No matter how often he longed for it, silence was never a good sign in John's opinion. The gray city around him was full of noise, shouts, engines, sirens, and other irritants that made him long for a more rural hunt, but past the door, he couldn't hear the familiar sound of a tv or chatter—Hell, Sam was bickering more often than he was sleeping at his age—even though he knew the boys weren't out. Dean had reported, not two hours ago, that they'd be there to see him when he returned. So, John knew, even as he turned the key, that something was wrong.
He gave out the pass phrase and pushed his way inside, muscles coiled with anticipation. He didn't like what he saw. Both his boys were sitting at the small apartment's breakfast table, staring straight at him with purposefully blank expressions on their faces and more than a little tenseness between them. And, as predicted, his usually cocky seventeen-year-old and his usually babbling pre-teen were both stock still and quiet.
"What happened?" he barked, tossing his bag down.
The boys shared a look, speaking in that way without words that both made him proud and annoyed him to no end. Dean shot up out of his chair. "I'm going to take a shower," he announced.
John raised a hand, freezing him in his spot. "Sit. Now."
Dean dropped back down, a frown on his face, and Sam rolled his eyes. "I told you," he muttered, but there wasn't any venom in the words. In fact, John was fairly certain that the look his youngest was shooting his eldest was something akin to pity. John was liking this less by the second.
"Report," he demanded.
Dean straightened up, out of habit. "We, uh, spotted a fire on our way home from school. We stopped and tried to…" His voice broke off, and he was suddenly staring down at the table top. "We thought it might be related to the job you were on. You mentioned…I mean, you said there were some fires the next county over."
Shit. John hoped it didn't show on his face, but he'd filled in the gap. His boys had stopped to help and hadn't been able to. Dean hadn't been able to. He knew the rest already, had heard the story on the news and checked it out before he'd ever headed back. And Dean was right—the fire fit the MO of the creature he was hunting. When the bitch had circled back on him, though, he wasn't sure.
Sam pushed his bangs out of his eyes, lips pursed as he took over for his brother. "The fireman said there was a person inside the building, a homeless kid. The fire started around his sleep area." John had already assumed as much, but he nodded as he took in the information. Sam obviously didn't approve of the reaction, because his gaze narrowed. "You know, if you'd told us what you were looking for, we could have helped."
An accusation. A deserved one. John had been purposely vague about the hunt, which Dean had taken as business as usual and Sam had…well, Sam wasn't happy with much of anything his father did these days. Half the time the kid was complaining that they didn't include him enough on hunts, and the other half he spent making his thoughts on their lifestyle well known.
John had had his own reasons for keeping this one quiet. He'd thought it had been related to the demon—something his kids were nowhere near ready to hear about—but after a few calls to Bobby Singer and being called an idjit more than once, he knew that wasn't the case. This thing was just another monster that needed taken down.
"I'm going to need you boys on this one." It was enough to get their attention, and John almost felt guilty because of it. It wasn't a lie. He did need them, both of them, but he could already feel the knot in his stomach as he considered how his eldest would be most useful. "This thing, it's not eating its prey. It's on a killing spree, just a like a human psycho, and it has a type it likes to go after. It likes young guys."
"And fire," Dean supplied, a grimace on his face. John could tell it was the best he could do to hide the nervous tremor that ran down his form when realization struck. "So, I guess I'm playing bait?"
Sam's eyes widened. "You can't," he breathed. When his brother refused to look his way, he shot his attention back to John. "Dad—don't let him! You know how he is around—"
"Around what?" Dean interrupted, his voice hard. "It's a hunt, Sammy. Nothing I haven't done before."
Sam huffed, but Dean elbowed him, making light of it. "Come on—even monsters can't resist your big brother. And, you and Dad'll have my back. Right?"
John nodded, but didn't have it in himself to explain why he wanted Dean there. When his son caught his eye, though, he realized he didn't need to say a word. John wasn't sure if Dean had gotten a look at the articles he'd copied about the victims or if it was pure intuition at work, but his son knew what he wasn't saying. He could tell from that familiar glimmer in his eyes, one part fear, one part obsession.
John needed his eldest because this had everything to do with fire.
She was a salamander, the legendary variety. She—because Dad told him it would probably look like a woman, not a lizard, like some of the myths said—had a type, and it had less to do with age and more to do with her kind's other preference, for those who feared her favored element: fire.
His dad hadn't said as much, but he didn't need to this time. Dean knew how monsters worked. If they couldn't feed off of flesh, they fed off of fear. A fire elemental fed off the fear of flames. Simple enough.
Which meant his dad knew he was still afraid.
Dean had thought, after all these years of lighting the fires, of watching the flames, of feeling the heat…He'd thought it had been enough to bury that part of him deep and fool the world. But Dad still knew.
He knew, and Dean could barely breathe because of it.
The fall evening was chilly, even in layers, and, hands dug in his pockets and head held low, it didn't take much for him to fit in with this neighborhood. She liked runaways. She liked prey should could take without much trouble. He looked the part without having to even change clothes.
Dean slipped across the street, away from a group of half-dressed kids shooting looks which cleared stated that competition was not appreciated, and pretended to be lost long enough to get turned around in an alleyway. It was expected, the encounter, but it took still him by a surprise when he glanced over his shoulder to find a woman standing there, blocking the exit.
Light broke through the bleak gray, the last yellow glow of a dying day cutting through the chain-length fence at the end of the alley and lighting her face. Her dark, inviting eyes brightened as they swept over him, and her hungry smile softened into something chiding but sweet. She tilted her head, the graceful line of her neck catching his attention long enough for him to follow it down to the waves of brown hair lying over one bare shoulder, over her short, second-skin green dress, and down her slender legs.
He gave her an appreciative grin that worked on most girls his age. Not that she looked his age, but beauty was beauty, even if it was hiding a monster underneath.
"Please," he breathed out, "say you're looking for me, sweetheart."
Her smile stayed set, but she didn't reply to the line, taking a step closer instead. He tensed as she reached out, running her fingertips over the top of his hand.
"You're cold," she said, a mocking pout at her lips. "We should get you warmed up."
Dean was fairly certain he'd heard those words from a prostitute on his way here, but out of her mouth, they didn't sound so much like a come-on as a sincere concern. Suddenly the expression wasn't as alluring. It was almost maternal. Not something he recognized right away.
"Cold," he repeated, his tongue feeling thick in his mouth. "Yeah."
It wasn't until he felt his body swaying slightly that he realized his fingertips were numb. She'd dosed him.
Dad had given him some kind of tastes-like-ass tea to help keep the salamander toxin from doing permanent damage, but he could still feel it working its way through his body, leaving him dazed by her sudden closeness. Her breath was on his neck as she leaned into him.
"I'll make sure you never feel cold again," she promised, the scent of smoke on her tongue, and slid her fingers around his wrist.
The second dose was almost painful, pinpricks working their way up his forearm, but he was following her without complaint as she led him to the closest door. It was propped open, waiting for them.
Was he supposed to go with her? Dean couldn't remember that part of the plan. He blinked, letting his head loll back so he could stare up at the sky. There should have been a signal there, right? But he saw nothing but the glimmer of dusk before she pulled him inside.
John could feel his heart leap onto his tongue the moment Dean disappeared into the building, but he didn't make a move for the rifle lying beside him. Instead, he reached out, grabbing hold of the sleeve of Sam's jacket and knowing before he'd so much as twitched that his youngest was getting ready to jump up and give away their position. Not that it would have mattered. The monster had what she'd come for, and she wasn't looking back.
"Dad! What the Hell?" Sam pulled away, shoes sliding on the loose gravel of the rooftop as he tried to scramble toward the fire escape. "We've gotta go after him! Come on!"
John only latched on. "No, Sam. He'll be fine."
The boy froze, angry eyes wide and such a reminder of how few years he had under his belt that John had to look away, back down over the edge of the roof, where his other son had been, just moments ago.
John growled when he felt Sam grab on to the arm holding him in place, but the boy stilled a second later, his panicked breaths loud, even over the sounds of the city. "How do you..." His high-pitched voice broke, the words lost. John could almost see the thoughts forming behind his gaze. "You wanted that to happen? What—why?"
"Your brother's got to take care of this on his own, Sam."
He could never make him understand, not fully.
"You're leaving him with a monster? You're leaving my brother with a monster?" Sam's face was flush with sudden emotion, and he grimaced. "You're doing this to punish him, aren't you? For being scared of fire? You're an asshole!"
"Sam!" John have him a quick jerk. "Look at me, Sam—your brother is going to be fine. I know you don't understand, but you've got to trust me, I'm doing this for Dean's own good. This is his hunt."
Sam shook his head. "No, this is your lesson. You're trying to teach Dean a lesson, and you're going to get him killed!" He kicked out, catching John in the shin, and slipping out of his grasp.
"Shit," John bit, almost tripping over his own duffel as he scrambled up. He reached out but missed Sam. A second later, the boy was over the ladder's guardrail, climbing down. "Sam—get your ass back here!"
The flames caught him, holding his attention fully as they bounced off the sides of the metal barrel, casting their glow on the graffiti covering the crumbled plaster walls of the old office building. He would have stopped there, in the doorway, transfixed by the fire, if she hadn't tugged him inside. The smoke was thick, the room not meant to have a fireplace, but she strolled in front of him, unhindered by the cloud of gray rolling over the ceiling.
Dean coughed into his sleeve, trying to suck in a breath through the fabric and failing. Her hand slipped off of him, and she turned, head cocked again, in that surveying way, but the smile was nowhere to be found. Without warning, her fist darted out, catching him across the cheek. Dean barely felt it, still numb from the toxins, but the force was enough to send him toppling backward. He fell into a gutted sofa against the far wall, the sharp springs catching him through his jeans.
Before he could stand, she was over him, pushing him back down as she slid into the seat beside him. "Shh, pet," she cooed into his ear. "Don't you want to enjoy my warmth? Don't all pretty young boys like you enjoy a bit of heat?"
Her fingers wrapped around the back of his neck, ensuring his gaze remained on the flames in front of him. "That's it. Watch it dance...Isn't it beautiful? Powerful, all-consuming, each licking flicker strong enough to destroy everything in its path."
Dean could taste bile at the back of his throat as he watched a flame slide over the rim of the barrel, slithering like a snake as it peeled away the paint on the metal, moving closer to the floor at his feet. As if it were alive. His body shook with each throb of his pulse, terror leaving a fresh sheen of sweat over his skin.
She pressed against his shoulder, her lips at his ear. "It's going to eat your flesh off, you know. It's going to leave black kisses over every inch of you…"
Dean watched, eyes staying on the flame as it curved its way closer. Because if he watched, he could see it go out. He could see the flames fade. He could see—
Dean trembled as it reached the torn fabric of the couch and then shot to his feet, stumbling away from his seat. His world spun as he moved, but he managed to stay upright, at the center of the room.
The salamander raised a brow. "You shouldn't be able to walk," she noted, then chuckled. "Aren't we a strong little human…But you're afraid, just like all the others. I can taste it, rolling off of you in waves." Her eyes were bright with pleasure. "And I must say, you're particularly delicious—that terror you're feeling, it comes from somewhere deep, doesn't it? I can always tell."
The fire sparked, suddenly engulfing the sofa in bright yellow flames, but the salamander stayed in place, relaxed against their embrace.
Dean's legs were heavy, pulling him down, but he couldn't force himself to move toward the doorway. He was too transfixed by the sight in front of him, the fire burning, lighting the woman from behind, haloing her hair until it almost looked golden.
He froze, forgetting where he was. It was just an image, really, just a glimpse through an open door as he ran past. Of a woman, pressed against the ceiling. He wasn't even sure it was from his memory. It might have just as easily been his imagination at work, piecing together what his father saw.
But he didn't believe that, not for a second.
The salamander's smile widened, and she reached back, her fingers barely grazing the wall. The fire swam up her arm and onto the plaster, catching light. In seconds, the walls around him were blanketed with fire.
Dean slipped down to the floor, choking on the smoke. The dizzying movement was enough to clear his head, and he felt it, tapping against his ribs, the long length of the blade tucked inside his jacket. Silver, for elementals, just like his father had told him.
"Now, that's simply scrumptious…" she said. "I'm going to stretch this out, if you don't mind. My last meal was somewhat less than satisfying. The poor boy just rolled over and died before I could really dig my—"
Dean lunged, pulling at the handle as he moved. The salamander's eyes widened with surprised when the silver blade slid into her neck. Dean's hand shook as he twisted the knife, the grinding touch of bone on metal sounding like the popping paint beneath the flames. Her dark blood spilled out over his fingers when he yanked it free again, and he fell back, onto the floor once more, eyes stinging against the heat and smoke filling the room.
He tried to breath and couldn't, his chest tightening with need.
Like Mom. I'll die like Mom.
Arms wrapped around him, someone shorter at his side, pulling him to his knees, and a moment later, another pair of hands lifted him up off the floor, carrying him. Away from the fire.
"Good riddance, bitch." Dean smirked, tossing the rag he'd doused in flames into the hole. It roared in reply, and he chuckled, swiping at the sweat at his temples. "Another one bites the dust."
John stood at his son's side and watched the fire consume the remains they'd dug up, blue flames flickering along the trail of fuel, hissing when they struck salt. "Son, we're not staying tonight."
The cemetery was too close to town, and the conversation was long overdue, but John still second guessed it when Dean turned, a surprised expression on his face.
"Leave it burning?" Just the slightest hint of panic laced the young man's voice, but he held it down, snorting. "We don't ever do that."
"You don't," John agreed, "but you're going to tonight. We're leaving." John handed him the duffel, making it an order. "You hear me?"
Dean slowly nodded. "It'll go out on their own."
John was certain that was meant as a question, but he didn't reply. He jutted his chin out in the direction of the car, letting his son lead the way. He watched Dean go, his walk stiff, his head forward, as if he were resisting the urge to look back. John wished he could tell him that fire would never hurt him, no matter what, but fear, as he well knew, could save lives.
Fear was there for a reason.
The steady sound of the shower through the paper thin walls was enough to lull him to sleep, but Dean resisted the urge to let exhaustion overcome him. Instead, he stared at the long, horizontal mirror along the wall behind the television. It was tacky, and its placement, at an even height with the beds' mattresses, a bit too well thought out, but Dean was too preoccupied by his own reflection to find it amusing.
Bruises spotted his bare chest and abdomen, and he could almost name the shapes, recognizing them as boot prints and fist marks. And all the old scars were still in place, exactly where he'd left them. He slowly reached up, his hand covering his shoulder. Beneath, he could feel a circle of skin, cooler to the touch than all the rest of him. Almost numb. It was still slightly tender, the muscle beneath bruised from the force, but the flesh itself was smooth, the touch of his fingertips only leaving it tingling.
There should have been blood. There should have been a open wound. There should have been a burn.
They'd been on the road for an hour, fleeing the state before anyone noticed they'd taken a field trip to Redneck Cannibal Farm, when he'd finally dared to poke a finger through the hole in his shirt, to check on the burn.
A burn that didn't seem to exist.
Sammy hadn't seen it. Dean had decided early on not to get his brother worked up over his wounds until they were out of dodge and stopped at a motel for the night. And now…now he didn't know what the hell to do.
He didn't imagine it. He knew he didn't imagine a red hot poker being pressed against his flesh. Did he?
Maybe that blow to the head—
But no. There, at his feet, were the dirty clothes he'd tossed when he'd stepped into the shower. The burn mark went clear through all his layers.
Dean ran his hands down his face, breaking away from his reflection. A moment later, he slipped on a T-shirt, hiding the wound—or the lack of a wound—from sight, and falling down into the chair in front of Sam's computer. He was seconds from booting it up when he reached down into his duffel instead, pulling free their dad's journal.
He'd felt those tingling pinpricks on his flesh before. The last time had been when he was pulling Sam from his apartment…from Jessica's body. His hand had hit the door frame just as the fire roared down the wall, and that tingling, cold touch had crept all the way up his arm, beneath the scorched fabric at his wrist.
Then there was the first time he'd ever felt that odd sensation. It was a distance memory, but it was still there, promising to never leave him, no matter how much he'd rather forget it: the salamander's touch.
God, how old had he been then? Sixteen? Seventeen? He wasn't sure, but he knew he'd spent at least two weeks out of commission, recovering from the smoke in his lungs. Two weeks listening to Sam and Dad bitch at each other over what had happened in that old building. Two weeks of not being able to distract himself from fresh nightmares with an old, familiar theme. Fun times.
Dean flipped through the journal, checking the dates until he knew he was close—1996.
It wasn't always easy, sorting through his dad's garbled research on the pages, and, Hell, he'd be the first to admit that he hadn't read every word of it. This page, though, was one he'd always skipped, until tonight. He ran a finger over the tight, wadded writing, flipping up a torn-out illustration that had been taped down onto the page so he could see the rest.
The line at the top, a translation, had been underlined in pencil, as if his dad had read back over the quote, after he'd written it down.
"…And the saint said unto him, 'he who slays the salamander, if baptized in its blood, will be as the creature, untouched by the flame for all of his living days'…"
Untouched by the flame.
"Dad." Dean shook his he head, slamming the journal shut, releasing a shallow breath. "Jesus, Dad…" He wanted to pick up the phone. Call him. Say something to his voice mail, anything, but he couldn't. He couldn't ask. And he couldn't explain.
"I was never afraid the fire would burn me," he bit. "Not me…"
The door to the bathroom opened, and Sam stepped out, toweling the water out of his hair. He gave his brother a crooked grin. "Thought you'd be asleep already."
Dean didn't reply, his fingers white knuckled against the journal. He finally let go, just long enough to look up with a somber smile. "Nah, Sammy. Not before you."
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