Jimmy grips the coffee mug so tightly his knuckles turn as white as the ceramic. Half an inch of gauze peeks out from under the long sleeves of his shirt, and when Jimmy glances up, as wary as a feral cat, he tugs the sleeves down again.
Dean has just slid into the red vinyl booth across from him, and Jimmy hasn’t done much more than murmur a greeting. Dark shadows ring Jimmy’s eyes, and his mouth is twisted in a pained grimace. Dean doesn’t say much these days, not with Sam gone, and so the quiet isn’t all that unusual for him.
Since Jimmy was the one who called him, Dean figures Jimmy’ll say something eventually. The last time he saw Jimmy Novak, the guy couldn’t seem to shut up. When the waitress brings Dean’s coffee and a couple of laminated menus, and Jimmy still hasn’t said more than “hello”, Dean thinks maybe he’s wrong.
“You going to tell me why you called?” Dean asks, not bothering to read the menu. He’ll get what he always gets; diner food is pretty much the same across the country.
Jimmy clears his throat, and glances up again, a guilty light in his eyes. “I’m sorry. I just—I didn’t know who else to call.”
“For what?” Dean tries to infuse the question with a little of the patience he doesn’t feel.
“It was the last straw for Amelia,” Jimmy continues, as though that’s supposed to explain things. Hell, maybe it’s supposed to, but Dean’s still confused.
“Jimmy,” he says slowly. “What was the last straw?”
Jimmy flushes. He’s so much more expressive than Cas ever was—even when Cas had been on the brink of being human—that Dean has no problem remembering it’s Jimmy and not Cas sitting across from him. “This.”
He tugs one sleeve up to reveal a little more gauze this time, and for a moment, Dean wonders if the bandages are the mark of a failed suicide attempt. He nearly gets up and walks out right then, because he’s so fucked up himself, he hasn’t a prayer of helping Jimmy get his head straightened out.
“It’s not that,” Jimmy whispers, tugging his sleeve back down as their waitress reappears.
They both order the burger and fries, and Dean’s mind is racing, trying to come up with an explanation for Jimmy’s wrists being bandaged and his wife kicking him out of the house.
“So, what is it?” Dean asks as soon as they’re alone again.
Jimmy shakes his head and swallows. “Stigmata.”
It takes Dean a minute. Sam would have recognized the term right away, but Sam had been into the religious thing more than Dean ever had, and stigmata aren’t what he’d call a sign of evil so Dean didn’t have cause to run across it before.
But it’s obvious that whatever or whoever had caused Jimmy to spontaneously develop bleeding holes had also caused the collapse of his fragile, rebuilt life.
“How bad?” Dean asks, because he can at least figure out whether Jimmy is going to keel over in the red vinyl booth.
“They just bleed.” The unhappy twist to Jimmy’s mouth deepens. “Amelia thought I was doing it. She said it wasn’t good for Claire to be around me until I got my head on straight.”
“She kicked you out?” Dean is surprised. He remembers Amelia being a hell of a lot tougher than most people are after being possessed by a demon. She’d watched her daughter and husband both act as a meat-suit for an angel, and she’d watched Jimmy die.
A couple of holes were nothing compared to that—cause for concern, and maybe stocking up on first aid supplies, but—
“She—we…” Jimmy stops, clearly struggling for words, for a way to describe how his life has imploded over the last year. “I understand. I’m different. We’re both different, and this—this is too much. I can’t work, and… It’s not her fault.”
Everyone had a breaking point, Dean thinks. “She thought you were doing that to yourself?”
Jimmy tugs on his sleeves again, and Dean wonders how long this has been going on for the gesture to become a habit. It’s been at least a year since Cas vacated the premises, so maybe that long, maybe not. “She didn’t know what to think.” Jimmy laughs, and the sound is so bitter that Dean flinches.
And he’s used to bitter, Dean can often hear it in his own voice, but Jimmy sounds about as broken as a person can get. Dean flashes to the abandoned warehouse, Jimmy lying crumpled on the dirty floor, and pleading with Cas to leave his daughter alone, demanding that Cas take him instead. Dean had assumed they wouldn’t see Jimmy again after that. But then Cas had gone back to heaven after Sam had stopped the apocalypse, and Jimmy called months later to ask for his help.
“Okay.” Dean stalls for time, remembering those horror-filled moments too clearly, trying to figure out what he can do for Jimmy.
There’s no question in Dean’s mind that he’ll help. The guy got a raw deal, and although Dean has no trouble telling them apart, Jimmy still looks like Cas to him.
So very few people Dean gives a shit about are still alive; Jimmy happens to be one of them, and he’s at the end of his rope.
Maybe it’s time for Dean to throw him another line.
“Okay,” he repeats, and then the waitress arrives with their meals.
One thing Dean can appreciate about Jimmy—the man likes to eat, and he begins scarfing his burger so fast Dean’s a little afraid he’ll choke. “Easy,” Dean says, out of force of habit. He’s more used to taking care of people than not. “The cow is long dead. It’s not going anywhere.”
Jimmy glances up, and a startled smile crosses his face. “Sorry, I—sorry.”
“Just don’t choke,” Dean advises. “The Heimlich can get messy.”
Jimmy slows down some after that, but he’s still focused on his dinner with the single-minded intensity of someone who hasn’t been eating well. Dean forces himself not to ask about that, because no matter what he decides to do, Dean is not Jimmy’s mother.
Jimmy slows down to a normal speed about three-quarters of the way through his fries, and Dean nudges his plate across the table when Jimmy starts eyeing Dean’s.
A plan begins to form, and it’s really fucking crazy, so crazy Dean doesn’t have any business even thinking of it, but he already knows he’s going to make the suggestion.
Fucking crazy, Dean thinks, but he asks, “So, you want to get out of this town?”
Jimmy glances up, and hope kindles behind his eyes. “Really?”
“Hunters are fucked up,” Dean replies, and damn it all if Jimmy isn’t looking at him like he’s the second fucking coming of Christ. It feels better than it should. “You’ll fit right in.”
“I’ve never fired a gun,” Jimmy confesses, like it’s something to be ashamed of. From where Dean’s sitting, though, Jimmy had been the lucky one, before he got chained to a comet.
Dean smiles, and the expression feels strange. How long has it been since he smiled, or laughed? He doesn’t remember.
“It’s cool, man. I’ll teach you.”
They swing by the Pontiac Motor Lodge to pick up Jimmy’s things on their way out of town. It’s the sort of place Sam would have bitched about the rooms renting by the hour, but Dean doesn’t comment on the accommodations. He just parks and waits.
Jimmy’s back a couple of minutes later with a small duffel bag, and he tosses it into the backseat of the Impala. “I should call Amelia.”
“You got a cell phone?” Dean asks, and when Jimmy shakes his head, Dean fishes around in his jacket pocket for his.
He can hear Jimmy’s side of the conversation whether he wants to or not—and Dean would rather not. He feels like an intruder.
After Jimmy’s initial explanation—“I’m with Dean, Amelia. We’re getting away for a while.”—Jimmy speaks mostly in monosyllables. After a couple of one-word responses, he asks, “Can I talk to Claire?”
Jimmy’s voice softens. “Hey, baby.”
Some of the tension leaves Jimmy’s shoulders, and he says, “Yeah, I’m okay. I’m with Dean. You remember him, don’t you?”
There’s another pause, and Jimmy says, “Yeah, I’ll be back, Claire. I just need to figure a few things out.”
When Jimmy hands the phone back to him, Dean asks, “How’s everything on the home front?”
“How’s Claire?” They don’t know each other well enough for the silence to feel comfortable. Dean can make small talk if he has to, and he’s seen Jimmy around Claire. Dean suspects that it’s killing Jimmy to walk away now.
Jimmy shakes his head and stares out the window. “She’s strong. I don’t know why, but she seems to understand.”
“Cas took her for a ride, too,” Dean pointed out. “She’s gotta know how this works.”
“What about Amelia?”
“She wanted her husband back, and she got me,” Jimmy replies. “I don’t blame her.”
“You sure you want to do this?” Dean asks. “There’s no going back from here.”
“There’s already no going back.” Jimmy’s eyes drift shut. “I passed the point of no return when I said yes to Castiel.”
“No. I died in that warehouse. I should have stayed dead.”
And since Dean understands all too well, he stays quiet, listening as Jimmy’s breathing evens out and he falls asleep.
Dean hasn’t trained newbie hunters very often, and Jimmy’s as green as grass. He doesn’t ask many questions, but he reads the newspaper upside down while Dean pores over the articles during breakfast at a seedy diner. Dean allows himself the luxury of thinking out loud; with Jimmy there, he doesn’t look insane for talking to himself. Jimmy listens intently, sipping black coffee and forking up doughy pancakes, and all the while Dean wishes for Sam and his encyclopedic knowledge.
“Do you always find your cases through the newspaper?” Jimmy asks while Dean circles a story about an apparent suicide that looks suspicious.
“Newspapers, internet, word of mouth,” Dean replies absently. The next story down is about a woman who died under mysterious circumstances involving a hair dryer, and that one is more promising yet. “Just depends on the case.”
Jimmy pushes his plate to the side, his pancakes only half-finished, and he stares down into his coffee mug. “Do you have another case?”
“Looks like.” Dean folds up the paper and pushes back from the table. “You ready to get back on the road?”
Three days on the road, and they’re still feeling each other out. Jimmy is quiet and withdrawn, and he calls Claire every night like clockwork. Dean tries not to listen in, but they’re sharing quarters, and it’s hard not to hear Jimmy’s longing. More than the physical, it’s Jimmy’s homesickness that’s the open wound.
Jimmy showed Dean the stigmata the first night they stopped at a motel a hundred miles outside of Pontiac, Illinois. The open wounds on his wrists, side, and ankles are raw and oozing blood, but there’s no sign of infection and no smell of decay.
“Do they hurt?” Dean had asked.
Jimmy had shaken his head silently. “No, but they don’t heal either.”
He hasn’t allowed Dean to look at the wounds since then. Dean assumes Jimmy is changing the bandages, and as far as he can see, Jimmy isn’t getting worse. That first night, while Jimmy slept, Dean spent the night researching stigmata. Maybe Sam, with his huge brain, would have been able to discover something to heal Jimmy, but all Dean could find were references to how stigmata were supposed to signify a blessing.
Dean doesn’t mention that fact to Jimmy; he suspects all it would get him is a punch in the face.
Now that he has a lead on a case, Dean figures his next step is teaching Jimmy how to shoot a gun. Dean pulls over to the side of the road at the next out-of-the-way place they come to and goes around to the trunk of the car.
Jimmy joins him after a few minutes, ambling up slowly. “What are we doing?”
“You are learning how to shoot,” Dean replies, pulling out his second-favorite semi-automatic. “Here.”
Jimmy takes the weapon gingerly, his expression dubious. “Are you sure this is a good idea?”
“Positive.” There are a few empty cans and plastic soda bottles in the backseat, and Dean gathers them up. He prefers cans and plastic to glass beer bottles, because they’re reusable, but he brings the cooler along anyway.
Dean remembers practicing with Sammy ages ago just like this—off of deserted roads and byways, shooting at the trunks of dead trees or picking soda cans off of dead logs. They had both enjoyed target practice, even Sam, razzing each other and making bets.
There is none of that camaraderie with Jimmy; there is no history to build on. Maybe, eventually, Jimmy will become a true partner, but for now he’s a responsibility, a dead weight.
“Okay, just watch me for right now.” Dean begins a running commentary as he set up the cans and bottles on a half-rotted log. He repeats all the advice he remembers getting from his dad—legs slightly apart, knees slightly bent, posture relaxed, but straight.
Dean picks off each item one by one, then hands Jimmy the gun and sets them back up again. “Let’s see you do it.”
Jimmy takes the weapon. He looks as though Dean is handing him a live snake. “Okay.”
Dean gives him the go-ahead and stands behind Jimmy, out of the danger zone. Jimmy doesn’t even come close with the first three shots; he misses the log and the empties by a wide margin.
“That’s okay,” Dean assures him. “Here, let’s try something else.”
He moves in close, his chest flush with Jimmy’s back, his arms coming around Jimmy from behind. Dean nudges Jimmy’s feet, shifts his own hips to make Jimmy accommodate, covers Jimmy’s hands with his on the gun.
Dean can remember his dad teaching him to shoot with this kind of method; he’d felt safe with his dad standing there behind him, his big hands covering Dean’s smaller ones.
This feels different.
“Go ahead,” Dean murmured in Jimmy’s ear.
The first shot goes wide again, and Dean tightens his grip. “You’re anticipating the kickback too much. Relax.”
He feels Jimmy sag a bit, and murmurs an encouragement. “That’s right. Now, fire.”
Dean sees wood fly and knows that Jimmy’s come closer. “Good. Again.”
Jimmy hits one out of three, and Dean steps back. “Bend your elbows a little more.”
This time, three more cans go flying. “Much better. Again.”
Dean ends the lesson when Jimmy’s arms begin to shake from fatigue, and he loses what little accuracy he has gained. “You’ll get it eventually,” Dean says, watching as Jimmy grimly pops out the clip.
“I doubt I’ll be winning a prize for accuracy any time soon,” Jimmy replies, handing the gun back to Dean.
Dean shrugs. “Stick with the shotgun and the rock salt for now. You don’t need accuracy for those.”
Jimmy shakes his head. “I’m not going to be of much help to you.”
“Let me be the judge of that.” Dean sneaks a glance at the gauze on Jimmy’s wrists. “How are you doing?”
“I’ll be fine,” Jimmy says decisively. “Don’t worry about me.”
Dean wishes it were that easy.
They’re in Bladenboro, North Carolina, when they discover that Jimmy does more than just bleed now.
Dean had seen newspaper articles detailing the predations of some creature in the small town, and he remembers his dad talking about the beast, although the last reported deaths had occurred long before Dean was born. Since Jimmy has done okay up against a vengeful spirit and a cursed footlocker, Dean doesn’t see a problem heading across the country.
Jimmy still can’t hit a target two times out of three, but he’s game, and he bitches less than Sam did.
Then again, Dean misses hearing Sam complain—about the food, about the music, about anything and everything. He’s homesick for his brother all the damn time, and while having Jimmy along helps with the loneliness, Dean wishes it wasn’t Jimmy in the passenger seat.
When they arrive in Bladenboro, Dean steers them towards a diner, which is abuzz with discussion of the most recent attacks. He overhears one man boasting loudly of his tracking abilities, and how he’s going to be the one to solve the mystery.
Dean leads them to a booth in the back corner, and after three weeks, Dean knows that Jimmy won’t bother with the menu anymore than he will. Jimmy will drink too much coffee and eat a cheeseburger with fries, and he might say two words.
“Are we going to start looking tonight?” Jimmy asks in a low voice after their burgers arrive.
“Yeah, might as well. With my luck, it’ll just be a regular old cougar, but it’s worth checking out.”
Jimmy shrugs, amenable as always. “That works for me.”
Dean doesn’t bother finding a motel room; they’re going to be out for most of the night anyway, and they can easily catch a few hours in the Impala. Dean drives as close as he can to the site of the most recent attack, and they start hiking.
The light is fading, and Dean can hear Jimmy stumbling along behind him, but Jimmy somehow manages to keep up without breaking an ankle. Dean decides it’s a minor miracle.
“You okay?” Dean calls over his shoulder.
“Fine,” Jimmy says, panting a little.
When they reach the clearing, there are no signs of violence. The dead deer is gone, and recent rains have washed the blood away. The ground doesn’t appear to have been disturbed, and Dean kneels down to get a better look. By now, Jimmy knows to watch Dean’s back.
“Let’s set up here,” Dean suggests.
The night might have been uneventful, but someone else crashes into the clearing shortly after the moon has risen. The intruder introduces himself as Bernie, a local kid who thinks he can snatch a few minutes of fame by finding the beast
Bernie’s lucky Jimmy didn’t shoot him, Dean thinks, but doesn’t say. Since Jimmy’s got the shotgun, loaded with buckshot tonight, there’s a good chance he’d have killed the kid
Dean thinks about leading Jimmy to another clearing, somewhere else where they won’t have the unwanted company, but he doesn’t want to leave the kid alone. So, they sit and wait, acting as bait to whatever is out hunting.
Sometime past two—the last time Dean checks his watch before everything is FUBAR—Dean hears a snarling from the bushes around the clearing, and he brings his semi-automatic up to bear. Jimmy braces the shotgun on his shoulder, but by then, it’s pretty much too late.
The creature is no more supernatural than the next woodland creature, but the cougar is still dangerous. Bernie makes the mistake of getting in its way first, going down in a flurry of teeth and claws, and Jimmy calls out a warning too late.
Jimmy doesn’t fire, probably because he’s worried about hitting the kid, since Dean has the same fear, and Dean’s the better shot.
The cougar turns its attention to Dean next, and Jimmy takes the opportunity to fire. The cougar screams, and the sound sends a chill down Dean’s spine. Dean fires twice, and one shot hits the cougar between the eyes. When Dean is sure that it’s dead, he turns to the others.
Jimmy’s already at Bernie’s side, having tossed aside the shotgun to kneel next to the kid, who’s gasping for breath.
Dean knows that it’s too late already; he’s seen mortal wounds before, and Bernie didn’t have long before he bled out.
Jimmy pushes aside Bernie’s jacket to get a better look, and Dean can see the wet gleam of blood in the moonlight and the deep rents in Bernie’s skin from the cougar’s claws and teeth. To Dean’s surprise, Jimmy doesn’t even balk. “It’s going to be okay,” Jimmy says. “We’re going to help you.”
“No,” Bernie gasps. “You have to tell my mom—”
“I’m not telling your mom anything,” Jimmy hisses. “You’re going to talk to her yourself.”
As Dean watches, Jimmy puts a hand on Bernie’s chest, just below the worst laceration on his neck, and Jimmy begins to shake. Dean can see the tremors run through Jimmy’s back, and he takes a step closer.
He stops cold as the wound across Bernie’s throat closes over as though it had never been there, and Bernie’s breathing evens out. “What—”
Bernie’s head flops back against the ground, and Jimmy slumps. Dean regains his momentum, and he falls to his knees next to both of them. Bernie is gaping at Jimmy and touching his throat, his eyes darting from Jimmy to Dean and back again. “What the fuck, man?”
Jimmy is breathing shallowly, his face pale, and Dean puts an arm around his shoulders. “We got to get you out of here.”
“What the fuck?” Bernie repeats, staring at Jimmy as though he’s the second coming of Christ, and hell, maybe he is for all Dean knows. “What just happened?”
“Don’t worry about it,” Dean orders. “You’re fine. You aren’t going to tell anybody about this, you hear? You can tell them you killed the beast, or whatever you want, but you don’t tell them about us. You don’t tell them anything about us.”
Bernie stares at Dean with wide, dark eyes. “Okay.”
“Come on, Jimmy,” Dean murmurs. Jimmy trembles under his arm, and Dean feels clammy skin under his hands. Dean has to take most of his weight as they hike back to the Impala, and Jimmy leans against him hard.
Dean gets Jimmy back to the Impala and settles him into the passenger seat before firing up the engine. Jimmy rests his head against the window, his eyes closed, tremors running through his thin frame every few seconds. Dean starts driving south on 131, towards Whiteville, pulling in at the first motel he sees. When he glances over at Jimmy, Dean can see the fresh blood on the gauze on Jimmy’s wrists, but it’s impossible to tell how much is Bernie’s, and how much is Jimmy’s.
He leaves Jimmy in the car while he checks in; it’s a nicer motel than he normally stays at, but he figures it’s worth it tonight. Dean grabs their bags in one hand and hauls Jimmy out of the car with the other. Jimmy can walk, but he still leans heavily on Dean, and he’s still shaking.
Dean drops their bags just inside the door and lowers Jimmy onto the nearest bed. Jimmy has Bernie’s blood on his jeans and his shirt, and the knees of his jeans are stiff with mud from the soft ground. When Jimmy doesn’t move right away, Dean takes matters into his own hands.
He strips Jimmy down to his boxers with brisk efficiency; Dean has had to do the same for his dad and brother a time or two in the past, and Jimmy tries to help even though his eyes are still dazed.
“Shit, man,” Dean hisses. The gauze on Jimmy’s side, wrists, and ankles is soaked with blood. “Are you okay?”
“A little dizzy,” Jimmy mutters.
“Just sit tight,” Dean orders. “I’ll get you cleaned up, and then you can sleep.”
It’s the first time that Jimmy has allowed Dean to help him, although Dean suspects that has more to do with Jimmy’s confusion than a change in perspective.
Dean unwinds the gauze from Jimmy’s right wrist, which is pale and knobby. The wound is bright red and still oozing blood, but there is no sign of infection, and there is the faint scent of some exotic spice. “It doesn’t look too bad,” Dean murmurs. “Are you in pain?”
“Some,” Jimmy admits as Dean covers the wound back up again with fresh gauze.
Dean raises his eyebrows and starts on Jimmy’s left wrist. “How much is ‘some’ on a scale of one to ten?”
“And if it’s at a nine now, where is it usually?”
Jimmy remains silent.
Dean sighs. “You said there wasn’t any pain.”
“It’s more of a dull ache,” Jimmy explains.
“But now it’s worse?”
“Something like that.”
“Why didn’t you say something?” Dean asks feeling a little exasperated. He probably wouldn’t have ridden Jimmy so hard if he’d known.
Jimmy doesn’t meet his eyes. “Because I knew it would change the way you responded to me, and I don’t want pity.”
“We’re both fucked up,” Dean replies and starts on the wound on Jimmy’s side. It appears to be a deep gash, and Dean winces. “Did you try stitching this one up?”
“I tried, but it doesn’t do any good. I told you, they don’t heal.”
Dean has no idea how to reply to that, so he keeps his mouth shut, moving to the wounds on Jimmy’s ankles. “How are you even walking?”
“Gingerly,” Jimmy replies drily.
Dean finishes up his task and climbs to his feet. “Get some sleep, Jimmy.”
Jimmy slowly slides under the covers of the bed. “Are we going to talk about what happened?”
“What do you want me to say?” Dean asks. “One minute, Bernie’s bleeding out, and the next, it’s like nothing ever happened. How did you do it?”
“I touched him, and I knew.” Jimmy closes his eyes. “There’s no other way to describe it.”
Dean pulls off his boots and lies back on his bed. “Think you could do it again?”
“I don’t know.” Jimmy’s voice is fading a bit. “Maybe.”
“Guess we’ll see next time,” Dean replies. “Looks like you can do something other than bleed, though.”
“Yeah.” Jimmy sounds sleepy. “Dean?”
“I think I’d like to visit Claire.”
Dean has been waiting for that request. “We’ll head that way tomorrow.”
He gets no response but deep, even breathing, and Dean reaches over to turn off the light and go to bed.
Amelia gives them the go-ahead to visit whenever they’d like; Dean isn’t so sure that’s a good thing. He keeps waiting for Jimmy to announce that he’s going back to his wife and daughter, and Dean privately thinks it would be the best thing for Jimmy.
Not that Dean believed Jimmy was incapable of becoming a competent hunter someday, but Jimmy’d had a nice life up until Cas had taken him for a ride. Dean figures that Jimmy would like to get back to that life.
Dean kept an eye on the papers as they made their way west from North Carolina, but he didn’t see any pressing cases. They could have made the trip in one day, but Dean took it in two stages.
Dean chooses not to think about what his life would look like without Jimmy. The truth is, Dean has gotten used to having Jimmy around, and he appreciates the company. Jimmy isn’t Sam, but he’s someone to talk to, and he’s a good guy.
When they arrive at Amelia’s house, she comes out to meet them and quickly closes the door behind her. “I’ve asked Claire to give us a moment,” she says.
Dean hadn’t been certain he would stay, had half-decided that he’d drop Jimmy off and come back later—if at all—and he takes that as his cue. “I should leave you guys to it. I’ll—”
“Dean.” It’s just one word, but Jimmy gives Dean a pleading look that stops him in his tracks.
“You should stay,” Amelia adds. “I’m planning on making dinner.”
Dean hesitates, but he feels as though Jimmy is asking him for backup, and Dean doesn’t leave his partner in the lurch—not ever, not if he can help it. “Sure. Why not?”
Amelia forces a smile and pulls Jimmy off to the side of the porch, and Dean pretends that he can’t hear their conversation when he’s only standing five feet away.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Amelia asks.
“I’m fine,” Jimmy assures her. “I’m better.”
“Are you still—”
“I’m not doing it to myself,” Jimmy says, and Dean wonders how Amelia can stand against the sincerity in his voice.
Sweet, earnest Jimmy, whom Dean would bet wouldn’t have hurt a fly before he agreed to be a vessel, and who was now learning how to shoot.
“I know, Jimmy,” Amelia replies, and Dean risks a glance at them. Amelia rests a hand on Jimmy’s bicep and leans into his space. “I understand.”
“I told you what happened,” Jimmy says, his voice low, but Dean has no trouble hearing him. “I healed him. This isn’t a curse.”
“I understand.” Amelia sounds more sincere than Dean had expected, as though she hadn’t kicked Jimmy out of his own house. “I do. I just—I can’t deal with this, Jimmy. I wish I could, but—”
“I’m not here because I want to come home,” Jimmy assures her. “I just—I wanted to see you, and Claire. Please.”
“Of course.” Amelia offers a wobbly smile. “Claire misses you.”
“I miss her, too.” After a moment, Jimmy adds, “I miss you.”
Dean risks another look, and Jimmy has Amelia in his arms. They’re clinging to one another tightly, and he feels a pang of jealousy for the love they still obviously feel for each other.
“I’m sorry,” Jimmy whispers brokenly.
“It’s not your fault,” Amelia replies.
And then the front door opens, and Claire steps outside. “Daddy?”
Jimmy releases Amelia and turns to Claire, pulling her into a tight hug. “Hey, baby. How are you?”
“Good.” With her arm still around his waist, Claire pulls Jimmy inside, leaving Dean alone with Amelia.
“I wanted to talk to you,” Amelia says, putting a hand on Dean’s arm to prevent him from following them. “I wanted to ask how he’s doing. How he’s really doing.”
Dean looks out onto the grass of the front yard of the rental property. It was a small house, smaller than the one Dean knows the Novaks used to own, before Castiel, before their lives were turned upside down. He wonders absently if this was a change Amelia had chosen—if the house held too many memories—or if she’d been forced into it when she’d lost Jimmy.
Finally, Dean finds the words to respond, “I guess he’s doing as well as expected.”
“That doesn’t tell me anything,” Amelia protests.
Dean sighs. “Jimmy’s a good man. This kind of life—the life hunters live—it’s a hard one. It’s harder for people who aren’t used to it.”
“He looks happier,” Amelia offers. “Was he telling the truth?”
Dean can’t blame her for asking. He isn’t sure he’d believe it either in Amelia’s shoes. “He’s being honest. This isn’t his fault, Amelia.”
“I know.” Amelia tries for a smile and almost manages it. “I wish I could accept who Jimmy is now, but he’s not the man I married. I still love him, but—”
“This sort of thing changes a person,” Dean supplies. “It’s no one’s fault. It just is what it is.”
Amelia nods. “Would you like to come inside? I can make coffee.”
“That would be awesome,” Dean replies. “Nice place you have here.”
Amelia laughs, and she almost sounds normal. “Thanks. Come on inside, Dean. I have cookies.”
Dean’s a sucker for fresh-baked cookies, and he follows Amelia inside. Jimmy and Claire are sitting next to each other on the overstuffed couch, Claire chatting animatedly and Jimmy listening intently.
Dean and Amelia exchange smiles, and Amelia leads him back to the kitchen. “Chocolate chip okay? They’re Jimmy’s favorites.”
“More than okay,” Dean replies, accepting the napkin with a couple of large cookies. He moans after the first large bite. “These are great,” he manages through a full mouth.
Amelia smiles. “Thank you.” She hesitates, then adds, “I had an ulterior motive asking you here.”
“Don’t care,” Dean replies, taking another large bite. “These are too good.”
Amelia’s smile grows. “Still, I just—take care of him, okay? He’s not very good at looking after himself, and I’d feel better knowing that someone is making sure he eats and sleeps, and…”
She trails off, and Dean can see the tears form in her eyes. The hell of it is that Dean knows what she means. Sometimes love isn’t enough; sometimes, you need more in order to live with each other.
“I’ll do my best,” Dean promises once he’s swallowed. “I’ll do everything I can for him.” He pauses before he adds, “He’s going to be good at this, you know. And he’s helping people. He saved someone’s life.”
Amelia nods. “All Jimmy ever wanted was for his life to mean something.”
“He’s got that here,” Dean assures her.
“Good.” Amelia crosses her arms across her chest and nods, mostly to herself. “That’s really good.”
“It is.” Dean reaches for her, gripping her shoulder. “I’m going to keep him safe.”
Amelia nods. “Good.”
Dean licks the last of the cookie crumbs off his fingers. “I don’t suppose you have any more cookies?”
Amelia laughs. “I do.”
Jimmy seems a hell of a lot happier when they leave. He spends every moment they’re at Amelia’s with Claire, their heads bent together. Dean has to wonder what Castiel left behind—if Cas left anything behind—to leave Claire so sanguine about her father’s absence.
“So, you’re okay with all of this?” Dean asks when they leave Pontiac, Illinois.
Jimmy shrugs. “I wouldn’t put it that way.”
“How would you put it?”
“I’ve accepted that I can’t go back to my old life. I’m not the same man I was, and I wouldn’t be happy there,” Jimmy replies. “I’m different, how I look at the world is different.”
“What about Claire?” Dean feels compelled to ask.
“Claire understands.” Jimmy stares out the window. “Claire is the one who would understand more than anyone else.”
“Because she’s been possessed?”
“Because she knows what it’s like to say yes.”
Dean knows it’s different; he understands that angels need permission, while demons take what they want without so much as a by your leave. Dean has never been possessed, though, so he doesn’t fully understand.
He said yes, and nothing had happened. He doesn’t know anyone else who can say the same.
“And hunting is really what you want to do,” Dean says flatly. “This is the life you want to lead.”
“This is the only life left to me,” Jimmy replied. “But I can make a difference here. Maybe I can save lives. Isn’t that enough?”
“It used to be,” Dean says, almost under his breath. “It used to be.”
“Maybe it can be enough again,” Jimmy says.
After another couple of weeks on the road, Dean almost starts to believe that Jimmy’s going to stay. Jimmy is still bleeding, and he’s still calling Claire every night, but he throws himself into hunting in a way that Dean had never expected.
He figures they probably could have gone on like that forever—friends but never more than that, close but never crossing that line—until the rusalka in Minnesota.
Dean reads about the second drowning in the Star Tribune. Minnesota has enough lakes that two drownings in two months isn’t that big of a deal. But the fact that two young men, around the same age, have drowned in practically the same place—it’s more than a coincidence.
The drive north to Minnesota is beautiful, even peaceful. Plains give way to trees, and Dean can’t help but remember why he loves being on the road so much. Hunting gives him a chance to see the country and to help people, and it’s beginning to feel like it could be enough again.
“This is beautiful country,” Jimmy says reverently as they drive north. “I had no idea.”
“You’ve never been up this way?” Dean asks.
Jimmy’s nose is practically pressed to the window. “I rarely left Illinois,” he admits. “I went to Washington D.C. once, and we went to Florida as a family, but we mostly stayed in Illinois.”
“So, you like traveling?”
“It’s been interesting.” Jimmy admits. “I like the idea of seeing the rest of the country.”
“And not the rest of the world?”
“You never mention the rest of the world,” Jimmy replies.
Dean takes the exit for Cass Lake. “It’s hard to cross the border when you’re supposed to be dead, and I don’t like flying.”
“And there’s plenty to hunt without going out of the country,” Jimmy suggests.
“Pretty much.” Dean thinks about what his life might have been like if he had grown up normal, whether he would have traveled, where he might have gone. “There’s enough here for me.”
Cass Lake is bustling with tourists, even after the bad press. Dean suspects that most folks take drownings as a matter of course in an area like this, particularly tourists, who don’t personally know those who have died. Both victims were locals, though, and according to the papers, they had been considered strong swimmers.
Dean puts on a suit and tie and is grateful when Jimmy’s suit isn’t the one Cas used to wear. Jimmy cleans up well, and he doesn’t look uncomfortable in his dress clothes. Unlike Cas, Dean doesn’t have to straighten his tie, or give Jimmy pointers on how to hold a badge.
Sometimes folks will talk more to a badge; sometimes they clam up. The mother of the first victim speaks freely, insisting that her son couldn’t have drowned, that his death wasn’t an accident. The father of the second won’t say much, but he also claims that his son’s death was no accident.
Dean gets the impression that they had been disappointed in the action—or lack thereof—taken by local law enforcement, and are too bitter to offer any assistance to a couple of FBI agents.
It turns out that Jimmy is a whiz with Google, and he quickly discovers that a local girl had drowned herself in the lake after her boyfriend dumped her. Her spirit is exacting vengeance on any local boy who meets certain criteria.
“The body was never recovered,” Jimmy says. “Isn’t that going to cause a problem?”
Dean shakes his head. “This isn’t your typical vengeful spirit. Rusalki—water spirits—can only be killed by luring them out of the water and keeping them out until their hair dries.”
Jimmy stares at him disbelievingly. “Seriously?”
“Seriously. Since she’s only targeting locals, it’s going to be harder to get her out of the water. We’ll need to find someone to use as bait.”
Jimmy drums his fingers on the table. “Both victims drowned at night, so maybe that’s where we start.”
“Stakeouts are a specialty of mine,” Dean replies. “Let’s get set up.”
Dean has been on worse stakeouts before. They load up a cooler with food and beer and settle down on one of the spare blankets from Dean’s trunk, in sight of the beach but hidden behind some bushes. Even though they’re working, Dean allows himself to relax just a bit.
The air cools as the sun sets, the breeze off the lake puts a chill into Dean’s bones. Next to him, Jimmy begins to shiver, and Dean shifts closer. “You okay?”
“It’s a little cold,” Jimmy whispers.
Dean pulls the blanket out from under them and they drape it across their shoulders. Dean moves close and presses his arm against Jimmy’s. “Look.”
The kids approaching the shore—two boys, two girls—are whispering loudly and jostling each other. It’s past midnight now and the lake is supposed to be closed. When the kids strip down, Dean knows why they waited until after everyone was supposed to be gone.
Dean feels like a pervert watching them like this, but it can’t be helped. He feels Jimmy fidget next to him, and when he glances over, he can see Jimmy’s cheeks tinted red in the dim light.
For the next hour, they watch and do not speak. Dean begins to think that they aren’t going to see the rusalka tonight when one of the boys disappears under the water with a surprised cry.
Dean springs to his feet, throwing off the blanket, sensing Jimmy just a few feet behind him. The two girls stand in the shallows screaming while the second boy goes in after his friend. “Where are you?” he screams. “Brian! Brian! Where are you?”
Dean toes off his boots and dives in after the kid. He swims to the spot they’d last seen the kid go under and dives down. He’s lucky enough to grab an arm, and Dean kicks hard, dragging the kid to the surface.
The rusalka follows them as Dean had hoped she would. Jimmy strides into the shallows to help Dean pull the kid to shore, and Dean begins to follow. He feels a hand close around his ankle, and he goes down hard, face-first into the water. The air leaves his lungs in a rush, and Dean tries to raise his head but there’s a weight on his back, hands on his head, pushing his face into the mud.
When he breathes in again, he breathes in water, and Dean realizes that he’s probably going to drown. Jimmy is too new, too green, to manage the rusalka.
Time seems to stop. Dean expects to see a Reaper but none appear. There is only darkness.
The next thing he knows, he feels a jolt of electricity, and then he’s bathed in warmth; every cell in his body sings. He is warm and loved and overwhelmed with joy.
Dean blinks and sees Jimmy’s face hovering inches from his own. “Is she—”
“Dead,” Jimmy assures him, his voice hoarse. “I kept her out of the water long enough.”
“How?” Dean asks, struggling to sit up. His legs are still in the water, but he can feel the mud clinging to the back of his shirt.
“She was angry with you, and she followed you out.” Jimmy offers a grim smile. “Rock salt works wonders.”
Jimmy’s face is so pale, Dean is certain that he’s about to pass out. “That was good work, Jimmy,” Dean says, slowly getting to his feet and offering Jimmy a hand up. By now, Dean has worked out that the worse the injury was, the worse Jimmy feels after he heals it. Based on how Jimmy sways once he’s on his feet, Dean had been badly hurt.
“How long was I out?” Dean asks, steadying Jimmy. Dean feels just fine—better than fine, really, given that he’d been more than half-drowned—and he’s cold, but steady.
Jimmy just shakes his head. “Too long.”
The kids are gone, and when Dean asks, Jimmy says only, “They ran away after they got a glimpse of the rusalka.”
Dean doesn’t blame them, and they stumble towards the car. Jimmy leans on him heavily, and Dean sighs. “This isn’t good for you.”
“I didn’t have a choice. Besides, a little weakness is a small price to pay.”
Dean doesn’t respond, knowing that he would make the same choice in Jimmy’s place. He just loads Jimmy into the passenger seat and climbs behind the wheel.
He drives to the nearest motel and gets a room. By the time they get inside, Jimmy is shivering violently. Dean doesn’t hesitate; he helps Jimmy out of his wet clothing and pushes him toward the bathroom.
Jimmy resists. “What about you? You’re cold, too.”
“We’re both cold,” Dean replies, “but you’ve lost too much blood. Go on.”
Jimmy gives in, and Dean starts stripping off his own wet, muddy clothing. He pulls dry clothes out for both of them and sinks down onto the edge of one of the beds.
When Jimmy emerges, Dean takes his turn. He’s tired but still feeling buzzed from what happened earlier. He can’t describe how it had felt to be healed like that, not even in the privacy of his own mind. Dean feels better than he has for years—he feels lighter, and the colors around him are brighter. His skin tingles and he can smell soap and shampoo and water in a way more real than before.
He’s expecting Jimmy to be asleep when he emerges from the shower, but Jimmy is sitting on the edge of his bed in his boxers, staring down at the roll of gauze in his hands. His wounds—the stigmata—are bright red against pale skin, and dark circles ring his eyes.
Jimmy looks beaten down, and Dean settles next to him on the bed. “You want me to take care of that for you?” he asks.
“I can do it,” Jimmy replies, but he makes no move to begin covering the wounds.
Dean gently takes the first aid supplies and begins working on the wrist closest to him. “You okay?”
“What did it feel like?” Jimmy’s voice cracks on the last word. “I know how I feel, but you—”
“It felt like liquid energy went right through me, like I was filled up with light,” Dean finally says once he finishes with the first wrist. “I can’t put it into words. You?”
Jimmy takes a deep breath. “I don’t know, but it feels good enough that it almost makes up for these.”
He nods at the wrist Dean’s bandaging, and Dean pauses. “It takes a lot out of you, though.”
“It’s worth it,” Jimmy responds. “It has to be. This is—this has to be enough.”
The expression on his face is so lost, so wistful, that Dean can’t help but lean in, wrapping an arm around Jimmy’s bare shoulders, pressing his forehead against Jimmy’s temple.
Jimmy sags into him, and when his lips brush Dean’s shoulder, Dean doesn’t mind.
“Maybe, if I can save enough people, it can be enough,” Jimmy whispers, and Dean feels Jimmy’s lips curl up into a smile against his skin.
Dean curls a hand around the back of Jimmy’s neck, feeling warm skin and the tickle of damp hair. “I know just how you feel.”