There are two months left in the year that Dean narrowed his life down to when Sam sees the first of the articles online. FEMME FATALE? the headline screams, and he looks up, away, anywhere but there.
Dean's sitting on the other bed - sitting is the wrong term, too passive to describe the way Dean rolls his shoulders, shakes the newspaper, hums to himself, and then starts all over, this time on his stomach - unconcerned about the ink staining his fingertips and smudging the bedspread.
Sam waits before saying anything and watches his brother, hating himself for trying to memorize each moment. His desperation is poisoning the air around them, and Dean needs better than that from him. "Hey," he says, and Dean looks up, expression serene, with just a veneer of curiosity over it. "Kind of a weird story here."
"Our kind of weird?" Dean's calmed down in these last few months. Wiping out an entire echelon of demons newly freed from hell appears to be good for his health.
Sam squints a bit, trying to paraphrase the purple prose of the article. "Maybe. Girl in upstate New York marries her father's rival, groom's dead by the end of the wedding night. She goes back to her father and the next morning the dad drops dead, too."
Dean's silent for a moment. "His rival? If this chick is some kind of Mafia princess, then thanks but no thanks."
"No," Sam says, scrolling down. "That's just the word the article used. Hang on, there are other links coming up. Um, says here the two men were professors of biochemistry, always battling for a share of the same university funding for their research."
"Yeah, okay." Dean pushes himself off the bed and heads for the bathroom. "We can give this one a whirl, maybe see Sarah once we're done."
There's no way to say he doesn't care about seeing Sarah, not when there's so little time left on Dean's clock, without making it sound like he's given up. So he just says, "Sounds like a plan," and starts packing his stuff.
This is a land of expensive and sprawling houses, the kind that have "mud rooms" and "sun rooms" and home gyms with tennis courts and indoor and outdoor pools. Dean makes a face as he pulls into the driveway, gives him a look that clearly means Mafia princess, I told you, and Sam wonders how they're going to be able to afford to stay around here. They exchange puzzled glances when they realize that the heavy wrought-iron gate is gaping open and there is no visible security.
An alarm goes off when they step inside the house. "Are you the police?" a female voice calls out.
"No, ma'am," Dean calls out, shooting him the WTF?-eyebrow. That voice sounds way too young to be the woman they're looking for.
The alarm gets shut off abruptly. "Could you come back here, please?" the woman asks, polite and uncertain, like they have every right to be there and she's the interloper. Sam shrugs at Dean and they follow the long hallways, brightly colored wallpaper giving way to yards of thick, clear glass. There's an enormous greenhouse built in the center of the main house, bounded at each end with heavy doors. The glass stops abruptly and there's some kind of metal sheeting on the walls and floor, making their footsteps echo.
Sam stops before he steps over the line of small tea-lights on the floor. The girl sitting in the middle of the square metal room can't be more than twenty, pretty in the way women were before color photographs, the contrast between her dark hair and fair skin striking. She's wearing something filmy that covers everything but her face and fingers, and her dark eyes are sad and eager as a scolded child's. "Thank you for coming so quickly," she says hesitantly, dropping her gaze. "I had no idea the agency would oblige me on such short notice."
It'll make things easier if she believes they belong there. "No problem, ma'am," Dean says, stepping out from behind him, and Sam sees her eyes widen at the sight of his brother.
"Lumina," she says, sounding breathless.
"Light?" Sam translates, trying to figure out what she's getting at, looking down at the candles. When he looks back up, there are shadows dancing across her cheeks, like the flames themselves are licking at her skin, and he has to look away. He looks at his brother instead.
"My name," she says. "Father named me . . . before he realized, of course."
"Realized?" Dean cocks his head a little in anticipation.
"My . . . condition," she says, plucking at the long sleeve of her dress, as if that's any kind of answer.
"Of course," Sam says as she waits expectantly, rewarded by her relieved nod. She's easy enough to read that he decides to risk it. "If we're going to be providing security, ma'am, we need to know who else belongs here."
She tears her eyes away from Dean. "Oh!" she says, flushing a bit, the pale pink shocking against her dead-white skin. "It is just - I am the only one. All of the staff left when . . . Father passed away. After the police said they were all free to go."
Dean frowns at that, and she fumbles her words. "You . . . you may stay anywhere you like. All the rooms in the main house are free."
"Right," Dean says, then grins up at Sam. "Let's get started, shall we?"
Dean's making sandwiches bigger than his head, sampling each ingredient before layering it on the bread. "Grounds are clean, man," Dean says, licking mustard off his thumb and sliding a plate over to Sam. "Inside too, least as much as I could cover. We gotta get her out of that room sometime to check in there and in the greenhouse." He closes his sandwich with a flourish and valiantly takes a mighty bite. "What'd you find?" he asks, mouth completely full, but Sam's hungry enough to let it slide.
He hefts up his own sandwich, gets through half of it before he bothers to answer; Dean is a culinary genius. "Kind of a lot, I think. The professor had a lot of experiments going on in that greenhouse, kept a couple of journals for it. Looks like he spent pretty much all of his time in there. And I found contact info for the staff. The former housekeeper - Vivian Walker - lives about half an hour away; we could talk to her tomorrow."
"You think we both need to go? Shouldn't one of us be here in case the security guys Lu's expecting show up?"
"Nah," Sam says, smugly tilting back his chair. "Found that number too, already canceled the order."
Dean grins approvingly. "Attaboy. Save any room for dessert?"
Sam doesn't know what exactly he was expecting, but Vivian Walker's not it. She's tall and thin and pretty; she looks like she could be the wife living in one of those sprawling houses rather than the maid. "Yes?" she asks, looking at them without interest.
"Ms. Walker," he says, pulling a badge from the breast pocket of his jacket, "I'm Detective Wyman, and this is my partner Detective Richards. We'd like to ask you some questions about Professor Victor Karmann."
Her eyes never leave his. "So ask," she says, not bothering to invite them in.
He replaces the badge and pulls out a notebook. "You worked for Professor Karmann for five years?"
"Seven," she says, flat voice giving absolutely nothing away. Dean shifts restlessly and Sam wants to fidget too.
"And did you notice anything unusual during that time?"
"Other than not giving me keys to get in and clean the greenhouse, you mean?" She makes a face, waiting for a reaction, and stiffens a bit when she doesn't get one. "Aside from that weird kid of his, no."
"Weird how?" he asks, not letting his eyes slide to Dean's face, too expressive for his own good.
"Just weird," she says dismissively. "She's allergic to sunlight, so she had to stay inside that creepy metal room all the time. Just sat there and read or listened to music. Never called anyone, never really talked to anyone. Even he didn't talk to her much - just made sure she got her meals and her medicine. Wore gloves if he had to touch her, because there was something wrong with her skin too, she'd keel over if anyone else's skin touched hers. So." Her eyes shift to Dean, rake him up and down before settling back on Sam. "Like I said, weird. Didn't want to stay and work for Bubble-girl once he dropped dead."
Dean bares all his teeth at her in a parody of his usual grin. Sam can't see any signs that it's unsettled her. "Tell us about that last week."
"Not much to tell. Professor comes home one day, says the kid's getting married, that's it. No planning or prep. She must have wanted it outdoors, so it had to be at night. I went home before it even started. Came in the next day, the kid's wailing, and I can see the professor's body locked in the greenhouse. So I called the cops."
"And the groom? Did you know him?"
"Heard the name from the professor a couple times. Never thought he liked the guy, frankly, and don't ask me how the guy would even have met the kid or what he was planning to do on the honeymoon. None of my business."
"You're a model of discretion," Dean says, falsely pleasant. "Thank you for your cooperation."
"Have a good day, ma'am," Sam says, and follows his brother back to the car, bold and black on this pretty suburban street, Edward Scissorhands in automotive form.
He waits until they're settled inside the car, Dean relaxing against the familiar leather, before he ventures, "Vampire?"
Dean shoots him a supremely dismissive look. "No way."
"'Allergic to sunlight' sounds like a way." He's not sure if he really believes it, but it's good to be talking through a case again instead of cutting down hordes of demons automatically, barely pausing for breath between killings. "Not like you got close enough to look at her gums."
"She's just a kid, Sam, not some bloodsucking fiend. And if her dad was the only one who ever took care of her, and now he's gone . . ."
Sam doesn't think he can bear it if Dean slumps back down into guilt about their own father, but Dean still doesn't respond well to outright tenderness. He pushes instead. "How do you explain the deaths of Paul Marcus and Victor Karmann, then?"
"Neither of them had any tooth-marks on 'em," Dean points out. "Newspapers said Marcus was poisoned somehow, and nobody had any clue what happened to Karmann."
"Could still be her, even if she's just human."
"Twenty years alone in a metal box could mess up anybody," Dean agrees quietly, then guns the engine. "Let's get this show on the road, then."
Sam's got his laptop up on the kitchen island, going through the police files on the cases, as Dean digs through the massive freezer to find dinner.
"Dude, the stuff that this guy stocked up on, you'd think a fancypants scientist would know better." Dean's holding a couple of frozen pizzas and balancing a bag of frozen samosas on top of them. "We're going to eat till we pop, Sammy."
He dumps the food next to the computer and begins hunting for baking trays. "Hey," he says, "what do you think Lu eats?"
Sam looks up, startled. "I don't know. Didn't Vivian Walker say that the professor used to bring her food?"
"Shit," Dean says, and they hustle out of the kitchen to her door. "Lu?" Dean knocks urgently.
She opens the door, looking startled and disheveled. "What is the matter?" she asks, one hand on her throat, the other holding a stainless-steel tumbler of water.
"We just thought you might be hungry," Sam says, watching relief dawn on her pale face.
"I am," she admits quietly. "But I do not know how to prepare anything. Father used to bring my food to me, with my medicine mixed in."
"We haven't found any medication, but we can at least get you something to eat," Sam offers.
"It's dark enough now that you could come to the kitchen with us," Dean says unexpectedly, and she smiles and nods shyly.
Her eyes get big when she sees the food coming piping hot out of the oven, watches carefully while Dean shakes onion powder, garlic salt, red pepper, oregano, and parmesan on his pizza, and looks between them for cues on what to eat first. Under the bright lights of the kitchen, she looks young and fresh-faced, and Sam stops eating altogether when he sees the way she gazes at Dean, his brother, the ticking time-bomb.
"Dean, you're totally messing with her metabolism," Sam warns as Dean sets a tray of junk food outside the metal door.
"And you're corrupting her mind," Dean shoots back cheerfully, pointing with his boot at the stack of novels resting beside the tray.
"Have you even seen what she's been living on? She's got a complete Shakespeare, a Bible, and an anthology of fairy tales. That's it."
The door opens and Lumina stands smiling in the doorway. "Good morning," she says, pushing her hair back with slender, nervous fingers.
"Mornin'. We didn't know what you'd like, so there's a little bit of everything here," Dean tells her. "And here - you might want to play around with these, get ready for tonight."
She eyes the deck of cards he slaps down with some trepidation. "What is happening tonight?"
"We're gonna show you how to play cards, kick a little ass."
Sam's starting to get used to her smile, the shy stretch of her pink mouth.
"Sam," she says, carefully scooping the cards off the kitchen table, "thank you for the books. I am enjoying them very much."
"That's good," he says, waiting for Dean to get back from scanning her room with the EMF meter.
"What kinds of things does Dean like to read?" she asks, blushing a little.
"Dean?" he asks, startled out of his clockwatching. "Dean only reads one book, and he knows it by heart," he says without thinking; even now, the journal is tucked safely into Dean's duffel, wrapped carefully in one of Dad's shirts.
"Really?" She sounds interested, but Dean's return cuts off any further questioning.
Sam looks up to catch Dean's nearly imperceptible shake of the head, and then Dean claps his hands together and says, "Okay, so now that you've mastered War, how about a little Go Fish?"
Sam takes the words as a metaphor he knows Dean never intended. "Good idea," he says, ignoring the disapproving frown that flashes across Dean's face, and turns back to Lumina, who's shuffling the cards gingerly, obediently. "I'm glad the new books are okay; I can get you more by any author you particularly liked."
When she puts down the deck, Dean picks it up. She's watching Dean shuffle the cards, eyes filled with the movements of his strong, certain hands, and she sounds a little breathless when she answers. "I liked . . . the Jane Austen book particularly. It is much like the fairy tales, is it not? The triumph of true love."
She's not his priority, not by a long shot, but he can't let her pin her hopes on his brother, who's quietly renouncing his life, not even seeing the naked adoration in her eyes. They're here to solve a case; there's no time to spare her feelings anyway. "You were married; you know that love is not necessarily a blessing."
She flushes sharply and Dean's hands go still. "I . . ." she falters, unable to look at either of them. "I did not mean . . ." She shoots him a look of such misery that Sam feels a stab of guilt. "I do not believe I loved him, but I thought I did at the time. Certainly I had no desire to hurt him."
"We know, Lu," Dean says, muscling his way into the conversation.
She turns to him, searching his face for reassurance. "Father spoke of him often, because they were engaged in the same type of work. Father came home one day with a letter; he had shown Paul a drawing he had made of me and Paul had asked permission to write to me. He wrote beautiful letters. Father let me come outside a few nights later, and Paul was there. It was all like a fairytale, even at the time. Paul said he wished to marry me, and Father gave his blessing."
Sam can picture it, can hear even now how overwhelming it must have been. There's more he needs to know. Scram, he says silently to Dean, and Dean mumbles something about the bathroom and disappears.
The moment Dean's broad shoulders vanish through the door, Sam asks, "Did he hurt you?"
"No!" she protests, but there's enough denial in her voice that he realizes he needs to rephrase the question.
"Did he . . . startle you?" It's hard to believe he could be speaking so gently to a possible killer, but something about her compels kindness.
She looks so shocked by the way he's articulated the query that he knows he's right. "Please," he says, leaning forward a little, "tell me what happened."
"Have you ever been married?" she asks quietly, and his head shake costs him; a flash of golden curls gleams in his mind's eye. Her voice sinks to a whisper. "He wished for me to undress, stand before him unclothed, said that he would teach me the ways of wives and husbands. He . . . opened my dress and set his mouth on mine. It was so soft." Her hand steals up to her lips. "I did not know touch could be like that. He looked surprised too. But then he began to choke, to shout, and he fell screaming to the floor. Father came running -"
"You were here?"
"Yes. There was nowhere else I could be safe by morning. And Paul had agreed that we should stay here, so that I could stay out of the light and so that Father could keep providing him with the pills that would allow his touch not to harm me." She takes a deep breath and casts a nervous glance behind her. "Have you found those pills, Sam?" Her face betrays her, all shy desire and innocence, and all Sam sees is that there's one more heart that will break when he fails to save his brother.
Dean comes back just then, running. "Lu," he says, "we gotta get you back. It's already light outside." There's no way to get back to the metal room without going through the center of the house, the greenhouse, and the longer they wait, the stronger the sun will get, turning even ordinary rooms with windows into torture chambers for her. "C'mon," Dean barks, holding his hand out to her, but she's too disciplined to take it.
They run through the glass halls and get her safely inside her metal chamber. "How are you feeling?" Dean asks.
She looks surprised. "I do not feel any different." She stretches her arms out before her, gazing on them wonderingly.
"We'll look for your medicine and for those pills," Sam promises, and shuts the door.
He and Dean try to puzzle out what could have poisoned Paul Marcus as they work in the greenhouse, Dean going over the area with the EMF meter and Sam sitting with the professor's journals on his lap. They're both ignoring the spot in the middle that looks like a crossroads, where the orderly stone paths intersect.
"This whole case makes no kind of sense," Dean says contemplatively, scanning the vegetation thoroughly. "She's sick but the husband's the one who dies. She hasn't taken any medication but direct sunlight doesn't hurt her."
Sam can feel his brain beginning to sit up in anticipation, like at last it has something worth savoring. "You think she's making this up?"
"No way. Skip's a good kid."
"Skip?" he asks, smiling, knowing he shouldn't let Dean sidetrack him.
Dean ducks his head in embarrassment. "Yeah, um, one of the Cracker Jack boxes or somethin' had old-timey song lyrics printed on them. She saw 'Skip to My Lou' and asked me to sing it, since we were already callin' her Lu . . . shut up."
"Didn't say a word," Sam says, huge grin on his face, not even bothering to point out that he hasn't called her by a nickname once. It's further proof for his theory that Dean's machismo is a shoddy cover-up for his softheartedness.
"Just shut up anyway." Dean spins on his heel and walks down the next aisle of the greenhouse.
Sam's getting lost in the professor's cryptic, rapturous prose detailing his longest-running project when he hears the telltale squeals and clicks of the EMF meter. He stands up, pushing the journal off his lap. "What'd you find?"
"Hot spot, definitely," Dean says, brisk and business-like. He moves the meter in a slow circle. "Something big went down here. Do you know where the professor was found?"
"Police report said in the greenhouse. Could've been here, I guess."
"Had to be. Nowhere else I'm picking up anything. C'mon."
"Where are we going?"
"Sleep. Aren't you tired, dude?"
Sam shakes his head, lying. He needs to check in with Bobby again, figure out the next avenue to explore on crossroad demons and deals.
"Come on, Sam, give yourself a break," Dean cajoles, but Sam digs his heels in stubbornly. "Fine, man." Dean shrugs. "Say hi to Bobby for me."
Sam's researching various hells in relative peace - Lumina is in her room, reading another Jane Austen, and Dean's outside, spoiling his girl with a wash and wax - when he thinks of something. He pulls up the original cached articles that got them going on this hunt, skimming them for a location of the graves. Karmann's is undisclosed, but he's found one for Paul Marcus.
Twenty minutes later, he and Dean get out of the gleaming Impala to walk through Sunset Park Cemetery in search of Marcus's headstone. "Okay, we're here," Dean says unnecessarily, eyes darting awkwardly around, and Sam puzzles over his behavior until he figures out that his brother doesn't want him to be reminded of how little time Dean has left.
Sam pushes that thought away. He will save Dean, come hell or high water or both. The sooner they solve this case, the more time he'll have for Dean's. "EMF meter?" he asks, holding his hand out for it.
Dean passes it over, fingers curling briefly around Sam's. Sam turns it on and is rewarded almost instantly with its distinctive whine.
"Dude," Dean says, "why would Marcus's ghost be hanging around his own grave?"
"Who says it's Marcus's ghost?"
Dean shrugs. "Karmann was cremated, and there are no other ghosts recent enough to set off that strong a reaction."
"True. But you'd think Marcus would be with Lu, if he's sticking around. Trying to keep her safe somehow."
"Unless he knows there's nothing to protect her from."
"Or unless his work is done and he's only sticking around because he doesn't know how to go."
"You think Marcus killed Karmann?"
"Maybe. Couldn't have been her, not in the greenhouse while the sun was up. And it was locked when the police arrived, no signs of a break-in, key still in Karmann's pocket. Sounds like it could've been a ghost to me." Dean looks up at the sky. "It'll be dark soon. Skip'll be wondering where we are."
"What the hell?" Sam blurts out when they get back to find Lumina sitting in one of the wing chairs in the living room, looking out at the sunset.
Dean grabs her arm and hisses, "What do you think you're doing?"
Her eyes widen at his tone. "I thought perhaps I would see if I was able to bear a little bit of sunlight, since yesterday's light did not harm me."
Dean drops her arm and looks oddly at his hand. "What?" Sam asks.
"Hand's kinda tingly," Dean says slowly, looking up at him before swinging back around to fix his eyes on Lu. "You feeling okay? Sun's not doing anything to you?"
"I feel no different," Lu says uncertainly, as if she's suddenly aware of how bizarre the situation is. There are tiny pale-brown spots visible on her arms and face.
"Yeah," Dean says, hitching his bag back on his shoulder. "Sammy, c'mon. We gotta go back to the greenhouse."
"Dude," Sam says, feeling a little sick, "your hand." Dean's hand is covered in red bumps, like he stuck it in a clump of poison ivy.
"Yeah, I know," Dean says. "That's what I'm talkin' about."
"Karmann kept rambling in his journal about his great experiment, right? I think it's Lu."
"Dean, no. That's crazy."
"So was he," Dean says, leading the way back to the hot spot they'd found before. "Wife runs off, leaves him with a newborn baby. Guy decides instead of raising a daughter, he's going to make himself a weapon."
Sam wonders if Dean even hears the echo of John Winchester in the room. "So, what, he made her poisonous? How?"
"That 'medicine' he was giving her, probably. Give her a little bit every day, she builds up an immunity, but gets deadlier and deadlier. No skin-to-skin contact, remember?"
"And he wanted to off Marcus," Sam says, thinking back to the journal entry from a few months earlier, a vicious rant about getting his funding stolen because of Marcus's flashy new experiment.
"Yeah." Dean stops in front of the lone plant in that spot, taking a couple of pictures with his phone.
"So Lu killed Marcus. Marcus figured it out, and his ghost smoked Karmann. What are you doing?"
"We gotta find the antidote," Dean says, packing up and heading for the study.
"We found medication for you," Sam tells Lu a few days later, wondering if she can smell the smoke on them; Dean had insisted on burning all of the professor's journals. He hands over the antitoxin pills Bobby had shipped out to them.
"Thank you," she says, adoring gaze fixed on Dean, who's looking at Sam with tired, reddened eyes. They'd read the journals cover to cover, trying to determine if there was any truth to the sunlight allergy part of Karmann's story. Nothing in his journals or texts corroborated the story, and they'd decided it was part of the lie to keep Lu at her father's mercy.
Sam doesn't want to be the one to explain it, and there's no time, anyway. Now that the case is over, Dean can't stop him from searching for a loophole, anything to invalidate the deal. "We have to go, Lu," he says. "Now that you know the light doesn't affect you like you thought, you should be able to get around on your own. And here - this is the phone number of a girl who lives nearby, someone who will help if you ask her for it." He remembers suddenly that she has no idea how to use a telephone. "Just pick up the receiver and push these numbers in, ask for Sarah. Tell her we were here."
"Yes, Sam," Lu says obediently.
He'd like to shake her hand, pat her on the back, something to tell her that she's not alone. But it is Dean, who's got six weeks to live, who holds her hand - three golden freckles already forming on it - and leads her out into the sunshine.