Dean Winchester looked glumly at the pool table. He realized that, this time, he was the one who'd been hustled. He knew, now, that the cough behind him that had put him off his last shot had come from this guy's unacknowledged friend. The guy knew it. The guy knew Dean knew it, and was grinning a big shit-eating grin as he chalked his cue for the next shot. Of course the accomplice had now disappeared. Dean had no proof and this guy was older and bigger than him. Dean could probably force the guy to give him his money back, he thought, definitely if he pulled his knife – carefully strapped to his ankle, accessible yet well concealed – but that would open the door to a hundred kinds of trouble.
Dean was fifteen: yesterday, in fact. Dad was away but Sammy had given him a home-drawn card, depicting them both salting and burning a corpse, with 'Happy Birthday Dean Love Sammy' written inside in his neat (too neat) handwriting. Dean had ribbed his little brother about the 'love', Sammy had become embarrassed, they'd fought and Sammy had ended up throwing the card in the trash. Dean had picked it out later, when Sammy was in the bathroom; it was in his inside pocket right now. Dean wasn't a sentimental kid, as a rule, but. Well.
That ghost had been Sammy's first hunt without Dad, a week ago: routine for Dean now but it had clearly made an impression on Sammy. Dad told him not to take Sam along but his little brother had pestered him and he could at least help with the digging. And Dad wasn't here. Dean had warned Sammy he could only come along on the job if he never ever told Dad about it on pain of death but he guessed drawing it on a birthday card that the old man would never see wasn't really breaking that promise. At the end of the job Dean had given Sammy the book of matches and in his excitement Sammy had dropped them into the grave before igniting them. His look up at Dean, face full of horrified realization, had been so comical Dean had started laughing, so much he himself nearly fumbled the – thankfully lit – backup matchbook, which had in turn set Sammy off giggling like a schoolgirl. It wasn't a dignified end for Simon Forrester, late of this parish and lately haunting the junction where he died, but it was at least final.
It had been the combination of possessed traffic lights and a motel within walking distance of the local high school that had brought John Winchester here in the first place. Dad had told Dean to do the salt 'n' burn then headed off without them, leaving the completed school enrolment forms and Informing the boys they would be staying in this particular crappy extended-stay motel for a while. He'd given his usual standing instructions: look after Sammy, go to school, guns and ammo stay locked in the room's safe; Dad would call every day if he could, drop by every three or four days tops; if they didn't hear from him for a week they should call Bobby Singer, he'd know what to do.
The pool shark potted his shot with a flourish and walked around the table.
Dean appeared both younger and older than fifteen. On the one hand he still had a real baby face, round and smooth, boyish. On the other his voice had broken to a deep baritone last year, he was approaching six feet tall now, not quite as tall as Dad but nearly as tall as Stallone apparently, and he'd started filling out, courtesy of the wrestling coach in a high school three towns back in Michigan. Dean hadn't been able to talk his way out of a fight outside the school gates at the end of his first day so he'd taken the other kid down, fast, trying to avoid hurting him too much. Coach Kiekuth had broken things up and then, with ISS hanging over Dean's head, had strong-armed the boy onto his team. He'd also come up with a fitness routine that had Dean bench pressing his own body weight before they'd had to move on. Dean hadn't joined any sports teams since then but every school had a gym and Dean was regularly benching two-fifty unspotted now.
The cheating bastard pointed to a corner and sank the black. He dropped the cue onto the table, the grin never leaving his face, wordlessly picked up Dean's money from the table's edge and sauntered over to the bar. Dean watched him go, wondering how much of his cash would still be in Pool Shark's pocket by the time the guy left. Not enough to risk Juvie, that was for damn sure. Dean wasn't going to give that guy the satisfaction of seeing him turn tail and run now he was beat, so he sat down and sipped at his Coke rather than chugging it.
"You know it was one of those guys at the bar with him now who put you off your shot?" a voice floated over from the next table. Dean looked up. An old guy, maybe even as old as Dad, Dean guessed, had walked up to the empty table next to him. With his usual caution Dean checked him over. This new guy was short, slim, clean-shaven, bespectacled, wearing a well-fitting suit, no tie but expensive-looking shoes, holding a part-filled glass. New Guy put down his drink on the other table, shrugged off his suit jacket and half-turned to hang it on the back of a chair. No gun or knife tucked at the small of his back; nothing heavy enough to be a weapon in any of the jacket pockets, though that didn't entirely rule out a very small knife or gun; the guy kept his wallet in his pants back pocket, his car keys in the front right, nothing more than small change in the front left pocket. He had noticed Dean's stare but the expected challenge didn't come. Weird, but not any kind of a threat.
"That guy cleaned me out, old man. I ain't playing again," Dean replied. The new guy smiled.
"The name's Frank."
"Brad," Dean replied immediately.
"That's interesting, because you said your name was Cory to that guy who hustled you."
Dean said nothing. Was this guy a cop?
"I don't want to play pool, I can't play that game to save my life." Frank must have seen the question in Dean's eyes because he continued, "I like watching." Dean didn't bother replying.
"I've seen you around, but only this last week or so," Frank continued.
"Yeah," Dean replied unhelpfully. Frank hadn't exactly joined Dean, he was still sitting at the next table, not Dean's, so Dean wasn't quite sure what was going on.
"How'd you like to earn forty bucks?"
"Not interested." Dean had to go to school tomorrow if he wanted to avoid the attention of officialdom. Dean had become practiced at learning the local absentee rules wherever they went. He was a virtuoso at playing hooky.
"Fifty? Sixty? C'mon, kid, what'll it take to get you interested?"
"Five hundred," Dean said, wanting to get rid of the guy, "and a job that I can do before school starts tomorrow."
"Oh, that's cocky!" the guy said under his breath in a tone that Dean didn't like at all. Then, louder, "Done and done, if I can ask a few questions first and I like your answers." Someone wanting to ask questions always rang alarm bells and Dean didn't like the look the guy was giving him either.
"Nope, changed my mind, still not interested."
"Now wait a minute, Brad – I can call you Brad, right?" Frank didn't wait for an answer. "Of course you're interested in five hundred bucks. You've been playing pool here all week and before that guy took it off you, you'd made, what, eighty dollars? Ninety?"
"You a cop?" Dean hazarded.
The guys eyebrows rose.
"Do I look like a cop?" Dean said nothing so after a moment the guy continued. "No, I'm not a cop. The fact that you're so suspicious is intriguing, though. Look," Frank said, taking his wallet out, "I can afford five hundred dollars." Frank dropped it onto Dean's table. "Go on," he urged, "take a look." Dean eyed him warily but his curiosity got the better of him and he picked up the wallet. The only bills inside it were hundreds, a lot of them. Dean had never seen a hundred dollar bill up close before, so he took one out and examined it before throwing it back down on the table next to the wallet.
"Fake." If they weren't fake then this guy was absolutely loaded.
Frank looked at the bill with curiosity.
"It doesn't look fake to me. I got them all from the bank this morning and I'm sure they would have spotted forgeries. I tell you what, barmen see a lot of notes, let's ask Walt." Frank turned in his seat and lazily waved at the bartender, who stopped mid-way through pouring a beer and practically ran over.
"Did you want something, Mr. Richardson?" he asked.
"Does this bill look fake to you, Walt?"
Walt took a good look.
"It seems genuine to me, sir. I got a machine behind the bar so I can check it, if you want, but it looks just like the bills you always spend here," Walt grinned at Frank as he put the banknote down.
"No, that's not necessary, Walt," Frank said. "Can I have another?" Frank indicated his glass. "And refill my young friend, too. There you go, keep the change." Frank handed the hundred to Walt.
"You sure, Mr. Richardson?" Walt's eyes were big as saucers.
"Sure. Get something nice for that little girl of yours."
"Thank you, sir," Walt said before he headed back to the bar. Frank turned to Dean.
"This is my pool hall. Hell, this is my town, I employ half the people who live here one way or another. Davis Falls was founded by my great-great-grandfather. I'm," his eyes twinkled as he leaned forward, as though sharing a secret, "very rich."
Walt came back and deposited the drinks.
"Can I get you anything else, Mr. Richardson?"
"No, thanks, Walt, I'm good," Frank replied, and Walt headed away again.
Frank raised his glass as he continued. "You, on the other hand, are penniless right now."
"And you want to give me five hundred bucks, just like that, out of the kindness of your heart?"
"Not exactly. I'd like something in return."
"You gave a hundred to Walt."
"He did something for me."
"You want me to bring you a drink?"
"No, Walt just did that. I'm thinking of something else." Frank didn't elaborate.
"What, then?" Dean was losing patience with this jerk. He hated it when he didn't know what was going on.
Frank's eyes narrowed.
"You really have no idea, do you? You go to pool halls all the time but you really do just hustle on the tables, you never did any hustling... off them."
The penny finally dropped. Dean had met an older boy, nice kid, in a pool hall in a small town in Colorado last summer. They'd hit it off, chatting and practicing trick shots while they killed a slow afternoon in the empty place. Ben was eighteen and from Missouri, he said, had been thrown out at the start of summer by his old man, was making his way to California and nearly had enough to buy a bus ticket to San Francisco. It had taken a while before Ben had explained about the older guys who liked to watch young men as they played pool; and that while Ben sucked at pool, sucking at other things would very shortly earn him enough to move on from this dump. After a couple of seconds when Dad's homophobia had clattered through his head, Dean decided he liked Ben and didn't care what his Dad thought about it. Everyone did what they had to do, right?
For five hundred bucks would Dean do what Ben had done? Who was he kidding. Of course he would. Easy money, right?
A while later, somewhere quieter than the pool hall, Dean was thinking about the five hundred, all the things he could do with cash like that. He could take girls out on dates, take Sammy to the movies, go on endless trips to the arcade. They could eat at diners rather than heating up crappy tinned stuff from the mini mart in their motel room. He decided not to mention the money to Dad. It could be another one of his and Sammy's secrets, a treat fund.
A faint rustling was the only sound Dean could hear right now. Dean thought it sounded very like a possum rooting through the undergrowth, noisier than a fox but quieter than a raccoon. Most people would expect the larger fox to be noisier but Dean knew better. He'd become surprisingly good at staying quiet and identifying different animals by all the sounds they made when they moved. He didn't want to go killing animals when he was out with Dad on a hunt, and not only because it would alert the monsters to his whereabouts.
What he was doing had felt uncomfortable, for a while, but it had gotten better. After everything his Dad had said on the subject Dean had half-expected to feel disgust, or self-disgust, but had felt neither. This was just a thing. If his companion had been younger, better-looking, more athletic he might even be enjoying himself. As it was, this guy was rich instead. At least Frank had plenty of experience. He'd asked outright whether Dean had in fact done this before and been delighted that he hadn't. Frank had gone on to instruct Dean exactly how to go about earning the five hundred bucks and had even (ha) lent a hand. Dean wondered idly if Frank thought he was getting value for money. The phrase 'bang for his buck' sprang to mind and, hot on the heels of his other thought, it was all Dean could do to refrain from laughing. Ben's stories about his adventures that summer had been laugh-out-loud funny to Dean, made Ben's life sound glamorous in spite of the reality of the dingy pool hall where they'd met. Dean could only manage ghost stories in return but he had a ton of those and Ben had loved hearing them.
The sound of panting, now. Only people (okay, and people-shaped monsters) sounded like this. Animals got out of breath when fleeing or chasing but they did it quieter. An unfit animal, a loud animal, that was a dead animal. If he heard this sound in the dark he'd know it was their target, their target's latest intended victim or his Dad. This breathing sounded nothing like Dad ever did (thank god thank god) but in a different time and place it could be someone quietly fleeing, something human-shaped stealthily pursuing. Right here, right now it sounded like five hundred dollars, cash in hand and up front.
Of course, some monsters didn't breathe. Ghosts were silent, unless they were throwing things or shrieking or shouting whatever weird shit they felt compelled to shout. No heavy breathing, though. Ghosts were pretty reliable on that score. Werewolves talked and panted. Vamps talked, never seemed to get out of breath though. Demons… Dean wasn't sure about demons, Dad had kept him away from demon hunts so far.
It sounded as though things would be wrapping up here soon. Five hundred bucks. If he tried, he was sure he could still pretend to himself it was easy money.
Dean took a deep breath outside their motel room before he unlocked the door.
"Hey, Sammy!" he called as the door swung wide. No reply. "You hungry?" he asked the figure lying face down on one of the beds. His little brother always seemed hungry, these days, but still there was no reply. "Got, uh, got lucky today, we got plenty of cash now, it'll easily last until Dad gets back."
Dean was rolling Sammy over now, fully prepared to drag his little brother off the bed, if he had to, in order to elicit a response if the kid was still sulking over their fight. Dean recalled the last time he'd done just that: Sammy's absurdly empty threat, 'Just you wait, one day I'll be bigger than you, then you'll be sorry!' and Dean smiled at the idea that little Sammy thought he would ever be bigger than him. Except one look at Sam's face drove the smile off Dean's. Sam had been crying and was trying to hide it.
"What happened, Sammy? You get in another fight at school? You hurt?" Dean's questions came thick and fast, concern showing on his face as he checked over his little brother: no blood, no new bruises. Then it was as though the floodgates opened. Teary and snotty and red in the face, mouth wide with unhappiness, Sammy howled his misery at Dean then pulled away, curled up in a ball and cried his little heart out. The only coherent words Sam managed to get out for a long time were 'Dad' and 'sorry'.
Dean sat next to him, nonplussed, hand on Sam's shoulder. Sammy didn't cry much, these days. Never from cuts and bumps, or their roughhousing; only occasionally when they argued and things turned heated. Dean waited for the tears to end, even though perching sideways on the edge of the bed like this made his ass burn again. Slowly the wailing became sobbing, which became a miserable quiet keening before Sam finally fell silent.
"What about Dad?" Dean asked after a moment. Sam rolled over to face his brother but couldn't quite look him in the eye.
"Dad called, I said you were out getting dinner b-but… I dunno what I said, Dean, but he knew you took me along for that ghost and he was, he was real mad."
Dean grinned in relief.
"The old man's mad at me? Is that all? You don't have to worry about that, Sammy. I don't even worry about that no more," Dean lied jovially.
"I'm sorry I threw your birthday card away, Dean," Sam said in a small voice, tears brimming in his eyes again as he said it. "I looked for it when I got back from school today but they'd been in to clean up and it was gone."
"It doesn't matter, not my birthday any more."
"I want you to have my 'plane. For your birthday, I mean. If you still like it." Sammy got his toy fighter jet last Christmas and Dean had admired it at the time. It wasn't the most expensive thing Sammy owned (that of course would be his gun) but it was his most cherished. "I didn't have any money so I couldn't buy you anything new."
Dean opened his mouth to say that he was too old to play with toys but one look at his little brother stopped him. Eleven year old Sammy had no filters. Across his face flitted the hero-worship Sammy still felt for his big brother, even after a fight; his determination to make this sacrifice for the imagined wrong he had done; his fear that Dean would reject the offer; his fear that Dean would accept and he'd lose his beloved toy; the worry about what Dad would say when he did get back.
"Okay, Sammy. Thanks. It's a cool airplane. But could you do me a favor? Dad thinks I'm too old for stuff like that. So could you keep it with your other toys in your bag? And in return I'll let you play with it when I don't want to."
Sam's face was again a kaleidoscope: loss, relief, admiration, doubt, acceptance.
"If you're sure that's okay, Dean…"
"Yeah, Sammy," Dean smiled quietly. They both remained silent for a moment while Sam rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands, swiped his nose on his sleeve.
"Look, like I said, I got money now," Dean went on when he thought Sam had finished calming down. "Let's go out to that arcade in town on Webster and E, grab a burger and play Street Fighter Two until our fingers wear down and our eyeballs fall out."
Sam's eyes wistfully darted to his school bag for just a second. The arcade was noisy and full of kids he didn't know and Street Fighter Two was Dean's game.
"How about House of the Dead Two?" Sam could beat Dean at the shooting games sometimes ('gun ain't heavy enough' was invariably Dean's complaint when that happened) and they both enjoyed the zombie game, finding it hilarious for all the wrong reasons.
"Sure, Sammy," Dean grinned. Letting little Sammy choose the game at the arcade was no sacrifice at all. "Let's go shoot some monsters."