The Third Wheel
by Destiny's Darkness
Disclaimer: See previous chapters for disclaimers.
Author's Note: So between classes and NaNoWriMo, I haven't had a whole lot of time to work on this. Still, I think it came out okay. It hasn't been checked over closely since before November, but I think it's in good shape, even with the weird P.o.V. focus thing I did toward the end that I should fix but I really like. If you see anything, let me know. I don't have a single word of the next chapter written yet, so unfortunately don't expect it any time soon. Enjoy!
Chapter Seven : Confronting Demons
Charlie and the Winchesters took a moment of silence to appreciate their surroundings, John's motel room in particular. Newspaper clippings, photos, and maps decorated every available wall and surface, with books and piles of papers stacked on the various tables. Charlie spun in a circle, taking it all in, as John gestured around and seated himself at the tiny desk.
"So," he finally spoke up, a careful eye on his boys as they studied his research, "this is it. This is everything I know. Look, our whole lives we've been searching for this demon, right?" Abruptly, the lone female realized the question and explanation was directed subtly toward her. "And not a trace, just nothing... until a year ago. For the first time, I picked up a trail."
"That's when you took off," Dean spoke up, clearly listening even as he read an article about cattle deaths.
"Yeah, that's right. The demon must have come out of hiding or hibernation."
"All right, so, what's this trail you found?"
John shifted in his chair, getting quickly down to business. "It started in Arizona, then New Jersey, California - houses burning to the ground. It's going after families... just like it went after us."
Sam spoke up. "Families with infants?"
"Yeah." John noticed Charlie had pulled out her spiral-bound notebook, jotting down notes. "The night of the kid's six-month birthday."
Sam reacted as though he'd gotten knife shoved into his gut. "I was six months old that night?"
"Exactly six months."
Charlie may not have known him since birth, but she'd spent enough time living with Sam to see the guilt wrapping around him. "So basically, this demon in goin' after these kids for some reason - the same way it came after me. So, Mom's death, Jessica - it's all 'cause of me?"
Dean had seen it coming as well. "We don't know that, Sam."
"Oh, really? 'Cause I'd say we're pretty damn sure, Dean."
"For the last time, what happened to them is not your fault."
"Yeah, you're right, it's not my fault, but it's my problem!"
John stopped the argument quickly. "Okay. That's enough." He stood in the momentary quiet, taking a few steps toward his younger son and eying his tortured expression. Dean sat on the bed next to Charlie, just close enough that their thighs were touching.
After a few seconds, Sam's posture loosened as he took a breath and released some of his frustration. "So, why is it doing this? What does it want?"
John sighed. "Look, I wish I had more answers. I do. I've always been one step behind it. Look, I've never gotten there in time to save..." He trailed off, offering Charlie her first glimpse of something other than the gruff and driven military man following some high calling's orders.
Before both of his family members could be lost to guilt, Dean spoke up. "All right, so, how do we find it before it hits again?"
"There's signs," John answered, giving himself a mental shake. "Look, it took me a while to see the pattern, but in the days before these fires, signs crop up in an area - cattle deaths, temperature fluctuations, electronic storms. And then I went back and checked, and..."
"These things happened in Lawrence."
John nodded, solemn face betraying no sign of the pride he felt at Dean's quick mind and ability to follow John's thought patterns. "The week before your mother died." He looked at Sam. "And in Palo Alto... before Jessica. And these signs - they're starting again."
"Well," Dean decided, climbing to his feet, "let's get on the road."
John's eyes focused on Charlie and back away quickly, but no one missed it.
"Dad," Dean began, but his father interrupted.
"I know she's been helpful in the past, but it's not a good idea for her to come with us."
"Well, we're not leaving her behind."
"Do you understand just how dangerous this is? This thing already killed your mother." He paused, giving the girl in question a long once-over. "And Charlie presents a lot of risk."
"Risk?" Dean parroted, stunned by the accusation. He took a few steps in his father's direction, unconsciously placing himself in front of the blonde.
The man was already tightly wound, but the protective movement caused his face to darken even further. Sam jumped in quickly. "Dad, I know you don't know her that well, but we do. Charlie can help, and she's smart enough to know when she's out of her league." Charlie stayed quiet, eyes wide, as they began arguing in earnest. She knew John Winchester didn't particularly care for her - the quick, suspicious glances she'd noticed told her that much - but she never considered the idea that he thought she was dangerous. When the voices began to grow louder, the fight building in intensity, she managed to find her voice. "Is there a middle ground?"
John bit off the sarcastic comment he was about to make regarding Dean's shaky judgement of a few particular women in the past, a comment he already knew he would regret, and faced the interloper. "Middle ground? Like what, leaving you tied up in a hotel room?"
"Well, not tied up," she began, wincing, knowing perfectly well that he had little to no interest in keeping her around. "But I could help out with research, and fetch food, and all kinds of menial tasks until we've figured out what's going on. Then you can put me on a bus to elsewhere."
He looked like he was considering the idea, despite his sons' displeasure, then scowled. "Fine. We'll figure out what to do with you when we get there."
The small caravan had just entered the limits of Salvation when the lead truck pulled off the side of the road, the Impala following closely behind. And as soon as both vehicles were stopped, John left his and slammed his door behind him.
"Damn it," he quietly swore, thoughts stuck on the just ended phone call, as the younger generation climbed out of their car.
"What it is?" Dean asked.
"Son of a bitch!"
"What is it?"
"I just got a call from Caleb."
"Is he okay?"
"He's fine. Jim Murphy is dead."
"Pastor Jim?" Sam spoke up, sounding younger than normal. "How?"
"Throat was slashed - he bled out." Both boys jerked slightly, stunned, and Dean instinctively reached a hand backward in search of Charlie's, squeezing tightly when she stepped forward to grab it and his father continued. "Caleb said they found traces of sulfur at Jim's place."
"The demon," Dean supplied, and he received a slight nod in response. "The demon?"
"I don't know. Could be he just got careless, he slipped up. Maybe the demon knows we're gettin' close."
"What do you want to do?"
"Now we act like every second counts. There's two hospitals and a health center in this county. We split up, we cover more ground. I want records. I want a list of ever infant that's gonna be six months old in the next week."
"Dad," Sam interrupted, "that could be dozens of kids. How the hell are we gonna know which one's the right one?"
"We'll check 'em all, that's how. You got any better ideas?"
Sam considered his options briefly before conceding, "No, sir."
The conversation was apparently over. The group moved to get back in their cars, but John simply stopped when he faced his truck. "Dad?" Dean called out.
He didn't respond for a moment, then turned to face them again. "Yeah... it's Jim. You know, I can't ..." He trailed off, openly pained by the death, and Dean pulled Charlie a little bit closer. She locked eyes across the car roof with Sam, his face troubled as well. "This ends. Now. I'm ending it. I don't care what it takes."
Dean paced, stalking back and forth in their new motel room as Charlie sorted through the copies of birth certificates they'd collected from the health center in addition to the ones John brought back from one of the hospitals. "Well, these four are out," she spoke up, dropping the papers in question into the trash can. "Three of them have moved out of town and the fourth died of birth defects at two months old."
The older man hefted an expressive eyebrow, rising from his own papers to look at the compiled list she was working on. He nodded in acknowledgement of her efforts, then changed the subject with an eye on his already anxious son. "So I was thinking you could go stay with Bobby when this all goes down. Sam could take you to the bus station when he gets back from the other hospital. It's only a few hours away, and he might even be able to figure out what's been plaguing you."
He'd spoken quietly to avoid attracting Dean's attention. Nonetheless, the younger man spun around and aimed a dirty look at his father. "No. She's not going anywhere. If the demon is aware that we're getting close, we're not leaving her defenseless and exposed in some bus station."
John looked annoyed, but Charlie spoke up before he could explode. "It's okay, Dean. I came up with the idea in the first place, after all, and you don't need me in your way when you all are going after this thing."
Clearly, Dean was not 'okay' with the idea. However, before he could argue the topic, Sam arrived, out of breath and clutching his head in pain.
"A vision?" John repeated, seated on the end of one of the double beds. Dean had taken the other bed's end, and they both watched as Charlie fussed over Sam where he sat at a table, massaging his temples for him and applying cold, wet cloths to his forehead.
"Yes," the younger son answered, resigned to the disbelief coming though still frustrated. "I saw the demon burning a woman on the ceiling."
"And you think it's gonna happen to this woman you met because...?"
"Because these things happen," he insisted, "exactly the way I see them."
"It started out as nightmares," Dean added, "and then he started havin' them when he was awake." He rose from his seat and moved to the little kitchenette on the other side of the room, keeping his worried focus on both Sam and Charlie. They'd managed to keep her in the dark about the visions to this point, and he couldn't really predict what her reaction would be once she finished tending to his brother.
"Yeah. It's like the closer I get to anything involving the demon, the stronger the visions get."
"All right," his father decided, accepting the knowledge for now as his sons' little friend crouched in front of his youngest's chair and began to work at the pressure points in his hands, "when were you gonna tell me about this?"
Dean's eyes widened at the vehemence in the question. "We didn't know what it meant."
"All right, something like this starts happening to your brother, you pick up the phone, and you call me."
The accusation set something off in Dean. "Call you? Are you kiddin' me? Dad, I called you from Lawrence, all right? Sam called you when I was dying." At that, Sam noticed Charlie's hands tighten on his own, her only visible reaction to that tidbit of information. "Gettin' you on the phone - I've got a better chance of winning the lottery."
John paused, the quiet tense as he considered his son's words. "You're right. Although I'm not real crazy about this new tone of yours, you're right. I'm sorry." He eyed the blond pest. "I suppose I can blame you for that."
"Dad!" Both brothers spoke up, the annoyed, warning tone in each voice making them hard to distinguish from each other.
He held up his hands defensively. "I was just joking." He wasn't, not entirely, but no one called him on it.
"Look, guys," Sam brought them all back on topic, "visions or no visions, the fact is, we know the demon is coming tonight. And this family's gonna go through the same hell we went through."
"No, they're not." John argued. "No one is, ever again."
At that moment, Sam's cell phone rang. He waited a moment, obviously debating about interrupting such an important conversation, but he knew it could be someone calling for help or with information. "Hello? ...Who is this?"
The person's response on the other end shocked him. "Meg. Last time I saw you, you fell out of a window." All three men stood together, just barely able to hear the old threat's voice coming through the earpiece.
"Yeah, thanks to you. That really hurt my feelings, by the way."
Charlie looked up at her protector, asking silently about what the strange female meant, but Dean only wrapped an arm around her waist and pulled him into his side, ignoring John's pointed glance. "Just your feelings?" Sam questioned. "That was a seven-story drop."
"Let me speak to your dad."
"My dad - I don't know where my dad is."
"It's time for the grownups to talk, Sam. Let me speak to him, now." There was a moment of reluctant indecision, then Sam allowed his father to take the phone from his fingers.
"This is John."
"Howdy, John. I'm Meg. I'm a friend of your boys. I'm also the one who watched Jim Murphy choke on his own blood." John looked pained at the bragging, as though fighting off tears, while Dean reacted by pulling Charlie in front of him and moving his arm from her waist to across the front of her shoulders, tugging her back against his chest. She couldn't quite tell if he was trying to protect her from the voice in the phone or if she was providing comfort for the words it spoke. "Still there, John boy?"
"Well, that was yesterday. Today, I'm in Lincoln... visiting another old friend of yours. He wants to say hi."
Another voice came through the speakers, scared but in control. "John, whatever they do, don't give - "
The new voice was cut off quickly, but it was enough for Dean's hold to tighten. "Caleb?" John replied. "Caleb. You listen to me. He's got nothing to do with anything. You let him go."
It was Meg's voice that answered. "We know you have the Colt, John."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Oh. Okay. So, listen to this." A cry rose and was cut off quickly, gagging following for a few moments before fading off.
"Caleb? Caleb!" Until John began to panic, Charlie hadn't quite understood what she was listening to. The realization that she'd just listened to a man die left her stunned. Just what had she gotten herself into? Yes, her tormentor's tricks had grown cruel and even dangerous, but this was death for the simple reason of making an impression, of making a point. This was something taken from the minds of Hollywood, and it should have stayed there.
If Dean had not been clutching her so tightly, she doubted her wobbling knees would have supported her. He swore under his breath, gripping her shoulders to turn her away from the middle of their circle and tucking her into his side where she hid her face in his chest. Fragments of thought darted about in her mind: accusations of stupidity and worst case scenarios swirling as she mentally retreated into herself. She was vaguely aware of the phone conversation continuing, of the nightmare on the other end demanding for John to bring them the Colt, the gun that they stole from the vampires and that could kill Mary Winchester's murderer, of threats and taunts and finally John agreeing to meet her along with the Colt to stop more of his friends from being slaughtered. When she felt Dean lowering her to sit on the bed, with no memory of moving toward it, Charlie took control of herself, pushing the fear and hysterics to the back of her mind where she could deal with it later when she had some privacy.
Eyes focusing, she found Dean crouching in front of her, a hand on her cheek as he studied her. "Hey. You okay?"
"Firmly in Denial Land, but I'm okay for now." He started to say something else but took another look at her expression and decided to stay quiet.
"So, you think Meg is a demon?" Sam asked their father, who shrugged.
"Either that or she's possessed by one. It doesn't really matter."
"What do we do?"
"I'm going to Lincoln."
"It doesn't seem like I have a choice. If I don't go, a lot of people die. Our friends die."
"Dad, the demon is coming tonight for Monica and her family. That gun is all we've got. You can't just hand it over."
John looked insulted by the mere suggestion he would comply with the Meg-demon's demands. "Who said anything about handing it over? Look, besides us and a couple of vampires, no one's really seen the gun. No one knows what it looks like."
"So, what," Dean questioned, his tone incredulous, "you're just gonna pick up a ringer at a pawn shop?"
"You're gonna hand Meg a fake gun and hope she doesn't notice?"
"Look, as long as it's close, she shouldn't be able to tell the difference."
Both voices grew louder. "Yeah, but for how long? What happens when she figures it out?"
"I just -" The aggression in John's voice vanished abruptly. "I just need to buy a few hours, that's all."
"You mean for Dean and Charlie and me," Sam clarified, examining his father's face when he didn't answer. "You want us to stay here... and kill this demon by ourselves?"
"No, Sam. I want to stop losing people we love. I want you to go to school. I want Dean to have a home." He turned away from three sets of eyes, but there was no hiding his tears. "I want Mary alive." He face them again, ignoring their own emotional reactions to his words. "I just... I just want this to be over."
The brothers locked eyes, doing that silent exchange of information that both fascinated and annoyed Charlie.
"Charlie and I will get the ringer," Dean announced. "We'll meet you outside town for the exchange."
Two antique shops and an earnest story about looking for the stolen half of an antique gun set later, the Impala pulled up to John and Sam on an empty road. The other pair got out of the black muscle car to match. Charlie leaned against the hood as Dean walked to his father's truck, where he and Sam were getting weapons ready.
"You get it?" John asked. Dean pulled a package from his jacket as his answer, handing it over.
He waited a moment, while his father examined the duplicate he was trusting his life on, then spoke up. "You know this is a trap, don't you? That's why Meg wants you to come alone."
"I can handle her. I got a whole arsenal loaded - holy water, Mandaic amulets -"
"Dad..." Dean interrupted.
"Promise me something."
"This thing goes south, just get the hell out." The oldest son paused, finding the words. "Don't get yourself killed, all right? You're no good to us dead."
John nodded. "Same goes for you. All right, listen to me." He pulled the real Colt out of his coat pocket. "They made the bullets special for this gun. There's only four of 'em left. Without 'em, this gun is useless. You make ever shot count."
"Yes, sir," Sam agreed, unable to fight the instinctive response despite all the years he'd denied his upbringing.
"I've been waiting a long time for this fight. Now it's here, and I'm not gonna be in it. It's up to you boys, you kids, now. It's your fight. You finish this. You finish what I started. You understand?" His sons nodded, and he handed the Colt, the real Colt, to Dean.
As Dean secured it safely in his jacket, Charlie spoke up. "Wait, 'you kids'? Does that mean I'm not getting shipped off anymore?"
"No," John answered before Dean could get upset. "We 'ship you off' with everything going on, and my boys will be distracted. They've taken you into their protection, and if you're off where they can't keep an eye on you, they're gonna worry about you and their minds won't be on the job. This is the one job they can't lose focus on." There was no mistaking the hint of annoyance in his words, nor his sons' embarrassment at them. "So I guess we're stuck with you for a while."
"We'll see you soon, Dad," Sam spoke up confidently, getting a smile and a nod in return.
"I'll see you later."
If there was one thing Charlie hated about helping hunt, it was stakeouts. Sitting still had never held much appeal for her, and in the last few years the act had become nearly unbearable. It was easier to keep going, keep moving. But you couldn't do that in a stakeout, at least not a Winchester-style stakeout. The supernatural was subtle until it struck, and they couldn't risk missing something important. So the three of them would sit, Dean's music playing quietly, occasionally breaking the conversational silence, each getting a little lost in their own thoughts.
"Maybe we can tell them there's a gas leak," Sam spoke up, watching the lights in the house turn on and off as Monica, the demon's future victim, moved about before joining her husband. "Might get 'em out of the house for a few hours."
Dean shot him an amused look. "Yeah, and how many times has that actually worked for us?"
That momentarily defeated the taller man before, "We could always tell them the truth."
"You'd probably get the police called on us," Charlie pointed out, leaning forward to prop her chin on the seatback between the two.
"I know, I know, I know. I just - with what's coming for these people -"
Dean cut him off quickly. "Sam, we've only got one move, and you know it. We've got to wait for that demon to show itself, and then we get it before it gets them."
"But don't we have another option?" Charlie interrupted. "Sam, in your vision, the demon was focused on the baby's cradle, right? What if I -"
"Don't even think about it." Dean's command ripped out at the same time as Sam's definite "No." They traded glances before Sam continued. "Charlie, you're becoming part of this family. And this demon has shown it likes killing off women important to us."
"Hell," Dean added, "you're not even leaving the Impala when this goes down."
She almost considered arguing but knew it would be useless, so she conceded with a nod. "Part of the family, huh?" He teasing tone was marred by the slightest shine of tears in her eyes.
Sam ruffled her hair affectionately. "I always wanted a little sister."
"I bet your dad's gonna love that."
"I wonder how he's doing."
Dean shook his head, wearing the same concerned expression. "I'd feel a lot better if we were there backin' him up."
"I'd feel a lot better if he were here backin' us up."
The trio fell into silence, continuing their surveillance of the house. A little more than thirty minutes later, Sam broke the quiet again. "This is weird."
"After all these years, we're finally here. It doesn't seem real."
Dean glanced in the rearview mirror, checking that Charlie was still wrapped up in the tome she'd been studying. "We just got to keep our heads and do our jobs like always."
"Yeah, but this isn't like always."
"Dean, uh..." Hearing something in his brother's voice, Dean turned to face and examine him. "I wanna thank you."
"For everything. You've always had my back, you know? Even when I couldn't count on anyone, I could always count on you. And now... I don't know, I just wanted to let you know - just in case."
"Woah, woah, woah," Dean exploded, "are you kidding me?"
"Don't say 'Just in case something happens to you,' I don't wanna hear that freakin' speech, man. Nobody's dying tonight. Not us, not that family, nobody - except that demon. That evil son of a bitch ain't gettin' any older than tonight, you understand me?"
Another hour later, Dean was listening to his father's voicemail. "Dad's not answering," he announced as he hung up.
"Maybe Meg was late," Sam offered. "Maybe cell reception's bad."
"Maybe his phone exploded," Charlie chimed in. The brothers gave her a strange look. "What? It only happened the once."
"Yeah, well..." Dean trailed off, and whatever he was considering saying was cut off by the car radio turning to static.
"Dean, wait. Listen." Sam tried to change the station, but the noise stayed the same, as though they'd lost all reception. Charlie fought against the anxiety rising within her, and Sam pointed out the lights in Monica's house as they began to flicker rapidly. "It's coming."
The two men got out of the car quickly, and Dean spared a moment to turn to Charlie. "Stay here."
She watched helplessly at the brothers ran up to the front door and inside, Dean picking the lock impossibly fast. A minute later, he reappeared carrying the bulk of an unconscious man. He dumped him surprisingly carefully on the ground and headed back inside. Charlie immediately darted to the man's side.
He was already stirring by the time she reached his side. Leaning over him, she checked his breathing, which was beginning to grow labored and irregular. "Sir?" she murmured, a hand on his chest. "Sir, you're all right. We're here to help -"
Her reassurances were cut off by a heavy, invisible force settling on her back, pushing her several inches closer to the stranger at the same time gunshots sounded from the house. He apparently recognized the muffled sound, snapping awake and striking out at the figure above him. That is, at Charlie. She caught his fists first on her mouth and then her temple, dazing her just enough that he was able to shove her away and climb to his feet. Charlie followed him quickly, latching onto his arm and digging in, stopping his flight back inside the house at the unmistakable sight of fire coming from the upstairs window.
"Let me go!" he roared, doing everything in his power to shake her off, but Charlie had grown up with a handful of brothers and their friends and knew how to hang on. In fact, it took the window exploding outward, showering them with glass and debris, for her grip to loosen enough for him to pull free.
The sight of his wife running out the front door protectively covered by Sam stopped him from running back into the burning building. He charged forward, intending to do some damage to the men threatening his family, painfully aware that the man who hit him had followed them out carrying a bundle of cloth so carefully that it had to be his precious Rosie girl. "Charlie, don't!" his wife's voice rang out, stopping him in his tracks. He was vaguely aware that the pest of a girl behind him had also frozen. "They saved us."
Monica turned and took her daughter from the stranger's arms, repeating softly. "They saved us." She met her husband halfway, closing her eyes as his arms wrapped around her and he kissed her forehead, then she turned to look at the two men. "Thank you."
The one who burst into Rosie's nursery nodded in acknowledgement, then turned to look at the window. The other glared at the girl next to them, noting her split and swelling lower lip. "I told you to stay in the car!"
"I did for a minute," she began, but her guilty excuses were cut off by Monica's savior muttering. "It's still in there."
He started toward the burning house, but the shorter man stopped him. "Sam, no." When the first continued to struggle, their female friend join in restraining him, wrestling for several moments.
"Dean, let me go! It's still in there!"
"Burning to the ground - it's suicide!"
"I don't care!"
"I do!" With a final shove from the shorter man - Dean - they separated and turned to look at the window again, the girl still clinging to the taller one's arm. Monica followed their gaze to the sight of a dark, shadow-like figure standing among the flames. It stared back at them for a second longer, then disappeared into nothing.
Back at the motel, Dean paced back and forth with his phone glued to his ear, while Sam sat tense on the bed holding a cold cloth to the bruise forming on Charlie's temple. "Come on, Dad. Answer your phone, damn it!" Dean hung up, spinning to face the other two. "Something's wrong. You hear me? Something's happened."
"If you had just let me go in there, I could have ended this."
Through the slight haze of a growing headache, Charlie sat quietly and listened as the argument intensified, Sam raging about the evil that had taken so much from them while Dean argued against the idea of adding their names to the list. Finally Dean broke. "Sammy, look... the three of us - that's all we have. And that's all I have. Sometimes I feel like I'm barely holdin' it together man. Without you and Dad..."
Sam stepped back, turning away from both Dean and Charlie. "Dad... He should have called by now. Try him again."
Dean obeyed, listening to the ringing until a click loosened the clench in his gut. But it wasn't their father's voice that answered.
"You boys really screwed up this time."