Standard Disclaimer: Supernatural is the creation of Eric Kripke and property of Warner Bros. Entertainment. No copyright infringement intended.
by Liz Bach
Ana's apartment was the second to last in a row of fourteen identically dilapidated flats at the end of a barrel cactus-lined dirt road. Each unit had one window and one door on the south-facing wall, and several window air conditioners rattled laboriously in the ever-increasing afternoon heat. The sun beat down hard against bleached-pale stucco siding, and a small swarm of wasps buzzed noisily around a broken and abandoned terracotta flower pot from which the dried husk of something long dead still protruded.
Dean absently scratched a thumb across his brow as Dylan fumbled with a noticeably new copy of Ana's house key. It was new enough that it still stuck in the lock, and Dean wondered if this was only the second or maybe third time Dylan had ever used it. She had probably mailed it to him at some point shortly after he'd left, needing her brother to understand he still had access to her life if he wanted it. A message he'd comprehended five years too late.
"Shit," Dylan swore softly. He paused to take a breath and steady his shaking fingers.
Dean frowned, but remained patient. He leaned a shoulder against the wall and glanced back at his own brother, who stood several paces away from the building with his hands in his pockets watching a bulbous red ant with a broken leg scuttle across the dirt.
Arizona was hot, and the brothers had necessarily shed their usual layers. Sam's plain cotton t-shirt was snug and accentuated the contours of his muscular chest and arms. Sunlight framed his entire body like an aura and backlit his soft brown hair like a halo. He looked solitary but strong standing there, in a way that momentarily bolstered Dean's confidence in his brother's ability to withstand anything life – or death – might confront him with. But there was also something slightly…untouchable…about him and the way he held himself that sent a strange chill running down Dean's spine.
Finally, the deadbolt slid open with a soft click, and Dylan pushed open the front door.
Sam looked up then, caught Dean eyeing him. Sam's brow creased in seeming annoyance, and after a brief moment of mutual silent staring, Dean shrugged one shoulder and pushed himself off the wall. He leaned forward and peered around Dylan into the dim apartment.
The entryway was wide open, bits of sand and dust catching the light as they floated down from the doorjamb, but Dylan wasn't moving. He just stood there staring inside, arms at his sides, right hand squeezing the key ring until his knuckles turned white from the pressure.
"You can stay out here," Sam suggested softly, suddenly right behind them.
Dylan took an unsteady step backward, nodding once very quickly. "I'm sorry. I…I don't know what's gotten into me," he said, then cleared his throat. "I think I just need a minute."
Dean rolled his eyes but didn't say anything, just moved past him into the apartment. The heat inside was stifling, like the room had been excessively warmed in anticipation of a winter freeze and then all the air sucked out of it, or like a jar of peaches boiled then set on the shelf to preserve. He wouldn't have been surprised to see bits and pieces of Ana's life melting on the second-hand wooden furniture around them. As it was, Ana's life appeared relatively intact, what there was of it.
The place was small. As small as any motel room they'd ever inhabited themselves. And like every motel room they'd ever inhabited themselves, there was something severely outdated about it. The carpet was dingy and green and worn through past the pad in several places. The brown and orange striped sofa looked straight out of Adventures in Dumpster Diving, circa 1975, and one corner of the particle board coffee table had a substantial chunk chipped out of it. The walls were bare other than a small, round clock with a noisy second hand. It hung halfway off its nail and canted five minutes off center so that the number eleven pointed straight up toward the ceiling.
Dean was across the living room in six paces and into what passed for the kitchen. It was basically a wall with three cabinets, a countertop, a small electric stove, and a single-basin sink that still had a plastic cup and one dirty bowl festering in it. The fan at the back of the tiny apartment-sized refrigerator was loose and rattled in its casing as it worked to keep whatever was inside at least relatively cool.
Dean's eyes narrowed, and he chewed the inside of his bottom lip as he took in the dust-covered baseboards and the cobwebs hanging down from a motionless ceiling fan. There was a modest stack of the Sunday edition Gazette piled upon a wooden stool in one corner of the little kitchen. Dean's fingers brushed lightly over the black and white typeface. The top copy was dated fifteen days ago.
"You notice anything?"
Sam was standing in the bedroom doorway, a wayward lock of hair in his eyes and a thin layer of sweat dampening his hairline.
"Yeah. It's like a fucking oven in here," Dean observed blandly, opening the refrigerator. To his surprise, it was warm inside and barren other than a half-empty bottle of water with the label torn off.
"Anything useful?" Sam clarified.
Dean let the refrigerator door slam shut. "This look like any other chick apartment you ever been in before?" he asked, crossing the short distance to the bedroom. Sam pressed himself against the frame so Dean could pass inside. "I mean, where are all the flowers and stuffed animals and doilies and shit?"
Dean glanced back at his brother, still standing at the door, the tips of his fingers bouncing gently against his thigh. Sam was thinking. Dean wondered which woman's apartment he was thinking about at that moment, or if there were several running through his mind. And he wondered if the good memories his brother had to have of spending time in women's apartments were enough to eclipse those terrible memories of one particular woman and one particular apartment that would forever haunt him.
After a silent beat, Sam just sighed and joined his brother in Ana's room. "So she never hired a decorator," he said, running an index finger through the dust atop the bureau. "I wouldn't exactly qualify that as suspicious behavior."
A low, disembodied whistle sounded from within the small walk-in closet, then Dean's dour voice: "How about a hidden weapons stash?"
Sam turned in time to see Dean poke his head out of the closet. A thin, cotton dress sleeve hung over one of his shoulders.
"Something like that enough to arouse your suspicion?"
Sam frowned and joined his brother at the closet. Dean pushed aside the bi-fold door, and Sam's eyes widened slightly as he took in the small arsenal packed onto a short set of shelves in the closet corner. The two walls around it looked startlingly familiar, lined with faded maps and newspaper clippings. Bold lines of blue marker and yellow highlighter drew mysterious connections between points on the maps and lines of text from the papers. Names and dates were circled in red, and Ana had penciled in her own notes in several places. Tucked onto the shelves were rows of books: some new, some obviously very old, all on some occult topic or another.
"Jesus," Sam breathed, touching fingertips lightly to the wall.
"H. Christ," Dean agreed, grabbing a sawn-off shotgun from the shelf. He broke open the barrel to reveal a single lead cartridge. "Suppose she's got a license for this?" he muttered grimly, replacing the gun and picking up a large hunting knife. He examined the blade, noted the dried blood staining the hilt. "Wow. Hunt much, Ana?"
Sam grimaced. "Dean, we don't – "
"What the fuck?"
Both brothers turned abruptly to find Dylan standing behind them, jaw hanging open, gaping stupidly into the small armory.
"I was gonna ask you the same thing," Dean countered, adjusting his grip on the knife. He took one step closer to Dylan and gestured toward the wall with the blade. "Your sister a hunter?" he demanded.
"What? No." Dylan's attention dropped momentarily to the knife, then back up to Dean's face. He shook his head in confusion. "No," he said again. "Ana didn't hunt. Our…our dad had some buddies that went up to Flag every once in a while to shoot game I think, but Ana and I were never interested in that stuff."
"Look, I'm not talking about poppin' ducks and bunnies here," Dean said pointedly, taking another step forward.
Dylan stepped back.
"Dean." Sam placed himself between the two men. He raised a hand to Dylan's chest and pressed it there calmingly, as if to hold him back, neither Dean nor Dylan quite sure who the action was intended to protect. Sam turned to his brother. "He doesn't know," he said quietly.
Dylan looked between the two of them. "I don't know what?" he demanded, puffing up his chest indignantly, perhaps at that moment particularly sensitive to the insinuation that he might not know who his own sister was.
Dean caught Sam's eye, and Sam's shoulders slumped a little, like the idea of telling this person they didn't even know that his sister was definitely deeply involved in something supernatural exerted a physical weight he struggled to bear. He dropped his hand, but didn't speak. Next to him, Dylan deflated.
"I don't know what?" he repeated in a much smaller voice.
Dean sighed. He shook his head at the knife in his hand, then replaced it on a shelf other than where he'd found it. He didn't think Ana would mind, was almost certain she would never be back here to notice.
He wanted Sam to take this one, to step up and explain to Dylan what they suspected. It was something Sam had always been good at doing before: breaking bad news to civilians in a way that didn't crush them with its gruesomeness and improbability and usually guaranteed nobody called the cops. Not immediately, anyway. Their father had come to rely on Sam's quiet, sympathetic tone of voice at an age when most young men were squeezing pimples and guzzling Schlitz at parties in their best friends' parents' basements. It had been unfair then, but it was just old habit now.
But Sam wasn't saying anything; he wasn't even looking at either of them.
"I don't know what?" Dylan said again, insistent this time, like he was trying to convince them all that he really wanted to know. He was staring up at Sam, much the way he'd stared out in the parking lot.
Sam was bigger than this guy by practically half a person, could take him out without breaking a sweat. But there was something about the way Dylan looked at his brother that creeped Dean out and more than made him want to leave this place. He wasn't used to seeing people look at Sam with such need. Both brothers were accustomed to being needed; people looked to them for help all the time – when a ghost was scaring the shit out of citizens of a tiny Arizona town, for example. But Dylan's gaze was searching – like he thought Sam might have something other than professional assistance to give him. Dean didn't like it.
"What do you know about this?" Dean demanded.
Dylan licked his lips and fiddled nervously with the belt loops at the small of his back. He looped his thumbs into the fabric and shoved his fingertips into his back pockets. All the while avoiding Dean's eyes.
Tired of waiting, and not in the mood to fuck around, Dean latched a hand onto Sam's biceps and started to pull him from the room.
"Dean –" Sam yelped indignantly, attempting to shrug his arm out of his brother's solid grasp. Dean held firm and showed no sign of letting go. It made Sam feel about ten years old, but he allowed himself to be dragged back out into the intense burn of the Arizona sun.
Dean finally relinquished his hold when they were back in the dirt parking lot, releasing him with a shove toward the Impala. Sam stumbled a little, but quickly caught himself. For a moment he stood facing away from his brother with his hands on his hips and his head bowed, like he was reining in his annoyance. Then he spun around.
"Dude. What the hell?"
"I don't like him," Dean offered by way of explanation.
Sam waited for the rest, but Dean didn't elaborate. Sam rolled his eyes and wiped his palm across his mouth, buying himself some time to come up with an appropriate response.
"Well, that's a shame, Dean. I'll be sure to leave him off the Christmas card list. We gonna let this stop us from helping him find his sister?"
Dean still didn't answer, and Sam sighed.
"She could be dead, man," he reasoned quietly, a disconcerting weariness bleeding into his voice. It was the careful tone Dean had wanted Sam to use on Dylan, turned against him. "You saw that wall. She was onto something. Something's happening in this town. How are you gonna feel if we leave without checking it out and somebody else gets hurt? All just because you didn't like the guy who brought it to our attention?"
Dean gazed stonily at a low mound of mountains on the horizon and ground his teeth. If he was weighing some stranger's well-being against that of his brother, there was absolutely no question. He was inexplicably spooked and pissed, and he didn't mind if Sam knew that. But he shouldn't have to explain himself. Not to Sam.
He took a deep breath and then pulled the keys from his pocket. He stalked to the driver's side and yanked open the door.
"Get in the car, Sam."
Sam pursed his lips and didn't move except to shift his weight from one leg to the other.
"Quit being an asshole and get in the car," Dean instructed testily over the top of the sedan. Heat waves rose up off the black paint so thick that Sam's image appeared to waver in front of him. Like Sam was the spirit, a remnant of someone no longer really there.
Dean closed his eyes. He swore sometimes it was like dealing with a nagging wife. Without any of the benefits.
He sighed heavily and slammed the car door closed again with a grudging grunt.
"Fine. But I don't wanna take him with us to the Polish buffet," Dean grumbled, his eyes on the ground.
Sam smirked and rolled his eyes again. "Dude, I don't want to go with you to the Polish buffet."
"Well, I can't show up dateless."
Sam snorted. "Sorry, man. I guess Dylan and I are a package deal."
"Wow. You drive one ugly bargain."
"Can we stop having this conversation?"
Dean grimaced and conceded, starting back toward Ana's abandoned apartment. He still didn't get a positive read from Dylan Cruz, and he hated the way the guy looked at his brother. What he really wanted to do was stuff Sam in the car and drive so fast and so far that they'd never be found. By anyone – or anything. But he was a hunter, and Sam was right. Something had obviously gone awry with Ana's latest hunt, and they couldn't ignore that. In fact, everything about this town now had him on edge – including Jenny's famous Polish buffet – and the sooner they figured out what was going on, the better for everyone involved.
The sense of responsibility was like a muddy contaminant in his blood, but he did what he'd always done best: masterfully suppressed his resentment that this was their life, it had proven the cause of Sam's death, and it would also soon bring about his own equally violent demise. It was exhausting. It made him weary, and exasperated, and bitter. But it was everything he knew. It was how he'd been raised to live, whether any of them had liked it or not. And with the sharp sting of their father's death slowly dulling a little more every day, he was beginning to realize that nobody had liked it. How he'd fooled himself for so long – how he'd bitterly convinced himself that Sam's desperate need to rebel and leave the fold had been pure escapism and selfishness on his brother's part – was moving further and further beyond him now. And the guilt he felt now over having been so hurt and insulted and so angry with Sam only exhausted him even more. He was so tired, it was almost unbearable. But he bore it. Because he didn't know what else to do. The devil was coming for him in less than a year, and God, he didn't know what else to do.
The apartment was just as hot now as when they'd left it minutes ago, if not hotter, and Dylan appeared to have melted into the tatty upholstery on the couch. He was slumped into a flattened cushion with his elbows on his knees and his face in his hands. He looked every bit as defeated as Dean often felt, but without the means to confront the evil that had befallen him.
Dylan didn't look up until the brothers were standing directly in front of him. They towered over him, dwarfed him, and they were the only hope he had left.
"I'm sorry, guys," he said honestly. "I swear I didn't know what Ana was up to. I knew she had her secrets and her weird stuff she believed, but I didn't know the extent of it. I sure as hell didn't know about all those guns and things in her closet." He rubbed both hands roughly over his face, and the apartment was so quiet and still around them that they could actually hear the sound his calloused palms made scraping against the stubble growing in on his cheeks and chin.
"You said she left a message," Sam prompted softly.
"Yeah," Dylan said, standing abruptly and digging into his front pocket for his phone. "Yeah, she did. Maybe you'll understand it. I don't know what she's trying to say. It's like she's speaking in a different language."
He dialed into his voicemail and then held out the phone so the screen and speaker were facing Sam and Dean.
"Dylan, it's me. It's your sister. I've been calling you for a month. What are you doing? Why won't you call me back? I just…I'm not angry. I'm worried. I wish I knew you were safe."
There was a crash somewhere in the distance, the sound of a door or a window breaking open, and Ana gasped.
"I'm out of time. I'm out of time! I screwed up, and it knows. It's coming for me–"
Here she paused, and it sounded like she fumbled with the phone, perhaps nearly dropped it. When she started speaking again, she was breathless and almost whispering. Her words were obviously not English, but neither Sam nor Dean fully recognized the language. It struck Dean as vaguely familiar, like something he'd heard somewhere as a child. It wasn't the Latin he was used to, that was for sure.
A quick glance at Sam confirmed his brother was just as perplexed as he. Sam's head was tilted slightly to the side, his arms wrapped tightly across his chest. He was facing Dylan and the phone, but his intense gaze was directed somewhere off in the middle distance. Watching his eyes was like watching an old school computer zipping through a series of complex calculations. Dean imagined there were probably a hundred things running through his mind at that precise moment.
As Ana spoke, her voice grew louder, her tone more urgent, until she sounded downright frantic. Finally, the foreign language broke off, and she was obviously crying. The pure fear in her voice froze all three men where they stood.
"I don't understand. It didn't work. Why isn't it– Dylan! Dylan, I love you! Please –"
The message ended abruptly. Chillingly.
The off-kilter clock ticked steadily in the background, and someone revved a motorcycle engine on the other side of the building. Dylan's hand holding the phone was shaking violently, until finally he couldn't hold it up any longer.
Dean's own heart was pounding, and he knew Ana was dead. If Dylan thought there was any chance his sister would be alive if they found her, he was in for a brutal awakening.
"What do you think?" Dylan was looking up at Sam. "What was she saying? Something took her, didn't it? Some ghost thing you guys would know about. Do you think we can find her?"
Sam wore a devastated expression – full of crushing pain and sympathy with an ironic and heart-breaking trace of disbelief – that told Dean he held out about the same amount of hope Dean did that they would find Ana alive. But he wasn't directing it specifically at Dylan. In fact, he didn't appear to have even heard the questions, let alone have any of the answers.
Suddenly, Dylan reached up and grabbed Sam by the front of his shirt, both hands clutching the fabric in a death grip.
"What's the matter with you?" he exploded, at the end of his rope. "Say something! Can you help her or not?"
Sam apparently couldn't speak, nor did he move to defend himself. So without a second thought, his big brother did both for him. Angrily. He broke Dylan's grip with a single downward swipe of his forearm and in the same motion flung the smaller man into the wall next to the couch. Dean easily held Dylan pinned bodily against the wall, his forearm pressed roughly against Dylan's collarbone, just beneath his windpipe; not enough to hurt him but enough to make the threat boldly apparent.
Dean's voice was hard and cold as lead when he spoke, his eyes sharp and deadly like polished steel. "If you so much as even think about touching him again, I will personally extract your lungs from your body with my bare hands. Do you understand?"
Dylan just stared at him with wide, frightened eyes for a moment, as if actually considering his response. Dean was incensed and about to start breaking bones when Dylan finally nodded – short, clipped, jerking movements that made his chin bump against his captor's arm.
"I can't hear you," Dean said calmly, increasing the pressure on Dylan's chest.
"Yes," Dylan croaked. He cleared his throat. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I was way out of line."
Dean held Dylan in check for several more seconds before releasing him and turning to his brother. "Really, Sam? This is the guy you're making me take to dinner?"
Sam didn't smirk. He didn't frown, either. Or bitch. Or blink. Or even breathe for that matter. The color had drained from his face, and he appeared stricken. Dean didn't know if it was the message or the heat or some other God awful thing Sam had picked this moment to internalize, but it didn't look good, whatever it was.
Dylan's transgression abruptly shelved for the moment, Dean caught his brother by the arm.
"Hey. Sit down," he ordered firmly, guiding Sam to the couch and kneeling down in front of him. He put a stabilizing hand on the side of his brother's neck and searched his face. "Dude, take a breath. What the hell's going on?"
After a tense moment, Sam's eyes seemed to settle on Dean's, and he shrugged away from his brother's touch. It was almost a resentful gesture, one that Dean stoically interpreted as ongoing punishment for his deal. He knew for a fact that Sam wasn't purposely trying to hurt him – despite everything, he knew his kid brother wouldn't do that – but he also expected and accepted that the short rest of his life would probably be rife with these subconscious little gestures of bitterness, slipping out at Sam's most unguarded moments. And wasn't that just a bitch?
"Hebrew," Sam said with a slight shake of his head, like he was clearing it.
Dean frowned and sat back on his heels. "Huh?" he answered.
"Ana's message," Sam asserted, as if he hadn't just randomly gone off-line for several minutes, and like Dean was an idiot for not following his train of thought. "It sounded like Hebrew."
Dean frowned deeper. He shook his head and stood. "It's been a while since my last Bar Mitzvah, but I can guarantee you that wasn't Hebrew, Sam."
Sam huffed and rolled his eyes impatiently. "No, I know. But it sounds like it. I'm just saying I recognize it. Like specifically whatever it was she was saying."
"What? Like a standard exorcism? You think maybe it's something you might've heard from Pastor Jim at some point?"
"I don't know. I've heard it somewhere. I know it; I just can't place it."
When he looked up at Dean, his eyes were bright and clear, and he looked so much like the brother Dean remembered back before Cold Oak, before their father's secret, before Stanford, before Sam realized he couldn't be the hunter John Winchester expected – or maybe just hoped – he would be. It briefly took Dean's breath away. To think he'd almost lost this person. To think he still could. That he still would. It caused him physical pain deep in his chest, in that small, hidden place tucked right up against his heart, where he thought his soul might be.
"Sammy –" he started quietly.
"Oh, God," Dylan interrupted suddenly, "it's going on five."
Dean turned to him and quirked one incredulous eyebrow. "Thank you, Big Ben."
"We have to go," Dylan explained. "The Civic Center. Five o'clock. For the buffet. We need to get going if we're gonna get there on time."
Dean's mouth opened, but for once in his life he was speechless. He glared at Dylan for several seconds before closing his mouth and turning back to his brother.
Sam swallowed audibly. He glanced up at Dylan.
"Yeah, you're right," he said finally, holding out an arm for Dean to help him up.
"Okay," Dean agreed, pretty sure he was the only one left in the room who wasn't slightly crazy. "Let's get going."
They let Dylan lead the way to the front door.