Rating/Warnings: Gen, Teen. AU. Very imperiled minors. References to bad family situations and therapy. Gore.
Disclaimer: These characters and their assocoated world are not mine, no matter how much I bend them.
Author's Notes: SPN Summergen story, re-posting now that the authors have been revealed! Written for kellifer_fic's Prompt: "AU - Sam and Dean are raised normal, but the hunt finds them" Beta'd by bellatemple, ciaranbochna and sandrinnad, any remaining mistakes are mine.
Summary: "Take your brother outside as fast as you can! Now, Dean! go!" That happened. John coming out of the house didn't. Eight years later, everything changes again.
Embers of an Autumn Fire
~ Prologue ~
"Take your brother outside as fast as you can! Now, Dean! Go!"
Dean ran as fast as he could carrying Sam, down the stairs and out onto the grass, then stopped and looked back. Fire was burning in all the windows upstairs, even Sammy's window, where Mom and Sammy always waved down at him when he was outside helping Dad in the yard.
Something not-quite-fire moved in Sammy's window. Dean stared. There was...
Dean stumbled backwards and sat down hard on the grass. Sammy started crying louder. The window exploded and flames roared out like an angry lion.
"It's okay Sam," Dean said, clutching his brother and staring wide-eyed up at the flaming nursery window. "Mom and Dad are coming. Mom and Dad are coming."
When the fire trucks came Dean was still sitting on the grass rocking back and forth, eyes aching from staring up into the firelight, whispering those same five words over and over to his sleeping baby brother, even though they didn't mean anything anymore.
~ i ~
~ i ~
The Chevelle rolled into Clarksburg, Iowa, greeted by the welcome sign which declared the town to be: 'Home of the Clarksburg Wilderness Avian Preserve - Nesting grounds of the Lesser Flycatcher and Black-Billed Cuckoo'
"Barely even on the map," muttered Bobby.
Clarksburg wasn't too inconvenient a place to stop. Bobby was on the way to Oregon where another damn bar was having problems with another damn ghost, and the local hunters were all wet-behind the ears punks who'd rather wave crystals at an angry spirit than dig up the corpse and put the poor bastard out of his misery. That particular ghost wasn't due for another flare-up until the middle of next week, so there was plenty of time to check out a potential side-case in the bustling metropolis of greater Clarksburg.
Not much evidence to support a case, though. An elderly man was missing, and a higher than average number of pets had disappeared in the weeks before. Could be nothing, could be a case about to get much bigger. Travis thought it was likely a Rugaru, but some days it seemed like Travis thought everything was a Rugaru. Every hunter had their obsessions, and Bobby wasn't going to let Travis's or his own blind him to whatever the facts might present.
Before he'd left South Dakota, Bobby had phoned the retirement home, claiming to be a concerned nephew of his missing 'Uncle' Thaddeus Fischer. The old man had been mentally sharp, independent and ornery, but not inclined to wander off. He had heart problems, and a pacemaker to go with them. Six months before disappearing he had hip replacement surgery and his heart condition had taken a bad turn as a result of stress from the surgery, but he'd mostly recovered by the time of his disappearance. On the recommendation of the staff physician, he'd been taking regular walks on the retirement home grounds. He'd liked to walk along the fence and watch the birds in the forest preserve.
The home wasn't holding out much hope of Thaddeus still being alive a week later. He'd been on several kinds of medications, not just for his heart. The assumption was that he had snuck off the grounds and fallen or had a heart attack and died. Police had done a thorough search - even in the forested bird sanctuary - and found no trace, but they were still on the lookout for him and were still asking the public to report any sight of the old man.
Any number of unnatural ends were possible for Thaddeus Fischer, but so were many natural ones. In combination with the notable increase in missing pets and farm animals in the surrounding area it could be something escalating its prey group from animal to human. Or it could be coincidence.
Looking into anything where there was the remotest possibility of more people dying was never a waste of time, even when it did turn out to be a coincidence.
Bobby aimed the Chevelle towards the only motel in town.
Dean threw a newspaper at 1298 Parkview Lane. The paper spun in a high arc to tumble down into the shaggy rosebushes beside the front stairs.
"Bullseye," Dean snickered as he rode along.
"C'mon, Dean, wait up!"
He back-pedaled into a lower gear and coasted. "You don't have to follow me on my whole route you know. You could just wait at home 'til I come back past our house and we can ride to school together from there."
"I want to," said Sam as he caught up to ride alongside. "I like riding bikes with you. It's fun."
Dean threw another paper. "I'm not riding bikes for fun, Sammy, I'm working."
"...You don't want me to follow you?"
Dean pulled another paper from his bag and tapped it once on his handlebars. "Naw, it's okay I guess." The paper sailed over a laurel hedge, setting a dog barking.
"Cool." Dean could hear Sammy's grin in his voice.
The morning sun filtered through the trees of the old woods as they turned in tandem down Anglewood Crescent. The short dead-end street stuck into the edge of the forest preserve, surrounded on all sides by looming trees. Sam pulled away to the other side of the street when Dean passed the run-down house on the block, then back beside him again.
It was just a stupid old house, 2872 Anglewood, but Sam would never ride close to it. Dean eyed the place: peeling paint, overgrown lawn, windows like black eyes, peering at the world. It was a creepy house, but it was just a house.
Sam had what adults liked to call 'too much imagination'. He'd hear something in the night or see something out of the corner of his eye. Aliens, monsters, ghosts. Just shadows.
There was once a time when Dean had had 'too much imagination' too. Not anymore.
Dean didn't say anything as Sammy joined back up with him and they left the little dead-end street together. Sam cast a frown back over his shoulder.
"You got your pajamas for your karate club tonight?" Dean asked to distract his brother from the creepy house.
The Sammy-frown turned towards him. "It's a dobok and it's Tae Kwon Do lessons, Dean."
Dean smirked, facing away from Sam so he couldn't see. "Karate's cooler."
"Ever heard of the 'Tae Kwon Do Kid'? I sure haven't."
"Tae Kwon Do's better. It's like ninja training."
"You know no amount of any kind of training's going to turn you into a mutant turtle, right Sammy?"
Sam stuck out his tongue and stood up on his pedals. "Race you to the corner!" The two of them swooped along the long road circling the bird sanctuary.
The visit to the Clarksburg Woodland Retirement Home as 'FBI Agent Mike Kayser' hadn't turned up anything Bobby hadn't gotten on the phone as 'Thaddeus Fischer's nephew'. A few of the staff had gone on stress leave; the atmosphere among the remaining staff was a kind of nauseous, staunch dedication to duty.
The retirement home was at the end of a dead-end street. Only one road in or out of it and that went past the community center, the west side of an elementary school and along the edge of the 'famed' Clarksburg bird sanctuary which separated them all from the suburban sprawl. The majority of pets had gone missing from houses up and down the tree-named streets in that same suburb on the other side of the forest. Chances were, whatever it was, it was somewhere in or near those woods.
Regardless of what might be hunting in this town, if the old man was taken, it was already too late to save him. Poor bastard.
There was, of course, a very faint chance that the old man was the one responsible for the animal disappearances, but Bobby had yet to run across a creature that could convincingly fake having hip surgery. Unless the man had been taken over by a shapeshifter... but then he wouldn't be missing as far as the people who knew him could tell, he'd just be a shapeshifter, and in actuality hidden away somewhere. So, not a shapeshifter, one way or the other. Maybe.
That's the problem with hunting. If it isn't one thing it's half a dozen others.
If it was a Wendigo, it was way the hell and gone out of its stomping grounds in Minnesota, so it probably wasn't. If it was a Rugaru, and the old man was its first human kill, then the monster's struggles to retain any shred of humanity had failed and the death toll would be going up, sharp and quick. So far it fit the pattern for a Rugaru; Travis did know a thing or two about them. Start with the hunger, then animals, then vulnerable people. But that could be the case of anything hunting, Rugaru or not. Could be there were some street people and transients missing too and no one had noticed but this town was so small, it wasn't real likely. Mr. Fischer might have been its last substantial meal. Whatever this was, if it was hunting, it'd be getting hungry. Kids would be next.
He and Karen had never had kids. They'd intended to, but with what had happened, it was probably best that they hadn't gotten the chance. Still, any case where kids where being targeted got at Bobby. Maybe it was the missed opportunity for a 'normal' life, maybe it was just human nature. Kids were off-limits to monsters, or should be. Far too often that wasn't the case.
Since the home and the school were so close, and since Mr. Fischer had vanished during school hours, there was a good chance one of the kids might have seen something.
Dean drew a 'Y' shape onto a sheet of graph paper as the teacher droned through the class list.
Science was awesome. They'd taken apart a toaster to see how it worked, they'd made baking soda rockets, they'd hooked fifteen batteries into one long row and blown up the little test light bulb. If they were really lucky and asked the question right, the teacher would show them exactly how all the stuff on MacGyver really worked.
Science, awesome. Having to do a second roll-call for science class was boring.
The arms are too weak. If they were stronger, I could use a stronger kind of elastic, pull harder-
"Present," said Dean, not stopping his diagramming.
"Nicholas Kowalski? Nicholas Kowalski? Dean, did Nicky come to school with you today?"
"He's in court today."
"I thought that was next month."
"They bumped the date up. You should have got the notice last week but there was a sub."
"Ah. Thank you, Dean."
Ignoring the glances of the newer kids in class, Dean hunched closer to his desk. Nicky's just a foster kid, like me and Sam used to be, not a criminal.
He scribbled out his plans and started over.
Talking to any kid alone was running a risk of misinterpretation these days. Situations like this though, kids usually saw more than the adults and were more willing to talk about 'maybes' and monsters and things that didn't make sense, and as a result were also more likely to be dismissed by the actual authorities. Talking to a group of kids with the school's permission was the best chance he might get to find something out.
"He looks like Santa Claus," a small voice whispered as Bobby waited with one teaching assistant for the other to return. He'd been informed he was interrupting the Kindergartner's 'Count the Flowers' day. He glanced to the side and saw a cluster of very small kids lurking in the shrubbery beside the entrance.
Santa, hunh, Bobby mused. Would've thought I had a decade or two before I started getting compared to Santa Claus. I'm only 39.
"You think everyone with a beard looks like Santa Claus," said a second little voice.
"His beard's not big and white, and he's not fat." The second voice paused a moment. "He looks mean. He looks like he wrestles alligators for fun."
Bobby raised an eyebrow and resisted the impulse to scratch his chin. Maybe the beard's a mistake.
"He still looks like Santa."
The school door opened and a middle-aged woman with black hair twisted up into a complicated braid came out, followed by the teaching assistant, her eyes as wide as the kids who thought he looked like Santa.
"Hello, I'm Vice Principal Rashad," the woman said. "Could I see some identification please?"
Bobby smiled and handed over his best fake FBI ID, momentarily regretting not updating the photo to include the beard.
"Well. Well," she said. "I think perhaps we had best continue our conversation in my office." She smiled tensely and held the school door open as the wide-eyed teacher's aide who'd fetched the Vice Principal rejoined the one that had been watching him.
As Bobby passed the shrubbery, he smiled and nodded at the kids hiding there. They disappeared, squeaking like mice.
"There are always pets going missing, Agent Kayser. It's spring."
Bobby tucked his chin down and soberly regarded the Vice Principal across her desk. "Often a criminal predator will start on animals, pets and the like, then move up to people not so able to defend themselves. An elderly person walking alone..."
Mrs. Rashad's mouth tightened. "We heard someone was missing from the retirement home. The fifth and sixth graders sing carols there every year at Christmas, the Home's right down the block. You don't think he's just a poor old soul wandering off, then?"
"It may well be, but we have to investigate to be sure."
A bell clanged and conversation was momentarily drowned out by the sound of hundreds of small sneaker-clad buffalos stampeding through the halls.
"Recess," said the Vice Principal.
"Ah." Bobby looked out the window at the kids flooding the yard, then past the school grounds to the woods across the road. "Kids play much in that forest there?"
The Vice Principal smiled. "No, no. It's haunted you see."
Bobby raised his eyebrows. That was easy. "Really?"
"Oh, you know children. There are always stories about ghosts and monsters in the woods. They're likely the same stories I heard when I was in school."
"And were they true then?"
She laughed, folding her arms across her chest. "There are no such things as ghosts, Agent Kayser."
He smiled. "Of course not."
"The forest is a bird sanctuary. There are trails through, but the public isn't encouraged to visit it. Disturbs the habitat." Mrs. Rashad shook her head. "Sorry. I'm rambling."
"No, that's alright."
"Is there truly someone dangerous out there, Agent Kayser?" she asked, her mouth set grimly. "Should we warn parents?"
"Well, I wouldn't want you to spread undue panic. Until we find out for sure what's going on here, you'd best stress caution. It would be a good idea if you had the teachers go over the usual 'street safety' lessons with the kids again. No walking home alone, get home before dark, stay out of any areas someone might be lurking, don't talk to strangers and so on."
"Was there anything else I could do to help your investigation any other questions?"
"I was wondering, I realize it's against policy, but would it be alright if I talked to some of the kids?"
"The children? Why?"
"Well, kids get into a lot of places adults don't, and they notice things an adult would dismiss. The home being just down the block, there's a good chance Mr. Fischer or anyone who intended him harm went past your west side fence."
"That's the Kindergarten to Grade Three play area." Mrs. Rashad's eyebrows drew down in concern. "They're very young, Agent Kayser."
"If any of them saw anything, anything at all, it could be a great help in finding out what's happened to Mr. Fischer and making sure it doesn't happen to anyone else."
The Vice-Principal looked out into the schoolyard at the clusters of children. "I don't think..."
"I promise, I won't say anything that might scare them. You and some of the other teachers would be observing, no more than a few minutes."
Mrs. Rashad turned back to assess the man seated in front of her desk.
Bobby met the Vice Principal's eyes earnestly. "Please Ma'am. It could really help the case."
"You're right, Agent Kayser, it is strictly against policy, but... it's to help your case, and ultimately to make sure everyone in the community is safe. I doubt you'll get much out of them but tall tales, though."
Bobby smiled. "That's all right. Better to ask than leave an avenue unchecked."
"I would need to check your credentials, of course."
"Of course," Bobby said, handing over a business card and smiling as the Vice-Principal picked up the phone and dialed the back-office line at Harvelle's Roadhouse.
"Wanna go out shooting cans later, Justin?" Dean asked, hanging off the steel railing of the school's outdoor basement stairs. "I figured out how to make the slingshot hold together better. Even MacGyver would totally think it was awesome."
Dean glanced across the schoolyard to the younger kids' play area but couldn't see Sam. Vice Principal Rashad was out in the playground today with the teachers. Weird.
"Nah." Justin bounced a super-ball around in the cement stairwell. "I'm never gonna be any good at it."
"You just need more practice, it's easy! I can make you one too if you want?" Dean had one half-built but Sam was too little for it yet. Justin could have that one, and he'd make an even better one for Sammy. He had some more ideas on how to improve it.
Justin snorted. "If my mom ever found a slingshot in my room, I'd be grounded forever. Your parents are different. They're cool."
Dean shrugged. "They're okay. They don't exactly know about it either." That was another reason he wasn't going to give one to Sammy yet. Sam was sneaky, but he sucked at hiding things from the Kirklands. Mom and Dad, Dean amended mentally. Even four years after the adoption went through, it still felt wrong.
He looked back over to Sam's side of the playground and spotted Sam with his friends. Mrs. Rashad and one of the playground monitors stood nearby, but a man in a suit who looked like a lawyer crouched in front of them.
"I was thinking maybe I could come over and you and me could spend some quality time with Sonic the Hedgehog?" Justin asked.
Dean frowned and dropped from the railing. "Sure. 'Scuze me a sec."
"I bet aliens took 'em," the littlest kid said with earnest glee shining in his dark eyes.
One of the two identical girls in matching sun-dresses tossed her long brown hair. "There's no such thing as aliens."
"Hey!" That was the not-quite-so-littlest kid, defending his friend.
Littlest again. "There's a billion stars in the galaxy and planets everywhere and there's no way there isn't aliens."
"Ha!" Same identical girl, with the attitude of a queen. The second girl stood behind her like a shadow. "Real life isn't like Star Trek, Cody. Klingers don't exist."
"It's Klingons, not Klingers! Klingons are cool! Lieutenant Worf is awesome!" The little boy shouted defiantly.
Bobby's smile felt a trifle lop-sided. "What makes you say it might be aliens... Cody was it?"
The littlest boy nodded. "Cody Harris. That's my friend Sam," not-quite-so-littlest raised a hand in a shy wave, "and that's Lizzie and Gail. They're okay. We all do Tae Kwon Do!"
"Agent KAY-ser," the queenly twin sing-songed, "you don't think there's really aliens, do you?" asked Lizzie, with a smirk at Cody.
"Maybe there is, maybe there isn't. I don't know. Did you see something that made you think there might be aliens somewhere, Cody?" What was an alien to an eight-year-old could actually be a spirit or monster of some kind.
Cody scuffed a foot in the dirt. "Naw, I was just hoping."
Bobby was keenly aware of the bemused observation of the Vice-Principal and one of the schoolyard monitors. "What I want to know is if any of you saw or heard anything last Tuesday, anything at all, even if it's weird. Maybe something in those woods there-"
"There's a monster in the woods!" Cody chirped.
Without even turning around, Bobby could tell the Vice Principal was covering a smirk. "Really?"
"Yep, everyone says. It's supposed to be a safe place for the birds so nobody's allowed in, but really, there's a monster or a ghost or something in there that comes out at night and-"
"There is not!" shouted the quieter of the two girls.
"Is too! Everyone says!"
"It's just a story, like Bloody Mary and the Hookman!"
As the three of them got into a bickering session, Bobby noticed that the fourth member of the group, Sam, hadn't said a word since speaking up in defense of his friend. The boy stood off to the side, hands stuffed into his pockets, shoulders hunched as he ground a rock into the dirt with the toe of his sneaker.
If Bobby was any judge of such things, that was a kid who'd seen something.
"You're awfully quiet there, son. You got anything to say?"
The boy glanced up, then down again. "Naw. It's nothin'."
"Anything you might have seen or heard could be helpful."
Sam looked over at his group of friends who'd stopped bickering and were watching him now. He frowned, then looked at Bobby's shoes and said in a husky voice, "There's a house, on a street right next to the woods. I- I don't know what it is, but the house is wrong."
"Just wrong. The whole woods, they're creepy and stuff, but..." The boy half-shrugged, glancing around at his friends again, his voice dropping further to a bare whisper. "That house is wrong."
"You're scared of a house?" The queenly twin glanced at her quieter shadow and giggled, the shadow twin joining in after glancing between her sister and Sam. Cody tipped his chin up and squared his shoulders, glaring at Lizzie.
Bobby could tell that something more than a ghost story was going on. Whatever this boy could see or hear from this 'wrong' house was real to him, and worth investigating.
"Okay, son. D'you think you could tell me where the house is?"
"It's on my brother's paper route, but I don't remember the name of the street. It sort of sticks into the woods and doesn't go anywhere."
"It would really help my investigation if you could tell me where it was. Is your brother around?"
"Sammy? Everything okay?" An older boy was coming across the playground.
The boy's face lit up and he turned away from Bobby. "That's him! Dean! He's from the real FBI, Dean! Agent Kayser, this is my brother!"
The older boy put an arm around the younger's shoulder. "Really? FBI! Wow!" The look on the boy's face was considerably less impressed than his words.
"Your brother here says there's a weird house on your paper route. Could you tell me where it is?"
"Nope." The kid's green eyes and expression were closed off. "No idea."
Sam frowned up at his brother. "But Dean-"
The older boy set his jaw and squeezed Sam's shoulder.
"Could you maybe tell me which streets your paper route goes down?"
"Sorry, sir." The older boy smirked. "Confidentiality of the press."
Bobby raised an eyebrow with a faint smirk of his own. Smart-mouthed little cuss.
"Agent Kayser," the Vice Principal said behind him, "it's nearly time for the children to go back to classes."
"Yeah." Bobby stood. "Thank you very much for your help, kids."
Bobby left the little group behind and followed the Vice Principal to the schoolyard gates.
"I'm sorry if you didn't get the information you'd hoped for, Agent Kayser."
"That's alright, and the FBI appreciates your cooperation, Ma'am. If you don't mind, I'll leave you my pager number. If any of the kids comes up with something, even if it's monsters or ghost stories, you give me a holler."
The Vice Principal nodded, took the number down on the back of Bobby's business card and went back into the school.
Across the schoolyard the two boys were still standing close together. Bobby knew trying to get more info on those specific kids from the Vice Principal would cause more trouble than solve it. She might find it reason enough to further question his completely fake credentials and his 'supervisor' who operated out of a roadside bar. He'd have to find that house on his own. It might be nothing, but something about it really had that little boy scared, and his brother willing to defend him against all comers.
Whether the kid saw or heard something or has some kind of sense of things, there's more than just an active imagination behind that fear. It might be as good of a lead as I'm gonna get.
Dean kept his hand on Sam's shoulder as he watched the FBI man leave with Vice-Principal Rashad. Sam's friends clustered together, whispering and glancing in Sam and Dean's direction.
"He was from the FBI, Dean, that's bigger than the police. You should've said what street the house was on."
Dean sighed and rubbed his eyes. "You shouldn't have told him about it, Sammy. Grown-ups never believe."
"But that house-"
"I know, that house bugs you, but it doesn't matter. Grown-ups never ever believe about things being weird, or monsters."
"Do you? You believe me, right Dean?" Sam turned, looking up into Dean's eyes and ignoring the giggles of the twins.
"I know how it is, Sammy. You think you see something. Maybe it's a monster, maybe it's just imagination. All grown-ups ever believe in is imagination."
"You didn't say whether you believed me."
Dean watched the FBI Agent get into a blue car in the parking lot and drive off, not answering Sam's question. "After your class tonight, you want me to ride home with you?"
Sam wiggled his shoulder out of Dean's grip. "No, I'm going with Cody, Lizzie and Gail, same as always."
"If that FBI guy is investigating something bad, maybe we should-"
"I want to go home with my friends," Sam snapped.
Dean looked over to where Lizzie was laughing loudly and making monster claws with her hands in Sam's direction. Gail was covering her mouth like she wasn't sure whether to giggle or not and glancing at Sam, and Cody looked like his head was going to pop off he was so mad, glaring at Lizzie.
"Seems to me like some of your friends are jerks."
"They're just joking." Sam frowned and shoved his hands in his pockets. "I don't need you to come get me, Dean."
"If you change your mind-"
Dean took a step backward. "Fine. Just... be careful."
Sammy huffed and turned back to his friends, laughing tightly at Lizzie's teasing, trying to salvage his dignity.
Dean did believe Sam, or at least he believed Sam thought he saw something. But he knew what came of telling grown-ups that you'd seen something, and insisting that what you'd seen was real.
Three years. Therapy. Telling the same story over and over, every time. Pills. More therapy. They told the Kirklands to send me away, separate me from Sam. That's when I stopped telling the truth. Grown-ups never ever believe.
Dean would do anything to protect Sam from that, even if it meant hurting his feelings and not supporting his belief in front of his friends.
The bell rang and he turned away from Sam, and back to the school.
It was only luck that the local paper only had one paper carrier by the name of 'Dean'. He'd gotten the route map from the paper's distribution department with a smile and a fake ID. He'd been hoping there'd only be one 'road that went nowhere' on the kid's route, but the dead-end roads bordering the forest turned the map into something resembling an alien amoeba. Typical suburbs.
After that dead-end of his own, he'd taken the map to the Clarksburg town hall to cross-reference with the list of delinquent property tax payments, figuring maybe if the house was 'wrong', the owner might also be none too concerned about civic responsibility. However all the houses on the kid's route were paid up. Bobby sweet-talked the clerk into checking the addresses on the roads around the forest for bylaw violations, got an armload of paper for his efforts and took the whole mess back to the hotel to sort through.
Bobby liked paper. Paper told you things without worrying what your intentions were. It also didn't care if you were wearing practical clothes and a hat instead of something most people get buried in.
He stopped at the hotel long enough to change out of the suit, chew down a McYuck burger and cross-reference a couple dozen bylaw violators to addresses on the kid's paper route.
There might still not be a case in this town. It could be the 'wrong' the kid felt about the house meant it was just a drug den, in which case a quick anonymous call to the appropriate authorities, and Bobby'd be on his way to clear out a bar in Oregon.
He turned on the police band scanner just in case, and began making a short-list and a map of his own.
Dean munched on an apple and read the hand-written note on the kitchen counter.
I had to go into town to deal with Nicky's paperwork, the hearing went well, he went back home today! I'm sorry you didn't get a chance to say goodbye, but you know how great this is for Nicky."
Dean nodded. Nicky going home meant the judge had put his dad in jail, and he could be with his mom without being scared anymore. Good. Not many of the foster kids that stayed with the Kirklands got news that good.
"I'll only be gone a couple hours. Dad will be home by six. There's fruit in the fridge and Pizza Bagels in the freezer. If you don't eat all the peaches, I'll make a pie tomorrow. Call Mr. and Mrs. Gregorovich next door if you need to. They'll check on you around four.
Hugs and kisses, Mom."
"Want an apple?" Dean shouted after Justin who was already in the family room hooking up the Sega console.
"Got anything better?"
"Yeah, I'll have one of those."
The phone rang as Dean hit start on the microwave. He glanced at the clock; half past three. As usual, the neighbor was calling early. Maybe she thought she might catch them getting up to no good by calling thirty minutes ahead of schedule.
Dean picked up the phone and spoke as loud as he could. Besides being habitually early, the neighbors were also old, hard of hearing and excellent cookie-makers.
"Hi Mrs. Gregorovich... Nope, everything's fine... Just video games with a friend... Yes, we did our homework first." Dean rolled his eyes theatrically and Justin snickered as he got his Pizza Bagel out of the microwave. "No, Sam's got Tae Kwon Do tonight, he'll be back before four-thirty... He's riding back on his bike with a bunch of friends, like he usually does... Yeah, it's fine... They're okay with it, they say it encourages independence... Yeah, I'll call if we need anything... Thanks for calling, Mrs. Gregorovich."
Dean hung up.
"Think we can go over and score some cookies later?" asked Justin through a mouthful of Pizza Bagel.
"After Sam gets back, yeah, sure."
Birds chirped and fluttered between trees in the bird sanctuary.
"Come on, we have to!" said Lizzie. "We're gonna be late."
"No you won't," said Cody. "It'll take the same time it always does for us to walk back."
"Nuh uh, we'll be late, our Mom's gonna be mad. We have to cut through the woods." Lizzie glanced at Gail.
Gail glanced at the woods then stood up straight. "Yeah. It takes too long to walk all the way around all the time. We can cut through and get home faster."
"Yeah." Lizzie crossed her arms and smirked.
"I'm not cutting through there," said Cody.
"Me either," said Sam.
"If you two are both 'fraidy-cats, me and Gail will just go by ourselves. Won't we Gail?"
"Um." Gail's eyes flicked toward the dark path. "Yeah."
"But the teacher said no one's supposed to walk home alone," said Cody.
"We're always together," Lizzie said in a quiet, even voice.
"We never walk home alone," said Gail, holding her sister's hand. Standing on the path in their identical dresses, they smiled in unison.
"Never mind the woods," Cody said, rolling his bike backward a little. "You two are creepy."
Gail covered her mouth and giggled. "We've been practicing!"
Lizzie sighed and dropped her sister's hand. "Gaaaail, it doesn't work if you giggle!"
"Sorry." Gail kept giggling.
"I'm still not going in there," Cody said.
"Scared of the monster?"
"No," said Cody, rolling his eyes, "'cause monsters aren't real."
"What about aliens?"
"Shut up! Sam?"
Sam had been staring into the woods. The sun was shining, but the path into the woods seemed darker than ever. The hair on the back of Sam's neck prickled. "There could be a bear or a cougar or something," he muttered.
"We're green belts. We could take a stupid old bear." Lizzie smirked. "You scared Sammy? Hunh? I bet you're scared. You're scared of some old house. Who's scared of a house?"
Sam clenched his jaw, squeezing his front brake shut-open-shut.
"Leave him alone!" shouted Cody. "You haven't seen it, maybe it's a really scary house, a haunted house!"
Sam swallowed and hitched one shoulder up in a half-shrug. "I'm not scared of the house. It's just creepy. This is different. That FBI guy at school today, he wouldn't have been asking questions about the woods if there wasn't maybe something bad in them. And anyway, no one's supposed to go into the woods because of the birds."
"People cut through the woods all the time."
"No they don't!" said Cody.
"Yes they do, there's trails," said Gail. "They go in and watch birds and stuff."
"Yeah," said Lizzie.
"I'm still not going," said Cody.
Sam rocked his bike back and forth an inch.
"Come on, chickens," Lizzie taunted.
"Yellow belts," Gail said with a quiet giggle.
"With a green stripe!" Cody protested.
The twins laughed and walked down the sun-dappled path into the woods. Sam sat astride his bike and watched them go, twisting one of the hand-grips around and around.
"Come on, Sam. Let 'em go if they want to be stupid." Cody rolled his bike along the sidewalk a few yards, then put his feet down on the concrete and waited, chewing his bottom lip.
"Cody, I-" Sam kept staring into the woods.
"You aren't gonna follow them just 'cause they called you a chicken, are you?"
"That's not it." Sam shook his head. "I can't explain, I've just got... a feeling."
Cody huffed and put a foot on his upper pedal. "Fine, if you wanna be stupid too, go right ahead. I'm going home."
"No one's supposed to go home alone, though."
"It's not like I'm an idiot going into the woods. Besides," Cody straightened up on his bike, "I'll just pretend I'm a Klingon. Nobody ever messes with Klingons."
Sam looked from Cody to the trail the girls were disappearing down.
Cody looked down the trail too, then back at Sam, then shrugged. "Do whatever you want, Sam, it's okay. I ride to the video store and back on my own all the time. It's not that far."
"Ride straight home, okay?" Sam looked his friend in the eye. "Fast as you can. Don't stop for anything but traffic, and don't talk to anyone."
"You sound like my mom."
"Okay, okay, yeesh." Cody started pedaling his bike along the road circling the bird sanctuary. Sam watched him go, then turned back towards the trail into the woods. He couldn't see the twins anymore, but he could hear Lizzie's voice over the birdsong.
"I can't believe I'm doing this," Sam muttered, standing on the pedals and kicking up a cloud of dust from his back tire. "Lizzie, Gail, I'm coming, wait up!"
Justin scooted Sonic through another hidden tunnel, jumped on a launch pad and sailed into the air, clearing rings and chuckling.
Dean glanced up at the clock. Five minutes to four. Sam's class would be out now. Even though it would be a while yet before Sam got back, Dean started listening for the door. He itched to get on his bike and ride to meet Sam as he left the Community Center beside the school, but wouldn't unless Sam called. He'd been riding home with his friends every Tuesday for months now, but with the weird FBI guy at the school asking questions, and then the teachers reminding everyone not to walk home alone had Dean antsy. Adoptive parents aside, Sam was his only family. Sammy was his brother.
The Kirklands were the only parents Sammy had known. They'd been foster parents to the two of them for four years before they had officially adopted them both. They'd waited four years for biological family, but it seemed like they were all dead or couldn't be found. There was an uncle or something once, Dean thought he remembered meeting him, but then he'd disappeared too.
Dean remembered before the fire. Not sharing a house with kids who stayed a month, three months, had nightmares, fought, stole things, ran away. New kids that sometimes tried to hurt Sammy or him, and were sent away. Kids that cried all the time. Kids that just sat and stared. Foster kids. Almost all of them of them were okay, but none of them came to the Kirkland's because they wanted to. Dean knew how scary it was to have the whole world change overnight. Most of these kids still had their parents, but their parents weren't good, or were having problems and couldn't take care of themselves and their kids.
Dean remembered Mom and Dad. They were good. He remembered Mom's bright hair and laugh, and Daddy's scratchy chin, smelling like sweat and cars.
He remembered that night. He remembered Mom's scream. He remembered the last thing Dad ever said to him. And he would never forget being out on the lawn, holding baby Sam and watching and waiting for Mom and Dad to come out of the fire. They didn't. But he saw something more than the fire.
Dean had stopped talking to anyone about what he thought he'd seen that night. He hadn't even told Sammy. If it kept Sam safe, he'd never tell him.
Maybe Dean hadn't seen anything. He'd been four years old. All he really knew is that the fire took Mom and Dad, and anything he saw in Sam's nursery window - any shadows watching from the flames - that was just 'too much imagination'. Years of telling the truth and being 'treated' for it was enough to let Dean know he needed to keep his mouth shut.
"Here," said Justin, passing the controller. "You're up."
"The game? Your turn?"
"Okay, right." Frowning, Dean started the level, but kept listening for the door.
Sam rode slowly behind the twins, old dead pine-cones left from last winter crunching under his tires. Sun slashed between the branches, dappling the path in light and shadow.
The woods weren't really all that dark, but the hair on the back of Sam's neck still stood up. It felt like the house. It felt wrong. It felt like someone was watching them.
Sam thought back to the schoolyard at recess. Dean hadn't said he believed him. Dean had never said anything when Sam avoided the house after asking about it the first time. Sam had thought his brother believed him, that maybe he knew the house was wrong too. But Dean didn't say he believed him in the schoolyard, in front of his friends.
"Still back there, or did you ride back out of the woods?" Lizzie called back.
Sam frowned. The girls were a bit further ahead than he'd thought, and he rotated the pedals once to catch up. "I'm back here. You guys are slow as molasses."
"Why don't you ride ahead of us then?"
Sam fell silent.
"Don't want to ride through the scary woods on your own?"
"I'm just watching out for you guys," Sam muttered.
The twins laughed and kept walking.
Rolling his bike along behind the girls, Sam got that feeling again, stronger. Something was wrong. He stopped his bike.
The woods were still. Really still. There wasn't even the chirp of a single bird in the bird sanctuary.
"You guys, we should leave," Sam called forward. "We should turn around and go back."
Gail stopped and looked back at Sam, but Lizzie kept walking and flipped her hair. "We're halfway through Sam, it's just as far to keep going through as it is to go back. Besides, we'll really be late if we go back now."
"Yeah but..." Sam started rolling forward again to keep up, peering around the woods, seeing the backs of houses peeking through the trees along one side of the trail. "It's not worth-"
Deeper in the woods, twigs snapped.
The twins jumped, Sam slammed on his brakes. Nothing moved. Nothing made a sound beyond their own breathing. Sam's nerves sang like nails on a chalkboard.
"Ha," choked Lizzie loudly, then cleared her throat. "Hahahhah. Just, just a deer or something. Ha. Scaredy Sam! You should see the look on your-"
Something thrashed among the shrubby trees. Out on the path ahead, a dark shape much bigger than a deer emerged.
The twins screamed.
-|(continued in Part 2)|-