Huge thanks to everyone who's been reading and tasty cookies to those who have taken time out to leave a review.
Thanks also to Adara-chan67 for being an utterly fantastic beta...I'm still working on your hat, Adara, it never ceases to amaze me what you can make with newspaper and sticky back plastic these days.
All warnings & disclaimer as Part One. Any and all remaining mistakes are my own.
Burger Bars and Bullet Wounds - Part Two.
Dean's an observant guy. He likes to think he can tell real boobs from fake ones with just one quick glance, although the squeeze test is usually the real clincher. He knows his car like it's an extension of himself. Knows the way the engine should sound when she's in top form, knows the exact rattle which means the gasket heads are ready for cleaning and the splutter she makes when the oil needs changing.
Dean also knows Sam and although Stanford has changed Sam, in lots of ways, his little brother is exactly the same as he was before his hunger for normal and Dad's heated words packed him off on a bus to California.
Sam is still sharp as a tack, even at the crack of dawn when, more often than not, Dean wakes up with a taste in his mouth like something nasty had died on his tongue and with a head which feels like some sadistic little fucker has been using his skull as a bongo.
Sam still knows his Beretta from his elbow, he still knows the best way to decapitate a Gallaragoon (with a blessed scythe, anything else and the tricky son of a bitch will regenerate its head) and he still speaks Latin like it should have been his first language.
The changes in Sam aren't glaringly obvious, except perhaps to Dean. Before Stanford, the brothers hunted in perfect synchronization, to the point where Dean could anticipate Sam's next move before Sam even had the chance to make one and now, well, the years apart have splintered their fraternal connection somewhat.
When they arrive at the darkened and deserted McDonalds, with the alarm smoothly disarmed and the lock picked (5.2 seconds, Dean's personal best) and without any hesitation, Sam pushes the door open and swiftly disappears inside the eerily quiet restaurant.
"Hey," Dean growls, waving his arms like he thinks he's an air traffic controller and Sam's an errant Boeing 747.
"I always take point when Dad's not with us, you know that."
"Dean, I'm not a kid anymore. I don't need protecting."
"Oh, I'm not trying to protect you; it's just that I can't see shit with 10 foot of gigantor bitch blocking my view. We do things like we've always done or not at all and that means I take point. It's my God-given big brother right."
"Okay, fine." Sam's eyebrows huddle together as his forehead wrinkles and yeah, Dean really does know that look too. That Dean, you're full of shit look. Dean smirks; he's missed that look.
They move forward with Dean pushing out at the front this time, guided only by a piss poor beam of dim yellow coming from his flashlight—and his natural sense of direction, of course. His shotgun is loaded with salt rounds, poised and ready. Sam follows, carrying his own shotgun and a rucksack on his shoulder.
Dean doesn't speak. He stops, turns and motions at Sam, using one of the many cool hand signals that their dad taught them, which translates into we split, do a sweep and meet back here but looks more like Dean is trying to swat away a fly.
Sam groans, wondering exactly why Dean thinks part of the Stanford enrolment process must have involved a memory-wipe which has rendered his little brother incapable of understanding how to hunt. Dean gives Sam another hand signal, one their dad didn't teach them and Sam gives him back a grin, white teeth glinting in the darkness before he sets off alone in the direction of the back kitchen.
Dean takes on the main seating area of the fast food joint. He walks cautiously between the many plastic tables and chairs and the occasional artificial Yukka plant. He's well prepared. Besides the sawn-off shotgun, he has a Smith & Wesson .45 tucked into the waistband of his jeans and a solid iron Natuto throwing knife in his boot.
Dean swivels himself round in a full 360° when he detects a sudden temperature drop, the way all the warmth rapidly leaches out of the air in mere seconds which is all it takes for Dean to start breathing out mini clouds of white vapor and for tiny goose pimples to pop up on his arms. He can't see a thing but does feels a sharp tug at his belt and a cold shiver runs down his spine as icy fingers make momentary contact with the skin at the small of his back.
Irony can be a cruel bitch sometimes and that's exactly what Dean begins to appreciate when the butt of his own semi-automatic smashes into the side of his temple. As he plummets in a vertical belly flop towards the floor, Dean gets a fleeting glimpse of his attacker. A spirit, flickering in that irritating as hell 'shitty reception' way and virtually soaked with bright red blood and for once, just once, Dean would like to see a ghost wearing a Hawaiian shirt or sucking on a candy cane or anything which doesn't make him feel like puking the second he claps eyes on them.
But this spirit isn't the woman they've been hunting—unless when Melissa was alive she was one damn ugly lady with biceps thicker than a tree trunk and a 12 o'clock shadow. Holy crap, there's more than one ghost! Dean's internal musings are abruptly cut short as his face meets with linoleum and his lights go out.
Dean's out of it for ten minutes tops, long enough for a whopper of a headache to have started pulsing away behind his eyes when he finally comes to his senses and pulls himself upwards, churning out a rapid succession of curse words. On very unsteady legs, he staggers off in the direction Sam had gone. His first thought being to warn his brother that there's more than one Casper 'the freaking unfriendly ghost' haunting the building.
A woman's voice, soft and pleading. Sam lowers his shotgun and squints, desperately trying to make out the dark shadowy figure, which has just materialized in front of him. Her spectral image isn't fully formed; hazy edges frame an adult female shape, which is fading in and out. If Sam looks hard enough he can see clear through her semi-transparent chest to the giant double-door fridge freezer behind her. "It always hurts. Help me," she begs again.
Sam wants to ask how? and what hurts? but the words stick in his throat as he watches her ghostly figure become increasingly solid. Her translucent skin starts to take on the appearance of ordinary pink flesh and Sam has to suppress the irrational urge to reach out his fingers and touch her cheek to find out if her skin is warm or as cold as he knows death should be.
She's only young, early twenties if that; her hair is long and blonde. She looks a little like Jess, but she's not Jess. Jess's face had been more angular—heart-shaped, Sam had always thought. Jess's lips were fuller and she'd had, what Sam believed, was the cutest nose he had ever seen. This dead girl isn't Jess but for Sam, she may as well be.
He's been finding reminders of Jess everywhere of late. Her favorite song blaring out of a convenience store radio. Stopping to pick up a newspaper and standing for long stretched out minutes staring at the cover of the exact women's magazine Jess had a subscription for. Sam knew things were getting excessive when he couldn't look at the sky without seeing her face in the cotton-like cumulus clouds or amongst star constellations. And then there were the nightmares...
"You—you shouldn't be here." Sam whispers, forcing himself to push the words past clenched teeth.
The girl locks eyes with him and a small sad smile plays on her lips. "He won't let me leave."
Sam pauses and his brain does a double-take at her words. Who won't? But he realizes then that she's not looking at him anymore; she's staring at something over his shoulder. He turns in time to see another ghost, a huge guy—standing in a rapidly expanding puddle of blood—holding a gun, Dean's gun, pointed at the girl.
For Dean—as is what always happens whenever Sam is the one in danger—time slows to a near stop. Dean's senses become heightened, sharpened to a point where he could snap a person's neck with one hand while shuffling a deck of cards with the other. But as he hurtles into the industrial sized McDonalds kitchen in time to see the same male ghost who pistol-whipped him, fire his gun, for all his training and experience, Dean can't stop his dumb shit little brother from doing the unthinkable.
Sam yells out, something thunderous and rich with ferocity but unintelligible to Dean, and steps in front of the barrel. As the gun spits out a bullet, Dean watches aghast as the slide moves with flawless ease. He'd cleaned that gun tonight, cleaned it so it could be used to kill his brother. It takes all of Dean's willpower to stop himself from completely losing it right then and there.
"NO!" Dean fires off a round from his shotgun, the salt loaded bullet hits the ghost who instantly evaporates with a deafening bellow in a flare of sparks and wildly twisting spirals of ethereal mist.
Dean tears across the kitchen, keeping his shotgun pointed at the girl but she doesn't move, just stares at his brother with wide gaping eyes. Sam is sprawled out on his back; a hand pressing down against his side and Dean gently lifts his brother's shirt. He mops away blood with the cuff of his sleeve and can see that Sam has a fair sized chunk of his flesh missing from just below his ribcage. The bullet has taken a slice out of his brother but had it been another inch to the left, Dean has no doubts that Sam wouldn't be breathing.
Sam's eyes are squeezed tight in pain and Dean takes off his outer shirt, tying it in a makeshift bandage around Sam's middle and trying not to flinch when Sam hisses and digs his fingers into the skin of Dean's forearm. "You stupid bastard. Of all the brainless, goddamn, irresponsible..."
"Jess." Sam mutters and that shuts Dean up fast.
Dean looks over at the girl, who's still standing watching them, as though Sam leaking blood all over the floor is some obscure Cirque de Soleil act. She's plainly not Jess but the similarities are clear to him and must have been as obvious as a slap in the face for his still grieving brother.
"Come on, we're getting you out of here."
"We have to help her."
"She's dead, Sam, she's a little past the point of help."
"She was trapped; he's been keeping her here. I think...maybe, making her relive her murder."
"Who's been keeping her here? Are you telling me that dude covered in blood was her boyfriend? Her killer?" None of this is making sense; Dean sighs heavily, exasperated and worn-out and downright loathing the sight of Sam's blood on his hands. "I don't understand, you said her boyfriend was in prison. Shouldn't he be busy being some homeboy's bitch by now?" But then it clicks and Dean remembers thinking he caught a glimpse of a sliced wrist on the male ghost. "I don't believe it...he's dead, her boyfriend. He's killed himself and now he's making her suffer all over again. Damn it."
"But we've broken the loop. I think she might be free now, we just need to point her in the right direction."
"Sammy..." Dean begins but Sam's eyes are glassy, pain-filled and Dean seriously needs to go out and do something manly when all this is over because his kid brother has got him so whipped right now. "Okay, all right, just quit looking at me like that."
Dean stands up and walks towards the girl, holding out his hands, showing her he's unarmed. "Listen, you should move on...go towards the light...or, you know, whatever." He waves a hand, like he's trying to shoo away a stray mutt that has been begging for table scraps.
The girl's eyes fill with tears, and she swivels her head as though searching for someone. Much to Dean's surprise there is a light, which seems to pulse around her, as it grows stronger. It's brilliant white, beautiful and so dazzling Dean has to scrunch his eyes closed. The girl is gone when he opens them again.
Dean trundles inside the motel room and shoves the door closed behind him. He's sweaty and itching to get out of his dirty clothes. New graves are particularly gross. As is the sight of a fresh corpse, which has started to become bloated in what is one of many lovely decomposition stages...and the smell...Dean will never again complain about the pansy flowery shit his brother practically bathes himself in after he's finished shaving.
Dean sits down on the edge of Sam's bed and starts rubbing at his stubbled chin in a way which immediately signals to Sam that his brother's got something to say which he's having trouble getting out. "So, we going to talk about it?" Dean manages finally.
"I wanted to save her; I didn't want her to suffer anymore. It's as simple as that."
"That's pretty damn far from simple Sammy. You can't go pulling stunts like that. I know how you felt about Jess."
"How I felt? What about how I still feel? How I'll always feel. Jess was murdered Dean, I didn't stop loving her just because she died." Sam sinks back against his pillow, his breathing coming in harsh pants.
"Getting yourself killed isn't going to bring her back."
"I know that, okay? I know." Sam is wearing that same sad, resigned, expression on his face which makes Dean's gut twist.
Yet Dean knows that in true Winchester fashion they've mended things for now. A patch-up job made with denial, avoidance and strong emotions conveyed by shared looks not spoken words. "You want something to eat?" Dean asks, changing the subject with the sudden desire to find words which will stop his brother from looking like that.
"You offering to fetch take out?"
"Yeah, after I've showered all the dead guy gunk off me. You can choose too, just not McDonalds."
"What about soy burgers? There's meant to be a great organic vegan place near here."
Dean raises an eyebrow. "When I said choose, I meant food, as in something we can actually eat. Anyway, that's still a burger...kind of, I guess, isn't it?"
Sam sits up with a wince, careful not to jostle his heavily bandaged side. "I don't believe it; you've actually sworn off hamburgers? Maybe I should get shot in a few other fast food joints and we'd have your cholesterol levels down in no time."
Dean snorts and starts peeling off his jeans. "My cholesterol is just fine." Dean pulls off his t-shirt and prods at his stomach. "See, Sammy, all muscle and anyway I think I saw a Pizza Hut on the way into town."
Sam wants to complain about how he's forgotten what food not dripping in grease tastes like but his side aches, he's tired and a pizza does sound good so he nods his head. Dean gets up and wanders into the bathroom and even with the door closed Sam can still hear his big brother's voice over the sound of running water.
"If you're lucky, I might even fetch you a veggie pizza…Freak."