There were times in Sam Winchester's life when he couldn't help but take a step back and remind himself what it was like to be human. He thought he'd found it again during his four year excursion into college. He'd thought he'd found it again when he could go to sleep without worrying about what evil, hidden creatures were out there in the dark. He'd thought he'd found it again when he had found Jess. Love was not something Sam had dabbled in during his teenage years. So when he'd finally found it, it was like discovering all the things he'd missed out on in life wrapped up into a beautiful bundle of love and happiness that just so happened to call itself Jess. And Sam had been happy. Happier than he knew he could ever be.
So when Jess died, a part of Sam had died as well. Whatever hope of a normal, happy life Sam had built up during his college years was gone. Gone with the girl who had been pinned to the ceiling and burnt away. It was a pain that Sam had never felt before. He'd lost his mother to the same nasty creature behind the deaths, but Sam had never really known her. He had simple images of her face stuck in his mind, but he had no memories of laughing, loving, crying or even being scolded by her. Not like he had with Jess. And in a way, Sam felt guilty. Guilty for bringing this death to Jess. Guilty for ever thinking he could be happy and normal. Guilty for not wanting to avenge her death the same way his father and brother wanted to avenge his mother's. And Sam knew that's what he had to do.
Yet, months after Dean had shown up in his apartment in the middle of the night with the story of their missing father, months after the brothers had set off to find him, Sam was beginning to feel lost again. They had been sidetracked too many times and had too many close calls. And Sam felt his motivation slipping, leaving him to wonder why he was here, why he was allowing himself to be dragged into following the shadow of their father. The trip they had embarked on was wearing on both of the Winchester brothers. But Sam was sure he had played a part in his brother's current state of unease.
Sam had said things to Dean. Such things. Things that he wished he could claim not to mean. But the truth of the matter was that Sam had, in one way or another, meant every word that had come out of his mouth. Of course, his brain had been scattered by Dr. Ellicott, but it was still his brain, his thoughts. And he'd said them to Dean from behind the barrel of a handgun aimed at his brother's head.
Dean, being Dean, had said that he forgave Sam for what happened, no hard feelings, time to move on. Not a time for a chick flick moment. But Sam knew that Dean was hurt and it was more than just the physical bruises and scabs from the rock salt. It was a hurt that ran deep, to a place that couldn't be healed with medicine or rest. It would take time, time and proof to heal such wounds. And Sam didn't know how to give his brother either of those. As much as they bickered and cursed at each other, Sam loved his brother. And though he'd told Dean that he was sick of following his every order and sick of jumping head first whenever a possibility of their father arose, there was also a time when Sam had told Dean he'd die for him. Sam still meant what he said. But he knew it did little to ease the doubt he had planted in his brother's head. The doubt that was so uncharacteristic of Dean Winchester, self proclaimed superhero who always had a plan and could always be counted on to have your back.
All these thoughts and more were what filled up Sam's time while he sat in the passenger seat of Dean's cherished black Impala as they made their way down the highway. The radio was on and Dean was tapping his fingers on the steering wheel to a Black Sabbath song that Sam knew he should know the name of by now, but still didn't. And other than a few questions of where to turn and where they were going, the car ride was silent between the brothers as they followed another set of coordinates to some unknown location. Sam had told Dean about the phone call that night in the motel room. About how he could hear their Dad on the other end, breathing, but not speaking. Dean had asked him how he knew, but Sam couldn't answer. He'd just known. Then the coordinates had come and they were off again. Off to some place that neither of them had heard of before, chasing some evil being that was killing off people in the small town of Shilling, Louisiana. And though he'd been reflecting on his dislike for the way things were going, Sam knew he had to go. Dean was going, and Sam wouldn't let him go alone. He'd continue to follow Dean blindly into situations, until they could come up with a better way to find their father.
"You think they got alligators?" Dean's voice broke into Sam's deep concentration and he lifted his head from where it was resting against the window to look over at his brother. Dean was staring straight ahead at the road, his body shifted to one side of his seat, looking uncomfortable yet settled at the same time. He also looked tired. Sam guessed his chest was still hurting him. It would be a while before it stopped. Rock salt was a bitch to be shot with at close range, hell, any range, when you were corporeal. "I hate alligators."
"They are indigenous to the area where we're headed to," Sam said, watching as Dean's face took on a disgusted one. Sam couldn't help but smile. "But if we don't go into any swamps, we should be good."
"Knowing our luck, Sammy," Dean grinned and looked over at his brother. "That'll be the first place we check out." Sam nodded, turning to look back out the window. He knew it had been an attempt on Dean's part to ease some of the tension in the car, but neither of them could seem to get it together. Sam decided that now was as good a time as any to get this thing off their chests.
"Dean, are we ever going to be good again?" Sam asked quietly, turning his head to get a good look at his brother's face.
Predictably, Dean defused the question's nature. "Sammy, I've always been good. Evil fears the name Dean Winchester. But don't worry your pretty little self, excellence runs in this family, so I'm sure some of my better qualities will be rubbing off on you soon."
Sam sighed, knowing what his brother was trying to do. "You know what I meant," he said quietly. "This isn't just going to go away with time."
"Why not?" Sam was surprised to find Dean's face so pensive. "Time is the medicine of the mortal world, Sammy."
Letting out a low, gruff chuckle, Sam asked, "Who told you that?"
"I borrowed the voices inside your head for a while." Sam rolled his eyes as Dean glanced over at him with a grin. Sam knew it was hopeless to get his brother to talk about what they had gone through. He leaned his head back against the window and watched the scenery pass by. He didn't expect Dean to go on. "Look, Sammy…"
"Sam," Sam interrupted, but then looked over at Dean to encourage him to go on.
"Sammy," Dean stressed. "As far as I'm concerned, we're good. You can't let everything that happens on a hunt toy with your head. Besides, this was my debt to pay for the shapeshifter. So now we're even."
"Dean, that wasn't you saying those things," Sam countered. He knew his brother still felt awkward with the whole shapeshifter ordeal. Killing something that has your face can really mess with your head. Sam hadn't known his brother still thought of it. "In that asylum, that was actually me. My thoughts, no matter how deep down they were, they were still mine. And…"
"Sammy," Dean broke in, his face stony. "The sooner we both realize you're not perfect, the sooner this will be behind us." And after a slight pause, he added, "Just try to be more like me, that's all you can do."
"Let's just forget it, okay?" Dean asked and Sam saw the plead in his eyes. He knew his brother hated talking about what was going on inside his head, and though Sam thought they were getting somewhere, he knew not to push it.
"For now," Sam answered. Dean seemed to be okay with that answer. "But sooner or later, we're going to have to talk about it."
Dean snorted and Sam glanced at him again, wondering what his brother was thinking now. The playfulness was back in Dean's eyes as he said, "You've sure been Disneyland-ish lately."
"Disneyland-ish?" Sam questioned.
"Yup," was all Dean answered with.
"So now you're making up words?" Sam questioned, knowing that all thought of a serious conversation was now gone from Dean's mind. He figured he might as well follow par, knowing that when Dean didn't want to talk, he either joked or got angry and Sam was just glad that he was joking now. An angry Dean wasn't fun to be around.
Dean turned up the radio as Metallica came on. "I'm the older brother. That means I have the power to make up words. Keeps the relationship interesting, don't you think, sweetheart?"
Sam chuckled and turned to look out the window once more. He rested his head on his hand as his elbow was propped up on the door. Even though the nicknames were crude, Sam couldn't help but feel…safe, when they were used. It meant that no matter what, Sam and Dean's relationship wasn't too far gone for them not to jest and poke fun at each other. Sam had also learned to recognize such names as a term of endearment when they came from Dean's mouth. Dean rarely told someone that he loved them in all honesty. He said it a lot, jokingly, but he never really said it to explain his true feelings. So the fallback for the lack of those kind of endearments was the jesting between the two.
Sam had always found it an odd sort of relationship, and he couldn't really remember when it had transformed into what it was. They'd jested crudely before Sam left for college, but he couldn't remember when Dean stopped telling Sam that he loved him and stopped hugging him when he was scared. Sam always knew that Dean still held the same feelings towards him, but somewhere along the way, Dean had turned his emotions inwards. Whatever caused the change, Sam had never found out, and Dean never even acknowledged there had been a change. Sam wondered if Dean even noticed. He was sure he did. Dean was smart, smart enough to step back and check himself every once in a while, so he was smart enough to realize what he was doing. Though Sam wasn't sure Dean thought it was such a bad thing. Hell, Sam wasn't sure it was such a bad thing. He just knew that sometimes, he missed the old Dean, and sometimes, he was glad his brother was able to shake things off and laugh at their follies.
"How close are we?" Dean asked an hour later. Sam, who'd been trying to sleep for that hour but failed miserably, leaned forward and tugged the map out of the glove box. He opened it and look at the red "X" they had marked over Shilling, Louisiana. He looked up to see where they were and when he saw a sign telling them how far the bigger cities were, he nodded.
"It's the next exit and then thirty miles from there," Sam said, looking over at his brother. Dean looked more tired than he had earlier. "You know, a small town like Shilling, not many things will be open late. I say we stop at the motel now and call it a night. Start asking around in the morning."
Dean looked ready to protest, but he shifted in his seat and couldn't hold back the grimace. Sam looked away, pretending to not notice as his brother lifted a hand to his chest and seemed to rub it absentmindedly. "Yeah, nine o'clock, everyone's either in bed or drunk by now." At Sam's raised eyebrow, Dean grinned. "Small town, they start early." Sam only shook his head.
Pulling off the highway, their motel options were limited to only one. A shabby looking place with part of its neon sign burnt out. Sam guessed it didn't get much business. But it was what they were used to. Dean seemed to always pick these sorts of motels, so he had no problem pulling in and getting a room. Sam packed up a few things from the trunk into a duffle bag before waiting for his brother to return with the room key.
While time allowed, Sam took the opportunity to scan their surroundings. Aside from the hotel, there wasn't much else out there. A gas station across the street with one pump and a small gift and snack shop that looked to be owned by the same people. Sam was surprised to find that the snack shop was still open. Sam shrugged. Might as well since he was waiting.
Heading across the dead street, Sam made it to the snack shop and almost hesitantly opened the door. He half expected to find some hillbilly man missing his teeth and wearing overalls and no shirt standing behind the counter. What he didn't expect was the kind looking, older man sitting behind the counter reading a thick book. The man had white hair and a healthy looking beard. He looked up as Sam entered and took off his glasses.
"Evenin' young fellow," the man said, smiling. Sam was delighted to see the man had all his teeth.
"Evening," Sam replied.
"What can I do fer ya?" the man closed his book and stood.
Sam looked around the store. On one side of the establishment, there were gifts and souvenirs. Post cards that showcased the best Louisiana had to offer, key chains, model cars, dreamcatchers, and an odd assortment of hand crafted items. Figurines, mostly of guys with guitars or alligators. Sam was almost tempted to buy one for Dean, but thought otherwise. They didn't have money to spend on trivial things like that. On the other side of the store were the snacks. It was more like a mini grocery store. It had everything from eggs, bread, and milk to chips, cookies and even freshly baked pastries. Overall, it was pretty impressive for its small size.
"Just making a munchie run," Sam smiled at the man. He settled on collecting some cold subs and a few cans of soda. He deposited them on the counter and pulled his wallet out of his back pocket.
"This all you want?" The man asked, eyeing the food on the counter.
Sam nodded. "That'll do." The man began to tally up the cost on the cash register. "This is a nice place you've got here," Sam decided to use the time that was given to him.
The man looked at him with a genuine smile. "Why thank you," he said. "We don't get many people through here. Mainly folks who come in and ask for directions. Haven't sold a key chain in years." Sam smiled at that. "That'll be $6.50."
"Are you sure?" Sam asked, pulling money out of his wallet. "That seems a little low."
"I'm sure," the man smiled back, accepting Sam's money. He handed him change and reached under the counter before pulling out a snickers bar. "Free with purchase."
"Why, thank you," Sam mocked the earlier statement, not really used to the kindness. In their line of work, Sam and Dean rarely came across kindness from strangers. Most of the time, they were trying to weasel their way behind scenes. And most of the time it ended with verbal fights, sometimes fist fights. Kindness was something they knew not to expect, so when they came across it, it was always surprising. Sam decided to play off that kindness while he had it. "Say, we're headed towards Shilling. Do you happen to know anything about what's going on out there?"
"Shilling, eh?" the man nodded, twisting his lips at his obvious hesitation to talk about it. Finally, the man gave in. "Been a lot of strange things going on in that town."
"Strange things?" Sam urged, hoping he'd elaborate.
The man eyed him suddenly. Sam felt unusually uncomfortable beneath the older man's scrutiny. But there wasn't any malice in his eyes, so Sam held his ground, waiting for him to go on. "What's your name, son?" he asked at last.
Sam's mind went to work immediately and before he could even comprehend what he was saying, he spit out one of his aliases off the top of his head. "Sam White."
"Sam," the man repeated, nodding his approval. "Samuel. A good, strong name." He reached out a hand which Sam took readily. "Conroy Malone." He paused, eyeing Sam again. "Sam, you wouldn't happen to be one of them ghost hunters now, would you?"
The question struck him like a smack to the face. He stood stunned for a moment, not knowing how to answer. He stared dumbly at the man. He knew he should be saying something, coming up with some job or reason as to why they were headed to Shilling, but he couldn't think of anything. Instead, he found himself stuttering an unsure, "Yeah."
Conroy shook his head. "That's what I thought." He turned around and reached up to the shelves behind him, pulling out a map. "You'll need one of these then." He handed it over to Sam.
"What is it?" Sam asked, turning it over in his hands.
"It's a map, boy. You'd think there'd be more sense in that head of yours," Conroy joked, to which Sam looked up, caught in the humor that was rivaling Dean's. The thought made a smile twitch on his lips. Dean would get along with Conroy, no doubt. "I'm fooling with you, son. It's a map of the woods near and around Shilling. We've had people like you coming for weeks now. Since the killings started. Ghost hunters. Bah," Conroy waved a hand, warding off the idea. "They walk around with their fancy cameras and heat machines and act like they're professional. So tell me something, Sam. What do you do when you find a ghost out there?"
Shoot it with rock salt, find its grave, burn its bones. "I…I don't know. Never actually found one."
Conroy snorted. "That's what I thought. Listen, son," Conroy took on a serious look. "I like you so I'm gonna give you a piece of advice, and you'd better listen to your elders. Don't go chasing some myth with no way to kill the son of a bitch. Lots of you boys go out there and some don't come back."
That peaked Sam's interest. "What do you mean?"
"I mean," Conroy sighed. "Been a lot of killings up in Shilling lately. Killings they say were at the hand of a ghost. But I'm not so sure that's what it is."
"You don't believe in ghosts?" Sam asked.
"Course I believe in ghosts!" Conroy answered, eyes lighting up. "I plan on being one when I die," he chuckled and gave Sam's arm a slight punch over the counter. "Gonna come back and haunt my wife. She's been haunting me for thirty years. The only way I can haunt her back is to die and come back a ghost. That'll blow her away." There was humor there, but Sam gave a small prayer hoping that Conroy wasn't actually serious and didn't get his wish. "But whatever's out there killing those people, it ain't no ghost, at least not the ordinary kinds."
"I'm not following," Sam played dumb, hoping he'd get something Dean and he could use.
Conroy sighed again, giving his head a scratch. "It don't just kill at random. It's like it chooses whose gonna bite it. And looking at all the choices, if you ask me, it's doing us a community service."
"By killing people?" Sam asked, shocked to hear that come from this kind man's mouth.
"Yeah," Conroy nodded. "All those people it's killed, they've all been…cocky, arrogant big shots. Rude, hurtful, not giving a hoot about anyone else. Just plain bastards. Shilling is better without them if you ask me."
Dean chose that moment to poke his head into the door. "Hey, Sammy, where'd you run off to?" Dean asked when he spotted Sam. He came to stand next to his younger brother.
"Sam," Sam corrected out of habit. "Just getting some provisions. Learning a little about that ghost up there in Shilling." Dean gave Sam a sharp, questioning look before turning to survey Conroy.
Conroy just surveyed him back. It was almost comical the way the two were sizing each other up. They moved in the same way, and made eye contact at the same moment. "You one of those ghost hunters too?" Conroy asked, but didn't give Dean a chance to answer. "Well, I'm telling you. You boys be careful up there, right? It seems to be killing the scum of the town, but that don't prove nothing. Don't know why you'd want to run around chasing myths anyhow."
Sam smiled and gathered the food off the counter. He handed Dean one of the subs and nodded his head towards Conroy. "Thank you, for all of this. And don't worry; we'll be careful up there."
"Hey, son!" Conroy called as they were almost out the door. Sam turned to look at the man, wondering what more the man could possibly say to them. Instead, a snickers bar came flying towards Sam, who barely caught it in time. "Don't want you two killing each other over chocolate."
Sam chuckled and nodded his head in appreciation before heading towards their motel room.