Hello! As you may know, this site has retroactively removed all scene dividers consisting of hyphens. Since this is the style I have been using on this site for years, my stories are now all lacking scene divisions. I have inserted hard-rule scene divisions into this chapter only; I recommend you read this and all my other fic on my LiveJournal, which can be accessed from my profile page.
The Crow on the Cradle, Chapter one
The phone call came at sixty miles an hour somewhere near Flagstaff on the fourth of October, 2005. Dad threw Dean a glance without taking his hands off the wheel, and Dean reached for his father's phone without looking at the caller ID.
Dean was immediately suspicious. Not many people knew Dad's real name, and few of those who did would be calling him mister. "Who wants to know?"
There was a brief silence, then the voice – low and masculine and sort of official-sounding, the sort of voice that always made every smartass comment in the world pour out of Dean like he had no control over his own mouth – said, "This is Agent Robert Fells of the FBI. I'm looking for a Mr. John Winchester in connection with a missing persons case. Can you help me find John Winchester?"
Dean quickly ran through all the possible scenarios. The missing person could be a victim in one of their cases – or it could be the perpetrator. Either way, while his instincts told him to slam the phone down immediately, the more rational side of his brain pointed out that it would be useful to know why the cops were on Dad's trail and how they had got his name.
"Who's missing?" he asked.
"I'm afraid I can't discuss the details of the case with anyone other than Mr. Winchester." The voice sounded frustrated. Dean knew the feeling.
"I'm Mr. Winchester." Not a lie.
There was another pause, and Dean knew the cop – Fells – was trying to decide whether to believe him. "Mr. Winchester, when was the last time you spoke to your son?"
"I'm sitting in the car with him right now." OK, that was definitely kind of a lie.
"You're with Sam now?" the cop said, and Dean felt his stomach drop into his feet.
"Sam?" he said, and Dad threw him a sharp glance.
"Your son, Sam Winchester. You say you're with him?"
"No," Dean said, all of his manoeuvrings coming to a dead halt. "Is Sam OK?"
Goddamn pause again, and it was all Dean could do not to reach through the phone and wring the freakin pen-pusher's neck. "Sam's girlfriend reported him missing this morning. When was the last time you spoke to him?"
"Two years ago." OK, that was wrong, because he was pretending to be Dad, and Dad had last spoken to Sam four years ago (and also, Dad was looking pretty damn antsy right now, and Dean knew he should give him the phone, but he couldn't, he couldn't).
"Do you have any idea where he might go? Relatives, friends he might have gone to visit?"
Relatives. Sam's only living relatives were sitting in a car in Arizona, barrelling north, and neither of them had seen Sam for years. "I don't know."
The cop sighed. "Mr. Winchester, it would be very helpful if you would come in to Palo Alto and answer some questions."
Dean swallowed around the lump of ice in his throat. "We'll be there in ten hours," he said, and closed the phone.
"Dean?" John said.
"It's Sam," said Dean.
They turned west at the next exit.
Palo Alto was not exactly unfamiliar to Dean, or to Dad either for that matter. They navigated by the landmarks of Sam's life without them: left at Sam's first-year dorm, carry on as far as the law library, the police station's next to the coffee shop he used to like to go to before he met the blonde girl. It felt almost like routine, like they were just passing through, checking up on Sam while they were in the area, except that they'd never both been there at the same time before.
Oh yeah, and the fact that Sam was missing. That too.
The police station was humming with a low level of activity, but everyone seemed to have better things to do than to go to the reception desk and find out what a couple of scruffy-looking guys with two-day stubble and dirt in the creases of their hands might want, at least until Dad slammed his hand down hard enough on the desktop to sound like a rifle shot. Dean waited, standing slightly behind Dad, following his lead.
"Can I help you?" A young guy stepped up to the plate, not dressed in uniform, but maybe a cop anyway, Dean didn't know how these things worked. He looked shifty, nervous. Dean could understand that – sometimes, when Dad was really mad, Dean got that look himself.
"We're here about Sam Winchester," Dad said, quiet and calm like he was inquiring about the weather, but his voice cut through all the conversation in the room more effectively than a scream. "We received a phone call yesterday that he was missing."
The guy tapped away at a computer, the screen hidden from both Dean and John. Dean had the urge to lean over and type himself, because the guy was slow like he was freakin eighty and Dean could see from where he was standing that he kept spelling Winchester wrong. Dean wasn't quite so sympathetic towards him any more – nervous or no, it was his job for Christ's sake, his job to help them find Sam. Not that he'd be any use, but at least he could freakin try.
"OK, sir, if you'll just take a seat, I'll tell Agent Fells that you're here," the guy said finally, sweat sliding down the side of his neck, and John leaned forward and opened his mouth, but he was interrupted by a hoarse voice from behind them that seemed too loud and jagged even among the sounds of police business under way.
"Agent Fells? Are you here for Sam? Have you seen him?"
Dean turned to see a blonde girl – the one he'd seen Sam palling around with a lot, his girlfriend, must be – staring at him like he was the answer to all her prayers. Her face was puffy, eyes bloodshot, and she looked crumpled, like she'd been sleeping on the street. "Have you seen him?" she asked again, but it was obvious from her face, the way the hope was leaving it, that he didn't even have to answer. Even so, he shook his head. Not for years. Not for years.
The girl seemed to shrink a little, and Dean realised she'd been standing on tiptoes for some reason, even though she was tall. She rubbed her hands over her face. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to... I've been so worried, is all."
Dad stepped forward then, and Dean prepared himself to be the back-up in the interrogation he knew was coming, but then a guy in a sharp suit came striding out from somewhere and said, "John Winchester? Father of Sam Winchester?" and John was cut off, turning and nodding and ready to interrogate someone else, so he didn't see the look of surprise and then recognition that crossed the blonde girl's face, but Dean did, Dean saw it and he wondered what lay beneath it. He wondered about Sam and this girl, how serious Sam had been about her (how serious Sam was), how much he had told her. He looked back at her as he followed his father and the cop to an interview room, and he saw that she was watching him, too.
"I told you, I last spoke to my son four years ago."
The air in the interview room was heavy, laden with something that Dean couldn't quite identify, and when he breathed it in he felt the weight sink through to his stomach and press down like it was solid. Fells sat up straight, alert, every inch the concerned officer of the law trying to right a wrong or prevent an injustice, but there was something about the set of his shoulders and the way he kept asking Dad seemingly irrelevant questions that set Dean's teeth on edge. He knew mistrust when he saw it; he'd had that look directed towards him often enough in the past.
"And what about you?"
Dean took a moment to register that Fells' latest question was aimed at him. "Uh," he started, and cleared his throat, annoyed with the slicked-back fed for putting him on the back foot, but more annoyed with himself for allowing himself to be put there, "two years. I haven't spoken to Sam for two years."
"I see," Fells said, writing something down, even though he had a tape recorder out on the table in front of them. "Did Sam ever try to contact either of you during the time of your estrangement?"
Estrangement. Dean had never thought of it like that. They weren't estranged, they were just working out a few kinks in their relationship. Nothing was final. It was just a temporary setback, that was all.
Until now, anyway.
"No," said Dad, and Dean realised he had failed to answer the question. Come on, Dean, pull yourself together. He shook his head, and wondered again about the silent answer phone messages he sometimes got from unlisted numbers. Fells watched them and wrote something else down (fucker), then leaned forward with that intent, sincere look that always means trouble, whether it's a cop wearing it or your brother.
"Mr. Winchester, you and your sons have a somewhat... colourful history. I see from Sam's file that he spent most of his childhood moving around. How likely do you think it is that Sam simply got bored with his life here and decided to leave?"
This question wasn't addressed to Dean, but he answered it anyway, figuring maybe that would provide some kind of balance. "No way," he said. "No freakin way."
She's crying again when the doorbell rings. She keeps thinking she's done crying, that she's ready now to suck it up and start doing something constructive, but then she tries to think of something constructive to do without leaving the house (he might phone he might he might), and she can never think of anything because she's never really been that good at staying in, has always wanted to be out and about, and absurdly she thinks somehow that Sam, homebody Sam who adores their little apartment so much, would be able to find something useful to do in it if their situations were reversed, and of course that leads her straight back to crying.
She wipes her eyes roughly on the back of her hand, determined to face the world with a straight back. She feels wrung out, dishrag-limp and angry at herself for being so weak, but no-one needs to know that except her (except when she catches a glimpse of her face as she passes the bathroom mirror, she thinks that anyone would be able to tell with one glance, and hates herself even more). As she reaches for the latch, she schools her features into what she hopes is a neutral expression and draws a deep breath.
But then it's him, and she forgets to look stoic, or even vaguely normal. She recognises him, kind of, from a photo she's seen a couple of times, but it's a bad picture, bad light, and he looks older now, the lines of his face harder, and he's not smiling, so she supposes that was why she didn't realise who he was when she first saw him in the police station. He doesn't look like Sam, neither of them do, not the way she looks like her sister and mother enough that people can always tell at a glance that they're family. She wonders if maybe it's some kind of weird surface manifestation of the fact that, while she calls her mom twice every week, Sam never even talks about his family, let alone to them. Why would he look like people he doesn't seem to want, who don't seem to want him? Except that sometimes, when he's tired or he thinks she isn't paying attention, he lets something slip that makes her think that she's wrong about something there, but she doesn't know what.
In any case, he's there, and in her sudden confusion she forgets his name and stammers, standing there on her doorstep with tearstreaks on her face, trying to recall the name of her missing boyfriend's brother. In the end, he saves her the trouble.
"Dean Winchester," he said, and kind of flashes her a smile that seems like it's more habit than anything else. "Sam's brother. We met at the cop shop earlier."
She steps back to let him in. "Jessica," she says, and although she thinks it must already be obvious to him, she adds, "Sam's girlfriend."
"Yeah, I figured," Dean says, which isn't pleased to meet you and isn't how are you holding up or anything else like the sincere and sympathetic platitudes her friends and family had been coming out with, and she's grateful. He brushes past her, striding towards the little table, and looks like he might sit down, but then turns sharply and starts looking around like he's thinking of buying the place or something. "So you want to tell me what happened?"
She feels her knees buckle, but she forces them to hold, because there's only one person she'll be weak in front of and he's been missing for three days. "Sam's gone," she says, which is lame because Dean knows that of course, but he doesn't snap at her, he just looks and waits, his fingers tapping against the doorframe, never still, never easy, and she doesn't want to tell the story again, she's told it a hundred times and it doesn't get any easier, gets harder with every hour Sam is gone because every detail grows more significant and she's terrified she might forget something, might have already forgotten the one thing that would help them find him.
"They keep saying maybe he just left of his own accord," she says, and she hears the catch in her own voice, but Dean doesn't know her so maybe he doesn't notice. A muscle tenses in his jaw, though, and his fingers stop tapping for just a second.
"He didn't," Dean says, and it's not a question, and she feels something relax inside her, knowing that this stranger who knows Sam better than she does is on her side. The police don't listen when she talks, they ask her questions but they don't care about the answers; Dean cares, she feels suddenly. Dean will help.
"Can we go somewhere else?" she asks, because she's holding herself together by a thread and she doesn't want to break in front of him, and she thinks the presence of strangers will help when he looks at her like that and she wants to let him take care of all her problems. He looks away, but nods, and so they go.
They're in a diner three blocks from the apartment—she suggested the coffee shop next door, but Dean had already stepped through the diner's door and didn't hear her—when she remembers how she used to wonder about Sam's scars. For the first six months they were together, he used to insist she turn the light out before he got undressed, until she told him she could feel the scars on his skin and she didn't care, and if he didn't want to tell her where he got them that was OK, but she wanted to see him, all of him. She wondered, at first, but after a while she put it together with the way that Sam would change the subject every time his family came up, the way that he never went home for the holidays or got calls or cards from them on his birthday, and drew her own conclusions. Now she's sitting across from Dean, though, she wonders again. Not that she knows anything about anything, but he doesn't seem like he comes from an abusive home, seems too cocky, too comfortable in his own skin (not like Sam). She wonders, briefly, if maybe he was a perpetrator rather than a victim. But right here and now, he's here to help her, and she's not too proud to accept.
"He got a phone call," she says, and she always starts with that because it's the one thing she's sure of, the shrill of the phone jolting her out of sleep and the muttered, heated conversation in the next room stopping her from sinking back fully into it. "It was the middle of the night, I don't know when... two or three, maybe, still dark, anyway. He said..." she pauses here, trying to remember, like she has every time, because if she's honest with herself she's not sure exactly what he said and what she just dreamed, "a friend had a breakdown, I think. He said he was going to help them change a tyre."
"You think," says Dean, and he's watching her, and she never admitted to the police that she wasn't sure, but Dean needs to know the whole truth, even if he judges her for it.
"I was half asleep. I think he said that. He said he would be back soon."
"He go in a car?" Dean asks, and she shakes her head.
"We don't have one. They must have broken down nearby." She swallows her coffee and refuses to grimace. Dean ordered his black, no sugar, and she did the same, even though she usually drinks it with more milk and cream than coffee. "He didn't even get properly dressed," she says, and she knows this not because she remembers, but because she's been through his clothes to see what's missing, which isn't hard since he doesn't have many in the first place. After half an hour or so of calculation, she decided he left in sweatpants, a t-shirt, a jacket and sneakers. She thinks he wasn't even wearing socks. The police think he went of his own accord, but they're wrong.
Dean sips his coffee and doesn't look like he's holding back a grimace. Her gaze drifts out of the window, and then she remembers that she's supposed to be at home because Sam might call, somehow she forgot in the surprise of Dean's appearance, and she jumps to her feet so fast that she spills her own coffee all over Dean lap and he curses violently.
"I'm sorry," she says. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," and she's not sure what it is she's apologising for. "The phone," she adds, and heads for the door, and she thinks he must think she's insane, but he's slamming some bills down on the table and following her, and she hasn't broken yet.
Dean climbed the stairs to Sam's apartment for the second time that day and thought about all the times he'd watched the windows from across the street and wondered what it was like inside. He'd thought that one day he'd find out, one day he would have the courage to just walk up to the door and knock (or maybe break in in the middle of the night, that would freak Sam the hell out), but he'd waited too long, and the place wasn't as cosy as he'd thought it would be anyway, like somehow there was something missing (which there was). He knew he was going to have to take a proper look around, and wondered how Jessica would feel about it (not that she would have a choice, but it'd be a hell of a lot easier if she didn't bitch and moan). He'd hoped that there would be something in Jessica's story that the police would have overlooked but that would make it obvious to him exactly what had happened, but she was frustratingly vague, and although he understood that she had been half asleep, it was all he could do not to shake her and yell at her to remember better, goddammit. He'd almost done it, too, and then he'd remembered the time back in early summer when he'd seen her come out of the apartment with Sam, tucked under Sam's arm but clearly in control despite her height disadvantage, and the way Sam had looked at her, like she was the only thing in the world. He hadn't been able to see her face then, but he saw it now, saw that the feeling was mutual, and he didn't have the heart to push her. Sam was the only thing in her world, and he couldn't fault her for that.
She checked the messages as soon as she came in, frantic fingers ghosting over the machine, but there was nothing except someone named Jason saying he'd just heard and how sorry he was and he hoped they would find Sam soon (and who the hell are they?). Jessica looked like she might scream or pull the phone out of the wall, and Dean wondered what it would be like to have people who knew his business enough to call him with condolences on his missing brother. Then she picked up the phone and was dialling, and Dean recognised Sam's cell number. He'd called it himself, a few times, but it always went to voice mail, and he figured she'd been doing the same thing.
Except that after a moment or two, Jessica's eyes widened and she looked at Dean and said, "Hello? Who is this?"
Dean stepped forward, holding his hand out for the phone, but it slithered out of her hand and hit the floor, and she was covering her face, probably crying, fuck knew how he was going to deal with that, right now he had more important shit to worry about. He lunged down and grabbed the receiver.
"Hello?" the voice at the other end was female, sounded confused. "Are you OK?"
"Who is this," Dean said, hearing the raw note in his voice.
"Uh," the woman sounded suddenly unsure, and Dean thought he'd probably frightened her, "my name's Marianne. Do you know whose phone this is?"
Dean leaned heavily against the wall. "It's my brother's. Where did you get it?"
"I found it just now in the grass, I heard it ringing. I guess your brother must have dropped it, can I return it to him?"
"Where are you?" Dean asked. "Where the hell are you?"
The woman was quiet for a minute, and Dean thought she was going to hang up (and it would be his stupid fault) and said, "Please. My brother... we don't know where he is." Beside him, Jessica made a hiccuping noise and slid down the wall to sit on the floor.
"Oh," she said, sounding sympathetic. "I'm at a gas station on highway 59, outside Sonora."
"Thank you," said Dean. "Leave the phone with the attendant, we'll come by to pick it up."
"OK," the woman said, and she started something like I hope you find but Dean cut her off, dialling Dad's number almost before he'd finished the call, and he looked down at Jessica where she sat on the floor, not crying like he'd thought, her face dry but still blotchy from earlier tears.
"Don't worry," he said. "We're going to find him."