"Dean," Dad said, watching him try to rub the sleep out of his eyes with his fists, "we need to talk."
"Sure," Dean said, hip braced against the kitchen counter. He crossed his fingers behind his back for luck, trying not to look desperately for the coffeepot and hoping against hope that Dad wasn't going to say anything about the late hours he was keeping or the rather extensive and varied company he kept them with.
"This tomcatting around, Dean," Dad said, voice not as stern as it really could have been, but more disappointed than Dean could stand, and Dean uncrossed his fingers and tried to straighten up for the lecture. "It's not –" Dad's voice stopped abruptly.
Dean peered at him; Dad was usually never at a loss for words. But then Dad's eyes were raking over him, and Dean felt a flush of guilt – totally baseless, but guilt nonetheless – heating his ears and cheeks and throat. He dropped his gaze, then remembered he was the son of a Marine and faced his father again. That was the moment Sammy chose to make his grand entrance, stepping between them like there was no tension to cut through and rummaging in the still-dusty cupboards for the box of Frosted Brown Sugar Cinnamon Pop-Tarts Dean had stashed in one dark corner.
Dean got out the griddle – Dad's last round with the toaster had left them down one appliance – and Sammy handed him the packet, heading over to the fridge to guzzle orange juice straight from the container. Dean ripped open the foil and slid the Pop-Tarts on the warming griddle in one practiced motion and turned back to face Dad.
Dad was looking down at his paper now, but Dean knew every word was still meant for him. "Go on, take your brother to school and then come home and catch up on your sleep."
Dean saved the Pop-Tarts from a fiery extinction, and went, knowing he'd gotten off way easier than he really should have.
God damn, but Dean was glad to be done with school, with teachers who either believed that their subject was the most important thing ever or who just didn't give a rat's ass, even about good kids like Sammy.
The little dweeb was going over a list of Spanish vocabulary words with religious fervor, only raising his head from the page when Dean pulled up. "See ya," Sammy tossed over his shoulder as he slid out of the car; with all that hair in his eyes, no wonder the kid couldn't see the girls ringing the car.
Dean tried to ignore the fact that their eyes went right past his little brother and latched onto him; they were way too young for him, and anyway, they didn't know what they were missing – Sammy was already a catch, even if he didn't know it himself.
One of these days, Dean had a feeling, Sammy would wise up to the fact that girls were pretty much the best things ever, and Dean would make sure to pick the best one for him.
As he hit the bed, he could still hear the clangor of the school bell echoing painfully in his head. He couldn't even fathom being alert and functioning at this hour, not unless a hunt demanded it. Maybe Dad was right and he should quit it with the late nights – but, hey, you were only young once, right? And it was even pretty good odds that they'd only be in Germantown, Pa. once, too, even with all the traveling they did.
Whatever. He buried his face in the pillow, sniffed at the pillowcase, and figured he should do a load of whites before he picked Sammy up.
He came to when Dad whapped his ass again with the loosely rolled newspaper.
"The hell?" Dean croaked, clearing his throat to get his voice working again. He contorted a bit and peered at Dad from under one bent arm. "'M not a puppy, 'nd I didn't piss where I wasn't s'posed to."
Dad wasn't exactly smiling, but he did snort at that. "Puppies don't snore."
Dean knew he didn't either – no way Sammy wouldn't have made some smart-alecky remark about it at one point or another – so that meant he must be coming down with something. He sat up quickly, not wanting Dad to catch on; the last thing he wanted was not to be useful.
Dad just about knocked him over, though, with his next words. "You're going undercover for this case."
Dean squinted and opened his eyes wide; nothing made Dad suddenly grow a second head or turn rainbow-colored or anything else suspicious, so he figured he could trust that he'd really heard what he thought he'd heard. Awesome.
Dad whacked him again with the newspaper, this time on the knee, and the sudden breeze across his face woke Dean up for good. "Wait, Dad," he said. "You never told us what the case here even is."
They'd made the drive across Pennsylvania pretty smoothly, singing along to Creedence when Sammy wasn't working his way through a book of brain teasers and Dad wasn't reminiscing about the engines he'd had under his hands as pristine examples zoomed alongside them.
Dad sat back and watched him appraisingly. "Go get your brother, and we'll talk about it after dinner."
Sammy was safe at the kitchen table, doing his geometry homework, huffing and puffing every time he had to use his cheap, warped protractor or Dean's rusted old compass. Dean stared into the void of the nearly empty fridge; he should've stopped at the store on the way home, but all of those teenyboppers with their come-hither eyes had creeped him out enough that escape was the only thing on his mind.
He sighed and pulled out the loaf of bread; sure, Sammy had had a sandwich for lunch, but another wouldn't kill him. The loaf felt a little stiff in his hands, and he changed course, pulling out eggs and butter and honey. French toast was always a hit with the kid, and if he made it sweet enough, they might not even have to hit the emergency Hostess pies he had stashed in the dark corner of a different cupboard.
Sammy was displaying every sign of that weird giddiness he got when he'd breezed through his homework as he concentrated on the pile of French toast, powdered sugar, and strawberry jam he'd constructed on his wavering fork, and Dean sighed inwardly, knowing the kid would eat slow as a snail if he thought he could be part of the grown–up talk. Dean pushed his next bite through the puddle of honey on his plate, and Dad started his lecture with powdered sugar still clinging to the edges of his mustache.
"Pastor Jim called me a few weeks ago, said he'd heard from a girl he went to high school with. Well, woman now. She was worried about her daughter, who'd started skipping classes, talking about dropping out of school." Dad paused to take another gargantuan bite. "When I said it didn't sound like our kind of problem, Jim said his friend, Mona, he said her name was, told him that not only had Suzanne changed overnight, but that half her class did too."
Not our kind of problem was too mild a paraphrase, given that Dean had heard Dad yell, "I'm not a goddamn guidance counselor, and I'm damn sure not anybody's last shot at normal," at Pastor Jim, but Sammy's eyes got wide anyway.
"That does sound like us," Sammy said, sounding positively aghast that there were people who would actually choose to leave school before they had to. "I could help! I could go undercover, and talk to them."
Dean tensed, praying that Dad wouldn't brush Sammy aside. "Dean's taking point on this one, so he's the one you have to convince," Dad said, and when Sammy's head whipped around to shoot Dean his best sad puppy face, Dean saw that Dad's eyes were promising him a messy death if he let Sammy get close to any part of this case. "Besides, the kids who are dropping out are closer to Dean's age, more likely to talk to someone a little older."
Sammy was nodding like Dad's logic worked for him, but Dean could see that he wasn't entirely satisfied. "So what is it?" Sammy asked, scarfing down the last of his messy meal.
"Nothing much in the newspapers, but Jim called the head of the PTA, and it seems to be going from school to school in this area. We need to do some more research before we can narrow anything down."
"I bet it's something dumb," Sammy said. Dean, clearing the plates from the table, rolled his eyes at this theory, because of course Sammy would think anything that got in the way of school was stupid. "Like these girls that wouldn't let me get to my locker for like twenty minutes because they had to talk about some musician guy. And they all have pictures of him in their lockers and they kept giggling, and, Dad, I could have taken this guy even before I started training." Sammy shook his head, apparently baffled by the simple fact of life that musicians score, or maybe the incomprehensibility of teenage girls, but Dad perked right up from the story. Or maybe it was the sugar; it could be hard to tell, with Dad.
"Dean, I think you're going to want Sammy to keep his ears open in school, don't you?" Dad instructed, and Sammy looked up at him, beaming, so Dean nodded and then hauled him in to help with the dishes.
Sammy was noisily splashing water in the sink when Dad lowered his voice and filled Dean in on the rest. "These kids aren't just dropping out. They're running away, vanishing. Now maybe it's just that no one's looked, but no one's found any of them either."
Dean nodded sharply, and went back to his little brother, who was singing along to the radio while he rinsed the plates.
"Dean, it's definitely this guy! It has to be!" Sammy burst out. "He's all they talk about!"
"Sammy," Dean said, patiently untangling the mess of string and rope he'd found in the basement, "chicks dig musicians. C'mon, it's not like they're usually even good-looking guys. Look at Aerosmith or the Stones."
"But it's not just the girls!" Sammy protested. "The boys are dropping out too! I was in the guidance office this morning on my free period, and like half the senior class was marked absent on the attendance forms!"
"Wait, really?" Dean asked, finally coming up with one length of rope, unkinked and free of its neighbors. "So what's this guy's name?"
"Blake Weser," Sammy said, like just saying the words was going to make him hurl, not that Dean could really blame him, because that name was bordering on child abuse. "And the girl with the locker next to mine has pictures of him all over her locker, and he's this little shrimpy guy" – that was pretty rich, coming from Sammy – "and he looks like he'd faint if you even looked at him funny."
"Maybe he's not our guy then," Dean said reluctantly; it was good to see Sammy so involved in something other than homework, and it was even better to know that Dad wasn't discouraging his interest. "Anyway, I'm gonna head to the store. You wanna come?"
"Nah," Sammy said, laying down on his stomach and fishing Hatchet out from under his bed.
"But you still want Lucky Charms, not foolbirds, right?" Dean asked as he grabbed his keys.
Trying to juggle all the grocery bags was a workout all on its own, but finally Dean unloaded the groceries, changed into his sweats and sneakers, grabbed his Walkman, and went for a run.
Running wasn't his favorite thing ever, but he hit that point soon enough, where it stopped mattering what he was doing and just gave in and enjoyed the feel of his own body effortlessly handling whatever he demanded of it. Kind of a high all its own, actually, and he pushed himself hard over the last two miles.
Slipping into the kitchen via the back door, he heard Sammy talking to Dad, saying something about punk and dangerous, and then picture. Dad wasn't responding, and Dean was about to head into the shower when he finally heard Dad's deep voice rumble out something that had his name in it. He could certainly afford to stay stinky for a few more minutes, if the alternative was showering in ignorance of what Dad wanted from him.
"What's up?" he asked, pushing open the bedroom door and depositing his Walkman on the single desk, away from Sammy's homework.
Sammy and Dad shared a look – a conspiratorial, assessing look that made the hair on the back of Dean's neck stand on end. "Dad?" He was starting to feel overheated, under their watchful eyes, and he peeled his sweaty shirt away from his chest, flapping the material back and forth to create some kind of air circulation.
"Tonight's the night you go undercover," Dad said, after looking him up and down like they'd never met before.
"Really?" Dean couldn't help grinning like a little kid. "Yes!"
"No. No way."
"It's for the case, Dean," Sammy said earnestly, not even looking like he was enjoying the shit out of this, and Dean eyeballed him long and hard before turning away from him and Dad – who was smirking, dammit – and pushing his way into the bathroom.
"I'll do it myself!" Dean shouted from the grimy tiled confines of the smallest room in the place, and Sammy snuck in and dumped the supplies next to the sink. Dean could feel Sammy's gaze trained on his back, and he turned his torso long enough to mutter, "Scram."
But Sammy, of course, stayed put. "Let me help, Dean. I'm sorry."
So Dean had no real choice but to put the kid in a headlock, give him a noogie, and then use Sammy's eyes as his mirror as he tried to get ready for what was going to be one of the worst nights of his life.
Sammy stayed quiet, mostly, despite the frown lines on his forehead, but he interrupted every once in a while, with comments like, "No, messier," or "I think it has to be darker than that," or "How do you know how to use an eyeliner pencil?" Dean just bit his lip and kept going, knowing he was pretty close to losing his nerve.
Dad was waiting for them in the kitchen, and Dean faced him, feeling stupider than he ever had in his life. Dad's eyes raked over his bright green hair, sculpted into truly stupid shapes like freaking Edward Scissorhands hedges, and his eyes, lined the way he'd seen girls in study hall and detention do theirs.
"Good," Dad said, like this was all perfectly normal. "You going to wear the jeans that got ripped up last hunt?"
"Yeah, I guess." He was figuring on those jeans and his Ramones t–shirt and his boots. Whatever he could think of that would be the opposite of Blake Weser, who, from the picture Sammy had swiped from the locker next to his, was the twink to end all twinks, topped off with the most hideous red–and–yellow striped scarf that had ever been made by some demonic grandma.
"And get your old denim jacket out of the trunk, we can work with that too," Dad said, turning back to his journal before Dean could say that Sammy had been looking forward to growing into that jacket. Dean snuck a glance over at Sammy, who looked a little disappointed, but bucked up and met Dean's eyes with a smile and a nod.
"Dinner's on me, boys," Dad said, still writing in his journal. "What'll it be?"
"I could really go for a burrito," Dean said.
"Too bad there's no decent Mexican in this place," Dad said. "But I bet the spicy sausages are killer here in Germantown. Good enough?"
"Yeah," they chorused, and Sammy patted Dean on the shoulder, nicely, and then went off to wallow in homework.
Dad came back with a full tank in the Impala, a box of safety pins, and three orders of bratwurst and spätzle. Dean looked at the food and pushed it away, concentrating instead on ripping up the jean jacket and weighing it down with safety pins. He dumped the extra pins into the packet in the first aid/emergency kit and tried not to let the reality of what he was doing – going unarmed against something he had only the vaguest idea of – sink in too deeply. They still didn't know if Blake Weser was actually up to anything, or what he was promising the kids who took off after he breezed into town, or what he was capable of. Dad had never been okay with acting on such little information, and it wasn't like Sammy to be relying on his own instincts instead of researching to discount everyone else's.
The whole thing just tied Dean in knots, and he wondered if this was some test Dad was running, to see if Dean would trust him or himself. That thought made him run to the bathroom, but he couldn't puke anything up because he'd eaten nothing since that morning.
Dean rested his forehead against the mirror over the sink, feeling the chill seep wonderfully from the glass to his skin. When he opened his eyes, he could see them reflected so close, still shaded with eyeliner, the green of them looking electric and desperate. His skin was too hot and he belatedly remembered that he was probably coming down with something.
He walked past Dad and Sammy, stuck his food in the fridge, and walked out to his car. Leaning against her, he laced up his boots, and the contact between his hip and her solidity braced him up; he picked his loudest tape, popped it in, and got behind the wheel. She cradled him, and he drove.
The heavy beat pulsed through him, dominating his heartbeat, and Dean drove with the windows down despite the cold of the northeast autumn, because the sound would lure the kids loitering on street corners who hadn't already been seduced by his girl's sweet black glide into their fields of vision.
Problem kids was the unspoken watchword for the case, and Dean knew how to catch and hold their attention like he was one of them. The Impala's throaty purr was like a trail of breadcrumbs, and soon they were all congregated in a vacant lot downtown, near the Theatre of the Living Arts, shivering in the chill coming off the river, huddled in clumps of two and three and watching him. Dean stayed quiet and still, waiting for a sign that would tell him which direction this was all going; these kids would walk if they thought they were being interrogated.
They started talking amongst themselves, still with one eye on him, but seemed okay with him not saying or doing anything. Looking at them, Dean felt a jolt of anger; they were, without exception, too young and too underdressed to be out so late on a cold school night, but he guessed it was better for them to be with friends than at home with parents who didn't give a shit, except when they were embarrassed by their oddball offspring. Unnoticed until they rebelled, and then they got kicked out, Dean would bet, remembering sad faces from schools he'd long since left. These kids were on the cusp, and while he might not have had a Brady life, he damn sure wasn't wondering if he mattered to anyone either.
There was one kid, in the back, who had hair the exact same green as his. The kid was shaking with cold, and looked about twelve with his blue lips and skinny, goosebumped arms.
Dean shrugged off his jean jacket, tossed it to the kid, and grinned down at the cluster of kids. He gestured casually at his t–shirt and jumped in feet first. "Everyone's got a favorite Ramones song. What's yours?"
Once they got going, it was easy to keep them talking, especially after he'd passed around his thermos of hot coffee. From the lot behind the theater, they could hear the pounding bass and drums of the band opening for the main act. The kids all bopped their heads or tapped their feet in time, mostly unconsciously, even as they debated the merits of this band or that guitar. Dean watched them, feeling older by decades, and wishing they weren't exactly the kind of kids who were in danger from Blake Weser or whatever it was that was stringing the kids in this town along.
"This is good stuff, right?" the kid wearing Dean's jacket said, sidling up to him, hero–worship practically shining in his eyes, and all Dean had done was give him a torn piece of clothing and a little hot coffee. "Better than the crap everyone else listens to."
"Absolutely," Dean said, letting his smile go sharp. "Blake Weser, right?"
"Gag," the kid said, practically tripping over the words in his eagerness to bond. "It's like he opens his mouth and there's a spell on people, you know? They just follow him around like he's the Grateful Dead or something."
A spell. Maybe that wasn't so far-fetched. "Most people are like sheep, man," Dean said, thinking of the supernatural possibilities, and saw, out of the corner of his eye, the kid's chest swell with pride at being called man. Christ, the kid was younger and smaller than Sammy, and had no idea about all the things out there just waiting to eat him up. "Good thing you know how to think for yourself."
"Yeah," the kid said, face bright and eager. Dean's eye was caught by a girl with a large, shimmering Afro beckoning the kid, who saw her at the same time. "My sister's calling," the kid said, smiling shyly up at him, and Dean bumped fists with him and said he'd see him around.
Dean walked back to his girl, his head swirling with theories and his stomach clenched tight around its own emptiness.
Sammy stayed quiet when Dean drove him to school, probably figuring that running on about an hour of sleep wasn't going to make Dean into Mary Sunshine. Dean kept his eyes peeled for the kids from last night, making sure to raise a hand whenever he passed by one of them, and Sammy still didn't say a word.
Dean passed him a brown bag lunch and socked him gently on the shoulder, and Sammy grinned wide. "Get to class, squirt," Dean said, smiling back.
He stopped at the library on the way back home. One of his theories made more sense than the others, and after wrestling with the card catalog, he made his way over to the shelves of Dewey Decimal 821. Poetry in school was bad enough, but poetry on his own time was worse.
Except that here, he had the answer, all wrapped up in a poem written a hundred and ten years ago, about a mysterious stranger dressed in red and yellow who had powers over the children of Hamelin town, on the banks of the Weser River. He clenched his fist over the illustrations of rats scurrying over each other, desperate to follow the tune of a wandering musician, drowning as his deathly song led them into the treacherous river.
There was no way he was letting the kids he'd met last night fall into this thing's clutches, to be treated like vermin. And the bastard hadn't even bothered to disguise himself. Dean stood, his chair scraping against the linoleum, and got a frown from the librarian, sitting safe and secure behind her big green leather desk.
"Piper," Dean said to Dad on his way into his bedroom, and he tumbled onto the bed and slept.
"There's nothing anywhere on how to kill a piper!" Dad said for the sixth time, before adding, "They're practically human, anyway, so we can't."
"Human, really? Because being able to make hundreds of kids vanish is totally human?" Dean snapped back. Sammy's eyes were wide and shifting between them like he was watching a tennis match.
Dad looked taken aback by his tone. "I'm not arguing this with you. We're done, we've got a new case, and we're leaving in the morning."
Dean said nothing, but kept his jeans on when he went to bed that night. He heard the squeaks of Dad's bed die down as Dad finally quit tossing and turning, and then he snuck out, following everything he could figure about where Weser was likely to hole up.
A map got him as far as Blake Street, and then instinct led him to the right place, the darkest corner of the dead end, redolent of the river's dirty water and deathly silent. He kept one hand tight around his amulet, letting the discomfort of spiky metal in his clenched fist keep him grounded, and kicked down the door of the piper's lair.
The piper looked like a kid, except for its eyes, the blue not quite right, giving away that something was seriously off. It laughed like a trilling flute when he demanded the kids back, and counted them off on its spindly fingers; it only stopped laughing when Dean snatched its pipe away and snapped it in half. It choked, glaring at him like he'd stolen its voice.
It struggled in silence as he dragged it along the path he could just barely see in the dirt, worn down by the tramp of so many despairing kids' feet. The path didn't wind, just went straight from Blake Street to a little dip in the river where the current was grimly rushing along, a place where bodies would be swept away in the blink of an eye.
Dad might not know, but Dean did. You killed a piper the way it killed its victims, but holding it under with strong hands instead of seductive melodies; you let the water swallow it up, down in the murky blue where no music could sound.