I wrote this back in July, before Rufus' return, but it seems fitting to post it now. It is, however, set in the first half of season four.
Special thanks to geminigrl11 for tossing ideas around with me!
End of the Rope
K Hanna Korossy
He could hear the rumbling car drive up and knew already without looking at the monitor that it was Dean Winchester pounding on his front door a few moments later.
"I'm busy," Rufus grumbled into the intercom.
"I brought you something," came the instant reply.
It wasn't the words, but rather the tone that intrigued him: desperate, maybe even scared. Rufus glanced over at the screen, eyebrow rising at the box the boy carried. Heaving a longsuffering sigh, he went to investigate.
He undid the several locks of his front door and opened it just enough to look Winchester over. The boy had reportedly been to Hell and back, and he looked it: unshaven, hollow-eyed. 'Course, he'd supposedly returned several months ago now, so Rufus kinda doubted that was his problem. He was almost curious.
"What kind of something?" he asked brusquely.
Winchester heaved the box a little higher, then lifted the top.
Nine boxes of Johnny Walker Blue were nestled inside. Over a thousand dollars' worth of liquid gold.
Even Rufus couldn't resist a treasure like that. He frowned but swung the door open wider. "I know I'm gonna regret this, but come on in."
The boy seemed smaller than the last time he'd sat at Rufus' kitchen table, and then he'd had a death sentence hanging over his head.
"I need your help." His voice was gruff, low. The sound of a man pushed to his limits.
Rufus leaned back in his chair, eyeing the boy, then the liquor that sat on the chair between them. "Why don't you go ask Singer? I know you two are tight."
Winchester drew a hand down his mouth, gaze pulling to the side. "Well, that's kinda the problem. Bobby's missing."
"Huh." Rufus reached over and gently tugged out one of those elegant bottles, all under Dean Winchester's watchful, weary eye, and poured himself a drink. "I've heard no one's been able to reach him a coupla days. Guess that's why." Man, nectar of the gods.
"Fifty-three hours," Dean said flatly. Didn't even have to look at his watch. His stare was back full on Rufus. "And he's not the only one. My brother Sam…he's missing, too." It was probably only because he was so tired that the tremor slipped into his words and despair shone briefly in his eyes.
Rufus watched him over the rim of the glass. He'd heard the Winchester brothers were close, but intel apparently hadn't done them justice. Gone was the smooth, sarcastic charmer who'd come to him once looking for a lead to save himself from Hell. This Dean Winchester was a wreck, pale and shaky and hollowed out. The kid was lost without his family.
Rufus grimaced. They were several thousand miles away from Singer's place, he didn't much care if the old coot had up and vanished, and he was a little busy with some problems of his own. But there was something about this boy he'd liked almost from the start: the mouth on him, maybe, or the unflinching way he'd faced his fate. Like the better parts of his daddy. Rufus didn't want to give a rat's derriere about yet another Winchester…but found he was intrigued despite himself.
Besides, he was already drinking the man's liquor, and a deal was a deal.
He leaned forward, warm shotglass gently braced between his fingers. "Tell me what you've got."
Wasn't much to work with. The Winchesters had been staying with Singer for a few days, and Dean had left on a supply run, nothing out of the ordinary. Came back to find some stuff broken and the house empty, no sign of his brother or Singer. He'd been looking feverishly ever since, Rufus gathered, not sleeping or eating, checking high and low around the area, calling contacts, nothing.
Rufus had to smile to himself. He always was people's last resort, after all else had failed. Didn't know if that was because he was as liable to kick them out as help them, or because he was just that good, but he had no problem with either.
First things first: Rufus fed the boy, not taking no for an answer, then sent him off for a few hours' sleep. Wouldn't do either of them any good if he was too exhausted to think straight. And he was on the verge of that. Once Winchester shut up and obeyed—after a hard look from Rufus—he dropped into bed like a felled oak, slept the sleep of the dead.
Rufus started digging.
Winchester finally wandered in the next morning, looking a little more alive and a lot younger. Still stank, though, so a shower and shave were next. Only then did Rufus let him anywhere near the table again.
"Okay, so, far as I can tell—and that's real far—no one's seen or heard from Singer or your brother since they disappeared. Nobody seems to have any particular ax to grind with either—or you—or at least no more than usual, and rumor mill's quiet. I've still got a few places to check, but so far it's like the two of them just up and vanished off the face of the planet."
The boy's fists tightened as Rufus talked, the lines coming back into his face. "But you've got more places to look, right? More strings to pull? I mean, you're the guy who knows things, aren't you?" The last was laced with sarcasm.
That was one thing Rufus didn't tolerate. He scowled at Winchester, leaning forward. "Listen, hotshot, you came to me. You paid for me to look—I'm looking. You weren't buying a miracle. I can't find something that's not out there to find."
"Then you're not looking hard enough!" Winchester slammed a fist on the table.
Rufus shoved to his feet. "Or maybe I'm looking in the wrong place. Your brother, he the same guy you left behind, Dean? Because I've been hearing some things about him that make me wonder. Maybe I'm not finding anything because I'm looking for a victim instead of the instigator."
Winchester's jaw shifted, his face flushing red, his eyes flat and diamond-hard. He looked every bit the dangerous hunter his rep claimed he was, and Rufus idly flipped through the different defenses he had hidden away in his kitchen. But then the fire slowly died out of the boy's eyes and he was just a scared kid left alone in a big, harsh world. "Sorry. You're right, I'm sorry." He didn't strike Rufus as the kind who backed down from a fight, but there was a broken humility in his bearing now as he rubbed a hand over his eyes, back through his disheveled hair. "But Sammy…it's not like that. He got into some stuff while I was gone, but he's not doing it anymore. And he wouldn't hurt Bobby. I know that, okay? Something happened to both of them. Maybe…" It was obviously hard for him to admit, Dean's throat bobbing. "…maybe he doesn't tell me everything, and maybe something came after him because of…who he is. But he didn't do this. I know it."
Rufus eyed him narrowly. "Someday that blind faith's gonna come back and bite you someplace personal, boy."
"Yeah, well, not today," Dean said, eyes sliding over the table, glancing off Rufus, then back down again. "Sam and Bobby are in trouble, I can feel it. All right?"
Rufus pressed his lips together. These Winchesters were more trouble than they were worth; he wasn't sure even a case of Blue covered this kind of aggravation. But he sighed, giving in to his soft side against his better judgment. "All right," Rufus agreed, sliding back down into his chair. "Let's go over it again, then. Exactly what did you see when you got back to Singer's?"
Dean took a deep breath and started over from the beginning.
He was pretty sure he had the answer.
Turned out it wasn't just general stuff that was broken when Winchester got back to the junkyard. It was some pottery sitting on Singer's desk, and Dean couldn't remember having seen it before. He was pretty sure he remembered a shipping box sitting nearby, too. Now they were getting somewhere.
Trouble was, Rufus needed to know what kind of pottery and who sent it. And that meant Winchester had to head back to South Dakota.
He was glad to get his place back to himself. He wasn't set up nor used to guests, and a powder keg like Dean Winchester wasn't exactly changing his mind about that. But…Rufus knew a thing or two about losing everyone you cared about, and he didn't need anyone to tell him it wasn't just his brother's loss that had sent Winchester tail-spinning. That old windbag Bobby Singer's disappearance had wiped the last of Dean's family off the map.
Next he'd be adopting strays off the street, Rufus snorted to himself.
The phone rang sooner than it should've for the trip Winchester was making, but Rufus wasn't too surprised. "You got it?"
"I'm sending the pictures right now."
Rufus settled himself in front of his computer and opened the files as they arrived. One pot, broken into three pieces, the writing familiar but not quite. The sender's name, however, he knew real well.
Dean was back on the phone, sounding breathless and impatient and like he was trying both not to hope and not to lose hope. "Well?"
Rufus nodded slowly at the screen. "Yeah. I think we're on to something here. I'll call you back."
He hung up and went to work.
Winchester answered before the first ring even finished. "You got something?"
"More than something. I know where they are."
He heard the boy suck in a breath. "They're alive," he said in a small voice.
It wasn't exactly a question, but Rufus answered anyway. "Oh, they're alive. Completely intact, actually. Probably won't even realize they've been gone."
A beat, then, "So? You gonna share with the class?"
Rufus' mouth twitched. "I got a price."
"I brought you a friggin' case of—"
"That was for findin' 'em. Not for helping you get them back."
There was some brief but eloquent cursing in the distance, then Winchester's terse, "Fine. I'll pick up some more—"
"I don't want more scotch. Fee for this one's your car."
There was a moment of speechless silence. "What—seriously? I'm not— You—" A long pause. Then, shakily, "Yeah, okay. You get them back safe and… Okay."
Rufus's eyebrows arched. He had some idea what that souped-up hearse meant to Winchester and had wondered if the boy would do it, had expected some negotiation or argument first. The quick capitulation was a surprise. Not the bad kind, though; sometimes people reminded him why he hadn't totally given up hope yet for his species. Rufus scoffed, "Boy, I hardly ever leave this house—what am I gonna do with a fancy gas-guzzler like that? Might as well put out an engraved invitation for vandals. Keep the car, just tell Singer he owes me one."
Winchester was breathing unsteadily. Probably getting nauseous from all the ups and downs his gut was going through.
Rufus took pity on him. "Look, it's actually pretty simple. The pot was…well, think about it like an ancient curse box. Breaking it let out the genie, so to speak. All you gotta do to fix it is make a paste from water, flour, agrimony, galangal, and nettle, and glue the pot back together. That'll seal the hole your brother and Singer fell through. You'll have to do a more permanent job later, but Singer'll know how."
"That's it?" Winchester asked, disbelief clear. "I glue the stupid bowl back together and they just, what, beam back in?"
"Well, I can give you some limericks to say over it if it'll make you feel better, but result's gonna be the same," Rufus retorted. "The idiot who shipped the pot didn't pack it right—probably fell apart as soon as Singer unwrapped it and, well, bye-bye anyone unlucky enough to be close by. Good thing you weren't home, or you'd have gone with 'em, and who knows when anyone would've figured it out. Not 'til somebody missed you, so might've been a long time."
"Thanks." Winchester was hushed, almost reverent. "This works, and I owe you one, too."
"Yeah, well, just don't come to me next time you need something, and we'll call it even," Rufus said wryly.
He received a chuckle for that, and then Winchester was gone, rushing off to save his family.
Rufus shook his head and rewarded himself with a drink.
That night he got the call he was expecting.
"Singer," Rufus evenly greeted back.
"I hear you helped Dean get me and Sam home. Guess I owe you some thanks for that one."
Interesting use of the word home. And the grudging gratitude in Singer's voice made Rufus grin. "I got paid. If nothing else, you trained that boy well."
"I can't take the credit for that one, we both know that." He sounded a little friendlier now.
"That John Winchester sure was a piece of work," Rufus agreed. He tipped his head. "How's the boy doing?"
"Dean? He was practically out on his feet when we got back. Sam and I can't remember a thing—wouldn't have even known we'd been gone if Dean didn't look like the wrong end of a week-long bender. His brother finally put him to bed—they're upstairs now."
Rufus snorted. "Yeah, had to do a little of that myself. Boy was about to fall over by the time he showed up at my door."
"Thanks for looking after him, Rufus." That was as honest a line as he'd ever heard from Bobby Singer. "Sam's all the family Dean's got left, and…well, I'm glad you could be there for him when I couldn't."
No point in noting the obvious, that Sam hadn't been the only family Dean had left to worry about. Rufus got it. "Like I said, I got paid." He shrugged, pouring himself a smooth glass of scotch. "Dean tell you he was willing to give me that car of his in exchange for help?"
"But seeing as you rarely leave that house of yours…" Bobby began dryly.
"…I had to turn him down," Rufus finished with a nod. "Just thought you might want to tell that brother of his that."
"I'll pass it on, but it won't be news to Sam. Those two are close—you're not gonna be able to peel them away from each other for a while now."
"Good to hear," Rufus said. "Guess that's why we're still in this business."
"Besides the money?" It was an old point of contention between them, the profit Rufus made selling information and objects, but there was a smile in Singer's voice this time.
Rufus answered in kind. "Well, there is that."
Singer just laughed. "Take care of yourself, you old hermit."
"You too, junkman." He hung up the phone and took a sip of Blue.
There was a file spread out in front of him, and Rufus nodded as he closed it and set it aside. Written in block letters along one bulging side was Sam Winchester.
"Good to hear," Rufus repeated quietly. "Maybe it'll be enough."
He smiled to himself and sat back to savor the scotch.