Christmas came and the day was spent relatively quietly. They finished the remainder of the food sent home by the Schmidts. They loaded A Christmas Story on Sam's laptop and laughed openly when Flick's tongue becomes stuck tight to a frozen flagpole. They found the local Laundromat, where Sam washed clothes while Dean read excerpts aloud from a copy of The National Enquirer someone had left behind. All in all, it was a typical Christmas for the Winchesters.
Dean was lying on the bed; his eyes sleepily following a crack in the peach-colored paint, when the recognizable chords of Smoke on the Water rang from his shirt pocket. He pulled the phone free and checked the caller ID before answering.
"Hey Paul. What's up?"
Sam looked up from his laptop at the mention of Paul's name and frowned, trying to read his brother's face. Dean met his gaze and shrugged his shoulders in response to Sam's inquiring look.
"Yeah, sure. We'll see you in a few."
Dean disconnected the call and rolled up and onto his feet.
"Everything okay?" Sam asked.
"I don't know. He sounded…funny." Dean grabbed up and slipped into his leather coat, tucking his Colt into the back of his jeans. He looked at Sam, who was still sitting there, staring back at him. "Come on, princess. Put the computer away. You can talk to your little online boyfriends later."
Sam scowled at Dean, but closed the lid anyway, rising to his feet and following Dean's example.***
Cautiously, Dean pushed the door open. It creaked, resisting Dean's hand, and then opened to reveal an empty room. Inside, it was cool and dark, except for one light which hung above the bar warming the wood with its golden glow. A shiver ran up the length of Dean's back and instinctively he reached beneath his coat, gripping the pearl handle of his .45. Sam edged up behind him, his Taurus drawn and safety unlocked.
They entered, splitting up and silently sweeping the room. Nothing. Sam shook his head, concern setting his brow in his trademark frown. Dean too was growing increasingly alarmed. It was too quiet and every cell in Dean's body told him something was wrong. His lips thinned and he clamped down on his teeth making the muscle in his jaw jump to attention.
He turned his ear toward the kitchen and frowned. There was something; a faint, hiss and pop that carried through the silence. Dean indicated to Sam and they fell in line; the older and then the younger, as always.
The kitchen – just like the rest of the building – was dark and empty. There were no lights, no hum of electricity from any of the appliances, just a deep sense of foreboding that made the hair on Dean's arms stand up.
He rounded the corner, heading into the back and stopped suddenly, hissing angrily when Sam crashed into him. Dean held a finger to his lips and together they listened, once again hearing the indistinct sound Dean had first heard in the main room. It was louder now; sort of a strange gurgling sound, and it was coming from somewhere beyond the back door.
They crept further into the storage/office area that separated the kitchen from the back door, and that's when they heard it.
"No. No. No stop!" It was Paul and to Dean's ears, he sounded panicked. Sam too must have come to the same conclusion, because he reached out and snatched hold of Dean's arm just as Dean was lunging for the doorway.
"Dude!" Dean hissed.
"Don't run out there half-cocked, when you don't know what you're dealing with," Sam lectured. "We need a plan of a–" Sam's voiced was sliced through by agonizing cry.
"No-Ahhh…Shhit!" Paul swore painfully. Sam and Dean glanced briefly at each other, their eyes wide and frightened.
"Screw the plan," Dean growled. "Paul!" He pulled out of Sam's grasp and barreled through door and out into the cold with Sam right behind him. "Paul?" The bang of the backdoor startled Paul, making him jump and turn to face his attackers just as they skid to a stop a few feet from him; weapons drawn and looking scary as Hell.
"Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa!" Paul held up his hands in surrender; his right arm wrapped in a not-so-clean bar towel and his left arm dripping from the ball of snow he held in that hand. "Ease off the throttle there, boys, 'fore you shoot someone."
Sam and Dean were instantly confused, lowering their guns ever-so-slightly and casting sharp glances at each other.
"What the Hell is going on out here?" Dean demanded. He looked around for the impending danger and found none, which only deepened his confusion. "Paul?"
"I burnt myself," Paul answered, lowering his hands, but presenting his wrapped arm for visual inspection. He pressed the snow against the thin towel, using it to cool the burn. "Jesus. What did you think was going on, that I was being attacked by some monster of the week?"
"Yes!" Dean retorted, wild-eyed and vibrating with pent-up energy. "You scared the shit out of me, dammit. You call, acting all weird and crap on the phone, and tell us to come over, but you're nowhere to be found. And when we do find you, you're screamin' bloody friggin' murder in the alley outside the bar!"
"Don't shout at me!" Paul shouted back, "I burnt myself. I'm injured."
"For Christ sakes, Paul, I could have shot you!"
"Dean," Sam warned quietly. He stepped between them, going to Paul's side to have a look at his arm. He looked past Paul and frowned at the cylindrical contraption behind him. "Is that what you burnt yourself on?" Sam asked.
"Yeah, piece-a-shit thing. I got it from an auction and there weren't any instructions, so I'm just kind of wingin' it…which is why I got burned."
"What is it?" Sam circled around the offending gadget, his curiosity getting the better of him.
"It's a deep fryer. Have you ever had deep fried turkey? They say it's awesome." Paul checked his watch, and then pointed at Sam. "Here, it should be done. Grab ahold of that thing right there and pull it straight out."
Sam did as instructed.
"Careful," Paul warned. "Don't let it slosh around or that sumbitch will burn you too.
Dean perked up at the sight of that golden bird being pulled from the vat of fryer grease. Following his nose, he stepped closer to get a better view. Paul glanced at him and saw that he still had a firm hold on his gun; locked and loaded at his side.
"Don't you ever get tired being 'on duty' 24/7?"
"Yes," Dean sagged. "All the time." He dropped the magazine out of his weapon, and then pulled back the slide and ejected the live round, catching it mid-fall. Once the chamber was empty, he pointed the gun down and away, and pulled the trigger.
"Come on," Paul smiled, cuffing him on the shoulder, "I fixed you Christmas dinner; turkey and beer."***
Neither Dean nor Sam had ever worked what most would consider a nine-to-five job. Sam of course had taken work-study every semester at Stanford. It had been necessary in order to make ends meet, as scholarships could only be budgeted out so far. Before that, however, he'd never had to work a day in his life. Dean had seen to that.
When they were younger and John had gone out on a hunt and wasn't expected back for an extended period of time, money had a way of running thin. It wasn't that John had intended for his sons to run short on funds, or that Dean had meant to go over his allotted budget, but growing boys needed food, and Dean had never been able to deny his little brother anything.
Dean had only done what had been needed. Over the years, he had picked up spare jobs, here and there, whenever he could; he wasn't picky. Washing dishes or bagging groceries when they'd stayed in town; doing farm work when they hadn't. He's spent one entire summer detasseling corn and made a couple thousand dollars doing it. They had lived high off the hog that summer.
Dean's favorite jobs, however, had always centered on cars. He'd worked on sales lots doing detailing, and when he'd been old enough to drive, he'd been a parts runner. But the best job he'd ever procured had been doing oil changes in a shop in Northern Missouri. The owner of the small shop hadn't seemed concerned by his age – which at the time had been seventeen – only that he could do the work and do it well. The money had been inconsequential because Dean had just thoroughly enjoyed the work; much like he enjoyed working at the bar with Paul.
He spent the days following Christmas racking up as many hours at the bar as possible. The more time he spent in the place, the better people came to know him. The better people came to know him, the better they tipped. A busy ten hour shift could net him $100. Add that to the wages Paul was paying him and Dean was sitting fairly well off on Thursday afternoon.
Sam too had been having good luck at the salon. The ladies of Boxholm had taken quiet a shine to him. In fact, one client – a Mrs. Weber – had taken three style appointments in less than two weeks. When questioned about it, Mrs. Weber had claimed that she'd pulled a muscle in her shoulder and hadn't able to lift her hand above her head all week. Sam's boss, Celia, had raised a speculative eyebrow, but hadn't said another word about it. Who was she to deny anyone the service of a wash and rinse a la Sam Winchester? She made money and Mrs. Weber had been sure to compensate Sam well.
So when Sam returned to their shared bedroom Thursday evening, before the end of his scheduled shift, Dean knew something was off. He eyed his brother's nervous behavior and guarded movements. Something was definitely off.
"Hi honey," Dean joked, going for casual to lure Sam in. "How was your day?"
"S'alright," Sam shrugged, ignoring Dean's jab. He dug into one of the duffle bags and pulled out a change of clothes. "I'm gonna go take a shower," he said and left the room without looking directly at his brother.
Not one to let things lie, Dean hopped out of bed and followed him down the stairs. Sam had already entered Mrs. Kirchmann's bathroom, shutting the door, but not securing it. "Rookie mistake," Dean said when turning the door handle to find it unlocked.
Pushing the door open, he announced himself, "Sammy, you know I'm not one for this touchy feely crap, but – Holy Mother of God! What the Hell is that?"
Sam whipped around, swinging out defensively at his brother, which Dean was able to block easily. "Dammit, Dean. Are you trying to give me a heart attack?"
"What. Are. You. Wearing?"
Sam looked down at himself, going pink around the ears and neck, although after consideration, Dean decided that maybe the color wasn't so much a blush of embarrassment as it was a reflection of color off of Sam's shirt.
"It's a-uh…shirt from the shop."
"I can see that."
"There's a good explanation for this," Sam said, becoming increasingly uncomfortable under Dean's bemused gaze.
Lost somewhere between amusement and abject horror, Dean leaned back so that he could better take in the full picture, his eyes roaming the entire expanse of his brother's upper body. His lip twisted in distaste and he directed a high-lifted eyebrow at his brother.
Stretched tightly over Sam's frame was a much-too-tight hot pink woman's t-shirt with capped sleeves that did more than hug Sam's arms, they practically cut off his circulation. Running up the length of Sam's right rib cage was a very provocative silhouette of a woman, bent over at the waist and running her hands through her long hair. And across his chest, in scrawling letters was one word: Celia's. Seeing as it was a woman's shirt, the hem of it barely scraped Sam's middle, and when he raised his hands, the cotton rose up, exposing the soft swell of his belly. Dean shivered imagining the responses he'd received from all those sex-hungry cougars.
He shook his head and his lips split into a low, ornery smile. "Oh, I can't wait to hear this."
Sam took a deep breath and frowned; a look that said 'Dean's not gonna make this easy'. "I had an accident at work, Dean; a chemical spill. I was mixing this bottle of something or other, and this one lady bumped into me, and it went all over my shirt. It got ruined and this was the only shirt Ce had available for me to wear."
"That thing? That's not a shirt, it's an armband." Dean said, stepping fully into the bathroom. His eyes were fully lit with amusement and Sam backed away from him warily. "She'd have better off painting you with body paint," Dean laughed. "Can you even breathe in that thing?"
"Not really," Sam said with a pout. Then the corner of his mouth lifted into a painful grimace; his eyebrows rising high on his forehead. "I can't get it off, either. I think I might have to…cut it off."
Dean laughed and a small smile crept across Sam's face. "Shut up, it's not funny." Which only made Dean laugh harder, until he was bent over, propping himself up on his knees.
"There's one good thing that came out of this," Sam said, smiling shyly.
"Oh really?" Dean asked, his laughter tapering off. "What's that?"
"Mrs. Weber gave me a $50 tip when I took off my shirt."***
Dean yawned; his lungs filling to capacity before he turned and flopped over onto his back, stretching out across the bed. Sam had awoken early, gotten ready quietly and left for work without waking his brother, leaving Dean with a bed all to himself. And since Dean had the morning off, he'd stayed up late into the night, using Sam's laptop to dig up internet porn and cruise for hookups in online chatrooms, even though he was sure to hear about it the next time Sam used his computer. It never seemed to matter whether Dean deleted his history or not, Sammy just always seemed to know what he'd been up to.
Opening his eyes, Dean adjusted his sleep pants to accommodate his morning wood. Carefully weighing his decision between 'piss it off' and 'jack it off', he craned his head around to look longingly at Sam's laptop and the treasure trove of wank material it provided. But no sooner had he made up his mind and was climbing out of bed, than there was a soft rap on the door at the bottom of the stairs. He groaned painfully and grabbed up a pair of jeans from the floor. "Just a minute," he called over the railing. He dropped his flannel pants and pulled the jeans on, hissing at the scrape of rough denim over bare ass, and then he snatched up a shirt. Sniffing it for cleanliness, he tilted his head from side to side in judgment and threw it on anyway.
There was a second knock as Dean was trotting down the steps, to which Dean answered, "I said 'Just a min–" He opened the door and ran smack-dab into, "Michelle. What are you doing here?"
"Took you long enough." Michelle Schmidt stood in front of him with her hands planted on her slender hips, exuding 'Mom authority' and Dean was very much reminded of the 'Momma Bear' he'd seen the first day he'd met her boys. Dean shivered involuntarily in response to the memory. "I want you dressed and in the car in five minutes," she said sternly.
"Yes ma'am" he answered automatically.
She nodded in satisfaction and turned to wait for him in the car, but stopped and looked over her shoulder. "And Dean…change that shirt. It stinks like the bar."
A few minutes later, Dean knocked on the passenger side window where Michelle was sitting.
"You're driving," she said through the glass. He shrugged and jogged his way around the car, dropping into the driver's seat.
"Where are we going?"
"We're going to the salvage yard in Ames. I talked–"
"Shush. Sam dropped a hint–"
"Of course he did." Dean rolled his eyes.
"And then I talked to Paul yesterday, and he confirmed it; saying that you're waiting for a part to get your car up and running. He gave me the information and I made a few calls and found a place in Ames that didn't have one, but they had a delivery scheduled for this morning out of Des Moines and could arrange to have one added to their truck. So, you're all set. We just need to go and pick it up."
"You didn't need to do this. I told you, you don't need to repay us."
"That's where you're wrong. This isn't just about repaying you. I understand that this is your 'job'. I get it…now. I also get that it's very important work and that by you boys being stuck here, the work isn't getting done. I'm not just doing this for me, Dean. I'm doing this for the other families out there that you could be helping. Please…say you'll accept."
Dean chewed on his lower lip, considering her more than generous offer. After a long moment, he blew out the breath he'd been holding and asked, "Which way do I go?"***
"Okay, Sammy, fire her up!"
Sam turned over the ignition and the car stuttered once, twice, and then roared to life. Dean leaned out from beneath the hood, wiping his hands on a rag and smiling proudly.
"That's m'girl," he said, petting her fender fondly.
It was New Year's Day and although they were tempted to spend the afternoon with Paul, watching football, somehow getting on the road seemed more pressing. Bobby had returned home – from wherever it was he'd been hiding out – and had called to tell them about some possible Demon signs he'd discovered in Kansas.
Dean had started work on his car almost the moment he had the parts in his hands, calling upon his brother for the work he couldn't do alone. And when Sam hadn't been available, he had found Paul by his side all day Sunday. When Sam had come home from work that night, the three men had brought in the New Year with engine work, Busch Light and Led Zeppelin.
Goodbyes had been brief and awkward, but necessary. And where Sam had welcomed the open affection from the Schmidts, Dean had never been hugged so much in his life, and that had made him feel even more uncomfortable. Paul had been much easier; a few gruff words of encouragement, a firm handshake and a rough pat on the back, and they were off. They pulled out of town and onto the blacktop, heading south on their way to their next job.
"Goodbye Bumfuck, Nowhere," Sam said, giving a funny little wave out his window as if someone might actually be watching.
"The name of the town, Sammy," Dean corrected, "is Boxholm."
Smiling, Sam laughed openly and then settled back into his seat, preparing for the long drive. "Wake me when we get to Kansas and I'll drive."
Dean smiled and let his body move with the motion of the car, relishing in the feel of how she moved over the rolling hills. "The road's never felt so good, has it Sammy?"
Sam sank further down into the buttery comfort of the leather bench seat. He leaned over, finding the spot in the door which fit his head perfectly, let his eyes drift shut, and sighed happily. "Feels like home to me."