A/N: Please, please accept my apology for the long delay on updating this! I imagine many of you probably don't remember what was going on, so a quick recap/summary to catch you up:
After their encounter with Meg in Burkitsville, Sam and Dean head to Bobby's for a little rest and relaxation. Sam is struggling with going cold turkey off the booze, and Dean is beat to hell and back (like always). To their surprise, John shows up about a month after they arrive, intent on attempting to re-build the crumbling foundation of his relationship to his sons. All is calm and low-action... however, towards the end of John's first week, Sam uncovers some data that shows a pattern of suspicious blackouts and fires - all centering around Bobby's junkyard.
And that's where we left off.
A short in the wiring. An untended oven. A truck barreling off the side of the road and bringing down the power lines.
"All these fires, the outages – they all check out," Bobby says, hovering over Sam's shoulder by the desk, their faces blued by the light of Bobby's old PC. "Closed cases. I dunno, Sam, I admit it looks suspicious, but maybe it's just a coincidence."
"Hell of a coincidence," John says. He's on the couch next to Dean, county map stretched out on the coffee table before them. Dean's fingers are busy on the keys of Sam's laptop, click-clacking with his brow furrowed, lips pursed, and it occurs to John that he's been pretty quiet through all of this.
"That's wishful thinking, Bobby, and you know it," Sam says, dragging a tense hand through his hair. "Fuck. What a fuckin' mess."
"No," John says, and there's a buzz running fine and vibrant up his body, a heavy sense of anticipation even through his worry. "This could be – this could be a good thing."
"What?" Sam says, swinging around to look at him. "How the hell could this be good?"
"Because I've been tracking this sonofabitch for twenty-three goddamn years, Sam," John says, going for patience and failing. "And now it looks like it might be comin' straight to me."
"Hang on," Bobby says. "One look in that journal of yours'll prove that electrical fires and power outages are signs of just about every supernatural creature out there. For all we know it's a family of poltergeists flittin' around makin' trouble."
"After what went down in Burkitsville?" John snorts. "Not likely."
"No," Sam says, "Bobby's right. We don't have any concrete evidence that Meg has anything to do with the demon who killed Mom and Jess."
"She does," John says, too promptly, and Dean closes the laptop with a click, finally looks up, eyes narrowing.
"You sound pretty damn certain," he says. "You know something we don't?"
John tries to keep his expression level, keep Dean's gaze in his own. He's not ready to talk about what he thinks he knows, not yet, not until he's worked it out in his own head.
"I know this demon has it out for our family," John says. "So maybe it's not – certain – but there's a damn good chance that the trouble you boys ran into in Indiana has followed you here, and that bastard is behind it."
There's a beat of silence and then Bobby says, "You're not gonna like hearing this, but if you're right – if the demon followed them – then the best thing you could do right now is pack up and get the hell out."
"If this demon's on your ass like you say, then you're in its territory, not the other way around. You don't know what it's got planned for you, don't know what it's thinking. Smartest move would be to get outta Dodge and wait 'til you can confront it on your own time, with a plan – make it play by your rules and not the other way around."
"No," John says, trying to keep the growl out of his voice and only marginally succeeding. "Absolutely not. If it's ready to play, then I'm ready to play, I don't give a damn about the rules."
"Dad," Dean says, "I'm not sayin' we should back off, but what's gonna happen if we do come face to face with this thing? How the hell do you kill a demon?"
"There's ways," John says with more confidence then he feels, and his mind flashes to the rumors he'd been following before coming to Bobby's, rumors about a gun that can kill anything. But they don't have time for that now. "Exorcism may not be permanent, but it's damn near close."
"I don't know," Sam says, heel of his hand moving to dig into an eye socket. "It's just, don't you think we should slow down a second? Maybe Bobby's right, maybe—"
"This thing killed your mother," John says, leaning forward. "It killed your girlfriend. I thought you wanted—"
"I do," Sam says, "I do, but – if this demon's really got something to do with Meg, then we're up against more than one. We don't know why they're here, or what they're planning, and honestly we're in no position to be on offense."
"Fine," John says through gritted teeth, frustration and exasperation tightening around his head like a vise. "You stay here, then. Read through some more pointless goddamn books, screw around on the computer, I don't care – I'm taking action."
"Don't be an idiot," Sam says, "you can't go alone, are you insane?"
"Dean will come with me," John says, automatic, no real thought behind it, and even as the words leave his lips he's wishing like hell he could take them back.
Dean's face is impassive but Sam flares his nostrils, mouth going tight.
"Yeah, Dad," Sam says. "That's a great idea. Gearing up and dragging your crippled son into-"
"Hey!" Dean barks. "Jesus christ, Sam."
"Sorry," Sam says, instantly contrite, "sorry man, I didn't –"
"What happened to all your PC crap, huh?" Dean says tightly. "Differently-abled and that bullshit."
Sam closes his eyes briefly and John twitches in answering discomfort, embarrassed and a little shaken to hear Dean speak this way, because even now he doesn't think of his son like – like that. Even though he knows the facts, has seen them, has tried to deal with them, the truth is he still thinks of Dean as his right-hand man, his unwavering support, strong and capable.
"Sam's right, anyway," Dean says, turning towards him. "I'd slow you down, not help you. Hell, that's why you ditched my ass in the first place, isn't it?"
"Dean," John says, hotly guilty, "that's not – I wanted you safe, wanted you –"
"And that's changed now?" Sam demands.
"You're the ones who chased me down," John says, and he slams his fist on the table with too much force, a bang that has Dean jerking beside him. "You're the ones who wanted back in the game."
"Not like this," Dean says, "not without a clue what we're getting ourselves into."
"That's why we do recon first," John says, fighting to keep his voice level. "We go, and we go carefully. Visit the hardware store that burned, the highway that lost power – check for sulfur, check for EMF, ask some questions. We won't be walking in blind, we'll be armed; salt rounds and crucifixes and exorcisms and enough holy water to down a hundred demons. This isn't a suicide mission, I wouldn't – I wouldn't drag you into anything like that."
"But you'd put yourself in." Sam's voice is flat, hard.
"Sammy, I swear to god—"
"Knock it off, all of you," Bobby growls. "Jesus, if I have to listen to this shit for one more second… You're worse than a buncha screaming blue-assed monkeys, jumpin' up and down and hootin' and not a one of you gettin' anywhere or sayin' anything I ain't heard before a thousand times before from each of you." He stalks to the door of the kitchen, turns and levels a general scowl at them. "I'm makin' some goddamn coffee, who wants some?"
Tentatively, without looking at one another, they raise their hands, and Bobby slams the kitchen door behind him. There's a moment of silence, and Sam lets out a breath and stands from the computer desk, paces to the window and then paces back, one hand clenched in his shaggy hair, pulling so hard John winces.
"Okay," Dean says finally, squeezes the bridge of his nose and hangs his head for a moment before looking up, looking at John. "Okay, hang on. Dad, you gotta know – I'm pretty fuckin' useless."
Sam opens his mouth to protest, but Dean cuts him a glare and he subsides, lips turned down at the corners.
"Maybe I shouldn't've been trying to hunt in the first place," Dean says, and he lets out a long, shaky breath, as if the admission pains him. "But I did, and I fucked myself up worse, and I'm not a hell of a lot of good to anyone right now. You wanna say I told you so, now's your chance."
John is quiet.
"And Sam is –" Dean hesitates, shrugs a little. "We're both kinda strung-out. We came here because we needed a break, and okay, breaktime's over – understood. We can't not check this out. But just give us a second to think without shouting about game-plans, all right?"
Sam pushes himself away from where he's slumped against the wall. "Dean—"
"No," Dean says, "Sam, listen. Dad's right – we need to get some idea what we're up against. Any information is good information at this point; we can't just sit here with our thumbs up our asses. If we're being followed, running won't do shit except delay confrontation, and we still won't know any more than what we know now."
"But I thought we agreed," Sam says, and he's almost pleading, hands fisted on his knees, and he looks so tired, so goddamn tired... "I thought we decided you – no more hunting for awhile, take some time to rest-"
"Sam," Dean says tiredly. "We can't rest. Not 'til this shit is over. If we're not hunting it, it's gonna be hunting us."
Sam shakes his head, but it's not a denial anymore, it's resignation, and John's righteous anger begins to seep from his body, drains down from his chest and is replaced by a kind of vague, desperate confusion.
"Fine," Sam says hollowly, drops his head into his hand, tangles his fingers too-tightly in his hair again. "I don't… fine."
Dean nods once, then reaches for his cane and begins to edge forward on the sunken couch cushions, bad leg still immobilized and clumsy as he maneuvers to his feet, and all of a sudden John wants to take it all back. It's dizzying how quickly his adrenaline-fueled anticipation swings to dread, like the floor has dropped away in one vertiginous movement, and he wants to say, Forget it, forget I said anything, just grab your bags and run as far as you can, because these are his children and he's spent his whole damn life trying to arm them and protect them, and Sam is right, hadn't he fought to keep them out of this? Hadn't he left his eldest son alone in a hospital bed, drugged beyond consciousness and messed-up beyond repair? These are his children and he's leading them into the line of fire.
But he knows, too, that it's too late – it's been too late for years. Since that night he awoke on the couch to the smell of smoke, it's been too late.
"Dean, you goin' outside?"
Dean hitches an awkward half-step to turn and look at him. "Yeah."
"Well," John says, swallows. "Come back in when you're done. We need to talk recon."
"Right," Dean says.
No rest until it's over.
The morning blooms white-skied and bright, and John awakes at the first hint of light that slots through Bobby's windows and falls across his eyes. His back aches from nearly a week of nights spent with old couch springs digging into his spine, and he takes his time stretching out, drops for a few sets of push-ups but abandons them midway through in favor of making coffee.
The house is very quiet, and it's unsettling how alone John feels in the big, dingy kitchen as the coffeemaker burbles mournfully. He's used to being alone, has been alone for months and months now, but the knowledge that there are people so close, his sons asleep just on the floor above him, somehow makes the solitude seem more profound. While the coffee brews he busies himself at the kitchen table by filling flasks and plastic bottles with holy water from one of the gallon jugs he's brought in from his truck. Having made the decision not to run, John does not let himself dwell in doubt. They've made their plans for recon, and they must follow through.
His expectations for the day are open. Mentally he's trying to prepare for any eventuality – flexibility is key, because the motives of the other side are unclear. In fact, "the other side" is still unclear. He's positive that the demon Sam and Dean encountered in Indiana, whom they've been referring to as Meg (a falsely innocuous name that puts John on edge), is connected with the demon that killed Mary. But he's uncertain of the demons' end-game. What do they want? Meg had the chance to kill Sam, and she hadn't – a fact that plays unpleasantly off of certain information that John's amassed in the past few months. Information about Sam. Or, if not specifically about his son, about kids like his son. Kids whose mothers died burning on the eve of their six-month birthday. Kids with some strange rumors surrounding them.
But Sam – if Sam was – was having any experiences like those kids – he would have told John about them already. Wouldn't he?
John sets down the holy water jug with a sigh and crosses his arms on the tabletop, considering. He wants badly to believe that his sons are being open with him, but he knows there are things they're concealing, just as he's concealing information from them, and he wonders where it ends, this circle of concealment. Part of him says that he must be the one to break the silence, to come clean with all he knows or thinks he might know, but – it just doesn't feel like the right time. Sam is too – Sam is wound too tight. Is volatile, right now, is unpredictable. John doesn't know how he might react.
And, well, John never has felt comfortable with variables. He can admit this to himself. He likes being able to predict how events may unfold, so he can plan accordingly, and it's a facet of his personality that he's well aware of. In the hunting world it's both a weakness and a strength – he values research more than other hunters do, values being prepared, but hunting is at heart an unpredictable occupation. John knows this, and it's why today will be so difficult. He doesn't know what they'll find in town – could be they'll find nothing. Could be they'll find some valuable information.
Could be they'll walk right into an ambush.
So the important thing is to prepare themselves in any way they can. What with Bobby's impressive collection and the Winchesters' own arsenal, they have weapons for nearly any eventuality – enough weapons to defend themselves in time to get to safety, if it comes to that. He hopes it doesn't.
There's a creaking in the pipes as someone flushes the toilet upstairs, and a second later he hears the now-familiar step-thump of Dean easing his slow way down the stairs, the clatter of his cane on the old wooden floors. John finds himself smiling to see his son, fully-dressed but absurdly rumpled, his hair a spiky mess, the imprint of a pillow fading from his cheek.
"Morning," Dean says, tugging a chair away from the table to sit down, and he nods a little desperately at the steaming coffee pot. "That done?"
"Just about," John says, and for a moment it could be any day, any place – the two of them up before Sam, the coffeemaker bubbling and hissing, Dean sleepy-eyed and slow-moving with a hint of the drowsy scowl that will ease up as soon as he gets some caffeine in him… a snapshot that spans years. But then Dean shifts slightly on his chair and lets out a terse, uncomfortable breath, and it's clear that the tight lines around his eyes can't be fixed with coffee.
"Black?" John asks, reaching for a mug.
"Yeah," Dean says. "Thanks." He accepts the coffee, rolls a too-hot sip around in his mouth for a moment before swallowing, then sets the cup down to dig out the pack of tobacco from his back pocket. John shakes a teaspoon or so of sugar into his own coffee and watches as Dean rapidly rolls a few skillful cigarettes, one after another, tucking three back into his pouch and fitting one behind his ear.
There's a moment of quiet broken only by Dean's repeated, slurping attempts to drink his steaming coffee before it's cool enough, but finally he makes a noise of irritation and reaches for his cane.
"You been outside yet?" Dean asks, one hand poised on the table to hoist himself up.
"Pretty sure it's gonna rain."
John glances out the smudged kitchen window at the colorless sky, clouded but not grey, not water-heavy. "Nah."
"Trust me," Dean says, and gives a ginger tap to his bad leg. "This thing's better than a barometer."
John frowns slightly. It doesn't seem fair that he's managed to get this far without his own bodily barometers, while his twenty-seven year-old son has enough for both of them. "Never really understood how that works."
"Atmospheric pressure," Dean says, working his way to his feet. "Sam can tell you aaaaall about it."
"I'm sure he can," John says dryly.
"Anyway," Dean says, and gestures in the direction of the porch.
John follows him outside, reluctant to remain alone in the echoing kitchen, and he sits in the wooden straight-backed chair as Dean settles on the couch, lighting his cigarette almost before his ass touches the cushions. He reaches for the chipped ashtray and settles it on his good knee, takes two long drags before flicking ash onto the butts John can see already curled there, stained and damp from the humidity of the warm air.
"Dean," John says, and Dean twitches a little, like he already objects to whatever John's going to say. "I don't –" John hesitates, starts over. "I guess I don't need to tell you to be careful today. Do I?"
Dean shoots him a withering look and says, "No."
John nods. Wants to say more, wants to ask Dean again if he's sure he doesn't want to stay back, stay off his feet, stay at Bobby's where it's tightly-warded and safe – but they had that conversation last night and it didn't go over too well. For all Dean's protests that he's "useless," he's not willing to stay entirely out of the game, either. It's mostly pride, John thinks, but then again, Dean – and Sam – are right when they say that they need every man they've got, even if one man isn't quite – up to par.
Those had been Dean's words – "up to par."
Someone slams a door inside the house, and Dean and John both start a little at the sound, on-the-alert. John's glad to see that Dean's instincts haven't suffered any injury, at least, and they both relax fractionally when they hear Sam's low tones followed by Bobby's answering bark of laughter.
"He sounds pretty cheery," Dean says. "Considering."
"What," John says, "and I'm not?"
Dean snorts and takes a sip of coffee, then moves to rearrange his leg, fisting a hand in the denim of his jeans and lifting it a few inches to the side. Only the slight twitch of an accompanying wince tells John he's handling his body and not a piece of furniture.
"When this is over," John says, wanting to believe it will be soon, "it may not hurt to see a doctor."
"Oh, it'll hurt," Dean says. "Believe me." But he doesn't protest, just stares off into the gray distance, past the heaps of battered cars, the stiff, yellowed grass, squinting a little as if he's looking for something. John follows his gaze but sees nothing save for the clouds.
Dean has a bitter taste in his mouth, and it's not from the slightly rancid combination of coffee and tobacco. It's not from Sam's overcooked eggs, either.
It's the taste of false victory.
He's sitting in the living room watching his father shrug into the same, if somewhat faded, suit jacket that he's had since Dean was twenty. The elbows aren't gonna last another year, and while it wouldn't cut it for a fed, it's fine for a reporter from the county news, which is what John and Sam are aiming for. Dean's not wearing a suit – Dean is in his jeans and t-shirt, because he's playing a civilian for today, some bumblefuck busybody tourist asking questions unconnected to John and Sam.
He knows he should be grateful that he's even being included in the day's recon at all, because he's only too aware that he's a liability, the weak link. But he also knows that while his body may be unreliable, his mind is still sharp – as sharp as it ever was, anyway. Hunter-sharp. He's no genius, not smart like Sam, but he's observant, and well-trained, and knows how to read people. And this kind of operation needs that kind of brainpower just as much as it needs pure physical force. Sam had said as much last night, always miles better with words than Dean, better able to explain in sentences what Dean can only feel. And Dean appreciates his brother's support. He really does.
It hurts, though, to watch Sam and John suiting-up, quietly discussing their gameplan, while Dean sits on the couch and watches. He can't go with them, can't be a part of that, and he might accept it but it doesn't make the knowledge any easier. John gave him a graceful excuse, pointed out that the crutches he uses outside the house are a pair of busted mismatched wooden monstrosities that would give away just about any fake identity – which is true, but is also far from the truth. The truth has nothing to do with the appearance of his crutches, and everything to do with the simple fact of them.
Whine, whine, whine. Dean rolls his eyes at himself, then flushes a little to see that his father's looking straight at him.
"Here," John says, and tosses him a silver flask from where he's bent over his duffle.
"What's this?" Dean asks, untwisting the top and giving it a heavy sniff, praying for one pitiful moment that there will be booze inside, because he hasn't had a drink since Sam quit and god knows he could use one right now.
But John says, "Holy water," and tucks his own sleek flask into his back pocket.
Dean glances up and sees, with some consternation, that Sam's watching him from across the room, though he ducks his head when he's noticed. Dean wonders if he had the same hope when he saw the flasks, wonders just how badly he wants a drink right now.
It's not something he wants to be thinking about, and he's grateful for the clomp-clomp of Bobby's footsteps as he thumps down the stairs. He's going civilian with Dean, and he comes into the living room adjusting the brim of his baseball cap with one hand and tucking a Glock into the back of his jeans with the other.
"Salt?" he asks.
"Check," John says, patting his pocket.
"Wet and ready," Dean smirks, and Sam tosses him a disgusted grimace.
"Quit your ABCs," John says. "Who do you think we are?"
"Morons," Bobby says, and sits down, knees creaking audibly.
Bobby's pushing sixty, but no one suggested he stay behind, and Dean breathes out hard, impossibly irritated at himself for sulking like a fuckin' kid instead of concentrating on the task at hand. He pushes himself up from the couch and reaches for his crutches, fits them grumpily under his armpits and swings his way into the kitchen. The crutch with the green towel as padding is ever-so-slightly higher than the other, and at the end of a day his back always aches, shoulders tight from their attempt to compensate for the imbalance.
Whine, whine, whine. Bah.
In the kitchen he props himself against the sink to run a glass of water, suddenly antsy and eager to get going.
"C'mon," he hollers, takes a long gulp of water. "Time's a wastin'."
It's obnoxious and he knows it, but Sam comes into the kitchen a moment later, tugging uncomfortably at his tie and attempting to smooth his hair back.
"I look okay?" he asks.
"Turn around," Dean says, twirling his finger, and Sam almost obeys before he catches on and grins reluctantly.
"Pervert," he says primly, and Dean can't help but grin himself, because Sam's not big on smiling these days and it's a small triumph when he can coax one forth.
"Hey," he says awkwardly, trying to keep that expression on Sam's face. "Thanks, by the way. For last night. For stickin' up for me."
But he wishes instantly that he hadn't said anything, because Sam's face goes dark and he gives a rough shake of his head. "Fucking Dad, seriously."
And perfect timing, John barks "Move it or lose it, boys!" from the other room, and Sam's lips go even tighter. Dean hesitates for a moment, wants to say something, wants to smooth things down, but those impulses usually just lead to the kicking-up of more shit, so he pushes himself off the sink with a sigh and hitches a few steps forward, glances back over his shoulder at Sam.
"Yeah," Sam says, as if answering a question, and Dean waits for a moment before he shrugs and heads into the living room, takes the gun his father hands him and hides it away.
Climbing into the cab of Bobby's truck is no easy feat, but Dean manages all right after a few false starts, finally hoists himself up on the seat with a grunt and pushes it back as far as it goes so he can pull his leg roughly to rest beneath the dash. It hurts, and the hassle only cements his conviction that every other goddamn vehicle is inferior to the Impala.
"Can I smoke in here?" Dean asks as Bobby rumbles the engine to life, dust and gravel skittering out under his wheels.
"Five bucks a cigarette," Bobby replies, tips up the brim of his hat so he can squint down the road before revving out of his dirt drive and onto pavement. Dean looks at him uncertainly for a moment, and Bobby snorts. "Just open the damn window."
Dean obeys, and the warm, heavy air rushes into the cab like a burst dam, teasing eager fingers across Dean's face and pulling the flame away from his lighter. He curses, trying in vain to get the damn thing lit, but he has to admit the air feels good. Although generally he doesn't much like this kind of weather, even beyond the ache it leaves in his bones; too much water, no release, everything tense and suspended and waiting for rain.
John's truck is directly in front of them, and Dean watches through the window as John deliver a gentle smack to the back of Sam's head, watches Sam scrunch his shoulders in that familiar almost-laugh.
"The intrepid reporters," Bobby says, following Dean's gaze.
"Sorry you got saddled with me," Dean says, going for levity, and the lighter finally catches, sends smoke hot to the back of his throat. Bobby gives him a sharp look.
"Got saddled with the whole lot of you," he says. "My own damn fault, though, for lettin' it happen."
"You should know better by now," Dean says, instead of what he means.
Bobby's careful to keep at least three cars between his truck and John's truck at all times, not too close as to arouse suspicion, but not too far that they'll get separated. It makes Dean nervous, both the fact that Sam and John are out of his sight, and the fact that there's this many people working one job. Four men asking questions about the same kind of events, all close together, he thinks it's bound to catch someone's attention. And even though the sites of interest are divided between two towns, the way they've split it up ensures that John and Sam are never going to be in a different town than Bobby and Dean. Power in numbers, but weakness, too.
John's truck's turn signal blinks up ahead of them, and John pulls off on Exit 256A while Bobby barrels on for another quarter of a mile before taking 256B, past a boarded-up gas-station and a field of cows that regard them with placid, mournful eyes.
They're set to visit the hardware store first, and they find it in a dingy strip-mall composed of no more than five businesses – six, if you count the tanning-salon that claims to double as a video store, and Dean stares at it in disbelief as he waits for Bobby to come around with his crutches.
"Talk about demonic activity," he says under his breath, and Bobby grins, grabs Dean's elbow as he slides too-quickly down from the cab.
"Easy yourself," Dean grouses, and swings himself up over the curb. "C'mon old man, you comin' or what?"
"Or what, if you call me old again," Bobby says.
The hardware store has a large orange Closed sign hanging across the doorway, but through the glass they can see that's it's empty – just a long expanse of tile with burn marks starting about halfway in. The back walls have been singed a charcoal black.
Bobby holds the sign up and away from the doorhandle, trying to look nonchalant while Dean leans on his crutches and picks the lock as fast as he can. They don't seem to be in a terribly high-traffic area, but the other businesses in the strip-mall are open and ready for business, and the last thing Dean wants right now is to get hauled into the local precinct for breaking-and-entering.
He feels the handle give way under his hands and he nods at Bobby, who holds the sign up a little higher so Dean can crutch his way inside before Bobby ducks in and lets the door click shut behind them.
The empty store smells like smoke and charred plastic, and Dean drags the tip of one crutch across the floor to reveal a very fine coating of ash. "They say the electrical fire started in the back room," he says. "Microwave malfunction. No one was hurt – but this seems like a lot of damage for a bagel-bite explosion, don't you think?"
Bobby hmmms his yes, intent on the EMF, spinning dials, adjusting its frequency. Dean leaves him to it and makes his way up the store, eyes roving. There are a few remnants of merchandise scattered across the tile like lonely icebergs; a coil of wire here, a few nuts and bolts there, some stained paint samples. He can't help but feel sorry for whoever owned this store – he imagines it's gonna cost a lot of money to fix this place up.
The back room is hardly a room anymore, just a ragged, burned-out hole, and it doesn't take Dean long to realize he's not going to find anything in there. Any evidence will have been melted-down or turned to embers long ago.
"You gettin' anything from that EMF?" he calls back to Bobby.
"Nothin'. Quiet as a dormouse."
Dean takes another moment in the back room, sniffs the air in vain for the scent of sulfur and rakes his eyes one more time over the destruction, then shrugs a little and turns back.
"We should talk to the guy," Dean says. "The one who claims he accidentally started the fire. See if he mighta seen anything out of the ordinary that day."
"John and Sam are the reporters," Bobby reminds him. "It's their job to talk to the witnesses."
"But he lives close by," Dean argues. "A five-minute drive."
Bobby eyes Dean skeptically, takes in his battered crutches, his too-large jeans, the old black t-shirt he's been wearing since he was 17.
"Here," Dean says, "what if I ditch this one?" He hides the crutch with the towel-wrapped armpit-padding behind his back. "If you took off your ballcap, we could be local reporters, easy. Let Dad and Sam be the bigshot city guys, we'll pass as townie writers no problem."
Bobby hesitates, and Dean frowns. "Bobby, it doesn't make sense for them to drive all the way over here when we can be in and out in ten minutes."
Finally Bobby nods in reluctant agreement. "You're right." He tucks the EMF back into his jacket pocket. "Let's go, then."
The five-minute drive is more like two seconds, since it turns out that Gary Laredo lives just around the corner from the strip mall, in a split-level grey fourplex with no driveway. Gary's unit is on the top floor, and Dean eyes the sturdy wooden steps with annoyance. It isn't just the effort it will take to climb them – it's how very much he hates being trapped anywhere, and the presence of stairs makes anyplace seem more threatening.
Bobby, god bless him, doesn't say anything, just lets Dean go in front and set the pace. He feels inept on just one crutch, and ends up using the railing more than he'd like, but he gets to the top with minimal trouble and takes just a second to catch his breath before he rings the doorbell.
There's a shuffling noise from inside, and Gary Laredo opens the inner wooden door, leaving the screen still closed. He's very tall and lanky in a way that reminds Dean of Sam, though Gary's a little older and his hair is cut almost militaristically short. He has a nice, hound-like face, and he squints at them in amiable confusion.
"Hello? Can I help you?"
"I'm Jack, this is Eric, and we're with the Queen City News," Bobby says, offering what he seems to think is a friendly smile. "We're doing a follow-up article on Lyle's Hardware and we were wondering if we could ask you a few questions?"
"Sure," Gary says, still looking a little confused. "Come on in."
They follow him into the cozy apartment, furnished all in warm tones of deep cream and earthy red. It's surprisingly well-decorated for a single man in his late twenties, with a few small, framed paintings on the wall.
"You do these?" Dean asks, eyeing them. They're all landscapes of some kind, soothing and monochromatic.
"Yeah," Gary says, gesturing for them to sit on the couch. "I did my undergrad in studio art."
"Nice," Dean says, attempting to settle himself on the cushions. There's a glossy coffee table in front of the couch that's making things a little difficult with his braced leg, but he manages to get it tucked underneath the tabletop as Gary watches in silent, vague interest that's a little discomfiting but not as bad as some of the looks Dean has to put up with.
"That's why you were working at the hardware store, right?" Bobby asks, flipping through his small yellow notepad. "To get access to free paint?"
"Yeah," Gary says, leaning back in his armchair. "Hey, you guys mind if I smoke?"
"Go right ahead," Dean says eagerly, because that's more-or-less permission to light up himself, but a sharp glance from Bobby reminds him that they look too casual as it is. He watches wistfully as Gary taps a Smooth 100 free from a fresh, shiny pack, and damn Dean misses pre-rolled cigarettes, all cylindrical and satisfying in their lovely crinkly foil. He breathes deeply as smoke sifts through the air, and even the minty edge to it doesn't detract from how badly he'd like one.
"So," Gary says, rolling dark smoke around in his mouth, and smiling. "What do you want to know?"
"… and this wasn't just a schoolhouse, it also acted as the townhouse on Saturdays, where everyone came 'round for town meetings and the like. My mother, the most beautiful woman you ever did see in your life, always sat in the middle, sat right in the middle, and my father says he'd just sit in the back starin' at her, hopin' she'd turn around. And one day – guess what happened."
"She turned around," Sam intones, and Mr. Gurney raises a gnarled finger and beams gummily.
"She turned around! Oh, she looked him right in the eye, and he knew, knew right then and there, that this was the woman he was gonna break the holy vows of marriage for."
"Mr. Gurney," John says, clicking his pen with some finality and tucking it back into the spirals of his notebook. "Thank you for your time."
"Great story," Sam adds hastily, and turns to follow his father's retreating back. He's grown used to Dean's impatient but easy-going approach to interrogation, and John's brisk efficiency, bordering on rudeness, is a bit of a shock to the system. Mr. Gurney was long-winded, sure, but he's been running his Farm and Feed supply store out of the old schoolhouse for nearly forty years – he deserves a little respect.
"It doesn't make sense," John growls as soon as the door's clanged closed behind them and they're down the first stone step. "The library checked out, and now this, too."
"Maybe we're not looking in the right places," Sam says, trying to adjust his tie and walk at the same time.
"We just spent an hour EMFing the whole damn building," John says quietly, a smile on his face as if they're discussing what they'll have for lunch, and Sam has to strain a little to hear him. There are few people on the street so he's not sure who his father's afraid is gonna overhear, but the calm way he's smiling is setting Sam's hackles on edge.
"Well," Sam says, "maybe – maybe it is just a coincidence."
"You should know by now," John says, "that there are no coincidences."
"But maybe it's just another job, like Bobby said."
"Let's not talk conclusions until we get all the evidence, all right?" John says, and Sam throws up his hands.
"Then don't ask me my opinion!"
"I don't remember asking you anything."
Sam subsides into silence, tries to keep from glowering as he hurries after his father down the sidewalk. The downtown isn't more than two blocks long, a grey street with uniform green awnings over the businesses, and the biggest building is what appears to be an old firehouse. The street isn't deserted, but it's not busy either, and the quiet heaviness of the sky makes everything seem slow and muffled.
Sam's phone vibrates in his pocket, once, twice, a two-part text, and Sam reaches out, tags his dad on the shoulder to stop.
"Dean and Bobby haven't found shit, either," he says, scanning the message. "They checked out the hardware store and the Andrews' house. Both clean. Everyone agrees it's bizarre the fires happened within just a few months of one another, but… beyond that, I dunno, there's not really anything suspicious about the causes."
"Hell," John says, scrubbing a hand through his hair, and it's such a Dean-like gesture that Sam can't help but wonder if he does it, too, if such things run in the family.
"It's weird, Dad, I'm not saying it's not weird, but…" Sam trails off, shrugs his shoulders helplessly. "I don't really know what more we should be looking for."
John drops his hand and looks out onto the street with a sigh. "I'm hungry," he says finally. "So let's look for lunch. And then…" he shakes his head. "I'm not ready to give this up, Sam. We've gotta be missing something."
"I'll tell Dean and Bobby they should meet us downtown, here," Sam says, texting busily. "They're not far."
"No," John says, and Sam raises his head, confused. "It would call too much attention."
"Fine," Sam says, snaps his phone shut, and it kills him that he's back here, again, following his father's orders and chasing after threats that don't exist. He was gone, he got away, for three and a half years he got away, but he should have known better than to think it would last, and now it's like nothing's changed. Except Dean's not even here to lighten things up.
"There's a place across the street," John says. "Let's go."
The "place" looks innocuous enough on the outside, but it turns out to be a kitschy Western-inspired tavern, and Sam wants a drink as soon as he sets foot through the door. It hits him like a sack of bricks, and he takes a deep breath and forces himself to focus on the horrible décor; the saddles on the walls, the mismatched checked shirts sported by unenthusiastic waiters, the vintage beer signs – no, fuck, don't look at the beer signs – look at the fake wood paneling above the electric fireplace, and the bartender polishing glasses, and –
"Sam," John says. "Siddown."
Sam realizes they've stopped, and obediently slides into the booth across from his father, wills himself to relax and look away when John immediately picks up the drinks menu with a muttered "Thank christ."
A waitress appears almost instantly, probably relieved to have a table at last, because the place is almost empty save for a noisy set of young women and a five-top that appears to be deep in a business meeting of some kind.
"Hey there," she says, setting tall glasses of water in front of them. "You fellas know what you want to drink?" She's small and blonde-braided and square-jawed, looks like she wouldn't be out of place in a contra-line.
"I'll take whatever's cheapest on tap," John says, smiling up at her. "Thanks."
She turns to Sam expectantly, and oh god it would just be one beer, and Dean wouldn't know, and they're working a job so there's no way he'd let it get out of hand, and –
"Coke," Sam chokes out, and gets to his feet so fast the waitress takes a rapid step back.
"Sam," John says, face all surprise and confusion.
"Sorry," Sam says, forces a laugh, "I've gotta go to the bathroom."
He doesn't care how it looks, he just needs a minute, just needs one minute to get himself under a little more control. He wasn't prepared, that's all, it was unexpected, but he'll deal with it – he's been too coddled by Bobby's enforced dry house, because in the real world everyone drinks, and this is good practice, it's a test, and he passed, he's going to pass.
He splashes a handful of cold water on his face and closes his eyes for a moment, takes a few deep breaths before mopping himself off with a paper towel. He feels better already. He's fine.
"Sammy," John says when he gets back, voice a mixture of concern and irritation. "What the hell was that? You okay?"
"Yeah," Sam says, "just – musta been all that coffee I had this morning, y'know, outta nowhere I just had to—"
"Spare me," John says, wrinkling his nose, but perks up when the waitress appears and sets his beer down in front of him.
"Thank—" Sam says, then stops when he realizes that the glass she's placed by his hand isn't coke. It's too pale, too foamy, and the smell is – "This is beer," he says, loudly.
"Right," the waitress says, smirking.
"No, I mean – I ordered a coke."
"Oh!" she says, looking abashed. "Shoot, I'm sorry, you're right. I wasn't thinking. I'll be right back."
"Wait," Sam says, meaning to have her take the drink away, but she's already gone, winding through the tables towards the bar, and Sam's left staring at the beer right in front of him, nearly touching his hand.
"Free beer," John remarks. "Lucky mistake." He's got one eyebrow raised, though, and Sam knows the lack of alcohol in the house hasn't gone unnoticed, knows his father's watching him, trying to figure it out, knows he might have an inkling already, but –
but then again, maybe this is a sign, maybe – because he hasn't had a drink for nearly a month, now, and – and it's not like he was gonna stop forever, just for a while, just to get it out of his system – and it was never all that bad in the first place, and –
You're rationalizing, Sam's head hisses, That's a bad fuckin' sign, dude, and he realizes with a jolt that it's not his voice but Dean's. And jesus christ, is he ever gonna be allowed to make his own damn decisions? Is he gonna be stuck following orders for the rest of his goddamn life?
He's got the beer to his mouth before he can re-think it, and goddamn it's good, it's fucking spectacular, and it's all he can do not to down the whole glass in one go. He takes one gulp, two, then forces himself to put it down, too-hard, rattles the whole tabletop and has John's mouth twisting uneasily.
"Sam," he starts, but the waitress is coming straight towards them, and a moment later she sets down Sam's coke with another apologetic smile, and stands with her pencil poised.
"Ready to order?"
John orders a burger and Sam distractedly follows suite, can barely focus on the words he's saying. It's as if all of a sudden the world has narrowed down immeasurably, and it's just Sam and the beer sliding down his throat. How good it feels, how wrong it is, how it's too late, too late, too fucking late. He takes another long drink, and already it's nearly half-gone, and Sam knows with a guilty, out-of-control dismay that as soon as it's finished, he's going to order another one.
"Kinda prohibition-era at Bobby's, huh?" John asks, watching Sam deliberately set his glass down. "I've been dying for a beer."
"No shit," Sam says, praying that'll be the end of it.
"Why is that?" John asks, all bland curiosity. "Never known Bobby to be the teetotalling type."
"Uh, yeah," Sam says, "well. Well yeah, that's exactly it, honestly. He was, uh, he thought he was drinking a little too much, and Dean, Dean's medication, you know…" he trails off, feeling low-down and pathetic, and that should stop him from reaching for his beer again but it doesn't. Quite the opposite.
To his infinite relief, John doesn't question his excuse, just nods expressionlessly and takes a sip of his own drink, and in the ensuing silence Sam can fully concentrate on hating himself.
You're working a job, he thinks angrily.
It's just a bunch of false leads, he protests back.
Dean's gonna kill you, he argues.
Dean's never gonna know, he replies.
And he's feeling a little better as he reaches the bottom of his glass; feels calmer, more secure, because after all one beer isn't the end of the world, and it's too late to go back so there's no reason to beat himself up about it. He swallows down that last, foamy sip, and he'll have one more when his food comes, and then stop, because he can stop and it's not a big deal, and things are different than they were four weeks ago. Sam is different.
"What doesn't make sense, though," John says out of nowhere, pulling Sam's attention away from the sad sight of his empty glass, "is why this is happening now. All the fires, all the power outages – they all happened within the past week. But you boys have been here for more than a month."
"Dad," Sam says distractedly. "I really do think these may just be a series of coincidences. Weird coincidences, sure, but you're right – if they were after us, they would've come way before now."
John rubs his face, scratches through the thick stubble there before pulling out the notebook in which they've compiled their list of facts and locations. He slaps it down on the sticky tabletop and scans through the pages, eyes intent. After a moment he nods with a kind of grim finality and flips the notebook so it's facing Sam.
"What?" Sam asks, irritated. "What am I supposed to be looking at?"
"Right here," John says, stabbing one blunt finger at the top of the page. "The date of the first fire in town, just a week ago."
"May 20th," Sam reads. "So?"
John looks at him like he can't believe he raised such a stupid boy. "Sam," he says slowly, "that's the day I showed up."
The implications of that don't sink in for a second, and then Sam gives a loud, strangled laugh that he stifles when he inadvertently notices their waitress, staring at him from across the room like he's crazy. She looks away the moment Sam catches her eye, but he lowers his voice, says, "You think they were waiting for you to come?" he says, half-incredulous, half-horrified, because – god, that would make sense, in a twisted, terrifying way.
"I don't know. But when there's that many coincidences at once?" John raises his brows, and Sam nods reluctantly.
"Not likely to be coincidences."
John nods, and Sam sinks his head into his hand. "But we haven't found anything," he says to the tabletop. "We've been out for nearly four hours and we haven't found shit."
"Didn't say I could explain it. But Sam – if they knew I was coming – hell, I didn't even know I was coming, not really, not til I was halfway to Bobby's. It means – well, it means they've got intelligence out there. Means they've got a plan."
"And we don't have shit," Sam says, suddenly furious. "We don't even know for sure who "they" are. I knew we should have booked it when we had the chance, should have made a run for it, and now we're stumbling around in the middle of a –" He falls into a smoldering silence at his father's quick hand signal, doesn't even bother to try and smile at the waitress when she sets their burgers down in front of them.
"There we go," she says cheerily. "Can I get you another –"
"Thanks," Sam says, nudging his empty glass, and she takes it from the table, turns an inquiring gaze on John.
"Still workin' on this one, thanks," he says, and sloshes the liquid left in his glass. Silently, they watch her walk across the restaurant, watch her fill Sam's glass from the tap and pause to laugh at something the cowboy-hatted bartender says before she comes back.
"Here you go," she says, winking at Sam. "Drink up."
Sam hoists the glass at her in a mock-toast, and takes a deep swallow.
"Slow down there," John says, and his voice is mild but there's a heat behind the words that Sam doesn't care to dissect.
"What we should do," Sam says, once he's sure the waitress is out of earshot, "is call Dean and Bobby and go back to the house."
"We've got just one site left," John says.
"I don't care," Sam hisses. "We've walked around this whole damn town – my feet are killing me and I don't even wanna think about how Dean must feel."
John's jaw clenches, and Sam takes another gulp of his beer, wonders if anyone would object were he to knock John out and drag him back to the truck through sheer bodily force. He's not gonna risk it, but goddamn, it's tempting.
"Let's finish lunch," John says, "and then we'll –"
But he's interrupted by the shrill ding of his cellphone.
"It's Dean," John says, flipping the phone open. "Hello?"
Sam can just make out his brother's words, tinny and warm through the phoneline. "Hey, Dad. Think we found something."
John is immediately on the alert, reaching for his pen and notebook, phone tucked between shoulder and ear. "What kind of something? Where are you?"
"We're at the old movie theatre on Broadway, The Marquis. One of the electrical-fire sites."
"What do you have?"
"Our EMF's going absolutely nuts in Theatre 3. Full-spectrum freakout over here."
"All right," John says, all brisk efficiency. "We're on our way."
Sam gulps his beer protectively.
"It's no emergency," Dean says, "so there's no need to come in full-loaded. Just bring your EMF." He sounds calm, unworried. "Where are you guys at right now?"
"We stopped for some lunch." John pauses, then, and then darts a strange, hard-to-read glance at Sam. "Just started eating. Sam's finishing up his second beer."
Sam's heart stutters wildly in his chest, but Dean just says, all congeniality, "Well, don't let us interrupt. Bobby and I can hang out by his truck while you guys finish up."
"We'll be there as soon as we can," John says, and snaps his phone shut, staring at it blankly for a moment. He's lost some color in his face, and he looks up at Sam as if searching for answers.
"Something's wrong," Sam says. Despite the alcohol, his mouth is very, very dry, and he can't seem to get enough breath. "That – that's not Dean."
It seems to be the only confirmation his father needed, because John is already pulling money out of his wallet, indiscriminate bills that he tosses to the table, starting to his feet, but something keeps Sam down, something that isn't –
"Dad," he says, quietly but with as much command as he can muster, and John stops for a second. "Our waitress."
"Our waitress," Sam repeats, studiously not looking to where she's watching them from the corner. Watching them like she's been watching them this whole time.
"Yeah," Sam says, and he knows, with cold certainty, that she gave him the beer instead of coke on purpose. Drink up. "What – what do we –"
"Nothin'," John says under his breath, and Sam can see how much it's costing him to say that. "Nothin'. If she is a demon, it's more than likely she's just intel. And we're – we're going to the Marquis, just like they told us to, so she's not gonna stop us. Just – they think they have the upper hand right now. I hope to god they don't know we know that Dean's—" he swallows audibly and looks sick. "Just stand up and come on. If she follows us – we'll deal with it."
Everything is moving too fast, too fucking fast, but Sam stands, and goddamn if underneath it all, under the panicked thrum of his heart, he doesn't want to slam down the rest of that beer, fortify himself, but he forces his gaze away and follows his father out of the restaurant. John pauses at the door, and Sam can't help but be impressed by the sheer gall of the man, because he raises one hand to their waitress and calls, "Thanks, sweetheart."
"Bye!" she says, all cheery waves, and John ducks out the door. Something has Sam turning around at the last moment, though, and he sees a small, private smile on her pretty face. He shivers.
John's truck is parked behind a grungy Wal-Mart and well-shielded from public view by a couple of Semis, so he and Sam don't hesitate to haul out their weapons and take off their button-downs right there on the warm pavement, under the uncaring sky. With as much attention as possible given their barely-contained panic, they sketch warding symbols on one another's bare torsos with a black Sharpie – anti-possession under their clavicles, and concealment runes marching up their spines. Precautions, Sam thinks bitterly, that they should damn well have taken before they left the house, nevermind that the symbols are untested. Even a half-chance of protection is better than none at all. Bobby found the anti-possession pentagrams in a dubious book of mixed origin – some Celtic runes, some Arabic, and to Sam's untrained eye the anti-possession mark looks more like the logo for a shitty metal band – but nevertheless. Nevertheless, they should have been more prepared.
"There's a chance," John says, dragging the marker up Sam's shoulder, "that we're overreacting."
"We're not," Sam says. "Dean wouldn't have told us to come unarmed, and he would have –" and this isn't the time to talk about it, really not the fucking time, but John finishes his sentence for him.
"He would've said something about your drinking."
"Yeah," Sam says, shamefaced and terrified. "You knew. How did you –"
"I'm not an idiot, Sam," John says. "I can put two and two together. And we'll talk about it later, just – how the hell did you think it was a good idea to keep that from me? If you were right about our waitress, it just proves that the other side knew a pretty significant piece of information that I didn't. How, how is that a good idea? How?"
"I don't," Sam says, "I didn't –"
"Save it," John says, violently capping his marker and turning to put his shirt back on. "Right now we need to focus on our game plan. If your brother – if Dean's gotten himself possessed, and Bobby – christ, I don't know what kind of state Bobby's in – but any way you swing it, we're walking straight into a trap. Only thing we got on our side is the chance they don't know that we know it's a trap, but even that's no guarantee."
"We have to get that thing out of Dean," Sam says fiercely. "We need to hold him still long enough to perform an exorcism."
"More like we need to stay conscious long enough," John says flatly. "Can't do an exorcism if your throat's slit."
Sam flinches, can't think about throats being slit, not when his brother's at the mercy of a demon, Bobby unaccounted for, the taste of beer still coating the back of his throat and everything gone to shit so fast it's like the last slow, peaceful month never happened.
"We've gotta tie it down somehow," Sam says. "Get it immobilized." He tries as hard as he can to ignore the fact that "it" is likely his brother.
John wets his lips. "Do you think – if a demon's in Dean's body – will it have the same problems Dean has?"
"Prob—you mean his leg?"
"Yeah. Because if we can get the advantage that way –"
"No," Sam says, and he wishes he didn't remember, but he can still see Meg's human face so clearly, nose abnormally crushed up into her skull, blood streaming down her face, her mouth open wide with laughter and her eyes sparkling like it was nothing. "No, I don't think that'll stop it."
"But it'll want to keep up the ruse," John says. "It'll be wearing his brace."
"That's probably true," Sam says slowly. "So it'll have one leg that can't bend."
"Exactly. It's a weakness, at any rate."
"But we're still not one hundred percent sure Dean's been possessed," Sam says, because he's still clinging to that small hope. "We're going to have to test him immediately, but how do we do that without giving ourselves away?"
John slings the weapons duffel from the pavement to the bed of his truck and starts rummaging around. "We have to get him tied-down before we Christo or holy-water him. If it's Dean, he'll understand – and if it's not – then we do the exorcism."
"How the hell do we tie –"
"We're gonna have to play it by ear, Sam," John says. "Believe me, I don't like it any more than you do. But I've got a couple sets of handcuffs here, and if you get a chance, any chance at all, you slap those handcuffs on him and get him tethered to something."
"He'll snap the cuffs. Demons are strong."
"Can't snap silver," John says, and Sam can tell it's just a guess, but it might be a true guess. "And you especially can't snap silver if it's been doused in holy water, salted to within an inch of its life, and had a couple incantations chanted over it."
"Okay," Sam says. "I guess it's all we've got."
"It's not all we've got," John says, but he doesn't elaborate, and if it's an attempt at a motivational speech, it's a piss-poor one. He tosses Sam a set of cuffs and Sam uncaps his bottle of holy water.
"It's gonna be okay," John says. "We're in control. Your brother will be fine. Bobby will be fine. And a few more demons are gonna be screaming their lungs out back in hell."
A Winchester lullaby, and no more believable than the other platitudes John has fed him all his life, but for a moment, Sam lets himself believe his father.
He has to believe.
Dean is waiting for them on a bench outside the closed-down movie theater. The theatre stands by itself on the corner of a residential street, straddled by a long, grassy park on one side, and an alley on the other – aside from a few kids playing at the far end of the park, there's no one else around. Dean's sitting under the old light-up marquis and drumming an impatient hand on the thigh of his bad leg, and aside from the fact that he's not smoking, which is unusual given he's outside and waiting, he looks – he looks like himself. Bored; a little tired; bouncing his head to a beat only he can hear, just as he always does… and Sam suddenly feels foolish for being so worried, because this is his brother, it has to be. But then Dean looks up and spots their approach and – something shifts in his expression, something that has Sam's body breaking out in violent goosebumps. A quirk of the eyebrows, maybe, or a twist to the lips, but whatever it is, Sam has never seen his brother's face move that way.
"There you are," Dean - it - says, as they come towards him up the sidewalk. "I was beginning to get worried."
"You said not to hurry," John says easily. "So we didn't hurry."
"How was lunch?" it asks, turning Dean's green eyes square on Sam's face with a knowing smirk.
"Fine," Sam mumbles, and he hopes his inability to speak comes off as shame rather than mindblowing anger.
Because at the sight of this thing, he's not afraid anymore. He's simply furious. The last time he faced a demon he was beat to hell, unarmed, and tied to a tree in the middle of an orchard, and still he managed to get the best of it; this time his hands are free and he's prepared. Not to mention he's got his father on his side, because for all John Winchester is a stubborn, infuriating bastard, he's still one hell of a hunter, and in this moment just the simple fact of his presence calms Sam immeasurably.
This thing doesn't stand a chance.
"Where's Bobby?" Sam asks, coming forward to stand just out of arm's reach.
"Inside, waitin' on us," it says. "I told him we'd meet him in theatre 3 soon as you got here."
"Dean," John says, and Sam hopes only he can hear the forced casualness of the tone. "You find anything besides EMF?"
"Nope," the thing says, and reaches for the crutch dropped carelessly on the sidewalk by the bench, prepares itself to stand.
"What happened to the other one?" Sam asks.
"The other – what?" Real confusion crosses Dean's face.
"Your other crutch," Sam says.
"Oh," the demon says, "ah, I got sick of it. Left it in the car."
The car, it said, not the truck. Dean would never call a truck a car.
"Speaking of cars," John says, "we need an extra pair of eyes to help settle a little argument we had on the way over here."
"Yeah?" Dean's expression is wary. "Shoulda known you two would go at it if I left you alone long enough."
Sam is deeply unsettled by the accuracy of this comment, but he just huffs and crosses his arms, every inch the sulky younger son. He almost adds an eye-roll for good measure but figures that would be overdoing it.
"You know the cop-tracker I've got set-up on my dash?" John asks.
"Yeah, sure," the demon says, and that's the last piece of proof, because John and Dean had transferred the police sensor to the Impala not two days ago, and John hasn't yet gotten a new one.
John twitches ever-so-slightly at this confirmation, but jabs his thumb at Sam and says, "Well, this one claims that just because it hasn't gone off since we've been in town, it's broken."
"We're in town," Sam protests. "There should be more cops than usual, not less. It's just not safe to drive around with that thing busted."
"Will you come take a look at it and tell your brother he's being paranoid?" John asks. "The truck's just around the corner, and you understand those machines better than either of us."
"Oh," the demon says, "uh, sure. Yeah. Soon as we're done inside, I'll—"
"I'm not goin' in there until I'm damn sure there's no cops around," Sam says adamantly. "I'm sorry – you guys might call it paranoid, I call it being safe. Excuse me if I don't want to spend the night in a holding cell."
"Bobby's already inside, dude," it says impatiently, "let's just get in there and get out, and then I'll look at your stupid cop thing."
"Fine," Sam says, and takes a gamble. "You guys go in there, and I'll stay out here and stand watch."
There's a moment of tense silence, and then Dean's face screws up in an expression of pure frustration. "All right, gimme a second to text Bobby and let him know."
Sam sees his father's shoulders go rigid, but there's no logical way he can stop the demon from texting for whatever backup it might be summoning, so they stand there, positively jangling with nerves, while Dean's fingers skim busily over the keys of the phone.
The demon wouldn't go inside without Sam, which means the trap is set, at least partially, for Sam. It seems more reasonable, though, to at least get John and then send someone else out for Sam once he's alone… which suggests that something integral to the demon's plan lies within the theatre itself. And is reliant upon both Winchesters in one place.
What the fuck?
The demon snaps Dean's phone shut and shoves it back in his pocket, then glowers up at Sam and John, standing before it wearing twin masks of impatience.
"You're both ridiculous," it mutters, and Sam almost smiles. It puts one hand to the arm of the bench and one hand on the crutch, and while it does a decent job approximating Dean's cautious, protracted rise to his feet, Sam can see that there's no pain behind the movements. None of Dean's quickly-hidden winces, no change in the rhythm of the breath, no clenched jaw – nothing. Just a show of pretended difficulty that's almost a mockery, an exaggerated display of Dean's very real problems.
Any authenticity in the demon's performance vanishes once it starts moving. It clearly has no idea how to wrangle the crutch, and more than once Sam can see it give up and start putting its weight on Dean's bad leg, only to glance up nervously and try once again to support itself reasonably.
"Hey," Sam says, all concern, "your leg bothering you?"
"You're bothering me," it grouses. "Where's the silly car?"
And Sam really, really shouldn't be amused right now, but the demon sounds a little bit like a pissed-off teenage girl and that petulant tone is just funny coming from Dean's mouth, funny despite the gravity of the situation. Silly car, Sam's ass.
"Right over there," John says, and gestures to where the truck is sitting about ten feet away in the parking lot of the park, pulled up beside the chainlink fence of a basketball court. They move towards it, and it strikes Sam that they've been moving in a perfectly straight line, none of them willing to put their back to the other.
John opens the passenger door and gestures to the old, busted radio they've strapped to the dash in a facsimile of a police sensor, and for a moment it really seems like their plan is going to work – but then the demon slowly shakes its head and turns to face John and Sam.
"I can't climb up in there," it says. "My leg."
"I'll help—" Sam starts, but quick, so quick he doesn't realize what's happening, the demon is swinging Dean's crutch directly at John's head. Sam utters an inarticulate warning cry, and the demon may be quick but John is quicker, reflexes born of training and a life spent in fear, and he ducks just in time, the tip of the crutch whistling forcefully over his head, so close it ruffles his hair. He drops straight down into a one-legged crouch, the other leg swung out to catch Dean's good ankle, and the force of his kick sends the demon stumbling onto Dean's bad leg, trying to find equlibrium on a knee that can't bend, and the brief moment of imbalance is all John needs to spring out of his crouch and shove the demon as hard as he can onto the chainlink fence. Sam hadn't realized his father was even holding the handcuffs until the metal snaps around Dean's wrist with a loud, triumphant click.
The demon spits a curse as the skin begins to sizzle beneath the blessed metal, but before Sam can even begin to process what's just happened, it brings up a fist to connect squarely with John's jaw, a sideways, incredibly powerful swing that sends John staggering to his knees, his jaw snapped at an unnatural angle. The demon knocks him out with a derisory kick to his head.
Sam regains his sense, then, and reaches out grab his father's jacket and drag him out of the demon's reach, because one more blow like that might kill him. As it is there's blood dripping from his broken mouth, and his face has lost all color, but at least he's breathing and his pulse is strong.
"You Winchesters," the demon spits. "You think you're so clever! Such clever little boys!" It jangles the handcuff in derision. "What's in the truck? Holy water? Quaaludes? If you wanted some'a this, Sam, all you had to do was ask." It purses Dean's lips obscenely, then cackles. "Don't look so disgusted, Sammy! After all, it wouldn't be the first kiss between us, would it?"
"Meg," Sam says, as comprehension dawns, ugly and unwelcome. "But I – I sent you –"
"What, you thought I'd stay down there?" She flutters Dean's lashes. "I missed you, Sam. And I'm not the only one."
"Where's Bobby, Meg? What'd you do with him?"
"I told you," she says, and it's revolting the way her mannerisms distort Dean's face. "He's waiting for us back at the theatre."
"What else is waiting for us?"
"You'll find out soon enough," Meg promises. "So impatient, tsk tsk. Don't you like talking to me? We have so much to talk about."
Sam says nothing. He waited Meg out last time and he can do it again.
"Let's start with your brother." She runs her hands down Dean's torso. "I can't tell you how much I like this body. I really do. Despite some of its more obvious – flaws." She tests her weight on Dean's bad leg and heaves an elaborate sigh before narrowing her eyes and, with scarcely any warning, hops up and down on it three times in rapid succession.
Sam lunges towards her but pulls up just in time. "Stop," he says, "stop. What do you want?"
"I want a little respect," she snarls, then calms and brushes imaginary lint off Dean's chest. "And of course, I want your goddamn father dead."
"Exorcizamus te," he tries, but Meg just slams her weight down on Dean's bad leg again, and Sam has to stop.
"Do you have any idea how fucked-up he is in here?" she asks. "And I don't mean just his mind, although that too. I'm talking bone, muscle, nerve-endings, all of it so fragile, so easily destroyed. Right now –" she pauses, strokes Dean's blunt fingers up the length of his thigh, and Sam's gut churns. "Right now, it's still fixable. Oh, he'll never be good as new, but with a few more surgeries, some old fashioned R and R – he won't need these crutches, at least. Might even be able to limp around without a cane, if he takes it easy for a few years. Might even be able to fuck like a real man again. Wouldn't you like that, Sam?" She paces a few steps, as far as she can with Dean's wrist still cuffed to the fence. "Isn't it nice, seeing me walk in him like this? He's in no pain right now, you know. No pain, for the first time in almost a year. Do you know what it's like to be in constant, unrelenting, unfixable pain?"
Meg is stalling, Sam realizes. She's waiting for something. For someone. The thought makes his breath quicken, but he forces himself calm, forces himself to focus on the problem at hand, which is getting her the fuck out of his brother's body.
"Did you know," Meg continues, "that I could fix him? I could knit his body back together for you. Demons can do that, Sam – we just generally choose not to. After all, it's no matter to me if his body is weak – I'm strong enough for both of us."
"Why did you take Meg's body from the orchard?" Sam asks. He's been wanting to ask this question since Burkitsville, and now seems as good a chance as any.
"Because I really, really liked it," Meg says sadly. "You remember those tits, don't you? So little and firm. I loved them." She scowls. "Unfortunately, it was too late. Even demons have no use for a rotten meatsuit." Her scowl turns to a smile. "Tell me. How was lunch today? Did you get the complimentary beverage I sent your way? Was it good?"
Sam wills himself to stay still, wills himself not to rise to the bait.
"I bet it really hit the spot. Hit that big, thirsty spot – bet you could use a drink right now. Bet you can still taste it on your tongue."
Sam clenches both fists and wonders how fast he can speak an exorcism. Fast enough to save Dean from any damage she might cause his body? He doubts it. He glances down at his father, crumpled at the ground by his feet, then turns his gaze to the sky, where the clouds are gathering thick and dark overhead. The few kids who'd been playing on the swingset on the other side of the grass have disappeared, and Sam can see the swings swaying back and forth in the humid breeze. Meg is tugging unobtrusively on the handcuff, but it seems the benedictions and holy-water are holding her firm. That, at least, is a relief.
But otherwise? Things look – not good.
Sam, lost in thought, almost misses the slight twitch of Dean's head – almost misses the brief, controlled relief that flickers across his face – but he sees Meg open those familiar eyes just a fraction wider, and he hits the ground just as a crowbar goes flying over his head.
His adrenaline kicks in instantly and he rolls to the side, catching a glancing blow off his shoulder that makes him shout in pain. On his back he kicks out, both feet landing on the stomach of a small blonde girl, and he sees with an utter lack of surprise that it's their waitress from earlier. She staggers backwards but shakes it off almost immediately and comes at Sam again, her crowbar cracking down onto the pavement as Sam rolls desperately aside. The truck, the truck, he just needs to - they're right in front of the bed and if he could only –
He comes up to his knees, and she swings the crowbar again, but instead of lunging out of the way Sam lunges forward, instead, comes up under her falling arm and fastens both arms around her waist. The crowbar catches him on the back of his hip, and it hurts like a motherfucker but he doesn't let it stop him, just surges upwards with her still in his arms and heaves with all his might.
She lands on her back in the bed of the truck, and snaps upright with a fierce snarl, only to stop dead with a look of horror on her face.
"A fucking Devil's Trap?" she shrieks, and hurls the crowbar with terrible accuracy. Sam dodges, but he's out of breath and out of his league and the sharp hook of it tears through the sleeve of his suit jacket with a searing jolt of agony. He nearly goes down but manages to keep his feet, clapping a hand to the gash in his upper arm and feeling blood well up to meet his fingers.
"Yeah," he says. "A fucking Devil's Trap. Spray-painted right under the truck."
"I thought you said they were stupid," the waitress hisses at Meg. "I thought you said they were weak. Just give this one a drink, you said, I'll take care of his crippled brother, you said, but—"
"Sam's not gonna do anything," Meg interrupts. "He knows if he tries to exorcise either of us, I'll make his poor brother's body hurt even more than it does right now. How do you think Dean would like it if I fucked-up his other leg, huh Sam? He loves that car of his, think he'd love a nice, streamlined, '67 wheelchair, too?"
A roll of thunder punctuates her threat and Sam swallows, at a loss. She's right, of course – he can't risk Dean like that, can't risk an exorcism, even though he has them both trapped, goddammit…
The rain begins to come down, a few warm, lazy drops that spatter on the pavement and dot Sam's shoulders, falling unheeded on John's unconscious face, and as the drops gain speed and frequency and turn into a real shower, Sam is reminded of the holy water in his pocket. He hasn't used it, for fear that Meg will take her anger out on Dean, but – if there were a way to weaken her, to distract her from hurting Dean, just for long enough for him to get her out of him –
He has an idea. A crazy, unlikely idea, but if it doesn't work he's no worse-off than he is right now, and if it does work – if it does work, it'll give him the time he needs to exorcise both demons.
"Servio deus meus in omni gloria," he murmurs, tugging the crufix on his neck out of his shirt and holding it out to the air. Meg pulls up sharply, then lets out a wild, choked laugh.
"Ut sic Deus servio agam nunc imperata est servus Domini,/i" Sam continues, and Meg smacks Dean's thigh in amusement.
"You think praying to God will help you?" she sneers. "That's adorable, Sam. But I think a nice long drink of whiskey is more likely to offer comfort."
Sam suppresses a flinch, and tries to clear his mind, tries to compose the prayer correctly. "Praestare mihi potestatem sacerdotum. Omnis aquarum Benedictus"
"What is he doing?" the waitress asks. "What – ouch!"
She jerks sharply, smacks at the exposed skin on the back of her hands.
"Sam," Meg says, hilarity giving way. "Sam, what are you –"
"Omnis aquarum Benedictus. Sit nubes dimisit domui."
Meg and the waitress both raise tandem shrieks of pain and cower under the heavy raindrops, hissing and spitting as the water raises welts on their skin.
"Stop it!" Meg shrieks. "Sam, I will kill your brother, do you hear me? I will make him suffer like he's never – " she breaks off, panting, and body-checks Dean's bad hip into the chainlink, and she's weaker but it's hard enough that Sam pauses momentarily, long enough for her to do it again.
"Aquae descendat benedictus. Sit tangebat terram benedicunt terra." He sucks in a breath as Meg screams and slams Dean's hip again into the fence, but weaker this time, barely rattles it, and with one last shout Sam finishes the prayer. "Sit tangebat terram benedicunt terra. Et ceciderunt in malum et diluere ea igne inferni!"
The demons are writhing now beneath the heavy fall of blessed water, their eyes black as jet, their voices hoarse and wretched, and Sam – Sam cannot fucking believe this worked. He allows himself one second of awe and pride, and then launches smoothly and strongly into the exorcism.
"Exorcizamus te, omnis immundus spiritus, omnis satanica potestas, omnis incursio infernalis adversarii, omnis legio, omnis congregatio et secta diabolica, in nomine et virtute Domini Nostri Jesu Christi," he pauses for breath and Meg shrieks, "I'm gonna rip your brains out through your nose and –" but she stops with a strangled scream as he continues.
"Eradicare et effugare a Dei Ecclesia, ab animabus ad imaginem Dei conditis ac pretioso divini Agni sanguine redemptis, Non ultra audeas, serpens callidissime, decipere humanum genus, Dei Ecclesiam persequi, ac Dei electos excutere et cribrare sicut triticum, imperat tibi Deus atissimus," another breath, another screeched threat from Meg, "Cui in magna tua superbia te similem haberi adhuc presumis; qui omnes homines vult salvos fieri et ad agnitionem veritaris venire, imperat tibi Deus Pater, imperat tibi Deus Filius!"
Sam finishes with a gasp, and Meg falls, Dean's good leg buckling as she collapses against the fence and vomits a swirling black funnel of sulfured smoke into the matching sky. On the bed of the truck the waitress is lying crumpled in a heap, and Sam can't tell if she's breathing or not. He'll check on her, he will – but at the moment his concern is for his brother, and he goes down on his knees before him, gets an arm behind his back, the blood from his crowbar-wound smearing across Dean's pale skin.
Dean is conscious, barely. His breathing is harsh, uneven, and he's crying out a little on every exhale – uncontrolled, animal noises, and Sam wishes he could send Meg back to Hell one thousand times more.
"Dean," Sam says, "hey, hey, are you hurt? Do you know where you're hurt?"
Dean doesn't answer, eyes squeezed shut, and Sam props him carefully up against the fence, too-aware of the ways he might be injured; spinal injury, internal bleeding, god, Meg could have done anything to him –
But Dean's eyes drag open, and he says, "Bobby's in – Bobby's in the theatre –"
"I know," Sam says, "but you have to tell me where it hurts, what she did, if she –"
"Just hurts," Dean says, any posturing stripped away to facts. "Just hurts. But I'm – it didn't do – fuck, Sammy – my leg –"
"Is it just your leg?" Sam demands.
"God, I fuckin' hope so," Dean says, and he seems to be regaining strength, trying to struggle to sit up on his own. "Dad is –"
Sam glances behind him, and sees with surprise and deep relief that John is moving, groaning a little and pushing himself into a sit, one hand wrapped around his broken jaw, blood soaking the collar of his shirt. He's a wreck, but his eyes are more-or-less alert, and he grunts at his sons, unable to talk but clearly asking a relieved, frantic question.
"They're gone," Sam says. "Meg is, anyway, and – our waitress –"
John's eyebrows shoot up, and even in the midst of everything, the rain still pounding down, Sam feels a moment of pride. Because, yeah – he just kicked some demon ass. Too bad no one was conscious enough to see it.
John stands, a little unstable at first, and he comes over to where Sam is kneeling by Dean.
"'M fine," Dean says, then coughs on a laugh, knowing how ridiculous it sounds. "Gotta go back for Bobby, Sam, we –"
"Do you remember anything?" Sam asks. "Are you sure he's in the theatre?"
"I remember – some," Dean says. "Motherfucking demon. Motherfucking demon in my fucking –"
"Yeah," Sam says, "you don't need to talk right now, okay? Just – just –"
"'E's right," John says, through his lopsided jaw. "E gotta go f'r Bobby." He's ripping a strip off the bottom of his button-up shirt, and with a look of great distress he fastens it around his jaw, ties it in a bow on his head. Sam wishes he were in any state to laugh.
"Yeah," Sam says, "let's get Dean into the truck, and –" he looks to the bed, suddenly remembering the waitress. With a swell of relief he can see her chest going up and down, and the knowledge that she hasn't died cheers him unreasonably. "We'll leave her here," Sam says, wishes he could offer another alternative, but can't think of one. "Once we've got Bobby out, we'll call the cops on an anonymous tip and let them know where she is."
"Smart," John says approvingly, and they turn their attention to getting Dean into the truck. It's hard work – John trying to breathe through the pain of a broken jaw while the wound on Sam's upper arm pulls dreadfully with every movement, and Dean does very little to aid in the process – his good foot scrabbles weakly on the ground, but that's about all of the independent movement he seems capable of, and his poorly held-back whimpers of pain are even more of a hindrance than the weight of his body.
They manage, though, to get him into the cab of the truck, propped against the window in some semblance of sitting, and John has the presence of mind to pat Dean's pockets down for painkillers. Dean swallows them gratefully, then tilts his head back and seems to focus all his concentration on not passing out.
Sam goes around to the bed and gently, so gently, lifts the girl down and leans her against the fence. Her body is light in his arms, soft and pliable, and he tries to remember the last time he touched a female body in something other than anger or aid. It must have been Jess. Maybe Jess was the last one ever, and he never knew, he never knew, if only he had known he would have held her so tightly and never let her go.
The girl's hair is bright against the grey of the rain as they reverse out of the parking lot, the departure of the truck revealing two hot pink Keys of Solomon painted on the pavement in the space the bed and cab used to be. Sam makes a mental note to try and get one permanently fixed to the bottom of the Impala – a car that doubles as a Devil's Trap might be useful in days to come.
And god, he doesn't want to think about that. Doesn't want to remember that this isn't the end. Not nearly.
The relief he felt at getting Dean back is eclipsed by his fear for Bobby, and horrible images flicker across his mind – maybe Bobby was a ritual sacrifice, maybe that's why all the Winchesters need to be in the theater at once, maybe they'll open the doors to find –
"I don't 'elieve it," John mutters, and Sam looks up out the rain-streaked windshield to see Bobby standing in front of the boarded-up cinema, a nasty cut on one cheek and the knee of his pants ripped ragged. He looks very wet and very bemused, like he doesn't know which way to turn, but his eyes light up when he sees the truck.
"Christo," Sam shouts out the window at him, and gets the holy water ready.
"Christo right back atcha," Bobby calls, and Sam's never heard him sound so damn happy before. "Is that Dean with you?"
"Yeah," John says, pulling the truck up and hopping out. "Issa tight fit, but geddin there."
"I'll be damned," Bobby marvels, ignoring the faceful of holy water that John tosses on him.
"No," John says. "Oo won' be. Where's y'r truck?"
"Forget my truck," Bobby says. "Let's get back to my house where it's warded and silvered and no goddamn demons are gonna pour themselves down anyone's gullets while I watch."
He squeezes himself in between John and Sam, and it really is a tight fit, especially since Sam is reluctant to press himself into his brother's bad side, but Dean rouses himself long enough to make a painful effort at shuffling over more.
"Dean," Bobby says over Sam's lap as John rips away from the theatre. "How you holdin' up?"
"Really good," Dean mumbles. "Glad to see you."
"Me too, kid."
"What happened to you?" Sam asked. "How'd you escape?"
"There were only three of 'em," Bobby says, "far as I could tell. The one that got in Dean, a snippy little blonde one, and some big-busted carrot-topped gal. The one in Dean was hiding in a witness, and when we went to ask some questions, bam, before I knew it I'd been knocked-out and Dean was playin' hostess to a smart-aleck demon who liked to talk."
"But in the theater—"
"They left me alone with the redheaded demon," Bobby says. "She kept tellin' me how excited she was to slice open my throat fill a silver bowl with my blood, kept comin' over and putting her goddamned hell-hands all over me – she was so wrapped-up in describing how she was gonna bleed my like a stuck pig, she didn't notice that I'd gotten free of my ropes." He holds up his hands, and Sam swallows hard to see his bloody, ripped-up wrists. Bobby pauses, then, and Sam sees an uncertain, pained look cross his face. "I jammed a crucifix down her throat. Kept her down long enough to do an exorcism. Her host – her host didn't make it. Had to leave her in the theater."
"Oo did what oo had to," John says, with as much sympathy as Sam's ever heard from his father.
"Yeah," Bobby says. "Maybe. Wish like hell I didn't have to."
There's silence, then, just the wet rush of the tires across the pavement and Dean's controlled, Lamaze-like breathing at Sam's side.
Then John says, "Y'r turn, S'm. How th' hell'd oo g't ridda two d'mons?"
And Sam finally lets himself smile.
"Oh man," he says. "Have you ever taken on the power of a priest? I mean, temporarily."
For Dean, time moves in fits and starts from the moment he opens his eyes in the rain to see Sam staring down at him. Everything hurts. It's like the world has turned into a red cocoon of agony, winding itself around every inch of his body and mind and swaddling him in its folds, wrapping tight and ripping apart all at once, till there's nothing left but a quivering pile of brains and flesh screaming unceasingly for mercy.
Not to be melodramatic or anything. Just – wow. It fucking hurts.
Things don't start to coalesce until they get back to Bobby's and give him a shot of morphine. Usually the drug makes him listless and cloudy, but right now he feels as if the dispersal of pain is clearing his head, bringing up back up to something like functional-human standards. He can't make it much further than the living room, and he lays out on the couch, does the breathing exercise his PT taught him and lets Sam check him over thoroughly. There's an egg-sized lump on the back of his head, but besides the unearthly howl of his leg, nothing else seems to be wrong. And that howl is growing quieter as the morphine settles into his veins.
"It's fuckin' embarrassing," Dean slurs. "Some girl climbing inside me and riding me like a merry-go-round. Not fuckin' merry."
"It's not your fault," Sam says, sucking in air as his father drags a curved needle through the gash in his arm. John's jaw, as it turns out, wasn't broken, just badly dislocated, and Bobby had re-set it with a sadistic grin. He's still wearing a bow-like jaw-sling, only this one is made of gauze and an ace bandage.
It's nice of Sam to say, but thing is, it is Dean's fault, it's all his fault. He was too damn cocky, it's his fault and his goddamn leg's fault and he shoulda known better.
"Shoulda known better," Dean says mournfully. He feels dirty, all through his body and in every corner of his mind, dirty like he's been submerged in sewer water, filled with it. "We didn't even Christo the guy."
"Won't make that mistake again," Bobby says from where he's sitting in his armchair, eyes closed. "I'm gonna Christo every girl scout, priest, and toddler from here on in."
"We coulda been better prepared," John says. He's easier to understand now he's jaw's been properly bound. "There's a few pieces of information it really woulda been nice to know, goin' in."
Dean sees Sam stiffen, and he frowns. He remembers bits and pieces of his possession – has a flash of Sam's angry face here, a glimpse of an unconscious Bobby there, remembers entering the theater, remembers waiting on the bench – though the thing he remembers best is how it had felt to walk. To walk without pain.
He pushes that memory from his mind, though, because it does no good to think about it, and focuses instead on his father and brother. There's a tense set to both their shoulders, a crackle to the air. Clearly, he's missed something.
"For instance," John says, over-casual, and even Dean in his medicated swamp can see Sam brace himself. "It would have been good for me to know the reason I can't find one goddamn bottle of alcohol in this whole house."
Dean blinks in shock, and Sam closes his eyes.
"Because the demons seemed to know something I didn't know," John continues. "About Sam. And alcohol."
Dean opens his mouth, trying to gather his thoughts enough to explain, but to his surprise, it's Sam who answers.
"I was drinking too much," Sam says. "It's part of the reason we came to Bobby's. So I could dry out. And I didn't tell you because – because it was stupid, okay, it was stupid and it was my fault and talking about it makes me feel like shit. Especially to you. It was easier just not to mention it, so we didn't."
"What – " Dean says. "How'd Dad –"
"Your brother had a couple beers with lunch," John says, "and I – I figured it out while he was drinking the first one. Then on the phone, Dean, you sounded – you sounded wrong, not like yourself, so I gave you a little test – mentioned that Sam was drinking. You didn't seem to care. And that's how we knew."
Dean tries to process that, tries to piece his words together, but the sinking disappointment he feels is too strong, and it seeps out his mouth before he can stop it. "Sam, you were drinking?"
"It was only –" Sam cuts himself off, takes a deep breath and says, "Yeah. I – I made a mistake. It – I fucked up. The waitress – the demon – gave me a beer by accident. I swear I ordered Coke, Dean, but when she put it in front of me I couldn't – I just fucked up."
"He did order Coke," John allows.
Dean raises a shaky hand and presses it over his eyes. "Whatever," he says.
"No, Sam, I mean – whatever. It's – you messed-up once. Doesn't mean it's gonna happen again. I'm not – I'm not gonna yell at you."
Sam nods once, jaw moving in and out, and John tapes a long strip of gauze over his arm, claps a hand over the side of his son's neck with a kind of rough tenderness. "There."
And, apparently, that's the end of that conversation.
Dean wishes, wishes with all his might, that no further conversations needed to be had, wishes he could just lie back and go to sleep… but too much has happened and there's too much he still doesn't understand.
"Bobby," he says. "If you let me smoke in here, I'll give you a thousand dollars."
"Just remember to write me out an IOU," Bobby says without missing a beat, and Dean snorts, tries to sit up. It takes twice as long as usual, and by the time he's upright his vision has slipped and re-racked a few times and he's made himself a little nauseous with the movement. It's worth it, though, for that first slide of smoke down his throat, the way everything suddenly seems just a little better, the way the tremble in his fingers subsides. He thinks Meg held off while she was in him just to make it that much more painful to come back to his body, which has been shrieking for a cigarette since he opened his eyes in that parking lot.
"All right," he says, takes a long drag and eases it back out. "The question is – the big ten-point question – is what the hell they wanted from us." He knows his voice is slipping around all over the place, but there's not a hell of a lot he can do about it. It's enough of a feat to stay conscious and alert, much less articulate.
"They wanted to slit my throat, put all my blood in some bigass bowl, and use it to call their 'father'," Bobby says. "I was conscious a lot longer than they thought I was, and – from what I gathered – they were trying to curry favor with someone. Someone big. Whoever 'father' is, he wants John and Dean dead."
"And me?" Sam asks quietly.
Bobby leans forward a little, rubs a weary hand down his face. "They got other plans for you, kid. I don't know what they are."
"Plans?" Dean demands. "For Sam?"
"Sam," John says. "Is there – anything else you want to tell me? Anything – strange?"
"Strange?" Sam repeats, and Dean squints over at him, makes an executive decision.
"Tell him about your dreams," Dean says. "Tell him how you dreamed about our old house."
"Dreams?" John says sharply. "What dreams?"
And so Sam tells him.
And Dean, despite his best efforts, passes right the fuck out.
He wakes later that evening to a dimly-lit living room, the steady patter of rain on the roof and the quiet murmur of voices from the kitchen. He spends a few minutes trying not to gag at the pain in his leg, and only marginally succeeds – he pukes a little into the bowl he was using earlier as an ashtray. He doesn't remember what Meg did while she was in him, but the way he aches, he figures maybe she ran the Boston marathon and then went on a fifty-mile hike.
If he had his way, he'd never move again – in fact, if he had his way, he might die - but he badly needs to take a piss. He's come to hate peeing. Hates any unnecessary movement.
"Sammy," he hollers, and a moment later Sam pokes his head into the living room.
"You okay?" are the first words out of his mouth.
"I need a hand gettin' to the bathroom," Dean says. He's too tired to try and make it sound glamorous. He still feels sick inside. Filthy. He wants a shower but he knows the effort is beyond him at the moment.
"You need a doctor," Sam says as he shoulders under Dean's arm and pulls him slowly up.
"Yeah," Dean says. "I know." And he does know. No matter what Sam thinks, he's not stupid and he knows what kind of a situation he's in, what kind of situation he was in even before Meg rode him hard and put him away wet. He knows too-well that with every day that passes he's fucking his body up worse, knows that he's got at least one major surgery looming on his horizon – but the fact of the matter is, they don't have time for pleasantries like hip replacements and hospital stays and recuperation. They've landed themselves in something huge. An enormous, unfathomable mess. There's no get-out-of-jail-free card for messes like this.
"Dad's told me some stuff," Sam says quietly, moving very slow as Dean hangs onto him and tries not to fall over or cry or piss his pants. "Some stuff about – my dreams."
"Yeah. Apparently I'm not the only one."
"Not the only kid with weird mojo. And – not the only kid whose mom burned on the ceiling."
"What?" Dean squawks. "Sam, could we hold off on this conversation til after I've gone to the bathroom?"
"Oh – sure. Yeah. Sorry."
Dean leaves Sam standing with his ear pressed to the door of the bathroom, listening for the splash of Dean falling in or some shit, and Dean hangs onto the bar Bobby's set up in there and relieves himself with a little sigh of relief. He wants to hear what his dad told Sam, but the thought of any added complications is overwhelming and Dean doesn't know if he can handle it right now, beat-up and still fuzzy from the morphine.
Sam doesn't broach the subject again until he's got Dean settled back against the couch, and instead of saying more about his dreams, he sits on the edge of the cushions and says, "There's this gun."
"A gun. Dad knows of a gun that he says can kill anything. Even a demon. Kill, and not just exorcise."
Dean's quiet, turning that over in his mind. "And…"
"And he's pretty sure he knows where it is."
Dean knows, abstractly, that that's a good thing. A powerful weapon on their side. A gun that can kill a demon. But he's too sick and sore to try and feign pleasure. There's always something, he thinks, always something to get, or find, or kill. It doesn't end.
"Where is it?" Dean asks finally, because Sam clearly expects him to say something.
"Dad thinks there's a good chance it's in Manning, Colorado."
"Awesome," Dean says. "A good chance. Colorado." He takes a cigarette from his pouch of tobacco, glad he'd rolled a few extra this morning because he doesn't know if he has the focus to handle the fragile papers right now. His fingers feel flimsy and he can't get the lighter going, thumb scraping uselessly against the flint wheel, and Sam takes it from him gently, sparks the flame.
"Thanks," Dean says, puffing smoke and leaning his head back. Sam lowers the lighter.
"I want to talk to you before Dad gets a chance," Sam says. "I want to know – if you want to come."
"I'm gonna go," Sam says resolutely. "I've decided to go with him. I just want – I just want this over. You know?" He doesn't wait for Dean's response, just plunges forward. "But you – Dad thinks it's better if you stay – somewhere else. For a while. Meg said some things – and she's a demon, so she doesn't exactly have your best interest in mind, but she said – some things about your leg – I don't –"
"Yeah," Dean says. "That sounds good."
"It's just," Sam says fretfully, picking at the gauze on his arm, "you keep getting messed-up, Dean, and if you ever want to –" Then he stops, as if he just heard what Dean said. "Wait."
"Meg never woulda gotten the jump on Bobby and me if I hadn't been there," Dean says, and it hurts to admit, but it's true, and it doesn't do any good to pretend otherwise. "The guy's apartment was on the top floor. We managed to knock him down, douse him holy water, and Bobby woulda gotten away… except I couldn't get down the stairs fast enough." He laughs bitterly. "I made it down one step. Bobby was already at the bottom. He came back up for me when the guy put a gun to my head."
"But Bobby said –"
"He was bein' nice," Dean says. "Or he doesn't remember. Either way." He shrugs, takes a drag of his cigarette. "I don't know. Maybe it's the morphine from earlier, though lemme tell you, it's kinda wearing off. Or maybe I'm tired. Maybe I need to sleep on it. But right now – I'm saying, yeah. I can't – I'm not gonna be any help. And I'm sure as hell not gonna help myself. Wherever I am, I can do research, help you out that way, but—"
He stops, because it's a lot harder to say than he thought it would be, and there's a lump in his throat that's difficult to get words around.
"Dean," Sam says, and he looks so young, in the yellow light from Bobby's old, scratched-up lamps. "I don't wanna split up."
"Won't be for long," Dean says, with a confidence he doesn't feel. "Just – 'til you do what needs to be done. Few months, tops. You guys find the gun, I'll hole up somewhere, maybe see a doctor, maybe not. Depends on where I am. How high-profile it is."
Sam scrubs at his eyes, rubs a hand across his face with violent exhaustion. "I need a drink. Not gonna, but."
"You and me both."
Sam's brow is practically bisected, he's furrowing it so hard. "You're really okay with this?"
"Yeah, Sam," Dean says, tries on a smile. "It'll be better for – everyone."
"But where are you gonna go?" Sam asks, sounding like a lost little kid, and Dean has to look away. "They know we're here – even Bobby was thinking of clearing out for a while. Pastor Jim's?"
"Nah," Dean says. "Nah. Too much church'd kill me quicker than a demon. Plus – everyone knows Dad and Pastor Jim are friends. It'd be too easy for them to track me down – and if they find me, they'll find you."
"I'll think about it," Dean says. "Tomorrow. I'm fuckin' tired, man. I need sleep. I'll tell Dad tomorrow morning, and you can explain to me about the mojo-kids. The ceiling fires. Fuck."
"Okay," Sam says, unsure. "We're not gonna leave for another day or two – so if you change your mind –"
"If I change it, I change it," Dean says. "Yeah."
Sam stands, shifts his weight from foot to foot. "You need anything? Water? Are you hungry?"
"No," Dean says. "Nothing."
"All right," Sam says. "Nothing?"
"If I change my mind," Dean says again, "I'll tell you."
The phantom of a smile flickers over Sam's mouth, and he turns to go.
"Hey, Sammy," Dean says, and Sam turns a little, one hand on the doorframe.
"You did real good today," he says. "Blessed the fuckin' rain. Sam Winchester – rain blesser. It rhymes. Seriously. Good work."
"Thanks," Sam says, and looks like he wants to say something else, but gives a minute shake of his head and disappears back into the kitchen.
Dean watches him go, drops his cigarette into the watery bile in the bowl beside the couch. Fucking gross. Already he's drifting back towards sleep, the lull of the rain and the hush of familiar voices in the kitchen working in him like a sedative, easing some of the fierce ache in his body, washing away some of the filth that Meg left clinging to the edges of his mind.
It's very, very hard for him to imagine John and Sam hunting without him. Hard in – in every way. For one thing, they can barely last five seconds without goin' at each others' throats, and for another, they've never hunted alone together. Dean's hunted with John, Dean's hunted with Sam, and they've all three of them hunted, but Dean's always been the link between the two of them. He always broke up fights, or settled ruffled feathers.
Well, he tells himself, they're gonna have to figure it for themselves. It'll be good for them.
He swallows hard around the rock in his throat, rubs a hand across his eyes. He needs a rest. It's the right thing to do. He'll only slow them down. Without him they'll get the job done faster, and the sooner the demon is dead, the sooner they can stop and rest for a while. Together.
Until then, Dean will wait. He'll research, and he'll wait somewhere safe, somewhere no one will think to look for him, somewhere he won't be a liability to his family.
"Copper Coppice Art Colony, this is Claire speaking. How will you create yourself today?"
"… Hey. Claire? This is–"
"Hi Dean! Do you like the new greeting? I just changed it from 'How can we help you create yourself anew from the clay of your own imagination?' I thought that one was too long."
Dean pinches the bridge of his nose and shifts the cellphone to his other ear. He'd conveniently forgotten how batshit Claire is. "Definitely," he says. "Definitely too long."
"How are you? You sound terrible."
Dean automatically glances around, but he's alone on the porch. It's just him and the South Dakota morning, the sun rising warm over the junkyard, ready to burn away any water the rain left overnight. He takes a drag of his smoke and says, "Well. Yeah. I'm not doin' too hot, actually."
Her voice gets a bit softer, less a cheery new-age nutjob and more like the Claire he remembers – a bit touched, but genuine, and sweet. "Oh, no. What's wrong? Is Sam okay?"
He lets out a strained laugh. "More or less. Yeah. He's okay."
"But you're not?"
She waits, but Dean, for some reason, can't bring himself to speak.
"Hey," she says after a moment. "Hey, what's going on? Please tell me. Tell me or I'll just sit here in my office freaking out and then smoke too much weed and my secretary will have to tell everyone I've gone home sick because I'll be unable to function."
Dean raises his eyebrows, although the gesture is lost on the phone. "You have a secretary?"
"Of course. This is a governmentally-funded organization! I have like, twenty secretaries. We all take turns."
Dean leers down the line. "Take turns, huh?"
"Don't distract me with innuendo," Claire says. "My secretaries are very upstanding. Now, please, what's wrong? I can hear it in your voice that something's not right."
"Nothing's wrong, exactly," he says, and takes a deep breath, steels himself to ask. "It's just – I could use a little down time, you know? My leg's been making things kinda hard, and – well, it's complicated, but Sam, he's got something he needs to do, and we think it's – we think it's better if I don't go with him. So."
He hears Claire's breath hitch on the other end, like she's going to say something, but instead she falls silent, and Dean feels his heart sink.
"Never mind," he says, "never mind, it was a stupid idea. I just thought – shit, never mind."
"Woah, hey," Claire says. "I want to mind. Just, let me get this straight – you'd like to come to Copper Coppice and stay for a while?"
"Ah, I don't know," Dean says, feeling unbearably foolish. He flicks his cigarette nervously, dislodging imaginary ash. "No. It was just an idea."
"Dean," Claire says, and her voice is gentle. "I would love to have you come hang out here."
Dean swallows. "Really?"
"Absolutely. I already know which room will be yours. It has a green bedspread and two beautiful windows that look out onto the ex-haunted cottage, so you can remind yourself of what a good job you did."
Dean laughs a little. "It sounds… perfect."
"There's just one thing."
Dean stops laughing. "Yeah?"
"I have this boyfriend. Jean-Jaques. And he's – okay, you know how I feel about one person claiming ownership over another person, but he's asked me very nicely if I would stop sleeping with other people. Just for a while, to try on monogamy. Like a coat, he says. Like you would walk into a clothing shop and put on a coat and look at yourself in the mirror and maybe walk around a bit and see how you feel and whether it's too hot or too heavy or too beige or made by sweatshop labor. And then you either buy the coat, or you put it back on the rack and say, It's not for me! You know?"
"Yeah," Dean says. "I think I get it. So you mean –"
"I mean I would love to have you come here, I would love it so much, I'm already planning activities we could do together! But you would be coming – no pun intended, because, yeah – you'd be coming as a friend. Not a sexual partner." She pauses, and when she speaks again, she sounds shyer than he's used to, and younger. Hopeful. "Do you want to come, even as a non-sexual friend?"
Dean finds himself smiling. "Yeah, Claire," he says. "I – honestly, I could use a friend."
But as soon as the words have left his lips he's cringing, because holy shit, is this what it's gonna be like on an art colony? Using pre-school language, let's be friends, or do you want to share this cookie?
"That's great!" Claire cries, and he has to hold the phone away from his ear to prevent nerve damage. "I'll kick that stupid ceramicist out of your room! I've been dying for an excuse to get rid of her, ugh, she makes the most hideous coil-pots you've ever seen. Like elephant turds. Then she just leaves them around for people to trip over and run away from."
"Okay," Dean says. "You do that."
"When are you coming? Soon? Please say it's soon."
"Yeah," Dean says, and drops his cigarette into the ashtray on his knee. "Probably real soon."
There's a creak, and the porch door swings open. Sam comes out, pausing in confusion when he sees that Dean's on the phone.
"Hey," Dean says, "I gotta go. But I'll call you soon, all right? Soon as I know some more details."
"Yay!" Claire trumpets. "I'm gonna go to the store and buy some cheeeeeeeeese! And a non-skid bathmat!"
"Awesome," Dean says. "Can't wait."
"We're going to have a great time! And there are plenty of really cute men and women around here who would totally let you do naked—"
He hangs up the phone before she can finish her sentence, and raises a defiant chin at Sam's incredulous expression.
"What?" he says.
"Was that Claire?" Sam asks.
Sam just grins, warm and relieved. "Good call, man. I would't've thought of that."
"Yeah," Dean grumps, "well. She says we can't have sex."
"Shit." Sam frowns. "Call her back, man. Tell her the deal's off."
Sam grins again, but slowly his expression fades into something more serious. "So you're – you're really gonna –"
"Yeah," Dean says firmly. "It's the best way."
Sam doesn't disagree, and Dean tells himself it's stupid to be hurt by that. He's the one who made the decision, after all.
"Bobby made pancakes," Sam says after a moment. "You ready to go inside?"
"For Bobby's pancakes?" Dean asks with exaggerated excitement. "You bet!"
Sam comes over and offers his shoulder, and Dean slowly, painstakingly hoists himself to his feet, gets his crutch under one armpit and leans hard on Sam's arm. He's so used to this – to Sam being right here, ready, knowing what he needs. And he knows what Sam needs, knows how to deal with his dark moods, how to talk him down when he's got himself worked-up, knows all the warning signs and all the good stuff, too, knows how to get him to lighten up once in a while, get him to laugh.
"You call me every day," Dean says fiercely, before they cross the threshold back inside. "Okay? Every fucking day. Promise me."
"I promise," Sam says. "Cross my heart. You're not the only one who – I'm gonna need someone sane to talk to, especially if I'm gonna be around Dad all the time. I – I'm gonna miss you. Fuck. I already miss you."
Dean clears his throat. "Yeah, well. Just remember. I can still kick the shit outta you, even long-distance."
"That, I'd like to see," Sam says, puts a hand under Dean's elbow to get him over the short doorjamb.
"It's a rule of physics you probably didn't get to in Stanford. Way too advanced. Called the Long Distance Big Brother Beatdown."
"Sounds like a bluegrass band."
"Oho," Dean says. "You're laughing now. Just you wait, Sammy."
"Okay," Sam says. "I will."