Sam dropped back down into the water after Steve, taking one end of the rope with him while Dean held onto the other. Between the brothers, they got the semi-conscious mine-owner hauled out of the flooded drift and on dry ground. Then it was Sam's turn, and he was soon standing in the near darkness of the Forty-Eight, lit only by Dean's flashlight, bloodied fingers trembling as he loosened the knot on the noose and let the sodden rope fall to his feet in a growing puddle.
He was soaked and exhausted, head pounding, flesh abraded in more places than he had sense left to count, and he staggered against the uneven granite floor. Dean grabbed at him quickly as Sam's balance faltered, and for a few seconds Sam was leaning into his big brother's embrace, his own arms flung around Dean's sturdy shoulders, his eyes closing tight with relief.
"Gotcha, Sammy," Dean murmured, holding his little brother securely for just a moment before releasing him, shifting his grip to the nape of Sam's neck, pulling him gently forward a couple of steps. "C'mon, get away from the edge of that thing. You okay?"
Sam breathed a short laugh. "Yeah, I think so. What about you?"
"I'm good. Hey—so, Clancy?"
""Yeah. What'd we miss?"
"Teeth in the museum."
"Tell me about it. Steve, c'mon, man—we're getting out of here."
Dean stuffed the wet rope back into the duffel he was carrying, and then the Winchesters hoisted the mine-owner to his feet and propped him between them, his arms over the brothers' shoulders.
It was an arduous trek back up the tunnel, Steve stumbling frequently and Dean not much better off. Sam either, for that matter, so mostly they concentrated on moving forward without falling. Finally, though, they could see the glow of the carbon lamps in the Thirty-Six, hear the generator's growl, and Steve whimpered with exhausted elation.
"I don't know, Sam," Dean was saying as they entered the upper drift. "Holy water against a ghost?"
"I've never read or heard anything about it, either, but it might be worth looking into," Sam countered. "Hey, wait, Dean—wait. We've got to re-set the wards here; something happened with them, and they didn't work. What's in the bag?"
Dean shrugged tiredly. "Kitchen sink."
They dumped Steve down in a heap beside the tunnel entrance before Sam took the duffel from his brother's shoulder and unzipped it, quickly pawing past the rope and the camp-shovel, the guns and the—
Sam held the single red stick aloft, his eyebrows climbing.
"I didn't know what I'd need," the older man replied, his tone defensively innocent.
"Oh, here." Sam tossed over a piece of thick white chalk. "I think the lines just weren't thick enough. Re-mark the sigils, wouldja? One here, and one over there. I'll get the other two. Hey, Dean?"
"Erica was okay?"
"Grace was with her. So, just draw over what you've already got here, right? This isn't from Dad's journal—where'd you get this, Sammy? Bobby show you? Looks kinda like a Kabbalah pentagram, except for whatever this little dog-thing is down here on the left…"
Sam never even noticed that his question had gone unanswered.
-:- -:- -:-
Steve was almost incoherent from cold and exhaustion when they hauled him out of the mine collar between them, Dean limping very badly by this time, Grace and Erica waiting for them there in the gravel yard. Grace hurriedly grabbed a tatty quilt from the back of her little SUV to drape warmly around Steve, while Dean propped Sam against the hood of the Impala and found an old blanket from the trunk. Sam was still pretty wet, but he pulled away from Dean's ministrations clumsily to approach Erica, who stood aloof, watching with dark, sullen eyes.
"Erica," Sam said, voice tight with concern, "are you okay?"
She shied instantly, making it abundantly clear that she wanted nothing more to do with any of it; wanted nothing more than to get out of Rattlesnake and never think about it or the North Cedar Mine or ghosts or Sam Winchester ever again. She was trembling again so hard she could barely open the door of her truck, wrenching away when Sam tried to help her.
"Erica, please—you shouldn't be alone," he pleaded with her. "Stay here tonight, in the hotel. I promise you, you'll be safe, and things will look better in the morning."
"You knew about it!" she spat acidly, turning on him, glowering venomously. "You knew about that—that thing, somehow. You let me go down there, and you never said a word!"
"Erica, I'm sorry! I—" Sam gaped helplessly at her, floored by the hatefulness in her voice. "I swear I didn't know that anythi—"
She was crying, now, her voice guttural with anger and fear, her face contorting with growing rage. "I've never been through anything like that in my entire life! How'm I going to be able to…my God, my job! How can I—I don't—everything I've prepared for! Is it over? I was scared, Sam—so fucking scared! My hands were shaking so bad—look, they still are!—I couldn't…I couldn't…. Oh, my God, the mine! What if I can't ever go back into a—fuck! It's all I've ever wanted, and now? Now you've ruined it all!"
She hurled his cell phone at his chest, Sam trapping it almost unconsciously with one quick hand as it bounced off him, reaching out to her with the other.
"Erica, no—no, don't say that! Please, I can explain, and things'll look different in the morning. I promise."
He knew as he spoke them that the words were hollow, meaningless, but he had nothing better to offer. It was clear that she knew, too.
Mouth ugly with emotion, Erica glared at him for a long and horrible moment, eyes wet and raw, her voice dropping with bitter contempt. "Get away from me, Sam. Don't you ever come near me again."
Then she shrank from him until Grace finally stepped in and put a protective arm around her shoulders.
How had it all gone so wrong so fast?
Sam turned in silent entreaty to his brother, stunned. Dean's lips thinned as he met Sam's eyes, shook his head slightly, sorrowfully. They weren't going to win this one.
"Do you want me to drive you home, Erica?" Grace asked gently. "Will you be all right there?"
"All right?" Erica hissed. "Tell me how I can be all right."
Grace prized the key out of her hand and steered her around to the other side of the Yukon, helping her settle into the passenger seat. When she was clear, Erica reached out and slammed the door shut, locking it immediately.
"Why's she blaming you?" Steve Hartson asked testily, teeth chattering although it was not cold. He was having his own difficulty dealing with the afternoon's events—feeling a little odd, almost drunk—but the state inspector's vehement reaction was shocking. "It's not like you made Clancy try to kill us. Hell, Sam, you saved my life!"
Sam blinked, slow to shake off his astonishment. But he got it. Really, he did.
"She's afraid and angry, Steve. She doesn't understand what happened, and if she can rationalize it somehow by thinking I'm responsible, if that helps her cope, then…I guess I'm okay with that."
If they'd just gotten Clancy the first time….
"Junjei, can someone please follow us to Erica's place and give me a ride back home?" Grace asked Dean, her voice soft. "I don't think it should be Sam."
Sam looked down at his sodden, torn clothing and made a face. "No, I'll do it. I need to see that she's all—"
Grace cut him off. "Sam. Erica's afraid of what has happened tonight, and it all revolves around you. It will upset her more if she knows that you're following, and that you know where she lives."
He ducked his head, feeling his cheeks burn as blood rushed to them, and Grace understood instantly.
"Oh," she murmured so that only he could hear. "Sam, I'm sorry. You're not to blame."
Sam felt Dean's eyes on him still, and looked up to see his brother offering tacit sympathy and regrets. Again. Sam grimaced, turning away briefly.
Chalk another one up for Sam Winchester, major loser.
But that wasn't right, and he knew it. He caught Dean's eyes again, needing the backup, grateful that Dean, as always, came through in spades, offering Sam the solid moral support the younger man had known he would find in his brother's quiet gaze. Support, and a silent appeal that Sam forgive himself, because nothing he could have done would have made things any different.
"No," Sam said finally, accepting that things were what they were. "No one's to blame."
Still, it felt like a lie.
For a moment, then, it looked like Steve would be the one who followed the women to Erica's house, but no sooner had the decision been reached than the mine-owner's eyes rolled into the back of his head and he slumped to the ground in a dead faint. The delayed reaction only lasted a few moments before Steve was back on his feet, shaky and embarrassed, but it was clear that someone had to stay in Rattlesnake to keep an eye on him.
"Fuck!" Dean growled in aggravation. "Look, let me just—" He bent down to unlock the hinge on his brace, but Sam stopped him immediately.
"Dean, take Steve back to the hotel and get off that leg!" he ordered, brooking no disagreement, even when Erica leaned across the front seat of the GMC and honked the horn impatiently.
"Shall we go, then, Sam?" Grace asked, and Sam nodded, moving to the Impala as Grace got into the Yukon's driver's seat beside Erica.
"Be careful on the road, both of you!" Dean commanded over the sound of the engines turning over. Grace gave him a little wave, but Sam was staring straight ahead, grip fierce on the steering wheel.
Little brother, all wound up tighter than ever.
Dean watched them go, expressionless for a moment as the cars pulled away, then turned to Steve, who was still looking a bit wobbly. The hunter made a rapid assessment, then donned his best game-face.
"So, Steve-o," he said jovially. "Who's going to drive us back to town, Fainting Boy or the Gimp? My money's on the Gimp."
-:- -:- -:-
Sam parked the Impala out on the street, then walked quickly into the empty courtyard through the front gate just in time to see the two women enter Erica's second-floor apartment. Grace spotted him and gave him a wan smile, but if Erica had seen him, she gave no sign.
He thought he was probably lucky no one else saw him, either, because he was a mess. The knees of his jeans were torn out, skin there and at his elbows and forearms raw and bloodied, long hair slack and in his face from its dousing in the slimy groundwater of the North Cedar. He definitely didn't look like the type of guy you'd want to see hanging around your house or your building. Fortunately, nobody seemed to be coming or going in the apartment complex.
He spent the next hour mostly standing, sometimes pacing or sitting in one of the deck chairs by the pool, eyes pinned on the curtained windows of Erica's living room, where shadows occasionally passed.
His cell buzzed a few times—Dean, checking up on him—but he let the calls go unanswered.
Finally, the lights inside the apartment went out and Grace emerged, closing the door quietly behind her before heading along the walkway and down the stairs, Sam standing anxiously as she joined him.
"Will she talk to me?" he asked at once, although he already knew the answer, unsurprised when Grace shook her head. "I could apologize—"
"She's not ready, Sam. I think she knows you're not to blame, but she's having a hard time coming to terms with what she experienced today. It might take her a very long time to get over it."
Sam nodded eagerly. "Right, and I think I could help her! I could explain—"
Grace put a hand on his arm.
For a long moment, Sam could think of nothing more to say. He looked up again at the dark apartment, then to the dark sky overhead, huffing a mirthless laugh.
"What about the inspection report?" he asked finally, his voice flat and hopeless. "What's going to happen to the North Cedar?"
Grace sighed, shrugging her shoulders eloquently. "I think the best Steve can hope for is that Erica's paperwork gets lost. He can schedule another inspection later. I told her I would call her in the morning—we can talk about it then."
It was almost more than he could take to see the sympathy in her eyes, and Sam clenched his jaw before another laugh forced itself from him.
"She wasn't even supposed to be down in the Forty-Eight. And Clancy? He was supposed to be gone."
"I know, Sam, and I'm so, so sorry."
The trip back to Rattlesnake was silent except for the deep rumble of the Impala's mighty engine.
-:- -:- -:-
Basically, the plan was to get Steve drunk. At least enough to get him past the shakes and the terror, let him sleep, get a fresh take on things in the morning.
Dean had figured it would take maybe a bottle, maybe a little less, to take care of business, but four shots of Scotch had Steve listing seriously to starboard on the lobby couch, while Dean found some extra blankets for him and got the gas fireplace going.
Steve had been nervous, at first, to be left anywhere on his own, but his clothes were still damp and no way in hell Dean was gonna babysit him in the shower so he could warm up. Wouldn't fit into either of the Winchesters' clothes, anyway, so blankets and a fire it was, not to mention the whiskey.
Right now, the mine-owner had a shot in one hand and his head in the other, elbow propped sloppily on the arm of the couch.
"Y'ever heard of anything like this before?" he asked.
"I mean, somebody wanting revenge so bad he'd come back from the dead and go after innocent people, years later."
Dean cleared his throat, sitting back in an easy chair and stretching his aching leg out straight in front of him, his boot up on the reproduction coffee table.
"Well, yeah. That's kind of what they do, some ghosts. They start mad, and then the mad just doesn't go away, you know? It lingers"—the word sounded strange in his mouth, and Dean paused, reaching for the whiskey bottle—"and sometimes it gets worse. Doesn't matter who they hurt, mostly; they just wanna hurt somebody, innocent or not."
"I dunno, Dean." Steve's words were beginning to slur, and he had one eye half-closed as he waved his shot-glass at the room at large. "This guy was holdin' a grudge against me, jus' 'cause I'm a Hartson. Like he was a…a fam'ly curse, or somethin'."
Damned if Steve didn't giggle, then, although he was scowling mightily, drawing himself up straight on the couch with a sharp belch.
"'A plague on both your houses!'" he called out in a stentorian voice, and Dean leaned forward sharply, patting the air between them with one hand, glancing quickly around the lobby and parlor.
"Heyheyhey! Steve! Don't do that!"
"'S a curse," Steve replied blandly as he relaxed, finally landing his empty glass on the table and pulling his blankets closer around him.
"Yeah, I know it's a curse, and I also know the trouble you managed to raise down in your mine without hardly tryin'. God knows what you might raise around here. Remember what I said about bein' careful who you drink with?"
"I am drinking," Steve said very precisely, nailing every syllable, "with you. Anyway, you an' your brother…you know a lot about things like what happened in the mine, with that ghost an' me."
It was not a question, and Dean couldn't deny it.
"Yeah, sure—there are a few kinds of spirits that latch on to a family, and sometimes it's ghosts. Thing is, you don't have to worry about this one, anymore, all right? Clancy's gone, for good."
"Thanks to you and Sam. Hey. Hey, Dean. Seriously, you guys really saved my bacon, an' I owe you. You guys sure as hell know your business. Guess you've had some practice, huh?"
Dean took a long, slow pull on the bottle, feeling the whiskey burn its way down his throat and into his belly, thinking about curses, about families. About the Hartsons, and the Markhams. The Chins.
(he said that I might have to kill you, Sammy)
"Everybody's family is a little cursed, Steve," Dean said finally, staring into the fire. "Me and Sam, we just know how to deal with it."
-:- -:- -:-
After Steve finally passed out, cozy in front of the fire, Dean tried Sam on his cell again, but this time the call didn't even go through.
He knew Sam was hurting, not just because of his encounter with Bull Clancy, or climbing up and down that damn hole at the bottom of the North Cedar Mine. No, truth was, the biggest damage to Sammy today was to his ridiculously enormous heart, because of that girl, Erica. Sam would blame himself for everything--for not ending Clancy at the cemetery, for Steve taking the mine inspector down past where she really needed to go, for...aw, hell, for everything. The big mook would take all her oaths and glares and tears to heart, and somehow convince himself that he'd been the cause of them all.
As far as Dean was concerned, in the greater scheme of things? His little brother had been a big damn hero today. Par for the course for a Winchester, sure, but a hero nonetheless. And that chick just needed to get a grip.
'Cept none of that would help Sammy, so the next plan was to get him out of town and focused on somethin' else just as soon as possible....
Dean struggled up out of the chair and limped tiredly down the hall, letting himself into the suite and yawning widely as he rounded the foot of his bed, headed for the phone-charger on the nightstand.
The prescription bottle of oxycodone sat there also, but Dean ignored it, although his knee was aching like a sonofabitch. He wanted to stay sharp until Sam was back home and everything was all right. Even then, they had some more work to do.
He plugged his cell into the power unit, then rummaged under the other bed and found Sam's duffel, unzipping it and easily finding the worn, familiar leather of their dad's journal stashed at the bottom. It felt warm in his hands, and he opened it with a snap, dumping Sam's duffel to the floor and sinking down onto his own bed, swiveling his legs up onto the quilted coverlet and fidgeting until his back rested against the pillows and the headboard.
The brace came off quickly and Dean thought for a moment about icing his knee, but he was just too tired to get up again. Instead, he settled back and began leafing through the copious arcane notes of supernatural lore that John Winchester had passed on to his sons as his legacy. If there wasn't an entry about ghosts being allergic to holy water, then Dean would make his own notes, back in the section where Sam had started to add to their father's handwritten estate.
He must have dozed off, because his entire body jerked suddenly and he gasped aloud, the journal falling from his lap to the floor. Dean blinked dazedly around the empty room, then rubbed a hand into his eyes to clear the sleep from them. A quick look at his watch showed him it was almost one-thirty in the morning.
Still no Sam.
He turned to the nightstand, swinging his left leg over the side of the bed, leaving his bum knee stretched out straight on the coverlet as he pulled his phone from the charger. It rang in his hand, and he opened it quickly.
Five minutes later, there wasn't anything more to say, and Dean ended the call, closing his cell slowly, a line of sad thought etched between his brows. Then his frown deepened, eyes on the phone's front display. The charge indicator was changing as he watched, showing power draining away like beer from an overturned bottle. In seconds, the battery was dead.
Then the room went cold, lights flickering, and Dean stood hastily as Agnes Markham appeared once again beside his bed near the door, in the same place she had shown herself to him just two nights earlier.
She looked exactly as she had before, wearing the red dressing gown that displayed her cleavage, hair framing her face in shiny, dark tendrils as she stood quivering with outrage and grief, eyes flashing as she cursed bitterly. This time, every acid-laced word was audible.
"You miserable, whoring, pathetic excuse for a man!"
Thing was, whoever she was looking at, whoever was the target for the stream of vile epithets she spat, it sure as hell didn't seem to be Dean…
Even when he moved around the foot of his bed, her eyes didn't track him, and Dean knew for certain then that she was residual energy—well, he was pretty sure, anyway, even if it meant that Sam had been right, and that Dean had fainted the first time she'd shown up.
But if this was residual energy he was seeing and hearing, then why the temperature drop? Why the flickering lights?
"I hope you rot in hell, you lying, weak-willed, cheating son of a whore!" Agnes raged, delivering her tirade to a spot just to Dean's left.
Night before last, he'd been certain she had stabbed him. 'Course, he'd been certain she was Delilah Reardon, too, instead of JT Markham's lovely little mass-murdering turtle dove of a wife.
No. Dean had been wrong or slow about too many things on this job already, and damned if he wasn't going to figure this thing out once and for all by giving ol' Agnes the ultimate acid test.
With that, he stepped in front of her, positioning himself exactly so that the venom she spewed was aimed directly at him, her eyes glaring savagely straight into his. Oh, if he was wrong about this, Sammy was going to be really pissed…
This time he knew the knife was in her hand, hidden by the folds of her skirt, and this time he heard every syllable of the words she hurled.
"Give me back my daughter!" Agnes shrieked, overcome with the insanity of grief and betrayal as she confronted the man who stood in her philandering husband's place. "I want my daughter! Katie Kaheny was your own child, James Markham—your daughter with that slut—and I killed her! Now it's your turn to die!"
"Go ahead, darlin'," Dean murmured, standing tall and taking a deep, sharp breath. "You're no different from all the rest."
He thought he was prepared, but Dean's eyes still widened as she raised the knife to drive it into his heart once again.
-:- -:- -:-
In the light of a waning moon just past full, Sam unlocked the front door of The Baron Hotel and slipped quietly into the front lobby.
He had taken Grace back to the North Cedar so she could get her car, then followed her home to make sure she arrived safely. She lived out of town on a narrow, winding road, so it had taken a while to get there.
Then, after he'd seen her inside, Sam had just sat in the Impala for a while, thinking.
About nothing, really, thoughts circling in his head without landing anywhere, like seabirds far from shore, with nowhere to roost. All he knew was that he was left feeling kind of hopeless, kind of sorry for himself, and incredibly beat.
Now, it was just past two o'clock in the morning.
The lamp on the registration desk was on, and Steve Hartson was snoring lustily from the couch in front of the fireplace. The shot-glass and mostly-empty whiskey bottle on the coffee table nearby indicated that the mine-owner probably wasn't feeling any pain.
"Dean?" Sam called softly, but there was no sign of his brother in either the lobby or the parlor other than a second shot-glass sitting beside the lamp on the front desk. It, too, was mostly empty.
"Wuzza?!" Steve shouted suddenly, floundering up from sleep, staring wildly at Sam with his hair askew. "Who's there?!"
"Hey, Steve, take it easy! It's just me—it's Sam!"
Steve belched once, tiny, then belched again, deeper, from the diaphragm.
"Yeah, it's me. Where's Dean?"
"Went to bed."
With that, the mine-owner lay back down on the couch and was snoring again in seconds.
Sam quirked a grin, shaking his head, then shuffled down the hallway, his smile falling away almost instantly.
Tell me how I can be all right…
Dean was in the bathroom, and poked his head out immediately when Sam let himself into their suite.
"Hey," the older man said through a mouthful of toothpaste, measuring his brother quickly, lips tightening briefly around his toothbrush as Sam's sorrow filled the room.
"Erica okay?" Dean asked, trying for casual, already knowing the answer to his real question.
"Yeah. I guess," Sam replied, shrugging out of his jacket and throwing it negligently over the arm of the settee. He really didn't feel like talking; wanted more than anything just to sink into sleep, forget this day had ever happened, but he'd known Dean would be concerned.
"Grace seems nice," he offered benignly, sitting in a chair at the dining table and working to get his shoes off. He was so tired, the task was almost beyond him, and he stopped after getting the laces untied.
"She got home okay." It wasn't a question, but Dean wasn't sure Sam had really even heard him. The younger Winchester sat unmoving, shoulders hunched, gaze pinned on some point near the floor.
After another moment spent waiting, Dean rolled his eyes and threw his toothbrush down on the sink-counter, spitting and rinsing quickly. He'd left the brace off, and now he limped cautiously to the dining table, easing himself into the chair across from his brother.
"Hey, you want a beer?"
Other than a slight shake of Sam's tousled head, there was no response, and Dean sniffed, scratching at the back of his neck before trying another tack.
"So, when the Markhams get back from their cruise, you think we should tell them that Mitch's old aunt Aggie was a mass murderer?" he asked, his tone light.
That got through a little. Sam blinked, horizontal lines appearing on his forehead.
"Yeah. Seems that, after her daughter died, Agnes Markham killed another little girl and blamed the murder on a Chinese opium dealer, who got hanged for it. Started a race riot. Then Agnes stabbed her own husband right in this room, and told everybody that Delilah Reardon had done it. Delilah—who, by the way, was the second little dead girl's mother—anyway, she spent the rest of her life in prison for a crime she didn't commit."
Sam blinked again, his gaze finally tracking up and over to where Dean sat opposite him.
"What?" he repeated, using a little more energy this time, and Dean snorted a laugh.
"Turns out JT and Delilah had known one another back in the day—and I do mean they'd known one another, in the Biblical sense—and had a daughter together, named Katie. Eventually they all came west and ended up in Rattlesnake, in this hotel. When Agnes lost her own daughter, then found out that Katie was JT's kid, she kinda freaked. I don't know, maybe she wasn't even all there to begin with. Left a lot of blood in her wake, anyway."
Sam's gaze had sharpened considerably, and his lips had tightened into a thin line.
"Dean, you know this how, exactly?"
Dean raised his eyebrows innocently. "It's nothing to worry about, Sammy. I'll fill you in on the details later. Important thing is, one kid and the Chinese guy have moved on, I think, now that we know who the real killer is. Was? Whatever. You were right, by the way, about Agnes being residual."
Sam's eyes narrowed and he rolled a hand, so Dean kept talking.
"I thought it was Delilah who stabbed me, at first, because of the story, you know, and because they look so much alike, but it was definitely Agnes. Ol' gal showed up again tonight with her knife; went through the exact same routine. I just happened to be standing in the sweet-spot that first time—tonight, I wasn't, and she never batted an eye. Just did her Norman Bates thing, slashing away at nothing."
So what if there were parts of the story he was leaving out. Sammy'd never know, and what were a few little secrets between brothers?
"How come we didn't know our own room was haunted?" Sam asked, more than a little vexed, and his brother scoffed.
"Because Psychic Wonder-Boy was never here!" Dean said, spreading his arms wide, relieved at the change of topics. "Sam, you've spent this whole gig either down in that mine or chasing some tai—uh, talking with your old school buddy, and I've been zoned on fucking painkillers half the time. I shoulda known, 'cause it happened to Dad once back in--I don't know, Ohio, I think, and I caught all kinds of hell for it--but it took me until tonight to figure out that the EMF meter just wasn't gettin' any juice. Man, we've been playing with so many major friggin' spirits in this town—I mean, think about it. Bull Clancy, Quon-Jin, Aggie Markham, even little Katie—they were all working some heavy-duty mojo, and they drained every battery we had, even the new ones."
The younger man nodded thoughtfully. "Yeah, I had the meter with me in the mine that first morning—I think it went off when the ghost mule showed up and that's about it. But I put fresh batteries in."
"Oh, I did, too, more than once. Didn't matter."
"Wow." Sam stared vacantly at nothing in particular across the room. "Think we're slipping?"
"Hell no. We're alive, aren't we? The ghosts are toast, but everybody else survived. Thing is, though, we'd be smart to stop relying so much on equipment and start engaging our thinkers a little more."
Dean tapped a finger against his temple, but he'd lost Sam's attention again. He surveyed the marks on his brother's face and hands and knees critically, deeming them survivable, then ducking his head a little to check the younger man's downcast eyes. Aw, hell. Looked like they still had a long night ahead of them…
"Anyway," he concluded, "before you get too settled, we've got some digging to do before daylight. A killer, a kid, and a Gold Rush pop-star out at the Founders Cemetery, plus a queue at the Chinese temple down the street."
Sam frowned slightly, like he was trying to decide whether he smelled something bad.
"We have to dig up a pool cue," he said in flat disbelief, and Dean chuffed.
"Dude. No. Like a, you know, a mullet for old Chinese guys." He waggled a couple of fingers vaguely toward the back of his neck, but Sam still didn't seem to be tracking. Wasn't looking, anyhow. "We probably don't really have to, Sammy, but we might as well make sure Katie and Quon-Jin don't come back, or the Markhams, either. Then, I figure we do a generic cleansing ritual here at the hotel tomorrow morning, and that should take care of it."
"Melanie said she wanted ghosts."
"Yeah, well, she can't have these."
Sam came suddenly to life, scrubbing a hand over his face in unexpected vexation and meeting his brother's eyes across the table. "Wait—Agnes's daughter? I thought the Markhams didn't have any chi—Dean, could we just set the record straight, here? Since we got to Rattlesnake, you've pulled me out of a mine-shaft, been attacked by a psycho Casper, dispelled three ghosts and trashed a museum."
Dean had been looking pretty pleased, but at that last, he sobered. "Grace mentioned that, huh? C'mon, Sam. I needed those teeth."
"My point, Dean," Sam continued, his patience stretched to the limit, "is that you were supposed to be giving your knee a chance to heal."
"Hey, have I been driving my car? Did I even once get to see the real inside of the mine? Well, at the very end, yeah, but that wasn't my fault, plus it's not like I had much chance to look around. And I gotta point out, Sammy, that it was your idea to come to Rattlesnake in the first place."
Sam's snort of laughter was dry and mirthless. "Yeah. And that worked out great, didn't it?"
"For some," Dean acquiesced instantly.
"Not for Steve."
"You saved his life, Sam. And you don't know that things aren't going to work out for him with the mine. There was ever a guy who could find the silver lining, he's it. Clancy's gone, now, and Erica already wrote the state inspection report, right? She's not gonna go back and change it—she's not gonna touch this place or anything to do with it ever again."
His brother had a point, Sam had to admit. Still, there was an awful lot about Rattlesnake that felt like defeat.
"I liked her," he said quietly after a moment, and Dean dropped his eyes.
"I know you did. I'm sorry."
The younger man smiled sadly. "She was smart and funny, and we hit it off pretty well, you know? I kind of felt like I might be ready."
Dean looked up at him through thick lashes, and Sam heard the unspoken question clearly.
"Ready to move on," he explained, eyes pinned now to a spot on the table between them. "After all this time, I thought it might be time. You know, time to get past the past with Jessica and get on with my life."
He took in a deep breath; let it out on a gusting, humorless laugh. "Guess I was wrong. Good thing, too, because Erica sure hates me now."
Whatever Sam had felt for Erica, Dean was pretty sure she'd just been the warm-up, turning up the flames under the pressure-cooker. When Sam truly fell, finally let go…
"Mount St. Helens," Dean murmured.
Jesus, this kid was hard work.
Dean's tone was earnest as he thumped a forefinger against the table-top, making sure he had his brother's attention. "Sam, none of what happened to Erica was your fault. You know that, right? Bull Clancy should've been gone, and Steve told me she's the one who asked him to take her that far down into the mine in the first place. But, man, the real thing is that she just wasn't right for you. If she had been, then tonight would've gone a helluva lot differently. Yeah, she's bright and you liked hanging out with her. But then, what happened, happened, and she couldn't deal. That's not the kind of woman for you, man. And you can't just rush these things—you know that, Sammy. Not the real ones, anyway. When the time's right, and when the girl's right, then it's gonna go a lot different for you, I swear. You'll get there. Soon."
The younger Winchester shook his head, still refusing to meet his brother's eyes. "I don't know, man. Maybe."
"No 'maybe' about it, trust me on this. And in the meantime? You got enough things trying to beat up on you without you doing it to yourself, so go easy, okay? Cut yourself some slack."
Sam twitched a skeptical half-smile, but Dean could see he was coming around, especially when the smile turned sheepish and Sam looked up, at last catching his brother's gaze.
"Yeah. Okay. Hey, Dean—" Sam reddened slightly. "Um…."
Dean waved a dismissive hand, scoffing magnanimously. "Dude. I'm the oldest. Where else you gonna learn this stuff?"
Sam's dimples deepened, smile stretching across his face. Now, Dean thought. Now the smile was genuine. Good work, Winchester.
"Come on," he said, jerking his head toward the door. "We've got some graves and a temple to desecrate tonight."
"'We'?" Sam responded wryly. "I'll be doing the digging, man—you're not even getting out of the car. You can just boss me around from the back seat."
All innocence, Dean slapped a hand against his right thigh. Ouch. "Knee's fine, Sam. You're the one who's been doin' all the heavy lifting, this gig. I've just been sittin' around on my ass, tryin' to heal."
As he rose from the table, Sam's laugh had a bit more strength to it. "Yeah, tell me about it. So, we dig up the cemetery, and then what? We're gonna stay 'til next Thursday when the Markhams get back, right?"
Dean shrugged, putting the lines back above his brother's brows. "I think we're pretty much done with Rattlesnake, don't you?"
"Dean. What about, you know—Grace?"
There was no need to tell Sammy that Grace had called just after she got home; had told Dean that Sam was all right, but hurting. He'd thanked her, and she'd thanked him, and before they'd said goodnight, they'd both realized that what they were really saying was goodbye.
"I'm thinking about how I might prove that Quon-Jin and Delilah Reardon were innocent," she had said. "I mean, after all these years…."
Dean had chuckled. "Not like you're going to find any eye-witnesses, right? I don't know, Grace. You know the truth, now, and I'm not sure there's anybody left who's hurtin' because the town history's got it wrong. Honestly, sometimes what's dead should just stay dead."
There had been a brief pause then, and when Grace had finally asked, "What if it's something just being born?" Dean had known that she meant them.The two of them, at the beginning of something that maybe had possibilities, maybe had a future.
It was just that this thing with Sam, whatever it was, that's what Dean had to devote himself to right now. To Sam, and keeping him safe. Until Yellow-Eyes was sent to Hell for good, until this goddamned Winchester darkness was truly and finally over, Dean's focus had to be on his family. What little was left of it, anyway.
Because his family was Sam, and Sam was the most important thing of all.
"I'm sorry, Grace," he'd said, and part of him had meant it, and part of him hadn't. "It's just that right now—well, I'm sorta lookin' after my brother right now. We lost our dad not too long ago, and Sam…well, Sammy's kind of a special case, and I've got to watch out for him."
"Ohhh." There was sudden realization in the single word, as if she'd heard nothing of what he'd said and yet understood everything clearly now. "It's about what you do, isn't it, Dean? Your duty to your brother, what happened today at the joss house, what happened today at the mine—they're all connected somehow, aren't they? They're like your job, or—no. Oh, Dean, no. It's more than that. They're like your life."
Her perception and empathy had shaken him, and this time the pause had been longer.
"Well…" he'd begun, and Grace had taken him off the hook with a sad little laugh.
"It's too bad you're not really with the Weather Service," she'd said quietly. "Then maybe we'd have had a chance."
"I'm sorry, Grace," he'd told her again. "I really am."
"Oh, Junjei. Of all people, I understand responsibility to your family. Really, I do. So, please—take care of your brother, and be well."
"Yeah. Yeah—you, too, Xiuying. You be well, too."
Now, lips pursed, the older man shrugged again. "Nice girl, great looking, but I'm good to go, Sammy."
Perplexed, Sam examined his brother for a moment, not quite sure what was happening.
"There's nothing wrong with taking a break and letting your knee mend, Dean," he said. "You need some time to really heal. What's going on with you?"
"Nothin'," his brother replied uncomfortably, looking away, voice rising in a way that surely meant there was something.
Sam frowned again, crossing his arms over his chest and standing imperviously. He wasn't going to move until he got an answer, and he knew Dean knew it.
"It's Grace," he said certainly, couching his concern with humor, knowing it was his only chance at dragging the truth from his equally stubborn brother. "Something happened with Grace, or didn't happen with Grace. She turned you down. No—she asked you to move in with her. She's pregnant and her father hates you. Oh, God, you've fallen in love with her, so you're running!"
Dean rolled his eyes. Freakin' emo little brother thinks he's a comedian. "Ha ha. It's not Grace. Like I said, she's a great girl, and I wouldn't have minded spending some more time with her, but—Sam, don't you think it's kind of weird?"
Sam's brows climbed his forehead.
Okay, that one was out of left field.
The younger Winchester sighed. It was definitely--well, probably--Grace, and Dean wasn't going to talk about it.
"What's weird, Dean?"
"Rattlesnake! This tiny little town, it's got nothin' goin' for it, nothin' goin' on—"
"Not any more," Sam cut in, and Dean gave him the point.
"Right, not any more. But all the people, man, the families—they're all the same! Dead people, living people—they've all hung out in Rattlesnake for, like, generations. It's like this place kinda sucks you in, and then just doesn't let you go. I mean, look at 'em all—the Hartsons, the Markhams, the Chins? Been here forever, and they're gonna stay here forever." Dean shook his head. "Rattlesnake's cursed, man, I'm tellin' you. People stayin' in one town for so long? It's just not natural."
"Dude, it's completely natural," Sam scoffed, reclaiming his seat. "There's nothing wrong with finding a place you really like and settling down there, Dean. A lot of people do that. A lot of people want that."
His brother shuddered dramatically. "It's just too permanent for me, man. I'd feel trapped—like all these people are trapped."
It was Sam's turn to shrug. "I don't think they see it that way. You and me—we just have a different perspective, is all."
"Yeah, well, my perspective says we get out of here in the morning, all right? Tonight we get the ritual done, dig up Katie and the Markhams and the pigtail; come daylight, we wash that friggin' yellow dust off my baby, and then we got three weeks to kill before we have to be anywhere. Me, I'd just as soon spend it on the road."
Brows furrowing, Sam shifted in his chair. "No! You need to see someone about your kn—wait. What? Where do we have to be in three weeks?"
"Bobby called right after you left the North Cedar, Sammy," Dean said at once, leaning forward eagerly and licking his lower lip, green eyes sparkling. "Said that last weekend, a hooker working the waterfront got killed and ended up in the bay. She's the latest of a handful in the past year or so. Any of this sounding familiar to you?"
Sam let his gaze wander while he thought. "San Francisco?" he said finally, hooked. "The missing hearts thing?"
"Yahtzee! After we pitched Bobby that maybe there was a pattern, he started lookin', too. Said another vic got ganked on Saturday. He thought, since we were already out here in Cali…"
Dean cocked his head, an enticing grin on his face, and Sam realized that it had been a while since he'd seen his brother so excited about a possible job, almost glowing as he gloated.
With a half-smile, Sam leaned forward, too. "And you think—"
"I think San Francisco might be looking at a werewolf, Sammy, and next full moon, you and me are going to hunt it down and kill it dead with a silver bullet to the heart. Trust me, little brother—this is just what the doctor ordered, for the both of us!"
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Thank you so much for reading "Rush." Comments are welcomed.
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A/N: I have apparently spent a ridiculously long time being perturbed by "Heart." Well, not "Heart," really, but by Sam and his whole head-over-heels plunge into--whatever. Lust or love, take your pick and I won't argue. Anyway, as far as I was concerned, Sammy's storyline in that ep lacked sufficient background, sufficient motivation. For some reason, it gnawed at me, that lack....
Then, last spring, toward the end of S3 with Dean's clock ticking down and his approaching death too horrific to even consider, I happened to visit the old family homestead in Gold Country. This required driving long stretches of Highway 49 for maybe the millionth or billionth time, and everything was coated in pollen as thick as I'd ever seen. I had Metallica on the iPod and Winchesters on the brain; somewhere along the road's snaky curves through the heart of the Mother Lode, inspiration came in a rush. (But, goodness, it's been a long time reaching fruition!)
Thank you so much, all of you who encouraged me with your supportive, constructive feedback, or who alerted me or this story, or who read some of my other work. I have really appreciated it very, very much. Here's to you, and here's to our boys!