“Sammy, I’m telling you, something’s off here.” Dean had barely shut the front door before he was speaking. Sam coughed from where he sat bundled up in the small, cozy front room of the cottage they’d been granted. He shifted and the blanket fell away, revealing his pale and tired face, his limp hair. Dean immediately forgot what he’d been saying as he rushed over to his brother. “Shit, are you feeling worse?”
“I’m fine, Dean.” Sam coughed again, his hand lifting weakly to cover his mouth.
“Like hell you are,” Dean growled, picking up the blanket and tucking Sam back into his cocoon. Sam had insisted in getting out of bed so he could at least feel like he wasn’t an invalid. Dean had allowed it after much arguing, but with conditions. Staying warm was one of them. “I’ll build up the fire some more.”
“No, I’m good, Dean. Don’t worry about me. What were you–“ a small coughing fit made Sam pause as Dean watched anxiously, “–talking about when you came in?”
“Oh, yeah… I dunno if I trust Crowley.” Dean turned away to tend the fire.
“Why not, Dean? He’s been nothing but nice.” Sam shifted, reaching for the mug of water and knocking aside the blankets once more. Dean pretended he hadn’t seen after noting the nervous glance Sam cast at him as he tried to shift the blankets back into place. Finally, Sam gave it up as a lost cause and finished reaching for the stone mug, his fingers curling around it. He had to grasp it with both hands to keep it steady.
“Yeah, too nice,” Dean grumbled as he carefully set another log in the stone fireplace. “Just, what is it he’s hiding? What are they all hiding? He makes my skin crawl.”
“What’s making your skin crawl is us settling down. We’ve been here how long?” Sam gulped down the water, draining the mug. His throat must have been verging on painful with all that infernal coughing. “You’re just itching to get a move on already. Dean, you’re looking for reasons because you feel guilty.”
“What? No! I do not!” Dean whirled around, his voice defensive and hard and yes, definitely guilty. He wouldn’t look his brother in the eye and his fingers twitched and fidgeted with the end of his tunic. Dean looked up in time to see Sam’s fingers go limp, dropping his mug. At least it was empty and it went no further than the mass of blankets in his lap. With a sigh, Dean once again pretended that he hadn’t seen.
Instead, Dean returned to the topic at hand, pacing in front of his brother. His hands rose to rub at the back of his neck, pushing through his short-cropped hair. “I mean, you’re right, I’m not used to… to this,” Dean waved around him at the little stone cottage, not quite big enough for the both of them, but certainly much better than anything they were used to in their 20 odd years of life. “Living inside four walls, having a real bed, having… guests all the time. Having responsibilities.”
“Dean, we’ve always had responsibilities—you, particularly, have had more than your fair share since Dad…” Sam coughed once, twice, but managed to smother it before it grew into a full-blown attack.
Dean paused long enough in his ranting to eye his brother, making sure he was okay. As soon as it became evident that Sam wasn’t about to have an episode, Dean kept going, ignoring Sam’s words. “But this is good. It’s good for us. Good for you. I’m not messing this up for you, Sam. You need this. You need to be out of the open. Winter’s fixing to be pretty bad this year I think. I know we’ve made do before, but I’m certain it’ll kill you if we try that this year. You need to be able to rest for once. The Trials messed you up, little brother and I’m going to make sure you get the chance to recover and return to your old, obnoxious self.”
Neither wanted to discuss the Trials. It had been almost impossible to get the Shurley School of Wizardry to allow two self-trained wizards to take their elite test. But the brothers couldn’t get their official certification without it. And without that certification, they wouldn’t be considered respectable enough for anyone to even consider hiring them for any long term, halfway decent jobs.
The Winchesters were tired of having to scrounge for every last thing, tired of not having a home. Living on the road was… lonely. Particularly for Dean who couldn’t even be open about who he wanted, who he desired. He’d never be able to find love, because in the eyes of society, he was wrong. Dad had once told Dean that something inside of him was broken and he’d never be able to find true happiness.
It was a depressing series of thoughts and Dean pushed them roughly away. Falling back to memories of the Trials and the events surrounding them.
Taking the Trials would have opened up doors for them— had already opened up doors. A man named Crowley—the headman for a village called Canisbay—had approached them the day before the Trials were due to start, offering to take them on if they passed. They just had to convince the school—and by convince, they meant bribe—to allow the brothers to attempt the Wizard Trials. And at the last minute, they’d been granted the permission they sought.
They’d succeeded, but the cost to Sam had been high. Dean didn’t understand it. Sam was the better wizard; he studied more and had more knowledge at the tip of his fingers than Dean did. If anyone hadn’t stood a chance, it should have been Dean.
Instead, something in the Trials had torn Sam up inside. The Head Wizard had been surprised to see that either of them had made it out, much less both of them, but did not seem surprised at Sam’s condition. All he would say was that Sam would recover, given time. Dean was determined to give Sam that time.
So when Crowley approached them again, once more offering them the position of village wizard, room and board as payment, Dean had leaped at the chance without a second thought, for Sam’s sake. Yet now he wondered if that had been the wisest decision.
Something was fishy in the town of Canisbay. Dean was certain of it.
It was the way nobody would talk about the last magician that had held post here, not even to speak his name. His mark was all over the little cottage; his books and clothes still neatly stowed away on shelves and in drawers; a few of his wizarding tools still left out on the table in the workroom when Dean and Sam had been shown inside.
Crowley said the wizard had died, but wouldn’t speak of how. He said only that their village had been without protection against the wild creatures of the deep forest for too long.
“What’s so special about that forest? I mean, not to sound ungrateful, sir, but many villages have to fend off wild beasts without magic protection.” Dean hadn’t been able to keep from questioning despite everything inside him craving to say “Yes!” instantly. Sam had been hunched over the table at the inn in Arcadia where they’d been staying during the trials, his skin feverish, hazel eyes dull. Dean hadn’t been able to believe himself, that he’d risk Sam’s well being by daring to question the very thing they’d hoped find.
“Many villages don’t have to deal with twisted creatures leftover from some ancient war,” Crowley had sneered. “Why, are you too good to protect a small and simple town?”
“No! I just need to know as much as possible, if we’re to do an adequate job protecting your village,” Dean hastened to assure him. They needed this job.
“I’m not hiring him .” Crowley sneered again. “Your brother looks like a stiff breeze could knock him over. We’re hiring you.”
“My brother and I are a package deal.” Dean’s eyes narrowed at Crowley.
“Look, I don’t give a flying fig who lives with you, as long as you do your job . We don’t have any money to pay you. But we have a place you can stay, and we’ll feed you. Whatever’s inside the house is yours to use. I believe our last magician’s books and spell components are all still there. Treat them as your own. Of course, if you should choose at any future point to decline the position, we keep those things for the next wizard.”
“Whatever, you’ve got a deal.” Dean held out his hand. Crowley eyed it before slowly raising his own. Their hands met, and together they gave one, two firm shakes before letting go. Dean resisted the urge to wipe his hand on his pants. Crowley had gone on ahead, leaving Dean to figure out the best way to get Sam to Canisbay without making matters worse.
It was a good setup. They just had to get there.
Now, of course, Dean was wishing he’d asked around a little bit more about the circumstances surrounding the unknown magician’s death. He hadn’t walked off. The fact that all his stuff was still there made it blatantly obvious. No wizard would leave the tools of his trade, of his art behind. Not willingly. Yet there were no signs of struggle or the kind of damage that someone forcing their way inside by magic means would have left. There were no traces of blood on the stone floors.
First, Dean had looked for the wizard’s working robes to see if it had been a casting that had done him in, but he hadn’t been able to find any. The next thing Dean tried was a scrying to find the wizard’s marked grave. But that had also come up with nothing. He’d found the grave but that was it. No last moments, no cause of death. And that should have been impossible. All Dean found was the traces of a body, but no body itself. And without a body...“ How does Crowley know the man is dead? Unless he had a part in it? Maybe they all did.”
“Really, Dean? You think any of the sweet, naïve and gentle folks like Jess overpowered a fully trained magician in his own home? Or Ruby? Meg? Eileen? Or—“
“I get the picture, Sam,” Dean answered with a sigh from the kitchen. There was a moment's silence, broken by Dean working the water pump to refill the mug he’d plucked out of Sam’s blankets. “They could have teamed up on him though,” he added thoughtfully on his return. “One of them could have tricked him with her feminine wiles, getting him to let his guard down while the others laid in wait, just ready to—“
“Dean!” Sam said sharply, before descending into a series of particularly bad sounding coughs. Dean rushed over, water slopping over the edge of the mug with every step. He set it down hurriedly on the table beside Sam and helped him lean forward, supporting him in a sitting position. Sitting up seemed to put less strain on his breathing and helped him to cough less. But this was worse than usual.
“Sam? Sam! Answer me!” Dean wracked his brain for a healing spell, though the only one he could cast wasn’t good enough. It wouldn’t cure Sam, wouldn’t make him better. But it could ease the cough, help him relax and get some sleep.
Dean closed his eyes and lay one hand against Sam’s chest, the other against his back, pinning Sam between them. He carefully chanted the words of a dead language he barely understood and hoped he hadn’t messed up any of the tenses this time. “ Lenire tussim paululum dolorem facere rectum pluvial . ”
He repeated the words a second, then a third time before it had any effect. Dean let out a relieved sigh as Sam sagged forward against his hand and the coughing slowed, then finally stopped. “C’mon, we’re putting you to bed. It’s gotta be more comfortable than this stupid chair.”
“It’s fine. It’s more comfortable than the ground,” Sam protested as Dean hooked his arms around his brother’s shoulders and heaved him upwards, pulling him towards the bedroom in the back, blankets and all. There was only one room, and it only had one real bed. With Sam as sick as he was, Dean would hear nothing of Sam sleeping on the floor. Until Sam was better, he was getting the bed.
“Anything is more comfortable than the ground,” Dean grumbled without really thinking about it, concentrating more on getting his overgrown brother’s legs to move forward and keep him from tilting into the walls. The hall was narrow, and not really wide enough for two men as large as the Winchesters to walk abreast, but they managed it. Somehow. Neither of them had much experience in staying in a home, a permanent structure, but even Dean thought the stone and thatch cottage was ill designed. Thankfully, it was a short walk to the bedroom.
Dean got his brother propped slightly upward in the bed, but otherwise, laying down. “I’ll get dinner. I think Kate brought a stew by this afternoon. That and some warm bread should make you feel better,” Dean said as he bustled about, tucking the edges of the blankets down and under Sam until he could barely move.
“No, you just lay right there, you moose, and let me take care of you, okay?” Dean disappeared before Sam could do more than sigh sadly.
In the kitchen, Dean found the stew hanging over the open fireplace simmering away, keeping warm. He grabbed a ladle down from the wall and gave it a stir. The stew was bubbling nicely and he sipped carefully at the ladle. Tasted okay. Reaching for a couple of wooden, hand carved bowls, he filled them up, then unwrapped the bread that had been left warming nearby. A few quick movements and he had it sliced up and a couple of pieces lay atop the stew, soaking in the wonderful aroma and taste.
Dean had to hand it to the people of Canisbay—not a one of them were bad at cooking. It sure was an improvement on his and Sam’s cooking; often bland and always the same things, day in and day out. Here, in Canisbay, the variety of meals and flavors were spectacular. That was one thing aside from helping Sam that Dean didn’t regret about this job.
A shiver ran through him, as a cold draft burst through the room.
Cottage could do with better weather proofing though . He would look through the spell books after Sam fell asleep to see if he could find anything to help. After all, if he couldn’t keep Sammy warm, then staying here wouldn’t really be the solution Dean had hoped it would be.
It didn’t take long for Sam to fall asleep. He nearly finished the stew, and had eaten all the bread. That was a good sign. It was more than he had eaten yesterday. Dean collected the bowl before it could fall to the bed and spill the remainder of its contents on the blankets and, after first making sure Sam was as comfortable as could be, quietly left the room.
After taking care of the remainder of their meal, Dean stepped to the last room at the end of the hall. The one that had been set up as a wizard’s workroom. With a couple of muttered words, “ Maj lucem ,” the enchanted lights came on and he strode over to the desk next to the bookshelf. With a second, muttered word, Dean closed his eyes and let his fingers drift over the spines of the other magician’s books.
His fingers closed on the oldest one there, brown leather and worn gilded corners.