It was the Winchester way: case closed, pack up and move on, literally and emotionally. The traumas of the last few weeks could be dismissed and locked into the past as soon as they loaded their battered luggage into the Impala and set off for a new town, a new challenge, the beginning of a new story. It wasn't always easy, but on this occasion, both brothers were only too willing to put the town to their rear mirror and flee, bad memories drowned out with throbbing rock music.
As soon as they were clear of the woods which enshrouded the small town, Dean felt himself let out a long breath which he hadn't known he was holding. Fresh air, clear light… it was the taste of freedom. Somehow, those forests had made the town itself seem choked, claustrophobic and enclosed, cut off from the vastness of America. It was like breaking out of a shell.
Sam, too felt the release of leaving the town. He wasn't proud of the way he had behaved, despite Dean's assurances that nothing had been his fault; that anyone would have been taken in by Michael's manipulation. Still, Sam repeatedly found himself listing in his head all the times when he could have made a better choice, or should have picked up on some… wrongness in Michael's behaviour. He recalled pouring out his soul to the malicious teenager in the hospital waiting room, and felt a hot, sick swoop of nausea and shame wash through him.
Still, Michael was now nothing but a fading image, dulling and becoming less vivid with every short yard they put between the Impala's taillights and the edge of the town.
'So, any ideas where I'm driving to?' he asked, tilting his head over at Dean, who was taking advantage of his unusual position in the passenger seat to take complete control of the music. Apparently, his own 'house rules' didn't apply when Sam was driving. It was, after all, his car.
Dean shrugged and laughed. 'Nope. When we get to a turning, we'll flip a coin.'
Sam glanced at him sideways, half laughing, half incredulous. 'You serious?' he asked.
'Yeah, why not?' Dean grinned, satisfied with the cassette player for the present, and wriggling back in his seat in search of a comfortable position.
'Well… we could end up anywhere…'
'Where's your sense of adventure, Sammy? Anyway, we don't know where our next hunt's gonna be, and we sure as hell don't want to stay in that dive until we find one. So,' he shrugged again. 'One way's as good as another.'
Sam stuttered for a few seconds, protesting, but he failed, for once, to find a flaw in his brother's logic. 'Fine,' he conceded. 'Leaf on the wind…' he muttered.
'Damn straight,' Dean agreed, leaning back into the seat, and closing his eyes.
After a couple of minutes, Sam nudged him.
'We're at a junction. You got a coin?'
Dean grinned, and produced one out of a pocket in his jeans.
'Heads, left, tails, right,' he proposed, balancing the grimy coin on his thumbnail, ready to flip. Sam nodded, gazing at the small metal disc as though mesmerised.
Dean flipped it up, watched it spin once, twice, in mid air, then caught it neatly and slapped it onto the back of his left hand. Heads.
'Left, then,' he concluded, shrugging at Sam and grinning. Sam flicked his left indicator on and swung the wheel round between his hands. It seemed as good a direction as any.
A low slung, muddy vehicle followed the Impala round the left turn, and maintained enough distance behind the black car to be unthreatening. But every time the Winchesters made a random turn, the second car opted for the same direction.
Eventually, Sam determined exactly what the flaw was in Dean's ingenious plan: after a series of turns decided by the same grimy 10-cent piece, the roads had become narrower and narrower until it seemed little more than a farm track.
'Dean, when I agreed to your crazy idea… I didn't really expect to be asking the coin every time there was a junction. Couldn't we just stick to… uh… actual roads?'
Dean chuckled, and paused before answering. When they had rounded another corner, he sat up, suddenly alert. 'I hate to admit it… but you may actually have a point this time, Sammy.'
Sometimes in the recent storms, lightening had struck a tree, splitting it down the middle. The bulk of it had collapsed sideways, and now its mighty trunk and lush, leafy branches were splayed out across the road. It was completely blocked.
'Not your lucky coin, I'm thinking, Dean,' Sam commented, with a wry look at his brother.
Dean nodded slowly. 'Maybe not.'
Sam braked, and the Impala rolled to a halt. He sat up in his seat, stretching his neck and glancing around him to gage the width of the road: not very wide. It wasn't going to be an easy turn.
The dusty vehicle came up behind them with a burst of acceleration, and as Sam was carefully reversing to make space to swing the car round, the other car's bumper slammed into the rear end of the Impala, shoving it closer to the fallen tree. Both brothers cried out in protest, swinging round in their seats as the indignant vehicle lurched forwards. Without looking closely at the car behind, Dean burst out of his door to give the other driver a dressing-down for driving like a lunatic, and to check for damage. Clearly this person had no respect for his beautiful car. Sam followed, frowning. There goes Dean's good mood, he thought.
Then the unlucky lunatic surfaced from behind his muddy wind shield and faced the brothers. His thin, pale face, twisted with hatred, was a shock to the Winchesters.
Dean recovered his composure quickly and glared at him stony faced. Not you again…
Sam, on the other hand, felt a cold fist clench in his gullet at the sight of his former 'friend', and found himself panicking, fight-or-flight reflexes kicking in immediately. After the collision, there wasn't sufficient space between the Impala and the tree to make a turn, and the land dropped away too steeply either side of the road to risk any escape manoeuvres. Flight, then, was not possible. He realised his fingers were aching: they were pressed so tightly into balled fists.
'He's frightened of me…' Michael croaked, smiling, addressing Dean. He seemed gratified, pleased that he could still make Sam uncomfortable. Sam immediately adapted his expression and growled angrily at the teen before him.
'What do you want, Michael? I think I made it clear that it was over between us,' he spat, sounding a lot like his brother as he erected a cocky façade over his nervousness.
Dean seemed to appreciate this, and half smiled, glancing sideways at his little brother. He turned his gaze back toward Michael, and saw that his pale face was still marred with the purple print of Sam's knuckles. Proud of you, Sammy.
Michael was trembling, seized with a mixture of terror and fury as he found himself facing off against the two Winchesters. He narrowed his eyes and gritted his teeth to still their anxious chattering. His knuckles were white; gripping the black metal handle of a gun as if it was a lifeline. He looked down at the object in his hand, which was hidden from the brothers by the open car door. Studying it carefully, he tried to decide where would be best to point it. He heard a rush of movement as one or other of the brothers opted to make a move, a quickly made his decision.
Both Winchesters froze instantaneously as soon as the gun appeared. They had both seen, countless times, the carnage a bullet could cause when it burrowed into flesh. They had seen it, and they didn't underestimate it. Two sets of eyes followed the gun barrel warily.
Apparently, Michael had made a better assessment of the Winchester psyche than they gave him credit for: his main grievance, as he saw it, was against Dean, who was long overdue for death's embrace. Still, something told him to point his weapon firmly at Sam's forehead.
Sam swallowed, feeling something contract in his throat. He could feel the invisible line running out of the end of the metal barrel and attaching itself to the skin between his eyebrows: the vacant path of the bullet. He sensed the end of the line, pressing against his head, holding him in place. His eyes followed the imaginary line, back past the end of the gun and up the steady arm to Michael's pale face. It was distorted with hatred, trembling with anger, and red around the eyes with desolation. He wasn't looking at Sam, though his arm and its lethal burden stayed steady as a rock in position. He was looking at Dean.
'You ruined my life,' he hissed, spitting venom.
Dean had his hands spread; palm outwards, in front of him, and his eyes were flicking from Sam to Michael in nervous, calculating concentration. At Michael's words, he blinked in genuine surprise.
'You nearly killed me, then you kidnapped my brother and made him think he'd done it. And I ruined your life?'
Michael snarled, and shook his right arm slightly as if to emphasise his position of power. Dean acknowledged this, taking a step back so that the backs of his legs were brushing against the Impala.
'I was so close… I could have had a family… but you… you…' Michael injected the word with so much venom that it seemed to burn his lips as he spat it out.
Dean wasn't sure whether Michael was still talking to him or to himself, but he figured that as long as the freak was busy talking, he wasn't shooting Sam, so it was to be encouraged.
'Look, Michael…' he began, floundering for something to say which might placate the teenager. Most of his repertoire was more likely to get him even more pissed… 'I'm really sorry… that you don't have a family. That's too bad – really,' he added urgently, when Michael's eyes narrowed, suspicious of sarcasm. 'But…' Dean continued, taking a cautious step forward, 'if you want my opinion-,' (Michael's expression proclaimed that he didn't want Dean's opinion, but he said nothing) '- I don't think you would have found that family as… genuine… as you hoped. Family's… built in, like an instinct. You can't… sign up to it.'
When the hell did I become counsellor to this freak? Dean wondered, listening to himself.
'You don't know what it's like to be alone!' Michael spat, his face crumpled in anguish.
'And I don't want to find out!' Dean shot back, risking another step forward. That steady arm and the coal-black metal pointed directly at Sam's forehead was making him decidedly edgy. He took a deep breath, and carefully softened his voice, fixing Michael's gaze with his eyes.
'Look, please… I'm sorry that you're lonely… but hurting him won't make it any better. It's not Sam's fault that you don't have a family…'
Michael sobbed, quietly, his arm shaking slightly, showing the first sign of uncertainty. Dean took another step. Only a yard or so separated him from Michael now.
'Please,' he repeated, softly. 'You can't blame Sam.'
Time slowed. Michael's lip trembled, and his head tilted forwards in a tiny nod, almost imperceptibly.
'Yeah?' Dean prompted hoarsely.
Michael was overcome by a wave of despair, and he knew Dean was right: more murders wouldn't help him. His hand trembled, and his arm moved, jerkily and uncertainly, downwards and round, away from Sam. Both Winchesters sighed loudly in relief, slumping their tense bodies. The sound grated on Michael's fragile nerves. His despair was consumed in a furious rage at the injustice of it all: the fact that he was alone, and that he couldn't help himself, even the fact that Dean was right where he himself had been wrong. Rationality left him in a surge of frustration. He gritted his teeth, and tightened his hand on the gun handle, swinging it up again directly in front of him. The invisible line this time bored into Dean's chest, through his shirt to the skin that still wore the words 'Forgive me,' etched in angry scars.
Instead of returning to the unbearable vice-like tension of before, Dean felt himself stimulated into action, out of patience with Michael's games.
He heard Sam cry out in wordless protest as he took one final step forward and seized Michael's hand and the gun between both of his hands. He grasped the cold steel and equally cold flesh and held them in place, pressed into his own chest. The distance between him and Michael was little more then the length of the gun.
'Fire it, then,' he snarled, all gentleness and understanding utterly gone from his voice. 'Fire it, if you think it'd help.'
'Dean, what-,' Sam objected, somewhere nearby.
Dean kept his stony gaze fixed into Michael's eyes, and saw the teen squirming, trying to escape his intense stare.
'Would it make you feel better?' he went on savagely, remorselessly. 'Did it work with Louise Brandon and Philip Basing? Did killing them make you feel a bit better about your pathetic little life?'
'Shut up,' Michael whispered, still trying to sound in control, and looking everywhere but at Dean. He found himself wondering which of them was the captor and which the captive.
'Didn't work, huh? So why would it work this time?'
'I could kill you in a second,' Michael reminded Dean, as if warning him not to push his luck.
'What would that do for ya?'
'Revenge,' Michael hissed. His finger tightened on the trigger.
'Would it help, though? Would it make you less alone?'
Michael's face crumpled, and he screwed up his eyes. Dean felt the cold hand go limp between his fingers, and stepped back, yanking the gun from Michael's unresisting fingers. To his surprise, the teen dropped to his knees and collapsed sideways, revealing Sam, who was holding a heavy branch from the fallen tree. Dean blinked.
'Nice move,' he muttered.
'I still say it's a shame I didn't get to kill the bastard,' Dean muttered, as they drove away.
'You don't mean that.'
'Hell yeah, I do.'
'Dean, you don't want to become a killer.'
'Really? In his case, I'm pretty sure I'd enjoy becoming a killer...'
Dean grinned, unable to keep a straight face. Sam snorted with exasperated laughter.
They had left Michael's car at the entrance to the blocked road, with the unconscious teen sprawled across the back seat. Sam placed an anonymous phone call to the police, informing them of his location. Dean had claimed Michael's weapon as compensation for the teen's crimes, arguing that it was 'a nice gun,' and 'it might come in useful.' He also scrawled a note admitting to the murders of Louise Brandon and Philip Basing, and pinned in to Michael's jacket. Sam saw this and laughed sceptically.
'Dean, I don't think the cops are gonna take your word for it.'
'Well, they've got to at least look into it. Maybe they'll find some evidence to back it up. If we're lucky, he'll go down for murder…'
'And if we're not?'
'Worst case scenario, he goes back to school and lives in his institution, but people will be careful of him if he's been suspected of murder. Anyway, I don't think he'll try to kill anyone else…'
'What? Come on, Dean. He was about 3 seconds from killing you. He would have, if I hadn't hit him.'
'No way. I was totally getting through to him.'
'Admit it, Dean! I saved your ass!'
'Yeah, dream on, Sammy. He'd already changed his mind when you hit him. Didn't need your help at all.'
'Whatever. You just can't admit you're wrong,' Sam muttered.
'I'm not wrong!'
Sam gasped in indignation. 'Ass.'
'You better believe it, bitch.'
Hope that wasn't too abrupt an ending for you. I think I answered most of the questions – some might need a bit of perceptive reading, though, and I'm happy to help if you're confused!
Anyway, THANK YOU SO MUCH everyone who's read, and especially those who reviewed. Those who have been sending reviews for several different chapters, THANK YOU, you're my favourite people! – you know who you are.
Hope you enjoyed. Thoughts and comments on the last chapter will be VERY much appreciated!