Off the Map
There's a classic werewolf moon overhead, and it feels like old times, just the two of them kicking back at an old cemetery, waiting for a headless ghost to appear.
"So when's your Sleepy Hollow wannabe gonna show?" Sam asks. It's something Dean might have asked, but he doesn't like his brother's tone.
"It's El Muerto, dumbass. He's a headless bandito, not a headless horseman. Have some respect."
"He doesn't have a head, Dean. I don't think he's really going to care what I call him."
Dean hates it when Sam gets like this. This is El Muerto, the one who got away, the job any self-respecting hunter would kill for. After Bobby took the call that the headless bandito had been reported haunting cemeteries around South Texas, Dean started packing. It's what he's been waiting for - something to get Sam out of the funk he's been in since coming off the hellblood just over a month ago.
He and Sam haven't been working jobs, not with angels and demons falling like predestined dominos. Lucifer has been shaking up the natural order of things, but that's all they know and it's all Dean wants to know. He's sick of the whole thing. He knows the angels are still watching him even though they're keeping their distance. He can almost see the shadow of wings when he comes into a room.
"Dude, do you know what Dad would've given for a shot at El Muerto?"
It's the wrong thing to say, and Sam gets that bitchy look on his face that makes Dean want to slap him upside the head. But before Sam has a chance to say anything, a bullet ricochets off the headstone that he's leaning against.
They dive for cover. For a second, Dean looks wildly around for El Muerto, until he hears the buzz of another bullet as it barely misses his ear. It takes another second to realize that the bullets aren't coming from a headless cowboy, and that the rock salt in their shotguns is pretty much worthless against living assassins.
"Stay down!" he yells, but he can't see his brother, not with bullets raining down all around them.
Shit. Dean has no idea how they got the drop on him. Luckily, he's got his .45 in his ankle holster and hopes that Sam's done the same, but the kid's head has hardly been in the game as it is.
The cemetery is slashed by moonlight, but he can see shadows slipping in and out between the trees that border the graves. None of the shadows belong to Sam, and Dean realizes that he's not drawing fire. Whoever these bastards are, they're gunning for Sam, which is pretty damn unacceptable.
"You touch my brother, I swear I'll kill you!" he shouts into the darkness.
They keep firing but not at him, so Dean swears under his breath and goes after them. When it comes to Sam, Dean always keeps his promises.
By the time Dean finds his brother, Sam's on the ground and is getting pistol-whipped by a hunter who's got him pinned. The guy's the size of a barn, and Dean recognizes him as a hunter from the Roadhouse. Dean doesn't bother shouting a warning before he shoots the bastard in the back and shoves the seizing body off Sam.
Dean kneels onto the muddy ground, running his hands over Sam and checking for damage. But what Dean really wants to do is to scream at his brother, what the hell's the matter with you? Are you trying to get yourself killed? You weren't even fighting back.
A twig snaps behind him, and Dean's just pulled his gun, when he feels an explosion of pain like someone's taken a tire iron to him. Whatever it is, it catches him in the ribs, knocking the crap out of him. While he lies writhing on the ground, Sam pulls his gun out of his ankle holster and shoots the son of a bitch without missing a beat. Then he collapses back onto the ground next to Dean.
At least two of their would-be snipers get away, but not before Dean recognizes one as a woman he'd met once when he was a kid. She must have worked with Dad on a job, which gives Dean a sick feeling inside that has nothing to do with his cracked ribs.
Sam's bashed up, and his own ribs feel like broken glass, but Dean peels out of there like the devil's on his tail. Dean has no idea where they're going, but it's sinking in that they no longer have a community backing them up. They have Bobby, but Dean hates putting him in that kind of position. He keeps thinking about them - the hunters that he's known his whole life as role models, the ones who fought next to Dad.
Dean tries not to think about which side John Winchester would have taken if he'd lived to fight this war.
The first thing Sam notices is the banner. The thing has got to be 40 feet long, and it stretches across the main street of a town that isn't even supposed to be there. In big block letters, it proclaims: PHILISTINE WELCOMES SAM AND DEAN!!!
Dean slams on the brakes, and Sam has to brace himself to avoid taking a header into the windshield. All he needs is a little head trauma to add to the blood and gore quota of a classic Winchester day.
"Damnit, Dean, be careful!"
"Do you see it too?"
"Yeah, I see it, but easy on the brakes."
But Dean's already groping for his sawed off. "Sam, get down. You're too big a target. Freakin town isn't on the map. Where the hell's my gun?"
"Dude, it's right where you left it."
Sam reaches for the shotgun and hands it over, wincing as the sudden movement jars the remaining parts of his body that aren't currently oozing and bloody. Grim-faced, Dean immediately starts loading it with the shells filled with rock salt that he keeps in the glove compartment.
There are people coming at them from all directions, adults and kids, and at least a half a dozen dogs. Over the rumble of the engine, he can hear people cheering and whooping it up. One of the dogs sits back on its haunches and howls.
Dean grabs the back of Sam's neck and pushes him down onto the seat.
"What the hell, Dean. Let go of me. That hurts!"
"I want you to stay down, Sam, I mean it. These people know our names, and they sure as hell aren't rolling out the welcome wagon."
"Quit shoving me. I'm not going to hide while you defend me. Give it up already."
"Sam, I don't have time to argue with you! Get down and stay down."
Sam is getting pissed. "No. Why should I?"
"Because I said so! So get. The hell. Down."
Because I said so. So they're back to that again. Sam swears under his breath, but he goes ahead and crams his aching body into the space between the seat and the dash, trying to keep his head out of target range. It's stupid and more than a little humiliating, but this is the new deal, the price of being forgiven for the greatest screw-up in the history of the whole world.
Dean has given up everything for Sam. It's only right that Sam gives up something for Dean in return.
But he is really, really uncomfortable. His body's taken a beating, and there are plenty of places where his shirt is stuck to his skin with dried blood. Sam knows that Dean's not doing much better. He hides it well, but Sam can read Dean's pain better than his own.
Dean rolls down the window and supports the weight of the gun with his forearm, but Sam doesn't like this. They need to slow down, be smart about they're doing. Just because Dean's gone all alpha on him doesn't mean it's a good idea to open fire on a crowd.
Sam thinks back over his training with Ruby. Did she ever talk about a mass possession? He wonders how many demons he could exorcise at once. The most he's ever done is two simultaneously but he has a feeling he could do more if he had to. Sam's gone cold turkey, and it's been one month, three days, and almost two hours since he's used his powers, but it's always there as a choice. As a possibility.
Then there's the fact that he still wants it, maybe even still needs it, all that potential lying in wait like a feral thing curled up inside of him…
"Stay back. Everyone stay away from the car!" Dean shouts out the window.
Even though Sam knows that there's no one more careful around civilians than his brother, Dean's ferocity from the night before is scaring him now. Dean's not thinking straight…he's just not. Sam can't forget how Dean shot those hunters.
"Dean, they're civilians."
"Like hell those are civilians. They know our names, Sam!"
"There are kids out there."
"Right, and we both know that demons never possess kids. Look, do you know how many things want to mount your head above their fireplace? You're like a trophy, dude."
"Stay down. Sonuvabitch! They're still coming."
Glowering at his brother, Sam stays where he is and reminds himself why he's going along with this. Dean saved him. He pulled Sam out of perdition, just as surely as Castiel first saved Dean. He'd kept Sam from eating his gun or slitting his own throat more than once, during withdrawal and after, and Dean had only asked for this one thing.
Let me keep you safe, Sammy. I'm gonna take care of this. You gotta trust me to save you.
Dean's still shouting out the window, "Don't come any closer! Ah, crap."
"What's going on?"
"They're taking pictures."
"No way." Sam tries to get into a more comfortable position, but Dean uses the butt of the gun to prod him back down again. "Ow, damnit, that hurts. I'm not getting up, I'm just trying to talk to you. We can't let them take pictures."
"Yes, college boy, I know," Dean replies with exaggerated politeness. "And that's why you need to stay the hell down or I'm going to beat the crap out of you. All I need is our pictures posted all over the freakin internet…"
There's a voice way too close to Dean's side of the car. "Oh my gosh, he's even more beautiful than in the pictures."
That makes Sam smile, and he elbows his brother's knee. "They think you're beautiful, Dean. They must be possessed."
"Shut up," Dean grumbles, before yelling out the window, "Hey! Get away from the car! Have any of you people noticed that I have a gun?"
Sam hears a different voice call out, "Where's Sam? I can kind of see him. Isn't he supposed to be seven feet tall?"
Dean tenses up even more, and he glares down at Sam. "Can't you get down any further?"
"No, Dean I can't. I'm not five years old anymore."
"That's debatable," Dean mutters, and Sam would like to take a swing at him, when he thinks of something that makes him feel cold inside.
"Maybe it's a trickster who's doing this."
"Or maybe it's a town of possessed nut-cases. Damnit, I can't even back the car up."
Partly because his back and shoulders are absolutely killing him and partly because he wants to see the cheerleaders, Sam decides he's had enough. He accidentally elbows Dean in the side, as he painfully climbs onto his own seat.
"What the hell are you doing?"
"I'm getting up, Dean. Nobody's shooting at us."
"Oh look, it's Sam! It's really him!" There are a couple girls who look like they're turning thirteen and who are pointing. When he looks their way, they grab each other by the elbows and giggle.
Wide-eyed, Sam turns to his brother. "God, Dean. What's going on here?
He's seen a lot, but this is over the top. There are people milling around everywhere. A few are waving. Even if Dean opened fire, the sheer numbers would immediately overwhelm them. Sam duly checks off yet another sign of the apocalypse – mass demonic possession.
"Hey, don't touch the car!" Dean bitches out the window at a couple kids who are bouncing on the fender. He turns to Sam. "I say we take out a couple cheerleaders and get the hell out of here. This is some serious kind of crazy."
Sam doesn't like it, but he thinks Dean's right. They have no choice other than to start firing into the crowd.
"Go slow," he warns, looking over his shoulder. "They're doing a pyramid. Wait for the dismount."
"The dismount?" Dean smirks at him. "Dude, seriously. You know cheerleading terms?"
"Jess was a cheerleader in high school. She…showed me some stuff," Sam says a little defensively and then sees that there's a break before their next stunt. "Okay, back up now, go slow."
Dean shifts the car into reverse, and they're both checking to see if they're clear, when there's a businesslike tap at his window. Before they even turn around, Sam's got his knife out of its ankle holster and Dean swings the sawed off, whacking Sam in the face with the barrel.
There in Sam's window is a pleasant, smiling middle-aged woman, wearing a pink cowboy shirt, with her hands held up in cheerful surrender. Sam's mouth falls open, but she is miming for Sam to roll down the window.
"Sam, don't do it –"
Sam goes ahead and starts rolling down the window, ignoring Dean cussing him out. He knows he's being stupid. He does know better. With his luck, this perfectly nice woman is going to rip out his throat with her teeth. There are so many ways that this could come to a grotesque and absurd ending.
But Sam is tired. He's weary to the bone, and this kind of death would make a lot of people happy. Give the hunting world something to talk about for years to come – the delicious irony of the potential anti-Christ being taken out by a fifty-year-old possessed lady wearing a bracelet with poodle charms.
Sam sticks his head out the window. "Okay, let's get this over with. What do you want from us?"
The woman leans down so her face is just a few inches away, and Sam can smell her spearmint gum. She doesn't seem the least bit put out by the shotgun muzzle Dean's got aimed between her eyes.
"Sam and Dean Winchester. I'm Abby Wessell, and it's an honor to meet you. We've been waiting a long time for this."
Dean mutters something under his breath that sounds like sorry, Sammy. Sam doesn't get why until Dean says, "Christo," and Sam's body and soul implode in the wake of that singular word.
"Sorry, sorry," Dean babbles, but Sam is doubled over, trying to breathe again. The word is still molten fire running quicksilver through his veins, but it doesn't do a thing to deter the woman. She's just standing there, watching them both with something that almost looks like pity.
"You okay, Sammy?"
Sam is still breathing which pretty much defines okay in their book, so he nods. He's fine, except for the fact that he's not.
They found out about this a few weeks ago– the fact that holy water and crucifixes and love songs in Latin now cause Sam excruciating pain. Sam knows that this has been a sucker punch for Dean, even though his brother does not want to talk about it. Now that Sam's off the demon blood, Dean wants this to be behind them. But Sam knows that this will never be over, not for him. Ruby was telling the truth.
It wasn't the blood, it was you…and your choices…
The potential for evil is always going to be in him. It might lay dormant some of the time, but it will always be there, waiting for the right opportunity, waiting for him to fall. It is only a matter of time.
"Sam. Sammy? You okay?"
"I'm okay," Sam mutters, trying to rub away the pain in his head, but he's only managed to open up a cut on his forehead.
"You poor boys." The woman sighs somewhat sorrowfully.
"Who are you and what do you want?" Dean asks.
"Please. Call me Mrs. Wessell." She smiles. "You two are worried that we're possessed, and I don't blame you, not with all you've been through. Do you have any holy water? You could splash some on us to make yourselves feel better. Wait, I have a better idea. We have a well in the center of town, and we could hook up a hose, kind of like your father did in 'Salvation.' He was a very brave man, your father, and we're so sorry for your loss. I know it was a few years ago, but that sort of grief doesn't go away."
It takes nerve bringing up their dad. Dean, for once, is speechless, but it pisses Sam off and he says, "Christo" out of sheer defiance. Saying the word burns the inside of his mouth and throat like scalding water.
"Quit hurting yourself, Sam." Dean's furious and cuffs him on the back of the head. "Okay lady, listen up. If you all aren't demons, then I'm guessing you're true believers. So I want you to go and tell all your friends that if you're jockeying for position in my brother's kingdom or any crap like that, you're gonna have to find yourself a new boy king. Sammy's retired!"
"Good for you, Sam!" Mrs. Wessell says, beaming. "We knew things would work out as long as you boys stuck together. Now come on and why don't you get out of that hot car? We didn't have much time to prepare once we knew you were coming, but we do have iced tea." She admonishes the people gathered closest to the car, "Give them some space. They're a little nervous."
There's murmuring in the crowd, but people back away, most still smiling and some waving. The cheerleaders have moved to Sam's side of the car and are starting up a new routine, and there's a little kid dribbling a basketball by the curb.
Sam takes a breath and tries to pull himself together. He looks over at Dean, who is scowling, staring out at the crowd.
"What do we do?" Sam whispers.
Dean lowers the shotgun, resting the barrel on Sam's lap. "I don't know. We don't know jack about this town, but I don't know how long it's gonna be till we find anything else. I don't like it, but I think we gotta find out what's going on here."
They open their doors slowly, and Dean brandishes the shotgun as a warning. As they get out of the car, the crowd explodes with wildly enthusiastic applause.
Dean cautiously sidles over to Sam and mutters, "I feel like I'm in a freakin Twilight Zone episode."
"Dude, our lives are a Twilight Zone episode."
"Our lives are weird. This is batshit crazy."
Shoulder to shoulder, they walk down the middle of the road following Mrs. Wessell, still scanning the crowd for any sign of an attack. Sam's got dried blood stuck in his eyelashes, and his face is swelling up. Dean's all hunched over to one side like he always is when his ribs are cracked. They're not much to look at, yet all these people are carrying on like they're the Second Coming.
That thought sobers Sam up quickly. Nothing has changed, not really. They're still the damned chosen ones, Dean by heaven and Sam by hell. Sam likes Dean's odds better, and he'd like to give his brother the best shot that he can. The only reason Sam hasn't blown his brains out by now is because he knows now that it would kill Dean. Sam has had enough of killing his big brother for this one ruined lifetime.
When the street turns a corner, they almost collide into a marching band. Oddly enough, Sam couldn't hear music until the band was practically on top of them, and he's still staring while Dean hauls him out of the way. The band marches by, and they're cute - the little trombonists, the trumpet players, the chubby girl with the drum. They've got their whole lives ahead of them.
Sam watches until they're gone.
There's an ache inside he can hardly understand, words spoken in a waking dream he can't remember, the memory of himself as a boy that he can't forget.
I thought we were going to be normal.
As a kid, he'd always wanted to be in a parade.
To Be Continued
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