Dean woke up at two-thirty on Mardi Gras afternoon, bleary-eyed and cranky after too little sleep and then too much. The motel room was dim, and the other bed was empty.
"Sam?" he croaked at the closed bathroom door.
The bathroom door didn't answer.
On the nightstand next to him was a cup of coffee, still steaming, and a neatly printed note: Gone out for a couple hours.
Dean was pretty sure he knew where. "Oh, you are going to be drawing your eyebrows in with Sharpie for weeks," he muttered with no real heat. This wasn't a big shock, after all. Sam Winchester doing things his own cussheaded way, news at ten.
Dean could go after him. He could also go down to where the entire city was having a party out on the sidewalk. He might catch the truck parades, and they threw more loot than stodgy old Rex ever did.
He rolled out of bed, got himself dressed and cleaned up, and shouldered open the door to some truly obnoxious sunshine. "Bitch better not have taken the car," he told the parking lot.
Dean made some phone calls, and he drove out to West End.
A black monster of a pickup truck was parked in front of the Broussards' boat house. The thing looked like it ran on testosterone and tobacco juice, and James leaned on the bumper with his arms crossed. He was dressed in loose-fitting jeans, and except for the lines of bandages under his American Eagle T-shirt, he looked like any other douchebag twenty-something.
"Harrison," he said with a poker face that had probably been leveled at a lot of officers and a few MPs.
"You got it?"
Dean hefted a duffel bag. "You?"
James dangled a set of keys on a flotation fob.
"Let's get started."
In the shade of the boat house's tin roof, on the slab next to the dock, they spread out their tools and got to work. It didn't take long, and they didn't talk. When it was finished, they stepped into the Whaler, and James lowered the outboard into the water. Dean untied them, and James steered through the half-rebuilt harbor and out around the jetty.
The lake was glass-smooth, stretching west to the Causeway and north out of sight. James leaned on the throttle, and the bow rose up out of the water in an eager surge. Behind them, their wake churned up white, narrowed and solidified, and then the hull leveled out to planing.
Dean stood with one hand on the console and let cool, briny air rush past him at forty miles an hour.
It was a twenty minute ride out past the comfortable distance for skiing or fishing. When the city skyline started losing its shape in the distance, James eased back and cut the engine. The wake carried the boat forward in one rocking pitch, and then they were drifting.
The sudden silence left Dean holding his breath.
"Good enough?" James said.
"Good enough." From the duffel, Dean pulled a stainless steel curse box modeled on the ones in Dad's lockup. Every seam had been soldered shut and polished smooth, and the binding sigils had been etched into the interior walls. The lake-bottom's sludgy mud would swallow the curse box long before rust ate it to pieces.
"It's only twenty-odd feet deep here," James said. "You sure you want to just—"
Dean shook up a can of WD-40, sprayed every side of the box liberally, and tossed it. It hit the water with a plop, and not even bubbles came up behind it.
James didn't fire up the engine right away. He sat on the gunwale and listened to the soft, timid sound of water kissing the hull. "You molested me," he said at last, as if it had just occurred to him. Then he cracked a smirk. "You pervy son of a bitch."
"Saved your ass," Dean said, pulling a warm Abita Amber out of the duffel and cracking it open.
"Yeah, I guess so," James muttered, sobering. "That was some grade-A fuckwitted crazy you pulled. You shouldn't have done it."
"Probably not." Dean held out a Blue Moon and a Red Ale, and James snagged the latter.
"So why did you?" There was a quick hiss, and James tossed his bottle cap overboard. "Mia batted her Bambi eyes, and you rushed headlong into danger's gaping maw?"
Dean leered as offensively as he knew how. "And guess how she thanked me."
"He saves lives and cracks wise," James singsonged. "Modern American hero." And he leaned out over the water, trying to catch the eye of his shifting reflection.
"You hit Sonia too," Dean said before he could stop himself. "Didn't you?"
James tipped his beer for another sip.
Dean knocked it out of his hand. The glass ground against James' teeth, and then beer flew in the sunlight and the bottle smacked the water and bobbed away.
"You did the world a real favor," said James, contempt in his face and blood welling on his lower lip. "Keeping me in it."
"Fuck you," Dean said, sitting back on the deck. It was out of his jurisdiction, and he didn't really expect anything from this asshole anyway. Not from another dumb grunt on the highway to hell. "Just go home and be nice to your kid sister. She seems to think you're a decent person, all evidence to the contrary."
"Yeah," James said very quietly. "She thinks that."
And he stood up and threw the engine into gear.
Maria stood waiting for them on the dock, dressed neatly in jeans and a cashmere sweater like she hadn't spent last night tweezing glass shards out of people's skin. She walked up to meet the Whaler as it glided in, and her heels were loud on the wooden planks.
Dean tossed her the bowline, and she cleated it down proficiently while James tied off the stern.
"It's done?" she said.
"Squared away," Dean replied.
She looked past him with cautious hope, and she said to James' back, "Emma's being released from the hospital this evening."
He nodded, hanging bumpers over the gunwale, and he didn't look at her.
Dean shook his head. "You've been a real pain in the ass, Broussard," he said by way of farewell, and he headed out into the sunshine.
Maria walked him to his car, and he didn't turn to face her until he had the driver's side door open between them. She knew he was on a deadline, and last night she'd smiled at him in the darkness. If she did it again in daylight, he might go a little wistful and stupid, like that time in Nebraska when he promised, I'm not the praying type, but…
Sam should have been here, the jackass. Dean never said candy-ass shit like that when Sam was watching.
"Thank you for my family," Maria said with weird formality, as if she might punctuate it with a curtsy. "I don't know how I can ever repay you."
Some long night on a stakeout Dean would have to think of a better response to that than some waggled eyebrows. But for now—what the hell. It made her laugh.
"Emma passed along a message," she said, still smiling. "She said you do a better Atticus Finch than that old fart in the movie."
"She's a sweet kid," Dean said. "I hope…" I hope she learns Braille fast? Hope she's a ninja with that white cane? "I hope she'll be okay."
The smile faded. "So do I."
Dean cleared his throat. "If you ever see anything in our line of work again, you call Sam. He'll help."
She licked her lips. "What about you?"
"Me, I'm going to catch the tail end of Mardi Gras." Last hurrah before the sacrifice. You grew up here, girl, you should know this. "Big party out there."
Maria smiled ruefully and let him dodge her question. "I should tell you," she said hesitantly. "I didn't walk up to you with that camera because you were tall."
Dean grinned his most rakish. "Oh, sweetheart, I knew that."
"It was the boots," she admitted, going faintly pink. "You were wearing scuffed-up work boots with your tux."
It would have been better if she'd just agreed that he was one sexy, panties-melting son of a bitch. Then he could have said something crude, and she would have laughed. He could have driven off into the sunset with the windows down and the music up.
But in the darkness, he had smiled back at her, and now she looked at him different.
"May second," he said for the first time. He and Sam had always used the countdown, not the date. The date was a real thing, anchored on a calendar. "You can reach me 'til May second."
Even on her toes, she wasn't tall enough to kiss his cheek. He bowed his head to let her.
As he drove away, he angled his cheek in the rearview mirror. She hadn't left a lipstick print.
A light shone from Elena's kitchen window when Dean pulled up in front of the house, and through the gauzy curtains he saw shadows rise and shift. Sam must have heard the Impala; there was no way he didn't recognize the sound of her engine.
The front door banged open the same moment Dean slammed the car door. Houston, we have liftoff.
"Whatever you're going to say, just don't," Sam said, striding down the front walk. Behind him, Elena leaned silhouetted in the doorway, watching the Winchesters like an old, sad movie she'd seen too often before.
"Don't even," Dean said, planting his feet halfway up the walk. You cannot pass, bitch. "You're not getting in my car until you explain what you're doing here when I damn well told you—"
"Don't worry, she can't help you," Sam said viciously, stepping right up in Dean's space and reminding him of the four inches and twenty pounds he had on big brother. "No one can help you. You're going to get your own fucking way and burn in hell, so it's all good."
Dean shoved him back by the shoulders, sharp but controlled. "I asked you what you're doing here, Sam."
Sam snapped out an arm, swatting him away. "Don't touch me."
"I distinctly remember telling you not to come here. More than once."
"Jesus," Sam hissed, hands coming up like he was two seconds from wrapping them around Dean's throat. He was nothing but rage in a thin layer of skin right now, and there was no one to point a gun at. No one to hold accountable but Dean. "What am I supposed to do?" he shouted. "How else am I supposed to do this?"
"Sam—" Dean started.
He didn't get any farther than that. A wet sheen had turned Sam's eyes to blown glass, hot and overbright. It was Pavlovian, the way Dean's guts twisted up and his lungs went leaden.
This, right here, was why Dean blew off the conjure man in Charlotte. This was why the rootworker in St. Louis and the sweet little rare books dealer in St. Rose and Miss Elena—especially Miss Elena—were crap ideas. This moment here, when the death sentence fell all over again.
"Sammy," Dean said quietly.
They stood glaring at each other in the purpling light of dusk, until Sam's breathing evened out and his shoulders slumped. "You are such an asshole," he muttered, swiping the back of his hand under his nose.
"Yeah, well. You just yelled fuck in front of Miss Elena," Dean told him, serious as a third grader threatening to tell the teacher.
Sam's lips twitched, and then he scowled resentfully. Don't think you can joke your way out of this.
Dean sighed. "So she knows. I guess she's not my biggest fan right now, is she?" he said, looking over Sam's shoulder. The disapproving shape in the doorway swayed and then disappeared, leaving the door wide open.
"Does it matter?" Sam said flatly.
It mattered to Dean.
"She's… disappointed, maybe? She started talking about mortal sin and I don't even know what, man," Sam said bitterly. "You can go talk to her if you want. I'm just… She doesn't like me either, if it makes you feel any better."
"I'm surprised she let you in the house."
"I had Maria with me for the first half hour," Sam admitted, shrugging. "I needed a ride, and she wanted to meet the conjure woman, and I figured Elena was more likely to open the door to a five foot tall girl than to me, so—"
"You are getting devious in your old age," Dean said, not without admiration.
"Learned from the best," Sam said, and it didn't sound like a compliment.
Dean let his eyes slide away from Sam, who wasn't actually in a much better mood than two minutes ago when he'd been pitching a fit. The rage had bled out of him, and he sagged gray-faced and exhausted. Despair could do that to you. And Dean had had enough of that shit.
But the door still yawned open.
He didn't owe Elena an explanation, and he'd be an idiot to try to justify himself to her. But he remembered falling asleep on her carpet that smelled of mold, and he remembered half-waking at the soft flutter of a sheet as she covered him up. "Wait in the car, would you?"
Sam gave him that pitying look—the one Dean always wanted to remove with his fist. "Man, what good is it going to do?"
Maybe he deserves it, the spirit had said, and Elena was throwing around words like mortal sin.
"None," he said, clipped and decisive, and he turned his back on the house. "It's not going to do a damn thing."
They got into the car, and the radio wailed that sometimes the simple life ain't so simple. Not when you're runnin' with the devil. Dean took a turn and eased his baby gently around buckled asphalt that bulged volcanically up from the rest of the street. Freaking subsidence. What bunch of idiots built a city on silt?
Sam reached over and turned down the volume on Van Halen. "What happened in Arizona?"
Dean blew air through his teeth, long and slow.
Sam made an effort; he really did. He offered up a half-smile that practically invited Dean to start telling outrageous lies. "Did you hook up with a mexicana and learn Spanish for the dirty talk?"
"Tell you what," Dean said slowly, watching the road with his eyes half-lidded and his jaw set. He wasn't putting up with any more of this cautious, mournful crap. Not tonight, and not in this city. "If we ever make it out there—maybe see the Grand Canyon—then I'll tell you that story."
Sam's expression went carefully blank.
"Deal," he said, and he cranked down his window and turned the radio up louder than the rush of air past the frame.
Dean spent the night in the Marigny, where God kept his best food and booze and easy women on this day of days. Mardi Gras wasn't over yet on Frenchmen Street—wouldn't be til dawn—and pirate wenches and sexy nurses and fairy queens stumbled in and out of the warmth of smoke-filled bars. A whole two blocks of bars. Bizarre walked the streets alongside sexy, made surreal by the darkness and the neon and the whiskey haze. Dean saw two men swaggering down the street draped in heavy masses of Spanish moss, beers in their hands and strings of beads nestling in the gray curls.
From the open doors of the Apple Barrel came the wail of a blues guitar, and in a great tangle the crowd writhed and swayed, spilling out onto the sidewalk.
A girl in a pink wig and knee-high striped socks pressed herself drunkenly against Dean, grinning up at him. She was dragging another girl by the wrist, this one corseted to an impossible hourglass and wearing peacock feathers in her thick blonde hair.
"My friend thinks you're hot," Pink Hair said, adjusting the boa over her shoulders.
The blonde squealed, "Julie!"
But she cocked her hip when he snaked an arm around her waist, and she let him buy her a drink.
Deep in the press of bodies and pounding bass, her hips twisted under his hands. She ran a hand up under his shirt and the alcohol sang in his blood and her breasts spilled over the top of her corset and pressed against his chest. He shoved a thigh between her legs, let her grind down, nose to her neck to breathe in the cheap perfume made potent by her overheated skin. He'd never been much for dancing, but this—this he could drown in.
Dean kissed sweat from her throat and never asked her name.
And when she looked up through her lashes, pupils blown wide and wanting, he didn't imagine her eyes black and rabid. He didn't spend one second on judgment and hellfire. Not a damn second.