He wakes just past midnight – isn't sure why – maybe because years spent on a graveyard shift schedule made him predisposed to it. The room is quiet save for a quiet tap-tapping sound coming from a nearby table. He smiles slightly as he turns his head to look.
Sure enough, a tall figure sits bent over the keyboard of a laptop computer, the faint blue-gray glow of the monitor illuminating his face. His brow is knit in concentration. It's a familiar sight to the man lying in the bed. He slowly props himself up on one elbow.
"Hey," he says softly. "Hey, Sammy."
Sam looks up from his work. A wry smile crosses his face, brings out the the sparkle in his eyes and dimples the girls always loved. It's been a long time since he's seen Sam smile.
"Working on a case?"
Sam's smile falters slightly. "Yeah," he says. "You could say that I guess."
"Need a hand?" Dean asks. It's almost a plea. "I might be a little rusty but..."
Shaking his head, Sam gives his brother a tender look, a look that once might have had Dean ribbing him for being a wuss. "No, Dean. Not yet. I'll let you know when it's time."
"Not to rush you or anything."
"Of course not."
Dean nods, and lays his head back down on his pillow. He falls back to sleep to the familiar sound of Sam's fingers playing across the keyboard.
Dean Wyatt was eight years old and thus had little patience for important grown-up type responsibilities. He would rather have been playing ball on this sunny Sunday afternoon, but on Sundays Mom went to the nursing home, and this Sunday Dean had to go with her. He'd protested loudly, claiming he was more than old enough to stay by himself while Dad went on his business trip. His protests fell on deaf ears. After Mom dropped Dad off at the airport, she took Dean with her to the nursing home.
It was a nice place, a low brick building surrounded by gardens. It was an older home, but recently updated with all the modern amenities. Each resident had their own little studio apartment. If they needed more attentive care there were multi-room apartments available so they might have a live-in nurse/physician. Dean's mother Anne had spent many months searching for this place, Rose Terrace. There had been many long distance conversations with Grandma Sam who was living in England now. Dean remembered listening in to some of them.
"It's a lovely facility, Mom. The gardens are beautiful."
Grandma Sam had rolled her eyes. "Oh, I can just hear him now, Annie. 'What the Hell kinda place is this, Samantha? Roses? Christ on a crutch!' "
"Well! You know how he is!"
"You're just feeling guilty."
"A home, Anne! I swore I'd never do that to him."
"He's ninety years old, Mother!"
"You've taken care of him all this time, and Daddy too when he got sick. Now you have Richard and it's time for you to live a little, okay? I'll take care of Granddad. He'll just have to learn to like roses."
"He'll hate it."
Noogies. What a great word. That had been back when Dean was five and he'd gone around saying "tough noogies" to just about everything until Mom threatened to smack him one if he didn't shut up. Mom had never hit him, but he took her seriously when she got that particular look on her face. She'd gotten that look when Great Grandpa went on the predicted tirade about Rose Terrace and said he would break out at the earliest opportunity.
"Uh-huh," Anne had replied sarcastically. "I'd like to see that."
Two nights later she got a call that the cops had found her grandfather heading down the road in his wheelchair with a packed bag and a loaded gun. Dean hadn't been privy to what happened when she went to the nursing home to take care of that crisis but he had a sneaking suspicion Great Grandpa – who Dean simply called "Pa" – had been given the "look" because there were no more escape attempts after that. Pa did not, however, cease letting everyone know how much he disliked Rose Terrace and the floral wallpaper in his bathroom.
"This coming from a man who spent most of his life living out of seedy motel rooms," Anne stated.
Pa snorted. "None of them had pretty flowered wallpaper – okay, maybe one or two – but..."
"A man can't do his business surrounded by flowers!"
"Oh, good lord." Anne threw up her hands and complained to her brother. "He's insufferable. I don't know how Mom put up with him for so long."
John had simply laughed. "You might ask the same about us."
Dean liked uncle John. He was funny and liked to play sports. Uncle Bobby was fun too, when he came around. He was the youngest and still in school out in California. Grandma Sam had been left alone with all three children after her first husband died. Nobody liked to talk about him. He was Anne, John and Bobby's real father, but it had been Grandma's second husband, Grandpa Tom, that they called Daddy. Dean had overhead someone say Grandpa Michael had been killed in a hunting accident, but nobody would talk about it, and you didn't ask questions. Dean made the mistake once of asking what Grandpa Michael had been hunting.
Grandma Sam had been there, and she had gotten very quiet. Mom had reproached Dean for asking, shushing him with a hiss and an angry glare. He had held firm, repeating the question. He and Grandma Sam looked at each other for a long time before she cleared her throat and replied.
"Ghosts," she said.
Dean frowned. "But there's no such thing."
"Exactly," Grandma Sam said softly, and that was all she would say.
Dean is awake this time. Sam slips in through the door with a bag over his shoulder. They greet each other with a nod. Sam puts the bag down on the table , joining his brother in the living room. He sits down on the love seat and stretches his long legs out in front of him. He runs his hands through his hair and sighs.
"Long night," Sam says, and his voice turns wistful. "They always are."
Dean nods. "I could use a beer," he remarks. "Would go good with this ball game."
Sam cranes his head to look at the television screen. "This is a rebroadcast, Dean."
"Eh, yeah. I was napping the first time round. How about that beer?"
"You know that's not gonna happen. I'm not a genie to pull a beer out of thin air."
Giving his brother a hard look, Dean chuckles. "That's the damn truth. How lucky am I to get you instead of Barbara Eden? Hmm. Barbara Eden."
"You never change."
"Should I?" Dean asks archly.
"No," Sam replies softly. "Never."
"You gettin' girly on me again, Sammy? 'cause if you are gonna get all nostalgic and weepy you can just take your prissy ass on out of here."
"Weepy? I never get weepy!"
"Whatever, dude." Dean waves the remote at the television. "Fumble. You know these kids today don't know how to play the game."
There's a long silence. Dean thinks Sam has gone, but he hasn't.
"You gonna stay a while, Sammy? Watch this with me?"
"Thought I would."
Dean sighs. He turns his attention back to the game. He doesn't tell Sam that his company means far more to him than a beer – and maybe even Barbara Eden. He figures Sam already knows.
Dean didn't like the nursing home. Old people, he said, smelled funny, and some of them were downright scary. Some were wild-eyed and babbled at you with mouths that had no teeth. Others looked like skeletons and said nothing at all. Dean was only eight but he knew what happened when you got old. These people were going to die soon.
Although his opinion of the nursing home was sour, Dean did like his Great-Grandpa, the subject of their visit. Great-Grandpa wasn't like the other old people Dean passed in the hallway, the old people that made him grip his mother's hand just a little bit tighter, but he'd once been afraid of him too. That had been before Dean was old enough to understand that Pa shouted because he didn't hear very well. The wheelchair wasn't something to be afraid of either, it just helped Pa get around.
Pa was in room twelve. There was no room thirteen. The odd side of the hallway ended at eleven. Dean knew it was because thirteen was bad luck, and old people didn't need any more bad luck than they already had.
Even if they hadn't known room twelve was Pa's room, they could tell from the sound of the television. Pa refused hearing aids, claiming a wheelchair and spectacles were bad enough and he didn't like half the stuff he heard nowadays anyway. He turned the television up and sat really close to the speakers. His neighbors complained but he didn't care.
Anne walked in and shut the door behind them while Dean clamped his hands over his ears.
"Grandpa!" Anne shouted. "Grandpa Dean!"
She walked over and turned the television down to a more tolerable level. It was, Dean noted, an old monster movie. He could see the zipper in Godzilla's back and was appalled at the horrid special effects of a by-gone age. At home he had a holographic television and the latest Godzilla remake. If you sat too close you could actually feel the heat from the monster's fiery breath.
The little old man hunched over in the wheelchair sat up straighter as soon as the sound level dropped. Irritated at the interruption he squinted through his glasses up at his granddaughter and scowled at her.
"I was watchin' that!"
"Turn the subtitles on, Grandpa before you get in trouble again."
"I said, turn the..." Anne stopped as the old man grinned at her. "You're teasing."
"Me? Nah." He reached up to kiss her cheek as she bent to hug him. "Hello Annie Fanny. It Sunday already?"
"Yes it is."
"Hard to keep track of time here. They don't like ya to have clocks 'cause they don't want you knowin' how much older you're getting." Pa snorted. "Sadistic bastards always checkin' the color of your piss..."
"Grandpa! Not in front of Dean."
"What? Oh! Hey Squirt. Long time no see." Pa swiveled around by jabbing one gnarled finger down on a button. The wheelchair's motor whirred as it turned. "My pocket was getting lonely."
Dean grinned and gave Pa a hug before poking a hand down into his shirt pocket. Sure enough there was a package of gum and a plastic ring that lit up when he pushed a little bump on the side. "Neat!"
"Dean, what do you say?"
"You're welcome." The old man grinned, his eyes all but disappearing among the deep creases at each of their corners. If he looked a little more weary than usual, Dean didn't notice. "Now Annie, stop..."
Anne fussed around the room, straightening things, picking up a stray sock that lay on the floor. "I swear, the housekeeping staff gets worse every week."
"It's fine. Leave it."
"Nesting," Anne said, sitting down abruptly on the end of the bed. "My due date is getting close."
"I can see that," Pa said, eyeing his granddaughter's expansive belly. "You pick out a name for the new one yet?"
"Well, if it were up to Dean he'd be called Rover because I think he'd much rather have a puppy than a little brother."
"Eh. Little brothers are more fun." Pa shook his head at Dean who was cupping a hand around his ring to watch the light shine through his fingers. "And a big responsibility. You ready for that, Squirt?"
"Uh-huh," Dean replied distractedly.
"I thought I'd name him Sam," Anne said softly.
Her grandfather looked up at her soberly. "Yeah?" he murmured.
"That's a good name. Gave it to your momma, though I still haven't forgiven her for being a girl."
"I know Grandpa."
Dean glanced up from playing with his ring. Pa had gotten very quiet and turned his head away from Anne, but if he thought he could hide the tears he'd thought wrong. His namesake saw them.
"You okay, Pa?"
The old man gave him a sharp look. "And why wouldn't I be?"
Wisely, Dean didn't push the issue. He'd learned from a very young age not to second guess his elders, especially family members. Like Grandpa Michael's hunting accident, there were some things you just didn't need to know.
Dean turns off the television and yawns. His eyes are heavy as he regards the silent figure sitting in the chair opposite his bed. Sam hasn't said much tonight. He's been quiet, contemplative, but not particularly broody. It's not himself he's beating up, but rather the circumstances that have led him to this place. He's full of plans and predictions. Dean's been waiting for him to share. Sam has always been more open, Dean's the one who keeps things to himself. There was a time when that wasn't so, and that had been a bad time. Dean was relieved when things returned to normal - or as normal as things could be for them. Not normal, not really. Normal people didn't usually spend time in Hell, and if they did, they certainly didn't come back.
"I have a case," Sam says finally. "I need your help."
"My help?" Dean laughs. "We're not exactly on the same page here anymore, Sammy"
Sam smiles gently. "I've noticed."
"I can't go running off with you, not like this."
"You won' t have to, Dean, promise."
There's something unsaid there, a thought left unfinished. Dean looks over at his brother and Sam averts his eyes. "I know why you're here, Sammy. We both know. I might be old but I'm still pretty sharp." He taps one temple. "You've not been hangin' out with me just for kicks. I recognize a death omen when I see one."
"Yeah," Sam admits. "But there's more to it than that, Dean." He toys with his hands, large, powerful hands that could also be so very gentle. He nervously twists the bracelet he wears upon one wrist, turning it around and around. Dean has seen Sam break necks with those hands, and then turn around to gently carry a child to safety.
He remembers when his daughter was born, remembers watching Sam hold her. She had grasped one of his fingers in her teeny, tiny hand and held on so tight...
Dean had thought, "Don't let go. Don't let him go."
A year later Sam was gone and even Dean couldn't hold on to him. He slipped out of his big brother's grasp like a dream on the edge of consciousness, its tattered fragments scuttling away on the wind with the coming of dawn.
A new family eased the pain but could never fill the void. Unlike a dream, Sam would always be remembered.
Dean remembers now. "How fair," he murmurs. "How fair is it that a man who could command demons and drag a soul back from the pits of Hell, gets taken out by a damn virus?"
"It was restitution, Dean."
"It was pneumonia, Sam, and I don't efin care." He turns his head away. "You deserved better."
Sam leans back in the chair, his expression a complex combination of amusement and sorrow. "Dying in a blaze of glory is a movie myth, Dean. Death is merciless and ugly no matter how it comes to you. You should know that."
"Dash an old man's hopes all to Hell why don't you?" Dean snorted, and then sighed. "I don't know what I'm holding out for though, 'cause I stopped playing the hero game a looooong time ago."
"You never stopped being a hero, Dean," Sam says softly. "And that's why I need you now."
"So your 'case' isn't me?"
"No, not directly." The spirit's gray eyes turned dark, stormy. His jaw clenched. "Dean, he's back."
Dean frowned. "Who? Who's back?"
Almost against his will, Dean got sucked into the old rubber monster movie. He sat in front of the television utterly enrapt as terrified citizens of Tokyo ran from the monster destroying their city. Cardboard bricks rained down on their heads. On cue, a woman tripped, only to be swept off of her feet (or in this case, her hinder) by the hero who just happened to be in the right place at the right time. She narrowly escaped being squarshed.
"Why do they always have a girl fall down?" Dean asked. "I play chase with girls on the playground and they run fast but never fall down like that!"
Pa chuckled. "They fall down so the hero will pick them up. Girls are sneaky like that."
"I don't like girls."
"You're eight, of course you don't. In a couple years though..." The old man winked.
Anne shook her head, smiling, and nearly jumped off the bed when her phone rang. She took the call outside in the hallway, leaving her boys to their movie. A moment later she returned with a frown on her face.
"That was Jimmy. His flight was canceled. I'm sorry Grandpa, I have to go pick him up."
"Awwww," Dean looked up at his mother from where he sat at Pa's feet. "I want to see the end of the movie!"
"Let him stay Annie. You go get Jimmy, have some lunch. I'll watch the Squirt."
The elder Dean grinned. "Afraid we'll get into trouble?"
Anne was, in fact, afraid the two of them would get into trouble but she didn't say so. "All right. Dean you stay here, be quiet, and listen to what Pa says."
"I mean it!"
"Okay!" The little boy pouted. "Sheesh, I'm not a little kid or somethin'."
His mother rolled her eyes and bent to kiss her grandfather good-bye. "I'll be back in a few minutes. Are you sure you'll be okay with him?"
"If he acts up I'll whap him with my cane."
Anne gave him a stern look. "Grandpa..."
"I'm kidding, Annie. Sheesh, I'm not a little kid or something."
Dean giggled. He waved goodbye to his mother and watched her leave. After a moment he looked expectantly up at his great grandfather, because on other occasions when the two of them were left alone together, they did get into trouble. Dean wondered if there would be wheelchair rides out in the parking lot hallway today. Pa could get his chair up to a good speed down the ramps.
He wasn't quite sure what to make of the expression on the old man's face this time. He wasn't grinning. He was looking down at Dean with a sad expression, like he had some bad news. Whatever they would be doing today didn't look like it was going to be much fun.
"You ever watch spy shows, Squirt?" Pa asked finally. "Where the spies have to keep secrets."
"Can you keep a secret?"
Standing up, Dean went to Pa's side and nodded gravely. "What kind of a secret?"
The old man pointed to a small wooden trunk tucked away under his dresser. Dean had always been curious about the trunk and its contents, but Pa never allowed him to touch it. Now Pa seemed to be ready to share. Dean went to the dresser and pulled the trunk out from beneath it.
"Can you lift it up on the bed?"
It was heavy, but Dean was strong, and he wrestled the box up onto the end of the bed. He waited patiently for aged fingers to twist the small key in the lock, and when the treasure box opened he peered anxiously inside from over Pa's arm.
Inside was a strangely curved knife, and an old gun like the kind the cowboys on TV used. Some pictures, and papers and a thickly bound leather book made up the rest of the contents. Dean was rather hopeful that he'd get to use the gun to shoot pop cans off a fence like in the movies and disappointed when all Pa pulled out was the book. The box was locked up once more. Dean put it back under the dresser.
The old man cocked a brow at the boy. "You can read, can't you?"
Dean's reply was indignant. "Of course."
"Good," Pa said, and handed him the book.
It was very old, stained, torn and yellowed with age. Pa advised him to be careful when he opened it for there were loose papers inside that might fall out.
"Take this home and read it. Read it carefully, and most importantly, do not let anyone see it. That's our secret, Squirt. Just me and you, okay?"
The little boy nodded, awestruck by his newly granted privilege.
"When you're done, bring it back, and we'll have a little talk about it."
"Okay." Dean turned the book over and over in his hands before tucking it safely away in his tote bag. He paused a moment and gave Pa a serious look. "Pa?" He asked. "Does this have anything to do with Grandpa Michael?"
One brow went up. The old man sat back in his chair and regarded Dean carefully. "Why do you ask?"
Dean didn't know why. Some little voice inside him had created a suspicion the moment he'd seen the knife and the gun. In eight years he had learned that just about everything the grownups didn't want to talk about always seemed to lead back to Grandpa Michael.
Pa looked unhappy, very unhappy. "Sort of. Grandpa Michael had secrets too."
The little boy nodded. "I won't tell anyone," he said, and tightened the grip on his bag.
Dean sits very still, gazing out the window at the cold drizzle coming down outside. It is the type of rain that always manages to get through to your skin, trickling down the collar of your jacket, dripping into your boots. Hunting isn't an easy job. Dean remembers countless nights spent outside in rain just like this, waiting for their quarry to show, digging up graves, exorcising demons. He remembers being cold and wet and hungry. It was a fact of life.
That night had been cold and wet. They crouched behind a house, waiting for the boogeyman they were tracking to make its move on the child sleeping inside. Dean's mind had been on his wife, and the child he'd left behind in Nebraska. Becky understood. She understood the job and she understood Dean, and she told him to go where he was needed. His daughter's first steps were taken that night. Dean would see them later in a video message left on his phone.
Sam had been in the lead when the striga-like creature appeared. The battle was brief and violent, leaving the striga dead and Sam utterly winded. It had touched him on the arm and left the mark of its hand. The skin beneath the hand-print was pale, bloodless, and cold to the touch, but that wasn't the cold that caused the most damage. It had been the rain, the long, frigid walk back to where they'd hidden the car, and the price Sam had to pay years before.
Killing Lilith, performing a black magic ritual to bring Dean back from Hell, the one-two punch had taxed both Sam's mental and physical strength to the breaking point. He'd survived, barely, but his health had been permanently compromised. Sam caught a chill hiking out in the rain the night they battled the striga, a chill that quickly turned deadly. His body had simply been unable to keep up with the virus caught. Pneumonia set in, and that was all she wrote.
"You lied to me," Dean whispers. "You made a sacrifice all right, but no demons were involved."
Standing somewhere in the darkness behind his brother's chair, Sam sighs. "I didn't know, Dean."
"You lied to me about your psychic stuff, and that was bad enough." Dean reaches out a hand to the cool glass of the window and shudders. "It killed you, Sammy, bringing me back from Hell. You were never right afterward." He shakes his head. "You shouldn't have gotten sick."
Sam says nothing.
"Restitution...restitution for what?"
This time Sam's voice is barely audible. "Everything."
Dean closes his eyes. Sam knows what he's thinking.
"If I had lived you wouldn't have stopped Hunting, Dean. Samantha would have grown up without a father. You got the life you'd always wanted, the one you were meant to have if the demon hadn't interfered. How can that possibly be bad?"
"I was doomed from the moment I was born."
They're quiet then, for a while, before Sam moves to stand by the window. He casts no reflection in the glass.
"Life has a way of setting itself right every time, Dean, no matter how hard we try to change its path," Sam says. "I was never meant to live. You were never meant to die."
Dean wants to get away from this subject. It makes his throat tighten, and his stomach ache. "So," he says quietly. "Ol' yellow eyes is back." He raises his eyes from the window to his brother. "How can that be, Sam? We killed him. With the Colt."
Sam shrugs. "Maybe it's not the same demon, but they have a similar M.O. Someone has taken up his cause again anyway. It's been visiting six-month old children."
Dean rubs his eyes with gnarled fingers. He's tired. It's past his bedtime. He should call a nurse in to help him to bed but is reluctant to do so. Let the illusion stand for a little while longer, let him pretend this is truly his own apartment and not a cleverly disguised hospital. Let him pretend he's chosen to sit in this damnable chair, not that he has to.
"And now," he says wearily. "The whole thing starts all over again."
"Unless we stop it."
"Right. A ghost, a crippled old man, and a little boy. I'm not sure I like those odds, Sammy."
"I know I don't like them, Dean, but we don't have much choice."
Dean wasn't an impressionable child. Born just past the halfway mark to the twenty-second century, he based his beliefs on cold, hard fact. He had a computer at his fingertips and access to millions of research sources. Both were invaluable to him.
He didn't need a book to tell him monsters were real, but he'd never really thought about it before. Once the idea was planted in his head, the truth was quickly revealed.
Pa's book was old, the leather cover cracked and stained, the pages delicate and brittle. Dean was exceptionally careful handling it. He worked through the text just as carefully, as diligently as if the aged tome were a school book and a test was forthcoming. He made notes regarding things he didn't understand so he could look them up later. He checked out all the names and places to verify they actually existed. With each page he delved deeper into a dark underground world that coexisted with his own, and uncovered secrets regarding his role within both.
His family history revealed itself with each turn of the page, painting a new portrait of those he knew, and introducing him to those who had gone by the time he was born. He gained a whole new respect for the crippled old man in the nursing home who had seen the fires of Hell and survived to tell the tale. He learned the secret of Grandpa Michael's death.
There was hunting, and then there was Hunting. It was no deer or duck Grandpa Michael had been after, but a nest of vampires. He had been a Hunter, like Great-Grandpa Dean. They worked together after Great-Grandma Becky died and Pa went back to "the job," but neither would return after this particular battle. Grandpa Michael was killed, Pa hurt his back, and that's where the book ended.
Dean read the book at night, tucked under his covers with the flashlight ring Pa had given him. He hid it during the day. For months he worked on it and when he was finished he felt a new kind of fear. There were things out there in the dark, under the bed, lurking in the closet. His fear, however, was tempered by the knowledge that there were also people, like Pa, who knew about the bad things, and who were working behind the scenes to keep everyone safe. Hunters were like superheroes who had secret identities. They never got their credit due for saving the world from evil.
It was Thanksgiving by the time Dean finished the book. He had a new little brother and Grandma Sam was visiting from overseas. The entire family had gathered at the Wyatt home to celebrate the holiday. Uncle John brought his wife and the cousins. Uncle Bobby brought a new girlfriend. Dean played football and video games with his uncles and cousins, he filled his plate with food and gave thanks for his blessings, but somehow something was different this year. He was too young to fully understand how knowledge had changed him, he just knew that when he looked at his family a knot formed in his stomach.
While the baby napped, Anne and Grandma Sam went into the kitchen to prepare coffee and desserts. Dean had come in from playing in the yard to snag something to drink and to see if he could get Pa alone. He had a good opportunity, but the old man had dozed off in front of the fire while the rest of the adults retired to the media room to watch a movie. Dragging his heels, Dean loitered around hoping Pa would wake up. He couldn't help but overhear the conversation between his mother and grandmother.
"He looks pale," Grandma Sam said critically. "And much too thin."
"He's fine, Momma. The doctors said so."
Grandma Sam looked skeptical. She was a handsome woman, often mistaken for someone younger than her sixty-plus years. Her hair was silver-gilt like her father's, her bearing was confident bordering on cocky, but her gray eyes were cool and contemplative. She thought before she acted, and her thoughts were often plain to see upon her face. Right now she was worried.
"Eventually you're going to have to let go, Mom," Anne said gently.
"It's silly, I know." Grandma Sam returned to her chore of slicing a large pumpkin pie into wedges. "But," she whispered (Dean had to strain to hear her) "I just feel - safer - knowing he's around."
Anne shook her head and added the whipped cream to each piece of pie. "That is silly. A little old man in a wheelchair, half deaf and nearly blind, makes you feel safe?"
"Don't let him fool you, Annie. His mind is as sharp as a steel trap and I daresay he has a few more tricks left up those sleeves." Grandma Sam smiled. She picked up a plate in each hand and she cleared her throat. "Little pitchers..." she sang, referring, obviously, to Dean. "Here sweetie."
The warm scent of cinnamon and pumpkin drifted up from the still warm pie. Dean sat down with his glass of milk and his pie on the hearth next to Pa's wheelchair. Grandma Sam put a hand on her father's shoulder.
Startled, the old man woke. For a moment his expression was stern and angry, but it relaxed after only a few seconds. He took the plate and grinned up at his daughter. "Thought you were the boogeyman."
"I'll bet you did," she said, and kissed him before returning to help her daughter in the kitchen.
Pa took a bite of pie. He pointed his fork at Dean. "You done reading, Squirt?"
Dean nodded. "The journal is in my room."
"You keep it for now. Don't let them..." the elder Dean nodded his head toward the women in the kitchen. "See it."
"I won't," Dean whispered. He ate some more pie and drank his milk under Pa's watchful eye. "Pa," he said after a moment.
The old man sighed and seemed, suddenly, to have lost his appetite. His shoulders slumped. He suddenly did look very tired, very thin, and very...old. He put down his plate and gave the boy a solemn look.
"Don't be scared, Dean."
His words were to offer reassurance, but to Dean they rang false and accomplished nothing.
It was clear Pa was himself more than a little frightened.
He dosed off again. He's been doing that a lot lately, as if his body has finally decided to catch up on all the sleep he ever missed in his youth. How many all-nighters (and all-dayers) had he and Sam pulled? Then, later, he had hooked up with Michael – sleep deprived again.
Thoughts of Michael make him sigh. Stupid, stupid to let himself get cornered like that, and Dean unable to get to him in time.
"Too old," he mumbles. "I was too old to be doing that shit then, but after I lost Becky and Sammy ran off to Stanford..."
His brow knits, his mind momentarily confusing past with present, Sam his brother with Sam his daughter. It had been Sam who had gone to school in California. Samantha went to New England, Princeton. She'd graduated summa cum laude with a degree in business. She had been too good for Michael Abbot, everyone said so. Dean should have dissuaded her from marrying him but he couldn't. He couldn't hold Michael's job against him. How hypocritical would that have been?
"Very," Sam says quietly. "He was a good man."
"Get out of my head," Dean grouses. "I hate it when you do that."
Sam smiles. He's sitting beside the bed in the wheelchair, his elbows upon his knees and his expression serene and thoughtful. Dean realizes for the first time that this spirit, Sam's spirit, has finally found peace. The tragedy is that he'd never been able to achieve it in life.
He's still in Dean's head, damn him. "Did you?" Sam asks.
Dean ponders the question, thinking of Thanksgiving, and all the holidays he'd shared with his family over the years. He had stopped Hunting after losing Sam, and in the years prior to Becky's death, he'd lived a very quiet, normal life as husband and father. Sure, some things came after them from time to time – Winchester was a baaad word among the things that went bump in the night - but those were often taken care of by other Hunters. Dean never had to lift a finger. He'd only started Hunting with Michael because he'd been bored.
"Why, Sammy?" he demands abruptly. "Why us, why now? There are still people out there Hunting. Why can't someone else..."
He's answered Sam's question with his own. Yes, he'd found peace, every time he put down the warrior's mantle and stepped out of the underground into the light of day. Was it selfish? He'd always been good at what he did. Maybe it was, but he had already paid dearly for those few decades of contentment. If it was selfish to let someone else deal for a change, then so be it.
"This is personal," Sam replies. There's no reproach in his voice – Dean already knows he's whining, there's no reason to point it out. "Dean. If the demon succeeds in getting to that baby, everything you've worked so hard for will be destroyed. It'll start all over again, just like before, only this time there's a lot more to lose."
"He's just a little boy," Dean protests.
"So were you, once."
Dean sighs. He's tired – bone weary. He wants Sam to go away and let him sleep. He's too old for this, much too old now. Damn vampires screwed up his back, crippled him. First a cane, and ultimately that mother-lovin' wheelchair. The Squirt needs back-up Dean can't provide. Too old, stuck in a nursing home – don't freakin' call this place anything else. It isn't a damn "senior living community." All around him are people just waiting to die. He recognizes that all right, he's played that waiting game before.
He closes his eyes, feels the brush of fingers upon his forehead. The touch triggers a flood of memories.
His mother tucking him in at night, assuring him the angels are watching...
Becky hovering over him in bed, her eyes bright and alive with good humor as she leans in to kiss him...
Samantha sitting on his ribs, tugging at his shirt, urging him to wake up because Santa has come...
John, Anne and Bobby swarming around him, all chatting at once, all wanting to be the first to tell Grandpa about their day...
He opens his eyes to see Sam now kneeling beside the bed. He remembers keeping a similar vigil, years ago. He had never been the praying kind, but he prayed that night. Sam's breathing, however, never returned to normal, but worsened steadily. Dean had sat in the dark and listened to his brother slowly suffocate in the fluid filling his lungs.
"It shouldn't have been like that." There are tears in his eyes."It shouldn't have been, Sammy."
"I could have saved you." Dean says urgently, as if saying it now could somehow turn back time. "I could have saved you."
Sam laughs. "How? By going to Hell again?" His expression sobers. "Dean," he whispers. "Sometimes stuff is just flat-out broken, and you can't fix it no matter what you do."
Dean scowls. "Screw that."
"You haven't changed," Sam says.
There are tears in the spirit's eyes. His expression is pained, distraught. "What happened to me can't be allowed to happen to that baby, Dean. We have to stop it. We have to."
Their eyes meet. Dean feels a surge of fear, but it quickly fades. He is old after all, and tired, and as long as Sammy is here with him...
Sam's nodding, confirming what Dean already knows.
"It's time to go."
Dean was sitting in the kitchen eating peanut butter on toast when the phone rang. Juggling baby and a bottle, and then, finally, the phone, Anne managed to answer the call without dropping anything. She sat down heavily at the table beside her eldest. Sammy resumed his breakfast, sucking loudly at the bottle. Dean idly drew a smiley face on his toast with some squeeze bottle jelly. The odd tone of his mother's voice caught his attention and he looked up at her.
"Oh my God, when?" she asked.
Tears welled up in her eyes, causing Dean to frown.
"Yes. No. Cremation. We should have it already set up. Yes. I'll be there as soon as I can. My mother...okay. Yes. Thank you."
Anne hung up the phone. Her expression was a bit shell shocked, as if whatever news she'd received had been a surprise. In retrospect it shouldn't have been, but as Dean found out later, everyone had this odd, underlying feeling that Pa was going to live forever.
Of course he hadn't. He had died in his sleep, quietly, painlessly. The nurses discovered it when he hadn't come to the dining room for breakfast. "Mr. Winchester," they said. "Never missed breakfast."
He'd been ninety-two. All his worldly possessions fit in a shoebox. He left almost everything to Grandma Sam, with one exception. On a worn paper tag hung a set of keys. The address on the tag was to a storage facility just outside of town. The keys, and the contents of the storage room, he'd left to his great-grandson, his namesake.
Grandma Sam had flown back from England to take care of things. She and Dean went to the storage room and she let him open it. He looked up at her as he clutched the keys in his hand. Her father's death had hit her hard. She seemed to have aged. Her smile had gone and her eyes looked tired. Dean wanted to cry too, but he didn't. He had to be brave now.
He had seen Pa for the last time not a week before, and it was then that he was given a very important duty.
"Something bad is coming Squirt, and I might not be around to help out this time. It'll be up to you, okay?"
Pa had held his shoulders, and looked at him intently.
"You protect your little brother. Whatever you do, that's the most important thing."
Nobody knew Pa had given him something else besides the keys. Hidden in his tote bag, stuffed under his bed, were the book, the knife, and the gun from Pa's box. These weren't toys, Pa had told him. He'd shown Dean how to use the gun safely. It was hard, but he managed.
"What is it, Pa? What's coming?" he'd asked, but Pa wouldn't, or couldn't, tell him.
Grandma Sam had to help him with the door. It was heavy, but with her help they slid it back. There was a light switch just inside. Dean reached up and flipped it, bringing to life a single bare bulb hanging from the ceiling of the storeroom. He heard Grandma Sam suck in a breath.
"I'll be damned. I thought he got rid of that thing ages ago."
"It's a car," Dean said, only slightly disappointed. He was eight. What was he going to do with a car?
It was in pristine condition. Some maintenance would be required to be sure, and no doubt it would have to be converted to run on modern fuels, but it was a beautiful sight to behold compared to the little pods people were now driving. Dean sat behind the wheel inhaling the musty scents surrounding him. He smelled dust, and leather, and motor oil, but underlying those more prominent scents were those of woodsmoke, the sweetish smell of incense, and just the faintest hint of Pa's cologne.
He heard a noise behind him and saw Grandma Sam open the trunk.
"Thank God," she said, as she shut it again.
It had been empty.
"I pulled some strings, cashed in a few favors," Sam says. "You got promoted ahead of the class."
Dean stares at him, shocked. He'd realized there was something different about him, but could not put his finger on it. Now he knows. Of course he hadn't realized the truth of the matter. He had no experience with this type of spirit.
The type he was about to become.
"I didn't want to do this alone anymore, and the family has gotten bigger." Sam shrugs. "I said I needed help."
Dean shakes his head and laughs. "Someone musta owed you a hell of a BIG favor." His chuckle turns into a sigh. "I'm so going to miss porn."
"Yeah, your halo is definitely a little tarnished there, dude."
Dean wasn't sure what woke him up. He lay in bed blinking up at the ceiling for a long moment before rolling over and looking at the clock. It was after midnight.
The house was quiet, but there was a feeling of unease surrounding him. It was like the thick, staticky feeling the air got just before a thunderstorm. It made Dean shudder and pull his blankets up around his chin. He looked at the clock again...
He saw the display flicker once, twice, and then begin blinking twelve.
Sitting bolt upright, he stared at the clock. It flickered again, and so did his night light.
Heart pounding, Dean lunged out of bed, crawling quickly beneath it to retrieve his bag. His hands were shaking as he removed the knife and loaded the gun like Pa had taught him. It was heavy and hard to handle. He was almost more afraid of it than the thing he might have to shoot.
Dean slipped out of his room and ran down the hall, his feet padding dully on the thick carpet. Not a sound came from his parents' bedroom, the guest room where Grandma Sam was staying, nor from anywhere else in the house. The door to the nursery was open when it shouldn't have been. He could see a dark shadow hovering over the crib and hear the soft coo of the baby. Dean ducked behind the door and used both hands to pull back the hammer of the gun, cocking it. With the Colt in one hand and the knife in the other, he went into the room.
"Get away from him," he growled.
His voice sounded shaky and shrill to his own ears. He'd tried to pitch it low and quiet, not wanting to wake anyone. Pa had warned him not to get anyone else involved. The old man had been very blunt about it too. This thing would kill them without a second thought should they barge into the room at the wrong time. That's the last thing Dean wanted.
The dark figure stiffened, clearly irritated by the interruption – its body language was clear even to a little kid. It turned its head to look at the boy standing behind it.
Dean's mouth dried up immediately. A cold sweat broke out down his back and he very nearly wet himself. All he could see in the dark were a pair of yellow eyes slitted like those of a cat or a lizard. They seemed to look right through him. For a moment he was so frightened he forgot about the weapons in his hands and everything else. His mind screamed at him to turn and run, to cry for his mommy and daddy.
"Look at the little Hunter," the dark man chuckled. He did not move away from the crib. "What are you going to do, little Hunter, shoot me?"
At the words "shoot me" the man did move. He moved far faster than Dean's eye could track, suddenly appearing directly in front of him, backing him up against the door which had somehow, at some time, shut itself. The demon plucked the knife out of the little boy's hand and threw it to the floor.
Dean put both hands on the gun, his only remaining weapon. "Go away or I will!" he squeaked.
Some unseen force shoved Dean to the floor hard enough to knock the wind out of him. The gun slipped from hands suddenly gone numb and slid across the carpet, luckily not discharging as it went. Dean started to cry, gulping air that seemed reluctant to fill his lungs. He scuttled backward, crab-like, as the demon pursued him into a corner.
"Stupid, stupid Dean. Age must have made him senile, thinking he could send a little boy to stop one of my kind." The demon leaned over so Dean could smell the sulfur on his breath. "Newsflash. It didn't work, and this time Azazel's plan will succeed. I will see to it, and any Hunter, any Hunter that gets in my way will die." The yellow eyes flared brightly. The demon's voice took on an even more ominous tone as he raised his hands. "I will squash you, little boy, just like a bug!"
"I don't think so."
The demon froze. Dean, terrified, peeked through his arms, which he had wrapped protectively around his head. There, standing between the demon and the crib, were two men who had not been there before. A pale, white light surrounded each of them, brightening the room. The only place it failed to illuminate was the area directly around the demon. It remained in darkness.
And it was no less shocked than Dean.
"You!" it hissed.
The shorter of the two grinned. "Me," he said, and the grin vanished. "Newsflash, bitch. I'm neither senile or stupid."
Neither was Dean. He used the demon's distraction to his advantage, regaining his composure and scrambling across the carpet to where the gun lay. As the demon moved toward the newcomers, the boy picked up the gun, aimed carefully, and with all his strength, pulled back on the trigger.
The recoil sent a painful shock-wave up his arms and down his back, but he held onto the gun. His aim was true. Just beyond the smoking muzzle Dean saw the bullet slam into the demon's body, saw the thing shudder, and then watched it sink slowly to the floor. He barely had time to catch his breath before and realize what he'd done when a burst of flame engulfed what remained of the body. Within seconds there was nothing left to indicate anything had ever been there.
In the moment before all Hell broke loose, Dean looked to the ghostly figures standing beside the crib and saw them smile. Instinctively he knew they were the good guys, but he did not recognize them until they approached. The same one who had confronted the demon spoke to him, and Dean knew immediately who it was.
"Good job, Squirt," he said softly. "You did it."
The elder Dean winked, and then turned to his companion. "Come on, Sammy. We've got work to do."
It was then that the door burst open. Grandma Sam stood on the threshold, her feet bare, her robe askew, her hair mussed from sleep. Dean dropped the gun and rushed into her arms, sobbing hysterically now that it was all over. He felt her flinch, but she had no time to say anything at all.
Suddenly Dad was there, and Mom too. The baby was screaming, Dad was shouting. The gun was discovered and Dean was in trouble. He was crying too hard to explain – not that anyone would believe him anyway. The demon was gone. The spirits were gone. All they saw was a little boy and a gun – a nasty accident waiting to happen.
It was nearly three A.M. before things settled down again. Anne finally got the baby back to sleep, and took her husband to bed, quietly trying to calm him down. It was Grandma Sam who took charge of Dean, taking him back to bed after he had cried himself out. She tucked the blankets around him carefully, smoothed his hair from his forehead, and then did something Dean might have thought strange had he not read the book Pa had given him.
She pulled a package of salt from the pocket of her robe, and put thick line of it across the window sill. From another pocket she removed the knife. This she tucked under Dean's pillow before she sat down on the bed next to him.
"I don't think," she said quietly. "You'll be needing the gun again soon. I keep that." Her gray eyes were somber. "It was a demon, wasn't it?"
Dean nodded. "Is Sammy okay?"
He sniffled a little. "It was going to get him."
"I know," Grandma said. "You did good, Dean."
He nodded again, and yawned hugely.
With a sad smile Grandma Sam pulled his covers up around his chin and gave him a kiss. "Go to sleep now. Everything will be okay." Her eyes sparkled. There were tears on her lashes. "There are angels looking after you."
"All of us," Dean murmured sleepily.
"All of us,"Grandma Sam amended softly."All of us indeed."
Samantha stands outside on the front porch, staring at the long black car parked at the curb. She'll call Mickey Singer to come pick it up, get it tuned up and converted to the new fuel, have it ready for when Dean is old enough to start driving. She's well aware of her grandson's destiny. It was in his blood, and now that he had gotten a taste of it...
"Daddy," she whispers. "Dammit, you promised. No more Hunting."
There's no answer, but as a slight, drizzling rain starts to fall, she could swear she sees someone there beside the car.
Two twenty-something young men, the same men she'd seen for just an instant when she'd burst into the nursery that night.
One she recognizes immediately. He's sitting on the hood, booted feet propped up on the bumper, the collar of his worn leather jacket turned up around his neck. The quirk of one brow is utterly familiar, a genetic trait she shares. Leaning long and lanky against the front fender, his arms crossed over his chest, is another man she knows only from old photographs. His storm-colored eyes are very much like her own. She shares with him her name.
They stare back at her silently, just watching, and waiting, but only for a moment.
She blinks, and they're gone, but so too are her worries. No matter what Dean decides to do with his life, she knows now he'll be safe.
There are angels looking after him.