"No Traveler Returns"
A/N: Spoilers for "Faith" because, ye gods, I can't get that one out of my mind. This story is set between that episode and "Route 666."
Warnings: Violence. Bad language from the boys. Dean hurt and angst ahead. (Because I like it.)
Special thanks to Sodakey for her kindness and generosity. Any similar plotlines to her story "In Reverse" are purely unintentional and strictly coincidental. Great minds think alike. (We agreed on that!)
Also a big thank you and hug to my beta, who doesn't even watch the show (okay, I managed to talk her into catching one episode – "Faith," thank goodness! – but she at least agreed that Dean has lovely lips). Thanks, Moe!
But that the dread
of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of . . .
"Hamlet" Act III, scene I
She awoke, and knew she had come home. She did not know where she had been before – it was all as if a dream, but she was back home again, and here she would stay, in this sweet and comforting familiarity. But for his absence, like an ever-present ache in her heart, she could be perfectly happy here. Though, of course, she knew he would return for her; he had promised, and he always kept his promises. But she had waited so long already . . . . A grim darkness hovered at the edges of her memory, but she resolutely pushed it away. No. She would not doubt him. He would come. This time he would come, and she would be here. No matter what.
Time held no meaning for her; she did not know how long she had been away, or even how long she had been back. She simply accepted what was now her reality. And despite knowing intuitively where she was, at first she did not recognize her surroundings. But as she passed silently from room to room, her memory saw the house the way it had been before; certain objects seemed to glow in her mind's eye, and she drew towards them and knew them for her own. She gently touched a silver tea service, then her mother's rocking chair, giving it a nudge to hear its familiar creak. An old lullaby came to her, and she hummed softly to herself as she walked. She was vaguely aware that she felt neither heat nor cold, thirst nor hunger, but had little concern for such minor cares as her sense of peace grew the longer she roamed through the house.
She drifted through the mansion. Sunlight gleamed on the polished wooden floors, and she smiled as she thought of her garden and the variety of the many flowers and lushness of the greenery. It would need tending, for who would have taken care of it in her absence? The whole house would need cleaning and a fresh airing out. The contented smile faded, to be replaced by a puzzled frown. Where was everyone? She had seen none of her family since her return, but she thought she had felt . . . something . . . in her house as she had ceaselessly wandered. But what about Old Jacob, and Abigail, Penny, Isaac . . . .
Even as she began to turn that troubling thought over in her mind, a new and unwelcome noise invaded her awareness. Voices floated up from downstairs. Unfamiliar voices. The frown deepened. What were these people doing in her home? She followed the voices and crept down the long, winding staircase. The sounds of cheerful conversation, punctuated by occasional laughter, rose up. She peeked over the edge of the banister. The large sitting room was filled with complete strangers, who appeared to be eating breakfast. Her food. In her house.
A sudden and horrible fury grew in her. Not again. This would not happen again. With an anger that once would have terrified her, she flew the rest of the way down the steps and into the sitting room. No one saw her. They continued to talk and gesture, ignoring her completely. Her anger gave her strength, and as she began to fling a variety of precious family heirlooms and silver dinner platters at the group, she found herself laughing wildly as they ducked and screamed, scattering about the room in confusion.
Nothing was too heavy for her. A huge potted fern flew across the room, narrowly missing a woman oddly dressed in trousers and a very immodest chemise. She chased them all out, the last man through the door receiving a thump on his back with a footstool. Standing back, she slammed the door shut with a very satisfactory boom, and vowed they would never set foot inside again.
"Maybe we should sit this one out," Sam ventured, looking at his brother.
"Why?" was the clipped response. Dean didn't take his attention from the road. The dark glasses hid his hazel eyes.
Sam sighed, quietly. Why couldn't anything ever be easy? "Maybe because it's been a long month and we're both tired and you still look like shit?"
"Aw, thanks, Sammy," came the drawling reply. "You sure know how to boost a guy's ego."
"Dammit, Dean." Sam raked a hand through his hair, reaching for patience. Just when he thought he had the whole persuasive argument figured out in his head . . . . Trust Dean to screw that up. "All I'm saying," he started again, carefully, "is that it's been one thing after another lately, and I, for one, could use a break. Don't tell me you don't need one, too." He held up a hand. "No, I said don't tell me. Because, of course, you wouldn't. You might fall in a heap on the floor at the next motel we stop at, but that doesn't mean you're tired. Not Dean Winchester. Oh no. Takes a licking and keeps on ticking."
"Are you done?"
"I don't know. Did it work?"
Dean flicked him a glance.
Well, at least Sam finally had his attention.
"Come on, Sam, how hard can it be? A haunted house with a pissed-off ghost. We can do it in our sleep – "
"We might have to," Sam muttered.
" – and then we'll be on our way," Dean went on, ignoring him. "Easy as pie."
"Riiiiiiight," Sam said. "Isn't it always?"
"Look, what the hell is the matter with you? This is what we do. We get a call from a friend of a friend of Dad's, we take care of business, and off we go, driving into the sunset like the heroes we are. End of story."
"What the hell is the matter with me?" Sam repeated, incredulous. "What the hell is the matter with you? We're runnin' on empty here, bro. We need some down time. It's only been a month since – "
"I know," Dean snapped, cutting him off. "And I'm all right. Quit worryin' already. We're almost there, so we might as well keep going."
Sam could see the stubborn line of his brother's jaw, and decided not to push, at least for the moment. But oh god, they did need a break. He slumped a little lower in his seat and turned his head to look out the window so he wouldn't have to see Dean's too thin face or the lingering bruise on his temple. How much more could they take? Dean had been on the receiving end of too many hits in too short a time, but he just kept pushing himself, and Sam was scared.
As if he hadn't been scared a month ago, when he thought he would lose Dean forever. But thanks to a miracle (of sorts, if you consider a crazed preacher's wife using black magic; a bound reaper; and who knows what all a " miracle"), Dean was still around to slay the undead. Which he continued to do with alarming disinterest for his own safety.
He was pretty sure Dean didn't blame him anymore for taking him to see Roy LeGrange – he was pretty sure that Dean blamed only himself. They had talked through part of it, as much as Dean was ever willing to talk about anything that came close to revealing emotion, but Sam knew he still felt guilty over the death of the stranger who had died in Dean's place. The dark sullen brooding seemed to have passed, for the most part, leaving behind a Dean who was unusually pensive, quiet, more introspective (and all the other synonyms Sam had come up with late one sleepless night while staring at the ceiling), but unfortunately, still willing to throw himself in harm's way if it meant saving someone else.
And Sam felt like he'd been riding an insane emotional roller coaster these past weeks. He was battered and scattered, and he just wanted to stop. He'd gone from seeing his brother dying in a hospital bed to witnessing his recovery in a faith healer's tent, and since then they'd hardly had a spare minute to catch their breath. A couple of nasty poltergeists in an old, family-owned hotel in Omaha (his thoughts flickered to Dean's face, pale and bruised), an unhappy, angry ghost in a cemetery across the state line in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and now they were nearing the site of yet one more job near Charleston, South Carolina.
Just another day in the life of the family Winchester. Oh yeah.
Sam stared out the window and desperately hoped he wouldn't dream that night.
Dean was acutely aware of the carefully – or so Sam probably thought – surreptitious and worried looks his brother had been throwing his way for the past month. And his brother's protective streak showed little sign of coming to a halt. The whole dying thing – well, it had been close, he knew that; he had been ready to accept it, but Sam refused to give up on him. He owed Sam his life. He just wished the price hadn't been so high.
But Sam was here, now, worrying and fretting, and when was the last time Dean had had someone fret over him? Sure, he'd relied upon his father to watch his back these past few years. There wasn't anybody better. But while John Winchester certainly knew how to stitch up and bandage his wounds, when had he ever really cared how Dean felt about anything? It was the hunt, always the hunt, and nothing else mattered. Weakness was unacceptable, disobedience even more so, and the hell with anything so messy as an actual emotion.
So Dean, the dutiful son, had clamped down on his feelings, years ago, because they had no place in John Winchester's world. And now here was Sammy, back after his years at Stanford, poking at Dean to talk, to share, to admit to pain, and Dean wasn't sure he even knew how anymore. Not since Sam had left . . . . Dean figured he'd been all of about twelve years old the last time good ol' Dad had given him any outward gesture of spontaneous affection. But Sam had always been one for hugging, for wrapping an arm around Dean's waist – or shoulders, especially when Sam achieved those three or four inches over him – and Dean had cherished that his whole life. But when he'd been sick, dying, he'd brushed Sam's supporting hand away, shrugged off the arm that fell so familiarly across his shoulder, and he hated himself for it.
He sneaked a look at Sam, seemingly asleep, and sighed. He had to admit it; he was tired. One thing after another lately. No fucking joke. A headache had begun to grind away behind his eyes, his bruised ribs throbbed with every breath, and he thought briefly of waking Sam up and asking him to drive.
But no, Sam needed the rest more than he did. He wished he could take away the nightmares for his brother, but he didn't even know how to do it for himself.
It was just nearing six o'clock when they turned off the highway onto a county road and entered the far western suburbs of Charleston. According to the directions and description from their contact, the house they were to de-ghost was actually part of an old plantation, the fields and land long ago sold off to become streets and neighborhoods. Sam, awake again, played navigator and read the map, calling out street names and telling Dean when to turn.
Sam pointed. "That looks like it right there."
Dean slowed the Impala in front of an impressive hedge and wrought iron fence. Tires crunched on gravel as they pulled into the curved driveway, and he gave an appreciative lift of one eyebrow. The whole place was pretty impressive. A large and stately three-story yellow house, it boasted a white-pillared wrap-around porch, cupolas, several chimneys, and an elegant lawn with what appeared to be quite an extensive garden in the back.
"Yep, looks haunted from here," he said. "Damn scary place."
Sam rolled his eyes as he got out of the car. "And that's your professional opinion?"
"Looks can be deceiving," he said, deadpan. He slowly followed Sam up the front walk, feeling the ache and pull of stiffened muscles. Trying not to take a deep breath, he pressed a hand against his ribs and winced.
They walked up to the front steps, stopped, then without a word split up to do a quick sweep around the house. Darkness had begun to fall, so they didn't go far before meeting up again.
"You getting any vibes there, Sammy?"
"Nope, nothing." Sam shot him an annoyed look. "And you know it doesn't work like that, anyway. Not all the time."
"Worth a shot, psychic boy."
"Hello? Can I help you?"
They spun around together. Dean squinted in the encroaching darkness and mentally berated himself for letting a petite, somewhat middle-aged woman in glasses sneak up on him. Well, crap. I must be tired. He felt Sam edge closer to his shoulder.
"Uh, yes, ma'am," he smiled. "We're here to meet a Doctor Virginia Lewis. About a job."
She stood, hands on hips, appraising them as much as they studied her. "Dean Winchester?" she said.
Dean nodded. "And my brother, Sam."
"Pleased to meet you," Sam said, putting out his hand.
She gave it an absent shake, still studying Dean. "You're younger than I thought you'd be."
Dean bristled, the smile falling off. "How old do I need to be?"
He didn't know what she saw in his face, but she tipped her head to the side, that discerning gaze suddenly making him uncomfortable.
"I'm sorry," she said, abruptly. "It's just that from what my friend told me about you, I thought you'd be older. It sounded like you've been . . . doing things . . . like this for a long time."
"I have. We both have."
"I'm sorry," she said again. "I'm Ginny Lewis, by the way. Guess I forgot to mention that. Can we start over?"
Dean managed to dredge up a smile. "Sure. Nice to meet you, Doctor Lewis."
"Oh, just call me Ginny, all right? Now, it's just about suppertime around here, and I bet you boys could use a meal if you've been driving all day. We're not staying in the house, of course, because of the work being done, and now with whatever-it-is stirring things up, but we've got a place rented around the corner . . . ."
Though not making much sense, she still somehow had them getting their bags and following her to a brightly lit clapboard house across the street from the old mansion. She chivvied them inside like a dog herding sheep, showed them their own room – overriding all of Dean's half-hearted protests that they could find a motel – and told them to join the others downstairs for supper once they'd had a chance to clean up.
They dumped their bags and surveyed each other from across the beds.
"Nice," said Sam.
"Yeah," Dean agreed, eyeing the spacious, cheerful room, the double beds, and the comfortably stuffed chairs. There was even a fireplace. Definitely a cut – or six – above what they usually wound up settling for. He grimaced against the incessant throbbing in his head and looked longingly at the bed, suddenly wanting nothing more than to just crash for about ten or twelve hours of uninterrupted sleep. He sighed, very quietly. Or maybe a week.
Sam was exploring. "Got our own bathroom," he said, opening a door and sticking his head in. "Really nice."
They took turns splashing off, then headed down again, drawn by the smells of cooking and the chatter of lively conversation. Dean hung back a moment, letting Sam go first, feeling overwhelmed by the brightness and the animation in the room, in no mood to be sociable while surrounded by complete strangers.
Two open places were already set, and Ginny gestured to them to take a seat. They joined her and four other people at the large table in the dining room.
"Sit down and eat up, boys. Hope the room is all right – you don't mind sharing, do you? No more talk about staying at a motel, either. We've got this place paid up through the end of the month, and we're taking advantage of it. So make yourselves at home now."
Dean exchanged a raised eyebrow glance with Sam.
"She's always like that," a twenty-something young man said, grinning. "Watch out for Ginny when she decides you need taking care of. Welcome to the club. I'm Jason McNeil, overworked and underpaid grad student."
"Everybody, this is Dean and Sam Winchester," Ginny said, slapping Jason lightly on the back of the head and then ignoring his exaggerated yelp of pain. "They'll be staying here for a while to help out."
"Hope you can cook," Jason said. "What is this?" He poked suspiciously at the meat on the first serving platter that got passed around, but took a generous portion anyway.
"I cook just fine. Shut up and eat," said a young woman with spiky black hair and several earrings. She smiled at Dean, obviously liking what she saw. "I'm Lissa Johnson. Another one of Ginny's students. We're all here to help with the dig and the restoration project."
To his own surprise, Dean thought it smelled just fine, too, considering what little interest he'd had in food lately. He loaded up his plate with a hefty portion from the first platter, as well as everything else that made its way around the table. Catching Sam looking at his plate, Dean tilted his head slightly. See? I'm all right. Got an appetite and everything. Quit worrying.
Sam gave him a rather snarky roll of his eyes that stated quite clearly Dean was full of shit and Sam didn't believe him for a minute.
"Uh, right," Dean said, turning his attention back to Lissa, and trying for a smile. Yeah, okay, kinda sexy, in a pierced, tattooed, Goth Chick sort of way. What did she say? Dig? He scowled over at Ginny. She hadn't given him a whole lot of detail behind all this when she called him. I think we've got a haunted house. Please come. Yeah, that filled in a lot of gaps, didn't it?
"All right, no shop talk at the table, children. Sam and Dean had a long drive, why don't we let them eat in peace before we tell them everything? I think tomorrow will be soon enough. But we may as well finish introducing ourselves." She motioned to the remaining people at the table. "My other two students. Ian Stuart and Angie Banks."
Compared to Lissa, Angie had all the generic appearance of an anorexic bleached blonde model, but Dean figured she must at least be smart. Ian turned out to be as British as his name, with an accent that could probably cut glass at twenty paces. They all seemed absurdly young to him, pleasant, intelligent, and so damn normal – hardly the type to make up ghost stories.
Dishes clattered and supper went on. Dean actually felt a knot or two unwind as he sat back, full from Lissa's cooking, and quietly listened to the friendly conversation and joking comments. Wistful, he saw Sam actually smiling, laughing, and joining right in, just like he belonged with the little group. At least he'd finally stopped paying attention to what Dean was – or wasn't – eating.
With the meal at last slowing down, he found a reason to excuse himself and started clearing dishes to the kitchen, followed by Ginny with her own armload of plates.
"Oh, good Lord, Dean, put those down. Let those kids with all the energy do the clean up tomorrow." She sighed and leaned back against the counter. "I can vaguely remember being that young," she added, as another burst of laughter sounded from the other room.
Dean leaned back next to her, his eyes drifting shut. "I don't think I ever was that young," he murmured, mortified to actually hear the words out loud. Shit, I am tired. Beyond tired. I'm freakin' dead on my feet. No pun intended. He rubbed his forehead, fighting the headache that had yet to disappear.
"Oh, you're not any older than those kids out there. But how does that line from the movie go? 'It's not the years, it's the mileage'?"
His mouth quirked up in a slight grin. "You're quoting Indiana Jones at me?"
"Sweetie, I'm an archeologist. Raiders of the Lost Ark is my favorite movie." Then she gave him another one of those uncomfortably sharp looks and the voice grew soft, concerned. "Dean, are you all right? Tell me if I'm being a pushy old thing, but honey, you're looking awfully tuckered out, and that's putting it nicely."
Such compassion from someone he'd just met nearly undid him right then and there. He straightened up, dropped his hand away and met her gaze. "You're not old, and you're not pushy," he said, trying to deflect her with charm and a smile. "It's been a long couple of days, is all – " Make that a damn long month. " – but we'll be ready to go take a look at the house tomorrow."
She reached out and patted him on the arm. "All right. But you rest up tonight. We'll have a big breakfast in the morning, tell you what we saw, and then let you boys take it from there. I appreciate you coming all this way, really. We've all worked too hard on this project already to have it disrupted by . . . whatever it is that's out there." She gave him a wry smile. "I always prefer to have an expert on the team. Thanks for coming, Dean. Now, you get yourself to bed. We'll see you two in the morning, and not too early, either. You sleep in if you need to."
I think I've just been adopted, Dean thought. How the hell did she manage that, and why aren't I more pissed off about it? He shook his head, too tired to puzzle it out.
"Thanks, Ginny. Goodnight."
Dean nodded to her, and as he walked back through the dining room, he saw Sam start to rise out of his chair to come with him. His brother appeared content to stay and talk for a while yet with the other students, but Dean could also see the momentary flash of unguarded worry that crossed Sam's face even as Dean gave him a reassuring wave. Sam sat down again, slowly, eyes narrowed. Dean felt those eyes focused on him as he made his careful way upstairs, and he knew he wasn't hiding the pain as well as he should. Sam would see right through him. And keep on worrying. Shit. Maybe Sam was right; maybe they just needed a break, just a few days . . . .After this was all wrapped up, of course.
It wasn't all that late, but after a hot shower to ease the aches and bruises, Dean got ready for bed. His ribs continued to clamor somewhat fiercely, and his head still pounded, so he caved in and chased some ibuprofen down with a glass of water. The bed felt as wonderful as he thought it would, and he sighed in utter bliss as he slipped between cool, clean sheets. Curling up under the covers – not forgetting his knife, no matter where he was or how tired – he was asleep even as his head hit the pillow.
He awoke the next morning to the smell of bacon frying. Momentarily disoriented by that and the fact that bright sunlight poured through the windows, he decided to just lie there, warm and drowsy, before making an effort to get his bearings. He was used to waking up in unfamiliar surroundings (and what, exactly was "familiar" these days, other than the presence of Sam?). He noted the other bed, empty, and panicked for a heartbeat even as he remembered.
Charleston. Haunted house. Adoptive professor. Oh yeah.
Sam. Worried, about him. Bruises. Ribs.
"Hey," said the object of his musings, peering in around the door. "You're awake."
"Hey," he said back, rubbing a hand over his eyes, slowly sitting up. At least his headache was gone. The ribs, well, he decided not to go there.
His brother stepped into the room and shut the door behind him. "Feeling better?" he asked tentatively.
Dean could read the concern in his lanky body, in his eyes, in his voice, and he thought again of John Winchester, who would not even have bothered to ask, just assuming Dean was all right, and that would be the end of that.
"I'm good, Sammy," he said, a slight smile curving his mouth; and oddly, he meant it, though probably not the way Sam envisioned. Sam was here, with him, not away at school. He still cared, even after the time they'd spent apart, living different lives.
("You're my brother, and I'd die for you," echoed far too frequently in Dean's mind, and not always when Dean was awake.)
"Thought I'd let you sleep in," Sam went on, sitting down on the other bed. "There's still breakfast downstairs. Then Ginny wanted everybody to tell us about what happened last week."
"She say anything to you about that yet?"
"Nope. She wouldn't let anybody talk about it at all last night. Kept the conversation firmly on other topics. Anyway, I came up not long after you did, but you were already asleep."
"I slept just fine, Sam," he said, sighing, seeing the way Sam studied him. "I feel fine. Now let's get this show on the road, huh? We got spooks to bind and burn."
"Dean . . . ."
"Sammy?" He raised an eyebrow at his brother. "What?" he added, when Sam just sat there, staring at his hands.
"I don't know," Sam sighed, looking up at last. "Let's just . . . take this one slow, okay?"
"Is that your Spidey-sense tingling here, Sam?"
Sam lifted one shoulder in a shrug. "I don't know," he said again. "Something. Maybe. It's . . . so soon after the other two, and it just feels . . . weird."
"Sam, weird is what we do. Weird is normal for us. Or do you mean even weirder than that?" He got up, trying to hide the wince from Sam, and started to go about the morning business of washing and shaving and getting dressed. "So, what is it, dude?" he called from the bathroom. "We're here, we're gonna do this, all right?"
He could hear Sam's frustrated sigh as he turned on the faucet, but his brother's answer was lost in the sound of running water.
Sam couldn't repress a shiver as Dean disappeared into the bathroom. His brother still looked like shit. Cocky, smirking, full of himself, all the usual Dean Winchester traits were in place, if a trifle forced, but Sam didn't like the fact that he was a little too thin, a little too pale, and the shadows in his eyes were just as dark as the bruises he kept trying to hide.
Since Nebraska, Sam had found Dean . . . oddly vulnerable, almost fragile, and that turned Sam's view of reality on its head. He felt cold inside, scared, helpless, and about ten years old again. Dean couldn't be fragile; Dean was his big, tough, older brother, who when he got hurt tossed it off with a smile and a smartass remark, and that was that. But since Nebraska . . . . His brother put on a good show – good enough to fool everyone.
Everyone except Sam.
"Stubborn idiot," Sam muttered.
Dean had looked death in the face a month ago, and Sam wondered if he was looking even yet. He'd never figured his brother for the suicidal type, but after leaving the faith healer – and Layla – Dean had taken more chances than usual in their recent hunts. Images flashed through his mind. (Dean shoving him aside, taking the brunt of the falling ladder and flying chunks of masonry; Dean running into the burning room of the hotel when they discovered the little girl had somehow been lured back in by the ghost; Dean waiting until the last possible moment to blast the furious spirit with a shotgun full of rock salt.) He wasn't being stupid, or even careless, especially, but Sam realized Dean was fighting his demons in the only way he knew how.
"Fuck," he said softly, dropping his head into his hands. "Fuck, fuck, fuck."
He'd just have to watch him, is all. Look after him. Look out for him. And not let him do anything too stupid.
When Dean emerged from the bathroom, Sam had to admit that his brother did look somewhat better this morning. Of course, he couldn't see the bruises, Dean made sure of that – so no doubt they were probably still turning several horrendous shades of green and purple – but the long deep sleep seemed to have done him some good.
"Okay," Dean said, tossing a towel back in the bathroom. "Let's go find out what we've got here, huh? Spook talk over bacon and eggs, Sam, doesn't get better than that."
"Oh, shut up."
Dean just grinned.
They joined Ginny and the others downstairs at the dining room table again, breakfast dishes and plenty of coffee still in evidence from earlier. Lissa soon had a full plate of eggs, bacon, and hash browns sitting in front of Dean.
Sam barely restrained the eye roll he felt Dean deserved, but on the other hand, if a pretty girl wanted to ply his brother with food and fatten him up, it was fine with him.
Dean smiled as he thanked her, the charm in full force this morning. Apparently he didn't have a problem with it, either.
Sam found it strange that they were sitting around a breakfast table, ready to discuss the business of ghost hunting. Not that he and Dean didn't do it all the time, of course, but this . . . this was almost too weird. ("Sam, weird is what we do." Uh huh.) A group of students and a college professor. Sober, serious academics. Researchers. Scholars. Hm. Should be interesting, at any rate . . . .
"Very well," Ginny started, briefly glancing down at the pile of papers and folders that lay on the table in front of her. "I hope you boys got a good night's sleep, because we have a lot of ground to cover today."
"Uh oh," Jason said. "Lecture time."
"Shut up," said Angie, wearily, as though she'd said it too many times already. "Just for once."
Sam very carefully hid a smile and did not look at Dean. He could so relate to that.
Glancing between them, but then directing her attention at Dean, Ginny simply asked, "Where would you like me to start?"
Dean played with his scrambled eggs for a moment before pushing the half empty plate aside. He lounged back in his chair, seemingly at ease, but Sam could see his brother's hunter nature beneath that calm façade.
"Why don't you start with what had all of you run screaming out of that house and scared enough to track down my phone number?"
"Well," she said with wry, lopsided smile, "since you put it that way . . . . Last Tuesday, the five of us and two members of the staff of the County Historical Society met in the Thornton house for a bit of a celebratory breakfast." At Dean's questioning look, she just said, "I'll explain later. Suffice it to say, the last thing we expected over our coffee and croissants were the sights and sounds of crockery flying through the air, smashing glass, and thrown furniture. One minute we're discussing the upcoming restoration project, and the next we're running out the door – " she shook her head, smiling faintly, "screaming our collective heads off. And we haven't been back inside since."
"Good idea," Dean nodded dryly.
"And that was the first time you noticed anything strange about the house?" Sam asked.
"How long had you been working in it before last Tuesday?" Dean put in, right on his heels.
"In answer to your second question, just over two weeks," Ginny said.
"What about the first question?" Dean prodded, when she fell silent.
Lissa spoke up. "After the flying furniture incident, well, we all started thinking. I mean, it didn't mean much before that, but, something was . . . weird. We all sort of noticed it, but only afterwards, you know? Like it took us that long to put it together."
"What the lovely Lissa is trying so hard to say," Jason said, his usually good-natured humor suddenly turning sharp and biting, "is that her overactive imagination decided she'd been hearing and seeing things that weren't really there, but didn't want to admit it. The mind is so fragile, isn't it?"
"Oh, shut up," she said, in about the same way Angie had earlier. "What I mean is, looking back, yeah, there were weird things. Sudden cold drafts in a room where the windows were closed. The sound of footsteps, only nobody was there. Sometimes, I swear, something just glimpsed out of the corner of your eye, even a voice . . . ."
"What kind of voice? Could you make out actual words?"
Jason stared at Dean. "Are you serious? You actually believe in this shit? Spirits and rattling chains and vengeance from beyond the grave?" He laughed derisively, shaking his head. "Oh, this is too good. The Hardy Boys are here to save us from Casper the Friendly Ghost. Not to mention Lissa's little paranoid imagination." He shoved his chair away from the table and stood. "I have some serious research to attend to. I suggest the rest of you forget this nonsense and do the same." Ignoring Ginny's outstretched hand, and without a further glance, he left the room.
"And I suppose the bruises on my back from that perfectly thrown footstool are all part of my imagination, too?" Ian's shouted words followed Jason's retreating figure. "Stupid sod," he muttered.
Dean winced in sympathy. "Footstool, huh? Damn."
Ian, surprisingly, grinned, and said, "Yeah. Not exactly heroic."
"He was the last one out the door," Angie put in. "He pushed us ahead of him. I think that counts as heroic." She batted her eyelashes at him, and the others laughed.
Ginny shook her head. "Jason was there, along with the rest of us, but he's having some trouble believing the evidence of his own eyes."
"Either that, or he's more afraid than he's willing to admit," Ian added.
"Oh, he's all skeptical bluster," snorted Angie. "Just call him Scully."
Sam grinned, and caught Dean doing the same. "It sounds like the rest of you are rather . . . accepting of what you experienced."
"Four Mulders to one Scully, not bad odds," Dean said.
"Honey, I don't always spend my time on this kind of project. I've done plenty of battlefield digs, and I have to say, walking Gettysburg at night under a full moon, well, it's hard not to believe in ghosts."
"Hard not to believe when you see it right in front of you," Angie said. "How else do you explain noises and voices and the feeling you're being watched?"
"Like the man said, 'There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,'" Lissa added.
"Yeah, Shakespeare knew his ghosts, all right," Dean said.
Sam looked over at him in obvious surprise.
"What?" he asked, pretending to be irked. "I can't read Shakespeare?"
"Well, only if it's the comic book version."
The others were looking on in obvious amusement. Sam noticed, and cringed, just a bit. Oops. Well, at least he didn't call me a bitch . . . or something worse.
"You sound like my brothers," Angie said. "Of course, they happen to be fourteen and sixteen."
Dean ducked his head, a rare blush suffusing his cheeks. "Sorry."
She laughed. "No, it almost makes me miss them. Kinda sorta."
"Happy to oblige," Sam smiled, secretly enjoying Dean's embarrassment, and glad to see him looking something other than pale and tired. "Dean acts fourteen, most of the time," he added. Then he gave a yelp as Dean's foot connected with his ankle under the table.
Dean gave him a blandly innocent smile. Sam tried glaring back, but could only think that a kick on the ankle was worth it to see a spark in his brother's eyes.
"Boys." Ginny cleared her throat and brought them back to the matter at hand. "What else do you two need to know? We've compared what we've seen, and Lissa's right in that we only put it together after the . . . shall we say, manifestation, in the sitting room. Cold areas, odd noises, but nothing threatening until that morning."
"What exactly is it that you're doing here?" Dean asked, all business again. He leaned forward to rest his elbows on the table. "How did the house fall into your hands, anyway?"
"We're doing research, in a variety of disciplines. Archeology, that's Lissa and Jason's field. Ian's a student of architectural history, and Angie's working on her history thesis. The house was actually donated to the Historical Society I mentioned earlier – it was in the former owner's will. She recently passed away. Aside from a few healthy bequests to friends, she left everything to the museum. So we were given a grant, and allowed to spend some time studying here, and helping out the museum."
"How did the owner die?"
"Emma Thornton Dubois died peacefully, at the age of ninety-seven, in her sleep."
"Living relatives? Other family in the house?"
"Husband died fifteen years ago. The closest living relative is a great-grandnephew or something, spends most of his time in Europe, and has no interest whatsoever in the old family homestead. Didn't contest the will at all."
"Okay, I guess Emma's ghost would've been way too easy," Dean muttered. "What about before she died? Anybody ever notice anything? Did she have any hired help we could talk to?"
"No history of a haunting," Ian said. "We did track down the gardener, and the old lady's live-in help, but they said they'd never seen anything remotely out of the ordinary in all the time they worked here."
Dean looked surprised. "Uh, yeah, good work. We'll need to do some more research," he said, going on. Sam caught his sideways look. "Dig into the history of the house, the people who lived here, how they died."
"You're looking at it," Ginny gestured at her pile of papers. "That's basically what we've already been doing since we got here. But I suppose we need to broaden our perspective, now that we're looking for something beyond when the slave quarters were torn down or when the fields got sold off."
"This place was an old plantation, right?" Sam asked.
"You got it, but now it's just the house and the gardens out back, a couple of acres altogether. It pre-dates the Civil War, built in 1832, and remarkably unchanged since then. The house, that is. Let's see, we've still got the carriage house, some gardener's sheds and such, a gazebo, or summerhouse, if you will, and the stable, since converted to a garage. All quite well preserved, but getting a little ragged around the edges. Emma didn't seem very interested in keeping things up towards the end."
"Have you done any actual digging?" Dean asked. "I mean, have you disturbed the ground anywhere, or torn anything down?"
Ginny looked thoughtful. "You think that's what started our unhappy ghost to take to wandering the halls? We dug up something we shouldn't have? I've got Lissa and Jason working on an area that we ascertained was part of an old trash site – good stuff," she added, seeing their mirrored expressions. "But, I swear, we haven't seen any sign of bodies or bones. Nothing to indicate a disturbed burial."
"Doesn't always have to be," Dean said, remembering other times and places where it hadn't taken much at all to rouse a restless spirit.
"You boys are quite the fount of knowledge. Well, how about we give you all our pooled research so far, and you tell us what you want us to look at next. You've got four trained researchers here – five, if we can get Jason back, and though we might not have the eyes to look at these things the way you do, we can give it our best shot."
"Thanks," Dean said. "We'll take you up on that."
The others had wandered off in various directions to work on their own, leaving Dean and Sam in the dining room.
They worked steadily all morning, going over the research notes the group had put together. It was very thorough, with names and dates, maps and old photos, but as Ginny said, not quite in the scope of their kind of investigation. They traded pages, Sam had the laptop up and running, and Dean absently flipped through John Winchester's journal, not even reading the pages but simply touching each one as his eyes quickly roamed across the familiar entries.
In their usual style, they tossed information back and forth, read excerpts from various reports out loud to each other, bounced theories around, and eventually narrowed the field a bit.
Discounting the idea of Native American burials, battlefield sites, and, more reluctantly, the entire slave situation, they decided to focus on the Thornton family itself. Since Ginny and the others had noticed the odd signs of – something – only in the house, they dug deeper into the lives and deaths of the many Thorntons over the last one hundred and seventy years.
It did not, Dean thought, look promising. So far, nothing they'd uncovered felt likely. Putting down the newspaper clipping he was reading, Dean stood and stretched, the resulting twinge reminding him not to do that again. "Shit," he muttered softly.
"You okay?" Sam looked up from the laptop to watch him.
"Yeah, just stiff from sitting." He walked around the table, thinking out loud to distract Sam from asking any more questions about his health. "Well, the way I see it, we've got a couple of possibilities. There's the guy who offed himself after the stock market crash in '29, and there was the drug overdosed teenager back in the fifties. Other than those two obvious situations, there doesn't seem to be anything unusual."
Sam leaned back, indulging in a bit of stretching himself. He laced his hands behind his head and stared at the ceiling. "I'd say it's a case of something in the Thornton family past that got covered up, or forgotten."
"Uh huh," Dean agreed. "A dark, dirty secret."
"Aren't they all?"
"Well, maybe your new college chums will come up with something. Whatever, though, I think we should go in the house tonight and see what we can find there."
"The Hardy Boys ride again," Sam sighed. "Sure you're up for this?"
"Hell, yeah, 'Joe.' Can't wait. Don't worry your pretty little head."
"Gee, 'Frank,' maybe it's the way you keep holding your ribs or rubbing your forehead when you think I'm not looking that makes me doubt your oh so earnest expression."
"Sammy," Dean said, stopping his pacing to stare over at his brother. "I'm fine. A little stiff, okay? I'm not dying here." Then he winced inwardly at that unfortunate choice of words as Sam paled and clenched his jaw.
"Sure, Dean," Sam snapped. The sarcasm did a poor job of covering the pain in his voice. "I forgot that you're indestructible."
"Sam . . . ."
"Nah," Sam shook his head. "Don't mind me. I'm just the geek little brother who worries too much, right?" His voice rose. "I mean, just because according to the doctors you should be dead by now from a severely damaged heart, I guess it just pisses you off that you're not, so you keep trying anyway. So why should I worry? Jesus fucking Christ, Dean, I'm sorry how you got healed, but I'm not sorry that it worked. I don't want you to be dead!"
Stunned at the sudden outburst, Dean could only stare for a moment. "Sammy, it's not like that . . . . I'm not . . . ." He swallowed. "I'm not trying to get myself killed." At least, he was pretty sure he wasn't . . . .
"Yeah, right." Sam stood up and brushed past him, not meeting his eyes. "I need some air."
"Sam, come on, dude . . . ."
Sam didn't turn around or even slow down.
He sighed wearily and sat down again. "Shit," he said, running his hand through his hair and continuing to swear quietly for several inventive minutes.
A damn long month.
He thought they'd been okay with what had happened in Nebraska, and afterwards. Okay with each other, at any rate. He didn't blame Sam for any of it. Maybe at first, briefly, but how could Sam have known there was anything evil behind it all? But Dean's life had come at the cost of someone else's, someone innocent and unknowing. Dean would have to live with that, and if he looked close enough, he could admit that maybe Sam was right, in a way. He was grateful to be alive, but sometimes, sometimes . . . he didn't think he deserved it.
Shying away from any more in-depth introspection, he forced himself to get back to the notes, back to work, and carry on like he always did, pushing his own pain and doubts aside to focus on the hunt. One small bitter thought floated up from somewhere.
John Winchester would be so proud of him.
Not long after Sam left, Ginny showed up. She slid into the chair Sam had been sitting in and waited for Dean to acknowledge her. He glanced up, catching those brown eyes studying him from behind the wire rim glasses. Her greying, light brown hair was swept up in a careless ponytail, she wore jeans and a sloppy t-shirt, and he thought she looked quite the part of the absent-minded professor, or maybe a den mother for a group of Boy Scouts.
But those eyes were hardly absent-minded about anything, and he felt a mental cringe coming on.
"Sam seemed a little upset when I walked past him a few moments ago."
Oh, yeah, no mercy here. Go straight for the jugular.
He sighed and leaned back in his chair. "Oh?"
"Uh huh. I believe the exact words I overheard were 'stupid, stubborn idiot.' Are you boys all right?"
"We're good." Liar. She's so gonna spot that one, moron. "Just . . . ." What was it about this woman that made him want to spill his guts? Just because she had kind eyes and got nice laugh lines when she smiled, and she called him "sweetie" and was old enough to be his mother? "We're just kinda tired, is all, I guess," he said finally, struggling not to say more. This was his problem, not hers. "Sam wants to take a break from . . . this. Thinks we've been pushing it kinda hard lately."
"I think maybe he's right, sweetie." She leaned forward to pat his hand. "This whole thing can wait. Whatever it is that's in that house, as long as we stay out, we're fine. No point in anyone else getting hurt. This is not that important a project."
"Nah, it's okay. We're gonna go in tonight, take a few readings with some equipment, and take it from there. Standard stuff. Really."
She arched a skeptical, Spocky eyebrow. "You're not being totally honest with me here, hon, but I can't tell what about. And I wish you'd reconsider going into the house tonight. Hell, I'm the one who called you here, you should be taking orders from me, right?"
"I suppose you could look at it that way," he drawled. "But I'm not sure I can take orders from a . . . civilian."
Tossing her hands in the air, she said, "Yeah, Sam was right. Stupid, stubborn idiot."
"Uh huh. I'll take that as a compliment."
"You gotta work on toning down on that charm, boy." She stood, gave him that arm pat again, and said, "You and Sam talk things out. I don't want you two having an argument over this. I'd hate to think we caused you boys to have words. All right? Everybody's on their own for lunch, so you just go grab what you want. Why don't you make Sam a sandwich? I saw him heading outside, probably out in the yard. Go on, now." She made shooing motions at him.
He had to laugh at how easily she had manipulated him. "Okay, 'Mom,' I'm going."
Carefully balancing two plates and two cans of Coke, he made his way out the kitchen door into the backyard, and indeed, there was Sam, reclining in a lawn chair.
He put his peace offering on the table beside Sam and sat down in the other chair. Sam shot him a sideways glance that told Dean he was still pissed. And worried, and scared, and all those other emotions Sam hadn't been able to hide since Nebraska.
"You brought me lunch."
"Ginny made me." God, he sounded five years old. He popped open the Coke can and took a long swig, not quite sure how to do this. How to talk to Sam.
"Well, that was nice of her." Sam picked up a sandwich and eyed it thoughtfully. "Turkey, mayo, lettuce, and tomato. You must really feel terrible."
"Don't forget the chips and the pickle. Hell, I wanted to send you a card, but she insisted on the whole lunch and talking thing. She said something about you calling me a stupid, stubborn idiot."
"How perceptive of her to know I was referring to you."
Dean groaned. "Come on, Sam! Cut me some slack here!"
"What do you want me to say?" he snapped, surging to his feet and turning partially away from Sam. "I'm not blaming you for Roy LeGrange! If it had been the other way around, I would've done the same thing, you know that! I would've done anything . . . ."
("You're my brother, and I'd die for you . . . .")
"I know," Sam said quietly. "You've forgiven me. Now just forgive yourself, all right?"
"Oh, yeah, thanks, Dr. Phil."
"Maybe I'm right, okay? Think about it. Show me you've got a functioning brain somewhere in there."
"Smartass," Dean muttered.
"Jerk." Sam started eating.
"Yeah, yeah, I know." He sank back down in the chair, hands clasped loosely between his knees. "Look, Sammy, after this gig, I promise, we'll take a break, okay? Maybe go sit on the beach or something. Let's just do this job for Ginny, and then we'll call it quits for a while."
"You still want to go in tonight?"
"Hell, yeah. Piece of cake. Look, I'll do it myself if you don't want to come. No big deal."
"Are you fucking nuts?" Sam stared at him, sandwich forgotten in one hand. "I take it back. You don't have a brain. At all. Do you really expect me to watch you walk in there by yourself? What do you take me for?"
"Aw, thanks, Sammy." Dean tried not to sound too smug, but judging from the look on Sam's face, failed spectacularly. He tried harder, before Sam could get any more pissed. "Let's poke around the other buildings first, see if there's any sign of our spook out there, and then do the house."
"You are such a complete asshole," Sam said, shaking his head. "A moron, an idiot, and I don't know why I let you do things like this to me. You need to have your head smacked into a wall a few times, not that that would do any good. You dumb bastard – "
"I get the idea, Sam!"
"Good. About time." He took another bite of sandwich, and talked around it. "It's this, and then we're done."
"Absolutely." Dean nodded vigorously, hoping he sounded contrite.
"Are your fingers crossed behind your back?"
"Aw, Sammy . . . ."
While going over the grounds, gardens, and other buildings during the afternoon, Ginny had tagged along to watch. She had wanted to come with them when they explored the house ("Scientific curiosity!" she insisted), but they were adamant. Disappointed but grudgingly understanding, she had acceded to their firm stance, and now waited outside –but not across the street, where Dean would have preferred – with Lissa, Angie, and Ian. Jason had shown up earlier, during supper (Chinese take-out tonight), but to everyone's relief, had not joined in the discussion at all, only helped himself to some food before disappearing again.
Dean gave the professor points for a) wanting to know what she was up against; and b) being smart enough to let them handle it.
Hefting his bag of equipment (gun, knife, rock salt, lighter fluid, all the usual) over one shoulder, Dean opened the door and led the way into house – loaded shotgun tucked under one arm and EMF detector in his other hand. Once inside, he traded a nod with Sam, and they moved slowly down the hallway, detector and Sam's digital camera all focused for any sign of a ghostly presence. They kept the lights off, and it was completely quiet except for their own footsteps.
It was all so familiar. He and Sam were on the hunt, watching each other's backs, and, if they were lucky, ready to do some bone burning. Dean grinned to himself at the thought as he walked, angling the little homemade detector into the corners of the gradually darkening room. Hunting as a comfortably familiar vocation. Yeah, we're freaks all right. Then he gave himself a mental shake and got back to the matter at hand.
"Sam? You getting anything?" he whispered.
"Definite signs," Sam replied, low-voiced, from a few feet away. "There's something here, all right."
The EMF meter glowed. "Uh huh, you could say that . . . ."
They continued their sweep through the first floor, moving slowly from sitting room to dining room, library, study, kitchen, back parlor, finding the usual evidence that something else had been here and stillwas.
"Okay," Dean said, "it's definitely stronger in the house. Didn't see anything like this in any of the other buildings or on the grounds."
Sam gestured at the wide staircase they stood in front of after circling back through the house. "Up?"
Distracted by a noise that wasn't from either one of them, Dean turned around, head cocked. "Did you hear that?"
"What?" Sam whispered, peering into the darkness beside him.
A light tinkling of glass. They both looked up, Sam flicking on the flashlight he'd been carrying. The ornate chandelier swayed, ever so slightly. Dean glanced down to the detector in his hand. Glowing all the way across.
"Spook time," he muttered. A sudden temperature plummet in the immediate area confirmed it, as if he had any doubts.
Then another sound reached his ears, of a door slamming shut somewhere, and the thud of careless footsteps across creaking floorboards.
Dean looked at Sam, and Sam shrugged back. They moved forward, Dean turning one way and Sam another, only to stop when a loud, mocking voice greeted them.
"Hey, if it isn't the ghostbustin' Hardy Boys!" Jason stepped into the beam of Sam's flashlight, squinting at them, his eyes taking note of their equipment. "Wow, you guys look, like, totally serious about all this! Can I have some neat toys and play too?"
"Son of a bitch," Dean muttered. Louder, he said in a snarl, "What the fucking hell are you doing here, Jason? Didn't you get it when we told everybody to stay out?"
"Aw, come on, what could happen?" He was grinning as he walked over to stand in front of Dean. "You guys don't really believe in all this shit, right? You're only doing this to keep Ginny and the other nervous kiddies calmed down."
"You moron! Get out, right now, before I kick – "
"Uh, Dean?" Sam was slowly pivoting around, shining the flashlight behind them. "I think we've got some other worries to deal with first."
Dean turned, and heard himself saying, "Son of a bitch," out loud again. A wispy figure floated before them, no real shape, just a bit of drifting fog, but real enough for Dean to feel the attention the apparition had focused on them. And it wasn't friendly.
In other circumstances, he would have enjoyed the jaw dropping expression of utter disbelief followed by outright panic on Jason's face; but like Sam said, they had something else to deal with first.
The lights in the house flared on, the sudden brightness momentarily blinding them. One hand briefly shielding his eyes until he could see again, Dean ditched the EMF detector and the bag from his shoulder to free both hands and brought the shotgun up to bear. But the figure had vanished.
"Sam!" he yelled. "Anything?"
Sam was swiftly aiming the camera around, shaking his head.
"Shit," Dean said, shotgun up and ready.
Several things then took place at the same time.
As he often experienced during a hunt, time slowed down for him; his senses heightened to a point where everything, colors, sounds, the smallest details, all were suddenly vivid and clear, and the hunter that he was noted everything.
The chandelier rattled louder than before. Numerous objects that stood on the fireplace mantel flew through the air to crash against the opposite wall – not far from Jason – and a small whirlwind uprooted two chairs before dropping them to the floor again ten feet away.
Dean ducked when the vases and candlesticks went flying, did a quick check on Sam – hunkered down, still tracking their uninvited guest – and then caught a glimpse of Jason, frozen in a predictable deer-in-the-headlights reaction. Eyes wide in a pale face, he paid no attention to Dean's shouted advice to hit the floor. Instead, with a loud incoherent yell, the grad student suddenly shook off his inability to move and made a panicked break for the front door.
Oh, spare me from fucking amateurs. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
It all happened so fast. In one sickening second, he saw Jason tugging futilely at the closed door even as the whirlwind sent one of the heavy chairs straight at him.
Ignoring Sam's shout and without further thought, Dean tossed his brother the shotgun and threw himself in Jason's direction, hoping to shove the oblivious (and fucking stupid, goddammit) student out of the way of the chair. He leaped, and managed to push Jason aside, glimpsing the other man fall away in an ungainly sprawl.
Dean just figured it was the way his luck had been running lately. He was unable to hold back a cry of pain when his already damaged chest and ribs took a solid hit as the chair crushed him instead of Jason against the door.
"Dean!" Sam's shout reached him through the haze of pain. "Dean!"
"Do something!" Jason was screaming. "Get us the hell out of here!"
"Dean, I can't get a clear shot!"
Dazed, Dean could only think about trying to breathe. The chill was back in the air, colder than ever, and it swirled around him. The mist grew thicker. He couldn't see. A cool draft caressed his cheek, drifted over his eyes, and wrapped gently around his throat. Oh, shit. I'm dead. Come on, Sammy . . . . His fingers reached up and grasped at nothing.
He could still hear Sam yelling his name, but even the sound of his brother's voice soon faded into a black void. It was just like before. When the reaper had him, draining his life away . . . . It was so dark. And he was so very cold . . . .
TBC . . . .