Dean walked into the small bar called "The Brauhaus" in White Bear Lake and surveyed the room as he slowly made his way to the bar. There was a spot open on the end, just near the TV hanging on the wall.
As he eased into the seat in the corner, the bartender walked up and tossed a coaster advertising Stella Artois on the bar in front of him and stood leaning on the bar with both hands, wordlessly staring at him in abject boredom.
"How 'bout a beer." Dean said.
"How 'bout you tell me what kind." The Bartender grunted.
The bartender was a large rangy man with greasy brown hair that mostly hung around on his head, but a few unruly locks reached out to his eyes and nose. His brown shirt was stained from beer and liquor and plates of food brought to the bar, and the dirty dishes he took back to the kitchen. His eyes were the eyes of someone who couldn't wait to be somewhere else, but they were also the eyes of a man who would never go there.
"How bout a Stella." Dean retorted, holding up the coaster and pointing at it. "Think you can do that?"
The big brown haired man looked disgusted as he stepped over to the tap and pulled a glass from a rack, held it at an angle and pulled the tap handle that filled the glass with a golden foamy topped brew. He took the two steps back to where Dean sat staring back at him and put the glass down hard on the bar, making foamy drops rain on Dean and the bar.
"That'll be three fifty, Elvis." He sneered.
Dean pulled a fifty from his pocket and tossed it on the bar where the foam had landed, making sure it was wet with beer.
"Lemme know when that runs out, sparky." Dean said with a sarcastic smile.
Dean raised the glass to his lips and gave the Stella a long pull, drinking nearly half of it in a pair of gulps as he looked around the room.
The barstool beside him, the one at the corner of the bar, squawked across the tile floor as it was pulled back by a soldier in camouflage pants and a green t-shirt.
The soldier wasn't some fresh recruit on leave. He was a big man, nearly a foot taller than Dean with a rangy physique like the bartender, but had the build of a man who climbs and runs rather than a bulky weightlifter. He was an older man of maybe 45 years with regulation hair the color of straw, but maybe some of it was graying too, though it was hard to tell in the bar. But, even in that poor light, Dean noticed his eyes were a deep blue the color of glacial ice as he sat and glanced over to nod a quick "Hello."
The bartender strode quickly down the bar from the opposite end, leaving a confused man in mid-order.
"What can I get you today?" He asked the Soldier with a friendly smile.
"Oh, I guess I'll have what he's having, Oly." The soldier said in gruff deep voice that seemed to come from his chest, as he nodded at Dean.
"Coming right up." Oly said, stepping quickly to the tap.
Dean looked to his left at the soldier.
"Wow. I guess you gotta be a Marine to get good service here." Dean laughed.
"Oh no." The soldier laughed. "I'm not a Marine. And, I've known Oly here since he was a boy. I know his whole family. I'm just here visiting from the old country."
Dean nodded and took another slug of his beer as Oly stepped up with a beer for the Soldier.
"I think he's gonna need another one, Oly." The Soldier said, thumbing sideways at Dean and turning up his glass of beer with the other hand.
"So, what, you're from Norway or somewhere like that?" Dean asked.
"Ja, somewhere like that." The Soldier said, taking another long swig from his beer. "Gimme another one too, Oly."
Oly stepped back to the bar with two more beers and dropped Dean's 50 back on the counter.
"You can put your money back in your pocket, friend." The Soldier said. "I'm buying the beers."
He occasionally pronounced his "th" sounds like "d" and "the beers" sounded like "da beers."
"So, you don't sound like you're from Minnessota." The Soldier said, turning to cast a steady gaze on Dean through his blue eyes.
"Oh, no. I'm just passing through." Dean said, glancing over at the blue eyed man."I'm from Kansas. The old and boring country."
The soldier ejected a brief, but loud and honest, laugh.
"The boring old country, huh?"
Sipping his beer now, he licked foam from his lips and turned back to Dean.
"I'm Bjorn. Bjorn Hardveur." He said, extending his right hand out in Dean's direction. "But, all my American friends call me 'Hardware.'" They can't usually pronounce the old names.
"Dean Winchester." Dean said, and furtively shook the calloused steely hand. "I get called a lot of things."
"Oh, ain't it the truth, Dean Winchester." Hardware said. "I got a million nicknames from friends and enemies."
"So, what do you do in the Army or whatever?"Dean asked, looking forward at the TV across the room. "Are you like a parachute guy or a drill sergeant or something? You don't look like a pencil pusher."
"Special operations." Hardware said matter of factly, as he looked across the room with interest at a hockey game on the big screen.
"What, like terrorists and stuff?"
"Ja, sure. Nukes, knives, sharp sticks, and the end of the world and all that."
"Sounds like fun."
"So, what do you do, Dean Winchester?"
"I hunt. I'm a hunter." Dean said, and for the life of him couldn't figure out why he didn't say one of a hundred cover jobs he had in his head. "Professional hunter."
"I would mistake you for a soldier." Hardwear said, looking away from the hockey game on the TV across the room to glance at Dean. "You got the look of a soldier."
"Yeah, my Dad was a Marine." Dean began, looking down into his beer. "But, I never did join up."
"My Dad was kind of a priest." Hardwear said. "But, from the time I was a kid, I knew that I was born for this. There was nothing else for me, except to be a soldier."
"Oh yeah?" Dean asked, looking over at him.
"Ja, sure." Hardware said, looking over again. "There is nothing else like doing what you were born to do. I tried for a while to be somebody else, you know? When I was young. I had the long hair and talked about peace and love, but I woke up one day and asked myself what I was doing."
"A soldier, huh?" Dean asked staring at the hockey game, but fully attentive to the Soldier's words.
"Well, not really, truth be known." Hardware said firmly. "Some people are soldiers and they run around in a uniform for a couple of years and then become bakers and mechanics and bartenders."
With that, he caught Oly's attention and held up two fingers.
"I am not really a soldier." He continued. "I am a dog of war. I was born to stand in front of my people who cannot defend themselves, waist deep in the blood of our enemies, shoulder to shoulder with anyone else who will hold the line. And, I was born to bring the fight to the enemy."
"So, your Dad the priest." Dean said, looking over at Hardware. "He doesn't mind this? He didn't want a little priest to follow in his path and roast holy marshmallows with?"
"Oh, I got a brother that did that." Hardware said with an annoyed wave of his hand that wasn't clutching a beer. "It didn't work out so good, you know?"
"Yeah, I got a little brother." Dean said, peering into his empty beer again.
"Is he a Hunter too?"
"Yeah." Dean said. "Total badass too. I'm very proud of him."
"Wish I had a brother who wasn't a tool." Hardware said with a grimace.
"Well, at least you know who you are and what your purpose is in this world. And, you accept it."
"Ja..." Hardware began. "But, what about you? Your work must be very fun, this hunting business."
Oly stepped up with a couple more beers and took the empty glasses away without a word.
"Oh, yeah." Dean laughed. "But, boy has it become a lot of pressure."
"Ja, that's the way it always goes." Hardware said, suddenly looking melancholy. "Seems like the boss always finds out how much you can take and then puts just a little more on you than you can carry. Like he's betting a beer against you or something."
"No kidding." Dean said, looking with a stunned expression at the blue eyed soldier. "That's exactly how it is."
"But, you know, there's nothing you can do." Hardware continued with a wry smile. "What you gonna do? Quit?"
"Right. It's like they know you won't ever give up, so they want to see just how thin they can stretch you sometimes." Dean was talking loudly now, since the Stella had taken his ability to use his inside voice.
"Or, how many rocks they can pile on your back and still watch you struggle."Hardware continued.
"No kidding." Dean took a big draw from his beer again. "Sometimes I would like to quit, though."
The soldier chuckled.
"Sometimes I would, man. I'd like to leave it all behind." Dean said with his own chuckle chasing the words and spinning the beer glass between his hands on the bar.
"And, do what?" Hardware asked, giving Dean a hard but friendly look.
"You want to be a..." He continued, struggling for an example. "a priest or a mechanic or something?"
"I don't know."
"No, my friend." Hardware continued."This is the paradox of finding your calling. It is a weight that hangs on you. If you don't do it, you are miserable. If you do it, you wonder what you have missed out there. You wonder what other hats you might have worn."
"Maybe I would try though, if I could just have half a chance." Dean chuckled. "I'd be an awesome mechanic."
"Maybe so, Dean Winchester." Hardware said, still giving Dean that same stare. "I'm a pretty good cook. In fact, I'm a really good cook. You should try my recipe for goat.
His face softened a bit and he looked out across the room again.
"But, if I were to spend my life in a kitchen, I'd leave the real me hanging on a hook somewhere. I would not be myself, just as the man born to be a chef would be half a soldier."
"Yeah, I guess you're right."
"Of course I'm right."Hardware said emphatically, poking his finger into the bar. "Every time I have to go into combat, I hope it's the end of the world. I hope it's that epic battle to end everything as we know it, because I know that's what I was born to do. Don't ask me how. I just know."
Dean threw his head back and laughed a loud lazy laugh.
"Be careful what you wish for, dude." Dean said with a sad smile.
"No, I'm glad to be right here, right now." Hardware said, his finger poking the bar emphasized his words with each dull thump of the wood. "I'm glad to have had all the training and all the fights and all the missions I've done. It has taught me to accept that this is who I am. If it happens today, then so be it. If it happens tomorrow, I've had one more day to become wiser and stronger making me even more formidable to the enemy. But, let it happen in my generation so my children won't have to fight, and so I won't have to grow old and unable to help, yes?."
He fidgeted in his chair and Dean gulped the last of his beer, putting the glass down on the coaster with a dull clomp and let out a loud belch that was more like the word "yep" than any other.
Hardware nodded his head to Oly, and the bartender strode to the end of the bar from the sink where he'd been washing glasses..
"Can you get us some wings, Oly?" He asked, turning to Dean. "Dean, how many wings can you eat? 10? 20? Nevermind. Bring us 60 hot wings, and a couple of the angus burgers. You like the burgers, yes?"
"Yeah, you got the beers." Dean said reaching for his wallet. "Lemme get the food."
"Nonsense. It's all on me. Your money is no good here."
Dean put his wallet back in his pocket.
"Well, thanks. I appreciate it."
"Well, a man can always get more money, but it's hard to find good company." Hardware said with a laugh, slapping Dean on the back with a thick hand, nearly knocking his chest into the bar.
"Amen to that." Dean said, turning up his glass as he sat back on the stool.
Half an hour later, they had a pile of bones on a plate and were finishing the last of their burgers, when a trio walked into the dim light of the bar. Hardware and Dean both glanced at them. Hardware licked his greasy fingers with relish and then drank the rest of his beer in a quick gulp.
The trio of newcomers, an older man with thick glasses and two dark shaggy haired teenage boys, turned and left after glancing around the room.
"I'll be right back, Dean. Save my seat." Hardware said over his shoulder, and walked to the bathroom door that read "Sven's."
"Ok, man." Dean said, giving Oly the two fingered sign that meant it was time for a refill, as he leaned back onto the barstool and rubbed his full belly. "Man, that was a good burger. And wings. And beer."
Hardware came back a few minutes later and grunted up on the barstool. He grabbed his fresh beer and sipped it a bit, then wiped the froth from his mouth with his forearm.
"Well, I guess I better get going, man." Dean said. "I gotta get up early and drive to some crappy little town in Wyoming tomorrow."
"Going hunting, huh?"
"Yeah, but at least I won't have to eat for another few days." Dean said, comically rubbing his full belly with both hands.
"Well, it certainly was nice meeting you, Dean Winchester." Hardware said, sticking his hand out again.
Dean shook his hand again, but gave it a long firm shake.
"Likewise." Dean said."And, good luck with that whole end of the world thing."
Hardware showed a big toothy grin and raised his glass of Stella as Dean walked more than a little crooked toward the door.
"Hurry to meet death, Dean Winchester, before your place is taken."
Dean stepped out of the Brauhaus door into the chilly Minnesota night air and felt his pocket for the keys to the Impala. Stabbing his hand into his pocket, he drew them out and fumbled for the round key to the door, as he leaned against the car watching the world sag and yaw through beer-soaked eyes.
Behind him, he heard a quiet step, and felt something hit the back of his head as he heard a loud pinging noise. He fell to the ground in the slowest of time as a man without legs, pondering how the asphalt stripes had faded and wondering how many stitches his head would need. As he fell to the ground and eventually stopped bouncing, a sensation of warm water washed over him carrying him slowly away to unconsciousness.
An old green car went by with a rusted muffler making it putter like a farm tractor. The occupants looked wide eyed at what they'd just witnessed.
The three barroom scanners he'd seen before stood above Dean. One held an aluminum bat tinged with red on the end. He circled Dean as he lie unconscious, reflected in the black flank of the Impala in squat proportion.
Two were young men with shaggy black hair and black t-shirts that read "Atreyu" and "Ratatat." with odd graphics. The bat wielder was a stocky older man of 40 or so who had the same black hair flecked with gray and wore a flannel shirt with a pen-stuffed pocket protector. He peered through thick glasses with orange rimmed eyes.
The car with the bad muffler putted to a stop in the next drive and turned around slowly. The wide eyed occupants were arguing behind the glass, presumably about whether to stop and intervene, since they had just seen a man get bashed with a bat.
The door of the bar creaked a little behind them and for a second the song on the jukebox, AC/DC's Thunderstruck, spilled guitar riffs out into the parking lot along with the yellowish light of the bar around the shape of someone.
The three watched the car with blank expressions for a moment and turned back to Dean.
"Let me finish him." The kid with the Atreyu shirt said, revealing a set of braces and agitated lips.
"Right after you finish me, kid?" A deep voice said from the door of the bar.
Hardware was walking out of the bar, and close on his heels were about 2 dozen of the patrons and Oly the bartender.
"Mind your business soldier boy." Said the old man with the thick glasses, bringing the bat to his side in a ready position."I'll break your head and all your friends too."
A peal of snickering moved across the ranks of the salty bar patrons who had piled through the doorway into the parking lot behind the big blond Soldier.
Hardware didn't break his casual stride but kept going until he was within range of the bat the man wielded.
"Not from over there you won't, tough guy." Hardware sneered, flexing his relaxed hands at his sides into fists that made his forearms jump and veins stand out under his skin, then relaxing them again.
The bat flashed out at Hardware's head and he easily leaned back watching it pass over his face.
The crowd of bar patrons let out a collective "Ooooh..." like schoolkids.
Then, as quickly, he snapped up again to dodge another swing at his chest with the bat coming close enough that he felt the wind from it.
The crowd cooed again.
"I thought you were going to crack my head, old man." Hardware laughed. "You can't even touch me!"
The man with the bat paused a second and cocked his head to the side a bit, like a dog hearing an odd noise.
He raised his left hand toward Hardware and flicked his hand to the side, still smirking.
Hardware glanced down as his dogtags flew off to the left on their own, straining at his neck, then jingling back in place.
"Oh, you guys are in trouble now!" An unseen man shouted from the crowd in a thick Minnesota accent, causing another wave of snickering laughter louder than the first.
The man with the bat lost his smirk and his mouth opened a bit in wonder. The two young men in the tshirts looked at one another with curious alarm.
"Normally, I don't bother with you rookies, but I like this guy." Hardware said, as a primal and fierce grin crept across his face and a thick finger pointed to Dean's crumpled body beside the Impala."
Reaching around his back, his right hand followed a small handcrafted silver chain attached to his belt and pulled an ancient war hammer out that had been tucked into his pants. He began to spin it in the air to his side. Each revolution made a loud and ominous noise as the hammer crackled and popped and clouds gathered overhead.
"These people you are occupying. These are my people." He said, fixing the gaze of his merciless blue eyes on the bat wielding man. "And, my people are off limits to you. Leave their bodies and I will let you live to go back to your hell."
"And what if we don't?" The kid in the Atreyu shirt snorted.
"We will see what happens, won't we?" Hardware shot back, keeping his gaze on the older man.
Far to the North, a ripple of thunder barked and echoed in the sky. The jukebox was still playing "-And I knew -There was no help. No help from you!" into the silence between them.
The bat wielder tossed the aluminum vessel to the ground viciously. His silence was still marked by the ragged idle of the car's rusted muffler that sat idling a few feet away.
Two threw their heads back and stood trembling and screaming as black smoke poured from their mouths into the sky until they fell limp and lifeless.
"Or maybe I will not let you live, after all." Hardware said still with that cruel grin under dancing blue eyes.
Lightning arced from the clouds in the sky and from the hammer, finding the two fleeing dark souls in the sky and illuminating them in harsh blue light and voltage until they were consumed in fire. They floated to the earth as no more than lifeless black dust.
"Oh, you don't scare me." The man with the orange eyes said with a wry smile.
Hardware walked close to the man and stood looking down at him as the crowd parted in front of the doorway.
"Oh, but before you die, I will." He said in a growl that sounded just a little giddy.
Inside the bar, several men shoved tables away from the middle of the floor to show a large ring with odd symbols surrounding it carved into the planks.
Hardware grabbed the man by his throat and in a fluid motion twisted to face the door and tossed the man 10 meters from the parking lot into the circle. The crowd filed back into the Brauhaus followed by the blond Soldier, shoulders back. His cruel grin had been replaced by an intense look.
The door closed, and the music was trapped again. Only the low frequency rhythm made it to the parking lot where Dean lie sleeping on the asphalt. A muffled, but high pitched, scream that trailed off as blue light spilled from the cracks around the door, was followed by the cruel laughter of a dozen voices.
The next morning, Dean Winchester woke up in his hotel bed with a hangover, a tangerine sized knot on his head that had been expertly stitched, and vomited greasy chicken wings all morning as he and Sam headed for Wyoming.
"Dude, what did you do last night?" Sam asked from behind the wheel, a twisted smile on his face.
"Ate some wings, drank some beer, and got my ass kicked by some chick's jealous husband, if my stitches and vomit are any indication." He said, holding his hands over his eyes and leaning his head back over the seat. "The usual."
"You gotta stop drinking so much, dude." Sam said, tossing the battered Road Atlas into Dean's lap.