. Sam says, "I’m so sorry," and he means it but it hardly matters. He lays a hand flat on her hunched back and she doesn’t acknowledge it, her eyes locked on the drawing but her mind clearly drawn back to thirty-five years ago.
"I kept his room," she says, finally, voice distant, and wobbles up to her feet, going slowly to the stairs.
Sam follows, Dean behind him, as she makes it to the top and opens the first door off the landing, and—it’s clean. The carpet vacuumed, the bed made. There’s not even the mustiness of a place long-uninhabited and the idea of her coming in once a week to air everything out, clean up the dust, clenches like a fist in Sam’s belly. Old magazine pictures are tacked up and yellowing on the walls; race cars and a baseball mitt, books and now-vintage comics stacked neatly by the bed. A small battalion of little plastic army men stand proud on the dresser and Dean touches one, gently, while the old lady stares at or through the narrow bed, her hand on her cheek.
The dresser’s cluttered, around the army. More comics, more pages of what looks like old homework. Pictures, tucked into the dim mirror: school gatherings, a group of boy scouts, and then, at last, a little boy in a baseball cap, grinning proudly out over the top of his bike’s handlebars, another kid standing nearby and smiling, too. Sam plucks the picture out of the mirror, flips it over for both him and Dean to read: Peter Sweeney and Billy Carlton, 1970. Bill.
Sam flips the picture back over while Dean takes an audible deep breath beside him, and studies the faces of both boys. Something happened. Instinct, deep below his gut, tells him that Bill knows what it was.
"I wish I’d died," Mrs. Sweeney says, distantly. Sam looks up and finds her eyes on the picture he’s holding, her expression still with old grief. She sits on the bed, with a creak of ancient springs, and sighs. "It would have been easier."
Dean’s driving the speed limit but he’s rigid in his seat, his face grim as he pilots them back around the lake. "Bill Carlton," he says, shaking his head.
Sam drags a hand over his face. "Yeah." They’d left the drawing with Mrs. Sweeney, because they didn’t really need it anymore but also because Sam couldn’t imagine trying to take it out of her pale, crabbed hand. All those years of waiting grief. He wonders what happened to her husband. "If Peter’s the spirit—"
"Is there any doubt?" Dean cuts in, glancing over the seat.
Sam shrugs. "Assuming he is," he says. "Then what happened, back in 1970? Did Bill know what happened? Did he hide it, and Peter’s trying to punish him for that?"
Dean shakes his head, but he says, "Maybe." They turn onto the lakeside road, cutting through the stands of tall trees to the south side of the lake, where poor Will had pointed out the red house. There’s a grim, almost angry cast to Dean’s mouth. "All this dying, and for what."
That’s always the question, and there’s never any real answer. Sam drags his hands through his hair and tries to think of how they’ll even frame this, to Bill. He wishes they’d spoken to him earlier, before Will’s death. Two children gone in the space of two weeks, his wife gone long before, and he can hardly imagine the wreck they’ll find waiting in a suddenly-empty house. Or maybe— "Do you think Peter will go after Bill?"
"Saving him for last?" Dean blows out a short sharp breath, makes another turn, and there’s the house at last, the red roof peeking through the trees. They pull up onto the dirt driveway and Dean kills the engine, and then shakes his head again. "It’d make sense. And what, do we save him?"
Sam blinks, but Dean’s already shoving open his door with a squeal of hinges, getting out, and Sam’s got no choice but to follow. "Dean," he says, frowning, but Dean’s already marching up to the house’s door, knocking solidly on the wooden frame.
No answer. The gauzy curtain inside the windows doesn’t show any movement, but there’s a truck with a bed full of fishing gear still sitting in front of the cabin. Dean backs up, frowning up at the house, and Sam jerks his head—they split up, Sam going left and Dean going right, both of them circling the building. There’s a weird sound, off in the distance, like power tools. Sam’s looking for an open window, another door, any indication that Bill’s home (and not dead—god, taking a shower or just in the sink like his poor kid)—but there’s a muffled thump on the other side of the yard, and then Dean calls out, "Sam!"
He runs around the house to Dean’s voice, and Dean’s standing at the foot of the dock, his mouth open, because there’s a boat speeding out into the center of the lake. An older guy, thickset, greying hair, and turning up the little motor on his boat. That’s the hum Sam heard. "Bill!" he shouts, running down the dock. "Bill Carlton! Come back!"
He’s bellowing, as loud as he can, but either Bill can’t hear him over the boat’s motor or he chooses not to. Dean runs up behind him, his heels striking loud on the wood of the dock, and he grabs Sam’s arm, yanking him hard so that he’s forced back another step from the edge, farther from the water. Sam lets him, but he shouts again for Bill, and again, because—they were going to save him—and then the hum of the motor cuts out, a little cloud of smoke sputtering up from the boat not all that far in the distance. Bill looks over the edge of the boat, into the lake, and just like that the boat splits clean in half. "God," Dean mutters, next to him, and Sam doesn’t even have time to shout again before Bill sinks straight down through the two halves of the boat and disappears without even a splash. The boat pieces bob pointlessly for a few seconds and then start to sink, and Sam starts forward ready to dive in before Dean grabs him again, his fingers digging in bruisingly hard to Sam’s arm.
"Sammy, no," he says, pulling Sam bodily back. Sam’s off balance and he stumbles, and they almost go down to the bare wood of the dock. Dean staggers but bears both of their weight for a second, and when he speaks again it’s right over Sam’s shoulder, sharp and loud. "Don’t you dare. He’s gone."
"We don’t know that!" Sam says, fighting to find his feet, but—it’s pointless, of course. There’s not even a ripple in the lake, the white fiberglass disappeared into the black of the freezing water, and Sam stares at where Bill Carlton was for a long awful moment before he yells out fuck at the lake, and then grinds his fist tight into his forehead.
"Sam," Dean says. Sam yanks his arm out of Dean’s grip, and Dean lets him, that time. They stand there and Sam’s got his eyes screwed shut, his knuckle pushed in so tight against his skull that it hurts. After a long moment, Dean touches his shoulder, almost hesitant. "There was nothing we could do."
Sam takes a deep breath and drops his hand, and looks out at the still, waiting lake. How pointless. "We’ve got to call the cops," he says, finally, and turns on his heel, heading back to land. It takes a few seconds before Dean follows.
The sheriff’s cars show up quickly. Devins takes charge of the scene, directing Roger and a younger deputy they hadn’t met to cordon off the house and start looking at evidence. Sam doesn’t know why; there isn’t any. Not any that would go into a police report, at least. Sam and Dean sit on a stack of corded firewood by the side of the house and wait. Dean’s knee keeps jogging, nervously, but there’s nothing to be worried about. They have no connection to the town, and it’s unlikely that they’ll even be booked. Their names won’t go onto any kind of real record and there’s no way the Letters will even notice. It’s just going to be a long, wasted night ahead. If Sam felt up to it, he’d explain: welcome to hunting.
Finally, Devins comes up to them. He’s pale, his manner sharp and abrupt. "I’m going to need you two to come down to the station," he says, almost threatening.
Sam nods, doesn’t stand up. Devins has his hand resting on his service weapon and looks like he wants them to pick a fight. "Of course, Sheriff," he says, calm. He gets a narrowed eye before Devins whips around and marches back to the house, going in the open door and saying something they can’t hear to Roger.
"What’s that about?" Dean murmurs. Sam shrugs and unfolds off their makeshift seat. It doesn’t matter, at this point. They’ll be out of here soon enough.
They drive back around the lake, into town, to the sheriff’s station. The day’s dimming, winter stealing the light from the sky earlier and earlier. They wait with a nervous, fidgety Deb in the same plastic chairs. Sam wishes, again, for a real drink, but all Deb has to offer them is shitty police coffee.
Devins comes in with a swirl of cold air, smelling like cigarettes, a cloud over his face. "Come on," he says, jerking his head at the two of them, and completely ignores Deb as he goes into his office, the door slamming into the wall with a rattle of blinds. Dean’s gone completely blank-faced, expression smooth as snow, and Sam takes a deep breath before he follows Devins in. Lying to authority is second-nature, but right this second he doesn’t really feel up to it.
They get a wave of a hand at the two seats in front of his desk and they take them. Devins shucks his big coat and slings it over the tree in the corner, drags his hand over his face, and then drops heavily into the swivel chair behind his desk. "I need to ask you two some questions," he says, but there’s none of that same almost-angry energy running through him. He just sounds tired.
They go through the motions. Their names, what they’re doing here. Sam repeats the lie about the watershed, about looking for an environmental cause to the disappearances. They were scouting along the lakeside, searching for clues as to the behavior of local fauna, when they saw the fisherman go out onto the lake. His boat must have capsized. There must have been a malfunction with the motor. He went over the side and he didn’t come up again. Perhaps a stroke. Perhaps a heart attack. Too far out, by the time they got to shore, to the end of the dock, and he’d been down too long, and there was just nothing they could do.
Devins isn’t even pretending to take notes by the time Sam finishes. He sits with his hand covering his mouth, staring down at the desk. "Goddamn," he mutters, finally, and then leans over and hauls open his desk drawer, producing a bottle of Jameson. He pours a healthy glug into his coffee mug and slings it back in two swallows, face twisting at the taste. He looks down into the empty mug, when he’s finished, and sighs. "Too bad you kids aren’t too quick off the jump," he says, bitter.
Sam bites the inside of his cheek. He’ll take accusations of ineptitude, of cowardice. Whatever works. "We’re just real sorry about the whole thing," he says. He means it, which puts maybe the right amount of regret into his voice.
Devins looks up from the mug and squints at him, his face hard, but then there’s a perfunctory knock and the door to the inner office swings open, and Andrea’s standing there. "Dad?" she says, and hardly gives the two of them a look. "Dad, Deb called. Is it true, about Bill?"
He gets to his feet. "Yeah, honey," he says, with a sigh, and she’s around the desk and hugging him, just like that. His arms go around her shoulders, squeeze tight, and he gives both them a look and jerks his head at the door. Sam was just waiting for the excuse and gets to his feet immediately, Dean following, as they escape out into the lobby.
Roger’s not back, nor the younger deputy. Deb’s on the phone and gives them just a quick glance before she curves her shoulders and huddles down into her call. From the snatches of her side of the conversation she must be spreading the word about Bill Carlton. Not exactly an airtight ship, this sheriff’s office.
Lucas is sitting in one of the lobby chairs, arms wrapped around himself and rocking back and forth. Deb’s paying him no attention and Andrea’s still inside, but the kid’s clearly distressed, more animated than Sam’s ever seen him. "Lucas?" Dean says, going down to one knee, but Lucas doesn’t look at him, just shaking his head as he teeters on the chair. Dean puts a careful hand on his shoulder, looks up to Sam.
Andrea comes out of the office, then, her eyes rimmed wet. She frowns and heads right for Lucas, crouching down next to Dean. "Baby, what’s wrong?" she says, but Lucas only shakes his head again and lets out a low whine—the first sound Sam’s heard him make, and it’s not pretty. Dean stands up to give Andrea more room, but before he can move away Lucas darts a little hand out and fists it into the heavy weight of Dean’s peacoat, tugging to keep him close.
"Winchester," Sam hears, and turns around to see Devins standing in the doorway. He looks tired, but maybe a little more settled after talking to his daughter. "You two are free to go. Just leave a number with Deb in case I need to contact you again for more details."
Lucas is quiet and Sam’s blocking his view of the chairs, so maybe he doesn’t notice the little tableau in the lobby; he goes back into his office regardless, closing the door quietly behind himself.
"Honey," Andrea’s saying, quietly, "what’s the matter, can you let me know, please? What’s wrong?"
Lucas is silent, of course, but he keeps his hold on Dean’s coat. Sam scribbles down a fake number for Deb, who finally disengages from her call while he’s falsifying info for her. "Andrea, you need a hand?" she says, ignoring the form Sam pushes toward her.
"We can help," Dean says, unexpectedly. He touches Lucas’s shoulder, looking down at the top of his head. "It’s no trouble, if you need it."
Sam frowns. They were going to get out of here. Andrea looks up at Dean, though, and after a few seconds she nods. "Yeah," she says, and smooths Lucas’s hair back from his face to see the tracks of tears on his cheeks. "If you—if you could, yes."
Deb plants her hands on her hips, looks like she might object, but Andrea stands up smoothly and says, "Tell my dad to take his time, okay?" She smiles, but it’s strained. "I know there’s a lot for him to do here, but we’re going home, we’ll be fine."
"We can follow you in our car," Dean says, and of course it’s aimed at her but he’s looking at Lucas. "We’ll be right behind you."
She nods and picks Lucas up, not straining under his weight although she’s so slender she looks like she could break in half. Lucas keeps hold of Dean’s coat as long as he can, face distressed, before he turns it into his mother’s shoulder. They follow the two of them out to the parking lot and she loads Lucas into her truck, and Dean leads the way to the Impala and gets it turned on before Sam gets the privacy to object, and by then they’re already backed up, waiting to follow Andrea.
"What the hell, man," Sam says.
Dean flicks a look over the seat, but then Andrea’s driving and he rolls forward to follow her, eyes on her taillights. "We’re helping," Dean says, like that’s the end of it.
Sam rolls his eyes. "I can see that," he says, "but why? The case is over. It’s done." Not that they did much good, in the end. A waste, from start to finish.
Dean shakes his head, though, his brow furrowed. "I don’t know," he says. They make the turn onto the lake road and he has to turn the headlights on, twilight very dark under the surrounding trees. "Something’s up with Lucas."
"Yeah, he’s a kid and his mom’s upset and he’s freaking out," Sam says, slumping back into the bench seat. "Sad, but it’s not our problem, not anymore."
He gets a frown, that time. "He’s really scared," Dean says, his eyes back on the road, his voice quiet. "If his behavior was because of psychic interference from Peter, and if Peter’s done with his revenge on Bill, then why is Lucas still upset?"
They pull up to the Devins house, behind Andrea’s truck. Dean turns off the engine and gets out, right away, heading up the driveway to where Andrea’s shadowed form is already pulling Lucas out of the cab. Sam sits for a minute, letting his head drop back against the seat. He doesn’t want to do this. He doesn’t want to make nice with a civilian, follow up, make sure their tracks are covered. Not now. There’s a blaze of light, from the house, the front door open and the porch light on, and when he turns his head Andrea’s ushering Lucas inside, head bent down to his level, and Dean’s right behind them. He turns, looks back at where Sam’s stalling, and Sam sighs and shoves open his door. He’ll back Dean’s play—it’s the least he can do, really, after dragging him up here for nothing—but then they’re gone. Back to the search for their dad, where at least they might be able to make a difference.
Andrea had been halfway through a simple dinner when she got the call from Deb; Dean takes over finishing it while she takes Lucas upstairs and tries to calm him down. Sam takes a stool at the kitchen counter and flips through their dad’s journal. If he’s stuck here, he might as well try to use the time.
He’s distracted, though. He keeps reading the same paragraph over and over, some hunt from ten years ago described in a code he’s only slowly learning to decipher, but he’s not taking anything in. He scrapes a hand through his hair and leans his elbows hard on the counter, watching Dean instead. The pasta had to be scraped out of the pot and dumped and a new batch is waiting to be started; Dean’s taken off his coat and rolled up his sleeves, and he’s chopping bell peppers with a small frown of concentration. The tattoos on his left arm keep peeking in and out of view and Sam finds himself staring at the angel-banishing sigil, mind miles away.
"When I was in Oregon," Sam starts. Dean’s head jerks up and he blinks, the knife motionless on the cutting board. Sam cuts his eyes away, folding his arms on the counter. "There was this string of deaths, in Linn County. No real pattern to the victims, age or gender or anything, just that they were correlated with the moon phases."
He can tell Dean’s staring at him. "A werewolf."
Sam shrugs. "I checked into it." He’d actually been tracking the pattern long-distance, from their ancient computer in the bunker—reading up on places he might want to go when he finally got out and he found a hunt, instead. He’d been excited, then. "It was a male, a loner. I tracked him down and followed him until he shifted. Caught him in a park before he could take out another jogger." He glances up and Dean’s bracing himself on the counter, looking sort of nauseated. "I got it in the heart on the third shot," he says. He smiles, though it’s thin. "All that practice down in the shooting range paid off."
There’s a pause, and Dean takes a visibly deep breath, his shoulders rising, before he starts chopping up the peppers again. "Guess so."
Sam watches the steady rocking of the knife. "I dragged the corpse to the bed of the truck I was driving, took it out to the dump and burned it, took care of everything." No evidence, nothing left behind. He’d been reading reports from hunters since he could pull records off the shelves with his own hands; he knew the process. The body had stunk to high heaven, the smoke column leaping high above the dump, but it was nothing but ash when he was done and he stashed the remains inside a folded tarp, deep where no one would find it. "I stayed in the town another couple of days. Nobody put out a missing report for the wolf—I guess he didn’t have any friends—but no one else went missing, either. The moon started to wane and everyone was safe. It felt like—" He shakes his head, chewing on the inside of his lip.
Dean starts the water boiling for the pasta and dumps peppers, onions, sliced-thin garlic into a pan to sauté. The kitchen’s homey, bright under the big central light even though the rest of the house is nearly dark. There’s no sound filtering in from upstairs and Sam wonders if Andrea managed to soothe Lucas to sleep. Dean pulls a wooden spoon out of the old-fashioned jar on the counter and stirs the vegetables around in the pan, his back to Sam. "Sounds like you helped," he says, after a too-long pause. "That’s good, right?"
"Yeah." He runs his tongue over the spot he’d been chewing. It’ll get a sore, if he keeps it up. He sighs, and closes the journal, his hand flat on the leather cover. "That’s all I wanted to do, here. We couldn’t even save Bill."
There’s another pause. Dean dumps a few handfuls of spaghetti into the water and a surge of steam roils up. He tosses in a palmful of salt, drizzles in a bit of olive oil, and then turns around, bracing his hands behind him on the counter next to the stove. He’s got a knot between his eyebrows but it looks more like he’s just thinking, not like he’s upset.
"You know how many hunting files I’ve read?" he says, eyes steady on Sam. "Maybe—eight thousand? Ten? I don’t actually know, they start to blur." He folds his arms over his chest, leaning back against the counter. "Two-thirds of those, the hunters couldn’t save everybody. In half, more civilians died before the perpetrator was even identified. At least a quarter, nobody was saved. They were just—identified." He shrugs, with a humorless quirk to his mouth. "Sometimes we’re all just beholders."
Sam looks away. There’s a sourness in his belly, grim and ugly. He’s always hated that word.
"Sammy," Dean says. "So, we didn’t save Bill. Maybe that’s on us. There’s still something we might be able to do for Lucas."
"What," Sam says, flat, but then there’s the sound of feet on the stairs. Dean rolls down his sleeves, quickly, and Sam ties the cord back around the journal, and by the time Andrea comes into the kitchen Dean’s back to sautéing the vegetables, steam rising up over the stove.
"Everything all right?" Sam says, polite.
Andrea looks between them both. She looks tired. "Sort of," she says. To Dean’s back, she says, "You didn’t have to cook, I could’ve just heated up something from the freezer."
Dean shrugs, eyes on the sauce he’s putting together. "You did invite us to dinner," he says, quietly.
Sam raises his eyebrows, but Andrea huffs out a little laugh. "Usually the host’s supposed to do the cooking, I think," she says, but then follows right up with: "Thanks. For helping."
She’s a nice woman, and she’s been dealt a terrible hand. Her arms are folded protectively over her stomach again, slender wrists frail and white where they’re peeking out of her sweater, and Sam sighs. "It’s no trouble," he says. Dean glances at him, over his shoulder, and then looks back down into the pan. Sam offers Andrea a smile. "You look like you could use a glass of wine."
She blinks at him. "I don’t know about wine," she says, smiling, "but we could all use a beer."
Andrea takes a portion of the pepper pasta upstairs to Lucas. Sam and Dean eat quietly at the dining table, just off the living room, the big windows dark and full of night. From inside the house it’s impossible to see the lake past the trees, but it’s like a stone pulling at the edge of Sam’s thoughts, a weight he can’t shake. He drinks the lager Andrea offered, and then Dean slides his over after a few sips and Sam drinks that one, too. After a while Andrea comes back downstairs, her face tight, but she eats her dinner then, finally, between long swallows off her own bottle. Sam tries to keep the conversation light, but the only option is to talk about the past, and his past is almost as full of lies as Dean’s. She’s interested enough in Boston that that fills a few minutes, since she’d only previously spent time in Madison, and Milwaukee.
"Chris always said there wasn’t much reason to leave Wisconsin for anything," she says, with a soft smile. "He just didn’t want to spend his vacations doing anything but fishing. Him and Bill, racing to see who could catch the most bluegills."
"Bill was his godfather, is that right?" Sam says.
She nods, both hands curled around her bottle. "All of our families knew each other," she says. "Chris’s dad and Bill and my dad all went to the same school, they were in the same scout troop, everything. Chris’s dad died when he was pretty young—stomach cancer, I think—and Bill looked out for him. Did the stuff a dad would do." There’s a runnel of grief in her voice, but she’s still smiling, the memory soft in her eyes.
"He sounds like a good guy," Dean says, hands folded on the table. Sam glances at him, but Dean’s just watching her downturned face.
She nods again. "He really was," she says, and sniffs. Her eyes are just barely damp, when she looks up. "Do you guys mind if I ask for one more favor?"
"What do you need?" Sam says.
"I’m just—" She shakes her head and looks up at the stairwell with its dimmed lights. "This is silly. I just want to get washed up, get ready for bed, but I’m worried about Lucas—I don’t want him to call out or something and I can’t answer."
Sam waves a hand. "We can stay," he says. Dean blinks at him, but looks back to Andrea with a nod. Sam gives her another smile, but he means this one. "Take your time."
It’s only eight o’clock. Andrea turns on the television, muted and set to the weather channel, and leaves them for upstairs with a tired smile. It might snow, over the Thanksgiving weekend. The country's getting colder and colder. Sam taps his thumb on the side of his bottle, looking out the window into the dark. There’s quiet between them, for a long minute, before they hear the rush of water in the pipes, upstairs. "I wonder what Bill knew," Sam says.
Dean shakes his head. They can only speculate, really. If this were a case that the Letters had set a hunter to there would be a report, a concrete motive and context documented even if further investigation were required. Maybe Dean will note all this down, for his own records. Sam smiles, briefly. A little corner of a shelf, tucked away where no one will notice: Winchester, S. & Winchester, D.: Cases, 2005.
Dean pushes back from the table with the scrape of his chair on the hardwood. "Come on," he says, clapping a hand on Sam’s shoulder. Sam sighs, but then—Dean did cook. Hard to get out of dishes by claiming Greek homework, this time. They find tupperware and put away leftovers, and Dean takes his turn flipping through the journal while Sam works on the washing up.
He scrubs at the sauté pan, wrist-deep in slightly-too-hot water, and while he works at a recalcitrant spot his attention wanders. There’s just one drawing magneted to the fridge: a picture of this house, with a little row of stick-figure people. A pink woman with a triangle skirt and a big blue man with a beard, their stick-hands holding onto the stick-arms of a tiny person between them, and beside them a brown stick man with a hat and a wide curve of smile. No bicycles or dark voids to be found. "Do you think Lucas will recover?" Sam says, rinsing off the pan.
"It’s hard to say," Dean says, behind him. Sam glances over his shoulder and Dean’s staring down at the open journal. "If the psychic interference is over—I don’t know. There are tests I can run. The battery for psychic ability isn’t that time-consuming, at least for the first four levels. Beyond that…"
Sam shakes his head, scrubbing their handful of used silverware clean. “I can’t imagine that he’s some super powerful psychic, if he’s psychic at all,” he says. “So, what. If you do the battery, would you log him with the Letters? What would the excuse for that even be?”
Dean sighs. "Sam—" he starts, but then there’s—thumping, on the stairs. Sam’s rinsing off their plates and looks over his shoulder to see—what?
"Lucas?" Dean says, standing up, and Lucas races straight across the kitchen and grabs Dean’s hands, tries to drag him with all the weight of his little body, his face screwed up and terrified. No sound, but there are tears streaked down his face and Dean throws a glance at Sam and then lets Lucas lead him.
Sam frowns, turns back to shut off the water, and it’s black. It’s black. He blinks, and drops the plate into the sink. Dean’s still walking at a normal pace, talking quietly to Lucas, when Sam races past them both. "Dean, the water," Sam says, and takes the stairs two at a time. Lucas thumps up after him, Dean on his tail, and now that they’re upstairs Sam can hear the splashing, smacks of water muffled behind the door. Lucas worms between Sam and the door, rattles the handle with a deep panicked grunt, and Sam picks him up bodily, hands him over to Dean to get him out of the way and then takes a step back and kicks with all his weight through the door and thank god, thank god the ghost isn’t strong enough to seal the whole house because the door slams open, cracking into the wall, and Sam rushes forward to the dark brimming void of the bathtub and plunges his arms in and finds still-warm flesh, and pulls—
Andrea falls asleep, finally, curled around Lucas in his bed. They debated calling the sheriff, but to say what? Dean makes coffee, downstairs, and Sam keeps watch from the doorway. Andrea’s hair is still wet, bound back and gleaming in the light from the hall; he can’t even see Lucas, tucked close against his mother’s body with her back to the door.
She didn’t want to hear what was happening, couldn’t hear anything, and Sam can’t blame her. Lucas didn’t stop crying, held tight in Dean’s arms while Sam helped her into a robe, and he didn’t stop crying when she came and took him and breathed shakily into his hair, and he didn’t stop crying when she put him to bed, and there was no space for Sam and Dean to ask their questions, then. Sam doesn’t know how he’ll handle it when she wakes up, either.
"Hey," Dean calls, from the bottom of the stairs. He’s holding two mugs of coffee and his face is grim. Sam takes a deep breath and pulls the door halfway shut on the two of them, and goes down the stairs, and waits.
It’s three in the morning and Sam’s dozing, his head tilted back against the couch, when Dean’s hand closes over his shoulder. He jerks upright and— "Andrea," he says.
Her hair’s dry, now. She’s wrapped up warm, sweatpants and a cardigan and shoes, even, like she’s going to take on a day that hasn’t started. "He’s still asleep," she says, and her voice isn’t exactly firm and she’s not smiling but she’s upright, she’s here. Dean gets up and pours her a cup of coffee, probably bitter now from sitting so long on the burner, but it’s warm. She takes the mug, wraps both hands around it, and then sits down very abruptly on the armchair across from the couch. "This is crazy," she says, but she looks right up at Dean, and then at Sam, and Sam nods. She’s ready to hear it.
Bill Carlton, and Peter Sweeney, and Jake Devins. Explorer Troop 37. Long summer days, a boyhood long disappeared into the safe, murky photo albums of the past. Mrs. Sweeney’s albums stopped thirty-five years ago, like a guillotine had sliced right through time; the photos here keep going, the boys all getting taller and more tanned and becoming men right in front of the camera. All but one.
This hour of morning never feels quite real, no matter how many times Sam’s seen it from either end. Weird things happen. A woman on the verge of crying, bruises rising on her pale white throat from small, desperate hands—and it feels almost natural when Dean covers her hand carefully with his own, swallowing hard, and then when Sam catches the shadow of movement, a glimpse of white in the big pane of glass, and turns around to find Lucas blank-faced, opening the door to go out into the night, alone. They follow, because of course they do, and Sam and Dean dig into the space Lucas finds because of course they do, this is their work, and it’s no surprise at all, really, that after an hour with the house’s borrowed shovels there’s a metallic clang, and Sam ducks down and brushes away dirt to find—red. A bike. It wasn’t even buried that far down.
Come play with me. That’s what Andrea heard, with her head under the water and her ears filled with ringing black. Bill and Peter and Jake, and what happened, all those years ago?
"What the hell are you doing?"
The sheriff. Like this, standing over them with his hand on his gun, his big coat hiding his badge, he’s just—a man. Jake, narrow-eyed but panic all over his face, and Sam says, "What did you do?"
He glares down at them, at the bike, and he says, "How did you—what the hell, how did you know that was there?" Angry, like he has any kind of right to be angry, and Sam comes out of the hole—the grave—with his fists clenched, and it’s only Dean grabbing him by the back of the shirt that stops him taking a swing, and Sam says, "What happened to Peter, Jake?" and Jake pulls his gun, just like that, points it square at Sam’s chest with his eyes wide and the barrel of the gun glinting metallic black in the porch-light.
"Put the gun down," Dean says, voice level, not letting go of Sam’s shirt, but Sam keeps his eyes right on Jake’s and talks over the top of him, says: "You know what happened. What, did you help? Did you do it? Peter Sweeney was his name. 1970. Mrs. Sweeney hasn’t changed his room in thirty-five years and Peter’s pissed, Jake, Peter wants blood."
"That’s—you’re insane," Jake says. He braces his other hand below the butt of the gun, steadying it even if his voice shakes. "You’re certifiable. How could you know that?"
"Dad?" Andrea says.
Jake whirls, dropping the barrel to point at the ground, and Andrea’s standing there backlit by the porchlight, the wind picking up the loose strands of her hair, her face a horror. Dean grabs Sam’s arm and hauls him a step back, but Sam’s watching Andrea. He’ll tackle Jake if he has to. He sets his feet firmly in the cold dirt, his hand on Dean’s shoulder.
Excuses tumble out—"They’re insane," Jake says, again, but he’s pleading now and they can all hear it. "They don’t—this is all just crazy, there’s no way Peter could—"
"Peter?" Andrea says, her voice like a lash.
Come play with me. Sam can’t get that out of his head. "Bill died," Sam says. "And both his kids."
"And Chris," Dean says, beside him. "And then Peter came for Andrea, too, and then he’ll come for Lucas, and then he’ll kill you last."
"You don’t know what you’re talking about," Jake says, half-lifting his gun again. The wind’s getting stronger, the air icy in the pre-dawn dark. "Nothing’s going to happen."
"Yes, it will," Dean says. "Because of what you did to his mother."
Jake blinks at him and Andrea says, "Dad," softly, the no lanced straight through her voice, and Jake looks up at her and just like that the confession spills out, too late. Little Peter always hanging around, and Billy and Jake tired of him tagging along, and roughhousing and pushing and then finally holding his head under the water, yelling, and then Peter going still. Too late. Jake stares at the ground and Sam stares at Andrea, watches her world turn over, and that means he’s looking at her face when she turns away, clutching her belly like she’s been hit, and then her eyes flare wide.
"Lucas!" she screams, and Sam and Dean turn around to see—oh, fuck, the little white glimpse of him, trotting away through the dark trees.
Sam’s heart leaps to his throat and he runs. Down the slope, vaulting the fence, crashing through the trees and the sting against his throat, ducking under branches, and then the shore through the treeline, a wide gravel beach under the barely-bright moon and Lucas tiny at the end of the dock, and now Sam can hear it, whispering against and inside his skin, come play with me, sharp and needy and so terribly small, so young, and just like that Lucas topples forward, out of sight.
"No!" Dean shouts, and Sam’s already shedding his coat, pounding down the dock with Dean right behind him, and he can hear Andrea screaming something but there’s no time, no time—he hits the edge of the dock and dives in, clean, plunging straight down into—oh, fuck, freezing oppressive dark. The icy water hits him in the chest like a weight and he has to bite his lips between his teeth to stop from losing all his breath. He strains his eyes open, wide, but he can’t see a thing—no sunlight down here, no moonlight, just an unending blackness. He’s taking the widest strokes with his arms he can, pawing blindly through the water for just a glancing touch, any kind of contact he can get, because—they can’t fail, they can’t, not now, not when they were so close—not with Andrea’s cracked-open terror still ringing in his ears—but—his lungs are spasming, in his chest, his ears ringing, and he doesn’t know how deep he’s gone but he still hasn’t touched bottom and—fuck, he has to swim up, he has to, and he grits his teeth and kicks furiously with his whole body weighing him down, up and up until his ears pop and he breaks the surface, gasping, the air so cold his face hurts just from the touch of it—and Andrea’s collapsed down to her knees on the shore, mouth open, and—Dean, Sam spins around in the water, treading pointlessly, where’s Dean—until there’s another huge splash and Sam spins again and there’s his brother, thank god, and held close to his chest—Lucas, sodden and freezing and coughing up black water getting thinner and clearer by the second, thank god thank god thank god—
Sam makes it to ground first, but Dean’s not all that far behind, Lucas clinging to his neck. Sam holds out a hand and Dean grabs it, lets Sam haul them in closer, and when his feet are solid on the lake bottom he wraps both arms around Lucas, patting his back while he wades in to shore. On the shore Andrea watches with tears all over her face and she doesn’t get up, just holds out her hands and takes Lucas from Dean when they get close enough. "Baby," she whispers, her voice destroyed— "Baby, thank god, are you okay?"
"Yeah," comes a little voice, and Dean sags down to one knee on the rocks, his head dropping. Lucas’s arms go around Andrea’s neck and he buries his face in her throat, so his words are muffled. Muffled, but there. "Yeah, Mom, I’m okay." Andrea squeezes her eyes closed, puts her hand over the back of his soaked hair, and just cries harder.
Sam drops down next to Dean, freezing and exhausted. "It’s over," he says. He can’t believe it, not really. "Do you think Peter gave in?"
Dean shakes his head and tips over, lands on his ass so he’s sitting shoulder to shoulder with Sam. God, it’s cold. "I don’t know," Dean says, a little quieter. He runs a hand over his head, pushing his hair off his forehead, and turns to look along the beach. "What happened to the sheriff?"
"What?" Sam says, and then sits up taller. Dean’s right; Jake’s gone. The shore’s empty but for the four of them. When he looks over, Andrea’s eyes are open again and she’s looking out at the dark lake. She’s still holding Lucas close, her arms banded around his back so tightly that he bets it hurts.
Lucas turns his head, though, putting his chin on her shoulder. His eyes glance over Sam and Dean, and then over the shore, and back into the woods, before he frowns. "Mom?" he says, tugging on the back of her sweater. "Mom, what happened to Grandpa?"
Andrea blinks, seems to come back to herself a little. She pulls back a few inches to get a look at Lucas’s face, petting the wet hair away and behind his ears. "He—had to go away," she says, and sniffs. Her eyes go all over his little face and she smiles, just the smallest bit, before she again looks out at the lake. "He had to make sure you were safe."
Sam closes his eyes. Of course. Dean leans hard against his arm and Sam takes a long, deep breath, filling his lungs with cold sharp morning air. Consequences, reaching down through the years, and a reparation made far too late. The things people will do, to keep a secret—but, then again, the things people will do to save their family. He sighs, and opens his eyes to see Lucas’s head laid again on his mother’s shoulder, but he’s watching Sam and Dean, his face open and alert, bright. Sam elbows Dean and nods Lucas’s way.
"Hi," Lucas says. He smiles at them, just a little shy.
"Hi," Dean says, and smiles back.
Back at the motel, they strip out of their soaked-wet clothes and each take a long shower. When it’s his turn, Sam cranks the water up as hot as it will go, steaming the cold from his bones. He stands under the spray and leans his forehead against the tile, just breathing for a little while. When he finally leaves the bathroom, Dean has his bag packed and he’s sitting with the journal, reading at the empty table.
"Carl gave me a laundry bag," he says, eyes on the journal. "Throw your wet stuff in there and we can take care of it later."
The bag’s sitting open next to Sam’s duffel. He does as he’s told, and then sinks down to sit on the end of his bed, watching Dean.
"Seems like Lucas is going to be okay," he says, after a few seconds. "You sure you don’t want to run any tests?"
Dean shakes his head. "Whatever natural ability he might have, the source of all the power was Peter’s spirit." He slips a scrap of paper into the journal and closes it, his hands moving slow and careful. "He might pick up echoes when he’s older, but he’ll probably just think he’s really good at guessing stuff."
Sam smiles, thinking about it. It’ll make a good party trick, when Lucas goes to college. Dean’s still looking at his hands, wrapping the leather cord around the journal one slow loop at a time. Sam laces his fingers together between his knees, takes a deep breath.
"So," he says. Dean glances up. "Andrea and Lucas are going to be okay. Because of us."
Dean folds his arms, leans back in the creaky chair. "Because the sheriff sacrificed himself."
"Because we were here," Sam says, leaning forward. "Because we figured out what was going on, and because we were there for Lucas and Andrea, and because we told Jake it was Peter. If we hadn’t shown up, Peter would have taken all of them."
Dean drops his eyes to the journal, sitting neat and folded-away in the center of the table. He nods, after a second, and Sam blows out a long breath, drops his head. People died—people always die—but in the end, after everything, they won. Neither of them are hurt and a mother will get to raise her son and Peter, the poor kid, is finally at peace. Not a bad day’s work, in the end.
"I can’t wait to get back to the bunker," Dean says. Sam jerks his head up to find Dean standing, the journal tucked neatly under his arm. He thought they’d finished with this. Dean shakes his head. "I need to completely repack. Two suits isn’t enough, the way you keep dragging me into lakes."
Sam breathes out, relief blooming up in his chest. "If you’d just buy some new clothes you wouldn’t have to keep getting your stuff dry-cleaned," he says.
Dean rolls his eyes. "You’re obsessed with denim," he says. He’s brushed all the mud off of his second suit, but there are definite dark spots on the legs. Sam looks deliberately at the stains and then up at Dean, who shakes his head. "I’ve got clothes at home, it’ll be fine. Come on, I looked on the atlas, we’ve got six hundred miles to cover. Time to get going, Sammy."
They get the car packed up and Sam takes the room keys back to Carl. "Hope you enjoyed your stay," Carl says, clearly looking to go back to his crossword.
Sam smiles at him. "We did, thanks."
Dean’s leaning against the trunk when Sam comes out, spinning the keys in his hand. "Ready," Sam says.
It’s sunny out, even if the air’s bitingly cold. Dean looks up at the clear sky, at the trees all around, at the low hills. "Why don’t you drive," he says, and tosses Sam the keys. Sam catches them against his chest, frowning. Dean taps the journal, still tucked under his arm. "I’ve got reading to do. I think this case Dad was working on was a werewolf." Sam blinks, and Dean shrugs. "Trying to crack his code. Seems like there are a lot of cases to read about. And, uh. Maybe some you could tell me about, huh?"
Dean’s mouth is still kind of tight, but he’s—trying. He’s on board. "Yeah," Sam says, and has to clear his throat. "Yeah, sure thing."
They get into the car and Sam turns the engine over, turns the heat up. It’ll be warm, soon. "If I tell you all about the hunts I went on, I have a condition," he says, serious.
Dean stares at him, over the seat. "What?"
"I don’t have to listen to The Long Run for at least a month," Sam says. "Actually, we could just throw the tape out the window right now."
"What!" Dean puts his hand protectively over the glovebox. "The Eagles are fantastic, Sam, don’t blaspheme."
"The Eagles are awful, Dean," Sam says, and puts the car in gear, turning to look over his shoulder to back up and hide his grin. Six hundred miles to the bunker. It’s a long time to bicker. Dean makes an outraged noise and Sam grins wider, covering his mouth with one hand while he waits to turn out of the parking lot. God help him, he’s looking forward to it.