Old Rebel Yeller – Chapter One/Buttercup
Disclamation! I just did my taxes, and much to my accountant's patent relief, she did not find any evidence to suggest that I own an enormous media company, nor any shelters for fictional characters played by real actors. But, baby, that's what the auditor's for, I told her. Within this story there will be swearing, both of the modern variety and – for fun! – historical expletives too! Even the dog swears! Also, despite a fair bit of research, I'm not a Civil War historian and I'm not even going to pretend that all this is incredibly accurate. But I can hum that real sad fiddle tune from Ken Burns's PBS series if you like.
Spoilerific: I'm ready for summer. How about you? This takes place in a summer, which never seems to come for our boys, stuck out west in some unholy Vancouver November as they seem to be. Always November and never summer. I'm just assuming that whole season finale arc is still to come...maybe next November.
Writer's Grovel: For the love of god, review. If you want more, put it on your alert so you don't lose track of it. There's a reason we write, and it has to do with ego and inspiration and community. Being alone, as Dean will tell you, sucks.
She could smell it a mile off. More pungent than an old moldy sneaker, meatier than a butcher's shop, more alluring than a stranger's bum. A mile off, at least, but might have been next door for all that mile was going to matter.
Buttercup had a sharp nose, and since moving to this house on the ridge, the smells were ceaseless: death was all around them. During the day, it was easy to get distracted by small things. Squirrels were designed for one purpose and one purpose only: to get ripped apart, fast little fuckers. As far as she was concerned, the family existed so Buttercup could protect them and she had them under relentless surveillance when she wasn't driven to distraction by the fucking squirrels. The littlest human – what the hell was his name, anyway? – was forever dropping food from the table like he wanted her to have it. One day a whole fish stick, the next, a bunch of Cheerios raining down like hailstones. Buttercup didn't care; it was all food. Even the squirrels.
But this? This was more than food, this was like...like...well, Buttercup didn't know any words to describe what was better than food, but this was it. It was death, and it was decay, and it was everywhere. Under the sprinkler, over there near the hedge, way up by the corner store right there where the newspaper box sat. She'd make a point of peeing there, just to get a good whiff of it. Fuck, man, but this neighborhood was lousy with corpses.
Old ones, mind, but that was of no matter to Buttercup. She got yelled at by the big one – didn't know his name either – for digging up the garden, but what the hell were begonias doing there when there was, hey, talking to you, big human, when there's a body under there? Hello?
Nobody listens to the dog, no matter how loudly she makes her point.
So when the big one forgot to close the gate, just as the medium-sized one was struggling with the trash can (which, under normal circumstances would have been a bonanza, a real opportunity), Buttercup nudged medium aside, bounded out into the street, moved fast as a fat golden lab could, and turned her back on the life of an ordinary family dog.
Up to the ridge where the open trench waited, white strings attached in grids, tools packed up for the night, a tent zipped up until the sun came up, no one hanging about at this time, a relief.
She heard her name being shouted, over and over: she was a dog, did they think she couldn't hear them, for fuck's sake? Buttercup ignored them, started digging, screwing up all those pieces of string.
Soon, she found what she'd been looking for: a nice, long length of femur, old, old old, but that was okay, because as soon as she held it between her teeth, she could taste the ancient meat, felt the spittle drip from her muzzle. Man, nothing like it.
That's when Buttercup noticed the man sitting next to her. Manlike, anyway. He didn't smell like anyone she'd encountered before: he smelled of battlefield, of smoke, of sulfur, of blood. He smiled and made a low noise in his throat, but these were not human noises. Buttercup, clutching her prize between her teeth, growled. Mine, asshole.
The manlike thing did not hesitate; he reached out with one hand, placed it on her head.
And there were dark things there, things that roiled in Buttercup's basic, canine braincase like a sackful of snakes. This was a hunt, and he was a hunter, and she – Buttercup? – she was his dog now.
By the third week, Sam was almost getting used to it. Waking up half the time with Dean nowhere to be found. The bed beside him empty, morning light just tipping into the window, illuminating every dead fly on the sill, the curtain drawn but pathetically flimsy, no match for the sun on this, the longest day of the year.
His head hurt from lack of sleep, a pounding desperate ache in no way alleviated by the fact that he knew, more or less, where Dean was. His brother had been a complete and utter slut for the better part of three weeks, cutting a willing, satisfied swath in the female population from Pennsylvania down the Blue Ridge Mountains, criss-crossing the Shenandoah Valley to here, somewhere just outside of Staunton, Virginia. Home to a McDonalds and not much else.
This hearty set of conquests was not precisely 'nothing new', as Dean had flippantly tossed out one of the mornings – mid-morning, actually – when he'd reappeared, looking not really rested, but sated. Not new, maybe, but not usual, either. Sam knew that Dean had his moments – and they were legion – but he was on the luckiest streak ever.
It hid stuff, this relentless behavior, but there was no way in god's green earth Sam was going to call Dean on it. And besides, it was nice to see Dean enjoying himself, if that's what it truly was.
Sam didn't want to think about this, didn't want to think about where Dean was exactly, at this minute. In his jaded state, Sam hadn't even bothered to go to the bar last night, had waved Dean on – Go Dog Go! – and had gratefully collapsed onto the sagging bed, hadn't trusted the gold shag carpeting to be free of vermin, and so he'd put the greasy bag of hamburger take-away remnants outside the motel room's door when he was finished.
Maybe, after waking up between three and three fifteen scratching like someone had rubbed cayenne pepper on his torso with sandpaper, he'd ought to have used the food scraps as decoy for the bugs, because without it the mites had come for him. What a fucking hole. The TV played snow, the bathroom light had revealed things that moved too quickly for Sam's light-blinded eyes to track, and he'd gotten a great rate because he was staying the night. The very existence of an 'overnight' rate suggested that there were other ways to rent the rooms, of course. Sam was profoundly happy it was mid-week, not a Friday night in Staunton, which would have been an intolerable horny hickfest of the highest order.
Dean of course, hadn't cared about the accommodations. He hadn't set foot in The White House (good grief, Sam had said when Dean had responded to the first 'vacancy' sign he'd seen, where do they get their unmitigated gall?), but had instead rolled to an engine-on kind of stop, let Sam get out with his bags, told him not to wait up. Driven off without so much as a see you later.
Let him be, Sam murmured to himself, scratching under his armpit disconsolately. He needs to get it out. Sam wished they had someplace to go, something to do, because part of the problem was that Dean had too much time on his hands. It had been weeks since they'd last heard from their father, last had any sort of job. Dean wasn't good with free time; he needed a place to prove himself. Easy to recognize with Dean, always had been. When they were little and their dad had gone off, Dean would throw himself into play, construct huge forts in the motel rooms out of blankets and pilfered cardboard boxes from the back alleys, from the backs of chairs and once, even, three of Dad's rifles, which had bought him a memorable Classic John Winchester Chewing Out. Now, Dean occupied his idle hours with driving and pool and women.
If I don't get breakfast now, my stomach's going to eat itself, Sam thought, rubbing his belly. No, not rubbing. Scratching. The clothes on his back were the same ones he'd been wearing yesterday; he hadn't wanted to unpack anything, get any of this motel room on his things. Who the hell knew what mites were now hitching a ride with his stuff?
He contemplated whether or not to chance the E. coli bacteria doubtlessly lurking in the shower water, then decided against it. For the same reason, he didn't brush his teeth, which always made him feel particularly ill equipped to deal with the day. He had the feeling that even if the vending machine in the motel's office was working, it wouldn't sell bottled water and he sure as hell wasn't going to brush his teeth with Coke, though he'd seen Dean do it once.
As he sat outside, his back resting against the cheap hollow door, the knob of which wouldn't have kept a determined three-year-old out, he closed his eyes and felt a blast of sun find his face through the tall trees surrounding the motel. Despite the cool mountain air, rich with sod and berry smells, it was going to be a hot, sticky day. He hoped they had a long drive ahead of them, so he could roll down the windows, stick his bare feet on the dash, make Dean mental. Maybe he could talk Dean into drifting down to the seaboard, to a beach, swim in the cold Atlantic, so different from the Pacific with all its promises of pineapples. The Atlantic promised to whip your ass, promised you cod and salt and icebergs. That ocean whispered Reykjavik and the Faeroes and Greenland in the same way the Pacific breezily dreamt up Tahiti and Fiji and Oahu.
Across the empty highway – not even really a highway, just a road cutting across the worn backbone of the Blue Ridge Mountains – a bunch of birds broke cover, abruptly reminding Sam that things hunted around here. Normal people would guess: bobcat, pine marten, even bear. Not Sam, he'd been raised with a different appreciation of danger, so for him it was: vampire, wendigo, werewolf. Shit. Nothing to get excited about, though, for the forest calmed, and so did Sam, only prodded from his half-sleepy itchy reverie when his phone rang.
"Sam, you ready to go?" And that was all Dean had to say.
It was obvious, right from the get-go, that Dean was trying to keep his story straight.
Sam, half a lawyer already, was quick to see it, quick to pick it apart like a tricky Transformer he'd had as a kid: twist here, bend the head back, spin this and voila! It's not a helicopter! It's a Cybertron Mega Warrior! Doubtlessly, Dean would have objected to Sam manhandling him into the correct form, but it didn't keep Sam from thinking about it: if Dean were a Transformer, what would he turn into?
Dean's story, when he'd pulled up to room seventeen of The White House was this:
"Hey, Sammy. Good rest? Good. Not me," with the grin that always made him look as though he ought to be arrested for something, "looooong night. You itchin' to drive?" Cheap joke at Sam's fidgety red spots; first signal that something was off, that kind of request disguised as a favor. So Sam was immediately distracted by the process of driving fuzzy-toothed, unable to second-guess his weasling brother. "I'm so sleepy I might drive off the road." Slid into the passenger seat while Sam loaded his flea-infested bag into the trunk. "Gotta call this morning," not looking at Sam, pointing out the direction to turn on the highway. South. "Remember Beau McBean?"
Took Sam a minute for the nickel to drop, because Dean had pronounced it 'McBane,' which Beau had always insisted on. Sam, thinking the name looked like an heirloom bad joke, persisted in calling him McBean, both then and now.
He cocked an eyebrow at Dean, but kept his eyes on the twisty road. "Custer?" Beau's nickname, one that Dean had come up with when they were teenagers, mocking the weapons specialist. Which was too easy; Dean had stopped first, maybe a little embarrassed. Sam had continued, a mouthy thirteen-year-old, until their father had slapped him on the back of the head, wordlessly, not even looking at his son.
"Yeah, Custer. Calls me up, outta the blue. Says he's scared." Didn't look at Sam, was searching under the seat for what eventually turned out to be his sunglasses. "Pull over there, Sammy. I don't think I'm going to make it if I don't get some coffee into me."
Came back with two huge paper cups, hot and strong, and a bag of donut holes. Like that was a healthy breakfast for two fully-grown male adults of the species. Sam had to hold the cup between his knees, unnerving when it was so hot and he still hadn't brushed his teeth and Dean was trying to keep him off-balance, which just made him more edgy. Dean slouched into the seat, drank the coffee like it wasn't scalding. "So Beau tells me he's scared."
"Scared of what?" Sam asked, pulling back out onto the highway.
"Down there, towards Waynesboro," Dean gestured with his cup. Going down into the Virginia Piedmont, away from the mountains. Shit, maybe Sam would get his swim in the Atlantic after all, though it would be a long day's drive. But only if that's where Beau McBean was, because it was obvious that's where Dean was heading, no matter how circuitous the route. "Didn't really get into details," and from how he said it, drawing out the vowels in that strange no-place southern accent Dean had, Sam knew immediately that Beau McBean had been full of details. The man ought to have been a statistician; he was nothing but minutia and details.
"No details? Custer's suddenly mute?"
Dean looked at him funny, though the cheap sunglasses disguised his evasion. "No. Didn't I say he called me? How'd he do that if he's mute?"
After a minute of not saying anything, Dean started up his story again. And again, Sam vigilantly watched for the hiccups. "So he thinks we ought to get together, maybe help him out."
Sam counted three red cars go by in the opposite direction before asking his next question, finally understanding that Dean wasn't going to offer more explanation than that without prompting.
"And how are we going to help him out, Dean?" Using his name like a cattle prod.
Dean shifted in his seat, feeling the jab. The leather interior was hot and the coffee was hotter and damn, Sam wanted to kick off his shoes and put his feet up on –
"Just look into some ghost-type stuff he's picking up."
"Okaaay." The coffee had now cooled and the road was beautiful, and it was a sunny day, and who the hell cared about odd little Beau McBean and his ghostly visitations? "He doesn't have a weapon that works?"
"C'mon, Sam," Dean said, though it took him a good five seconds to come up with it, and Sam wondered if Dean had his eyes closed behind the glasses, his empty coffee cup long flung in the backseat. "Beau makes guns and knives. Makes his own fucking bullets, for god's sake. He doesn't know shit about exorcisms or witchcraft or stuff like that. He knows how to kill things that have the kind of bodies that bullets can kill."
True enough. Sam sometimes forgot that the Winchesters were all-rounders, utility players good in the clutch. There were others who specialized, and they wouldn't know a smudge stick from a prayer wheel. "When's the last time you saw him?"
Dean was back to looking out the window, but at least he'd pulled up the glasses so Sam could be sure he was awake. He saw the little spasm cross Dean's forehead, an effort to compile something that sounded right. "Maybe three summers ago," he finally said. Shrugged, looked over at his brother as though daring him to say otherwise. "Memorial Day, three years ago."
Truth. Okay, but why so cloaked in other respects, Dean?
"And it's just a ghost?" Sam's questions were flapping away against Dean, falling like ineffectual moths against a lightbulb in the night.
"Just a ghost," Dean repeated quietly, unrolling the window so the wind blasted through the car like a banshee.
After giving a couple of vague directions, Dean slept for most of the drive, his jean jacket bunched up under his head, half-dozing, really, because who the hell got a decent sleep when you were upright in a moving car? Sam watched him, aware that Dean was holding back and not knowing why. Making Sam drive them to the mystery destination – wake me up when we get to Charlottesville – and then falling asleep so Sam would stop asking inconvenient questions.
Damn, but it was pretty, even though the magnolias around the University of Virginia were pretty much done, their white cups littering the ground, the Thomas Jefferson-designed campus gorgeous and lush and old in a way Stanford never had been. One saving grace: if Dean was asleep, or pretending to be asleep, he couldn't call the dining tune. So Sam pulled into a place that looked student-friendly, that would have internet access, good Guatemalan coffee and the servers wouldn't look at him strange when he asked for lox on his bagel. Would know that the best bagels came from a wood-burning oven. Would know what a bagel was. And – now Dean had jerked awake, was peering suspiciously at their culinary destination.
A measure of Dean's guilt or apprehension that he said nothing, simply allowed himself to be led in like a recalcitrant runaway mule before slumping into a seat and ordering the largest combination of smoked meat and pickles the human body could possibly cope with.
"What's Beau up to?" Sam asked, once, while Dean was chasing poppy seeds across the copper-topped table with his fingernail, squishing them when he caught them. It reminded Sam a little too vividly of fleas, which he thought even Dean wasn't devious enough to think up.
"Ah, little of this, little of that."
"Remember that apartment of his?" Sam was looking for anything at this point. "All those books and artifacts he had? The piles and piles of video tapes." He shook his head. "No wonder he never had a girlfriend."
"Made good bullets," Dean offered. "Good guns. A real talent for it." Don't knock it, he meant.
"So, did Beau tell you much about this ghost of his? Is it getting, I don't know, vicious, or demanding? Is it just annoying? Is it half as annoying as Beau?" He stopped, because Dean was staring at him, his eyes glacial, seagreen, tough. "Half as annoying as you are today?"
Dean's mouth twitched. Sometimes he tried to be open. Sometimes he couldn't. Sam occasionally could spot the difference. Not today, not with that stare. "He's going to explain everything when we catch up with him."
"He lives here in town? Why all the cloak and dagger, Dean?"
At which point, Dean stood, picked up the remainder of his coffee and told Sam they should push on.
Dean drove this time, which allowed Sam to succumb to his barefooted molestation of the dashboard, resulting in sharp words from Dean and a general decline into Motorhead's Greatest Hits, which were – in Sam's opinion – neither great nor hits.
The sun was sinking behind the trees when they finally came to the field, covered in parked cars, the rise of the farmer's fallow efforts masking whatever was on the other side. Dean parked, sat there for a moment, allowing Sam to pull on his socks and Converse All-Stars. Allowing him to formulate the obvious question.
"What's going on here?" He looked over at Dean. "Is this where we'll find Beau?"
"Might take us awhile, " Dean replied. "Lock the doors," he reminded Sam. Distracting him, Sam thought.
There were few people in the lot and Sam spotted plates from at least five different states. He didn't hear a concert-decibel blast of music and there were no Harley Davidsons, which was actually the scenario he had half-formed in the back of his mind. Some of the cars bore bumper stickers advertising southern slogans not entirely out of place even as far north as Virginia: 'The South will Rise Again!' and 'Southern by birth; Confederate by choice'. A few RVs were positioned just below the apex of the hill. The shadows cast by the lowering sun made everything gold and gray, and Sam heard the faint sound of fiddle music, then smelled campfire smoke and horse.
What the hell?
He followed Dean's easy loping gait up the hill, noticing the tight line of his brother's shoulders, as though bracing himself for something. Dean was going fast, something often disguised by the fact that he looked so unhurried. It had always been a weird fact of their relationship, that despite Sam's longer legs, he was always playing catch-up.
So Dean was already standing there, looking down into the shallow valley, when Sam came up behind him. Spread before them, a hundred campfires, men and women sitting around them, little white canvas tents set up row upon row, horses tethered in huddled groups, the sound of fiddle and squeezebox reaching them intermittently on the evening air. To one side a flagpole had been erected, from which the flag of the Confederacy flapped lethargically. A group of men with a pick-up truck were pulling a flat wagon loaded with cannons.
More men walked towards them up the hill, laughing quietly in the descending gloom. They wore faded Confederate uniforms, slouch hats with pins glinting in the slanting sun. One of them was smoking a pipe, and tipped his hat when they passed. "Pickets going up at nineteen hundred," they were warned. The men passed, and the pipesmoke lingered long after the men were out of earshot.
"He's with the 22nd Virginia Regiment," Dean said softly, waiting for whatever Sam was going to hit him with.
a/n: I promise to explain what a 'farb' is...probably next chapter. So hang in there, all right? And remember, reviews keep this monkey banging the cymbals.