They'd driven four hundred and twenty-three miles that day by the Impala's odometer, pulled off the interstate at exit 298 and stopped at the third motel they found, a handful of run-down cabins scattered around a big gravel parking lot. They were paying with a brand-new card and they hadn't called anybody for two weeks, and no one in the world knew where they were but them and God. So when the knock came on the door, just after dark, Dean's hands went from cleaning the gun to sliding it back together, smooth and quick and easy, loading even as they got up from the beds and crept to the door.
"Yeah, who is it," Dean called, thinking. There was a window on the far side of the room, in the kitchenette; if it was the Feds, maybe he could stall long enough to give Sam time to get out that way—he could toss a little flashpowder in their eyes if they had guys back there too, and then it was dark woods for a good mile, going by the road they'd taken to get here.
But there wasn't an answer, just another rap-rap-rap, and Sam cautiously peered through the eyehole and then backed off again and hissed, "There's nobody there."
Dean looked down: their salt line inside the threshold was solid; he reached to flick aside the curtain and see about the windows. "Holy shit!" he said, jumping back.
The owl glared at him with giant yellow eyes from under its scowling feathery brow, and clacked its beak against the window again, insistently.
"Check it out, it's a freaking rabid owl," Dean said, holstering his piece and peering out at it.
"Do owls get rabies?" Sam said, dubiously.
"You're not gonna tell me that's normal," Dean said, pointing at it. The owl was getting more agitated, fluttering up from the sill and clawing at the window with its talons.
Sam squinted and leaned closer to the window. "Is that—does it have a note tied to its leg?"
"Dude, don't open—"
Too late: Sam had slid up the window and the owl burst into the room, hooting angrily, and started circling around their heads. It took almost half an hour to get the thing to land on the TV set and get the note off—it wouldn't let Sam take it at all, and Dean didn't really want to get anywhere near the freaky-ass thing. "I still think it's got salmonella or something," he muttered, unrolling it, and then he stared at the front of the envelope.
Dean Michael Winchester
Pocono Country Lodge, Room 7
United States of America
Sam looked down at it over his shoulder. "Okay, that's weird," he said, under-fucking-statement of the year.
Dean jerked his head up at the owl. "How the hell did anybody know we were—Christ, I'm talking to a freaking owl," he said, cutting himself off.
The owl hissed impatiently and held out its claw. Dean held back the letter. "You're not getting it back, Woodsy, it says it's for me."
The owl didn't give a hoot, more like a sigh, and then it burst off the TV set right at him. Dean fell back windmilling on the bed, letter still clutched in his hand. The owl pecked at his front jeans pocket—"Holy fucking Christ get it off me!" Dean yelped while Sam just stood there laughing—and yanked out his money clip. It shook it furiously, scattering twenties and hundreds everywhere, until finally it had just one twenty left clutched in its beak, and then it took right off back out the window, flipping its tail feathers at them as it swooped up and away.
"Great," Dean said. "I've been mugged by an owl. Shut up, bitch, it's not funny."
"So what's it say?" Sam said, still grinning.
Dean ripped open the envelope and read:
It is our sad duty as solicitors for the estate to inform you that your great-grandfather Geoffrey Petrus Albert Quarglehof, sixth Baron Taversham, has recently passed away. As he was preceded in death by your great-great-uncle Perceval Vincent Finchley Quarglehof, great-uncles Reginald Marcus Adelie Quarglehof and Wilberforce Reynold Perceval Quarglehof, your first cousin once removed Gilbert Perceval Tuttleshaft Quarglehof, your second cousins Rupert Geoffrey Calamy-Quarglehof and Violetta Dorothea Eleanor Calamy-Quarglehof, your grandmother Aleisha Margarethe Cordelia Quarglehof-Ryder, your uncle Peter Leslie Quarglehof-Ryder, your first cousin James William Quarglehof-Ryder, and your mother Mary Anne Winchester, you are the nearest living relation, and, the title and estate descending by cognatic primogeniture rather than by the Salic law, the seventh Baron Taversham, and successor to all the rights and privileges thereto.
We invite you to visit our offices to begin proceedings for the probate of the estate. We look for your arrival with great anticipation, and hope to serve you with the same diligence and unquestioned probity as we have your entire family for the last six generations.
Frances Delacorte Wherry Howe
Fumpelty & Howe, Solicitors
125 Diagon Alley, Floor 17
London, United Kingdom
Sam thought it sounded cool. Sam could be a real idiot sometimes. "You've gotta be kidding me," Dean said.
"What is your problem?" Sam said.
"It came from a freaking passenger owl, and you want to take it seriously," Dean said.
"It found us somehow, Dean, didn't it? I just think we should check it out! We've never even talked to Mom's family on the phone—"
"Yeah, and now they're all dead, so it's a little late to get excited about it, Sam."
"Mom had two younger brothers, they're probably not dead, and there's probably a lot more extended family too," Sam said. "Anyway, that's not the point—"
"Yeah, the point is, it's bullshit," Dean said.
Sam folded his arms and snorted. "Maybe the point is, we'd have to take a plane to get there, and you're too freaked."
"Hey, in eight months it'll be all yours, and you can do whatever the hell you want with it," Dean snapped, and Sam flinched and ran white from his forehead to his collar, and then he said, low, "Fuck you," and slammed out of the cabin.
Dean sat down heavily on the bed, trying to be pissed at Sam, more pissed at himself. It was just he hadn't figured out how not to think about it yet. He'd never figured on a long life-line, but he hadn't been staring at the Gates of Hell at the end of it, either. He wasn't sorry; he couldn't be sorry when he could pick up his head and look at Sam through the windows, standing in the parking lot with his head bowed and his fists clenched, shaggy fringe of his hair hanging over his face, tall and alive and breathing. He'd do it the same all over again if he had another chance, and he wasn't going to pull any stunt that might unravel the deal and put Sam back in the dirt.
But it was still—getting to him: the steady march of the minute-hand around the dial, the days flipping over one at a time, getting closer. And yeah, it was getting to Sam just as bad—going through three books a day when he could get his hands on anything worth looking at, trying to teach himself four languages at the same time so he could read ones that hadn't been translated. He had a tired pinched look around his eyes all the time, and Dean figured that the only reason Sam was into this crazy wild-owl chase was he had some fantasy the family might be able to help.
But that was bullshit. He remembered enough of the crap around Mom's funeral to know none of these people had wanted anything to do with Dad, or them; anything they had, Dean didn't want. If Sam couldn't save him, nobody could, and he wasn't wasting any of the time he had left on this thing.
He balled up the letter and tossed it in the can.
The next day they drove out to a little ammo store maybe twenty miles away, run by someone who knew someone who'd served with Dad, and stocked up on empty shotgun shells and bullets. They didn't talk much on the drive; Sam hadn't brought up the letter again. He dragged the gun shop owner back into a corner while Dean was checking out the stock, though, and had a conversation he didn't let Dean overhear. Afterwards he came over and said, "Gimme the keys, I'll be back in a couple hours."
He was doing that a lot these days; Dean put the keys in his hand and watched Sam peel out, dust rising in a cloud off the back wheels, before he turned back to the counter. "Yeah, you got any parts for a Glock 19C?"
They ate burgers for dinner in the back corner of a bar, late; Sam had come back after four hours with a stack of nine new books in the back seat, seven old ones gone. He was already reading one of them, burger in one hand, other hand holding the book open on the table, his fingers flipping the pages. Dean finished his food and leaned back in the booth with his second beer and just watched him for a while, the way Sam's mouth would silently form the latin words as he read.
When they finally got back to the motel, it was way past dark, and there was a post-it note on their door saying see front desk. The desk clerk looked up as they came in. "Hey," he said suspiciously, "either one of you Dean Winchester?"
They were paying on Wiley Cody's credit card. "Uh, yeah, it's his maiden name," Dean said, thinking fast, and jerked a thumb at Sam.
"Huh?" the clerk said. Sam kicked him in the ankle hard; Dean just leaned on the counter and gave the clerk a big smile. "Oh—oh, uh, oh, an, uh—there were a couple letters left for you," the clerk stammered, shoving them across the desk with just his fingertips.
The letters were exactly the same.
Dean Michael Winchester
Pocono Country Lodge, Room 7
United States of America
"Hey, and you owe us twenty bucks for the cancer research change jar," the clerk added.
"Excuse me?" Dean said.
"Your pal's trained owl grabbed it and took off," the clerk said. "Thing was almost full."
Sam kicked him in the ankle again after they left. "Maiden name?"
"Shut up," Dean said bitterly, putting his wallet away. He didn't bother opening the envelopes before trashing them, this time.
The day after that, he put his money in his wallet, zipped it inside his bag, locked that in the trunk of the car. "You can quit bringing these things, I'm not paying for them," he snapped at the owl when it showed up, this time with four copies, both of them labeled THE FAVOUR OF YOUR REPLY IS URGENTLY REQUESTED. It glared at him furiously—okay, it would've been kind of hard for it to not be glaring furiously, but its feathers looked extra fluffed up—chucked the letters on the floor, and took a dump on the Impala as it flew away.
Dean burned the letters. He sprinkled some salt on them too, just in case that helped.
The next day, he told the desk clerk not to let the owl in again. "Thing's got bird flu," he said. Then he stayed in wait in the room and flipped the owl the finger through the window. It flew away out of sight, and ten minutes later eight letters came zooming in through the cracked-open window in the kitchenette, one at a time, and half of them landed in the spaghetti sauce Sam was making. Then it clawed the car.
"Goddamn feathered son of a—!" Dean yelled, chasing out into the parking lot after it too late.
"Look, why don't you just write them back," Sam was saying the next day, while Dean went around checking to make sure all the windows were shut and latched, the door was on the bolt and chain. He'd put a tarp over the touched-up, freshly waxed car, and he'd spent the day writing on it with Wite-Out: I have a shotgun and I WILL use it. He'd nailed a piece of wood down over the mail chute and was bending down to check that the towel he'd stuffed under the door was still in place when the piece of wood flew off into his face.
"Ow!" Dean yelled.
Sixteen letters shot in like missiles, one after another. There was a faint hooting noise outside, mocking.
"That's it, I'm going to shoot that thing down," Dean said, rubbing his forehead where the piece of wood had whacked him right over the eye. Sam was opening one of the letters, covered all over in URGENT URGENT URGENT, and this time, at the bottom in small print, it said, and if you require any funds forwarded from the estate to meet the inconveniences of a transatlantic journey, do not hesitate to apply at our firm's New York branch, located in the G.E. Building at 570 Lexington Avenue, Manhattan, in Suite 1313.
Sam read it out loud and gave Dean a pointed look.
"Fine, we'll go," Dean said. "At least it'll get rid of the goddamn owl."
The GE Building was a great old skyscraper Dean was pretty sure he'd seen in black-and-white movies of New York. It had a lacework tower, fancy pink marble in the lobby, and a dozen armed security guards. What it didn't have was a thirteenth floor.
"What the hell," Dean said, in the elevator. "That's it, we're outta here."
"Hey, we're here already. Maybe it was just a typo," Sam said, hauling him back in, and hit the button for twelve before Dean could argue. There was no suite 1213, and the receptionist in suite 1214 was cute enough to be worth the elevator ride, but she'd never heard of Fumpelty & Howe at all. "Come on, let's check fourteen," Sam said, and they went for the stairs to save time.
Dean stopped at the exit door on 14 and looked back down the stairs. Sam had stopped at the halfway landing and was staring at the blank wall. "You coming or what?"
"Just a sec," Sam said, so Dean rolled his eyes and turned away to open the door onto the fourteenth floor. Five guys in hard hats looked up from a table at him: the entire floor was gutted down to the concrete, and there was wiring spilling around everywhere. "Sorry, wrong floor," Dean said, and pulled the door shut. "Dude, we're done," he said, turning back to Sam—who wasn't on the landing anymore.
"Sam?" Dean said. He stuck his head over the railing. No sign of anyone on the stairs at all. "Sam!" He took the flight of stairs in two jumps and skidded on the last one, sliding right into the blank wall—
—and straight on through, with a feeling like his ears had popped, into a plushly carpeted hallway. He landed sprawling on his back at the feet of several large iron stands holding birdcages full of owls. He stared up at the biggest cage, and the giant yellow-eyed horned owl glared down at him. "You," Dean said, with loathing.
The owl made a rude noise. The other owls hooted softly in amusement, and one of them turned its head all the way upside down at him, which Dean figured wasn't polite either. He jumped up to his feet and took a step towards the cage.
"Hey, you made it through, come on," Sam said, coming down the hall towards him.
Dean said, "Hang on, I'm gonna—No, wait—" Sam was hauling him away.
"You're not going to kill an owl, Dean!" Sam said.
"You saw what it did to my car! Deserves to lose a few tailfeathers at least," Dean muttered, but he gave up and followed Sam down the hall.
There were flickering blue gaslight sconces on the walls, and a thick red carpet on the floor that swallowed up their footsteps. The hallway was empty, with big heavy wooden doors every few feet numbered 1301, 1302, and around the corner, 1313 was two massive double doors, studded with iron, with a plaque labeled in letters of fire.
They stared at the flaming letters for a while. "Man, our lives are seriously messed-up," Dean said, and pushed the doors open, ducking under the flames.
The secretary looked at them dubiously, which Dean didn't think was fair since she was the one wearing a bright red witch costume and fingernails that kept changing colors every ten seconds, to match her hair. "May I ask what this is in regards to...?"
"Lady, your guess is as good as mine," Dean said. "I just want your freaking owl to stop harassing me."
"We got this letter," Sam said, and handed it over to her. She took one look and her eyes widened. "One moment, please," she said, and vanished. Literally.
"Man, I hate this," Dean said, shoving his hands in his pockets and looking around the offices, heavy wood paneling and bookshelves loaded with four-inch-thick tomes in ornate script he couldn't read, an enormous globe of gold-leaf continents and lapis oceans gently spinning by itself in the corner. "This is some evil shit here, Sam."
"They're lawyers, Dean, not demons," Sam said.
"That's worse," Dean shot back, and Sam rolled his eyes.
A door slammed somewhere in back, and in a moment a man came hurrying out to them, dressed in long black robes with gold embroidery, with the secretary coming behind him. "Lord Taversham!" he said, holding out his hand to Dean. "I am Whittington Bigglespoth, senior partner of the New York branch." He had tufts of white hair and a pinched, displeased mouth. He was doing something weird with it; it took Dean a second to realize he was trying to smile, and it wasn't working. "It is a pleasure, indeed an honor, to meet you at last. And such an," he coughed, in what was maybe supposed to be a laugh, "unconventional mode of arrival. I beg your pardon for finding us so unprepared. Please, please, this way—"
He kept talking as he led them down the hall to his office. "We do not ordinarily recommend coming through the back door, as it were," he said over his shoulder. "Security in the building has become quite unreasonably suspicious in the last few years, and many of our, ahem, clients who would otherwise prefer the discretion of the back way have found it difficult—but then," he glanced back at them, "I must really compliment you—why, no one looking at you would ever imagine you were not Muggles—"
Muggles? Dean mouthed at Sam. Sam shrugged, helplessly.
They sat down, and Bigglespoth brought out paperwork and started talking. Dean tuned out after about three seconds, and he only came back in when Sam kicked his chair leg hard, to find the lawyer-robe-guy waiting expectantly.
"Look, I'm not much for all this official stuff," Dean said, "so just give me a bottom line here." He figured that had to work, no matter what the current topic of conversation was.
"Ah," Bigglespoth said, clearing his throat. "Including Taversham House and the grounds, the value of the estate is on the order of twenty-three million galleons."
"Uh huh," Dean said, cynically. "And it's what, ten thousand galleons to the dollar?"
Bigglespoth tapped a small rock sitting on his desk, which popped out arms and legs and a fat little scowling head. "Current exchange rate from galleons to the dollar," he said.
"What dollar? What dollar?" the fat rock-guy squeaked, irritably.
"American, obviously!" Bigglespoth hissed back.
"Four point eight two one six three US dollars to the galleon," the rock-guy said, and then promptly squashed himself back down into a lump.
"A hundred and ten million dollars," Sam said, automatically. Then he paused. "A hundred and ten million dollars?" His voice got kind of squeaky at the end.
"Well, I am afraid," Bigglespoth said, "that under the present tax code, the inheritance tax rate
blah blah blah blah family trust, blah blah liquid assets, blah blah blah blah, thus reducing the value of the estate to approximately ninety-four million dollars, the bulk of which—"
Dean broke in, "This is where the candid camera comes out, right?"
Bigglespoth paused and stared at him blankly. "Candid... camera?" he said.
It took a while to sink in. Not that Dean minded someone handing him a bag full of all the money in the world, but what the hell? and then after another dazed half-hour listening to Bigglespoth drone on about taxes and annual income and interest rates, Dean finally cut him off again mid-sentence. "Okay, so what do I do to cash out?"
"Er, I beg your pardon?" Bigglespoth said.
Dean waved a hand. "Cash out. Get the whole ninety million in a suitcase."
Sam rolled his eyes. "Dean," he hissed, in that you're embarrassing me way.
"Yeah, okay, two suitcases," Dean said. "A trunk. Whatever. I don't need a frigging country house in England and I don't need a, whatsit, a trust. Break the piggy bank." He tossed his head back and threw Sam a grin. "I'll take you to Disneyworld."
Bigglespoth was staring at him with huge horrified eyes. His hand was trembling. "Sell... Taversham House?"
"Dean!" Sam said.
"Dude!" Dean said. "What the fuck are we gonna do with a house in England? Come on." Sam just flipped a hand and looked away, slumping in his chair. Yeah, trust Sam to get all turned on by a freaking house. "Seriously, what, maybe if it was haunted we'd—"
"It is!" Bigglespoth said urgently. "There are seventeen historical ghosts at Taversham House!"
Dean raised an eyebrow. Sure there were. "Any of 'em ever killed anybody?"
"What? Of course not!" Bigglespoth said. "They are all properly certified and fully personified apparitions, not dangerous spiritual remnants—"
"Uh huh," Dean said. "Hey, that's great. You can sell it to those, who are those guys, the Ghost Hunters? That TV show."
"But—but—" Bigglespoth said, stammering, "Eleven generations of your family—the Enchanted Forest—the labyrinth used by Sir Gallimauphrey Adelbert to entrap the Wolverine of Winchcombe—"
"You're kidding me, right?" Dean said.
"The library!" Bigglespoth said desperately. "Thirty thousand volumes—first edition of De praestigiis daemonum—"
Sam sat up so hard his chair skidded a couple inches on the floor.
"Aw, goddammit," Dean said.
After that, Bigglespoth pretty much didn't let them breathe for thirty seconds before he was talking about paperwork and signing; he still looked panicky and sweaty, and he practically shoved them down the hall. "Only a short Floo trip—everything in readiness—other partners eager to meet you in person—" He stopped them in front of a big fireplace, and stood there waiting, expectantly. Dean looked at Sam, who was just as blank, then looked back at him. Bigglespoth made a discreet handwave at a big ashtray full of glittering sand.
"You're gonna have to spell it out," Dean said.
"Er, Diagon Alley?" Bigglespoth said.
"Okay?" Dean said.
Sam elbowed him and said, "We've never been there before. Maybe you could go first—"
"Oh, how inconsiderate of me, of course you might not recognize the grate," Bigglespoth said. "Certainly—pardon me—" He stepped forward, took a big handful of the sand, and threw it into the fireplace. The nice, friendly, quiet little fire roared up bright green, and Bigglespoth shouted, "Diagon Alley!" stepped into the fire, and disappeared.
The fire went back to its meek little quietly crackling state. Dean stared at the big empty fireplace where Bigglespoth really wasn't. Then he looked at Sam. "Okay, let's get outta here."
"Dean," Sam said.
"Seriously, we're doing this?"
Sam grabbed some of the sand, threw it in, said, "Diagon Alley," and was gone. Dean figured that was a yes. "Fuck," he muttered, checked to make sure his Glock was tucked snugly in the back of his jeans, and grabbed a handful. Then he wasn't sure, hadn't Bigglespoth taken more? He let it go and grabbed a bigger handful, threw it in, yelled, "Diagon Alley," and shut his eyes to step into the roaring green fire.
It grabbed him like two fists on his arms and sucked him straight down, some kind of black roaring tunnel everywhere around him, blasts of cold air in his face splitting time with sudden gusts of more green fire, and it just kept going and going. He tried to put his hands out and touch something, anything, but there wasn't anything—like he'd been sucked into a tornado and was shooting straight down into "Holy fucking shit!" he screamed, and went flying out a fireplace into a crowded street, nearly mowing down two guys in floor-length robes as he hit the ground. "Jesus fuck!" Dean said, rolling back up to his feet and putting his hand back to check—the Glock had stayed with him—and looked around wildly.
"Okay," Sam said, grabbing his arm, "calm down, you look like you're nuts."
"I am nuts!" Dean grabbed Sam by the shirt. "I'm nuts for letting you talk me into this! Where the fuck are we?"
"Er, Diagon Alley," Bigglespoth said, standing back a few steps, wide-eyed. "Our main offices—" He waved at hand at the big building behind them, with its discreet metal plaque: 125.
"I thought your offices were in London," Sam said.
"They are," Bigglespoth said. "Diagon Alley, London—"
"London?" Dean said. "London? You brought us to freaking England? What about my car!"
"Your, what?" Bigglespoth said.
"My car!" Dean said. "Which is parked on the street in freaking New York City!"
"I told you to put it in a garage," Sam said sort of under his breath.
"Shut up, I wasn't letting some attendant drive my car."
Bigglespoth ventured, "Do you mean, an automobile? A Muggle automobile?" He sounded dubious. There might've even been a sneer in his voice.
Dean smiled. Bigglespoth's eyes widened, and he backed away rapidly. "I mean," Dean said, really calmly when you considered the situation, "my 1967 Chevy Impala, which my daddy gave me the keys to when I was seventeen years old, and if it gets towed by some asshole because you took me across the freaking ocean—"
"Oh," Bigglespoth gasped, maybe because his back had hit a wall and he didn't have anywhere left to back away to, "a family heirloom, of course, I understand—I assure you! I will have Gribbleroot and Grinder arrange to pick it up—firm has them on retainer—"
"Nobody is driving my baby anywhere," Dean snapped.
"No, no," Bigglespoth said. "They are professional artifact-movers—handle priceless antiquities for Gringott's! They would never dream of actually activating—"
Sam was hauling Dean back. "The car's gonna be fine, Dean! We can always just go back—"
"Are you crazy?" Dean said. "I'm never getting in that thing again and neither are you."
"Dude, we're in London," Sam said. "In five minutes," as if that was cool instead of completely freaking wrong. He was grinning, for God's sake.
"I hate you," Dean said.
He hated Sam even more, and more seriously, after another four goddamn hours in a giant stuffy room full of half a dozen lawyers who kept calling him Your Lordship, capital letters theirs not his, talking legal gibberish at him and putting out paperwork that Sam kept picking up, and reading, and asking questions about, which got them more legal gibberish—"Eight months left, and you're making me sit through this?" Dean exploded, finally, at which point Sam punched him in the mouth, then Dean knocked Sam's chair over and spilled him onto the floor, and the lawyers all yelped and scattered as they went at it. Sam finally slammed him up against a wall, heavy wood paneling absorbing the thump of both their bodies, and pressed in tight, his forehead against Dean's, and whispered, "Shut up. Shut up. I'm not going to let you, I'm not—"
"I know," Dean said, his throat aching, his hands cupped protectively around the back of Sam's head, because Sam sounded twisted up and freaked out, and Dean was starting to think maybe it wouldn't be a bad idea to put up with this, just to make sure Sam had something, for after.
So when the lawyers had crept out from behind their furniture again, Dean said, "Sorry about that—look, you know what, why don't you just send everything to Sam, and anything he wants me to sign, I'll sign."
They all nodded, urgently, and Bigglespoth said, "Perhaps you would like to visit the estate—"
"Awesome," Dean said. "As long as we're not getting there through a chimney."
"Uh, wow," Sam said.
It wasn't a house, it was a goddamn castle.
"Quit catching flies," Dean said, swatting Sam across the back of the head. He was working at not being impressed himself, but it was pretty hard. "Figures you'd like it, princess," he added.
"Shut up, jerk," Sam said, shoving him back. The butler—"I have a butler," Dean whispered at Sam, who pointedly ignored him—a Mr. Murgatroyd Rimple, had a deeply gloomy expression as he took them up the front stairs. But maybe that was just how he always looked.
On the inside, the house looked exactly like you'd expect from a place eleven generations of really weird people had lived in: stiff furniture and heavy velvet curtains and tapestries and paintings plastered all over the stone walls. "How are we related to these people, seriously," Dean said, staring at one portrait of a guy with a tight, angry, pinched mouth and a pointy hat, holding a fat pug on his lap.
"I am sure I have no idea," Pointy-hat said, turning his head to glare. "Stop gawping at me like an ill-mannered lout." Dean managed not to yell, since the butler dude hadn't batted an eye, and Pointy-hat went back to frowning at the painting opposite him, of a chick in a dress Dean could appreciate even if it looked like something out of a Disney movie, thanks to the way the neckline showed off her cleavage. Then she started glaring at him too, took the scarf draped over her shoulders and pointedly covered her breasts with it.
"She's probably like our great-great-grandmother or something, that's gross," Sam hissed, elbowing him.
"It's a frigging painting," Dean said, but weakly. He grabbed Sam by the arm and whispered, "Seriously, this is freaking me out. I said Christo to like ten of those guys back at the law office, and nothing—"
"You seriously didn't," Sam said, pained.
"Shut up!" Dean said. "This place is creepy and so are they! What the fuck are these people?"
"Dude, they're not pulling knives on us, so play along," Sam said, tugging free, and went after the butler with his best choirboy smile, calling, "Mr. Rimple—"
"Rimple will do, sir, if you please," the butler said. Dean rolled his eyes at Sam meaningfully behind his back. Sam ignored Dean some more and said, "Got it, Rimple. Mr. Bigglespoth mentioned a copy of De praestigiis daemonum—"
"Oh yes," Rimple intoned, "purchased by Farnsworth Richling Quarglehof, eldest son of the third Baron Taversham; perhaps it is best not to inquire where or how, although it has been fully authenticated as the copy originally owned by Giordano Bruno: his blood is on the frontispiece. Sadly, Master Farnsworth disappeared before his thirtieth birthday and did not live to inherit. His portrait was moved to the fourth cellar, as it has a tendency to scream incessantly. A notable scholar, if perhaps injudicious, he was also responsible for the acquisition of this first century scrying-bowl, of Roman glass—"
It took another hour of hearing how the second Baron Taversham's four wives (one after the other) had woven this tapestry on the wall, and how the fifth Baron's daughter had changed all the carpets, and how the sixth Baron had brought this china cabinet back from his visit to the fairies in Southern France—Dean wasn't sure if that was supposed to be a joke or what, Rimple looked totally serious—before Rimple even stopped to take a breath again. Sam jumped in and said, "Yeah, but about the library—"
"Hey," Dean said, looking at the dining room table—supposedly could seat three hundred when you opened it all the way up, but he didn't see how you could fit more than twelve—"I got a better idea, how about lunch?"
There was a weird sort of whooshing sound, and when he turned around to look for the source, the sideboard he was standing next to was covered with food: a whole roast chicken, a platter stacked with thick slices of prime rib pink and juicy, another one full of sausages charred black on the outside and split down the middle, giant bowl of mashed potatoes and a boat of pan-dripping gravy that smelled, no lie, like Dean figured Heaven would have to, four kinds of vegetables, salad—
"I take everything back," Dean said devoutly, after his third plateful. "This is the most awesome place ever." Even Sam shut up about the library long enough to go back for seconds. Rimple had disappeared while they were eating, but he came back just about when Dean was ready to settle into the best food coma of his life, and said, "My Lord—"
Dean groaned. "Hey, listen, you can call me Dean—" He stopped, because Rimple was staring at him like he'd suggested Rimple could cut off his own head. "You can't call me Dean?" Rimple shook his head, very fractionally. "Right," Dean muttered. Sam was sniggering into his hand. Dean kicked him under the table.
Rimple cleared his throat and started again. "My Lord, Gribbleroot and Grinder have arrived with your delivery, and as there is no file on hand yet authorizing me to accept, they require your personal signature," with tones of deep apology.
"Uh, my delivery?" Dean said. "Wait, they brought the car here—" He jumped up, went to leave the room, and realized he had no clue how to get back to the front door.
"If you will follow me," Rimple said, but Dean looked out the window and he could see her, sitting in the drive, so he said, "Hey, I'll just take the shortcut this time," and pulled the window open and jumped out to the ground.
"Dean!" Sam yelled after him.
"You go have fun in the library!" Dean yelled back, and cut across the courtyard and hopped the low wall in front of the drive. "Baby, you okay? They didn't mess you up hauling you through hyperspace or whatever it was?" He ran his hands over her sides, checking—no dirt, no dents, no scratch marks—"Hey," Dean said, frowning.
"Lord Taversham?" someone said. Dean looked around and then down. There was a little midget guy about waist-high standing in front of him, with giant pointy ears jutting out to the sides and tufty pale hair and small angry coal-black eyes, glaring up at him. He was clutching a sheet of paper and a feather with long spindly fingers. He thrust out the paper and the feather. "Sign here."
"Yeah, hang on a second," Dean said, and tapped the wheel well. "There was a scratch right in here, she got a rock chip in there on the way into the city, I noticed it when I parked. Now it's gone. Who mucked with my car?"
The midget said coldly, "Cleaning and minor repairs are standard with our service."
"Yeah? Well, put this in your files, nobody works on her but me," Dean said. "What else did you guys do? You touch her engine?"
The midget was silent, and then he said, in a different tone, "You are her maker?"
"I guess she's more mine than she is Chevy's, by now," Dean said.
"I do not know Chevy," the midget said. "Who is he?"
"You don't—" Dean stared. "Dude, what, you never drove a—" It occurred to him maybe the guy couldn't drive. "Uh, Chevrolet, you know, Corvettes? Tahoe? They're part of GM, General Motors, you know about them, right?"
"These are Muggle things," the midget said. "No goblin has worked on her?"
"Goblin?" Dean said. "What, are you kidding—" He stopped and stared at the midget. Goblin. Right. "Uh. No, no goblins. Just me and my dad."
The goblin was silent, and then he said, stiffly, "I apologize. Nothing was done except to the external surface. There were two additional scratches on the underside. Do you wish me to undo the repairs?"
"No, it's okay," Dean said, mollified. "Long as that's all." He took the paper and the feather—looked like it was supposed to be a pen—and tried to sign. It came out in a big blotchy scribble, but the goblin took it anyway. "Thanks for bringing her over."
The goblin stood there a minute, looking at the car, and then abruptly he said, "I am Gribbleroot, of the Ragnuk clan."
"Dean Winchester. Good to meet you." It came out sounding kind of like a question, but the goblin just gave a short bow, and stalked away.
Dean shook his head and went to go check over the Impala some more. "You okay, baby? Man, check out this crazy mess we got ourselves into."
Letting Sam go off into the library maybe hadn't been the best idea, because now Dean couldn't find him again, or Rimple. The back hallways tangled around each other, dark and musty, and the carpets were so thick Dean couldn't hear his own footsteps, which made it even more weird when he could hear others, distantly, tapping along behind him. He turned around finally and said, "Okay, enough with the stalking. You want to get into it with me, come on out, otherwise, quit with the noise."
The footsteps stopped. Dean shook his head and went back to looking. It was starting to get dark, and candles were lighting up by themselves—almost. Dean thought he was imagining it maybe the first time, but by the second one he was sure he'd seen the blur of movement, and on the third time he jumped and came away with his hand gripping a tiny little goblin thing, except smaller, with enormous eyes and spindly legs. "Great," Dean said. "What's with everyone sneaking around behind my back in this place?"
The goblin squeaked, "Anka is being clumsy and being seen! Anka is very sorry! Anka will punish herself severely!"
"Whoa, whoa," Dean said. "Chill out there, little goblin."
The goblin burst into tears. "Anka is not a nasty goblin!" the goblin sobbed. "Anka is a house elf! Anka has served Tavershams for thirty years!"
"Okay, okay!" Dean said. "I'm sorry!"
The elf stopped crying and stared up at him with those freaky giant eyes. "Master is apologizing to Anka?" She sounded horrified.
"Uh," Dean said. If he couldn't apologize, that about ran out his set of crying-chick coping strategies, aside from ones he wasn't trying on somebody barely taller than his knees. He pointed down the hall. "You know what, I'm going to just go—hey, you wouldn't know where the library is?"
"Anka will take Master," the elf said, and took his arm.
"Wait, how—" Dean said, and then there was a stomach-twisting jerk and a pop, and he was standing in a giant room with wall-to-wall books. Sam was sitting at the far end of a long table surrounded by stacks of them.
The elf let go and twisted around the hem of its weird little dress, which looked more like a burlap sack with holes ripped for its head and its arms. "Anka is being very sorry for not being more clever," she said. "Anka begs not to be sent back to the kitchens. Anka is very good with polishing the brass!"
"No, no," Dean said, swallowing down hard and trying not to be sick. What was with these people and this unnatural jumping-around crap? "Nah, we're good. Just, look, quit with the hiding thing, okay?"
"Anka can be much quicker! Anka is only out of practice—"
"I want to see you, okay?" Dean said. "I'm not big on stuff I can't see."
"Oh," Anka said. "If Master wishes." She sounded really dubious.
"Yeah, he does," Dean said. "Uh, there any more of you guys around here?"
"There are being five house-elves and two garden-elves," she said. "Anka's cousin is being supervisor."
"Seven?" Dean said. "Jeez. Okay, well, pass the word to all of them, too. No creeping around."
She trudged out of the room past Sam. Sam didn't even look up from his book to notice. "Hey," he said absently, when Dean came over.
"So what're we doing next?" Dean said. " 'Cause we're not just sitting around here." He didn't look at what Sam was reading. He didn't care.
"Paperwork's coming in tomorrow morning," Sam said, turning a page.
"Yeah, then what?" Dean said. "Dude, we've done for twenty demons these last four months, and there's still more than a hundred of them running around back home. You want us to just, what, check out of the fight? We've got a job to do, Sam." He shook his head. "Now, how the hell we're going to get the car back—"
He stopped. Sam was looking up at him, his eyes bloodshot with reading, tight around the corners, and he said low and steady, "I've got another job to do, Dean, and I'm not going to give up just because you don't trust me to do it."
"Sammy," Dean said. "Sam, come on, I trust you." If anybody could've—
"We're staying," Sam said. "We're staying long as it takes me to find an answer or be sure they don't have one."
Dean looked up at the walls. The ceiling was about sixteen feet high, with books running floor-to-ceiling, and an ironwork balcony halfway up, a stepladder reaching down to the ground. "I don't have that kind of time, Sam."
"Shut up, Dean," Sam said, and went back down to his book, his shoulders hunched up hard.
Dean jerked awake for the sixth time with the sun just barely creeping into the room, and gave up on getting any more sleep. The bed would've been just fine with some company, two or three really hot girls, maybe four; for one guy it felt like being in a padded cell, and the heavy velvet bedcurtains didn't help. And he couldn't hear Sam breathing.
He made a lunge for it and managed to get out of the bed. The guy in the painting on the wall—the same pointy-hatted dude, here in an armchair with a couple of pugs at his feet—jerked awake; he'd been snoring with his chin resting on his chest. "Hmph, unreasonable hour," he muttered, giving Dean a cold look.
"No argument there," Dean said, and went to splash water on his face.
"You missed a spot, dear," the mirror said. "Behind your right ear. Oh, I mean your left ear. I always get confused."
He clumped downstairs and managed to find a room with a table—it wasn't the dining room, but Dean figured he'd try the trick again. "Breakfast?" he said, hopefully. "And I like my eggs over easy," he added. "Whoa!"
The two elves stared at him from either side of the table, their hands full of platters. "Mika was telling Linky that Anka was just joking!" one of them squeaked at the other. "Mika was saying we should not be seen!"
"No, hey, that's right," Dean said. "You guys do the food, too? You're seriously awesome."
They stared at him. "Master liked the food," Mika said. "Master... Master is pleased." Then their eyes started welling up with tears.
"Oh, Jesus," Dean said. "Sam!" he yelled. He wasn't dealing with this alone.
Rimple appeared instead. "Master Samuel has asked for breakfast in the library," he said. "May I be of assistance, my Lord?"
Dean looked helplessly at the gold-leaf trimmed wallpaper and the persian rug and the sniffling elves and the butler and the disapproving Girl, with a Dog on the wall. "You know, I saw this movie on cable, and it sucked."
He felt better after four eggs and bacon and pancakes, and a couple of scones loaded up with jam and the awesome stuff that was halfway between butter and sour cream, and three cups of coffee. After that, he swung by the library and found Sam wearing the same clothes as the day before with little battlements of books built up around his head, so Dean gave up on prying him loose for the moment and headed outside to walk it off.
There was a whole small church right on the estate, real consecrated ground, which Dean figured could maybe come in handy sometime, and a big basin for holy water near the door, with a tap on it. It looked a little old and greenish, so Dean gave it an extra blessing with his rosary, just to be safe, and topped off his flask before he went through and out the back, into what he thought was a garden, but then turned out to be a private graveyard.
"For the extra creepy this place was missing," Dean muttered, and wandered through the stones for a while anyway, just getting the lay of the land, in case any of those supposed ghosts turned out to be for real.
There were a lot of plots that looked freshly planted, and one big mausoleum, stone clean and white next to all the ivy-covered and green-stained limestone ones half-melted in line with it. GEOFFREY PETRUS ALBERT QUARGLEHOF, BARON TAVERSHAM it said, and in smaller letters February 24, 1887—August 11, 2007, a wash of dirt already collecting in the carved letters. It made Dean feel weird: a hundred and twenty years, and he wasn't going to see thirty. But this guy, he'd outlived his kids, his grandkids, his brothers—his whole fucking family, and all he'd had to leave everything to was some guy who didn't even know his name and who he wouldn't have stopped on the street to ask for directions. It made Dean feel a little better. Hell couldn't be a lot worse than being shut up alone in this place, a hundred fucking years old with the crazy elves and people calling you My Lord and Master, nobody left to give a damn about.
Now Dean didn't even have to feel bad about leaving Sam with the FBI on his ass and nobody looking out for him. Sam would get over it, he'd get himself another awesome girl—Sam always pulled awesome ones, even if he took a freaking year about it. He'd fill up the house with kids, read all the books, and okay, it wasn't suburbia with a picket fence, but it'd still be safe, and there were a hella lot worse ways to go than making sure Sam wasn't just alive but had everything he'd ever wanted.
Dean shoved his hands in his pockets and started walking back to the house. Until he could pry Sam loose, he might as well enjoy it. If he ate lunch now, he could probably score dinner twice in one day. "No, don't give it to him up there, he can come down here to eat," he told the elves, so Sam did eventually come down. He brought one of his books, though, and sat there shoveling the food in with one hand and the other one holding it open. Rimple hovered behind him, looking even more gloomy; the book looked pretty old and crappy, leather spine cracked and almost coming off.
"That's that, whatever, the prestigious demons?" Dean said, eyeing it.
"No," Sam said absently, "that was no use, but this is Farnsworth Quarglehof's personal journal, it's full of—hey, Rimple," he turned around, "this keeps talking about some stuff like it should be in the gardens—mandrake root and, uh, dragon's blood—"
"It is not the season for our own mandrakes," Rimple said, "and I am afraid we have no dragon's blood in the house at present, but I can certainly send one of the house elves to Hitherom's Apothecary to acquire whatever quantity you require of either, sir."
"Great, thanks," Sam said, like he sent somebody shopping for dragon's blood every day, ignoring Dean's eyebrows.
The fireplace roared up green and gold while they were finishing, and Bigglespoth came out with a bag stuffed full of papers. "Awesome," Dean muttered, and put down his napkin. "Hey, I'm going to take off—"
"Er, if I might trouble you just a moment, my Lord," Bigglespoth said, uncomfortably. Dean sighed. "There is just one small matter—I am afraid we have been having a minor difficulty with the American authorities."
Dean went still. "Yeah?" he said, ready to grab Sam and haul ass out of there. He took a quick look at the windows: they were open; a minute across the lawn would get them to the car—where the hell they were going to go in England, Dean had no clue, but—
"Yes, the American Wizarding Council apologizes extremely," Bigglespoth said, "but I am afraid they do not have your files in order. They have only been able to find your mother's registration, nothing for either of you, no WAT or WRE scores. We did take the liberty," he added, hastily, "of contacting The Franklin School, and The Salem Institute, but they have no records of your attendance either—as there are so many smaller institutions, and since the present unsettled circumstances we are sadly shorthanded—if you would be so kind as to let us have your wizardry certifications, or even simply let us know which school of wizardry you attended, we can continue to expedite the process of trans-atlantic reciprocal certification—" He trailed off, looking at their faces. Then he said, in a faintly horrified voice, "You—you are certified wizards?"
"Uh, " Dean said.
"Can we give up on this yet?" Dean said, morosely waving the forty-third wand. The little old Ollivander guy was starting to get a little wild around the eyes, and he'd been limping to begin with before he'd started running up and down grabbing boxes. By now he looked like he'd been through a couple of bad laundry cycles, bleached out with his hair sticking up every which way.
"Dean, are you even trying?" Sam said.
"What's to try," Dean said. "I'm waving the freaking things, aren't I? goddammit, ow!" He dropped the forty-fourth one as soon as Ollivander put it in his hand. "That thing bit me!"
"Ah, well," Ollivander said, catching the wand and whisking it away. "A nice rowan, although on the whole I rather thought not. Perhaps a fine chestnut heartwood, eleven inches, dragon heartstring?"
"Hm," Ollivander said, after another dozen or so went by with no results. "I wonder. I have only really kept it as a curiosity..." He vanished back into the stacks, and a few crash-bangy noises later he came out with a metal box. "An experimental wand," he said, opening the box. "Iron, eight inches, unicorn hair. A little thicker than the usual."
"Unicorn hair," Dean muttered. He wondered what it really was: probably like a goat tail or something. He picked up the wand; at least this one didn't feel like he was holding a twig. He gave it a half-hearted wave, and out of nowhere a few red sparks came sputtering from the end.
"What the hell," Dean said, jumping. The handful of sparks sank to the carpet and died. He was about to be officially freaked out, but then it occurred to him—"Hey, is that it? We done?"
"You may have some unusual results," Ollivander said, sounding dissatisfied. "Iron is often inimical to mystical energy..."
"Suits me fine," Dean said, and shoved the wand into his waistband.
"Now, then." Ollivander looked Sam critically up and down and tried him out on half a dozen of the wands already out, and then he said, "Well—yes—I think—" He vanished back into the stacks and came back out with a plain dark wooden box. He stroked the lid with a long finger, thoughtfully, and then he opened the box and held it out to Sam, without ever touching the wand.
Sam picked it up: pale white wood, sanded down smooth and polished, with a pale green stone set into a narrow dark knot along one side, and the whole room went suddenly dark, like rain clouds coming on fast. A wash of shimmering silver light followed the sweep of Sam's arm, and Dean watched it shine in his eyes, a weird tight worried feeling in his stomach, in the small of his back where he felt the cold heavy weight of his wand. Man, he wished they'd never come here.
"Yew, fourteen and a quarter inches," Ollivander said, softly. "Heartstring of a Hebridean Black, very dangerous. Quite a powerful wand."
Sam put it back into the box and took it from Ollivander's long spindly fingers with an awkward smile. "Thanks, we appreciate this."
"Says you," Dean muttered, after they left the shop. "Okay, where to—oh, no freaking way," he said, but Sam caught him by the shoulders and kept him moving towards Madam Malkin's Robes for All Occasions.
"I am not quite sure," Bigglespoth said, when Dean asked him for driving directions. "You see, the wards on the castle—"
"I'm not getting teleported, I'm not going through hyperspace, and I'm not walking," Dean said. "You want me at this place, you show it to me on a map, and I'll get us there."
The road peeled away from the A95 and twisted around for another five miles before it dived into a forest: trees leaning in close over them and more rocks than a gravel pit. "Dude," Sam said finally, looking up from the book he was reading: The Standard Book of Spells, Grade 5. "You've been swearing nonstop for the last ten minutes."
"These people never heard of pavement," Dean said. "This road is banging the hell out of the car, and shit!" He slammed on the brakes as a herd of twenty white horses raced across the road, and disappeared into the trees on the other side. Sam was staring open-mouthed.
"Dean, were those," Sam said.
"Horses," Dean said flatly. "Those were totally horses."
He finally pulled up to the gates after another hour creeping over potholes to gravel to plain old fashioned dirt, and a guy who was seriously twelve feet tall came stomping down to the gates waving his arms at them. "Private property!" he shouted urgently. "Ye'd better be off—"
"Sounds good to me," Dean said to Sam. "Come on, can I turn us around?"
Sam was rolling down the window and sticking out his head. "Is this Hogwarts? Our lawyers set this up—"
"Oh! So ye're the Tavershams. Sorry, there, thought ye were Muggles. Couldn't make out how ye'd gotten past the Obfuscation Charms." But after that the giant stood there eyeing them with a dubious expression. Dean was about to ask if they needed to go around to the other side or something, when he finally opened the gate. "I suppose we can put yer automobile in the stables."
Everybody inside the castle was having dinner, at four long tables full of little kids and one big head table full of teachers, and all of them stared as they came into the hall behind the giant. "Headmistress McGonagall? Hi, sorry we're late," Sam said, sincerely; but for once it didn't work all that well. The old woman sitting at the center of the big table just pursed her lips, tightly, and said, "Professor Flitwick, if you would be so kind as to bring the Sorting Hat." Flitwick hopped down and went trotting off, and she rose to her feet. "If I may have all your attention," she said, in a voice that shouldn't have reached all the way down the giant room the way it did. "Lord Taversham and his brother Samuel will be studying for their Wizarding Equivalence Examinations at Hogwarts during this term.We are indebted to his Lordship for the generous endowment which has allowed the repair of the Southern Wing—"
"Uh, they are?" Dean whispered to Sam.
Sam rolled his eyes and whispered back, "Didn't you read anything you signed?"
"No!" Dean said. "That's what you're for."
"—and I trust you will all welcome them. Lord Taversham, if you please," she finished, as Flitwick came puffing back in, carrying a ratty old hat, frayed and even singed around the edges.
Dean took the hat and raised an eyebrow. "Uh, so—"
"Put it on," Sam hissed.
"Right," Dean muttered, and put it on his head, gingerly. It was too big and slid down over his eyes.
"Well, this is very interesting," said an odd clothy kind of voice, right in his ear. "I am not usually asked to sort adults."
"Jesus," Dean muttered, twitching. Did everything in this place talk?
"Quite an unusual sort of talent," the hat said, in a sort of thoughtful way, like it was rummaging around inside his head. "Not the bookish type, no; but certainly no shortage of courage—one might even say recklessness—" Then it paused, and said, in a very different tone, "Oh. Oh, dear."
"Hey, do you mind?" Dean said. He knew that tone of voice, and he'd take that kind of thing from Sam, or maybe Bobby, but he wasn't taking it from a piece of clothing. "Can we get this over with?"
"Yes, it's quite plain it must be," the hat said, and shouted, "HUFFLEPUFF!"
Dean took off the hat and shoved it at Sam. "Now what?"
Flitwick pointed him at the table with the yellow-and-black banner overhead, and a couple of the older kids slid over to make room for him on the benches. "So you guys are all here to study this magic stuff, huh?" Dean said to one of them. "Pass the potatoes."
"Uh, yes," the boy said, handing over the bowl. "Your Lordship?" he added, vaguely.
"Oh, no way," Dean said. "Call me Dean. You mind scooting over one more for Sam?"
A tall dark-haired girl was sitting on the other side of the table right across from him. She had sleek black hair and almond-shaped green eyes and caramel-colored skin, looked like she was one of those intercultural models or something. She was leaning deeply towards him, and she couldn't have been more than seventeen. Dean made an effort and kept his eyes on the potatoes. He was gonna beat Sam like a dog for this. "Tell me," she said, "do you—"
Sam had just put on the hat, and it interrupted her, yelling, "SLYTHERIN!"
Dean looked around and saw Sam heading for another table. "Wait a second, what the hell," Dean said, starting to get up, but Sam caught him and made an annoyed, sit your ass down hand wave. "Goddammit," Dean muttered, pissed off.
"As I was saying," the jailbait said urgently, "do you play—"
"Thank you, Professor Flitwick, and welcome to Hogwarts, gentlemen. I hope you will be comfortable in your respective Houses; however, our newest arrivals will not be invited to participate in Quidditch," McGonagall added, "much I am sure to the disappointment of Miss Clyde and Mr. Royleton," with a pointed look at both long tables. "Students, please continue with your dinner."
"Damn!" the girl muttered, and slumped back down.
"Don't take on, Clyde, it's not like we'd have a chance against Gryffindor anyway, with Potter and Weasley both repeating," another girl said comfortably. "I'm Martha Wiggenbotten," she said to Dean, handing him a platter. "The pork chops are very good tonight, give them a go."
"At least we mightn't lose so badly," Clyde said, morosely.
"I don't know why you ended up here and not over there with your brother," a sandy-haired boy across the table blurted suddenly, with a weird kind of angry tone. "Isn't Slytherin where all you purebloods go?"
"Kid, I don't know what a pureblood is, but that better not have been an insult," Dean said.
They all stared at him. "But," Martha said, "aren't you one?"
"The Tavershams are one of only nine wizarding families with a peerage," a little kid with owlish glasses said from down the table.
"Never heard of them until the old guy died and his lawyers came after me," Dean said, and he didn't want to hear any more, either.
"It's just someone whose family are all wizards for a ways back, anyway," Clyde said, glaring at the angry kid. "It's not like that's a crime now, is it, Edgar?"
Edgar shrugged one shoulder, coldly, and stared down at his plate.
"Well, either way, it's not me," Dean said. "I didn't even know our mom was."
"Wow," another of the older boys said. "Bet that'll cheese off some of the Muggle-haters something fierce, losing an old line like that."
"Dunno, looks like your brother's settling in just fine with their lot, anyway," Edgar said, still with that edge. Dean looked around: Sam was talking, smiling, his usual make nice with the witnesses smile, and all the kids at his table were reaching over to shake hands with him, smiling back.
"Yeah, good for him," Dean said, and sighed. "Hand me the pot roast."
He dreamed that night, sleeping in the Hufflepuff dorms, with a candle that smelled like vanilla burning on the windowsill, cool late-October air coming in the window and his belly full of pot roast and apple cider. He was standing in the driveway of his house with the wand in his hand, heavy and skin-warm, like a gun, and the demon was facing him across the center, her beautiful face hungry. "We had a deal, Dean," she said softly. "One life for one soul."
"So come and get it," he said, and with a slash of the wand he waved a cloud of dust into the air that outlined a dozen hellhounds ringing him, and he was grinning as they leapt.
He jerked himself awake out of it with a heave that made his four-poster bed creak and complain. The wand was sitting on his bedside table, dark and still. Dean leaned out and grabbed it and shoved it down into the heap of his pants and the dumbass robe so he didn't have to look at it. He wasn't going down that fake yellow brick road.
He didn't get to see Sam again until halfway through the next day, in some class called Defense Against The Dark Arts they were doing together. "We're switching," he told the kid who'd taken the seat next to Sam, and shoved Sam's shoulder hard as he sat down. "I don't believe I let you stick me with a bunch of twelve year olds."
"They're as old as seventeen," Sam said, without looking up from his paper; he had a book open next to him and was scribbling away like crazy, dark circles under his eyes; under his robe he had on the same t-shirt from the day before.
"Those are worse," Dean said. "What are you even doing?"
"A paper on Transfiguration," Sam said. "I want to get it done for tomorrow."
"That McGonagall lady gave you a ten page homework due tomorrow?" Dean said. "I told you this place sucked."
"She gave me one page, due in a week," Sam said. "Maybe you should quit talking in class, the teacher's here."
The teacher, a Professor Caldwick, was a tall skinny guy, not that old, with thinning blond hair and a narrow downturned mouth. He was carrying a thick, dusty, brass-bound textbook that he slammed down on the table with a sound like a gunshot. "We will begin today's class with a discussion of the common methods of dispelling unsettled spirits. You, in the first row."
"Um, Ignatio?" the kid said, in a small voice. She was one of the Hufflepuffs, tiny even for her age, with her hair in tight cornrows.
"When I assign reading, Miss Balt, I expect it to be done. Five points from Hufflepuff," Caldwick said. "Can anyone else serve to enlighten the class?"
"Dude, what's his problem," Dean said under his breath, pissed-off; the poor kid looked like she was going to cry.
Caldwick's head swung around sharply to glare at him. "Lord Taversham, I trust you were volunteering an answer?"
"Salt or cold iron," Dean said, glaring right back at him.
Caldwick sniffed. "We are not interested in household remedies here, Lord Taversham," he said, but he turned to the blackboard, and started his chalk writing notes on something called Repelling Charms instead of giving the kid a hard time anymore.
"Don't let the bastard drag you down," Dean told Balt, patting her on the shoulder as they left the room. "Bet he'd piss himself if he ever ran into a vengeful spirit." The kid stared up at him with a mouth like a perfect round O, and it occurred to Dean too late that maybe he shouldn't be namechecking the teacher to her. "Uh, yeah. Better get to our next class, huh? Sam—"
Sam was already gone, disappearing through a wall that gave a jerk as he walked towards it and grudgingly produced an archway for him just in time, an absent "See you later" thrown over his shoulder. Dean looked at the piece of paper they'd shoved at him with his schedule: something called Care of Magical Creatures next, that was supposed to meet outside.
He followed the other Hufflepuff kids until they got stuck on one of the crazy-ass moving staircases that suddenly swung around with all of them on it, dead-ending in a wall five feet up and over from the next landing. "We're going to be late!" Balt said, her face crumpling, while the rest of them pleaded and yelled at the staircase.
"Yeah, there's something to cry about," Dean said, and then another one of the kids screamed and they all ducked, as a giant urn went swooping by past their heads.
"Ahahaha, gotten stuck, little Firsties?" a cackling voice said, and a goddamn embodied poltergeist came diving down at them, snatching up the little girl's schoolbag and dragging her up into the air by the strap. She yelled but didn't let go, clinging on tight even while the poltergeist started to swing her up and down, her cornrows flying.
"Jesus Christ!" Dean jumped onto the railing and hauled out his wand from where he'd shoved it down deep in the robe's pockets, and jammed it right into the poltergeist's gut. The poltergiest shrieked like a fire siren and dissolved, letting go, and Dean managed to grab the kid and the bag in one arm and swing her back down to the staircase. "Get behind me, up against the wall," Dean snapped. "Hold on to your books, you two guys grab on to the littler kids." He put his back to them and stood with the wand ready, watching the air.
After a couple minutes of nothing happening, he started to feel silly. "Can we go to class now?" the little owlish-eyed kid said timidly. "I don't think Peeves is coming back."
"The thing's got a name?" Dean said. Then he kicked the staircase. "Okay, you piece of sh—uh, junk, move already, or I'm pulling out the lighter fluid and going to town."
The staircase slid hastily over to the landing. "Everybody off the ride," Dean said, letting the kids clear off first, and once they were all safely in the hallway, he took Balt—Katie—and William's bags, because they were too small to be lugging that much weight around.
The giant guy Hagrid was the one teaching the class, and he took them down to a pen on the castle grounds where he had a—"You gotta be kidding me," Dean said. The unicorn stretching its head over the fence at him blinked with limpid blue eyes, and wistfully tried to nibble on his sleeve. Its leg was bandaged up.
"Er, that's a bit odd, now," Hagrid said. "Their kind don't usually go for boys, not once they're full-grown." He lowered his voice. "I, er, wouldn't suppose—"
"Yeah, not by a long shot," Dean said. "And I still don't believe in you," he told the unicorn, which ignored him and mumbled at his hair affectionately.
"Can I pet it too?" Katie said, staring at the unicorn between the fence slats.
Dean sighed and picked her up so she could reach.
Lunch was awesome, with these fresh hot jelly doughnuts for dessert, which sort of made up for the goddamn unicorn, but after that was Charms, where the kids were all making feathers float. "A little more swish and flick, Lord Taversham," Professor Flitwick said, which pretty much crammed all the wrong in the world into one sentence.
"And you have to say it like this," little William said helpfully. "Wingardium levi-oh-sa!" The feather floated up into the air and then settled down again.
"Yeah," Dean said, in a dead monotone, and flipped his wand a little. "Wingardium leviosa." The feather didn't move.
He'd thought things couldn't get a lot worse, and then he followed along to the next lesson and Madam Hooch held out a broom to him. "What am I supposed to," Dean said, and saw the kids all climbing on. "Oh, hell no."
"Excuse me?" she said, eyes narrowing.
"No way," Dean said. "Sorry, but this is where I draw the line."
"You can't qualify for Apparation lessons unless you pass basic flying, Lord Taversham."
"Ma'am," Dean said, "if I can't drive there, I don't want to go."
The first Quidditch game was that Saturday, which didn't mean a damn thing to Dean except maybe he'd have a chance to see Sam for more than thirty seconds, and restart the campaign to get the hell out of here ASAP. Sam had already talked himself up two grade levels and into an extra three classes, so now they didn't even share Defense Against The Dark Arts. Dean barely saw him in the hallways.
Dean stood up in the bleachers keeping an eye out, ignoring periodic yells to sit down—jeez, the game hadn't even started yet—except when Sam did get there, he ignored Dean's waving and headed straight for the Potions teacher. Slughorn was up in a prime spot, wearing a giant scarf in Slytherin colors and a green wizard hat with two green-and-black flags poking out on either side and a fistful of noisemakers in his hand, one dignity step up from stripping to the waist and painting letters on his stomach. Dean rolled his eyes at Sam's brownnosing and climbed up through the bleachers to go haul him back over.
"Sorry, Professor, I just can't find anything about the transmutation oven in the library," Sam was saying, earnestly. "Practical Alchemy says that the Mutus Liber has a picture of it being used correctly, but that's not in the main library—"
"Hm, yes?—perhaps we could discuss—after the match—" Slughorn said, trying to catch sight of the field, which was a little hard since Sam was kneeling up on the seat one rung down in front of him, and there was plenty enough of him to block the view.
"I'd just like to get the essay done before this afternoon," Sam said, pulling out a scroll the size of his forearm. "I've got a paper for Arithmancy to do after this one," he added.
"Good Heavens," Slughorn said, a little weakly, staring at the giant scroll. "Er, is that the paper on the Sleeping Draught?"
"Yeah," Sam said. "I've traced the development back to Egyptian magic, and I'm looking into the variations—actually, I also meant to ask you about the Draught of Living Death, the Basic Manual of Herb Collection doesn't give a clear answer on exactly how fresh the wormwood infusion has to be, and the advanced version's also not in the main library—"
Everybody started cheering wildly: the players were coming out onto the field. "I'm sure it's quite all right as it is," Slughorn said, a bit desperately.
"That's really nice of you, Professor, but I know I've got a lot to catch up on," Sam said, implacably. "You don't need to go easy on me. If you could just explain—"
Madam Hooch shouted from the field, "Mount your brooms!" and Slughorn said hurriedly, "You know, my boy, real learning comes from doing your own research." He pulled a piece of paper out of thin air and scribbled something on it and then held on to it, hesitating. "Ordinarily I wouldn't give access to the Restricted Section of the library to a student at your level—" Then his head jerked to the side as the whistle blew.
Sam leaned forward and grabbed the permission slip out of his hand with a smile. "Thanks, Professor, I'll get out of your hair." Slughorn didn't even notice, he was already yelling about a foul, and Sam was eeling through the crowd and out of the bleachers, just as fast, using his weight to shoulder through to the stairs.
Dean had to jump a couple of rows—"Sorry," he told a few squashed Ravenclaws—and break into a jog to catch up to Sam before he reached the school. "Hey," Sam said, not slowing down as he went through the doors. A staircase swung right around and stretched down two stories to meet him.
"Dude, where are you going? The whole damn school's turned out for this thing," Dean said, following him up. "Come on, let's watch the thing. I'll bet you a beer my kids beat yours."
"I've got some work to do," Sam said. They were outside the library doors.
Dean grabbed his arm. "Hey, wait a second—" Sam stopped and gave him that prissy annoyed look. "Jesus, Sam, what's with you? I get that you've got a hard-on for this magic crap, but this stuff is all bullshit. You want to knock somebody out, you put them in a choke hold and wait. What the fuck do you want to brew a sleeping potion for?"
Sam rolled his eyes. "I don't, Dean. What I want is to get at the demonology books in the Restricted Section."
Sam's eyes glittered suddenly, hard and cold, and he shoved Dean's hand off his arm. "Don't you even fucking start with me," he said, and he turned and went inside the library.
"Sam!" Dean said, grabbing for him again, too late. He stood alone outside the double doors as they swung shut again: they had panes of stained glass, and through them he could see the massive shelves, crammed row upon row with spellbooks, full of secrets and false hopes. He wasn't going in there.
He went back to the game, mostly to stew. The game didn't make any sense; there were something like ten balls, they were on freaking broomsticks, and he was too pissed off to pay attention anyway, so he didn't care about it until they were all filing back into the common room and Edgar said, low and bitter, "We might at least have beaten Slytherin."
Clyde burst into tears and threw her broom against the wall. "Whoa," Dean said, and noticed all the kids were kind of slumping onto the floor and the couches.
"I'm sorry!" Clyde said, muffled.
"Shut it, Edgar!" One of the older kids, a black guy named Prowley, still covered in mud from the game, went over and patted her shoulder. "It's not your fault, Clyde."
"I didn't mean it like that," Edgar muttered, looking at the floor. "Anyway they ought to have thrown that rotter Malfoy into Azkaban, not let him come back."
"It's all just a game, anyway," Martha said. "Why don't we all have a cup of tea, and—and, what about a round of Exploding Snap?" No one said anything or moved; they just drooped some more. Clyde was still sniffling quietly into the back of her hand.
"Okay," Dean said, "Everybody up." They looked at him blankly. Dean jerked his thumb at the door. "It sucks, okay, but you're not all sitting on your asses here moping. Let's go."
"Go where?" Prowley said. "It's two hours to dinner."
"We'll figure it out when we get there," Dean said. "Move!" The drill-sergeant voice worked pretty well on them, and it got the kids outside in the crisp November air. He made them ditch their robes and run around the school twice while he thought. They weren't all that enthusiastic to start, so it felt familiar, just like running with Sam back in the old days: having to nudge them along until they hit their stride, make sure they didn't overstretch themselves. It felt good, cleaned out his head more than just running would have alone.
"Hey, Goldberg, you can go faster than that, quit lagging. You and Kim can get back to the girl stuff after," Dean said, turning around; the two of them were whispering while they jogged right behind him. Lisa Goldberg jerked and blushed hotly, then she and Jenny Kim traded looks and giggled before she pulled ahead.
They were mostly in crappy shape, except for Clyde and Prowley and the other Quidditch players, and even they were getting out of breath by the second lap. "Come on, almost done," Dean said. "That's it, there you go; you guys all finish this, we'll go do something really cool after." He scooped Katie up and carried her for a few yards to give her a breather, then swapped her back down for William.
They all managed to get over the finish line, and then they all collapsed on the ground with a lot of moaning and panting. "See, this is what you get for flying around on broomsticks all the time," Dean said, standing over them and surveying his heap of limp kids. "Up on your feet, you all need a cool-down."
"Now where are we going?" a fourth-year named Neils said, feebly, but it wasn't really a protest. Dean had almost forgotten how nice and easy it was dealing with wiped-out kids.
"Hey, I promised you cool, didn't I?" Dean said. "We're going to the stables."
There was a padlock on the door. "I can do it!" Katie said, and took out her wand and tapped it and said, "Alohomora!" The lock stayed closed though, and one of the older kids sniggered.
"Stop that, she's doing it right!" Martha said. "It must be under an Impenetrable Charm."
The kids all started to take their wands out and try the spell. Dean watched them go at it for a couple of minutes, then he said, "Okay, you guys all done there?" and pulled out his lockpicks. It was just an ordinary padlock, took him thirty seconds to pop, and then he slid the big door open with a flourish.
"Ooo!" all the girls said, and dashed inside.
Dean blinked; he'd been pretty sure the guys would go for it, but—then he looked inside and saw the unicorn in a big stall, nibbling grass. The unicorn stretched its head out towards him and whickered.
"Okay, that is not cool," Dean said. "That's a horse with a pointy stick on its head."
"So what'd you bring us here for?" Prowley said. "That?" He pointed at a big locked-up chest standing in the back.
"This," Dean said, and pulled the tarp off the Impala.
Most of them stood there uncertainly. "Is that an automobile?" William said, blinking at it. He said it ow-toe-mo-bye-el.
"Jesus," Dean said. "They don't teach you anything in this place. Okay, all of you get over here and learn something useful—and forget the damn unicorn; that thing's got one horsepower, this car's got two hundred sixty-five of them."
He took the car out onto the drive and piled the ones who'd never even seen a car into the back to ride along, and put the older kids in the driver's seat one after another and started teaching them how to drive. It was pretty ugly. He patted the dashboard after James Yarrow got out—both parents wizards, kept hitting the brake instead of the clutch—and muttered, "Sorry, baby, it's in a good cause."
Sunday breakfast was maybe even more awesome than the rest of the meals so far: Dean blissed out over the baked eggs and three kinds of bacon. Mail came gently raining down on their heads, and one landed on his own plate, from Bobby:
We got rid of three of them near Bakersfield. One got away; if you heard about a landslide over by Lake Isabella, that was the damn thing, slipping past us. Still and all, nobody killed, so it's one for the win column. We've got a lead on the last one and we're heading out tomorrow morning.
Quit worrying about us. Believe it or not, we know what we're doing. You stay there and let Sam do what he needs to do, and stop second-guessing him. He can't get a whole lot stupider than what you did.
"Whatever," Dean said, and crumpled the note. He looked up to see Sam getting up from the table and heading to the chapel—there went any chance of talking to him again. He looked even more pale and tired, the dark rings under his eyes looking almost like shiners. What the hell did Bobby know? Sam could get ten times as stupid as him before breakfast, the problem was how to stop him when Dean couldn't even get ten minutes of face time. He morosely grabbed another turnover before the plates disappeared.
Katie tugged on his arm. "Can we go visit the car again?" she asked, talking like the Impala was alive, which Dean approved of, so he took her and a few of the other kids down and showed them the carburetor, which he was maybe proudest of; he'd worked it up out of pieces from six cars in Bobby's lot, and he'd hand-tuned the block to racing spec. He was drawing them a picture in the dirt explaining how it worked when someone said angrily, "What are you doing here? This place is off-limits to students."
The kids squeaked; Dean looked up. It was a bunch of goblins, standing next to the locked chest and glaring at them. "Then they shouldn't have put my car here," Dean said. "Chill out, we're not going to muck with your stuff."
One of the goblins squinted at him. "You are Dean of Winchester," he said.
"Close enough," Dean said. "You guys pals of Gribbleroot?"
"He is of my clan," the goblin said, grudgingly. "I am Feklar of Ragnuk. You give your word our tools will not be touched?" He scowled at the kids, who all stared back nervously.
"Not on my watch," Dean said, and the goblins opened up the chest and started taking stuff out—mostly crowbars and mallets, bigger than their heads practically, wrecking tools. Dean frowned after the fourth one came out: he didn't get how all of them fit inside the box. The goblins finished loading up, locked the chest up again, and marched out of the stables and out of sight.
"They must be here to do the repairs on the Southern Wing," James Yarrow said in a low conspiratorial voice. "I heard Hogwarts was goblin-built, mostly. Bet they've got all sorts of cool things in there." He eyed the box with a kind of hungry look. "We could—"
"Anytime, if you want your ass kicked," Dean said. "What's with you, dude?"
Yarrow turned red and dropped his eyes. "Goblins don't share their magic," he muttered.
"Yeah? Doesn't mean you get to go steal it," Dean said. That cowed them enough he could get back to showing them how the air and fuel got mixed, and pretty soon they'd gotten interested enough to stop eyeing the box of tricks. He showed them how to use the tire pressure gauge, which they thought was the coolest thing ever—they all insisted on taking a turn checking all four tires, and even though the tires were fine, they asked if they could add some air anyway, or maybe use the windshield wipers.
The day was lazy after lunch. Most of the kids settled down with their reading or their homework, which Dean wasn't going to do, or to write letters, and after Dean had written "wish you were here (instead of me)" on a postcard and shot it off to one of Bobby's PO boxes, he was done with that, too.
He lay down for a nap and woke up breathing hard, with hazy memories of joy and victory: standing over the crushed bodies of hellhounds with a bloody goblin-made mallet in his hands, shoving the demon squealing into the bottomless box and closing the lid on her. Sam had been in this one too, somewhere, looking up from a chair and smiling at him, a fire crackling in the room behind him, saying, "Everything okay?"
"Yeah," Dean had said, smiling back, leaving the mallet outside the door. "Everything's awesome."
He got up and ducked his face under the cold water tap in the bathroom, then went out to try and track Sam down. The best he managed was to get a look at him through the library doors: bent over four books at once, hair hanging lank and too-long around his face. Dean turned around and went for another run around the grounds, a real one this time, pounding through it fast enough he didn't have time to think. It wasn't working quite well enough, but about three quarters of the way around, passing the lakeside dock, he half-caught something out of the corner of his eye. He paused a second, figuring it was just the crazy giant squid, but it wasn't: looked like a small lumpy black bag was sitting all the way at the end of the dock.
He frowned, and then he realized it was Katie, huddled up in her school robes and her cloak with her head pressed down against her knees. "Hey," Dean said, wiping his forehead off on his t-shirt. He crouched down next to her. "You okay?"
" 'm fine," she said, in a watery kind of way. Dean checked his pockets, but he didn't have a tissue to give her. She snuffled into the sleeve of her robe.
"You want to tell me what's up?" Dean said. "Somebody giving you a hard time? Come on, I'll take care of it."
She didn't say anything a minute, and finally she said almost whispering, "I miss my mum."
"Homesick, huh?" Dean said. "It's almost Christmas, right? You get to see her then?"
"She's dead," Katie said.
"Aw, man," Dean muttered, and sat down next to her. "Sorry, kiddo. How'd it happen?"
"Last year," she said, "at the Battle of Hogwarts."
Dean blew out a breath. He'd known something bad had gone down, the signs were all there—big chunks of the castle needing repairs, so many of the kids looking freaked out—hell, half a dozen of his relatives had died all at the same time and left everything to some random guy in the States. He hadn't asked questions and he hadn't paid attention; he didn't want to know. This wasn't his fight, it wasn't even his neighborhood.
"I know I'm supposed to be proud, because she was fighting the Death Eaters and everything. But I just." She stopped, and gulped. "I want her back."
"Yeah," Dean said, looking out over the gray cold lake, just about the same color Sam's skin had been, lying on the bare ragged mattress. "I hear you."
She leaned against him, so small he barely felt her weight, and he put his arm around her shoulders.
The next day Dean caught Flitwick in the dining hall; the prof was an okay guy and hadn't gotten too much on Dean's case for not swishing and flicking enough to get a feather in the air. "Hey, Professor? There some way I could send an order to get something delivered here?"
"Oh, certainly," Flitwick said. "Just go up to the Owlery and send your message."
Dean followed the directions up to the tower after lunch and came into the Owlery and stopped short. He'd thought owlery was just some weird wizard word for a post office, but no. There were about a million owls in the place, and all of them were staring at him. "Uh," Dean said. "Can I get somebody to take a letter to my lawyers?"
He gave it less than even odds of working, but the next morning at breakfast a giant box smacked down on the table in front of him, sending orange juice and oatmeal flying, with a note attached:
We hope that the enclosed "plasma cutter" will meet with your approval. We are assured by our Muggle Specialist that it is the most highly regarded model. Pray do not hesitate to inform us at any time if you require further assistance. Archimedes has been detailed to serve as your personal courier.
Your Obedient Servant,
Whittington Bigglespoth, Esq.
Dean looked up at the giant horned owl glaring yellowly at him. It hooted. "Awesome," Dean muttered.
But, even if Archimedes did keep dumping the packages into Dean's coffee—until finally Martha got tired of getting splashed and started catching them with the levitating charm on the way down—he did manage to somehow bring in anything Dean asked for, overnight, so by Friday Dean was working a pretty good set of parts. And in even better news, the unicorn was gone from the stables: Hagrid had said it was healed enough to go.
That night, because the universe hated him, Dean dreamed about riding the unicorn. Its horn was dripping black blood, and hellhounds were scattering before its shining silver hooves. Sam was sitting behind him, arms warm and locked around his waist, face pressed against his back, between his shoulderblades; Dean was pretty sure Sam was sleeping. The unicorn moved like silk, smooth rippling gait, and Sam wasn't jarred at all, his warm breath puffing out steadily on the back of Dean's neck.
Dean floated all the way up out of the dream, and lay in bed smiling at the canopy overhead and feeling deeply happy. Then the details gradually and gently came back to him, and he jerked up in horror and jumped out of bed to go dump the whole ice-cold water jug out over his head, scrubbing frantically. What the hell, seriously. "Okay!" he yelled, down the dorm hallway. "Who wants to go work on the car?"
"Hey," he said, catching Sam on the jump after breakfast, before he disappeared out of the dining hall. Sam jerked at Dean's hand on his arm and stared at him out of eyes almost pink with bloodshot, with a weirdly hungry expression on his face. "Hey," Dean said, his hand tightening, involuntarily. "I'm going to be teaching a bunch of my kids about the car. How about you come along and catch everything you missed the first time around?"
Sam's forehead crinkled up, confused, and then he said slowly, "About the car?"
"Yeah," Dean said. "I was thinking we'd swap out the—"
"You're in the top school of wizardry in the world and you're fucking around with the car," Sam said.
Yeah, so much for that idea.
Dean rounded up the waiting kids and hauled them out to the stables instead. At least they showed some appreciation for the important things in life.
"Taversham?" Professor Sprout said. Dean pulled himself out from under the car and sat up. She was their head of House and pretty cool; she was into gardening or something, which Dean thought was about as sane as you could get, with all this magic crap; at least she had real dirt under her fingernails, not pixie dust or whatever it was.
"Yeah, what can I do for you?" Dean said.
"Er," she said, "what are you all doing, exactly?"
"We're rebuilding the breeks!" Yarrow said, importantly.
"Brakes!" William corrected, popping his head up from under the car.
"We're putting in four-wheel disc brakes," Katie added.
"Right-o," Sprout said, still looking blank. "Long as you're all happy, I suppose. Taversham, I wanted you to know that of course you're welcome to go to Hogsmeade with the other students tomorrow, seeing how you're of age and all."
"Hogsmeade?" Dean said.
"Oh, you'll never have been," Neils said. "It's smashing—it's the only real wizarding town in Britain, there's all sorts of shops and pubs—"
"There's a bar in range of this place?" Dean said. "There is a God." Then he noticed Katie and William and the other first-years all looking kind of slumped.
"We don't get to go," William said sadly.
"What, cause you're too small?" Dean said. "That's bull—uh, that's not cool. Why can't we take 'em along?"
"Only third years and over, that's the rule," Sprout said, and double-taked when Dean got up and took her arm and tugged her outside.
"Hey," Dean said, "how about bending it a little? Me and the older kids can keep an eye on them easy—look," he added, because he could see the headshake starting, "I don't know if you guys are missing this, but these kids aren't doing great. Half of them lost someone, the other half are pals with somebody else who did—"
"For Heaven's sake, Taversham, you don't need to tell me, I was there," Sprout said. "Everyone's still shocky—"
"I'm not talking about everyone," Dean said. "The Slytherins go everywhere in a pack, the Ravenclaws are all into the school stuff, and the Gryffindors, it's not just they think they own the school, everybody else does too. They've all got something. These kids, they all held it together, but nobody's treating them like they were heroes, and they don't think they were, either. They're last in the running for this house cup thing, they lost a couple games—"
Sprout rubbed her forehead tiredly. "You're not wrong, but—"
"So cut them a break," Dean said. "You won't even notice they got to go, I swear. They're all good kids, they won't make any trouble."
"We can't be sending them off school grounds without their parents' permission—"
"Some of them don't have parents," Dean said.
"—and there's no time, not for tomorrow," Sprout finished, raising her voice over him. "I'll speak to McGonagall, perhaps for the next visit after Christmas. No, that's final, Taversham, I'm sorry."
"Like hell," Dean muttered, after she'd gone, and went back inside the stables. The little ones looked up hopefully, and their faces settled it. "Forget about Hogsmeade," Dean told them. "We're going someplace better."
He managed to get hold of Sam by sending the kids into the library with one note after another, until Sam finally stuck a bookmark in his latest and came out, looking pissed. "You know, the library isn't full of infectious diseases, Dean," he said.
"Just the disease of permanent dorkdom," Dean said. He put his hand on Sam's shoulder. "Don't worry, one day they'll find a cure."
Sam rolled his eyes and knocked Dean's arm away. "So what do you want? I'm in the middle of—"
Dean didn't want to hear what Sam was in the middle of. "There's this thing the goblins have in the stables," he said. "It's a box, it's got a million things in it, way more than could—"
"An Undetectable Extension Charm," Sam said immediately. Yeah, definitely an incurable condition. "It's in Practical Household Spellcraft. I don't know how goblins make the magic stick, though. Usually it wears off after a couple of days and you have to recast it."
"Right," Dean said, and took a deep breath against the heresy of it. "Can you put it on the car?"
"Muggles burned my great-grandmother at the stake," Wyndham, one of the sixth years, was fidgeting nervously, his hands lost in the sleeves of the sweater Dean had put over his head because he didn't have any normal clothes of his own. It was about five sizes too big for him.
"Muggles did not burn your great-grandmother, I met her last year in Diagon Alley!" Clyde said.
"My other great-grandmother," Wyndham said, injured.
"We're going to be in so much trouble," Neils said. "Maybe we better hadn't."
"Relax, it's going to be fine," Dean said. "Okay everybody, listen up. After breakfast, you all head down to the stables, a few at a time, and you wait until we're all there. Seventh-years, you all grab a first-year. Sixth-years, grab a second-year. You get bored and lose them, I'll kick your ass. You stick close to me, and anything goes wrong, you yell. Any questions?"
"Yes," Edgar said, arms folded, leaning back against the wall of the common room. "Why are we supposed to do anything you say?"
"Kid, you're lucky you're fourteen," Dean said.
"I'm sixteen!" Edgar said.
"Whatever," Dean said. "If it's too much to ask you to keep an eye on one kid so these guys don't have to sit around here all day alone, you can go to Hogsmeade, have yourself an awesome time. I can watch more than one."
"So can I," Martha said, glaring at Edgar.
"Me too," Prowley said. "Don't be a git, Edgar," someone else said, and he flushed and said, "Fine, whatever," and quit making trouble.
They ran into one hitch at the stables: Dean got in, Katie and William with him, and found the goblins there, having lunch. They were eyeing the growing crowd of kids suspiciously and getting eyed back. "Man, don't you guys get days off?" Dean said.
"Tuesday is the day of rest," Feklar said.
"Huh," Dean said. "Well, you guys aren't going to rat us out, are you?" The goblins were just sitting there watching, it didn't look like they were about to go charging off to get a teacher.
"No," Feklar said.
"Okay," Dean said, and turned to the car.
He was still a lot wary about letting Martha loose on the Impala, but Sam refused to get pried this far out of the library. "No way," Sam had said. "Here's the book, you can do it yourself—okay, fine, Dean, you can have one of the kids do it. It's a fifth-year spell, it's not that hard."
"Dude, you're telling me you won't come down for five minutes—"
"Yeah, because you're not planning to shove me in and take me along or anything," Sam said, folding his arms.
"Man, you are too young to be this suspicious," Dean muttered. He hadn't been able to think of another way to get Sam down into the car.
Martha had done it on ten different boxes in a row to prove to him she could do it just fine, and the last time she'd put it on one of the wardrobes in the common room, and they'd managed to cram everyone inside. Dean kept his hand on the car anyway while she muttered the spell, and winced a little when he felt the magic sparks settle down on it. "Hope you're okay with this, baby," he said, patting the roof, and then he opened the door and said, "Okay, everybody in," and shook his head as he watched the whole crowd of kids go piling inside, one after another. "Like a goddamn clown car," he muttered, and went around to the driver's seat.
There were fifteen back seats full of kids, which was just wrong, but the rear-view mirror was still working okay. The kids all started working their hands into the crease of the seats, and Katie looked forward and said, "Dean, I can't get the belt out."
"Wow, is this Muggle money from America?" Yarrow said, inspecting a handful of skeeball tokens.
"What's this?" William asked, holding up a square foil packet.
"Crap," Dean muttered, and reached back to snatch that out of the kid's hand and shove it into his pocket. "Okay, uh, never mind the seatbelts. You're just going to have to sit tight and trust me."
"That's not safe!" Martha said severely, and took out her wand and said, "Accio seatbelts!" and there was a loud rattling noise as forty-five seatbelts that hadn't seen the light of day since 1969 came bursting out from between the seams in a confetti of candy wrapper bits and loose change, and strapped all the kids in right by themselves, trapping some of their arms and occasionally belting in two of the smaller kids together.
"Awesome," Dean said, shoving his own seatbelt back into the crease, fighting off its attempts to snake around his waist. "Everybody ready?" He picked through his mix tapes and found the one he used when Sam was pissy, Dylan and Creedence and a little easy Zeppelin, popped it in, and eased her out nice and quiet.
"Ooo," Katie said, staring. "Can we go in?"
"It's a conference center, kiddo," Dean said. The Glasgow center was admittedly pretty funky looking, but, come on.
"A conference center," Yarrow said in awed tones on his other side.
"Great," Dean muttered, but it turned out to be perfect: there was nothing going on in the main part of the center, and after Dean convinced the security guards he was a youth group leader, he got to take the kids inside. The place was huge, and they thought running around the miles of corridors was the best thing ever, until they found the vending machines, and then those were the best thing ever.
Dean had sent Archimedes for real money the day before, so he sent Clyde out with a hundred pounds to get change, and then he let all the kids have a shot. Even the normal kids were loving it, because they got to show off to the others how to work the machine, and after that, he took them all outside with their Cokes and Jaffa Cakes and Mars bars and they went to the tall ship in the harbor and got to run around on that too, while Dean hung out at the gangway, listening for splashes.
The cathedral didn't impress the kids, and it did look a little chintzy next to Hogwarts, which was about as old, so Dean cut that part of the trip short and took the kids shopping instead. It was a real trip, handing over the shiny black credit card with his own name on it and watching the salespeople jump to get the kids anything they wanted.
"Hey," said Blaine, one of the fifth-years, drifting towards a shop, and Dean collared him quick. "No ink until you're twenty-one, if you still want it then," he said, Dad's words jumping off his tongue like they were his own. It made him feel a little weird, tight in the chest, and he looked around without even knowing why until he figured out he was looking for Sam.
"Okay, come on," he said, raising his voice. If he was going to start moping every time Sam was supremely lame, he'd be depressed the whole rest of his life. "One more stop, everybody across the street."
It occurred to him that maybe he'd overdone it when he looked in the rearview mirror on the way back and saw the sea of kids in matching motorcycle jackets and Ray-Bans, but what the hell. Although it did pretty much kill all hope of pretending they'd just been out practicing how to drive.
"Never—in—my—life—!" McGonagall was saying, lividly red on the cheekbones.
"And when I bloody well told you—" Sprout said.
"Hey, you didn't say I couldn't take 'em to Glasgow," Dean said, giving up, and McGonagall made a horrified squawky noise and said, "Outrageous, reckless, blah, blah, blah, and that car goes!"
The Impala's engine picked that second to rev up, sounding angry, and all the kids started yelling at the same time and kept it up until Sprout hurriedly whispered something to McGonagall and she folded her arms and relented. "Very well, the car may stay," she said, "but it is not to be driven off the grounds again, Lord Taversham, not with a single child in it, or I will call the Ministry."
"Look," Dean said, "I get it, I'm sorry, but chill out a little. Nobody got hurt, they all had a good time—"
"We had an awesome time," William put in.
"You took seventy-two wizarding children to a Muggle city!" McGonagall said. "What their families will say, I should like to know."
"They can sue me if they want," Dean said. "I have lawyers and everything."
So, like most of Dean's high school field trips, it all ended in detention.
But that was okay; they just made Dean dig ditches for the goblins for a few weeks, which Filch seemed to think was a sentence a few inches short of hanging, and Dean didn't mind at all. He could use the workout, and the goblins didn't give him a hard time; instead they lent him one of their shovels that didn't go dull the way a normal one would, plus it turned out they all had this brutal deadpan going, and behind it they told hilarious jokes about wizards that Dean could appreciate.
Meanwhile, the kids all insisted on wearing their leather jackets to classes, and after the trip and a couple more weekends of auto shop, they all seemed to be doing better. All ten of the first-years could change the oil now, and the older kids could change the tires, too. Dean figured at least they'd get out of school with one useful skill in the world; better than nothing.
And it kept him busy, which was something. He wasn't going anywhere in the classes, and the teachers were starting to prod him enough to piss him off. Caldwick had skipped past boring and onto Dean's shitlist after the first couple weeks. He wasn't just your usual stuffed shirt: he was a former student, a Ravenclaw, and he reminded them once or twice a lesson that he'd finished school with twelve NEWTs and won some fancy award.
It was pretty clear he thought he was too good to be teaching first-years. He gave them way too much work, slammed them for ten points at a time if they were short an inch on a two-foot scroll, but he didn't actually read the papers and he didn't give a crap if they were cheating. The Slytherins had gotten wise to him quick. They were always handing in papers that were half a foot extra, with long filler sections in the middle that they'd copied straight out of books. That was all it took to get an A from him, so they were his pets, and the Hufflepuffs in the shared class ended up taking all the heat.
It all blew up two weeks before the Christmas break, when Caldwick kept needling Martin, who was a great kid: not the brightest star in the sky, but he worked his ass off, and he'd never stop trying for you, as long as you gave him a chance. Caldwick never did: all Martin's papers came back Cs and Ds, and the guy loved picking on him in class, not for stuff out of the reading but problem-solving, the stuff Martin couldn't do fast enough. And yeah, it was important to learn how to think fast, but you couldn't expect an eleven-year-old to pull it off when he didn't know anything yet.
His parents were still in the hospital from the war: they'd both nearly gotten iced by something called a Dementor, and it had screwed with their heads. Dean hadn't pushed for more details, but that was enough to go on when Caldwick sneered and turned back to the board, saying, "Five points from Hufflepuff. Mr. Averil, I would have thought that you might have developed a better appreciation for quick reflexes."
Martin flinched so hard he tipped his inkwell off his desk, his face getting red with the effort not to cry, and Dean got up out of his seat. "Katie, you and Will help him clean up," he said, stalking down to the front of the class.
They jumped up and went to Martin, and Caldwick wheeled around. "What do you think—"
Dean slammed his hands down on the desk and leaned over it towards him and said, low so the kids couldn't overhear, "You are way out of line, and don't try and tell me you don't know what I'm talking about."
Caldwick flushed and said loudly, "Lord Taversham, you will return to your seat at once—and you two, back to yours as well—"
Katie and William glanced up at Dean but stayed right where they were. "Soon as you tell the kid you're sorry," Dean said.
Caldwick's lips thinned. "Sorry? On the contrary," he bit out. "I am not here to coddle the incompetent, the lazy, or the stupid, Lord Taversham, and as you are making yourself their standard-bearer, I suggest you sit down now, or I will give you and them an object lesson in the real consequences of an inadequate education."
"Dude, I'm out of your weight class, but you're out of theirs, so if you're gonna ask for it, I'll give it to you," Dean said. "Quit being an asshole and tell the kid you're sorry."
"You haven't quite mastered Protego, have you, Lord Taversham?" Caldwick said, whipping out his wand, with a nasty smirk that made Dean feel a whole lot better about throwing the chalk basket into Caldwick's face as Caldwick yelled, "Incendio!"
The jet of fire went wide, hot enough that Dean could feel it against his skin, even though he'd ducked aside. "Holy shit!" Dean said, indignantly. Caldwick was groping helplessly at his face, trying to rub the chalk dust out of his eyes. Dean jumped the table, grabbed Caldwick's wrist and twisted until he dropped the wand, then pinned him to the floor in an armlock. It took about ten seconds all told.
"Get—off—me!" Caldwick hissed. "You stupid, ignorant—Squib!"
"Calm the fuck down," Dean said. "You keep twisting like that you're gonna dislocate your shoulder, and you're still not getting loose." He looked up to see where the wand had gone, thinking about securing it, and found the entire classroom of kids staring down at him with huge shocked eyes. Dean smiled at them weakly. "Hey," he said, and it occurred to him he was probably in deep shit.
"I don't believe you," Sam said.
"Good to see you, too," Dean said, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, and sat up on his cot. Sam was standing over him in the little room, glaring. "So, more detention, huh?"
Sam rolled his eyes and shoved Dean over to sit down on the cot next to him. "Forget detention, Caldwick wants you expelled. Actually, what he really wants is to have you arrested."
"Dude, that asshole tried to fry me!" Dean said.
"Yeah, I know," Sam said. "I talked to the kids and took the whole story to McGonagall, so she decided to just take you out of the class. And yeah, give you detention for the rest of your life, but Caldwick's still working another angle. Have you done any spells while we've been here?"
"Are you kidding me?" Dean said. "I'm locked in a closet and you want to check my homework?"
"Dean, he's saying you're not a real wizard," Sam said. "He says you're a Squib."
"What do I care what he calls me?" Dean said. "I've got a few names for him, too."
"It's somebody who can't do magic, dumbass," Sam said. "They'll kick you out of the school."
"About frigging time," Dean said. "Bobby needs a hand in South Dakota—"
"Bobby doesn't need a hand, and I'm not leaving—"
"Yeah," Dean said, and shook his head. "Look, you want to stay here when they kick me out, you know what, it's up to you. This is the longest we've talked in the last three weeks, it's not like you're going to notice much."
"What do you want from me, Dean?" Sam said. "You want me to take it easy when every day is—you want me to just roll it up, walk away? Cause you can forget about it. I'm getting close, Dean, I've found—"
"We're not talking about this," Dean said, sharply. Sam shut his mouth and looked away, his shoulders tightening up. Dean let his head drop, and then he said, "Come on, Sammy, don't—"
"There's a hearing in an hour," Sam said. "I couldn't get them to put it off, but we can appeal if they rule against you. I don't know what they're going to ask you, maybe to do some magic in front of them. It doesn't have to be a lot. You got the wand to do something at the store—"
"It's a goddamn stick, Sam," Dean said. "At least mine's a metal stick, but it's still a stick. That asshole Caldwick's supposed to be hot shit with the thing and I had him down like a calf in thirty seconds."
"That's 'cause he doesn't know how to fight," Sam said. "A wizard who knows what he's doing—You're hanging around with the first-years, so yeah, it probably does look like kid stuff, but it's not, and I need this. Just—look, just try, okay?"
Dean looked at Sam, because there was a ragged edge to his voice. It was too dim in the cell to get a good look at his face, but his head was slung low between the tired curve of his shoulders, and his hands were curled tight into fists, resting on his thighs. "Look," Dean said, "I'll give it a shot, but if I make it, from now on, you're doing Friday and Saturday nights with me. No books, no goddamn spells. We'll just, I don't know, hang out and watch the squid or something."
Sam didn't say anything, then after a second he kind of half-smiled, with a corner of his mouth; something a little bit like his normal smile. "So, you're saying you miss me, huh?"
"Shut up," Dean said, and bumped his shoulder against Sam's.
They headed up to the hearing room together and stopped at the end of the hallway: most of Hufflepuff was sitting on the stairs or on the floor outside the door, blocking the way, and as soon as the kids saw them they all started trying to talk at once, the first-years all clustering around and tugging at Dean's arm. "Hey, hey, calm down there," Dean said. "Uh, what are you guys all doing here?"
"I put out a call for witnesses," Sam said, doubtfully. "But, uh—"
"What on earth," McGonagall said, appearing at the head of the stairs with Flitwick and Sprout. There was a group of other wizards with her that Dean didn't recognize, most of them in black or maroon robes with that I'm more important than you look, staring down at the clamoring kids. McGonagall clapped her hands for quiet. "It is very commendable that you have all come out to support your house-mate," she said, "but only certified wizards may testify at a Magical Assessment. You may not come into the hearing."
The kids looked mulish, and settled themselves right back down on the floor, where they glared at the other wizards picking their way past them into the room. Katie didn't let go of Dean's arm right away. "You're not going to let them make you leave?"
"Not if I can help it," Dean muttered, feeling rotten. He'd expected to be making his case to the other teachers, and most of them were okay; he figured they'd just as soon let him stay as not. But those judges didn't look like they were going to be all that friendly.
Caldwick swept past and snorted as he did, then brought up short at the door. Sam was leaning against the wall next to it, fake-casual, with his arms folded over his chest and one leg propped up, his eyes glittering weirdly in the torchlight lamps. He didn't say anything, just kept watching, and Caldwick finally moved again and went into the room past him, almost crab-wise.
When Dean managed to pry himself loose and go inside, the room was mostly full; there were a dozen wizards sitting in a half-circle at the front, and a table with a chair in the middle facing them, which was apparently all for him. Awesome. Caldwick was sitting off to the side, and Sam went and sat down right next to him, which obviously made Caldwick really happy and gave Dean a warm fuzzy glow.
That lasted about a minute. "Very well," McGonagall said. "We will begin with an examination of the student's instructors."
Dean hadn't ever given much of a damn about school; he'd done as much as Dad told him to do, got all the basics down solid, but he'd always known what really mattered, and it wasn't who was the king of whatsit in 1306, or the area under a curve. If he and Dad and Sammy were all alive at the end of the year, he'd done his job; and if he'd given ground on the first couple parts of that, so far he'd managed the last and most important one, so he wasn't going to give a fuck about grades. It still wasn't fun to stand there and hear one teacher after another say he was pretty much a dead loss, even the nice ones like Flitwick, who tried to whitewash it some. "He has made a great deal of progress in his technique," he said feebly.
One of the examiners leaned in. "Yes, but has he actually cast any charms successfully?"
"Er," Flitwick said.
"Not a one," Dean said, letting the guy off the hook. "Not your fault, man," he added.
McGonagall a little reluctantly said, "Unfortunately, Lord Taversham has not made the kind of progress in Transfiguration which I would have expected from a mature student—" and Sprout admitted, "Killed six Chortling Cabbages in a row." Whatever, the things had kept asking him for more water, he didn't want to say no. You'd think a damn plant would know for itself when it'd had enough.
The only one who had anything good to say about him for real was Hagrid, and since what he had to say was, "Th' unicorn loves him. Good judges of character, unicorns," and Sam's eyebrows went up into his hairline, all in all Dean would just as soon have passed.
Another examiner, a narrow-faced man with Benjamin-Franklin glasses and hair, peered at Dean very dubiously after all of the reports. "So you have never cast a single spell? No random manifestations of thaumaturgical energies?"
"Uh," Dean said. "I don't know what that is, but it doesn't sound good."
"Have you ever done anything magical?" another one, a tall black-haired woman said.
"Well, there were these twins, in New Orleans," Dean said, before he thought, and then he caught Sam glaring at him and coughed. A few of the examiners tittered behind their hands.
"If I may," Caldwick said, rising from his bench. "I should like to note for the examiners, that even in a dueling situation, the student in question preferred to opt for physical violence, a sort of dangerous Muggle brawling, rather than attempt a conjuration—"
"Man, shut up," Dean said. "You tried to torch my ass because I wouldn't let you be a complete dick to the kids, so yeah, I put you down. If you can't take teaching, what the hell are you doing here?"
"Lord Taversham," McGonagall said sharply, "Professor Caldwick is a Replangine Scholar and a senior researcher in Spectres and Apparitions, who very generously volunteered to come and fill in the position of Defense Against The Dark Arts instructor."
"He still sucks," Dean said. "This guy has twenty kids in a classroom and he's telling them all they need is their wand and some stuff out of a book, giving them papers on how to take down vengeful spirits like it's a recipe you follow. It doesn't goddamn work that way."
"I do not believe that I am the one under examination here," Caldwick said. "But I should like to mention that I am entirely willing to submit my course of instruction to the Ministry for assessment at any time. By trained wizards," he added, with a sneer, "and not a remedial student not worthy of his place."
"Thank you, Professor Caldwick," McGonagall said, rather tightly. "Would the candidate like to say anything else for the board of examiners to consider?"
Judging by the expressions on the examiners' faces, none of them really had a lot of doubt. Great. Dean shrugged and just went for it. "So yeah, look, I'm not really into the whole wand thing, no question. And I don't know if I'm a Squib or whatever it is, but to tell you the truth, all of you guys—you use this magic stuff like a can opener. If I had ten times as much magic as any of you, I wouldn't want to throw it around this way. So, I'm sorry. I'm here to keep an eye on Sam, and watch out for the kids, and I can do that fine without making a feather float. If you've got to kick me out for it, that's up to you. I guess I can hang out at the stables or whatever. That's all."
Sam made a small noise down in his throat, the I'm gonna kick your ass so hard kind, and Dean winced. What the hell was he supposed to say?
"Very well," McGonagall said. "I believe that concludes our list of witnesses. If no one else would like to offer testimony—no, thank you, Professor Caldwick—then the examiners will proceed—"
"I will testify," a voice said, low and disgruntled. Dean blinked and looked behind him; it was the goblin guy, Feklar. A mutter went around the room.
"You will?" McGonagall said, sounding baffled, and then she cleared her throat and said, "That is, the board recognizes Feklar of Ragnuk. Have you witnessed the student under examination perform magic?"
Feklar said, "Yes."
Everyone waited, Dean included, but Feklar didn't go on.
"Er, would the witness please elaborate?" Ben Franklin guy said.
"No," Feklar said.
"Absurd," Caldwick said loudly. "I suppose that we are simply expected to take the witness's word for—"
"Shut up, Caldwick, before you get yourself in a blood feud," said one of the other examiners, a big guy with a ponytail of bright red hair. "Feklar of Ragnuk, do you give this testimony under your clan-name?"
"Yes," Feklar said.
"Right-o," the wizard said. "Examiners, can I have a word?" He whispered to the rest of them for a few minutes, and then he turned back and said, "The board thanks Feklar of Ragnuk for his testimony. No further questions for the witness."
"If there is nothing else, then," McGonagall said, and after a seriously annoying ten minutes of waiting while the examiners all muttered quietly to one another, they lined up again facing Dean, stern expressions on all their faces, and the black-haired witch said, dryly, "On witness testimony, the examiners find the student is, while possessed of a lamentable attitude towards his schoolwork, not a Squib, and entitled to the instruction he chooses to waste."
"Thank you, examiners," McGonagall said, getting up. "That concludes our hearing—"
"And begins," Caldwick said coldly, standing up from his seat, "your search for a replacement instructor. Perhaps the next one will not last out a month." He stalked out of the room.
"Yeah, good riddance," Dean called after him, before he caught McGonagall glaring death at him and coughed. "Uh, sorry."
"I very much doubt it," McGonagall said, with asperity, and swept out of the room too. "Yes, he is staying, for Heaven's sake," Dean heard her saying outside, and the kids came piling into the room and cheering.
"Okay, chill out," Dean said, clearing his throat, which kept wanting to be tight. "And—hey, Sam, come on over here, you're going to meet these guys." The kids all looked at Sam a little warily, which confused Dean, because Sam was the one people liked, but then he looked at Sam in the better light of the room. It wasn't just the wary defensive hunch of his shoulders; there was a gray unhealthy look to Sam's skin, fine tight lines around his mouth and deep bruised-looking circles under his eyes. Goddammit.
Dean hooked an arm around Sam's neck to haul him in close. "Dean!" Sam squawked, pawing at him. "And this, kids," Dean said to the gang, "is why you can't spend too much time in the library. Come on, I feel like a run to celebrate."
The kids all groaned, half-heartedly. "A run?" Sam said, managing to squirm free.
"What's the matter, Sammy, a little out of shape, there?" Dean said, patting Sam's tummy.
Sam rolled his eyes and shoved him, looking a little brighter already. "I can still outrun you, shorty."
"Yeah, let's see about that," Dean said. "Hey, hang on a second." He jumped and caught the door before Feklar could leave; the goblin had been talking to the red-headed examiner. "Hey, man—uh, that is, dude. Thanks. I owe you one."
Feklar looked up at him sharply with hard, bright black eyes. "You acknowledge debt? You wish opportunity to repay?"
"Uh, sure," Dean said, a little warily. "Not in the handing over my firstborn kind of way, but yeah, if I can do something for you, say the word."
Feklar said almost belligerently, "I wish to learn about the machine."
"What, the car?" Dean said. "Sure, if you don't mind sitting in with the kids. Anytime."
Feklar just stood there a moment, like he hadn't expected Dean to say yes. "You will teach? For nothing?"
"Hey, it's not like I need money," Dean said. "Seriously, no problem; you and any of the other guys, goblins, who want to."
Weirdly, Feklar looked almost unhappy, but he just nodded and went out. Dean shrugged a little and turned back to Sam and the kids; Sam had done his thing where he slouched down a little extra and smiled with the corners of his mouth and looked earnest, and the kids were starting to warm up to him, Dean could tell. He slung his arm back around Sam's neck and said, "Okay, guys, let's go. Last one around the castle buys the beer."
The last two weeks to Christmas felt like a holiday already, since they got the DADA timeslot off on account of Caldwick being a jerk and quitting without giving McGonagall enough time to find a replacement. Dean had gotten the backstory about the way they'd had to get a new professor for the class every year for the last seven, so now he knew why McGonagall had been scraping the bottom of the barrel. He still wasn't sorry, but he felt bad for her; she had to be at least seventy or something, teaching everyone Transfiguration and running the place at the same time, and she was looking kind of exhausted these days.
"You're not staying over break, I guess," Yarrow said, a little wistfully.
"No, and neither are any of you," Dean said, but he wasn't going to give McGonagall another heart attack—plus he was pretty sure if he stole a bunch of her kids a second time, she really wouldn't let him back in the door—so instead he wrote six letters to the official guardians of the kids who'd told him they didn't have anywhere to go.
Well, he got them written, anyway. "I need it to sound good," Dean said. "Convince them I'm not going to get the kids killed, whatever."
"What are you even going to do with six kids for a month?" Sam said.
"What did I do with you when you were twelve?" Dean said.
"You taught me how to fire a shotgun, and we salted and burned my pet goldfish after it died," Sam said.
"See, there you go," Dean said. "Come on, just make it come across mature, responsible, that kind of thing."
"Wow, I don't know if I'm prepared to lie like this," Sam said.
When Dean got the letters back giving him the OK, McGonagall examined them suspiciously with a magical spell-light before she signed off, but in the end she let him take the kids: Yarrow, Wyndham, Katie, and Edgar. The fifth and sixth had been Lisa Goldberg and Jenny Kim, but it turned out their parents were alive and well and looking forward to their babies coming home for the break. "Guys, I get it," Dean said. "But I'm not dating a sixteen year old, so give it up and go home to your families," and they both turned red and squeaked in protest before scurrying away, and that was the end of that.
He didn't get why Edgar wanted to come, since the guy still gave him attitude all the time. Little punk hadn't even asked for it directly, he'd just stood in the common room when Dean was asking the others and had said loudly that he wasn't going anywhere for Christmas, either. But maybe it still beat being stuck alone in school with a bunch of kids from other houses, and Dean wasn't going to strand the kid even if he did need a good boot to the ass.
The Impala wasn't crowded: Martha's spell hadn't worn off yet, although it had been a good month now. It was awesome in a way Dean hadn't really expected, Sam next to him in the passenger seat, and the kids in back singing Christmas carols, heading someplace that belonged to him, even if it wasn't exactly a place he'd call home. It got dark out and snow started coming down, not more than the car could handle, and Dean didn't even think about stopping, just let them all bed down in the back and kept going through the night, until he pulled up to the house around three in the morning. The windows were shining light out onto the snow, and Rimple had the door open when they came up the steps, Katie fast asleep in his arms and Sam carrying the bags.
Dean got them all up and out the next morning for a run that turned into a snowball fight that turned into him and Sam having a little friendly wrestling match until Dean noticed the kids all clutching each other and staring and said, "Uh, hey, relax, we're just messing around," just before Sam totally took advantage and tackled him facedown into a drift and shoved snow down the back of his shirt.
That ended with the proper order of the world restored, Dean sitting across Sam's chest with his knees pinning Sam's arms to the ground, and then he grinned at the kids and said, "See, chill out, we used to do this every six hours on car trips," and Sam spat out snow and said, "Yeah, Dean, when we were four and eight!"
"Aw, did I mess up your hair, baby?" Dean said, climbing off and heaving Sam up again, and Sam promptly pounced him back down into the snow.
Dean let Sam win that round, because he was getting hungry, and also Sam had a little color back in his face at least. They all headed back inside for breakfast and then scattered around on the rug in the big living room, napping in front of the fireplace and breathing in the clean piney smell of the giant Christmas tree. Rimple dug out a puzzle for the kids and a wizard chess set for Edgar and Wyndham; Sam broke out some books from the library and set up camp on one of the couches reading. Dean lay sprawled on his back, drowsily watching the candles on the tree flicker, and realized kind of amazed that this was one hell of an awesome last Christmas.
It was a good break, just lazing around for a few days, working out in the snow. He taught the kids a few falls; Katie was the right age to learn the basics right from the beginning, and Wyndham and Yarrow got it after a few days, too. Edgar didn't want to learn, he split his time, hanging around watching them or staying inside around Sam, in an annoying kind of skulking way. He only perked up the second week when Dean said, "Okay, guys, nobody hears about this back at school, because I don't feel like having my ass handed to me," and brought down the guns so he could clean them.
"What are those?" Katie said, reaching, and Dean grabbed her wrist hard enough to make her stare up at him.
"First rule, kiddo," Dean said. "These are guns. You don't touch one unless you know what you're doing."
"Why do you have so many?" Wyndham said nervously. "Aren't they dangerous?"
"So's that wand in your pocket," Dean said, laying out the tarp and the blanket and lining the guns up in rows.
"What're you doing with them?" Edgar said, coming closer; it was pretty much the first thing he'd said straight to Dean since they'd got there.
"Cleaning them, checking them out," Dean said. "Here, you guys can help." He set them up with rags and brushes and passed them pieces to clean. Edgar even took some and worked on them, watching Dean's hands closely. "You want to try detail stripping one?" Dean said, figuring it was worth a shot.
Edgar eyed him sidelong and said, "Fine."
"Don't do me any favors," Dean said, but he put the gun in Edgar's hands and showed him how to get it all the way apart.
"How d'you put it back?" Edgar said, after he'd figured it out.
"Pretty much just run it backwards," Dean said, cracked his knuckles, collected up the pieces of the Glock, checked his watch, and slotted it all back together: 35 seconds. Dammit.
"Getting out of practice, huh?" Sam said, without even lifting his head out of his book.
"Shut up, you dream about stripping a Glock in less than a minute," Dean muttered.
"I really don't," Sam said, grinning out the corner of his mouth.
"Have you ever shot anybody?" Edgar blurted, and Dean looked at the Colt, lying off to the side a little ways; he wouldn't let anybody touch that but him. He remembered the cold metal in his hands, the trail of black smoke oozing from the skull of a person, a human being. At his back, Sam was silent, and Dean knew the person he was thinking about, too, and none of that belonged in this room, in these kids' heads.
"Shot a man in Reno just to watch him die," Dean said, instead, with a grin. They all stared at him with giant eyes, but it turned out that was just because they'd never heard of Johnny Cash. That even gave him an excuse to kick Sam off the couch and make him go get his laptop to play them some MP3s off it.
The next day he showed them all how to hold a sawed-off, unloaded, and when he was satisfied with their stances, he let them shoot it, although Edgar kept throwing him these weird, suspicious, sidelong looks, and predictably got knocked on his ass by the recoil because he wasn't paying attention. "Man, I knew better than that when I was ten years old," Dean said. Edgar wheeled on him, the gun still held out, muzzle swinging towards the other kids, and Dean yelled, "Jesus Christ!" and grabbed it away from him with both hands, hard, forcing the barrel down.
"Ow!" Edgar yelped, clutching back his hands.
"Yeah, stings?" Dean said, grimly. "Good. What'd I just say about aiming a gun? Say it!" he barked.
"Don't ever point a gun at anything you're not ready to kill," Edgar muttered, looking away.
"Yeah," Dean said. "I don't care how they teach you to throw around those wands. At least those things can kind of read your mind. The gun won't." Then he made Edgar stay and shoot rounds until his fingers wouldn't work to pull the trigger anymore.
Edgar went back to furious sulking after, and to make things even more awesome, Sam started going AWOL again, outside of meals.
"Okay, where the hell is he?" Dean finally asked Anka, giving up. Sam wasn't anywhere predictable, like the library, or for that matter any of the fifteen rooms they'd spent any time in.
Her ears drooped all the way down. "Oh, Anka is told not to tell, but Anka cannot disobey Master. What is Anka to do! Anka will be having to punish herself —"
"Nevermind," Dean said.
The house was too goddamn big to search alone, so he came up with an awesome plan of sending the kids on treasure hunts through the castle, but whenever he casually asked, "So, did you see Sam on the way?" when they came back lugging whatever random piece of junk he'd come up with—the house had every random piece of junk you could think of—they always said no.
New Year's Eve he told the kids they could all stay up until midnight, and they played a huge day-long game of hide and seek, which Sam won hands-down since he disappeared after lunch and was never seen again. Around eleven the kids were starting to fade in front of the television—fifty-inch plasma, Dean's present to himself—and he went looking for Sam some more. He had about as much luck as before, but when he headed back towards the living room, he spotted Edgar creeping out of it, looking both ways out of the door, about as subtle as those Spy vs. Spy cartoons from Mad Magazine.
Dean followed him, figuring Ed was on his way to the guns and also the chewing-out of his lifetime, but the kid didn't turn for the front hall; he headed for the back of the house, and then he held out his wand and muttered, "Trovario rat's blood." A spark shot out of the wand and left a glowy trail, down a hallway and plunging through an archway down the cellar stairs. Edgar took off after it.
"Yeah, that's not creepy," Dean muttered, and went after them, a faint after-trail of fading light lingering in the air where the spark had gone. It led him down another two flights, where the walls started to get cool and damp, through rooms full of kegs of beer and heavy wooden racks of wine bottles; Dean patted one of the kegs appreciatively, making a note to ask Rimple to break this stuff out sometime.
On the third floor of the cellars, the stone got old and soft, archways and thick pillars everywhere. The trail gleamed brighter and brighter, and then Edgar came running full-tilt back along the track, and barreled straight into Dean around a corner. "Whoa," Dean said, gripping him, and Edgar went nuts, flailing at him and trying to wrestle loose.
"Get off me!" Edgar panted. "I knew it, knew you bastards were just faking it—you're like all the rest of your rotten crew—"
Dean shook him until he quit babbling. "Dude, breathe," he said. "I don't know what you're pissed over—"
Edgar took a swing at him, wild and wide. Dean caught Edgar's wrist and swung him around, pushed him up against the wall, arm locked up behind his back, and pinned him there with one hand. "You cooling off any?" Dean asked, when Edgar gave up struggling. "Jesus, kid, what's your problem? Yeah, I wasn't here for the big throwdown, but I had stuff of my own to deal with. There's a graveyard up there full of my family who died in it—"
"They deserved to!" Edgar spat. "Dark all the way through, the lot of you—"
"Huh?" Dean said, but a lot of stuff made sense all of a sudden: why everybody had looked sideways at him and Sam, to start with, why Dad hadn't been in touch with these people, why all of them were six feet under ground. They'd been bad guys. All of them, for a while, probably; you didn't build up this kind of pile by being nice. "Whoa there, calm down," Dan said, and hauled Edgar back around. "Look, kid, I don't know how to get it through your head, but I didn't know these people. I don't know what they did—"
"They killed my parents," Edgar threw at him, and stopped Dean cold.
"Jesus," he muttered, looking away, and rubbed a hand over his face. Fuck. "Okay," he said finally. "I'm sorry as hell about that. If you want a shot at me over that, I can understand it, but you're still firing in the wrong direction. They're all dead, and that's not me. That's not me and Sam."
"Like hell it's not," Edgar said. "It's too late for your bloody act, so you can forget the excuses. I saw, and you're not getting away with it anymore. It doesn't matter what you do to me. I've been owling Prowley all along, he thought I was being stupid, but when he doesn't hear from me again, he'll know the truth, he'll know I was right all along—"
"Kid, I have no clue what you're talking about," Dean said. "What did you see, that freaky mandrake garden Rimple has going? Looks creepy to me too, but Sprout's got a whole field of them back at the school—"
"I saw your altar," Edgar said. "I saw your damned brother—"
"What?" Dean said, and looked; the trail of light had faded, but there was still a faint glow coming from around the corner, through the archway, greenish, like the glow-in-the-dark stars he and Sam had put on the ceiling when they were kids. His watch was reading three minutes to midnight.
He let go of Edgar and ran for it, heart pounding, and burst into the next room, where Sam was kneeling in the middle of a circle of chalk-drawn symbols before a low altar, candles everywhere and a bowlful of crushed herbs on top, waiting for the match. Dean threw himself full-body flying tackle across the room, took Sam down by the shoulders and kicked out wildly as they rolled, knocking over the altar, smearing as many of the symbols with their bodies as he could.
"What the fuck are you doing?" he yelled, slamming Sam's shoulders back against the ground. "What the fuck—"
Sam planted his feet and heaved, and he had Dean off and was rolling up to his feet, the wand jumping up into his hand across the room, and before Dean could make the jump, Sam snapped it out straight like a pro and said, "Immobilio."
Dean went flying across the room and hit spread-eagled against the far wall, and Sam was on him, gripping him by the shirt. "You don't want to know, remember?" Sam said, low and crazy-sounding, his eyes feverish, and Dean was getting what Sam had meant, about this magic crap in the hands of somebody who knew what he was doing, because Dean had to get loose right now and he couldn't, his whole body pinned under Sam's hands. "You won't help me, you won't do a goddamn thing—"
"You know why!" Dean said, and that did it, he shoved Sam off and came away from the wall. "I'm not taking that chance, Sam."
"Then you fucking stay out of my way," Sam said. "I know you don't believe me, but I'm not going to let this happen. I'm not letting that bitch get her hands on you."
"Yeah, well I'm not letting you do something stupid," Dean said. "Don't you goddamn even think about—"
"I'm going to do whatever it takes, Dean, and you're going to shut the hell up about it," Sam said. "There's only five months left, and here you are playing house with the kids like we have all the time in the world. If it was up to you, you'd just run out the clock and die, right on schedule."
There was a small inhalation, the sound of it only loud in the dead silence of the cellars, and Dean spotted Edgar's face, pale, in the dark hallway. "Goddammit," Dean muttered, and wrenched his shoulders free of the wall again. "I don't have a whole lot of choice, Sammy," he said. "I made the deal, and I can live with it."
"Yeah?" Sam said, softly, and maybe it was just a trick of the light, but there was a glint of gold in his eyes, just for a second. somewhere simmering underneath, and he came at Dean again. Dean was ready for a fistfight, but Sam just grabbed him by the arm and hauled him out of the room—right past Edgar, who shrank back against the wall; Sam didn't even spare him a glance, just kept pulling Dean along, down the hallway.
Dean stumbled after him, off-balance. Sam did a sharp left and then they were going down the stairs, Sam taking four steps at a time and pulling him along so fast Dean was mostly doing a controlled fall the whole way. Sam was breathing fast, panting, desperately, and they kept going down, down, and then Sam pulled him off into a big cool cavernous hallway on the fourth cellar floor.
There was a weird noise coming from somewhere nearby, getting louder and louder, like a tire rim scraping the street after a blowout. They were in front of a big double-barred door, thick wood, and the noise was already grating on Dean's last nerve before Sam hauled the door open and the screaming hit him in the face like a slap.
The man in the painting didn't even look human anymore. His eyelids were pulled so far back white showed all around his pupils, and the whites were so full of blood they were pink, and his lips were chewed and bloody. He kept dragging red gashes in his own face with his fingers, then clawing at the front of the painting as if he could get out, and he was screaming the whole time, voice breaking into moans. Farnsworth Richling Quarglehof said the little brass plaque at the bottom, and Dean said, "Jesus fucking Christ," and pushed Sam away from the door and slammed it shut again.
Sam shoved him up against it, the screaming leaking through around the cracks, whistling in Dean's ears. "You can live with that?" Sam said. "That's what you're heading for, Dean. You want me to sit down and shut up and pretend like a field trip and a few good beers are gonna make it okay you're going to Hell—fuck you! Things that're dead should stay dead, and I should've stayed dead, Dean, you know it—"
"Sam," Dean said, grabbing at him, because Sam was shaking so hard against him he thought something was going to come apart, "Sam, don't—"
Sam dragged in a shuddering breath and said, "I can't live with that, Dean. You're not, no matter what I have to do, I don't fucking care, like you didn't care—"
They were tangled up against the wailing door, Sam leaning into him like he couldn't stand, his weight dead-heavy, heavy as if he were limp, sodden with rain, and Dean had to fight to keep breathing. "Don't," he said, stroking Sam's head, his face, trying to calm him down like a spooked horse. "Sam, it'll be okay, it's all right—"
Sam made a low noise, like nothing human, and punched him in the gut. Dean folded, choking, and Sam pulled him straight again and snarled, "It won't be okay, it won't ever fucking be all right, you bastard, I can't," and then he had his hands on Dean's face and was kissing him, hard and brutal, clawing at his—
"Jesus Christ, Sam!" Dean said, trying to jerk away, shove him off.
"Shut up," Sam said. "You're not gonna say no to me, Dean. You're not. You want to give me everything? You don't get to say no to this," and he was biting at Dean's jaw, and his hands were cold as ice, and Dean couldn't say no, couldn't say a fucking word, except he dragged in a breath and said, "Not here—not here, Sam, come on," and Sam didn't let go of him, but he stopped, and then he said, "Anka."
"What?" Dean said, but the elf had already appeared, big lamplike eyes getting even bigger, staring at them. Dean tried to shove Sam back, horrified. Sam held on, hands hard as a vise, and said to her, "Take us to the bedroom—" like he didn't fucking care who knew, if anyone knew. Anka came timidly towards them, looking at Dean like she wanted him to tell her no, to stop this, except Dean couldn't say anything, and then they were in the bedroom, and she was scurrying out of the room in a blur, and Sam was pushing him back into the bed.
"You can give me this," Sam said, pressing him down, deep down, into the pillows and the thick heap of the comforter. The curtains had fallen shut behind them, and Sam had his jeans off. "I want this," and Sam put his mouth in the curve of Dean's neck and kissed him there, lick of breath out over Dean's skin.
Sam's teeth sliding wet and cool and just a little sharp, his hands holding Dean down against the sheets, fingers curling around Dean's hips while Sam kissed him over and over. Sam brushed over the wings of Dean's collarbone, sucked each flat nipple into his mouth, counted Dean's ribs with his tongue; he went everywhere, his hands curling around Dean's knee, his ankles. Sam rubbed his cheek against Dean's thigh like a cat and rolled him over, love bites in the meat of Dean's ass and nuzzling in the small of his back, Sam's hands mapping out his shoulders. Dean couldn't fucking do anything; he couldn't stop Sam and he couldn't reach for him, even while he was shuddering like a car out of alignment and Sam just kept loving all over him, curling his whole body around Dean's and tangling up their legs, his mouth on Dean's jaw, and Dean jerked as Sam's cock snugged between his thighs, nudging against his balls.
"Dean," Sam murmured, and he was hard, so hard he was leaking, head slick and snubbing against Dean's thighs, so this wasn't just Sam trying some kind of crazy thing, he really wanted—"Please," Sam said, need thick in his voice, his hands gripping tight, possessive, desperate.
Dean swallowed a gallon of air, and then he rolled them over and he had Sam under him and was kissing him, Sam's mouth open and hungry for him, Sam's arms wrapping around him. Dean groped for Sam's hip and pulled them close, right up against each other, and put his arm around Sam's neck. "Yeah," he whispered, "Yeah, Sammy, anything. Anything," and went down with him.
Dean got up slowly the next morning. He felt like he was being held together with duct tape and stripped screws, and anybody could see in through the cracks. Sam had disappeared early in the morning, Dean barely awake for the quick possessive lick of a kiss Sam had pressed on his mouth, the nuzzle at his throat, and then he'd fallen back asleep in the thick cave of the bed. He was sore all over, places he hadn't known he could be sore, scratched and bruised like he'd been in a fight, marks up his throat and on his thighs, everywhere he could see.
"Don't say a goddamn word," Dean said to the pointy-hatted guy in the portrait.
"Farnsworth was my son," said Pointy-hat, who was apparently the third Baron. He looked away towards the window in the painting, where dark rain clouds were rolling in.
There was a hot bath already waiting in the bathroom, steam rising. The soap stung in Dean's scratches, one reminder after another, and the worst part of it was it kept sending a curl of secret ashamed happiness through him, how owned he felt with Sam's need written all over him. It wasn't right and he knew it, and he still couldn't help it, even though it meant they were well and truly fucked, because if Sam felt like this, if Sam was as wrapped up in him as Dean was the other way around, Sam wasn't going to get over it; he wasn't ever going to get over it.
Dean hadn't—he'd hated Dad for months, hated him down deep, for doing that to him; he'd never have done the same thing to Sam. But he hadn't thought it was the same thing. Sam was the one who'd wanted out, who'd gotten out, of their life and their family, and even if he'd slid back into hunting like putting on an old comfortable coat, Dean had thought Sam would—not that he'd be happy, not that he'd ever in a million years have taken it, given a choice, but he'd thought Sam could handle it better than Dean could handle Sam being dead.
Dean scrubbed his face with both hands. Yeah, okay, he'd wanted to believe that. It had been his only way out. Instead—well, he couldn't think of a lot worse that Hell could do to him than make him sit and watch Sam going completely out of his head. A year was a better deal than Dad had ever got, and Dean finally understood why: so he'd have the time to learn just what he'd done to Sam, watch him spiraling down, doing who knew what kind of crazy shit trying to get Dean out of the hole he'd dug for both of them.
And this sure as hell wasn't going to help either one of them. But Sam was going to climb into his bed tonight anyway, and Dean already knew he wasn't going to be strong enough to kick Sam out of it, either. He had five months left, and this was the taste of everything in the world that mattered, the taste of being loved more than life. He didn't really believe in it, that somebody could love him like that, not even with the bruises to show for it; but he'd believed it last night, for a little while. He wanted Sam to convince him again.
He also wanted to hide in the room all day, but he had to look somebody in the face sometime, so he put some clothes on. A feather-soft black turtleneck materialized for him in the closet, with sleeves half an inch too long so they wouldn't ride up and expose the fingerprint bruises on his wrists where Sam had held him down, the second or maybe the third time, depending how you counted. He put it on along with the pair of jeans that showed up too, broken-in but with no holes in them, and his best boots, like armor, and he still pulled up short at the top of the stairs: Edgar was sitting on the bottom steps, hunched over.
He looked up and around at Dean's footsteps, and scrambled up, shoving his hands in his pockets.
"Uh," Dean said. "Hey."
"I'm," Edgar said, and then he said, "Are you really going to," and then he stopped, turning red and miserable up to his forehead.
"Hey," Dean said, and went down the stairs to shake him by the shoulder. "I get enough of that from Sam."
"You brought him back, didn't you?" Edgar whispered. "That's not supposed to work, ever."
Dean swallowed and made himself say it. "I shouldn't have." He felt his jaw clench around it; he didn't want to let the words out, like saying them would change the past, make it not have happened. "It was a bad idea."
It was a good thing the school didn't do a long winter break, because if they'd had a lot more than a week past New Year's, Dean was pretty sure neither him or Sam would've been walking by the time it was over. As it was, the drive back was a little uncomfortable, even though the Impala purred over the bad road this time like her new shock absorbers were magic. Dean fell into his bed in the Hufflepuff rooms gratefully and was dead to the world the second his head hit the pillow.
He thought maybe there just wouldn't be a Defense Against the Dark Arts class anymore, but when he got to the room, there was a kid standing at the front by the blackboard, pale with messy black hair, gangly and awkward in that fresh-from-the-growth-spurt kind of way; one of the older Gryffindors, Dean thought.
"Uh, hi," the kid said, when everybody had filed in and sat down. He shifted his weight a little. "So, Professor McGonagall's asked me to take the class, until they get a replacement, anyway, so—uh—hi." He stared at them all through his round glasses, looking uncomfortable. Everyone stared back. The entire room was totally silent; nobody said anything. Most of the Slytherins were slouched down in their seats, some of them scowling a little.
"Right," the kid said, after a minute, and fumbled for the book on the desk. "So, I know you've been doing spirits, and I thought we'd start with a basic Revelio—"
"Hey, professor," Dean called, taking pity on the kid. "How about your name?"
The kid looked up at him startled, and everybody in the room turned and stared at Dean.
"What?" Dean said.
Katie poked him and whispered loudly, "It's Harry Potter."
"Uh, okay?" Dean said.
Everyone stared some more, but Potter said, "No! Thanks. Yeah, I should've said. I'm Harry. Harry Potter. You can—just call me Harry, all right?"
Dean found out why it was a stupid question at lunchtime, from several people, and also why a seventeen-year-old repeating a year was teaching. Harry turned out to be a pretty awesome teacher, although he liked to spring things on people, once he thought you had the stuff down. Dean approved in theory, it was the kind of thing that taught you how to keep your head in the real world. In theory.
"Fair warning, everyone," Harry said, a couple of weeks into term. "We'll be doing a practical quiz this week. Leave your books here, and take your wands; remember your Revelio and your Repelling Charms. And don't get too scared; no one's going to get hurt."
After that big wind-up, he took them on a walking tour of the castle, where nothing happened, and brought them back to the classroom at the end of the hour and sent them away; the second class that week he did the same thing. Everyone was relaxing by then, except for Dean; Dad had had taught him a hell of a lot more than three days' patience, and that was without giving him a big damn warning sign.
So when the troop of twenty ghosts on horseback came charging down the hallway towards them, juggling their severed heads, he barely took a breath before he yelled, "Hit the dirt."
The Hufflepuffs all went down, pulling the Slytherins with them. Dean was proud there weren't a lot of screams; he turned to the nearest knight, grabbed his iron halberd—"Let go, goddammit," he snapped, when the knight held on. The pole came loose—and ripped through half the ghosts on their first pass, slashing back and forth over the kids' heads. The troop, halved in size, wheeled at the end of the hallway and paused, a chill angry wave coming down from them, making Dean's breath frost. He grinned and gave the halberd a little toss, waiting for them to take their next shot. Man, he hadn't had a good straight-up fight in a while, something clean and simple.
"Lord Taversham?" Harry said.
"Huh?" Dean said, looking over at him.
"You're supposed to be practicing Repelling Charms," Harry said. "You're all supposed to be practicing them," he added, looking down at the flattened kids, who picked up their heads to look at him.
"Oh," Dean said. "Uh. Well—I didn't want to say this in class, but look, that Repelling thing's only going to give you maybe two, three feet of space, and that's crap. Cold iron or rock salt blows them away, gives you a couple minutes breathing room at least, more if it's not a really powerful spirit."
"Um, how do you know this exactly?" Harry said.
"Dude, it's my job," Dean said.
"Yeah," Dean said. "Saving people, hunting vengeful spirits, salt and burn, that kind of thing—"
All the spectral horses gave a loud shrieking whinny together, and the ghosts vanished in an eyeblink. "Uh," Dean said, staring. "Okay, that's never happened before."
Apparently wizards didn't have the decency to turn into ordinary violent and homicidal ghosts when they died: they stuck around more thoroughly. Dean had spent the entire freaking last term snoozing through a history class being taught by one, and he only found out now because when he walked into it the next Monday, word had apparently gotten around, and Professor Binns stood up and declared, in a trembling voice, "No-one prejudiced against the post-deceased is welcome in this classroom!"
"Okay, seriously, this one is not my fault," Dean said, when McGonagall called him up to her office. She had a petition—you couldn't read the writing on it unless you held it up to the light of the moon—signed by all the ghosts of Hogwarts, and Jesus, there were a lot of them. "They're freaking ghosts! What was I supposed to do?"
"Use a minor Repelling Charm, as I understand it," McGonagall said, "which would not cause a spirit more than a moment's temporary discomfort, and which was all they had volunteered for."
"Indeed," said the ghost representative—Dean wasn't even letting his brain get started on the ways that was totally wrong—a guy with a big Elizabethan ruff on and a sad expression. Dean could read the spines of the books on the wall through his chest. "Sir Patrick of the Headless Hunt informs me that Lord Taversham not only used cold iron but threatened them with permanent interment—"
"Well, I'm sorry, it's my job," Dean said. "Never had a ghost complain about it before. Try to kill me, yeah, but—"
"Yes," McGonagall said, "Lord Taversham, exactly what is this job you were describing?"
"Well," Dean said, "Me and Sam, we hunt these things. Vengeful spirits, mostly, but we've done stuff like rakshasa, skinwalkers, shtriga—" He trailed off; McGonagall was staring at him, and so was the ghost.
"I understood," McGonagall said, finally, frostily, "that you were not a certified wizard."
"I'm not," Dean said, confused. "We don't use magic, we just, y'know. Find out what it takes, and then we do it. I like to shoot them, mostly. Uh, nothing personal," he added, to Sir Nicholas, who glared at him.
"And I suppose you've salted and burned a great many mortal remains," Sir Nicholas said.
"A few hundred, probably," Dean said. "Between us and our dad."
"Oh, splendid," Sir Nicholas said. "Next I suppose you'll be asking Frances Gribley, or the Winchester brothers," he added to McGonagall.
"Dude, we are the Winchester brothers," Dean said. "Hey, wait, you've heard of us?"
Sir Nicholas's head whipped around so fast it tipped and fell sideways off his neck, dangling.
"Man, that is not natural," Dean said, staring, and Sir Nicholas made a faint gargling noise—translucent red bubbles popped at the top of his throat—and fled through the wall, without even putting his head back on.
The ghosts staged a protest, picketing outside the chapel with signs saying "The Dead Have Rights Too" and "Respect The Unliving," and noisy chanting that drifted in through the windows at every meal—what do we want undeath how long do we want it forever. Wailing and cold spots kept manifesting throughout the castle, so the hair on the back of Dean's neck was perpetually raised, and spectral chains rattled from every dark hallway whenever he walked by. Peeves loudly talked about Dean's vicious unprovoked assault on him, hovering at a safe distance while he did it. It was annoying as hell.
The Hufflepuff ghost, Friar Whatsit, came at Dean about a week into the mess, waving a ghostly white handkerchief at him. "Dude, you're going to have to step it up some," Dean said, eyeing the unthreatening scrap. It was half past nine, and he was sitting outside the library doors with the Glock, loaded with rock salt, comfortably warm against the small of his back. He was pretty sure he'd catch hell ten times over for carrying in school if anyone found out, but Sam refused to worry even a little about the pissed-off ghosts and stayed in the library until all hours, so somebody had to look out for his ass.
"Er," the Friar said. "I have come to parley?"
"Uh, okay?" Dean said.
The Friar took a deep breath. "We the ghosts of Hogwarts want only to be left in peace, what peace we tormented and restless spirits have been able to find," he said. "Is that too much to ask? Are you so bent upon your quest to cleanse the world of the unliving that you would leave no grave undefiled? Surely—"
"Dude!" Dean said, when he finally managed to break into the passionate speech. "Calm down, okay? We just go after the ones that are hurting people. You want to hang around here instead of moving on, it's all the same to me."
"Oh," the Friar said. "Well."
"It's not, though," Sam said, and Dean scrambled up to his feet. Sam was standing in the library doors, a couple more giant books stuffed under his arm and the flickering torchlight making his eyes look sunken, gold reflections deep in the black pupils. "It's not all the same."
"Sam," Dean said.
"You're dead," Sam said. "You shouldn't be here anymore. The parts of you that mattered most, they're gone, and you can't get them back. You know that."
"Sam!" Dean said. The Friar was staring at Sam, with a lost, miserable expression.
"You don't have anything left to do here," Sam said. "It's time for you to move on."
"But," the Friar said, in a small voice, "I am the Hufflepuff ghost—"
"You're a piece of a soul, not a mascot," Sam said.
The Friar gave a small desperate gasp and said, "I have led others into mortal sin."
"And you think you're fixing that by sticking around kids and giving them the idea that hanging on is the right thing to do," Sam said.
The Friar flinched, and bowed his head slowly. He didn't say anything for a while, then he whispered, "Yes. You are right—" and abruptly the torchlight behind him was getting brighter, shining pure white through his translucent body, and the light was pouring into him, filling him up like a glass. He gleamed down into a spark like an old TV going out, and was gone. The hallway stood empty and dark without him.
"Well, that's great." Dean threw up his arms. "They're really going to think we're out to get them now."
"Perhaps," Professor McGonagall said, in a tightly controlled voice, "it would be best if the two of you avoided the rest of the ghosts entirely for the remainder of your year here."
"Not a problem," Dean said.
"You shouldn't be encouraging them to stay," Sam said. They hadn't gotten any sleep yet; Dean had figured it was only going to make things worse if the Friar just mysteriously disappeared with no explanation, so for once he wanted to get his story in first. Sam had insisted on coming along, even though the missing sleep was showing on him. His cheeks were hollow and green-tinged, and his voice rasped.
McGonagall glared at him. She was in a purple dressing gown with her hair down in a long braid, something out of Little House on the Orient Express.
"He means, he's sorry and it won't happen again," Dean said, and hauled Sam straight out of the office before McGonagall could expel them.
Sam shrugged him off in the hallway. "They're dead, Dean," he said. "They shouldn't be here and you know it. Since when did you start making exceptions?"
"Since I don't give a damn, because they're not doing any harm!" Dean said. "That's your line, dude."
"Not anymore," Sam said.
"You're alive," Dean said. "Maybe it's not right, maybe I shouldn't have, but you're still here, Sam. You're not a goddamn ghost."
Sam rubbed a hand over his face. "I've got work to do," he said tiredly, and turned away with his books and trudged down the stairs.
Most of the school was pissed at them now. The Friar had been the one really nice ghost, the one none of the kids were scared of, and all the ghosts and most of the kids refused to believe that Sam had just talked him into heading for the great beyond. Nobody knew where he was buried, so Dean couldn't even prove they hadn't torched his bones. The protest kept going, even more energetically, and a bunch of Ravenclaws made up extra signs for the ghosts, magic ones that glowed over their heads around the chapel. They floated them up to the Hufflepuff dorm room windows at night and strobed them to keep the kids up.
The Hufflepuffs got into a bunch of scuffles over it, until Dean sat them all down and told them sternly he didn't need them scrapping for him. Then they all nodded earnestly and went right back to the tussling, so Dean gave up and started teaching them a few moves so at least they wouldn't get hurt. A few days later, a Gryffindor kid tossed a lump of poison ivy at Dean in the greenhouse during Care of Magical Plants. All ten of the Hufflepuff first-years leaped on the kid at once, while Sprout and Dean both yelled, except Dean had poison ivy all over his hands and wasn't going to grab any of his kids, and they weren't responding to voice commands.
They won pretty thoroughly with the stuff Dean had showed them, but that just got him in more trouble for what Sprout called "encouraging fighting." It was seriously unfair.
To make things worse, Binns wouldn't let Dean near the classroom anymore, so now he had History of Magic in private sessions with Flitwick, and he couldn't just nap through it. At least Flitwick got excited about anything he was teaching, so he kept forgetting to be cold and stern, and he'd even answer questions once in a while. "Hey," Dean said, one lesson, "can you do me a favor and tell me about this last round, the thing with whatsisname, Voldemort?"
"Well, er," Flitwick said.
"Yeah, I already know my family wasn't on the side of the angels," Dean said. "I didn't know the guys anyway. I just want to know what happened so I'm not feeling so goddamn clueless all the time."
Flitwick opened his mouth and paused, and shut it; he opened it again and closed it again. "No," he said, finally, in a low voice, "I'm sorry, Taversham, but I don't think I'm quite up to it. It's not history yet, you see. It's what we lived through, barely, and only with great loss. Very great loss. Albus Dumbledore—Severus Snape—" He stopped talking and shook his head.
"Hey," Dean said, putting up a hand. "I get it. Tell me about something else. Hey, tell me about the goblins, how's that?"
Flitwick flushed pink up to his partly-bald head and said stiffly, "Very well, let us turn to chapter eleven, on the last Goblin Rebellion."
"Look," Dean said, "this ancient stuff isn't going to stick. Tell me something a little more recent, okay? So I can actually have a conversation with the guys outside construction and know what they're talking about."
"The last Goblin Rebellion was thirty years ago," Flitwick said, confusedly.
Dean stared at him. "Who were they rebelling against?"
"Wizards," Flitwick said, staring back, as if it was obvious.
"Are you kidding me?" Dean said.
"Dude," he said to Feklar, that afternoon, while they were working on the car, "why do you guys give me the time of day?"
"You are not like other wizards," Feklar said. "You do not use the wandlore."
"I don't have magic, period," Dean said.
Feklar looked like he was chewing on a lemon, except he liked that as an afternoon snack, so really he looked like he was being force-fed a cream puff. He looked at the other goblins; Dean had told him any of them who wanted could come and work on the car. Lately, with the kids all stressing over end of the year exams, it was just him and them more often than not. "He teaches," Feklar said to the others.
The goblins all started talking to each other in goblinese, and it got pretty heated. Dean didn't try to listen in, just went back to working on the engine while they fought it out, whatever it was. Finally Feklar turned around and said, "You have magic."
"Huh?" Dean said.
"Goblin magic," Feklar said. "We are makers, not destroyers of things." He nodded at the car. "You are her maker."
"Dude, the car's awesome, but she's not magic," Dean said.
"Yes she is," Feklar said.
"Okay, the inside-out thing," Dean said, "but that was Martha, not me."
"Wizard spells do not last," Feklar said. "They have no foundations. When they die, their works die with them. What we build, lives on. That is why wizards want our secrets."
"But I don't have them," Dean said. "First time I met a goblin was this year."
"You already knew," Feklar said, and then he clammed up and held out his hand for one of the ratchets, in the way that meant the conversation was over.
That night Dean hit the crossroads demon with the Impala, full-on frontal impact, and the black frothing mass of her burned away from the headlights and spilled to either side of the hood and over the windshield, shattering. Sam was in the passenger seat reading. He looked up after they broke through the cloud, into sunlight, and he said, "I think I've got a line on a hunt in Wyoming."
"Awesome," Dean said, and just kept right on driving, like he could get there from here, drive straight over the waves, and then the headlights coming from the other side of the road blinded him awake: it was another of the Ravenclaw signs, going through the window.
"So, hey," Harry said to Dean in class, while the other kids were practicing the Protego spell, "how'd you get to be an Auror, without going to wizarding school?" He sounded kind of wistful. "It takes five NEWTs here, and a special recommendation."
After Dean figured out that Auror was a fancy word for "hunter who gets paid," he cleared Harry up on the getting paid part. "I don't know if there's some school for it, back home," Dean said. "I just learned from my dad."
"But how'd you make a living?" Harry said.
"Uh," Dean said, and was saved by the classroom door opening. Filch stuck his head in and said, in deeply gloomy tones, "Professor Potter."
"...yes, Filch?" Harry said, after a minute; he looked almost as horrified as Filch did.
"That boggart what you wanted is up in the North Tower," Filch said.
"Right," Harry said, and then swallowed and said, stifled, "—thanks, Filch." Filch vanished with a grim bang of the door, and Harry looked at the kids, all of whom were staring at him wide-eyed. "Don't worry," he said. The kids looked very, very worried. "That's for the third-years."
Dean didn't think about it again until the next day; he was lying on his back in the grass while flying practice went on overhead, chewing a blade of fresh grass and watching the broomsticks circle, still trying to figure out what Feklar was talking about with the goblin magic and if he needed to quit working on the car, when a clap of thunder went off overhead, like a bomb. A giant billowing shaft of flame came pouring out the side of the North Tower, bricks raining down. Dean caught a couple of the Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw kids as they came tumbling down with their broomsticks in more-or-less controlled falls, and then he ran inside.
"Taversham!" Hooch yelled after him, but Dean wasn't going to just sit there. The stairs for once turned to meet him and gave him a clear lane up to the tower, where he ran into third-year Slytherins and Gryffindors stumbling down, coughing and covered with dust. "Your brother's a bloody lunatic," one of the Gryffindors said to Dean, rubbing across his eyes, leaving a stripe of clean through the dust across his face.
"Sam!" Dean yelled, and spotted him, sitting on the stairs. Sam looked horrible, skin waxy and pale, and he was shivering badly. "Sam—Sammy—" Dean said, grabbing him by the shoulders, patting Sam's face. "Come on—"
Sam looked at him with unnaturally wide eyes, white showing all around the rims, and then he was clutching at Dean too, grabbing for his face, thumbs on Dean's cheeks, his mouth, and jesus, Sam was going to kiss him, right here—
"Where'd you learn that spell?" Harry was standing over them, looking tense and wary; he had his wand out, and Sam jerked his head up and stared at him, still trembling like some kind of wild animal.
"Back off," Dean said sharply. "Sam, you okay? What the hell happened?"
"He disintegrated the boggart," said one of the other kids hovering around, a boy in Slytherin green. "It was brilliant."
"Yeah?" Dean said, relaxing a little, knowing whatever it was was gone. "Maybe a little overkill there, huh, Sammy?" He patted Sam's cheek, trying to ease him out of it, and Sam reared up off the steps and shoved him clear across the hallway, bursting to his feet. "Fuck you," Sam said, and took off down the hall.
"What the hell!" Dean yelled, after him. He looked back; Harry was still watching him with that weird expression. "What's a boggart, anyway? What'd it do to him?"
"It turns into whatever you fear most," Harry said. "It came out of the closet and went straight for him, the second he came into the room. It was a woman. She said she'd come a little early."
"And then he blasted it," the kid said, gloatingly, while Dean felt his hands curl up tight.
"Thanks, Parkinson, that'll be enough," Harry said. "Get downstairs with the others." He looked at Dean. "He used an Eradication Curse. Where did he find that spell?"
"You're asking me? He's been reading every damn thing he can put his hands on," Dean said, swallowing down the sour taste of fear in his mouth. "What's the big deal? Uh, apart from the whole missing wall thing. I'll pay for that," he added, as McGonagall came up the stairs, breathing hard.
"It's dark magic," Harry said, looking at McGonagall. "It felt dark. It was meant to kill."
"So's a shotgun," Dean said. "Doesn't make it evil."
"Dark magic cannot be used safely," McGonagall said. "It poisons the spirit. I think we must have a few words with Mr. Winchester, immediately."
"Yeah, here's a different plan for you; how about you give him a little while to cool down," Dean said, and went looking himself.
Sam wasn't anywhere out in the open, and finally Dean went down to the Slytherin dungeon rooms, the hallways down here still blackened with smoke, and a thick layer of dust from the damaged stone and mortar hugging the base of the walls. The entrance to the dungeon was a trick wall that looked like it had taken a bad hit and hadn't been fixed yet: a portrait was hanging over the hole, a narrow-faced man with a vandyke and a narrow, crystal-topped walking stick. "My brother in there?" Dean asked.
"He is," the portrait said. "Password?"
"Huh, let me think," Dean said. "Is it, open the fuck up before I cut you out of that frame and torch you?"
The portrait stared at him and said, "Er, remarkably accurate," and swung open.
Dean ducked inside and found a bunch of the Slytherins gathered around Sam in their common room, trying to get him to drink some tea; Sam was sitting with his hands clenched on his knees, his eyes shut tight.
"Potter's an ass. Bet he thought it would be a good joke, springing it on a bunch of Slytherins like that," one of the older ones, the Malfoy kid, was saying. He looked up as Dean came into the room, and scowled a little, but after a moment he jerked his head at the others, and they cleared room for Dean to come in.
"Hey," Dean said, crouching down in front of him. Sam reached out blindly and his fingers caught on Dean's face, dragging against stubble, and cupped him, drew him in close and pressed their foreheads together, mingled their breath. "Sammy," Dean said, and laced his hands behind Sam's neck; he didn't know what to do for this.
"Dean," Sam said, low and brokenly, and his hands were shaking, fisting tight in the collar of Dean's robes, holding on.
The portrait swung open again, and Slughorn and McGonagall climbed inside, with Harry behind them. Dean stood up, putting himself between them and Sam. "I understand from Professor Slughorn," McGonagall said crisply, "that—Taversham, do you mind?"
"Yeah," Dean said, shifting to keep in her way, "I do. You need to back off right now—"
"Young man," Slughorn said, going the other way, "I gave you permission to access the Restricted Section for a particular assignment, based on the expectation that as an older student, you would have the sense not to go poking into the books in the more dangerous sections—"
Sam was just staring up at him like Slughorn was talking in another language, his face lost.
"If the things are that dangerous, why do you guys have them at all?" Dean said. "And hey, I was there, and you handed Sam that permission slip so you could watch your damn broomstick game, so cut the holier-than-thou crap."
Slughorn flushed red and angry. McGonagall said, "Taversham, this does not, for once, concern you—"
"Wow, you couldn't be more wrong," Dean said.
"—and you will be quiet, or I will put a silencing spell on you." She glared at Dean, and then stepped around him to face Sam. "Now then, if you please, what explanation do you have?" Sam didn't say anything, and after a moment's pause she went on, more tightly, "Perhaps you do not realize the gravity of the situation, Winchester. Using dark magic against another human being—"
"That wasn't a human being," Dean snapped.
McGonagall didn't even look at him, just whipped out her wand and pointed it in his direction, and all of a sudden Sam was on his feet and McGonagall's wand went shooting across the space between them and smacked into his hand. "Don't you ever point a wand at my brother," Sam said, deadly low.
There was a shocked silence; everyone was staring. Dean had seen this before, when Sam flipped the switch and went from a gangly, friendly beanpole straight to two hundred pounds of solid trained muscle, ready to fight. They hadn't. Sam spent a lot of time slouching, hunching, peering through his bangs, making it easy for people not to notice just how goddamn dangerous he was. It made it twice as scary when he finally let on, even without a magic wand clenched in his fist, sparks spilling from his hand and reflecting in his eyes.
Harry had his own wand out, clenched tight; he'd been hanging back uncomfortably near the door, but now he'd moved to stand next to McGonagall. Her face was parchment-white, starting to head for new levels of angry. Dean figured that was it, do not pass go, do not collect two hundred galleons, head directly for expelled, and he was just about ready to grab Sam and go, get the hell out of there—
Sam stared back at them all, and then he dropped the wand, rattling on the table next to the untouched cup of tea, and broke into tears.
When Sam cried, he went whole-hog: blotchy face, tears and snot everywhere, and he was trying to press his face against his arm to hide it. Dean lunged for him, pulled him in, saying, "Sam, Sam, I've got you," while Sam wrapped his arms around him and clung on, his face buried against Dean's shoulder.
Behind his back, Dean heard the Malfoy kid saying in his drawl, "Do you know, I can't help but wonder whether Granger would be getting this sort of treatment if someone had just shoved her worst nightmares into her face. I mean, I hope we're not expected to believe she's never looked at something dodgy in the Restricted Section."
"She's never cast an Unforgiveable, has she," Harry snapped.
"It's only an Unforgiveable if it's cast on another human being, Potter," Malfoy said. "The last I heard, boggarts didn't qualify. I'm sorry if you're so fond of them—but wait," he interrupted himself, in marveling tones, "don't I remember something—why, I don't believe you were able to look a boggart in the face straight off either, were you? Needed a bit of special tutoring—"
"Shut it, Malfoy," Harry said, lower.
"Pity you couldn't be bothered to worry about anyone else's worst fears," Malfoy said. "I suppose it's too much to expect. After all, no one could have imagined that a ghost hunter would be afraid of anything really rotten."
"Yes, that's enough from you, Mr. Malfoy," McGonagall said, but now she sounded more irritable than murderous, so that was something, anyway.
"Professor Slughorn," one of the Slytherin girls said, in a small voice, "when you gave me access for the extra credit Gilded Potion spell, I—I looked at the Malleus Maleficarum, too."
"Oh—well—" Slughorn said.
"I looked at the Complete Codex of Curses," one of the boys said.
"I read the Phallian Tome," another one said. There was a long, significant pause. "It was on a dare!" he added hurriedly.
"And you do realize, I'm sure, that Winchester here seems to be under the impression that he's expected to read every book in the library," Malfoy said. "Which, I might add, every professor in this school keeps encouraging by loading him up with points. Not really so astonishing that he's gotten himself over-tired—"
"Well, well," Slughorn said. "Minerva, it does seem to me that perhaps we might be reacting a bit ungenerously—"
One of the Slytherin girls was nudging Dean by the elbow, and when he looked at her she pointed a surreptitious finger towards the archway to the dorm rooms. A bunch of the other Slytherins had maneuvered so they were between him and the teachers, especially the taller ones, and they were all talking at once now, loudly. He nodded to her and hauled Sam down the hall, found his bedroom by poking his head into each door until he found the bed with fifty books around it, and dumped Sam on it.
Sam fell backwards onto the bed, staring up at the canopy, one hand still gripping tight in Dean's robes. He wasn't crying anymore, he just looked as pale as if someone had sucked all the life out of him, left a husk on the dark green sheets. "I'm not gonna let it happen," Sam said, not looking at him. "I'm not, Dean. I swear—"
"I know, Sammy," Dean said, looking away too. In a month it wasn't going to be a boggart, it was going to be the real thing, and she wasn't something Sam could blow away with a word. "I know."
McGonagall called them up to her office the next day. She didn't spend a lot more time lecturing, though, just shot them both off to detention, separately, and revoked Sam's permission for the Restricted Section. Dean expected that to set off a fit, but Sam took it calmly. "Don't worry about it," Sam said, as they walked towards Filch's office together. "The books know me now, they won't give the alarm," like that was supposed to make Dean feel better, that books full of dark magic knew Sam.
"They really think this stuff is bad news, Sammy," Dean said. "Maybe you better lay off."
Sam's face closed up like a box. "It's what I need to do the job," he said, and stretched his legs to get ahead of him in the hallway.
That night Dean dreamed again, of being in the house, sprawled in the big bed with a paperback and a fire burning, and Sam lying next to him reading the newspaper. There was snow on the windowsill again, fresh hot coffee on the bedside table, and the demon's head lolling on the fireplace, next to the golden sword that had been hanging on the wall in McGonagall's office, the one Dean had used to kill her.
Sam put down the newspaper and looked over at him smiling, and leaned over for long lazy kisses, all the time in the world, murmuring joyfully, "Dean—Dean—" and it felt so real Dean didn't notice exactly when it stopped being a dream and Sam was in his dorm bed with him, whispering, "I got it. I got it, Dean—" in the same joyful voice and kissing him, over and over.
"We can't, are you kidding me?" Dean whispered back, his hands already tight on Sam's hips, guiding him in. "I can't, the kids," and Sam pressed fingers to his mouth and murmured, "Exmundius," and Dean's ears popped as a shimmer passed over them and hardened into a fragile soap-bubble shell that muffled everything outside, made it far away. Sam pushed him down to the pillows.
Of course, then Sam left in the morning without trying to hide a thing, just climbed out of Dean's bed and out through the common room like he didn't care who saw him. That included Martha, who said to Dean puzzledly at breakfast, "Was that your brother, this morning?"
"Uh," Dean said, flailing. "Sammy has nightmares sometimes," which was lame, but still beat "we have sex sometimes" by about a million miles.
"S'pose that's what happens to Dark wizards," a Ravenclaw going past the table shot at them.
Dean turned sharply. "Watch it."
"Or what?" she said. "He'll use Eradiceo on me?"
"Uh, that's kind of a waste on a person," Sam said, from behind her. "Effocato takes about a quarter as much power to cast, and you just have to wait eighteen seconds for the oxygen in the person's blood to run out."
He was doing pretty well at looking the part of a dark wizard, in his black robes with his face smudged black over gray and his hair long enough to be pulled back in a ponytail, with—holy shit, that was white in his hair, lines of silver shot through the sandy brown, and his gaunt face made him look like he was older than Dean. The Ravenclaw chick went pale and edged off sideways.
"You're scaring the locals," Dean said, still staring at Sam's hair.
"Huh?" Sam said, and looked after the fleeing Ravenclaw. "I wasn't going to use it on her."
"Could've fooled her," Dean said.
Sam just shrugged. "That would be even more of a waste." Dean was pretty sure he was joking, but Sam went on to say, "I need some blood," making even the Hufflepuffs stretch their eyes.
"Ha ha, Sammy, always with the kidding," Dean said, and grabbed Sam's arm and hustled him out of the dining hall. "Dude, you need to quit this," he hissed.
"Soon," Sam agreed, smiling at him, way too happily for someone who was going on to say, "I've got the knife and bowl ready, over here—" Then he insisted on getting Dean in the inner elbow, too, so the goddamn bruise lasted all day.
"—on to necromancy!" Dean overheard McGonagall saying indignantly to Flitwick and Sprout, the next day. "Sir Nicholas—chapel graveyard—"
He managed to corner Sam after his Potions class let out. "You're seriously going to get your ass expelled," Dean said. "Dude, they're all still jumpy as hell after the whole thing with Voldemort—"
"Who?" Sam said. And Dean had thought he was working the oblivious angle.
People started to whisper behind Dean's back; behind Sam's too, Dean guessed, but since Sam was busy redefining one-track-mind, he didn't seem to care. It was getting closer and closer to exams, everyone was stressing out, it made great gossip, Dean figured, and he tried not to care that people were trashing Sam where he could just barely hear. It didn't occur to him to seriously worry until one of the older Slytherins nudged him in a hallway and muttered, "Look, is your brother daft or what? They'd love to put a Taversham in Azkaban anyway, he needn't give them this much excuse."
"Hey," Dean said grimly, corralling Edgar, "talk to me about Azkaban. You mentioned it before. What is this place?"
"Wizard prison," Edgar said. "It's pretty rotten—it's guarded by dementors. The Ministry keeps talking about finding some other way to guard it, because the dementors fought for Voldemort in the war, but no one knows how to chase them off, really."
"Would they try to put Sam in there?" Dean said. "For whatever this crap is he's doing, or they think he's doing."
"Well—yeah, maybe," Edgar said. "I mean, that's what it's for, you can't just bang a dark wizard into Wormwood Scrubs."
"Goddammit," Dean said, and that was just awesome, the kind of thing that would probably make that demon bitch laugh her ass off, if he brought Sam back just to watch him do something fucked up and get himself thrown in a hellhole prison, right when Dean—right when he couldn't do anything to help Sam anymore.
"Sam, listen to me," Dean said. "I'm sorry. I fucked up, and I'm sorry, I should never have laid this on you—"
"It's okay," Sam said, stroking Dean's side with his broad palm, one long sweep from his ribcage over the curve of his hip and back, lovingly.
"No, it's not," Dean said. "But it's done, and I need you not to screw up like I did, Sammy. I need you to quit doing this."
Sam's hand stilled, and he looked at Dean. In the candlelight filtering in through the curtains of the bed, his eyes were flat gold. "I told you, I've got it. She's not going to have you," Sam said, and the certainty in his voice was so strong Dean could almost have believed him.
The weather flipped one day to the next; for a week they'd had snow flurries, then the winter broke for good and suddenly all the cherry trees were blooming, and what felt like five minutes after that, a spring heat wave hit, and everyone was sticky and hot and irritated in class. The castle walls sweated clammy moss-stained green, and Dean felt like he couldn't get a full breath into his lungs. It was one week to the seventeenth of May.
That night, Sam got Dean to climb out the window and lie under the stars with him in the cool dew-wet grass, curling around Dean, happy and hungry, touching him all over. Dean didn't dream a thing and woke up alone at dawn with the unicorn nuzzling him.
"Man, you guys do not deserve your rep," Dean said, rubbing his sex-sticky hands off against the wet grass. The unicorn whickered at him. Dean hauled himself up by its mane, and it walked to the stables alongside him, nosing at him comfortingly, a warm bright presence. "Yeah, whatever," Dean muttered, looked around to make sure nobody was watching, and gave the unicorn a pat. It snorted and reared showily before taking off across the grounds. Dean watched it running away until it disappeared into the woods.
He hauled open the stable doors and let the sun come in glittering on the Impala's hood. She looked awesome. He'd swapped out anything that looked like it was even thinking about maybe rusting someday, he'd upgraded everything he'd ever dreamed of upgrading. She'd been scrubbed and tuned from the ground up, with a fresh paint job he'd driven to Edinburgh for last Saturday, all the seats reupholstered in buttery black leather and the fixtures done in platinum—the goblins had kicked up a fuss and insisted, and Dean got a secret kick out of thinking she was wearing a cool hundred grand in jewelry.
He opened the driver's side door and sat down heavily. "Listen, baby," he said. "I need you to do something for me, okay? I know Sammy's not going to treat you right, especially not at the start. But you can take it for a while now, and I need you to hold up for him. Not that you shouldn't give his ass a bumpy ride if he forgets to change the oil or tries to feed you anything other than premium. But, anyway, you know what I mean."
She purred at him low, and Dean added, "And, uh, look. He may need to get out of here quick, if you get what I'm saying, just so you're ready for that. You've always gotten us out of Dodge before, but, he might not be thinking too straight for a while, and he might leave it a little late. I know the roads here suck, baby, sorry about that. I'd give you wings if I knew how, but maybe Sam will get you back to some decent pavement someday."
He bumped the steering wheel gently with his fist. "Sorry we didn't get to see the Canyon. This place turned out okay though, right?"
He got out and stopped short. The goblins were all there in the stable, sitting around the car and silently watching. "Uh," Dean said, trying not to be pissed; he felt like somebody had seen him naked.
"It is finished," Feklar said, standing up.
"Well, yeah. Not much else I could do but stick a jet engine in her," Dean said.
"It is finished," Feklar repeated, and looked at the other goblins. They were all there, not just the ones who'd been studying along, but the whole crew, even the ones Dean had figured didn't like him much. "It is deserving of mastery. Does anyone contest my judgement?"
"Not in craft," one of the others said, and Feklar hissed through his teeth, the way they seemed to do when they were really pissed off. Feklar and the other goblin squared off, and the other one said something—
"No," Feklar said. "I assert rank. You will speak so he can understand. It is his work in question."
The other goblin hissed this time, but he said in English, "He is of no clan. He is of the wizards. It is not fitting."
"Judge the work to judge the maker," Feklar said. "That is the law. A master shall judge. That is also the law. Does Shernak of Grevlek question my mastery?"
"It is the duty of all goblins to question," Shernak said. "That is also the law."
"Then question," Feklar said. "Question by the law. Question the work, and not the maker."
"Hey," Dean said, because they still looked like they were ready to go for each other's throats. "Look, this means a hell of a lot to me," he told Feklar. "But, it's—I'm not going to be around for a lot longer, is the thing. I don't want you going to the mat for me for no reason."
Feklar didn't seem fazed even a little. "We judge your work," he said. "The work will go on. Do you deny your work? Do you say it is not worthy of mastery?"
"Hell, no," Dean said, his hand going involuntarily to the Impala's roof.
"Then question," Feklar said, looking back at the others.
"He has never been taught," one of the other unfriendlies said. "How can we know the three strictures have been obeyed?"
"The proof is in the work," Feklar said. "Or ask the maker, if you wish."
"You would force us to break the Code of Restriction!"
"Feklar forces nothing," another one named Gresta said. "You wish to question; question."
"But will he keep the law?" another goblin said. "If he reveals to the wizards our secrets—"
"I'm not keeping secrets from Sam," Dean said, "and I guess he's a wizard by your standards, so don't tell me anything you don't want him to know. I'm not gonna blab something you guys want me to keep quiet just for the hell of it, but he's my brother."
"He is of your clan," Feklar said, agreeing.
"If you persist," Shernak said to Feklar, "I will ask, for Mastery is a higher law than Restriction, and the breaking will be on your head, if the Council finds it violation."
"I persist," Feklar said.
Give him credit, Shernak didn't waste another second arguing, just turned right to Dean and said, "These are the strictures: first, that you shall know your work; second, that you shall love your work; and last and greatest, that you shall bleed for your work, for no craft is true which is made without pain. These are the strictures, and if you lie and say you have followed them when you have not, this and all the work of your hands will be accursed. Answer, therefore, and be judged."
He sneered the end, and it made Dean want to punch him in the face. "I was born in this car," Dean said flatly, "two blocks short of the hospital. I drove her for the first time when I was nine years old, because my dad was hurt, and I had to get him to the hospital. I fucked my first girl in the backseat, and I died there two years ago, flatlined and everything, and I built her back up out of that wreck when everyone told me she was scrap. So yeah, I know her, I love her, and I've bled for her; that good enough, or you want the video footage?"
Nobody said another word. The goblins all just grabbed their tools and headed off to work. Dean stood there feeling a little anticlimactic while they filed out the door. Gresta and Cernik and Ragah all nodded to him as they went, but that was it.
"Uh—they caved pretty quick?" Dean said to Feklar, when everybody else was gone.
Feklar shrugged; he had shouldered his own pickaxe. "Birth and sex and death. That is a great working."
"I didn't plan it that way," Dean said. "It just happened. I still don't get how that makes her magic."
"Has there been nothing strange?" Feklar said. "Has she not served you, more than you could have expected?"
Dean opened his mouth to say no, and then it occurred to him that he had been wondering why the hell the FBI hadn't put the Impala on his profile, and how nobody seemed to notice he was driving one of maybe forty left on the road. "Huh," he said instead, and patted her hood. "What do you know." She purred for him again, and then Dean blinked and realized he didn't have the car keys, hadn't had them to begin with. They were back on his bedside table with his wallet.
"There will be more now you have laid the final enchantments on her," Feklar said. "With more training, you might have made them more precise. But they will perhaps be more powerful because they are not specific. It is a matter of debate among the masters."
"Listen, thanks again," Dean said.
"It is not thanks," Feklar said severely. "It is the duty of a master to name others, so great works are recognized, and advances passed on." He paused and added, "This is the first masterwork which is of a thing which is mechanical, of human make. We have often argued it might be possible, but it was not done. We did not know your engines."
"So now what's next, a goblin fighter jet?" Dean said.
Feklar grinned, a little nastily. Then he said, "Will you tell me whether you will keep the law?"
"I'm not going to go tell it on the mountain," Dean said, "but you guys don't need to worry. If I did tell, I don't think it'd make a big difference. Most people don't love things like that. Not really, not the way I love this car. I wouldn't trade somebody's life for her, but—"
"Yes, you would," Feklar said.
"Well, uh, maybe, if they were a jerk or something," Dean muttered. "But anyway, putting that much into something—it's like giving up part of yourself. People don't get that."
"You do," Feklar said.
"Yeah, but I'm kind of messed up for a person," Dean said.
He went back to the castle and blew off all his classes, found a way to climb out onto the roof of the cloisters and spent the day just sitting there watching the clouds roll by. He didn't really want to talk to anybody. After dinner, he'd give Sam the car keys, start trying to talk him into hitting the road. The hell hounds had shown up a week in advance for the others, back in Mississippi, so he'd probably start hearing the first howls tonight. The gun was still tucked into his waistband, a quick easy out if he wanted to take it; there were plenty of consecrated rounds in the Impala's trunk. But he wanted this last week, wanted it bad.
"Dean?" He looked up; Katie was sticking her head out of the window above him, and she looked scared.
"Yeah," Dean said, although all he wanted to do was sit here and not think.
"They're looking for your brother," Katie said. "I don't know what he did, but they look really mad, and they're looking for you too."
"Who is?" Dean said. "McGonagall?"
She nodded. "And people from the Ministry," she said. "Aurors, a whole bunch of them."
"Great," Dean said, and got up and climbed back in the window. "Go on ahead of me and cough loud if you spot any of them."
Sam wasn't in the library, or the Slytherin rooms, and by the time Dean got to checking the dining hall, he was just following in the traces of the other people looking for Sam. "Goddammit," he muttered, looking outside the chapel; the ghosts were still all around it with their protest signs, and if he tried to go over there they'd probably set up a fuss loud enough to get him caught.
"I'll go," Lisa said; the other Hufflepuffs had joined in the hunt. She ran down the path and came back ten impatient minutes later, running flat out, and panting gabbled out, all in a rush, "They were there, I don't think they saw me, Sam wasn't there anymore, they were saying—"
"Whoa," Dean said, grabbing her shoulder, he could barely understand her.
She slowed down long enough to gulp a breath. "They said he'd taken the Friar's bones," she said more normally.
"Oh, for—" Dean said. "Goddammit, I was there, we didn't torch the guy!"
"No, that he'd taken them," she said. "They were saying something about, it was because the Friar was defrocked, and—and—"
Dean stared at her, remembering Sam's weird intensity, the way he'd been trying so hard to get the Friar to move on—
She finished, nervously, "—and they said he was doing—demon summoning."
All the Hufflepuffs turned and stared at Dean. "He's not, really, is he?" William said, small.
"Goddammit," Dean said. "Where's the nearest crossroads to here?"
The trail to Hogsmeade ran across the school fields, and the ground was uneven. Dean left the kids behind, pounding along the road as fast as he could, panic drumming in his chest. It was the one and only way to get out of a deal with a demon: make another deal, and if Sam had—if Sam was—He ran faster, faster, and maybe there were hellhounds already on his trail, coming close behind.
The iron bars of the front gate loomed up across the road, the winged-pig statues on either side looking down at him disapprovingly. He jumped for it and scrambled up the bars with his shoulders straining, until he could heave himself up and over the spikes at the top, and charged down the road towards the first buildings he could see. The sun was going down, stores shutting up for the night, nearly all of them along a single main road running west away from him. Alleyways branched off, but he didn't see any crossroads, until he looked down one side-street, dusty and unkempt, with patches of grass in the middle of the dirt road and a single battered old shack leaning askew, maybe ten yards down, where another scrubby dirt road crossed it. A tall lanky shape was silhouetted against the sky, bending down.
Dean ran straight at him, and crashed six steps away into an invisible surface like the wall of a carnie fair moon-jump that bounced him right back sprawling into the street. He rolled to his feet and went at it again, slower, found it with his hands. "Sam!" he yelled, pounding on the wall.
Sam wasn't looking up. He was drawing symbols in the dirt, part of a huge elaborate design ten times more complicated than any devil's trap Dean had seen in Bobby's books. The circle touched at the corners of the crossroads and enclosed the whole thing, drawn in what looked like molten silver, glimmering faintly blue with the sky reflecting. "We don't have time for this, Dean," Sam said, not looking up.
"You're not doing this, Sammy," Dean said. "Sam. Sam, I won't let you—"
Sam was drawing the symbols in thick white paint, with what looked like a pastry bag. As he finished each one, the paint flared and set, almost burning down into the dirt, thin curls of smoke rising as it went to silver. He was doing them fast, expertly, like he'd practiced this a lot.
"Sam!" Dean yelled at him. "Goddammit, Sam!" He yanked out his knife, desperately, and stabbed at the transparent wall. The blade went skidding over the surface, uselessly, and Dean tried jabbing at it with the wand, but that didn't do a goddamn thing either. He mapped out the wall with his hands, trying to find a weak spot, but it ringed the whole circle, smooth as glass and impenetrable, too high to jump—Dean clenched his hands, and then he opened them up and looked down at his palms, and flipped the knife open again. It hurt like fire, slicing his hand open, but when he smeared the blood all over the iron wand, it glowed red and sank into the wall, inches deep, and let him start cutting a hole.
Sam was on the last symbol, working fast; the sun's last rays going down, and Dean slammed his shoulder to where he thought the hole was, cracked it open waist-high and fell through it scrambling and desperate just as Sam pulled off the last one, and the whole circle went up in flames.
Dean threw up his arm against the blaze, but it wasn't hot, just blindingly bright, enough to make his eyes water, and then Sam had him forced up against the wall, his eyes gone blazing gold—no way to look at them and call it a reflection this time. "I don't fucking believe you," Sam said, low and grating. "After everything—you're still just trying to throw yourself away, like fucking trash—"
"I'm not letting you make a goddamn deal for me!" Dean yelled, and grabbed Sam back, kicked his right knee out from under him. Sam fell still hanging on to him, and they both went to the ground, rolling—and fuck, that had been a bad move, because Sam had thirty pounds to work with, and he was using them. Sam managed to heave over so he was on top, and he hauled Dean up a little and then slammed him down, hard enough to knock all the breath out of Dean's body.
"Shut up," Sam said, furiously. "Shut up, you fucking jerk, you think I'd do that to you? I told you I had it, Dean. You think I'd say that to you if I was going to sell myself?"
Dean stared up at him, his hands still twisted up tight in Sam's robes, panting. "So what are you—" he said, helpless. "How—"
"Fuck you," Sam said. "You just couldn't—you couldn't believe me, even once. You wouldn't trust me—"
"I can't," Dean said. "Sammy, I can't, there's no—goddammit, Sam, I sold my fucking soul, I don't get to take it back—"
"I do," Sam said.
"Fine," Dean said. "Fine, goddammit, tell me how. You come up with some sure-fire way to kill a demon, Sammy? You found another bullet for the Colt?"
Sam let go of him and stood up. "No," he said. "I just found a sure-fire way to summon one."
"What the hell use is that going to be?" Dean said. "She'd come any time you snapped your fingers—"
"No, she wouldn't, Dean," Sam said. "She knows I'm not calling her up to make a deal."
Dean scrambled back to his feet and took a step towards him. "So what are you calling her up for, then?" he said, heart pounding.
"I'm calling her up to fight her," Sam said.
"With what, goddammit?" Dean said. "She's a demon, Sam, I don't know what you're packing, but it's not going to be that easy. You're not going to help me by getting yourself killed!"
"Yeah, I am," Sam said gently.
It was getting darker. The blazing circle had died down now, to a low flickering all around them, flames cool and silver-white. Sam's wax-pale skin shone clear in the light, and his white-shot hair, otherworldly and far away, and Dean felt his throat close up tight.
"If she kills me," Sam said, going on, saying what Dean didn't want to, couldn't bear to hear, "she's broken her end of the deal. It's no-win for her. That's why I needed a way to force her to—"
"No," Dean said hoarsely, and Sam was on him again, like the wrath of god, clutching him tight. "Don't you dare," Sam said, low. "Don't you even think about it, Dean—"
"Sammy," Dean said.
"We had a year," Sam said, more softly, his hand cupping Dean's face. "It was a good year."
"You've been freaking out all year," Dean said, his voice cracking.
"So have you," Sam said, and Dean guessed it was true. "We killed the yellow-eyed demon, Dean. We saw Dad free, maybe we even saved the world. That's what you bought. And I got—" He swallowed, leaning towards Dean, and put their foreheads together. "It wasn't right," he whispered. "None of this is right, but I'm glad we had it anyway. Promise me it'll be enough, Dean. Promise me."
"Sam," Dean said. He didn't know how to make that promise, he couldn't—"What am I supposed to do? Come on, Sam, how am I supposed to—"
"Live?" Sam said. "You can do it without me, Dean."
"I don't want to," Dean said, raw, and pulled Sam back in and kissed him, desperately, both hands locked around Sam's head, the long hair coming loose under his fingers.
He let Sam break it when they couldn't breathe anymore. "You're going to go back to Bobby," Sam said softly. "You're going to help get rid of the rest of the demons. And then—"
"If you keep going and tell me I'm gonna meet someone, I'm going to kick your ass," Dean said.
"Actually, I was going to say, you're going to teach other hunters," Sam said. "And you're going to save a lot of people."
"I wanted to save you," Dean said.
"You did," Sam said. "I'm not afraid, Dean. Just think about it like I've gone away to school again."
"Yeah, I don't know if I mentioned at the time, Sammy, but that sucked too," Dean said.
"Sorry," Sam said softly, and kissed him again, and then he let go and stepped back, with Dean's wand in his hand.
"Hey!" Dean said.
Sam smiled, crookedly. "It's not that I don't trust you to sit this one out, Dean," he said, "but I really don't trust you to sit this one out." He held up his hand and a force pushed Dean gently but inexorably out of the circle, back outside the wall.
"Sam!" Dean said, and he couldn't help fighting it. It didn't do any good; Sam turned away, Dean's wand tucked into the back of his jeans, and raised his own wand. He started speaking in Latin, a steady rolling incantation off his tongue, and above them the stars started going out, black clouds boiling in overhead, crackling with lightning. Dean pressed his hands flat to the invisible wall, yelling Sam's name, but he couldn't even hear himself over the roar of the rising wind as the clouds funneled down into a sharp point, reaching for the ground, for the center of the circle, and it hit with a thunderclap that threw him blind and rolling across the ground.
He staggered up to his feet drunkenly, his balance shot and blood trickling down the side of his head from somewhere—busted eardrum, he realized, touching the left ear, and then he was running back to the wall, because Sam was fighting—fighting for his life, against something that didn't look anything like a beautiful dark-haired woman, against a vast tentacled cloud of pitch black that hurt to look at, screaming obscenely as it lashed at Sam with its limbs.
Sam was bleeding already, ears and nose and eyes, and red welts where his shirt and jeans were torn through. His wand was shining pure incandescent white, though, so bright the light came spilling through his hand, and the demon writhed away from it. Sam shook a long tail out of the end of the wand, like a whip, and ripped into the cloud with it, crack-crack-crack of each snaking blow cutting through the shrieking wind.
The demon howled and reared up away from it, contracting itself into a narrow column, and then it pushed out a single massive tree-trunk arm and slammed Sam with it, like swinging at a fastball. "Sam!" Dean screamed. Sam was smashed into the edge of the circle and fell to the ground, heavily. He curled onto his hands and knees, coughing blood onto the ground, the wand still clutched in his right hand, and the demon was pulling back for another shot.
"Goddammit, get up!" Dean yelled at him, pounding on the wall. "Get the hell up now, Samuel!" and Sam obeyed, struggling up to his feet again. He gripped his wand by both ends and held it up, a sheet of white light blazing out of it like a shield, right as the demon's blow smashed into it. Sam staggered and went to his knees, but the shield held, while the demon bashed away at it, once, twice, three times, and then Sam grabbed the end in both hands and pointed it at the demon and said, "Eradiceo," and blasted a smoking hole right through its core.
The demon gave a terrible ringing shriek, a million nails scraping on a million chalkboards, and grabbed Sam with two limbs, smoke rising from them where they touched, and threw him across the circle again, furiously, a spoiled kid angry with a ragdoll. It didn't let go this time, kept beating him brutally against the wall of the circle, over and over, while Dean yelled desperately, tears pouring down his face, until the shining white wand fell from Sam's hand, and rolled away across the ground, its light dying.
The demon stopped, and let Sam drop to the ground. His chest was still moving, slow painful gulps of air, bruises already purpling everywhere across his skin, swelling his face and his curled, broken hands. He couldn't have gotten away, but the demon didn't go for him again. It sat there coiled and simmering, oil-slick black rainbows flickering over its surface, while Sam slowly and painfully rolled himself over, and pushed himself up to hands and knees.
It waited until he was back up on his feet, swaying, and then it said in a horrible metal-grating voice, "Break the circle. Break the circle, and I will let you live."
"Sam, come on, please," Dean said under his breath, begging—but Sam just stood there and laughed, bloody and smashed up and so goddamn brave Dean couldn't look away. "No deal," Sam said, and as the demon threw itself at him, coming down like a crashing wave, Sam took Dean's wand out from behind his back and held it up, and the demon impaled itself right onto it and exploded into red fire.
The blast wave scorched Dean's face, black demon-smoke and fire roaring like thunder, boiling up to the edges of the circle for what seemed like forever. Dean had his head down and his eyes shut, braced against the invisible wall, and when it abruptly vanished from under his hands, he fell forward onto his knees. "Sam," he said, or tried to; his voice was wiped out, and his eyes were streaming too much to see. He scrubbed at them, even while he kept crawling on into the smoke, groping desperately.
Suddenly a cool wind sprang up, blowing hard, and the smoke spilled away from the crossroads, thinning out and blending into the night. In the last lingering glow-in-the-dark shine of the circle Dean saw Sam lying in the middle of the circle, a couple of feet away, his hand outflung, his mouth open; there was blood smeared bright vivid red on his teeth, on his blue-tinged lips, but his chest was still moving, shallowly. "Sam," Dean said, reaching for him, but he was being yanked back away, by ropes coming out of nowhere, snaking around his ankles and his wrists.
More ropes were erupting out of the ground, wrapping around Sam. Floating torches were burning overhead, McGonagall and half a dozen other wizards in crisp black robes and hard faces were approaching, all of them tense with their wands held out.
"Get these the hell off me!" Dean said, fighting the ropes. "Goddamn you bastards, he's hurt!"
"Summoning went wrong, did it?" one of them growled, an older guy with crew-cut gray hair. He stumped over to where Sam was lying and spat on him. "Too bad it didn't finish the job."
"Fuck you, you son of a bitch," Dean panted, and managed to split half a dozen of the ropes and get his arm free. Another of the wizards was standing in range; Dean punched the guy right in the kneecap, got the seven pounds of force he needed and heard it crack, and the wizard yelled and came down. Dean grabbed the guy's wand out of his hand and slapped at the ropes with it, sent them recoiling, but he heard three people shout, "Expelliarmus!" and the wand went flying out of his hand again as the world spun in circles.
He fell down gasping on his back, and this time the ropes lashed him down to the ground, loops every few inches. "Jesus Christ, you assholes," Dean said, he couldn't even turn his head enough to see Sam.
"Wands secured," a woman's voice said, professionally, somewhere above him. "No trace of Dark wizardry left in the area."
"And the prisoners properly immobilized now?" another man asked, in angry tones. "You all right, Williamson?"
"Yes, my own damned fault, letting my guard down," said the wizard Dean had knocked down, in a clenched voice.
"Here, let's have a look, a bone-mending charm will set you right—" another one said, sounding almost cheerful, worrying about this guy Williamson's fucking knee when Sam was out there bleeding to death—
"Right, then, what's to be done?" a different man said.
"They've not repealed the Emergency Auror Powers Authorization Act yet," one of the women, her black hair pulled back severely, said. "And I don't suppose it could be questioned that these two are Voldemort supporters."
"I beg your pardon," McGonagall said sharply, "but that is quite enough of that kind of talk. A proper trial—"
The man snorted. "Right, you want to pop this one into Azkaban meanwhile, I suppose? Full-on demon summoning, not even You-Know-Who went that far. I reckon the dementors will fall right in line behind him, we give them the chance. No, ta very much."
Dean had managed to wrestle himself around enough he saw the guy nudging Sam with the toe of his boot. He felt sick. This wasn't how this was going to fucking end, these assholes with their power trip—
"All right, Savage," the gray-haired one said, "stop poking at him. If it needs doing, we'll do it quick and clean."
"I suppose this one's less dangerous," the woman said, looking down at him. "He's the Squib, isn't he? Although it might just be a deep game—"
"You hurt Sam, you better kill me too, or else I swear to God I will fucking end every last one of you bastards," Dean said, "and I won't need magic for it."
"I don't expect he's got the temperament for a deep game," Williamson said, limping over.
"So we're agreed," the gray-haired wizard said. "It's Azkaban for him, and the Killing Curse for the other one—"
Dean threw himself against the ropes. "Goddammit, you can't let them do this!" he shouted at McGonagall. "Sam's not fucking evil!" She stood there looking irresolute, and he broke and said, "Please!"
"Dawlish," she said.
"Headmistress, you called us in, now let us do our job," the gray-haired wizard said.
"Right," one of the other Aurors said. "Shall we get it over with?"
"We'll do it with a shared casting," the gray-haired one said. "On three," and as they raised their wands, a low thundering rumble came from down the road, and they all turned and threw their hands up against a sudden blaze of light as the Impala came roaring into the crossroads with its headlights on, Yarrow at the wheel clutching it white-knuckled.
Wizards scattered to all sides as she roared in a circle around them, chasing them away, and finally fishtailed to a stop inches away from Sam and Dean, kicking up dirt. The doors all opened and all seventy-two Hufflepuffs came pouring out, waving socket wrenches and screwdrivers, yelling every crazy stupid jinx they could come up with. The six Aurors all fell back under the onslaught of kids, looking shocked. One of them pointed a wand at Clyde, who was in the lead, and McGonagall snapped out, "Good God, Savage, she's a child!" She fired off an "Expelliarmus!" and shot it right out of his hands.
Martha and Prowley skidded to their knees next to Dean and started to yank at the ropes—"Forget about it! Sam!" Dean gasped, straining, and Martha looked over and gulped and went to Sam's side. "Hang on," Prowley said, still trying to undo the ropes—"Knife," Dean said. "Knife in the glove compartment—"
Sam's old sickle sliced through the ropes like butter, and Dean could get over to him at last. Martha had closed up the worst of the gashes and the burns, but she looked up at Dean anxiously. "I think he's bleeding inside," she said. "I don't know how to fix that, that's advanced healing magic—"
"Right now I'll take a hospital. Hell, I'd take the FBI over these bastards," Dean said. "Sam. Sam."
Sam shifted in his arms and looked up at Dean with a vague, happy smile. "Told you I had it," he murmured.
"Yeah, yeah," Dean said. "I knew it all along. Come on, Sammy, stay with me here—"
"M'tired," Sam said.
"No way, you don't goddamn get to check out on me now," Dean said, fighting to keep his hands gentle instead of clutching at Sam tight like he wanted to. "Not now, Sam, not like this—"
The Impala rumbled anxiously, opening the door a little wider towards them. "I don't think he can take it right now, baby," Dean said, but he thought they were going to have to risk it. The Aurors were starting to get their act together and herd the Hufflepuffs together. In a minute they'd have them penned up.
"Oh!" one of the girls said, and abruptly, the back-and-forth of jinxes stopped. Dean looked up: the unicorn was coming out of the forest. But it didn't look anything like the way it had back at the school: beautiful but ordinary. Now it was shining in the moonlight, silver from hooves to its spiraling horn, and a faint tracework of light was spread from its back, like outspread and sheltering wings.
All the wizards fell back out of its way, going stunned and silent and pale as it turned its head and regarded them all with quiet shining disapproval, their wands slowly sinking down. The unicorn snorted and turned away from them. It came around the Impala, nosing at its hood in a friendly way, and stepped up to Dean and lowered its head to look at him.
"Yeah, okay," Dean whispered. "I guess I do believe in you."
The unicorn whickered, and gently reaching down bumped Sam's torn and bloody lip with its glowing horn. After a moment, Sam stirred and opened his eyes and smiled up at it, drowsily. "Hey," he said, and reached up to pet it. His hand didn't leave bloodstains on the unicorn's hide.
The unicorn permitted the touch, for a moment, and then it flung its head up and whinnied, the intense glow fading, and it turned on a dime and went flashing by them all into the woods, tail rippling like silk behind it. McGonagall had tears standing in her eyes watching it go, the back of her wand hand pressed to her mouth; the Aurors all still looked mostly confused, their eyes still hazy with leftover reflections of the unicorn's light.
"Ow," Sam said, propping himself up on his elbows.
"What?" Dean said, grabbing him. "Where're you hurt?"
"Huh?" Sam blinked at him. "My back aches."
Dean stared at him. "Yeah?" he said levelly. "I'll take care of that. 'Cause after I finish kicking your crazy ass, you're not even going to notice anyplace else."
"Hey, I just saved your freaking soul!" Sam said, pushing himself up to his feet. He held out his hand and said, "Accio!" and his and Dean's wands jumped right out of the bag where the Aurors had stashed them and came sailing over. The Aurors all startled, as if they were coming out of a daze, and then half-started to raise their wands.
"For Heaven's sake," McGonagall said sharply, and they all looked at each other, looked after the vanished unicorn, and deflated.
"So hey," Dean said to them. "Here's how this is gonna work. Me and Sam, we're taking the kids and getting out of here, and then I'm going to have my lawyers kick your asses around the block the long way." He gave them his best grin. "You all have an awesome day."
The Impala purred and opened her doors for them all.
"Goddammit, I thought this was over," Dean said. "Anka!" he yelled. She popped out from behind the wardrobe. "Where the hell has Sam got to now?"
She clasped her hands with a beatific expression. "Anka can tell!" she said. "Anka has not been given orders not to! Anka will not be disobeying!"
"Great," Dean said. "So where is he?"
"Anka is not knowing," she said.
Dean stared at her. "Uh, hey, so those other times I asked—"
"Anka was not knowing then either," she said. "But Anka could not say Anka was not knowing, because if Anka had known, then Anka would have to say Anka knew, and Anka would be telling."
Dean ran a hand over his face.
"Anka can be finding him if Master wishes," she added earnestly.
"Yeah, thanks," Dean said, and she disappeared. "You guys ready?" he yelled down the hall.
"Yes!" "Yes!" "Yes!" "No!" The last one was from Edgar. "Still being a pain in my ass," Dean said, rolling his eyes, and heaved the arsenal bag onto his shoulder, grabbing the two duffles in either hand. "You all got half an hour and then you can take the goddamn train to school," he yelled, and headed for the door, only to pull up short when Rimple appeared in front of him with a disapproving expression.
"If I may, sir," he said, pointedly looking at the luggage.
Dean sighed and put the bags back down. Rimple twitched a finger and they floated into the air and away down the hallway to the stairs. Dean went down after them and checked the mail in the hallway: a couple more letters from Bigglespoth about the lawsuit, and a two-line note from Feklar about the GTO he and his cousin were working on now, with a picture. It looked pretty awesome, Dean had to say.
"Master," Anka said, appearing at his elbow; Dean jumped. "Master Samuel is out by the picture house."
"Great," Dean muttered, that was a laugh a minute. He stuffed the mail into his pocket and went out the back door and across the gardens to the small building. He'd put it up in June, with help from Feklar and his crew: two layers of brick with insulation and silencing spells between, and a triple-paned window looking out on the meadow and the forest and the running stream behind the house. It wasn't big enough for a person to stand in and there wasn't even a door; they'd just opened up the window to put the painting inside.
Sam was sitting next to the building, looking out at the same view. Two months of being banned from the library and fed four times a day had done a lot to make him look better, although his hair was still coming in completely white. But Dean was getting a kick out of that now that Sam didn't look five minutes away from death anymore. It was awesome to catch Sam staring at himself in the mirror, poking at his scalp and looking pained when he couldn't find any normal hair. Dean was just waiting for the right psychological moment to leave a box of Clairol for Men in the bathroom.
"Dude, what are you doing? This is a serious downer," Dean said.
"You can't hear it," Sam said.
"Yeah, but you still know it's there," Dean said. He didn't really know if it made any difference, having the painting up here instead of the cellar. He thought it screamed less, but it was hard to say. He couldn't take looking at it for long enough to be sure. Mostly it made him feel better, knowing it had a little slice of sun and sky, instead of being locked up in the dark.
"I'd know anyway," Sam said, with a small shrug.
Dean nudged him, knee to his shoulder. "We'll find a way."
"Yeah," Sam said, and let Dean give him a hand up.
The kids were downstairs by the car, stuffing in the last bits of trailing sleeves and extra candy while their duffle bags shoved and squirmed against each other, trying to get into the Impala's trunk. She honked her horn, impatiently, as they approached. "Almost ready, baby," Dean said and turned back to the front stairs: all the house-elves had come out to see them off. Mika came down to hand him a giant box full of food for the trip.
"Man, I am going to miss you guys," Dean said, inhaling; they'd put in those awesome cinnamon rolls he liked.
"Master must be sure to eat properly," Mika said, sniffling.
"Uh, yeah," Dean said, guiltily, not mentioning anything about roadside food. He looked up at the row of elves. He'd tried to get them actual uniforms earlier in the summer, which had been a disaster of epic proportions, all of them crying at once; he'd had to burn the things in front of them to calm them down. Tailored pillowcases turned out to be okay, though, even though they basically looked exactly like the uniforms had. As long as they'd started out as pillowcases. The elves had pretty pointedly hinted him at the million-thread-count Egyptian cotton pillowcases, too.
"So hey, all you guys take care, don't work too hard—" The house-elves' ears all drooped. "—unless you want to," Dean finished weakly. Then they all started crying and waving giant handkerchiefs, so Dean hurried the kids into the back seat and took off as fast as he could.
The late afternoon weather was great, sunny and not too hot, and Katie wasn't too cool to sing 99 Bottles of Beer with him and drive Sam crazy. "Dean!" Sam finally broke and yelled, around bottle forty-three, and gave him a glare full of golden flecks.
"Aw, Sammy, all you had to do was ask nicely," Dean said, and clapped Sam on the thigh. He was operating on the theory that if he kept hassling Sam up to the edge and easing him off it, maybe it would help him get a grip on the stuff. And if not, at least it was always a good time. "Hey, kiddo, you know the I Spy game?" he called back to Katie.
They got to Hogwarts just before dark, half an hour or so before the train was scheduled to pull in, and got the kids unloaded. McGonagall was down in the Great Hall with most of the other teachers, getting ready for the new arrivals, and she turned and watched them come in with pursed lips. "Uh, hey," Dean said. He hadn't seen her since the hearing that had gotten Sam cleared; she'd testified for them, but they hadn't exactly sat down for a chat.
"Be so good as to come with me, Lord Taversham," she said, and turned towards her office. Dean looked back at Sam. Sam grinned at him brightly and waved. Dean glared and headed after her. She couldn't give him detention anymore, anyway.
She sat down behind her desk and waved him to a chair. "We are all grateful for your continuing to support the school's repairs," she said.
"Hey, don't mention it," Dean said. "Can't have the kids under a leaky roof or anything."
"You will be returning to America?"
"Yeah, we've got a backlog to take care of," Dean said.
She nodded, and opened a drawer and took out a sheet of paper. "I understand that your brother received the highest score ever recorded on his Wizarding Equivalence Exam—" Dean grinned broadly; he'd had a good time congratulating Sam on that one "—but I thought you might find this useful." She held it out to him.
"Uh, yeah, I always make Sam deal with the Latin," Dean said.
"Tap it with your wand," she said.
"We have occasionally had visiting American students request similar documents," McGonagall said. "I believe if you have any difficulty with the wizarding authorities there, this will serve adequately."
"Cool," Dean said, a little hoarsely, after a minute looking at it. "Uh, you're not going to get in trouble for giving me this, are you?"
"I would not have given it to you," McGonagall said tartly, "if I felt it was undeserved. "
Dean folded it up and stuck it inside his jacket pocket. Maybe he'd put it in Dad's journal, for safekeeping.
The rest of the kids had arrived by the time they got back to the Great Hall; Sam was with the Slytherin kids, shaking hands, and Dean walked over to the Hufflepuffs to say goodbye. "So don't get into too much trouble without me or anything," he said.
"We got into more trouble last year than in the five before put together!" Martha said.
"Well, then get into more trouble than that," Dean said. He flicked her shiny new prefect badge. "Watch out for these guys for me, okay?"
She beamed at him, and he looked at the rest of the table. "You guys have your salt and iron on you?" They all nodded. "Good. Any of those ghosts try anything, you know what to do."
"Whack 'em, salt 'em, and find out where they're buried," they all said in unison.
Sam ambled over and gave the kids his awkward smile; they smiled weakly back, tentative. Even the ones who'd spent the summer were still a little nervous around him; Sam had kind of lost his mojo there. "You ready to head out?" he asked Dean.
"Yeah, it's time," Dean said. He pointed at his four. "I'll be back at Christmas to pick these guys up and get a report, so don't think you all can get away with anything."
"Dean," Wyndham said, "can more of us come for hols, if our parents say it's all right?"
About seventy heads all came up hopefully. "Hell, why not," Dean said. "I guess we'll find out just how far the dining room table really opens up."
He stepped outside whistling, Sam next to him and the stars glittering on the lake, the car waiting for them by the shore. It was even getting a little cool outside, even though it was only September first. "You got that address from Bobby?" Dean asked, sliding behind the wheel. The seatbelt made another stealth attempt on him and got shoved back for its trouble.
"Yeah, Brunswick, in Maine," Sam said. "Looks like a couple of demons."
"Piece of cake," Dean said, shifted the Impala into gear, and took them up into the sky.
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