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Something Wicked?

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THE ROAD SO FAR:

After leading a hunting raid that leads to the death of his cousin, Sam Campbell is estranged from his hunter family and tries to escape the life. He attempts to start afresh in a new town and is employed by John Winchester, but a death vision of John's wife and son under horribly familiar circumstances draws him back into the world of the supernatural. When the yellow eyed demon possesses John and murders Amanda, Sam rescues their son Dean and teaches him about hunting. Dean abandons his old life as a college student and would be musician and, together, he and Sam embark on a quest to find and rescue John, and avenge the deaths of their mothers.

In the wake of an explosive quarrel the friends are re-examining the nature of their relationship. Dean is coaxing Sam to address his intimacy issues, but Sam still has doubts and he is concealing secrets about his past and about his psychic abilities. Meanwhile the demons Meg and Ruby have appeared in disguise to Sam and Dean, and Dean has received help from a mysterious blue-eyed stranger.

 

Prologue

Lichtburg , Wisconsin. .

He couldn't even say what it was about the boy that fascinated him so much. He wasn't a particularly exceptional or attractive child. He was much like any of the other neighborhood kids, small for his age perhaps, with dirty blond hair and pudgy cheeks and eyes that were somehow too big for his face, and there was something ungainly about the way he walked as he followed after the girl. He was always with that girl. That meant there were fewer opportunities to get him by himself, of course, but it stirred a kind of resentment for other reasons. There was something about the way the boy looked at her, like the sun shone for her, that was both compelling and discomfiting . . . because it was something that was beyond his experience . . . Maybe that had something to do with it.

Of course they were all memorable, in their way, but Donald Helfer especially so, because he was the first. First times are always special.

.

Suzy had a big empty cookie tin she'd saved from Christmas. She bought a post card and wrote a message to the future, and for good measure she put a stamp on it. And she added the whole of the rest of her pocket money for that week: twenty three cents. There was a picture of her favorite pop group, too. Donald was a little jealous of those brothers because Suzy went on and on about them, but he didn't really mind because he knew they lived hundreds of miles away, in Utah, and he lived right next door to Suzy.

She was too old for him, he knew that – because he was only nine and a half, and she was nearly eleven – but Donald thought she was the prettiest girl he'd even seen. She had hair the color of caramel fudge, and it flowed down the sides of her face in waves and ringlets and smelled of apples; and her eyes were the brightest, clearest blue – the color of his favorite marble. And she was his best friend in the whole wide world. She didn't tease him because he was short and awkward and a bit bandy. She didn't mind that he had freckles. And he didn't mind too much that she called him Donny.

Donny put his marbles in the tin along with one of his old comics, and they both cut off a piece of their hair and put that in as well. Then they spent the rest of the afternoon taping songs from the radio onto a C60 with the cassette recorder Suzy'd been given for her birthday. Afterward Suzy went to fetch that day's newspaper: Thursday April 29th 1976.

While she was out of the room Donny rewound the tape a little way. He leaned real close to the microphone and whispered "Suzy Wayte, I'll love you forever and ever," then he hastily took out the cassette, slipped it into its case and dropped it into the tin. He was startled and a little alarmed when Suzy returned and took it out again, but she was just wrapping everything in the newspaper, and then she carefully covered the paper in Saran Wrap before placing it in the tin.

Donny dug the hole – under the tree in his back yard. It was hard work and it made him sweat, and the shovel gave him blisters but he didn't tell Suzy that. After they'd put the tin in the bottom they pushed the cool, damp earth back into the hole, patted it down with their hands and covered it over with grass clippings. They promised each other that this would always be their special secret, and they would come back to this spot on the same day in thirty years and retrieve their time capsule together. They sealed it with a pinkie swear.

.

Donald Helfer was nine and a half years old when he was murdered on Friday April 30th 1976.

 

Scene 1

NOW

The Way motel, outside Burkitsville, Indiana

The door banged as Sam followed Dean through it, pausing only to check the integrity of the salt line and toss the EMF monitor onto the bed.

"And how come I'm only hearing about this now, Dean?" he demanded.

Dean sighed. "Oh, I don't know, Sam. I've had a lot on my mind. O.K? I guess between the fight, and the other fight . . . and the other other fight, it just slipped my mind." He couldn't believe it. Not more than an hour ago they'd been having sex . . . great sex . . . phenomenally, transcendentally great sex . . . and now they were arguing again. Had nothing changed at all?

"And what about that, Dean? You got into a bar fight? What were you thinking?"

It was pointless explaining that he wasn't thinking. Actions that had no rational basis weren't something Sam could wrap his head around. "Let it go, Sam," he snapped. "I'm fine. I was fine. Turns out I can take care of myself."

Sam's mouth dropped open and he expelled a short gust of air, a mockery of laughter. "You spent the night in a jail cell, trapped, unprotected, alone . . . with demons circling you like wolves. How is that taking care of yourself?"

"So the guy with the blue eyes, he was a demon?" Dean pressed, hoping to bring Sam back to the point.

"I don't know, Dean. I've never heard of a blue-eyed demon." He shrugged. "But six months ago I hadn't heard of a yellow-eyed demon either."

"Bailing me out of jail doesn't exactly seem like a demonic act," Dean suggested.

"I don't know." Sam shrugged again. "You should have called me, Dean. Straight away, when it happened, you should have told me about it."

"I was going to, actually." A residual pang of hurt washed over him with the recollection. "But then I got your 'goodbye, have a nice life' message – " Low blow, Dean recognized, as soon as it was out of his mouth.

"You were the one who walked out, Dean," Sam reminded him quietly.

"I know," Dean acknowledged. "I know . . . Sam . . . let's not . . . "

Almost to himself, Sam muttered "I should never have let you leave."

And there they were: right back where they started two nights ago. No lessons learned. Nothing. "You tried to stop me, remember?" Dean growled. "And look how well that turned out." He stood up and turned his back on Sam, started emptying his pockets, put the holy water and his gun back on the nightstand.

"What was I supposed to do, Dean?" Sam cried. "You won't listen to reason when you're like that!"

Fair comment but "it doesn't matter, Sam. It isn't your call to tell me what I should and shouldn't do, even if you think I'm being a jerk. That's on me. Doesn't give you the right to just bully me into doing whatever you think's right." This conversation was going from bad to worse, Dean realized, as Sam's face crumpled and his eyebrows tried to pile into each other. "Not bully. I didn't mean bully," he corrected hastily. (Kinda did, though). "Look, Sam, I know you think you're just looking out for me but you've kinda got this thing where, so long as your motives are righteous, you don't worry too much about your means and method – jus in bello and all that – "

"That's not true, Dean – "

"It is sometimes."

A wounded silence followed. Sam sat down on the bed, shaking his head and staring into space. He was moving into angry and brooding mode now, which was kinda worse than angry and shouting. Dean scrubbed a hand over his jaw and took a seat on the bed opposite.

"So, those footprints we found over there . . ." He inclined his head toward the window. Residual EMF readings had led them to the trees across the road where they'd found sulfur deposits and, according to Sam, two sets of footprints. "Were either of them Dad's?"

Sam looked up and the anger in his eyes faded a little, but he shook his head. "John's a big man, and it's been raining. His feet would have left bigger prints, deeper impressions. I'd say they were women, or young men."

"Or one of each," Dean speculated.

Sam nodded acknowledgement. Then another thought seemed to occur to him. "Dean, you used Gemma's phone to call me; did you delete the call history?"

Dean sighed impatiently. "Yes, I deleted the call history," he confirmed. "I always do, and I always star 67 my calls, like you taught me."

Sam bristled at his tone. "This stuff is important, Dean."

"I know, but we've gone over it like a million times. I'm not stupid, Sam!"

"I know you're not, Dean, but it only takes one mistake – "

"I didn't make any mistakes, Sam!" Dean cried, rising to his feet again. "All this time I've been following all the rules, all the procedures you've taught me, and they still knew where I was! Where I'd be! Two years ago they knew that! Or do you think it's a coincidence that a demon just happened to possess Vince Parker's sister two years before I wind up in the town that killed him?"

Sam shook his head. "I don't believe in coincidence," he acknowledged.

"And she knew about us, Sam! Personal stuff, I mean. She was playing me, making up shit about her life and her brother that totally matched what was going down between us. It's like she knew what I was thinking!" The enormity of it began to take hold of him, the magnitude of what they were up against. In his heart he began to understand they were all just pawns in some huge monstrous game that they couldn't possibly win. He leaned against the partition, staring unseeingly ahead of him. "We are being played, Sam," he breathed. "How the fuck do you fight something like that?"

Sam stood up and laid a hand on Dean's arm but Dean shrugged him off. He swung away from the partition and started packing stuff into his duffel, just to have something to do. "Doesn't matter," he growled.

"Dean – "

"No! It doesn't – . . . It's like Angel said: if nothing that you do matters, then what you do is all that matters. I've never forgotten that."

Sam stared at him, completely confused and bewildered. "What . . . ? Dean, what are you talking about? An angel said that . . . What?"

"Not an angel, Angel. It's a TV program – " and as Dean watched Sam's expression shift to incredulity and exasperation he shouted. "It doesn't matter where I got it from, Sam! It's still valid!" He pushed the duffel away for emphasis. "Dad's still out there! And I've still gotta find him. Even if I'm screwed to Hell and back, I have to try! He's my dad!"

There was a tense silence in which Sam was probably concluding that Dean was finally falling to pieces, and Dean couldn't say for sure that he wasn't right. He pulled the bag back and continued packing. "Sam, I know what we said before," he began, trying to hold his voice steady, "but you didn't sign up for this. This doesn't have to be your fight. He's not your dad."

Sam looked like he was going to reach out to Dean again, but he hesitated . . . and Dean didn't want to admit how much he wanted him to.

"Dean, I've always known what I'd signed up for," he insisted. "You're just starting to really get what it means to have demons on our tail; I've always known. They have powers, abilities: they have foresight, they read minds."

Sam moved closer and Dean felt the pull, the urge to fall into him, but he resisted it. He'd had it with looking weak in front of Sam.

"It doesn't mean they're omniscient, Dean. Doesn't mean they're invulnerable. It doesn't mean there's no hope."

Dean lifted his eyes and met Sam's gaze. "What are the odds, Sam?" he asked, but then he laughed and shook his head. "No, never mind. Don't tell me." He forced a grin onto his face. "Never tell me the odds." Sam wouldn't get that reference either. Didn't matter. "I'm gonna go take a shower," he said, and turned toward the bathroom.

"Dean wait a minute . . ." Sam was fishing in his jacket pocket. He pulled out his cell then looked up at Dean. 'You didn't star 67 the call you made to me . . ." He turned it on and started scrolling down the screen.

"Well, no . . ." Dean acknowledged, hesitantly. "But I was calling you . . . Why would I . . .?" But he'd been using Gemma's phone. His gut tightened. Had he screwed up?

But Sam didn't look pissed. In fact he was very nearly grinning. He turned the cell toward Dean and showed him the screen. "I've got her number."

Dean stared at it. "So . . ." he prompted, for clarity.

"So I can use it to track her cell, track her movements," Sam confirmed.

Dean moved back to Sam and gazed at the number over his shoulder, as if it might yield more information just from being looked at. "Sam, this doesn't sit right. I don't buy that this was an accident. She wanted me to make that call."

Sam nodded. "You're probably right. And I'm not suggesting we should go running after her unprepared. She wants us to know her movements for some reason. But at least we have a chance of finding out why." The light from the screen caught Sam's eyes and they flashed blue for a moment. "Dean, this is a lead!"

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Scene 2

 

Dean emerged from the bathroom showered and fully dressed and cast an expectant glance at Sam and the laptop.

"O.K. Where is she?"

Sam shrugged. "At the moment? As far as I can tell, nowhere. She was in New Harmony, Indiana earlier then Pontiac, Illinois briefly. Now she's disappeared again."

"How does she get around so fast? Has she got the Super Bowl jetpack?" Sam didn't think that required a response, and Dean didn't wait for one. "What was she doing there?" he asked, moving around to stand behind Sam's shoulder.

"I don't know. Maybe nothing. I checked for demon sign, strange reports or activity around those areas. I couldn't find anything."

"Should we check it out anyway?"

Sam shook his head doubtfully. "That may be exactly what she wants us to do, Dean: giving us a false trail to follow, maybe leading us on a wild goose chase away from something more important. Or maybe leading us into a trap."

"Except that doesn't make sense, Sam, 'cause she had me, right here, for two days."

"And at the end of those two days you were tied to a tree as a sacrificial offering."

"The scarecrow could've had me the first night if Gemma hadn't shot it," Dean pointed out. "If she wanted me dead, all she had to do was not save my life." He took a seat on the bed. "Are we even sure she's connected to Yellow-eyes? Who's to say all these demons are after the same thing?"

It was a fair question. The yellow eyed demon had made a specific threat against Dean's life, but what Gemma wanted wasn't clear at this time. Sam shook his head helplessly. "Dean, right now I'm not sure of anything," he admitted.

Dean flicked a glance at Sam, then another, and for a moment their eyes locked and something unsaid hung in the air between them, but then Sam returned his focus to the laptop while Dean sat on the edge of the bed, restlessly rubbing his hands together.

"Sam, is there any way to trap a demon?" he asked.

Sam looked up again. Where was Dean going with this? "Well, they can't cross a salt line, obviously . . . but getting them to walk into a circle and just stay there while you close it . . . what did you have in mind?"

"Well, I was just thinking – we've got a name now." Dean gestured significantly toward the journal that was sitting beside the laptop. "A name can give you power over a demon, right? Instead of following Gemma's breadcrumb trail, couldn't we just summon her and find out what she knows about Dad?"

"We don't have the right name, Dean. No demon's gonna willingly give you their real name, for that reason. If you summon Gemma, all you'll get is the spirit of the original Gemma Parker – always assuming she is dead and not still trapped inside her meat suit with the demon that possessed it."

Dean blinked slowly. "Trapped inside her what?" he demanded.

There were a few beats of silence. "It's an expression demons use for their host bodies. It's gained some currency amongst hunters . . ." Sam's throat dried as it came home to him how insensitive it had been to use that phrase to Dean . . .

"For the bodies of the possessed, you mean?" Dean clarified, "For the victims?"

. . . or . . . at all.

The silence stretched out until Dean said quietly but vehemently, "Sam, I don't ever want to hear you use that phrase again."

"No. Absolutely." Sam nodded his whole-hearted agreement and understanding. "I'm sorry, Dean," he added.

Dean returned a brief nod of acknowledgement and stood up. "So, you're basically telling me that the demon formerly known as Gemma could be anywhere and there's nothing we can do right now? Situation normal, then? Awesome."

"Well, like I said, Dean. We can continue to watch her movements, look for a pattern – "

"Great. Well, in the meantime, what do you say we blow this joint, hit the road?"

"You don't want to get some rest first? We could take it in turns if you – "

"I'm not going to be able to sleep, Sam! I want to get moving! Just give me a heading. That case you said you were checking out: where was that? Wisconsin? Let's go there." And he was already picking up his duffel and heading toward the door.

Sam hesitated, immobilized by a web of anxieties, but Dean was thrumming with the restlessness that Sam was learning couldn't be restrained, or it became the rage of a cornered animal. If he couldn't protect Dean, and if Dean wouldn't allow himself to be comforted, Sam at least didn't want to be the enemy . . . again. It was better to just go with the flow, for now at least, and try to find a positive outlet for Dean's energies.

While Dean loaded up the car Sam finished packing and got properly dressed for the drive. The usually smooth routine of breaking camp was awkward this time, especially when it came to the bag containing the weapons and equipment Dean had removed from the trunk. Since Dean had done everything short of pissing on the car to assert his territorial rights over it, Sam wasn't about to risk offending him again by putting everything back, but Dean seemed equally embarrassed about handling Sam's equipment. The duffel sat conspicuously in the middle of the room while the other bags collected at the back of the Impala, waiting to go in the trunk, but when Sam studiously continued to ignore it Dean eventually picked it up and took it outside. He tried to make it look casual when he put everything back in the cache, and Sam tried not to notice that he was putting things back in the wrong places.

As he made his way past to the passenger side he noticed that Dean was running the salted rope through his hands and studying it speculatively. Sam wondered what was going through his mind but decided to put that question on a backburner for now, and presently Dean joined him in the car.

"O.K., Scout," he said as he slipped behind the wheel, "Where to now?"

Sam led them to the interstate the long way, via back roads, alternative routes and sharp turnings but, in spite of the reassurances he'd tried to give Dean, he couldn't shake the feeling that his precautions were a waste of time: that, whatever he did, the demons would be one step ahead, anticipating their every move.

In the early hours of the morning they stopped at an all night diner for a late meal and Sam checked Gemma's movements again. He was somewhat relieved to note that she at least appeared to be headed in a different direction, across country while they travelled north. Since he'd last checked she'd been in Salvation, Iowa and Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Again he could find no reports of any unusual activity in those areas that might be connected to her visits. In fact Sam found nothing in driving distance at all that suggested supernatural activity to him, and he'd been hoping to find something more concrete than the Lichtburg case to distract Dean with. It was probably nothing, and it was likely to raise subjects Sam had been hoping to avoid. But if the nothing case turned out to be something . . . What then? . . .

Dean insisted on driving the full distance from Scottsburg IN to Lichtburg WI. It was a seven and a half hour trip and he did it in six, and his grip on the wheel was as tight at the end as it was at the beginning in spite of alternating Led Zeppelin and AC/DC full blast the whole way. After a while Sam had a surreal impression of "Highway to Hell" and "Stairway to Heaven" battling it out for occupancy of the Impala.

He tried to keep his gaze from drifting sideways every time the lights from the highway picked out Dean's profile, but in six hours of night driving there wasn't much else to look at. Or think about.

He'd let Dean down. Again. Six months with no sign of demonic pursuit and he'd allowed his guard to drop. He'd thought Dean would be safe if he kept his head low, but as soon as Sam's back was turned they'd moved in. Two, maybe three or more. Maybe there were different factions operating here. It was possible, Sam supposed; whatever their plans were, the Winchesters seemed to be right in the middle of it. And where did Sam and the psychic children fit into all this? Obviously it was no coincidence that his visions were escalating, but until he knew what it all meant he couldn't see the point in worrying Dean with it all. If Dean was afraid before it was worse now, and Sam had no assurances to give him, and no answers. He was supposed to be the experienced hunter, the man in the know. He felt worse than useless.

Meanwhile he'd allowed himself to fall into this . . . whatever it was . . . with Dean, when he'd promised himself he wouldn't, and that just made things more complicated, but it was hard to back out of it now . . . even if he wanted to . . . even if he could. Despite his ambivalent feelings and attendant anxieties, and even with everything that was going on, just the recollection of the things Dean had made him feel sent a shiver to his core. It was just possibly the best thing that had ever happened to him. He couldn't pretend he didn't want more of that. But that wasn't all of it. He kept thinking about what Dean had said about holding onto the things that kept them human. Sam wasn't sure yet whether this was his tether to humanity, but he'd seen the difference in Dean for that albeit brief time. It had been something bright and kind of wonderful to watch Dean in his element, relaxed, confident, self-assured; the habitual defensive swagger and cockiness discarded, unnecessary. Such a stark contrast to the thousand yard stare Sam had seen on Dean's face too soon afterward. There was still a suggestion of it behind Dean's eyes now and somehow that frightened Sam more than the demons did. He would do anything to keep that expression off Dean's face.

Something cautioned Sam to steer clear of Madison and they approached Lichtburg from the south via a back route. It was morning when they stopped for gas at Lake Kegonsa and while Dean filled up Sam picked up breakfast and twinkies, and he had the guy put an extra shot of syrup in Dean's latte. He had a moment of irrational panic when he went back outside and couldn't see Dean straight away, but then he spotted him sitting on a bench down by the lake, and he appeared to have his guitar with him. Sam fought down a wave of (probably irrational) annoyance and walked down to join him, and for a while he stood a little behind the seat and watched the morning breeze tugging at Dean's hair and clothing while he strummed at the guitar.

Presently Dean lifted the instrument off his lap and rested it against the seat as he turned toward Sam. He looked surprised, pleased and a little suspicious when he noticed the twinkies. "It's not my birthday, is it?" he remarked.

"You always get them," Sam pointed out.

"Yeah, and you always bitch about it," Dean observed.

"It isn't bitching," Sam responded, obstinately. "Just . . . sharing helpful nutritional information."

Dean chuckled a little and tucked into his breakfast roll. "If you say so, Jenny Craig," he replied through half chewed bacon.

Sam sat down next to Dean and they ate their breakfast in silence. After gazing out over the lake for a while Dean took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, and just a little of the tension seemed to ease out of his shoulders.

"You should bring your sketch book down here, Sam," he remarked. "It's pretty."

Sam shifted a little awkwardly. "I don't draw things because they're pretty, Dean," he replied.

Dean didn't seem to react immediately but after a moment he turned his head and grinned slowly, "Oh, yeah? Why d'you draw me then?" he enquired.

His ingenuous tease drew more of a blush from Sam than it should have done, and Sam let him interpret it any way he wanted. There was no winning answer to that question, so Sam simply handed Dean his coffee without replying.

Dean took a sip and raised his eyebrows. "Is there extra vanilla in this?" he asked.

Sam shrugged, feigning ignorance. "Is it too sweet?" he asked casually. "Do you want me to take it back?"

"No! No, I'm good," Dean assured him, hugging the coffee possessively to his chest, and Sam tried to smother the smile that tugged at his lips.

As he sipped at his latte Dean slipped his arm along the back of the seat, a little too casually, keeping his gaze focussed out across the lake. Sam tensed at first, but presently he made himself relax back against Dean's arm. He was nervous about what Dean was going to do next, but he didn't try to touch Sam or tighten his arm around him. He just left it there, warm against Sam's shoulders, and carried on drinking his coffee, and eventually Sam actually relaxed, and then he surprised himself with a yawn.

"We should get a motel, Dean," he said.

Dean's eyes squirreled around to meet Sam's and he tossed him a suggestive hitch of his eyebrows.

Sam had learned a thing or two since the previous evening. He'd learned the difference between Dean's defensive bravado and the quiet ease he exuded when he was truly sure of himself, and the difference between the casual flirting he habitually scattered around for the fun of it, and the way he looked when he really meant it. This was the former; he was just teasing Sam, but there was something comforting in the normality of that.

Sam ducked his head and rolled his tongue round the inside of his cheek. "I meant we should get some rest, Dean."

Dean nodded. "Yeah, you're right," he acknowledged, but then he added "but could we, for once, not choose the crappiest motel in town on principle? I mean, I know we don't do it for fortune and glory, Sam, but we save lives. Doesn't that entitle us to some compensation? The credit companies can afford it. Look on it like they're funding a community service; they just don't know it."

Sam smiled in spite of himself, but he had to raise the practical issues. "Every transaction is a risk, Dean, and we don't want to draw attention to ourselves. We don't need the Feds on our tails on top of everything else."

Dean sighed. "I get that, Sam. I do. But I'm not asking for the Ritz, here. I'm asking for clean sheets and a decent shower, and a heater that works properly. And dammit, Sam, I shouldn't have to beg for a can of styling mousse."

Sam felt the chill morning air across his shoulders as Dean withdrew his arm from the back of the seat and leaned forward, training his gaze out over the lake once more.

Sam frowned. He hadn't appreciated that Dean saw it that way. Sam had never assumed that if he questioned the necessity of something that his opinion constituted the last word on the matter, but he was beginning to realize that some things Sam regarded as communal resources Dean just saw as not his. It hadn't escaped Sam's attention that styling mousse was one of the first items Dean had bought with the hard fought, hard won cash he'd hustled from the pool game. Perhaps Sam needed to accept that there were things he thought of as frivolous that were actually important to Dean, and that Dean needed the freedom to decide what those were without having to debate the issue.

Reaching into his jacket he pulled out his wallet and leafed through the collection of credit cards. He found one that seemed appropriate and tapped Dean on the arm.

Dean looked round and stared a little blankly at the card Sam was holding out to him. "What's this?" he asked.

"Something you should have had a long time ago . . . just . . . er . . ." Smoothing over awkward moments with humor was usually Dean's province, but Sam had a try anyway. "Just don't use up the credit limit on twinkies."

Dean looked stunned for a couple of beats, but then he took the card and grinned. "What credit limit?" he joked . . . Sam hoped. He studied the name on the card briefly before putting it away in his wallet. "J. Gruska?" he queried, eyebrow arched. "What is it with you and foreign names, Sam? Are you ashamed of your Scottish ancestry or something?"

Sam rolled his eyes. "I thought you'd appreciate where I got that name, actually," he said.

Dean smirked. "Why? Which section of the Yellow Pages did it come from this time? Adult book stores?"

"Musical suppliers."

The mockery dropped out of Dean's expression and left him wide-eyed and loose-lipped like an astonished little boy. He looked down and pinched the bridge of his nose for a moment then he sat back up and cast a cautious glance left and right before leaning toward Sam a little, reaching out a hand and beckoning him forward. "C'mere, Sam," he murmured, his voice slightly raspy.

The kiss was chaste, just a few moments of Dean's lips soft and light against Sam's before he drew away again, clearing his throat and reaching for his guitar once more, but it left Sam feeling slightly dizzy and light-headed with little white lights popping like sparklers in his head.

It was some moments before the song that Dean was playing and humming along to began to penetrate the daze. It was a surprisingly upbeat tune that was vaguely familiar to him from the radio. The snatches of lyric Dean sang seemed somewhat contradictory and Sam was sure Dean was taking liberties with them, but the overall message seemed encouragingly positive on the whole.


 ♫What it all comes down to
Is that everything's gonna be quite alright,
'cause I've got one hand in my pocket
And the other one is playing my geetar.♫


Dean lifted the guitar and grinned.


 ♫I care but I'm restless.
I'm brave but I'm chickenshit.
I'm a jerk but I'm pretty, baby.♫


And he punctuated that line with a wink.


 ♫And what it all comes down to
Is that I haven't got it all figured out just yet,
but I've got one hand in my pocket
And the other one's flicking a V-sign.♫

I'm sad but I'm laughing
I'm tired but I'm working, yeah.
I'm lost but I'm hopeful, baby.
And what it all boils down to
Is that no one's really got it figured out just yet,
So I've got one hand in my pocket
And the other one is giving a high five.♫


"Give me some skin, Sam." He held up his hand and Sam supplied the requisite slap, and Dean grinned back at him as he repeated the refrain.


"What it all comes down to, my friend,
Is that everything's gonna be fine fine fine
'cause I've got one hand in my pocket
And the other one is playing my geetar."

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Scene 3

Friday April 30th 1976

He hadn't planned it. The first time. It was just that the boy tried to run away, and he hadn't wanted to let go. The boy struggled, fought fiercely for such a small child, and he enjoyed the frantic energy of the helpless wriggling and squirming in his arms. He encouraged it: shook the boy, tugged him about. His family kept chickens, and his father had shown him how to wring their necks. It had always fascinated him: the frenzied fluttering and squawking, the sudden stillness and silence, and the crunch that made the difference. It was like that with the boy. The transition from killing poultry to taking a human life was surprisingly easy and natural, and the crack of the neck breaking was far more satisfying. He felt the child go limp in his arms, heard its last gasp of air – in, then out, out, out – felt its madly beating heart slow and stop. He would have liked to hold the body until the heat went out of it and it stiffened, but there were practical considerations. Next time he would plan ahead, give himself more time.

Disposing of the evidence was unexpectedly simple, too. He simply wrapped and tied the body in a tarp weighted with rocks and dropped it into the lake. He kept one souvenir: the boy's St Christopher. He'd ripped it from the neck while the body was still fresh enough for the chain to leave a red mark as it scraped flesh. He slipped it into his pocket and later he fixed the broken link and wore it for his own. He still had it.

A search was conducted for the boy, of course, but no evidence was ever found. The body was never found. Nobody ever knew what happened to Donald Helfer.

.

It wasn't the first time Donny had been bullied and pushed around by boys older or bigger than he was. He didn't expect it to be the last. It began typically enough with being grabbed and pulled around, and he fought back as best he could, arms and legs flailing ineffectually in the air. A couple of times he got in a kick and he was thrown to the ground, but before he could find his feet and run he was grabbed and his face was thrust into the damp, shitty smelling earth, grit burning grazes over the flesh of his cheeks and nose. He realized something was different when it didn't stop, when there was no laughing or jeering, just grunting and heavy breathing and the cruel pinching grip of fists and fingers that showed no intention of ever letting go. Then Donny found a new level of fear beyond anything he'd known before. He fought harder, not caring about the pain as his limbs twisted in their sockets, the sharp metallic rasp in his chest as he panted for breath, or how he bloodied his hands and knees against the ground when he was thrown down.

Then something snapped. He heard a loud crack and suddenly he was free and running. He ran as fast and as hard as he could, and his chest wasn't even hurting any more. He barely noticed the road, or the woods around him, or the streets when he reached them, and he didn't think to question why everything around him seemed harsh and bright yet somehow indistinct at the same time, or why he couldn't hear the sound of his feet as he ran.

He ran home first but there was nobody there. And then they were there but faintly, like bright shadows, and they couldn't hear him when he spoke, called, screamed. But then he realized he was dreaming and it all made sense to him and he wasn't afraid any more, even when he found himself back by the lake watching the other boy wrap him up and push him into the water; even when he was in the water and sinking with the package, seeing it drift and bob along the bottom of the lake, pushed along by eddies in the water until it caught and settled and finally wedged itself in a deep channel there; he was just waiting to wake up.

He watched as men in police uniforms drifted through his home, and the men with notebooks who didn't wear uniforms. He watched as his father became frustrated and then angry with them, he watched his mother fearful and then crying, and his grandmother trying to comfort her but she was weeping, too. He tried to tell them all not to worry, that it was just a dream, but they couldn't hear him. Other people came and went. Some were sad and concerned, a few were just nosey, most were awkward, but eventually they all faded away and the empty space they left behind was filled with silence, and waiting, and not knowing.

In the hours his mother spent staring into thin air Donny knelt in front of her. "I'm right here, Mommy," he'd tell her softly, but she didn't see him, couldn't feel his fingers on her face or his hand on her knee. He'd quickly learned not to try to hug her.

Suzy was sad. Donny would find her sometimes out in her garden, staring over the wall at the tree and the place underneath it where they'd buried the time capsule. She didn't cry but sometimes her big blue eyes shone too brightly, and reminded him of the sun glittering on the surface of the lake as he watched himself slipping into it. "It's all right, Suzy. This is all just a dream," he'd whisper and, just one time, he thought maybe she heard him when she looked round and frowned a little, but she looked straight through him. "Everything's gonna be fine," he assured her, just the same. "I'll wake up soon." But he didn't wake up.

Sometimes he was back by the lake, or in it. Other times he was in different places, in towns he didn't know, watching the older boy digging a hole or pushing another package into a ditch or down a gully, or into a quarry, and each time it happened Donny saw that he was older. He wore the St. Christopher he'd stolen and that made Donny angry. He tried to snatch it back but his fingers closed over it as it swung in the air and came back empty.

The other children ran, too, as soon as they were free but Donny never found out where they ran to, and he didn't think any of them ever saw him. Not everyone runs. Grandma didn't. She just went to sleep one day and when she woke up she was gone. Old Mrs Jenkins across the road had a bad fall, but she didn't run either. Donny's father woke up after complaining of chest pains one day. Donny thought that he saw him, just for a moment. There was a brief spark of recognition in his eyes and he started to smile, but then he was gone. It seemed like everyone was waking up except for Donny, and he didn't know what he was waiting for.

After that a big board appeared outside his house with the words "FOR SALE" on it, and his mom started packing everything in boxes. He yelled at the men on the day they came to put everything in the van. And he screamed at her when she got into the car, but she drove away anyway. One by one the people Donny knew or cared about went away, one way or another. Eventually, he realized, everyone does.

Two strange families came and went from the house Donny grew up in. Then a woman moved in with her daughter. He knew her vaguely because she'd helped out in an old book store he used to visit, but she'd been younger then, just a girl. Now she had a daughter almost the same age. She had fudge colour hair and blue eyes like Suzy, though she wasn't as pretty, never as pretty, even if Suzy's hair did have some grey in it now, and she rarely looked over the wall any more.

One day a board went up outside Suzy's house. When she drove away Donny ran all the way down the street after her car, screaming and crying, but she didn't hear him, and she didn't look back. When he'd run as far as he could he stood still, watching the car disappear into the distance, and feeling thin and stretched and wispy like a bubble about to burst. Then he was outside his home once more. He turned to take one last look at the house Suzy had abandoned, and he found the new girl standing behind him, staring right at him.

He stared back at her, blinking, afraid to believe, but eventually he screwed up his courage to ask. "Can you see me?"

 

Scene 4

"One hundred and eighty!" Dean intoned, giving Sam a smug grin as he passed him the darts. Sam even granted him an impressed shrug of his lips as he took his place behind the line. It looked like Dean might actually win this game, or at least not lose by much. Sam might have been a bit distracted, though. He'd missed the treble twenty more often than he usually did.

"So, a psychic, Sam? That's what we're here for?" The revelation had surprised Dean when he'd focused long enough to ask. "We're investigating 1-900 numbers now?"

"The cops are taking her seriously, Dean. She's helped them with a number of missing persons cases." Sam scored a treble with his first dart.

"Yeah, but how many psychics are there out there, Sam?"

"Real ones? With that level of ability? Not as many as you'd think." Double top left him with thirty four for the win.

"Huh." Dean took a bite of his burger and swigged it down with a mouthful of beer. "Still. Not seeing the monster here, Sam. If this woman's helping the cops, what do you care if she's gone Alyson Dubois on their asses?"

Sam looked momentarily blank but chose to proceed without questioning the reference. "Nobody's ever really explained psychic ability but it manifests in different ways, in different circumstances. Some people are born with it. Sometimes it appears to be genetic, runs in families. There are cases . . . going through a traumatic experience could make people more sensitive to premonitions, psychic tendencies . . ." Sam hesitated, aimed for double seventeen. Missed. "Sometimes it can be a sign of demonic possession."

Dean paused with a french fry half way to his mouth and his stomach muscles tightened. He took a few to absorb the implications then forced the fry into his mouth and swallowed. It scraped his throat all the way down and felt like it had lodged in his chest somewhere. So this is what Sam had been checking out while Dean had been in Burkitsville. He took the darts from Sam, moved in front of the board, focused the hell on the treble twenty. It was real important for him not to miss this one. He took a deep breath, aimed and silently congratulated himself when the dart landed true. It left him with double top for the game. "So you were hunting the demon without me?" His voice was low but accusing.

"Not the demon, a demon. Probably not even that."

"Uh-huh." Double five. Crap.

"This case is probably nothing, Dean. It was a shot in the dark, that's all." Sam insisted. Still the fact that he'd tried to take the shot in Dean's absence confirmed Dean's suspicions that Sam had been avoiding a direct approach to the demon to shield Dean.

Dean took aim at double fifteen but his hand shook and he lowered it again. "You never mentioned this before, Sam," he growled. "This is an angle we could have been checking out all along, and you never mentioned it."

Sam opened his mouth and shut it again. He started to color, and Dean could feel his own cheeks burning but for different reasons. "You've got to stop trying to protect me Sam. Apart from anything else it isn't working. We know now that they're always gonna find me, sooner or later, if we don't find them first. Six months and we've got nothing, Sam. We've gotta take all the shots we can. Gotta be prepared to take risks." Dean turned back to the board. Focused. Aimed. Match.

He forced a grin onto his face. "Well, look at that, Sam," he exclaimed, falsely cheery. "You owe me first shower for a week." Dean returned his attention to his burger. He didn't want to fall out with Sam again but his gut was boiling with anger and he couldn't meet Sam's gaze right now. That left him with his eye-line falling on Sam's hands and he noticed with surprise and shock that they were shaking just a little. It made him look up after all, but Sam turned away and cleared his throat.

"The thing is, Dean, I'm not so sure it is a woman," he said, directing the conversation back to the case. "The early reports I read claimed there was a child leading the police to dumped or buried bodies, but while the police acknowledged they were responding to an anonymous tip, they denied consulting a psychic."

"Which means they were," Dean responded cynically.

Sam shrugged. "Later they admitted there was a woman helping them with cold cases but they wouldn't give details."

"So why the change of story?"

"I imagine to protect the child from unwanted media attention."

Dean grunted. Made sense. "But a child, Sam? Are you saying we're gonna have to go full on Excorcist on this kid?"

Sam shook his head. "I don't know. Like I said, it's probably nothing. But if it is a possession, you'd want to get the demon out, wouldn't you?"

Dean put down the burger. One way or another his appetite was failing him. "O.K. so, where d'you want to start?"

 


 

Well, Dean had been the one who'd said they had to start taking risks, so he couldn't really complain about a little B&E at the County Examiner's Office, but wrangling with an unco-operative lock while Sam stood over him in his ill-fitting cleaner's uniform impatiently brandishing his mop wasn't exactly what he'd had in mind.

"Hurry up, Dean!" Sam hissed.

"I'm trying!" he snapped back. "It isn't my fault. I think your tool's bent."

Sam huffed and his great mit closed over Dean's hand – warm, firm. In spite of everything, Dean felt the thrill of the contact. He glanced up into the hazel as Sam manipulated his fingers, and as he heard the click of the lock giving way he grinned slowly. "Can't believe you fell for that," he chuckled.

Sam's brow creased. "You were just trying to get me to hold your hand?" he gasped, incredulously.

"Maybe." Dean tossed him a wink as he opened the door. Let him wonder.

Sam rolled his eyes and whisked past him and he pulled the mop and bucket into the office and closed the door after them as Sam made straight for the steel drawers.

All traces of humor left him as the first drawer opened and he saw the tiny skeleton laid out on the steel slab.

"How old . . . ?"

"Can't be more than four or five."

Dean's mouth felt dry and bad taste sticky. He could feel the blood leaving his face. "Are all the victims kids?" he asked feebly.

Sam stared at him for a moment. "Dean, I need you to go watch the door. Make sure we're not disturbed while I check out the evidence and search the files. Let me know if anyone comes this way."

Dean knew what Sam was doing, but he didn't argue. Ganking monsters was a day at the office now, and he was getting over the blood thing and the gory bodies. But this was different. This was something Dean wasn't even sure he wanted to get over and when, just briefly, he glanced back at Sam and saw him opening drawers and studying their contents he found himself wondering how he could . . . He was beginning to get what Sam meant about the things hunting did to you, and he was getting a broader understanding of what Sam wanted to protect him from.

Dean positioned himself close to the wall and peered carefully through the blinds out into the corridor and down the hall.

He didn't even know why he was so sensitive about children. Not like he'd ever had much to do with them. Wasn't sure he could name three children he even knew. He'd been an only child, youngest in the whole family; his nearest cousins were thirteen years older than he was. Even when he'd been a kid himself he hadn't mixed that well with kids of his own age, bit of a loner, bit of a square peg in a round hole. Too sensitive, maybe. Too easily goaded. Small for his age. Easy target. It wasn't until high school when he'd shot up, filled out, got better at sports and started scoring with girls that he'd started to fit in. So, no. Not too many kids in Dean's life. Unless you counted the kid brother he'd made up when he was nine.

Dean glanced over at Sam. He was at the desk now, hacking into the computer. Scary how fast he could do that stuff. "How's it going, Sammy?" Oops.

Sam glanced up and gave Dean a look that he'd describe as pre-bitchface. He was getting kinda immune to that nickname these days. He still went through the motions sometimes, though.

"How many times, Dean? It's Sam. Sammy is a chubby twelve year old."

Dean shrugged. Actually, he was five, but who's counting?

Sam made some notes in his pad then shut down the computer and headed for the door, clapping Dean on the shoulder on the way through. They made their way out of the building and back to the Impala quickly and in silence. Sam didn't speak until they were on the road once more.

"I've got the name and address of the mother. Annie Acker. Recently widowed. Runs a book store café in town. That might be the best place to approach her initially. The daughter's name is Talia. Eleven years old. Goes to the local elementary school."

"What about the bodies? Any clues why she's . . . ? Any connection between them? Apart from . . . ?"

Sam was silent for a few moments, then he let out a kind of hiss before he spoke. "They're different ages, ranging between four and eleven. Forensics indicate the first victim was killed about thirty years ago, the most recent three to three and a half years ago. The victims were found in different parts of the county and the interval between the killings was irregular. The more recent bodies were in tact. No organs removed. No bite or claw marks. But they all died the same way: broken neck. Same killer. Same M.O."

Dean frowned. It wasn't an M.O. he was familiar with. "So was it a monster?" he asked.

"Oh yeah," Sam breathed.

"What kind?"

"The human kind."

 


 

Dean peered under the bed. There was a baseball mitt, a football, an old clown, some audio tapes, a stack of comics and his poetry book. No monsters.

 "There's nothing here, Sammy." He moved over to the closet and opened the door to show the boy its contents. "See, Sammy? No monsters."

"But they can get in, Dee!" Sammy cowered at the top of the bed, hunched against the headboard. He was so scared. Always so scared. "They're all over, Dee, and they can come out of thin air."

Dean climbed back on the bed, scooped Sammy into his arms, and pulled him down by his side. "Sammy, there's no such thing as monsters," he assured him.

"There are, too!"

"Have you ever seen a monster? A real monster?"

Sammy chewed at his lip. "I think so," he whispered.

"When?"

"When I was little."

Dean wiped at his mouth to hide his smile. "And what did it look like?"

"Like a man, but he had scary eyes."

"Well, maybe he was just a man."

"No." Sammy was very sure. He shivered and added, almost to himself "I have bad dreams about him sometimes."

Dean cuddled closer to the frightened little boy and scruffed the unruly curls on the top of his head. "That's all it was, Sammy, just a bad dream." But Sammy continued to wriggle in his arms.

"We need to put down salt," he said.

'Salt?" Dean repeated, puzzled.

"Round all the windows and doors. It keeps them away."

Dean had heard of throwing salt over your shoulder to keep the Devil away. Maybe that's where Sammy got this idea. All the same, Mom would throw a fit if Dean poured salt all over the house. "Sammy, I can't do that. I'll get in trouble."

"Just this room, then, Dean. Please."

Dean looked very serious. "But then the monsters will get Mom and Dad," he teased.

"Your dad's big and strong; he can fight the monsters."

"Our dad, Sammy," Dean corrected him.

The younger boy's face wrinkled with a perplexed frown, but then he carried on with his thought bunny. "Big people can fight the monsters, Dee , but they can get us. They can get me! Please, Dean!"

Sammy had the bluest eyes Dean had ever seen, and when he turned them on Dean all big and wide and so, so blue, Dean didn't stand a chance. It was like little Sammy's eyes had Jedi powers or something. He was like a cute fluffy bunny or a sad little puppy dog or something and Dean couldn't say no to him. Dean sighed and unwrapped himself from the cuddle. As he slipped off the bed he gave his little brother an annoyed glare. "You're going to get me into trouble again!" he complained. He'd never forget the roasting Dad had given him for scraping their initials in the car. Still he crept downstairs, past the living room where Mom and Dad were busy watching a late movie. In the kitchen he dragged a chair over to the cupboard so he could reach the shelf where Mom kept the salt carton. The TV was still loud as he crept back up the stairs and it was beginning to look like he was going to get away with it, then he reached the landing and turned the corner and walked right into Dad.

"Dean, what are you doing out of bed?" his father demanded, and then his gaze fell on the salt carton. "And what are you doing with the salt?"

Dean was staring up at his father doing fish impressions. This was going to sound really lame but, for the life of him, he couldn't think of any good reason why he'd be trying to smuggle a carton of salt back to his bedroom. "It was Sammy's idea . . ." he started to explain, but that was never a good way to start a sentence where Dad was concerned.

His father hissed with impatience. "Dean, what have I told you about blaming Sammy every time you get caught doing something stupid?"

"It was, though, Dad! He's scared of the monsters and he says if you put salt round the doors and windows it keeps them out."

Dad stared at him for a moment then ran his hand through his hair. "Dean, come on!" His tone was exasperated. "You know there are no such things as monsters."

"Sure, Dad, or course I do! And I told Sammy, but he won't believe me!"

Another beat and Dad took the salt out of Dean's hand and grasped his son's shoulder. "Come on, Dean. Back to bed," he ordered, leading Dean back to the bedroom. As he guided him back into bed he added "and you tell Sammy there are no monsters in this house and there aren't going to be any. I won't let 'em in, you hear me? Besides, what does your mother tell you every night?"

"She says there are angels watching over me."

"That's right." As Dad pulled the covers over Dean he picked up the pillow from his side and placed it back at the head of the bed. "And put the pillow back where it belongs, Dean. Don't be a baby. Really, you're too old for all this nonsense now." He leaned over and planted a kiss on his son's forehead. "Goodnight now, Dean. Go to sleep."

As he turned toward the door Dean called after him. "Dad . . . ?"

Dad paused and looked back. "What is it, Son?"

"Are there such things as angels?"

Dad hesitated then sucked in a deep breath. "Your mother says so, doesn't she?"

"Yeah," Dean agreed doubtfully.

"Well, then. Goodnight, Son." He turned out the light and closed the door as he left.

As soon as Dad had gone Sammy wriggled back down the bed and snuggled up beside Dean once more. He was trembling.

"Don't be scared, Sammy. I'll look after you. I'll always look after you," Dean promised him. "And Dad'll look after us, and the angels will watch over all of us." He pulled the child closer to him and pressed his head to his chest and, after a while, the little boy's rapid breathing began to slow.

"Dee, I can hear your heart beating," he said with a sleepy yawn.

 

 

Chapter Text

Scene 5


Tears and fears and feeling proud
to say "I love you" right out loud;
dreams and schemes and circus crowds:
I've looked at life that way.♫

Clouds had been gathering in the sky all evening, and now the first tears of rain were starting to drizzle down the panes as Dean peered out of the window, and the sound of the shower from the other room made it sound like it was already a heavy downpour. Dean couldn't help recalling Sam's comment that sometimes he felt like he was drowning in the evil of the world. Maybe that's why Sam had the 'cleanliness is next to godliness' kick. Maybe he was trying to wash it all off.

♫But now old friends are acting strange.
They shake their heads; they say I've changed.
Well, something's lost, but something's gained
in living, every day.♫

Dean glanced back at the closed door of the bathroom. He wasn't sure about what he was gaining, but every day he felt like he was losing any sense of clarity he used to think he had. More and more the lines blurred between what was real and what wasn't, what was right and wrong and, after Burkitsville and now this, even what did and didn't constitute a monster. Dean had suggested – hoped – that the nut job who'd been killing these kids might turn out to be possessed by a demon but Sam didn't seem to think so, and somehow that depressed Dean more than any monster they'd fought so far. Demons and monsters he got. People are crazy.

And Sam was still fixed on checking out the little girl's connection to all this, and where she was getting her insights. They planned to start by approaching the mother at the book shop the next morning . . . and Dean hoped to God that Talia Acker would turn out to be just a standard issue spooky little psychic, 'cause Dean didn't think he could take it if some little kid went Linda Blair on their asses on top of everything else.

Dean closed the blinds and double checked the salt lines as he turned from the window. He slid his duffel closer to the head of his bed where the holy water would be in easy reach and placed his gun on the nightstand, then he opened and booted up his laptop and checked Sam's tracking program. Gemma didn't seem to have popped up anywhere new since they'd last checked. He wondered again how she could appear to just wink in and out of existence like that.

He sighed and stood up, did a few stretching exercises then turned up the thermostat on the heater and stripped off all of his clothes. After he'd dumped them in the laundry bag he put on a clean pair of shorts, then he turned off the radio and picked up the TV remote instead. He started channel surfing for something cheerful, anything that didn't involve demons or serial murderers. The first three channels were showing various incarnations of CSI. The next two were Jesus TV and infomercials. High speed cop chase. Salad spinner. Rude judges. Preacher. Exercise bike. Crying contestant. Autopsy. Preacher. Preacher. Cops. Bike. Cleavage. Hang on.

Jennifer Love-Hewitt and her equally hot shop assistant were discussing hauntings and house renovations over affogato and biscotti. Dean debated for a few moments and decided he could watch a show that made the supernatural look about as scary as Dawson's Creek. He glanced down at his duffel bag. He was pretty sure he still had that popcorn in there somewhere. As he was burrowing for it his hand fell on the baby oil, just as the sound of the shower shut off, and Dean wondered if just maybe he wasn't the only one who could use some cheering up.

.

Sam had already changed into his night joggers when he emerged from the bathroom, and he was just putting his discarded clothes in the laundry bag when he noticed Dean was lounging on the couch in just his shorts. At one time Sam wouldn't have thought much about that; it wasn't unusual for Dean to wander around practically nude – Sam kind of envied Dean that easy relationship with his physicality – but after last night he found the sight of Dean with next to nothing on . . . unsettling. But then, on the other hand, the room was quite warm and Dean was engaged in the reassuringly familiar acts of watching TV and stuffing his face, so maybe he was just – Sam was startled by a sudden high pitched shriek and Dean chuckled.

"Ah, you gotta love this girl," he said as he tossed a couple of corn puffs into his mouth. "She's had the gift since she was in diapers but she still screams every time she sees a spook."

Sam frowned and moved round to stare at the television. "You're watching a ghost story?" he asked incredulously.

Dean grinned. "Trust me. This is Disney for grown ups. The most frightening thing in the show is J. Love-Hewitt's eye-lashes." He glanced up and his gaze ran over Sam's torso with completely undisguised appreciation, then he picked up a mug from the coffee table and held it out to Sam.

"Here. I made you some hot chocolate."

Sam hesitated. He had a feeling that, once again, he was walking into Dean's carefully prepared parlor.

"Relax, Sammy. We're just going to watch the show," Dean assured him. "Sit down and put your feet up. Have some popcorn."

Dean held out the bag and Sam warily helped himself to its contents and accepted the mug of chocolate.

"Sam," he insisted as he took a seat beside Dean.

"Uh-huh. If you say so, Sammy," Dean replied, grinning through chewed corn puffs. He leaned back and slapped his thighs and Sam realized the invitation to put his feet up had been literal. Then he noticed the baby oil sitting on the coffee table next to the laptop and his eyes widened and his respiration rate started to pick up.

"Popcorn and chocolate comes with optional foot rub," Dean explained, a little too casually. Sam felt that required elaboration.

"Is 'just a foot rub' anything like 'just a back rub'?" he asked.

"It has levels," Dean acknowledged. When Sam continued to hesitate he added "which we will progress to only when and if you feel ready for them."

Sam still struggled with a bunch of mixed feelings . . . and the beginnings of an erection that was threatening to get ahead of itself. "I thought you wanted to watch the show," he procrastinated.

Dean grinned. "I can multi-task." He gave his knees another encouraging pat. "Come on, Sam. You know I won't do anything you don't want me to."

Again, that wasn't exactly what Sam was worried about, but he didn't want to look like he didn't trust Dean so he warily lifted his feet across Dean's legs. He started slightly when Dean wrapped a hand around each of his feet but, for the moment, Dean just held his hands there and did nothing else. Even so, just the warmth of Dean's palms radiating through Sam's socks was enough to rouse expectant stirrings low in Sam's belly. As he settled back against the cushions, Sam relieved Dean of the popcorn bag. He didn't really want to eat, but the bag served to hide the premature bulge in his joggers. Sipping at his hot chocolate, he tried to distract himself by concentrating on the show.

The foot rub began very low key. For a while Dean did nothing but hug Sam's feet, and then it evolved into a kind of cuddle with squeezing and toe rubbing that was firm enough not to tickle but gentle enough to be . . . well, nice . . . and kind of relaxing . . . in a way . . . but surprisingly erotic and not exactly helping to take Sam's mind off of his twitching dick. Still, he couldn't deny that he was experiencing a sort of general all-over feel good factor. It was . . . nice . . . and he really wasn't disappointed that after about an episode and a half of what turned out to be a Ghost Whisperer marathon Dean still hadn't attempted to progress any further.

Sam was just . . . a little frustrated . . . with the show. Because it was silly and implausible and predictable. By the time Melinda Gordon had crossed over her second "earthbound spirit" Sam had already absorbed the formula: each angry vengeful spirit turned out to be a poor misguided soul and after forty minutes of mayhem Melinda would clear up all the misunderstandings in the last five minutes and the confused ghost could "see the light" – an over used metaphor that aggravated Sam almost as much as Melinda's continual reference to her ability as a gift . . . He reached for the popcorn and threw a handful at the screen.

"Overkill, Sam," Dean admonished. "That was a two, three corn resolution at most."

Sam gave Dean a withering look that he tried to pretend wasn't an excuse to stare at the arch of Dean's bare shoulders. "This show is rubbish, Dean. You know that, don't you?"

"It's entertaining rubbish," Dean insisted.

"It's trite, formulaic and derivative."

"Isn't everything?"

"The lore's all wrong."

"It's a TV show, Sam. It's got great characters, it always ends happy and J.L.H. is hot. That's good enough for me."

Sam frowned. He may have scowled a little. He wondered if he was legitimately entitled to feel slightly aggrieved that Dean was ogling some woman on TV at the same time as doing semi-sexual things to Sam's feet.

Dean gave him a sideways glance. "Not as hot as you," he assured Sam, pursing his lips into a plump kiss. Sam may have been leaning toward him a little when Dean suddenly straightened up and pointed at the screen. "Ghost!" he exclaimed.

Sam turned his attention back to the TV and studied the little old lady in the antique store. There was no way of telling . . . until another customer walked right through her. Dean held up his hand and Sam grudgingly paid him the high five.

"That's three one to me, Sam," Dean noted, grinning

"You have the advantage: you've seen the show before," Sam complained, but he was kind of fascinated with the crinkles round the corners of Dean's eyes. There was something about Dean's smile when he was relaxed that could make the world seem like a warmer, friendlier place.

"Yeah, yeah. You just don't want to acknowledge my superior detective skills," Dean retorted and he reached for the popcorn. The tiniest of squeaks escaped from Sam as the movement of Dean's fingers feeling around in the bag communicated into Sam's lap. Dean scooped out a handful of corn and Sam watched him chew and then swallow. Then he started sucking the butter off of his fingers and his eyes twizzled sideways to peer at Sam.

"So, you're bored, then?" he asked.

"No! Not . . . I mean . . . this is nice . . . this is . . ."

"Are you, maybe, dropping a hint that you're ready for the next level?"

Sam felt his cheeks warming and he started to babble. "You can finish your show, Dean. I didn't – I wasn't . . ."

Sam stuttered into silence as Dean directed a steady, knowing gaze at him. There was a trace of a curve to his lips as he wiped his hands on his shorts and reached for the remote, and the television was silenced with a decisive "Pfft". He leaned forward to where his laptop was set up on the coffee table and after he pushed a few keys a familiar track began to play. Sam recognized the song from the previous evening and it occurred to him that he might never be able to hear any of the tracks on that playlist again without getting a hard on. Not that Sam really needed the encouragement; his dick had long been tenting his joggers under cover of the popcorn bag. But there was something else. He realized as he listened to the first few bars that it wasn't just the arousal that was coming back with the song but also a sense memory of the calming, nurturing atmosphere that had surrounded it. Sam found the canter of his heart was steadying, and the tension that had crept back into his muscles eased again. He relaxed and settled back into the cushions.

Dean took Sam's foot in his hand and supported its weight in his hand while he carefully rotated it at the ankle, first one way then the other, then he cupped the ball of Sam's foot in his palm and gently but firmly stretched it backwards, tightening and releasing the tendons. He grasped the toes and flexed those as well. Sam twitched a little when he started flexing each toe individually, but Dean's grasp was sure, the pressure firm – minimum tickle.

"Did you know," Dean asked, "that, according to reflexology, the macrocosm of the whole body is reflected in the microcosm of the feet?"

Sam's eyes narrowed. That sounded suspiciously like something else Dean had picked up from one of his ex-girlfriends.

"I'm not saying I'm an expert on the subject; I couldn't tell you which parts of the foot correlate with which organs or anything like that." Dean started pressing the heel of his hand into Sam's sole, working in firm circles starting at the base and moving slowly up toward the toes. "Although there is just one spot that seems to . . ." He left the sentence hanging as he reached about half way up, just beneath the ball of the foot, and Sam felt - or imagined he felt - a specific referred response . . . ah, about half way up his body. He raised his eyebrows and lifted his head from the cushions. Dean raised his head a little, too, and gazed steadily at Sam through his eye-lashes. There was a hint of a twinkle in the green that communicated he knew exactly what that was doing to Sam. He didn't linger there, though. He moved up and started working his thumbs into the flesh beneath Sam's toes. That wasn't exactly unpleasurable either, and by the time Dean started on the other foot Sam's dick was twitching in eager anticipation of Dean reaching the same place on the other side.

"Mmmm – mmph!" he gasped when Dean's hand found the spot, and "oh, shut up," as Dean's lips curled into a knowing smirk.

Dean moved back to Sam's heel and started moving upward again, this time with his knuckles, working deeper into the flesh. That did . . . strange things to Sam. The sensation in his foot was . . . not quite ticklish, not quite painful, all the way pleasurable and . . . and it was sending weird sympathetic thrills all over and through his body, up the flesh of his back, his shoulders, over his chest, quivering in the muscles of his abdomen, his thighs . . . and when Dean found that spot again and wiggled his knuckle into it

"Nnnnn – nnnuuhhh nnnuuuuuuu!"

his erection tightened and leapt in his pants. He could feel it in his balls, behind his balls, and somewhere deeper . . .

It was sensational, almost except not unbearable, and his foot was making jerky, involuntary, equivocal attempts to escape from Dean's hand. Dean let up with the knuckles and ran a soothing palm over Sam's foot instead, massaging and flexing until Sam calmed down again. Then his hands moved across to the other foot.

"MMmm!" Sam's leg gave an anticipatory jerk and Dean glanced up.

"What?"

"Nothing."

"Haven't touched you yet."

"I know."

Sam was panting slightly and Dean studied him carefully. "You want me to stop, Sam?" he asked.

"No," Sam assured him. He dropped his foot back onto Dean's knee, rested his head back against the cushions and closed his eyes as Dean began working his knuckles up Sam's instep, provoking tiny gasps and gruntles of pleasure from Sam all the way until his back muscles tightened, his foot arched, his dick leapt and shuddered, and he groaned out loud. And, was that an echo?

Sam opened his eyes. Dean's eyes were tight shut, his lips pursed. Sam's gaze slid down the length of Dean's body and riveted on the place where his dick bulged the front of his shorts and made a damp dark patch in the material. A sudden gust of air escaped Sam's parted lips and when Dean opened his eyes they fixed wide and dark on Sam's.

"Guh," Sam gasped softly.

Dean smiled and wrapped his fingers loosely around the bottom of Sam's joggers. Slowly, suggestively, he slid them up Sam's calves until the top of Sam's socks were exposed. His fingers traced the flesh above one sock and the tips tucked under the hem and began to inch it down, slowly hooked the edge over Sam's heel. As he eased it backwards, his fingers trailed over the exposed flesh, circled and brushed Sam's ankle, stroked his heel and instep. Sam tried to reason with his madly throbbing dick: it's just a sock; it's just a friggin' sock! But as Dean pinched the top of the material and drew the remainder of the garment from Sam's bare toes it left his foot feeling absurdly, ridiculously, erotically naked.

Dean leaned forward and Sam followed his hand as it reached out and picked up the baby oil, flipped the top and dribbled a pool into his palm. Sam swallowed. His gaze tracked between Dean's eyes – dark and intent with concentration, long eyelashes fluttering against his cheeks – and the slow, sensuous roll of Dean's hands as he worked the oil between his palms. The slightly squelchy sound they made sent a low, quivering shudder through Sam's chest, lower back and groin. As Dean leaned back again Sam's foot gave a nervous, involuntary hop and Dean placed a half soothing, half restraining hand at the bottom of his shin.

His hands were slow at first as they stroked over the top and bottom of Sam's foot, warm and slick. The slide of flesh against flesh drew a deep rumbling sound from Sam's throat. The eyelashes lifted and as Sam stared into the dark mud-green pools it drove his breath from him in a hot moist rush. He dropped back against the cushions once more and gazed unseeingly at the ceiling through half shut eyelids as Dean began to work his thumbs in slow wiggling circles up Sam's instep. Inch by inch Sam's eyes shut tighter, his body began to writhe and hump until, by the time Dean reached that spot in the middle of his foot, Sam was bouncing feverishly up and down on the sofa. Dean's fingertips traced up the sole of Sam's foot, from heel to toes, and Sam was just about handling that – even if he was gasping and groaning and kind of caterpillaring up the couch – but when Dean turned his hand and dragged the edge of his fingernails back down the already over-sensitized flesh, Sam just snapped. He sat up, straddled Dean's thighs and pinned him to the back of the couch.

"Whoa! Easy tiger!" Dean gasped.

Sam checked himself as he heard the anxious note in Dean's voice. "No – I – just . . ." he struggled to articulate but there wasn't a coherent thought in his head. "Just . . . fuck's sake, Dean!"

Dean's eyes were wide as he searched Sam's face. "So was that a 'yes' or a 'no' on the fingernails?" The casual quip was belied by the tremor in his voice, and the rapid rise and fall of his chest. His grip was tight around Sam's arms.

Sam tried to grin reassuringly. "Definite maybe."

Dean's grip relaxed but he was still panting a little. "So, what happened to the 'no jumping' rule, Sam?"

Sam nodded an apology. "Got carried away. Sorry." He started to climb off Dean's lap but Dean placed a restraining hand on his leg.

"No, you can stay," he said. "Just warn me next time you're gonna do something sudden and unexpected." He ran a warm hand over Sam's chest. "This position has some advantages."

Specifically Dean liked that, from this position, everything was in easy reach . . . and there was a lot to reach. He watched his own hands, almost transfixed, as they ran over Sam's chest, and as they followed the smooth contours of the muscles the rapid pump of his heart began to even out. He was somewhere between nervous and really turned on. Sam was still an unpredictable quantity – and there was a lot of quantity – and Dean still wasn't sure if he found that exciting or unnerving; maybe it wasn't an either/or thing.

"Fuck, Sam. Your body . . ." he breathed. "You're a magnificent animal, you know that?"

Sam's eyebrows wrinkled.

"That's a compliment," Dean added, 'cause Sam didn't look like he was sure.

"Yeah, I know," Sam assured him, quietly. "You, too."

"Pff," Dean scoffed. In a universe Sam wasn't in, maybe. He circled a nipple with his finger, dragged across the rosy surface and rolled the nub under his thumb. He heard Sam's breath catch as the flesh began to pucker under his touch.

"You're beautiful," Sam said quietly.

Dean's heart hit his chest with a thump. Was he serious? He looked up and searched Sam's face for a moment but then he could feel himself starting to blush and he quickly buried his face in Sam's pecs. His fingers ran over Sam's nipples, gently and smoothly at first then more firmly, until the flesh began to tighten under his touch and Sam gasped and let out a soft cry. Dean moved across and planted his mouth over the pebbling flesh and sucked until it peaked under his tongue, and Sam grunted then gasped as Dean dragged a rasping lick across the surface then softened his tongue into a soothing massage. He was making tiny crooning noises that did things to Dean's insides, had Fido sitting up and wagging his tail, but Dean ignored the excited barking and moved over to the other nipple, and as his tongue snaked and circled the tightening peak of flesh he was adding his own responsive harmony of grunts and hums to Sam's. And Sam's hands were wandering over Dean's back and shoulders; they closed around his head, fingers weaving into his hair, flexing, fingernails lightly scraping his scalp sending goosey shivers everywhere. The next moment, without thinking, Dean had sunk his teeth into Sam's pec – not hard, but enough to make Sam gasp and buck under Dean's lips.

"Sorry, Sam," he muttered, lightly rubbing Sam's chest where he'd just bitten it.

"'S O.K," Sam assured him breathily. "Don't stop," he whispered.

So he gently pushed against Sam's chest until he was leaning backwards slightly then he planted his lips against Sam's breastbone and let his head taxi slowly backwards and forwards down over Sam's firm abs and – resisting the urge to bite this time – but he was sucking and tasting the sweat-salty flesh, and drinking in its scent – testosterone and motel soap – and his fingernails were tracing a path either side of his head and Sam was kinda stretching and writhing underneath him. His hands skated down to Sam's hips, kneaded down the outside of Sam's thighs, and he felt the muscles ripple under his fingers.

"Mmmmmmmmmmm," he moaned against Sam's belly, and felt Sam's abs flutter under his lips.

He sat back and let his hands slowly travel the route back up Sam's inner thighs, feeling them flexing and straining all the way and Sam let out this cry, this trembling eager groan and – dammit. Dean sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly, gave himself a quick firm squeeze to quell the mad twitching. His fingers ghosted back over Sam's hips and rested at the waistband of Sam's joggers. He glanced up and his throat tightened as he found Sam staring back down at him, dark-eyed and expectant.

"You sure you're ready for this, Sam?" he asked, a little hoarsely, and as much to give himself a moment as to check on Sam.

"Fuck, yeah," Sam gasped.

Sam knelt up and Dean eased the joggers over his hips and down to his thighs . . .

And then Dean was right there, eye level with the freaking tower of babel . . . and not like he'd ever seen any guy's tackle from that close before, let alone like that . . . and so . . . and Sam was just . . . and maybe there was a moment when the thought of running away screaming crossed his mind, but then he just lay there, gazing at it, all proud and taut and quivering, the velvet flesh of the shaft and the dark, smooth, glistening dome . . . and it wasn't even a conscious act when he reached out and brushed his fingers ever so lightly from the tip to the base but when it leapt under his fingers Dean's heart leapt with it, and Sam bucked against his hand and

"Fuck! Dean fuck Dean Dean Dean . . . !"

sent an aching thrill through every sinew of Dean's body. His hips were bucking almost unconsciously against Sam's thighs as he wrapped his hand around Sam's shaft and felt the hot, hard slide of it under his fingers.

"GUH! UH! Oh, God! Dean!"

Sam's cry forced an answering gasp from Dean, and suddenly Dean couldn't believe what he was thinking . . . what he was considering . . . and he wasn't sure 'cause – as already noted – Sam was unpredictable and well, it was a hell of a step – more than last night in some ways 'cause touching a man – touching, holding Sam – well, it didn't feel as weird as Dean had thought it would. Not that different from holding his own really except . . . yeah, well, a bit bigger. Little bit. And the angle was different. And not like he didn't know what to do because (as a gay friend pointed out once) masturbation's practice, so he'd had a damn good idea what Sam would like. But what was weird was feeling Sam, hard and throbbing, in his hand and knowing exactly what that meant; listening to Sam climb the octaves from baritone to soprano and not having to guess or imagine what he was feeling, because he knew. That was weird, and kind of wonderful.

Dean looked up at Sam's face, watched his half closed eyelids fluttering as Dean's hand worked up and down the quivering shaft, his lips trembling with inarticulate gasps and moans, and then Dean's focus dropped back to the behemoth in front of him and he swallowed. His hand paused mid sweep.

"Sam . . ." he croaked.

"Oh Jesus! Dean! Don't stop!"

He cleared his throat. "No. Listen, Sam. Sam!"

"What?!"

He placed one steadying hand on Sam's chest and gave him a squeeze with the other to bring him back down to Earth.

"I want to try something . . . if you'd like me to . . ."

Sam's eyes slowly focused and he stared at Dean, giving him his full attention now.

"What?" Completely different tone this time.

"Um . . ." Dean hesitated. He knew, from experience, what it would feel like for Sam, and he wanted to give him that – so bad – but, yeah, no practice this time. "I was just wondering . . ." He ran his finger tip lightly over the leaking dome "what it would taste like."

Sam's eyes widened, almost to cartoon dimensions, and his focus centred in on Dean's mouth, and then his whole body shuddered from tip to toe.

"Guuuuuuhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhrrrrr rrrrrrrrrrrr!" he gasped.

Which Dean took as a 'yes' but "yeah, but, Sam, I've got to be able to trust you 'cause I'm not Linda Freaking Lovelace. I've never done this before and you've gotta promise me you'll let me do the driving."

"O.K," Sam agreed, nodding vigorously. His body was still trembling. "O.K."

"No, but really, Sam – "

"I know," Sam insisted. "I promise, Dean. Please. I promise. Please."

"O.K. Sam, O.K." Jeez. Much more of that and Dean was gonna lose it right then and there. As he slid down lower on the couch and drew Sam toward him his heart was thumping so low in his chest it felt like he'd swallowed it, but he was going to do this. He was going to taste every fucking inch of Sam. He steadied Sam's hip with one hand and dragged his tongue soft and slow up Sam's shaft, from the base to the tip.

"Oh, GOD! GOD! Dean!" Sam's body bucked and shuddered, his hips thrust forward and he jabbed Dean smartly on the nose.

"OW!" Dean thrust his hand against Sam's hip and pushed him away. "There, see, that's what I was worried about!" he growled.

"I'm sorry. I'm sorry!" Sam gasped. "Won't happen again. Won't. I promise," and he braced his arms against the wall over Dean's head.

"Uh-huh," Dean grunted, not entirely reassured. "Better not." Nevertheless he drew Sam's shaft toward him once more and rested his tongue against the drum tight flesh of the dome.

Sam whimpered. His body shivered and his hips trembled in Dean's grasp but they stayed still. Dean dipped his tongue into the puckering slit, drawing fresh whimpers from Sam as he tasted the leaking dew drops. Vaguely salty. Not unpleasant. He curled his tongue around the dome and the shaft leapt in Dean's hand. Sam's thigh muscles tightened and quivered and the whimpers upgraded to something approaching sobs but there was no more unrestrained thrusting. Dean felt encouraged to take a little into his mouth. He sucked in the tip and ran his tongue over the surface, tasting the slightly metallic tang of the flesh.

"O – OoooOH! Dean! Jesus! Dean! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Dean!"

He would never tire of hearing Sam say his name like that. Didn't think the other guy deserved any of the credit, though.

Dean took a deep breath, opened his mouth wider and let it slide down the shaft a little way, then suckled his way back up, dragging his lips over the dome and massaging it with his tongue and . . . was something wrong? Sam had gone real quiet . . . ?

"G-GGAAAAAAAHHHHH!"

O.K.

Dean allowed his mouth to taxi down the shaft, sweeping his tongue backwards and forwards across the flesh as he moved, suckling and feeling the silk slide of it over the rock firm rod beneath, feeling the shudder against his palm and feeling the sympathetic ache in his own balls as he listened to Sam's sharp, snuffling cries. "Mmmmmmm," he moaned as he dragged his lips back up and sucked against the shaft. Sam let out a deep feral growl that made Dean's insides shiver. He dropped one hand to Dean's head and buried his fingers in Dean's hair, gripping just a little tighter than Dean found comfortable. "Sam," he growled warningly, and the grip loosened. And he drew Sam down and swallowed him into his mouth once more, sliding up and down as far as he could and snaking his tongue up and over and around and Sam sounded like he was actually weeping now and Dean wasn't sure how much more of that he could take, let alone Sam. He drew his mouth away, gripped the base and squeezed and after a moment Sam eased down a bit, but when Dean looked up at Sam's pleasure-shattered face his insides just melted into a gooey slop.

"Sam, can I trust you?" he asked, almost whispering.

Sam frowned. "Yeah," he gasped, still panting. "Yeah, Dean. What . . . ?"

"You'll let me drive?"

"Yeah."

"O.K."

Dean slid a little further down the couch, clasped his hand round Sam's hip, opened his mouth and guided Sam into it. Slowly he began rocking Sam's body backwards and forwards, in and out of his mouth.

"Oh God!" Sam breathed "Oh my God! Fuck! Dean! Dean! God! Fucking God! Deeeeeeeeeean!"

Dean's body shivered between Sam's thighs. He didn't know exactly why, but the feel of Sam's shaft sliding in and out, over his tongue, as he took it into his mouth, a little deeper each time: seriously fucking hot! He wanted more of it, more of Sam. He closed his eyes and he moved, breathed, moaned with the smooth rock and slide of it. He wanted to take Sam into himself, deeper, as deep as he could. With each thrust his own hips rocked up, humming with strange craving. And the sound of Sam, frankly fucking sobbing now: almost enough to send Dean over the edge. And Dean could feel the tension in Sam's body under his fingers, in the crunch of Sam's abs, in the shudder of his thighs, in the way his feet lifted off the couch and flexed in the air. He was close, Dean could tell. And Dean wasn't far behind him. He was groaning almost as much as Sam was. Fuck it. His hand moved down, cradled Sam's balls, fondled them. Sam gasped, shuddered. Dean felt the leap against his tongue and Sam tried to pull away but Dean clung to him.

Hell, no! Let me have it, Sam. Want you. Wanna drink you!

There was a spasm, then another and something hit the back of Dean's throat and he swallowed, swallowed around Sam and Sam was shaking himself to pieces and possibly pulling Dean's hair out. Fuck it. Dean didn't care. He was gasping and groaning and so close to coming and then Sam pulled away. No! But then he slithered down Dean's body, snagged the hem of his shorts and pulled and Dean got with the program lifted his hips and OH GOD YES! And Sam practically buried Dean in his throat fucking fucking Dean with his mouth hot and wet and sloppy but good so good and JEEEEESUS JESUS FUCKING CHRIST SAM! OH GOD SAM! YES OH YES SAM SAM SAM SAM OH SAM OH GOD SAM SAM . . . I –

What? What's that banging? Was someone next door hammering on the wall? "Oh, screw you, Buddy!" Dean yelled.

And then Sam had his hand over Dean's mouth but, silver lining, he had his arms round Dean and he was laughing. "Shush, Dean, he might call the manager."

"Whaddaya mean 'shush'?" Dean panted. "You shush. How come I get banged at? You're the noisy one."

"Oh really?"

Sam stopped Dean's mouth again but he did it with his lips this time, so bonus. And he tasted of Dean, and that was weirdly hot, too. And for a while there were lips and tongues, a little wild and wet at first but gradually slowing to soft and slow and nice. No weird transcendental shit this time and Dean was mostly relieved about that. Not disappointed. Well, maybe 60/40.

Eventually they came up for air. Sam kinda collapsed onto Dean's chest and Dean just laid there, glassy eyed, fingers tangled in Sam's hair. Presently Sam lifted his head and gazed at Dean with a sloppy, sleepy grin on his face and for a while they were just kind of staring into each other, and it started to get a little weird so Dean cleared his throat. "Have you done that before?" he asked, for want of something better to say, and then wished he hadn't because maybe he didn't want to know – but Sam was grinning and shaking his head. "Have you?"

"No! Well, not to a guy, anyway." That might have been the wrong thing to say.

The grins and the laughter filtered away. Sam gave his ear a scratch then gazed down at himself, and Dean got a sinking feeling in his stomach. He realized he was kind of counting down, feeling the post-orgasmic temperature drop and waiting for the moment when Sam noticed he was starting to feel chilly and sweaty-damp and sticky. Sam started pulling up his joggers and Dean pretty much knew he was gonna make a break for the bathroom any moment, and he realized he was clinging on to him too tightly and that was only going to make it happen sooner. Sam leaned back and started pushing himself up onto his feet.

"I should take a shower."

Yup. "Sure. O.K." Dean checked his watch. "Getting late, I guess," he acknowledged.

Sam nodded. He stood up and stumbled off to the bathroom . . . looking kinda silly with the legs of his joggers still rucked up and wearing just one sock, and that was kind of half hanging off now . . . but it could have been worse. Naked with one sock would have been sillier. And Dean didn't look too cool either, sitting on the sofa naked with his shorts round his ankles. He sighed and hitched them back up. He felt an odd kind of nostalgic longing for that part of the evening when they'd just watched TV together, and Dean got to cuddle Sam's feet for maybe an hour, hour and a half.

Not that Dean didn't enjoy the sex part; he loved the sex part: that blessed space of time when he got to forget everything and the only thought in his head was Sam: how Sam felt, how he sounded, the smell of Sam, the taste of him . . . but Dean knew it was a finite space, fragile and fleeting; from the moment it started it was already on the way to over . . . and then Sam would be on the starter blocks for the bathroom sprint. Inevitable maybe, with the intimacy issues and all that, and maybe it would get better . . . unless Sam just wasn't a sit around and cuddle afterward kind of guy anyway . . . and maybe that just wasn't what he wanted from Dean. Sam had been pretty clear about not wanting things to get more "complicated". Like it mattered. How much more complicated could their lives get?

On the other hand, maybe Dean could understand if Sam needed to keep something in his life simple and casual.

Dean could do that, he guessed. He shook his head and let out a mirthless chuckle. Friends with benefits.

He leaned across to the coffee table and shut down the media player. He was about to shut down the laptop but he checked Sam's tracker program one more time first. She'd been in Red Lodge, Montana since he last looked. Who knew where she was now? And round and round and round she goes and where she stops nobody knows.

Dean stood up and took another peek through the blinds. Checked the salt lines again . . . Honestly, there was probably a point where it crossed from precaution into obsessive compulsive disorder.

He picked up his guitar from the corner, sat on the bed with it and started strumming idle chords.

♫You hold the pieces of the broken soul.
Look for the part that'll make you whole . . .♫

he crooned softly, then paused. Wow. Where did that come from?

Dean was still playing quietly when the bathroom door opened and Sam came out. He pottered around the room for a bit, making final checks, switching off lights etc, before he got into bed. His own bed. Of course. He watched Dean playing for a few moments then closed his eyes. Funny how that immediately made Sam look younger and softer, more fragile somehow. Dean kind of fastened on those rare moments when he thought he saw something else under Sam's cool, detached exterior . . . but was he just kidding himself? Seeing what he wanted to see? Dean sighed inwardly. He supposed he'd better let the guy get some sleep. He put down the guitar, turned out the nightlight and slipped under his own covers.

"G'night, Sam."

There were a few moments of silence before he heard Sam's voice respond in the darkness. "Night, Dean." He sounded so far away. The few inches between their beds might have been the Grand Canyon as far as Dean was concerned.

He got it, though. Kind of. Sam had been brought up in this weirdass extended family cum commune, so what he valued was his space, his privacy. Dean got that . . . on a kind of practical, rational level . . . even if he could never really get it, because it was different for Dean. Dean'd had a butt-load of being alone when he'd been growing up and he was over it. Now all he wanted was some company.

Without thinking he started pulling his pillow down to his side, but when he caught himself clinging to it he pushed it back up to his head, where it belonged.

Chapter Text

Scene 6


"Reading Is Fundamental" was a café/bookstore in the older part of Lichtburg. Its contents were eclectic: a mixture of new and second-hand books, comic books and novelties. The back street arcade it was set in had seen better times. Several of the shops were empty, or up for lease or sale, and the book store was one of them. Dean noticed the "for sale" sign as they loitered outside posing as browsing tourists. Sam's impression of a book lover checking out the window display was very convincing.

"You are going to be able to control yourself while we're here, aren't you, Sam?" Dean teased.

Sam turned sharply and stared at him. "What? Yes! . . . What do you mean?" He seemed oddly startled and embarrassed by Dean's question.

"You in a book store?" Dean elaborated. "This is like Nerds R Us. Don't go blowing all our spare cash on rare editions of the Turba Philosophorum and Malleus Malleficarum."

Sam's eyes widened. He was clearly surprised Dean had even heard of those texts. "I seriously doubt we'll find a copy of the Malleus here," he replied, trying to sound dismissive, but his pupils actually dilated a little; Dean spouting Latin was probably like the equivalent of talking dirty for Sam. Besides, Dean knew he probably would check out the esoteric section before they left. It wasn't unheard of for a useful volume to be thrown out in a house clearance by someone who didn't know its value.

The store was quiet when they entered: just one old guy browsing the shelves and a couple of women sitting at one of the tables. Sam directed Dean's attention to another table at the back where a girl of about ten or eleven was quietly reading. From Sam's significant expression Dean guessed she was Talia, and another subtle nod toward the two women communicated that one of them was probably the child's mother, Annie Acker. They found a seat at a spot between both tables and presently another young woman came to take their order. Pretty girl; nice smile. Dean automatically returned a bright grin and a wink before a lemon-sucker glare from Sam reminded him this wasn't a roadhouse; they were here on a case. Just for a second it occurred to him to wonder if Sam's disapproval was motivated by anything besides a sense of professional propriety . . . but then Sam had pretty much disapproved of everything Dean had ever done from the get go, so, probably not.

Dean focused on little Talia. She appeared to be reading a young person's Greek Mythology. 'Appeared to be' was probably the right phrase because as Dean watched the book slipped, and he caught sight of something suspiciously like a Harry Potter novel behind it. Talia's eyes widened and both she and Dean glanced toward the table where her mother was sitting, but she was deep in conversation and hadn't noticed. Dean gave Talia a nod and a covert thumbs-up under the table, and she returned a broad smile. She seemed like a perfectly normal little girl with no ambitions to levitate or spew pea soup.

Her mother, however, was engaged in a more disturbing activity. When Dean glanced over at her table he realized it was covered with tarot cards. He wasn't a fan of tarot. Astrology he didn't mind so much; serious students he'd met seemed to be more into the psychology than divination, and just maybe he could believe there might be some science behind it. He'd heard an argument, which had seemed convincing at the time - about gravity and tidal movements in a tea cup - that made the whole thing sound pretty much like cosmic meteorology. Apparently Isaac Newton had been into it, so what did Dean know? Anyway, it had always proved a useful conversation starter for picking up girls. But Dean couldn't see how you could tell the future from a bunch of cards dealt randomly from a pack. And besides, some of those pictures were just freaking scary!

As Dean watched Annie gathered up the cards and shook hands with the other woman who departed evidently happy with her fortune.

Sam leaned toward him and whispered "you should ask her for a reading."

Dean gasped. "What? Why? I don't believe in that freaky tarot crap!" he hissed.

'Neither do I," Sam assured him . . . which surprised Dean a little, "but it'd give you an opportunity to engage her in conversation and maybe learn more, and you can keep her occupied while I do some checks." By way of elaboration Sam drew the EMF monitor a little way out of his pocket.

"Why can't you get the reading and I'll do the checks?"

"Because you're the people person," he glanced toward Talia, "and you're good with children, too." Funny, how Sam was always complimentary whenever he wanted Dean to do something. "I'll observe," he added. "If Annie Acker really has any ability, I'll know."

Dean grunted. Fortunately breakfast arrived at that moment, which earned him a brief reprieve, at any rate. He was thoroughly uncomfortable with the idea but he supposed if either mother or daughter could tell him anything about his future it would be a small step toward leveling the playing field with the demons.

"Mommy, can we go home now?" Talia demanded, her tone rather whiney.

"No, Tal, I'm working," her mother replied bluntly. "Finish your homework."

"Yes, but I could do my homework at home. Donny gets lonely when I'm not there."

Annie's lips tightened slightly. "Donny can manage for a couple of hours. He has to when you're at school."

Talia's lips pruned sulkily and her feet began scuffing impatiently backwards and forwards under the table as she returned to her reading. Dean waited until her mother retired to the other side of the shop and settled behind a computer screen before leaning toward the little girl and quietly enquiring after her reading matter.

"Which book are you up to?" he asked in a conspiratorial whisper.

"The Half-Blood Prince," she replied.

"Wow. Really?" Pretty advanced for a ten year old. The Order of the Phoenix had been dark enough. He wondered if she was supposed to be reading it at all, let alone when she should be doing her homework. "Is it good?" he asked, all the same.

"Yeah. But it's sad. Dumbledore dies."

 "No! You're kidding!"

 "Snape kills him."

Dean's lips parted in shock. "Wow . . . Really?" Dean was stunned. He'd really believed Snape would turn out to be a good guy after all. He rallied when he noticed that Sam was giving him a totally bemused look, so he figured he'd better get some mileage out of this conversation pretty quickly.

 "Have you ever read The Count of Monte Cristo?" he asked, emphasizing the last word slightly.

Talia frowned. "Is it a Harry Potter book?" she asked, understandably puzzled but otherwise unaffected.

"No. No," Dean admitted. "But, you know . . . princes, counts . . . similar thing . . . yeah, no, forget I mentioned it."

She giggled. "You're funny."

And Sam seemed to be finding the conversation amusing, too. "The Count of Monte Cristo?" he repeated, sotto voce.

"Yeah, see if you could do better," Dean retorted. He bit into his egg and bacon roll and felt grease dribbling down his chin. As he wiped it away and licked his fingers, he caught Sam staring at him. "What?" he demanded. Sam picked up a napkin and handed it to him, always the critic, but Dean took it and dried his fingers. "Anyway, your possession theory's looking shaky," he added, relieved.

"Unless it is the mother," Sam pointed out. "Best to be sure." He drew the holy water from inside his jacket and surreptitiously poured some into a tumbler.

It was Annie Acker who came to clear their table when they'd finished eating. "Was everything O.K. with your meal," she asked.

"Everything was lovely," Sam replied, helpfully setting his tumbler on her tray and managing to knock it over, spilling its contents over her hand in the process. "Oh, I'm sorry!" he gasped.

"That's O.K. No harm done," she assured him, resetting the glass and taking a dish cloth from her apron which she used to dry her hand and wipe down the table, and the whole demon thing was pretty much a bust. Dean hoped that would get him out of the tarot deal, but from the pointed looks Sam was giving him he guessed not.

"You'll have to forgive my friend, Sam," he said. "He's all thumbs around pretty ladies. I'm Dean, by the way." He extended his hand, ignoring the slight roll of the eyes Sam gave him. Hell, he wanted Dean to be the 'people person', didn't he?

"Annie," she returned, shaking his hand. "I haven't seen you boys before; are you new in the area, or just visiting?"

They gave her the stock road trip story, and when they asked her advice on places to visit in the area she suggested a tweed-jacket assortment that might have appealed to Sam. The Mustard Museum could have been worth a visit: over 5000 mustards from around the world.

Dean pursed his lips, impressed. "Oh, we have got to check that out!" he told Sam, who did his best to look enthusiastic at the prospect. "Hey, I noticed . . ." Dean continued. "You were giving that lady a tarot reading earlier. Could you tell me my future?" he asked, smiling through a slight constriction in his throat.

Annie looked a little awkward. "I make no guarantees," she admitted. "I do it when I'm asked but I'm not a real professional. I . . . um . . . I just started studying the cards for fun."

"How much do you charge?"

"Just ten dollars."

"Do you have time now?" Dean asked, reaching for his wallet.

Annie hesitated only briefly before taking the bill from his hand. "I'll just take these back," she said, disappearing with the tray then returning and picking up the cards. Sam stood up to make space for her and, as Dean had anticipated, wandered away toward the weird and wacky shelves.

Annie took a seat opposite Dean and handed him the deck. "Give them a good shuffle then cut them with your left hand and deal five cards," she told him, "and while you're doing that, focus on a question you'd like answered."

Dean doubted the cards were going to give him directions to where Dad was, but he concentrated on how he could find him, save him. When he'd done that, Annie laid out the dealt cards in a line in front of him.

"This is a fun way to start," she said. "It's called a storybook spread and it shows the circumstances surrounding your question laid out like a story."

Crap. Dean tried not to let his alarm show in his face.

"This is you at the start of your adventure." She turned over the first card; it was called The Fool and it showed a young man about to walk over a cliff.

Awesome.

"Oh, now that's interesting," Annie said brightly, "because the Fool is the hero of the tarot, and this card shows him at the beginning of the tale. He isn't really a fool," she explained, reassuringly, "just a carefree young man at the start of life's journey, before any complications come up. He represents potential. This card's saying you have lots of potential." She smiled. "Obviously it's also saying you need to look where you're going." But when she turned over the next card the smile dropped from her face, and Dean's stomach clenched. There was a storm, lightning, and a tall burning building.

See, this was exactly the sort of thing . . . Dean threw a quick, reproachful glance at Sam who at least had the grace to looked shocked and slightly troubled as he skulked conveniently behind a big book.

Annie took a couple of breaths before she continued. "This card represents an incident that changes the hero's plans, and the Tower represents some kind of setback . . ." She was clearly picking her words carefully. "It usually indicates a major challenge to the things he's traditionally believed in . . ." She hesitated. "Has there been some kind of upheaval in your life recently?" she asked.

Dean chuckled softly and without humor. "You could say that."

When he didn't elaborate Annie diplomatically proceeded to the next card. "This is how you respond to the incident." A dog and a wolf bayed at the moon. "The hero commits to . . . ah . . . an unusual or daring course of action." She sounded like she was quoting or paraphrasing from somewhere. "The Moon is about imagination, dreams . . . a journey into the unknown. I think the card is telling you to use your imagination, but you need to distinguish dreams from reality . . . Is that your cell phone?"

The question interrupted Dean's thoughts and he realized he could hear the faint trill of the EMF meter. He automatically glanced at Sam and Annie followed his gaze. Fortunately Sam had the monitor hidden behind his book and he quickly covered by taking out his cell and acting like he was answering a text.

"OK, well, the next card is something you need to know so you can act wisely," Annie continued. She turned up The Magician and brightened visibly. "Well, that's more positive. The hero has or receives something that holds the key to his quest. I think this is saying you already have the answer to your question, even if you don't know it yet."

"I don't suppose there's some subtext in there that'll tell me what that is?"

She smiled and shook her head. "I think you have to figure that out for yourself."

Awesome. Dean already knew that.

"This last card is the resolution: a way out of the woods, or a pointer to your 'happy ever after'."

She turned the card over. Dean had been half expecting it, steeling himself for the possibility of it coming up at some point, and there it was: the scariest freaking card in the deck. Annie, on the other hand, was caught off guard. She colored crimson as she glanced from the card to Dean's face.

"Oh, now, that doesn't mean what it looks like," she insisted. "What I said about a way out didn't mean . . . I mean that's not a solution. It never is," she babbled. "All this card means is that some significant phase in your life will come to a natural close. It's a card about new beginnings as well as endings. Perhaps it's telling you to stop worrying about your question, whatever it was, because it's going to resolve itself naturally."

In spite of himself Dean let out a small, ironic hiss.

Annie gathered up the cards. "You know, I'm not sure these were even shuffled properly. It's really unusual for so many trumps to come up."

"Trumps?"

"The Major Arcana. They're a special suit of cards that are like the star players in the deck, and the other four suits are like the supporting cast. Do you want to take those back and give them a really good shuffle this time?"

Reluctantly, Dean took the pack from her hand and shuffled again. A distance behind Annie's right shoulder, Sam was trying to attract his attention. He was holding a different book now and discreetly pointing at the title. Dean squinted to read it: Absolute Beginner's Guide to Tarot. Dean raised his eyebrows just a touch, and Sam inclined the book significantly toward Annie. Huh.

"So, Annie, how long have you been studying tarot?" Dean asked.

"Oh, not long," she admitted. "Not long at all really. Like I say, it's just a bit of fun. You don't want to take it too seriously," she added.

Dean grinned encouragingly. "No, no. I wouldn't," he assured her. He didn't want her to think he had plans to step over an actual cliff. "So what made you take up the cards?"

She hesitated and her face became a little closed. It occurred to Dean that maybe he should have been prepared to disclose more about himself; it might have encouraged her to be more confiding. "I just . . . something happened that made me . . . question possibilities I hadn't considered before."

Dean turned sympathetic eyes on her as he continued to shuffle. "An incident that challenged your traditional beliefs?" he suggested.

She smiled awkwardly and nodded acknowledgement. "Yes, something like that." She didn't elaborate but her gaze flicked toward her daughter, and out of the corner of his eye Dean could see Talia's lips pruning and her legs kicking again under the table. Clearly mother and daughter had issues. "After that I got a kind of reputation locally," Annie continued. "People thought . . . that I knew things, and they started asking me to tell their fortune, and I just . . . kind of fell into it."

Because money was tight, Dean thought, remembering the "for sale" sign outside. O.K. so it was opportunism, but at ten dollars a throw it was petty opportunism compared to some of the online sharks, from a widow struggling to raise her daughter alone, and Annie had insisted from the get go that she made no claims. But if Annie was getting it all from a book, how come the cards were so on the nose?

"O.K. they should be shuffled now. Would you like to deal ten cards this time?"

Ten? The five card trick had been bad enough. Dean dealt out the cards and tried not to look like he was expecting the Apocalypse. Annie placed six of them in a diamond arrangement, then the other four down the side.

"The first card is you and the road you're on at the moment." She turned it over and revealed a picture of a chalice. It looked like the Holy Grail. A quick mental flash of Monty Python angels lifted Dean's spirits and he bit back a snort of laughter.

"Oh, that's a nice card!" Annie told him, delighted. "The ace of cups is all about feelings and intuition and opportunity. It can be about finding true love,"

Dean's eyes widened. He focused on the card and absolutely did not look anywhere else in the room.

"Or your true calling or purpose in life," Annie continued.

"Purpose," Dean repeated gratefully. "Yes, I definitely have a purpose at the moment."

Annie smiled. "Well, that's good." She turned the next card. "What crosses you: an influence affecting you now or very soon. The Knight of Cups is another emotional card. It's about being prompted to act out of strong feelings. I'm getting the feeling you're a very passionate man, Dean. Am I right?"

"I like to think so," Dean grinned and winked, prompting a slight blush in Annie's cheeks.

"It might also mean that a fair haired young man will cross your path in the near future. Next card, what crowns you: your hopes and goals."

Crap! As Annie turned over a card called The Lovers Dean had to physically resist the urge to cover it up or throw it away. What the fuck did all this have to do with Dad, anyway?

Annie was starting to relax now that the cards were giving her the kind of readings she was used to. She gave Dean a cheeky grin. "Is there a young lady you have your eye on?" she asked.

"What?" Dean was momentarily confused until he looked at the card again. He hadn't absorbed the genders before, just what the couple was up to, but when he checked he realized that, yes, predictably they were male and female. "No. No, not at all." This time Dean wasn't able to stop himself looking up at Sam. Fortunately Sam appeared to be absorbed in his reading.

Annie caught the glance however and started to draw conclusions from it. "Oh!" she said. "Well, it doesn't have to be a young lady – " she began, but then she must have seen the look of panic in Dean's eyes and she changed tack. "It can just be about co-operation, joining with others as a team to get something achieved."

"Oh, yeah. O.K. I get it," Dean agreed, relieved.

"What's behind you: the Page of Swords . . . have you recently completed some form of apprenticeship, or a course of study?"

Dean shrugged awkwardly. "I dropped out of college."

She paused, took in Dean's embarrassment and said "well, this is saying you've gone beyond being a student now," before moving onto the next card. "What's beneath you: the issue that brought you to your present question."

That's when Dean discovered that Death wasn't the scariest card in the pack, after all, and he hoped to God that The Devil was just a hyperbole. He stared with morbid fascination at the scene in front of him and realized it was the same two people from The Lovers card, chained to each other, and chained to a huge horned beast. It struck him, though, that the chains weren't that tight. They could throw them off if they really wanted to.

Annie was gazing at the card, too, and frowning. "The Devil is about repression, denial and bondage. It's about the ties that bind us to people, objects or situations. It can be our shadow, our own dark side, things we don't want to acknowledge or don't want to let go. If this is the root of your question the card could be telling you that you're your own worst enemy or that, somehow, you're the obstacle in the way of your own goal but, of course, that means you're also the key to the solution."

Dean stared at her loose lipped. "What does that mean?"

She shrugged helplessly. "I think you have to figure that out for – "

"Myself. Right." 'cause that's not at all cryptic. Dean glanced up and saw that, once again, Sam was holding up the tarot book and pointing meaningfully to the word "beginner". Dean tapped the next card. Moving on. "So what's this?" he asked.

"What's before you: the near future."

Dean braced himself for the worst and was surprised when all that turned up was just some old guy with a beard. "What's a heer . . . a hiro . . ."

"The hierophant is like a spiritual leader, or a scholar of ancient wisdom. It looks like you're going to get help or advice from a wise man."

"Oh, well, that couldn't hurt!" Dean grinned, feeling a sense of genuine enthusiasm for the first time since the reading began.

Annie smiled, then frowned and studied him for a moment or two. "It's important, isn't it?" she said. "What you're looking for."

Dean felt a lump forming in his throat as he returned her gaze. "Yeah," he admitted. "Yeah, it is." He was about to elaborate a little but Annie's assistant came up at that moment.

"Sorry to interrupt," she apologized, "but there's a gentleman asking if we have any books on entomology."

Annie hesitated briefly but then she excused herself so she could go help out the customer. At least the interruption gave Dean a chance to recover his composure. Talia gave a little hiss to attract his attention.

"Mommy can't really read the cards," she confided quietly. "She gets it all from a book."

"I know, Tal," Dean assured her. "That's O.K."

Sam had moved forward in Annie's absence. He still had the tarot book but he was hugging it to his chest so the title wasn't visible. "Can you read the cards?" he asked her.

"No, but Donny says the way Mom sees them is all wrong."

Dean and Sam exchanged a glance. "Who's Donny, Tal?" Dean asked.

"Donny's my friend – " The focus of Talia's gaze shifted and Dean noticed her mother was on the way back. "I'm not supposed to talk about him," Talia said quickly, and buried her nose back in her book.

"Sorry about that," Annie apologized as she sat down, and Sam withdrew once more as she turned her attention back to the cards.

"Now, there's two possible ways of reading the last four," she told Dean. "In traditional readings they represent you, your house, your fears, and the outcome of your present situation; but some people think that's too fatalistic so there's another way of doing it where you're offered an option and two different outcomes depending on whether or not you take it. Which would you prefer?"

Dean grinned tightly. "Well, let's go with team free will, shall we?"

Annie nodded and turned over the first card, The Wheel of Fortune. She took a breath, let it out again and just stared at the card frowning for several moments. "This is the obstacle: it illuminates what the problem really is." She lifted her eyes to Dean's looking embarrassed and uncomfortable, then dropped her focus back to the card. "This actually suggests to me that you may not have a lot of free will. The Wheel is about fate, karma, cycles. It's about things that happen that are out of your control, or sometimes things that have happened in the past that have unexpected consequences in the present. Maybe your fate is just . . . out of your hands."

Dean felt a thin film of cold clinging to his flesh. He remembered a conversation, advice, it seemed so long ago now: Son, you need to realize there's not a damned thing in this life that you can control beyond your own decisions, and if you don't take responsibility for those you'll never be anything else but fortune's bitch.

"I don't believe in fate, destiny, all that crap," Dean insisted, his voice rattling in his throat. He sensed Sam moving closer again and a slight shake of the head from his friend steadied him. "You said I have options," he reminded Annie, but he moderated his tone this time.

She nodded, a little nervously, but she immediately brightened when she turned over the card. "This is the option. This is a good card!" she assured him. "The Chariot is about triumph and success. It's about committing to a quest to solve the central problem. Oh!" Clearly struck by a sudden thought, Annie smiled. "Well, you're on a road trip already, aren't you? Maybe that's your quest! Maybe this card is saying you're on the right road."

"O.K. Good." Dean nodded, though his flesh was a shock of goose bumps. As encouraging as it sounded this card might have been the freakiest yet.

Annie pointed at the next card. "This is your current future, if you do nothing." Then she indicated the last card. "This is a possible future, if you take the option." She turned over the first of the two and Dean felt like the world had dropped from under him. He'd only been prepared for it to turn up once.

Annie looked almost as devastated as Dean felt, and she started babbling again. "Remember what I said before. It doesn't mean that anyone is actually going to die. It's just about closure – "

"Wait a minute . . ." Dean cut her off as he spotted a flaw in the whole 'options' premise. "This is the future if I don't take the option?"

"Yes."

"But you said it's my current future."

"Yes."

"But I'm currently taking the option. You said I was on the right road."

"Oh . . . yes, that's right." Annie stared at the table in confusion, and pointed to the remaining unturned card. "No . . . no, this is definitely the outcome if you take the option," she insisted.

There was a flurry of impatient movement behind Annie and Dean saw Sam tapping the book and the word "beginner" again. It caught Annie's attention, too, this time. Sam hurriedly hid the book behind his back as she turned and gave her a tight, bunched-eyebrows smile. Dean laid his hand on Annie's and brought her mind back to the table.

"Show me the last card, Annie," he said.

She nodded and turned it face up. The Hanged Man.

Awesome. Apparently Dean had a choice of Death or Death by Hanging. Except this guy was only hanging by his foot; his hands were free so why didn't he just untie himself and run away? It was like the couple in the Devil card; they all seemed to be bound by their own free will.

"What does this mean, Annie?" he asked.

She was staring at it with her hand over her mouth, a deep furrow creasing the space between her eyebrows. She dropped her hand and took a breath. "It's a bit of a mystery card, actually, full of contradictions. It's about enlightenment and perspective. Maybe it's challenging you to see a point of view that's the opposite of the one you're used to. It's also about sacrifice, so it's possible that insight will cost you something." She gave him an apologetic glance and wiped her mouth again.

Dean tilted his head forward and raised his eyebrows. "And?" he prompted.

"It can sometimes be about betrayal."

His breath left him. No. He kept his attention fixed on the table. Didn't look anywhere.

"The card may be warning you to be careful who you trust. Someone you meet who seems to want to help may actually turn out to be working against you. It's just . . . it's saying be careful, that's all."

Right. Yeah. But no.

"But, you know what?" Annie made an attempt to sound cheery. "It's all just . . . these are just cards. None of this really means anything. You know I'm not really . . ." She turned in the direction of the cash desk. "Let me give you your money back. I don't feel right . . ."

Dean reached out and held her elbow. "No, Annie. No way. You gave me your time. That's worth something." Things must be bad when a fortune teller wants to give you a refund on a crap life. "Besides it was . . . interesting."

Sam stepped forward. "Annie, we should be going now; could we get the check?"

"Yes, sure. Of course." She started gathering up the cards but then she paused and fanned them out in her hands.

"What is it?" Dean asked.

"Oh, nothing." She shuffled the cards back into the pack. "It's just I've never seen so many trumps come up in one reading before."

"And what does that mean?"

Annie shook her head. "Really, it doesn't – "

"I know," Dean persisted. "But if it did, what would it mean?"

"Well . . . the suits are about mundane everyday things, but the trumps are like the grand narrative. Maybe it means that your question is part of a bigger picture . . . and you should just stop worrying about it: trust that it's in the lap of the gods and all will be well in the end."

Trust the gods? "Yeah." Dean chuckled softly. "Right."

"There's a couple of books I'd like to add to the tab," Sam said, "and one in the window I was interested in: Modern Approaches to Tantra. Could I take a look at that?"

"Sure. I'll get it for you."

Sam moved toward Dean as Annie disappeared behind a screen, but just as he was about to speak, Talia hissed again.

"Donny says the cards aren't really about fortune telling, they're about teaching."

Sam's eyebrows hitched up. He opened his mouth to speak but at that moment Annie came back with the book and as they moved toward the cash desk Dean and Talia exchanged a goodbye wave. Annie started making up their check while Sam skimmed the book she'd given him. He had a couple more in his arms and he put one down on the desk: Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions. Dean was surprised, and kinda pleased, to see Sam buying a novel. He'd been right about their cash, though; books and breakfast were going to make a dent in it. Sam seemed satisfied with the new book and put that down on the counter as well. Dean raised his eyebrows when he saw the front cover: one of those stylized Indian pictures of two people engaged in vague but obviously pleasurable activity.

There followed a short, silent exchange between the two of them. Dean indicated the book.

Sam frowned and assumed innocence: What?

Dean wiggled his eyebrows: You're buying a dirty book.

Sam frowned harder; tried to look shocked: What?! No, I'm not.

Dean smirked.

Sam glared: What are you? Twelve?

Dean grinned: Yeah, you're buying a dirty book.

Sam pruned: Shuttup. Jerk.

Bitch.

"Have you boys found somewhere to stay in the area yet?" Annie asked. "I just wondered because I have a room for rent, if you're interested. It's just a room over the garage but it's comfortable and self contained . . . and you won't find better rates in Lichtburg," she added with a smile.

"Ah, thanks, Annie that'd be great b – " Dean began but Sam interrupted him.

"Yeah, thanks! That would be really great!"

Dean cast a puzzled glance at Sam but didn't contradict.

"Good! Well, here's the address." She wrote it on the back of the check and handed it to Sam. "I have to be here until after lunch but if you come by later this afternoon I'll show you the room."

"Thanks, that's really great. Oh, and can you add this one as well?" Sam took the Absolute Beginner's Guide to Tarot from under his arm and casually added it to the top of the pile while he fished for his wallet.

Annie stared at it for a moment and her cheeks pinked. "Sure, of course," she said, pushing a stray lock of hair behind her ear as she finished ringing up the charges.

Dean straightened and turned a wooden-faced stare toward his companion. Sam could be a real dick sometimes.

Chapter Text





Scene 7


“Was that necessary?” Dean demanded as soon as they’d left the store.

Sam frowned. “What?”

“Giving Annie the Columbo treatment? She already admitted she was a beginner. Did you have to embarrass her by shoving that book in her face?”

“She was holding back.”

“Yeah, to protect her kid!”

Sam felt back footed. He could feel himself starting to color and he turned away and headed back toward the car with Dean following. “Have you forgotten we’re on a case here, Dean?” he pointed out.

“O.K, Mr Spock, and does that mean we have to check all human compassion and empathy at the door?”

“Well, you had the opportunity to charm the intel out of her, Dean, but you were too busy getting sucked in by her phony reading,” Sam snapped.

Dean halted. “Sucked in?” he repeated, offended or embarrassed. Perhaps both.

Sam was sorry he’d let himself be goaded into blaming Dean. Getting defensive wasn’t going to help matters, but it wasn’t the first time Dean had accused him of lacking feelings, and he was starting to wonder if Dean really believed it. Would it make matters worse or better, he wondered, if he admitted he was pissed with Annie for rattling Dean with her amateur reading, and with Dean for letting himself get freaked out by it? But mostly he was angry with himself for exposing Dean to that right now, with everything else that was going on. Admittedly he hadn’t expected so many of the cards to be so freakishly appropriate.

Sam turned back. “You said you didn’t believe in tarot, Dean,” he reminded him.

“I don’t,” Dean insisted. “Didn’t,” he added, after a moment’s consideration. “I don’t know, Sam. I didn’t used to believe in a lot of things but I’ve seen all the weird shit since then: witches, magic, cursed objects. What do I know? Some of those cards were pretty close to the mark.”

“It was just an ordinary deck, not bewitched, not cursed,” Sam assured him. “I checked; there were no unusual readings in the store, and no signs of witchcraft.”

Dean grunted as they reached the car and climbed in. He stretched for the keys but he paused before starting her up.

“And you’re sure Annie isn’t psychic?” he demanded.

Sam shook his head. “There was nothing inspired about Annie’s interpretation; it was straight from the text.” He opened the book and started thumbing through its pages. “I could show you places where she was quoting almost word for word”.

“Then how come – ”

“You saw what you expected to see, Dean. Don’t you know how this works? It’s human nature to see meaning in random patterns. It’s like clouds; we look into the sky and see elephants, rabbits, castles. And tarot cards are deliberately ambiguous and suggestive. A true reader can use them as a tool to focus their insight, but the only gift Annie has is the ability to memorize a bunch of key words and phrases. And you’re just making what she said fit your situation. She wasn’t foretelling your future, Dean. It’s just a bunch of random cards, with no meaning other than the one you read into them.

“You remember what she said about the two ways of reading the last four cards?” he persisted when Dean still looked doubtful. “If she’d used the traditional method it would have given you a different reading, but I bet you could still make it fit. Like, the first card wouldn’t have represented your situation but own attitude to it; so then you’re not a pawn of fate, you just feel like you’re a victim of circumstances. And in the traditional spread the next card would have represented your house.”

Dean scoffed. “I don’t even have a house.”

Sam hesitated. It wasn’t supposed to be taken that literally but sure, why not? “We practically live in this car, don’t we?”

Dean chewed on that for a few moments. His eyes scanned the interior of their ‘chariot’, the metal roof above them, the blankets on the back seat. “O.K. I can see it,” he acknowledged.

“And the penultimate card wouldn’t have been your future but your own worst fears.”

Dean looked affronted by the suggestion. “Oh, so I’m afraid of dying now?” he demanded, as if that was something to be ashamed of.

Sam frowned. “Isn’t everybody?” he said simply.

There was a silent moment when Dean didn’t know how to respond, but then he poked at the book on Sam’s lap.

“O.K. that one. What would that mean?” he challenged.

Sam looked down. The book was open at The Hanged Man. He stared at it, absorbing the details of the image, then he found himself saying “Freedom is a length of rope; enough to hang yourself with.”

Dean’s jaw slackened and he stared at Sam wide-eyed. “Is that supposed to make me feel better?” he asked.

Sam felt chilled. Truth is, he didn’t know why he’d said it. It had come out of nowhere . . .

“Sam? Sam, are you O.K?” Dean’s voice sounded distant.

. . . and who was the warning for, Sam wondered, for Dean or for himself? “My point was just that these cards can be interpreted different ways, Dean,” he continued hurriedly, shutting the book and putting the image out of his mind. “They’re not some sort of fixed prophecy of your future.”

After a beat Dean blew a dismissive raspberry. “I knew that,” he insisted, but then he paused again as he reached for the car keys. He leaned back into the seat and half turned toward Sam without actually making eye contact.

“Are you afraid, Sam?” he asked.

Sam’s heart thudded against his chest. “What?”

“Of dying?” Dean elaborated.

“Sure,” Sam acknowledged, but random chills were still haunting his flesh as he added “but I’ve been hunting long enough to know there are alternatives that are worse.” He glanced down. The face of the Magician seemed to mock him from the front cover of the book.

 

 

~


Dean was quiet all the way back to the motel, and he remained preoccupied as Sam started unloading and re-ordering the contents of his backpack. He sat on the edge of the bed, idly skimming the jackets of Sam’s books.

“Explain to me why we’re moving when we have a half decent motel for once,” he said.

“It was too good an opportunity to pass up,” Sam responded. “It’s always difficult when children are involved. I’ve been wondering how we were going to get close to Talia, so it’s really convenient that Annie’s renting a room out in their home.”

“Does it even matter? Looks like they’re both demon free.”

“So where did they get their information if Annie isn’t psychic, and I’m not convinced Talia is, either? Maybe we’re focused on the wrong child. I’d like to know more about this friend of hers, Donny.”

“You think he’s possessed?”

“I just think we need to dig a little deeper here.”

Dean nodded then frowned as he picked up The Tao of Physics. “You’ve still got this?” he asked, redundantly, as he turned it over in his hands.

“I never got the chance to take it back to the library in Richardson. We left rather abruptly.”

“Huh,” Dean chuckled. “There’s something reassuringly Al Capone about that.”

Sam looked up from his packing and waited for Dean to explain the bizarre comment.

“It’s the law of irony, Sam.” He grinned. “It won’t be the demons or the monsters that get us in the end. It’ll be the overdue library fines.” He turned the book over and scanned the back cover. “So this is what? A scientific explanation for all that Eastern transcendental oogy boogy?”

“Something like that,” Sam acknowledged. He held out his hand to retrieve the volume but Dean didn’t seem ready to put it down.

“Mind if I borrow it?” he asked.

Sam was surprised. It wasn’t Dean’s usual preferred reading matter but “sure,” he replied.

Dean tossed the book over onto his own bed but apparently he wasn’t done poking about in Sam’s stuff. He picked up the Tantra book next and laughed. “Hey, Sam, what’s wrong with this picture? I’m reading the mystical science nerd book and you’re reading Asian porn.”

Sam held in a sigh. “It isn’t porn, Dean,” he said evenly. “Tantra isn’t just about sex.” He wasn’t going to rise to Dean’s baiting. He was pretty sure Dean knew about Tantra already or, if he didn’t, one of his friggin’ ex-girlfriends had.

Dean turned the cover toward Sam and grinned. “So, you didn’t just buy it for the dirty pictures, then?”

Sam pulled the book out of Dean’s fingers and packed it then when Dean’s gaze wandered to the sketch pad instead he snatched it up and packed it before Dean got any ideas about picking that up as well.

“Hey, if you’re short of visual material, you could always do a full length nude study to go with that portrait you drew,” Dean suggested, a lascivious smirk tugging at the corners of his mouth. “If you want me to pose for you, you only have to ask.” With that, he sprawled himself along the bed, Sam’s bed, and arranged himself in a pose worthy of Penthouse and pursed his lips into a catwalk pout. The effect should have been ludicrous, comical. Would have been if Sam had anything left of his rational brain, but suddenly all he could see was that mouth, and all he could think about was what it had been doing the previous evening. And that, just that, was enough to have the mindless creature in Sam’s pants rearing its traitor head. He had no control over the friggin’ thing, but apparently it would go fetch for Dean, for a mere curl of his lips. He couldn’t even watch Dean eat now without . . .

Sam dragged his backpack closer to his body. “We’re supposed to be concentrating on a case, Dean,” he reminded . . . himself. “Don’t you have any packing to do?”

The smile dropped from Dean’s lips and he lifted himself off the bed. “Fine,” he grumbled, and started collecting his things from where they were spread to all points around the room. Then he opened his duffel and tossed them in, and apparently he was packed.

“Not like we’re pressed for time here, Sam. Annie said the room wouldn’t be ready until later.”

“I’m aware,” Sam acknowledged, “and that’s why I’m taking the opportunity to pack properly,” although, at this stage, he was using it more as an excuse to stay hidden behind his backpack.

Dean sighed. “O.K. Whatever.” He occupied himself with throwing a few stretches, and then he stripped off his shirt, dropped to the floor and began a set of push ups.

Dean was beyond feeling self conscious about working out in front of Sam these days; his stamina was almost on a par with Sam’s now. Sam tried not to stare as the muscles flexed and rippled in Dean’s arms, shoulders and back, tried not to notice the regular press of his buttocks against the denim of his jeans as, again and again, he rose from the floor and dropped again.

Dean’s casual assurances that the beast would be satisfied once it was fed weren’t panning out. Maybe that’s all sex was to Dean – an appetite, an itch that needed scratching now and then – but for Sam it was fast becoming more like a drug addiction, a hunger that only grew more insistent the more it was nourished.

Dean was back into stretching and it looked like he’d added some yoga into his routine. That was new. He seemed to be concentrating on flexibility now. He had his thighs splayed apart and he was stretched out flat along one leg, reaching down and past his toes. Sam watched his thigh muscles straining then looked away, tried to think of some kind of distraction, something to douse the nagging burn in his pants. He found himself dwelling on the way Dean and Annie had flirted with each other over the reading that morning and, as it happened, that did the trick.

Sam knew he was being ridiculous. It meant nothing, the way Dean flirted with waitresses, hotel clerks, librarians and shop assistants wherever they went. Mostly he seemed to just enjoy the attention and showed little inclination to act on it. Even the handsy, touchy, sympathetic approach he took sometimes – like this morning with Annie – Sam thought it was inappropriate, but that was just Dean, the way he was, and they didn’t seem to mind.

He didn’t expect anything from Dean. He knew he wasn’t about to change the habits of a lifetime just because of his little therapy experiment with Sam. What could it really mean to him, anyway, when it was clearly women, not men, who continually drew his attention? Sam couldn’t help wondering how long the novelty of this detour would last before Dean started craving what he was used to again. Sam suspected he was already making comparisons; he’d as good as admitted it the previous evening. And some awkward, clueless born-again virgin wasn’t going to match up next to the doubtless long list of Dean’s former sexual partners. Sam had noticed how embarrassed Dean had been when Annie had asked him if there was a young woman he was interested in. He couldn’t help wondering who Dean had been thinking of. Surely not Annie? He’d only just met her. Maybe he’d fancied his chances with Gemma before he’d found out she was a demon – as distasteful as that idea was to him, Sam had to acknowledge she was a very attractive woman – or was Dean still burning a candle for his ex-girlfriend, Penny? He hadn’t mentioned her for a while, but that didn’t mean he never thought of her. And Sam wasn’t in the habit of prying into the contents of another person’s thoughts.

Dean finished stretching and stood up. “I presume you’re not too busy packing to get in some pad work?” he challenged. He dug the pads out of his duffel, tossed them onto the bed in front of Sam and started winding strips of linen round his fists. Sam shrugged and picked them up. It made sense, since they had some time to kill, to get some training in. He slipped the pads over his hands as he moved around the bed to face Dean and held his arms braced in front of him. He underestimated the force of the first punch when it came and it rocked him back onto his heels briefly, but as he recovered his stance he could see the intensity in Dean’s face. If Sam ever forgot about the grief, the anger and the ever present anxiety that lay beneath the surface of Dean’s jokes and posturing, he was reminded now as the clown mask was discarded and replaced with a passionate focus that drove Dean’s fists into the pads. He was learning to channel and use his emotions; the fear and rage the demons had stirred up was now powering his punches. Sam leaned deeper into the blows, tried to stand his ground, but he could feel the concussion buzzing through his own limbs. He tried not to think about what that did to him. Nothing was ever clean any more; nothing was ever free of that heat. But he did his best to clear his head and concentrate his own thoughts, meet Dean’s focus and drive with equal single-mindedness. Even so, as Dean rained blows into the pads, Sam was losing ground, being pushed back just a little with each punch.

“O.K, Dean. Time out!” he gasped as he found himself in danger of being pinned between Dean and the bed.

Dean’s arms dropped and he shook out his hands. Sam wondered if Dean appreciated how much progress he’d made in recent weeks. He was sweating and panting a little, but so was Sam. He bounced on the balls of his feet as he waited for Sam to be ready again, and as Sam peeled the pads off his hands Dean unwound the linen from his fingers revealing skin that was red from the force of hitting the pads. Sam dropped into his combat stance and as Dean matched him they started practicing combos and maneuvers, the familiar dance of punch-block-counter punch. It wasn’t so easy to find a gap in Dean’s defense lately, dodging took all Sam’s concentration, and when Dean landed a punch, Sam felt it.

When Sam did manage to land a couple of good strikes in quick succession, Dean came back twice as hard and Sam found himself back peddling toward the bed again. He stepped to one side and let Dean’s momentum carry him past but as he moved to capitalize on it he discovered, too late, that Dean had anticipated him. A swift, sound kick snapped into the back of his leg. He wasn’t prepared for it, and as his knee buckled under him he felt Dean’s weight driving him the rest of the way to the floor. Pinned between the other man’s thighs he barely had time to react as he saw Dean’s fist snap back, but in the moment his body jolted with shock and a fleeting stab of apprehension Dean’s features relaxed, and then he looked almost as shocked and surprised as Sam felt.

They both seemed fixed in that position. Sam’s heart was beating a rapid tattoo in his chest and Dean’s breath was coming fast and hard. Then Dean sat back, rested his haunches on Sam’s stomach and grinned. His arm relaxed. Sam flinched a little as he reached toward his face, but all he did was tweak Sam’s nose.

“Honk!” he said, and then he jumped to his feet and picked up his shirt. “Thinking you’re a little off your game, there, kiddo,” he commented as he started pulling it on.

Sam rose to his feet, quivering from a cocktail of dissonant feelings. “Perhaps,” he acknowledged. “But you’re improving.”

Dean looked up, surprised. “Really?”

“Sure. Don’t you think so?”

Dean looked back down at his shirt and made a pretense of busying himself with the buttons. “I thought you were still pissed with me.”

Sam frowned. “Why would I be pissed?”

Dean shrugged. “I could have got more out of Annie Acker, maybe,” he acknowledged. “I had an opportunity to get her talking some more. I didn’t take it.”

“Dean, I – ”

“I didn’t want to talk about Dad.”

Sam was stunned. “Why would you?” he managed after a moment.

“I don’t mean the truth . . . the whole truth . . . just something, you know, to start the ball rolling. Sometimes you have to give up something of yourself to get something back.”

The air felt heavy while Sam chewed over that statement before he finally swallowed and shook his head. “I don’t think it would have made any difference, Dean. I think you were right: she wasn’t going to say any more with her daughter sitting right there.”

Dean scrubbed at his jaw and nodded. “Yeah, probably,” he acknowledged. Then he flashed a grin. “Hey, do you suppose Annie does meals with the room? Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve had home cooked food?”

Sam gave him an ‘always thinking of your stomach’ eye roll, an automatic response, and he did it without thinking before he realized that it was so much more than that. Immediately he wanted to take it back, tell him “no, I get it, Dean. I understand what that means to you,” but the moment had passed and Dean had already responded with a ‘yeah, whatever’ shrug. It would probably just have embarrassed him anyway.

Dean turned toward the bathroom with the casual announcement that he was going to take a shower, but he paused as he reached the door and leaned against the frame. “I . . er . . I don’t suppose you feel up to joining me?” he suggested, with a significant glance toward the front of Sam’s jeans.

Sam flushed. For several moments he was at war with himself and he had no idea which part was going to win . . . but his time in the shower had always been a rare place of solitude, refuge. If he and Dean started sharing that space, too, he’d have nowhere left in his life he could go to find any peace.

“I don’t . . .” He hesitated as the battle still waged inside him. “I don’t think I’m ready for that, Dean.”

Dean nodded. “Yuh. That’s what I thought.” The heel of his hand tapped the door jamb a couple of times then he turned into the bathroom and the door closed between them.

Chapter Text

Scene 8

Annie even gave them a choice of meals. Dean suspected Sam would have preferred the lentil and zucchini torte with salad, but he’d said he didn’t care what they ate. He’d insisted he didn’t mind having the meatloaf. He liked meatloaf. He’d been absolutely positively sure he liked meatloaf. He’d snatched the menu out of Dean’s hand, circled “meatloaf” and taken it down to Annie himself, and Dean had spent the time before dinner checking the DVD collection in their new room, sitting on the delightfully bouncy mattress of his new bed, checking out the toiletry collection in the bathroom and surreptitiously sniffing at the potpourri.

This was way better than a motel, even a good one. It was positively homey. For a little while, Dean found he could even entertain the fantasy that he and Sam really were on vacation and spending their time in Wisconsin doing nothing more sinister than sampling 5000 different kinds of mustard. He was so caught up in the notion as they made their way down to dinner that it didn’t even occur to him to question why Talia appeared to be talking to herself when he saw her playing with a Nintendo in the family room. He even smiled a little as he watched her sharing the screen with some unseen playmate, but the smile faltered when he glanced up at Sam and saw the familiar thoughtful grooves settling between his friend’s eyebrows. His attention snapped back to the innocent seeming tableau and he saw it through different eyes. Was there another presence there?

“Can you smell that?” Sam asked quietly.

Now that he’d mentioned it, Dean could detect a faint odor in the air – something like the smell of summer rain, or geraniums. He’d supposed it was an air purifier.

“Ozone,” Sam murmured.

“You think the house is haunted?”

“You go on ahead,” Sam told him. “I’ll see if I can get a read on the place.”

Dean reached the dining room in time to catch Annie carrying a large tray filled with plates of food.

“Oh, hey! Let me help you with that,” he said, taking the tray out of her hands and then helping her set the plates on the table.

“Is everything O.K. with your room?” she asked.

“Oh, yeah. Everything’s great,” he assured her.

“Only, I . . . um . . . I wasn’t sure whether you’d prefer two singles or a double . . . I left it but . . . you can push the beds together if . . . the mattresses zip up and there’s spare bedding in – ”

“Oh, no! We’re not . . . I mean, we don’t . . .” Damn. Was it the haircut?! Dean cleared his throat. “Two singles is fine.”

Annie started to blush. “Oh, I’m sorry. I thought . . . the way you two were looking at each other . . . I’m sorry. I misunderstood.”

Now Dean was embarrassed that he’d embarrassed Annie. “No, you didn’t - exactly - it’s just . . .” he tried to explain, but it was . . . “it’s complicated. But the room’s fine, as it is. It’s great. Thanks.” He smiled warmly and Annie looked reassured, but as she turned back toward the kitchen another thought struck him. “Er . . . what did you mean about the way we looked at each other?”

Annie opened her mouth to reply but Sam came into the room at that moment and Dean cleared his throat again to cut her off. There was an awkward moment and Sam glanced rather suspiciously between them, but then Annie called out to Talia that dinner was ready and she returned to the kitchen to fetch the rest of the meal.

The meaningful look Sam gave Dean as they took their seats confirmed that he’d found some significant readings. It was hard to believe. The place didn’t feel haunted. Dean wasn’t sure what he’d supposed a haunted house would look or feel like, but his imagination sure didn’t fit with this small comfy home, littered with old books and Talia’s toys and games, and currently warm with the mouth-watering smells of home cooking.

The meatloaf was delicious, almost as good as his mom’s, and Annie served it with all the trimmings and a veritable banquet of roast and steamed vegetables, and when dessert followed Dean quickly got over his temporary falling out with apple pie, once he’d established the apples were local (and not from Indiana). Over dinner Talia chatted casually about her school activities, and an atmosphere of comfortable normality suffused the scene. Annie inevitably made conversation with the boys by interrogating them about the places they’d visited on their “road trip”, and they embroidered BS stories about helping out on the movie set in Texas, camping in Lost Creek, visiting art houses in New York and an apiary in Oasis Plains. Sam gave a convincing description of the second biggest ball of twine in the continental U.S. Dean had never seen it, but he’d backed up Sam’s story, and Sam did the same for him when he described a visit to a rodeo.

After dinner Talia ran off to play in the next room and over coffee Dean started to turn the conversation around. After customary but effusive compliments on the meal he began by talking about the book store. “It’s great. Really interesting stock. Sam, here, came back raving about your comic books. He’s a big fan of the Captain Astro series. He’s got a major collection back home, don’t you, Sam?”

A brief expression of alarm and general w.t.f. flitted across Sam’s face and Dean tossed him a wink that was more teasing than reassuring, but he backed Dean up with a cautious nod and smile of acknowledgement. “Big time,” he agreed.

“Oh, really?” Annie responded enthusiastically. “Did you have a good look at our collection, Sam?” she asked. “Because we have some, well, not rare issues, but certainly uncommon.”

“Oh, he’s got them all!” Dean assured her, quickly. “He’s not gonna tell you this but he’s even got the Astro Boy action figure still in its original packaging. Isn’t that right, Sam?” Sam’s tight smile had a definite touch of this had better be going somewhere fast, or else, so Dean briskly moved on. “I see you’ve got a lot of books around the house, too. You’re obviously a huge book lover.”

“It’s true.” Annie agreed. “I’ve grown up with it. My mother used to manage the store when I was a little girl, and I helped out there even when I was young. I’ve tried to encourage Tal’s reading, too.”

Dean smiled. “I can tell it’s rubbed off,” he said.

“Yes, she loves to read, and she has an active imagination . . . maybe too much . . .” Annie’s attention strayed for a moment toward the family room. “Anyway,” she continued hurriedly, “my husband and I tried to buy the store as soon as we could get finance. We did well at first, almost had it paid off before he got ill but then . . . well, you know how it is, how medical bills will add up. We had to refinance . . . and now it’s getting more and more difficult to make ends meet.”

Dean nodded. “We noticed you were selling. It’s too bad.”

Annie agreed. “Things are getting harder all over. The store isn’t turning over what it used to. I can barely pay Lori’s wages, and I can’t run the store by myself when I have a young daughter to take care of. It’s a shame. The arcade’s nearly fifty years old and there’s been a book store there since it opened, but several of the other stores are closed or closing now. They’ll probably wind up being bought out by some consortium and the place’ll be turned into a big discount store or something.” She sighed. “I don’t know what I’ll do then. I really wanted there to be something stable in Talia’s life, she’s been through so much, and if we have to move again . . .” Annie trailed off and left the sentence unfinished.

Sam and Dean exchanged a look, and Dean prompted “have you been in this house long?”

She shook her head. “Just a few months. Our old place was too much to keep up after my husband passed, and there were too many memories . . . This house was supposed to be a fresh start but . . .” She hesitated. “Well, let’s just say this place has issues.”

Dean nodded understanding. “These old houses can be temperamental. What is it? Bad plumbing? Flickering lights? Rats scratching in the walls?”

“No. No, nothing like that. It’s just . . .” Annie’s gaze drifted to the family room again. “Well, Talia’s . . . never really settled here.”

“Really?” Dean watched the little girl. She was playing with cards now and looked reasonably content. “I thought she was doing O.K, considering.”

Annie looked like she might say something more but then she just started gathering up plates. “I’ve run on long enough. You boys don’t want to hear about our problems. You’re on holiday.”

“Hey, no, really, it’s O.K.” they said in unison, but she brushed them off.

“Can I get you anything else?” she asked, “Another coffee? More pie?”

Dean debated whether he could manage a third helping but, honestly, he was full. “No, really, I couldn’t. But thank you,” he told her, sincerely.

Sam helped Annie pile up the dishes and as he helped her carry them into the kitchen he gave Dean a pointed nod toward the family room. Dean gathered that he thought the daughter might be more forthcoming than the mother. He waited until Annie and Sam were fully occupied with the dishes then casually rose from the table and wandered into the next room. His spirits sank a little when he saw the cards Talia was playing with were from a tarot deck. She had them spread out on a coffee table, and Dean recognized a few of them from the reading that morning.

“I thought you said you didn’t read the cards, Tal,” he said as he took a seat on the couch next to the young girl.

“I don’t, but my friend Donny sees things sometimes. I showed him your cards, the ones I remembered. Do you want me to tell you what he said about them?”

“Sure,” Dean agreed, less than enthusiastically. Honestly, the last thing he wanted to hear was more prognostications from prophetic ghosts. “Er . . . is Donny here now?” he asked.

The question may have been too forthright. Talia looked up and studied him carefully, assessing whether he was poking fun. “No,” she said. “He went away. Men make him nervous sometimes.”

“Oh? Why’s that?”

Talia directed a cautious glance toward the kitchen before she answered. Looked like this was a taboo subject. “Somebody hurt him once,” she said quietly. “Someone who hurt other children, too.”

Dean felt a clammy chill in his flesh as he digested that revelation. Other children. Was Donny one of those whose make-shift graves Talia had helped the police to unearth? In his mind’s eye he could still see the tiny skeleton from the steel drawer in the M.E’s office, and it was a few moments before he truly heard what Talia was saying as she picked up The Wheel of Fortune.

“Donny says this card is about the way of life. You see this man?” She pointed out the guy who was crawling around the outside of the wheel. “He thinks he’s going in a straight line, but really he’s just going round and round. Donny says everything in life is like that. The world is round, and all roads always just come back to where they started, so there’s no point worrying where you’re going. What matters is what you do along the way.”

Dean frowned. Odd, how that seemed to resonate with his comments to Sam back in Indiana. Angel, he thought.

“The only part of a wheel that’s still is the center,” Talia continued. “Donny says you need to know where your center is, and rest there.”

Dean cleared his throat. “Talia, how old is Donny?” he asked.

“He says he’s nine and a half,” she replied.

Nine and a half. “Sounds pretty smart for his age,” he observed, a little shakily.

Talia gave him that assessing look again. It struck Dean that she was pretty smart, too, in her own way. “I think he’s older than he thinks he is,” she said, and she picked up The Chariot. “He says the important part of this card is the two horses. One’s light, and the other’s dark, and they’re trying to pull the driver in different directions, but he needs them both. And he needs them to keep pulling together.”

“How long have you known Donny?”

“Just a little while.” She thought about it. “A few months.”

“Since you moved here?”

She nodded.

“Your mom said you don’t like this house? Is that right?”

She shook her head vehemently. “It’s Mom that doesn’t like it.” She checked the kitchen again and added “she doesn’t like Donny.”

“Why’s that?”

“She doesn’t know him. She doesn’t understand him. People are scared of things they don’t understand.” She picked up another card, The Magician.

Dean nodded knowingly. “Is she afraid he’ll hurt you, maybe?”

“Donny wouldn’t hurt me,” she scoffed. “He’s my friend.” She held up the card in her hand. “This is your friend.”

Dean frowned, puzzled. “This is Sam?”

“Donny says you wear him next to your heart, but you don’t know it.”

Dean chuckled awkwardly, taken aback. He could feel his cheeks warming. Out of the mouths of babes and children . . . “Oh, I know it,” he admitted quietly. “But that’s just between you and me, eh, Tal?”

She grinned shyly, perhaps pleased to be let in on a grown up’s secret. “O.K,” she said, and then she picked up the next card. “This is yours,” she told him, holding up The Hanged Man. “Mom told you it was about sacrifice, didn’t she?”

“Sacrifice or betrayal,” Dean murmured, more to himself than Talia.

“It’s both,” she told him bluntly. “Donny says you can’t have one without the other. What you do to yourself always affects other people, and you can’t truly care for others if you don’t care about yourself. You have to see it from both sides.”

Dean stared thoughtfully at Talia. He could understand how it might be unnerving for her mother if she made a habit of going all John Wyndham like this, but it struck him that the advice she was passing on from her unearthly friend was of a whole different order from the threats Daniel Whitman had made.

“Tal, how old do you think Donny is?”

She scrunched up her nose. “I’m not sure,” she admitted. “He looks and talks like he’s nine, but he thinks old.”

“How old?”

“Really, really old.”

But he realized he was getting distracted from his purpose again so he forced himself back to the point. He needed to be sure the spirit wasn’t any kind of threat to the kid. “Tal, are you sure your mom doesn’t have a reason to be concerned about Donny? Like, does he have a temper? Does he get angry sometimes?”

Talia pulled a face a little like she thought he was nuts, a little like he’d just really disappointed her. “Donny doesn’t get angry about anything,” she insisted.

“Not even about the guy who hurt him?”

She thought about that for a moment. “He used to, but he let that go. Now he just wants to help people.”

Dean was absorbed in his thoughts as Talia picked up the last card, and she held it in front of him for several moments before he focused and drew back abruptly.

“This is the most important lesson in the cards,” she said while Dean stared at the skeleton looming just ahead of him. “Everybody dies.”

Chapter Text

Scene 9

 

“Talia!” Annie was standing in the arch between the two rooms with Sam following up just behind her. “Tal, you can’t talk to people like that. What have I told you?”

“But Donny says it’s imp – ”

“Talia, enough,” Annie interrupted. “Donny is imaginary. You are too old to have an imaginary friend and I am done pretending!”

There was a tense silence while Talia sat still, her face wooden and wilful, but then tears started in her eyes and she just got up and ran out of the room. Annie’s hand flew to her mouth and she started to tremble; her own eyes were brimming with unshed tears. Sam drew closer to her side and his hands hovered uncertainly half way to her shoulders. Just for a moment, Dean wondered if his friend was going to be brave enough to reach out to her, but then he stepped up to rescue them both before things got any more awkward.

“You O.K, Annie?” he asked, taking her elbow in a steadying grip, and Sam produced a handkerchief that she gratefully accepted.

“I’m sorry,” she apologized, wiping at her eyes. “It . . . it still catches up on me sometimes . . . when I’m not expecting . . .” She swallowed the rest of the sentence in a tight gulp.

“I know. I mean I get it, kind of,” Dean assured her. “I lost my mother a little while back.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.” She blew her nose quietly. “Illness?”

Dean hesitated. “House fire.”

He watched her mind working, connecting the dots to their conversation that morning. “I’m so sorry,” she said.

Dean nodded acknowledgement, shrugged it off.

“I hope Tal didn’t upset you. Since her father died she just seems . . . preoccupied with the subject.”

“Understandable,” Dean assured her.

“But this Donny she keeps talking about . . . I don’t . . . I don’t know what to . . .” she shook her head helplessly.

Dean glanced at Sam but no suggestions were forthcoming. Until they’d had a chance to discuss the situation it was hard to know how to respond. Dean plumped for reassuring platitudes. “I had an invisible friend myself at that age: a kid brother, actually,” he confided. “It’s quite common,” he added as he caught an inquisitive expression gathering on Sam’s face.

Annie looked up from the hanky and studied Dean more seriously. “Did you think he was real?” she asked. Her voice was barely more than a whisper.

“Well, no . . . I didn’t . . . I knew he was . . .” Dean hesitated. He wasn’t sure what to say. “Honestly, I don’t remember,” he told her.

Annie nodded. “I should go and check on Tal,” she said. Dean released her elbow and she left in the same direction Talia had taken.

“Donny’s not imaginary,” Dean quietly informed Sam. “Annie has to know that, surely?”

Sam shrugged. “People believe what they want to believe,” he said.

Dean brought Sam up to speed on the way back to their room and when they got there Sam made a beeline for the laptop. “Do you mind?” he asked as he paused, half seated, with his fingertips brushing the top. He never missed the formality now, even though he spent more time on it these days than Dean did.

“No, sure, knock yourself out,” Dean acknowledged absently as he picked up the journal and leafed to the section on spirits. “So how come Talia can see Donny and we can’t?” he asked. “We saw the Whitmans clearly enough.”

“Spirits can manifest in certain situations or to certain people they identify with, but it takes a lot of energy.” Sam replied. “Then there are some people who can perceive the presence of spirits. Children tend to be more open to that sort of thing but they usually grow out of it.”

“Huh.” Dean gazed toward Sam as he let that idea sit in his head for a bit. “So she is psychic after all?” he asked.

“No, but she may be a sensitive.”

“What’s the difference?”

Sam hesitated. “Well . . . there are different definitions . . . but psychics usually receive knowledge and impressions about the living: their past, present and future. Sensitives can perceive energies and vibrations, and sometimes they can communicate with spirits.”

Dean toyed with the sheets of paper between his fingers. “What about Donny? Is he psychic?”

Creases formed on Sam’s brow as he began to study Dean’s face more closely. “I’m not sure that’s an apt term when you’re talking about a spirit,” he replied carefully. “In any case, what you described didn’t sound like prophesy, exactly. It sounded more like . . . philosophy.”

Dean grunted. He wasn’t so sure. It had seemed more personal than that, somehow. And Sam had avoided the issue of whether ghosts had foresight. Were they like demons? Could they read minds? See the future? Did all the occupants of that shadow world have access to knowledge that was usually hidden from ordinary folk?

Everybody dies.

It was literally true, of course. Was that all Donny meant, just a common truth? But then why did it seem so particular with Dean? Why was it such an important lesson for him? Was it about Mom? Or was he going to die? Was Dad?

“Donald Helfer.”

Were they all going to die? “What?”

Sam looked up from the laptop again and turned it around so Dean could see the screen. “Missing person’s report from Lichtburg P.D, April ’76,” he elaborated. “This house is where he lived.”

Dean stared at the picture of the small boy. He didn’t know what he’d expected; ethereal light shining from the face, maybe? But, no. He was just a kid like any other . . . whose remains were presumably now in a drawer at the County Sheriff’s Office.

After a pause Dean asked “is he listed as one of the victims?” just for confirmation.

Sam was frowning. “No, not all of the bodies have been identified yet, but he must be there. We have the date, his age, his description. It shouldn’t be hard for us to figure out which bones are his.”

Dean grunted. He was just puzzling how come Donny hadn’t identified his own body when the full weight of Sam’s comment started to settle on him.

“Wait. What?” He stood up straight and stared at Sam. “Are you talking about a salt and burn? On Donny? He’s just a kid!”

Sam’s frown deepened and once again he studied Dean’s face intently. “Dean, it isn’t a kid. It’s a spirit,” he pointed out.

Dean was thrown off for a second, but then he cried “and does that automatically mean we have to gank him? You got something against spirits on principle? Are we even investigating the same case, here, Sam? Donny isn’t the monster, here. He’s one of the victims!”

Sam shook his head. “Dean, you’re anthropomorphizing. Don’t confuse the essence that lingers after death with the living person. Spirit is energy. It can manifest in human form, sure; it can just as easily be a bird or an animal – hell it can be a truck, or a bus – anything.”

“Sam, this spirit can think and communicate. It isn’t just random energy. It’s more like . . .” Dean hesitated “. . . a soul or something.”

“I thought you didn’t believe in souls.”

“Yeah, well . . . that was before.” Not like he’d had any intimations of immortality himself in the last couple of days or anything.

Sam stood up and moved round the table toward Dean. “Dean, I’m not so sure that a spirit constitutes a soul, but even if . . .” He was using his calm and reasonable voice, which just kind of wound Dean up even more. “It doesn’t belong on this plane. It needs to move on.”

“Move on where?” Dean snapped. “Do you even know?”

Sam sighed. “Dean – ”

“And, by the way, which one of us gets to explain to a little girl why she has to lose her best friend?”

Sam opened his mouth then paused and stared at Dean again. “Is that what this is about?”

“What?”

“Downstairs you said – ”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Dean growled, cutting Sam off and turning away.

After a few moments of silence Sam asked “Aren’t you even concerned that it’s attached itself to a child? OK, it hasn’t been dangerous so far, but there are no guarantees. And it’s leading her into things she shouldn’t have to deal with at her age.”

“Oh, right ’cause watching her father die of a long illness didn’t do that already.”

Sam paused and digested that observation, then he nodded acknowledgement. “I guess. Maybe. I’m sorry, I wouldn’t know; I’ve never seen anyone die slow.”

Dean looked back and surveyed Sam from under his eyebrows. There was a statement that spoke volumes. “Maybe that’s the reason he appears to Talia,” he suggested after a beat. “Have you considered maybe they’re finding some sort of comfort in each other? You’re just assuming that sooner or later a spirit’s gonna go dark side. Is that a given? I mean . . . just ’cause it’s supernatural, does that automatically make it a monster? Is every supernatural thing definitely evil and asking to get ganked?” He waited for a response, but all Sam did was stare back at him with an odd deer-in-the-headlights kind of expression.

Eventually Dean broke the silence. “Sam, maybe instead of hunting this spirit we should be helping it. ’Cause there’s a monster here. But it isn’t Donny.”

“Dean, it isn’t our job to investigate natural cases,” Sam pointed out, but Dean cut him off.

“Oh, it’s a job now? I thought it was about helping people.”

Sam raked his fingers back through the strands of hair hanging over his forehead. “I know,” he said. “I mean, it is! . . . But we do that by solving the cases others can’t. There are already structures in place for solving normal crimes. The police have got that covered.”

Dean snorted. “Oh, yeah, ’cause they’re doing a bang up job so far!”

Sam nodded acknowledgement. “Because there was nothing connecting the murders before. But now they’ve got the bodies – ”

“Thanks to Donny!” Dean slammed the journal down in frustration. “Come on, Sam! There are kids dying here! How can you not want to help?” he cried.

Sam looked shocked and hurt. “You think I don’t want to?”

“You’re talking about dusting material evidence. How is that helping?”

Sam’s face froze. It didn’t look like he’d considered that particular issue. He sat down heavily on the bed and started doing his nodding dog impression. Dean figured maybe he was getting through to him, so he just let him simmer for a bit.

“It isn’t exactly our skill set,” Sam said after some mulling. “I’m not even sure how we’d investigate a normal crime.”

“How different can it be? If this was any other kind of case, what would we do?”

“Research the history. Interview witnesses,” Sam acknowledged.

“And we have a prime witness right here,” Dean reminded him.

Sam looked up. “You’re suggesting we interview Donny?”

“As opposed to blowing rock salt through him? Yeah! Pfft!” It seemed obvious to Dean, but Sam looked strangely alarmed by the idea.

“You realize we’d have to do that through Talia?” he pointed out. “We’d need Annie’s co-operation, and she seems near the end of her rope on Donny.”

Dean shrugged. “If putting Donny’s killer away helps him to move on, there’s a reason for her to want to help us.”

If it does,” Sam cautioned him. “What if incarceration isn’t enough? What if he wants blood?”

Dean scoffed. He wouldn’t have blamed Donny if he went vengeful spirit on the evil son of a bitch, but according to Talia he didn’t have it in him. “Talia said he isn’t angry any more.”

“Then why is he still here? If it isn’t anger keeping him here, then what? Dean, you’re going to have to allow for the possibility that sooner or later we’re going to have to deal with Donny.”

Dean turned away impatiently. It was like Sam had a one track mind. Hunting supernatural creatures was all he knew. But he heard Sam rise behind him and then he felt Sam’s hand on his arm.

“’Cause say you’re right,” Sam said gently. “Say he’s just a lost soul. What’s going to happen to him? Talia isn’t going to be around to keep him company for ever. Nobody is. But he'll stay here, for years. Disembodied. Scared. And over the decades it'll probably drive him mad. Then maybe he will get violent. Dean, how do you think angry spirits are born? They can't let go, and they can't move on, so they're trapped, like wounded animals. Lost. In so much pain that they lash out, caught in the same loops, replaying the same tragedies over and over.”

Dean shivered. As he listened to what Sam was telling him he felt more and more chilled. Was Sam right? Was that how it was? Always? “And what happens to them when you burn their bones?” he asked.

Sam shrugged. “Samuel, my grandfather, he used to say that was like death for ghosts, but truth is, I still don't know. Not for sure.”

Dean turned and met Sam’s gaze and just for a moment he was profoundly shaken and confused by the sight of the blue hues in Sam’s eyes. He barely recovered himself to respond and his voice quavered when he spoke. “I know this, Sam,” he said. “I saw what happened to Daniel Whitman when I torched his remains. If that was death, then he died screaming. That’s not gonna happen to Donny.”

Sam sighed and his chin dropped. He shook his head slowly. “Dean, I understand how you feel. I do. But you can’t count on just . . . ghost whispering him across. This isn’t the Disney Channel.”

Dean stood upright and still, jaw set, staring into space. “No, this is real life,” he growled. “And happy endings don’t happen in real life, do they?”

“Dean – ”

“Except they do, Sam! Sometimes.” Dean picked up his car keys. “They have to,” he muttered, and turned toward the door.

“Wait, Dean, where are you – ?”

“I need air.”

“Then let me – ”

Dean turned and stabbed out his fingers in a gesture that warned Sam to keep his distance. “I need air,” he growled. He moved past the door to the house and took the exit to the fire escape instead. As the door slammed behind him and he made his way down the steps toward the Impala he was relieved to note he wasn’t being followed.

 

Scene 10

 

Meant to be.

Dean chewed thoughtfully at the end of his pencil. Meant to be. Bee . . . Cee . . . Dee . . . Ee . . .

“What are you doing, weirdo?” The jeering voice of Alister Rolston butted into his thoughts. “Waiting for your invisible boyfriend?” His gang buddies laughed and cheered him on.

Dean didn’t even know what he meant. Boyfriend? Sammy was his brother. He didn’t answer. Mom said if he ignored them they’d get bored and leave him alone. Wasn’t true, though. When you ignore them it gets worse. But Mom didn’t like him fighting so he didn’t say anything; he just hid his poetry book under his leg where he hoped they wouldn’t notice it.

“You know talking to yourself is the first sign of madness, don’t you, Winchester?”

Well, he couldn’t ignore that, could he? “Nah! First sign of madness is hairs on the palm of your hand,” He grinned as he watched Rolston lift his hand and stare at it. “Second sign’s looking for ’em,” he said.

He actually got a laugh from a couple of the gang for that, but that just got Rolston mad. He marched over to Dean and shoved him hard in the chest and Dean fell back off the wall and into the dirt behind it. As he climbed back to his feet he heard Rolston ask “what’s this?” and he dreaded to hear what would come next.

“Oh, look at this! Look at this! He writes poetry!”

Dean jumped over the wall and ran at Rolston. “Give it back!” he yelled, but Rolston grabbed him and held him in a head lock. Dean’s face was jammed into Rolston’s smelly armpit, and all he could do was punch uselessly at the older boy’s legs and back while he dragged Dean around in a circle and read from the book in a stupid voice.

“Listen to this! ‘The robin sings around my window in the morning’!”

Dean squirmed and wriggled, hot with anger and shame. That was on the first page. He’d written it when he was . . . like . . . eight!

“‘The little flowers that grow bloom as the day is dawning’!”

The other boys were almost screaming with laughter as Rolston let go of Dean and pushed him again. Dean stumbled toward them and was shoved back to Rolston once more. He made a snatch for the book but Rolston held it up high, and with his other hand he grabbed Dean’s head and held him at arm’s length while Dean punched wildly into the air.

“Only girls write poetry, you little faggot!” Rolston’s fingers tightened in Dean’s hair and he started swinging him around by it. “Is that what you are, Winchester? Are you a girl?” He timed it just right so that, when he let go, Dean crashed straight into a hedge. His buddies thought that was a great joke.

Dean wasn’t hurt. Not really hurt. He was just really, really angry. But it was coming out as tears and he didn’t want them to see that, cos then they’d be right. So he was a bit slow getting out of the hedge and he didn’t quite see what happened next. He just heard a yell then more yells, and when he looked round he saw Rolston sitting on his butt in the middle of his gang. They all looked confused and a couple of them were trying to help Rolston back to his feet. “What happened?” they were saying. “Did he do that?” What did he do to you, Al?” Then they all turned and stared at Dean. “Get him!” one yelled, and a few of them rushed toward him, but it was like they ran into an invisible wall. Next moment they just flew backwards through the air, and then they landed on their butts in the middle of the group, almost knocking the others over at the same time.

That was when Dean realized there was someone next to him. Little Sammy was standing by his side with his hand stretched out in front of him, and this scary look on his face – like a stare of doom or something. It was unreal!

They couldn’t see Sammy, of course. All they saw was Dean, and they were staring at him like he’d just grown two heads. A couple of them ran away and the others were looking at each other to know what to do, then they started moving away as well and finally Rolston followed them. “You’re a freak!” he yelled back, just before he started to run. “This isn’t over!”

But it turned out that it was.

Dean turned and gaped at Sammy. “Wow! Sammy! How did you do that?! That was like . . . like you’ve got super powers or something!”

Sammy was quiet. He just walked over and picked up the poetry book from where Rolston had dropped it and handed it to Dean.

“You’re hurt, Dean,” he said, looking at the cuts on Dean’s arms and face.

“Nah, I’m fine, Sammy,” Dean told him. “They’re just scratches.”

But Sammy’s big blue eyes were wet and swimmy as he reached up and touched Dean’s forehead. Then, suddenly, Dean couldn’t feel the cuts and scrapes any more. For a moment Dean just stood there, open mouthed. Then he laughed. He couldn’t stop laughing.

“Sammy!” he gasped. “Sammy, why are you afraid of monsters? You could just blow them away!”

Sammy stared at Dean. His little Adam’s apple bobbed, and now tears were filling his eyes for real. “Dean, what if I’m a monster?” he whispered.

Dean just laughed. He bent over and kissed the younger boy’s forehead. “Aw, Sammy, you’re not a monster,” he told him. “You’re an angel.”

Chapter Text

Scene 11


He didn’t get in the car straight away. He stood leaning against the door, staring into the space ahead of him, arms draped across the roof, hands loosely clasped. Sam thought that was a good sign. It looked like he was giving himself time to calm down. There was half a chance he wouldn’t drive off and do something stupid. Dean wasn’t stupid. He knew what was at stake now, and he knew how to watch out for himself. He didn’t need Sam to baby sit him every moment of every day. And they couldn’t always be joined at the hip. Of course they needed space from each other sometimes. God knows there were times when Sam could use a rest from Dean.

None of which calmed the acidic boil of anxiety in Sam’s gut every time Dean “needed air”. And it was getting worse. Sam couldn’t even kid himself any more that it was just concern for Dean’s welfare; there was a huge measure of self interest in the mix. Much as Sam sometimes wished that Dean came with a volume button, a brightness control . . . that there was some kind of shield that Sam could put between himself and all that frenetic energy, he had come to recognize Dean as the source of all that was light and warm in his life. He’d only begun to appreciate how deep in the shade he’d lived when Dean had shone into it. If anything happened to Dean . . . If he lost Dean . . . his friendship . . . if that’s what this strange dance/wrestling match between them was – Sam had always supposed friendship would be something easier, but then it wasn’t like he’d known much for comparison.

Something off to the right attracted Dean’s attention, and as he turned his head the light from the sinking sun picked out his face and hair and framed him in a kind of bronze corona. That feeling that caught in Sam’s throat as he watched him: that wasn’t friendship. That desire, craving, longing . . . it was more like addiction. It was dangerous to need anyone this much.

Dean lifted himself away from the car and walked across the road toward a field on the other side, and a couple of horses Sam hadn’t noticed before. They’d noticed Dean, though. One of them trotted across as he approached the fence and seemed to listen when Dean struck up a conversation with it. Presently Dean reached out and petted the animal. From his easy familiarity it was clear that he’d spent time around horses, and Sam began to wonder whether perhaps his rodeo story at dinner might not have been all BS. The horse cheerfully accepted the liberties Dean was taking; as he stroked its face and nose, it nuzzled contentedly into his hand. Apparently nothing flesh and blood was immune to the siren song of Dean’s charms, on two legs or four. It all came so easily to him.

Was there something fundamentally wrong with Sam that he couldn’t make these connections the way Dean did? Was he genetically lacking something in the empathy department or was it just the Campbell training that had taught him to divide the world into creatures that needed hunting and witnesses, possible sources of intel. Dean’s world view was a different kind of simplistic: he saw monsters and people who needed saving from them. And now he thought he could save the creatures as well. Which category would Sam fall into? Was he something Dean was going to want to save? Could Dean save him?

It wasn’t enough for Dean to be a hunter: he wanted to be a hero. It was a dangerous myth to believe in, the kind that could get you killed or worse, but Dean made you want to believe. He made Sam wish he had the power to wave a magic wand and somehow conjure up the happy ending Dean was looking for.

Sam turned from the window, picked up the journal and studied the pages Dean had been reading. It wasn’t cut and dried. Donny might not be a vengeful spirit. He didn’t appear to be a death omen either, but at least there were options. Perhaps justice was all he wanted, and maybe they could help him get that, but the idea of communicating with the spirit made Sam uneasy. It opened a door, made you vulnerable. Even if Sam was willing to give Donny the benefit of the doubt, that didn’t mean he felt ready to lay down the welcome mat. Ask a spirit to share its knowledge and you have no control over what it might reveal . . . It seemed strange to Sam that Dean wasn’t more concerned about this spirit’s involvement with a child. He seemed to be seeing the whole situation through the lens of some memory of an imaginary childhood companion, but all Sam could see was the incursion of the shadow world into the life of a little girl who might have remained ignorant of it. Now she’d always know there are things out there in the dark, and she’d never be the same.

Sam carried the book back to the window and glanced over toward the horses. Dean wasn’t there. The car was still in the driveway so he couldn’t have gone far, and Sam resisted his first impulse to rush down the fire escape and hunt for him. Instead he put down the journal and, taking the door into the house, he made his way down the stairs cautiously peering through windows in the hope of catching sight of his missing friend.

Obsession, his reason warned him. It was wrong, it was stupid to worry over another person this much. It was a weakness that could be exploited, used to manipulate you.

Dean was out in the yard. Sam caught a glimpse of him through the kitchen window. He had a rope in his arms - it looked like the one from the trunk - and he had the coils hooked over his shoulder while he paid out one end, and he was knotting it into a large loop. Sam’s fretfulness eased as he noted the expression on Dean’s face: it was the look of quiet absorption it acquired whenever he gave over his concentration to some practical task. But what was he up to?

Sam was distracted from his curiosity by a loud click that turned out to be the kettle. He realized it had just finished boiling and now he noticed there was a half made mug of tea sitting nearby, but he didn’t see anyone coming to claim it. He moved out to the dining room and saw Annie sitting in the family room beyond. She was holding a pack of cards and shuffling them from hand to hand, but she wasn’t looking at what she was doing; she was staring vacantly at an empty point in space somewhere just beyond her hands. From his experience with Dean, Sam recognized the repetitive, mechanic actions of grief. Well, there was one practical thing he could do for her. Returning to the kitchen, he finished making the tea and carried it out to her.

“Annie,” he called gently when his approach failed to attract her attention. She looked up and he proffered her the mug.

“Oh! Sam, thank you!” she said as he relieved her of the cards and placed the tea in her hands.

“Are you all right?” he asked as he took a seat next to her. “Is there anything I can do?”

She shook her head and tried to smile reassuringly. “Oh, no, thanks but I’m fine, really.”

“And Talia?” Sam prodded. “Is she O.K?”

Annie opened her mouth and seemed about to brush him off with another polite assurance, but then the air just left her in a helpless sigh. She shook her head. “I just don’t seem to know how to get through to her any more. I don’t know what to do . . .”

The sentence hung in the air unfinished until Sam supplied “about Donny?”

Annie’s face dropped into her hand. She was shaking her head still, but it seemed like a confirmation. Sam hesitated. Asking the question took a leap of faith, it could so easily backfire, but he felt prompted to take the risk.

“Annie . . . Are you worried because Talia thinks he’s real . . . or because you’re afraid that he is?”

Annie lifted her head and stared at him. “How can he be?”

It wasn’t Sam’s usual practice to lay it all out to civilians either, not before he’d proven himself, but like Dean said: she had to know already, deep down.

“Annie . . . Dean and I . . . we’ve had some experience with this kind of thing and we think we know what . . . who . . .” Which sounded least threatening? “. . . Donny might be. After what Talia told Dean . . . well, we did some research and it turns out there was a little boy called Donald who used to live in this house, but he went missing back in the 70s. We think he may have been murdered.” Annie’s eyes grew large and round as Sam continued. “We think Donny may be a spirit, a residue of the boy who died – ”

She started to draw away from him. “That . . . that’s insane,” she gasped, but the flicker in her eyes was more fear than doubt.

Sam reached out to detain, or reassure her. He was a little shocked when he realized he had his hand on her arm. “Annie, I understand,” he assured her. “I heard what you said to Dean this morning . . . about something that made you question what you believe. I know how that feels. I know what it’s like to realize there’s something beyond the world you think you know, strange things out there that you don’t understand and you’re afraid you can’t control. I know how frightening it is when those things reach out and touch you personally. Annie, I know.” And he let her see it, in his eyes, a little of his own fear and vulnerability. He let himself be naked before her, just for a moment. Then he drew back again, gave her the space that he needed. “But we can help, Annie,” he continued, over the sound of his own heartbeat. “I believe we can. If you’ll let us.”

Her eyes darted searchingly between Sam’s, and then she stared down at the mug she clutched between her palms. “Talia knows things,” she breathed. “Things she couldn’t possibly . . .” She swallowed and looked up again. “It started after her father died . . . just after we moved here. She started talking about Donny, and then she told me about a little girl that was stuck in a drain by the road. I knew the place, the town, from things she described, but Tal hadn’t been there so I thought she’d just imagined or dreamed it.” Annie’s hands tightened around the mug until her fingers began to whiten. “But she was really insistent so, just . . . just to reassure her, I went there and checked.” Her hand strayed to her mouth and her voice was tearful as she continued. “There was this tiny, tiny skeleton . . .” Her hand balled into a fist and for a moment she rested with her mouth pressed against it. Presently, Sam reached out and supported her other hand as he raised the mug of tea to her lips. She sipped briefly then continued. “There were others . . . in other places, towns I didn’t even know myself, but Tal described things and the police found them, in lakes, rivers, sometimes buried . . . but she was always right; they were always exactly where she said they’d be.” Annie paused and hiccupped, and Sam gave her time to recover herself. “I didn’t know how Tal could possibly know these awful things. I didn’t understand. I thought she must have some . . . terrible . . . gift . . . or curse . . .”

Sam nodded understanding.

“I thought maybe Donny was just her way of processing it, but now you say he’s real, he’s . . . is he one of these children?” Her words were coming out in a babble of anxiety now.

“But don’t you see, Annie? This is better,” Sam assured her. “This isn’t something innate in Talia; it’s something external. It means we can fix it.”

“What can you do?”

“There are ways. Things we can do to . . . convince a spirit to move on. We think it would be easier on your daughter if Donny did that voluntarily.”

“Can he hurt her?”

Sam had a moment of hesitation. He’d come to trust Dean’s instincts. He just hoped they weren’t compromised in this case. “It doesn’t seem to be threatening her in any way. Sometimes spirits just want justice. We think if we help to find Donny’s killer, maybe then he’ll be at rest. If you’d allow us to talk to your daughter – ”Annie looked alarmed and Sam added quickly, “We’d be very careful. We wouldn’t allow her to be at any kind of risk.” When she still looked doubtful he continued “Annie, you said you wanted stability for Talia, that you didn’t want to have to move again. Don’t you think it would be better if we could persuade Donny to move on instead?”

 

~

The sun was close to setting when Sam walked out onto the back porch, and a light breeze was blowing a shower of apple blossom from the tree at the bottom of the yard. A few petals came to rest on his shoulders as he watched Dean gathering the rope into coils. While he stood there, Dean tossed up a loop, swirled it in the air for a moment then propelled it toward the fence where it dropped over one of the fence-posts. With a deft tug of the wrist, Dean drew the cord tight around the post.

“Huh!” Sam exclaimed in surprise.

Dean turned and gazed at him then grinned, a little uncertainly, and Sam smiled back. As his friend went to collect the rope Sam watched him with a mixture of pride and apprehension. He could see where Dean’s mind was headed with this now and, as usual, it was two parts inspired practical brilliance, three parts rash and dangerous. Now wasn’t the moment to debate with him, though.

“I didn’t know you could do that,” Sam called.

Dean peered at him from under his eyebrows as he made his way back up the yard, winding the rope around his elbow as he walked.

“You never asked,” he retorted, with a smirk.

Sam frowned a little. Was he supposed to?

“I grew up in cattle country,” Dean explained as Sam drew aside him. “I had a couple of friends who followed the rodeo circuit. They taught me a few things. I even entered myself once or twice. Didn’t win anything,” he admitted. “Got close though.” The rope sailed down the yard again, glanced off the post and dropped to the ground. “O.K. I’m out of practice,” Dean acknowledged, and started drawing in the rope once more.

Sam let a couple of breaths pass before he spoke again, then “I had a word with Annie,” he said.

Dean looked up, questioning.

“She’s gonna let us talk to Talia.”

Dean’s lips parted for a moment in surprise then he nodded an acknowledgement and busied himself with the rope.

“Maybe you’re right, Dean. Maybe this spirit’s just looking for some kind of closure. I don’t know. But if you want to try being Melinda Gordon for a while, I’ll back your play.”

“Hey, I’m not Melinda,” Dean protested. “You can be the chick, bitch!” He smirked, checking Sam’s reaction from the corners of his eyes.

Sam grinned. “No, I don’t think so, thank you.” He didn’t want to identify with the ghost whisperer for so many reasons. “I think I’ll be the handsome husband.”

Dean shot another sideways glance at Sam then looked down and chuckled softly. “Sure. O.K. If you want to be.”

Sam raised his eyebrows. He was surprised Dean had let him have that exchange so easily.

“Listen, Dean,” he began, more seriously. “I promised Annie we wouldn’t put Talia at risk. If, at any point, Donny appears to pose a threat to her – ”

“Hey,” Dean cut him off. “If it came to that, I’d gank him myself, but it won’t.”

“How can you be so sure?”

Dean shrugged. “I just am.”

Sam studied him. Was it just wishful thinking on Dean’s part? Was it instinct? Or could it be that Dean was a little sensitive himself?

“Hey, go and stand over there for me,” Dean told him, brandishing the rope in the direction of the fence.

Sam was a little dubious, but he complied. It turned out his misgivings weren’t entirely misplaced as Dean misjudged the first throw and aimed too low. Sam had to duck to avoid being hit in the head and the rope whizzed past his ear.

Dean grimaced. “Sorry. Losing the light here. Try scrunching down a bit.”

Sam scowled. “Try throwing higher,” he retorted.

The second throw sailed true. The loop dropped over Sam’s head and shoulders and tightened around his arms. Dean started wrapping his end of the rope around his hands and wrists and Sam allowed himself to be drawn slowly toward him like a fish on a line. When they were bare inches apart Dean lifted his jaw and Sam tilted his head down to meet him. “Mmm,” he murmured, as he felt the silky warmth of Dean’s lips against his, then Dean loosened the rope and lifted it from Sam’s shoulders.

As he began winding up the rope he opened his mouth to say something. He had a couple of false starts before he spoke and when the question finally came out it was unexpected.

“Sam . . . Are there such things as angels?”

Sam wondered uneasily what on earth had prompted this line of thought. “Donny isn’t an angel,” he pointed out.

“I know. I know,” Dean assured him quietly, keeping his gaze fixed on his hands as he wound the rope into a secure coil. “But are there?”

Sam hesitated. “Well there’s a ton of lore about them, but I’ve never seen anything that looked like an angel. I think if they existed I’d at least know of someone who’d crossed paths with one.”

Dean nodded without looking up. “I guess,” he acknowledged.

Sam studied him, puzzled. “Dean, where is all this coming from? You were talking about Angels before . . . something about if what you do matters . . .”

Dean laughed. “No, Sam, I was talking about a TV show.”

“Yeah, I know. I got that, Dean, but . . .” Sam shrugged. “It sounded like you were trying to say something important. I just . . . I didn’t understand what you were saying.”

Dean gazed at Sam, eyes wide with surprise. “Oh!” he said. “Well, O.K.” He spent a few moments gathering his thoughts then he began to explain. “O.K, well there’s this vampire living in L.A,” he began. “Well, not living, exactly, but you know what I mean. But he’s a good vampire, fighting the good fight against the forces of evil, and his name’s Angel.”

“A good vampire?!” Sam scoffed.

“It’s a TV show, Sam,” Dean reminded him. “Work with me here.”

Sam shrugged and subdued his irritation.

“So, Angel finds out about this spell that’ll take him down to Hell so he can confront the senior . . . for the sake of argument we’ll call them demons . . .”

Sam reserved his opinion of the plausibility and wisdom of that course of action.

“So he’s in the seedy back streets of L.A. and he does the spell and this elevator appears.”

“In the street?”

“Wherever. Anyway, there’s this guy in it. We’ll call him a demon’s lackey. And they start going down in the elevator.”

“Down to Hell?”

“Supposedly.”

Sam supressed a sigh. “O.K.”

“And while they’re going down and down and down in the elevator they get into a discussion about the meaning of life.”

Sam hoped they were getting to the important bit.

“Anyway, Angel tells the hell-lackey that evil will never win the fight. But the guy just laughs and says they’re not trying to win; they’re not even fighting. They’re working with the world, and it’s working for them, exactly the way it is. Then they reach the bottom of the elevator shaft and the doors open . . . and it’s the same seedy street in L.A.”

Sam took a beat to absorb the point. “So . . . he was saying . . . this is Hell?”

“Nor are we out of it,” Dean affirmed.

“Well, that’s depressing.”

“Tell me about it,” Dean agreed. “Angel was so depressed at first he literally tried to screw his soul away. See at first he thought that everything he’d been fighting for was meaningless. He couldn’t win. There was no grand plan, no light at the end of the tunnel, nothing. But then he had an epiphany.”

“An epiphany?”

“Yeah. He said he realized that if nothing we do matters, if there’s no big reward at the end of it all, then what we do is all there is. He said all he wanted to do was help people - help ease their suffering - because ‘if there’s no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world’.”

Sam was silent for several seconds. The stillness between them was so quiet he realized they were both holding their breath. “Wow,” he said as he exhaled. “That’s actually quite profound.”

Dean laughed and Sam could hear relief in it. “Well, there you go, Sam. Turns out not every pearl of wisdom in this world is written in musty old books. You can find it in songs, in stories, in movies, even in stupid TV shows.” He beamed brightly at Sam then turned and started heading back toward the car. Sam followed him, meditating on what he’d just learned.

“How did it end?” he asked as Dean opened the trunk.

“What?”

“Angel. What happened to him?”

Dean was quiet. He finished packing the rope into the cache before he replied and when he turned there was something kind of forced in his smile. “Don’t know,” he said. “Exactly. The show had one of those ambiguous cliffhanger endings.” He gave Sam a tight little grin and a wink as he closed the trunk. “He never stopped fighting, though.”

Chapter Text

Scene 12


Sam had warned him it might not be straightforward. He reminded him (repeatedly) that Donny wasn’t a child; he was a spirit whose perceptions, whose concepts of time and space, may be different from ours and whose motivations might not be transparent. Furthermore, Dean shouldn’t think of Donny as actually speaking to Talia, even if that was how she perceived it. He’d reiterated that a spirit was a phenomenon, electromagnetic in nature, whose energies/vibrations/aura or whatever could be interpreted through the sense perceptions of the right kind of sensitive. The situation was further complicated when the sensitive was a child with a limited understanding of what she was doing. Whatever Donny had to communicate would be filtered through that limited understanding and likely embellished by Talia’s own imagination. When Dean had assured him that he got all that, Sam went on to point out that questioning children was difficult at the best of times and required more patience since, after all, one couldn’t simply harangue information out of them if their responses were frustrating. Dean had explained that, thanks genius for that memo, but in fact he wasn’t planning to go good cop/bad cop on some freaking little kid!

It struck him that Sam seemed uncharacteristically nervous about this interview. Granted Sam maybe had even less personal experience with kids than Dean had, but he wasn’t usually quite so tense in their company so it had to be the prospect of communicating with a spirit that had him on edge. He sat stiffly at Dean’s side, gripping his sketch pad a little too tightly, and if Talia glanced his way he seemed reluctant to make eye contact. Sam’s facial expressions were often difficult to read but this morning he was particularly walled up, and it dawned on Dean that Sam was afraid of Donny getting inside his head. He got it. It had been spooky enough for Dean when Donny had started interpreting his tarot cards, and Sam was such an intensely private person. Witness how cagey he was about that sketch pad. What was he afraid of Dean finding in it? Nude sketches of Angelina Jolie? Brad Pitt?

If only. Knowing Sam it was something a lot less innocent and fun: like a window onto the wounded soul Sam was determined would never see the light of day. Thing about wounds, though: they need light and fresh air to heal properly.

Sam flicked quickly through the pages as he searched for a clean sheet, but Dean still caught a couple of images out of the corner of his eye that were familiar from the last peek he got at the collection: the infamous portrait – When had Sam drawn that? Had he really been into Dean way back then? – pictures from the Colby case, the boys, the letters, the golem – half woman, half monster . . . hang on . . . Something about the order of events troubled Dean; hadn’t he watched Sam drawing those sketches before they saw the golem? That had to be wrong. Memory was an unreliable witness, after all.

Annie placed cups of tea in front of Sam and Dean then retired to the other side of the room. Understandably, she wanted to be present while all this was going on, but she was being discreet about it, sitting well behind Talia and pretending to read a book so the little girl wouldn’t feel so self conscious.

“See, Sam and me, we’re like amateur sleuths . . . ah . . . like the Scooby gang,” Dean explained to Talia. Did kids still watch Scooby Doo? “Or Harry Potter and his buddies . . . only without the cool magic powers.”

Sam shot Dean a profoundly disapproving look and Dean tried to return an O.K. yeah, I know magic powers aren’t cool in real life look – not an easy concept to communicate with a shrug and a grimace.

Talia glanced questioningly at her mother and Annie nodded. “It’s all right, Tal,” she said. “Sam and Dean are trying to help.”

The little girl looked puzzled but she turned back to Dean and confided “Donny knows why you’re here.”

If possible, Sam’s posture stiffened even more and he started doodling pentagrams and triquetras in the corner of his pad. That couldn’t be a good sign.

“Well, like your mom said, we want to help,” Dean assured Talia . . . Donny . . . both of them. “Maybe, if Donny’ll work with us, we can help catch his – the guy who hurt him,” he continued. “Does Donny know – ?”

“He’s already caught,” Talia interrupted.

Dean felt a little like he’d accidentally moved into park instead of drive. He glanced at Sam who looked equally blank. “Caught where?” he asked.

“Donny says he’s in a cage of his own making.”

Dean still couldn’t get out of park. What was that? Spirit speak? Psychological metaphor? Donny had already shown a tendency to wax a little more metaphysical than the average nine year old.

“I meant the town, Tal,” Dean explained. “Does Donny know what town the guy is in?”

“No.”

“How about his name? Did Donny know the guy?”

The little girl shook her head. Well, it was never going to be that easy, was it?

“O.K. well, that’s O.K, ’cause Sam here’s an artist – ” Dean ignored the reproving look Sam shot him. “So maybe Donny could describe the guy to you, and Sam could draw a picture of him – ”

“Donny doesn’t want to think about him,” Talia said bluntly.

Dean paused. O.K. maybe he’d pitched into this a bit clumsily. Spirit or not, Donny still felt the trauma of what had happened to him. Maybe it still felt like yesterday to him. Who could tell? “Yeah, I get it, Tal,” Dean acknowledged. “I understand it’s hard for Donny. But this guy . . . he’s still hurting children. Does Donny understand that? We want to stop him before any more get hurt.”

At the back of the room Annie shifted uncomfortably in her chair. She toyed nervously with the pages of her book, but she didn’t interfere. Talia glanced awkwardly back at her then leaned toward Dean and dropped her voice. “He wants to remind you what he told you yesterday,” she said. “Everybody dies.”

Dean pulled his head back and stared at her. That made no sense. Surely Donny wasn’t suggesting that because everybody dies that these kids’ lives didn’t matter to him? “Yeah, but they don’t have to,” Dean insisted. “Not yet. I mean, Donny never even got a chance to live. Doesn’t that make him angry?”

Sam looked sharply at Dean and cleared his throat, loudly.

“Not that I’m suggesting . . . not encouraging him to . . . er . . .”

As Dean’s hasty correction degenerated into an embarrassed mumble, Sam leaned forward and interjected. “Talia, why is Donny here?” he asked gently.

“He says he’s waiting,” she replied.

“For what?”

Now it was Talia who looked embarrassed. “To wake up,” she said.

Sam studied her for several seconds as the familiar thoughtful grooves gathered on his brow. “Does Donny think this is a dream?” he asked her.

The little girl shrugged awkwardly, whether she didn’t know . . . or, more likely, because she felt unable to be candid in Donny’s presence.

Sam sat back and he and Dean shared a couple of perplexed moments. This would be the frustration he had warned Dean about. After some deliberation he asked Talia “is there something Donny wants from us? Is there anything we can do to help him . . . wake up?”

There was a brief silence in which the little girl seemed to be thinking, or listening. “He wants to show you the children,” she said presently. “He says their families need to know what happened to them. You could help them.”

“Well, haven’t the police . . ?” Dean began, darting a questioning look at Sam, but Sam shook his head.

“Not all of them. They haven’t been able to identify all the . . . children,” he reminded him. He turned back to Talia. “So Donny saw the others? He saw what happened to them?”

“Wow,” Dean breathed. So Donny wasn’t just a victim, he was a witness to all the other murders, too. Dean shivered and half expected to see his breath frost in the air, but the chill he felt was his own; it wasn’t coming from the spirit’s presence.

“And he can describe their faces?” Sam persisted, and when Talia nodded confirmation he picked up his pencil, lifted the sketch pad and turned over to a clean, doodle-free page. “O.K. Um, I'm going to need as much physical detail as . . . as Donny can remember.”

Turned out Donny remembered a lot. It was a slow process at first, with Talia describing the prominent features of the kids’ faces, Sam showing her what he’d drawn, Tal correcting him, Sam making alterations. After a while, though, they seemed to fall into some kind of rhythm and it went more quickly, with less checking and fewer alterations. A small pile of portraits gathered around Sam and his sketch pad, and Dean picked up and studied some of them. The boy definitely had talent. Dean didn’t think ‘artist’ was too strong a word for it. It struck Dean that in a couple of the later drawings Sam was doing more than recording the shapes of features as Talia was describing them. It was in the eyes: just a trace of something, like fear and pain, as if Sam was imagining the children as Donny had seen them in the last moments of their life. Dean let the pages drop from his chilled fingers and he moved around to stand behind Sam’s shoulder. As he watched, Sam’s pencil stilled on the paper and the artist directed an irritable glare at his observer.

“Dean!” he snapped.

“Sorry,” Dean apologized, holding up his hands and backing away. He noticed Sam’s face looked pale and strained. “Maybe you need to take a break, Buddy,” he suggested.

Sam shook his head curtly. “Just want to get this finished,” he muttered.

Dean gazed at Talia. “Are you doing O.K?” he checked, and she nodded. Yeah, she seemed fine. All the same, Dean offered to get them all more tea, but Annie insisted on making it. Dean figured she was relieved to have something to do. He didn’t think she’d actually read much of her book. Dean helped her gather up the cups and joined her in the kitchen.

“Tal’s doing real well,” he assured her.

Annie shook her head. “I just wish she’d never been involved in this business.” She looked up at Dean. “Not that I don’t want to help these children . . . their families,” she explained quickly, “but Tal’s just a child herself . . . I wish she didn’t have to know about . . . this sort of thing.”

Dean nodded. Must be hard for parents trying to keep their children protected, trying to find the balance between keeping them innocent and keeping them ignorant. “Kids are strong. You’d be surprised what they can deal with,” Dean said. Like he knew. Seemed to him he’d been one of the sheltered ones. Too protected. Coddled too much, maybe, by a mother who was afraid of losing the only child she’d ever have. But there was Sam, over there, weaned on horror from his crib – and, sure, he had his issues but he was O.K, on the whole – testament to what kids could survive.

Talia showed signs of getting tired and restless by the end of it but Dean thought she’d done damn good for a girl of her age. She had more patience than he did, maybe. He was going stir crazy just standing around with nothing to do, and he sure hoped there’d be something they could get into soon that involved more activity than poring over sheets of paper and a hot laptop. Sam’s first response when Talia ran off to play and Annie asked him what came next wasn’t too promising, though.

“Well, research, basically,” he said. “Matching the faces to the known victims, checking old missing persons reports for the others. That sort of thing. The police will have been working on it, too, but they have other cases, finite resources and man hours. Another couple of pairs of hands might be able to move things along a little faster.”

“And the killer?” she asked. “You said if you found him that Donny would move on, but he didn’t tell you anything about him.”

“That was disappointing,” Sam acknowledged. “But it isn’t our only avenue. We can go over old statements, ask around where the children went missing or where the bodies were found, see if we can shake loose something that might connect all the crimes. It’ll just mean more legwork.”

Legwork. O.K.

“But I don’t understand,” Annie said. “Why would you two want to do all this?”

They both hesitated. “Call it a hobby,” Dean suggested.

“More of a vocation,” Sam corrected. “Dean and I have both lost people, family members . . . to violence . . . so . . .”

“So we help out where we can,” Dean concluded. “Just like you did when you helped find the kids’ bodies,” he pointed out.

Annie nodded acknowledgement. “I just hope it’s all worth it and you find this monster,” she said.

As she walked away Sam took out his cell phone and used it to take photos of the portraits, then he handed the originals to Dean. “If I give you a list of locations, maybe you could start showing these around while I get on with the research,” he said.

“You should get out more,” Dean observed. “Take your pad out in the fresh air and draw something non-case-related for a change,” he added when Sam gave him a quizzical look.

Sam smiled ruefully. “Yeah, I’ll be sure to do that on our next day off,” he said. “When is that, by the way?”

Dean grunted and let the subject go for now. He’d planted a seed. “What I don’t get,” he said, leafing through the sheets as he followed Sam back to their room, “Donny saw what happened to these kids, and he knows everybody dies, so how come he doesn’t know that he’s dead? How does that work?”

Sam shrugged. “Some spirits only see what they want. Maybe conceiving it all as a dream is easier for him than facing reality.”

Dean scoffed. “Reality? Are you even sure you know what that is?”

Sam paused and studied Dean worriedly. “What do you mean?”

“Sam, I’ve just spent the morning watching a little girl communicating with an empty space. I used to think when kids did that they were just using their imagination – ”

“Well, so is Talia.”

Dean halted and stared at Sam while he collected his thoughts. “No no no no no,” he continued hurriedly. “Tal’s not imagining Donny. He’s real. He isn’t in her head.”

“Well, where do you think he is, Dean? He isn’t manifest or we’d see him.”

“B – but she can see him, hear him,” Dean insisted.

“Think of a sensitive like a radio receiver picking up a wave, a vibration,” Sam explained patiently. “Talia’s just re-imagining that message in a form that’s meaningful for her. Just because it’s happening in her head, that doesn’t mean it isn’t real.”

“Oh,” said Dean. “Right. Yeah, O.K. I get it.” And maybe he really did this time. “Just gonna hit the head before I go out,” he said.

Sam kept watching him as he dropped the portraits on the dresser and turned toward the bathroom. “Dean, are you O.K?” he called after him.

Dean paused in the doorway. “Yeah, of course!” he insisted, maybe just a little too heartily. “Just, you know, processing the new information,” he said, grinning broadly, then closed the door and turned toward the sink.

And maybe re-evaluating some stuff he’d believed for years. Turning on the tap, he splashed some cold water on his face. But, hey, that was O.K. He picked up the hand towel and buried his head in it. Not like it was the first time, right?

 


Dean was beginning to think he shouldn’t have let Dad see it. He started to frown as he read down the page, and the more he read, the more his eyebrows bunched. When he reached the bottom he took a deep breath then let it out again real quickly, and wiped his hand round the back of his neck. Dean started to get that tight, knotty feeling in his stomach, like he usually did when he handed over a report card.

“Yeah . . . it’s good, Dean,” Dad said, but Dean could tell he didn’t mean it. “It’s well written . . . you’re . . . you’re good with rhymes.”

“Uh, thanks, Dad,” Dean mumbled, reaching to take back the book, but Dad was still inspecting it.

He took another breath then asked “have you thought of writing stories instead of poetry? Maybe about cowboys and Indians or something?”

Dean shrugged. He didn’t know how to explain that it didn’t really work that way. He didn’t decide what to write, exactly. Ideas just came to him. He wrote about things that were important to him.

“It’s just that boys don’t normally write poems about other boys,” Dad explained. “Not that there’s anything wrong with it,” he added quickly when Dean started to frown, “But it’s . . . how can I explain . . ? It’s just not usually the done thing . . . that line about how blue his eyes are – ”

“Yeah, but, Dad . . . you should see them. They’re really, really blue – ”

“And calling him your angel . . .”

Dean opened his mouth then shut it again. He didn’t know if he should explain about the super powers or not. But then – oh, no! – Dad was pulling up a chair and sitting down. Dean had done something they had to “talk” about? Hell, it was just a poem!

“Son, don’t you think you’re getting a little too old for Sammy now? You’ll be going up to middle school soon. There’ll be older boys there. They may not understand.”

Dean didn’t think Dad understood.

“I’m just worried if you keep this sort of thing up . . . you’re going to get teased.”

Dean didn’t say anything. He didn’t want Dad to know it was already happening.

“You’re getting to an age . . . I just think it’s time you should give Sammy up, now.”

Dean swallowed. “I can’t give him up, Dad! Sammy’s my brother and . . . and . . . he needs me! He needs me to take care of him . . .” He trailed off, frustrated, not really knowing how to explain what he meant, or how he felt; he just knew it was true.

Dad was staring at him, looking real worried now. He scrubbed at his neck again. “Dean . . . you do know Sammy isn’t real? He’s imaginary. You know that? Right?”

Dean hesitated. He wasn’t sure what was the best thing to say. Sammy wasn’t a solid thing, like a table or a book. When Dean picked him up or held him, it was kind of imaginary. He knew that. “Yeah, sure, Dad,” he said. He knew that Sammy was in his head, kind of. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t real.

Dad was still staring hard at him. “Are you sure, Son?” he asked.

“Yeah, of course.” Dean tried hard to sound sure. It seemed important.

After a silence that felt awfully long to Dean, Dad finally nodded and stood up. “It’s time you got ready for bed. You’ve got school tomorrow,” he said. “Good night, Son.”

For a while after Dad left the room Dean just sat at his desk, staring at his poetry book. After a while he opened it and read over the poem one more time.

“I like it, Dean,” Sammy told him firmly.

“I know you do, little brother,” Dean replied, reaching out and scruffing the curls on the top of the little boy’s head, and he smiled. That was what mattered, really, wasn’t it?

As he started packing his books away he thought he heard raised voiced downstairs and the tight feeling in his stomach came back. As quietly as he could he opened the door and edged his way down the stairs, flattening himself against the wall near the living room.

“He’s writing love poetry to him, now!”

“Oh, for God’s sake, John! Don’t overreact. He’s ten years old! Ten year old boys love their mom and dad; they love their dog, the Ninja Turtles and ice cream.”

“Ten year old boys should be out playing football with kids their own age. Not mooning over some imaginary playmate.”

“Well, if we’d adopted he’d have real brothers and sisters to play with, wouldn’t he?”

“Don’t start, Amanda.”

“You started this.”

“I’m just concerned! I’m worried he’s losing his grip on reality.”

“Oh, my God.”

“Amanda, I think he thinks Sammy’s real!”

“John, it is perfectly normal for children to have imaginary friends. I had them myself at his age. I had a whole imaginary world peopled with characters from the TV, and I talked to them all the time, like they were really there, but I knew they weren’t. Children imagine. They play. It’s what they’re supposed to do!”

“And if I was sure that’s what this is, that would be fine. But I’m not . . . . . . Amanda, I think perhaps we should have him talk to a doctor – ”

“Oh, my God!”

“Amanda – ”

“I’m not having this conversation, John!”

“Amanda – ”

“I am not having this conversation!”

A door slammed and Dean pressed himself into the wall, wishing he could make himself invisible. He didn’t know what to do for the best: keep still or make a dash for the bedroom. He wished his heart wasn’t beating so hard; it sounded so loud. Then another door slammed, and a minute or so later he heard the deep rumble of the car engine starting and the crunch of gravel as it pulled out of the driveway. As he let out the breath he’d been holding he felt a small hand slip into his.

“Am I getting you into trouble again, Dean?” Sammy whispered.

Dean turned and stared at him for a moment, then he grinned and scooped him into his arms. For a moment he could have sworn he almost felt the boy’s weight, the warmth of the chubby little legs in his hands, breath against his neck, the hard edges of that weird necklace Sammy always wore pressing against his chest. “No, no, of course not,” he told him as he started carrying him back to their room. “You’re good. You’re just fine,” he reassured him. But Dean wasn’t stupid. He knew what this meant: Sammy was something he didn’t talk about any more.

Chapter Text

Scene 13


In the end there was more than enough legwork for Dean’s taste - not that Sam didn’t achieve a lot just sitting behind a laptop. There were three bodies the police hadn’t identified and in one case it was simply because some paper work had gone astray. That was resolved with a quick phone call from a fake clerk. In the other two cases there were no DNA or dental records available and Sam surmised the victims were from poor or itinerant families who couldn’t afford proper health care. One of those it turned out that although the body was buried in Wisconsin, the murder had taken place across the border in Iowa. Sam discovered that by cross referencing with missing persons reports from Iowa PDs. The last one was a toughie because no report was ever filed. It took days canvassing locals where the body had been found, showing around the portrait of the dead girl, before one person finally thought they remembered her, thought maybe they’d seen her with a traveling show that had been in the area around the time of the murder. It took even longer following hearsay from town to town to finally track down where the show was now, but they did it, eventually.

Of the victims that had already been identified, there was one whose next of kin was yet to be located. There was no driver’s license or SSN on file so, again, there was nothing for it but to start at the last known address and follow the trail to their present residence in Illinois.

Annie passed their findings onto the cops when they couldn’t find a more discreet way to feed the info to them. Luckily it seemed the county sheriff had come to accept Annie and her spooky daughter who “knew” things, and didn’t enquire too closely how she’d come by the information. And Dean felt they’d achieved something when all the bodies were finally accounted for and the remaining families had been informed what had become of their loved ones. At least those poor people had some small measure of closure at last. That was good. It was. Dean just wished they’d been able to find the evil son of a bitch who was responsible for their suffering.

They’d been looking for clues all the while. Sam had cross-referenced census and electoral records to find anyone who’d lived in all the areas where the murders had taken place. A surprising number of people had lived at two or more of the locations but not at the right times, or were ruled out on other grounds. They showed the pictures around the victims’ neighborhoods, hoping to jog memories. People remembered the children, of course, and some of them had theories – different theories, mostly implausible or ultimately unworkable. Sam and Dean accumulated a list of descriptions of suspicious persons who’d been seen near the children prior to their deaths, all varied. Some of them, taking into account the different times of the murders, might even have described the same person but, depending on whose recollection you followed, he might have been blond or brunette, tall or average, stocky or skinny, and he might have driven a blue pick up, a green van or a black jeep.

After almost two weeks of mostly fruitless searching Dean thought he had a better appreciation of five-oh, and maybe he and Sam had the easier job. When the supernatural hit town it tended to stand out, and maybe witnesses were reluctant to talk some times, but fangs and claws they usually remembered. And not like a cop couldn’t take a bullet in the line of duty any time.

They made some efforts to prompt Donny for more information but there was a limit to how far and how often Annie would allow Talia to be pressed, and all the while they’d been chasing down the victims and their families Donny had remained taciturn. So it was unexpected when, on the morning after the last visit to the CSO, he gave them something new. Dean was in the yard unwinding with some rope practice when Sam came out from the house and handed him a sheet of paper with an odd list of objects on it.

“What’s this?” Dean asked.

Sam sucked in a breath before he replied. “They’re tokens,” he explained tightly. “Serial killers usually keep mementos from their victims to help them . . . relive the experience.”

Dean glanced up at Sam without raising his head then returned his gaze to the page as he forced down the bile that threatened to rise. “Sick fuck,” he breathed as he absorbed a few of the items: a charm bracelet, a lace handkerchief, a scout’s merit badge . . .

“This one was Donny’s,” Sam said, reaching out and indicating a Saint Christopher. “He wants us to find these and return them to the families.”

Dean grunted. “And how are we supposed to do that if he won’t help us – ”

“Turn it over.”

Dean turned over the paper and shot Sam another quick glance. On the reverse side there was a picture of a white church, and parked in front of it was a dark Ford pickup. “They’re in the truck? I don’t suppose Donny got the license number?” he asked without optimism, and Sam’s shrug confirmed his expectations. “Well, that’s real helpful; there're probably thousands of these in this county alone.”

Sam tapped the picture. “See this church?” he said. “I bet there's less than a thousand of those around here.”

“Is he saying it’s there now?” Sam didn’t seem sure but Dean turned toward the car anyway. “What are the chances it’ll still be there when we find the place?” he grumbled.

“If it’s even been there recently, maybe someone will have seen it, remember something.”

“Yeah, ’cause people’s memories have been so reliable so far,” Dean retorted skeptically.

Dean’s doubts weren’t entirely misplaced. They found the church without much difficulty, but the truck wasn’t parked outside it or anywhere in sight, and there was no one obvious around to ask about it. The church itself had seen better days and now appeared to be closed; the area around was seedy and derelict, and it backed onto an area of waste ground that locals had been using as a dumping ground but was now fenced off.

“Maybe we should drive around the area,” Sam suggested. “We shouldn’t take the picture too literally. The fact that Donny associates the truck with the church doesn’t necessarily mean that it was ever parked right outside it.”

“Or it may have been once, but any time in the last thirty years, and now it could be anywhere on God’s green earth,” Dean speculated, and Sam shrugged acknowledgement. Dean sighed. “I’m going to see if the church has a back entrance. You stay here. I don’t want to come back and find someone’s stolen the car or keyed it or something.”

As Dean disappeared round the side of the church, Sam’s gaze was drawn back to the piles of rubble, discarded furniture and appliances opposite. The area showed evidence of subsidence of some kind; a run down property bordering the waste ground was listing at one corner and appeared to be slowly sinking into the mud. Something about it bothered Sam and he didn’t know why. Presently he got out of the car and walked over to read the notices that were posted around the perimeter. The explanation for the sinking building and the orange warning pylons that were set around the place soon became apparent.

“Hey! Are you watching that car?!” Dean’s voice yelled from behind him and he turned and walked back to join him.

“It’s a sinkhole,” Sam explained as they met at the Impala. “Looks like people have been dumping trash here for a while, but it’s started expanding recently and now it’s going to be filled.”

“Uh huh?” Dean responded, prompting for more information.

Sam hesitated before he added flatly “it struck me it would be a convenient place to dispose of a body.”

Dean’s eyes widened and he stared across at the unsightly lot. “But they found all the bodies, didn’t they?”

“That we know of,” Sam replied meaningfully, and a chilled silence hung between them before Dean voiced what they were both thinking.

“Sam, if there’s a body in the sinkhole, we’ll never find it.”

“What do you want to do?” he asked eventually. “I found the pastor. He says there’s a bunch of abandoned cars on some scrub at the back of that lot. He thinks there might be a truck among them. Do you want to check it out?”

Sam absorbed the information then nodded. “Yeah, we’ll start there.”

It was there. Or, at least, a black Ford pickup that matched the description was among a group of vehicles that they found in various states of disrepair, wreckage and cannibalization. No plates. Dean hissed with frustration when he saw it. “This has been here months, Sam,” he observed. “If it was his then he’s obviously driving something different now.”

“We should search it, anyway,” Sam insisted. “We might find a clue to where he’s staying.”

Dean checked out the cab while Sam started examining the contents in the back. “Son of a bitch! What is that smell?!” he exclaimed as he opened the passenger side door. “Oh, awesome,” he grunted a moment later as he emerged surrounded by flies and dumped something long and thick covered in an unopened Subway wrapper on the grass. He was holding a can of Coke as well. “You’d think he’d have taken his dinner with him,” he commented. “D’you reckon this’d still be any good?” he added, examining the unopened can.

Dean.”

Dean shrugged and dropped the can next to the Sub, then braved the interior of the cab once more.

If there’d ever been anything useful in the back it had long since been scavenged. There was nothing left now but junk like an old broken toaster, a smashed TV, an old worm-riddled ottoman. Sam cautiously lifted the lid on the latter and was relieved to find nothing inside besides some waxy sacking. He checked everything carefully, not sure what he was looking for: blood, hair maybe. There was nothing. But when he dropped the tailgate he thought he’d hit pay-dirt. Turned out the bed had a false bottom.

“Dean, come help me with this.”

Dean joined him in lifting the rest of the junk out of the back. “Nothing identifying in the glove compartment or pockets,” Dean informed him as they started unscrewing the plates. Together they lifted the metal sheet that covered the base. Most of what they found under it seemed relatively innocuous: a bed roll and pillows, a tarp, rope, some tools, a couple of rifles and a pile of porn mags that Sam really didn’t want to examine any closer.

“Looks like he was living in it,” Dean remarked.

Sam nodded. “So he wouldn’t have shown up on electoral records,” he noted.

But they exchanged a significant glance when they spotted a curiously decorated box in the corner. It was locked, but it didn’t stand up to Dean levering it open with a crow bar. He drew in a sharp breath when he saw the contents. Sam took the drawing of the church and truck out of his pocket and checked the list on the back. Everything was there . . . except the Saint Christopher.

“Sicko’s probably wearing it.” Dean’s voice was a low snarl.

“Check the cab again,” Sam said, though he didn’t doubt Dean was right. “Under the upholstery as well.”

For his part, Sam studied the ground around the pickup in the vain hope that it had somehow been dropped nearby. His examination was minute or he wouldn’t have noticed a faint line that extended a few feet from the back of the truck toward the vacant lot and the sinkhole. Sam bent down and studied it closely. Something narrow and heavy had once been pushed or dragged along while the ground had been soft, then the scar had been baked into the earth soon after. He stood up and followed the line of it across to the waste ground, then caught his breath sharply. At a distance on the other side of the fencing wire he could distinctly see the pale form of a young boy staring back at him.

“Dean,” he called quietly, trying to hold his voice level, but from the speed Dean appeared at his side it was evident he’d heard tell-tale urgency in the tone.

“What?” he demanded, following Sam’s gaze toward the boy but, when his attention returned to Sam’s face and his only response was a questioning look, it was cold confirmation of what Sam already feared. Dean couldn’t see it.

“You stay here,” he told Dean, his breath coming short and a little too fast. “I’m going to check around the sinkhole.”

“Hey, you be careful!” Dean replied, and then as Sam sprinted toward the fence he heard Dean yell again from behind him “Sammy, y’ hear me?!

He was over the fence with a leap and a swing and once he’d dropped to the other side he paused for a moment. The boy had disappeared but he remembered the spot. Even so, he didn’t head straight toward it. He spent a minute examining the land around for any more sign, and carefully noting the point where the earth began to yellow and soften. Right at the periphery there was an old sneaker half submerged in the mud.

There was a wiry rattle and a thud behind him then Dean was at his side again. “See, this is why I wear boots,” Dean commented when he saw the sneaker.

“I told you to stay with the truck,” Sam pointed out.

“Who’s gonna laugh at my jokes if you fall down the hole?”

“I don’t laugh at your jokes.”

“Your right,” Dean conceded. “I should have stayed with the truck.”

Sam rolled his eyes and at that moment he saw something bright in the grass catching the sunlight. Cautiously he moved toward the yellow glint and as he bent down he made out the shape of the gold disc caught between the leaves. Gently disentangling it from the surrounding weeds, he lifted it up to show Dean. The chain was broken.

Dean stared at it briefly then looked back toward the truck. Sam could see his mind working, putting it all together: the make-shift mobile home, the bed roll, the uneaten meal and – most telling – the apparently discarded tokens. That would never happen. No: the truck hadn’t been abandoned; just parked. Dean glanced at the half submerged sneaker then turned his gaze on Sam.

“Are you thinking . . . ?”

Sam felt the prickle of goose-flesh crawling over his skin. He didn’t need to think. He just knew.

Everybody dies,” he said.





Three months earlier.


It was almost time.

He followed her into the Subway restaurant and watched at a discreet distance as she and her mother moved along the counter choosing fillings. As she passed him on her way out he breathed in the smell of warm chicken from the parcel she clutched in her hands before he turned to the sales assistant and ordered his own meal. He’d been watching the girl’s movements ever since that day he’d seen her outside her school, laughing and waving to her friends as she climbed into a waiting car, and he’d felt that tiny click inside that always told him: this was the one. He knew all the places she went now, and who she’d be with, and he knew when he’d find her alone. He’d chosen where they would go – a place quiet and isolated and far from her home – and where he would take her afterwards, another location altogether.

He’d gathered everything he needed. He was so nearly ready his skin itched with it. But it wasn’t time. Not yet. But soon.

It was dusk when he parked opposite the sinkhole. It wasn’t his first visit. He’d been picking up cash helping with house clearances and the like, and he’d often been here before to dump trash, coming at different times to be sure when the area would be at its most deserted. And even if he was seen lugging a box and pushing it down the hole, who would think anything of it? Just another random visitor with a cast out piece of furniture.

There was nobody around this evening as he began emptying the pickup. He started with the old bedstead. He staggered a little as he lifted it out of the back and it dropped heavily to the ground, and the corner gouged a trench in the dirt for some feet before he got a firm grip and lifted it properly. It was wrought iron and it kept surprising him with its weight, but it was good to practice with something heavy.

Half way to the sinkhole he stopped to rest and adjust his grip. As he bent to lift the frame once more he felt the cuff button of his jacket snag something, and as he moved to disentangle it he felt a tiny snap and saw the Saint Christopher drop to the ground. It didn’t matter. He would collect it on the way back.

But whether because it was getting dark and he’d misjudged the distance, or because he was distracted, or because the softening maw of the earth had begun to open a little wider, he reached the periphery before he expected to and he didn’t realize it until his shoe stuck in the mud. With his next step he sank deeper and the momentum from the heavy weight he was lifting carried him forward even as his feet stuck fast. Then his foot was pulled free of his back shoe and he toppled forward even as the bedstead dropped into the mud and his head was propelled through the rungs. There was a moment of wild, frantic struggle against the inevitable fall, but as he pitched and rolled he dragged his cage after him, and its weight pressed him deeper and deeper into the cloying, greedy earth. And there he remained, caught between the bars, trapped beneath the frame of iron through which no unclean spirit can pass.

There were no witnesses. No one missed him. No search was ever conducted. Nobody ever knew what happened to him.

Chapter Text

Scene 14

Talia insisted on returning all the children’s belongings herself. Annie wasn’t happy about it, at first, but Talia was adamant. And, truth is, it made it easier. People were more accepting of the strange story when it was explained to them by a little girl. And there was something else that happened when she gave them back the lost keepsakes: there were tears and a lot of hugging and it seemed that, for a while, she stood in for the child they couldn’t hold and gave the families a chance to say goodbye in a way they never had before. People showed her photographs, talked about their loved ones and smiled and laughed sometimes when they recalled happy memories they’d shared with them. It was clear that, for some, it was the first time they had been able to see past their loss to remember what they’d had.

It was a little different with Donny’s mother. When Talia gave her the Saint Christopher she talked about his presence. He wanted to communicate, and his mother found it difficult to accept at first, but Talia told her things, talked about things only Donny would know. And slowly his mother began to unburden herself of all those things people never get to say when they lose someone. For his part, Donny wanted her to let go of her grief and her fears, and trust that he would be safe and well and that a part of him would always remain in her heart. It sounded like he was saying goodbye, and Sam wondered if this was the closure he’d been looking for, his unfinished business.

Throughout all the visits and all the conversations Annie had been watching over Talia, anxiously at first, but in time her concerns seemed to ease, and now Sam noticed she seemed more thoughtful and contemplative. As Talia continued to talk with Donny’s mother, Annie quietly moved away. After a quick exchange of gestures and nods Sam left Dean to watch over Talia and followed Annie outside.

“Are you O.K?” he asked her.

“Oh yes, yes, I’m fine . . .” she assured him, but she seemed to want to add something so Sam waited, giving her space to finish the thought. “And . . . Talia’s fine, isn’t she?” she said at length. “I mean . . . she’s handling all this.”

Sam nodded. “She’s a remarkable girl.”

“Yes, she is,” Annie agreed reflectively. “I’ve been trying to protect her or, at least, I thought that was what I was doing, but maybe I was protecting myself. Maybe I’m the one who isn’t handling things.” She swallowed, and her eyes acquired a certain dewiness, but no actual tears came. “It’s been really hard,” she said, “losing Dan, and watching what he went through before he died . . . learning to live without him. I haven’t wanted to talk about it . . . about him. But seeing Talia with these people . . . I think maybe she wants to. Maybe she needs to.” She paused. “And maybe I do, too,” she acknowledged.

Dean and Talia came out presently, escorted by Donny’s mother, and as they all said their goodbyes at the door, Sam quietly drew Dean’s attention.

“Did Donny . . . cross over?” he asked.

Dean hesitated. “Well, I didn’t see any bright lights. I don’t know if Donny did.” He shrugged awkwardly. “I don’t know,” he acknowledged.

“Talia, is Donny with us? Can you see him anywhere?” Sam asked when they’d climbed into the car.

“I think he’ll stay with his mom a little while longer,” she replied.

Sam frowned. He opened his mouth to prompt her for more but Dean turned over the engine and the radio blared, and as he pushed Led Zeppelin into the cassette player that effectively postponed any more conversation on the subject.

When they got back to the house Annie and Talia retired to the family room together, and Sam made a quiet sweep with the EMF monitor. He was aware that Dean was watching him from the entrance hall, but when Sam turned to look at him he wouldn’t meet his gaze. Instead he quickly made his way upstairs to their room. Sam followed him presently but as he stood at the foot of the stairs he looked back and gazed for a moment at Annie and Talia, curled up on the couch with a photograph album propped between their laps. Talia was tucked into the crook of her mother’s shoulder, and Annie had her arm around her, and the sight of them together fetched a quiet smile to Sam’s lips.

Back in their room he found Dean sitting cross legged on his bed and he, too, had a photo album open in front of him, but he closed and pushed it aside as Sam walked through the door.

“Hey, you wanna beer, Buddy?” His voice was a little too hearty and Sam didn’t miss the quick brush of the heel of his hand over the corner of his eye as he climbed off the bed and moved toward the ice box.

“Dean . . . do you need some privacy?” Sam asked. “I could clear out for an hour or . . .”

“No. No, I’m good,” Dean insisted.

After a pause Sam worked up the courage to try the alternative. “Do you want to talk about her? Your mother?”

Dean looked up wide eyed and his chin tugged back slightly but he didn’t look offended or defensive, Sam noted, just surprised. “About what happened to her? God, no! I don’t even want to think about it.”

“No, but before that,” Sam persisted. “I mean, when she was alive.”

Dean shot Sam a skeptical grin. He twisted the tops off two beer bottles and handed one to Sam on his way back to the bed. “Nothing you’d be interested in hearing,” he said, and Sam felt a sharp pang, a stab of something between hurt and regret.

“That’s not true, Dean,” he blurted out, and Dean looked up at him in surprise. “I mean, just because I don’t ask . . .” He wasn’t sure what to say exactly, but he was into it now. “I wouldn’t,” he continued. “I wouldn’t pry into your business, Dean, ’cause it’s your business, but that doesn’t mean I don’t care. I just always figured you’d tell me anything you wanted me to know.”

“Oh,” Dean said. He had that loose lipped, little boy expression on his face. “Well, maybe I would, but you’ve never seemed one for small talk.”

“Your life wasn’t small, Dean. I mean, Man, you had one!”

Dean’s eyebrows hitched a little and he gazed steadily at Sam while he processed that, then his focus shifted to the photo album and he flipped it open once more.

“I liked your mother, Dean,” Sam prompted. “She struck me as a really warm and kind person. I wish I’d known her better.”

“She was,” Dean agreed after a pause in which he quietly cleared his throat. “Spoiled me rotten,” he admitted. “They both did. Went without themselves sometimes to make sure I never went short of anything. I never appreciated that at the time. I guess kids never do. Mom was the one who persuaded Dad to let me switch to music when I flunked out of the MBA. He thought I should just get a job, and he was probably right. He offered me one at the shop but, Hell, the thought of being under his scrutiny all day every day . . . anyway, Mom thought I had talent. She always thought so. She talked him into it.” Dean turned the pages on the album. “She was real beautiful when she was young, too.” He turned it around so Sam could see the photo of the young vibrant woman with the strawberry blonde hair and bright green eyes.

“Wow, she really was,” Sam agreed.

“Dude! That’s my mom you’re checking out!” Dean admonished, but he was grinning.

“She looks a lot like photos I’ve seen of my mother at that age. Except she was more blonde, and her eyes were more blue.” Sam picked up the album and sat down next to Dean with it. “Is that you?” he asked, pointing to a picture of a toddler being held securely on the back of a pony by a big, jovial looking, ginger haired guy.

“Yeah, geez, I was one goofy looking kid. Check out those eyes! I looked like freakin’ Gollum!”

Sam grinned. “Oh, I think you looked cute.”

“Bite me,” Dean retorted, taking back the album.

“Where was it taken?”

“Uncle Ben’s ranch. Mom and I spent some time there when I was about three.”

“What about your dad?”

Dean looked suddenly uncomfortable. Sam had obviously hit a nerve . . . and this was exactly why he didn’t like asking questions.

“He wasn’t with us. They spent some time apart around then.” Dean admitted, and Sam could see the stirring of some painful recollection playing out in his face. “They never talked about it,” he added, “but they used to quarrel a bit when I was a kid.”

“Dean, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to – ”

“Hey, don’t worry about it,” Dean assured him. “So we weren’t the Bradys. Who is? Mom and Dad were happy most of the time. See? They were here. He pointed to another photo where they were happy and laughing. “And here. And here.”

Sam nodded encouragingly, but he couldn’t help wondering about the smiling pictures of his own mother. People are always happy in photo albums.

Dean leafed forward a few pages then paused over pictures where he was older, maybe ten, and starting to prefigure the appearance of the man he would become. Sam felt a sudden overwhelming flood of affection for the young prototype.

“Donny isn’t gone, is he?” Dean said suddenly, apparently out of nowhere, and startling Sam out of his reverie. Barely waiting for confirmation, he continued, “I don’t get it, Sam. The bad guy’s dead; we did everything Donny asked us to; he even got to say goodbye to his mom. What’s holding him here?”

Sam shook his head helplessly. “Maybe he just doesn’t know where to go. We’re still not sure he even knows he’s dead.”

“How can he not?” Sam shrugged and Dean nodded understanding. “Some spirits only see what they want to see. Right. Maybe some humans, too.” Dean ran his hand thoughtfully over the photos of his younger self. He heaved in a ragged breath. “Look, I didn’t want to gank the kid – or whatever he is – but I don’t want him stuck alone in some kind of limbo for all eternity either ’cause that’s like . . . hell. If there’s a light or something out there for Donny he’s not seeing it, or maybe he just missed it, I don’t know, but you let me try it my way, Sam, and now . . .” Dean swallowed. “Well, whatever you think’s gotta be done . . .” he said hoarsely.

Sam shook his head. “Dean, to be honest, I’m not even sure any more that it’s that simple.” Dean jerked his head questioningly but Sam carried on before he could say anything. “I’ve been thinking about the Saint Christopher. It doesn’t mean much, I know. A lot of people wear them, and I didn’t see any obvious trappings of Catholicism when we visited his mother, but maybe he needs last rites or something, or maybe we just need to explain things to him . . . anyway, I just want to talk to him one more time at least before we do anything . . . irrevocable.”

Dean studied Sam’s face carefully. “You’ve changed your tune since the first time we had this conversation,” he observed.

Sam nodded. “Well, maybe you’ve made me see Donny in a different light. Maybe he has. I don’t know. Besides, I’ve always had the feeling this case was kind of . . . well, personal for you and . . . Dean, I’d never want to do anything that would cause you pain if I could possibly avoid it.”

Dean’s lips parted slightly, and he started paying oddly close attention to the label on his beer as his cheeks started to glow a little pink.

“I’m sorry, Dean, I crossed a line there – ” Sam started to get up but Dean’s hand on his arm arrested him.

“No, Sam, you didn’t,” he reassured him, earnestly, locking eye contact long enough for Sam’s heart to thud hard against the cage of his chest before his gaze wavered and fluttered downward once more. “And you’re right . . .” he added. “I probably haven’t been a hundred percent objective on this one.” He grinned sheepishly. “Truth is, it’s kinda stirred up some stuff for me.” Dean took a swallow of beer. “Did you ever have imaginary friends or anything like that?” he asked hesitantly.

Sam smiled ruefully and shook his head. “Last thing I needed when I was a kid was an imagination. When I told Samuel I was afraid of the thing in my closet, he gave me a .45.”

The beer halted half way on the trip back to Dean’s lips. “Jesus, Sam!” he gasped.

Sam was philosophical. “Well, what was he supposed to say? Don’t be afraid of the dark? Dean, you know what’s out there.”

Dean sighed and nodded. “Kind of the point,” he said. He fingered the edges of the album and grooves of concentration creased his forehead. “You know, I used to think memories were like photo prints, like the permanent record of your life, but I know better now. They’re more like . . . I dunno . . . digital images that get photo shopped every time you open them up. In the end, all you remember is remembering, and God knows what really happened.” Dean sucked in a deep breath. “When I was about Tal’s age I made up a kid brother. At least, that’s how I remember it. I remember playing games and making up stories and adventures about the two of us. But when Annie asked me if I thought he was real . . . I dunno, Sam. I used to talk about him like he was really there, and I think I was just playing, but how am I supposed to know what I was really thinking when I was nine? Watching Tal with Donny, I start to wonder. Maybe I did think Sammy was real.”

“Sammy?” Sam couldn’t help repeating.

A hint of a blush touched Dean’s cheeks again and he chuckled awkwardly. “Yeah, that was his name. See I don’t always call you that just to piss you off. Sometimes it’s just force of habit.” He grinned. “Mostly it’s to piss you off,” he acknowledged. But after some silent reflection he was serious again.

“In this poem I wrote, when I was ten, I called him an angel. Maybe I really believed it then. Who knows? But then I grew up and I learned that angels and ghosts and monsters don’t really exist so, in time, I guess I just forgot about him.” Dean took a long pull on his beer then stared sightlessly at the bottle while Sam waited patiently for him to continue. “Except they do,” he said at last. “This last six months I’ve seen ghosts and ghouls and golems with my own eyes. I’ve ganked half a dozen different kinds of spirit. I’ve learned there are demons and witches, thought forms and tulpas, and things that exist just because people believe in them, and you can’t even tell me for sure that there’s no such thing as angels. And . . . and you said, Sam, even if it was all in my head that doesn’t mean it wasn’t real! – ”

Sam didn’t like the way Dean seemed to be getting upset about this so he took a chance and pointed out “doesn’t mean it was, either. You said yourself, Dean: lots of kids have imaginary playmates. Mostly they’re not supernatural beings.”

“He knew about salt, Sam.”

There was silence. Sam didn’t know how to respond, and gooseflesh was tightening on his arms.

“He told me I should put salt round the doors and windows to protect us from monsters,” Dean continued. “How would he know that? How would I know that, when I was nine? I guess I could have read it somewhere, but I don’t remember hearing about it until he told me. And he was scared, Sam. He was scared like all the time . . . so afraid of the monsters . . . and I kept telling him there weren’t any but I couldn’t convince him.”

Dean stood up. He dumped his empty bottle in the trash and leaned with his shoulders against the ice box. “The thing is . . . if he was real then what happened to him? Did some hunter – ” He thought better of finishing that sentence. “Or did he just stop coming because I stopped believing in him?” He heaved himself away from the icebox and wandered over to the window where he spent some moments just staring out into the gathering dusk. “I just can’t help wondering . . .” His voice caught, and when he turned his liquid eyes seemed a little too bright. “Sam,” he said. “I’m so afraid I let him down.”

Chapter Text

Scene 15

 

“Son of a bitch!” Dean cried.

Sam stared at the screen, stunned. “I did not see that coming,” he admitted.

“Man, I hate shows that end the season on a cliffhanger!” Dean aimed the remote at the TV and killed the screen then he dropped back on the bed and wedged his arms behind his pillow. It was a position that helped to define the line of his muscles, accentuated the fine brush of ginger-brown hair sprinkling his armpits, and the wispy trail from his navel down to the top of the bed covers . . .

Sam forced himself to look away. He didn’t think he was supposed to be thinking about that. The point of this exercise was apparently to “acclimatize” him to “intimacy in a neutral context.” Sam didn’t know what ex-girlfriend, website or show Dean had gotten that one from, but it struck him as a very peculiar practice. He wasn’t so sure watching TV in bed, with Dean, naked, was particularly neutral. Nevertheless he’d done his best to keep his mind on the show, and was surprised to find he’d actually become absorbed in the plot after a while.

Andrea was a ghost? The whole time? Did you see that coming? I did not see that coming.”

Dean grinned smugly, but he grumbled again “I can’t believe they ended on a cliffhanger.”

Sam glanced a little worriedly at him. The finale hadn’t been the predictable tripe Sam expected, but it wasn’t exactly the puppies and candy cane romp he suspected Dean had been hoping for, either. Sam wished for his sake it had ended with all the ghosts crossing over and the kid being saved. Not the angsty cliffhanger with the best friend killed off and the fate of her soul hanging in the balance.

“You know Melinda’ll save her next season,” he pointed out.

Dean squinted at him a little suspiciously, like he wasn’t sure if Sam was poking fun. “Yeah, ’course she will,” he agreed dismissively. “Melinda’s awesome.”

Sam smiled, but there was a trace of a frown with it. Not for the first time, he found himself reflecting on Dean’s apparent willingness to accept the idea of a world where prophetic dreams and visions were an unequivocal power for good.

“What do you think of her husband?” he asked.

Dean aimed a quizzically raised eyebrow at him. “He’s not my type.”

Sam rolled his eyes impatiently. “No, I mean the way he’s all sensitive and caring and supportive about her ‘gift’.”

“And that’s a bad thing?”

Sam picked at a loose thread on the blanket. “Well, don’t you think he should be wondering where her power’s coming from? What it’s gonna do to her? What she’ll become?”

“Sam, she helps people. I don’t think there’s a lot of moral ambiguity going on there. It’s not that kind of show. Hey.” Dean’s knuckles grazed Sam’s arm then he patted the pillow beside him. “Relax, Matt Roush. Give your brain a rest.”

That was the point, of course. Dean’s ability to accept a certain reality in context, for the sake of entertainment, wasn’t necessarily a guide to how he might react in real life . . . but his stance on Donny, the childhood phantom (real or imagined) . . .

“But if you knew someone like that –” Sam persisted, but he was interrupted by a loud beep. Dean sat up and they exchanged a significant glance as Sam lifted the laptop from the night stand and propped it on his knees. A check of the tracker program revealed Gemma had surfaced, and disappeared once more just as quickly. “Red Lodge again,” he observed.

“How many times is that now?” Dean asked, peering over his shoulder.

“Three. In between she’s been to Louisiana and Wyoming.”

“And what’s she been doing?”

“Nothing, that I can tell. She never stops anywhere long enough to do anything.”

Dean hissed impatiently. “It makes no sense. What’s the point of all this?”

Sam shook his head, perplexed. “I don’t know. I’ve been looking for any obvious connection between the places she’s been, but nothing’s leaping out.”

“Maybe she knows we’re tracking her and she’s just screwing with us.”

“Maybe,” Sam acknowledged.

“Screw her.” Dean dropped back down on the bed. His arm rested across his eyes briefly, but then he sighed, his arm dropped and he tapped Sam’s thigh. “You were saying, Sam?” he asked.

“What?”

“You were in the middle of something . . . about Melinda’s powers.”

Sam gazed at him, noticing his jaw was tight with tension, and shook his head. “Nothing. Doesn’t matter.” There was never going to be a good time to bring up the subject. “You’re right. It’s just a show.” He wished he could think of some way to comfort his friend that Dean wouldn’t interpret as patronizing. He stared vacantly at the laptop until his focus was drawn by Dean’s media app. “Shall I put on some music?” he asked.

Dean looked surprised that Sam had made the suggestion, but then his lips curled into a smirk. He turned onto his side and stroked his thumb suggestively against Sam’s thigh. “You wouldn’t be thinking about a certain massage play-list, would you, Sam?”

No-o!” Sam was slightly offended that Dean just assumed Sam was expecting something from him, and he tried to ignore the responsive twitch urged by the caress of Dean’s thumb. Not that Sam would object – at all – but only if Dean wanted – not just because he thought . . . except . . . Sam hesitated. “Unless . . .” He could feel his face warming even as the thought occurred to him. It was kind of ridiculous, presumptuous even . . . like offering oil to Texas . . . but at least it was offering something. He cleared his throat and scratched at the back of his neck. “W – would you like a massage?” he asked.

Dean’s eyes widened and Sam started to . . . well, babble, frankly. “I mean – I wouldn’t – I don’t – don’t expect too – ’cause I don’t really know what I’m – ”

“I’d like that, Sam.” Dean interrupted, and the low purr of his voice curdled Sam’s insides. “I’d like that a lot.” He took the laptop from Sam and opened the app. “I’ve got this,” he said, “The oil’s in my bag.”

Sam tried to pin the sheet against his waist as he reached for the duffel a few feet away, and he heard Dean chuckling behind him. “Sam, if you’re going to do this properly, you’re going to have to get out from the covers and let me catch a glimpse of that magnificent tower of man-muscle you’re trying to hide there, unsuccessfully by the way.”

The heat in Sam’s cheeks deepened and he resorted to pedantry to cover his embarrassment. “Technically, it isn’t muscle, it’s – ” but he lost the thread of his sentence when Dean dumped the laptop and climbed over him to get to the duffel. He discovered that, after all, he wasn’t the only one with an erection as Dean unashamedly displayed his just a short distance from Sam’s face. He planted a quick kiss on Sam’s cheek when he returned and handed him the bottle of baby oil. “Don’t bitch about terminology when a guy’s paying you a compliment,” he reprimanded. “Now, how do you want me, Sam? Face up or face down?”

Sam cleared his throat. “Um, face down, I guess,” he said, a little regretfully.

By the time Dean got back to his side of the bed he’d pulled all the covers off, anyway, and as he settled into position he made a point of turning his head so he could enjoy the view. Sam closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath, using the opening bars of the now familiar music to anchor him. When he opened them again he found Dean was studying him carefully.

“Are you sure about this, Sam?” he asked. “’Cause you don’t have to, you know?”

“No, I want to,” Sam insisted. All the same, he felt ridiculously nervous as he flipped the cap on the bottle; his hands were shaking as he trickled the oil into his palm. He worked it between his hands and deliberated on the best position to work from then straddled Dean’s hips and settled back on his haunches across Dean’s thighs. He felt the muscles there tighten and quiver slightly.

“Is this O.K, Dean?” he asked.

“Yeah! Sure. You’re good,” Dean assured him but, for the first time, it occurred to Sam that maybe he wasn’t the only one who was a little nervous about this role reversal.

Slowly he lowered his hands and spread them out across the base of Dean’s back, felt the muscles twitch then relax, felt the butter smooth flesh under his fingers and its warmth radiating up into his palms. He took a moment just to gaze at the long arch of Dean’s back, the golden sheen of his skin and the outlines of the muscle and bone beneath it, then he pushed his hands upward in a long slow stroke – just like the first time Dean had touched him. Dean’s eyelashes fluttered and he exhaled a long breathy gust somewhere between a gasp and a sigh. That seemed like an encouraging start.

On the second pass Sam leaned a little more of his weight into his hands and Dean actually groaned. “Oh, yeah! Oh, man, that’s good. That feels real good, Sam,” he volunteered enthusiastically, which had Sam grinning stupidly but also a little worried about how loud things might get if this was just the start, and how thick the walls of their room might be.

“Um . . . Dean . . . family home?” he reminded him.

“Oh . . . right,” Dean conceded, dialing down the decibels but still keeping up a steady stream of happy noises and mumbled “fuck yeah”s with each sweep of Sam’s hands, and stretching and squirming beneath him like a contented cat in a patch of sun. It was reassuring. It calmed Sam’s nerves and helped him to relax. It was also arousing, which Sam tried to ignore.

He followed the same procedure as Dean had with the long straight strokes first, then moving up and outward in smooth arcs, but he suspected he was moving through the sequence faster than Dean had. He didn’t have the same patience, and he was worrying that maybe he was rushing things, but it seemed Dean was ready to move things forward a little.

“You can go lower, if you like,” he said, emphasizing the suggestion with a small but provocative roll of his hips, just in case it wasn’t clear how much lower he meant. Sam hesitated long enough to be conscious of the elevated canter of his heart as he contemplated the contours of Dean’s ass. He ran his hands slowly over the supple curves and Dean humped up into his palms with an approving “mmmmmmmm.” Sam instinctively began kneading and molding the firm flesh. He felt muscles flex and relax by turns under his fingers and the tone of Dean’s appreciation changed, deepened into a low and dirty noise that sent an aching shockwave of response through Sam’s dick. He had to stop for a moment to recover his equilibrium, much to Dean’s evident disappointment; he made a small noise that could only be described as a vocal pout and wiggled his bottom expressively. A small smile tugged at Sam’s lips and he was tempted to give the jiggling cheeks a smack but he resisted the urge. Instead, he moved lower and spread his palms over the backs of Dean’s thighs, pushing his hands upward in a long firm stroke that ended by sweeping over Dean’s eager buttocks, and was rewarded with a response from Dean that began as a hum, moved through growl and ended as a grunt. “Oh, yeah, that’s good. That’s good, Sam. Do it again,” he insisted. And Sam complied, repeating the motion up the legs first, and beyond, over Dean’s back and shoulders, and feeling Dean’s body undulate beneath him, moving with and into his touch. Soon Sam was kind of lost in the motion, captivated with the rhythm of grunts and gasps and sighs, and with watching Dean’s face contort with expressions of pleasure and enjoyment.

“If you want to add in some light finger stuff, too, I won’t complain,” Dean suggested presently, between breaths. “Just to mix things up a little.”

Sam frowned slightly and hesitantly drew his fingertips down Dean’s back. “Like that?” he asked, tentatively. He would have found the touch annoyingly light and ticklish, but Dean seemed to enjoy it.

Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaah! Just like that,” he assured him, grinning and arching catlike under Sam’s touch. “Just now and then. Surprise me,” he added with a wink.

Sam shrugged and began alternating between firm strokes of his palms and zigzagging gentle fingers over Dean’s back and sides, rump and thighs, and Dean writhed luxuriantly under his attentions and added crooning and chuckling to his vocal repertoire. Sam was grinning, too. He was beginning to understand what Dean meant when he talked about sex being fun, and he was starting to enjoy having the power to make Dean squirm and gurgle.

Not that Dean was just passively lying there and taking it. He knew what he liked and he wasn’t shy about asking for it. When he wriggled a leg out from between Sam’s knees and waggled his toes expectantly, Sam took the hint and began massaging and stroking them. Dean buried his face in the bed covers. His foot kind of twitched a little in Sam’s hands, and his toes curled and arched by turns and . . .

Sam paused. “Are you . . . giggling?!

“Absolutely not,” Dean stated firmly. “Hey, did I say you could stop?” he grinned and his teeth closed over the bed covers.

Remembering the first night in Lichtburg Sam paid special attention to that spot in the middle, as Dean had done, then he tried dragging his fingernails down the sole of Dean’s foot.

Ggnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn!” Dean growled into the mattress. His foot leaped out of Sam’s hand and slammed down against the bed, but the next moment it was up again and when Sam hesitated, he waved it insistently in front of Sam’s face.

A repeat dose of the same treatment had Dean’s body writhing and humping into the mattress . . . and Sam’s body aching to do something more than tickle feet, but apparently Dean wasn’t done with it yet. He twisted and pulled up his other leg, presenting his other foot for more of the same. And then Sam had an idea: drawing it toward his lips, he poked out his tongue and ran the tip from the ball of Dean’s foot down the sole to the heel.

Dean flexed his foot tight under Sam’s tongue then “GGAAAAHH-HAAAAAAAHH!” he gasped, and “Oh, yeah! yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah! More of that! More of that!”

So Sam obliged, drawing meandering squiggles over the taut, trembling flesh with the tip of his tongue, softening it to paint broad stripes, then sliding it between Dean’s toes and finally drawing each toe into his mouth and suckling on them one by one.

And Dean was going fucking nuts! Twisting and wriggling all over the bed, gasping and panting and stuffing the sheet into his mouth, growling and whining and digging his fingers into the bed covers. Sam was getting so hard and tight watching and listening, and his thoughts shifted rapidly from fun to want. Dean chose that moment to twist and flip over onto his back and – Oh, God, he was beautiful: hot and flushed and panting, with his hair all mussed up and his eyes bright and blown wide and dark, skin sweat-damp and glowing, chest hitching, and his dick swollen and tight against his belly, quivering and leaping, and smearing a snail trail over the flesh. Before his brain could form a coherent thought Sam instinctively tried to reach for it, but Dean caught his wrists before he got there and drew Sam’s hands up to his shoulders.

He grinned. “Always in a hurry, Sam,” he scolded between panting breaths.

Sam felt a moment of irritation and frustration. “Always a tease, Dean,” he retorted.

Dean raised his eyebrows. “Hey, you’re in the driver’s seat, Buddy,” he pointed out. His voice turned low, suggestive, inviting, his eyes wide and serious. “You can tease me right back.”

Sam couldn’t help smiling at that. If Sam was behind the wheel, nominally, then Dean sure was a backseat driver. “Well, I might just do that,” he threatened.

Dean’s eyes shone back at him. “Yeah?” He licked his lower lip and caught it between his teeth. And Sam so wanted to seize Dean’s mouth in his, but he restrained himself. No. Dean would want it slow. He leaned down until his lips were all but touching Dean’s.

“Yeah,” he whispered over Dean’s waiting mouth, and Dean’s chest hitched beneath him. His lips parted and the soft flesh yielded under the tip of Sam’s tongue as he moistened each of the plump pads in turn before gently pecking at them with his own. He felt Dean’s breath quicken and his eyelashes brushing against Sam’s cheek as they fluttered closed. He brushed his lips backwards and forwards across Dean’s before sucking them one at a time into his mouth and massaging the surface and the flesh behind with his tongue, savoring the tiny sighs and whimpers of response it earned him. Dean’s hands floated up, hovered by Sam’s face and rested lightly on his neck, fingers threading through his hair - not pulling him in, not attempting to direct, just touching, cradling Sam’s head. His tongue flicked at Sam’s lips and Sam captured it between them, drawing it into his mouth and teasing across the tip then softening, molding and dragging rasping licks across the surface. Dean moaned and his mouth opened wider, a wordless invitation. Sam allowed his breath to play over the appealing lips a little longer, and when he finally closed on Dean’s mouth, rolled his lips over Dean’s and folded their tongues together in full, sinuous embrace, Dean groaned. “Unhh, Vham, Vhamm,” he moaned into Sam’s throat.

Sam felt the rush, the heady sensation of swimming in the tide of Dean’s kiss. Instinctively he was rocking his hips into the mattress, and he could feel Dean’s body undulating in his arms. The temptation to shift his hips over Dean’s so they were moving together was almost overwhelming, but he knew if he did that he’d be lost. He broke the contact with Dean’s mouth and nipped his way along his jaw-line instead, circling the shell of his ear then nuzzling a line behind it with the tip of his nose.

Nnnnnnnnnnzzzhhhhhh!” Dean shuddered, turning his head and baring his outstretched neck for Sam’s play, and Sam accepted the offered flesh, nibbling his way down the length of Dean’s throat and along the line of his shoulder, with Dean shivering and hissing and crooning the whole way.

Sitting back, he spread his palms over Dean’s chest and started running them in circles over his torso. Dean watched him, eyes shining with enjoyment, body arching into the strokes. He placed his own hands over Sam’s – again, not directing, just resting there, light and warm.

God! Loving your hands, Sam,” he confided softly, and then he grinned. “Man, they are freaking huge.”

Sam frowned. Was that a compliment?

“I mean that in a good way,” Dean hastened to assure him. “In a totally good, totally loving the feel of them all over me way.” He grinned, scraping his teeth over his lip.

Sam allowed a tiny smile of response and let his thumbs trail a circle over Dean’s nipples. “You like that?” he asked.

Fuck yeah,” Dean purred, confirmation coming as Sam rubbed backwards and forward over the nubs and the flesh pebbled and peaked under his touch.

“You like my mouth, too, Dean?”

A stunted moan parted Dean’s lips and his body humped under Sam’s hands. “Fucking love your mouth,” he growled.

Sam felt that growl deep in his belly, in his balls and shuddering up the length of his dick. His vision blurred and he closed his eyes as he leaned over and swept his tongue over a blossoming bud and suckled it into his mouth.

“Mmmmm. Little harder,” Dean murmured, hissing and keening and arching when Sam complied, sucking, flicking and rolling the stiff peak back and forth with the tip of his tongue.

As he moved to the other side, alternately rasping and massaging the responsively puckering flesh, he stroked a palm over Dean’s hip and down the outside of his leg, then slid it up the inside, and Dean instantly spread wide open for him, muscles rippling beneath Sam’s fingers.

“NNnnnn hnn hnn hhhnnnnnnnnnnnnn!” Dean gasped and whimpered as Sam slipped his hand between the parted thighs to cup his balls, rolling his hips in response to fondling strokes and caresses. But just as Sam was about to move upward Dean’s fingers closed around his wrist and he felt a momentary flash of irritation before he realized Dean wasn’t trying to stop him, or pull his hand away, he was just shifting the focus, guiding Sam down to the valley just behind his balls, arranging Sam’s fingers and showing him how he wanted to be touched.

Fuuuuuck! Fuck oh fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck!” Dean gasped, spreading his thighs even wider and tilting his shuddering hips to better accommodate Sam as he trailed his fingertips and fingernails back and forth over the fleshy mound, while Dean’s own fingers fretted aimlessly up and down Sam’s arm.

Sam turned his head to watch Dean’s dick leaping and straining to the rhythm of his caresses. A glistening silver thread stretched between the dusky head and the slick, sticky patch on Dean’s belly and Sam’s mouth watered at the sight of it. He started to move his head, planting soft kisses along Dean’s ribs on his journey downward. And Dean inhaled sharply, breathing in shallow pants as he anticipated Sam’s goal. As Sam’s lips circled his hips he arched his back and threw his head back in eager expectation . . .

And, screw that, because now Dean Winchester was about to get a taste of his own medicine!

Ignoring the fire in his own groin, Sam leaned over Dean and while one hand continued grazing lightly behind and over Dean’s balls, he slid the other under Dean’s dick, rubbing and massaging his lower belly as he lowered his head and allowed his breath to ghost hot and moist over the length of the expectantly twitching shaft. He pressed his tongue soft and wet against the very bottom of it and dragged a long, slow stroke across the base. Dean’s body heaved beneath him and he let out a gasp, then a noise that mingled groaning with laughter before jamming his arm into his mouth.

Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmvvvv!” he moaned against his arm, clawing at the bedcovers with his other hand as Sam moved up just slightly and laid down another long, wide stripe barely an inch higher than the first. Dean took his arm out of his mouth long enough to pant and chuckle “ggaaaaaahhhvvvvuugginnnssonovvabitch!” before grabbing a handful of sheet and stuffing that into his mouth instead. His body writhed and wormed, muscles stretching and straining as Sam continued lapping and suckling his slow upward course. His hands ran feverishly over Sam’s head and neck, urging fingers plucking at Sam’s shoulders and combing up through his hair, hips pumping and shuddering when Sam reached the crown and circled the rim with the tip of his tongue, doodling patterns over the tight flesh of the dome, tasting the salty-astringent mix of Dean’s freely flowing juices. Dean’s eyes were screwed shut, his knees were drawn up and his heels were rubbing distractedly up and down the mattress. Everything about his body language was begging, but all that was coming out of his mouth was a string of mewling noises, muffled chuckling and garbled but increasingly imaginative invective.

And finally it dawned on Sam that, if that’s what he was waiting for - for Dean to beg - he’d wait all night. And it wasn’t even stubbornness; Dean enjoyed the wait, the tease, the anticipation. He was content to let Sam choose the moment, surprise him with it.

Sam couldn’t wait all night. His own dick was hard and tight and aching, and his mouth was awash with the taste of Dean and he was done waiting. He wanted Dean in his mouth now. His hand dropped to Dean’s hip and pinned him to the mattress, the other took hold of the throbbing, straining shaft and drew it toward his mouth. He licked his lips, swept his tongue once around the dome then slid his mouth smoothly down the shaft, sucking it in and swallowing around it.

Dean’s eyes snapped open then rolled back into his head. His back arched and when he found he couldn’t lift his hips he pulled up his legs instead and pressed his feet against Sam’s back, curling his toes into Sam’s hips. And fucking good thing he had the sheet in his mouth because the sound that came out of it would have been a loud keening wail if it wasn’t muffled by a wad of damp polyester.

Sam closed his eyes and his world became the slide of Dean’s flesh in his mouth and the taste of his juices on his tongue, Dean’s warm, earthy scent in his nostrils, the strain of his muscles under his hands, the kick and press of his toes, and the muffled and broken music of Dean’s moans shuddering up and down the scale. Then the tone changed from pleasure to something more urgent and suddenly the hand on Sam’s head was pushing him away. Sam opened his eyes as Dean pulled the sheet out of his mouth.

“Sam, stop!” he panted. “Fuck! Oh fuck stop stop stop stop!

As Sam pulled away Dean’s hand dropped to his own dick, fingers curling around the base and pinching tight, and he blew out a long steadying breath through pursed lips, eyes glazed but focus kind of fixed into empty space. And Sam’s heart thudded as he realized just how damn close to the edge Dean was.

“Why d’you stop me, Dean?” he asked softly. “I want to make you come,”

Dean’s eyes widened without focusing. “Fuck! Shuddup, Sam!” he gasped.

“But I want to – ”

Dean sat up and stopped Sam’s mouth with his own. In the long moments their lips were pressed together the only sound in the room was the rasp of their combined breathing, rapid at first, but Dean was making an effort to control his and he was bringing Sam down with him. Still Sam’s fingers itched to reach out and touch, hold, but he waited, and he realized he was trembling with the wait, suddenly conscious of his own body and the pins and needle craving of his flesh for Dean’s.

Dean drew back a little but their faces were still close. All Sam could see was his eyes. So wide and bright and dark - you could drown in them - and focused so intently on Sam. “Don’t want this to be over yet, Sam,” he murmured, and he chewed on his lower lip. He looked . . . kind of nervous. “Got something else in mind,”

He laid a hand on Sam’s shoulder, rolled him onto his side, and reached for the oil. Flipping the lid, he upended the bottle and sprinkled the contents all over himself – chest, thighs, groin – like maple syrup over pancakes, and he shuffled close to Sam until they were both lying on their sides, face to face. “C’mere, Sam,” he breathed, and Sam allowed himself to be drawn into his arms, let him wrap his legs around Sam’s until their bodies slid together in one warm, oily tangle. Dean’s lips sought Sam’s again, but they were soft this time, open and insinuating, and his tongue flicked teasing invitations until Sam all but plunged into Dean’s mouth and their tongues wrapped in a sinuous, writhing dance that was slowly mirrored down the entire length of their bodies: chests, bellies, hips, thighs, groins all sliding together in a slow, slick grind.

Fuck! Sam shuddered. Pleasure flared bright and dizzying from the soft friction of his dick rubbing against Dean’s belly, their shafts sliding hot against each other, the slippery muddle of their balls. He moaned long and loud into Dean’s mouth and the sound echoed back to him through his jaw bone in Dean’s voice, and as Dean’s fingers tangled in his hair his own hands found Dean’s ass and grabbed the flesh in handfuls, pulling Dean closer, pressing them closer to each other until there wasn’t a millimetre of space between their bodies.

Uuuuuunnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnhhhhh!” Dean groaned, his whole body shivering with the exhilaration and warmth of the fleshy contact. This was what he’d been craving. He kind of wanted to laugh and cheer, ’cause he hadn’t been sure. He’d been afraid Sam might find it too much, too close, too intensely physical. But he wasn’t pulling away. He was doing it. He was letting Dean . . . just all over him! Oh, and it felt so good. The heat building between them mingled sweat and oil together to glue their flesh, making deliciously filthy squelchy, sucky noises as they moved. And Dean could feel every contour of Sam’s muscles straining and rippling against him, the tickle of his crotch hair against Dean’s groin, the roll of his balls over and under Dean’s, between his legs soft and oh God so good so good and it still wasn’t enough somehow. Dean wanted more. He felt like he just wanted to swallow Sam whole. There was something about the slide of Sam’s hips against his thighs that was just an amazing, crazy turn on and Dean knew he was going to come, just like this, just from the warm squirm of their bodies and the friction of his cock rubbing between the warm, warm flesh of their bellies and the hot slippery slide of Sam’s length over his and jesusjesusjesus hold it together fuck hold it together ’cause Sam wasn’t there yet. He was close, but not there with Dean, not quite. And Dean shifted, slipped his hand between their bodies and pushed down, guiding Sam’s length between his legs, tightening and flexing his thigh muscles around him. And as he began to move, rocking his hips into Sam’s and fucking him with the flesh of his thighs, the tone of Sam’s moans in his throat spiked from baritone to soprano and ah yeah, you’re close now, ar’ncha, Sam, oh yeah! Oh fuck yeah! Sam was moving with him now, body trembling, hips shuddering and humping, great warm hands spread over Dean’s ass and fingers buried in his butt cheeks, tongue fucking frenetically into his mouth while his cock fucked Dean’s thighs.

They were both kinda losing control of their movements now as eager shudders overtook their muscles. A slight shift of angles and the crown of Sam’s cock jabbed against the mound behind Dean’s balls sending a sharp stab of pleasure shooting deep into Dean’s groin, and Dean was desperately angling himself to try and make it happen again when a quick succession of bumps had him seeing fucking stars! Another shift and Sam’s length was sliding along the cleft between Dean’s ass cheeks, and he inhaled sharply as oops weird shifted almost instantly to oh yeah good oh fuck yeah fucking good! and he could feel Sam’s body quaking against his and yeah God yeah oh God yes! Sam’s hips slammed urgently against Dean’s, his weight pushing Dean backwards. His cock leapt, strained, nudged against Dean’s ass and fuck – Dean felt the hot gush over his flesh and Sam rubbing against him, sliding smooth along his crack, thick and firm through the slick wet puddle of it, and that was enough: Dean’s balls heaved and his world went white. Fuck Sam! There was urgent, ragged breathing and muddled, sobbed moans and gasps. Fire smoldered from his toes, up his legs and flashed up through his whole body, throbbing in his chest, between their chests, his and Sam and in their mouth to the rhythm the beat and thrust and thrust and Sam . . . oh Sam!

. . . . . .

. . . . . .

Sam . . . fuck! . . . God so good aching beat in his cock as he slippery through the hot so hot and slippery Sam’s belly so slippery fucking good.

Fuck . . .

Fuck.


He was staring wide-eyed at the ceiling and everything was heat and tangled limbs, rasping breath and thumping heartbeat; who knew whose was whose. It didn’t matter. Then it did. He slid his lips away from Sam’s just so he could breathe, and then the huffing next to his ear was definitely Sam. The lingering taste of beer, probably both of them. But the espresso aftertaste was Sam, and the scent of soap mingled with hot sweat and oil. The fading throb of orgasm between their bellies was his, but the solid warmth twitching between his thighs, the muscled body in his arms, the silken strands of hair wound round his fingers – yeah, that was all “Sam . . .”

He breathed the name partly to hear his own voice, though the word was barely audible over the panting. But the gasping and snuffing in his ear was gradually forming into words. Well. One word.

Dean . . . Dean . . . Dean . . . fuck Dean!

All right. Two.

Dean’s lips curled against Sam’s ear. “You like that?” he asked.

Dean . . . fuck . . .

Dean chuckled. “I’ll take that as a ‘yes’ then?” He drew back slightly so he could look at Sam and his fingers snagged in Sam’s hair. He gently disentangled them while he watched Sam slowly starting to focus.

When Sam finally got his eyes all the way open he seemed to be studying Dean. “You O.K, Dean?” he asked, still somewhat groggily.

Dean grinned slowly. “Understatement,” he murmured. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

Sam shrugged a little awkwardly. “Just wanted to be sure I didn’t cross any lines,” he said. “I felt like I was getting a bit carried away toward the end.”

Dean laughed. Makes two of us. “I think we were both all over and around the line, but nobody crossed anything.” Seemed like the lines themselves were in the process of shifting and Dean was beginning to think he knew where to. Which kind of made him nervous but, hey, he was getting used to surprising himself. He smoothed down Sam’s hair and planted a kiss on the end of his nose. “Hey, if you’re getting all up in your head I’ll take it as a personal insult. You shouldn’t have enough blood in your brain to think right now.”

That actually scored a dimply grin from Sam. “Oh, believe me I don’t,” he assured Dean, with a breathy chuckle, and Dean gave him an acknowledging nod of approval.

Nothing more was said for a while, and there was a blessed space of time they just lay there in a warm bundle and Dean wasn’t aware of anything much except his own heartbeat and the slowing rhythm of Sam’s breathing. He might have been drifting off himself when Sam’s muscles twitched, he sniffed sharply and his head jerked up. He started untangling his limbs from Dean’s and trying to straighten the bed covers.

“Man, we have wrecked this bed,” he commented.

“Don’t, Sam,” Dean mumbled.

Sam turned and gave him a questioning look.

“It’s early . . . ish. You don’t have to run off to the bathroom yet.”

Sam frowned, looked down at himself and pulled ‘icky face’. Dean needed a contingency plan and fast. “Just . . . just hold still,” he said. “Stay there and . . . and I’ll be right back.” He slid off the bed and dashed to the bathroom. There was a bowl, dustpan, cleaning brushes and shit in a cupboard under the sink. He pulled out the bowl and started filling it from the taps, gave himself a quick once over with a face cloth while he was waiting, and once he had a full bowl of nice steamy water he dropped both face cloths into it, slung a towel over his shoulder and returned to the bedroom where Sam looked like he was about to implode from not knowing what to do with himself.

“Stop pulling dirty diaper faces, Sam. You’ve had worse things smeared all over you,” Dean pointed out.

“Yeah, I know, but these are good sheets and – ” Sam stalled when he saw the bowl, expression moving from ‘ick’ to ‘huh?’

“So I’ll find a laundromat tomorrow,” Dean assured him, placing the bowl on the nightstand.

“Dean . . . what . . . ?” Sam watched, puzzled and fascinated, as Dean lifted a cloth out of the water and wrung it out. He caught on when Dean placed a hand on his shoulder and pushed him onto his back. “A bed bath? Seriously?” He gasped as Dean dropped the hot cloth on his abs and started mopping up.

“Hope you’re taking notes, Sam,” Dean explained, grinning. “Fun doesn’t have to end ’cause you’ve shot your load.” He got most of the fallout up with the first cloth. With the second he took his time, ran it all over Sam’s body, slow and thorough, then he gently dried him off him off with the towel. Sam just watched him the whole time, but as Dean turned to rinse out the cloth he broke the silence.

“Dean, why are you doing this?” he asked quietly.

Dean was ready with a smart answer but it caught in his throat as he turned and found Sam staring at him with this weird, rapt expression on his face, eyes all soft and golden-brown and kinda watery. He looked away. He didn’t know what to do with that expression. Didn’t know what it meant.

He cleared his throat. “Intimacy isn’t just about the sex, Sam. There’s a whole world of physical experience for you to explore between the stuff that needs stitches and things that require a boner. It’s all part of the program.

“Turn over,” he added when Sam continued to stare at him, but Sam didn’t move.

“I kind of meant the program, Dean. I meant . . .” he swallowed and his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down his throat. “Why are you doing all this . . . for me?”

Dean turned away and rinsed out the face cloth again, just to get away from that stare. It might have been the million dollar question – with the multiple choice answers, any of which could lose him the pot, and he couldn’t even call a friend – but Dean wasn’t a hundred per cent certain Sam knew what he was asking, so he just laughed, tried to breeze over it.

“Are you under the impression this is some kind of sacrifice for me?” He wrung out the cloth, closed a hand over Sam’s shoulder. “Maybe this is a difficult concept for you to wrap your head round, Sam, but I actually enjoy all this shit.” He pushed Sam firmly down on the bed and began the slow, methodical process of cleaning his back.

That seemed to give Sam pause but he persisted. “I know, Dean, but – ”

“’Course, if you’re saying you’re not enjoying it . . .” Dean suggested, by way of interruption, as he ran the washcloth in slow circles up the backs of Sam’s thighs.

“God, no!” Sam assured him hastily. “Of course I’m not saying that. God, I didn’t mean that.”

“O.K, then.”

After that Sam lapsed back into silence, much to Dean’s relief. Mostly relief. There was a part of him that couldn’t help wondering about the other choices – the other ways that conversation might have gone. A part of him regretted not knowing.

When he’d finished drying Sam off he climbed into bed beside him and did his best to pull the covers around them. He found the TV remote, surfed through the channels until he found a nice, relaxing, subtext-free football game for them to watch, and left it muted as a soundless background while he organized the pillows behind them. Sam wriggled around trying to distribute his limbs in a comfortable arrangement.

“Sack up, Sam,” Dean chided. “We both fitted in this bed ten minutes ago.”

Sam thought about that and apparently factored in the possibility that he could arrange himself around Dean. With just a little more shuffling and grappling, he finally chose a position that seemed to suit him, with his Octopus body wrapped around Dean’s chest and legs and his head nestled against Dean’s shoulder.

“Are you O.K?” Dean asked once they were settled.

“Yeah, I’m fine.”

“Seriously, Sam. Are you O.K?” No point in pushing Sam’s envelope if it just made him uncomfortable.

Sam looked up and after a moment a sloppy, dimply grin settled on his face. “Yeah, I’m good, Dean,” he assured him. “You?”

The grin was infectious. Dean smiled back then relaxed against the pillows and draped his arm around Sam’s shoulder. “Yeah, I’m just fine, Sammy,” he said.

For a while they made a pretense of watching the game though neither of them was invested in either of the teams. More of Dean’s attention was absorbed with the warmth of Sam’s arm under his hand, the shape of Sam’s wrist bone under his thumb, the faint smell of the fru-fru shampoo Annie had supplied drifting up from Sam’s hair, the sound of Sam’s breathing interrupted by the occasional hitch and snuff as he tried to keep himself awake. Would he ever feel comfortable enough with Dean not to worry if he fell asleep?

Baby steps. Dean reminded himself. Don’t ask for everything right away.

As he watched the rise and fall of Sam’s chest his attention was caught by some minor but fairly fresh scratch marks. He reached out and ran his finger over a couple of tiny indentations in the flesh. It wasn’t hard to figure out where they’d come from; lifting the amulet he found similar marks and a red blotch in the middle of his own chest.

“Maybe I shoulda taken this off first,” he commented, maybe stating the obvious.

“Didn’t notice it at the time,” Sam chuckled softly. “I was preoccupied.”

Dean wrapped his fingers round the brass carving and frowned. He lifted up the cord, waved it to and fro in the air for a bit and felt it again, touched it to his lips for comparison.

“Sam . . . does this feel kind of warm to you?” he asked.

Sam looked up, lifted the amulet from Dean’s fingers, held it for a moment then pressed it to his own lips. “Huh,” he said. “Maybe there’s some property in the metal that retains heat,” he suggested.

“Retains cold, too,” Dean volunteered. “It was like ice all the time I was in Burkitsville.”

“It was pretty cold there,” Sam replied sleepily.

Dean hesitated. Should he mention the orchard? He wasn’t even sure he hadn’t imagined it, but it might be important. It occurred to him that Burkitsville was lousy with demons and that might have had something to do with the amulet’s temperature changes. “You ever notice any thermal aberrations while you were wearing it?” he asked.

“Not that I recall.”

“Well, just what is this thing supposed to do, Sam? You’ve never been too clear on that.”

Sam shrugged. “Truth is, I don’t really know. The hunter who gave it to me wasn’t specific. He just said it would take care of me, and I believed him. He was a really smart guy who knew heaps of lore.”

“Well, where is he now? Maybe we should ask him about it.”

“I don’t know. I haven’t seen or heard of him since I was a kid.”

Dean stared at Sam. A bunch of questions piled into his head and jostled each other to get to the front of the queue. “Wait . . . are we talking about the guy who played ball with you? Happy memory guy? He gave you this?”

There was a silence in which Sam did nothing except go pink.

“And when was this?”

Sam shrugged again. “I don’t know. I was four, five, six. I’m not sure.”

A fist fight nearly broke out in Dean’s head but he told everyone to settle. Some of the ideas were just plain crazy anyway. “Sam . . . you told me it wasn’t valuable . . .”

“It isn’t. Far as I know.”

Dean fingered the weird-ass carving . . . that had always seemed vaguely familiar . . . and shook his head. Maybe it wouldn’t fetch much on ebay but it had been a gift from the one guy in Sam’s young life who seemed to have made a good impression on him. True, the boy could be pretty casual about material possessions . . . sometimes . . . but this was something he’d kept and worn for maybe eighteen years. It was possibly the most precious thing he’d ever owned . . . and he’d just handed it over in a moment to a virtual stranger. Why would he do that?!

“S – Sam . . . if the guy meant it to protect you . . .” he swallowed as his throat tried to close over the words “. . . maybe you shouldn’t have given it away.”

In the silence that stretched out between them Dean’s chest started to burn from not breathing. Sam’s jaw tightened and stretched. “I can’t explain it, Dean,” he said, not meeting Dean’s gaze, “but it felt like the right thing to do at the time.”

Dean cleared his throat. “Have you ever regretted it?” It came out hoarse anyway.

Sam lifted his head and this time he looked straight into Dean’s eyes, blue hues in the hazel robbing Dean of what little breath he had in his lungs. “Not for a moment,” he said.

Dean’s gaze slid away from Sam’s and rested sightlessly on the amulet. Out of the blue, Donny’s words came back to him: you wear him next to your heart, but you don't know it. He wondered now what Donny had really meant by that.

His fingers toyed with the carving while he waited for his voice to be trustworthy. “Guess we’d better stick close to each other from now on, then,” he managed at last, though it was barely above a whisper, and he frowned as his vision got misty. “’Cause, you know . . . I don’t think it likes being parted from you,” he croaked.

Sam was a while replying, too, and then he just said “not going anywhere, Dean.”

It’s kinda hard to kiss someone when you’ve got a lump in your throat, but at least Sam couldn’t see his face. Dean fumbled blindly for the TV remote, and the screen faded to black.

Chapter Text

Scene 16


Dean was making a big deal about untangling the covers on his bed.

“I hope you slept well last night, Sam, in your pristinely made bed,” he grumbled pointedly, “after coming over here and wrecking mine.”

I wrecked it?” Sam huffed incredulously. “I recall it being a joint effort!”

Dean smirked, but continued to bitch anyway. “Next time we use your bed,” he insisted.

Sam really couldn’t see Dean’s issue. “We’ve used my bed once and your bed once,” he pointed out. “That seems fair.”

Dean raised his eyebrows. “Oh, we’re calling last night ‘once’?”

Sam grinned, ducked his head and made a pretense of returning his attention to the laptop.

“Besides, you didn’t sleep in ‘your’ bed after that time in Burkitsville, so it doesn’t count,” Dean persisted.

“And you’re keeping score?”

“Damn straight. And I plan on being obnoxious about it.”

“Situation normal, then?”

Dean actually looked impressed with the retort and allowed Sam to return to his research without responding.

Until a few moments later when his guard was down and he got a pillow in the face.

“Oh, real mature, Dean!” he complained, trying not to laugh. He considered pitching the pillow back at Dean but decided he’d be the bigger man, and just tossed it back to the bed. “Jerk,” he said.

“Bitch.”

Sam could have pointed out that Dean was the one bitching, but he’d never get any work done until he let Dean have the last word.

“Should I even ask what you’re researching?” Dean asked while he folded the sheets.

Sam switched windows, just in case Dean wanted to look at the screen. “Last rites,” he said.

“Oh, right. Mm.” Dean nodded.

“I’ll try the talking cure first, though. I was planning to have a word with Talia while you’re out. If I find a way to cross Donny over, do you want me to wait until you get back?”

Dean seemed to be paying close attention to the sheet. He shook his head. “Nah, you go right ahead. I hate misty goodbye speeches.” He grimaced. “So, any idea what’s good for getting oil out of bed linen?” he asked.

Sam checked and Google supplied suggestions. “Huh. Coca Cola, apparently.”

“Really? Well, O.K.” Dean started packing the sheets into the laundry duffel.

“I’m sure Annie would have done that, you know,” Sam pointed out, but Dean just shrugged. He seemed uncharacteristically coy. “I think she knows, Dean . . . ah, what we do. I think she’s cool with it.”

“Yeah, well. There’s a difference between knowing what we do and knowing what we did last night. Besides, expecting her to clean up after I get carried away with the baby oil . . . it’s not polite.”

Sam stared at Dean. “Huh,” he said.

“What?”

Sam shrugged. “Nothing.” Seems there were always new sides of Dean to discover.

Dean finished packing the laundry and carried it over to the fire escape. As he opened the door the morning sunlight caught the ends of his hair and turned them golden. For a moment he just stood there, breathing in the fresh air. “Smells like Spring,” he remarked. “Maybe we’re getting May weather a couple of days early.”

Sam waited for him to disappear down the stairs, and a minute or so later he heard the rumble of the car engine and the drag on gravel as it pulled out of the drive. Switching windows again, he studied the information he’d pulled up on angels:

Sam Hii - One of the ruling angels of the North Star. The name means "Creation of life."

Samandiriel - This angel holds dominion over imagination and helps us realize that a vivid imagination is a very healing tool to have, because we can visualize and create alternative realities with which to transform our own lives as well as the world around us.

Samax - Chief of the angels of the air and ruling angel of the day Tuesday.

Sameron - An angel of the 12th hour of the day.

 Samandiriel was his personal favorite. A guardian angel that inspired creativity seemed like a positive companion, and Sammy had seemed to encourage Dean’s poetry. Sam Hii, on the other hand, could easily be interpreted as “Sammy” by a young boy.

There were less harmless alternatives: the demon, Samhain, for example, the origin of Halloween. But he could only be raised once every six hundred years and evil followed him around like the friggin’ pied piper. If he was topside, Sam figured they’d know about it already. Then there was the Talmudic archangel Samael, an ambiguous figure represented as both good and evil, whose name might translate as either the poison or the medicine of God. As ruler of either the seventh or fifth heavens he was the angel of love or death. In some lore Samael was said to be the name of Lucifer before he fell.

There was another angel in the seventh heaven, different in appearance from all the others, and of frightful mien. His height was so great, it would have taken five hundred years to cover a distance equal to it, and from the crown of his head to the soles of his feet he was studded with glaring eyes, at the sight of which the beholder fell prostrate in awe. "This one," said Metatron, addressing Moses, "is Samael, who takes the soul away from man." . . . Thereupon Moses prayed to God in these words, "O may it be Thy will, my God and the God of my fathers, not to let me fall into the hands of this angel.”

The description left Sam chilled to the bone. Surely, if such a being existed, it could have no interest in a small boy . . . and yet the power of the yellow-eyed demon implied that the senior hierarchy of Hell had indeed targeted the Winchester family for some reason.

Sam shook his head. He was getting needlessly carried away. There simply wasn’t enough information to draw any conclusions about the identity of the mysterious playmate. All he had to go on were the half remembered recollections of a ten year old boy and, after all, Sammy might have been nothing more than the product of a child’s imagination. There was no actual evidence that he existed or that he was intruding in Dean’s present life in any way. Sam decided to put this information on a back burner until there was a reason to suppose it was important.

All the same, he read the passage one more time before he closed the window, and found himself vowing not to let Dean “fall into the hands of this angel”.

After he’d showered and dressed he made his way downstairs and discreetly swept the main house with the EMF monitor; the readings were as strong as ever and, if anything, the smell of ozone was stronger today. He caught Annie watching him from the kitchen but she turned when she saw him looking her way. Sam felt awkward, too. After all, he’d promised her a ghost-free house and he was yet to deliver. He was beginning to wonder if he could.

Talia was in the family room watching cartoons. He heard her talking before he entered but she stopped when she saw him.

“Is Donny here?” he asked her.

When she looked at him, Sam thought she seemed a little closed, perhaps even resentful. “I know what you want, Sam,” she said. “Donny told me. You want him to go.”

Sam drew in a quiet but deep breath. He wasn’t sure whether it would make it easier or harder that Donny knew that. He squatted down so he was eye level with the girl. “Talia, he can’t stay forever. He doesn’t belong here, and it wouldn’t be good for him or you if he stayed.”

There was a droop to her bottom lip as she turned her gaze back to the TV screen, and for a moment Sam thought she was going to ignore him, but then she just said “he knows.” He was alarmed when he noticed that her eyes were twinkling wetly, and a part of him was already beating a retreat back to the garage. He really didn’t know what he’d do if she started crying.

“Talia, what does Donny want?” he persisted. “Is there anything he still needs from us?”

She gave him her attention once more. “Just time,” she said.

Sam frowned, puzzled. “Time for what?”

“He can’t say. But he thinks it won’t be long.”

It was frustrating. He didn’t feel like he was getting anywhere, but he didn’t know what to do about it. Was that all they had to do? Wait? For how much longer? What was a spirit’s idea of ‘not long’?

Talia interrupted his thoughts. “Donny has a message for you, Sam,” she said, “about Dean.”

Caught off guard, Sam stood up rather hurriedly and his flesh prickled with apprehension. “What is it?” he demanded, in a tone that was perhaps a little forgetful that he was talking to a ten year old girl, but she didn’t seem perturbed by it.

“He says you need to start trusting Dean, or he’ll stop trusting you,” she said simply. “He says friends need to have faith in each other.”



When Dean got back from the laundromat he found Sam sitting on the bottom stair of the fire escape, and from his expression it was clear he was all up inside his head, which couldn’t be good.

“So, did Donny go quietly?” he asked, apprehensively, after he’d retrieved the duffel from the trunk.

Sam shook his head. “He’s still here. I tried talking to Talia, but I didn’t really get anywhere. Donny kind of blind-sided me, actually,” he acknowledged, and then he scratched his ear, which was a tell Dean was learning to recognize. So what was Sam all shifty and embarrassed about?

“Yeah? Wanna tell me about it?”

“Later.” Sam stood up. “I’ve found something interesting in the last rites and prayers I was looking at, but I don’t know how important it is. I’ve been thinking . . . maybe we need to go back and have another word with Donny’s mother, find out more about Donny’s religious background – ”

Dean’s heart sank. “Ah, Sam, if you’re thinking of torching the Saint Christopher – ”

“No! No, not at all,” Sam quickly reassured him, “In fact, I’m not even sure that would . . . ” He let the sentence trail off and stared at a point somewhere over Dean’s left shoulder.

When he turned to check out the distraction Dean saw there was a woman standing outside the Acker home, staring toward the house. She was attractive for her age, around forty maybe, with graying caramel colored hair and striking blue eyes. Dean hadn’t seen her around the neighborhood before. She seemed nervous and a little excited at the same time, and when she noticed Dean watching her she called over to him.

“Oh! Do you . . . ? Are you the home owner?” she asked.

“No, we’re just staying here, but can we help you?” Dean offered.

“Oh . . . well . . .” she fluttered, and her cheeks pinked with embarrassment. “This is probably going to sound a bit strange . . . but I grew up here, next door, and . . . ” She hesitated and laughed, but her eyes were moist with unshed tears. “A friend and I buried something in the back yard of this house thirty years ago . . . and we were supposed to dig it up today.”

Dean and Sam shared an epiphany moment that was interrupted when the front door flew open. Talia rushed out of it and halted, breathless and excited, in front of the woman. “Are you Suzy?” she asked, and proceeded to stun the visitor by adding “Donny’s been waiting for you!”

~

It was a far cry from the usual kind of disinterments Sam and Dean were used to. Suzy and Talia retired to the yard with shovels and trowels, and returned with a cookie tin. The contents were fascinating and in amazing, maybe miraculous, condition considering they’d been buried for thirty years. Suzy laughed at what she’d written on her postcard. The ladies had a squee over the photo of the Osmonds; seems they’d both been fans. All the adults were absorbed with the thirty year old news: there was a lot about the Bicentennial; political news revolved around the Presidential elections, and the sports pages were excited about the upcoming Olympic Games in Montreal; Sam was particularly interested in an article about Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, founders of the newly formed Apple Computer company.

But the comic book took the prize. Dean nearly bust out his inner Geek when he saw it. “Holy Mother of . . . Spiderman!” he cried. “Is that what I think it is?!”

“Oh, my goodness!” Annie gasped.

“Hey, look at this, Sam! Can you believe it? It’s the first ever Captain Astro story!” With every expression, every gesture, Dean desperately tried to communicate to Sam: look amazed, look stunned, look freaking thrilled! And, bless him, the guy did his best.

“Oh, wow!” he exclaimed. “That’s just . . . wow!”

“He’s speechless,” Dean augmented.

Sam nodded agreement. “That really is . . . wow.”

Seems Suzy and Talia had already talked about the comic. “Donny wants you to have this,” Suzy told Annie.

Annie’s eyes widened. “Oh, no, I couldn’t possibly . . . you don’t understand. This is worth money. A lot of money.”

“It was Donny’s, and he wants you to have it,” Suzy reiterated. “Besides,” she added, “it was buried on your property, so there’s a legal case that it belongs to you anyway.”

Annie stared at Suzy, then at the comic book, then back at Suzy. Her mouth worked, but no sound came out, and eventually she just flapped her hand in front of her face and squeaked something about making them all a pot of tea before hurriedly disappearing into the kitchen.

“Is it really worth that much?” Sam asked Dean quietly.

“You kidding me?” Dean replied, sotto voce. “This is a first edition, dude. You know what it would go for on eBay?”

“No. Why? Do you?”

“No. Maybe. Shut up.” Dean noticed Suzy was turning a cassette tape over in her fingers. “What’s on it?” he asked her. “Osmond Brothers’ greatest hits?”

She smiled. “Just a random hour of radio. To be honest, I don’t really remember. Donny wants me to play it. Apparently he says it’s important, but I don’t even know anyone who still has a cassette player.”

Dean resisted the urge to glance at Sam, and he could feel Sam studiously not looking at him but . . . hell . . . if Donny said it was important . . . Dean cleared his throat. “Well . . . uh . . . actually, I do.”

He took Suzy out to the car, started the engine and popped the tape in for her, then left her there with it.

“You’re not gonna listen with her?” Sam asked as he came away.

Dean shook his head. “Can’t,” he replied tightly. He glanced back toward the car then quickly looked away again. He couldn’t watch either. “That tape’s been in the ground thirty years,” he hissed. “If it fucks up the player, you can fix it, right?” he asked, without optimism.

Sam’s face completely emptied of expression, and then he nodded awkwardly. “Yeah,” he said. “Sure.” He was lying. Dean could tell. He turned and hurried back into the house, crossing every digit he had.

When Suzy came back crying an hour later his first thought was to fear the worst, but then he realized she was smiling, too. She made a bee-line for him, gave him a big hug and a rather soggy kiss on the cheek. “Thank you,” she said, eyes shining with an odd mix of joy and tender sadness. “Thank you.”

So it was worth it. Probably. Hopefully.

Annie invited her to stay for dinner and over the meal they discovered they had more in common than a taste for dudes with stunning vocal harmonies and big teeth. Suzy had children about Talia’s age, and she loved books, too. When Annie mentioned the bookstore Suzy remembered it, and with a little encouragement she remembered Annie working there. They talked of books and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings and eventually, over perhaps half a glass too much wine and a few more tears, Annie explained what the windfall from the comic book would mean for her: it meant she could pay off the finance on the store; it meant she’d be able to keep it going.

After dinner Suzy and Talia played a game of marbles. It was hard to say why – not like the marbles moved by themselves or anything – but something in their quiet conversation and movements gave the impression of a third player. When the game was done they went out to the yard, carefully placed the marbles back in the bottom of the hole and covered them over with the earth: a simple, private ceremony to say goodbye.

Sam watched from the kitchen window, and as woman and girl stood and brushed the dirt from their hands he drew the EMF monitor from his pocket, not that he really needed the tech or the lack of ozone smell to tell him what he already knew. Dean and Annie drew up by his side and Dean directed a questioning look at him. He nodded.

“Donny’s gone,” he assured them.

Annie let out a quiet sigh. It was mostly relief, but there was a trace of a frown troubling her forehead. “You know, I never even thanked him,” she said.

“I think he knew,” Dean assured her. It was probably true.

“You helped him, too,” Sam reminded her.

She nodded. “I know, but it’s so important, what he’s given us. It means stability for Talia, security for her future. I think . . .” she heaved a quick breath “. . . I think maybe he was an angel.”

Sam and Dean shared a glance, but neither said a word.

Suzy left soon after, but not before exchanging addresses and phone numbers with Annie and Talia, and somehow it seemed that Donny’s departing marked not so much an end as a new beginning.

As they returned to the house Sam’s attention was caught by a lock of hair that Talia was holding between her fingers.

“Is that Donny’s?” he asked her.

She nodded, and he noticed there was still a trace of tears on her cheeks.

“He’s in a better place, now,” he said, hoping it would comfort her.

She didn’t respond straight away, perhaps recognizing the platitude for what it was, but presently she explained “Donny told me it was time for him to wake up, and he wanted me to keep this as a reminder that a part of him would always stay with me, in my heart.”

“I’m sure that’s true, too,” Sam agreed. He gazed at the ring of bright hair, remembering the marbles, the comic book, and the Saint Christopher, and he couldn’t help smiling as he contemplated how futile it would have been to burn the bones. There was a little of Donny everywhere.

Annie slipped an arm around Talia’s shoulder and Sam and Dean left mother and daughter to their privacy and retired to their own room. The laptop was still open on the table where Sam had left it and he opened up his files on last rites . . . not that it was important any more, but he was curious.

“So that was it?” Dean asked. “Donny’s unfinished business? He hung around all those years just to keep a promise to a friend?”

Sam shrugged. “Looks like,” he said.

“And all that time, he never knew he was dead? He was still talking to Tal about waking up. He thought he was dreaming?”

“Maybe he was,” Sam suggested. “Maybe we all are.”

Dean tipped his head forward. “Say what now?”

“Well, it’s occurred to me, Dean: in some beliefs death is referred to as an awakening. Listen to this, it’s from a last rites ritual,” and Sam quoted the prayer on the screen: “‘I call upon the archangel Gabriel, Master of the Air, to make open the way. Let the fire of the Holy Spirit now descend that this soul might be awakened to the world beyond’. And there’s this one as well: the Prayer of Saint Francis.” He turned the screen around and Dean leaned over and read the text:

“Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort than to be comforted, to understand than to be understood, to love than to be loved. For it is by forgetting self that one finds. It is by forgiving that one is forgiven. It is by dying that one awakens to eternal life.”

“All this time we’ve been worrying about crossing Donny over,” Sam continued, “but I’m beginning to think he wasn’t the one who needed to see the light. I think maybe he understood more than any of us. Dean, what if some spirits, some souls are granted some kind of prescience about . . . I don’t know . . . the nature of things?”

Dean studied Sam from under his brow. “O.K. Sam, Donny wasn’t an angel, right? He was just your common variety household spirit?”

“Well, I guess it depends what you’re expecting an angel to be, Dean. I mean, Biblically, they’re these supernatural beings with wings and halos that throng around the throne of Heaven, but not all the lore interprets them that way. Sometimes they’re heavenly messengers, and sometimes they’re just ordinary people doing God’s will. In some beliefs, spirits can become either angels or demons in the afterlife. I guess all souls have divine and demonic potential and it comes down to choices; some spirits choose the path of anger and vengeance, Donny chose to help others and give them peace.”

Dean spent a few moments mulling over all that. “So, angel is as angel does,” he said.

“I guess,” Sam agreed. “Something like that. I guess we’ll never know for sure.” Sam paused then drew in a deep breath. He could feel his heartbeat accelerating until it was pounding in his chest. “Dean, Donny said something to me today,” he began, feeling the tremor in his voice, “about having faith in – ”

The laptop beeped loudly and Sam’s lungs emptied like he’d taken a step into thin air.

“Hold that thought, Sam,” Dean told him as he opened the tracker program. “Red Lodge, again,” he said, with emphasis, but then he frowned. “No . . . wait . . . Sam!” His tone was a mixture of urgency, alarm and excitement. “Sam, she’s still there! She’s been there . . . most of the day!”

Sam turned the computer back around so he could study the screen. There were occasional breaks where the signal had dropped out and back in again, but it appeared that Gemma had spent the last eight hours or more in Montana and, sure enough, she was still there. She hadn’t morphed out this time. Sam started surfing the local news from the area. He found some complaints about minor power outages but, apart from that, nothing unusual.

“What’s she up to, Sam?” Dean demanded.

Sam lifted his hands helplessly. “I have no idea,” he admitted.

“Well, I guess there’s only one way to find out.” Dean emptied the duffel onto his mattress and started repacking. “Make up a thermos, Sam. Looks like we’ve got another night drive ahead of us.”

Sam stared at him. “Oh, no, wait, Dean! We’re supposed to be watching her movements not – ”

“Watching and learning nothing, Sam! She keeps circling that town; there must be a reason for it, and we’re not gonna find out what it is sitting on our asses.”

You could be the reason, Dean: to get you to go there. This has trap written all over it.”

Dean just continued packing. “Don’t you think if she really wanted me in a trap she’d be smart enough not to write ‘trap’ all over it?” he observed.

Sam had to deliberate over that one. “Unless she’s really smart,” he suggested.

Dean straightened up and faced him. “Look, that town is a day’s drive away, and we don’t know why Gemma’s there, or what she’s got planned. What if she starts dropping bodies? The sooner we get there, the sooner we’d be in a position to do something about it.”

He couldn’t refute the logic; he just suspected Dean’s agenda.

“I’m not suggesting we ride in guns blazing, Sam,” Dean insisted. “I’m just saying: head in that direction, that’s all.”

“Uh, huh,” Sam said doubtfully. He was less than assured that this trip wasn’t going to end in a confrontation with a demon, but he understood Dean’s need to act, and he started packing anyway. As he powered down the laptop he reflected that he just couldn’t seem to take a trick, but now wasn’t the moment for stunning revelations that could throw them both off their game. Sam’s secrets had kept this long; they could keep another day, just until this crisis had passed – one way or another.

~

Annie was shocked at their sudden departure, but Dean told her enough that she understood it was important. He left out scary details about demons and monsters, of course, but people got news about missing dads. And she sent them on their way with enough meatloaf, pie and other provisions to make diner food nothing but a bad memory for a couple of days at least.

Dean warmed up the engine while Sam finished packing the car. O.K. He was cleaning the cassette player. He must have run the cleaning tape through a dozen times.

Talia ran up while he was sorting through his collection, trying to decide which tape it would break his heart least to lose if the player was fucked.

“Dean, I forgot!” she said, breathlessly. “Donny wanted me to give you something – as a reminder, he said, of something you should never lose.”

“What is it, Sweetheart?” he asked.

She handed him a card.

“Hope,” she said.

Dean stared at the picture for a few moments then bent down and hugged Tal until his eyes stopped stinging.

The car was loaded up, last hugs were exchanged, goodbyes said, luck wished and they pulled out of the driveway smiling and waving. Then they were on the road and Dean breathed a sigh of relief, ’cause he hated misty goodbyes.

He propped the card up in front of him, wedged it into the crack between the dash and the windscreen. It was The Star card from the tarot. The picture was of an angel suspended over the Earth. In each hand it held a pitcher; one was pouring onto the land, the other into the sea. Resting on its chest was a star in the shape of a pentacle.

Dean absently fingered the amulet on his own chest. Then he dropped his hand blindly into the box of tapes, pulled one out and fed it into the player without checking to see which it was. The opening bars sounded O.K. and by the time it had reached the first chorus without any fatal squealy noises, Dean was beginning to breathe a little easier. He even dared to give Sam a little grin.

“You don’t play this one so often,” Sam observed.

“No, well I have to be in the right mood for it. But,” Dean held up a finger, “Bon Jovi rocks, on occasion.” He relaxed back in the seat and soon he was singing along with the track.

“She says we've got to hold on to what we've got.
It doesn't make a difference if we make it or not.
We've got each other and that's a lot.
For love - we’ll give it a shot.

“Whoa! We're half way there.
Whoa-oh! Livin on a prayer!
Take my hand and we'll make it, I swear.
Whoa-oh! Livin on a prayer!”

Sam even joined in for the chorus. Of course, the guy was having all kinds of trouble finding the key, but you had to give him points for trying.

Chapter Text

Scene 17  (Final)


Red Lodge, Montana, 22 hours later.


Dean was winding the salt soaked rope into a tight coil as Sam walked up and handed him the keys to the Dodge. He stared at the beat up looking minivan with intense distaste.

“You’re kidding me?”

“You wanted something inconspicuous,” Sam pointed out.

Dean grimaced but didn’t argue. “D’you get ’em?” he asked.

“What happened to not going in guns blazing?” Sam objected, but Dean just waited with his hand outstretched until Sam reluctantly handed over one of the pistols. Dean gave it a cursory glance before stuffing it down the back of his jeans. He winced as it leaked down his ass crack.

“This is a bad idea,” Sam insisted for the nth time.

“Yeah, I couldn't agree more,” Dean acknowledged, “but what other choice do we have?”

“We could choose life.”

“Sam, whatever Gemma wants, she's after me. That much we know, right? And I've got no place to hide. She found me before and she will again. I can either get caught with my pants down again, or we can make our stand.”

“With water pistols and a lasso?!”

Dean closed the trunk of the Impala. “Yippee ki-yay,” he said and turned toward the Dodge. “This is humiliating,” he complained as he took a seat behind the wheel. “I feel like a frickin' soccer mom!”

In the event, switching transport might have been a needless precaution. They drove round the perimeter of the cemetery twice without seeing a soul (demonic or otherwise).

On the last pass Dean parked by one of the entry roads. “You sure this is the right place, Sam?”

Sam directed the EMF monitor out of the passenger window. “Something’s been here recently.” Agitated flashing and squawking corroborated his statement.

After some minutes spent doing nothing effectual, other than frowning and staring out of the window, Dean grabbed the monitor out of Sam’s hand. “Cover me!” he snapped.

“Dean!”

He was already out the door and half way to the entrance. The best Sam could do was jump out and follow him. And perhaps it was just as well there was no one around to see them. They would have made a strange sight, edging into a cemetery, circling each other with water pistols while they followed the squealing directions of the EMF.

On a neglected grave just thirty yards from the entrance they found sulfur deposits, and an abandoned cell phone. It was turned on and unlocked.

“Dean!” Sam hissed anxiously.

The call log had been emptied, but the address file yielded a name. Just one. No number.

“Dean, we need to get out of here!” Sam insisted. “This is a fucking trap!”

“Or a message,” Dean suggested.

Sam frowned. “What message?”

Dean showed Sam the name. Maybe it would mean something to him: “Samuel Colt.”

 

 

STILL TO COME

Thank you for reading Something Wicked?, episode 5 in the series THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME. Other episodes in this series include the double pilot episode, I Can Never Go Home, part 1: "Visions and Revisions"  and part 2: "The Never Ending Road", episode 2, Golem  episode 3, Prank'd and episode 4, Together

 

COMING SOON:
EPISODE 6: BAD BLOOD

Sam and Dean try to discover more about Gemma’s visit to Red Lodge and her cryptic clue about the Colt. Dean is delighted when he runs into his old college buddy, Jim Masters. Sam isn’t so thrilled, and is determined to prove the handsome charmer isn’t all he appears. Meanwhile, a confrontation with vampires stirs painful memories of his fatal last case with the Campbells.


CLOSING CREDITS


For the benefit of those readers who enjoy spotting my allusions to other fandoms etc.


From the Prologue:

Both the description of Suzy and her name pay homage to the central character in the book that was my primary inspiration for this story: The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold.

Suzy’s pop idols, the brothers from Utah, are of course The Osmonds.


From Scene 1:

 

 

In his heart he began to understand they were all just pawns in some huge monstrous game that they couldn't possibly win.


An echo of Galadriel’s speech in The Two Towers: “In his heart Frodo begins to understand – the quest will claim his life.”

 

 

“It's like Angel said: if nothing that you do matters, then what you do is all that matters. I've never forgotten that."


As Dean explains later, this alludes to Joss Whedon’s TV series Angel, S2E16 “Epiphany”.

"Never tell me the odds." - Han Solo’s mantra from Star Wars



From Scene 2:

"the demon formerly known as Gemma” – a play on the artist formerly known as Prince.



From Scene 3:

The imagery immediately following Donny’s death owes much to Peter Jackson’s movie adaptation of The Lovely Bones.

“Can you see me?” – a vague allusion to the TV show, Ghost Whisperer. In the pilot, a ghost child asked Melinda “can you see us?” and this was reprised in the opening credits of all the subsequent episodes.


From Scene 4

“If this woman's helping the cops, what do you care if she's gone Alyson Dubois on their asses?" – an allusion to the character played by Patricia Arquette in the TV show Medium.

It was like little Sammy's eyes had Jedi powers or something. – a reference to the Jedi powers of mind control from Star Wars.


From Scene 5

 

 

Dean didn't think he could take it if some little kid went Linda Blair on their asses on top of everything else.

Linda Blair was the actress who played the possessed girl in The Exorcist. (She also guested in the Supernatural episode, “The Usual Suspects”.)

 

 

Jennifer Love-Hewitt and her equally hot shop assistant were discussing hauntings and house renovations over affogato and biscotti. Dean debated for a few moments and decided he could watch a show that made the supernatural look about as scary as Dawson's Creek.

Jennifer Love-Hewitt played Melinda Gordon in the TV show Ghost Whisperer. (Jensen Ackles appeared in Dawson’s Creek as C. J. between 2002 and 2003).

“This is Disney for grown ups”. – Ghost Whisperer is distributed by Buena Vista, a Walt Disney company.

“Sam, I've got to be able to trust you 'cause I'm not Linda Freaking Lovelace.” – Linda Lovelace was a porn star best known for her role in Deep Throat.

And round and round and round she goes and where she stops nobody knows. – Phrase repeated each week by Ted Mack, host of The Original Amateur Hour. (It was also alluded to in Supernatural episode I Know What You Did Last Summer.)


From Scene 6:

 

 

She seemed like a perfectly normal little girl with no ambitions to levitate or spew pea soup.

Another allusion to The Exorcist.

 

 

He bit into his egg and bacon roll and felt grease dribbling down his chin. As he wiped it away and licked his fingers, he caught Sam staring at him. "What?" he demanded. Sam picked up a napkin and handed it to him, always the critic, but Dean took it and dried his fingers.

I’ve actually had the audacity to allude to one of my own stories here. Anyone who’s read my one-shots might recognize this reversal of a certain situation in “Sugar-coated Sam”.

 

 

It looked like the Holy Grail. A quick mental flash of Monty Python angels lifted Dean's spirits and he bit back a snort of laughter.

In the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail, God appeared to King Arthur in a vision and appointed him to the quest for the Grail. The angels in this scene had . . . ah . . . a unique way of blowing their trumpets . . . . .


From Scene 7:

Giving Annie the Columbo treatment – Columbo was a seventies TV detective best known for his shabby trench-coat and a disarming manner that he used to catch out suspects, usually by springing some kind of trap when the questioning was apparently over, just before leaving.

 

 

“O.K, Mr Spock, and does that mean we have to check all human compassion and empathy at the door?”

Perhaps Dean would do well to remember that the veneer of logic that Mr Spock displays in Star Trek is used to suppress the powerfully passionate Vulcan nature.

“There’s something reassuringly Al Capone about that.” – The notorious crime boss was finally arrested not for murder or racketeering, but for tax evasion.

 

 

Sam flinched a little as he reached toward his face, but all he did was tweak Sam’s nose. “Honk!” he said

An allusion to Mr Miyagi’s victory over the rival karate instructor in the original Karate Kid movie.


From Scene 8:

“Sam, here, came back raving about your comic books. He’s a big fan of the Captain Astro series.”

Captain Astro is actually a fictional comic book superhero invented for the TV series Queer as Folk. Michael and his friends in that show believed the subtext of the comic books implied the character was gay.

 

 

Dean stared thoughtfully at Talia. He could understand how it might be unnerving for her mother if she made a habit of going all John Wyndham like this.

In John Wyndham’s novel, Chocky, a young boy’s imaginary friend turns out to be an extra-terrestrial visitor.

“Everybody dies.” – This observation is made by a heavenly guide in The Lovely Bones, and turns out to be an enduring message of the novel.


From Scene 9

 

 

Was that all Donny meant, just a common truth? But then why did it seem so particular with Dean?

Of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act I Sc ii:

GERTRUDE Thou know'st 'tis common; all that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity.
HAMLET Ay, madam, it is common.
GERTRUDE If it be, why seems it so particular with thee?


From Scene 10

 

 

Not like he’d had any intimations of immortality himself in the last couple of days or anything.

Of William Wordsworth’s ode, “Intimations of Immortality”. The fifth stanza of this poem begins:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:


From Scene 11:

 

 

Sam took a beat to absorb the point. “So . . . he was saying . . . this is Hell?”

“Nor are we out of it,” Dean affirmed.

Of Christopher Marlowe’s Faustus and the assertion of the devil, Mephistophilis, in Act I Sc iii: “Why this is hell nor am I out of it.”


From Scene 12:

 

 

“Think of a sensitive like a radio receiver picking up a wave, a vibration,” Sam explained patiently. “Talia’s just re-imagining that message in a form that’s meaningful for her. Just because it’s happening in her head, that doesn’t mean it isn’t real.”

Alludes to the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.


From Scene 13:

In The Lovely Bones the murderer keeps a collection of tokens similar to those mentioned on Donny’s list. In particular, he keeps a Pennsylvania keystone from Suzy Salmon’s charm bracelet. The idea of the sinkhole in this scene was also suggested by Alice Sebold’s novel, although it plays a somewhat different role than in the book or movie.


From Scene 15:

 

 

The point of this exercise was apparently to “acclimatize” him to “intimacy in a neutral context.” Sam didn’t know what ex-girlfriend, website or show Dean had gotten that one from, but it struck him as a very peculiar practice.

Perhaps during his European tour Dean caught a repeat of a BBC comedy show starring Peter Davison, about a University doctor whose girlfriend helped him over his touch taboo issues. If there’s a reader out there who actually watched “A Very Peculiar Practice” and got that joke, please give me a shout. I’m curious :)

The show Sam and Dean are watching is the Season 1 finale of Ghost Whisperer.

From the Final scene:

The phrase “Yippee ki-yay” was repeated in the refrain of the Johnny Cash song “Ghost Riders in the Sky”, a song about chasing a herd of the Devil’s cattle . . . . . I think Dean might be suggesting that Gemma is a demonic cow :P



MUSIC CREDITS


Scene 2:

“One Hand in My Pocket” by Alanis Morissette, performed and shamelessly stuffed with by Dean Winchester.

Scene 5:

“Clouds (Both Sides Now)” by Joni Mitchell

“The Key” by Dean Winchester.

Scene 16:

“Livin’ on a Prayer” by Bon Jovi.
 

 


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Chapter Text

Sunrise, Wyoming. May 1 st 1856.

There was no sound at first but for the wind in the trees and the song of birds. At first. Then came the distant rumble of hooves, drawing nearer, growing louder, until the horse thundered along the dirt track and drew up sharply in the clearing outside the old timber shack. The rider, a fair haired man with a young face and old eyes, swung free of the saddle and dropped to the ground, spurs rattling as his boots hit the dirt, the tails of his long coat swaying around his shins. He didn't bother to tether the horse to the hitching rail, just let it wander freely up the track; he knew it wouldn't roam far. Pausing to light a cheroot he inhaled deeply, lips twisting into a sardonic smirk as he surveyed his environment

"Home sweet home?" he challenged, betraying traces of a deep southern drawl, as he let himself into the cabin.

The weathered old hunter barely glanced up from the volume where he was scribbling in a rapid sloping hand. "For now," he confirmed, gruffly.

"You're a long way from Connecticut," the young man observed. "I heard you were building a railroad. Not enough profit in arms dealing, then?" There was no response except the scratching of the pen so he continued in a more serious tone. "Your devil's trap won't stop it, Colt. There's only one thing that will. Do you have it or not?"

The hunter finally raised his head. Tossing back his jacket he revealed the gun holstered at his hip. "You have to catch him first," he pointed out.

"Oh, I'll find him," the visitor drawled, low and silky. "But will it get the job done?"

A humorless smile touched the corners of Colt's lips as he drew the gun out of the holster and handed it to the fair haired man. "This gun will kill anything that walks on God's green earth," he assured him.

"The Beast, too?"

The confidence withered from Colt's expression, but he nodded nevertheless. "It'll kill the Demon and his spawn if it comes to that," he said. "Better it doesn't."

The visitor examined the weapon. It was a thing of beauty, a precision instrument in every detail. The inky black metal was ornately decorated, there was a pentacle branded into the polished walnut grip, and the barrel bore the legend "non timebo mala". There were 5 bullets loaded in the cylinder.

"The rest are in there." Colt indicated a box on the desk. "Don't waste 'em. The gun's useless once they're gone." He watched the other man place the gun in its box and close the lid, but as he moved to pick it up Colt held it with a restraining hand. "I'm trusting you with a fearful weapon," he said. "It isn't to be used indiscriminately."

The other man smirked. "Growing morals in your old age, Colt?" he asked.

"I'm thinking of the children," Colt persisted. "They're not the monsters. They're just innocent victims."

The visitor raised his gaze from the box. His knowing eyes held Colt's, and his lips peeled back in a rueful grin that revealed the sharp points of his second set of teeth. "So were we all," he commented, "once upon a time."

Colt absorbed the point then nodded grimly. "Once upon a time," he agreed.

 

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