Spoilers: Between Bloody Mary and Skin, season 1

Disclaimer: Not mine or I'd sit them down and set them straight

Beta: sandymg

No Such Thing as a Night Off

He gave the bosomy blonde bartender his best 'want-to-get-laid?' look, saluted her with the glass, and downed the whiskey in one smooth move. That was decidedly an interested look he got in return. He motioned for another shot and asked, as she poured it, what time she got off tonight.

Her nametag read "Cece."

"In an hour." Her eyes lingered on his face, then drifted downward. Yes, it was going to be a good night. They'd actually ganked the poltergeist without either of them getting hurt and he figured at least 24 hours till Sam found the next hunt. Dean was going to enjoy himself tonight. He gave Cece a warm smile and watched her sweet little ass as she walked toward the next customer.

"Dean." No way could that be Sam's I-got-something-serious voice already. Dean turned and glared at his brother's earnest expression.

"Go away, dude, I'm busy."

Immediately a frown line creased Sam's forehead. "Busy doing what, Dean?"

"Relaxin'. Gonna have a good time tonight, if you catch my meaning?" Dean raised an eyebrow in Cece's direction.

Naturally Sam's lips compressed into a thin line. Not quite a bitchface, but close.

"I want you to look at this," he said tightly. A folded brochure was thrust in Dean's face.

"Jesus, relax a little, Sammy."

David Clancy, Psychic Extraordinaire. A black and white photo of a man in his sixties, maybe, with an amazingly full head of hair.

Tour the Boar's Tail Inn with master ghost-hunter David Clancy for an experience you will never forget! See the indelible imprint in the room where the madame of the old brothel was murdered in 1922! Feel the horrific energy in the closet where her children were strangled! Hear the echo of the last gasps of the vicious killer in the attic where he was strung up from the rafters! Then watch as David Clancy summons these spirits before your eyes!

Tours every evening at 10 PM; also at midnight on Friday and Saturday. $25 per person. Sign up with the restaurant hostess.

Vintage photographs, presumably of the victims, surrounded the text.

Dean shoved the pamphlet back at Sam. "So?"

"Doesn't anything about this make you curious, Dean?"

"No, not really. Dude has a sweet little scam going, not our problem if people are dumb enough to fall for it."

"What if it's not a scam, Dean? What if there really are ghosts involved?"

"And these ghosts are what, just gonna work this show for a cut of the profits? Don't think so, Sam."

Cece was heading back in Dean's direction. "One more, sweetheart? And how many minutes do I have to make it last till you and I can bust this place?"

Her tongue peeked between her lips as her cheeks dimpled. "Fifty minutes. Think you can last that long?"

"For you, sweetheart, absolutely. Longer if I have to…"


"Busy here, Sammy." Dean winked at Cece as she handed him another shot, her fingers lingering against his.

Sam exhaled in a long huff. "There could be something here, Dean. I think we should check it out."

Obviously there was only one way Dean was going to get rid of him. Setting his whiskey on the bar, Dean fished in his pocket and pulled out a crumple of fives and singles. "Twenty-five, Sammy. Go take yourself on a ghost tour. I'll pick you back up in, say, three-four hours."

The bitchface finally burst out full force, but Dean just determinedly shook his head and went back to admiring Cece's promising curves.

Including Sam, eight people were lined up at ten o'clock for David Clancy's tour. Three twenty-something women who were celebrating a birthday for one of them – by the nonstop giggling Sam thought the partying had started several hours ago; a young couple who made him think of his Stanford friends; and a round gray-haired woman laughing quietly with a brown-haired teenager with glasses. There was a similarity to their faces – mother and daughter, perhaps. The older woman gave him a friendly smile.

"Ever done anything like this before?" she asked.

Sam shrugged to avoid answering. "Have you?" he turned the question around.

"Years ago I went on Richard Crowe's Haunted Boat Tour with my sister. But that was mostly a trip to see where there'd been shipwrecks in the lake. Didn't promise we'd actually see a real ghost like this fellow does."

"So is David Clancy pretty famous around here? I'm from out of town," Sam added at her quizzical look.

"Well, he's gotten some write-ups in the paper recently. And Serena here decided we should do this for fun. We've both gotten interested in supernatural kinds of things."

The arrival of the ghost-hunter ended the small talk. David Clancy looked like his picture, although surprisingly short, shorter than everyone in the tour line, not just Sam.

As soon as he started his pitch Sam pegged him as a hustler, and felt somewhat stupid. Dean would no doubt give him endless grief for wasting the money and it looked like he'd deserve it.

"We're going down to the basement first so you can walk around and tell me if you sense anything, any of the spots where things … happened … and then we'll get back together and you can compare what you felt and I'll tell you what really went on down there. Just don't touch anything, okay?"

The unfinished stairs leading down were pitched more steeply than usual in a public place and the handrail was disconcertingly shaky. One of the tipsy birthday girls tripped, her spiked heel catching on a knothole, and Sam reached out instinctively to grab her shoulder.

"Oh my God, thanks!" giggled the woman. "If I'd have broken my neck I guess I'd have to haunt this place with the other ghosts!"

It was hard to refrain from rolling his eyes but Sam managed. He was quite sure that he had been incredibly lame to get worked up over an obviously ridiculous premise. Clancy pointed out that where the furnace sat had once been a 'coal-burning monstrosity' and a previous owner had been a mobster and tortured delinquent 'juice loan' holders by burning them with hot coals, and rumor had it that there were bodies under the concrete floor. If people wanted to believe, they would even if 'fake' was spelled out in foot-high letters. Only when it was real, then most people didn't believe. A soft snort and shake of his head at the irony, and what was he doing here anyway?

The redhead from the birthday group – a red from a box, not genetics, Sam was sure – stopped beside him. "I heard you say you're not from around here?"

In her stiletto boots she was almost as tall as Dean. Willowy type.

"My brother and I are just passing through."

"So where're you heading? I'm Renee, by the way." She extended her hand and Sam had to take it. As he did he could hear Dean chiding him, "Dude, she's flirting with you!" and he smiled without meaning to. Which Renee immediately took personally and stepped closer.

"Sam." Dean would have played along, seen how far he could get. He didn't understand that for Sam one night of hot sex just wasn't what he wanted. Not after Jess. "We're doing a road trip, no particular destination." He disentangled her fingers, started to move away, but she put a hand on his arm.

"We all have rooms down the road, not driving back into the city tonight. If you want to come by, you can help us celebrate Karen's birthday…maybe we'll be too scared to sleep after we see the ghost here, you know?"

This felt like a scene in a really bad movie. He shifted back a step.

"Um, yeah, I'm sorry, but my brother wants to get an early start in the morning."

"If your brother's as cute as you he should come along, then maybe he won't mind heading out a little later in the morning." Okay, that was dialog from a really bad porn movie … Dean would declare they couldn't possibly be related if Sam turned this down, but Sam was not going to compound one dumb decision with another one, and he gave Renee a look he hoped she'd understand as 'not interested' and shook his head.

"Yeah, but um …" Fortunately Clancy started asking the tour if anyone had felt any disturbed energy and Sam managed to position himself on the opposite side of the group.

After that it was tempting to cut out of the tour as they passed through the dining room on the way to the second floor … but Dean would certainly be off with his conquest of the evening and Sam would have been stuck here anyway, until Dean got back with the Impala, and if the tour finished before Dean picked him up he'd probably have to turn down Renee's offer again, so Sam figured he might as well stay with the tour. Maybe it would be educational — ha — to see how the psychic rigged up the supposed haunting.

The upper level of the building consisted of a long, dimly lit hallway with small rooms off each side. Clancy proclaimed that violent acts had happened in some of the brothel rooms, and a production was made of opening each old solid-wood door, asking everyone to step in one at a time and say what they felt. Two of the female trio reacted by proclaiming that they felt suffocated or claustrophobic in nearly every room; the third one just giggled non-stop. Sam was a little surprised that the young man reacted negatively to a couple of the rooms while his date just stayed in the hall and wouldn't go in any of them. The older woman stepped assertively through each doorway, cocked her head like she was listening, then shrugged and came back out. Her daughter repeated the motions almost exactly.

"How about you, young man, why don't you go in and tell us what it feels like?"

Sam shook his head.

"Strapping fellow like you, you can't be afraid of ghosts, can you?" Of course that made everyone turn to look at Sam. Asshole, he thought.

"I doubt there are any ghosts around now, if there ever were." His tone dared Clancy to push further. Sam was surprised at the smirk his words provoked, but the ghost-hunter didn't say anything more to him as the group continued down the hallway.

The last room was clearly intended as a sitting room. A built-in sideboard, the leaded glass cabinet doors amazingly still intact, dominated the room. A rather dingy boar's head with only one tusk was mounted on a plaque above the red brick fireplace, and two floral chairs that had clearly seen better days angled in front of it.

The hardwood floors in all the rooms had been sanded sometime in the not-too-distant past, but here Clancy gestured at a kidney-shaped gray area of the wood. It was about five feet long, Sam estimated.

"All the floors have been fixed up on this level, the previous owner to this one was thinking about making a little hotel to go with the bar and restaurant, you know. But this here spot? No matter how many times it was sanded that spot won't go away. And you want to know why? Right here is where Estelle Reed, madame of the brothel, was murdered. Strangled, so no, it's not a bloodstain," several people twitched, "it's more like her psychic energy was captured there when she died. And her spirit haunts this room. We might even be able to sense it tonight. Does anyone want to try?"

Unsurprisingly the partying threesome volunteered. From a drawer in the cupboard Clancy held up two pair of hooked metal rods.

"These are dowsing rods," he said. "Anyone ever hear of using dowsing rods to find water?" Several people nodded. "Well these can find ghosts. What you do is hold them out straight in front of your chest," he demonstrated as he spoke, "Parallel-like, and then ask questions that can be answered with a yes-or-no. Is there a spirit in this building tonight?"

The two rods Clancy was holding shifted to cross each other. "That means yes," he said. "And you might be thinking I moved the rods together, but I didn't. So here, Miss…"

"Emily," one of the party girls took a set of the proffered rods from Clancy.

"Now just hold them lightly, put your thumbs here, and relax your hands. Feel how they lay there."

Everyone looked closely at how Emily was holding the metal. Except Sam. It seemed obvious that any subtle response Emily made to the power of Clancy's suggestions would cause the rods to move. About as real as an Ouija board.

"Now Emily, relax. And someone here, how about you," he looked at the older woman, "Ask a question. A yes-or-no one."

"Um, okay. Are you a man or a…no, I mean, are you a woman?"

The points of the dowsing rods floated toward each other.

"Now are you moving them at all, Emily?"

"No, absolutely not!"

Sam really didn't mean for his snort to be audible.

"So you don't believe, son?"

"No, I don't really think there are any ghosts in this building."

"You just ask a question, then." The look the psychic was giving him made Sam slightly uneasy.

"All right. Are there any ghosts in this room?"

There were nervous twitters as the rods signaled 'yes.'

"Now someone else ask a question, let's see if we can narrow down who this spirit might be."

Serena spoke up. "Were you married?"

The rods didn't move. As everyone took turns asking questions Sam walked around the edges of the room while unobtrusively keeping his eyes on Clancy. Something in the little man's demeanor — very sure of himself — kept Sam puzzling over what the charlatan was going to do.

Clancy now had the young man holding the second pair of dowsing rods and his girlfriend asking questions. Clancy prompted her to ask if there were any other spirits in the room. The tips of the rods just started to cross when Sam, passing in front of the fireplace, saw something out of place. He only noticed because he was eye level with the top of the mounted boar head, and he kept his gaze casual as he confirmed there was something stuck in the bristly hairs behind one of the stumpy ears.

Sam returned his attention to the rest of the tour group where the yes-or-no questioning had elicited that supposedly the ghosts of two children were in the room now.

"Are these your children?" the teen's mother asked. The metal rods flew toward each other so forcefully the young man almost dropped them.

Clancy looked pleased with the staggered expressions on everyone else's face, though his face tightened when he saw Sam was still disbelieving. He permitted a few more questions, and then said it was time to head up to the attic where they would come face-to-face with proof of the existence of spirits. Sam maneuvered so he could see into the cabinet drawer as the guide replaced the dowsing rods, and he was sure there was something else in the drawer. He tried to linger behind the group as they were herded upstairs, but Clancy made a point of putting Sam at the head of the line with warnings to watch his head on the rafters.

The detritus of an old attic has the same feel to it no matter what era the building is from. Two bare light bulbs with fragile pull-cord strings provided dim illumination for the mix of cast-off furniture, warped canvas paintings, empty picture frames, two old sewing machines from different decades, an old oscillating pedestal fan, and bundles of moth-eaten cloth — old curtains and tablecloths, probably. Little porcelain figurines, foot-tall statues, lamps long missing their shades, fake flowers, and a couple of trophies covered the horizontal surfaces. At the end near the stairway some worn cardboard boxes appeared to hold Christmas and other holiday decorations, with an electric beer sign propped against them.

Sam wondered what it said about the weirdness of his life that the yellowed wedding dress on the mannequin in the corner was pretty much a standard feature in the attics he walked through. However from the pointing and whispering it made an impression on Renee and her friends.

He did have to be careful of the low ceiling beams as he followed the rest of the group to the far end of the attic where enough space had been cleared for all of them to stand together. Sam looked down at the unexpected rough patch he stepped on, and he snapped to alertness at the realization this section of the floor was coated with salt. His eyes followed the roughness to see that Clancy was settling his customers inside of a salt circle shellacked to the floor.

"Now I want to point out that you are all safe as long as you stay within the protective circle here," Clancy gestured. "It is gonna get a bit intense if the murderer's ghost comes to visit us tonight, and I feel he will. So be sure you stay away from the edges of the circle so you don't accidentally cross it, because that would be bad, very bad."

The words had the desired effect of making everyone move closer to the person they were with, which left Sam alone on the left side of the salt ring. Clancy lifted a wrought-iron, three-pronged candelabra from the closest trunk and set it on the floor right in front of the group. He lit the candles with a match, then said, "I'm going to turn out the electric lights now, and when I come back in the circle we'll see if the ghost will be summoned tonight."

Watching him closely, Sam saw Clancy take something from his pocket after he pulled off the second light, but the dimness of the candlelight prevented him from seeing what. He was clearly holding something, though, as he stepped back inside the salt ring.

"Ego to order vos exorior!"

What the hell? A shadowy form appeared at the far end of the attic and the sudden drop in temperature raised the hairs on the back of Sam's neck. One of the women gave a muffled scream.

"Ladies, gentlemen, I present the ghost of Rafael Deprizio, murderer of Estelle Reed and her two daughters." Clancy's voice rolled out in the cadences of a ringmaster. The ghost did not move.

"Rafael Deprizio, called Ralphie by the ladies of the brothel … Ralphie who was one of the enforcers, made sure the customers played by the rules and paid their bills … Little Ralphie, the ladies called him. Isn't that right, little Ralphie?"

The psychic paused. The spirit did not move.

"Little Ralphie … short little man. They laughed at you, didn't they, Ralphie. You didn't like that, did you, Ralphie. Because they weren't just laughing because you were short, were they? No, you knew why they called you little Ralphie, you knew why they laughed behind your back."

The shape flickered. Someone in the circle muttered, "Shit." Sam split his attention between the ghost and Clancy.

"Little Ralphie." The words were spoken in a sing-song, dripping with contempt. "That's right, isn't it? They laughed at you. Madame Estelle let them laugh at you. Little Ralphie didn't like that. Little Ralphie hit the girls when he got angry, didn't he? Madame didn't like that, but you did it when you figured she wasn't looking. You hit them just like daddy hit you, little Ralphie."

The ghost was flashing in and out at near strobe-light intensity but still hadn't moved. Sam could see dust eddies whirling around in the blinking light, and the objects on the surfaces nearest the form were twitching erratically.

"It's real, isn't it? Why is he baiting it?" Sam wasn't sure to whom the mother was speaking, him or her daughter.

Clancy continued brutally. "And when you were with the ladies, well, you didn't like all the 'little' jokes they made after. And when Madame Reed caught you taking it out on one of her girls, you killed her. Showed them not to make fun of little Ralphie anymore."

A blast of wind shuddered around the attic, drowning Clancy's voice, rattling the beams and knocking the trash around. Except the air within the salt circle remained still, the candle flames barely flickering. Sam took a careful step closer to the psychic, trying to see what was in his hands.

"Little Ralphie, little Ralphie! Strangled the madame and then murdered her children too, because you'd seen them laughing! You'd seen them all laughing at you! You wanted to get them all, like you want to get me now! But you can't do it, can you, little Ralphie? You're impotent, that's what you are! You can't do anything!"

"Omygod, omygod, omygod …" Sam sensed the shuffling as the others in the circle moved tighter together, all of them shifting closer to him.

"Stay in the center," he murmured at them. If Clancy did this every night, then Sam had to assume Clancy had potent protection for himself and his clients. But Sam didn't know if this was typical or if Clancy was amping up the production for the non-believers. For him. If Clancy lost control of the apparition and someone was hurt, it would be Sam's fault for egging the man on with his skepticism.

An attic window shattered as the broken beer sign went flying. A whirling column of debris was bearing down the center of the space, and there were more gasps and shrieks behind Sam.

In a succession of eye blinks the ghost abruptly vanished and reappeared just feet away from Clancy. So much rubbish was now swirling around the attic that the air behind the ghost was opaque. Hysterical cries were coming from the women behind Sam.

"You don't scare me, Ralphie! You can't hurt me, can't touch me in here!" Clancy was screaming to be heard over the whirlpool. Junk was flying right up to the edge of the salt but nothing crossed it. The air was so cold now Sam could see his breath.

"Do your worst, you bastard!"

This had to stop – Sam seized the fist Clancy was shaking just as a series of sharp cracks thundered around them. Someone screamed, bodies surged, and in the chaos the candles were kicked over and the light vanished, and the instant it did the whirlwind spewed its contents across the salt line with lethal force. A hard edge caught Sam on his temple and he staggered … shrapnel from broken glass stung his exposed skin and he threw up a hand to shield his eyes. Full-blown panic overtook the rest of the tour group although someone was hollering "Get down on the floor! Or behind the furniture! This way!"

The impact of something massive impelled Sam to his knees, breath knocked out of him, pain tearing along his ribs. The howl of the wind and the screams of the women were deafening. Smaller bits of flotsam and jetsam pelted Sam as he shoved his hand in his jacket pocket for his flashlight.

The first thing he saw through narrowed eyes when the beam flicked on was Renee's body lying in a red puddle, skewered through the stomach with an ornate piece of picture frame. Swearing was a waste of the little breath he had but Sam cursed anyway as he swept the light through the boiling air. Clancy was also on the floor, Ralph's ghost looming over the body. The light gazed the shape of the candelabra and Sam stumbled through the barrage of trash zinging around him to grasp and hurl it.

Everything shooting through the attic dropped clamorously to the floor as the apparition dissolved.

"Out! Now!" As he scrambled to retrieve the iron Sam bellowed at the others. Pushing her daughter in the direction of the stairwell, the mother grabbed the arm of one of Renee's horror-struck friends and pulled her toward safety.

The reprieve was momentary. Sam threw himself across the floor to retrieve the candelabra as the spirit reappeared with the swirling windstorm. Sam swung the iron through it again, buying time for the civilians to escape while his mind raced on how to take out the ghost by himself.

What Clancy had been holding – it must be by his body. Sam couldn't see anything near it that might be connected to the spirit … Instinctively he ducked as a lamp flew over his shoulder to smash on the floor. He whirled, thrust his weapon into the ghost, then set the flashlight on the floor and flipped the body over with one hand. The awkward angle as the head flopped limply told Sam that Clancy wouldn't be bothering Ralphie anymore.

There. His hunter-trained eyes locked on the bone that had been under the body. A finger bone. Sam reached for it … and with an explosion of pain the world went black.

Dean Winchester was leaving a string of happy women across America. And yeah, that wasn't modest, but damn, he didn't have to be.

Cece squirmed and gasped, "Don't stop!" Her fingers gripped his shoulders so tight that he'd have ten round little bruises tomorrow. It was deeply satisfying to feel her arch and writhe and moan under his hands.

"Want you now!" she breathed.

The condom foil was waiting on the nightstand and Dean was ready when the unmistakable buzzing of his phone from his coat pocket called for his attention.

Dammit. Had to be Sam. Only his brother could have such crummy timing. He considered ignoring it for a moment. Probably Sam bitching to know when Dean was picking him up. Sam could just wait.

The vibrating of an incoming call stopped and switched to the measured buzz of a voicemail.

Damn, damn, damn. Just once could he not have to be responsible? But his body was pulling away from Cece even before Dean consciously decided to check the call. He muzzled her neck in apology.

"Mmmm, just a minute, sweetheart, gotta check the damn voicemail just in case …"

Her wriggle beneath him nearly changed his mind but … "One second's all …" he promised.

He was thrown for an instant by the female voice instead of Sam's. Then the words registered: La Grange Hospital. Calling from the cell phone of the young man in the emergency room to locate a relative. Dean was dialing as soon as he heard the hospital number. A rock of ice replaced his stomach as he waited for the phone to be answered.

"Dean?" Cece was at his side, rubbing her glorious body against him, and Dean didn't care.

Twenty minutes later Dean was bullying his way through red tape, promising to give them all the insurance information they could possibly want as soon as he'd seen his brother, while trying to stay out of the notice of the cops all over the ER. The battle-axe at check-in was doing a terrific imitation of a heartless jail warden, refusing to let Dean pass until everything was properly completed and signed, but fortunately one of the ER doctors heard the commotion and motioned Dean to the closest cubicle.

Goddammit! His brother shouldn't be lying on a hospital gurney … A crisp white bandage was partly obscured by tangled bangs and Sam's face was peppered with tiny cuts and welts. Bare shoulders poked out from under the utilitarian hospital blanket covering him.

"How bad is he hurt?"

Sam's eyes opened in response to Dean's voice. "Dean?"

"Yeah, I'm here, Sammy." He moved close enough to grip his brother's hand.

" 'S a real ghost, Dean, no' a … no' a fake …"

" 'S okay, we'll take care of it … Doc?"

"Your brother has a concussion, a bruised kidney, three cracked ribs, multiple contusions to his back and abdomen, and as you can see, lacerations on his face."

Didn't sound life-threatening, hell, a diagnosis like that wasn't even an ER trip usually, but, "How serious?"

"Because of the concussion we want to keep him overnight, but he should be able to go home in the morning."

"What happened?"

Sam's eyes had closed again, and Dean could see the creases of pain on his face. This was why Dean had dragged Sam out of Stanford?

"We have several injured people from the Boar's Tail Inn … and two fatalities." Damn. Dean listened to the doctor without taking his eyes off Sam. "The stories we're getting say that the psychic who gave the 'ghost tours' lost control of the spirit he'd summoned, and it attacked them. The survivors are obviously hysterical … The police are taking statements, trying to determine what actually happened."

"I'd like to talk to this psychic."

"Um, unfortunately he was one of the fatalities."

"Oh. Well …"

The doctor jerked his head toward the desk nurse who had pulled aside the dividing curtain and was shooting death glares at both of them. "I think it would be a good idea for you to fill out the insurance forms now?"

"Oh. Yeah, sure. I'll be right back, okay?" Dean gave Sam's limp hand a gentle squeeze, frowned with worry at the lack of a reaction. "He's gonna be all right?" Dean shot a fierce look at the doctor.

"Any head trauma serious enough to cause a concussion is something to be concerned about, and we need to watch for signs of blood in the urine from the kidney damage … He's going to be in a lot of pain for a couple weeks."

"Ahem!" Nurse Ratchet's doppelganger cleared her throat ominously. Dean ignored her.

"Kidney damage?"

"He took several hard blows to the lower back and left side. It's the same as when you bang your shin on a coffee table, blood vessels rupture and the leaking blood pools under the skin as a bruise. When a patient starts voiding blood, though, it means the capillaries aren't sealing and sometimes surgery is necessary."

The tension in Dean's gut that had started to disappear returned with twice the intensity. The earnest doctor, who really wasn't much older than himself, reacted to Dean's glare with a hand to Dean's shoulder. "I have to explain the worst case scenario. But I think your brother will be okay. And you better go with Nurse Lanwehr now. Please."

Dean settled into the chair by the side of the hospital bed. As these kinds of chairs went, it wasn't too bad, actually. It had been a long time since he'd done a bedside vigil for Sam, and damn, he'd have been okay without ever doing another one … Seeing his little brother hooked up to a monitor and an I.V. stirred up too many memories of both Sam and Dad and stomach-churning anxiety. Always wanted it to be him, not them, if someone was hurt bad enough to be in the hospital …

In … out … Dean watched Sam's steady breaths. Just as Dean was relaxing with them, there was a hitch in the rhythm and Dean was at alert before he even realized what had triggered his adrenaline jump. He stared at Sam while holding his own breath, waiting for resumption of the even tempo. Sam hadn't been hooked up to a heart monitor, which was reassuring in that Sam didn't need one, but Dean wouldn't have minded the comfort of a monotone beep-beep in the background.

Several ragged beats, then slowly Sam's breathing returned to a smooth, albeit shallow, cadence, and Dean could resume breathing as well. The freckle-like nicks on Sam's cheeks and chin were all daubed with a shiny anti-biotic gel.

Dean's eyes locked on the brown crust of blood stiffening Sam's hair and hated that he could think of too many other times he'd cleaned his brother up. Not three months back together and Sam'd been hurt twice now, first that damn Bloody Mary thing and now this. If Dean had followed his brains instead of his dick, if he'd taken that stupid pamphlet seriously, if he'd taken Sam seriously …


"Right here, Sammy." Dean was up and in his brother's line of sight without thinking.

"Don' feel too good …" Sam trailed off, his eyes flickered closed, then he forced them open. Dean could tell they weren't focusing on him.

" 'S got a spirit under control … more'n one, but I think only one's dan'g'rous … 's in the attic, got a finger bone … 'n salt 'n iron …"

" 'S okay, Sammy, I'll take care of it."

Sam lifted one hand in random motions and creased his face in agitation. "No, Dean, gotta help you, don' do it alone!"

Crap. Not the first time Dean'd associated the image of a dog gnawing on a bone with Sam and a case.

"Yeah, okay, Sam, but you gotta get outa here first." Dean gently settled the still waving hand back on the covers. "We'll take care of it tomorrow. Just rest now."

Next day, as carefully as he could, Dean helped his brother transfer from the hospital wheelchair to the Impala's passenger seat. Sam hissed repeatedly despite Dean's gentleness and it was impossible not to wince along with him.


"Yeah, I'm okay."

Bullshit … But there was no point in calling Sam on it right now.

Dean hated that all he could do was to make Sam take his pain meds and prop pillows around him on the motel bed to cushion his ribs and back. He watched as Sam closed his eyes, and with careful, shallow breaths, settled down. Dean was hoping Sam would fall asleep, but of course no such luck. Sam opened his eyes and frowned.

"So what are we gonna do about this ghost?"

"We aren't doing anything, Sammy." Dean put his hand up to forestall the bitchface. "You aren't in any kind of shape for anything. So we'll figure what it is and how to get rid of it and then I'll take care of it. You aren't leaving this room."

"Screw you."

"Yeah, I know." He hated the pinched look as Sam tried to wriggle into a less painful position." So tell me what we've got, Sam."

His head throbbed and his back ached.

Oh, come on, Sam, he thought, you can do better than that. 'Little men with pneumatic hammers were at work inside his skull.' Trite, but properly descriptive …

He wanted to curl up into a ball. Just tightening his muscles to get ready to shift positions made it clear he wasn't moving.

Where was Dean? Oh yeah, he'd gone off to track down where Ralphie was buried.

He needed to pee. He groaned. The bathroom door was across from the foot of his bed and it might as well have been on the moon.

Okay, it was either get up or wet the bed. And he hadn't wet the bed since he was four and he wasn't going to resume that … so sit up. Yeah, right.

Push up on elbows. Shit. Rest of the way to sitting up. Shit. Breathe without moving his ribs. Not possible. Shit. Don't lay back down. Bladder about to explode. Shit. Legs to the side. Shit.

To the accompaniment of his internal dialog laced with profanity, Sam managed to attain a wavery upright position and shuffle with excruciating care to the toilet. Then was the five hundred mile trip back to his bed. He had just made it back to sitting on the edge of the mattress when the motel door opened.

"What're you doing, Sam?"

"Just had to take a leak." Sam wished his voice hadn't come out so ragged. Dean obviously thought Sam was just starting the process from the way he leaned in to help Sam up.

"I'm done. Trying to lay down again."

"Shit, I'm sorry I wasn't here." Dean eased him back down, taking Sam's weight to minimize the use of his battered ribs and back. "Did you piss any blood?"

"No, I don't think so."

"Good." All the pain he was in, and yet it felt weirdly nice to have Dean hovering over him … He'd been sick a few times in school and Jess had, well, mothered him, but it wasn't that different from her usual manner of lovingly watching out for him. While he and Dean had perfected the obnoxious brother routine, and though Sam knew there was affection underlying it, seeing a moment when Dean wasn't hiding his concern felt … good.

Or maybe it was just that it had been four years since Sam had given his brother a chance to take care of him a little. Or the pain meds.


Dean looked honestly puzzled. "Huh?"

"For taking care of me."

Dean frowned. "Jesus, Sam, it's not like I'm doing anything you or Dad haven't done for me. 'Sides, it's my fault you got hurt in the first place."

Now it was Sam's turn to frown. "How the hell is it your fault that I got slammed by a ghost?"

"I shoulda been there."

"There was no way to know it was a real ghost or that it was gonna turn bad – Clancy'd been doing this for a while without any problems. Besides, I was pretty convinced it was a hoax until we got to the attic."

Dean sat down on his own bed, looked away from Sam's face. "You thought it was something worth checking out. I shoulda had your back. My fault."

"Dean …"

"Not gonna discuss it. You want something to drink? More pain pills? Are you hungry yet?"

Sam started to inhale for a deep sigh of exasperation and quickly thought better of it. He settled for a shallow grunt to show Dean he didn't agree at all, then realized he was pretty thirsty and decided a glass of water would be good.

Dean had refused to talk about the case until Sam had eaten, but now, with Chinese takeout boxes scattered around the room Sam pushed to hear what Dean had learned.

"So Ralph DePrizio was a bouncer for the brothel and a member of Capone's gang." At Sam's raised brow Dean added with quirked lips, "Yeah, that Capone. Al Capone actually owned the property for about fifteen years."

"So what Clancy said about juice loans and bodies in the concrete floor might be true. Huh."

"Yeah, well the story in the brochure about Ralph murdering Estelle Reed, who ran the place, and her two kids, is apparently true. Been a few stories about her being seen in the rooms on the second floor, but nothing about Ralph until recently."

"Define recently."

"When this Clancy dude showed up. He's been a low-level 'paranormal explorer' in northern Illinois for about twenty years, but I didn't find anything to show he actually did anything until he showed up at the Boar's Tail and offered to make the owner more money by showing ghosts on the property. Owner guessed it was a come-on but figured there was nothing to lose — any PR is good PR — and he never actually took the tour. Just the money of the 'satisfied customers.' Of whom he was getting a lot of lately. He was paying Clancy a bonus every time someone booked a dinner reservation specifically to take the ghost tour."

Absorbed in Dean's story, Sam shifted without thinking, then groaned.

"Hey, Sammy, take it easy."

"It's Sam. Yeah, go on."

"So I've located the cemeteries with the four bodies — Estelle and her kids are in the same one — and figure once I find whatever Clancy had in the brothel linking the ghosts to him, it'll just be a routine salt 'n' burn."

"Dean, you didn't see how pissed Ralphie's ghost was! He is not a spirit you're taking out on your own!"

"Actually, dude, from your condition I do get the idea that this Ralph is not going to be a picnic. But there aren't a lot of options here. And it's not like I've never done this alone before, for Pete's sake. I did a lot of stuff on my own while you were in school!"

Why did his brother have to be the most stubborn person on the face of the planet? Immediately his conscience objected, reminding him it was more likely a three-way tie. Sam ignored the thought, he wanted to be pissed with Dean.

"How 'bout a compromise? You find the stuff Clancy was using in the Boar's Tail tonight, take care of Estelle and her kids tomorrow night, and by then I'll be able to help with Ralphie the night after that."

"Sam …" Dean looked at his brother's uncompromising face. "Yeah, maybe, we'll start it that way, anyway."

The inn was still sealed off with police tape, so entering in the back was easy. Dean had kept an ear open for what the cops were doing with the case while he'd been checking records all afternoon, and he knew they were baffled but inclined to say that the psychic had gone psycho, except for the fact that left the psycho psychic with an unexplainable broken neck … but Dean'd seen weirder shit covered up by the authorities so he was confident the truth would be totally scrambled within a few weeks. And he'd shuffled Sam out of the hospital before the police had ever gotten to have a coherent conversation with him.

So they'd finish this up, leave the state, and find someplace to rest for a few weeks to give Sam a chance to heal properly.

Dean quickly found the sitting room from Sam's directions, and located the disturbed patch behind the boar's ear without any problem, other than having to feel for it blindly, given that his gigantor brother was eye-to-eye with the thing and Dean wasn't. He opened the little pouch, cautiously spilling its contents into his hand.

Salt. And two small bones.

Someone was behind him.

He'd laid the sawed-off on the mantel while searching the boar's head. Now he picked it up and whirled.

Two child-sized figures, clutching each other, winking in and out in the shadowed light from the flashlight propped to illuminate the trophy head.

They made no move toward him, just stared. Serious faces, enormous eyes, the slightly taller one's arms tightly clutching the smaller one's shoulders, the smaller girl squeezing her big sister's waist.

Hand-sized bruises around their necks. Shit.

"I'm not gonna hurt you, okay?" He was reassuring a ghost? "I'm gonna find your mom and then you can all be together, and … go home or something."

No reaction, just that unblinking stare.

"So I'm looking for your momma's … part."

The bigger girl took one hand off her sister long enough to point to a drawer in the giant sideboard. Well, that's where Sam had figured … Dean opened it and then tried to interpret what the flashlight showed.

There were the four dowsing rods along one side, and another small pouch, but at the back of the drawer a two-inch diameter circle of salt was glued down. He felt in the pouch with a finger, not dumping this one in his palm. Definitely another bone mixed with salt. Dean was starting to get a picture of how Clancy controlled his collection of spirits. Made sense, even if he'd never heard of it being done before. But then, hunters got rid of the ghosts, didn't tame them.

And in the end, Ralph hadn't really been tamed.

He turned back to the spirits of the little girls. "I'm gonna have to put you … back … wherever it is you go when your bones are in the salt, but I promise I'll put you with your mom and let the three of you … go. Okay?"

They just stared and Dean felt a little stupid and a little disappointed and a little, well, he didn't know what. Only that if Clancy wasn't dead Dean would have beat the shit out of him for sure. Whatever. He slid the tiny fragments back in the bag and put it, along with the one from the drawer, into his inner coat pocket.

Now for Ralph. And Sam was worried that the police might have taken that bone as part of the evidence. Dean really hoped Sam was wrong, that suburban cops wouldn't have been that thorough. 'Cause if he couldn't find it in the attic, getting rid of Ralph was going to get a lot harder.

Jesus, a tornado had gone through the attic. Sam had said it was pretty intense, but the actual mess was a lot more graphic than Sam's description. And Sam hadn't actually seen the aftermath, he'd been out cold on the floor in the salt circle.

Every step crunched in the shards of … glass, pottery, wood … other than a couple pieces of furniture right against the eaves and some unbreakable metal items like a fan and a sewing machine, everything in the attic was reduced to unidentifiable slivers. Dean had encountered some pretty angry spirits, but this was one of the worst.

As he neared the far end of the space Dean started to scuff the debris aside to locate the circle. Once he had found the outside edge, Dean walked the entire perimeter, clearing a small trail with his steps. Back at the starting point, he oriented himself to where Sam would have been standing. Looked back at the stairwell where Ralph had first appeared, then into the circle. There was the iron candelabra, so Sam must have been about there …

And now Dean saw what must have taken his brother out — a fucking dining room table was in the circle just beyond the candleholder. All four legs were broken off and Dean could tell that this was a solid wooden antique that would have killed Sam if it had hit him in the head. Dean paused for a necessary deep breath. Sam was okay. Do the job and get out.

Only way to find something as small as a finger bone in this disaster was to get down and sift through the rubble. He began to quarter the circle with the military precision he'd been trained in, knowing that if he didn't find it in this area he would have to go through the entire attic.

He wasn't completely sure how long he'd been at it when the atmosphere around him changed. Knowing immediately what this meant, he didn't even bother standing, just pulled out the shotgun and turned.

Ralph's ghost, face hatefully twisted, flashed from the stairs to mid-attic to the outside edge of the salt.

Dean fired.

This was going to get tricky, fast. He'd checked close to half the circle but barely siifted another six-inch area when Ralph reappeared. Damn.

Dean blew Ralph away twice more before the ghost went to plan B and started hurling stuff at Dean from across the room. Didn't matter that the pieces slamming into him were tiny, the force with which their sharp edges hit his body hurt like hell. His jacket was going to be shredded, not to mention his skin … And now that Ralph was operating from a distance, Dean had to stand and leave the circle to take his shot.

He fought through the maelstrom until he was close enough for his shot to take Ralph out. Immediately all the debris dropped to the floor. Sonuvabitch, the whole section Dean had just checked was covered with a fresh layer of rubbish. He wiped his stinging face and his hand came away bloody. All he needed was to take a fragment in the eye … Dean considered calling a retreat and torching the graveyard remains first, but that wouldn't really solve the problem. As long as a piece of Ralph remained he could continue to haunt the attic and keep Dean from finding the bone.

Senses alert, he walked back toward the circle, started to turn as he felt Ralph manifest again, but even as Dean was reacting the old sewing machine smashed Dean's arm and knocked the gun from his hand. As he hit the floor Dean knew he was in trouble, he definitely had a dislocated shoulder. Sonuvabitch, sonuvabitch, sonuvabitch, he cussed through the pain.

He lay still for a moment. Sharp gravel-like bits were digging into his skin and his weapon was several feet away. There was no way to do this without back-up.

What if he had some and didn't know it? It was crazy, but this whole scenario was out of kilter, so maybe … Dean eased sideways so his good hand could reach in his jacket and pull out the two pouches he'd taken from the sitting room. The mother's' pouch was darker … he opened the drawstring and dumped the bone from Estelle Reed on the floor.

Translucent feet in brocade slippers, slender ankles … From the floor Dean did not have a clear look, just an impression of … authority? He better make sure she understood they were on the same side.

"I've got your daughters, I can set all of you free from this place. But I have to find Ralph's bone and he's trying to kill me. Can you hold him off while I look?"

A gust of wind propelled a solid wall of pieces in Dean's direction, Ralph completely concealed behind it. Dean must have connected with Estelle, because she held up her hands, palms flat toward the explosion heading at them, and its forward movement stopped.

That was good. Now how long could she hold it? Locating that bone with his arm like this …

"The … children … will … help."

In the thick of battle was no time for second-guessing. Dad's lesson: decide and follow-through. Adapt as the situation changes but don't worry about what's already done.

Dean poured the second bag out next to the first.

The little girls materialized locked together, then jumped to their mother's side and transferred their grips to her. Estelle kept her hands up against the cyclone but looked down and obviously communicated to her children, for they blinked back in front of Dean, but didn't look at him. They were staring at the attic floor.

Blink to a few steps away. Again. And then they were pointing, two little hands simultaneously flashing out, index fingers pointing together.

It was hell on his hand and knees to crawl over the jagged particles but Dean wasn't going to try getting up. He went to where the fingers were insistently indicating. His own body blocked the distant illumination from his flashlight still on the floor, so he sat back on his heels and carefully felt with his good hand. Patted the area in a precise pattern, feeling for anything different than all the little broken bits.

He couldn't have said how he knew, but he did when he touched a piece of bone as opposed to a pottery fragment. Dean brought it up to his eyes, and yes, it was a finger bone. Pinky, maybe. Didn't matter. He had it. Now to get out in one piece.

He backed up to where he'd left the pouches, scooped some salt back into each one. He put Ralph's bone in one and the wall of debris fell to the floor. Instantly Estelle's spirit was focused on Dean.

"Got him in the bag. Gonna put your girls in the other one. We get downstairs and I put you with your daughters, then I gotta torch Ralph, then I can send you three … home." Or wherever it is they go once Dean burned 'em.

She hadn't especially communicated agreement with his plan earlier, but Dean took her non-reaction as a yes and proceeded to secure the children, get his shotgun, and make it down the stairs. Handrail being on the left did him absolutely no good so Dean was very careful feeling his way down. He paused to put Estelle's bone away, and then it was out to the car and back to the motel.

Sam managed, despite his ribs, to pop Dean's shoulder back into place and Dean figured it hurt equally bad for both of them. And he figured that gave Sam the right to bitch at him. Truthfully it hurt too much to argue back.

"Dammit, Dean, you coulda been killed!"


"That's all you're going to say? Yeah?"

"Ralphie had me in a pretty bad bind."

Sam stopped. When realized Dean wasn't going to fight back, Sam immediately switched tactics.

"Your face is a mess. Hands, too. And there's blood on the knees of your jeans. Can you make it to the bathroom so I can clean you up?"

"I'm fine, Sam, shoulder'll stop hurting in a bit. I can clean myself up!"

"I should …"

"You should lay back down in bed, okay? I'm gonna take a hot shower, it'll help the shoulder and get the blood off at the same time. Efficient, you know?"

That earned him the best bitchface since this whole mess started, and for some reason that just made Dean feel better.

They actually waited a couple days so that Dean could use his shoulder to dig. Sam insisted on going with, and Dean didn't have a problem with that since Sam was going as back-up to Dean's back-up ghost. They were going to get rid of Ralphie first, and Estelle would be point guard during that, since her ghost powers had proven a lot more effective than the sawed-off.

Neither of them was surprised to see the grave had already been disturbed, the dirt returned haphazardly. From Clancy, no doubt.

"Should be a little easier to dig through," Sam offered.

"Yeah. Too bad the little shit's dead, I would've liked to talk to him," Dean muttered.

"Actually I would have liked to learn what else he was doing, because something kept the wind out of the salt circle, at least until the candles went out. He had something there, could be useful for hunters, you know."

Busy with the shovel, Dean only grunted.

"Must have been the candles, something unique about them." Sam looked at Estelle's ghost standing alert on the far side of Ralph's headstone. "Wonder if she knows."

"Go ahead and ask her. But she ain't too talkative."

"I …"

Sam was cut off by the furious shaking of the bare tree branches. Pieces of branches snapped off and rained down on both of them.

Estelle promptly pivoted and held up her arms to stop everything. In the bigger space, however, Ralph had the advantage of moving from tree to tree. Sam was ready to fire the shotgun but Ralph wasn't visible yet.

"Hurry up, Dean!"

"Almost there!"

Shovel hit wood. Several more rapid scoops to the casket. Pried it open, threw in the pouch with Ralph's bone on top of his skeleton.

"Sam! The lighter fluid!

The toss wasn't up to Sam's usual smooth standards but Dean caught it nonetheless and emptied it on Ralph's remains. Suddenly the shotgun fired.

"He's past Estelle!" Sam yelled.

The wind sounded like a rushing freight train, and Dean knew from experience that was bad. He jumped out of the hole, hit the dirt, and flung his lit cigarette lighter in the casket.

Another shotgun blast, "Dean!" then stillness. In the abrupt silence Dean was pretty sure Sam could hear Dean's heartbeat.

Crap, where was Sam?


"Ov'r here."

The bastard had thrown Sam into one of the marble statues and Sam was slumped on the ground against it, still clutching the shotgun.

"How bad, Sammy?"

"Been better. Hit my other side. Which I guess is good …"

Dean carefully helped him up. "We can do Estelle tomorrow. We're done for tonight."

It was over.

This was as comfortable as he was going to get for a while, Sam knew. The passenger seat of the Impala was never designed to be the recovery spot for busted bodies, even though every Winchester male had used it for that. Couple of hunters who weren't related has used it too, come to think of it. Dean had lifted a couple pillows from the motel to try and pad the seat for him.

Sometimes the driver was just as banged up as the passenger … luckily not this time. But even if he was, he'd still drive.

Because that's what Dean did. But maybe Dean would get used to Sam being his partner now, as well as his brother. And Sam would get the chance to take care of Dean a little. Because the one guarantee Sam could see in the future was that this wasn't the last time they were going to get hurt.