A/N: First SPN fic, so I really appreciate any concrit from
older hands in the fandom that I've only been in two days ;).
Supernatural and its characters and settings do not belong to me.
"Where are we again?" asked Dean, and could have sworn he heard Sammy say another nothing place.
Instead, his brother lifted his eyes briefly from the newspaper he was reading and said "Fremont, Minnesota."
"Right." Sam went back to reading the paper. Nothing else seemed to be required of him, and Dean was long past the cold pancakes and congealing maple syrup that lay in front of him on the scratched formica table, so he stretched and muttered something about getting some air. Sam didn't really seem to notice.
Outside the diner – another nowhere diner – the autumn air was heavy and damp, not the cool, crisp kind that makes red and gold leaves crunch beneath your feet, but the clammy kind that makes them rot and squelch. Dean never had much cared for woods – too many places for things to hide. Here that seemed all there was, though, although it was only a two hour drive from the nearest city (St. Paul/Boston/Phoenix delete as appropriate) through open fields. Five minutes before you reached the town, the woods closed in.
Dean turned and raised his eyebrows at his brother, who was exiting the diner waving the newspaper and half-grinning. "You get something?" he asked.
"I think so," Sam said, and spread the newspaper out on the soaking hood of the Impala. The fine mist in the air – just this side of drizzle – started to drench the paper almost imperceptibly, but somehow much faster than something which in the end is only humidity should be able to manage. Sam's long, newsprint-stained finger taps on a headline, the bold black ink of the letters already beginning to run. LOCAL BOY IN COMA AFTER FOUND IN WOODS. He pushed his shaggy hair out of his eyes, and said, "this kid, some hunter found him in the woods and now he's in a coma."
Dean rolled his eyes. "No shit, Sherlock. Why do we care?"
Sam shot him an annoyed glance. "Because the doctors can't figure out what's wrong with him. See?" he points at another place in the article. "Their best guess is it's some kind of abnormal stroke or seizure."
"Hate to break it to ya, Dr. Kildare, but strokes and seizures ain't exactly our speciality."
"No," Sam said, and that half-grin was back, the one that couldn't quite be a full smile because it was caused by something bad happening to someone else, "but abnormal is."
"Hi there ma'am," Dean said, smiling broadly and turning on the charm, "I wonder if you could help us. We're here to see Tommy Gardner?"
The hospital registrar took her sweet time finishing whatever she was doing before she looked up. She was an older woman, in her early fifties maybe, and she wasn't buying it, Dean could tell straight away. He cranked his smile up another notch or two.
"You family?" she asked, eyeing him up and down.
"Why yes, ma'am, we are. We're his cousins." He heard Sam shifting uncomfortably behind him, and restrained himself from rolling his eyes. Kid never had been any good at the whole acting thing.
The registrar lifted a suspicious eyebrow. "His mother didn't say anything about any cousins coming by," she said, her voice as cool as the clicking sound of high heels on the hospital's polished floor.
Dean didn't let his guard down for an instant. "We're from out of state. We were just in the neighbourhood and we heard what happened, thought we'd drop in on the little tyke, see how he's doing."
The eyebrow went higher. "He's a little to old to be a little tyke, Mr...?"
"Granville," Dean said without thinking (Granville, Martin Roger, that was the name on the credit card this week), and mentally kicked himself. Then Sam shuffled slightly and leaned forward, his hair falling into his eyes.
"We're from his mother's side of the family," he said, and Dean had to take back his earlier thought about his brother's acting skills, there was just the right combination of false cheerfulness and slight brokenness to the voice, and the registrar's suspicions were instantly dispelled, "and he'll always be a little tyke to us."
After they'd been directed to the room – 227, down the hall to the elevator and up two floors – Dean sneaked a sidelong glance at his brother, slightly impressed, slightly resentful. Why couldn't he ever have that effect on them? No, he was forced to admit, it wasn't his brother's acting skills that were the problem. It was just that he didn't enjoy it.
The hospital smelt like hospitals always do – the pine-fresh scent just masking the underlying smell of age and sickness. It was clean and quiet, typical small town sick-house. 227 looked just the same as all the other doors, and Sam was raising his hand to knock when Dean suddenly grabbed hold of him and hauled him out of the way.
"Hey!" Sam said, but Dean covered his mouth and pointed to the door. A matronly nurse was coming out, talking to someone in the room.
"You take care now, Mizz Gardner. You should get some rest."
"Great," Sam muttered. "How the Hell're we gonna convince his mom that we're her nephews?"
But Dean wasn't looking at the door any more. "Sammy, my boy," he said with a grin, "I don't think we're gonna need to."
"It's a dreadful thing, just dreadful," the nurse said, smoothing down the sheets on an empty bed with military precision. "Poor little Tommy. Not even as old as you two, and knocked over by a stroke." She shook her head and tutted, as if her disapproval could somehow impact on the forces of life and death.
"So they know it was a stroke, then?" Dean asked, shooting a quick glance at Sam.
The nurse shook her greying head, and pushed her medicine cart out of the door of the vacant room. They followed her quickly.
"To be honest," she said, lowering her voice slightly, "I don't think them doctor's got a clue what it is. I hear em talkin, they're as baffled as may be. Say half his brain just shut down. Like someone flippin a switch. Ain't none of em seen nothin like it before."
This time it was Sam who glanced at Dean, with that triumphant half-grin.
"So which half was it?" Dean asked. Sam glared at him furiously, and the nurse frowned.
"I don't understand, honey," she said.
Sam elbowed him hard in the ribs, but Dean was not going to be put off. "Which half of his brain. Shut down."
The nurse looked surprised, maybe slightly offended. Then she shook her head. "I don't know, they don't really tell us more'n we need to do our jobs. He can breathe on his own, he can swallow. He just can't wake up. Hell of a thing." And she shook her head again, sadly this time.
Sam grabbed Dean's elbow. "Thank you for your time, ma'am," he said, and steered his brother away, still glaring. Dean grinned at him disingenuously.
"Seriously, I cannot believe you asked her which half."
Dean shrugged, half-pissed at his brother's constant harping on the subject, half-pleased that he had managed to rile him up so much. "Dude, people can't just go around saying stuff like that without arousing curiosity, you know what I'm saying?" He was rewarded with a roll of the eyes, which only caused his grin to spread wider. "I'm serious! I mean, what if it turned out that it was a half he didn't use anyway? Though, come to think of it," he frowned thoughtfully, "I don't know how anyone would notice it was shut down then. Maybe if he was all Uri Geller like you and then he tried to bend a spoon and just couldn't do it. I mean, that would make a dent in his takings for the stage show, but it's not like a human tragedy is it?"
"Sometimes I think half of your brain has shut down," Sam growled, pointedly looking away. "And I'm not like Uri Geller."
Dean thought about this, then nodded. "True. In fact, I haven't seen you bend a single spoon yet. Now why is that, Sammy-boy?"
Sam opened his mouth to retort, but was interrupted by the door opening. A moustachioed man in a wife beater and flannel shirt stood in the doorway, looking from one to the other. Dean stepped forward, all business.
"Hello, sir, we're from the St. Paul Recorder and we wanted to talk to you about the boy you found in the woods."
The man stared at him, but this time, Sam's special voice-acting talents were not required. "Come on in," he said.
"I was out hunting," the man – his name was Jonsson, Dean recalled – said through his thick moustache. The room they were in bore plenty of evidence to back up this statement: the place was full of parts of what had once been animals, the crowning piece a glassy-eyed bear's head staring down from the wall, its lips twisted in a snarl but actually looking kind of sad. Dean shook himself mentally. His inner monologue was starting to sound like a whiny bitch-boy. Like Sam.
He'd never understood why animal hunters kept trophies. He couldn't imagine wanting a house full of banshee heads and wendigo-foot waste-paper baskets. And it made even less sense if the creature in question posed no threat to you in the first place, he reflected, glancing at the line of deer-heads over the window.
"I heard this scream," the man continued, "and I thought someone was being attacked by a wild animal, so I fired my shotgun to scare it. Then I found the kid laying on the floor, like he was sleeping, only he wouldn't wake up when I shook him. Didn't seem like no animal attack though – kid didn't have a scratch on him. Guess his brain just took and conked out on him. Terrible thing."
Sam leaned forward, his elbows on the knees of his suit that was slightly too small. "You didn't see anything attack him?"
The man – what was his name again? Oh well, moustache-guy would do – shook his head, his drooping whiskers making him look like a doleful walrus. Like he should be mounted on his own wall. "Nope. No tracks neither."
"And there was nothing else... strange?" Sam asked carefully, his pen poised over his notebook.
But there was nothing. Nothing at all. Terrible thing, so young.
Dreadful thing. Hell of a thing. Terrible thing.
"So, lets tally this up shall we?" Dean said, once they were back in the car. "We have found out exactly... uh..." he raised his hand, pretending to count on his fingers, "oh right, zip. We have no evidence that this was anything other than a normal abnormal seizure. Or something."
Sam sighed, staring out of the window. "I still think there's something about this. Something's not right."
Dean cocked his head on one side. "What do you want to do?"
He knew the answer before Sam turned to him, let his shoulders slump, and pulled out of the parking space, heading for the library.
It was less than two hours later when Sam arrived at the motel room. He had agreed to Dean's division of labour (you do the reading, geek boy, I'll find us someplace to sleep) without objections. Dean had found a cheap motel with ugly pink stucco buildings and showers full of silverfish and cockroaches and settled down for a long wait. He was only half-way through disassembling his arsenal when Sam came back.
"Man, you were fast," Dean said. "Dyou learn how to do psychic speed-reading or something?"
Sam glowered and shook his head. He sighed, dropping down into a chair. "I didn't find anything."
Dean raised his eyebrows. "Nothing at all?"
Sam shook his head dejectedly. "Not a single case of anything like this happening to someone while they were out in the woods in the last hundred years' worth of the Fremont Echo. Got a map, though," he added as an afterthought, wafting it listlessly in Dean's direction.
Dean wiped the oil of his hands with a rag and grabbed the map, taking it to the chipped table to spread it out. "Jesus, these woods go on for ever," he said, trying to suppress a slight shiver at the thought of all that endless gloomy twilight under the trees. He was suddenly aware of Sam behind him, craning over his shoulder, interested now.
"Where did that hunter guy say he found Tommy?"
"I don't know, man, you were the one taking notes." But Sam was already flipping through his notebook, and he reached over with a lanky arm and marked a cross in the middle of the vast green space of the map.
Dean turned to look at Sam. "What're you thinking?"
Sam stared at the map. "That's pretty far from the Fremont city limits. Pretty much in the middle of nowhere." He frowned for a moment, then said, "What other settlements are there round the edge of the forest?"
Dean bent over the map, peering at the tiny lettering. "Odense," he read. "Gothenburg. Siegtown. There's a lot of em."
Sam nodded slowly. "We're gonna need to do some more research," he said. Then he looked up. "You want hospitals or morgues?"
Dean snorted. There was no contest: there were very rarely hot nurses manning the phone lines at morgues.
After four hours, Dean gave up. He had called dozens of hospitals in the towns and cities that fringed what he had started to privately call the Forest of Doom. Except there wasn't any. Doom, that was. So he was thinking of renaming it to the Forest of Really Fucking Boring. He had, however, talked to several cute chicks.
Sam's nose wrinkled. "How could you tell they were cute? You talked to them on the phone."
Dean grinned and leaned back in his chair. "Sam, dude, you never called a 900 number?" Then he shook his head. "Stupid question. Anyway, nurses or no nurses, I ain't calling no more hospitals. Looks like this is just a stroke after all."
"Not quite," Sam said, and the half-grin came and went so quickly that Dean wasn't even sure he'd seen it at all. "Looks like Tommy was pretty lucky. The rest of the victims didn't get found until it was too late."
Dean sat up, suddenly interested for the first time in hours. "You find something?"
Sam waved his notepad at him. "I'm telling you, man, this area is crawling with underage stroke victims. Kids in their teens, twenties, found in the woods, and their brains have just shut down. No physical damage. Just dead. There's even a book," he pulled it out of his bag. "Some anthropology professor writing about how the people in this area are predisposed because they all came from the same area of Scandinavia and they carry a bad gene."
Dean looked nonplussed, staring at the thick volume. "Did you read that whole thing?" he asked, wondering if Sam really did have some crazy speed-reading power.
Sam stared at him. "No, man, I read the introduction and conclusion." He sat down at the table and started doodling on the map.
"OK, so there definitely are strange things afoot at the Circle K," said Dean. "Unless it really is just a weak gene."
Sam shook his head. "No way. These aren't strokes, not with no damage."
Dean nodded slowly. "So what do we know about this thing so far?"
"It likes teenagers and young adults," Sam listed, "it doesn't leave traces, it shuts down brain function without damaging tissue..."
"It can be scared off or repelled by shotgun blasts," Dean put in.
"Right," Sam nodded. "And it seems like it doesn't shut the whole brain down at once, just starts with higher functions, if Tommy's anything to go by."
"OK, well, that's not much," Dean muttered, blowing out a breath.
"Oh, there's one more thing," Sam said, sitting back from the map. Dean saw that what he thought were doodles were actually neat crosses, scattered over a small area near the cross which marked the spot were Tommy Gardner had been found.
"We know where it lives."
The mist had definitively crossed the border into drizzle by the time the Impala reached the end of the last dirt track the following morning. They were within about a mile of the area ringed by crosses on the map, and the car could take them no further. Dean peered through the rain-flecked windshield into the misty dimness under the trees, and sighed.
"The woods are lovely, dark and deep," murmured Sam, or at least, that's what Dean thought he said.
Sam looked round, as if he hadn't realised he'd spoken aloud. "What? Nothing, sorry."
Dean frowned. He didn't like this, but in the absence of any further evidence to go on (all of their diligent searches through dad's journal and their probings into local lore the night before had drawn a blank), recon was the only way to go. He was not excited about the idea of going into the woods without much of an idea of what the thing was, even in the daylight. But, Sam reasoned, they were pretty sure it was scared of shotguns (what if that had just been a coincidence), and it wasn't like they were short of that particular brand of weapon.
Once they reached the line of crosses on the map, they began a sweep, Dean with his EMF meter, Sam with his video camera. The woods smelled dank and rotting. Spring was nothing more than a memory here, its youth and loveliness decaying into sludge beneath their feet. Pretty overdramatic, Dean. We'll make a high-school theatre geek out of you yet.
The EMF meter creaked slightly, and then spiked a couple of times, erratic. "Sam," said Dean, turning, and it was then he realised that he had lost sight of his brother. His hand went straight to his cell phone, but then he heard a familiar voice not far away.
He relaxed, and started to walk towards the sound. A second later, it came again, and this time there was an urgent tone to it and Dean was anything but relaxed, Dean was running and checking the shotgun at the same time (just a coincidence, just a coincidence) and shooting into the air once, and pumping the gun again. And in another few strides he was in a sort of clearing, and he could see Sam on his knees in the slimy leaf-mould, flailing with his arms at his head and shouting get it off me, Dean, but he couldn't see anything, there was nothing there, nothing to aim at, and so he fired the gun over Sam's head and started aiming again straight away, cold and clinical, thinking of nothing but how to hit the target, but then Sam collapsed face first into the dirt and he knew, somehow, that the target was gone.
He was at his brother's side in a second. "Sam, Sammy, you OK?" He turned him over, brushing the dead leaves and mud off his face.
Sam coughed and wiped his hand over his face. "Yeah, I'm fine," he said, opening his eyes, blinking. "How long was I out?"
Dean rolled his eyes. "Dude, like, a second. You're such a drama queen."
Sam frowned. "Then how come it got dark so fast?"
Dean stared at him, then around at the woods. Granted, it was pretty misty still, but not really what you'd call dark. "You sure you're OK?"
Sam stared at him, his eyes unfocussed. "God, Dean. Where are you?"
"I'm right here," Dean said, his heart starting to beat faster, feeling panic rising in his throat. "Can't you see me?"
"It's so dark," Sam said, whispered really.
"How many fingers am I holding up?"
But Sam shook his head, not even looking in the right direction, not even looking at Dean's hand. "What fingers, Dean. What... what's going on?"
Dreadful thing. Hell of a thing. Terrible thing.