Author's Note: Many thanks to Dress Without Sleeves for the take-no-prisoners edit. She has made this story far better than it was, and I'm very grateful for her generosity with her time and her enthusiasm.

If Ever I Cease to Love

Dean remembered New Orleans as a pair of sister cities separated by two weeks of standing water.

The first city was the heat of flambeaux and the opulence of parades in the humid March night, hip-rocking blues on a corner of Frenchman Street, and a Tulane senior grinning at him with a rum and coke in her hand. "Hey, sugar. Dance with me?" It was fried oysters, gumbo with andouille sausage, and cayenne on his tongue cooled with long drafts of crisp beer. It was the Lalaurie mansion, a cemetery called Odd Fellows' Rest, and a subculture of psychics and conjurers who knew what lived in the dark. And God bless them, but they even kept their stiffs above ground where he didn't have to dig for them. Dean was nineteen and of an age to fall in love.

"We're here to work," Dad kept reminding him. "I get that this place might as well be a theme park built just for you, but I need you focused."

"He didn't mean on the waitress, jackass," Sam said, bumping his shoulder and grinning at his own wit. That was the last spring before the kid started hating everyone's guts.

Seven years later, Dean walked the streets of the second city.

"Pastor Jim needs a favor," Dad said over the phone. "A friend of his thinks she's got an angry spirit on her hands. Elena Washington's her name."

"Where?"

"New Orleans."

On a barstool in nice, dry Little Rock, Dean sat up a bit straighter. "Dad, have you been watching the news lately?"

"I have. Don't piss off the Guard while you're there."

It was a bitch getting into the city, even with the badge Dean flashed when he needed to. His first good look snaking in on River Road was like coming back to a one night stand and finding her horribly disfigured. This second city smelled of mold, stagnant sewage, and a stark chemical stench magnified by the heat. A waterline was inked on rows upon rows of empty houses, and Dean could drive for blocks without seeing a soul. Then he could look some poor bastard in the eye and wish he hadn't.

Two weeks later, Dean chased a bokor through bombed-out houses, skidding in caked mud, and when he caught the son of a bitch he slammed him onto a warped table and looked him in the eyes.

"You don't profit from this," he hissed. "You don't take from people who've lost everything."

Twenty minutes later, he showed up on Elena Washington's doorstep, and she gasped at what a mess he looked.

"I found him, Miss Elena," he panted. "I doubt he'll try that left-handed shi—I mean, that stuff again."

"What happened, honey?" she said, gripping his chin. "What happened?"

He told her.

The next morning, he was heading west over the Bonnet Carre Spillway, an MRE on the seat next to him and a white aluminum can marked DRINKING WATER secured between his knees. California lay ahead.

::

::

January 30, 2008
Fayetteville, North Carolina

"Encuéntrelo."

Dean had the shotgun leveled on her in a heartbeat. His breath frosted, and the old bone-deep revulsion raised the hair on the back of his neck. A few yards behind him, Sam was busy with the lighter and the accelerant, and Dean was prepared to cover him while he finished the job. But the dead girl only stood there, sad-eyed and half-hidden behind someone else's gravestone.

"Usted tiene que encontrarlo," she said, her hand curled childishly over her heart.

"Find who?" Dean barked, keeping the shotgun on her but moving his finger from trigger to guard.

She lifted a thick-chained necklace over her head, tugging it free of her ragged hair. "El hombre con los ojos negros," she said, laying it on top of the headstone.

Dean felt the flare of heat when the bones went up, and he watched Sonia Torres flicker out of existence.

"It's done?" Sam panted next to the grave.

"Yeah," Dean said vaguely.

"What did she say to you?"

Dean went over to the headstone where something silvery still gleamed in the moonlight. Sonia had left a pair of dog tags. BROUSSARD, JAMES T, they said. Apparently James was A negative and a Catholic.

"I think she told me what killed her."

::

::

"I mean, she was just one more stripper in a military town," Dean said through a mouthful of sausage, egg, and biscuit the next morning. "No family, no close friends. She hanged herself, case closed." He swallowed, washing it down with coffee. "All those witnesses we talked to? She was probably trying to tell them about the man with the black eyes, and none of them understood her."

"Yeah, about that," Sam said, poking at his short stack and regarding him with weird guilt across the booth. "Since when do you speak Spanish?"

Sam seemed to have it in his head lately that he'd somehow failed Dean every time he didn't know a random fact about him. Dean couldn't fathom it until the first time he realized he couldn't remember his father's favorite cigar brand.

"I don't speak it. I just understand a little."

"Didn't you fail Spanish I? Like, two or three times?"

Dean paused with his coffee halfway to his mouth. "Someday I'll tell you about Arizona," he said. When Sam's head tilted curiously, he added: "You were at school."

That was a crap move, especially this early in the morning. But Sam just tilted his head and said, "Someday, huh? Like, within the next three months?"

And ah, shit, Dean knew where this was going. His mug clinked down hard on the table. "Sam. This is not something I'm interested in discussing again."

"This guy I'm talking to—he might be able to help you," Sam said, leaning forward earnestly. "We're running down the clock. We need to look into this."

"We've got a possessed guy killing people," Dean said, spearing a chunk of cantaloupe. "We're going to look into that. Eat your bacon."

They rode in cold silence back to the motel room, where Dean left Sam with the laptop. It was the easiest search he'd done in a while; they had the guy's social security number on his dog tags.

"PFC James Broussard is with the 82nd Airborne," Sam informed him stiffly on the phone half an hour later. "He's twenty-three, he's from New Orleans, Louisiana, and he's done two tours in Iraq since he enlisted in October oh-five."

"Great," Dean said. "I just parked in front of Sonia's strip joint. Maybe somebody here knows where the poor bastard is."

::

::

"Guess what, Sammy."

"You got all the strippers' phone numbers?" Sam said without looking up from his book. He was hunched up near the headboard, scratchy motel sheets across his lap.

"We're going to New Orleans."

That got Sam's attention. "What? Why?"

"Candi-with-an-I says that our guy was a regular, and he had a thing for Sonia. And right now?" Dean said, pulling out the desk chair and straddling it backwards, "Right now he's got leave, and he's gone home. For Mardi Gras."

"You're serious," Sam said flatly.

A beautiful, wonderful thing had happened, and Sam had no business looking so grumpy. "Mardi Gras," Dean repeated, to no effect. "We'll stay for parades after the case wraps. It can be my birthday present."

That was kind of a stretch, seeing as Dean's birthday had come and gone a week before, and no one had said a word. Maybe it was because every major holiday and significant date this year was labeled Dean's Very Last. Or maybe it was because at the moment Dean turned twenty-nine, he'd been yarking up blood and Sam had been waving the Colt in some housewives' faces.

Sam sat up, rumpled and accusatory. "But the conjure man in Charlotte, he's just a couple hours—"

"Birthday present," Dean repeated, because no conjure man was handing out get-out-of-hell-free cards, and he'd had enough of dead ends. After the witch job and the fun news about where demons come from, Sam's trapped expression had only gotten more frantic with every crushed hope.

Sam let his head fall back against the wall, frowning at the ceiling. "We could get you a cupcake with a candle in it. In Charlotte."

But Dean was already throwing things in his duffel, because, dude. Possessed guy. Killing people. Mardi Gras. "You remember Krewe d'Etat that one year? What was it, '98?"

"I remember," Sam sighed in resignation, kicking free of the blankets and rolling out of bed. "I got hit in the head by a bag of glowing plastic skulls, and you didn't even notice because your tongue was too far down that girl's throat."

"I was thinking about the talking teddy bear I caught. Remember those bears? You squeezed them, and they went—" Dean put on a squeaky mouse voice: "Hail to the dictator!"

Sam shook his head, lumbering into the bathroom. "I hate Mardi Gras."

"You hate fun," Dean called after him.

"I hate fun." And the bathroom door clicked shut.

New Orleans had been good to Dean once upon a time, and a couple years back, he'd tried to be good to her too. They understood each other. Dean could work the job, get elbow-deep in oyster po-boys, and hit the parade route. A couple of hand grenades, and he might even be drunk enough to tell Sam about Arizona.

::

::

They made it into New Orleans on Friday afternoon, and holy hell, the traffic was ridiculous. The hotels were chock full, and the Winchesters paid through the nose for a nasty little motel room in freaking Metairie. On the other hand, the bars were full of drunk tourists who sucked at pool and poker, so he figured it balanced out.

They had an address for Broussard on Coliseum Street, and it was easy enough to get a phone number to go with it. "Yeah, hi," Sam said when he called. "I'd like to speak to James. Well, could you tell me where he's staying? Oh. Okay, thanks."

There was a pause, and then he hung up. "What?" Dean said.

"She said he hasn't lived there for three years, and she didn't even know he was in town," Sam sighed. "He could be staying anywhere in the city. Hotels, with friends...."

"We don't have time for that crap," Dean muttered, mostly to himself. "I vote we take a shortcut."

"Shortcut?"

::

::

In Miss Elena Washington's neighborhood, half the lots were populated by gutted shells under heavy construction or by weeds gone wild. Some of the houses had been razed to slabs; others dozed in fitful emptiness, balconies nodding down over porches. On some clouded windows, Dean could still see the line left by eight feet of water.

He could have grinned like a lunatic for how far it had come.

"It's been more than two years," Sam murmured, transfixed. He'd stared out the passenger window all the way in on I-10, eyebrows knit darkly at wounds not yet healed over.

"Yeah."

"I thought it would be… better."

Dean cocked an eyebrow at him, then let it go. "Guess not."

Brow furrowed, Sam turned to Dean thoughtfully: "You know this woman from that job right after Hurricane Katrina, right?"

"Stayed on her second floor," Dean said absently, on the watch for Catina Street's monster potholes.

"That was the voodoo thing?"

"Zombis astral."

Sam whistled. "How'd you stop the bokor?"

"We hugged it out."

He saw none of the familiar landmarks—the fridge on the sidewalk that said "HELL OF A JOB, BROWNIE," the red Toyota on the corner with the seats growing green slime—but he found the house without any trouble.

They found Miss Elena in her garden, which Dean remembered as a mushy thicket of gray branches and rotting vegetation. He'd spent evenings clearing it of the debris that had floated in—kids' toys, odd bits of plastic and styrofoam, and one dead cat. Now it was lush and green, and Miss Elena was plucking mint leaves from the overgrown bush under the front windows. She was in overalls and a straw hat, and she looked like she'd gained a few pounds since Dean saw her last.

"Miss Elena?" he called from the gate.

She straightened and looked around, and a closemouthed smile spread across her face. "Dean."

"The neighborhood's looking good, coming back. How've you been, ma'am?"

She set down her handfuls of mint and headed over to the gate. "I get by, I get by. And this here is Sam, is it?"

"Nice to meet you, Miss Washington," Sam said with a nod.

"You call me Miss Elena," she said with a smile that didn't reach her eyes. She swung the gate open and waved them in. "Y'all want a cold drink?" she said, stress falling on the cold. Down here that meant soda; Miss Elena wouldn't have alcohol in the house.

"That'd be great," Dean said.

They followed her up the front steps and into the snug neatness of her kitchen, where she tossed down the mint leaves and cracked open two Big Shot cream sodas. Dean glanced around curiously. Last time he was here, the first floor of this house had looked like a set piece from Enemy at the Gates. Now it was sparsely, cheaply furnished, and the walls were papered in ugly floral patterns instead of black blooms of mold.

In '05, the dining room table had floated across those doors there and come to rest without disturbing the vase on top. The papery gray flowers had still stood at a jaunty angle the morning Dean left.

"Here you are," Miss Elena said, sliding the cream sodas across her folding table. She sank into a chair, folded her hands neatly in her lap, and said, "Now what's on your mind?"

She had said the same exact words to him just hours before he caught the bokor, and her expression had been almost grandmotherly. After two weeks in her house, doing her heavy lifting, he'd earned himself a dozen pet names and a whole lot of grateful affection.

Now she regarded him professionally, and she kept casting wary looks at Sam.

"We're looking for a soldier on leave," Dean said. "We've got a name, but he could be anywhere in the city and we need to find him fast."

"Why's that?"

"He might be dangerous," Sam said. When her expression didn't change, he added: "Possessed."

Miss Elena breathed in deep, leaning back in her chair. "Oh," she said, very quietly. Her gaze slid slowly and deliberately to Dean. "What you going to do with this one if I find him for you?"

Dean said nothing. Let her judge if she wanted.

"We're going to stop him," Sam said, glancing between them curiously. "Exorcise the demon."

Miss Elena nodded, eyes lingering on Dean. "I better cast the bones."

"Will these help?" Dean said, pulling Broussard's dog tags out of his pocket and sliding them across the plastic tabletop.

"Can't hurt, can't hurt," she said, reaching out and gathering the chain into one fist. "James T. Broussard," she read. She stood and reached above her head, where bundled herbs hung suspended. From among them, she pulled down two small bags, and from a drawer she pulled a canvas cloth marked with a circle in thick black. "Y'all be quiet now," she muttered to Sam and Dean.

They obeyed, elbows off the table, and they watched her work. Dean had seen her do this once before, and it honestly didn't look like much. She laid down the tablecloth, poured sand from one of the bags, and spread it in the circle like she was making a Zen sand garden. Then she sat back and closed her eyes, breathing unnaturally deep.

Dean's leg started bouncing. Sam knocked their knees together, and he stopped.

Miss Elena's arm darted out like it had a mind of its own, and her fingers closed around the other bag. She flicked her wrist, and six tiny bird bones tumbled out onto the sand. Her eyes snapped open, flickering and searching, tracing the gouges in the sand and the pattern of the bones.

"Hmmm," she sighed.

And then her eyes fluttered shut, and her chin dropped to her chest. The dog tags clattered to the floor, leaving red imprints on her palms.

"Miss Elena?" Dean said, reaching out to her.

Her head snapped up, and a smirk tugged at one side of her mouth. "Either of you got a tux?"

::

::

"I can't believe we're doing this again."

"It's the easiest way," Sam said, smacking him in the chest with a bundle of black and white. "Iron that before you wear it."

"Can't we just ninja around the place?" Dean said, aware of the whiny note in his voice and unable to stop it. "Why the hell do we have to mingle?"

Sam didn't dignify that with a response. Miss Elena had already explained that the Krewe of Mystery's bal masque was a black-tie affair, and that security would take an interest in anyone so gauche as to ninja around in jeans. Dean played the first card that came to mind—"Do I look like I own a tux?"—but Sam, the bastard, had an ace up his sleeve.

"Gertrude Case told me to keep the tuxes we wore for that heist. As a present," he said sourly. Three months later, and he still refused to see what was so freaking hilarious about that incident.

"Looks like you're all set," Miss Elena said. "Slip in the back since you ain't got an invite. Now I looked and saw through the boy's eyes, and mostly I saw the open bar. So keep a lookout there."

"Yeah, thanks," Dean muttered.

He wore his boots under the satin-lined slacks.

"Are you ready yet?" Sam said through the bathroom door a couple hours later. "It's almost nine."

Dean poked at the bowtie one last time, rolled his eyes, and opened the door. "Let's go."

"Where are your dress shoes?" Sam demanded.

"They don't fit." It might even be true; Dean hadn't tried them on.

"You can't wear boots, Dean."

Dean walked past him, grabbed his car keys, and headed for the door. "Aren't we late?"

They made it to the car with a minimum of grumbling. But with one hand on the door handle, Sam paused and pursed his lips at Dean across the roof.

"Are me and my boots going to embarrass you that much?" Dean said.

"How'd you stop the bokor in '05?"

It sounded like honest curiosity, but honest curiosity would have waited until after the demon-hunting. "Why do you want to know?"

Sam shrugged, looking away. "It seemed important to Elena."

"It was," Dean admitted. What happened, honey? Whose blood is this?

"Did you kill him?" Sam asked evenly.

Dean let out a long breath. I had no choice, he'd told Elena.

It's all right, she'd said over and over, taping gauze to his back. And she'd looked at him different.

"A guy pulls a knife on you in an abandoned house in a freaking empty city, what are you going to do?"

Sam nodded, rolling his lips. "I'm just remembering Roy LeGrange," he said, and suddenly Dean liked this conversation even less. "You said we had to stop him—kill him."

"Yeah?"

Sam shrugged. "But you thought I should mope and wring my hands over Gordon Walker."

Yeah. I thought that.

Very quietly, Dean said, "Get in the car, Sam."

::

::

The tea room was easy to slip into after a quick walk under the oak trees to cross the cool darkness of Audubon Park. They found a gap in the tall, manicured bushes hung with tiny white lights, and they strolled right onto the veranda. "Okay," Dean said, eyes scanning clusters of women in floor-length satin and men in tuxes or tails. There were even a few krewe members in their bright, sequined costumes, wearing masks with wide, sloppy eye holes. Masks wouldn't make Dean's job any easier. "You want to take the outside, I'll take the inside?"

But the clusters of people had just started moving for the open French doors.

"Looks like inside is the place to be," Sam said.

They followed the crowd. Hardwood floors, blue-and-silver hangings, and neat rows of chairs awaited in the warm, golden light of the ballroom. Two massive sprays of roses stood on either side of a painted wooden throne. The whole setup set Dean's teeth on edge. "Are we coming up on the make-believe royalty part?" he muttered to Sam.

"Yeah, I think this is the presentation of the court."

Research Boy had this part figured. "All right, let's find our guy."

They moved off in separate directions through the crowd, trying to match a face to the military ID of James Broussard that they'd both studied. Dean stepped on at least two trailing dresses, and he brushed shoulders with a guy in a polyester gray coat and a Confederate kepi. Grown men playing dress-up. Huh.

Then the lights went out.

"Crap," Dean hissed.

He hadn't figured on the krewe putting on a show, but apparently that's what "presentation of the court" meant. A jazz band filled the room with a tune swinging out of the Big Band era. Drunk maskers paraded around the dance floor throwing beads, and then dukes in purple, green, and gold started marching out to the theme from Lord of the Rings.

This was really not the Mardi Gras Dean had signed on for. He took a moment to stare. The dukes were in tights, for God's sake. Tights and hats with big tall plumes of feathers on top.

Then he shook his head, engaged his weirdness filter, and took the opportunity to scan the crowd. The reflected light of all the ridiculous pageantry illuminated their faces softly, and Dean saw… nothing, nothing, and nothing. Of course, Broussard could be one of the jackasses in masks. It would be really, massively helpful if he happened to be wearing his dress uniform, but—

"Excuse me," someone said, laying a gentle hand on his arm.

He looked down into a pair of pretty brown eyes, and then further down at one hell of a dress. It wasn't every day a chick in blue satin walked out of an old movie and tapped him on the arm. "You are most definitely excused," he said, letting the grin spread across his face.

The woman's smile turned faintly amused. "Can I beg a favor?"

"Please do."

"My little sister is being presented next," she said, going up on tiptoe to be heard over the music. On her toes, she was only eye level with his bowtie, so he bent down and put his ear next to her mouth. "I can't see over everyone's heads. Would you mind?" She held up a thin digital camera.

Would he mind. "Sure thing," he said, flashing another grin. He took the camera, brushing her fingers. "I'm Dean."

"Maria," she said, offering her hand. He shook it, and then she turned back toward the dance floor as the band transitioned seamlessly into one of those Disney princess songs. "There she is."

One of the guys in tights and feathers led a teenaged version of Maria—same dark hair, same smile—into the spotlight. She carried red roses, and Dean thought he saw a gleam of braces.

"She looks just like you," he said to Maria. "Lucky kid."

She laughed appreciatively, and he allowed himself an inner fist pump. On the dance floor, the little sister walked and curtsied, curtsied and walked, and Dean snapped photos of the amazing feat. Then she took her place up onstage next to the throne, and he handed the camera back.

"Thank you so much," Maria said, holding his eyes just a moment longer than she needed to. Dean was prepared to revise his opinion of this whole evening if she was angling to take him home.

But then she nodded in an oddly formal way, and she disappeared into the crowd.

Dean shrugged, let it go, and got his mind back on the job. Another few minutes of crowd-combing, and he still had nothing. He spotted Sam not far away, and edged between heavily perfumed women to get to him.

Under cover of the king and queen of Mystery doing their grand march thing to really important-sounding music, the Winchesters held a quick conference.

"You don't think Elena had it wrong, do you?"

"Maybe Broussard's late," Dean said with a shrug. "This thing goes on for another couple of hours."

"We've been going off an ID," Sam said, eyes on the scepter-waving going on over Dean's shoulder. He raised his voice over the applause: "It's probably a horrible picture."

"Yeah, well," Dean said, turning to watch the court disperse and the dancing begin. "It's what we've got."

The French doors were open again, but most people were opting to stay in the warmth and glitter. Most, but not all. Dean noticed a young guy duck out into the darkness with a drink in his hand. He was about five-six, and he had a sturdy look to him.

"He fits the description," Dean said, nudging Sam.

"So do a dozen other short guys with dark hair. But yeah, sure."

They headed out into the chilly night, letting their eyes adjust to the dimness. Dean didn't see the guy anywhere, so he and Sam followed the curve of the veranda. They walked all the way to the opposite side and saw only old ladies in beaded gowns.

On the way back, they heard voices out in the garden.

"Stop it," a woman said, tense and frightened. "Let go of me."

"Shhh," someone else murmured. "Hush."

"What—what are you doing? Ah!"

"James, you're hurting her!" a girl's voice shouted.

Sam and Dean both started running.

They were hurtling around a hedge when they saw it: the sturdy guy had his hands wrapped around the throat of a woman in blue satin. He shoved her away choking, and he grabbed the shoulders of a girl in a white dress. In one smooth, brutal motion, he sent her crashing into a low brick wall. Her head struck heavily, and she slid to the ground like a broken doll.

The woman in blue was trying to scream. It was Maria, Dean realized, and the girl in white was her sister.

Dean was there in less than a second, and a punch to the face sent James Broussard reeling. Dean felt something liquid on his knuckles, too thick to be blood. Broussard straightened, and Dean saw that both his cheeks were streaked with black.

Ectoplasm.

Time to revise a couple of assumptions.

"Grab him!" Sam yelled, and on reflex, Dean threw himself into a takedown. Broussard kept his cool, hit the grass under him in a disturbingly professional guard, and immediately tried to sweep Dean sideways. The bastard knew his way around some ground fighting.

"Salt!" Dean yelled, striking fast and brutal at Broussard's face. Not one hit landed, but they kept him busy.

Sam put an end to the grappling by simply straddling Broussard in a full mount. There was only so much fighting you could do when you had the Ginormotron sitting on your chest. Sam pried the guy's jaw open, poured in half a flask of salt, forced his mouth shut, and held it there.

They panted through a few tense moments, expecting a shadowy form to go somersaulting away.

"Emma," Maria was saying, hoarse and hyper-calm. She knelt over the girl, methodically checking her pupils. "Come on, ti-bé. Emma."

An expanding cloud of black smoke seemed to burst all around Broussard, swallowing Sam and Dean and chilling them to the bone. Sam actually rolled away from him, yelling "Christo!" at the top of his lungs.

Then the black smoke imploded into Broussard's chest, gone as fast as it came.

"What the hell?" Dean said.

Beneath him, Broussard rolled sideways and started retching up salt. "Ugh, aw, nasty," he choked out, gagging and spitting. He shoved at Dean and growled, "Get the fuck off me."

The Winchesters looked from him to each other and back again.

"Emma, sweetie," Maria was still saying. "Emma."

No one answered her.